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  • Empathy vs. Identity: The clash within civilizations

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Why do some people kill in the name of religion?

    I believe that the answer to this question is bound up in what makes us human, the empathy that gives us our moral sense and the culture that gives us our identity.

    Religion gives us a sense of how the world works and of who we are. We define our identity in part by what is included and what is excluded. And while we have an identity as individuals, we are most importantly social creatures. Our identity is bound up in the group we belong to, and is defined, in part, on the groups we exclude.

    A psychologist once told me that people need three things to be happy: Someone or something to love, someone or something to hate, and something to belong to. Sometimes this manifests itself in being a fan of a football team and beating up people who are fans of the other team. And perhaps we should feel grateful for such petty concerns, because when the thing you belong to is a religion, the battles can get larger.

    Religion, for most of the Evangelical Christians I know, is about their relationship with God. But consider the weird world of white supremacists, in which the Christian Identity movement added a whole mythology about race that does not exist in the Bible. They teach that whites are descended from Adam, and that Eve had sex with Satan and conceived Cain. The Bible says nothing about the race of the brothers, and it gives no indication that Eve ever had sex with Satan or conceived a child by him. All the Christians I've known have assumed that they were both fathered by Adam and were obviously of the same race.

    Yet the mythology of the Christian Identity Church asserts many things that are not in the Bible, but reinforce their belief in themselves as a tribe of the pure, as being better because they are white, even if they are failures as people. Timothy McVeigh, who killed a lot of people when he bombed the Oklahoma City Federal building, was heavily influenced by the Christian Identity movement. It allowed him to think of his victims as somehow less than human, not worthy of his empathy. Their pain and their deaths meant nothing to him.

    But we could not be social creatures if we did not have a strong instinctive aversion to killing each other.
    Human beings have certain safeguards built into them. It's really rather difficult for most people to kill someone, for example. People drive around in powerful wheeled missiles every day, yet most of them manage to get through their day without killing anyone, despite how easy it would be, showing just how kind, considerate and careful people really are.

    Our moral sense is based on empathy, our ability to know how others are feeling. We can understand the importance of the Golden Rule, to treat others as we wish to be treated, because we have the ability to feel the pain we ourselves inflict. This is why psychopaths are so disturbing -- they don't feel the pain they inflict. For most of us, conditioning a person to kill involves a major psychological shift. We have to stop thinking of the person we are killing as human. The means to do this are well established in many cultures. You give the enemy a name -- the Hun, the Commie, the Fuzzy-Wuzzy -- that defines them as different from your group, not quite human. You portray your own side as being on the side of the angels, and pray to God for victory.

    Because this is about tribalism, it need not include religion. Portrayals of Germans as "the Hun" in Great War propaganda are as relevant to tribalism as are the Islamic State and Al Qaeda calling American troops "crusaders."

    Islamic State's propaganda magazine, Dabiq, put it this way: There is "no third camp present: The camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of kufr (disbelief) and hypocrisy -- the camp of the Muslims and the mujahideen everywhere, and the camp of the jews, the crusaders, their allies, and with them the rest of the nations and religions of kufr, all being led by America and Russia."

    I suppose some in the Arab world are still fighting the Crusades just as some in the American South are still fighting the Civil War. For them, it didn't end with the defeat of the crusaders' Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1291, there was pretty much continuous warfare between Arab and Christian empires for hundreds more years. When the Turks lost the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, their opponents didn't call themselves crusaders, but they did call themselves the Holy League. When the expansion of the Ottoman Empire was stopped at the Battle of Vienna, it was the culmination of a 300-year struggle between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Turks. While the Reformation resulted in the rise of secular states in the West, the Ottoman Empire continued to dominate the Arab world until it was dissolved in 1922, and the impetus for its dissolution came from the West.

    This makes it easier to understand why George Washington's administration negotiated a treaty with the Bey of Algiers that stated that America is not a Christian nation and has no argument with Muslims. (The language, found in Article 11 of the treaty negotiated under Washington and approved unanimously by the senate and signed by President John Adams was as follows: "As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.")

    It may have seemed quaint at the time that the Bey was still worried about whether America was a Christian nation, and a potential source of crusaders, but we now have people both in Muslim countries and in America making exactly the claim that George Washington, John Adams, and the entire U.S. Senate near the founding of our country rejected -- that America is a Christian nation.

    Osama bin Laden's second fatwa, in 1998, referred to its four signors as the "World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders," and concerned itself mainly with American activities in the Middle East, including its support for Israel. Osama bin Laden clearly thought America was a Christian nation, and opposed its presence in Saudi Arabia for that reason.

    For bin Laden, all Christians were Crusaders, and although secular states allow people to follow their own religious conscience, only states that do not do this -- states that dictate only Islam is the true religion -- are legitimate. He was worried about the Muslim world being seduced by Western ways. For him, religion was not just a personal relationship with God, it defined who were true people, and who were false people. Religion for him was a tribal marker, not personal salvation.

    The problem was how to convince people in his own world of this. He hoped to accomplish this by coordinating a horrendous act -- attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the (failed) attack on the nation's capital -- in hopes of provoking a response that would put American troops in Arab nations, and start a war between those nations and America.

    This is not too different from Timothy McVeigh's notion that blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people and injuring another 880, he could start the sort of race war depicted in The Turner Diaries, a novel written by a former leader of the National Alliance, a white nationalist organization. The book, which McVeigh sold at gun shows and sometimes gave away, depicted the overthrow of the U.S. government and ultimately the extermination of Jews, homosexuals, non-whites, and others the author deemed impure.

    The objectification of government workers as the enemy enabled McVeigh to suspend any empathy he may have possessed and kill them in large numbers. For bin Laden, the issue was not even that some of the people working in the World Trade Center were Muslim, their association with a global system of commerce dominated by the "crusaders" of the western nations made them less then human, things that could be sacrificed to the goal of a conflict between the groups as he defined them.

    The lesson I take from this is to make sure we do not suspend our empathy, or make objects of those we must deal with. In World War II, military planners were distressed to find that only about 20% of our troops were actually engaged in shooting at the enemy during battles. By Viet Nam, pretty much all the troops involved were shooting at the enemy, in part because of changes we made in training.

    But consider this. After the battle of Gettysburg, 85% if the rifles found were loaded, and 30,000 muskets -- that's 40% -- contained multiple loads. Given the usual cycle of firing a musket, very little of the time would one be loaded, and very seldom would someone put more than one load in by mistake. But if you were in a line of infantry with muzzle loaders, everyone could tell if you were loading, but when the guns went off, who could tell if you were firing? Furthermore, who could tell if you were firing high? And when you compare the number of people killed in battles between lines of infantry to the results of lines of infantry firing against non-human targets, it becomes evident that many must have deliberately aimed not to hit their targets.

    One would think that such desertions in place would make an army ineffective. But German WW I veterans advised the next generation fighting in WW II to "do your duty and surrender to the first American you see," as Kevin Grossman noted in his fine book, On Killing. And U.S. Grant's troops may have hesitated to kill their opponents, but he took more prisoners than any other general in the war. Part of this is because he preferred to cut off the enemy rather than annihilate them, but part of this is because the prospective prisoners were more likely to surrender to an army that thought of them as human.

    We should also not allow ourselves to be defined by our enemies. Those in my country who wish to define us as a "Christian nation" may not realize it, but they are dupes acting just as the radical Islamists want them to. We do not win by adopting this tribal view of religion as identity, because those are not the values on which this country was founded, and they are not the difference we have from past civilizations. The difference is that we allow freedom, so that people can worship as they wish without the law dictating their faith to them. We win when we recognize other human beings as human beings.

  • California to fill Death Valley with water

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    April 1, 2015, Sacramento, California -- Gov. Jerry Brown announced today that California will pipe water from the Pacific Ocean to fill Death Valley with water.

    "The snow pack we rely upon for our summer water is at 5%," the governor said, "we've got to get more water where it will evaporate and fall as rain."

    That, he explained, is why the state has been preparing an environmental statement in absolute secrecy to
    File picture of a desert a pipeline to move water to the  valley, which at its deepest point is 282 feet below sea level. The project has been so secret, pizza delivery drivers who arrive expecting to get a tip and leave have been forced to remain and become technical writers on the EIS, for fear they might reveal something about the project if they are allowed to leave. Gov. Brown was forced to reveal the project after a pizza delivery driver escaped.

    Scientists estimate that the phase change of evaporating water will lower temperatures in the vicinity of Death Valley, and evaporating water will provide rain that might supplant as much as 2% of the water lost to the current drought.

    Brown said the resulting man-made lake will kick start a new real estate boom in waterfront property, provide recreational opportunities to Californians, and rid the state of its greatest pest, the desert pupfish.

    The pupfish, which can shut down its mitochondria and survive by metabolizing without oxygen, generates alcohol when it does this. The resulting cocktail found in desert waters is costing the state and estimated $87 billion in lost liquor taxes.

    State Fish and Game officials believe these fish will be eaten by Tuna who will be pumped in with the water, creating a new inland fishery for drunk tuna.

    Conservationist Willard Trembler said he would fight the pipeline.

    "The pupfish will not be crucified on a cross of gold while I can draw a breath," the hirsute, sandal wearing Trembler proclaimed. He then hiccuped and sipped carefully from a cocktail glass with a small fish swimming in it.

  • Puny Earthlings, your planet is not worth invading

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    It seems Earth is a much less common sort of planet than we have supposed in the recent past. This means that any aliens who evolved in a more common sort of solar system would find our planet too cold and our atmosphere too thin to sustain life.

    You can blame Jupiter, which seems to have wiped out the early inner planetary system before retreating to
    The alien warlord is ready for his closeup (okay, it's a water bear.).the sidelines.

    We've discovered about 500 other solar systems with planets, and most solar systems don't resemble ours at all. They tend to have giant inner planets with atmospheres hundreds or thousands the pressure of earth's, closer to their suns than Mercury.

    They would probably be hot enough on the surface to melt lead.

    Our solar system was likely similar to this before Jupiter came into low orbit around the sun and destroyed such inner planets as had formed, until Saturn formed, and drew Jupiter out to a wider orbit.

    This would explain why the three inner planets, Mercury, Venus, and Earth, are younger than the outer planets. They would have formed from the debris left over from Jupiter's destructive juvenile period of acting like a wrecking ball in the inner solar system.

    Imagine an alien warlord from a more normal system, looking for new worlds to conquer.

    "Any habitable planets in this system, Lackey?" he would ask the science minion.

    "None of these planets could support life as we know it, sire," Lackey replies, "but there is something funny..."

    "Funny peculiar, or funny 'ha-ha?'" the warlord demands to know. Warlords like a laugh as much as anyone.

    "Well, sire, the third planet out is so cold that it has dihydrogen monoxide oceans covering most of the planet, and if you dropped lead into them it would become solid. The gravity is very low, and it retains only a wisp of an atmosphere, and the pH level is so alkaline that there is hardly any sulfuric acid in the rain. Yet there is a thin layer of life on it."

    "But not, of course, intelligent life?" the warlord inquires imperiously.

    "Well, there seem to be some large hives, and they are generating chemicals intended to make the planet hotter and put more acid in the rain, so it's possible they are trying to make their planet more habitable for life adapted to a normal atmosphere. However, they are so far from the sun and the gravity is so low, I doubt they will succeed."

    "Amazing! The poor, doomed creatures are trying to evolve into a decent life form, but there's no way their planet can be properly turned habitable by higher life forms," the warlord observed. "Put it down for further study, low priority. I've little use for pure science, but it might amuse my nerdy youngest son."

    And so, the alien warlord passes on, looking for decent planets to conquer.

  • Tribalism and religion in the clash within civilizations

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of mythology, objected to the Bible because it was tribal, and set one group against all others. Most of the tribal elements of the Bible are in the old Testament, so his comments could be applied to the entire Abrahamic tradition, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.

    In a 1983 interview with writer Tom Collins, he said the following:
    The thing I see about the Bible that's unfortunate is that it's a tribally circumscribed mythology. It deals with a certain people at a certain time. The Christians magnified it to include them. It then turns this society against all others, whereas the condition of the world today is that this particular society that's presented in the Bible isn't even the most important. This thing is like a dead weight. It's pulling us back because it belongs to an earlier period. We can't break loose and move into a modern theology.This is an interesting insight, but my problem with it is that not all members of the three Abrahamic religions act this way. In fact, the great age when Muslim culture and science were the envy of the world was a time when Muslim countries were more free and inclusive than Christian ones. The Koran says that other members of Abrahamic traditions are to be respected, and they were in Moorish Spain, for example. This changed in the 11th century, when a stricter form of Islam became popular, denying that inquiry and doubt were paths to knowledge, insisting that only the Koran was a path to the truth.

    And mainstream Protestant churches, such as I was brought up in, tend to be quite inclusive. In fact, that's probably why they've become less popular than churches which provide a stronger tribal element.

    This tribal element is the basis for the clash within civilizations. Samuel P. Huntington notoriously wrote a book in 1996 titled The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, in which he argued that the great conflict of the future would be between the Christian and Muslim civilizations.

    But is that what we're seeing? Islamic State is at war, but not with Europe or America, really. It is at war with other Muslims. Even the massacre at the Paris offices of the satiric magazine Charlie Hebdo killed a Muslim policeman. Nor were the men who committed those murders particularly devout Muslims. They were angry, violent men who felt their group had been disrespected.

    For such people, the issue is not religion, but tribalism. In the case of Islamic State, they have committed atrocities against Christians and Shia Muslims. They are at war with the mainly Sunni Muslim Kurds.

    Any time you define your group, part of that definition is who belongs in it, and part of it is who belongs outside it. In the case of Islamic State, this definition seems to define who gets treated as human. Yazidi have been taken as slaves, and according to the BBC, Islamic State's Department of Research and Fatwas has decreed that Christian and Yazidi girls may be taken as slaves, and their owners may have sex even with those who have not yet reached puberty.

    Raping the other tribe's women is a program of annihilation, a way to make sure only the children of your tribe's men are born. It has an ancient and horrific history in warfare.

    Many Syrian and Iraqi Christians and Yazidi fled to Kurdish territory. Kurds for the most part belong to the same religion as is claimed by Islamic State, Sunni Muslim, but do not agree with the way IS practices it.

    In fact, Islamic State seems less concerned with devotion to Allah than to its vision of tribal solidarity and triumph. They want Shariah law (religious law) because it is the law of their people, not because it is religious.

    Not everyone in their territory wants to live in a society that dehumanizes those not belonging to the tribe as defined by Islamic State. That's why they've resorted to brutal executions to enforce their will. And that is why this conflict is not between civilizations, but within them.

    We have, in this country, a more peaceful version of this conflict. Roy Moore, Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, had a monument to the ten commandments installed in the Alabama Judicial Building. The left half of the monument tells people to be good Christians, the right to commandments not to do things that are prohibited in about 100% of human societies, and with very little mousing around on the internet, you can find videos of Moore giving speeches claiming American law is based on the Bible.

    And he's not alone. Rick Santorum did pretty well in the Republican primaries in 2012 with a Dominionist message. Dominionism is the view that all secular power should reside in Christians (as defined by them) and ruled by a conservative Christian understanding of Biblical law. Santorum accused President Barak Obama of basing his administration on a "phony theology." Reuters reported that on Feb. 18, 2012, he said:
    Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology," Santorum told supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement at a Columbus hotel. This clash within our civilization is between those who see religion as a tribal matter, and those who define our nation in a more inclusive matter. For Santorum, a "real American" would be one belonging to his kind of church, either conservative Catholic or White Evangelical. He has made the argument that mainline protestants are not real Christians, as reported by Beliefnet.
    After he'd accused Obama and other Democrats of religious fraudulance for a few minutes, journalist Terry Mattingly of asked whether it's possible that rather than being fake, perhaps, Obama was sincerely reflecting a form of liberal Christianity in the tradition of Reinhold Neibuhr. Santorum surprised me by answering that yes, "I could buy that."However, he questioned whether liberal Christianity was really, well, Christian. "You're a liberal something, but you're not a Christian." He continued, "When you take a salvation story and turn it into a liberation story you've abandoned Christiandom and I don't think you have a right to claim it."Unlike so many Republicans who make the silly claim that President Obama is a Muslim, Santorum has acknowldeged that he is a Christian, but said that because he practices the kind of religion Reinhold Neibuhr did, he's a phony Christian.

    This is the problem with an established church. Once you have an official state religion, you have to define who is inside it and who is outside. America's founding fathers -- well, mainly James Madison -- saw that to have freedom of conscience, to be allowed to practice religion as you see fit, you must be free of other people's interpretation of religion. That is why the Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office, and why the First Amendment prohibits establishment of religion.

    In the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, negotiated during George Washington's second term and ratified by a unanimous vote of the U.S. senate during the first days of John Adams' first term, Article 11 declares:
    As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.  I submit that George Washington knew more about whether America was founded as a Christian nation then Rick Santorum or Roy Moore. My country was founded as a secular nation specifically to protect freedom of religion and allow for the election of people who did not have to represent the religion of the voters.

    The secular state was a response to religious conflict, a way of shifting the source of government legitimacy from religion to the people the government serves. After the 30 Years War had reduced the population of Europe in some places by a third and the English Civil War had seen the execution of a king, Thomas Hobbes suggested in Leviathan that people need a government to protect them from violent death, and that the legitimacy of the government could rest on the fact that it is needed.

    Hobbes advocated a hereditary monarch as the ruler, because he was the tutor of the son of the king who had been executed, and wanted to see Charles II seated on the British throne. He did see his Catholic pupil seated as king of a largely Protestant nation, but his logic did not really support hereditary monarchs. If the sovereign serves the people, the people aught to have some say in who governs, so it is this secular legitimacy that is at the heart of the shift from monarchs to democracy. And it is secular democracy, not Christianity, that outfits like Islamic State object to, however much they may want to portray the conflict as one between them and "crusaders."

    The clash we are seeing is not between the Christian and Muslim worlds. It is between those who want a tolerant, secular state, and those who want a religious, intolerant, tribal state.

  • Sir Terry Pratchett has died

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Sir Terry Pratchett, my favorite living author since I discovered him about a quarter century ago, has died, surrounded by his family and with his cat asleep on the bed with him.

  • The clash within civilizations, authority versus liberty

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    I submit the following as evidence that the world now faces, not a clash of civilizations, but a clash over what civilization should be:
    ...the American girl is well acquainted with her body's seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in 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.[5]

    -- Sayyid Qutb, The America I Have Seen
    Sayyid Qutb was an early firebrand of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a fundamentalist who feared his people would be seduced by western culture. In the passage above, I hear lust and repression, envy and condemnation.

    Qutb never married. He was a fierce critic of secular Egyptian society and a supporter of a severe form of religion which would be superior to secular law. He wanted to conserve the values of traditional Muslim society, and feared his people would find western, secular society more attractive than the society he wished to see.

    We have people like that in our own society, opposing sex education, the teaching of evolution, marriage equality for homosexuals, and other ways people would take liberties with their notions of traditional values.

    And Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he fears the decadence of western culture. He's had laws passed for the repression of homosexuals, for example. In a 2013 speech, he said:

    Too often in our nation's history, instead of opposition to the government we have been faced with opponents of Russia itself......
    Another serious challenge to Russia's identity is linked to events taking place in the world. Here there are both foreign policy and moral aspects. We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan. The excesses of political correctness have reached the point where people are seriously talking about registering political parties whose aim is to promote paedophilia. People in many European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations. Holidays are abolished or even called something different; their essence is hidden away, as is their moral foundation. And people are aggressively trying to export this model all over the world. I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis.
    And indeed, he seems to regard the Maidan movement that overthrew his corrupt allies in Ukraine as a threat to his own power in Russia.

    It is not the particular religion or ideology of American fundamentalists, Islamists, and Russian nationalists that these have in common, although a certain prudery seems to be an element of each. The common thread is the authoritarianism, the desire for order, and the condemnation of the liberties of the libertines.

    Theodor Adorno would have would have identified these as elements of the authoritarian personality. He measured this on what he called the "f-scale," for Fascist. The traits he identified were:

    Characteristics of the Authoritarian Personality (Horkheimer and Adorno)

    Conventionalism. Rigid adherence to conventional, middle class attitudes.Authoritarian Submission. Submissive, uncritical attitude toward idealized moral authorities of the ingroup.Authoritarian Aggression. Tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values.Anti-intraception. Opposition to the subjective, the imaginative, the tenderminded.Superstitions and Stereotyty. The belief in mystical determinants of the individual's fate; the disposition to think in rigid categories.Power and 'Toughness'. Preoccupation with the dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension; identification with power figures; overemphasis upon the conventionalized attributes of the ego; exaggerated assertion of strength and t oughness.Destruction and Cynicism. Generalized hostility, vilification of the human.Projectivity. The disposition to believe that wild and dangerous things go on in the world; the projection outwards of unconscious emotional impulses.Sex. Exaggerated concern with sexual 'goings-on.'  (The source for this list is in the link, just click on the quote.)

    Now, it strikes me that any ideology or in-group can contain people with these traits, from self-righteous hipster assholes to conservative preachers and "citizens for decency." Most will be attracted to conservative causes.

    I actually met a man who organized "(name of his hometown) for Decency" who liked  to come into the newsroom of the local paper, pick out an attractive young female reporter, and start showing her sexually explicit pictures, and talk about how disgusting they were. His particularly repellant combination of lust, repression, and authoritarianism seemed extraordinary to me at the time, but it is really just an extreme form of the authoritarian personality. Less extreme versions of that personality are, in my opinion, part of what holds society together.

    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 can't help but think of that disgusting "citizen for decency." 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 as one of 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 was a damn hippie kid, and not a great fit with society. Today, more and more people agree with my views. 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.

  • Bookstore video 2: Khalid reading Emerson

    Khalid Mohamed, intern extraordinaire, reading an excerpt from Self Reliance, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • The dance with death

    The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Liber chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel.

    by John Macbeath Watkins

    "To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything," Ernest Becker wrote in The Denial of Death.

    I was about seven or eight when I first faced my own mortality.

    We were living in the old colonial house we rented in Maine from old Mr. Adams, and my bedroom had a dormer window looking out over the verdant summer landscape. I don't know why it came to me, but I realized that not only would I die some day, I actually had some control over when it happened.

    Not that I was suicidal. The fact that I could end my life at will gave me a feeling of control, a feeling that my life was a choice. Having very little notion of anatomy, I rested a pocket knife against my abdomen, relishing the fact that I would not pierce my flesh. I would choose instead to live, to go out into the green, down to the creek to watch the minnows, out to the old oak to climb.

    For some reason, the knowledge that I was mortal and that my life was a choice gave me a feeling of significance. And significance is exactly what we need to feel to deal with the knowledge of our own mortality.

    Some of us attach ourselves to something larger, like a cause of a church that will live on past our lifetimes. Some will procreate, and find meaning in parenting, and carrying on the species.  Some will seek to be with people who are like us, and will know us, and give us a feeling that we are significant because we are known.

    And some of us write, and try to influence the whole structure of thought that is the realm of meaning, because in the end, meaning is what it's all about. In psychology, all these methods of dealing with our desire to live and the knowledge that we will die is called terror management theory, the study of how we try to feel immortal by establishing meaning in our lives. The desire to live and the awareness of death mean that we spend some large part of our lives, consciously or not, dealing with the terror of death.

    But do we all feel the rumble of terror that underlies everything? I think not.

    For example, I've known several people who died climbing. I'd gone for a scramble on the rocks with two of them, and they scared me. The kept placing themselves in positions where only their skill lay between and a fall that could severely injure them, even kill them if they landed wrong. In each case, I was saddened but not surprised to learn that they had fallen to their deaths.

    The joy of dancing with death seemed to enliven them. This should not be surprising; after all, we never contemplate what we're living for when we are faced with our imminent death.

    When my father retired after a career in the Air Force, he felt something was missing. It took about a year for him to sort it out.

    It was danger. When he flew in B-17s in World War II, those who completed as many missions as he did in heavy bombers had a loss rate of about 70% killed or missing in action. He told me that when they were gathered for a briefing, and were told about 10% might be lost on that mission alone, every man in the room was thinking, "those poor bastards." None were thinking about their own deaths.

    He served through three wars, and even in peacetime, people he worked with were dying every year. Military aviation is just not as safe as flying on an airliner, and practicing the things expected of them killed aviators even in the safest units.

    Yes, there are people who fear death. A 2009 Harvard study found that deeply religious people were more likely to ask for heroic measures to keep them alive, and fewer had "do not resuscitate" orders than the general population. Andrea Phelps, a senior medical resident at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and the study's lead author, suggested that such people might be more satisfied with life, but that seems unlikely to me.

    I think they sought the comfort of religion and heroic measures to preserve their lives for the same reason: A fear of death. Religion offered them assurances, but still the fear remained.

    But Becker argued that this is not how most people deal with the problem. Most, he said, attempt an "immortality project," an attempt, rather than relying on the heroic measures of doctors, to do something heroic and eternal.

    Humans have a dual nature, their animal bodies and their symbolic selves. In the animal world, there are acts to preserve your life and the lives of those closely related, but these are not heroic in the sense Becker means. Heroic acts, in his framework, are symbolic acts. Heroic acts either make us a part of something eternal or involve us creating something eternal, allowing us to live on past our allotted time on earth.

    Becker believed that religion, our traditional hero system, was failing in the age of reason, and that science could never take over that function. He thought we needed new illusions to sustain us.

    But that's like seeking to advance medicine by making more potent placebos. In the age of reason, it is difficult to retain any illusions. We need to consciously invent our own meanings, and be aware of how we are embedding ourselves in the structure of thought and the structure of society that carries on beyond our lives.

    That means being conscious of how much we are made up of all those who have influenced us, and how much we can influence those who come after us. We must be careful who we are, because that is what lives on when we die.

  • Twice Sold Tales video -- Ozymandias

    Our first video! This is me, John MacBeath Watkins, reading Shelley's Ozymandias.

  • Psycho killers, corporations, and the limits of individualism

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Any Rand, so often read by the young and impressionable, and so often recommended by the old and
    implacable, was a great admirer of a psychopathic killer named William Edward Hickman.

    This was early in her life, when she was an impressionable 20-something, the sort of youth that would be impressed by Nietzsche and by the works she herself created later in life.

    Rand's most memorable characters, such as John Galt in Atlas Shrugged and Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, have some traits in common with Hickman, in particular their selfishness and egoism.

    Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is reported to have his clerks read The Fountainhead, Rand Paul is named after her, and Paul Ryan told the Weekly Standard in 2003 that he had his staffers read Atlas Shrugged. Ryan has since disowned the atheistic author.

    Ayn Rand was in love with the concept of the superman. Not the DC Comics character who is constantly engaged in self-sacrificing attempts to save the world, but more the sort of superman admired by Rodion Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Gentle reader, you will recall that Raskolnikov, in this novel, murders a pawnbroker to steal her cash, justifying this with notions that he is a superman like Napoleon Bonaparte, who refuses to be restrained by common morality.

    Raskolnikov commits his crime under the influence of the philosophy that some people are naturally capable of great things. By the same philosophy, these supermen, to accomplish great things, have a right to commit acts which would be immoral for the common herd.

    But the fatal flaw of this hero is that he has a conscience, and empathy for others, and he is consequently tortured by what he has done.

    Rand, in her early 20s when Hickman's case was in the news in 1928, admired Hickman because he did not have this weakness.

    She wrote in her journal that she had an "involuntary, irresistible sympathy for him, which I cannot help feeling just because of [his anti-socialness] and in spite of everything else." She admired his "calm, superior, indifferent, disdainful countenance, which is like an open challenge to society."

    Hickman shot a druggist in a holdup, but didn't get much money. He decided to try his hand at kidnapping. His victim was 12-year-old Marion Parker, and he demanded $7,500 for her safe return, which was a fair chunk of change back then.

    He got the money, but didn't bother with the safe return part. Hickman, who had enjoyed wringing the necks of chickens as a child, did the same with Marion Parker. This was not a rational crime, because her father needed to see her alive before turning over the ransom. Hickman cut off her arms and cut her torso in half, apparently just for the pleasure of doing so, then realized he'd have to make her look a lot better before showing her to her father.

    He sewed her eyes open with wire and stuffed her torso with towels so that he could prop her on the passenger seat and tie her in place.

    Rand was not ignoring his terrible acts in her journal. Instead, she was going to bat for him.
    "Yes, he is a monster--now. But the worse he is, the worst must be the cause that drove him to this. Isn't it significant that society was not able to fill the life of an exceptional, intelligent boy, to give him anything to out-balance crime in his eyes? If society is horrified at his crime, it should be horrified at the crime's ultimate cause: itself. The worse the crime--the greater its guilt. What could society answer, if that boy were to say: "Yes, I'm a monstrous criminal, but what are you?" So it was the old "I blame Society" ploy, which is rather surprising coming from Rand. She was at that time working out her philosophy and planning a novel which was never completed, called "The Little Street," in which the hero would kill an evil minister. Rand did not like religion even then.

    She described the hero in these terms: "Other people do not exist for him and he does not understand why they should. He knows himself--and that is enough. Other people have no right, no hold, no interest or influence on him. And this is not affected or chosen--it's inborn, absolute, it can't be changed, he has 'no organ' to be otherwise. In this respect, he has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel 'other people.'"

    The novel would have been Crime and Punishment without the conscience. A mature Rand chose not to make her heroes murderers, but instead captains of industry, moving from murderous psychopaths to "pro-social" psychopaths who succeed without committing the sort of crimes that get the death penalty. This gained her a following among the Captains of Industry and Masters of the Universe types, and those who aspired to be the Masters of the Universe.

    She had, in her lifetime, a cult-like following. Today she has a wider following. The superman idea she wrote about, in its 19th century form, was linked to a radical individualism that has a long history in America. The social Darwinist had the notion that those who are strong succeed, and that this is the natural way of the world. In fact, Objectivism is pretty much social Darwinism minus the bogus biology.

    In Europe social Darwinism talked about the German "race" and the Italian "race," but in America social Darwinists were more concerned with the superior individual.

    The history goes back further. In the 19th century before the Civil War, there was a radical individualist movement that claimed working for other people was equivalent to slavery. This is where the term "wage slave" comes from. The notion never really caught on, because working for wages is nothing like slavery, but the idea that people needed to own the means of production to be their own master persisted. At the time, this meant to most people that people should have access to land.

    The Homestead Act was popular with the radical individualists, as a way that people -- by which was meant white male people -- could own a piece of land and be self-reliant. One of the philosophers of individualism was Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose famous essay, Self-Reliance, said that we are born into an oppressive conformity, and must escape it. Emerson believed there was genius in each person, and breaking free of restraints could release it.

    "No government or church can explain a man's heart to him, and so each individual must resist institutional authority," Emerson wrote. Rand, in her admiration of Hickman, might be said to echo (and twist) Emerson's claim that "To be great is to be misunderstood."

    Not that Emerson would have admired a man who lacked moral sense. But his philosophy, like Rand's, conflicted with the need to work together to build and maintain a society.

    The U.S. Constitution says:
    The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;(Emphasis added.)

    The notion that there could be a "general welfare" for the nation indicates that we're all in this country together

    Radical individualism is at odds with the notion of a social contract, which indicates that we can only enjoy our rights by forming a society. It is also at odds with organic conservatism, the notion that the traditions and culture that shape us are the wisdom of our civilization and should not be quickly set aside, and yet, it finds most of its followers on the right.

    But it fits very well with our notion of the creative individual, the sort of person who changes society, and we are a society that is in constant change. This makes it all the stranger that radical individualism has become a favorite theme of conservatives.

    Perhaps it has to do with justifications. Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkley, did an experiment where a game was rigged to give one player a cash prize, and showed how, as that person accumulated more money, they became more likely to cheat. Keltner wrote of his research:
    "If I have $100,000 in my bank account, winning $50 alters my personal wealth in trivial fashion. It just isn't that big of a deal. If I have $84 in my bank account, winning $50 not only changes my personal wealth significantly, it matters in terms of the quality of my life -- the extra $50 changes what bill I might be able to pay, what I might put in my refrigerator at the end of the month, the kind of date I would go out on, or whether or not I could buy a beer for a friend. The value of winning $50 is greater for the poor, and, by implication, the incentive for lying in our study greater. Yet it was our wealthy participants who were far more likely to lie for the chance of winning fifty bucks."The New York State Psychiatric Institute researchers surveyed more than 40,000 Americans and found that the poor are less likely to shoplift than the rich. As a shopkeeper, I can confirm this finding from experience.

    Keely Muscatell, a University of California at Los Angeles neuroscientist, has found that if you show both the rich and the poor pictures of children with cancer, the poor show more activity in the part of the brain involved with empathy.

    Michael Lewis, who interviewed Keltner and Muscatelll for an article in The New Republic, reports that Keltner said:

    "As you move up the class ladder, you are more likely to violate the rules of the road, to lie, to cheat, to take candy from kids, to shoplift, and to be tightfisted in giving to others. Straightforward economic analyses have trouble making sense of this pattern of results."
    This seems even stranger when research shows that while the rich are more likely to cheat to get more money, getting more does not make them happier. Mike Norton, from Harvard Business School, surveyed clients of a large investment bank, and found that although additional money does not make the already rich happier, they continue to think it will.

    That lack of pleasure in additional money is a result one might expect based on the declining marginal utility of money, but why do the rich cheat to get more, as Keltner's study showed? Why, in the face of the fact that more money does not make them happier, do they persist in wanting more?

    The answer seems to be a sense of entitlement. Instead of saying, I've been blessed, I should help the less fortunate, it seems to be human nature that when we have more, we believe we deserve to have more.

    And when we have experienced misfortune, we have greater empathy.

    The psychological mechanism here seems to be the "just world" fallacy. We want to believe that the world is just, that those who deserve more will get more, and it helps with society's functioning if we can get people to act as if this was true. People are more likely to work hard if they believe hard work is rewarded, for example.

    If you believe in a just world, and you have been given more than others, you feel more entitled. The Koch brothers, who inherited great wealth and have gained much more, are objectively entitled to a great deal. Why would they not feel entitled to more than other people, and less constrained by the rules others must obey? And yet, I cannot help but feel that these men are morally disfigured by inherited wealth, causing them to act to get their way regardless of what needs others may have. Certainly the legal history of Koch Industries seems to confirm Prof. Ketner's research.

    But however much we may wish to believe in the just world, life is often unfair, and those with the power to seize life's rewards are more likely to get them, regardless of fairness.

    Social Darwinism and Objectivism act as a salve to the conscience of those who have a good life and don't want to be bothered about the injustice of inequality. These philosophies justify inequality by comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted.

    But can we have the creativity Emerson advocated without the psychopathic tendencies inequality encourages?

    Certainly. Greatness, in Emerson's mind, was not tied to wealth, but to creativity and realizing your own purpose. Why has our understanding of the value of individualism changed?

    The research cited above indicates that inequality is part of the reason it has changed. We can expect greater disparities in wealth to trigger the sense of entitlement revealed in Ketner's research.

    (How has it been part of the reason? And in what ways has inequality changed it?)

    In addition, as capitalism has evolved, it has changed. Corporations now define most of the great capitalist enterprises, and corporations, like psychopaths, lack moral sense. The frightening thing about psychopaths is that while others understand you and empathize with you, psychopaths understand you and manipulate you.

    Like Rand's hero in The Little Street, corporations "can never realize and feel 'other people.'" The empathy that is the basis for our moral sense is not merely dulled by wealth, it is lacking because corporations are undead things that live in law and finance without conscience or empathy. And as more people work for corporations, this monstrous lack of moral sense becomes the world we live in.

    And Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy is one better for corporations than for people. Corporations can live forever, so they need not make the kinds of sacrifice parents make for their children. They can be selfish and single-minded pursuers of profit in a way only psychopaths among humans can.

    The only thing that can oppose them is human empathy, and caring for each other.

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