Thursday, September 29, 2011

Random Rosh Hashana Religion Ruminations

Today is Rosh Hashana, went to services last night, as usual am suffering the effects of being half-in and half-out of this religion thing.

Religion is how people and communities establish a relationship to the transcendent, to the eternal, to the infinite, to the absolute, to the sacred, to things unseen and to the powers that underlie the world. So in some sense, you have to have a religion, even if it's one that denies that these things have any sort of reality or meaning whatsoever -- that too establishes a relationship. We all have to live in the world, we all have to deal with its immensity and our smallness.

If the above is how we relate to the cosmos, the other part of religion is about how we deal with each other. It is less clear to me that these things have to be managed by the same institution, but that seems to how things have evolved.

Judaism is very proud of the fact that it invented monotheism (highly disputed, Freud thought they got it from the Egyptians, here's an interesting looking paper that traces it back to Assyria), supposedly the best idea evar. Opinions differ, some say it's the worst. My own feelings (good for today only):

a) it's an important step in the evolution of the human mind, that is, it has approximately nothing to do with whatever is powering and governing the universe and a lot about how we construct and construe ourselves;

b) while it's a crucial part of the growth of western civ, including the devlopment of science, and thus is baked into the deep structure of my own mind, we are in a cultural point where we have to move on to the next thing. God is dead, but gods have a way of coming back from death, generally transformed in some way.

The flavor of Judaism I am currently involved with is the San Francisco fuzzy kind, so the kind of monism on display tends towards the mystical rather than the authoritarian. That's a lot more acceptable, although sometimes it gets too gloppy for me. Everyone's too nice, it leaves out the part of Jewish culture that resonates most with me, argument. On the other hand, insofar as it works for me at all, it works because the genuine spirituality of the community is capable of sneaking past my rationalist defenses.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Libertarian Bizarroworld

Bryan Caplan gives the game away:
Since you're nerdy enough to read EconLog, I assume you're familiar with Bizarro WorldBizarro Superman, and Bizarro Jerry.  Now imagine adding a new figure to this mythology: Bizarrro Wolf Blitzer.  In Bizarro World, the masses and the mainstream media (Blitzer included) are thoroughly libertarian.  Statists are just a handful of hard-blogging oddballs.  To signal his open-mindedness, Bizarro Blitzer invites a leading statist on his show....
My claim: The people of Bizarro World have a far better understanding of right and wrong than the people of the real world.  In Bizarro World, people know that it's morally permissible to refuse to help a total stranger who failed to purchase health insurance, and morally impermissible to treat a peaceful immigrant like a criminal.
My response on EconLog was censored, because apparently "WTF" is such strong language that it makes Galtian supermen clutch their pearls and head for the fainting couch. So reproduced (reconstructed) below:

WTF does "morally permissible" mean? It can't mean "moral under the generally accepted moral code of western civilization", since that makes charity a moral requirement (as stated explicitly in the Torah, in the New Testament, and in fact by most moral codes elsewhere).
If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother: But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth. "  -- Deuteronomy 15:7-8
So it must mean "moral according to the rules of libertarian bizarroworld", which inverts the usual moral codes. In libertarian bizarroworld, selfishness is a virtue and charity is a sin.  The sociopath-admiring Ayn Rand I guess is the prophet of this inverted religion.

So Caplan's "claim" is basically a tautology; that in bizarroworld, inverted morality is "better" and more generally accepted than normal morality.  That's fine for bizarros, and you know who they are. But it has nothing to do with the real world except to serve as a horrible counterexample of how to think and behave.

[[update: this is too good (emphasis added):

Suppose a guy with no health insurance and no assets shows up at a hospital emergency room with an urgent life-threatening condition. Should you let him die? Ordinary compassion says no. The heightened compassion of the economist says, at the very least, maybe.

Has there ever been a field so self-regarding as libertarian economics? Any field that is so in love with its own abstractions, so convinced that they confer moral virtue?

I will give the author of that quote, Steve Landsberg, credit for making it a "maybe" (sure, anything might be true), and focusing on an important issue (the scope of compassion). But still.]]

Sunday, September 11, 2011


A friend pointed out that this was not only the 10th anniversary of the al Qaeda attacks, but also the 105th anniversary of the start of Gandhi's Satyagraha campaign.
And people were wondering, how can we resist with the state so powerful, and we don’t have any weapons, you know, because every time, even today, when somebody talks about resistance, everybody thinks in terms of weapons and war and fighting. And that’s when grandfather explained to them that we don’t need any weapons of mass destruction. We have the ability to respond to this nonviolently and with self-suffering. And that’s what he encouraged the people to do. And they came out into the streets with love for the enemy. You know, grandfather didn’t tolerate any hate for the enemy or any anger for the enemy. He said nonviolence has to be complete nonviolence. We have to have love and respect for the enemy, and that is the only way we can overcome them. And that’s what he showed in his work.   -- Arun Gandhi
I tend to be dubious of political programs that rely on saintliness, given the short supply. Nonviolence seems so impractical, until you compare it with the track record of violence.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Oh look, Ann Coulter said something stupid and offensive (this time, claiming that being a kindergarten teacher was not a "real job", whatever that means). This is not news, nor very interesting. There are many blogs (like the link target) who make a business of being outraged at this sort of thing, and others who do a good job of mercilessly mocking it. But I usually don't bother posting in this area, although I read plenty of those who do.

However, this time I started thinking about why the hell am I clicking on that link and watching a video of this harridan, when I know exactly what to expect, and that I will not be any wiser or otherwise improved afterwards? Indeed, I'll feel rather nauseated. So what's the attraction? Do I enjoy being offended and outraged for some reason? I tell myself I read right-wing blogs for of the intellectual challenge of trying to wrestle with a differing world-view, but that rationale seems less and less credible, and with Coulter it doesn't work at all. Or I tell myself its a form of amateur oppo research, but that doesn't really fly either.

No, something else is going on. Despite her superficial hideousness, there must be something attractive there. It may be the same sort of attraction found in horror movies, or the way we learn to like certain kinds of rottenness found in strong cheese. The very qualities that make her repulsive also make her attractive, on some different and largely unconscious level.

I think what attraction Coulter's shtick has for both me and her right-wing fans is based on its transgressive qualities. She's violating the rules of decency, while appearing (sort of) charming and amusing about it. That puts her opponents in the position of moralistic prigs, who believe that they are in a position to dictate what's right to the rest of us. She's a rebel! A truth-speaker!

So much of modern conservatism seems to be based on this need to transgress against what is supposed to be the dominant moral order, let's call it boomer liberalism. According to this ethos, you are supposed to be compassionate, tolerant, responsible, sensitive, cosmopolitan, educated. You are not supposed to be explicitly competitive or aggressive, except in certain approved and highly constrained ways.

Now, I don't really have too much against this moral order, which on the whole is an improvement on what it superseded. It suits my cultural biases. But like any other moral order it can be stultifying, and like any order it creates its own status hierarchies and winners and losers. Not everyone can easily conform to these norms. The result is a strong resentment at liberal elites, coupled with assertions of masculine brutality against what is seen as a feminized ethos of niceness. Coulter is a master of playing with these resentments, of giving voice to the part of the world who doesn't particularly want to be nice, of packaging them up into something outrageous enough to get her in the news while not being so outrageous as to get her banned (eg, she's careful not to veer into explicit racism, unless it's against Arabs).

Thus the entire basis of the conservative movement appears to be almost the opposite of what conservatism is supposed to be about. It's not about the preservation of an aristocratic elite, but the attempt to unseat one, one that is felt as illegitimate. (Whether they are pawns of the older more traditional elites who are trying to regain the power they lost is an interesting question, but not relevant to this particular train of thought).

At some level, I too feel the dominant moral order to be an imposition, and at some level I resist it like I would any externally-imposed authority. I can feel and share in the resentment even though the alternatives being touted appall me. Any political group seeks to impose a moral order, and I say screw 'em all, which is why I often feel more truly anarchic than the anarchists. And yes, this attitude is immature and being mature means joining up with and helping maintain a moral order, one way or the other, which I've done as best I can. But the old feelings remain; advanced middle age has not cured me of them as one might have hoped.

So I read these right-wingers for the little tingle of transgressivity they supply. It's a form of intellectual pornography I suppose.

[a previous post on a similar topic.]

Monday, September 05, 2011

Solidarity forever, someday

Obligatory Labor Day post. Not too much to say today, except that being for "labor" these days seems like a sucker's game, since even the working classes for the most part can't be bothered. Solidarity is a wonderful thing, but there's a point past which it can't be salvaged and we seem to have blown past that sometime in the last 30 years or so.

I don't really believe that it's dead and replaced by the realm of total individual self-interest that was the dream of Ayn Rand and the reality of Wall Street. But the old banners -- of class, party, or ideology -- haven't held up. Something new will need to emerge, and it isn't quite there yet.

In the meantime, here's a nice instance of inter-generational continuity.