MS-13 are animals. We all are.

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Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

President Donald Trump called MS-13 gang members “animals.”

E.J. Dionne from the Washington Post disagreed, saying that “It’s never right to call other human beings ‘animals.’”

And writing for the National Review, Dennis Prager responded that Dionne reveals “the moral sickness at the heart of leftism.”

Dionne thinks his position is beyond debate: “No matter how debased the behavior of a given individual or group…dehumanizing others always leads us down a dangerous path.”

Worse, “Dehumanizing those he and his core constituents see as radically different is central to Trump’s project.”

Prager, however, writes that dehumanizing some people actually protects the rest of us. He continues, “By rhetorically reading certain despicable people out of the human race, we elevate the human race. We have declared certain behaviors out of line with being human.”

Prager means human in the moral, not biological sense. Otherwise, what meaning does the word “inhumane” have? Would Dionne not see the Nazis as inhuman?

Prager clarifies that inhumanity should be based on behavior and not “directed at people based on their race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, or any other immutable physical characteristic.”

Dionne deals in absolutes: never and no debate. But the problem with absolutes is a lack of nuance. However, Prager doesn’t add enough nuance to this discussion. He still imputes inhumanity to individuals based on group membership. Certainly joining the Nazi party or MS-13 involves a serious moral compromise. But some Nazis and gang members commit worse atrocities than others.

We have all harmed others. A key question is: At what degree of harm do we lose our moral status as human? And what must we do to gain it back? Too often the answer is self-serving and lacking in self-awareness.

We are all animals. Biologically and morally.

Homo sapiens evolved over millions of years. And like our chimpanzee cousins, we can be vicious. Even bonobos may not deserve their peaceful reputation. And we still carry this evolutionary heritage with us. But we also evolved frontal lobes capable of inhibiting violent behavior—capable even of reason when we are at our best.

We are all animals. But we can do better.

Prager’s statement about the sickness at the heart of leftism highlights the problem. His us-vs.-them attitude seems to assume that progressives are sick and conservatives are morally elevated.

Does Prager recognize that he too is an animal?

The animal within can too easily escape if we fail to admit we too are capable, under certain circumstances, of inhumanity. Those who fail to understand this are in danger of becoming the monster they seek to destroy.

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Feminism and incivility

Incivility is the order of the day. And this incivility finds its roots in moralistic self-righteousness, which leads to a sense of urgency where any means are justified. Such people don’t even realize they’ve abandoned their values. That’s one reason why President Donald Trump’s supporters are willing to excuse anything he does.

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Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

But this phenomenon is not limited to the right. Decades ago second wave feminist and sometime Ms. magazine editor Robin Morgan said, “I feel that ‘man-hating’ is an honorable and viable political act, that the oppressed have a right to class-hatred against the class that is oppressing them.”

Her sense of entitlement is noteworthy. Hatred is not excusable because someone is oppressed. Hatred is self-betrayal of what you say you stand for. And the claim that sweeping and derogatory generalizations about a group of people is not hate if you lack power is a paper thin rationalization.

Feminists today take to Twitter with hashtags like #menaretrash, #maletears, and #masculinitysofragile. They say they’re being ironic, but as I noted earlier this is a passive-aggressive excuse for dehumanizing half the human race.

Yes, there are feminists who oppose sexism in all forms, just as there are conservatives who are true to their beliefs. Double standards, however, are too often the case.

Progressives were outraged when Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted, “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.” But the truth is that he was repeating a feminist meme that said men instead of refugees (and M&Ms instead of skittles). Where was the progressive outrage then?

Worse, Lena Dunham recently called for the extinction of straight white men – a comment that rightly would be labeled fascist had it targeted any other group.

What is feminism?

Conservative columnist George Will left the Republican Party because of Donald Trump. And some feminists have left feminism to pursue more balanced gender equality instead.

Feminism is about women’s self-interest. Usually this means promoting equality, but sometimes it means being anti-equality. For example, the National Organization for Women opposes shared parenting after divorce (but NOW has since deleted the link).

Feminists often don’t see this as a double standard because many of them believe that men arranged society to privilege men at women’s expense. But like most conspiracy theories this doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Throughout most of history men have not been privileged. Ancient kingdoms and empires were tyrannies run by small groups of men. The common man – the overwhelming majority of the male population – was a beast of burden and cannon fodder. The common man did gain rights before women, but the gap between universal male suffrage and universal female suffrage is less than a century.

We’ve yet to have a movement with a comprehensive focus on gender issues. And there might not be anytime soon.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Anger’s Antidote: Getting In Touch With Your Inner Jerk

A recent discussion about Donald Trump’s hair (which fascinates me because it seems to defy the laws of physics and fashion) led to something more serious: there’s a lot of anger out there, which is maybe why Trump’s popularity increases when he says bigoted things about Mexicans, women, and others.

Anger is nothing new. But certain situations seem to draw it out. My mother asked me, Why are some people so angry when they’re driving, honking and flipping the bird? But when they’re walking down the street they seem friendly?

Perhaps it’s the question du jour. Not long after our discussion, Hank Garfield wrote an op-ed for the Bangor Daily News asking why there’s no pedestrian road rage. Hank’s conclusion:

The inside of a car straddles the line between public and private space; we’re on our best behavior in one but not the other. When you’re stuck in a traffic jam, you’re stuck, unlike pedestrians and cyclists, who can simply go around; impotence leads to frustration. Drivers can’t directly communicate with each other beyond easily misconstrued gestures; it’s easier to apologize or express good will face-to-face and on foot. Driving is stressful; walking releases stress. And so on.

In brief, it’s the lack of direct human contact when we’re in a car.

Thing is, we’re not as moral as we think. The self-serving bias is well documented, and apparently intractable. Morality is about how we treat others, and it’s socially enforced. In isolation (in a car, online, etc.) there’s no accountability, and our inner jerk has a greater opportunity to make an appearance.

And there’s more bad news. Anger spreads faster than anything else. A lot faster than joy, which takes a distant second place.

Why? It is because anger is a negative emotion? Sadness isn’t so popular, so that can’t be it. But anger is intense and energizing, unlike a downer like sadness. But joy also is intense and energizing, so why would joy fall so far behind?

In The Happiness Hypothesis Jonathan Haidt points to evolution. The consequences of finding food aren’t as significant as missing a predator. You can find more food, but if you’re dead you are food. Haidt cites research which finds that it takes five good things to outweigh one bad thing.

Humans no longer live in our evolutionary environment. We have few natural predators, and those that exist (such as bears and lions) are not an everyday concern. But being stuck in traffic, immobilized with no options, still triggers an unconscious fear.

Haidt writes:

Research shows that when we are under extreme time pressure, we are more likely to behave unethically. When we operate in isolation, we are more likely to break rules. When incentives are very steep (we get a big reward if we reach a goal, but much less if we don’t), we are more likely to try to achieve them by hook or by crook.

Plato’s story of the Ring of Gyges (from the Republic) is a great metaphor. Do people really value goodness, or merely the appearance of goodness? What if you had a magic ring that made you invisible? Would you use it like a superhero to defend the innocent? Or would the lack of accountability corrupt your best intentions until you became a totally selfish asshole?

Plato’s musings helped inspire J.R.R. Tolkein to write The Lord of the Rings. A wicked long answer to Plato’s questions. But such a fun answer!

The Internet is the Ring of Gyges, the one ring to rule them all. Another interesting study found that after five days offline, teenagers’ emotional awareness notably improved. Maintaining niceness requires social interactions with immediate emotional feedback from others.

Anonymous, invisible, and unaccountable on the Internet, it’s surprising that there aren’t more trolls out there. When I see an anonymous person kindly disagreeing with someone online I think, there’s a person of character.

A while back a friend told me about a book called Radical Honesty. AJ Jacobs interviewed its author, Brad Blanton, for Esquire. Blanton told Jacobs that “I appreciate you for apparently having a real interest and hope you’re not just doing a cutesy little superficial dipshit job like most journalists.”

Jacobs, of course, did a superficial dipshit job. He missed Blanton’s central point: radical honesty starts with admitting to ourselves all the stuff that we try so hard to deny. In contrast, being blunt with others without being blunt with ourselves just makes us bigger assholes.

So that’s one (though certainly not the only) antidote to anger: getting in touch with your inner jerk. Or as atheist Jonathan Haidt (channeling Jesus) more tactfully puts it, focusing on the beam in your eye and not the speck in your neighbor’s.

This doesn’t mean being down on yourself. That’s just a passive-aggressive gambit for attention. Granted, you’re not better than the average person. On the other hand, you’re no worse than the average person either.