Existential

I've been reading Barbara Oakley, a professor and social scientist with a unique theory about altruism. Far from being a boon to mankind, she believes, altruism is often our scourge, our instrument of self-destruction.

She cites the altruistic Chairman Mao (as we have too, in our discussions about altruism and ethics) and Adolf Hitler (who never stopped constantly reminding the German people how much he was helping them, up until the end when the entire country burned). These are both apt examples in the critique of "bad altruism". Her recent book, lengthily titled Cold-Blooded Kindness: Neuroquirks of a Codependent Killer, or Just Give Me a Shot at Loving You, Dear, and Other Reflections on Helping That Hurts offers the case study of a Utah woman named Carole Alden who liked to draw in men who needed help, devote her life to helping them ... and then kill them. Carole Alden's fatal self-victimization complex is an instructive illustration, and Barbara Oakley believes it points to a general truth about the meaning of altruism in our lives.

Well, I don't know. I admire the clarity and force of Barbara Oakley's convictions, which remind me of Ayn Rand's. But Cold-Blooded Kindness is a bumpy read, maybe because the style of writing veers between psychology textbook and Scott Turow thriller (a combination also often used by David Brooks). This breathless writing style can work if expertly handled, but it feels forced here. The idea that horrible Carole Alden (who resembles, roughly, evil nurse/fan Annie Wilkes from Stephen King's Misery) stands as a representative example of normal altruism also feels forced, and this is the more significant problem with the book.

Yes, this woman claimed to be an altruist and screwed up (or killed) every person or animal she tried to help. Yes, there are fringe cases. But the idea that we ought to avoid altruistic impulses in general because of these fringe cases takes it much too far.

Barbara Oakley's dismissive attitude towards the human impulse towards altruism seems to reflect an unwillingness to admit how co-dependent we all are, always, whether we like it or not. To question whether or not altruism is good for us, as if it were a choice we were making, reflects a naive misunderstanding of the role of altruism in our lives. We ARE altruistic. We will always be altruistic; it's at the center of who we are. We -- our loved ones, our community -- are baked into each other's souls at the deepest levels. No book of social psychology will ever change this fact, nor should it.

The question our best social scientists and philosophers need to answer isn't whether or not we should be altruistic. The question is how we can do a better job of being altruistic, and stop screwing it up so much. This is where it helps to look at disastrous counter-examples like Mao Zedong and Adolf Hitler and, yes, Carole Alden too

Even though I don't agree with Barbara Oakley's general emphasis in her books, I am glad she's calling attention to the meaning of altruism in our lives, and I plan to also check out her next book, Pathological Altriusm, which will be published by Oxford University Press later this year. The question of altruism is one of the most relevant and dynamic questions in philosophy and psychology right now, and Oakley's books do help to advance the conversation, even if they do so with a direction I don't find useful.

On the political front, Oakley's books seem to point to a tough-love attitude towards the world, and perhaps to a Tea-Party-esque political stance regarding entitlements and the social safety net. This Barbara Oakley interview from Trending Sideways also suggests that Tea Party beliefs go along with this theory of psychology:

In the United States, we’ve gone so overboard with a one-dimensional idea that altruism is always good that it is creating real problems for society. For example, an ideology has evolved among certain well-meaning people that business is always predatory, and academia and unions are always on the right side in helping people. But can we afford to have unions that block reform in places like Detroit, where only 25% of students graduate from high school? Or unions that force taxpayers to pay millions to try to get rid of proven child molestors and absurdly incompetent teachers? The state of Georgia is turning out to be the Enron of K-12 education. From my personal experience here in Michigan working with corrupt K-12 school systems, Georgia is just the tip of the iceberg.

The reality is that unions and academics can be, and often are, as predatory and self-serving as businesses. Yet they fly under our radar, because they pretend to serve “the people” instead of just their constituents—and themselves. I’m reminded of Jimmy Hoffa, who inserted into his union’s contract that he had to receive his million dollar salary even when he was in prison. Hoffa was a grifter who got away with his con on a massive scale because he said he was helping people.

I strongly disagree with the attitude Barbara Oakley is expressing here. I don't believe that altruism is bad for people, and I don't believe that government is bad for people. Though I'm sure bad altruism does sometimes exist, and I think it's pretty clear that bad government sometimes exists too.

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Saturday, August 13, 2011 11:26 am
Story
Levi Asher

Here's a tough challenge for anybody: talk about politics, about everything our muddled, dysfunctional democratic government is doing wrong, without resorting to the following cliches:

  1. Declaring that the other side is evil.
  2. Declaring that the other side is stupid or uneducated.
  3. Declaring that the other side is so hopelessly corrupt that negotiation or compromise is pointless.

These easy excuses have become very popular in the United States of America, and of course the sentiments are the same on the right and the left. Many of those who find hope in the Tea Party movement believe that our government has been infiltrated by socialists or Marxists ("evil"), that decades of soft-headed liberal education has left Americans unable to understand and appreciate the hard edges of the U. S. Constitution ("stupid", "uneducated"), that Washington D.C. is a nest of thieves that must be wiped clean ("hopelessly corrupt") before our society's true inner goodness can be revealed.

On the other extreme are the frustrated liberals who may have once held some hope for Barack Obama's leadership, but are disgusted with the results so far. They believe our nation is in the grip of racist, hate-filled voters ("evil"), that the Fox News-watching, Rush Limbaugh-listening, Sarah Palin-fan club populace knows nothing about history or economics ("stupid", "uneducated"), that Washington D. C. is a nest of thieves that must be wiped clean ("hopelessly corrupt") before our society's true inner goodness can be revealed.

These conservatives and liberals are often against the two-party system, but they're not against the apocalypse system. They're increasingly attracted to the idea that the only way to fix the United States of America is to prepare for a revolution, a grand battle that will pit good against evil and hopefully vanquish the bad guys before the bad guys vanquish the good. "It's getting to that point," they'll grimly declare.

It's funny that some people don't think our problems can be solved by the democratic process, yet foolishly dream about armed revolutions or final battles that might finally "settle everything", even at the risk of turning our prosperous and luxurious society into a tableau of tragedy and violence resembling Cormac McCarthy's The Road (a novel whose apocalyptic visions of good vs. evil are so cleverly positioned as to allow all readers to think it must be written for them, and against their opponents, whoever they are).

I was recently talking to a smart 14-year-old girl who told me "I just have a feeling that things are getting worse and worse, and nobody's going to be able to fix it." What a scary thing for a young person to believe! Of course, there's plenty of evidence for this. In the last ten years our nation was attacked, we became embroiled in two wars, our economy crashed.

This past week has been especially frustrating, degrading, hopeless. Following the stark brinksmanship of last month's debt debate, one major ratings agency has downgraded the USA's credit score for the first time in the nation's history. This feels like a slap in the face to a furious, beaten-down populace. We feel we have no voice in our government. We're scared for the future. Who do we slap back? Have things become so truly hopeless that we'll ultimately have no choice but to fight it out in the streets, and hope the good side wins?

I'm pretty sure we've got some better options. I reject the apocalypse system.

I'm not crazy about the two-party system in the United States of America either, and I'm certainly disgusted by the dysfunctional Congress our voters have elected. But I believe the solution is more compromise, better compromise, smarter and more carefully considered compromise. Compromise, however, is rarely popular, and many people think it's the wrong direction for our leadership to take. Isn't compromise the same thing as appeasement? Doesn't it result from a lack of principle, a lack of backbone? Doesn't it fail to root out the evil that rots us from the inside?

As we struggle with difficult problems, I continue to personally find inspiration in the leadership of President Barack Obama -- even though he's now so unpopular on both the left and the right that I truly fear our nation may make a decision in 2012 to replace him with any of several potential leaders who have shown less character, less wisdom and less humanity. I'm sure that we're lucky to have him atop our dysfunctional system, and I hope we're smart enough to keep him there. The system remains dysfunctional, but there's been a linchpin of sanity, rationality and true moderation in the Chief Executive's spot. I fear how much worse things can get if that linchpin is lost.

We all know why American conservatives hate Barack Obama. Many liberals seem to hate him too lately, and I do understand why. His Taoist style of leadership -- it's funny that his enemies call him a Muslim or a socialist, when it's clear that he's a Taoist above all -- always seeks the middle. He appears all too willing to give ground to the opposition, often for nothing in exchange. It's easy to see that his often puzzling and inscrutable moves towards compromise have deep roots in the sense of satyagraha preached by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and yet it's no easier for the world to accept the stubborn, difficult choices a wise leader must make today than it was when either of these two wise leaders were alive.

I don't like the mess that the two-party system has left us: greedy, vain Democratic politicians slugging it out with greedy, vain Republican politicians in TV ads that insult our intelligence. But I'll take the two-party system over the apocalypse system. I don't believe an armed revolution or final battle between good and evil will solve anything. I'm not interested in seeing Cormac McCarthy's The Road predict our future.

And it's interesting that the need for a revolution is the one thing that the hard left and hard right seems to agree on (though they disagree on which side will win). I'll choose the path of inclusion instead. And, yeah, even in the frustrating summer of 2011, as our economy declines and our Congress continues its pathetic dance of mediocrity, I still love and trust all Americans, and I still believe that inclusive, compromise-minded leadership offers our best hope for a better future. Do you?

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Sunday, August 7, 2011 12:56 am
Story
Levi Asher

As I write these words, the United States Congress is attempting to wrap up one of the most surreal, theatrical and plainly ugly legislative battles in its history. The Republican-majority House of Representatives and the Democratic-majority Senate cannot pass a bill to raise the nation's debt ceiling, putting us days away from defaulting on our own national debt. This would be the equivalent of declaring national bankruptcy within a world economy that has always considered our debt to be completely solid and reliable.

The noisy spectacle aside, most observers are confident that a last minute compromise will be reached. (If it isn't, I trust that the smart and sensible Barack Obama will take steps to ensure the nation's solvency using every resource available to the Executive branch. We are at least a couple of options away from economic catastrophe.)

But what does it all mean? Here's what I think about the bigger issues, and I'd love to hear what you think too. I'll keep this as brief and succinct as I can.

OUT OF CONTROL SPENDING

The budget deficit has gotten out of control, but let's remember that we had a balanced budget in the USA in the 1990s, thanks to the blessedly productive cooperation of liberal President Bill Clinton and conservative Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. A balanced budget is not an impossible dream (and we don't need a balanced budget amendment; we need a balanced budget).

How did we squander our balanced budget? Three ways. First was George W. Bush's overly optimistic tax cuts for the wealthy (I have no problem with tax cuts for middle-class Americans, but tax cuts for the wealthy was a gluttonous concept from the beginning.) Second was George W. Bush's bad habit of imagining himself to be Winston Churchill, inspiring him to lead the nation into two ruinous, pointless, expensive and terribly managed wars. Finally, there was the 2008 failure of the irrational system of "risk-free" high finance, a wealth-generating scam perpetuated by the likes of Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, AIG, Alan Greenspan and the deregulation-happy Republican party, which took our stable economy down with it when it crashed.

Yes, I mainly blame President George W. Bush and the Republicans for today's out of control spending. That's because I like facts. Sometimes when conservatives here me say this they erupt: "stop blaming Bush!". Why should I stop blaming Bush? Why should anyone stop blaming Bush? We had a balanced budget when he took office. His administration completely squandered it.

President Obama also takes some blame for continuing the Bush policies of high-spending stimulus and low taxes for the wealthy. There's no doubt that Obama has heard the message that we need more drastic spending cuts, and both houses of Congress have heard the message too. Let the hard work of cutting continue -- every American should support this. But we don't need a revolution to cut out-of-control spending. Again: we had a balanced budget, only two Presidents ago.

THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT IN OUR LIVES

I grew up a libertarian hippie kid in the wake of the 1960s and 1970s -- the era of Watergate and the Vietnam War. Back then, it was liberals like me who wanted the Federal government to have a smaller role in our lives. I still feel a warm affection for the basically rebellious and libertarian tendencies of the Tea Party movement, because I tend to like anybody who protests anything. But I think the Tea Party often picks the wrong targets to aim their protests at.

At its worst, what the Tea Party seems to yearn for (besides revenge and the pleasures of a huge public temper tantrum) is a nation less able to support its citizens with education, health care, transportation, infrastructure, scientific research, crime prevention, disaster response. (Revealingly, only a few honest Tea Party politicians like Ron and Rand Paul are willing to declare that the nation should reduce its bloated military budget. I believe we're better off cutting military spending than any of the other areas above.)

What should the role of government be in our lives? Well, tuning in to a conservative talk radio show recently, I heard a caller declare that the economy in the United States has gotten "as bad as it can get". The fact that the host of this show didn't immediately correct and ridicule this statement reveals how silly the hyperbole has become. This is as bad as it can get? 90% employment? Nobody dying in the streets? Vastly comfortable and luxurious lifestyles? Education, poverty relief, emergency services, crime prevention and other essentials of good government all in fairly good shape? Anybody who thinks that this is bad as it can get knows nothing, absolutely nothing, about the reality of our world, and really needs to learn a few things.

The photo at the top of this page shows something closer to "as bad as it can get": the current crisis in the Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia and Ethiopia. Here are a few links about this terrible crisis, which is taking place right now, and getting no major media coverage. (The picture on the page is one of the mildest in the Atlantic photo essay -- most are too horrific for the front page of this literary site.)

America is "as bad as it can get". Heh. Idiots.

THE TONE OF THE DEBATE

We know it's been ugly, but is this the kind of debate we need to be having? Maybe so. Bill Vallicella, who appears to be a proud philosophical conservative in the same sense that I am a proud philosophical liberal, posted this on his Maverick Philosopher blog:

In sum, we Americans are fundamentally divided and in a way that is irreconcilable at the level of ideas. We do not stand on the common ground of shared principles and there is no point in blinking this fact. Left and Right are riven by deep and unbridgeable value differences. And so any compromises that are reached are merely provisional and pro tem, reflecting as they do the fact that neither side has the power to clobber decisively the other and push the nation in the direction in which it thinks it ought to move.

He sums up the tone of the moment pretty well, though I suspect the politics of identity -- ethnic, regional, cultural affinity -- have a lot to do with the fact that conservatives were willing to enthusiastically endorse massive out-of-control debt spending under President Bush and President Reagan, but balk at the same style of government when practiced by President Obama. Regardless of the roots of the battle, though, there is no doubt that our country is currently split on ideological grounds. This is an opportunity for reflection, an opportunity for all of us to look within and aim for greater understanding.

Our country, of course, has been badly split before -- during the Vietnam/Watergate era, during the FDR administration, and 150 years ago during the Civil War. That last reference point is another useful one to keep in mind when we ponder how things could get "as bad as they can get".

That's what I think. Now, I'd like to know what you think.

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Sunday, July 31, 2011 09:30 am
Story
Levi Asher

When I talk with friends about the Buddhist position on desire -- that desire is illusion, that we must free ourselves from desire -- the conversation often becomes circular. How, someone may ask, can a person want to not want? And, if we free ourselves from desire in order to become happier, aren't we actually following our desire (the desire to be happy) by claiming to free ourselves from it?

These are the right questions to ask, and I'm not going to pretend to have the answers.

But I think we have much to be gained by reframing the question in a wider way, and placing this question at the very center of our philosophical thoughts. What is the object of our desire? Let's say I want a tray full of Taco Supremes from Taco Bell (this is a highly realistic scenario, since in fact I do want a tray full of Taco Supremes from Taco Bell). So, which of these sentences are true?

1. I want to enjoy the pleasure of eating some Taco Bell.
2. I want to free myself from the agony of wishing for some Taco Bell.
3. I want to be happy.

I think we can agree that the third statement is true. What about the first two? The first statement seems reasonable, but actual life experience shows that when we chow down fast food, we often do so without even paying much attention to the pleasurable qualities of doing so. If I were to go to Taco Bell right now, I might very well be on my phone as I eat, texting or checking Politico (how's that debt ceiling crisis going?) or checking my email. Actual experience shows that, all too often, we seek pleasure defensively, wishing mainly to quell our aching desires. This is certainly true of drug addicts, alcoholics or cigarette addicts; it's easy to see that they often fail to enjoy their indulgences, though they do enjoy the freedom from having to think about whether or not to give in to their weaknesses.

So this is a question worth asking: what is the object of our desire? It's a helpful thing to just ponder this question sometimes. We don't need to answer the question. Just to sit and ponder it every once in a while is a good step closer to a Buddhist attitude in life.

And then, here's an even better question, one that I have been hinting at in my recent writings about Ayn Rand, and one that seems to suggest Buddhist themes: when we desire, what is the subject of our desire?

That is, on whose behalf do we desire? Do we each simply desire on our own behalf, alone, in total isolation? Or do we desire on behalf of our families, our best friends, our fellow citizens? We all want to be happy, but don't we all want everybody to be happy?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions, but it seems to me that if we could figure out what is the object of our desire and the subject of our desire, we'd figure out a whole lot that we don't currently understand.

(NOTE: I found the statue in the photo above at Madison Square Park in New York City. The artist is apparently named Jaume Plensa.)

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Saturday, July 23, 2011 08:11 pm
Story
Levi Asher

(This is the first guest post in the Philosophy Weekend series. James Berrettini is a friend and fellow software developer with whom I've conducted intensive private debates over difficult questions of philosophy and ethics for many years. He and I often disagree, but I know he shares my belief that these questions are keenly relevant to modern life. Here's James's introduction to a popular but misunderstood writer and thinker, C. S. Lewis. -- Levi)

Sarah Palin was mocked for telling Barbara Walters for saying that she turns to C. S. Lewis for "divine inspiration." Richard Wolffe, a commentator on Chris Matthews' show, thought this indicated a lack of seriousness, assuming that she was referring to "a series of kids' books." Defending Lewis, Matthews interrupted saying: "I wouldn’t put down C.S. Lewis." Wolfe continued: “I’m not putting him down. But, you know, 'divine inspiration'? There are things she could’ve said for 'divine inspiration.' Choosing C.S. Lewis is an interesting one."

C. S. Lewis was indeed an interesting writer, if not for the reasons that Wolffe believes. Like many people, he was unfamiliar with Lewis beyond knowing that he wrote the Chronicles of Narnia books, which we all "know" now, thanks to the good people at Walden Media, Walt Disney Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. Who was Lewis?

Born in Belfast, Clive Staples Lewis (Jack to his friends) was a novelist, essayist and popular theologian. He and his good friend J. R. R. Tolkien moved in an Oxford literary circle known as "The Inklings." Early in his career, Lewis was drawn to esotericism and occultism such as was prevalent among both his friends, such as Owen Barfield and his idols, such as William Butler Yeats. His mid-life conversion to Christianity was integral to his views and writings later in life.

Lewis was a critic of aspects of modernity; we see this in his work, The Abolition of Man. In it, he asserts that there's a fundamental moral truth all mankind knows, regardless of the specifics of race, creed, or culture. Lewis refers to this truth as the Tao. Mankind's freedom doesn't consist in mere license. Rather, it follows from our living fully to our potential, which means living in accordance with the Tao. Put simply, choosing to do evil -- say, abusing hard drugs, or eating endlessly, or stealing wealth -- doesn't make us free. It enslaves us to drugs, or gluttony, or greed.

Lewis claims the Tao is universal, and nearly everyone acknowledges it, even as individuals fail to live by it. Our recognition of morality doesn't come from pure intellect, which allows us to ponder without consequence; nor does it come from our appetite, since it merely drives us to consume. Rather, following Plato, he locates the facility for living according to the Tao between the head (intellect) and the stomach (appetites). We follow the Tao from the chest, which we might refer to as the passionate or spirited element of our souls. The book asks the question, is it possible to abolish the moral sense from human life and human culture, to create what Lewis calls Men Without Chests? He sees that, in recent history, it's been tried both with increasing force and increasing subtlety. He sees the abuse that is possible in various technologies (propaganda, eugenics, etc.) In this, he has a lot in common with Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

Lewis was no facile moralist. In his moving personal reflections, very late in his life, on the death of his wife Joy Gresham, he revealed the kinds of spiritual doubts and despair it caused him. For him, faith was not a matter of consolation on the cheap -- it was a gritty, lifelong struggle with black periods and few easy answers or paths. He's very far from a shallow writer of children's books -- he was a serious thinker, an excellent prose stylist, and worth reaching for, whether or not you find yourself in need of "divine inspiration."

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Sarah Palin was mocked for telling Barbara Walters for saying that she turns to C. S. Lewis for "divine inspiration." Richard Wolffe, a commentator on Chris Matthews' show, thought this indicated a lack of seriousness, assuming that she was referring to "a series of kids' books." Defending Lewis, Matthews interrupted saying: "I wouldn’t put down C.S. Lewis." Wolfe continued: “I’m not putting him down. But, you know, 'divine inspiration'? There are things she could’ve said for 'divine inspiration.' Choosing C.S. Lewis is an interesting one."

C. S. Lewis was indeed an interesting writer, if not for the reasons that Wolffe believes. Like many people, he was unfamiliar with Lewis beyond knowing that he wrote the Chronicles of Narnia books, which we all "know" now, thanks to the good people at Walden Media, Walt Disney Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. Who was Lewis?

view /CSLewis
Saturday, July 16, 2011 08:51 am
Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis
Story
James Berrettini

Sorry, but once again, no Philosophy Weekend here this weekend. Still on vacation, still recharging the ol' Evereadies.

I am working on some big ideas for the next entries in this series. Some new questions, an attempt at a new synthesis ... but it will have to wait to begin next weekend.

Photo of antique batteries from Eric Wrobbel's collection.

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Sunday, July 10, 2011 11:59 am
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Levi Asher

I'm on vacation today. But you came to visit and I don't want to leave you with nothing, so here's a verse from Sappho. Last week I attended a poetry reading where somebody read these lines onstage, and they stuck in my head:

Some say an army of horsemen,
some of foot soldiers, some of ships,
is the most beautiful thing on this black earth,
but I say it is what one loves.

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Sunday, July 3, 2011 06:59 am
Story
Levi Asher

This is journalism?

I'm disgusted by Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone piece on Tea Party politician and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, and not because I like Michele Bachmann any more than Matt Taibbi does. I think she'd be a disastrous President, as bad as Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty or Rick Perry and maybe even worse, and I think there will be a lot at stake in the 2012 Presidential election.

A debate is raging in the United States of America about the nature of government itself, and significant intellectual challenges are arising from all sides. At times of heightened controversy like these, good journalism becomes absolutely essential. Here's what Taibbi, a supposedly serious and reputable liberal political critic, has to say about the latest rigid conservative to make waves as a Presidential contender:

Bachmann is a religious zealot whose brain is a raging electrical storm of divine visions and paranoid delusions. She believes that the Chinese are plotting to replace the dollar bill, that light bulbs are killing our dogs and cats, and that God personally chose her to become both an IRS attorney who would spend years hounding taxpayers and a raging anti-tax Tea Party crusader against big government.

Then, a little further on:

In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you've always got a puncher's chance. And Bachmann is exactly the right kind of completely batshit crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy — crazy in the sense that she's living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she's built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.

Funny that Taibbi should compare ultra-rightist Michele Bachmann to ultra-leftist Kim John-Il of Korea, because I've already expressed my disgust with lazy journalists whose analysis of this North Korean stops dead at the observation that "Kim Jong-Il is crazy". In fact, Kim Jong-Il is a lot of terrible things, but crazy isn't one of them. Here's what I wrote last November:

This material can make good comedy -- and, listen, I don't understand the haircut either. But I sure hope nobody thinks "Kim Jong-Il is a loon" can substitute for real insight. A statement like this is, rather, a display of no insight. It signifies that some logic or explanation for Jong-Il's actions exists, and that we are blind to it. A statement like this is the opposite of insight.

The more I think about this, the more this kind of empty commentary irks me. By telling us that Michele Bachmann, who appeals strongly to many Americans, is simply "crazy", Matt Taibbi is actually telling us a few different things at once, none of them reflecting the message he wants to transmit.

First, he's letting us know that he doesn't have an even basic understanding of why Michele Bachmann is popular, and why some smart people in this country take her seriously.

Second, he's letting us know that he doesn't think it's important to have a basic understanding of why Michele Bachmann is popular. She's beyond discussion. To any Rolling Stone reader who might have ever found Michele Bachmann appealing in any way, Matt Taibbi has nothing to say but "talk to the hand". These readers, presumably, are beyond discussion as well.

This is journalism?

Any loudmouth balook on a city bus can proclaim that a politician they don't understand is "crazy". It's a journalist's job to do better than this. I expect a serious political writer to show a grasp of both sides of a story and then come down on the better side. That's the kind of political writing that can have the power to change people's minds.

Taibbi-style hyperbole has only one possible goal: to hit an opponent so hard that the opponent crumbles. This is journalism aiming not to explain or illuminate, but to embarrass, exclude and vanquish. Both sides practice this type of journalism, of course. I'm more critical when I see my fellow liberals do it than when I see Fox News do it (Fox News, of course, does it 24 hours a day) because I think we liberals should do better than our opposition.

At least I'm not all alone here. Just as I was stewing over Matt Taibbi's useless piece (which, ironically, got a lot of positive attention among my tweeps and friends), I read an unusual, perceptive Huffington Post piece by the great hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons.

Simmons, apparently, is as sick of the low-quality liberal response to conservative challenges as I am. Pondering his passionate disagreements with Fox News figurehead Sean Hannity about foreign policy, he comes to a surprising realization:

[Hannity] lives by his book and for that I have to respect him... but I don't believe that everyone else has to be made to live by HIS book. People really believe in a strike-first foreign policy... it protects our country, so they say. They bully us and push us around, so we bomb the shit out of them and wipe their country off the map. They really believe that.

And while they believe all of this, they stomp on us. And while they are stomping, they smile as we just get angrier, with them and with ourselves. So, we turn them off, tune them out and call them evil. That is where they win and we lose. We play on their battlefields, in their costumes and in their language.

"We turn them off and call them evil". Right, and there are two other variations: we call them stupid, or we call them crazy. Three different ways of telling people we disagree with that we don't think their opinions are even worth talking about: call them evil, call them stupid, call them crazy.

Here's Russell Simmons's closing paragraph, which I agree with completely. Simmons was a smart guy in the 70s and 80s when he put Queens hip-hop on the map, and he's apparently a smart guy still today:

As progressives, one of the things it means is that we are open-minded. One of the things we stand for is a lack of rigidness. We have always led with compassion, while conservatives lead with values and safety. But if we don't listen then we are no better than they are. We will end up walking out of meetings with the vice president just like them. Cause at the end of the day Sean Hannity and his boys think they are right. And we think we are right too. All patriots want this country to be more perfect. We all believe in our hearts that our way is right. I didn't say turn on Fox News, as you know my politics are to the left of Dennis Kucinich, but when it's on and you walk by and you hear their rhetoric, don't assume they're wrong. A great yogic teacher said, "You have two ears and one mouth for a reason." You don't have to agree with them, you just have to listen.

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Saturday, June 25, 2011 07:54 pm
Story
Levi Asher

Two philosophical entertainments for a pleasant summer weekend:

1. I'm intrigued by a new novel called The New Moscow Philosophy by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh, originally published in 1989 and translated into several languages, but only now available in English in a new edition translated by Krystyna Anna Steiger and published by Twisted Spoon Press of Praque.

I'm only a few pages in, but am already impressed to find in this book a rich, obsessive look at the whole meaning of Russian literature. The endpaper copy explains:

... As two tenants engage in an extended debate over the nature of evil, the take it upon themselves to solve the mystery and nail the culprit, and it becomes clear that the entire tableaux is a reprise of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Displaying a sharp with and a Gogolian sense of the absurd, Pyetsukh visits anew the age-old debate over the relationship between life and art, arguing that in Russia life imitating literature is as true as literature reflecting life.

The author's authority on the subject of the great Russian literary tradition makes itself strongly felt, though the work feels a bit Kundera-esque and I must admit that so far I like the back cover copy better than the book itself (that happens often, in fact). But I'm sticking with it, and I think the book has a hell of a thesis. We know that Joseph Stalin was a big Dostoevsky fan.

2. The Brits know how to party. A blog post at Moby Lives alerted me to a Philosophy and Music Festival called "How The Light Gets In" that took place last month at Hay-on-Wye. Participants included A. C. Grayling, Bernard Henri-Levy, Lars Iyer, Henrietta Moore, Bryan Appleyard, Jonathan Ree, Polly Toynbee, Mark Vernon, Simon Critchely, Philip Pullman, Dany Cohn-Bendit, Cory Doctorow, Evgeny Morozov, Lauren Booth and, apparently, a whole bunch of experimental musicians. Impressive bill.

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Saturday, June 18, 2011 10:48 pm
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Levi Asher

There's been an explosion of popular interest in the novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand lately, and not only because I wrote a book called Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong and Why It Matters (which, I'm happy to report, is selling quite well). Rand died nearly three decades ago, but her Objectivist philosophy has made headlines for two different reasons in the past couple of weeks.

She's been a sore point lately for Republican Congressman and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, an avowed admirer. Several Christian groups have been asking why a conservative politician with "family values" credentials would admire and follow the work of a stringent atheist with provocatively modern ideas. Ryan, a Catholic, claims not to be influenced by Rand's dislike of religion, but this answer does not seem to be satisfying his critics. A group called the American Values Network has begun targeting both Rand and Ryan in television commercials, and the Congressman was caught in a "gotcha" video dodging a persistent critic who tries to give him a Bible while asking "why did you choose to model your budget after the extreme ideology of Ayn Rand, rather than on the basis of economic justice and values in the Bible?" Time Magazine calls this Paul Ryan's Ayn Rand Problem.

I can't help feeling some satisfaction here. I generally try to be sympathetic towards the ideas of those I disagree with, but I'm appalled by Paul Ryan's recent proposal to replace Medicare with vouchers for private insurance (fortunately, most of the United States of America seems to agree with me, though the Republican Party can't seem to make up it's mind where it stands on Medicare). The fact that Ryan would rather see the destruction of a health care system that helps senior citizens than allow the federal government to increase taxes on millionaires and billionaires tells me all I need to know about Paul Ryan's priorities as a politician, and casts doubt on both his moral judgment and his common sense. I can barely think of another current politician I dislike more than Paul Ryan.

On the other hand, Paul Ryan's philosophical bent and affection for Ayn Rand is probably the most (perhaps only) likable thing about him. I don't agree with Ayn Rand's ethical philosophy, and I don't agree with her atheism. I enjoy watching Paul Ryan get harassed by a Bible-thumping young conservative in the video above, but I wish the Bible-thumping young conservative were more offended by Ryan's anti-Medicare proposals than by his quirky affection for a controversial ethical philosopher. Oh well! I'll take my satisfaction wherever I can get it these days.

I've also been hearing a lot of positive buzz about a British television series called All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. This is the work of Adam Curtis, who has tackled controversial psychology/culture subjects like the influence of Sigmund Freud in previous BBC shows. All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace stirs up the idea that computer technology is turning us into automotons, and that the ideological work of various scientific-minded "visionaries" of the 20th century has led us down this dangerous path.

This is a three-part series, and among the scientists, software innovators and pop psychologists that face Curtis's critique in the second and third parts are Arthur Tansley, who invented the word "ecosystem", Norbert Weiner, R. Buckminster Fuller, Stewart Brand, William Hamilton, Dian Fossey and Richard Dawkins. The first episode, though, is devoted almost entirely to Ayn Rand and her prize student Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve Board chairman who presided over the expansion of hedge-fund-based speculation that led to the disastrous economic crash of 2007 and 2008.

It's a riveting episode, well worth watching (via the YouTube link above if you don't have direct access to the BBC). I do agree with Adam Curtis that Randian Objectivism must have influenced Greenspan's hyper-capitalistic, profit-friendly (and ultimately toxic) economic policies (though, as many Objectivists have argued, the line of influence here is indirect). But I'm a little puzzled by the show's emphasis on innovations in computer technology-- Curtis, the narrator of the show, often spits the word "computers" out with palpable venom -- as the prime cause of hedge-fund mania.

Curtis is correct that computers made the type of precision "risk management" that crashed the economy possible, and he's also correct that a naive confidence in computer-based data modeling led to the dangerous ideas that esoteric financial structures could actually eliminate risk from investment (as if such a thing could ever be possible). Still, it's odd to hear Curtis speak of computers with such obvious dislike, as if they were responsible for nothing in the past twenty years except for the invention of advanced derivative trading. In my own life, computer technology has been a liberating force, and an enabler of creative expression. I'm sure most viewers will also disagree with this part of the show's message, a weak link in an otherwise strong and illuminating chain of ideas.

I've noted before that different identity groups seem to have come up with wildly varying ideas about who or what to blame for the economic crash of 2007/2008. Some conservative thinkers place the primary blame on over-eager home buyers who couldn't maintain their mortgage payment schedules. Adam Curtis blames computers for making hedge funds possible. I continue to feel strongly that the real culprit was the financial deregulation that took place between the Reagan, Bush and Clinton presidencies. During these decades, a fantasy took root that a deregulated financial industry would remain honest and stable. Blame the computers? No, I blame the government leaders who gave in to the Wall Street lobby's pleas for a regulation-free banking, investment and insurance system that would increase profits and generate extreme wealth (while also, unfortunately, risking a financial disaster that would hurt the middle class far more than it would hurt the wealthy).

I'm also not sure that Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace fairly represents Ayn Rand's philosophies (Rand, it seems to me, would never have felt comfortable with the collectivist impulses of most starry-eyed California tech-utopians). Still, though, it's a fascinating series full of many nuggets of surprising information. It also contains a few strange coincidences of personal interest for me. The title comes from a poem by the hippie writer Richard Brautigan, a big favorite of mine (he died just as the computer revolution was taking shape, so this is a bit of a sideways glance). The episode on Ayn Rand also includes interviews with several Silicon Alley and Silicon Valley executives of the 1990s who were influenced by Ayn Rand, and I was quite surprised to find among them Kevin O'Connor of DoubleClick, who I met several times during the Silicon Alley days, and wrote about (not very flatteringly) in my memoir of the dot-com years. I had no idea that Kevin O'Connor was a Randian. I wonder if he's a Paul Ryan supporter too.

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Friday, June 10, 2011 10:05 am
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Levi Asher