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  • Laughter and the soul: Proof from the rat tickling experiment

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Aristotle thought the soul entered a baby when it first laughed, which he estimated happened about 40 days after birth (recent research indicates it's more like 90 days for most kids, but Aristotle may have been truly hilarious by baby standards.).

    And that's important, because the age of ensoulment is generally considered the age at which the baby
    Was Aristotle available
    for children's parties?is human. St. Augustine thought ensoulment happened at the quickening, that is, when the mother could feel a baby kick. As long as this was Catholic doctrine, abortion was permitted until the quickening.

    But what interests me here is the question of why Aristotle would choose, among all baby vocalizations, laughter.

    What does laughter mean? It doesn't always occur when someone has made a joke. In fact, it seems to mean, "we're just playing." And play, as Karl Groos noted in his 1898 book, The Play of Animals, is important because it is how young mammals of all species learn. In fact, he said that it is not so much that animals play because they are young, it is more like they have a period when they are most inclined to play so that they may learn.

    Aristotle was the sort of polymath who had theories about everything. He even wrote a natural history book, the title of which is usually translated History of Animals, in which he attempted to sum up what was known about zoology. He also wrote a book on comedy, of which unfortunately there are no extant copies.

    It was in The Parts of Animals (De Partibus Animalium), a book on anatomy, that he speculated warm air most easily reaches the soul through laughter. Barry Sanders, author of Sudden Glory: Laughter as Subversive History, says that Aristotle thought only humans laughed, and only laughter could animate the soul, which is why he thought laughter separated humans from animals, and called us animal ridens, the beast who laughs.

    However, scientists have determined by tickling rats that they laugh. In fact, it seems to be a behavior common to all the mammals they have managed to tickle.

    In short, animal ridens is not a mere genus, it is an entire class of animals, the class of animals who play. Aristotle, however, thought laughter was connected to a sense of superiority, which makes me wonder about his sense of humor. He said people laugh at an ugly mask during a play because they can feel superior without causing pain. Perhaps he was fond of slapstick, of seeing people do silly things.

    But I do think he was on to something with his theory about the importance of laughter. Perhaps laughter signals that the baby is ready to move beyond instinct, to engage in the sort of play that will enable it to learn behaviors that are invented rather than instinctive. The longer childhood lasts, the longer an animal is supposed to engage in play, which may tell us how much of a species' behavior is passed on through teaching rather than through genes, although there are probably adjustments for size (nerve impulses move the length of a shrew more quickly than they move the length of a whale, so they may be living and learning quicker.)

    So what was Aristotle seeing that made him think a baby was ensouled when it first laughed? Well, in its first days, a baby is a creature of inarticulate appetites. It cries because its wet diaper is uncomfortable, because its belly is empty, because it is too cold or too hot. It learns to smile in the first month, but the first vocalization that says, "I am playing, therefore I am learning," is laughter.

    Aristotle was a teacher, which may be why he noted the insolent laughter of youth. Unlike his fellow teacher, the more dour Plato, he approved of laughter in moderation. Perhaps he noticed that people who laughed together liked each other more. Perhaps he even noticed that students who were laughing were learning.

    But he did not notice that rats laugh when you tickle them, and therefore, by his standards, have souls.

  • Islamophobia and endless war

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    This could change as more of them are identified, of course, but so far all of the terrorists in the Paris attack that have been identified were European nationals.

    One had what appeared to be a Syrian passport, but that turned out to be fake. And why carry a fake Syrian passport? Because one of the motivations for the attack is to create a backlash against the refugees fleeing the war zone where Islamic State is fighting.

    And it's working. All the propaganda tropes Islamic State is using seem to be working, including naming themselves Islamic State, when they are neither a true state, nor do they represent most of Islam.

    Right-wing political correctness dictates that we call the terrorists "Islamic extremists." This ties in with the right's desire to blame the Muslim religion for the actions of the terrorists, because they really want this to be a clash between their version of Islam and Christianity. Islamic State is attacking the religiously tolerant west to destroy religious toleration, to polarize the world into one defined by extremists on both sides.

    Which is what Christian extremists want as well.

    We can't let extremists define either group. That way lies endless war, a war of annihilation between faiths, as long as there are believers fanatical enough to pursue it.

  • Religious extremists and their fear of liberal democracy

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Two of the most important works of liberalism, were written by men (Thomas Hobbes and John Locke) in exile from their native country, and both men had reason to fear for their lives based on what they had written. If they were writing today, they would find that there are still parts of the world where expressing their ideas of the rational, free, and secular state can get you killed -- which is why so many of the surviving Bengali bloggers live in exile. Those still in Bangladesh risk being hacked to death for expressing secularist views.

    People with views similar to those who hacked Bengali bloggers to death flew jetliners into the World Trade Center in Sept. 11, 2001 and blew themselves up after murdering random people in Paris in November 2015. In these cases, it is not what individuals have said, it is an attempt by fanatics to provoke the enemy they desire: Liberal democracies.

    The reason they want liberal democracies to act as their enemies, and resort to such extreme measures to get them to act like enemies, is that in the natural course of things, such societies tolerate Muslims' faith without much difficulty. That creates a sort of gray zone, where Islam exists without dictating how people live.

    In a statement after the Charlie Hebdo massacre of 2014, the Islamic State argued that terrorism in European countries would "compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone themselves. . . . Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize . . . or they [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens."*

    Marxists used do something similar called heightening the contradictions in capitalism, which was supposed to make things better eventually by making them worse right now.

    In either the case of an attack on an individual or an attack on a society, people who want religion to rule see liberal democracy as the enemy. And this has been the case, as long as the idea of a government whose legitimacy did not rely on religion has been involved in politics.

    It used to be that pretty much all governments claimed to serve God or the Gods. The idea that the government should serve, instead, the people it governs, is a threat to those who arrogate to themselves the power to decide how God wants people ruled. And threats of death against those who proposed secular sources of legitimacy for governments have been a feature of public life since at least the 1640s, when Thomas Hobbes fled his former allies among monarchists in fear that they would kill him.

    For centuries, it has served the purpose of those in power to make it seem that liberal democracies are a normal, ordinary, logical way of governance, and to obscure how radical its ideas were and are. But liberal democracy represents a clean break from most of human history, a new way of thinking about the legitimacy of governments. For most of human history, we have been ruled by faith, force, and custom.

    Force is easy enough to understand. The man on horseback in the expensive armor, helped by his knights, could physically compel commoners into doing his will (and for most of history, it was men who held this role, especially in young dynasties where someone had to establish dominance.)

    Faith is more complicated. Religion concerns itself with the greater questions about why we exist and how we should live our lives. It is also concerned with our concept of virtue more intimately than most institutions.

    The question of virtue is the question of who is acting rightly. This is a position of great power, determining who shall be stoned to death in the public square and who shall be heaped with praise and rewards. Virtue addresses the question of who may act legitimately and how, and who, if they act, will be acting illegitimately.

    It takes a lot less force to rule a willing people, so if the holder of force can get the arbiters of virtue to approve their rule as legitimate, the ruler will have greater stability and require less expenditure on force.

    So, when someone comes along and questions the legitimacy of the Gods themselves, that person is a threat to both church and state in such a society. When Athens tried Socrates and executed him, the charges were impiety and corrupting the minds of the youth, because he questioned the accepted notions of justice, which were supposed to be passed down by the Gods.

    I find it revealing that this happened during a period of Athenian decline, when they were being defeated in the Peloponnesian wars. It is when a society most needs a major rethink that those who have led it into decline are most eager to suppress those who would question their wisdom. Perhaps that is why we so often see this behavior in places where people fear they are weak, such as Germany during the Depression or the Islamic State, which considers Islam under siege from the encroachment of western civilization.

    Part of the problem was that Socrates did not live in a secular society, and with no separation of church and state, there was every incentive for those who could use the force of the state to kill him to do so on behalf of those who were the arbiters of virtue. Socrates was a threat to religious authority not just because he questioned their judgment, but also because of the way he did it. He started from a position of doubt, and tried to determine the truth through reason.

    Reason is not always a friend to power, and it has not been the dominant means of organizing society for most of human existence.

    For most of the time there have been humans on this earth, living with their strange, symbolic world of language and culture, the world has been explained in terms of myth and metaphor. These things deal with truth in a very different way than reason does.

    Consider the evolution of culture. Does culture need to be rational or even explicable in order to work? In theory, you could have the people of a culture believing things that are neither rational nor, in any logical or empirical sense, true, and those beliefs could get people to act in ways that produced an orderly, productive society that is able to perpetuate itself and produce generation after generation that hold those same beliefs.

    Such a society might not be terribly adaptable or able to deal with a rapidly changing world, but as long as things are stable, this might be the best way for a society to function. For example, little changed in the 1,500 years of the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms of Egypt. In such a society, kings were gods and priests were servants of God, and things went smoothly, all great and good fun until someone invents iron.

    The Golden Age of Greece followed the Late Bronze Age Collapse, a dark age in which populations fell and knowledge was lost. The old ways stopped working, the new technology of iron was creating new winners in the world and the old Gods were falling. Doubt set in, and new thoughts flourished. When the old ways didn't work, people had to find new ways of thinking. Until, or course, the vibrant new civilization started to get old, and to fear the questioning of its arbiters of virtue.

    But it turned out the Greeks were real pikers when it came to fearing those who questioned the arbiters of virtue. Later Europeans made a regular practice of killing people who questioned the arbiters of virtue, and gained great power by this tactic. And great power led to corruption, and rebellion against corruption, and reformation. One of the things involved was a 30-year long war that killed off so many people that parts of Europe - Germany in particular - that they had a third fewer people at the end of it than at the beginning.

    But does questioning the wisdom of an established religion cause violence? John Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, argued that this is not the cause of violence, it is the attempt to prevent people from holding non-sanctioned views that begets violence. But that points to a society where religion does not dominate the state, and the state itself is not the ultimate enforcer of religious orthodoxy (such as when a judge in Scotland ordered Thomas Aikenhead to be hanged for making atheist statements in 1697, and an executioner employed by the government did so.

    Locke's insight still holds. If Islamic State hopes that a few terrorists can change the way the liberal democracies treat Muslims, and they hope this will make the very regime some of them are fleeing seem more attractive to them. Only if they can spread intolerance will they have a chance of being proved right.

  • The irony of the surveillance state

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Video cameras seem to be everywhere. If you'd told civil libertarians that 50 years ago, they would
    have assumed that this would restrict the freedom of ordinary people.

    In fact, the message that the technology of ubiquitous video would lead to a police state was essential to the plots of 1984 and THX1138, as well as many other works of fiction such as Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly.

    But instead, it seems to be working against authority figures. Consider this:

    On Nov. 22, 2014, Officer Timothy Loehmann, 25, of the Cleveland Police department shot Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child who had been playing with a toy gun. Loemann and his partner, then 46-year-old Frank Garmback told a story that seemed to justify the shooting.

    They said that Rice was at a table with other people.

    They said as they pulled up, Rice grabbed a gun and put it in his waistband.

    They said they got out of the car and told Rice three times to raise his hands, but he refused.

    They said Rice pulled the pistol and Loehman responded by shooting him.

    Those four statements, if they were true, would get Loehmann off the hook. But what the officers did not know at the time they made those statements was that a surveillance camera  captured the entire incident.

    There were no other people.

    Rice already had the toy gun in his waistband.

    Loehmann fired within 2 seconds of arriving, too quickly for him to have told Rice three times to put his hands up, and too quickly for Rice to have complied if he had.

    Rice never removed the toy from his waistband.

    The officers got their story straight, and told a tale that would have justified Loehman's action. 20 years ago, that would have been the end of it. But the ubiquity of video tripped them up, and although they have since had independent reviews rule that they were justified in shooting, this is not going to look good when the wrongful death suit goes to court. Nor is the four minutes they spent doing nothing in the way of first aid for Rice, who died the next day. All they did was throw his sister to the ground when she arrived, distraught.

    And additional footage, this time with audio, has surfaced. In it the girl can be heard wailing "you shot my baby brother." This is important, because one defense of the officers' actions was that they had no way of telling that she was the sister of the boy Loemann had just shot.

    This sort of thing keeps happening. Michael Slager, a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer didn't think he was being taped when he shot a man named Walter Scott, who was attempting to run away from him. Slager had pulled Scott over for a broken tail light. Scott fled, Slager chased, they tussled, Scott fled again, and Slager fired eight shots, hitting him five times. They he want back to where they tussled, picked something up, and went back and dropped it by the body.

    Shooting a fleeing, unarmed man is illegal. The only way it's legal to shoot a fleeing suspect is if he might be a threat to others, the shooting could be justified. Therefore, in the review of the shooting, it would matter a great deal whether he was armed.

    Slager didn't know a bystander was shooting a video of the last part of the incident. Slager claimed Scott had taken his Taser, and he therefore feared for his life. Had Feidin Santana, who shot the video, simply been a witness to this alleged deception, the authorities would simply have preferred to take the officer's word for what happened. The prevalence of video made it impossible to paper over what had happened.

    In 2013, a complaint stated that Slager had Tasered a man without cause. Slager was cleared, even though the alleged victim and witnesses to the incident said they had not been interviewed.

    Santana had considered erasing the video and leaving town, because he feared retaliation if the video came out. It is clear that police do not like being filmed. Police have on many occasions ordered people to stop filming, or even seized telephones and deleted footage. A bill in Texas would have made it illegal to video the police, but was withdrawn amid public backlash.

    Why didn't ubiquitous surveillance turn out as 1984 or THX1138 foreshadowed?

    Simple. The state did not manage to get a monopoly on surveillance. The police in the Tamir Rice case were caught on security cameras, which are common at businesses, non-profits, and public buildings. The policeman in the Walter Scott case was caught on smartphone video.

    The democratic distribution of technology has proven to be as important as the technology itself. What we must guard against, then, is the state restricting the recording and distribution of recordings of its representatives.

  • More on the allure of the authoritarian

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    The reactions to Enlightenment ideas in traditional societies can be violent. To many people, Sayyid Qutbtribalism and religion are their identity, and they feel the secular state is a threat to that. Both al Qaeda and Islamic State are examples of this. Both are anti-democratic because they see democracy as fundamentally wrong, and freedom of conscience as fundamentally wrong. If you don't believe what you are supposed to believe, you are wrong, and deserved to die. Certain things can, in the view of Islamic State, make a Muslim an apostate, and one of them is voting in elections. Another is simply being a Shiite Muslim.

    All of this fits with what Theodore Adorno, who fled Germany in the 1930s and returned after World War II, referred to in his 1950 book, The Authoritarian Personality. From that authoritative book:

    The most crucial result of the present study, as it seems to the authors, is the demonstration of close correspondence in the type of approach and outlook a subject is likely to have in a great variety of areas, ranging from the most intimate features of family and sex adjustment through relationships to other people in general, to religion and to social and political philosophy. Thus a basically hierarchical, authoritarian, exploitive parent -child relationship is apt to carry over into a power- oriented, exploitively dependent attitude toward one's sex partner and one's God and may well culminate in a political philosophy and social outlook which has no room for anything but a desperate clinging to what appears to be strong and a disdainful rejection of whatever is relegated to the bottom. The inherent dramatization likewise extends from the parent-child dichotomy to the dichotomous conception of sex roles and of moral values, as well as to a dichotomous handling of social relations as manifested especially in the formation of stereotypes and of ingroup -outgroup cleavages. Conventionality, rigidity, repressive denial, and the ensuing break -through of one's weakness, fear and dependency are but other aspects of the same fundamental personality pattern, and they can be observed in personal life as well as in attitudes toward religion and social issues.
    On the other hand, there is a pattern characterized chiefly by affectionate, basically equalitarian, and permissive interpersonal relationships. This pattern encompasses attitudes within the family and toward the opposite sex, as well as an internalization of religious and social values. Greater flexibility and the potentiality for more genuine satisfactions appear as results of this basic attitude.Looking at a few lists of the characteristics of authoritarian personalities, I'd boil it down to this:

    --Rigid conventionalism and a tendency to think in rigid categories.--Uncritical submission to the moral authority of the group to which they belong.

    --Authoritarian aggression, that is, looking for those who violate conventional norms in order to condemn them, reject them, and punish them.

    --Opposing the subjective, imaginative, and empathetic or sympathetic.

    --Superstition, that is, a tendency to believe in mystical things that affect peoples' fate. An example would he Benito Mussolini's insistence on changing airplanes if he thought one of his fellow passengers had the evil eye.

    --A preoccupation with toughness, identification with those who seem powerful, and with the powerful/weak, winner/loser, dominant/submissive dimensions of character.

    --Hostility and vilification of human nature, projection of unconscious urges, therefore a belief that horrible and dangerous things are going on, and a cynicism about the world.

    --A focus on sex, sexuality, and what sexual things others are doing.

    There is some question in my mind whether any of this is innate. There is no question in my mind that society can choose to be ruled by the authoritarian among them or by the more flexible alternative that Adorno described. 

    It strikes me that as civilization has developed, we have gone from the small band, to the tribe, to the village, to the nation, and at each stage our definition of who is "one of us" has become broader. And the greater our inclusiveness, the greater the size of our cohort. Acceptance of the "other" into the cohort increases the power of the cohort, so in the end, those who are suspicious of outsiders are less likely to increase the power of their society than those willing to include them. The bluster of the nativist is a defensive posture based on fear. Every new group of immigrants to the U.S. has been opposed by them, before being accepted and considered an asset. Those who demonize outsiders are exposing their weakness, not displaying their strength.

    Now, it strikes me that any ideology or in-group can contain people with these traits, from self-righteous hipster assholes to fire and brimstone preachers and "citizens for decency." Many will be attracted to conservative causes, because of the conventionalism of the type, but that also depends on the conventions they are raised with. It is also quite common for people who have generally conservative views to be kind, empathetic, and accepting. How conservative or liberal you are depends more on your upbringing than your temperament, but how authoritarian you are depends more on your temperament.

    Consider the following passage, from Sayyid Qutb's The America I have Seen:

    "...the American girl is well acquainted with her body's seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and the expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs - and she shows all this and does not hide it."In this brief passage we have on display lust, disgust, condemnation, envy, and a concern with the sexuality of others. It seems safe to say that Qutb, an early firebrand of the Muslim Brotherhood, was an authoritarian. He reacted to the open society with revulsion. Qutb was one of the founding figures in the jihad movement, an advocate of religious law over secular law, and wanted women to know their place (and everyone else, as well.)

    What Qutb wanted was a return to the old system of governance by force, faith, and custom. He would be more comfortable if everyone knew their place, instead of trying to shape their own lives. If Allah is the ultimate source of truth and good, why would you rely upon the judgment of people, who after all might be seduced by the licentious freedom of the West?

    Culturally, this was happening around him. Egypt's last king was an obese playboy given to pleasures of the flesh (Farouk I died at the ages of 45 and the weight of 300 lb, collapsing after a heavy meal. In his defense, he may have been poisoned, though it is not necessary to suppose this is the case, and no one bothered with an autopsy.) Its dictators were secular. The Muslim Brotherhood was having none of this. They believed God's law was above man's law, and wanted a society where God's law overruled man's law. This is only a problem if you don't happen to belong to the same church as Qutb and his brethren. If, for example, you happen to be a Coptic Christian, under the rule of religious fanatics of a different faith, it sucks to be you.

    Every civilization needs some degree of conservatism, some value placed on tradition and order. But for a civilization to learn and grow, it must also be open to new ideas and new experiences, and in a time when the world faces rapid change, these needs are in conflict. The psychologically conservative will be disturbed by the disorder of rapid change, while those with minds more open to change, the need to adapt society and leave behind old prejudices will lead them in a different direction.

    When people look at Islamist extremists, and tell me that this is a clash of civilizations between Muslim and Christian civilizations, I think of the Christians in our own civilization who want religion to overrule secular law. The clash is not between religions, it is between tolerance and intolerance, between liberty and authority.

    What we are seeing is not a clash between regions or cultures or religions. We are seeing a clash between people who want to conserve traditional values and people who want to open society up to new freedoms. Tip the balance one way, you have the Islamic State, tip it the other and you have San Francisco.

    When the world changed slowly, these groups were not much in conflict. New experiences were rare in Egypt's Old Kingdom, and the need to adapt to a changing world was rare. We no longer live in that world, and many people are made profoundly uncomfortable by this, while others delight in it.
    Count me among the delighted. And I am happy to see that surveys of young people show them sharing more and more of my views as I get older, because they are adapted to the changes that have occurred. I find that more and more, I live among the delighted. But I still recognize the need for a counterbalance, even if I sometimes become impatient with the way people cling to what I feel are outmoded views. I only ask that they use persuasion rather than force when they attempt to get people to follow their older ways.

  • Death with dignity and the death penalty, a drug story

  • Fall

    by John MacBeath Watkins

  • Natural rights and the corporate person

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    What is a person, and who has natural rights, such as free speech?

    In Citizens United vs. FEC, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and labor unions cannot be prevented from spending money on "electioneering communication." They did so based on the idea that neither citizens nor associations of citizens may be prevented from the exercise of free speech.

    The majority ruling was that the first amendment to the constitution protects free speech regardless of the identity of the speaker, and therefore rules could not make distinctions between, say, for-profit companies and other kinds of associations.

    The dissent, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, argued that the form of the corporation has certain inherent dangers to the political system. He quoted the Austin vs. Michigan Chamber of Commerce case in which the court noted that corporations have' "special advantages-such as limited liability, perpetual life, and favorable treatment of the accumulation and distribution of assets," 494 U. S., at 658-659-that allow them to spend prodigious general treasury sums on campaign messages that have "little or no correlation" with the beliefs held by actual persons...'

    He argued that these legal entities were not the "people" for whom the constitution was written, and for whom such rights were preserved.

    There is a great deal more to the argument on both sides, but I'm not a legal scholar, and what really interests me here is the question in political theory of whether a corporation is a person who can exercise free speech.

    First, while there is some dispute about John Locke's influence on the people who wrote the constitution , to my way of thinking, it was decisive. So it's worth looking at his version of natural law and inalienable rights.

    Inalienable rights are those that cannot be sold, or alienated, and assigned to someone else. The computer I'm writing this on does not have inalienable rights. I can own it, sell it, and it will never raise an objection, because it has no use for rights. If someone were to claim to own me and sell me, and use me in ways I do not like, I could not help but have feelings about it. That's why my right to freedom of conscience and freedom of speech are inalienable, and why it is immoral to treat people like things that can be bought and sold.

    From Locke's Second Treatise of Government:

    The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another's pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another's uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for our's.
    In Locke's view, all of nature was created by God, and the sort of people who had natural rights were natural people. Such people, he wrote, are born owning themselves, and the rights they possess as their own master are inalienable: They cannot be assigned to another.

    The two sides in Citizens United argued very different things. The majority argued that corporations have freedom of speech as associations of people. The dissent argued that corporations do not have free speech rights as people.

    Stevens' view is the easier to argue. Corporations are not their own masters. They must do as their board of directors decides, and have no opinion of how they are used. The can be bought, sold, merged or dissolved and the corporation itself has no feelings about any of these things, because it is a legal entity, not a natural person.

    The majority view is harder. Certainly there are legal entities that are allowed to be political actors. Political parties are the most obvious case. But does that mean that all associations should be political actors?

    Political parties are voluntary associations for the purpose of political action. So are political action committees. You do not have to belong to them for any purpose other than to act politically, so the legitimacy of any political action they might take seems unambiguous.

    But what about, say, ExxonMobil? First of all, its nature as a person is somewhat contested. Shareholders don't own it in the way that partners do, in that they cannot demand their share of the assets and force the company to sell assets to pay them. Sometimes they manage to get the company to sell assets in order to finance a dividend, but the process is nothing like what happens when a partner wants to sell out its share. Shareholders own a claim on the company's future earnings, but they do not directly own a share of its assets. They are stakeholders, as are bondholders, banks that have loaned the corporation money, employees, and customers.

    None of these stakeholders have associated with ExxonMobil for the purpose of political action. Some of the shareholders are pension funds, some are mutual funds. To claim that the corporation's political speech represents a sort of speech the people who have associated in the corporation want to express requires a vast leap of faith.

    One of the major political issues ExxonMobil is involved in is climate change, and there is turmoil among its shareholders on the issue.

    Jane Dale Owen, the granddaughter of a founder of Humble Oil (which became Exxon's largest domestic asset) contributed to the solicitation packet. "I believe that ExxonMobil's recalcitrant position on global warming, held in the face of widely accepted scientific facts and growing acceptance by the rest of the industrial sector, now casts serious doubt on the integrity of the company and its leadership," said Owen. "As a long-term shareholder, I would like for ExxonMobil to take account of these issues, both by reflecting the [global warming] liability risks in shareholder reports and accounting, and by taking immediate action to redirect the company to minimize these liabilities."Yet the company continues to donate money to politicians who deny the danger of climate change. At a minimum, we can say with some certainty that ExxonMobil's political speech does not represent all of its shareholders. And many of the people whose money is invested by pension funds and mutual funds don't even know their money owns shares in a company that is a major political actor, let alone have any influence over how it spends its money. While the law considers shareholders only one of the stakeholders in a corporation, even if we only consider shareholders, the corporation is not competent to engage in political speech on their behalf.

    For one thing, the corporation may not be revealing all it knows to the shareholders. Owen mentions that ExxonMobil has not included liability assessments in reports. But the problem is bigger than that. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Exxon's own scientists were telling it about the problem. From Newsweek:

    "Present thinking," wrote Exxon senior scientist James Black in 1978, "holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical." And in 1982, Edward David, Exxon's head of research, echoed that sentiment, saying "few people doubt that the world has entered an energy transition away from dependence upon fossil fuels and toward some mix of renewable resources that will not pose problems of CO2 accumulation."In short, the company had pretty good data on climate change, but instead of using this in a way that might benefit those whose pensions were invested in the company by pioneering a move away from fossil fuels, it chose to invest in another direction: Political action to prevent any move away from fossil fuels.

    As a for-profit company, its incentives were clear. However, they conflicted with the political interests of many of the people who either directly or indirectly held the shares. They were not allowed to know that the company had researched climate change and discovered it was real long before the public became aware of that fact, until Inside Climate News did a series of reports on the topic.

    This is why we cannot take for-profit companies formed for non-political purposes as representing the collective political will of those who associated with them. In part, this might be described as an owner/agent problem. The interests of the managers of the company may be to gain a short-term advantage in their careers that conflicts with the interests of long-term shareholders, such as the generations of shareholders represented by Owen.

    Now, it may be that a non-profit like Citizens United is sufficiently closely held that its representation of  its associates' views is not a problem. We then must deal with the fact that an artificial "person" has been granted natural rights.

    It seems to me that any corporation may publish a book with a political point of view, as long as there is a natural person to take responsibility for its content. Michael Moore, for example, directed a propaganda film aimed at George W. Bush. But Moore was there to take responsibility for his views. Citizens United was attempting to air a film about Hillary Clinton. I think as long as the prime mover of the film was clearly identified and that natural person was personally liable for the content of the film, that should be allowed. Citizens United planned to show the film on a pay-per-view basis, so it is not as if it insisted that its shareholders contribute out of their pockets.

    I don't think we have to overturn corporate "personhood" or money = speech to fix the problems posed by Citizens United. I do think if a corporation engages in political speech, it should be clear that it does in fact represent the views of those associated in it, and it should be clear that a natural person takes responsibility for that speech.  The corporate person itself should not be able to make political contributions larger than a natural person is allowed. After all, the persons associated in the corporate person are all capable of acting on their own behalf, why allow the corporation to out-shout them?

    A corporate person is incapable of action without actions taken by natural persons. They make the speeches, write the checks, push the buttons, and write the algorithms. Should we shield these people too much from the actions they take while working for a corporations, the responsibilities of citizenship disappear.

  • The allure of the authoritarian leader

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Whenever Vladimir Putin acts in an aggressive and authoritarian way, some percentage of our political pundits seem to swoon.

    For example, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz in a Sept. 28, 2015 interview, told Newsmax TV that Putin was playing chess while President Barack Obama was playing checkers.

    "We're playing checkers against the people who invented chess, and they're beating us at every move," he said.
    Chess is believed by historians to have been invented in eastern India about 300 CE, spread to Southern Europe via Muslim traders, and assumed its current form in Europe between 1000 and 1200 CE. So don't look to Dershowitz for accurate history, he's a law professor.

    But he was just riffing on a common theme. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said in March 2014 that "Putin is playing chess and we're playing marbles."

    Bill O'Reilly asked the question, "Is Putin dominating Obama?" (Hint: O'Reilly does not like Obama.)

    The right's admiration for authoritarian leaders is nothing new. About 30 years ago, Jean-François Revel wrote How Democracies Perish, which neoconservatives quickly adopted. In it, he asserted that:

    "Unlike the Western leadership, which is tormented by remorse and a sense of guilt, Soviet leaders' consciences are perfectly clear, which allows them to use brute force with utter serenity both to preserve their power at home and to extend it abroad."

    The timid, soft democracies of the West could not stand up to them, he asserted in 1983. 

    In 1991, the Soviet Union fell, and most of its former vassal states in Eastern Europe quickly aligned themselves with the West. The Soviets could not afford to feed their people once the price of oil plunged and they had to borrow money from the West, on terms that made the continuation of empire impossible.

    Yet people persist in admiring the strong leader, the man on horseback (with no shirt.) Given how often authoritarian leaders have crashed and burned, and crashed their countries with them, it might seem curious that anyone would still wish to follow them.

    But there is something very comforting in handing your fate over to the Fearless Leader. Part of the attraction is that everyone will know their place, and all those who should not be above you might be put down. Part of the attraction is that the leader seems so strong, you feel protected.

    There is a whole vision of the world that goes with this outlook. Theodore Adorno described this as the authoritarian personality. The elements of this can be boiled down as follows:

    Rigid conventionalism

    Uncritical submission to the moral authority of the group to which they belong.

    Authoritarian aggression, that is, looking for those who violate conventional norms in order to condemn them, reject them, and punish them.

    Opposing the subjective, imaginative, and empathetic or sympathetic.

    Superstition, that is, a tendency to believe in mystical things that affect peoples' fate. An example would he Benito Mussolini's insistence on changing airplanes if he thought one of his fellow passengers had the evil eye.

    A tendency to think in rigid categories.

    A preoccupation with toughness, identification with those who seem powerful, and with the powerful/weak, winner/loser, dominant/submissive dimensions of character.

    Hostility and vilification of human nature, projection of unconscious urges, therefore a belief that horrible and dangerous things are going on, and a cynicism about the world.

    A focus on sex, sexuality, and what sexual things others are doing.
    You can see elements of this in Revel's insistence that the West was too soft, in the rhetoric of those who accuse President Obama of "leading from behind," in the Bush Administration's quick resort to tactics such as torture, in the name of being "tough" even though skilled interrogators knew better methods.

    For people who view the world this way, a cerebral, patient politician like President Obama does not project sufficient toughness, therefore must be a loser, regardless of the results he gets, or the disaster created by a more "tough" administration prior to his. Results are not paramount, perception is. Reverence for the leader is not a calculus, it is an emotional commitment.

    Putin, for example, leads a country with an economy smaller than Italy's, and shrinking. The price of his military adventures has been high, and his corrupt administration at home has not provided the secure property rights or rule of law generally needed to attract foreign investment.

    The situation in the Ukraine also revealed his weakness. Putin attempted to essentially threaten and bribe the administration of Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych to align himself with Russia rather than the European Union, having Russian customs stop all goods coming from Ukraine and offered, if Ukraine aligned itself with Russia, loans and lower natural gas prices. The Ukrainian people rebelled in the Euromaidan movement. Yanukovych ended up fleeing to Russia. Interpol has listed him as wanted for embezzling millions from his nation.

    Having failed to win an ally by soft power, Putin sent troops into Crimea and seized it by force, and supported Russian-speaking rebels in eastern Ukraine with weapons and probably soldiers. Subsequent sanctions are only part of the problem with the Russian economy.

    He is a leader without willing allies, whose use of force has impoverished his country. But the American right admires him for his macho posturing and his willingness to use force. It cannot be his results they gauge him by, it must be his style.

    And part of that style is rabid nationalism supported by the Russian Orthodox Church. Nor is it an accident that this goes with suppression of sexual minorities, with Russia's infamous anti-gay laws. All of these things appeal to the authoritarian personality.

    More here:

  • Cat People, dog people, and the character the choice reveals

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    "One is permitted to assume an attitude of placid indifference in the matter of elephants,
    cockatoos, H.G. Wells, Sweden, roast beef, Puccini, and even Mormonism, but in the matter of cats it seems necessary to take a firm stand....Those who hate the cat hate him with a malignity which, I think, only snakes in the animal kingdom provoke to an equal degree."   --The Tiger in the House, Carl Van Vechten, 1922
    We usually think of dogs as the pets of choice for the macho, huntin' and fishin' type of manly man, but Ernest Hemingway was a huge cat lover, calling them "purr factories and love sponges," according to the Hemingway Museum.

    Surveys of dog lovers and cat lovers have shown that cat lovers are more likely to be introverted, and on average are more intelligent than dog lovers. Not bad characteristics for someone like Hemingway, who made his living by sitting alone for long periods of time writing.

    A ship captain gave Hemingway a polydactyl cat named Snowball, and soon Hemingway had more than a dozen of Snowball's six-toed descendants around at a time.

    Cats, left on their own, tend to live in social groups without a strict hierarchy. There is often an alpha cat, usually female, but the rest of the group isn't ranked one above the other. There's a dog-training trick where you make sure your dog knows it doesn't eat until after you, so it understands that it is lower in the hierarchy. This technique is meaningless to cats. If you try this on a cat, I assume they just think you're a thoughtless jerk who's stuffing your face while the cat waits for you to remember to put some food in pussy's bowl.

    People who want to rule the world tend to prefer dogs. Albert Speer reported that Adolf Hitler told him in 1945, "I am surrounded on all sides only by traitors and betrayals. Only my bad luck is loyal to me -- my bad luck and Blondi, my German shepherd."

    Blondi met her end a day before Hitler. He used her to test the efficacy of the cyanide pills he used to kill himself.

    Not that this reflects badly on dogs or dog people. Surveys show that they tend to be more extroverted than cat people, and more warm and social. It is therefore not surprising that they are more likely to be married and have children in the house. Cat people are more likely to live alone, but are also more open to experience. Cats tend to live longer than dogs, so perhaps they are more inclined to long-term commitments, but the day to day commitment of owning a dog is much more stringent. Dogs need to be walked, and I've seen dogs develop separation anxiety only a few feet from their masters.

    Dogs look up to you, and are obsessively dependent on their people. Cats think you are a big, warm member of the pride, neither above nor below them, but useful for providing a warm lap and having a real talent for operating a can opener.

    The cat sees you as an equal, the dog sees you as a god.

    Both are creatures that have, for most of their relationship with humans, had a choice of staying with humans or living on their own. Most have chosen to live with people, although there are far more colonies of feral cats in this country than feral dogs. This is because cats pursue smaller prey, and are therefore less of a nuisance than feral dogs, who tend to get picked up by the dog catcher.

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