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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