We Are What We Are

We are what we are. The only question is what we choose to do about it.

When I worked on Capitol Hill, I knew a political writer who was a nasty, hateful person.

Then he became a Christian.

And — unlike other Christians I know — he was a nasty, hateful Christian.

His conversion made no difference at all in his attitude. He changed his religion, but he didn’t change himself.

In other words, he expressed his hostility in terms of whatever worldview he held at the moment: first secular, then religious.

His professed religion or ideology didn’t cause his hatred. It only provided a framework for him to talk about it and justify it.

That example came to mind as I was reading Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony’s book The Virtue of Nationalism:

“The argument most commonly made against a nationalist politics is that it encourages hatred and bigotry. And there is certainly some truth in this …

[But] universal political ideals—of the kind that are so prominent, for example, in the European Union—seem invariably to generate hatred and bigotry to at least the same degree as nationalist movements … the hatred that proponents of imperialist or universalist ideologies feel toward national or tribal groups that refuse to accept their claim to be bringing salvation and peace to the world.”

Two facts are relevant:

All political and social arrangements are imperfect.

That’s because people are imperfect. In any large group, some people will be haters. To justify their hatred, they will latch onto whatever ideology is handy. Other people in the same large group will be saints. They will love and help people, citing many of the same ideological reasons as the haters. And most people will be in the middle, neither very good nor very bad. They’ll tend to go whichever way they’re pushed.

In addition, any large group will include people who disagree with each other about moral and social issues. No matter what the group does, some of its members will regard the decision as unsound, unfair, or unjust.

People instinctively divide into groups.

Because of their biological evolution, animals including humans tend to trust, help, and cooperate with others they perceive as their genetic “kin.” Distinct nations arise from  people with some genetic relatedness, even if outsiders can join. For example, Moment Magazine checked the genetic profiles of 15 prominent Jewish Americans (not including yours truly, of course) and reported that all except Linda Chavez were directly related.

Unlike lower animals, humans unconsciously use belief, dress, language, and religion as proxies for genetic relatedness. If people disagree with us about the basic issues of life, we tend to perceive them as competitors instead of kin. That primes us to feel hostility and to fight them.

Nationalist or globalist, the people in each group who are prone to hatred will hate people in the other group. Those inclined toward peace and friendship will try to build bridges to the other group. But since it’s easier to destroy a bridge than to build it, the peacemakers are usually at a disadvantage.

The bottom line is twofold. First, opponents of nationalism are pursuing an unattainable ideal. Social and political perfection are impossible. Hatred, strife, and war can only be minimized, not eliminated. The cure usually ends up being worse than the disease.

Second, group behavior is baked into human DNA. Even if globalists eliminated nations, they couldn’t eliminate human groups: all they could do is impose their own group’s hegemony on other, conquered and subjugated groups. And eventually, their own group would divide into new subgroups, while subjugated groups would throw off the yoke and regain their independence.

It would save all of us a lot of time, grief, and bloodshed if we could stop trying to impose our ideas and ways of life on people who don’t want them. As Hillel said:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary.”

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Beware of Double Standards

Nobody likes double standards, at least in theory.

Double standards treat people differently for reasons that normally shouldn’t make a difference.

For example, consider last week’s university admissions scandal. Some students got admitted on their merits. They’re angry that a few others got in because their parents paid off the right people.

And what of the students who got admitted dishonestly? Some of them probably could have been admitted by an honest process. Most apparently believed they were. But now they’ll never know. Even in their own eyes, their achievements will always be suspect.

That’s what makes double standards so bad. Not only do they deny fair treatment to everyone affected, but they delegitimize institutions that we should be able to trust.

What makes double standards worse is that they’re common. Most of them don’t get publicity like scandals involving TV stars. But like acid, they eat away at our belief in ourselves, our societies, and our fellow human beings.

The only saving grace — and it’s odd for it to be the “saving grace” — is that we’re usually not aware of double standards. They still cause unfairness, but they don’t also erode social cohesion as they would if they were plainly visible.

Most of us apply double standards all the time, but we think we’re just using common sense. We demand that people and things we dislike satisfy much higher standards than those we like.

Did politician A, who we hate, once talk to a sleazy lobbyist? Corrupt! Did politician B, who we like, do the same thing? Totally innocent!

Did we, ourselves, do something that’s morally debatable? Well, it’s okay because of our “reasons.” Did somebody else do the same thing? Call the police! A dangerous criminal is on the loose.

Some unfairness is unavoidable because it’s just part of life. Some people are taller, richer, smarter, or better-looking than others. Those facts sometimes give them advantages that less-fortunate people don’t have.

Even some double standards are at least partly forgivable. If parents cut corners to benefit their children, we can understand their motives, even if their actions are wrong.

As in most areas, it’s best if we try to stay aware of what we’re doing and why.

In general, we should avoid double standards. But if we feel we must apply them, then we should in principle be able to say:

“Yes, I sure did apply a double standard. And for reasons X, Y, and Z, it was the right thing to do.”

Whether or not anyone agrees with us is another matter. But at least we thought about our decision and didn’t make it carelessly. If our reasons are legitimate, it might not even be a double standard.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital to living.”

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You’re Responsible for You

When you’re a small child, you feel that everything is about you.

Your parents often encourage that delusion. They try to create a bubble where your needs are satisfied, your feelings are considered, and your safety is ensured. It’s a bubble where fairness matters, and nothing very bad can happen. The more conscientious the parents, the worse the delusion.

Then you grow up. Ugh. The world isn’t as nice as you thought it was.

Your needs are often frustrated. Your feelings are sometimes crushed. Fairness plus three dollars will get you a cup of coffee.

But still, in the back of your mind, you feel as if everything is about you. Everything is your business, and everything is your problem.

If you thought about it explicitly, you’d know it wasn’t true. But it just sits there in the back of your mind, affecting how you see everything.

There’s a famine in Africa. There’s a cheating scandal in college admissions. There’s a horrible crime, pretty much anywhere, all the time. Politicians — well, that one is self-explanatory.

And then you still have to add in the problems that affect you directly.

In a world that’s all about you, it’s too heavy an emotional burden to bear.

Is it any wonder that people pop anti-depressant pills like they’re candy?

I’ve got good news for you, and some bad news.

The good news is that the world isn’t all about you. You’re not responsible for everything that goes wrong. In fact, you’re responsible for hardly any of it — at least, unless you’re a real schmuck with a lot of power, which most of us aren’t.

The bad news is that the world isn’t all about you. You’re not that important. Neither am I. When we realize it — not only intellectually, but emotionally — we take a giant step toward becoming rational adults.

And the other good news is this: As rational adults, we can improve things in ways that are possible instead of dreamy and utopian.

Maybe we’re not all that important in the grand scheme of things. But we’re important to our families, our friends, and our communities. We’re important to those we affect by our work or by our personal example.

And we’re important to ourselves: there’s nothing shameful about it. If we can look at our lives and see more good deeds than bad, see more that we contributed to the world than took from it, then we have earned our self-respect.

You’re not God. You can’t fix everything. Do what you reasonably can, and maybe just a little more. And then you’ve earned your self-respect.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital to living.”

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A Retro Idea to Improve the Net

In 1949, the legendary American comedian Groucho Marx resigned from the Friars Club of Beverly Hills. His reason?

“I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.”

A lot of people are starting to feel that way about the internet. The hate, hysteria, Twitter mobs, privacy invasions, and intrusive advertising are too much.

But the internet wasn’t always like that. When I first used it as a student in the late 1980s, the internet seemed new, exciting, and fairly reasonable.

Email was an awesome idea, though it was text-only and didn’t work reliably. You couldn’t email files. Connection speeds were slow, even over campus networks.

To connect with remote computers, you had to use the telephone lines, and that was even slower. Don’t ask me how I know, but it took about two minutes to download a single photo of Star Trek’s Counselor Troi — fully clothed, of course, which was about as edgy as “internet porn” got.

Finally, you had to know how to use internet commands and computer operating systems such as Unix and MVS.

But as primitive as it now seems, that retro version of the internet might hold solutions to some of our current problems:

  • People seldom insulted each other. Even if they did, nothing much happened as a result.

The only memorable exception for insults was a group titled “alt-ensign-wesley-die-die-die,” devoted to a Star Trek character who many fans disliked (although the actor who portrayed him seems like a pretty decent guy).

  • There was very little fake news. You couldn’t even find fake news unless you had technical skills.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were basically two versions of the internet. One version was for people in general. Everyone could use it. The other version was for researchers and technical nerds. Only they could use it, because only they had the knowledge required to do it.

Yes, Millennials, I know that I sound like your grandpa talking about “the good old days.” It is what it is. 

The Consumer Internet

The consumer internet consisted of competing online services such as CompuServe and America Online.

Online services were like Facebook: lots of people, lots of content, easy to use, and requiring no technical knowledge. But they differed from Facebook in four ways:

  • First, you paid a monthly subscription fee to use them, so they didn’t bombard you with ads or sell your information. But they knew who you were. It was technically possible to create bots or fake identities, but it was more trouble than it was worth.
  • Second, they had meaningful competition to keep them honest. If you didn’t like one of the services, you could switch to a competitor that was just as good. None of them dominated the market like Facebook. Present-day competitors like MeWe, Minds, and Gab might eventually dethrone Facebook, but not in the short term.
  • Third, they didn’t automatically show you a “newsfeed” whose content they could alter to manipulate you. Instead, you looked for content and forums that interested you.
  • Fourth, online services did not even pretend — like Facebook and Twitter — to be free speech zones. Their users were paying customers who were usually well-behaved. And users did sometimes discuss politics, including controversial opinions. But if anyone started harassing others or using offensive language, each forum had moderators who could impose penalties from censorship to expulsion. That was understood.

As far as I could tell, moderators were not employees of the online services. They were users who got free accounts in exchange for moderating the forums in which they participated.

The moderators were not nameless. They posted in the forums. They were readily available to discuss users’ concerns or complaints. There were no hidden censors deploying mysterious algorithms to block any content they didn’t like. If you got censored, you knew who did it and why. It was all open and above-board. People sometimes griped about it but it worked well.

And since users were paying customers, moderators did not censor people arbitrarily. There had to be a good, defensible reason. The services didn’t want to lose that monthly subscription money. As has been said about Facebook and Twitter, “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.” Users of online services were paying for the product.

On a smaller, non-commercial scale, individual computer nerds often ran “bulletin board systems” (BBSs) on their own PCs. If you had the phone number, you could get access. BBSs were usually owned by fanboys, so their content and discussion forums reflected that. Their influence was limited to their own small user base. Two interesting side-notes:

  • If I remember correctly, the photo of Counselor Troi came from the Westside BBS in West Hollywood. That BBS was pretty well known to Star Trek fans.
  • When PCs were first introduced in government agencies, many agencies had enthusiasts who set up BBSs with all their agency’s information. If you were a spy and you had the BBS phone number, you could have learned a lot. Of course, military and intelligence agencies were a lot more security-conscious. You couldn’t get into their systems unless you were a very good hacker who didn’t worry about going to prison. The method used in the 1980s movie “WarGames” was called a hack-hack attack, and it wouldn’t work on any secure computer except in a movie.

The “Real Internet”

The other version — the “real internet” — was more of a wild-west show. It offered uncensored freedom to say anything or share any content that was legal. But as I described earlier, it was not easy to use. There was no such thing as “point and click.” You had to learn commands to establish connections, get access to remote computers, and navigate different operating systems. You also needed a real internet account through a school or government agency. You couldn’t get to it from the consumer internet, at least not until the mid-1990s. And you still couldn’t do very much with it.

So the real internet wasn’t available to everyone. Even if you had an account, the skills barrier made it almost like an IQ test. You couldn’t use the real internet unless you were smart, technically sophisticated, and highly motivated. That limited the size of the user population. Even with total freedom of speech, there weren’t enough susceptible people for anyone to whip up a Twitter-style mob or harassment campaign.

You could shop, but not much. Most of the shopping and other commercial activity was on the online services because they had large customer bases. E-commerce wouldn’t really take off until after the invention of web browsers in the 1990s. The web put a “front door” on the internet that made it easier for non-technical people. Some consequences have been good, while others have been bad.

What’s the Internet For?

Is there a way to apply the 1980s kind of model in 2019? We want to keep the good things about the internet and minimize the bad things.

What are the good things that people do on the internet? Here’s my list. If you can think of other things, please comment: I don’t pretend to have all the answers. We want to keep:

  • E-commerce: Buying and selling. Brick-and-mortar stores hate it — justifiably — but it’s here to stay.
  • Email: Written correspondence delivered faster than postal mail. It’s become an essential part of our lives.
  • Personal interactions: Chats, videoconferencing, and discussion threads provide limited contacts with other people. They’re not as good as face to face conversations, but (a) they’re not nothing, and (b) they permit interactions that would otherwise be impossible.
  • Posting content: Blogs, photos, and videos seem to be the most common types of content.
  • Getting news: Real news is a good thing. Fake news is a bad thing. But what’s real or fake is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. That’s going to be a problem.

What Should It Not Be For?

What are the bad things that people do on the internet? We want to eliminate or minimize:

  • Mobs: Inciting hysterical mobs to harass and threaten people online or in real life. Organizing riots.
  • Fake news: News stories that are demonstrably (often obviously) misleading and that incite people to hate each other.
  • Privacy invasion: Social media, websites, and search engines collect personal data and sell it: “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.”
  • Pornography: Even if it’s mild, legal, and not horrifying, pornography is too easy to get on the internet. That leads to addiction, desensitization, and it damages human relationships.

Applying a 1980s-Style Remedy

No solution to any social problem can be perfect. There are always costs and benefits. Improving the internet is no exception. Here are my suggestions:

  • Use antitrust law to break up Facebook. A social media company that controls 68 percent of the U.S. market is too powerful.
  • Use antitrust law to break up Google. A technology company that controls about 70 percent of internet searches while selling software, computers, tablets, and phones is too powerful.
  • Regulate social media. For example, eliminate “newsfeeds,” so that content is available if users want it but it doesn’t display automatically. Prohibit user conduct such as objectively-defined harassment or bullying. Require social media companies to publish clear and specific guidelines for moderation, so that users can know in advance what is and is not allowed. Require social media companies to have enough moderators for individual moderation, just like in the glory years of CompuServe.
  • Make the internet harder to use, so that most people will flock to easier social media sites or reborn online services. Most e-commerce should be there.
  • Require a license to engage in e-commerce. Just as with a brick-and-mortar store, the license should document who owns the business, where it’s located, and what it’s selling.
  • Prohibit some e-commerce on social media. If some kinds of e-commerce are legal but socially harmful, prohibit them on social media and online services. They’ll still be available on the hard-to-use real internet. Freedom sometimes includes the right to do unwise things, but there’s no reason to make unwise things easy to do.

Those are partial and imperfect ideas for solving serious problems. But we’ve got to start someplace. Our current situation is unsustainable.

Your thoughts?

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital to living.”

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Don’t Be Seduced By Hate

We’re all a mixture of good and bad impulses.

That’s not new. Alexander Pope observed in 1734:

“Virtuous and vicious every man must be,
Few in the extreme, but all in the degree,
The rogue and fool by fits is fair and wise;
And even the best, by fits, what they despise.”

But something else is new, and it’s uniquely harmful: Online sites use powerful technology to encourage our worst impulses.

According to Silicon Valley investor Roger McNamee in his book Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe:

“Fear and anger [make users] consume and share more content. Dispassionate users have relatively little value on Facebook … The algorithms choose posts calculated to press emotional buttons because scaring users or pissing them off increases time on the site.”

Something has to change. No society can survive 24/7 incitement of its people to hate and fear each other.

Most likely, we’ll end up with China-style government regulation of the internet. No anonymity. Strict monitoring of what we can see and say. That would be bad, but it might be the least-bad alternative we’ve got.

Even so, we can’t just blame online sites and then wash our hands of the problem.

The sites can manipulate us because we let them. We can get emotional satisfaction from hating, fearing, and despising other people.

Are we unsure of our own worth? Feeling ignored? Angry at life’s frustrations? Ashamed of something we did?

Then whoever they are, those people are worse. We can affirm ourselves by hating others:

“We grow tired of every thing but turning others into ridicule, and congratulating ourselves on their defects … The wild beast resumes its sway within us, and utters a cry of joy, at being restored once more to freedom and lawless unrestrained impulses.”

It’s the crack cocaine of self-justification. And it wildly distorts our perception of reality. The people who we hate become symbols of everything we dislike about ourselves and our own lives.

But human nature also enables us to recognize the problem and try to minimize it. Here are three tips:

First, take time away from the computer

Most of your life should be offline. Unless you have actual work to do, turn off the computer every evening and leave it off. Set aside one day a week as a “no computers” day.

Second, limit your time online

Internet addiction has become a serious social and psychological problem. Apps such as Cold Turkey help you limit online time so that you don’t waste your life staring at a screen. Cold Turkey is for Windows and Mac; many other apps do the same thing for phones and tablets. (Note: This blog gets no compensation from Cold Turkey.)

Finally, keep things in perspective

Did some politician or celebrity say something you don’t like? Then think about what it really means for your life: nothing. They said something outrageous to get attention. They got it. Meanwhile, you’ve got work in the morning and a family to feed. Let the publicity seekers play their silly games. Keep things in perspective, keep your sanity, and live your life.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital to living.”

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Don’t Be A Quitter

“Quitters never win, and winners never quit. But those who never win and never quit are idiots.”

Don’t be a quitter. But don’t be an idiot, either.

The problem in many situations is to know which is which.

Contrary to Despair.com’s funny saying, quitters do sometimes win and winners do sometimes quit.

So what’s the difference between them?

Part of the answer is what Buddhism calls “the middle way” and Aristotle called “the golden mean.”

To Aristotle, observes philosopher Daniel Robinson, “every vice is a virtue in the extreme, either an extreme of defect [not enough of it] or of excess [too much of it].”

For the virtue of persistence, the defect is never even trying to achieve our goals: we’re too afraid. The excess is refusing to change our goals regardless of new events or information: we’re too stubborn.

The best advice about persistence was given by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to students at Harrow School in 1941. Nazi Germany had bombed British cities repeatedly for over a year, and many people feared that a German invasion was imminent. Churchill said:

“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

He doesn’t say we should never give up under any circumstances. He says only that if we’ve thought about our goal and we know it’s right, then we should stick with it. We should only abandon our goal if the relevant facts change (good sense) or if we learn that our choice was wrong in the first place (honor).

The same principle applies in ordinary life, not just in times of war or danger. If my spouse asked “Does this dress make me look fat?” then my first answer would be, “it makes you look beautiful.” That’s because I’d assume what she really wanted was my affection and support, not a critique of the dress.

However, if she replied “no, seriously, what do you think,” her reply would provide new information. I would then offer a carefully-worded but more candid answer — bearing in mind that she wants the truth but still wants my affirmation and support.

Yes, it can be challenging at times. But if life were too easy, we’d be bored.

Embrace the challenge: don’t be a quitter, but don’t be an idiot, either.

Find the middle way.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital to living.”

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Confucius Said: “Consider the Source”

I admit it: the ancient Chinese sage Confucius didn’t really say “consider the source.”

At least it’s not in The Analects of Confucius, a collection of his teachings that were compiled and edited after his death. (The linked edition provides a lot of commentary and context that you don’t get in most other editions.)

If you like old movies and aren’t prone to fits of righteous rage, you might have heard of Confucius from the fictional Chinese detective Charlie Chan. When he was about to drop a pearl of fortune-cookie wisdom, he often began his statements with “Confucius say …”

Though usually portrayed by Western actors — the most famous being Peter Ustinov — Chan was far from a racist stereotype. Wikipedia, which leans left on anything remotely political, says:

“Readers and movie-goers of white America greeted Chan warmly, seeing him as an attractive character who is portrayed as intelligent, heroic, benevolent and honorable in contrast to the racist depictions of evil or conniving Asians which dominated Hollywood and national media.”

But as for “evil or conniving Asians,” that’s exactly what some people see in Chinese government-sponsored Confucius Institutes at American universities.

The institutes provide money, instructors, programs, and course materials for teaching Chinese history, language, and culture. They amount to a huge subsidy for universities’ Asian studies departments.

And many politicians see that as a national security threat. A recent article in The Los Angeles Times asked, “Do they improve U.S.-China ties or harbor spies?”

The answers are “yes” and “possibly.” As with many choices in real life, we need to balance the good against the bad.

Full disclosure:

  • I respect the Chinese. They’re imperfect, and China is America’s geopolitical adversary. But those things don’t preclude recognizing what they get right.
  • I wish that more Americans respected themselves and our own country as much as the Chinese respect theirs.
  • I speak Chinese (Mandarin dialect, badly) and watch a lot of Chinese television shows.
  • I’ve taken a couple of language classes at Confucius Institutes.

That being said, it’s ridiculous to be surprised if institutes sponsored by the Chinese government usually present the Chinese government’s viewpoint.

A personal experience is relevant.

I’ve done a lot of different jobs. For a while, I worked as a paralegal in a law firm. It’s easy enough if you can read, think logically, and write clearly. A real lawyer needs much more knowledge, of course — just as a paramedic can splint a broken leg but can’t do brain surgery. However, most of the work is routine. I prepared a lot of cases for the lawyers to present in court.

One case bothered me. Our client was obviously at fault, and the person we were suing was blameless. I shared my qualms with the lawyer on the case. His answer made sense:

“It’s not our job to decide the merits of the case. That’s up to the court. Our job is to represent our client’s interests within the law.”

The same thing applies to Confucius Institutes — or indeed, to any similar situation: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

As long as we remember that fact, it’s a problem but not an insurmountable one.

When it’s relevant, consider the source.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital to living.”

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