Always the bridesmaid, Dalai Lama

Love never stood a chance.

Sure, love sounds great. It’s all warm and fuzzy. It’s puppy dogs and LOL kittays. But it will never, ever be able to compete with it’s hulking twin brother, fear. And we can blame our biology for that.

Consider this: when we need to prioritize decisions, which tendency would lead to a better chance of survival? Responding immediately to fear or responding immediately to promises of love? It’s not a no brainer. It’s a reptilian brainer. It’s easy to see how natural selection favored the survival of primates (and plenty of other organisms) that ran first and asked questions later.

Which brings us to where we are today. Atheists, agnostics, pacifists, Jainists¬† and any other “new age” spiritualists trying to win over theists by preaching peace, love and balancing your chakras are on the wrong side of evolution. Yes, love should be our primary motivator. And hate should make you break out in boils. But until our peace activists start realizing the nature of their enemy, they’re going to keep losing.

The only way to beat fear is to replace it with a bigger one. Religions have done this masterfully. At first, we humans witnessed death. And that was scary. “Oh, crap. So we just turn off? Man, that sucks.” And for tens of thousands of years, that was as scary as it got. But then along came religion, which made that old fear sound like paradise. “Turn off? Oh, no, my brother. Your entrails are ripped from your flesh every day and gnawed on by syphilitic demons with bad breath. For e-fucking-ternity.”

Old fear loses to new-and-improved fear. Religion wins.

Today, the best ammunition that nontheists have is social fear – the fear that, if I happen to say something ridiculous, I will become a social outcast. It’s a good tool, and it helps shut people up about saying all sorts of things out of fear of losing their jobs, friends, spouses, etc. But the fear of becoming a pariah may not be strong enough to fight the fear of eternal torment.

The Dalai Lama is going to have to do more than be the Richard Simmons of the peace movement to overcome the power of fear. He, and those who admire him, are going to have to find another rose with sharper thorns.


The Intruder in the Closet

There's a monster in my closetIt’s 10 pm. You’re watching TV. You’re alone in the house.

At a commercial break, you push the mute button on the remote. Then you hear it. A rhythmic sound is coming from the closet door behind you.

“Thump, thump. Thump, thump.”

Your throat tightens. Your heart skips a beat. You recognize the sound. Someone is inside the closet, rapping their hand on the closet door.

“Thump, thump.”

A hundred different scenes from late-night slasher films flash through your mind. Is it Jason hiding my closet? (No. That’s silly.) Is it a Ted Bundy wannabe?

“Thump, thump.”

With fear deep in your throat, you decide to confront the intruder. You throw open the closet door. And you see a small, wooden bar stool. It’s red, illuminated by a pale, red indicator light that sits atop the small seat. As your eyes adjust, you realize that the glowing, red dot is attached to the front of a¬† tape recorder. Now you can see the exact source of the sound.

“Thump, thump,” rings out from the tape recorder’s speaker. You click the off switch, shudder and close the door.

Up to this very moment – right before you flung open the closet door – you had a very different belief about the reality about to unfold. Your belief was that there was a person inside the closet. Was that a rational belief? Absolutely.

And at this very moment in time, this is a scene that millions of people are stuck in. People who believe in a god.

If you’re not convinced of the analogy, let’s take a closer look at the evidence theists cite:

  • Their religion has been embraced for thousands of years
  • Their parents, whom they love and trust, assures them of the truth
  • The physical universe, to their naked eye, seems as if it were created especially for them and other humans

The conclusion derived from these support points – there must be a god – is a completely rational position. Just like your belief in the intruder in the closet.

But what if you never opened that door? What if you ran out of the house as fast as you could? What if the initial evidence you experienced was so compelling that it felt like it would be irrational to ignore it?

This is the condition of the modern-day, Western-world theist. They are not, as atheists so often accuse, being irrational. Theists arrived at their conclusions using demonstrably strong support points. Their religion’s antiquity, ubiquity and authenticity, as shared by trusted friends and family members, are perfectly credible sources of evidence.

Was there better evidence that no one was hiding in the closet? Are there demonstrable, testable genetic and neurological dispositions that make humans susceptible to believing in detached consciousnesses?

Certainly. But those who understand that evidence must have dared to look inside to consider it.

The person who runs from the house, and the theists of the 21st century, are one in the same. They are not irrational.

They are scared.

Why same-sex marriage advocates leave a bad taste in your mouth

In my last post, I talked about the implications of ideas being physical objects – objects that are “consumed” by the human body.

Once we consider this premise – even at a metaphorical level – we realize that, like food, ideas must get past the body’s built-in sensory warning systems. When an idea seems sweet, we are more willing to ingest it. When an idea is laced with vinegar, it’s far less likely to be ingested, much less digested and absorbed by their intended host.

It’s in this regard that I turn to the folly of some people within the gay right’s movement and their ill-fated propaganda approach. Specifically, the emotional outpouring over the positions of Chick-Fil-A, an American fast-food restaurant.

As most reading this will know, the founder of Chick-Fil-A has cooked up a bit of controversy with his religious-based stance on what the legal definition of marriage should be. The reactions from both sides of the issue have been swift and dramatic, with the Mike Huckabee-inspired “munch in” bringing Chick-Fil-A its single most profitable day in its history.

But this article is not an admonition of a position for or against same-sex marriage. Let’s put that aside for one moment. Instead, let’s talk about strategy.

When ideas are embedded into someone’s very being, they become a part of who they are. To attack someone’s beliefs is to attack them physically. And it’s very easy to spot an attack. They are loud, aggressive, demeaning and threatening. They hit our ears like acid and our eyes like needles. And yet we somehow hold out the notion that these attacks will soften the opposition to our causes.

Not only do acerbic attacks diminish the wielders of the messages, they diminish the chances that the opposition will consider the logic behind the attackers’ message. Which begs the question, do the hate-headliners place the value of outrage at a higher premium than the achievement of the movement?

Scientists have a name for this phenomenon. It’s called the boomerang effect. And it’s something that social scientists have known about for a very long time. (This study back in 1966 links how insulting people exacerbates the boomerang effect.)

If the large gay-rights organizations are serious about changing hearts and minds, they’re going to need to exercise some leadership. They’re going to have to persuade their own membership that violent, aggressive messaging may be cathartic, but completely disruptive to any progress they can make as an organization.

This is a tall order in today’s world of public discourse – a world reduced to sound bites and nasty wit. Yes, a great “burn” on your enemies helps you win a larger late-night TV audience or gets you to the front page of Reddit. But if science has already demonstrated the effect of such causes, what is the value of the approach?

Clearly, the opposition to same-sex marraige knows how to fight a propaganda battle. Instead of enlisting their employees to sing “Bringing in the Sheaves” to celebrate the support is has received, the employees have remained humble and downright…nice. The motivation behind these nice deeds is not relevant to the advocates of same-sex marriage. It doesn’t matter why Chick-Fil-A managers bring cold lemonade out to the protesters. It only matters that the rest of the world sees it and says, “Wow. That’s sweet.”

It’s doubtful that the younger supporters of same-sex marriage rights will understand the value of suppressing their short-term desire to express outrage for their long-term desire of replacing an old idea with a new one. But until someone in the gay-rights movement shows some leadership, their army might just lose the war for them.

Beauty and the brain

Ingestion. Digestion. Absorption. These are three distinct phases of the process our bodies use to utilize micro and macro nutrients in food. But what if this same process applied to the ideas we “consume,” as well?

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that we use so many food-related terms to describe knowledge and learning. We devour good books, absorb instruction – even refer to some collections of information as “digests.”

But what if we consider these figures of speech as more than figurative language?

Richard Dawkins famously described the behavior of ideas as being similar to that of viruses. His meme theory is now a well-known one, with its usage among the interwebbers as common as the food-related colloquialisms that came before it.

But what if the reason why ideas function like viruses is more than simply metaphor?


Most nutritionists tell us that our sense of taste was one of our first defense mechanisms. Foods that were harmful to us tasted bitter or sour. Foods that were beneficial tasted sweet and savory. And foods with a good mineral balance tasted appropriately salty.

When we ingested foods that tasted good, we survived. When the foods tasted bad, it was a sign of trouble. To assist our sense of taste, our sense of sight and smell developed, recognizing sustaining food as beautiful and poison as rancid.

What if the same were true for ideas? What if our sensory system is set up to warn us about good and bad ideas in much the same way it warns us about good and bad food?


So what is an idea? Is it an ephemeral mist…a supernatural vapor that swirls around our physical form? Or are ideas of the same physical world that the rest of our bodies occupy?

To suggest that ideas are supernatural would, of course, place the burden of proof on whomever proposes that claim. Our default position must be then that everything is a part of the physical world, ideas included (until demonstrated differently). As such, what might this imply? (Scientists like Susan Blackmore, link below, can share some of the more adventurous theories on memes.)

At the very least, a naturalistic viewpoint implies that an idea is as physical a part of someone’s body as the blood vessels that traverse it.

Now consider the implications of this position.

If an idea is a physical part of a person, and we attack that idea with a competing one, what is the consequence? Might we not we inflict as much pain as a zealot wielding a sword as we do when slashing into the ideas of another? And as significantly, what might be a more effective (and more compassionate) strategy for shaping someone else’s “position”?


One conclusion might be that we can apply what we know about nutrition to persuasion. As Mary Poppins sang, “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” In other words, we cannot expect someone to absorb our ideas if the ideas can’t get past the person’s natural aversion to bitterness and sourness.

People like John Stewart, while superficial in their sound-bite arguments, do achieve a high degree of ingestion of their ideas in others. Later, these ideas can be digested and then, potentially absorbed, at a molecular level in the new host.

If we want to replace that newly formed appendage, our ideas – and the strategies for replicating them – must follow the same path. We must approach debate in much the same way as we would approach feeding someone a new dish.

The brain seeks to ingest that which it finds attractive. To reach the brain of another, we must first get past their gatekeeper of the beautiful. The senses.

Uniform stupidity, Olympic edition

In the course of human events, the choice of headgear for American Olympians is of little consequence. But I confess to a bewildered fascination with the conversation.

Depending upon which news network is programmed into your TV remote’s favorites, there seems to be a few main narratives:



Narrative one: the conservatives

The foreign-made berets are clearly a sign of the socialistic apocalypse being wrought by the new collectivists marching us toward the Left




Narrative two: the liberals

The berets are clearly sign of the increasing worship of the military-industrial complex forcing us toward the Right




Narrative three: the opportunists

The “made in China” uniforms are clearly a slap in the face to the robust American garment industry





Narrative four: the anti-Europeans

“Berets? Berets? That’s what them cheese-eating surrender monkey frogs wear. ‘Murica!”





To this (as my friend Paul often says) “rich tapestry” I humbly offer one more possibility:

Socialist, militarized, freedom-hating, hipster kitties.

‘Nuff said.

Chief Justice Javert?

les-miserablesThe ghost of Jean Valjean spoke to me tonight about the recent SCOTUS decision regarding the Affordable Care Act. Though I must confess that the encounter didn’t take place between the pages of Hugo’s masterpiece.

I was (ahem) watching Family Guy.

But despite the less-than-lofty setting, Jean Valjean did make an appearance, of sorts.

The episode I reference here is entitled “Thanksgiving.” In it, one of the character’s children (Joe Swanson’s son, Kevin) shocks his parents and a house full of guests by showing up for Thanksgiving dinner – a nifty trick for someone who was killed in Iraq five years earlier.

Kevin’s initial story was that he was, in fact, in a coma for the past five years and the Army had mistakenly reported his death. But later in the episode, we learn the that Kevin actually deserted his post and has been AWOL ever since. This was a considerably awkward admission for Kevin’s father, the uber-macho, ultra-idealistic police officer, who promptly puts the handcuffs on his son, ready to return him to the military to answer for his crime.

But before the father can take his son to the authorities, Kevin explains why he walked away from the war. It was because of something his father said, and did, many years earlier.

Kevin tells the story about an incident he witnessed while accompanying his father on the job. In the flashback, we learn that the gruff “by-the-book” father had once allowed a shoplifter to go free. The shoplifter had stolen a can of soup to feed his children. He was a thief. He was doing the wrong thing. But for the right reasons. The father recognized this and let the man go.

Watching the story unfold, it dawned on me that Kevin was simply a pastiche of Jean Valjean. But he wasn’t really talking about the war. At least, not to me.

While Kevin spoke, I heard Jean Valjean speak about the ACA and the mandate/tax. He spoke about how the act violates the spirit (and, perhaps, even the letter) of Constitutional law. And he admitted that the act was, most likely, theft.

In that admission, I realized that Jean Valjean may not be so different from the impoverished mother who votes to take from others so that her children will have greater access to medical care. Yes, she is a thief, just as if she stole a loaf of bread or a can of soup. But are we ready to place her in irons for it (or take back her ill-gotten gains)?

Seemingly, Chief Justice Javert Roberts was not.les miserables



Why Roberts is Right

It is tempting for libertarians to join the echo chamber of conservatives by deriding the majority opinion in the recent Obamacare case. It would be emotionally satisfying, I suspect, to focus one’s outrage at Justice Roberts, and brand him a traitor to liberty; the one responsible for dropping his rifle and running in the face of liberty’s enemies. He capitulated to the statists and sold us all out. Feels good, doesn’t it? We do love our boogie men.

But if you think that, you do the cause of liberty a great disservice. To be sure, my first reaction was probably quite similar to that. The supreme court of the land had just sided with the people’s representatives in saying that, in what is marketed as the land of liberty– the beacon of freedom in the world–I, as a free man, can be compelled to buy things. Not just things, mind you. But things pleasing to the ruling party. I felt as if someone had just kicked me in the stomach.

So the first reaction is to blame Kagan. Any fair-minded person concludes she should have recused herself. Had she done the right thing…

Then, we blame Roberts. He’s no conservative. He sold us out. Etc.

And let’s not forget how we got here. The legislative shenanigans and outright fraud that stuck a thumb in the eye of legitimacy and walked over the Constitution to produce a 2400 (!!) page document so opaque and convoluted that it cannot be called a law. It’s similarity to law stops at the fact that my failure to comply with it ends me up in jail.

It should never have happened. Our system is designed to prevent exactly this sort of thing from happening. Through checks, balances, federalism and elections (hello, Scott Brown?) somewhere along the circuitous path and Constitutional minefield that ultimately allows our system to produce a state powerful enough to compel me to surrender my life’s choices to a commissar, someone will do the right thing, won’t they? The truth is, we shouldn’t even be here. But here we are.

So, surely the Court will save us. If no one else will do the right thing, surely the Court will. The final backstop of liberty and Constitutionalism will make it right. But it didn’t. The system had failed.

And then I read the majority opinion. As I read, slowly, sadly I came to the unhappy–no, the infuriating–conclusion that Chief Justice Roberts is correct. And we should be ashamed.

Hopefully, you too have read the case, but if you have not, understand first that the so-called individual mandate was indeed struck down. The majority of the court held the obvious opinion that the commerce clause cannot be used to compel commercial activity. Roberts joined the majority in one very narrow thing– that, although the commerce clause cannot be used to compel activity, the Congress has a taxing authority which allows it to tax anything, and thereby arrive at pretty much the same place as a mandate. He reasoned that although Congress does not have the power to compel you to buy health insurance, it can tax you if you don’t. So, the government can’t make you eat your vegetables, but it can tax you if you don’t. It’s outrageous, that’s true. But Judge Roberts is not inventing a power. He is not making us serfs. He is merely explaining to us that we already are.

Consider. In the last century, we developed an enduring comfort with using the tax code to effect behavior. We do it all the time. We tax cigarettes because they are bad–so-called sin taxes. And no one bats an eye. We give mortgage deductions to people who buy homes, but not to renters. And we accept that. We give tax deductions to people with kids. We have a “gas guzzler tax” a “luxury tax” a progressive income tax, inheritance tax, Capitol gains tax…. In all these cases, we impose taxes to effect behavior, reward the groups and activities we like and penalize the ones we don’t. We have a volumunous tax code that employs a lucrative industry that has, as its stated purpose, the goal of shaping behavior to make it pleasing to the authorities. Oh, right…and we also use taxes to raise money to run the government. But that has become almost secondary.

We have allowed this to happen because at each step of the process both major political parties agree with the fundamental idea that the government is an appropriate vehicle for supplanting personal choice. The left and right only disagree over how to use it, not whether it should be used that way. To the conservative reader drawing breath to proclaim your love for freedom–you accepted the premise that the tax code is a good vehicle for social engineering when you accepted the child tax credit, the progressive income tax, the sin taxes (I could go on). Please spare us your lame protestations now. The right will never overcome the left’s march toward collectivism as long as it accepts the fundamental premise upon which it rests. And to the leftist reader–(if you are even still reading) you have long ago abandoned any pretense to the idea of personal liberty, so I won’t bore the reader with recounting your transgressions against the concepts of liberty and limited government. The Founding Fathers understood that the power of the state is the single most dangerous threat to the liberty of the individual. And yet both major political powers are willing to cede more and more power to the state to achieve their narrow political ends, all the while oblivious to the larger danger ahead. This case exposes the myth of the right/left dichotomy.

There is some evidence that Judge Roberts was in a slim majority that was ready to strike down the entire law. Whether or not that’s true, Roberts’ was presented the question “am I a serf” and he replied, “yes, and don’t look to me to remedy it, for this was your political choice.” Tough love. Hating him for that is akin to a child hating a parent who won’t pay his credit card bill. This is not Roberts’ doing. At the end of it all, this is not even Obama’s doing. This is our doing. We have no one to blame but ourselves. We have allowed the political discussion in this country to slip so far that explaining the concept of limited government and personal freedom to fellow citizens is like explaining it to someone from the 12th century. Even now the response from those professing to love freedom ignores firsts principles and frames the whole affair as a political struggle against “the left”. “Obama lied and the economy died” might feel good and will undoubted raise money for the political classes, but such cliches are vacuous…and largely beside the point.

And while Romney might help for a while, he won’t change that. He’s fighting a political brush fire; this is an epochal, planetary war.

The truth is, a country as great as the United States should never have found itself here. We have accepted the premise of collectivism and allowed our legal and political systems to view the individual as a means to the ends of the politically powerful. We have given dictatorial powers to our government through the tax code, and made the IRS the President’s internal army. The only thing Judge Roberts did is make us own up to it. The question is not “how could Roberts have defected to the left and allowed the government to have such power ?”. The question is “how could we have allowed the government to have such power?”.

Justice Roberts may well go down in history as the dad who refused to be our enabler and allow us to escape the consequences of our bad decisions. He forced us to confront the enemy. And the enemy is us.

We have a lot of work to do.