Google analytics

Monday, May 18, 2015

A design to make sailing more popular

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've been thinking about what would be needed to make sailing more popular, and I think one problem is the perception of it being expensive. What we need is a design that can be built for less than $1,500 including the rig with a professionally made sail.

It should have good performance, or at least the feel of good performance. It should be self-draining in case of a capsize. And it should have a big, friendly cockpit for when people want to sail with friends.

My approach would be to design it around the Laser practice sail, which costs around $150, about a third of what a sail this size normally costs. The boat would be stitch and glue, so it could be built quickly with a minimum of tools and skill. The panels should require no more than one scarf, which means the boat will be around 15 ft. I'd give it a full-length cockpit with a deck sloped to encourage water to leave through the stern.

Here's what I'm got so far:



The main deck follows the line of the upper chine. At the top of the gunwales, there would be a narrow deck to make the boat more comfortable to hike on.

Here's what the lines would look like, nice and simple so the water doesn't get confused:


With semi-skilled volunteer labor and somebody's garage, it should be possible to build four or five of these for the price of a new Laser. They wouldn't be quite as fast as a Laser, but they'd be as fast as each other.

Dimensions:

LOA  15'
Beam  4'9"
waterline beam at max load 3'3"
Displacement at which stem and transom touch the waterline: 490

I've rethought the rudder since I made the first illustration, substituting a lower-aspect version with more area, so that it will really crank the stern around when put over with authority. Built in 1/4 inch plywood, the boat should be able to carry four pre-teens, three slender teens, a trim couple, or one big galoot. The idea is a boat that could be built for about 1,200 in materials, including a professionally made sail, so that a yacht club, scout troop, or non-profit, could build about four boats for the cost of one new Laser. It won't be quite as fact as the Laser, but should keep the crew drier and allow for a more social sailing experience.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Ending the culture of police impunity: A modest proposal

by John MacBeath Watkins

Police have got to lose their feeling that they can hurt people with impunity, and the way to do that is to change how they are paid.

Any time armed men think they can break the law with impunity, they are a threat to civilization. It's my belief that a small number of police are resulting in huge settlements for their employers, and police departments are remarkably inept at rooting them out.

The city of Chicago has agreed to pay out $5.5 million because a group of police allegedly routinely tortured prisoners -- mainly poor black ones -- in the 1970s and '80s. The city of Baltimore has paid out even more over the last few years for police brutality settlements. We need to give police incentives that will change their behavior.

The police unions do their best to make sure the officers involved in most cases of police brutality, even those that prove expensive for the cities that employ them, are not fired. Police officers often try to cover up the behavior of their fellow cops.

We need to change the incentives. The Chicago police department's alleged torture happened between 1972 and 1991. It could not happen for nearly two decades without the knowledge police outside of the "midnight crew" said to have done this.

Cops cover for each other. We know this. In the Tamir Rice case, two cops were in the car that responded to the call, one of them shot almost immediately, and before they found out there was video of the incident, they told a story about the incident that did not match the vid that finally surfaced.

Now a prosecutor who works closely with the police must decide whether one of the cops committed a crime in shooting Rice, and whether the other committed a crime covering for him. The prosecutor has got to feel conflicted.

On the whole, things are stacked in favor of the cops in these events, which is why the midnight crew got away with torture for nearly two decades. The ubiquity of cell phone videos has revealed much about how police behave that we would not have known in the past. What should we do about it?

Punishment is one option, and when police commit crimes, they should be subject to the law like anyone else. But until we can make real changes in police culture, we're not going to fix the problem.

I suggest an incentive system that would change the way police behave. Establish a compensation fund, and what doesn't get paid out in settlements for police brutality can be released as a stipend to police. Anyone whose behavior causes a settlement or who covers up behavior that causes a settlement loses the stipend. The amount of everyone's stipend is reduced when the fund is run down by a settlement.

I think cops know who the bad apples are. There are social pressures to cover for them, an us-against-them attitude to all non-police, in most departments. Police unions have no incentive to try to weed them out, because they have no skin in the game when it comes to settlements. Their members misbehave, someone else pays. In the future, police contracts need to give the cops and their union some skin in the game.

Once, I interviewed a Native man who had been a bonded deputy of Island County. He put up a bond, I don't recall how large, and he'd lose it if he did something that resulted in the county having to pay out because of his behavior. I don't know what happened to this custom, but it seems to me that it was a good one.

One consequence of the ubiquity of video is that more cases are going to go against the police, and cities are going to have to pay out more money. It is quite reasonable to make police pay depend, in part, on whether they break the law and on whether they behave in ways that are expensive for their employers.


Thursday, April 30, 2015

On the political movement to create inequality: How an alliance based on money, race, and religion wrecked the middle class

by John MacBeath Watkins

By now, I suppose we've all seen the graph that demonstrates the decoupling of productivity and median income growth:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle-class_squeeze

It looks even worse expressed as hourly wage growth:

http://www.epi.org/publication/ib330-productivity-vs-compensation/

And now, that pinko rag The Wall Street Journal has an article showing that by some standards, wages peaked in 1972: http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2015/04/17/by-one-measure-wages-for-most-u-s-workers-peaked-in-1972/

Several things had to happen to make things turn out this way. I think the best way to understand it is as a political movement in which the well-off waged a war of words, money, and organization to wrest control of public discourse and political power from working people. One of the first shots in this war was the Powell Memo, a document the United States Chamber of Commerce solicited in 1971 from Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer who would eventually be appointed to the Supreme Court.

Powell responded with a memo that told businesses that they were losing to the left, and needed to build institution that would push for their interests. Looking at the charts above, it would appear that they were not losing -- wages were growing no faster than productivity, allowing business to make a decent profit. But this was a time when the New Left had not yet fallen by the wayside.

The full text of the Powell memo is here.

Powell told his readers that they were under attack, and were unable to exercise power in the political arena.

He wrote:
...as every business executive knows, few elements of American society today have as little influence in government as the American businessman, the corporation, or even the millions of corporate stockholders. If one doubts this, let him undertake the role of “lobbyist” for the business point of view before Congressional committees. The same situation obtains in the legislative halls of most states and major cities. One does not exaggerate to say that, in terms of political influence with respect to the course of legislation and government action, the American business executive is truly the “forgotten man.”

Current examples of the impotency of business, and of the near-contempt with which businessmen’s views are held, are the stampedes by politicians to support almost any legislation related to “consumerism” or to the “environment.”
 Powell wrote that they could gain power through the courts, through persuasion of the public with television and radio, through rewarding a "faculty of scholars" to publish work in support of their views, and through direct political lobbying:
Business must learn the lesson, long ago learned by labor and other self-interest groups. This is the lesson that political power is necessary; that such power must be assidously (sic) cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination — without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.
 He also suggested that shareholder could use their power to sway politicians:
The question which merits the most thorough examination is how can the weight and influence of stockholders — 20 million voters — be mobilized to support (i) an educational program and (ii) a political action program.

Individual corporations are now required to make numerous reports to shareholders. Many corporations also have expensive “news” magazines which go to employees and stockholders. These opportunities to communicate can be used far more effectively as educational media.
A large part of what he proposed was propaganda. Whether because of his memo or because they were going to anyway, business interests have founded think tanks like The Heritage Foundation and helped publicize the work of people like Arthur Laffer, built funding mechanisms for political campaigns and supported model legislation by ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) for state legislators to introduce in support of business aims.

But the business aims supported here are not those of the people working in non-supervisory jobs at businesses. In fact, those are defined as the enemy pretty much explicitly in Powell's memo. That's Labor, union bosses and strikers and malcontents all.

In fact, the aims supported by this political movement are those of top-level management and owners of large blocks of stock. They are the aims of the people Christopher Lasch was referring to in his 1996 book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.

From that book:
Today it is the elites, however - those who control the international flow of money and information, preside over philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning, manage the instruments of cultural production and thus set the terms of public debate - that have lost faith in the values, or what remains of them, of the West.

As Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson demonstrated in their book, Why Nations Fail, an arrogant and grasping elite can destroy the economy of a nation in order to retain their positional status. They argued that the success of a nation depends to a great degree on the inclusiveness of its economic and political institutions. Once you shut down entry into the elite, the rot sets in.

Not that this is the only thing a nation needs to succeed. They note the disparity in wealth between the Arizona side of the border and the Mexican side, and suggest one of the problems is the weak and corrupt Mexican state, which has never been an effective guarantor of life and property.

Which makes the nature of the alliances formed by the elite Powell was addressing in order to have the votes to control the country all the more alarming.

The Republican Party had long been allied with business elites, but faced with the New Deal alliance of the Democrats they were long a minority party. One of the pivotal figures of 20th century politics, Richard Nixon, attacked the problem by rebuilding the Republican coalition after his own image -- resentful, conservative, and a bit racist.

The Democrats had been strong in the South, essentially from the passage of the Posse Commitatus Act in 1878 until the Democrats re-started the work of Reconstruction with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Posse Commitatus Act ended the role of federal troops in the South in enforcing the voting rights and civil rights of the black citizens of the former Confederate states. It freed state and local authorities to deprive blacks of their voting rights and civil rights. Since congressional seats and electoral college votes are distributed by population, not number of registered voters, this gave racists a disproportionate influence in our politics.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater was the Republican nominee for president, and he opposed the Civil Rights Act. Nixon seized on Southern resentment to rebuild the party around disgruntled white voters.

George Packer wrote a brilliant account of this in The New Yorker, an article titled somewhat optimistically The Fall of Conservatism. From that article:
The Southerners were the kind of men whom Nixon whipped into a frenzy one night in the fall of 1966, at the Wade Hampton Hotel, in Columbia, South Carolina. Nixon, who was then a partner in a New York law firm, had traveled there with Buchanan on behalf of Republican congressional candidates. Buchanan recalls that the room was full of sweat, cigar smoke, and rage; the rhetoric, which was about patriotism and law and order, “burned the paint off the walls.” As they left the hotel, Nixon said, “This is the future of this Party, right here in the South.”
Law and order? The South was the home of one of the most notorious extra-legal customs in America, the lynching, and home to one of the most notorious organizations, the Klu Klux Klan. The Klan existed to terrorize blacks and whites who sympathized with them.

Ronald Reagan gave a speech on the topic of states rights during his 1980 run for the presidency at the Neshoba County Fair, a few miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, site of the 1964 murder of civil rights workers. I'm sure the symbolism wasn't wasted on his audience. States' rights during the run-up to the Civil War had meant the right to hold slaves, states' rights after the war ended meant the right to discriminate without federal interference.

A friend has long insisted that the Republican Party consisted of an alliance of the rich and the stupid. I would have said an alliance of the rich and the racist. Moderate Republicans of the sort who voted for the Civil Rights Act in 1964 are now called RINO -- Republican In Name Only. They've largely been ridden out of the party at this point, much to the disappointment of voters like me who have historically voted a split ticket.

Tapping into the South's deep well of resentment to support an agenda really set by the economic elite was deeply cynical. When Southern churches began setting up "white academies" -- private schools intended to preserve segregation -- they found a welcoming ally in business interests that wanted to do down the Internal Revenue Service. The result was a lot of rhetoric in support of the cultural agenda of the churches, and a lot of tax cuts and relaxed regulation on their business allies.

The churches got some of what they wanted. Evangelical churches in the 1960s had no particular stand on abortion, but when they found themselves in a coalition with norther Catholics, they changed their stance and demanded legislation to restrict abortion. Business interests didn't mind giving them that.

But for the most part, the votes were coming from segments of the population that harbored racial resentment against the policies of the Democrats, and the benefits were going to the business elites. What was said to get the votes was just the prolefeed, a term George Orwell invented in his novel, 1984, in which the Ministry of Truth manufactures a sort of literature that is designed to keep the proletariat content and not too knowledgeable.

The propaganda arm of the movement harnessed agnotology, the science of creating ignorance, which had been pioneered by the tobacco industry. If scientists say you are harming people, pay some other scientists to say you aren't. The truth doesn't matter, just the bottom line.

And if your pundit is continually wrong, as Arthur Laffer has been, that doesn't matter. Just keep quoting him as if he were a reliable source of information.

Not that all were obviously wrong. One of the great controversies of the 1970s was about the viability of Keynesian economics in general and the Phillips curve in particular. The Phillips curve describes how higher inflation tends to be related to lower unemployment, but was challenged in the 1970s by a period of high inflation and high unemployment, called stagflation.

Milton Friedman, the great monetarist, claimed that the unemployment rate could not fall below a certain level without sparking a wage-price spiral, which he called the "natural rate" of unemployment. The ModiglianiPapademos paper of 1975 introduced it as the non-inflationary rate of unemployment.

There are other contributing factors, but it's probably not entirely coincidental that real hourly wages for non-supervisory jobs have not increased since the Federal Reserve Board started using the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU) as a tool in setting monetary policy.

The movement Powell was associated with paid attention to many things most people don't, like who gets appointed to the Federal Reserve Board. They backed, with cash, candidates who drank the Kool-Aid about low taxes on rich people stimulating the economy and generating more tax revenues, and the idea that regulations could be eliminated with no harm and a stimulating effect on the economy.

Robert Bork wrote a book published in 1978 titled The Antitrust Paradox, in which is said, sometimes you get lower prices with one large company than with several competing companies, so why penalize predatory pricing? With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, this became the official policy of the Justice Department, and still is. Walmart used tactics that were illegal up until then to become the largest employer on America.

(As noted in a previous post, In 1967, the Safeway grocery store chain, then the second largest in the country, signed a consent decree with the Justice Department in which they agreed to stop engaging in predatory pricing -- selling below cost in order to drive the competition out of business.  A generation later, in 1983, Safeway correctly perceived that the Reagan Justice Department would take a different view of their activities, and asked to be released from the consent decree, and was freed of its restrictions.)

One result of this is that predatory pricing, which is hard on small business and only possible for large businesses, has, as one might expect, resulted in many small businesses closing. Another is that Walmart exercises enormous power over wages of their workforce and of prices for their suppliers. This redistributes power in ways that destroys workers' and suppliers' negotiating power.

Another theory that got a lot of support at about that time was managing corporations for shareholder value. Strangely enough, given our current beliefs, this is not how corporations were usually managed prior to the 1970s. Public corporations had been managed on the theory that they were persons, and their chief purpose was to survive and thrive. Shareholders did not have the rights of property, they only had a claim on future earnings should the board decide to issue a dividend. One might compare this to 'owning' a fighter, in which you own part of the fighter's future winnings. You can't actually take the fighter apart and eat the bit you own if you get peckish.

Under this system of managing corporations, shareholders had an important stake in the company, as did bondholder, customers, and employees. The public corporation was a sort of gestalt being, made up of many other beings occupying its metaphorical body.

When Milton Friedman and others began promoting the idea that the shareholders were owners more in the sense that partners are owners, they found ready support for this view among people who could make money on it. Changes in the banking industry made it possible for corporate raiders to raise money to buy up companies. What they did then was described in a paper by Larry Summers and Andrei Schleiferwere titled Breach of Trust in Hostile Takeovers.

From that paper:

One striking fact militating in favor of. the importance of wealth transfers as opposed to pure efficiency gains is that a significant fraction  of hostile acquisitions are initiated and executed by only a few raiders. It is hard to believe that Carl Icahn has a comparative advantage in running simultaneously a railcar leasing company (ACF), an airline  (TWA) and a textile mill (Dan River). It is more plausible that his comparative advantage is tough bargaining and a willingness to transfer value away from those who expect to have it. In fact, those who describe  him (including he himself) point to this as his special skill. The industrial diversity of many raiders' holdings suggests that their particular skill is value redistribution rather than value creation.
Now, consider the reason companies exist. Ronald Coase explored this question in a highly influential 1937 paper, The Nature of the Firm. Coase noted that you could hire individuals to do everything you need done, no matter how big the job, so why have companies in which the employer has obligations to long-term employees instead?

The answer, he said, is that contracting individually for each person need to perform the tasks of the firm would require exorbitant transaction costs to negotiate and enforce the contracts. Much better to gather a group of people to work for a common goal, such as making better and cheaper widgets to make a profit in the widget business.

Summers and Schleiferwere argued that what Icahn and others were doing was appropriating money by violating those implicit contracts.

This is not one of their examples, but consider the case of the Boeing aircraft corporation. In the late 1960s, management bet the company on the first jumbo jet, the 747. Engineers worked so enthusiastically that they came to be called 'the incredibles.' Management would tell people to go home, only to have them drive around the block and come back to work when management wasn't looking.

Their devotion paid off. The company dominated the commercial airliner market to the point where Lockheed withdrew from the market and Boeing took over McDonnell Douglas and cancelled all their airliners.

However, McDonnell Douglas executives proved more adept at corporate infighting, and gained considerable influence over the company, resulting in some big changes.

In July 2014, Boeing CEO Jim McNerney created a controversy by saying he wouldn't retire at 65 because “The heart will still be beating, the employees will still be cowering, I’ll be working hard.”

This is a major change in attitude. And Boeing was not subject to a hostile takeover, it is simply that public corporations are run differently than they were in the past.


Summers and Schleiferwere noted that employees in companies that had been subject to a takeover found that the company had no loyalty to its employees. They cite a number of employee reactions, but the one that put the issue most clearly to me was, "How can you go to another company now and give 100 percent of your effort?"
Leeham Co. LLC, which describes its business as "intelligence for the aviation industry," examined the Boeing situation on their blog in a Nov. 2013 post titled Loyalty is a One-Way Street at Boeing...
The problem is, if a company is not "managed for shareholder value," it becomes a target for takeover. As a consequence, companies that invest their profits in the business instead of starving research to pay stockholders are the companies that become a target for takeovers.

Would Boeing in its current position benefit from the fierce loyalty and enthusiasm of "the incredibles" on a project launched today? It seems unlikely.

The new, more extractive model used by Boeing is the rule rather than the exception today. Once the banking business changed in ways that encouraged takeovers, the very nature of the publicly traded corporation changed. And when money is changing things, it can call out the justifications for what it is doing. In an earlier time, when the question was whether such corporations existed to serve the shareholders or if the shareholders were just one of the stakeholders in the company, the latter view had won out.

In fact, people in the business world overwhelmingly believe that corporations have a fiduciary duty to maximize shareholder value, even though the case law doesn't support this, and the case most often cited in support of this is an odd one.

The case usually cited is Dodge Brother vs. Ford. Henry Ford owned 58% of the company, the Dodge brothers owned 10%, and five other individuals owned the rest. Prior to WW I the Dodge Brothers were both a major investor in the company and a major supplier of engines, transmissions, and chassis. Ford was planning to build a factory that would make him no longer dependent on the Dodge Brothers for his manufacturing, and trying to drive down the price of the stock so he could buy the brothers out.

As chairman, president, and the majority stockholder, he was in a great position to do this. He decided to withhold a dividend that the brothers would need to complete their own plant in which they planned to start building their own line of cars.

Now, if Gordon Gekko's golden rule -- "he who has the gold makes the rules" -- were applied, Ford as majority stockholder should have been able to decide what dividend, if any, the company paid out. This was not a publicly traded company, it was a closely held corporation which Ford owned most of. The Michigan Supreme Court, which is not usually considered an authority on corporate law, ruled that Ford had an obligation to pay out a substantial dividend.

Lynn Stout, a Columbia law professor and author of The Shareholder Value Myth, argues rather credibly that Dodge v Ford is about a majority shareholder's obligation to minority shareholders, not about the obligations of publicly traded corporations. She also raises the question of why this case is cited rather than later cases from more expert courts (such as Delaware's Supreme Court, which rules in the state most large corporations choose to incorporate in.)

The answer, I"m afraid, is that intellectuals can serve more than one purpose. They can seek truth, or they can manufacture justifications for actions influential players want to take. Even when they do not view themselves as doing the latter, they may take a view that is picked up by those players and used as a justification.

In some cases, it is hard to assume altruism on the part of the intellectual involved. Arthur Laffer may once of believed that cutting taxes on the richest people would spur the economy and generate higher tax revenues, but it strains belief to think that he continues to hold this assumption for purely altruistic reasons. Saying exactly what the rich wanted to hear was the making of him. Admitting he was mistaken would be the unmaking of him.

Laffer first described the Laffer curve to Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld at a lunch meeting in 1974. The curve shows that at some point between 0% and 100% tax rates, there is a rate that maximizes revenue. It was first proposed by and Arab philosopher and historian, Ibn Khaldun. Laffer's innovation appears to have been to propose that we are always at a higher point than optimum on the curve whenever he is asked.

However, research since 1974 has shown that cutting top marginal rates does not increase gross domestic product above the rate that would have occurred without the cuts. And research on the rate at which tax revenues are maximized seem to show that it is about a 70% top marginal rate, which it was in 1974, before Laffer's theory was applied. (Economists Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez calculated in a 2011 paper that the revenue maximizing top marginal rate is 73%.)

Laffer wasn't bothered when the Reagan administration increased payroll taxes, because he was more concerned with top marginal rates.  By the end of Reagan's term in office, it was evident that Laffer was wrong, but he still reliably says what his audience wants to hear, and he has been rewarded with several directorships at large corporations.

Lowering the top rate from 70% to 28% didn't quite stick, but the top marginal rate of 35% on ordinary income and 28% on capital gains is still far below where it was when the U.S. economy was growing more rapidly. Lower taxes on high earners and higher payroll taxes represented a large shift in wealth to the high earners.

One consequence of lower tax revenues was a reduction in investment in things that benefit us all, such as roads and bridges. Federal infrastructure investment has fallen from a peak of about 1.2 percent of GDP to about .2 percent, our about 1/6th.

The result is a loss of productivity and international competitiveness. A truck waiting for a train to pass rather than driving on an overpass is a job lost for someone. Corporations have no national loyalty, and move their income around to the countries that allow them to minimize taxes. If America becomes less competitive, that's fine, they can always invest in some other country. The stateless income of international corporations does not support the well being, let alone the greatness, of countries.

These companies lobby for lower taxes, lobby for the freedom to flee to tax havens, and donate money to politicians. Public investment only interests them if it benefits them and they don't have to pay for it. The case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, ruled that prohibiting expenditures by corporations or unions violated the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, which means that although a corporation is not a voting citizen, it is sufficiently a person to finance a campaign for or against a candidate.

In his last book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, Christopher Lasch in 1995 argued that the privileged class had managed to isolate themselves from the crumbling social structure and decaying cities around them. In becoming international in their outlook, "citizens of the world," they have given up on the responsibilities of citizenship in their own countries and communities, and pursue only the interest of their class.

Lasch had no clear solution to this problem, nor do I. We seem to have developed an Ayn Rand elite, narcissistic and self-serving, who have the wealth and the connections to run things. They do not seem restrained by empathy for the less fortunate or a sense of duty to their nation or community. As inequality increases, there are reasons to think that the wealthy become less empathetic.

Studies of the effects of wealth on compassion and fairness have shown, as a report in Scientific American put it, that "as people climb the social ladder, their compassionate feelings towards other people decline."

And given the psychological effects of wealth, it is not surprising that the justifications for these attitudes are often couched in terms of freedom. Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner suggest that "The less we have to rely on others, the less we may care about their feelings. This leads us towards being more self-focused."

We are living in a world built by a political movement driven by these people -- people alienated from community and nation, from any but their own class of wealthy cohorts. They are able to remain in power because of the alliance they formed with others, who are alienated from nation and community by prejudice and resentment. Both sides of this alliance wrap themselves in the flag while displaying contempt for the very notion of the national government.

You seem confused, fella, which is it?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Bullshit as myth

by John MacBeath Watkins

Why do people believe things that are demonstrably untrue?

President Obama being sworn in using Lincoln's Bible.
I was thinking about that in terms of some apparently intelligent people I've run into who insist that President Barack Obama is a Muslim. What purpose does it serve to advertise such an absurd notion?

The answer is that like many myths, it serves to define the person who holds the belief as part of a group, and defines people who don't hold it as not part of the group. In addition, it defines President Obama as the Other, one who can never be part of the group.

An interesting aspect of myths is that they do not need to be objectively true. The information they carry is not about objective truth. It is more likely to be about values, identity, belonging, and desires.

Racism is no longer socially acceptable through most of our society, so saying you object to President Obama because he is black is not acceptable speech. Calling him a Muslim defines him as the Other without using racial rhetoric. In politics, this is known as a 'dog whistle,' a mode of speech that will be understood by its intended audience to say something the rest of society condemns, and not be understood in the same way by society at large.

But I don't think the people who profess this belief are necessarily insincere, though surely some are. Perhaps it is better to understand this in terms of what Harry G. Frankfurt was talking about in his brief book, On Bullshit. The problem he addresses is that of the person who  "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

But in a sense, this is what myth has always done. In terms of maintaining a distinct society, the question is not whether the dietary rules in Leviticus or the Ten Commandments came from God, what matters is that you get people to adopt the beliefs and behaviors that define the group. Like bullshit, the question of truth does not arise with myth.

J.R.R. Tolkien claimed that there are things only myths can teach us, things reason cannot convey. But while reason may not be able to convey a sense of belonging to the group and excluding others from it, reason can at least understand what myth is conveying.

One interesting aspect of this is that we sometimes don't recognize a myth as such. For example, those both inside the group and outside the group that claim President Obama is a Muslim claim the 'debate' is about truth, when in fact those within the group claiming he is a Muslim are not persuadable by any proof.

This leads to a discussion that is not about the real meaning of the myth. Treating a myth as if it were part of a rational debate is a bit like treating a dog whistle as music. The point is not how it sounds, the point is who can hear it.

In some ways, the truth we know alone is less powerful than the lies we believe together. Shared beliefs are a form of identity, and can motivate the desired social action without being true. Consider The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This document purported to describe a Jewish plan to take over the world by subverting the morals of gentiles, taking over the banking system in order to control the world economy, taking over the press, and bringing down civilization. You can still hear the echos of this in the paranoid rantings of the extreme right.

No matter that it had nothing to do with actual Jewish activities, it motivated people to act toward 'those people' as the authors intended. It appears to have first been published in Russia in 1902, and by 1905 it had been proved to be a hoax.

But it served its purpose. Those who appear to have manufactured the hoax were also involved in inciting the Russian pogroms of 1903-1906, which cost thousands of Jews their lives and caused many more to flee Russia.

The exposure of the hoax did not prevent it from spreading. Henry Ford paid for the publication of 500,000 copies in English in 1920. By 1921, The Times of London had exposed the hoax for readers of the English edition, but it was not until 1927 that Ford apologized for this and other anti-Semitic publications. The first translation by a Muslim Arab came in 1951, three years after the foundation of Israel.

The anti-Semitic agenda was about tribalism expressed as religion, about controlling "those people," anyone who did not belong to the dominant group. There was no rational basis for pogroms or for antisemitism at all. This was not an issue of reason, it was an issue of emotion, of paranoia about those who are not part of the ruling group.

One way to become a leader is to organize the march, then position yourself at the front of it. Those who manufactured The Protocols were not just expressing their hatred, they were also using that hatred to achieve prominence.

And the themes of The Protocols are still in use. A quick online search reveals that a wide variety of conservative yakkers are pushing the idea that President Obama is trying to destroy America, or capitalism, or Israel. If they can make people afraid, they can motivate action, and be seen as leaders.

Fear is a great emotion for overcoming the restraints of reason. One reason it has not worked terribly well against our rather quiet, cerebral president is that nothing about him seems ominous, and he's good at getting people to stop and think.

Thinking is the enemy of both myth and bullshit. So, think about it.


Monday, April 20, 2015

An Improved Meerkat!

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've been messing about preparing Meerkat for this season's sailing, but I've also been mousing about in Freeship/Delphtship working on an improved Meerkat.

The new design is inspired by the fact that I've discovered a cheap source of good new sails. Intensity Sails advertises a Laser 4.7 practice sail for $125, which is less than I paid for the awful rag of an El Toro sail I designed Meerkat around. It's about 10 square feet more sail area. To make Meerkat fast with a small sail, I designed most of the stability out of it. The Meerkat 2.0 is more stable, has a flatter run, and is a foot longer, so that it's more practical to bring a companion with you when sailing.

The mast has to be farther forward to make the rig balance with the short hull, so if the boat has a foredeck the mast will step through it. I'm thinking the boat can be built lighter by omitting the air tanks and relying on flotation bags.

Although the new Meerkat is a foot longer, it's still designed to fit in the back of my little Nissan pickup truck, so it's only 4 feet wide.

I might also switch to a daggerboard to save weight, although I must say, the combination of a barn-door rudder on a skeg and a centerboard is quite nice for working off a beach.

The boat still has a flat bottom and slack bilges, based on the same faceted midsection I used on the original, but the run is straighter and the deflection angle of the bilge panels is less, so this one could be prompted to plane with a light crew and a good wind.

I think this design would be better for the novice sailor, relying more on initial stability than on crew reactions as in the original.




Monday, April 13, 2015

Empathy vs. Identity: The clash within civilizations

by John MacBeath Watkins

Why do some people kill in the name of religion?

I believe that the answer to this question is bound up in what makes us human, the empathy that gives us our moral sense and the culture that gives us our identity.

Religion gives us a sense of how the world works and of who we are. We define our identity in part by what is included and what is excluded. And while we have an identity as individuals, we are most importantly social creatures. Our identity is bound up in the group we belong to, and is defined, in part, on the groups we exclude.

A psychologist once told me that people need three things to be happy: Someone or something to love, someone or something to hate, and something to belong to. Sometimes this manifests itself in being a fan of a football team and beating up people who are fans of the other team. And perhaps we should feel grateful for such petty concerns, because when the thing you belong to is a religion, the battles can get larger.

Religion, for most of the Evangelical Christians I know, is about their relationship with God. But consider the weird world of white supremacists, in which the Christian Identity movement added a whole mythology about race that does not exist in the Bible. They teach that whites are descended from Adam, and that Eve had sex with Satan and conceived Cain. The Bible says nothing about the race of the brothers, and it gives no indication that Eve ever had sex with Satan or conceived a child by him. All the Christians I've known have assumed that they were both fathered by Adam and were obviously of the same race.

Yet the mythology of the Christian Identity Church asserts many things that are not in the Bible, but reinforce their belief in themselves as a tribe of the pure, as being better because they are white, even if they are failures as people. Timothy McVeigh, who killed a lot of people when he bombed the Oklahoma City Federal building, was heavily influenced by the Christian Identity movement. It allowed him to think of his victims as somehow less than human, not worthy of his empathy. Their pain and their deaths meant nothing to him.

But we could not be social creatures if we did not have a strong instinctive aversion to killing each other.
Human beings have certain safeguards built into them. It's really rather difficult for most people to kill someone, for example. People drive around in powerful wheeled missiles every day, yet most of them manage to get through their day without killing anyone, despite how easy it would be, showing just how kind, considerate and careful people really are.

Our moral sense is based on empathy, our ability to know how others are feeling. We can understand the importance of the Golden Rule, to treat others as we wish to be treated, because we have the ability to feel the pain we ourselves inflict. This is why psychopaths are so disturbing -- they don't feel the pain they inflict. For most of us, conditioning a person to kill involves a major psychological shift. We have to stop thinking of the person we are killing as human. The means to do this are well established in many cultures. You give the enemy a name -- the Hun, the Commie, the Fuzzy-Wuzzy -- that defines them as different from your group, not quite human. You portray your own side as being on the side of the angels, and pray to God for victory.

Because this is about tribalism, it need not include religion. Portrayals of Germans as "the Hun" in Great War propaganda are as relevant to tribalism as are the Islamic State and Al Qaeda calling American troops "crusaders."

Islamic State's propaganda magazine, Dabiq, put it this way: There is “no third camp present: The camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of kufr (disbelief) and hypocrisy — the camp of the Muslims and the mujahideen everywhere, and the camp of the jews, the crusaders, their allies, and with them the rest of the nations and religions of kufr, all being led by America and Russia.”

I suppose some in the Arab world are still fighting the Crusades just as some in the American South are still fighting the Civil War. For them, it didn't end with the defeat of the crusaders' Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1291, there was pretty much continuous warfare between Arab and Christian empires for hundreds more years. When the Turks lost the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, their opponents didn't call themselves crusaders, but they did call themselves the Holy League. When the expansion of the Ottoman Empire was stopped at the Battle of Vienna, it was the culmination of a 300-year struggle between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Turks. While the Reformation resulted in the rise of secular states in the West, the Ottoman Empire continued to dominate the Arab world until it was dissolved in 1922, and the impetus for its dissolution came from the West.

This makes it easier to understand why George Washington's administration negotiated a treaty with the Bey of Algiers that stated that America is not a Christian nation and has no argument with Muslims. (The language, found in Article 11 of the treaty negotiated under Washington and approved unanimously by the senate and signed by President John Adams was as follows: "As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.")

It may have seemed quaint at the time that the Bey was still worried about whether America was a Christian nation, and a potential source of crusaders, but we now have people both in Muslim countries and in America making exactly the claim that George Washington, John Adams, and the entire U.S. Senate near the founding of our country rejected -- that America is a Christian nation.

Osama bin Laden's second fatwa, in 1998, referred to its four signors as the "World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders," and concerned itself mainly with American activities in the Middle East, including its support for Israel. Osama bin Laden clearly thought America was a Christian nation, and opposed its presence in Saudi Arabia for that reason.

For bin Laden, all Christians were Crusaders, and although secular states allow people to follow their own religious conscience, only states that do not do this -- states that dictate only Islam is the true religion -- are legitimate. He was worried about the Muslim world being seduced by Western ways. For him, religion was not just a personal relationship with God, it defined who were true people, and who were false people. Religion for him was a tribal marker, not personal salvation.

The problem was how to convince people in his own world of this. He hoped to accomplish this by coordinating a horrendous act -- attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the (failed) attack on the nation's capital -- in hopes of provoking a response that would put American troops in Arab nations, and start a war between those nations and America.

This is not too different from Timothy McVeigh's notion that blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people and injuring another 880, he could start the sort of race war depicted in The Turner Diaries, a novel written by a former leader of the National Alliance, a white nationalist organization. The book, which McVeigh sold at gun shows and sometimes gave away, depicted the overthrow of the U.S. government and ultimately the extermination of Jews, homosexuals, non-whites, and others the author deemed impure.

The objectification of government workers as the enemy enabled McVeigh to suspend any empathy he may have possessed and kill them in large numbers. For bin Laden, the issue was not even that some of the people working in the World Trade Center were Muslim, their association with a global system of commerce dominated by the "crusaders" of the western nations made them less then human, things that could be sacrificed to the goal of a conflict between the groups as he defined them.

The lesson I take from this is to make sure we do not suspend our empathy, or make objects of those we must deal with. In World War II, military planners were distressed to find that only about 20% of our troops were actually engaged in shooting at the enemy during battles. By Viet Nam, pretty much all the troops involved were shooting at the enemy, in part because of changes we made in training.

But consider this. After the battle of Gettysburg, 85% if the rifles found were loaded, and 30,000 muskets -- that's 40% -- contained multiple loads. Given the usual cycle of firing a musket, very little of the time would one be loaded, and very seldom would someone put more than one load in by mistake. But if you were in a line of infantry with muzzle loaders, everyone could tell if you were loading, but when the guns went off, who could tell if you were firing? Furthermore, who could tell if you were firing high? And when you compare the number of people killed in battles between lines of infantry to the results of lines of infantry firing against non-human targets, it becomes evident that many must have deliberately aimed not to hit their targets.

One would think that such desertions in place would make an army ineffective. But German WW I veterans advised the next generation fighting in WW II to "do your duty and surrender to the first American you see," as Kevin Grossman noted in his fine book, On Killing. And U.S. Grant's troops may have hesitated to kill their opponents, but he took more prisoners than any other general in the war. Part of this is because he preferred to cut off the enemy rather than annihilate them, but part of this is because the prospective prisoners were more likely to surrender to an army that thought of them as human.

We should also not allow ourselves to be defined by our enemies. Those in my country who wish to define us as a "Christian nation" may not realize it, but they are dupes acting just as the radical Islamists want them to. We do not win by adopting this tribal view of religion as identity, because those are not the values on which this country was founded, and they are not the difference we have from past civilizations. The difference is that we allow freedom, so that people can worship as they wish without the law dictating their faith to them. We win when we recognize other human beings as human beings.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

California to fill Death Valley with water


by John MacBeath Watkins

April 1, 2015, Sacramento, California -- Gov. Jerry Brown announced today that California will pipe water from the Pacific Ocean to fill Death Valley with water.

"The snow pack we rely upon for our summer water is at 5%," the governor said, "we've got to get more water where it will evaporate and fall as rain."

That, he explained, is why the state has been preparing an environmental statement in absolute secrecy to
File picture of a desert somewhere.
build a pipeline to move water to the  valley, which at its deepest point is 282 feet below sea level. The project has been so secret, pizza delivery drivers who arrive expecting to get a tip and leave have been forced to remain and become technical writers on the EIS, for fear they might reveal something about the project if they are allowed to leave. Gov. Brown was forced to reveal the project after a pizza delivery driver escaped.

Scientists estimate that the phase change of evaporating water will lower temperatures in the vicinity of Death Valley, and evaporating water will provide rain that might supplant as much as 2% of the water lost to the current drought.

Brown said the resulting man-made lake will kick start a new real estate boom in waterfront property, provide recreational opportunities to Californians, and rid the state of its greatest pest, the desert pupfish.

The pupfish, which can shut down its mitochondria and survive by metabolizing without oxygen, generates alcohol when it does this. The resulting cocktail found in desert waters is costing the state and estimated $87 billion in lost liquor taxes.

State Fish and Game officials believe these fish will be eaten by Tuna who will be pumped in with the water, creating a new inland fishery for drunk tuna.

Conservationist Willard Trembler said he would fight the pipeline.

"The pupfish will not be crucified on a cross of gold while I can draw a breath," the hirsute, sandal wearing Trembler proclaimed. He then hiccuped and sipped carefully from a cocktail glass with a small fish swimming in it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Puny Earthlings, your planet is not worth invading

by John MacBeath Watkins

It seems Earth is a much less common sort of planet than we have supposed in the recent past. This means that any aliens who evolved in a more common sort of solar system would find our planet too cold and our atmosphere too thin to sustain life.

You can blame Jupiter, which seems to have wiped out the early inner planetary system before retreating to
The alien warlord is ready for his closeup (okay, it's a water bear.).
the sidelines.

We've discovered about 500 other solar systems with planets, and most solar systems don't resemble ours at all. They tend to have giant inner planets with atmospheres hundreds or thousands the pressure of earth's, closer to their suns than Mercury.

They would probably be hot enough on the surface to melt lead.

Our solar system was likely similar to this before Jupiter came into low orbit around the sun and destroyed such inner planets as had formed, until Saturn formed, and drew Jupiter out to a wider orbit.

This would explain why the three inner planets, Mercury, Venus, and Earth, are younger than the outer planets. They would have formed from the debris left over from Jupiter's destructive juvenile period of acting like a wrecking ball in the inner solar system.

Imagine an alien warlord from a more normal system, looking for new worlds to conquer.

"Any habitable planets in this system, Lackey?" he would ask the science minion.

"None of these planets could support life as we know it, sire," Lackey replies, "but there is something funny..."

"Funny peculiar, or funny 'ha-ha?'" the warlord demands to know. Warlords like a laugh as much as anyone.

"Well, sire, the third planet out is so cold that it has dihydrogen monoxide oceans covering most of the planet, and if you dropped lead into them it would become solid. The gravity is very low, and it retains only a wisp of an atmosphere, and the pH level is so alkaline that there is hardly any sulfuric acid in the rain. Yet there is a thin layer of life on it."

"But not, of course, intelligent life?" the warlord inquires imperiously.

"Well, there seem to be some large hives, and they are generating chemicals intended to make the planet hotter and put more acid in the rain, so it's possible they are trying to make their planet more habitable for life adapted to a normal atmosphere. However, they are so far from the sun and the gravity is so low, I doubt they will succeed."

"Amazing! The poor, doomed creatures are trying to evolve into a decent life form, but there's no way their planet can be properly turned habitable by higher life forms," the warlord observed. "Put it down for further study, low priority. I've little use for pure science, but it might amuse my nerdy youngest son."

And so, the alien warlord passes on, looking for decent planets to conquer.



Thursday, March 19, 2015

Tribalism and religion in the clash within civilizations

by John MacBeath Watkins

Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of mythology, objected to the Bible because it was tribal, and set one group against all others. Most of the tribal elements of the Bible are in the old Testament, so his comments could be applied to the entire Abrahamic tradition, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.

In a 1983 interview with writer Tom Collins, he said the following:
The thing I see about the Bible that’s unfortunate is that it’s a tribally circumscribed mythology. It deals with a certain people at a certain time. The Christians magnified it to include them. It then turns this society against all others, whereas the condition of the world today is that this particular society that’s presented in the Bible isn’t even the most important. This thing is like a dead weight. It’s pulling us back because it belongs to an earlier period. We can’t break loose and move into a modern theology.
This is an interesting insight, but my problem with it is that not all members of the three Abrahamic religions act this way. In fact, the great age when Muslim culture and science were the envy of the world was a time when Muslim countries were more free and inclusive than Christian ones. The Koran says that other members of Abrahamic traditions are to be respected, and they were in Moorish Spain, for example. This changed in the 11th century, when a stricter form of Islam became popular, denying that inquiry and doubt were paths to knowledge, insisting that only the Koran was a path to the truth.

And mainstream Protestant churches, such as I was brought up in, tend to be quite inclusive. In fact, that's probably why they've become less popular than churches which provide a stronger tribal element.

This tribal element is the basis for the clash within civilizations. Samuel P. Huntington notoriously wrote a book in 1996 titled The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, in which he argued that the great conflict of the future would be between the Christian and Muslim civilizations.

But is that what we're seeing? Islamic State is at war, but not with Europe or America, really. It is at war with other Muslims. Even the massacre at the Paris offices of the satiric magazine Charlie Hebdo killed a Muslim policeman. Nor were the men who committed those murders particularly devout Muslims. They were angry, violent men who felt their group had been disrespected.

For such people, the issue is not religion, but tribalism. In the case of Islamic State, they have committed atrocities against Christians and Shia Muslims. They are at war with the mainly Sunni Muslim Kurds.

Any time you define your group, part of that definition is who belongs in it, and part of it is who belongs outside it. In the case of Islamic State, this definition seems to define who gets treated as human. Yazidi have been taken as slaves, and according to the BBC, Islamic State's Department of Research and Fatwas has decreed that Christian and Yazidi girls may be taken as slaves, and their owners may have sex even with those who have not yet reached puberty.

Raping the other tribe's women is a program of annihilation, a way to make sure only the children of your tribe's men are born. It has an ancient and horrific history in warfare.

Many Syrian and Iraqi Christians and Yazidi fled to Kurdish territory. Kurds for the most part belong to the same religion as is claimed by Islamic State, Sunni Muslim, but do not agree with the way IS practices it.

In fact, Islamic State seems less concerned with devotion to Allah than to its vision of tribal solidarity and triumph. They want Shariah law (religious law) because it is the law of their people, not because it is religious.

Not everyone in their territory wants to live in a society that dehumanizes those not belonging to the tribe as defined by Islamic State. That's why they've resorted to brutal executions to enforce their will. And that is why this conflict is not between civilizations, but within them.

We have, in this country, a more peaceful version of this conflict. Roy Moore, Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, had a monument to the ten commandments installed in the Alabama Judicial Building. The left half of the monument tells people to be good Christians, the right to commandments not to do things that are prohibited in about 100% of human societies, and with very little mousing around on the internet, you can find videos of Moore giving speeches claiming American law is based on the Bible.

And he's not alone. Rick Santorum did pretty well in the Republican primaries in 2012 with a Dominionist message. Dominionism is the view that all secular power should reside in Christians (as defined by them) and ruled by a conservative Christian understanding of Biblical law. Santorum accused President Barak Obama of basing his administration on a "phony theology." Reuters reported that on Feb. 18, 2012, he said:
Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology,” Santorum told supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement at a Columbus hotel.
 This clash within our civilization is between those who see religion as a tribal matter, and those who define our nation in a more inclusive matter. For Santorum, a "real American" would be one belonging to his kind of church, either conservative Catholic or White Evangelical. He has made the argument that mainline protestants are not real Christians, as reported by Beliefnet.
After he’d accused Obama and other Democrats of religious fraudulance for a few minutes, journalist Terry Mattingly of GetReligion.org asked whether it’s possible that rather than being fake, perhaps, Obama was sincerely reflecting a form of liberal Christianity in the tradition of Reinhold Neibuhr. Santorum surprised me by answering that yes, “I could buy that.”However, he questioned whether liberal Christianity was really, well, Christian. “You’re a liberal something, but you’re not a Christian.” He continued, “When you take a salvation story and turn it into a liberation story you’ve abandoned Christiandom and I don’t think you have a right to claim it.”
Unlike so many Republicans who make the silly claim that President Obama is a Muslim, Santorum has acknowldeged that he is a Christian, but said that because he practices the kind of religion Reinhold Neibuhr did, he's a phony Christian.

This is the problem with an established church. Once you have an official state religion, you have to define who is inside it and who is outside. America's founding fathers -- well, mainly James Madison -- saw that to have freedom of conscience, to be allowed to practice religion as you see fit, you must be free of other people's interpretation of religion. That is why the Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office, and why the First Amendment prohibits establishment of religion.

In the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, negotiated during George Washington's second term and ratified by a unanimous vote of the U.S. senate during the first days of John Adams' first term, Article 11 declares:
As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries. 
 I submit that George Washington knew more about whether America was founded as a Christian nation then Rick Santorum or Roy Moore. My country was founded as a secular nation specifically to protect freedom of religion and allow for the election of people who did not have to represent the religion of the voters.

The secular state was a response to religious conflict, a way of shifting the source of government legitimacy from religion to the people the government serves. After the 30 Years War had reduced the population of Europe in some places by a third and the English Civil War had seen the execution of a king, Thomas Hobbes suggested in Leviathan that people need a government to protect them from violent death, and that the legitimacy of the government could rest on the fact that it is needed.

Hobbes advocated a hereditary monarch as the ruler, because he was the tutor of the son of the king who had been executed, and wanted to see Charles II seated on the British throne. He did see his Catholic pupil seated as king of a largely Protestant nation, but his logic did not really support hereditary monarchs. If the sovereign serves the people, the people aught to have some say in who governs, so it is this secular legitimacy that is at the heart of the shift from monarchs to democracy. And it is secular democracy, not Christianity, that outfits like Islamic State object to, however much they may want to portray the conflict as one between them and "crusaders."

The clash we are seeing is not between the Christian and Muslim worlds. It is between those who want a tolerant, secular state, and those who want a religious, intolerant, tribal state.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Sir Terry Pratchett has died

by John MacBeath Watkins

Sir Terry Pratchett, my favorite living author since I discovered him about a quarter century ago, has died, surrounded by his family and with his cat asleep on the bed with him.

I had hoped he'd live as long as P.G. Wodehouse and be as productive into his 90s, but earlier today his Twitter account carried the words of one of his most famous characters, Death:

"AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER."

 Death always spoke in capital letters in Pratchett's Discworld novels, a flat world riding on the backs of four huge elephants riding on the back of a giant turtle. His books were funny and wise. He understood that the best ideas are often so simple, most people don't notice them, like, don't treat people like things, and first sight -- accurately seeing what's in front of you -- is more important than second sight, and rarer.

As a bookseller, I'm a devotee of one of his theories, that since knowledge = power, and power = energy, energy = matter, when you put enough knowledge together in the form of lots of books, what you have is a sort of genteel black hole, an entry into another kind of space.

You might think someone with such wild ideas would have an idiosyncratic writing style, but Pratchett, a former journalist, had a writing style that didn't get in the way of the story, a thing remarkably difficult to achieve.

I saw him speak several times at events set up by the University Bookstore. He was gentle, funny, and humble. One of my friends at the U bookstore was involved in Pratchett's last appearance here, when he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. My friend, Brad Craft, was worried that things would go horribly wrong, but Sir Terry's fans were gentle and loving. He had created a world much like himself, and attracted people who delighted in visiting it.

Pratchett shared with Wodehouse the unusual talent to leave me feeling better about life when I'd read one of his books. There is a saying in Hollywood, that death is easy, comedy is hard; yet we don't regard comedy writers as being great writers, preferring writers who deal in tragedy. Pratchett's books are a step above most of the "serious" novels produced during his career.

By the way, Neil Gaiman, who wrote Good Omens with Sir Terry, says that it was anger at unfairness that drove Pratchett to write so well and so much.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The clash within civilizations, authority versus liberty

by John MacBeath Watkins

I submit the following as evidence that the world now faces, not a clash of civilizations, but a clash over what civilization should be:
...the American girl is well acquainted with her body's seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs—and she shows all this and does not hide it.[5]

-- Sayyid Qutb, The America I Have Seen

Sayyid Qutb was an early firebrand of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a fundamentalist who feared his people would be seduced by western culture. In the passage above, I hear lust and repression, envy and condemnation.

Qutb never married. He was a fierce critic of secular Egyptian society and a supporter of a severe form of religion which would be superior to secular law. He wanted to conserve the values of traditional Muslim society, and feared his people would find western, secular society more attractive than the society he wished to see.

We have people like that in our own society, opposing sex education, the teaching of evolution, marriage equality for homosexuals, and other ways people would take liberties with their notions of traditional values.

And Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he fears the decadence of western culture. He's had laws passed for the repression of homosexuals, for example. In a 2013 speech, he said:

Too often in our nation's history, instead of opposition to the government we have been faced with opponents of Russia itself...
...
Another serious challenge to Russia's identity is linked to events taking place in the world. Here there are both foreign policy and moral aspects. We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.
The excesses of political correctness have reached the point where people are seriously talking about registering political parties whose aim is to promote paedophilia. People in many European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations. Holidays are abolished or even called something different; their essence is hidden away, as is their moral foundation. And people are aggressively trying to export this model all over the world. I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis.

And indeed, he seems to regard the Maidan movement that overthrew his corrupt allies in Ukraine as a threat to his own power in Russia.

It is not the particular religion or ideology of American fundamentalists, Islamists, and Russian nationalists that these have in common, although a certain prudery seems to be an element of each. The common thread is the authoritarianism, the desire for order, and the condemnation of the liberties of the libertines.

Theodor Adorno would have would have identified these as elements of the authoritarian personality. He measured this on what he called the "f-scale," for Fascist. The traits he identified were:

Characteristics of the Authoritarian Personality (Horkheimer and Adorno)

  1. Conventionalism. Rigid adherence to conventional, middle class attitudes.
  2. Authoritarian Submission. Submissive, uncritical attitude toward idealized moral authorities of the ingroup.
  3. Authoritarian Aggression. Tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values.
  4. Anti-intraception. Opposition to the subjective, the imaginative, the tenderminded.
  5. Superstitions and Stereotyty. The belief in mystical determinants of the individual’s fate; the disposition to think in rigid categories.
  6. Power and ‘Toughness’. Preoccupation with the dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension; identification with power figures; overemphasis upon the conventionalized attributes of the ego; exaggerated assertion of strength and t oughness.
  7. Destruction and Cynicism. Generalized hostility, vilification of the human.
  8. Projectivity. The disposition to believe that wild and dangerous things go on in the world; the projection outwards of unconscious emotional impulses.
  9. Sex. Exaggerated concern with sexual ‘goings-on.'
 (The source for this list is in the link, just click on the quote.)

Now, it strikes me that any ideology or in-group can contain people with these traits, from self-righteous hipster assholes to conservative preachers and "citizens for decency." Most will be attracted to conservative causes.

I actually met a man who organized "(name of his hometown) for Decency" who liked  to come into the newsroom of the local paper, pick out an attractive young female reporter, and start showing her sexually explicit pictures, and talk about how disgusting they were. His particularly repellant combination of lust, repression, and authoritarianism seemed extraordinary to me at the time, but it is really just an extreme form of the authoritarian personality. Less extreme versions of that personality are, in my opinion, part of what holds society together.

Every civilization needs some degree of conservatism, some value placed on tradition and order. But for a civilization to learn and grow, it must also be open to new ideas and new experiences, and in a time when the world faces rapid change, these needs are in conflict. The psychologically conservative will be disturbed by the disorder of rapid change, while those with minds more open to change, the need to adapt society and leave behind old prejudices will lead them in a different direction.

When people look at Islamist extremists, and tell me that this is a clash of civilizations between Muslim and Christian civilizations, I can't help but think of that disgusting "citizen for decency." The clash is not between religions, it is between tolerance and intolerance, between liberty and authority.

What we are seeing is not a clash between regions or cultures or religions. We are seeing a clash between people who want to conserve traditional values and people who want to open society up to new freedoms. Tip the balance one way, you have the Islamic State, tip it the other and you have San Francisco.

When the world changed slowly, these groups were not much in conflict. New experiences were rare in Egypt's Old Kingdom, and the need to adapt to a changing world was rare. We no longer live in that world, and many people are made profoundly uncomfortable by this, while others delight in it.

Count me as one of the delighted. And I am happy to see that surveys of young people show them sharing more and more of my views as I get older, because they are adapted to the changes that have occurred. I was a damn hippie kid, and not a great fit with society. Today, more and more people agree with my views. But I still recognize the need for a counterbalance, even if I sometimes become impatient with the way people cling to what I feel are outmoded views.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Bookstore video 2: Khalid reading Emerson

K
Khalid Mohamed, intern extraordinaire, reading an excerpt from Self Reliance, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friday, February 27, 2015

The dance with death

The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Liber chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel.






by John Macbeath Watkins

"To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything," Ernest Becker wrote in The Denial of Death.

I was about seven or eight when I first faced my own mortality.

We were living in the old colonial house we rented in Maine from old Mr. Adams, and my bedroom had a dormer window looking out over the verdant summer landscape. I don't know why it came to me, but I realized that not only would I die some day, I actually had some control over when it happened.

Not that I was suicidal. The fact that I could end my life at will gave me a feeling of control, a feeling that my life was a choice. Having very little notion of anatomy, I rested a pocket knife against my abdomen, relishing the fact that I would not pierce my flesh. I would choose instead to live, to go out into the green, down to the creek to watch the minnows, out to the old oak to climb.

For some reason, the knowledge that I was mortal and that my life was a choice gave me a feeling of significance. And significance is exactly what we need to feel to deal with the knowledge of our own mortality.

Some of us attach ourselves to something larger, like a cause of a church that will live on past our lifetimes. Some will procreate, and find meaning in parenting, and carrying on the species.  Some will seek to be with people who are like us, and will know us, and give us a feeling that we are significant because we are known.

And some of us write, and try to influence the whole structure of thought that is the realm of meaning, because in the end, meaning is what it's all about. In psychology, all these methods of dealing with our desire to live and the knowledge that we will die is called terror management theory, the study of how we try to feel immortal by establishing meaning in our lives. The desire to live and the awareness of death mean that we spend some large part of our lives, consciously or not, dealing with the terror of death.

But do we all feel the rumble of terror that underlies everything? I think not.

For example, I've known several people who died climbing. I'd gone for a scramble on the rocks with two of them, and they scared me. The kept placing themselves in positions where only their skill lay between and a fall that could severely injure them, even kill them if they landed wrong. In each case, I was saddened but not surprised to learn that they had fallen to their deaths.

The joy of dancing with death seemed to enliven them. This should not be surprising; after all, we never contemplate what we're living for when we are faced with our imminent death.

When my father retired after a career in the Air Force, he felt something was missing. It took about a year for him to sort it out.

It was danger. When he flew in B-17s in World War II, those who completed as many missions as he did in heavy bombers had a loss rate of about 70% killed or missing in action. He told me that when they were gathered for a briefing, and were told about 10% might be lost on that mission alone, every man in the room was thinking, "those poor bastards." None were thinking about their own deaths.

He served through three wars, and even in peacetime, people he worked with were dying every year. Military aviation is just not as safe as flying on an airliner, and practicing the things expected of them killed aviators even in the safest units.

Yes, there are people who fear death. A 2009 Harvard study found that deeply religious people were more likely to ask for heroic measures to keep them alive, and fewer had "do not resuscitate" orders than the general population. Andrea Phelps, a senior medical resident at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and the study's lead author, suggested that such people might be more satisfied with life, but that seems unlikely to me.

I think they sought the comfort of religion and heroic measures to preserve their lives for the same reason: A fear of death. Religion offered them assurances, but still the fear remained.

But Becker argued that this is not how most people deal with the problem. Most, he said, attempt an "immortality project," an attempt, rather than relying on the heroic measures of doctors, to do something heroic and eternal.

Humans have a dual nature, their animal bodies and their symbolic selves. In the animal world, there are acts to preserve your life and the lives of those closely related, but these are not heroic in the sense Becker means. Heroic acts, in his framework, are symbolic acts. Heroic acts either make us a part of something eternal or involve us creating something eternal, allowing us to live on past our allotted time on earth.

Becker believed that religion, our traditional hero system, was failing in the age of reason, and that science could never take over that function. He thought we needed new illusions to sustain us.

But that's like seeking to advance medicine by making more potent placebos. In the age of reason, it is difficult to retain any illusions. We need to consciously invent our own meanings, and be aware of how we are embedding ourselves in the structure of thought and the structure of society that carries on beyond our lives.

That means being conscious of how much we are made up of all those who have influenced us, and how much we can influence those who come after us. We must be careful who we are, because that is what lives on when we die.