The Righteous Mind

righteous mind book

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. Published in 2012. 448 pages.

The Benevolent Dictator took his kids to work today. It was allowed, so he did it just for fun and so that they can have some idea what he does all day. This means I have a bit of time to try and present a concise review of a book which tackles a pretty complex subject.

This book sets out to do exactly what its title implies, delve into the reasons and more importantly, the impulses, which send normally sane people off the deep end when the subjects of religion or politics are raised.

Haidt’s seminal focus is in the area of moral psychology, of which I understood little before I picked up his book. Nevertheless, many of his points resonated with me even though he clearly approached the topic through a very progressive lens. Even with this caveat, and with the additional note that this is not a Christian themed book, I still think Haidt did a sufficient job of presenting his case. His case can essentially be summed up in a few quotes.

“Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”

As I read this book, I was keenly aware how often my reasons for even the most minor things were crafted after my initial instinct or emotional impulse had decided that it was the direction I wanted to go in or the argument I wanted to make.

“The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.”

Haidt uses the metaphor of an elephant and its rider to describe this process, The elephant represents our innate leanings, whatever they are and on whatever they are based. Our conscious mind is the rider, which serves the purpose of articulating the rationale behind that which we already believe, or at least want to believe, is true.

“Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.”

This hardly bears analysis for anyone who has faith in things beyond what we see. However, our culture and our psyches are complex and so:

“Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.

Given that this is exactly what our culture has evolved into, an altar to reason, that is, it makes perfect sense that people are easily divided into vitriolic camps based on whatever their moral reasoning has deemed the true and right way.

The Internet makes this possible on a level that our grandparents could never have imagined. Even when one considers the assertion that our dogma is based on reality and science we quickly figure out how to manipulate even that. Kellyanne Conway took a beating in the media for the use of the phrase “alternative facts”, but she was closer to the truth than anyone was willing to admit:

“science is a smorgasbord, and Google will guide you to the study that’s right for you.”

This book changed the way I view Internet commentary and debate in ways I will never forget. It was very instructive on how we become relative experts and feeding our respective elephants to the point that we are not open to the truth even if it becomes abundantly clear. We simply hunker down and regurgitate our “well-established” and”factually supported” beliefs using those facts, and time devoted to collecting them as evidence that what we believe is true:

“People who devote their lives to studying something often come to believe that the object of their fascination is the key to understanding everything.”

To be sure, there were plenty of nits to pick in this book, but there was also lots to learn. This is the takeaway for those not inclined to go through the 448 pages:

“If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense.”

That includes me. And you too.

Grade: B-

gratuitous caveat: pretty sure Haidt’s an atheist, for those who care about it. There’s still some interesting stuff here, particularly in light of this age of constant debate and vilification of people who are different from us in myriad ways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crafting With Feminism

crafting femCrafting With Feminism: 25 Girl-Powered Projects to Smash the Patriarchy, by Bonnie Burton. Published in 2016. 110 pages.

This is logged under “tales from the local library” because I ran across it as I was perusing the shelves, and the morbid part of my curiosity picked it up to flip through it. I am constantly amazed at the things that get published these days, although I shouldn’t be.

The foreword is written by Felicia Day, and starts with the line, “Hi. My name is Felicia. I have a vagina and I make crafts.” Then she goes on to explain the ideas which make her a feminist and how to create crafts which make the charged topic a little less dour and a lot more humorous.

This book is exactly what the title implies; 25 feminism inspired craft projects for girls to do as a sign of female empowerment. Projects include, but are not limited to:

  • Feminist badges of honor
  • Heroes of feminism finger puppets
  • Pizza not patriarchy reusable lunch bag
  • All Hail the Queen crown
  • Tampon buddies
  • Power panties
  • Next Gen feminist onesie
  • Male chauvinist tears coffee mug

Very few of the finished products shown in the book look particularly crafty or polished. However, that may be the point. Who knows? I for one, hate it when I spend good money on supplies only to have my finished product look like a 5th grader did it. But hey, maybe that’s just me.

Grade: F.

I think that was my first “F”! Seem apropos, no?

A worthy muse.

Muse: As a verb, to muse is to consider something thoughtfully.

Hearth recommended a reading of the introductory chapter of the book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. She has been heavily considering the increasingly divisive and vitriolic discourse which dominates political and religious discussion in our country and thought we might find it interesting. I did find it interesting, and am planning on reading the book sometime this spring. Yes, it is pushing other planned works further down the queue.

I am inviting anyone else who has an interest in discussing such a book to join me and read the book to completion by May 1. I will post a review of the book at that time. To -hopefully- pique interest, I am including a few quotes from the introductory chapter.

“This book is about why it’s so hard for us to get along. We are indeed all stuck here for a while, so while we’re waiting, let’s at least try to understand why we are so easily divided into hostile groups, each one certain of its righteousness.”

“I could have titled this book The Moral Mind to convey the sense that the human mind is designed to “do” morality, just as it’s designed to do language, sexuality, music, and many other things described in popular books reporting the latest scientific findings. But I chose the title The Righteous Mind to convey the sense that human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical, and judgmental.”

“The central metaphor of these four chapters is that the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images that hogs the stage of our awareness. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.”

Already in the introduction, I can find areas of disagreement with the book’s author, Jonathan Haidt. The point isn’t to promote the book as a solution to the problems. What I am hoping to find within its pages is a fairly detached exposition of the situation.

Even if it fails that test, I consider it a worthy muse.

The Vision of the Anointed

vision-of-the-anointedThe Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation As a Basis for Social Policy, by Thomas Sowell.  Originally published in 1996. 320 pages.

Upon learning of Thomas Sowell’s announced retirement I was motivated to read one of his books that I had not yet read. I chose this one because despite being over 2 decades old, it dovetails nicely with state of affairs in which we find ourselves in 2017. In fact,  his words are more relevant now than ever before.

The thrust of the book is exactly as its title implies, that our academic, media, legal and political institutions are increasingly staffed by those who view themselves as anointed to do what is best for we in the huddles masses by virtue of the fact that they know best. That with just the right amount of tinkering, social experimentation, and deference to their view of a perfect world, we would all be living in a utopia.

One of the sad signs of our times is that we have demonized those who produce, subsidized those who refuse to produce, and canonized those who complain.

That is, we could, if it weren’t for the benighted plebeians. That would be those of us who make up the general public, religious zealots, and anyone else who doesn’t subscribe to the notion that degrees, microphones, and political pedigree make one the rightful arbiter of all that is good and right for everyone else.

In their haste to be wiser and nobler than others, the anointed have misconceived two basic issues. They seem to assume (1) that they have more knowledge than the average member of the benighted and (2) that this is the relevant comparison. The real comparison, however, is not between the knowledge possessed by the average member of the educated elite versus the average member of the general public, but rather the total: direct knowledge brought to bear though social processes (the competition of the marketplace, social sorting, etc.), involving millions of people, versus the secondhand knowledge of generalities possessed by a smaller elite group.— p. 114

This book is heavy reading, full of facts, and doesn’t flow with the ease of a book driven by a plot or even primarily by the political opinions and analysis of its author. In fact, were it not for the fact that I am something of an intellectual groupie of Dr. Sowell’s, I might have put it aside once I got the gist rather than reading through until the very end. If you have the time and temperament to sift through it all, it’s worth the read. He does what so few political commentators do: provides concrete evidence for the  conclusions reached and positions asserted.

It is easy to be wrong-and persist in being wrong-when the costs of being wrong are paid by others. p.136

And the cost, Sowell notes, is rarely paid by the anointed as they are far enough removed from their benefactors to never have to deal with the fallout of their outrageous social science experiments.

The presumed irrationality of the public is a pattern running through many, if not most or all, of the great crusades of the anointed in the twentieth century–regardless of the subject matter of the crusade or the field in which it arises. Whether the issue has been ‘overpopulation,’ Keynesian economics, criminal justice, or natural resource exhaustion, a key assumption has been that the public is so irrational that the superior wisdom of the anointed must be imposed, in order to avert disaster. The anointed do not simply: happen: to have a disdain for the public. Such disdain is an integral part of their vision, for the central feature of that vision is preemption of the decisions of others.— p 123-124

The way these gambits work is through verbal sleights of language. For example:

Another way of verbally masking elite preemption of other people’s decisions is to use the word ‘ask’–as in ‘We are just asking everyone to pay their fair share.’ But of course governments do not ask, they: tell. The Internal Revenue Service does not ‘ask’ for contributions. It takes. — p 197

Widespread personification of ‘society’ is another verbal tactic that evades issues of personal responsibility. Such use of the term ‘society’ is a more sophisticated version of the notion that ‘the devil made me do it.’ Like much of the rest of the special vocabulary of the anointed, it is used as a magic word to make choice, behavior, and performance vanish into thin air. — p 199

I could drop quotes all day, but time is short. So for the policy wonks, evidence seekers, and general nerdy folks who read here, pick up the book. Especially if you don’t possess a particularly conservative perspective. Sowell isn’t asking you to agree with him based on the depth of his feelings on issues. He is inviting his readers to take a look at the facts.

Please Stop Helping Us Get Mugged.

That’s actually not the title of a book I’ve recently read. It’s the combined titles of two books on the same subject. I concluded that rather than review the books separately, I’d combine them into a one post review. That said, the combination of these two titles is a very succinct and accurate description of the takeaway you’ll get from reading either of these two books on the politics of race in the U.S.

please stop helping usPlease Stop Helping Us, by Jason Riley  is an excellent rebuttal to the nonsense we are being treated to in the media when it comes to race relations and what ails the black community. Pulling no punches on the issues of crime (black on black as well as black on white), family breakdown, educational shortcomings, and the lot of it, it’s the kind of book I wish I could put into the hands of every one I know who staunchly supports our current Demagogue-in-Chief.

In addition, Riley puts the current woes and dismal statistics of the black community into a relevant historical context, something that is sorely needed as commentators on both sides of the debate fail to recognize or acknowledge prior evidence that given the opportunity to sink or swim without weights or life rafts, black Americans have usually done just fine.

Riley highlights the fact that contrary to post modern popular opinion, at the beginning of the civil rights movement American blacks were fairly fractured in terms of what it would take to improve their lot as Jim Crow fell out of legal favor. There was the Booker T. Washington school of thought, which focused on self-determination and industry as much more important than integration or political activism.

(There will be reviews forthcoming of Booker T. Washington’s work as our President uses him as a favorite example of thinking the black community should ignore in favor of government as the benevolent savior to all who are “oppressed”.)

There was also the W.E.B. Dubois faction which focused on political power and influence as the chief end to achieve equality and prosperity. Riley points out what happened as those who emphasized political integration won the battle:

Since the 1960s, however, and beginning in earnest in the 1960s, the Du Bois-backed focus of political integration has prevailed among black civil rights leaders. It crystalized under Martin Luther King, and several generations of blacks have come to believe that the only legitimate means of group progress is political agita­tion of the NAACP-Jesse Jackson-Al Sharpton variety. By this way of thinking, if you are more interested in black self-development than in keeping whites on the defensive, you’re accommodating racism.

You can find a much longer excerpt of Riley’s exposition on the Washington vs. Dubois approach to civil rights in this excerpt from his book that was featured on Forbes.com. Thorough, conservative and historically detailed book.

B+

mugged coulter

Mugged, Racial Demagoguery from the Seventies to Obama, by Ann Coulter does a good job of stating those things that no one else wants to say in polite company. The difference here is that again, she offers some historical context that shines a light on the fallacies and biases that both sides of these discussions fail to recognize or even know about.

Offering a very extensive record of crime statistics of various stripes, she points out that the proliferation of pandering and soft on crime legislation has led to a situation where we all are at greater risk of crime. This is why when I decided to combine the reviews for these two books of very similar subject, I went with “Please stop helping us get mugged.”

I wanted to like this book. I truly did. The problem with it was not the information contained within. There were plenty of convincing arguments backed up with historical references and legal facts. I appreciated this.

What I did not appreciate was the way Coulter’s quip-like humor and characteristic one liners translated into book form. What plays well in a 5 minute television debate or reads well in a 2000 word column on Townhall.com grows tiresome after about 75 pages:

The century-long struggle for civil rights was over. Attorney Thurgood Marshall had won his cases before the Supreme Court. President Eisenhower made clear he was willing to deploy the U.S. military to enforce those victories. President Nixon had desegregated the schools and building trades. Racist lunatic-and Democrat-Eugene “Bull” Connor was voted out of office by the good people of Birmingham, Alabama. The world had changed so much that even a majority of Democrats were at last supporting civil rights. After nearly a century of Republicans fighting for civil rights against Democratic segregationists, it was over.

That was the precise moment when liberals decided it was time to come out strongly against race discrimination.

For the next two decades liberals engaged in a ritualistic reenactment of the struggle for civil rights-long after it had any relevance to what was happening in the world. Their obsession with race was weirdly disconnected from actual causes and plausible remedies. They simply insisted on staging virtual Halloween dress-up parties, in which some people were designated “racists,” others “victims of racist violence” and themselves, “saviors of black America.”

The fact that New York City was the crucible of so much racial agitation in the seventies and eighties shows how phony it was. There was never any public segregation in New York. No one was moved to the back of the bus. There were no “whites only” water fountains. There were no segregated lunch counters. (Blacks could even get a sixteen-ounce soda in New York City back then!) But liberals love to drape themselves in decades-old glories they had nothing to do with.

You may have noticed the little one liners I referenced above. As I said, great for a 2000 word column, but tiresome over 300+ pages.

With those caveats in place, the book is worth a read to die hard Coulter fans and the open minded on both sides of the current debate on race in America. You have to be open minded, however because no matter where you fall, there will no doubt be something here that you’ll not like. It is however, far more offensive to the liberal than conservative (and I use those terms loosely as a way to generally distinguish two schools of thought that grow less dichotomous every day).

That brings to mind  another bothersome thing about Mugged. There was an over emphasis on framing everything in terms of Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. Now, given Coulter’s target audience, this is to be expected and I won’t hold it against her. Having myself evolved in recent years past the two simplistic and misleading labels, it was another thing that dragged down a potentially helpful book.

C+