The Darker Side of Humanity

Go read this story that illustrates the depths of savagery and depravity to which human beings can sink (and, ironically enough, it seems, most often in the name of some religion or other).

As the son of a post-WWII German immigrant, I've always been sensitive to the tendency to condemn whole national populations on the basis of the evil perpetrated by its worst members. The simple self-evident fact is that most people are good people most of the time, and things like culture, religion, race, gender and so on have little to do with it. It's more about using one's mind and taking responsibility for one's own existence.

Still, it's difficult for me to read a story such as the above and not wonder why in the hell the US has bothered with the likes of Iraq. Speaking collectively, which I try to keep to an absolute minimum, it's hard to see those people as deserving of a goddamned thing from us.

Greed: The “Income Gap” Deconstructed

Everyone knows that the 80s was the “Decade of Greed,” right? Well, of course it was. That’s what it’s called, and as everyone knows, if something is asserted long enough and affirmatively enough, that makes it just so. Or does it?

It serves one well, from time-to-time, to revisit old articles and essays written by oneself and others to ascertain their accuracy and relevance years later. Recently, I was involved in a private email dialog where the subject of the “Income Gap” came up. I vaguely recalled an article I had read in Reason years ago and set about to find it. Turns out that the article is now 11 years old, and in my judgment, is just as relevant and accurate now as it was then.

See if you agree, and note that there are some typos. Looks like it was scanned and OCRed from printed text. It’s about the 80s as the “Decade of Greed” in general, but includes a great exposé of the myth surrounding the “income gap.” Here’s that part of it.

A third factor that supports the view of the '80s as a decade of greed is an implicit sense of fairness about the distribution of income. Although egalitarians are guilty of considerable statistical subterfuge on this issue, there is no question that the income gap between rich and poor has widened recently. According to the standard Census Bureau measures, the share of aggregate income received by households in the upper fifth of the income scale increased from 44.2 percent in 1979 to nearly 47 percent in 1989. Gains by the upper tenth and the upper 1 percent were even more pronounced. The broadest measure of inequality, an index known as the Gini coefficient, began rising slowly in the mid '70s and then rose more steeply in the last decade.

Press reports rarely bother to mention what ought to be obvious -- that the poorest fifth in 1979 and the poorest fifth in 1989 are not the same class of individuals. Census figures indicate that real income in a given quintile changes by no more than 1 percent from one year to the next, whereas annual turnover in the composition of the quintiles is 20 percent to 40 percent. Thus the commonly reported statistics on income distribution do not measure the economic fate of individuals over time. They measure changes in the value that the market places on various productive functions -- various "offices" in the economy that are occupied by different people at different times.

The real question of fairness is whether individuals are free to exploit the opportunities available to them in the effort to improve their condition. A mixed economy like ours places many constraints on such freedom, from the income tax to the regulations that control entry into many businesses and professions. But longitudinal studies that follow individuals over time show there is still a great deal of social mobility. The Treasury Department's Office of Tax Analysis analyzed a random sample of people who filed tax returns during the decade from 1979 to 1989. Only 14 percent of those in the bottom quintile in 1979 remained there 10 years later; everyone else had moved up the income ladder as they got older. Indeed, more of them (15 percent) made it all the way to the highest quintile than remained at the bottom.

A similar study by the Urban Institute covered two 10-year periods: 1967-77 and 1977-87. In each case, those in the bottom quintile at the beginning of the decade increased their incomes by an average of 75 percent over the next 10 years. Those in the top quintile at the outset had an average increase of 5 percent. As the authors put it, "when one follows individuals rather than statistical groups defined by income, one finds that, on average, the rich got a little richer and the poor got much richer over the decades." The study also showed that the rate of mobility was about the same during these two decades. Contrary to the impression one gets from the media, the transformations of the '80s did not diminish the prospects of moving up the economic ladder.

The Passion Revisited

Since seeing the film and discussing it with others, Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) in particular, I've been a bit surprised at how many people believe that the events actually happened as depicted. That is, they believe that the depiction is Biblically accurate.

It is not. In fact, it's way, way off in many respects. However, according to those who have read her works, the film does indeed accurately reflect the "revelations" of a 19th century German nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824). Her book, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, was published by the church in 1833. Current edditions of this book claim that it is the inspiration behind Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

For what it's worth, I think it's important to make distinctions between dramatizations (which have certainly been done many times in film with respect to Biblical events) and that which is claimed to be literally true. Gibson claims that he believes this film to be literally true, and if you believe that as well, then you should know that these "truths" are not found in the Bible, but in the mystical "visions" of someone who lived 200 years ago and some 1800 years after Jesus Christ.

There is a somewhat lengthy, but well-researched article about all of this, and much more. Read it here.

Why Am I Not Surprised?

For the next installment on the Envy Parade surrounding Martha Stewart's conviction, notice the last paragraph of this NewsMax article:

Stewart had a reputation before the trial as a ruthless businesswoman, and in court she was portrayed as rude, insulting, demanding and cheap. According to testimony, she once threatened to take her business elsewhere because she did not like her brokerage's telephone hold music. [Emphasis mine.]

Let me get this straight. That she may be rude, insulting, demanding, and cheap has something to do with whether she acted to violate "laws," in fact, as the prosecution claims she acted? (...based on a load of bullshit "laws"—I will add right here—and "lying to prosecutors?" Guess "freedom of speech" doesn't include lying. What a bunch of mega Fuckheads, which is very plain to see upon the realization that these GovCo Viagra-Gobbling, LawyerSwine, Shithead Prosecutors actually charged her with securities fraud because she stated that she was innocent. In other words, Uncle Fuckface Sam charges you with a crime, and upon verbalizing your innocence, you are guilty of another.).

And no, I don't feel any better, so just shut the fuck up.

The Envy Parade

Imagine that you've done nothing particularly remarkable in your life; that you've never shocked anyone at all with your depth of insight; that you've never drawn a payroll check from your own bank account and handed it to someone else who has you to thank for their livelihood; that nary a single soul in the world can point to a single thing in their vast landscape of life experience that changed their life for the better and has you to thank for it.

I believe that Martha Stewart could not begin to imagine any of the above. I believe that most, if not all of the eight jurors in her case can not only begin, but get a good way through such a daydream and be quite comfortable with it, like an old pair of shoes or well worn suit of clothes.

But forget about such daydreams. These ordinary people now get to fantasize about how they, in all their mediocrity, have taken down such a giant.

I wonder how many more instances of the story of David & Goliath will be told to children at bedtime tonight.

Adding Context

I left out some important context in my last post and so have added the following to the third paragraph:

Now, for those unfamiliar with the background, both Swann and Beck are market anarchists, as is at least one of the economists (Friedman) writing in the article cited. The other economists, at minimum, advocate a tiny State. The implicit complaint being lodged by Swann and Beck (in my own view) is that these economists justify their anarchism (or "minarchism"), essentially, on doing the most good for the most people (maximum utility) and not on what they see as the underlying fact of man’s individual and unalienable right to his own life without any qualification. I have great sympathy for that complaint.

A Unified Theory of Anarchy

Only a few days ago, when I signed up for inclusion on No Treason’s Metablog, I confessed to John T. Kennedy who runs the show over there:

I'm a market anarchist, but my views and interests are varied. Worse, I wobble back-&-forth between a utilitarian (Friedman) and moral (Randian) basis for anarchy. Oh well.

Then this from Greg Swann, and Billy Beck’s amen. These are two guys I’ve been reading for years, and my particular admiration of Beck is well established on this blog. I probably admire Swann just as much, only I’ve never established a private dialog with him. Now, for those unfamiliar with the background, both Swann and Beck are market anarchists, as is at least one of the economists (Friedman) writing in the article cited. The other economists, at minimum, advocate a tiny State. The implicit complaint being lodged by Swann and Beck (in my own view) is that these economists justify their anarchism (or "minarchism"), essentially, on doing the most good for the most people (maximum utility) and not on what they see as the underlying fact of man’s individual and unalienable right to his own life without any qualification. I have great sympathy for that complaint.

Well, as I said above, I wobble on this one. While I like to think that the moral principles underpinning individualism and liberty are the final word on issues of public policy (which necessarily lead to anarchy, if respected), my ideal as it were, I find it difficult to escape the practical, and guys like Prof. David Freidman, in particular, have always been a source of general confirmation that these principles to which I adhere lead to the sorts of consequences I hope that the respect of individual rights will lead to.

Is it not a classic chicken-or-egg scenario? I mean, it’s not as though we live in a malevolent universe where respecting individual rights leaves us (society) predominantly worse off. Nor is it that anyone worthy of a voice respects individual rights because they believe that it will lead to the domination of the weak by the strong. Are individual rights not practical? Is there not some element in all this that makes it important to us that society will flourish and we all wish for that?

If I begin with the moral, with individual rights, I find myself asking: to what end? The answer is clear: me. But it doesn’t end there. Why is that important to me? The answer, my answer, is equally clear: because I want a better world, which includes loved ones in particular and society in general. I’m not an island, after all. If society is better off, I think I’ll be better off too, so is this not somewhat a justification of rights on consequentialist or utilitarian grounds?

If I begin with utility or consequences, I need to know why such results are important. The answer I arrive at is that it’s important because of the nature of human beings, and that maximum utility can only be found in recognizing and adhering to man’s nature, which means, a set of moral principles that reduce to a set of rights.

So, I find myself justifying moral rights because their respect brings maximum utility, and then justifying maximum utility because rights are inherent in man’s nature. And round and round we (I) go. When I read the piece in question, it seems clear to me that the whole underlying point is a moral sense of rights. When I read other material by those advocating moral rights, it seems clear that they advocate such rights because they believe everyone will be better off.

I think it’s fair to assume that amongst these libertarians, whatever their justifications, that they are decidedly different from socialists. Socialism is nothing more than a set of political principles divorced from moral principles, and that merely pays lip service to morality in a manipulative quest for political power. That seems, to me, a critical distinction.

The title to this post is not nearly as presumptuous as it sounds. In no way do I believe I’ve offered even a good glimpse of a “unified theory.” I only hope to have provided the slightest glimmer that one might be a worthwhile goal.

Gee-Zus-Christ

As an atheist, I often find it odd that two of my favorite "affirmations" are "God-dammit" and "Gee-Zus-Christ." I guess it's a sign of how deeply rooted and connected are some of our mythology.

I had intended a post on something entirely different, but that will have to wait. I made the mistake of trying to catch up on reading some other blogs that I frequent, and something caught my eye. So, here I go: another post on religion.

First, let me clarify what I mean by saying I’m an atheist. I abhor just about everything about the common, everyday “atheist activist” you hear about—whom I really see as “anti-value-ists.” These people have no values that I can detect. They are superficial at best, nihilists at worst. There can be no more malevolent way to spend one’s time than in lobbying against public displays of Nativity scenes, banning artistic displays of the Ten Commandments, or redacting the word “under God” from a national pledge (though I have deeper objections to The Pledge).

By atheist, I simply mean that I reject all literal interpretations of all religions. I accept no religious explanation for our origin, and I leave it up to them to substantiate their claims of “Super-Santa” in all their various forms. That being said, I have recently come to learn something about myself. Through a recent and rather intense email exchange with an old and dear friend who is a published author in the process of writing another book, I’ve come to realize that in spite of the question of the literal veracity of all the ancient religious myths, they nevertheless comprise a deep sense of meaning for a lot of people and are sometimes worth investigating and understanding on the simple basis of offering wisdom.

I say that with some reservation, because above all, I am a diehard rationalist and always will be. I’m willing to accept the possibility that ancient religious myths could contain treasures of wisdom, but I’ll be the everlasting and final judge of that! That is to say, wisdom is necessarily rational. That is to say, God’s wisdom is subject to man’s reasoned arbitration.

So, here’s what caught my eye. John Venlet called attention to a series of blog posts between philosopher Roderick Long and economist Bob Murphy. Here’s the original post from Dr. Long, entitled God So Loved the World that He Did What?:

Suppose I confront you, with a gun in one hand and a hammer in the other. I point the gun at you, and I tell you sadly, “I have to shoot you unless I bang myself on the head with this hammer. It’s the rule.”

“Whose rule is this?” you ask as you edge toward the exit.

“It’s my rule,” I explain. “I made this rule all by myself. But don’t worry; I’m not going to shoot you, because I love you.”

And then I bang myself on the head, really hard, with the hammer.

You start to run away, but I tackle you. “Look at me!” I yell. “I’m bleeding! My skull is cracked!! Look at the suffering I’ve put myself through for your sake!!! You really owe me now. You’ll be an ungrateful wretch unless you start doing exactly what I say.”

Such a demand would obviously make no sense. But how is the predominant Christian interpretation of the crucifixion of Jesus any different?

Mainstream Christians hold that Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross to save us from hell. But they also maintain that Jesus is God incarnate. So who made the rule that we would all be damned to hell unless God got himself nailed to a cross? God did.

If this were true, wouldn’t it make Jesus’ “sacrifice” meaningless?

This bizarre doctrine, which casts God in the role of a sado-masochistic psycho, is believed by millions of people, and is the central theme of that movie [The Pasion] everyone’s talking about. Yet it’s nowhere to be found in the Bible. (Not that the doctrine would be worthy of belief if it were – but anyway it’s not.)

Strange planet, eh?

Admittedly, this at first appears simplistic and flippant. But what’s really interesting is the exchange that follows. First, the retort in the form of God So Loved the World, That He Gave His Only Begotten Son by Dr. Murphy; and then the repartee by Dr. Long, Confessions of the Antichrist: A Reply to Bob Murphy. As a side note, for those who find this subject interesting, do take the time to read the two other posts (b and c) Dr. Long references at the beginning of his reply.

So what’s the point? Well, while I found this all quite captivating, two realizations became quite reinforced. The first is that Dr. Long is quite correct. The whole Christian catechism just doesn’t begin to stand up to the most casual trail by basic logic. In short, it’s hogwash as concerns literal interpretation. The second is that it’s of utmost importance as concerns humanity (in one way, or in quite another). If it weren’t, no one would be writing about it, and that’s certainly worth something.

What if they held an election and nobody came?

I first saw that question posed by Billy Beck some years ago on Usenet, and have seen him pose it a few times since.

I live in California, so there’s an election today. Just rounding the corner for the homestretch of my morning walk with Rotor, I happen upon my next-door neighbor, Brian. He’s on his way back from the elementary school the next block over where he had just cast his ballot. We exchange the standard set of pleasantries, and then he asks me if I’d voted yet.

"Nope. Not going to.”
“Oh yeah? How come?”
“For one, it’s not worth my time. For another, I find it more than a bit pretentious that I should go and advocate a set of things I wish to be imposed upon others at the expense of others. I prefer to pay my own way.”
“Hmm. Well, I don’t think you’re ever going to see that.”
“Indeed. I’ll tell you this though. I might someday be persuaded to vote again if they ever put ‘none of the above’ as a choice on every office and issue.”
“heh heh—I don’t think you’ll ever see that one either.”

And then, after that whole exchange, this:

“I just still go and vote every election.”

Wow, what a ringing, enthusiastic endorsement for exercising one’s “franchise.” It’s like, ‘yea, I know it’s one big waste of time, futile, and it’s not going to change a damn thing, but I’m just going to go do it anyway because I can’t think of any other choice.’

I would simply point out to those unhappy with the trend this nation has taken that the whole logic of its course begins at the ballot box. Once you accept that democratic vote is the last word in public policy for a nation, you have already lost the battle against that nation’s ultimate demise.

The Passion of the Gay Marriage

What a bizarre time—when the two issues at the forefront of current events are gay marriage and a film that focuses in on the story of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

Well, religion and hypocrisy have never made for particularly strange bedfellows, and in the case of gay marriage, this is no exception. Ask yourself: if the State were now proposing laws to limit marriage in ways that would affect traditional couples, would religious activists not be screaming invocations of the Constitution (“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion…”)?

In fact, you can’t get more fundamental, more basic, more to the essence of religion than the institution of marriage. As such, the State has no business whatever meddling with it, and the religionists of this country should not be so damned stupid (yes, damned stupid) as to have the State come in today and wield its power to fix their “problem” and not realize that tomorrow, that very same power will be used to fix someone else’s “problem” at their expense or pain.

The issue of gay marriage is best left up to religious institutions. If some churches wish to recognize such unions, sanction them, and perform ceremonies, then what business is it of the State’s? What does it mean to have religious freedom if matrimonial unions between people of the same gender cannot be tolerated if done within context of religious tradition and within the sanction of an established religion?

I have not seen the film The Passion of the Christ. Isn’t it odd that the debate surrounding this sort of film focuses in on whether it’s an accurate portrayal or not? Only someone with a lot of loose marbles could take such a story literally. But in arguing the film’s (or Bible’s for that matter) accuracy with respect to true history, the whole point is missed. The religious right should learn something the religious left (including many Catholics) learned a long time ago: it’s not in literal truth that the Jesus myth (or any dogma) derives its power, but in the myth itself. It’s the story and how it “plugs into” the human experience that ultimately determines the success or failure of such myth.

Just because a myth is not literally true does not mean that it cannot contain meaning, power, wisdom, or even “truth.” By focusing so much on literal accuracy, some religions actually drive people away, particularly those more to the right. Truly intelligent people could never accept everything within any particular religion’s catechism as 100% literal truth.

But the other side of this particular coin is to examine the message itself. The mythology of Jesus is a wide sweeping one. Personally, the entirely of the message that is truth to me is that Jesus bucked the authority of the State and was killed for it. As to the symbol of his sacrifice, I’ll refer you to an except from a Playboy interview with Ayn Rand in 1968.

Now you want me to speak about the cross. What is correct is that I do regard the cross as the symbol of the sacrifice of the ideal to the nonideal. Isn't that what it does mean? Christ, in terms of the Christian philosophy, is the human ideal. He personifies that which men should strive to emulate. Yet, according to the Christian mythology, he died on the cross not for his own sins but for the sins of the nonideal people. In other words, a man of perfect virtue was sacrificed for men who are vicious and who are expected or supposed to accept that sacrifice. If I were a Christian, nothing could make me more indignant than that: the notion of sacrificing the ideal to the non-ideal, or virtue to vice. And it is in the name of that symbol that men are asked to sacrifice themselves for their inferiors. That is precisely how the symbolism is used. That is torture.