Category Archives: Humanism

Don’t Get Used to It

WeAreHereIn the early 1990’s, a group called Queer Nation came up with the “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” chant. It was wildly successful and contributed greatly to the phenomenal success of the Gay Rights movement. That movement was so successful that other movements still look to it as the gold standard for both inspiration and strategy. Many of them have adapted and adopted the “We’re here!” slogan-as-a-strategy in form, in spirt, and in attitude.

Arguably however, the slogan has jumped the shark. Even Lisa Simpson, longtime advocate for Gay Rights, eventually shouted in frustration “You do this every year, we ARE used to it!” (seen here). At this point, one could launch a counter-chant “You’re here! We’re used to it! Get used to it!

But the slogan is past its day in deeper ways. I’ll get to that shortly.

First let me point out that the slogan has become much more than a mere rallying chant. It reflects a worldview, an attitude, a tone, and an approach to relationships, both societal and personal that has influenced all of our culture. This message was so successful that it became deeply internalized and enculturated.  It permeated the very thinking of a generation of liberals and conservatives alike. It says, in the most uncompromising terms, that you get what you want by ultimatum. There is no room to negotiate. There is no shared responsibility nor shared blame. The burden is all on the other side. You had better change because I am what I am and I am not going to change or go back into any form of a closet. It is a problem when this no-compromise attitude is generalized beyond the bounds of movements like Gay Rights.

In addition, Liberals were particularly influenced in a much different way. The slogan enculturated the idea that we should not expect others to compromise. We must accept anything and everything no matter how distasteful we find it. We must never criticize other ideas or behaviors, let alone expect or demand anyone else to change. Good liberals chasten each other when they are insufficiently accepting of other viewpoints and differences. This is another unfortunate lasting impact of this movement which taught that it is wrong to judge or criticize.

If this seems confusing to you, I say good! It means you are paying attention! I am suggesting that the Gay Right’s movement in general and the “We’re here!” slogan in particular had two seemingly contradictory side-effects. One was to encourage a destructively uncompromising posture, and the other was to instill an attitude of principled acceptance. These actually reinforce each other.

In current culture this encourages us to assert an unwillingness to accommodate others in any way – even as we chide and criticize those who a do not accept the inflexibility of others. In practice, this is manifest by self-righteous “take me or leave me” declarations when the issue impacts us strongly, and at the same time preachy “you should accommodate others” admonitions when the issue does not impact us as personally.

While it was the right message at the right time for the Gay Rights movement, this confrontational get-over-it ultimatum it isn’t necessarily a good template for other movements. Moreover, it isn’t a particularly good attitude for society in general and it certainly is not a good approach to interpersonal relations. It is a strategy adopted even by the most vile and indefensible groups and individuals.

We’re here! We’re loud and obnoxious! Get used to it!

We’re here! We’re Confederates! Get used to it!

We’re here! We’re Gun-toters! Get used to it

Civilized societies have to cooperate, negotiate, moderate, and compromise if they are to survive. In most cases, an ultimatum strategy is doomed to result in unfortunate outcomes for both parties. When we can compromise and make changes, we can demand that both sides make some effort, some accommodation.

The same is true for interpersonal relationships. If one roommate declares “I’m a messy slob but I’m not going anywhere so you better just get used to it,” it leaves the other party no choice but to walk out. Love me or leave me doesn’t work. Unlike gender identity, most things are somewhat under our control and there are things we can and should do to improve our own behaviors.

In truth, this attitude is dated. Those still influenced by it are blind to the times we live in today. During this Era of Trump, uncompromising declarations and pious acceptance are not as appealing as they once were. People who are making a difference today are people who say “I am willing to change and I do not accept your assertion that you cannot change as well.”

WereHereWith radical crazies infesting the government and with Trump running a for-profit White House, we can no longer accept the “Accept the things I cannot change…” platitude. We cannot accept the fact that Donald was elected President. This picture posted like subversive graffiti on a telephone pole near my house. It reflects the new, more engaged attitude. It reads “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.

We cannot simply accept evolution and climate change deniers in the Congress and Senate. We cannot simply accept a narcissistic lunatic in the Oval Office. We have to criticize. We have to fight. We have to demand change. We have to give up this “liberal principle” of polite acceptance that has lobotomized our brains since the Gay Rights movement launched its famous slogan. We must stop falling for the jiu jitsu logic of Conservatives who tell us that – as we told them about Gay Rights – we now must “get used” to Trump and everything he fails to stand for.

The Gay Rights movement did not intend to teach us acquiescence. Quite the opposite – it was all about boldly fighting for your cause. But it also did not intend to teach that any assertion of an absolute position on any issue must be completely accepted. If both sides take absolute positions of ultimatum, we can only have division and dysfunction.

Apart from basic human rights issues, we do NOT have to accept every card we are dealt. No one should be allowed to build unassailable walls around their intransigence and we should not be pressured by our own peers into respecting and accepting those artificial constructs. “Get used to it!” should not be a principle that we apply in an uncompromising and self-destructive fashion.

Ultimatums are not a strategy, and neither is Zen-like acceptance. In most things, engagement with others and compromise on both sides is how we find win-win solutions.

In realms of faith, many of us conclude that my need for you to respect my crazy belief forces me to respect and support any crazy faith you may have. Truth and belief become inextricably blurred. It’s kind of the same thing here. If we want others to accept our ultimatums, we must then accept the ultimatums of others – no matter how crazy.

We have to exert more nuanced and fact-based judgement in both areas. It’s time to deprogram ourselves away from the old ultimatum-based “We’re here!” thinking of the Gay Rights era and adopt more sophisticated strategies to win hearts and minds and make real change. That starts with not accepting ultimatums or wisdom that tells us to accept what those who profit from the status quo tell us we cannot hope to change.

 

Healthcare is a Limited Right

PrivilegeIt is obscenely immoral when Conservatives argue that healthcare is a privilege reserved only for the privileged few who deserve it, especially when the only criteria that determines whether the privileged few deserve healthcare is whether they happen to be rich enough to afford it. For Conservatives, wealth is the only measure of merit and the wealthy are the only ones meriting healthcare.

Conservatives have a wide range of specious logical arguments and appeals to emotion that they invoke with great fervor to support their petty shortsighted selfishness. Here is just one horrible article in the Washington Times that regurgitates much of this vomitous bile (see here). Among these arguments are 1) the Constitution does not explicitly enumerate any such right, 2) why should others pay for your healthcare, 3) this right to healthcare would have no limits, 4) it would lead to government death panels, 5) it would ration healthcare and slow it down, 6) it would stop all new research, 7) the free market is the best solution, 7) healthcare is a commodity like any other, 8) free healthcare would disincentivize work, and 9) we don’t consider food, shelter, or clothing to be rights, so why should healthcare be one?

Of course these all have relatively simple and well-known rebuttals so I won’t go into them all here. I won’t repeat the overall cost savings or make further appeals to basic humanity and decency. I will only point out that Conservative claims that healthcare as a right cannot work are all empirically proven wrong by the fact that every other civilized country in the world manages to make it work. And their claims that national healthcare in those nations leads to worse outcomes is empiracally proven wrong by actual metrics of healthcare outcomes.

The most popular recent argument worth singling out is “why should young people pay for the healthcare of older people?” Well, not ONLY because when today’s younger generation gets old, tomorrow’s younger generation will subsidize THEIR healthcare, but also because today’s older generation helps to pay for the colossal medical bills incurred when young people break their neck while skate-boarding or bungee-jumping.

Religion does not help us out much in this debate. As with pretty much every issue, religion only rationalizes and provides justification for whatever position one wishes to take. For progressive Christians, the Bible demands universal healthcare. But conservative Christians manage to find passages to justify their healthcare Darwinism. Representative Jodey C. Arrington, Republican of Texas, defended work mandates at a Congressional hearing for food stamps by quoting the Bible: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” This “Bible logic” has been applied to healthcare as well (see here).

Look, the answer is not that complicated. It is only made complicated by Conservatives who strive to make it seem murky and fraught with practical and ethical problems. The answer is simply reasonable moderation. No one suggests that a “right” to healthcare would not be a limited right. No right is unlimited. We should and could provide basic public healthcare that would do immesurable good. Just as we should provide a minimum wage and, yes, a minimum amount of food, clothes, and shelter to our fellow humans.

Rich people could still buy whatever elective or costly life-extending healthcare they like, just as they can still buy all the expensive food, clothes, or homes they can afford. But Conservatives won’t abide even reasonable moderation. They don’t want those good for nothing, undeserving poor people to have one penny “handed out” to them, whether it be food, clothes, shelter – or healthcare.

The false choice that Conservatives try to force us to accept is either to provide no base level of public healthcare whatsoever – like mindless animals – or to grant everyone an unlimited right to medical care. That is an intentionally paralyzing false choice. We can provide reasonable healthcare and retain an elective healthcare market and retain all the advantages of a private market with a public safety net. No one would turn up their nose at life-saving healthcare because it will not pay for their boob job.

We should not let Conservatives engage us in this false choice arguement, rather insist upon a sane and humane universal public system that ensures reasonable basic healthcare for all. The only debate should concern the extent and limits of healthcare that is covered under the public system. But that debate should not endlessly paralyze us either. Tweaks to specifics can be made at any time as needed.

And as to paying for all this… I say what I say about all social funding. Cut the military to a fraction of its current budget and tax the rich far more progressively, then we can talk about how much, if any, we still need to limit social programs.

Taking Stock-Well

john-stockwellSome of us are lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to stumble into a pivotal event in our lives that reshapes us, blows our minds, opens our eyes, changes our perspective, forever and irrevocably. I stumbled into mine back in college in the 1980’s when I blundered into a lecture by former CIA bureau chief Major John Stockwell (see here). I walked into the event as a relatively naïve and oblivious college kid, and walked out a stunned and shell-shocked cynic with regard to official motivations and storylines. Never again could I accept any official news story without some degree of skepticism and doubt, or for that matter dismiss any “conspiracy theory” out of hand simply because it questioned the official narrative.

Stockwell walked the audience through his recruitment as a young CIA officer in Vietnam and his rapid rise through the ranks, eventually attaining one of the highest positions in the bureau. He told how, during his career, he was repeatedly asked to perform actions that seemed not only immoral but counterproductive. Each time that he asked for some rationale to justify the actions requested of him, his superiors would tell him “if you only knew what we know you’d understand why this is necessary.” He believed that line, over and over, because he had to. Working under that assurance, he was personally aware of or responsible for operations to bomb infrastructure in other nations, disrupt business transactions to destabilize economies,  plant rumors to spread discord in legitimate governments, assassinate key leaders, and foment war. He detailed one of his most shameful accomplishments, how he personally orchestrated his totally contrived build up to the otherwise improbable war in Angola.

His own moment of realization finally came when reached one of the highest levels in the bureau, the level of a world chief. When he got close to the pinnacle of his career ladder, it became obvious that there was no actual reason, no secret justification, for the terrible things he did. It was painful to watch him in the lecture, almost vomiting out his pained confession like an act of penance. In a period of despair, he met for drinks with the few other world chiefs at his peer level in the CIA. They asked each other for just one example of anything they had ever done that was good for the world. None of them could justify even one thing.

That was when he “came out” and wrote his exposé “In Search of Enemies” which the CIA litigated and suppressed for many years. For most of my life it was essentially impossible to find, but I see that it is now finally available on Amazon (see here). In it, Stockwell answers the question “if they CIA accomplishes nothing, why do they do what they do?” His analysis is that the CIA is a bureaucracy that was formed to gather intelligence and take covert action during a time of war. Post-war, they have had to justify their continued existence and their obscene undisclosed budget. How do they prove their worth? They can only do this by finding enemies of the State. They are constantly “In Search of Enemies.” And since they cannot find enough enemies, they create them. They manufacture enemies so that they can then expand operations to combat them. In this way, their self-justification and self-preservation synergizes with an industrial-military complex in which the rich profit from every new or expanded conflict and war.

Stockwell spoke about the “tricks” the CIA uses to destabilize governments, ruin economies, and foment war. One of the most reliable excuses was the old “Russian Arms!” ploy. They would plant and then brilliantly discover Russian arms in a country. They would go back and report this to Kissinger of this who would then order a modest increase in their activities in that nation to counter “Russian Aggression.” It was always an increase. The Russians would see these increased activities (the CIA in fact ensured that they would) and counter, which the CIA would then report back to Kissinger to obtain the go-ahead for even further escalation… And so it goes, the game is repeated over and over and replicated all across the globe.

Unsurprisingly, his obviously heartfelt and first-hand account was NOT well-received by that college audience. They asked very tough and skeptical and even hostile questions. This is natural. No one wants to admit even to themselves that they live in a nation that does terrible things. No one wants to admit that they, by virtue of citizenship, are partially responsible and culpable for those terrible things. So we reject everything. To admit anything is to open the door on all of it. So we simply don’t want to hear it, we dismiss it all as conspiracy theory, we call it hating America and unpatriotic, we excuse it as unfortunate but necessary, we claim “they do it too.” Worst perhaps are those that tell themselves that by being avid readers of the New York Times, they would have been informed if there was anything to this stuff.

But for my part, after Stockwell’s lecture I never again accepted news reports of government accounts with the same level of trust I had earlier. When Ronald Reagan inexplicably invaded Granada, he got on television and fended off questions from the press by assuring them “If only you knew what I know.” That didn’t quite satisfy the press because they continued to ask tough questions. The next night he came out and announced that “Russian arms have been found in Granada,” and suddenly most of the press corps said, oh ok then.

When the first Iraq war came along I was similarly skeptical, but had no alternate theory of the action. I had maintained some personal contact with John Stockwell since that lecture and spoke to him occasionally. So I gave him a phone call and asked for his take on the war. He shared that Bush Senior had used back channels to assure Saddam that the US would not interfere if Iraq took action against Kuwait for their slant drilling into their oil fields. This was just a set-up by Bush who needed a war partially to boost his historically low ratings. This was later confirmed to be largely if not completely true by many corroborating reports.

When Bush Junior initiated the second Iraq war, my Stockman-esque skepticism resurged. Bush put forth – by one accounting – over 40 discrete falsehoods to lie us into that war (see here). When Bush first announced that Iraq was seeking “aluminum tubes” to refine uranium for a nuclear bomb I did an immediate Internet search and found a large number of credible experts already shouting that these tubes were not the type that would be needed for that purpose. Yet the Bush Administration kept citing this false “evidence” and the media kept reporting it, the whole while scoffing at “conspiracy theories” that called this evidence into question. It was almost a year later, after the war was inextricably committed, and after the truth about these tubes was everywhere to be seen except in the mainstream press, that they finally “broke” this revelation with their crack and bold investigative reporting.

And now today we are still hearing stories about why we must – regrettably – launch attacks against a large number of countries. We just launched missiles into Syria. One has to at least wonder if “Chemical Attack!” is the new “Russian Arms!” ploy. It works every time. And overt attacks such as this are only a very small part of our effort to ensure that there are plenty of permanent wars to feed the insatiable machine.

Look, I’m not asking you to believe every seemingly crazy story out there – you shouldn’t. But a healthy skeptic questions both sides – including what their government tells them. If you are only skeptical of the alternative view, then you are NOT a healthy skeptic, you are a Kool-Aid drinker. In fact, I argue that it is better to err on the side of skepticism of our self-perpetuating war-making machine, and force them to provide extreme evidence for their operations, rather than continuing to drink the official Kool-Aid and placing rigorous burdens of proof only on the whistle-blowers while the government merely has to appeal to their own authority as proof of their claims.

This alternate perspective used to be terribly hard to research, but today it is easy. Stockwell was hardly a lone voice but he was one of the bravest and most credentialed voices. Heck, in his 1989 lecture, Stockwell referenced over 120 books out of the thousands available at that time. Today there are innumerably more. So there is no longer any excuse for ignorance and the only ignorance possible is willful. You can start with this YouTube video of John Stockwell speaking at American University, broadcast on C-SPAN in 1989 (see here). It is still relevant today. The lecture part takes up the first hour and the remainder is questions. That hour only scratches the surface exposing the filthy and disgusting rats nest that is American Intelligence.

I urge you to give this video a fair look and consider it in the light of today’s current events. Hey, it’s only an hour and I know you find way more time than that to browse adorable cat videos. Be brave and crack the door open and peek inside. The truth will not destroy you, it will set you free. Becoming aware of and acknowledging the extent of our intelligence operations will not fix anything in and of itself, but we certainly can’t begin to fix anything until we are all willing to take that first crucial step.

 

 

 

Shades of Gray

themonkeesFor those of you under 50, The Monkees were a band that was big in the 1960’s. Though they started out as a marketing contrivance by record producers hoping to compete with the Beatles, they quickly asserted their independence and sang out with their own unique voice to help define the times we lived in. For many pre-teens like me growing up then, The Monkees were incredibly influential in shaping our worldview.

It is difficult to analyze what made them so influential for so many. Attempts to do so only diminish their uniqueness, like describing a frog by dissecting it. Perhaps it was partly the innocent seriousness of their music and lyrics. Perhaps it was partly their counterculture attitude and their defiant questioning of establishment norms. But it was also the damned catchy way they did it, with unfailing musicality and uplifting positivity underpinning their protest messages, so pop and so unlike the relatively somber dirges of Dylan and many other folk era voices.

Their influence manifested in little ways like a Daydream Believer posing the question “how much baby do we really need?” It inhabited their observations about suburban life in Pleasant Valley Sunday. And it was reflected in the angry backlash of mainstream culture shouted out in Randy Souce Git.

Why don’t you be like me?
Why don’t you stop and see?
Why don’t you hate who I hate,
Kill who I kill to be free?
Why don’t you cut your hair?
Why don’t you live up there?
Why don’t you do what I do,
See what I feel when I care?

No where was their magic more deeply felt by me than in the music and lyrics of a song called “Shades of Gray.” Like the soft murmurs of a siren song, this unassuming little ballad draws the listener deep into heart of the human condition. This magical spell permanently transformed many of us kids from the dogmatic, religious worldview of black and white morality into a generation cursed evermore to perceive a world revealed as an ever shifting kaleidoscope of greys.

When the world and I were young
Just yesterday
Life was such a simple game
A child could play
It was easy then to tell right from wrong
Easy then to tell weak from strong
When a man should stand and fight
Or just go along
But today there is no day or night
Today there is no dark or light
Today there is no black or white
Only shades of gray
I remember when the answers seemed so clear
We had never lived with doubt or tasted fear
It was easy then to tell truth from lies
Selling out from compromise
Who to love and who to hate
The foolish from the wise
But today there is no day or night
Today there is no dark or light
Today there is no black or white
Only shades of gray
[Instrumental interlude]
It was easy then to know what was fair
When to keep and when to share
How much to protect your heart
And how much to care
But today there is no day or night
Today there is no dark or light
Today there is no black or white
Only shades of gray
Only shades of gray

 

Those lyrics were immensely powerful in 1966, and they are just as relevant and meaningful today, 50 years later- especially so after our last election.

But please don’t just read the lyrics. The music and the harmonies are so gorgeous, you really have to just listen… really listen.

 

Our MacLean Revival

MacLean“A small dusty man in a small dusty room. That’s how I’d always remember him, just a small dusty man in a small dusty room.”

Grabs your interest doesn’t it? That was the opening line of The Dark Crusader by Alistair MacLean. I first devoured this and other adventure novels by MacLean while in High School back in the 70’s. Recently, my wife and I have taken to reading his books out loud to each other and – even in this high-tech era of blockbuster 3D adventure movies – MacLean’s novels continue to be singularly engaging adventures. We can’t wait to take up where we left off reading and we spend much of our time between sessions discussing the implications of whatever bits and pieces MacLean has revealed thus far.

Beyond the marvelous storytelling, MacLean was technically and aesthetically the most gifted author I have ever read. One part of what he achieved with seemingly effortless nonchalance was to deliver the catchiest openings ever. From them his stories flowed, briskly gushing and careening, like rivers of words through the coldly entrancing arctic landscape that was his favored setting. So daunting are his prose, that just taking on the challenge of reading them out-loud has made us both infinitely more fluid and polished readers.

His writing characteristically flows on in methodical rambling, like a symphony put to words, each sentence sometimes strung together over the course of a page or more, leaving the reader as breathless and exhilarated as after a hard swim, only to snatch a quick breath before diving into the next incoming wave.

“My red rose has turned to white.”

His plot lines are so tight, so carefully constructed with milimetric attention to detail, that when his protagonist laments in the prologue of Fear is the Key that his red rose has turned to white, you presage that MacLean will inevitably return to that same powerful imagery in his epilogue.

While his general storytelling elements recur in every book, MacLean’s writing does not feel overly formulaic. Within his general adventure fiction structure, MacLean paints distinctive characters and settings for each book. Unlike other authors, he doesn’t have one main character, no James Bond or Jason Bourne, but he does invariably feature smart but fallible male protagonists who face opponents who are far smarter and much less fallible in their utter ruthlessness.

MacLean also knew how to create a strong supporting cast with whom you engage every bit as much as his protagonist. In fact, I think that one of the reasons I went into chemistry was the inspiring moment in Night Without End when that frail little chemist Theodore Mahler used his knowledge to save the desperate survivors of the plane crash from the grasp of icy death in the deadly and merciless arctic. In that same book, the climax was not when the main hero saved the day, but when boxer Johnny Zagaro, hands rendered useless by crippling frostbite, finally had his inevitable bloody, brutal battle on the ice with the cold-blooded Nick Corazzini.

In MacLean’s novels, nature is invariably the most implacable enemy of all – whether it be the frigid clutch of the arctic, the unforgiving cliffs of Navarone, or torrential storms of the Adriatic. His books are typically light on romance, and in fact MacLean isn’t averse to nipping a budding romance with tragedy. Another distinctive quirk of MacLean is that he does tend to use certain words over and over again. My wife and I play a game to see who will be the first to encounter “milimetric” or “threnody” or “St. Vitus’s Dance” when we take turns reading a book. And be assured that in most every book, teeth will be lost, frostbite will claim fingers, and cigarettes will be burned in liberal quantities.

I find MacLean’s writing particularly noteworthy in how unlike conventional writing it is. He routinely devotes little more than a few short sentences to masterfully describe people and settings, for he needs no more than that, so powerfully potent are his descriptions. But then he is just as likely to go on in excruciating detail about how to wire the detonator for an explosive bobby trap. You have the feeling that he really did have the whole thing wired up and even tested in his office next to his typewriter. In fact all of his writing conveys a particularly strong sense that the author has actually been there and done that. MacLean’s actual background as a seaman and torpedo operator in the Royal Navy is keenly evident in all his writing.

Beyond his astounding gift for writing, I also admire the tone, the characteristic humanity of his works. Throughout his yarns, he weaves in his passion for humanity, for peace amidst cold-war intrigue and violence. Indeed, it was his clearly heretical defense of people, particularly Communists, and his cosmopolitan skepticism toward politics and religion, that caused such negative backlash to his book “The Last Frontier.” It was bold and provocative writing back in 1959, too much for the times he lived in.

“Jansci spoke of himself not at all, and of his organization and its methods of operation only where necessary … He talked instead of people … of their hopes and fears and terrors of this world. He talked of peace, of his hope for the world, of his conviction that that peace would ultimately come for the world if only one good man in a thousand worked for it … He spoke of Communists and non-Communists, and of the distinctions between them that existed only in the tiny minds of men, of the intolerance and the infinite littleness of minds that knew beyond question that all men were inescapably different by virtue of their births and beliefs, their creeds and religions, and that the God that said that every man was the brother of the next man was really a poor judge of these things. He spoke of the tragedies of the creed that knew beyond doubt that theirs was the only way that was the right way, of the religious sects that usurped the gates of heaven against all comers … for there were no gates anyway.”

Though now somewhat anachronistic and dated by patronizing 50’s attitudes toward women (even though his women definitely show great strength) MacLean’s work is still nevertheless as fresh and timelessly potent as the day it was written. My wife and I rather dread the day that we finish up our Alistair MacLean revival. There is very little in the marketplace of literary ideas that match up for us. As just one example, we tried reading Jack Reacher and having been so spoiled by the mastery of MacLean we find the writing and the characters as flat and empty and devoid of life as a cardboard cutout. Are there other authors as gifted as MacLean? Certainly, but it is a very short list indeed.

“A small dusty man in a small dusty room. That’s how I’d always remember him, just a small dusty man in a small dusty room.”

 

Dismissed with Prejudice

ElvisDo you have one of those wacky friends? The ones with a deep, sincere, heartfelt conviction that Elvis still lives. That he is actually in seclusion preparing for his epic comeback? Busy rehearsing for the ultimate Elvis concert that will transform the world?

Your friend undoubtedly has an articulate rebuttal for every possible reason you can throw at him for dismissing the possibility that Elvis might still be alive. His death was staged. The witnesses are all in on it. The corpse in Graceland is a DNA-identical clone of him. He is being kept young by a chemical concoction that the pharmaceutical industry has suppressed.

Your friend probably turns the tables on your skepticism quite easily. How can you be so arrogant to claim to know everything? Are you that close-minded? Surely you can’t prove and therefore can’t know for certain that he isn’t still alive. If you are as scientifically open-minded as you claim you must admit some possibility that he might still be alive. Surely you can admit that reasonable people can disagree on this unless you believe he is dead purely as a matter of faith. The only intellectually honest position on this question must be agnosticism.

Your friend points to several well-regarded scientists who admit that it is possible Elvis is alive. He recommends a plethora of scholarly books that debunk all those fallacious “scientific” arguments claiming that Elvis is dead.

Or perhaps your friend has a different but similarly wacky belief that he clings to and argues for with great passion.

All that was my way of setting the stage for the real point of this article – that I do not need to read any of those books purporting to prove that Elvis might be alive. Elvis is dead. Period. Any book that starts with the premise that he may still be alive is necessarily idiotic. There is no need for me to actually read them in order to legitimately dismiss them out of hand. Good scientists dismiss an infinite number of implausible claims all the time every day.

So there is no need for me to entertain arguments about how Elvis might still be alive. And there is no reason for me to read a book that starts with the premise that Elvis is alive or the Holocaust did not happen or the Moon landing was faked or alien overlords built the pyramids. I can dismiss them all out of hand without even reading the book jacket. The only reason to read them may be if your interest is studying delusional thinking or the infection of magical thinking amongst otherwise healthy individuals.

And I have read a great many of these books that purport to present a logical or scientific argument for at least allowing the possibility that god might exist. When I wrote my book Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here) I took the time to slog through a 4-foot stack of books that undoubtedly made Amazon the lucrative enterprise it is today. It was largely a waste of time and money on my part. Believers have had two millennia to come up with arguments so there are simply no new ones to be found.

As a concrete example, I bought several books on Neurotheology (see here). I did the world a service by throwing these out rather than reselling them. Written by Andrew B. Newberg and a host of his followers, these books typically spend 250 pages citing brain imaging and cognitive studies related to belief and god. Their real goal is to establish their science creds so that you will believe them when, in the last 50 pages, they leap to outlandish claims that go something like “since we have clearly evolved to believe in god, the only conclusion must be that god himself designed us to believe in him.”

The only conclusion is that this is an idiotic conclusion. But then again what can you hope to get from any author that starts from the silly premise that god exists and works backwards?

Religious books purporting to be scientifically legitimate examinations of the “evidence” for god pop up on Amazon every day like so many weeds. I can’t read them all but I can still dismiss them all out of hand. There simply is no god, can be no god, and therefore every book claiming to argue this point is necessarily as idiotic as books arguing that Elvis is alive and well and living in a secret wing of Graceland.

And thus, dear reader, we finally reach the heart of my dilemma: Do I read these silly books and respond to them or do I simply ignore them?

Ignoring them is not easy. If no one pushes back on them, they seem to win the argument. And there are so many of them saying the same silly things that many readers mistake quantity as an indication of quality. On the other hand, the time for engaging these silly debates is over. At this stage of the atheist movement, we must move past engaging in and thereby legitimizing these ridiculous debates. We should give no more consideration to religious ideas than we do to racist ideas or homophobic ideas or sexist ideas or the idea that Elvis is amongst us.

Still it’s hard to resist getting sucked in. Recently a new book appeared on Amazon called “Can Science Explain Religion” (see here) written by a priest who is also a Professor of Religion. It apparently “debunks” the very theory of the evolution of belief that I present in my own book. Do I buy this and read it so I can credibly criticize it and defend my position, and thereby risk encouraging this nonsense? Or is it best not to even respond and hope that the rest of the country follows my sensible example?

After struggling with this dilemma for many years, I have come to believe that refusing to engage is the best strategy moving forward. Engaging in further debate with them only feeds the beast. Like booing Donald Trump at a rally.

It’s not an easy course of action nor is it without risk or criticism. But in science, we must first ask whether our basic assumptions are valid before we enter into discussions of the resulting questions. We must not let ourselves get caught up in grand debates over how Santa manages to deliver all those presents in one night when the very premise of Santa is pure fantasy.

And that is how we should respond to these books and these arguments – by dismissing them out of hand and with great prejudice and by refusing to entertain dependent arguments arising out of purely implausible assumptions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Proximity Ethics

Proximity EthicsIn our everyday lives we make ethical judgments resulting in ethical decisions all the time. So often in fact that we mostly don’t even realize that we are doing so. Often we don’t even think of these as ethical decisions but merely as practical routine judgments. These range from small personal decisions to collective national policy decisions.

In making these judgments we weigh and balance, largely subconsciously, a large number of different criteria across a number of different dimensions. One key criterion is the proximity of the individuals or organizational entities involved relative to ourselves and our own identity groups. In general, the closer the impacted group is to our own, the greater weight, priority, and consideration we give the issue.

This is perfectly understandable, natural, and sensible. For example, we give our spouse higher priority than our family which we give higher priority than our friends to whom we give higher priority than other people. Similarly, we give higher priority to our own neighborhood, followed by city, state, and country. We are more concerned over issues impacting our own gender or race or religion than others.

There is a great deal of sensible practicality in this kind of analysis. It’s fair that we organize into groups. It doesn’t say we should ONLY give consideration to groups closest to our own, but it’s fair that we give groups in close proximity to us greater consideration.

But there are a number of ways that this proximity calculation can fail us. The first is if our concern falls off too rapidly. While we should first look out for those close to us, too much emphasis on our own groups can lead us to be needlessly callous and insensitive to the needs of groups farther away. We demand the best school for our own kids, but completely ignore the needs of other kids in our own neighborhood. Orthodox Jews, as one example, might focus exclusively enriching their own enclave communities, regardless of the cost to society as a whole. We often maintain an extremely close proximity calculus even when helping those farther away from our own sphere would, in the long run, help ourselves as well.

The second problem that arises from our proximity calculation comes into play not when we are thinking about allocating benefits, but when we are assigning and assuming responsibility. In this case we often assign far too much weight to far groups and assume far too little for our own. How often do we hear “those Chinese should take action to stop climate change” or “I’m not responsible for US militarism.”

Of course we have to keep it in perspective. Of course the Chinese should do their part to alleviate climate change and we as individual citizens cannot bear the entire brunt of US aggression abroad. But we can and should affect change in our closest proximity groups first. Those are the groups we can and should make right first before we point fingers and deflect all blame and responsibility. We should step up and take every action we can on climate change first. We should appreciate that each of us are citizens with the right to vote and speak out. We all collectively share <some> blame and responsibility for American militarism and torture.

The bottom line is this. Be aware of the role of proximity assessments in your ethical decisions and judgments. Try to avoid giving unduly large or exclusive priority to your own narrow group. Likewise try to avoid assigning blame and responsibility disproportionately to groups farthest away from you.

How do you achieve a fair, just, and healthy balance of self-interest and social consciousness? Here’s a couple good rules of thumb:

  1. If you typically care about how others can share benefits that your group desires or enjoys, you’ve probably got it pretty right.
  2. If you first ask what your group can do to improve the world for everyone before you point fingers at other groups, you’ve probably got it pretty right.