Tag Archives: Politics

What Is the Best Superpower?

When you were a kid, I’m sure you wished for a superpower. Aside from the obvious ones, like the ability to fly, the superpower I wanted most frequently was to be able to extend my reach across a room without getting up. This was in the days before remote controls for TV, if you can believe there ever was such a time!

During the current presidential election cycle, I’ve added another superpower to my wish list: the ability to convince people of my political opinions. That leads to the question that is the subject of this post.

Which of these superpowers is best?

  1. The ability to control other people’s thoughts so they agree with us.
  2. The ability to make the most sound argument possible for our views, even if our audience won’t necessarily be persuaded.

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Frederick Douglass on Globalization

I’m a few days late to the party, but today I found myself rereading Frederick Douglass’s magnificent oration, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? As with all great texts, you come away with something different each time you read it. Last time, its applicability to LGBT rights struck me. This time, I noticed his closing thoughts on the positive ways the world is changing.

Writing 164 years ago, he noticed trends which have happily extended to this day. They are some of the same themes Stephen Pinker sounded in one of my favorite books, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

For your encouragement, and without further comment, I turn this post over to Frederick Douglass:

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Let’s Lower Crime by Encouraging Immigration

You may think Donald Trump was out of line when he famously said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Trump may be wacko, but be honest, now: Although we may not characterize Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists with the exception of “some, I assume,” it’s easy to believe that immigrant populations are probably more crime-ridden than the rest of us. After all, they’re poor and desperate. That spells more crime, doesn’t it?

The data say otherwise!

I’d like to refer you to two remarkable studies. The first is from the Pew Research Center. Follow the link for the whole study, but here’s the graph that says it all.

The graph shows that first-generation immigrants, a quarter of whom are undocumented, commit crimes with substantially less frequency than the rest of us. Continue reading

On Moral Vision

I was recently informed that my moral standards have “lowered” since walking away from my faith. It’s true that some things that I once considered sins are no longer on my Thou Shalt Not list. Homosexual relationships would be in that category. Touching on what is apparently the most important moral issue in the evangelical church, I no longer equate early-stage abortions with murder. And of course, I score a big fat zero on the Greatest Commandment.

I granted my conversation partner’s premise and we moved on from there.

As Blackadder said to Prince George, “It is so often the way, sir: too late one thinks of what one should have said. Sir Thomas More, for instance, burned alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism, must have been kicking himself, as the flames licked higher, that it never occurred to him to say, ‘I recant my Catholicism.'”

What I should have said was, “My moral standards have not lowered. They have sharpened.

“The Bible was the lens through which I used to see the moral world. It gave excellent vision of the basic moral truths: tell the truth, don’t steal, and so on. However, there were some dirty spots on that lens. Looking for truths about slavery, genocide, the treatment of womenhumane slaughter of animals, or even discrimination against the handicapped, one learns that the lens is not as clean as one would wish.

“Most people already have great moral vision for the basics, with or without the Bible. Our problem is that we suffer from various astygmatisms of prejudice. We don’t trust people who are not in our tribe — our race, our religion, our political party, our culture. We tend to over-trust people who are like us. We also over-trust ourselves: our cognitive biases systematically prevent us from seeing the truth.

“The most pernicious is confirmation bias, and faith-based morality sinks an arrow deep in that Achilles’ heel.

“I’ve traded the biblical lens for one that sees morality in terms of the well-being of sentient creatures. Although it may be harder to learn to use that lens than to read a book, it is cleaner than the book I had been using.

“I realize that my biases are hard to correct. That’s why I study them and blog about what I learn and learn and learn.

“My new lens is not perfect, but I think I see sharper now than I used to, and I hope my vision will continue to improve.”

That’s what I should have said. Now I’ve said it.

Plato’s Truth-Loving Test

Love them or hate them, standardized tests are part of growing up. To get into college, most students take the SAT. To gain admission to graduate school, you might take the GRE, LSAT, MCAT, or who know what else.

Inasmuch as higher education is usually required for leadership positions in our society, these tests are gate-keepers to leadership. They do a good job of measuring intelligence, but is intelligence what we want most in our leaders?

It seems to me that the problems in America today are not due to our leaders being stupid. On the contrary, I suggest that many politicians who take stupid positions are very smart. Take an issue like climate change. There’s a lot of money at stake and politicians know it. They also know exactly how informed or uninformed the public is, and just how flagrantly they (the politicians) can deny reality. They’re very smart about that. The problem is that they have insufficient love for truth.

And what about the polarization of public discourse that is so notorious right now? As any reader of PolitiFact.com or FactCheck.org knows, much of the dysfunction and hate is fueled by outright lies. Again: not enough love of the truth.

What I want is a leader who loves the truth — whose highest aim is to discover what it is, so that he may promote and serve it.

We have standardized tests that help smart people rise to the top. How can we identify people who love truth?

Plato solved that problem 2,400 years ago. As dramatized in Plato at the Googleplex (a book you’ll be hearing more from on this blog), Plato says,

What I proposed was having our children be told glorious tales to stir their imaginations, very much stressing all the time that these tales were true, and then seeing which among the children can resist them, can see the logical inconsistencies within these tales, and see all their inconsistencies with other truths that they have been told (Republic 413c-414a).

What an interesting idea! Do you think that would be a good test of truth-loving? It makes sense that people who will not be enticed by attractive, heroic lies would be leaders we can trust, doesn’t it?

Maybe the question is moot. Maybe Plato could engineer this test in his ideal city, but the suggestion is not practical today.

Or is it?

I suggest that Plato’s test is embedded everywhere in our society, but most of us don’t realize it. To know whether we have passed his test, all we must do is ask whether we have found the flaws in our most cherished beliefs — and all beliefs have flaws.

How many of us have esteemed as a true friend one who incisively criticizes our culture? How many of us Americans have seen how un-democratic it is to arrogate the maximum power for America in the assembly of nations? How many of us have seen the contradictions and cruelties in the scriptures we learned at our mother’s knee?

How many of us would vote for a politician who openly does any of these things?

Plato’s test is already in place. How many of us will care about the results — in our leaders or in ourselves?

 

Welcoming Hate Speech

Jonathan Rauch has a thought-provoking article in the latest issue of The Atlantic: The Case for Hate Speech. He says,

The critical factor in the elimination of error is not individuals’ commitment to the truth as they see it (if anything, most people are too confident they’re right); it is society’s commitment to the protection of criticism, however misguided, upsetting, or ungodly.

It takes a lot of courage to protect the speech of your misguided opponents. You must have confidence that your ideas will prevail in the end, and you must have the patience to wait.

In fact, Rauch not only protects but encourages the airing of his opponents’ views. As he says regarding an opponent of same-sex marriage:

Most fair-minded people who read his screeds will see that they are not proper arguments at all, but merely ill-tempered reflexes. When Card puts his stuff out there, he makes us look good by comparison. The more he talks, and the more we talk, the better we sound.

I think this is similar to the faith one must have in due process of law. Even though you know the suspect is guilty, you must follow due process if society is to work. Shortcuts and cheating have a corrosive effect that is far more serious than one unjust acquittal.

If I have faith in one thing these days, it is in the power of information. Even false information is true information about those who are spreading it.

Here is one of my favorite movie moments of all time. Where Sir Thomas More defends the idea of giving the devil the benefit of the law, think of giving crazy people full freedom to state their views.

Ruled for the Pleasure of Men

On Friday, I visited the wonderful Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut, where I saw Dancers in Pink by Degas. The docent told us that these girls were poor, and were selected more for their looks than for their talent. They were not the main attraction, but would perform during the intermission at the opera.

As you can see, one of them wears an earring.

The earring signified that its wearer had a patron — someone who had promised to take care of her and her family for the rest of her life.

“For the rest of her life, or for the rest of his life?” one of my fellow tour-takers asked.

“Good point. For the rest of his life,” replied the docent, a sweet woman in her seventies.

“So was she like a mistress?”

“Yes, that’s right,” the docent finally disclosed.

All at once, I saw two things.

The first was that poverty brings with it many ills and humiliations beyond being poor. One can imagine a poor family with a beautiful daughter. It fell to her to sell her very person to support her family. You can write the script from there — her degradation; the devaluing of her own marriage, if she were fortunate enough to have one; her worries for her children; her feeling of being forever trapped.

Dancing girls looking for “patrons” no longer vie for the attention of wealthy men during the intermissions of operas. However, plenty of women resort to prostitution, or simply live with abusive, unstable boyfriends because they feel they have no better option.

I call on those who loudly care about morality (I’m looking at you, Religious Right) to work to structure society so as few women as possible face these impossible choices.

I readily agree that we cannot solve the problem by throwing government money at the symptoms. We have tried that by giving money to women who have out-of-wedlock births, and — surprise — the out-of-wedlock birthrate has gone up, not down.

What will work? I’m not sure, but I do know one thing: the people least likely to find the solution are the powerful, white males who have both promoted and benefited from the inequalities of power and wealth for all of Western history.

That brings me to the second thing. I felt another reason to rejoice in President Obama’s reelection victory. He won with a coalition of the relatively powerless: young people, African-Americans, Hispanics, homosexuals, secularists — and women. Romney’s base of older, white,  evangelical men are no longer enough to carry the day. They still have plenty of power, but they don’t have the monopoly they once had.

With Obama’s reelection, all segments of society are seated firmly at the table, so we are more likely to find solutions to some of our most vexing problems. No segment will write the rules for everyone else.

Powerful males wrote the rules of Degas’ society. The dancers were ruled for the pleasure of men.

I’m glad we have given ourselves a chance to get past that.