#FreeWillies

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Last week, in the wake of the People’s Climate March and the #FloodWallStreet protests that followed it, I was tweebating folks of the “voluntarist” persuasion of libertarianism about the alleged hypocrisy (or irony, at least) of environmentalists using the fruits of capitalism to communicate their presumably anti-capitalist ideas. This was something we used to hear a lot in the beginning of the #Occupy movement from Wall Street’s apologist-propagandists in the media and the grandstands they played to. The argument seemed to be, if you use it, you can’t complain about it. Interesting to me, those who take this argument seriously (and assuming anyone really does, it must be these people), they don’t seem able to see that they could be accused of a similar hypocrisy for criticizing the government when they benefit from government infrastructure, public safety and defense.

But that is not my problem with the voluntarists. My problem is with their fundamental stance, which was exemplified for me in a tweet from one “Jack”:

Jack ‏@oaaselect Sep 23

Did you get tricked into buying your device [meaning what I was using to Tweet with] or did you buy it voluntarily? @ChristofPierson @scooterpie61

via Twitter / Notifications.

On its face, this seems like a good question. The problem is, if you dig just a little under the face, the question falls apart. Do we really buy things “voluntarily”–of our own free will? Is it as simple as that? Consider the millions of people who broke records dumping their current phones for the iPhone 6 recently. Did all of those people need a new phone? Did they need the iPhone 6 in particular? Considering they were surviving fine without it until it went on sale, It’s hard to believe they did.. But the question is not did they need it, but did they want it? Did they buy it of their own free will?

Philosophically, free will is still controversial, of course. It’s a popular belief for obvious reasons, but the jury is still out on whether or not it’s fact. The very unpopular determinist position is that we are restricted to a very limited range of behaviors, based on any given stimulus, and the range shrinks the more habituated to these stimuli we become–unless we are insane, in which case, our behaviors can be frighteningly free-ranging and considered dangerous to society. Of course, just because this is an unpopular (because unflattering) point of view doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

I think it’s prudent to wonder, then, if the millions who ran out to buy the iPhone 6 all really “wanted” the phone or were responding as expected to a stimulus (“new Apple product,” or just,” latest gadget”) they’ve become habituated to reacting to in a specific way. There is no easy way of knowing, except maybe by comparing one’s own responses to these kinds of stimuli. Do we always buy what we want? Do we always take the job, or marry the spouse, or buy the house or car or gadget we want?  If I were a voluntarist–I mean, if voluntarism were something I thought I wanted to believe in–wouldn’t it be important to know if free will were something more than a wish or hope–in other words, a self-flattering illusion? Wouldn’t it be important to know if it were something more like an objective fact?

If it is more like fact, it certainly is not a simple one. But my conversation with these voluntarists was unsatisfying not just because of Twitter’s limitations as a forum for complex discussion. These voluntarists were not interested in complexities in the least. They were quite content with their received opinions about free will, the nature of “real capitalism’ (which according to them is something, unironically to them,  not of this world), or the right (or justice, if you will) of those who critique capitalism partaking in the gadgets the system produces. I have to wonder, who’s less liberated: the person within a system who sees its faults and says what those faults are, or the person whose ideology doesn’t permit more than a shallow understanding of the very thing they think they believe in.

Was it John Boehner’s Intent to Sabotage the #Teaparty?

John Boehner

John Boehner (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

There’s a fascinating, very sour interview on Salon.com with Adam Brandon, a leader of Freedom Works. That organization, somewhat defanged in the wake of an acrimonious split with its former leader, the former Texas Congressman Dick Armey, was nevertheless instrumental in forging right-wing discontent with Obamacare into pockets of astroturf activism around the country. More recently Freedom Works played a role in goading Republicans into following the Tea Party line over the shutdown and debt ceiling debacles. Brandon has ideas about the shutdown and House Speaker John Boehner’s motives during it that are worth considering,

I’m not sure if he’s going to be running for Speaker again. I wonder if that’s part of all of this as well. Why did – I mean the way it was crafted…You needed Democrats to pass this. And what I don’t understand is, if the plan all along was to put just basically a pretty clean CR out there and pass it with Democratic support, Democratic members, why even do it? Why not do this a month ago? Or were they actually trying to embarrass some people, or trying to cause this fight? I mean who knows. I don’t know why these things – if this was the plan all along, he should have started this at the very beginning, and just, “Hey, listen, we’re just going to pass this with Democratic votes.”

All along, observers were wondering what Boehner was up to. He looked weak, terrified of a small group of rabid right-wingers who were insisting on an all-or-nothing fight against Obamacare, which Boehner, being an old hand in DC, had to have known was a big fat turkey that was never going to fly. He would not be Speaker without the rabid right, but he would never be able to accomplish anything worthy of a legacy with them. The Tea Party coalition is the entire reason the Republicans have become the Party of No: No major legislation, no enabling of Obama, no compromise ever. Not much ammo there to stake a Speakership on.

Brandon’s paranoid theory actually makes a kind of sense, then. What if Boehner, realizing his legacy was doomed because of this awful hand he was dealt, decided, having nothing personally to lose, to take revenge on his tormentors on the right by giving them enough rope to hang  themselves? What if he was thinking, if they’re going to tear me down, I’m taking them down with me?

Perhaps this is giving Boehner too much credit. But even if this were his intention, and even if it shows him to be more of a master Machiavellian than most had assumed, it doesn’t change the fact that the shutdown caused massive pain, to government employees, to families, to women with infants and children, to cancer patients, to people with disabilities, veterans, to local and national economies. He can’t be forgiven for that. But it would at least make his actions comprehensible. At least we would know, that cruel and heartless though he may be, he wasn’t motivated by sheer insanity.

Gary Wills: GOP Tactics Echo Antebellum South’s Secessionism

Gary Wills has a very enlightening new piece in the New York Review of Books about the debt-ceiling/shutdown crisis manufactured by the Tea Party wing of the GOP. I can’t add anything to it, Please just go and read it. It’s an opinion of the American present deeply informed by the American past.

Here’s a taste:

Republican leaders in Congress are too cowardly to say that the voting restrictions being enacted by Republican-controlled state legislatures are racially motivated. They accept the blatant lie that they are aimed only at non-existent “fraud.” They will not crack the open code by which their partners claim to object to Obama because he is a “foreign-born Muslim” when they really mean “a black man.” They will not admit that the many procedural laws adopted to prevent abortion are in violation of the law as defined by the Supreme Court. They go along with the pretence that all the new rules are “for women’s health.” De facto acts of secession are given a pseudo-legal cover.

Thus we get people who say they do not want the government in control of women’s health under Obamacare—just after they order doctors to give women vaginal probes the doctors do not consider medically necessary. Or that they do not want the government telling Americans what they should do about their health—just before they prohibit “navigators” from even discussing choices about their health. The same people who oppose background checks for gun purchases now want background checks for anyone the government authorizes to explain the law to people. This is a gag rule to rank with antebellum bans on the discussion of slavery.

So we have one condition that resembles the pre-Civil War virtual secessionism—the holding of a whole party hostage to its most extreme members. We also have the other antebellum condition—the disproportionate representation of the extreme faction. In state after state in the 2012 election, there was a large vote for President Obama, but a majority of House seats went to Republicans. In Pennsylvania, for instance, Obama won 52 percent of the votes cast, but Republicans got over twice as many seats (13 to 5), thanks to carefully planned gerrymandering of districts by Republican state legislatures. This advantage will be set in stone if all the voter restriction laws now being advanced block voters who might upset the disproportion.

The presiding spirit of this neo-secessionism is a resistance to majority rule.

(My only comment on all this I said a little over two years ago,)

Copyright Keeps Books Out of Print

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Copyright advocates have long (and successfully) argued that keeping books copyrighted assures that owners can make a profit off their intellectual property, and that that profit incentive will “assure [the books’] availability and adequate distribution.” The evidence, it appears, says otherwise.

Rebecca J. Rosen outlines that evidence in an article at the Atlantic, “The Hole in Our Collective Memory: How Copyright Made Mid-Century Books Vanish.”  It’s always worth asking ourselves just what use present copyright law is for anyone but the massive copyright hoarders like publishers and entertainment retailers. It certainly doesn’t benefit the public and now it’s even clear that it doesn’t even benefit the author whose “intellectual property’ it’s alleged to protect and promote.

Copyright law does, in any case, provide a good lesson in American civics. It demonstrates loudly and clearly whose interests our government has nearest and dearest to its heart.  It’s not the people, of course, but always the intellectual property barons. We can rely on our faithful public servants in government, when given a choice between liberalizing the law (which would have the effect of enriching the creative atmosphere for all) and making it more and more constipated, to always choose the path of most constipation. Call it the trickle out theory of American culture.

Rolling Stone Has a Right to Put Whoever They Want On Their Cover

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Big, stinking heap of phony outrage story of the day: Rolling Stone is printing a cover story about Boston marathon bombing suspect Dzokhar Tsarnaev and they have the nerve and lack of good taste (which is always the very first phrase we think of when we think American media, isn’t it?) to put a photo of the subject of that cover story on their cover. Shame, shame, Rolling Stone, now every body knows your name (which was probably the point to begin with, wasn’t it?).

Obvious point millions of “concerned” media members and other nervous nellies are blithely missing while falling all over themselves to feel outrage on behalf of poor, weak, innocent, defenseless, little Boston (Shame on you, Dropkick Murphys!): Rolling Stone has the same right to put on their cover whoever or whatever they want to put on their cover as all of those magazines that chose to give Osama bin Laden his celebrity treatment in the aftermath of September 11th did. What part of First Amendment right do you hypocrites not understand?

(Hey, Boston Herald, why don’t you show Rolling Stone the way and just say no to using the Tsarnaevs’ mugs to sell your cheap rag, huh?)

Grow up, America. The world is a hard place. The news media have a right (and responsibility) to make that unpleasant fact known to us.m

No use spending any more time on this ridiculous waste of a non-story. But if you want to defend the “defenders of decency” and attack Rolling Stone‘s “poor taste” and “bad judgment” in the comments, I will be more than happy to kick your ass down there.

Poof of Heaven: Eben Alexander’s Truth Problem

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Esquire magazine has a long article (available online for $1.99 for non-subscribers) in the August issue by Luke Dittrich investigating the claims of Eben Alexander, a so-called “Harvard neurologist” whose book Proof of Heaven purporting to describe his “near death experience” has been on the best-seller lists for almost a year.  (I wrote about the Newsweek article that preceded the book last year.) Of course Dittrich was unable to verify or falsify the central claim, that Alexander actually went to heaven while he was in a coma during a bout of bacterial meningitis. However, Dittrich did uncover a number of awkward facts about Alexander’s career as a neurosurgeon, including a history of malpractice suits (five in ten years) that eventually deprived him of his license to practice neurosurgery and which suggested to Dittrich a possible motive for Alexander to write the book besides a reportorial one.

Over at Huffington Post, Paul Raeburn has written a blog that admirably summarizes Dittrich’s article:

Dittrich comes as close as one could, without access to Alexander’s private thoughts, to showing that the book was a cynical effort to provide a new career — as a prophet! — for a neurosurgeon whose career was being consumed by malpractice suits. He was, Esquire‘s editors write in the deck, “a neurosurgeon with a troubled history and a man in need of reinvention.”

One of Dittrich’s most damning revelations (so to speak) concerns the story of one of Alexander’s own doctors who says, in contradiction of Alexander’s claim that the  e. coli bacteria that caused his meningitis also caused his coma, that she chemically induced the coma because Alexander’s involuntary movements made it impossible to operate on him. This would give the lie to Alexander’s contention that his brain had ceased all activity and that he essentially died on the gurney. It would also suggest (though Dittrich doesn’t mention the drug used to induce the coma–one major shortcoming of the Esquire piece) a likely chemical source for Alexander’s ecstatic vision.

Of course, believers will continue to believe, and as evidence of that, you need only look at the comments section on Raeburn’s blog. Continue reading