Mike Kueber's Blog

December 26, 2012

Evolutionary biology explains….

Filed under: Culture,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 10:16 pm
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A few days ago, there was an op-ed piece in the NY Times on one of my favorite subjects – evolutionary biology.   The piece, titled “The Moral Animal,” by British rabbi Jonathan Sacks begins with the premise that religiosity has been declining in Britain and America and then argues that this decline, if it continues, will not bode well for those countries.  What makes Rabbi Sacks’ argument unusual is that it relies on evolutionary biology.

Sacks’ starts his syllogism by stating that man often acts altruistically, even though evolution tends to favor selfish, ruthless behavior.  According to Sachs, this dichotomy results because, as scientists have determined, the human brain has two modes – “The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational….  The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive.  The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained.”

Rabbi Sacks supplements the science of the two-speed brain by suggesting that religion tends to amplify the role played by the slow brain – i.e., reflective and rational:

  • “[Religion] strengthens and speeds up the slow track. It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters.”

According to Sacks, the connection between religion and altruism is undeniable:

  • “[Research shows] that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is, he found, a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race.”

Rabbi Sacks concludes logically that, because altruism is undeniably a good thing (unless you ask Ayn Rand), religion is an essential foundation to a good America:

  • Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology. This may go to show that God has a sense of humor. It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.”

My first thought in reading the Sacks op-ed piece was that his logic didn’t depend on the existence of God, but rather only on people’s belief in God.  That reminded me of the Karl Marx quote – i.e., religion is the opiate of the masses.    

On second thought, I was reminded of the old saying that if God hadn’t created man, man would have created God.  And that, too, would be consistent with evolutionary biology.

Although Rabbi Sacks surprised me by making a non-theological argument, NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd made up for that omission in her column today titled, “Why, God?”  In the column, Dowd and her pastor struggle to understand why God would allow the Sandy Hook massacre to occur.

Good luck with that.

November 9, 2011

Maureen Dowd goes too far

Filed under: Sports — Mike Kueber @ 1:35 pm
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I’m not surprised that Maureen Dowd in her most recent NT Times column decided to pile on Joe Paterno when he was down.    Piling on seems to be a liberal character trait, whereas conservatives cling to their heroes and values like Richard Nixon and guns and religion long past their expiration date.  (Like Herman Cain, I admit that I have no evidence at this time to support this accusation, so I ask that you take my word for it, and I will attempt to put some meat on the bones at some later date.)

Dowd’s passion for the child sex-abuse issue is well documented.  For many years she has railed against her Catholic Church for its deplorable handling of pedophile-priests, and she obviously sees this as an analogous situation here:

  • Like the Roman Catholic Church, Penn State is an arrogant institution hiding behind its mystique. And sports, as my former fellow sports columnist at The Washington Star, David Israel says, is ‘an insular world that protects its own, and operates outside of societal norms as long as victories and cash continue to flow bountifully.’”

But Dowd and Israel go too far when they extend their criticism to football:

  • “Paterno was still practicing for the game against Nebraska on Saturday, and supportive students were rallying at his house. This is what Israel calls ‘the delusion that the ability to win football games indicates anything at all about your character or intelligence other than that you can win football games.’”

For many years, I have vehemently argued that we can learn so much from sports like football because the results tell you what works and what doesn’t work.  It is practical, not abstract.

As someone who grew up in the corporate world, I have often been frustrated by the success of people who are good at nothing except for talking a good game.  Their glib speech sprinkled with buzz words suggests they know what they are doing.  In the unusual situation where they are actually required to produce numbers, they are adept at explaining away the bad numbers that they invariably produce.

You can’t do that with football.  As Bill Parcells has noted, you are as good as your record.

Furthermore, I think the ability to win football games does indicate something about your character or intelligence.  Obviously, athletic ability is a dominant factor in athletic success, but most reasonable people agree that an individual with character and intelligence will do better in football than someone without these traits.

There’s an old saying about a statement being so foolish that only an intellectual could believe it.  I suspect Dowd is an intellectual.  I suspect she failed at sports.  The question is whether she brought character and intelligence to her athletic endeavors.

November 5, 2011

Kudos to Klein

Filed under: Media — Mike Kueber @ 11:28 am
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Several years ago, my USAA mentor Marv Leibowitz turned me on to good writing.  Until Marv came along, I was interested in the information being communicated, not the way it was communicated.  But Marv, who was a political conservative like me, pointed me to NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd and showed how well she communicated, even if we disagreed with her substantive opinions.

I thought of Marv and Maureen today when I read a Time magazine column by Joe Klein.  Klein is about as liberal as Dowd, and his column eviscerating Cain, Romney, and Perry was obviously partisan.  But the column contained one paragraph on Rick Perry that I found almost stunning for its eloquence.  Enjoy:

  • There has been some speculation in recent weeks that Perry’s money will carry him through to the coveted mano-a-mano spot against Romney. There were even those who judged his most recent, noncomatose but rude and obnoxious debate performance to be a step in the right direction. I don’t think so. Perry is, quite simply, overmatched, a minor league ballplayer flailing in the majors.  His dreadful debate performances have camouflaged the fact that he doesn’t do anything very well except, perhaps, shill for the petroleum industry. His main role, going forward, will be to waste his money chucking negative ads at his opponents.

August 31, 2011

Hurricane Irene and Iraq/Afghanistan

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 1:14 pm
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Last night, I watched the Ed Show on MSNBC and heard Ed Schultz excoriate Republicans for suggesting that the federal expenses associated with Hurricane Irene would need to be offset by cutting expenses elsewhere in the federal budget.  Shultz called such statements heartless and said that Republicans haven’t shown similar frugality when dealing with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

If I didn’t know better, I would think that the Republicans scrooges were opposing the federal relief efforts, but they weren’t.  They were merely stating that America would have to find a way to pay for those efforts.  And since when are the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq Republican wars?  I believe President Obama has been commander in chief for more than two and a half years.

Ed Schultz was a sportscaster for a North Dakota TV station when I lived there back in the 80s, so I excused his intemperate comments to his being an idiot.  But a few minutes later, I read Maureen Dowd’s new column in the NY Times, and she said virtually the same thing.    For good measure, she brought in Katrina villain Michael Brown and all-around villain Dick Cheney to support her nonsensical thesis.

President Bush caught a lot of flak for his handling of Katrina, but history has shown that state and local officials were the primary culprits.  Spinning by liberal pundits like Schultz and Dowd will not change that history.  And the federal government has to prioritize its spending; it can’t just print money.  Oh, yeah, I guess it can’t, but it needs to get out of that habit.

June 26, 2011

Same-sex marriage in New York

NY Times columnist Maureen Down’s column this weekend castigated President Obama for too frequently taking the position that he took in the Illinois state senate – i.e., instead of voting yes or no, he often voted “present.”  Maureen provided a plethora of examples, with her strongest involving same-sex marriage, which was legalized in New York a couple of days ago.  Obama has said that his position is “evolving” and that each state should decide the issue.

Maureen made a couple of interesting comments about this position – (1) women recognize the term “evolving” as typical of a male who is commitment-phobic, (2) although Obama claims that his position flows from his Christianity, Maureen notes that Obama rarely goes to church and is the picture of a secular humanist.

Although I support same-sex marriage, I am a federalist who believes that each state should control this type of issue in their state.  Other issues in this category would be abortion, the death penalty, and marijuana.

But Maureen quotes a contrary opinion from the Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, “You think it’s going to stop with this?  You think now bigamists are going to want their rights to marry? You think somebody that wants to marry his sister is going to now say, ‘I have a right’?  I mean, it’s the same principle, isn’t it? … This is crazy.”

I don’t think it’s crazy.  I don’t think the federal government should be telling states, like Utah, what their law on bigamy must be.  Ditto for brother-sister marriages, even though there are there are scientific reasons in addition to religious reasons for opposing such marriages.  But if you’ve seen John Sayles’ classic 1996 film “Lone Star” starring Matthew McConaughey and Elizabeth Pena, you might not completely reject the possibility of such a marriage.

May 5, 2011

Getting carried away – lessons learned about Obama from the killing of Osama

Maureen Dowd of the NY Times wrote a column yesterday titled Cool Hand Barack.”  In the column, she compared Barack Obama not only to Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke” but also to Al Pacino in “The Godfather.”  That’s fine; poetic license is fine.  But then Maureen attempted to distinguish between Obama and his milquetoast predecessor, Jimmy Carter:

  • But now the president has shown he can lead straight-on and that, unlike Jimmy Carter, he knows how to order up that all-important backup helicopter. He has said that those who call him a wimp are mistaken, that there is often muscular purpose beneath his diffident surface.”

That’s not fine; that is not poetic license or mere hyperbole.  I don’t think anyone in a position to know has indicated that Obama had anything to do with the back-up choppers. 

Maureen’s bald misstatement reminds me of Senator Kyl’s statement that 90% of the work of Planned Parenthood involves abortion and his follow-up comment that the statement was not intended to be factual.  Perhaps Maureen expected her readers to realize that she was merely attempting to prove her point. 

You might think that I am being too picky with Maureen, but she is not alone.  Today Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne went even further in trying to create a legendary Barack Obama.  His description of Obama as a warrior (“sheer audacity”) evoked Robert E. Lee, but Dionne also noted, “It can also end in daring action tempered by prudence — for example, making sure that additional helicopters were available to our Navy SEALs.”

You will have to read Dionne’s entire column to get the full flavor of his man-love for Obama.  For now, let these closing words suffice:

  • “And anyone who doubted our willingness to project our might as we see fit will have second thoughts after the events in Abbottabad.  This single action does not ‘change everything,’ because nothing ever changes everything. Killing one man does not settle two messy wars. Obama’s political standing will ultimately rise or fall largely on the basis of domestic issues and economic circumstances. The president’s supporters will again experience bouts of frustration when his philosophical caution prevails over his bold streak in the less martial work of negotiating budgets and promoting the general welfare at home. His opponents will not suddenly embrace his priorities.  But because he ordered this attack, and because it was successful, no one will ever view Barack Obama in quite the same way again.”

I wonder what was the “sheer audacity” of the assault on Osama bin Laden.”  Surely, things could have gone wrong, as they did with President Carter, but what choice did President Obama have.  He had already waited for months for intelligence to raise the likelihood of Osama being in the compound to 60-80%.  I suppose he could have waited longer.  His only other options were (a) to bomb the hell out of the compound or (b) involve the Pakistanis.  I don’t know anyone who has argued that those were better options.

Let’s assume that President Obama did not actually plan the assault, including the back-up choppers, then please tell me how Obama was a difference-maker.

Osama’s head shot

One of the reasons that I voted for Barack Obama was that during the campaign he acted coolly and dispassionately, unlike his opponent John McCain.  When the American financial system was approaching a meltdown, McCain lurched from recommending a campaign shutdown to a D.C. summit to a gas-tax vacation while Obama stuck to his campaign and let Bush-43 run the country.

Since his election, however, Obama has disappointed me because he and the Pelosi-Reid Congress took America further to the left than it wanted to go during their two-year reign.  But his action today in deciding to withhold photos of the Osama head shot is an example of why I voted for him.  Although his explanation reveals him not as polished or articulate as Bush-43 (notice the three consecutive “you knows”), he gets to the heart of the matter: 

  • It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence, as a propaganda tool. You know, that’s not who we are. You know, we don’t trot out this stuff as trophies. You know, the fact of the matter is this was somebody who was deserving of the justice that he received.”

Yes, the tabloid crowd in America will ask for tabloid fodder, but the American government should not be complicit in this untoward and unseemly activity.  That is not what we do. 

For a too-fawning description on Obama’s leadership mojo, see Maureen Dowd’s most recent column.    She calls Obama “Cool Hand Barack” and compares his Saturday appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner to Michael Corleone’s appearance at a baptism while several “hits” on his rivals were being carried out.

Maureen also points out that one on Obama’s advisers “described the president as the un-John Wayne ushering a reviled and chastened America away from the head of the global table. The unnamed adviser described the Obama doctrine on display in Libya as ‘leading from behind,’ which sounds rather pathetic.”  I agree with Maureen that such advisors are not helpful when they make gratuitous slights about the Duke.

Maureen’s reference to John Wayne came from an article in The New Yorker written by Ryan Lizza.  The following is the concluding paragraph in the interesting article titled, “The Consequentialist”: 

  • “Nonetheless, Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’  That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. ‘It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,’ the adviser said.  ‘But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.’”

Charles Krauthammer discussed Lizza’s article in a recent column:

To be precise, leading from behind is a style, not a doctrine. Doctrines involve ideas, but since there are no discernible ones that make sense of Obama’s foreign policy — Lizza’s painstaking two-year chronicle shows it to be as ad hoc, erratic, and confused as it appears — this will have to do

And it surely is an accurate description, from President Obama’s shocking passivity during Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution to his dithering on Libya — acting at the very last moment, then handing off to a bickering coalition, yielding the current bloody stalemate. It’s been a foreign policy of hesitation, delay, and indecision, marked by plaintive appeals to the (fictional) “international community” to do what only America can.

But underlying that style, assures this Obama adviser, there really are ideas. Indeed, “two unspoken beliefs,” explains Lizza. “That the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world.”

Amazing.  This is why Obama is deliberately diminishing American presence, standing, and leadership in the world?

April 25, 2011

Hawks

Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent posted an interesting entry today about “deficit hawks.”  According to Sargent, the term has been unfairly appropriated by the Republican Right, even though the Right is often more interested in drying up all streams of government revenue than it is in eliminating the deficit. 

This deficit-hawking started with Ronald Reagan in the late 70s, when he argued for lowering taxes, balancing the budget, and rebuilding America’s defenses.  When pressed to prioritize these conflicting values, Reagan said there was no conflict.  This prompted a moderate Republican opponent (Bush-41) to coin the term “voodoo economics.”

I think blogger Sargent makes a good point.  If you claim to be a deficit hawk, that should mean that reducing or eliminating the deficit is so important to you that you are willing to sacrifice other values – such as your opposition to raising taxes – in order to address the deficit problem.  If you aren’t willing to raise taxes to reduce the deficit, then you are more accurately described as a believer in smaller government or an adversary of big government.  Paul Ryan is a believer in smaller government, not a deficit hawk.  By contrast, the Gang of Six senators are deficit hawks.

Sometimes I think the anti-war liberals are still resentful of being labeled doves during the Vietnam War, as opposed to the pro-war conservatives being labeled hawks.  Most alpha Americans think doves are a little squishy.  NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd has tried for years to get back at the hawks by name-calling those who didn’t serve in Vietnam – she particularly enjoys calling VP Dick Cheney a chickenhawk.  (Although that term is considered an epithet, the NY Times is apparently OK with its usage by columnists.)  I wonder, however, if Dowd has taken this labeling to its logical conclusion – i.e., under his classification, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are chickendoves.  Don’t think they’d like that appellation.