Is faith essential – even if you don’t believe in the supernatural?

The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.
The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind covers an enormous range of topics in 400 plus pages. But one (of many) ideas that got me thinking is his claim that we all believe in things that aren’t objectively real.


Money is a cultural myth.


Take money. Why do we think a green piece of paper is so valuable? By itself it has no practical use (though you can exchange it for things, such as food, that do have a practical use). A dollar is backed by the United States of America, and that’s good enough for us.

But why do we trust the US government? It’s faith.

On page 117 Harari writes that “an objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs.” The subjective is dependent on the “beliefs of a single individual.” But the inter-subjective “exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.”

Money is inter-subjective. It’s a cultural myth.

We as a society believe that a little green piece of paper is valuable. But if society lost faith in the backing of the United States then the dollar would become worthless overnight.

Not so with an apple. An apple can provide nutrition even if you don’t believe it can.


Human rights don’t exist objectively.


Harari also argues that human rights don’t exist objectively like an apple does. Human rights are a cultural belief, and a relatively new one at that.

But this doesn’t mean that human rights aren’t real. This mythos is real because it serves not only a practical, but an essential, purpose in human societies.

The “cognitive revolution,” as Harari calls it, occurred when humans evolved the ability for abstract thought. Abstract concepts are mental tools just as spears are physical tools. We need to conceptualize our world, and shared concepts are essential for cooperation and cohesion in a society of more than a hundred or two hundred people.

The gods, and later the one God, are also social constructs. Zeus no longer exists because too few people believe in him. But the God of the Bible does still exist (as a human construct rather than an objective reality) because many people do believe in him.

A lot of people see religious diversity (especially atheism) as a threat to social cohesion because diversity and disbelief mean that society loses the uniting mythos of the one true God.


The faith that science will save us is mistaken.


How does this bode for the atheist quest to rid the human race of faith?

From Harari’s point of view, reason also is a human construct with no objective reality. Though reason has been immensely useful as a cognitive tool.

But the belief – the faith – that science will save us is mistaken. On page 253 Harari states that, “All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods.”

One is to “declare that it [a scientific theory] is a final and absolute truth.” The Nazis did this with biological claims, and Communists did it with economic claims.

The other is to reject science in favor of “a non-scientific absolute truth.” This is what evangelicals and Islamic fundamentalists do.

A casual look at the progressive/conservative divide in America today reflects these options. Conservatives deny climate change and want biblical myths taught in science class rather than the theory of evolution. And some progressives (particularly radical left-wing students) insist that their theories about social justice must be believed and not debated.


The 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run.


As such, today’s culture war (like all culture wars) represents a rejection of the established mythos and an attempt to have a new mythos dominate.

The 1960s and ’70s saw the rejection of the 1950s mythos. The 1980s through the early 2000s saw the new mythos’s quest for mainstream acceptance, which was accomplished through cultural relativism. Demanding dominance would have failed, but asking people just to think about the new mythos as one set of beliefs among many gets your foot in the door.

Today we see a demand for ideological dominance among progressive students at private colleges (and some state universities). Where this will go is hard to say.

There are several possibilities. Progressive students might see their mythos dominate within three or four decades. Or, mainstream culture might adopt some ideas that today are considered radical (much like gay marriage was radical twenty years ago) while retaining some traditional ideas. Alternatively, a third as yet undefined mythos could emerge (though that’s highly unlikely).

But the 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run. Donald Trump wants to make America great again, implicitly invoking the 1950s of the Silent Generation’s young adulthood, Baby Boomer’s childhood, and Generations X’s imagination. But even if Trump becomes president the older cohorts that elect him will eventually age out of the political system.

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Go ahead & vote for a third party if you want to. Well, maybe.

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Mt. Blue State Park, Maine

People say that a vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson is really a vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton and/or Trump, depending on which poll you believe, respectively.

Well, no one I know has actually said that. They say a third party vote is really a vote for someone else. But that logic is flawed, as my parody illustrates.

A vote for Gary Johnson is a vote for Gary Johnson, and a vote for Jill Stein is a vote for Jill Stein. It really is that simple.

Of course, what people mean is that a vote for a third party candidate has the effect of electing the ideologically opposite major party candidate.

But they’re forgetting about the Electoral College. I noted before that the United States has always been a two party system because the president is elected by the Electoral College and not by popular vote.

This winner take all system means a third candidate could thwart a majority in the Electoral College, throwing the vote to the House of Representatives where it’s sure to become a cluster fuck.

A third party vote in swing states like Ohio or Florida could affect the national election, if there’s critical mass in that state and if the Electoral College math nationally is close. That did happen in 1992 when Bill Clinton got elected with a minority of the popular vote.

But most states clearly lean Democratic or Republican. Hillary Clinton will not win Texas, and Donald Trump will not win Massachusetts.

There probably aren’t enough Gary Johnson supporters in Texas to give Hillary a victory there. And Massachusetts Green Party voters are unlikely to hand Trump a victory in that state.

So vote the way you want. But with this point of caution: My personal metric (which I’m pulling out of my hat) is that if the major party candidates are less than 10 percentage points apart in your state, and if a third party candidate seems to be getting a lot of attention, then you should think about the possibility that a split vote could elect the worst of two evils.

Something’s Missing From the 2016 Democratic Platform

It’s great to see strong support for women’s rights in the Democracy Party’s platform. Similar support for men’s issues is essential to achieve gender equality.

By Dave DuBay. Read more at the Good Men Project

Baby Boomers and Millennials don’t exist

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Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire

Some say Millennials are really two generations – younger Millennials had different experiences growing up.

And P.J. O’Rourke claims Baby Boomers are made up of four classes.

I know what he means. My father was born in 1946. His youngest brother was born in 1964. Both are Baby Boomers, but they’re not from the same generation.

In today’s fast moving world, people born sixteen to eighteen years apart grew up in different cultural contexts.

Maybe it’s better to talk about cultural cohorts rather than generations. The world of your tween years to early 20s has a far bigger impact on your worldview than any other time in your life.

You’re likely to share a similar cultural context with someone born three or four years before and after you. That’s a six to eight year span. Anymore than that and your cultural context drifts farther apart.

Pop culture makes an early impact. And while politics comes later, pop culture recedes as you get older.

But there’s a big overlap. I didn’t list specific years in the chart below because you might have been ahead or behind the times.

The first column lists when different cohorts were born, when they came of age and formed their worldviews, and the important political and pop culture events of that time. I’m sure I’ve missed many things, but you get the picture.

Born Early/Mid 1920s

Came of Age Before 1945

Great Depression & World War II, Glenn Miller Band, big band
Born Late 1920s to Mid 1930s

Came of Age Mid 1940s to Early 1950s

Early Cold War, nuclear fears, 1950s conformity, TV introduced, Frank Sinatra, I Love Lucy
Born Late 1930s to Mid 1940s

Came of Age Mid 1950s to Early 1960s

Beginning of the Civil Rights movement, early rock n roll, Elvis
Born Late 1940s to Mid 1950s

Came of Age Mid 1960s to Early 1970s

Countercultural revolution, Civil Rights, Vietnam, second wave feminism, early gay rights movement, the Beatles, acid rock, hard rock, The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Born Late 1950s to Mid 1960s

Came of Age Mid 1970s to Early 1980s

Post-Nixon malaise, stagflation, disco, All in the Family
Born Late 1960s to Early 1970s

Came of Age Mid to Late 1980s

Reagan Revolution, culture wars 1.0, AIDS crisis, MTV & HBO, Madonna, Cold War ends
Born Mid 1970s to Early 1980s

Came of Age Early to Mid 1990s

Neoliberalism, third wave feminism, Internet 1.0, grunge rock & hip hop, Seinfeld
Born Mid to Late 1980s

Came of Age Late 1990s to Early 2000s

Tech bubble bursts, 9-11 & fighting 2 wars, Internet 2.0, American Idol & reality TV
Born Early to Mid 1990s

Came of Age Mid 2000s to Early 20-Teens

Continued war, first smartphones, Great Recession, first black president, social media, gay marriage gains ground, Lady Gaga & Katy Perry, Internet TV
Born Late 1990s to Early 2000s

Will come of Age Mid 20-Teens to Early 2020s

TBA: The Donald Trump vs Hillary Clinton presidential race will set the stage

What does this tell us about Americans today?

Look at how the world has changed for people born in the early to mid 20th century! Not just technologically, but culturally as well. Who in 1945 would have believed that gay marriage would be a nationwide thing by 2015?

Older Baby Boomers came of age just before the countercultural revolution. Some of them stuck with the old ways. But younger Baby Boomers were more likely to embrace this shift.

Older members of Generation X developed their political consciousness in the late ’80s after the Reagan Revolution had taken hold. But younger GenXers were more informed by Bill Clinton’s neoliberalism.

Older Millennials distinctly remember 9-11 and graduated from college just as the Great Recession hit. Younger Millennials barely remember 9-11 but do remember how scared adults were. In their experience, the US has always been at war and the economy has always been terrible. That creates a sense of unease and uncertainty.

And what about people born in the first decade of the 21st century?

They’re just starting to come of age. Their first political memories are of a loud and opinionated man who wants to be president, and who promises to bring back the past. (They must be thinking, “What was the past like?”)

His opponent looks like grandma. But adults say they don’t trust her even though she doesn’t say mean things like the other guy does. And most adults seem really mad about the whole thing.

How will their worldview develop and mature? I don’t know. The outcome of the 2016 presidential election will have a lot to do with it.

Why the U.S. has always been a two party system

The winner take all system shuts out third parties.

Why is it so hard for Democrats to win a majority in the House of IMG_0539Representatives, but easier to win the presidency or the Senate?

Why has the United States always been a two party nation?

The winner takes all in presidential and Senate races. But House races are divide and conquer. House races are not statewide, so a candidate from northern California needs to worry rural voters but not San Francisco’s left wing.


The winner takes all in presidential and Senate races. But House races are divide and conquer.


Senators face a statewide election, however. That’s why all California senators are Democrats while 14 of 53 House seats go to California Republicans. And the House is 435 of 535 members of Congress. This gives California Republicans some power.

While the same could theoretically be true for Democrats in Texas, the more consistently conservative makeup of Texas is a bigger obstacle for Democrats in that state. This gives Republicans an advantage in the House of Representatives. 


It’s the Electoral College, not the popular vote, that decides the presidency.


But the presidency is a stranger case. It’s winner take all like the Senate, but with a caveat that even most Americans can’t explain. It’s the Electoral College, not the popular vote, that decides the presidency.

When you vote for the president you’re actually voting for the electors from that state who represent the candidate. The number of electors is the number of senators (always two) plus representatives for that state – 535 total, just like Congress. Alaska has three electors while California has fifty-five.

It’s a given that the Democratic presidential candidate will win all 55 of California’s electoral votes. The Republican candidate will carry all of Texas’s 38 electoral votes.

My home state of Maine, however, can split the electoral votes that correspond to House seats, creating a possible 3 and 1 combination (2 and 2 isn’t possible). Nebraska also allows this. But no election has produced such a result.

A candidate needs 270 out of 535 electoral votes to win the presidency. But there are three issues with this. One is that a candidate could lose the popular vote but win the electoral vote – and the presidency. George W. Bush did it in 2000.

The second is how important Ohio is. I’ve never been there. I’ve heard it’s flat, and there are a lot of corn fields. At any rate, Ohio has 18 electoral votes. But unlike Texas or California, Ohio voters are more evenly split between liberals and conservatives. Those 18 electoral votes are up for grabs. Florida’s 29 electoral votes present a similar situation. What American can forget the “hanging chads” from the 2000 election? 


Two presidential candidates means one will get 270 electoral votes. Three candidates? Uh-oh.


But the most important point is that two presidential candidates means one will get 270 electoral votes.

Three candidates? Uh-oh.

The founding fathers were not morons. They thought of this possibility. But they didn’t want to get too crazy with the whole democracy thing, which is why they contrived the Electoral College in the first place. The fail safe is that a deadlock in the Electoral College throws the vote to the House of Representatives.

Then it really gets heated. Americans have tried it, and weren’t so happy with the results. In 1824 there was a complex race between John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay (remember him?), some guy named Bill Crawford (who?), and John C. Calhoun (who is best remembered for encouraging the Civil War).

Long story short, it was a cluster. Adams promised Clay a job as Secretary of State if he dropped out, and the House elected Adams as president.

Andrew Jackson was mad. He went on to defeat Adams in 1828, and Americans decided not to repeat the debacle (though we’ve forgotten why we always scoff at third party wannabees).


Change is a slogan and we really don’t want it.


Americans keep the Electoral College because change is a slogan and we really don’t want it, amending the constitution is hard, low population states would have less power with a popular vote, and even after the mess in 2000 most American still have no clue anyway.

Parliamentary systems, on the other hand, allow for coalitions. This incentivizes multiple parties – and with it, cooperation and less extremism. The United States isn’t a parliamentary system, but we don’t have to amend the constitution to encourage third parties.


The simplest solution is for all states to split their electoral votes.


The simplest solution to two party dominance is for all states to split their electoral votes. And adding ranked choice voting to the mix might keep the House of Representatives out of it.

Trumbo: A Tangential Movie Review (Of Sorts)

Trumbos been out for a while. I realize that. Somehow I missed it when it was in theaters, so I rented it from Redbox.

Trumbo is based on a true story. I love that. And I love Bryan Cranston, who plays the lead character. I mean, who doesn’t love Bryan Cranston? Weirdos, that’s who.

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Trumbo follows the travails of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted in the late 1940s because he was a communist. He was even sent to prison for contempt of Congress when he refused to answer a question from the House Un-American Activities Committee about his affiliation with the Communist Party USA. The first amendment guarantees freedom of association, but constitutional liberties are a trifle when you’re defending American values.

Dalton Trumbo wrote movie classics such as Roman Holiday and Spartacus. But he wrote the former under a fake name because of the whole blacklist thing. The latter starred Kirk Douglas, who defied the blacklist and let the Trumbo cat out of the bag.

A commie as a hero? That’s sure to make Donald Trump supporters really mad. And communism/Marxism is indeed terrible. Communists are responsible for the deaths tens of millions of people in the 20th century. Joseph Stalin‘s human rights violations far exceeded anything the House Un-American Activities Committee was doing at the time.

But that’s not the point. And none of it excuses the human rights violations and un-American activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee, nor the complete disregard J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI had for basic American liberties.

Which brings me to my point. I think reactionaries and radicals are cut from the same cloth. The biggest difference is that one is right wing and the other is left wing. And in case you’re wondering, I describe myself as a fiscal moderate and civil libertarian.

In my experience, both radicals and reactionaries tend to be dogmatic and intolerant of anyone who has a different viewpoint. Both are prone to human rights violations when they have power. They often fail to realize that no one ever gets everything they want, and so pragmatism and compromise are essential. They frequently have the attitude that you’re either for them or against them. So I’m against them both.

But the thing is, it’s not a crime to be a communist. There’s that whole first amendment thing. If someone actively plots to overthrow the United States government then they’re committed a crime. But the crime isn’t being a communist, or being an Islamist, or being a Dudeist. The crime would be plotting violent acts against the government or civilians.

Except that a Dudeist would never even contemplate that. He’d be like, “All this revolution stuff is, like, fucking with my Zen, man. I’m gonna light up a jay. Who wants to call for pizza?”

Besides, in the United States right wing reactionaries are a much bigger threat than left wing radicals. The US is a conservative country by international standards, and there are way more reactionaries than there are radicals here. Plus, reactionaries tend to come from demographic groups that currently and historically have had far more power than other groups.

Look at it this way: reactionaries like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump actually have a chance of becoming president. But in Europe, Hillary Clinton would be called a moderate. And while Bernie Sanders would be called a liberal, his views are mainstream in many parts of Europe. Besides, Sanders doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of Congress passing his key policy proposals.

And here’s a question: can you name the 2016 Communist Party USA presidential candidate? Anyone? Bueller? Anyone? As far as I can tell, there isn’t one.

Oh, by the way, Trumbo is an enjoyable movie with some really good acting. Especially the part where he’s writing scripts in the bathtub. (I think there were several scenes like that.) Anyway, I highly recommend it.

How the GOP Shot Itself In the Foot

The Republican Party is being hijacked by a bigoted demagogue because the Republican establishment fell asleep at the wheel.

Let’s take a trip back in time when Democrats were more racist than Republicans. Though Barry Goldwater and five other Republican senators voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 21 Democratic senators voted against civil rights.

Goldwater didn’t think government had the right to tell businesses what to do. And though Goldwater opposed the Ku Klux Klan, a lightbulb went off in the KKK’s head. White racists realized that arguments about limited government and states rights generated more public support than explicitly racist arguments did.

The South had been solidly Democratic since the Civil War because it was the Republican Party that defeated the Confederacy, abolished slavery, and were early champions of civil rights legislation. Back then, Republicans were more popular in the North. Still, Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed despite immense opposition from Southern Democrats.

Johnson remarked that the Democratic Party had lost the South. And in the 1968 presidential campaign this was too good of an opportunity for Republican candidate Richard Nixon to pass up. Today, thanks to Nixon’s Southern strategy, Southern whites are predominantly Republican.

But the Republican establishment seemed to think it could get the votes of right wing extremists down South without ceding control of the GOP to them. Meanwhile, Republicans like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and others used the airwaves to spread an extreme right wing message to workers throughout the country who were devastated over the replacement of good paying manufacturing jobs with low paying service and retails jobs.

The Southern strategy also meant courting evangelical Christians. In 1994 Goldwater supposedly said, “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me.”

Soon the racism that had been directed at African-Americans became generalized xenophobia reminiscent of the nativist “Know Nothing” party of the 19th century. Today, Muslims, Mexicans, and women are also major targets.

Donald Trump’s populist presidential campaign is the culmination of this, and it shows that the Republican establishment has lost control of the party. Ronald Reagan belonged to the Republican establishment, though he courted the extreme right. George W. Bush was born into the Republican establishment, but he felt more at home among right wing populists. That is, Bush had a foot in both worlds. But the last two Republican candidates for president (John McCain and Mitt Romney) were establishment Republicans, and both lost badly.

The Republican establishment has run out of steam, but right wing populists are energized.

Still, Trump has received only 37% of Republican primary votes – a plurality, not a majority. In the general election against Hillary Clinton, Trump is anticipated to lose by a similar margin.

Also notable is that Trump’s support is highest among older voters. He has very few supporters under 30. I’ve written before about the Republican Party’s aging and therefore shrinking voter base. It’ll take another 20 or 30 years before today’s 20-somethings are in their voting prime and the older, more conservative voting block is no longer politically significant. Between now and then we can expect more disarray from the GOP as it faces an identity crisis in a changing world.