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Posts Tagged ‘The New York Times’

The Right Side of History

June 24, 2011 5 comments

New York state lawmakers voted 33-29 to legally extend marriage rights same-sex couples. Now the sixth state in America treats its citizens as more important than dogma. Good people across the state of New York won’t allow the godly to settle for bigotry and moral poverty.

God, not Albany, has settled the definition of marriage, a long time ago. -Senator Ruben Diaz, the lone Democrat opponent

Everyone that fought for this bill should be joyous that we continue to write our own history.

Here are some of my past posts on same-sex marriage. Feel free to search around the blog for others.

Homophones, Homosexuals, and the Essence of Marriage

Judge Walker: A Modern Jeremy Bentham

The Wisdom of Silence

It’s All About Tradition, Right?

(photo: Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times)

Wanna get arrested with me?

Jail House Reggaeton

Simon Romero for the New York Times reports on this Venezuelan penitentiary:

[T]he prison for more than 2,000 Venezuelans and foreigners held largely for drug trafficking looks more like a Hugh Hefner-inspired fleshpot than a stockade for toughened smugglers.

Bikini-clad female visitors frolic under the Caribbean sun in an outdoor pool. Marijuana smoke flavors the air. Reggaetón booms from a club filled with grinding couples.

 

(photo credit: Meridith Kohut)

I’m Tempted Too

Nicholas Kristof’s newest column asks, “Why Pay Congress?” if they’re just going to act like children and shut down the government while other government workers don’t get paid.

If we careen over a cliff on Friday and the American government shuts down, hard-working federal workers will stop getting paychecks, but the members of Congress responsible for the shutdown are expected to be paid as usual.

That’s partly because Congressional pay is not subject to the regular appropriations process, and partly because of Constitutional concerns.

Kristof’s using this issue to generate anger at our irresponsible elected officials more than to make a principled stand on a Constitutional question.  So it’s not what his column is about, but I think his title question deserves a bit more of an answer than the vague, “Constitutional concerns.” Populist anger often vents over paying the crooks that run the joint, so why not cut them off or lower their pay?

That populist anger is (no surprise) misplaced. Turns out Congress and the President get healthy paychecks for different populist reasons. This helps weaken the influence of bribes and prevents Congress from using the purse strings as political weapons to influence votes. More fundamentally, without compensation only independently wealthy or crooked politicians could serve. A living wage, in theory, allows common people to govern. This American custom contrasted directly with the British, misnamed, House of Commons.

Sadly, the expense of campaigns has made this ideal mostly a theory. I have a lot of reservations about this, but the Founders’ logic should make us consider the public funding of campaigns.

But, geez, they really really make me want to cut off their paychecks.

“Arcane theological points from the ninth century”

March 23, 2011 1 comment

Last week’s New York Times Magazine carried an engrossing story about Yasir Qadhi, a controversial and conservative Islamic cleric in America.

In the West, jihad is often depicted as a self-contained, violent cause. But in Qadhi’s world, it exists within a panoply of complex and overlapping issues. The most immediate question is not whether to fight overseas but how to make peace living in the pluralistic West.

Debates pivot on arcane theological points from the ninth century, a time when religious empires reigned, not secular nations. Classical scholars reference a world divided between dar al-Islam, the land of Islam, and dar al-harb, the land of war. But which land is America?

[…]

“It is an awkward position to be in,” he wrote of his situation. “How can one simultaneously fight against a powerful government, a pervasive and sensationalist-prone media and a group of overzealous, rash youth who are already predisposed to reject your message, because they view you as being a part of the establishment (while, ironically, the ‘establishment’ never ceases to view you as part of the radicals)?”

His position might not only be awkward – it could be futile. Is Salafiya Islam compatible with America? Can Qadhi and others like him be persuasive to young Muslims that are disposed to radicalization? I’m not hopeful if the solution is to win a 9th century theology debate.

(photo: Andrea Elliott, Eric Owles, Josh Williams/The New York Times)

Distractions of Attentive Government

January 27, 2011 2 comments

Public safety is a proper role of government. I can empathize with those concerned with limiting the dangers of distracted driving even if I’m skeptical of the effectiveness of new laws to prohibit distractions such as cell phone use. But even if you agree that government should pursue such goals, today’s New York Times story on “distracted pedestrians” reminds us that sometimes we’d be better off with more inattentive legislators.

That is the theory of several lawmakers pushing the latest generation of legislation dealing with how devices like iPods and cellphones affect traffic safety. The ubiquity of interactive devices has propelled the science of distraction — and now efforts to legislate against it — out of the car and into the exercise routine.

In New York, a bill is pending in the legislature’s transportation committee that would ban the use of mobile phones, iPods or other electronic devices while crossing streets — runners and other exercisers included. Legislation pending in Oregon would restrict bicyclists from using mobile phones and music players, and a Virginia bill would keep such riders from using a “hand-held communication device.”

Politicians’ imagined need to solve every problem becomes pernicious when they don’t weigh the consequences of their own action. As much as I’m receptive to the libertarian critique of nanny-state government, the need for personal responsibility, and the state’s misallocated focus on trivial problems like exercisers’ music I think their emphasis is sometimes misplaced.

Governments shouldn’t not ban ipods because it’s runners own fault if they get hit by a car or because government inherently shouldn’t treat citizens like children but because the state needs to be sure their attempt to solve one problem won’t be replaced by other problems of indeterminate repercussion.

In this case, it is not even clear pedestrians distracted by technology is what is causing the uptick in fatalities. The increase is contained to just “the first six months of 2010” among a national drop going back years. News flash: people listening to music and talking on their phones while on a jog isn’t that novel.  So banning the activity might not only do very little to solve “the problem” but any minor benefit might result in less exercise, less efficiency, and less enjoyment. Can anyone in America really argue right now that our problem is too much excerise?

Don’t Pray? Don’t Tell.

November 17, 2010 Leave a comment

That there are no atheists in foxholes is a myth. Veteran Kathleen Johnson tells us why religious coercion is bad for the military.

In both combat theaters, I recall endless and constant mandatory prayer circles being held by small units before military operations at which unit members who elected not to participate risked harassment, rebukes from their peers and supervisors, and even punishments. I recall dining halls decorated with bible verses, units adorned with bibles, and meetings started with Christian prayers. I recall the panic in a young soldier’s voice when he called me to tell me how his approved social meeting of military atheists was intentionally disrupted by an Army officer (a self-described “prayer warrior”) and that he was receiving threats against his life.

The Moral Landscape Released

October 5, 2010 1 comment

I have no trouble admitting I’m a Sam Harris partisan. Everything he does I find I love. So it should be no surprise that I’m excited for his new book released today.

I previously covered some of the debate surrounding his thesis here.

Both The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post published excerpts from The Moral Landscape.

Many people worry that there is something unscientific about making such value judgments. But this split between facts and values is an illusion. Science has always been in the values business. Good science is not the result of scientists abstaining from making value judgments; good science is the result of scientists making their best effort to value principles of reasoning that link their beliefs to reality, through reliable chains of evidence and argument. The very idea of “objective” knowledge (that is, knowledge acquired through careful observation and honest reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon principles that we must first value (e.g. logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony, etc). This is how norms of rational thought are made effective. As far as our understanding of the world is concerned—there are no facts without values.

Just as there is nothing irrational about valuing human health and seeking to understand it (this is the science of medicine), there is nothing irrational about valuing human well-being more generally and seeking to understand it. But whether morality becomes a proper branch of science is not really the point. Is economics a true science yet? Judging from the last few years, it wouldn’t seem so. And perhaps a deep understanding of economics will always elude us. But does anyone doubt that there are better and worse ways to structure an economy? Would any educated person consider it a form of bigotry to criticize another society’s response to a banking crisis? Imagine how terrifying it would be if great numbers of smart people became convinced that all efforts to prevent a global financial catastrophe, being mere products of culture, must be either equally valid or equally nonsensical in principle. And yet this is precisely where most intellectuals stand on the most important questions in human life. (from The Daily Beast)

Imagine that there are only two people living on earth: We can call them “Adam” and “Eve.” Clearly, we can ask how these two people might maximize their well-being. Are there wrong answers to this question? Of course. (Wrong answer #1: They could smash each other in the face with a large rock.) And while there are ways for their personal interests to be in conflict, it seems uncontroversial to say that a man and woman alone on this planet would be better off if they recognized their common interests — like getting food, building shelter and defending themselves against larger predators. If Adam and Eve were industrious enough, they might realize the benefits of creating technology, art, medicine, exploring the world and begetting future generations of humanity. Are there good and bad paths to take across this landscape of possibilities? Of course. In fact, there are, by definition, paths that lead to the worst misery and to the greatest fulfillment possible for these two people — given the structure of their brains, the immediate facts of their environment, and the laws of Nature. The underlying facts here are the facts of physics, chemistry, and biology as they bear on the experience of the only two people in existence.

As I argue in my new book, even if there are a thousand different ways for these two people to thrive, there will be many ways for them not to thrive — and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of human happiness and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood. Why would the difference between right and wrong answers suddenly disappear once we add 6.7 billion more people to this experiment? (from The Huffington Post)

Kwame Anthony Appiah at The New York Times has a pretty tepid review.

Harris often writes as if all that matters is our conscious experience. Yet he also insists that truth is an important value. So does it count against your well-being if your happiness is based on an illusion — say, the false belief that your wife loves you? Or is subjective experience all that matters, in which case a situation in which the husband is fooled, and the wife gets pleasure from fooling him, is morally preferable to one in which she acknowledges the truth? Harris never articulates his central claim clearly enough to let us know where he would come down. But if he thinks that well-being has an objective component, one wants to know how science revealed this fact.

Also, right as this book hits stores, Sam debates Mark Oppenheimer, NYT columnist, at The Economist over the motion: “This house believes that religion is a force for good.”

I’ll be purchasing my copy tomorrow and hope to share my thoughts with everyone soon. I’m also going to try to see Sam at Tufts and/or Harvard soon. In the meantime go out and buy the book. Harris is an incredibly clear and exciting writer; even if you end up disagreeing you’ll be sure to enjoy the experience.

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