The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump by Michiko Kakutani
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“In a republican nation, whose citizens are to be led by reason and persuasion and not by force, the art of reasoning becomes of first importance”
― Thomas Jefferson
“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
― Thomas Jefferson
I’m sure every reader of this has asked themselves, “How do these people believe the lies coming out of our political leaders that are demonstrably false?” There has been a subtle shift in the common epistemology that has been deliberately engineered for the benefit of a few. No longer do people claim, “I believe it because it is true and here is how I know that.” Today, the mantra is, “I believe it so therefore it is true.” It matters not whether the claim is the earth is flat and 6,000 years old, or that politicians you don’t like are surely running a child sex ring out of the basement of a building which has no basement, it is true because they believe it to be true. Congruence to reality has ceased to have any intellectual weight in these peoples’ thinking process. How did we get to this point? This book attempts to answer that question and, in this reader’s opinion, answers it well. Well written and well researched, it traces back the various threads that have come together to give us the intellectual climate we find a large percentage of our fellow Americans living in. The two pronged attack on reason and the free press is, as it turns out, by design and this book unpacks the “how” and “why” behind it.
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This is a good primer for those interested in Stoicism. There are a number of Stoics, both Greek and Roman, whose writings are available to the modern reader. In this book Pigliucci stresses the writings and thoughts of Epictetus and the reader is introduced to Stoicism through that lens. Had this book been written by, let’s say, former President Clinton it would be through the lens of Marcus Aurelius as President Clinton lists “Meditations” as one of his top books to read. As an introduction to Stoicism this book offers the reader two main benefits that other introductory books may not. First, a cogent and thorough history of Stoicism and how it fits into the different threads of Greek philosophy. The historical approach to studying philosophy, especially in the beginning stages, is the method I was schooled in and experience has shown it to be the most fruitful in gaining a thorough understanding of the subject matter. Pigliucci does this exposition well. The second thing that the author stresses is that Stoicism is first and foremost a practice that one undertakes in order to achieve ‘eudaimonia’ or the good life. Pigliucci again gives this a very good treatment and I would say work and discipline to achieve the good life is the main thread that knits together the entire book. Wherever he can, Pigliucci uses personal anecdotes to illustrate the point he is making chapter by chapter and how it relates to achieving ‘eudaimonia’. By the end of the book you may very well be looking at the world through Stoic lenses and notice the internal changes that this view brings. It did for me and the book has motivated me to explore and practice the disciplines of Stoicism in my daily life. Well worth the read.
In a rather testy exchange today reporters grilled the White House Press Secretary about the current administration’s decision to move from a civil to a criminal stance regarding people crossing the US/Mexican border. By classifying this as a crime it allows the ICE agents to separate the children from their parents. You can listen to Session’s decision here. Sessions also made some changes to the asylum law and now people who are the victims of domestic violence or gang violence will not be able to seek asylum on the basis of either. So not only has the administration criminalized crossing the border they are attempting to close any legal avenues for people to escape the violence of their countries and seek sanctuary here in the United States. Both Sanders and Sessions cite biblical justification for these actions. According to them, this is what Jesus would do and to them there is no higher justification than ‘God’s word on the page’. Gott Mit Uns.
This was also the justification for the internment and genocide of millions under Nazi Germany. In fact the SS troops, when they were separating the children from their parents, told them the same lies that ICE agents are telling these parents: we are taking them away for questioning and to bathe them. The method is the same in both cases, change the laws to make it a crime to be Jewish or a Gypsy or to be a member of the ‘dark’ races or an asylum seeker and stand strong knowing you are doing the work of the Lord. Lest you point out the horror of what is happening the response from Sanders and Sessions is identical to how Himmler and the SS Death’s-Head Units (SS-Totenkopfverbände) responded: we are doing the Lord’s work. Gott Mit Uns.
I have to admit that the news that President Trump had pardoned Dinesh D’Souza caught me by surprise. My exposure to D’Souza up until this time had been watching him debate Christopher Hitchens on various occasions none of which resulted in a favorable outcome for D’Souza. He was the least competent debater that Hitchens’ faced in this writer’s humble opinion. Even in venues that were filled with his supporters he was booed rather soundly for the pathetic tactics and discredited arguments he relied on. So news of his pardon left me scratching my head. His interview on CNN’s New Day with Alisyn Camerota cleared things up.
Why D’ Souza’s religious arguments are some of the sloppiest and least nuanced is relatively easy to see. He places much logical heft on the Argument of Personal Incredulity which, in fact, has zero logical heft. This argument starts with Dinesh cogitating over a particularly intractable problem such as the appearance of design in living things. His philosophical and scientific nuanced views of evolution (we came from monkeys) allows him to discard the theory out of hand for who could believe such a ridiculous thing? What is left then to explain this design we see in living things. Dinesh thought really long and really hard and came up with nothing, nada, bupkis. The only possible conclusion, he reasoned, is that this problem can’t be solved by the mind of a human since he was unable to do it. God, as he will tell you, is the only other explanation that makes sense (to him), ergo, there is your evidence for God. The arrogance that fuels such an argument and convolutes sophistry and logic is breathtaking and one should ponder it for a moment while your eyebrows return from the back of your head. All that is required on his reader’s part is to accept the presupposition that Dinesh is way smarter than they or anyone they may know and everything buttons up nice and neat. In fact, any sort of philosophical, scientific or social question lends itself to this treatment ending up at the same destination having traveled the same intellectual path to get there. It is the ultimate Procrustean Bed.
Donald Trump could care less about D’Souza’s religious beliefs. So where is the appeal that would make D’Souza jump to the top of the pardon list? Here’s a hint: D’Souza has a book coming out on July 31, 2018 titled Death of a Nation: Plantation Politics and the Making of the Democratic Party which answers the questions “Who is killing America? Is it really Donald Trump and a GOP filled with white supremacists?” I’ll bet you already know his answer and why Donald Trump wanted to get his pimp pardoned and out working the street. Do yourself a favor and watch the interview. I’ll wager you can’t go for more than five minutes before you turn it off and go take a shower.
“How dismal it is to see present day Americans yearning for the very orthodoxy that their country was founded to escape.”
― Christopher Hitchens
Last week Education Secretary Betsy DeVos traveled to New York City for a tour of private religious schools. While there one of her stops was a breakfast hosted by the Alfred E. Smith Foundation which raises money for Catholic causes and charities. In her speech to the group she advocated the overturning of constitutional restrictions which prohibit the spending of tax dollars for religious schools. The Atlanta Journal Constitution published a number of excerpts from her speech which can be accessed here. The full speech can be found here on the US Department of Education’s website.
The DeVos family has a long tradition of trying to secure state funding of religious schools. This tour to New York City came on the heels of an announcement on May 9th by the Department of Education that it would scrap or amend a number of rules that restrict faith-based entities from receiving federal funding. The rules she is ultimately after are the Blaine Amendments, currently on the books in 38 states which prohibit the use of government funds for sectarian (religious) education. Inspired by President Ulysses Grant’s call in 1875 for a constitutional amendment mandating free public education and prohibiting government money being spent on religious education. Maine Congressman James G. Blaine introduced the constitutional amendment that same year. It passed the House of Representatives but did not make it through the Senate. Advocates of the amendment then turned to local state legislatures throughout the country and got it passed into law at the state level.
DeVos is quite clear about her goal: “These amendments should be assigned to the ash heap of history and this “last acceptable prejudice” should be stamped out once and for all.” The “last acceptable prejudice” being the separation of church and state. This is not just another attempt by theocratic ideologues to eviscerate US public education. Now they have managed to place Ms. DeVos in precisely the position where she can do the maximum amount of damage. By removing the Blaine amendments and allowing taxpayer dollars to be funneled into religious schools the current inadequate funding of public schools will be stretched even thinner. The overall quality of education in the country will be reduced as more and more funds are siphoned from the public schools as study after study comparing public and religious schools performance has shown. Students graduating from religious schools score lower on just about every core skill that can be measured. To illustrate this point while in New York DeVos turned down visiting public schools while in New York instead opting to tour two Orthodox Jewish schools, the Manhattan School for Girls and the Yeshiva Darchei Torah for boys. What Secretary DeVos did not address in her speech is the fact that New York yeshivas (Jewish religious schools) have been under investigation since 2015 when it was alleged that dozens of them failed to teach math, science and English and after students reached the age of 13 only religious courses were offered to them. Many of these graduates struggled to write their names in English. This is what Secretary DeVos would like to see in all of our schools and wants to use tax payer money to accomplish this goal.
In much the same way that the hyper religious refuse medical treatment for their children, DeVos and her allies want to give hyper religious parents the opportunity to refuse giving their children a proper education and instead instill in them the ‘alternate facts’ found in their religious books, which are no facts at all. DeVos claims that the education of children is not a function or concern of government. But it surely is. The government has a vested interest in educating it’s citizens in order to have a healthy and robust society. A fractured sectarian school system graduating illiterates does not accomplish this and the people deprived of an education will be perpetual mendicants and burdens on social welfare systems for decades to come. This is not a future I want for my grandchildren nor do I think it is a future you want for yours.
Last Monday I received an email letting me know that my application to be a writer for Secular Nation Magazine had been accepted. This was my first “official” writing job and the start of another segue into something I am extremely passionate about. At a time when most people’s careers are at the ‘tray tables and seat backs are in the upright position in preparation for landing’ point I am getting ready to take off into a new adventure. I couldn’t be more thrilled.
I couldn’t ask for a better forum to start out at than Secular Nation Magazine. The overall focus of the magazine, as the title alludes to, is to be a voice for the secular community and I am privileged to be a small part of it. The executive editors let the writers determine the direction and content of the magazine as we move forward which allows everyone the freedom to write on precisely those subjects they are most passionate about.
Most important to me will be my audience which I tend to divide into two parts. One part is the people who are reading this and the articles to come over the next few months and years. I hope I can inspire those like minded individuals to fight for the secular values this country was founded on and push back against the rising tide of religious extremism that is looking to hijack this country and turn it into a middle eastern theocracy with them, of course, occupying the position of ‘theo’.
The other part of my audience is, by definition, far smaller than the first part though they are both of equal importance to me. It also differs from the first part in that it has yet to be born. I have made it a point that when I write I am writing to my great, great, great, grandchildren.
I have on my bookshelves books from my great grandparents, my grandparents and my parents. As I grew older and my reading habits became more sophisticated the books began to paint a picture of their owners and was able to gain an insight, however limited, of the relative who owned it; who they were, what were their thoughts, what were they passionate about intellectually. Some of the books had notes scribbled in the margins and finding them I could imagine how a prospector felt when he spotted a gold nugget in his pan. I want to do one step better and allow them to see who I was, what I was passionate about and my thoughts on the issues that were important to me. The best way for me to do that is to write. Now, I have the opportunity and forum to do just that.
Artificial Intelligence is a phrase that often promotes a strong reaction in a lot of people who hear it. There are the gloom and doom prognosticators who tell us that ‘Judgement Day’, the day the intelligent machines take over and decide we are more trouble than we are worth and wipe us out is near. There are also the overly optimistic prognosticators which tell us that the day AI will take over and we will enter a golden age of humanity beyond our wildest dreams is near. Kasparov charts a course in between these two extremes using the extremely compelling example of his two matches against IBM’s Deep Blue. He won the first and lost the second which was the first time a World Chess Champion was defeated by a chess engine. Kasparov uses these matches, his preparation and the preparation the IBM team employed, to paint an interesting picture of both machine and human intelligence. The conclusion he draws is that machine and human intelligence are complimentary to each other and machine intelligence enhances human intelligence to the point where mediocre chess players using chess engines can easily defeat an International Grand Master and this has, in fact, been done. Our future, according to Kasparov, is to embrace what the machines offer us and use them to augment our human intelligence. Throughout the book Kasparov makes the point that research into AI has shown that machines are good at the types of things humans are not and vice versa. Machines can analyze millions of positions per second while humans can only go 4-5 moves in the future, for instance. On the flip side, the human mind can see what tactics are worthwhile and which are not which makes the human mind’s search far more effective. The future, according to Kasparov and backed up by real-world results in the chess world, is a synthesis of the two the end result of which is the enhancing of the human mind. If you are interested in AI, chess and the future of expert systems this is one book you’ll want to read.