Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2016 in Reading

Between my tutoring work and taking care of Kalman, I have not had time to blog much. As my tutoring has me driving into Los Angeles three time a week, I still get to listen to a lot of books. (God bless Audible.) As such, I would like to give a shoutout to some of my favorite books from the past year, books I would have loved to blog about if given the opportunity. None of these books are explicitly libertarian, but they are all worth the attention of lovers of liberty.

For psychology there is Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and  Elliot Aronson. As someone who likes being right, this humorous book sometimes cut a little too close for comfort. Considering how terrible humans are at admitting mistakes, one of the great virtues of the market is that it forces you to admit that you were wrong after a fashion. (It is called going bankrupt.) Can you trust a system like government designed to take people who are even worse than most at accepting blame and protect them from ever having to do so? The chapters on police interrogations and wrongful convictions are frightening. Has the art of criminal investigation really improved much since the Middle Ages?

Dr. Alan Brill used to tell us that people during the Middle Ages were not irrational. On the contrary, they would call us irrational. So for Judaism let me recommend his Judaism and Other Religions: Models of Understanding. In a post-Enlightenment multi-cultural world, the greatest challenge to any religion is how to grant legitimacy to other religions while still being able to justify the continued existence of yours. I greatly respect Brill for his ability to draw a line between offering textual background and advocacy for any particular solution. This book categorizes different Jewish stances regarding non-Jews ranging from saying that they are completely trapped in error to relativists positions where no one has any claim to objective religious truths. There is one point where Brill breaks his academic neutrality to acknowledge that a particular position is racist. Even this case serves demonstrates Brill's fairness as he does not attempt to sugarcoat Jewish tradition to make it palatable to moderns.  

Donald Trump's rise and electoral victory have drawn attention to the plight of white America. For this, I recommend Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones. This is top of the line journalistic history using a powerful narrative of nice Mexican boys dealing black tar heroin to white suburbanites in the midwest to make a general argument on how we need to rethink our conceptions of drug use and addiction. As this is a rare tale that takes us from Columbus, OH to Los Angeles, I feel a special connection to this book. Quinones is intent on blaming pharmaceutical companies for pushing painkillers ignoring their potential for addiction. I see a tale of moral hazard. The American government, with its regulation of the drug market, created a two-tier system of doctors prescribing legal drugs and a black market of drug dealers. This left Americans defenseless against the dangers of prescription drugs. My doctor with his lab coat and framed degree would never give me anything dangerous. He has nothing in common with the smelly villainous street corner dealer. We can see the problem even in our use of language as "drugs" have come to mean only the illegal kind, implying that there is a meaningful difference between them and the legal kind.

For History, I recommend Imbeciles: the Supreme Court, American Eugenics and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen. Buck vs. Bell stands along with Dredd Scott as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in American history. The State of Virginia conspired to have a perfectly ordinary woman declared to be mentally incompetent so she could be sterilized for the crime of being poor, uneducated and a rape victim. This is a kind of horror story for me as I can so easily imagine the government today using the same tactics to go after autistics. Just as the line between mental deficiency and being poor and never being allowed to finish grade school is easily blurred, so to can the lines between mental deficiency and not being able to function in a traditional classroom also be so easily ignored by those with an interest in doing so.

For fiction, my recommendations come from science-fiction. We have the Three Body Problem series by Cixin Liu. This Chinese mishmash of the Cultural Revolution and War of the Worlds is one of the most learned works of science-fiction I have ever encountered. As with anything by Neal Stephenson, it helps if you have a graduate level background in the history of science. This series competes well with Atlas Shrugged and Moon is a Harsh Mistress for being the greatest pro-liberty science-fiction story ever written. The heroes of this series are all fundamentally individualists, who act for their own personal human reasons as opposed to the large elaborate plans of governments.
Influx by Daniel Suarez is another highly intellectual novel in which the hero has to struggle against a vast bureaucracy staffed by people who act in the "public interest" to withhold advanced technology from the public. They have a complex argument, based on computer simulations, as to why they need to be in charge of all of humanity that could only be comprehended by a computer. There is a particularly harrowing torture sequence in which the hero faces off against a machine intelligence, who demands he cooperate with him in replicating human ingenuity. Failure to comply is met with the step by step destruction of his own personhood.

It took awhile for me to get into the Red Rising series by Pierce Brown. I got that it was going to be Hunger Games on Mars. Young Adult dystopian novels were beginning to bore me. Then something happened that shocked me and this was not the early murder of Darrow's wife, which, while well handled, was hardly surprising. If Darrow draws parallels to Katniss, he is far more morally tainted. The second book pushes the series even further into Game of Thrones territory. Book three contains one of the best pro-capitalism speeches in all of fiction. It comes suddenly and from a character that you had not realized was one of the good guys.  

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Attack of the Yeshiva University Faculty

Recently, political commentator Ben Shapiro spoke at my alma mater, Yeshiva University. He mocked transgenders as "mentally ill." Shapiro came under attack by many faculty members in a signed letter to the YU Commentator. Among the signers were some people I respect such as Steven Fine and Elizabeth Stewart. In addition, R. Shalom Carmy, the man my younger brother predicted I would be in a few decades, wrote his own letter.

I have criticized Shapiro in the past over his treatment of Islam. In this case, I do not support treating transgenders as mentally ill for the simple reason that I find the entire notion of mental illness to be meaningless. There is no empirical basis for calling anyone mentally ill. The only difference between saying that transgenders are mentally ill and saying that they are just born that way or that they are pursuing an "alternative lifestyle" is a value judgment. If you think there is something inherently bad about a transgender lifestyle then transgenders must, by definition, be mentally ill to desire to pursue such destructive ends. If, as most westerners today, you find nothing problematic about transgenderism than transgenders are not mentally ill. There is no empirical fact that could change your mind in the absence of a value judgment. What remains of mental illness is the political category of people that cannot be trusted within the framework of the social contract. For example, I could not care less if the people who believe that I am the High Comrade of the Young Elders of Zion should be deemed "mentally ill."  They need to be locked up or, preferably, sent to gas chambers. Their belief presents an implicit threat to my safety and the only true solution is to eliminate such people. 

The fact that the very concept of mental illness is absurd makes the faculty letter, in turn, very problematic. The signers point out: "Shapiro is not an expert on transgender experience or mental health, and his opinion does not reflect the current understanding of these very serious issues, in which people’s lives are literally at stake." 

I agree that Shapiro is not an expert on transgenderism, but then again no one is. We are dealing with a non-empirical non-rationalist concept so no one can claim any kind of objective knowledge about it. Even transgenders themselves can only describe their own personal experiences, not the wider experience of "transgenderism." It is important to keep in mind that psychiatry is not a science. It does not make any empirically predictive claims nor is it united by any kind of consistent methodology. Take any side you wish on the question of the sanity of transgenders and try to construct a test that might even hypothetically be valid. Therefore, an expert psychiatrist is in the same category as an expert theologian. Anyone can claim to be an expert theologian. Therefore, there can be no expert theologians.   

Because we are not dealing with objective physical reality, but only with subjective personal feelings, lives, by definition, cannot "literally" be at stake. If a transgender person immediately walked out of Shapiro's speech went home and blew their brains out, Shapiro would not be responsible in the least. He did not physically cause the death nor is there any reason to assume he conspired to bring it about. If anything, the faculty is endangering Shapiro's life. It is plausible that the government will use this kind of argument to pursue ideological opponents. It should not be too difficult to find a case of someone committing suicide less than twenty-four hours after reading a Shapiro column, giving the government a pretext to arrest Shapiro for murder. (Of course, by this logic, professors can go to jail if a student commits suicide after failing a class.) It would not be unreasonable to charge the signers of this letter with state collaboration and conspiracy to initiate violence. Such charges are not physical acts of violence but are violations of the social contract.  

I would like to conclude with a challenge to those who condemn Shapiro. If Shapiro had questioned the sanity of someone, who wanted their doctor to slice off their left pinky because they felt that they were really a "nine-fingered person," would you have denounced Shapiro with equal vehemence? From a purely logical point of view, there is no difference between someone whose happiness depends on surgically altering their hands or their privates to suit their subjective conceptions of themselves. Both cases would be irrational (as would any kind of plastic surgery). That being said, as a libertarian, I accept that humans are not beings of pure logic (more Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments than his Wealth of Nations) and it is their right to pursue their subjective desires as long as they do not initiate violence against anyone. By that same logic, I accept that people will have irrational distastes for certain behaviors and will express them through mockery.         

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Haredi Theology Making Itself Irrelevant: Some Thoughts on Gates of Emunah

As a Maimonidean, I do not just disagree with Haredi theology, I stopped, long ago, taking it seriously. Haredi theology can be divided into two schools; there are those Haredim who are blatantly idolatrous (Chabad) and then there are those, who really do not have any theology at all beyond a vague sense of tribal supremacy. God must exist and have given us the Torah, because if he did not, how can we turn our noses up and talk condescendingly about the "goyim."

A good example of this is Gates of Emunah - The Principles of Faith, based on the lectures of the late Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus. I was struck by his opening chapter as to the extent that, for a work that is supposedly about theology, how little the writer cares about actually making arguments. For Pincus, the arguments for Judaism are so obvious that they do not even need to be stated. Even a child should be able to figure them out. If you disagree with this then it can only be because you are spiritually tainted and maliciously desire to reject God. This leads to a counter-intuitive argument, but one that is distinctively Haredi: "Someone who studies the property laws of maseches Bava Basra is fulfilling the mitzvah of emunah because in this way he draws himself closer to Hashem. He becomes connected to Hashem, so he thereby attains emunah." (pg. 9) For Pincus, faith has nothing to do with abstract arguments or even clearly stating principles to believe in. Study tort law from the Talmud, something that has nothing to do with God and you will have somehow believed; in what it is not at all clear. Of course, this line of thinking raises an interesting question; why should anyone, after reading this passage, bother to continue reading this book? You should immediately throw away the book as a waste of time and open a gemara.

To be clear, I do not reject all arguments from subjective experience. I think that there is something to C. S. Lewis style apologetics where we believe in God because our world makes more sense with God in it. It is important to realize, though, that, for Lewis, this argument comes out of a dark and despairing place that recognizes that, at a sheer intellectual level, the argument against God is quite powerful. For example, in the novel the Silver Chair, when the Lady of the Green Kirtle tries to seduce the children into believing that there is no world above, no sun and not even an Aslan, Puddlglum counters that it is amazing that they managed to somehow make up a better world to such an extent that he would rather die searching for their "childish fake" world above than continue to live in her "real" one.

Part of the irony here is that Puddlglum's argument gains its strength from the fact that logically the witch is right and that he seriously contemplates what it might mean to live in her Aslan-less world. The utter horror at this prospect suggests the faint possibility that perhaps there is something she has missed. It is important to keep in mind, though, that Puddlglum does not refute the witch. On the contrary, it is acknowledged that she has the better argument and that the evidence lies on her side.
It is sometimes easy to forget because we think of Lewis as a children's writer, how really dark Lewis could get. For Pincus to follow Lewis' path, would be to make his readers uncomfortable with themselves, which is the one thing his theology cannot allow him to do. His book exists not to convince his readers about what the right answers might be, but to reassure them that they already have the right answers and need to think no more about them.

While we usually refute arguments through contradictions or reductio ad absurdum, the proper approach here is to note that Pincus' theology makes itself irrelevant. I am reminded of Allan Bloom's argument against cultural relativism in his Closing of the American Mind. Imagine an idealistic college freshman sitting down for his first English class taught by a committed post-modernist relativist. If the teacher is effective at giving over the principles of post-modernism, our student should immediately abandon his English classes, go to business school and never open a book again. I would add that any intellectually honest relativist English teacher should immediately insist that their students go to business school, end the class and resign from their teaching post. At a practical level, one has to ask, why have elite universities been so ineffective at keeping their students out of the business world or keeping their schools from being turned into profit centers with students as mere customers? Perhaps students and administrators are learning the lessons of relativism a little too well and are better post-modernists than the professors running English departments.

If this Emunah book was honest, instead of Pincus' face, the cover should have a sign saying "do not waste your money buying this book or your time reading it." As with secular relativism, the consequences of taking this theology seriously go beyond financial bankruptcy for lecturers and book publishers. At the same time that Pincus claims that we do not need to study theology, he also laments the superficial nature of the observance of many Orthodox Jews. He blames secular influence but would it not make more sense to say that these Orthodox Jews have been influenced by the "theology" of writers like Pincus and reached the proper conclusions? Whether God really exists, there really is no reason to seriously think about it. Much better to study Talmudic business law, become a rich lawyer and a de-facto atheist. You should just practice Judaism because you like the community and being part of the chosen people helps your self-esteem. If you think about it, the commitments of Jewish rituals are not necessarily much greater than the cost most people pay to be part of a specific club. (Think of what students go through to enter fraternities.)

You might think that I am reading too deeply into things and that Pincus cannot really mean what I think he does. Except that, at the end of the first part of the book, Pincus openly comes out and informs us:

         If we were to speak of the ABCs of being a ben Torah, then the 'A' would be to grasp this point            of, "This is my God and I will glorify him." Someone who grasps this point no longer has to                study the Rambam's Moreh Nevuchim or the Sha'ar HaYichud section of Chovos HaLevavos.

Clearly, the only reason to study modern works of Jewish theology would be to understand the classics as the modern works might present material in a more accessible fashion. If there is no reason to read the classics, why should anyone waste their time with modern works like that of Pincus?

Monday, November 21, 2016

Tolerance for the Children of Gay Parents But Not for Orphans (or Contrarian Aspies)

As part of getting Kalman ready for pre-school, every other Friday, I take him to the Pajama Library Gan Katan at the Jewish Federation of San Gabriel and Pomona Vally. It is a great program and I love the people there. I am particularly grateful to the staff for going the extra mile to accommodate Kalman and me.  

This past meeting, I had an interesting exchange with one of the people running the program. In honor of the national holiday invented by Abraham Lincoln to drum up northern patriotism during the Civil War, we sang a lovely little thank you song.   

Baruch ata Adonai, thank you, God
Thank you for the candles
Thank you for the wine
Thank you for the challah
That always tastes so fine.
Thank you for my family
They love me when I’m happy
They love me when I’m sad.

Afterward, the group leader explained that originally the song said "thank you for my mommy, thank you for my dad," but they changed the lyrics to be more inclusive. I raised my hand and commented that "obviously, this was to be inclusive of orphans." The leader did not take kindly to this and said that this was not for orphans and asked me if I was being sarcastic. I responded that "as an aspie, I am incapable of sarcasm." I let the issue go and we actually had a much more pleasant conversation after group. 

To be clear, I strongly support tolerance for children raised by same-sex parents. It is not as if these children have violated any biblical commandments. I even support tolerance for homosexuals as I am morally opposed to initiating physical violence against anyone. Unlike the group leader, I also care at least as much about orphans, whom I am commanded by the Bible to not offend. I also care about people with sulfite allergies who cannot drink wine, people (like my step-mother) with celiac, who cannot eat challah and people who struggle with depression, who go through long periods of not being able to be happy without actually being said. If we were to be logically consistent and apply the same standard as we would to not offending children from same-sex families, the entire song would have to go. When asked if I was serious in saying that I was more concerned about people with celiac than I was about homosexuals, I responded that "as a classical liberal, I always place physical danger over non-physical danger. Since celiac itself presents an inherent physical danger while homosexuality does not, concerns about celiac should take precedence." 

Feel free to reject my conclusions, but note that I operate from a clear set of principles. If you want to disagree with me you are going to need to set forth your own principles and it will not be enough to say that you are tolerant as that just begs the question of whom. You cannot say that celiac patients should know that we love them and accept their challah-less lifestyles as it is equally reasonable to assume that children from gay families know that we accept them even with their two mommies or daddies.     

When it comes to not giving offense to homosexuals, there are two logically consistent positions. We can say that everyone, gay, straight or celiac, must be protected from offense. Alternatively, we can say that society has established certain codes of speech and behavior and these include not using exclusionary language against homosexuals. Not that homosexuals are inherently more deserving of protection than those with celiac, but we recognize that society cannot protect everyone and so we must accept that society, for whatever arbitrary reason, has chosen homosexuals. Note that saying that society is being arbitrary is a more powerful reason than saying that it actually makes logical sense. I can always counter your logic. But if society is being arbitrary then I have no choice but to accept this as the price of membership. 

As it should be clear from the example of the song, total acceptance is not really possible. Whatever language you use, someone will always be excluded. This leaves the second option. If the group leader had rebuked me by saying that I was being impolite then she would have been on solid ground. Of course, there is a price to be paid for such a position in that it is a fundamentally a conservative position. If she did this, she would not be able to claim that she was being open and welcoming. Her argument would be as valid and morally useless as if she criticized my holding a fork and knife in the "wrong" way.

As an aspie, I get fearful whenever I hear liberals talking about acceptance that does not explicitly mention those on the autism spectrum. To not include those on the spectrum is to imply that we are not deserving of acceptance. I have no problem living in a society with arbitrary rules that I have to either take or leave as long as we are being honest about it. If we are going to talk about acceptance than I demand the right to be accepted as a highly contrarian aspie, who fulfills his state of being by attempting to elucidate the most logically consistent position he can, regardless of whether neurotypicals feel comfortable. Anything less does not allow me to feel safe and accepted.     

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Whose Vote is Really a Vote For Trump (or Hillary)?

From the beginning of this election, I supported Gary Johnson. I believed that there was a block of principled conservatives out there who would not support Donald Trump under any circumstances. Combine that with liberals seeking an honest anti-war candidate, armies of independents willing to go for something different and you get at least 20% of the vote. Maybe not enough to win, but respectable enough to make things interesting and create some momentum to push the cause of liberty forward. With Johnson polling at 5%, I recognize that he is not going to come anywhere close to winning. Thus I will be casting a protest vote. Many on the left will tell me that there is no such thing as a protest vote; a vote for Johnson is a vote for Trump. I find this argument to be very strange because, by the mere fact that they are agreeing to grant legitimacy to this election in the first place, liberals are the ones implicitly casting a vote for Trump.

I am a radical Lockean secessionist (to put in simplistic terms, an anarchist). Every property owner has the moral right to take their property and secede from their present country, forming their own new little state. I challenge anyone to come up with an argument against my position that could not have also been used by the British to invalidate the claims of the colonists during the American Revolution. One of the reasons why I am a secessionist is that I wish to avoid the conundrum of being morally compelled to do something immoral because it is the law. Read Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience and you will see an explicitly anarchist text. It is ok and even commendable to break an immoral law because your conscious precedes the authority of the law. The law can only have authority over you if you personally consent to it. Therefore, if you do not consent to the law because you find it immoral, the law never had authority to begin with and you never had any obligation to follow it. I challenge you to take a principled stand in defense of breaking the law even through non-violent passive resistance that does not rely on such anarchist premises.

Imagine that Trump wins this coming Tuesday. Come January, he is going to start rounding up eleven million illegal immigrants. We know very well that there is no way that any such plan could be carried out without mass murder. Trump has promised to eliminate any soldier that does not agree to commit war crimes so any soldier left is a de facto war criminal. What would be an appropriate response? According to my political morality, I am not bound to recognize any such Trump government. It is my right to pursue passive resistance and even to follow the lead of those British citizens in 1775, who claimed that it was alright to kill British soldiers. If you are not a secessionist like me, on what grounds will you claim that it is alright to do anything but comply with the will of the "people" and their President Trump?

What if the United States had a strong Nazi party, one that had the support of even 10% of the population? Could you accept an election in which they were even allowed to take part, as opposed to them simply being granted Idaho as an independent country or shipping them all to gas chambers? Even such a minority could easily leverage its support in exchange for the government having to agree to some seriously immoral compromises. Those familiar with the history of Weimar Germany know that during the 1920s the Nazis were a fringe party. Comes 1932 and there is the Great Depression so the Nazis get 33% of the vote. They then manage to pull a deal with the conservative parties to take power and once in power they do away with democratic elections. So instead of being in power for just a few months as an odd quirk in German history, the Nazis were able to stay on top for twelve years and start World War II. Most Germans never supported the Nazis, but the Nazis were able to manipulate a democratic system for their own ends. In essence, a fatal flaw of Weimar was that it allowed the Nazis to participate in the first place. Agreeing to be part of a liberal democracy in which Nazis took part meant accepting the Nazi takeover and everything that happened afterward.

The United States is a vast and diverse country with over 300 million people, the vast majority of whom I have good reason to heap contempt upon both their intelligence and moral judgment. This includes white men without college degrees, who believe that Mexicans are rapists and Obama is a Kenyan Muslim. It is precisely such people who are largely responsible for turning Trump into something more than a reality TV star on a joyride. Even if, as I hope, Trump loses, those hordes of angry stupid white men will still be there and they will still be voting American citizens. At some point, perhaps with a candidate who can forge an alliance with another angry and stupid demographic (it is not as if white men have a monopoly on those things), these angry stupid white men will win. What do you plan on doing then? Accepting that they will one day win is the price of having the United States. So either you reject having the United States and instead attempt to build a mini-state with only intelligent and moral people or you implicitly agree to support Donald Trump.

Remember that when this day of Trump comes (and it will), conservatives and spineless liberals will tell you that, while you are free to wait four years and vote against Trump, in the meantime you need to respect the fact that the American people voted for bigotry and intolerance. You can prepare yourself starting from today. Put your hand over your heart and repeat after me: I do not pledge allegiance to any flag, nor to any republic that does not even obey its own constitution. I follow my own conscience from God (however I choose to define him/her) and pledge to work for liberty and justice for all. If you are not yet willing to take this step, I understand (it took me years to get there). But please do not lecture me about how I am the one voting for Trump.

(To all the well-meaning conservatives out there, who reject Trump but feel that if they do not vote for him they are voting for Hillary, feel free to replace the name Trump with Hillary in this article. Rework my examples as you feel appropriate.)

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 even 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 too 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 successful 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 prequels. 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 mayhem. As it turns out, the love interest was a double agent who faked her death, leading to an intense standoff 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 roommate, 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 emotional foundation allows Nina to be a formidable 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 to find out 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

Let the Force be Your Guide

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 spaceships 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

Teaching the Story of King David and Bathsheba: How to Groom Children for Abuse

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 a 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 remains 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 of 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 reckon 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 the charges against him. Because he is such a great Torah scholar, he might refute anyone who claims that he sinned. For example, the 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

Introducing the All New Kindle Taevah

Just in time for Elul and back to yeshiva sales, Amazon introduces their new Kindle Taevah. In a press conference, Jeff Bezos explained to  befuddled reporters trying pronounce the name that the Taevah was inspired by Numbers 11:

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

Utilitarianism and Slavery: A Response to Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes

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 latter 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.