Wednesday, July 24, 2013

When will Snowden comment on civil liberties in the Russian Federation?

I am not one of those people who think that Edward Snowden had a moral obligation to stay in the United States and face criminal charges for his leaking. Yes, to stay and face the music when one opposes a government one sees as immoral might be heroic, but no one has an obligation to be a hero. And, criticism from a position of exile is not worthless for that reason. And, I do think that there are deep problems with our rapid approach to Panopticon, not to mention our military and pseudo-military adventures around the world, and the continuation of Guantanamo.
However, Snowden seems to have taken himself as some sort of warrior against the all-encompassing surveillance state and against the erosion of civil liberties. If that is the position he wants to take and he wants to be taken seriously as something more than just someone who has localized problems with the United States, that limits his options.
You can't accept asylum in the Russian Federation if what you oppose is the surveillance state, if what you are fighting for is civil liberties. Russia is governed by a former spymaster who continues to use the surveillance powers he learned, who regularly imprisons his political opponents, and strips them of all their assets, for whom a personal enemy is ipso facto, an enemy of the state. I know this is the point at which Snowden's defenders will crow about Bradley Manning, but for all the possible injustice in that case the parallel is a bad one. It is much more as if, having won the election, Obama had charges filed against Romney, imprisoned him, and took his fortune. Just last week, a Putin opponent running for mayor of Moscow was convicted on trumped-up charges so that he cannot run for office. This is where our warrior for openness and civil rights and liberties will be living, a country in which being "pro-gay" comes with a prison sentence, in which gay tourists are now being detained, in which any non-governmental organization with any foreign contact is shut down as a tool of foreign governments.
Of course, Russia wasn't his intended destination, but the records of China, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela with respect to openness, civil liberties, and freedom of the press are not much better. In the end, it looks like Snowden and his defenders care about abuses to the degree they are carried out by the United States. When others do the same or worse, it matters not at all. 
I do await his brave statements about the evils of Russian society, but I assume I wait in vain.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Thoughts on guilt and the divine ledger-keeper

One of the things about having drunk deeply of the font of Catholicism and being obsessive-compulsive—and not the fun, party conversation sort—is that you get to feel guilty a lot, even when you know you shouldn't. The old moral theologians called it scrupulosity.
A religious sense of guilt assumes a god, a god who keeps track of our transgressions, and is at least disappointed in us if we fail to match his expectations. (The fact that this sense of guilt can survive the death of the religious metaphysics that underpins it is fascinating, but a topic for another day.)
Of course, the god of the Abrahamic religions—God—is just such a being. God, unlike the God-of-the-Philosophers, is a person who enters into relationships with humans, a person who cares about humans. Only such a god could give believers the solace they derive from religion; only such a god could inspire devotion in worshipers.
But it is worth considering what kind of person this god is portrayed as being. God is supposed to be a being who not only concerns Himself with every human in creation, but who keeps track of everything each of them does. We are told that God keeps a book in which are listed all the deeds, both good and bad, of all people. God remembers all transgressions and forgives them only when forgiveness is requested, repentance is genuine, and penance is done. Even worse, in Christianity, we are told that God has given to humanity—the humanity that He set up to fail in the Garden—a set of rules and requirements that they can never fulfill because of their own depravity. (Judaism and Islam at least—if it is better—take humanity to be perfectible and perfectly capable of following God's law; of course, failing to do so then is entirely one's own responsibility.) God looks like a super-Santa Claus, though somewhat more sinister, since His punishments and rewards are eternal even as His ways are inscrutable.
There are so many questions that can be lodged here. But, I only want to ask one type. What would we say of a friend or a relative who kept a detailed list of every transgression? Who never forgave one unless it was specifically mentioned in an apology and was then paid for? Who, in fact, used her mental energies to keep such a catalog? Who, even better, intentionally set goals that she knew we could not meet, all in order to show how much we rely on her? This would not be a good person. It would not be a person you would want to know. It would be a petty person. And, I don't think we would take such a person to be one who was concerned with us in any laudable way. If I remember how my partner upset me ten years ago, that is not praiseworthy, it does not demonstrate the strength of my love or my concern. It shows me to be a pretty horrible sort of person.
Now, I know that the ways of God are mysterious, but what reason—other than fear of punishment or hope of reward, i.e., egoism—would make one praise a being who was portrayed as so petty?

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Gay porn, feminism, and the search for universal explanations

Occasionally, I get into a discussion with one of my feminist friends about pornography. There is a line among some feminists—traced back through the work of Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin—that all pornography is inherently misogynistic. And, relying on the speech act theory of JL Austin, that is doesn't really deserve the protection afforded free speech, because it isn't an expression of an opinion or a view; it's a performative, an act of oppression of women.
Usually, at this point, I bring up porn that doesn't involve any women: gay porn. I ask, "But of course, gay porn can't be about oppressing women, because there aren't any women involved." If you're naive, as I am, you might think this is a slam-dunk. 
But, I have been told many times that this is just a mistake on my part, because of course one of the men in any pornographic scene is the oppressed woman. I fail to see—perhaps because of my position as a man—the way in which this sex is gendered.
For the time, I will leave aside the way that this is extremely homophobic and hetero-normative. I will even ignore the fact that it gets (male) homosexuality entirely wrong and assumes that it can be understood theoretically without any discussion with people who have experience of it. I will even leave aside the way it is generally offensive to be asked whether one is "the woman" or "the man" in a relationship and the way that this view of gay porn and—with it—male homosexuality reflects that same way of thinking. What could I possibly answer from experience when truths flow down to me from the heights of theory? (At least, I will leave these questions aside for now.)
There might be many problems with gay porn, but why think the right way to think about them is in terms of a masculine/feminine dichotomy? Isn't this just a case of seeing a world only through the perspective of one's preferred theory?
The real problem underlying this is a tendency to think that every fact and situation and relationship in the world can be understood through one privileged lens, that every phenomenon can be unlocked if only one has the perfect key. 
In this case, the world may be understood only through gender. Once we understand gender the world is made clear, with the appropriate translation into gender.
But, I remember well sitting through (part of) a seminar with a Marxist geographer—his theory was Marxist, his life was high bourgeois—who believed that gender and race didn't matter, because only class was important.
There are others who believe that once we understand racial relations, everything is clear. Today, I read a blog that (jokingly?) explained dating in terms of markets. In biology, you hear those who tell you that all will be revealed once evolution is fully understood; there is a subset who believe that selection alone is the important force in evolution. In neuroscience and, sadly, philosophy, you hear many people who tell you that once we have a full neuroscience, we will have no more need for the humanities or probably for our humanity.
It is surely a natural drive to think that one thing can explain everything of interest, but this just turns us all into so many confused Casaubons. It will probably turn out that the world and the human world are much more complex than any one discipline or theory. 
Pursue your favored theory at will, but don't assume that it will explain everything; to think so is probably to be as simple as your worldview is simplistic. As Bishop Butler put it: Every thing is what it is, and not another thing.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Secularists have to do better

There's a pernicious style of argumentation among many secularists. You see it in the works of the New Atheists, you see it in this piece by David Brooks justifying the coup in Egypt—and, if you do the right substitutions justifying every possible coup; Pinochet or the return of the Shah, anyone?—and, in a recent series of tweets from Joyce Carol Oates. These are only examples. I hear it from students. I hear it from people who take themselves to be educated and enlightened. It is very much in vogue among a certain set.
The argument—I guess it is really a claim substituting for an argument—is that religious believers are mentally defective, delusional, incapable of rational thought; or, that they are immoral, necessarily misogynistic, barbaric. And, because of this, one cannot trust them to teach or govern or take any other important roles. 
Sometimes this strategy is aimed at all religious believers indiscriminately. Sometimes only at those one particularly disdains. Usually, these days that means Muslims.
I have an interest in the survival of secular government. And, Islamists scare the hell out of me; I know what happens to me in their ideal state. Pace some particularly strident thinkers—Sam Harris and Niall Ferguson come to mind—I think that there is a difference between Islam and Islamism. But as an accused member of the Homosexual International, and as a philosopher, I have no doubt that Islamism and its parallels in Christianity and Hinduism and even in Buddhism some places must be opposed and defeated, not least because I get killed in many of those views.
But you can't do this practically or while maintaining intellectual honesty, by claiming that all serious religious believers are defective in someway. Secularism needs defending, but it needs defending on its merits, not through ad hominem or through a baseless assertion that secularists and atheists really just are better. 

Monday, July 01, 2013

The Father of Lies: Evil, the Devil, and Us

There’s a line you hear from traditional Christians quite often. They will tell you the Devil is real. And, that when you say he isn’t that’s exactly what he wants, because he wants you not to fear him, not to be on guard against the lion that walks about waiting to devour the believer. And, when you aren’t on guard, that is when evil can triumph.
To deny the real existence of the Devil as a being is still a heresy for most Christians. His existence is affirmed in the catechisms of the Catholic and many other Churches.
There’s something a little brilliant about the notion of the Devil. To see a being like the Devil is to affirm that there is real evil in the world. This is not something that every tradition has seen. Many religions have some shady gods or demigods or spirits—Loki or Hades or Coyote or the Tempter or Opposer (haShatan) or many others—but they aren’t purely evil. And, often they exist in worlds where there’s not much notion of evil.
It can be hard to see from our point of view, but the notion of evil has not been and isn’t universal. When you read Homer, you see enemies, but they are no more evil than the gods are good. Hector is Achilles’ enemy, and he hates him for killing Patroclus, but he isn’t evil. There is no moral judgment of the sort that could make that distinction. Even when we come to a figure like Socrates, he cannot conceive that someone could see something as bad and yet choose it.
The discovery of real evil is an advance in thinking about humanity. Whatever Nietzsche may say about how we should feel about birds of prey, it is good to recognize we live in a world—yes, of mostly grays—but in which the full negation of good has a place. In this sense, then, the Devil is an advance in understanding the world.
But that advance comes at a cost in terms of our own self-understanding. The Devil is both a recognition that there is evil and a placing of that evil outside ourselves. It isn’t humans that are evil; they are led astray, tempted, suggested to, by an outside evil force. 
There is a danger in giving up the Devil—maybe a greater danger than that of giving up God. The danger is that we lose sight of evil. And, this happens in some of the more shallow presentations and lazy acceptances of relativism. 
“What they do over there, or what we used to do here or [less often] what we currently do isn’t evil,” we are tempted to say. “It’s just the way we do things.”
That is a mistake.
But, there’s an equal danger in hypostasizing or reifying that evil into an external being, a Devil. If we are seriously self-reflective and, sometimes I am too seriously self-reflective, we all recognize that there are dark places in us, spots of evil. Some of us have more and some of us have less; some of us can control them better, some of us worse; some of us barely see them, some of us are aware of them all of the time. But, they are there. Inside us. 
Denying the wisdom the idea of the Devil represents may well lead us to forget the real evil that is around us, but believing in the Devil is as likely to make us oblivious to the evil within.
The world would be easier if there were no evil, and life would be easier if the source of evil were outside us. But neither the world nor life are easy.