Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 29, 2017

Work with Nature or Against It?

Paddling-Upstream-01b1

Should we work with nature or against it?

Yes, and yes. It depends.

The question assumes that nature is either on our side or against us. If nature supports us and our ideals, then we would work with it. If nature is against us, then we’d work against it. A third option is to get frustrated and deny that nature exists at all. In practice, the third choice means claiming that nature is whatever we want it to be.

Those choices lead some very smart people to say things like “nature is what we are put in this world to rise above,” or that ideologies like feminism can bring about ill-defined “race, class and gender equality” on some permanent basis.

But the assumptions are wrong.

Nature exists, but it doesn’t care what we want. It doesn’t try to help us or to hurt us.1 It simply is what it is. If the stove heats up our coffee, it’s not because it likes us. If a rock falls on our foot, it’s not because it hates us. Things act consistently with what they are: that is, consistently with their nature. So do people.

Because nature doesn’t care, it’s neutral. It’s neither consistently helpful nor harmful to us. We must look at the facts of each situation, and decide what to do on that basis:

“whether nature in this instance is to be regarded as a friend or as an enemy.”2

Our Basic Choice

Our most basic choice is not to work with or against nature. Instead, our choice is to accept or deny reality. Only if we accept reality can we act in ways that are likely to achieve our goals.

Accepting reality means recognizing, for example, that a river flows in one direction and not the other. If we paddle our canoe downstream in the direction of the current, we reach our destination easily because the current helps us. If we paddle upsteam against the current, we struggle to get there because the current hinders us. Our trip takes more time. If we stop paddling for a moment, the current carries us backwards.

If paddling downstream with the current won’t get us where we want to go, then of course we have to paddle upstream, or else find another way to reach our destination.

However, if both directions lead to an acceptable destination, then we should paddle downstream and let the river help us. We’d be foolish to claim that upstream is really downstream, or that the river has no direction at all. Paddling upstream is stupid.

That’s the point of Francis Bacon’s advice, usually paraphrased as “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed:”

“Human knowledge and human power come to the same thing, because ignorance of cause frustrates effect. For Nature is conquered only by obedience; and that which in thought is a cause, is like a rule in practice.”3

Accept Facts and Respond Appropriately

Recognizing nature doesn’t mean leaving it as it is: it means accepting it as it is. When we know the facts, we can decide whether they’re good or bad. If the facts are bad, we can try to change them. But pretending that facts aren’t true does nothing to change them. It usually makes the situation worse. It certainly handicaps our ability to change things for the better.

For example, good health is people’s natural state: it’s usually the “direction” of that particular river. As a result, we can paddle with the current to maintain and improve people’s health: encouraging them to follow a sensible diet, get regular exercise, and avoid harmful habits such as smoking or careless sex.

On the other hand, diseases are also natural but they flow in a direction we don’t want. In those cases, we should paddle against the current and cure the disease if we can. But even to paddle against the current, we need to accept the river as it really is, not as we might wish it to be. If we pretend to believe that influenza is caused by evil spirits instead of viruses, then our treatments will be ineffective.

Denial of Human Nature

Rodney-King-Get-Along

Nowhere is denial of reality more costly than in social issues. Particularly harmful is the belief that all people are the same; that differences are merely “social constructs” and that vastly different populations can live together harmoniously.

That denial starts with a commendable wish for universal goodwill. Then it mentions a few anecdotal encounters between highly educated, culturally assimilated, and morally pacifistic members of different groups. Finally, it concludes that what applies to a few very unusual people, some of the time, applies to people in general, all of the time.

Unfortunately, it isn’t true. It never has been. As long as people are humans and not angels, it never will be true.

To pretend otherwise is to pretend that the river has no direction: that up is down, that male and female are interchangeable (or “social constructs”), and that it makes no difference whether you drink coffee or cyanide. It is a prescription for social conflict, both violent and nonviolent. As Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson observed:

“Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups, then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong. Even when experimenters created the groups arbitrarily … participants always ranked the out-group below the in-group. They judged their ‘opponents’ to be less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, less competent.”4

Recognition of Human Nature

It’s not as if recognition of “groupish” behavior is a new insight. Human beings’ preference for in-group members and hostility toward out-group members has been known for millennia.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, violent conflict resulted from the large communities of Greeks living in Turkey and Turks living in Greece. After World War I, the victorious Western powers:

”to end the ethnic tensions between Greeks and Turks that had sparked so much conflict over so many centuries … all ethnic Greeks living in Turkey were expelled to Greece and all ethnic Turks living in Greece were transferred to Turkey.”5

The separation worked as expected: social strife between Greeks and Turks subsided, and the two countries resumed friendly relations.6

As conservatives are fond of saying, “That’s what separate countries are for.”

When conducting experiments, scientists make changes to one group and compare its results to a “control group” that gets no changes. In the late 1940s, the British colony of India provided a kind of control group for the Greek-Turkish separation. India’s large Hindu and Muslim populations had frequently engaged in violent conflicts. To solve the problem, Britain divided the country into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. However, that half-measure didn’t stop the conflicts:

“In the months immediately following partition, inter-religious violence only intensified. The bloodshed eventually triggered a massive population exchange, as religious minorities sought safety among their coreligionists. Over seven million Muslims fled India for Pakistan. And approximately seven million Hindus and Sikhs fled Pakistan for India.”7

Human nature is a fact, based in biology. People belong to tribes in which authority is hierarchical. If there’s no obvious basis for membership or hierarchy, people will make something up. Tribe members often behave with hostility and suspicion toward non-members. Almost every major group difference in a society is a fault line along which the society can fracture into separate, warring tribes.

We can work with those facts, work against them, or pretend they don’t exist. The facts will stay the same. If we ignore them — or even worse, are guided by wishful thinking — then we doom our societies to strife and bloodshed.

Works Cited

Brog, D. (2017), Reclaiming Israel’s History: Roots, Rights, and the Struggle for Peace, Kindle edition. Regnery Publishing, Chicago.

Davies, P. (2008), The Goldilocks Enigma. Mariner Books, New York.

Jardine, L., ed. (2000), Francis Bacon: The New Organon. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Stephen, J.F. (1993), Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Liberty Fund, Indianapolis.

Wilson, E.O., The Social Conquest of Earth. Liveright Publishing, New York.

Footnotes


  1. At the level of individual events and actions, the universe neither favors nor opposes us. However, at the level of physical laws, the universe seems tuned to values that support life: it’s called “the anthropic principle.” Based on the anthropic principle, some people argue for God’s existence: physicist Paul Davies makes that argument in The Goldilocks Enigma. Others, such as popular science writer Neil deGrasse Tyson and entrepreneur Elon Musk, speculate that we live in a computer-generated virtual reality created by intelligent non-Divine beings. 
  2. Stephen, J.F. (1993), Chapter 1. 
  3. Jardine, L. (2000), Book I, Aphorism 3. 
  4. Wilson, E.O. (2012), p. 58. 
  5. Brog, D. (2017), loc. 166. 
  6. Ibid, loc. 174. 
  7. Ibid, loc. 
Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 14, 2017

They Persisted

Scalise-shot

They persisted in refusing to accept an election that they knew to be legitimate.

They persisted in pushing a Russian collusion story that they knew to be false.

They persisted in not-very-subtly calling for the assassination of the President of the United States.

They persisted in vilifying the President, his family, officials, their families, and all Americans (“deplorables”) who support them.

They persisted in publicly harassing officials and their families, including small children and grandchildren, with vile and hateful abuse.

They persisted in violently attacking Americans who dared publicly to support the president, while claiming that the Americans were the ones who started the violence.

They persisted in using riots, slander, assault, and intimidation to silence any speakers who disagreed with them.

They persisted in opposing any attempt to protect Americans from terrorism.

They persisted in using corrupt courts to destroy American laws and institutions.

They persisted in falsifying American history and traditions as symbols of hate.

They persisted in using identity politics to divide and conquer Americans.

They persisted in insisting that America belongs to everyone in the world — except Americans.

They persisted in trying to subvert the legitimate government of the United States, as well as to destroy the country and culture that Americans have created.

When will it be enough?

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 4, 2017

When We Got Expelled from Europe

London-terror-attack

It’s a terrible idea. Until now, people muttered it quietly to themselves or said it only to trusted friends. But a seemingly endless series of Islamic terrorist attacks has brought it into the open.

After last week’s Islamic terrorist attack that killed 22 youths and children at an Ariana Grande concert, psychologist James Thompson let it rip:

“Islamic terrorists are making a clear statement: We can kill you whenever we like; we can kill your children; we can kill you in your most important public places; we can make your leaders hide behind bodyguards; we can make you partly undress every time you go through an airport; we can make fools of you by using your laws against you; we can make you scared of making fun of our religion even while you make fun of what remains of your own … we can breed resentful losers in such large numbers that any one of them can become a murderer, and it is unpredictable which Mohammed will take the predictable step of murdering you; and you will accept our excuses that we had no idea that particular Mohammed would take the logical step of biting the hand that fed it …”

Frontpage Magazine is by no stretch of the imagination a mainstream news site, but it’s not a fringe site, either. Many people read it. After an earlier terrorist attack in London, writer Daniel Greenfield walked right up to the terrible idea:

“We don’t know when or where the next attack will come. But we know from whom it will come. What are we going to do about it? We can pretend to be baffled the next time some Jihadi with a rap sheet longer than London Bridge goes on a killing spree … Or we can end the flow of future terrorists and deport the existing ones. Because they can’t run us over if we don’t let them in. They can’t bomb us if we don’t let them stay.”

He does not say “Muslims,” but neither does he get specific about who would qualify for deportation as “future terrorists.” It’s unlikely to include Presbyterians.

Many terrorist attacks slip past our police and intelligence services because there are too many potential terrorists to watch. Unwisely, our political leaders have brought millions of people from hostile countries to settle in ours. And instead of insisting that they accept our culture, laws, and values, our governments have encouraged separatism, bowing to the sacred cow of “diversity.”

Most resident aliens and migrants aren’t terrorists, but some are. If we can’t tell which is which, then we must either accept increasing terrorist attacks or — or what?

We Jews haven’t quite seen this movie before, but we starred in a similar one. In the 14th and 15th centuries, our people were expelled from England, France, Spain, and parts of Italy.

That’s where the similarity ends. The differences spotlight the challenges that face us today.

Other than not being Christians, we didn’t even do anything to get kicked out. We paid taxes, ran businesses, provided a financial system, and mostly kept to ourselves. We certainly didn’t go around murdering innocents in the name of God. We didn’t vilify and spit on the countries in which we lived.

Another obvious difference is the number of people involved. We don’t know exactly how many Jews were expelled, but possibly “no more than five thousand in England, fifty thousand in Italy, and a hundred thousand in France and Spain.” Based on population estimates for 1500 CE, we were 0.24 percent of the population in England, 3.33 percent in Italy, 0.67 percent in France, and 1.43 percent in Spain.

The contrast with today is stark. In 2016, the Muslim population of the United Kingdom was 3,115,000 (5.4 percent of the total population); Italy, 1,583,000 (2.6 percent); France, 3,574,000 (5.7 percent); and Spain, 1,021,000 (2.3 percent). Even if there were no other issues, uprooting even a significant minority of those people would cause great suffering and disruption.

And that’s a best-case scenario. In our case, when the kings of England, France, Spain, and Italy ordered us to go, we went. Peacefully.

If you believe that millions of angry Muslims would go peacefully, raise your hand. Nobody? I didn’t think so.

Expelling Muslims would mean civil war. Western societies would “win,” but at a terrible cost in bloodshed and destruction.

It could have been avoided if Western governments had followed sensible policies about immigration and assimilation, but that ship has sailed — for Mecca. We’re in a terrible fix. What are we going to do about it?

Until now, we’ve been kicking the can down the road. But the end of the road is in sight. We can’t kick it much longer before it bounces back and hits us. What then?

I wish I knew.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | May 13, 2017

My Two Moms

Mothers-Day

In celebration of Mother’s Day, this is the story of My Two Moms.

After all, if Ana Sagorsky could have two Dads, I can have two Moms. That’s equality.

My first Mom graduated near the top of her medical school class, where she met my Dad. He told me that back then, a female medical school applicant had to be at least twice as good as any male applicant for her to be admitted, and that Mom was every bit as good as that. He thought he had better marry her quick, so he did.

Her abilities weren’t limited to academics. She played piano and cello, wrote amazing poetry, and dabbled in philosophy. From my early childhood memories, it seems to me that she painted, but I’m not sure how much. She spoke several languages, including French, German, and some Yiddish. French was her favorite language.

Before she went to medical school — it must have been in her early 20s — she worked in Hollywood for a while. She also dated a movie star whose name you’d instantly recognize. When she had pneumonia one year, he visited her in the hospital, bringing roses and a bottle of champagne. She never got tired of telling that story. If she’d married him, I’d be much taller and better-looking. She knew a lot of television writers, and we occasionally spent time with them in the summers when I was a kid.

After medical school, she became a psychiatrist, and by all accounts was remarkably successful. Her reputation got a boost a few years later when, in the course of a speech at a convention of the American Psychiatric Association, a famous psychotherapist spent 20 minutes denouncing her ideas. As her Hollywood friends said, if people are talking about you and they spell your name right, almost all publicity is good publicity.

But everything has its price, and that includes genius. Mom was so smart that it was harmful for her. Geniuses see patterns that most people can’t see, but their problem is distinguishing real ones from imaginary ones. Just like mathematician John Nash, the subject of the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” she saw a lot of patterns that weren’t really there. As a feminist, she was also ambivalent about being a woman and rather hostile toward men. The latter wasn’t entirely without cause, since some of her older teachers in medical school thought women didn’t belong there.

I didn’t realize any of that when I was growing up, of course, and her psychological problems gave me a few of my own. However, in the same way as most benefits have a price, most prices have a benefit. I’m saner than most people precisely because I had to get there the hard way, figuring it all out for myself.

Not that I lacked help. And that’s where we get to my second Mom.

On paper, my second Mom hasn’t got a resume to match the first. However, she’s just as smart in ways that enabled her to avoid spending half her life in The Twilight Zone. She started out as a medical laboratory scientist, then went back to school and became an art historian.

If I make a joke about how medieval manuscripts were written or something equally arcane, she’s usually the only one in the family who understands the punch line. On the other hand, if she makes a joke about ornithology or botany, I’m usually the one who needs an explanation. She’s written several cookbooks.

Most important, she’s a good person, she’s rock-solidly sane, she likes being who she is, and unlike her predecessor, she wanted to be a mother.

After my birth parents divorced and I eventually ended up living with my Dad, I at first treated my second Mom terribly. I was negative, hateful, and — still residing in my first Mom’s Twilight Zone — a little crazy. I’m sure that my second Mom told Dad to back off and let her handle the situation, because otherwise he would have wanted to punch me. Instead, she bit her lip, took my verbal abuse, and kept treating me decently until I realized what an ass I’d been.

If my first Mom showed me a great mind, my second Mom showed me a great woman. One of my blessings in life is to have seen both.

For all that you have given me, My Two Moms, Happy Mother’s Day.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | April 20, 2017

Good News: You Exist and You’re Not Made of Glass

Thomas Reid

Thomas Reid. He had just washed his hair.

Thomas Reid (1710-1796) is little remembered today, but he was the most perceptive critic of the philosopher Rene Descartes.

Apart from the sufferings of middle school students with the Cartesian plane in geometry, Descartes is best known for his “method of doubt.” He wanted to know if there was anything of which he could be certain, so he resolved to doubt anything he could.

The history of France? No, he’d only read and heard what others said about it. The existence of the world? No, he might be dreaming or deceived by an evil demon. The existence of his own body? Same problem. It seemed that there was nothing of which he could be completely certain.

Except for one thing: His mind existed, because if he could doubt that his mind existed, then he had to have a mind with which to doubt it. Whatever else might be doubted, he existed as a thinking being. He could know that for sure.

Cogito, ergo sum! he cried, and leapt to his feet, alarming the other patrons of the tavern in which he’d spent the evening.

“Cogito, ergo sum” means “I think, therefore I am.”

After hic haec hoc and Omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa est, those words are likely the most famous Latin quotation of all time.

Tragedy almost struck later that evening when the tavern was about to close. The bartender asked, “Would you like another drink, Mr. Descartes?” Descartes pondered for a moment and then replied, “I think not.” Poof! He disappeared in a puff of logic. Luckily for us, he reappeared a moment later, laughing. It was one of his favorite party tricks.

But this blog post is about Thomas Reid. To prevent misunderstandings, I should mention that he was related neither to John Reid (the Lone Ranger), Britt Reid (the Green Hornet, also the grand-nephew of the Lone Ranger), nor to Tara Reid (the actress, no relation to any of the other Reids). Thomas Reid’s ideas must stand or fall on their own.

Descartes’ argument “I think, therefore I am” is usually considered a pretty good one, but Reid would have none of it.

Reid argued that certain assumptions were necessary for any thought at all. As a result, you couldn’t prove them without circular reasoning because in order to prove them, you first had to assume that they were true.

According to Reid, it was completely nuts to reject such assumptions even though they could never be proven. And here’s where we get to his juicy critique of Descartes. It’s a marvelous piece of writing:

“A man that disbelieves his own existence is surely as unfit to be reasoned with as a man who believes he is made of glass. There may be disorders in the human frame that may produce such extravagances, but they will never be cured by reasoning.”

And Reid himself doubts that Descartes was really serious:

“Descartes indeed would make us believe that he got out of this delerium by his logical argument Cogito, ergo sum. But it is evident he was in his senses all the time, and never seriously doubted his existence. He takes it for granted in his argument, and proves nothing at all. I am thinking, says he, therefore I am: And is it not as good reasoning to say, I am sleeping, therefore I am? Or I am doing nothing, therefore I am?”

Common sense has always been in short supply, especially in philosophy. If Reid’s brand of clarity appeals to you, give him a read. It’s well worth your time.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | February 7, 2017

America’s Suicidal Arrested Development

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“Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.”

Irish writer Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) said it, but we really didn’t need him to tell us. Anyone who’s been a child or a parent knows it.

The only thing Wilde got wrong was that most of us eventually understand our parents and forgive them. It’s part of growing up.

When you’re a small child, your parents seem omniscient. They set your standards of what is real and what is right. As you get older, however, you realize that they don’t know everything. Sometimes they make mistakes. Sometimes they even do things that are wrong.

With that realization, we are bitterly disappointed. The people we believed were perfect turned out to be flawed and human. And like most disillusioned true believers, we react with anger. It’s the beginning of adolescent rebellion.

From believing that our parents were always right, we go to the opposite extreme of believing that they are always wrong. We think that they don’t know anything. They are vain, uncaring, dishonest, and evil. They are hypocrites who find fault with others (mainly us) but who don’t live by the high ideals they profess. Screams of “I hate you I hate you I hate you!” grace many such discussions between parents and their teenaged children.

Eventually, we grow out of our adolescent rebellion. We realize that we are just as flawed as our parents. As the years pass, we make plenty of mistakes. We sometimes fail to live up to our ideals. We sometimes hurt others. If we’re decent people, we regret all of it. We start to see our parents in a different light: a light that is kinder and more understanding.

We realize that if there are any perfect people on the planet, we’ll never meet one. They’re too rare. The rest of us are just trying to do our best, and all too often failing at it.

And in that moment, we forgive our parents.

We accept them with all their flaws and virtues, as the real people they are. We accept them as people who tried to do their best for us, even if they didn’t always get it right. And if we’re lucky, we love them for it.

I see the same thing happening to America on a national scale. Baby boomers were the first generation that never grew out of its adolescent rebellion. It was a rebellion not just against their parents, but against everything their parents respected and loved. A country. A culture. A history. A way of life.

All of those things were imperfect. The boomers’ parents admitted as much, but argued that they were more good than bad.

Such nuanced arguments could not be heard over the din of “I hate you I hate you I hate you!”

And since the parents themselves were increasingly troubled by the flaws in America, they didn’t come down hard on the boomers, as their own parents would have — and did — decades earlier.

As a result, many boomers never grew out of their adolescent rebellion. They never accepted their parents as good but flawed human beings. They never accepted America as a good but flawed country. They never grew up enough to understand. They never got past “I hate you I hate you I hate you!” That shaped their view of the world.

Then they went into government, teaching, and the news media. The story they told was derived from their arrested development. Instead of seeing America as a good country that was trying to correct its flaws, they saw it as an evil country that was defined by its flaws.

They taught their viewpoint to Millennials, many of whom believe as a result that anyone who disagrees with them is a “Nazi” and a legitimate target for violent attack.

If you live in a good country that is trying to correct its flaws, the sensible thing is to help it succeed.

If you live in an evil country that is defined by its flaws, the sensible thing is to destroy it. Then you can try to replace it with the utopia you see in your head.

The fact that such a utopia has never existed on earth won’t bother you, because your teachers misled you with politically correct ideology instead of teaching you any actual history.

The fact that you support violence against people simply for having their own opinions won’t bother you, because you can’t distinguish between actions and ideas.

The fact that every society is imperfect because human beings are imperfect won’t bother you, because you never learned to think beyond your feelings at any given moment.

And your still-adolescent mentors, all of them now pushing ages 60, 70, or 80, will cheer you on as you help them destroy the civilization bequeathed to you by their hated and imperfect parents.

Dr. Freud, please call your office. Civilization’s discontents are reaching a critical stage.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | January 6, 2017

Accept the Ephemeral, Embrace the Permanent

quickly-goes-worldly-glory

In The Hollywood Reporter this week, feminist social critic Camille Paglia pondered the challenges of aging in show business.

Paglia is always worth reading, and I recommend her essay.

There’s no denying the heartbreaking difficulties she recounts. Her advice is to leave youth to the young, while accepting the benefits of maturity.

In my opinion, the bottom line is this:

If your success is based partly on something ephemeral (like youth) and partly on something more permanent (like talent and hard work), then

  1. Gratefully accept the ephemeral benefits while they last, and gracefully let go of them when it’s time;

  2. Focus your efforts and attention on the more permanent things; and

  3. Always remember that your value as a person doesn’t depend on popularity or worldly success. Each person has infinite value, and that applies to you.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 26, 2016

A Life That Made a Difference

distinguished-physician

Next Monday, it will be seven years since my Dad passed away.

Even after seven years, I still feel as if he’s with me every day. Remembering him makes me proud, and sad, and reminds me of the example he set for me. It’s a lot to live up to.

Some years before he passed away, we were in the car and the conversation turned somehow to his mortality. I told him that I hoped he would live as long as he wanted to live. To a degree, I think that he did. And what a life it was.

The small town kid from Minnesota became a war hero. Then he finished college in three years and went to medical school. He became a distinguished internist. The Indianapolis hospital where he saw patients gave an annual award to the doctor who made the highest percentage of correct diagnoses, but Dad won it year after year until the hospital finally declared him “permanent champion.”

diagnosisawards

Dad taught a whole generation of younger physicians. For many years, you couldn’t walk 10 feet in an Indianapolis hospital without bumping into a doctor who had been one of his students.

If you were one of Dad’s patients and you had a 9am appointment, you saw him at 9am unless you were late. He treated indigent patients without charge. He was a man of science but he also believed in the personal side of medical practice. He knew it mattered. It was how he believed in treating people: with respect, compassion, and consideration.

He wasn’t a pushover by any means. Sometimes he was too frank in speaking his mind, especially about bureaucratic interference with medical treatment. It might have served his career better if he’d been a little more tactful. But he said what he meant, and meant what he said.

He was also a community leader. Apart from elected offices such as the Indianapolis School Board, he was an officer or volunteer for numerous civic organizations. After he retired from medical practice, he delivered meals for Meals on Wheels. He worked as a volunteer “scientific expert” at the Indiana State Museum, answering questions for school tours. He was always giving speeches in one place or another.

I’ll tell you something more personal. I don’t write much about personal events in this blog, but for this, I’ll make an exception.

When Dad and my original mother split up, it took me by surprise. All of my friends’ parents were divorced but I never thought that my parents would also get divorced. I should have seen it coming. They were intellectually but not emotionally well matched.

The day that I learned about it, Dad moved out of the house into an apartment, in the shabby little building shown in the photo.

dads-apartment-02

That afternoon, he picked up me at school. We went to dinner in a restaurant near his apartment, where I spent the night. About 3am, I woke up and vomited. I cried. Dad hugged me. And he cried. I had never seen him cry before that. This was something so terrible, so shattering, that even Dad’s composure broke down. I hugged him back.

I only saw him cry one other time. When he turned 70, all the family and most of his friends gave him a surprise birthday party.

On behalf of all of us, my brother Steve read a tribute to him that I had written. Dad cried, in front of everyone. He knew he was loved. He knew how much of a difference he had made — to us, to our community, to our country, and to our world.

He still makes that difference. I don’t go a day without wondering if I’m living up to his example, or if I’ll ever make that kind of difference in the world and in people’s lives. I hope so.

Dad, wherever you are, thank you.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 23, 2016

Never Say Buh-Bye to American Pie

kitchen-w-caption-and-source

French writer Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) thought that individualism, freedom, and religious devotion were the hallmarks of American character.

British writer George Sala (1828-1895), however, thought it was something else:

Pie.

In America Revisited (1882), Sala described his observations of our strange country and its obsession with pie:

”The national manners have become softened — the men folk chew less, expectorate less, curse less; the newspapers are not half so scurrilous as our own … but to the tyranny of Pie there is no surcease. It is a Fetish. It is the Mexican carnage god, continually demanding fresh victims. Men may come and men may go, but Pie goes on forever.”

Sala said “he battled strongly against this dyspepsia-dealing pastry,” but finally succumbed to its allure:

”The worst of this dreadful pie—be it of apple, of pumpkin, of mulberry, or of cranberry—is that it is so very nice. It is flat and thin, so that you can cut it into triangular wedges, which slip down easily. Pie forms as important a factor in American civilisation as the pot-au-feu does in France.”

And it still does. Tomorrow on Thanksgiving, most of us will probably indulge (or overindulge) in those nice triangular wedges.

Give us credit: At least we’re consistent. Sala’s 1882 comment about American news media is just as valid today:

“The American press seems to offend only against good taste in their omnivorous appetite of interviewing celebrated or notorious individuals, and in filling their columns with brief personalities sometimes very quaint, but usually almost childishly frivolous and quite harmless.”

Childishly frivolous, for sure. But harmless? Well, “mostly harmless.”

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 12, 2016

Matriarchy and the Intelligence Paradox

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“There are known knowns. These are things we know we know. There are known unknowns. That is, things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” — Donald Rumsfeld

I picked the Rumsfeld quote because it fit one of the topics of this blog post, but I now see that it’s even more appropriate than I’d thought.

Whatever his merits or demerits, Rumsfeld is a very smart guy, typical of the type. He’s accustomed to being the smartest guy in the room, or at least thinking he is. He knows a lot. He has unrealistic confidence in his own judgment, both on matters of fact and of morality.

He’s confident that if he thinks an idea will work, then it will. He bet American soldiers’ lives and a trillion taxpayer dollars on his belief that conquering Iraq would make it a Western-style democracy and a staunch American ally. Oops. No such luck. It was a catastrophe for everyone but Iran and ISIS.

Which brings us to another very smart guy who is also, thank goodness, a much better guy than Rumsfeld. Eric Kaplan is a blogger I read regularly. He’s probably best known as the author of the book Does Santa Exist?, which I found both entertaining and thought-provoking. His blog writings are similarly good, though often whimsical and obscure. Since he’s funny, I’m never sure if the obscure parts are meant as a joke, and whether I’m acting as his interlocutor or as his straight man.

One of his recent blog posts (“Crazy Males”) seems whimsical, but it raises some serious issues. Because he didn’t pursue the issues, I will. You’re welcome. I am, after all, the smartest guy in the room. Sure, I’m the only guy in the room at the moment, but I’m still the smartest.

Are men unfit for political office?

Eric argues as follows:

  • Traditionally, men have been fathers, husbands, providers, and protectors.
  • Those roles are now obsolete. Contraception lets women avoid pregnancy, while physically undemanding office jobs let them provide for themselves.
  • As a result, men suffer from “anxiety which in turn creates neurotic, anti-social behavior.”
  • Therefore, men should not hold positions of power until they adjust to the new situation.

What are we to make of this argument?

The first point to note is that in the aggregate, people do not need a special reason to engage in neurotic, anti-social behavior. A certain amount of it is baked into human DNA, though it varies from one person to another and from one group to another. Some exhibit high levels of neurosis and aggression, while others have less. Moreover, such behavior is not confined to a single sex. A man might shoot you or punch you in the face, while a woman similarly inclined might poison your tea or falsely accuse you of child abuse.

The second point is that by historical standards, men of European and Jewish ancestry are much less violent and more tolerant than their predecessors. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker devoted a whole book to the subject. Of particular interest are the dramatic declines in violence since the 1960s, when contraception became widely available and feminism began its long march from fringe ideology to social orthodoxy.

decline-in-homicide

Men commit most homicides and rapes. If altered social roles were causing an increase in male misbehavior, we’d expect to see exactly the opposite of what Pinker’s graph shows. Indeed, many men in the West are now so thoroughly domesticated, passive and weak that they invite ridicule and contempt — not least from those heterosexual women who in theory approve of gelded metrosexuals but in practice prefer to hook up with “bad boys” who treat them like dirt, which might also explain their support for Islamic invasion of their own countries. Those are, by the way, some of the neuroses suffered by women as a result of social change.

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Matriarchy, novelty, and smart-crazy ideas

Be that as it may, there’s no disputing the fact that most wars are started by men, and that men’s decisions in government are frequently awful. Maybe it’s time, as Eric suggests, for men to step aside and give women a chance to run things.

At the individual level, it wouldn’t be much of a change. My father told me that when he was growing up, my grandfather made all the major decisions for the family — but the decisions he made were always the ones my grandmother wanted him to make. “We men don’t care if we really run things,” my father explained, “as long as our wives let us think that we do.” Women have always exercised power, but less obviously and directly than men. Feminists are confused on that point, since they think that they’re not exercising power unless they’re barking orders like a Parris Island drill sergeant.

My maternal grandmother was an illuminating example of how women can exercise power — that is, power as the ability to identify goals and then get them done. She founded a successful national business in an era when feminists claim that women couldn’t do things like that. A family story describes one of her characteristic methods. She’d have a casual conversation with a business associate and then go on her way. An hour or so later, the associate would get a brilliant idea. He’d take the idea to my grandmother, who would say, “That’s great! Well done! Go do it!” Of course, she had subtly planted the idea in the person’s mind. She not only got the job done, but she also ensured that her associate was fully committed to the goal because it was “his” idea.

At the national level, on the other hand, major decisions usually have been and still are made by men. In the highest levels of government, “the patriarchy” actually exists. Should we dump the patriarchy in favor of a matriarchy?

Leave aside the obvious problem of persuading people with power to relinquish it. Assume we can do that. Why not give it a try?

I don’t think there’s only one correct way to run a country, so if a majority voted for a matriarchy, it would be okay with me. I have my doubts about its viability, but to some extent a country is like a club: if you don’t like how it’s run, you can leave and join a different club. If I didn’t like it, I’d leave. As long as the majority doesn’t want violations of basic human rights, the majority should get what it wants — “good and hard,” as H.L. Mencken said.

However, the suggestion that we should abandon the normal practice of human societies — political patriarchy — is an example of what psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa calls “the intelligence paradox.” It’s the kind of idea advanced by very smart people who have unrealistic confidence in their own judgment and who pay scant attention to human history. They’re confident that if they think an idea will work, then it will. “This time, it’s different” is a refrain that’s heard often through the centuries, and it usually presages disaster.

Matriarchy is less implausible than a lot of smart ideas. Some of the ideas are so loopy, so utterly off-planet, that only extremely intelligent people could ever believe in them. One such idea recently surfaced in Britain: that schools should use pornography to teach five-year-olds about sex:

“Jenni Murray, BBC Radio 4 journalist, said children should analyse porn like a Jane Austen novel: ‘You put boys and girls together in a class and you show them a pornographic film and you analyse it in exactly the same way as you teach them to read all the other cultures around them.'”

The difference between matriarchy and porn-for-children is one of degree. Only very intelligent people advocate such ideas, because only very intelligent people can know enough to argue for them with even the slightest amount of credibility. The less intelligent cannot argue well but are more likely to have common sense that embodies both biological intuitions and the experience of the human race.

Bruce Charlton gives an excellent and more extensive analysis of smart-crazy ideas in his article “Clever sillies: Why high-IQ tend to be deficient in common sense.”

Intelligent or less so, male or female, human brains were not adapted by evolution to cope with the complexities of our modern technological society. Kanazawa calls it “the Savanna principle:”

”The human brain has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment. We are stuck with the stone-age brain which assumes that we are still hunter-gatherers on the African savanna, and responds to the environment as if it were the African savanna.”

That’s why pornography excites people and why they form emotional attachments to TV characters. Photos and video did not exist in the ancestral environment. Despite conscious awareness that what they see is “not real,” stone-age brains cannot distinguish between the images and real people. Their emotions react accordingly.

The point is not that hunter-gatherer societies would or wouldn’t endorse matriarchy. The point is that when we try to analyze complex technological, social, and political situations, we are intellectually out of our depth. Our thinking is error-prone. We must be very careful. Just because something seems in the abstract to be a terrific idea does not mean it won’t be a terrific disaster.

In 1999, it seemed like a terrific idea to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act and deregulate investment banks: the result was the worldwide economic catastrophe of 2008. After the invention of modern antibiotics, it seemed like a terrific idea to prescribe them for almost any minor illness: the result was the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria that kill people and are impervious to treatment.

The medical example is a good one, since it recalls a traditional principle of medicine:

“First, do no harm.”

The idea that a doctor’s first job is to do no harm is frustrating when we’re sick and there’s really nothing sensible to do about it. “Take aspirin, drink plenty of fluids, and you’ll feel better in a few days” isn’t what we want to hear. But there’s a lot of good sense behind that prescription.

Oddly enough, it has to do with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that in a closed system, disorder (entropy) increases over time.

Disorder increases because there are many more ways for things to be chaotic than for them to be organized in useful ways. As a result, the probability of disorder is greater than the probability of order. Applied to human society, it means that there are more ways for things to go wrong than for them to go right.

Thus, other things being equal, the overall result of any social change is more likely to be bad than to be good. If we want to make such changes, we should be very sure that we know what we’re doing — and we very rarely are. To minimize the risk of harm, we should make social changes slowly, in small increments, and then assess the results before going any further.

This goes to the very heart of political and moral conservatism. Conservatism is not mainly a set of doctrines, such as lower taxes or traditional marriage. It’s mainly an attitude of caution about social change. It’s the belief that if certain practices and institutions have worked well for thousands of years in many different kinds of societies, then we shouldn’t carelessly trade them for new ones that sound good but might be catastrophic. Political philosopher Michael Oakeshott explains:

”The man of conservative temperament believes that a known good is not lightly to be surrendered for an unknown better.”

Proposed social change should be evaluated carefully:

”Innovation entails certain loss and possible gain. Therefore, the onus of proof, to show that the proposed change will be on the whole beneficial, is with the would-be innovator. The conservative prefers small and limited innovations to large and indefinite. He favors a slow rather than a rapid pace, with pauses to observe current consequences and make appropriate adjustments.”

Ironically, Hillary Clinton was in one sense the conservative candidate in the 2016 presidential election. She opposed the change championed by Donald Trump. She wanted to conserve the current system, albeit a system aimed at the very un-conservative goal of remaking America into a third-world dystopia from which only the super-rich and their client groups would benefit. Trump, on the other hand, was a radical candidate who vowed to change the current system and replace it with one favorable to the American majority.

But what of matriarchy?

But what of matriarchy? I think that “Dilbert” writer-cartoonist Scott Adams got it right: Ms. Clinton won that battle, not for herself, but for a qualified and less unsavory female candidate in the future:

”Clinton deserves credit for breaking the glass ceiling for the highest office, at least in our minds, and that’s where it matters most. In 2016, no thinking person believes gender is a job requirement for president. That isn’t even a thing anymore. And Clinton did that for the country. You have to respect that.”

It’s a novelty but a reasonable risk. Disastrous female leaders such as Angela Merkel are balanced by disastrous male leaders such as Barack Obama, as well as by great female leaders such as Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher. Sexually, it’s a wash.

Women can run things. Men can run things. However, not all women or all men are qualified. We’ll have to assess the candidates on merit, not on the basis of their sex.

And if you think that is sexist, then you don’t know what “sexist” means.

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