Russell Brand and Richard Dawkins Being Sensible

Russell BrandI came upon this video today, Russell Brand interviews Richard Dawkins. It doesn’t have a date, but Dawkins mentions that it is one year after the release of The God Delusion, so that would put it at late 2007 or early 2008. And what’s remarkable about it is just how reasonable it all it. I think that both men left that discussion thinking that they actually had a lot of shared ground. Obviously, Brand is being silly — especially about ancient aliens.

The truth is that I know a lot of people like Russell Brand. They are some of my favorite people. So when Russell Brand talks about ancient aliens, he is being serious in the sense of this: it is a wonderfully fun and interesting concept. People like Brand are the living embodiment of my philosophy that the greatest sin in the normal world (apart from real crime and political power) is to be boring. Brand is interesting when he’s being serious and when he’s being silly.

But the discussion is not about ancient aliens. Brand brings that up just to get a reaction out of Dawkins. And Dawkins is well aware of this. Richard Dawkins is also an interesting guy who at least understands silly, even if he isn’t a practitioner of it. They really do get into some interesting issues. Brand says that he thinks that “salvation through love” has replaced “salvation through God.” Dawkins says that he finds that an attractive idea. And they go back and forth about that.

And then Brand says, “But do you not think that then that God is just a signifier really for oneness and truth and eternity — that exist beyond our plane of understanding.” And then they are off to the races in a theological discussion. Dawkins points out (quite rightly) that if that’s the case, there is no point of praying to it. So Brand notes that Richard Dawkins’ real problem is the personification of God and Dawkins agrees with that.

Then they get into talking about eastern religions and that’s where Brand and Dawkins seem to have a disagreement. Russell Brand thinks there is something that we might be able to tunnel into and Richard Dawkins thinks that it is just a reflection of our extremely complex brains. What I love about this is that this is a sensible debate to be having. This isn’t some kind of straw man argument where the silliness of a Bible passage proves that there is no God.

Now on this issue, I’m with Richard Dawkins. It seems pretty simple. If you look at the universe the way I do, our universe is a subset of the signifier God. All our axioms are based on this universe. There is no trick to getting outside that system to the larger system. In fact, Brand is making the same mistake that a lot of atheists make when they claim that using some (presently unknown) trick we will be able to learn all the secrets of existence. This isn’t going to happen. There is no one weird trick to unlocking the mystery of existence — through mysticism or science.

Richard DawkinsBut these are the kind of conversations that atheists should be having — not just with theists (and I don’t really think that Brand is a theist) but with themselves. Because what comes out of way too much New Atheist talk is just how hollow it is as a belief system. It does atheism no good at all to arguing with Pat Robertson. Clearly, we as a people need to argue with Pat Robertson. But that isn’t the business of atheists, because most religious people should (And do!) find him repulsive. He isn’t awful because he’s religious. If he had been alive in the Soviet Union under Stalin, he would have been a high party official — a true believer in the party and a denier of God.

I don’t know if Brand and Dawkins could have the same conversation today. I tend to think they could, because when he’s outside the insular world of the New Atheists, he often says sensible things. But as with most issues, the problem isn’t so much that you can be sensible on occasion. Sam Harris tends to be reason when talking about some forms of Buddhism. But both Dawkins and Harris spend most of their time talking about ridiculous things like Islam causing people to be violent.

We could use more conversations between atheists and non-theistic religious people. Then we might gain some understanding of what religion actually is to people. We might all end up more enlightened.

Now Is the Part Where Paul Krugman Whines

Paul KrugmanKrugman, Krugman, Krugman. Saturday morning, Paul Krugman wrote, Wonks and Minions. We liberal true believers are being mean to him and other people for all their ridiculous anti-Sanders articles. I have little doubt that many Sanders supporters are just as silly as supporters of every other candidate and go on tilt when they read negative things about their candidates. But this is a straw man. Who cares that Sanders’ supporters are angry? Maybe it is time for Krugman and company to look at why they are angry.

Yesterday, I wrote The Complete ‘Bernie Sanders Can’t Win’ Liberal Pundit Article Kit. And my point was not that it is wrong to complain about Sanders. Have at it! Attack Sanders all you want. Just don’t sit around and write more of these articles about how you love his policies but that it would be a big mistake to vote for him. I have policy differences with Sanders myself. I simply have bigger policy differences with Clinton. None of them are that big a deal.

But Krugman mentioned that Mike Konczal (who I really like) is getting some grief about saying that Sanders’ focus on Glass-Steagall and too-big-to-fail banks is all wrong. I agree! As everyone should know, the repeal of Glass-Steagall did not cause the 2008 financial crisis. Then again, Sanders has not been talking about just reinstating Glass-Steagall; he’s been talking about a Glass-Steagall for the 21st century. Truthfully, I don’t much care. But there are some thing that I care about very much.

I doubt I would make a big deal of all this liberal Bernie Sanders sniping. But it all came together. As long as Sanders was getting 30% or less nationally, everyone was fine. But now that he’s sitting at 40%, there is a sudden freak out.

Let’s just look at two things very quickly. First, there is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). I hate it. I think it is a very bad thing. There is no doubt that it would die under a Sanders administration and almost no doubt that Clinton would sign it. Then there is the financial transaction tax that Sanders is a big supporter of. Clinton was forced to propose something similar, a high frequency trading tax, which Dean Baker says is unworkable and is regardless, not the same thing. That’s Clinton all over: protecting Wall Street.

But somehow, we hear liberals complaining about Glass-Steagall. Well, this is a tactic I’ve seen elsewhere — you know, on places like Fox News. For example, have you been hearing all the big news about Hillary Clinton’s email scandal? Most people probably think that’s a thing of the past. But if you’ve been watching Fox News for the last week, you’ve seen little else.

Well, that’s what we are seeing in these recent attacks on Sanders. Are we just going to avoid Clinton’s negatives now? I think it really comes down to the electability issue. And I’m fine with that. I have my own concerns. But let’s make that argument. Let’s not make the argument that Sanders’ policies are bad. This article is sort of the other side of yesterday’s article. There you have people saying, “I love Sanders, but he can’t win.” The problem there is that there is no argument that he can’t win — just the proclamation. And here we have cherry picking of issues.

There is another issue there I tend to side with Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric. I think we need to gradually expand Obamacare to the point where we have universal single-payer health insurance. But are we going to get there via Hillary Clinton? Her pragmatic approach might do it, but it is more likely that it will end in things like getting rid of the taxes on premium private plans and medical devices — things that are part of a pragmatic approach that has already resulted in Obamacare being less secure.

I doubt I would make a big deal of all this liberal Bernie Sanders sniping. But it all came together. As long as Sanders was getting 30% or less nationally, everyone was fine. But now that he’s sitting at 40%, there is a sudden freak out. And it is a freak out from people who have generally been very favorably inclined toward Sanders. Krugman’s sudden attacks on Sanders don’t surprise me. I’ve long said that he was quite a lot more conservative than I am. But it bugs me that he isn’t being honest about what he really thinks.

And now, he’s whining about being attacked from the left. Oh, I know: it isn’t him. He’s just defending the feelings of Mike Konczal. But as far as I remember: Konczal is for a financial transaction tax. Krugman is for one. But it is only Dean Baker who has attacked Clinton on the matter. I don’t expect Sanders to win the nomination. I’m not certain that he should win the nomination. Maybe Clinton really is the better choice. But that is the case that has to be made. And Krugman can whine all he wants. But there are real reasons to complain about his recent anti-Sanders writing.

Morning Music: I’m Waiting for My Man

The Velvet Underground & NicoIt’s been a long time since I’ve thought about The Velvet Underground. Too often, the band is thought of as the Lou Reed band. But that ain’t true. Like David Byrne after him, Reed got far more credit than he deserved. For example, take today’s song, “I’m Waiting for My Man.” It says on the album that it was written by Reed, but that’s not true. It was written by Reed along with Sterling Morrison and John Cale. In any discussion of anything that Lou Reed did, it is important to remember that Lou Reed was a total jerk. He never gave proper credit and insisted on keeping Doug Yule out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Although I’m a fan of much of his work, I don’t think much of Lou Reed as a human being.

The remarkable thing about The Velvet Underground & Nico is that it was meant to be your typical Andy Warhol commercial joke. Yet it is a great album. Much of the songwriting on the album is great. But what sells it is the band, which is powerfully direct. Listen to “I’m Waiting for My Man.” It is stripped down to the barest that it can be without being boring. It doesn’t hurt that it is also one of the greatest rock songs ever written.

Please note: I don’t care what it says on the album cover. I don’t care what Reed might have sung in earlier versions. He is not waiting for “the man.” In the parlance of that time and even now, “the man” is the police. This is a friendly encounter. He’s waiting for his dealer who simply doesn’t have the reputation to be considered “the” man regardless. The most compelling part of the song occurs before the dealer shows up. The narrator is clearly in a place where he doesn’t belong and he has to explain himself to the locals, “I’m just waiting for a dear, dear friend of mine.” Very dear indeed.

There has never been a song written about drugs that is as authentic as, “I’m Waiting for My Man.”

Anniversary Post: Boy Scouts Begin

Boy Scouts of AmericaOn this day in 1908, the first troop of Boy Scouts was formed by fascist Robert Baden-Powell.[1] It seems kind of weird to me still that the Boy Scouts started in England. It seems so very American. But make no mistake. It came from Baden-Powell’s experiences fighting wars in Africa. So say what you will about the Boy Scouts and helping little old ladies across the street, the Boy Scouts is a group designed to get boys ready to fight wars. It is not surprising that the two eldest boys in the very big Boy Scout family that lives across the street from me have both gone into the military.

My opinion about the Boy Scouts has not changed over the years. Here’s what I had to say two years ago, Why Boy Scouts Have Always Bothered Me:

Although it might not be clear to look at me now, when I was a child, I was a very typical boy. I loved my army men and when I got older, I ran around with the other boys playing war with sticks fashioned into guns. So when my friends started becoming cub scouts, you would have thought I would have followed along. But I didn’t. Then, as now, I thought it was all very creepy.

It probably comes from the core of my being—my fascination with the Romantic hero archetype. But the idea of everyone dressing up the same way just wasn’t my idea of what it is to be a man. And more to the point, it wasn’t what my idea of what it is to be an American…

Now let me be clear: I don’t think that the Boy Scouts of America are a fascist group. I don’t think that at all. But it wasn’t hard for Mussolini and Hitler to change the Boy Scout programs in their countries to fascist youth groups. And I think that is what is creepy about the group. But that is completely expected. I am the kind of person who rebels against authority. I am an equally bad leader and follower. A society made up of people like me would be no kind of society at all. So we need a lot of people who are willing to conform to create social cohesion.

Just the same, I think it is a major mistake to turn conformity into a fetish. The military does this because it is an unfortunate necessity, just as the very existence of the military is an unfortunate necessity. But to push boys into blind and ostentatious conformity before they are able to make the choice seems wrong to me. It’s too much like indoctrination. What’s more, it is a particular kind of paramilitary indoctrination. And for me, that’s what tips it from concerning to creepy.

There’s something else: males should not be left alone. Men are at their best when they have women around to remind them that they live in a civilization. This may be why the Girl Scouts have not become a creepy group. Women don’t need us men, but we men really do need women. I like the idea of people forming groups. But it should be about something more than preparing men for the Third Boer War.


[1] This is from Robert Baden-Powell’s diary entry from 6 October 1939, “Lay up all day. Read Mein Kampf. A wonderful book, with good ideas on education, health, propaganda, organisation etc — and ideals which Hitler does not practise himself.” In addition to his clear fascistic sympathies, this was written over a month after his own country had declared war on Nazi Germany. I wonder if there is a merit badge for treason.