Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Christopher Hitchens: God Is Not Good

Author: Christopher Hitchens:
Title: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
Publication: (New York / Boston: Twelve, 2007.)
ISBN 0-446-57980-3, 307 pages, indexed, hardcover).

First, Dr. Hutchens talks about slavery (two reviews down) and he blames Christianity (and in other scenarios, Islam) for complicity with it. And he blames religion for complicity with major totalitarian movements, including Fascism and Communism. He gives lots of historical details to connect religion to political outcomes and to suggest that religion is a tool of political and social control. At the end of the book, he calls for a New Enlightenment. Like Gore, he argues for the supremacy of reason.

He perhaps does not recognize the limits of reason or personal rationality as well as Gore. After all, no one is immune to hardships that one cannot prevent. That usually supports the religious idea that “everyone needs God”. It is true, in the mainstream world, that the promise of salvation or eternal life should not be used as an excuse or bait for accepting hardships, especially those caused by the negligence or wrongdoing of others. Carried far, that kind of viewpoint leads to objectivism and many people want the reassurance that religion provides. It does seem that on a personal level, within the home and community, and with a certain emphasis on loyalty, religion is associated with moral behavior on teaching (but often at the expense of battles between groups, tribes, or nations). But it’s possible to develop ethical theory beyond the libertarian notion of non-aggression and harmlessness to some and understanding of a systematic set of obligations to others, and to develop and maintain the practical skills that support interdependence with others. Ideas like filial responsibility (even for those without their own kids) come to mind. Many of the ideas around socialization have to do with not only supporting others financially but also with helping those less intact have a sense of meaning. After all, that is one of the things religious faith accomplishes. True, though, Marx once called religion “the opiate of the masses”. But it is amazing, in time after time, to see how determined and loyal the faithful are to their ideals, and what they will do (right or wrong) to defend their faith. Just look at recent history.

Other buzzwords come to mind here, like "secular humanism" and even the "God is dead" scare of that infamous Time issue in the 1960s.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Al Gore: The Assault on Reason

Author: Al Gore:
Title: The Assault on Reason.
Publication: Doubleday, 2007.
ISBN: 978-1-59420-122-6
Description: 308 pages, hardcover, indexed.

No, Al Gore did not invent the Internet, the favorite pre Y2K joke. But here, he sees, correctly, the Internet as a major tool in restoring participative democracy. Yet, he runs into some paradoxes that even he does not fully explore.

I summarized the argument of most of the book here:

He discusses the importance of reason in democracy and in promoting individual freedom. But reason, as an abstract experience of mentation, can lead one away from practical concern for others. He says that, somewhat prosaically, at least twice. But his main focus is one the way the wealthy and privileged used pseudo-reason to invent ideologies that justify their power-grabbing political and social behavior. This has been particularly true with the way the Bush administration has justified the war in Iraq, and the way it has lassoed the power to spy on private citizens.

He also correctly notes that radio and television, and to some extent the movies, have been a way to manage the “masses” with propaganda, both political and, in a capitalist culture, commercial. The Internet, we has gradually discovered, is a way to give average people a chance to participate directly in the process of debating issues, even without depending on lobbyists to do that for them.

Gore does go into some detail here. He discusses blogging and comes right to the point. "..what is most significant about blogging is the process itself. By posting their ideas online, bloggers are reclaiming the tradition of our Fathers of making their reflections on the national state of affairs publicly available." He mentions Lawrence Lessig, law professor at Stanford, as saying simply "People post what they want to post, and people read what they want to read." He goes on to discuss VC2 or "viewer-created content" for television, and gives a major web reference for promoting this capability, the domain named, appropriately enough, . This certainly creates a two-way opportunity that could be valuable to me for some of my materials. Gore also discusses the wiki revolution (wikipedia) and the opportunities provide by an controversies associated with social networking sites (in the context of Web 2.0).

That is where the paradoxes start. It is certainly right that information – whether political, social, spiritual, security-related, or commercial – ought to be open and be regulated by “spontaneous order” – the meritocracy of its own content. That is pretty much how it works with blogs on free entry (and the logarithmic mathematics of binary searches in search engines). In particular, people should not have to depend on their “superiors” for information (whether “superior” means head of a family, church, or one’s boss). As people who got into power the old-fashioned way wake up to this, they may indeed resent it and try to stop intrusions upon their turf.

Of course, though, people are often paid to express the views (in public) of those whom they work for, or they may be paid to manage others or make decisions about others. In those cases, it can present ethical problems when people express their views directly, in an unregulated way, and when what they say can be found instantly anywhere on the planet – which is the case, and it presents problems surprisingly often. You get into other areas like “reputation defense” and the concern that employers (and their stakeholders) wonder about the ulterior “motives” of speakers who are supposed to be on their side. When people use the "public space" of the Internet under their own names or identities, we would want them to have the ability to be objective and speak the truth about anything--that is one of the great ways that the Internet can promote individualized democracy. But many people, because of what they do for a living or even because of family circumstances, are not in a position to do that.

Furthermore, the Internet, with its brutal efficiency, is a refuge for people who do not like to respond too much to other people directly. That does contribute to all of the other horrible abuses that we always read about. But this is a curious reflection of Gore’s own criticism of taking abstract reason too far as a guide for human interactions.

Ultimately, to resolve some of these problems, you have to look at the ethical problems on a personal and moral level (even spiritual or religious) as well as a group political level. You have, as I noted in the review yesterday of a much shorter book by a teen, have to balance interdependence with independence.

Regarding slavery (the review that follows), Gore actually spends a lot of space on it, and on indirect slavery. I suspect he has read Hunter’s book.

On other thing. I do think Gore will run and will be the Democratic nominee. Yes, indeed (or "but Alas!") I anoint Al Gore as the 2008 Democrat Party nominee. But he does need to get the 2008 General Election right (and not have it stolen). Case closed.

Related posting "Interdependence v. Independence" here.

Related posting on Al Gore and Network Neutrality

Picture: Barton MD, site of a highwall collapse and coal stripmine accident in spring 2007.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Zach Hunter: Be the Change

Author: Zach Hunter.
Title: Be the Change: Your Guide to Freeing Slaves and Changing the World.
Publication: 2007. Michigan, Zondervan.
ISBN 0-310-27756-6
Description: 158 pages, paper.

This book has surged in interest this week since ABC “World News Tonight” is covering slavery in America all week, and the teenager author had been presented, in connection with his activism on the domestic slavery issue, on “Good Morning America” on March 15. The blog entry that gives more on this is here. It's interesting to note the age of the author, and a writing style which is straightforward and brief. (One could mention here Christopher Paoli, whose first novel "Eragon" in the "Inheritance" Trilogy was finished at age 15 and is already a movie; the second novel is "Eldest").

Zach presents himself as an introverted kid who developed his own character and courage and literally came alive when he discovered this issue. The book is laid out in eleven chapters, each based on a character virtue, and in that sense reminds on of Ralph Nader’s recent “Seventeen Traditions”. In fact, it’s interesting how two books on character, one from the stance of social justice through social liberalism, and the other through evangelical Christianity, can be similar in tone and make essentially the same points about character.

The most interesting virtue is probably “sacrifice”, where Zach talks about sacrifice as something you give up from yourself or your own aims for the benefit of someone else. He also adds a speech context, that truth is not a justification for speech that is intended to hurt someone else. (pp 110-111). But the context of self-interest that he perceives here is already established by social context: one’s family, one’s friends, even pleasing others within one’s church. Self-interest can fail because it is connected to others in unproductive ways.

His last chapter is about “Passion” and he follows with the reference information on using “loose change” to “loosen chains.” The main website is Loose Change to Loosen Chains. One will come out of narrow selfishness when one has a real passion. In my teen years, one passion was classical music. I think I should have become a pianist, and played chicken because of the draft and Cold War. Now, the passion is to release information from social hierarchy and make really detailed understanding reachable to people regardless of social or familial position or religion. Yet, one's passion can test one's faith. For any Christian knows that one needs God (and needs to sacrifice some times) inasmuch as no one can be in control of everything that can affect him or her. We do need interdependence as well as independence. Maybe that's the great moral question of today's 21st Century world.

Zach talks about the movie "Amazing Grace" with discussion of William Wilberforce, Josiah Wedgwood, and the Chapham Sect. Another important movie is "Amistad" (1997) which inspired a "reverse novel" book by Alexis and Alex Pate.

In a modern context, slavery, in practice, surely covers more than just illegal imprisonment into forced servitude (as documented on the ABC News reports this week). It covers unfair dependence on the menial labor of others at substandard wages, as Barbara Ehrenreich has written (book review).

My own discussion of the "fundamental right to be free of involuntary servitude" comes from my second book, "Our Fundamental Rights," Chapter 3 (1998).

There are more details here.

See the blog on the "Four Souls" book on June 2 of this blog. The film "Manderlay" also presents an interesting view on ending slavery, link to review here.

There are more details about recent stories in the domestic slavery issue (such as a recent case on Long Island, NY) here.

Picture: Johnstown, PA, site of the 1889 flood

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

Title: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again)
Author: Andrew Warhola (or course)
Date: 1975
Publisher: Harvest / Harcourt, New York
ISBN 0-15-671720-4
421 pages, paper

This book of Andy’s own musings has the minimalist red and white “soup can” cover (rather like my own “do ask do tell” black and white “Schindler’s List” type of cover). Inside, it has a discursive “James Joyce”-like introduction “B and I: How Andy Puts His Warhol On”, and then fifteen chapters on various topics, many of them related to “love” – without which one is nothing at all, according to that song around 1970.

Andy has a tendency to step outside of himself and split into different people, rather like what Clark Kent does in a particular episode of Smallville. So he has his alter egos who judge and manipulate his own life.

The chapters are rather like poetic ramblings, not quite a screed as there is no real manifesto. Andy is just being Warhol. Toward the end he writes in some very long, self-indulgent chapters that project is iconoclastic fantasies.

But there are great, cute observations, not quite real feminine “insights”, throughout. Like, “In the 60s, everybody got interested in everybody else.” (P 25). Or, “Fantasy love is much better than reality love.” (P 45). That gets closer to his essence. Later “People’s famtasises qre what give them problems. If you didn’t have fantasies you wouldn’t have problems because you’d just take whatever was there” (p 55). He talks about drag queens and says that a man has to work very hard to pretend to be a woman. Later, he talks about work itself, about graduating from a personal artists to a businessman, whose associates eventually understand your vision and can take and run with it even without you. A man earlier than his time, he has an odd view of computers, which in his day were the emerging IBM mainframes. On p 111, he characterizes himself, with no apology, as a mama’s boy, a “butterboy.” He writes, “I think I’m missing some responsibility chemicals and some reproductive chemicals.”

He must deal with the reality that he is different, that others tend to demand interdependence from him (especially in the Pennsyvlania blue collar culture that raised him), and, to have his freedom, be must become a city person. Indeed he did. And then, he must change how people perceive things, with no male aggression.

This book is sold in the shop at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

Related posts: Movie review.

Museum review.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Dina Matos McGreevey: Silent Partner

Author: Dina Matos McGreevey.
Title: Silent Partner: A Memoir of My Marriage.
Publisher: Hyperion, 2007.
ISBN 1-4013-0364-1
Description: hardbound, 290 pages, indexed.
Date: April 2007

The major media networks gave Mrs. McGreevey’s “counter memoir” about her terminated marriage to the ex-governor of New Jersey, James McGreevey, who stunned everyone with his announcement “I am a gay man” and resignation from the New Jersey governorship after one of his aides threatened to expose him for an improper appointment and other problems.

Mrs. McGreevey insists that she was the na├»ve wife, and essentially that she felt used – even as James gave her a child. There is a lot of detail here in the book, but she never quite covers, although she does mention, the underlying point: James McGreevey regarded heterosexual marriage with children a “performance requirement” to be respected by others as a male who had anything valuable to contribute to the open world.

Now, that is a philosophical point that can lead us to all kinds of dead ends. There are areas of life where it matters that one has become a biological parent and knows the experience of heterosexual marriage, even if it is not forever. Or, if society did not insist on the idea of a child’s biological “birthright,” maybe gay men could gain this experience “with honor” in adult gay relationships (marriage, that is, with parental adoption rights) recognized by the law. We have the arguments come full circle.

In fact, in 1992, Barbara Bush had said something like, “You don’t have to be married to be a success in life, but if you do choose to have your own children, you must make them your first priority” and get and stay married to an opposite-sex spouse. The conditional part of the statement really matters. James never believed it, and Dina Matos is shattered.

Detailed book reviews are here.

Previous blogger entry on James McGreevey 's book is here (Jan. 30, 2007).