Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The NYPD's counter-protest

On December 3, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio held a press conference to address the protests in the wake of the non-indictment of Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the killing of Eric Garner. During his remarks, DeBlasio talked about having to "train" his biracial son Dante in how to interact with police. DeBlasio was trying to empathize with the protesters, and to acknowledge that he was aware of the problem, and that it impacted his own family as well. I don't really know much about DeBlasio, but I was impressed with him on that day.

Pat Lynch wasn't impressed. He's the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association (it's worth highlighting that it is the association which is benevolent, not the patrolmen), and he held his own press conference on the following day in which he claimed that police were "thrown under the bus" by DeBlasio's remarks. One of the reporters present, Azi Paybarah asked him what he found so upsetting, and whether expressing concern for his son indicates a lack of support for police on the part of DeBlasio.This is Lynch's reply:
“He spoke about, we have to teach our children, that their interaction with the police, and that they should be afraid of New York City police officers. That’s not true. We have to teach our children, our sons and our daughters, no matter who they look like, to respect New York City police officers. Teach them to comply with police officers, even if they feel it’s unjust. That police officers are protecting them from the criminals on the street. That’s what we do. Our city is safe because of police officers. All our sons and daughters walk the streets in safety because of police officers. They should be afraid of the criminals. That’s what we should be teaching them.”
There's a grim irony in this. DeBlasio said that he taught Dante to "take special care" in interactions with police. What do you imagine DeBlasio meant by that? I have no doubt that he covered exactly those points Lynch mentioned. The key to not getting killed by police is to not give them a reason to kill you (which is harder than it sounds if you happen to be black), and the way you do that is to be polite, respectful, and cooperative. Whenever I've heard any black parent talking about "the talk", they always emphasize that. So what is Lynch really complaining about?

A point which seems to have eluded Lynch is that it doesn't really matter whether or not people are right to fear the police. Fear is the problem, whether it is a rational fear or not, and it's a problem that undermines the effectiveness of the police. I happen to think it is a rational fear, and I don't really see how that can plausibly be denied after all that's happened since the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But either way, the police have a responsibility to reassure the communities they supposedly serve, and that starts with holding themselves (and each other) to a high standard of conduct. Instead, Lynch wants to protect them from criticism. That will only exacerbate the fear, increasing the tensions within the community, making the police more afraid of the community, resulting in more innocent black men killed. 

It's only gotten worse since that press conference. The situation was certainly not improved by the tragic and senseless murder of two on-duty officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, in broad daylight on December 20. In the wake of this outrage, Pat Lynch further inflamed the situation by declaring "blood on the hands" of the mayor, City Hall, and the protesters. He alleged that this awful murder happened because DeBlasio "tolerated" the protests. I'm not sure what he should have done instead, and I'm also not sure what Lynch makes of the fact that the shooter also shot his ex-girlfriend, Shaneka Thompson, before traveling to New York City that day. Were the protesters to blame for that too?

It shouldn't be necessary to debunk Lynch's ridiculous assertion, because it's egregiously stupid on its face. What Lynch is saying is that the protests should not have happened and should not have been allowed to happen because of the risk of inspiring violence against police. But what inspired the protests? Wouldn't it be just as fair to say that police should not be allowed to get away with excessive violence and killing unarmed men? I think that actually makes a lot more sense.

But to be clear, neither DeBlasio, the protesters, the grand jury, nor Officer Pantaleo is responsible for the deaths of Officers Ramos and Liu. The shooter is responsible for those deaths. But it's fair to ask whether there's anything we can do to address any contributing factors. We could hold police to a higher standard, so that the next Eric Garner doesn't get killed. Failing that, we could increase accountability so that the next Daniel Pantaleo doesn't get away with it. Or we could stifle protests, so that the NYPD doesn't have to endure such hurtful criticisms when the next Daniel Pantaleo gets away with killing the next Eric Garner.What would a police state do?

Other than Lynch's deranged and fascistic rhetoric, the NYPD counter-protest has largely consisted of turning their backs on Mayor DeBlasio to express their displeasure. This is a perfectly acceptable form of protest, but the substance is nearly as troubling as Lynch's remarks. Bill DeBlasio is the democratically elector Mayor of New York City. The NYPD is ostensibly supposed to be working on behalf of the people of New York City. Well, the people of New York City put DeBlasio in charge. In fact, police conduct (specifically the stop-and-frisk program which was overwhelmingly targeted at black men) was an important part of that campaign, and the people picked DeBlasio. The legitimacy of the police comes from democracy. We give police the exclusive legal right to initiate the use of force against citizens because we expect them to do so in furtherance of laws and policies devised by the democratically-elected representatives of the people. Democracy is the only legitimacy the police have.

There's something particularly troubling about using funerals to protest the Mayor. It puts the NYPD on that very short list of organizations that use funerals as an opportunity to make a political point, just below the Westboro Baptist Church. It's shameful.

It seems as if the counter-protest has reached a new level, at least according to the New York Post. I tried to find a more reliable source for this story, but everything else I found just referred back to the Post, so I'm taking this with a grain of salt. It seems the police have instituted a slowdown in which they've stopped ticketing and making arrests for minor infractions, and instead are only making arrests when they absolutely have to. The protesters are having a field day with this, because that's more than they ever could have hoped to achieve. A police force that only makes arrests when necessary is a dream come true. But this slowdown isn't intended to put pressure on the protesters. Perhaps police really do believe that society would fall apart if we stopped giving out traffic tickets or choking guys for selling loosies, but I don't think so. They're trying to put pressure on the elected government of New York City.

The reason why this is likely to be an effective form of protest is because municipalities all over the country rely on tickets, fines and fees to fund their operations. Those tickets, fines and fees are generated by police work. If the police look the other way, the city doesn't get paid. Assuming this slowdown story is true, the police are deliberately leveraging their power against the democratically-elected government of New York City. This is a form of extortion designed to silence criticism of the police. Could there be any clearer indication that the NYPD is out of control? (Of course, the broader issue is that this is a terrible way for cities to raise revenue for lots of reasons. For example, the police concentrate their attention on poor neighborhoods of color, which means this revenue comes largely from the people least able to afford it. It's just one part of a whole host of policies that add up to a de facto poor tax, which is reprehensible.)

But never mind the political philosophy. The thing that I keep coming back to is the mismatch between what the two sides want. The protesters want an end to excessive violence, and they want greater accountability when cops go too far. The police want the government to suppress the protesters because they don't like to be criticized. The protesters want to end the protests by fixing the problem. The police just want to end the protests without addressing the problem at all. It boggles my mind that people like Pat Lynch can be so self-righteous in their support of such a position that is no less than an explicit attack on the principle of free speech. And get away with it.

The unfortunate fact in all of this is that the police have a very high baseline of popular support which is not sensitive to police conduct. In other words, there is a large portion of the public which will continue to support the police whether they are doing their jobs well or not, simply because they are police. That makes it politically difficult to have real accountability for police, and while that may make life more comfortable for cops like Daniel Pantaleo, it doesn't serve the public. If we hold the police to a very low standard of conduct, they will meet it.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

I don't care what you think

But "Weird Al" Yankovic thinks I'm pitiful. That stings
One of my favorite websites (don't call it a blog) is Why Evolution is True, launched in connection with Prof. Jerry Coyne's 2009 book of the same name. A recent post on that site led me to a story on CNN about the results of a contest to come up with "Ten Non-Commandments". It's a pretty good list, but I want to focus on just the second one.

"Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true."

This seems straightforward enough, but I think it has profound implications if we really take it seriously. And we should. On the surface, it's a simple warning to avoid wishful thinking. However, what it's really doing is subtly shifting the goal of reasoning itself. When asked to consider a given proposition, what most of us usually do is we start with our general sense of whether or not it is true. If we're good skeptics, and we want to protect ourselves against our own cognitive biases, we try to remain open-minded pending a thorough review of relevant evidence, so that our ultimate opinion will be founded on as firm a basis as possible. That's terrific. But whether we're good skeptics or not, we're giving our opinion as to whether the proposition in controversy is true.

Make a special note of that word "opinion". This simple that word that everyone understands is surprisingly tricky.There are two major types of opinion that I want to distinguish because I think the differences may be important. One kind of opinion is exemplified by aesthetic judgments. In these cases, there is simply no fact of the matter, and these opinions therefore can never be considered right or wrong. But we also use the word "opinion" to refer to provisional beliefs about matters of fact in the face of uncertainty. Predictions, for example. In my opinion, Hillary Clinton will be the 2016 Democratic nominee for President. Unlike aesthetic judgements, that is a factual claim. It is (or will be) either true or false. Also, counter-factuals. In my opinion, they would have won if the quarterback hadn't been injured. It is notoriously difficult to evaluate counter-factuals because they can't be tested, but we can still talk about what would happen if they were. We have opinions about unsolved historical mysteries. I had an opinion about the identity of Deep Throat, the Watergate informant, but it was wrong. We have opinions about whether or not celebrities are gay, or defendants are guilty, and so on. .

As New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is supposed to have said, "You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts." When "opinion" means "aesthetic judgment" and "fact" means "established fact", it means exactly what it says. But when our opinions are standing in for unknown facts, the situation is quite different. When we apply that principle to those opinions, we conclude that a person is entitled to any opinion which could be true. I've seen this principle invoked in hundreds of arguments between atheists and theists. After an atheist presents a list of very good reasons to think that there is no god, the theist may reply "But that doesn't prove that there is no god. Can you deny the possibility?" Apart from moving the goalposts (the possibility of god is a very different question than the existence of god), this point implies that you are entitled to believe anything which isn't demonstrably impossible.

This may seem reasonable to you (surely it must seem reasonable to lots of people), but there's a serious problem with using certainty to distinguish fact from opinion. First of all, it's ambiguous. Do you mean that it is certain as a matter of fact, or merely that you feel certain about it? Clearly, feeling certain about something is not evidence that it is true, so that's no good. But "certainty as a matter of fact" is also a bit tricky since nothing is entirely certain. All knowledge claims are probabilistic, which means that all claims are uncertain, which means all statements of fact are actually opinions in the face of uncertainty (even if it's very, very little uncertainty). If we apply the Moynihan principle to these opinions, we have to conclude that anyone is entitled to believe anything about anything. While this is true as a matter of political liberty, it is obviously not a valid way of reasoning.

So let's look again at that Non-Commandment. The key phrase is "most likely to be true". That is a game-changer, because opinions about what is more likely to be true are opinions in the face of uncertainty. Even though each of us must reach our own estimate of the probability in question (because our estimates will be based on a whole lot of other considerations about which we will disagree), it is ultimately a matter of fact. It's objective. It may be open to debate, but it is not a matter of opinion. When you approach a question in terms of what you think is the right answer, you give yourself license to believe anything that isn't clearly impossible. But once you consider that not all possible answers are equally likely, it raises the question of whether it is ever reasonable to believe a less likely possibility over a more likely possibility.

So when I titled this post "I don't care what you think", I mean that I'm not interested in what you believe is true. That's the wrong question, and it's "just a matter of opinion". Your opinions can't challenge mine because we're each entitled to our opinions. If we disagree, it doesn't mean that (at least) one of us is wrong. I'm interested in what you think is more likely to be true because that is a matter of fact. If we disagree, and you're right, then I must be wrong.   

 I confess that most of what is attractive to me about this Non-Commandment is that it makes the case for atheism so much easier. It's hard not to conclude that the existence of god is unlikely (especially when you start loading up the concept with claims about virgin births and winged horses and such), therefore belief in god is unreasonable. Objectively unreasonable. That may be as close as we'll ever get to a definitive disproof of god, but I think it's quite close enough. However, I'm under no illusions that this little Non-Commandment is going to end religion. Plenty of people will conclude that god is more likely than not to exist for all manner of reasons, and so the debate will go on. But it will go on in terms that are a lot more favorable to atheism.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Morality and responsibility

There is a tension that I feel in my own thinking about morality, and since that tension will inevitably be reflected on this blog, I want to bring it out into the open. 

DISCLAIMER: This post isn't really about "Star Trek"
On the one hand, I think that morality is extremely important, and I want to encourage people to think about it and talk about it much more, especially in the context of important public policy issues which effect many people's lives. Let me use a conveniently recent example: the CRomnibus appropriations bill. Ezra Klein helpfully provides this highly informative summary of what we need to know to "sound smart" about it. But notice what is missing from that summary. There's nothing in there at all about how the various provisions of this bill will impact the lives of real people for better or worse. I don't mean to single out Klein. I'm just using his piece as an example of the moral blind spot that exists in much of our political discourse. I think that blind spot skews public policy against the public interest, especially in economic policy.

On the other hand, I think the whole concept of "moral responsibility" is untenable. This is a direct consequence of my views concerning free will. Based on everything we know about the process of making decisions at the level of the brain, I think our decisions are determined not (or not only) by our moral character, but by a complex combination of circumstances governing the interactions of our brains with our environments at any given time. Psychology experiments have shown that people often have no idea why they do the things they do, and invent post hoc rationalizations on the assumption that they must have had a good reason. One experiment I recall reading about concluded that whether a person is holding a hot beverage or a cold beverage will influence how they interact with others. How can people be morally responsible for their choices when those choices are ultimately determined by complex physical interactions at the atomic level which we don't understand and cannot control?

I want to convince people to think more (and more clearly) about morality as a means of making better decisions. I want to use the persuasive force of moral language to convince people (politicians, for example) to do what they should do, yet I can't really blame anyone for doing what they shouldn't do. There's an obvious tension there, but is it actually a contradiction? Maybe. I don't think so, but maybe. 

Unfortunately, I've always found these to be rather difficult issues to talk about, mainly because so much of the language we have to use is really fuzzy. If Miles punches Julian, resulting in a broken nose, there is a very straightforward sense in which Miles is responsible for Julian's broken nose. In that sense, it is perfectly appropriate to "blame" Miles for breaking Julian's nose. Who broke Julian's nose? Miles did. Simple. But blaming Miles rests on the tacit assumption that he could have done otherwise. If we have reason to think that the punch was somehow unavoidable, and that Miles could not have prevented it, then it doesn't seem fair to blame him after all. When we look carefully at what really caused Miles to punch Julian, we'll discover that it isn't the sort of thing he could have prevented.  

Suppose Miles was drunk. That seems like an easy one. Alcohol impairs a person's judgment, rendering them less capable of making good decisions. Assuming Miles got drunk knowingly and voluntarily, we can consider him responsible for what he does when drunk (and that's basically how the law would treat it). But when we look carefully at what caused Miles to get drunk, we'll discover the same problem all over again: it was entirely the result of complex physical interactions taking place in Miles's brain.

Blaming people for the things that they do is sometimes very useful, so it's a bit awkward if it seems unjustified. If Miles blames himself and feels guilty about it, this might prevent him from losing his temper next time. And if Miles is arrested and prosecuted for assault, this could cause other people to think twice before punching someone themselves. Fortunately, these purely practical considerations don't require us to blame Miles in the deep sense. It doesn't matter that Miles is not responsible for punching Julian. What matters is that he and others are more likely to make better decisions next time. That consequentialist analysis is all the justification we need for holding Miles legally responsible. If so, do we even need to hold him morally responsible? I don't think we do.

And what difference does it make anyway? Holding someone morally responsible can be a form of social exclusion. It sets that person apart from everyone else by putting them in a special category. It makes that person appear to be different from the rest of us, which provokes in us that comforting sense of superiority. It makes that person a bad person, and we need not (some would say should not) have compassion for bad people. Miles punched Julian because he's a bad guy, and I never would have done that because I'm not! But when we let go of moral responsibility and focus instead on the morally-neutral issue of causal responsibility, it allows us to feel compassion for Miles without minimizing our concern for Julian, and without condoning or defending what Miles did in any way.

What's the downside of holding people morally responsible for their actions? I don't know where to start. We tolerate abominable conditions in our prisons because criminals deserve to suffer. We scrimp on social services because poor people don't deserve our help. We can't have affirmative action because that means favoring people of color over the white people who really deserve those jobs. We can't tackle income inequality because the 1% deserves its wealth. When we realize that no one deserves anything, and that everything ultimately comes down to luck in one way or another, we see that these views are indefensible. There are also personal, psychological, and social costs to negative emotions like guilt and anger, which depend upon some notion of moral responsibility.

I wanted to draw attention to this tension firstly because I think it's very interesting, but secondly because I think it's useful to try to identify the potential weaknesses in my own positions. By focusing on those weaknesses, I hope to either shore up my position or uncover a mistake. But mainly because I just like this stuff.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Torture: principle and practice

In reading about and talking about the torture report yesterday, I've noticed that some progressive atheists have used the report as a springboard to have another go at Sam Harris. This is by no means a widespread problem, but I do think it is a problem. Sam Harris bears absolutely no responsibility for Bush era torture policy. Firstly, this program goes back to 2001, years before Harris's first book was released. Secondly, even after becoming something of a celebrity in atheist circles, Harris still had no power to influence CIA policy. Harris isn't the one who decided not to pursue torture prosecutions. He's not the one who lied to Congress. He's not the one who spied on the oversight committees. 

If you're not familiar with the backstory, Sam Harris is the one who defended the view that torture isn't always wrong, and may in fact be morally obligatory in certain cases. It's a controversial view, although not nearly as controversial as his critics seem to think. It's actually a very common view among academic philosophers. To say that something is always wrong in all circumstances is quite a strong claim, and it doesn't take much to defeat it. All you have to do is imagine any circumstance, however implausible, where torture would be the right thing to do.

Harris imagines a situation where you have a suspect who is a known terrorist, and where you can be certain that he knows the location of a "ticking time-bomb", which will kill millions of people. This scenario piles implausibility on top of implausibility. In real life, there are no "ticking time-bomb" scenarios. In real life, not all suspected terrorists are terrorists. In real life, you don't know whether your suspect has the information you want, or even if the information exists at all. Harris's hypothetical also precludes any other approach, which is also implausible. Your only two choices are to torture a known terrorist, or sit helplessly waiting for millions of people to die.

This argument angered a lot of people. Many people saw this (and continue to see it) as straightforward support for torture, but it's not that. Harris is clear that he thinks torture should be illegal in all cases without exception. This is an important point which is usually misunderstood when it isn't overlooked entirely. In a situation where the consequences of obeying the law are worse than the consequences of disobeying it, disobedience becomes the morally preferred option. This is the basis for all civil disobedience. Obviously, torture has nothing to do with civil disobedience, but it's the same principle.

Other people were angered for another reason. Harris made this argument as a (minor) public figure, and he made it in the context of a very live debate over the very real issue of torture. Real people were being tortured under circumstances which did not come close to Harris's immaculate hypothetical. There's something a bit perverse about walking into an argument about the morality of real torture and declaring "Fantasy torture is okay." What's more, people who supported real torture could latch onto to Harris's argument, in exactly the same way that Islamophobes can latch onto criticisms of Islam. It was a mistake for Harris to wade into the issue the way he did.

But on the day that the Senate releases a torture report detailing the sickening reality of torture in practice, I think it's even more perverse to get hung up on a guy for defending hypothetical torture in principle.

The torture report

Yesterday, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its long-awaited torture report, and that's the end of the good news. Websites all over the internet are running their own versions of this article: The Most Horrific Revelations of the CIA Torture Report. There are a few general points I'd like to highlight as well.

It turns out that everything we thought we already knew was actually much worse than we thought. The report reveals that the CIA tortured more people than we thought, were far more brutal than we thought, and intentionally thwarted Congressional oversight even more than we thought. The report confirms that torture is ineffective, but also reveals that the CIA knew this even as it still continues to insist otherwise.

And of course we have to assume that the worst remains undisclosed. I mean, that's just how these things work. I'm grateful that this report was published at all, because there was a big push from inside the intelligence community to sit on it. The release was carefully negotiated between the White House, the CIA, and the Senate Intelligence Committee. Those negotiations have produced a partially-redacted 500-page executive summary of a 6,000 page document. There's still a lot we don't know, and it isn't the benign stuff that gets withheld.

The release of the report was met with genuine outrage, and I hope that this will spur Congress and the president into some kind of meaningful reform. But really, anything short of vigorous prosecution of everyone involved at every level is a white-wash. The people responsible for this are still around, and they're not chastened at all. Despite all of the evidence, they just know that torture works. I suspect this is a psychological defense mechanism. All of that means that this isn't over. Without prosecutions, people will know in the future that they can torture and lie about it to Congress without any repercussions. Imagine if you really believed that torture saved lives, and you knew you'd face no consequences, and you were presented with a suspected terrorist in custody. Under those circumstances, why wouldn't you torture him?

The legal framework of the Bush era torture regime is still in place. Obama put a stop to it by executive order, but there has been no legal reform to prevent this from happening again. All it would take is for a subsequent president (or even Obama himself) to rescind that executive order, and torture could resume immediately. This is not the last we've heard of the Bush era torture regime.

Finally, the issue of torture reaches beyond just the Bush era, and it's broader than just the "war on terror". We're still force-feeding prisoners every day down in Gitmo, and our civilian prisons have a disturbing fondness for solitary confinement. This nightmare is not over. There will be a political battle over this that plays out in the media, but beneath all that theater, the United States is an avowedly pro-torture country. President Obama can tell us that this report doesn't reflect the true values of America, and my god I think he might really believe that, but it does. This is who we are.  

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The elephant in the room

I feel like there is a topic looming over this blog that I have to address, but I'm not sure how to approach it. I'm not at all ambivalent about the issue itself, but I'm conflicted about how to talk about it. I feel like the stakes are very high, but I don't understand why that is. I have either witnessed or participated in enough of these conversations to know that they can turn very nasty very quickly. I'm also acutely aware that discussing this topic will probably alienate me from a significant portion of the audience I'm trying to reach. On the other hand, the two main goals of this blog are to address issues of consequence from an atheist perspective and to address controversies within atheism, and this topic sits at the intersection of those goals. 

The topic is feminism.

I'm surprised by both the extent and the intensity of the hostility atheists have toward feminism. Surprised and disappointed. I'm also surprised and disappointed when prominent atheists who rarely discuss political issues not directly related to atheism still go out of their way to attack feminism. I'm surprised and disappointed that this is the issue around which factions are being formed. But if I must take a side, then I must side with feminism.

If you'll allow me a brief digression, I was aware that Richard Dawkins was controversial and divisive before I knew why that was so. Around the time that "The God Delusion" was published, I started to notice that he was frequently being denounced in rather harsh terms, and I started to wonder why. Whenever I saw one of these controversies flare up online, I would always look into it, and every time I would come away with the impression that Dawkins's critics were being totally unreasonable. After this happened a few times, I gradually became of fan of Richard Dawkins, and I owe it all to his critics.

I mention this because a very similar process brought me around to feminism. It all started with "Elevatorgate". At some point I became aware that there was a raging online controversy involving this person I had never heard of before. Her name was Rebecca Watson, and wanting to see what all the fuss was about, I watched her infamous video in which she relates a personal experience about an encounter with a man in a hotel elevator. I'm not going to go through the whole story. Suffice it to say I quickly concluded that Watson's point was quite reasonable, and I was stunned and horrified by the reaction she got for it. It just seemed grossly out of proportion, and so very hateful. When I saw that other women were dealing with similarly hateful attacks in response to similarly reasonable points, I decided that it was no longer enough for me to be passively supportive of feminism in principle. That's when I became a feminist.

To tell you the truth, I really don't understand the other side of this at all. When they talk about feminism, I don't recognize what they're talking about. They describe this authoritarian monster that ruthlessly enforces a strict conformity to dogma, but I don't see any of that. Besides, how would that even work? Shouldn't there be a trail of victims: a long list of careers ended by angry feminists? I can think of many careers which have survived angry feminists, but I can't think of any that were ended.

One thing that puzzles me is that it's not enough for anti-feminists to just disagree with feminists about something. Anti-feminists seem to believe that merely expressing feminist opinions is inherently harmful in some unspecified way. In discussing the "shirtstorm" controversy, Richard Dawkins concluded not only that the shirt was perfectly appropriate, but also that it was an outrage for anyone to think otherwise. I am aware that some opinions are so vile that they are an outrage unto themselves, but I can't see how questioning the appropriateness of a shirt could ever meet that standard.

There's something weird going on here, and I'm fascinated by it, so I'm going to talk about it on this blog. You can expect me to weigh in on these kinds of controversies in future as they arise. In addition to that, I'm also interested in applying some good old-fashioned skeptical rigor to the claims of the anti-feminists, because I don't think they hold water. As for the broader picture, I believe that some women have been driven away from atheism in part due to its hostility to feminism. I think that weakens us as a movement and hurts us as a community. That sucks, and I want to help reverse it if I can.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

New Atheism, the "war on terror" and Islamophobia

The second biggest motivation I had for starting this blog was the desire to address myself directly to disputes within the atheist community. Not because I think I necessarily have anything important to add, but because I think the disputes themselves are important, and we should all be discussing them together. The day before I founded "Not Another Atheist Blog", I posted to Facebook in response to "New Atheism, Old Empire" by Luke Savage, an article which appeared on the website of Jacobin magazine.

At face value, and by its own understanding, New Atheism is a reinvigorated incarnation of the Enlightenment scientism found in the work of thinkers like Bacon and Descartes: a critical discourse that subjects religious texts and traditions to rational scrutiny by way of empirical inquiry and defends universal reason against the forces of provincialism.
In practice, it is a crude, reductive, and highly selective critique that owes its popular and commercial success almost entirely to the “war on terror” and its utility as an intellectual instrument of imperialist geopolitics.
I'm not favorably inclined toward the author's thesis, but I suggest reading the whole piece anyway. The charge it makes against the New Atheists is a very serious one, and it should be taken seriously. The "war on terror" and the imperialist geopolitics which drives it is destroying hundreds of thousands of innocent lives, and radicalizing thousands more to take up arms in the name of Islam. If the New Atheists are contributing to this problem, intentionally or otherwise, they need to stop that right now. 

On Facebook, I made what I thought were two important points which the author left out. First, the New Atheists (with the exception of the late Christopher Hitchens) are not supporters of US foreign policy in the Middle East. Second, New Atheism doesn't have a great deal of influence anyway. Each of the last four U.S. Presidents has initiated new rounds of attacks in Iraq, for example. Richard Dawkins is the not problem. I also question New Atheism's "utility as an intellectual instrument of imperialist geopolitics". Once again, this a charge we have to take very seriously, since one of the most basic principles of New Atheism is that ideas motivate behavior. If there's any connection between the ideas the New Atheists are pushing and the behavior of U.S. foreign policy, that connection must be severed.

But this is where it starts to get tricky. Is there a connection? What exactly does that mean? Sure, you could use arguments made by the New Atheists in books like Hitchens's "God Is Not Great" and Harris's "The End of Faith" to support U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. That is to say, you could construct an argument using premises from New Atheism and concluding with an endorsement of the "war on terror", but that's not to say it would be a good (valid, sound) argument. In my view, it would not. There's nothing any New Atheist has said which could ever justify the "war on terror". Is it fair to blame New Atheism if people use their ideas to construct lousy arguments to support policies they oppose?

Even if it isn't the fault of the New Atheists, it's a problem anyway, and one that they might be able to do something about, and the same is true when it comes to Islamophobia. Sam Harris can repeat until he's blue in the face that criticizing Islam is not the same thing as Islamophobia (and he's right, for all the good it does him). But there's no denying the appeal that criticisms of Islam have for Islamophobes. When Harris says "Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas", that's not Islamophobia, but Islamophobes can repeat it just as easily as I can. Even worse, such strong rhetoric quite possibly contributes to the spread of Islamophobia. If people get Islamophobia from "The End of Faith", that's a problem whether Harris intended it that way or not.

I don't know where I picked up this argument, but one of my favorite bits of anti-theist rhetoric is to ask why God, having seen all the terrible things humans have done in His name, wouldn't come down and set everyone straight. For instance, if God really doesn't have a problem with queer people, why doesn't he confront His many followers who believe that He does? I certainly would if it were me. And if I had written "The End of Faith", I would do everything I could to make sure that Islamophobes don't think I'm on their side.

I don't share Luke Savage's criticisms of New Atheism, but I have criticisms of my own. New Atheists must do more than simply distance themselves from Islamophobia and the "war on terror". We must actively take up the fight against them both. We need to spend a little less time going after Glenn Greenwald and Reza Aslan and a lot more time going after Pam Gellar and Frank Gaffney. While continuing to support Muslim critics of Islam like Irshad Manji, Majid Nawaz and Malala Yousafzai, we must also support Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein, a 15-year-old boy who was evidently murdered last week in Kansas City, Missouri, in what looks to me like an act of Islamophobic terrorism. Part of me hopes that if we were to do these things, we would be less often misunderstood and misrepresented, but that's not the most important concern. Islamophobia and the "war on terror" are wrong and extremely harmful. That's reason enough to oppose them.

A truly progressive agenda

(Updated 12/7/14, 1:15pm)

Proponents of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) will often tell you that it is a value-free description of the world, and that its insights are equally applicable to progressive or conservative economic priorities. Strictly speaking, that's quite true. MMT corrects several fundamental misunderstanding about how the monetary system works for a country that controls its own currency. For conservatives as well as progressives, an accurate understanding of the system as it actually exists (as opposed to how it's modeled in economics textbooks) makes it easier to achieve one's policy goals, whatever they may be. And yet most of the commentary I've see on MMT has associated it with the left, and it's not difficult to see why. For a demonstration of this, take a look at the latest entry by Joe Firestone at New Economic Perspectives.
Senator Bernie Sanders just released his “Economic Agenda for America.” While that agenda is certainly more progressive than the talk we hear from Democrats, and certainly is progressive in its expression of generalities. It is not nearly sufficiently progressive in its specifics.
Firestone then proceeds to address Sanders's agenda point by point, and in doing so, he clearly demonstrates the enormous gulf between a relatively progressive economic agenda and a truly progressive economic agenda. Of course, politics being the art of compromise, there are all manner of non-policy considerations that shape any political agenda. On the other hand, let's be clear: Bernie Sanders is not going to be the Democratic Party's nominee for president in 2016, and he's never going to be president. I say that with considerable regret, and I fervently hope to have the opportunity to vote for him in New Jersey's Democratic primary. But it's true: Sanders's agenda will never have to face the obstructionism of Republicans in Congress, or the timidity of Democrats, for that matter. The benefit of being a "fringe" candidate is that you have the leeway to say what you really think.

When Sanders says he wants $1 trillion in infrastructure investment, Firestone thinks that's great as far as it goes, but what's actually needed is more like $3.6 trillion. Since Sanders isn't going to be president, I can see no reason for him to compromise so much right off the bat. The other side of the coin is that, since everyone knows he won't be president, no one pays much attention to his agenda anyway. But as the only self-described socialist in the United States Congress, many people (especially in the media) view Sanders as the left-most fringe of mainstream American politics. If $1 trillion in infrastructure investment represents the left-most fringe, then Clinton will presumably support much less than that, and a divided Congress will deliver even less. And yet the level of infrastructure investment required hasn't changed... it's still $3.6 trillion.

Anyway, it's a long article, but please check it out. It includes references to a number of important progressive policy goals rarely discussed in mainstream political discourse, like free college education, a federal jobs guarantee program, a basic income guarantee (controversial even within MMT), and the doubling of Social Security benefits across-the-board. If these ideas seem ludicrous to you, you're right, but only politically speaking. Politicians and pundits (including most economists) will tell you that they're ludicrous because they are "unaffordable" or something like that, but they're not. Everything Firestone mentions in his article is really doable. One of the key insights of MMT is that "affordability" is a concept which simply doesn't apply to a government with its own sovereign currency.

Update: Economist L. Randall Wray offers his own commentary to the Senator's plan. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Intro to economics

My single biggest motivation for starting this blog is my desire to get atheists (especially politically progressive atheists) to start paying more attention to economics. Of the atheists I follow online, I don't know of any who have a strong background in economics. Unfortunately, I don't either. I did major in economics (and philosophy) as an undergraduate, but that seems like a very long time ago, and I've never done anything professionally with that degree. I consider myself nothing more than an interested layman. At the most, I'm just a little bit stronger on economics than average for someone who follows US politics very closely.

This puts me in something of a difficult position. I have a lot that I want to say, and I think that it's really important, but I'm not really the right person to say it. If I were, I'd probably be writing about atheism on "Not Another Econoblog" instead of writing about economics here. But I intend to do the best that I can, and I want to start with a few general remarks about where I'm coming from.

There's something profoundly wrong with how we think about and talk about economics in the political sphere. We have this idea that the economy is a real thing that exists out there in the world, and it is our job (specifically, the job of our elected representatives) to take care of it. The "health" of the economy is of paramount importance, and sometimes people have to make sacrifices in order to make the economy well again. This is one of the major political foundations for the economic policy of austerity. I can't even begin to tell you everything that's wrong with austerity, but the first thing we can say about it is that it gets the relationship between the economy and the people completely backwards. We're not supposed to serve the economy. The economy is supposed to serve us. It's not a natural entity with needs of its own. It's a creation of the government designed to serve a purpose.

I want to use this blog to encourage people to think differently about economics. I hope to encourage people to stop thinking of unemployment, poverty and homelessness as inevitable, and begin to see them as policy variables. Those things exist because our economy creates them, and it doesn't have to.

More specifically, I want to challenge the dominant economic paradigm, because I believe that it is not only harmful (in terms of creating unnecessary suffering), but also profoundly incorrect. Since the Global Financial Crisis, a little bit of room has opened up for the discussion of heterodox approaches, and we're even seeing the welcome beginnings of a more empirically robust approach to the discipline. However, the dominant paradigm (known as Neoclassical economics) is still largely unchallenged in the media and among the political class. This project of tearing down the existing orthodoxy is extremely well-suited for atheists, skeptics, and freethinkers. That orthodoxy is based on what amounts to faith claims. Neoclassical economics should be added in alongside Creationism, homeopathy, and the anti-vaccine movement as a leading target of skeptical scorn.

I also want to talk about what should replace the Neoclassical paradigm, but that gets a bit trickier. It's one thing to realize that the current orthodoxy is hopelessly wrong, but replacing it is another matter. I do have an opinion about where we should be looking for that replacement. One particular school of heterodox economics has been very convincing to me, and that is Modern Monetary Theory, or MMT. It's a little difficult to discuss, though, because I don't really have the expertise to do it justice, and it has some startling implications which seem (to say the least) too good to be true. If MMT is a) more or less correct, and b) widely accepted, it will usher in a radical, revolutionary new approach to political economy which will benefit billions of lives around the world.

But I must warn you to keep your skepticism close. I'm the sort of person who sometimes gets really taken with an idea and then sort of runs away with it. I had a rather intense Ayn Rand period in my late teens, for example. I don't trust my own judgment when it comes to my endorsement of MMT because I don't have the expertise necessary to evaluate it, so I'm not going to ask you to trust me either. But I'm going to try to convince you just the same, because I think it's that important.

So what's that graph up there all about? That's just a tease. We'll get into it later.

A modicum of compassion

Salon.con: The 4 most bizarre right-wing reactions to the Eric Garner decision
4. Bill O’Reilly
Oddly enough, Bill O’Reilly, in a surprise move, showed a modicum of compassion about the Garner case. “I will say, that upon seeing the video that you just saw, and hearing Mr. Garner say he could not breathe, I was extremely troubled,” he told his viewers Wednesday night. “I would have loosened my grip. I desperately wish the officer would have done that.”
To me, Bill O'Reilly is a symbol of a certain type of person. He is supremely confident in his own understanding of the world, so much so that he is immune to education. Facts that call his worldview into question are utterly ignored, if he manages to notice them at all. He is especially bad on the issue of race. In a recent appearance on "The Daily Show", Jon Stewart tried to walk him through the very simple concept of "privilege" by drawing on O'Reilly's own background growing up in Levittown, a safe and stable community where black people were not permitted to live. O'Reilly understands that growing up in Levittown benefited him, and that black people were denied that opportunity, but he refuses to call it "privilege". Having access to a benefit denied to others on the basis of race is a textbook example of racial privilege, but he just can't see it.

Predictably, he's been especially awful when discussing the decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of unarmed Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Like most of Wilson's supporters, O'Reilly is not at all familiar with the facts of the case, and he believes that Wilson's implausible and self-serving testimony to the grand jury has been confirmed by the evidence. He really thinks that, and a lot of other people do too, despite the fact that it is completely wrong. Wilson's testimony was contradicted by most of the other witnesses in key aspects, and the physical evidence is inconclusive (in part because the initial police investigation was so half-assed). But O'Reilly doesn't know any of that. He doesn't know how ignorant he is, so he assumes that anyone who disagrees with him (like those five St. Louis Rams players who made the "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" gesture before a football game last Sunday) must be stupid. He actually said that he thinks those players were too stupid to understand what they were doing.

So I really wasn't expecting to get even "a modicum of compassion" from him on the Garner case. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to give him a pat on the back for managing to fall a bit shy of total evil. I just want to know: why this case? What is it about the Garner case that even someone as blinkered and delusional as Bill O'Reilly can see the injustice of it?

It's the camera. Many have pointed out, correctly, that the non-indictment of Officer Daniel Pantaleo proves that putting body cameras on cops is not the answer. But if that video didn't exist, O'Reilly would not have had even "a modicum of compassion" for Eric Garner. If that video didn't exist, the police would have told a story about Garner being enraged and dangerous, and O'Reilly would have believed it without question. They couldn't tell that story because of the video. It wasn't enough to get justice for the family of Eric Garner, and it wasn't enough to put a murderer on trial, but it was enough to get through the nearly impenetrable skull of Bill O'Reilly. That's not nothing.

Body cameras for cops will not solve this problem, but they will help people like O'Reilly (and there are millions of them) understand that there really is a problem. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Not another atheist blog

I've been resisting this for a long time. I figured there were enough straight white guys out there already promoting reason and empiricism over faith and superstition. But I wanted to be part of the conversation within online atheism. If you'll forgive the expression, atheism is a broad church. There are a lot of different ways of doing it, and I have my own strong opinions. I wanted to find a forum where I could address other atheists and advocate for the priorities I think are important. I spent a long time looking for that forum, and I dipped my toes into the comments sections of several other atheist blogs, but I never quite found what I was looking for.

As time went on, I grew more and more frustrated by what I saw as the failure of atheist organizations and leaders to speak out on the most pressing moral, social, and political issues of the day. As protests erupted across the United States in the aftermath of the decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the atheists on my Twitter feed seemed more concerned with attacking the Pledge of Allegiance and erecting Satanic statues in public spaces.

I also wanted an opportunity to weigh in on some of the big debates among atheists. There's a lot of acrimony, and I've noticed that the opposing camps rarely support each other even on issues where they agree. When they mention each other at all, it is to further sharpen the distinctions. I think many of these controversies are important, and it's important to take a side, but it's not helpful to pick a team. I'm not interested in being a partisan of one or another prominent atheist.

Finally, there are some pretty important topics that I think atheism mostly overlooks. Most atheists I've found, even the politically conscious ones, don't seem to know much about economics. Discussions of climate change are most often limited to mocking the denialists, rather than facing up to the terrifying scale of the problem. While most of the atheists I follow are at least nominally on the political left, most of them are mired in the same mushy centrism that has paralyzed the Democratic Party for decades. I want to advocate for a more robust form of progressive atheism. 

Eventually I realized that if I wanted to read the blog I was imagining, I would have to write it myself. But I really didn't want to do that. I've written several blogs in the past on various topics, and it's not easy. It's a lot of work, and it's mostly thankless, and to be honest very few people ever read any of it. But it's an outlet, and I feel like I need an outlet right now.

Confession time: Yes, this is another atheist blog. But I don't expect to spend much time exposing the logical fallacies of religious apologetics. I'm sure there will be some of that, but mainly I want to take atheism as a given and look out at the rest of the world. I also want to contribute in whatever small way I can to amplifying the voices of the underrepresented within the atheist community.There may also be some jokes, but don't get your hopes up.

Welcome to Not Another Atheist Blog. I hope you like it, and if not, I hope you'll tell me why.