Friday, June 29, 2007

Atheist Chic

Summer beach-reading season is just beginning, and already several books have broken out from the pack, such as Walter Isaacson's biography of Albert Einstein, and Conn and Hal Iggulden's "The Dangerous Book for Boys." But the biggest surprise is a blazing attack on God and religion that is flying off bookshelves, even in the Bible Belt..."This is atheism's moment," says David Steinberger, Perseus's CEO. "Mr. Hitchens has written the category killer, and we're excited about having the next book."

I'm old enough to remember when it was pet rocks and plant consciousness. Of course, atheism isn't just silly and it's probably true--though I'm wagering that it isn't. The annoying thing is that the Hitchens, Dawkins, et. al. have have hit the charts by recycling arguments and critiques that have been commonplace for centuries. Is it really possible that anyone in the Western world hasn't heard these arguments ad nauseum--from Hume, Russell, and Flew, or the pop versions from H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis?

Moreover, in the US especially atheism has been for generations a marker of social status and an automatic admission to the intellegencia. Which of us who has any pretensions hasn't discovered in high school that simply making skeptical noises and trotting out the standard critiques of religious belief English teachers would write laudatory comments on your papers ("I can see you're really thinking!") give you good grades? Religion, like food preferences, hobbies, decor and fashion, is a class marker: there are those disgusting fat fundamentalist rednecks who stuff their fat, ugly faces with greasy junk food, watch Nascar races, and plant pink flamingos in front of their trailers--and then there are us, the secular elite.

Of course religion doesn't make us any better--or worse. There were the Crusades and the Inquisition, Naziism, Stalinism and Fascism; apart from such ideologically motivated programs people have always fought and killed, raped and pillaged, for land, for wealth, and just for the hell of it. People are by their nature violent and enjoy violence. We are also tribal and mark people off as Our Own or Other by tribal and clan affiliation, by race, language and kinship, by ideology, by religion, by the football teams we support or the gang colors we wear. It's all the same: religion is just another marker of affiliation: if it weren't religion, it would be something else. And when there's a decline in religious superstition--visions of angels and saints, the image of Jesus on a tortilla or the Virgin Mary on a watermelon secular superstition takes its place--UFOs, auras, chiropractic, astrology, and every sort of quack medicine and psychotherapeutic self-help regime. We are, by our nature, violent, tribal and credulous.

Of course it would be better if we weren't that way--that was the message of the Enlightenment. And we can improve. Education and affluence make us better people--cosmopolitan, critical and less violent. But achieving that improvement isn't a matter of getting rid of religion any more than it's a matter of getting rid of football teams, Nascar races or nation-states. It's a matter of detachment, universalism, and the critical assessment of our beliefs and practices.

Why is this atheism's "moment"? I suppose because everyone is nervous about jihad, sick of fundamentalists' campaigns to promote creationism and undermine stem-cell research and tired of right-wing politics. Even more so I think because in the developed world, even including the US, Christianity has effectively collapsed from within. The public cult has been replaced by sport, the saints by celebrities. The myths are dead: people don't know the stories anymore. Secular gurus pump out the wisdom literature--self-help books took off when religion ceased to be an effective force in people's lives. Metaphysics has been suspect since Kant and policy-makers in mainline denominations have been, effectively, atheists for years--contemptuous of the religious belief and practice of the laity and working overtime to dismantle the cults, to debunk the myths, and to preserve the institutions that pay them by remaking them as social service organizations and political action groups.

These liberal churches are going extinct because they've jettisoned what people want out of religion. The only religious option left is gross superstition--fundamentalist Christianity and, for the elite, a syncretic mish-mash of commercialized New Age products. It's a pity I'll be dead 2 centuries or so from now when we'll be able to see how this all plays out. It's reminiscent of the world of late Antiquity. The elite were skeptics at most. The cults of the old city gods, the "classical" deities, were little more than civic rituals. With the old city gods effectively dead, Oriental cults flooded in and merged with the native superstitions of the peasantry, which had always been bubbling under the surface, and one of those cults, Christianity, took over.

What will happen to us? What will come out of this Hellenistic mish-mash? I doubt that it will be anything like the Church of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, at least not in the global north. Secular governments are too strong and stable to cede power to an international religious institution and there isn't the critical mass of illiterates to keep the superstitions going. Religion will have its ups and down, but the trend will be down until most of the population is completely secular, completely detached from any religious tradition and clueless about the very idea of religious belief or practice, and only a small minority, a single-digit percentage, dabbles in various flavors of "spirituality."

What a bummer! I suppose most people don't see it that way because all they've ever seen of religion is the bad stuff and the dull stuff--the stupid rules and constraints, the threat of punishment in this world and the next, the sickening sentimentalities, dull preaching and platitudes. As one student put it, "you don't associate Christianity with mysticism." They don't associate it with the spooky, the frisson, the thrill of transcendence, with the romance of history, or even with high art and aesthetic pleasure. Christianity has been so thoroughly gutted, that few will see its collapse as a loss.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Hillary's Feminist Problem

When I was having babies midwifery was all the rage. Feminists pointed out that the patriarchal medical establishment had squeezed them out, and that that was unfortunate because they generally did a better job delivering babies. This was probably true. Midwives were more specialized and more experienced, and they didn't come to the job with their hands dirty from treating infected patients. Midwives had clearly gotten a raw deal.

However by the time I was in the birthing business, women were flooding into med school and joining the patriarchal medical establishment. They posed a Feminist Problem: should we support women or women's ways? should we glad that women were now doctors or should we still be angry that ob/gyns, including women, had squeezed out midwives?

To me this was a no-brainer. When Jackie Robinson broke the color-barrier in major league baseball, the old Negro League collapsed. If you can play in the majors there is no point in preserving an alternative institution whose sole purpose is to provide a place for players who've been excluded from the major leagues. If women could be ob/gyns there was no point in promoting an alternative, sex-segregated profession. Women's ways are nothing but a response to exclusion: there is nothing good about outsider status.

Not everyone agreed. After being outsiders for millennia it seemed some women had come to believe their own rationalizations and had the idea that outsider status was not only unobjectionable but positively desirable. We're repeatedly cautioned about the temptations of selling out. Feminism, we're told, has gotten beyond the old liberal campaign to enable women to play the male game. But why, I wonder, is this beyond? We still don't have a level playing field, we're still disadvantaged, still face discrimination but these people talk is if the war has been won and it wasn't worth fighting in the first place. I have a sneaking suspicion that the valorization of women's ways and outsider status is a symptom of battle fatigue: the fight has gotten tough, the remnants of sex segregation are difficult to dislodge and in the current political climate affirmative action is in bad oder.

Enter Hillary, the leading Democratic candidate, the tough, professional, mainstream politician, a political insider "playing the male game." So long as she was an outsider (of sorts), exercising power from within a traditionally female role as First Lady feminists loved her because that was what feminists were supposed to do: empower outsiders as such, elevate the status of women's roles and get respect for women's ways. When she became an insider, however there was a feminist problem and the old feminist sore opened up: should feminists support women or women's ways?

At a more abstract level this is the dispute that underlies discussion of multiculturalism. Here is a disadvantaged group whose members have been denigrated and excluded. That's bad. But where do we go from here? Prove that their role, culture, ethos, way of doing business is just as good or better than the mainstream from which they've been excluded and, indeed, that they're in some privileged epistemic position in virtue of their outsider status, or level the playing field and enable them to join the mainstream? Multiculturalism or assimilation? Midwives of female ob/gyns? Comparable worth for traditional women's work or access to traditionally male jobs? Improved and refurbished ghettos or integration?

Hillary isn't my favorite Democratic candidate because I'm a monomaniacal liberal: the only issue I care about is the economic one--social safety nets and progress in the direction of a welfare state. Yeah, I'm against the war, and I'm pro-choice, and I'd like to see better policies concerning the environment. But I don't really care about these issues. I'm still for Edwards. He won't get the nomination and I'll vote for any Democrat who does--because any Democrat will push us a little further in the direction of the welfare state, and even a millimeter is worth it. But what I like most about Hillary is precisely the fact that she's running as a political insider, playing the male game and winning.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Rant: Why I Hate Continental “Philosophy”

Well, not all philosophy written by continental Europeans: I do like Frege. And not even all Continental Philosophy: Brentano is ok. I mean the obscurantist bs written by Continental “thinkers” that’s supposed to address the human condition. I had an encounter with someone who was into Levinas that set my teeth on edge and this got me to thinking what it is that makes me so flat out angry about these Continental “philosophers.” Here it is:

(1) Their prescriptions for living the good life are wrong-headed and promote human misery

(2) Their moral recommendations are self-serving and promote self-deception and

(3) They are dogmatically convinced (or claim to be) that anyone who rejects their way of doing business, analytic philosophers in particular, are political conservatives

Philosophy is the true wisdom that saves us—not by cranking out maxims and prescriptions but by inculcating a way of thinking and operating that enables us to live well and do the right thing. Here is the Wisdom that saves (“a” is for “analytic”)

(1a) The Deflationary Strategy: everything is more manageable than it seems, more amenable to reason, analysis and plain commonsense, and in more cases than you imagine, fixable. If you’re depressed, anxious or feel that life is “meaningless” then either (a) you’re confused or (b) you suffer from a chemical imbalance. Get clear about what you want and how to get it. Take up a hobby, get more exercise, organize your office space, etc. If this doesn’t work take a pill or have a drink. We aren’t grand, tragic figures: we’re animals who are happiest working, exercising, making things, putting things in order, playing, setting reasonable goals for ourselves and achieving them.

Here is the adolescent self-dramatization that damns (“c” is for “continental”)

(1c) The Inflationary Strategy: everything is less manageable than it seems, nothing is amenable to reason, analysis is deceptive, commonsense is shallow and the whole idea of “fixing” things is wrong-headed. If you’re depressed, anxious or feel that life is “meaningless” then you’re a deep thinker who sees Reality as it really is and are suffering from existential angst. Enjoy your misery: life is tragic and you’re a hero.

Then there’s ethics:

(2a) We can’t make the world perfect but we can improve it and make people better off by improving the material conditions of their lives. Send money to Oxfam and work politically for the establishment of a socialist welfare state. This is expensive and the more you pay the better off other people will be—and, of course, the worse off you will be. There is no free ride: doing the right thing is tough.

Maybe the alternative that bothers me here isn’t so much the Continental alternative as such but the pious one:

(2c) All you need is Love. Kiss lepers. Work in soup kitchens. Giving money isn’t enough—in fact it may be beside the point. People need dignity, respect, love and compassion. And you need to be informed and involved. This is cheap—in fact dignity, respect, love and compassion are free!

(3c) Returning to Continental “philosophy,” the most vexing thing of all is their smug assumption that if you don’t buy their dogmas, you don’t buy their leftist political agenda. Levinas Woman objected to the discussion of free-will we where having because she had some bee in her bonnet about “collective responsibility.” As far as I could gather the idea was that if we didn’t have this sense of collective responsibility we wouldn’t be moved to fight injustice: “I’m not (individually) responsible for colonialism (slavery, the Holocaust, etc.) so there’s no reason why I should work to rectify these injustices.”

This seems to be an empirical claim at the bottom of this—that I won’t be motivated to fix things unless I am, in some sense, responsible for their being broken. But it’s false. My family regularly trashes the house and I clean up after them. I’m furious at them: they shouldn’t behave this way and I tell them so (though not often because it’s futile). I’m not responsible for the mess, individually, collectively or in any other way, but I clean it up because I want the house to look good. I want things to be neat, organized and efficient. I’m not responsible for poverty, racism or colonialism but I’m going to work to fix these injustices because I want the world to be neat, organized and efficient. I don’t care these injustices came about or who’s to blame—I just want them fixed and I’m prepared to pitch in.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Authenticity: "It's One of Those Counterfactuals"

"Authenticity" as it figures in the political arena cashes out to being a regular guy like me. But "like," as we know, is both vague and ambiguous. We ask: (1) like in what respect and (2) which respects matter and how are they weighted when it comes to assessing likeness simpliciter?

Suppose I'm a regular guy. George Bush is like me because he cuts brush at his Crawford "ranch." John Edwards is not like me because he gets $400 haircuts. But if I had George Bush's bucks and weren't interested in impressing folks like me for political purposes, I wouldn't be cutting brush, so in that respect Bush is not like me. And if I had Edwards' bucks, I'd live in a big house and get $400 haircuts. Counterfactually, Edwards is just like me.

[A]assertions of "authenticity" are not only feeble tautologies that are worthless as criteria of value. As Krugman points out, this focus -- with the focus on the haircuts of John Edwards being the most recent example -- on balance cuts strongly against progressive politics. Although there's no reason that a wealthy person can't advocate policies that help the poor -- FDR came from considerably greater means than Reagan -- suddenly any politician with lots of money (i.e. any politician who could be a serious national candidate under the current system) can be tarred as "inauthentic" if they propose progressive economic policies (although a rich actor renting a pickup as a campaign prop is good enough for a Republican to be "authentic.")

What matters to people: actual or counterfactual similarity? I suspect the latter. Leaving political playacting aside, think of how most of us feel about privileged individuals who repudiate privilege--not out of some bizarre religious conviction or sacrificially in order to provide benefits to the rest of us but because they're jaded, want to experience the life the other half (or 99/100ths) live or even, out of some misguided sense of solidarity, want to live like us. We resent it. What are these people playing at? We resent the Universe for being organized in such a way that privileges we'd appreciate and use to advantage are wasted on them, and we transfer that resentment to them.

When rich college kids (like me) demonstrated in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic convention, the Chicago cops, who would have loved to have had the chance to go to fancy colleges and were working hard to see to it that their kids had the chance, busted our heads in. Real blue collar workers were outraged by rich hippies pretending to be working class. More recently, when a journalist went for a stroll in Kabul wearing a burqa the was surrounded and threatened by Afghan women in burqas, who recognized that she was a Westerner by her running shoes, outraged that she was voluntarily doing what they had to do and didn't want to do. When another journalist, black and African but visibly overweight, was "embedded" with a poor family in rural Ethiopia to share their life and report, the entire village was outraged and only, grudgingly, accepted him when he persuaded them that he was "doing a study."

Even if we resent rich people for not sharing their wealth or powerful people for undermining our prospects, we don't resent them for enjoying their wealth and power because that is exactly what we would do in their position. Absent overriding conditions--doing a study, giving excess wealth to the poor, embracing poverty for the Kingdom of God's sake--we resent them for not being like us. it's the counterfactuals that matter.

Counterfactuals, unfortunately, are invisible. The public sees Bush doing what they do and Edwards doing things they can't afford to do--they don't notice those other possible worlds. However it would be easy enough for politicians to draw their attention to them instead of pretending that they're actually just regular guys who cut brush and drive pick-ups. "Now y'all listen up: you bet I live in a big, fancy house, get $400 haircuts and hire other people to do yard work. I was lucky, worked hard, and got rich. I live exactly the way you would if you lucked out, as I did, and got rich. And I'm gonna work to see to it that you do better and have more opportunities to get the good stuff I got and to enjoy it. Where's the beef?"

Friday, June 08, 2007

Building White Trash Nation

I went to a City Council meeting last Tuesday to speak in favor of a resolution to keep Walmart Superstores out of our local market. The room was packed with Walmart workers bussed in to speak in opposition. Waiting my turn, the woman next to me passed a sign-up sheet on lined notebook paper to me, which they’d signed to confirm attendance.

In addition to employees, there was a contingent of fellow-travelers, all elderly, morbidly obese, disabled or Hispanic, who gave testimony about Walmart’s benefits to the poor and oppressed. They were outraged that the rich, the elite, the big union leaders and the professors (yup, they said professors) wanted to deprive them of the only place they could afford to shop: even if we didn’t need Walmart, they did they said.

Well yes, but how do you explain in two minutes, with the egg time going, that even if Walmart benefited them in the short run on balance it did more harm to them and lots of other people in the long run by driving down wages in competing firms and forcing manufacturing jobs off shore, expanding the class of low wage workers who couldn’t afford to shop anywhere else. Henry Ford paid his workers well so that they could afford to buy Ford cars. Good unionized jobs that paid decent wages grew the middle class. Walmart pays its workers miserably so that they have to shop at Walmart, growing its market share and creating an ever larger class of low wage workers.

Without intervention as far as I can see the cycle will continue until Walmart effectively becomes the government of a nation within the nation with its own separate and unequal institutions. For some time now Walmart has been trying to expand into the banking business so that it can issue pseudo-credit cards for Walmart shopping to customers who aren’t eligible for real ones. It isn’t hard to imagine a dystopian future in which a minority of the population with education and skills, who don’t work for Walmart, its direct competitors or suppliers, get on with business as usual imagining that they still live in America while perhaps 2/3 of the population are citizens of Walmart Nation, shopping at Walmart with their Walmart-issued pseudo-credit cards. This is exactly the sort of privatization I suspect conservatives want.

In one respect this arrangement would be highly advantageous to me. I don’t work at Walmart or at any of its direct competitors. Walmart will not force my wages down or send my job off shore. And I’ll be able to shop at Walmart for bargains subsidized by its low wage employees and sweat shop workers in the third world. That is, after all, the American way. So why am I not happy about it?

I suppose I object to it on moral grounds. It means a lot less utility overall. Mainly I think I object because I am a snob. I don’t like lower class people. I want to live a world where everyone is upper middle class—educated, liberal and articulate. A European style welfare state would go a long way toward creating that world. The money is there: it’s only a matter of redistributing it and providing the education, social environment and services to make everyone a Bo-Bo in Paradise. Instead we’ve chosen to build White Trash Nation so that a very small ultra-elite can enjoy vast wealth and power and much larger class of educated professionals can live high on cheap consumer goods. Walmart has solved the problem of off-shoring service-sector jobs by creating the third world on American soil, an American colony in America for our benefit.

Years ago I went on a Moonie conference in Puerto Rico. The Moonies, trying to buy credibility, provided all expense paid trips to the spectacularly lavish Dorado Beach Resort for academics. Most of us had never seen anything like it. We spent a few hours a day reading one another papers in the customary fashion—I got a publication out of it—and the rest of our time eating, drinking, playing and swimming in the Gulf of Mexico which, on New Years Day, was as warm as dishwater. I’ve always been a bicycle explorer so I rented a bike and pedaled around town. The third world started immediately outside the gate, where the staff who cleaned the place, served us and tended to our needs lived in houses that were, at best, modest. I thought as I biked around that this must have been what Cuba was like before the Revolution and that it was likely why there was a Revolution. I didn’t feel guilty—just embarrassed. I found it distasteful.

It was nice to pig out for a few days but I don’t want to live like that in my own country.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Democratic Faith Show

Edwards, Clinton and Obama Describe Journeys of Faith - New York Times
Intimate discussions of politics and religion have long been the province of Republican candidates for public office. But on Monday night, the three leading Democratic presidential hopefuls — former Senator John Edwards and Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton — opened up at an unusual televised forum about their faiths, the role of prayer in their public and private lives and the ways that religion informs their views on policy and government.

This is sickening. If these candidates have any serious religious convictions--which I doubt--being trotted out to make noises about their "faith" and the role of prayer in their lives by their groomers and handlers, suitably packaged in folksy evangelical terms, must have set their teeth on edge. Edwards and Clinton of course have an advantage, being Southerners who presumably grew up speaking the language.

I flashed back to a TV documentary on the American health care system, showing a fundraiser for a kid with leukemia who needed a bone marrow transplant. It was a jolly fun fair, with rides and entertainment. The boy with leukemia was riding around on a miniature train wearing an engineer's cap on his bald head, displaying a forced smile, waving to the audience, looking very, very sick. He died a few days later.

This is how you appeal to the American public, by these degrading sentimentalities--dying children performing at carnivals, like medieval beggars displaying their deformities, to get treatment that anywhere else in the civilized world would be a public service, a candidate for high political office giving testimony about how his "faith" helped him deal with the death of his teenage son and his wife's cancer.

The public was grossed out by a Dutch reality TV show in which a terminally ill woman was to select one of three patients to receive her kidneys. It turned out to be a hoax intended to call attention to the shortage of donated organs. I suppose the Dutch got it: if you don't do the reasonable thing and sign those donar cards you're doing to have patients displaying their deformities on TV for entertainment. I wonder if Americans got it--or if we can expect TV shows like this that aren't hoaxes. We used to have them when I was a child. I remember two: Queen for a Day and It Could Be You. Bedraggled, whining housewives competed, telling their tales of woe, and the most miserable won money and kitchen appliances.

I hope the Faith Show works for the Democrats. I have nothing against it in principle since, of course, I have no principles--other than the Principle of Utility. It seems a shame though that to achieve ends that every reasonable person should support, political candidates and leukemia patients should have to put on these humiliating displays and, even worse, that this is what moves the American public. Here we have the dictatorship of the proletariat--demanding soap operas, circuses and tent revivals. Where else would a candidate for head of government ingratiate herself to voters by claiming--truly or falsely--that she prayed to lose weight?

Friday, June 01, 2007

Abortion: The hysteria which divides the US

Anti-abortion campaigners in the US will tell you their crusade is about the sanctity of life. But really it is about upholding a singularly unhealthy tendency in American public life - the exploitation of a divisive social and ethical issue to further the ambitions of a single political party...abortion has been the Republican Party's best tool for enlisting grass-roots support...The problem is that the majority of Americans support the notion of a woman's right to choose.

The problem for the Democratic party is that Americans do not support women's right absolute to choose abortion in all circumstances, at any stage of pregnancy and without any restrictions. And they shouldn't. There's surely a morally significant difference between an embryo and a viable, late-stage fetus. It's debatable whether even given that difference there should be an outright ban on late-term abortions, but it's still a difference that any reasonable person will regard as morally significant.

Political rhetoric aside, no one really buys the idea that abortion is simply and uncontroversially a purely self-regarding action or that controversy about abortion is really nothing more than a debate about women's "right to choose." Abortion is an animal rights issue. We ask: do these organisms have, at any given stage of development, rights that override women's right to choose? and, if so, under what conditions? We don't worry about killing germs, swatting flies or even salting slugs. There's controversy about whether culling the deer population or slaughtering cows and pigs for food is morally ok. There's even more controversy about the conditions under which it would be morally permissible, or obligatory, to put down a dog or cat.

This is the way in which most people who are not ideologues of the left or right correctly "frame" the abortion issue. Even in America, very few people seriously believe that slugs or blastulas--or trees--have rights. However, very few people anywhere seriously believe that putting down a dog or aborting a late-term fetus is simply a harmless "choice." And they shouldn't believe that.

In response to conservatives' wedge strategy, the Democratic Party has gotten itself locked into the position that this way of framing the question, means victory for the Religious Right, and that any restrictions whatsoever on the availability of abortion are a dangerous slide down the slippery slope to an outright ban. Moreover, abortion is popularly identified as THE central feminist issue (because, I suspect, "pro-choice" is easier to sell to the public than the enforcement of anti-discrimination regulations or affirmative action). This has alienated lots of Americans who might otherwise support the Democratic Party's policies, discredited feminism and put liberal Catholic politicians in a close to impossible position. If the Terri Schaivo affair and the current administration's idiot opposition to stem cell research are a drag on Republicans, this no-compromise-no-surrender view on abortion discredits Democrats.

The linked article, from a UK newspaper, suggests that Brits, and presumably Europeans generally, who haven't so far regarded abortion as a central political issue or opposed all restrictions on the availability of abortion as features of a fundamentalist, anti-feminist conspiracy, should look to the US as a model. I don't think so.