sell your soul to sign an autograph

There’s a special election being held in Massachusetts today.

See, after a nine-term senator died of brain cancer – and let me tell you, nothing restores my faith in representative government than the son of America’s most popular political dynasty drowning a woman after driving while drunk, then going on to serve another seven terms – a seat opened up in Congress. This would merit nothing more than a historical footnote, except that this puts the Ruling Party’s balance of power at its most precarious point ever, at least since winning the Presidency and a majority in both Houses. So the Ruling Party nominated Massachusetts’ attorney general to run for the Senate seat, a prosecutor who (successfully) lobbied for a demonstrably innocent man to be denied parole, defended the most tragicomic overreaction of emergency personnel in the first decade of the War on Terror, and argued (unsuccessfully) before the Supreme Court that defendants should have no right to cross-examine the lab experts whose evidence may condemn them. The Opposition Party, never one to offer substance when style might serve, nominated a former centerfold who supports increased troop presence in America’s Least Winnable War (three-way tie), supports torture, and gives the same reluctant, caviling, yes-but-wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if support to a woman’s sovereignty over her own reproductive organs that any hardcore Opposition Party member who doesn’t advocate anarchy must give.

This election wouldn’t be half as critical were it not for the health care reboot bill trundling its way through Congress. If the Ruling Party maintains its tenuous hold on power (with the President and the majority in both Houses and all that), they just might manage to pass a bill that funnels money from the working poor to insurance companies by making health insurance mandatory. This bill was inspired by Governor Mitt Romney’s health care reboot in 2006, which the Opposition Party candidate voted for and still defends. But he opposes the current national plan. Meanwhile, the Ruling Party candidate drew some flack for saying that private morals were not a sufficient reason to deny someone contraception. And yet she would probably be called on to support the current health care reboot bill, which states that being on the “public option” is sufficient reason to deny someone an abortion. So we have one candidate who supports expanding health care coverage, except when he doesn’t, and one candidate who believes no one should be denied access to abortive medicine, except when they can be.

“But Professor,” people tell me, “if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.” You think I’m complaining?

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I watched the children scurry in circles around a two-way mirror

From a high enough perch, all of us are hypocrites.

Conservatives praise the power of the free market to fulfill desires, then rant about indecently dressed pop starlets and the drunken crowds downtown. Liberals insist that the government “keep its laws out of my bedroom,” unless, while in your bedroom, you enjoy consuming trans fats or homeschooling your children. Press either side on the apparent inconsistency and they can argue their way out of it (it’s a question of degree; this is an entirely different case; I’m not saying it should be illegal). And in many cases their arguments hold water. But inconsistency isn’t hard to find.

And I’m not excluding myself in this. I complain about how easy credit and cheap oil are ruining this country all the time. But I know how long I’d survive without my disposable contacts and allergy meds (smart money says nine months; I’m starting a pool).

So none of us are perfectly consistent.

I don’t raise this point to drag everyone down in the mud with me (“we’re all bastards; let’s own up to it; immanentize the eschaton; WAAAGH”). I raise it because I think consistency is a false flag. It’s not a useful tool for weighing ethics.

Break it apart: why is inconsistency such a bad thing? If I accuse someone of inconsistency, I say, “You chose one thing in one context and you chose another thing in a different context.” But we’ve already challenged the notion that there’s a single homonculus living in our brains that pulls the levers to make us go. Empirical science and the philosophy of consciousness suggest that our mind consists of multiple calculating modules. There’s not one “you” that’s “choosing” things, but several.

So if you wrote a six-part article series for the Globe exposing nursing home abuse, then sat on the subway today while an old woman with a cane stood, that’s inconsistent. But the latter action doesn’t make your former choice a mere posture. Maybe you were wrapped up in your reading and didn’t notice her. Maybe you were tired after a long day and decided that someone else ought to offer a seat before you did.

Not offering an old woman your seat is a dick move, to be sure. But it doesn’t render all your previous pro-elderly efforts invalid.

We make different choices when hungry, or tired, or surrounded by people we want to impress, than we do when we’re writing an essay, or watching the news, or driving past the scene of an accident. We do this because the human brain – the result of evolutionary processes – did not evolve to be consistent. It evolved* to fulfill our needs, safeguard and propagate our genes, and to run a series of complex parallel calculations. But since it evolved into the form we recognize today, humans also invented a thing called culture. Culture changes a lot faster than the genetic makeup of its inhabitants, complicating the process even further.

We have a lot of competing data points that go into our decisions. Our declared ethical code is one of these points.

Consistency simply isn’t a natural behavior in the human brain. If it were, morality would be easy. You’d simply make the decision to adhere to a given code of ethics, once, and that would be it. Flip the switch to “Good” and keep walking.

But every code of ethics describes the process of “being tempted” or “acting irrationally” or “losing one’s way.” This is inconsistency rearing its head. A young priest vows eternal celibacy; ten years later, he takes notice of a statuesque blonde. A finance manager volunteers four hours a week at a soup kitchen; coming out of a train station on a business trip, he shoulders by a man asking for spare change. If we view the ethics as natural and humans as inferior, then these acts are frustrating lapses. It’s not useful to call behavior that every human being engages in a “lapse” (lapsing from what?). If we view ethics as an invention and humans as natural, then these acts make perfect sense.

The mind isn’t designed for consistency; it’s designed to constantly recalculate.

Why am I harping on this? Because I’m still curious about “what’s the best way for humans to behave,” and I don’t think “with perfect consistency” is part of it. Every ethical system has its inconsistencies. And even if someone invented a perfectly coherent and logical system of ethics, no human could consistently adhere to it.

We’re all hypocrites. We’re all struggling to figure out what’s right.

P.S. Of all the posts in the mind-body dichotomy series, I’m least happy with this one. But none of my thoughts on the matter have been fully polished, so why should I feel self-conscious today? That’s why it’s a weblog, not an article for the Atlantic: so I can get feedback from friends and ill-intentioned strangers. Hitting “Post”; have at it.

_______________________
* When I say “it [the brain] evolved,” I mean “the human species evolved in such a way as to have a brain which possessed these characteristics.” Forgive me the shorthand, as we forgive the shorthand used by others.

I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons

I decided a little while back to swear off talking politics in this weblog. So far I have yet to regret it.

Even as the economy and health care continue to dominate the news, even as nationally televised race incidents transpire two miles from my front door – I’m not tempted. My blood pressure’s lower. I sleep easier. I smile more often. My posture’s improved.

Of course, I still follow all my favorite political sites – IOZ, Popehat, The Agitator – and comment on major stories. So it’s not perfect. But refusing to talk about politics here gets me one step closer to refusing to care about politics. That’ll get me one card-punch closer to enlightenment. Soon I can cash that in for a hot chocolate and a small muffin.

But a friend asked me last night what I thought of some current political news item. So it couldn’t hurt to make a brief but clear restatement of principles.

I crib my inspiration from noted science-fiction author John Scalzi:

I support the right of same-sex married couples to carry concealed weapons. I hope this explains everything.

In Scalzi’s case it might, but in my case I don’t think it does. Not to detract from Scalzi’s pithy excellence, of course.

So, to the above, add for me the following:

I support the right of released Guantanamo Bay detainees to drive unlicensed taxicabs.

I support the right of uninsured immigrants to pay out of pocket for silicone breast implants.

I support the right of women who’ve had partial-birth abortions to buy Hummvees.

I support the right of global bank executives to smoke pot.

I support the right of animal rights organizations to pay their staff below the minimum wage.

I support the right of Baptist preachers to park their scooters on the sidewalk.

I support the right of Wiccans to spank their children.

I support you. In something, I’m sure.

I think that about covers it.

ten years burnin’ down the road

I’ve got a piece on OTI today about Born in the U.S.A., perhaps America’s most misappropriated patriotic song. I also take some potshots at George F. Will in the column, so if that’s fun for you, check it out.

(Please note that I don’t sincerely believe “Born in the U.S.A.” is America’s most misappropriated patriotic song – “The Star-Spangled Banner,” taken from a British drinking song, might beat it out. But I do sincerely believe that George F. Will is a daft tool)

Happy Independence Day, Americans. As you enjoy your barbecues and beach trips this weekend, remember that this country is founded on a tradition of shooting at law enforcement officers and violently questioning the Party line. Now, if the cops harass you for illegal fireworks or open containers of alcohol outdoors, I’m not saying shoot them. I’m not.

I’m just saying there’s precedent.

rappenin’ is what’s happenin’

I’m abandoning political discussion for a while. Looking back over the tone of my political entries, you could charitably call them “condescending” and justifiably label them “assholish.” If someone talked about the Ravens with half the venom that I devote to the Ruling Party, I’d spit on them. And lots of people like the Ruling Party. So I’m trying to soften up.

But I need to get it out of my system.

So in the future, if the Ruling Party raises the minimum wage or the Opposition Party subsidizes the auto industry, and you’re dying to know what I think about it, and years of reading my impotent snarling hasn’t given you a hint, then you can reference this post. If you’re happy not hearing me talk about issues I don’t vote on, then skip this.

What I Believe: The Short Version

  • Ninety percent of what Paul Krugman or Thomas Friedman write is bullshit.
  • One hundred percent of what Lou Dobbs says is bullshit.
  • Anyone who wants to improve the lot of poor people or minorities in the U.S. whose first suggestion isn’t “Decriminalize marijuana” doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
  • Not only is torture immoral, the fact that the U.S. reached a point where that was even up for debate is sickening.
  • Sending U.S. citizens tremendous distances at great expense to kill foreign citizens is wrong. Let’s not even get into the debate over whether or not it’s effective (at what?) or justified (by whom? to whom?). It’s just bad.
  • Siccing federal agencies on giant corporations will not make giant corporations more honest.
  • Any legislation passed to prevent the “terror of the week” – whether it’s shark attacks, school shootings, online sex predators, shoe bombers or hurricanes – is a bad idea.
  • Printing money doesn’t make us richer.
  • Neither the Opposition Party nor the Ruling Party are uniquely dumb. They have particular flavors of ignorance depending on current voting blocs. If you’re tired of your party’s religious fundamentalism or weak-willed centrism, just wait twenty years.

The cheat sheet above should handle most of the news cycle for the next two to three years. What follows are some more abstract (read: boring) ramblings on broader political / ethical philosophy. I will probably make updates to the following as ideas come to me, so you may want to check back. Or ignore it and move on.

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you want stylin’, you know it’s time again

A coworker came by my desk waving a sheet of paper. “We’re doing betting squares for the game this weekend. You want in?”

“No thanks,” I said.

“Come on. Only five bucks!”

“Thanks anyway; I’ve got better things to spend my five bucks on.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know … lunch? Movie tickets? Beer?”

“You won’t miss the five bucks,” he insisted. “And you get to play along with the other folks in the office.”

“Really, I’m just going to keep my money.”

“Don’t you like football?”

I stared at him funny. “I love football.”

“Then why don’t you want to gamble on it?”

“That question doesn’t make any sense. There’s more to football than gambling.”

“Like what?”

I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation, but he looked serious. “Like watching the game? Cheering on your team? Wearing the team colors? Following team news? You know, all that?”

“Sure, sure, that’s cool, and I’m sure it makes a difference. But gambling’s what makes it a sport, instead of just something silly.”

“You’re not going to put me on the defensive. I can be a perfectly good football fan without gambling, and that’s that. Give me one good reason why I should bet on a football game.”

“Because everyone else is doing it!”

Another coworker, older and somewhat smarter, wandered by during this conversation; I shot him a pleading look while I answered the first guy’s riposte. “That’s not a valid argument and I think you know it.”

“The reason why you should gamble on football games,” interjected the older coworker, “is because it sends a message.”

I’d never heard an answer so bizarre, so I was at a loss for words.

He took this as a sign to continue. “The players in the game on Sunday know what the Vegas line is. They know that they’re six-point underdogs. That’s bound to discourage them. However, if there’s a lot of betting, Vegas will raise the line to make it a closer bet. They’ll do this to encourage more people to gamble. This will, in turn, encourage the players, since the game no longer looks like such a long shot. That’ll make them play better, and make them more likely to win.”

“Exactly!”, said the first coworker. He had never devoted that much thought to the question of Whether Or Not To Bet On Football. He’d been taught in sixth grade that betting was just Something All Good Football Fans Did. You weren’t really a good football fan if you didn’t bet. The notion of a football fan who didn’t bet on football baffled him.

“So you’re saying,” I said, gesturing with my hands as I struggled to line up concepts, “that if I bet on this Sunday’s game …”

“Right.”

“… and if thousands of other people bet the same way I do …”

“Uh-huh.”

“… that’ll encourage the bookies in Vegas to change the line …”

“Yup.”

“… which will encourage the players to play better …”

“You got it.”

“… which will hopefully make them win?”

“That’s it!” He beamed, proud of his tortured chain of reasoning.

“That’s the weirdest rationalization I’ve ever heard. Why wouldn’t I just go to the game and cheer for the players directly? That’s bound to have a greater effect on their playing than betting on them.”

“Well, sure, you can go to the game and cheer,” the older coworker said dismissively. “But there’s no reason you can’t do that and place a bet.”

“Unless I want to keep my five bucks!”

“Look,” the first coworker interrupted, “don’t you realize how lucky you are, living in a country where you can gamble on professional football? If you lived in the Soviet Union, or Saudi Arabia, or China, you wouldn’t have that privilege. It’s your right – hell, it’s your duty to put five bucks down on this Sunday’s game!”

“Now you’re being ridiculous,” I said.

“Don’t you want our team to win?”

“Of course I do.”

“Don’t you like living in a city that has a championship team?”

“I love it.”

“Then why won’t you fill out this betting square?”

I threw my hands up. “You’re not making ounce one of sense here.”

“I give up,” said the first coworker, snatching up the half-filled betting sheet and walking off. “I don’t know how you can say you want our team to win if you’re not willing to wager money on them.”

The older coworker smiled – one of those patronizing smiles that distances one from a louder party, while still trying to draw in the reluctant sale – and leaned in. “Look, it’s not that much money. Is there any reason why you won’t chip in five bucks? Play along with the rest of us?”

“I’m not going to bet on this Sunday’s game,” I answered, “because I don’t want to. It’s my five bucks, to spend however I like, and I choose not to spend it on this. I won’t want to spend it until I hear a sufficient argument for why I should. And so far, I have yet to hear anything that even sounds like an argument, much less a persuasive one.”

He shrugged sadly. “All right. I gave it my best. Sorry to bug you.”

“No problem; I have this conversation every four years or so.”

“See you at the tailgate this Sunday?”

“You know it. I’ll bring the ribs.”

I ran like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin

Observed in Target this past Thursday: a scruffy white guy in his late-20s with an oversized sweatshirt, depicting one of Snow White’s dwarves giving a fist jab to the Grim Reaper, under the motto “COUSINS.” I stared unabashedly at the guy until I recognized the dwarf as Sleepy, and then I was like, oh, yeah. I would have totally given him the cool nod, but it took me five minutes to make this connection.

* * *

Another Target observation: some commentators blame the current credit crisis on Alan Greenspan’s loose monetary policies encouraging easy lending. Some blame it on Fannie Mae’s decision to ease credit restrictions for home loans back in 1999. Both of these are correct, but I’d like to suggest an additional culprit: the fact that you don’t have to sign for credit card purchases under $20 with most cards.

When did that happen? I know I’ve been doing it for a couple of years now. I think it only happens at the larger chains – Shaw’s Groceries, CVS, Target, etc – but it’s started to expand. The cashier rung me up for $3.50 worth of generic wet-naps*, and I swiped my card faster than it would have taken me to pull out four singles and get change.

If I ever steal a credit card – and with your continued readership, it shouldn’t become necessary, hint hint – I’m going to rack up a string of $19.99 purchases all across Boston. I figure I could get away with it for days before anyone noticed. And the useful things you could get for less than $20 would surprise you.

* * *

In last Friday’s post about why I don’t understand a mandatory 30-hour work week, a few misconceptions surfaced (over on LJ, not here). So, to clear those up:


  • Yes, of course, only rich people have the choice between time and money.** Poor people – and I mean the genuinely poor, folks for whom the necessities are still touch and go – don’t have this to worry about. People with existing financial obligations, like children or debt, don’t have this choice to make. This is certainly true. And you know what? A law mandating that they can only work 30 hours per week would fuck them.

  • My blithe dismissal of the notion – “if you want more time, choose more time; if you want more money, choose more money” – isn’t a Four Hour Work Week thing. I was that kind of an asshole long before I picked that book up; that much should be obvious.

* Best way to wipe off fake blood, like the kind I’m covered with every night in Gorefest. Get your tickets today!

** “Rich” by the standards of either the planet or history, meaning: anyone reading this right now.