Sunday, August 20, 2017

I live in the American heartland, and you probably do, too

Unless you live in another country, but in that case, the odds are that you live in that country’s heartland. If that statement strikes you as odd, it’s probably because of the way the word heartland is deliberately misused.

On the surface, the word might seem to refer simply to a country’s geographical interior, but in America it has layers of meaning far beyond that. In America, the use of heartland escalates during election season. I say “escalates” rather than “increases” because the word is used as a weapon. It’s also a dog whistle and a push on a button, and it’s effective in both regards. The heartland is understood to mean America with the evil, degenerate coasts removed. The East and West Coasts, at any rate; the Gulf Coast is increasingly iffy. The heartland also excludes inland cities that are dominated by the same evil degenerates. Those are political liberals of all kinds, racial and ethnic minorities, and academics. Because of the latter, university towns are also not part of the heartland. Gulf Coast cities such as Houston and New Orleans are also excluded from the heartland.

What’s left is taken to represent the real America. The so−called heartland’s racial and ethnic makeup, its religiosity, social attitudes, presumed disdain for learning, even its preferences in music, sports, and movies—all of these are what the Founding Fathers intended America to be. Everything not part of the heartland is an aberration.

Of course, this is absurd in terms of both numbers and history.

By 2010, the United States had reached an urbanization level of 81%, and that number is still increasing. Even the South, the least urbanized section of the country, is 76% urbanized. Worldwide, the percentage of the population living in urban areas is almost 55%. That number is growing steadily. It will be two−thirds by 2030. By mid−century, almost two−thirds (64%) of the population of the developing world will be urbanized; in the developed world, the number will be 86%. The worldwide average will be 70%. Nearly all future population growth worldwide will occur in urbanized areas.

The word civilization derives ultimately from the Latin word civitas, meaning city. That’s not coincidence. Cities are the source of civilization and its driving engine. How do we discover an ancient civilization whose existence was previously unknown? We find signs of its cities. Cities have always been the home of culture, learning, science, technology, innovation, art, and liberation from social and religious shackles. From the ancient coastal cities of the Philistines to Rome to London to New York to Los Angeles, their lure is irresistible. “Come to us,” they say to the countryside, “and give your mind and soul free rein.”

Fewer than a fifth of Americans live in that countryside, and that percentage is shrinking. Their world is dying. Jobs are disappearing, their young are leaving for the jobs and lifestyle opportunities of the cities, and even their life expectancy is dropping. (They do produce much of our food, but even that is under the control of giant corporations with headquarters in major cities.) They resent the cities and believe comforting myths about their moral superiority to decadent urbanites—attitudes that politicians are quick to appeal to—but the world ignores them and leaves them ever further behind.

Occasionally, years later, one of those young people returns to the home town to retire. Nostalgia, cheap housing, aged family members who need help—there are numerous reasons for the move. For a time, they may well feel that they’ve finally come home again. That probably doesn’t last for long. It’s more likely that they’ll feel a powerful need to keep in touch with the city life they left. The Internet, cable television, and the Interstate Highway system give them access to that previous life. They haven’t really immured themselves again in the old home town—which is no longer the town they remember and perhaps never was. The town has changed; they’ve changed even more.

Politicians will keep using the image of the heartland as a rhetorical device to appeal to voters in non−urban, non−university−town America. They will pretend to be just like those voters. They will continue to address crowds while wearing painfully new blue jeans. They’ll arrive at rallies in rented pickup trucks. In time, those politicians will decrease in number and importance along with their constituency.

Cities create and control our culture, our wealth, our lifestyles—in America, everything but our politics. Even that will change. The disproportionate political influence of non−urban voters is due to voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the absurd Electoral College. The process might be slow and painful, but in time, urban population growth and demographic changes will finally eliminate even those injustices and aberrations. Meanwhile, the rest of the country, the supposed heartland, contributes little to American civilization and less every year.

The non−urban population is increasingly irrelevant and properly ignored. In what sense can this small and dwindling population be called the heartland? Clearly, the true heart of America beats in its cities. Cities are the heartland of America and increasingly of the world.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

God Must Exist Because Nature Is So Gosh Darn Wonderful

I came across a blog post in which the writer gushes about the beauty of the world and its profound effect on her. She concludes that it must be hard work to be an atheist because atheists have to actively deny the god whose existence is revealed by all of this gosh-darned wonderfulness. This isn’t a new argument. Psalm 19 says it this way: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” The blog post, however, tried to be very down to earth, focusing on insects and plants and the loveliness of the writer’s immediate surroundings. Above all, the piece lauded the writer’s emotional reaction to all of that as proof of God’s existence.

(The argument that the universe is a such a complex, remarkable machine that it could only have been designed by a gigantic intelligence—i.e., God—is known as the Argument from Design. I think we should call this minimized and highly subjective and emotional version of that argument the Argument from Gosh Darn Wonderfulness.)

It should go without saying that your emotional reaction to the universe is not data about the universe. It’s not a measurement of what’s outside you. It doesn’t tell us anything about the nature of the universe; it only tells us something about you. This should go without saying, but apparently it does need to be said. Unfortunately, emotional reactions are commonly regarded as a meaningful way to measure reality. The deliberate confusion of subjective impressions and objective data is the basis of bestselling books, not to mention successful political campaigns and religions with hundreds of millions of adherents.

So let’s pretend that your emotional reaction to the beauty of nature really does point to the existence of something powerful and supernatural behind the material reality surrounding you. That’s not a new idea, either. Primitive peoples have been imbuing nature with spirits of all sorts for ages. Perhaps that began even before our ancestors were recognizably human. Why do you conclude that the supernatural power you think you sense is the god you learned about as a child and not one of those spirits your primitive ancestors believed in? Perhaps you’re sensing the presence of the ancient Greek gods, or gods more ancient than those, or other supernatural beings none of our ancestors knew about. The possibilities are not limited to the god you were taught to believe in. Rather, the possibilities are literally limitless; the human imagination, as manifested in the creation of a multitude of religions, has only scratched the surface of supernatural silliness. Make up your own gods! They will serve to explain that feeling of something more than the material universe just as well as the single god the Jews, Christians, and Moslems worship.

But let’s pretend that the magical something behind reality can only be the god you’ve been indoctrinated to believe in. The pagan gods and primitive animism are foolish, and only your monotheistic god makes sense (because we’re pretending, after all).

Let’s look at this beautiful world that fills you with an awareness of a wonderful, astonishing, beautiful intelligence behind it. This lovely world is filled with fluffy clouds and chirping birds and hyperactive squirrels and placid, chewing rabbits—I mean, bunnies—and rustling leaves and dappled shade and butterflies and a blue sky above. Oooh! It’s like a Disney cartoon!

Am I being flip? No, I’m being snide. Do you think this represents only a superficial parody of the theist’s view of the gosh-darned wonderfulness of nature? No. It’s the theist’s view that’s superficial and silly. Look beneath the surface of the cartoon, and you see a horror show.

Those playful squirrels eat baby birds alive when they get the chance. The cute bunnies are likely to be torn to pieces by cats, dogs, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and hawks. Cats are killed by dogs, dogs by coyotes, and on an on. And that’s just at the level visible to the human eye. At a small level, the same is happening in the insect world. Beneath that, the same is true in the microscopic world. Nature red in tooth and claw, indeed. Behind the cartoon lies a constant struggle to eat but not get eaten. Horrible, agonizing death surrounds you.

The god that could create this and allow it to continue would be a monster. The cartoon version of reality may fill you with spiritual feelings. The reality behind it makes me glad that I don’t believe in—let alone worship—your evil god.

But let’s look up. Never mind the awfulness below. Instead, consider the beauty of the heavens. Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said, “I can see how it might be possible for a man to look down upon the earth and be an atheist, but I cannot conceive how a man could look up into the heavens and say there is no God.” I suspect that quote is apocryphal, but let’s assume it’s genuine.

Look up on a dark, clear night, and what do you see? Wonder, unless you’re dead inside. Indeed, the universe is far more beautiful and wonderful and amazing than we can see with our human eyes. Astronomy is constantly revealing new astonishments. Perhaps the wonder of all of this makes you praise God. It makes me praise the science and the scientists that reveal it to us.

If this astounding universe was created by a supernatural being of immense power and intelligence, then he put unbridgeable distances between civilizations. We are almost certain that other civilizations exist across the universe, many of them far more advanced than ours. What beautiful thoughts, enlightenment, art, and science have they produced? We’ll almost certainly never know. If God existed, he would be a cosmic father who produces innumerable beautiful, loving children and then locks each one of them away in a soundproofed room.

And more than that. The beautiful stars have a finite lifetime, and therefore every civilization in the universe is doomed to destruction. Not only will the wonders each civilization produces never be communicated to the rest of the universe; at some point, those wonders themselves will be destroyed and cease to exist entirely.

The blog post I referred to in the beginning said that, faced with such beauty, it must be hard to be an atheist. It requires effort to deny the immense and beautiful mind behind the beauties of nature. In a sense, it’s true that atheism involves effort. The atheist understands that nature is mindless and that we make our own goodness and beauty. There is no invisible daddy in the sky directing everything and rewarding and punishing us. Being a grownup is demanding, and we accept that role.

It takes an effort to be a theist, too. It requires deliberate blindness to revere a being who would be a monster if he existed. It requires remarkable mental gymnastics to cope with the contradictions and logical absurdities inherent in that belief. And it requires looking only at the surface of the world, and only at part of that surface, so that you can continue to believe that nature is just so gosh darn wonderful.

Friday, December 09, 2016

The Immigrant, His Country, and Trump

© 2016 David Dvorkin 

  In “America,” Neil Diamond sang of immigrants coming to America and never looking back. That’s true of some immigrants, but it’s not a common feeling. Those who immigrate as adults, or even as teenagers, rarely feel entirely at home in their new country.

Most of the millions of Jews who fled the pogroms of the Russian Empire came to America. Overwhelmed by homesickness, many of them went back again. They preferred the dangers and restrictions of life in Russia to the everpresent feeling of being strangers in a strange land. That feeling has always been a central part of the immigrant experience.

Those who stay in the adopted country usually don’t become truly part of it. My paternal grandparents fled Russia for England when they were a young couple. She died in her 30s. My grandfather never did learn English, even though he lived in London to an old age—in a Jewish neighborhood, surrounded by Yiddish. The creation of such ethnic neighborhoods, shelters from the alien world outside, a recreation of the old homeland to the greatest degree possible, is also a central part of the immigrant experience.

By contrast, outwardly, my adjustment to America was easy when I came here as a teenager. English is my native language, and I had grown up in a Western environment in South Africa. I’m white, and I wore the same clothes as American teenagers. Moreover, I didn’t move into an ethnic ghetto.

But I missed South Africa fiercely. I always felt like an outsider. My accent, my attitudes, my viewpoints all marked me as one. When I became a citizen, I wasn’t entirely sure that I was doing the right thing. I admired the principles espoused by the Founding Fathers, but mine was a detached, intellectual admiration, not an emotional response to the idea of the American Revolution itself. I’m an American, but I’m not stirred by patriotic songs or waving flags.

The hypocrisy of America angered me back then and still does. I’ve heard expressions of racism every bit as vile as anything I heard in Apartheid−era South Africa. America, the country that touts itself as a moral exemplar to the world, was built on genocide and slavery. Throughout its history, waves of nativism and xenophobia have engulfed it. I listened, read, and judged. This detached feeling of judgment is yet another common part of the immigrant experience.

Some will say that I should return to South Africa. But the immigrant, no matter how ill at ease he may feel in his new country, is also no longer a part of the old one. Apartheid was in force when I left South Africa; it’s a very different country now. Even if it were still under white rule, the country would have changed enormously in the almost 60 years since I left. More to the point, inevitably, those 60 years have changed me fundamentally. I have absorbed far more of America than I probably realize.

(Mind you, I didn’t spend those 60 years not participating in America. After high school, college, and graduate school, I went to work for NASA. I was one of the people who sent Americans to the moon. Later, I was part of the team that sent unmanned American landers to Mars. I like to think that I have contributed significantly to, well, I have to say it, making America great.)

In the last few years, I began to feel a welcome sense that the internal struggle about my true national identity was resolving itself. With great relief, I found myself feeling American at last—just American, nothing else, truly part of this country. Sixty years! It had taken an absurdly long time, but finally here it was, a feeling of belonging, of being at home.

Much of this change was probably due simply to the passage of time. I think that to a considerable degree, though, it was because of the direction the country seemed finally to be moving in. The racists who came slithering out from under their rocks when Barack Obama was elected seemed to be a minority. Despite the occasional retrogression, the country was becoming more accepting—most noticeably of gays and gay marriage, but also of other formerly spurned groups. The political power of religion was diminishing. Progressive legislation was moving forward. Some barrier holding us back had been broken. My optimism soared.

I was deluding myself. The 2016 election was my rude awakening. Yes, Trump, the bloviating carnival barker, lost the popular vote by a huge margin and only won the election because of massive voter suppression combined with that antidemocratic monstrosity, the Electoral College. But what his victory exposed—what had already been exposed during the campaign—was just how much primitive hatred there is in this country, how many of my fellow Americans hate anyone who’s different from them, and how much they hate the very progress that had filled me with optimism.

Perhaps the racists who exposed themselves in 2008 are a minority, but if so, they’re a far larger minority than I realized. Their racism extends to a xenophobia that seems to know no bounds. The extent and intensity of American Islamophobia is stunning. Homophobia and anti−semitism are not far behind. For years, the haters hesitated to be entirely open with their hatred. No longer. Trump has legitimized them. 2008 was not a last gasp, as I thought at the time; it was the tip of the iceberg.

Maybe I was being naïve. Maybe nothing had changed, and I was only seeing what I wanted or needed to see. What I am sure of is that the country I finally felt part of has suddenly revealed itself as another country entirely, a place filled with hatred and rage. Madness is in control. What is this land? Am I truly a part of it?

I am adrift again.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

No, It’s Not Hillary’s Job To Persuade You To Vote for Her

If you can vote, you’re at least 18 years old. You’re not five. It’s up to you to choose whether to eat oatmeal or arsenic.

Your job – your duty – as a citizen is to use your single vote as wisely as possible. Insisting that you be pulled irresistibly to the polling station by your emotions, and if you don’t feel that pull, you won’t vote, is not wisdom. It’s childish petulance.

Of course there are political realities. The Clinton camp will be laboring mightily to unify the party and focus its resources on the campaign. That’s their job, right now. But that doesn’t relieve you of your civic duty to decide where your vote goes.

Be wary of candidates who are adept at pushing your emotional buttons. Politicians want you to be ruled by your emotions. The adult voter ignores the shouted character assassinations and the yanking at heartstrings and chooses as rationally as possible from the list of candidates with a real chance of winning the presidency. In practice, of course, that means choosing between the Democrat and the Republican. It’s your duty to decide which of those two will do the most good – or the least harm – to you, to future generations, to the country, to the world. It’s also your duty to admit to yourself that refusing to vote for the Democrat is not a way of making a point; it’s merely a way of voting for the Republican.

I repeat: It’s not Hillary’s job to make that decision for you. It’s your job.

Now, grow up and eat your oatmeal.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Downton Abbey, the Aftermath

According to the spoilers, all’s well that ends well in the Downton Abbey finale, with loose ends nicely tied up or heading that way, and considerable happiness all around. That’s the kind of ending I Ilike.
But what happens next?
The last episode of the series is set on New Year’s Day, 1926. That means that a very major event is coming up quickly: the stock market crash, beginning on Wall Street and spreading around the world. Fortunes will be wiped out overnight. Fortunately for the Abbey gang, thanks to the wise management of Matthew, Tom, and Mary, all will be well, and the placid life of privilege will continue in that isolated little corner of Yorkshire.
But not so across sea. We know that Cora’s American family are extremely wealthy speculators. They will lose everything. Impoverished and humiliated, they will take refuge in England, where no one knows them and where they can sponge off Robert (who owes them a debt from decades ago, when he married Cora Levinson and got her fortune along with her).
Of course, the English family (except for Tom, perhaps) is more than a bit embarrassed by these crass family-members-by-marriage. Robert stuffs them all into one of the empty, outlying farms, and the well-brought-up Downton family members try politely to ignore them. The American visitors transform into permanent residents and offend all but the most brutish locals with their bumptuousness. On the bright side, this provides many an opportunity for nasty witticisms from Lady Mary and the Dowager Countess.
Romances and rivalries between the two family branches are inevitable.
This sequel series could go on for generations of Crawleys and Levinsons. All that’s lacking is the writer. I volunteer.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Windows Live Writer lives again

If you’re reading this post, it does. If you can’t see this post … Well, in that case, never mind.

Thanks to a an online article by Vinod Kardam, I can once again post to my Blogspot blog using Windows Live Writer, which is both an excellent offline blog post editor for Windows and free.

The process is a bit cumbersome and involves turning on 2-step verification for Gmail and then generating an app-specific password for Live Writer that replaces the Google password Live Writer used to use to log into Blogspot. After that’s been done, you can turn off 2-step verification again, if you prefer.

In June of this year, there were reports that Microsoft planned to turn Live Writer over to an open-source group, which would enhance and maintain it. I can’t find anything more recent than June 2015 about that, however, and I’m growing skeptical. Until that happens, or if it doesn’t happen and some other change at Blogspot once again renders Live Writer unable to log in, this fix makes Live Writer usable again.

Thank you, Vinod Kardam.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Christians Ask the Wrong Question

That question takes various forms, but it boils down to this: "If they don't fear eternal punishment, what is there to keep atheists from committing the most horrendous of crimes?"

Other atheists have pointed out that Christians who ask this question are admitting that only the fear of eternal punishment keeps them from committing the most horrendous of crimes. The question says far more about those Christians than it does about atheists. It makes one suspect that they are dangerous neighbors.

But let's look at this from another perspective: That question is the wrong question.

Philosophically, Christianity is undermined by the problem of evil. But it's also undermined by the problem of good.

We know that atheists do not commit crimes, horrendous or otherwise, at a greater rate than Christians do. In fact, atheists are more law-abiding than Christians. Why, atheists are even more genuinely charitable than theists. Christians who personally know atheists are surely aware that these people tend to be nice, peaceful, law abiding, devoted to their families, and all of the other virtues generally associated with a yearning for Heaven and a dread of Hell.

Clearly, Christians should be asking themselves how their fundamental assumption can be true. Instead of asking atheists what keeps them from doing terrible things, Christians should be asking themselves how they can continue to believe that only the fear of eternal punishment keeps people on the straight and narrow path when evidence surrounds them that this fear is not required. The existence of so many good atheists is sufficient disproof.

The correct question is, "In the face of this evidence, how can I continue to believe that the fear of damnation is essential for moral behavior?" After all, when faced with a wealth of evidence that shows that one of your cherished beliefs is incorrect, the rational, logical, sane reaction is to abandon that belief.

Well, we all know that people don't behave that way. Presenting evidence that undermines someone's beliefs can make that person hold onto those beliefs even more strongly; this is known as the backfire effect. So, pointing out to a Christian that the abundant number of good atheists whose behavior is morally superior to that of most of their Christian neighbors proves that he's wrong to think that only the fear of eternal punishment keeps people from doing evil will only make him insist even more loudly that nothing keeps atheists from being evil because they don't fear damnation.

When asked what keeps them from committing evil, atheists sometimes become defensive. They'll insist that they are, too, good people. They'll quote statistics about the goodness of atheists, as I did above. They'll demonstrate to their own satisfaction that religion is not required for morality and that the Bible is a horrifying chronicle of monstrous evildoing by fictional characters we are supposed to admire and emulate. They will discuss evidence of primitive moral codes among lesser species and the commonality of basic moral ideas across cultures and centuries, demonstrating that morality is not a product of religion and appears to have evolved as a necessary element in the evolution of human society.

I suppose there's nothing wrong with this, except for the "defensive" part. Debating the origin of human moral codes without referring to the Bible is worthwhile, and assuming a posture of moral superiority when debating Christians has its own charms. But we know that none of this will win any debates. Christians will just keep repeating their silliness, often wearing an impervious, bland smile while doing so. (One of them came to our door a few days ago. He insisted that, although he hadn't witnessed it himself, he was convinced that people did levitate, and it was because demons gave them the power to do so. That smile never left his face.)

I think that nonetheless it's worth pointing out that Christians are asking the wrong question because doing so changes the terms of the debate. As I said, the question they do ask, the one mentioned at the beginning, puts atheists on the defensive, puts them in the position of thinking they have to prove something, when in fact they have nothing to prove. We need to turn the debate around by asking Christians how they can continue to claim that fear of eternal punishment is necessary when the existence of so many good atheists proves it's not. To maintain a belief in the face of contrary evidence may be a common human failing, but it remains completely illogical. Force Christians to defend that illogical, irrational position.

Why does this matter? Because fervent Christians, the very ones who will cling to their silliness all the more fervently when presented with contrary evidence, are not the real targets of these debates. The target is those for whom there is still hope: those beginning to doubt, those who never fully committed, those who believe but are nonetheless still responsive to reason (because the backfire effect is very common but not universal; not everyone reacts that way all the time). These are the people of whom we need to ask the right question: "How do you account for the existence of good atheists?"