Russiagate, Cognitive Bias, Human Nature, and My Political Nihilism

After two years of investigation and constant media coverage, the Mueller Report is finally finished. While anyone outside the Justice Department has yet to read the full report, Attorney General William Barr has released a summary. The so-called Russiagate story is not yet over, however, as there are now calls for the entire Mueller Report to be made public. Exactly what the Russiagate story is and how it started is expertly told by Matt Taibbi in his “It’s official: Russiagate is this generation’s WMD” piece. What I’m more interested in is how this whole story is indicative of human nature.

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The Liberal Experiment: Are the Results In?

Liberalism, defined here in the classical sense of the enlightenment values of civil liberty and economic freedom, not a narrow left-leaning ideology, holds individual freedom above all else. In the U.S. both the left and right, except on the extremes of both, fall into the classical liberalism philosophy. Ideas that could be considered pre-cursors to liberalism began developing in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. But it was the American Revolution and French Revolution that put liberalism into practice. That means the experiment has been running for a little over two hundred years. Can we draw any conclusions from the results?

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The U.S. Does Not Need Israel

I’ve written an article on Medium looking at the U.S. relationship with Israel from a geopolitical perspective.

In the past week, Tweets by Minnesota’s 5th congressional district representative Ilhan Omar have sparked controversy about the link between antisemitism and criticism of Israel. Particularly Israel’s influence on American lawmakers through lobbyists. Due to the dark history of antisemitism being linked with conspiracy theories about Jewish control over banking and other financial arenas, this is a conversation that requires tact and nuance.

However, those are not the conversations I’m attempting to start here.

What I’m interested in is what the U.S. gains, in a geopolitical sense, from its association with Israel. I’m careful here to say association and not alliance, since there is no formal treaty-based alliance between the U.S. and Israel.

Click here to read the whole thing.

 

Should LGBTQ+ Characters in Literature Always Make a Cultural Statement?

I am a heterosexual, cisgender, white male. A character in my novel “Incarnate: Existence” is a Japanese transgender woman. For some people this is probably already ‘problematic’ – I, of course, do not and cannot know the experiences of a non-white and transgender person. That could certainly be an article all in itself, whether someone like me should be “allowed” to write this kind of character, and I’ve tangentially written about this idea before. But that’s not what this article is about. I’m interested if, in general, a character in a creative work (book, movie, TV show, etc.) who is LGBTQ+ should always and necessarily be written to make a political or cultural statement, or can the character exist as they are without attempting to make a statement?

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Twitter and the Right to be Heard

Social media, and twitter in particular, has recently become popular in the conversation about freedom of speech. This surrounds the issue of Twitter punishing people for posting right-wing and conservative ideas more than people on the left. Alex Jones being banned and Kathy Griffin not being banned are two exemplary cases.

The fear here is that Twitter is policing people for wrongthink. Only left-wing and liberal ideas are allowed, and with Twitter being a primary hub for communication, this threatens to silence right-wing and conservative views from the public conversation. This would give left-wing and liberal ideas de facto hegemony in western culture. This has prompted people to call for Twitter usage to be treated like a utility or even a human right, in the sense that humans have a right to free speech.

I think this is a misguided way of thinking about Twitter. Being banned from Twitter does not infringe on a person’s right to free speech. It only infringes on their ability to have that speech heard by a larger audience. This brings up the questions: do humans have a fundamental right to be heard? Is being heard a part of our right to free speech?

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Your Truth, My Truth, Our Truth, Right Truth

In this day and age, with social media and politically biased news media, it seems that truth isn’t truth. Thus it has become popular to talk about ‘my truth‘ when people talk about their opinion. It’s interesting that people can believe wildly different versions of things that happen. From Russiagate to Uranium One, it all seems to depend what ‘our truth’ is for any particular group.

The alternative, unfortunately, is to have some version of a single, orthodox ‘right Truth’ that we all must agree on, possibly enforced by a Ministry of Truth or a Truth Force.

The problem with this is obvious: who gets to say what the Right Truth is? What are their motivations for saying that A is the Right Truth but B is not the Right Truth? Is it ever possible for one source to give the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

And, there are more ways of controlling what becomes the ‘Right Truth’ than just lies of commission. There is also the illusory truth effect and lies of omission.

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Cultural Segregation

Two instances in which so-called cultural appropriation occurring in the film industry have been pointed out recently. The first is the case of Ruby Rose, who was slated to play Kate Kane aka Batwoman in a new series. The character (since her 2006 incarnation) is both Jewish and lesbian; Ruby Rose is not Jewish and identifies as genderfluid. This discrepancy between the actor and the character led to social media backlash that resulted in Ruby Rose quitting Twitter. The second case, which hasn’t received as much attention (at least not in as far as it could be construed as cultural appropriation) is the possibility of Idris Elba being cast as the next James Bond. Richard Spencer posted a Twitter thread saying:

“Let there be no mistake, a Black James Bond would be an act of dispossession far greater than a flotilla of a million refugees. Refugees are, after all, refugees. James Bond is a symbol of British identity—indeed, the British empire—and of European masculinity writ large.”

Both of these cases aren’t exactly the same. They’re different in that the first one is outrage toward the actor not meeting strict intersectional criteria imposed by the audience while the second one is outrage toward the creators for making a creative decision about the character itself (the particular actor Idris Elba is incidental in this case).

However, the logic in both cases is similar: the fictional character and the non-fictional person portraying the character must have exactly the same background and identity.

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Mind Over Matter

Are the mind and body separate substances, or are they one-and-the-same?

Mind-Body Dualism is a philosophical question at least as old as Descartes, and possibly older. Most people tend to have an intuitive sense that they are a mind that has a body – that our mind resides within this physical thing we call a body. What I’m interested in here is whether it is useful to think about the mind and body as separate and what this could mean for humans and society going forward. This article is not meant to be an exhaustive exegesis on the entirety of the mind-body problem or even a summary of every facet. What I will do here is discuss three different ways to conceptualize the mind-body relationship, some practical concerns that arise, and then a theoretical analysis of responses to these practical concerns.

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State of the Union

It has been a little under a week since Donald Trump gave his first State of the Union (SOTU) address. I didn’t actually watch the address, but I’ve watched and read commentary on it. Most of the stories I’ve seen first mention that Trump was uncharacteristically reserved and on script. He checked off the usual SOTU boxes – the state of the union is strong; we have to do more to unify and stop trying to divide our nation; congress has to be willing to reach across the aisle; the military is great but we can make it greater; immigration; infrastructure; etc. That’s all well and good – although those of us paying attention know that this is mostly feel-good gobbledygook that doesn’t actually translate into any real policy or changes in attitude. Interestingly, a look at George Washington’s first SOTU (1790), it appears they were concerned about very similar issues – the military, immigration, jobs, education.

However, I’m more interested in the tradition of the State of the Union in general than any particular president.

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Individualism and Collectivism

What does it mean to be a good person? What does it mean to do good things? Individualism would answer these questions by saying a good person, who does good things, is kind, fair, thoughtful, empathetic, and self-actualized; that they do things to better themselves (ie go to the gym, stay informed, eat right, meditate, and do things that will make them happy). Collectivism would say that a person is good if they belong to a good group and that their thoughts and actions are in alignment with that group and work towards the betterment and actualization of the group and promotion of its ideals over others.

Individualism is politically expressed through capitalism. The benefit of capitalism is that, ideally, each individual is in sole control of their own economic activity, thus the economy is defined by the interactions of individual agents all working toward their own personal good via rational self-interest – one spends one’s money on food, shelter, clothes, medicine, and entertainment for oneself; nobody else forces one into any particular form of economic activity. The problem seems to arise from taking this political philosophy on as a personal ethical philosophy – if it is morally good that I have personal control over my economic activity, then it is also morally good that I have personal control over my ethical activity. This can then descend into hedonism and moral relativism – what is “good” must be what makes me feel good, and who is anyone to say that what is “good” for one person must also be “good” for another?

Collectivism is politically expressed through communism or nationalism – the two use different rhetoric and emphasize different collectives, but are functionally similar. The benefit of collectivism as political philosophy (whether communism or nationalism) is that, ideally, everyone in the group (economic class, in the case of communism, or racial/ethnic group in the case of nationalism) is on equal economic footing – if you are within the preferred group, then there are no winners or losers, and therefore things like greed or envy of other in-group members becomes obsolete, and economic activity is simplified by relieving everyone of economic responsibility, because certain economic privileges become economic “rights” for in-group members. Their are inherent problems in collectivism as political philosophy, but further problems arise when collectivism is taken as an ethical philosophy: you end up with identity politics. In this case, every individual is pre-judged based on whatever group(s) one happens to fall into (racial, gender, class, etc.), and one is expected to adhere to a certain orthodoxy as established by said groups in order to be a “good person” as defined by that orthodoxy. The groups are then confronted by a dilemma: moral relativism vs might-makes-right. By the former, all groups are mutually exclusive, but equally valid, and therefore it is not acceptable to criticize another group by the ethical standards of one’s own, since one group’s ethics is only valid within that group, thus one is wrong to speak out against potentially monstrous beliefs and activities within other groups (ie who is one group to say that female genital mutilation is bad if it is considered “good” by those groups that practice it?). By the latter, universal “goodness” is dependent on which group can conquer, subjugate, or silence the others, thus it is “good” for one’s group to try and conquer, subjugate, or silence other groups deemed not to be “good” before they are able to conquer, subjugate, or silence one’s group (ie shouting down out-group speakers on college campuses or petitioning the government for laws favorable to one’s own group or unfavorable to the out-group).

So, the question is, how is humanity to determine a proper ethical framework? Religion used to attempt to fill this role. However, without a universally agreed upon religion, it will (and has) devolved into collectivism. There is also the issue that modernity has shown that God has taken a lesser role in the universe that once thought, or at least in people’s lives, if God exists at all. Because of the de-emphasis of religion for the formulation of an ethical framework, the above political philosophies have taken that role, and it has led to divisiveness, shallow materialism, and an epidemic of depression, anxiety, and drug/alcohol use.

Adhering to simple moral prohibitions – don’t lie, cheat, steal, rape, murder – although not perfectly practiced, are generally agreed upon, even if not always for the same reasons. Yet this doesn’t seem to be good enough to create a peaceful world of productive societies, made up of internally supportive and externally tolerant communities, each composed of happy, healthy, self-actualized individuals. How to achieve that is the question ethical philosophers must answer.