Sunday, December 10, 2017

Roy Moore, dogwhistling on the campaign trail

George Soros, a Holocaust survivor and philanthropist to human rights causes, has long been a target of the right-wing. He is attacked for his political liberalism, his Jewish ethnicity, and his atheist beliefs. At age 14 in Hungary, he had to pose as a Christian to survive the Nazis. As an adult, he declared that he did not believe in God.

On Dec. 4, U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore (R-AL) made these comments on air on a radio show hosted by Bryan Fischer, implying that the 87-year-old Soros will go to Hell.

"He [Soros] is pushing an agenda and his agenda is sexual in nature, his agenda is liberal, and not what Americans need. It’s not our American culture. Soros comes from another world that I don’t identify with...No matter how much money he’s got, he’s still going to the same place that people who don’t recognize God and morality and accept his salvation are going. And that’s not a good place."

Soros' support of secular, feminist causes has long riled many on the right. Soros founded the Open Society Foundations, whose Human Rights Initiative funds efforts in defense of LGBT rights worldwide, especially in the most repressive countries. Following the November 2016 U.S. election, the UK's Independent published this opinion article: "Already we see calls for the Trump presidency to adopt the foreign agents legislation of Vladimir Putin which makes it hard for gay rights groups and other human rights groups to operate in Russia. The target of this legislation is predictable: George Soros." Conservative groups have also disapproved of his support of abortion rights.

Moore, meanwhile has a history of anti-LGBT positions. “On February 19, 2003 Justice Moore met with a Soulforce delegation [a pro-LGBT organization] on the anniversary of a case denying custody of children to their lesbian mother," Bob Minor wrote. "Moore had argued that 'the lifestyle should never be tolerated.'"

Moore's spokesperson, according to the Daily Mail, "said that the comments were 'anti-George Soros' and therefore no apology was needed" to the wider Jewish community. The comment clearly states, however, that "people" who don't accept the salvation of Moore's god are all "going to the same place" which is "not a good place." So on the far of it, this is not a comment against George Soros as an individual but against Jews, atheists, liberals, and feminists in general. If it were ever acceptable to say this kind of thing (which it is not), it is especially bewildering that Christians think they have the high ground in this instance given that Soros had to pretend to be Christian while he was a child so he would not be slaughtered by agents of the occupying state. That biographical detail in itself should make Christians stop in their tracks before asserting that Soros (or any Jew, whether theist or atheist) needs to accept Jesus or else be rejected by God and burn for all eternity.

Some may be confused or bothered by the concept of a "Jewish atheist." Others may be upset about liberals in general. Still others are paranoid about wealthy Jews. It does not matter. In a mature, decent, civil society, it should be unacceptable to campaign on the basis that your political opponents and their supporters are rejected by God. It is always a dogwhistle when any politician says that any group of people is going to Hell. In this case, Roy Moore is making an antisemitic, antisecular, antifeminist, homophobic dogwhistle. He is doing all those things at the same time. He knows that different voters will hear different things. With the election in two days, we need to hope that enough voters can hear the meanness of what he is doing and will call him on it.


Running against Roy Moore for Alabama's U.S. Senate seat is Doug Jones. The election in Alabama is Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Nation, religion, language: Amin Maalouf on identity

Originally posted 17 July 2007 to JVoices.com, a blog that is going offline.

“What makes me myself rather than anyone else is the very fact that I am poised between two countries, two or three languages and several cultural traditions. It is precisely this that defines my identity. Would I exist more authentically if I cut off a part of myself?”
— Amin Maalouf, In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, 1996

Maalouf observes the ironic fact that, the more connected one is to other people, the more specific is one’s place in the world, and this unique identity becomes a sort of isolation. “Every one of my allegiances links me to a large number of people. But the more ties I have,” he writes, as an Arabic-speaking Christian in Paris, “the rarer and more particular my own identity becomes.” He explains how we often arrange the separate elements of our identities in a hierarchy of importance but that hierarchy can change over time.

In considering the most popular identities worldwide today, Maalouf suggests that globalization is making nationalism obsolete, because, in a globalized age, we desire identities that are not tied down to a particular geographic area. So, where we humans once were nationalists, we are instead phasing in religious community. This partly accounts for the rise in religious fundamentalism today.

But Maalouf speculates that, religion, too, may one day be replaced by something that becomes more relevant, such as language. Language is a top competitor for the cornerstone of identity because one can specialize in multiple languages and because one must have the language of the dominant culture if one does not wish to be cut off. Religion, by contrast, is more exclusivist (one can generally only specialize in one religion) and arguably less fundamental to the larger culture than is language.

Maalouf regards the rise of English as a lingua franca as a positive influence if it can bring people together who otherwise could not have spoken at all, and a negative influence only in cases where it replaces a common language with a richer history. Today, he concedes, everyone needs three languages: English, for global business; then, a language he identifies with; and finally, a language he loves. He believes that freedom of speech should include the right to speak the language of one’s choice.

Book

Amin Maalouf. In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. (1996) Translated by Barbara Bray. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. See pages 1, 13, 18, 94, 131-140.

Is the American soul sick? Differing perspectives in 'The Left Hand of God' and 'Tempting Faith'

Originally blogged on 10 December 2006 for JVoices.com, a site that is going offline. I compared two books on politics and culture published that year, Michael Lerner's The Left Hand of God and David Kuo's Tempting Faith.

The Left Hand of God

God's "left hand" and "right hand," as Lerner defines them in his book The Left Hand of God, describe worldviews based on generosity and compassion (on the Left) and on competition and vengeance (on the Right). These two worldviews help explain the differences in politics and in religion associated with the Left and Right.

Lerner, a rabbi with Ph.Ds in philosophy and psychology who edits Tikkun Magazine, writes:

“...although the right may talk about love or invoke God, what they have in mind is the Right Hand of God. The Right Hand of God is the hand of power and domination, the vision of God in which love is presented as consistent with celebrating the pain inflicted on those who are perceived as evil. ... It’s this vision of a muscular religion, backed by a God of power, that ensures that no one will ever call them naïve, because in their actual politics they are not siding with the powerless but cheerleading for the powerful." (pp. 20-21)

The voices of fear and hope, the Right Hand and the Left Hand of God, “tend to operate below the surface of consciousness, [and] people often are not fully aware of which voice they are responding to at any given moment. Often they act in ways that seem on the surface contradictory... (p. 51) He explains that right-wing religious institutions manage to preach love while encouraging their followers to “align with a harsh, militaristic, and self-interested politics that is based on the (unstated) assumption that all that “love, kindness, and generosity" talk has no real world application outside of that church or religious institution." (p. 110)

I would quibble with Lerner on some points. First, the metaphor of God having two hands seems to imply that these two worldviews are different sides of the same coin and that they balance each other out, yet Lerner favors the Left and doesn’t advocate anyone running to the ship’s other deck, thereby creating a visual image of a one-handed god. Second, while solidly in favor of a woman’s right to have an abortion, he implies that the only truly spiritual emotional response to abortion is grief. Telling people how to feel generally does not work, and giving people permission to broach a taboo while encouraging them to feel guilty about it is, ironically, a classic Right Hand of God technique to gain power over them. Third, Lerner suggests that the question of same-sex marriage be solved by having the government refer only to “unions" while leaving the word “marriage" for religious institutions. He needs to consider how the ordinary inquiry “Are you married?" would translate into the invasive question “Are you religious?" Only the most determined atheists would delight in providing a negative answer, while millions of others in interfaith, spiritual-but-not-religious partnerships might feel “married" even though no clergyperson pronounced them so. But these opinions, which are slight missteps in my view, do not greatly mar the book, as Lerner does not claim to have all the right answers to these questions. He prefers to focus on the larger picture of a philosophy motivated by compassion, and this he achieves well. While acknowledging that people have shown meanness since time immemorial, he critiques the influence of a godless capitalism that has helped promote the anti-ethic of a “rip-off consciousness" — the idea that it is normal and acceptable to cheat one’s employees, customers, and government — leading to an all-encompassing “cynical realist" approach to life that replaces idealist, hopeful, generous intentions. Lerner believes that mixing spiritual values with left-leaning politics has the potential to bring about an ethical revival in the United States.

Tempting Faith

David Kuo’s Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction makes an interesting companion read because Kuo, like Lerner, diagnoses the political Right as being more interested in its own power than in healing the world. However, he speaks as a conservative political insider rather than as a progressive critic. Kuo was President Bush’s former Special Assistant and former director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Disenchanted after the faith-based charity initiative he helped to launch was stripped of most of its funding (he was promised he would be able to offer $8 billion in grants to faith-based charities, but ultimately only $30 million became available and it was controlled by another department [p. 211]) and applied in a discriminatory fashion (non-Christian groups were dropped from the application piles in at least one instance [p.215]), Republican speechwriter and politician David Kuo decided to reveal these inside power struggles.

As Kuo puts it, “Christian leaders are supposed to be putting Jesus above and before all things, enabling them to recognize and resist this seductive [political] power. Instead, it looks like they believe a political agenda is the most important thing." (p. xiii) If that is so, what drew him to the Republicans? “It is easy to say that I became a Republican because I went through a religious conversion, felt guilty about an abortion, or just needed a job. Those things are all true," he admits. “But if the Democratic Party had displayed a similar interest in addressing these cultural problems, I would have run to them. Instead, they embodied a hostility toward these issues and toward Christian involvement in the political world that was increasingly known as the last acceptable form of bigotry." (p. 52)

He gives some practical advice to those spiritually-inclined Leftists who would like to begin dialogue with spiritually-inclined Rightists: be curious about right-wing, right-hand-of-God celebrities and cultural influences. Demonstrating awareness of their existence is a form of respect. Ignorance harms well-intentioned diplomacy, as demonstrated by this blunder:

“They [Democratic aides for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid] asked me who to talk to. I started giving them names–like Tony Perkins at the Family Research Council. 'Who?' 'What’s that?' I mentioned the support for environmentalism at the National Association of Evangelicals and again they said, 'What’s that?' ... That Terry McAuliffe [leader of the Democratic National Committee’s faith-based outreach] didn’t even know the author of The Purpose Driven Life showed a staggering ignorance. Was it any wonder evangelicals preferred hanging out with Republicans?" (p. 256)

Lerner and Kuo arrive at different conclusions. Kuo recommends that Christians take a two-year “fast" from national political campaigns to reconnect with their faith and values on a more personal level. (Kuo, newly diagnosed with a brain tumor, retired from the White House and became a fisherman, so that helps explain why he perceived the contemporary moment as a convenient and necessary time to take a break.) Lerner, by contrast, begins by asserting that “there is a real spiritual crisis in American society" that needs to be addressed (p. 14) and recommends that readers join his Network of Spiritual Progressives to begin infusing spiritual values into politics immediately; he does not suggest there is any greater insight to be gained by waiting. By contrast, Kuo says he once thought America had a spiritual crisis and that it was his job in the White House faith-based charity office to help fix it, but, after seeing the spontaneous outpouring of spiritual activity immediately following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he concluded that “[t]he American soul wasn’t sick." (p. 188)

Books

Michael Lerner. The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.

David Kuo. Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction. New York: Free Press, 2006.

Fallout from Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel

On Dec. 6, 2017, President Trump announced that he would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, something he had threatened to do at least since February. Palestinians chanted "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" at immediate street protests in Gaza City and Rafah.

Seventy years ago, UN Resolution 181 recognized Jerusalem as an international city to be administered by the United Nations. The resolution never took effect due to the Arab-Israeli war that immediately followed, as a result of which Israel took the western part of Jerusalem and Jordan took the eastern part. Israel annexed more of Jerusalem in 1967 after the Six-Day War.

According to J Street, "no action or decision of the international community has superseded the 1947 resolution. The consensus view of the international community" has been that Jerusalem's status "can only be determined by the parties as a part of a resolution to the conflict." This changed with Trump's announcement on Dec. 6 which makes the US the only nation to affirm Israel's sovereignty over Jerusalem.

Reactions

In Gaza on Dec. 7, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said the the U.S. policy "could only be confronted by a renewed intifada [violent uprising] against the occupation." Reaction was also felt throughout the region, as Iraq's foremost Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani said that U.S. announcement "hurt the feelings of hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims.”

Generally, a mediator in any negotiation should not be perceived to have prejudged the outcome. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that this decision "discredited a bit the United States as an honest broker" and "makes it more difficult to play a role to relaunch a peace process."

Chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that "President Trump has delivered a message to the Palestinian people: the two-state solution is over," implying that he does not expect future negotiations to produce an independent state of Arab-majority Palestine that is separate from Jewish-majority Israel. "Now is the time to transform the struggle for one-state with equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine, from the river to the sea." A single state of Israel-Palestine in which Palestinians had full voting rights has long seemed unattractive to Israel since it would shift the nation's demographics to be majority Arab.

Trump once said that a peace deal was "frankly maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years," as he explained to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over lunch on May 3. "We believe Israel is willing, we believe you're willing, and if you both are willing, we're going to make a deal." He added that he would "do whatever is necessary" to mediate. The White House released a comment that "any agreement cannot be imposed by the United States or by any other nation. The Palestinians and Israelis must work together to reach an agreement that allows both peoples to live, worship, and thrive and prosper in peace." This outlook now seems to have dimmed.

Analysis of past actions in the Trump administration

Without taking any real action — such as moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, an act Trump said he will defer for six months — "he gets to declare victory on an issue important to some American Jews and evangelical voters," Howard Kurtz wrote for Fox News. Kurtz noted that Trump has made similar sweeping policy announcements while deliberately delaying their effects, such as his rejections of the existing Dreamers immigration program and the Iran nuclear deal.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Movie review: 'Village of the Damned'

What happens in 'Village of the Damned' with the spoogly-eyed children

Originally published to Helium Network on March 15, 2011.

A chattering evil thing blows into the quiet but vibrant town.  You know you need to know what comes next. 

As the humble, happy residents prepare their harvest festival, every living being within the town limits suddenly faints, causing a fatal car crash and a self-barbecue on an outdoor grill.  Precisely six hours later, everyone, except for the aforementioned unfortunates, awakes.  Ten females are now pregnant.

The government sends in scientists who aren't telling all they know.  The scientific team, represented by Dr. Susan Verner, offers a stipend of $3,000 per month to each family that promises to submit its special alien offspring to the scientific team's regular examinations.  For this rural community in mid-twentieth-century America, it is a princely sum.  All of the women - apparently also influenced by coercive alien dreams - decide to carry their pregnancies to term.

Having conceived on the same day, the women all go into labor on the same night in a spartan makeshift blue tent with fabric partitions.  A teenager's delivery causes Dr. Verner to shortly declare "I'm sorry, it's stillborn" and to wrap up the remains and spirit them away before anyone else can see them.  She rebuffs the local doctor and the priest when they inquire after the dead baby.  The other nine women, however, give birth to apparently normal babies with pale, angelic, round, smiling faces that command the affection of their fathers and mothers, despite the fathers' lurking suspicion that they are not the biological parents.

Things go wrong when the children are a few months old.  They are not merely silver-haired and preternaturally intelligent, but far more hideously, they have metallic irises that can turn their evil spoogly gaze on anyone who affronts them and thereby control the person's mind to compel them to inflict self-injury.  Mara, sitting in her high chair, is offended that her mother served her soup that was too hot.  She stares at her mother until her mother sticks her own arm elbow-deep into the boiling soup pot and soon afterward by a similar psychic transmission she compels her mother to jump off a cliff.  Her father, Alan Chaffee, who is the town's physician, mourns the loss of his wife and he tells Dr. Verner that he will no longer participate in the medical research program.  Dr. Verner is undeterred from her overall program, reporting with melodramatic gravity that "it is now of interest to national security that we continue to carefully monitor their developing powers."

By the time the silver-haired children have reached the apparent age of about eight, they have put a stranglehold on the town, which has fallen into disrepair, marred by rusting vehicles and weeds.  The children walk in formation, four boy-girl pairs, led by Mara and followed by the unpaired ninth, a shy runt, David.  His powers are curtailed by the absence of the tenth child who supposedly died at birth and would have been his mate.  David is able to learn about empathy.  Although he causes the bereaved teenage mother of his stillborn mate to commit suicide with a pistol (simply by communicating the thought to her psychically), David has an empathic breakthrough when he understands that Dr. Chaffee mourns the loss of his wife just as he mourns the loss of his mate.

The townspeople become increasingly panicked by the mounting carnage and furious at the .  At the sparsely attended funeral of the teenager who killed herself, the priest accuses the silver-haired children of being mere facsimiles of human beings who have only a collective mind rather than individual souls.  Soon there is all-out warfare between the adults and the children.  The alcoholic school janitor hits a boy in the head with his broomstick; the children spoogly-eye him until he backs up a ladder onto the roof, falls forward onto a truck and impales himself.  The children request that their parents allow them to live in a barn outside town; when one worried father arrives to rescue his child, the children's eyes glow brightly like headlights and compel him to drive into a fuel tank.

Dr. Verner reveals to Dr. Chaffee the horrible dead alien baby that she apparently keeps in a jar, illuminated by blue light.  By further research she finds out that this sort of alien pregnancy has happened before and that all of those towns were eventually destroyed since "they couldn't get out without the children knowing."  This information is too little, too late.  Mara is able to read her father's mind and she is upset that he knows about the other failed towns.  "So the question becomes, should you be allowed to live?" she asks matter-of-factly.

Fulfilling a prophecy made by the janitor, the priest sets himself up as a sniper to kill the children, but they force him to turn his gun against himself, ironically committing the sin of suicide against which he preached.  The townspeople congregate in a mob with torches to destroy the children, but they cause the leader to self-immolate.  The police arrive and only massacre each other.  The children even down a helicopter just by looking at it.  Dr. Verner, at last, is punished by being compelled to vivisect herself under the full-strength glowing eyes of her research subjects.  Only David is too uncomfortable to participate.

With no time to lose, Dr. Chaffee cooks up a plan to beat the children at their own game.  The final scene has a special resonance for viewers who know that Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Dr. Chaffee, suffered a severe, life-changing accident one month after the release of this film.

The 1995 film is based on John Wyndham's 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos. The plot is rather predictable but it is still creepy. This was a box-office dud that nevertheless earned its place in B-movie history for its unabashed portrayal of spoogly-eyed children.

Friday, December 1, 2017

TV show review: 'Clarissa Explains It All'

'Clarissa Explains It All' had a good role model for teenage girls

These three episodes from 'Clarissa Explains It All' are a blast from the past. 'Clarissa' was a show featuring an articulate, funny teenager.

This article was originally published to Helium Network on May 3, 2014.

Image: Actress Melissa Joan Hart, 2010, at Alice Tully Center - NYC. Image by: Joella Marano from Manhattan, NY. Wikimedia Commons. © Creative Commons 2.0


"Clarissa Explains It All" was a young adult sitcom on Nickelodeon with episodes created 1991-1994. It starred a young Melissa Joan Hart (b. 1976) who played an articulate, independent, sassy teenager. She had one close friend, a male classmate named Sam, who typically ascended to her bedroom unannounced via a ladder. The two of them often talked about their minor teenage mistakes, which naturally loomed large to them. Clarissa came off as cool without necessarily caring about whether she was popular.

Viewers may remember that Clarissa noticeably dressed in her own brand of mix-and-match '90s fashion with big dangle earrings. (See this 30-second promo spot.) Her parents were called Janet and Marshall Darling, and her younger brother, a pompous nerd in pressed shirts whose attitude and image countered Clarissa's, was Ferguson.

"Darling Wars"

Speaking to the camera, Clarissa says that the etymology of "sibling" traces back to "the Old English 'sib', meaning 'dork'." Her brother Ferguson enters, and she tells him, "Ferguson, you'll have to leave. I'm busy demonstrating the rules of sibling dynamics." This is just the beginning of the "I'm older"/"I'm smarter" bickering that explodes when their parents leave them home alone together.

Clarissa spooks Ferguson by telling him spooky stories in the basement during a thunderstorm. They pillow-fight and booby-trap the house with water balloons filled with paint. Ferguson photocopies Clarissa's diary. They learn that this behavior is not very worthwhile, but probably inevitable.

"A Little Romance"

Clarissa's longtime friend, Sam, has trouble dating. He describes his fiasco of the day: "All I said was: 'Let's go climb the water tower and watch for UFOs...Next thing I know, she's gotta wash her hair." Sam suggests to Clarissa that they go on a date, on the basis that they already know they are compatible as friends. Clarissa doesn't feel right about it, but she says yes. The next day, they go to the movies and then to a diner, but the atmosphere is awkward. Fortunately, they agree on this postmortem, and they decide to continue being friends. As a closing monologue, Clarissa says to the camera: "It's that age-old question that stumped Sartre, 'Dear Abby' and Julia Roberts: Can friends date? And once they do, can they still be friends?"

As a subplot, Clarissa's father and younger brother work themselves up into the ridiculously mistaken belief that a neighbor has murdered his wife.

"The Understudy"

For someone who says that "embarrassment is my least favorite emotion," the annual school play is not something to be looked forward to.

"The chance to humiliate myself by singing off-key in dorky tights in front of everyone's parents....Last year's highlight was when I fell through the backdrop of the Swiss Mountains during 'Edelweiss' in 'The Sound of Music'. Then there was 'Bye Bye Birdie'. My costume split up the middle when I hit High C. Bye-bye, any shred of human dignity!"

Sam passes on the good news to Clarissa: She's been assigned to be the understudy for the lead role in "The Pirates of Penzance." As the backup, Clarissa hastily assumes that "the potential for public humiliation has been completely eliminated," and she doesn't bother to learn her lines. Thus she makes the bed in which she will have to lie.

Still a good show?

Even though the clothing, sets, videography and limited special effects clearly date the show to the early 1990s, this adds a pleasing campiness to it today. Clarissa's quick wit may still be inspiring to young adults. However, the limited scope of her escapades, often set within her own home, do not hold much interest for adults.

The most embarrassing 'Dr. Phil' episodes

Dog costumes, videotaped brawls: Embarrassing behavior aired on 'Dr. Phil'

The "Dr. Phil" talk show addresses dynamics of dysfunctional relationships. Many of the problems people bring to the show can seem to embarrass them in the eyes of the viewers.

This article was originally published to Helium Network on April 13, 2014.

Dr. Phil McGraw, cover of Newsweek Magazine, 2001. Photo by Jerry Avenaim, WikiMedia Commons © Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license


Dr. Phil is an American talk show host who brings together people in dysfunctional family relationships and makes them confront each other so that they can attempt to move their relationships through the impasse. The issues discussed on the show include rebellious teens, cheating spouses, drug use and violence, and when "talking it out" is not enough, Dr. Phil's team may offer a gift of inpatient rehabilitation or another appropriate psychological service.

Dr. Phil - who is better known by his first name alone than by his last name, McGraw - has aired over 1,500 shows with over 12,000 guests.

The shows can be educational and emotionally moving. In some cases, at the same time, the dominant impression of the viewer is that the guests are embarrassing themselves. Here are some examples of embarrassing Dr. Phil episodes, with links to the episodes on YouTube.

"Teenage Confessions" (Jan. 26, 2011)

A teenage girl admits using prescription pills daily for two years, stealing money from her mother to feed the habit. By the time the girl and her mother appear on Dr. Phil's show, the girl claims she's been clean for four months, but her mother doesn't believe her. The girl clarifies that, by "clean," she means that she only uses pills, cocaine and marijuana.

On the same episode, another teenage girl reveals to her parents that she's had sex with five boys and sent naked photos of herself to 30 boys. She chooses to reveal this to her parents on the show because she knows she is in a downward spiral and wants help. The faces of the teen and her parents don't appear on the show.

"Little Miss Attitude" (July 5, 2013)

This episode features two teenage girls: one who fights with her mother who is presented as having made dubious parenting choices, and another who has an apparently sane mother yet every word that comes out of her mouth reveals her to be a hopeless brat. The girl even tells Dr. Phil during the televised interview that she's not paying attention. He makes plans to send her to a "structured environment".

"Two Amandas" (Oct. 22, 2012)

Two addicts, one of whom is a 17-year-old prostitute, were so loaded with toxic substances that even their drug dealers were telling them they were close to death. Rehab saved their lives. Their case - complete with "'before' photos" - reveals how much mental and physical punishment someone can endure in the throes of drug addiction. In the second segment on the same episode, Dr. Phil interviews a 17-year-old escort who doesn't see anything wrong or concerning with what she's doing.

"Brutal Beauties" (Sept. 26, 2012)

Dr. Phil had intended to focus on two girls during the hour-long episode, but because the first girl's interview took so much time, they were split into separate episodes.

The first girl's problem is picking fights. She's broken bones in people's faces on several occasions, and she puts videos of the fights on YouTube. When speaking to Dr. Phil, she acknowledges that her behavior is "embarrassing" and "immature," and she says that distributing those videos is "not something I'm proud of."

In one case, she picked a fight when she was visiting another city. In another case, she and three friends entered the home of another girl and jumped her in her own shower. She was arrested for the first time at age 13. Now that she's 16, the police have come to her house 80 times, according to her mother. Recently, the police warned her mother that they might take the girl to jail because she threatened a drive-by shooting.

Her mother believes that the girl is bipolar, and she says her daughter drinks every day and deals marijuana. When the two of them fight, the mother calls her names. Dr. Phil sends the girl for a psychiatric workup.

The second girl featured on the follow-up episode screams and hollers at her parents with minimal provocation, and their response is to participate in the dysfunctional argument. Dr. Phil's candid opinion is: "I think the two of you couldn't screw this child up any more if you had gone into a lab and created her like weird science."

"Chelsea Refuses to Grow Up" (Nov. 5, 2010)

A 24-year-old woman has stolen over $50,000 from her family, including through taking a credit card and forging checks, and she has "borrowed" a family member's BMW. As the daughter of a surgeon, she was raised with economic privilege, but she has not gotten her GED and generally does not hold jobs. She does not seem to have friends, either. In responding to these accusations, she gives the "affluenza" defense: her parents gave her everything she ever wanted, so she never learned to accomplish anything herself. Dr. Phil's team gives her $500 before the show as a test to see if she will offer it to her family to begin to pay them back for what she stole; she does not.

"Animal Obsessed" (March 25, 2014)

This three-part episode begins with a woman who "mothers" her ten pet rabbits, even to the extent of attempting to breastfeed them. Her rabbits all wear diapers and dresses, and they sleep in small bunk beds that are decorated as if for human children. Her adult daughter says that her mother has referred to the rabbits as her "sisters." In bringing her to the Dr. Phil show, her daughter says her behavior has gone "too far."

In the second part of the episode, a 48-year-old man wants to become a dog. Every day, he styles his hair to look like he has "dog ears" and he wears a dog collar. He occasionally eats canned dog food and sleeps in a dog house that he built. He has been asking a judge since 2010 to legally change his name to "Boomer the Dog." When he leaves the house in a full sheepdog costume made of paper strips, he doesn't speak, and instead barks at other people and dogs. He believes that other people enjoy this form of interaction with him. "It beats working, right?" asked Dr. Phil rhetorically.

He doesn't have a job; his parents established a trust fund for him, and he owns his own home. "I've never been on a date, ever," he says. He believes that he's a dog trapped in a human body, but he will accept the social label of "Furry" as a close substitute.

In the third part of the episode, a 20-year-old woman commissioned an artist to make her a furry red wolf head costume with rainbow accents. It's sturdy and has a helmet on the inside. She acknowledges that dressing up as the wolf is a hobby; she doesn't believe she really is a wolf. She explains:

"It's mainly about not talking to people when you're in suit that aren't in suit because it's all about keeping the act going. It's like being at Disneyland except you're in the suit."

Her mother thinks it's "creepy" and won't allow her to wear the suit around her friends.

Dr. Phil is concerned that this woman dropped out of high school and her mother is still paying her bills. Dr. Phil tells her:

"Your job right now is to prepare yourself to self-sustain in life...I don't care whether you're being a Furry, or playing video games, or you go Goth, or whatever. You've got to learn math, get an education. I don't care if you do it with a tail on or not. I could care less about that. But you've got to prepare yourself for life. You're not doing that."

The young woman acknowledges that this is an accurate assessment. "Why should we drag you, [just] because you want to wear a helmet?" Dr. Phil says, in reference to his opinion that her mother should stop enabling her.

three-minute video synopsis captures the episode well.

It's no wonder that Dr. Phil is popular, many of the episodes described above have "shock value." It's visible in the faces of the live audience when they are surprised with the story that Dr. Phil trots out. But Dr. Phil also has solid interview skills and a no-nonsense attitude that cuts right to the point he wants to make. Viewers can learn about family dynamics and relationships from watching the show and examine their own behavior. While most viewers probably congratulate themselves that their own problems aren't as extreme or as embarrassing as the problems featured on the show, the show can nevertheless be a warning sign and a learning experience.

25th Amendment: 'Unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office'

Is it fair to say that the president is mentally ill?

The 'No' argument

In the face of a slew of publications by mental health experts who claim that the president is mentally ill without having personally examined him, Professor of clinical psychiatry Richard A. Friedman wrote on Feb. 17, 2017 that it is "misguided" to attempt to diagnose him and thereby to declare him unfit for the presidency. Apart from not having the patient's consent and other data needed for diagnosis, and apart from the likelihood that psychiatrists are biased by their own political opinions, not all mental illnesses render someone unfit for office. It appears to be the case that "18 of America’s first 37 presidents met criteria suggesting they suffered from a psychiatric disorder during their lifetime...[a]nd 10 of those presidents showed signs of mental illness while they were in office." Someone can be a good president while suffering from mental illness, but they also need to be morally accountable for their actions. Friedman said that "ordinary human meanness and incompetence are far more common than mental illness. We should not be in the business of medicalizing bad actors. So the nation doesn’t need a shrink to help it to decide whether President Trump is fit to serve, mentally or otherwise. Presidents should be judged on the merits of their actions, statements and, I suppose, their tweets."

The 'Yes' argument

Many mental health professionals are willing to take a stand on an assessment of the president's mental health. Psychiatrist James Gilligan subsequently said at a conference at Yale that “I’ve worked with some of the most dangerous people our society produces, directing mental health programmes in prisons...I can recognise dangerousness from a mile away. You don’t have to be an expert on dangerousness or spend fifty years studying it like I have in order to know how dangerous this man is.”

The president wasn't always disabled to this degree, as Sharon Begley wrote for STAT News in May:

"In interviews Trump gave in the 1980s and 1990s (with Tom Brokaw, David Letterman, Oprah Winfrey, Charlie Rose, and others), he spoke articulately, used sophisticated vocabulary, inserted dependent clauses into his sentences without losing his train of thought, and strung together sentences into a polished paragraph, which — and this is no mean feat — would have scanned just fine in print. This was so even when reporters asked tough questions about, for instance, his divorce, his brush with bankruptcy, and why he doesn’t build housing for working-class Americans."

All that has changed, Begley noted.

"The experts noted clear changes from Trump’s unscripted answers 30 years ago to those in 2017, in some cases stark enough to raise questions about his brain health. They noted, however, that the same sort of linguistic decline can also reflect stress, frustration, anger, or just plain fatigue."

"If you take President Trump’s words literally, you have no choice but to conclude that he is psychotic," John Gartner, the founder of Duty to Warn and a supporter of the use of the 25th Amendment, wrote in May. "Some say it is unethical to dare to diagnose the president, but hundreds of mental health professionals have come together to found Duty To Warn. We believe that just as we are ethically and legally obligated to break confidentiality to warn a potential victim of violence, our duty to warn the public trumps all other considerations."

In May, Ross Douthat published an opinion in the New York Times titled "The 25th Amendment Solution for Removing Trump":

"One does not need to be a Marvel superhero or Nietzschean Übermensch to rise to this responsibility [of the presidency]. But one needs some basic attributes: a reasonable level of intellectual curiosity, a certain seriousness of purpose, a basic level of managerial competence, a decent attention span, a functional moral compass, a measure of restraint and self-control. And if a president is deficient in one or more of them, you can be sure it will be exposed.

Trump is seemingly deficient in them all. Some he perhaps never had, others have presumably atrophied with age. He certainly has political talent — charisma, a raw cunning, an instinct for the jugular, a form of the common touch, a certain creativity that normal politicians lack. He would not have been elected without these qualities. But they are not enough, they cannot fill the void where other, very normal human gifts should be."

Douthat lamented that the president's "inner circle" has

"no respect for him, indeed they seem to palpitate with contempt for him, and to regard their mission as equivalent to being stewards for a syphilitic emperor.

It is not squishy New York Times conservatives who regard the president as a child, an intellectual void, a hopeless case, a threat to national security; it is people who are self-selected loyalists, who supported him in the campaign, who daily go to work for him. And all this, in the fourth month of his administration."

Exactly what is the inner circle saying? A Vox article recapped:

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster unloaded about President Donald Trump at a private dinner in July, according to a report in BuzzFeed, referring to his boss as an “idiot,” a “dope,” and a man with the intelligence of a “kindergartener.” ... Secretary of State Rex Tillerson famously referred to Trump as a “moron” — a “fucking moron,” according to some accounts — after a July 20 meeting in the Pentagon about America’s nuclear arsenal. After reports of this comment first broke in early October, Tillerson gave a bizarre press conference in which he refused to point-blank deny insulting the president’s intelligence. ... Chief of Staff John Kelly has taken it on himself to fill up Trump’s schedule for fear of him spending his free time learning “unfiltered and sometimes inaccurate information that can rile him up,” per the Los Angeles Times. ... Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, called the White House an “adult daycare center.”

Henry Rollins wrote in LA Weekly in July that the president is “a true study in psychopathy and lack of self-control. There are going to be a lot of books written about the Trump Crime Family.” He uses Twitter because he “is simply unable to speak in sentences that can be understood.”

Eugene Robinson wrote in the Washington Post in November:

"Trump’s supporters comfort themselves with the idea that he’s being crazy like a fox — that all the outrageous lies, abrupt reversals, bizarre pronouncements and vicious personal attacks are calculated to achieve some rational goal. He’s just playing to his base, perhaps, or distracting everyone from unpopular legislation cutting taxes for the rich, or trying to deceive other world leaders into thinking he might be unhinged and therefore should be accommodated.

But what evidence is there of calculation?

* * *

It is one thing to create a fantasyland for political ends... It is another thing altogether, however, for Trump to fall into his own rabbit hole and actually believe what he once knew to be untrue."

What can be done?

The 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
"Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President."

In November, Joe Scarborough argued on his MSNBC show that this is "what the 25th Amendment was drafted for." He said:

"I would like the Cabinet members serving America, not the president, serving America. You serve America and you know it. You know you don’t serve Donald J. Trump, scam developer, scam you know Trump University proprietor, reality TV show host, you don’t represent him. You represent 320 million people whose lives are literally in your hands, and we are facing a showdown with a nuclear power...People close to him say he is mentally unfit, people close to him during the campaign told me he had early stages of dementia."

In saying this, Scarborough made a point that his co-host Mika Brzezinski has made before. He continued, "When are we supposed to say this? After the first nuclear missile goes? Is that when it’s proper to bring this up in polite society?"

Donny Deutsch, former host of CNBC's “The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch” and a longtime friend of Trump's, "has noted with some alarm the deterioration of his friend's mental state" and recommends invoking the 25th Amendment, according to reporter John Culleton.

Culleton writes:

"For those who voted for President Trump, and still admire him, removal by constitutional action for illness is better than a humiliating defeat at the polls in the next election after he has left a trail of destruction in his wake. An even worse fate would be an impeachment trial based on the Russian connection...

* * *

If his ham-fisted treatment of the North Korean threat leads to nuclear war, his term and many thousands of lives will end under a mushroom cloud."

Dr. Bandy X. Lee, editor of “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President," wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times:

"We are currently witnessing more than his usual state of instability — in fact, a pattern of decompensation: increasing loss of touch with reality, marked signs of volatility and unpredictable behavior, and an attraction to violence as a means of coping....Ordinarily, we carry out a routine process for treating people who are dangerous: containment, removal from access to weapons and an urgent evaluation....the power of the presidency and the type of arsenal he has access to should raise greater alarm, not less."

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Reactions to unpresidential retweets of Britain First

At about 3:30 in the morning on Wed., Nov. 29, 2017, instead of doing whatever it is that presidents are supposed to do in the middle of the night, President Trump retweeted three inflammatory videos posted by Jayda Fransen of the group Britain First. Fransen had captioned the videos:

Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!
Muslim Destroys a Statue of Virgin Mary!
Islamist mob pushes teenage boy off roof and beats him to death!

A half-hour later, journalist Piers Morgan tweeted at the president: "what the hell are you doing...?"

The New York Daily News said that one of the three videos “was long ago debunked". The New York Times asserted that the perpetrator in the first video "was not a 'Muslim migrant'...according to local officials, both boys are Dutch," and the other two videos were several years old.

NBC News said that they "could not verify Britain First's claims of what the videos showed. Asked whether the White House has a responsibility to verify information before sharing it, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders responded that 'whether it’s a real video, the threat is real and that’s what the president is talking about.'"

Some Republicans objected: Sen. Jeff Flake, R-AZ, said the retweets were “highly inappropriate” and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, said they were "legitimizing religious bigotry."

"No modern American president has promoted inflammatory content of this sort from an extremist organization," Peter Baker and Eileen Sullivan wrote for the New York Times. James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence, said on CNN, "I have no idea what would motivate him to do that...To me, it's bizarre and disturbing, particularly when I think of him doing that in the context of North Korea, where moderation, and temperance and thought I think is critical."

Fransen, the deputy of Britain First, was convicted a year ago for abusing a woman wearing a hijab, and Paul Golding, the group's leader, spent time in prison, after which he stated: “I can promise you, from the very depths of my being, you will all meet your miserable ends at the hands of the Britain First movement. Every last one of you.” (Hope Not Hate)

Brian Klaas, an American who is a fellow at the London School of Economics, responded later the same day of the retweets:

“We are watching, in real time, the President of the United States using his power and platform to mainstream the vile ideologies of racist neo-fascism....if we continue to accept these reckless, divisive outbursts as part of our normal political discourse, then we will have answered the question as to whether we have any decency left too. We will have failed yet another test....Here in the UK, Britain First is correctly viewed by most as an extremist, racist hate group with no place in British politics....The UK has long been America's closest ally, with Brits and Americans fighting and dying together to defeat fascism. Now, Britain is being forced to turn away from the United States in horror as the President promotes neo-fascist hate.”


UK reaction

UK Prime Minister Theresa May said that "retweeting from Britain First was the wrong thing to do," and Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, said that, from his perspective, "any official visit at all from President Trump to Britain would not be welcomed." Labour Party leader Jeremy Bernard Corbyn, Labour MPs Chuka Umunna, David Lammy, Stephen Doughty, Chris Byrant and Conservative MP Peter Bone also strongly criticized the president's actions.

Video of Parliament criticism (hosted on Facebook)

In a tweet addressed to the prime minister, Trump responded: "Don't focus on me...We are doing just fine!”


Explanation from Twitter

A Twitter spokesperson said the original tweets were allowed to remain online for this reason:

"To help ensure people have an opportunity to see every side of an issue, there may be the rare occasion when we allow controversial content or behavior which may otherwise violate our rules to remain on our service because we believe there is a legitimate public interest in its availability."

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

On Stoicism

The Stoics believed in confronting the fear of physical death by visualizing it in such detail until it no longer carried the power to terrify. This was promoted by Epictetus and popularized by Marcus Aurelius in the 2nd century CE. It carried down to the 6th century, as Parker Palmer explained: “The Rule of Saint Benedict, that ancient guide to the monastic life, includes the admonition to ‘keep death before one’s eyes daily.’”

A dissenting view from Nikki Stern:

"Those who suffer from posttraumatic stress can’t shut off their mental tape. No, none of us needs help in picturing death.

...

It’s a little unnerving not to know what death might feel like or when it might visit. But I don’t obsess about it, just as I have no sense of what follows. It could be anything — reincarnation, paradise, or conversion into pure energy and a free trip around the universe. In any case, death doesn’t terrorize me — at least not my own.

Dying is another matter.”

Whether or not we visualize the unwanted and unappealing, we must also visualize more positively what we strive for in life, as Mark Manson described:

"Death is the only thing we can know with any certainty. And as such, it must be the compass by which we orient all of our other values and decisions. It is the correct answer to all of the questions we should ask but never do. The only way to be comfortable with death is to understand and see yourself as something bigger than yourself; to choose values that stretch beyond serving yourself, that are simple and immediate and controllable and tolerant of the chaotic world around you. This is the basic root of all happiness."

Sources

Parker J. Palmer. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004. p. 161.

Nikki Stern. Hope in Small Doses: Reasonable Happiness in Unreasonable Times. Humanist Press, 2012.

Mark Manson. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. HarperOne, 2016. p. 206.

Friday, November 24, 2017

How literature teaches us to be better people

There's a reason that literature is considered part of a broad field called the "humanities": Literature helps us learn more about what it means to be a human being, and it teaches us to do a better job at managing our lives in our inescapably human incarnations.

A good story, whether a fable or a true account, plucks us from our own tired perspective and gives us a fresh take on the world. There is special value in taking the time to immerse ourselves slowly in the tale, as well as in turning the page to begin a new tale that will provide yet another perspective.

A journalistic approach

It shouldn't be surprising that true reports help one learn more about the world. In one sense, reading a true personal essay can be as educational as reading a newspaper. William Bradley, in an essay for Utne Reader called "Acquiring Empathy through Essays," says:

"Of course I never had the experience of serving in Her Majesty's Indian Imperial Police, but reading George Orwell's experiences in his essays 'Shooting an Elephant' and 'A Hanging' gave me some idea of what doing so was like, and why imperialism is such a terrible thing." Essays, Bradley goes on to say, "give us a record of someone else's consciousness" and enable us to "understand other people in general in a deep and significant way" even when we don't like what they're saying. One might, he warns, "wind up becoming a more patient and compassionate person as a result."

An inventive approach

Fiction, too, despite the official ruling that it is "not true" by definition, awakens readers to deep truths. One method by which this happens is the opportunity given to the reader to perceive and feel from another character's perspective. That the events "didn't really happen" is largely irrelevant; the reader may be able to feel them just as readily and powerfully as if they actually occurred.

In David Huddle's novel "La Tour Dreams of the Wolf Girl," a character reads a fictional story about a drowning, and when he retells that story, pretending that it is true, he feels the emotion behind the image. Huddle spins the story thus:

"He'd read about those boys' drowning in a book of short stories for his English class at Choate, but since he knew that Colleen wouldn't listen to him if he told her something he'd read in a book, he'd pretended to have been right there on the riverbank, watching. Now he was surprised at the emotion that welled up in him — as if he'd actually seen the blue faces of his fifth-grade classmates."

This emotional capacity isn't just a quirk of this particular fictional character. It exists in many people, and it can be used for more than lying and manipulation. More positively, it can be used to expand one's horizons to imagine what one might feel if one were in a certain situation, thus prompting one to prepare for future possibilities. It can also help one to learn empathy for others who have already experienced something similar.

In other words, reading the details of a drowning — even one that didn't really happen — can help one mentally prepare for dealing with emergency situations or confronting one's own mortality, and it can provide insight into what someone who has witnessed a drowning may have felt, thus opening a potentially better connection with that person.

A non-interactive approach

Fiction provides a kind of sustained moral exercise. It doesn't ask the reader for an immediate decision about what to do in the moment, as the story's concerns aren't necessarily tied to the reader's real world. Instead, by implicitly asking the reader how they would act in some other world, or by asking the reader merely to observe what other characters do in that world, the story affords the reader an extended period of time to carefully consider their thoughts: unrestrained, unobserved and free of consequences.

Annie Murphy Paul wrote in an article for Time, "Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer," that research over the last decade by Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley has shown that people who read fiction are better able to understand others. This is partly attributable to the depth and speed at which the reader processes the story.

As Paul puts it:

"'Deep reading' — as opposed to the often superficial reading we do on the Web — is an endangered practice...different in kind from the mere decoding of words...A book's lack of hyperlinks, for example, frees the reader from making decisions — Should I click on this link or not? — allowing her to remain fully immersed in the narrative." There is much to be said in favor of the interaction provided by the Internet. Yet there is also a deeply human value in taking time to immerse oneself deliberately in a mental journey.

A diverse approach

In "Literature, empathy and the moral imagination", Heather McCrobie cites the work of Martha Nussbaum. "By encouraging us to exercise our moral imagination," McCrobie explains, "we develop our capacity to put ourselves in another person's situation so that those who are different to ourselves in circumstance, identity or practice can no longer be dehumanised." Then, "after we have 'lived' people through literature, it is harder to find them alien or disgusting," because we have shared experiences or at least the impression or imagination of those experiences, and they have become human to us. It is furthermore significant that there are multiple stories - none of them able, on their own, to fulfill single-handedly the reader's need for stories. Humanity has many voices and perspectives, and that is exactly what books give us.

Literature improves our lives

Those who love to read know that a good book can lighten or darken one's mood, reveal layers of meaning in a simple sequence of events, and even change the course of one's life. If you want to increase your empathy and your sense of belonging to the collectivity of humanity, by all means, meditate, pray, talk to your friends, talk to your enemies — and consider reading a novel, too.

Originally posted to Helium Network on March 5, 2014.

Image: Jason Hutchens, Wikimedia Commons © Creative Commons Attribution license, version 2.0

Still unconvinced that God exists: Holes in the argument from objective moral values

Within the "Conversations with Matt DeLockery" Christian podcast available free on iTunes, four episodes titled “Looking for a God” (Parts 1-4) deserve a little attention, although, as I show below, they fail to present a convincing argument for the existence of God. Together, the episodes total one hour, and they were released on four different dates in October and November 2017.

'1 - Intro to the Moral Argument'

The first episode is a solid introduction. DeLockery's stated intent is to examine whether human behavior implies God's existence. He believes that God’s existence is “probably the most foundational question there could possibly be on any subject, because it touches on everything else,” especially the question of whether human purpose is given to us or whether we invent it for ourselves and the question of the afterlife. He explains the importance of critical thinking and gives a brief overview of common arguments about God’s existence. He says that, in discussions about whether morality is objective or subjective, "we’re looking for an answer to the question: Are there any basic foundational principles that say how humans should operate in relation to ourselves, other people, the world around us, and so forth?"

'2 - Objective vs. Subjective Moral Values'

The second episode has some flaws.

He defines "objective" as "hard fact": something that is true for people regardless of what culture they belong to and regardless of who recognizes it as an objective truth or who may believe it to be a subjective truth or falsehood.

He defines "subjective" as preference or opinion. Throughout the episode, apparently unwittingly, he goes back and forth about whether such preference is personal or social, and unfortunately this detail leads to the failure of his argument.

In this passage, he says the subjectivity can be either personal or social.

“Subjective moral values are things that we feel or are socially right or wrong. [emphasis mine] These vary from group to group and can and do change. Think about the phrase ‘everything’s relative.’ If a particular moral value is relative, then it is subjective. Moral values being ‘relative’ and moral values being ‘subjective’ are really two ways of saying the same thing. However, if a particular value is not relative, then it is ‘objective’.”

But then he asks listeners to ask themselves what they personally feel, their "immediate gut reaction," about the question of sex trafficking. Specifically, when they examine the source of ther moral opinion that sex trafficking is wrong, he asks listeners to decide: is their belief due to “social pressure,” a “social ‘no-no’,” or is sex trafficking “actually wrong”? Here, DeLockery implies that you can determine that something is objectively right or wrong based on what you subjectively feel. This is confusing at best. An "immediate gut reaction" is practically the very definition of subjectivity and is not a good way to demonstrate hard facts about the world.

The confusion is repeated:

“Are there things that are really good or bad, and are not merely based on social preferences? In my opinion, I think that there are many more values that are subjective or relative. However, not all are. I think sex trafficking is morally wrong. I think taking advantage of poor people is morally wrong. I think loving and caring for others is morally good. And I don’t think these things are merely preferences. They are not relative; they are not ‘to each his own.’ I think there really are at least some moral values that are objective because I think that’s how the world is. It’s not because I want to believe that there is something right or wrong with certain things. It’s because when I look at the world, I see [my emphasis] that there really is[my emphasis] something right or wrong with certain things. That is how I perceive the world when I look around me.”

By starting with the individual or social definition of subjectivity and, by some conscious or unconscious sleight of hand, dropping off the individual so that only the social remains as the hallmark of subjectivity, DeLockery allows the individual to be the arbiter of the objective. Even had he started with a purely social definition of subjectivity, this schema would not endure long, because the question would arise how a number of infallibly objective individuals suddenly become fallible and subjective when they organize into a society or culture.

Another problem is revealed by his choice of "sex trafficking" as an example. He assumes that his audience is sufficiently educated to recognize the phrase "sex trafficking" (defined as kidnapping and selling or exploiting people, often minors and often across international borders, for sexual purposes); that they recognize it is illegal in most countries; and that they are aware that everyone around them shares values that place them in opposition to it (likely, since he speaks to an audience interested in modern Christian apologetics). His example works reasonably well and makes its point rapidly precisely because everyone in the room already knows everyone else's general orientation on this topic. There are, however, people who practice sex trafficking; there are places where it is considered culturally acceptable to give girls to older men for marriage or as a form of collective punishment, and people from those cultures might have different definitions of "sex trafficking"; there are scenarios, such as war, in which kidnapping and rape become commonplace when they were not so before; and there are sociopaths or rebels among us who might know the socially appropriate thing to say when asked for their moral opinions but do not actually hold these feelings. So, asking the room to examine their personal feelings on a given moral question does not prove that the answer to that question is universally held. It matters how you ask the question, who is in the room, and how they choose to respond. It is not at all like placing a rock and asking someone to kick it to prove that it is a "hard fact." Anyone, regardless of their belief, culture, situation, or capacity, will trip over a rock or walk into a wall placed in front of them, but they will not all agree on values, which makes it difficult to prove that any given value is indeed objective. My own "immediate gut reaction" to value statements can always be contradicted by someone else's gut reaction and it will be difficult to arbitrate between us. It seems better to say that our moral intuitions matter and yet are fallible.

It is also confusing why the objective value is said to be true regardless of what anyone believes about it, yet apparently the only way to investigate the value is to ask "What do you believe about it?"

'3 - Evolution and Morality'

Believing that he successfully demonstrated in the previous episode that objective values exist, he now inquires where those values come from. According to him, God is one option:

“Now, there really isn’t much of an argument that a god could create moral values, or objective moral values. It’s pretty simple: If there is a god who can create everything, then creating a specific way that he wants his creatures to function is pretty straightforward. God makes man. God can provide a set of operating instructions to explain how man best functions. Pretty simple.”

In my estimation, this is not, to the contrary, at all simple because there is little to compare it to. As a human, I can engineer nonliving objects and, through selective breeding or environmental control, tinker with or influence living beings. In so doing, I control how they do operate, but I do not control how they should operate. The only way I can change values and rules about how any object or being should operate is by changing the values and rules of the society in which we participate — which is, by definition, in the realm of the subjective. If I were "God," it is not obvious how that status would enable me to create values and rules that are objective, nor how a value or rule could possibly be a hard fact about the world rather than just my opinion (albeit a divine opinion) about what I want my creations to do. Thus the question of whether God can create objective moral values cannot be dispensed with so easily. But it is dispensed with, so onward we go.

Could values have evolved? In examining the possibility that objective values resulted from "biological evolution," DeLockery doesn’t start with any pre-human or non-human type of animal. He only asks about how social learning might have occurred to promote human survival. He believes it’s clear that evolution — assuming that evolution is a real process, a position to which he does not commit — can produce subjective values (those that can “vary from place to place, from group to group”) but cannot produce objective values. At best, evolution could somehow aid us to "discover” objective values.

Now he changes his definition of “objective.” An objective fact, he says here, is one that “cannot change.” This contradicts a nuance of an example he gave in Episode 2. There, he said that the statement “gas-powered cars need oil to function properly” is an objective fact because of “the way gas-powered cars are currently made [my emphasis]...This does not change, and will not change, until the ways cars are manufactured changes [my emphasis].” The objective fact indeed can change to reflect the underlying conditions that support its validity. But here in Episode 3 he declares that an objective moral fact cannot change.

He says that, while evolution may help humans discover objective moral values, it can only produce subjective moral values. The type of values generated through evolution meet “the definition of subjective because it’s everything about how it affects the other person, how it is perceived by the other person, not whether it’s inherently the way that the human machine was made to function.” Note the assumption that the human machine was made at all (by a creator) which was assumed indirectly in Episode 2 when objective moral values were discovered by immediate gut reaction.

He concludes that, since objective values exist (as asserted in Episode 2) but could not have evolved (as asserted in Episode 3), they must have been created by God. He does not consider any alternative origins of values — say, for example, the result of a careful reasoning process.

'4 - God, Morality, and Euthyphro'

He presents Plato's Euthyphro dilemma: Can God arbitrarily choose values or is God held to a standard above himself? Neither is attractive, so DeLockery solves it with a third option: God is identical with those values. The values reflect God's character. The objective values with which we concern ourselves reflect the values of our Creator just as a painting reflects something of its painter. This is all merely asserted, not properly argued, and this is the shortest of all four episodes.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanks, Obama!

Twitter recommendation

First, the son:

This makes us say:

  1. "Thanks, Obama!"
  2. "Consumer confidence" is the prevailing "vibe." It is odd to ask people to feel grateful for or impressed by their own attitude toward their own purchasing power. We need to compare perceptions against facts. The bank deregulation pending in Congress includes only modest "changes for consumers that ought to be a given,” according to Marcus Stanley of Americans for Financial Reform. In the longer term, consumers are likely to be hurt by the bank deregulation, which is the main legislative change in progress.
  3. Regarding the hashtag at the end, are these things really what "Make America Great"? What else could be missing from the list?
  4. To whom do we give thanks for this? A leader? A divine agent pulling strings? Other people who share our opinions? Can we name anyone who worked hard to make good things happen?
  5. It's ill-mannered to ask a nation to direct their holiday gratitude for something you or your father supposedly did, no matter how significant or well deserved. It's called Thanksgiving, not Thanksgetting.
  6. Giving thanks for statistics is dicey. We should pay attention to the real human beings in front of us. This tweet may not be welcome, productive, or sensitive Thanksgiving conversation if one of the individuals at your table doesn't have a job or is on food stamps.

A few hours later, the father:

  1. Since our country is only "starting to do really well" and the military is only just now "getting really strong," what does that say about our history?
  2. The Department of Veterans Affairs is always supposed to take care of veterans. That is its mission.
  3. We have nine Supreme Court justices. Which one is great — the one you appointed?
  4. The "highest Stock Market EVER" doesn't directly help the half of Americans who aren't invested in stocks.
  5. It isn't clear exactly what "record" is being set by cutting what kind of regulations and what that is supposed to achieve.
  6. The unemployment rate was under 5% in 2007 when the financial crisis began. The crisis occurred in large part because there weren't enough regulations on banks. Obama was elected in 2008 and began working on legislation to fix the problem, introducing regulations like Dodd-Frank. Unemployment (which takes months, if not years, to begin to correct) spiked to 10% in late 2009 and then it dropped during the last seven years of Obama's presidency. It was 4.6% when you were elected in Nov. 2016, 4.8% when you were inaugurated in January, and 4.2% in Sept. 2017. You have aimed to eliminate Dodd-Frank via the Financial CHOICE Act. Without adequate regulations, over the very long term, the country may set itself up for another financial crisis.
  7. Indeed, the last time unemployment was any lower (3.9%) was in the final month of the Clinton administration (Dec 2000). Bill Clinton's administration is the benchmark to beat. Since we are at the "lowest unemployment in 17 years," it sounds as if jobs already came back so you can stop taking credit for them "coming back."
  8. "We will build the WALL" is not even an accomplishment. It is imaginary and ideological. It is aspirational — if you are a fascist.

Better recommendation

Published in early 2017, Stephen Cataldo's Cognitive Politics helps left-leaning folks work through strategies for meaningful conversations with people with whom they have political disagreements.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

On reading: Quotes

"Rather than reading a book in order to criticize it, I would rather criticize it because I have read it, thus paying attention to the subtle yet profound distinction Schopenhauer made between those who think in order to write and those who write because they have thought."
- Miguel de Unamuno, Ensayos, Vol. 2, p. 1013. Quoted in Clive James' Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (2007) New York: Norton, 2008. p. 767.

"Unstudied, our books are parchment and ink, no more; learned, they live in us."
- Leonard Fein, Where Are We?: The Inner Life of America's Jews (1988) New York: Harper and Row, 1988. p. 32.

"...I'm not one of those arrogant fools who form their opinions as oysters form their pearls, and then shut them away where nothing can touch them. I have my own ideas and beliefs, but I can hear the rest of the world breathing."
- Amin Maalouf, Balthasar's Odyssey (2000) Translated from the French by Barbara Bray. New York: Arcade, 2002. p. 10.

"The hallway is washed in the smell of library: melancholy scholarship, paper and dust mites. There’s no trace of the shut-in old lady smell, the powder and outmoded perfume. Instead, there’s a hint of beeswax from the furniture, damp oil paint and turpentine, but above all the autodidact scent of knowledge. It is almost too much, too selfconscious, like a stage set built to house Leonardo da Vinci or Albert Einstein. This person is bookish. Neith glances down a hallway and sees, yes, more books."
- Nick Harkaway, Gnomon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018. p. 35.

"Wenn ein Buch und ein Kopf zusammenstoßen und es klingt hohl, ist das allemal im Buche?"
When a book and a head collide and there is a hollow thud, is it always in the book?
- Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

"Your employer [the queen] has been giving my employer [the prime minister] a hard time." "Yes?" "Yes. Lending him books to read. That’s out of order." "Her Majesty likes reading." "I like having my dick sucked. I don’t make the prime minister do it."
- Alan Bennett. The Uncommon Reader. New York: Picador, 2007. p. 86.

"A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone. That's why I read so much, John Snow. And you? What's your story, bastard?"
- The character Tyrion Lannister, played by Peter Dinklage, in Game of Thrones, Season 1, Episode 2



Photo of Archivo Histórico del Atlántico (Barranquilla, Colombia) by Wbohorquezm - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link to photo

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Quotes: We need to be space age 'crew' who 'think like an ecosystem'

"Today we are living in a 'space age' and, strangely enough, even though our culture is a pioneer in space navigation and space exploration, we really don't understand the value of space at all."
- Alan Watts

"There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew."
- Marshall McLuhan


VIDEO for homeowners: Jeff Davis tells you how to make your house energy-independent (DIY system)

"Each civilization has its own kind of wastes and its own ways of being negligent. The tendency remains much the same, even though we now sweep it all into the scientific term pollution. Like the tendency to kill, the tendency to waste and to foul the nest seems to be inscribed in the genetic code of the species."
- Rene Dubos

"To halt the decline of an ecosystem, it is necessary to think like an ecosystem."
- Douglas P. Wheeler

Sources

Alan Watts. What is Zen? Novato, CA: New World Library, 2000. p 64.

Marshall McLuhan, quoted in United Press International, quoted in The Week, April 22, 2011, p. 21.

Rene Dubos, Beast or Angel? Choices That Make Us Human. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974. p 44.

Douglas P. Wheeler. Quoted in "Sunbeams," The Sun. January 2010. p. 48.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Quotes: On the rise of militarism and the need for compromise

Sara Paretsky:

"When Congress passed the USA Patriot Act in the weeks following 9/11, the name of the act itself seemed to me to be Orwellian, the kind of title Stalin or Hitler or Franco might have chosen, one that tried to force people to choose sides. “You are either with us or against us,” Mr. Bush famously told the world, but he was delivering the same message at home. “You’re a patriot or a terrorist,” the Patriot Act screams in its very title. Indeed, in the run-up to the now-famous elections of 2006, when the Republicans lost control of Congress, Mr. Bush toured the country, proclaiming that a vote for Democrats meant, “The terrorists win and America loses.”

The Economist:

"The attempts of his [Obama's] secretary of homeland security to replace the word "terrorism" with "man-caused disasters" attracted much ridicule."

Arjun Appadurai:

"...the war unleashed on 9/11 was above all a war between two kinds of systems, both global in scope. The first may be described as vertebrate, the second as cellular. Modern nation-states recognize their common belonging to the vertebrate world and, like the last dinosaurs, see that they are in a desperate struggle for survival as a global formation."
Arjun Appadurai. Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006. p. 21.

Susan Bordo:

"I once heard a speaker at an elite university sharply criticize the hierarchical, "binary" thinking of the (then) Republican administration, its good guys/bad guys, we-are-the-saviors-of-the-Western-world mentality. Without missing a beat, the speaker went on to congratulate the assembled audience for "of course" being "beyond such hierarchical, dualistic thinking." Pardon me, but I think the notion that there are those who are unimpeachably "beyond" and those that are hopelessly stuck in the muck is just a bit "binary." (Note, too, the presumption that one can tell the good guys from the bad guys on the basis of neighborhood.)"

Appadurai again (p. 3):

"No modern nation, however benign its political system and however eloquent its public voices may be about the virtues of tolerance, multiculturalism, and inclusion, is free of the idea that its national sovereignty is built on some sort of ethnic genius.

Andrew J. Bacevich in 2008:

”In consonance with this "military ascendancy," these American hawks are inclined to see the United States as already beset by acutely dangerous threats, with even greater perils lurking just around the corner. With a low tolerance for uncertainty, they are highly attuned to the putative risks of waiting on events, while discounting the hazards posed by precipitate action. This perspective found classic expression in September 2002, when Condoleeza Rice rejected a lack of detailed intelligence about Iraq's nuclear program as a reason to postpone a planned invasion of that country since "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." For his part, Vice President Cheney was even more explicit. Even a remotely suspected threat could provide a sufficient rationale for action. "If there's a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon," Cheney once remarked, "we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response."”

Bacevich again, in 2011:

In his 1956 book, The Power Elite, C. Wright Mills, a professor of sociology at Columbia, dubbed this perspective "military metaphysics," which he characterized as "the cast of mind that defines international reality as basically military." Those embracing this mind-set no longer considered genuine, lasting peace to be plausible. Rather, peace was at best a transitory condition, "a prelude to war or an interlude between wars."

Amos Oz:

"I think peace is possible because there is fatigue and exhaustion on both sides. I am a great believer in fatigue and exhaustion. Most human conflicts — not only international conflicts but even individual conflicts — don't solve through a magic formula. They die down through fatigue and exhaustion. And finally I see syndromes of blessed fatigue and exhaustion both on the Israeli side and on the Palestinian side. Not on the side of the fanatics; they never tire. But the majority is tired and ready for a sad compromise. And compromises are sad by definition. There is no such thing as a happy compromise."

Or, as a proverb has it: “The perfect compromise is the one nobody likes.”


Sources

Sara Paretsky. Writing in an Age of Silence. Verso, 2007. p. xvii.

"Two cheers and a jeer." The Economist. April 11-17, 2009. p. 26.

Arjun Appadurai. Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006. p. 21, 3.

Susan Bordo. Twilight Zones: The Hidden Life of Cultural Images from Plato to O.J. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1997. pp. 18-19.

Andrew J. Bacevich. The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008. p. 83.

"The Tyranny of Defense, Inc." Andrew J. Bacevich. The Atlantic. Jan/Feb 2011. p. 76.

Amos Oz, interviewed by Tom Ashbrook on the On Point radio program, Oct. 31, 2011. http://onpoint.wbur.org/2011/10/31/amos-oz-on-israeli-life?autostart=true