Thursday, November 30, 2006

Judge: Mexicans are weeds

» Boston Herald: Brooklyn judge pens kids’ book about unchecked immigration
In The Hot House Flowers, self-published by Judge John H. Wilson, an envious dandelion releases her seeds into a hothouse, where they grow and eventually use up so much water and food that there’s none left for the plants that were already there.

In the end, the master of the hothouse — clearly standing for God — removes the dandelions, and when the original dandelion tries to send more seeds in, the hothouse flowers trample the seeds so they can’t grow.
If Wilson were trying to be realistic, he'd have to make the dandelions actually produce much of the water and food that the hothouse plants enjoy; rather than starving the existing plants, the dandelions would be largely responsible for their continued well-being.

But that's not the only stupid thing about this xenophobic book. Let me count.

Read the full post …

It goes without saying that I haven't read the book, so I have only the news story to go by, but here goes.

1. "An envious dandelion …" Envy? That's what this guy thinks is the reason illegal immigrants come into the United States? Illegal immigrants come into the United States for money. Claiming that illegal immigrants work our fields and build our houses because they envy us is like saying that if you got laid off from you job tomorrow, it would be envy that drove you to look for a new one. No, it would be the more basic desire to, you know, eat and stuff.

2. "… into a hothouse …" Yes, a hothouse. A special place set up exclusively for the controlled cultivation of plants. Or, translated, a special country set up exclusively for the controlled cultivation of Americans. Because Americans are different from those people. The ones who are wild and dangerous and breed like crazy. The not-so-pretty brown ones. And just who set up the greenhouse and cultivates the pretty chosen plants?

3. "… they grow and eventually use up so much water and food that there’s none left for the plants that were already there." As I noted above, this is the reverse of the actual situation. There aren't enough Americans around to do all of the work needed to sustain us. Even the most rudimentary calculation shows that if there are around 11 million illegal workers in the United States and only around 7 million unemployed Americans, even if every illegal immigrant were replaced with a good ol' citizen there would still be 4 million empty jobs needing to be filled. And thanks to the marvels of capitalism, we need unemployed Americans to keep a competitive labor market. We need constant immigration, at a higher level than is legally allowed under current law, for as long as our economy hopes to grow.

4. "In the end, the master of the hothouse — clearly standing for God …" Ahh, yes, that's who protects America. Because it's not like Latin America is chock full of faithful believers or anything. Oh. Right.

5. "… removes the dandelions …" I know it's an allegory and all, but just what is this supposed to teach children? We have a problem with some people and God will remove them? It he going to do it covertly with diseases or just poof them away?

6. "… when the original dandelion tries to send more seeds in, the hothouse flowers trample the seeds so they can’t grow." Let's review: a once strong country is having increasingly severe problems, allegedly due to a pervasive infiltration of a certain group of people, so after all other options have failed the final solution is to trample them. A judge, presumably as well-educated in 20th-century European history as anyone, thinks that the responsible and moral lesson to teach children is that the country's problems are due to those people and if they don't leave, we have to kill them.

Whatever happened to "Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:/I lift my lamp beside the golden door."? That's the America I want to live in. Don't trample.

A day late and a dollar short

Alive and well; blogging at The Red Scare shall resume in full terrifying force tomorrow.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Out of the office

And by office I mean continental United States.

I know this blog is just getting fired up, but I will be away for the Thanksgiving holiday for a week and my laptop is in the shop. Expect the next post November 28.


Monday, November 20, 2006

They'll be laughing at you, not with you

» Forbes: Fox News Preps News Satire Show

Conservatives aren't funny, almost by definition. I mean, they're unintentionally funny, in a "laugh until the laughing turns to sobbing" kind of way. Conservatives are respectful of tradition and authority (you might even say they want to conserve such things), and a whole lot of what makes programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report funny is the blatant disregard for tradition and authority.

Remember a time, long ago, when Dennis Miller was funny? He'd make references to people and events you'd never heard of, sure, but he was irreverent and got a chuckle or two. But as soon as he started goose stepping with the Führer he got so unfunny he made the Mongol massacre at Herat look like an early-'80s Zucker brothers picture. (Hey, I tried.)

Mention Larry the Cable Guy and I'll be testing the limits of my nonviolent nature.

What the conservatives don't realize is they got made fun of by the likes of Jon Stewart and every other comedian on the planet because they're morons and liars, not because they happened to be in power. Conservatives are easy targets because they are conservative. The Democrats aren't my dream party by any stretch of the imagination, but for the most part they don't go around spouting wingnuttery about global warming being a hoax or axes of evil or God creating the universe 20,000 years after people were painting caves in France.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

O Canada!

» Washington Post: Rep. Rangel Will Seek to Reinstate Draft


See, this is what I meant by not being thrilled about the Democrats being in charge. Not that Rangel's repeated attempts at firing up the draft have a snowball's chance in Hell of resulting in an actual draft anytime soon, but the mere presence and power of Democrats is not evidence that things are going to get better. I know why he's doing it — lawmakers might be less willing to start wars if their children could have to fight them — but a draft is involuntary servitude. A draft is slavery. A volunteer army is at least, in its own small way, a measure of how popular a war is.

If we don't have enough people willing to die to put out the fires we're lighting around the world, maybe it's time we put down the matches.

Election 2006

I know it's a little late, but I wanted to say a few things about the mid-term election before it became so late that doing so would make me into a complete, rather than merely a partial, tool.

Is it bad that I was disappointed with the outcome? Don't get me wrong, I am nothing but pleased with all of the potential bad things that didn't happen. Republicans didn't retain control of either house. People like Rick Santorum weren't reelected. The problem is that it gets harder and harder for me to get enthusiastic about the Democrats winning these days. They're better than the Republicans to be sure, particularly in a few key contentious areas, but is that really saying a lot? Being slapped is unequivocally better than being punched, but can it really be said to be good?

Read the full post …

I'm not supposed to feel this way. The Democratic victory is supposed to bring me great joy. Finally! The liberals will sweep in and clean out the corruption of congress! We'll get accountability and oversight for the president. Rumsfeld is out, and we might even get some troops brought home. We will get a say in how things go in the country.

The problem is that I'm not part of that "we." I often joke that the liberals are too conservative for me, and I'm certainly not a moderate. The Democrats had a resounding victory numerically, but philosophically, this election was a referendum on Bush and Republican corruption and the continued occupation of Iraq. The Democrats that were elected were, for the most part, the same moderates that make up the bulk of both parties. The difference between a typical Democrat and a typical Republican is one of small, but important, degrees. We can cheer for the admittedly good news that the people running Congress are broadly against preemptive war, are broadly for abortion rights, are broadly against Constitutional amendments for issues like gay marriage or flag-burning. But scratch a Democrat, and you have a Republican Lite.

Show me the Democratic majority that wants to truly change the way the system works instead of regulating away the most obvious defects. Show me the Democratic majority that doesn't actually take corporate money, and doesn't think that economic growth is more important than social justice. Show me the Democratic majority who is against the systematic oppression of people worldwide that claims the name "free trade." Show me the Democratic majority that thinks the Kyoto treaty wouldn't go far enough even if we'd signed it. Show me the Democratic majority who doesn't just want affordable health care but free health care. Show me the Democratic majority who will stand up and say that women have the absolute right to choose whether they gestate a fetus for nine months inside their bodies or not without resorting to mealy-mouthed concessions about how horrible that choice is.
Show me the Democratic majority who will point out that it is a complete and utter travesty that despite women being half of the population both the House and the Senate are 84% male. Show me the Democratic majority who isn't trying to prove that they can win the war on terror better than the Republicans, the majority who thinks "tough on defense issues" isn't a good thing, the majority who thinks that spending more money on war than the rest of the world combined is not something to be proud of. Show me the Democratic majority who doesn't want to begin the process of setting a timetable for troop withdrawal but wants actual goddamned withdrawal and closing of the bases we built behind us.

It can't be done. There might be individual Democrats who support each of these things, but aside from those few issues that have been deemed the deciding factors, there is no discernible difference between the two major parties. So I am happy that the Republicans are out, but I can honestly say I'm not thrilled that the Democrats have to be the ones who are in.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


I'd like to take some time to tell you a little about myself, what I believe, and what I don't. This is a blog that covers my thoughts and observations about a variety of topics: politics, religion, philosophy, science, culture. I'm a geek, an atheist, a socialist, and a vegan — that may seem like par for the course in the wilderness of the Web, but I assure you that in the real world I'm a rare breed indeed. This is a very long post, folks, so you might do well do digest it in chunks, unless you truly find me oh-so-fascinating.

Read the full post …

Almost all of my philosophical and political positions can be traced to two basic observations about the world.

I don't know what is good for you, nor you me. Happiness is an entirely subjective experience, and it is really impossible to know what will and won't make any given person happy. Some people enjoy quiet and solitude, others requite constant action and attention. Some people fall madly in love with one person, others love many people at many times, or even all at once. You might like country music; I like indie rock and hip hop. All attempts to quantify what will bring good to anyone but ourselves are destined to fail, unless we do so in the broadest possible sense: good is the fulfillment of whatever desires one might have.

I am not more important than you, nor you me. To everyone, their own happiness seems as though it is the most important thing. But is it, really? From the point of view of the Universe as a whole, is it more important that you are happy, or me? There simply isn't any way to say. If you believe in a god, you probably also believe that he doesn't play favorites. If you don't, well, the indifference of the cosmos is ubiquitous.

Morality is concerned with how to treat others and get by in the world. Moral questions are questions of how to "be good," and the only way to be good is to do good. From the second observation above, we can derive the concept of equal consideration of interests. Since there is no objective way to decide whose happiness is more important, the only moral course of action is to treat the happiness of all equally. From the first proposition above, we can derive the concept of desire fulfillment as the only plausible "objective" measure of happiness.

To these observations we can now add a third.

Consequences matter; motives don't. This is another issue that philosophers continually grapple with, but it seems obvious to me. In what way can it be said that motives matter, objectively? Sure, good intentions feel good to us, but we've already established that we aren't the only ones that count. If we have the best intentions of helping the hungry, but never actually help them because we are too busy playing golf, the amount of happiness gained by the warm fuzziness in our hearts is more than outweighed by the suffering of those we blew off. If we want to spread democracy to foreign lands but plunge nations into chaos in the process, only the cruelest among us could say that hundreds of thousands of deaths are not immoral because we killed with good intentions. But that's jumping ahead to politics … .

What do we get when we combine these three observations about the world? From the observation that only consequences matter, we get the aptly named consequentialism. There are several consequentialist systems of ethics. Ayn Rand's so-called "Objectivism," for example, is a consequentialist ethics stating that the moral choice is that which has the best consequences for the one making the choice. This is also known as egoism, and frankly I find it abhorrent. More on that some other time. If we focus our consequentialism instead on others, we get altruism. Altruism is certainly not intuitively abhorrent, but it is a system that must be modified by our other observations.

When we combine a consequentialist viewpoint with the observation that you and I count equally, we get utilitarianism. Formal utilitarianism is generally attributed to Jeremy Bentham, though others had similar ideas at various times and places in history. Bentham defined utilitarianism as "the greatest good for the greatest number," which is still essentially the core of the philosophy today. We must consider the good of all affected by a decision, and since our own good is just one of many, that which increases good overall is the most moral choice to make. Sometimes this will look like altruism, sometimes like egoism, but most often it will be a compromise.

When considering our utilitarianism, we quickly run into the problem of defining good. Luckily, we have observed that there is only one plausible definition that we can use. Adding desire-fulfillment to utilitarianism we get what is presently the most popular variant of that philosophy: preference utilitarianism. And now we have a system of ethics: when making a decision, the moral choice is that which fulfills the most desires of those involved.

There are two objections that are likely immediately springing to mind if you are not already a utilitarian.

"Isn't that just moral relativism, since everyone's desires count equally?" In fact, utilitarianism is not relative at all, as it by definition applies one universal standard of good to all people. Moral relativism is, in practice, almost unheard of, because it leads to ludicrous conclusions. True moral relativist would have to sit idly by while cannibals consumed their neighbors since they wouldn't dare impose their morals on others. They key to answering this question is the word everyone. A utilitarian could not forgive the excesses of a brutal culture in the name of relativism; slavery, for example, so obviously frustrates the desires of those enslaved that it could not be shrugged off as a different lifestyle choice. Female circumcision is not simply how they do things in Africa, it prevents millions of girls and women from experiencing sexual pleasure. Consequences matter, not motives.

"Wouldn't a utilitarian doctor kill a perfectly healthy man to give his organs to ten people who needed them?" This and examples like it suppose a naive utilitarian calculus that is only concerned with immediate consequences. But for a utilitarian, all consequences matter, even secondary and remote ones. A society that tolerated the murder of individuals for the benefit of others would be a society in which all people feared for their lives. People would avoid necessary medical treatment rather than risk being slaughtered for parts. Is this really preferable to one in which people are secure, but occasionally wait or even die due to illness? I would argue that is is not. One can probably invent circumstances in which something intuitively horrible is permitted under utilitarianism, but in practical terms such situations would almost never arise.

I should also mention the difference between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism says that you have to calculate the well-being of all involved in a decision for every choice that you make. Rule utilitarianism says to follow rules that, if everyone followed them, would tend to have good consequences overall. I think the key is to use both: in everyday life, having rules of thumb like "don't steal" and "don't lie" is useful. Not only that, but often trying to calculate the results of an action may result in actually achieving worse results, since people aren't perfect utility-calculating machines! But it is also important to keep the basic principle in mind as the basis for these rules, and to cover unique circumstances.

Now for the fun stuff. Let's look at practical applications.

Government. Most people would now agree that democracy is a good thing. But why? Well, democracy gives everyone a say in decisions which effect them. It allows the government to, in effect, consider the interests of all. Democracy is utilitarian. But do we have direct democracy or representative? Does majority rule, or is there protection for minority viewpoints? We can answer these questions by examining the consequences of each possibility.

Direct democracy seems like the most fair system possible, as everyone's opinion is counted perfectly equally. But this doesn't account for the difficulties people have in forming true, honest opinions due to complications such as time and education. Even in the American congress, both houses must divide up into committees and specialize. It is simply impractical for everyone to have the time to be completely educated on all subjects that must be considered. The result is that people will vote with their gut, rather than their brain. The outcome will not necessarily be the one that people would have really wanted if they had been in full possession of the facts. And this is a point that cannot be stressed enough: you can't just fulfill transient whims and expect good consequences. Good is the fulfillment of the desires that people would have if they actually knew the consequences.

So it becomes clear that some form of delegation is necessary, but accountable delegation. The delegates must act as filters for their constituents, forming the opinions that their constituents would form if they had the time to fully consider the facts. In practical terms, this means that sometimes they will vote against the general consensus of their constituents, but the explanation for these votes must be forthcoming and clear. Personal opinions, including religious beliefs, do not trump the good of the people. This is why I support representative democracy with as many concessions to participatory governance as possible: instant-runoff voting for single offices, proportional representation for assemblies, recall of elected officials, initiatives, and referenda.

On the topic of minority rights, we need only consider the possibility that the majority might just plain be wrong sometimes to recognize that there must always be protection for alternative viewpoints.

It is not a radical position to favor democracy. Now we get to a really thorny issue.

Economics. It's gotta be capitalism, right? Sure, there are some problems that require some government regulation here and there, but nothing could allow more people to achieve their desires than having the freedom to do whatever job they want and to keep as much of their money as possible.

I couldn't disagree more.

This conclusion would almost flow from a naive utilitarianism like the one that would let doctors kill individuals for organs. It seems that a "free market" in goods and services gives people the best opportunity to fulfill their desires, and a "free market" in jobs gives people the best opportunity to make money. But we have to examine if this is actually the case before we can agree to it. I am not particularly opposed to markets. A transparent market, in which everyone plays fair, is probably the most efficient way to distribute goods and services possible. But to conflate this sort of idealized market with capitalism is to make a grave mistake.

Capitalism is many things to many people, but the fundamental property of it is private ownership of the means of production. An even simpler way to put it is to say that some people have money, they buy stuff, and they hire other people to use that stuff for profit. Profit is simply whatever money is left over after the expenses of the company are paid, including the wages given to the people the employer hired.

What this means is that most people are employees. They are not making money for themselves, they are making money for someone else who then gives them some of it for their time. The dreaded Karl Marx called this worker alienation: almost nobody these days actually gets the product of their labor. They instead accept whatever fraction of that product their employer can give them without sending them away to find another job. In the utilitarian terms we established above, employers satisfy the desire of employees for money (which allows the fulfillment of other desires) enough that they won't leave; the employers' own desires are satisfied to a much greater extent. In fact, they are satisfied roughly 400 times more than those of the employees, on average. Average CEO income was $11.8 million in 2004, while average worker income was $27,460.

This is not a "flaw" in capitalism, this is the essence of capitalism. The market for labor cannot function unless wages are driven as low as possible and profits (private potential capital) are as high as possible.

Another aspect of capitalism is that those who control capital get to decide the course of a company's future. They get to hire management, they get to sit on boards. Despite the fact that a company might have 20 or 200 or 2,000 employees, decisions are made by a minority or even an individual. When this happens in government, we call it monarchy or oligarchy or authoritarianism. Why do we abhor it in our politics but ignore it in our workplace? Because capitalism demands it. Employees don't have the resources to influence decisions; if they don't like how things are going, they can't fire their bosses — the more likely outcome is that they themselves will be fired.

People have many misconceptions about socialism, almost entirely thanks to the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Perhaps the greatest is that socialism is a "command economy," in which a select few make a plan for everyone else. The irony of this misconception is that corporations are command economies. The Soviet Union was certainly a command economy as well. Almost all modern socialists know that command economies simply don't work. Socialism requires political and economic democracy. To the extent that centralization is necessary, it can only be achieved through the same representative democratic systems we employ for government. Socialism is a diverse spectrum of economic beliefs and theories, and I wouldn't dare summarize all of them here. But there is one thing they share in common: no private ownership of the means of production. Socialists don't necessarily oppose money or even markets. Socialists oppose the concentration of power over people's lives in the hands of the few rather than the hands of the people whose lives are affected by that power.

Personally, and other socialists may strongly disagree, I do favor a market for goods and services. I think the potential abuse of such markets can be mitigated by regulation of such complications as advertising and monopolies, as well as strong government-provided services for necessary or inherently unprofitable sectors such as health care and education. But ultimately, I feel that a market approach to distribution will have better consequences than planning.

I differ from liberals in that I reject the private ownership of capital. I believe that investment must be allocated through public democratic institutions to insure that it works for the benefit of all rather than the few lucky enough to accumulate it. In practice, this would mean rather than businesses paying interest on investment loans from private banks, they would be taxed and the taxes redistributed in grants from public banks.

I also differ from liberals in rejecting the current conception of profit as being a fair distribution of a company's success. To combat the issue of worker alienation, I support workplace democracy, in which there are no employers and employees; everyone who works for a company gets one vote in running it. Needless to say, as with government, delegation and specialization will be necessary. But managers will be elected by those they manage, subject to the same obligations as representatives to Congress. Wages will not be an expense deducted from profit, wages will be profit, distributed however the workers themselves choose through the democratic process.

In other words, people will have more control over their lives, and greater abilities to fulfill their own desires. This, by our definition above, is good.

Animals. Why should equal consideration of interests only apply to human interests? Bentham said, "The question is not, 'can they reason?' nor 'can they talk?' but 'can they suffer?'" Do non-human animals have interests that must be considered?

First, it is clear that most animals do not have desires as we think of them. The sorts of desires humans preoccupy themselves with result from the conscious minds our oversize brains produce. No non-human animal is concerned with buying things, or reading books, or blogging about morality, simply because no animal has the capacity to understand any of these things. I would never argue that a non-human animal is intellectually equivalent to a human, even if certain apes, elephants, and birds approach the mental capacity of human children.

But having different interests is not at all the same as not having any interests. All animals avoid pain. All animals need nutrition. Most animals have a variety of behaviors that they naturally exhibit, both hardwired through instinct and contingent upon their environments. Many animals have social needs and, as far as science can tell, have the same hormonal responses to certain events that in humans we call "emotions." Non-human animals clearly have interests; the most rudimentary interest, and the baseline for moral consideration, is the ability to suffer.

For many people, the knowledge that non-human animals don't know things (such as the fact that a door ahead leads to their imminent slaughter) justifies their suffering. The suffering of an animal, they would argue, is of a different, lesser kind than that of humans. But how can we measure suffering? One of our basic assumptions is that we cannot possibly experience the subjective life of another person, and this applies equally well to animals. If an animal cannot experience a given type of suffering, it is meaningless to then rank other suffering below it
— the worst suffering an animal can experience is the worst it can experience, regardless of if some other animal like a human can experience something different.

The intelligence argument falls apart through thought experiment. If it is justifiable to, say, test cosmetics on rabbits or to eat cows because they are less intelligent than humans, is it also justifiable to test cosmetics on babies and eat the mentally retarded? If not, why? Simply because they are human? We see, then, that the argument from intelligence is really speciesism: disregarding the interests of a being simply because of what species a scientist classified it under. The differences between non-human animals and humans are real, but none of them have any bearing on the question of suffering.

The question then becomes: is some animal suffering worth it? When it comes to food in any modern nation, the answer is categorically no. There is absolutely no need for anyone to consume animals for survival with the multitude of non-animal options available. People continue to do so out of ignorance (which is why we vegans are continually asked "What do you eat?" as if everyone else eats nothing but meat) or simple craving of flavor. As Peter Singer put it, "If we can prevent suffering without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it." Flavor is of no moral significance compared to death or enslavement.

Abortion. The abortion question is actually directly related to the animal question. Both concern the limits of moral consideration and the nature of suffering. Conservative Christians are outraged at the notion that animals are protected by crazy vegetarians who, more often than not, also support a woman's right to choose to kill a precious human baby.

This, however, is another instance of speciesism. The Christian, with an irrational belief in a "soul," supposes that any human life is precious simply be virtue of being human. As soon as "life begins" (a ludicrous phrase, since both the sperm and egg are alive before conception), a zygote has a soul and is therefore a human being with full moral standing. The characteristics of that zygote are irrelevant. Christian ethics is not based on consequences, it is based on rules. That killing a zygote has no harmful consequences for that zygote
— since the zygote cannot experience harm — doesn't matter, because there is a rule against it, and there's no room for debate with God.

In fact, the intuitively disturbing truth is that what we think of as "human" mental capacities don't exist until well after birth, possibly years. It requires stimulation and socialization to produce consciousness, and those things don't happen until after a child is born and raised. Even our criterion for moral consideration (the capacity to suffer) isn't realized in a fetus until well into the third trimester of pregnancy, after 99% of all abortions have already been performed. In other words, morally speaking, there isn't even a question that abortion is acceptable in almost every instance.

But let's examine the gray area, after pain is potentially possible but before "human" consciousness or personhood is developed. When discussing animals, we saw that even animals that lacked sophisticated mental abilities deserved not to be killed for food, as their "desire" to continue living unmolested would be frustrated. Doesn't a late-term fetus have such an interest, and an interest in freedom from pain?

Yes. But recall Singer: "If we can prevent suffering without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it." Flavor is not of comparable moral significance to death, because flavor is trivial. But there are any number of non-trivial reasons for abortion that do justify the possibility of suffering of an unconscious fetus. Remember, almost every abortion would have been performed long before this point, at a time when even trivial desires of the mother outweigh the nonexistent desires of the embryo. So those few things that would cause a pregnant woman to abort a fetus they'd already carried for eight or nine months are generally significant. Danger to the woman's health, for example. Discovery of a painful or debilitating disability in the fetus. Such things are of comparable moral significance, and sacrificing them for an unconscious fetus would be absurd.

I hope this post has given you an idea of my beliefs, assuming you've made it down this far. As always, I welcome comment and questioning.


Here we are at my new blog. "Why a new blog?" you might ask. Well, two reasons.

First of all, I was feeling a little vain having my name as my blog title. As I was browsing some other blogs I noticed that isn't incredibly common. It seemed as though it would be much more fun to try to come up with something clever instead. Not that my new title is particularly clever, but it's a title, at least.

Secondly, now that I am gainfully employed as a teacher, I don't think I will be blogging much about my personal life. This blog isn't about me, it's about what I think. Anyone who is interested in the sordid details of my life would do much better to email me and ask about them. Hopefully you're also interested in what I have to say; if so, please stick around.

Thanks for following me over here! Please visit often; this blog will be updated far more frequently than my previous blog was towards the end of its run.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Seriously, yo

What do we have to do to get an unmarried, civilly-united, socialist mother-of-two to be a front-runner in our country's presidential race? Not that Ségolène Royal is my dream candidate, but the idea is nice.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Another quick thought about Buddhism

My views on the subject of this post have changed since the post was written. I am leaving the post up, but please note that it is no longer consistent with my opinion.

After some more consideration, I think I can better articulate how I use "Buddhism" in my life (it must be in quotes since I have never actually practiced it per se). I definitely consider myself a preference utilitarian in that I think that good is defined as "that which satisfies the preferences of the most people the most often" and bad is that which doesn't. Where the "Buddhism" comes in is in determining for myself what preferences I really have, and which are trivial. Which is to say, accepting that pain is a part of life and letting go of needless desires. Or something like that.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

My head exploded and this post is being typed by a decapitated corpse

George W. Bush at the dedication of the National Museum of the Marine Corps:
"Years from now, when America looks out on a democratic Middle East growing in freedom and prosperity, Americans will speak of the battles like Fallujah with the same awe and reverence that we now give to Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima."

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Ryanism, or: I'm an accidental Buddhist

I've been reading a lot about Buddhism in the last week or so. This in itself is not particularly noteworthy; I read a lot about a lot of things. I usually get something stuck in my head for a couple weeks and study it as intensely as my schedule will allow. A few weeks ago, I learned about as much as a lay person can know about designing nuclear fusion rockets for interstellar spacecraft propulsion. Now it's Buddhism.

Of course, I came into this already knowing the barest of basics of Buddhism. I knew the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. But I had never really thought about it in any serious, analytical way since a humanities class in high school. Not only was that a decade ago, but it was high school, so how serious could it have really been?

What I discovered is that, independent of Buddhism to the best of my knowledge, I already live my life pretty much according to the practices of Buddhism. I certainly and absolutely reject the entire spiritual component of Buddhism. But I still find myself using what is apparently the "Buddhist method" when it comes to ethics and how I deal with problems.

Now, different schools of Buddhism will phrase things slightly differently, or disagree on specifics, but I'd like to go through this generally as I understand it. The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are: life is suffering; the cause of suffering is selfish desire; there is a way to ease suffering; the way to ease suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path.

I. Life is suffering. I think this should be self-evident to anyone who lives. But for me, I think the most significant element of this truth is exemplified in the folk wisdom that sometimes bad things happen to good people. We are not in control, and we never will be. The universe is utterly indifferent to the affairs of people. You can never have everything you want; as you climb Maslow's hierarchy of needs you simply want the next -- and when you reach the top, you will still want things like world peace or an end to hunger or not to be vaporized when an asteroid hits the planet.

II. The cause of suffering is selfish desire. This one is a bit less immediately obvious. At least, it isn't intuitive to me. But when I think of it, this is essentially true. Every act of suffering can be framed as a frustration of a desire. Simple unhappiness may result from the frustration of one's desire for a given material possession, or for the acceptance of peers, or something of that nature. The suffering of hunger is the frustration of the innate desire (and indeed, necessity) to eat. The suffering of torture is the frustration of the desire to avoid pain. So long as a person desires something, anything, there will be suffering.

III. There is a way to ease suffering. I depart from the Buddha himself, and from Buddhists in general, in that I pretty firmly believe that it is impossible to reach Nirvana, if my understanding that one who has attained this enlightenment is completely free from desire and therefore suffering. If I ever lived a life in which the death of a loved one did not cause me suffering, I am not sure that would be desirable. But I steadfastly agree that it is possible to ease and to minimize suffering, and that an extremely large amount of the pain and grief people endure is avoidable.

IV. The way to ease suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path. Obviously, my acceptance of this truth is dependent upon just what that path is. So let's look at it:

1. Right understanding. This simply means understanding the Four Noble Truths.

2. Right thought. This refers to having good aspirations and intentions, good will, and non-violence. Have you met me? The part of this that pertains to one's commitment to Buddhism itself I cannot say I follow, but my will towards others is pretty unfailingly good. The Three Poisons are greed, hatred, and ignorance. I feel that I do a good job of avoiding them.

3. Right speech. Abstaining from lying, divisive and abusive speech, and idle chatter. I don't really have a huge problem with idle chatter, but I would say I ascribe to this idea.

4. Right action. This is essentially the ethical code of Buddhism, most typically listed as the Five Precepts: don't kill (I'm a vegan), don't steal (I don't), don't rape or commit adultery (usually understood as "sexual misconduct" rather than the prudish moralism of the Abrahamic religions), don't lie (I don't often), and don't abuse intoxicants (I do drink, but I can honestly say I have never been, nor do I have any desire to be, so drunk or high that I seriously lost function or control).

5. Right livelihood. Don't engage in occupations that involve any of the bad things above. So no weapons dealing, warfare, slaughtering animals, slave-trafficking, cheating, and the like. I'm a teacher and wannabe writer, so I think I've got this one covered.

6. Right effort. This would be the daily effort to follow all of the elements of the Eightfold Path. I do consciously try to do most of the things I've said I do. Anyone who has seen me calmly ignore being cut off in traffic or something similar knows that I'm a level-headed person, but this is actually a conscious decision on my part. When something starts to upset me, I just make it stop and it goes away.

7. Right mindfulness. Being "in the moment," detached and aware of what is happening. I think for me this is related to the above. I try to be conscious of my consciousness, if that makes any sense, and I started doing this at a young age completely apart from Buddhism. When I have a bad feeling, I am aware that it is just a feeling and with a bit of effort I can make it go away.

8. Right concentration. Meditation. I don't do it, but I am interested in it. I completely reject the supernatural element some would have, but I do believe that it is probably a good way to focus one's thoughts and maintain calm. So learning to meditate is not out of the realm of possibility for me.

So, in a way, I think I am an accidental Buddhist. But I don't think I could ever describe myself as a Buddhist, because I reject the entire metaphysical underpinnings of the religion. It is currently considered hip for Americans to look at Buddhism as "a philosophy" rather "a religion," but I think this is simply because they can't conceive of a religion that doesn't feature a God to pray to. I'm not entirely sure that Buddhism (and Taoism, and Confucianism, for that matter) aren't a distinguishable class of beliefs from Western religions, but if they are, they are certainly not as secular as "philosophies." If Buddhism were a philosophy rather than a religion there would simply not be any talk of spirituality and certainly not of reincarnation. That there are fairly large numbers of Buddhists who ignore these aspects of the religion is rather irrelevant, and only a reflection of Buddhism's avoidance of doctrine.

But Buddhism without the Buddha, and without a supernatural conception of karma and enlightenment, is just a way of living life to minimize suffering. To continue to call it "Buddhism" is like calling science "Christianity" or algebra "Islam." At most, it could be called a Buddhism-based philosophy. But my experience, to me at least, proves that arriving at this philosophy does not require being "Buddhism-based."

Pragmatically, however, I am interested in the spread and continued popularity in the West. Because there are plenty of people who do believe in supernatural hocus-pocus, and who could not conceive of a worldview in which reality was all that existed, it would be preferable to people who believe in moral concepts described above that that those who need a spiritual component to their lives fill that need with a religion that follows those concepts rather than one that does not.

I have said that politically I would rather live in a world in which the borders of the debate fell between the socialists and the anarchists and the liberals than between the liberals and the conservatives. Likewise, I would love a world in which the great religious divide was between the Buddhists and the humanists and the atheists -- a world in which we all agree on what is good, and merely disagree on why.