Remember the reason for the season

As we in the United States prepare to celebrate the 4th of July, also known as Independence Day, I want to remind my readers to think about the real reason behind the holiday.  This has a bit of the character of a devout Christian enjoining everyone to remember “the reason for the season,” at Christmastime, and I’m far from embarrassed by the comparison (though we have more immediate reasons to connect the 4th day of July with this celebration than Christians do with December 25th).

The celebration of the 4th in modern America—and for some time longer, as far as I know—tends to center on the launching of fireworks, nominally in recollection of the battle commemorated in “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and on the celebration of the flag itself.  While I have no deep problem with enjoying those symbols, I am impatient with the fact that the flag has become the center of that celebration, and the focus of American patriotism, as well as with the blind and thoughtless idea of American exceptionalism, especially in the era of “Make America Great Again,” and other such vacuous statements.  We have become a people that, on the surface, seem to think of America as exceptional for reasons of fate, or Divine Providence, or some other mere happenstance.  But if America is great, it is not great in any set of its current circumstances, but in the ideas upon which it was founded.

I encourage everyone to reread, on the occasion of the celebration of the birth of the United States of America, The Declaration of Independence, and preferably also the United States Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights.  These are the ideas at the heart of what America really means, and if America is ever to achieve the greatness made possible by those ideas, in any durable and important way, it will need to do so by commitment to the principles there described.

The key sentence of the Declaration of Independence is the second one:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

These were revolutionary concepts, though they had their roots in the Enlightenment principle that the purpose of government is to serve the people governed.  In this they are very different from traditional “Judeo-Christian values” (despite those frequently being claimed as our government’s basis), for those ideas are inherently authoritarian and dogmatic, while those of America have more the character of the scientific method.  Governments are a means of solving problems, and must always, in principle, be open to revision and improvement.  This is perhaps the most important, the most crucial aspect of the Constitution:  not the famous division of powers, with its various checks and balances, excellent though those things are, but the idea that the Constitution is amenable to continual and constant revision and amendment, as new, hopefully better, ideas come to the fore.

The first ten such amendments are the Constitutional framers’ attempt to codify more fully the notion of “unalienable Rights,” as described by Jefferson in the Declaration, and are sensibly called The Bill of Rights.  They are the explicit statements that, no matter what expediency might seem to justify it, and even if a majority desire it, a government has no business infringing the rights of the citizens, even be it one individual whose rights would be infringed.

The very nature of American government, as it was founded, contradicts any notion of blind patriotism.  The nation, the law, the government, these are not ends in themselves, but are means to an end, and they serve the rights and well-being of the citizenry.  Government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, and when it fails to protect those governed, it is the right—many would say the duty—of the citizenry to make changes, for an infringement of the rights of any individual is a threat to the rights of every individual.

The United States is only great to the degree that it strives to live up to these ideals, which are still probably best expressed in its founding document.  This is what we should remember and celebrate on this anniversary of the birth of the nation:  not a flag, though the flag is nice; not a song, though the song is stirring; not fireworks, though they are fun, and the battle they recreate was no doubt impressive.  The United States of America is not a place, but an idea—the idea that government exists for the sake of the individual citizens of the country, not the other way around.  It is the duty of the government to protect and nurture the rights, the liberty, the pursuit of happiness of the people it serves, and dissent should not merely be allowed but is a fundamental duty.

Read the Declaration on this Independence Day.  Read the Bill of Rights.  Participate fully in your local, state, and federal government.  Vote.

And by all means, if you disagree with me (or with your government) feel free to say so and to do something about it.

I don’t want to believe

Fans of The X-files will no doubt recall the poster on Mulder’s office wall, with its stereotypical picture of a flying saucer and the words, “I want to believe” written on it.

Well, I for one don’t want to believe.

Despite being a fan of at least the first four seasons of The X-files, I don’t want to believe.  It seems bizarre to me that, as a culture (as a species?) we have elevated the notion of belief as a good thing in and of itself, and we often respond to people based upon the strength of their belief, as though it were a sign of personal strength, as though it were something we should admire or even emulate.  We’re often told that we need to believe in ourselves*, that we need to find something in which to believe:  a religion, our nation, a set of ideals, what have you.  Rarely are we ever enjoined to question whether this is always a good thing.

Given, however, that humanity’s greatest strength—the attribute that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom—is our ability to reason, it seems absurd that so many of us respond to, and even reward, those who accept the truth of propositions not adequately founded on evidence and argument.

I don’t understand this tendency, and I don’t think I really want to understand it.  To me, belief beyond the level justified by reason is not a strength—it’s not even neutral—it’s a weakness.  If your conviction doesn’t scale with the evidence, then you are, in a very real sense, deluded.  If your understanding of reality is out of sync with what reality is, then sooner or later you are going to collide with reality.  In such collisions, reality always comes out on top.  It can’t do otherwise; it’s reality.  I don’t just believe this; I’m thoroughly convinced of it.

Of course, at times I run afoul of the multiple meanings and connotations to the word “belief”, and I understand that this is a legitimate issue.  After all, when someone counsels others to “believe in” themselves, they rarely mean for them to believe without restriction or reservation.  They’re just advising people to have confidence in their own abilities—not to think that there’s nothing at all that they can’t do, but to recognize that they do have abilities, and can accomplish many things.  It’s hard to feel too critical about such advice, if it’s not carried it too far.  But even when we’re confident in ourselves—for good, sound, experiential reasons—it’s rarely good to believe that we’re the best in the world at everything.  It’s rarely even accurate to say that a given individual is the best in the world at anything.  If we can’t decide, from among a pool of a handful or fewer, who the world’s greatest basketball player is, then it’s pretty unlikely that there’s any one thing in the world at which any one person could readily be called the best.

We’re exhorted to believe in God, to believe in our country, to believe in a set of ideals, to believe in our political party, to believe in a philosophy—not as conclusions, but as starting points and, ultimately, as endpoints.  To maintain such beliefs persistently requires from one a near-paranoid protection from argumentation.  Such beliefs are delusional in character, even if they happen to be correct; if you believe something without having arrived at that belief honestly, then even if that belief happens to accord with reality, you can’t claim to be right.  You can only really consider yourself lucky to have stumbled into a valid conclusion.

I don’t want to believe; I want to be convinced by a body of reasoning, with my level of conviction always on a sliding scale, adjustable by new inputs of evidence and argument, and always—in principle—open to refutation.  If I’m not amenable to correction, I’m as much a victim of self-deception as a person who thinks he’s Napoleon.

I don’t really like to use the word “believe,” even in its more benign forms, such as when someone says, “I believe that’s true, (but I’m not certain)”.  I prefer to use such terms as “I think,” “I suspect,” “I’m convinced (beyond a reasonable doubt),” and “I wonder.”  When presented with a proposition that I consider highly unlikely, I like to use Carl Sagan’s polite but dubious phrase, “Well…maybe.”

In this, I’m much more in line with Scully than with Mulder.  I’m deeply skeptical of the whole panoply of paranormal perfidy such as that with which Mulder was obsessed, though I am open to being persuaded and convinced.  But I don’t want to believe, whether in the existence of the supernatural, or the rightness of certain political ideas, or in any religion, or in the power of positive thinking, or anything else without adequate support.  Faith, I think, is not a virtue, and I suspect that it never has been.  I’m convinced that doubt, reasonable doubt, is the virtue.  If that means that I’ll go through life never experiencing the untrammeled confidence of the true believer, that soaring, absolute conviction that I am on the side of right, and those who oppose me are not…well, good.  I’m sure non-sanity of that sort has its moments of joy, but I think I’d prefer skydiving or free solo rock climbing.  Those activities would be dangerous to myself, but at least they’re unlikely to endanger anyone else.

Belief is dangerous, because when it collides with reality, the believer is quite often not the only casualty of the collision.  Often the results are explosive and cataclysmic.  So I don’t want to believe.  And I really don’t want you to believe, either.


*this is perhaps the least objectionable form of belief, but it can still be problematic, as the personality disorders of some public figures shows.

Flat-Earthers and “hate speech” are good for us

I don’t know how often most of you notice the occasional noises of Flat-Earthers online, and particularly on social media, but I notice.  Encountering such absurdities can at times lead a reasonably educated person to feel that the world is going mad, that society is collapsing, and that—despite the cornucopia of information available to us—humans are breathtakingly stupid.

However, I’ve recently been reading John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” and it gave me a new insight:  The fact the we encounter such vociferous and seemingly ridiculous expressions of contra-factual ideas is a sign of the health and strength of our discourse, rather than its deterioration. Continue reading “Flat-Earthers and “hate speech” are good for us”

One little old mayor

There’s an interesting scene in the movie The Dark Knight in which the Joker confronts Harvey Dent in the hospital, and conveys to him what he sees as the misplaced and irrational prioritization of alarm among human populations.  The scene is wonderful for many reasons—it’s well-written, well-directed, and brilliantly acted—but I think it is also conveys an important point about which many of us don’t think carefully enough.

In the scene, the Joker says that he’s noticed that “nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan’.  Even if the plan is horrifying.”  He then adds, “If tomorrow I tell the press that, like, a gang-banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blowing up, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan’.  But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!”

This is a deeply important point, because it highlights a profound illogic in our moral prioritization of who is important, who is to be protected, who is an “acceptable loss”, and who is “hands off.”  We become more outraged—or at least more exercised—when one of our “leaders” is threatened or even killed than when soldiers, or even ordinary citizens, are put in jeopardy.  This is not morally defensible. Continue reading “One little old mayor”