Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Curious Popularity of Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand was an objectivist philosopher (she essentially founded this philosophical school) who held that reality exists independent of consciousness, that we have direct contact with reality through the perception of our senses, that we can attain objective knowledge through the process of concept formation and inductive and deductive logic, that the proper moral purpose of our lives is the pursuit of our own happiness (i.e., rational self-interest) and that the only social system consistent with this morality is one that fully respects individual rights, which we find embodied in laissez faire capitalism.

Thus, it isn't surprising that she is popular among libertarians, including many Tea Party activists. As I've noted in earlier posts (see "Wealthy GOP (Libertarian) Donors Backing Same-Sex Marriage" and "What Do We Mean By Justice?"), libertarians believe in limited government. They favor free markets and oppose most government regulation. They believe that each of us has a fundamental right to do whatever we want with the things we own as long as we respect the rights of others to do exactly the same thing. That is why they oppose (a) paternalistic legislation -- that is, laws that protect people from themselves (e.g., seatbelt laws), (b) moral legislation -- laws that promote virtue or express the moral convictions of the majority (e.g., pro-life anti-gay rights legislation), and (c) economic legislation that redistributes income and/or wealth (e.g., income taxes used to help the poor in some respect).

What is surprising is Rand's popularity among (primarily) conservative Christians (e.g., Republican Representative Paul Ryan from Wisconsin), because she was so hostile toward religion and people of faith. Rand held that the existence of God and the Christian ideal of self-sacrifice were unacceptable ideas and believed that religion was for the feebleminded masses. She once remarked, "I am against God for the reason that I don't want to destroy reason."

Not all conservative Christians look upon Rand with favor. Former Nixon aide, Charles Colson, certainly isn't. He has warned Christians to beware of Rand's "idolatry of self and selfishness. I am no big fan of big government, but there are far better ways to critique it than Rand's godless nonsense, especially for Christians" (quoted in The Christian Century, June 28, 2011, p. 14).

All this makes one wonder how many people who claim to be influenced by Rand have actually read her  writings. My guess is that very few actually have. And of those Christians who have, I guess they are what Roman Catholic Jay W. Richards (author of, "Money, Greed and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and the Not the Problem") calls "cafeteria Randians," choosing those aspects of her thought with which they agree and discarding the rest.

Friday, June 24, 2011

We'll Have Fun, Fun, Fun... (Rockin' Down the Highway)

The summer driving season is upon us. Here's a few "suggestions" on how to make it more enjoyable for all of us:
  • When you're driving 65 and see a Highway Patrol, the speed limit doesn't suddenly drop to 55.
  • Tailgating me doesn't make me go faster.
  • Some of you evidently believe that you're the exception to the rule that talking on your cell phone diminishes your ability to drive. You're wrong.
  • You may be surprised to discover that there are two levers on both sides of the steering wheel. One turns on the wipers (you're probably familiar with that one). The other operates what are known as "turn signals" or "blinkers," which when used correctly inform other drivers (such as myself) you're intentions. I've found that it really helps my driving when I have a clue what you plan to do next.
  • When you realize at the last second that the next exit is the one you want, it doesn't mean you can slam on the breaks and cut across three lanes to get to it. Paraphrasing Dick Francis, risking lifetimes to save a few minutes is a bad bet.
  • I know it's hard to believe, but the rest of us have as much right to the road as you do.
  • Just because you come up behind me in the fast lane going 95 doesn't mean I have to get over -- not if I'm driving between 65-70 and passing cars in the lane next to me. When I get to the end of the line, I'll pull over and let you by.
  • Do you really need to retweet just now?
  • The fact that you have fourteen people in your car doesn't mean you can plop yourself in the diamond (i.e., carpool) lane and drive 45. This is especially irritating when the diamond lane isn't even in effect. If you're going to drive slow, get in the right lane and let those of us approaching the speed limit by.
  • I appreciate all you single drivers who don't drive in the diamond lane during commute time. But, surely, you don't really think the CHP is less likely to notice you weaving in and out of the other lanes at 70-80 than than if you were driving 65 in the diamond lane?
  • This may come as a shock but when the diamond lane is in effect, the middle lane (or if we're talking about at four-lane freeway, the lane next to the commute lane) is the passing lane. This means that it isn't the place to toddle along at ten miles per hour below the speed of traffic. Do the rest of us a favor and get over into the right lane where you belong.
  • Cruise-control is a wonderful thing. Not only does the constant speed help your gas mileage, it will also keep you from passing me 3-4 times every commute.
  • The random changing of lanes is unnecessary and irritating
  • If the lane that you're in eventually turns into an exit lane that doesn't mean you're free to drive 45 in it until it does.
  • Is that text you're sending really that important?
  • If you insist on driving 45, may I suggest surface streets? If you insist on driving 95, may I suggest Nevada?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

December 21, 2012: "New Agers" Predict the End of the World

Christians aren't the only ones who believe that the end is coming soon. So are a number of "New Agers" who believe that the end of the Mayan calendar (December 21, 2012) marks the end of the world as we know it. Evidently, quite a few also believe that the little town of Bugarach, France (photo at right) is the only place that will survive the apocalypse. Bugarach has long been considered magical, primarily because of its "upside-down mountain" (Pic de Bugarach) where the top layers of rock are older than the lower ones. Myths abound about the mountain -- that it's is surrounded by a magnetic force, that it's the site of a concealed alien base, that it contains an underground access to another world, etc. French authorities are monitoring what is going on in Bugarach in order to prevent people from being scammed ("French village seen at threat from Apocalypse sects").

Postscript: The "New Age" phenomenon is rather diffuse and a lot falls under its umbrella, but my impression is that "New Agers" tend to be well-educated and financially well-off (there are always exceptions, of course). Now, I don't know what percentage of New Agers believe that the world is coming to an end in 2012 simply because the Mayans didn't feel a need to extend their calendar farther than that, but you have to wonder how can well-educated people believe such things? Also, I suspect that some of those who believe in the 2012 date thought Harold Camping was nuts for thinking the world is going to end in October of this year. But, isn't that like the pot calling the kettle black?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Michael Sandel, Rockstar

For the past few months our church has read, watched and discussed Michael Sandel's "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do" book and DVD, something I've blogged about before ("What Do We Mean by Justice?"). The book's based on the popular class he teaches at Harvard in which students debate issues such as whether the free market is fair, what constitutes freedom, whether pro-choice laws are an example of legislating morality, and so on. The DVD is a film of his 2005 class (filmed by the public television affiliate WGBH and aired in 2009).  Sandel doesn't just lecture. He asks questions and throws out scenarios that typically lead to interesting debates among his students.

Evidently, not only is Sandel a hit at Harvard, he's a hit in Asia. According to NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman, he's attained rockstar status ("Justice Goes Global"):
You probably missed the recent special issue of China Newsweek, so let me bring you up to date. Who do you think was on the cover — named the “most influential foreign figure” of the year in China? Barack Obama? No. Bill Gates? No. Warren Buffett? No. O.K., I’ll give you a hint: He’s a rock star in Asia, and people in China, Japan and South Korea scalp tickets to hear him. Give up? It was Michael J. Sandel, the Harvard University political philosopher.
Sandel’s book has sold more than a million copies in East Asia. In Japan a translated broadcast of the PBS series has sparked a philosophy craze in Japan and led the University of Tokyo to create a course based on Sandel’s Harvard course. And in China, translators uploaded subtitled lectures to Chinese Web sites that have reportedly attracted millions of viewers. Not bad for a course on moral philosophy.

No need to repeat too much of what Friedman has already written (full disclosure: Friedman and Sandel are friends, and Friedman and his wife Ann were donors to the PBS broadcast). He offers reasons as to why he thinks Sandel's lectures and books have become such a hit, which you can read about in his column ("Justice Goes Global"). Better yet, read Sandel's book and watch the series, which is now available for free online at www.JusticeHarvard.org.

Friday, June 17, 2011

What Bryce Harper Could Learn From Sadaharu Oh

When Sadaharu Oh, the greatest home run hitter in Japanese professional baseball history (868 lifetime home runs; interestingly, he was Chinese and his family experienced discrimination when he was growing up), was in high school, his team played in an important tournament against its arch rival. Oh was on the mound that day. He pitched a shutout, and his team won 4-0 (initially, Oh was signed as a pitcher -- he once through four complete games in four days! -- but was converted to first base later). When the final out was made, Oh became so excited that he "threw his glove high into the air, jumping and yelling in celebration!" After the game, Oh's brother, who a fine baseball player in his own right, took him aside and lashed out at him ("Sadaharu Oh: Zen Way of Baseball," p. 39):
"What you did today was a disgrace!"
"What did I do?"
 "What did you do? Are you a first-year man?"
"First year man? Yes, yes."
"Where do you get off carrying on like that?"
"Like what?"
 "Throwing your glove in the air, rubbing salt in their wounds. Wasn't it enough you beat them? Did you have to humiliate them as well? Have you no respect for the feelings of your opponents?"
From that point on, Oh never showed his feelings in public. When he was playing professional ball and hit an important home run, he would occasionally raise his arms, but never intentionally rubbed salt into his opponents' wounds.

Compare Oh's attitude with that of Bryce Harper's. Some of you are undoubtedly aware that Harper was the first player selected in last year's major league baseball draft (picked by the Washington Nationals). This year he's playing for the National's single A team in Hagerstown, Maryland (the Hagerstown Suns), and is enjoying a good season at the plate. In a recent game against the Greensboro Grasshoppers, Harper hit a home run against the Grasshoppers. Harper paused in the batter box to admire his home run before beginning a very slow jog around the bases. The Grasshopper pitcher, Zachary Neal let Harper know that he took exception at Harper's actions, and in response Harper blew him a a kiss halfway between third and home ("Nats prospect Bryce Harper blows kiss at pitcher after HR").  Harper's kiss was not received well by former MLB player and Hall of Fame member Mike Schmidt.
I would say Bryce, if you're going to hit a lot of 'em ... you'd better learn not to show up the pitcher because it's just going to get tougher and tougher on you if you watch your home runs. Just hit your home runs and hit 'em like you're used to hitting 'em, not like you're surprised when you hit one.
Schmidt also reportedly said that "big league pitchers will stick one in Harper's ear if he brings that act to the show" ("Nationals Prospect Bryce Harper Blows Kiss at Pitcher After Homer"), by which he means that if Harper puts on a similar display in the big leagues, his next time at bat he will have a pitch thrown at his head.

Personally, I think Oh's brother's attitude was a bit excessive. I think some excitement after winning a game or hitting a home run is acceptable. Nevertheless, Oh and his brother are on to something here. Excessive celebration, such as admiring one's home runs from the batter's box and blowing kisses at opposing pitchers, is unnecessary and shows a lack of respect (and class). So, I think Harper could learn a thing or two from Oh.  If he doesn't, then he'll probably learn it the hard way. One day he may have to pick a baseball out of his ear.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Danger Of Firing Up An Opponent (Dwayne Wade, Dirk Nowtitzki and the NBA Championship)

When I played high school football, at one of our away games we arrived early, and the opposing coach put us in a closet. That's right. A closet. It was a very long closet, probably used for storing athletic gear and (just) large enough to hold 40 players, but it was a closet nonetheless. I'm not sure what the coach's strategy was or if he even had one, but if he did, it backfired. To say that our team became a bit upset would be an understatement. After pounding several holes into the wall with our helmets, we beat the $#%! out of that team, and I'm fairly certain that was the last time that coach put an opposing team in that or any other closet.

I thought of this experience when I heard that prior to the 5th game of the NBA finals, the Miami Heat star, Dwayne Wade, made fun of Dirk Nowitzki, the Dallas Maverick's star player, for being ill during the 4th game (he had a temperature of 101). Although it was a classless thing for Wade to do (Nowitzki didn't make fun of Wade's injured hip, by the way, although I'm sure he was tempted), Wade broke one of the rules that players should never break: never, ever, give your opponent something to get fired up about.

Former 49er coach Bill Walsh certainly was aware of this rule. Whatever he may have thought about his opponents, he always had complimentary things to say about them. Too bad that Dusty Baker didn't think of this before he gave Russ Ortiz the game ball late in the 6th game of the 2002 World Series with the Giants up 5-0. If he hadn't, the Angels may never have come back, and the Giants would have won their first World Series 8 years sooner.

I'm not sure if it would have made a difference in the end. The Mavericks beat the Heat in 6 games to win the championship. But I can't help but wonder what might have happened if Wade would have kept his mouth shut.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Too Stupid to Govern?

Most of you have probably heard of the the travails of New York Representative Anthony Weiner (Democrat), who sent explicit photographs of himself and messages to several women and repeatedly lied to cover up what he did. As of now, he does not plan to resign (although I'm certain that he eventually will), but one has to wonder if this guy is fit to govern. And I'm not talking about his ethics (although that's a concern as well), but rather his ability to make reasonable decisions. Can anybody who does such a stupid thing be trusted to make intelligent decisions that impact our nation's future? Personally, I have my doubts, but given how we Americans repeatedly elect officials with with a few tools missing from the shed, I may be one of the few who actually worries about such things.

Postscript (June 14, 2011): More than one person has argued that President Bill Clinton was morally challenged but he still was a good President, but a careful reading of my original post will show that I do not discuss Weiner's morality but his stupidity.  One could argue that Clinton could reasonably believe that what he did with Monica Lewinsky (and who know whom else) would not become public.  He was wrong, of course, but his belief that he wouldn't be caught was not an unreasonable expectation (this, of course, does not excuse his behavior). However, I think reasonably intelligent individuals would know that if they texted explicit photos of themselves, someone would find out, and anyone who doesn't realize that (e.g., Weiner) can't be terribly bright.

Postscript (June 16, 2011): Representative Weiner resigns. What a surprise.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Rob Bell and Osama Bin Laden's Salvation

OK. Here's a little Rob Bell humor. I first saw it in The Christian Century and then on another blog ("Bluesman"). It's a lot funnier if you read my previous post first ("Rob Bell and Salvation for All"):

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Rob Bell and Salvation for All

Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever LivedRob Bell is founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, one of the most successful evangelical churches in the United States. Over 10,000 attend his church's worship services every Sunday. Rob Bell, however, does not fit the stereotype that many people hold of evangelicals. When a recent attendee at his church declared that Ghandi was in hell, Bell reportedly responded (see "Something Game-Changing"),

"Really? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt?"

This encounter helped prompt Bell to pen a book that has generated considerable debate and consternation among evangelicals: Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Bell believes that in the end, God's grace reigns and everyone is saved (i.e., they will be reconciled to God and make it into heaven). He argues that his position is biblically sound and consistent with the proclamation of the early church. Whether he's historically correct is debatable. His position is certainly in line with the early church theologian Origen, but as Bart Ehrman reminds us, the early church was hardly monolithic (Lost Christianities).

Bell's universalism has angered a number of more traditional evangelicals, such as Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Mohler recently argued that Bell's book is "theologically disastrous" because when "you adopt universalism... you don't need the cross... This is the tragedy of nonjudgmental mainline liberalism."

Bell, however, isn't a mainline liberal. He's an evangelical Protestant whose study of the Bible has led him to a very surprising conclusion. Whether his perspective is a "game-changer" as The Christian Century wants to believe (by which it means that Bell is one of handful of theologians who are discovering new ways of "being church" that resonate with contemporary Americans), or if it is another example of how sectarian movements slowly accommodate their views to the wider society (i.e., they become more secular) is a matter of debate. Nevertheless, his perspective is certainly one worth considering, and his book, one worth reading.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Wealthy GOP (Libertarian) Donors Backing Same-Sex Marriage

A couple of weeks ago, a NY Times article reported that wealthy Republican Party donors were among the biggest contributors to the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in New York ("Donors to G.O.P. Are Backing Gay Marriage Push"). Indeed, Republican donors have given more than have Democrat to the campaign. This appears to have struck the NY Times reporter as surprising as it no doubt did many NY Times readers.

However, most of these donors are libertarians, whose beliefs are captured by the remarks of one of the donors, Clifford S Asness: “I’m a pretty straight-down-the-line small-government guy... This is an issue of basic freedom.” As I noted in an earlier post ("What Do We Mean By Justice?"), libertarians believe in limited government. They favor free markets and oppose most government regulation. They contend that each of us has a fundamental right to do whatever we want with the things we own as long as we respect the rights of others to do exactly the same thing. Thus, they tend to oppose (a) paternalistic legislation -- that is, laws that protect people from themselves (e.g., seatbelt laws), (b) moral legislation -- laws that promote virtue or express the moral convictions of the majority (e.g., pro-life anti-gay rights legislation), and (c) economic legislation that redistributes income and/or wealth (e.g., income taxes used to help the poor in some respect). 

That is why that while libertarians often support Republican candidates, they support them because of their economic policies, not their social ones, and are not the least bit shy about throwing their weight (and their money) behind causes that they believe promote individual freedom, like legalizing same-sex marriage and abortion rights. (Note: I've met a lot of folks who claim to be libertarians, but when pushed they really only want the government to keeps its hands off the economy but have no problem with the government passing legislation to limit abortion rights and keep marriage between a man and a woman.)

My sense is that libertarians are more likely to support such causes at the state rather than the federal level (i.e., they'll support state legislation, but not necessarily federal legislation, to legalize abortion) because individual state governments are small compared to the federal government. Unfortunately, this can play into the hands of "states rights" arguments, which are sometimes used to justify policies that limit, rather than promote, human freedom (e.g., states rights arguments were used to oppose the federal government's support of civil rights during the 1960s).

Regardless of what one thinks of the libertarian philosophy, one has to admit that libertarians are remarkably consistent in their logic, which is more than I can say for the moral philosophy of a lot of folks, who seem to shoot more from the hip when it comes to ethical reflection than thinking through the logic and implications of the positions they often take.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

(Some of the) Best Baseball Books

Ball Four by Jim Bouton -- Probably the funniest book ever written about professional baseball. Bouton once pitched for the Yankees but then hurt his arm, an injury that most assumed would end his career. It probably should have, but Bouton made a comeback as a knuckleball pitcher. This book is, in part, about that comeback, but it also recounts his days with the Yankees. It's more than funny, though. It's an eye-opening look into the daily lives of some of the biggest stars of all time (e.g., Mickey Mantle). Some of the tales Bouton tells got him into hot water with baseball's powers that be (e.g., Baseball Commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, tried to force Bouton to say that all the stories were fictional) and his former teammates (e.g., Mickey Mantle didn't speak to Bouton for years although they eventually patched things up). Yankee Sparky Lyle's book, The Bronx Zoo, is similar but not nearly as humorous.

My Turn at Bat: The Story of My Life by Ted Williams -- My college roommate and I "fought" almost every night over who would get to read this book (the alternative was Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago or studying for Advanced Accounting -- guess what won). It's a window into professional baseball back in the day when teams traveled by train and there was often longer breaks between series. One thing that you learn is that Williams was just as proud of his accomplishments as a fisherman as he was of his accomplishments as a baseball player (e.g., he earned the triple crown of fishing).

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis -- A behind-the-scenes account of how Oakland A's General Manager, Billy Beane, uses statistical analyses pioneered by Bill James (e.g., Bill James Baseball Abstract, 1977-1988) to find undervalued baseball talent in an extremely competitive market. Lewis is a great storyteller (his book, The Big Short, is one of the best, funniest and disturbing books on the subprime mortgage debacle of a couple years back -- he also wrote "The Blindside," which was a bestselling book that was turned into an Academy Award winning movie starring Sandra Bullock), and he weaves stories about Beane, James and others into a compelling account, so compelling, in fact, that it's being turned into a movie starring Brad Pitt. This isn't the first book about the A's. George Will's, Men At Work: The Craft of Baseball, looks at the A's as well (in particular, A's manager at the time, Tony LaRussa -- currently head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals).

Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella -- The novel behind the movie, Field of Dreams (and in this one Shoeless Joe bats left-handed and the mysterious author is J.D. Salinger). The movie was great; the book is just as good, probably better. It is often compared to Bernard Malmud's, The Natural, which, of course, was also made into a movie. I like Shoeless Joe more; Kinsella clearly understands the game better than Malmud. Moreover, I think The Natural is one of those few cases when the movie is actually better than the book.

Sadaharu Oh: A Zen Way of Baseball by Sadaharu Oh -- A great story about one of the greatest home run hitters of all time. It recounts how Oh drew on the martial art, Akido, to improve his concentration and focus his strength. Prior to doing so, Oh was a mediocre hitter who had never hit over .300. Afterward, he was unbelievable. The book contains a number of anecdotes about Oh's surprising strength and balance.

Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series by Eliot Asinof -- As the subtitle indicates, this book is about the 1919 World Series when some of the members of the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series. It is somewhat dated in that subsequent to its publication additional information concerning Shoeless Joe Jackson was found (e.g., his grand jury testimony -- not what was reported in the newspapers the next day) that supports the contention of some that although he knew what some of his teammates were doing, he didn't help throw the series (see e.g., Shoeless Joe and Ragtime BaseballSay it Ain't So, Joe: The True Story of Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Wrong Man Out). In fact, an article in the September 2009 issue of Chicago Lawyer magazine ("Black Sox: 'It ain't so, kid, it just ain't so'") argues that Asinof's book, which seems to affirm Jackson's guilt, was based on inaccurate information and inserted fictional characters into the book. Here's an interesting piece of trivia: It is likely that no kid ever said to Jackson as he was leaving the courthouse, "Say it Ain't So, Joe." Instead, it was probably a literary invention by an over imaginative reporter. Nevertheless, the book's a good yarn and the inspiration behind the film of the same name.

Other books of note: The late evolutionary biologist, Steven J. Gould, was a huge baseball fan and often penned essays on the topic. Several of these were included in his anthology, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball. Theologians William Herzog and Christopher Evans are big baseball fans as well, and they've gathered together a series of articles on baseball in their edited volume, The Faith of 50 Million: Baseball, Religion and American Culture. Then there's the book, Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter's Box edited by Eric Bronson, for those who like to mix a little Aristotle, Kant and Socrates with their Bonds, Mays and Aarons.  Finally, there is The Physics of Baseball by Robert Adair, which my son once used for one of his science projects. It's and fun to read, which is probably why it's in its 3rd edition.