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.