Introduction to My Blog

With this blog, I aim to ask and answer provocative or otherwise interesting questions. I hope you find it valuable. Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

My View of Religion

In 2019, for the first time in U.S. history, less than half of Americans considered religion 'very important' in their lives. Those without any religious affiliation reached 21 percent of Americans, representing about as much of the country as Catholics do. I doubt any of these figures come as a surprise to you. I am part of the rising 21 percent, but have conflicting views on these trends.

By any reasonable definition, I am an atheist. Half of my ancestry is Ashkenazi Jewish but I do not consider this integral to my identity. Many remark on my stereotypically Jewish curly hair, and I love Middle Eastern/Israeli food, but those facts hardly make me Jewish in any meaningful way. Some non-religious Jews I know still accept the label 'culturally Jewish.' Regardless, I am irreligious and don't consider myself Jewish.

I have many problems with religion. I distrust any system of belief that discourages critical examination of certain ideas and practices. This structure too often breeds social stagnation. Each additional religion also adds another 'us' and 'them' distinction in a world overflowing with such exclusive identities. Furthermore, many of the most popular religions in the world hold as sacred texts that encourage such tribalism. Religious claims also tend to be unfalsifiable, and rely on arguments from authority.

Deep trust in unaccountable religious institutions creates potential for manipulation and predation. Six months ago, this headline appeared in the New York Times: "Pope Francis Abolishes Secrecy Policy in Sexual Abuse Cases (article link)." Prior to this policy change, any sexual abuse by ministers had been officially considered a high secret within the church, forbidden to be divulged to secular authorities.

Prepare to be further disappointed.  The new policy merely made it "acceptable -- but not required -- to turn information about abuse claims over to the police, prosecutors, and judges." Try to imagine an explicit cover-up of child abuse on this scale in any other kind of institution, like a school or daycare center. Then imagine this school or daycare center receiving no seriously punitive legal penalty. This would be inconceivable.

So why is it that the Catholic Church can operate in this way with relative criminal and legal impunity? I believe the key to answering this question is understanding the perspectives of the most devout Catholics.

Imagine being a captain of a ship before modern technology. When in the open sea, you rely on your trusty compass to know where you are headed. During storms and times of uncertainty, your compass guides you and reassures you. Imagine that, three months into a critical voyage, you discover that your compass was broken and had led you far off course. Imagine the one thing that you thought you could always trust in turbulent times was actually quite fallible. Then, add decades of emotional attachment and trust to the situation. This is the predicament of devoted Catholics learning of child abuse in the church.

An institution like the Catholic Church cannot be understood strictly as the human enterprise that it is. It is also the accumulated trust, memories, and broader psychological imprint it has left on millions of people. To be a devoted Catholic and learn of child abuse in the church is to have the rug abruptly tugged out from under you. It is utterly destabilizing. This level of uncritical trust and devotion to a human enterprise, in my view, affords certain ideas, people, and organizations an unjustifiable immunity to criticism.

Critical thinking needs to be a tool we always feel comfortable employing, including and especially regarding the people and institutions with which we identify. Without this principle, we lose an important mechanism for correcting mistakes and learning from perspectives in conflict with our own.

But despite the problems I have with religion and religious institutions, different problems arise in their absence. For one, religious organizations afford adherents a strong sense of community. Disaffiliation with religion can result in an absence of such community ties. I find physical communal gathering more important than ever in an age of technology that diminishes traditional in-person social interactions (obviously I don't recommend congregating in the midst of COVID-19, but rather later when gathering becomes safe again).

Religion also offers a framework to discuss ideas regarding community solidarity, Platonic love, human obligations, and consciousness. I worry that religiously unaffiliated people have no forum in which to discuss these concepts.

Additionally, I think that non-religious people can gain great ethical wisdom and life perspective by employing religious methods. The best example of this for me is listening to music. I find certain songs incredibly meaningful and powerful, and listening to them can bring me into a radically different mental state that adds wisdom and perspective. One such song for me is The Long and Winding Road by The Beatles. Any song that fuses an ambiance with meaningful lyrics can do this.

The same kind of intense attention and experience can pair with other forms of art as well, like movies, books, and paintings. When a devout Christian reads the Bible, the experience isn't quite comparable to opening any ordinary book. A devout Christian reads the Bible with the presumption that each word and detail can contain profound wisdom. I believe that the same principle can do many non-believers a great deal of good in a secular context.

Many of my problems with religion are not unique to religion, but rather common to any institutional or codified authority. And although I may not always like how religion manifests in the world, I think that there is great utility and wisdom in its methods: purposeful communal gathering, shared powerful experiences, and reverential observation of great art.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

The Blind Crusade, Pt 2: George Floyd and Starbucks liberalism

The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has shocked not only Americans, but also millions around the world. I have little to say on the topic that you would find interesting or surprising. What I saw horrified me. I protested and stand with all peaceful protesters, and am in support of the reforms on the platform of Campaign Zero, which I encourage anyone interested in the topic to check out here. I want to offer some thoughts on racism more broadly, and some of the deeper problems that I think must be acknowledged and addressed.

The crusade against racism in the United States appears to involve two main factions. Those factions can be identified by how they answer the following question: Is institutional racism in the United States currently a problem? Those who say yes, we imagine, are part of the solution while those who say no are ignoring the problem.

This, in my view, is far too optimistic. If we accept this basic categorization between those who say "yes" and "no" as ultimately informative, then we are ignoring an important finer distinction. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, agrees aloud that institutional racism is a problem. Here is a picture of him kneeling in front of a bank vault in solidarity with the protests. Now, I don't intend for this post to be the length of a book, so let me try to briefly summarize how much of an "ally" Jamie Dimon has been to oppressed communities of color.

He led JPMorgan Chase through a fraudulent scheme of epic proportions involving the sale of ticking time bombs called mortgage-backed securities that exploded in 2008, for which the bank was forced to pay a record $13 billion settlement to the federal government in 2013. The financial crisis of 2008 is incredibly complicated and perhaps I will try to offer my more complete thoughts in another blog post. This is a noteworthy occurrence during Dimon's tenure.

The predatory loans that comprised many of the securities targeted poor communities, especially those of color, and black wealth in the United States was disproportionately tied up in home equity. Due to these facts, the massive housing crash of 2008 decimated black wealth disproportionately. Dimon fared quite well through and beyond the crash, and received an $18.5 million bonus for his work in 2013, a year in which JPMorgan Chase payed a record settlement for misconduct, as I earlier referenced. The fact that it takes so long to tell even the basic story is part of the reason why Dimon can get away with such preposterous racial posturing.

In 2016, median black family wealth was half of what it was just prior to the recession of 2008, while median white family wealth increased by 15 percent over the same period. There is plenty of finger-pointing to go around regarding this statistic, but neglecting to cast blame on one of the biggest architects of the financial crisis is ludicrous.

Dimon is a microcosm of a much broader phenomenon that is incredibly frustrating to me. Let's put a name to this phenomenon I'm about to describe: "Starbucks liberalism." Nowadays, most major corporations are led by people who are happy to adopt the vernacular of racial oppression and justice. They embrace most social and cultural issues of the left: anti-racism, LGBTQ+ rights, abortion rights, regulation of firearms, token environmentalism, and supporting liberal immigration policies as a demonstration of tolerance. These are issues that someone like Jamie Dimon or Jeff Bezos happily supports.

It's good PR for major corporations to embrace forward-thinking cultural attitudes. Now, I am not saying that these stances are entirely insincere. I think that most big business owners and executives truly do agree with these stances. However, I ask you to observe what issues are not included in the Starbucks liberalism canon.

Starbucks liberals tends not to prioritize ensuring that the minimum wage is a living wage for those in different localities. Starbucks liberals seem unconcerned by the offshoring of manufacturing to countries where workers are not protected by decent labor standards. Perhaps worst of all, Starbucks liberals seem content with the United States being the only developed country where medical bankruptcies are common. These are but a few of the most important issues regarding which Starbucks liberals have little to say.

To put it simply, there is a significant subset of liberals who focus exclusively on cultural issues, to the point of neglecting important economic ones. Anyone can engage in symbolic cultural pandering, but this does nothing to address the deeper economic issues, and may actually do the disservice of obscuring them.

How do we remember Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States? As a peaceful leading advocate for racial justice? Yes. As a magnificent, passionate orator? Surely. Strangely, there is a vital dimension to the great man that we seldom discuss, even while we celebrate his memory. We all know that he was assassinated in 1968, but there is an important detail of the assassination that we tend to forget.

King was assassinated while in Memphis, Tennessee, protesting in solidarity with sanitation workers. This protest was aimed at securing decent wages, safety standards, and recognition of a sanitation workers' union. King was a democratic socialist, for those previously unaware. He preached how critical economic rights and conditions were for blacks and non-blacks alike in order to live decent lives with dignity.

I wouldn't blame you if you didn't know this. I certainly was not taught about King's democratic socialist leanings. Nevertheless, King taught us that the fight for the affirmation of black humanity does not cease with basic legal equality being granted. In 1961, King said "Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God's children."

Here's a statistic true as of 2016: the median wealth of a white family in the United States is $171,000, while the median wealth of a black family is merely $17,150. In other words, if you were hoping to hear a story about how far we've come and how we have finally achieved racial justice, you are reading the wrong blog. If you don't like the story I'm telling, I'm sure you can find some self-congratulatory nonsense on Amazon or JPMorgan Chase's websites about their deep commitments to reflecting community diversity in their hiring.

What I am doing here is calling the bluff of people like Bezos and Dimon, and trying to convince you to see the distinction I see between a real progressive take on institutional racism and the Jamie Dimon/Jeff Bezos take on institutional racism. While the former includes an acknowledgement of and pledge to address all dimensions of the problem, the latter cynically adopts the vernacular of racial justice in a grand attempt to convince consumers that they care. If they care, they might bother walking the walk.

Racism in the United States has many symptoms, and police brutality is most definitely one of those symptoms. It must be addressed. However, addressing a symptom of racism alone does not address the core of the issue. Until we all acknowledge aloud and address the vital economic dimension of racism in a meaningful way, we will hopelessly fight surface-level culture wars while the same shameful material disparities persist.

Monday, June 1, 2020

The New WWE: Why I Hate Twitter

I am riveted by good conversations, and every aspect of them. I enjoy hearing new ideas, perspectives, and explanations for them. Unfortunately, certain aspects of social media incentivize more inflamed and simplistic arguments, which is where political conversations are increasingly taking place. In this piece I will focus on Twitter, so as not to be overly general.

Let's go over what I see as a problem for Twitter with its incentives. Twitter, like any public company, aims to make profits for shareholders. 86.5 percent of Twitter's revenue comes from advertisers, so this is the key to generating profits. More advertising money comes as a result of Twitter keeping users on the platform longer.

Now ask yourself the following: does an algorithm that maximizes time spent on Twitter square with the hope of maintaining deep and healthy conversations? If you answered yes, then I envy your optimism. Unfortunately, though, you would be wrong if you said yes.

Even Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, has acknowledged the problems with echo chambers forming and toxic content arising on the platform. He said this back in 2018, but I think it is quite clear that echo chambers are as bad now as they ever have been on Twitter. I actually quite like Jack Dorsey and think he did not foresee how his platform would be abused. However, he and his company find themselves in a situation where their financial incentives have deleterious consequences for public conversations.

It only seems right that I talk about Donald Trump a bit, since much of Twitter's activity centers on him, especially political Twitter. I have my own opinions about Trump and politics, but I hope not to allow them to pollute the following analysis. You be the judge.

Donald Trump has proved himself a master at harnessing core elements of Twitter to amass a following and utilize it effectively. His tweets are often short and punchy, with all capital letters in words he wants to emphasize. He responds quickly via Twitter to major crises and controversies, leading many to check his feed in the immediate aftermath of major events.

He is unapologetic and almost never concedes arguments. He also constantly tweets, giving his perspective to his followers and effectively directing their attention to other figures and organizations he likes and dislikes. Trump has an incredibly centralized and loyal Twitter following.

Regardless of which side you or I take on the politics of Trump, I hope it is clear to everyone that the Twitter vortex around Trump hardly inspires healthy conversations. Both sides inflame each other constantly. Trump is not the kind of person to back down from an argument, but even if he were, Twitter incentivizes standing firm and just screaming louder at the other.

In The Coddling of the American Mind, authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt note an unfortunate phenomenon in polarization spirals: Unlike the Newtonian principle that each action has an equal and opposite reaction, polarization spirals entail actions met by disproportionate reactions (pg 134). I agree with Lukianoff and Haidt here, and think this a plausible explanation for why many political conversations on Twitter seem to deteriorate, rather than improve, as they progress.

There are two more important elements of Twitter's toxicity that I would like to mention: both its public and virtual communication. We tend to be more reasonable communicating as individuals in private. There is no public shame in admitting you didn't know something in a one-on-one conversation. The conversation is also necessarily more theatrical when a public audience is watching it. It becomes as much a display as it is a direct interaction.

The virtual aspect is not mentioned nearly as much, but is also a factor. Just as we converse differently with an audience watching, we engage one another differently with words on a screen than physically being with and looking at someone.

Social media arguments induce something like road rage, where we are separated physically but get increasingly and irrationally angry at others' behaviors.

Now admittedly, I am offering a limited perspective. Twitter serves a great and less toxic function for many communities.  People use Twitter to engage with communities of worship, sports, entertainment, and all kinds of hobbies and interests.

However, I happen to be deeply interested in and concerned with political and international issues, and I see serious harm done to public conversations surrounding these spheres, particularly on social media. An unfortunate truth that we must grapple with is that the democratization of political speech via technology, something most of us initially thought was a good thing, has led to an increase in misinformation, divisiveness, and impenetrable political identities.

Political shouting matches are nothing novel. In the United States, they date back to the founding of the country. What has changed is that only strictly political actors used to fight these fights. Now, millions have enlisted in the social media sphere to engage in these debates, and they are having unproductive, bad conversations. What's more, social cohesion is diminishing as a result.

It's about time I explained the title. Twitter and the WWE (World Wresting Entertainment) have several important features in common. They both attempt to depict what happens in the real world, but sensationalize and inflame it. The WWE is relatively harmless, and makes for hilarious television at times. This format is incredibly dangerous, though when it is applied to important public conversations.

The WWE format of Twitter has little regard for depth, complexity, and civil disagreements. In fact, I would argue it favors their opposites: shallow, simple, and divisive arguments. Twitter thrives on all of the theatrics of public debate but almost none of the substance. This is just a blog post that merely scratches the surface of problems in social media. Imagine trying to communicate this in 280 characters or less.