Saturday, December 16, 2017

Reprint: Yo, Secular Leftists — Arguing with Religious People (an Introduction)

From Richard D. Erlich, Views from a Jagged Orbit (before 2014)

De Gustibus & Intelligent Argument

A fair number of people are familiar with the idea that you really can't have a useful argument over tastes ("De gustibus non est disputandum"), and a quick check of what people think neat to put up on YouTube — or a quicker check of YouTube's pornographic spawn — will point to the truth of that assertion.

Less well known in the injunction from the Hebrew Fathers to, not surprisingly, "Be diligent in the study of Torah, and," relevant here, "know how to answer an Epicurean." That is, at least for my purposes, the old rabbis enjoined knowing one's own tradition and premises and being able to argue with someone with very different ideas. A religious follower of Scriptures, the rabbis taught, should know how to argue with — the rabbis would want you to defeat — a materialist philosopher.

In arguing with an "Epicurean," a religious person could not use the final formulation of more recent rabbis and their more authoritarian followers: "Er steht!" — "It's written"; "It's a commandment!" The obvious Epicurean response to that would be, "So what?" To answer effectively a materialist, a secularist — then and now — one would have to argue from premises you can both agree on.

And, more important in our time, vice versa — for a secularist arguing with a religious person.

For a secularist to argue effectively with a religious person, the secular person must know "Torah": i.e., what the religious person at least claims to hold authoritative. It's nice that Protestants and Catholics are no longer burning one another at the stake nor taking turns burning Baptists and flogging Quakers. And it's nice that atheists are coming out of the closet and arguing for their position.

The danger to my beliefs, though, is an alliance of Believers against not just strident atheists but secularists in general, and against those of us who want to follow a religious tradition in a society that welcomes us and (aiding that welcome) runs a thoroughly secular state. The danger to my political positions, and that of many, is a Left that becomes increasingly militant in its secularism and (therefore) increasingly politically marginalized among an American public composed largely of various kinds of cooperating Believers.

So, my atheist friends: a bit of advice. Recall the great principle of Occam's Razor and the story of the mathematician-astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace and Napoleon. When Napoleon asked Laplace how he, Laplace, could write a substantial book "on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator," Laplace replied that he "had no need of that hypothesis." Even so, American atheists, when an argument comes up about God, just say, "I have no need of that hypothesis" — and let it go at that. More generally on the Left: gals and guys, "Know how to work with religious people" — including at times with religious people with whom you have profound disagreements.

If some apocalyptically-minded Christians are right, it's important to get Jews in control of all of what was ancient Israel and Judea and (even) Samaria to bring on the End of Days, at which time those Jews will either submit to Jesus or burn forever in the Lake of Fire. No Jews like that idea, but if they're Likudnik Jews or even further to the Right, they can ally with Right-wing Christians on Zionist issues. And they have allied, and not just regarding Israel.

So it shouldn't be so goddamn difficult for today's secular Leftists to learn the history of effective political movements in the USA, bone up on the more radical teachings of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, and renew the old alliances for peace, social justice, and the equitable distribution of the world's resources and wealth.

"The Earth is the Lord's / and the fullness thereof, / The sea and all that in them is" saith the 24th Psalm, and the psalmist goes on to justify God's ownership by a labor theory of property: "for he founded [the world] upon the seas / And established it upon the waters." If you're trying to get people to make the U.S. economy more fair, that's a good place to start — and you can omit arguing that the true story of creation is Big-Bang Cosmology.

Et bloody cetera for the divinity of Jesus if you want allies against militarism and against coddling the rich. You, my Liberal-Leftist-Peacenik friend, want a more humble U.S. foreign policy; Jesus enjoined downright pacifism. Use that!

And if anyone accuses you, correctly, of "cherry-picking" teachings, point out that there are not ten commandments in Torah but, by traditional count, 613. Moses was just the beginning. Selecting, emphasizing, de-emphasizing, rationalizing, modifying, allegorizing, and sensibly gentling (and sometimes just ignoring) religious doctrines has been the name of the game since the old rabbis decided that "an eye for an eye" meant equitable compensation, Jesus healed chronic medical problems on the Sabbath, and St. Paul said a guy could be a saved follower of Messiah without circumcision and that nobody needed to follow all those finicky Jewish food regulations.

So, devout religious folk, "Know how to answer" us materialists — or at least talk with us politely. My fellow Leftist-pinko-peacenik sorts (including small "b" believers): If you want to effect change, learn how to talk to and with religious people. Effective politics are coalition politics, and as of now the Right is kicking our asses at it.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Trump's Tweets Revisited: Concerning Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, 12 Dec. 2017, 5:03 AM US Eastern Time

"Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, [...] 
someone who would come to my office 'begging' 
for campaign contributions not so long ago 
(and would do anything for them), 
is now in the ring fighting against Trump. 
Very disloyal to Bill & Crooked-USED!"

On 8 August 2017, President Trump threatened North Korea "with fire and fury [...] the likes of which this world has never seen before." The 8th of August falls between the 6th of August, the anniversary of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and 9 August, the bombing of Nagasaki. So whatever Mr. Trump intended to say, in that context of basic calendar what he did say was a threat against North Korea of "fire and fury" exceeding two smallish atomic bombs, a degree of "fire and fury" that would require a hydrogen bomb or several substantial fission bombs. That's what the words mean. 

"Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand [...] would come to my office 'begging' for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them) [...]" is ambiguous only insofar as some people use quotation marks for emphasis, which is a bad idea, since _fresh_ fruit is claimed to be definitely fresh while "fresh" fruit may not be (etc.). Aside from that, the text *says* that L. Gillibrand "would do anything" for campaign contributions; so it means she'd do anything up to the point readers think the tweet has moved into hyperbole and, well, bullshit. When people say "By any means necessary" or "nothing is off the table" or "we will do anything" — I challenge them with the question from NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, if they'd be willing "to throw sulphuric acid in a child's face [...]." If not (and let us hope not) — spare us such unmodified, "use-your-imagination" threats

Given the image of "begging" (in quotation marks especially), one may stop far short of having Gillibrand start a war or throw acid in a child's face and take Trump's comment as a suggestion of fellatio or other sex act.

WORDS MEAN, if sometimes in complex ways; but Trump has invited such readings and must take responsibility for them. The words of the President of the United States, in a medium we've been told to see as official, had damn well better _mean_ and be chosen carefully. Trump in this recent tweet either has a serious accusation to make or he's defamed a US Senator in a crude and misogynist way — and/or he's shown himself too damaged in his use of language to be trusted in any position of trust or authority.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Don't Call Roy Moore a Pedophile (Better: Colloquial "Child Molester")

Except for the useful abbreviations i. e., e. g. and etc., 
there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases
now current in the English language. Bad writers,
and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers,
are nearly always haunted by the notion that
Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones […].
— George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language" (1946)

Don't call Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for US Senate from Alabama — by the time you read this, probably elected senator from Alabama — a pedophile; consider instead calling him a "plausibly-accused sexual predator and child molester."
            One reason for this choice of words would be the, ahem, dictum of George Orwell to avoid the pretentiousness of using Greek or Latin when English will serve. Pedophile is "From pedo- + -phile, after Ancient Greek παιδοφῐ́λης (paidophílēs) (from παῖς [paîs, boy, child] and φιλέω [philéō, 'I love'])," and my giving the etymology by itself nicely demonstrates such pretentiousness.
            More important, pedophilia is a technical term in psychology, with a specific technical definition.

Pedophilia or paedophilia is a psychiatric disorder in which an adult or older adolescent experiences a primary or exclusive sexual attraction to prepubescent children.[1][2] Although girls typically begin the process of puberty at age 10 or 11, and boys at age 11 or 12,[3] criteria for pedophilia extend the cut-off point for prepubescence to age 13.[1] A person who is diagnosed with pedophilia must be at least 16 years old, and at least five years older than the prepubescent child, for the attraction to be diagnosed as pedophilia.[1][2] 
Pedophilia is termed pedophilic disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), and the manual defines it as a paraphilia involving intense and recurrent sexual urges towards and fantasies about prepubescent children that have either been acted upon or which cause the person with the attraction distress or interpersonal difficulty.[1] The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) defines it as a sexual preference for children of prepubertal or early pubertal age.[4] 
In popular usage, the word pedophilia is often applied to any sexual interest in children or the act of child sexual abuse.[5][6] This use conflates the sexual attraction to prepubescent children with the act of child sexual abuse, and fails to distinguish between attraction to prepubescent and pubescent or post-pubescent minors.[7][8] Researchers recommend that these imprecise uses be avoided because although people who commit child sexual abuse are sometimes pedophiles,[6][9] child sexual abuse offenders are not pedophiles unless they have a primary or exclusive sexual interest in prepubescent children,[7][10][11] and some pedophiles do not molest children.[12]

Like, a pedophile has a mental disease, and if he — usually he — seeks treatment and successfully resists his urges, he is to be pitied and perhaps even admired. Pedophilia is something one suffers, and pedophile is, in a sense, something one is, and what we are is far more problematic and far less anyone else's business than what we do.
            Roy Moore has been plausibly accused of actions that are unethical and illegal and have the more colloquial English label of "child (sexual) molesting" (although "molesting" has its French and Latin background — so does "chair"!). Aspects of his character relevant to service in the United States Senate are most immediately the concern of the voters of Alabama. The rest of us can talk about what he has done, or is accused of having done — and we can do it in plain, or plainer, English.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Nation v. Republic

For he might have been a Roosian, 

A French, or Turk, or Proosian, 

Or perhaps Itali-an! 
Or perhaps Itali-an!
But in spite of all temptations 

To belong to other nations, 

He remains an Englishman! 

He remains an Englishman!
 — Gilbert and Sullivan, H.M.S. Pinafore

         My headnote from W. S. Gilbert's 1878 Pinafore lyrics includes a joke that some 20th-century Americans missed, and some 21st-century Americans might still miss.
         About 1599, in his Henry V, Shakespeare shows a British army in France with captains who are Welsh, Irish, Scottish, and English and who talk of those designations as their nations. Things hadn't changed much that way by the Victorian era in the 19th century, nor with the mother of a friend of mine who corrected people who thought she was English by telling them she was Welsh. Nor during the run-up to Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee, when I saw a Union Jack only at a touristy place in the somewhat-United Kingdom and otherwise saw only the flags of the nations, especially, where I was, the English cross of St. George and the Scots cross of St. Andrew.
         The United Kingdom has one monarch, one flag of union, and four nations. And that's just one country we Americans refer to loosely as "England."
         "Nation" in the old sense was your tribe writ large: your ethnos, your people, and it wasn't something you chose, and it wasn't something you could change. You were born a Russian, Turk, French, or Prussian — and a Prussian damn well wasn't a Bavarian — and that was who you were.
         In that sense, Japan is a nation, and France is, sort of: France was pieced together from different independent medieval fiefs, and some Basques of France are getting restless, which gets one to the issue of Spain and the Basques and Catalans. And digging down a bit one would get to Québécois in Canada and, a bit further, such sensitive issues as Armenians in Turkey in the early 20th century and the ethnic issues behind "ethnic cleansing" in the late 20th century.
         In this sense of nation as "tribe writ large," the phrase "a nation of immigrants" makes sense only if you do a very fine-grain analysis of the old tribes and note that many of the big ones in historical times really weren't all that "blood and soil" pure-bred but more like confederations and semi-open communities.
         The First Peoples in the Western Hemisphere are also called "the Indian nations," and that's a plural. When the White folk arrived, they came from different cultures in Europe, and, indeed, even just what we call "the English" — "Albion's Seed" — came in different groups even more local than the current four UK nations and contributed to what Colin Woodard identifies as the "Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America" (American Nations, 2011).
         How we count those (North) American "nations" or see our histories — plural — and rivalries isn't crucial; the crucial point is that the USA has not been, is not now, and for a long time won't be, if ever, "one Nation, under God" (or atheist or pagan).
         And unless we exclude a whole lot of people, we're not "a White, Christian" — as in "I used to be Catholic, but now I'm Christian" — nation. (That Christian vs. Catholic line is a quotation from a student of mine: a nice guy I had a talk with on, let's say, religious nomenclature.)
         What we are, I think and hope, is what's identified in the old story of Benjamin Franklin's exiting the final session of the Constitutional Convention to be confronted by a woman who asked, in my paraphrase, «Well, Dr. Franklin, what kind of government have you given us […]?", answered with, «A republic, madam, if you can keep it
         We are, I think and hope, a republic, with a "mixt constitution" combining a rather monarchical President with an aristocratic Senate and a relatively democratic House of Representatives — as the Founders mostly intended, combined with a robust judiciary to check the other branches, and a professional bureaucracy to get the whole ungainly apparatus to work for what has become a large country.
         And we have citizens: people loyal to the Constitution (as much as they understand it) and to ideals in what has been called a civic religion, celebrated most especially on the Fourth of July, the anniversary of the signing of our Declaration of Independence, one basis of American ideals.
         The Republic, of course, is kind of abstract and intellectual, but, then, you can't touch or smell or literarily feel a nation. Corporations are "fictive persons," but they exist, and money is just paper — or electrons in motion nowadays — backed up by convention and imagination and faith. The Nation also is a matter of symbols, rituals, origin myths, and stories, and in a better world than this one would be a safe and easy way to get emotional commitment to the State.
         In the world we actually have, the Nation gets emotional attachment much too easily, leading far too often to almost idolatrous attachment to symbols and a warm and fuzzy feeling of absorption into the tribe.
         Screw that. Or screw the extremes of "that": the xenophobic chauvinism summed up in Mel Brooks's joke about the first national anthem: "Let 'em all go to hell, / Except Cave Seventy-six!" Screw unthinking infatuation with our little tribes, with us.
         What we need instead is a mature love for the homeland we were born into or have adopted, a firm patriotism for the American Republic as an ideal and a hope for human dignity. The Republic as a great experiment in self-rule, what Abraham Lincoln called "the last best hope of earth" if we can maintain our Union and expand freedom. We can strive for a nation embodied in a Republic worthy of our love and even that "last full measure of devotion" for the ideal celebrated by Lincoln: the poet of the Republic as "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" — which God forbid should ever be replaced by the low appeal of just another arrogant, self-absorbed band of nationalists deluded by the myths of blood, soil, and ethnic purity.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Opioid Numbers

            A Chicago Tribune editorial reprinted in my local newspaper as "How to halt deadly toll of opioids" (Nov. 13) says that in 2016, "64,000 people died of drug overdoses," generally opioids. In 2014, there were 207,400 drug-related human deaths, so it's safe to assume there were more than that in 2016; 64,000 is for the US.
            It is a number that needs to be put in context and analyzed.
            In 2014, there were 2,624,418 total deaths of Americans, nearly 46% of them from heart disease and cancer. The 64,000 figure would put the US death rate from drug overdoses between those in 2014 for diabetes (76,488) and influenza plus pneumonia (55,227).
            What makes the 64,000 newsworthy — aside from money, politics, and the good old American obsession with drugs — is that such deaths are largely preventable.
            The Trib editorial suggests some ways of prevention, but we need more detailed numbers and analysis.
            To clarify a related discussion, I've suggested that the most direct way to decrease gun deaths in the USA would be to provide old men like me ways of killing ourselves more elegant than blowing out our brains. How many of those drug deaths are relatively nonmessy suicides? We might have less an opioid crisis than one of despair; and the responsible social answer to despair is psychological intervention and helping people achieve lives worth living.

            Are many of the deaths from accidental overdose? We keep down the rate of overdose deaths for legal drugs by regulation of purity and labeling. A direct way to reduce deaths by accidental overdose would be similar supply of FDA-approved illegal drugs, dispensed by responsible people. If we refuse to supply drugs of certified purity and dosage, then we need to make that decision consciously, and tone down laments about the horrors of overdose as such: we clearly have other priorities.