Saturday, July 30, 2011

On Nihilism

Las Meninas, Velasquez
When discussing the question of determinism and its effect on how we live our lives, the question of nihilism ultimately arises.  A form of this question goes as follows,
"If we believe we are determined, why should we follow any moral action, or any course of action at all?"

I would say this isn't an ought question. We simply can't behave otherwise. Our brains are not powerful enough to unravel every last influence on our actions. Sure, we do this to a degree, and it can be quite helpful. But it's ultimately a kind of rabbit hole. Douglas Hofstadter likens consciousness to an infinite loop, such as a picture in a picture in a picture, etc. He describes consciousness as a process of feedback loops of increasing complexity.

My favorite example he uses is what he calls a "Hunecker" scale ("Huneckers" being something like souls), in which zero is an object with no feedback awareness (a rock, a stick), and 100 is an object with total feedback awareness (God, a super-alien). He then describes the feedback mechanism in a toilet ballast as being a one on the Huneckers scale. A tree might be a 42, a human a 61. (His book I Am A Strange Loop goes into a dizzying array of suggested allegories for the mechanism of consciousness.)

This makes a lot of sense to me. After all, as soon as we take notice of our thoughts, they become things already thought. We simply cannot determine what we are thinking in the moment. We can notice memories, which in turn determines future thoughts. But at a basic level we are in an endless state of reaction.

Which makes a lot of sense, right? Especially considering that when we are not conscious, we are certainly in a state of complete reaction.... my daughter (4) just showed me her painted fingernails. They were pretty badly smudged, and I suggested we find some nail polish remover to clean them up. Where did this thought come from? How much was I aware of all the ways I could have reacted? No, I simply went with what "came to mind".

And even in our most contemplative moments, aren't we simply searching for what "comes to mind"? We won't possible know where the thought originated, or, from what it has been built - they were likely billions of pieces to it - a conversation with a classmate back in college, the way a dog barked at me when I was a child, a book I read a couple of months ago, the way my wife smiled at me this morning, a commercial I watched last night, etc., etc.

Only an entity with a Hunecker score of 100 would know every input, much less then process that information and adjust to it in a way that aligns with an entirely different set of connections. What is basically happening is an infinitely (at least as far as we are aware) large set of reactive stimuli from within and without the world, and then the conscious experience of "noticing" what we can of those stimuli, as well as then noticing what we can of the infinitely large set of connections we make internally.

Consciousness has been likened to the tip of an iceberg, the depths of which are far more vast, yet largely out of reach. Maybe a better metaphor would be a fast moving river current, only a small area of the surface we can at any given moment see and feel.

So it is simply impossible to know how we are determined. We can guess, and know some of it, but most will always be far beyond our grasp. And yet we are creatures built to act. As an existential youth, having thrown away all previous conceptions of God or the universe I could, I despaired that there was no point to existence - the classic existential conundrum.

I still remember where I was when I took this recognition to its logical conclusion. I was living with a girlfriend at the time, and I sat down on the chair in her bedroom, realizing that if there was no reason for anything, there could be no reason for me to act. I then realized that I should not even be using my muscles to sit. I rolled down onto the floor and lay still, listening to the sound of my own breathing.

This was it. My body was breathing - to stop it would be to make a decision, and what point was there in that? I would lay there and starve. Catatonic. That seemed the only reasonable solution.

Of course, my girlfriend, who was out at the time, would return home, beg me to get up. And why would I?

Which is when it hit me: because of her. I loved her. And what was that love? I didn't know. There was so much I didn't know. How was I to lay down on the ground, only 18 years old, and give up on something so mysterious as life and consciousness? And there was so much going on in the larger world. I was relatively lucky to have a floor below me, a roof above me, in one of the most wealthy countries on Earth.

Maybe there wasn't an ultimate reason for anything. But in a weird way, that gave me a reason; what I didn't know - my lack of consciousness - gave me a reason. In the end, making a decision to do nothing was just as much a decision as a decision to do something, regardless of whether a reason existed.

My task was then to create meaning. Which I like to think I have been doing ever since. I have to. I can't not create meaning. To decide not to is itself only another form of creating meaning. (I'm reminded of religious fundamentalists who feel that the only way to not be led astray by selfish reason is to strictly adhere to original texts. Of course, these have generally been complied by less than perfect sources, and are themselves subject to interpretation, i.e. are they really saying what they appear to be saying?)

So an acceptance of determinism is an update to the process of meaning making. Rather than making meaning myself, I now see myself as little more than a conduit for society at large. This doesn't excuse me or anyone else, it merely explains us. We simply do the best we can and hope for the best.

To those who would say this allows one to excuse oneself from responsibility, I would reply that any moral code is only as good as the individuals who adhere to it. Just because I believe my code was determined, I am not given an excuse to break it. The fact that I know it, and accept it, does not allow me to dismiss it. For instance, a pianist who learns the notes to a new piece of music understands that he only knows them because he had learned them, also knows that if he plays them wrong - breaks their musical "code" - he will no longer be playing the same song. Knowing the laws of gravity does not allow me to break them.

There is a cause and there is an action. I accept that stealing is wrong because it will harm another. I also accept that I know stealing is wrong because I have thought about it, and understood the argument, the pieces involved in its logic. If I steal, whether or not I believe I have been determined to find it wrong, the results will still be the same - someone will be hurt. And I will be to blame, in the sense that I will have broken a moral code.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Imperial Wing

There is a tendency on the right to deny the extent to which context, specifically the dynamic of power relations between groups, must be considered when evaluating cultural expression.  The question is often asked why a seeming double-standard exists.  For instance, why is it OK for atheists to promote themselves at the expense of Christians, while Christian attacks on atheist are deemed "intolerant"?  Or why isn't it OK for a preacher to burn a copy of the Quran, when if a Muslim were to burn a bible, hardly anyone would notice.

Yet, context is so important.  Atheist attacks on religion - while often tendentious - are just not going to be as hurtful to people because of the cultural context. If they were to attack religion in a reverse situation, where religion was in the small minority, a sense of threat and oppression would be much greater. Because they aren't, as an atheist I often find them refreshing, almost as a sort of venting process. For instance, when a black comedian makes fun of white people for a black audience, he's allowing them to feel bigger than they are for a moment, and experience a sort of freedom.

There's something here that is a strong piece of right-wing nationalism. It's this notion of majority/minority dynamics. In race and gender studies, the word "privilege" is often talked about. A key part of it is the insight that those in a dominant majority, or simply a dominant cultural position, tend to be blind to their own privilege. Thus, it is difficult for them to see how their assumptions and behavior don't apply to non-dominant groups.

Somehow, right-wing nationalism - almost better described as dominant-ism - is predicated on the denial of this context. There is a high sensitivity to the threat of diminishment. Michelle was maybe getting at this when she kept referencing Breivik's sense of emasculation. It is as though one's identity is so narrowly defined, so rigid, that seeing it as relative presents a serious threat. The right routinely talks about left-wing notions of relativism as being fascistic. (We should note the difference between culture as an artifact relative to time and place, and moral relativism's idea that there is no right and wrong. I'm speaking of the former).

The white, Christian male feels under attack. Yet he isn't really. What is under attack is a narrow and inflexible vision of that identity. Identity critique is assumed to be existential. So, take the founding fathers for instance. They were not perfect men. The original leftist critique of them was really a critique of the whitewashed image of them which was not only wrong, but advanced oppressive notions about American history and thus current and future reality.

I'm reminded of the story of the Emperor's New Clothes. His stubborn persistence in maintaining a deluded vision of himself is so great that he goes out in public stark naked, rather than admit to his flaws. We are all guilty of this of course. Any of us have found ourselves guilty of having pridefully deluded ourselves into a convenient myth-making. But right-wing nationalism seems to make an art out of this impulse.

"White pride", for instance, is an oxymoron. Unless you are so paranoid and deluded as to think that pride has somehow not been afforded you. "Black pride" or "gay pride" however, is a perfectly congruent articulation of the need to correct an historical position of disempowerment, and subsequent internalized oppression. The Emperor's New Clothes was a story about an emperor who did not grasp his own privilege, his haughty pride a parallel to his position. It would have made no sense to write a story about an underprivileged person. The Humble Fishmonger's New Clothes wouldn't make much sense.

Crazy Is, Crazy Does

Michelle Goldberg and Michael Dougherty did a dialogue on Bloggingheads recently in which they discussed the events in Norway.  Their analysis was a bit weak, likely due to Goldberg not wanting to come across as trying to score political points by associating too closely Dougherty and his fellow right-wingers with Andrew Breivik.  Of course, Breivik had associated himself with them quite explicitly.

I felt like Goldberg and Dougherty were dancing around this issue, which I wanted to speak to. That is, that while Breivik's actions were crazy, they were more logical the more seriously you take take the propositions underlying much of right-wing nationalist rhetoric regarding Islam.

Dougherty said at one point that he might have agreed with some of what Breivik was saying - or at least that his fellow conservatives did (it is clear that Breivik's thinking was based on assumptions that paralleled that of the the nationalist right). But Dougherty wanted change to come democratically, by working within the system.

So, the take-away for him was that he now understood how wrong it was for those on the right to unfairly tarnish all Muslims with the deeds of the crazy few. That's a fair point, to a degree.

But here's my problem with that. Muslims are certainly more diverse in opinion than the nationalist right. This is true to the extent that the vast majority of them share almost zero assumptions in parallel with what is driving Islamist jihad. They don't see America as an evil. They don't want to overthrow it. They don't want to establish "sharia" law. They believe in democracy and pluralism. The only grievances they share are likely due to the fact that a portion of Muslims are going to be right wing nationalists!

Yet a great deal of the grievances right wing nationalists have are shared by Breivik. Furthermore, many of these grievances, appearing in a variety of forms, from a variety of right-wing thinkers, were expressed in vivid evocation of Islam as an existential threat. To many, the result was always going to be violence. After 9/11, otherwise reasonable people regularly spoke of "glassing" the middle east. I shouldn't have to compile a list of the angry, hateful rhetoric, only to illustrate that it was clearly rooted in an idea that an existential threat was coming.

So, political talk gets heated. People say things they don't really mean. But after a while, you get the feeling that, no, they actually do mean them. Many wanted to ban sharia law, and Mosques for crying out loud.  (This Thom Hartmann video describes the level of Islamophobic rhetoric pretty well.)  I am pretty sure that, like Dougherty, most on the right wanted to work within the system.

But who knows how many did not? This graph shows pretty clearly that something has been brewing.

I don't think I'm being paranoid. Timothy McVeigh was part of something not entirely different. Again, the rhetoric was of an existential threat. The government had been taken over, and it was up to us to take the law into our own hands. There was a pretty straightforward logic to his actions.

I mean, of course he was crazy, right? Who would do such a thing? Well, someone who actually believed the rhetoric, who took it seriously. Why wouldn't he then take the implications seriously?

Breivik believed that a great Islamic horde was going to take over Europe, and his country. I can only imagine that if Hispanic immigrants in America were Muslim, right wing nationalism would be that much more vitriolic and paranoid. And the consequences would be just as inevitable.

Monday, July 25, 2011


In a recent discussion with a conservative, the following statement was made:
"The most important decisions in life don't require a high iq to make. Go to school. Don't do drugs. Show up for work on time every day. Don't reproduce before you're able to care for a child, Etc. Not following these simple rules turn people into losers."
This really seems to cut to the core of disagreement between liberal and conservative attitudes towards social inequality. Putting aside general circumstantial situations, why do some people seem to make such poor choices, and others make such better choices?

You've probably noticed that I have a running suspicion that conservatives are more inclined to believe that people have more free will than liberals. However, this is disputed. Yet I think this statement fits my claim.

So, the basic concept is that these important decisions are not difficult, don't require a high IQ, and thus the right course should be chosen more than it is. In other words, people who make the wrong choices are "losers", doing so by choice.

My critique of this is as a determinist. I believe that while people make choices, their ability to choose is enforced by prior learning and development. Basically, people are going to make the choice that they feel most compelled to make. Because this compulsion is real, no matter what options are in theory available to them, in reality there is only one option - the one they are most compelled to take.

For instance, two dieters are faced with the choice of eating a piece of chocolate cake, and only one is able to resist it. They both have the same number of choices, yet depending on their internal make-up - prior learning and development (and the interplay between these and genetics) - they will experience different levels of compulsion. While the right decision makes rational sense - if you are on a diet, you shouldn't have the cake! - humans are much more complex. And again, this complexity is rooted in our development. Chances are if you ask the successful dieter to tell you how he did it, he won't be able to explain it - he just did it. Likewise, the dieter who failed likely wouldn't be able to tell you why she failed - she just couldn't do it. Both wanted to resist.

There are definitely "losers" and "winners". There are people who work really hard and do everything they can to get ahead, while others take easier routes. And just like the dieters, how do we know how some people manage to succeed, while others don't?

There's actually a considerable degree of research on this! It is impossible to draw a 1:1 line of causality between any one factor, as humans are infinitely complex. But there are general factors that can be isolated to provide pretty good predictors of successful behavior. For instance, you take two groups of 100 people, and you can find behavioral correlations that will show clear patterns. Social researchers, psychologists and economists have found numerous connections between life circumstances, personality traits and behavioral characteristics that predict one's chances of being successful in life.

I don't think that conservatism seems to embrace much, if any of this research. There seems to be an odd cognitive dissonance, where even if the research or evidence shows predictive relationships between development and behavior, it is somehow waved away with the idea that people can always choose to "follow the rules".

Some conservatives who embrace the research, who might simply object to the idea of government programs intervening to help people, on the grounds that it doesn't work, or contributes to unsuccessful behavior, don't seem to have any thoughts on how we might help people who lack proper development. Problems exist that have existed, that exist now, and will likely continue to exist should we do nothing. Is there not a moral requirement that we, those of us who understand the problem, no doubt having had the gift of being taught how to be successful, act to help them, out of a sense of fairness? What would this plan look like, from a conservative standpoint? For every kid out there growing up with terrible disadvantages, what plan do conservatives have for him, who will be more likely to grow up to fail, and likely sire more failure-prone children?

Is the assumption that there is nothing that we can do? Because I can actually make a pretty good case that the availability of social programs does at least some good, in that it can provide just the sort of relief that many people need. I've witnessed it first-hand over and over, and there are statistics to back me up. It of course is not perfect. Many people are beyond help, and I'll admit that some may even be given improper incentives - although I think that case has yet to even have begun to be constructed.

So to the extent that this is an evidenced-based debate, and we are accepting the large amount of data and research out there on the subject of individual success, it seems we are left with questions of behavioral analysis and public policy. I'm open to new types of programs and approaches, but conservatives don't seem to have anything to offer, other than old arguments attempting to defend their right to basically do nothing and leave things at that.

The Executioners

Another tragic mass-murder.  This time in Norway, a country that does not put its criminals to death.  Questions arise to as to what this man, clearly culpable, deserves.

But what does it mean for him to “deserve” anything? Should he be made to feel uncomfortable as a sort of payback for the pain he caused? How could he possibly suffer enough?
You could torture him for the rest of his life and it wouldn’t even come close to the sadness he has caused. Could the manner of suffering even be replicated?

Would it make people feel better to see him suffer? How much suffering would be enough? Surely there could never be a knife long enough, or a whip fast enough.

Is there some “debt” to society that he must pay back? What would that transaction be? What could possibly be done with his blood?

Maybe what we seek in vengeance is a vain attempt to erase the past, because we did not *deserve* what he did to us. Maybe we seek to right some cosmic wrong we see in the universe, by hammering our dull and useless limbs against the sky, in vain. Yet, there is nothing we can do, and this final truth is too much to bear.

But, maybe it doesn’t have to be. Maybe by acknowledging our humble place in this violent world, we can make some sort of peace. Horrific things happen to us, everyday, sometimes just as brutally – plane crashes, car wrecks, volcanoes, hurricanes, tidal waves, etc.

Yet where are the calls for vengeance then? Who is to pay the debt? Only a fool would demand justice. And thus these tragedies are so much more honorable, and less troublesome. Who would blame an earthquake, nothing more than the forces of nature at work?

And so the question is: how is the murderer any less of a force of nature? He is either clearly a man with a troubled life, or a psychopath. In either case, it had nothing to do with his ability to make a rational decision. He was an assembly of factors that resulted in a coordinated force of destruction and evil, a walking tornado, a talking plague.

And yet what may be most disturbing of all, is that unlike most natural disasters, society is at least partially to blame. From reading the man’s manifesto it was clear that he had plenty of help in the formulation and determination of his nightmarish plans. In fact, we’ve heard similar remarks from our elected politicians, pundits, and friends and neighbors.

He is certainly guilty. But so too are we.

Friday, July 22, 2011

This Is America

The story in Norway is just breaking, but it appears as if Islamophobic far-right gunmen have killed scores of people, possibly in retaliation against a Liberal Norwegian government.  I just finished listening to a great bloggingheads dialogue between Farhana Khera and Aziz Huq, a fascinating albeit depressing discussion on the continuing rise of Islamophobia, eclipsing even that of early post-9/11, and largely fueled by Tea party/et. al. political opportunism of ’10 and recession populist demagoguery.

However, upon entering the comments forum for the dialogue, I bore witness to a stunning descent into ugly, Islamophobic Muslim-bashing by the right-wing commenters there – who are generally much more reasonable than your garden variety conservative.

I just watched This Is England last night, which I highly recommend to those who have not seen it. It’s the story of a young, poor English kid who loses his Dad in the Falkland Islands war, and finds support in a group of non-racist skin head misfits. However, a schism in the group develops when a racialized skin-head comes back from prison, and begins agitating for far-right English Nationalism, and to lead the skin heads in racial violence against the”Pakis”, the Muslims, and generally the foreign, brown-skinned invaders.

It occurred to me during one particularly brutal scene where he’s ranting against foreigners and the threat they pose against English sovereignty, that were you to merely remove the racist nouns, it wouldn’t be a far cry at all from what is becoming more and more mainstream in American political rhetoric.
It is the same exact paranoid, conspiratorial, fuzzy logic bullshit that has always motivated right-wing nationalist hatred. There are obviously degrees, and certain people have their particular bogeymen, whether it is the “illegals” or Muslims, or various forms of non-”real” Americans. But that seed still lurks, and its scary. The bloggingheads forum was filled with evidence of the kind of thinking that follows. (And these are usually the more reasonable conservatives).

I’m not sure what to call it. I’m not even sure what it is. Is it a feeling that then creates false-cognitions? Is it false thinking that creates these feelings, which then lead to even worse logic? With Muslims, people who should know better, liberals who understand quite well things like racism and patterns of cognitive bias, get caught up in Islamophobic Muslim-bashing. Heck, I just finished Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, and he seriously raised the possibility of Europe falling to a new Caliphate. His desire to attack religion overwhelmed his ability to reason, in a freaking book about the ways in which reason gets blindsided by emotion!”

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Reality and Bias

 A new book purports to find evidence of widespread liberal "bias" in the media.
"In at least one important way journalists are very different from the rest of us—they are more liberal. For instance, according to surveys, in a typical presidential election, Washington correspondents vote about 93-7 for the Democrat, while the rest of us vote about 50-50 for the two candidates.
What happens when our view of the world is filtered through the eyes, ears, and minds of such a liberal group?
As I demonstrate—using objective, social-scientific methods—the filtering prevents us from seeing the world as it really is. Instead, we only see a distorted version of it. It is as if we see the world through a glass—a glass that magnifies the facts that liberals want us to see and shrinks the facts that conservatives want us to see."

A longstanding critique from the right, the left's snarky rejoinder: “reality has a liberal bias”.  Yet this is often demonstrably true, not only in terms of whether liberal claims can be substantiated, but in the very way in which the left traditionally approaches truth questions.  Liberalism is biased towards expertise, towards scientific inquiry, critical deconstruction of cultural norms and dominant paradigms.

The extent to which any of these are the paths to truth, then truth can be said to have a liberal bias. Although that’s not really accurate. Better said, liberalism has a bias towards truth. So, for instance, when a journalist points out that a business is polluting a river, is it liberal bias? When most illegal aliens are found to be exploited when all they wanted was a chance at a better life, is it liberal bias? When global warming is found to likely have devastating effects, is it liberal bias? When evolution is found to be absolutely true, is it liberal bias? When gays are – newsflash! – found to be normal, healthy people, is that liberal bias?

Conservatism is ultimately about common sense. And sometimes common sense is right; even a broken clock is right twice a day. But to the extent that conservatism is biased against expertise, or critical analysis, or relativism, or the deconstruction of tradition – in other words the machinery of free thought – then conservatism is biased against truth. As Buckley put it, to “stand athwart history and yell stop”, even alas, when that history is truth.

In the end, there is no such thing as a bias towards truth, only away from it. To be biased is to be operating outside the parameters of truth-finding. To the extent that conservatism rejects the very process of truth-finding, preferring instead to rely on such subjective and non-rational epistemologies as tradition or common-sense, it is biased against truth. And to the extent that the media is concerned with truth, then conservatism is often biased against the media itself.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Determinism and Social Justice

For a number of years now, I've labored under the assumption that a belief in determinism implies a left-wing sense of social justice.  The logic of this assumption is laid out in the essay by Tom Clark, Progressive Policy Implications of Naturalism.

 I think there is a correct response to an assumption of determinism, and conservative policy isn't it. So how is this different than ordinary disagreement with conservative policy? Well, because it comes directly from a denial of free will. I say this in the sincere belief that were free will not true, I would have to seriously reconsider my liberal policy assumptions.

So, what does this actually mean? Let's take a basic illustration of social inequality: high rates of the poor and minorities in prison, and high rates of successful people having come from relatively successful families.

The simple free will argument on this is that both were just as able to choose their lot in life, so their unequal position is morally defensible and not something society need worry about. The standard determinist position is that they were both created by circumstance, and thus their unequal position is not defensible, and therefore society ought to try and help them.

Two nuanced versions of the free will positions might go something like this. A) These life circumstances must be addressed by stronger intervention. B) Though they have free will, there are life circumstances that make life more difficult for some than others. However, at the end of the day they must find their own way - this is how people learn to succeed.

A more nuanced determinist might say that though these unequal positions are determined, it is simply not within our power to do very much about them, at least no more than a properly free-market might allow for them to be better-determined.

So into these positions on free will come assumptions about behavior and the efficacy of government. But what does the question of free will have to say about these assumptions? My argument would be that it answers them definitively.

In order for this to be true, the small-government determinist must be wrong on his understanding of determinism. I might start this argument by acknowledging that determinism requires us to be morally concerned with inequality, in so far as that it is being determined by some system, it is wrong. Our difference lies in how to effectively address that inequality, governments or markets, broadly. (I think it might be relevant to here point out an argument pointed to on these boards by sugarkang, in which the fact of inequality itself actually provides a behavioral mechanism for determining individual change. I would only argue that this effect is not so strong, as evidenced by the degree to which it seems to have little effect at all.)

I would argue that determinism implies that individual thought is entirely* a product of circumstance. (* I will leave genetics out of this discussion because while there is human genetic variation, it isn't relevant to the question of social equality broadly) As such, it is his every interaction with society - family, peers, culture, neighborhood, schooling, political structure, etc. that affords him his every thought, and therefore action.

This places moral responsibility for the individual squarely at the hands of society, every moment. While he feels he is thinking freely, he is completely tied to his past interactions with the society around him, in no less a manner than as an animal in an ecosystem. Now, while it is true that many behavioral outcomes, determined as they are, will only come about through a certain degree of individual autonomy, and his interacting with the "invisible hand" so to speak, of social interaction. Even if we wanted to, there is simply no way we could account for and control every aspect of his determination so as to give him the greatest possible sense of liberty and satisfaction (how's that for irony?!!!). In fact, most of what we think of as positive human experience is a function of a sort of free-market of social interaction.

But nonetheless, we are are still morally accountable. I think we recognize this implicitly when we set out to be altruistic even when there is no clear immediate reward; we believe that we are a part of a larger, invisible hand of society that will do us all good. It is through these acts that we demonstrate - if only to ourselves - our fealty to the greater moral good.

So, if true determinism implies an intense responsibility for our fellow man, as morality itself, having been shorn from the individual and attached to the determining society at large, we must be all the more careful and scrupulous in our endeavor to provide optimal levels of human good.

And this may be where it gets the trickiest. My claim is that, given the obvious fact that there is such inequality, and that that inequality almost by definition results in such massive amounts of potential for human suffering, that relatively high levels of state - the pinnacle of social codification - intervention. Here I might make appeals to numerous specific cases of inequality resulting in real human tragedy. I might make the case that neither history nor logic provides evidence that a more free market approach to reducing social inequality will do much of anything to reduce these problems, and that government intervention will at least reduce their pain.

Yet what am I doing but appealing to flaws in behavioral or policy assumptions? In the end, is my argument, that determinism implies left-wing, or statist economic policy, resting primarily on the claim that determinism simply implies a more robust empathy for the plight of the unfortunate?

Maybe. I suppose I feel I've made the case that determinism implies a high degree of moral concern. Maybe I'm just skeptical that free market solutions are really sufficiently that. I suppose it is in no small part an expression of bad faith. I simply can't see how the work that needs to be done, work predicated on the thought that these people are as much my own personal responsibility (and each of ours), as my own kin. And what would I not do to make sure my own family has health care? Or a proper education, and a degree of equality?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Is There A Plan for That?

It's long been understood that the Democrats have a brand problem.  But it seems like before they can go about solving it, they need to answer this deceptively simple question:

What does it mean to represent the working and middle classes today?

I think when there was a larger unionized manufacturing sector the Democrats were an ally for their interests in Washington. But now that that's dwindled so much, Democrats are seen to be picking winners and losers when they advocate for what remains - certain specific sectors like autoworkers, or public sector employes. Now the question is not, "Who will protect our pensions?", but - as Governor Christie dismayingly put it, "Who gets pensions anymore?" What once was an expression of solidarity, albeit self-interested, has now become a liability among the economic nihilists.

And the rightwing noise machine, cheerleaders for the big business race to sell out working class Americans in favor of profits, has been successful in selling the idea that what is good for big business is good for the working class. Pensions hurt the bottom line, which costs jobs - no matter that the savings have simply been funneled upwards and never trickled down.

To hear them tell it, the trickle down has all been taxed away. Yet this is clearly untrue. The working class surely isn't being taxed to death, and upper income rates have stayed low. Yet with all this savings in productivity, why is it that "no one gets pensions anymore?". Maybe much of it is the structural reality of a shift in manufacturing. But while those savings have trickled up, people are now forced to depend on fragile 401ks or social security - the latter there no longer exist tax revenues to pay for (or so we are told).

So the question remains: what is the Democratic response? And why is the Republican response seem to get so much traction?

Maybe the Republican response is simply to leverage people's sense of frustration and nihilism, running a platform of no one cares about you so get yours too. It seems that Republican populist success is largely based in class-resentment of liberals, who appear to be doing well, certainly with their decadent values, while Rome burns.

I'm loathe to tempt Godwin's law, but I'm struck by the dynamic of liberal-as-jew, seen to be in conspiracy with the levers of power (media, academia, government) to bring about the downfall of tradition and economic strength. The idea may be absurd, but it doesn't have to make sense. It just needs to feel like it does. The idea of tax increases seems almost as a back-door way to pad liberal coffers while loading the progressive cultural cannons and aiming them at main street.

So the Democrats can play into this caricature by showing they are on the right side of this image. They can ignore it entirely and push on with their limited agenda of gay rights, regulation and protecting the old and sick.

But the question remains: what are the Democrats offering the working class, aside from appearing culturally insensitive, redistributive to everyone but them, and making their employers seemingly miserable? They can talk until they are blue in the face about "creating jobs", but this just seems like bullshit. At the end of the day, jobs really do "trickle down", even if they're fragile, low-paying, non-union, with poor or non-existent benefits and retirement. Do Democrats have a plan for that?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Regarding Tax Breaks

Libertarians are often accused - no less by the writer of this blog - of twisting reality to suit their warped agenda.  To borrow a phrase from the trades, a "mickey mousing" of political philosophy.

Tyler Cowen attempts to do so in a recent response to the notion that a tax break is not really a break at all, and to consider it as such implies that the natural state is total-taxation.

People who use 529 programs and who think that they have not used a government social program are not willfully ignorant, they are demonstrating a healthy if fading appreciation of the distinction between civil society and government.  What Rampell et al. implicitly imagine is that the natural state is slavery and any departure from that state a government benefit. Thus, if the government taxes your saving for a college education less than your other savings, you should be grateful for how government has benefited you and your children.

And if the government doesn’t jail you today, you should be grateful for how government has granted you the benefit of liberty.

This is the attitude of a serf not an American.

One of the big issues I see right now is the confusion over tax breaks versus taxes. Heck, taxes in general.

The principle of a tax break is that there is a basic rate of taxation we have agreed to (remember - in principle), so as to pay for our agreed-upon services. The tax break is a forgiveness of that tax due to special circumstance. In other words, you are essentially not being required to pay for that service. It would be as if you got a discount on a country club for some reason, and although you are still using that service, you don't have to pay some portion of the fee.

Now, some might argue that taxes in general are unfair, that you don't use the service, etc. That's fine, but as long as we accept the principle of taxation, and its requirement that we allow for it to be democratically distributed, we can't pick and choose which expenditure we'll be required to pay.

I'm not sure if I'm making myself clear. I mean to make a distinction between the existential principle of taxation and the debate over specific expenditures. For instance, just because billions of dollars are spent on things I don't like, it does not mean that a particular tax break "was my money to begin with". No, it was a special privilege.

It seems to me the Cowen argument - a classic libertarian trope, I might snarkily add - is to oppose taxation in principle. This is just seems profoundly undemocratic and, well, self-absorbed. It leads to all sorts of fallacious picking and choosing of what government services one is within one's rights to deny payment for. In the end, it's a of rule of law issue, where one gets to consider one's self the ultimate arbiter of what is fair.

Returning to the country club, each member is certainly not within their rights to pay according to what they each think is fair. They either agree to club rules (American citizenship), or they do not. Your discount is a privilege, not a sacred right accorded to you by your superior accounting skills.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Liberals vs. Conservatives

Liberals tend to be more broadminded and socially-critical, thus open to change. This is why we see so many more go into academics and journalism, as well as be on the forefront of cultural change. Many intelligent conservatives are likely mistaken for fools because their stubborn attachment to tradition is see as non-intellectual. Argument from tradition is, after all, a logical fallacy - even if the idea itself is correct. I think in general conservatives tend to suffer from more cognitive biases and fallacious thinking. This critique comes directly from liberal social-critique, and applies much more to social conservatives, however economic conservatives tend to have similar intuitions.

For their part, conservatives do ad hominem differently. For them it is more a question of liberals as traitors, as whiners and sneaks, know-it-all snoots, do-gooders and freaks. Conservatives tend to embrace traditional social orders. This is why they are so comfortable with the pyramid shape of much of business, with its hierarchical class system and clenched fist. Getting ahead means following orders and pleasing authority. From a traditional vantage point the ground is more firm, less prone to disruptive or tangential thought. This provides great confidence, pride, and stability, yet less capacity for deconstructive analysis and free thought. Accordingly, liberals are not to be trusted, like rebellious children, always attacking foundations and nipping at the heels.

Interestingly, conservatives can rely on tradition to enforce their ideologies. Liberals, seeking change, must rely on legal enforcement. This seems to set up an endless dynamic of liberals getting bothered by traditions and changing them through law, and conservatives feeling threatened by new laws they disagree with.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Exchanging Boughs

Anyone familiar with casino advertising knows the general theme: exuberant "regular" person jumping for joy, often waving handfuls of cash, along with an exclamation in bold print, "I won $50,000!!!"  Of course we realize this is false advertising, in the sense that odds are you will not be winning anything at all, but rather losing most of what you spend.  Yet nonetheless, it is an attractive concept.  Witness the $10 billion + market in the US alone

Yet would we go as far as devoting entire sections of our newspapers to covering the rare gamblers that find themselves beating the odds, and getting lucky enough to win big?  Or further still, would we publish stories about their lives that never mention the fact that their success was entirely due to luck, and celebrate instead their current status and accomplishments, with a brief mention of which casino they frequented.

This thought occurred to me as I turned to the Weddings/Celebrations section of the Sunday New York Times.  Wedged in-between coverage of some or another bourgeois cocktail party and a spread of the latest upscale fashions, there lie the dozens of marriage announcements.  Upon further inspection, these announcements (pronouncements?) nearly all detail what could easily be described as the lineage of wealth and privilege.  A modern day family tree of minor royalty. 

The wedded couples, almost always successful and well-bred, generally combine into astonishingly powerful arrangements:
 - A "management consultant in the Washington office of the Boston Consulting Group", marries an "adjunct law professor at the Georgetown Law Center and next month will begin working in the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations as the senior fellow for global health, economics and development".  He " graduated from Columbia and received a law degree from Stanford", she "received an M.B.A. from Georgetown University".
- A "a fourth-grade teacher" at a school in the 99th percentile, marries "the founder and chairman of Libertad Bank".  He "graduated from Princeton and received an M.B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin", she "graduated cum laude from Colgate and received a master’s in childhood education from Fordham."
And those were simply the first two couples. So, you might say, these are incredibly bright and high-achieving individuals.  Good for them.  We should all be so ambitious.

Well, we should all be winners at casinos as well.  Because the thing about wedding announcements, is that they always mention the parents.  And almost without fail, the parents too were incredibly bright, high achieving individuals.
- Of the first couple, her mother was an ER nurse and ethics consultant, her father a judge on the Vermont Superior Court.  His mother the "executive director of the North and South American chapter of the International Ozone Association, an educational and scientific organization,", his father "a chemical engineer, is an environmental engineering consultant in Stamford."
- Of the second couple, her mother taught English as a second language at a poor middle school, her father was "the executive editor of USA Today".  His father " the senior partner of J. C. Bradford & Company, a stock brokerage in Nashville" (founded by his grandfather in 1927).
The obvious take-away here is that, just like money doesn't grow on trees, neither does success.  Unless of course, you're talking about family trees, in which case it most certainly does.

So what are we celebrating in these young, successful and promising couples?  Surely we can be happy for them.  We can gaze upon them from afar, pondering what it must be like to live upon such gilded limbs.  Of course, all of our limbs are gilded to various degrees - some of ours more than others.  Yet let us not forget, as their magnificence, their "royalty" is offered to us from the pages of newspapers of record, that these vignettes are as rarefied and fortune-borne as anything glimmering down upon us from roadside billboards pointing the way to the nearest casino. 

Yet, instead of cash, the capital being teased is privilege, in many ways a jackpot more precious than gold.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

When Meaning Dies

My local library is amazing.  Excellent selection of books, more DVDs than a Blockbuster, they regularly carry new independent music releases.  One thing I've found curious, however, is their tendency to only carry censored versions of albums with explicit lyrics.

Ordinarily I don't mind this.  I'm sort of a prude that way, but I tend to flinch when artists curse in their music.  With rap, which can get pretty raunchy, I tend to enjoy the circumcision.

But a curious case arose as I embarked upon digesting Kanye West's latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.  Rap music has a fascinating relationship with human expression, in all its forms.  Horrible, tragic acts are frequently described, even if a sense of remove or subtlety allows the listener to understand clearly what is going on, without having to dwell on the reality of the narrative.  And what is being described is a direct reflection, if at times embellished, depiction of the reality of inner city African American life.  Incredible pain and frustration, fear and nihilism, are mixed together, with beauty and excitement, to paint epic stories of triumph and tragedy.   The music itself, constantly evolving and competing and reflecting on itself, in a spirit of continuous, relentless ambition, seems often times to be the one bright force in the lives of so many of its subjects. 

Of the many iterations of rap - from old school to gangster, hardcore to conscious, R&B to crossover, Jamaica to East LA, Kanye West represents some of the best of it all, while still maintaining an innovative brilliance.

His latest album goes as far as any rap album I know in exploring larger, self-reflective personal themes.   Money and power, sex, drugs and violence, have always been a mainstay of gangster rap - sometimes as begrudging tools to escape the ghetto (reflecting classic real life aspirations), but mostly as glamorous measurements of ultimate status.  Conscious rap has always been about eschewing these things, looking elsewhere for affirmation, often in humor or lyrical abstraction, occasionally about looking critically at larger structures of social oppression.  Often times this was the music of children raised in suburbs, or in other ways sheltered from the darkened mental shackles of ghetto life.

Yet West finds a way to transcend these dichotomies.  His technique is, in a way similar to the fanciful, glamorous way in which rap music itself transcends the the ghetto by selling a cleaned-up, sexed-up version of itself that isn't always pretty, yet creates in the process a window into realities of the ghetto that otherwise would not exist, in no small part because their true, "ugly" form would simply be too hard to take.

West's album is conceptual.  In it he paints a portrait of himself which is both a sexed-up, more-perfect version, which he then slowly proceeds to dismantle, horrifically disfiguring it in the process.  He raps about the money, the women, the glamour.  But then (sometimes in the same song, through subtle suggestion) he describes himself as a monster, feeding off his fans like a vampire, pretending to be what he is not, getting lost in his own lies, his integrity cracking.

In the chorus of one song, he has guest rapper speak of him in honor, describing how he was going to play a sampling one of West's lines, a symbol in rap of ultimate respect - a sort of hip-hop peer review.  Getting sampled would be a dream come true for any rapper.  But the sample turns out to be a reflection only of West's greed: "I'm gonna need to see your mother fucking hands at the concert.  Profit... I got it."  The song's title is Monster, and features a variety of guest rappers bragging about how terrible they are, claiming to be so great yet being phony and never finding love.  Braggadocio, a basic feature of rap's puffed-up dream narrative, is turned on its head and exposed as a sort of nightmare.

Yet in my experience with the album, this nuance was not at first apparent.  This was in no small part due to the censorship policy of the library.

See, the line:"I'm gonna need to see your fucking hands at the concert", referring to the exploitation of fans, had been changed to what sounded like, "I'm gonna need to see you pee your pants at the concert."  Obviously this changed the meaning.  The guest rapper's sampling was no longer ironic.  The song's true meaning, while admittedly still decipherable, was not - at least to me.  Not until I looked up the real lyrics for the song. 

To tell you the truth, I had been quite put off by West's blatant braggadocio, and had missed much of what he was trying to do with the album concept.  What I had experienced was the inadvertent strangling by censorship of vital, important human expression .  West's statement is profound, and virtually unrivaled in rap music right now - maybe the strongest cultural artifact coming out of contemporary African American music.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

When Justice Doesn't Feel Like Justice

The Gilded Cage - Evelyn de Morgan
While discussing the DSK case, Katherine Mangu-Ward (Reason) and Erica Grieder (The Economist) have an interesting discussion of the philosophical uncertainty surrounding the court system, in particular the jury selection process.

I was reminded of my own experience as a juror.

A couple of years ago I served on a jury in a rape trial. I would certainly say it was one of the most profound experiences of my civic life. At the end of the process I had much more conflicting views about our legal system - not that it was necessarily flawed, I think it does a pretty good job considering. But it raised many philosophical issues for me, as well as a sad sense that serious mistakes can be made by well-intentioned people.

So, our case was a young woman accusing an older man of rape. They were both meth addicts, and by the end of the trial, neither seemed trustworthy in the slightest. The two had been "partying" for almost 2 days straight - going from house to house, cavorting with sketchy people, until finally ending up with another woman in a tiny, dilapidated auto trailer lit by an extension cord, its windows covered in tin-foil, where they smoked a bit of crack. Up until now the stories aligned, but it was at this point that it became a he-said, she-said.

She claimed he and the other woman raped her. He claimed it was consensual. She fled to a nearby fast-food place, called her boyfriend. He was upset with her for having been where she was. She then told him she was raped. They went to the ER, where the rape kit turned up nothing.

We deliberated for a couple of hours, and found him not-guilty. However, we almost unanimously agreed that he had probably done it. Yet we simply didn't feel we could say so beyond a reasonable doubt. It seemed just as likely that she was lying, considering her past behavior demonstrated in the testimony.

Did we do the right thing? I don't know. I feel like the question was exactly this: is it better to let a guilty man go free or to lock up an innocent man? If we were wrong, he would certainly be facing years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. I remember one female member of the jury breaking into tears. The defendant seemed perfectly capable of being a rapist, based on prior testimony, but there just wasn't any clear evidence that he had done so.

We walked solemnly back into the courtroom and almost hung our heads in shame. We did what made us uncomfortable, but that we felt was right. When it was over, we simply walked out into our normal lives, leaving the accuser behind, likely in sadness and anger.

So the question is this: what happens when a crime is committed. but there is no evidence? We kept looking for it, hoping to find something strong enough to back up our intuition. But there just didn't seem to be. And you can't convict someone based on intuition.

Adding to the vagueness and unease I felt was the sense also that I was unqualified to judge the case. Before we went into deliberation, we were read an enormously long and difficult to interpret series of instructions, many of which we were informed only applied in the state of California. I remember sitting in the deliberation room, wishing I could talk to the judge, to the lawyers, to the defender and the accused. But all of that is designed to be taken care of in testimony.

Would I have been more comfortable making my decision had I had legal training? Or possibly experience in forensics or rape cases? Probably, but maybe not. We were a jury of peers. I was elected foreman, and one of the jurors was seriously worried about losing his job if we deliberated too long. He wanted to hurry up and give a verdict after little discussion, because all he could think about was supporting his wife and child.

There was an air of inexpertise about our decision that really bothered me. The judge and lawyers seemed to have done an excellent job, yet ultimately it was in the hands of mere people off the street. I'm sure there are very good, considered reasons for this. But I'm no legal scholar. Neither am I a scholar of the philosophy of jurisprudence.

A mere citizen, I took the facts as I saw them. And I did my best to deliver a verdict for justice. Did I? I'll never be sure. __________________

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Moral Imperative of Taxation

Peter Bruegel the Elder - Greed

 "For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows." Timothy 6:10

Like any biblical passage, there can be many interpretations to the meaning of the passage above.  This particular passage has become a popular saying, reduced to the shorter, and even more generalizable, "Money is the root of all evil".   However, there are two main ways in which the phrase is likely read.

In the first, the emphasis is placed on a condemnation of greed.  Money should not be worshiped, but instead take its place behind more important things in life, such as friends or family.  To become greedy is to become enslaved by selfishness, and prone to losing sight of proper values.

The second, an extension of the first, holds not only that greed is wrong, but that it is what often drives social ill.  One man's greed, to the extent that it must be fulfilled,  becomes an issue of power over others, whom he ends up treating not as real humans whose lives he affects by his decisions, but as a sort of background noise to his ambition.  Other humans, whom he should feel compassion for, become at best uncomfortable distractions, at worst, tools to exploit.

While most people would agree with the former interpretation, it is the latter that raises the issue of social inequality as an extension of greed.  There is an implication that we all strive toward economic justice.  Yet there are many who have a vested interest in maintaining the morality of social inequality.  To return to the bible, the gospel according to Mathew 19:23 echoes Timothy, in which Jesus is claimed to say,
“Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Or maybe, "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a defense of inequality to be predicated on the interpretation of Timothy 6:10 as merely being about greed and not not about a larger social truth"!

Some would ask whether it is really true that the more the rich have, the less others have.  Surely the hard work of one individual does not result in the poverty of another.  Yet this is certainly not always so.  What if some people don't have access to the means of obtaining wealth, whether physically or because they lack the know-how.  Is their taking part in the same economic system not reinforcing their limited position?  Just because there is someone out there willing to work for peanuts, does it mean that he or she is making the most of him or herself, and not being taken advantage of by the larger system?

What would Timothy have said to this? I suppose the beauty of religious teaching is that it is ultimately about moral authority, as in doing what is right. The individual is asked to look within himself and find an integrity between his actions and his beliefs.

Of course, we are all flawed, "sinners" (in my atheistic sense), who regularly choose the less righteous path. Peter Singer speaks very well on the ethics of distance, in that saving a dying man directly before you is obvious, where as a man across an ocean is not. There is a direct correlation between concern for those less fortunate and physical proximity to their suffering.

I've seen no better illustration of this that the scene in Schindler's List, in which he, realizing that the lives of Jews had literally come down to payments rendered, looks down at his gold ring and realizes that he could have saved just one more.

I suppose this is why I cringe when calls for the rich to pay their "fair" share are so frequently reduced to mere expressions of jealousy or resentment. I think there are plenty of principled reasons why one might prefer that the rich not have their wealth taken from them in the form of taxation - government is inefficient, some programs are counter-productive, etc. I find those positions variously wrongheaded or mistaken, but they are at least only political or philosophical judgements.

The real question that the wealthy need to ask themselves is what is the point of life here on Earth? As an atheist, it may be easier for me to slide into selfish materialism, with no regard for my fellow man. But where some would say God created us in his image, and thus compels us to sacrifice for the less fortunate, I simply believe that evolution - both biologically and culturally - gave us the ability to empathize and feel compassion for fellow man.

Thus, the dying man before me is in stark contrast with my feelings of solidarity with him, and my ability to help him. Therefore morally, I am required to act. So whether I pay my taxes so that the sick may be healed, or invest all extra moneys into business, or charity, I am bounded morally to every man woman or child alive - each of their consciousnesses floating around in each of their skulls - not yet able to realize the potential that I realize in myself.

As I said before, we are all "sinners". With my $1500 how much good could I have done? The emotional, behavioral and psychological calculations we do are complex. Does the happiness the TV brings me allow more to be more productive? Did striving to have it in the first place make me work harder? In this way, do I get to consider my luxury night out a charitable contribution, in the form of future productivity. My, how we could rationalize ourselves into oblivion there!

So, I suppose, let us make these determinations individually. But let us do it within reason. I would argue that the return on investment, the ratio of productivity for monetary gain to productivity for other reasons (sense of accomplishment, security, enjoyment, etc.) bends rather limply towards personal excess. Does the man who makes an extra million for a personal yacht really need that yacht to work hard? We must remember that the wealthy have long since passed the point of needing to worry about enjoying the simple things in life. There is a reason for the term "luxury".

And again, this is discussion is twofold: it asks a moral question of the individual, but it asks a moral question of society as well. We must, as citizens of a democratic government, ask ourselves what we think is fair for our members to contribute to our vision of the common good - whether military, roads, schools, etc. It is certainly a question that requires looking at individuals and their wealth, and making a judgement as to what is fair for them to contribute, and thus what is fair for them to possess.

We cannot refrain from making that determination. As voting citizens, we are by definition responsible for judging our neighbors. As long as it is our duty to uphold the welfare of our state, a welfare that depends on the actions of its citizenry, we take a position by merely living within the state. We can decide to completely leave them alone, and to demand no taxes from them, but that is just as moral a position as demanding 100% of their wealth. Both have direct impact upon the state we share.

Returning to Timothy's claim, the individual morality cannot but imply a social morality. Each individual must decide for himself what is right, in terms of his brief life on this planet. But, as a citizen of a democratic state, he now must apply that morality to his neighbor, to the extent that it directly affects the business of the state.

Am I OK with my lifestyle, and the degree to which I care for my fellow man? Maybe, maybe not. That is an issue of integrity, and by no means an easy question. It is one that is asked and answered with every decision we make - or do not make - every second of the day. Yet because of the realities of governing, we must try and find our best moral position when we enter the voting booth.

And so if I, as a human, sinning man, sometimes find it difficult to act with integrity to my moral values, what effect should this have on my voting? Should I vote my morality, or my reality? For instance, I think it is wrong to make animals suffer before they die. I try and buy humane meats and dairy. But sometimes I find it hard to resist. So how should I vote? Should my voting reflect my lack of integrity, or should it reflect my aspirations?

And so when I see others living in ways in which I know - were I them - could be better spent reducing suffering and promoting liberty, should I cast judgement upon them at the ballot box? Do I have a right to hold them accountable to my own moral principles? To not do so would seem to be an expression of a lack of integrity just as profound as were I to be in their position. In my perfect world, they would either be paying taxes to government programs that guarantee access to services I deem important, or at least giving that money to charities or invest it in job-creating businesses.

But I know that doesn't happen. They do not act in accordance with my moral beliefs, with how I believe it is right to act in our state, and that all citizens ought to act in order to ensure my vision of the common good. If I have the right to ask them to be taxed at all, I ought to have the right to have them taxed at an amount I deem morally correct. Like Timothy, I can ask them to pass judgement on themselves. But as a citizen, I must pass judgement on them myself. __________________

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Integrity of Thought

A critique one occasionally hears from the right is that the left is hypocritical when it stands behind the banner of "tolerance", yet seems awfully intolerant of right-wing attitudes or opinions.

It's an interesting straw man, similar to reverse racism or moral relativism. The meaning of tolerance, racism and moral relativism is intentionally misunderstood (or at least, intentionally not endeavored to be understood), thus able to be shot down and dismissed.

Interestingly, by never taking the time to understand the original critique embedded in these concepts (or the complexity of critique they have come to signify), one remains blind both to their objective debate, as well as the possibility that one might be engaging in behavior or thought that is wrong.

For instance, the concept of tolerance means (from UNESCO):
"Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world's cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. Tolerance is harmony in difference."
The concept has been embraced by liberals largely in response to the historical wrongs committed due to assumptions of superiority by white, male, Christians, etc. It emphasizes a power dynamic in which other groups have historically been disempowered, and assumed inferior, or at least less important. It is fundamentally democratic, in that by rejecting majoritarian dominance, it seeks to place every citizen on equal footing, equal enfranchisement, regardless of race, gender, class, disability, etc.

To ignore this critique, or to fail to understand it in all its complexity, is to leave oneself open to fulfilling its prophecy - assuming it has merit. Yet in order to determine whether merit exists, one must first fully understand its logic.

Quite relatedly, racism and moral relativism deal in similar historical critiques. Racism is not merely a belief in the superiority, or a preference for, one skin color over another. Because what does that mean? Why is that wrong? A comprehensive understanding of racism sees a much larger historical narrative of cultural and racial dominance and oppression that relies on the prejudice of cognitive bias to enforce group dominance. This pattern of enforcement, of real and brutal oppression is what makes racism so ugly. Saying you like white people better than blacks is, by itself, not so terrible. But place it in historical socio-political context and it becomes downright evil.

A decontextualized view of racism not only ignores likely motivations, but it prepares a path towards the repetition of history. By denuding racism of proper context, it diminishes its import. The concept of "reverse racism" (or reverse sexism, etc.) does exactly this. It defines racism so narrowly as to suck much of its meaning away. A black man who hates white people, or a woman who hates men, simply do not have the centuries of oppression behind their thoughts and actions that we have come to despise and that the concepts racism and sexism embody. They do not represent exponentially larger movements of ingrained social prejudice and cognitive bias that have infested our patterns of thought for generations.

Of course there are many critiques of these narratives of race and tolerance. There certainly are among those who accept their basic accuracy as descriptors of historical reality. Yet to ignore the deeper premises upon which they are based, and to redefine them into meaninglessness is at best sloppy thinking, and at worst outright dishonesty. It is an easy task to attack an opponent's argument after having mischaracterized it. It is much more difficult - yet mandatory - to attack it head on.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


Obviously the central feature of education debate in America over the last decade has been student test scores.  The best thing that has come out of this is that the public realizes how broken many of our nation's schools are.  Although, one could say, the worst thing to come out of this is the public perceptions that many of our nation's schools are broken.

The problem is that a distinction is rarely made between broken communities and broken schools.  When a community is disadvantaged, so to will be their children, their students.  These students are harder to teach, and despite the best intentions of an otherwise well-trained, well-qualified staff - who would likely see great success is an advantaged community, the poorer performance of the student body will cause the school to be labeled as "broken".  This inadequacy of language leads to a dismal public perceptions of teaching in general.  Why are so many teachers and schools failing us?

Test scores in general are an adequate picture of the achievement gap in America.  But they are also incredibly flawed.  And when districts begin using them punitively, to punish teachers whose students get lower scores under the assumption that poor scores are the result of bad teaching, these flaws translate into poor evaluation systems, and ultimately unfair labor practices.

Of the many issues with state testing, I'll share my experience with just one.

I teach at a continuation school, so tests are essentially worthless. Kids come from deplorable circumstances, often show up high, many only because their probation officers mandates it. Most do practically zero work in class. So the idea of "trying" on a state test is absurd. Guess what - we're a "program improvement" school.

Anyway, there is a certainly a spectrum of interest in "trying" on a test. You can imagine that the more invested a child is in his education, the more likely he will be to do his best on a test.

A testing coordinator at our school was asked recently what to do about motivation. She replied that there are various techniques for "building enthusiasm" around the state tests. She's correct. The problem is, now we're testing a school's ability to rally student interest in taking a test. Maybe schools of education need to offer classes in cheerleading?

As a blunt tool, state testing is valuable in getting a general picture of differences in school achievement levels.  But there is simply so much nuance, for a variety of reasons and under many different circumstances, that they will only ever be of limited use. 

Instead, we need to be thinking of realistic policy solutions that target real student problems, such as wide disparities in levels of human and social capital.  Not only will this make the profession of teaching more humane and solution oriented, but it will translate into a real, lasting, scalable reduction in the achievement gap.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Ideological Telegraph

We've all experienced it before.  A discussion is taking place one the topic of notable television shows.  Various programs are praised or scorned.  Then someone pipes up, "I don't watch television."  This is then followed by vague denunciations of modern culture, a pining for nature, or maybe porch swings.

Or the updated version: people are discussing cell phones - plans, apps, etc.  Someone comments, "I hate the things."  They invariably then hold up their own cell phone, highlighting in stark contrast its exquisite antiquity.

This sort of behavior has always seemed to be so tiresome.  But why?  For decades now, people have been bemoaning television.  Do they really think they are saying anything new when they decide to inform everyone present of their cultural fundamentalism?  What does a critique of overtechnologized society (if that's what the heck they're going on about) have to do with a group of people commenting on the ways in which they obviously enjoy the technology?

I think that what seems so annoying is the sense that they are less expressing genuine feelings, than telegraphing their ideological adherence to a particular issue.  Because, of course, people don't really dislike cell phones.  Or TVs.  We've all had the experience of having a TV-denialist over to our house when a TV happened to be on and seen them glued to it like rats on cocaine. 

A frequent trope of the denialist is that they simply "don't have time".  This, after they get finished telling you about this or that group, hobby, or other fancy of theirs.  They have the time, they just choose to spend it differently.  Yet in dishonestly saying they don't "have time" to watch television, they are able to get their dig in; they get to diminish it as a worthless activity - one you and others just happen to enjoy.  Not only have they now been dishonest in describing their daily schedule, they have been dishonest in making a value judgement of your interest without saying it clearly, by being passive aggressive. 

Of course, historically the road to ideological purity has always been littered with the wreckage of personal integrity.  One thinks of monks squirreling away candy bars.  Or pedophilic priests.  Or closeted gay homophobic politicians.  Ideological sacrifice is not easy.  Otherwise, perhaps it would not be called sacrifice.  However the sacrifice should not include honesty and personal integrity.

No, they like it.  But they don't want to like it.  And this is a principled enough position.  The Amish do great work here.  But they ought not pretend that they have somehow reached a higher plane of existence, after having rappelled the cliffs of self-sacrifice and, prostrate on the mountain-top of truth through the freezing rain, somehow having thus exercised that particular human demon - the one the rest of us apparently trod before like harnessed mules, otherwise known as enjoyment of television.

I understand that it must feel awkward to take the hard path of ideological sacrifice in the company of "outsiders".  But there comes a point when we must all accept the fact that we all have our own battles to fight, and we each choose which swords to fall upon.  I have known my share of non-TV watching vegans who were complete assholes.  Apparently carefully avoiding the siren of televised programming was more important to them than avoiding the siren of selfish arrogance.  Likewise, I've known perfectly wonderful and compassionate people who would consider barbeque ribs and an episode of CSI to be a night well spent.

This is not a call for relativism.   Too much television really is a bad thing.  Cell phones can become magnets of self-absorption.  But neither let us pretend that we can begin to judge others so harshly.  Maybe one man's vice to to watch a bit more television, or buy the latest cell phone, but only because his virtue lies elsewhere, in the way he kisses his children before he tucks them in at night, or the way he smiles at the bored cashier. 

These may be no less of sacrifices to him - when he could choose in such moments to give in to selfishness.  Yet does he get to speak of it, to lord it over others in conversation?  Maybe.  But likely he does not.  He merely goes about his day, in his humble way, making the world every bit as pleasant a place.