Sam Harris’ Limited Tribalism

Sam HarrisThis is it for my recent series of articles on Sam Harris’ new book, Waking Up. I promise! And this one isn’t even about the book. It is just based upon a quote toward the end of the book, which shows one of Harris’ blind spots. He couldn’t end the book without taking a potshot at Islam. His reason is that he wants to make the point that ideas matter. It is curious that he should think that point was necessary to make in the last couple of pages of the book. I think anyone who had stuck with him for over 200 pages would yield the point.

But his example is strange and says rather more about him than anything else:

Twelve years have now passed since I first realized how high the stakes are in this war of ideas. I remember feeling the jolt of history when the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center. For many of us, that was the moment we understood that things can go terribly wrong in our world — not because life is unfair or moral progress impossible but because we have failed, generation after generation, to abolish the delusions and animosities of our ignorant ancestors. The worst ideas continue to thrive — and are still imparted, in their purest form, to children.

If I knew nothing about Harris, I would largely agree with the idea here. The problem is tribalism. Of course, even on this basis, it isn’t simply a matter that those people who attacked us on 9/11 did it because they were taught to dislike our tribe. This is a common mistake that people make: to assume that history starts wherever it is convenient for us. We are mad at al-Qaeda because they bombed us. But clearly, that was not the beginning of it for them. As much as I might think that Osama bin Laden was a spoiled rich kid who was mostly just living his fantasy of being a political radical[1], the group itself is based upon real and imagined grievances.

So where exactly is Islam as “the mother lode of bad ideas”? Why would these Muslims attack America? Is there anything in the religion that makes us specifically the target of their wrath? I just don’t see it. I’m not sure that Harris sees it. Tribalism seems to be the problem. And the people in the United States who are most behind the “war on terror” do it for tribal — nationalistic — reasons. So it is hard to be in this discussion on the anti-Muslim side. That just leads to some of Harris’ worst arguments of the kind: our tribalism isn’t as bad as theirs, even if our tribalism has helped to fuel theirs against us.

But what bothers me even more about the Harris quote above is how he woke up to the power of bad ideas after the 9/11 attacks. The United States has been carpet bombing various locations throughout Sam Harris’ life. But those never caused him to think about the power of bad ideas. That’s strange. I remember the Persian Gulf War as an exercise during which roughly 30,000 Iraqi conscripts were killed while Saddam Hussein’s elite forces were not touched. That wasn’t a war; that was a PR campaign — a way for America to get over the Vietnam Syndrome and get on board for endless war. And if tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis had to die to do that, so be it.

That was a wake-up call for me. But it seems that Sam Harris is so lost in his own form of tribalism, that he can’t see it. Someone attacked us! It must be because they follow the mother lode of bad ideas. And we don’t. And no level of murder on our part will ever change that. Because history started on 9/11. And everything follows from there.


[1] Osama bin Laden always makes me think of “White Punks on Dope”:

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Caution Regarding Baltimore Police Arrests

Police AbuseAs hard as it is for prosecutors to win a conviction or an admission of guilt, it’s even harder to persuade a judge or jury to give an officer significant prison time.

For the nine officers convicted in state prosecutions, sentences ranged from six months to seven years, The Post analysis shows. One of the other cases, the shooting death of the 92-year-old woman in Atlanta, was taken up by federal prosecutors, who added civil rights violations to manslaughter charges and won stiffer sentences, ultimately sending the two convicted officers to prison for six and 10 years.

Six of the officers who faced state prosecutions were convicted after going to trial. On average, they got 3 1/2 years.

—Kimberly Kindy and Kimbriell Kelly
Thousands Dead, Few Prosecuted

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Billionaire Philanthropists: Just Pay Your Taxes!

David RubensteinDavid Rubenstein seems like a nice enough guy. At least he did in Sunday’s 60 Minutes hagiographic segment, All American. But I was really struck by this comment, “The government doesn’t have the resources it used to have. We have gigantic budget deficits and large debt. And I think private citizens now need to pitch in.” There are so many things wrong with that statement. To begin with, what is a “gigantic budget deficit”? It is half the size it was only a few years ago. Pretty much all of it is due to the fact that the United States pays twice as much for its medical care as the rest of the developed world. As for resources: the government has as many of those as it ever did. Did some national parks sink into the ground or something?

60 MinutesI think we know what Rubenstein is saying here. The government does have as much tax revenue as it once had. That’s true! But it isn’t anything fundamental. There is a reason that tax revenues are low: people like Rubenstein have done everything they can to have their tax rates lowered, increase loopholes, and hide income. Almost all of his current income is capital gains that he pays no payroll tax on and a maximum tax rate of 20%. If you make the minimum wage, you pay 15.3% in payroll taxes on every dollar you make. So even under the best of circumstances, you pay almost as high a rate of federal taxes as does Mr Rubenstein. If you are in the middle class, you probably pay a higher rate.

But rather than Rubenstein working to make the tax rate more fair, he is out there working in “patriotic philanthropy.” What this seems to mean is that he uses his money to support high profile historical preservation. So not only does he get the thrill of buying an original copy of the Magna Carta, he gets the thrill of very publicly giving it to the nation. As he said in the segment, “I’m giving it to the country, in effect, as a down payment on my obligation to give back to the country.” Let me outsource my response to one of my favorite Iron Age philosophers:

When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

Rubenstein paid $21.3 million for the document. That’s a small price to pay for all the publicity that he received for it. Let’s put it in perspective. Rubenstein is worth an estimated $3 billion. Imagine that you were worth one million dollars. His purchase would be equivalent to roughly $7,100 to you. So it is a decent used car. Also note: the Magna Carta really isn’t that important to this country. Ever read it? It basically just says that the king doesn’t have the right to kill other members of the aristocracy. It’s important, but hardly Enlightenment thinking.

Also from this glowing puff piece, we learned that Rubenstein has committed to giving half of his wealth away to worthy causes. That’s fine, but it doesn’t exactly make him different from the robber barons of old. But more to the point: so what?! His billions and Bill Gates’ billions and all these guys’ money is not going to do all the things that the government needs to do. What we need is a just tax system. But none of these bozos will get behind that. It’s much more fun to build an opera house or fix the Washington Monument so that the whole nation can stand up and cheer you.

The hard work of running a country is something that we should all do every day. But I don’t see the rich doing it. I just see them making themselves feel even better about themselves because of all the love they are buying. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

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Halfway Libertarian Argument for TPP

Tim WorstallMy first wife got me into libertarianism. She was very clever and I followed right along with her ridiculous arguments. A good example was her argument against antitrust laws. The way she saw it, they were unnecessary. If one company wanted to undercut prices and throw everyone else out of business: great! That meant that we would all get cheaper prices. Once the company had its monopoly and then raised prices: no problem! That would open up a market opportunity for other companies to come in. This is a typically facile argument that doesn’t take into account start up costs and times. Nor does it deal with regional effects. It is, in other words, the perfect libertarian argument: it has little or nothing to do with the real world — thought through just long enough to make the libertarian case.

But even if those were not problems, who would want to live in such a world? This month, cars costs $1,000. Next month, they cost $10,000. The month after that, who knows? And what is especially problematic with this world is that libertarians are obsessed with price stability. As a result, they want the gold standard so that no bureaucrat can take John Galt’s wealth away! Price stability is important for the economy as a whole. But as long as it isn’t the government, but rather various rich capitalists who are stopping people from planning their economic futures, libertarians don’t think it is a problem.

Dean Baker just brought my attention to a similar kind of libertarian nonsense, Forbes’ Tim Worstall Is Upset the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Bans Export Subsidies. Worstall recently wrote an article in which he claimed that we shouldn’t worry about other countries keeping their currencies artificially low and that the TPP doesn’t need to address the issue. Just like my wife used to say, they are doing us a favor by giving us goods at low prices. Shouldn’t we be glad about that? Well, it depends.

If you are rich and you don’t need a job, then it is great. The Chinese, for example, provide us with goods that are cheaper than they should be. That’s as true for the poor, however. The problem is that the poor need jobs. So there are all these products that are made in China that would be made in America if the renminbi were properly valued. This I always find really interesting. There is no doubt that Tim Worstall is in the upper middle class — but he’s probably in the upper class and may well be just flat out rich. And as I’ve discussed many times, reporters tend to see as “obvious truth” what is in fact just whatever is in their own best interests.

Baker noted that Worstall ought to be angry about its ban on export subsidies. After all, he is for allowing countries to subsidize consumers in other countries through currency manipulation. Export subsidies are just a different way to do exactly the same thing. So what gives? Well, as Baker noted in an addendum, Worstall thinks that the world is always at full employment. And that circles back to the larger issue which is that Worstall sees everything from his own social position. I’m sure that he doesn’t know many if any people who are unemployed or underemployed. It seems to me that almost everyone I know falls into one of those categories.

Again, the problem isn’t that Worstall is man of his own culture. The problem is that he considers himself a clear eyed observer — maybe even objective. If he would just admit that all he really cares about is the rich, there would be no problem. We could just discount him the same way we do simple minded libertarians. In his perfect world where everyone who wants a job can have one, it all makes sense. But we don’t live in that world. Instead, we live in a world were incompetent ideologues like Tim Worstall have good paying jobs at popular business magazines.

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Morning Music: Laurie Anderson

Home of the Brave - Laurie AndersonIn 1986, Laurie Anderson put out a concert film, Home of the Brave. I remember that Will and I went to see it at the Plaza Theater in Petaluma — one of those great old theaters that showed a different double feature each night. God I loved that! Anyway, we were big Anderson fans and so we went. As I recall, I wasn’t that impressed with it. This is probably because it didn’t have as many stories as I wanted. There is a lot of just straight music.

But I found it on YouTube last night. And I put it on, just to check it out. But I was mesmerized. I ended up watching the whole thing. It’s really fantastic: music, narrative, dance, visuals. I could get very intellectual about it. But there seems no reason. Normally, I just post a single song, but this is a good choice to break convention. But I’ve cued it up at the start of one of my very favorite songs, “Langue d’Amour.” Feel free to take it back to the beginning. You won’t be disappointed.

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Anniversary Post: Iran-Contra Hearings

Iran-Contra AffairOn this day back in 1987, the Congressional hearings on the Iran–Contra affair started. I was back in college full time, but I was glued to the radio for it. To me, it was so obvious: Republican presidents abuse their power. There was Nixon and now there was Reagan. And I was right. We saw it moving forward. Not only was the George W Bush administration totally corrupt — it didn’t even wait until it was elected. They really are the fascists of our our time.

Of course, what I was wrong about was that it would matter. Nixon was unpopular with his party, so he was abandoned. Reagan was very popular with his party so even today they won’t admit to this treasonous behavior. And when Reagan claimed that he didn’t remember, it wasn’t hard to believe him. But by far, the most shameful thing was the testimony of Oliver North. He should have been court-martialed and then died in jail. Instead, America — in what has become typical — supported him. It apparently doesn’t matter what you do as long as you defend it with sufficient belligerence. That is also how we got Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court for life.

Not to worry. It would only be 11 years later that Congress would finally get around to doing something about presidential malfeasance: Bill Clinton lied about a sexual liaison. Sure, it isn’t treason. But it was a Democrat. And that’s all that apparently matters. If the Republicans had the votes, they surely would have impeached Obama. And once they do have the votes, they will impeach whatever Democrat happens to be in the White House.

But back in 1987, the Congress tried — however feebly — to do something about actual presidential treason.

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Why We Don’t Reform American Policing

Freddie GrayOn Friday, I was really struck by something that Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said, “We know that the vast majority of the men and the women in the Baltimore City Police Department serve our city with pride, with courage, with honor, and with distinction. But to those of you, who wish to engage in brutality, misconduct, racism and corruption, let me be clear, there is no place in the Baltimore City Police Department for you.” Most people have focused on the second sentence. To me it is just political boilerplate — the sort of thing that we hear from every mayor everywhere regardless of what their actual policies are. I’m interested in the first sentence.

Of course, the first sentence is no less boilerplate. It’s required in a nation where the police forces are a bunch of pussies who need to use deadly force rather risk a slight abrasion and yet still demand that the people treat them as though their jobs were very dangerous and that they performed them with great professionalism. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I don’t think highly of policing in this country. In addition to maintaining a low level of professionalism, police officers tend to have huge chips on their soldiers — demanding rather than earning respect.

A good example of this is found in the way that many people respond to my writing about the police. The blame is placed on me. Supposedly, the problem is that I don’t know just what great chaps our men in blue are. So the solution is for me to run out and learn how great they are. This is because we can’t expect the police to actually show themselves to be good guys. Despite the torrent of information indicating that there are major systemic problems with all of our police forces, I’m supposed to start a goodwill tour to ferret out the good guys. It’s nonsense.

But what Bawlings-Blake did is exactly the same thing. The police are so sensitive that we can’t even talk about the heinous acts of six police officers without starting with, “While most police spend their time rescuing kittens and feeding the poor…” Note that it is not de rigueur to start a discussion of pediophile priests with, “While most priests serve their congragations with pride, with courage, with honor, and with distinction…” And I think this is because most priests actually do. When the mayors of major cities say these same things about police, they mean it aspirationally: they hope someday that this is actually true.

But if there is anywhere that most police officers do not serve the city with pride, courage, honor, and distinction, it is Baltimore. What the officers did to Freddie Gray was not just out of control officers; it was part of systemic brutality. Read Conor Friedersdorf excellent article at The Atlantic, The Brutality of Police Culture in Baltimore. The reason that this thing is allowed to go on is because everyone gives the benefit of the doubt to the police. People like Michael Slager are just bad apples. Darren Wilson was just a pussy. Eric Garner only died because he was fat. We never do anything to change the system because, “We know that the vast majority of the men and the women in the [Whatever] City Police Department serve our city with pride, with courage, with honor, and with distinction.”

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Conservatives Understand Oppression Outside US

Donald RumsfeldWhile no one condones looting, on the other hand, one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression and people who have had members of their family killed by that regime, for them to be taking their feelings out on that regime… And I don’t think there’s anyone in any of those pictures, or any human being who’s not free, who wouldn’t prefer to be free, and recognize that you pass through a transition period like this and accept it as part of the price of getting from a repressed regime to freedom.

—Donald Rumsfeld
Quoted in Remember When Donald Rumsfeld Stood Up for Rioting and Looting?

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Republican Global Warming Denial: We Are All Going Down Together

Climate Change Is a HoaxThis is time. And this is the record of the time.

I used to teach planetary astronomy. The interesting thing about it was how easy it was because of my work in earth sciences. Half the course involved the earth and moon. This is because — and this will surprise some — the earth is a planet. And it is the planet that we know the most about. It is also the planet that we care the most about. So when I started to hear conservatives a few years back grumbling about the fact that NASA spends a lot of resources studying the earth, I just shook my head. Even from the standpoint of exploring other parts of the cosmos, we need to understand the earth.

Of course, no one has a problem with NASA studying the earth. This is just a pretext to stop NASA — or anyone else — from studying global warming. I guess we were wrong all these years we have said that conservatives don’t have a plan to deal with climate change. They do! It is to pretend that it doesn’t exist. And as long as we deny it, it can’t be real. This is the “hide under the blankets until the most productive farm lands turn into deserts” plan. It’s brilliant!

Last Thursday, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology voted along party lines to cut almost 20% of the current $1.77 billion budget for NASA’s Earth science programs. What’s more, the ranking Democrat on the committee said that the new budget proposal was kept from her and the others in the opposition until less than a week before the vote. She said, “After we saw the bill, we understood why.” As Michael Hiltzik put it, “The budget plan perfectly reflects the House GOP’s glorification of space exploration, which masks its disdain for research on climate change.” Of course, there is a lot more than just global warming research being cut. But what does that matter in the grand cause of denying a problem that fixing might interfere with the profits of certain rich people?

We’ve come a long way since the days when I was working in the field. At that time, the conservative position was, “We don’t know enough. We must do more research.” As a result, Republicans were arguably as good at funding global warming research as the Democrats. But now, the Republicans aren’t skeptics. They “know” that global warming isn’t happening. They’ve seen James Inhofe’s snowball. They once heard that scientists were using a “trick” with tree rings. And Al Gore made money on his documentary. Thus, global warming is a hoax. QED.

This is all deeply disturbing. I want my country back. I don’t mean it in the conservative sense that I want some fanciful notion of “America” that never actually existed. I can remember the America I want back. In it, Republicans commonly used racist appeals to win office. They ran crime syndicates out of the White House. And they were total hypocrites. But they didn’t deny reality. If we had had the modern Republican Party over the last 40 years, the claim that tobacco smoking causes cancer would still be reported as a controversy. The Republican Party really has become something that is a quantum state more dangerous than it used to be.

There were many problems with the founding of the United States. But there is no doubt that it was a political extension of the Enlightenment. But in modern America, we have a major political party — which represents half of our people — that is so done with Enlightenment. It is too liberal for them. They want to go back further — to the Iron Age Middle East. And like all flat earth folks everywhere, they want all the benefits of the Enlightenment — central heating, fresh food, advanced medicines — without any of the responsibilities that go along with them like having to pay attention to facts.

It’s too bad we can’t allow them to go off somewhere and destroy themselves. Instead, we are stuck with them. We are all going down, together.

This is time. And this is the record of the time.

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How American Christianity Got Corrupted

One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian AmericaI spend a lot of time around here complaining about the state of American Christianity. I am not a Christian, but I still admire it as one of the the great religions of the world. And what I see in America makes me sad. Generally speaking, Christianity here hardly qualifies as a religion. To give you some idea of what I think, all you need to do is read the title of one of my articles, American Christianity as Cultural Signifier. American Christianity is just what all right thinking people believe. This is why it seems more like a prosperity cult than anything Jesus might have intended.

The fact that American Christians seem to be more focused on abortion and homosexuality almost to the exclusion of caring for the poor should be clear enough. As I’ve discussed before, abortion was never an issue for protestants all the way through Roe v Wade. That was something that concerned the Catholics. What changed this was that white protestant churches — primarily in the south — did not want their tax exempt status blocked as a result of them running segregated schools. So they needed to get their congregations politically involved. But they weren’t going to do it based upon the actual issue: segregation; that wasn’t a winning strategy. So the church leaders picked abortion, and the rest is history.

The result of that history is what is found in, What’s the Matter with Kansas? We now have white evangelicals all over the country who vote for the interests of the economic power elite — all in the name of abortion. And what’s especially interesting is that the economic power elite have no interest in abortion at all. In fact, if they could make money off it, they would. Hell, let’s be clear, there are few American corporations that wouldn’t have been putting in bids for the gas chambers and incinerators for the Nazi concentration camps. That’s the thing about the legal definition of a corporation: it is amoral. So it is a supreme irony that American Christianity should be so critical in supporting the power of these amoral institutions.

Over at New Republic a while back, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig wrote a review of two recent books that look into this connection, Gods and Profits. It is subtitled, “How capitalism and Christianity aligned in modern America.” Of particular interest is the book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin Kruse. It looks at the history of American Christianity from the Great Depression onward. And it is sickening.

As you probably know, Christianity hasn’t generally been all that keen on capitalism. And you don’t have to go that far back: just look at William Jennings Bryan. I think that if Christianity hadn’t gone off the rails, today, Mike Huckabee would be a liberal. But instead, he believes in the title of Bruenig’s article: God and Profits. But in the opposite order. According to Kruse’s book, the wealthy were very concerned about economic populism, so they were looking for ways to fight back. And they bought themselves a preacher: James W Fifield Jr:

Fifield married Christian thought with a new era of economic development, and spread the gospel through his organization, Spiritual Mobilization. Its mission was simple: to stamp out Christian support for a generous welfare state — which paired naturally with New Deal concern for the poor, elderly, and vulnerable — and to advance a new theory of Christian libertarianism.

I will have to get the book. But it is fascinating because those in the Religious Right are the ones most inclined to talk about how America has been co-opted. But what has really been co-opted is American Christianity itself. And they are the ones who allow it, even while they focus on what the founding fathers did or did not really believe. It’s sad for them, but it has been devastating for America.

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Morning Music: Sarah Silverman

Sarah SilvermanFor no particular reason, I got Sarah Silverman running through my head. She writes very catchy tunes that are generally very funny. And there is something about her very sweet, positive sounding voice, and the really nasty things that she says with it. Our case in point today is, “You’re Gonna Die Soon,” where she cheers up some very old people with the thought of death. And why not? Death isn’t a bad thing — especially when you’re old. As it is, we die a little each day. Even at the relatively young age of 51, I can see that if I keep this up, I wouldn’t even notice a sudden change when I die.

It’s not cold in here; I’m just dying.

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Anniversary Post: Royal Greenwich Observatory

Royal Greenwich ObservatoryOn this day way back in 1675, King Charles II ordered that the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) be built. If you’ve ever wondered why we have the random Greenwich Mean Time, it is thanks to this iconic observatory — the first specifically built one in Britain. It really isn’t an observatory anymore. Slowly work at the RGO was moved to other, more appropriate locations. Since 1998, it is a museum. But what a museum! That’s my idea of a good vacation — as long as there are pubs close by.

Oh, what a long way we’ve come! Just 340 years ago we had kings who cared about theoretical and practical science. And now here in the United States, we have a major political party for whom science is but a play thing to be used when it furthers its ideological goals but mostly just ignored and treated with derision. A civilization cannot long flourish when half of its people look down on the smart people “who think they’re better than us.” I’ll be writing about this later today.

But it is nice to look back on a time when the power elite of the world weren’t quite so evil and parochial as we are here in the United States. I often wonder: would we be worse off with crazy King George III or with Jeb Bush (not to mention the others)? It probably would be the same. It doesn’t matter if a leader is insane or he simply thinks he must pretend to be to maintain power to do what he sees as his most important work: taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich.

Happy anniversary Royal Greenwich Observatory!

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