Conditional Optimism

In an interesting post on his blog, Bruce Schneier comments on Harvard psychology professor Stephen Pinker’s claim that the world is becoming less violent and more moral. Specifically, he tells us:

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker convincingly makes the point that by pretty much every measure you can think of, violence has declined on our planet over the long term. More generally, “the world continues to improve in just about every way.” He’s right, but there are . . .  important caveats.
One, he is talking about the long term. The trend lines are uniformly positive across the centuries and mostly positive across the decades, but go up and down year to year. While this is an important development for our species, most of us care about changes year to year — and we can’t make any predictions about whether this year will be better or worse than last year in any individual measurement.

Pinker’s claim is based on large numbers and long-term predictions and his provocative thesis (especially in light of the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency) is summarized in the following paragraph from the book mentioned by Schneier:

Beware of headlines. And beware of statistics from advocacy organizations whose funding stream depends on stoking fear and outrage — I’ve learned that they can never be taken at face value.
There are reasons to doubt that we’re seeing a big post-Trump rise in hate crimes. Rates of hate crime tend to track rates of overall crime, and there was an uptick of both in 2015, before Trumpism.
Indeed, Trump capitalized on the crime uptick to sow panic about the state of the nation, and progressives foolishly ceded the issue to him. Moment-by-moment analyses of Google searches by the data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz show that Islamophobia strongly tracks incidents of terrorism with Muslim perpetrators. So hate crimes will probably depend more on overall crime rates and — in the case of Islamophobic hate crimes — on terrorist attacks than on a general atmosphere created by Trump.
More generally, the worldwide, decades-long current toward racial tolerance is too strong to be undone by one man. Public opinion polls in almost every country show steady declines in racial and religious prejudice­ — and more importantly for the future, that younger cohorts are less prejudiced than older ones. As my own cohort of baby boomers (who helped elect Trump) dies off and is replaced by millennials (who rejected him in droves), the world will become more tolerant.
It’s not just that people are increasingly disagreeing with intolerant statements when asked by pollsters, which could be driven by a taboo against explicit racism. Stephens-Davidowitz has shown that Google searches for racist jokes and organizations are sensitive indicators of private racism. They have declined steadily over the past dozen years, and they are more popular in older than younger cohorts.

Regarding Pinker’s claim that racial tolerance is on the rise world-wide, I would add that many believe the movement in this country toward alternative energies has gained enough momentum to withstand the machinations of Donald Trump and Big Oil.  These are good things, indeed. I suggest that we would be wise to listen to Pinker and tone down our collective panic at the thought of Donald Trump just 90 seconds away from nuclear holocaust. Pinker claims he is himself “conditionally optimistic” about the future.

But, at the same time, it is also wise to be cautious and watch the magician’s other hand to see what he is likely to pull out of his hat. It is one thing to predict that morality is improving — what with such things as the reduction of extreme poverty, child mortality, illiteracy, and global inequality together with the spread of democracy — which brings with it (along with widespread apathy in this country) increased political freedom for a great many people previously held in chains. It is quite another thing to turn a blind eye to the fact that our president-elect brings with him luggage filled with racism, hatred, suspicion, and a tendency to act on impulse that does not bode well for the future of this country and indeed the world — short term or long.

On balance, one can find some solace in the words of Pinker and hope that his optimism is well founded and not merely pie-in-the-sky. We need to look back in order to try to anticipate what might happen in the future. And it is good to try to think long-term. But we also know that the future is liable to variables that were not in play in the past — such things as automatic weapons in the hands of growing numbers of frustrated, angry people; indifference disguised as tolerance; and the nuclear codes in the pocket of a rather tempestuous man who refers to those who disagree with him as “enemies.” In a word, we all need to take a deep breath and try to relax, but we also need to maintain our vigil.



Thick and Thin

One of the more interesting books I read in my checkered past was written by a sociologist. I say that because it is remarkable given the fact that the man had more interesting things to say about my field in philosophy, namely ethics, than most of the philosophers I have read since Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. The author, Michael Walzer,  begins with an anecdote and expands his argument into broader territory.

“I want to begin my argument by recalling a picture (I have in mind a film clip from the television news, late in that wonderful year 1989) . . . It is a picture of people marching in the streets of Prague; they carry signs, some of which simply say “Truth” and others “Justice.” When I saw the picture I knew immediately what the signs meant — and so did everyone else who saw the same picture. Not only that, but I recognized and acknowledged the values that the marchers were defending — and so did (almost) everyone else. . . .How could I penetrate so quickly and join so unreservedly in the language game or the power play of a distant demonstration?”

Imagine, I might add, we are sitting in our living room watching the news and we are confronted by a story about some folks on the other side of the world who are taken from their homes at night and locked up without a trial and never heard from again. Despite the fact that this is happening in another part of the world, we would not hesitate to judge that this is wrong. Walzer calls this part of “thin” morality — a few basic principles (he focuses on justice) that are binding anywhere and at all times. He makes a strong case, since any child can tell when injustice has reared its ugly head: just give one of them a smaller piece of birthday cake than their sibling! “It’s not fair,” they would shout! And since justice is essentially a matter of fairness, none would really argue with the child. That is the nature of thin morality: it is straight-forward and compelling to any open mind.

Of course, when it comes to morality we are not dealing with open minds. In this egalitarian age where all are regarded as equal in every possible respect and “discrimination” has become a nasty thing, we are admonished not to be “judgmental” and we are asked repeatedly “who’s to say” what’s right and what is wrong? Walzer argues that in the region of “thick” morality, namely those hundreds of morés that are peculiar to specific cultures, things are, indeed, relative. We don’t really care what the marriage customs are in far off countries, how people dress, whether they shave their faces, or whether kissing is considered unacceptable in public. Nor should we. It’s none of our business. In fact, when it comes to thick morality, the only people in a position to judge are those actually living in the culture making the judgment.

And this is where folks go wrong: they lump all of morality together, thick and thin, and draw the hasty conclusion that it’s all relative — to particular cultures or even to particular individuals. It’s part and parcel of our anti-intellectualism that has fostered a deep distrust of experts and our unwillingness to acknowledge that some people know more than others and some things are simply wrong. In itself, this may not be a matter of concern. But when we reflect that the war in Iraq, as an example, was undertaken by a small clique of small-minded people who were on a power trip and who refused to confer with known experts about the dangers such a war would invariably entail, we can see how this sort of blindness can lead to tragedy on a broad scale — thousands of lives lost and millions more displaced or out of mind. The war was wrong from the git-go.

In a word, ethics is not relative and there are some who know more about the world and what things might lead to catastrophe (and are therefore clearly wrong) than others. I would only add to Walzer’s notion of justice as the central concept in “thin” morality the related concept of human rights, which seems a bit broader. It would rule out such things as lying to Congress and the rest of the country about so-called “weapons of mass destruction,.” since we all have a right to the truth.  In any event, human rights certainly include justice, since all persons clearly have the right to be treated fairly. This does not mean people are all the same, or that everyone knows as much as everyone else. It simply means that all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to being treated the same way. It is a “thin” precept that is so simple a child can see it clearly.

Out Of Sight

A story in Yahoo News about a prisoner outbreak at Guantanamo Bay is an ugly reminder of a very ugly chapter in this country’s history. It begins as follows:

MIAMI (AP) — Months of increased tension at the Guantanamo Bay prison boiled over into a clash between guards and detainees Saturday as the military closed a communal section of the facility and moved its inmates into single cells.

The violence erupted during an early morning raid that military officials said was necessary because prisoners had covered up security cameras and windows as part of a weeks-long protest and hunger strike over their indefinite confinement and conditions at the U.S. base in Cuba.

Prisoners fought guards with makeshift weapons that included broomsticks and mop handles when troops arrived to move them out of a communal wing of the section of the prison known as Camp 6, said Navy Capt. Robert Durand, a military spokesman. Guards responded by firing four “less-than-lethal rounds,” he said.

After more than ten years 166 men remain in close confinement without the benefit of a trial for being “enemies” of this country. While they were supposedly captured by American troops during the Bush Administration, many of them were, in fact, captured by Pakistanis and Afghans who were paid a bounty. Barack Obama’s promise, when he first ran for President, that he would bring those prisoners to this continent and they would be given a fair trial never was realized because Congress, and the citizens of this country, would have none of it. They remain in prison, visited by their lawyers and occasionally by the Red Cross. But they have no idea when or if they will ever be released to return home. They may, indeed, be enemies of this country. But that supposition is based on evidence that has never been made public or allowed the benefit of rebuttal. In a word: they are presumed guilty, a direct violation of a fundamental right of due process all human beings could lay claim to since the days of the Romans.

Most of us don’t really care about those men or their plight. It’s a question of “out of sight, out of mind.” And I dare say that is how the matter is supposed to be regarded by those who call the shots at the highest levels and claim their only concern is to protect us from terror. They don’t want us to know, for example, how those men are “force-fed” after it has been determined that they are on a hunger strike. Perhaps it is better that we not know. One wonders whether we might be better off being protected from our protectors. In any event, the situation in Guantanamo Bay is inhumane and a black eye on a country that presumably stands for human rights, liberty, and “justice for all.”

Just Plain Wrong!

A recent NBC News story is a grim reminder of a chapter in this nation’s history that we prefer not to read. It tells about a recent death at the Guantanamo detention center where more than 200 prisoners remain 10 years after their capture as suspected (but not proven) terrorists. The story begins:

A Guantanamo detainee who died Saturday was a former hunger striker who had recently been placed in a disciplinary cell after splashing a guard with a “cocktail”– typically containing urine, a U.S. military official tells NBC News.

In itself the news is grim, especially since it was reported only because guards at the facility were concerned that word would leak out and their eyes would be even blacker. But not only their eyes but this nation’s eyes are blackened by the very existence of this facility where men are kept in stark conditions and denied the fundamental right of every human being to trail by jury.

We recall that President Obama promised that he would close the facility. It was a promise made, I dare say, without knowledge of the implications of such a step. Once elected he quickly came to realize that the closing of the facility and moving the prisoners to a secure facility in the United States and trying them in a civil court would prove difficult at best — especially with a Congress that was only interested in resisting every step the new President attempted to take.

But the fact remains that the prison remains open and men are still held in captivity (excuse me, “detained”) even though they have not been tried and found guilty. A brief look at Obama’s attempts to close the facility is instructive (as quoted from Wikipedia):

On January 22, 2009, President Barack Obama signed an order to suspend the proceedings of the Guantanamo military commission for 120 days and that the detention facility would be shut down within the year. On January 29, 2009, a military judge at Guantanamo rejected the White House request in the case of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, creating an unexpected challenge for the administration as it reviews how America puts Guantanamo detainees on trial On May 20, 2009, the United States Senate passed an amendment to the Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2009 (H.R. 2346) by a 90-6 vote to block funds needed for the transfer or release of prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. President Obama issued a Presidential memorandum dated December 15, 2009, ordering the preparation of the Thomson Correctional Center, Thomson, Illinois so as to enable the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners there. The Final Report of the Guantanamo Review Task Force dated January 22, 2010 published the results for the 240 detainees subject to the Review: 36 were the subject of active cases or investigations; 30 detainees from Yemen were designated for ‘conditional detention’ due to the security environment in Yemen; 126 detainees were approved for transfer; 48 detainees were determined ‘too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution’.

[Footnotes in the original article]

Needless to say, the detainees were never transferred to a facility in this country as the Congress simply will not allow it. The United Nations has sought to have the facility closed to no avail. And other nations have been harsh in their judgment of our treatment of these men, calling it a form of “torture” and a violation of human rights — pointing out that we are in violation of the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war. Whether we agree with these criticisms or not, we must agree that this entire venture is something we cannot be proud of and would rather it had never happened — though “In a February 2012 poll 70% of Americans (53% liberal Democrats and 67% moderate or conservative Democrats) replied they approve the continued operation of Guantanamo.” If the poll is to be believed, it is even more embarrassing than the fact that the facility remains open.

Better Off?

The theme of this year’s Republican National Convention centered around the question “are you better off today than you were four years ago?” While I did find Mark Cuban’s response to the question most interesting, I realize (as he must) that the question is rhetorical: the Republicans are convinced that we are not “better off” than we would have been if the Democrats hadn’t won the White House. This theme is built around the commonplace counter-factual “what if?” and involves us in endless speculation with no assured answer in the end. It may have opened a can of worms for the GOP as pundits (including Cuban) are jumping on the theme to remind us how bad things were four years ago and to note that Mitt Romney, for one, is much better off than he was in 2008! But it made me think about a much more interesting question: are we better off than Thomas Jefferson and the boys in Philadelphia expected us to be as a result of the revolutionary war?

I have referred a couple of times in my blogs to John C. Miller’s remarkable study of the Origins of the American Revolution and came across the following paragraph in his discussion of the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Miller says:

While demolishing the reputation of George III and the monarchy itself, Jefferson gave his countrymen a new goal toward which to strive: a republican system of government in which human rights would take precedence over property and privilege. No one who has read the Declaration could fail to see that an experiment in human relations was being made and that the new order which it established was to be chiefly for the benefit of the common man. Equality and liberty — government by the consent of the governed — were the ideals now held up to men.

Miller is right, of course, as a careful reading of the Declaration will bear out. But one must ask the pressing question: did it all pan out? Is the system we live in a “republican system of government in which human rights . . take precedence over property and privilege”? Does it, in fact, “benefit the common man”? The answer is a rather resounding “No!” Though they don’t wear crowns, property and privilege in the year 2012 are in the ascendency and the rights of humans, in particular ordinary American citizens, are largely ignored — certainly by those who would have us remember how things were four years ago. The Republicans are all about money and if they gain control of this country it would suggest that as a nation we are as well. Heaven forbid!

The wealthy in this country would deny that their wealth and position are a “privilege,” of course. They would insist it is a right — it is theirs by dint of such things as hard work, sweat of the brow, intelligence, and initiative. But this is a half-truth. None of us is where we are without luck and the help of a great many other people — right down to the woman who served us our meals in grammar school and the janitor who cleaned up our messes — not to mention the man who drives the successful business man to his important meetings. No man is an island, as they say.

But we are told in a most interesting blog that Americans don’t believe in luck: the majority of Americans tend to side with the wealthy in believing that the poor, for example, are poor because they are lazy. This is nonsense: few of us are poor simply because we lack effort any more than the wealthy have a “right” to money and prestige: it is in large part luck, good or bad. We may have worked hard to be where we are, but we have been lucky and have had a good deal of help from a great many other people — or failed to have it when we needed it most.

Much has been said about the infamous 1% who control nearly half of the wealth in this country and who are in the process of buying the government outright. And in this discussion it is also noted that the middle class is shrinking while the poor are becoming more numerous. The plan on the political right is to make it even more the case that “property and privilege” control the way things are done in this country and “human rights” are largely ignored — such basic things as food, shelter, and an education sufficient to allow ordinary citizens to gain a foothold in the political process and a job that pays more than minimum wage.

We may or may not be better off than we were four years ago. But we are decidedly further away from Jefferson’s ideal now than we were when he wrote that remarkable document. Surely we need to remind ourselves again and again why we fought for independence from Great Britain and restore the notion of “unalienable” human rights to the center of politics where they belong.

Legal Abuse?

The U.S. Supreme Court is in the news again with the decision in the latest case expected to be ideologically based, as usual. In this case. the Court is listening to arguments regarding Arizona’s immigration law that the U.S. Government insists violates federal immigration laws. It would appear the main issue is over states’ rights. Does Arizona have a right to deal with immigrants or is that the purview of the U.S. government?  There are other issues with the law as well, however: its implications are most interesting. On the face of it, the law seems fairly straight-forward.

The law makes it a state crime for illegal immigrants to seek work or fail to carry proper immigration papers, and also requires police officers to check immigration status and make warrantless arrests for immigration crimes in some cases.

The government’s argument insists that a state (any state) dealing with immigration can interfere with international discussions and possible dealings between this country and its neighbors. What this means, I take it, is that Arizona could foul up relations with Mexico (in this case) and create tensions between the countries. In fact, it could create an international incident. This would appear to be a legitimate concern, but, from what I have read, the U.S. government isn’t making a very strong case — even with the justices who would tend to agree with the government’s position. Perhaps it is time for the federal government to hire some competent attorneys. In any event, the issue of racial profiling and the possible abuses that might arise from it are equally compelling.

On the face of it, the procedure of stopping “suspicious” looking people and asking them for their papers would seem to be fairly straight-forward and makes the rest of us feel safe and cozy in our split-level house in the suburbs.  But it most assuredly is not. Not only does it involve racial profiling, as mentioned. It also raises the specter of a police state with power given to local authorities to stop anyone who seems “suspicious” and detain them for as long as they deem it necessary, even incarcerate them should they “seek work.” Needless to say, there were a number of protesters outside the courthouse worried about the implications of this decision as it bears on all immigrants. What is it again that is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty?

At the risk of committing the “slippery slope fallacy,” I do worry that excessive power granted to any police force is a dangerous thing. I would prefer to err on the side of the rights of individuals not to be stopped because they are regarded as “suspicious” by a group of high school graduates wearing police uniforms and carrying guns. The attorneys for Arizona insist that this would not happen, but the law allows it and we know from history that what is possible often becomes the case. This law leaves the door wide open for abuse, a failing humans seem to have in abundance.

 The article alludes to this concern: Justice Anthony Kennedy, generally the court’s swing vote, asked repeatedly about how long someone would be detained while a police officer checked his or her status. “What if it takes two weeks,” to determine someone’s status, he asked. Paul Clement, representing Arizona, said it would take an average of only 11 minutes. Verrilli [for the U.S. government] countered that it takes 70 minutes, when you take into account the hour wait to get through to the federal government’s databases. Surely, Verrilli could have done better than this!  Was he going for laughs? Indeed, the question of how long officials in Arizona could detain “suspicious” people is the key here. And Verrilli could have made a stronger case though, given its recent history, the Court is inclined to rule in favor of Arizona no matter how strong a case the government makes. And it is a good bet that’s what the Court will do.