This book is pretty heavy in its philosophy for a general readership, but worth the slog. Dacey argues that the problem with modern secular liberalismThis book is pretty heavy in its philosophy for a general readership, but worth the slog. Dacey argues that the problem with modern secular liberalism stems from what he calls the Liberty Fallacy: that because matters of conscience are matters of individual Liberty, they’re also not open to question or criticism. This fallacy results in ethical waffling and a reluctance to criticize ideas from other cultures.
By contrast, Dacey argues that religious belief is private, but conscience must be open and up to debate. He weaves a long and interesting discussion of the issue, exploring the way that open societies have fostered respect for human beings and a separation of church and state, and that closed societies often violate those two elements. He also suggests that regardless of personal reasons, public debate ought to function from a consequentialist perspective, namely that discussions about ethics and morals should focus on the human impact of those decisions. He argues for an ethics of the golden rule.
Two interesting things emerge at the end of the book.The second to last chapter is a warning call to Europe, particularly, about fundamentalist Islam. Dacey argues that in refusing to debate conscience decisions made due to religious reasons, secular liberals are giving away their culture. He suggests that fundamentalist religious countries are railing against secularism, and Europe doesn’t get it.
The secular, open society has met its antithesis. It comes in many forms: Salafist jihad, clerical totalitarianism, the rule of sharia law. What unites them is the willing sacrifice of freedom and human rights before a sacred order and their dependence on Islam for their existence. And yet there are millions of secular liberal Muslims, and potential alternative interpretations of the faith abound. One would think that secular liberals would be at the center of this struggle. Instead, reluctant to “impose” their values on others, fearful of the taint of American imperialism, most are submerged into silence. The result? Public discussion of Islam tends to veer between chauvinistic denunciations by conservative Christians … and useless overgeneralizations by politicians. Words are liberals’ first weapon of choice. Unfortunately, they now find themselves facing something they’ve sworn they not to talk about–religion. If it is to rise to the historical moment and engage with both faces of Islam, secular liberalism needs a new self-understanding. (185)
And then, in Chapter 11, he cites Open Source as a key model for modern knowledge generation. Ha!
The traditional model of conscience is a mirror of revelation. Not a voice from an angel in a cave or a burning bush, but a revelation from within, a “still, small voice.” But from where? In the picture of conscience developed in this book, the model is not a revelation but a network. The network of open source ethics is a public, collaborative and critical enterprise that builds up a storehouse of shareable answers to challenges faced by a community. The sound of conscience is the clamor of conversation, not the eerie whisper of revelation.(202)
If secular liberalism is to continue to stand for reason and freedom, the separation of religion and state, personal autonomy, equality, toleration, and self-criticism, secular liberals must stand up for these values in public debate. This means returning conscience to its proper place at the heart of secular liberalism. Matters of conscience–including religion and values–are open. Like the sciences and open source methods, they are fit subjects of public discussion, they are guided by shared, objective, evaluative standards, and they are revisable in light of future experience. The point of open, secular society is not to privatize or bracket questions of conscience, but to pursue them in conversation with others. Like a free press, conscience is freed from coercion so that it may perform a vital public function: reasoning together about questions of meaning, identity, and value. (209-210).
I give this four out of five stars because it's pretty dense, and might be a slog for the casual reader....more
I follow the evolution / ID culture war pretty closely, but it occurred to me a while back that I had very little actual understanding of the scienceI follow the evolution / ID culture war pretty closely, but it occurred to me a while back that I had very little actual understanding of the science behind evolution. After reading Coyne’s book, I realize that I had more than I knew I did, but that I was missing a lot. Why Evolution is True demonstrates with strong clarity why evolution has proven itself to scientists as broadly and throughly as gravity. Unlike Miller’s Only a Theory, which focuses specifically on creationist arguments and why they’re bogus, Coyne explores evolution from the perspective of “how has this convinced us,” and he does so thoroughly. A few fun facts and good quotes:
* Evolution depends on six concepts: “evolution, gradualism, speciation, common ancestry, natural selection, and nonselective mechanisms of evolutionary change.” Coyne explains each. * Whales descended from land animals. Their closest living relative is the hippo. They have hip and leg bones and occasionally one will be born with a leg. * The number of spots on the male peacock helps determine how sexy he is to the female peacock. One theory about this is that evolution to appreciate a certain color for unrelated reasons leads to sexual selection. Coyne writes “Suppose, for example, that members of a species had evolved a visual preference for red color because that preference helped them locate ripe fruits and berries. If a mutant male appeared with a patch of red on his breast, he might be preferred by females simply because of this preexisting preference.” (167) In other words, the females would select males because they look tasty. * The lineage of ape to human evolution is astonishingly well defined. The “hobbit” species, Homo floresiensis, an offshoot protected from worldwide species evolution by geographic barriers, lived as recently as 18,000 years ago. * The best argument against intelligent design is the bad design we find throughout complex life forms. By contrast, if we follow clues to explain development of one trait through adaptation from another, most of these bad designs make sense.
One extended quote I really like.
[Creationists argue:] that all the perceived evils of evolution come from two worldviews that are part of science: naturalism and materialism. Naturalism is the view that the only way to understand our universe is through the scientific method. Materialism is the idea that the only reality is the physical matter of the universe, and that everything else, including thoughts, will, and emotions, comes from physical laws acting on matter. The message of evolution, and all of science, is one of naturalistic materialism. Darwinism tells us that, like all species, human beings arose from the working of blind, purposeless forces over eons of time. As far as we can determine, the same forces that gave rise to ferns, mushrooms, lizards, and squirrels also produced us. Now, science cannot completely exclude the possibility of supernatural explanation. It is possible– though very unlikely—that our whole world is controlled by elves. But supernatural explanations like these are never needed: we manage to understand the natural world just fine using reason and materialism. Furthermore, supernatural explanations always mean the end of inquiry: that’s the way God wants it, end of story. Science, on the other hand, is never satisfied: our studies of the universe will continue until humans go extinct. ...more
Reich offers a succinct, interesting history of the relationship between business and democracy in the last fifty years. Here’s the nutshell, as I seeReich offers a succinct, interesting history of the relationship between business and democracy in the last fifty years. Here’s the nutshell, as I see it: in post WW2 America, there was a sort-of detente reached between large companies who made profits through economies of scale, government which used regulation to protect these companies from competition, and trade unions that were able to negotiate strong wages for its workers. This arrangement, made as part of “Democratic Capitalism,” balanced (to a degree) the needs of business and communities. Reich argues that with the rise of new technologies and cheaper supply lines, that competition protection eroded. At the same time, consumers also became investors, putting pressure on companies from two directions to become more profit oriented. Reich calls this “Supercapitalism,” and suggests it pushed out the older form of capitalism in which government gave businesses some breathing room to put efforts toward protecting communities and workers.
He argues, quite effectively, that the problem with the current system is not that companies focus on giving consumers and investors good deals, but rather that we hypocritically punish them for not keeping citizens in mind, despite the fact that the market and rules we’ve constructed penalize companies that do make efforts in that regard. It doesn’t make sense, for example, to shame Walmart for following the laws and paying workers low wages; if we want to guarantee a living wage, it should be a requirement that all companies have to follow–demanding that just some companies follow that rule opens the window for other companies to take market share by offering better deals and better returns on investment. He argues that government’s job is to do this protecting. And we’ve allowed our government to be corrupted by allowing companies to enter politics. The only way to guarantee citizen voices and to reenvigorate Democracy is to get companies out of it. Corporations are collections of citizens, nothing more. Those citizens already have redress to congress — they shouldn’t get a second voice via a corporation. Additionally, by allowing companies to use lobbyists, we’re giving non-citizens (foreign investors) a voice in our government.
It’s a compelling argument that’s worth thinking about, but it’s very difficult to imagine a way out since our politicians will have to legislate themselves out of the mess. Worth reading, if you’re interested in economic issues. Dick Hill’s reading is solid, but a bit too enunciated for my taste....more
Whoa doggies, the dust bowl sucked. Worst Hard Time tells the story of the Great Depression through the eyes of the people living in the Oklahoma andWhoa doggies, the dust bowl sucked. Worst Hard Time tells the story of the Great Depression through the eyes of the people living in the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, an area called "no man's land" that was the high plains before the farmers showed up to plant wheat. It's a harrowing and fascinating book about a mythological but nonspecific part of American history. A few thoughts:
* It's interesting to see the same kinds of battles we fight now being fought then. On one hand you have scientists and other folks who look at the evidence and say, "Hey, we did this. We've got to try and do something to fix it." And then you have people who revile those proclamations, irritated that anyone would blame the farmers for the plight of the dust bowl. One story that threads its way through the whole book involves a group of people called the "Last Man Club," panhandle-dwellers who vowed to stay on "until the last man." The founder of the club moved to Amarillo. The parallels with modern evaluations of global climate change are hard to ignore. * It's difficult for us to imagine or understand the sheer volume of dirt in the air during the dusters. Like nothing most of us have ever seen. The storms rolled in and made it difficult to breathe or even see. People sealed up their houses against the dirt and still it came in everywhere. A new condition arose among the dust-bowl dwellers called dust pneumonia. After the third year of dust storms, doctors started seeing diseases usually reserved for men who'd spent lifetimes deep in coal mines. * Human greed can be directly recognized as the most significant factor in causing the dust bowl. To whit: people started farming the grasslands during the 1900s and 1910s. When WW2 started, Herbert Hoover (as U.S. food administrator) guaranteed $2/bushel of wheat, and the gold rush was on. With the land in the panhandle so cheap and the wheat so profitable, farmers plowed under more and more of the grasslands. After the war, the wheat price dropped precipitously, bottoming out so low that some places couldn't sell wheat at all, and it would rot in piles at grain elevators. Of course, the farmers had bought stuff on credit using the high water mark as their income, so they plowed and grew MORE wheat to try and make up the difference in price through quantity. This pushed the price even lower. Finally, wheat and drought combined to drive many farmers away, leaving the land bare and exposed to the wind. Substitute wheat for housing prices and you have a vision of the last ten years in the American real estate market. * Egan drives his story by focusing on a town, a few key figures, and the historical forces shaping the region. It's full of detail and heart, and lots of dust. The harrowing details of life during the storms hit the hardest, as with the woman who learned not to serve dinner until people were ready to sit down, as it would start accumulating a dust coating the instant it was served, or the man who believed his claustrophobia came from the fact that his infancy was spent in a crib with a damp sheet draped overhead every moment of every day. This leaves out all the poor souls who died from breathing dust or getting lost in the storms. * Very interesting, too, are the last chapters that highlight the lingering problems in the region. One of the answers to the drought, early on, was to tap the enormous Ogalala aquifer, an underground water reserve the size of Lake Erie. In the 1930s, it was impractical; now we're doing it faster than ever. Egan says at present rates, it will run out within a century. It was also during the depression that the government started farming subsidies to help keep families on land. Now, of course, farming subsidies have been perverted into corporate profits for large-scale industrial farms. I find it interesting that the region of the country most vocal about being "anti-big government" has its industry so closely tied up in a socialist program like farm subsidies. How long would those concerns survive, I wonder, if the free market really got hold?
Narrator, Peter Lawlor does an excellent job. His subdued southern accent works well for the narrator voice, and he does just enough characterization to give the first-hand accounts a distinct sound.
An interesting book, all told. Well worth the read. Or listen. ...more
The Arrival tells the story of immigration from the perspective of a man who leaves his family to seek a better life across the sea. The environments,The Arrival tells the story of immigration from the perspective of a man who leaves his family to seek a better life across the sea. The environments, both the old country and the new, bubble with strange shapes and marvelous people. The man encounters kindly people who help him understand the world and tell their own immigration stories. I’ve read Tales of Outer Suburbia and a couple other Shaun Tan books, so it wasn’t surprising to find a book full of depth and beauty, but it was nice nonetheless. A few more thoughts:
* This book feels a lot like something Jim Woodring might have done, with quirky, creepy figures going about their lives in strange worlds, leaving us to try and figure out what’s going on. Perhaps its the similarities to Woodring that made me nervous the whole time–I was waiting for one of the creepy people to BE creepy instead of just seeming a little creepy. * The art, as always, is brilliant. I love the way Tan makes the world being immigrated to (which at first appears to be kinda America) both familiar and yet strange and different. There are weird machines, odd customs, strange foods, and difficult languages. Tan’s images produce, in miniature, the experience of culture shock for all of us. * The stories of torment told by the recent immigrants to one another are breathtaking. The main character comes from a city menaced by Lovecraftian tentacles; another escaped giants (who look like the clean-up squad from Monsters, Inc.) with flamethrowers.
It’s a lovely book, and well worth reading....more
Some of you smartypants might say ‘Jupitarrr‘ but you would be wrong. It’s the space planet modeled on medieval EuroWhat’s a pirate’s favorite planet?
Some of you smartypants might say ‘Jupitarrr‘ but you would be wrong. It’s the space planet modeled on medieval Europe, full of intrigue and murderous Counts. Can you say Barrayar?
The second book (chronologically) in the Vorkosigan saga, Barrayar follows up from Shards of Honor, telling the story of Cordelia’s journey to Aral’s dangerous planet, his appointment as Regent to the Emporer, the attempted coup, and the damage that happens, early on, to their baby, Miles. It’s an entertaining book, with plenty of courtly intrigue and some good action sequences. A few thoughts:
* The politicking isn’t as detailed as that of books like A Game of Thrones, but it’s pretty darn good. Strangely, it takes up relatively little of the story line. * This almost doesn’t even need to be a science-fiction book. It would work just as well as high fantasy or even just a medieval romance. But then you couldn’t have neural disruptors and gooey vats holding fetuses. * Bujold does a great job putting intense action scenes at regular intervals throughout the book. The attempted assassination of Aral is particularly enjoyable. * The book also does a good job portraying culture shock, something Cordelia wrestles with in the first half of the book as she learns the backward (and antiquated) ways of the Barrayarians. * I pondered, for a while, whether or not to call this a space opera, as it doesn’t meet the usual requirements (lots of big space battles, space flights, etc). If one considers its role in the larger Vorkosigan saga, though, it certainly fits the bill.
It was a quick but fruitful discussion this month in my science-fiction book club. An enjoyable follow up, and worth a quick read on the beach or something. BTW: if you go to read this, you may find it packaged with Shards of Honor under the title Cordelia’s Honor. ...more
**spoiler alert** The Unincorporated Man is a Sleeper Wakes kind of tale about a cryogenically frozen man who is awakened 300 years later by a new sor**spoiler alert** The Unincorporated Man is a Sleeper Wakes kind of tale about a cryogenically frozen man who is awakened 300 years later by a new sort of world society that has oodles of nanotech and where everyone is incorporated. I mean to say each person is incorporated, and they buy and sell shares in one another. When you’re born, your parents get 20%, the government gets 5, you get 25%, and the rest, um… we’re not sure. But over the course of your life it gets sold for things like University and training etc, etc.
It’s an interesting premise that’s well-thought out (if not all that thoroughly explained), which gets wrapped up in the same kind of story as the H.G. Wells original, namely the man with the old values messes up the world with the new ones. Some thoughts:
* The characters, both heroes and villains, are well-drawn and sympathetic. Even the biggest “villain” has a clearly defined and rational motive that you can understand. * The book won a prestigious Libertarian award and can be read in that light as a description of the dangers of debt society and corporate life, but the authors do a pretty good job explaining the benefits of the system they describe and the dangers of our old system. * That said, my biggest problem with the book is that the Great Collapse (an economic apocalypse of the past) is attributed to our current model of Post-industrial Global capitalism and the prosperity of the “present” era in the story is attributed to the incorporation model of capitalism. But in both cases, the novel presents other things that seem to be better explanations–the VR plague on one hand and the invention/propagation of nanotech on the other. In other words, the novel’s ideas about why the society works don’t seem to function, for me. * The idea of the VR plague is fascinating. Essentially the notion is that as VR tech gets to the point where it can make us not only experience other things, but not be able to tell the difference, we lose much of our motivation to do things outside the VR. This continues, of course, the standard science-fictional warnings against video entertainment, continued from the video plays in Fahrenheit 451 and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Of course, with the modern era where marriages are broken up by World of Warcraft and babies starve to death while their parents play online, this doesn’t seem as far fetched as it used to. * The Kollin brothers have imagined a really interesting world, with thoughtful discussions of nanotech, artificial intelligence, travel, and other social, political, and historical developments. It’s believable and entertaining the whole way along.
One other thing I like about the book is that I think it’s possible to disagree with the main character’s perspective, without feeling like you’re fighting upstream. It will be interesting to see what the Unincorporated War will be like....more
Waters, an editor at Harvard University Press, laments the downward spiral in the quality of academic publishing, proclaiming the impending death of aWaters, an editor at Harvard University Press, laments the downward spiral in the quality of academic publishing, proclaiming the impending death of academic publishing because of misplaced priorities and bad practices throughout the academy. As usual with this kind of screen, there’s a lot of truth and some big blind spots as well.
* Waters’ main lament is that the professoriate has offloaded our responsibility for making tenure decisions onto bean counting administrators, whose pressure for more and more publications becomes the primary force driving those decisions. He laments that quantity outweighs quality, and that we’re all writing articles and books that no one is reading. * At the heart of his complaint, though, is the loss of perspective and time that allows academics to be intellectuals who pursue their own ends and write when writing is needed (rather than writing to the tenure and promotion timelines). He laments that we haven’t got time to properly think things through and write significant, important books–we all crank out lame books, apparently. * He offers a small complaint, too, that tenure and promotion committees expect new colleagues to be writing and working at a clip well beyond what they were expected to do as young scholars. * The corporatization of the university undergirds much of Waters’ complaint about the current academic publishing model, and his call is really a demand that faculty take back the initiative in shaping academe.
* Waters makes no mention of the vast and increasing competition for tenure-track jobs. One of the reasons hiring committees expect graduate students to have published already is that there are so many more competing for the positions that the “bar” has raised across the board. This ripples up the promotion chain as people who’re hired for their prodigious writing are expected to keep prodigiously writing (or expect themselves to do so). * Waters also dismisses or ignores the significant outside pressure to shift the tenure system as well. C.F. Zachary Karabel’s What’s College For?.
But ultimately, Waters’ essay rests on twin pillars of nostalgia and elitism — the idea that scholars of the past were producing important and significant work, and now that we’re writing more and publishing more, the quality of it is much worse and the thinkers are more blinkered. He may be right on some fronts, but in some ways he’s lamenting the demise of the carefully controlled academic publishing regime that marked much of the 20th century. Like dying record companies, he dislikes the polyglot cacophony of the multitudes of young academics trained in an academy where they were expected to start writing immediately, rather than sitting around thinking lofty thoughts.
Does this expectation result in less skillful scholarship? Possibly, especially as aimed at the old rubrics. But the old rubrics also assumed complete disciplinary knowledge. The “comprehensive” exams in which the scholar demonstrates that s/he has read everything in his/her field no longer apply, as it’s literally impossible to have done so. People taking their comps now read lots, to be sure. But not everything. In the digital world of ubiquitous scholarship, we’re database miners, scholars of the network. Our ivory tower has broadband....more
Julian Comstock tells the story of America after oil runs out, the modern infrastructure collapses, and we regress to a world of 19th century technoloJulian Comstock tells the story of America after oil runs out, the modern infrastructure collapses, and we regress to a world of 19th century technology and 18th century agrarian social structure and economy. We follow Adam Hazzard, a lease-boy (child of lower-middle class artisans) who befriends, through happenstance, Julian Comstock, exiled nephew of the tyrannical "president" Declan Comstock. Adam follows Julian through adventures in the army and political life afterward, to great effect. A few thoughts:
* Wilson proposes one interesting resolution to the idea of what will happen after we run out of oil: Cities collapse, there's a terrible time of starvation known as the "False Tribulation," and a religio-fascist state springs up in its place. We regress to 19th century technology because we don't have oil anymore, and most other high tech that we have depends on a fuel source at least as efficient as oil. It's interesting to compare this book to Brian Slattery's Liberation, which has a similar cover and similar sense of societal regression in its vision of America's future. * Because the story uses the 19th century melodramatic bildungsroman as its model, there's plenty of adventure and excitement as well as a keen sense of moral arc. It's a little bit Ragged Dick and a little bit Great Expectations. * Wilson suggests that the conservative element would take control again in this crisis. While I don't find it beyond belief, I would hope we can maintain our advances in the cause of human liberty and happiness, even in the face of technological and societal upheaval. * The best part of the book, for me, is Wilson's use of naivete on the part of his narrator. Adam, as a devout lease boy with little knowledge of the world, is often unaware of the implications of what's going on around him. When Julian begins hanging around with Philosophers and Aesthetes, he remarks on the strange habits and dress of his friend's new companions. Codes that we read to understand that Julian is gay completely elude poor Adam. * One of the amusing recurring themes in the book is Adam's wonder at the business of book publishing. At one point, he publishes an adventure tale about a young man at sea, which includes pirates and all sorts of fun. When he gets to see the book, he notices that the artist has added an octopus, which doesn't appear in the book and Adam worries may disappoint his readers. Adam writes the book in the past tense as a man who lived through the events. As such, the cover art we see here is a handbill for the book we're reading, posted on a wall somewhere in New York City. We can see a palimpsest of other handbills behind it, including the spurious octopus.
It was only well after I read the book that I remembered wondering, on two separate occasions, why there was an octopus on the cover of the book and whether I could expect to encounter one. In other words, the octopus on the cover of Wilson's book, meant to represent the octopus on Hazzard's book, which was meant to entice readers to fantasize about an octopus that wasn't there enticed me to fantasize about an octopus that wasn't there. Ha!
There were a few plot points I wanted to resolve a bit differently, but such is good drama -- if you can choose how it all ends, it's not very dramatic, is it? Overall, a good read. ...more
Like America (the book), Earth pretends to be a textbook for someone foreign to the subject. In this case, it's a race of alien visitors who arrive afLike America (the book), Earth pretends to be a textbook for someone foreign to the subject. In this case, it's a race of alien visitors who arrive after humankind has destroyed itself (possible apocalypses are detailed in the appendix, my favorite being the accidental creation of bee/shark hybrids that sting and/or eat us). A few thoughts:
* This isn't really a book to read all the way through, as I did. But we don't have a convenient spot in our bathrooms to keep a book this big. It's really a good book for browsing, with a deluge of jokes on each page. * Like the Daily Show itself, the book seems pretty male-centric to me. There are an awful lot of boob jokes. I acknowledge that boobs are funny, but enough is enough. * My favorite joke in the book suggested that Occam's Razor was named after a medieval monk who had built an improbable face-shaving device (see inset below). * As all good humor books do, Earth (the book) mixes humor with truth, highlighting foibles in the human condition that make our own problems. Two examples: one joke suggests that we could have figured out how to feed everybody, but we were more concerned with dog sweaters. Another reminds us that our conflicts over minor differences in dietary and sexual rules lead to centuries of warfare. "Religion provided comfort to people in a world torn apart ... by religion." * There are quite a few obscure jokes that I felt a little snooty to get the reference for, and I couldn't help but wonder how many I didn't get. Sigh.
Worth a look, and probably a buy if you a) liked America (the book) or b) enjoy The Daily Show....more