Convicting words

Stephen Harper, Canada’s Prime Minister, comments, “It is impossible to underestimate the significance of the rule of law in a modern society”:

It is a profoundly inclusive concept. One that subordinates all social, economic, political, and individual behaviour to an agreed set of codes and regulations. To have meaning, these rules must not be the exclusive preserve of a privileged few. They must be the common property of all citizens. They must be clear to everyone, taught to everyone and applied to everyone in a uniform way.

No one can be above the law. And no one can be forgotten by the law or denied its protection.

That’s a quote from the Prime Minister’s speech in Shanghai last week (hat tip, Paul Wells).

The remarks were intended as an exhortation to the Chinese government, to clean up its act. How sad that the words are equally convicting when applied to the government of the United States of America.

“No one is above the law.” Except for the President, who can flout the U.S. Constitution any time he claims he is acting in the interests of national security.

“No one can be forgotten by the law or denied its protection.” Except for any person who is accused of terrorism, in whose case there is no presumption of innocence, and no right of habæus corpus. Such individuals can be held in prison indefinitely without ever proceeding to trial, or even being formally accused of a crime.

When I say, “How sad …”, I mean that phrase quite literally. The ethical degeneration of the U.S.A. in the aftermath of 9/11 is arguably the saddest geo-political development of my lifetime.

I remain hopeful that President Obama will undo the offenses against human rights committed by his predecessor in the office. Obama has made progress, but only on certain fronts. He has a long way to go yet, to undo the damage and blot out the stain on the U.S.A.’s reputation as a civilized, just nation.

Paying the political price

I have been reading Edward Kennedy’s memoir, True Compass, in my free time. It’s a lively read:  rather strange insofar as it centres on the peculiarly privileged Kennedy family, but fascinating insofar as the Kennedy family has been at the centre of many epochal events (the Cuban Missile Crisis, the civil rights movement, the assassination of both JFK and Bobby Kennedy).

In the next few days, I plan to share a couple of excerpts that stand out for me. First up:  the passage of civil rights legislation, originally championed by JFK — and the political price the Democrats paid for doing the right thing.

The bill was passed into law just seven months after JFK’s assassination.

On June 19, 1964, a year to the day after my brother sent his civil rights bill to Congress, it passed into law on a vote of seventy-three to twenty-seven.

We knew that the Democratic Party would pay a price for this achievement. [President] Lyndon Johnson himself put it most succinctly when he remarked, “We may win this legislation, but we’re going to lose the South for a generation.” And he was right; this marked the onset of the transformation of the region from Democratic to Republican.

Other Democratic leaders foresaw this as well, yet they acted to pass the bill nonetheless. I’m convinced that they acted, as had my brother in his speech, beyond political calculus:  this was simply the right thing to do.

(pp. 217-18)

Today, the Democrats — who won the election in 2008, decisively — are struggling to pass legislation which would reform the health care system in the USA. They face opposition from both Republicans and certain conservative Democrats.

Sometimes the opposition is grounded in legitimate concerns (Is the cost sustainable?) and sometimes it is grounded in an utterly cynical political calculation (If Republicans defeat health care reform, we will have dealt President Obama a crippling blow.)

I quote Kennedy’s memoir to make this simple point:  politicians have been known to put the public interest ahead of personal or partisan political interests.

What would happen if Republicans voted in favour of health care? They would assist President Obama in realizing a historic achievement.

They would also perform a great public service. Literally tens of millions of Americans would benefit hugely as a direct result. The question is, are Republicans (and the aforementioned conservative Democrats) willing to pay a political price, as the Democrats did in passing a civil rights act in 1964?

It is abundantly clear that the answer is No. Grasping power matters more than the public good, to this generation of Republicans.

Of course, there shouldn’t be any negative political consequences for passing legislation that will benefit tens of millions of Americans. Unfortunately public debate has been poisoned by persistent, pernicious distortions and outright lies about what health care reform would entail.

That, of course, is a deliberate strategy on the part of those for whom the public good is an incidental concern.

Another perspective on Palin

Is Sarah Palin a prophet, a liar, or a bullshitter? This reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog argues for the last mentioned:

I’d argue that what [Sarah Palin] says has no relation whatsoever to the truth — you can’t count on it to be false anymore than you can count on it to be true. […] I know you’ve invested a great deal of time proving her to be a liar, but to my mind Palin’s a bullshitter, as defined by Harry G. Frankfurt in his book, On Bullshit.

According to Frankfurt, a bullshitter is the greater enemy of truth than a liar. The liar, by acting in opposition to truth, at least has some sense of what it is. The bullshitter, on the other hand, says only what he or she thinks will serve their immediate agenda and therefore pays little attention to what actually “is.” Over time their ability to recognize truth becomes attenuated.

Here is Frankfurt’s own description of the distinction between liars and bullshitters.

Intimations of “God”

As promised, here are my thoughts on a hypothesis propounded by Robert Wright, briefly excerpted in a previous post.

  1. Ultimately, Wright’s argument is bound to disappoint theists and anti-theists alike.

    Most believers are committed to a particular scripture and a particular understanding of God. As Wright comments, “They don’t want to just hear that some conception of a god might be defensible, or that a personal god is defensible as some sort of approximation of the truth.”

    Meanwhile, anti-theists are dismissive of all arguments for God’s existence. They see no direct evidence of God’s existence, and no need to appeal to God as an explanation for any phenomenon — including the moral order.

    Thus Wright’s book is likely to annoy many people and satisfy few.

  2. But Wright’s argument may have some appeal to a certain class of believers — people like me.

    I have come to the conclusion that the traditional “proofs” for God’s existence are anything but. For example, the resurrection of Christ. It might have sufficed as a proof in the first century, when you could investigate the event for yourself by talking to the various eyewitnesses — Peter, John, James, Paul, etc. But 2000 years later, the resurrection is merely an article of faith rather than a compelling demonstration of the truth of the Gospel.

    Meanwhile, the theory of evolution, substantiated by a solid body of evidence, and subsequently corroborated by discovery of how DNA works — these scientific insights have provided an alternative explanation for the world that we inhabit. The ancient proof from nature — “The heavens declare the glory of God / the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1) — is no longer the only explanation on offer.

    What evidence, then, can we still appeal to — those of us who accept the conclusions of science, yet stubbornly persist in our belief in God? In my view, we are left with intimations of God’s existence rather than proofs.

    Wright is offering exactly that — an intimation of God’s existence — when he describes God as the source of the moral order. Wright interprets human history as a long arc toward a higher morality. To give some examples of my own choosing (I’m not sure what examples Wright would offer) :

    • “an eye for an eye” has been supplanted by, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44);
    • a love that was circumscribed — reserved for fellow tribesmen — has been superseded by the ideal of the “brotherhood” of all humankind;
    • a reflexive human tendency to organize people into castes, with kings and landowners at the apex, and common labourers near the bottom, and women as slaves to the slaves — has yielded to our democratic norms:  i.e., that every person is entitled to one vote, and women can rise to any office in the nation.
    • the arbitrary and absolute power of despots has been called to account by an international recognition of human rights:  “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”; “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”; “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”, etc.

    Too often, the above ideals are honoured in the breach rather than in the observance. Nonetheless, Wright is correct to recognize a remarkable trajectory from a dimmer understanding of morality to relative moral illumination.

    Wright then intuits “God” behind this remarkable display of moral progress:

God, conceived as the source of moral order

Robert Wright puts forward a familiar argument, but with a fresh twist.

In a book with a provocative title — The Evolution of God — Wright proposes that we conceive of God as “the source of the moral order”. (I will be quoting from the book’s afterword, which you can access here).

When he speaks of the “moral order”, Wright isn’t referring to static assertions of good and evil:  e.g., “Pedophilia is wrong”. Wright is thinking in terms of the direction of human history:  history’s trajectory toward an ever-higher conception of morality.

We humans have made progress in our conception of morality as we have meditated on God as the ultimate source of the moral order:

To quit thinking about God now would be to abandon a path that has been successful on its own terms—not a path of scientific inquiry that has brought scientific progress, but a path of moral inquiry that has brought moral progress.

Wright then puts forward an argument that struck me as refreshingly unfamiliar:

Some people can lead morally exemplary lives without the idea of God. Others need God—and not necessarily because they can lead a virtuous life only if they fear hell and long for heaven; often it’s because they can most readily lead a virtuous life if they think of moral truth as having some living embodiment. They need to feel that if they’re bad they’ll be disappointing some one and if they’re good they’ll be pleasing some one—and this one is the one whom, above all others, it is good to please and bad to disappoint.

This is hardly a surprising need. After all, the human moral equipment evolved in the context of human society, as a tool for navigating a social landscape; our moral sentiments are naturally activated with respect to other beings; we are “designed” by natural selection to be good out of obligation to others, for fear of the disapproval of others, in pursuit of the esteem of others. And for many people, carrying these human relations to the superhuman level works well. They are better people, and often happier people, thinking of a God who is aware of their daily struggle and offers solace or affirmation or reprimand; they can best stay aligned with the moral axis of the universe by thanking God, asking God to help them stay righteous, seeking forgiveness from God for their lapses. It’s nice that some people can be paragons of virtue without this kind of help, but in a way it’s surprising; the natural human condition is to ground your moral life in the existence of other beings, and the more ubiquitous the beings, the firmer the ground.

In other words:  given the constraints on human nature, believers in God are interacting with the moral order as productively as possible by conceiving its source in a particular way, however imperfect that way is.

(emphasis added)

To explain the last statement:  Wright is acknowledging that our conception of God is very far from adequate; but thinking about God, even very imperfectly, has resulted in laudable moral progress.

Wright’s argument is multi-layered, and I haven’t done it justice in those brief excerpts. Read the afterword in its entirety :  I commend it to you.

I’ll share some thoughts of my own in response to Wright’s argument at my earliest opportunity — perhaps tomorrow.

Beta males get less sex

Have you ever heard of a pick-up technique, the “neg”? Evidently the technique is well-known to pick-up “artists” :

For those who don’t know, the neg is a comment lobbed at a woman that knocks her off her pedestal. It is not an insult… well, actually, it kind of is (semantics). Who are we kidding? But it’s a playful insult, and some women secretly like being insulted. […]

Negs: turning your back to her, pointing out a flaw in her clothes, her hair, something, anything. “Hey your nose wiggles when you talk”. “Your lipstick is weird”. […]

Correcting body language is a great neg. I don’t like when people cross their arms, it’s a sign of anger, so when girls do it I tell them to uncross them. They always do, it’s a very alpha neg… and compliance test… […]

Black becomes white, up becomes down, cute becomes ugly – that 9 you would covertly beggar yourself for is suddenly seeking your smile, your good graces.

The writer is conflating two different results here. First, the “neg” is a put-down, which, in theory, causes the “girl” to seek the guy’s approval.

alpha maleSecond, the neg is an alpha behaviour which, the pick-up artist hopes, elicits the girl’s compliance. Now she is bending to your will; you have become the Master of your mutual destiny.

The whole, neanderthal scenario bugs me. Assuming that it actually works:  but presumably it does, at least frequently enough for this to be a well-known pick-up technique.

The scenario bugs me for the woman’s sake. She is being manipulated, denigrated, used (although she herself may be seeking casual sex) and ultimately discarded.

beta maleAnd it bugs me for my sake, since I am a beta male. The implication is, beta males get less sex precisely because they’re too nice:  too respectful.

The writer continues:

… the dreaded neg question — isn’t this proof that pickup is purest evil, that it is wrong […] to help the piles of beta males left behind by the sexual revolution?

There it is, explictly:  beta males aren’t getting any. Or at least, they aren’t getting their fair share. So says the neg champion.

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