Wednesday, September 22, 2010

D'Souza is contrived.

I dislike Dinesh D’Souza. Ever since I first heard the man speak, I found his argument’s frequent use of thinly veiled personal attacks, and self-righteous incredulity to offend more than inform. If, however, D’Souza’s objective is to mimic the techniques of nasally know-it-all students, then he performs admirably. Therefore, when I read his recent article on Forbes.com, I felt an instant distaste at the words “most anti-business;” this distaste only increased over the course of the article, as D’Souza uttered an unconvincing and contrived analysis of Barack Obama’s intentions.

I would like to attack Dinesh as he attacks Obama. Perhaps by observing a few notes from Dinesh’s screeds against atheism (in particular) and for his beloved brand of Christianity, that massive growth of dead wood that is Catholicism. Then I could make the jump, similar to the one Dinesh makes about President Obama’s intentions and purpose, to conclude that Dinesh is a theocrat who supports the return of a Catholic monarchical system. The frightening thing about this supposition is that it is a thousand times more believable than Dinesh’s argument in Forbes.

I will not bore you with a point-by-point rebuttal of his polemic rant. Instead I will make a few observations about the policies mentioned in the rant, and follow by, as the kids say, “calling shenanigans” on his argument’s logic.

I suppose a first point to notice is that the stimulus and debt was well on the way to being “run up” to the trillions well before Obama took office. The stimulus, a point I assume Dinesh is taking veiled aim at, is of particular note. The economy is recovering slowly, and the influx of liquidity prevented sudden problems for the banks. Why? We need only look at the East Asian Financial crisis from a decade or so ago. The East Asian countries were producing things of value – goods that could be sold for profit. In fact, profit projections and sales were excellent. However, the countries could not make their debt payments in time, and needed a short-term influx of liquidity (cash) in order to pay their dues. The International Monetary Fund, ignoring the advice of economists and the like, overzealously chose to avoid a repeat of an earlier mistake (they had provided liquidity to countries that needed to go into bankruptcy because they weren’t producing anything of value to the world). They refused to provide short-term liquidity, and forced the East Asian Countries to ride it out. The result was an economic collapse the region is still recovering from. (Note: Since he doesn’t mention the OMB’s budget projections, I am assuming he was unaware of them, or didn’t care. Interestingly, the OMB numbers would lend credence to Dinesh’s fears about the debt, but not the reason for the increase.)

So when Dinesh questions why the government uses the standards it does for these banks (aside from the obvious answer that we’re competing with Europe, and our banks need to be able to withstand stress in order to appeal to foreign investors – though it doesn’t surprise me that Dinesh seems unaware of Europe’s highly publicized stress tests from this past summer), this follows from the desire to prevent a debt or liquidity crisis. Successful stress tests will mean that the banks can stand on their own, and will not require a second influx of taxpayer money to remain stable. It’s just as simple as that. And partial government oversight is due to the American people. Or does Dinesh wish to see small business and schools lose all their investments for the sake of big business? I didn’t realize he was so heartless and anti-heartland, based on what he implies.

I will not refute, at any real length, Dinesh’s claim that the wealthy are paying an unfair share of the income tax. When the top 10% control 90% or more of the nation’s wealth (remember, those numbers include corporations which operate under special tax structures, often very generous tax structures) then we see that the rich are not paying an amount proportional to their wealth.

On the matter of the Mosque, Dinesh is simply idiotic, regurgitating the spent arguments of the conservative base. Firstly, it’s a community center, not a Mosque. Secondly, it’s being built blocks away from ground zero. Thirdly, there was a Mosque for Muslims in the world trade centers, where Muslim Americans died – so it’s hard to imagine this “offending” the dead. I can see why it might offend people who see Islam as one large terrorist mass.

Strikingly, Dinesh doesn’t actually provide a reason as to why the community center shouldn’t be built. Let us not forget that Dinesh comes from a country at perpetual odds with its Muslim neighbor, Pakistan. Perhaps there is some latent nationalist tendency in his theocratic brain. I suppose, also, that Dinesh does not value the separation of church and state, and the freedom of expression – both of which lose if these people are not allowed to build their community center. We do not even need to touch upon the racial undertones to the ‘mosque’ protest – even without them the arguments against are all essentially ludicrous.

I also find the Obama administration’s choice to send a letter accepting the release of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi strange. But Dinesh misrepresents what the letter said, and then provides his own wishful interpretation.

The funding of offshore drilling in Brazil is meaningless. The fact is that funding a program like this can be used imperially, as it generates goodwill and dependence on the USA (and Brazil is a rising power who we want to trade with). Despite D’Souza’s willful ignorance, this issue can go both ways as imperial or anti-colonial.

Finally, NASA. Dinesh has good reason to object to an essentially scientific, secular organization reaching out on behalf of the government. If they succeed, they might expose people to the ideas of Carl Sagan and like-minded thinkers who have influenced the way scientists think about their role in the world. Imagine if NASA spread a humanist, secular message of peace and tolerance via the powerful imagery of space, and the equally powerful message sent by cooperating to bring other nations into space. On this matter I must chide you, Dinesh. You should understand such a basic moral principle as “everyone does their part.” I see no problem in using NASA to encourage Muslims to return to scientific modes of inquiry. Education correlates to reductions in violence very strongly and for many good reasons. Perhaps President Obama understands that bombing the uneducated, superstitious enemies of this Republic is less effective than bringing them into the modern world and giving them reasons not to fight with us.

Having set the stage by addressing Dinesh’s initial suppositions, let’s examine the structure and coherence of his argument. For those of you interested in short explanations: it’s all wishful thinking and lightly grounded assumptions. The gravity of the logic is so weak a child could kick it into the void.

To offer a longer explanation: Dinesh bases his argument on the idea that Obama is anti-colonialists because his absent father’s worldview (a distinctly African, anti-colonialist worldview) was the same. I am not entirely certain, but absent fathers usually don’t impart highly specified ideologies to their children. Perhaps someone who never really knew their father can provide more insight on this matter. As for Obama’s goals, Dinesh should also be aware of Obama’s admission that his mother and grandmother did most of the raising. And that his return to Africa concerned his search for self-identity, for a people to belong to and a history to call his own.

Also, Obama’s demonstrably moderate in his policies. I’m not sure why this is even an issue. Progressive Democrats object to his policies because they aren’t radical enough. Republicans object to his policies because of the radical fringe of the party that mobilizes to vote (as demonstrated by the recent primary victories for the Tea Party) and the disproportionate influence these people have. That, and the increasingly partisan nature of the Republican body politick (but that is a discussion for later).

The greatest difficulty for me comes from trying to understand why Dinesh thinks that Obama is ruled by his father’s ghost (not in the literal sense, ghosts being decidedly fictional). Simply because a man weeps at his father’s grave, and remembers his father’s mission of social justice, however misconceived that mission might have been, does not imply some vicarious, subtle and anti-colonial agenda.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Richard Dawkins is a vile man.

I feel impelled to write, in some small measure, about a personal experience that occurred just a few hours ago, involving myself, Richard Dawkins, a woman and my bed. As I lay in bed, essentially waiting for my alarm to go off (I have accustomed myself to it marking the day's beginning), a person entered the room (announced) and asked me to perform a number of tasks for her, mostly minor things that take not more than a few minutes to do.

However, as she finished this she noticed, on my bench, a copy of Richard Dawkins The God Delusion. It was then that she uttered an entirely salient point: "Richard Dawkins is a vile man. He twists everything to suit his own ends." This opinion had never occurred to me before. Richard (may I call you Richard?) and I have never met. But this woman "enlightened" me to the facts of the matter.

I spent the morning errands contemplating this opinion. I do not simply trust Prof. Dawkins. I am not inclined to believe anyone about anything, unless it is trivial, obvious, or supportable in some meaningful, demonstrable way. The vain exhortions of this believer swayed me not at all. Although she made her point in good faith, so to speak, I found it offensive.

I found it personally offensive because I am a skilled reader. I spend significant amounts of time trolling through data, searching for meaningful information. I understand that Prof. Dawkins (like anyone else) has an agenda and world-view that impacts his writings and arguments. An incentive structure exists for us all, and it encourages us to behave in particular ways. As a result, although Richard and I are in general agreement on matters concerning atheism and religion, I do not accept his arguments as unequivocal. I am uncertain that Dawkins is completely fair to religious institutions; on the other hand, I believe that he is absolutely right when it comes to modern religion and religiousness. But a nagging recess of my mind reminds me that the church built safe, secure churches in almost every European town, hamlet or city around 1000 CE, preserving the lives of many peasants. I am also reminded of the intellectual contributions of the church during these early periods, and the complicity of the orthodox church in the rule of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine). Even so, I weigh this against the numerous errors and repressions the church engaged in, particularly against scientific inquiry and even alternate versions of Christianity (many of them equally legitimate compared to Rome, though this is a discussion for another time).

The point is that when I conclude that religion is a fossil and dangerous in this day and age, I do not regurgitate Dawkins or anyone like him.

The second thing that struck me about this were the words, "You're really trying to not believe, aren't you?" uttered when this woman saw the book. The implications here are ludicrous, and I call shenanigans on her phrasing. First of all, I am not trying to disbelieve. In fact, given my upbringing and the recentness with which I rejected my beliefs, I would say that I spent more time trying to believe in this ludicrous superstition than anything else. I would even go so far as to venture that I would prefer for a god (or gods) of some sort to exist. I wish to pursue my interests unto eternity and continue to learn and understand new things. On the other hand, nonexistence didn't bother me before life, and it certainly won't bother me afterwards. But it isn't my preferred outcome. Even so, the practice of honesty and rigor must lead me to reject the occasionally comforting notion of providence.

But this mere intentional fallacy, committed by her, only annoys; there are more interesting parts to it. The vehemence which the words protested, and the implication that non-belief is less natural than belief, fascinate me far more. It seems to me that the believer, in its natural habitat, fiercely seeks to defend its position from its natural predator: truth. Although I cannot speak for her, I suspect that the non-belief many of us atheists attest acts as proxy and catalyst to the subtle doubts and fears that plague the minds of the "thinking faithful." In other words, we are uncomfortable reminders of the absurdity of faith.

So I conclude, tentatively, that faith occupies a more natural position than non-belief. People want this god delusion more than they want truth and facts. I think we will soon outgrow this infant disposition.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Christopher Hitchens

For those of you unaware, Christopher Hitchens (author of God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything has spent the past few months fighting against esophageal cancer. Mister Hitchens has turned pale and sickly, reminding me of my grandmother as she slowly deteriorated. It is not pleasant to see him this way, sallow and frail compared to his former self.

However, there is some good news. Even if his body falters, Hitchens remains a vivacious and powerful debater, recently trouncing the anemic David Berlinski. This comes as no surprise, Berlinski's arguments are yesterday's dirty laundry. He argues that Darwinist ideals drove Hitler, and Hitchens rightly repudiates these fetid claims. (I addressed some of these claims, and Hitchens regularly does so[4:20 seconds in the discussion begins].)

Hitchens's tumors have shrunk, according to recent statements, but this does not mean they are in remission. I sincerely hope that the treatments Hitchens receives will drive the cancer into a full retreat, but I cannot honestly say I am optimistic. When the immediate episode of this cancer comes to its conclusion, terminal or otherwise, I will write my full thoughts on Christopher Hitchens, a man I respect and admire.