Monday, March 24, 2014

NSA and the Matter of Truths, Lies and Exaggerations

In a few days I will be hosting a discussion for the Boston Area Philosophy Discussions group called Ethical Empowerment: Reflections on the NSA Scandal and so I got to thinking about what I really think about this fascinating mess. And I rather quickly formed a view about the truths that the scandal has highlighted, but also about the lies and distortions and/or exaggerations that come from both sides. Here are two indisputable truths: The vast majority of Americans care deeply about their personal liberties and among these are rights to privacy and the freedom to use the telephone or to transmit messages without Big Brother or, perhaps, a government—and perhaps this means any government, that is a Big Brother wannabe. Lord Acton was certainly correct when he said that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Truth #1: privacy is a huge concern.

However, the other indisputable truth is that the right to privacy can be trumped when the threat to national security is such that it undermines our survival or poses a legitimate threat to the well being of the nation or its citizens. But what is the criteria for weighing threats to national security? It seems to me that if it were not for the outrageous lies and fabrications perpetrated by the U.S. government or its spokespersons, then we would not see the rampant mistrust of the government that we have today. If we trusted the government, then when it states that something is being done for reasons of national security we could at least believe it. Unfortunately, however, "national security" has been bandied about so freely and has become so inflated that it no longer holds any currency. Some files relating to the JFK assassination are still marked top secret or documents that are released are blacked out; Kennedy was murdered over 50 years ago and if there is anything about it that is still kept from the public because of "national security" it is a bald faced lie and a transparent absurdity; yet, many people buy it. When it comes to claims about "national security" we should perhaps always question whether the need for secrecy is more CYA than CIA, i.e. someone's ass needs protection. Truth #2: national security is a legitimate concern; it too is hugely important. But an equally large concern is the power lust that all too easily affixes the label of "national security in such a manner that our national security is—ironically, unduly compromised.

My simple point here is that privacy and national security, clearly, are both extremely important issues that most Americans care about deeply. But exaggerating or distorting the truth is the best means of sabotaging both values. The national security freaks who, it would seem, care little about liberty other than in terms of strong military posture do much harm—as we have seen with devastating effect in the lies, misinformation or exaggeration over Saddam Hussein's alleged stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. And so national security was fed and stoked until the truth no longer mattered. And the same—actually much worse in terms of the pure number of those maimed and killed, can be said about American involvement in the Vietnam War.

But there are, as is almost always the case, two sides to a controversy. It is also possible to exaggerate the claim that the government exaggerates the need for national security in many cases. From my perspective, it seems to me that a defense of what the NSA was doing with respect to its electronic surveillance on American citizens can only be done with great exaggeration and hyperbole. The phenomenon of seeing George Orwell's 1984 flying off the shelves is a beautiful statement of the lasting function of a great philosophical novel. Before we descend along the ever-widening path of surrendering our liberties we had better check over-exaggeration and scare tactics, as they can truly be our greatest threat. But I am reminded of the criticisms that some people have concerning outdoor cameras on busy streets. I do not understand or feel any sacrifice of my freedom if in a public place cameras watch so that a rapist or a Marathon bomber might be caught. In our complicated and dangerous world, I wish that those who protest the loss of privacy in innocuous circumstances, when it is done to protect the public without any real and genuine loss of freedom, would just get real for once. In reality, the cameras are a great advance of freedom because improvements in the safety and well being of the public are surely an investment made on behalf of liberty that is paid with an insignificant token of privacy.                                                                                  

Monday, February 3, 2014

Real v. Fictional Heroes

Fictional heroes are extremely important. But they may teach us more about the aspirations of life than its limitations. And both are necessary for the achievement of true greatness. Nietzsche's Ubermensch or Rand's John Galt are wonderful fictional heroes, but they would both generally flop in non-fictional reality. But there are exceptions.

It is something of a paradox that we are inspired by fictional heroes whose actions would be unacceptable in real life. But it is a difficult call. Nelson Mandela was a true hero, as was Martin Luther King and others who risked imprisonment and/or death in order to further the empowerment of their people. In the cases of Mandela and King, the social system that they fought against was morally bankrupt and corrupt to is core and nothing other than defiance to existing political corruption and social decadence could elevate themselves to what history demanded of them; they accepted the challenge and it is a much better world today because for there sacrifices. But not all heroism can operate on this model.

More typically, heroism is a quieter internal struggle to achieve what one believes that s/he must achieve even when it is contrary to convention, the easier path, or the more profitable one. And, of course, heroism can sometimes entail personal risk against the powers that be. The cases of which I am thinking do not necessarily put the hero up against the legalized corruption and moral bankruptcy in which King and Mandela found themselves, but nonetheless power interests within the social framework—political, corporate, cultural etc.—tip the odds against them as much as in the gross injustices of, say, a legally sanctioned racist social structure.

Heroism and greatness can often require knowing when to bend or break the rules and when to stay put and accept them while enduring a struggle to change them. Nietzsche's so-called noble or master morality can be faulted because it provides no sort of dependable foundation to help negotiate the curves and the conundrums of ethical decision. Clearly this is true of the John Galt character as well. And it is also true of other heroes of forms of ideology or religion whose struggle is ultimately one of trying to force submission to an ideology they "know" is right or true. But in my mind, the most commonly needed form of heroic courage is the courage or fearlessness to question what we somehow know we are supposed not to question.

This post is a reflection on the Boston Area Philosophy Discussion meeting of 08/24/2012 entitled, "Of God, Gods and Goddesses." I have meandered in a different direction here, but the closing of my introductory remarks for that meeting is relevant here as well, I think, when it is subjected to some circumspection concerning questions of who we are and who we want to become that are always in vogue in the eyes and the spirit of the examined life. I wrote that, "Who and what do we want to become? That question sums up the topic for discussion. Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, the Greek and Roman gods and other mythologies, the primary aspirations of ethics, Utopian ideals and finally, the possibilities of science all enter into the conversation. But most certainly, the question of who we want to become also implies the question, “Who do we want not to become?” And perhaps that is the more fundamental question."                                                                                  

Boston Area Philosophy Discussions

Since 2009 I have organized and moderated the Boston Area Philosophy Discussions meetup group. Of the sixty-seven meetings that have occurred the great majority of topics were prompted during the process of gestation and then of writing my book, Ethical Empowerment: Virtue Beyond the Paradigms. And since the book has come out as an eBook last year (this year will see it in print) the discussions have mostly been tied to specific sections of the book. And so it occurred to me that I go over some of the topics and rewrite and modify some of my introductions that are posted for each meeting for inclusion in this blog. When the postings that follow are topically connected to meetings of the discussions group it will be indicated by a link to the Boston Area Philosophy Discussions site so that the reader can take a look if s/he desires.                                                                                  

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Agreement in Spirit Amid the Plenitude of Philosophies

Commonalities and shared views may be found in broadly disparate and incongruent philosophies even when generally viewed as oppositional and in conflict. I have held this view for many years and, in particular, I have long believed that there are areas of complementarity between libertarianism and socialism. It is much the same, I think, with Ayn Rand and her philosophical opponents.

Rand sought to thoroughly disassociate herself from libertarianism, but while there are certainly disagreements especially in the area of foreign policy, it is undeniable that both libertarianism and Rand's "Objectivism" have essentially the same views when it comes to their advocacy of free markets and small or tiny government. And the arguments and dislike between Randians and libertarians exemplify the theme that I express here, that differences of opinion when embedded in ideological constructs not only obscure the commonality of shared views, but partisanship motivates and stimulates strident efforts to emphasize differences and deny similarities even if it takes backward summersaults to do so. In reality, shared principles and values are just that: shared. The relationships between Republicans and Democrats and Liberals and Conservatives, as well, have similar commonalities that each side prefers to hide and to focus instead on what divides them.

I have digressed a bit from the principal point that I wish to make. I am no supporter of Ayn Rand, Objectivism or, for that matter, libertarianism. But these philosophies have, among other things, a wonderful spirit of freedom and rugged individualism that can only be admired. I read Rand's Atlas Shrugged about seven or eight years ago and from the standpoint of its political philosophy and practical policy implications I consider the book to be little more than a cartoon. Nonetheless, I love the novel not only because the novel was the fastest 1000 page-turner of a book that I have ever read, but because the nobility of spirit is something everyone should admire and applaud. Even if you are a socialist or border on communistic ideas you are going to want your brethren to be individually tough, self-motivated and capable of fighting for his or her principles. Okay, perhaps if your philosophy is entirely one of conformism and dedicated to avoidance at all cost of rocking the boat then you would be an exception. But isn't that, if is the case, nothing less than a picture of cowardice? It doesn't matter what your view is in this sense; if someone is not willing to confront the powers that be when reason and duty demands it then s/he succumbs to weakness and, yes, cowardice. But the philosophy of the herd is not much of a philosophy.

The thought of writing this piece came last night after I watched the movie version of Atlas Shrugged: Part I (2011). The reviews of the film were overall unfavorable but I don't agree. I liked the swagger of the Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden characters, played by Taylor Schilling and Grant Bowler, respectively. And the cartoonish and hugely oversimplified political themes worked in the film's favor as it does in the novel. Rand wanted to portray heroism on behalf of her philosophy (or ideology). But whatever your views on the economic and political aspects of Rand's philosophy, you can share in the celebration of heroism. And if we can come to appreciate virtues even when we disagree with the particular views of the heroes in works of fiction, then it might just be possible to appreciate aspects of the philosophy that we can embrace even if we need to do some cherry picking to do so. After all, any broad philosophy or ideology is almost guaranteed to be false in many respects because the complexity of the world never fits into neatly into dogmatic rigidities. But I love the spirit of freedom conveyed in Atlas Shrugged even if I may simultaneously ridicule its rigid economic and political principles.                                                                                  

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Thought Patterns

I happened to visit the Brickbottom Open Studios annual event in Somerville, MA recently (Sunday 11/24) and I dropped by the studio of a brilliant artist, Josh Wisdumb Spivack. I wasn't there for too long, but his work is stunning...almost, seemingly a living representation of mental states on paper or other medium. And then I picked up this postcard that he left on a table as a gift to visitors and on which is printed these words:

"Visualize yourself in a sphere of intricate thought constantly creating something out of nothing. Everything is connected through the rhythm of creativity. Think to the point where visual thoughts became the art. Drawing, painting, and sculpting reflect life as inspiration. When I put pen to paper or brush to canvas ideas explode...balancing my existence, connecting the motion of ideas." -- Josh Wisdumb Spivack 

"Everything is connected through the rhythm of creativity. Think to the point where visual thoughts became the art." Isn't this the code of all creativity? I think that this is why art is so inspirational, because it somehow codifies the secrets of escapement from the limitations of "normal" consciousness. We are stuck in our "reality" replete with limitations that seem intractable; reality seems immovable with people, opinions, circumstances of having and having not when suddenly, from nowhere a solution or a novel perspective emerges. I always find the experience amazing when a problem I am wrestling with suddenly vanishes with the flash of an idea. In fact, it happened to me only a couple of hours ago, struggling to find a solution and then, suddenly, with a gentle shift of focus, all was well, and reality—at least for now, seems to be my friend.

I related to Spivack's words, I think, because of the never-ending need for inspiration to escape the mundanity—or worse, that can stifle or plague human existence. And I refer to the mundanity of both our individual and collective existence. We become locked into our existing habits, beliefs, institutions and paradigms in a sort of intellectual paralysis that tells us or lies to us that this is the way that it is and it will never change. But we have just witnessed the accolades for Nelson Mandela in the wake of his death; he would not accept the atrocity of apartheid and against all odds he and his people prevailed. Tired old explanations can at times have nothing more going on other than that they are old and that their constant repetition tires the mind to accept what need not be accepted.

The artists' mentality is a virtue that some philosophers have recognized, Nietzsche most clearly comes to mind. However, there are other streams of philosophical thought that would discount art because art is, after all, only art! But the truth is that the best philosophy is also art, and that the greatest value of both art and philosophy may be that of inventing or discovering new perspectives. "Thoughts become art." But it also follows that on a sublime plane art is thought.

You can visit Josh Wisdumb Spivack's website at                                                                                  

Saturday, November 30, 2013


The typical American knee-jerk condemnation of single-payer systems for the delivery of healthcare care, i.e. the socialization of healthcare is a crystal clear example of knee-jerk, i.e. non-thinking. The knee-jerk response is likely in many cases to reflect the type of "thinking" that loves to proclaim that the American healthcare system is "the best in the world." And repeating "America is s the best country in the world" ad nauseam is a mantra the origins of which I am quite curious. I don't believe that the slogan was commonplace in the 1950s although I am not sure. I suspect the origins of the braggartism may have been a collateral outgrowth of the Vietnam War and other follies in which some Americans have felt forced to justify the needless sacrifice of human life—while other Western democracies stand aside relatively unscathed. Thus, of course, the cost of American blood was worth it because, after all, "America is the greatest country in the world!"

Don't get me wrong, I love America too. But arguing that all things American are better than that had by any other country is patent nonsense and unflattering jingoism. Acknowledging that China may have a competitive advantage in their space program because they don't have to deal with democratic resistance to policy does not constitute an endorsement of the Communistic dictatorship even if we acknowledge their edge. Regardless, hardly any American would trade his liberty in return for getting back to the moon first! Dear  Americans, self-proclaiming ourselves as the best in everything is arrogant and, thereby, self-diminishing. And America is far from being best when it comes to the delivery of affordable and effective healthcare. A key ingredient to greatness is an ability to deal with hard facts, and then use them to achieve a positive outcome.

Some parameters of the healthcare problem are nicely spelled out by Todd Hixon in "Why Are U.S. Health Care Costs So High?" in a 3/01/2012 article. Hixon reports that various, highly credible analyses conclude that the cost of American healthcare is about twice that of "peer countries" such as Japan and the U.K. One of the largest disparities is the dramatically higher earnings of medical specialists in the U.S (three to six times higher). And the use of specialists in the U.S. vis–à–vis primary care doctors is also much higher than in other countries.Yet, the outcome in quality when measured in terms of longevity is about the same. I decided to do some quick web surfing to see if this claim is supported and it quickly became apparent that, indeed, it is. A University of California, Santa Cruz website shows that, based on figures for the year 2000, despite its enormous lead in per capita healthcare spending the United States ranked 27th in the world in longevity. Cuba, which ranked 28th, spent $186 per capita while the U.S. spent $4,500 (no, this is not a misprint). []  Consistent with this perspective, the online Wall Street Journal's Market Watch site reports that, "However counterintuitive, spending more on health care does not result in better health outcomes. Of [the] top 10 nations with the highest health expenditure per capita, only three are in the top 10 for life expectancy." [].

These trends indicate that the primary drive for higher prices is not the quality of healthcare but the desire for profit. Some self-examination by the American psyche reveals, fairly easily, that while many sectors of the economy operate on purely capitalistic principles of charging what the market can bear, the practice does not always hold up and is not justifiable in all areas of economic activity. This mentality is wrecking the American healthcare system and it is also wrecking its system of higher education. I would put the "justice" system in the same boat because the purchase of justice just ain't justice. There is no persuasive reason for why a single-payer system—the government, cannot efficiently administer the healthcare system. A culture that cultivates an ombudsman mentality and internal competition can succeed in areas of economic activity that have little use for profit. It is anathema to suggest that a surgeon might recommend surgery because of undue influence by the opportunity for profit. Take your head out of the sand! And Big Pharma brings to mind a caduceus with the dollar sign superimposed on it. But this is a subject for a future posting.