Monday, September 26, 2016
The New MacGyver Reboot is Lame (and I am Not Just Saying That Because They Did Not Include My House)
A few months ago, my in-law's house was taken over for the shooting of a pilot for a reboot of the classic show MacGyver. For those unfamiliar with it, MacGyver features a genius secret agent, who manages to make all kinds of useful things on the fly from what he finds about himself. My in-laws got to live in a hotel for a week. Since we live in the guest house, we got to stay. It was cool to go outside and see the production. Everyone we encountered was really nice for letting us watch and not complaining that we got in the way. The episode was supposed to feature a wedding, shot in the garden. Miriam and I were married in that garden. How cool was it going to be to say we got married in the same place as a television wedding. The interior of the house itself was supposed to be MacGyver's house.
I was looking forward to seeing the show and being able to pick out what stuff was shot at the house. In fact an early trailer featured a sequence shot on our front steps. It turns out that the original pilot was scrapped. So far it seems that MacGyver is going to be living at someone else's house. No hard feelings. It was a fun experience. What I find more frustrating, having become invested in the show, is that it is pretty terrible. The show's flaws are worth examing as an exercise in what can go wrong with an action/comedy.
It does not take much to imagine this show being pitched as a 24 with a tongue and cheek sense of humor, something like Chuck. If I were that producer, I am sure I would have been tempted to greenlight the project. The problem is, as my father once taught me, comedy is the hardest kind of acting to do. The material can sound great on paper, but you get out there and it just does not work. With drama you can save some entertainment value if things fall apart. There is no saving comedy that is simply not funny. What is particularly perilous about comedy is that it is all to easy to try saving a failed drama by deciding it is a comedy. You find the story stupid; well you do not appreciate that it was supposed to be funny.
This is exponentially the case when doing tongue and cheek. The temptation is to take material that lacks the laughs to be a comedy and lacks the plot and characters to be drama and call it tongue and cheek. To do tongue and cheek comedy properly you need something that works both as drama and as comedy. The difference between succesful and failed tongue and cheek is the difference between Joss Whedon's Avengers and Zach Synder's Justice League or the original Star War films and the prequals. In both cases, the superiority of the former is matched by the difficulty in explaining why, particularly for anyone working on the project, not seeing the final product. With the later, we simply do not care about the characters or what happens to them so when they say something that is supposed to be funny it just sounds dumb.
The first episode of MacGyver (and here is to hoping it improves) featured plenty twists, turns and moments of peril mixed with banter packed into forty minutes that should have made it a fun ride. I mean MacGyver's love interest gets killed in the first few minutes in an operation gone south. The team needs to capture a biological weapon before it causes global mayham. As it turns out, the love interest was a double agent who faked her death, leading to an intense stand off with MacGyver. In terms of action and peril, this episode probably outdoes most episodes of 24. On top of that, MacGyver has a sardonic older military side-kick and a clueless black roomate, telling jokes. So why do I think the show was a waste of time? Someone thought that peril and jokes could substitute for characters we care about when peril and jokes only work if we care about the characters. It is useful to compare the plot of MacGyver to 24. Season one of 24 ended with the revelation that Nina Myers had been a double agent the entire time and she murders Jack Bauer's wife. This was dramatically effective because we spent an entire season liking Nina and becoming invested in her complex relationship with Jack. She is his tech support and the main person he trusts at CTU even as they once had an affair and Jack is now trying to repair his marriage. Nina returns in seasons two and three and is an effective villain precisely because we get how she brings out Jack's anger and guilt. This emtional foundation allows Nina to be a formidal physical danger as well, capable of getting the edge on Jack.
I can easily imagine the material for the MacGyver episode working over the course of several episodes. After spending an entire season becoming invested in MacGyver's relationship with his techie, in a season ending cliffhanger, she dies in a mission and MacGyver is left floating in a lake with a bullet in his shoulder. We pick up the next season with the bad guys still having their WMD and MacGyver coming back into the field. This would have provided some actual emotional heft for him findout out that his love betrayed him. This would be a conflict with intrigue. Give me that and I might even start laughing at some of the jokes.
Monday, September 5, 2016
I recently started showing Kalman Star Wars. We can now add that to Wriggles, "Hobbes," and Superman to the list of things he likes enough to ask for by name. Out of curiosity, I ended up watching the original trailer for New Hope.
It is amusing as an example of a trailer cut by someone, who did not understand the movie or its true significance. A perfectly understandable mistake considering that George Lucas never understood Star Wars. Most obviously, at this point the iconic "a long time ago in a galaxy far far away" has yet to make its entrance, leaving us with the embarrassingly awkward "somewhere in space this may all be happening." In retrospect, implying that there is a romantic relationship between Luke and Leia is downright creepy. At a more profound level, though, the trailer misses the key feature of Star Wars, the Force. Contrast this with the prominent role played by the Force in Force Awakens trailers.
In a similar vein, if I were to create a trailer for New Hope, I would open with Obi-Wan Kenobi's monologue about the Jedi upholding order in the galaxy before the dark days of the Empire.
Instead of the Force, the original Star Wars trailer gives us this Flash Gordon type adventure. Granted, this is what Lucas originally intended, but if Star Wars was all you see in the trailer, Star Wars would have been just one more campy space film from the 1970s to be treated with the same embarrassment as bell-bottoms. There are many cultural pieces from my childhood that I have no desire to share with Kalman; why Star Wars?
What makes Star Wars more than space ships and lazar guns is the drama of the Force. By this I mean the struggle between the light and dark sides as played out on the galactic scale in the battle between Republic and Empire and on the human scale of the Force user tempted by darkness. As with J. R. R. Tolkien's Hobbit, Lucas initially introduced the Force as a device to move the plot forward without understanding its true importance. By the time of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien recognized that it was the ring that was all that stood between his story and a generic fantasy about a quest to defeat an evil dark lord and his army of orcs. As fans of the series know, Lord of the Rings is not about saving Middle Earth from Sauron. The real villain is the ring, which corrupts all who are near it. Frodo's quest is a personal journey to save his own soul from the ring. He fails to destroy the ring, but, providentially, saves himself along with all Middle Earth through his pity for Gollum. Instead of seeing Gollum as a monster, Frodo recognizes the fallen hobbit and realizes that, if not for grace, he would be equally liable to fall.
When evaluating Lucas, it is important to keep in mind how little he had to do with Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Those responsible for these films realized that Star Wars needed to be about something more than plucky Luke defeating the vast armies of the Empire with the magic of the Force. The big game changer for Star Wars is in Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke's father. Instead of simply being a scary villain, Vader all of a sudden becomes a failed Luke. Now the threat of Luke falling to the dark side becomes frighteningly plausible. As we move to the climax of Return of the Jedi with Luke facing Vader and the emperor on the Death Star, Luke's task is no longer to defeat the empire, but to save himself from the dark side by not fighting his father. Luke also attempts to save his Vader by recognizing the human underneath the suit of armor. Luke's faith in Vader allows Vader to believe that there is good in himself and that he has a choice. In the end, it is not Luke's strength in the Force that prevails; it is Vader's human love for his son that saves the galaxy.
Writers of the Expanded Universe have appreciated the narrative possibilities of this tragic temptation and fall to the dark side along with the hope for redemption. Take a look at the graphic novel of Exar Kun, who is essentially forced to the dark side. Play Knights of the Old Republic, the greatest narrative video game ever, and discover the truth about Darth Ravan. The Darth Bane trilogy features an oddly moral, if murderous, Sith Lord. He does not seek power for himself. Rather, he selflessly works to advance the Force by training a student, who will one day possess the power to kill him and take the title of Sith Master. For Bane, being murdered by his student is not some kink in his system that he failed to perceive, but an essential point.
One way to see the failure of the prequels is how Lucas, having reasserted his control over Star Wars, failed to properly use the Force. We fans, who counted down the days until Phantom Menace in 1999 "knew" that we were going to watch the downfall of Anakin Skywalker culminating in the mother of all lightsaber duels between Vader and Kenobi. It is still shocking to see the extent to which Lucas ran away from that story, leaving it almost as an afterthought to the last half of Revenge of the Sith. By the end of Attack of the Clones, Anakin should have known Palpatine's true identity and have given himself, at least in principle, over to his Sith teachings even as he is yet to do anything irredeemably terrible.
The Force Awakens, for all of its flaws, understood the Force. Kylo Ren is a uniquely empathetic villain and not simply another bad guy in a mask. He is fallen, but he is still tempted by the light. In order to give himself completely over to the dark side, he murders his father, Han Solo. Someone who must go to such extremes to escape good must have a lot of good within him. Much of the success of the future films will depend on this continued struggle. Rey will have to defeat him, not in a lightsaber duel, but in recognizing his humanity. If Rey fails to see this and chooses to believe that brute force can win, she will fall to the dark side. Ironically, it is this struggle with the dark side that might allow her to empathize with Kylo, saving herself and the galaxy.
Thursday, August 25, 2016
Recently, during a study session with a student, I gave him a list of my five most disturbing stories in the Bible. I ranked the story of King David and Bathsheba as number three. For those unfamiliar with the story, King David has an affair with Bathsheba and then orders her husband, Uriah, killed off in battle in order to cover up the fact that he got her pregnant. The prophet Nathan rebukes David, who repents. Then, in the most troubling part of the story, God chooses to kill the baby, the most innocent person in this whole sordid incident, rather than killing David like he deserves (Samuel II 11-12).
In Haredi schools, the standard way to handle this story is to refer to the Talmud, which states that anyone who thinks that David sinned is mistaken. The reason for this is that soldiers traditionally divorced their wives before going to battle in case they disappeared so Bathsheba was technically single. She went to the mikvah so she was ritually pure. Uriah was liable to the death penalty because he placed Joab's name before David's. This line of thinking is used to buttress the notion that the biblical heroes were totally righteous. In essence, Haredim want to turn the Bible into the hagiographic biographies published by Artscroll. I can testify from my own experience as a student and from speaking to the kids I tutor, that this kind of education is spiritually destructive.
It occurred to me that there is a productive way to teach about David and Bathsheba, using the Talmud to make the opposite point. Yes, David did not sin and there are two things that you should learn from this. First, if you are a clever enough Torah scholar you could find a justification for anything, even adultery and murder. To all my married female readers, if we think hard and creatively enough, we can find a way to invalidate your marriages. (The Catholics have gotten really good at this.) If we scour the corpus of Jewish mysticism we can even find reasons why it is mitzvah to sleep with me. Clearly, it is not pharisaic legalism that will keep me faithful to my beloved Miriam, but personal integrity. As my teacher, R. Aryeh Klapper likes to say: "The great secret of rabbinic Judaism is that you can justify anything on halakhic grounds. It is important that this remain a secret, because the moment people realize this it will be the end of rabbinic Judaism." Ultimately, what stops us from declaring ham and orgies kosher is a loyalty to Judaism as a concept and a sense for what Judaism needs in order to survive.
This leads to my second point. David did not sin, but he deserved to die. We can accept every word of the Talmud's defense and it does not change Nathan's powerful denunciation of David one iota. On the contrary, Nathan's words gain strength as we are forced to recon with the enormity of David's "wrongdoing," without recourse to simple sins such as adultery and murder. Imagine if we caught the world's greatest Torah scholar in a brothel. We drag him in front of Agudah's Council of Torah Sages to answer charges. Because he is such a great Torah scholar he might refute anyone who claims that he sinned. For example, Torah upholds the world and is literally the equivalent of serving in the army. Thus, the continued studies of such a great Torah scholar are literally a matter of life and death. Thus, he must literally do "anything" to increase his Torah knowledge and it is a great mitzvah for any woman (as well as any man if that is what is called for) to aid him in any way they can. Obviously, in a time of such national emergency, things that look like sexual immorality are the acts of greatest holiness. It is people who fail to appreciate the true importance of Torah who are the real sinners. Does accepting his arguments redeem this man and allow him to return to his former position of respect in the community? No, the fact that he is able to defend himself so ably makes his actions all the worse. Now, he is no longer simply a tragic sinner, who could not control himself, but a threat to the survival of Judaism itself. If his defense gets out, it will bring down Judaism in a way that a fallen Torah scholar never could. Thus, we would have no choice but to kill him.
I am frightened of the implications of allowing teachers to claim that what David did was ok and that God was only judging David very harshly because he was such a righteous man and he should not have done something that even looked improper. (Note that telling kids that this was anything less than a supremely terrible deed is saying that it was ok). We are teaching children that it is possible for something that looks like a great sin to be basically ok if it involves a "holy" person. Recent years have offered plenty of evidence that my Torah scholar in a brothel scenario is not a silly hypothetical. Whether consciously or not (it hardly matters) teachers are grooming students to become the victims of such men.
The problem of predators in our community is not simply a matter of a few bad apples, but cuts at the heart of our educational system. I salute organizations like Project Y.E.S. and books like Let's Stay Safe for their efforts to bring about meaningful change.
Tuesday, August 2, 2016
I was looking for something to come after the Fire. I was reading the Bible and saw that, after God sent down the Fire, the Children of Israel got Taevahs. Along with the Taevah, God also provided really killer customer service after the Israelites criticized their smorgasbord options.
As demonstrated by a generations of Republican presidential candidates, Richard III and Shylock, being near a bible makes a person really godly so you should always buy what they are selling.
To demonstrate the Taevah's features, Bezos brought out his spiritual consultant and chief product tester, two year old child prodigy Kalman Yitzchok Chinn. Thanks to the Taevah, Kalman has already learned his letters and numbers while simultaneously convincing Brisk that its anti-television policy was completely outdated in the twenty-first century.
Readers will be quickly entranced by the Taevah's hypnotic screen. When starting the device, users will be able to choose from a selection of the most traif sandwiches on the internet as backgrounds. Order now and the Taevah will come with a special case that makes it unbreakable by rebbes even if they throw it out the third story of a yeshivah building. For $50, users can add special mussar canceling headphones.
Initially sales were sluggish as shoppers were told that naked Kalman was not for sale. Sales of the Taevah, though, skyrocketed once the gedolim produced a dance video ad to express how enamored they were with the product itself even as they acknowledged that not having Kalman's tushy was a major disappointment.
Thursday, June 2, 2016
Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them stands with Jonathan Haidt's Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion in terms of its ability to apply psychological insight to the problem of social morality. We live in a multicultural society in which no faction has the physical might or the moral authority to force its vision of the good on everyone else. The problem, as G. K. Chesterton so well understood, is that people disagree not only about the means to achieve a better society, but the very ends of what such a society might look out. It is the liberals' utopia itself that conservatives will fight to stop and vice versa. This makes principled compromises in the realm of policy practically impossible.
Greene's most valuable contribution to this conversion is the notion of the "tragedy of common sense." This is his play on the classic dilemma of the tragedy of the commons. If there is a resource held in common, you must try to get as much for yourself before your neighbor does even though this is likely to lead to the exhaustion of that resource to the detriment of everyone. Greene applies this model to frame the problem of morality in a multicultural world. It is in the self-interest of everyone to cooperate. The trap here is that the moral equipment given to us by evolution made us very good tribal moralists, but this same moral thinking that threatens disaster in a multicultural society. What we need is a "manual setting" for our morality to compliment the "automatic setting" that we use in day to day life.
A good word should also be put in for Greene's discussion of the trolly problem. He offers a very plausible explanation to the apparent irrationality of people being willing to press a bottom that causes a train run over one person instead of five other people, but object to pushing a fat man in the way of the train to save five people.
What I respect about Haidt above all else is that he is a liberal, who developed the epistemological humility to respect conservative (and even libertarian) points of views. What is so beautiful about his book is that his very refusal to offer clear-cut solutions to the problem of a common morality stands as a productive way forward based on empathy for one's opponents. By contrast, Greene attempts to defend a liberal moral hegemony and, in this cause, he enlists utilitarian ethics. In essence, his argument boils down to saying that utilitarianism is the best ethical system and we would know that if we could only overcome certain handicaps to our brains' moral reasoning. Once we limit ourselves to utilitarian arguments, liberal policy positions follow naturally.
Rather than rehash the entire debate over utilitarianism, I wanted to focus here on one particular issue that Greene devotes a chapter to, slavery. Greene goes into some detail defending utilitarianism against the argument that it would condone slavery. His argument is that equal increases of wealth bring less utility as we go up the economic ladder. An extra $1,000 will benefit someone making $20,000 a year more than someone making $100,000. By this logic, it is impossible that the benefits to the slave owner of owning a slave could outweigh the harm to the slave. By contrast, the benefits of emancipation to the slave must outweigh the harm done to his master. The problem with this thinking is that it assumes that we start the question of slavery from a point of economic equality. Granted that a society where everyone was equal would have greater utility than a society in which half of the population were enslaved to the other half. But what happens when some people already are far wealthier than others. It does not take much imagination to conjure up a scenario in which Africans, fleeing famine and civil war, agree to sell themselves as slaves in order to spend the rest of their lives working under relatively "humane" conditions in the United States. (Just in case anyone wants to accuse me here of endorsing slavery, which I am not, keep in mind that you cannot accuse me of supporting slavery without convicting yourself of supporting mass murder.) From a strictly utilitarian point of view, such a decision makes perfect sense.
Remember that almost no one took a principled stand against slavery until the later part of the eighteenth century for the simple reason that this required placing the distinctly non-utilitarian value of equality over the physical well-being of slaves. Understand that you are not taking a principled stand against slavery until you are willing to say that it is better to be a free man starving on the streets than a house slave living in luxury (not that most house slaves lived particularly luxurious lives.) It was only when people began to embrace equality as an innate value, unconnected to any physical benefit, that we began to see slavery as innately evil regardless of the actual slave conditions.
However intriguing this question of reintroducing slavery in the West as a solution to the refugee crisis might be as something to debate, my real interest here is the moral status of state action. I do believe that for the most important things in life, when we get past our basic need for food, shelter and safety, there ceases to be an objective good to appeal to. Thus, I cannot be considered a consistent utilitarian. Instead of appealing to some vague good that is nothing more than cover for my arbitrary prejudices, I value liberty; the right of every person to pursue their own good in their own way as long as they do not initiate physical violence against others. Taking a principled stand in favor of liberty means opposing the state, the institution that claims a unique moral authority to initiate violence. This position is often defended on utilitarian grounds; government policies are assumed to benefit the larger society. I do not know nor do I care if government action will help people. I will sit down and seriously consider if this might be this case if you will sit down and "consider with an open mind" the potential benefits of slavery.
Greene moves seamlessly from denying that a utilitarian could support slavery to defending leftist government policies on utilitarian grounds when anyone wondering what a utilitarian defense of slavery might look like has only to examine a utilitarian defense of the state. Rights are not something that can exist within a utilitarian framework as rights do not inherently grant physical benefits to anyone. No utilitarian can take a principled defense of rights, allowing rights to trump physical well-being. (Does the fat man still have a right to life when his death beneath the wheels of the train is needed to promote the physical well-being of five others?) Would it not be to the utilitarian good if a hated minority be enslaved or even sent to gas chambers rather than allow the majority to "suffer" their presence? (What is wrong with hosting the Hunger Games if there are enough viewers?)
Greene explicitly refuses to take a principled defense of rights and instead relegates them to a political shorthand for those things that are now taken as moral givens in our society. But it is precisely those rights that do not need any defense. We only need to articulate a defense of rights that most people deny. The claim of rights is not for your opponents, but for yourself to know that you have the moral right to threaten to kill your opponents if they fail to pay proper attention to your ethical arguments. (Think John Brown.)
I would love to ask Greene what stance he would take if he ever came to believe that socialism could produce better economic results. Now socialism means that the government owns all property, including its citizens. Whether this is a good thing or not, it is, by definition, slavery. (If you are tempted to offer some roundabout to say that a socialist state does not own its citizens, just remember that consistency demands that you grant "non-slaveholders" the same roundabout to say that they do not really own the people in their "care.") A principled stand against such a state must grant individuals the right to defy the interest of the state even at the expense of the "greater good." Greene himself notes that defenders of individualism and collectivism are likely to turn to morality if denied utilitarian grounds to defend their position. He does not though answer his own question of what he would choose. Either he most abandon his strict utilitarianism or acknowledge that slavery (perhaps with government institutions as masters) is perhaps perfectly legitimate.
Thursday, November 26, 2015
As a libertarian and a free marketer, I strongly believe in open borders. If you believe that the United States government should not stop Mexico fro m bombarding the American market with tomatoes, you should also have no problem with being bombarded with Mexican workers crossing the border to pick tomatoes. The practical economic results are identical. As such, I am particularly angry with Rand Paul for selling out his libertarian principles to appeal to the bigotry and paranoia of the Republican base in stopping Syrian refugees from entering the country. I do recognize that there are real security concerns, but this is no different than any other liberty issue. Yes government must inevitably act to place restrictions on liberty, but let us allow discussions regarding government action to start with a presumption of liberty. When the government wishes to restrict liberty, the burden of proof is on them to demonstrate that they are doing only what is strictly necessary to defend people's physical safety and that safety is their sole concern.
In thinking about how to let more Syrian refugees in while addressing legitimate security concerns, an idea just occurred to me. We already have a system in place to handle people whom we are not ready to lock up, but are a plausible threat to public safety. It is called bail. People accused of committing crimes are allowed to hand over money to the court as a guarantee of their good behavior while they await trial. If they attempt to flee or commit crimes while on bail, they will go back to jail and lose that money.
My idea owes some inspiration to Kalman's pediatrician. This pediatrician happens to be from Syria and has family trapped there that he would like to bring over. Why not allow him to post "bail" for them? For the sake of throwing in numbers, let us say $100,000 for a man between the ages of 18-50, $50,000 for a woman and $20,000 for children and old people. I assume this doctor trusts his family enough to put up the money for them. So for a year, his family would not be able to commit any felonies, leave the State of California and they would have meet monthly with a case officer. After a year, assuming these conditions have been met, the family members would all get green cards and the doctor would get a refund on his bail money. Everyone wins; the doctor saves his family without losing any money and the American people receives a reasonable guarantee that the family members are not terrorists. If the doctor himself suspects, that his family would violate the agreement and does not want to front the money then that is pretty good evidence for me that these people should not be allowed to enter in the first place.
What I like about this idea is that it puts the market to work solving the problem of figuring out which refugees are genuinely fleeing violence and which ones mean us harm. Let private individuals or organizations put hard money on their evaluations. Whether these evaluations are based on personal knowledge or some complex algorithm is as irrelevant to me as the details of business decisions of any company whose products I consume. Might ISIS decide to spend the bail money as the price for getting a man in? It is possible, but you have to think that there are ways of smuggling terrorists into this country that are cheaper than $100,000.
Wednesday, November 25, 2015
Kalman is progressing nicely in his eating skills. He has even figured out how to use a spoon. One might even say that he is in danger of becoming civilized. In observing Kalman's development, I am once again amazed by its spontaneity. While Kalman may be very intelligent, it cannot be said that he has any design for his education. Instead, he does things for his own toddler ends. It is only by a happy coincidence that his means have brought about my desired ends. (It certainly has not been due to any parenting skills on my behalf.) This can be seen in Kalman's development into an altruist with an interest in feeding me.
Altruism is a tricky issue for evolution as, on the surface, it seems to go against natural selection. An animal that gave food to someone else would be decreasing its chances of survival and passing along its altruistic genes. By contrast, a selfish animal would be more likely to survive and pass along its selfish genes until those selfish genes have taken over the entire species. Richard Dawkins has argued for kin selection. The altruist would most likely end up helping its own relatives and could therefore indirectly pass along its altruist genes even at the cost of its own personal survival. E. O. Wilson argues that altruism is more deeply rooted in the basic makeup of those species, like ants or primates, which operate in a group setting.
What I find so fascinating about Kalman's attempts to feed me is that, even as it achieves an altruistic end, it does not appear to be motivated by any conscious altruism. Give him food when he is hungry and his first move will be to feed himself. So clearly Kalman places his own welfare above that of anyone else. It is only after he is mostly satiated that he will try to feed someone else. This could be because he has developed a "theory of mouths;" he knows that putting food in his mouth stops him from feeling hungry so he might theorize that, if he puts food into other people's mouths, other people will feel full. More likely, Kalman is responding to the fact that I react to being fed by licking his fingers and making appreciative noises like the good primate I have evolved from. Kalman's brain has evolved to find this kind of social interaction to be even more pleasurable than throwing food on the floor, a perfectly reasonable option when lacking better alternatives, so he pursues altruism for his own selfish ends.
It can be hoped that Kalman's accidental altruism will come to serve as the basis for a more conscious form of altruism. His brain could develop a Pavlovian positive feedback loop from the mere act of causing other people to be fed regardless of whether they lick his fingers. As his frontal cortex develops, he will come to believe that there is something inherently virtuous about feeding other people. He will then, in the fashion of David Hume, use his considerable rational intellect to scout for people to feed in order to satisfy his subconscious passion.
From an alternative perspective, like a good Adam Smith baby economist, Kalman maximizes his food utility. First he feeds himself. If he is full he tries to trade his remaining food for love and affection. If there are no ready mouths in which to place the food he will use the food to educate himself on the movement of objects by throwing it on the floor. In midst of this selfish calculation we also see the development of Kalman as a good Adam Smith, of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, baby. He is not solely interested in his physical benefit, but also cares about operating within a social framework in which the good opinion of others as expressed by getting his fingers licked.
Sunday, October 11, 2015
I was shopping the other day when I discovered that Rachael Ray, the author of the wonderful Book of Burger, also has a line of cat food. One struggles to think of a common theme to unite the two. Is it possible that a celebrity chef is being honest about their actual cooking skills and confessing to their real line of work? Perhaps she wants to specialize in things that my wife has no intention of eating.
It was revealed to me that the cat food contains a great secret to decode the burger book. Rachael Ray must be a believer in the true anti-nomian kashrus of kitty stew. Contrary to what is believed by the materialist reader, who sinks so low as to pay attention to recipes in the first place, the delicious burgers she is holding are made from kitty. Of course not every kitty can merit being so elevated. A worthy kitty must be made plump solely on a gluten free diet. It is important that we look after the health our pets and give them a diet that is in keeping with the one kept by their ancestors before the agricultural revolution.
Friday, October 9, 2015
If you were to ask me why I am proud to be an American it is because the United States Constitution takes a clear principled stand in favor of free speech as an absolute right. (It should be noted that the fact that I call myself an American should be understood merely as an expression of geography and the influence of an intellectual tradition and not as a pledge of allegiance or the recognition of the authority of the Federal Government.) While most civilized people pay lip-service to free speech, even in the West, there are few true believers. In fact it is becoming popular to brazenly declare that free speech is a problem that needs to be reigned in.
(Start at 2:50)
The reason why there is such a large gap between protestations of free speech and its practice is that free speech is one of those things that by its very nature demands extremes. Free speech is the mirror opposite of being pregnant; you can't be a little bit for free speech, but this is because, unless you go all the way, you are not a supporter at all. The reason for this is that free speech is only meaningful if you are willing to defend the rights of your opponents. The only speech worth protecting is the speech that offends and is a threat to public order. What does it mean to defend inoffensive speech? Most claim they support free speech, but that is merely cover for the defense of their right to speech. When it comes to their opponents, they can always find some excuse to say that is is a threat. (This is very easy if you do not draw a line between physical and psychological harm as everything is psychologically harmful to someone. )
This brings me to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In reading his new book, Lessons in Leadership, containing thoughts on leadership based on the weekly Torah reading, I found a disturbing comment on free speech. In addressing the issue of cyber bullying and the unfortunate suicide of Hannah Smith, Sacks notes:
The story of Hannah Smith is a tragic reminder of how right the sages were to reject the idea that "words can never harm me," and insist to the contrary that evil speech kills. Free speech is not speech that costs nothing. It is speech that respects freedom and dignity of others. Forget this and free speech becomes very expensive indeed.
I actually agree with the first and third part of what Sacks says. I do believe in a concept of loshon harah, evil speech, and support the use of religious and social means to suppress it. Furthermore, as a free speech radical, I am very conscious of the incredible price of free speech. One of the benefits that J. S. Mill's On Liberty had on my political thinking was that it killed any naive thoughts that a free speech would be anything other than radicals offending public sensibilities. The alternatives, though, are worse and, in the long run, society should emerge from the incredible damage done to it stronger than ever. Perhaps, I am reading too much into this, but free speech specifically has political connotations. Sacks certainly cannot play innocent here in a world in which even most people in the West are now supporting government regulation of speech to stop cyber bullying. In essence, Sacks, like most conservative opponents of liberty, makes the jump from saying that something is harmful in a very real sense to saying that government, with its monopoly on violence, should step in and stop this evil.
Being a patriot means "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." As Israelis are now once again tragically learning on a daily basis, having a country means people dying for it and having to go out and kill other people, who want to take it from you. Anything less and you will not have a country. Similarly, free speech also requires blood. As distasteful as it sounds, I am willing to sacrifice Hannah Smith on the alter of free speech. It is not that I take her death lightly, quite the contrary, it tears at my consciousness. The alternative, though, of not having a meaningful protection of free speech is simply unthinkable.
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Earlier today, I was working with a tutoring client at a local public library. I looked up and noticed that across the room there was someone using one of the library computers. I was not absolutely certain, but I was pretty sure that the man was using the computer to watch porn. I am not naive about what is out there on the internet nor am I the kind of person inclined to try stopping people from pursuing their own good in their own way as long as it does not involve directly initiating physical violence against someone else. I will defend to the death, the right of people to watch porn to their heart's content in the privacy of their own homes, on their own computers and with their own internet connections. That being said, using a publically financed building and computer to watch porn in public struck me as just a little bit inappropriate. Furthermore, this was at a time when school was getting out and I was sitting in the "Teen Zone." So I went over to a librarian to tell them that I thought someone was using a library computer to watch porn and to inquire what the library's policy was in regards to this matter. In my experience, library computers are supposed to be used to look up books and do research. Even to look at your email is something frowned upon. To my surprise, the librarian responded that the person had a First Amendment right to use the library's computer to look at whatever he wished.
It is great every once in awhile to run into a situation where the libertarian and conservatives sides of my brain come together in perfect synchronicity, leaving no conflict between the two. As a libertarian, I would point out that this is the inevitable conclusion of the obscenity known as positive liberty. If you are going to claim that people have a right to libraries then you must admit that people have a right to computers and then decent internet connections. Just in case you were fooled into believing that all of these things were to be used so people could read Adam Smith and, as such, were necessary to uphold a liberal democratic society and stop us from degenerating into the darkest savagery of the Scottish Highlands, tax-payer funded government libraries are for porn.
As a conservative, I take it very personally that this patron and the librarian have entered into a conspiracy to rob me at gun point and violate my religious convictions by making me support the distribution of pornography. (And I thought I would only have to bake a gay marriage cake.)
It is shocking that the librarian failed to appreciate the public relations implications of her position. The moment we acknowledge that the existence of public libraries mean that people have a constitutional right to use them to watch porn, conservatives would rebel in mass and refuse to fund public libraries at all. Imagine if every time a librarian took the stand at a public hearing over library funding they were asked what steps they were taking to making sure that government money was not being used to support porn.
In this time of crisis, as we try to figure out whether the First Amendment covers using library facilities for porn, I call for the shutdown of all government libraries until the Supreme Court can weigh in on this matter. I would be fine with whatever the court rules. If they rule against library porn then that would be a victory for a sane First Amendment. If the court rules in favor of library porn then that will be the end of government libraries.
Of course, the court might come to rule that the people must fund libraries with computers; how else are people going to watch porn? That could never happen here. (Cue Trekkie Monster laughter.)
Thursday, August 20, 2015
(See Haredi Criminal in Training.)
Imagine that you are secretly taken to a dingy cellar where, surrounded by cloaked figures, you find a bound and gagged child. Puzzled, you ask your escort for an explanation and are told that this child, personally innocent of all wrongdoing, is a genetic Amalekite. He has been chosen because of his great purity to be the first Amalekite, since possibly biblical times, to be killed in fulfillment of the commandment to wipe out Amalek. If they simply took a Nazi or an Arab terrorist Amalekite, people might think that this had something to do with justice. By choosing an innocent little boy, they are demonstrating that they are only motivated by a desire to fulfill God's will, the only innate good in the entire world. Any attempt to be moral is really sowing the seeds of heresy; it implies that you have personal values and think that they can trump the word of God. Only by committing the most profoundly immoral act possible in God's name can someone hope to save himself from this trap. To be clear, this Amalekite killing has been organized by top Torah scholars and all legal and pragmatic issues have been dealt with. They hand you a document signed by leading sages in support of carrying out this "mitzvah" as well as a declaration from the government promising to not interfere with this "free exercise of religion" or punish anyone afterwards.
I, for one, would never agree to such a thing; I would even try to stop them. The interesting question, though, becomes why I would save the Amalekite. I could easily defend this decision on Jewish grounds. We are both the children of Abraham, whose tent was open to everyone and challenged God to spare Sodom. Rather than hunting Amaelites, we should pray to God to have mercy even upon Amalekites. Even if Jacob was right to steal the blessings from Esau, the rabbis teach us that Esau's tears have harmed us through the generations. Should we risk the tears of the boy's Amalekite mother when he does not come home? Moses looked into the future before he killed the Egyptian to make sure that no one righteous would come from him. Do we have a prophet to tell us that no one good will come from the Amalekite? Moses told God to either forgive the Jewish people or "erase" him from his book. Part of our job as the chosen people is to tell God that if he wants us to be serial killers than we do not want his people. Let God find some other group to do his dirty work.
Some of these arguments might have more merit than others and I am sure readers can come up with other justifications. But let us be honest here, these are justifications. The real reason why I would not murder the Amalekite boy is because, underneath my Orthodox exterior, I really am a follower of the "Benzion Noam Chinn religion." This religion has a lot in common with Judaism. So, as the Benzion Noam Chinn religion only has one adherent, it made sense for me to formally practice Judaism in order to have a community. When there is a contradiction between the two, I will attempt to cover up the problem through intellectual creativity. It should be understood though that this is all really a dodge and if I ever run out of solutions I will simply reject Judaism rather than be untrue to my Benzion Noam Chinn religion.
The Benzion Noam Chinn religion is hardly a pacifist creed. If there was a member of the Naturei Karta tied up instead of the Amalekite than I would have no problem with slitting the guy's throat. He is a moser, who is spoken out against Jews to non-Jewish government officials, endangering millions of Jews. So, according to both the Benzion Noam Chinn religion and Jewish law, such a person deserves death to be carried out even extra-judicially. That being said, the Benzion Noam Chinn religion strongly opposes killing innocent little kids. I will follow what my true religion teaches me, regardless of what Judaism commands.
It is common to hear rabbis declare that all of their decisions are based on halakah and they never make recourse to any outside sources, certainly not to anything non-Jewish. Such people are either intellectual imbeciles, who have never considered the implications of taking such a doctrine seriously, or they are dangerous psychopaths, ready to murder innocent children when their "unbiased" reading of a text comes up kill. Such people are a danger to society in general and the Jewish people in particular. They, along with their followers, need to be immediately put on trains and sent to gas chambers.
Sunday, August 9, 2015
This is Kalman Isaac and my Abba has been introducing me to American politics. Like many of you, I have been shocked, horrified and disgusted by the rise of Donald Trump to become the leading candidate in the Republican primaries. Note that this shock, horror and disgust is with the Republican party and not with Trump, who is simply beneath contempt. In this time of crisis, there is only one thing that can save the Republican party from Trump; I place my name forward as the eighteenth candidate for the Republican nomination for president. For any of you worried about the fact that I will not even be thirty-five months old by January 2017, elections should be about maturity and I possess more of it than a number of candidates. More importantly, I can defeat Trump on his terms, offering personality over substance. Understand that every time a reporter asks an obvious question about something that, in a rational world, should preclude Trump from the nomination, he simply plays into Trump's hands, turning Trump's weaknesses into strengths. Trump is Trump and anyone who tries to use logic against him misses the point and increases Trump's appeal. I can out Trump Trump, turning his strengths back into the weaknesses they should be.
Take a look at my beautiful head full of curly hair. No need to fear that my hair will fall on some ambassador. Unlike the tower sitting on top of Trump, my hair is all natural and serves as a metaphor for my handling of the economy. My fellow Americans; many of you are out of work and going bald. A year ago, I had almost no hair. If I became president, the economy would grow like my hair, saving millions from their dependence on Rogaine.
While Trump denounces illegal immigrants, I openly identify myself as one. I used to live in Tummy, but snuck into this country without asking permission from a single government bureaucrat. It would have been useless to build a wall as I would have found a way to tunnel in. Voters should exam my record as the democratically elected dictator of Tummy; I left Tummy with a surplus of pee from the time I first took over.
Unlike Trump, I know that the way for Republicans to win women voters is not by insulting them and resorting to cheap stereotypes. I am a total expert on manipulating women. I just need to smile and clap and they fall right in line to do my bidding.
Speaking of women, my lack of family values is not going to cause a scandal. On the contrary, it will help me because I will be so upfront and honest about it. America, are you ready for this? I am pretty certain that there are pictures of me naked floating around the internet. If reporters cannot get enough of my wee-wee, I will gladly send them more images of it. I live with a woman, who is not my wife and we have a deeply intimate relationship. This woman is married to another man, who is totally accepting of our relationship. (I am still working on tolerating him being married to my woman and do not understand what she sees in him.)
When I debate Trump, I will open up by speaking using coherent syllables. Then, on national TV, I am going to throw down the trap challenge to change my diaper. If he refuses it will show that he does not understand the concerns of working families. If he tries to change my diaper, I will have totally shown my dominance over him and that I am really the much classier fellow. Also, I intend to pee right in his face. Afterward, I will call up my woman and her husband to the stage. Social conservatives will go wild at the sight of my totally unchristian lifestyle, particularly when I show them my tushy. What is Trump going to do, pull down his pants? He will have no choice, but acknowledge that I should be the Republican nominee to represent their supreme values of tushiness and scandalous family lives.
Thursday, July 23, 2015
My summer schedule for tutoring is somewhat lighter than during the year as a number of my regular students are away. Since my wife is also off for part of the summer, we took the opportunity to visit my parents in Silver Spring, MD for a week so Kalman could get some extra grandparent love. Flipping through an old family album, I found a picture of my father at an Israel event back when he was a rabbi in Columbus, OH. Speaking at the dais is a young Ohio congressman, who is much better looking than a certain Ohio governor now running for president.
Sunday, July 19, 2015
While I had previously used my son, Kalman, to make a joke about evolution, in truth, watching him every day has offered me a greater appreciation for how evolution works. One of the greatest challenges to evolution is how organs can evolve to serve different purposes by passing through intermediary stages. For example, how can a hand evolve into a wing when any species would have needed to spend millions of years without possessing either a fully functional hand or a wing? For evolution to work, every intermediary stage needs to offer its own advantage that allows the species to successfully reproduce.
Learning to walk is a complicated process. People who do not live with babies might think that a baby simply starts crawling one day and then starts walking, but there are many more steps. First, the baby learns to turn himself over onto his back; then he flips himself from his back to his front. Next, comes rolling and finally crawling. To learn to walk, a baby first starts pulling himself up using walls and other objects. Next he starts to use these supports to hold onto while he waddles around. Finally, he drops the supports and becomes a fully functional bipedal being.
As with species evolution, a baby develops into a walker because each intermediary step offers something beneficial to the baby and offers a means to reach the next step. Flipping himself onto his back did not allow Kalman to move from place to place. On the contrary, it left him stranded on his back like a turtle lying on his shell. That being said, turning himself onto his back allowed Kalman to move to a position of great comfort, from which he could make greater use of his hands to grab things. Flipping himself onto his back strengthened his muscles so that he learned to also turn himself over from his back to his front. This too did not allow him to crawl, but merely to roll over. Such motion is slow and does not lend itself to easily calculated movement. Nevertheless, it made it possible for Kalman to grab nearby objects and helped him develop the thigh, stomach and arm muscles to crawl. Crawling was an obvious benefit for Kalman, giving him access to the entire house and forcing his parents to seriously contemplate the meaning of "childproof." (Kalman, as the sort of ingenuous child that evolution has traditionally selected against, had no trouble outsmarting me in thinking of ways to render objects harmful.)
Crawling is such a wonderful thing that it almost becomes a trap. It is hard to come up with an easily achievable next step that offers an overwhelming advantage. Why not remain a crawler forever?
While crawling allows Kalman to cover the entire house, it does not allow him to reach objects more than a few inches off the ground. He, therefore, learned to pull himself up against the legs of short tables to grab whatever is on top. (Kalman is very keen to test the theory of gravity to make sure it constantly works.) Hoisting himself up a pants leg also allows Kalman to remind lazy parents that if they only performed their duty, he would not need to waste his time learning to move in the first place. Crawling has another major weakness in that it tends to require both the use of feet and hands. Kalman has, therefore, worked steadfastly on learning to crawl while using one of his hands to hold a toy or blanket. He has even gotten pretty good at carrying objects while crawling up stairs.
One day soon, Kalman is going to put his ever strengthening leg muscles to use in solving both challenges. He will simply grab something from a table and walk away with it on his own two feet. Once this great feat of evolution is achieved, who knows what might come next? Before too long, Kalman might start painting pictures of kitty, develop fire to roast the kitty, religion to explain why all of this will help appease an angry deity, and the selling of options just in case this deity's wrath is aroused.
Monday, June 1, 2015
Dr. Alan Brill just published an intriguing guest post by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, who grew up in the Satmar community and now teaches at YCT. A running theme in much of Dr. Brill's work has been the presentation of different approaches to "Modern Orthodoxy," the attempt to formulate a Judaism that is faithful to halakha while maintaining an ability to engage modernity at either an intellectual or social fashion. Rabbi Katz offers an intellectualized Hasidic version of this project. (I would be curious as to how he sees himself in relationship to Rabbi Abraham Heschel.)
What particularly caught my attention where Rabbi Katz's comments regarding Maimonides. In middle of the post, Rabbi Katz declares his personal sense of betrayal by Maimonides:
I for many years was the object and fool of Maimonides “the seventh reason” as presented in his introduction to the Guide by not seeing his philosophic views. In that passage, Maimonides condones misleading the masses for their greater good, even to the point of advocating contradictory ideas for different audiences and then obscuring those contradictions.
He ends the post, by arguing that Maimonides has led Modern Orthodoxy into a trap:
Contemporary Modern Orthodoxy is struggling; a significant number of its adherents are abandoning yiddishkeit and many who stay no longer find it meaningful; inertia has set in. I suspect that Modern Orthodoxy’s rationalist ethos is partially to blame. Current Modern Orthodox theology is Litvish and hyper-Maimonidean, it lacks a native spiritual core, and does not satisfy people’s search for meaning.
There is an irony here in that much of my knowledge of the Guide comes from a class taught by Dr. Brill more than a decade ago back when I was a student at YU. This class profoundly affected me and helped make me the kind of "litvish hyper-Maimonidean" that Rabbi Katz criticizes. As such, I feel it is prudent to offer a response.
As with a number of self-described Maimonideans I have run into over the years, the main attraction of this path for me is that it allows me to actively engage academia without ever risking my commitment to halakha. I could read a book on biblical criticism at night and never worry about my decision to put on phylacteries in the morning. It is not that I am so smart that I will figure out a way to disprove what I have read. On the contrary, it might turn out that I agree with the author. The reason for this is that, as a Maimonidean, my understanding of things like God, prophecy and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai are so theoretical as to be impervious to modern scholarship.The price I pay is that I must tentatively accept their truth even before I have examined them.
Now one might accuse me of being a secularist, who enjoys Orthodox practice and does not want to upset my family and my Asperger equilibrium by stopping to be religious. My counter-punch is that being a Maimonidean has given me a positive spiritual program in recognizing the manifest law in the world. This is put into practice, at a personal level, through ritual observance and an active opposition to idolatry. It is not that, as a Maimonidean, I am as religious as other Orthodox Jews. On the contrary, I denounce the larger Orthodox community as idolaters. If you accept Kupat Ha'ir then you are an idolater. If you have any energy left over from denouncing the Haredi leadership for their blatant idolatry (or you believe there is really a meaningful difference between them and King Ahab) to denounce more liberal movements over their acceptance of biblical criticism then you clearly lack appropriate zeal for monotheism and cannot be considered a true believer. This makes the confrontation with potentially "heretical" ideas in academia and their non-denunciation, a great spiritual act. It confirms my relationship with the One God I theorize about as I recognize how utterly I reject the idolatry of those who would denounce me as a heretic.
I think there are two major areas of agreement between Rabbi Katz and myself. First, we both dislike the label "Orthodox" as it implies schism and a rejection of the wider Jewish community. In its place, we want something that places the emphasis squarely on traditional observance. This leads to the second area in that Rabbi Katz wants to separate Judaism from theology in favor of a lived experience. As counter-intuitive as it might seem, Maimonideanism might be helpful in this regard. Judaism as ritual and community is distinct from Maimonidean theology. This is necessary considering all the idolatrous Jews out there.
This leaves plenty of room to allow Hasidism to influence Jewish society and the experience of ritual. My father likes to say about Torah Vodaas in his day that the learning was litvish, but the spirit was Hasidic. I am certainly open to the idea of a Modern Orthodoxy that is Maimonidean in theology, litvish in its learning and Hasidic in spirit.
Friday, May 22, 2015
(Abba used to be able to take Kalman to proper Asperger events like a Renaissance Faire. Will neurotypicality soon cause Kalman to prefer SpongeBob SquarePants? Not if this Daddy Warrior can help it.)
For his first year of life, my son, Kalman, was the perfect Asperger child. He would monologue in his perfect James Earl Jones voice. When not monomaniacally hunting the kitty, he could be found sitting in a corner examining heretical or otherwise banned books. As a Daddy Warrior, I knew in my gut that vaccines cause neurotypicality. Far more people, who have been vaccinated, have turned out to be neurotypical than Asperger so the evidence is clearly indisputable. That being said, I allowed myself to be conned by an agent of Big Medicine into allowing my son to receive the MMR vaccines. He offered me a lollipop so how could I resist? I knew something was wrong when my son cried upon receiving his shots. Clearly, my son had been given a boo-boo, which is always bad. My nightmare was just beginning. Almost immediately, Kalman began showing an interest in other people. He even began smiling for no obvious reason. There is no doubt about it. My son has become neurotypical.
Daddy Warriors naturally love their babies. Because it is natural, our love, unlike boo-boos, most always be a good thing. We are not like doctors, who accept bribes from pharmaceutical companies to allow our darlings to be harmed. Therefore, we know best which century's medical practices should be inflicted on our kids. We are also blessed with a perfect understanding of cause and effect as well as an unbiased memory. This allows us to compare our children's behavior from arbitrary before and after points.
This Daddy Warrior is ready to fight for his Kalman like an inquisitor fighting for the soul of an unfortunate heretic. (Neurotypicals cannot appreciate Monty Python and, therefore, never expect the Spanish Inquisition.) I propose a gluten diet, consisting of gluten and to raise Kalman in a sensory deprivation box until he is eighteen. When Kalman crawls out and blinks up at the sun, he will certainly be an Asperger. If living in a box could save Thais from being a prostitute, it can save my son from the infinitely worse fate of irrationally not becoming what I want him to be. My love makes me wise, wonderful and selfless. I love my son too much to allow him to live as a neurotypical and not appreciate dark and dry humor.
Wednesday, May 6, 2015
This is Kalman Isaac Chinn, master of shloofy and stinky as well as parents. Over this past year, in between my very important work learning how to be a good very big Jewish boy instead of taking over the world, I have been hearing lots of talk about this theory of evolution. There has been much misunderstanding on all sides as even those who possess the truth fail to reach the proper logical faith-based conclusions. Being able to contemplate the wonders of myself has given me a special perspective, which I would like to share.
Evolution is clearly a lie. I am much closer to being a monkey than my abba. Do you see how cute I am? For this reason, though, my abba should show me respect. Think about it; what is better, to be a near relative of a monkey or Moses? Which Charlton Heston would you want to be like, Ten Commandments or Planet of the Apes? Those rabbis, who take plane trips with their grandchildren and mysteriously sit next to high officials from the Israeli government need to rethink their conclusions.
I am very impressed with the argument of the great theologian Ray Comfort to prove the existence of God from a banana. Comfort is even smarter than Rabbi Avigdor Miller as bananas are more delicious than apples. Comfort, though, fails to understand the full specificity of God's plan. Notice how perfectly the banana fits in my hands; how perfectly it fits into my mouth and can be mashed up in my mighty fist to allow me to glorify God through post-modern artist. Obviously, God created bananas just for me so all bananas are mine. This includes the half banana abba always takes for himself. God wants me to have lots of bananas in my tummy so I can get all constipated like Martin Luther and create a new theology based solely on my bowel movements.
Thursday, April 9, 2015
(Kalman Isaac's taste in reading is far more sophisticated than his Abba's.)
Michael Shermer's new book The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom is certainly a worthwhile read. He offers a more generalized and accessible version of the argument made by Stephen Pinker, in his Better Angels of Our Nature, that there is a connection between the type of abstract thinking necessary for science and for ethics. One needs, though, to get past the laughably bad chapter on slavery where he tries to minimize the role played by Evangelical Christianity in the abolitionist movements on both sides of the Atlantic. For those unfamiliar with the issue, I suggest you start by reading Uncle Tom's Cabin (probably the most successful piece of anti-slavery literature ever written) and try separating Harriet Beecher Stowe's views on slavery from her Christianity. To be fair to Shermer, he generally avoids the simplistic polemic of "religion bad, science good."
On his blog, Shermer has a debate with Marc Hauser about whether science can directly offer proof for moral claims. Shermer is an a difficult position because, while he is not about to commit intellectual suicide by questioning David Hume's classic distinction between is and ought, his claims are interesting proportionally to how close he gets to that line. Much of his argument depends not only on a willingness accept the advancement of intelligent life as an axiomatic goal, but also the equation of ethics with utilitarianism. This has the advantage of placing ethical questions within the sort of territory that science is fairly well equipped to handle, physical well-being. For example, it is better to save five people from being run over by a trolley even if it means letting one person die and it does not matter if that death is caused by a switch or by pushing a fat man in front of the trolley. For the purpose of the physical world, as shown by science, it is irrelevant whether something was caused by your hand or not so we should not concern with such an issue. Shermer also discusses Jonathan Haidt's moral categories of liberty, harm, fairness, loyalty, authority and purity. Shermer argues that science has led to more people valuing the first three "liberal" values over the "conservative" later three. The former directly leads to the improved physical well-being of individuals.
I have been teaching formal ethics for the past several months to some of my teenage students. They instinctively get utilitarianism. I have needed to challenge them to consider the possibility that straight utilitarianism might lead to some highly tone-deaf morality for which they might need to take either Aristotle or Kant into account. This makes me skeptical of seeing the embrace of utilitarianism, whether or not it is a good thing, as a sign of progress in mankind's march to greater moral sophistication.
As a libertarian, I am the sort of person who, as Haidt points out, turns liberty into a trump card that reduces the other values into irrelevancy by comparison. It struck me that it might be possible to construct an experiment to prove libertarianism. Now before anyone gets excited, all I am seeking to prove is that the vast majority of people, including those who denounce libertarianism, really are libertarians in their moral philosophy when it really counts. Now the moral value of liberty is really the non-aggression principle. I refuse to cause physical harm to other people unless they are planning to cause me physical harm as I have no interest in endangering myself by giving that person or a third party a motive for causing me harm. Am I really part of a small fringe minority in believing this? I strongly suspect otherwise.
Imagine the following thought experiment. There is a large group of people. Each one of them has a device attached to them that can give them an instantly lethal electric shock. Everyone also has a smartphone app with the names of every other member of the group. Each person has the option of pushing a button and killing any member of the group they choose. The only drawback is that all the surviving members will be immediately informed of that decision and it is likely that some of them will retaliate in kind. Under such circumstances, what sort of rules will the group create? Will people insist on creating a group wide school system or health care plan, demanding that everyone pay for it, knowing full well that people might "strongly object?" If a person refuses to comply, who will be willing to push the button and make an example of what happens to those who defy the group?
I doubt we will ever be in a position to try this version of the experiment. If you think about it, though, the danger the group members would be, in theory at least, no greater than the danger everyone of us faces on a daily basis. There are 7 billion people in the world and almost all of them are physically capable of killing you if they really wanted to and there is little you can do to stop them. Perhaps we could do the experiment with non-lethal shocks. Alternatively, we could do a reality TV game in which each participant can send off any other participant. Survivors at the end each get a large sum of money. It does not matter how many people are still in the game at the end; it might be that everyone wins. Before they go on the show, contestants would be taped talking about their political beliefs on a wide variety of issues. During the game, contestants will have to engage in group discussions about politics. These will be used as the basis of setting up group rules. For example, contestants will be able to vote on whether they will receive access to things like meat, pornography and alcohol. The side that loses will have the option of eliminating enough of their opponents so they will form the new majority and change the rules to suit their taste. Under such circumstances, would anyone be so foolish as to vote for prohibitionist policies, antagonizing those whose pursuit of happiness they are interfering with and putting a target on their own foreheads? Clips of participants pre-game political views will be played to create maximum embarrassment and conflict. It should prove quite entertaining to watch an Evangelical Christian having to explain his opposition to gay marriage to a homosexual, who has the power to send him home, costing him the prize money. Will he agree to turn around and, when voting on conjugal visits, agree to include gay spouses? It is the possibility of backtracking that is important here. If people start sounding very libertarian on the show, in contrast to their expressed politics in their real lives, then it shows that people really are libertarians when something real is on the line. It would be particularly interesting to see if contestants, who have never heard of libertarianism, find themselves working out libertarian principles on their own.
The reason that most people are not libertarians in their daily political lives is that government acts as a shield so that they do not comprehend the violence of their political actions. Since government possesses overwhelming force, people are unlikely to openly violate the law, giving the impression of widespread consent even though that consent is no more valid than any other agreement made at gun-point. Furthermore, since government agents are the ones engaged in the physical act of violence, citizens are able to duck moral responsibility instead of recognizing that they are also participants in violence. If you find it morally objectionable to personally cause someone physical harm in the pursuit of an agenda, then it should be equally objectionable to use the third party violence committed by the government in pursuit of that same agenda. As with all untried experiments, I really have no idea what would actually happen if we tried it. I expect that there would be surprises along the way and we will all learn something about political morality.
Friday, February 20, 2015
My good friends at Oh Nuts are once again offering a Purim gift basket giveaway. Here is how it works.
There are 3 ways to enter:
1. Readers should go to the Oh Nuts Purim Basket Gift page. They have to choose their favorite Purim Gift and leave a comment on this blog post with the name and url of the gift they love the most.
I will pick a random winner and Oh Nuts will send them a $30 gift certificate.
2. Readers can go to the oh nuts facebook page become a fan and post on the wall the url and name of their favorite Purim Gift Basket . They should also write "I am here via "Izgad."
3. Readers need to follow @ohnuts and should Tweet
" Win a Purim Basket from http://bit.ly/aWXLzp Follow @ohnuts and RT to Enter Daily "
For option 2 and 3 Oh Nuts will pick the winner.
Sunday, January 11, 2015
Next week Tuesday, January 20, I will be speaking about "convivencia" in medieval Spain at the Alhambra Civic Center Library in Alhambra, CA. This came out of a conversation I had with one of the librarians regarding the origins of the city name in Andalusian Spain. She informed me that, despite the fact that the city high school team is called the Moors, most people know very little about medieval Spain. I will be setting forth the contrast between the legacies of convivencia and reconquista. Working from David Nirenberg, I will be arguing that the two of them are inseparably linked, the products of a frontier culture where different societies mixed together. On a day to day basis, this created a society where a spirit of tolerance was taken as a given. This social tolerance, though, had a way of breaking out, in extreme circumstances, in extreme intolerance and a desire to eliminate non-believers.