Book Review: Trump, The Art of the Deal

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It is fascinating to read this book, not only for its business acumen but also from the perspective of thirty years or so after the events recounted, when Donald Trump has left the business world and become President Trump. The book opens with a typical day in the life of dealmaker Donald Trump. One incident that struck me is Trump’s efforts to raise money for Annabel Hill. Trump became aware of this situation through Don Imus, a well-known radio personality. Mrs. Hill was trying to save her home from being foreclosed. Her husband had tragically killed himself in order to procure money from his life insurance policy. The proceeds from the insurance were not enough. Trump called the bank who held Mrs. Hill’s mortgage, and when the vice-president of the bank told Trump there was nothing he could do, Trump threatened to bring a lawsuit for murder against the bank. His point was that the bank was indirectly responsible for the death of Mrs. Hill’s husband. Here, you can see the compassion of Trump, who has a soft spot for the little guy. He repeatedly told people on the campaign trail that they had been forgotten by Washington, and that his goal was to make sure that they are not forgotten any longer.

Trump was constantly involved with government because he needed city planning commissions and other governmental entities to approve his development projects. At one point, he mentions someone who worked as a housing commissioner under Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City. Trump would fight with this commissioner a lot, but later hired him. Trump says that he doesn’t mind if people oppose him; his main concern is hiring the best possible talent. He applied this approach when hiring Kellyanne Conway, who opposed him initially when working for Ted Cruz.

Trump is an all-business, serious sort of guy. He doesn’t like vacations or small talk. He likes to work and get things done. For Trump, the fact that being a businessman means going to a lot of parties is a bad thing, and he always tries to leave early.

Trump seems to be a combination of both of his parents. His father was a very serious, tough man who ran properties in Brooklyn. Trump’s mother was more interested in glamour and celebrity. Trump recalls how fascinated his mother was when viewing a coronation ceremony on television, and how his father ridiculed his mom for this interest. Trump is interested in competence and efficiency like his dad, but also loves the spotlight and glamour. He is drawn to casinos, entertainment, and sports.

Trump has always been feuding with the press. At times, the press, in particular the New York Times, has helped his work; at other times, the press has criticized him as a businessman. At one point, Trump expresses with awe how powerful the New York Times is. It had at one point tremendous influence over politicians in the city. Trump must feel very gratified that a paper he relied on to further his business interests is now flailing because of its biased coverage of his campaign. He continually tweets about how this paper is failing. He must feel as though he has slain Goliath.

Trump discusses his purchase of Mar-a-Lago, a gorgeous estate in Florida which he now calls the “winter whitehouse.” Interestingly, the previous owner, Mrs. Marjorie Post, gave it to the government as a presidential retreat. The government eventually gave back the estate to Post, and then Trump bought it for eight million dollars. But, now it is a presidential retreat again.

Trump offers an interesting critique of contemporary art. At one point, one of Trump’s friends, who is an artist, picks up a bucket of paint and splashes it on a canvas. He did it four times, each time with a different color. After a few minutes of this, the artists says that he has just earned $25,000. Trump thinks that modern art is a con, and that the artists who do it are better at self-promotion than they are at art.

This book is full of trenchant observations. I have always thought that President Trump is one of the most thoughtful and substantive tweeters out there, and he brings the same inquiring and incisive mind to this book.

Why I am Against the Philly Sweetened Beverage Tax, a.k.a. Soda Tax

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On January 1, 2017, the administration of Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney instituted a city-wide beverage tax. This tax imposes a 1.5 cent/per ounce tax on any sweetened beverage (soda, juice, tea, etc.). Basically, this translates to a tax of about a dollar on a two liter bottle of soda. The hope of the city is that the money collected from this tax will fund universal pre-k, libraries, parks, rec centers, etc. This law was spearheaded by do-gooders in the city’s medical elite and public education system. The doctors were behind it because they hope that the tax will reduce obesity. Educators support it because it, the hope is, will expand access to pre-K for Philadelphia residents. Pre-k, they allege, has very beneficial effects on students, to the point of helping some who would otherwise end up in prison.

I think that arguments for this tax are a house of cards. I will use an argument by process of elimination to go through arguments in favor of the tax one by one, all the while showing that each argument is flawed. Simply, there are too many “ifs” in this law for it to do much good. The only certainty in the law is that it will take money out of the economy and hurt business in the city.

1) The tax will raise money to support pre-k. This is good. Let’s do it. After all, the education of children is more important than the profits of people in the soda industry. People in the soda industry are basically bad people, who make money off of people by getting them hooked on soda that is grossly unhealthy.

Let’s take apart this argument. First, will the money go to support pre-k? Some of it will. There are a couple of issues here, though. In the initial rollout of the tax, the claim was that all the money from the soda tax would go to establishing universal pre-k. The additional ends for the revenue stream from the tax were added on by Mayor Kenney after his discussions with the City Council. We now know that 20% of the money will not go to pre-k. Instead, it will go to nursing homes, programs that help the homeless, the Community College of Philadelphia, and, oh yeah, benefits for government employees. This last item should give one pause. Okay, so what, though? The other causes that the soda tax is benefiting are also good, and government employees deserve benefits, too. I’m cool with it. The second problem, though, is the strong possibility of corruption in the city government. This is especially risky in a government that is so heavily dominated by Democrats, as Philadelphia is. There are few Republicans to serve as a watchdog for ethics violations.  The government of the city of Philadelphia is a hotbed for ethics violation and waste. How else can one explain the uniquely high tax rate on Philadelphia residents, with taxes on cigarettes, gas, liquor, property, etc., and the chronically failing schools that can barely put together a workable budget each year, not to mention a $5.9 billion pension shortfall? (see the link below on ethics violations for more detail) So, when you talk about money going to pre-k, you need to take into account the likelihood of waste and abuse.

Onto the next component of the argument. You have some money (minus other projects, minus waste, fraud, abuse) which you hope to use on developing universal pre-k. And pre-k is good. In fact, there have been studies by leading academics that show that pre-k can keep people out of prison. Keeping people in prison costs money, so we can save money by keeping people out of it. So, again, so what that the mean soda people lose out?

Here is another “if”, though. The first “if” is how much of the money collected through the tax really goes to pre-k. The second “if” is that pre-k really keeps people out of prison. I admit, I am not an expert on this topic. But, I have some common sense. How much of an impact does pre-k really have? There are a lot of other factors that go into formation of a child’s character: job opportunities when they get older, elementary, middle, and high schools, the availability of playgrounds, positive adult role models, the presence of police, family income, etc. There are really a million such factors. Someone could have great pre-k and end up a criminal. Someone could not have pre-k and end up a great person. Do people go around asking other people if they’ve been to pre-k, and then acting like it’s a degree from an Ivy League School? “Wow, you had pre-k? Nice!” Academic studies don’t prove the connection between pre-k and future good citizenship. There may be correlation, not causation.

Another “if” here is whether the pre-k the city offers will be good. Does mediocre pre-k really drive people way from crime? Or, does pre-k have to be excellent to drive people away from crime? So, if the pre-k the city offers is really good, then maybe we can reduce the prison population in the city.

Another “if” with the pre-k is whether people will sign up or not. How do Philadelphia progressives know that people will sign up for these programs? Maybe some people will just be indifferent. So, if the pre-k the city offers is really good, then maybe we can reduce the prison population in the city, if enough people actually sign for pre-k.

2) Hold on a minute. You’re forgetting the health benefits. The soda tax will reduce obesity. That’s really good. Again, the soda industry is a bad industry.

Will it, though? Maybe people will just pay the extra fee because they still want to enjoy the beverage. Or, people will just get their sugar fix some other way–candy, cakes, popsicles, ice cream, cookies, etc. History disproves the idea that the government can nudge people with a tax to eat healthier.

“Soda and candy taxes do not necessarily decrease caloric intake,” reports the Tax Foundation, which has studied the issue. “One recent study finds that when adolescents switch away from soda due to price increases, the drop in calories is offset by an increase in calories consumed in other food and drink.”

This is yet another “if”! So, if the pre-k the city offers is really good, then maybe we can reduce the prison population in the city, if enough people actually sign for pre-k. And, we might be able to reduce obesity.

And there’s yet another problem! If the soda tax drives down consumption of sweetened beverages, then there will be less money for pre-k. Soda consumption is going down anyway, as more people become aware of its effects on the body. The soda tax will reduce soda consumption (not obesity, though), and the funds for pre-k will start to go down.

So, liberals in favor of the soda tax can’t have it both ways. THE TAX WILL FALL APART BY VIRTUE OF ITS OWN CONTRADICTIONS! Funds for pre-k will dry up, and the city will be looking again for other ways to finance their programs.

3) There is one thing that is not an “if” in this policy of “ifs”. This is, that the soda tax will hurt business in the city. There is no doubt this will happen. People who make money off the sale of sweetened beverages are going to lose profits. This is the inevitable logic of the policy. Grocery stores, bars, delis, pizza places, fast food restaurants–all will see a dip in profits. Some of them, particularly the small local businesses and corner stores, will be forced to close. This is what happened in Mexico when a soda tax was imposed there, and that will happen here.

So, the only certainty in this policy is that a sector of the economy of the city will take a hit. There will be reduction in jobs. Entrepeneurs and developers will be wary of starting up business under the Kenney administration.

A bunch of hypotheticals and maybes is not enough to justify this certain harm. Does the following argument sound convincing? The soda tax will harm a significant segment of the city’s economy. But, if the pre-k the city offers is really good, then maybe we can reduce the prison population in the city, if enough people actually sign for pre-k. And, we might be able to reduce obesity.

http://www.nationalreview.com/article/444491/philadelphia-soda-tax-consumers-businesses-poor-hit-hardest

http://www.newsweek.com/does-soda-tax-reduce-obesity-ask-mexico-429214

https://strongnation.s3.amazonaws.com/documents/149/0b3247f5-0f13-45c5-8ffe-dd30cf2d8b9c.pdf?1470666950&inline;%20filename=%22I’m%20the%20Guy_%20FC_PA.pdf%22

Ethics violations in city: http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/state-local-politics/293718-all-corruption-is-local-in-philadelphia

http://www.forbes.com/sites/patrickgleason/2016/06/18/philly-soda-tax/#74ecd6341894

https://beta.phila.gov/services/payments-assistance-taxes/business-taxes/philadelphia-beverage-tax/

http://www.philly.com/philly/news/politics/20160614_Drink_tax_proposal_had_some_sweetners.html

 

The Mysterious Experience I Had with A Newspaper

 

8026351I had a strange experience with trying to get an article published in a newspaper. There has been a lot of talk these days about bias in the media, and it is completely fair. That is why I was wary about trying to write for a paper. I have a conservative bent. I tried to come up with pitches that would allow me to express myself but which also wouldn’t ruffle too many feathers. I want to document the experiences I had with the editor. There was no explicit discrimination, but I think the clues are there. I’m not writing this out of self-pity, only to get on the record what happened.

I first made contact with the editor online. I will call her, for the sake of privacy, X. X is not the lead editor of this paper ( which was, btw, a school newspaper), but only runs a certain part of it. X welcomed me to the team. She agreed to include me in weekly emails and invited me to weekly meetings. When I first emailed X, I attached an article I had written, which is actually part of this blog, on the critical thinking classes I teach. The editor’s response to this article was to say that the paper doesn’t publish articles like that. It was kind of blunt, but I accepted it. The paper, I came to learn, has a narrow mission: it is to discuss concerns of students of this school. My essay was more exploratory and philosophical than rooted in the concerns of the school. Now, I think the editor could have done a better job of helping me rework this first article into one that fit the vision of the paper.

Another exchange occurred before I actually met X in person. I offered to write an article on panhandling. I have a view that one should not give money to panhandlers. I look back at this pitch as the signal that gave away to her that I have a conservative bent. I felt wary about putting an article in the paper on how we should avoid giving to panhandlers because, having read other articles, I knew my view would clash with the paper’s tendencies. In particular, there was an article on how building a stadium in the neighborhood around the university, an area which is notorious for crime and poverty, would constitute “plunder” of this community. People at this school romanticize the people in the surrounding neighborhood, to the extent that they blame Halloween flash mobs on white privilege. My wariness about writing this article caused me to tell the editor that I would just wait for our first face-to-face meeting to decide what to write.

But, there was yet another exchange. I gathered, from her e-mails, that she was having a hard time getting articles for the first issue of the paper. I gave her four ideas. She rejected each one, saying that I better wait until our first face-to-face meeting. I reasoned that I needed some time to figure out exactly what kind of article the school newspaper publishes.

So, I go to the first meeting. During the meeting, I broach another story idea: I want to respond to an article in the UC Davis newspaper in which protests about the appearance of Milo Yiannopoulis were defended. My position is that the students got out of control at this school, and their behavior is part of a larger trend of politicization on college campuses that unfairly smears conservative views as bigoted. The editor again said that the paper does not deal with issues with other schools. But, she said I could write an article on safe spaces and trigger warnings. I would have to apply it to the school.

I was happy I finally had a project. I got to work quickly. The editor told me that I had to conduct interviews. She said that I needed two face-to-face interviews. She suggested reaching out to a psychology professor. I countered by saying I know someone who teaches a certification class on higher education. The editor said this was good. I got busy arranging the interviews. The editor gave me a deadline of one week after I accepted the pitch.

I was referred by the first woman I contacted to two people who run a safe zone training program at the school. I mentioned these people to the editor and she said they were good choices. The editor also said she wanted to see the questions I would use for the interview. I thought this was somewhat humiliating, as I am a graduate student. I estimate that this editor is about 23. I am 32. But, I submitted the questions, and she got back to me with a revised version. My version had three questions, and hers had five.

So, I set up the interviews, met the people, and submitted a first draft of the article. Keep in mind that setting up the interviews is difficult. People have a hard time finding space in their schedules for an interview with a school paper. But, I got them done within a week and I had a first draft well before the due date.

Editor X took a look at my first draft. I got the first round of feedback. Her main criticisms were 1) I need to start the piece of with an anecdote that captures people’s interest and 2) I need more content in the form of quotes.

My reaction was, Okay, I can do this. I understand the need for an anecdote that grabs people’s attention, but I don’t think you have to have an anecdote to grab people’s attention. There are other ways.  I also took offense at the ‘content’ comment. So, anything that is not quotes is not content? Again, though, I remained determined to meet her requirements. She is the editor and has a right to require revisions.

Another issue I had was that two of the three student interviews I conducted were rejected by her. Why? Well, one was with someone I already knew. You can’t do this, according to the rules of this paper. X never explained why. The other interview was disqualified because the student wanted to remain anonymous. Interviewees for this paper have to be willing to reveal their names. X never explained this seemingly arbitrary rule.

I worked through the issues. I added an anecdote, and also added some quotes. Editor X said I should have a 2 to 1 ratio of paragraphs to quotes. I conformed to this and resubmitted the article.

Then, odd stuff started happening. X did not respond to my resubmission at first. I waited a few days, then texted her to see if she got it. She said she did not, and so I resubmitted. Finally, after a week of waiting, I was able to meet with her for more feedback.

The second round of feedback was more discouraging. She made a number of points. Here is a list:

  1. The anecdote you used is not related to the topic of safe spaces. Yes, it was.
  2. Liberal studies, which is the major of the student I interviewed, is not a major. It actually is.
  3. You can’t use the word ‘probe’ when describing how you interviewed someone. Why not?
  4. You can’t set people up in opposition to one another in the article. So, in the article, I compared the views on safe spaces of the different people I interviewed. Why the hell not?

 

The ultimate recommendation of editor X was that I needed another round of student interviews. Again, she asked to see the questions I would use. This was strange, as she had already approved a list of five questions. She didn’t specify how many interviews I would need. I sent her again the interview she had already approved. Soon, she sent me back another interview question list–this one had eleven questions.

One concern with this was that I would get so much ‘content,’ meaning quotes from students, that I really wouldn’t be writing the article. Moreover, since she had written almost all the interview questions, it seemed like my role was just to do the interviews on her behalf. This was humiliating. I was going to go through with the interviews, but I became demoralized. I felt silly asking someone questions that I didn’t really believe in, since I hadn’t written them.

The following Monday, editor X texted me. She told me that I should have the interviews done within the next few days. This was odd, since she couldn’t have known that I had not already done them. It was like she was anticipating I wouldn’t go through with the interviews. After the first text, she added that I should interview some pre-law and mosaic professors as well (mosaic is a liberal arts program all students at this university are required to take). Again, she didn’t specify the number. Do I need one of both? Or three of both?

At this point I got frustrated and told her that I was dropping the project. The article was only 650 words. The paper comes out weekly, so it’s not like the articles are exquisite pieces of research. If there is pay, it is minimal ($10?).

Editor X did not object to my dropping the project. She did not try to coax me to work through the difficulties. She simply said, That’s fine. Then, she told me that it is only fair to say that she had been up front about the requirements for the article from the beginning and that the next time I picked up a piece I would need to make sure that  I could devote the necessary time and effort.

If you have read this piece, you know that this editor had not been clear from the beginning about the requirements. The editor said that she had been “saying this all along”–meaning the number of interviews I would have to do. This is just not true. Also, she made sure to mention future pieces I might write. I feel as though she was barring me from writing for the paper altogether. The implication of what she was saying was that, for any another pitch I picked up, I would have to go through the same grueling process of endless reevaluation and resubmission.

I could be wrong about this. It’s possible this editor was just an annoying and incompetent leader. But, her final text to me, in which she blamed me for not knowing what I could handle in terms of work, shows that this is not a harmless person. So, I think the best theory for this behavior is viewpoint-discrimination.

 

Book Review: Obama’s America

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Well-known conservative Christian commentator Dinesh D’Souza wrote this book during the 2012 presidential election when Barack Obama ran for a second term against Mitt Romney. This book shows D’Souza’s ability to communicate complex ideas in a crystal clear way. He has a very fluid and transparent writing style, and I breezed through this book. D’Souza builds intrigue as tries to account for Barack Obama’s actions as president during the years 2008-2012, his first term. Why does he try to stop oil drilling in America, which would produce thousands of jobs and help us to shake our dependence on foreign oil, and yet support efforts to drill oil in foreign countries like Brazil and Colombia? And why is he selective about supporting different political movements in the Middle East? For instance, he was invested in supported the revolution in Egypt against Mubarak, but reserved when it came to the protests in Iran. The revolution in Egypt led to the rise of the Muslim brotherhood, an organization many think ought to be classified as a terrorist organization.

D’Souza advances a theory that he compellingly tests against the evidence. Obama is not a bumbling leader, nor is he a traditional liberal. Obama got his ideology from key figures in his past, most notably his father. His father once wrote an article in which he floated the idea of a one hundred percent income tax. In America, Obama found mentors in academia such as anti-Israeli writer Edward Said, former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, and other key figures like pastor Jeremiah Wright and Saul Alinsky. These people all contributed to an anti-colonial ideology. This ideology sees Western expansion as an exploitative effort to plunder third world countries of their wealth. Since colonial governments such as America and the U.K. made their wealth on the backs of the third world, it is incumbent on the colonial government to pay the third world back. Why did Obama remove the bust of Winston Churchhill from the Whitehouse? Because, in addition to Churchhill’s courageous stand against the Nazis, he also was a big proponent of British colonialism in Africa, where Obama has ancestral roots. So, for Obama, what is good for America is a diminishment of its greatness. To achieve a more level global playing field, Obama massively increased the regulatory powers of the federal government, taking over health insurance and the financial sector in the form of the ACA and the Dodd-Frank act respectively. He also has unprecedented spending habits that drive up the national debt so that we are beholden to Chinese banks and other foreign lenders. Obama has also been a champion of the global zero movement, which seeks nuclear disarmament and weakens our international standing.

This book provides an important corrective to a worshipful media that many times has uncritically portrayed Obama as a political hero. I think that few people understand who this man really is and what his legacy amounts to. He was a skilled orator who was able to inspire the confidence of millions of Americans. But, if Americans really knew him, would they have voted for him?

 

Movie Review: Thirteen Hours

13-003The attack in Benghazi on September 11th, 2012, is one of the most mysterious and troubling incidents of the Obama administration. Discussion of it was a major issue also in the 2016 election, because Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State during the crisis. There are a few major issues about this crisis. First, why wasn’t help immediately sent to the consulate when it was under attack? The House Select Committee, who investigated the incident, noted that no help was sent from America, even eight hours after the attacks first began. A month before the attack, Americans in Benghazi were deeply concerned about the level of security protecting them. People accused the State Department, of which Hillary Clinton was in charge at the time, of not taking the necessary measures to protect its assets in Benghazi.

Another issue is Hillary Clinton’s continued blaming of the incident on an Islamophobic youtube video. This was her way of accounting for the incident in public. But, in private e-mails, we see that she actually thought differently–that the attack in Benghazi was actually a planned attack by the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda. 2012 was a presidential election year, with Barack Obama squaring off against Mitt Romney in the hopes of getting a second term. The story of the Islamophobic video fits the typical liberal narrative nicely–Muslims are by and large great people, and people who criticize Islam are focusing on a fringe group that really isn’t representative of Islam. The people who criticize are actually responsible for inflaming terrorist attacks, fuelling recruitment.

This movie is mainly about the fighting that actually takes place in Benghazi. We get little glimpses of the inaction of the State Department. The team calls them, and repeatedly are disappointed by the lack of aid. Another interesting detail is how one of the leaders of the consulate keeps telling the Navy Seals under his command to stand down, even though the consulate was under attack and Ambassador Chris Steven’s life was at risk. Eventually, the Seals ignore his repeated injunctions and take over the operation themselves.

Michael Bay, the director of this film, wanted to keep the movie apolitical, so there is only passing hints of State Department inaction. We mainly get a lot of fight scenes. This is why I didn’t like this movie very much. Conservative commentators definitely tried to use this movie as a way to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. But, the movie lacks substance. It is just, for the most part, repeated scenes of violence.

Play Review: Constellations

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I really enjoyed this profound and stimulating play. It only has two characters. The man is a beekeeper. and the woman is a theoretical physicist. Nick Payne, the playwright who wrote this play, toys with cutting-edge ideas in physics that suggest that there is more than one universe. All the possible decisions we can make actually exist in all these parallel universes. The play illustrates this multiplicity. We kept getting scenes that show possible scenarios involving the interaction between this couple. Do they end up getting married? Or, do they meet only to drift apart and never see each other again? Does the woman dies in a state of mental decline? Is there a vicious breakup as a result of infidelity?

The woman, who is able to articulate difficult concepts from physics, eventually receives a diagnosis of cancer. In one scenario, the cancer is benign and the doctor predicts an easy recovery. In another scenario, though, she only has a couple weeks to live and she opts for euthanasia in order to avoid the suffering. Her husband objects, saying that the two weeks are valuable and worth the suffering that they might involve. The woman disagrees. She says that time is not asymmetrical, but symmetrical. In other words, time is not like an arrow where there is a continual accumulation of past time and an ever-dwindling amount of future time. The play ends with the woman telling her husband that time never diminishes–even if she is near death, the couple never had any more or less time.

Another profound moment comes when the man proposes. He gives this cute speech about bees. He says that all bees have a sense of purpose–they have a role, whether it is to be a drone, queen, etc. But, humans have role ambiguity, in that we never really understand why we are here. Interestingly, bees are the only nonvertebrates capable of symbolic communication.

 

Book Review: Freedom, Virtue, and the First Amendment

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In this book, Walter Berns critiques libertarian defenses of free speech. He thinks that libertarians defend free speech as an absolute value. In other words, keeping speech free for the libertarian is a more important priority than monitoring the content of that speech. By implication, then, smutty magazines deserve the same protection as the works of Shakespeare or the Bible. Berns thinks that this commitment to freedom goes too far. He thinks that virtue is also an important value. The law, for Berns, ought to shape the character of the citizenry. Having a citizenry composed of people with high virtue will allow the citizenry to reject would-be tyrants, autocrats, etc. There are times when the Supreme Court should prioritize virtue over the value of free speech. For instance, if speech is racist or subversive of our basic principles, some censorship would be alright. Berns thinks that the clear and present danger test, which permits infringement on speech only if it presents a clear and present danger to others, is too loose. Berns questions, for instance, the libertarians tolerance for the spread of communist ideas so long as the communists do not turn to a conspiratorial and revolutionary overthrow of our government. But, this is an odd judgment, since the final words of the Communist Manifesto are, “Workingmen of all countries, unite!” For Berns, it makes sense to exclude immoderate opinions like this, even if they are just ideas not yet put into practice. Libertarians, though, conceive of democracy as a mere process, and don’t care about the outcome produced. As long as people have the right to speak, libertarians approve, since freedom is an absolute value. But, merely respecting this process could lead to disaster.

I am torn as to how to judge Berns’s thesis. The question that arises is, how and who is to judge what counts as an immoderate opinion? If we give a group of elites the right to block certain kinds of speech from public discourse, this group might use this power to expand their influence. They would shut down views that opposed them. This is what happens in a totalitarian society. It’d be nice if we could guarantee that official censors would use their power solely to protect us, but this a rather naïve view of human nature. So, we have to put up with odious views like those of David Duke or Louis Farrakhan, since giving permission to officials would open the door to worse abuses.

Book Review: Left Behind

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This book really brings theology to life. Lahaye takes us into an era just before the Rapture, a great event towards the end of the world (as envisioned in the Bible) in which believing Christians disappear and enter Heaven. Chaos ensues, as people do not know where to find their loved ones and important infrastructure breaks down. Lahaye situates us in the lives of Rayford and Chloe Steele, a father and a daughter who lose the other half of their family in the Rapture. We follow world events through the eyes of reporter Buck Williams. He bears witness to the rising power of international businessman working towards a global economy with one currency and the rising political star Nicolae Carpathia. Carpathia ascends to power very rapidly, and begins to speak at the U.N., where he dazzles everyone with his eloquence and seemingly good intentions. Carpathia has such sway that people think he is perfect for the job of uniting the world after the disaster of the Rapture. But, the characters gradually discover, with the help of a video a pastor left in case the Rapture did occur, that Carpathia is the Antichrist. Williams witnesses as Carpathia kills a man and uses a mysterious ability to influence minds to get people around him to think that the man killed himself. Williams has started to believe in Christianity at this point, and this prevents him from falling for Carpathia’s lies.

I think this book reminds us that perhaps history is not just the sum total of human choices. Perhaps there is an original architect of the universe who has a certain vision for how history will unfold. The ebb and flow of history may actually be indicators of the divine mind. How the notion of a theologically directed history squares with the notion of human free will is a separate and fascinating philosophical issue.

UC Davis and the American Tradition of Free Speech

There was recent uproar at the University California, Davis over a talk, organized by the Davis College Republicans, given by Milo Yiannopoulos. Milo is a provocative spokesperson for young conservatives who also happens to be gay. Beginning as a technology reporter, Milo rose to fame for his blunt criticisms of Islam, contemporary feminism, and political correctness on the basis of a strong valuation of free speech. For instance, after the shooting of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Milo claimed that violence is not an exception in Islam, but the norm. He has also said that feminism is cancer.

Milo is a polarizing figure on college campuses, to the extent that he has his own security personnel. When he showed up at UC Davis, protestors came out in full force. The protests were so vigorous and at times even violent that the university was forced to cancel the event. Even before the event, students were urging university administrators to cancel the event because of their discomfort with Milo’s views. In the school newspaper, which is called the California Aggie, student Hannah Lee, expressed sympathy for these calls to ban Milo from the campus. She wrote, “Many members of the Davis community, rightfully fearful of the Wisconsin incident and outraged by Yiannopoulos’s beliefs, have called on the administration to cancel the event.” Lee identifies Milo’s skepticism about a rape culture existing on college campuses and the claim that birth control makes women miserable and fat as examples of his outrageous beliefs.

Unfortunately, Lee’s call, as well as the UC Davis students on whose behalf she is writing, shows a deeply flawed understanding of free speech in America and confirms the worst stereotypes of her generation, which many refer to as the snowflake generation. A snowflake millennial is someone who refuses to engage with people who have different political views. They lash out in outrage, and try to prevent their opponent from even speaking, claiming that the opponent’s views are harmful and need to be suppressed. Lee writes in her piece that Milo’s view are not just those of a misguided but well-intentioned citizen, but a fanatic: “But the ideas espoused by Milo should offend all people—at least, all people with any shred of humanity or decency.” So, if you like Milo, you are evil, without any humanity whatsoever.

Questioning whether there is a rape culture on campus, I think, does not mean that one lacks any shred of humanity. One might ask, legitimately I think, what the phrase “rape culture” means. But, even if we concede Lee’s point that Milo’s views are radically out of bounds, Lee’s implicit views on free speech deviate from established American law. Two recent Supreme Court cases, one in 2012 and the other in 2011, show how far the government will go to make sure that free speech is protected.

In a 2011 case, Snyder vs. Phelps, the Supreme Court considered the behavior of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church. A central belief of this church is that God is punishing America for its tolerance of homosexuality. Church members protest alongside funerals of members of the military, voicing their opinion with chants and signs saying God is causing the deaths of soldiers because of divine wrath over homosexuality. One individual, Albert Snyder, the father of a dead solider, became so incensed at the Westboro Baptist Church for protesting at his son’s funeral that he decided to sue. The church took refuge under the free speech protection of the first amendment. The Supreme Court refused to restrict the protests of the church, which they considered to be protected speech. Their reasoning was that the Westboro Baptist Church was taking a stand on a public, not a private, matter. Their protests were not directed personally at Snyder but were about larger national concerns, such as the social status of homosexuals, the proper understanding of theology, and war. The Court reasons that, on matters of public importance, there must be vigorous and open debate, and therefore Westboro has the right to voice its opinion. This decision was reached by an 8-1 vote.

The 2012 case is called U.S. vs Alvarez.  In this case, a man named Xavier Alvarez, an elected official on a water board in California, claimed in a public meeting that he had been a Marine, was wounded many times in combat, and even received the prestigious Congressional Medal of Honor. None of these claims were true. When Alvarez’s deceit was exposed, he was charged under the Stolen Valor Act, which is meant to punish those who falsely claim to have received honor for military service. Alvarez fought back by claiming that his lies were protected by the first amendment, which guarantees the right of free speech. The case worked its way up to the Supreme Court, and the Court found that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional. The Court viewed the Stolen Valor Act as imposing a content-based restriction on speech. In other words, the act forbade certain types of speech based on what was said, not the way in which it was said, or when, etc. The Supreme Court claimed that content-based restrictions—restrictions having to do with what is said—are only appropriate in certain extreme circumstances, such as when the content of speech is likely to incite imminent lawless action or child pornography. Lying about one’s military service, even as an elected official, was not problematic enough for the Supreme Court to condone a law that restricted it. The Court ruled that even such lies are protected speech.

These two cases show how committed the American legal system is to protecting free speech. Even such obviously loathsome behavior on the part of Xavier Alvarez, and the wacky ideology of the Westboro Baptist Church, are protected from governmental interference. This shows how illegitimate it is for the students of UC Davis to prevent Milo from even coming to their campus, and by extension, to suppress the curiosity of the Republican students there. No matter how much Milo gets under your skin, his views are not as extreme as those of Alvarez or the Westboro Baptist Church. If the latter two groups are protected by American law, then so is Milo. If you disagree with Milo, then you can organize a separate event, or peacefully protest. But, you cannot prevent him from coming at all. Barack Obama said at a town hall in Iowa, “I’ve heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative…I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”

Book Review: The Simpsons and Philosophy

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Philosophers, in an effort to make their work more accessible to the masses, have contributed to a number of books in which they relate philosophical ideas to popular culture. A great series of books like this have been unleashed, including philosophical treatment of Stephen Colbert, Seinfeld, and Dexter. In this book, we get a philosophical treatment of the long-running animated comedy, The Simpsons, a cartoon about a pretty dysfunctional but lovable family living in a town called Springfield. Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, actually studied philosophy in college.

There are some wonderful essays in this book, and there are some bland and boring ones. The book is a compilation of a lot of different philosophers. The first essay analyzes how Homer compares to Aristotle’s categorization of different types of human character. Roughly, Aristotle identified four levels of virtue: the virtuous, the continent, the incontinent, and the vicious. The virtuous person does the right thing and enjoys doing it. The continent person does the right thing but struggles to do it. The incontinent person recognizes the difference between right and wrong, but out of weakness of will fails to do the right thing. The vicious person does bad things without any guilt, and even enjoys doing bad things. The author of this piece, Raja Halwani, then looks at the character of Homer. With respect to temperance, Homer seems vicious. He eats and drinks too much, and thoroughly enjoys it. With respect to honesty, Homer is also vicious, enjoying the advantages deceit gives him.

Another interesting essay is by Aeon J. Skoble, which is entitled “Lisa and American Anti-Intellectualism.” Skoble discusses how Americans have a love-hate relationship with experts. Experts are invited onto to news programs to give an opinion or write op-ed articles that people read with attention. But, there is still a certain permissiveness that allows people to disagree with the expert, even though they may lack any expertise in the relevant field. The disrespect for the expert, according to Skoble, comes from a growing relativism in American society, which spreads the idea that every opinion is equally valid. The character of Lisa in The Simpsons highlights the tensions surrounding the intellectual. She is singularly smart and asks challenging questions, and people around her mock her.

Another essay uses the character of Maggie, a baby who never speaks, to explore the treatment of language in philosophy. Eric Bronson, the author of this piece, brings in Eastern philosophy, where silence has an important role. For instance, Confucius wrote, “Hear much, but maintain silence.” In the Bhagavad-Gita, a central text of Hinduism, the Creator is portrayed as ineffable and in fact imperceptible. What cannot be perceived cannot be put into language.

In sum, this book will expose you to a lot of different philosophical ideas and relate them to a really good television show. The book will increase your desire to learn more about philosophy and also will deepen your appreciation for The Simpsons. Another fun part of the book is reading the biographies of the philosophers who contributed–they have interesting work online and also in print.