Saturday, April 28, 2012

List of Funereal Demands

Recently, Roger Ebert, one of my favorite bloggers, wrote about the deaths of people close to him - deaths that seemed to be coming at an increasingly rapid pace.  At one point he suggested that “in an important sense all that we are is how we are remembered.”  Hmmm.

On top of this, I found myself chatting last night with an end-of-career friend about his retirement, and so all of a sudden I’m feeling obligated to think about the connection between retiring and dying.  Given that I expect to retire in a few years, I’m hoping this connection won’t be swift and relentless.

It may be a design feature of human nature that we resist entertaining the theory that the universe can go on without us.  In any case, if I am going to entertain such a theory, I feel I should at least offer guidance to those I leave behind as to how I should be remembered; I think I should be remembered with a somewhat festive funeral ceremony. 

The idea of a festive funeral calls to mind that old Hollywood story about the comment made regarding the huge crowd that showed up for Louis B. Meyer’s funeral: “Give the people what they want, and they'll come out for it.”

But, no kidding, I insist that my death, should it ever come, not be taken too seriously.  In fact I have a list of specific demands concerning my funeral that I will now publicize for the first time (though I realize I may be providing false hope here to my archenemies who will only find it cruelly dashed as I stubbornly continue to live and breathe).

I once told Darla that I liked the idea of a New Orleans style funeral accompanied by a Dixieland band, but I’m afraid that might be too complicated and expensive.  So, as an alternative, I suggest that my iPod, "Ransom," be used for background music.  Maybe by then I’ll have set up a funereal playlist, but if not, just let the Ol' Ransom do its thing.  I’m confident that everyone in attendance will have no trouble adjusting to the sounds of the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and Wanda Jackson’s “I’m Busted,” while contemplating the essence of my life.

The venue for the ceremony should not be so large as to accommodate more than a few hundred people.  Modesty demands this.

I insist that everyone present laugh and cry at least once during the ceremony.  The crying can be in the silent inner reaches of the heart, but the laughing has to be audible.  Actually, if Antony and the Johnsons' version of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” should come up on Ransom, tears will surely be forthcoming, even amongst those who are there just for the food.  And, by the way, the food should be good – Darla and I are of one mind on this point.

Everyone attending must wear a preposterous accessory of some sort.  It may be a flower in the hair, a bodacious belt buckle, a shawl of outrageously gaudy decorative coloring, an inappropriate hat or tiara, a red guard arm band, a pair of da-glow cowboy boots or any other such thing as long as its ridiculousness is evident for all to see.  I will allow D to take a pass on this point, only because she is of an unusually shy nature (so shy that a number of people have opined that they suspect her of being ensconced in a witness protection program of some sort).

All others must comply.

At some point during the ceremony, someone should refer to me as “an icon.”  Whether it be a cultural icon, an American icon, a cosmic icon, or whatever, I leave to the discretion of the speaker.  This should only be done once, however.  Modesty again.

Different people have different ideas about what should be done with the body following death.  I’m really not sure, though cremation seems reasonable and I have a hunch that this makes environmental sense as well.  Not sure what should become of the ashes, though.

One thing I insist on.  My body must not be embalmed and allowed to lie perpetually in state.  I know that Chairman Mao is doing this and, actually, that’s one reason for my insisting that I not follow this path.  When I had a chance to view the Great Helmsman’s corpse in its mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, I was surprised to behold a pale, bloated, whale-like figure which brought immediately to mind the Stay-Puft  Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters.  That I don’t want.

Chairman Mao, Lying in State (Artist's Rendition)

Well, my dear survivors, treasure these instructions and someday, let’s hope decades from now, I charge you to put them to use.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Righteous Mind - Part Deux

As I suggested in my last post, I like Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, but I also feel an urge to pick some of it apart.  One of Haidt’s main arguments is that there are six basic features underlying our moral codes and that liberals generally favor three of them (Care, Fairness, Liberty) while conservatives favor all six (the three just named plus Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity).  He illustrates this contrast with a metaphor of taste buds whereby a person who is capable of “tasting” a wider array of ethical principles is advantaged over those more limited in this regard.  Haidt goes on to back his position up by offering data showing that conservatives understand liberals better than liberals (especially extreme liberals) understand conservatives.  After all, conservatives are familiar with all six moral systems, liberals only honor three of them.

This is all interesting and worth knowing, but - I think the “range of tastes” image is misleading.  A better one would distinguish vital moral attributes from less essential ones.  How about a metaphorical sailboat, for instance?  A sailboat MUST have sails, rudder and hull in order to function but MIGHT also have flags, decorative painting on the hull and multicolored patterns on the sails as well. Care, Fairness and Liberty in morality are like hull, rudder and sails in a boat: absolutely essential. No moral system that doesn’t incorporate them makes sense.  It would be bizarre for anyone to argue that, “I believe we must obey our leaders and be loyal to our country, but I have nothing against torturing and killing innocent people.”

I’m not saying nobody has ever held such a moral code (I’m looking at you, Mr. Cheney), I’m just saying such a moral system makes no sense to ordinary people or to philosophical ethicists.

The liberal focus on Care, Fairness and Liberty stems directly from the fact that it is self-evidently wrong to inflict acts of cruelty on the innocent.  This is the essence of the Care principle.  The best way to prevent such cruelty is to ensure that Fairness guides our policies and that individuals have the Liberty to look after their own well-being.  Presto, there it is: the three-legged moral code of American liberals.

Cruelty, as I understand it, is the inflicting of pain, suffering or humiliation on people and similarly sentient beings.  I’m going to exclude the killing of animals for food here, on behalf of those who are not vegetarians (including me - and with apologies to the pigs and chickens of the world). 

The liberal values of Care, Fairness and Liberty spring necessarily and obviously from the moral value that says inflicting cruelty is wrong.  The secondary values of Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity do not.

Haidt shows how these “conservative” values function to bind societies together, and his argument here is interesting and partly convincing.  It hinges on the idea that natural selection has favored groups as well as individuals, and this “group selection” has endowed us with DNA that underlies the three conservative morals.  Authority’s role here is obvious.  Societies in which powerful authority figures can coordinate the efforts of all to attain a general goal otherwise unattainable are able to do things that more egalitarian and less obedient mobs cannot.  Loyalty and Sanctity work similarly to promote group efforts.

There is a catch here, however.  Haidt honors those (mainly conservatives) who consider respect for authority a moral ideal in and of itself.  But the 50,000-year-long human story is largely one of people who acted with Liberty, that is, according to their own interests as they understood them.  The great majority of our evolving ancestors lived in egalitarian societies in which there were no powerful leaders.  Haidt believes that despite this ancient, authority-less, egalitarian history underlying our evolution, humans are actually inclined, by virtue of our genetic natures, to defer to authority figures.  He dismisses the thousands of years of human prehistory when people lived without chiefs, kings, generals or dictators as an aberration.  But I don’t.

I believe that Haidt is wrong to claim that we, as adults, are programmed to defer to others who wield authority.  That we sometimes do, reflects those accidents of history that eventually gave us the likes of Genghis Khan, Mussolini, Stalin and Wall Street.  

I grant that sometimes deferring to authority is necessary, particularly when one’s society faces a threat from an enemy contemptuous of Care and other liberal values, and led by a ruthless yet sanctified ruler like Genghis Khan.  A trained and authoritarian army can fight much more effectively against such an enemy than could a mass of armed but independent warriors.  In the face of a Genghis-Khan-type threat, an obedient and armed citizenry is vital.  But this does not make deference to authority in itself a virtue – comparable to the need to refrain from inflicting pain on the innocent.  Authority, in other words, is in no way the equal of Care.  Rather, it is an ad hoc solution to the problem of coordinating the actions of large social groups.  Liberal democracies confirm this by making it the temporary attribute of democratically chosen representatives of the group.

Loyalty and Sanctity are similar to Authority in that they can be said to have their place, but their roles cannot be compared to those of the fundamentally and inherently moral propositions of Care, Fairness and Liberty.  Loyalty and Sanctity (like Authority) are as often abused as ethically applied.  It is well to remember that the essence of Nazism was a general demand for Loyalty and deference to Authority in the name of the Sacred “Aryan” race.  And the terrorists who attacked us on 9-ll were all about Sanctity.  In fact, had they been less devoted to the moral ideal of Sanctity, they would never have inflicted the killing and destruction on us that they did.  Care in itself does not inspire blitzkriegs or terrorist attacks; only Authority, Loyalty and Sanctity do.

In a brief comment like this, I can’t do justice to Haidt’s thought-provoking argument with all its complexity.  I do believe he makes some very interesting and valid points.  I think he is right when he says the three virtues of Authority, Loyalty and Sanctity comprise much of the glue that holds a society together.  We are, however, living in an era when the entire human species is evolving, economically and culturally, into a single, indivisible super-family.  It may well be that our genetic code includes a disposition to dehumanize those who seem different and to conceptualize them as impure “others” worthy only of exile (“Take your anchor baby and get out of my Pure and Sacred country.”) or destruction (“Bomb, bomb, bomb – bomb, bomb Iran”).  But we will be much better off if our policies go against the actions that these narrow impulses would engender and recognize that our real sanctity lies in the realization that we are one worldwide tribe and all of our children deserve to be born into a moral embrace whose sustaining  heart is Care.

Munchkins of the World, Unite!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Lovin' Haidt

So lately I’ve been absorbed with Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, a study in the psychology of ethics that is interesting to me in about 11 different ways – though I’ve only read half of it so far.
First of all, I should clarify that the good professor’s name sounds like “height” not “hate,” so my play-on-words title is completely bogus (except maybe for Australians who say hite when they mean hate). 

But being bogus is actually a prominent theme in The Righteous Mind.  According to Haidt, when we explain and justify our viewpoints we do not trace a careful path of impeccable reason from premise to conclusion; rather we cobble together a framework of excuses that we hope will convince both ourselves and those whose opinions we value of our moral righteousness.  Our moral (or moralistic) views are determined by processes lying below consciousness and which Haidt represents as a willful elephant.

The “reasoning” with which we explain our personal moral philosophy is, according to Haidt’s metaphor, like a deluded rider on the elephant’s back who imagines himself to be directing the elephant when, in fact, he simply goes along for the ride, offering rational justifications for every turn the elephant makes.  “Verdict first, evidence afterwards,” to paraphrase the Red Queen.

Haidt describes himself as a long-term liberal who, as a consequence of his research, has moved more to the center of the political spectrum.  No wonder he used an elephant metaphor!  Anyway, Dr. Haidt’s transformation is particularly interesting to me, since I made the opposite move: raised in a moderately conservative Republican household, I moved leftward as a consequence of my education.

My mother's version of my transformation is that I went off to college a good, red-blooded, American boy and four years later came back a socialist.  To Mom, socialist was roughly equivalent to Satan-worshipper.  My narrative of what happened to me in college is that I left Plato’s cave and came out into the light of reason.  My parents’ image was of a hopelessly naive young man propagandized into leftist views by scheming professors.

At any rate, I do not now believe, as I was taught in my childhood, that our fates are almost entirely in our own hands, and those who prosper deserve their riches by virtue of talent and effort, while those mired in poverty deserve their fate; i.e., if they weren’t a bunch of lazy-ass losers and goof-offs, they wouldn’t be so damn poor. 

Not that effort and talent are unrelated to success.  It’s just that the connection is much looser and less predictable than conservatives believe – I would argue.

A couple of points continue to puzzle me: if, as Haidt maintains, we’re all just making up excuses to justify our own prejudices, how can it matter whether we’re liberal, socialist, conservative or Nazi?  And, for that matter, were the liberals who fought so hard to promote civil rights in the 1950s and 60s no more right or reasonable than the conservatives who fought to deprive African-Americans of the vote?  If our ethical views are unconsciously constructed and our verbal justifications of them are mere, after-the-fact excuses, it’s hard to see how any ethical viewpoint has more validity than any other.  Well, since I’m only halfway through his work, I may be selling his argument seriously short. 

Haidt spends much of the first half of The Righteous Mind outlining six moral premises all of which are incorporated into conservative thinking, but only three of which liberals defer to.  They are


The last three are the ones which the right honors far more than the left.  Haidt says that these three moral ideas are designed (through Darwinian evolution) to promote group solidarity so as to give one’s group an edge in conflict against out-groups. 

Haidt’s writing style is very engaging and the extent to which he relies on the work of anthropologists is impressive.  However, I’m not yet ready to say just how valid I think his conclusions are (though I am ready to say that he is at the very least partly right).  I’m certainly not willing to declare that his decision to “move right” makes enough sense that I’m planning to follow him back toward that particular cave. 

As of now, I would say that yes, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity do function to promote group solidarity, and yes, conservatives honor these values more than liberals do.  But it may be the case that these values are relics of an era long past, before humanity began to weave itself into a global whole underlain by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other such broadly humanitarian institutions.  Or, it may turn out that the right-wingers are correct: every society needs enemies the way yin needs yang.

Stay tuned for a final explanation - or, at least, a pretense of an explanation merely contrived to bolster the prejudices I already embrace.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Nanny State? Pow!

The next time someone uses the phrase “Nanny State” in your presence, I recommend that you pop him sharply in the nose.

Why this sudden turn to violence? And why with a gender-specific direct object? Well (second things first), because the above-mentioned phrase is almost always used by males, and those males want to make their ideological foes feel like a bunch of weenies for relying on an entity that is just like a Nanny except that it is a complex of interlocking bureaucracies and does not have a soft, comforting bosom.

“Nanny State” is one of those phrases that just sits there and spews out dishonesty the way a stinkbug spews out stink. In this regard it is similar to other lie-o-matic phrases like “liberal media.”

Liberal media: Yes, we are actually asked to believe that the mainstream media, which is owned and controlled by wealthy capitalists, is liberal.

But back to Nanny State. It is a widespread conservative claim that liberals want to be taken care of or “coddled” by the state. Of course, conservatives at the same time claim that the state is an evil, dictatorial entity that will have a death panel snuff out Grandma's life as soon as she starts acting a bit forgetful.

I’m having a little trouble reconciling the conservatives’ Evil Death Panel State with their Coddling Nanny State, but there is a way to get to the root of this contradiction.  Consider that the dominant figures in the Republican Party (those who control most of the nation's corporate wealth) would like to reduce their taxes and so gain control over even more of the nation's wealth.  The policies of Reagan and George W. Bush have, in fact, allowed them to do just this, which is why middle class incomes have stagnated since 1980.

But, these corporate types obviously can't be honest about their aims.  They can't say, "Cut our taxes so we can get richer than ever and the hell with the rest of you!"  So, they have to dream up some narratives that middle class voters will buy.  What they've come up with are two narratives, and their idea seems to be that each story will appeal to a different segment of voters.  One narrative is designed to engender resentment and contempt toward families that depend on government-funded programs (as, for example, Ronald Reagan's family did in his youth).  Though these families are often desperately poor because Republican policies periodically wreck the economy (e.g., in 1929 and 2008), the Nanny State narrative is designed to promote the idea that they are poor because they are a bunch of good-for-nothing layabouts. 

The other narrative appeals to the paranoia that lurks in the hearts of many right-wingers.  This narrative claims that government should be shrunk and taxes cut because otherwise the evil machinations of a powerful, well-funded government will turn us all into slaves.

Obviously these narratives can't both be true.  The Government cannot be a big, soft Nanny that spoils us so we can enjoy our lives of ease without a care, AND, AT THE SAME TIME, an evil grasping  Monster that takes our guns away and turns us into miserable slaves forced to do its bidding.  But that is exactly what conservatives claim.

I suspect that the dominant Republican faction - the corporate wealthy or so-called one percent - will simply say anything they can to encourage ordinary people to hate and fear the government, so they randomly make stuff up about it. But never mind. Let's set aside the contradictions at the heart of conservative ideology, and take a look at what the liberals I know believe about the government.

First of all, we believe that the Constitution is a good thing, and that it has been improved by such amendments as those abolishing slavery and expanding voting rights. We believe that we are better off when the rules governing our everyday lives are in the hands of elected representatives instead of being in the hands of those wielders of great wealth who have traditionally dominated everyone’s lives. We believe, in other words, that conservatives are wrong to say we should weaken government so that BP, RJ Reynolds and ExxonMobil can decide what the rules are instead of our elected representatives.

A good way to get a sense of what our lives would be like were government to be suddenly made “small,” is to take a quick look at Doug Amy’s website Government is Good. (Now out in book form!)

The conservative myth holds that Americans should take care of themselves, just as we did in “the old days,” and not rely on the Evil Monster/Nanny State. By this reasoning, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, in the “old days,” individual Americans reached for their household arms and booked flights to Asia to fight the Japanese, not waiting for the stupid old Nanny State with its Army, Navy and Marines to take care of us.

Yeah, those were the good old days. When government was small and we were free to take care of ourselves.

The essence of liberal ideology is the idea that we Americans should be looking out for each other, and the best way to do this is through the instruments of democratic government. Whether the issue is going to war against those who attack us, or fighting back against a horrendous economic downturn, we will have more success if we take on these problems as a nation rather than expecting that each individual can solve these problems on his or her own.

Remember, by working together as a nation and pooling our resources, we virtually wiped out the horrifying, soul-crushing poverty that haunted the lives of the elderly in the 1930s. Thank you Social Security Administration. And, by the way, thank you again SSA for managing trillions and trillions of dollars for millions of Americans over the decades without a single serious incident of systemic fraud or corruption.

Hmm, I wonder if BP, Halliburton, Enron, Citibank, and the other champions of conservatism can match that record.

Anyway, next time your hear the phrase “Nanny State,” you know what to do.