Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hillary Clinton & the NEA

I was going to post a detailed dissection of the recent NEA resolutions, but I see that Rational Jenn beat me to it.
According to the site (scroll down a little) Hillary Clinton sports an 82% approval rating from the NEA. In July of this year, the Clinton campaign announced that "NEA NH Leader Karen McDonough to Co-Chair Education Leaders for Hillary." "McDonough was a leader of NEA-NH, a 13,000-member organization, for 16 years. She served as president for last eight years and as vice president for the eight years prior to that." Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton spoke at the 2007 annual NEA meeting in July. Given that by virtually every poll Hillary Clinton's nomination as the Democratic Candidate for President seems assured, I think it we can safely assume that she will take the NEA line on most issues.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Heinrich von Kleist and the Origin of the Romantics

I suspect that much of the time when Objectivist mention that they believe Immanuel Kant to be the most evil man in history, they probably get stared at as some kind of lunatics. After all, Kant was not a violent man, but rather an "Enlightenment Philosopher." In an interesting post on the German Romantic Poet Heinrich von Kleist, Wolfgang of the German site Objektivismus Heute (Objectivism Today) writes of a book review (entitled, appropriately enough, "O the mind! The unfortunate mind!") in the German newspaper Die Welt, in which the author of the review notes that the origin of von Kleist's Romanticism can be traced to what he termed a "Kant-crisis" (in German, Kant-Krise). Wolgang quotes the review as follows:

Sieht man Kleist als Romantiker, dann ist das Urerlebnis die Kant-Krise. "Wenn alle Menschen statt der Augen grüne Gläser hätten", schreibt Kleist 1801, dann würden sie die Welt für grün halten. Da er aus der Kant-Lektüre schließt, dass unser Bild von der Welt nur ein Produkt der Werkzeuge ist, mit denen wir die Welt betrachten, da er infolgedessen Abschied nimmt vom Glauben der Aufklärung, dass wir die Welt begreifen und dann handelnd verändern könnten, muss er den Verstand entthronen. Der neue oberste Herrscher ist das Gefühl - das "herrliche Gefühl"...


Here's my rough translation:

If we regard Kleist as a Romanticist, then the foundational experience is the Kant-crisis. "If all human beings had on green spectacles instead of eyes," wrote Kleist in 1801, then the world would be assumed to be green. Since, as a result of his Kant reading, he concludes that our picture of the world is only a product of the equipment with which we view the world, and thus departs from the Enlightenment belief that we can understand the world and then actively change it, he must dethrone the rational mind. The new highest ruler is the feeling -- the "magnificent feeling"...
Here we have the results of Kant's ideas clearly laid out for us. The idea that the mind cannot know reality means that the mind is impotent, so we might as well rely on our feelings. Ideas have consequences and as more and more 19th century intellectuals such a Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche pondered, rather than challenged, the implications of Kant's ideas, the 20th century culmination in fields far beyond poetry was not far behind. For details see Dr. Peikoff's book

Monday, October 29, 2007

Krugman the Ostrich

Paul Krugman, NY Times columnist and previously noted mostly for his economic ignorance has in a new op-ed piece called Fearing Fear Itself demonstated his ignorance of foreign policy and national security.

Krugman is upset that Rudy Giuliani has advisers that do not seek to appease Iran:
Consider, for a moment, the implications of the fact that Rudy Giuliani is taking foreign policy advice from Norman Podhoretz, who wants us to start bombing Iran “as soon as it is logistically possible.”

Mr. Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary and a founding neoconservative, tells us that Iran is the “main center of the Islamofascist ideology against which we have been fighting since 9/11.” The Islamofascists, he tells us, are well on their way toward creating a world “shaped by their will and tailored to their wishes.” Indeed, “Already, some observers are warning that by the end of the 21st century the whole of Europe will be transformed into a place to which they give the name Eurabia.”

Do I have to point out that none of this makes a bit of sense?
Actually, it makes every bit of sense, at least for those willing to look at the facts. Let's see if we can answer some of Krugman's objections. First:

For one thing, there isn’t actually any such thing as Islamofascism — it’s not an ideology; it’s a figment of the neocon imagination.
Well, I thought in this case Christopher Hitchens, hardly a neocon, put it best:

Does Bin Ladenism or Salafism or whatever we agree to call it have anything in common with fascism?

I think yes. The most obvious points of comparison would be these: Both movements are based on a cult of murderous violence that exalts death and destruction and despises the life of the mind. ("Death to the intellect! Long live death!" as Gen. Francisco Franco's sidekick Gonzalo Queipo de Llano so pithily phrased it.) Both are hostile to modernity (except when it comes to the pursuit of weapons), and both are bitterly nostalgic for past empires and lost glories. Both are obsessed with real and imagined "humiliations" and thirsty for revenge. Both are chronically infected with the toxin of anti-Jewish paranoia (interestingly, also, with its milder cousin, anti-Freemason paranoia). Both are inclined to leader worship and to the exclusive stress on the power of one great book. Both have a strong commitment to sexual repression—especially to the repression of any sexual "deviance"—and to its counterparts the subordination of the female and contempt for the feminine. Both despise art and literature as symptoms of degeneracy and decadence; both burn books and destroy museums and treasures.
I think I am personally okay with any of the following terms: Islamism, Islamofascism, Radical Islam, Jihadism, etc. The key is that a certain version of Islam is the guiding force of our enemies. I don't know that Islam has to be interpreted in such a way that it leads to conflict with the West. I happen to know some self-declared Muslims who seem no more threatening than the average Western Christians. But at this point it really is up to Muslims and particularly their leadership to demonstrate otherwise.

Krugman continues:
And Iran had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11 — in fact, the Iranian regime was quite helpful to the United States when it went after Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan.
To gain a good understanding of Iran's relationship to Al Qaeda, as well as how hostile it has been to the United States over the last 29 year, I recommend Thomas Jocelyn's excellent report on Iran's Proxy War Against America as well as the 9-11 Commission Report. Well, did Iran have anything to do with 9/11?

Intelligence indicates the persistence of contacts between Iranian security officials and senior al Qaeda figures after Bin Ladin’s return to Afghanistan. Khallad has said that Iran made a concerted effort to strengthen relations with al Qaeda after the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, but was rebuffed because Bin Ladin did not want to alienate his supporters in Saudi Arabia.Khallad and other detainees have described the willingness of Iranian officials to facilitate the travel of al Qaeda members through Iran, on their way to and from Afghanistan.For example, Iranian border inspectors would be told not to place telltale stamps in the passports of these travelers. Such arrangements were particularly beneficial to Saudi members of al Qaeda.

Our knowledge of the international travels of the al Qaeda operatives selected for the 9/11 operation remains fragmentary. But we now have evidence suggesting that 8 to 10 of the 14 Saudi “muscle” operatives traveled into or out of Iran between October 2000 and February 2001. [p. 258, 9/11 Commission Full Report]

I guess the aiding and abetting of terrorists does not count as having anything to do with the operation. What is it with the Left and it's inability to accept the fact that we are at war with Iran? Apparently we need to review the list of assaults by Iran and Iranian sponsored organizations on the West. Such a list can be found in Jocelyn's Report on page 74 in the appendix.
November 4, 1979
Fifty-two American citizens are taken hostage by “students” loyal
to Ayatollah Khomeini. They are held for more than a year, until
January 20, 1981. The kidnappings are part of the Iranian revolution,
which serves as a model for Sunni terrorist groups like Ayman
al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
April 18, 1983
Iran’s master terrorist, Imad Mugniyah, orchestrates the first significant
Islamist suicide attack against America: the bombing of
the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. Establishing a modus operandi for
terrorists in the years to come, the attacker utilizes a van packed
with explosives.
October 23, 1983
Using massive truck bombs, Hezbollah’s suicide bombers simultaneously
attack the U.S. Marine Barracks and a housing complex
for French Paratroopers in Beirut, Lebanon. Al-Qaeda would later
adopt simultaneous suicide bombings as its preferred method for
committing attacks.
December 12, 1983
Iranian-backed terrorists bomb the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait. A
close relative of Imad Mugniyah is convicted by a Kuwaiti court
and sentenced to death for his role in the bombing. Other attackers,
also supported by Iran, are imprisoned. The terrorists come to
be known as the “Kuwait 17” or “Dawa 17.”
iran’s proxy war against america 75
March 16, 1984
William Buckley, the CIA’s station chief in Beirut, is kidnapped
and later tortured-to-death by Imad Mugniyah’s Hezbollah. Buckley’s
kidnapping is one in a series of Hezbollah’s kidnappings from
the early 1980s through the early 1990s. Dozens of Americans are
kidnapped and Hezbollah frequently demands an exchange for
the Kuwait 17. Hezbollah’s kidnappings lead to the biggest scandal
of President Ronald Reagan’s tenure, the Iran-Contra affair,
after the Reagan administration agrees to exchange arms for the
September 20, 1984
Hezbollah terrorists strike the U.S. Embassy annex in Beirut with
a truck bomb.
December 3, 1984
Mugniyah’s operatives hijack Kuwait Airways Flight 221. The hijackers
attempt to barter for the release of the Kuwait 17.
June 14, 1985
Mugniyah’s terrorists hijack TWA Flight 847. Once again, the
hijackers attempt to barter for the release of the Kuwait 17. When
the hijackers’ demands are denied, they beat and kill a U.S. Navy
serviceman, Robert Dean Stethem, who happened to be on the
flight. Incredibly, Germany granted parole to one of the hijackers
in December 2005.
According to Ali Mohamed, a top al-Qaeda operative in U.S. custody,
Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad partners with
Iran in a planned coup attempt in Egypt. Tehran trains EIJ terrorists
for the coup attempt, which is ultimately aborted. Iran also
pays al-Zawahiri $2 million for sensitive information concerning
the Egyptian Government’s plans to raid several islands in the Persian
Iran and Sudan, then the world’s only Sunni Islamist states,
forge a strategic alliance. They begin to jointly export terrorism
throughout the world.
April 1991
Hassan al-Turabi hosts the first Popular Arab Islamic Conference
in Sudan. The conference provides a forum for disparate forces in
the Middle East who oppose American presence in the region to
come together. Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Iraqi and Iranian representatives
all attend the meeting.
February 26, 1993
Terrorists connected to al-Qaeda and the global terror network
bomb the World Trade Center using a rental truck packed with
explosives. The bombers’ colleagues plot a follow-on attack
against landmarks in the NYC area. There is no known evidence
that Iran had a hand in these events. It is clear, however,
that several of the plotters had ties to Hassan al-Turabi’s Sudan.
Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the spiritual leader of the two
leading Egyptian terrorist groups (both of which will join al-
Qaeda) and who was living in the New York metropolitan area,
is later convicted for his involvement in the attacks. Reports
surface that he and his organization received financial assistance
from Iran.
According to Ali Mohamed, Imad Mugniyah and Osama bin
Laden meet in Sudan. Bin Laden expresses his desire to model al-
Qaeda after Hezbollah. In particular, bin Laden expresses interest
in Mugniyah’s bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983
iran’s proxy war against america 77
and similar attacks. They agree to work together against America
and the West.
According to Jamal al-Fadl, an al-Qaeda operative in U.S. custody,
bin Laden meets a leading Iranian sheikh in Sudan. The purpose
of the meeting is to put aside any differences between their
competing brands of Islam in order to come together against their
common enemy: the West. The meeting is just the first of several
between bin Laden and Iran’s spiritual leaders.
Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps train al-
Qaeda’s terrorists in camps in Sudan, Lebanon and Iran. Among
the terrorists trained are some of bin Laden’s most trusted lieutenants
and al-Qaeda’s future leaders.
Egypt and Algeria cut off diplomatic ties with Iran. Both nations
accuse Iran and Sudan of supporting Sunni terrorism, including
terrorist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. Egypt will blame Iran
for supporting both the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic
Group throughout the 1990’s.
November 13, 1995
Two bombs are detonated, nearly simultaneously, at the Saudi National
Guard training facility in Riyadh, killing five Americans. The
suspects are captured and confess to being inspired by Osama bin
Laden. Bin Laden denies responsibility, but praises the attack. It is
likely al-Qaeda’s first terrorist attack inside the Saudi Kingdom.
November 19, 1995
An al-Qaeda suicide bomber destroys the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad,
Pakistan. The CIA’s Bob Baer later learns that Mugniyah’s
deputy assisted al-Qaeda in the attack and that one of bin Laden’s
top terrorists remained in contact with Mugniyah’s office months
May 1996
Bin Laden is expelled from Sudan, but the 9/11 Commission
reports that “intelligence indicates the persistance of contacts”
between al-Qaeda and Iran even after al-Qaeda’s relocation to Afghanistan.
Bin Laden and al-Qaeda maintain an ongoing presence
in Sudan, despite not being “formally” welcome.
June 21 - 23, 1996
Tehran hosts a summit for the leading Sunni and Shiite terrorist
groups. It is announced that the terrorists will continue to focus
on U.S. interests thoughout the region. Mugniyah, bin Laden,
and a leading member of the EIJ reportedly forge the “Committee
of Three,” under the leadership of Iran’s intelligence chief, to
focus their joint efforts against American targets.
June 25, 1996
Hezbollah terrorists, operating under the direction of senior
Iranian officials, bomb the Khobar Towers apartment complex
in Saudi Arabia. Contemporaneous reports by both the State
Department and the CIA note that al-Qaeda is also suspected of
playing a role. The 9/11 Commission would later find “indirect
evidence” of al-Qaeda’s involvement. The evidence includes intelligence
indicating that al-Qaeda was planning a similar operation
in the months prior and that bin Laden was congratulated by
other al-Qaeda operatives, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, shortly
after the attack.
iran’s proxy war against america 79
July 1996
According to Bob Baer, the Egyptian Islamic Group—an ally of
bin Laden’s al-Qaeda—is in contact with Mugniyah.
According to Bob Baer, there is “incontrovertible evidence” of a
meeting between bin Laden and a representative of the Iranian
Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS).
August 7, 1998
Al-Qaeda’s suicide bombers simultaneously destroy the U.S. Embassies
in Kenya and Tanzania. It is al-Qaeda’s most spectacular
attack prior to 9/11. The attack is clearly modeled on Hezbollah’s
attacks in the early 1980s. Indeed, the al-Qaeda terrorists responsible
were trained by Hezbollah in the early 1990s. There is evidence
that Iran also provided explosives used in the attack.
October - November 2000
Imad Mugniyah and his lieutenants personally escort several of
the 9/11 muscle hijackers out of Saudi Arabia on flights to Beirut
and Iran. In all, eight to ten of the hijackers travel through Iran
on the way to 9/11.
December 2000
Ramzi Binalshibh, al-Qaeda’s key point man for the 9/11 plot,
applies for visa at the Iranian Embassy in Berlin. His visa application
is approved.
January 31, 2001
Ramzi Binalshibh arrives at Tehran International airport. He does
not return to Germany until February 28, 2001. The purpose of
his trip to Iran remains a mystery. The 9/11 Commission does not
mention Binalshibh’s trip to Iran.
Early September 2001
Binalshibh flees to Iran shortly before the 9/11 attacks.
September 11, 2001
Nineteen al-Qaeda hijackers execute al-Qaeda’s largest operation
to date, killing nearly 3000 Americans. Many of the details surrounding
the plot, including who financed the attack, remain a
October 2001
According to a high-level Taliban detainee at Gitmo, Iran offers
the Taliban Government assistance in retreating from Afghanistan.
October 2001
Numerous press reports indicate that Iran aids the retreat of hundreds
of al-Qaeda and Taliban members from Afghanistan. Some
al-Qaeda operatives enjoy safehaven in Iran to this day. Among
them is Said al-Adel, who is reportedly the third highest ranking
member of al-Qaeda and was trained by Hezbollah during the
early 1990s, and Saad bin Laden, Osama’s heir apparent.
April 11, 2002
Al-Qaeda carries out the first attack ordered by bin Laden since
9/11: a suicide bomber destroys a synagogue in Tunisia, killing
nineteen people. According to NBC News, Saad bin Laden contacted
the cell responsible for the attack from his safehaven in
Iran. Suleiman Abu Ghaith, bin Laden’s spokesman, also claims
al-Qaeda’s responsibility for the attack from his abode in Iran.
End of 2002 - Spring 2003
According to former Director of Central Intelligence George
Tenet, senior al-Qaeda leaders discuss the acquisition of nuclear
weapons from their safe haven in Iran. In fact, al-Qaeda’s “nuclear
chief,” Abdel al-Aziz al-Masri, is one of many senior terrorists living
in Iran.
May 12, 2003
Under orders from Saif al-Adel and Saad bin Laden, who are operating
from Iran, al-Qaeda’s terrorists simultaneously strike three
separate housing complexes in Riyadh Saudi Arabia. Another al-
Qaeda agent thought to be responsible for the attack flees to Iran
before he can be captured.
May 16, 2003
One dozen al-Qaeda bombers attack several targets in Casablanca,
Morocco. Saad bin Laden, living in Iran, is reportedly in contact
with the cell shortly before the attack.
2004 – present
Iran supplies advanced IED technology to the insurgents in Iraq.
There is growing evidence of Iranian support for both Sunni and
Shiite insurgency groups in Iraq. Iran continues to harbor senior
al-Qaeda leaders as the terrorist network reorganizes.
January 20, 2007
IRGC and Hezbollah terrorists kill five American soldiers in Karbala,
January 2007 – present
Numerous IRGC and Hezbollah terrorists, who are responsible
for arming and training terrorist groups in Iraq, are captured by
American and Iraqi forces.
No, Mr. Krugman you're the one who's delusional. We need to fight back and we need to fight back now.

Around the Blogosphere

Columbus vs. Kant
That's the name of a fascinating series of posts on Scott Powell's Power History Recommends blog. There are three parts so far and I can't wait for the fourth. Here's a brief excerpt. Check it out:
Kant’s philosophical assault on man’s faculty of reason paved the way for the historical assault on Columbus by preventing a key avenue of development from ever occuring in Western historiography. By aborting the general study of abstractions as cognitive tools, Kant prevented historians from adopting the epistemological stance necessary to define and defend the most crucial instrument in the systematization of history: historical abstractions.
Consciousness and Medicines
Leitmotif has a couple of interesting posts on Daniel Dennett's view of consciousness (no such thing), as well as a leftist view on medicines (who needs them).

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Future of the Evangelical Movement and the Religious Right

A fascinating article by David D. Kirkpatrick is in the October 28, 2007 NY Times Magazine. Some of the themes are illustrated on the cover
Kirkpatrick describes his experiences with the Christian Evangelical movement in recent years and notes that ever since the 2004 election there has been a definite loss of enthusiasm for the Bush presidency and the Republican Party in general:

“There was a time when evangelical churches were becoming largely and almost exclusively the Republican Party at prayer,” said Marvin Olasky, the editor of the evangelical magazine World and an informal adviser to George W. Bush when he was governor. “To some extent — we have to see how much — the Republicans have blown it. That opportunity to lock up that constituency has vanished. The ball now really is in the Democrats’ court.”

There are definite signs that many Evangelical Christians are moving to the left on many issues:

For the conservative Christian leadership, what is most worrisome about the evangelical disappointment with President Bush is that it coincides with a widening philosophical rift. Ever since they broke with the mainline Protestant churches nearly 100 years ago, the hallmark of evangelicals theology has been a vision of modern society as a sinking ship, sliding toward depravity and sin. For evangelicals, the altar call was the only life raft — a chance to accept Jesus Christ, rebirth and salvation. Falwell, Dobson and their generation saw their political activism as essentially defensive, fighting to keep traditional moral codes in place so their children could have a chance at the raft.

But many younger evangelicals — and some old-timers — take a less fatalistic view. For them, the born-again experience of accepting Jesus is just the beginning. What follows is a long-term process of “spiritual formation” that involves applying his teachings in the here and now. They do not see society as a moribund vessel. They talk more about a biblical imperative to fix up the ship by contributing to the betterment of their communities and the world. They support traditional charities but also public policies that address health care, race, poverty and the environment.
I recommend reading the whole article which is quite good. What I find most interesting is that while there doesn't seem to be a lessening of Christian enthusiasm, there's seems to be definitely a broadening of what that enthusiasm consists of: A moving away from ideas that might be called Conservative and more toward a broader mixture of altruistic (and hence Liberal) themes of concern for the poor and the like. This is far more in line with what I understood Christianity to be about from my readings of C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, in which Lewis mentioned that a state governed according to Christian principles would be quite socialistic.

I, for one, would love it if we could separate Christianity from the Right. I would love it if no one would confuse the positions of advocates of reason, egoism, and capitalism with the advocates of faith, humility, and charity. Or perhaps, dare we hope, we can return to treating religion, in Ayn Rand's words as "a private matter". Still, it is not clear to me that we have seen the end of that particular movement.

Friday, October 26, 2007


The Ayn Rand Lexicon is now available for free on the web (hat-tip Principles in Practice). Check it out!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Judaism and me: An autobiographical excursion

Part 1: Becoming an atheist

I was born in Mannheim, West Germany in 1969 to the best parents anybody could ever have -- mine. My parents both came from Orthodox Jewish families but by the time I was born they were not particularly religious. They had met in Germany but neither was originally from there. My dad had grown up in a little town in Poland until his family's existence offended the invading German armies. His experiences in surviving the Holocaust permanently cured him of any excessive religiosity. My mom's family moved from Aden, Yemen to what was then British Mandatory Palestine when she was still a child. It was a large family -- she had nine brothers and a sister, yet she resisted the culturally-religiously inspired disrespect for women in her family (e.g., my Grandma had never learned how to read) and ultimately left home without following in the family traditions.

Nevertheless, I was raised in a "traditional" Jewish context. That meant that I was sent to a weekly Jewish religion class taught by the local Rabbi as a substitute for the Christian religion classes that my non-Jewish friends were taking in the public schools I attended in Germany (no, there is no separation of Church and State in Germany). The class taught Hebrew, Jewish history and about the Jewish holidays. We also went to services at the local synagogue during occasional Fridays, Saturdays and most holidays. At home, my dad would conduct the various ceremonies, though we were not exactly strict (e.g., we would watch TV on Friday nights). My mom would light the Friday night candles. When I would ask my dad at a much later age why he went through the various motions of religious ceremony and songs, even though he did not believe in the underlying theology, he would say that it reminds him of his youth before the war when his dad and the rest of his family was still alive, and conducted the same ceremonies and sang the same songs.

We moved to Tel Aviv, Israel when I was 10 years old. When given the choice by my mom, I opted for the secular Israeli school system over the religious one, on the basis of my preference for sleeping late. I had previously heard from my cousin (who had also moved from Germany to Israel) that the religious students are required to pray the daily morning prayer at school at 7am and I had no interest in getting up even earlier to go to school. In secular Israeli schools, the Jewish Bible is taught as a historical and literary text. Also, some of the so-called Jewish "oral law" is taught. We still attended synagogue frequently and during all the major holidays. I started to resent religion somewhat as the services were getting annoying and started to interfere with my social life (e.g., I preferred to go the pool on Saturday morning rather than to prayers). Even so, I had a very traditional Bar Mitzvah including an extended chanting of a section of the Torah. Despite much ceremony I did not consider myself religious. I believed in God but did not think much of religion. Some of my dad's attitude toward it all was definitely starting to rub off on me. I started to think that there's a bit of hypocrisy involved. If all this stuff (the Bible, etc.) is real then we really ought to take it a little more seriously. If not, why do it at all? All my friends were at least as secular as I was or even considerably more. Large segments of my extended family, however, were very religious and while I maintained cordial relations with some of them, we were not close.

We moved to Los Angeles during the summer of 1984. Here was the first time that I was not part of a large or small organized Jewish community whether secular or religious. At first we attended some synagogues during some holidays and kept up some of the ceremonies. But we never quite recovered even the limited religiosity that existed in the previous two countries in which we had lived. I decided I was an atheist early in my senior year of High School. That was even before I had discovered Ayn Rand. I simply concluded one day during my science class that there is no God in these equations, therefore no God period. At a certain point I decided it was too hypocritical (and really downright strange) to attend synagogue anymore and participate in any further ceremonies. So I refused, despite occasional extended pleading from my mom. During college I discovered Ayn Rand and that further cemented my principled opposition to any religious practice....and yet...

Part 2 Religious Relapses

...and yet...throughout my college years I maintained a close eye on everything related to Jews, Judaism, and Israel (I still do). This was the late 80s, early 90s. The various Objectivist splits deeply disturbed me and I became somewhat disillusioned with Objectivism. In addition, I realized right around the time of my graduation that my choice of career was a mistake. I did not want to be a physicist. At the same time, I watched with some jealousy as a High School friend, who became an Orthodox Jew late in High School, and intended to complete his legal degree in Israel. His life seemed to have purpose and meaning whereas mine was a confused mess. I visited Israel for a couple weeks after my graduation and saw my maternal religious Grandmother for the last time (she died a few years later). When I got back to L.A., I decided that perhaps I should give Judaism a try and see what it can do for me.

I started attending services at a nearby synagogue and read a lot of books to try to educate myself on what was actually involved in being Orthodox. This spell lasted a few weeks. In the end, there was a conflict between work and religion and I chose work. After that choice, I no longer attended synagogue and slowly became an Objectivist again.

I met my lovely future wife on a web-based Jewish dating board. My reasoning was: I need someone who understands my obsession with this stuff, even if they, like me, don't want to get too near it. In fact, as we started dating we both confirmed that neither of us was religious and we opted to have a completely secular wedding. My wife's family had celebrated Christmas when she was growing up and at her insistence we got a tree. I must admit that have never felt entirely comfortable with Christmas. Growing up in Germany, it was always very clear that despite the various pagan and commercial elements, it was the holiday that celebrated Jesus's birth and that's something Jews just don't celebrate. But I agreed as long as the celebration was entirely secular and amounted to a non-specific season's holiday (even if we did call it Christmas for simplicity). We had our daughter in 2001 and our son in 2005 by which time we had moved, for job-related reasons, into the suburbs in Orange County, California.

For those not familiar with the area, let me assure you that the term Bible Belt could easily apply. My daughter is enrolled in several ballet classes and virtually all of her friends's parents conversation focuses on church activities. There are over 80 churches within a mere 4 mile radius of our city, including some mega-churches. Just for comparison's sake, within the same radius, the number of synagogues is one and there are no mosques. Having two kids and moving into the suburbs has substantially isolated us from our friends in Los Angeles. We see them every few months now, instead of weekly as we used to. Of course, we're closer to Ayn Rand Institute but since I prefer to attend the Institute's events with my wife, and because of the difficulties in finding a reliable baby sitter, I usually end up not going. In the meantime, my dad's health has not been ideal. He's in his eighties now and unfortunately it's showing. If that wasn't enough to disturb my emotional state, over the last few years I had also become, for various reasons, more and more dissatisfied with my job. I was thinking of going back to graduate school to study a different subject and change career paths but upon reflection I rejected that option as financially prohibitive and far too time consuming.

I have always been a news-junkie but the news over the last few years has been worse than depressing, particularly with regard to Jews and Israel. Israel witnessed the worst spate of terrorism in its history. During the late nineties and first decade of the new millennium so far, the news was filled with the most horrible, vicious explosions as suicide bombing were becoming a regular occurrence. To say that watching this has been disturbing is an understatement. I started reading the lists of victims with dread, afraid of recognizing some names. In addition, Europe seemed to feel nostalgia for the 1930s with antisemitic incidents increasing in countries such as France and England, as well as the rest of Europe. With every incident or attack, I felt a strong identification with the Jewish victims.

At around the same time, the question of what exactly we should tell our daughter about our Jewishness eventually arose. All the kids around her had no trouble identifying themselves -- they were Christian. In fact, my daughter would get frequent invitations to a local church group's kids club which we politely turned down. At first, I thought well, we are certainly Jewish, in the ethnic sense. But that seemed rather hollow and meaningless. We thought it was inappropriate to introduce Objectivism to a 5 year old. That was something that my daughter will learn about at a much more mature age. But we thought it appropriate to give her some content to Judaism so that she could at least see what her background meant, even if her parents didn't practice it. I wanted her to experience some Jewish holidays first-hand so that she could see what they are like. This was right before the time of the Purim holiday.

I chose to attend a local event organized by Chabad, knowing from previous general knowledge of them that they are a highly welcoming group that does not ask too many questions. My son was sick that day so my wife stayed home with him and I alone with my daughter. The event included the traditional reading of the scroll of Esther, as well as food and drink, various activity booths, music, and lots of (sexually segregated) dancing. Partially to my surprise and certainly to my wife's surprise (who was hoping that perhaps I would get all this out of my system now) I enjoyed myself thoroughly. A short time afterward I expressed a desire to my wife to start a Friday night Sabbath ceremony. We decided to visit a synagogue together to see how we would react to the experience. We tried a large local Reform temple and both hated. Not, because it was religious but because it wasn't religious enough. I would later describe it to my mom as more entertainment than prayer service. Having attended nothing but Orthodox synagogues all my life, the female Cantor, the guitar player and the general atmosphere just was not the Judaism I remembered. It seemed more like a new age church with a little bit of Hebrew prayer thrown in. So after looking around at other more traditional places we opted to go to the local Chabad events. These were most held at the Rabbi's home which doubled as a synagogue and meeting place.

Part 3 Chabad, Religious Awakening and Decline

Chabad is somewhat different than some other Orthodox groups in that it has an incredibly extensive outreach program. There are over 4,000 "emissary families" in neighborhoods and University Campuses, all over the United States, Europe, Israel and around world. These emissaries try to encourage Jews to do Mitzvot (Mitzvah is the singular, Mitzvot is plural -- these are the commandments, and no, not just 10, 613 when a temple exists in Jerusalem, somewhat less at present) and get in touch with their Jewish heritage. Chabad also engages in numerous charitable activities. I have to say that the local Chabad Rabbi and his family are some of the nicest people I've ever met. It definitely helped that they had children of similar ages to ours so that we weren't the only people chasing kids during the various meetings we attended. We decided to enroll my daughter in the Sunday school that the Rabbi's wife set up. My daughter would not grow up ignorant of the traditions.

Meanwhile I was trying to get a better intellectual grasp of Jewish history and ideas. I found the following site particularly helpful. There I found a complete history of the Jews from Biblical to modern times available for download for free, as well as some really interesting lectures on Jewish philosophy. I also found a particularly fascinating series of counter-missionary lectures which probably permanently convinced me that Christianity really is a gigantic fraud. I hope to write about some these ideas, which I believe have general application, in some future posts. I also read a book and saw a DVD by scientists trying reconcile religion with science. Mostly, these were "find the God in the gap" arguments or outright "arguments from incredulity" -- i.e., you can't possibly believe this is all an accident. Admittedly at times, I did fall for them even though in the past I had rejected such arguments. There are still a lot of interesting mysteries in the universe. Some have to do with scientific problems that haven't been solved, such as issues around the origin and function of consciousness and free will (a subject taken seriously by few outside the religious world). Others with the Biblical events such as what, if anything at all, actually happened at Mount Sinai? An alleged event on which the entire Jewish tradition depends. Would I say that any of this proves the existence of God? A few months back I would have said "it would seem so". By now I'm back to "it seems very unlikely". At the rate I'm going, I'll be back to my usual "certainly not" before the year is up.

So what made me change my mind and turn back toward Objectivism? Well, the influence of my wife is not to be discounted. She strongly resisted the mystical mindset and while we both enjoyed the company, found all these strange customs we started to engage in, well, strange and ultimately unacceptable. I found that I was willing to do many things but ultimately could not quite suffer the incessant altruism, as well as the intrinsicism of the mitzvot. I was also never quite able to fully break with Objectivism. There's something so rational and so right about that wonderful system of ideas that any proposed alternative would have to incorporate many of its essentials to hold me for very long. Interestingly, one the major intellectual appeals of Judaism was the claim that "faith" was a foreign concept to it. This may surprise many non-Jews and even some Jews but I heard lectures that insisted, that Judaism is perfectly rational and does not really require any leap of faith. I may write on this in a future post as well. At the same time I noticed that despite Judaism's emphasis on this world and making this world holy, my own orientation during my more religious moments was definitely focused on what seemed to be a completely separate spiritual reality. It seemed that I was started to make the real world, unreal. That started to disturb me and I backed away.

Part 4 Where am I now?

As I mentioned in a previous post, I now consider myself a "student of Objectivism." I still maintain some contacts with Chabad although I must admit I'm starting to feel a bit hypocritical about participating in the ceremonies without believing in them. So I've started turning down their invitations on many occasions. My wife and I still think it's a good idea for our daughter to learn about her heritage. At home we hardly do anything Jewish anymore. We do still intend to celebrate some Jewish holidays though in a substantially secular way. Basically we take from the tradition what we find enjoyable and fun for the whole family and reject the rest. We'll probably continue this as long as this makes sense to us. In previous years I think I was running away from my background, thinking that any contact at all with that culture would contaminate me in some way. I think our attitude today is much more sensible.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Supply-side Economics as a Substitute for Smaller Government

The New Yorker's James Surowiecki (hat-tip Brendan Nyhan) makes some interesting points about supply-side economics:
The supply-side argument that, in the United States, tax-rate cuts pay for themselves—that, after cutting taxes, the government actually ends up with more revenue—has little or no support within the mainstream economic profession, and no hard empirical data to back it up.
Surowiecki suggests that:
...the absurd idea that tax cuts pay for themselves is based on an idea that is not at all absurd, which is that tax rates can have an impact on people’s behavior. Increase taxes too much, and people may work less (since they get to keep less of the income they earn) and invest less (since their gains will be taxed more heavily), and so the economy will grow more slowly. The opposite can happen if you cut taxes. (How much of an impact tax rates have—and how high taxes have to get before they have an impact—is a subject of much debate in economics, but it’s inarguable that they do matter.) What supply-siders have done is start with that reasonable idea and extrapolate it to unreasonable lengths.

They’re aided in that extrapolation by the simple fact that the American economy grows over time. As a result, even if you cut taxes the federal government will eventually take in more tax revenue than it once did. And that allows supply-siders to fashion a spurious syllogism: taxes were cut in 2001, government revenues are higher in 2007 than they were in 2001, therefore the tax cuts increased revenue. The comparison that really matters in analyzing the impact of the tax cuts, of course, is not between government revenue in 2001 and government revenue in 2007. It’s the comparison between actual tax revenue in 2007 and what tax revenue would have been in 2007 had there been no tax cuts in 2001. And studies that make these types of
comparisons—including one by Bush’s own Treasury Department that looked at the tax cuts’ impact on economic growth—find that government revenues would be greater had taxes not been cut. But that hasn’t stopped President Bush from claiming victory.

The above logic makes some sense to me. But regardless if one agrees with studies linked to above, I completely agree with Surowiecki's next point:
In one sense, of course, it’s odd that a Republican President should treat higher government revenues as a point of pride. Historically, after all, Republicans have been the party of small government and fiscal restraint. But, while Republicans still talk a good game about the need for spending discipline, in practice it matters far less to them than tax cutting. After all, if tax cuts pay for themselves, then there’s not much reason to worry about restraining government spending—we can afford it all. In fact, if government spending grows too big, you can cut taxes again to pay for it.
I enjoy a tax cut as much as the next guy but the fact is that there are no mainstream Republican politicians calling for smaller government at all. If I'm wrong about this please let me know.

Monday, October 22, 2007

On the web...

I am happy to hear that there's now finally a drop in violence in Iraq. It's interesting what ads are featured next to this story, at least when I clicked on it.
Of course, I'm still skeptical of the situation there. And the real test will be what we do about about Iran, not Iraq.

Peikoff's Podcast
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Dr. Leonard Peikoff's excellent first
podcast. I'm looking forward to many more.

Lies in History
Scott Powell's History At Our House blog has an interesting post on the lie that teachers tell about the supposedly established fact that "the Americas experienced a catastrophic depopulation after 1492." It is actually surprising to me that this is in fact highly controversial. I guess it just goes to show how perverted the general information now is and how pernicious the influence of bad ideas on history.

Tolkien Quiz
Be sure to take the LOTR Quiz (hat-tip Rational Jenn). And yes, I'm Bilbo as well. My wife came out to be a Jedi (!).

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Weekend Round-up

A number of interesting op-eds in Sunday's Commentary section of the Orange County Register, but I'll just comment on my favorite. Paul Campos is very much a man of the left but he managed to write a column with which I am in complete agreement. Campos writes:

This view [that our politicians must be "persons of faith"] regarding the role of religion in American politics has given birth to its own set of rather bizarre orthodoxies. On this view, it's crucial that our political leaders be sincere religious believers. But apparently it's of no importance what religious beliefs they actually hold, as long as they have "faith."
In other words, religious belief is apparently a unique kind of belief, which requires believing that one's views regarding the most important questions in the world – things that by comparison to which all political and scientific disputes are insignificant – are no better or worse than anyone else's views regarding these questions of supposedly infinite importance.

Campos makes an excellent point. I have long pointed this out to friends of mine who are sympathetic to the notion that religion, not a particular religion, but religion in general, plays a positive role in society. By now, many have modified their view and usually include an exception for Islam. Religion is supposed to provide absolute answers to important issues, particularly moral issues. However, it is obvious to anyone who takes the ideas of religion seriously (whether because they support them or oppose them), that different religions offer quite different answers and recommendations to individuals on the same issues. So which one is right?On what basis does one follow one over another? And what are the implications of preferring one religion over another? There are answers to these questions but they would destroy the illusions of the advocates of so-called "Judeo-Christian" values. I hope to write more on this topic in a future post.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Ayn Rand on Questionable Parents

The following excerpts are from an interview entitled "Objectivism in Brief" conducted by Raymond Newman and currently available for streaming at the Ayn Rand Institute website here with free registration. It's also available for purchase from the Ayn Rand Bookstore here.

The comments (which I've personally transcribed below) come in the following context: Mr. Newman asked Miss Rand a question at minute 30:05:

...Miss Rand, we spoke in the last program about morality and I did have final question about that ...and... it's a broad, general question about how to deal with people who are immoral. What level of contact is acceptable? For example, is it acceptable to trade with, to buy, to sell ...ehh... from or to someone that is immoral?

Ayn Rand answers this question (I will not transcribe the answer here -- you can hear it in the interview) and then Mr. Newman asks this follow-up around minute 32:09:

Is there any reason to treat family members any differently than you would treat other people in this context?

Rand answers as follows. I've highlighted the part relevant to subject of this post and I tried to use italics when it appeared to my ears that Ayn Rand was trying to emphasize a word (obviously any mistakes in transcription are mine):

None whatever. I am very much against that kind of sense. In the sense which makes...ehh...a small tribe out of the family and makes you tied to every second cousin and aunt and ankles[sic]...uncles that you might have...ehh...the only exception is of course in regard to your parents because there the relationship is different from that to any
other person and you have to acknowledge Generally you do not break with your parents as easily as you would with other members of the family. Other members you have to judge as you would every person you meet -- if you don't approve of them you don't become friendly. You cannot choose your parents in that sense, and you have to give them a long, long benefit of the doubt and permit them, in effect, more offenses against yourself than you would to friends or acquaintances. You have to give them a certain credit for the fact that they chose to give birth to you and took care of you while you were helpless. But, it's not an unlimited claim, and clash with your parents too much then you have to maintain an attitude of polite duty and see as little of them as possible. And that's probably the only realm in which I recognize such a thing as duty. As a rule, it's a very wrong concept...ehh...because it asks you to do something for which you have no reason, but the one reason that...that your parents gave you life would make you do more for them or bury[sic]...bear more from them than any other people.

Would you have expected this answer from Miss Rand? My point here is to give one small example to demonstrate that Ayn Rand was a careful, sophisticated, and nuanced thinker. Unfortunately, the typical intellectual who comments on her, usually a Liberal or Conservative, almost never recognizes this fact. Keep in mind that the above comment is in the context of immoral or otherwise odious parents and yet Miss Rand encourages individuals to continue their relationship with their parents. Far from being an advocate unrestrained rebellion, Ayn Rand actually accepts a form of duty to one's parents, at least up to a point.

Objectivism is neither simple, nor simplistic. Proper understanding and application of Ayn Rand's ideas require years of study and practice. I'm still working on it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Returning to Blogging

It's been a little over a year and a month since I wrote the post below and I have decided to return to blogging.

My life over that period has been quite the intellectual roller coaster. There has been a period, not too long ago, when I did not even call myself an Objectivist. However, it seems I have come back to the fold, as it were. I hope to write some more details of these experiences soon. At this point I would say that the old expression "student of Objectivism" is an accurate description of my current state of mind. There remain some issues with which I am still struggling. Nevertheless, I think I am now closer to Ayn Rand's ideas than to any other system.

Update 10/19: Grammar fix -- changed "where" to "were".

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