Saturday, January 31, 2015

The State of the US Race for 2016

It may not be too soon to say that Jeb Bush will be the Republican nominee in 2016. I'd say he is now the odds-on favourite.

Romney has pulled out. He saw little breathing room for his candidacy. That means the Republican establishment is closing ranks. They have made their choice, on the traditional basis: it's Bush's turn. Romney has “had his chance,” and Bush is old enough that he is unlikely to get another. Other candidates are young enough that they will.

The Republican establishment, the professionals, almost always get their way in the end.

Christie will probably stay in as an establishment backup in case Bush stumbles. Huckabee will probably hold down the Christian right, Ted Cruz or perhaps Rick Perry the Tea Party, Rand Paul the Libertarian wing, assuming they all go in, all able to make good showings. But with the planned big bang in the South very early on, there probably will not be time for the rest of the field to shake out quickly enough to leave a clear alternative to Bush, until the nomination is all but locked up.

In the meantime, word is that Hillary Clinton's numbers are starting to fall rapidly. This was predictable. In fact, I predicted it here. She was riding high on sheer name recognition, with people not yet focused on the race. Now that the race has tentatively begun, with Jeb Bush virtually in, people are beginning to pay attention and to look around.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Christian Revival in Europe?

A writer living in Paris claims he sees early signs of a Christian revival: the churches in that city are now, he says, SRO.

Purely anecdotal, but I would not be surprised. In fact, I am surprised it has not happened already.

A lot of commentators, especially on the left, argue that with increasing prosperity and development, religious faith inevitably wanes. And there is something, no doubt, to that: blessed are the poor. But America has for a long time shown itself to be much more religious than Europe, and America is also more developed and prosperous, on the whole, that Europe; so that cannot be the only factor.

Christianity is currently under attack, in direct religious terms: on the one side from militant Islamism, massacring the Christians of the Middle East, and on the other from militant atheists, questioning traditional religious rights. It would be very strange if there were not, in response, a large-scale rallying to the cross.

And if this giant wakes—its current attackers would be dwarfed by it. It would immediately become the single most significant factor. There are simply a lot more Christians in the world than either atheists or Muslims.

It is quite likely to happen.

It would be a very good thing. It would be the revival of Europe and the West; it would be a matter of rediscovering their raison d'etre, their meaning and purpose. Christianity is the rock upon which Western civilization is built. Anything not built on the slopes or on the pinnacle of that rock is built only to be washed away.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

At the Post

Mr. Charisma.
Things are happening early and fast in the US Republican 2016 field. A number of hands seem to have been forced by Jeb Bush's pretty definite signs he is in. Others now need to move to prevent him from locking up an insurmountable lead among donors and operatives.

As previously noted in this space, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney promptly signalled they are in. Both are, as is the way, immediately being attacked as entirely unsuitable candidates. This is an indication of just what strong candidates they really are. If they were not genuinely potential nominees, nobody would care this early. Now we've seen Bobby Jindal signal that he is in, and Paul Ryan that he is out.

Ryan: It makes sense for Ryan to stay out this time. He would have been a second-bet establishment candidate, in case first-bet Bush bumbled. With Romney in, that position is now filled. He has no regional base if Scott Walker, from his own home state, comes in. Most importantly, he is young; establishment donors would feel int is “not his turn,” and he can indeed afford to wait. A weak third-string bid this time would only damage his future chances.

Jindal: Jindal has a snowball's chance in Louisiana of winning. He has been an extremely good governor, and deserves the exposure. But he has first call on no obvious party constituency. Nor does he have the sort of charisma that might allow a dark-horse candidacy to catch fire. My guess is that he will get funding and backing from Republicans who want to see a display of the party's diversity in the race. He will be given enough to make a decent show, but is really running for vice president or the cabinet. That is why his recent foreign policy speech sounded tough: that is the role of the bottom of the ticket, to talk tough and rally the base. To speak loudly and carry a small stick.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Charlie Hebdo or the Terrorists: Choose One

Trust me: this Kool-Aid, you don't want to drink.

Most of the discussion of the recent Charlie Hebdo massacre seems to be caught inside a particularly terrible fallacy of the false alternative: either Charlie Hebdo is in the right, in publishing their satiric cartoons, or the Islamist terrorists were, in shooting them all dead. The Pope's recent remarks, that insulting someone's religion is like insulting someone's mother, ought to have been helpful. But it seems the Vatican had to follow up by patiently explaining that this did not mean he was endorsing murder as the proper response to bad manners.

Is that clear enough? It was pure evil to shoot the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, let lone the random customers of a kosher supermarket. On the other hand, Charlie Hebdo was and is a disreputalbe publication nobody should want to glorify. I say that even as someone who despises Canada's “hate laws” as an intolerable intrusion on freedom of speech. If the French government, or any government, sought to ban cartoons showing the dangly bits of a prophet who shall not be named, say, or art showing Jesus in a jar of urine, this could probably be justified as a matter of public peace, and could easily be done without infringing on freedom of speech. The matter is parallel to laws against pornography: this too is not a free speech issue. In fact, such things are barriers to freedom of speech, which perhaps are in the public interest to remove.

The classic defense of freedom of speech in its most extreme form is John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. And he does not shy away from the topic of religion specifically. In fact, he takes it as his example, to show that religious beliefs are not exempt. We cannot know the truth of anything without full presentation of all relevant arguments and evidence. To have all the evidence is most especially important in the case of the most especially important truths, which would be religious truths. Therefore, there must be open and unrestricted religious discussion, without any censorship of anyone's arguments or opinions.

And I agee absolutely with John Stuart Mill. This makes me a radical advocate of freedom of speech, a libertarian on this issue in current political parlance. But note that Mill is speaking of “arguments,” “evidence,” and “opinions.” Pornography, for example, is none of these; no democratic discussion is curtailed, no possible truth is suppressed, no freedom of speech is impeded, if a government passes laws against public indecency. Contrary to common current belief.

Surely simple insults against others' religions or religious opinions fall into a similar category. They are not in themselves arguments, evidence, or opinions. They are just provocations, as the Pope says, like saying "your mother wear army boots."

Unfortunately, Charlie Hebdo seems generally to fall into this latter category. Just provocations; just insults.

Personal insults do not advance a good debate. Instead, they tend to poison the well, so that any real debate gets derailed and forgotten. You might have seen this yourself online: the notorious “flame war” phenomenon. As a result, all the world's parliamentary systems, with the apparent (and perhaps here significant) exception of some in La francophonie, have the established tradition of prohibiting “unparliamentary language,” words one is not permitted to say in a debate. These things are generally personal insults, and they are considered beyond the pale even though the regular laws or libel and slander are suspended.

In Westminster, for example, you cannot call your opponent a blackguard, a coward, a git, a guttersnipe, or a hooligan. You cannot say he is a sod, or slimy, or a wart. In Wales, you may not refer to the Queen as “Mrs. Windsor.” In Dublin, you may not call another honourable member a brat, a buffoon, a corner boy, a scurrilous speaker, or a yahoo. In New Delhi, you must not say he is a bad man, a bandicoot, a goonda, or a rat. In Hong Kong, you must not tell him to “stumble in the street,” or call his speech “foul grass growing out of a foul ditch.” In Ottawa, where we are especially sensitive to such things, you must not call him a parliamentary pugilist, say he is inspired by forty-rod whiskey, that he has come into the world by accident, is a dim-witted saboteur, a trained seal, or "the political sewer pipe from Carleton County." "Fuddle duddle," whatever it means, is also not allowed. In New Zealand, where they are less sensitive, you will nevertheless be ejected from the chamber for calling your worthy opponent's last comment “the idle vapourings of a mind diseased,” noting that “his brains could revolve inside a peanut shell for a thousand years without touching the sides,” or observing that he seems to have “the energy of a tired snail returning home from a funeral.”

It is easy to see, I think, that deliberate insults slung at someone revered by others for religious reasons could and perhaps should be treated in the same way in the public square, and could be prohibited without in any way interfering with honest debate, including debate over the truth of religions. An insult to Mohammed is not a legitimate comment on the teachings of Islam. It is ad hominem, irrelevant, and unworthy of the right honourable member.

It should go without saying that any such law or rule should apply equally in the case of all recognized religions.

Does saying this mean I believe you have the right to kill people who insult you or your religion?

Er, no. I'm also against killings in the House of Commons, actually.

Neither does it justify the hateful Canadian “Hate Laws,” which do indeed criminalize the statement of specific opinions or the mention of well-known facts. Nor does it justify European laws against “Holocaust denial,” and similar matters, like the current mad case that it is illegal in Turkey to say that the killings of Armenians in Turkey in the early 20th century was a genocide, and it is illegal in France to say it wasn't. These laws, by contrast, clearly violate John Stuart Mill's concept of freedom of speech. 

But an insult is not an opinion, and established parliamentary practice makes it fairly clear that the distinction can be made consistently.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Curses My Grandfather Taught Me

Gerald Vanluven Roney

My grandfather died when I was 11 or 12. I wish I could have known him better.

He had the Irish reverence for words and wordplay. His specialty was making up colourful mock curses. Here are the ones I remember:

"Wouldn't that just rot your socks!"

"Hell's bells and panther tracks! Dirty old man with a busted crutch!"

"A pox on you!"

"Liars, cheats and thieves!"

My father reminds me that whenever asked where something was, it was "down cellar behind the axe."

He also had his own wise sayings. One was "God hates a quitter."

I cherish these words; they give such a picture of the man. He was one of nature's poets.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Who Shot Charlie Hebdo?

With the current attacks in Paris, perhaps it is time again to make clear what exactly “religious fundamentalism” is all about. It is not the same as “religious extremism.” In fact, it is the opposite. The Christian religious extremists are all in monasteries. In Judaism, they are opposed to the existence of the State of Israel. In Islam, they are in the mosques, not in the streets.

“Religious fundamentalism” is real enough, and it is identifiable currently in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism. But it is a rather new thing. The term originally refers to a movement in US Protestantism that arose only in the early 20th century, which insisted on a strictly literal reading of the Bible. Precursors can be traced as far back as the late 19th century. Before that, importantly, nobody ever thought to read the Bible literally.

The term has since been applied as well to Islamic movements. I think fairly—the salient feature, a strictly literalist treading of the Quran and Hadith, is again the font from which all else flows. Including a strictly literal reading of the term “jihad.” Again, this movement appeared in the late 19th century, not before, and has grown in influence especially in recent decades.

In Hinduism, the same approach can be traced back to 1923. Roughly the same time. And it too is growing in recent years.

Now, why did this movement/these movements suddenly appear? What changed? What else has been growing at the same time? Simple answer: social science and scientism, i.e., the idea that the principles and techniques of science can be applied to all aspects of human life. Not coincidentally, Nazism and Communism arose at this same time and from this same concept: the application of scientific principles to human society and government.

Religious fundamentalism is, quite simply, the attempted application of the principles and techniques of science to religious texts and beliefs. It has, therefore, more to do with science than it does with religion. There is a reason why so many of the known terrorists and suicide bombers, notably including Osama Bin Laden, trained as engineers or medical personnel. And had not formally studied religion, or  been known previously to be devout. They weren't, and they aren't. Science is unrelentingly literalist in its approach to the world: what appears is what is, and there is nothing more behind it. Read the Bible or the Quran as if it were a science text, and you get fundamentalism.

This is less of a problem in Christianity than it is in Islam (or in Judaism), because even the literal reading of the specifically Christian texts is pretty non-violent. But it is important to understand what is happening.

The worst possible thing to do to end the current troubles with terrorism would be to blame it on “Islam” or on “religion.” It would make more sense to blame it on science, but that is not particularly helpful either. "Scientism," the elevation of science to the status of a religion, is the problem ,and should be aggressively fought. Next to that, the best solution is to ensure that everyone is better grounded in their given religious tradition.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Six Reasons Religion May Do More Harm Than Good

Notorious troublemaker.

An atheist friend has linked the following piece to his Facebook feed:

I'd like to respond, point by point.

1. Religion promotes tribalism.

Anything designed to bring people together—families, neighbourhoods, languages, telephones, governments, religions, Rotary Clubs—also, as a secondary effect, drives them apart. That is, those who are not part of the group are by its very existence more distinctly separate. But this is a secondary effect. Would the world be better if all such organizations were abolished? Pretty obviously not. Nasty, brutish, and short are the words that come to mind. And it makes no sense to single out religion here, except that it is the one organization that most reliably promotes the idea of the brotherhood of all.

Arguably, the presence of this undesirable secondary effect means we should strive to belong to the largest possible such organizations, since the larger they are, the more people they include and the fewer they exclude. We should have larger families, promote international organizations, and so forth. So, welcome to the Catholic Church, by most measures the world’s largest organization of any kind.

2. Religion anchors believers to the Iron Age.

This unchanging element of religion would be a concern if either truth or morality changed over time. But a truth that changes over time is never really true, and cannot ever be relied or built upon. If tomorrow, one plus one should suddenly equal seven, a lot of things would fall apart. Science, for one; bridges, for another. In the same way, morality that changes over time is no morality: if it is possible that tomorrow, murder may become the most moral of acts, then murder is not really immoral even now.

Of course, while truth cannot change, circumstances do. Religions understand this. This is why lending money at interest is no longer considered usury: because falling into unpayable debt no longer results in slavery or life in prison. And this is why to Catholics capital punishment is no longer justified: prison systems and better policing are now capable of dissuading and preventing further murders.

That religions retain some elements from as far back as the Iron Age is not a problem. God forbid we should respect our ancestors? Should we really assume they were wrong about everything? But it would be absolutely discrediting if religions retained nothing in terms of faith or morals from even as recently as the Iron Age. If that were so, we would have to presume that everything they teach now would similarly be obsolete a couple of millennia from now. Leaving no known truth.

Gullible believer.

3. Religion makes a virtue out of faith.

The piece acknowledges that “faith” in the religious sense means “trust.” It is troublesome, therefore, that it nevertheless holds that trust is a bad thing. It may not be cunning to trust; it may not always be in one’s self-interest. But if morality was always in one’s own self-interest, there would be no morality to it. If we did not trust one another to a reasonable extent, society would collapse. The more we trust one another, the more peaceful and prosperous society becomes. We therefore owe it to the general welfare to trust one another. Let alone God, who is self-evidently worthy of it.

4. Religion diverts generous impulses and good intentions.

This claim is tautological, because it makes sense only if you assume that religion itself is worthless; which is what it purports to demonstrate. If religion has value, contributions to religion have value. But it also relies on the fallacy of the false alternative: that people must give either to religion or to secular charities, and cannot give to both. In fact, studies show that the religious give more to both religions and to other charities than the non-religious. This is no doubt due to the fact that religions preach charity.

5. Religion teaches helplessness.

This is tautological in the same way: it can only be maintained on the assumption that God does not exist. If he does exist, it is only rational to rely on him. Only if he does not exist is the point arguable.

But even if he does not, the case for human self-reliance does not look all that good in practice. This rap against religion is the classic Marxist one, and the various Marxist attempts to improve the human condition by main force do not make a good impression. So too in personal life: one is reminded of the first three of AA’s twelve steps:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Power-mad tyrant.

6. Religions seek power.

What sort of power? The power of persuasion? Religions are voluntary associations; they cannot legally compel their members, much less anyone else, to do anything. You don’t like what you hear, you are always free to walk out that door. Nobody can stop you.

If you are worried about organizations seeking power, limit them all to the same rules religions live by.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

The State of the Race

Okay, now Mike Huckabee is in. Should be formidable. He has the strongest claim on the evangelical right, with growth potential because of his geniality and charisma. Kills Santorum’s chances, though.

Strongest candidates based on my idea that you need a faction behind you:

Jeb Bush has the establishment/party pros behind him.

Rand Paul has the libertarians.

Ted Cruz has the best claim on the Tea Party populists.

Mike Huckabee should pull the religious right.

There is room for one or two more establishment candidates, in case Jeb stumbles: Chris Christie, Mitt Romney if he decides to come in. Romney would have a real shot at it, running to the right of Bush. Paul Ryan or Scott Walker could probably mount a credible challenge in Iowa, and hope to snowball from there.

Carly Fiorina looks like she is going to come in on the strength of being a female, and Ben Carson on the strength of being black. People will bankroll them just to keep this diversity in the race, and there is always the possibility of lightning striking.

Can't see an opening for Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, or Bobby Jindal. Cruz takes Perry's oxygen, Bush and Cruz take Rubio's. Jindal has no natural constituency.

Edge to Jeb Bush, because the Republican establishment almost always gets its way, but there's many a slip.

None of it matters much. Some people follow baseball. I follow US politics.

Perhaps the more interesting race is on the Democratic side. In their hearts, I believe Democrats do not want to vote for Hillary Clinton. It would be just too boring. On the other hand, no plausible and motivating alternative has emerged yet.

Elizabeth Warren? She looks and sounds too much like Hillary to galvanize, even if her politics are different.

My best guess so far is Al Franken. He has some gimmick appeal: he would be the first Jewish president, after all.