Archive for June 2012

Spiderman and Big Government   Leave a comment

So, one of the standard tropes that I used to believe in was that liberals supported big government. Now that I fall into the liberal camp, I can see where that idea comes from, even ignoring my opposition to the war on drugs (about fifty billion government dollars every year) and the security state (about a trillion government dollars spent every year).

After all, I want the government to take over healthcare and social security. I want more funding for universities that conduct research, the FDA, and to pay teacher’s salaries. I like Bloomberg’s ban on big sodas and I think Facebook should be regulated. So I get where the big government idea comes from. I want government to do a lot of different things.

But I don’t consider myself to be a big government person. I don’t support big government because I do not trust the government. Let me repeat that. I do not trust the government. I think there are a lot of good people in government at all levels (with the possible exception of the top levels), but there are also more than a few who are incompetent, lazy, careless, or corrupt. I don’t support big government because of these people. I am constitutionally incapable of supporting big government because of these people. These people make me angry, sad, and frustrated all the time.

So, now you’re wondering why, if I understand that government is deeply flawed, I want the government to stick its nose into the lives of so many different people. The answer is that I don’t want the government sticking its nose into the lives of so many people. I like his ban on oversized cups, but Bloomberg is not really someone I want dictating diet choices to people.

The reason I support Bloomberg’s ban is because as little as I like Bloomberg, I like massive multi-national soft drink and bottling corporations even less. You see, if Bloomberg’s ban goes away, that doesn’t mean that people will suddenly be able to drink what they want to drink of their own free will and rational choice. No, if Bloomberg’s ban goes away, people will drink the products available to their meager resources according to habits that the Coca-Cola bottling company has spent millions of advertising dollars cultivating since we were old enough to watch TV.

Likewise with healthcare. I don’t really trust the government to run healthcare. You know who I trust less? The insurance companies that don’t even have a theoretical responsibility to uphold the public good. Likewise, there’s a lot of waste that goes on in research universities, but research universities are more willing than massive drug companies to research the benefits of non-drug solutions because research universities are not driven by profit.

So it’s not that I like big government. I don’t. I just prefer giving control of healthcare to the government rather than some corporation that isn’t even theoretically accountable to the people it serves. And when an organization serves enough people, I think those people deserve some say in how they are served. I don’t have any particular regulation that I want to impose on Facebook, but I do think that Facebook is important enough to American life in general that Americans should have some say in how Facebook is run. In fact, that’s why I want government healthcare and government social security. Healthcare and retirement theoretically affect almost everyone. Therefore everyone should get a say and the government should be accountable to everyone.

And that issue of accountability is a big one for me. I’ll talk a lot on this site about what I want the government to do, but I’ll also talk a great deal about what the government shouldn’t be doing. I’ll talk about the war on drugs. I’ll talk about drone strikes. I’ll talk about the fact that the police can often confiscate your camera if they think you’re taking photos of them. I will criticize the government thoroughly because it is theoretically accountable to me. Coca-Cola doesn’t have a legal obligation to me. It isn’t there to serve me. It was created to make as much money as it could, and my complaints about advertising targeted at children is not something it needs to take seriously. On the other hand, if I criticize the president or the police, I’ve got a leg to stand one. Our government is here to serve the public, so I’m at least talking to the right people when I complain about how the government has failed to serve the public.

Basically, Spiderman was right. With more power comes more responsibility. Since Coca-Cola is only responsible to its share holders, it ticks me off that they have so much power. And it makes me happy that Bloomberg, who at least in theory is responsible to the city of New York, has taken some of Coca-Cola’s power away. I’m not forBig Government. I’m against Huge Corporations. They’re not responsible. They’re not even supposed to be (at least not to us). So why do they have so much power?

So, however much you don’t like Bloomberg,  can you really argue with Spiderman?


Repost: A Jew Discovers the Nakba   Leave a comment

So I’ve found another good article from Mondoweiss here. There are points where I don’t like the tone, but overall the article is excellent. The beginning was especially good for me, since it describes with Judaism much the same thing that I underwent with Catholicism. Here’s the paragraph that convinced me to repost (emphasis mine):

“So even before I was confronted with Zionism as a problem, I was psychologically primed to denounce it in the name of Judaism – more precisely, an acquired notion that I identified with “real” Judaism. That is not the way I think now. Like other religions, Judaism has varied enormously over time and space. There are many Judaisms: some are pretty awful, and all are real. I had picked out the bits I liked, done my best to ignore the rest, and called the result “real Judaism.” A rather arbitrary procedure, though it served me well at the time.”

Posted 06/27/2012 by reluctantliberal in Repost

Tagged with , ,

GKC – What’s Your Problem? Orthodoxy Chapter 01b   Leave a comment

So we already talked about the bad bits of “Introduction in Defense of Everything Else” here. Now we get to why I haven’t consigned Chesterton’s colonialist butt to a box in my closet.

Chesterton starts off by explaining what Orthodoxy is about:

“[The reader] will find that [in this book] I have attempted in a vague and and personal way, in a set of mental pictures rather than in a series of deductions, to state the philosophy in which I have come to believe. I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me.”

So Chesterton is stating his personal philosophy. And it is his personal philosophy. When I was younger, I used to be fascinated by the fact that different ideologies taught people different grammars. You could stick a Catholic theologian and a mainline Protestant theologian in a room together, get them talking about something that had nothing to do with theology, and I could have told you which was which just by the way they talked. People from different ideological backgrounds approach things differently, talk about things differently, and if someone is steeped enough in one intellectual tradition (and most people aren’t), you can pick up on it.

One of the broadest ways to do that is to ask what problem the philosopher you want to identify is asking. It’s been too long since I’ve studied Kant to remember what dilemma exactly he was trying to escape, but his whole system of ethics (put simply, don’t do something that would be bad if everyone did it) was his answer to a tough question. Likewise, Christian Apologists will often posit a problem like the Separation of Humanity from God and then go on to claim that their rivals don’t have a solution. There are lots of these kinds of intractable problems: Free Will, Pain, Evil, Original Sin. I even talked about one that I had in an earlier post. What problem a philosopher poses as the most important problem tells you every bit as much about that philosopher as their solution. And Chesterton’s problem, as far as I can tell, is unique.

“This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers, and is in a manner the main problem of this book. How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?… We need to be happy in this wonderland without being merely comfortable.”

One of the most beautiful and fantastic things about Chesterton is his perpetual and jubilant celebration of existence. Life is fantastic for Chesterton in the literal sense of feeling like a fantasy. One gets the sense from some of his writings that Chesterton sets out to fall in love with his wife anew each and every day. And that is why I’m writing these commentaries. Chesterton is wrong or flawed in many things, but the crux of his work was to recognize the ordinary for what it is: extraordinary. Two of his books, Manalive and Tremendous Trifles are a direct working out of this theme, and it is present in many of his other works. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I think much more of Chesterton’s writing ability than I do of my own, and on the assumption that my readers will feel the same way, I’ll let Chesterton himself answer his own problem:

“I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it… It may be, Heaven forgive me, that I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of existing traditions of civilized religion… I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the finishing touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.”

It does seem odd that I, who no longer believe in eternal damnation or the necessity of Christ’s death on the cross, should be touting this book. But in the end, I don’t care what Chesterton calls his philosophy. It inspires me to celebrate life in all its aspects. It inspires me to see the divine in the ordinary, and I’m going to go with that. Next week, chapter two.

Posted 06/24/2012 by reluctantliberal in GKC

Tagged with , , ,

Repost: Drone Strikes in Pakistan   Leave a comment

Justin Elliot at ProPublica, via Juan Cole’s site, has an excellent article about CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. I take three things away from this article:

1) The Obama Administration has lied to reporters about how many civilians are being killed.

2) The fact that our only information about this program comes from anonymous administration leakers is disturbing. There’s no accountability for the claims that are made.

3) When the administration claims that it can be certain about who or what is being targeted, there’s good reason to suspect they’re either lying or simply wrong.

Posted 06/22/2012 by reluctantliberal in Repost

Tagged with , ,

Why Fox News Would Call Me a Pacifist   Leave a comment

So, if you put me into a box, I would wind up calling myself a pacifist. I my college town was more interesting, I’d be attending demonstrations against the Afghan War, the war in Yemen, the war in Pakistan, and the war in Somalia.

But I don’t like being put in boxes. It’s cramped and uninformed in boxes. I glare at my refrigerator every day, but I can’t figure out how to keep my food cold outside that particular box. So, let’s add some nuance to this picture.

My grounding in just war theory started off in high school and was based on the Augustinian/Aquinas tradition that in more recent times has boiled down to five basic points:

1) Just cause – today, the only cause that is considered to justify war is defense. No preemptive wars!

2) Chance of success – If failure is a foregone conclusion, then it is immoral to use violence

3) Proper authority – Only sovereign authorities can declare war

4) Proportionality – The losses of going to war are offset by the supposed losses of not going to war

5) Just means – No targeting civilians, no torture, proper treatment of prisoners. That kind of thing

So, when I was in high school, those were the basic criteria by which I judged whether or not it was moral to go to war. I was (and still am) confused about violent revolutions, but for inter-state war, these criteria did the trick for me.

“So,” you’re wondering, “What made you decide to become a pacifist? What made you decide to turn your back on the Catholic just war tradition?”

Well, to answer your first question, information. Information made me a pacifist. To answer your second question, I haven’t turned my back on the Catholic just war tradition.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a huge fan of the above criteria because I feel like just stating those criteria gives politicians a way to game the system and excuse wars they would have undertaken anyway as “just.” But if I felt that all the above criteria had really and honestly been met, I’d probably say that war was justified.

But yeah, in box world, I’m still a “pacifist.”

You see, the real kicker of those criteria is number four. Proportionality is an absurdly high bar to leap. Back in high school, I only thought about proportionality in terms of military casualties. Since I’ve gone to college and read up on the difference between life under Saddam Hussein and life under the Americans in Iraq, I have a bit more perspective.

Proportionality shouldn’t just be about military casualties because war doesn’t just affect soldiers. War affects the economy, crime rates, and health outcomes, so all those things need to be factored into proportionality. And once you do that, war becomes almost impossible to justify.

When people cite total casualties in the Iraq War, the number cited usually ranges between 100,000 dead and 1,000,000 dead. The disparity is fairly easy to explain. The first number is how many people we know with absolute certainty died a war related death. It’s a low ball figure. The second number, the number I think better reflects reality, is based on what Iraq’s projected population should have been if the United States had not intervened. Most of the deaths in this number are not due to the war itself. Rather, they reflect early deaths or people who were malnourished and then got sick. They reflect the damage we did to Iraq’s health infrastructure. In short, the 1,000,000 figure is the total cost of the war. It is the number that reflects all of the people who should be alive, but aren’t. It is the hurdle that needed to be passed. And I don’t think there are many people who would argue that living under President Al Malaki rather than Saddam Hussein was worth a million dead Iraqis and a few thousand US and NATO soldiers.

Likewise in Afghanistan. I am really and truly glad that Al Qaeda no longer has training camps in Afghanistan. I am. I do not think, however, that Al Qaeda not having training camps was worth twenty million Afghani’s getting PTSD or other anxiety disorders, and the Afghan Ministry of Health estimates.

You yeah, when you look at what wars do to mental health, physical health, the economy, and everything else that goes wrong during war, proportionality is almost impossible to beat.

I do still give some credence to just war theory. Really, that aspect of my thinking hasn’t really changed. But the information I now have makes “just war” such a lofty goal that pacifist is probably the best word for me. I’m so likely to oppose a war that “pacifist” is a good functional description for where I am. But my ideology didn’t change. Was I a pacifist in high school too?

Damn boxes.

It’s Almost ALL “Only in Your Mind”   Leave a comment

I’ve been giving more and more importance to the reality of illusions the more I’ve studied economics, political science, history, and medicine. That is, what people think is happening, or what they think should be happening is often more important in shaping reality than what actually happened.

To clarify, I’m not saying that there is no truth or that the truth is unimportant. I don’t believe either of those things at all. But I am more and more impressed by the importance of people’s perceptions of reality in shaping what happens next.

Take the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s as an example. Broadly Speaking, the democratically elected government (that was eventually defeated by General Franco) was certainly leftist, but Communists at the beginning of the civil war played only a small part in the government.

But that wasn’t how France, Britain, and the United States viewed the Spanish government. They saw the government as communist and in league with the Russians (as those governments tended to do with any lesser power that happens to be to the left) and therefore were very slow to sell or give Spain weapons.

But the Russians were not slow to give the Spanish weapons. They didn’t give nearly as many as the Germans and Italians gave to Franco, but the Russians became a primary arms supplier of the Spanish government. And, unsurprisingly, the Russians pushed for the Spanish Communists to have ever more power in return for those arms.

This dynamic repeated itself throughout the twentieth century. The pre-NATO and NATO powers perceived a leftist government to be in bed with the Russians and refused to aid that government. The Russians became the only source of aid for that government in reality, and so the leftist government would be forced to do more business with the Russians, which confirmed that the NATO powers had been right all along.

Or take the idea of legitimacy. I have come to realize that a government is legitimate because and only because people think that it’s legitimate. Hosni Mubarak wasn’t overthrown because he changed his policies and therefore his government moved from being a legitimate government to an illegitimate government. Rather, Egyptians saw what happened in Tunisia and their ideas about their own government changed. The shift wasn’t in the realities of the government, but in the way people perceived those realities.

But those examples are abstract and mostly unrelated to our day to day existence. I do think people’s lives would improve if they better understood how government actually works, but that’s not why I’m writing this post. I’m writing this post because I think everyone would be better off if we all started living in our heads a little bit more.

That is, people should pay attention to the way that they think and feel, and use that information to do things better. I got this idea because of the experience of several people I know who have chronic pain diseases. Chronic pain disease, depending on the severity, can be crippling. The pain can destroy concentration, cause depression, interrupt sleep cycles resulting in constant fatigue. In addition to all of that, the pain hurts. It hurts all the time. One person told me that the pain is so constant that sometimes they only realized they were hurting once the pain had gone away. The pain came on so slowly that they didn’t even realize they had a knot the size of a quarter until something changed and that pain went away.

Basic functionality can be an issue for some people with chronic pain disease. They can work, but can they work eight hours in an office chair? They can go to school, but sit in a school desk for an uninterrupted hour and a half? It’s a real issue.

So, when these people find something that takes some of the pain away, they don’t care how it works. I’ve had conversations that have basically gone, “I tried this new thing. I have no idea if its helping me at all, but I’m in less pain, so I’m going to keep doing it.” It does not matter whether something helps because it works or if it helps because of the placebo effect. Relief is relief, and it is priceless to some people.

And I think there’s something to learn from that. All of our emotions, our thoughts, and our ideas live in our own head. And while some of them live ONLY in our head, we still act as if they didn’t. They matter. They’re important. They can cause or relieve pain. So we should play with them more. We should pay attention, learn from them, and use that information to make our lives better.



Posted 06/21/2012 by reluctantliberal in Generic Post

Tagged with , , ,

Two Random Brain Hiccups   Leave a comment

So, a couple of random phrases struck me today. Someone said something, and my brain just came up with an uncomfortable, “Huh?” to what they said. And, since I have a blog with which to thoughtlessly cast my frustrations into the uncaring void of the internet, I decided to do some thoughtless casting.

Up with Forgiveness, Down with Second Chances

First, some characters on a television show started talking about second chances. And I realized at that moment that I didn’t like second chances. I like forgiveness, but not second chances. When one person betrays another, they can try to work past it. They can acknowledge it and move on. They can pretend like it didn’t happen. But they can never make it so that it didn’t happen. They can never completely unring that bell in their relationship. They can persevere to the point that the bell is a tiny bell and completely forgotten, but they can never unring it.

People don’t need second chances, they need forgiveness. Forgivenss gives a person just as many avenues to proceed, but without making the relationship a crass shadow of itself. A second chance is something outside the relationship. The phrase, “Everyone deserves a second chance.” is simply not true. Some people are not owed second chances, though calling it a second chance rather than forgiveness makes it seem like they are. Or again, when someone is “offered a second chance,” it makes it sound as if somebody is being done a favor. Forgiveness is not a favor. It is many wonderful things, but a favor isn’t one of them.

I don’t know, my abstract reasons aside, maybe I just don’t like second chances because they seem like a dumb thing to base a relationship off of. With my wife, when one of us hurts the other, we take steps to make sure the hurt is minimized in the future and we move on. We don’t pretend like nothing happened, because if we did it could happen again. Or, in the few cases in which our relationship could have ended, getting another chance didn’t factor into the equation at all. It wasn’t about whether to one of us who hurt the other would get anything, it was about whether or not the hurt party wanted to shoulder forward. Second chances focus on the wronging party, not the wronged party, so they just don’t factor in our relationship. That absence of second chances from my emotional lexicon is really what made my brain hiccup.

Eating Too Much

In another conversation, an older friend of mine talked about how they ate too much, and my brain just kind of froze. I remember people talking like that in the distant past, but since my diet changed, that kind of thinking is just so far from me that it took me a few seconds to process it.

I can and do eat junk food. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. But eating too much is just not a category that registers for me. A healthy diet has you eating when you’re hungry, and stopping when you’re full. It’s been a hard habit to break, but I’ve even started throwing away extra food that I know I won’t get to as leftovers (I’m sorry mom, but that poorly seasoned steak was never going to end up in the stomachs of starving Chinese children). Don’t get me wrong, I try to save as much food for leftovers as I can, but sometimes it’s just not going to happen.

Now, I still occasionally eat too much when I deliberately ignore when my stomach tells me it’s full. Sometimes, tasty food will do that to you, but my friend was talking about eating too much in a general sense. And that just blew my mind. For a few moments, I just didn’t know how to respond.

In the end, my response was to be really ticked off at the health information that gets spread around these days. Our bodies know better than we do what they need to be healthy. Always cleaning your plate is bad for you. Eating when you’re hungry is good for you. Trying to control your weight is bad for you. Ignoring your weight while you eat healthy and exercise is good for you. Calories barely count as nutritional information. The list of ingredients IS the nutritional information. I even saw one statistic that suggested that WHAT you eat is more important than how much you eat in determining weight and health outcomes.

You can’t just flip a switch and know what your body is trying to tell you, but you can start ignoring all the crap that food advertisers have been filling our heads with. Don’t decide in advance that the food on your plate is “eating too much” or not going to be enough. Eat it, and see how you feel. If you pay attention long enough, and tend towards the foods that make your head clearer and your day easier, you’ll be eating healthy in no time. Most people eat badly enough that just avoiding the foods that make us cranky or groggy will go a long way.

Those are my rants for the day. I’m not a nutritionist or a relationship expert, but I am observant and I know what works for me. You shouldn’t take my word as gospel, but I hope you find it worth thinking about.

Also, in salute of a state legislature that I might talk about later, VAGINA.