You can’t reason with some people

April 25, 2008

Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi hung out with true believers of the “Christian Right” until Jesus Made Me Puke, and toward the end of the article her sums up his experience:

By the end of the weekend I realized how quaint was the mere suggestion that Christians of this type should learn to “be rational” or “set aside your religion” about such things as the Iraq War or other policy matters. Once you’ve made a journey like this—once you’ve gone this far—you are beyond suggestible. It’s not merely the informational indoctrination, the constant belittling of homosexuals and atheists and Muslims and pacifists, etc., that’s the issue. It’s that once you’ve gotten to this place, you’ve left behind the mental process that a person would need to form an independent opinion about such things. You make this journey precisely to experience the ecstasy of beating to the same big gristly heart with a roomful of like-minded folks. Once you reach that place with them, you’re thinking with muscles, not neurons.

I’m no expert, but it seems as obvious as an obvious thing can be that, once you’ve completed your break with objective reality, you’re dwelling in Serious Mental Illness territory. And at that point, even if you elect not to seek professional treatment, you really need to stop trying to make other people’s public policy decisions for them.


Credit cards and our rights

April 25, 2008

I saw this post at The Consumerist about a restaurant refusing to accept a credit card.

Reader Jered says that IHOP refused to accept his credit card without seeing ID and threatened to call the police and report him for dine-and-dashing if he didn’t show it to them.


It is indeed a violation of IHOP’s merchant agreement with MasterCard to refuse payment without photo ID, except in the case that they need to ship something to you and have to verify your address.

When I forwarded this to my friend, she replied:

Sorry, but I don’t get this one. What’s the problem with showing an ID. If I happen to drop my card in the parking lot, I’d hope that someone who isn’t me couldn’t just pick it up & use it unchallenged. It’s the same reason, I don’t mind showing an ID to cash a check. It’s for my protection. As a matter of fact, all of my credit cards have “show photo ID” instead of a signature on them. What am I missing?

Honestly, I don’t have a problem with showing my DL with a credit card. I do it all the time. (If my DL still had a Social Security number on it, that would be a different story.) And the store is certainly entitled to ask to see it. ASK. Not demand. The problem is that the store feels entitled to demand something from the customer when they are explicitly not entitled.

The store violates their agreement with the credit card company by requiring ID for a purchase. And in my opinion, they violate somebody’s civil rights when they threaten them with arrest. Keep in mind that the customer has been put in a position where they risk going to jail for doing something that they have every legal right to do.

If the store has a complaint, it’s with the credit card company, and with a credit card agreement that they should never have agreed to if they think it’s wrong. If the cardholder had violated their agreement with the credit card company, the company would certainly hold them to the fire — raise their interest rate, put a black mark on their credit file, cancel their account or something like that. Do you think the store will have to face any kind of punitive action for what they did?

I don’t know why the credit card companies use that rule, but I assume that they don’t want to do anything that might discourage people from using credit cards, even if it only happens a small part of the time. I have no way to know that, and they aren’t about to tell us. They’re already scared of people losing confidence in the credit card system. Something hasn’t sunk in with the general public yet: interest rates are very low right now, and have been for a while, but credit card interest rates are still very high. The companies can’t lower their rates because they use that money to offset the costs of rampant credit card fraud. They’re afraid people will stop using their cards and cancel their accounts if they realize how insecure the system is, because there is no way to make the system more secure.

A more secure system would be so different from the one we have now, it would be in effect a totally new system. Probably a more cumbersome, less convenient system that’s much less attractive to consumers. It’s a lot easier to keep charging high interest and keep quiet about the crumbling credit infrastructure.

I declare my candidacy

April 17, 2008

Only after I posted that last diatribe did this occur to me. I know who I want to be now.

The Dictator of Relativism.

I wonder what it would cost to get the T-shirts printed up.

His Popeness

April 17, 2008

I don’t reject the Pope. He has already rejected me, as he makes clear when he speaks publicly.

They keep telling me that Pope Benedict is an intelligent person, and I don’t know if that’s true. It may be. He’s definitely educated, that much is verifiable. What he mostly is I think is clever.

On NPR this morning, they talked about how, since before he even became the Grand Poobah of the Catholics, he has been speaking out against what he calls

the dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain …

I’m having a hard time figuring out what the phrase “dictatorship of relativism” is supposed to mean. As near as I can tell, he defines it as “the refusal of the rest of the world to recognize what Catholics all know to be true.”

He’s also raising the question of whether we humans do indeed know anything to be true for an absolute certainty. It seems to me we clearly don’t. Absolute is a pretty high standard, and it’s possible that he doesn’t appreciate that. What may be throwing him off is the idea that knowledge based on evidence, which is the best knowledge we have at any given time, is by nature imperfect, and subject to change as new evidence comes to light. I guess it makes some kind of freaky sense that perfect knowledge, since it’s probably impossible, could only be based on a complete lack of evidence. It isn’t the belief that he’s defending, it’s the certainty. That way, if someone attacks his belief, he can accuse them of being opposed to certainty.

[…] and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires

My translation of this is, “People can reject my beliefs, which are based on nothing verifiable, only out of their own selfishness.”

This is what I mean by clever. In the space of a few words, he has managed to confuse so many issues, and raise so many more questions than he’s pretending to answer, that he’s left you in the middle of a tangle of reasoning with no way out.

And of course, he is also making the biggest mistake of all, by implicitly drawing an equation between acceptable moral standards and the belief in supernatural forces and beings whose existence has never been established—heck, even the possibility of such a thing has never been established.

Naturally, one of Bush’s lazy speechwriters thought it would give the boss some gravitas if he cut-and-pasted that grim phrase “dictatorship of relativism” into the official remarks, as if Bush would have an easier time than the rest of us puzzling out what the words are or aren’t supposed to mean.

To get a clue about the real meaning of “dictatorship of relativism” I had to go scouting for a BBC article from 1995 that started out:

What is relativism?

Shortly before he was elected pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger delivered a withering denunciation of relativism. For those unfamiliar with even the blunter points of philosophy, what was he driving at?

The article goes on to quote Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine:

But philosophers warn against painting a crude black and white contrast between one absolute truth and the rest – bagging together all “relativists”.

“The problem is that it’s not just a contrast to absolutism,” says Baggini.

Relativism, he says, gets “a bad name” from opponents like the church who cast it only as “an anything goes” approach to moral questions. The reality has a much more diverse set of views, he says.

That bad name, he believes, is “perhaps the biggest example of philosophical illiteracy”.

That article drew some further clarifying comments from readers:

The biggest problem that I have with these comments against Relativism is that the speaker is almost always the leader or an official of an organisation claiming to be the “one truth and morality”. They are in effect simply telling the listener to obey them.

Awfully thoughtful of the pope to lay down the law and save all those people the pesky trouble of thinking for themselves.

The belief that there is only one moral truth and that you are following the only one moral truth is the source of all bigotry and hatred, in religion, politics and elsewhere. It allows you to demonise others as evil, refuse to see their point of view and refuse to accept that moral standpoints are based in culture and change alongside it.

The old “us vs. them” ploy. You can’t afford to give your followers time to wonder if the people who disagree with them might have a point. Bang, there goes your authority, your influence, your power.

I actually believe relativism is a positive thing. What exactly is the basis for moral absolutes? How does one know they exist? What morals in themselves are absolute? Moral relativism can be seen in everyday life anyhow. Some think it’s wrong to eat meat. Personally, I don’t believe it is. The Ancient Greeks practiced slavery and believed in was an acceptable institution. Contemporary Europeans do not.

The closest thing to a moral absolute I have ever heard was to frame good and bad this way: Whatever decreases suffering is good. Whatever increases suffering is evil. There you go, simple and elegant. Of course, in very many cases it’s difficult to apply, because the details can quickly become overwhelmingly messy. But a surprising amount of the time this principle can help snap a situation into sharp focus.

The Catholic church relies on revelation as the source of truth. It has been proved wrong before (Galileo) and be may so again. For it to deride people questioning and attempting to find truth via other means sticks in my throat. That said, there does appear to be a great deal of philosophical vacuity in the modern world at the moment. If the church means to correct this by reasoned philosophical discussion then it is laudable.

The Catholics have certainly been ahead of most religions historically in their attitude toward education. They have mostly tried to hold on to their power by moral grounds alone, and not by trying to keep their people as ignorant as possible, which seems to be the Plan A of a lot of institutions these days, religious and secular. The Catholics don’t want to keep their folks stone ignorant. Only just ignorant enough.

I didn’t mean to go on so long about it. Like they say in creative writing class, you don’t write to say what you think, you write to find out what you think. If you read all that, then you’re my hero.

Giving the voices in my head something to talk about

April 15, 2008

For weeks now I have been vacillating over what book to read next, and it came to me that I wasn’t in the mood for fiction and the emotional involvement that goes with it. So I decided to try ‘Tis: A Memoir by Frank McCourt. Angela’s Ashes made me want to throw it across the room a few times in the first hundred pages, when it seemed like the parade of tragic deaths would never end, but in time I added it to my list of favorite books that I will never be able to read again. His follow-up promises to be a bit lighter in tone, and I already know he doesn’t die at the end because I have a copy of Teacher Man waiting on my TBR heap.

Maybe a little further down the line I’ll be in the frame of mind for some more fiction. Not just now.