Bernie Sanders Tells the Truth, But Does it Give You Hope?

Perhaps like most members of our species of incredibly sophisticated poo-flinging super-apes, I am fully capable of taking pleasure in imagining  things that happen not, in fact, to be true.

Often enough, my imaginings are clearly fantastic: For instance, the extraordinarily pleasant fantasy that I have been elected Emperor of the Planet, and have managed to end war, involuntary poverty, disease, crime, and vicious paper cuts while at the same time justly employing my imperial powers to at last wreak final revenge on that hideous Brian T. Jurgens, who unfairly and outrageously gave me a black eye in third grade before I could unfairly and outrageously give him a black eye.

Not that the memory of losing a distant childhood battle to a person of no consequence such as Brian could possibly still rankle even in full adulthood a man of my dignity and advanced wisdom: In truth, I’m only dispassionately interested in doing justice, you see, and the uncontrollable cackling you might now hear if you were nearby has nothing at all to do with obsessed glee at the merest fleeting mental image of sauteing Brian in a man-size pan of boiling dragon’s pee.

In addition to all my other noble accomplishments as Emperor, I also once tried fantasizing that I got imperially laid without, however, inflicting insufferable boredom on the lady who laid me, but even in fantasies there are limits to what a person is able to consider imaginable.

Or are there limits?  I was reminded just yesterday morning of how flimsy is the notion of limits to what we can think conceivable when an old priest approvingly quoted a statement once made by Pope John Paul II on the topic of homosexual marriage:

 “It is legitimate and necessary to ask oneself if this [gay marriage] is not perhaps part of a new ideology of evil, perhaps more insidious and hidden, which attempts to pit human rights against the family and against man.”

Now, I think the Pope’s statement is fantastic.  That is, it seems to me right up there on the same level of fantasy as my imagining I am the Emperor of the Planet.  For, so far as I can see, the two claims have in common that there is not one single bit of sound evidence in support of either one of them.    But the fact the Pope’s statement is bunk isn’t what really struck me about it.

What really struck me was how the statement is just one small drop in a daily flood of nonsense. Some long time ago, I stumbled across a beautiful book of Native American poetry.  One of the poems spoke powerfully of someone who was a pathological liar: “And your words when you speak are like a wind from four quarters that carries the dust to my eyes no matter which way I turn.”  It can seem like that — seem like there’s no direction you can turn, nor place you can go in society today, that you are not being told nonsense.

Nonsense such as the Theory of Evolution is scientifically unsound, there is little or no climate change brought about by our burning fossil fuels, abstinence-only sex education works as advertised, cutting taxes on the rich will bring jobs and prosperity for all, and even that there is a War on Christmas — among many, many other such things.

And that, in a rather round about way, brings me now to Bernie Sanders.

Sanders seems to me usually honest, especially for a politician.   And — apparently by telling the truth (!) about such things as the nature, causes, and consequences of income inequality — he has become quite popular.

When the old priest quoted John Paul II yesterday morning, I at first reacted like I usually do when told a lie:  I internally sighed because I thought of how so many of us  believe such lies.  For perhaps what is most overwhelming about the daily flood is not so much the lies themselves but that so many of us swallow those lies.  How can one view with optimism the long term fate of our noble species of advanced spear-chuckers if we are basically such fools, such simple-minded fools?

But then along has come Sanders who both tells the truth  and, apparently, has struck a chord with folks by telling the truth.  He not only draws people to his speeches in record numbers, but he is also surging in many polls.

In a way, whether Sanders wins the nomination or the presidency matters less than the extraordinary response he’s gotten to speaking truth:  Speaking it — not to the powerful — but to common people.  To people that so many of our powerful elites these days seem to contemptuously think of as easily manipulated and exploited dolts.  Yet I think people’s response to Sanders permits us cautious hope for a better future, for it possibly bodes that sooner or later the truth will prevail among us despite the daily flood of lies.  However, another part of me worries that I am once again only fantasizing, and that the people’s response to Sanders means no such thing.  I suppose time will tell which part of me is correct.

Is it Human Nature to Murder People for Their Opinions?

Yesterday, May 12th, another blogger was murdered in Bangladesh:

The Bangladeshi humanist blogger and author Ananta Bijoy Das has been hacked to death in Sylhet by four masked men wielding machetes and cleavers. His murder is the fourth such attack in Bangladesh in the last three years and the third in as many months. Das had been working with the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) to gain asylum in Europe; just last week a visa application was denied by Swedish authorities.

In 2013, Ahmed Rajib Haider was hacked to death, while Asif Mohiuddin was stabbed several times and several bloggers were arrested. More recently, in February this year, Avijit Roy was also hacked to death while his wife Bonya Ahmed was severely injured. Then in March, Washiqur Rahman was also hacked to death. And today Ananta Bijoy Das has been killed in the same way.

Attacks previous to yesterday’s have been motivated by a desire to suppress the opinions of the bloggers on the grounds that their opinions “defame Islam”. Although no one has come forward yet to explain the motive behind the most recent attack, it’s a pretty good guess that its motive is the same as that of the previous attacks.

There is a tendency to see these and other similar violent assaults as more or less peculiar to Muslims, or at least, as peculiar to religious fanatics of one faith or another. But the tendency to blame religion strikes me as a misleading one.

Religion might all too often add fuel to the fire, but the fire is already burning even before religion inflames it higher.

We humans have a very long history of irrationally suppressing opinions we find offensive both through overtly violent and through other means. Apart from murder, we also employ such means as shouting down the speaker, hounding them, ostracizing them, insulting them, or threatening them with various other repercussions if they persist in expressing their views. Such behavior is ubiquitous, and when a behavior is ubiquitous, when it is found in all places and at all times through-out history, it must be suspected of being a human trait, rather than merely a cultural, social, or individual one.

The fact – if it is indeed a fact – that the suppression of offensive opinions is grounded in human nature does not mean that the suppression is morally or ethically justified.

Human biology is not the sum of human destiny. We seem to be either unique or almost unique among animals in that we have brains capable of making decisions that run contrary to our instincts. Consequently, it cannot be truthfully said that, because suppressing opinions that offend us is human nature, doing so is either necessary or even inevitable. There is no escaping by that route the obligation to decide what is morally or ethically just.

The question thus comes down to what kinds of opinion, if any, can be morally or ethically suppressed?

Over a hundred years ago, John Stuart Mill provided what I regard as a sound answer to that question. The example he used to make his point involved the English corn merchants. They were the bankers of his day. The merchants were often reviled, especially by poor people. Poor people perceived that the merchants frequently manipulated the market to drive prices up, making corn unaffordable to many, and had much to say about the fact. In turn, the merchants took offense at the things said about them, and sought to have such speech criminalized. Mill came to the defense of free speech by arguing that no one had a right to suppress opinions on the mere basis that such opinions were offensive to them, for to be offended was not to suffer actual harm. Only if someone’s speech was an incitement to do actual harm to someone could it be morally suppressed.

I follow Mill in believing that offense is not a basis for suppressing someone’s opinions. However, the obvious counter to that position is to argue that offense is actually harmful to the offended party. And that is what the American philosopher Joel Feinberg did in the 1980’s.

Feinberg argued that a person’s opinions can cause embarrassment, shame, fear, revulsion, shock, and so forth, in other people, and that those feelings can amount to actual harm done. He therefore urged that Mill’s “harm principle” be replaced with his “offense principle”.

Feinberg’s illiberal views seem to have been picked up on mostly by the radical Left. So far as I’ve heard, on many college campuses today, the notion that opinions which cause someone offense are actually injurious to them has largely prevailed over Mill’s harm principle. And this appears to have led to all sorts of notably stupid situations. For instance, Jonathan Chait writes in New York Magazine:

Last March at University of ¬California–Santa Barbara, in, ironically, a “free-speech zone,” a 16-year-old anti-abortion protester named Thrin Short and her 21-year-old sister Joan displayed a sign arrayed with graphic images of aborted fetuses. They caught the attention of Mireille Miller-Young, a professor of feminist studies. Miller-Young, angered by the sign, demanded that they take it down. When they refused, Miller-Young snatched the sign, took it back to her office to destroy it, and shoved one of the Short sisters on the way.

Speaking to police after the altercation, Miller-Young told them that the images of the fetuses had “triggered” her and violated her “personal right to go to work and not be in harm.” A Facebook group called “UCSB Microaggressions” declared themselves “in solidarity” with Miller-Young and urged the campus “to provide as much support as possible.”

By the prevailing standards of the American criminal-justice system, Miller-Young had engaged in vandalism, battery, and robbery. By the logic of the p.c. [political correctness] movement, she was the victim of a trigger and had acted in the righteous cause of social justice. Her colleagues across the country wrote letters to the sentencing judge pleading for leniency. Jennifer Morgan, an NYU professor, blamed the anti-¬abortion protesters for instigating the confrontation through their exercise of free speech. “Miller-Young’s actions should be mitigated both by her history as an educator as well as by her conviction that the [anti-abortion] images were an assault on her students,” Morgan wrote. Again, the mere expression of opposing ideas, in the form of a poster, is presented as a threatening act.

The notion that mere images of aborted fetuses can rise to the level of “an assault” that might be justifiably defended against to even by means of vandalism, battery, and robbery is, of course, a dangerous idea. But the notion is also a logical deduction from Feinberg’s offense principle.

Once you grant that anything which offends a person does actual harm to that person, that person is logically justified to take action to prevent themselves from coming to harm. And the greater the potential harm, the more extreme the legitimate range of actions they can take. If your opinion on some matter, however trivial it might be to you, can cause me severe, lasting and permanent damage, then what prevents me from being morally justified when I resort even to violence in order to prevent that damage? What matter vandalism, battery, and robbery when done in “necessary” self-defense? Or if I feel sufficiently harmed, why should I not recruit three of my friends with whom to hack at you with machetes?

Although my example here has been an example of an assault on free speech from the American Left, such assaults are by no means confined to any one ideology, movement, or politics.

The dangerous idea that we have a right to suppress opinions or ideas that offend us is a notion that is very likely to always be with us in one form or another, for it seems to be rooted in human nature itself, rather than more simply rooted in a particular religion, ideology, or society.

And that can be a scary thought, for the implication here is that all the world’s social or ideological progress might be little more than a veneer, and that a future age of illiberal barbarism is perhaps just as much a possibility as a future age of enlightened civilization. We will always have within us the genes for that barbaric age.

Rush Limbaugh — Master of Creditability

As I turned on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program today – randomly – I was met by Limbaugh saying that liberals have been openly advocating communism for two decades now and that Barack Obama wants to be re-elected so that he can install a communist regime.

Hume’s Ghost from The Daily Doubter blog.

Are there still some folks left who are naive enough to unquestioningly believe Rush?  Or has he finally reached the point that even the biggest, most gullible fool among us no longer believes him?

The Indefinite Detention of American Citizens

It seems US Senators John McCain (R-Arizona), Carl Levin (D-Michigan), and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) have prepared an early Christmas gift for Americans.  If various accounts are true, their gift is more than a little unsettling.

Apparently, in the name of fighting terrorism, the three have conspired to write into this year’s National Defense Authorization Act provisions that would require the military to indefinitely imprison without a civilian trial any American citizen determined to be a member of al Qaeda or it’s affiliates.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is usually a routine piece of legislation passed each year to specify the budget and expenditures of the U.S. Department of Defense.  Normally, it is not considered a threat to freedom and liberty.   But this year, the three senators have added language to it that is causing grave concern on both the Right and the Left.

In defense of their bill, the senators insist the group of people who could be indefinitely detained without civilian trial only include  “al-Qaeda terrorists who participate in planning or conducting attacks against us.” They also say the president would be able to waive military imprisonment if s/he believes civilian custody would better serve national security.

Yet, according to Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), a citizen would get only one hearing during which the military could assert the person was a suspected terrorist.  He or she would then be locked up for life without ever having been formally charged.

Furthermore, Senator Mark Udall (D-Colorado) has stated, “The provisions would dramatically change broad counterterrorism efforts by requiring law enforcement officials to step aside and ask the Department of Defense to take on a new role they are not fully equipped for and do not want.”  And he adds that the legislation would make the military “police, judge and jailer.”

The provisions are also opposed by numerous others, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and President Obama.

It seems to me a law such as the three Senators want is ripe for abuse. The indefinite detention of American citizens without a fair trial runs counter to American values.  This appears to be yet another attempt to deprive us of our liberties in the name of fighting terrorism.  At least that’s how I see it.  What do you think?

Security versus Liberty

I spent a pleasant Thanksgiving with my family.  The only unpleasantness was the airport security getting to and from my mom’s house.  It seemed to me a reminder of how readily Americans these days are willing to give up their liberties for the appearance of a little security.

That is, I wasn’t so much upset with the measures themselves, which were merely annoying, as I was with the principle behind them.  I don’t have much faith in the notion that we can be perfectly safe and also be a free people.  And, if it comes down to it, I would rather be free than be completely safe.

But maybe that’s just me.  What do you think?

What Are the Politics of Human Instincts?

I recall in the 1960s and 70s, it was popular in many circles to insist that human nature was uniquely malleable.  It was frequently said that, while other animals had many instincts,  human instincts were few and far between.

Instead of instincts,  human behavior was governed solely by learning.  We lacked any instinct to have sex and had to learn to have it.    Again, we lacked any instinct for defending a territory and had to learn both the concept of a territory and to defend ours.  And so forth…

Learning and instinct were seen as oil and water:  They didn’t mix.  An animal’s behavior was either instinctual or it was learned.  If it was instinctual, then it was unvarying and reflexive.  If it was learned, then it was almost infinitely variable and far from reflexive.   The most widely used definitions of instinct at the time precluded just about any other interpretation.  Konrad Lorenz was around, but his pioneering work on instinctual behavior was not nearly so well understood and accepted as the work on learning of, say, B. F. Skinner.

My impression is that people believed humans had so few instincts because they wanted to think of our species as improvable.  The 60s and 70s were in many ways an optimistic time when folks thought humanity could fundamentally change for the better.  And, of course, if that was true, then it made sense to think that human behavior was limited only by what humans could learn.

There might also have been a bit of Christian theology underlying the expectations of scientists.  In Christianity, man occupies an unique place in nature.  He is the only animal who has a soul, and perhaps the only animal with free will.  I suspect the scientists of the 60s and 70s were unconsciously influenced by those beliefs.  Hence, they expected to find a human quite unlike the other animals.  A human whose behavior was uniquely malleable if not through free will, then through learning.

I only know a small handful of people today — mostly sociologists — who still deny that humans have any significant instincts.  Instincts are not always called “instincts” today.  Sometimes, they are called “predispositions”, “behavorial tendencies”, “predilections”, or other terms.  But regardless of what name they use, you everywhere run across people talking about instinctual behavior.   Or, at least I do.

Some of the behaviors that one or another person has conceived of as instinctual to our species include tribalism, territorialism, war, rape,  reciprocity,  language, certain morals, and a belief in spirits and other supernatural entities.  Those and many other things have been thought of as  either instinctual or having a strong instinctual component.

There is much more to the history of human instincts than I have the space for here, but I think you can now get an approximate idea of the change in thinking about instincts that’s taken place over the past few decades.

In my own view, instincts and learning are not oil and water.  Instead, they mix.  Moreover, the instinct is not an unvarying reflex, but rather more like a predisposition towards a certain behavior.   If humans have an instinct for sex, that does not mean that humans will necessarily have sex every chance they get.   It does not mean that humans are like automatons who cannot vary their behavior in order to adapt to circumstances.   Instead, an instinct for sex means, among other things, that humans have a pronounced tendency towards having sex.

Politically, the notion of instinctual behavior in humans is potentially dangerous to liberty.  My guess it is only a matter of time before some inbred fool comes along to claim that his or her inherent instincts are superior to everyone else’s inherent instincts, giving his or her family a right to rule the rest of us for the next ten generations.  Minimum.   And of course, if that wannabe aristocrat has enough money, he or she will have many supporters.   In other words, the recognition that human behavior is not determined by learning — and learning alone — can seem to be an implicit recognition that some of us might be born better people to govern than others of us.

On the other hand, it seems to me that liberty for everyone is justified on many grounds.  Thus, one does not need to prove that all people are born equal — or born with equal potential, as it were — to justify everyone possessing the same political liberties.

But what do you think?