Thursday, October 31, 2013

Humanist, Heal Thyself!

Another day, another story about the death of the Humanities.

Tamar Lewin does it well in The New York Times, providing us with the relevant data:

On Stanford University’s sprawling campus, where a long palm-lined drive leads to manicured quads, humanities professors produce highly regarded scholarship on Renaissance French literature and the philosophy of language.

They have  generous compensation, stunning surroundings and access to the the latest technology and techniques of scholarship. The only thing they lack is students: Some 45 percent of the faculty members in Stanford’s main undergraduate division are clustered in the humanities — but only 15 percent of the students.

Some universities are trying to save their Humanities courses by linking them to high tech. They teach students to data mine Victorian novels. Somehow it seems more like desperation than a great leap forward.

If novels are just another collection of data, why bother to read them?

Universities across the nation are downsizing their Humanities programs, to the chagrin of some and to the relief of others. There is even a suggestion that if these departments are not self-sustaining they must be supported by outside funds: call it by its name—a bailout.

Like it or not, these programs have lost out in the marketplace. Perhaps they have enough political clout to get bailed out by the government, but still… that’s not much of a future.

Of course, Lewin trots out the usual suspects: the Great Recession, the rise of cognitive neuroscience and the fact that your Humanities degree will be a liability in the job market.

You might blame it on high tech, but the truth, unstated by Lewin, is that businesses have had their fill of Humanities degree holders who bring nothing but a bad attitude to their jobs.

Strangely, Lewin does not even hint at the possibility that the people who are running Humanities programs, the zealous propagandists who have turned Humanities departments into indoctrination mills might bear some of the responsibility.

However much the idea has been publicized, here and elsewhere, the thought, I promise you, has never crossed the minds of the dwindling number of academic Humanities teachers.

Responsibility is an ethical concept. You cannot learn about it in a STEM class. Yet, apparently, you will not learn anything about it in a Humanities course either.

We have reached a point where literature and philosophy professors do not even understand their own responsibility in having created the state of affairs that they are bemoaning. What could a student learn from them except how to evade responsibility?

Humanist, heal thyself!

When Radical Feminists Marry

Question: What’s funnier than a radical feminist getting married?

Answer: Nothing.

Of course, I am not talking about a woman who calls herself a feminist because she believes in equal rights or free contraception. I am referring to the feminist zealots, women like Jessica Wakeman and Tracy Clark-Flory, women who feel that wearing cosmetics is a sellout and a betrayal of everything that Naomi Wolf holds dear.

Wakeman has just gotten married. Clark-Flory is about to get married.

Both of them have used the occasion to torment themselves for capitulating to the Wedding Industrial Complex and for abandoning just about every tenet of their feminist faith.

For a true-believing feminist ideology can magically transform a joyous day into an endless bout of self-torture. These women remind me of medieval flagellants, people who walked around whipping themselves—literally—to do penance for their sins.

Obviously, modern flagellants prefer the moral to the physical dimension, but, then again, you never know.

If you’re looking for the perfect gift for a radical feminist bride: here's a useful link.

Wakeman describes her experiences:
Getting married is a series of capitulations. I got married three weeks ago (and I swear to God I will write about other topics soon, really), so I know this for a fact. Thinking that you can have wedding that is 100 percent a reflection of all of your values all of the time — to say nothing of your partner’s values — is naive.  Weddings involve capitulations to your family and his/hers.  Weddings involve capitulations to your bridal party and/or friends. Weddings involve capitulations to societal tradition, family tradition or religious tradition. For plenty of people, weddings are a capitulation to our consumer-driven, “keeping up with the Joneses”  (or in this case, “the David Tuteras”) society.  Like anything else in life, you will negotiate some of your values that previously were very strongly held.  The difference is that with a wedding, your values take an outsized importance because it feels like you’re supposed to take a stand — possibly the biggest stand you’ll ever take in your life, even. 

The thought comes to mind: if it feels like that much of a capitulation, why do it? Is it irrational to think that if your ideology makes a joyous occasion feel like a cowardly surrender in a war, perhaps there is something wrong with your ideology.

Wakeman does have a glimmer of insight here:

Being engaged, planning a wedding, your wedding day, and basking in your newlywed glow are supposed to be a happy time in your life.  Celebrating your commitment to another person should fill you with more joy than strife.  The reality is that people that love Tracy Clark-Flory will still love her no matter how she performs femininity or performs “being a bride.” The bigger question that perhaps she should ask — as she nurses the elastic indentations her Spanx leave in her skin and enjoys a foot rub from her new husband after hobbling around in heels all day*** — is how, when all this is said and done and she looks back on her decisions, whether she will love herself knowing she isn’t as courageous about living her values as she pretended to be.

You start to think that when the officiant  asks whether anyone believes that this couple should not be getting married,the feminist bride feels sorely tempted to pipe up.

As for the theoretical support structure that has helped turn a joyous occasion into self-torment, note that Wakeman talks about how a woman “performs femininity” or “performs ‘being a bride.’”

Apparently, Wakeman has gleaned these thoughts from the empty-headed musings of philosopher Judith Butler.

Here’s the deal: performing is something you do when you play a role. There’s a difference between being feminine and performing femininity.

When a woman gets married she is a bride. When she plays the role of bride in the theatre or the movies she is performing.

Of course, in the philosophy of J. L. Austin, when the officiant pronounces the couple man and wife-- assuming that the wording is allowed-- his words are doing something real. His words are what Austin called a performative utterance. This use of the term has nothing to do with theatrical performance. 

Besides, the phrases “performing femininity” and performing “being a bride” are gibberish in the English language. That should have been a sufficient clue.

What Could Go Wrong?

It’s been up, up and away for the stock market.

Savvy investors are worrying, but they have been worrying for the last few thousand Dow points.

John Crudele again sounds the tocsin:

So let’s see: Bubble-like; the highest inflow of cash into stocks since 2000; companies without earnings or even revenues valued in the billions; and, my gawd, CNBC finally trying to be honest!

Let me translate all of this into plain English for you: A lot of people are worried that stocks are headed for another crash.

And I’m one of them.

He is not just talking about a garden-variety correction. Crudele anticipates a crash for the ages:

You think the market declines in 2007 and 2008 were bad? The next big decline in the stock market is going to legendary — and gruesome.

Of course, neither he nor anyone else really knows when this is going to happen. No one knows whether the Dow will hit 25,000 before it crashes or whether it will crash next week.

For now, investors are riding the wave of Fed liquidity, fully confident that the Fed has it all under control.

Fewer and fewer people still believe in the Federal government, but the investor class believes, as an article of faith, in the Federal Reserve.

People keep buying stocks because they believe that nothing could possibly go wrong. With such sentiment running rampant Crudele is right to ask what could go wrong. He is looking for the next black swan event.

Right now everyone fears the dreaded taper, the moment when the Fed decides to cut back on its bond buying. But, as long as investors are confident that the Fed cannot do so, the party will continue:

The most obvious danger for stocks is the Federal Reserve. On Wednesday, Ben Bernanke’s Fed kept its market-rigging $85 billion-a-month bond-buying program unchanged because the economy isn’t quite right yet.

I’m hardly the only one who thinks this Fed program, which goes by the innocent name Quantitative Easing (QE), is the devil itself. But devil or not, it’s the one thing keeping stocks in heady territory.

The Fed’s policy-making Open Market Committee said on Wednesday the economy just wasn’t strong enough for it to stop rigging the bond market, which is being done to keep interest rates unnaturally low.

Those low rates, in turn, are sending investors scurrying to stocks despite the fact that corporate earnings are rising only moderately.

What could go wrong? Glad you asked. Crudele offers his own speculation. What if, he says, the Fed loses control of long term interest rates?

Crudele writes:

Rates on government securities are up substantially over the past five months, even though they have recently backed off from recent highs. But if the market defies the Fed again and takes interest rates back up, all bets on QE are off.

I have no inside knowledge on the thinking of the Chinese, who hold the largest amount of US debt. But that country can’t be happy with what the Fed has done to its American investments.

We don’t know whether the trigger will be pulled in Beijing. But, if you are thinking of what could ruin investors’ rosy scenario, the Fed's losing control of the bond market would certainly be high on the list.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Is It OK to Be Late?

Here’s another tip for improving your mood, your attitude, your relationships and your business: show up on time.

Corporate recruiter Greg Savage has noticed a disturbing cultural trend: too many people no longer feel any obligation to arrive for a meeting, an appointment or dinner on time.

Savage is not writing about America. He is describing the culture in his home base of Sydney, Australia.

His observation may or may not apply to your business or your own relationships. I cannot tell you how prevalent chronic lateness is in any specific locale. For the record, my own contemporaries, who are probably older than yours, take pride in being punctual.

If Savage is not speaking to you and yours, well and good. If he is, it’s time for a correction.

As Savage says, when you garner the reputation for often being late you will be showing the world that you cannot be trusted. Why would anyone want to do business with someone who cannot be trusted?

It begins, Savage says, with a failure to understand the meaning of words. When people believe that everything they say, every commitment they make, is subject to interpretation, problems arise.

People call a meeting for 9:00 a. m. Some people, however, do not believe that 9:00 a. m. really means 9:00 a.m. Savage describes the scene:

In recent years it seems that a meeting set to start at 9 am, for some people means in the general vicinity of any time which starts with the numeral '9'. Like 9.30 for example.

People drift in at 9.10 or 9.20, or even later. And they smile warmly at the waiting group, as they unwrap their bacon sandwich, apparently totally unconcerned that others have been there since five to nine, prepared and ready to start.

10 people kept waiting in a meeting for 20 minutes, while some selfish pratt who idles his way via the coffee shop, is actually 20 minutes times 10, which is 200 minutes wasted - while you keep us waiting because you did not catch the earlier bus. That is over 3 hours wasted. By you! How much has that cost the business? Shall I send you an invoice?

It’s not just the cost in time and money. There’s an emotional price to be paid when you undermine group harmony by showing that you consider yourself more important than everyone else. You will be stirring up emotion and producing drama, not cooperation.

Apparently, some of the problem derives from text messaging. People have come to believe that if they announce that they are going to be late, they gain the right to be late, that is, to take advantage of you.

Savage describes how this plays out:

And an arrangement to meet someone for a business meeting at a coffee shop at 3 pm, more often than not means at 3.10 you get a text saying 'I am five minutes away' which inevitably means 10 minutes, and so you wait for 15 or 20 minutes, kicking your heels in frustration.

And often these 'latecomers' are people who have requested the meeting in the first place, are asking for your help, or are selling something. Fat chance mate!

And of course this has massive application to the recruitment industry, where lateness is both commonplace and hugely damaging to your personal and corporate brand.

Why are the chronic latecomers chronically late?

By all appearances they are trying to show how important they are. Even if they are merely following their bliss or indulging themselves they are still signaling how important they think they are.

Chronic latecomers are manifesting their bloated sense of self-esteem, their inflated sense of self-importance. What is there about such behavior that would cause you to want to work with them, or to be their friend?

In fact, they are saying that they are so busy, that their day is so filled to overflowing with supremely important duties that you should be grateful if they show up at all.

They expect that other people will accommodate them because of they are so important. In most cases, if you fail to accommodate their tardiness they will take serious offense.

Savage explains:

And it is not that we lead 'busy lives'. That's a given, we all do, and it's a cop out to use that as an excuse. It's simply that some people no longer even pretend that they think your time is as important as theirs. And technology makes it worse. It seems texting or emailing that you are late somehow means you are no longer late.

Rather than promote cooperation and harmony people who are chronically late are competing for status.

Of course, if they were really as important as they think they are and if they have real standing in the world, they always show up, always return messages and never cancel on you.

No one rises to the top of a hierarchy by disrespecting other people. One might say that celebrities are often the exception to this rule, but theirs is not exactly a status hierarchy.

Being late is also bad for your emotional well-being. It is more stressful to have to explain away your bad behavior than it is to work with people. It is more stressful to be an irritant than a lubricant.

Good habits improve your relationships because they show you to be trustworthy and respectful. You are likely to receive the same in return. Bad habits will undermine most of your relationships because people will discover that you are more likely to abuse their confidence and their good character than to reciprocate it.

When you show up on time you are keeping your word. If your word is not your bond who knows what other duties you will ignore.

Chronic lateness, Savage says, is a character flaw. In its place one should make a habit of punctuality.

Punctuality spells respect. People are not going to want to work with someone who has  been disrespecting them.

Punctuality requires discipline and organization. Why would anyone want to do a deal with you if you have already shown yourself to be undisciplined and disorganized?

The Big Obama Lie: If You Like Your Health Care Plan...

New York Magazine makes a half-hearted effort to defend President Obama's lie about your ability to keep your  health insurance, but it has also put together a tape of him lying... over and over and over:

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

NBC News Calls Obama a Liar

If you’re a Democratic president, the ultimate media darling, and your friends at NBC News start calling you a liar, you have a problem.

Everyone has known that President Obama’s claim, repeated ad nauseam, that: “if like your health insurance plan, you can keep it. No one is going to take it away” was untrue. Everyone knows that his other claim: “if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor” was also untrue.

We did not know, to a certainty, that when Obama made these claims he knew that they were untrue. If it did, they were lies.

Megan Kelly reported last night on an IRS directive from 2010 that stated clearly what was to come to pass: Obamacare would cause people to lose their insurance.

One expects that Fox News will report in a fair and balanced way, with a slight skew against the president.

One expects that NBC will skew in favor of the president. For that reason Lisa Myers’ story is more noteworthy.

By Myers’ reporting the promise that you can keep your insurance if your insurance if you like it was a lie. So was the promise that the new policies will be better and cheaper than the old ones.

NBC reports:

President Obama repeatedly assured Americans that after the Affordable Care Act became law, people who liked their health insurance would be able to keep it. But millions of Americans are getting or are about to get cancellation letters for their health insurance under Obamacare, say experts, and the Obama administration has known that for at least three years.

Four sources deeply involved in the Affordable Care Act tell NBC NEWS that 50 to 75 percent of the 14 million consumers who buy their insurance individually can expect to receive a “cancellation” letter or the equivalent over the next year because their existing policies don’t meet the standards mandated by the new health care law. One expert predicts that number could reach as high as 80 percent. And all say that many of those forced to buy pricier new policies will experience “sticker shock.”  

None of this should come as a shock to the Obama administration. The law states that policies in effect as of March 23, 2010 will be “grandfathered,” meaning consumers can keep those policies even though they don’t meet requirements of the new health care law. But the Department of Health and Human Services then wrote regulations that narrowed that provision, by saying that if any part of a policy was significantly changed since that date -- the deductible, co-pay, or benefits, for example -- the policy would not be grandfathered.

Buried in Obamacare regulations from July 2010 is an estimate that because of normal turnover in the individual insurance market, “40 to 67 percent” of customers will not be able to keep their policy. And because many policies will have been changed since the key date, “the percentage of individual market policies losing grandfather status in a given year exceeds the 40 to 67 percent range.”  

That means the administration knew that more than 40 to 67 percent of those in the individual market would not be able to keep their plans, even if they liked them. 

Yet President Obama, who had promised in 2009, “if you like your health plan, you will be able to keep your health plan,” was still saying in 2012, “If [you] already have health insurance, you will keep your health insurance.”

“This says that when they made the promise, they knew half the people in this market outright couldn’t keep what they had and then they wrote the rules so that others couldn’t make it either,” said  Robert Laszewski, of Health Policy and Strategy Associates, a consultant who works for health industry firms. Laszewski estimates that 80 percent of those in the individual market will not be able to keep their current policies and will have to buy insurance that meets requirements of the new law, which generally requires a richer package of benefits than most policies today.

It used to be called bait-and-switch. The administration is now trying to tell America that the president did not really lie. His definitive and unambiguous statement needs to be read for the nuance.

Obamacare will allow you to keep your insurance … unless any part of it has changed since last year. Then the Department of Health and Human Services wrote new regulations that forced insurance companies to change their policies.

The net effect was: if you have an individual policy, you, and millions of others, are going to lose it. You will be forced to buy what will very likely be a more expensive, and more comprehensive policy that includes all the coverage that the government believes you should have. So much for free to choose. You yourself will have no choice in the kind of coverage you will have.

Since some people will not be able to afford the new policies, even with government subsidies, they will fall into the ranks of the uninsured.

NBC reports on how the law is impacting individuals:

Those getting the cancellation letters are often shocked and unhappy.

George Schwab, 62, of North Carolina, said he was "perfectly happy" with his plan from Blue Cross Blue Shield, which also insured his wife for a $228 monthly premium. But this past September, he was surprised to receive a letter saying his policy was no longer available. The "comparable" plan the insurance company offered him carried a $1,208 monthly premium and a $5,500 deductible.

And the best option he’s found on the exchange so far offered a 415 percent jump in premium, to $948 a month.

"The deductible is less," he said, "But the plan doesn't meet my needs. Its unaffordable."

"I'm sitting here looking at this, thinking we ought to just pay the fine and just get insurance when we're sick," Schwab added. "Everybody's worried about whether the website works or not, but that's fixable. That's just the tip of the iceberg. This stuff isn't fixable."

Health care consultant Robert Laszewski, quoted above, found out that he was right the hard way:

For months, Laszewski has warned that some consumers will face sticker shock. He recently got his own notice that he and his wife cannot keep their current policy, which he described as one of the best, so-called "Cadillac" plans offered for 2013. Now, he said, the best comparable plan he found for 2014 has a smaller doctor network, larger out-of-pocket costs, and a 66 percent premium increase.

Some might say that the Obamacare calamity is so widely known that the media had no choice but to cover it fairly. Perhaps it’s true, but good work is good work and credit should be given where it is due.

Al Qaeda on the March

Terrorism is alive and well. In fact, it is thriving.

Across the world, CNN reports, al Qaeda is not on the run, as our president said. It is expanding its ability to carry out operations. Benghazi was part of it, but not the only part.

According to CNN:

As terrorism increasingly becomes a tactic of warfare, the number of attacks and fatalities soared to a record high in 2012, according to a new report obtained exclusively by CNN.

More than 8,500 terrorist attacks killed nearly 15,500 people last year as violence tore through Africa, Asia and the Middle East, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.

That’s a 69% rise in attacks and an 89% jump in fatalities from 2011, said START, one of the world’s leading terrorism-trackers.

Six of the seven most deadly groups are affiliated with al Qaeda, according to START, and most of the violence was committed in Muslim-majority countries.

The previous record for attacks was set in 2011 with more than 5,000 incidents; for fatalities the previous high was 2007 with more than 12,800 deaths.

Funded by the Department of Homeland Security, the study was performed at the University of Maryland.

Among its observations:

Gone are the days when terrorist groups like the Irish Republican Army or Italy’s Red Brigade would try to keep casualties low by issuing warnings, LaFree said.

“If you’re a terrorist group now and you want to get your message out,” he said, “the more people you kill, the more ‘successful’ you’ll be.”

Sectarian attacks - such as the pitched battles between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan - tend to be disproportionately deadly, said Martha Crenshaw, an expert at Stanford University and a START board member.

“Sadly, it seems to be increasingly acceptable in certain belief systems to kill as many members of the other religious community as possible,” she said. “Moral restraints seem to be eroding.”

Surely, it would be unfair to pin this all on the Obama administration. There is little the administration can do to combat the terrorism in Nigeria, for example.

On the other hand, the administration has pursued a policy of disengagement in Iraq and a policy of pending disengagement in Afghanistan. These two countries are suffering an extraordinary number of terrorist attacks.

The administration’s actions before, during and after the attack on our Benghazi compound two years ago could not have served to deter al Qaeda. In fact, as Lara Logan reported (see last post) al Qaeda is alive and well in Libya today.

Of course, the administration is defensive:

Rhonda Shore, a spokesperson for the State Department's Bureau of Counterterrorism, said she hadn't seen START's latest numbers and couldn't comment on the report. But she offered a staunch defense of the Obama administration’s approach to al Qaeda.

“We have made great progress in our efforts to disrupt, dismantle and defeat the larger al Qaeda organization in recent years,” she said.

“However,” she said, al Qaeda and its affiliates “continue to present a serious threat to the United States and its interests, and we must remain vigilant as we consider the range of tools and actions available to disrupt this threat.”

In the START report shows great progress, I’d hate to see what failure would look like.

CBS Reports on Benghazi

Some of us have taken the mainstream media to task for not reporting objectively about  the Obama administration.

It is altogether fair that we praise the mainstream media when it does great work.

Witness Lara Logan’s 60 Minutes report on what happened in Benghazi two years ago.

Logan does not have enough information to trace the decision-making through the State Department or up to the White House, but she offers a chilling picture of how the administration left Ambassador Stevens and his staff vulnerable and unprotected.

This link to the CBS site provides a transcript of the program.

Logan closes her report by observing what has happened in Libya since the attack. Worse in many ways, we have not even bothered to clean up the compound:

The U.S. pulled out of Benghazi and al Qaeda has grown in power across Libya. When a member of our team went to the U.S. compound earlier this month, he found remnants of the Americans' final frantic moments still scattered on the ground. Among them Amb. Stevens' official schedule for Sept.12, 2012, a day he didn't live to see.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Seeking Truth in the Occult

The only thing surprising about it is how unsurprising it is.

In an era when atheism is all the rage, when God has gone out of style and when organized religion has become an all-purpose whipping boy, hip people are beginning to flock to occult ceremonies. They are dabbling in witchcraft, tarot readings and astrology. The world of the spirits, to say nothing of the world of pagan deities, is making a comeback.

Katie Baker reports on the cultural phenomenon for Newsweek:

Until recently, I wouldn’t have been able to listen to Osborn detail the kinetic energy running through my body without cracking up, but chilled-out multitasking hipster psychics don’t seem so eccentric anymore. Upwardly mobile millennials are often accused of being self-obsessed and afflicted with “special snowflake” syndrome, but that’s not the only reason more and more smart, savvy and usually cynical 18-to-30-year-olds are dabbling in the occult, from astrological natal charts and tarot to séances and full-moon ceremonies.

Somehow, full-moon ceremonies sound mildly pornographic. Nevertheless, in a culture where young people have been accused of being chronically narcissistic, where all mental health issues are medicated, and where everyone trusts science to solve all problems, young adults have glommed on to the supernatural.

God might be dead, but the gods and goddesses are alive and well. And so, by the by, is reactionary thought.

Apparently, these young people are rejecting both organized religion and science. They want nothing to do with Judeo-Christianity, but prefer to seek out metaphysical realities in the stars and in magic. Next stop, alchemy: the prescientific version of chemistry.

To give them their due, it is perfectly reasonable to believe in metaphysical entities. Take ideas, for example. Have you ever seen, heard, tasted, touched or smelled an idea? Likely you have not. Since ideas cannot be reduced to the brain’s thinking them—after all, ideas do not cease to exist when you stop thinking them—it makes good sense to believe that they are metaphysical entities. If so, science has limitations.

Normally, those who believe in science’s limits turn to organized religions. Not today’s young hipsters.

Baker explains it well:

Millennials are the least religious generation in history; according to a 2012 Pew study, one third of adults under the age of 30 are unaffiliated with any particular faith. At the same time, a 2001 Gallup poll found that Americans’ belief in psychic and paranormal phenomena — particularly psychic healing and extrasensory perception — significantly increased during the 1990s and has held steadfast ever since. Some 20-somethings told Newsweek they appreciate the supernatural because it’s a nondenominational method of self-exploration that reminds them that the world is both older and bigger than they are. “It’s embarrassing to admit you’re religious,” says Hilary Pollack, a 27-year-old who recently moved to Brooklyn. “But I think a lot of people my age are sick of being nihilistic. Spirituality is a lot cooler.”

Living in a culture that has profited from its Judeo-Christian heritage, to say nothing of science and the Industrial Revolution, young hipsters have a right to indulge their folly. After all, they have indoor plumbing, heating and air conditioning, sanitation, antibiotics and plentiful food. 

Young people have learned how to critique Western Civilization but one doubts that they would ever want to go back to the time before modern science and technology, like the Middle Ages or the Hundred Years War.

One suspects that they would not want to have lived in Germany at a time when Heinrich Himmler, a great champion of all things occult, was running the SS.

If young people want to transform their book club into a coven, be my guest. If they want to reverse the Industrial Revolution, to the point where they will be producing blackouts, famines and epidemics, their beliefs are not so spiritual and not so innocent, either.

One suspects that Baker is correct to see the phenomenon as a diversion, a form of amusement, a costume party qua meet-up. And yet, once a set of ideas enters the cultural bloodstream no individual can control the effects they produce.

Obviously, it's all a form of pagan idolatry. Obviously, it is antiscientific. But it is also, unabashedly opposed to the great tradition of Judeo-Christianity.

Western civilization was founded on a rejection of idolatry. It’s written into the Second Commandment: thou shalt have no other gods before me.

The new atheism has garnered far more publicity than the new occultism. Its adherents and apologists are far more prominent and more rational. Yet, both groups are joined together by what they oppose. They are against the civilization that was built on Judeo-Christianity.

It may not seem obvious that the Industrial Revolution, liberal democratic values and the larger part of modern scientific advances were produced in countries that practice Judeo-Christianity, but such is the case.

No one is denying that Western Civilization has produced many bad things, but when you compare them to its contributions you will probably agree that it has produced a lot more good than bad. This is especially true if you compare its record to that of pagan cultures and to cultures that practice materialistic atheism.

Today’s atheists do not much like the association, but the nations that have built political and economic systems on atheist beliefs have not produced very much good. The Soviet Union and Communist China were built by atheists who abhorred the superstitious beliefs that founded Judeo-Christianity.For the most part they have only excelled at destruction.

Were we to compare and contrast the good and the bad of Western civilization with the good and the bad of atheist political and economic systems, we would be forced to conclude that Communist has produced nothing of real value. 

Today’s atheists are certainly not communists. They will tell you that the Soviet Union and Maoist China and Castro’s Cuba and the rest have nothing to do with their values. The results produced by those regimes are not at all what they have in mind. Of course, it was not what Marx had in mind either.

I suspect that today’s atheists are not as materialistic as Marx. Most of them hold to core Judeo-Christian values—like free will and charity. They set themselves apart from the dominant Western cultural tradition by believing that these values can be proved scientifically.

And yet, if you cannot prove scientifically that an idea exists and if you reject God because you cannot prove His existence scientifically, it does not make sense to say that you can prove the existence of free will scientifically.

It’s no accident that the dialectical materialism of Marx never produced a culture where anyone was allowed to exercise freedom.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

SNL does the Obamacare Website Fiasco

First, it was Jon Stewart. Now, in the ultimate indignity, Saturday Night Live, aka SNL, has done a brutally funny takedown of Secretary of HHS Kathleen Sebelius and the Obamacare website fiasco:

Who Chose CGI?

When the time came for someone in the Department of Health and Human Services to choose a designer for the Obamacare website he or she chose a French-Canadian company called CGI.

It makes sense. Whenever Microsoft needs to design a new version of Windows they put in a call to Montreal, don't they? Whenever you call your computer’s tech support wizards they speak with a French-Canadian accent, n’est-ce pas?

One understands why the Canadian government might hire a Canadian company, but the USA…. Wasn't a suitable French company available.

Anyway, CGI was not chosen on the merits or on its track record. Mark Steyn explains what happened when CGI was hired by the Canadian government to design the Canadian Firearms Registry.

He reports:

CGI is not a creative free spirit from Jersey City with an impressive mastery of Twitter, but a Canadian corporate behemoth. Indeed, CGI is so Canadian their name is French: Conseillers en Gestion et Informatique. Their most famous government project was for the Canadian Firearms Registry. The registry was estimated to cost in total $119 million, which would be offset by $117 million in fees. That’s a net cost of $2 million. Instead, by 2004 the CBC (Canada’s PBS) was reporting costs of some $2 billion — or a thousand times more expensive.

Yeah, yeah, I know, we’ve all had bathroom remodelers like that. But in this case the database had to register some 7 million long guns belonging to some two-and-a-half to three million Canadians. That works out to almost $300 per gun — or somewhat higher than the original estimate for processing a firearm registration of $4.60. Of those $300 gun registrations, Canada’s auditor general reported to parliament that much of the information was either duplicated or wrong in respect to basic information such as names and addresses.

But it proved impossible to “improve” CFIS (the Canadian Firearms Information System). So CGI was hired to create an entirely new CFIS II, which would operate alongside CFIS I until the old system could be scrapped. CFIS II was supposed to go operational on January 9, 2003, but the January date got postponed to June, and 2003 to 2004, and $81 million was thrown at it before a new Conservative government scrapped the fiasco in 2007. Last year, the government of Ontario canceled another CGI registry that never saw the light of day — just for one disease, diabetes, and costing a mere $46 million.

At the least, we know that CGI did not get the job and the $400,000,000 in American taxpayer dollars because it had demonstrated its competence. One is forgiven for believing that something other than merit was involved.

Revisiting the Golden Rule

In the best known form, the Golden Rule reads: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

The Golden Rule has been around forever. All religions have a version. All ethical philosophers have offered a version. In one form or another it belongs to every set of ethical precepts.

This means, first, that it has been intelligible to large numbers of people over long periods of time. It means, second, that it must be reasonably effective.

People do not cling to rules that they do not understand and that do not work for them.

Thus, the Golden Rule deserves some respect. If it doesn’t make sense to you, you have probably misunderstood it.

It is perfectly reasonable for the New York Times resident “ethicist” to offer a few thoughts about the Golden Rule. Chuck Klosterman, as he is also known, writes an excellent column for the Sunday Times magazine.

One would expect that he would have some minimal understanding of the Golden Rule. If so, one is going to be severely disappointed.

This week Klosterman denounced the foundation of nearly all ethical systems as a “durable platitude,” “a collection of words that sound vaguely profound.”

When it comes to serious thinking about serious subjects Klosterman is in way over his head. He should limit himself to handing out platitudinous advice.

Klosterman’s column naturally begins with a reader’s query about the Golden Rule:

However I feel that in our diverse, modern world, it is less than ideal. By assuming other people should be treated the way I want to be treated, it imposes my preferences and values on those around me. Wouldn’t a better rule be “One should treat others as they want to be treated”

Obviously, he is using a dumbed-down version of the Rule.  Perhaps he has some allergy to the Biblical version. Apparently, he is taking, “would have others do unto you” as equivalent to “want to be treated” but the two are not quite the same.

The letter writer is correct to say that the rule tells you to express a preference, but expressing a preference is not at all the same as imposing anything on anyone else.

As they say at the bridge table, the rule is invitational, not forcing. It invites others to act in a certain way. It does not force them to do anything at all.

If you miss that you have missed the whole point of the Golden Rule. It is not an auspicious start.

The Rule offers you a way to show others how you would like to be treated, while still leaving them the freedom to do so or not to do so. Ethically speaking, it’s a lot better than forcing people to do what you tell them to do.

So, the letter writer has eliminated freedom, especially the part that implies respecting the freedom of others.

To understand the Rule it is useful to place it in context. In Matthew 5, 38-39 Jesus said:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:  But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. 

The Golden Rule replaces and supercedes the law of the talion: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The law of the talion says that you should do unto others as others do unto you. It says that when someone offends you, you should reciprocate in kind.

By turning the other cheek you are not doing to the other person what he did to you. You are showing how you prefer to be treated. It offers you a way to avoid entering into a round of insults and invective.

Obviously, this version of the Rule is also subject to interpretation. It might be suggesting that when someone offends you, you should first take it as inadvertent and unintentional.

Yet, there comes a time when you run out of cheeks. At that, point self-defense might be called for. But that does not mean that the self-defense should be of exactly the same kind as the original offense. The Rule suggests that one ought not to emulate the example of an offensive assailant.

In fairness, we do not expect that people who write letters to the New York Times have any expertise in Biblical exegesis. We do not expect it from New York Times reporters either, but we do expect that they have thought more deeply on the subject.

Here, we are going to be disappointed. Klosterman offers his own thought:

… the problem is with the core supposition that any two people (regardless of similarity) will want the same thing. Your proposed solution seems better on the surface, but it has a different glitch — it hinges on the necessity of knowing (or asking) exactly what someone else desires, which defeats the utility of the concept. The espoused strength of the Golden Rule is that you shouldn’t need to confer with anyone else before you act, because you would be automatically placing yourself in the boots of others.

To his discredit, Klosterman has misread the concept more egregiously than the letter writer. The Rule says nothing what anyone wants or desires. Its wording is clear: it’s about what you do and what you would like others to do.

It’s about action, not desire. Actions are overt gestures. Desires are, at best states of mind. You might very well want to strike your assailant with equal force in exactly the same way. The rule tell you not to do as you desire.

Since the Rule involves showing another person how you would prefer that he act toward you, it does not require that you know anything about what the other person wants. In fact, it offers him an opportunity to improve his bad behavior. If he is angry, acting kindly toward him might show him a better way.

The Golden Rules has nothing to do with mind reading and has nothing to say about empathy. When someone injures you, the rule does not tell you to feel what he feels or to try, like a therapist, to figure out what he wants. It shows a way to try to turn a potential conflict into a harmonious relationship. It tells you to maintain your own dignity when those around you are abandoning theirs.

Klosterman compounds his error by pointing out something that is either blindingly obvious or completely absurd:

Beyond the most fundamental level, I don’t believe people want the same things.

Again, so what? The Rule says nothing about what anyone wants. Let's say that your opponent wants to engage you in a fight. If you follow the rule you will be ignoring his desire and showing him a better way. It does not mean that he wants to enter into a better relationship. If he does not, that is his prerogative. It is yours to cease all intercourse with him.

As for whether two people ever want the same thing, it depends on your ability to conceptualize desire. If you believe that it’s about taste, it implies that you should not be forcing your guests chocolate chip ice cream just because you want to eat it yourself.  Dare I say that it trivializes the Golden Rule and empties it of its ethical meaning.

Precepts for good behavior are not really about your taste in muffins, so we should specify that we all prefer to be treated with respect and courtesy. You might say that these are not “things,” but, then again, what is a thing?

We would all, I imagine, prefer to be greeted with an open hand of friendship and not with an aggressive fist. For that reason we extend a hand of friendship to people when we meet them. We are inviting them to return the gesture.

In that context the notion that we are imposing anything on anyone becomes nonsensical.

In defiance of the principle that tells us, when you are in a hole stop digging, Klosterman takes it a step further:

The rule states that people should treat others the way they would want to be treated. So how do we want to be treated? Well, I certainly want to be treated in a manner that accounts for the possibility that other people can’t predict what I want. I want to be treated in a manner that does not assume all people are the same, and I never want anyone else to automatically impose their preferences upon my life (even if they believe their personal preferences are morally sound). These policies are central to how I want to be treated by others. And if this is the way I wish to be treated, it should be — according to the Golden Rule — how I treat everyone else. I should factor in my inability to read minds.

To be fair, he has a brief moment of clarity where he sees that it’s not about how other people want to be treated but how I would have others treat me.

But, then he descends into a muddle. He suggests that he does not really know how he wants to be treated. He says that he wants to be mysterious and that he does not want other people to know how he wants to be treated. He does not want others to impose their preferences.

Apparently, Klosterman does not want to be treated as though he were just like everyone else. But, doesn't everyone want to be treated with respect and doesn't everyone do what he can to ensure that other people know his preference. If this is true, then perhaps Klosterman wants to assert his uniqueness by preferring to be treated with disrespect. Does he believe that some human beings wanted to be treated with disrespect? If they do, should be comply?

On the face of it Klosterman’s idea promotes radical individuality along with amorality. Explain to me how he got to become “the ethicist?”

To continue his descent into confusion, Klosterman reduces the Golden Rule to this:

It provides a solution only if you can directly ask the other person precisely how they want to be treated — and if that option is available, you don’t really need an overriding axiom to guide your behavior. 

One hates becoming repetitious but Klosterman seems to be under the illusion that the Rule requires that we ask other people how they want to be treated. Nothing about the Rules suggests it.

The Rule is clear and unambiguous. It says that by treating people well you are showing them that you prefer to be treated well by them. It does not tell them how they must behave toward us. It does not force them to do anything at all.

Surely, most of us are likely to befriend people who have befriended us. We are inclined to reciprocate good deeds and to trust those who have shown themselves to be trustworthy.

In the moral universe of the New York Times “ethicist” the Golden Rule gets reduced to an effort to impose your will and your taste on others. It sounds like Klosterman has been spending too much time reading the New York Times.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Kirsten Powers Lets Fly

Kirsten Powers is fast becoming every conservative’s favorite liberal. She has unimpeachable integrity and always tells it like it is.

Yesterday, she explained the stakes in the Obamacare website fiasco. Only a true liberal could experience the anguish Powers feels when she sees that her faith in big government  is being discredited by ineptitude.

Powers wrote:

The rollout of the insurance exchange that is central to the success of the Affordable Care Act has been nothing short of a disaster. This failure is a double whammy: it puts the future of Obamacare in even greater peril while placing Obama’s case for activist government on life support. If the government can’t build a functioning website to support the most important initiative of the president’s administration, then how can it be trusted to do anything?

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told The Wall Street Journal that the botched launch of the $400 million website was “another challenge that’s no worse than the near-death experiences” the health-care law has seen over the past three years. But it is a million times worse, because it’s self-inflicted. This time, Obama can’t blame Republicans. 

Obviously, there are still a few aspiring propagandists trying to defend the Obama administration, but increasingly, it is not playing. Powers knows as everyone should that Obama cannot blame anyone but himself.

There comes a time in every man’s life when he is forced to take responsibility for his actions. Perhaps that time is here for Barack Obama. Then again, maybe not.

Powers is on a roll here:

The administration had to know it had only one shot to launch the exchanges, and it blew it. The damage it has caused was captured in a Washington Post–ABC News poll released Monday. Fifty-six percent of those surveyed believed the “website glitches” are “part of a broader problem with the health care law.”

What makes it worse is that officials knew they weren’t ready, and they went forward anyway. The Associated Press reported that “Website builders saw red flags for months.” The Washington Post recounted, “Days before the launch of President Obama’s online health ­insurance marketplace, government officials and contractors tested a key part of the Web site to see whether it could handle tens of thousands of consumers at the same time. It crashed after a simulation in which just a few hundred people tried to log on simultaneously. Despite the failed test, federal health officials plowed ahead.” Sebelius admitted Monday that the website “didn’t have enough testing, specifically for high volumes, for a complicated project.”

What have they been doing for the last few years? The administration has claimed that it can’t be helped that setting up an insurance exchange is so complex. Sebelius even lamented that she wished she had “five years” to finish this project. Who needs five years to build a website? This isn’t a search for the cure for cancer.

Worse yet, the administration did not seem to know what was going on until it all came crashing down around them:

In the week leading up to the launch of the exchanges, Obama assured Americansthat using the health insurance hub would be as easy as buying a plane ticket online.  Apparently he wasn’t in on what was happening behind the scenes. Sebelius told CNN that the first the president heard of problems was in “the first couple of days” after the site went live October 1. If this is true, then either the president didn’t ask about the site’s capabilities or someone lied to him. If the former is true, then he has an incredible lack of imagination and curiosity. If the latter is the case, then why hasn’t anyone been fired?

True to form, the Most Transparent Administration in History has not been particularly forthcoming about the problems the site faces. At firs, it claimed these were just minor glitches caused by unexpectedly high traffic. The president famously compared these glitches to those that Apple has experienced in the past. He might be interested to know that Apple fired the manager responsible for the last major snafu the company encountered.

For now, the administration is hard at work trying to find a scapegoat.

The Daily Caller has its own nominee for the job.

It turns out that the company that was awarded the no-bid contract for website construction has, as one of its senior vice presidents, an old college chum of Michelle Obama.

It’s so hard to believe that the Obama administration botched the website that was going to sell its signature legislative achievement because Mrs. Obama wanted to help out an old friend.

Yet, stranger things have happened.

For now, we will greet the news with skepticism, but still….