Archive for January, 2012

Birthright Bound
January 26, 2012

This blog and my Twitter are going dark for the next ten days as I fly out to Israel for a Birthright trip. If you’re not familiar with the organization or how it works, I highly recommend Kiera Feldman’s exposé in The Nation. Needless to say, I have some complicated feelings about my own decision to attend, but in the end curiosity and wanderlust got the better of me. I’ll have a lot more to say when I get back.

About Last Night
January 25, 2012

From Obama’s State of the Union address (paraphrased):

In order to face the jobs of America’s future, we must job all the jobs in order to job more jobs. In short: jobs.

And from Mitch Daniels’ rebuttal:

The President’s jobs are not jobly enough. We need to jobs the jobs using a combination of jobs and jobs, but especially jobs.

As you can see, last night had a theme. But for all of the emphasis on job creation, neither speaker (I’m not counting Herman Cain here, for reasons that should be self-evident) devoted a whole lot of time to talking about what kind of jobs. When you’re measuring success by a generic “job” metric, 50,000 new jobs at McDonald’s counts for about as much as a salaried position with benefits. If all that matters is whether the manufacturing sector added jobs, the fact that those jobs are worth less and less money is no big deal.

It goes on. Working 50-hour weeks when you’re only getting paid for 40? Can’t join a union? Nowhere to go and nothing to do when the boss violates your contract and abuses his authority? At least you have a job! Be grateful, and give your leaders credit for helping you out like that.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what counts as populism in modern electoral politics. Guess Occupy can pack it up and toast to a job well done.

Do You Believe in Magic?
January 24, 2012

As Corey Robin, Malcolm Harris and IOZ have all suggested or implied, Melissa Harris-Perry’s latest is perhaps best read as a sort of Swiftian parody of liberalism, written by a closeted anarchist. What else does one make of a column that compares American liberal democracy to Santa Claus and then exhorts us to believe in it?

Santa exists only if we make him real through belief. The American project in democracy is similar. Even as we challenge it to be better, fairer and more honest, we still have to believe that democratic governance by the people, through their institutions, can and should exist. Like Santa Claus, democracy requires us to believe that collective faith can be greater than our individual doubts. In 1994’s Miracle, Santa says, “I’m not just a whimsical figure who wears a charming suit and affects a jolly demeanor…. I’m a symbol, I’m a symbol of the human ability to suppress the selfish and hateful tendencies that rule the major part of our lives.”

Granted, we do Dr. Harris-Perry an injustice if we refuse to engage with the substance of her argument and instead content ourselves with snarking at an unfortunate metaphor. She does, after all, have a point, or at least half of one. A republic of institutional nihilists will destroy itself in seconds flat; the glue that holds any democratic project together is a shared commitment to democratic values. Whether or not one can have a rational commitment to those values is a point of contention as old as moral philosophy. On this point I would only say that even if all ethical claims are non-rational, they are still qualitatively distinct from empirical claims regarding the alleged existence of supernatural avatars of jolliness.

Anyway, even if ethical claims can’t be mathematically proven, they can still be persuasively argued. That is not what Harris-Perry has done; in fact, her entire column is a long exercise in question-begging. We are told that we should believe in the American democratic project because, if we don’t, then the project will fail. But if we don’t believe it in the first place, then why should we want it to succeed? A more persuasive version of this column (though also, no doubt, a much longer one) might have told us why, whether or not Santa is real, we should want him to be real.

Furthermore, it might have told us how that desire should translate into reality. I’m no anarchist — this little boy wants to believe. But what am I supposed to do with that? Faith in American democracy must mean something different from faith in the institutional machinery of the American state, machinery which Harris-Perry admits has failed us. That being the case, trying to exercise power through established channels may be necessary, but it is woefully insufficient. That’s why Harris-Perry’s final paragraph made this little boy’s heart sink:

Our faith has been badly damaged by governors who crush unions, by a Congress that will not govern, by a military that tortures, by campus police with pepper spray, by coaches who prey on kids, by CEOs who slash jobs as profits rise, by a system that seems irreparably broken. But building a country requires investment in one another, hope that we can be better tomorrow than we are today and faith that our failures are not definitive. In these final days before we enter the 2012 election year, it is time to ask, “Do you believe?”

Juxtapose the reference to 2012 with the glaring omission from Harris-Perry’s list of faith-damagers, and this starts to sound dangerously close to another call for everyone to just suck it up and vote for the Democrats. I submit to you that doing so, and letting the extent of our civic engagement stop there, would actually be a testament to our profound lack of faith in democracy. Surely Occupy Wall Street should have reminded us that democracy is more than something you do for a couple hours once every four years; it is, in fact, a way of life.

That’s another problem with the Santa Claus analogy: Saint Nick comes but once a year, if he comes at all. If American democracy is to be rescued, or if we are to so much as demonstrate that American democracy is worth rescuing, then that means conceiving it as a permanent, year-round state of existence.

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Against Atheism 2.0
January 22, 2012

Alain de Botton

Image by juan tan kwon via Flickr

Since writing this post on Godless theology, I’ve been meditating a lot on the possibility of religious atheism. That could mean anything from Jewish humanism to Zen Buddhism to the ideas outlined in Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship.” Jewish humanists, Siddhartha and Russell all have different ways of finding meaning in a world absent a personal God, and your mileage for each may vary; but I’ll wager that the least satisfying of those accounts is still infinitely more nourishing than Alain de Botton’s banally Gladwellian “atheism 2.0.”

De Botton begins a recent TED Talk (via — who else? — Andrew Sullivan) by attempting to distinguish his cuddly, family-friendly atheism from the more vituperative New Atheism of Richard Dawkins and the recently deceased Chris Hitchens. But the New Atheists, despite their numerous failings (of which I’ve written extensively in the past), are at least willing to treat religious claims as if they mean something. By trying to please everyone, De Botton ends up condescending to both the serious faithful and the serious faithless — in other words, anyone who bothers to think critically about big questions. As insufferable as PZ Meyers and his ilk may be, I’ll take combativeness over a pat on the head.

De Botton’s starting point for developing atheism 2.0 is reasonable enough: he argues that atheism, which is to say the rejection of a narrow band of metaphysical claims, is not on its own a sufficient foundation for a whole worldview or collective identity. So far so good, but his proposed alternative is utter pablum. He says:

I think there is an alternative. I think there are ways — and I’m being both very respectful and completely impious — of stealing from religions. If you don’t believe in a religion, there’s nothing wrong with picking and mixing, with taking out the best sides of religion. And for me, atheism 2.0 is about both, as I say, a respectful and an impious way of going through religions and saying, “What here could we use?”

I’ve complained in the past that atheists all too often try to dodge serious existential problems by just appropriating religious concepts and giving them a pseudo-rationalist gloss. De Botton not only does the same thing, but proudly announces his intention to do so. Too bad for him that a religion isn’t a salad bar, where you can nibble on the parts you like and elide the nasty bits; the pieces fit together to form a larger whole. Decontextualizing the parts you like and plugging them into your own worldview willy-nilly means importing some of religion’s most grating excesses as well: its smugness, its philosophical complacency. If atheists want to interface with religion — and that is, for sure, something I encourage — then they must be willing to interface with all of it. That means opening yourself up to uncertainty, confusion, and even fear.

De Botton clearly finds uncertainty and fear distasteful. Otherwise, he might have a very different attitude towards religious art than the one he expresses below:

My view is that museums should take a leaf out of the book of religions. And they should make sure that when you walk into a museum — if I was a museum curator, I would make a room for love, a room for generosity. All works of art are talking to us about things. And if we were able to arrange spaces where we could come across works where we would be told, use these works of art to cement these ideas in your mind, we would get a lot more out of art. Art would pick up the duty that it used to have and that we’ve neglected because of certain mis-founded ideas. Art should be one of the tools by which we improve our society. Art should be didactic.

One might wonder how one of the greatest religious artists of all time — Fyodor Dostoevsky — fits into this notion of didactic art. No doubt a didactic Christian artist in the De Botton mode never would have written the parable of the Grand Inquisitor — a critique of Christian morality so devastatingly persuasive that the author himself never discovered a proper rebuttal. That is what true religion and true art look like: struggle. Yis’rael is often translated as “He who wrestles with God.”

If religion has anything to give atheists, it’s more than just a series of empty gestures and defanged observances. Religion can help us define the terms of greater struggles, but only as a means toward taking those struggles seriously. The problem with atheism 2.0, then, is the problem with De Botton’s whole shtick: he peddles anesthetic, not real medicine. Like his spiritual brother-in-arms Simon Critchley, he specializes in masticating thorny philosophical questions into easily digestible gruel for the educated but intellectually timid. If he really wanted to do his audience a service, he would acknowledge that there is such a thing as despair.

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Special Topics In Crazy Metaphysics
January 20, 2012

Forgive the long blockquote, but I think this puzzle from philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel (who blogs at The Splintered mind) earns it:

In Anglophone philosophy since the 1960s, the dominant approach to the mind has been materialism: the view that human beings are naturally evolved beings, wholly made out of material stuff like elementary particles, with no immaterial soul of any sort. On materialistic views of consciousness, the reason that we have a stream of conscious experience is that we have brains that represent the world, can guide us in goal-directed action, and that are massively informationally connected in complex self-regulating loops. It is that fact about the complexity of our organizational structure that is responsible for our having a stream of conscious experience so that there’s “something it’s like”, phenomenologically, to be us, or to be a mouse, while there’s nothing it’s like (we ordinarily think) to be a toy robot.

But the United States appears to have all those same features! The citizens of the United States are massively informationally connected, in complex self-regulating loops – not in the same way neurons are connected, but just as richly. The United States engages in environmentally responsive coordinated action, for example in invading Iraq or in taxing imports. The United States represents and self-represents, for example via the census and in declaring positions in foreign policy. As far as I can tell, all the kinds of things that materialists tend to regard as special about brains in virtue of which brains give rise to consciousness are also possessed by the United States.

The United States is a large, spatially distributed entity. But why should that matter? Isn’t it just morphological prejudice to insist that consciousness be confined to spatially compact entities? The United States is composed of people who are themselves individually conscious. But why should that matter? We can imagine, it seems, conscious aliens whose cognition is implemented not by neurons but by intricate networks of interacting internal insects confined within their bodies, where each insect has a minor animal-like consciousness while the organism as a whole has human-like consciousness and intelligence. (Maybe such aliens are much-evolved descendants of bee colonies.) In the vast universe, it seems likely that intelligent environmental responsiveness, and consciousness, could emerge in myriad weird ways. It seems chauvinistic provincialism to insist that our way of being conscious is the only possible way. So why not regard group organisms as possibly conscious? And if so, why not the very group organisms in which we already participate, given that they seem to meet standard materialist criteria for consciousness?

This notion strikes me as being somewhat similar to Heidegger’s notion of Dasein — though I could be wrong about that, since I still have only the fuzziest notion of what Dasein is supposed to be. (Nor, if the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Martin Heidegger is to be believed, can real philosophers agree on a single account. Which should surprise no one.) Still, the fact that the Dasein label has been applied to both individual human beings and entire nations suggests a certain level of conceptual overlap.

There is a key difference, though: Dasein is a category of being within phenomenology, the field of philosophy which examines structures of experience while bracketing the question of whether the objects of those experiences are real. In other words, a phenomenologist might say that we sometimes have the experience of being part of a larger conscious body called a nation, though that conscious body may or may not exist outside of our experiences. Schwitzgebel, on the other hand, is not bracketing: he is suggesting that, in a very real sense, the United States is conscious.

With that in mind, some questions:

1.) Am I horribly misreading Heidegger? Wouldn’t be the first time.

2.) For the materialists who follow this blog (and who I occasionally successfully bait into replying to posts like this): Is Schwitzgebel’s theory correct? Why or why not?

3.) How big or small can a composite conscious entity be? What’s the criteria for determining when one exists and one does not? For example, can a family be collectively consciousness? What about all of humanity?

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Show a Little Class
January 9, 2012

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

Image via Wikipedia

So it looks like shortly after I gave up on Saturday night’s Republican debate, Rick Santorum said something interesting: that there’s no such thing as the middle class, because America is fundamentally a classless society.

Now, the second part of that claim is obviously, patently false. But I suspect that Santorum may be on to a partially correct conclusion based on false premises. Is American society stratified by class? Yes, absolutely. Are the top and bottom classes separated by a gooey center? Depends on what metric you look at. The middle class may exist as a (rapidly shrinking) income bracket, but as a sociopolitical signifier it obscures more than it illuminates. If you believe otherwise, consider this paragraph from Kevin Drum’s essay on the decline of organized labor (which, yes, does reference the “middle class” in its title):

Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels studied the voting behavior of US senators in the early ’90s and discovered that they respond far more to the desires of high-income groups than to anyone else. By itself, that’s not a surprise. He also found that Republicans don’t respond at all to the desires of voters with modest incomes. Maybe that’s not a surprise, either. But this should be: Bartels found that Democratic senators don’t respond to the desires of these voters, either. At all.

If the “middle class” has so little political clout with their own representatives (nearly all of whom are, by the way, exceedingly wealthy), then what do they have? I’m reminded of a debate I had with Matt Yglesias about a month ago over whether “workers” still existed as a class. Matt ended up saying that “your average workaday fat cat CEO is,” by virtue of his technical status as an employee “just a very well-compensated wage slave.” That did, and still does, treat me as a deeply wrongheaded claim. Workers, commonly understood, don’t sit on the boards of other corporations. They can’t max out contributions to political candidates, attend $5,000-dollar-a-plate fundraisers, or hobnob with their fellow wage slaves at Davos and Aspen. Nor do workers sit on top of the fat stock portfolios that, in recent years, were the main driver of inequality. There is a culture, sociology and politics to wealth, and mostly what that logic does is generate more wealth for the wealthy. The “middle class” has about as much access to that world as acknowledged members of the lower class.

If the middle class is anything, I suspect it is a historical curiosity; a moment in twentieth century American economic history during which union strength, the New Deal and WWII-era military policy all gave a large chunk of the working class the means to significantly increase their material wealth. Some members of that group even entered the upper class, but most of them just hovered around the upper echelons of the working class, only to be brought low by the current crisis.

The distinction between an “upper working class” (sometimes called, when referring to blue collar union members, a “blue collar aristocracy”) and a “middle class” might not seem like much, but it’s hugely important in terms of social and political clout. After all, when the post-collapse decline of the middle class began, it seemed utterly powerless to defend itself. Now one party wants to exacerbate the problem, and the other wants to preserve the political impotence of the non-rich, but bring relative comfort back to a slice of the lower class (e.g. pity-charity liberalism).

So allow me to ask a question that flips around Matt’s turn of phrase regarding “well-compensated wage slaves”: If middle class Americans have so little political power, and if so much of their relative material comfort is merely a product of the 1%’s largesse, why should we think of them as more than just generously compensated members of the underclass?

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Darwinian Ethics
January 8, 2012

A post by philosopher Michael Ruse called A Darwinian Approach to Moral Philosophy has been making the rounds in the philosoblogosphere. The thing is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s an executive summary:

  1. Substantive ethics is the product of natural selection.
  2. Naturalism is correct.
  3. Moral realism is wrong.
  4. However, ethical claims have the phenomenological “meaning and character” of objective facts.
  5. Therefore, relativism is also wrong.

Or to put it as Ruse does, “although philosophy may lead to skepticism, psychology makes it impossible to live that way.” The fact that ethical claims are “only” facts about our mental states doesn’t diminish their importance, because our own mental states are all we really have direct access to.

Note that while this is a Darwinian/naturalist approach to ethics, it differs significantly from the sort of reductive, pseudo-empirical claptrap espoused by New Atheists such as Sam Harris. As I’ve written before, Harris’ attempts to reconcile moral realism with reductio ad scientism is doomed to failure. However (if you’ll forgive some self-citation):

I can speak of a world without morality or meaning, but I can’t actually live in it. I’m trapped in the world created by language and conscious thought; there is no way for me to un-see the value I attach to things, or cause my mind to reject its own existence.

That’s more or less in agreement with what Ruse argues above, though he does some extra work to connect this position to the Darwinian tradition. He also connects it to the Humean tradition, acknowledging the importance of the is/ought distinction that reductive materialists tend to reject out of hand.

So if you are, like myself, both a non-believer and a non-reductive materialist, Ruse’s position seems pretty satisfying. Though I wonder what believers (particularly Christians) might make of his final claim:

I think the kind of position I have just sketched should be welcomed by a Christian influenced by naturalism, and I am thinking here of course of Thomas Aquinas and the influence of Aristotle. As a Darwinian, I think we should do what is natural. As an Aristotelian, the Thomist thinks we should do what is natural. I see a meeting point here. It doesn’t incline me to be a Christian but I see how a Christian could start with my position and then put it in a theological context.

Any thoughts?

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January 4, 2012

Kudos to Dave Roberts on coming up with a great New Year’s resolution. Here’s hoping that he convinces a few people to follow his example:

What we need now, more than ever, are not critiques of the extant but models of the new – new institutions, new social practices, new identities, new purposes, new ways of measuring and valuing what matters. If we’re ever going to get off the sinking USS Fossil Growth and into lifeboats, we need to know where we’re heading. A new North Star.

We need people who can make a prosperous, enjoyable, sustainable world vivid and real. That will be the work of creators and dreamers, not logic choppers. It will mean acts of social and economic entrepreneurship, art and storytelling, irrational hope and optimism. It will involve lots of experiments undertaken by people unwilling to be constrained by the limits of the “realistic,” people who are willing to try, to risk failure or absurdity.

Such acts of creation are inevitably messy, impure, unpredictable, and non-linear. When rational analyzers like me are confronted with them, the urge is to immediately set to categorizing, boxing, dissecting, finding flaws … and too often diminishing or mocking. (I wrote about this a bit with regard to my reaction to Occupy Wall Street.) It’s my nature.

I can’t change my nature, of course, and neither can you. Which is fine — everyone has their own strengths and their own role to play. But in 2012, my resolution is to try to at least restrain that ravenous critic in my head, to give the dreamers and chance-takers a little more room to breathe.

If I could presume to recommend a corollary for Dave’s resolution, it would be this: Don’t criticize the tactics of a movement or organization without offering either (A) an accompanying critique of their ultimate goals or (B) a positive counterproposal regarding how they could be achieved. In other words: if you sympathize with the aims of a movement, try and make yourself useful to them. Don’t just throw potshots from the sidelines — we’ve got plenty enough of that already.

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America’s Got Issues
January 3, 2012

With respect to Elias, these are the sort of pronouncements you get from a political coalition that has no meaningful analysis of power:

I say this with a nagging sensation in the back of my mind that by co-signing this I am in some way revealing myself to be intellectually or morally lacking; but I feel deeply ambivalent about devoting my political energies to battling-back American empire. And it’s for entirely fatalist reasons. It seems sadly inevitable to me, at least for the foreseeable future and until the United Nations or some other form of global governance becomes supreme, that the world will be run by at least one Great Power.

That’s not to say I’d not rather it was otherwise; but rather it is to say that I feel my passion, time, and capacity is finite. I wouldn’t for anything wish that those who have devoted themselves to challenging, exposing, and attacking the American imperium stop. I just can’t honestly say that this goal moves me as much as does the cause of economic and social justice. Just as I often find the ideologies of leftist anarcho-syndicalism deeply appealing — but determine that, pipe dreams being what they are, I’d rather work for a more accountable Big Government — I hope for a more transparent and accountable neo-empire.

I’m not discounting the idea that an accountable empire is no less a fantasy than rolling back empire entirely. I’m merely sharing my gut feelings, and an explanation as to why I find Ron Paul’s appeal utterly minuscule when compared to his defects.

As colossal and entrenched as American empire may be, making it “accountable” is far more of a pipe dream than rolling it back. There is simply no way to address the root issues Elias wants ameliorated without eventually confronting the militarized structures that perpetuate existing conditions.

If you believe otherwise, ask yourself who profits from America’s wars, and who is asked to fight them. Ask yourself what impact the justifications for military expansion have on domestic law enforcement, and who suffers the most from the results. Ask yourself why laws ostensibly designed to aid in the war on terror are being used to fight the war on drugs. Ask yourself again who pays the price.

As long as the progresssive movement continues its myopic obsession with dividing its concerns into hermetically sealed categories like “civil liberties issues” and “economic issues,” it won’t have the conceptual equipment to deal with structural ills. A political coalition needs an analysis; what progressives have now is a policy wishlist that adds up to exactly the sum of its parts. Maybe figuring out how those desired policies interrelate should be a bigger priority than bickering over the rankings.

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