Review: The Short Life & Curious Death of Free Speech in America

In the review (attached below), I said I would deal with two issues that Ellis Cose touches on but does not elaborate. The two matters are: first, a principled way to draw a line between acceptable speech and unacceptable speech in a liberal, democratic, political order, and second, how to prevent or significantly reduce garbage speech (lies, propaganda, even if technically acceptable) automatically so that it does not overwhelm true speech without having armies of censors passing judgment on every post. I’ve written about both of these points elsewhere, but not here on the blog, so I will lay out the argument.  

First, a tolerant society (liberal democratic order) cannot remain stable if it tolerates intolerance. Put another way; it is illogical for a tolerant society to tolerate intolerance. Why? I begin with what a tolerant society would look like. In an entirely tolerant society, every social institution would accept every other institution, with no exceptions. This does not mean that every social group would agree with every other group. Still, disagreement is not permitted to rise to the level of intolerance of any group’s existence. Such a society would be stable. If any intolerant group arose, they and their speech would be immediately suppressed, and the group banned if for no other reason than that they are intolerant.

Now let us look at a quintessentially intolerant society. By definition, such a society cannot be a liberal democratic order. Intolerance inevitably, over the longer or shorter term, rises to the level of national power and suppresses all dissent. See below for why this is so. This society is also technically stable (though uncomfortable and potentially dangerous for dissenters) because the intolerant government can theoretically maintain its position indefinitely, having a monopoly on legal violence. Of course, there are other reasons why such a society might someday unravel, but not merely because those in power are intolerant. Nazi Germany provides a good example.

Finally, I offer modern America as an example of a mixed society. Mostly, historically a blended culture, we try to maintain civility and tolerance. We tolerate intolerance in the mistaken view that a “tolerant society” must do this. Intolerant groups arise from time to time, and over time, intolerance tends to win out politically over tolerance. Sometimes this happens quickly, and sometimes more slowly. America has survived attempts to bring down its liberal order, but we are now very close to losing it; the Supreme Court and Congress are controlled by persons representing fewer than a third of the adult population. 

Why does this happen? The reasons are straightforward. First, to the intolerant, ends always justify any means, while the tolerant must strive with means constrained by fairness. Second, in any radical transition in political power, the better-organized group always wins out. The Nazis and the Communists in Germany were both intolerant, but the Nazis were better organized. The same in Russia, where the Mensheviks (relative liberals), having overthrown the Czar, were overthrown six months later by the better organized Bolsheviks. The intolerant are [usually] better organized because they have only one agenda (their intolerance) around which to rally, while the tolerant must deal with competing programs. Contemporary America illustrates this in the unanimity of intolerant Congressional Republicans compared to the competing demands of various liberal and quasi-liberal Democrat constituencies.   

The second issue is how to filter junk (lies, propaganda) from quality material without having armies of censors on salary. Ninety years ago, Paul Otlet envisioned a global network of content consumers and creators. It was not the Internet it rested upon, but it did mimic something like the world-wide-web built on top of today’s underlying Internet architecture. Otlet’s insight concerning our issue here was this: while readers could remain anonymous, if content creators were allowed anonymity, or effectively so, one would have, well, what we have now, a global social media filled with lies. 

When the American government opened the Internet to commerce in the early 1990s, there was good reason to insist that every user who wishes to put something onto the net be verifiably who he or she claims to be. Social (in an online context) problems surfaced even before the net’s commercial debut. I wrote about them in the 1980s! It isn’t specifically the web or its underlying architecture that is the problem here, but the anonymity of content providers in any architecture.

That is all I’m going to say here. Other than missing these two points, the Ellis Cose book is an excellent read.

The Short Life & Curious Death of Free Speech in America by Ellis Cose 2020

An excellent review of the U.S. constitution’s first amendment, its motivation, limitations, problems, and how its interpretation has varied. No one should be surprised that things have changed. The free speech debate (not to mention religious freedom also mentioned in the amendment) is considerably different today than it was in the past when the U.S. government, in WWI, for example, banned any speech criticizing the war effort.

The book roughly falls into two parts or themes. In the first, Cose mainly covers literal speech and how the idea of permissible expression has changed since the writing of the first amendment down to today. Propaganda is covered here. The best counter to lies and misinformation is truthful, competing information, a mantra still believed by some. This idea, sensible at one time, is no longer valid in a world where false information reproduces itself many times more rapidly than truth. The issue turns back to the matter of what are acceptable expressions. When does a lie become a dangerous lie? Cose asks this question but never quite answers it. 

In his second theme, Cose turns from speech to the structure of our political institutions, which, as it so happens, are hardly respectful of the notion that voting is political expression and so metaphorical speech. The founding fathers compromised on institutions like the electoral college and the senate (never mind restrictions on suffrage) as well as more recent efforts to limit or dilute political expression by various voter-suppression, all-or-nothing electoral college rules, and gerrymandering schemes, not to mention “Citizens United” allowing corporations to sway elections through unlimited campaign donations. 

The founders thought (1) they were ensuring only the qualified become candidates, or for that matter, voters, and (2) that they blocked a “tyranny of the majority.” Instead, as things have turned out (and not all to the blame of the founders), we now have a system in which the worst can become candidates, and vicious minorities control political policy and debate. 

There is an answer to the question: where to draw the line in acceptable speech freedom, at least in general terms. Cose never quite states it, and it demands a little explanation. I will address the matter in my blog. Overall this is excellent coverage of both direct and indirect free speech issues, historically and concerning our present cultural and technological environment. 

Review: In the Shadows of the American Century by Alfred McCoy

One of the points of this book is that America’s imperial decline is largely of its own making. Even well-managed empires eventually crumble (the geopolitical, technological, and political conditions that bring the empire about inevitably change leaving the empire fragile). A well-managed American empire might easily have sustained its dominance beyond McCoy’s projected end in the 2030-40 timeframe. I think Dr. McCoy would agree with me here (though the world’s center of gravity would inevitably return to Afro-Euro-Asia, the center of the globe’s landmass). Except for climate change, America might have managed it all from its peripheral position (the North-American continent) for a couple of centuries (its native geographic resources being less expensive to access) if it hadn’t, instead, stupidly squandered them. My purpose in this addendum to my book review is to review a little of that squandering.

I make no criticism of McCoy’s analysis. Looking at it from a global viewpoint, America’s power is clearly on the decline. He is a little sanguine about China which has, it is true, already eclipsed America on several important metrics, but has fragilities of its own he does not explore. 

If America’s power peaked roughly from the end of WWII to the Vietnam war, it experienced a ghost peak in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. I say “ghost peak” because the objective of American foreign policy from WWII through to that collapse was that collapse! Of course, the Soviets and Americans could not but be competitors, but the singular obsession with destroying the Soviets (it’s beginning in the aftermath of WWII when Western intelligence agencies began employing ex-Nazis in large numbers as strategic advisors – see my review of Blowback by Christopher Simpson) though ultimately successful (at ridiculous cost) was unnecessary and counterproductive. 

The Soviets were never, at any time in their post-WWII history, desirous of or in a real (fiscal and otherwise) position to invade Western Europe, the ostensible justification for all the expense that went into dismantling their empire. There were analysts in America’s intelligence services who understood this, but their views and reports were suppressed by superiors who much preferred the views of the Nazis who lied precisely to whip up anti-Soviet (and anti-communist in general) hysteria. Meanwhile, even in a weaker position than the U.S. and Western Europe, the Soviets did help to keep a lid on terrorist activities throughout central Asia and in great part also the Middle East. 

If in the late 1970s and early 1980s we had let the Soviets dominate Afghanistan (both Carter and Reagan were so advised) there would, today, be no Al Qaida or ISIL, no attack on the World Trade Center, and so on. If you think the liberation of Eastern Europe was worth our bleeding the Soviets in Afghanistan (McCoy mentions Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s secretary of state, in this context) one has only to note that half of these liberated nations are slowly (so as not to jeopardize their EU funds) turning away from liberal democracy towards proto-fascism! Our first Afghan intervention may have helped precipitate the breakup of the Soviet Union, but it isn’t clear this has been a good thing for either the U.S. or the world. 

This is the first lesson American foreign policy experts (in particular intelligence operatives) never learned. Indigenous agents and partisans lie to their benefactors for their own purposes. These purposes are not usually aligned with American purposes (in fact they almost never are) other than on the single matter of defeating communists (or any socialists, American policy wonks have never learned to tell the difference) wherever they might appear. The failure to learn this lesson was in large part responsible for our subsequent involvement in Vietnam, Afghanistan (twice), Iraq (twice), Libya, and Syria. 

The second lesson is even more stark. In a civil-war environment (Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq (the last two the second time around), no matter how well trained or equipped by the Americans, once U.S. forces pull out the more fanatically nationalistic (or religious) side will always quickly sweep our side away. The Korean war was fought to a standstill because American troops remained to the end, and are still there. In Vietnam, we left behind us a well-trained and equipped South Vietnamese army, but the Vietcong and North Vietnamese fought with patriotic fervor while the South’s soldiers fought for a visibly corrupt government. In 1975 the North Vietnamese made the same offer to the South’s soldiers that, thirty-five years later, ISIL made in Iraq, and ten years after that the Taliban made to soldiers fighting for the Kabul government: stand down and we’ll let you live. They all stood down.

President Biden was around (he’s older than me by fifteen years and I was around) to understand this lesson. But quite obviously (as concerns Afghanistan) he didn’t learn it. Why am I not a highly paid policy wonk? I am obviously more qualified than those who have held such positions since the late 1970s! 

Nowhere was American stupidity (a result of cultural ignorance and chutzpa) more obvious than in Vietnam and Cuba. If the election of 1954 (which Eisenhower blocked) had unified Vietnam under the Communist North’s government, they would have happily been aligned (by trade) with us in a few short years (we are culturally blind to the fact that not all Communists are alike. The Vietnamese have been at odds with China for a thousand years). We threw them at China, and yet now, after all that blood and treasure, we are happily working with them notwithstanding they are still Communist. 

In Cuba, Castro overthrew one of the most corrupt governments in the world at the time. Castro was not a Communist but a socialist (as noted above, Americans have never learned to tell the difference). He offered a fair price for the American-owned private companies he nationalized  (based on their own tax-motivated under-reported valuations) and offered to do business with us. Eisenhower and later Kennedy spent years pillaging and murdering, employing known criminals (literally organized crime) and terrorist partisans in Cuba literally throwing Castro at the Soviets. The world’s greatest superpower has ever since (except for a brief moment under Obama) carried on with what the Economist called a “sixty-year tantrum.”

Besides costly overt and covert military and paramilitary adventures (McCoy goes to great length about these), America has wasted its power in ways directly political and economic. Before globalization, America’s power rested on a high-capacity and versatile industrial base paying its workers a living wage. By the late 1970s, the power elite (a congress captured by the very rich) realized that fostering “global free trade” would produce a much larger world economy and about this they were correct. But you cannot “free trade” with nations whose labor costs are much lower than yours without hollowing out your own industry throwing tens of thousands out of work leaving only the wealthy elite in a position to benefit from the expanding global economy. This might not have gone so badly if the elite were properly taxed to subsidize the higher wages of a domestic industrial base. Of course, this did not happen given a congress captive to their interests alone. 

McCoy details many more bad foreign and domestic policy decisions serving to weaken the American Empire even before its time. Most of them (the foreign ones at least) in one way or another come down to American cultural ignorance, the naive belief that if a people want to get rid of a particular government, they must want liberal democracy in its place. I wonder if any other empire in Earth’s history ever rose to its peak while remaining so ignorant of its client’s cultures?  

In the Shadows of the American Century by Alfred McCoy (2017)

This is the first book in my geopolitical musings to “tell it like it is” concerning the doings of America in the geopolitical arena and places us firmly in the position of a declining empire. It is also the first book I’ve read that adds climate change to the list of external forces precipitating not only America’s decline but the rest of the world along with it. Indeed, besides myself, Dr. McCoy is the first author I’ve read who points out that the American collapse might first be economic; mitigation of environmental disaster will be unsustainable.

Dr. McCoy begins by reviewing what other empires looked like in their decline. Turning to America, he points out that we exhibit every single one of those characteristics. Historically, such declines can be seen from the viewpoint of the imperial center or in the way that client states (allies or otherwise) respond. In America’s case, all the signs are visible on both sides from increased repression at home to break-ups in long-established international alliances.

This is a nuanced look at the global situation. McCoy notes for example that America differed from other empires in that it attempted to bolster the economies and political inclusiveness of client states rather than merely exploiting them for resources. This was not done out of altruism, but rather the American empire (and the world in our time) is trade-dependent in ways prior empires never were. America’s client states increased American power by buying from (and not only selling to) America. Such an empire could only succeed if the center helped to enrich the periphery.

Alas, given much of what America has done in the world since the late 1950s (one might say beginning with Vietnam and Cuba, and never learning lessons since) has not only seen our advantages eroding but literally being thrown away (I will have more to say about this in a blog article). The amazing thing is that American hegemony (culturally if not always militarily) has taken this long to dissolve and is not yet entirely gone. China, by contrast (on which McCoy focuses as the present major player with an expanding empire), has already eclipsed America in many fields, with more to come. My only quibble with McCoy is here. China has its own kind of fragility, different from America’s, but surely inhibiting its imperial aspirations. McCoy doesn’t address these matters.

I’ll end this review by returning once more to the matter of climate change. McCoy focuses on America here, while noting some of the impacts rising temperatures (violent weather, rising seas, droughts, large-scale refugee migrations, and so on) will have on other parts of the world. But in this context, he also does not mention China whose coastal cities are subject to rising seas while its interior must suffer from all the same sorts of problems experienced in the United States. China will probably grow the world’s single biggest economy in a couple of years, but it is also a much bigger territory with far more people to feed. Mitigating climate disasters cannot be less of a drag on the Chinese economy than it is (and will become) in the United States.

In summary, a well-researched (the endnotes occupy 50% of the book) and well-written examination of the American empire. The signs of decline are everywhere. Future details cannot be known, but the general trends are unmistakable.

Book Review: Blowback by Christopher Simpson

“An intelligence agency that relies on indigenous people for military, economic, or political intelligence, will hear what those agents think will get them the most money and material support, not the facts of the situation.”

Matthew Rapaport: Student of history

That prescient assertion is the essence of the doings of spies in general. Of course, the book is about the post-world war II allied use of German Nazis and East European Nazi collaborators as spies, provocateurs, and propagandists, the latter inside the United States! My short commentary will draw attention to two more general points.

The second world war was, so far, the largest, longest-lasting, and most insidious example of this practice, but American intelligence agencies repeated the mistake in Cuba (years of terrorist action by mobsters supported by Eisenhower and Kennedy), Vietnam, Nicaragua, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan (supporting the Mujahadin, and later against the Taliban), the second invasion of Iraq, Syria, and Libya! Korea, in 1950, is the only example I can think of where American forces were attacked unprovoked! In every other case, American policy was largely informed by the misreporting (lies) of indigenous agents! Will they never learn?

There is another lesson here, that being “the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend”. Nowhere is this more obvious than it has been in Afganistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. In most of our conflicts (against Communism or otherwise), where America ostensibly achieved its objectives, the resulting governments have hardly been democratic. All of the countries of Central Asia remain autocratic thirty years after the break up of the Soviet Union — not to mention Russia itself. In Eastern Europe, Ukraine is the sole exception. Following the Soviet collapse, Central European nations did set up democratic political institutions as they rushed to embrace the European Union. Yet, after only a few decades, the governments of Poland, Hungary, and Romania, are devolving into more autocratic forms.  

Simpson covers both of these issues as they pertain to the use of Nazi agents after WWII. The lessons [should] apply more generally. The review (below) says all the rest! 

Blowback by Christopher Simpson 1988

Blowback is a history book. Recent history, relatively speaking, World War II and its aftermath, up to the middle of the Reagan administration in the 1980s. At the conclusion of WWII the allies ostensibly made a systematic attempt to find, arrest, and prosecute Nazis for war crimes. This was to be a shared responsibility of all the European allies in both Western and Eastern Europe. But the Western allies, mostly the U.S., Britain, and France were suspicious of Future Soviet intentions, while the Soviets were equally suspicious of ours. 

How were the various allied intelligence agencies (on both sides) to deal with this? The answer, through spies! But creating a spy network from scratch takes many years. In the case of post WWII Europe, there was a ready-made cadre of experts on the disposition of Soviet forces, railroads, factories, and all manner of infrastructure, not to mention Soviet political intentions, namely the German senior intelligence officers operating on the eastern (Soviet) front. These men however, were not only Nazi party members (some since the late 1920s), but also, among them, the architects of the slaughter of millions of Western and Eastern European Jews, and just about anyone else who was not, in the German occupied territories, sufficiently (in their arbitrary view) anti-Communist! 

The bulk of Simpson’s book is about the employment of these men by the intelligence agencies of the U.S.: NSA and the nascent CIA, but even before them the OSS and other agencies operating in Europe at the end of the war (the British and French employed these people also, but while mentioning them, Simpson is focused entirely on the U.S.). Besides Nazi intelligence officers, the Russian and other Slavic defectors (Ukrainians, Belorussians, and many others) fled to Western Europe or hid in the East as the Soviet army pushed the Germans back. These traitors (to the USSR) were (we argued) sources of valuable intelligence (many had personally participated in the torture and murder of men, women, and children, who were not sufficiently anti-Communist), they also served (they claimed) as command and control of partisan forces in their territories who were ready to rise up against the Soviets if only they could get enough arms and other support needed to do that job. The Americans were only too happy to provide it to the tune of tens and then hundreds of millions – what would be tens of billions today!

Simpson’s history is filled with shocking revelations. Everyone knows we imported German rocket engineers in the mid-1940s, but most do not know that the man who administered the entire Saturn-V rocket program that put Americans on the moon was the Nazi administrator of factories making German rockets with slave labor, many of whom were literally starved to death! Reveals like this pepper Simpson’s book. 

All of these machinations have had consequences down through the decades. Why did the Americans do this? The excuse was that in 1945-46 we were about to go to war with the Soviet Union. The Nazi operatives we employed were telling us the Soviets were within months of rolling their tanks into Western Europe. They would know right? That’s why we employed them! None of it was true. These agents and assets were all lying to their American handlers for the sake of getting more money, equipment, and world attention! Moreover, none of the forward operational plans the Americans had for these people ever came to fruition, because there were also Nazis who defected to the Soviets and these men, thanks to their comradery with their old buddies working for the other side, had penetrated every such organization! 

There were American intelligence analysts who reported (correctly) that the Soviets were exhausted, economically broken, and had no intention of invading Western Europe. These analysts were systematically marginalized and eventually driven to quit by their superiors who preferred to listen to Nazis.  

Simpson identifies six distinct types of blowback stemming from our employment of Nazis. Worst of all, the pathological anti-Communism that informed U.S. policy from WWII to 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed, the billions of dollars wasted, the politics that brought us close to nuclear war, was all based on lies! 

To put it bluntly, American foreign policy was Nazified from two directions with the blessing and financial aid of America’s intelligence agencies, and often the approbation of congress! First, every president from Truman through the elder Bush received advice and briefings heavily influenced by Nazis in the direct employ of U.S. intelligence agencies. Second, the CIA (in particular) funded organizations employing thousands of East European Nazi collaborators as propagandists in the Eastern European and Russian diasporas in the U.S. (millions of people) in a largely successful effort to direct votes into the most virulently available anti-Communist foreign policy. Some of these people were among the most recognizable essayists, editorialists, book authors, and speech-makers of the 1950s and 60s in America!

Historians of the post WWII period should not miss this book!

Review: Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse by Timothy Carney

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I have read a few books now that touch on the subjects mentioned here. “Consumed” (Ben Barber) is about the corporate and technological contribution to our fraying social fabric. “The Once and Future Liberal” (Mark Lilla) is about (one might say) the Left’s contribution to alienation. “The Second Civil War” (Ronald Brownstein) talks about the “great sorting” taking place in American demographics, a phenomenon that began in the 1970s and has by now almost fully crystallized. In that book (as noted in my review), Brownstein tells us what happened but not why. One might say the point of “Alienated America” is to answer that question.

Alienated could be the centerpiece of this collection. Its author sets out to discover why Donald Trump won the Republican nomination. I can find no fault with his analysis. It is both extensively researched and subtle. Carney carefully identifies and disentangles every factor he can (he discusses many) while sedulously maintaining a neutral stance in two senses. First he does not judge these people other than to note that some (not all) of them are fundamentally racist. Second, he is careful to point out (many times) that even all the factors taken together do not explain everything. They do not, for example, explain individual exceptions (both pro and anti-Trump) found everywhere. 

His conclusions concerning the importance of the church as a third-place institution in those communities where social cohesion is strong, and alienation is low is well argued and perhaps the most insightful aspect of his analysis. Money, which seems always coupled with education, is the only alternative (sometimes both are present) primary driver. Carney enumerates many interlocking formal and informal institutions (a monthly book club or weekly stick-ball game count for example), but all of them end up resting either on money or the church, the individual instution in a physical place, of whatever denomination that happens to be. Carney isn’t being theological here though he notes the teachings of the world’s great religions always point to both community strength and inclusiveness. He also knows the more fundamental reason for this social centrality is history. Churches: individual parishes, congregations, ashrams, mosques, have been performing this role, sometimes with more and sometimes less political authority, for a thousand years! 

From what I can see from my interaction with the academic elite, this recognition, an active church’s positive role on community cohesion, is the book’s fundamental insight. Even so Carney is sedulously fair, recognizing that there are possible negative phases to this cohesion. Some congregations are exclusionary. Carney clearly believes this, where it happens, is not in the proper spirit of Christianity or any other world religion.    

Carney never really addresses alienation on the left.  I understand why his focus was on the primaries. His interest is Trump’s core, the people who voted for Trump when they could have voted for Cruz, Rubio, or Kasich. But surely this applies also to the left’s vote, in the primaries, for Sanders. There must be an alienated left. They are a part of “Alienated America” also.

Carney waves off the non-alienated vote for Trump in the general election with a “who else would republicans vote for? Hilary?” This is a cheap shot for a couple of reasons. It utterly ignores the question of alienated Democrats . Presumably, in the primaries, most of these folks voted for Sanders. Surely alienated Democrats exist, or have they all declared themselves Independent? Are their reason’s for alienation different than those of early Trump supporters? Does their preference for centralization (the left) as Carney puts it stem from differences in the conditions of their alienation? Carney says the alienated right say they are religious, but do not seem, to attend church. I suppose (but do not know) the left would deny being religious altogether. As goes being alienated, this might be the only significant difference between them. Carney doesn’t talk about it.

His wave off here is disappointing for another reason. While I get his focus was the alienated right, this being my blog, I want to note also the hypocrisy of the non-alienated Republicans who did not vote for Trump in the primaries. These people, remember, have functioning churches! 

What would happen if the situation were reversed? What if Donald Trump ran as a Democrat? Would I have voted for him in my State’s primary? No, I would have voted for Clinton or Sanders (as I did). What about the general election? I would have three choices: vote for Trump, don’t vote at all (handing Trump the win: what [alienated] Democrats and Independents who didn’t like Hilary did in those States Trump needed for an Electoral college win), or vote for the Republican nominee. I would have chosen the third option. If my critics say that I have the benefit of hindsight (being 2021, not 2018), I am on record in mid-2016 noting that any of the other Republican nominees would be preferable to Trump! Well-educated (elite) Republicans might have preferred a Romney or Kasich. Still, in the end, knowing (how could an educated person not know by October 2016 that Trump was a habitual liar) what Trump was, they helped to put him in power anyway. Elite Republicans were knowingly complicit in electing a con artist. 

We know that there are both left and right-wing conspiracy theorists. The alienated left’s hatred of Clinton was (and remains) as irrational as the right’s (alienated or otherwise) belief that Trump meant anything he said other than those matters connected to racism and xenophobia. If the alienated right is inherently racist, so, apparently, are the non-alienated elite! Electing a xenophobic mad man, compared to a steady, if ideologically disagreeable (Clinton), hand on the tiller of state was important to both the alienated and the non-alienated right alike! As it turns out Carney fails to draw a lesson (I know, not his purpose): disaffection on the right is the greater political power than that of the left (or Sanders would have won the Democratic nomination). To this is added the hypocrisy of the Republican elite. What gave us Trump the nominee was alienation on the right. What gave us Trump the President was the hypocrisy of the Republican elite! In the national election, the Republican elite could have chosen, as did the alienated left, not to vote at all. Instead, these non-alienated communities, suffused with so much money or religion, chose an irreligious narcissistic xenophobe; an Anti-Christ-type if ever there was one! Carney admits that Christians do not always act Christianly.

I’ll end my diatribe here. A good book still! 

Alienated America by Timothy Carney 2019

This book is about what happens when “third places” disappear from geographic communities. Mostly that part of the subject is political, not in the narrow sense of elections and political parties, but in the broadest sense of “the polis” or the people taken not merely as individuals but also in social institutions, formal (unions, rotary clubs, local civic events, the PTA, and especially churches) or informal (the corner diner, bowling leagues, book clubs, school or culturally-related events, even bars). “The family” (as in married, with children – no not the tv comedy) is intrinsically involved here. Where third-place options exist, families tend to be stronger and stronger families lend more support to their local third places. When these things disappear, people become more isolated and more alienated in the way Carney means. 

The book is also about why these places disappear. Carney explores dozens of reasons from the economic (nothing simplistic here, there are many forms of economic impact on third places) and educational to the psychological, from centralization (the tendency of government at all levels to take control and regulate) to hyper-individualism (the notion that I have only to look out for my interests). As it turns out (not surprising), all the factors reinforce one another. Sometimes, there is a domino effect even when money (a factory closing) is not the first support to disappear. Carney points out that American suburbs are designed with cars in mind.  People in the spread-out suburbs make fewer social connections (there is no local pub within walking distance) than those who live in older, more dense, communities.

Interestingly, this book could have been written at any time in the last twenty years. The socially fraying places Carney describes were well in evidence by then. But writing in 2018, Carney had to hand a phenomenon that gave his statistics and arguments a laser focus, Donald Trump’s presidency, and this is politics in the narrow sense. The story here is rightly wrapped around those who voted for Trump, not in the national election, but in the primaries where they might have voted for Cruz, Rubio, or Kasich! By evaluating those who first voted for Trump, often people who never voted before, Carney discovers that this group quintessentially embodies every (or almost every) socially alienating environmental factor (remember these are of many different sorts) enumerated. The big problem here is that modern life, including technology, the dominance of large corporations, changes in the nature of work, regulatory expansion (all discussed by Carney), are, by in large, making the problem worse. The population of the alienated in the United States is expanding!

Carney acknowledges there may be good reasons (particularly as concerns increased centralization of government power at all levels) for some of what has proven corrosive to third places. Unemployment, food stamps, and Social Security were not set up because the States or Federal government wanted to administer entitlements, but because the third places (churches, neighbors, locally organized food banks) were not keeping up with the local need. Counties do not forbid the organized giving-away of cooked food, in the absence of proper health certificates, to the poor because they want the poor to starve. They outlaw it because somewhere, someone got food poisoning and sued the city for not regulating it (interestingly, one symptom of alienation Carney does not investigate is the American reliance on the judiciary to settle every problem)! 

Carney does not get into these countervailing matters in any detail, but that is not his mission. While mentioning these things, he takes care not to justify or condemn any particular policy of centralizing authority, but only to investigate the connection between policy and the weakening or disappearance of the third place. If a church or rotary club cannot give away food, people who volunteer to work those giveaways are shorn of an opportunity to serve their community. Some purpose is subtracted from their life, and that is alienating! To be sure, one rule does not an alienated community make. Receiving State unemployment insurance does not by itself alienate a person. But the combination of many third places gradually disappearing from a community over time erodes the polis of the whole place. It is these places, often fraying socially for decades, where Trump’s core voters reside. 

None of the corrosive factors discussed have been removed from the American scene. All of them are present and growing stronger in the American political environment. These factors also overlay communities where the polis is strong. Carney explores these also. As one might expect, the combination of money, education or religion, and intact families makes all the difference. As corroding factors reinforce one another negatively, the factors that make for a strong social environment are positively reinforcing in those places where they exist. The Republicans in these communities did not vote for Trump in the primaries.

As he winds up his investigation, Carney discovers the two single factors that most underpin, non-alienated communities, are money (lots of it), or vibrant religious communities with houses of worship that do more than hold services. He looks at Christian churches of many denominations, Mormon temples, mosques, and synagogs. More money, or more [attended] churches, correlates to more intact families, better-socialized adults and children, more social involvement, and much less alienation. 

Carney acknowledges he is a conservative and not a Trump fan. But he is eminently fair to all political sides. There is really nothing to disagree with here. His research is impeccable, his writing clear. He maintains his awareness that no socially rich (not necessarily in dollars) community is perfect, and even the most alienated communities have some social interaction. If 60% of Republicans in a community voted for Trump in the primaries, that means 40% didn’t. No one factor explains everything anywhere. Yet his conservatism does cause him to dismiss certain issues (like educated Republicans voting Trump in the general election) that deserve comment. I will address some of these in my blog.

Review: We have been Harmonized

I’m putting this review on the blog not because there are dangling philosophical issues here, but because this book is so direct and exhaustive about its two most important themes:

  1. China is not a State with a party. The party is the State, and increasingly since 2012 and absolutely since 2018 Xi Jinping has become, like Mao before him and Stalin in the Soviet days, the chairman of the party for life.
  2. China, under Xi is embarking on a serious attempt (using everything modern technology can provide) to build the ultimate surveillance State! Further, there is nothing unrealistic about this effort. They are mostly there. 

We Have Been Harmonized by Kai Strittmatter

This book is geopolitical in scope and theme. It is a warning to everyone but particularly the West concerning China’s international intentions and its present and future capacity to get what it wants. It is also about the West’s abetting China’s goals politically and especially economically. But make no mistake, China is not only a people and industrial power, a State with a government. The Chinese Communist Party and the State are synonymous, and since 2013, the CCP is more and more synonymous with the will of Xi Jinping. 

As long as it is, this book is direct and to the point. Dr. Strittmatter does not spend chapters on Chinese history, alluding to it only where parallels pertain or narrative becomes part of the modern problem. There is enough reference to the period since 1949, and especially the cultural revolution (1966-1976) to bring a sense of what the Chinese people have been put through for the last three generations.

Following an unusual period of intellectual openness in the 2000s, China is, since 2013, constructing a now well-on-the-way-to-completion, ultimate surveillance State. Not only are AI-driven systems watching everyone from the outside, but citizens are being made to carry apps on their phones tracking everything from travel to conversation. It isn’t possible even to opt-out because doing so in itself brands you as an enemy of China and blocks you from any travel, jobs, apartments, and so on. Nor does complying with authorities guarantee your good standing. You will be docked social credit points if you do or say something you should not. If this isn’t bad enough, what counts as good or bad behavior or speech is at the daily whim of the CCP and Xi in particular.

Strittmatter cites many examples and drills the multi-faceted nature of the CCP program home. If the system isn’t quite finished (it is not), it soon will be. But this isn’t the end of the story. The Chinese are doing their very best to extend this ability overseas! Chinese citizens must travel with these apps and connect them to foreign Internets tracking them anywhere on Earth. When the Trump administration tried to ban certain Chinese-centered payment apps there was a huge outcry! Part of this came from Americans who now use those same apps, but a good measure was Chinese-sponsored propaganda. If the apps were blocked, the CCP would lose its best foreign surveillance asset! 

So far, in many instances, foreign governments and corporations have backed off when China cries foul.  The core motive is dollars flowing from China into NGOs on foreign soil and into the coffers of the world’s largest corporations (other autocratic governments can be paid directly). Unlike Russia, the Chinese, particularly the CCP which commands more capital than any other single entity in the world, is rich enough to buy much of what they want, including good press, and Western corporations are only too happy to sell it to them. 

“We Have Been Harmonized” is about all of this and more. Strittmatter delves into the effect this is having on the psychology of the Chinese people. He hopes, of course, that this will not go on for very long, but he does not see any end to it. There is nothing to suggest the CCP will not ultimately succeed within China. He is not so hopeful about the world outside of China either. Democracy is under assault everywhere. Even where not Chinese-influenced, the present internal struggles, political polarization, and populism play into CCP hands, some greased by the money China is throwing around. Everyone working in Western executive and legislative institutions should read this book!

Book Review: Water

This review is not on the blog because of dangling philosophical issues, but to add to a series. “The Uninhabitable Earth”, “The Geography of Risk”, and now “Water”, each in their way tell us (boldly or in hints) about what is about to befall the Earth in the next 20-50 years and beyond. 

Oddly, for me, this all began with Slavoj Zizek’s “The Courage of Hopelessness”. In commenting on that book I pointed out that economic exhaustion precipitated by climate change mitigation will collapse the present capitalist world order long before the left ever has a chance to make a substantial impact. I then stumbled on these other books, reviews and Amazon links all given above. 

Water by Steven Solomon (2011)

A long book methodically drilling down into an important subject. Of all Earth’s resources, air and water are the two most necessary to sustain life, and of the two only water exists in three phases, gas, liquid, and solid, on in and above the surface. There have been other books covering the history of water (particularly freshwater) use since antiquity. Solomon goes the extra mile and looks at water from more than the usual angles. Learning to sail the oceans is a part of the water story as are the world’s inter-continental canals (Suez and Panama) and oceanic choke-points (straights like Hormuz and Malacca) and also the story of the steam engine. He also notes that food is “virtual water”. Not only is water a consumable input in growing crops, but is also a component of the many steps needed to bring the crop to the table. 

Solomon begins with a review of the freshwater situation on Earth and then visits every historical civilization digging into their history of freshwater management. A general cycle is visible everywhere. A civilization arises when its region’s water resources (including bordering seas if any)  are successfully tapped to yield increased food, strategic trade or military advantage, or lower cost, usually all three in one mix or another. Successful water management results in population growth and territorial expansion until the population reaches the limits of its technology’s ability to maintain and expand its water management. Politics plays a role. Even where technology and knowledge exist, a society may become unwilling, politically, to do what is necessary to manage a degrading water system. As water management declines, so does the civilization, and this is so even where the needed water still exists. In the modern age, existing water, at least freshwater, is being increasingly used up or evaporating away as ancient glacial stores melt.

The real problem of course is not exactly water but population. Solomon notes but does not comment on this, rather treating it as an inevitable background to the whole story. On the one hand, an expanding population needs more water, but it also increasingly pollutes and otherwise abuses the freshwater still to be had.  

Having reviewed water history around the world all the way up to the end of the 20th Century, Solomon goes into the modern challenge. He revisits each of the world’s regions and summarizes their present and near future water challenges. Climate change is re-arranging the freshwater balance around the world. Some places become much drier, and others much wetter. Winter snows melt earlier in the season, and summer heat more quickly evaporates stored water. Mitigating water-related disasters, whether larger fires in dry places or bigger, longer-lasting floods in wetter ones, are consuming a larger percentage of the world’s resources. Technological and political success managing these changes is key to the survivability of each nation, and the world collectively. There is no guarantee of success and in fact, the present trajectory does not bode well for anyone.

Book Review: The Know-it-all Society: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture

As noted in the review (included below), Lynch raises the question of intolerance in a tolerant society, but he does not answer it. “Must we listen to Nazis”, or must a tolerant society tolerate a social group (Nazis are not the only intolerant group in the western world, but they are a quintessential example of intolerance) who are intolerant? If the answer happens to be no, a related question is what sort of behavior constitutes intolerance that need not be tolerated?

North America, Europe, and associated “western nations” and India are presently the world’s more “tolerant societies”. These societies, taken as political entities, are beset by problems arising from the conflict between tolerance and intolerance, the mistaken belief that a tolerant society must tolerate intolerance. 

An ideal tolerant society would be one in which every social group and every political alignment is committed to a tolerance of every other group, not merely in principle but in practice, the group’s declarations, documents, political appeals, and so on. The people of a tolerant society need not agree with one another intellectually, need not have the same ideas of what constitutes a good or better society. They have the right to vote for their views and, if their numbers are sufficient, dominate the society’s political process. Permitable differences include income disparity, at least to the point where it becomes effectively intolerant by precluding those on the downside from acquiring resources needed to continue their [tolerant] activities. The tolerant collective cannot advocate for advantage that precludes the same right to support whatever social, political, or economic policy any other group happens to hold, provided only that they are likewise tolerant. 

Since, in our ideal tolerant society, every other tolerant group must be tolerated, there cannot develop any motive to cheat on the political process because the rule of tolerance, everyone must have the same opportunity for social and political expression, would preclude it. No group could justify its social or political ends on grounds that other [tolerant] groups have no right to their expression. Intolerant means never yield tolerant ends except in the single case of ridding society of intolerance. In that one case, tolerant means cannot work because the intolerant will always refuse to accede to the tolerant. Refusal on the part of a tolerant society to rid themselves of intolerant groups is the source of the intolerant group’s political advantage. More on this below.

Obviously, in such a society, there could be no Nazis for the simple reason that what makes a Nazi a Nazi (speaking of the collective) is not their economic theories, but their intolerance of certain groups, notably Jews, people of color, homosexuals, and so on. In the end, their intolerance becomes intolerance of every other group that disagrees with them on any subject. 

By intolerance (on the Nazi part) here, I speak of the target group’s illegitimacy in the views of the intolerant group. The target group (or groups) have, in the eyes of the Nazis, no right to suffrage of any kind, even to the point (ultimately) of their right to exist, not merely as a social or political entity, but as individuals! Intolerance of this sort ends up asserting an “end justifies the means” social (and so political) attitude. If the target group does not even have the right to exist, the Nazi has no problem breaking with the “rules of tolerance” up to and including taking life. 

An intolerant social or political group can only be comprised of intolerant individuals. That intolerant individuals might exist in an otherwise tolerant society cannot be ruled out. So long as intolerance is confined to them personally by criminalizing intolerant behavior (for example, hate crimes) and forbidding them to form collectives with any political or social voice the tolerant society survives. Groups of intolerant individuals might come together to express their mutual intolerance, but no such group can apply to be a political party or formal social group having any recognized political legitimacy, special tax status, or what have you.

When a tolerant society signals an intolerant group’s acceptance (socially or politically) by granting it political legitimacy, a certain inevitable, historically documented dynamic begins. The intolerant group has an inherent political advantage. Since, for the intolerant, the ends justify the means, they are free to cheat while those who are tolerant are not. Though it may take some time, the intolerant gain advantage, politically and economically, because their intolerance is [mistakenly] protected by the tolerant. This brings more people into the group (they sense an economic or political advantage in belonging) giving it even greater political influence. The cycle is self-reinforcing. The intolerant group eventually grows to overwhelm the formerly tolerant society. 

This is why the answer to the original question: must we listen to Nazis, is no! Tolerating intolerance, possibly defensible on some theoretical grounds, is illogical because the intolerant are intrinsically corrosive to any society that tolerates them. Intolerance, like cancer, is inevitably destructive of the body that harbors it. It is not logical to do anything but struggle to root it out. 

This commentary is already long enough, but I would briefly address the second question only implicitly covered in the above discussion: what counts as legitimately disallowed intolerance? Suppose I am the publisher of an astronomy magazine. Must I allow the publication of an article arguing that the earth is flat and at the center of the universe? If I sponsor a conference of astronomers, must I allow the flat-earther an official voice with a formal presentation? Must I allow her to attend the conference at all? 

To all but the last question, the answer is no. As noted above, the issue is political and social intolerance, not intellectual disagreement. In my view, intolerance of intellectual viewpoints (“your ideas are idiotic”), even ad hominem (“you are an idiot”) do not automatically count as intolerance of the disallowed sort. My position as conference sponsor allows me to reject papers and speakers whose intellectual views clash strongly with my own. I am not denying this person a political or social voice or within her social group, nor social interaction with my group.

Forbidding her even to attend my conference might amount to disallowed intolerance provided she has not proven to be a disruptive influence at past conferences; this because a conference is a social as well as an intellectual event. To avoid unrealistic restrictions on human psychology, the tolerance demanded of every social and political organization is limited to the right of each organization as such to exist legitimately in the eyes of every other organization. The association of astronomers is not intolerant of the flat-earth society politically or socially, only intellectually. 

We might go on to examine a more complex and perhaps realistic case. Must the flat-earther be permitted to teach astronomy or earth science in a public school? Imagine she is otherwise qualified by having the appropriate teaching certificate. What complicates this example is the public nature of the school (supported by taxes on the community of all social groups in its district) coupled with the curriculum approved (presumably) by that community. I leave this example as an exercise for the reader. 

Review Know-it-all society by Michael Lynch (2019)

Another book about the polarization of American politics, this time, the viewpoint of individual and social psychology. Lynch makes some excellent general points about extreme polarization and unwillingness to listen to other views poisoning American politics. He well describes the harm this does to democratic polities in general and the U.S. in particular. There is nothing new in this. There have been other periods of extreme polarization in American politics, but not like this one since before the Civil War.

Among the new features, this time around, the Internet and the sheer scale of many modern corporations contribute to the problem. The Internet market is filled with people who actively seek to limit their exposure to ideas running counter to their own. Providing individuals tools to build these barriers to alternatives  (the same tools can explore alternate viewpoints) is just good business. Individuals, of their own free will, choose to use them to limit perspectives to which they are exposed. 

The Internet is but one facet of this problem of know-it-all arrogance infecting polities all over the world. Still, the pain is both acute and different in the U.S. and Europe because these are among the few places in the world (Australia, Japan, among others) where political and ideological alternatives are not criminalized. Lynch lays out the problem and its consequences both for the health of society and “the truth,” which he points out, is always out there even if not directly accessible or utterly denied by postmodern critics.

While the book is good in general terms, Lynch elides specific problems. He asks at one point, “must we listen to Nazis?” In other words, must a tolerant society tolerate intolerance? He asks the question but never really answers other than to point out that opinion on this goes both ways. 

If this is not a great book, it is a good one and another solid addition to the literature about dangerous sickness in Western cultures.

Review: The Great Debate on the Scale of Orvonton by Tom Allen

Whatever one believes about The Urantia Book, there is plenty of serendipity in the universe. Literally on the day I published “Problems with the Cosmology and Astronomy of The Urantia Book”, I received a link to Tom Allen’s “The Great Debate on the Scale of Orvonton”, one of the issues I discuss in my essay. Mr. Allen does this issue far more justice than do I. For example, he suggests that some of the confusion over The Urantia Book’s terminological usage stems from its describing two different Orvontons: today’s partly finished one, and the future finished version. This is an excellent point that I missed. The time factor, destiny, does help to interpret what The Urantia Book says about this matter. It does not, however, completely clear up the problem.

I have no quarrel with the content of Mr. Allen’s book. He does miss a few things when evaluating Urantia Book claims against modern cosmology (he has republished the book three times, last in 2020, to accommodate just such advances). Type-1A supernova overlap with and supplement the Cepheid variable “standard candle” and have now for some thirty years, but they are not mentioned.  It can be argued that what the papers call the Grand Universe is more substantially complete than he thinks [21:1.4]. His argument, that the universe does not look (to modern astronomy) like the papers describe because we are very early in its history can be challenged. He does mention the big bang, but only to dismiss it as one of many mistaken cosmological theories soon to be discarded as have others in the past. I believe this is unfair. Allen fails to accommodate an enormous expansion, since 2000, of evidence in support of the big bang, though to be clear, the Orvonton debate and the origin of the universe issue are not directly connected. 

Mr. Allen states his bias explicitly (as a good philosopher should) on page 8 where he says: “I crave philosophically to understand what the Urantia papers say about the cosmology, cosmogony, and cosmography of the universe. I am curious how current astronomy along with early 20th Century history validates or confuses revelatory articulation.” The revelatory status of The Urantia Book over-all is assumed. While the papers do state that the cosmology presented is not inspired, it is assumed to mean something, to represent some truth-fact  about the universe’s organization. If what Mr. Allen calls “surface errors” in The Urantia Book’s assertions are in conflict with modern astronomy, our job is to puzzle out what the book is really trying to tell us.

I do not make this assumption. Cosmology and astronomy have made longer leaps since 1965 than they did throughout all of human history prior to that year, including the development of powerful telescopes (optical and radio) in the first half of the 20th Century when the papers were written. Throughout human history down to roughly 2000 all astronomy was electromagnetic (including the discovery of the CMB), light of one wavelength or another. Only since that date have two non-electromagnetic means of sensing the cosmos come into existence, neutrino and gravitational wave astronomy, the former in particular strongly reinforcing cosmology’s conviction in the truth-fact of the big bang.  

As noted above, none of this bears directly on Mr. Allen’s exposition of the Orvonton scale issue. If however I am right (I do not insist that I am right) about the deeper absurdity of Urantia Book cosmology (see essay linked above), those problems reduce the significance of the Orvonton dispute to something like the medieval scholar debate over how many angels can sit on the head of a pin. 

None of this is to gainsay Mr. Allen’s book. As concerns both the wider and narrower cosmological issues, he has set himself an impossible task. One simply cannot assume what The Urantia Book says is meaningful and contradiction free, and accommodate the discoveries of modern cosmology at the same time. 

The Great Debate on the Scale of Orvonton by Tom Allen (2020)

This delightful little book is written for a specific audience, readers of The Urantia Book, and specifically, readers interested in what The Urantia Book says about cosmology and astronomy. 

The Urantia Book describes a [future] highly structured universe still very much in that structuring process. But to present this description, the authors were constrained to reveal it in the cosmological and astronomical language and knowledge of the times in which The Urantia Book was written, more or less the 1930s. Orvonton is a sub-segment of the present and future universe. 

What The Urantia Book says about Orvonton suggests it might be the Milky Way galaxy and its satellites. Other statements suggest it includes (perhaps in the future) all the galaxies in our “local cluster”, or the “local sheet” (a peculiar collection of near-by galaxies all lying in a plain), local volume, or up to the Virgo supercluster! None of these collections was understood in the 1930s, astronomers at that time having discovered some of these galaxies but not their spatial relation. 

Mr. Allen pieces together the clues leading to various of these hypotheses. He is meticulous and scholarly, carefully documenting all the various lines of evidence from The Urantia Book and evaluating them in relation to both 1930s and modern astronomy. His purpose here is to survey the territory. He does not argue for a particular favorite interpretation.  His evaluation if not exhaustive is close to it. Overall a scholarly presentation, and while there are issues here and there with text formatting in my Kindle edition, given the narrow audience for this book, I will not count those against him. Bravo! Good job!

Review: The Geography of Morals by Owen Flanagan

Picture of me blowing smoke

The reviews published here in the blog are but a few of those I write for Amazon. I republish here because these books leave dangling philosophical implications, interesting to me, that isn’t appropriate to note in a book review. But few books reviewed and commented upon here give me as much dangling bait as this one. As always, the full Amazon review and link to the book are included below.

Flanagan says there are two moral roots, biology (evolution) and culture. He is missing the third root, human mind’s contact with spirit, a concept I promise to flesh out below. Here I will say that this contact has nothing to do with the pronouncements, moral or otherwise, of existing religious institutions, but with a property unique to human mind. 

Consider this: humans murder other humans. We say this is wrong (the inverse of right) and perhaps evil, the inverse of good. Every human society on earth avers this moral principle with few exceptions permitted. War is one exception nearly, but not entirely, universal. “Honor killings” among some peoples who do not deserve the appellation “civilized” (I am not even as much a moral relativist as Flanagan) is another if rarer exception. Chimpanzees, it is well documented, also sometimes murder other chimpanzees. Yet, we, that is humans, do not think of this as wrong. We say that chimpanzees are amoral. Being mere animals (though we share 98% of our DNA with them) they are not, we say, able to tell right from wrong. 

Why, having emerged (biologically) from the animals, do humans possess a conviction (which animals do not) that there exists a right and a wrong, a good and an evil? I refer here not to any conviction about specific wrongs, even murder. Apart from murder, there are numerous (as Flanagan so well shows us) culturally varying ideas of rights and wrongs. Why are humans in particular convinced that such things as rights and wrongs, or moral better and worse, in the abstract exist? I am not referring here to phenomenal experiences whether pleasurable or painful. As organisms we are biologically directed towards pleasure and away from pain. This is true of animals in some ways even more than humans. But only humans come to attach a moral facet to the experience, a conviction not only that I like pleasure more than pain, but that there is an abstract moral quality to pleasure lacking, or inverted, in pain.

The conviction cannot come from biology. We are animals. Could the 2% difference between our DNA and chimpanzees alone explain it? That 2% has a lot to do. We do not, after all, look much like Chimpanzees. Surely, the ubiquitous (at least widespread) belief in rightness and wrongness, a moral direction, lends itself to the fitness of larger, more complex societies. Yet Darwinian selection pressure comes (as we know) from outside the organism, even the community of organisms. If the conviction that a moral direction exists, exerts selection pressure, the conviction cannot be an illusion. If we merely “make it up” (the conviction is illusion), yet more of those humans who have it pass on their genes, we have a case, contra Darwin, in which fantasy, having no mind-independent counterpart, is biologically adaptive!  

What about culture? Of course, our specific notions of right and wrong are cultural. But the cultural evolution of moral specificities presupposes the belief in a moral direction, a better and worse.. Chimpanzees have been around on earth much longer than humans. They live in complex (for animals) societies. Yet, they have not evolved any socially-determined moral specificities other than the default “rule of the strongest male”. 

The moral particulars Flanagan so eloquently describes evolve from both biology and society. But the conviction that there ought to be moral particulars (and vaguely the direction particulars take over historical time) comes from the human mind’s sensitivity to, apperception of, values: truth, beauty, and goodness. Like morality abstractly as compared to specifics, the values are not the truth of particular propositions, or the beauty-content of particular configurations of the material world, or what particular acts, people, or concepts (like justice) are good. They are, rather, pointers in the direction of such things. They constitute our only phenomenal access to spirit, which from the human viewpoint, comes out to sensitivity to the moral quality of God’s character. 

Take justice (civil, economic, or criminal) for example. All cultures revere justice, and while what constitutes justice varies greatly between cultures, most strive for something resembling fairness which, in its turn, is also expressed in various ways. The vast majority of the world community would say that summary execution, the “justice” of Islamic terrorists, is not really justice at all, and they would be right.

Justice is not the value “goodness”. Rather, justice has goodness if a particular expression of it has something of the flavor of that value. Perhaps (in a criminal context), life imprisonment for a capital crime is more just (has more goodness) than execution. But execution after a fair and honest trial based on indubitable evidence is more just than summary execution! It isn’t the particular, nor even the concept “justice” that is supplied by our phenomenal experience of values, rather the conviction that there is something called goodness, and justice has [at least] some of it. From the human viewpoint, goodness is absolute only in the limited sense that it is mind-independently real. Our sensitivity to spirit has but the barest inkling of value-flavors as these would seem from God’s viewpoint, while the goodness content of anything (abstract or otherwise), as perceived by us, is a judgement of individual mind and subject to the relativity of individual (and socio-cultural) perspective.

I have written extensively on this. For a deeper discussion of the relation between values and mind see “From what comes Mind”, and “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness” among other articles. Here I sketch the briefest summary of it all. There is a field in spacetime that, in conjunction with brains, is the source of mind, that is phenomenal consciousness, the “what is it like to be..” experience. The richness of consciousness is proportional to the capacity of the underlying brain. Mammals, richer than reptiles, dogs, cats, and some birds, richer than mice, and chimpanzees richer than all the rest, except the human. The richness of the human experience includes sensitivity to the values, to spirit, something transparent to animal minds, and it is this sensitivity that constitutes the conviction that there is a “moral direction”, that some specific moralities are (or can be) theoretically better (meaning more true, beautiful, and good) than others. 

The conviction that there is a moral direction does not automatically (or even often after much thought) produce correct judgments concerning the value-content of particulars. There are, even between cultures, often broad agreements over the truth, goodness, or beauty of particulars. Just as often there are disagreements over which morality has “more goodness”, which artform or natural phenomenon “more beautiful”, of what human notions of the universe are “more true”. In our day to day, culturally embedded experience, we agree (mostly) on only two things: the particulars are relative (even within a culture), and yet values have an absolute quality to them. 

Think of an old fashioned magnetic compass. The pointer never locks-on to “the north” (leaving aside “magnetic north”)  but floats vaguely in its direction.  Looking at a compass, we never know exactly in what direction lies north, but it does give us an approximate direction, and by implication (the needle is not completely random), a philosophical reason to believe that  “the north” exists.

Truth, beauty, and goodness are properties of the universe (not merely the physical universe which would make beauty the only value) whose reality we apperceive.  We do not merely make them up, individually or collectively. We do “make up” the particulars, individually for ourselves, and collectively for society. The particulars are relative, to each other, and to the direction of the value pointer. Some particulars are “better than” others because they better reflect what we sense of the reality of truth, beauty, and goodness.  

What moral thinkers down through the ages have noticed is that particulars chosen because they are more aligned with [what we perceive to be] the value compass tend to have better and longer-lasting social outcomes. It is also true that the conviction of truth, beauty, and goodness’s reality, their objectivity, does not impart objectivity to our evaluation of their instantiation in particulars. The reality of a value direction is, like the material world, independent of human mind, though it is sensed, on earth, only in human mind. Moral particulars emerge (socially and individually) when social situations arise that appear to involve sensed values, particularly, in the case of morals, goodness. 

Theism, grounding value apperception, is the tool Flanagan needs to complete his project. 

  1. It explains why humans can be moral, immoral, and amoral, while even the most advanced animals only have the last. 
  2. It explains the direction (however slowly things change) of moral evolution in human communities. It gives him his “ought from is”, not in detail (particular moralities) but as concerns their general direction towards more truth, beauty, and goodness. 
  3. It provides the reason for individual moral striving by answering the “why should I” question. In the long run, we are not dead. This life is but a phase of a much larger project in which we personally continue to participate. 

I have not here discussed personal survival of material death (an implication of my theism, see “Prolegomena for a Future Theology” and “What is the Soul?”), but I note that Flanagan’s favorite alternate cultural example, Buddhism, answers this same question with reincarnation. According to the Karma doctrine, we are all living in something like John Rawls’ (“A Theory of Justice” 1971) “original position”. None of us know into what social status we are reborn (analogous to “Pascal’s wager”). Wise in this life to follow a moral course that maximizes our chance for a good (in the sense of less onerous)  “next incarnation”.  

The Geography of Morals by Owen Flanagan (2019 reprint)

Some might see this book as an apology for moral relativism. It is not that, exactly, but does struggle with that notion because Dr. Flanagan cannot quite get what he wants here. What he wants is an appreciation for the utility and value (to human-well-being) of various moral particulars as found in cultures around the world. In addition, he wants to select out of this collection those particulars that are good for humanity as a whole, where “goodness” is not measured solely from the viewpoint of any particular culture nor by utility alone.   

He cannot get what he wants, because the cultures chosen to illustrate his points are themselves selected from a certain range of what is, to us steeped in Western European culture, already acceptable. The Buddhist doctrine of “no-self” and its moral implications is acceptable, as is ancient Roman Stoicism. By contrast, leaving unwanted babies exposed to the elements to die (also ancient Roman practice), or Wahabbist beheading of infidels, is not.  

The book is divided into three parts. In the first, the author explores what he takes to be the two-roots-of-morality: biological evolution to human status with all its attendant adaptations for survival for the first nine-hundred-and-ninety-thousand years of human existence, and the cultural (social) accretions of the last ten-thousand years. This allows him to identify what he calls the moral or ethical “possibility space”. Yet (as he admits throughout the book) from these two alone he cannot identify an unambiguous “ought from is” (a well-known conundrum introduced by David Hume in the 18th Century) without the selection bias introduced by his chosen examples.

In the book’s middle third Flanagan chooses one emotion, anger (with manifest roots in biology), and explores its moral possibilities across his cultural examples. Anger, however, is one of the negative emotions that all cultures understand is better limited (at least) under normal circumstances. The issue in focus here is whether anger, its expression, is ever morally justified, a virtue. It is easy enough to construct examples in which some action, taken “in anger”, results in a genuinely just outcome. Yet Flanagan understands that every culture seeks either to extirpate anger or at least to limit its expression, and that such expression as might be permitted makes sense only, if at all, because of some prior circumstance that warrants anger in the first place! The moral complications engendered by negative emotions like anger are good perhaps for cross-cultural comparisons, but not very good at helping to understand the more limited variation in positive moral virtues like compassion which seem universally to be welcome. 

In the final third the author returns to the theme of finding some universal “oughts” from the combination of biological (which the world shares) and cultural roots. He shows us that, broadly speaking, almost every culture agrees that it is better for all if each individual is kind, honest, just, compassionate, and so on rather than envious, hateful, insincere, and selfish. He also uses this section to explore the implications of concepts of the self to moral motivation, But he can never answer the question of why, exactly, I should choose this “better course” if, in my personal opinion, I am better off (economically, politically, sexually, whatever) doing bad? He puts his finger right on the heart of the problem:  there can be no ultimate answer if, as J. M. Keynes noted, “in the long run, we are all dead”. 

Flanagan does what he can with the tools he has. Although he does address religion in the context of cultural and social forces, like Keynes, he believes that in the end, we are all dead, and this belief, shared by the vast majority of his peers, leaves him with little more than some interesting cultural comparisons, a description of, as he calls it, the “moral possibility space”. I will address the tool he lacks, and its implications for biology, culture, and morality in my blog.

Review: The Consciousness Instinct by Michael Gazzaniga

This book (Amazon review and link below) is another attempt to find a solution to both the necessity and sufficiency of brains to minds. Gazzaniga is a materialist, and so by his supposition, there must be, in the brain itself, the secret to mind’s manifestation. He has written a very cogent examination of the brain’s layering and the complementarity of a rule-law combination that animates life and (he thinks) is the secret to the otherwise mysterious properties of consciousness. This theme is reflected in “Incomplete Nature” (Deacon 2011), while his connection between life, consciousness, and quantum mechanics brings Henry Stapp (“Quantum Theory and Free Will” 2017) and others to mind. 

Gazzaniga is not a physicist but a neuroscientist, and his specialty is the connection between brain lesions, surgery, and consciousness. What he notes, profoundly enough, is that consciousness is not something that must be generated by a whole, healthy brain, nor does it arise from a specific part or even anatomical layer, but emerges from any parts of the brain that still work! When only parts of the brain are working, the affected individual reports (sometimes in very indirect ways depending on what damage there is) that they are conscious and feel mostly normal, despite considerable gaps in accounts of that experience’s content. For example, a patient may report feeling perfectly normal even though her awareness includes nothing whatsoever to her left.

In this book, we have a well-written account of the various ways in which the brain, a marvelously complex and mysterious thing, generating some “what is it like to be” inner world the individual reports as her subjectively-recognizable self, even when damaged! But even if the principles and mechanisms of this process are something like what Gazzaniga suggests to us, they are empirical evidence only of their necessity, not their sufficiency, to bring about the emergence of subjective experience. 

Nor, it has to be said, are the limits of what we know about the brain evidence that it is not sufficient to bring about mind’s emergence. The problem here is metaphysical. In all other emergent phenomena identified by science, even the case of life, the point of emergence is identifiable, as are the properties of what emerges. There is always a physical connection between prior and post-emergent physics. Both are always physical. The one can be fully traced, with mathematical rigor, through to the other. The brain-mind connection is different. No one has identified where, in the chain of neurological causes, a subject appears, nor precisely what the subject is. The brain’s physics plays its essential role, but what emerges isn’t physical in any sense that physics understands that term.

Yet there is also no evidence (evidence taken to involve physical observation) that there is anything in the universe (besides brains) that contributes some other “necessary ingredient”, that together with the brain, becomes sufficient for the emergence of the individual mind. The hypothesis that such a phenomenon exists is speculative and grounded on physics’s inability to do the job thanks to causal closure, the principle that physics produces only physics.

Gazzaniga suggests the emergence, in living matter, of translated information (in our case, DNA to RNA to proteins), what he calls a rules-based ordering, allows physics to violate the causal closure principle. Gazzaniga is saying, essentially, that the rules-based operation and interaction between layers and sub-sections of the brain can and does produce a non-physical emergent reality, mind! But there is no evidence that rules-based violation of causal closure is possible. None of the other emergent phenomena in the universe, including life (the other “rules-based” phenomenon), violate causal closure. No one has suggested how information ordering as such would or could produce a violation. Physics has nothing here. “Mind exists, therefore physics must be sufficient to produce it” is the sum and substance of the claim. 

There have been attempts to side-step this problem. Russellian Monism suggests that every object in the universe, from protons to galaxies, has “mental properties” (sometimes called “proto-mental properties”) that “add up” to mind of the sort familiar to us when brain-objects appear on the scene. None of these theories includes any suggestion as to the nature of these “mental properties”. David Chalmers (“The Conscious Mind” 1997 and others) suggests “mental laws” built into physics (a view that collapses into Russellian Monism), or a set of laws parallel to physics and present with them from the moment of the big bang (collapsing into what Philip Goff [“Galileo’s Error” 2019] calls “cosmological panpsychism”). Like mental properties, the form such laws might take, or how we might go about detecting their specific influences, is left unspecified. 

Each of these suggestions has numerous problems besides leaving key requirements unspecified. I’ve addressed these in other papers (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”, and “For Every Theist there are One Hundred Materialists”). All of these ideas amount to a quasi-dualism (what Chalmers calls “property dualism”), and in every case, causal closure is violated. Materialism (if some of these ideas can be called materialistic at all) in the philosophy of mind comes down to a two-horned dilemma. Either mind is real and non-physical in which case we must account for its apparent violation of causal closure, or mind isn’t real at all, leaving us nothing for which to account.  

A few philosophers have made a go at the second horn, but it strikes most as prima facie absurd. If you accept the first horn (as does Gazzaniga, Chalmers, Goff, and many others), you are already a dualist no matter what your materialistic credentials. Substance-dualism is another alternative. There are more nuanced versions than the simple Cartesian “mind imposed on brains”.  For example, a detection, by brains, of some field with which brains, and only brains, interact. Individual minds are analogous to the sound (compression waves) issuing from radios whose antennae are sensitive to some electromagnetic radiation; the field is the radiation, the brain is the radio and antenna, mind is the music (see “From What Comes Mind”). 

The problem with substance dualism is that whatever the field is, it isn’t physical. Its source must be something other than physics. Critics argue that this demands both a plausible source (for example God. See “Metaphysical Stability in the Philosophy of Mind”) and an accounting of the field-brain interaction. But as noted in papers linked above, the unspecifiable “proto-mental properties” of Russellian Monism, panpsychism, or the “psychic laws” of Chalmers’ property dualism, demand the same dual accounting (asserting that these qualities “just belong to physics” is not an account of their origin) while violating causal closure (they are purportedly physical after all). Substance dualism preserves causal closure. Physics is not required to be both necessary and sufficient for consciousness. 

Yet even granting that such a model is correct, how the brain works to detect the field remains an open empirical issue. Gazzaniga and Deacon (see link above to “Incomplete Nature”) both have more nuanced views here than philosophers like Chalmers, Nagel, Russell, Goff, and many others; all moderns trying to make that first horn work. 

The Consciousness Instinct by Michael Gazzaniga

This is a book about consciousness and specifically, an attempt to find a solution to the qualitative difference between “minds” and brains from within physics. This is a consequence of the “materialist paradigm” (it can only be physics). Dr. Gazzaniga is a true believer. But his is the case for ninety-percent of the philosophy of mind I read and review anyway. What distinguishes this one?

Gazzaniga reviews some history for us and brings forward insights from psychology, biology, medicine (in particular observations of damaged or surgically altered brains), and physics, in particular, the notion (from quantum mechanics) of complementarity. Phenomena can have two aspects, they can exist as two sides of the same coin but at the same time, one cannot always say how each becomes the other. The two sides are not mutually reducible.

Gazzaniga, along with many others in the field, believes that quantum phenomena have some connection to consciousness (many others have speculated about this), but he also believes that this connection began way back at the origin of life. Life, like consciousness, rests in part on quantum behavior! I’ve been calling attention to this very reasonable idea for years, so it’s nice to see the idea expressed by someone with more credibility than I seem to have.

This is an important aspect of Gazzaniga’s theory because it allows him to trace the root of “the subjective” not merely to brains, but all the way back to the origin of life. Here he brings in the distinction between “rules” and “laws”. The mechanisms that characterize living things, all living things, are “rule-governed”, not “law-governed” The distinction is important because a rule (in our case how DNA sequences become specific protein sequences) adds an extra layer, an abstraction, on top of laws. Laws are fixed, rules can be changed. That is the secret of both life and consciousness. He is NOT claiming that early life was conscious. Instead, what makes life alive, its complementary double-sided nature (lawful rules), is the same principle operating in the emergence of consciousness from brains. 

From medical brain research, he notes that damaged brains are still conscious. Aspects of the former consciousness will be missing, but the person (whose damaged brain it is) doesn’t notice what’s missing. From this, he concludes that consciousness is not produced by a particular part of the brain but rather is a product of every part of it operating to produce its own small part of the whole subjective experience.

Also incorporated is the idea of modularity and layers of neural activity. Consciousness bubbles up through the layers becoming progressively richer in richer brains, but existing in some sense from the times of the earliest true nerve ganglia. The book is crafted to carry us through the development of these ideas from both medicine and philosophy. Gazzaniga’s “instinct idea” is the last aspect introduced. He notes that, like consciousness, brain research points to instincts being distributed phenomena, hence, consciousness is an instinct! Logically this is a stretch and is not as important to the theory as his rules-laws distinction and synthesis of complementarity and modularity.

In the end, like other speculations referenced in the book, he fails to nail down the “how” or the “what” of consciousness. Gazzaniga’s approach might prove to be a useful addition in the quest to answer these questions, but all of them, including this one, are perfectly consistent with a dualism holding that brains are necessary but not sufficient to explain the appearance of the subjective from the objective. Every one of his ideas can be true, while still not giving him what he needs. Every other complementarity known to our physics can be physically measured on both “sides of the coin”. Not simultaneously, but that is beside the point. It remains precisely the problem with mind that physical measurement of the “other side”, the subjective side, is impossible! That makes mind different. That makes brains insufficient, or at least leaves open that possibility.