Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Katie Couric" interviews "Sarah Palin"

[h/t to (gag, retch) Andrew Sullivan]

Reform or Revolution

When I started seriously blogging on January 1, 2007, I was a pretty standard liberal Democrat. Disappointed with the Democrats, but still of the opinion that they were merely confused and needed nothing more than a swift kick in the pants to get back on the ball.

And then I started actually paying attention to what was going on.

The whole point of partisan politics is to use an adversarial system to effect social change. And just in terms of partisan politics, the Democratic party has failed so massively that Hanlon's razor has become ludicrously implausible. The Democratic party did not fight in 2000. They did not fight in 2004. They did not fight in 2006.

And they're not fighting now. If Obama wins the election it will only be because of McCain's personal ineptitude, which — given the discipline and ruthlessness of the Republican party for the last 40 years — really can be considered an exception.

The Bush regime is not just responsible for a series of administrative "failures", they have not just intentionally dismantled the New Deal, they have perpetrated actual crimes against humanity, crimes for which we have literally hanged people. It's not enough now to just win an election. We ought to crush the Republican party, drive them before us and hear the lamentation of their women. They shouldn't just lose, they should be made objects of ridicule, cast in the dustbin of history.

Ideologically, the situation is even worse. The Republican agenda since Nixon has been crystal clear: destroy root and branch every vestige of "socialism" enacted by Roosevelt and Johnson and return this country to laissez faire third-world capitalism where 1% of the population have everything, 9% serve them, and 90% — if not actually dying, as the Randian fantasy would have it — laboring in abject poverty in circumstances barely distinguishable from chattel slavery. (The only substantive difference between the Republicans and the Randians is that the Republicans realize its better to invoke God and justify slavery than simply kill 90% of the population and abandon hundreds of trillions of dollars in physical infrastructure.)

And what is has been — and continues to be — the Democratic agenda? Do the same thing, just a little more slowly, and with a little extra lube.

If reform were even a remotely realistic possibility, we would have reformed the Republican party out of existence after Reagan. It didn't happen then, it didn't happen later, it's not happening now. Only a Christian-level of willful delusion can offer the hope that it will happen in the next four to eight years, regardless of who wins this election.

Barack Obama will not make the kind of fundamental changes to our financial institutions to prevent yet another $700 billion fuck-up. He will not give debt relief to the millions of Americans impoverished by predatory lending, or just the systematic structure that forces people to pay double in interest to bankers than they would pay in rent to landlords just for the illusion of "owning" one's own home.

Obama will not end the patently immoral war of aggression in Iraq; he will merely run the occupation more efficiently. He will not end the war in Afghanistan; he's going to expand it. He will go to war with Iran. He will not preserve — much less restore — the token social safety net established by Roosevelt; he will at best merely slow down its continued destruction. He will not preserve or restore the right or availability of abortion. He will not restore basic constitutional civil liberties. He will not end the "war on drugs" or the outrageous imprisonment and oppression of black Americans. All his promises to the contrary will turn out to be nothing but lube.

At best, we will see some "improvement" under an Obama administration just because he's not as completely fucking retarded as Bush. He will clean up the mess and continue to carry out the Republican agenda competently instead of stupidly. He will heat the water more slowly so we don't notice as much that we are being boiled alive.

It's not Obama's fault; he doesn't have a choice. It's not even the fault of the Democratic party. The neo-conservatives and the Republican party — "carrying a cross and wrapped in the flag" — have for two generations waged a relentless ideological and propagandistic revolution against the few basic human values we managed to enact in the middle of the 20th century... and it's working.

How could it not work? In a capitalist economy, it's by definition in each capitalist's self-interest to have everything. And by definition they have the power to acquire it. Even if some individual capitalist has some vestige of humanistic moral sensibility, he knows the next guy doesn't: he has to grab as much as he can just to protect himself. Capitalism is an all-or-nothing game.

Efficiency is the name of the game, and while labor is commoditized, reducing labor cost is the royal road to efficiency. Even if some individual wants to pay his workers a living wage, he knows his competitor will just ship his factory off to the Northern Mariana Islands and enjoy the reduced cost of slave labor.

The rich people — Democrat and Republican alike — know that there are too many rich people than true laissez faire capitalism can support. All they can do is scrabble as hard as they can to break into the top 1% that will survive the collapse of consumer capitalism.

This is the grim economic and political reality of post-industrial society. It wasn't exactly inevitable; we could have fought Reagan, we could have fought Bush, we could have fought the Randians. But we didn't, at least not hard enough. And we will pay dearly for our failure.

$700 billion

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that we really do have to recapitalize the financial markets to the tune of about $700 billion (the number Henry Paulson admits he just pulled out of his ass).

A couple of things seem perfectly obvious.

First, all the failed institutions and every senior manager must declare bankruptcy; even if we recover only a pittance, we must economically punish those responsible for this massive clusterfuck. If I had to lose everything and ruin my credit rating when I went broke* then these bastards need to be burned to the ground in exactly the same way.

*I did lose everything, I did ruin my credit rating, and I sucked it up and rebuilt my life... paying cash for everything. I still don't have a credit card.

Second, it's our money, we should own the capital. None of this, "Here's a 'loan', wink wink pay a little bit of it back if and when you can," bullshit. I want fucking equity.

Businesses are not there to give away money, and neither are the taxpayers. If private enterprise admits they are incompetent to run the financial system then there's no alternative but to have the government run it.

We keep having to do this, over and over again. We bailed out the financial system after the Great Depression, we bailed out the Savings and Loan institutions in 1989. We just got done bailing out Fannie and Freddie. We've bailed out too many corporations (cough Chrysler) to count. We spend hundreds of billions on corporate welfare over the years, further socializing the costs of production.

Let's face it: private enterprise is great for some things, but private individuals have proven time and again they are incapable of running any enterprise larger and more complicated than a 7-11.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

More on Atheism and Atrocity

A lively discussion has broken out at the Debunking Christianity post referencing Robert's essay, Was atheism the cause of 20th century atrocities? (No.)

Of course, by "lively discussion" I mean a bunch of theistards spouting nonsense and some intelligent people trying to apply a clue-by-four correct them.

But there is a fairly easy analysis of the whole situation.

First, there's really nothing special or unusual about communist atrocities. Human history is steeped in blood; no race, no culture, no nation, no ideology is exempt. The Soviets had Gulags; the United States has imprisoned just as many people for the crime of excess melanin... not to mention enslaving them for a couple of centuries. Europe has colonialism, notably the Congo Free State. The only cultures, groups or ideologies without some egregious large-scale atrocity on their hands have merely lacked opportunity.

I mention this not (necessarily) to excuse these atrocities, but simply to place them in context. But it is true: communists have never taken a peaceful, prosperous society and run it into the ground. Pre-revolution Russia and China both were already pretty brutal places, teetering for centuries on the brink of famine, and in both societies many important measures of well-being improved substantially under communist rule.

It's true that communist societies — like every other powerful society — have perpetrated atrocities. It's also true that communist societies tend to be atheistic. The question though is whether there's a causal connection between atheism per se and the atrocities.

One standard for finding a specific causal connection is to ask: if X — and just X — were removed, how would the outcome differ?

There are two ways of answering this question: If the communists were not atheists, would they not have been communists? Would their communism have been substantially different? Robert's essay makes it plain that Marx and Lenin's anti-religion was a direct result of the clergy's complicity with German authoritarian and Tsarist rule. (And indeed we see the clergy's active participation in Hitler's anti-communist rule.) More importantly, because religion in general is not falsifiable, it can be used to justify anything. It is trivially easy to imagine that Soviet communists believed everything about communism except atheism in exactly the same detail. They would then have justified the exact same communism by saying, "God wants us to be communist."

Secondly, we have to ask, if the communists were God-communists instead of atheist communists, would they have perpetrated the same atrocities? Would God belief have somehow inoculated them against atrocity? Again, we have to answer in the negative. We have so many people — long before and long since communist rule, from the Inquisition to George W. Bush — justifying atrocity by appeal to religion that the idea that religion inoculates against atrocity is simply ludicrous.

Atheism is neither necessary nor sufficient for atrocity; there isn't even any discernible difference between atheist and religious atrocity. It is only the most ludicrous bias and deep-seated blindness that can connect one with the other.

Religion is not the root of all evil. Evil is the root of all religion.

Atlas Shrugged and Christian Eschatology

I'm struck by the number of parallels in the themes of Atlas Shrugged and in Christian Eschatology, the end of the world narrative so beloved by the denizens of places such as Rapture Ready and readers of Left Behind.

In Atlas Shrugged the great mass of people are not only mistaken, they are irretrievable and inherently morally corrupt. They cannot be saved, they should not be saved, and they do not deserve salvation.

Among the great mass of people are the elect. Although they are morally pure, they are helpless against the corrupt, and doomed by this corruption to failure.

There is a heaven (Galt's Gulch) where everyone lives in perfect harmony and happiness... and every bit as wooden and one-dimensional as the Christian heaven.

There is a time of tribulation, which begins by a rapture, the mysterious, almost supernatural magical removal of individuals deemed perfect.

Those left behind, i.e. our protagonists, Hank Reardon and Dagny Taggart, although basically good, must resist and overcome the vestiges of moral corruption (their concern for other individuals as individuals, rather than the qualities of the Ideal Individual) to gain entrance to heaven. One character (Dagny) is even lifted up to heaven to give her a glimpse of the reward for her moral journey.

And, of course, we have a messiah of truly supernatural powers: At twenty, John Galt redefines science from the ground up to make his magical perpetual-motion machine. Take that, Second Law of Thermodynamics!

Update: As Paul Robinson notes:
Galt is offered the opportunity to run the world at the last supper, err, excuse me, the state dinner at the Wayne-Falkland hotel. Then Judas betrays him for 30 pieces of silver, err I mean Dagny betrays him for $500,000. Then he's crucified, err, I mean he's attached to an electric generator and tortured.

And, he miraculously resists the torture and rises up escapes. (After the third day? I didn't count. Do we have an empty tomb cell?)

Also, all the bad people die in the end.

Is Ayn Rand a closet Christian? Nah. But does Rand appeal to the same sort of murderous and hateful self-righteousness as Christian Eschatology (gleefully anticipating the infinite tortures of hell for non-believers)? Has Rand borrowed these themes to leverage this narrative?

Of course.

The reification of the collective

One of the more pernicious fallacies in social and political philosophy is the reification of the collective. Reification is treating an abstract entity or property as if it were concrete, separate and distinct from the concrete entities it abstracts. For example, median income is an abstract property of a population: it is an abstract statistical property of some number of concrete individual incomes. You can't do anything at all to the median income by itself; you have to change the underlying individual incomes to change the median.

We must take care to distinguish a true fallacy of reification from simple metaphor. Natural language is rich in semantic forms that describe real objects, and it's natural to use these forms to talk about abstract properties. An easy way to distinguish metaphor from fallacy is to translate the idea into real concrete terms. If someone says, "I want to raise the median income by redistributing wealth," that makes sense because they're talking about manipulating individual incomes. "Raise the median income" is thus a legitimate metaphor.

We sometimes see true fallacies of reification in the collectivist left* (modern communist theory notes the fallacy of reifying the proletariat), but it's actually rare. In almost all cases, collectivist left talk about collective entities make perfect sense when applied to the underlying individuals. The good of society really does reduce to the good of individual people. (At least most individuals; collectivists tend not to worry overmuch about the good of those who profit from the exploitation of others.)

*I have to draw a distinction between the collectivism-individualism axis and the left-right axis: There are collectivist rightists (conservatism, neo-conservatism, fascism) and individualist leftists (left anarchists). The short story And Then There Were None describes an individualist left society.

We most often see true fallacious reification in individualist right critiques of collectivism. Atlas Shrugged is a perfect example: Rand simply assumes that all collectivist social theories must necessarily reify the collective, and thus justify sacrificing each and every individual's good to the collective good. It's not even necessary to reproduce any quotations*; open the book at random and within 10 pages (unless Dagny is about to fuck someone) you'll find some moron spouting off about how every individual must sacrifice to the "collective". In Rand's view, the "collective" interest is completely divorced from everyone's individual self-interest.

*Nor will I do so. I read that monstrosity once; I'm not going to read it again to find quotations. Let the Rand cultists Objectivists annotate the book.

I focus on Rand specifically because Atlas Shrugged is the root of the neo-conservative narrative in Western society. Every egregiously stupid idea of neo-conservatism — even corporate socialism — can be traced directly to the novel. Millions of people believe that this monstrous pile of shit, with a logical fallacy on every other page, accurately reflects reality at some deep level. Although there are other writers (notably Leo Strauss) who have independently arrived at the same ideas, Rand's work has most effectively popularized those ideas.

It's possible that collectivists really are that stupid (Christians and Muslims, after all, do display an equivalent level of stupidity), but any reader of Rand should be immediately suspicious when she puts such egregiously stupid words into the mouths of her opponents, especially in a work of fiction; a critical reader should suspect a straw man fallacy. But even if collectivists really were that stupid, justifying some sort of Individualism by the refutation of fallacious form of collectivism — even if that fallacy were universally held by collectivists — is itself an ad hominem fallacy.

We can only speculate why Rand and other individualist right critics reify the collective. However, it's notable that in the real world, the reification of the collective prevalent in conservative traditionalism and most religious thinking has been a tool for justifying the exploitation of the many by the few. It is not the industrialists, the political rulers, the rich who are encouraged to sacrifice their self-interest to the good of the many, but rather the many who are encouraged to sacrifice their self-interest to the good of the few in the name of the "good of society (or God)."

Rand does not actually argue against collectivism. She argues, rather, against the wrong kind of collectivism. Her world is falling apart because the great individuals, the competent and hard-working, have gone on strike: It is in everyone's interest (i.e. the collective interest) to support, honor and value such individuals. Indeed all of the individuals in Galt's Gulch "rationally" act in the collective good rather than their immediate material individual good. Midas Mulligan owns all the land in Galt's Gulch; Galt owns all the electric power (his supernatural paranormal motor* that powers the valley). Rand lays a little transparent bullshit on us to justify their "good" collectivism (they "rationally" value the company of the elect), but it's an egregious double standard. Rand must reify the collective to simultaneously denounce the good of other individuals out of one side of her mouth and affirm it out of the other.

*I'm really curious what happens after the end of Atlas Shrugged, when the motor breaks down and requires selenium or some other substance not locally available, or some parts available only from an advanced manufacturing infrastructure. But Galt is MacGuyver on steroids; I'm sure Rand is confident that he can manufacture an integrated circuit using a pile of sand a book of matches and some paper clips.

But Rand's collectivism must be seen as not a metaphor but as a true reification, because her good "collectivism" is justified even if 90% of the actual individuals perish. The passengers on the doomed train deserve to die because they are not morally pure. Dagny Taggarts's flaw, the failing she must correct as her moral growth, is valuing actual individuals over the reification of the Individual. Dagny must learn to value "Man" (the idealization) rather than mankind (the actual individuals). Only then can she enter the gates of heaven Galt's Gulch.

Not even the relatively rare die-hard cultist takes Rand's eliminationist rhetoric — evocative of Christian Eschatology — seriously. That metaphor at least is obviously a metaphor. They take from the book, though, that apparent exploitation is justified: no one is really being exploited. The masses of people gain their very life from the exceptional few, not by deserts but by grace; any and all surplus value extracted from them is meaningless compared to the gift of life. And if the exceptional stumble from time to time, well, it's only because of the perverse irrationality of the many, against which even the mightiest are sometimes helpless.

But of course collectivists are not as stupid as Rand portrays them. Collectivism is the philosophy (more precisely the root of various philosophies) that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few... when those needs come into irreconcilable conflict. In most cases, there's little or no conflict, or there is some compromise that allows everyone to gain. By definition most individuals are part of "the many"; realizing the benefit of "the many" is realizing the benefit of many individuals.

But collectivists recognize that a few individuals can realize an individual benefit by exploiting and oppressing the majority of other individuals. The vast majority need not tolerate such exploitation. Eliminating such exploitation demands from those few a true Randian "sacrifice" — giving up a greater individual benefit for a smaller individual benefit — and therefore their sacrifice must be coerced.

And boo hoo for them.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Myers on Satire

PZ Myers critiques Ebert's satirical presentation of creationism.
That's Ebert's mistake. He presented a plain statement of creationist beliefs with satirical intent, but that intent cannot possibly be scene [sic] in a world where millions say exactly the same things with sincerity.

Siskel and Ebert Uncensored

Not Safe For Work

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Friday, September 19, 2008


Blogrolls seem to have become useless. I'm thinking of removing them. I'll keep a reference to the Out of Iraq Bloggers Caucus and the Atheist Blogroll, but I don't see much benefit in including the list of individual blogs.

What's your opinion? Note: Although I want to hear readers' opinions, I make no promises that I'll actually act on them.

New template

Well, I "uninstalled" IntenseDebates comments by reverting to the classic template. AFAIK, there's no way to import IntenseDebates comments back into Blogger.

PhysioProf: I'm not going to switch to Wordpress, either self-hosted or I want to blog; I don't what want to fuck with blogging comments software. Since IntenseDebates comments caused more problems than they solved, I'm stuck with Blogger comments.

If anyone wants to write blogging software that gives me an order of magnitude improvement in my blogging experience, then I'd consider switching. Wordpress, while better than Blogger, is not sufficiently better to justify all the pain of switching.

What makes people vote Republican?

What makes people vote Republican?

The commentary is interesting too.

[h/t to Tim Kreider]

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The root of all...

Religion is not the root of all evil.
Evil is the root of all religion.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Down until further notice

Self-hosting was not a success; it's been closed.

I can't uninstall Intense Debates Comments.

I can't figure out how to redirect back to Blogger.

Fuck it. Posting is suspended until I calm down and get all this bullshit straightened out.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Slippery slopes

I’ve been participating in a comment thread at kafirgirl’s blog.* In it, commenter Nandu states that, “[B]eliefs span across a spectrum-once we start dismissing beliefs not held by us as “wrong”, we start sliding down the slippery slope of fundamentalism.” He’s half-right, i.e. wrong.

*If you read her blog on Friday, it’s imperative you swallow your coffee first.

Of course we shouldn’t judge a belief as wrong just because it differs from our own.* On the other hand, we obviously judge as wrong only beliefs we don’t actually hold. To refuse to judge a belief just because it differs from our own is to refuse to judge any belief at all, ever.

*I think many liberals mean this when they condemn “intolerance”, but the massive confusion — aided and abetted by the bullshit postmodernists — obscures the idiomatic meaning.

In the same sense, we shouldn’t judge anything as bad — a person, an action, etc. — just because it’s different, or we’re unfamiliar with it. But equally everything we judge as bad will be different in some sense.

If you judge anything you risk judging wrongly. If you speak the truth, you risk being mistaken. If you act, you risk acting wrongly. If you walk, you might fall down. That’s life. To avoid this “slippery slope” we must believe nothing, say nothing, do nothing, go nowhere. Only slaves and corpses can avoid this “slippery slope”.

We can’t avoid making judgments, about beliefs, about the truth, about right and wrong. But we can talk about how we judge. Reason, sensibility and logic itself are the only firm footing human beings have on the slippery slope of life itself, the slippery slope we cannot escape except by self-slavery and death.

When you make any judgment based on false facts about the world, you’re making a mistake. It’s a true slippery slope because you can often get a good answer for the wrong reason. If you believe that the Earth goes around the sun because your Pastor or your scripture says so, you have a true belief for the wrong reason. If you believe that you shouldn’t randomly kill people because God will send you to hell, you have a good belief — i.e. a belief you and I both approve of — for the wrong reason.

It’s because of this slippery slope that religious moderates are just as dangerous — if not more dangerous — as religious extremists and fundamentalists. Moderates justify good beliefs for the wrong reasons, and then they justify their reasons because they produce some good beliefs. But once you justify one belief by a falsehood, you accept that you can justify other beliefs by that falsehood. If you can justify not killing because God demands it, you can just as easily* justify killing because God demands it.

*More easily: the Abrahamic scriptures are full of exhortations to slaughter everyone in sight.

Indeed only the rational, secular humanists keep the religious moderates from sliding all the way down to the abhorrent behavior of the extremists. Were it not for our morality, rationally and evidentially justified*, the religious moderates would have no basis whatsoever for countering the fundamentalists. Their entire position consists of calling secular, humanistic morality the standard and then reading that standard into their scriptures.

*Justified on the foundation of subjective facts about what human beings consider to be harmful and helpful.

By reading the rational standard back into their scriptures, moderates step off the only firm foundation we have, held up only by the charity of the rational, secular humanists. And they depend on that charity while simultaneously spitting in our faces, begging us to let go of the rope. They accuse us of being “unspiritual” when the only thing we care about is the triumph of the human spirit. They accuse us of being intolerant because we refuse to tolerate human suffering, misery and death. The accuse us out of one side of their mouths of being “extremists” because we say that truth and falsity is real, not just a matter of opinion; they accuse us out of the other side of being relativists because truth and falsity is human, not divine.

The temptation to let go of the rope is strong. Why fight for humanistic values? Why fight for rationality? The mass of people don’t want it. They want to be exploited, oppressed and abused; they’d rather live in lies, misery and guilt at the center of the universe than live in happiness and comfort in an obscure, meaningless corner of the universe.

But we can’t let go, because we’re all in this together. We cannot step step away, not to an island or a secluded Colorado valley, not to space, not to the farthest galaxy. We live and die together. So we fight on.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Committed to the move

I'm now committed to the move to the new site at, The Barefoot Bum. Please update your links.

Content will be re-posted here until my syndication and major blogroll memberships have changed.

The best RSS feed remains Feedburner:, The Barefoot Bum on RSS.

I'll be wrenching on the new site for a while; I still have to transfer all of my blogrolls.

Update: I'm back to the original blog, but I'm going to try to get to point to this blog.

The definition of ’science’

The definition of 'science' is available at the new blog site.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Quotation of the day

[This post is also available on my new site: The Barefoot Bum]

[F]rom a thousand years before St Augustine, Thales and the Pre-Socratics and Plato and Aristotle and the Stoics and Epicureans were thinking in recognisably scientific and proto-scientific ways about the nature and functioning of the universe, on the assumption that human intelligence is competent to understand the workings of nature, which observation abundantly suggests are regular and ordered – it needs no gods to point out how spring returns after every winter, and the crops grow again as they did before, and so manifestly on. Not only did people emphatically not have to wait for St Augustine to discover that they could enquire thus, without invoking supernaturalistic beliefs of any sort, but it is indeed a mark of the thought of Thales and his successors that they did not start from such beliefs, but began their thinking from observation and reason. It was the revival of their independence of thought in the Renaissance and afterwards – the rediscovery of a non-theistic tradition of thought about the world – that represented a resumption of the scientific enterprise that had been crushed by religious dogma for a millennium, and which in the 16th and 17th centuries had a struggle to free itself from religion’s iron opposition – witness the church’s denial of Copernican heliocentrism and the trial of Galileo for two related instances. And the religious are still at it today – the ID theorists are the inheritors of Cardinal Bellarmine in refusing to accept what science discovers, as is the Vatican in its opposition to stem cell research. Examples are legion. About the only thing that can explain Fuller’s effort to re-run the tired argument that modern science is the kindly gift of 16th-century religion (of the Inquisition, perhaps, in the intervals between killing people who did not believe that e.g. the sun stood still over Jericho?) is ignorance.

[emphasis added]

- A. C. Grayling

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The new self-hosted blog is up: The Barefoot Bum at

I'm not fully committed yet, so don't go changing your links yet. I won't be posting at the new site until I've looked everything over and become convinced its an improvement. The series on Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged is still taking shape in my head.

Even with db0 doing most of the work (thanks!), migrating is a non-trivial process. I don't recommend it unless a) your free system (Blogger or is limiting you or b) you enjoy messing with technical stuff for its own sake.

The top issue right now is figuring out the commenting system and migrating the IntenseDebates comments to the new site.

If you're reading the blog on an RSS feed, please use Feedburner: The Barefoot Bum RSS. It'll be automatically redirected to the most up-to-date site.

Monday, September 01, 2008