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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Islamic Quote of the Day No. 1

"Striving after knowledge is a most sacred duty for every man and woman who has surrendered himself to God."
Most translations say every "Muslim man and woman" but I like the more universal translation better.
This is a quote from the prophet Mohammed.

It was this attitude that helped Islam outstrip the Christian West in science and culture for hundreds of years after Mohammed's death.  I like the quote because it not only refers to learning as a "sacred duty" -- something that has never seemed be a part of most Christian doctrine, but also because it puts men and women on the same level.

It also contains a recognition that at the time it was written, humanity had a lot yet to learn about the world.  And for those of us reading it today, it's a reminder that we still have a lot to learn.

Eric Hoffer Quote of the Day No. 8

"It is part of the formidableness of a genuine mass movement that the self-sacrifice it promotes includes also a sacrifice of some of the moral sense which cramps and restrains our nature."
This is a pretty smart observation; he might have been thinking of the Nazis, but today it applies to ISIS on an extreme level.  ISIS recruits for the most part did not endorse the brutal slaughter of innocents prior to joining the movement.  But by subordinating their selves to the greater good promised by the Islamic State, they have also sacrificed a key part of their moral sense -- the part of their moral sense that can tell right from wrong.

And, as the Nazi and ISIS examples tells us, a movement whose adherents have lost the ability to tell right from wrong can do a lot of damage in this world.

Of course, it's not just Nazis and ISIS -- see my previous post about genocides generally -- every one of those genocides was in fact a mass movement in which the participant-executioners had "sacrificed" their ability to tell right from wrong for the sake of the movement.

I still think my solution to the ISIS problem is the only one that has a realistic chance of working in the long run.  Again, the solution is to get all those rich Sunni Muslims (listed in my post, along with their assets) to sponsor a counter-movement, in which the unifying principle is that ISIS is a cancer on Sunni Islam that must be wiped out.  It would only cost a couple billion dollars, which is chump change to any number of those guys. The counter-ISIS could recruit from the same pool as the current ISIS, and it could promise a lot more to its prospective recruits.  The result is two-fold -- ISIS recruiting dries up, and a motivated fighting force is developed to destroy it, for all the right reasons.
If done right, perhaps the movement could even motivate ISIS fighters themselves to defect.

This would seem to be a vast improvement over leaving the fighting in the hands of Kurdish and Shia militias -- that sounds just too much like plain old sectarian violence to me; you know that even some of the "good" Sunnis out there (and the overwhelming majority of them are good people) may well be rooting for ISIS, a least on some level, in a conflict like that.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Eric Hoffer Quote of the Day No. 7

"The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause."
This resonates with me, except maybe the "holy cause" part, which I don't understand.  There are some "causes" that truly do transcend individuality and are worth devoting oneself to, and "claiming excellence for."  And I don't think "holy" necessarily means "religious" because he has already covered that.  Maybe he just added it because it sounded good at the end of the sentence.

The reason the quote resonates with me is that it contains the basic truth that there is little objective qualitative difference between varieties of the different semi-artificial constructs we call "nation," "religion," and "race."

Let's start with "nation," since that's easiest, and it's something even Albert Einstein and Leo Tolstoy agree upon:

"Heroism on command, senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism - how passionately I hate them!"  (Einstein)
"One would expect the harmfulness and irrationality of patriotism to be evident to everybody." (Tolstoy) 
There's not much more to say about this; for me, it's only a small leap to say that those who "claim all excellence for their nation" are somewhat less than excellent themselves.  That's not to say that some systems of government aren't better than others -- in principle at least, democracy is better than communism or totalitarianism.  But as between two countries with similarly democratic systems, why should one country think that it's better than the other?  Clearly, others have been here before me, so I won't belabor the point -- a good list of reasons patriotism is dumb is found here:

And yes, that's where I found the Tolstoy and Einstein quotes.

Religion is similar.  ISIS is appealing to exactly this point right now -- there are a lot of less than excellent young men and women out there who would like to be part of something that calls itself excellent.  And it is their very lack of excellence that allows them to persuade themselves that taking videos of brutal murders is somehow doing the right thing by God.

And of course, "race" is the same.  We can see it right now when we listen to the people who are still sticking up for state-sponsored display of the confederate flag.  I'm not quite saying that everyone who supports the idea of flying that flag over a state institution is a racist; my point is just that the people that I have seen quoted recently in support of the confederate flag seem to be really less than excellent individuals.  Their "less-than-excellence" fits Hoffer's prediction in any event, whether they are racist, patriotic (to the old South?), or believe in the confederacy as a "holy cause." 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Eric Hoffer Quote of the Day No. 6

"Self-righteousness is a loud din raised to drown the voice of guilt within us."
This has always been my suspicion when I see other people being self-righteous.  And sometimes I have even been able to confirm that suspicion; i.e., find out for a fact that the self-righteous person had much to feel guilty about.  So there's definitely some truth to this one.

But what about when I am being self-righteous?  In my mind, I never have been -- I'm always just "right" or maybe "righteous."  But I have a feeling that's how the people I think are "self-righteous" feel too. And, as Hoffer explains, they have been able to drown their voice of guilt with waves of self-righteousness.  Is it possible that I drowned my own voice of guilt a long time ago, and when I think I'm being "righteous," I'm merely being "self-righteous"?   Doubtless some people -- maybe even readers of this blog -- think I am, at least some of the time.

Here are some definitions of "self-righteous":

"having or characterized by a certainty, especially an unfounded one, that one is totally correct or morally superior."
"confident of one's own righteousness, especially when smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others."
Yes, that almost describes me and my corpus of written work.  It is characterized by a certainty that I am both totally correct and morally superior to whomever I am writing about.  As for "unfounded," don't ask me -- if I thought my correctness and superiority were "unfounded," I wouldn't be writing so much.  And likewise, I am confident in my own righteousness, and in many cases am smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions of some of the idiots I have written about.

So maybe this all means that I have a lot of self-righteousness in me.  

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Shakespeare Quote of the Day No. 1

“I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting”
It was true then, and it's true now.  And sadly, though we have had the ability to implement something like a Shakespearean solution for many years now, we haven't.  Instead, we have tolerated the various completely predictable crimes and misdemeanors committed by boys in that age group, and react only to throw them in jail, at great cost, after the crimes are committed.  That's no help to the boy, no help to the victim, and no help to society.

But wasn't Shakespeare onto something?  Science has since confirmed that the brains of boys don't finish growing until they are 24.  Before then, they have problems with impulse control.

Mark Twain made a similar point:

"When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he'd learned in seven years."

There needs to be a place where boys that age can go, and wait out those seven years (either Shakespeare's 16-23, or Twain's 14-21) productively.  Obviously, for the upper classes and the well-behaved, that's college and maybe even a bit of graduate school.  For the "motivated" among the lower classes, that's typically the military, as an enlisted person.

But what about the many others?  The ones who either don't qualify for college or the military or who simply refuse to enroll or enlist?

We need a program for them.

And since the alternative is so often jail, why not spend the money that we would otherwise spend on lawyers, police, courts, and prison housing them, supervising them, and, above all, teaching and training them?

We'd just call it the 16-23 program.  We take high school dropouts as young as 16, and we take anyone else 23 or younger.  We teach them to be electricians, plumbers, computer programmers, engineers, lawyers, you name it -- whatever they have the desire and the aptitude for.  Plenty of exercise and plenty of sports.   Just a highly structured, round the clock learning and developing experience.

How do we ensure that we get the kids who would otherwise end up in jail?  Well, maybe we send them there after their first minor conviction, or as part of a diversionary program.  And if someone wants to volunteer, they just have to establish that without some kind of structure in their lives, they will be a danger to society and themselves.

Obama's Legacy: Giving the Corporations Exactly What They Want

I had very high hopes for Obama.  But as his Presidency draws to a close, it appears that the two things that he is going to be remembered for -- and that he himself seems most passionate about -- are ObamaCare and the TPP.

I don't have time right now to go into what a sad and wasted opportunity ObamaCare was.  Suffice it to say that I agree with most of what Steven Brill has said on the subject.  Just google that.

As for the TPP, all I know about it is that it was drafted in secret by mostly multinational corporations.  Like any large trade agreement, it's probably bad for US workers, but it might bring us lower prices on some consumer goods, and it might open up new markets for the corporations that wrote it, and perhaps some of those benefits will inure to the United States in some way.

While the TPP might bring lower prices on some goods, it's virtually guaranteed to maintain higher prices on the goods that we crave the most -- goods that are covered by intellectual property; specifically patents and copyrights.  I'm not sure that all of the provisions regarding intellectual property are public, but if past trade agreements are any guide, those provisions will definitely have an adverse impact on consumers the world over -- keeping drug prices high, and making it harder to make fair use of copyrighted works.

As far as I can tell, Congress hasn't focused on the intellectual property aspects of TPP at all.  That's not on the public's radar, so it's an easy way for Congress to keep its corporate donors happy.  While Republicans clearly are the party of the rich, and Democrats clearly are the party of middle class workers, there is no party out there that cares the least bit about the effect of a proposed law on everyday consumers -- i.e. all of us.

Eric Hoffer Quote of the Day No. 5

"Someone who thinks the world is always cheating him is right. He is missing that wonderful feeling of trust in someone or something."
As one who thinks that other people and things -- i.e. salespeople, contractors, corporations, politicians -- are often cheating him, I picked this quote to try to learn from it.  Maybe it doesn't really apply to me.  I think the "world" itself has treated me very well, and I have no complaints about that.  And there are also people and things that I trust, and yes, it feels wonderful.

But there doubtless are many people out there who blame the "world" for their problems, and don't have anyone or anything they can turn to with a feeling of unqualified trust.  Those people can learn from this quote, and can work to seek out people or things to trust.

This can be very positive, as when a prison inmate truly finds God in some faith or other (whether it be fundamentalist Christianity, Buddhism, or peaceful Islam).  Religion can help those who have been ill-used by the world (and who have ill-used it in turn) find something outside themselves to trust, which in turn can confer a true sense of purpose and belonging.  And that can be a wonderful feeling.

Whether or not the stories that make up the particular religion chosen are "true" from a scientific perspective is hugely beside the point.  The point is that belief in something greater than oneself effects real changes in the human brain, and can lead to Hoffer's "wonderful feeling" and an impulse to make the world a better place.

Of course, the exact same principle can be used by manipulative monsters like the people running ISIS, not to mention many televangelists.  As I have explained elsewhere, ISIS offers a true sense of belonging to young people who might otherwise feel that they have been cheated by the world, and probably even gives them that "wonderful feeling" that Hoffer is talking about.