Monday, October 31, 2011

Atheists with judgmentalism issues

One of the reasons celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins says he refuses to debate Christian apologist William Lane Craig is that Craig, according to Dawkins, is "a deplorable apologist for genocide" because of Craig's explanation of the Old Testament passages on the Hebrew invasion of Canaan.

These atheists are so judgmental anymore. You'd think they believed in some absolute, universal morality or something.

Quiet Please. Atheist Zone.

Increasingly wimpy atheists, who apparently lay awake nights worrying that someone, somewhere might be having religious thoughts, have just had their nights rendered sleepless by a Kentucky appeals court. The court ruled that language in Kentucky's homeland security law "stressing the dependence on Almighty God as being vital to the security of the Commonwealth" doesn't violate the state's constitution because, uh, you know, the same acknowledgement of God is in the preamble of the state's constitution.

Next thing you know atheists will be arguing that the Constitution is unconstitutional--which, come to think of it, is exactly what they were indirectly arguing in this case.

American Atheists, the cross-appellant in the suit, was suing because the law was causing them to suffer sleep disorders and "mental pain and anguish."

Many of us remember the good old days, when atheists didn't cower in fear at the mere mention of God. In fact, all that talk from the New Atheists about how brave they are because they face the world without the comfort of religion is kind of hard to square with atheist groups like this one whose tender psyches are reduced to a trembling puddle of emotions whenever they hear religious language.

They just don't make atheists like they used to.

Monday, October 24, 2011

On Ducking Debates: Is Dawkins really chickening out?

I don't normally comment on charges that the-fact-that-someone-won't-debate-someone-else-so-he-must-be-scared. You might not want to debate someone for a lot of reasons. But the recent dust-up over Richard Dawkin's refusal to debate Christian philosopher William Lane Craig just begs for comment. 

Dawkins said in the Guardian recently that he won't debate Craig despite Craig's challenge to meet him this month at Oxford. Dawkins gives several reasons for avoiding Craig, and none of them seem very convincing. And putting them all together doesn't add up to much either. 

Here is philosopher Victor Reppert, commenting on what indeed seems like Dawkins avoiding a debate because he's scared (and someone with Dawkin's lack of knowledge of philosophy ought to be):
Dawkins makes the claim that the theist is delusional, by which I take it he means that the case against theism is overwhelming. Yet he doesn't, in any serious way, engage any of the arguments in natural theology, and he seems to imply that it is beneath him to engage leading defenders of belief in the existence of God, and their arguments. I don't care whether he does it in a debate format or some other format, but somewhere, somehow, he needs to show that he knows how the Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Thomistic Cosmological Argument restrict the class of what needs a cause, so that a simplistic "Who made God" can't refute them in any direct way.
Craig is a leading defender of arguments for the existence of God. Regardless of whether some of his statements are morally repugnant, Dawkins needs to come to terms with him and those like him if he is to have any credibility with respect to his delusion charges. Putting his nose in the air with the "Courtier's Reply" does not replace confronting the actual relevant arguments.
Read the rest here.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Traci Lee Simmons to speak at Highlands Latin School tonight.

Highlands Latin School's
2nd Annual Community Lecture Series
Friday, October 21, 2011

You're cordially invited to join us this Friday, October 21, at 7:00PM!

Highlands Latin School is pleased to welcome esteemed author, Tracy Lee Simmons (see his bio below), on Friday, October 21, 2011, at 7:00PM, in the Sanctuary of our Crescent Hill Campus (2800 Frankfort Ave). Mr. Simmons' lecture on "Classical Education and America's Future" is free and open to the public. All are welcome to attend!

Tracy Lee Simmons has been a working journalist, editor, and writer for over 20 years. He holds a Master’s Degree in Classics from Oxford. He has written for newspapers, magazines, and journals including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Weekly Standard, American Enterprise, The New Criterion, and The Sewanee Review, and he once served as an Associate Editor for National Review under William F. Buckley, Jr. He published Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin in 2002, which won a Choice Award for “Outstanding Academic Title” for that year. He continues to write regularly on literary, historical, and cultural topics.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Quaddafi is dead. Long live progressive leadership.

There's not much to say about the reported death of Qaddafi, longtime Libyan tyrant. I will just mark his end by recounting my first awareness of him.

I was in 7th grade at Dapplegray Middle School in Rolling Hills Estates, California in the early 1970s. We (all of us students) were herded into the gym, where we saw a film on the incredible economic miracle taking place in an African country most of us had never heard of. And this was all taking place, we were told by the film's narrator, under the rule of a progressive new leader.

The country was Libya, and the progressive leader was Quaddafi.

Public schools. You gotta love 'em.

Workers of the world, you have nothing to lose but your brains!

White people. Occupying Wall Street. Protesting rich people who take advantage of other people. Funded in part by George Soros. Billionaire hedge fund manager. Who was convicted of insider trading in in France in 2002.

Just thought I'd mention it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"Rebels Without a Clue" runs in Lexington Herald Leader

My article "Rebels Without a Clue" was published in Friday's Lexington Herald-Leader.

And one more thing...

I should have added to the last post on whether Christians should vote for Mormons one other thing (and this in relation to Perry's remark that he disagreed with Pastor Jeffress): I would rather vote for a Mormon who thought that Mormonism was Christian than a Christian who thought Mormonism was Christian--largely because the latter, but not necessarily the former, should know better.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Should you vote for a Mormon?

You can say the right thing at the wrong time. And this appears to be what has happened on the issue of Romney's Mormonism.

Okay, for starters, I have no political problem voting for a Mormon candidate for office. In fact, if I was faced with a choice between an atheist candidate who would do the right thing and a Christian candidate who would do the wrong thing, then, in principle, I would vote for the atheist candidate without blinking. As Gene Veith has recently reminded us, Luther once said, "I'd rather be ruled by a smart Turk (Muslim) than a stupid Christian."

So when someone like Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor and Perry supporter, made this an issue the other day, it really complicated things politically, even for people like me. The problem lies in connecting together the question "Should I vote for Mitt Romney since he is a Mormon?" and the completely different question "Is Mormonism Christian?"

What we need here is de-linkage. The two questions have little to do with each other: the answer to one should have little to do with the answer to the other. Unfortunately, it may be too late, practically speaking, to make that distinction.

The answer to the second question, "Is Mormonism Christian?" is: No, of course it's not. Unfortunately, this question has been sort of muddled by the use of the word "cult." Is Mormonism a cult? Sure it is. So is Methodism, Lutheranism, and Pentacostalism--and Catholicism. Cultus is a Latin word that means "worship" or "form of worship." Is Mormonism a form of worship? Yes it is. So are all Christian sects, Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic.

As Pastor Jeffress himself rightly pointed out, he was using the term in a modern evangelical religious sense to mean "non-Christian sect," and not the sociological sense of a culturally deviant and dangerous religious group a la Jim Jones. But it still muddies the waters, maybe hopelessly.

What Jeffress was really saying was that Mormonism was not a Christian sect. He was right here too. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, Christianity is defined as "the beliefs of the apostles." That is its original and still dispositive meaning. Those beliefs were refined and extrapolated by the seven ecumenical councils, the last of which was the Council of Nicea, which produced the Nicene Creed, the greatest and most definitive statement of Christian belief. A few of us would add a few more councils, here, but that's a different issue.

So the answer to whether Mormonism is Christian is easy to decide: Are their beliefs consistent with the beliefs of the Apostles as they were expressed in the New Testament and as they were articulated in the Nicene Creed? And the clear answer is "No."

If you take any cardinal doctrine of Christianity and ask whether the Mormon Church unconditionally accepts it, the answer is "No." The Atonement. The Resurrection. The Virgin Birth. The unique deity of Christ. They may have beliefs that sound similar, but just a little scratching under the surface shows they do not accept these beliefs as historically defined by the Church.

Heck, they're not even monotheistic.

That doesn't mean they're not good people, or that they ought to be culturally marginalized, or that any one of them can't be president. It just means that they are not within even the broad definition of the Christian Church.

All that being said, if voting for Romney for president is going to require culturally that we all say nicely that his religion is Christian, then a cultural problem is created that affects my political decision. It gives the political position, which is otherwise unproblematic, a negative cultural consequence.

This wouldn't be Romney's fault. It will be the fault of people like Pastor Jeffress, even though he's right about Mormonism.

Is forced busing needed to add some color to the white faces Occupying Wall Street?

Remember all those charges of racism against the Tea Party? Well, now the highest ranked Tea Party candidate in the Republican primary is Black, and white folks are Occupying Wall Street.

It's a crazy world.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Strange Bedfellows

The guy who bailed out the big boy banks wants to embrace the Occupy Wall Street movement. Go figure.

Are science and religion incompatible?

Essays lauding the superiority of science over religion are not uncommon, and Julian Baggini, atheist editor of Philosopher's Magazine, gives us another one in the Guardian. Biologist Jerry Coyne, of course, is much impressed, as he is with any such pronouncement, no matter the quality of them.

Baggini acknowledges that science is focused on how questions, and religion on why questions, but contests the non-overlapping magisteria view of the late Stephen J. Gould--that religion and science deal with two completely different kinds of questions that do not impinge on one another--and correctly so. This is, in fact, one of the places in which the New Atheists are correct: you can't place religion and science in two hermetically sealed compartments and expect them never to get mixed:
This means that if someone asks why things are as they are, what their meaning and purpose is, and puts God in the answer, they are almost inevitably going to make an at least implicit claim about the how: God has set things up in some way, or intervened in some way, to make sure that purpose is achieved or meaning realised. The neat division between scientific “how” and religious “why” questions therefore turns out to be unsustainable.
So far, so good. There are claims made by Christianity that are empirically testable: That Christ was born without a human father, lived at a particular time, spent his life in particular place as a member of particular tribe who performed specific miracles, was executed on a particular mountain under the reign of a specific governor of Judea, and was raised after a specified number of days from the dead and seen afterwards by hundreds of people. And that his disciples went around afterwards preaching and baptizing and performing some of the same miracles as Jesus did in His name.

Now you can believe those claims or not, but they are the claims Christianity makes (in fact, its central claims) and they are "scientific" in the broad sense of being explicitly empirical and subject to proof or disproof by the methods of whatever empirical discipline would apply to them, which, in this case, happens to be history. Some are only empirical in theory and are not practically verifiable, but others of them are subject to at least some empirical scrutiny.

There are also philosophical or metaphysical claims made by Christians (but not necessarily by Christianity per se) who are operating in the realm of natural theology that are subject to proof or disproof. Examples of this would be the traditional proofs for the existence of God. These arguments can philosophically prove particular theistic beliefs, such as the existence of God, but if someone were to disprove any one of them, it would not affect the central claims of Christianity itself--it would only prove that some particular Christians (St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, etc.) were mistaken.

Despite the fact that he is a philosopher, Baggini says nothing about these metaphysical issues which are neither strictly theological nor empirical. In fact, Baggini seems to somewhat confuse the two when he speaks of "an evidence-led, rational examination of a view." A view could be "evidence-led" and not rational, or rational and non "evidence-led." The traditional proofs for the existence of God (or for that matter certain theorems in mathematics) are rational, but not "evidence-led," at least in the sense of being empirically testable.

But the main problem with Baggini's piece is that he seems to see every case in which religion makes an empirical claim as a case in which science and religion are in conflict:
[H]ow easily science and religion can rub on together depends very much on what kind of religion we're talking about. If it is a kind that seeks to explain the hows of the universe, or ends up doing so by stealth, then it is competing with science. In such contests science always wins, hands down, and the only way out is to claim a priority for faith over evidence, or the Bible over the lab.
Coyne too chimes in too, shaking his pom-poms:
This, of course, is just another take on something many of us have long maintained: any theistic religion—that is, one that posits a God who is active in the universe—must perforce make claims that can in principle be empirically examined or tested. And that is a “how” question. On the level ground where science and faith must compete to answer such questions, religion always loses, and always will.
The fact that two approaches may happen to focus on the same subject does not automatically put them into conflict. Conflict only comes when one approach says one thing about it and another approach says something contradictory. If historians say that historical records show that there was a comet in the sky in 627 B.C. and astronomers say there wasn't, that's a conflict. But if they both approaches conclude there was a comet in the sky at that time, then there is not conflict. The two are perfectly compatible.

If science is "incompatible" with theology because they arrive at truth through different methodologies, then science is also incompatible with history, and with ethics--and with philosophy, Baggini's own discipline.

There is really no sense in talking about whether whether science and religion are compatible. If they look at the same alleged fact and come to differing conclusions about it, then so be it. Let it be decided using the methodology that is appropriate.

If the subject is the chemical makeup of something, then apply science. But if it is the existence of God, then science is going to have to bow to philosophy; if it is the genuineness of a historical event, then it's going to have to bow to history; and if it is the nature of the doctrine of justification, then it's going to have to bow to theology.

From the earliest times, Christianity has made empirical claims as evidence of its truth--largely having to do with miracle and prophecy. If scientists like Baggini and Coyne want to dispute them then let them have at it.

But so far they not only don't seem to have refuted them: they're too busy talking about whether magisteria are overlapping to even try.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Occupy the Polls

CBS reports that 54 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of the Occupiers of Wall Street. But if they really represents "the 99 percent," shouldn't 99 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of it?

Just askin'.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Book of Jake, Chapter XIII, in which Jake waxeth hot concerning the evil thing which Steve Beshear hath done

Now it came to pass in that day that Steve Beshear, King of the Democrites, spoke unto the people saying, "We shall celebrate this day the writing of the King James Bible, and there shall be an entire month in which the King James Bible shall be celebrated, and there shall be feasting and gladness, and the whole kingdom shall celebrate this thing."

But when these words came unto the ears of Jake, a prince of the Liberalites (a tribe of people allied with the kingdoms of Sodom and Gammorah), he rent his garments and became wroth and sware exceedingly, and made an oath against Steve Beshear, and blogeth against him, saying that the King had done evil in the sight of Jake and that the celebration of the King James Bible was an abomination, and asked, "What crack hast thou smoked, O King, that thou wouldst make such a proclamation, saying 'We shall celebrate this day the writing of the King James Bible?'"

And so Jake called unto him the wise men from among the Liberalites to seek counsel concerning the evil thing which had been done by Steve Beshear, who had spake unto his people saying, "We shall celebrate this day the writing of the King James Bible," saying "Now therefore come, I pray thee, and give me counsel concerning this evil thing which Steve Beshear hath done, so that I may find the words to speak against the king this day so that we may prevent Steve Beshear from bowing down before this abomination."

But finding no wise men from among the Liberalites, the anger of Jake swelled within his breast and so he threw a tantrum, and spake maledictions unto Steve Beshear, saying that the King pandereth unto his people in that day when he hath said "We shall celebrate this day the writing of the King James Bible."

And so Jake foamed at the mouth and cursed Steve Beshear saying that his words had been spoken because he was loved by the Democrites only because he was not David Williams, King of the Republicrites, with whom the Liberalites had made war, and that, in saying "We shall celebrate this day the writing of the King James Bible," Steve Beshear had done greater evil than when he had bowed himself down and made obesience to Ken Ham and had made an alliance with the Hamites and had granted unto the Hamites thousands of shekels from the taxes of the people so that he might build for himself an altar unto the ark, with rides, in a park which the Hamites had resolved to build to worship this thing.

But the words of Jake reached only the ears of the Internites and the Politicites and the Journalites, whom in past times had listened to Jake, but had not hearkened unto his words. And so the King James Bible which Steve Beshear had proclaimed, saying, "We shall celebrate this day the writing of the King James Bible," was celebrated throughout the kingdom with gladness and joy.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Occupying Dartmouth: On tonight's Republican debate

Several observations about tonight's Republican debate at Dartmouth University:

#1: Herman Cain won the debate--insofar as you can say anyone can be said to win these things. He came off as competent, informed, and articulate. And since the spotlight was on him because of his recent gain in momentum, all of that worked together to solidify him as a first-tier candidate. He is fast erasing doubts about his electoral viability. The fact that he could say that he had two candidates in mind to replace Bernanke when his term as Fed chair ends 2014 (under the implicit assumption that he might be president) and no one was even tempted to chuckle is a sign of where he is in this campaign. And did anyone notice the seating arrangement? Cain was seated in the center, as if he was the man of hour, which he is, given his recent rise in the polls. He looked like a leader. People were looking on him seriously for the first time and what they saw didn't seem implausible. There is a question that every debate answers. The chief question coming into this debate was whether Cain was a serious contender. His performance answered that question in the affirmative. He has at least put himself in the running for the VP spot, where a person of color or a woman is almost a certainty if the winner is a white male, and possibly taken another important step toward becoming the anti-Romney candidate.

#2: Romney came in second--He continues to be the man to beat in this campaign. As always, he comes off as being in command of the issues, particularly economic issues, and forceful in his presentation.

#3: Michelle Bachmann put in another excellent performance. She continues to impress by her almost flawless delivery of every answer to every question in these debates. She answers the questions smoothly and she answers them as an informed, intelligent political leader. It surprises me that, as much as she has exceeded expectations and put the lie to the media stereotype of some kind of crackpot, she doesn't seemed to have benefited in the polls. I don't think this most recent great performance will be enough to reestablish her as a top-tier candidate. Because of her gender, however, and her performance in the debates, she has established herself as a legitimate VP choice, given that the most important thing a VP does is to perform well in about two debates. She would make Biden look silly.

#4: Rick Perry again did not perform particularly well. He is surrounded in these debates by informed articulate people and, partly because he is a latecomer in this race, his reliance on generalities is starting to wear. He announced that he will be announcing an economic plan, but it may be too little, too late. 999 is beginning to seal the show. Perry needed a stellar performance tonight in order to erase the perception that his campaign is lagging. He didn't do that.

#5 Charlie Rose was the best of all the questioners in these debates--largely because he is a professional interviewer and he knows how to ask good, intelligent questions and keep things moving.

#6: Newt put in another superior performance, but his past superior performances have not put in into serious contention and tonight's will be no different in that regard.

#7: Huntsman continued to look good, but despite all the fawning of the liberal media (or perhaps because of it), he will remain the runt in the litter.

#8: Santorum had great things to say, but he has the gravitas of an over-enthusiastic puppy which is one of the reasons people don't see him as presidential.

#9: Ron Paul again had some good things to say. He will continue to be listened to in the debate and possibly do well in several primaries. But nothing particularly remarkable on the Paul front.

#10: This debate, even more so than the other Republican debates continue to impress by the level of discussion between the candidates. The Republicans who keep looking for the Great Right Hope (as in the Christie episode) need to get over it and take a look at what is a great field of candidates, all of whom would make a better president than Obama and who together have contributed to the most substantive and lively set of debates we have ever seen in presidential politics.

Comparing economic plans

Herman Cain just pitched, once again, his 999 plan at the Republican debate, which involves a 9 percent tax on personal income, a 9 percent business tax, and a 9 percent national sales tax. It occurred to me that Cain's 999 compares favorable to Obama's Plan, which might be called the 666 plan.

Monday, October 10, 2011

What do we want?!!! (We’re not gonna tell!!!) When do we want it?!!! (Now!!!)

This just in: we now know why it is all of these alienated twentysomethings who are apparently economically comfortable enough to take a week or more off are Occupying our cities! We now go to Matt Labash at the Weekly Standard, who has finally gotten to the bottom of this spreading national tantrum:
They are gathering, they say, to “express a feeling of mass injustice” on behalf of “all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world.” They are against corporations, which have not only taken your houses “through an illegal foreclosure process” and taken “bailouts from taxpayers with impunity,” but also “perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation.”  
Corporations have additionally poisoned the food supply through negligence, profited off the torture of animals, held students hostage with college-loan debts, sold our privacy as a commodity, used the military to prevent freedom of the press, outsourced labor, blocked alternative sources of energy, covered up oil spills, kept people misinformed by controlling the media, created weapons of mass destruction to get government contracts, and perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad while participating in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.  
My recounting, mind you, does not duplicate their entire list. And even if it did, their entire list keeps its options open with a footnote specifying that “these grievances are not all-inclusive.” So what do they want? Besides, seemingly, to complain a lot about corporations, the very entities that provide so many of the jobs that our economy is sorely in need of? What are they advocating, besides their right to assemble publicly for the purposes of bucket-drumming and eating vegan quiche in the free chow line? Well, according to another posting on OWS’s website, they want a universal single-payer health care system, a guaranteed living wage regardless of employment, free college education, one trillion dollars in infrastructure improvement, to bring the fossil-fuel economy to an end, to outlaw all credit-reporting agencies, and to see immediate across-the-board debt forgiveness for all. This is just a partial list, but they’re also going to be needing unlimited open-borders migration, too, since “these demands will create so many jobs, it will be completely impossible to fill them without an open borders policy.”
Glad we got that cleared up. Now we we know their reasons for trashing up the city streets and parks and defecating on cars. But OWS's website does not include the agenda of a protester named "Amy," who is seeking "the very abolition of gender." Labash met "her" on the way to the "women's" room.

So now that we know ... uh oh. Hold on. No, it turns out that all of these grievances listed above were just some individual contributor who posted it on OWS's website that are being “hyped by irresponsible news/commentary agencies like Fox News.” There is, says OWS, "NO official list of demands.”

Well, shoot. And we thought we had that figured out.

But this will not stop us, folks. We will find out exactly what this whole thing is about. As soon as they do.

Rebels Without a Clue: Why liberals can't even protest competently

You know things are getting bad when you start looking back with nostalgia on the Watt's riots, and when anti-war demonstrations, sit-ins, and the burning of draft cards seems like the good old days. Two recent riots underscore the extent to which rabble rousing no longer includes much that can be called "rabble," and is characterized by little that could be portrayed as "rousing."

Riots in the old days were organized in the back rooms of coffee houses or smoke-filled dorm rooms and were always about something: better race relations, the subversion of authority, opposition to the War. At their worst, they were nihilistic. Nihilism is specifically about nothing, which is at least something.

Today's riots? They're broadcast on Facebook and have the feel (and practical danger) of just another lifestyle app: the cultural equivalent of a fashion accessory.

When 60s radical Abbie Hoffman penned Steal This Book, he did it as a protest against the establishment, and he knew his message would be noticed--even if those who read it hadn't paid for the book.

One of the most salient facts about the recent London riots was that the rioters looted all kinds of stores: shoe stores, clothing stores, and computer stores. But they left the book stores untouched. "[B]ooks are losing out to high-end jeans and Apple-made gadgets," said the Economist.

It got so lonely in Waterstone and WH Smith, two British chain bookstores,  that one aggrieved employee even dared the rioters to loot his store. "If they steal some books," he said, "they might actually learn something." About, you know, ideas.

You can say one thing for book burning, it sends the message that, whatever form the protest takes, it at least has something to do with ideas.

The protesters of yore could at least muster a real physical threat.. At my alma mater, the University of California at Santa Barbara, we could boast that students in the 70s (the decade in which most of the 60s really happened) had burned down the Bank of America building. It wasn't a particularly constructive demonstration, and it was that much less impressive for the fact that it was performed by a bunch of spoiled teenage children of upper middle class families who wouldn't have known suffering if it had a sign on it.

But they at least had some coherent platitudes they could spout as a reason for burning things down.

The protesters of the 60s questioned authority; made love, not war; tuned in, turned on, dropped out; and Hell no, wouldn't go. What would the London protesters paint on their signs if such an alien thought had struck them? "Give Reeboks a Chance!" "Bring our toys home!" And, had they had Barnes & Noble in London: "Steal this Nook!"

They didn't steal bras in the 60's. They burned them.

The Occupiers of Wall Street can't bring themselves to burn anything. It has been the wimpiest protest in the history of mankind. And ideas? They're not sure what they're problem is, how to solve it, or who is responsible. In fact, some of the protesters seem to be there for purely therapeutic reasons--as a way to deal with their ennui.

"I was too young for the civil rights movement," said one 66 year-old woman. "And during the Vietnam War, I was too serious a student. Now, I just want to stand up and have my voice be heard." For some people, in other words, this is just one big, boisterous encounter group.

The media has made a big deal out of the fact that, for many of the protesters, it was their first time. So maybe that's the problem: a lack of experience. I'm now in favor of federal subsidies for protester training: how to set something on fire; how to formulate a reason to protest; and how to write a proper slogan

The 60s protesters had enough courage of conviction to constitute a palpable threat. The Wall Street protesters, lacking conviction in anything in particular, haven't even managed enough of a legitimate physical threat for police to resort to their riot gear. And the only possible use for tear gas would have been to disburse the crowds of reporters who were trying to figure out why exactly these people were marching.

It is a measure of the ideological seriousness of the protesters that one woman was overheard on a bus saying that she was going to return to a department store from which she had stolen some clothes to exchange them for something else.

The political and philosophical emptiness of the protests in London and Wall Street don't even rise to the level of nihilism. Nihilists are actually dangerous--like the ones in Dostoevsky's The Possessed, a book the London protesters could have burned, if they hadn't been so busy trying on the clothes they were stealing.

In fact, had the London protesters not been standing in line patiently waiting for their turn to steal (no joke--It's apparently a British thing), they could have been  down the street at Waterstone Books, where, in the process of looting, they could have taken a few moments to leaf through Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, a book in which Nietzsche prophesies that, once Western culture has given up on Christianity, it will, in its death throes, produce what he called "The Last Man."

The Last Man is a figure who merely seeks warmth, has no real commitment or passion for anything, is averse to any real risks, and, because he lacks the imagination even to dream, is completely incapable of anything great.

The Last Men of this Seinfeld Revolution can't tell you what they are protesting because they don't know, and the signs they carry don't tell you much, other than that they want the government to do everything for them and that they don't like credit card swipe fees.

Translated, what they mean is they want America to become the North American equivalent of Greece.

These people may be rebels, but they're rebels without a clue.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Why Steve Jobs was significant

Steve Jobs died yesterday. There has been a lot of talk about his legacy, but his chief contribution to culture was that he produced things no one thought they needed but which ended up becoming indispensable.


Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Pinker vs. Dostoevsky: Is man really getting better?

Stephen Pinker thinks people are getting better. Morally, that is. Of course, Pinker's own view of morality precludes saying one thing is better then another, except in some indefensible relativist sense.

Pinker makes his case that men are morally better than they were before by getting out the charts and graphs and adding up the numbers--showing we do fewer bad things and more good things now than we used to. There are a lot of questions here, such as how comparable modern statistics are to those collected in prior times--as well as how we will ever know exactly how many murders their were in past societies that didn't have our penchant for adding everything up.

And Pinker addresses this issue like he addresses every other issue: quantitatively. But, of course, that's never the whole story. Here is Dostoevsky's underground man, addressing this issue qualitatively, giving a whole different--and less sanguine--picture of man's moral state (and saying not very nice things about the sophisters and calculators like Pinker):
Why, to maintain this theory of the regeneration of mankind by means of the pursuit of his own advantage is to my mind almost the same thing ... as to affirm, for instance, following Buckle, that through civilisation mankind becomes softer, and consequently less bloodthirsty and less fitted for warfare. Logically it does seem to follow from his arguments. But man has such a predilection for systems and abstract deductions that he is ready to distort the truth intentionally, he is ready to deny the evidence of his senses only to justify his logic. I take this example because it is the most glaring instance of it. Only look about you: blood is being spilt in streams, and in the merriest way, as though it were champagne. Take the whole of the nineteenth century in which Buckle lived. Take Napoleon -- the Great and also the present one. Take North America -- the eternal union. Take the farce of Schleswig-Holstein... . And what is it that civilisation softens in us? The only gain of civilisation for mankind is the greater capacity for variety of sensations -- and absolutely nothing more. And through the development of this many-sidedness man may come to finding enjoyment in bloodshed. In fact, this has already happened to him. Have you noticed that it is the most civilised gentlemen who have been the subtlest slaughterers, to whom the Attilas and Stenka Razins could not hold a candle, and if they are not so conspicuous as the Attilas and Stenka Razins it is simply because they are so often met with, are so ordinary and have become so familiar to us. In any case civilisation has made mankind if not more blood-thirsty, at least more vilely, more loathsomely bloodthirsty. In old days he saw justice in bloodshed and with his conscience at peace exterminated those he thought proper. Now we do think bloodshed abominable and yet we engage in this abomination, and with more energy than ever. Which is worse? Decide that for yourselves. They say that Cleopatra (excuse an instance from Roman history) was fond of sticking gold pins into her slave-girls' breasts and derived gratification from their screams and writhings. You will say that that was in the comparatively barbarous times; that these are barbarous times too, because also, comparatively speaking, pins are stuck in even now; that though man has now learned to see more clearly than in barbarous ages, he is still far from having learnt to act as reason and science would dictate. But yet you are fully convinced that he will be sure to learn when he gets rid of certain old bad habits, and when common sense and science have completely re-educated human nature and turned it in a normal direction. You are confident that then man will cease from intentional error and will, so to say, be compelled not to want to set his will against his normal interests.

...What is bad (this is my comment again) is that I dare say people will be thankful for the gold pins then. Man is stupid, you know, phenomenally stupid; or rather he is not at all stupid, but he is so ungrateful that you could not find another like him in all creation. I, for instance, would not be in the least surprised if all of a sudden, àpropos of nothing, in the midst of general prosperity a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and ironical, countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to us all: "I say, gentleman, hadn't we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!" That again would not matter, but what is annoying is that he would be sure to find followers -- such is the nature of man.
Read the rest here.