Pascal’s Wager in Modern America

Pascal's WagerI was having one of my regular tea dates with a cousin of mine. These are always wide ranging discussions, but one mainstay is religion. We are both very interested in religion, although not as believers. I had just returned a book she had loaned me, Burton Mack’s Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth. Mac attacks the subject from a political and sociological point of view. And in particular, he argues that the Gospels were not written as any kind of history but rather as a way to grapple with things that were happening in the early competing Christian communities. (There should be a quote from the book here tomorrow.)

We began to talk about how fascinating all this early Christian scholarship is and how sad it is that fundamentalists get none of this because they think they have found The One True God™. And she related a story to me about another relative who is a fundamentalist Christian. The Christian’s daughter asked her the “what if” question: what if you are wrong? And our Christian relative responded that she was just hedging her bets. I burst out laughing. Pascal’s Wager is alive and well in modern Northern California!

But it isn’t quite Pascal’s Wager — it is quite a lot dumber. Pascal claimed that if there really was a God who insisted that you believe in him, the pain of not doing so would be infinite — the difference between burning forever in hell and having a nonstop orgasm for the rest of eternity. The down side of believing in God if he didn’t exist was relatively small and certainly finite: church attendance and maybe a few bucks to the priest. Mathematically, it is actually really interesting. Theologically, well, it’s just ridiculous.

Remember that Pascal came up with this idea almost 400 years ago. And even then, people dumped all over it. In particular, the religious true believers hated it. It treats God like he’s a chump. Is God really such a simpleton that he wouldn’t figure out what you were doing? Of course, this gets to a fundamental problem I’ve always had with Christianity — especially in its newer, heretical, forms. The idea that all you have to do is “believe” in God and he’s okay with you is just so offensive both to humanity and to God. What kind of a pathetic God is so questionable in his existence that he needs the reassurance of humanity’s “belief”? And this doesn’t even get to the whole issue of what kind of evil God would have to be to punish someone for eternity for the “sin” of not going against the nature that God created? It’s a madhouse!

Still, I think theologically, Pascal’s Wager was better back then when knowledge of the full scale of religious beliefs were more limited. Now, the Wager really makes no sense at all. It’s assumption is wrong. There aren’t two choices: belief in God or non-belief in God. There are too many possible gods on which to wager. In fact, if we imagine all the possible gods that might exist requiring that we believe in them and them alone, we have an infinity. Thus it makes no sense to wager on a particular god because we have an infinitesimal chance of getting an infinite reward. At that point, the finite losses of belief may well outweigh the infinitesimal chance of reward.

But what our modern fundamentalist Christian is showing in her acceptance of Pascal’s Wager is her theological isolation. To her, the only possible god is the God she believes in. But there are billions of people who would beg to differ. I can’t help but feel that deep down it must bother her that The One True God™ just happens to be the god who she was raised with and which is the dominant one in the nation of her birth. How cheap salvation comes to the modern American Christian!

Who We Humanize and Who We Dehumanize

Glenn GreenwaldThe US media just got done deluging the American public with mournful stories about the Jordanian soldier, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, making him a household name. As is often the case for victims of America’s adversaries, the victim is intensely humanized. The public learns all sorts of details about their lives, hears from their grieving family members, wallows in the tragedy of their death.

By stark contrast, I’d be willing to bet that the name “Mohammed Tuaiman al-Jahmi” is never uttered on mainstream American television. Most Americans, by design, will have no idea that their government just burned a 13-year-old boy to death and then claimed he was a terrorist. If they do know, the boy will be kept hidden, dehumanized, nameless, without the aspirations or dreams or grieving parents on display for victims of America’s adversaries (just as Americans were swamped with stories about an Iranian-American journalist detained in Iran for two months, Roxana Saberi, while having no idea that their own government imprisoned an Al Jazeera photojournalist, Sami al-Haj, in Guantanamo for seven years without charges)…

It’s worth considering the extreme propaganda impact that disparity has, the way in which the US media is so eagerly complicit in sustaining ongoing American militarism and violence by disappearing victims of US violence while endlessly heralding the victims of its adversaries.

—Glenn Greenwald
The US Media and the 13-Year-Old Yemeni Boy Burned to Death Last Month by a US Drone

How Elliot Destroys Richard III in The Goodbye Girl

The Goodbye GirlIn the film The Goodbye Girl, Richard Dreyfuss plays Elliot Garfield — an actor who has come to New York to play the title part in an off-off-Broadway production of Richard III. But he is displeased to find out that the director doesn’t want to do a traditional production. Why would he? This is a New York production, not something by the Tuscaloosa Summer Rep. Actually, even a summer rep group would be unlikely to do Richard III in the same old way. And the director’s idea is not terrible: he wants to make Richard homosexual. He wants to take Richard’s deformities as a metaphor.

Today, it would doubtless be seen as offensive to claim that somehow Richard’s psychopathy was actually related to his homosexuality. But better that than the weakling-homosexuality link of Edward II. And regardless, The Goodbye Girl was made in 1977. That’s only seven years after The Boys in the Band showed up on film. So even the one scene of Richard III that we see in the movie the way that the director supposedly wanted it is not that bad. Yes, it is a “flaming queen” stereotype. But who knows where it would have gone if the production had stayed with that. (Regardless, the ultimate fault is Neil Simon’s imagination.)

But instead of working with the director to create a more believable Richard, Elliot rebels. And the director gives in. So the production ends up as the worst thing it could possibly be. Now it has a “flaming queen” Richard who also has the club foot and hump. What is the point of such a production? Well, we know what the point is. It was to pacify a prima donna actor who is in no position to be one. He’s been working in Chicago. At the beginning of the movie, he is rightly grateful to have the part.

When I saw the film in the theater, I took Elliot’s side in it. I was only 13 years old. And the film expects the viewer to take Elliot’s side. But I no longer do. His lack of professionalism is staggering. It also seems unlikely that Elliot would have been hired for the part without some discussion of what the director planned for the play. But ultimately, the problem in the play is Elliot’s. He’s been hired to play the part and he’s unwilling to do it. It isn’t that he can’t do it. His greatest concern seems to be how he is going to look on stage.

Actors continue to amaze me, precisely because they are not like Elliot. I marvel at the fact that professional actors completely throw themselves into work that I would be embarrassed to be seen in. And this includes a lot of stuff that is fairly good. But standing up on stage is a very strange thing. So the one thing — the first thing — you would expect from an actor is their ability to throw themselves into a role. And Elliot is not willing to do that. He strikes me more like a Hollywood “star” than an actor.

What is his problem, anyway? Richard is not a nice guy. The first thing out of his mouth is his plan to have his brother murdered. He’s a psychopath. That’s somehow fine to be associated with. But a stereotypical gay man in the 1970s? That’s the bridge too far for Elliot? I could maybe understand this if his problem was that the character wasn’t real enough — but the standard Richard is hardly real — he’s a stock character, no more real than Snidely Whiplash. But Elliot’s problem seems to be what he can allow himself to be associated with.

All of this just makes Elliot a shallow person. But that’s probably good, because Paula McFadden — the Marsha Mason character — is this weird 1950s woman who shows up in the 1970s film. “I am going to be spending your money on our apartment”?! But whatever. The main point is that Richard III is a catastrophe in the film not because of the director, but because of Elliot himself. It mightn’t have worked anyway. But he assured it.

Republicans Are NOT Rethinking Reaganomics

Jim TankersleyLast week, The Washington Post published an article by Jim Tankersley, The GOP is Debating Whether Reaganomics Needs an Update. It noted that many conservative economists are now admitting that faster economic growth probably will not do much to raise the living standards of the middle class. What an amazing observation! How could they possibly have come to that conclusion?! Could it have been the last four decades during which pretty much all the economic growth went to the richest people? Could it be that the fact that giving ever more money to the rich might only help, you know, the rich is now such an obvious thing that even conservative economists are starting to notice? Say it ain’t so!

But the article itself is disingenuous. It starts with this:

Leading Republicans are clashing over a signature issue the party has treated as gospel for nearly 40 years: the idea that sharply lower taxes and smaller government are enough by themselves to drive a more prosperous middle class…

There are a couple of problems with this sentence. First, remember Reagan’s actual legacy: Tax Cuts for Rich, Tax Hikes for the Rest. Second, since when have Republicans ever made the government smaller? They’ve cut programs for the poor. But they’ve always more than offset this with spending on the kinds of programs they like: war and presents for the rich.

But what really bugs me are two words: “by themselves.” The implication is that “lower” taxes and “smaller” government have done something for the middle class. I don’t see this in the economic record since slightly before Reagan. The rest of the article is just a fiction about how Republicans are beginning to wake up to the fact that they need to try something else. There may be some grumbling, but that’s all. And that is all that there will ever be. As long as the Democrats’ economic ideas are only to do slightly more than nothing, the Republicans will not change a thing. Hell, they won big in 2010 and 2014. Why fix it if it ain’t broke?

Dean Baker noted an even bigger problem with the article, Conservative Economics Has Not Produced Rapid Growth. He provided the rate of growth during all the presidencies going back to Carter. I put it together in this handy graph:

Economic Growth Presidents

I don’t especially like this statistic. It shows clearly that the economy has done better under Democrats than under Republicans. I think this is a real thing and it is policy based. But I think that liberals use this as proof and it isn’t very good proof for that claim. However, it certainly shows that we don’t see great economic growth under the Republicans. If their policies were so great, we would see it here. And as far as we can say anything based upon these data, it is that the economy grows better when Democrats are in charge.

Of course, this graph also shows why the Republicans will change nothing about their economic policy. Of the last six presidents, three of them have been Republicans. What’s more, each party controlled the White House for a total of five terms. So the Republicans can continue on funneling cash to their friends and making the working class think government is useless. And there is no political price to pay. If we liberals wait for conservatives to start caring about the working class, we will die waiting. The only way to make the Republicans care about the working class is for the the Democrats to start doing something for the working class. Yes, economic growth has been better under Democrats. But except for a couple of years under Clinton, the working class itself hasn’t done better.

Morning Music: Eric & Suzy Thompson

Dream ShadowsOne of the first blog posts I wrote was, Music Worth Listening To: Eric & Suzy Thompson. They are a husband and wife duo who are probably best known for their work in bluegrass. But they also do a lot of Cajun music and blues. In fact, it was from their performance of “Skinny Leg Blues” that I discovered Geeshie Wiley.

I also use about five seconds of sound from their version of “Last Kind Word” as the exit music for my videos. That’s also a Geeshie Wiley tune. Unfortunately, there isn’t that much of their music online that is of high quality. It’s mostly all a lot of handheld camera phones, and those really annoy me. So here they are doing two Cajun songs. First is “Balfa Waltz.” And then they immediately go into “Lake Arthur Stomp”:

Birthday Post: Frédéric Chopin

Frédéric ChopinWe are now in the third year of the birthday posts. Ugh! Am I allowed to say that it is a real pain? It is generally the shortest post of the day and by far the hardest to do! But I won’t stop because I like having it. It’s a nice way to start the day. And it isn’t always a pain. But birthdays are really uneven. Some days I have a half dozen people who I’d really like to write about. And some days, there are really no people who I want to write about. Today is one of those days. The first year, I did Justin Bieber. The second year, I did Robert Bork. Those are two people I hate. So who’s it going to be today? Even as I type this, I haven’t decided…

Oh, hell: on this day in 1810, Frédéric Chopin might have been born. You read that right. He might have been born on 22 February. But probably not; you can’t trust church records. Regardless, Chopin is one of those names that everyone just knows. People take this to mean that he was a great composer, but I really don’t think that’s true. Or at least, he wasn’t great in the sense that Schubert was great. He was, by all accounts, a great pianist. Sadly, too much of his work is exactly the kind of stuff that a pianist would compose for himself. “A young man trying to impress beyond his abilities. Too much spice. Too many notes!”

Well, not really. But there is certainly more style than substance. He did, however, expand over the course of his life. Here is “Fantaisie-Impromptu,” which he wrote in his early twenties. It is one of his most famous pieces, although it wasn’t published until after he was dead. He didn’t apparently think that much of it, even if it does work. Note that the middle section is where Harry Carroll got the main melody for “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”:

In his late thirties, he wrote “Waltz in C-sharp minor (Op 64/2).” I think it is a far more thoughtful work. But then again, it was paired with the Minute Waltz. So who knows?

What really bugs me about Chopin is the fact that he pretty much only composed for the piano. Not that he had any obligation to do otherwise, but it is kind of boring. It also limits many aspects of his composing. Ultimately, his music reminds me of this bit of Kipling:

When the flush of a newborn sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mold;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves: “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”

Happy birthday Frédéric Chopin!


Both of those pieces were played by the Russian pianist Valentina Igoshina. Chopin is hardly difficult for modern pianists, but I very much like her approach to his work.