The Virtue of Cowardice

I have long accepted the fact that I am a coward. I would never consider dying or killing for my country, or for any purported noble cause. Yet, I have never been ashamed of that. I have never really seen the value in sacrificing for such things. However, I have also never been able to adequately articulate this vision, and was literally accused of moral weakness once when I tried to defend it.

Thus, when I watched The Americanization of Emily, a film which I was led to by the fascinating blogger Arthur Silber, it instantly became one of my favorites by doing something I could not. This movie launches an unrelenting shock and awe campaign on the futility of warfare and the idiocy of heroism, as Silber compellingly argues here (see also here and here).

I strongly encourage you to read at least the first of Silber's essays, although it may be better to do so after watching the film. If you at all trust my opinion on these matters, watch this movie. It is brilliant, absolutely marvelous, and incredible considering the time it was produced, in 1964, not even a decade after the "noble" war which serves as its setting. It is likely unlike any war film you have ever seen.

(Incidentally, those of you familiar with James' essay "The Moral Equivalent of War" might find it an apt accompaniment. I'm considering showing this film to my class in the spring along with James' essay.)

I offer this one tidbit to stoke your interest, and to give you a sense of why cowardice should be nothing to be afraid of:
War isn’t hell at all. It’s man at his best; the highest morality he's capable of ... it’s not war that’s insane, you see. It’s the morality of it. It’s not greed or ambition that makes war: it’s goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we’ve managed to butcher some ten million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems we’ll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It’s not war that’s unnatural to us – it’s virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved.


Speaking of Non-belief...

This is quite fascinating and, in my view, a good sign (h/t Digby):

Multinational surveys have often reported that Americans are much more likely to believe in God than people in most other developed countries, particularly in Europe. However, a new Harris Poll finds that 42 percent of all U.S. adults say they are not "absolutely certain" there is a God, including 15 percent who are "somewhat certain," 11 percent who think there is probably no God and 16 percent who are not sure.

These are the results of a Harris Poll conducted online by Harris Interactive® between October 4 and 10, 2006 with a nationwide sample of 2,010 U.S. adults.

Important difference between online surveys and surveys conducted by telephone interviewers

Over the last few years, several different surveys have found that more people admit to potentially embarrassing beliefs or behaviors when answering online surveys (without interviewers) than admit to these behaviors when talking to interviewers in telephone surveys. They are also three times more likely to say that their sexual orientation is gay, lesbian or bi-sexual. Researchers call this unwillingness to give honest answers to some questions in telephone surveys a "social desirability bias."

It is therefore no surprise that in this online survey, more people say they are not absolutely certain there is a God than have given similar replies in other surveys conducted by telephone.


Are believers declining?

Three years ago, in an identical survey, 79 percent of adults said they believed in God and 66 percent said they were absolutely certain that there is a God. In this new survey, those numbers have declined to 73 percent and 58 percent respectively.

I've studied this issue a bit myself, and the numbers I've seen for belief in God have always been in the 80s or even 90s for the US. I wonder how much of this disparity has to do with the whole "social desirability bias" and how much with actual declining belief. (Or, how much is error in this particular poll? For instance, internet access tends to be less evenly distributed in this country than telephones, so this could bias the sample towards those who are better educated and better off financially.)

That more than a quarter do not believe (11% believing there is no God, 16% unsure) makes me pleased.

But why? Why does it please me that belief in God is declining? (I ask this question to myself, as much as anyone else who might wonder at my motivations.)

Well, one reason would not be specific to me: we like people to believe as we do, especially when we are confident about something.

But honestly, there's a lot of evidence that people who are religious believers are happier than those who are not. Jonathan Haidt suggests that this is a result of feeling connected to something larger than the self, whether it be a religious community or something metaphysical (or both).

He may be right. Beliefs aside, there are few secular organizations that are as tightly knit as (many) religious communities are.

In any case, given that at least some of this happiness is attributable to beliefs, in a sense I am pleased about something that results in less happiness in the world.

Peter Singer was on The Colbert Report last night, and it got me thinking about problems with utilitarianism (a view for which I have a lot of sympathy). The thing that I don't like about utilitarianism is that it puts all moral worth on something passive, something that is undergone rather than done, viz. suffering.

Yes, they claim to be concerned with happiness, but as pleasure, not as something active like eudaimonia or laetitia (joy) in Spinoza's sense. In any case, all people like Singer ever talk about is suffering anyway.

Returning to the issue at hand, I'm inclined to think that belief is not a matter of choice (contrary to the popular interpretation of James' "Will to Believe"). On some issues one does have options but, for most issues most of the time, things just seem true or false to most people.

I'll grant that wishful thinking plays a large role in determining belief--so that people believe what they want to believe--but this seldom operates consciously. In any case, even if they believe what they want and even if they recognize this to some extent, they still don't have much control over what they want in the first place. (They are aware of their desires but never even dream of the causes of those desires, etc.)

I think the challenge for modern human beings is to find happiness in a world in which we realize that we are unquestionably finite. We are not the center of the universe, there is not some higher power watching over us, we have no eternal aspects to ourselves; we are animals as much as any other species.

This doesn't mean happiness is impossible. We have to realize that this is not an all or nothing game. Yes, it would be nice to live longer than we do (although I don't know that I'd go so far as to say forever), but given our limitations, we can still make the most of things.

This may be a diminished happiness, but at least it's one that doesn't depend on questionable beliefs that will be doubtful for any honest, intelligent person. (OK, that's an unfair jab at believers. I think they can be honest and intelligent in their own ways.)

Anyway, it's nice to know I'm not the only one ineligible for public office in this state.


Fun Fact

I'm not allowed to hold public office in Tennessee!

Article IX, Section 2 of the state's constitution reads (h/t Incongruous):

"No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state."

Apparently my home state, Pennsylvania, is among six other states with a similar clause (in its case, Article 1, Section 4), although technically it just implies that it is not the case that atheists are not disqualified:

"No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth."

Isn't that fun? More reason why I have no intention of ever living in Tennessee or Pennsylvania again!



As the civil war rages on, my mind turns more and more to thoughts of Iraq. Of late, I've taken more of an interest in educating myself about the conflict.

I pride myself on having opposed the invasion and occupation from the beginning, not from some sense of political expediency, but for moral reasons. As is well known by any student of history or veteran of combat--and of course the Bush administration has a dearth of both--war is hell and should be avoided when at all possible. Death, destruction, and suffering on a massive scale are all but guaranteed in war; if we resort to it, we'd better do so for a damn good reason and in a way that minimizes its negative results.

Two recent articles, one from the NY Review of Books and the other from the Boston Review, are excellent resources for understanding the current situation and its development. They complement each other quite nicely, since the former shows the massive ineptitude in managing the occupation from the US side, while the latter is an excellent account of what Iraqis have experienced in the transition from standing united against the American occupation to pandemic sectarian strife.

Both are quite long, but well worth the time spent. It's sad that there's so little that we as individuals can do to end this thing; it seems like the only person who has the power to do so (at least in terms of US involvement) wouldn't change his mind even if Jesus Christ himself descended from the heavens and slapped him upside the head.

Nevertheless, one thing we can do as citizens is inform ourselves and try to learn how we got into this mess. This is especially important since a number of those still in power want to go for the threepeat of failed US interventions in the middle east by targeting Iran. We must do everything in our power to prevent such recklessness--what better way to start than through knowledge?


A Simple Argument

After watching Chomsky's film last night, I started to wonder why he is viewed as such a radical figure. What he's arguing is rather simple actually. (Because of this, I will employ the charged language of "good" and "evil" in a somewhat simplistic manner, as a kind of shorthand.) I see it as something like the following.

1. We should hold ourselves to the same standards we hold others.

This is a straightforward premise that almost everyone would grant on an individual level, but which some Americans might take issue with, making the claim that, since America is a force of good in the world, it's perfectly alright if we engage in some acts of evil for the sake of a greater good. Before moving on, I will try to refute this point.

First, two facts about our psychology: a) humans have an overwhelming tendency to view themselves, the groups that they belong to, and the people that they like as good; b) humans have a strong tendency to view individuals and groups that they dislike as bad or evil. I think the tendency in (a) is stronger than that of (b).

Concerning (a): Everyone, with very few exceptions, views themselves as good and no one thinks of themselves as evil. This includes Nazis, Soviets, Islamic terrorists, you name it. (The handful of exceptions would be silly people like Satan worshippers and perhaps psychopaths and serial killers who are honest with themselves.)

Vast amounts of evidence support this claim; take any purportedly "evil" group in history and look at their literature. Whether they're killing in God's name, for the sake of their glorious nation, or to spread freedom and democracy, they tell themselves some kind of story to justify what they're doing.

In short, to label a group as simply and purely evil is to totally misunderstand human psychology and, in fact, to repeat the error of many of these groups--this is why the rhetoric on both sides of the "War on Terror" is eerily similar. If a group is actually evil, it's not because they embrace the dark side but because what they think of as a good comes with evil, but often forseeable, consequences.

Now these two tendencies are not impossible to break free from, but it requires a great degree of self-honesty and the use of reason. You simply cannot take for granted that the side you're on consists of "the good guys". Everyone thinks they're on that side.

The world is a complicated place. Evil comes in degrees, and often as the consequence of noble intentions. Whether we are, in the end, a force of good in the world is determined by our actions. So, in order to make such a judgment well, it is essential that we hold ourselves to the same standards as everyone else.

2. Citizens of a democratic society are at least partially responsible for the actions of their government.

We live in a relatively free country and even though it is hard for an individual to make an impact by herself, people can come together in groups and bring about changes and reforms. The very least they can do is try. Cynicism and detachment do not absolve anyone of blame. I could say more on this point, but this is not the time or place for it.

I think these are really the only 2 premises that you need to grant. There may be some others, such as that responsibility requires becoming informed about the consequences of your actions, but I don't think I need to argue for these. Here are some of the conclusions that follow from these two:

3. It is our responsibility to figure out what wrongs our government is committing, to make them public, and to take steps to stop them.

This is clearly a driving force for Chomsky; he has said that what motivates his efforts is a matter of conscience, doing what he can to live with himself. This is why he looks at our foreign affairs and brings to light the crimes that our country has perpetrated on other parts of the world.

4. America is a good nation only if it avoids employing evil means to achieve its ends.

Realizing that every group of people sees itself as acting for noble ends, what really differentiates groups (if we apply a consistent standard) are the means they employ to achieve their ends. Really, the distinction between means and ends is fuzzy, so it is vital not to gloss over the tactics that we use to achieve our goals (Dewey is excellent on this point).

5. War, a human activity which invariably leads to widespread suffering and death, should only come in self-defense and as a last resort.

Okay, this may be a bit of a stretch, but here's how I think it follows. War is never an end in itself (or at least, most would grant that it never should be), but a means to some other end. However, given that judging the means we employ is essential to evaluating the character of our country, we should be extremely cautious about engaging in activities which are known evils, such as war.

6. The rule of law and consistent principles must always guide our conduct, even in extreme circumstances, and with people we detest.

Chomsky took a lot of flak for supporting the freedom of speech of a Holocaust-denier, but I think he made the right choice. Similarly, I concur with Glenn Greenwald on his recent post condemning Germany for trying to prosecute Donald Rumsfeld and others for war crimes that in no way involve Germany. I truly believe that Rumsfeld (along with Bush, Cheney, et alia) are guilty of war crimes, but this is not the way to prosecute them (read the whole thing for more on this).

This is also why our government should not suspend habeas corpus for so-called enemy combatants, or engage in torture, or spy illegally on its own citizens. Again, it is easy to view our ends as necessary (what is more vital than a nation's preserving itself?), so we must always proceed cautiously and, for all intents and purposes, act as though suspending the rule of law or violating international law are never justified.

I say "never" because in this way, on those occasions when there really are emergencies and extreme measures must be taken, we will always condemn them and strive to return to the conditions of normalcy, not letting ourselves slide along a slippery slope to totalitarianism or military dictatorship.

Really, this is all I think that Chomsky and many other leftist intellectuals are trying to do. Of course we have other goals (like ensuring more equitable distribution in the world, preserving our environment, and so forth) which might come into conflict, but this is one that I think almost everyone agrees on.

This is very much not a case of anti-Americanism (which Chomsky rightfully denounces as the kind of rhetoric one would expect from a fascist state), but precisely the opposite. Chomsky and others like him are true patriots who want us to be consistent and to live up to the values and standards that we profess (and judge others by). Is that so unreasonable or radical?

Elitism & Democracy

While reading Glenn Greenwald's always excellent blog, I was led to this little gem of a piece regarding the power of the press corps. Here's an excerpt (emphases in original):

But the point is the powerhouse media and their politician lovemates truly do feel there are things normal, grubby Americans simply can't handle. Moreover, it has nothing to do with political parties. Everything I've seen in my life confirms that, with few exceptions, they feel this way across the (extremely narrow) political spectrum.

If you're not part of their little charmed circle, believe me, all your worst suspicions about them are true. They do think you're stupid. They do lie to you. They do hate and fear you. Most importantly, they think you can't be trusted with the things they know—because if you did know them, you'd go nuts and break America. They are Thomas Jefferson's aristocrats:

Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still, and pursue the same object. The last appellation of Aristocrats and Democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.

Interestingly, in my endless years of school, this Jefferson quote was never once part of the assigned reading.

In response to this piece, a commenter using the moniker "mk" submitted this:

This is exactly what Herman and Chomsky analyze in their propaganda model in "Manufacturing Consent". The latter phrase comes from the Wilson-era liberal intellectual (and Creel Commission member), Walter Lippmann. He promoted this manufacture of public consent - it was then openly acknowledged as propaganda - by
recommending what the "responsible men" (always including the author himself) should do to ensure that the "ignorant and meddlesome outsiders" (the public) don't interfere with the decisions of the responsible men for the public good (by definition).
A full exegesis can be found in this piece from Deterring Democracy, from which the following is excerpted:
"The public must be put in its place," Walter Lippmann wrote, so that we may "live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd," whose "function" is to be "interested spectators of action," not participants. And if the state lacks the force to coerce and the voice of the people can be heard, it is necessary to ensure that that voice says the right thing, as respected intellectuals have been advising for many years.

As it so happens, I just watched a documentary (made in 1992) on Chomsky called "Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media," which I had received from Netflix at about the time I stumbled across this interesting piece. It's a fascinating film which I highly recommend if you want to learn more about this reality of American life.

I particularly enjoyed seeing (in the special features on the DVD) a debate between Chomsky and Michel Foucault (the subject of one of my seminars this semester) which was, interestingly enough, filmed in Holland, the very homeland of my good friend Benedict Spinoza who, although writing in a very different political context, says some remarkable things about the relationship between the reasonable few and the ignorant multitudes.

Spinoza, I think, evinces an ambivalence about the masses (one which I share), but despite some reservations about the danger that "the mob" poses, ultimately sides with democracy. Some choice quotations illustrate this.

In his earliest work, the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, Spinoza describes a personal journey that led him to strive for a particular goal, that he sees as the end of a good life (my emphases in bold):

[M]an conceives a human nature much stronger and more enduring than his own, and at the same time sees that nothing prevents his acquiring such a nature, he is spurred to seek means that will lead him to such a perfection. Whatever can be a means to his attaining it is called a true good; but the highest good is to arrive--together with other individuals if possible--at the enjoyment of such a nature. What that nature is we shall show in its proper place: that it is the knowledge of the union that the mind has with the whole of Nature.

This, then, is the end I aim at: to acquire such a nature, and to strive that many acquire it with me. That is, it is part of my happiness to take pains that many others may understand as I understand, so that their intellect and desire agree entirely with my intellect and desire. To do this it is necessary, first to understand as much of Nature as suffices for acquiring such a nature; next, to form a society of the kind that is desirable, so that as many as possible may attain it as easily and surely as possible.

Third, attention must be paid to Moral Philosophy and to Instruction concerning the Education of children. Because Health is no small means to achieving this end, fourthly, the whole of Medicine must be worked out. And because many difficult things are rendered easy by ingenuity, and we can gain much time and convenience in this life, fifthly, Mechanics is in no way to be despised. [TdIE paragraphs 13-16]

Here, in this noteworthy passage, we see encapsulated the driving motivation in Spinoza's life, which led him to speak and write what he felt was the truth, despite the very real danger of doing so (there was at least one attempt made on his life). Ultimately, it is a kind of democratic motive, as can further be seen in his Political Treatise or in the Ethics, insofar as the kind of life that it prescribes is presumably open to all people, not just the wise or educated ones.

On the other hand, Spinoza does have a tendency to talk about the shortcomings of "the vulgar" and the prejudices they are subject to. In a somewhat Hobbesian vein he says something like the following:

Everyone exists by the highest right of nature, and consequently everyone, by the highest right of nature, does those things that follow from the necessity of his own nature....

If men lived according to the guidance of reason, everyone would possess this right of his (by P35C1) without any injury to anyone else. But because they are subject to the affects (by P4C), which far surpass man's power, or virtue (by P6), they are often drawn in different directions (by P33) and are contrary to one another (by P34), while they require one another's aid (by P35S).

In order, therefore, that men may be able to live harmoniously and be of assistance to one another, it is necessary for them to give up their natural right and to make one another confident that they will do nothing which could harm others.... No affect can be restrained except by an affect stronger than and contrary to the affect to be restrained, and everyone refrains from doing harm out of timidity regarding a greater harm.

By this law, therefore, Society can be maintained, provided it appropriates to itself the right everyone has of avenging himself, and of judging concerning good and evil. In this way Society has the power to prescribe a common rule of life, to make laws, and to maintain them--not by reason, which cannot restrain the affects (by P17S), but by threats. [E IVP37S2]
Perhaps we could say that he is just being realistic here, and certainly his conclusions about the form that the State should take is quite a departure from Hobbes.

In any case, I think the lesson to be taken from this is as follows. It's easy to think that the masses are dumb and need to be kept in line when you're in the power elite that manufactures public opinion and influences political decisions that have potentially global repercussions. You don't need to be a neoconservative Straussian to be a part of the DC establishment (politicians, journalists, lobbyists, etc.) that actively views itself as elite.

Similarly, it's easy to be an intellectual at a prestigious university and go on about the stupidity of the masses and how easily duped they are, and so on. I have been known to, on occasion, espouse such views, and in my day-to-day life, I am something of an elitist: I associate almost entirely with a select group of people who are educated, intelligent, articulate, and so forth. Indeed, I often feel disconnected from more common people--I have enough trouble as it is dealing with my students, most of whom are a long way from having a working class background.

Now clearly, while we possess some degree of power, it pales in comparison to that of the various politicos who dominate what is taken to be "public discourse" in America. We are viewed, perhaps, as nuisances and rabble-rousers, conspiracy theorists and totalitarian leftist professors; we are marginalized and disrespected by an "anti-intellectual" culture.

But elitism is no fun if you're not part of the elite. Maybe we think we should be, but who doesn't think such a thing? This is one reason why I'm glad to come from a more or less middle class background; if you grow up with affluence you start to think that you deserve it (look at our current president: he hasn't earned any of the numerous privileges he's been afforded in life; he wouldn't have a single one of them if his name weren't George Bush). And so, I recognize my elitist tendencies as a kind of prejudice.

Now I understand a need for stability, but nobody wants to be treated like they're unfit to make decisions for themselves. This is one reason why control in ostensibly democratic countries is so insidious: it's masked by the incessant refrain of "personal freedom" and "individual choice". As Foucault might say, we are constituted as subjects in such a way that we internalize these relations of power, so that we don't have to have them imposed on us by violent force, except in rare circumstances. In postindustrial society, we're far past the use of mere threats to keep people in line.

But there is hope. The fact of the matter is, that we can have discussions of this sort, that someone like Noam Chomsky can star in films and give lectures all over the country and write books that people can read and so forth, is an indication that the system can't fully suppress resistances to it. Many American institutions function to isolate individuals from one another (look at the prolonged attack on organized labor), but dissenters can come together: at universities, on the internets, through books, TV shows, and films.

Really, this is what I see as one of my major roles as an educator (and why I find Spinoza's TdIE formulation so compelling). I foster dissent and encourage ways of looking at the world that fall outside of the narrow ideological spectrum that Americans are supposed to occupy. And this is why I work hard to stay informed about the world, reading alternative media and leftist blogs and writing my own observations (even if only three people read them).

As Chomsky rightly points out, it's too much to ask of an individual to sort through all the information available to get at buried truths. This can happen only in communities in which many individuals take up a small section as their own, learn what they can, and then share the results with others in the community and outside of it. This is perhaps what Foucault meant by the notion of "specific" or "local intellectual".


Kids and whatnot

On another topic I have no business thinking about, this is a fascinating article on the virtues of adult couples who never have children (h/t Digby). While such a decision is not remotely possible in my near future, I had long assumed that if I never became a father I would regret it (thus putting more pressure on me to find a nice girl and get married). But, as it turns out (emphasis mine):

Hanson agrees that even if mothers say they don't regret having children, as a group they're not more satisfied with their lives than nonmothers. For all the truth about the innate physiological rewards of mothering, he says, "The happy people are the ones who wanted kids and had them or didn't want kids and didn't have them."

This is true even in old age, a time when many assume the childless will suffer alone while their peers are comforted by grandchildren. Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox, a sociology professor at the University of Florida who researches aging, recently completed a study based on surveys of 3,800 men and women between the ages of 50 and 84. "For years we have heard warnings that if you don't have children, you will regret it later," she said in a press release. "But beliefs about childlessness leading to a lonely old age are simply not supported by our study." In a previous report published in 1998, Koropeckyj-Cox concluded that there is "no significant differences in loneliness and depression between parents and childless adults."

Besides, what some parents gain in intimacy with their children, they lose in intimacy with their partners....

Cain reprints one of those 1975 letters sent to Ann Landers in her book: "I am 40, and my husband is 45. We have twin children under 8 years of age. I was an attractive, fulfilled career woman before I had these kids. Now I'm an overly exhausted nervous wreck who misses her job and sees very little of her husband. He's got a 'friend,' I'm sure, and I don't blame him. Our children took all the romance out of our marriage. I'm too tired for sex, conversation or anything."

Such alienation is less likely when people don't have children. "Statistics show childless couples are happier," Cain says. "Their lives are self-directed, they have a better chance of intimacy, and they do not have the stresses, financial and emotional, of parenthood."

As a male devoid of nurturing instincts and annoyed by young children, this makes me quite pleased, especially since apparently about a quarter of American women don't have children. Chances are, too, that the more educated she is, the less likely she'll want to be a mother. And I couldn't imagine marrying someone who didn't want to pursue a career of her own; in the very least she'd have to be a college graduate, if not a fellow academic.

Since I've recently been thinking about marriage as a relationship that would be best if it were in the model of Aristotelian (or Nietzschean) friendship, I see having children as only an impediment to establishing a close bond of emotional intimacy with another person--that article certainly suggests as much. Now that we live in an age in which choosing not to have children is a very real option, I'd be happy to take it.

Of course, the real question for me is not one concerning parenting, but rather one of its conditions of possibility, viz., finding a partner. Many of my idols in the history of philosophy were lifelong bachelors, most notably Spinoza and Nietzsche. I honestly believe that I, better than anyone else I know, could get by and perhaps even flourish in such an existence, as long as I had a few close friendships.

As it stands, however, it seems that married people are on average happier than the unwed, so it remains something I strive for (especially since I'm no stranger to occasional pangs of loneliness). Of course, I should be clear here that what concerns me is not the institution of marriage itself, in its legal form (essentially a contract with certain economic advantages for the parties involved) or its religious aspects (I find the notion of "soulmates" to be especially irritating) or whatever other guise it may take, but rather a kind of lifelong companionship--again, friendship in the Aristotelian sense.

Nonetheless, for the time being, I resolve to make the most of my single life, and am now firmly resolved not to have children. That could change, of course, given the very different circumstances that the future will bring, but for the time being it seems to me to be an irrational course of action, given the other projects I hope to pursue in life (establishing close bonds with others, serving as an educator to other people's children, living comfortably and with minimal stress, etc.).



I won't bother rehashing all the clichés and conventional wisdom about the results of our recent election, but I did want to take a moment to reflect on its importance.

A number of the progressive bloggers who I read regularly see this as the beginning of the end for the conservative movement, which has been in ascendancy for just about as long as I've been alive. This is not to say that we'll see a return of the Democratic domination of the New Deal, but that Americans have perhaps had enough of the extremism of movement conservatism.

I don't know if this is true, but I hope it is. If nothing else, that is what this election has given me (and hence the title of this post). If it is, then perhaps the progressive values that many Americans hold (as Noam Chomsky has often pointed out, surveys conducted by PIPA and other organizations indicate popular endorsement of positions favoring universal healthcare, environmental conservation, progressive taxation, etc. [I should fill in some links here, but right now I'm trying to keep this short]) may be able to come to fruition.

Indeed, it is good to feel hopeful. If there's one thing I wish I could change about the students I've had the wonderful pleasure of teaching, it's the almost pervasive cynicism that dominates their worldviews. I've written about this before, how nihilism, apathy, and anomie seem to be in fashion these days. Glenn Greenwald recently showed how this kind of cynicism is pervasive among political pundits, as well (first link on my sidebar).

Of course, I myself have never been able to shake off cynicism completely. As someone who does not believe in necessary progress in history, I harbor no illusions about what the future may hold (well, leaving aside my perhaps unwarranted optimism for technological advancement). I doubt that I'll ever fully eliminate my cynical side--especially since it's a cornerstone of my sense of humor--but at least it has always had to contend against a vibrant idealism which is certainly not willing to cede ground after this week.

Yet, there is still much that needs to be done if reason and progressive values are to win the day. In the next 2 years, I suspect the best that can be done is to hold Bush in check, investigate the hell out of his crooked administration and their allies in corporate America, and maybe increase the minimum wage for the first time in a decade. Election reform would be nice, but we'd never implement truly democratic measures like instant runoff voting and totally public campaign financing.

Taking a larger picture view of things, I really wonder about the future of this country. Some of the non-liberal leftists who I read are keen to point out that the Democrats are really only the slight more benevolent faction of the ruling class, that they are nearly as business-friendly, war-friendly, and people-unfriendly as the GOP. Of course, as is evidenced by the stolen election of 2000, small differences can have huge consequences.

I agree that the current duopoly in American politics leaves much to be desired, but why should the solution require new political parties? In Italy, there are hundreds of parties, and yet they end up having to form 2 major coalitions anyway. The Democrats, like the GOP, offer a big tent: leaving aside demographic differences, Democrats vary widely from state to state (contrast Tester of Montana, Webb of Virginia, Biden of Delaware, and Feingold of Wisconsin, for instance).

Sometimes I feel like the far left is too wedded to cynicism and pessimism to ever view anything as progress; every intellectual knows that criticism is far more profound-seeming than praise. Nevertheless, the Democratic party represents our best hope for positive change in the US. In fact, a number of more populist, netroots-supported candidates were elected on Tuesday, and this trend is likely to continue as the blogosphere becomes a more formidable media force.

For the first time in a while, I feel like I want to live in this country in the longterm. I've often dreamt of finishing my Ph.D. and then jetting off to Toronto or Amsterdam or Tokyo, but now I'm not so sure. Of course I'd like to travel more, but emigration doesn't seem as necessary and inevitable to me as it once did.

I suspect it won't be too long before American unilateral dominance in the world is eliminated by the rising powers of a united Europe, China, and India, among others, but I think this could be a good thing for our country (and the world!). If nothing else, we can thank Bush for accelerating that process.

Let me close with a sentiment from Spinoza: "So let the satirists laugh as much as they like at human affairs, let the theologians curse them, let melancholics praise as much as they can a life that is uncultivated and wild.... Men still find from experience that by helping one another they can provide themselves much more easily with the things they require, and that only by joining forces can they avoid the dangers which threaten on all sides..."



I recently told my students that I have been myself for about a decade. I don't believe in real essences or in any strong sense of personal identity, and despite the fact that I had a relatively stable and very much non-dysfunctional upbringing, I don't much care for my childhood or the kind of person I was then.

Ten years ago, I was a sophomore in high school. That year, I would take two classes that I now realize probably had a formative effect on who I am now as an intellectual.

One was a class in biology, in which I learned about genes and evolution among other things (that year I would win an "Outstanding Biology Student" and receive as a prize an advanced textbook on genetics which I requested but would never read). For a number of years when I was in high school, I thought I would go into the sciences. That year, I would begin reading Stephen Hawking's popular works on astrophysics.

The other class was the closest I ever came in high school to a philosophy class, a European history class that was at least half intellectual history. Although I never read him until several years later, I learned about Marx and his theory of history, and about the various utopian socialist movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. (I also read some Ayn Rand this year--my teacher went on the record as saying his favorite book was Atlas Shrugged--but luckily, I never got into objectivism.)

Later in the year, in a third class, English, I would write a paper that I now look at as having some significance, a kind of first stab at political philosophy, embodying a strain of thought that has at least remained an undercurrent in my adult reflections.

In this paper--whose location, if it still exists, currently escapes me, but if I remember it rightly--I argued for a kind of ideal society, in which economic planning was merged with robotics and genetic engineering to produce a true utopia. It was rather simple--and simplistic: the robots did all the nasty jobs, and people who were genetically modified to be less hateful and more cooperative lived in peace in a planned economy where people worked, not for the sake of money, but because they wanted to. My English teacher must have thought I was a budding totalitarian.

In 10 years, biotechnology, robotics, and information and computing sciences have come a long way. Joined with nanotechnology, a field in its infancy but which has the promise of being just as influential, we are coming ever closer to a time when technology could once again radically alter the character of our lives. I still watch these fields for development with keen interest, and am relatively optimistic about what they can do for humanity.

When I finally got around to reading Marx for myself, I was taken by him, and was probably a Marxist for several years--that is, until I grew more enamored of Spinoza, and also read the critiques of "Post-Marxist" thinkers like Chantal Mouffe, who disabused me of economic determinism and other key Marxist doctrines. And while I called myself a "communist" or "socialist" for many years in the last decade, I would no longer embrace such a title. Maybe now I'm a green or a left communitarian or a social democrat, but I'm not as enthusiastic about labels as I once was.

Anyway, I hope the reason for this autobiographical indulgence will soon be made manifest, but let me get on to the meat of this post.

This week, my class is studying freedom and determinism. Among the topics we're considering is behaviorism; we're reading, among other pieces, B.F. Skinner's "Freedom and the Control of Men". Although I no longer have many positivist sympathies (that was a later episode, in my early college years after I rejected theism), I still have a soft spot for behaviorism, which is probably why I agree with my friend Ben more often than I should.

Skinner is not someone who's good to read if you're worried that you have a secret affinity for totalitarianism. Here's an example of what I mean:

The methods of education, moral discourse, and persuasion are acceptable not because they recognize the freedom of the individual or his right to dissent, but because they make only partial contributions to the control of his behavior. The freedom they recognize is freedom from a more coercive form of control. The dissent which they tolerate is the possible effect of other determiners of action. Since these sanctioned methods are frequently ineffective, we have been able to convince ourselves that they do not represent control at all. When they show too much strength to permit disguise, we give them other names and suppress them as energetically as we suppress the use of force. Education grown too powerful is rejected as propaganda or "brainwashing" while really effective persuasion is described as "undue influence," "demagoguery," "seduction," and so on.

If we are not to rely solely upon accident for the innovations which give rise to cultural evolution, we must accept the fact that some kind of control of human behavior is inevitable. We cannot use good sense in human affairs unless someone engages in the design and construction of environmental conditions which affect the behavior of men. Environmental changes have always been the condition for the improvement of cultural patterns, and we can hardly use the more effective methods of science without making changes on a grander scale. We are all controlled by the world in which we live, and part of that world has been and will be constructed by men. The question is this: Are we to be controlled by accident, by tyrants, or by ourselves in effective cultural design?

The danger of the misuse of power is possibly greater than ever. It is not allayed by disguising the facts. We cannot make wise decisions if we continue to pretend that human behavior is not controlled, or if we refuse to engage in control when valuable results might be forthcoming. Such measures weaken only ourselves, leaving the strength of science to others....

Science has turned up dangerous processes and materials before. To use the facts and techniques of a science of man to the fullest extent without making some monstrous mistake will be difficult and obviously perilous. It is no time for self-deception, emotional indulgence, or the assumption of attitudes which are no longer useful. Man is facing a difficult test. He must keep his head now, or he must start again--a long way back.

In truth, I find this utterly seductive. The argument is that so much of what is taken for "freedom" is chance, accident, perhaps even chaos. But if we have other options, why leave something so important as human life up to chance?

This leads me to ask the great unasked question of our time: What's so great about freedom? Why is freedom something that is valued in itself? What happens if freedom actually leads to suffering and unhappiness?

This is a question that has taken on a new light for me as I read people like Jonathan Haidt, who argues for an ethic of happiness, in which freedom is merely means to an end. Too much freedom, as it turns out, is actually a source of anxiety for people (I like to bring up the example of the tooth paste aisle; this is a place where choice is a burden more than anything else). What matters, more often than not, is simply the appearance of freedom, a kind of surface freedom where much of the choice has already been done for you.

Think of freedom, for a moment, as getting what you want. This is simple, I know, but this is a not insignificant part of human happiness. As Stoics, Buddhists, and others have recognized, there's more than one way of maximizing your number of satisfied desires. Desire different things, things which are more easily attainable ("...if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with..."). As Epictetus puts it, want things to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.

On a social scale, as in, say, Skinner's Walden Two, this is accomplished by a behavioral science that creates in people desires that are attainable. Right now, I think one of the major problems we face in our consumerist society is that desires are generated in us, both against our will and against our best interest and almost always without our knowledge, incessantly. This is what fuels our economy, but it's a source of major unhappiness. And, as it turns out, when we get the things that we want--things we are manipulated into wanting--we usually aren't too thrilled, instead asking, "OK, now what do I want?"

Most people don't ask where their desires come from. As Spinoza so aptly put it three and a half centuries ago, "men think themselves free, because they are conscious of their volitions and their appetite, and do not think, even in their dreams, of the causes by which they are disposed to wanting and willing, because they are ignorant of [those causes]".

What, then, is so bad about a society in which we are explicitly engineered to having attainable desires? This is why Frazier, the fictional founder of Skinner's Walden Two, is able to say that it's "the freest place on earth". The difference between that controlled society and ours is that our desires are still caused in us by outside forces--they are not of our choice by any stretch of the imagination--but the forces in our world are chaotic, and often acting in their own self-interest and against our own.

As I said, this has a very visceral appeal to me. And this is why I bring up my intellectual autobiography. For whatever reason--and I am by no means alone in this--I find control very appealing. I like minimizing risk and reasoning through possibilities, trying to account for contingencies and ordering the world very neatly.

This is evident in so much of my life. I have never taken advantage of my freedoms in the ways so many of my friends have. I've hardly traveled anywhere, I've done fewer drugs, I've had fewer romantic partners, and on and on. In general I feel like I've experienced less, like I've gotten less out of life. When I've tried to change these things, I've run into obstacles, perhaps most predominantly my own fear of risk. I constantly crave the comforts of home, even though I live a rather isolated existence that often doesn't seem to have too much going for it, except familiarity.

Thus, it is not surprising that I find a controlled society appealing. My foremost value is personal happiness, and I see freedom as merely a means to the end. I think many people feel the same way, but are too caught up in the rhetoric of freedom and democracy to realize it.

Nevertheless, I recognize a major problem here. Part of the appeal of a controlled society is the opportunity to be a Frazier, to be the person behind the scenes, working the magic. There is a kind of freedom that I value, if not in itself then at least because it constitutes a major component of my happiness: intellectual freedom.

Spinoza, my greatest role model, is a paragon of intellectual freedom, who literally risked his life by refusing to shut up and stop questioning the irrationalities predominant in his day (and still in ours). Even after he was offered a stipend to stop expressing his controversial views by his Jewish community and even after someone tried to stab him to death, he still would not back down. If not for courageous individuals like him, academic freedom would probably remain a pipedream.

And this brings us to the great dilemma of who watches the watchers? If it were as easy as it seems in Plato's Republic to separate the golden from the bronze, if the unwise could tell who the wise were (in other words, if the unwise were themselves wise enough to realize how unwise they were), then maybe democracy wouldn't be our only feasible option, "the worst form of government... except for all the other ones".

Moreover, even if we created superhuman intelligence, either through bioengineering or supercomputing or some conglomerate, there's no guarantee that we'd create a font of wisdom. Certainly people would be averse to surrendering their freedoms to it, even if it made objectively "better" choices. But perhaps this will change, as we cede more and more of our life decisions to computers. Who knows if it will be an improvement? There still remains a question of who's doing the programming.

And so, while I find control emotionally appealing, and while I still see technology as more of a boon than a hindrance, I remain a (small-d) democrat. One of the ironies of Plato's Republic is that the kind of controlled society it advocates probably wouldn't allow for the existence of people like its creator.

Nevertheless, I remain open to other possibilities, and still value freedom only as a means to human happiness and well-being. It concerns me that our individualistic society is not a happy one, compared to those that are more socially cohesive (but less "free"). Many of the ends that we pursue are self-defeating. Our prejudice against regulation and in favor of license is at least partly self-destructive. (This is why I can read Foucault, and see all these hidden power structures and systems of domination and sometimes say, "So what?")

Punishment and discipline and control are not bad in themselves, but only insofar as they harm our health or happiness. I think if we recognized this, we could still be democrats, but we might have a more reasonable and realistic attitude about what human life on a mass scale requires. The prejudice of free will remains one of the most harmful in the world.


What's the point of voting anymore?

Watch this video (h/t The Poor Man).

According to the WaPo, 80% of voters will be using electronic machines, not unlike that one (h/t Leiter Reports). Not all of them are manufactured by Diebold, but who knows how much of a difference that makes?

We are badly in need of electoral reform, of non-partisan elections with a uniform standard. Amazingly, the problems of 2000 have only gotten worse. In many cases, detecting vote tampering would be all but impossible. As a citizen and a voter, I feel powerless to do anything about this.

If we can't evict the scumbags who have usurped our system, what the hell can we do? If I were a hacker and politically connected, I'd try to devise a virus that would make the winner of every election "Donald Duck" or "Osama bin Laden" and install it in as many machines as possible, because that's the only way we'd ever be able to know if these machines were hacked. Many of them can be manipulated to steal elections without leaving a single trace, as the video clearly shows.

If the GOP weren't so intent on eviscerating the Constitution and turning the Middle East into a radioactive glass crater, this wouldn't be quite as pressing. But our nation is being run by madmen who need to be stopped. I am tired of trying to argue this point. By now, you either see how unscrupulous and un-American this administration and its disastrous policies are, or you never will.


Courage and the Mask of Masculinity

Recently, Glenn Greenwald--hands down my favorite blogger--has been laying the smack down on some of these far right warrior-wannabes who, from the luxury of their Cheetos-stained keyboards, have been hypocritically lambasting two FOX news reporters who were willing to say they converted to Islam to save their own lives.

He unmasks these villians as the truly fearful ones:

The creepy spectacle of watching one warrior after the next insist that we must risk other people's lives and bomb more people so that we don't feel girlish and scared and submissive is repugnant enough, in itself, to have to witness on a daily basis. But the fact that these same people are the ones whose deep, irrational fears of The Terrorist override virtually all other considerations, and who demand that we change our nation and relinquish all of the values and liberties which have always defined it and which make it worth fighting for, all because they believe that doing so is necessary to allow them some marginally greater chance of avoiding death, renders their accusations and warrior dances -- on top of everything else -- an exercise in the grossest and most absurd hypocrisy.

Mark Steyn and his comrades think they are so courageous (as they make clear virtually every day). But a courageous act entails risk, and they never risk anything. Quite the contrary, they are desperate to eliminate all perceived risks to their "safety," regardless of the costs. Their entire world-view is based upon and driven by their deeply irrational fears, which lead to a never-ending desire to sacrifice liberty (theirs and ours) and a hysterical, risk-free insistence that the Bad Scary People (along with hundreds of thousands or even millions of others near them) be bombed, incinerated and killed -- all so that they aren't so scared any more, so that they can feel safe.

I find this phenomenon to be an interesting one, fascinating to observe were it not so dangerous, so tragic.

I see it as a great advancement that this kind of sentiment is today somewhat marginalized. While I do have a competitive streak in me, I have never felt the need to put on a show of excessive masculinity--I mean, I recently dyed my hair purple, for chrissakes.

But is this in any way a loss? Even if those who bewail the disappearance of "men with chests" are themselves men with bosoms, they may still point to a legitimate concern. Hypocrites aren't always wrong; tu quoque is a fallacy after all.

Yes, undoubtedly it is a travesty that men who used their privilege to escape fighting a senseless war have no problem compensating for their youthful cowardice by sending others to die in a yet more senseless one. This is testosterone at its most perncious.

But I still admire courage in individuals. Spinoza, for instance, refused to shut up about his unorthodox views of God and human happiness, even after he was offered money by his synagogue to keep quiet, and even after an attempt was made on his life. Really, it is an example like his that makes me want to forego anonymity in my blogging, even though I don't shy from controversy (that is, relative to academia, e.g., the entertaining of conservative ideas and arguments that are too often dismissed as unthinkable) nor from the occasional personal admission.

Do we cling too fiercely to our lives? I still recall my answer to an essay question in an ethics class, in which I tried to argue that nothing--no cause, no belief, no person--is worth dying for. Yet, today, I feel nauseated when I think of all those who are so eager to trade liberty for life.

Have we forgotten the advantages of adversity, the positive effect that hardships (up to a certain point) can have on character? My upbringing was a typical suburban one. My parents were reluctant to discipline--and I don't blame them (too much) for it, since they were partly reacting to their own childhoods, and they always acted with love and good intent. But I find myself lacking self-discipline at inconvenient times. Fear of unknown unpleasant things looms too large in my pscyhology.

Recently, I saw Howard Dean campaigning on behalf of the Democrats in favor of an approach to terrorism that was "both tough and smart". In addition to being an excellent slogan, it brings to mind Aristotle's classic example of prudent courage as a mean between pusillanimity and foolhardiness. This more balanced approach is what we really need in our foreign policy.

On top of that, I would make a case for the more (traditionally) feminine virtues of compassion and empathy. Spinoza is on to something when he echoes a classically Christian sentiment that love can defeat hatred. There is some good to be found in everything, so is it not better to reap the benefits of peaceful coexistence and cooperation than to annihilate our enemy, destroying not merely the bad but the potential good within?

Upon reflection, I reiterate that the decline of hypermasculinity is an advancement. Traditional gender roles are stupid, and still exert too much of an influence on our lives. It is just a myth that courage and compassion are incompatible.

(A personal aside: Speaking from experience on the issue of gender norms, I wish more women appreciated [more or less] straight guys who weren't afraid of their feminine qualities; the whole "metrosexual" movement gave me some hope on this front, but I feel as though it has declined. Certainly, I am attracted to women who have certain masculine qualities, like aggressiveness.

I have recently made great strides personally by encountering and embracing the more feminine aspects of myself: my body and my emotions, the nonverbal and the social. I feel like a more complete person. And isn't androgyny a more balanced expression of humanity? I find it appealing in both men and women.

Although I recognize that gender and sexuality are related but distinct, I still ask: Who wouldn't choose to be bisexual if orientation were really a choice? Too bad it's not. I mean, you could double your options without having to lower your standards!)

Arguing for balance and moderation is such a cliché, but I think it's worth stressing here. In ethics and politics, there are no easy answers--this is why dissent is so important. War cannot destroy terror; it can only perpetuate it. To be able to admit this, and live by it, is true courage.


A Triumphant Day for Reason

Two otherwise unrelated news stories today have given me hope that human beings can sometimes act other than irrationally:

Pluto is out of the planet club! In a striking blow for the principle of parsimony, the IAU has taken us back down to eight planets. Pluto with its highly irregular orbit is now a mere "dwarf planet".

Cheer up, Pluto fans. This doesn't necessarily mean that My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us... Nothing! Perhaps she served us Noodles instead.

And, the FDA has finally approved Plan B for sale without a prescription! That's right, the "morning after pill" will now be available OTC. This is truly a victory for female promiscuity! Let the immorality commence!

(I'm just poking fun at Ben, and other conservatives, here. Honestly, though, we should be compassionate. They're probably pretty torn up about this. The next thing you know, they'll be letting the little sluts get vaccines against HPV. What a shame that would be! Don't people realize that loose women deserve to die of ovarian cancer? I mean, really now, let's be reasonable here. [This is sarcasm.])


The Politics of Fear (Updated)

The other day, I put up a post considering the issue of profiling in airports. I concluded that there are just too many problems to make it an easy solution, including the fact that serious terror organizations could probably find ways around it.

My motivation for doing so was to consider an alternative to draconian measures such as banning liquids on flights. Well, as it turns out, this may just be a case of politicizing terror threats--and the investigation might even have been prematurely terminated.

I've read recently--sorry, I couldn't find the links in a cursory search, so deal--that the information leading to the arrests was garnered from torture victims in Pakistan, and that the explosives they were supposed to use would be insanely difficult to make on board of an airplane (the reactions require lots of ice and temperature monitoring, and a lot of stirring over a few hours, among other things).

Unfortunately for Bush & Co., the GOP didn't get the bump in support they were hoping for (boy who cried wolf, anyone?), but they have managed to provoke irrational fear and racism, as Glenn Greenwald reports:

All of the fear-mongering and political exploitation of terrorism from the Bush administration and its loyal supporters (including the British Prime Minister) is starting to produce predictable results. Passengers are becoming unwilling to fly on planes with Arab males. Yesterday, British passengers on a Monarch Airways flight to Manchester "mutinied" because there were two Arab men on the plane:

British holidaymakers staged an unprecedented mutiny - refusing to allow their flight to take off until two men they feared were terrorists were forcibly removed.

The extraordinary scenes happened after some of the 150 passengers on a Malaga-Manchester flight overheard two men of Asian appearance apparently talking Arabic.

Passengers told cabin crew they feared for their safety and demanded police action. Some stormed off the Monarch Airlines Airbus A320 minutes before it was due to leave the Costa del Sol at 3am. Others waiting for Flight ZB 613 in the departure lounge refused to board it.

Glenn goes on to make, more forcefully, some of the points I tried to make earlier:

It would be really great -- so, so comforting -- if terrorists could be identified by looking at their faces. But as is true with the use of torture as an interrogation tool, one can leave aside the moral questions if one insists because singling out Arab-looking males is a stupid, ineffective and totally irrational method for finding terrorists. Islamic extremists come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, nationalities, and genders. If the category of suspects is narrowed to Arab-looking males, fewer things will help terrorists more since they will simply use terrorists whose physical appearance and demographic characteristics place them outside of the targeted class.

But it is the irrational fear here that is so striking, and really quite pitiful. They have whipped people into a state of such intense paranoia that they quiver at the sight of two Arab males on their plane. There is roughly one billion Muslims in the world, including some countries which have more than 100 million. The U.S. alone has 10 million. Enormous numbers of Muslims are not Arab and do not reside in Arab countries. There are 320 million people living in Arab states, and it should go without saying that only a tiny handful of them are "terrorists" (and that many terrorists reside elsewhere). To start refusing to fly or take buses or trains or be in the same room with the males in that population -- which is clearly the path we are on -- is just stupid, hysterical, and counter-productive from every perspective.

Anyway, you should read the whole thing. Apparently the rightwing blogs are applauding this reactionary racism. Big surprise, huh?

Reading this, I can't help but wonder how the fear has gotten to me personally. I already have irrational fears associated with flying--telling myself that I'm more likely to die on the interstate en route to the airport doesn't seem to help for some reason--and perhaps it's not so difficult to throw some other fears into the mix. Was this what really prompted me to consider the question of profiling?

It's times like this when you can see how Bush is a far more effective terrorist than Osama bin Laden is. I recently saw V for Vendetta, and while some have derogated the movie as superficial, I really liked it and think it's a nice reminder of the danger that fear-driven politics poses for our world.

We must remember, racism is bad not simply for the harm it does to minority populations, but because it is irrational. Statistically speaking, even if you find that one group surpasses another group in some characteristic on average, you can't use such knowledge to predict group status on an individual basis. For instance, men are taller than women on average, but if I tell you that a person is 6 feet tall, that by no means necessitates that it's a man.

This is especially so for something like terrorism, for only a tiny fraction of individuals of any race, religion, or nationality are aspiring suicide bombers. If we forget this, we let the terrorists and Republican politicians win.

UPDATE: Glenn links to this great analysis of the British incident at Mahablog. Definitely worth reading.


On a lighter note...

"Astrologers unfazed by new planet plans."

Thank heavens! I was afraid this might effect our precious pseudosciences! Hopefully scientology and creation science are also unfazed.

But really, I think 12 planets should be seen as a boon to astrologers, since that's the number of Zodiac signs and such. Why isn't the International Astrological Union doing something about this?

While they're at it, they should reform the way that signs of the Zodiac are determined to coincide with conception. I mean, it makes no sense to suggest that the womb gives us protection from the influence of the stars. And since gestation time is considerably variable (I, for one, took nearly 10 months to emerge from the womb, according to my parents), it couldn't just be a matter of offsetting things by 9 months.

Under the logic of the current conventions, what would happen if you were born into a house made of meat? Would you not acquire your sign until you left it? Perhaps the astrologer might counter that there's some kind of interference caused by the soul of the mother. Fine, but embryos created in vitro wouldn't have that problem.

Astrologers really need to get on the ball here.


Bonus Reader Poll: Which ultimate fate for the universe most appeals to you?

A. The Big Crunch
B. The Big Rip
C. The Big Freeze
D. The Big Gulp


Of Wanderers and Wonderers

Today is a good day for science.

Recently, I have been inspired by news that astronomers are currently convening in Prague to decide the fate of Pluto, the black sheep of our solar system. This "plucky" little spheroid (yes, one of the "journalists" covering this story used that adjective in describing some elementary school children's attempts to save its historical status) has, for decades now, been the recipient of the astronomical equivalent of affirmative action.

But discovery of other objects in the solar system of comparable size and orbit have called Pluto's status into question. For scientists to be consistent, they would have to allow Pluto's moon Charon, the heretofore-asteroid Ceres, and the newly discovered celestial body nicknamed "Xena" into the planet club. Moreover, dozens or perhaps even hundreds of roughly spherical objects orbiting the sun may be candidates for entry.

Reading about this fascinating shift in long-established facts has reminded me of the wonder I experienced in my youth regarding what I thought at the time was God's creation (or, more accurately, just God; I was pretty pantheistic). About the time of my sophomore year in high school, I really got into cosmology and astrophysics. I thought then that I would surely become some sort of scientist, a geneticist if not a physicist (I was taking biology at the time).

I read popular works, primarily by Stephen Hawking. I read the original version of A Brief History of Time, as well as the illustrated version, and I even made my parents play lectures of his on tape (in his robotic voice and everything!) during at least one family vacation. I saw in a bookstore the other day that he has a new illustrated tome entitled The Universe in a Nutshell which purports to be an update of that first popular book which I so enjoyed.

I see these sorts of adolescent ruminations on the nature of reality as my first stirrings of philosophical interest. My interests in science have shifted--towards evolutionary theory and neuroscience more than anything--but they never completely left me.

In fact, I could quite easily see myself in graduate school for science, were it not for the fact that experimental work never appealed to me. (Also, even though I am fortunate to be mathematically talented, I never really liked the more advanced math that I studied.) I'm too much of a big picture thinker; I wouldn't be satisfied chipping away at one small corner of the universe when there's so much out there that's exciting.

But, as I've said, my interest in cosmology has been rekindled, and I've been spending (too) much time recently perusing Wikipedia. I have to say, it is a fantastic source (as far as I can discern) for popular discussions of theoretical physics, advanced mathematics, and high-concept science-fiction.

I'm feeling lazy, otherwise I'd include links, but I started off looking at Dyson spheres, stellar engines, the Kardashev civilization scale, the anthropic principle, ecumenopoleis (plural form of ecumenopolis, or world-city), and cosmological evolution (what you might call Darwinism for universes). I swear, though, I could spend days reading about these things. They're utterly fascinating, truly a testament to the power of the human imagination and the sublime beauty of our universe.

I think it's no coincidence that I find Spinoza so compelling, given these sensibilities. Even though he is an amazing thinker in terms of human psychology, ethics, and politics, Spinoza is also a big picture thinker. I find some fascinating parallels between Book I of the Ethics and ideas like the infinite universes hypothesis and the anthropic principle. This is huge stuff--I mean, we're talking bigger-than-the-universe stuff.

Consider the following. It's a given that intelligent life is an extremely improbable phenomenon. Given enough time and space, it's bound to happen somewhere in a universe, but only if that universe falls within specific parameters, having certain fixed cosmological constants. Because of how rare it is, it would seem to us that (excluding the possibility of intelligent designer(s), whose existence would itself be even less probable than that of a universe capable of supporting some kind of intelligent life) it's unlikely to arise if only one universe existed. In other words, the fact that we exist seems to lend credence to something like the infinite universes hypothesis.

But, as it turns out, this kind of reasoning is an instance of the inverse gambler's fallacy! As you may know, the gambler's fallacy is this idea that if you've been, say, playing roulette for a long time and 17 hasn't come up yet, that it's due to show up on this particular spin. The error here is that dice (and roulette wheels) have no memory. On any given trial, it's just as likely that 17 will come up if the last 100 spins have not landed there as it would be if say 50 of the past 100 had (improbably) landed on 17.

The inverse of this, also a fallacy, is to think that the occurrence of something improbable means a long history of unsuccessful attempts. So, say I go to a casino and play the slot machine once, hitting triple-7 and winning the big jackpot. I then ask you, is it more likely that this is an old machine that has had many losers before or that it's a brand new machine which had never been used before? We'd be inclined to suppose the former, but unjustifiably so. The probably of hitting 777 on spin #1 is equal to that of hitting 777 on spin #1,000,000.

What does this mean for the universe? Well, the likelihood that life will arise in this universe does not change even if there are millions of non-life-supporting universes "out there" (assuming that universes are closed systems that don't interfere with each other). If this reasoning is correct then, from our perspective, it is no more rational to believe that there are infinitely many universes than to believe there is just one--it's merely an aesthetic preference. That's just so counterintuitive!


Airport Profiling

In light of yet more rules and restrictions on what can be brought on airplanes, many of us are probably wondering how far things will go. The current ban on liquids seems to me excessive--although the UK's response, banning carry-on luggage almost entirely, is even worse.

While any more successful terrorist attacks would be unacceptable, we let the terrorists win if we totally surrender our freedoms out of fear of relatively unlikely events. A balance must be struck between security and convenience.

This thus brings me to the issue of racial/religious profiling. On the left, this is typically dismissed without thought. Certainly there are enough cases of abuse among police forces to have put the practice into general disrepute. But, putting aside fallacious slippery slope concerns, is there a case to be made for using profiling in airport screening?

I'll begin by admitting that this practice probably already goes on to a great extent. In a sense, the question I'm asking is, should we look the other way when this goes on? I'm not a legal scholar, so I'll leave aside constitutional concerns (a case could be made that it violates the 4th and 14th Amendments). Instead I ask, what kind of profiling (if any) is (morally) acceptable in airport screening? Could such profiling be a substitute for other draconian measures that unnecessarily inconvenience us all?

Beginning directly with the most controversial case, race, I would argue that race alone should be insufficient. For one thing, being swarthy, olive-skinned, or more generally "of Middle Eastern appearance" (OMEA) is fairly common. Some southeast Asians, Hispanics, and even Southern Europeans can be OMEA. Nor is there any guarantee that a terrorist will be distinctly OMEA himself. So let us set aside race for now--it's probably better to do this anyway.

Certain types of profiling I think no one would object to. Passengers who buy one-way tickets, in cash, the day of their flight would rightly be subjected to scrutiny. Terrorists also don't typically travel with their wives or children--and are predominantly male, for that matter.

However, looking out for these signs would also be insufficient unto themselves. If terrorist organizations learn that certain things are being looked for, they can always adapt. How much harder would it be to buy round-trip tickets in advance, for instance? Similarly, attacks in Britain have shown how terrorism can come from native-born individuals as well as from foreigners. There are large enough populations of Muslims within the UK and the US for terrorist recruiters to draw from.

What then of specifically religious profiling? Surely this is something that all members of al-Qaeda have in common? Setting aside the fact that the vast, vast majority of practitioners of Islam are not terrorists, it would seem relatively easy to lie about such a thing.

As I ponder this issue further, it seems to be intractably complex. Even if we could compile a specific profile of hijackers, it's clear that there will always be difficulties. For starters, it's unfair to the majority of members of whatever demographic group who are peaceable, law-abiding citizens. Second, it's not so hard to work around such profiles.

Of course, these are criticisms of a more practical nature. The question is, if it were possible to produce a relatively successful profiling program, would it be right to employ it?

Then again, maybe asking such a question masks a crucial part of the enterprise--in the asking of such a question, we fall into the danger of overlooking the very real abuses that are likely to accompany such a practice. More generally, I'm inclined to believe that epistemic concerns can have an impact on the justifiability of certain practices. By way of explanation, let me draw upon two relevant examples.

First, there is the question of torture. Advocates are quick to point to something like the ticking time-bomb example, in which a terror suspect holds the key to stopping the death of millions, but must be tortured to extract said key. The problem with this scenario is that it constructs an ideal situation that we could never know that we were in. Even if we're pragmatic about justification, and settle for plausibility over certainty, we still run into significant problems. False bomb threats are not uncommon, suspects are often mistakenly apprehended, and the reliability of information garnered through torture is itself dubious.

Another example of this is the (original) justification for the Iraq War. The claim was made that Iraq had WMDs that posed a significant enough threat for us to attack them preemptively. At the time, I made an argument to the effect that such unprovoked military action requires a high threshold of certainty to be justifiable. Even if the Bush administration believed that Saddam had WMDs, they were in the wrong ethically if their belief was not adequately justified.

In the aftermath, it's clear that doubts were suppressed and dissenting assessments stifled in such a way that, even if Bush & Co. didn't explicitly lie, they are still morally culpable for wrongly believing something on insufficient evidence. Ordinarily, we don't hold people responsible for ignorance, but in a case such as this one (in which we had to take them at their word since the information they judged from was classified) different standards apply.

Returning to the example at hand, I would argue that efficacy considerations cannot merely be sidelined. If we could be sure that profiling would prevent some terrorist attacks, I would support it on consequentialist grounds. But efficiency is an empirical question, although one especially difficult to assess in this situation. While it may be possible to measure the number of plots thwarted, it's impossible to measure the number of plots that were entirely prevented. No terrorist attacks could mean a successful set of programs, but it could just be dumb luck.


If I draw one conclusion from this, it's that there is no easy answer to fighting terrorism. There can be no question of simply replacing the ban on liquids with more aggressive profiling. If our motivation for wanting to target specific groups is to reduce the inconvenience to most of us, who pose no threat, the question of implementation complicates the issue, drowning out common sense pleas of "But I'm no terrorist--why can't I bring my hair gel?"

Really, I have a lot of trouble thinking about this set of issues. Although I don't find it nearly as wrong-headed as the "War on Drugs", the "War on Terror" leaves me somewhat ambivalent. The Muslim world has some legitimate grievances with the West. Sometimes I wonder if what we're trying to protect includes advantages that we're not entitled to. Why should the US get more oil than anyone else?

Above all, I am reminded that terrorism is a problem that cannot be fought primarily with law enforcement and military action. Whether it's giving up cheap oil and global military superiority or losing the luxury of being able to fly with toothpaste, sacrifices must be made. The American way of life is ultimately unsustainable; it persists today only at a huge cost to the poorer parts of the globe.


A More Sensible Drug Policy

A new study by British researchers attempts to order 20 drugs according to the damage they do to individuals and to society as a whole.

Some of the most interesting findings indicate that alcohol and tobacco are more dangerous than cannabis, LSD, and ecstasy, with alcohol coming in 5th after heroin, cocaine, barbituates, and (street) methadone.

The list is not comprehensive, omitting anesthetics like PCP and ketamine (Special K), hallucinogens like psilocybin/psilocin (magic mushrooms) and mescaline (peyote), and caffeine.

Reasonable Members of Parliament are suggesting that some drugs be reclassified:

Strongly influenced by the research, MPs on the Commons science and technology select committee demanded an overhaul of the system to give the public a "better sense of the relative harms involved".

They called for a new scale to be introduced, rating substances on the basis of health and social risks and not linked to legality or potential punishments.

They questioned whether ecstasy and magic mushrooms should remain in Class A and called on the Government's drug adviser, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), to look at the issue.

Phil Willis, who chairs the committee, said the current classifications were "riddled with anomalies" and were "clearly not fit for purpose".

"This research shows why we need a radical overhaul of the current law and a radical review of the classification system," he said.

"It's clearly not fit for purpose in the 21st century, neither for informing drug-users or providing public information."

One committee member, the Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, said that putting drugs in the wrong category "undermined the whole system". "Lots of young people know that there's a difference between ecstasy and heroin," he said.

It's nice to see elected officials responding positively to scientific findings. I'm sick of the religious ideology that pervades politics in this country and results in the most illogical, anti-scientific conclusions and policies.

The fact that the researchers looked not merely at harm to individuals but at harm to society as a whole undermines, at least in part, some of the conservative arguments I've heard against the decriminalization of, e.g., marijuana. (Of course, one could always criticize the ways in which they gauge the degree of social harm, but at least they see the importance of including it).

It's always nice to find data like this to back up one's intuitions and personal experience. This should allow me to form a more coherent position on drug policy. Some of my new conclusions follow.

Despite their danger, it's not feasible to criminalize alcohol or tobacco. This doesn't necessarily mean, however, that everything below alcohol on the list ought to be totally unregulated. We may wish to keep some, especially those that fall between alcohol and tobacco, criminalized. And since alcohol and tobacco are themselves regulated, I don't see why we couldn't put an age requirement on the sale and use of cannabis, LSD, mushrooms, ecstasy, etc.

Here, I'd argue for 18; 21 is just ridiculous. That we can vote, fight for our country, be held fully responsible for criminal offenses, and so forth, but not drink is just idiotic. Now I'm not an advocate of the "forbidden fruit" argument (viz., that people want something more because it is denied them, so that granting access to it would actually reduce the number of users), but it seems to me that our current attitudes toward alcohol lead to binge drinking and other dangerous patterns of behavior.

By and large, I am very pro-drug use. Those of us with the misfortune of losing the genetic lottery (who suffer from depression or anxiety, say), can use them to make life more enjoyable, or at least tolerable. I definitely think people should be encouraged to take drugs like antidepressants and anxiolytics; I would even argue that they are underprescribed, not over-.

Street drugs are different, because their sale is not regulated (they may be contaminated) and they can come with nasty side effects, including dependence and addiction. Nevertheless, I see no problem with using drugs recreationally if people do so responsibly. We should educate, rather than indoctrinate, people about the risks associated with drug use.

Above all, I advocate the decriminalization of cannabis (for obvious reasons). Anecdotally, at least, comparing stoners to binge drinkers puts the former in a far more favorable light. Personally, I prefer the company of potheads to that of alcoholics. And smoking weed does not make people aggressive (or, even worse, sexually aggressive), nor does it carry any real risk of overdose (compare 16 UK deaths from marijuana use to 22,000 for alcohol and 114,000 for tobacco, in 2004; even if we account for discrepancies in the number of users, the cannabis figures are relatively miniscule).

Lastly, I would argue that cracking down on recreational users is a huge waste of resources. We don't need to be spending billions of dollars prosecuting victimless crimes, nor should we be filling our prisons with drug offenders. Really, the punishment ought to fit the crime. If the UK can understand that, why can't we?


A Note on Cynicism

Once again, I am working this summer for the same program I do every summer, but this year at the main site in Baltimore. I love the program, but every year I find that it becomes increasingly and unnecessarily regimented, stifling, and even oppressive in its policies. In many ways, I see it as a microcosm of a larger cultural problem that we now face in America; I'll briefly explain why.

There are two related issues here. The first is seen in an increased willingness on the part of Americans to undergo "minor inconveniences" and follow more and more questionable rules, almost invariably justified on the basis of greater security.

When I showed up to orientation this year, I was told by our site director that our primary task here is to ensure the safety of our students. In a word, this is bullshit. Granted, safety is a sort of prerequisite for carrying forth other goals, but it should only ever have an instrumental value. Safety for safety's sake is the guiding principle of cowards, of those who seek to avoid death rather than to live life.

Spinoza writes, simply but truly, "the free person thinks of nothing less than of death." He well understood that any democratic society cannot operate on the basis of fear, but must rely on fear's unfortunately weaker cousin, hope. (I should argue this point further, but my time is limited. Suffice it to say that fear is a potent passion, especially opaque to the light of reason.)

But, unfortunately, the upper-middle class parents of suburbia today are afraid to expose their children to any kind of unpleasantness whatsoever. Children are to be housed in a protective bubble, free from the countless evils of the world that could harm their fragile "self-esteem". So there is to be no cursing, no sexual language or behavior of any kind, no teasing even with good intent, no roughhousing or horseplay, no social exclusion, no disruptive behavior--no fun, no creativity, no growth. The notion that hardship can build character has been lost, especially to otherwise well-meaning people--to self-identified liberals in particular.

So, on the one hand, we have a society of people obsessed with security, willing to follow even the most arbitary and oppressive rule as long as it is said to guarantee some modicum of protection for their lives--even though they be lives hardly worth living. This is bad enough, but the other side of this is perhaps worse: a pervasive and destructive cynicism, even--or especially--among the youth of our nation.

Granted, this is not a good time for progressive causes. November 4, 2004, was devestating to many, including myself. But this omnipresent cynicism among my peers, colleagues, and students merely fuels the problem. We have lost sight of the possibility of collective efforts having any kind of power or influence. So we see, for instance, organized labor is practically in its death throes, more and more people live alone, fewer and fewer exercise their right to vote.

Of course isolated individuals cannot successfully fight city hall or corporate America--but isolated individuals have never been able to accomplish much in the first place. The great movers and shakers of the world rely on so many others to carry forth their efforts, but this is often ignored in a culture in which individuality and the illusion of independence are worshipped as gods. I think it may have been Newton, that great scientific revolutionary, who said, to paraphrase, if I see farther than others, it is because I stand upon the shoulders of giants (e.g., Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, et al.).

I am young, and often sarcastic and snarky. My sense of humor is dark, macabre at times. I criticize more than I construct. I have a tendency of seeing the negative side of things. I do have a sense of "how the world works" well enough not to be naive.

But I am no cynic. I am not apathetic. I will not sit idly by and let incremental changes--each of which taken singly are indeed but trifles--compound until they dismantle the guiding principles and values of our culture.

And so, when I work this job and I find year after year more policies that subvert the genuine goals and ideals of this program, that stifle creativity and distract us from our project of educating young people, I will not "mellow" as my peers often suggest. I won't "chill out" when it would not be so difficult to come together with others who share my distaste for these trends, to find some means of collectively expressing it to those individuals who set the rules for this simultaneously anarchic and bureaucratic institution--I have coined the term "chaocracy" as the best way to describe it--and perhaps having an effect on things.

There's a lot of background I'm leaving out here--former employess of the program will have a sense of what I'm getting at--but my time here is precious, and I must end this entry. As I age, I understand more and more why idealism and optimism are usually confined to the young. But I shudder to think what would happen if even they lost their sense of wonder and hope for a better world.