Monday, January 30, 2006

Hamas in Palestine

A sad day for dialogue from Guardian Unlimited: News blog: "Comments have been closed on this entry. We automatically close entries to new comments after 2 days to prevent comment spam, or we may have deemed this particular entry unsuitable for open comments. However, you can still make your opinion known by writing on your own weblog, and linking to this page: our system will pick it up."

Ok--pick it up. I don't get this whole Middle East thing. Couldn't we have fixed it --at least before things got this bad--by just sending money? We must have committed scads more to arming Israel, fighting in Iraq, doing all this, then we would have had to spend if we just razed the entire Middle East and turned it into a California style suburb, like Eastlake, Chula Vista?

It's really very simple: send in a crew, build lots of stucco houses and give them to people. Just give them away. Build good maccadam roads. Build an industrial park and bribe multinationals to set up housekeeping with the promise of zero taxes, cheap labor and a batallion of Marines to provide security. Build schools, staff them and pay teachers; build hospitals and pay doctors and nurses. Fix the electricity grid, build sewers, provide telephone service and cable TV. Spend whatever it takes to turn Palestinean territory into a middle class American suburb, give it to the Palestineans and keep pumping in money to keep it going until the local economy is kick started. We fucked up--we pay. And it can't be any more expensive, either in terms of money or in human costs, than dealing with perpetual hostilities in the middle east.

Would people go for this? Would they abandon their native culture to live like Californians or set aside their legitimate grievances at being pushed off their ancestral lands? Jesus Christ of course they would. Can anyone be so stupid to imagine that any rational human being would prefer living in a shitty mudbrick hovel in a refugee camp for whatever reason to enjoying these creature comforts? Can anyone be so besotted with romantic multiculturalist notions as to believe that they would prefer cultivating their ancestral olive groves, transporting their produce to market the backs on donkeys and pooping in pit latrines? Only affluent Americans who have never been without indoor plumbing would even consider the possibility.

Then there is Plan B, which would be even cheaper. Give all Palestineans displaced by--let's be honest--Jewish white settlers, green cards and airlift them to the US. We fucked up--we supported the last colonialist program, we fix it. Would all those Palestineans affiliate with terrorist organizations, work to undermine the US government and to restore the Cailephate? ARE YOU KIDDING??!!?

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Is multiculturalism good for anyone?

Veil and a warning

The mysterious death of Samira Munir, a Norwegian politician, in Oslo comes as a chilling deterrent to Muslim women who speak out about the violence against women in their communities in the West

For the past few months I've been working on a project on multiculturalism so I collect articles like this one, describing pressure on assimilated women of Muslim origin in the West from their families and local ethnic communities to behave themselves.

There are usually a number of extraneous issues that muddy the waters--intergenerational conflicts between immigrant parents and their European children, the universal desire of parents to control and protect their children (particularly adolescent girls) and the universal desire of adolescents not to be controlled or protected. In one of the muddiest cases of all in response to the French headscarf ban the poster children of the protest were Lila and Alma Levy, teenage daughters of a Jewish lawyer, who donned the hajib to make a countercultural fashion statement and achieved their 15 minutes of fame on the international stage.

There are certainly people who, like Lila and Alma, can capitalize on multiculturalism. Nevertheless, even if some people can capitalize on multiculturalism I argue that it is a bad thing because it promotes ethnic identities that are ascribed, socially salient and scripted and so restricts individual liberty. First, ethnic identity is ascribed: even where it is invisible, it is unchosen and immutable. It limits people's choice, their ability to choose their affiliations, and when it is visible, as it is for black and brown people, it is all the more restrictive. Visible minorities are not only stuck with an ethnic identity--they are stuck with others identifying them with their assigned group.

Secondly, ethnic identity is socially salient. Ethnic identities are associated with a wide range of personal characteristics--beliefs, character traits, interests, aptitudes and behaviors--in a way that, e.g. handedness, eye color and other traits are not. People who are tagged with an ethnic or racial identity are expected to possess these traits and have to fight their way through these expectations to be seen as the individuals they are.

Finally, racial and ethnic identities are scripted. They are not only associated with a package of personal characteristics that ethnically identified individuals are thought to have--they carry scripts for how such individuals are supposed to behave and impose role obligations. Ethnically identified individuals who are unwilling or unable to act their assigned scripts, or who attempt to opt out of their ascribed ethnic identities, are punished--whether mildly, by being castigated as self-hating oreos, coconuts, bananas or apples (black, brown, yellow or red on the outside--white on the inside) or severely, by being threatened, beaten up or killed.

Liberal societies are in a bind. By accommodating the interests of individuals who want to capitalize on ethnicity they thwart the interests of those who want out. Apart from a few individuals like Lila and Alma who are playing at ethnicity for fun however most who capitalize on ethnicity do so because they can't shed it. I'm a 50 year old immigrant from Algeria. I can't speak decent French and can't get a job here. I live in this cite on public assistance and outside I get treated like dirt: I'm at the bottom of the heap. But in my apartment I'm the paterfamilias: I still have the authority over my wife and children that my culture underwrites so I have an interest in maintaining that culture. I'm his 18 year old son. I speak perfect French but I can't get a legitimate job anyway because I'm brown. But at least I can boss and beat up women because that's my cultural perogative so I have an interest in maintaining that culture. I don't have any future so I don't have anything to lose: might as well have fun now, burn some cars. And when I do I get on TV.

Practically speaking, I don't know how this can be fixed, how you can give that 50 year old immigrant a stake in the dominant culture. I don't even know how you give the lads a stake in the dominant culture--though affirmative action might help. But as an empirical conjecture I am absolutely certain that if assimilation is really feasible for most immigrants in affluent Western countries most will choose it.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

David Brooks on Values

Dollars and Sense - New York Times

David Brooks, in todays NYTimes Op-Ed quotes "liberal economist Stephen Rose" for remarking that "It is an occupational hazard of those with big hearts to overestimate the share of the population that is economically distressed." Rose concluded that only 19 percent of males and 27 percent of females are poor or working poor — a percentage that is "probably much smaller than most progressive commentators would estimate."

Let's see: that's over 23% of the total population (which includes more women than men) of the richest nation on earth living in poverty. This may be fewer than "most progressive commentators" would estimate--though I doubt it--but it's a much, much higher percentage of the total population living in poverty than in other affluent country.

Rose calculated the household incomes for people between 26 and 59 and found that the average annual family income is somewhere around $63,000 a year — an impressive figure.

That's average not median. The average is yanked up by a very small number of Americans with ultra-bananas-high incomes. The median income of Americans is significantly lower and comparable to the median income for citizens of Eurosocialist demmocracies where you do not have anything close to 23% of the population living in poverty.
I wonder whether, given decreasing marginal utility, bliss of the few in that long, skinny tail in the income distribution sets off the misery of the 23+% in the big, fat hunk of curve at the bottom.

Then there is that very significant discrepancy between the poverty figures for men and women. The figures remember are based on on family income rather than individual earnings so it's not likely that it's wholly a consequence of married women's choices to stay home with the kids.

If you are a middle-class woman, you have more to fear from divorce than from outsourcing.

Of course. You can't make the kind of bucks guys make so you depend on financial support from a husband to maintain that middle-class lifestyle. You need that guy as a meal ticket. Moreover the pink-collar drudge work you do in the service sector isn't very likely to be outsourced anyway.

If you have a daughter, you're right to worry more about her having a child before marriage than about her being a victim of globalization.

I have a daughter and don't worry at all. If she gets pregnant she'll get an abortion and get on with her life. It's underclass girls who carry their pregnancies to term and--this is a CHOICE--keep their babies, because for them there are no opportunity costs. Sooner or later they'll be working at Walmart--delaying childbearing and child rearing doesn't pay for them. And guys in their social group aren't the marrying kind.

I don't really understand why Brooks seems to believe that the facts he cites--the 23+% poverty rate and the substantial discrepancy in rates of poverty between men and women are supposed to promote the conservative cause. These figures suggest that we should support income transfers and social programs to lift people out of poverty and affirmative action to minimize the ongoing discrimination in employment that puts women at such a serious economic disadvantage.

The "values" that these statistics reflect make me want to move somewhere else. They reflect a social Darwinist free-for-all, without security, where everyone has to fight to keep their heads above water and where, even if we manage that we work for weeks longer per year than citizens of other affluent countries to maintain the same standard of living. Civilization as I understand it means security so that we don't have to fight continually to survive and push others down so that we can make the grab for scarce goods. Most importantly, it means minimizing drudgery so that we have time for "liberal pursuits"--for poetry, music and art, for learning of every sort, for all the good things of high culture. We're becoming less and less civilized by these standards--we spend longer hours at work and then buy more crap because we don't have the education or leisure to appreciate the finer things that make life worthwhile.

This is my country, my native land. "America the Beautiful" gets me all choked up. That's one I haven't heard recently though, possibly because, especially after Katerina, the line about alabaster cities gleaming undimmed by human tears is an embarrassment. I don't want to live in a place where there are beggars at every freeway exit and supermarket door and where the bulk of the population who aren't begging drudge away their days so that they can buy SUVs and garbage, where half the population is functionally illiterate and the majority can't read music.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

I'm not a heretic!

You scored as Chalcedon compliant. You are Chalcedon compliant. Congratulations, you're not a heretic. You believe that Jesus is truly God and truly man and like us in every respect, apart from sin. Officially approved in 451.

Chalcedon compliant




























Are you a heretic?
created with

...but I do seem to be, um, a Satanist

You scored as Satanism. Your beliefs most closely resemble those of Satanism! Before you scream, do a bit of research on it. To be a Satanist, you don't actually have to believe in Satan. Satanism generally focuses upon the spiritual advancement of the self, rather than upon submission to a deity or a set of moral codes. Do some research if you immediately think of the satanic cult stereotype. Your beliefs may also resemble those of earth-based religions such as paganism.



















Which religion is the right one for you? (new version)
created with

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Liberals--meet the working class!

American Prospect Online - Just What Is the Working Class?

[F]ully 29 percent of voters have some college education but no degree, slightly outnumbering those with a bachelor’s degree or more. The “some college” group was, according to 2004 exit polls, the educational cohort in which Bush achieved his best performance. Thus, the conservative inclinations of the educationally defined working class are largely attributable to the sentiments of its best-educated members...In whatever sense working-class conservatism is real, it is a phenomenon of middle-income -- or slightly richer -- whites, with attendant consequences for political strategy. People in this range don’t benefit from Republican economic policies oriented toward tax cuts for the very rich, but neither have they felt the sting of Republican budget cuts that have been targeted at the truly poor. Consequently, winning their votes will probably require something beyond crass appeals to alleged economic self-interest, whether or not these are coupled with moves to the right on other issues.

Vance Packard got it right about class in The Status Seekers. I read the book about 30 years ago but it left a lasting impression because it was one of those books you read when you are very young which, in a striking way, explains life and leaves you with a permanent template for fitting in all future experiences.

According to Packard's taxonomy there were 5 classes in American society. At the top a small ultra-rich, ultra-elite; at the bottom a small underclass consisting of people who were in one way or another dysfunctional and either living on the street or close to it. In the middle, the interesting part, there were: the lower class (working poor), the lower middle class (working class) and the upper middle class.

The great divide was between the Upper and Lower Middle Class which, Packard compared to the bright line between officers and enlisted personnel. The lower classes could aspire to the lower middle class but only an exceptional few could make it across the line. The divide wasn't one of income either because, on Packard's classification lots of Lower Middle Class people were earning lots more than lots of Upper Middle Class people--these were the days when unionized blue collar jobs were plentiful and paid well. But everyone knew where the line was--it was the line that's now marked by the divide between college graduation and some-college-no-degree.

Packard's characterization of the Lower Middle Class, it's folkways and distinctive virtues was dead on. The characteristic virtue of the class system's "noncoms" as he called them, was discipline: following and enforcing the rules, keeping their noses clean and maintaining order. That was how they rose through the ranks to get where they were. They were the steady workers, the churchgoers, the sober, self-disciplined family men who didn't blow their paychecks on drink, gambling or cheap women and the housewives who diligently saved money, supervised their children and ran orderly households.

Discipline, order, cleanliness, obedience, thrift, hard work and diligence were their success strategy. And they were wedded to these virtues because they were painfully aware of what was for them the alternative: poverty, debt, squalor, insecurity--the vices and miseries of the social layer immediately beneath them who played Gin Alley to their Beer Street. They believed in self-reliance and desert because by their own efforts, they had achieved all the success for which they could hope. Their great fear was disorder because they were painfully aware that their position was both privileged and precarious: slacking off, letting go, taking to drink or disobeying the rules would get them busted to private.

These social noncoms, understandably, hated us, life's junior officers. They had worked their way up through the ranks by hard work, self-discipline and sacrifice; we, in virtue of inherited wealth and privilege, got in a notch above them. We had everything they had and more without working or sacrificing for it. We could get away with virtually anything. We didn't follow the rules but weren't punished. We didn't work. We went to fancy colleges, used drugs, dreamed, played at revolution, broke the rules, screwed up in every way that would land them in the gutter but were bailed out at every turn. Even worse, we made no secret of despising their most fundamental values--self-discipline, obedience and order--and were intent on undermining the social practices that kept chaos at bay. Worse still, we admired the layers below them, the trailer trash and slum-dwellers, and pushed for policies to benefit the undeserving poor at their expense.

Now Matthew Yglesias notes, correctly, that these are the people liberals need to win over--not the true working poor who are more solidly democratic than ever. But I cannot imagine how. Even if conservative policies that benefit the ultra-rich don't help them, the classic liberal-socialist economic agenda geared to promoting the interests of the underclass and working poor will not help them either. Contrary to the Thomas Frank thesis they are not voting against their economic interests and they are not rabid Fundamentalists intent on establishing a theocracy. They want Beer Street--a clean, disciplined, orderly, safe world where hard work and good behavior pay off. Who doesn't?

Reflecting, I ask myself why I don't--or at least why I don't go with their program. And my answer--which would never fly politically in the US--is that by knocking a little wealth off the top we can make everyone upper middle class.

I suppose what drives me morally isn't either compassion or guilt but outrage at arbitrariness, inefficiency and waste. It was a arbitrary that I got pulled out of the office where I worked after high school and sent to college where I could take classes that interested me, argue about politics and philosophy in the coffee shop, lie on the grass writing papers and doing logic problems and ride my bike while the other girls in that office were trapped there all day doing repetitious, mind-killing drudge work. It was inefficient and wasteful that their lives were so crumby when creaming a little off of the top, where it would hardly be missed, could make their lives so much better. They weren't the underclass or the truly poor: they were the respectable lower middle class--girls only a year or two older than me but married, working to help save for down payments on houses before they could quit to have babies, older ladies who'd gone back to work to help put their kids through college. I listened to their conversation and got a sense of how perfectly awful their lives were--how constrained and dull, without aspirations, without any possibility of real achievement, without even any serious interests--just working hard, saving money and following the rules.

It isn't lives of the truly poor that make this whole system offensive. They can do better and someone should probably give them a kick in the pants. What makes it offensive is that, realistically, if you are not born into the officer class and are not spectacularly smart--much smarter than I am--the best you can do is the life these lower middle class women lived.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Affirmative Action: Poisoning the Wells

I don't do informal fallacies so I'm not sure whether this is the tag for the fallacy that appears in these two articles on affirmative action and assisted suicide.

In the first, the author argues that since the "role model" argument for affirmative action is unsound and therefore that affirmative action is unwarrented. In the second the editorial writer from the NYTimes applauds the Supreme Court for supporting the Oregon law premitting assisted suicide on the grounds that assisted suicide is opposed by the Bush administration invoking a conservative Christian ideology.

The gist of both is that because a given argument for a thesis is bad the thesis is bad and that, whatever you call it, is a fallacy. Even though the role model argument for affirmative action is, as the author notes, baloney, there are good and, I believe, compelling arguments for affirmative action as the only practical means for counteracting ongoing discrimination. There are also good, though I'm not sure whether compelling arguments, against assisted suicide that do not assume any religious doctrines, namely that if the practice is legal and socially acceptable, patients who do not want to suicide out will be under pressure from over-burdened families and medical personnel allocating scarce resources.

From the logical point of view, piling up bad arguments for a thesis shouldn't make any difference. From the rhetorical point of view it undermines credibility. The remarkable thing is that politically savvy operators, who are not logically fastidious but interested in persuasion by fair means or foul, pile up bad arguments in support of the positions they want to push. In camera they may discuss the legitimate reasons for the policies they want to push but in public they throw in the kitchen sink--every bad argument, every sentimentality, every myth that they believe will promote their agenda. Invariably this program undermines credibility.

Members of racial and ethnic minorities do not have anything special to offer as faculty members. They are not needed as "role models." "Diversity" in schools or workplaces is of absolutely no value: the business of these institutions would go just as well if they were staffed entirely by white, Anglo males. Women do not have anything special to contribute to the workplace; they do not have distinctive "management styles" that make it in any firm's interest to hare them for management positions.

The purpose of affirmative action and equal opportunity policies is to counteract ongoing discrimination, to benefit women and members of minorities who would otherwise be excluded or treated unfairly. It would be nice if that were a win-win situation but it is not: it is a win-tie situation where employers are required to adopt practices that benefit women and minorities but do not either harm or benefit them. It is hard to sell these policies by appeal to fairness, which is their true justification, because employers are self-interested but the Good Lie that "diversity" is good for colleges, schools and firms has worn thin, obscures the real. compelling arguments for maintaining them and undermines the credibility of supporters.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Life As Good As It Gets

I’m sitting in a corner of my porch, on the north side where it wraps around the front of my house, barely visible from the street behind the trees on my lawn and the massively untidy bougainvilla in full flower that is invading. I am having an illegal cigarette out here (I officially quit last August) to facilitate revisions to a paper I’ve had quasi-accepted by a journal. I am drawing wifi from the house.

My bike is here, locked to the porch rail, and the bike pump in which I invested that has a special fitting for skinny racing-bike tires (my bike is a very elegant looking, ultra-slim, drop-handle bar racing bike that’s even lighter than the usual because it’s extra small). It’s splendidly sunny and I’d estimate in the ‘60s, most of the foliage is green and even the hanging baskets at the front of the porch are in flower: there are some advantages to living in Southern California. I’ve locked the gate from the back yard so that my dog (chocolate lab) can’t bug me but I go in every once and a while to scratch him and tell him what a good retriever he is—which he appreciates. The birds are singing—and my cats are lurking in the undergrowth…waiting.

I probably won’t work out today. But I hope I will get to playing the piano a little and going through the French learning program I have on my computer.

About 30 years ago I resolved that I would never get used to how good things were when they got good or forget how bad they could be and, laus deo, I never have. The simple fact of being able to organize my days as I choose, to do what is in effect piece work rather than punching a clock, being stuck in a place looking busy when there’s nothing to do, is about 80% of what makes it as good as it gets. The rest is probably evenly divided between my computer, my papers, my bike, my house, my family and my animals.

That’s about it: no moral to this story. I can’t fathom what more anyone could want, except possibly an additional lab and more cats.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Tribalism as a Prisoner's Dilemma

It would be a salutory effort to look over the wars, revolutions and civil strife of the last sixty years and see how many of the participants got an outcome (taking account of war casualties and so on) better than the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation and peaceful agitation. Given the massively negative-sum nature of war, I suspect the answer is “Few, if any”

Reflecting on the outbreak of peace in Aceh (and ongoing war in Sri Lanka), John Quiggan over at Crooked Timber asks whether war is worth it--and concludes, unsurprisingly, that it is not. That may be true enough but it's a separate question whether rational players can risk negotiation, peace-making, cooperation and other less costly policies where tribal patronage systems are entrenched.

In the tribal patronage system everyone takes care of his own--and no one takes care of anyone else. If members of your tribe are in power you, your family, and your village, get jobs, roads and other amenities; if members of competing tribes are in power you get nothing and on the worst case scenario, you and your kin are vulnerable to ethnic cleansing.

You cannot choose your tribe or opt out of the tribal system. Even if you are a liberal cosmopolitan by conviction, you will be identified as a Hutu or Tutsi, Serb, Croat or Bosnian, Sunni, Shi'ite or Kurd, Irish Catholic or Protestant and you will benefit from the system or lose out accordingly. So even if you are a liberal cosmopolitan, because you know the system is entrenched, and know that everyone else knows it too, as a rational chooser you are going to vote for your tribesmates and, if necessary, fight to see to it that they get into power. So will other rational choosers, by the same reasoning, even if they are liberal cosmopolitans too and would rather cooperate.

Sometimes, when the current tinpot dictator's regime gets too bad it becomes worthwhile for members of different tribes to form coalitions to get him out. But such coalitions are short-lived because the ethnic card is always in play. Once coalitions achieve their immediate ends it is played and it's back to business as usual.

I grew up in New Jersey under this tribal system where everyone took care of their own and no took care of anyone else or expected to be taken care of by anyone else. It was bliss to leave, to go to school in the Midwest, where at least some things were open and above board, where there weren't 1000 unwritten rules to negotiate or no-go areas to avoid, where there was at least the pretense of fairness and public-spiritedness. I never had any sympathy for my classmates who deplored the white bread homogeneity of the Midwest and effused about the wonderful local color of ethnic neighborhoods. It's all very nice to visit those Little Italys and Chinatowns to the extent that they're theme parks for the tourist trade, but real ethnicity, real tribalism is the root of most, if not all, evil. All that local color and ethnic food, both here and abroad, aren't worth it.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

I'm not cut out for politics

After Alito's Testimony, Democrats Still Dislike Him but Can't Stop Him - New York Times

I don't understand why Democrats, are fighting the Alito nomination or more generally why, as a contributor and supporter, I get a dozen emails a day urging me to fight in every trivial skirmish and support every lost cause against Republicans. I do not understand why the Democratic party insiders who set this policy or the midlevel functionaries who send me email haven't figured out how to choose their battles. Alito will get through. Everyone, including the Democrats who are grandstanding at his hearing, knows this guy will get in. What is the point? I'm sure Republicans are doing the same thing--I just don't get Republican email.

All this constant skirmishing over trivial issues, dead issues, lost causes and proposals that aren't really objectionable except insofar as they're supported by Republicans just gives people--especially young people like my kids (biological and pedagogical)--the idea that partisanship is no more than tribalism, that there is no real difference between Republicans and Democrats and that politicians are all just after power. It destroys faith in the political process and alienates the best people so that the whole business of politics becomes increasingly a game for power brokers and politicians on the take, with expensive variety shows to "energize" the base.

My (biological) kids are Greens--throwing energy into a heat sink. My students for the most part haven't got a clue and don't care. A few, the smartest, are libertarian-style conservatives because they're convinced that liberals are well-meaning but naive mush-heads. Years ago, teaching "social ethics" we got into a discussion of the controversy over Nestles' program to push baby formula in third world countries. A student patiently explained to me that Nestles couldn't just give away baby formula to poor women though maybe there should be charities to help them pay for it--and was amazed when I explained what breasts were for and how they worked.

Arrrrgh--I could scream! I wish there were a viable third party too. But because of the way the American system operates their can't be. Maybe the best thing would be to throw my energy into working for voting reform to break the two major parties lock on power--which, of course, insures that voting reform has no more chance than a third party. Maybe I should collaborate with my son the mathematician to evangelize for Condorcet voting--the geeks love it.

Every four years, with minor festivals in between, we're treated to this circus--debates, conventions, giant potlaches, speechifying, grandstanding, smear campaigns, focus groups, politicians groomed and trained--the utterly vacuous Bush parroting his tag lines and the utterly insincere Kerry in his hunting outfit dragging a dead goose out of the woods to show the rednecks he was ok with guns. They treat us like idiots. Behind the scenes there are issues and ideologies on the table but they assume we're too dumb to understand so this is the crap we get.

It isn't just politics either--it seems like every damned institution and organization--businesses, schools, churches, what have you--operates on the assumption that people can't grasp even the most elementary abstractions, can't follow the simplest arguments, don't care about facts, have no principles, are incapable of critical reflection and only respond to sound bytes, manipulation, cheerleading and noise. And they imagine that "using psychology"--formerly Rhetoric, now Communications--is tremendously clever and sophisticated. I am swamped, drowning in this bs. Well, at least I can teach Logic!

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

China: The American Dream

American Prospect Online - The China Path: "It%u2019s true that democracy needs capitalism. Try to come up with the name of a single democracy in the world that doesn%u2019t have a capitalist economy. For democracy to function there must be centers of power outside of government. Capitalism decentralizes economic power, and thereby provides the private ground in which democracy can take root.

But China shows that the reverse may not be true -- capitalism doesn%u2019t need democracy."

I went a conference in China a year ago last summer and it was perfectly awful. We climbed the Great Wall of China, visited the Forbidden City, toured the Panda preserve and cruised down the Yang-Tze; we stayed in glitzy hotels and flew out of a glitzy airport built to impress businessmen and tourists with money. But I didn't feel good until we landed in Tokyo.

It wasn't the absence of democracy that made the place oppressive but the absence of even the most minimal amenities of a welfare state. Nothing was free--not education, not health care. Students competed fiercely for spaces in universities and those who couldn't pay the fees threw themselves in front of trains because without the credentials for admission to the urban elite, life was hell. Rural life was miserable, factory workers toiled at the most miserable jobs in the worst of conditions for a pittance, families were relocated at the government's discretion. In Beijing, the masses drudged all their waking hours: service workers in the tourist hotels where we stayed counted themselves lucky to be able to make their living pandering to rich American tourists like me, fetching and carrying; the rest worked from dawn into the night digging, building, hauling, sweeping, selling, eking out a living. Their industriousness made me sick.

My colleagues worried about academic freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. I couldn't imagine what good democracy or any of these freedoms would do for anyone given that they were stuck drudging all their waking hours to pump up GDP and create glitz to attract foreign investment and the tourist trade. I wondered what the agenda was: to sacrifice a generation, or two or three, in order to get rich enough so that they could run a proper socialist welfare state where people didn't have to spend all their waking hours working or, more likely, to squeeze every last drop of sweat out of every citizen indefinitely to create more wealth.

This is the American dream--endless, backbreaking, mind-killing work to create wealth that no one has the leisure to enjoy and growing the economy keep down unemployment so that everyone will have the privilege of doing endless, backbreaking, mind-killing drudge-work until they're incapacitated. I can't think of anything closer to the popular picture of hell--shoveling coal into furnaces forever and ever, without any end and without any rest.

Reich is right, of course: capitalism isn't what it's cracked up to be. But I don't see why democracy is supposed to be so great either. What's important is leisure: the only freedom that really matters is freedom from work.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Does religion exist?

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Belief systems

There is no more a thing called religion that can be studied than there is a thing called life. In particular, there is no definition that will encompass religion and exclude everything that is not religion. The chief reason why people can never say that religion is "really" anything else is that it isn't, really, anything to start with.

Reading further it turns out that Andrew Brown's thesis is less apocalyptic: he argues that religion is, at best, a "family resemblance" notion so that attempts to find an essence characteristic of all the phenomena we ordinarily classify as religion are doomed to failure.

I'm not so sure. Here is a minimalist analysis of religion that I'd argue, applies to all central cases of religion, excludes all beliefs and practices that are clearly not religion and explains why the borderline cases are borderline. So try this: a religion consists of

(1) The belief that there is some supernatural reality
(2) A cult--public, private or both.
(3) The belief that there is some causal connection between the supernatural reality and the cult.

Each of these conditions is itself minimal, e.g. the "supernatural reality" in question can be anything from a theistic god with psychological states who acts in the world to an impersonal, transcendental something-I-know-not-what to a conglomerate of ancestors, daimons, faeries and godlets. It also doesn't include any ethical dimension which from our prejudice in favor of "Great World Religions" is usually thought to be central but, insofar as we want a criterion that everything we commonly understand as religion will satisfy, doesn't figure.

Counterexamples anyone?

Every religion I can think of satisfies these conditions. Atheistic versions of Hinduism and Buddhism for example recognize some supernatural something or other and recommend meditation and cultic activities as a means to get in touch with it. Borderline cases are borderline because they satisfy one condition but not the others. Neoplatonism, with its elaborate theology, isn't a central case of religion because it doesn't involve any cultic activity though if you regard it as the ideology of late Greco-Roman paganism the combination of Neoplatonic theology and pagan sacrifices and other cultic activities clearly is a religion. The North Korean dear leader cult isn't a religion because, even though it involves cultic activities, it doesn't involve any beliefs in the supernatural.

Ok? Objections? So that's religion: not as big a deal as most people think and something we can all enjoy even if we don't believe in the supernatural even in the most minimal sense.

By laying too much on religion, we're destroying it. By insisting not only on supernatural belief but ethical commitment for religious participation we dissuade people from participating in the cult: so the churches close, the myths die, the ceremonies fall into disuse, the processions stop, the hymns are forgotten--everything that matters about religion disappears and the world is a poorer, duller place.