Never again?

The seeds of another Holocaust might be brewing over in China, where the government is engaging in a campaign to sterilize members of the Uyghur ethnic group (most of whom are Muslims), and to take anyone who shows a small degree of interest in their culture to concentration camps where they can be "re-educated".

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-53463403

No reports yet of systematic extermination (apart from the usual claims of organ harvesting, whose validity I am not in a position to judge).  But of course the Nazis didn't start off that way either.  Let's pray they don't take it any further.

As a sign of the utter foolishness of the United Nations general assembly, where each nation gets one vote, more than twice as many nations (54) have officially come out so far in support this cultural genocide, than oppose it (22).  Although it's not suprising that the big human rights violators would all stick up for each other.  (Doesn't really matter anyway, as China also has a security council veto.)

I don't have any particularly useful suggestions about what can be done to try to stop this atrocity.  But people of good will should probably be aware that it is happening.

Posted in Politics | 11 Comments

Constraints and Character

Most of us have experienced the Pandemic as constraining our freedom in one way or another.  More personally, I have recently experienced a pervasive dust allergy (which I have had since New Years of 2019), and the failure to buy a certain house, as a constraint on my freedom.

I.

In an economic model of rationality, constraints are always bad or neutral when imposed on a perfectly rational agent, but can never be embraced as a good thing.  Let's try to make this more mathematically precise.  Suppose that you have some set of choices:

{A, B, C, D...}

which are ranked in order of your preference:

A > B > C > D...

Now suppose that we impose a constraint on your choices.  Is this good or bad for you?

Well, it all depends on whether it eliminates your best option.  If we eliminate choice C, you can still pick your best choice A.  Hence, the constraint is neutral—you get to do what you wanted either way.

On the other hand, if option is eliminated, then you are forced to pick your second best choice B, and if both A and B are eliminated, you are forced to pick C.  In this case, the constraint is bad—you get something you don't like as much as your first choice!

In this model of rationality, eliminating a choice never improves your best option.  So constraints can only be bad.  (For you, that is.  You might like there to be constraints on other people to prevent them from hurting you in specific ways.)

If your best option was C, for example, then you wouldn't have wanted to pick A or B anyway?  In this case, your choice shouldn't depend on whether A or B were options.

On the other hand, if for eample A was your best choice, then you will be forced to pick your second best option.  (And if that second best option was B, then you will be forced to pick the 3rd best option.)

In no circumstances can such a perfectly rational agent experience a constraint on their choices as a good thing.  Giving them more choices can only be a good thing, since either taking one of the extra options is better (in which case they will take it), or it isn't (in which case they won't).

With me so far?

II.

All of that is a prelude to saying this: in real life human beings are very far from being such "perfectly rational" agents.  This means that the model is inapplicable.  For us, constraints are so often a good thing.

In reality, there are lots of `hard choices' where we would never consider that choice (or even think of it as being on our menu of options) if we weren't driven to do so based on constraints (because the easier option, or the one we would immediately prefer, was taken off the table).

Yet, these are often the choices that tend to develop our character the most.  By this I mean that these choices give us the ability to appreciate new kinds of rewarding expereiences, to develop skills which give us more freedom and power, to empathize with a broader range of people, and to have a better grasp on invisible realities.

A lot of the humility that comes from getting older is realizing the ways in which constraints have helped to turn you into the person that God wants you to be.  So this can open your eyes to maybe believe that the constraints you are currently chafing under are the same sort of thing.  As the New Testament says:

Have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son?  It says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?  If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.  Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it.  How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live!  They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.  No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees.  “Make level paths for your feet”, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.  (Hebrews 12)

One form that divine discipline takes, is our experience of the constraints inherent to earthy life, which so often forces us to take paths other than the ones we want to take.  Yet, when we take those paths, we often find things along them which we would never have noticed if we had gone the direction we wanted to originally.

Nobody is so good of a person that they can say, "I don't need to be hemmed in and constrained; my moral character will develop just as well if I develop it autonomously through my own voluntary choices of how to interact with the world, as if I am forced to respond to external circumstances I would rather avoid."

In fact, not even Christ (who was without sin) was able to say that:

For in bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was entirely appropriate that God--for whom and through whom all things exist--should make the source of their salvation perfect [that is: complete] through sufferings.  (Heb 2:10)

III.  

Living during a pandemic is a type of disability.  That is, it makes you un-able to do things you would otherwise be able to do.  (Obviously, you will be even more disabled if you actually catch the disease.)

No Christian can accept the view, advocated by some, that disability is inherently good; simply a way of being "differently-abled" as the PC term from the 90's had it.  If this were true, it would have been wrong for Christ to heal those who were deaf, blind, and lame.

On the other hand, no Christian can deny God's ability to paradoxically use suffering and disability in a redemptive way.  Otherwise, it would have been wrong for Christ to say that the poor were blessed; for him to go to the Cross, and to tell us to pick up our own crosses and follow him.

Without plumbing the depths of these theological mysteries, here is a somewhat more pedestrian way of thinking about the dignity and value of disabled people (which remember, is all of us at the moment).

Humanity has a great deal of potential.  There are many, many skills that we can develop as human beings.  For example, people can learn to play an instrument, or to garden.  People can ponder the universe or socialize with others or play games.  They can retreat to the wilderness, become a hermit, and find God in the mysterious silence of creation.  Or, they can join a non-profit, advocate on behalf of the poor and needy, and find God in serving others.  They can do some of these things at some times, and other things at other times.

One tentative idea for expressing the dignity of disabled people, is to say that no matter how many of these activities are taken off the table for you, there still remains a nearly infinite number of options that are on the table, which represent ways of flourishing.  And if you actually take one of these roads, you will probably find the same sorts of happinessand opportunity for growth that you would have found on another road.

(Admittedly there some limits to how far we can understand this.  If somebody is in a permanent coma, with no higher mental functions, obviously there's some sense in which, for that person, at that time, everything has been taken off the table, besides bare biological existence.  Christians, who believe that all humans are created in the image of God, are bound to find some dignity even in a life like this.  But this blog post isn't really about such extreme cases.  If you are reading this blog post, then you still have your higher brain functions and that means you aren't in a situation like that.)

True, if you used to enjoy doing something specific, which now you can't do, you are likely to miss it.  And that might make you feel bad.  But objectively, there's still a lot for you to do which you can still do, which you can find if you put your mind to it.

Or you could just kvetch about our current moment in history, and fail to see these opportunities.

IV.

A lot of what people are trying to do during this time, is try to figure out how to do the things they would have been doing if there had been no Pandemic.  (E.g. How can we safely open schools, or have schools move to online settings.  How can we keep the economy running?  How can we have a normal social life?)

All these are good questions to ask.  But we should also ask what options might be available (or salient) to us during this time which weren't options before.  (For example, before the Pandemic started, I didn't have the option to attend churches I'd belonged to in the USA, while living in the UK.  But this year, I can.)

Ask yourself in what ways things might be better for you:

♠  What useful work (possibly for pay) is available to me now, that wasn't available before?

♠  In what ways am I now resting, where I was overtaxing myself before?

♠  Are there any new opportunities to develop friendships in a deeper way?

♠  Or, new opportunities for solitude?

♠  Or, more time to spend with immediate family members?

♠  Were my children actually being well served by their school?  Maybe they'd benefit from home schooling.  (Or from taking a break and doing something different for a while.)

♠  Is this my chance to start a new hobby?

♠  Which spiritual disciplines can I cultivate?

OK, so your life is cramped into a smaller location then it used to be...  but maybe there's a kind of metaphorical Uncertainty Principle, which increases your possible momentum when your position is restricted.

Those who don't cling to property, may find that they own everything.  Those who are forced to remain in one physical location, may journey farther in their prayers.  Those who are deprived of obvious political power, may learn the greater power of solidarity with others.  Those without a future on Earth, may gain eternity.

Posted in Ethics | 2 Comments

History Is Repeating Itself

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Exactly 70 years and 1 month ago, St. Margaret Chase Smith—who was the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress—became the first Senator to denounce McCarthyism on the floor of the Senate, at significant political cost to herself.

(Both Senator Smith and Senator McCarthy were Republicans.  The political pressure against her position was so great that 5 of the 6 Republican Senators she got to sign her "declaration" quickly recanted their support for it, and in retaliation Smith herself was stripped of her membership in the Senate Investigations Subcommittee.  Yet a mere 4 years later, the Senate condemned McCarthy.  So fast do the winds of political discourse change.)

Below is the text of her speech denouncing both parties for their flawed interpretations of what America stands for.  I will make no further commentary here, except to note that:

1. When applying her words to fit the present day situation, one would probably do best to swap the words "Republican" and "Democrat" with each other, wherever they appear.  (But, alas, Russia is still Russia!)

2. The idea of Senate committees being the primary epicenter for the "character assassination" of Americans* may seem rather quaint in the era of social media, but that does not mean that Sen. Smith's warnings about the importance of free speech norms in society (extending beyond merely not criminalizing speech) are equally quaint.

[*Leaving aside exclude executive and judicial nominees, who are in the process of being appointed "by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate".  However dysfunctional the Senate confirmation process may have become, the Senate surely has a legitimate role in vetting such individuals.]

3. Senatorial rules prohibit the direct criticism of other Senators in debates on the Senate floor; which is why this speech was formally addressed to the presiding officer of the Senate, without explicitly mentioning Sen. McCarthy.  Nevertheless, everyone knew who the targets of this speech were.

Without further ado, here it is:

For Release Upon Delivery
Statement of Senator Margaret Chase Smith
June 1, 1950

Mr. President:

I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition.  It is a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear.  It is a condition that comes from the lack of effective leadership in either the Legislative Branch or the Executive Branch of our Government.

That leadership is so lacking that serious and responsible proposals are being made that national advisory commissions be appointed to provide such critically needed leadership.

I speak as briefly as possible because too much harm has already been done with irresponsible words of bitterness and selfish political opportunism.  I speak as briefly as possible because the issue is too great to be obscured by eloquence.  I speak simply and briefly in the hope that my words will be taken to heart.

I speak as a Republican.  I speak as a woman.  I speak as a United States Senator.  I speak as an American.

The United States Senate has long enjoyed worldwide respect as the greatest deliberative body in the world.  But recently that deliberative character has too often been debased to the level of a forum of hate and character assassination sheltered by the shield of congressional immunity.

It is ironical that we Senators can in debate in the Senate directly or indirectly, by any form of words, impute to any American who is not a Senator any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming an American -- and without that non-Senator American having any legal redress against us -- yet if we say the same thing in the Senate about our colleagues we can be stopped on the grounds of being out of order.

It is strange that we can verbally attack anyone else without restraint and with full protection and yet we hold ourselves above the same type of criticism here on the Senate Floor.  Surely the United States Senate is big enough to take self-criticism and self-appraisal.  Surely we should be able to take the same kind of character attacks that we "dish out" to outsiders.

I think that it is high time for the United States Senate and its members to do some soul-searching -- for us to weigh our consciences -- on the manner in which we are performing our duty to the people of America -- on the manner in which we are using or abusing our individual powers and privileges.

I think that it is high time that we remembered that we have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution.  I think that it is high time that we remembered that the Constitution, as amended, speaks not only of the freedom of speech but also of trial by jury instead of trial by accusation.

Whether it be a criminal prosecution in court or a character prosecution in the Senate, there is little practical distinction when the life of a person has been ruined.

Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism:

            The right to criticize;

            The right to hold unpopular beliefs;

            The right to protest;

            The right of independent thought.

The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood nor should he be in danger of losing his reputation or livelihood merely because he happens to know someone who holds unpopular beliefs.  Who of us doesn’t?  Otherwise none of us could call our souls our own.  Otherwise thought control would have set in.

The American people are sick and tired of being afraid to speak their minds lest they be politically smeared as "Communists" or "Fascists" by their opponents.  Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America.  It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.

The American people are sick and tired of seeing innocent people smeared and guilty people whitewashed.  But there have been enough proved cases, such as the Amerasia case, the Hiss case, the Coplon case, the Gold case, to cause the nationwide distrust and strong suspicion that there may be something to the unproved, sensational accusations.

As a Republican, I say to my colleagues on this side of the aisle that the Republican Party faces a challenge today that is not unlike the challenge that it faced back in Lincoln’s day. The Republican Party so successfully met that challenge that it emerged from the Civil War as the champion of a united nation -- in addition to being a Party that unrelentingly fought loose spending and loose programs.

Today our country is being psychologically divided by the confusion and the suspicions that are bred in the United States Senate to spread like cancerous tentacles of "know nothing, suspect everything" attitudes.  Today we have a Democratic Administration that has developed a mania for loose spending and loose programs.  History is repeating itself -- and the Republican Party again has the opportunity to emerge as the champion of unity and prudence.

The record of the present Democratic Administration has provided us with sufficient campaign issues without the necessity of resorting to political smears.  America is rapidly losing its position as leader of the world simply because the Democratic Administration has pitifully failed to provide effective leadership.

The Democratic Administration has completely confused the American people by its daily contradictory grave warnings and optimistic assurances -- that show the people that our Democratic Administration has no idea of where it is going.

The Democratic Administration has greatly lost the confidence of the American people by its complacency to the threat of communism here at home and the leak of vital secrets to Russia though key officials of the Democratic Administration.  There are enough proved cases to make this point without diluting our criticism with unproved charges.

Surely these are sufficient reasons to make it clear to the American people that it is time for a change and that a Republican victory is necessary to the security of this country.  Surely it is clear that this nation will continue to suffer as long as it is governed by the present ineffective Democratic Administration.

Yet to displace it with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation.  The nation sorely needs a Republican victory.  But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny -- Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.

I doubt if the Republican Party could -- simply because I don’t believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest.  Surely we Republicans aren’t that desperate for victory.

I don’t want to see the Republican Party win that way.  While it might be a fleeting victory for the Republican Party, it would be a more lasting defeat for the American people.  Surely it would ultimately be suicide for the Republican Party and the two-party system that has protected our American liberties from the dictatorship of a one party system.

As members of the Minority Party, we do not have the primary authority to formulate the policy of our Government.  But we do have the responsibility of rendering constructive criticism, of clarifying issues, of allaying fears by acting as responsible citizens.

As a woman, I wonder how the mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters feel about the way in which members of their families have been politically mangled in the Senate debate -- and I use the word "debate" advisedly.

As a United States Senator, I am not proud of the way in which the Senate has been made a publicity platform for irresponsible sensationalism.  I am not proud of the reckless abandon in which unproved charges have been hurled from this side of the aisle.  I am not proud of the obviously staged, undignified countercharges that have been attempted in retaliation from the other side of the aisle.

I don’t like the way the Senate has been made a rendezvous for vilification, for selfish political gain at the sacrifice of individual reputations and national unity.  I am not proud of the way we smear outsiders from the Floor of the Senate and hide behind the cloak of congressional immunity and still place ourselves beyond criticism on the Floor of the Senate.

As an American, I am shocked at the way Republicans and Democrats alike are playing directly into the Communist design of "confuse, divide, and conquer."  As an American, I don’t want a Democratic Administration “whitewash” or "cover-up" any more than I want a Republican smear or witch hunt.

As an American, I condemn a Republican "Fascist" just as much I condemn a Democratic "Communist."  I condemn a Democrat "Fascist" just as much as I condemn a Republican "Communist."  They are equally dangerous to you and me and to our country.  As an American, I want to see our nation recapture the strength and unity it once had when we fought the enemy instead of ourselves.

It is with these thoughts that I have drafted what I call a "Declaration of Conscience."  I am gratified that Senator Tobey, Senator Aiken, Senator Morse, Senator Ives, Senator Thye, and Senator Hendrickson have concurred in that declaration and have authorized me to announce their concurrence.

The declaration reads as follows:

1. We are Republicans. But we are Americans first. It is as Americans that we express our concern with the growing confusion that threatens the security and stability of our country. Democrats and Republicans alike have contributed to that confusion.

2. The Democratic administration has initially created the confusion by its lack of effective leadership, by its contradictory grave warnings and optimistic assurances, by its complacency to the threat of communism here at home, by its oversensitiveness to rightful criticism, by its petty bitterness against its critics.

3. Certain elements of the Republican Party have materially added to this confusion in the hopes of riding the Republican party to victory through the selfish political exploitation of fear, bigotry, ignorance, and intolerance. There are enough mistakes of the Democrats for Republicans to criticize constructively without resorting to political smears.

4. To this extent, Democrats and Republicans alike have unwittingly, but undeniably, played directly into the Communist design of “confuse, divide and conquer.”

5. It is high time that we stopped thinking politically as Republicans and Democrats about elections and started thinking patriotically as Americans about national security based on individual freedom. It is high time that we all stopped being tools and victims of totalitarian techniques -- techniques that, if continued here unchecked, will surely end what we have come to cherish as the American way of life.

Posted in History, Politics | 3 Comments

The New York Times shouldn't be in the business of doxxing bloggers

Everyone who's familiar with internet culture knows that publishing the real-world identities of pseudonymous bloggers ("doxxing") is an indecent practice, which has no place in a civilized internet ecosystem.  This is one of the few remaining areas of moral consensus, shared among decent netizens on all sides of the political spectrum.

If we want to have a web culture which allows the most creative people to contribute to the global conversation, we need to promote norms in which people are able to blog under pseudonyms if they want to compartmentalize their internet and real-world identities.

One of my top favorite blogs to read is Slate Star Codex, by Scott Alexander, who is perhaps the most interesting social commenter of my generation, and one who has done more than almost anyone else to promote civil discourse between people with different political views.

Well you can't read it right now (at least, not without using the conveniently located time machine) because, for no particularly good reason that anyone can see, a New York Times editor decided that they wanted to use his real name in an article they were writing (even though the supposedly article was going to focus on his blog).  This is an incredibly out-of-touch move for anyone familiar with Internet culture.

Since Scott is a psychiatrist who helps mentally vulnerable patients, and since he has received death threats in the past, he has very good reasons not to want his blog to show up when people search for his real name.  Hence he's (hopefully temporarily if the New York Times changes course) taken his entire blog down in order to protect himself (you can see read his explanation here).

This makes me very sad.

Fortunately there's still time for the New York Times to change its course.  To help them change their mind, please do me a big favor and help out in one of the following ways:

•  You can sign the petition.  Every additional name helps get their attention.  If you are reading this post, and think that doxxing people is bad, then I'm talking to you.

•  If you have a NYT subscription, please consider cancelling it now, and telling them why you are doing so.  No respectable newspaper should be in the buisness of "doxxing for clicks".  Alternatively you could leave feedback informing them that you will cancel your subscription, if they go forward on this unethical decision.

•  You can also give your feedback to the editor responsible for making the decision.  You can find instructions for how to do so on Scott's takedown page.

Thanks!

Posted in Blog, Ethics | 2 Comments

Capturing Christianity discussion

A few years ago I wrote a series of blog posts (starting here) discussing the debate between Sean Carroll and St. William Lane Craig.

Well, last week I was invited to St Cameron Beruzzi's internet show Capturing Christianity, along with fellow guests Sts. Luke Barnes and Ronald Cram, to give further comments about the debate.

You can still watch it by following this link.  The whole thing is about 2 1/2 hours long.

Posted in Blog, Metaphysics, Reviews, Talks | 13 Comments