Three themes for today: How science is the only news, per Stuart Brand; Demagogues and ideologues on the right; and Ross Douthat’s warning about spiritual experiences that don’t align with his own.
Glancing through that John Brockman book The Third Culture, I came across this ever-pertinent comment from Stuart Brand (of Whole Earth Catalog and CoEvolution Quarterly fame), included on this Stuart Brand Quotes page. About what is real news.
Science is the only news. When you scan a news portal or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the politics and economics the same cyclical dramas, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness; even the technology is predictable if you know the science behind it. Human nature doesn’t change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly.
I could add that religion isn’t news either, though it certainly figures into political news to the extent that it drives wars and attempts to reverse the progress made by science and technology. Religion doesn’t progress; we know no more about God, as Jerry Coyne pointed out (see my Jan 21st post), than we did 1500 years ago.
The political news brings us endless rounds of demagogues who don’t understand evidence or arguments, only ideologies. These people will always be among us.
Slate, Norman L. Eisen, Siven Watt, and Fred Wertheimer, 2 Feb 2023: Jim Jordan Showed on His First Day How Unfit He Is To Lead the Judiciary Committee
Jordan is a classic demagogue. When presented with facts or evidence which plainly debunk his position, he doesn’t concede or even attempt to further inquire into those truths. He instead seems content with pretending as though he was never presented with the truth at all, repeating his talking points incessantly without even acknowledging contradictory facts presented to him. This was seen most recently in an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, during which Jordan just flat-out ignored his interlocutor, Chuck Todd. Under his leadership, the committee’s aim to “fix” anything is a false premise, as Jordan has made clear he is out to get President Biden and his administration.
On the other hand, at least the liberals (Democrats) are trying to offer ideas, rather than threatening to wreck the world economy, should the US default on its commitments.
Washington Post, Paul Waldman, 2 Feb 2023: Opinion | Want to cut spending, Republicans? Liberals have some ideas for that.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has found his talking point in response to President Biden’s refusal to negotiate over whether the government should default on its debts. “I want to look the president in the eye and [have him] tell me there’s not one dollar of wasteful spending in government,” the California Republican has said. “Who believes that? The American public doesn’t believe that.”
That isn’t really the question — like any large organization, the federal government surely has some waste it could cut — but eliminating wasteful spending wouldn’t get us very far. The deficit for fiscal year 2022 was $1.375 trillion, and we’re not overpaying that much for pencils and file folders. Balancing the budget as Republicans are asking for would require truly spectacular evisceration of programs Americans rely on.
So here’s another question: If we wanted to do some budget-cutting — not under the extortionist threat of default, but just because it might be worthwhile — what federal spending do liberals think we could do without?
The answer, for TL;DR readers, is not so much to cut the budget, as to collect the taxes that people already owe. (While some for odd reason, Republicans want to cut the budget for the IRS to make this harder to do.)
But if you do want to make cuts, you might as well start where the money goes: The biggest items in the federal budget are Social Security, health care (including Medicare and Medicaid) and the military. As a general rule, Republicans would like to cut the first two, while Democrats would rather cut the third.
The military is the place to start cutting, said Lindsay Koshgarian of the Institute for Policy Studies. “More than half of the military budget goes to contractors in an average year, subsidizing multimillion-dollar CEO salaries and stock buybacks, as well as cases of egregious overcharging,” she told me. “Trimming weapons and military contracts is long overdue. And Congress routinely refuses to allow the Pentagon to retire weapons systems it no longer wants.”
This appears to be the whole vested-interests angle. Don’t move away from fossil fuel pollution, or you put coal miners out of jobs; don’t simplify the tax code, or you put tax preparers out of jobs. Don’t move people away from pointless or destructive jobs because that would be change, and conservatives hate change, and don’t want anyone to have to change.
On a completely different note, here’s a thoughtful but odd essay on religion and spirituality, by a conservative, religious, NY Times columnist.
NY Times, Ross Douthat, 1 Feb 2023: Be Open to Spiritual Experience. Also, Be Really Careful.
The context for this piece of course is in part the trend of diminished religious commitment in the US in recent decades, via the ever-growing number of “nones,” those who say they’re not committed to any particular religious group. (When asked on a census form about their religion, they check “none”.) And the parallel idea of being “spiritual but not religious.” Which suggests there’s a psychological motivation to identify with things greater than oneself, i.e. being “spiritual,” without following any particular formal religion.
The writer is a committed Catholic.
But the dissolution of the old order of American religion — the decline of churches and denominations and the rise of deinstitutionalized spirituality — means that more and more religious lives are lived in between worldviews, in experimental territory where it’s a mistake to expect coherence, theological consistency, a definite set of prior assumptions or beliefs.
He then address three examples of “spiritual experimentation” and their dangers.
- magical thinking, ranging from the vogue for astrology to the TikTok craze for manifesting desired outcomes in your life
- the “fascination with psychedelics and hallucinogenic drugs” going back to Aldous Huxley
- a specific example of how a statue appeared on a New York courthouse, occupying a plinth near famous lawgivers like Moses and Confucius.
And then, like many religious people do, he dismisses materialism.
For the stringent materialist, everything I’ve just described is reasonable as long as it’s understood to be playacting, experience hunting, artistic experimentation. Only when it becomes serious does it offend against rationality.
However, stringent materialism is itself a weird late-modern superstition, and the kind of experimentation I’m describing is actually far more rational than a life lived as though the universe is random and indifferent and human beings are gene-transmission machines with an illusion of self-consciousness.
And so on. But what really struck me about this essay was this passage.
I’m writing as a Christian; my religion explicitly warns against magic, divination, summoning spirits and the like. (Atheist polemicists like to say that religious people are atheists about every god except their own, but this is not really the case; Christianity certainly takes for granted that there are powers in the world besides its triune God.)
What?? Christians acknowledge there are powers in the world besides God? What would those be? How have I not heard of them?
So from any religious perspective, there’s reason to worry about a society in which structures have broken down and masses of people are going searching without maps or playing around in half-belief or deploying, against what remains of Christianity, symbols that invoke multiple spiritualities at once.
Some element of danger is unavoidable. The future of humanity depends on people opening doors to the transcendent, rather than sealing themselves into materialism and despair.
But when the door is open, be very, very careful about what you invite in.
So sure, mindless religious order maintains social order. People need maps to identify what to think and what to do.
The transcendent? There’s plenty out there. Not in religious fantasies. Just look up, deep deep into the night sky, into the vast universe that is *real*.