Thursday, October 31, 2013

Those Social Issues Are Not A Mask

I came across this explanation of conservatism a while back, and it has really stuck with me. I've been sitting on it for some time, trying to come up with some thoughtful commentary to accompany an excerpt, but it needs nothing from me. It stands very well on its own. 
"From the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the self-regarding thugs of ancient Rome to the glorified warlords of medieval and absolutist Europe, in nearly every urbanized society throughout human history, there have been people who have tried to constitute themselves as an aristocracy. These people and their allies are the conservatives.

The tactics of conservatism vary widely by place and time. But the most central feature of conservatism is deference: a psychologically internalized attitude on the part of the common people that the aristocracy are better people than they are. Modern-day liberals often theorize that conservatives use "social issues" as a way to mask economic objectives, but this is almost backward: the true goal of conservatism is to establish an aristocracy, which is a social and psychological condition of inequality...
More generally, it is crucial to conservatism that the people must literally love the order that dominates them. Of course this notion sounds bizarre to modern ears, but it is perfectly overt in the writings of leading conservative theorists such as Burke. Democracy, for them, is not about the mechanisms of voting and office-holding. In fact conservatives hold a wide variety of opinions about such secondary formal matters. For conservatives, rather, democracy is a psychological condition. People who believe that the aristocracy rightfully dominates society because of its intrinsic superiority are conservatives; democrats, by contrast, believe that they are of equal social worth. Conservatism is the antithesis of democracy. This has been true for thousands of years.

The defenders of aristocracy represent aristocracy as a natural phenomenon, but in reality it is the most artificial thing on earth. Although one of the goals of every aristocracy is to make its preferred social order seem permanent and timeless, in reality conservatism must be reinvented in every generation...

A main goal in life of all aristocrats... is to pass on their positions of privilege to their children." 
Speaking of Burke, one person has recently written a book in which he traces a line from Burke to Sarah Palin. It's on my reading list.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Strange, Capricious Eye Of The Internet

Before last year, two of the top three posts on this blog were my review of Beowulf (because it contained a link to a picture of Angelina Jolie's naked CG body) and a decidedly lowbrow one-off "nothing to talk about today" post (that featured a picture of a chimp groping a woman). Hmm... I guess maybe the internet's eye isn't so capricious after all.

At any rate, not exactly my best work.

That changed late last year. Thanks to the magic of social media, one of my posts on gay marriage in Minnesota went viral during election season, and from it, I got more traffic in that month than I had had in the previous five years of this blog. It was great! I got a lot of positive feedback from it, and there was even an honest and engaging debate in the comments as well. Good times.

I'm still pretty proud of that post, and here's why: right before the election, I saw it re-posted by a stranger. A blue-collar, salt-of-the Earth fellow from rural Minnesota shared a link to it with a challenge to read it and not be changed. As if that wasn't enough, even better was that beneath his post, there was a beautiful thank you message from his daughter. That was very humbling and it brought a tear to my eye. It still does.

Since then, my blog has mostly returned to its former modest traffic levels. But I'll keep writing, because it's good fun. And maybe someday I'll move someone again. I know that the effort is worth it.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Hammer Salesmen Keep Seeing Nails

It's not an exaggeration to say that Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris changed my life. Before I read The God Delusion and Letter to a Christian Nation, I was merely a lapsed Catholic. But reading these books gave me permission to openly self-identify as a secularist/atheist/agnostic. So I must admit to having a bit of a soft spot for these authors. Unfortunately, I have to call them both out for being jackasses, because sometimes that's what one must do in order to be intellectually honest.

First, in a recent interview, Richard Dawkins tells some anecdotes in which he implies that he does not condemn sexual harassment or pederasty. Okay, I kinda-sorta get what he's saying, so it isn't completely incomprehensible. But for the love of FSM, is this what you think is important to say right now? Is this the highest moral purpose you aspire to in these times - to defend anonymous perps on the basis of "different standards"? Yeesh. You're trolling us, Richard.

Now, I see that Sam Harris has decided to make a meal out of Malala Yousafzai, the teenage girl who was shot for speaking out against the Taliban. Harris seems to be willing to sacrifice anyone and anything in the service of his rhetorical cause. I'm afraid that others who have criticized Harris for rigidity and absolutism are right. Dear Sam: you wrote a great book, and you make some interesting points. But when you appropriate the courageous work of a young Muslim girl in order to make your point that Islam is Evil, well... it might be time to put down the computer and go outside for a while.

Grow up, fellas. We need you. 

These days, I find James Carse more compelling.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Superhero Standard

Politicians like to imagine themselves as lone crusaders fighting against injustice and evil, and frame themselves as defenders of the "American People" and "the American Way of Life." In so many words, they are assuming the mantle of a superhero. Since politicians are wont to describe themselves in terms of superheroes, I think it is time to explore the full implications of their appropriation of popular culture.

So what is a superhero? In the comics and the movies, superheroes aren't simply beings with super-powers; they have a code of conduct that defines their person and sanctifies their mission. Here are two components of a superhero's makeup:
  • a strong moral code, including a willingness to risk one's own safety in the service of good without expectation of reward
  • a motivation, such as a sense of responsibility, a formal calling... or a strong belief in justice and humanitarian service
Emphasis mine. That's a pretty good start, and could be distilled into "service to humanity without reward." But I feel that there is more to it than this, and upon reflection, it occurs to me that the moral code and motivations of superheroes have their roots in chivalry. Below are some highlights from the chivalric code as recorded in Song of Roland, now almost a thousand years old:
  • To protect the weak and defenseless 
  • To give succor to widows and orphans 
  • To refrain from the wanton giving of offense 
  • To despise pecuniary reward 
  • To fight for the welfare of all 
  • To eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit 
  • At all times to speak the truth 
Wow, now those are some standards! One can draw a pretty straight line from this list to the superhero's code. I think the world would be a better place if more politicians put the moral code and motivations of super-heroism into practice, rather than simply co-opting the imagery as a cheap rhetorical device.

So how does your favorite politician live up to the Superhero Standard?

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Myth of the Self-Made Man, Debunked Again

My Dad fled to Texas in 1957 with $100 sewn into his underwear. He washed dishes making 50 cents an hour to pay his way through the University of Texas, and to start a small business in the oil and gas industry...

Government is not the answer. You are not doing anyone a favor by creating dependency, destroying individual responsibility. 55 years ago, when my dad was a penniless teenage immigrant, thank God some well-meaning bureaucrat didn't put his arm around him and say let me take care of you. Let me give you a government check and make you dependent on government... That would have been the most destructive thing anyone could have done.
Ted Cruz tells the inspiring life story of his father that unfortunately elides some important information, and in so doing, draws the wrong conclusions. In other words, it's bullshit.

Fifty-five years ago, $100 would have paid a year's tuition at University of Texas. Fifty-five years ago, working at only fifty cents an hour,  Rafael Cruz could pay for a semester at UT in just two and a half weeks.

How? What? Well, it turns out that in 1960, eighty-five percent of the cost of higher education at UT was paid by the government. In other words, government was an essential part of Rafael Cruz's success story. And nowadays, most unfortunately, the government does not help with higher education like it did when Cruz's dad migrated to the United States - thanks largely to Republicans like Ted Cruz. Pulling up the ladder indeed.

At today's minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, it would take almost seven times longer to earn enough to pay for college than it took back in Rafael Cruz's day. If you wanted to earn your semester's tuition in the same amount of time it took Rafael Cruz, you'd have to make $50 an hour

If we re-wrote Rafael Cruz's story in terms of the cost of a year's tuition at UT in 2013, here's what it would sound like: Cruz's lawyer friend bribed an official to stamp Cruz's exit permit, he took a first class flight to Texas with a briefcase filled with $10,000 cash, and worked for $50 an hour as a consultant to pay for his college education.

You'd shrug your shoulders at such a story. Rich guy is rich.

Now, I happen to believe that Cruz's dad's story is genuinely inspirational, even if he is now an insufferable asshole: he was imprisoned and tortured before he escaped to the U.S., where, although poor, he worked hard and became wonderfully successful. Most of us can't imagine such hardship. But his "happily ever after" outcome was made possible by a well-funded government with a strong sense of community and shared responsibility. Again, Rafael Cruz's story is a lot less feasible today, not because the poor and immigrants are less capable, but because our nation has been crippled by anti-government zealots: these days, we lack the fundamental infrastructure than enables success.

Was there ever a myth more seductive and yet more deceptive and destructive than the myth of the self-made man?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Le Shutdown R├ępublicain

Though I have been reading about it obsessively, I haven't posted about the government shutdown. I guess I haven't felt like I have all that much to add to the discussion. It's pretty obvious that the Congressional House Republicans have caused this mess. How it ends is anyone's guess. I want to believe that we'll get through it relatively unscathed, but we're 10 days in and it's not looking so great.

Here's all the narrative you need to know about the current crisis.

1. Obama won in 2008.
2. PPACA/Obamacare passed in 2010.
3. Republicans won the House in 2010, make repealing Obamacare their only legislative priority, AND FAIL to achieve this goal.
4. In 2012, SCOTUS upheld PPACA as constitutional.
5. In 2012, Republicans ran against Obamacare at all levels of government AND LOST DECISIVELY.
6. By September 2013, House Republicans have tried AND FAILED forty-plus times to repeal Obamacare.

Instead of being chastened by this parade of failure, Republicans met in January of 2013 to plan the hostage situation that we are now in.

So whether you are for or against Obamacare, and whether or not you believe that closing the government is a good thing, and whether or not you think that hitting the debt ceiling is a problem, this is a Republican shutdown. Period.

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Update: Here is an excellent explanation of the "debt ceiling" worth watching, and here is a list of three essential points to remember as this conflict drags on. Finally, there has been some noise that when it comes to the debt ceiling, "both sides do it!" This piece dispenses with that notion.