Friday, December 27, 2013

Supporting free speech is one thing, but “standing with Phil” signals homophobia, sexism & racism

By Marc Jampole

It’s one thing to support Phil Robertson’s constitutional right to free speech. It’s quite another thing to proclaim you “Stand with Phil,” which about 200,000 people have done in signing an electronic petition available at the Faith Driven Consumer website.

What saying that you stand with Phil means is that you agree with his frequently-expressed homophobic, racist and sexist views.  I wonder how many of the 200,000 people who signed the petition understand that they have now insulted and demeaned real people—work associates, people they see in the supermarket, friends of their children. It’s possible that a number of them are like Sarah Palin and didn’t even read the remarks, but still knee-jerked in support of a celebrity they like.

Faith Driven Consumers, by the way, is a membership organization that claims to represent the 15% of the population who it says wants to buy goods and services only from companies that actively support Christianity. The website posts reviews of businesses that analyze their commitment to the Christian faith. Under the fast food category, for example, the organization gives Chick-fil-A 4.5 stars for “leaning towards a Biblical (sic) view of the world” and McDonald’s 1.5 stars for “leaning against a Biblical view of the world.” Backyard Burger, whatever that is, earns 3 stars for a “mixed response.” 

Here is what Faith Driven Consumers says about McDonald’s: “While it is making efforts to encourage healthier eating and to assist families in crisis through its Ronald McDonald House philanthropy, we can’t reconcile its celebration of the homosexual agenda and its promotion of abortion services with a corporate focus on catering to children and families.

The agenda of Faith Driven Consumers sounds vaguely reminiscent of the 1930s, when the Nazis encourage Germans not to shop at Jewish stores. 

Perhaps more frightening than the exclusionary policies is the fact that there is no information about the leadership or backers on the website. I can find nothing on the Internet about the founder and spokesperson, someone named Chris Stone. Faith Driven Consumers is not a nonprofit organization, meaning that it makes money making its recommendations, just like Angie’s List. Joining costs nothing and I see no solicitation for money or place on the website to contribute money, so the website and organization must be getting surreptitious backing, but from where? That’s the scary part.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson made an interesting observation that the Duck Dynasty Dude is worse than the bus driver who hassled Rosa Parks because the driver at least was following state law. 

Phil Robertson thinks he’s following the law, too: his god’s law, which he believes forbids homosexuality and keeps women subservient to men.

Phil Robertson has his religion and Jesse Jackson has his, and in their hearts both believe that religious dictates supersede the laws of man.

But Jackson was talking not about the laws of god, which are subject to interpretation, but about the laws of man. Jackson is a leading figure in the civil disobedience movement, which is based on peacefully disobeying bad and immoral laws. His career has been built on confrontations with people who are just following orders. He understands that the man just has a job to do. 

By contrast, Phil Robertson goes out of his way to say hurtful and insensitive things about minority groups and then tries to hide behind his narrow and harsh version of Christianity. 

NY Times runs another Op/Ed column arguing science should not try to extend human lifespan

By Marc Jampole

The New York Times opinion page seems to be on a full-bore campaign against radical extension of human life.

For the second time in less than a month, the Times has decided that the voices in favor of not pursuing life extending technologies and therapies need to be heard.  Three weeks ago it was so-called bioethicist Daniel Callahan who questioned the value of extending human life much beyond the 78 years that the average American now enjoys.  Now the Times has found room for a column by Roger Cohen—a supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and defender of Rupert Murdoch—to make exactly the same argument that Callahan made.  

Like Callahan, Cohen depicts radical life extension not as a blessing and a sign of success as a species, but as a burden on society because of current limitations on both natural and medical resources and a lack of jobs in society.  Cohen is unable to exercise even an iota of imagination to conjure a world run by renewable resources in which there is fairer distribution of the rewards of work, people have fewer children and everyone regardless of age has access to education, food, medical care and adequate shelter. All he sees are the problems of taking care of the elderly instead of the great joy that life can provide at any age.

Cohen cites statistics that suggest that the 56% of Americans don’t want to undergo medical treatments to live to 120 or more. Of course the question is theoretical.  I know a lot of very active people in their 80’s and 90’s—some with pain or illness, some without, but not one of them is sitting around waiting for or longing for death.

At the end his article, Cohen waxes philosophical about the relationship between death and meaning. Like many before him, he claims that human life has no meaning without death. His exact words: “This resistance to the super-centenarian dream demonstrates good sense. Immortality — how tempting, how appalling! What a suffocating trick on the young! Death is feared, but it is death that makes time a living thing. Without it life becomes a featureless expanse. I fear death, up to a point, but would fear life without end far more.”

That’s fine for him, and I also know that many long for death because they believe in an afterlife that will be a better, happier place.

But for me, human life is the ultimate value and extending it and making it more comfortable is the greatest good. I for one would not be bored with a longer life, even with eternal life: I could study more about human history, human society, evolution and science. I could learn more languages.  I could visit more of the world—at a more leisurely pace than current junkets abroad since I would have more time. I might even travel in space. I love playing games and watching sports, but even more, I get a great sensual pleasure out of preparing food and eating. As for sex—even if I ever became unable to achieve an erection, I would still take immense joy in the many other pleasures we label as sexual.  Cohen says that death gives our lives meaning. I disagree: I think the knowledge we are going to die imbues all pleasure with melancholy or sadness. I’m not the first to express this belief—it was part of the philosophy of the ancient Roman and Greek Epicureans.

I love life and I don’t want anyone to take even a minute away from me.  The thought that humans keep extending our lives through the pursuit of knowledge keeps me from despair. The idea that the human species could survive the destruction of the earth when the sun burns out by transporting large numbers of people to another planet in another solar system sustains my hope.

But I also realize that we have to change our ways for humans to survive as a species and for us to attain radical life extension for all. It will take a more equitable distribution of wealth, a focus on renewable resources, replacement of the accumulation of material things as the ultimate goal of life, an end to expensive and destructive wars, the basing of community decisions on science and not on convenience or the best interests of a few—in short it will take a repudiation of our wasteful, materialistic, war-mongering society. That’s something that those advocating against life extension don’t seem willing to contemplate.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Amazon isn't the only outfit working on new delivery technology

Graphic by Kevin Kreneck

Small problem with Joseph Epstein’s complaint about meritocracy: where is it?

Every once in a while, a white male who has made his living as a “responsible conservative” or a conservative parading as a centrist produces an article bemoaning the fact that we are now ruled by a meritocracy. Through the years, George Will, Irving Kristol and William Buckley Jr. can count themselves among the many so-called public intellectuals who have bemoaned the coming of the meritocracy.

The latest is Joseph Epstein, a long-time equater of civic virtues with the rights of the privileged, in a Wall Street Journal article titled “The Late, Great American WASP.” Like most of predecessors, Epstein contrasts the current meritocracy with the former system in which the most powerful people were likely to be male, Protestant, of British descent, from wealthy and well-established families with many connections to business opportunities and attended an Ivy League school.  Epstein defines WASP as the ruling class that dominated politics, economics (by which I think he means business) and education until it was gradually replaced by a meritocracy starting after World War II. By putting a right-wing slant on carefully-selected anecdotes, Epstein hopes to prove that when WASPs ruled we muddled through pretty well and that now that we have a meritocracy, as witnessed by the Clinton and Obama presidencies, we are pretty much going to hell in a hand basket.

The problem is that we do not have a real meritocracy, and certainly not in politics, business or education. Epstein can’t make his argument without this assumption, which is patently false. 

In the days of WASP ascendancy, the most powerful people in most fields did go to an Ivy League or Ivy-type schools, and that’s still the case. If you don’t believe me, pick any field outside sports, even entertainment, and start investigating the backgrounds of the most powerful people in it. In all cases you’ll find an inordinate percentage and often a majority came from wealthy families or went to a top echelon school, be it Harvard, Yale, Duke or Stanford.

In the old days, mostly rich and well-connected kids—kids from the ruling elite—got to go to these handful of schools, and that’s still the case. As many researchers have noted, legacies get bigger breaks in admissions decisions at Ivy League schools than do athletes and minorities.  That’s what got our second president Bush into Yale (and his opponent in the 2000 election, Al Gore, too), a fact that Epstein ignores in substantiating his side argument that Bush II turned himself into a non-WASP.

There is a very good reason that so many kids who get into the top schools are wealthy: they have all the advantages. The latest research shows that kids from the poorest of backgrounds lose from 10-13 IQ points because they have to dedicate too much of their brains to thinking about their next meal. That point spread spans the difference between being a smart kid and a genius. The wealthy have an edge over the middle classes because they can afford to spend more in the ever-escalating race to prepare children: The more money the family makes, the more likely the child will get special classes, travel abroad, summer camps with intellectual enrichment, SAT tutors, SAT prep courses, educational consultants, subject tutors. The wealthy parents are more likely to make large contributions to the university. 

Take a look at the statistics: the U.S. currently has less mobility between the classes and less upward mobility than at any time in more than a century. The social mobility in today’s United States is lower than that of any other westernized industrial or post-industrial nation. Poor people move up to the middle or upper classes less frequently here than in any of the nations that had royalty and a rigid class system for centuries. 

Parts of our American society do operate as a meritocracy. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden all prove that the brightest and most talented do achieve positions of power. Harvard, Yale and Stanford do accept the “best and the brightest” alongside the merely good who come from money. But that was always the case when the WASPs ruled as well.   Even in the days of European royalty, even in the bad old slave days of ancient Rome, if you had a near photographic memory, could compute large sums instantaneously or displayed perfect musical pitch, the rich folk were going to find you and make sure you could help them run their society. That hasn’t changed one bit. But despite what you may have heard from your parents or may think about your own children, those extremely talented people are so rare as to be statistically irrelevant when discussing whether or not we have a meritocracy.

What has changed is that it’s not just the white males anymore in the positions of power. An increasingly ethnically and racially diverse ruling elite has emerged, but it is an elite based more on money and connections than on true merit.  

Epstein’s argument fails both in its logic and in its details. He calls Laura Bush a “middle class librarian.” It’s true that Laura’s profession was/is librarian, but I would not call her background middle class by any means: Her father was a home builder and successful real estate developer, two professions that lead to both wealth and power in the local economy. In his latest book, The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy, William Domhoff documents the enormous political influence that real estate interests have had on local and regional politics.  By the way, Laura’s maiden name was Welch and her mom’s was Hawkins. She was raised as Methodist. Sounds like an upper class (for Midlands, Texas society) WASP to me. 

Later in the article, Epstein claims that the two strongest presidents since 1950 are Truman, who never attended college, and Reagan, who went to the antithesis of Ivy—a small Christian college. Epstein states Truman and Reagan’s greatness matter-of-factly as if it’s common knowledge and readily accepted by most people. In the case of Reagan, believing that he was a great or a detestably awful president is a litmus test for political views: right-wingers and right-wingers-in-centrist-clothing rate him highly; progressives rate him as one of our worst presidents.  Now most people do rate Truman highly, but I personally consider him the worst president in American history by virtue of his having approved dropping two atom bombs on civilian targets. The larger point is that Epstein pretends that his own opinion is evidence that the meritocracy doesn’t work as well as the old WASPocracy did.

Articulate and well-bred conservatives railing against the so-called meritocracy reflect the broader anti-intellectualism that the ruling elite imposes on American society via the mass media.  But whereas the reason for the anti-intellectual message in movies and ads remains hidden, it stands out crystal clear in arguments such as Epstein’s: It’s about power. In a true meritocracy, the most talented are in charge in whatever the field, not the rich and connected. In even the least complex of agrarian societies, talent manifests itself as knowledge and the ability to accumulate and use knowledge.  Conservatives represent traditional society in which the wealthy rule. They fear a society in which the most capable for each job gets that job as opposed to keeping themselves and their offspring in the best and best-paying positions. So when the wealthy aren’t busy buying up the best and the brightest to do their bidding and justify their hold on power, they try to disparage intellectual activity.  

Thumbs up to A&E for suspending “Duck Dynasty” celebrity, thumbs down for ever creating the show

By Marc Jampole

When Sean Hannity, Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin and other right-wingers come out in favor of freedom of the speech, you know that someone has just said something false, stupid and insulting about a group routinely demonized by ultra-conservatives.

In this case, these Christian right illuminati are standing up for a bearded and backward backwoodsman’s right to slur gays.  

The latest right-wing freedom fighter to speak his mind and stand up for religious values is Phil Robertson, one of the stars of “Duck Dynasty,” a reality show about a family business that sells duck calls and other duck hunting paraphernalia in the swampy backwoods of Louisiana.  The Robertson family thrives by displaying rural values and wearing their fundamental Christianity on both their overalls and their long, untamed beards.

Robertson’s outrageous views emerged in answer to this question by a GQ interviewer, “What, in your mind, is sinful?” Robertson’s response was not that growing inequality was sinful, not that chemical warfare was sinful, not that cutting food stamp benefits for children was sinful, not that herding people into camps was sinful, not that torture or bombing civilians were sinful, not that paying immigrants less than minimum wage was sinful, not that polluting our atmosphere and waterways was sinful.

No, in answering this softball of a question, none of these horrible sins came top of mind to Robertson. What did was male homosexuality: “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men…It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”  Note that women never enter the picture except as preferred receptacle—it’s all about his antipathy to male homosexuality.

There can be no doubt that Robertson has the right to speak these ugly opinions. But shame on the public figures who have decided to select this particular instance to defend the right to free speech.  I suppose it’s easier for them to defend his right to speak than to defend his views, which they may or may not believe but certainly want certain voters to think they believe.

And there can be no doubt that A&E had the right to suspend Robertson. I’m delighted they did, but whether they should have or not is not that interesting a question, certainly not as interesting as considering whether A&E ever should have run the series in the first place. “Duck Dynasty” is the most popular reality TV show ever on cable TV.  Like all reality TV, storylines are scripted, so what we’re seeing is not reality, but a kind of cheaply-produced semi-fiction produced in a quasi-documentary style that lends a mantle of credibility to its insinuation that we are viewing reality. The great invention of reality TV is the divorcing of fame from any kind of standard: these people are not actors, sports stars, born wealthy or royalty. They haven’t even slept with the famous, as the Kardashians have.    Like the Jersey wives, the Robertsons represent the purest form of celebrity—famous for nothing more than being famous. 

A&E and the show’s producers have always sanitized and romanticized the harsh aspects of the Robertsons’ lives even to the point of beeping our “Jesus” from the speech of the bearded boys.  Suspending Robertson is part of the continuing strategy to hone down the rough spots of rural American life. Besides, the network had no choice but to act quickly or risk a boycott of the entire network by sponsors and gay rights groups.

Moreover, A&E had everything to gain and nothing to lose by suspending Robertson. Those offended by Robertson’s views will never tune in or ceased watching a long time ago, but perhaps there are still those out there who haven’t watched yet and share Phil Robertson’s views. After all, even the premiere of the fourth season—the most watched nonfiction program in cable history—only drew 11.8 million. That’s a drop in the bucket of the 45% of the population who believe homosexuality is a sin (or so reports a recent Pew study).

(Having lived only within the borders of large cities for more than 40 years I find these numbers shocking, but in many ways, we have two societies now: blue and red, urban and suburban, multicultural and religious fundamentalist.  I’m a resident of the blue, urban, multicultural world and tend to interact only with others who share my views on social and political issues.)

The gay-bashing controversy also serves as this week’s “Duck Dynasty” media story. Only the Kardashians seem to get more stories about them than the Robertsons.

I won’t blame A&E for developing shows for the rural market, but I do blame it for developing these particular shows. Reality TV is the end game of the Warhol aesthetic—the apotheosis of branding elements into human deities called celebrities through a medium that has ostensibly avoided the distortions created by the artist’s mediation. But it’s only apparent, since it is not reality we see but an imitation of reality made to seem real by the suppression of most artistic craft.

Suburbanites, denizens of new cities, rural hunters—every major demographic group gets its own lineup of reality TV in post-modern America. In all cases, the producers varnish reality and give it a dramatic shape that at the end of the day feeds on commercial activity and conspicuous consumption. You wouldn’t catch Snooki squatting in a duck blind, nor Phil Robertson clubbing in South Beach.  But they represent the same value of undeserved celebrity selling mindless consumption.