Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Seems Legit...

Sometimes, you just can't make this stuff up.

Here's the gist - a Saudi self-help author says that in order to protect women from the corruption of the world outside the walls of their homes, that men should commit sexual assault on women who work outside of their homes, in order to convince them that the outside world is so unsafe that they should remain indoors. Forever. Because, supposedly, even without this guy telling men that it's okay to molest women when they are out of doors, men simply can't help molesting women when they are out of doors.

This is one of the things that has always struck me as odd about this particular worldview of conservative Islam. In the modern United States, making the claim that the sight of a fully-clothed (or even half-naked, for that matter) woman completely short-circuits you sense of self-control would earn you a label of weak-willed in the extreme or an unscrupulous liar. Even suggesting that women take modest precautions against sexual assault can lead to criticism for absolving men of an absolute responsibility to respect women. For most conservative Moslems, however, "keep your hands to yourself" is viewed as unreasonable to the point of bordering on the impossible.

It's a strange dynamic that reminds me of what I've heard about the United States of the past, up to the 1940s or 50s, when, apparently, being anything less than absolutely modestly dressed was considered nearly an open invitation to a sexual assault. As long as the assailant was of the proper ethnicity and social class. Poor and African-American men faced a sentence of death in the court of public opinion for even being accused of whistling at a woman that a wealthy White man could likely have his way with. And given the fact that reporting being raped is considered a grave dishonor in parts of the Moslem world, I wonder if I'm not looking into a funhouse mirror that's reflecting a warped image of the past back at me. Are the wives of the wealthy and respected off-limits to public humiliation in the name of preserving modesty and religious observance, and are the poor and marginalized expected to exhibit much higher levels of self-control that their social "betters?"

Oddly, perhaps, I think that it would be a hopeful sign if that's the case, because that opens the door to the possibility that Islam, like Christianity, will evolve to a place where majority opinion considers Dawood's suggestion as bizarre and reprehensible as much of the West does. While it's important to keep in mind that there are reactionary Christian elements that would support a similar policy here in the United States, they're considered marginal at best - mainstream thought sees them as hopelessly backwards, even as people complain about Western "Rape Culture." While it will be a shame if Islamic thought, rather than learning from the mistakes of others, has to muddle through such openly self-serving hypocrisy on the path to enlightenment, if this is what it takes, we should hope that they at least get there quickly.

Saturday, May 25, 2013


Self Truth

There is an interesting, semi-longform, article over on The Atlantic, headlined: "Self-Racism: Changing the Look of a Nation," about the desire for many South Korean women to have more "elfin, anime-like appearances," appealing to a standard of beauty inspired by the heavily-managed and meticulously-manufactured Korean pop-music culture. The piece relates that some twenty years ago, in her paper "Medicalization of Racial Features," Dr. Eugenia Kaw noted a "self-racism subtext" in how Asian-Americans viewed themselves. "She wrote that the 'alteration of Asian American women of facial features is less of a transforming process, and more of a normalizing one,' to allow them to fit in with their Western peers." In other words: assimilation through looking White.

This is a sore point for a number of different groups in the United States, activists within which often see the widespread adoption of a general standard of attractiveness that prefers Caucasian features as toxic to non-Caucasians. And to be sure, one doesn't have to go back all that far - in the grand scheme of things - to understand why. If you've ever read an encyclopedia from the 1950s, it can be remarkable the degree to which middle-American cultural prejudices were presented as scientific truths. And when it came to appearances, to borrow a line from Jessica Rabbit, you weren't bad because you were drawn that way - you were drawn that way because you were bad. All sorts of different non-Caucasian facial features were held to be indicative of intellectual and character defects. And even today, people with facial deformities are still often thought of as mentally deficient. Against this backdrop, it's easy to see how anything viewed as an attempt "to fit in with their Western peers" could also be viewed as coming to the conclusion that one's non-Western peers were naturally unattractive.

African-American culture in the United States is famous (or, infamous, your choice) for its stereotypical hostility to "acting White," viewing the adoption of "Whiteness" among Blacks as the encroachment of a damaging cultural hegemony designed to eliminate "African-ness" and perhaps re-instate servitude in the form of a fawning (and doomed to be futile) desire to obtain acceptance through mimicking people who will always be able to point out another flaw. (But it should be noted that Americans in general tend to be sensitive to perceived rejections of their cultural norms and possible marginalization, and White Americans are not completely above feeling that not wanting to be like them is evidence of hostility.) This creates a dynamic in which many African-Americans judge their peers' level of self-acceptance and self-pride (individually and culturally) through a lens of adherence to a particular definition of "Blackness." While these definitions are viewed as being somehow inherent to being African-American, they're simply learned social norms, and since buy-in to a certain understanding of "African-American culture" can never be effectively unanimous, this can (and does) create an ironic, and often darkly comic, situation in which one is criticized as "self-hating" for, basically, insisting on being one's unaffected self.

In an increasingly globalized world, as cultures continue to diffuse into one another, the development of a generalized standard of attractiveness (among other things) is a predictable, if perhaps unfortunate, side-effect. And that standard is going to include some, and exclude others; "everyone is beautiful" is unlikely to ever be more than a "hippie" opinion or disingenuous advertising copy. Some groups are going to find that they have increased social currency in the new scheme, and others will lack it. In this situation, what will be the view of perceived "normalization?" Will buying into the prevailing norm, by people who are not lionized by it, be viewed as appropriate, or a craven capitulation to a cultural hegemony that all but the would-be hegemons are morally obligated to fight against? Can self-regard be understood as the adoption and taking ownership of whatever norms work for the individual, regardless of the physical changes that might be required, or does self esteem require the acceptance of an assigned cultural role, and in effect being owned by a set of cultural norms that have rights in and of themselves, and, accordingly, can place obligations on those who share ancestry - or appearance - with those who take up the traditional mantle willingly?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Plan B

The [911] dispatcher stays on the phone with the woman for 10 minutes and 21 seconds. She tells the caller to try to hide in the house.
And four times in total, she says there isn't anyone who can help.
According to police records, a few minutes later, the woman's ex-boyfriend [...] used a piece of metal to pry open her front door. He then attacked her. Eventually, state police arrested him, and he pleaded guilty to sexual assault and sodomy, among other charges.
Loss Of Timber Payments Cuts Deep In Oregon
While it's become popular in certain Republican and conservative circles to complain about "dependency" on government as a way of attacking Reaganesque "Welfare Queens" (and, as I see it, primarily Democratic/liberal constituencies), it seems to me that the real danger of being dependent on government is in stories like this. The unnamed woman in this story appears to have no other recourse than to call 911, and when they cannot help her, neither she nor the dispatcher can come up with any other workable alternatives.

One of the things that we often lose sight of is that the very real efficiencies that come with division of labor on a large scale comes with an accompanying cost - our specializations rob us of the ability to perform other tasks well, or maybe at all. I would be a terrible farmer, in no small part because never having needed to grow food or care for animals, it's simply not a skill that I possess. Whether I recognize it or not, there is a risk there. Therefore, it behooves me to be aware of that risk, even if I don't take any action to address it directly. If I don't have a fallback plan, it should be due to the (reasonably) informed decision that I don't need one - not because it never occurs to me to create one.

Because nothing is perfect, or even perfectible, not even government. And not just government. The fact that for the first three months that I owned it, my cellular phone constantly displayed a harmless, yet annoying, error message taught me that I should never trust it with my life. Not because the technology was unproven, but because so much of the infrastructure that supported it was in the hands of people who couldn't manage to convince the phone that it was, in fact, supposed to be doing exactly what it was doing. Expecting it to work was fine, but I needed to know what I would do if it didn't.

This is inefficient. And over a wide enough scale, impossible. Sometimes you're stuck with relying on an outside agency. But the flip side of efficiency is resiliency, and so perhaps we should start to reconsider the impulse to accept the greater inefficiency that bringing some tasks back "in-house" will bring, so that when Plan A, whether it's government or any other institution fails, there's a Plan B to back it up.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

C'mon, Ref!

"If black and white people truly are equal on a bone-deep level, then the game might really be rigged, and we might actually have to do something about it."
Ta-Nehisi Coates "The Social Construction of Race"
The If-Then statement that Mr. Coates makes is flawed. Whether or not the game is rigged has nothing to do with whether or not "black and white people truly are equal on a bone-deep level." These two considerations are independent of one another. And visible evidence of a game being rigged is different from the rigging itself, to the degree that one may exist in the absence of the other.

To use a sporting analogy, just because the local college team is not likely to be as talented as the national Olympic team doesn't stop me from rigging the game to ensure the Olympians win. That rigging may not have been required, and the difference in skill levels may make it hard to detect, but the fact that the Olympians are better players doesn't mean that the game is fair. So rather than searching for proof of equality as a means of detecting cheating, we should concern ourselves with looking directly for the evidence of rigging - as whether or not any two groups are equal under normal circumstances, a group that was help back due to an unlevel laying field will do better once that impediment is removed.

Friday, May 17, 2013

As Long As Everyone Knows the Deal

In the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf grapples with a question: Does love dictate the form and appearance of sexuality within a relationship? Does respect require or proscribe certain activities? Is the claim that participants in a sex act love and/or respect one another - or that these things are independent of each other - the final word, or are the rest of us allowed to second-guess them and assert that the boundaries that we understand border the proper expression of sexuality are absolute, unless those who would cross them prove them harmless to our satisfaction?

In other words, who determines whether or not they are being loved and respected - or loving and respectful? And what is the actual definition of abuse, or degradation?

A question that I have always found helped me consider questions like these is quite simply - Can someone take your self-respect and/or dignity from you, or must you agree to give it away?

I am in the camp that says that questions of love, respect, degradation and the like are all in the eye of the individual. But I think that it's important that we look at these things expansively. As someone who believes, to borrow a phrase from one of the debating parties in the piece, that the content of civilization can be boiled down to the single element of consent, it's important that we really understand what that means.

Consent isn't enough to guarantee that sexual behavior is moral. Adultery, the deliberate conception of unwanted children, the careless spread of H.I.V.—all could happen in consensual encounters. As those uncontroversial examples suggest, the people who truly think consent is the only thing that matters in sexual conduct are a tiny minority, even in San Francisco.
Conor Friedersdorf, “The Ethics of Extreme Porn: Is Some Sex Wrong Even Among Consenting Adults?
While this is an interesting and compelling argument, I would counter-argue that these are not cases of “consensual encounters.” If we assume that by “adultery” Mr. Friedersdorf means cheating on a partner who expects, and reasonably understands that they have been promised, monogamy and exclusivity then adultery is no more consensual than if a mean-spirited spouse gave away the family car. Breaking commitments to a third party should not be considered a purely consensual activity, because the third party has not consented to the effects on their interests. In the cases of the deliberate conception of a child that the other partner does not want or the careless (or deliberate, for that matter) spread of H.I.V., it is not enough to say that since the simple act of sex was consensual, that this constitutes a consensual encounter. After all, leaving out important facts can be considered just as fraudulent as including lies:
There are four elements of fraudulent nondisclosure, also known as misrepresentation by omission: (1) a party conceals a material fact; (2) the fact is within the concealing party’s knowledge; (3) the concealing party knows that the acting party will rely on this nondisclosure on the presumption that the fact does not exist; and (4) the concealing party has a legal/equitable duty to communicate the fact.
Common Law Fraud Claims” Bench and Bar of Minnesota
Now, while Jill may not have a legal/equitable duty to communicate to Jack that she intends to have a baby by him before they go to bed together, it's difficult to argue that he was truly consenting if he would have refused to have sex with her otherwise. (And in Tennessee, at least, if Jack need to resort to fraud to get into Jill's pants, he could be charged with rape.) Likewise, if Jack withholds from Jill the fact that he is HIV positive or has AIDS, there are jurisdictions in which he'd be liable for prosecution, so it seems that a case can be made that there is an expectation that such status should be revealed.

In that regard, “consent” should be considered to be something more than two people both deciding that it would be fun to have sex with one another - I submit that it's more properly construed as, firstly, all parties knowing beforehand, exactly what they are letting themselves in for, to the best of the other person's understanding, and knowing that, assents to it. (Whether that's BSDM, the possibility of having a baby or having to wear clown makeup and a rubber nose.) And secondly, in accordance with the idea that all parties must agree that it doesn't break commitments freely entered into with others. True, one's sexuality is not like a physical object that can be literally possessed by another, but if we can determine that sharing information when one agreed not to is morally iffy, even when the person who receives it consents to learn, we can put cheating on a partner in the same category. (In the end, every crime that we do not consider to be victimless is really about consent - victimless crimes are the only ones in which a crime has been committed even when everyone - even those people not a party to or having an interest in the action - consents.)

In this broader context, I do think that it's possible to make consent into the only thing that matters. (Although I freely admit that someone might immediately come up with a case that challenges that. I haven't spent much time looking for one.) What people whom we have determined to be capable of informed consent do between themselves is really none of our business, regardless of the degree to which we are squicked out by their actions.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

May December

There's an odd story in The Atlantic, by one Hugo Schwyzer. I'm not at all sure that it's worth a read, so I'll just give you the major takeaways:

In keeping with the common trope that youth is something akin to being brain-damaged, young people are stupid.

  • Young women can't appreciate young men as potential partners because they've been hoodwinked by older men.
  • Young women feel that older men are good partners because they aren't bright enough to realize that they're mainly wanted for being docile and lovestruck self-propelled sex toys, and too immature to realize that older men are poor judges of character (since younger women aren't the docile and lovestruck self-propelled sex toys older men think they are.)
  • Young men can't manage to appeal to young women because they don't have the wisdom that older men should be imparting to them.
Older men aren't much smarter, apparently because they don't want to be.
  • Older men are afraid of dating people who will see them as they are. (What this says about how older men see themselves is unstated, but guessable.)
  • Older men selfishly spend their time looking for younger partners rather than mentoring the next generation.
  • Older men don't care about common standards of beauty or sexiness as much as they care about malleability, naïveté and man-neediness. (Which younger women don't provide, anyway...)
  • Older men suffer from elevated chances of depression, because they aren't matching wits women their own age.
Only older women seem to come out ahead - they are mature, perceptive and unselfish - they just can't get laid.

The solutions to everyone's problems is apparently that older men should limit themselves to dating older women. The older men get the challenge of having to contend with experience partners with finely-tuned bullshit detectors, the younger men receive mentoring in the time that the older men aren't skirt-chasing, the younger women now have both available partners their own age who are more mature and the ability to appreciate them and the older women actually get to have sex with someone (although what they see in men their own age, is, from reading this article, a mystery to both faith and science).


I'm as creeped out by the next person by an older man dating a woman somewhere in the area of half their age. While I'm a firm proponent of "to each their own," the minute I find out that He was in twenties when She was born, I start knocking back the Brain Bleach.

So while I can understand Mr. Schwyzer's desire for everyone to limit themselves to their own end of the dating pool, the way that he goes about constructing his case for it seems nothing short of bizarre. Perhaps more importantly, it seems grounded in a sort of apologism for "creepy old men:" they have low self-esteem and poor self-image, so they search out women who will apparently be unaware of how loathsome they actually are. (How men who will, apparently, openly complain "that their female peers are too entitled, too embittered, too feminist" think they'll find "a partner who is endlessly starry-eyed and appreciative" is beyond me.)

It seems to make more sense to work with what we know. Our current society desires youth in women in a way that it doesn't in men. Men can be middle-aged (or old) and sexy in a way that women normally cannot. And we live in a culture that has no problem judging a person by the attractiveness of their mate - I recall overhearing a workplace conversation were one person appraised a superior with the words: "If you're going to have a trophy wife, you should at least get the one for first place." That's a bigger issue than the wealthy businessmen and celebrities who use their money and position to attract someone who will elevate their status and perceived virility. We're all going to have to work, if it's important to us to change that facet of our culture.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Ave, Mater

One of the things that I've realized as I've grown old(er) is that I really, REALLY hit The Parent Jackpot. Not in the sense that my parents were wealthy, particularly well-connected or the cool, awesome and amazing people that the other kids in the neighborhood wished their parents were, but because they are both intelligent, thoughtful and deeply, deeply Wise. Normally, when I consider the wisdom they imparted through the lessons that they taught me, my thoughts go to my father, who had a neverending selection of what appeared to be glib, pithy sayings that turned out then be more nuanced than I realized.

But this leaves out my mother, who most certain did plenty of teaching of her own, especially considering that she was an educator. And the single most important thing that I learned from my mother can be summed up as follows:

Love is a choice. And no matter what the circumstances of your life are, who you love is always your choice, and perhaps the single most personally important choices that you will make.
Unlike my father, my mother was not usually one to lay such sentiments out in as many (sometimes cryptic) words, although there were exceptions. Instead, this was something that I learned from hours upon hours of conversations with her over the years. Looking back over my life had always left me vaguely displeased with myself, and for a time, I threw myself into the project of being a Good Son, caught up in making amends for some transgression against my parents that they never implied, and I could never articulate, but that seemed painfully real to me nevertheless. Exactly when my mother figured out that I was attempting to buy, not their love or affections, but the feeling of being worthy to be the eldest child of two marvelous people, I don't know. Unlike my father, she didn't seek to directly talk me down I became stressed. Instead, she was simply always There, a constant presence that was calmly assured of everything that I was not.

And in that, I am remarkably fortunate.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


In the aftermath of the Castro kidnapping story in Cleveland, Ohio, there has been quite a bit of second-guessing. Neighbors feel that Ariel Castro fooled them. Why didn't the police ever penetrate the Castro home deeply enough to find the three women? If Onil and Pedro Castro are found to have been uninvolved, ire will still fall on them for not being aware of what there brother was doing.

But all of this is simply the new reality that we live in. Community ain't what it used to be. But this is nothing new. At no time in my adult life have I been able to tell you the name of the neighbors who lived to either side of me. I've lived in apartment complexes where neighbors have come and gone without ever exchanging more than a dozen words in total. If my next-door neighbors had a machine shop in their apartment and were turning out custom modified Hyundais on a daily basis, it would be news to me.

This is to be expected. Our modern society has made people and families more independent of one another. And with that lack of dependence has come a lack of tolerance for knowing other people's business. I doubt that all of the people I have live near have been upstanding model citizens. It wouldn't surprise me if some pretty dark secrets were being kept right under my nose. Despite the reports of neighbors that they reported some fairly obvious clues to authorities, the stories that have been released so far show a man who was careful to keep things under wraps. People are good at keeping secrets. Couples who have been together for decades are not immune to one partner keeping some pretty remarkable things carefully hidden from the other.

Until society changes such that neighbors are forced into greater inter-reliance on one another, we should expect situations like this to pop up from time to time. Knowledge is fostered by closeness, and the independent don't need to be close.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Bad Stars

Once upon a time, astronomers hypothesized that most planetary systems looked a lot like the one that we live in - star in the center, "small" rocky planets in closer orbits and larger gas giants in farther orbits. But, as Robert Krulwich points out, that's not what the current data are beginning to show, according to researchers.

"We are now beginning to understand that nature seems to overwhelmingly prefer [planetary] systems that have multiple planets with orbits of less than 100 days," says Steve Vogt, astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
As I read through the article and the case was being made that our own solar system wasn't the run-of-the-mill, dime-a-dozen everyday sort of place that we once presumed it was, a thought came to me. "I wonder," I said to myself, how long it will take for the comments section to degenerate into an argument (or simply outright trolling session) about the existence of God."

Not very long, it turned out. Near the top of the comment threads I found:
Contemporary cosmologists are very uncomfortable with the notion that our planet or our solar system is unique because it hints at God."Art Aficionado"
And it started to go downhill from there.

I don't know the origin of The Great Scientific Atheism Conspiracy, but it seems to have become one the enduring facets of the Culture Wars. For a religious belief system that dominates civic and political thought in the United States, Christianity, especially the more conservative strains that put forward the Bible as a literal world history or understand that morality should be encoded into law, seems to be almost hypersensitive to the idea that there are people who are not invested in sharing their faith. And, as a result, it perceives enemies everywhere.

But what strikes me as most interesting about the many arguments that people have about faith in the United States is the apparently constant quest to obviate it. There is a constant quest for a concrete piece of data that will definitively prove the existence of the Judeo-Christian-Moslem God. And I find myself curious - do followers of Shinto or Seikhs or neo-Pagans believe that somewhere in the world lies the proof that their convictions are right - not just for them, but for everyone? Do they have the same concept of a piece of physical evidence that objectively demonstrates their moral correctness? Similarly do they understand the divine as something that is invested in people's faith, while at the same time remaining cryptic and inaccessible to those who don't already believe?

The march of Judaism, Christianity and Islam around the globe has resulted in the destruction or assimilation of countless other religions and practices. Did these, when they came to believe that they faced persecution and elimination, turn to the idea of a definitive proof that would not only stop the newcomers in their tracks, but leave them with no recourse other than conversion?

The attempts to deduce the nature of divinity from the heavens is an age-old one. Mankind has always sought for gods among the stars. But the nature of modern American politics makes the search for God in the findings of modern cosmology into something different - and something darker. Rather than seeking to share the hope, love and joy that they find in their faith, the goal seems to be impose their own strictures, rules and boundaries on those around them. Hardly a worthwhile reason to scour the cosmos.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

We're Just Here For the Resources

I wonder, when I hear about the interminable debate over immigration, to what degree stories like this, real or imagined, are in the backs of some people's minds.

Because of fishing and their ability to adapt, the Yakunin Clan lives comfortably in Alaska, able to afford large boats and trucks. Though Vasily Yakunin says his father and uncle knew nothing about fishing when they came to Alaska, the Russian fishing fleet today has a reputation for aggressive tactics and self-policing. Americans in the surrounding communities can share stories about the Russian fleet setting nets too close to other boats, ignoring calls from the Coast Guard, and only responding to help if it comes from another Russian.
There are a couple communities of the Old Believers sect of the Russian Orthodox church in Alaska, and part of the reason that they live there is that it's remote from the rest of the United States, and they can make a living there. They'd migrated through other places before settling there - they'd left Brazil for Oregon because it was easier to make a living, and Oregon for Alaska to avoid Americanization. And while a community of Orthodox Russians is a far cry from Latin American migrants, in the minds of some people that I've spoken to over the years, the overall intent is the same - come to the United States, avoid becoming a part of American society and culture, build a better life with the resources the United States offer and eventually, the fear goes, displace and marginalize the "native" Americans.

Of course, there is a precedent for this. Simply remove the quotes from the word "native" and capitalize the "N," and the narrative starts to sound familiar. And while many modern Americans are dutifully upset over the treatment of the native population that lived here before their ancestors arrived, they reaped the benefits of that poor treatment, and they aim to keep them. Even some Libertarians, who can be famously hostile to any threats to absolute ownership of personal property and real estate, have settled on a definition of ownership that implies that the Native Americans didn't actually own the lands they lived and hunted on, with the result that the wholesale appropriation that land by European settlers was perfectly justified.

The vagaries of American history have resulted in a fragmented population. And many of these fragments, for reasons of their own, tend to live in terror of being marginalized. While most of us have never encountered the worst effects of it firsthand, for many, it lurks around the corner, waiting to once again be the order of the day. As long as that fear lives, discussions about the role of immigration, especially en masse, into the modern United States will always have the specter of a hostile, avaricious or uncaring Other in them and a be tinged with a fear that the Other will do unto Americans as they have done before.

Saturday, May 4, 2013


Clearly, we need faith as a component, and it's just silly to say otherwise. You know the Age of Enlightenment and Reason gave way to moral relativism. And moral relativism is what led us all the way down the dark path to the Holocaust.
Penny Nance. CEO, Concerned Women for America
Moral relativism,” according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.” Or, as many of us experience it today, morality is not objective. From a Judeo-Christian-Moslem standpoint, this is incorrect, as the justice that is the stated goal of moral behavior rests upon the idea of a single, neutral and consistent arbiter who holds the final judgment. The principles by which this arbiter judges are what render moral judgments true or false, and its standpoint is, by definition, privileged.

The difficulty that Nance's statement creates is that acts that we consider evil, like the Holocaust, pre-date the Age of Enlightenment and Reason. The armed religious pilgrimages-cum-massacres that were many of the Crusades were certainly not driven by the idea that humans could arrive at workable moral and ethical frameworks without a reliance on faith. And long before the Crusades is the story of the destruction of the Amalekites at the direct command of God, and the rebuke of Saul because he sought to honor God in a way other than simple obedience of the command to slaughter.

And that is the problem. At the heart of Euthyphro's dilemma is the simple fact that what religious authorities have told people were “right” and “moral” has often not squared with what people independently concluded were thus. And this has been true for thousands of years. And if you take divinities out of the equation, you are left with fundamental disagreements between people as to what actions (or inaction) constitute “right” and “moral.”

It doesn't take a student of theology to realize that just about any community, anywhere, if it is going to be stable and have any longevity, must eventually settle on a set of rules that govern the behavior of its members. And as all of these rules have similar goals, they are unlikely, in fact, to appear to be random when viewed from outside. While detractors famously point to “The Survival of the Fittest” as a principle that mandates that every person do what is required spread their own genes at the direct expense of their neighbors, the fact remains that this deals with only one of three basic facets in the Struggle for Existence put forth by Darwin. Individuals in a given species do not compete solely with one another. They compete against other species and against the very environment in which they live. To the degree that there have been societies that have persisted for long periods of time with rules that differ from the codes, inspired by Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought, that have dominated Western and Middle-eastern civilizations, their moral codes were just as relevant and successful as any other. Moral relativism is simply an acknowledgement of that, and a refutation of the idea that it was just for conquering invaders to denounce as evil and then exterminate those other moral codes, simply for being different from their own.

It has become fashionable among Christians to see intellectualism, and the denial of the need to be strictly obedient to the word of a deity or to have faith as a prerequisite for moral behavior, as a pernicious force that leads people away from divine guidance and grace, thus leaving them susceptible to acting on baser instincts that a faith-based morality would supposedly quash. It is equally fashionable to accentuate the “otherness” of the Nazis (who are popular whipping boys due to their status as morally unambiguous villains) by presenting what seems to be a highly self-serving understanding of Christianity as, instead, a form of devout Atheism, using the “Socialist” aspect of “National Socialism” to portray the Third Reich as sharing Marxism's dim view of religiosity. This supports the idea that the Holocaust was the result of a rejection of traditional morality, rather than the same sort of bending morality to the service of national and ethnic superiority that more skeptical observers see throughout history.

h/t George E. Williams IV

Friday, May 3, 2013

What Goes Around

At some time when I was in high school, it occurred to me that, for many people in the United States (and perhaps the world), there was only one appropriate way for oppressed, mistreated and marginalized Americans (people) to behave - a grovelling obsequiousness, following all of the rules of those that injured in them in a desperate hope that they would be recognized as worthy to be brought into the "in-group," and allowed to come in from the cold. Rage, anger and a desire to redress things if they will not be redressed for you are not allowed. Instead they bring retribution and further oppression, mistreatment and marginalization.

Over the intervening decades, I haven't always held onto that particularly bleak view of American (or human) nature, but it comes back to me from time to time. It moved in again most recently when I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Fear of a Black President" from last September, and many of the comments left on James Hamblin's "Have You Ever Tried to Force-Feed a Captured Human?"

As I've grown older (or simply old) I've come to the conclusion that the most enduring legacy of oppression, mistreatment and marginalization is the enduring fear of oppression, mistreatment and marginalization. Societies and nations change, sometimes radically, but that history never really goes away. There is always a suspicion that there is a cadre of people who are just waiting to turn back the clock (say, to 1850), and that despite the uplifting words of the society at large, the rush to accept lives of privilege paid for with the blood, sweat and tears of others will erase all of the hard-earned gains of years, decades and centuries. As much as I often feel this fear is misplaced, as an indifferent student of history and at-times appalled student of the six o'clock news, I can sympathize with it.

But I also try to keep in mind that the fear of oppression, mistreatment and marginalization also exists in the minds of the people who were historically behind the oppression, mistreatment and marginalization in the first place. Hence White American conservatives are easily roused to fear by Black rage, the potential anger of Guantanamo detainees becomes a reason for continuing their indefinite detention and a Men's Rights Activists movement casts themselves as victims of aggressive feminism. Although I must admit that I less sympathy in those cases. Where their fears to actually come true, and the streets began to run red with blood, I don't know that I would be willing to pay the price of intervention.

And that, of course, is the problem.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

In Front of Your Face

One of the important lessons that my father taught me as a child was that: "'Obvious' is something that is so crystal-clear than you are the only person who sees it." Like a number of my father's sayings it was, while memorable, a bit cryptic for a pre-teen, and so I really didn't "get it" at the time, although the basic message was clear enough. As I've grown older, I've revisited that saying over and over, and my understanding of it has developed nuance and layers. In the end, I think, the message is a fairly simple one, than can be summed up as: Obvious is in the eye of the beholder.

I've done my best to take this to heart, and, as a result, I work at keeping in mind that something is obvious to me because of my perceptions - and my perceptions are shaped by may experiences. I've learned what's obvious to me, rather than been gifted it because of my intellect and sensitivity. And so I hope that I'm careful about assuming that things are obvious to other people.

And so I found myself nodding in agreement with Clive Crook as he lamented Paul Krugman's willingness to dismiss his critics as "knaves and fools" who "have an intense desire to be wrong." While haven't seen Mr. Krugman refer to his critics as sociopaths, I have been in discussions with people who follow his theories, and they have no qualms about labeling those who disagree with him as mentally ill. Of course, this doesn't end there; instead, Mr. Crook is now in someone else's crosshairs. We'll see who answers that fusillade, and how long the firefight goes on.

I'm not terribly familiar with Mr. Crook's writing. I'd heard the name before, and that's really about all I know about him, so I hope to stay out of the Keynesian versus Hayekian/Liberal versus Conservative politics of the issue. (Besides, I see the two approaches as differing more in style, than in substance.) For me the issue is a simple one - lots of people are convinced enough of the self-evidential nature of their beliefs that they are comfortable in calling out their critics as fools, knaves or mentally ill. And I, for my part, simply don't see how that helps things.

I understand frustration with people appearing to be incapable of understanding things that have been laid out for them again and again. But one of the things that I've learned from my father's aphorism is that no-one, no matter how correct I might think myself, is obligated to ever see me as correct. If I expect someone else to do something based on an argument that I am making, the burden is on me to prove it to them, on their terms and to their satisfaction. If I cannot do this, that's my problem, not theirs. And if I come to the conclusion that they are being willfully obtuse, in order to thwart me, then I have to be able to prove that, as well - rather than simply conclude it.