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Defining reality

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Very interesting review by Thomas Nagel in the NY Review of Books:

The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy
by Anthony Gottlieb
Liveright, 293 pp., $28.95

It is fascinating to learn about the concrete historical circumstances under which great philosophical works—works that have become timeless classics—were produced, and about the relation to their own times of the extraordinary individuals who produced them. For those with limited firsthand knowledge of the works this biographical approach can serve as an accessible introduction or reintroduction to the thought of some of the most important creators of our intellectual world. Anthony Gottlieb, a former executive editor of The Economist who is not a philosopher but a philosophical fellow traveler, is writing just such a history of the entire course of Western philosophy. The first volume, The Dream of Reason (2000),* took the story from ancient Greece to the Renaissance. The second volume, The Dream of Enlightenment, ends in the eighteenth century; a third volume will take us from Kant to the present day.

Gottlieb concentrates most of his discussion on six philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries whose stature and influence are especially great—Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, and Hume—along with shorter treatments of Bayle, Voltaire, and Rousseau, and brief comments on many other figures. Here is what he says at the outset:

It is because they still have something to say to us that we can easily get these philosophers wrong. It is tempting to think that they speak our language and live in our world. But to understand them properly, we must step back into their shoes. That is what this book tries to do.

Gottlieb exaggerates the intellectual distance of these figures from us: it isn’t that they speak our language, but that we speak their language, because our world has been significantly formed by them. And he does not always succeed in stepping back into their shoes, which in the case of a great philosopher means understanding his thoughts from the inside, as well as in relation to his historical milieu. Nevertheless Gottlieb’s biographical narrative is vivid and often illuminating. Most important, he emphasizes throughout that these men lived in a historical period dominated by dramatic developments and conflicts in three areas—science, religion, and politics—and that their thoughts and writings were dominated by the need to respond to those developments, and to understand the relations among them.

First, there was the scientific revolution, which introduced a new way of understanding the physical world through universal laws, mathematically formulated, that govern everything that happens in space and time. Although knowledge of those laws is based on observation and experiment, the reality they describe is not directly available to human perception, but can be known only by theoretical inference. Two of Gottlieb’s thinkers, Descartes and Leibniz, were major contributors to the mathematical sciences—Descartes through the creation of analytic geometry (hence the term “Cartesian coordinates”) and Leibniz through the invention of the calculus (which was created independently by Newton). Descartes also produced theories of mechanics, optics, and physiology, Leibniz made significant contributions to dynamics, and Spinoza worked in optics and conducted experiments in hydrodynamics and metallurgy. But all six grappled with the question of how the austere physical reality revealed by the new science is related to the familiar world that we perceive—and to our minds, in which both perception and scientific reasoning take place.

Second, after the Reformation and the terrible wars of religion it had become clear that the plurality of religious beliefs in Christendom was not going to disappear. This posed questions both about the grounds for religious belief and about how governments should choose between imposing a single orthodoxy and tolerating diversity. In addition, each of these philosophers had to be concerned about the relation of his own work to the religious orthodoxy of his community, and about the dangers of ostracism, repression, or persecution. Descartes was deterred by the condemnation of Galileo from publishing his cosmological theories, and Spinoza was excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam.

Third, the basis of legitimate political authority was coming seriously into question, with skepticism about the divine right of kings and support for the right of subjects to overthrow a ruler who abused his power. This was not just theoretical: it took concrete form in the English civil war that culminated with the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the Glorious Revolution that replaced James II with William of Orange in 1688. Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, and Rousseau all produced theories of political authority starting from the subject’s rather than the ruler’s point of view.

The metaphysical and epistemological problems that arose out of the scientific revolution are particularly difficult and abstract, and the responses of these thinkers are among the most formidable structures that philosophy has produced. They were concerned, as philosophers have always been, to understand the nature of reality in the broadest sense: what kinds of things and facts ultimately constitute everything there is. They were also concerned with whether we humans have the capacity to discover the answers to those questions, and if not, what limits to our knowledge are imposed by our finite human faculties. The advances of the scientific revolution gave these problems a new form.

Given how much he has to cover, Gottlieb does a pretty good job of summarizing the complex speculative responses of his philosophers. They are contributions to a collective intellectual inquiry that has continued ever since, and their value lies in working out some of the main alternative possibilities for making the most general sense of reality. Others can then explore, refine, and elaborate those proposals, and attempt to refute or defend them, or at least to evaluate their relative plausibility. I will confine myself—with apologies for the capsule presentation—to one metaphysical example, the mind–body problem, which grew directly out of the scientific revolution and is very much still with us.

The problem arose because the new mathematical conception of physical reality dehumanized it. Among other things, that conception left out all the rich qualitative aspects, such as color, smell, taste, and sound, with which the world appears to our senses. These so-called “secondary” qualities were interpreted as effects on our minds, as opposed to the geometrically describable so-called “primary” qualities like shape, size, and motion, which are features of the physical world as it is in itself, independent of our minds.

The question was: How complete an account of the nature of reality could the new physical science in principle provide? Do our minds necessarily escape its reach, even if our bodies are part of the physical world? Hobbes gave the most radically materialist answer to this question, holding not only that we, with all our thoughts and perceptions, are nothing but matter in motion, but that even God is a physical being. A scientifically updated version of this view—with mechanics replaced by quantum theory, molecular biology, and neuroscience, and God eliminated from the picture—is the dominant form of contemporary naturalism. It holds that physics can aspire to be the theory of everything. . .

Continue reading.

Note the sentence “Although knowledge of those laws is based on observation and experiment, the reality they describe is not directly available to human perception, but can be known only by theoretical inference.” Isn’t that actually saying that the reality being described is known only through memes?

Written by LeisureGuy

20 September 2016 at 6:04 pm

The Real Clinton Foundation

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Joe Conason is interviewed by Salon regarding his reporting on the Clinton Foundation:

No one has been able to produce real evidence of corruption at the Clinton Foundation, but the relentless media chatter falsely implying otherwise has had its effect: Few voters know about the good work that the foundation does. Americans are instead more likely to believe false stories about corruption than know about the foundation’s work.

Journalist Joe Conason wants to change that. In his new book, “Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton,” Conason profiled Bill Clinton’s post-presidency career in philanthropy. Through his work for the Clinton Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) and other activities, former president Clinton has devoted himself to fighting against poverty and for greater access to education, nutrition and health care around the world. I recently spoke with Conason over the phone. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You’ve written a lot about the Clintons for how long now?

Well, I mean since he first ran for president. So that’s — what is it? Almost 25 years? Something like that.

So what motivated you to write this book about Bill Clinton’s post-presidency?

Esquire magazine asked me to write a profile about him in 2005 when he was just about to launch Clinton Global Initiative. That summer before [he and his associates] launched it, I went to Africa with him on his annual Africa trip, and we visited several countries.

And when I came back and went to the first CGI and wrote the piece for Esquire, it got a huge reception. I realized sometime after that that what they were doing was really interesting and different from what other presidents had done when they left office and that there might be a book in it.

It took a couple of years, but I persuaded [the Clintons] to cooperate with a book that they would have no control over. President Clinton didn’t see the book until August, when it was all ready to hit the printer.

But they nevertheless were very cooperative, and I went on a couple of more trips to Africa with him and other places, traveled with him a lot and interviewed him, you know, more than a dozen times — sort of sit-down, taped interviews. And it turned out that I was right, there was really a lot to write.

How would you say President Clinton’s vision of a post-presidency differs from other presidents before him? And, well, after him, as well?

Well, we’ll see what comes after. In spite of their sometimes tense relationship, President Obama has displayed a lot of interest in what Clinton has done since he left the White House since he knows he’s leaving soon, and they’ve talked quite a bit about it. So we’ll see what Obama does.

Clinton studied the post-presidencies of earlier presidents very carefully, and especially Jimmy Carter, who[m] he hosted at Camp David just before his own presidency ended to talk about what Carter had done. That again was a very tense relationship, one that had big ups and downs, but I think Clinton really respected what Carter had done.

But [Clinton is] a bigger personality in a lot of ways and more ambitious and wants to do more things. He never sort of set a boundary around what he was doing.

He started out realizing that something really needed to be done about AIDS treatment in the developing world, because there were likely to be 100 million AIDS victims if nothing was done.

He never decided, Well, it’s only going to be about these things or it’s only going to be about these themes or I’m only going to do health or I’m only going to do education. He really allowed himself to cast a very wide net. And I don’t any other president had done that yet after leaving the White House.

How do you see the Clinton Foundation and [its] work? And how does that differ from the way it’s being portrayed in the media?

I’d say it’s night and day, Amanda.

The media is focused on false stories about conflicts of interest, or true stories about potential conflicts of interests that don’t seem to me to matter very much. They want to know about every email that was ever sent on behalf of any donor or anybody that might’ve been a donor or attended CGI.

I’m looking at things like they’ve had 11 and a half million AIDS victims on treatment who otherwise would have died, for instance. That’s just one thing. Or, rebuilt the entire health system of the country of Rwanda. Or, you know, they’ve eliminated malaria from most of Tanzania and saved thousands and thousands of people’s lives that way.

It would take a long time to enumerate all the accomplishments of the foundation. This is not just Clinton himself. This is a lot of people who are either volunteers or employees there — doctors, volunteer business executives, all kinds of people who decided they wanted to address these problems. It’s why I wanted to write the book in the first place.

For some reason, very few of our colleagues have the slightest interest in that. I’ll hear, as I have already a few times while I’m going around talking about this book, Well, no one would deny the good work, but …

That’s fine, don’t deny the good work because you don’t know anything about it. But what if you looked at the good work for 15 minutes? What if you sent somebody overseas to look at the good work? Almost nobody ever does.

That’s the difference between my outlook on it and what I would call the conventional media narrative now, which is all about this idea that somehow something corrupt had to have happened.

Keep in mind, these were people who, up until the election cycle started, would go to Clinton Global Initiative every year and suck up shamelessly to Clinton trying to get an interview. [The] same people now only want to talk about why nobody trusts the Clintons and ask, Don’t you think that they should shut down the foundation?

Sure, they should shut down the foundation and if those 11 million people die, nobody in our media world would care. I think says a lot more about them than it does about Clinton.

In the book, I talk a lot about The New York Times, which influences all media coverage basically, especially in politics. And The New York Times has been very focused on the foundation and problems that [Times journalists] allege in the foundation, such making up this whole story about Russian uranium, which was a completely fabricated, phony story taken from “Clinton Cash” that they put on the front page.

You know what, they know better. Celia Dugger, who is a very good reporter for the Times, went to Africa with Clinton and saw what he did — and saw what the foundation had done. So they know, and they ran a very good story about it years ago but this is years ago. And that was one time in 15 years basically that they paid attention the real work. Meanwhile, they are constantly on this, and it’s all part of the political cycle.

The popularity of the Clintons goes up and down. You can see it in Gallup polls that are taken every year, it goes up and down whether one of them is running for office — especially her. And I think you know the basis for all of that.

How would you characterize Bill Clinton’s philosophy of philanthropy? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 September 2016 at 11:36 am

Alcohol Industry Bankrolls Fight Against Legal Pot

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The vested interest is obvious, so I expect to hear a lot of motivated reasoning and see a lot of incomplete or outright false statistics. Maybe some forged leaked documents, as described in the previous post.

Lee Fang reports in The Intercept:

The fight against legalized pot is being heavily bankrolled by alcohol and pharmaceutical companies, terrified that they might lose market share.

On the heels of a filing last week that revealed that a synthetic cannabis company is financing the opposition to legal marijuana in Arizona comes a new disclosure this week that a beer industry group made one of the largest donations to an organization set up to defeat legalization in Massachusetts.

The Beer Distributors PAC, an affiliate that represents 16 beer-distribution companies in Massachusetts, gave $25,000 to the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, tying it for third place among the largest contributors to the anti-pot organization.

William A. Kelley, the president of the Beer Distributors of Massachusetts, did not respond to a request for comment, but his organization’s decision to oppose legalization is hardly unique in the alcohol industry.

In Arizona, one of the five states with marijuana legalization ballot measures this November, the Arizona Wine and Spirits Wholesale Association donated$10,000 to a group opposing legalization. In 2010, the last time California considered marijuana legalization, another alcoholic beverage distribution group provided financing to a law enforcement-backed campaign to defeat legalization.

The alcohol industry is nowhere near unified over pot policy, however, with several craft brewing firm welcoming laws that relax restrictions over pot.

Securities and Exchange Commission filings reveal that heavyweight alcohol companies have disclosed to investors that pot could pose a challenge to their bottom line. . .

Continue reading.

Marijuana is harmless and legalizing reduces use of an addictive, health-destroying drug that can kill with a single overdose (as various undergraduate hazings gone wrong demonstrate every year). That sounds good for the public, to me, though (obviously) bad news for the merchants of death. The change is to the public’s benefit, but the alcohol industry cares not a whit for public benefit: it’s all very nice that people will be better off, but our profits will take a hit! That is simply not to be tolerated, whatever other benefits accrue.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 September 2016 at 1:29 pm

Technology, the two-edged sword: Hacking the election, open to all countries, political parties, individuals…

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Note that “countries” and “governments” are not equivalent: a given country may have an intelligence service actively working to control or disrupt the election, calling outcomes into doubt, to achieve (their) government goals—or, worse, their organizational goals, with intelligence service A competing with intelligence service B competing with law enforcement competing with the three branches of the military, but perhaps the military is now a more unified thing . Each of those organizations is quite free to take action on its own to achieve national goals in terms of adding power to the organization itself: a strong [organization] makes for a better government. You can use the name of any governmental (or indeed commercial) entity to see the dynamics and incentives. (To use US examples: CIA, BATF, FBI, NSA, DEA, plus various state, county, and city police departments.) But that same country—say, Russia—also has an active, organized, and technologically advanced criminal organization(s).

One can understand William F. Buckley, Jr. when he wrote, “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”

David Goldstein reports in McClatchy:

Is it time to panic about Election Day?

Not about the choices for president, but about whether the votes that millions of Americans will cast Nov. 8 will be secure.

“My level of concern is pretty high,” said Thomas Hicks, chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, an independent, bipartisan group created to develop guidelines following the disputed 2000 presidential election.

Experts are warning that in a year of unending political drama, still more might be in store, from Russian hackers to obsolete voting machines prone to breakdowns, all with the potential for causing considerable political chaos.

Consider these developments:

– The FBI issued a “flash” alert this summer to state election officials that foreign hackers had breached the election systems in two states, Arizona and Illinois. Arizona shut down its network for a week.

– Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson suggested that the nation’s election system, an uneven mosaic of 50 state-operated fiefdoms, should be viewed like the national power grid, part of the country’s “critical infrastructure.”

– Johnson volunteered his agency’s help by offering to inspect state election systems for holes hackers could crawl through. Several states have taken up his offer. Others – such as Georgia, which has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1996 but where polls now show the race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump tied – have spurned it.

Georgia uses older voting machines that don’t automatically produce ballot paper trails, which many election security experts think is a must-have feature.

In an email to the website NextGov, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp labeled Johnson’s offer “a vast federal overreach” and an effort toward “federalizing the election under the guise of security.” . . .

Continue reading.

It’s a fine kettle of fish, but it’s here, so we had better figure out how to handle it.

See also: “U.S. investigating potential covert Russian plan to disrupt November elections.” Hope they are also looking at North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, Israel, ISIS, and some guy in New Jersey who’s known only to his close neighbors, who consider him a very quiet guy.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 September 2016 at 12:17 pm

“We Need to Talk About Huma Abedin Differently”

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Written by LeisureGuy

2 September 2016 at 3:59 pm

At Least 110 Republican Leaders Won’t Vote for Donald Trump. Here’s When They Reached Their Breaking Point.

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The NY Times has an excellent timeline of the Trump campaign, showing in chronological order what he said (on one side of the line) and when various Republicans spoke out against Trump (on the other). It shows at just what point responsible Republicans decided that Trump had gone beyond the pale.

Needless to say, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, John McCain, George P. Bush, Marco Rubio do not show up: they are standing with Trump and endorse and support his candidacy. Rubio is a special case, though: when he was running he thought Trump was awful, but when he decided to run again for Senate (a position that barely interested him before), he thinks Trump is great. Rubio seems to have absolutely no convictions of his own. He reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon years ago that depicted a statue in a park of a politician, who’s pointing the direction to go. The statue is mounted on its pedestal free to rotate as a wind vane.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 August 2016 at 10:53 am

Posted in Election, GOP, Politics

Homeland Security’s extra duties

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Pam Martens and Russ Martens report in Wall Street on Parade:

Mavi Ramierez is a Mom, a social media entrepreneur and a dedicated citizen journalist who took a day off from work to cover the first hearing on August 23 in the Federal lawsuit that has been filed by Senator Bernie Sanders’ supporters against the Democratic National Committee and its former Chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The lawsuit, which currently has more than 100 plaintiffs and more than a thousand in the wings with retainer agreements, is charging the DNC with fraud, negligent misrepresentation, deceptive conduct, unjust enrichment, breach of fiduciary duty, and negligence.

Leaked DNC documents and emails by Guccifer 2.0 and Wikileaks show Wasserman Schultz disparaging the Sanders’ campaign while key DNC officials actually plotted to sabotage the Sanders’ campaign by putting the word out that he is an atheist (which Sanders says he is not) and characterizing his campaign as “a mess.” From a virtual unknown on the national stage, Sanders’ campaign won 23 states in the primaries, raised over $228 million, predominantly from average Americans, and held rallies that ranged from 5,000 to more than 20,000 supporters while Clinton attracted hundreds. Sanders’ supporters are demanding this court case to determine if the intentional sabotage by the DNC cost Sanders’ his primary battle.

Since mainstream media has failed to report on this first court hearing, the interviews conducted by Mavi Ramierez outside the Federal courthouse last Tuesday take on added significance. Ramierez interviewed the Sanders’ supporters and attorney for plaintiffs as they emerged from the hearing. But throughout these interviews, there was a constant, annoying, and distracting honking coming from an SUV parked on the sidewalk. One gutsy interviewee, who goes by the Facebook name of Jessica Rose Grfl, strolled down to the SUV, peered inside, and tells the videographer that this is an unmanned vehicle. The honking appears to be by remote control. Ramierez and her videographer move closer to the SUV and show viewers that it is from the Federal Protective Service of the Department of Homeland Security. ( Go to -31:00 on the video.)

The head of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, is an Obama nominee. Johnson has spun four times through the revolving doors of the corporate/Wall Street law firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison to work in either the Bill Clinton or Obama administration. Johnson was a bundler for Obama in his 2008 campaign and personally donated $28,460 to the Obama Victory Fund and another $28,460 to the DNC in 2008, according to Federal Election Commission data.

Clearly, Johnson is a big Obama fan and Obama is a big Debbie Wasserman Schultz fan. In June, Politico’s Hanna Trudo reported that Obama appeared at a DNC fundraiser in Miami and told the crowd the following about Wasserman Schultz: “She’s had my back, I want to make sure we have her back.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 August 2016 at 11:13 am

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