About SJ

I'm an older married guy, a former college psychology instructor and editor at a national magazine. Every stage of my very full life has been dominated by a passionate interest – from chess to distance running to photography (my current interest). I write under a pseudonym because the opinions I express, particularly about religion, might very well cause problems for my wife and me. I plan to "come out" after she retires. In the meantime, I'll do my best to defend and promote science and reason and to help keep power out of the hands of the proto-fascists who have declared war on just about everything I value.

What Those Other Guys Said

Here’s my review of Steven Jonas’s book, The 15% Solution, that I just posted at Amazon.

“Those Other Guys” are reviewers at Amazon, who all posted highly positive comments (as of this writing).

ImageIt is with a lingering sense of guilt that I write these words of praise for The 15% Solution. As a long-time admirer of Dr. Steven Jonas’s erudite and incisive political analyses, I read his prescient, futuristic novel shortly after publication; and I intended to write a review then and there. Alas, it didn’t happen until now, so I’m more than pleased to see that in the interim far better qualified writers have stepped up to say most everything I had in mind — and much more, also far more thoroughly and eloquently. In that regard I would like to call particular attention to the splendid review by fellow Palace blogger, Dr. Don Ardell.

My sense of guilt stems in large part from a perception that almost no one, myself included, is doing enough to combat the ominous threat to our nation and the world that the author describes and places in a most timely perspective.

And there is considerable irony in the tacit respect he accords the wacko religious right by taking their words seriously, at least in the sense that he gives them credit for meaning what they say and, potentially, having the means to carry their agenda to a successful conclusion (it only takes 15%). They and their political allies constitute a passionate, organized, and well-financed army of fanatical ideologues. It would be ridiculous to say they have not made progress toward their express goal, political dominance of this country. The 15% Solution thus rings true as a plausible extension of what has already taken place here in CrazyLand™.

The theocratic-fascist takeover of our government didn’t happen in the time frame Steven Jonas originally predicted, but it could have, and it might yet. To a large extent the religious right is counting on the ignorance, complacency and distraction of the clueless majority of Americans who would be opposed to their agenda if they were paying attention. This excellent, well-documented book could provide the needed and long overdue clue, if it can be brought to the forefront of public awareness.

Obviously, that is no easy task in an indifferent, low-information society so readily influenced by the incessant drone of right-wing propaganda. I am trying, belatedly, to do my part, starting here and now. And I’m urging everyone who cares about preserving our hard-won rights and freedoms to take the following actions: Read the reviews at Amazon. Purchase and read the book. If you agree with the author, recommend it to everyone you know who needs to be alerted to the threat to our democracy (what’s left of it). Finally, send gift copies to those who might make a difference.

A Few Thoughts on a Nice Thought

The following advice attributed to a celebrated author recently arrived in my Inbox along with a photo of a beautiful, unspoiled landscape, courtesy of the Sierra Club newsletter, Daily Ray of Hope:

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.¹  ~  Henry David Thoreau

What a fine, inspirational thought . . . as long as you don’t actually leave your comfort zone to think about it. As soon as you do, it becomes a hopelessly naive thought.²

Now I’m aware that some may think it presumptuous to question a literary legend, not to mention the august Sierra Club. But when viewed through the lens of contemporary real life, Thoreau’s advice seems irrelevant, at best. For starters, consider the multitude of oppressive barriers and burdens afflicting a large segment of the U.S. population. Barriers and burdens, I might add, that the right wing in America is fiercely and implacably determined to make ever more oppressive.

It’s not news that right-wing Americans — Republicans, tea-baggers, libertarians and an assortment of simmering radical fringe groups — really want to hurt the disadvantaged. Why? For a variety of selfish, privileged, judgmental, paranoid, bigoted/racist motives that are part and parcel of their despicable ideology. Their various malignant agendas are as bad as it gets this side of neo-Nazism. No question, this is a critical period in U.S. history: We’re trying to hold off a disciplined army of power-hungry mercenaries, true believers and reality deniers led by corporatists, fundagelical preachers, and the libertarian disciples of the atheist hater of Christianity, Ayn Rand. Oh, the irony, the hypocrisy, the strange bedfellows in that big, malevolent circus tent!

But despite all their glaring inconsistencies, these enemies of peace, progress and the general welfare have over time fashioned themselves into a mortal threat not only to American society but civilization worldwide, a political and cultural cancer masquerading as champions of some creepy version of “freedom” that glorifies the virtue of selfishness (which, incidentally, is the title of one of Rand’s later and most influential books). And the sooner their phony, corporate-PR “libertarianism” (must-read, btw!) succeeds, the sooner it’s doomed to implode, or explode, and take us all down, or blow us all up. Unregulated and under-regulated markets have such a great record, you know?

Anyway, my first thought upon reading Thoreau’s advice was, try telling that to a child born into poverty in a chaotic and dysfunctional single-parent household in a crime-infested ghetto neighborhood. Or to the 15-year-old mother. Or to about half the U.S. population that lives in a state of economic insecurity and finds it hard to imagine even a modicum of security.

All of which got me thinking about the time-honored metaphor of the level playing field. You know, equal opportunity and all that. But in the bastion of inequality known as The United States of America, equal opportunity has got to be a joke, right? The plain truth is that vast multitudes of people in This Great Nation have to struggle against formidable odds to get anywhere near the playing field (and it has always been thus). And after experiencing a “childhood” that would make your blood run cold, they’re expected to bootstrap themselves to respectability and become responsible, hardworking, self-sufficient, law-abiding citizens and happily set off in pursuit of their idyllic dreams, a la Thoreau. And if they’re poor, uneducated/untrained, or have been convicted of a crime, the Republican explanation is that they made the wrong choices. Choices, another sacred cow of the right, which, translated, means that unless you’re disabled through no fault of your own, you don’t deserve assistance. It was that creepy, cartoonish, racist asshole Ron Paul who said poor, sick people can always find doctors who will treat them for free. Which brings me around to a decent person, Congressman Alan Grayson, and his characterization of the Republican health-care plan:

1. DON’T GET SICK

2. And if you do get sick . . .

3. DIE QUICKLY

I share the Congressman’s contempt for smug, self-serving, delusional, uncaring right-wing myth-information. Also for what I infer to be his loathing for conservatives.

Not that anyone is advocating comprehensive equality; that’s another right-wing red herring, not even close to what I’m talking about. How about we start trying to provide the opportunity to live a decent life with a reasonable measure of security? Something like what has been achieved in Scandinavian countries. After all, we’re the self-proclaimed Greatest, Wealthiest, Most Powerful Nation on Earth, so we could do that, right? Oh, wait, I momentarily forgot . . . a WHOLE LOT of Americans don’t want that – they hate the idea of helping other people or contributing to the general welfare (see Ayn Rand, above). Unless, of course, they can profit thereby. Hence their approach to dealing with crime: harsher laws (targeting some Americans) and privatized prisons. Now the $ucce$$ of privatized anything depends on demand – in this case, privatizing prisons creates a demand for more prisoners. Thus the fait accompli of CEOs and investors lobbying for more aggressive enforcement and longer sentences to grow their business. As with our vaunted military-industrial complex, it’s not enough to merely be number one in the world – they gotta keep growing, build more cells and keep them filled; and even if they’re not filled, in the twisted world of corporate welfare and Romney-style vulture capitalism, the owners of the prison-industrial complex become job creators! It’s orgasmic, I tell you – a Republican/capitalist wet dream.

Before getting back to Thoreau, it behooves me to mention the abandonment in the U.S. of another essential form of equality – equal treatment under the law. Liberal-activist author Glenn Greenwald and others call this principle the bedrock of the U.S. Constitution. Without it, the document becomes virtually meaningless, which is precisely what has occurred in the U.S. over the past 40 years. Not that it ever was truly honored in practice, but there were periods of fitful progress in that direction. Now it has been all but totally dismantled, and the best thing I can do is urge everyone to read Greenwald’s book, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. That pretty well sums it up; and speaking for myself, it seems like a fair assessment of current conditions to say that The United States of America has ceased to exist in all but name. Let the epitaph for the U.S. Constitution read, “Sold out” (with a recent, decisive assist from the Supreme Court).³

Another gaping hole in Thoreau’s advice can be classified under the psychological category of individual differences: Those “dreams” he wants us to follow are hardly guaranteed to be all sweetness and light. Many people’s dreams are not at all idyllic, as he implies, but aggressive, controlling, predatory and avaracious. Back in the era of evolutionary adaptation, aka the Stone Age, the psychopathic personality may have had survival value for homo sapiens, aka God’s children. These days, that ancient personality trait is a curse threatening the survival of civilization and all highly organized life forms. And where do psychopaths really prosper in the 21st Century? At the highest levels of the political, financial, corporate and religious realms, which is where their proclivities and talent lead them, with the adoring approval of vast numbers of wannabes, often themselves unknowing victims of the system, who have been conditioned, with continuous assistance from the corporate media, to worship $ucce$$.

So welcome to America’s Big, Right-Wing Tent Revival Meeting, where all varieties of bigoted haters can find camaraderie in virtuous selfishness and the confidence to go boldly in the direction of their vindictive, predatory dreams. With able assistance from the right-wing ministry of propaganda, aka Fox News, and fundagelical pulpits across the land. And the Supreme Court, of course.

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I’ll close with a quotation about the Bush Administration from one of my all-time favorite authors, the late Kurt Vonnegut. It is probably even more descriptive of the current crop of right-wing psychopaths in the Congress, who probably scare even the Bush crowd.

“I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been. What has happened, though, is that it has been taken over by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Cops-style coup d’etat imaginable. And those now in charge of the federal government are upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka ‘Christians,’ and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or ‘PPs.’ “

¹ According to this source, here’s the correct quotation from Thoreau, which doesn’t affect my argument:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

² Footnote to a naive thought: I have nothing against Henry David Thoreau or the Sierra Club. Everyone’s entitled to a few minor mistakes in pursuit of honorable goals. Thoreau’s little “experiment” seems to have worked out pretty well, for him. But let’s get serious for a moment: isn’t it presumptuous to generalize to everyone based on a sample size of one? Especially in these grim days in early 21st Century America? And let’s get real: The idea of “success” rings hollow these days. The word itself is little more than an illusion for about half the population that’s struggling for just that reasonable measure of security I mentioned above. Things like adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care, transportation. . . .

³ Another informative resource is Robert Reich’s new, well-reviewed documentary film, “Inequality for All.”

Yet another totally unfounded mass delusion has reached epidemic proportions.

Lamentably, the afflicted are not looking to be cured but are doing their best to spread their highly contagious delusion far and wide. To that end they have created a menacingly influential movement based on ignorance, superstition, sincere naivete, fear-mongering, quackery, media complicity, and celebrity power. All combined in a toxic, ideological stew with the goal of undermining public confidence in the most beneficial achievement of medical science to date. Here’s the lowdown.

Of course I’m talking about the evidence-challenged but menacingly effective anti-vaccination movement, which has caused a tragic and potentially catastrophic increase in preventable disease and death, worldwide. It marches under the banner of its high-profile, well-funded organization, Age of Autism.

And to what purpose? To avoid entirely fictitious dangers falsely attributed to vaccines. People, alas, are easily frightened and manipulated by charlatans, and in this case the price of quackery is the health and the lives of children across the globe.

Of course vaccines have occasional, well-understood side-effects, as does every medical intervention. But that is entirely different from the manufactured hysteria that got its traction from the deceitful conduct of a British doctor, one Andrew Wakefield, who would be behind bars in a sane world. That is, a world populated by rational, rather than human, beings.

So now we are witnessing a worldwide epidemic of unnecessary disease and death being inflicted on the children of the anti-vaxers and other people’s children as well. And for no better reason than stupid human nature once again asserting primitive instincts.

As much as I’d like to, I can’t pin this on conservatives. They only share the blame for this particular instance of collective insanity that probably won’t go away for a long time.

Here’s the article that inspired this rant: http://tinyurl.com/kdr4oxk.

And they say all the news is bad

But I’m here with some good news reported recently in the New York Times.

(Warning, this report may contain irony.)

Yessir, the Times reported that there has been a documented, gradual decline in the practice of female genital cutting, known in Africa as female genital mutilation. That’s right, over the next decade young women are somewhat less likely to have their clitorises hacked off with crude instruments under septic conditions by old people with filthy hands. Man, that really raises my hope for the female gender! Only 30 million young women are projected to have their external genitalia mutilated in the next ten years. BTW, in Egypt, 91% of women between 15 and 49 have already undergone the “procedure.”

I was surprised and somewhat relieved to learn that genital cutting is not a religious practice per se and that major branches of Islam denounce it. Others, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are supporting the barbaric practice in some places. So while religion doesn’t bear the lion’s share of the blame, it is clear from the numbers that religious leadership is not concerned enough to undertake a serious effort to end it. And there are still areas where it has strong ties to religion.

So two faint cheers for a “gradual fall” in an insane and brutal cultural custom. And a half-hearted, reluctant, muffled cheer for some religious organizations, but in this instance only.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_views_on_female_genital_mutilation

Musings on Newtown and Beyond: The Deadly Mix of Gender and Gun Culture

“The gender of the perpetrator is the single most important factor, and yet it’s not talked about in that way in most mainstream conversations.” – Jackson Katz

“One failed attempt at a shoe bomb and we all take off our shoes at the airport. Thirty-one school shootings since Columbine and no change in our regulation of guns.” – John Oliver on TheDaily Show with Jon Stewart

“There are large segments of the population that want nothing more than to eliminate subsidies to the poor and then await the desperate masses who will supposedly come to their doorstep with a lead welcome.” – David Atkins

At some point during the G.W. Bush administration my longstanding ambivalence about the U.S. ratcheted further down to the level of cynical pessimism. The election of a “transformative” President in 2008 briefly raised dormant hopes and dampened foreboding; but now that Obama’s had four years to serially disappoint me (and other progressives), I’m less hopeful than ever in some important ways. So at this point even an event as soul piercing as the massacre at Newtown does not shock to the degree it once would have. What it does is strengthen my conviction that the country and its political leaders are evading the most serious problems. Or, in the case of conservatives, actively obstructing responsible action or, when it comes to guns, aggressively promoting the problems. The Newtown murders and their aftermath have intensified my well-developed loathing for conservatives. Their self-serving, politicized reactions have been nothing less than despicable.

Now whenever someone condemns an entire nation, as I just did, they’re unfairly condemning by association a great many good people who don’t deserve it. I realize that, but I still want to ask, where are the thoughtful, unselfish, independent, public-spirited political leaders we need to step forward in these perilous times? Politicians like Rep. Alan Grayson, of Florida. Oh, wait, there are no politicians like Mr. Grayson. Are there?

I frequently read in progressive publications words written by and about good and honorable men and women. They contribute much; their words and efforts no doubt helped elect and re-elect President Obama, thus delaying the right-wing apocalypse. But does anyone want to argue in all seriousness that his administration has not betrayed progressives’ hopes and trust? Or that the Democrats have not sold out to the 1 percent?

But right now I really want to say this: Much of what’s wrong with this country is the persistence and glorification of a harmful, vestigial trait in males I’ll call macho mentality. It’s a public health problem that afflicts a broad spectrum of mostly right-wing types: teabaggers, corporate CEOs and crony/casino capitalists, fundagelical preachers, and especially lunatic gun lovers craving the opportunity to play out their ”tactical” fantasies. It is also destructively prevalent in our inner cities. It permeates and poisons all levels of American society.

A Real Ad from Bushmaster Firearms, copped from Upworthy.com.

A Real Ad from Bushmaster Firearms, copped from Upworthy.

Women don’t get off the hook entirely; but hell, no one does – we can all do more good and less harm, individually and collectively. But make no mistake: it’s men raised in a macho atmosphere who make us the most violent society among industrial democracies and one of the most violent nations on earth. And possibly the most destructively irresponsible. Consider, for example, that it’s powerful, conservative American men who are behind the unconscionable and suicidal denial of global warming.

That’s a subject I will follow up on in coming posts. For today, I’m calling your attention to three excellent, informative articles I just read:

Each piece in its way makes the point that the most salient feature of the many-decades-long series of mass killings in this country is gender. The mass murderers are men, mostly younger white men, mostly middle class men. Yet it has to be more than gender, there must be cultural factors or our numbers would not dwarf other nations’. And indeed there are, including the obvious one, the ease of procuring just about any kind of firearm.

But predictably, the strident conservative opposition to any gun regulation goes on, sometimes linked to their perverted idea of freedom or a faux-patriotic non sequitur like “The greatest country on earth,” which in any case needs parsing.

Okay, we are the greatest military power and the dominant economic force (for now); and our graduate-level higher education and government-funded research are tops, and . . . and . . . surely there has to be more. But other than boasting about freedom as if other countries don’t have any, just what can proponents of the “America is the greatest” hypothesis claim in support of that position? I’m not aware of any indexes relating to physical or mental health or quality of life that put us anywhere near the top. “Most religious,” perhaps? Oh, wait, that’s not a positive. Besides, most religious leaders complain that we’re not religious enough. Like masculinity, Americans just can’t get enough vestigial superstition.

We do lead the world in the category of most lawyers per capita. I can’t find the quote, but a public figure a while back noted – and don’t hold me to these made-up numbers – that while the U.S. trained ten attorneys for every engineer, Japan graduated ten engineers for every attorney. He then observed that history had recorded no instance of a nation suing itself to greatness. I love that line.

Anyway, I don’t think there’s any dispute that we’re the most violent of the first-world nations; and there is, obviously, a much greater number of embarrassing statistics on the negative side of our ledger, including the highest teen-pregnancy rate, highest child-abuse death rate, the highest percentage of prisoners, etc. So I’m not buying into that “greatest country” conceit. Never have. That would be stupid.

The authors of the three blog posts are highlighting the long-overdue question that needs open discussion: Why is it always men who commit mass murder? For what it’s worth, here’s my take: On average, male genetic makeup is associated with a greater innate tendency towards violent solutions to problems (and please note, that’s tendency, not destiny). But when maleness is embedded from birth in a culture that has a near-psychotic obsession with guns and violence, the result is a peculiarly American style of manliness that has become an increasingly dangerous force at home and abroad.

What are We Celebrating?

I supported and voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and again this year; but sadly, there were major, negative changes in my thoughts and feelings this time around. Along with legions of liberals, I had come to have so many misgivings about the president that I would have much preferred a viable progressive candidate. But there weren’t any of those on any horizon I could see; and living in a swing state essentially meant that voting my conscience for a third-party candidate was tantamount to aiding Romney and his thugs, a prospect too odious to contemplate.

The Proprietor of Perry Street Palace has argued persuasively against the lesser-of-evils stance that I and most liberals, e.g., Daniel Ellsberg, have used to justify our support for Obama. So please do take time to read her six-part (!) critique of “lesser-of-evilism”, or at least start with the final installment, Part 6, which may well persuade you that supporting most Democrats, even in swing states, is the surest way to perpetuate the relentless and shameful rightward drift in American politics.

Here is just one of her arguments:

There are — or ought to be — clear lines drawn, on both principle and practical grounds, that Democratic candidates cannot cross and expect the support of liberals.  We can of course differ on precisely where those lines should be drawn.  (illegal and counterproductive wars? presidential kill lists? for-profit health care? Social Security “reform”?)  But if there really are no lines that cannot be crossed, then it means exactly nothing to be a liberal.

In the course of our email exchanges, Iris sent me a link to a blog post with the ominous title, Dead Enough: The Reality of the “Lesser Evil”, by Chris Floyd, who asked, in reference to Obama’s (i.e., our) drone war, “Is this child dead enough for you?”

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Floyd graphically describes the brutal reality we become complicit in when we vote for any major candidate, including Obama. And he asks how, in good conscience, can we continue to enable a “lesser evil” that is so starkly evil? To those who celebrate Obama’s victory, he asks, “. . . what are you celebrating? This dead child, and a hundred like him? A thousand like him? Five hundred thousand like him? How far will you go? What won’t you celebrate?”

Floyd provides a link to this article from Wired.com containing several photos documenting the collateral death and destruction wrought by Obama’s / our drones. And as you probably know, it’s not only drones: Here is a recent, fact-filled article comparing the positions taken by candidate Obama in 2007-2008 with what he has done since he took office. It is far from reassuring, either in retrospect or prospect: the lawlessness of the Bush administration continues and has even been expanded in ways that have chilling implications for the future of constitutional democracy in this country.

Returning to Obama’s / our drones, it is inescapably clear that the injuries and killings are not limited to “bad guys,” as the president’s top aides have falsely testified.

And the little boy’s name was Naeemullah.

When I voted for Obama, it was with the hope that his reelection would give us liberals/progressives at least a fighting chance. So now that Obama has won, how do we begin to force his hand on this and other issues where he has betrayed our trust? Celebrity Obama supporters Michael Moore and Bill Maher have already demanded that he change course in ways almost all of us can agree with. Now their demands must be amplified by the words and actions of millions in a massive, concerted protest movement. Nothing less has a chance . . . and this could be our last chance.

Wrestling with Islamophobia

I am beginning to feel bad about the steady stream of Western slurs and ridicule directed at faithful members of a noble religion observed by an estimated 1.6 billion individuals making up almost a quarter of the world’s population. Here’s an example that arrived in my inbox just before Halloween:

Perhaps I should feel guilty for thinking this is funny or for saying that it makes an important point, one which is too obvious to elaborate. Maybe Western liberals who condemn “Islamophobia” are right: Maybe we in the reality-based community should question our own sense of moral and intellectual superiority and accept that Muslims are autonomous individuals, independent thinkers who have adopted their fervent belief in Islam of their own free will after due consideration and without coercion. Look at it from a religious, free-will perspective: They have freely chosen, and continue to choose, to submit to the authority of the word of Allah in all aspects of their lives. (Please disregard the fact that virtually no one in, say, Saudi Arabia, or even Pakistan, is, say, a Roman Catholic or, say, a declared atheist or agnostic. That is most likely just a statistical anomaly. After all, I’m sure you’ll agree that the existence of free will is a given that trumps mere empirical data: we all know, both a priori and based on scripture, that there is such a thing as free will. End of discussion.)

So who are we to ridicule the individual choices of 1.6 billion people? Or for that matter the enlightened cultures that offer them such a wide array of lifestyle choices? If leaders of a great religion or a great Islamic nation prescribe the death penalty for apostasy or issue fatwas placing bounties on the heads of novelists, cartoonists and filmmakers in Western nations, who are we to judge them? That’s their culture, supported by the free, uncoerced choices of large majorities of individual citizens, and therefore all true liberals should respect it. And in the same spirit of tolerance, perhaps we should rethink our condemnation of honor killings, female genital mutilation, restrictions on women’s educational opportunities, requiring women to wear full-body sacks with eye slits, etc. Bottom line: We scientific skeptics/atheists/freethinkers should be more open-minded and desist from denunciations and ridicule. Lest we be accused of cultural bigotry or even the crime of Islamophobia, along with the likes of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, et al.

I’m sure you’ll also agree that Americans would never impose their religious beliefs on anyone, as some Muslims are inclined to do. It’s understandable that they would have that impulse. After all, religion is a necessary force for virtue, and the lack of religion (agnosticism, atheism) does not have moral standing. That’s an a priori/scriptural truth, too.

But at this point, I’m still a confused atheist. Can someone straighten me out on all this? Start by explaining why I should respect religion? Or if not all religions, which one(s)? Oh yeah, and why?

In the meantime, I think I’ll continue, in the spirit of Perry Street Palace, to enjoy the mockery. Frankly, I laughed my ass off at the “Halloween Costumes.” But when I stopped laughing, I remembered it was not only funny,  but tragic, just like this one, titled Breakthrough in Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia.

Borowitz Predicts the Winner

And because he’s Andy Borowitz, he keeps effortlessly dropping memorable asides like this one:

Just let me say this: Watching cable news because you want to become better informed is like going to Olive Garden because you want to live in Italy.

Of course numerous other bons mots precede and follow this one – and this was a somewhat serious speech wherein he gives two reasons why he says ________ will win the election.

Don’t miss it.

I have been a big Borowitz fan for years and have even gone so far as to call him the greatest American political humorist ever. And if I believed in blessings (of course I don’t; blessing is a yucky, abject word), I would say this: We exceptional Americans are exceptionally blessed (ooh, yuck, there’s that word) to be living in a period of two singularly outstanding political humorists, Stephen Colbert being the other. Reading or listening to Borowitz/Colbert is like watching a superb sidewalk artist at work: WTF? . . . How does he do that? You know, like magic.

Now like most of the people reading this, I’ve had the experience of being pretty damn good at a few things, usually by dint of intense dedication and total immersion at the expense of other areas of life. The term I use is serial passions. But these guys are transcendently talented, which is an experience I’ve never come close to; but I’m not through yet . . .  there’s always tap dancing.

“Blessed,” “total immersion” – what’s with these religion-tainted terms? Hmm, might be time to get the old brain scanned.

But you know, watching Borowitz makes me wonder about something else: Why are all the good people Democrats, progressives and liberals? (Note: I am definitely not saying that everyone in those groups is a good person – far from it. The problem is thinking of even one person on the other side of the great divide who qualifies. Okay, I know that’s shameless stereotyping; but seriously, just look at the ones who venture out of their “private meetings” into the public eye. If you’re having a problem, I’ll be happy to provide you with a partial list (the actual list being endless). And here’s what I suspect: Conservative public faces – congresspersons, candidates, media personalities, pundits, religious figures, etc., are all schmucks, total asshats, the kind of people that would put their dog on the roof of their car or compel women to have unwanted children, even in cases of rape. Or whatever example you prefer to dredge out of the bottomless pit of revolting Republigoon words and actions.

And here’s the thing: These public figures are not extreme examples of what Iris has labeled CPD, or Conservative Personality Disorder. No, they are speaking for the conservative masses – they’re just more articulate, but not nastier. If anything, they make ordinary, everyday conservatives sound better because they have to tone down their rhetoric somewhat for media dissemination. Like Romney, I’m sure they are much worse when talking among themselves without suspecting they’re being overheard by decent people, or recorded. But even in public their true hatred, bigotry, deceit and willful ignorance are only thinly disguised by a lexicon of code words.

So that’s all I have to say about the broken American political system until after the election.

I ask you

Is it true, as Churchill said, that the only thing democracy has going for it is that all the other systems that have been tried are so much worse?

Is it also true that “People aren’t smart enough for democracy to flourish,” as some recent studies suggest?

Is what’s left of democracy going to be one of the earlier casualties on the road to imminent destruction? Or is our great experiment already terminal, having some time ago transmuted into a formal, no longer functional democracy, as Noam Chomsky and others contend?

Here’s my (provisional) theory: Human nature is superbly attuned, via evolution, to promote human survival. Too bad we’re talking about survival in a prehistoric, natural environment that has little relevance to anything humans must deal with in the developed world, circa 21st Century. When it comes to living in this kind of world, all indicators suggest we are maladapted in most ways that count, and it shows – OMG, does it ever show! Based on what has gone down the past 30 years or so, it seems highly unlikely that this brief human experience is going to have a good outcome. It appears as if we’re bent on destroying ourselves, along with countless other life forms. We already have a good start on the extermination of other species.

Evolution at the mammalian level, where we’re classified, is glacially slow, orders of magnitude too slow to help us now. What’s urgently required is cultural adaptation that can compete with our ancient, outmoded biological tendencies. Is that possible? Perhaps, as the rapid evolution of nonsectarian, non-nationalistic science shows. Is it probable? Hell no, based on recent trends, i.e., what has taken place politically in this country in the past 30 years.

In a narrow, personal sense, it won’t make much difference to me: Being old (even if still healthy), I know I’m going to die, sooner rather than later; and I probably won’t be around to watch the worst case scenario play out. So I guess I should thank the impersonal, utterly indifferent, mindless forces™ for bestowing on me the privilege of having lived in the best of times, by far. Not that 1939 to the present has been a cakewalk for me or humanity – far from it. Only, to paraphrase Churchill, all the other times have been so much worse. Imagine yourself living in any century before the 20th.

Suggested epitaph for humanity: It could’ve been worse.

Look, humans never would have made it to this point if we hadn’t been equipped with a “survival instinct” / reality-distorition field that persisted in the face of suffering and hopelessness. As Harvard psychologist and best-selling author Daniel Gilbert ably and entertainingly explains, we have an irrational but no doubt adaptive psychological immune system that keeps us within a tolerable range of happiness and optimism across a wide range of circumstances. (The book is “Stumbling on Happiness” – it could become one of your favorites.)

The message is this: there is such a thing as human nature (natural tendencies, impulses, etc.), and it appars to be maladaptive in direct proportion to the advancements of science and technology. Another way of putting it: survival skills in this world are not encoded in our DNA but require knowledge, understanding, and disciplined cooperation that are sorely lacking and not likely to come online in time to save us from our primitive instincts. You know, like bigotry, tribalism, superstition, ideology and blind faith (reference: Fox News).

Everything besides rational, evidence-based cooperation.So I ask you, is there any reason for humanity to be hopeful? Any reason at all?

Conservative Christians think the answers are in the Bible. Yeah, we need more ancient myths, superstitions, prayers and exorcisms.  That package of ancient nonsense will help us a lot. Unfortunately, that’s where humans are programmed to turn for answers and assurance. Too bad – nothing fails like faith.

Conservative politicians think the answers lie in the unregulated free market and all that entails. Just turn everything over to the plutocrats. Need I point out that’s an unsupported, faith-based ideology, no better than religion?

So I ask you, are we fucked?

I would be grateful to learn that I’m wrong. So have at it, I’m listening. But please, evidence and reason only – no religion, no political ideology. That stuff is tiresome and useless.

Philosophy is Better Than Creationism


Posted by the inimitable PZ Myers at Pharyngula.com.

Plaintive logic

It’s phrased as a syllogism, so William Lane Craig ought to love it.

Also, 100% of all creationist arguments. Therefore, philosophy is better than creationism.


I agree, except I think the 99% figure is just a tad on the high side. But PZ knows that – he’s just messin’ with ‘em. But I have no quibble with skipping 100% of creationist arguments.

You can Google William Lane Craig. Or you might try Googling “Broken Record” or “Pompous Asshole.”

. . . . .

Given my tendencies and proclivities, philosophy should appeal to me: I have never shied away from difficulty or complexity, and syllogisms do not flummox or intimidate me. Actually, philosophy does appeal to me, although mostly in principle. After all, it was the precursor of science.

Unfortunately, when I venture into the philosophical realm, I usually come away with this reaction: WTF??? What has this got to do with anything that matters? What has this got to do with making better real-life decisions? And most importantly, what has this got to do with understanding the natural world?

Now It’s important to define understanding: I think we can be said to truly understand something only when a proposed explanation passes the test of prediction – better yet, prediction and control. Of course some sciences are predominantly descriptive – astronomy and paleontology come to mind. In those sciences, control is not possible, but prediction is. So I’m arguing that to qualify as a science a field of inquiry has to do more than just make observations. We can claim to understand something when we are able to predict outcomes or actually use our knowledge to cause specific outcomes.

Therefore it seems to me there’s something fundamentally wrong with the idea that we can learn anything about the nature of reality only by thinking and arguing. Our thoughts and arguments have to be grounded in and supported by reliable observations and measurements, observations and measurements that constitute our premises, if you will. Deductive logic can’t tell us if premises are true.

And if someone makes a deductive error, someone else will point it out sooner rather than later. So I figure I’m covered without having to expend much time wrestling with the fine points of deductive reasoning. There is this emerging field called experimental philosophy that sounds promising, and I’ll be reading and writing about it.

As far as I know, philosophy per se never gave us any accurate predictions. You simply can’t think your way to an understanding of the natural world, aka all there is. To quote Thomas Huxley, “The great tragedy of Science: the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” I would add that many beautiful hypotheses and theories are confirmed by facts – facts that came from observation and experiment, a recent example being the Higgs particle. Will the fallout from this discovery serve to draw physicists into another, deeper, more complex level of potentially discoverable reality? Scientists will love that.

So if there is some something or other besides the natural world, or if there is some way to divine useful, i.e., predictive, facts about the world from an armchair, I would like to know about it. Now some might be tempted to say that that’s just what the theoretical physicists did with respect to the Higgs particle. But of course their mathematical equations didn’t come from thin air but were grounded in and consistent with mountains of observational and experimental data. The interplay of theory and experiment defines science at its best.

To repeat: if we truly understand something, we should be able to make accurate, reliable predictions and, where possible, use that understanding to make things come out as predicted. Reliably.

So science works in the only ways that count. And does it ever work! Some would argue it works too well for our own good, that it has given us Sorcerer’s Apprentice power over nature that we are not mature enough to handle responsibly. There is undeniably much truth in that assertion, and now we’re at the point where we have no choice except to turn to science to help save us from the harm we’ve done to ourselves through the inadequately restrained use of its progeny, technology. It’s all summed up very well in E.F. Schumacher’s ironic expression, “A breakthrough a day keeps the crisis at bay.”

On second thought, more science (i.e., reliable knowledge and understanding) won’t be enough; there must be a basic change in human nature. I’m not talking about genetic modification, which is a ways off, but behavioral change: we must use our hard-won knowledge and understanding to transcend our natural intuitions and tribal impulses. We must adopt a rational, evidence-based approach to decision-making at both the individual and collective levels. There is no better source for this argument than Keith Stanovich’s marvelous book, “The Robot’s Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin.”

The combination of advanced technology and unenlightened, dogmatic human nature (i.e., conservatism) has certainly brought us to the brink of catastrophe.

Humans must change in fundamental ways or they are fucking doomed.