On Fighting for Stupidity

You have seen it. A little kid makes up a story as to why he did something that clearly shows that the story had nothing to do with why he did it, but it sounded to him like it would have been a good reason if that really had been why he did it. It is really funny if the kid got basic stuff wrong, like whether you can throw a ball around a corner or the prevalence of elephants in the area. Grownups do that too. Their stories are more plausible sounding, but the fact that a basic premise of the entire story is objectively, clearly and observably false, they will stick to the story and question the motives of anyone who dares point out the obvious flaw. Others who share the same feelings will glom onto the story as truth, and simply deny the obvious, because if the obvious were true, then they could not fit the story to their feelings, so they become blind to the obvious, and like Oedipus, would rather gouge out their own eyes that face the facts. People will even go so far as to cite an irrefutable argument proving them wrong as proof that they are right.

The big story this week is Kim Davis. She has a very strong feeling. Her feeling is that if she has any role in something sinful – not anything sinful, but a particular thing sinful – then she herself is behaving sinfully. The story she made up was that by signing a marriage certificate, she was playing a part in that sinful thing. Her job is that she is the elected County Clerk of Rowan County in Kentucky. Kentucky law states that marriage certificates must be attested to by the County Clerk whose office validated the compliance with the law. Her signature attests only to the compliance of the document to the law. It does not attest to her approval of the document, and it does not attest to her approval of the law. She ran for the office and took the oath of the office that she would be diligent in following the law and ensuring that the law was followed. Her office has no authority over what the law is, it only has a duty to check the paperwork. Her signature says that the office procedures involved adequate measures to see that the persons named on the certificate are properly identified and are eligible under the Laws of Kentucky and the United States to receive a marriage certificate in Rowan County. They are not married by that action, and are under no obligation to get married. In short, her part is nothing more or less than to ensure that the Rule of Law prevails.

She has been courted by people with much to gain and nothing to lose and egged on to claim that she has Religious Freedom, and thus cannot be compelled to do the job she swore to do if it feels to her like a violation of her faith to do that job. She has refused to step down from that job, she just refuses to do the job. Because she was elected, it takes an act of the legislature (not is session) to impeach her, and the Kentucky legislature knows exactly what Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee know: People will vote their feelings over facts every time. There are enough people who hate the idea of marriage equality that it would be political suicide to actually fulfill their oaths to uphold the Constitution once the rallies have started. Maybe, just maybe they will have the guts to clarify the point that the Clerk is not approving or disapproving any legal action by attesting to it’s compliance with the law.  Most likely they will do like Mike and Ted, and celebrate the stupid part, the part that is based entirely on willful misunderstanding of what should be simple and straightforward and turning it into a righteous sounding excuse for something vile like hate.

The first bit of stupid is ignoring that the office and the person are not one and the same. The Office has no freedom of religion, and is constitutionally bound to be religiously neutral. The person has the religious freedom to follow their religion, but they cannot use the office for that purpose. The Government is not a pulpit, at least not YOUR pulpit. It is not a violation of a Rabbi’s rights if a Catholic Church does not cede the pulpit to them, and it is not a violation of religious freedom for an office holder to be required to refrain from using the office to compel others to comply with their religious beliefs. What if she believes that marriage is ordained by Jesus Christ? Does she have the right to refuse it to Jews who do not convert? It becomes obviously absurd to equate the duties of office to the personal choices of the office holder. It is not her office, it is an office of the government she occupies.

The second bit of stupid is that if you have no intention of doing the job you were hired to do, you are not a martyr for not doing it. If her work conditions have become unbearable, there is an obvious solution. Getting paid by the people $80,000 per year to sit in jail is not noble. If she truly feels that to be a part of the Rule of Law violates her conscience, and that only the Rule of God should determine her actions, then she should answer that calling by working for the Rule of God on his payroll, not by simply taking pay for a job not done at the expense of the people of Rowan County she swore to serve without bias according to the law. If you do not believe people should drive, don’t seek out a job at the DMV and expect to be paid not to do it. If your faith makes you unfit for a job, it is not a violation of your rights, it is merely a consequence of exercising your rights, just as a boring love life may be consequence of choosing celibacy.

More of the stupid is in the idea that because so many feel that they wish the law was different, and they wish that the matter had not be settled constitutionally, and they just wish that “those people” would go somewhere else, that they buy the “My conscience won’t let me be fair and impartial” line as one defending Christianity from an onslaught of people who want to have families. They are encouraged by shysters who know full well that Theocracy is not the same as the Rule of Law. The Rule of Law means that the Law rules. Not people, not gods, but the law. People and gods may have a role in shaping the law, but in the end, whatever the law turns out as is what they are ruled by. Our Highest Law in the Land clearly states that no one’s God had authority over anyone else, legally speaking, and equal protection includes protection from the religion of others.

Finally, the biggest bit of stupid on that side is the notion that freedom of religion means the freedom to impose your religion, or from a different angle, that their freedom is somehow violated by the notion that someone unlike them has the same kind of rights.  The idea that letting “those people” have the same freedoms they enjoy is “shoving it down our throat” and “flaunting it in our faces” that they exist and, worse, are not ashamed of their existence, and worst of all, don’t keep in their place, is an affront to people who believe in the right not to know about anything outside their understanding. This stupid leads many well-intentioned people to sincerely believe that a minority demanding equal treatment to the majority is an attack on the majority. I have no doubt that Mike Huckabee actually believes that Christians have a manifest destiny to control the world by whatever means they can, and that this is different from the Taliban’s take on the role of Islam.

Now this story does have two sides. As is often the case, a lot of the people who are upset with Kim Davis are no less stupid about it. Their reasoning may include that she is being unchristian, she is as guilty of sin, she is generally hypocritical about why she would prefer not to sign marriage certificates, but all they are saying is “We are on the other side, so WE are the ones who are right” and “you people are all the same, you’re bigots”. Ironically, they fail to see the irony in such sentiments. This us v them approach is equally stupid.

I don’t care as much that she has beliefs that I don’t share, but that she is just fundamentally wrong about the facts, and between stupid people and greedy cynics egging her on, people get confused about who the victims are. She is a victim of the fraudulent and cynical advice lobbyists give her to rile up the masses, and the people who are denied equal treatment under the law are victims of her ignorance and gullibility. And in the middle, Christianity gets blamed for what people who call themselves Christian do, whether it has anything at all to do with Scripture or not, and Christians get just enough sound bites from the criticism to reinforce their idea that their beliefs are under attack by a wave of Satanists and destroyers of faith.

Posted in Church State Separation | Leave a comment

On Family and Freedom

The Supreme Court has now heard arguments of two cases concerning same-sex marriage.  I have been listening and reading a lot of argument on the subject.  I have views as well, and those who have read some of my posts can probably guess which way I lean on such a subject.  Before I talk about my position on the subject directly, however, I think it is a good idea to talk about how and why the argument has evolved and what kinds of arguments can be exposed as bad kinds of arguments.  To be fair, for those who wish to stop reading and get angry and are just waiting for the chance, I think it is only fair to let people choose their own spouse to the same degree that others do, which is to say that if I can marry my sweetheart, you should be able to marry yours.  I cannot marry just anybody, so neither can you, but the difference should not be about our difference.  Neither of us can marry a close family member, neither of us can marry someone who is not a consenting adult, and we can look at those issues separately, because they are separate.

First, let’s set aside accusations of bigotry.  I don’t claim that bigotry is not involved, but people can have bad reasoning without malice, and we all have prejudices as a part of our nature.  Let’s stick with what the arguments are and whether they stand on their own or not.   I welcome all to respond to any of these in the comments below, and any reasoned and civil comments will be approved.

The Nature Argument

Generally, the argument is that homosexuality is not natural.  It is against God, or at least against nature.  This argument may take one or more tacks.  One is that God created us, and said homosexuality is an abomination which means he didn’t make anybody gay, they chose it.  Another is that if people were born gay, that means that there is a gay gene, and that is impossible because gay sex does not reproduce.  The first one may be fundamental to faith, but politically, it should be irrelevant.   See my other discussions on Separation of Church and State as to why, or we can get into that in the comments anyone wishes.  As to the idea that evolution is so precise as to weed out extraneous nature, that is just observably false.   Men would not have nipples if nothing in nature would be passed on if it did not increase survival directly.  Men have nipples because men and women are alike in more ways than they are different, and to the extent that each of us inherit traits from both father and mother in ways that make us different from each does not prevent us from being born, or from having siblings with combinations that do lead to procreation.  It also does not prevent anyone from wishing to procreate despite their attractions or lack thereof.  For all we know, aunts and uncles play a much bigger role in the survival of a clan than we imagine. 

Homosexual behavior is observed in nature through any number of species. Science texts from years past may show a bias toward the above assumptions when they describe this behavior as not really being about homosexuality, but rather some dominance behavior, which it may also be.

The significance of the question of nature lies in the follow up question of whether it is a choice to be sexually oriented toward homosexuality.  In this question, it is simple-mindedness to think that anecdotal evidence can answer this, or that there is a yes/no answer for all.  Sexuality is not an all-or-none thing.  Each of us has many layers to our sexuality.  There is the level of desire for intimacy that we often associate with romantic love, and there is raw sexual desire, and there is a continuum of states between them.  Erotica, for example, is at the raw desire end.  You don’t think about marriage or children when your mind is in that mode.  It does not define your sexuality, but it is a part of it.  Availability has a lot to do with this type of sexual desire.  The “beer goggles” effect has been shown not to make people look more beautiful, but rather to shift the sexual desire to emphasize availability as what is attractive at the moment.  People in prison with only those of their same sex may still be driven to satisfy this erotic need without ever developing romantic love.  They do not become homosexual in their nature, they simply engage in homosexual behavior.  They don’t want to marry each other based on erotica.  When yet another prominent evangelist is discovered with a male prostitute, it does not mean he is secretly gay, it means he dabbled in the erotica of forbidden sex.  That is why he may be able to genuinely be “cured” of it through faith.  He can reject the desire because it does not really define his sexual orientation, just his curiosity. 

When we point to someone who chooses to indulge in this behavior and say “See? I told you it was their choice!”, or if some celebrity says “yes, I chose to do this”, that does not preclude the possibility that many others,  millions of them, even if a small percentage of the population at large, actually experience an orientation toward their own sex at all of the layers, from romantic intimacy to erotic desire.  Those who just want to have sex with a bunch of people are not the ones who settle down to start a family together.  The evidence that strongly supports a native inclination to permanently mate with persons of the same sex in a segment of the population, beyond all of the science (of which there is plenty), is this desire.  Very few of us choose to marry just for sex, particularly in this age where marriage is not necessary for sex. We marry for family.

I do not “desire” sex outside of marriage, probably  because I am happily married, but that does not make me devoid of sexual urges.  They are just balanced against the bigger picture of my relationship with my wife.  I desire NOT to damage all of the rest far more than having any desires to cheat.  My love is not a choice, even if my behavior is, but my love affects my behavior significantly.  The role of choice is the lesser one from the role of what kind of relationship I am inclined to have.  I am inclined to love someone like her, which makes the other choices natural for me.  What is natural for me is not natural for everybody.  That does not make me inherently more moral, just lucky in love.


The Definition Argument

Another argument is in the fear that if we allow the definition of the word to change, some bad effects will ensue.  The idea is that when we say “marriage”, everyone knows we are talking about men and women.  This argument has a lot of problems, and most of them fall under the category of “say anything; don’t worry if it is right”.  Look at history.  Look at Scripture.  All through everything for as far back as you go, people know what “marry” means.  People know that it is a formal arrangement to form a family and establish an estate.  We don’t let brothers and sisters marry, but we know what it would be if they did.  We might say “he is not married to her because he never divorced his first wife” and not be confused that this was a legal matter, not the definition of marriage itself.  The fact that we know what we mean when we say “it is not right to let two men marry each other” says that we have no problem at all understanding what it would mean to say two men were married to each other.  The definition argument is simply bogus.  The question is not whether it is a marriage, it is whether it is a legal marriage or a valid marriage, and in all cases, the noun is “marriage” and it has the same meaning it always did, and if none of us are confused by what we are saying, then the definition of the word has not changed in any meaningful way, only the examples of the definition have changed.  The definition of “husband” or “wife” has no legal significance beyond “spouse”, since men and women are equal in a marriage today.  The words are customary, but not legally significant in family law.  Inasmuch as the word “marriage” in family law is defined to different sex couples, it is nothing more than institutionalized legal restrictions on marriage, not definitive linguistics that control  reality.

The Slippery Slope

A favorite argument to limit same sex marriage is the slippery slope argument.  In this argument, we must overlook fairness concerns because if we do not, we will have to address other concerns, and before you know it, a lot of things we don’t want will come along.  For example: If anyone should be allowed to choose their own mate, why just one? Why not several?  Or “why just people, why not goats? Why not brothers and sisters?”  The fallacy of this kind of argument is twofold: 1) that we should be unfair lest we find other ways to be fair, or 2) Since these things are alike in one way, they are alike in all ways and we can’t have one without all of the others. 

The first fallacy I would address is that maintaining the status quo of injustice is every justified by concerns that it might make it harder to maintain the status quo on other injustices.  Not that those restrictions on other kinds of marriage are inherently unjust, but only that injustice never justifies more injustice.  If you are sincere in wanting to open marriage up to others, then you will have no fear in examining the claims of injustice that may be related, but if you are not, then should have a reason why those restrictions are not unjust.  The mere idea that one may follow from the other just because both are restricted is simply embracing ignorance of the differences as being superior to understanding.

For example: If the argument for same-sex marriage is assumed to simply be that people should have a right to choose their own mate, then the same argument means that people should be able to choose any mate at all without restrictions of any kind, so anyone could marry a child or an animal.  Obviously, heterosexual marriage between adults and children is highly restricted, and marriage between humans and animals is just legally absurd, but the expressed fear is that the state’s absolute right to arbitrarily restrict marriage is at stake.

Slightly less absurd, but still no less a fallacy is the idea that if we allow the right to choose a mate, this is the same as letting more than two persons mate.  This argument is based on the complexity of legal marriage and relies on creating a diversion by presenting that complexity as simple.  Plural marriage is bad, the reasoning goes, so we can’t let that be a choice.  The short answer is that if plural marriage is bad in some way that does not apply to same-sex marriage, then the restriction will have its own justification without a need for restricting same-sex marriage, and if whatever is bad does apply to same sex marriage, then talk about what that is that is bad now, don’t kick it down the road for some later case about plural marriage, and if it is not bad, then the objection is irrelevant.

But for those who fear that plural marriage is illegal for good reasons that nobody talks about anymore and maybe there is something to it hiding in the shadows, let me provide some background on the issue.

On Freedom and Regulation

As Americans, we often talk about how free we are.  We talk about it so much that we are raised to believe that we are extremely free.  Since we believe we are free, when we see ways in which we are not free, we assume that we just don’t understand freedom.  I am not knocking America.  America is a land with a lot of freedom, but our cognitive dissonance on what freedom is threatens our freedom every day.  For example, there was a time when the idea that the federal government could tell you that you can’t ingest alcohol or drugs was unconstitutional.  That is why it took a constitutional amendment to outlaw it.  Little by little, however, prohibitions against “immoral” behavior have lasted long enough to make it seem normal to prohibit other “immoral” behaviors, until the idea that you can and should legislate morality becomes commonplace. Prohibition, however, is the opposite of freedom.   Forcing someone to behave in a certain way is the opposite of letting them choose how to behave.

No freedom is absolute.  In general, the greatest net balance of freedom occurs when everyone is free to do anything that does not impede the freedom of others, and where freedoms are in conflict, balance between them.  For example, murder infringes on another’s freedom to live, so no one should be free to murder, since murder is less necessary to life than living.  People should not be free to steal because the freedom to keep property is more important to a stable society, etc.  A society based on freedom does not accept authority for the sake of authority, but authority of mutual protection of freedom.  Democracies and Republics, therefore, are not about morality, but freedom.

But freedom is not just a negative concept.  Do whatever, whenever, but there is a positive aspect, too.  I may not have a law against travel, but if I have no money, I can’t travel anyway.  So for mutual freedom, we may balance between having rights and having abilities.  For example, if we all give up some property in taxes, we all get back more freedom if we collectively dig a well, or pave a highway.  Or we may all have more freedom from fraud if we give up a little freedom of expression such that we can’t each make up what an “ounce” means to suit ourselves.

So we have laws that curtail or promote freedom in both the positive and the negative.  We grease the wheels of commerce or we deter harmful actions through civil and criminal laws.  Between civil and criminal laws, we have a fairly complex set of standards that allow for stability while, hopefully, maximizing freedom.  We standardize how we settle disputes of standard types, such as who gets to inherit what, and when is it even inheritance and not just no longer sharing because one died, who gets the kids if we split up, who is my advocate in a medical emergency, etc.

Throughout history, we have had marriages between individuals and between one man and as many women as he could afford to procure. In this country, we do not choose to recognize the latter for the purpose of our standards in family law.  We have both civil and criminal statutes pertaining to people who marry more than one person.  I will try to explain why this complexity makes the question of plural marriage significantly different from the question of same-sex marriage.  The criminal statutes against bigamy and polygamy are of two basic types.  There are states that consider it a criminal offense merely to marry more than one person at a time.  However, most criminal law is concerned with fraud associated with bigamy or polygamy.  If a person fails to divorce before marrying someone else, then on the civil level, the second marriage is not a legal marriage.  If they present themselves fraudulently as legally married, it is the fraud, not the marriage that is illegal.   As many people who choose to live together and share parenting tasks and share love partners among the consenting adults as want to can do so and it is not a legal matter.  They can even make contracts and wills and powers of attorney between themselves that give them most of the benefits of a legal marriage.  Many argue that homosexual couples can do the same thing, and they are correct.  But there is a reason why it is unreasonable to expect homosexuals to be forced to, and not unreasonable to expect plural marriages to be forced to: The difference between a same-sex couple and a heterosexual couple is legally trivial while the difference between any plural marriage and any couples marriage is not.

When two people marry, they establish a next-of-kin relationship that is supreme in the eyes of the law. If you cannot speak for yourself, your father, mother, brother, sister, son and daughter may all be there, but your spouse is the one who can make your decisions.  In Texas, a community property state, if you stipulate in your will that your spouse gets everything in accordance with the law, then your community property is not inherited, it just has one less owner, so there is no probate, no inheritance tax, and the other relatives have a really hard time contesting it successfully, because the spouse is the one.  At the same time, men and women have equal rights in marriage. Whether you are “husband” or “wife” in custom, you are legally “spouse”. It does not matter if you are the male or the female, and it does not matter if your spouse is the male or the female.  There is no requirement or expectation that joining in marriage can or will produce offspring.  In short, the only legally significant different between homosexual and heterosexual couples is the restriction in issuing the license or calling it valid.  No other aspect of family law needs to be accommodated to allow for marriage equality.

Plural marriages have no single supreme next of kin.  There is no standard by which one combination of participants could be compared to another combination.  At this level of family law, the freedom not to use the standard structure implies the responsibility to define your own structure and defend it legally as needed.  You should be free from harassment as long as you do not falsify or misrepresent your status, particularly to fraudulently claim abandonment by a spouse with whom you still share a family in order to receive welfare.  Is there room to allow for plural marriages of some sort within the law? No doubt.  Is that relevant to whether someone should or should not support same-sex marriage?  Not at all.


So there you have it.  I did not go into the silly arguments people quote in favor of same-sex marriage, largely because I seldom hear them repeated, but I have heard people who have no more clue what they are talking about than many opponents, but like them just want to say something.  I would be happy to entertain other arguments for or against.  That is the kind of thing this forum is for.

Your Thoughts?

Posted in Church State Separation | Leave a comment

Third Rail

Third Rail

Well, my friends, the Conclave is recently concluded as I muse here, and a “sequester” is in full swing here at home in the States.  I have not been posting thoughts for quite a while, and I think it is time to toss something out there.  The theme is, as is often the case, what is not said, what is not even considered when people set their opinions in stone.

When an issue is called a “third rail” in politics, this means that it is death to touch it.  The allusion is to the power supply rail on a subway train.  It is an essential part of the train going anywhere, it is where all of the power should be, but touch it and you are toast.  So-called third rails are generally things that represent very important, but very complicated issues.   Complicated.  There’s the rub.  They require deep thought, and worse, dispassionate thought.  Dispassionate in that you must suspend your own fears and desires long enough to understand the issue. Not everybody is built for dispassionate thought. Some even consider the notion itself to be evil, because they equate dispassion with “cold blooded” and feel that allowing yourself to think dispassionately is allowing you to consider doing evil without being repulsed by it, and somehow this would lead to acting evil.  The problem with this assumption is that it is the very essence of the old saying: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.  Without dispassionate reasoning, what is wrong with an idea is never explored, and things that are counter-intuitive but more effective are never discovered.  Thinking dispassionately about something does not require giving up a passionate life.  It is about suspending judgment about what appears to be right or wrong until what is right or wrong can be corroborated.  For example, fear of lightning may cause you to seek refuge under a tree, but ignoring that fear to ask “is it safer under a tree?”  does not mean you are not afraid, only that you have suspended your gut reaction in favor of thoughtful consideration.

  But just saying “dispassionate” does not make it so.  In fact, one of the reasons why thinking rationally and dispassionately has gotten a bad rap is that people who do not think dispassionately, but merely uncompassionately do, in fact, use their logic to do evil in cold blood.  They are not without passion; they are just not the targets of their passion.  For example, a white supremacist may appeal to some sort of logical argument as to why other people must be oppressed for the good of all.  Their logic depends on the willingness of their target audience to passionately accept the argument without dispassionate consideration.   As I said, not everybody is build for actual dispassionate thinking, or even build to recognize it when they see it.

Just being dispassionate, however, is not enough to think an issue through.  There are religious traditions in which you are to accept the doctrine without passion.  What it costs you, what apparent evil it may do, is to be blocked out from consideration, so that only the doctrine matters.  This is dispassionate thought without deep thought. 

I was having a discussion on consumerism and economics that are based on consumerism.  It had to do with the impact of reducing consumerism through cultural change.  For example, what if fewer of us chose to buy the biggest house we could afford, or chose to ignore fashion and buy clothing that was durable and would last longer?  This would increase demand for durable products, but reduce the overall demand for products, which could result in unemployment among those sectors that produce cheap stuff.  The same would be the case with plastic and disposable products that do such environmental damage.  People go to work to make cheap environmentally friendly crap and to save the planet, it would seem we need to sacrifice all of those jobs.  They don’t have the skills, or in some cases, the aptitude to get greener jobs, so what do we do?  I proposed we examine the premise that there is not enough clean work for everybody.  I began with the obvious case that people today in our culture are conditioned for consumerism, but if they were weaned off of that conditioning, (and my assumption would be that this would be an educational effort),  and if we began to adopt a culture that valued people more than stuff (again, through education, I was thinking),  there is mathematically no reason why one day we could have full employment with people working less than 20 hours per week if they were willing to wear dull clothing and live in small houses, using public transportation, etc.  I was speaking in terms of the mathematical variables of hours of labor, cost of basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, and entertainment including arts.  Neither you nor I can imagine that Americans would leap at the idea of living such an existence. That is not the point of the thought experiment.  The point is to make sure the forces that we are inclined to blame for the state of humanity are valid.   If there is plenty for all to eat, for example, but people are starving, the problem should not be blamed on lack of food, and the remedy may not be more food.   If the reason why people are homeless has more to do with pressure on the real estate market than their work ethic, we should identify that, etc.  However, as soon as I brought up the notion that “common sense” about market forces could be fundamentally skewed, and gave the mathematical example cited above, he immediately began rejecting the very idea that such thoughts could be entertained by anyone but a devotee of Kim Jong Il, bent on destroying all that Americans have died for.  Heresy.  Forbidden Thoughts. Cah-Mew-Nih-zuhm! 

There is an unspoken third rail of thought that has come up in all of the talking-head commentary on the Conclave that brought this whole topic to mind.  This third rail is unspoken, unseen by many, and hidden by others.  There are those who flirt with it to provide cover for the fact that they will not only refuse to touch it, but will ensure that any who do are harmed by it.   Flirting with it takes many forms: “the role of government”, “tolerance”, “personal responsibility” and similar phrases are used to make a show of being willing to grab that rail with both hands, but typically within the same breath, the opposite is shown.  That rail of thought is the idea that we don’t have to control what people think and do to coexist with them except where what they do harms others.  So one rail will say “guns don’t kill people” while also saying “Allowing gays to marry is wrong”, as if “personal responsibility” is limited to just a few things, while the other rail says “everyone should have equal opportunity” while also saying “we should outlaw transfatty acids” as if, given a choice, people will not be sufficiently responsible to choose for themselves.  The third rail is the one that tells each rail to listen to itself for five minutes and see that bad thinking is bad thinking even if it sounds good to your team.

This last point brings me back to the Conclave.  The talking heads, who are not paid to think, but to get you to scream at the radio or TV and stay tuned through the commercial, have been making hay over  what they see as a disconnect between what American Catholics believe and what the Roman Catholic Church teaches.  They called out that Americans tend to believe that contraception and gay marriage and other such things should be allowed.  The talking heads were quick to point out that this “put them at odds” with the teachings of the Church.  My turn to scream at the radio, because the obvious and ignored possibility is that these folks ARE AMERICAN and don’t think that the Church should be political, that the teachings of the Church are about how people should behave in the eyes of God, not about what the law should allow or not allow.  The Church is not a democracy, and our Democracy is not a Church.  There are those within the Church that want to rescind Vatican II, and many that could stand to see a Vatican III (not likely).  But the idea that the Church might be stronger, or even better able to prepare the way for the Christ if some of the third rails of Church Doctrine were reviewed for accuracy and relevance, is itself, a third rail in the College of Cardinals.

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On Politics, Morality and Reason: A Dialogue

Theo: Hello, my good friend Philo. I came to call you to task on your reckless position on the laws that shape our society. I can scarcely believe that you would risk everything we value for the sake of dry and abstract ideas. Are there no principles you hold dearer than your precious philosophic theories? Would you truly risk the future of our children?

Philo: Always good to speak with you, to, Theo, my friend. I welcome the discussion about laws and society and happily proclaim that I believe as strongly as you in principles and protecting the future of our children and all children. Philosophy is not the end in itself, but it is a tool of understanding. We must use our minds to see truth so often hidden behind fear. You see, if we are to have a future that is better than the past, we must understand when society should shape the laws, not the other way around.

Theo: Surely, you don’t believe that the very morality that the law protects should be as relative and changing as the morals of the masses?

Philo: In fact, my friend, I do not believe that the Law should be about morality at all.

Theo: But how can you say that? The Law has always enforced morality. Why in our own Judeo-Christian heritage we have the history of the Ten Commandments leading to the Deuteronomy and Leviticus, on to Jesus himself telling us to keep the Commandments. Even those of other faiths have long traditions of divine laws from their scriptures. History shows that laws are how we keep a moral society. Where there is no law, there is no morality.

Philo: I grant you that throughout history, laws have been codified as commandments from a divine source. I concede readily that throughout history, morality has been part of the stated objectives of the Law. However, history is also rife with such monumental immorality in the name of the Law that the notion that the Law is effective in controlling morality is highly doubtable.

Theo: So, are you saying that because we have seen immorality that the Law is of no value? That we should abandon our belief in Good and Evil and surrender our governance to whatever feels good?

Philo: Not at all. I am saying that the historic attempt to enforce morality through laws does not result in greater morality. In fact, I am prepared to say that it is not possible to make people moral by means of law.

Theo: But even in your own secular view, isn’t it true that you believe that when the law forbids immoral behavior, there is less immoral behavior, and moral behavior is better for a strong and stable society?

Philo: There is a benefit to enforcing laws that limit behavior that is harmful to society, but I submit to you that such laws need not be based on any morality if they are based instead on the objective of limiting harm.

Theo: You must know that rampant immorality is harmful to society. How can these two be separate if they are the same?

Philo: They are separate in purpose. There is a reason some things are considered moral, and those reasons correspond to the reasons some behaviors should be curtailed, but that does not mean that all of the reasons for each are interchangeable.

Theo: Word games! If they are the same reasons, then of course they are interchangeable. A logician such as you must see this. If the behavior is wrong, it is wrong. Why quibble over descriptions that amount to nothing?

Philo: But such differences amount to very much. It is misleading that they overlap, and this brings false confidence it understanding what makes a law good and effective. As a result, bad law is accepted as having the same basis as good law and assumed to be good despite the ills it leads to.

Theo: And it is your claim that good and moral behavior is an ill? Or is it that you claim that we cannot tell a bad law from a good one?

Philo: The latter, dear friend, is the problem.

Theo: So all those who wish to have a moral society are not clever enough to spot a bad law, unlike you, who must be trusted to rule over us?

Philo: Dear Theo, I believe that you have a sound mind and are completely capable of making rational decisions. However, bad assumptions can lead to unsound reasoning even where the logic is valid. When we assume that morality is the purpose of law, it becomes a matter of logic that all law enforcing that morality is good law, and all of the ills that are associated with it must therefore be seen as lesser evils in the greater scheme than the law itself. How can a moral law be a bad law in such a system? If, however, we are not constrained to the assumption that the law is inherently good, we can see that an attempt at enforcing morality can result in far greater immorality.

Theo: And yet you assume much, yourself. You assume that Man is capable of seeing all and hence better at determining what laws are just than Providence, from whence our laws have come.

Philo: I do not claim to see all, but any who observe can see that even if we allow that Providence has written such laws, it falls to Man to interpret them and codify them into criminal and civil statutes, which Man has always tended to do with predictable human weaknesses. And yet, under the guise of divine inspiration, the law becomes a force for inhumanity in the name of divinity. There is no example where this is not so that I am aware of. Are you aware of such an example?

Theo: I do not concede that because we have historical examples of humans misusing power that this makes morality a bad choice for guiding governance. Clearly, there are immoral people and there always have been immoral people and the lust for power will corrupt any system that goes unchecked. But we’ve seen the injustice of immoral practices and learned from them. Good governance will always be a struggle and evil forces will always be against us. If we abandon out principles we will never stem the tide that threatens to wash away civilization with anarchy.

Philo: But that is why we must use the most effective ways to stem this tide you speak of. We will not stem the tide by adding water to the sea, as in your analogy. It is the pretext of morality that enables those who seek personal power and glory to corrupt the system. It does not end there. Once the corruption is entrenched, it becomes the de facto basis for morality in judging its effect. Anyone opposed to morality must be immoral, after all. If injustice results, the victims of that injustice must be to blame, for morality cannot be to blame for injustice, or so the reasoning goes.

Theo: But no thinking person believes this. History is full of people who rose up against such corruption, or left it to form better societies.

Philo: True, Theo, but all too often those who rose up were slaughtered, and those wielding the swords were not the corrupt leaders, but the common people who sought only to protect morality. Those who left often merely replaced one oppression with another just as brutal. Our own beloved country was founded, not in rebellion against a single oppressor, but in rebellion to the very notion that moral authority was a valid basis for governance.

Theo: I reject that notion outright, my poor mislead companion. Historians have shown that the Founders of our great Nation were God fearing men who held morality to be the highest motivator of men. The idea that they rejected their faith to form our Nation is simply preposterous!

Philo: I have not stated or implied that they rejected faith or morality. That, indeed, would be preposterous, for our founders could not have succeeded without both faith and morality.

Theo: And yet you claim that they rebelled against those very things!

Philo: Not at all. I said that they rebelled against the idea that faith and morality ordained what the law should be. They did not rebel against their Judeo-Christian values, they rebelled against the failed notion that governance of worldly affairs was above the highest of the values of their faith: Free Will. If a man, they reasoned, wished to spend eternity in Hell, that was his God Given right, but the law should protect others from being the victim of his actions. He should believe as he chooses, and even act as he chooses up to the point at which his actions harm others.

Theo: Can you cite this claim? I have no recollection of such claims in the writings I have seen.

Philo: I have summarized and paraphrased, to be sure. The writings of John Locke were often quoted by those in the cause, but I am more concerned with the ideas as they pertain today. I see that we are not likely to settle an argument on the intentions of the Founders. They were clearly not of one mind, nor were they perfect in their motivations, so we can trade quotes and not get closer to the truth. Instead, let us focus on here and now.

Theo: Although I have you on the run, I will indulge you. I doubt that even by ignoring history you will succeed in proving that immorality is better than morality in the law.

Philo: You are too kind. But you misunderstand. I have no intention of ignoring history. I believe history proves that my case has the greater merit. Further, I repeat that I have no intention of suggesting that law should or should not be moral or immoral. I suggest that morality is not properly dealt with as a legal matter, at all. The Law should instead primarily be about protection of the individual, and then about the progress of man.

Theo: And how do you arrive at such an opinion? Is your assumption about the supremacy of Free Will and protection of the individual not just a particular morality?

Philo: While I do believe that placing a high value on Free Will and protection of the individual is a moral stance, even a stance well supported by the Judeo-Christian Tradition, no, I do not suggest that it is the standard for moral reasons, but for practical reasons. It is a case of enlightened self-interest.

Theo: Enlightenned? By what? The musings of Man? What is that next to what is ordained by Providence?

Philo: I have already demonstrated that “what is ordained by providence” is problematic in the governance of Man. Self-Righteousness inevitably leads to injustice when given the power to do so.

Theo: And who is to say what is just, if not the source of all Goodness?

Philo: What is just in this world is a question of this world, and this is supported by your own tradition. There is no tradition for democratic rule in the Judeo-Christian heritage. It is historically brand new. But there are scriptures that indicate that being under a Ruler of another religion is not against God’s Will. The Rule of Law is such a ruler, one that is of this world and not specific to one faith.

Theo: Democracy was not unknown to them. The Greeks, who played such an important role in both the Jewish and Christian traditions, had known democracy. Hence the Greek root of the very word.

Philo: Which democracy was long suppressed by the Romans before that period. And yet, if you are correct, it is even more telling that democratic governance is excluded from scripture. But let us not digress. Man is not of one religious or moral tradition. We can respect tradition and not be enslaved to it. To govern man is to govern those who do not agree, and to do so fairly.

Theo: That is easy. The majority decides. If more people agree with you, we do what you say, and if more agree with me, we do what I say. We all play by the same rules, and all is good and fair.

Philo: Is it. So, everyone votes in this democracy? The children, the convicts, the young and old?

Theo: Of course not the Children.

Philo: Oh? Why “of course”?

Theo: Are you serious? Children lack the knowledge and wisdom to make responsible decisions.

Philo: Wouldn’t a person of forty years have more knowledge and wisdom than one of twenty years? Why allow them a vote?

Theo: We value democracy, so all of those who are of age should have a vote.

Philo: But how do you set the age? Don’t most moral traditions set that age at thirteen or fourteen years of age? Do we give them the vote?

Theo: We must use our wisdom and decide these things democratically.

Philo: So the majority rules when deciding how to select a majority?

Theo: Of course.

Philo: So, if people over forty outnumber people over eighteen but under forty, they could vote to change the voting age to forty.

Theo: but they wouldn’t.

Philo: but they could.

Theo: In this country we have a constitution to prevent such a thing. A constitution based on Judeo-Christian principles.

Philo: I am glad you mentioned the former, but I do not concede the latter. We have a level of law that is above simple majority rule. In this case, our country has a Constitution that can prevent even a majority from enacting laws, even if it is the will of the majority.

Theo: It simply specifies a larger majority for some things, such as changing the age of voting. It was arrived at by a similar super majority.

Philo: Why a supermajority? Why not a simple majority?

Theo: As I have said, even the majority can make mistakes from time to time, and when we learn from them, we must make it harder to make them again.

Philo: But were these majorities that made the mistakes immoral people?

Theo: By and large, they were moral people. In hindsight, we see that even moral people can be caught up in a system of immorality. It takes courage and resolve, but we can right these wrongs. My God man, surely you see this! Why feign ignorance?

Philo: I am testing the extent to which we agree. I am happy to say that we agree much. As a people, we will do things that we only see as unjust in hindsight. I think that we agree that this is part of our humanity, to always have a history of, for lack of a better word, inhumanity. But I think we can learn more than just which decisions were poor ones, we can learn which decisions were made poorly. That is to say, which decisions we could have made better had we recognized the pitfalls of our decision-making criteria.

Theo: So, you would supplant moral decision making for a superior morality of your own construction? Do you follow Karl Marx or Ayn Rand?

Philo: Neither. Both of them failed for the same reason. They sought to usurp the role of morality in the people, and to create an alternate morality. Hence, their solutions have the same pitfalls. They sought to change human nature by changing the moral underpinnings of society. They saw morality for the force it was, and like so many before them, sought to control it for their own ends. Each imagined controlling the outcome of humanity at whatever cost to humanity, to affect a superior morality, one which flattered the people who would need to carry out the change.

Theo: So you say, but replacing one morality with another in the governance of man would have the same effect, would it not?

Philo: If that were what I were suggesting, but it is not. As I have said, it is not morality that we should govern, it is ethics.

Theo: What is ethics, other than morality under a different guise?

Philo: They are as different as cause and effect. Morality is what you intend and how you behave in terms of the concepts of right and wrong. Ethics is how you determine correct actions based on their effects. The distinctions in practice may seem obscure, such that people describe alternate moralities as ethics or describe ethics in morality terms, but essentially we can summarize that morality is based on an external or abstract authority and ethics is rooted in the practical results.

Theo: So, despite millennia of moral development and divine guidance, you would place the myopia of man’s predictive ability over faith in something greater?

Philo: On the contrary, there is much to be learned and admired about the development of morality and governance over the millennia. One lesson you know well is that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. A supreme creator may be incorruptible, but those who claim the authority of such a creator certainly are not. The lesson we’ve learned is that the only way to protect ourselves from corruption is to limit the worldly power of those who claim such authority.

Theo: I see your folly. Because moral authority has been abused in the past, you would abolish moral authority itself. You would not only throw the baby out with the bath water, but the mother as well!

Philo: Not at all. In fact, I would seek to enhance moral authority by helping to limit corrupting influences from usurping the morality itself.

Theo: There are no corrupting influences in ethical systems? Without moral authority what is to prevent us from adopting unjust ethics?

Philo: As you suggested, dear Theo, we will make mistakes, and we will learn from them and do what we must to make it harder to make them again. The difference is that we recognize the nature of the forces surrounding the mistakes, and address them, as well.

Theo: You would harness the forces of Evil without invoking Good? This should be interesting, please continue. I could use a laugh.

Philo: You don’t set out to control the evil in men’s hearts through governance; you set out to remove those avenues to power that enable them to do evil. Let those who seek to change their hearts do so, but the law has no power in that regard.

Theo: So you come back to it. We outlaw the evil men do. We force them to be good.

Philo: You believe you can force someone to be good?

Theo: We can enforce that they behave such.

Philo: So we agree that the limit of the power of the Law is that it may only enforce behavior, not make people more or less moral.

Theo: We do. I believe our disagreement persists in whether the goal of governance is to make society itself more moral. Although we cannot enact a law to change hearts, we can define what is and is not acceptable in society, which is, in effect, establishing the morality of society, wherein the law is the conscience of the populace.

Philo: You argue your case well, my friend. But the fact remains that even if creating a moral society is our goal, we must do so effectively. We must use the power of law to enforce behavior that does evil in society, but I submit that how we do so and to what extent it is possible to limit the effects of evil is the key question, and I suggest that it is not by comparing law directly to moral precepts, but by invoking and ethical system proven by the millennia to be lasting, stabilizing, and above all, less inclined to enable evil than trying to enforce morality.

Theo: You speak in circles. You would have me believe that the best way for the law to impede evil is for the law not to even try? You think that if we ignore evil, it will just go away?

Philo: You twist the words to form your own circles, Theo. I submit that any law aimed at the evil in men’s hearts will fail, and that failure will have collateral damage that renders such a law an evil unto itself. However, laws which target harm an individual or an organization does to others can succeed at impeding the evil in men’s hearts from the harm it would cause.

Theo: But such a law does not affect the cause, so it cannot lead to a more moral society.

Philo: Yet we have already agreed that the law cannot control the evil in men’s hearts, and the law cannot make a person moral. However, if the incentive to do harm can be lessened, the temptation may not be as strong.

Theo: May not be? You do not know temptation.

Philo: For those who are tempted by greed, less potential reward is less temptation. For those who are tempted by power, less power is less tempting. This I do know about temptation. We cannot effectively outlaw greed itself, but we can outlaw theft and fraud, which are ways greed does harm. We cannot effectively outlaw the inclination to do harm, we can only outlaw the action itself.

Theo: But why limit harm to others? Isn’t it just as important to limit the harm one does to oneself? After all, none of us is alone, and when one is harmed, it affects others, as well, and hence others may be harmed by what we do to ourselves.

Philo: You are clever and intelligent, my friend. However, I would caution greatly against this line of reasoning as it pertains to law, and this is why: The affect we have on others can be emotional, or more direct. One may feel that the distress a mother feels over the behavior of her adult child is a harm done to her, or one may feel that the loss of a provider’s ability to provide is a financial burden on the dependants, or what they do to themselves does direct harm, such as when a drunk driver crashes into someone. Each of these can be argued to involve harm to others to some degree, but the kind of harm and the degree of harm is important.

Theo: Surely you are not about to tell me that when a man’s drinking causes him to lose his job, that the harm done to his family is not devastating, or that medical bills caused by a life of debauchery are not a burden to others left to pay them?

Philo: I would not tell you something that neither of us believes to be true. What we do, of course, has a tremendous impact on those who are close to us, and the emotional and financial toll can be very great. However, again, there is a proven poor way to address these issues and a way that has fewer negative side effects.

Theo: And you would have me believe that the poor way is to have them avoid doing this harm?

Philo: No, the poor way is to attempt to use the law to prevent them from doing this harm.

Theo: But you have just told me that the entire purpose of law is to protect individuals from harm done to them by others?

Philo: But in this case, the harm is not done to them. The nature of human relationships is such that we are all in harm’s way as a result of the relationships. For example, if a provider in a family is simply unlucky in business, or simply gets a devastating disease, the effect on the family is no less real. The pain and suffering is part of the family relationship. Society must be very cautious about interfering with family relationships, as I think you will agree.

Theo: I do not take interference into family lightly, yet there are family situations that we should not hesitate to address, and on the whole I think we have a solid idea of what makes for a good family environment.

Philo: Do we indeed? I think we will need to get back to that. I want to continue on my point about the kind of harm done and the poor way to deal with it. As I was saying, while the harm we experience second-hand from the actions of immoral activity, such as distress or loss of trust, is not trivial, it is different from harm such as being beaten, or molested, for example. If we allow for environmental issue such as a lack of love or respect at home to be considered harm done in a legal sense, then a case could be made for extreme religious views, or extreme social views to also qualify as harm, since they may have an equally negative impact, and further, what constitutes a definition of harmful in this context is extremely subjective. One person’s stoicism is another’s psychological abuse.

Theo: Yes, yes, you have no argument from me that a meddlesome nanny government does more harm than good when it tries to micro-manage parenting, but this slippery-slope attack on traditional family values is the opposite of what I mean. We know what makes a good family, and we have to focus on protecting that. We have millennia of examples of the strength of a sound traditional family structure.

Philo: I beg to differ, but we digress. I hope we will return to your views on family momentarily, but I have not finished my point about the poor way to deal with these issues, whether or not we agree on what the desired result is. I think it may shed some light, as well on this family issue. The poor way to attempt to protect people from the harm done by individuals is to try to prohibit behavior that is deemed immoral rather than to punish actual harm. That statement is a bit vague, so let me narrow it by example: Drinking alcohol can result in both direct harm, such as crashing a car, or getting in fights, but the poor way to contain this harm is to prohibit the possession or consumption of the alcohol rather than the irresponsible behavior associated with it. After all, most people do not engage in such behavior. Moreover, prohibiting what so many find both harmless and enjoyable simply leads to folks ignoring the prohibition and the very authority of such laws. As a result, a black market emerges. A black market is generally more harmful than the effect the prohibition was intended to address. The more effective law enforcement is at curtailing supply, the more it skews the demand side and up goes the profit margin for those ruthless enough to remain in the business. We have seen this in effect, with alcohol in the 1930s and with other drugs since.

Theo: So you would have us coddle criminals who openly disdain the rule of law and reward them by making their criminal enterprises legal?

Philo: Remember where it all starts. If the purpose of the prohibition is to limit harm, the remedy should not do more harm, and humans will exhibit human nature despite the laws.

Theo: But these drug lords can scarcely be called human!

Philo: Again, to the extent that they are not human, they are creatures of our own creation. Humans form trade networks and markets, and humans seek pleasure. Any solution to a problem that denies this is destined to fail. It is not that the law is bad of intent; it is that the effect of the law is far worse than what the law seeks to curtail. Even if you do not recognize an inherent right for humans to have a human nature, you must recognize its existence if you are to deal with the consequences.

Theo: So, we must allow humans to follow their nature, even if it is to lie, cheat, steal, rape and kill? After all, if we try to prohibit them from doing whatever they want we are denying them their nature, in this oddly structured world you have constructed!

Philo: All of those offenses are harms directly done to others. It is just and right to prohibit such things, but we would not punish all who speak because some may lie, or fail all students on a test because some have cheated. Those who do harm should face consequences.

Theo: But Philo, you switch between what is just and what is effective to suit your own whim. You deny that morality defines justice and then claim to speak for what is just and right as though you are the keeper of justice.

Philo: I am not opposed to morality, nor do I deny that morality has a place in understanding justice, since I would submit to you that morality is an inherent part of our ability to reason. Reason itself cannot justify morality, as we discussed in the cases of Marx and Rand, but moral judgments must leverage reason the way mathematical proofs involve both axioms and formulations. Therefore, when it comes to Justice, reason does reveal that some moral precepts take precedence.

Theo: Now we get to it! You do indeed believe you can reason out a Superior Morality

Philo: As I said, it is impossible to justify morality through reason alone, since Morality is axiomatic in nature. However, reason can be used to deduce which moral axioms are most significant, as well as which ones may lead to contradiction. Let me illustrate. The idea that Fairness is better than unfairness cannot be proven. It can only be taken as an axiom. It so happens that a value of fairness is an easier moral concept to work with than a value of unfairness, but “truth” is not determined by what is easy.

Theo: On that point, we agree. Truth is seldom what is easy. But you have yet to convince me of your Superior Morality.

Philo: One morality, degrees of weight that makes one aspect or another of that morality superior only in effect. Morality, after all, is not a straight line, but a multi-layered thing. For example, it may be immoral to kill, but less immoral if the killing is in self defense, and even moral if it is in defense of an innocent. The weight of the moral value of protecting the innocent may overwhelm, but not eliminate the immorality of killing to do so, and finding a way to protect the innocent without killing may be even more moral by virtue of morality and reason.

Theo: Of course morality is a rich and wondrous thing with mystery and subtlety to challenge the greatest theologians and philosophers, but you hit the nail on the head, and that is moral values. We have values that are not subject to the sophistry of your clever arguments. Some things are just wrong and the more wrongs we allow, the worse the world is for all of us.

Philo: But when you say “allow”, you continue to confuse what we try to do and what we succeed at doing to curtail such activity.

Theo: If we try, we may succeed, but if we do not try, we will surely not succeed.

Philo: How we try is as important as If we try, and I also submit that there are cases where failure is worse than a mere lack of success, and even cases in which doing nothing succeeds better than doing anything.

Theo: I cannot stand by and do nothing as society fall around me.

Philo: I do not suggest we do nothing, but you must admit that the old saying “first, do no harm” is a wise one.

Theo: You would do well to remember that as you seek to uproot the foundations of our way of life with experiments in social engineering.

Philo: The roots are deep and strong, and I only seek to prune away those that bind and stifle the very tree they are supposed to nourish. In fact, I submit to you that it is better to nourish society to strengthen it rather than work over hard to control the manner of its growth.

– to be continued –

Posted in Society | 1 Comment

Listen with Love

Communication between individuals is always a partial success at best.  We never really know that our meaning was perfectly clear unless the subject is totally objective, such as a math formula, and no truly meaningful thing we want to say can ever be totally objective.  Instead, we process the words and the tone and attempt to parse additional meaning from the context.  Context is the richest part of communication, or the lack of communication. If we are talking about our families, the context of “you folks” and “us” is fairly innocent and obvious.  If we are talking about race or politics, the context may seem to be completely different to either party.  If we are talking about a loan with the finance guy at the auto dealership, we may be inclined to assume a context of deceit straight off, while if we are talking across the pillow to a lover we may assume playfulness or tenderness is the context.

The talk today is about context and our personal disposition.  I want to discuss our capacity and willingness to make a conscious decision to allow for communication from others to be taken in a loving context.  I will start with a parable that you have probably seen before. It is not cited here because I strongly doubt the origin is clear, but suffice to say that it is not my original work:

A woman is sitting on a subway train one day, running a little late for work due to some minor delays, so she was in an irritable state.  A man gets on the subway with three kids.  He sits down and is reading some papers, oblivious to the fact that the children with him are dashing around the car, swiping at each other and screaming in the most annoying fashion.  After a few moments, the woman is just indignant at the lack of discipline and says to the man “Can’t you control these children at all?” He looks up at her, revealing bloodshot eyes, and says “Oh, I’m sorry. We just came from the hospital where their mother died this morning, and I guess they are a little high strung. I should pay more attention.”

This story is used to describe how to construct a plot twist, or how to understand the concept of a paradigm shift, but what I would like for us to do is to consider the effect that the context had when it was based on assumptions and how it changed when those assumptions are reconsidered.  It is too easy to side with the woman at the start of the story.  Other people can be so annoying when they do not seem to be considering our comfort and our needs at all as they go about their own way, but if we consider their comfort and their needs in a sympathetic way, the context changes and we might just be able to get along much better.  This woman thought she knew exactly what the context was: He was a deadbeat and the kids were wild delinquents-to-be. He was what was wrong with the world today and his kids were what will be wrong with the world tomorrow. Then, all at once, they were normal people dealing with their own problems and she had to face her own hardness of heart.

Stories like this are illustrative because they are so simple and short and we can all see the moment where the context shifts. However, our lives are longer, more complex stories with contexts that often remain rooted in assumptions that we can only overcome if we are open to examining them from another perspective, and to do so on a continual basis.  It is not enough to tell ourselves “I’ve been in that situation, myself” and think this justifies our harsh judgments.  That is often the basis for the bullied runt who grows up to be the bully, or the abused child that grows up to abuse. Instead, we must be prepared to say “if that were me, today, how would I feel?” We have to be able to view ourselves in unflattering terms.  No, we do not have to hate ourselves, but we have to get over the fear that if we really knew ourselves we would.  We also have to realize that what is normal to our experience is not universally “normal”.  For example, any statement beginning with “everybody knows” is more often a false statement than not, both in that it is false that everybody knows, and that it often is just an affirmation of a false assumption, such as “everybody knows that the secret to success is hard work.” It is an observable fact for many that their own hard work does not guarantee success, and that many, many others enjoy success without hard work.  We cannot live without assumptions.  You simply cannot recalculate every single possibility before making daily decisions. We can, however, check assumptions on important things twice before making bigger decisions.  I contend that when deciding how to treat one another, every decision is important.

So, while we do not do well to be naïve or gullible, we can entertain the possibility that someone deserves the benefit of the doubt, and recognize that there is always doubt about what someone is trying to communicate.  Don’t assume that a difference between you and someone else is the primary context of any statement they make.  Let me give you another parable:

I walk up to the express lane at the grocery where I always pay with a debit card.  I don’t notice a hand written sign stuck on the pole that says “Cash only, card reader broken” amongst all of the other distractions, so after the sale is rung up, I present my card.  Little do I know that I am the fifth person in twenty minutes to do so, but the manager must come over to void the transaction each time and always treats the cashier badly when this occurs.  She snaps and says “can’t you people read?”

Upon hearing “you people” I can assume a context of “people who keep doing what you just did”, or I might assume “people of your class”, or “people of your ethnicity” or any number of other ways to say “people different from me”, or I could recognize that I can’t be sure which it was and that no good will come of escalating the situation by assuming the worst.  I am probably safe in assuming that the cashier was being rude, but I need not assume it was a personal attack of any significant kind.  If, in my response, I say “what do you mean, ‘you people’?”, it should not be a rhetorical question for which I am not prepared to accept an answer that is less offensive than I thought, even if, like the rude cashier, I have suffered some treatment (in my case, the ‘you people’ treatment) from a lot of people who I think should have known better.

At the beginning of this talk, I alluded to the fact that communication is never complete.  To the extent that we know any mind, we really only have direct experience of our own.  We don’t tend to sit around musing on the epistemological implications of this, we just live it.  We can’t quite know exactly what someone else means, but we can dwell on what it might mean to us.  We hear the boss say “we need to cut back on bonuses” and hear “my bonus is not big enough, so I’ll justify raising it by taking some of yours”.  Perhaps someone says “family values” and we hear “okay to pick on single parents”, or someone calls us “you people” and we hear “all people of [this or that] ethnicity/ political bent”.  We hear these things partly because repeat reinforcement of them teach us that there is a high correlation between what some people say, and what it means to us.  But consider again the stories. The woman on the subway did not see another person with problems of his own, she saw one of them or people like that.  A two dimensional character that fit an image. The cashier, also saw a stream of customers, a necessary part of her job that all just want groceries and don’t seem to care what they put her through to get them.  This is not inherently a character flaw to view the world this way.  We are wired to do it.  You simply can’t have a personal relationship with ever face you see.  But when we interact, we pierce that plane, cross that line between a two dimensional image and another mind behind the face.  At that point they are not just another composite character no different from the last one.  They have no idea that you’ve explained something to five other people before them, and they are not just too dense to understand without explaining it six times, it is the first time for someone new, despite our natural tendency to think “I’ve told you people this over and over.” Likewise, others are dealing with the same mental limitation.  They don’t know us better than they know the last guy who intruded into their world with his own problems, and they will likely give us the ‘you people’ treatment just as we would them.  Do we assume that it is they who are prejudiced? What is prejudice but assumptions, in the first place? Our assumptions are prejudice just as theirs are, by definition of ‘assumption’ and ‘prejudice’.

So, what, then, can we do to break through these barriers to communication that inhibit understanding?  I suggest that we give peace a chance.  Give those who seem to be insensitive to us the benefit of the doubt at least long enough to make sense of the alternative to offense.  Some people may well be attacking you or your beliefs, but many are just obliviously using words that you have come to see as ‘code words’ for something you are inclined to take offense at, while trying to communicate a completely different sentiment on a different subject altogether.  The problem with euphemisms in general is that they are intended to say one thing and imply another.  They are designed to obscure communication on purpose, and they constantly invite miscommunication as a result.  If you grew up where honest but low income people were called the ‘simple folk’, but I grew up where they refer to the mentally challenged as “simple folk”, then someone hearing us talk may think we equate being poor with being mentally challenged.  Others may actually use the confusion to try to pit us against each other, knowing full well that we have no quarrel, just a lapse in communication.

The answer, I think, is that we must listen.  Let people be wrong, let them tell their side, listen as though we want to know what they really mean, not just listen for what we expect to hear.  Listen with an open heart.  Listen with love.

Posted in Do Unto Others | Leave a comment

The Wussy Effect

The talk for today is about the effect of spineless behavior on the world around us.  This idea started to gel for me recently while I was attempting to play an online game.  With a little observation, you can tell which types of behavior form patterns.  Some folks are “griefers”, who simply delight in ruining things for others.  That may be another topic in the future.  Another type is the teammate who has no awareness of being on a team. But the behavior I am concerned about today is what I call the wussy.  This is the player that wants to win, but does not want to earn a win.  They quit if they are ever behind, or if the odds ever appear to remotely against them.  Since the game I was playing when I was inspired was the Internet Spades that is included with Microsoft Windows, I will give a quick primer for the benefit of any who need some context.

Spades is a card game in which two two-member teams compete to win “tricks”, or individual contests for high card. Each player “bids” how many tricks they will win, but the total for the team is what counts, so if Gold1 bids 3 and Gold3 bids 5, they must take 8 between them, the individual count does not really matter.  There are special bids that are handled differently, such as Nil or Double (blind) Nil, but that is not important to the discussion.  What is important is what the play looks like when one or more players is a wussy.  If a team fails to win at least as many tricks as they bid, they lose ten points for every trick bid, so if we bid 7 and won 6, we get minus 70.  If you bid too low, you get 1 point for each extra trick – called a “bag” (because playing below your class in a game is called sandbagging),  and if you get ten bags, you lose 100 points.  In the Internet Spades game, if a player quits, a computer program plays their hand for the rest of the game, with the same cards you had when you quit.

The wussy is the one who quits if they cannot reasonably bid more than 1 or 2, and does not even wait to see if their partner can bid higher.  The wussy may bid 5 but quit as soon as the next player bids “nil”, as that player will likely get 100 points unless the wussy plays well, and so the wussy will not risk the challenge.  If the bids are all reasonable, you might not know that there is a wussy at the table until he is down by 30 points, or is set (penalized for not reaching the bid) even once in the game.  The wussy is the one that quits the second it is clear that there are not enough tricks left to avoid being set.  The wussy will also quit if the team has nine bags and the either the wussy or the wussy’s partner takes an additional trick.  The bottom line is that if, at any time, the wussy is not at a distinct advantage to win, the wussy quits.

Now that you have an idea – probably the idea that I am a frustrated player with a chip on my shoulder – of what constitutes a wussy in terms of this discussion, I can proceed to the two areas I want to discuss: What is the cost to the wussy, and what is the cost to everyone else?  I will continue with the game example, then proceed to the wussy effect in other areas of life.  I tend to refer to the wussy as “he” simply for convenience.  There is no reason why it is any more acceptable to be a female wussy.

When the wussy quits, he does not simply disrupt the game.  The computer player is not a very good player.  That is, the computer cannot defend against strategy.  If you simply play a less conventional game, you can beat the computer despite the skill of the remaining partner, as the computer will virtually never go nil, and cannot properly defend against an opponent who does.  Anyone with any self-respect does not consider beating the computer a win. By quitting, the wussy destroys that game, so the others typically seek another game against live players.  However, the wussy is still looking to pretend to be a winner, joining game after game and quitting most, until luck pays off with a win.  It only takes a few wussies on a server to make it virtually impossible for anyone else to join a game with any excitement in it at all. Not only does the wussy never figure out that a game you lose that has great plays in it can be more fun than a win, but those who wish to improve their game with challenging play are thwarted by the selfish fantasy of the wussy who equates winning games with success at playing, but never accepts a challenge.

Now, you may think that I have put way too much time into playing games if I have worked up this elaborate analysis, but bear with me.  This wussy effect may be exemplified by the game, but it is also a pattern you can see all around.  It is sometimes very subtle, and sometimes very brutal.  An example is the “White Supremacist” who wants to keep minorities from free competition and at the same time holds the firm conviction that they are inferior.  I am better than you, so I think you should never have the chance to prove me wrong.  Or the co-worker who shops for projects that are on time or budget and joins those that are and quits those that are not, simply to fluff the reputation of being successful, while never actually contributing to the real success or mitigating any failures.  They are the “self-made” slackers who, as soon as they are handed an opportunity, want to raise the bar for those who come after to work harder, so that they can enjoy the prestige they never earned.  These folks may never even face the fact that their victories are hollow farces of real success.  In many cases, the material rewards are as high or higher than those who had the spine to earn success and bear the costs of necessary failures, and so we find so many who so readily believe that wealth is the sole metric of merit.  Although often misquoted as being from the Bible, there is a quote from Shakespeare (Hamlet, Act I Scene 3) that I think we would all be better people to heed:

This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

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What is Sin?

One of the challenges of any theology is to get a good handle on what constitutes “sin”.  We know that the way this question is often answered has to do with what scriptures say is a sin explicitly, or at least the kinds of things that the scripture cites as examples of sin.  The bigger theological problem of sin, however, is when is the behavior that is called sinful not really sinful, when are things that are not mentioned still sinful, and what makes something more or less sinful.  Additionally, those of us who seek answers that transcend one or two scriptural sources and speak to the very nature of what Sin is.  The discussion today will meander through some thoughts and observations, dipping into possible answers from various traditions and teachings, and a lot of speculation.  I don’t expect any absolute answers, but I have some ideas and I would like to hear other ideas.

Examples of things often considered sins include:  casual sex, erotic sex, theft, lying, misleading, hurting or killing someone other than out of immediate preservation of oneself or another, thoughts looking upon these things in a positive light, etc.  We can readily see why anything that treats another unfairly would be on a list of things you should not do. Other things, however, are seen as corrupting your innocence or character, taking away something pure or clean and replacing it with something unhealthy.  It is generally acknowledged  in Western religions that we all are sinful in some way.  Sinlessness is one of those goals that is generally not attainable for most, although almost everybody could be less sinful than they are, no matter what you would define as sin.  I must acknowledge that there are a lot of people who do not believe in sin as anything other than a construct of man to limit freedom.  I do believe that our guidelines for what is sinful behavior have been developed by man, but I would not go so far as to think that it is a plot.  Rather, I believe that these things are attempts to identify things that can and do interfere with attaining the best outcomes possible for the family, the community, or the world.  People are people, however, so they don’t always get it right, and sometimes tradition outweighs truth when it comes to what people will stick to in their belief.

But what makes a sin a sin? Is it doing right or wrong? Certainly there are things that don’t seem to do any harm that wind up on the lists.  These days many feel that casual sex, as long as you are careful and considerate, does not do any harm and thus does not belong on the list, but here is a newsflash: we did not just invent it. It has always been around, and there is something about it that made it seem sinful.  Also, things that we consider natural or normal for all creatures from humans down, show up as being sinful.  That may seem to be flat out wrong, and give credence to the conspiracy-to-limit-freedom notion, but a little observation will show that since we have the capacity to choose, there could be room for being more thoughtful about what we do than lesser creatures may need to be. Luckily, we don’t have to start from scratch.  Many theologians have spent time on this idea and left clues for us.  Those who are not strict believers will need to bear with me if I dip into Western religion for these examples.  I hope to help translate the ideas into a more ecumenical area of thought where it is needed for clarity.

A common catch-all idea for the nature of sin, is that it is “turning away from God”.  Most commonly, this is used to say that when you do something that you know would probably not fit the moral code as scripture has laid it out,  you are probably sinning by doing so.  But there is a whole construct around this idea. For example, in which Heaven and Hell are states of being in which the Sinless are brought close to God and the sinful are sent far from God, and in a sense, this is just a continuation of the path you were walking all along, toward great rewards, or toward suffering.  Eastern Religions similarly have you moving up or down in your state of being by the path you follow, but “sin” does not translate between East and West well enough for me to head off that way just yet.  Instead, let’s look at more of the symbolism that explains sin in the scriptures more of us are exposed to in the West.  Temptation, embodied as a fallen Angel,  is said to tell lies but is never depicted actually telling lies.  Instead, the Tempter in this tradition, tells people things that are true in one sense, but make you imagine something different.  He offers Adam and Eve the knowledge of good and evil, and in fact, when they accept it, they become responsible for that knowledge, they are no longer just natural, they are sinful.  He offers Jesus power over the Earthly Kingdoms, which Jesus rejects as not being what brings you to God.  The literature of the West dabbles in this idea, as well.  The Devil offers wealth or fame, but these things have a cost.  Not only is the soul to be surrendered, but the actual rewards of the wealth and fame are not what was expected.  This look at sin, the realm of empty promises, is the one that fascinates me today.

I have heard it said that this is the very nature of sin:  Like a mirage in the desert, it promises a reward that is always just a little farther, never actually in your grasp, or perhaps more accurately, gives you a taste of something wonderful, but the taste is always short of what it promises to be, like an addiction.  Drink a few and feel great, next time you drink a few and it does not seem the same, so you drink more, or drink harder, sometimes finding that almost high,  then falling back, chasing, chasing as everything else is lost.  Not all sin is so obvious,  but there is still a pattern.  You tell a lie and things are better.  You lie some more and it does not work out so well, but still better than facing the truth, and another lie costs you credibility, but you tell defensive lies…   You try some new erotic idea, and it is thrilling, but when you try it again the thrill  is diminished, and you seek that thrill until you lose sight of what it means to make love. Even the “deadly sins” follow similar patterns.  You reach for more than you need and it becomes a need in your eyes, costing ever more.  Some may be able to burden others with these costs.  Aristotle is credited with saying that the essence of a moral life is moderation.  Don’t deprive yourself, but limit yourself voluntarily, keep it moderate.  Yes, more may seem like it will be better, but enough is enough.  This may be the essence of how to be a sinner by nature without being consumed by sin.

I have to step back now, from the individual to the many.  There are sins that do not seem to directly corrupt the soul.  I think that willful ignorance, particularly for the purpose of insulating oneself from feeling the corruption of their sin, is a sin in the community.  If I sincerely deny that I think mercury is a bad thing to dump in the drinking water, I may be able to sleep at night, but I am still sinful.  If I convince myself that it is normal and expected to lie when selling a car, I may not feel that let-down of empty promises that a personal sin causes, but my community feels it, my customers feel that pain.  As a society, if we accept and tolerate dishonesty in order to avoid conflict or scrutiny of our own honesty, we are choosing a path away from what is good.  As a society, we begin to die.  The danger, however, to trying to be a less sinful society is in this idea of how we try to determine what sin is, and how we choose to discourage it.  If we attempt to end sin through enforcement and punishment, we feed the proverbial Tempter’s ability to seduce those who want power over others.  It is better to befriend virtue than to fight evil when it comes to personal behavior.  It is sinful to take away another’s choices. It is good to enforce protection.  Jail those that harm others, defraud others, make people pay restitution for acting in thoughtless ways that do harm, but do not try to determine what personal morals are for individuals, because rules and morals are not the same.  If I am untrue to my values, I may be sinning, but you are sinning when you are untrue to yours.

Are these all good, true and perfect answers?  Of course not.  These are ideas for discussion.  What do you think?

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On Justice

No Justice, No Peace.  A favorite chant of all those who feel oppressed.  Justice is served.   We all want justice, but we do not all agree on what it is.  Justice is supposed to be blind.  Presumably this is to say that the good-looking should not have an advantage over the homely, and to a greater extent, justice should not be distracted by our differences, but treat all equally.  Some metaphorical descriptions of Justice, however, do not get us closer to what we know to be the meaning of Justice.  Justice should not fail to see evidence, for example.

The Metaphorical Fable

When we put Justice in a lineup with vengeance, mercy, fairness and peace, different people have difficulty finding Justice in that line.  I think I have an eye for some of the distinguishing features of Justice that may help pick Justice in that lineup.  They all look like they could be related to Justice, but only one is specifically Justice.

The first one that jumps out is Vengeance.  He closely resembles Justice at first glance because it seems fitting that where there is Justice, people get what they deserve.  En eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  If you kill, you must die.  Vengeance, however is the wilder one.  If you kill my son, I’ll kill yours.  Vengeance is not justice because it is blind in the worst way.  Collateral damage is not a problem for Vengeance.  Those who can’t tell Justice and Vengeance apart tend to agree that collateral damage is a necessary part of Justice.  I think that this collateral damage is what distinguishes Justice from Vengeance.  If the pursuit of Justice leads to Injustice, justice is served poorly or not at all.

Looking down the line, I may think that Fairness could pass for Justice.  They both try to treat people equally; try to give everybody the same chances,  but Fairness has some very strong, firm features, and some that never seem to resolve the more you look at them.  This adds a slight resemblance to Justice, but is far more noticeable than with Justice.  Fairness has a look of internal conflict.  Some things will never be truly fair, so Fairness is mostly about minimizing unfairness, not about eliminating unfairness.  It is fair to agree to rules, but it can be unfair if the rules give an unexpected advantage, or if the advantage was designed into the rules but undisclosed.  Fair and Square means honestly fair, not just technically legal.  Fairness comes into conflict in practice when things like Intent and Chance come into play.   If my error causes a car crash, it is fair that I cover the cost of the damage.   It becomes unfair if you chose to drive a million dollar car made of bone china and covering the cost would mean me giving up my home and all I will earn in my life, and not covering the cost would merely inconvenience you.  On one hand, fair, on the other unfair. The Unfairness would be so great that minimizing unfairness would be to virtually ignore one aspect of Fairness.   If the accident involved a fatality, where is Fairness? Someone died.  On one hand it may be fair that the one who caused it should die, but on the other, is it fair to intentionally kill in response to an accidental killing?  Vengeance is down the line giving a thumbs-up, but Justice is shaking his head.  Justice and Fairness have a lot in common, but they are not identical.

Maybe Justice is Peace.  Many seem to think that they are inseparable.  They are not.  Peace is a bit less thoughtful than Justice.  Peace just wants to roll with the flow.  If there is something wrong, learn to live with it. It could be worse.  Peace is always trying to get Fairness and Vengeance to chill out, but it is a lot easier when those two are not agitated.  That is why when Justice is on vacation, Peace may be under a lot of stress and decide to stay in bed all day, or get tied up and shoved in a closet by the henchmen of Power and Greed  as Vengeance takes over recruiting with an endorsement from Fairness.  But when Justice is in control, Peace can bask in the glory.  If prosperity comes over to visit (causing vengeance to head down to the bar until she’s gone) , then likely as not, they will look up their old friends Mercy and charity and all get together to admire each other, telling each other they do the job Justice is too stuffy to do.  Others watching  may give Justice credit for being in the big chair as these things are going on,  but that only leads to a feeling of betrayal when prosperity has to go visit someone else.  Mercy and Charity start to feel a bit less welcome, and face it, Peace is just not that interesting without Prosperity around.  Everyone who was used to Mercy and Charity having a party everyday start to think Fairness will be on their side when they complain about  Justice not doing anything about it,  and soon, Peace is calling in sick again, even if Justice still has most things under control.   Justice never has everything under control, but most people who claim there is no Justice are exaggerating.

Mercy is the black sheep of the family, getting along with Peace better than any of the others, but a little cool to Fairness and constantly intimidated by Vengeance.  Justice knows and likes Mercy, because Mercy helps Justice deal with Fairness in a calming way, pointing out the many bits of unfairness that start to add up to balance out against what looked like cut-and-dried Fairness.  When Justice is working, it does not depend on Mercy, but can be helped by keeping meddlesome emotions from demanding concessions for their positions on Fairness or Vengeance that do not take in the bigger picture.  Justice likes things to be predictable and systematic, but knows they cannot always be.

So we have eliminated the other suspects.  These all resemble Justice in some way, but how do we know Justice?  What makes Justice Justice?  Justice is the one who stands a bit taller than all of the others, seeing more.  He can see past Mercy, Fairness,  Peace, and especially Vengeance.  He knows the value each can bring, and the harm each can do.  He has no use at all for Vengeance, even though some folks still can’t tell them apart, and the common ground they have sometimes make them appear to be allies, since sometimes Justice is served when Vengeance gets what he wants, but Justice never listens to vengeance.  Once in a while Justice does have to take into account the climate vengeance has fostered in order to minimize injustice, but has to choke back vomit to do so.

Justice knows that Peace makes a more suitable environment for improving the effectiveness  of Justice for the most part, but sometimes Peace stands in the way of Justice and must be overridden to achieve greater Justice.  Mostly, this is on the smaller scale of causing discomfort to re-calibrate  the environment to one which is compatible with Peace and Justice, but occasionally it means that collateral injustice must be allowed  and Peace suspended  to affect a change in the order of things so that injustice is no longer inherent and systematic.  The problem is that when this occurs, Power, Greed and Stupidity flourish in such a situation,  virtually always magnifying the injustice  to the point that the net result makes the chance that a non-Peaceful solution very rarely leads to greater Justice.

Justice sees what Mercy sees, but from a different perspective.  Unlike Vengeance, Justice does not have a personal stake in what someone “deserves”. That is a childish interpretation of the way Justice approaches the issue of blame.  Mercy is quick to point out the redeeming qualities and make excuses for someone who stands before Justice.  Justice is concerned with maximizing  what is good and minimizing what is bad.  What good will come of a resolution and what bad.   Society must be protected, individuals must be protected, Fairness has a say in how to balance these.  If someone is guilty of something, then it is not unfair that they should suffer for it.  It is unfair for someone who is not guilty to suffer for it, but the relative unfairness must be weighed.  If Person X steals from Person Y, is it fair for Person Z to cover the cost of recovering it?   Justice can’t be limited to this minimal question, but what cost and benefit is found in protecting people from theft and recovering  stolen things and effective ways to do so. This is the same not only for other property issues, but for other rights, as well.  Justice can see that Fairness is right in demanding that everyone should have the same access to protection of the same rights, otherwise injustice will result in proportion to the bias in protection.  Additionally, there are collateral costs, some monetary, but not all, associated with dealing with these protections.  If one in ten thieves get caught,  is it reasonable to make an example of the one that is caught by having a penalty far harsher than  any harm the thief has done, to effect a deterrent? That would depend on the effectiveness of such a deterrent, and on other costs, such as whether harsh penalties lead to more or less crime.  Putting a petty shoplifter into a prison may produce a murderous gang member, leading to greater harm than making the shoplifter pick up trash every weekend for a while.  Justice may not be served by coddling shoplifters or even protecting them from their own mistakes, but it should not punish the society by failing to reduce injustice that can be reduced, particularly in exchange for satisfying the sense of moral outrage.  Moral outrage is just another flavor of vengeance, not justice.

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Prophecy, History and Self-Made Men

As often happens to me, I run into similar patterns in dissimilar areas that get me thinking.  The most recent round of these has to do with the way we develop confidence in what we believe, leading to a number of beliefs that are not so well founded as the argument might suggest.  Before I talk about any one area of observation, let me describe a scam that has been around for a long time.  Fore simplicity, I will discuss the version that involves email rather than snail mail.

The folks running the scam get a bunch of email addresses, let’s say 100,000.  They pick ten stocks, and make a matrix from all ten losing to all ten winning, and every combination in between, which is 100 combinations.  They send one combination of predictions to each of 100 groups of 1000. The following week, they purge all of the groups that got picks that were less than  50% right, and for the rest, they build a new matrix dividing up the picks and the groups and repeat, and continue for several weeks until there are only about 1000 recipients left, each of whom have only seen 80%-100% overall correct predictions.  Then they send an invitation to join their newsletter at a cost of $100 for a year.  Since everyone getting the invitation has only seen success, a fair number will fork over the money for a monthly email with no better advice than you get from Suze Orman.  Do this a lot of times and you make a lot on worthless newsletters touting success on mere statistical chance.

The first place I noticed what may be this pattern playing out was in reading a booklet about the fundamental Truth of the Bible.  I happen to believe that the Christian Bible has plenty of fundamental truth in it, but this booklet was selling the idea that the Bible was proven to be true because the prophecies in it came to pass.  Some of the prophecies were fairly specific, and I do not claim that they were bogus, but the fact that prophecies from 3500 years ago described events that would occur 400-2100 years later leaves open the possibility that those prophecies were not the only ones made, but the only ones that stuck around after the events did or did not come to pass.   If we only got the scriptures that were right, does that prove that the way the prophecies were made was inspired?  I would say that logically, no, it does not prove anything.  We may still believe, but there is not value in pretending that we have the data to back it up scientifically.  Folks really want to believe they have proof, and when you combine the virtue of believing without proof to the belief you have proof, you wind up with a double dose of willful suspension of disbelief disguised as certainty.

Another place I noticed this pattern is in the thinking of some wealthy conservative types I have had conversations with.  Again, I have no problem with the fact that they are wealthy or conservative.  Like the case of the Bible booklet, however, some of the reasoning I run into fits the pattern described above.  The pattern is that the paths they followed and the opportunities they received were available to everybody, but they made good choices and those who have not achieved that wealth simply did not make the good choices.  No doubt, they generally did make profitable choices, but the idea that those opportunities were available to anyone, or they were not actually quite insulated from bad effects of choices they did not get right is seen as dismissible . They are wealthy because they deserve to be on others are not because they do not deserve to be, with a margin of error of +/- five to ten percent only.  Whatever assistance they receive is a wise investment in rewarding merit, while assistance anyone else receives in welfare or charity.   No two persons are as predictably alike as the email scam above, and you would be right to suggest that one trick on the scam is to pick blue chip stocks as winners more often to increase the number of success groups in the matrix,  but the complexity of the self-made myth has far more components.  Listen to people talk.  I don’t know that the way a shirt fit ever made a car have better mileage or saved a megawatt of energy in a building, but you can see it has made a difference in who got hired to oversee that process nearly as often as the actual skill involved.  Certainly a class ring has done so even more often.  Is choosing the right fashion to wear really a measure of worth in society?  It is used as a measure, but is it accurate?  Only if worth is nothing more than perception, and for any whose worth depends solely on perception, it must be the best possible measure of value.

When we look back at the choices we have made, we tend only to remember the ones that seem to lead to where we are now.  The events that set up those choices may be obscure to us, or may not flatter us to know, so we see our own history through the stories of our successes as if the truth followed a path the way our stories do.  If the story of our success can be mapped to the values we profess, it is easy to believe the story.   We can even adapt the values; twist the meaning, until we can justify to ourselves our own sense of self worth.

We focus on the hero who made a difference, not on whether anyone who fell into that position would have had no choice but to do the same thing, or not.  We don’t tend to record the smart, socially awkward person who explained the choices so he could make them.  We don’t tend to focus on the things they did not have to work for to be in that position to make a difference.   If I mortgaged my house to start a business, I tend to discount those who did not have a house with equity, because they did not have co-signer years before when they were starting out, etc. What did I do to have a co-signer that they did not? Must have been some choice we made that meant my note went to equity and theirs went to rent.  Sure, I can tell myself that they could have overcome that disadvantage, but would be lying if I said I did not have an advantage.  All things being equal, all things are never actually equal.  Yes, there are people who simply work so hard and are so smart that they start from humble beginnings and make it to the top.  The overwhelming majority, however, start from beginnings that are only humble in relation to the top.  If your story starts with “my parents worked hard to give me the opportunity to…” then you are not self-made.  In reality, virtually nobody is self-made, and those who convince themselves that they are simply have delusions about their own history.

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What Do You Mean When You Say “Never Forget”?

On this anniversary of the September 11 attacks, we once again hear the phrase that was so often repeated ten years ago: “Never Forget!” I believe we owe it to those who died that day to remember who they were and how they died, but it always seemed that many people meant far more than this when they would utter those words. It was as if they were magic words to invoke a shroud of justification for any act of hatred that seemed righteous, and no malice was evil as long as the words were spoken.  Like ‘Remember the Maine’ got us into the Spanish American War despite no actual provocation by Spain.  Just as “Never forget what they did to us on Nine Eleven” was and is still used as a reason to justify any action against anyone who was Muslim- or might be-  “Support our troops” was only accepted as sincere if it was implied that you also meant “… by sending them to kill and die.”  Right here in America we saw people dismiss the rights of others and give up their own rights whenever magic words were uttered.  Many of those exact same people now blame their political opponents for letting them do so, and while they never forget “9-11”, they forget that it was their own party that used 9-11 to start unwinnable and unsustainable conflicts that now need to be cleaned up so our troops can come home.

I remember 9-11.  That day, that week, was heavy on all of us.  I was delivering training 2000 miles from home.  Not only did it look like I may not soon make it home to my family, who were all feeling my absence very keenly, but there is no way to make training engaging and exciting without humor, and that week, no humor could seem appropriate, nothing we were doing seemed so important to the students, and it was just a bad experience.  The building we were in had a mural of the New York skyline in the lobby where we would take our breaks.  Each of us felt what was going on personally as well as feeling wounded as a nation.  As it turned out, my flight departed on time, a day after flights resumed, and I felt bad for the people stranded by earlier flights that were still being rebooked as I boarded my flight, but my kids needed me as much as their kids needed them, I told myself.

In the following weeks, a new sense of community seemed to well up.  We were all Americans, we were all together.  I remember that.  Despite the events that brought it about, that was a good thing.  It did not take long for folks to start using it to ill advantage.  George W Bush had campaigned in the Republican primary on the platform of a regime change in Iraq.  I remember that from well before 9-11.  Sure enough, the bubbling stew of hatred for anyone Muslim and the new patriotism could be hijacked to get the War they had wanted in Iraq all along, and if you were not with us, you were against us, even if you were a citizen.  If you dared ask, “don’t you even care if all of these pretexts have been proven false?”  the answer was “what, have you forgotten 9-11 already?”  No, I hadn’t.  I had also not forgotten that Adolf Hitler had used the bombing of a National Monument to arouse hatred for Jews.  It seems some of our leaders had not, either.

Here is what I choose to remember about 9-11:

Thousands of innocent people died at the hands of religious fanatics, and this can happen again in a number of ways.

Hundreds of heroic individuals ran into the burning building to save lives, and many, many lives were saved in the process. And hundreds of heroes died.  There is no greater love than this: to lay down your life for another.

Here is what I dare not forget about 9-11

When people are hurting, someone can and will take advantage of their pain to advance their own agenda.

People who are scared will look for leadership and prefer a strong leader to a good one. FDR was right that we have nothing to fear more than fear itself.  Look at how we have given up the freedom to travel without harassment, much of our privacy, and the willingness to trust one another.

What do you mean when you say “Never Forget”?


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