Archive for September 2007
When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost… All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.’ The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron. – H.L. Mencken, Baltimore Sun, July 26 1920
Q: Mr. President, back to your grade point average on holding the line on taxes —
THE PRESIDENT: Whew, I thought you were going to talk about the actual grade point average. (Laughter.) I remind people that, like when I’m with Condi I say, she’s the Ph.D. and I’m the C-student, and just look at who’s the President and who’s the advisor. (Laughter.) But go ahead.
– George W. Bush, Press Conference, September 20, 2007
It’s interesting to hear Bush sum up exactly what Mencken said in so many words. Look who’s the President, indeed.
And one other quip about his own intelligence from that same press conference:
Q: Do you think there’s a risk of a recession? How do you rate that?
THE PRESIDENT: You know, you need to talk to economists. I think I got a B in Econ 101. I got an A, however, in keeping taxes low — (laughter) — and being fiscally responsible with the people’s money. We’ve submitted a plan that will enable this budget to become balanced by 2012, so long as Congress learns to set priorities. And we can balance the budget without raising taxes. – George W. Bush, Press Conference, September 20, 2007
(Actually, he was more correct in the first quote; he was a C student through and through. And the quip about getting an A in fiscal responsibility… I won’t even dignify that comment with further acknowledgment.)
Of all the peculiarities of human nature, anti-intellectualism is the one that confounds me the most. What is it about being a moron that makes you want to be governed by fellow morons, rather than someone who’s more intelligent? Why would one actively and enthusiastically subvert yourself to that? Yet it seems even more true today than when H.L. Mencken penned that first quote 87 years ago.
Shiver me timbers! Since ’tis september 19th, and in me continuing effort t’ combat global warming, to be sure, I demand all me readers talk like a buccaneer t’day, I’ll warrant ye, t’ be sure, or else I’ll have ye walk th’ plank, I’ll warrant ye, arrr.
Here’s some resources fer those o’ ye who need help: buccaneer glossary, t’ help ye learn t’ speak like one, aye, ye scurvey dog. A list o’ buccaneer laws, t’ help ye properly behave. And o’ course, to be sure, th’ official Talk Like a Pirate Day web site.
Morality has always puzzled me; not least of which because it seems to dwell so much on individual sexual behavior, rather than how we treat our fellow humans. In a world with such suffering, where so many wrongs are committed by human beings against each other… it’s just mind boggling that what two consenting adults do with each other can be of any concern others. Yet this is the front and center issue of morality crusaders, and in their minds takes precedence over suffering, poverty, violence, the environment… all things that strike me as being of far greater moral concern than who’s boinking whom. Why is that?
The answer seems to have come in a fascinating article in the New York Times yesterday (now without a pay wall!), which examines the biological basis for morality and is titled Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes?
Dr. Haidt (pronounced height) began his research career by probing the emotion of disgust. Testing people’s reactions to situations like that of a hungry family that cooked and ate its pet dog after it had become roadkill, he explored the phenomenon of moral dumbfounding — when people feel strongly that something is wrong but cannot explain why.
Dumbfounding led him to view morality as driven by two separate mental systems, one ancient and one modern, though the mind is scarcely aware of the difference. The ancient system, which he calls moral intuition, is based on the emotion-laden moral behaviors that evolved before the development of language. The modern system — he calls it moral judgment — came after language, when people became able to articulate why something was right or wrong.
The emotional responses of moral intuition occur instantaneously — they are primitive gut reactions that evolved to generate split-second decisions and enhance survival in a dangerous world. Moral judgment, on the other hand, comes later, as the conscious mind develops a plausible rationalization for the decision already arrived at through moral intuition.
In a nutshell, evolution shaped the things we’re disgusted by. Those who felt disgust at the mistreatment of others in their tribe were more likely to survive and pass their genes on, because they could participate in a society and reap the benefits of belonging to that group. But so to did evolution program us to feel disgust at certain sexual acts – homoeroticism and female promiscuity being chief among them. Again, because those who didn’t were less likely to pass their genes on.
According to Dr. Haidt, this forms our most basic level of morality – an emotional reaction of disgust towards certain acts. After we evolved language, we rationalized and codified this emotion, thus forming the basis for morality, religion, and social norms. And so non-moral issues like sex got grouped together with truly moral issues like theft and murder.
Of course, this just raises a question about results produced by that second mental system discussed in the article. People, once we evolved language and reason, naturally enough, began to question why they felt such disgust at certain behaviors. But rather than correctly reason (as I did above) that an aversion to homosexuality is an adaptation to guide us towards lots of heterosexual sex and therefore grandchildren, our ancestors made a rather astounding leap of logic and assumed it to be a universal law, enforced by a diety. “God wants it that way”. This impulse towards religious explanations over rational ones is another thing that’s always baffled me, but it’s something the article fails to explain.
The article also begs the question of why this seems to be something less than universal. Why do some people (such as myself) have such low regard for authoritarian morals and social norms, and instead hold to an ethic driven by a respect for individual rights and freedom? Dr. Haidt touches on this question. He describes five categories of morality, and notes that liberals essentially disregard three of them – these happen to be the three that sexual morality could conceivably fall into. Overall I find this explanation lacking though. I disagree with several of the points he makes – most notably an assertion that conservatives are better able to understand liberals than vice versa (anyone who’s spent any time dealing with the religious right or who’s listened to right wing talk radio would beg to differ). Mostly however, I think it just lacks explanatory power; it describes the thinking of liberals and conservatives, but doesn’t attempt to explain from where those differences emerge.
Overall it’s a thought provoking piece though.
Even the most basic explanations of the fall of the Roman Empire never fail to include “reliance on mercenaries” in the laundry list of reasons. I think about that every time contractors and Blackwater’s name in particular come up in the news.
Without any reference to their cover story of a few weeks ago that spawned my post Our Idiocratic Education System, there appeared this blurb in the current issue of Time magazine which briefly discusses groups that are trying to change the No Child Left Behind act to track the smart kids as well, and offers some statistics relating “giftedness” to socioeconomic status. It’s short, but it should of interest to anyone interested in the topic.
I can’t claim a deep understanding of what happened with Shinzo Abe that led to his resignation last week as Prime Minister of Japan. There’s unfortunately a language barrier between myself and the kinds of primary sources that I utilize to gain an understanding of English language politics.
What I gather from the international press is thus: He took office a relatively popular guy with high approval ratings, suffered a series of scandals, events, gaffes, and outright screw ups that led to a dramatic reversal of his approval ratings that hurt his party this past July and forced his resignation this last week. I won’t comment upon the precise nature of any of those events because, as I said, I lack the deep understanding necessary to say anything intelligent on the matter. Instead, I’d like to offer what’s to me the most striking thing about his tenure as Prime Minister, from my American perspective: he resigned.
I can’t help but observe that in many respects, the story of Shinzo Abe mirrors the political decline of another world leader, George W. Bush. But whereas Abe is now out of office and Japan has a chance to correct itself under new leadership, the US is stuck with Bush for another 15 months. Unfortunately, Bush lacks the integrity and honor of Shinzo Abe – or Richard Nixon, for that matter – so it seems a deeply unlikely thing that he’ll just do the right thing and resign before the end of his term in 2009. Further, the Democrats in congress lack the integrity and spine to do the right thing and impeach him. The American people, meanwhile, are left with no other option to remove him from office – which means we’re stuck with him.
The world is at a crossroads, and the US is in a critical state. We’re in desperate need of able, competent, and effective leadership, who can see us through this difficult time of military conflict, an imminent energy crunch, global environmental damage and climate change, and shifting economic fortunes. The notion that we have to wait at least another 15 months before any of the critical issues of the day are truly addressed is disturbing. Somehow, some way, the US needs a mechanism that can make what happened in Japan happen here – the removal of a President from office mid-term, when his continued presence becomes so antithetical to the public interest. We could learn a serious lesson from Japan in this regard.