The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom by Michael Shermer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was an interesting read/listen. Shermer presents a number of arguments to show and explain the apparent correlation between the advance of science and the advance of our moral sensibilities. Having considered Shermer’s arguments I am still not fully convinced that it is the rise of science and reason that is informing and driving the moral insights of society and is the prime mover of ‘bending the moral arc’ as Shermer calls it. We have had science and scientific progress in any number of societies over the course of history; the Chinese and the Arab world are two that come to mind yet there was no corresponding rise in either the standard of living or moral sensibilities which mimic Western society over the past 100 years. While I would agree that science is a necessary condition for moral progress to occur I don’t think that Shermer makes the case that it is a sufficient condition.
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LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
LikeWars is a well written, well researched and penetrating analysis on how powerful social media has become in influencing society, politics and our perceptions of what is real and what is not. More importantly, it attempts to chart a trajectory of how social media will evolve in the future and powerful role artificial intelligence (AI), specifically neural networks, will play in determining that trajectory. The solutions presented by the authors to the issues we are facing and will face are as insightful as their observations. I would hope that every educator and policy maker here in the United States would read this book and be motivated to take action.
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“We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.”
— Stephen Jay Gould
In this book Guy Harrison takes over where Ashley Montagu left off in Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. Where Harrison has the edge is the science of DNA sequencing has confirmed that there is no biological basis for the idea of race. Homo sapiens is not made up of different “races”; we are one unified species. This isn’t to say that there are cultural differences between various groups but these are as arbitrary as hairstyles and skirt lengths. Again, there is no biological basis for them. Harrison also makes a point of taking anthropologists and biologists to task for not being more vocal about the lack of any empirical evidence for race. He recounts his astonishment of not hearing this until he was in his late teens even though this fact was well known long before that. He makes a strong argument why this fact should be inculcated throughout the entire educational system starting at the earliest grades. This would do much to offset the racial canards that children are exposed to and prevent them from gaining much traction. Concerning the canards and myths about race he systematically takes them apart, chapter by chapter. This book will make you uncomfortable as any good book should but it will give you the empirical evidence and arguments you need to counter the bigotry and racism that runs through society all of which are based on the lie of ‘race’.
“For the trouble with lying and deceiving is that their efficiency depends entirely upon a clear notion of the truth that the liar and deceiver wishes to hide. In this sense, truth, even if it does not prevail in public, possesses an ineradicable primacy over all falsehoods.” Hannah Arendt
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.
“Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run, but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.”
― Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
This month marked what should be a joyous anniversary of the Mauerfall – the fall of the Berlin Wall. For on the fifth of February the Wall had been down as long as it had been up; precisely 10,315 days had passed since the Berlin Wall came down. The Berlin Wall has always always been a part of me having lived under it’s shadow for three years and having been extremely privileged to have played a very small part in the effort which eventually brought it down. What makes this anniversary bitter-sweet is that the ideas of Madison, Jefferson, Adams and Thomas Paine that sparked our own revolution and were the ideas that inspired the spirit of the people behind that wall to demand freedom and ultimately tear down both the physical and ideological barriers that enslaved them are now despised in the very country which began because of the revolution those ideas inspired. The only revolution still standing.
I can still vividly recall that warm summer afternoon in 1979 when my flight from Frankfurt touched down at Tegel. I was in West Berlin. Walking through the terminal to get to the taxi stand I noticed that there was an electricity in the air that was as palpable as the electricity you feel when walking the streets of midtown Manhattan. In spite of being surrounded by everything foreign, the language, the items for sale in the shops I walked past, or the Polizei walking two by two, machine guns at the ready, the zeitgeist in that terminal caused me to feel like I was home in a very subtle but moving way. This feeling of being home was able to anchor me over the next three years which turned out to be the most transformative years of my life.
The Cold War was fought and won in buildings like this all over the world. Our duty station was only a stone’s throw from the Wall. You could see the Wall and the oversized watchtower as you walked through the front gate every time you went to work. It was a daily reminder of what you were fighting against. The time spent off-duty with the wonderful people of West Berlin was a constant reminder of what you were fighting for. The people of West Berlin were amazing. They taught me how much I took for granted. They taught me resilience and poise under the most difficult of circumstances. They taught me what good wine and what good beer was. Most importantly they taught me that the values we shared could survive any ideology, any foe, even an attempt to starve it to death. They were living proof of that. It was an honor to stand watch and defend them.
When the Wall came down it sent a clear message to the world that the rights of men and women to determine their own destiny, to be free to hold whatever ideas seemed good and right to them still had the power to transform nations. The power could be seen in all its glory in the streets of the city we once again simply called Berlin.
As I write this Angela Merkel has told what remains of ‘the West’ that they can no longer count on America. Indictments of Russian interference in our 2016 Presidential election have been released. We have a President who is suspected of entering into collusion with the Russians to steal the election. He currently is refusing to sign into law the strict sanctions against Russia the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed. Our love for freedom has morphed into a fetish for guns at whose altar we will gladly sacrifice our children by the dozens. We have Nazis marching in our streets and running people down with cars. We have turned hate into a virtue. But, as I write this, it appears that a nascent democracy is trying to birth itself in Iran. They are shouting down the Mullahs, burning Korans and Hijabs in the street and are willing to risk it all for the values they hold and the rights they demand. I hear the echos of the voices I heard on the streets of West Berlin in the shouts of the young people marching in the streets of Iran. It is good to see the revolution of 1776 is still alive and well in the world. It is sad to see it dying here in the land that started it all.