Guilty and Charged: Daniel Oppenheimer’s Exit Right

There is a new book out, Exit Right, by Daniel Oppenheimer, profiling six men (Norman Podhoretz, Ronald Reagan, and Christopher Hitchens among them), formerly of the left when young, and well-known for either championing or defending the right when old. The book was reviewed recently by Alan Wolfe of The New Republic. The review is generally favorable, but I like this brake-tapping observation of Wolfe’s:

I found myself frustrated by the questions Oppenheimer does not ask: If these men were so wrong in their youth, wouldn’t they be likely to repeat the same mistake on the other side of their rivers Jordan? Can we fully trust writers who appear so sure of themselves, in either of the guises they take? Do all these men need a strong state with which to identify, whether the Soviet Union, the United States, or Israel, and, if so, why? Did they ever have doubts about their doubts? What, finally, makes them so damn certain?

Did they ever have doubts about their doubts? A great, great question.

As for what “makes them so damn certain,” it’s probably the straightforward explanation: evolutionary psychology. They were alpha males. In their youth they were alpha males, and in aging they were alpha males. Confidence is sexy. Somebody has to be at the wheel; somebody has to know. It’s anxiety generating when nobody knows; when the world seems to be flying blind.

It’s how religions get started, whether secular or theistic. Somebody knows. Let’s go hear him. Not knowing is intolerable. Meet the confidence man. An interesting and intelligent confidence man projects glamour, pretending to know what should be done and what things mean. If they’re clever or charismatic enough, others follow with their mega-dittos.

So when these sorts of men find themselves on the right, they identify with strong states because they borrow authority, power, and prestige from being associated with them: Go team!

Who doesn’t like a winner?

And if you’re going to put on the daddy pants, and play the role of Father Knows Best, you want the phallus of the father, the stage of the father. You want the proscenium; to poke forward into the open, beyond the curtain. Tellingly, Oppenheimer’s book title (Exit Right) alludes to the stage, and so might have been called, to complete the thought, Exit Right, Enter Right.

It’s that return trip to the stage that makes for alpha male shenanigans (the confidence games; the narcissism, the theatrics, the attention seeking, adopting the persona of the brave and lonely hero, etc.).

And Freud would say that if you’ve killed the symbolic father in your youth, overcoming him Oedipally, you’re likely to make up for this murder by idealizing the father in another form (the father in heaven, the father symbolized by the state). You show your exaggerated loyalty to power after you’ve betrayed, scorned, and seized it in youth. It’s a guilt thing, the energy of which gets transformed into a fresh charge–the charge of a new Tea Party, a new Light Brigade.

And what a charge it is–to lead a new charge! Before locating a copy of Oppenheimer’s new book, I’ll let these lines from Tennyson take us out. (Exit right?)

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed? […]
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
   Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell, […]
O the wild charge they made!
   All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!

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The Resurrection of Jesus is an Extraordinary Claim Absent Extraordinary Evidence. Believe It Anyway?

It is sometimes said that the resurrection of Jesus should be believed, not because we have extraordinary evidence for it, but because it slots well into a coherent metaphysical and theological system that has been worked out over the course of 2,000 years. That system, of course, is intellectual Christianity, with its highest expressions located, among Catholics, with the Thomists, and among Protestants, with the professional apologists like William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga.

If God exists, after all, such a miracle as the resurrection is not impossible, and if we swallow whole the metaphysical and theological arguments for God’s existence, then the resurrection of Jesus can be, for the believer, not just something that is logically possible, but something that God might plausibly accomplish.

As one believer, who also happens to be a scientist, recently put it: “As long as you merely gnaw cynically at [the resurrection’s] obvious ‘impossibility,’ considered apart from the whole tradition, you’ll miss the whole thing, and will be in no position either convincingly to affirm or to reject it.”

But this is an odd way for a scientist to talk, don’t you think? As the old rabbis used to say, “Have your ears heard what your mouth hath said?” Imagine, for instance, a scientist making such an argument for the multiverse hypothesis, string theory, or the idea that the best explanation for the dimming of light from a distant star is solar megastructures built by aliens.

To put it politely, you would conclude that the scientist was a bit too emotionally stricken with the beauty, coherence, and elegance of her or his theory, defending it with an excess of enthusiasm and insufficient caution (notice that the scientist quoted above calls reasonable doubt “cynical”).

By contrast, wouldn’t one’s response to a scientific colleague expressing belief, for instance, in alien megastructures, be something, rightly and sensibly, like this:

Your idea is wonder generating. What amazing news it would be, if true. And it slots so well into the larger system of ideas that you’ve worked out. But absent extraordinary evidence, I must respectfully withhold judgment. I’m not ‘gnawing cynically’ on your idea, nor treading on your dreams (akin to that line in Yeats’ poem, ‘tread softly, for you tread on my dreams’), I just find any elaborate system of ideas, however beautiful, that hinge on miracles or other extraordinary claims, in need of airtight evidence. We shouldn’t build our intellectual systems on sand; on things we take to be true, but may not be. I’m sorry I can’t share your enthusiasm, but I’m doing you a favor. By resisting your idea, and playing ‘devil’s advocate’ against it, I’m keeping you on your toes, helping you avoid confirmation bias. And you’ve got me thinking as well. That is, unless you break conversation with me because you can’t abide disagreement.

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Doubting Thomas Was Right: No Evidence, No Resurrection Belief

Concerning the Doubting Thomas passage in the Gospel of John, it’s often argued by contemporary apologists that Jesus didn’t scold Thomas for his demand for evidence of the resurrection as such, but merely affirmed the value of testimony: “Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.”

But if the Gospel of John was written around 90 CE, why should we put so much stock in the claims of supposed eyewitnesses made 60 years prior–let alone believe the second-hand testimony of others living at the time the book was written?

And recall that the resurrection is not just a claim, but an extraordinary claim. David Hume was the first to note that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and we should “apportion belief to the evidence.” No matter how honest, sincere, or earnest a believer bearing witness to an experience, when it comes to a miraculous claim, it is always possible—indeed, likely—that he or she has misinterpreted that experience. And so independent verification of the data upon which the experience is based is a reasonable request. And that, of course, is what Thomas sought: “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Thomas had it exactly right. This is not an impious thing to insist upon; it is something that one says when you have a commitment to: (1) truth; and (2) getting the truth of matters right. The great American patriot, Thomas Paine, held the same view. In Part I of his The Age of Reason, he wrote this: “Thomas did not believe the resurrection; and, as they say, would not believe without having ocular and manual demonstration himself. So neither will I; and the reason is equally as good for me, and for every other person, as for Thomas.”

And regarding the nature of eyewitness testimony, Thomas Paine wrote this: “It is a contradiction in terms and ideas to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication. After this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner, for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.”

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God: Prediction Fail and Ad Hoc Explanation

Every Great Oz needs curtains and smoke, and thus it is that theists must place soft focus on the greatest Oz of all, the word God, and the predicates of God–because the Great Oz we call God is, essentially, a ghost bird, an emperor with no clothes, a shell game, a mirage.

Religion can’t function without God as Mirage, for God must recede from any disconfirming evidence.

But how is this recession of God accomplished? How does God stay safely hidden from empiricism?

By ad hoc explanation. It is religion’s great escape hatch, warding off all appeals to evidence and falsification.

Ad hoc explanation is what one does to save a favored thesis (in this case, the thesis that God exists; that God is love). When a surprising data point comes in, such as the Holocaust, which might appear to disconfirm the thesis that God exists and is love, the theist’s intellectual playing field has to shift from claims vulnerable to prediction and falsification to claims grounded in mere coherence, the logically possible, and the non-falsifiable.

That is, to metaphysics untouched by reality testing.

Like a hall of mirrors, once you enter the labyrinth of metaphysics, the logically possible, and ad hoc justifications, you can get lost in there. Abandon Occam’s razor, ye who enter here.

For example, take this simple, simple sentence: God loves all people. What could be more plain in meaning? But if you take the sentence seriously, and try to predict something based on it, then a person who knows there is such a thing as, say, The Ten Commandments, but doesn’t know what’s in it, will make the following quite reasonable prediction based on the straightforward notion that God loves all people: “God loves all people, therefore, obviously, among The Ten Commandments there must be prohibitions on rape and slavery. If the Bible is God’s word, and God loves all people, these prohibitions could not possibly fall beneath His (Her?) circle of supreme moral concern. They’re in there. I know they will be!”

Then the believer looks in The Ten Commandments and discovers–neither of them! Prediction fail!

The ad hoc mirage engine now has to kick in. It functions to shift the goal post of what would constitute disconfirming data for the claim that God loves all people to ad hoc rationalizations like these: “God loves all people, but works in mysterious ways!” or “God’s ways are not your ways!”

Now, strictly speaking, it’s logically possible that God loves all people and works in mysterious ways, and it’s logically possible that God loves all people and has ways that are not our ways, but notice how the premises necessarily multiply in the service of the favored thesis. We now have to believe that God loves all people and swallow a series of ad hoc premises.

We must enter the realm, in other words, of confirmation bias and imprecision of definition (of words like God and love).

So whatever the ad hoc explanation is for why rape and slavery didn’t make it into God’s Top Ten, it fuzzies up God–the very definition of God, and God’s predicates. What is God? What does it mean for God to love? The sentence, “God loves all people,” suddenly loses plain meaning–and so much so that one begins to wonder if the sentence has any meaning at all.

Which brings us to Orwell. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. God is love.

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Six Great Books on Issues Surrounding Women’s Equality and Homosexuality

A quick share of books. Six on subjects related to gender and homosexuality:

(1) Woman Hating. Andrea Dworkin. A polemic, but a good one.
(2) Right-Wing Women: The Politics of Domesticated Females. Andrea Dworkin. Again, a polemic, but very incisive.
(3) Off with Her Head!: The Denial of Women’s Identity in Myth, Religion, and Culture, edited by Howard Eilberg and Wendy Doniger, University of California Press. The essay by Mary Rose D’Angelo on early Christianity is especially fascinating (“Veils, Virgins, and the Tongues of Men and Angels: Women’s Heads in Early Christianity”).
(4) Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction. Rosemary Tong. I have the first edition, which is excellent. There are later editions.
(5) A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. Francis Hill.
(6) Homosexuality and Civilization. Louis Crompton. Harvard. A groundbreaking, unmissable study of homosexuality through history.

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Is God Being Itself–Or A Person?

From the beginning, there has been this tension within theism between defining God as a person and defining God logically as a necessary and simple First Being (the God of the philosophers). The two do not appear logically consistent with one another, yet many theists, including Thomist intellectuals like Edward Feser, profess to believe both things about God, and hold them both, as a matter of habit, in soft focus.

But when you zoom-in, how, for instance, could a pure, undifferentiated being of infinite scope think, know, desire, act–and create a cosmos from nothing? How could such a being interact with matter–and be all good and all powerful at the same time (given the degree of suffering in the world)? How is it coherent for God to be one and a trinity at the same time, and for Jesus to be God incarnate?

All of these are deemed to be mysterious–and imaginative reconciliations have been proposed by theologians to make them seem less mysterious.

But if you’re going to take science and definition seriously, it won’t do to call the questions surrounding God “mysteries,” and carry on with theology-as-usual.

Thus it’s hardly surprising that a scientist like Jerry Coyne–who recently wrote a book on theistic shell games, Faith vs. Fact–is impatient with theist appeals to miracle, mystery, and authority, and the imaginative somersaults of theologians and theist philosophers surrounding their obscure and often incoherent definitions of God. We all should be. But we all aren’t.

And that’s why Coyne’s book is valuable. He makes the admirable effort, as a scientist, to push back against intellectual complacency and fuzzy thought. The biggest term of all–God–is not precisely and coherently defined by religion-friendly intellectuals–and yet the religious machine keeps on putting out its sausages. That’s the chief problem. God is a ghost bird.

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Fisking Feser: God and Definitional Wimbledon

In a recent review of atheist Jerry Coyne’s new book, Faith vs. Fact, Thomist philosopher Edward Feser writes this: “Reading Coyne trying to do something as simple as defining his terms is like watching him play tennis with himself. And losing.”

It’s a funny line, undeniably, but it’s also ironic, for obviously the same can be directed at Christians like Feser surrounding the most important definition of all: God. Feser’s line of attack against Coyne–that he is not a consistent definer of his own terms, and so his targets cannot be pinned down for close scrutiny or reality testing–invites a look in the mirror: Do theists do the same thing surrounding God?

Obviously, yes.

Theists have always played a funny and murky definitional Wimbledon with the term God, but this definitional Wimbledon has gone on, not for a couple of hundred pages, as with Coyne’s book, but for millennia–and without any conclusive progress.

Thomas Aquinas, for instance, put forth the volley that you cannot really say anything very specific about God except by way of analogy, which is another way of saying that, beyond some broad generalizations (“God is simple, God is one”), God cannot actually be captured and defined with words. (Is God a person? Well, yes, but not in the way you and I are persons. Does God love? Well, yes, but not in the way you and I love. Does God think? Well, yes, but not in the way you and I think, etc.)

It’s a tad too convenient. One might get the impression that one who speaks in this way is playing a shell game–or doesn’t actually know what he or she is even saying.

So if you’re going to make your chief line of attack on somebody definitional inconsistency, at least be sure you’ve got your own most important definitional term–for theists, that would be God–locked down. Which Feser doesn’t.

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Fisking Feser: Is Faith “Belief without…Evidence”?

In a recent review of Jerry Coyne’s new book, Faith vs. Fact, Thomist philosopher Edward Feser writes this: “[Jerry Coyne] characterizes ‘faith’ as ‘belief without—or in the face of—evidence’ and repeatedly uses the term as if this is what it generally means in religious contexts….But this simply is not how faith is understood historically in Christian theology.”

Well, does the author of the Gospel of John count here as a theologian and source for historic Christian theology or not? Look again at the famous passage from the Gospel of John that gave Thomas the moniker “Doubting Thomas” (20:25 KJV): “The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Thomas flunked the resurrection belief test. This was the wrong answer. In fact, in verse 29 of the same chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus gave a blessing to those who believe absent verifiable data, relying on testimony alone: “Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

The ear is all that is needed for belief, not the eye (or the hand with touch and investigation).

Jesus thus specifically and explicitly downplays the value of a central form of evidence: independently verified public data. Testimony is enough.

So what is a scientist like Coyne to make of this? Obviously, for a scientist, it’s not enough that a religious claim appeals to testimonial evidence from enthusiastic and biased advocates (converts bearing “witness”), it must also, to be scientific, make the witnesses available for cross examination and scrutiny by impartial and objective outsiders, and make physical evidence available for independent verification (sight, touch, experiment, debate, reflection, theorizing).

In this sense, the central claim of the Christian religion–the resurrection of Jesus–has never really been about systematic and disinterested testimonial and physical evidence gathering and fact-finding, but about believing in the absence of these, exactly as Coyne says.

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What’s It Feel Like For Your Existence To Precede Your Essence? Monochromatic And Abstract Expressionist Paintings Suggest An Answer

God’s death (and essentialism’s) represented in art. Above is a monochromatic artwork by the French artist, Yves Klein (1928-1962), but what do monochromatic and abstract expressionist paintings mean? Matthew Israel’s recent essay on Klein suggests an answer:

[W]hen [Yves] Klein started painting seriously in the late 1940s, he became increasingly interested in only the color of pictures he was making and was viewing. He explained: ‘In front of any painting, figurative or non-figurative I felt more and more that the lines and all their consequences, the contours, the forms, the perspectives, the compositions, became exactly like the bars on the window of a prison. Far away, amidst color, dwelt life and liberty.’

Secondly, Klein was deeply engaged with various philosophies and religious traditions, including Eastern philosophies, Zen Buddhism, Catholicism and Rosicrucianism, an international brotherhood which combines religious practices and beliefs from Hermeticism, Christian Gnosticism and Jewish mysticism and claims that it has secret wisdom that has been handed down to them since ancient times. Klein was particularly obsessed from a young age with The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception (1909) by Max Heindel. Heindel’s book has been described by the writer Thomas McEvilley as ‘a psychological alchemy which aspires to set spirit free from solid bodies and restore it to the Eden of unity.’

Israel’s observations recall Sartre’s famous phrase, “existence precedes essence,” which, in its affirmation of imaginative freedom preceding form, is in direct tension with the idea that essences, forms, and God’s will precede existence. Klein worked within this tension, and Jacob-wrestled with it. Monochrome and abstract expressionist paintings are existence preceding essence translated into art. And this is another way of talking about the death of God, for where God does not proscribe the essence of things in advance of our existence (“the penis is for the vagina, don’t use it in any other way,” etc.), then God is an irrelevant consideration in what we decide to do.

“Life and liberty” before the prison bars of proscription. Yves Klein’s vision is Promethean. Open “life and liberty” comes before the prison bars of proscription; before definition; before framing; before being caught in a matrix of obligation. Variation and imagination precede essence; possibility precedes essence; contingency precedes essence. The logically possible precedes essence (and matter). Variety, surprise, imagination. These are the spices of life–but they’re also unwieldy, viscous, The Blob.

Here’s Klein blobbing paint on a woman’s body.

The Blob in two dimensions is the monochromatic canvas. There’s something menacing about monochromatic and abstract expressionist paintings. Like something oozing out of a three dimensional box, the frame doesn’t really contain them. “They bleed on all sides.” The contemporary artist is accompanied by instability; the manic alternation between hope and fear. This instability is represented in aporias (impasses). Monochromatic and abstract expressionist paintings are impasses. Impasses in meaning. The one who resists all restrictions on form and possibility in advance; who would make the world anew; who would meet The Blob by taking full responsibility in the shaping of it, also faces emptiness; the haunting lack of point and meaning.

So where does one find eros for action if one is too ironic; if one can see that it’s all contingent; that all the meaning-making is on your shoulders? That’s what the two-dimensional Blob–the monochromatic painting–silently asks of the viewer, mocking sense.

Comedy, tragedy, and monochromatic painting. If the field of possibility is wholly open to refashioning; if there’s nothing that is “a given” in advance, then what are we to do–and why? And how do we cope with the Joker of contingency and chance, always at the ready to undo our projects? Won’t the Joker always be lurking in our deck of cards, not with bangles, but as a simple and unsettling monochromatic painting?

The Joker is the stuff of comedy, the monochromatic painting the stuff of tragedy. “Time and chance happeneth to all,” complains the writer of Ecclesiastes. “Life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it,” sings Monty Python.

A blob of shit. That’s comedy.

The unshaped piece of life-shit is The Blob. The Joker asks, “What will you do with it, Obi-Wan?”–and you reply, “How about making a monochromatic painting?”

To what end? The upending of the given and the death of God thus brings the contemporary Promethean artist and revolutionary of absolute freedom and openness to a place where progressive hope must necessarily alternate with the daunting questions, “To what end?” and “Won’t time and chance just undo my projects anyway?”

Despair, lack of point, and terror trails in the wake of the godless progressive–and is given tragic and haunting expression in inhuman monochromatic paintings.

Enter, the confidence man (pursued by a bear). So who’s at the wheel in the 21st century? Nobody’s at the wheel. Who’s going to drive? The confidence man steps forward, pretending to know something more than the rest of us, and says, “I’ll drive.” His confidence functions as mystification (and it always seems to be a “he”).

But somebody (a woman? an atheist? an atheist woman?) deigns to take on the role of the pursuing bear of skepticism, asking, “Why should we go in your direction, and not some other–and what guarantees our progress?”

The monochromatic canvas thus becomes the black hole that contains this question. The monochromatic painting is the flag of skepticism, the frame feebly attempting to contain the doubt.

From doubt to apocalypse. Apocalypse Now. In a monochromatic painting, the expression of social hope, discovery, and adventure are present alongside nerviness, doubt, surprise, emptiness. It’s Jim Morrison’s blue bus (“Driver, where you taking us?”).

Thus Klein’s monochromatic paintings in “International Klein Blue” mock the confidence man, the imam, the preacher, the political demagogue. But they also mock the social hope of the atheist–and tell us why people, after their utopian dreams are thwarted–or feel unsatisfactory after being reached–revive medieval and fundamentalist certainties, seek out confidence men, and begin to long for apocalypse–or, if they are timid, the comic calm of Buddhist retreat.

“Life is a comedy for those who think, a tragedy for those who feel.” The monochromatic painting represents what it feels like for your existence to precede essence.

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Islamic Terrorism in Paris and Charlie Chaplin’s Hitler Ballet

It occurs to me this evening that Charlie Chaplin’s classic globe dance, as a means of trying to enter and represent visually the psyche of Hitler, is curiously apropos to the why question surrounding Paris tonight. The idea of violently achieving a world of perfect harmony, all devils vanquished, and living under the banner of an alpha father and ideology (religious or secular), is an apocalyptic fantasy that will always spell-cast a lot of people–and lead some of them to actually try and create it through direct action. But, of course, the fantasy enacted rarely generates a new world, but rather blows up the one that is. (Chaplin’s dance piece brilliantly concludes with a bang).

In any case, the below ballet of Chaplin’s suggests a key aspect of the “why question” surrounding the Islamic terrorism that we are witnessing in Paris. And recall that, like our 21st century terrorists, Hitler also regarded Paris as a chief prize in his battle against secular democratic politics and the Anglo-French Enlightenment. What delight he took in conquering Paris! Like the Twin Towers in New York, the Eiffel Tower is a lightning rod that attracts the psychological electricity of those who would undo the Anglo-French (and American) Enlightenment.

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Marco Rubio Went To Disney World, And Republican Donors Paid For It

When the average, middle class Republican donor put up $40 to support the Republican Party, do you suppose (s)he knew that it would pay for Marco Rubio going to Disney World?

Mr. Rubio’s campaign released statements for his Republican Party of Florida-issued American Express card, hoping to at last quiet accusations that he used…
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Boycott Houston

Anti-gay bigotry and fear won in Houston last night. Let the city have its anti-equality ordinance, but not our money. Boycott Houston.

I see this as an example of how libertarianism cuts both ways. Certain business people and renters want the freedom to discriminate against any class of taxpaying individuals they don’t like, but forget that this cuts both ways: there are consumers who don’t like bigots, and won’t spend money in businesses or cities with a reputation for unfriendliness toward gay people and others.


In one of the most closely watched referendums in the country, voters repealed an anti-discrimination ordinance, handing gay rights supporters a stinging defeat.
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Prediction: Hillary Clinton Will Win The White House

Hillary’s toughness may be her greatest strength. I’m increasingly under the impression that she could win, and win big. How, after all, do Republicans capture the White House if the women’s vote breaks 52-48 (a low-ball estimate) for Clinton? Surely, there are not enough angry white dudes (the white right) to overcome even this modest degree of female support. And if there are, you pay a price for elevating their turn-out. Casting red meat to these pissed-off guys tends to be off-putting to females, driving up the percentages of women voting for Clinton even more. She seems to be sitting in a pretty darn good position right now. Darn good. I’m definitely impressed.

I’ll call it early. Hillary in 2016.

Thursday’s hearing on Benghazi was a reminder that Mrs. Clinton does best when she doesn’t try to hide her toughness.
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Kepler Space Telescope Detects an Alien Megastructure 1500 Light Years Away?

If you read nothing else between now and January, a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly perhaps should be it. (And then, when you start reading again in January, perhaps you should Google immediately the article’s subject for the rest of the story.)

The article is about megastructures, and it certainly puts life in perspective.

The Kepler Space Telescope may have detected megastructures (possibly large solar arrays) orbiting a star 1500 light years away. The star is designated KIC 8462852. So much light from it is being blocked by transit objects, and apparently not by round ones, as you would expect if they were planets, that astronomers think it’s possible that Kepler has stumbled on some very large civilizational artifacts. A radio telescope will be pointed at the star in January, according to The Atlantic, “to see if it emits radio waves at frequencies associated with technological activity.”

And this is in The Washington Post this morning: “[Megastructures] would probably comprise a chain of smaller satellites or space habitats, something that would block its star’s light as weirdly and irregularly as the light of KIC 8462852 has been blocked. That’s why researchers who are interested in finding alien life are so excited about the finding.”

But even if there are no megastructures orbiting KIC 8462852, I like the thought of the word “megastructure” perhaps entering the pop cultural vocabulary over the next several months. It has a nice ring. Megastructure. Yum. It sings off the lips and tongue.

So, in January, after astronomers point a radio telescope in the direction of KIC 8462852, if they don’t pick up the alien equivalent of I Love Lucy reruns, it will be a disappointment, but this oddball star will still have opened up a space for wonder over the next few months, and introduced a cool word into the collective psyche.

Another word I like is hyperobject. It comes from literary criticism. If something alien is found, expect some academics to start theorizing the “megastructure as hyperobject.”

While waiting for more word on this (and more words to be coined surrounding this), the YouTube below is a bit fanciful, but informative.

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I Like This Image

Life perspective. Sunset on Mars, taken by Curiosity.

On Monday, NASA is going to have a big press conference (probably announcing the discovery of water beneath Mars’ surface).

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The Republican Party’s Dilemma for 2016: Should It Increase Its Hispanic Or White Voting Percentage?

Steven Cohen, at The New Republic, concisely slices and dices the Republican dilemma surrounding Hispanics:

Republican elites believe that they can stave off this racialized fissure with bilingual campaign ads and half-hearted appeals to pragmatism. What they ignore is not simply the extent to which they themselves have deliberately encouraged the accommodation of white supremacy within their ranks, but the likelihood that those elements actually have a more coherent vision for the future than they do. Latinos are not a one-issue monolith. Polling shows their views on key issues such as climate change, social welfare, and the minimum wage are out of line with GOP policy. Whites, meanwhile, still make up over 70 percent of voters. It’s entirely possible, likely even, that scaring enough white voters away from the Democrats to win a general election represents a more manageable task than moderating the Republican Party on almost every major issue. So while Santorum stands no better chance of becoming the next president than Graham does, his strategy of pitting working class whites against immigrants at least has the prospect of electoral success. Consciously or not, the Republican Party has decided to put it to the test.

Got that? The Republican Party has a choice between “scaring whites” or “moderating the Republican Party” (that is, moderating GOP policy positions in such a way that the most conservative whites still vote in large numbers; they don’t sit on their hands on election day).

At first glance, the “scaring whites” path looks far more likely to be a winning strategy for Republicans in 2016, but look again: the more you ramp-up white conservative energy, you also ramp-up white liberal energy (like mine). It may be that the Republican Party has reached its high water mark in getting the white vote with Mitt Romney in 2012 (70% and he still lost), and now it’s just a matter of gravity. Go further to the right, and more whites peel off than peel on.

There’s probably no escaping the fact that Republicans have to win more non-white votes than they did in 2012 to capture the presidency (or hope non-whites stay home on election day).

So this is also an interesting paragraph in Cohen’s essay:

What we are seeing now is more than just the usual dash to the right in the Republican primary. It is the end stages of a long fight for the soul of the party itself, the “tug of war,” as New Republic’s Brian Beutler has written, “between its own ego and its conservative id.” It may be tempting to dismiss Trump’s fearmongering (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”) or Bobby Jindal’s fascism (“immigration without assimilation is invasion”) as outlandish and politically untenable, but Santorum’s appeal to the anxieties of “workers” is in keeping with a demonstrated decades-long migration of white lower and lower-middle class voters to the Republican Party. Taken together, they are articulating a coherent strategy to win back political power, one predicated on the supposed threat that immigration poses to the security, cultural purity, and economic stability of white America.

Here’s Lindsey Graham in debate with Rick Santorum doing an especially good job summing up the Republican dilemma (worth watching to the end for his comment on Strom Thurmond):

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If You’re Religious, Do You Put Your Soul At Hazard By Watching Comedy Central?

Below are four pretty good reasons for thinking humor is dangerous to religious belief:

  • Humor is dangerous to any confident expression of metaphysics, for it lampoons pretense. It deflates and complicates; it speaks on behalf of the sorts of contending truths that religious metaphysics, in its seriousness and blinkered focus, tends to ignore, marginalize, and oversimplify.
  • Humor is a weapon of democracy and experience, not miracle, mystery, and authority. It notices the marginal individual in the concrete, not just the abstract; the individual as an evolved social animal; an actor in contingent history.
  • Humor is subversive in that it takes the vantage of the outsider. The fool, the child, the fast food worker, the black lesbian: in humor, the vantage of outsiders like these becomes the fresh measure of all things; the vantage from which religion, God, and power might be judged–and found wanting.
  • The emperor has no clothes! Humor is a form of critique that can be directed at any metaphysics that is in excess of sane measure and reality testing–which is what faith and religion amount to (bad epistemic practice). Comedians are spell-breakers on bad epistemic practices.

In short, humor is on the side of doubt and irony, not certainty and religious metaphysics. Beware Tim Minchin and Monty Python!


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I’m With The Crazy Kentucky Clerk

Imagine applying for a government job in which one among the many duties listed in the job description is to lead a group once weekly in the Pledge of Allegiance, and being told that, if you are an agnostic or atheist, you still have to say, “Under God.” If you refuse to do so, you will be provided no designee to discharge the activity, and will be fired if you persist in not carrying out this duty. I don’t think the answer you would give to the atheist or agnostic is, “Don’t like it? Apply for another job.” That would be an undue burden on the atheist’s or agnostic’s conscience.

Likewise with Kentucky clerk and fundamentalist Christian, Kim Davis. We liberals should not be forcing her conscience, and she was right to do a Thoreau and accept jail as an alternative to compliance.

Gay and lesbian marriage should not be a zero-sum game where gays and lesbians secure a human right and religious traditionalists have their own human rights eroded. The free exercise of conscience is a human right.

I think her reasons for opposing gay and lesbian marriage are ludicrous, and her fear of hell if she signs the license is idiotic, but when I see her, I think of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener (of “I prefer not to” fame), and say, “You are a nice reminder not to take shit from anybody. And though I don’t think your reasons for refusal are rational, I do recognize your gumption as a human being, and the heroism inherent in asserting your inner integrity. I understand what it means to feel one’s conscience violated.”

And empowering the state to put an undo burden on conscience means not learning from history (that state power easily metastasizes): “First they came for the fundamentalist Christians, but because I wasn’t a fundamentalist Christian…”

Kim Davis is thus right to stay in jail until the Kentucky legislature is shamed into passing a law that carves out protections for conscientious objection to gay and lesbian marriage for state employees–even as it also provides for legal designees without objections to process the marriage licenses of gay and lesbian couples.

Gays and lesbians aren’t going away, and neither are religious traditionalists. A win-win path to protected rights for all is available here, but partisan perches have to be surrendered to make that happen.

The clash in Kentucky over gay marriage licenses focuses attention on conflicts between law and religious belief that have echoed in legislatures and the nation’s courts.
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Franz Kafka On Reading Out Of One’s Comfort Zone

Below is a quote from Franz Kafka on the value of actively seeking out disconfirming evidence, counter-life perspectives, and counter-arguments contrary to your own beliefs, proclivities, and biases. A nice retort to the squeamish who won’t read books that “trigger” them out of their religious or political comfort zones (as recently happened when a Christian university student publicly declared that he wouldn’t read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, which was included on a university reading list of recommended books). Here’s Kafka:

Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, at a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.

Aggrieved students find books dangerous; neoliberal administrators say they’re useless. I’d take the former any day
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A Europeanized Republican Party: Is Donald Trump America’s Jean Le Pen?

The below quote startled me. It comes from a conservative writer who locates the signal in the noise as to what Donald Trump really means for American politics: the Europeanization of the Republican Party. In other words, Trump is riding an emerging wave of populist blood and soil nationalism before our very eyes, moving the party ever more explicitly toward white racial politics of the sort usually associated with the European right:

A classically liberal right is actually fairly uncommon in western democracies, requiring as it does a coalition that synthesizes populist tendencies and directs such frustrations toward the cause of limited government.

Put another way, a growing number of Republicans increasingly don’t want smaller government and free trade, but stronger protectionist government that is ever more heavily militarized and suspicious of the outside world–and led by a strong white man not deterred by moderating courts or legislatures (an American Putin; an American Mussolini).

Donald Trump could transform the Republican Party into a coalition focused on white identity politics. We’ve seen this in Europe, and it’s bad.
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