The trade-off triangle (or: Culture wars explained) December 11, 2016Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Freedom, Politics.
I think many of our worst political and social conflicts are caused by failures to recognize the trade-off between two values that are both important.
Let’s start with an easy example: the relationship between the efficiency and safety of our transportation systems. We naturally want our transportation systems to be both efficient and safe; and while it’s obviously possible to have a system that is both inefficient and unsafe, it’s less obvious that it’s not possible to have a system that is both maximally efficient and maximally safe. There’s a tension between the two: once we reach a certain level of efficiency and safety, further improvements to one will necessarily come at the expense of the other. Consider speed limits, for instance. We could doubtless save many lives by reducing all speed limits to 10 mph, but we don’t do so because of the intolerable loss of efficiency; conversely, we could save many lost hours by abolishing all speed limits, but we don’t do so because of the intolerable risk to safety.
Clearly we need some reasonable balance between efficiency and safety. One problem, however, is that as humans we tend to be biased by our own personal experiences (among other things), which can cause us to focus too much on one side of the equation at the expense of the other. If you have not had any firsthand exposure to traffic deaths and injuries, for instance, but you have experienced many annoying traffic regulations and delays, you might consider safety concerns overblown and advocate against onerous safety precautions in the name of increased efficiency. If that path is followed too far, however, traffic casualties will inevitably rise; and someone who loses a loved one as a result may come to demonize the pursuit of efficiency and advocate for increasing road safety at any cost. Finding (and maintaining) an optimal compromise is not easy, but if we want to make progress while avoiding the harmful extremes we must recognize that efficiency and safety are both important, and also understand that there is a trade-off between them, so that whenever we increase one we are mindful of the impact on the other. There is never going to be a silver bullet that maximizes both.
Transportation safety versus efficiency is really just a special case of a more general dilemma: how to build a civil society while maintaining individual freedom. In this context, “freedom” refers to an individual’s ability to express themselves, make their own choices, and pursue their own goals without interference; while “civility” refers to a society’s cohesiveness and inclusiveness, the extent to which it affords equal opportunities to all its members and treats them all with justice and compassion, leaving no one behind. Unfortunately, there is a tension between freedom and civility, as illustrated by this graph:
At the bottom left, we have no freedom or civility, which is the lowest humanity can sink: think Nazism. (This, I believe, is the explanation for Godwin’s law: all discussions that go on long enough end up with a comparison to Hitler.) Notice, however, that it’s not possible to achieve maximal freedom and maximal civility simultaneously: we cannot escape the trade-off triangle. A world with complete freedom is a world with no civil society at all: law of the jungle, dog eat dog, every man for himself, might makes right. On the other hand, attaining perfect civility would allow no freedom: it would require enforced orthodoxy, suppression of individuality, intolerance of criticism and dissent, groupthink — a benign dictatorship, a “Brave New World” dystopia.
Most everyone agrees in principle that both freedom and civility are important and that both extremes are bad, but I think our personal experiences and other biases can lead us to focus on one axis exclusively while ignoring the trade-off implications for the other. For example, someone whose current position in society is more secure, who belongs to a more privileged class, or who has had personal experience with authoritarianism, might tend to consider freedom all-important, and might too easily dismiss calls for more civility as whining and weakness. Whereas someone whose current position in society is less secure, who belongs to an underprivileged class, or who has had personal experience with a failed state, might tend to consider civility all-important, and might too easily dismiss calls for more freedom as greed and callousness.
It’s not my intention to suggest that there are no right or wrong answers to specific policy questions, or that the correct point of balance always lies at the exact center between the two extremes: as I’ve said, there are no silver bullets. And sometimes the person disagreeing with you actually does have bad intentions. But I think there are some principles we can adopt to help keep the conversation productive, and hopefully move us closer to the optimal part of the trade-off triangle:
Recognize that both freedom and civility are important; that more of one can sometimes mean less of the other; that we need voices on both sides to stop us from going too far in either direction. Don’t live in a bubble or an echo chamber, don’t automatically take the side of your preferred axis on every issue, don’t demonize the other side or dismiss their concerns out of hand. Try to understand the point-of-view of those who have had different life experiences than you.
And always remember that despite our differences, there’s one thing we can all proudly agree on: At least we’re not Nazis.
Nobody has a better right to speak in the name of the people November 6, 2016Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Politics.
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On January 30, 1937, Adolf Hitler gave a speech before the Reichstag, commemorating the four-year anniversary of his coming to power.
Surely nobody will doubt the fact that during the last four years a revolution of the most momentous character has passed like a storm over Germany. Who could compare this new Germany with that which existed on the 30th of January four years ago, when I took my oath of loyalty before the venerable President of the Reich? …
May we not speak of a revolution when the chaotic conditions brought about by parliamentary-democracy disappear in less than three months and a regime of order and discipline takes their place, and a new energy springs forth from a firmly welded unity and a comprehensive authoritative power such as Germany never before had? …
I myself, to whom the people have given their trust and who have been called to be their leader, come from the people. All the millions of German workers know that it is not a foreign dilettante or an international revolutionary apostle who is at the head of the Reich, but a German who has come from their own ranks…
The National Socialist Movement … refuses to allow the members of a foreign race to wield an influence over our political, intellectual, or cultural life. And we refuse to accord to the members of a foreign race any predominant position in our national economic system…
Confronted with this new and vigorous ideal, all idols and relics of the past which had been upheld by dynastic interests, tribal affiliations and even party interests, now began to lose their glamour. That is why the whole party system of former times completely collapsed in a few weeks, without giving rise to the feeling that something had been lost. They were superseded by a better ideal. A new movement took their place. A re-organization of our people into a national unit that includes all those whose labour is productive simply pushed aside the old organizations…
There could be no more eloquent proof of how profoundly the German people have understood the significance of this change and new development than the manner in which the nation sanctioned our regime at the polls on so many occasions during the years that followed. So, of all those who like to point again and again to the democratic form of government as the institution which is based on the universal will of the people, in contrast to dictatorships, nobody has a better right to speak in the name of the people than I have…
But the meaning and purpose of human organizations and of all human activities can be measured by asking what value they are for the maintenance of the race or people, which is the one existing element that must abide. The people — the race — is the primary thing. Party, State, Army, the national economic structure, Justice etc, all these are only secondary and accidental. They are only the means to the end and the end is the preservation of this nation. These public institutions are right and useful according to the measure in which their energies are directed towards this task. If they are incapable of fulfilling it, then their existence is harmful and they must either be reformed or removed and replaced by something better.
Proud to be the party that protects human life July 24, 2016Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Freedom, Politics, Religion.
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The Republicans have published their 2016 Party Platform, in which they claim to stand for noble ideals:
We denounce bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, ethnic prejudice, and religious intolerance. Therefore, we oppose discrimination based on race, sex, religion, creed, disability, or national origin and support statutes to end such discrimination… Our ranks include Americans from every faith and tradition, and we respect the right of each American to follow his or her deeply held beliefs.
Not bad, but they’re missing a crucial bit at the end there: it should read, “we respect the right of each American to follow his or her deeply held beliefs — so long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others.” We don’t condone polygamy, for instance, or human sacrifice, no matter how deeply someone might believe in them. But the omission was not accidental: before you know it, the authors’ own “deeply held beliefs” are trumping their supposed opposition to bigotry and discrimination.
We … condemn the Supreme Court’s lawless ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges… [in which] five unelected lawyers robbed 320 million Americans of their legitimate constitutional authority to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman…
We endorse the First Amendment Defense Act… which will bar government discrimination against individuals and businesses for acting on the belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.
This obstinate resistance to same-sex marriage (in spite of the fact that a majority of Americans support it) might seem puzzling, since the Republican platform is all about promoting “married family life as the basis of a stable and prosperous society”, and it praises adoption as well (“Families formed or enlarged by adoption strengthen our communities and ennoble our nation”). Why, then, are they hellbent on preventing same-sex couples from marrying and adopting? The only justification they offer is a depressingly familiar one: “traditional religious beliefs that have been held across the world for thousands of years”. Do those who use that argument really not realize that it applies equally well to innumerable atrocities we have worked hard to leave behind us, from witch hunting to slavery?
Same-sex marriage is not the only bogeyman the Republicans squander their energy on: abortion is mentioned in the platform thirty-four times. (Climate change is mentioned just nine times — the scientific consensus is rejected, in case you were wondering.) And this is where we really go through the looking glass. The platform says things like “We affirm our moral obligation to assist, rather than penalize, women who face an unplanned pregnancy,” and “We are proud to be the party that protects human life and offers real solutions for women,” but those words must not mean what I think they mean.
we assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to children before birth…
We will not fund or subsidize healthcare that includes abortion coverage…
We condemn the Supreme Court’s activist decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt striking down commonsense Texas laws providing for basic health and safety standards in abortion clinics.
Needless to say, those laws were designed solely to reduce the availability of abortions: Texas could not provide the Court with a single example of a woman whose health would have benefited from the laws’ provisions. And in addition to making it as difficult as possible for women to get abortions, the Republicans also want to make it more likely that they’ll need them:
We renew our call for replacing “family planning” programs for teens with sexual risk avoidance education that sets abstinence until marriage as the responsible and respected standard of behavior. That approach — the only one always effective against premarital pregnancy and sexually-transmitted disease — empowers teens to achieve optimal health outcomes. We oppose school-based clinics that provide referral or counseling for abortion and contraception…
This despite the fact that abstinence-only sex education has been shown to be ineffective at preventing unwanted pregnancy or the spread of STDs — in the U.S., abstinence education was actually found to be positively correlated with teen pregnancy. And just for good measure, the platform also opposes embryonic stem cell research, which has the potential to produce therapies for many horrible injuries and diseases. But don’t forget, they’re “proud to be the party that protects human life”.
Why does the Republican Party care more about clumps of cells than the health and happiness of actual human beings? Why do they obsess over controlling people’s sex lives (despite claiming to be “the party of independent individuals”)? It all starts with their definition of “the fundamental precepts of American government”:
That God bestows certain inalienable rights on every individual… that man-made law must be consistent with God-given, natural rights; and that if God-given, natural, inalienable rights come in conflict with government, court, or human-granted rights, God-given, natural, inalienable rights always prevail…
And they have a specific God in mind, of course:
We support the public display of the Ten Commandments as a reflection of our history and our country’s Judeo-Christian heritage…
Yes, the same Ten Commandments that teach us to kill people for worshiping the wrong god. So much for respecting Americans from every faith and tradition. The Constitution, of course, never mentions God at all. Because, if you care about reality and about the wellbeing of those living in it, you need to base your policies on reason and critical thinking — instead of blindly maintaining ancient beliefs and traditions just because they’re ancient, in the face of all evidence against them.
Assisted suicide is yet another humane policy opposed by the Republican platform. But some things should really be allowed to die.
Who’s afraid of evidence? July 9, 2016Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics, Reason, Science.
Tags: Jeffrey Guhin, Neil deGrasse Tyson
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted:
Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence
Apart from theocrats and dictators, you’d think most everyone could agree with that sentiment in principle. But not UCLA sociologist Jeffrey Guhin: he says it’s “a very stupid idea”. Guhin, you see, has uncovered a fatal flaw in the scientific method (brace yourself): Scientists aren’t perfect!
… experts usually don’t know nearly as much as they think they do. Experts often get it wrong, thanks to their inherently irrational brains that, through overconfidence, bubbles of like-minded thinkers, or just wanting to believe their vision of the world can be true, mislead us and misinterpret information. Rationality is subjective. All humans experience such biases; the real problem is when we forget that scientists and experts are human too—that they approach evidence and reasoned deliberation with the same prior commitments and unspoken assumptions as anyone else. Scientists: They’re just like us.
Well, that’s a surprise to precisely no one. Apart from the “rationality is subjective” nonsense, scientists would certainly agree with the above, Tyson included. That’s why the scientific method has developed tools to help correct for error and minimize bias: randomized and blinded experiments, peer review, meta-analysis, etc. Which is how, despite the human flaws of individuals scientists, science has been so amazingly successful at expanding our knowledge and improving our lives: electromagnetism, evolution, genetics, cosmology — the list goes on and on. Advances in medical science have doubled our life expectancy over the last century. Guhin, however, is not impressed:
… science has no business telling people how to live. It’s striking how easily we forget the evil following “science” can do. So many times throughout history, humans have thought they were behaving in logical and rational ways only to realize that such acts have yielded morally heinous policies that were only enacted because reasonable people were swayed by “evidence.” Phrenology—the determination of someone’s character through the shape and size of their cranium—was cutting-edge science. (Unsurprisingly, the upper class had great head ratios.) Eugenics was science, as was social Darwinism and the worst justifications of the Soviet and Nazi regimes. Scientific racism was data-driven too, and incredibly well respected. Scientists in the 19th century felt quite justified in claiming “the weight of evidence” supported African slavery, white supremacy, and the concerted effort to limit the reproduction of the lesser races…
And yet, despite its abysmal track record, people continue to have extremely positive opinions of “science.”
You’ve got to be kidding me: “abysmal track record”!? Just last week, NASA’s spacecraft Juno entered Jupiter’s orbit after travelling 1.7 billion miles over five years — and it arrived within one second of the predicted time. Now, it’s true that following the scientific method does not guarantee immunity from mistakes: reality is complicated. But Guhin’s purported examples of “the evil following science can do” are actually not scientific at all: from pseudoscience (like phrenology) to fascistic propaganda (like Nazism), the great mistakes of history were caused by ideological dogmatism, and would have been prevented by more skepticism and more insistence on rational evaluation of the evidence — exactly the lesson Tyson wants us to learn. Sure, the bad guys tried to leech off science’s good reputation by claiming it was on their side, but saying something is scientific doesn’t make it so. Does Guhin think Scientology is a scientific organization? Does he consider North Korea a democracy just because it calls itself “the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”?
Democracy is actually a good example of another system we stick with even though it’s imperfect — because it’s better than the alternatives. And that is the crux of the matter. Science is hard, and we should do our best to understand the ways it can fail so as to mitigate them; but come decision time, the only relevant question is whether there’s a superior alternative. If experts and evidence are stupid, what does Guhin think we should base our policy on instead? What method has a better track record than science? He does not get very specific about that.
Science may give us data, but that doesn’t mean that data points to truth—it just means that’s what we currently understand as truth. So how we act on that data requires nuance and judgment. It’s philosophical, maybe religious, and certainly political.
Oh, we just need to use “nuance and judgement”! Genius. What else? “Maybe religious,” he says — but which religion would that be? There are many, their prescriptions usually conflicting. And since religious beliefs aren’t evidence-based, religious differences cannot be resolved through rational discourse (witness the wonderful policies of ISIS, for instance). As for philosophy and politics, I would hope those are based on reason and evidence — otherwise we’re just back to religion again. Evidence is what grounds us to reality, and losing touch with reality inevitably turns out badly. Science is no more and no less than our best honest attempt to figure out what’s really true about the world we live in — and that’s exactly what you want to base your life decisions on.
Why, then, is Guhin so irrationally opposed to Rationalia? I don’t know. Perhaps he’s afraid that if the demand for reasonable arguments supported by evidence ever becomes widespread, he’ll have a hard time getting published.
Theirs is a repressive, hateful ideology June 14, 2016Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Politics.
Tags: Paul Ryan
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It is horrifying to see so many innocent lives cut short by such cowardice. Tonight, and in the long days ahead, we will grieve with the families…
As we heal, we need to be clear-eyed about who did this. We are a nation at war with Islamist terrorists. Theirs is a repressive, hateful ideology that respects no borders…
I’m certainly not going to minimize the problem of Islamist terrorists; and yet, they don’t hold a monopoly on repressive, hateful ideology. Take Paul Ryan, for instance. He has voted against same-sex couples adopting children in Washington D.C., opposed the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy (which barred openly gay persons from military service), and supported a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. In other words, he has actively contributed to the denigration and demonization of gays in our society, and has helped perpetuate the discrimination and injustice they face. And then, when gays are targeted for violence, he condemns someone else’s hateful ideology.
Perhaps, instead of praying, the Speaker could try doing something actually useful: he could speak up in support of equal rights for all, and against the dogmas that divide us — domestic as well as foreign. Being clear-eyed about one’s own failings does take courage; but Paul Ryan is no coward, is he?
Propagate a perverted interpretation February 7, 2016Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics, Religion.
Tags: Barack Obama, Islam
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President Obama visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore this week. Before I critique some of his remarks, let me first emphasize what I agree with: Anti-Muslim bigotry is no more acceptable than any other kind of bigotry. All Muslim individuals deserve to be treated with dignity as human beings, and should not have to face prejudice or discrimination or hate crime. But — and this is where the confusion begins — it does not follow that Islam, as a belief system, must be treated with respect; or that criticism of Islam is tantamount to bigotry. Islam is a set of ideas, and if some of those ideas are wrong or harmful, that’s something we need to talk about, no matter if some people find it offensive.
On with the criticism, then:
For more than a thousand years, people have been drawn to Islam’s message of peace… And like so many faiths, Islam is rooted in a commitment to compassion and mercy and justice and charity.
I realize politicians often play fast-and-loose with the meanings of words when telling an audience what it wants to hear, but this Orwellian whitewashing is a very cruel joke at the expense of those who actually live under Islamic law. Like in Saudi Arabia, where the poet Ashraf Fayadh just had his death sentence for apostasy downgraded (after an international outcry) to a mere eight years in prison and 800 lashes. Or in Pakistan, where those accused of blasphemy are often lynched before they even make it to trial, and a 15-year-old recently cut off his own hand to atone for inadvertent blasphemy. Or in Iran, where it’s legal to have sex with a girl — or execute her — at the age of nine (the age of Muhammad’s bride Aisha when their marriage was consummated).
Wait a minute, what am I saying: everyone knows that while religion deserves credit for inspiring people to do good things, it’s never at fault when people’s religious beliefs motivate them to do bad things. Islam is defined to be compassionate and merciful and just, so anyone who commits hateful or cruel or unjust acts in the name of Islam must be perverting the True Faith!
Even as the overwhelming majority — and I repeat, the overwhelming majority — of the world’s Muslims embrace Islam as a source of peace, it is undeniable that a small fraction of Muslims propagate a perverted interpretation of Islam…
Groups like al Qaeda and ISIL, they’re not the first extremists in history to misuse God’s name. We’ve seen it before, across faiths. But right now, there is a organized extremist element that draws selectively from Islamic texts, twists them in an attempt to justify their killing and their terror…
Groups like ISIL are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders and holy warriors who speak for Islam. I refuse to give them legitimacy…
We shouldn’t play into terrorist propaganda. And we can’t suggest that Islam itself is at the root of the problem. That betrays our values. It alienates Muslim Americans. It’s hurtful to those kids who are trying to go to school and are members of the Boy Scouts, and are thinking about joining our military.
That kind of mindset helps our enemies. It helps our enemies recruit. It makes us all less safe. So let’s be clear about that.
I don’t know which would be more depressing: if Obama really believes all that, or if he thinks that pretending to believe it is the politically expedient thing to do. I don’t doubt that the overwhelming majority of Muslim Americans are horrified by the actions of ISIL; so I understand they might not welcome the idea that their religion is part of the problem. But that’s the truth: the beliefs, methods, and goals of ISIL are taken directly from the seventh-century worldview of Muhammad and his followers, no selective twisting necessary.
We desperately need moderate Muslims to modernize and reform their religion, to discard those parts of it that are incompatible with civil society; but that’s not likely to happen while the President insists that Islam is as awesome as apple pie (and that to suggest otherwise is terrorist propaganda that helps our enemies). By refusing to acknowledge the link between specific Islamic doctrines and the atrocities motivated by them, it’s Obama who’s betraying “our values” (which hopefully include things like freedom of speech and gender equality), turning his back on those who are oppressed daily by Islamic regimes following Islamic teachings.
Muslim Americans shouldn’t be treated like immature children who might decide to go fight for ISIL if we hurt their feelings by criticizing their beliefs. Those who share our values should be willing to stand up for them, even if that means rethinking and revising their own religion when it conflicts with those values. And if some of our fellow citizens are actually committed to anti-democratic ideas (which I’m sure is true for many non-Muslims as well), that’s something we need to recognize and talk about honestly. Denying the problem doesn’t make us safer. I wish the President were more clear about that.
Don’t let Scalia tell you there’s nothing wrong January 5, 2016Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Politics, Religion.
Tags: Antonin Scalia
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently graced some students in Louisiana with his learned opinions.
He told the audience at Archbishop Rummel High School that there is “no place” in the country’s constitutional traditions for the idea that the state must be neutral between religion and its absence.
“To tell you the truth there is no place for that in our constitutional tradition. Where did that come from?” he said. “To be sure, you can’t favor one denomination over another but can’t favor religion over non-religion?”
I wonder, what are Scalia’s criteria for a religion to be eligible for favored status? Would he include Scientologists? Satanists? Followers of Zeus and Ra? Is any belief too crazy, or is it sufficient to believe in something for which there is no evidence?
He also said there is “nothing wrong” with the idea of presidents and others invoking God in speeches. He said God has been good to America because Americans have honored him…
“God has been very good to us. That we won the revolution was extraordinary. The Battle of Midway was extraordinary. I think one of the reasons God has been good to us is that we have done him honor. Unlike the other countries of the world that do not even invoke his name we do him honor. In presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways,” Scalia said.
“There is nothing wrong with that and do not let anybody tell you that there is anything wrong with that,” he added.
I’m afraid there are several things wrong with that. If we actually look at the other countries of the world, we find that highly nonreligious societies like Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands rank higher than the U.S. on indexes like life expectancy and education; while the poorest countries tend to be the most religious. And you know who else believed they had God on their side? The Romans. And the Mayans. And the Egyptians. For a while, anyway.
It turns out that societies do better when they base their policies on reason and evidence rather than magical thinking and dogmatic adherence to tradition. After all, one person’s religion is just another’s superstition. Do we really want our leaders invoking the magical, and our laws favoring the superstitious? Even Scalia ought to be able to see what’s wrong with that.
(via Why Evolution is True)
Backlash December 23, 2015Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics.
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- “Donald Trump Faces Immigration Backlash from Tech-Billionaires” (December 1)
- “Leaders Warn Against Stereotyping and Backlash After San Bernardino Shooting” (December 3)
- “‘Thoughts and Prayers’ Backlash After San Bernardino Shooting” (December 3)
- “Coke pulls offensive Christmas ad but faces backlash from indigenous rights group” (December 5)
- “Dems Fear Backlash Over Obama’s ‘Weak and Unclear’ Plan to Defeat ISIS” (December 8)
- “Donald Trump’s Anti-Muslim Demand Sparks Sharp Backlash” (December 9)
- “Backlash Over Santa ‘Ban’ at NYC School a Misunderstanding” (December 14)
- “Virginia county closes schools as Islam homework draws backlash” (December 18)
- “Wisconsin mayor faces backlash for calling Obama a Muslim” (December 22)
- “Obama administration’s proposed insurance reforms incite industry backlash” (December 22)
- “Family faces backlash for controversial Christmas photo” (December 22)
- “Clinton’s Hispanic outreach sparks online backlash” (December 22)
- “Trump Faces Backlash Over Sexually Derogatory Remark About Hillary” (December 23)
- “Michael Sam Tweets Major ‘Star Wars’ Spoiler, Draws Fiery Backlash From Followers” (December 19)
If gerrymandering were allowed outside politics November 2, 2014Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics.
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- “So what if I was driving 10 mph over the speed limit? Yesterday I drove 15 below.”
- “You may have won two out of three games, but I scored more points in the first three quarters of the first game and in the last three quarters of the last game. So I win the series.”
- “I know you’re entitled to a refund for unused items, but since you bought four items and used two we’re considering all the items half used.”
We were true believers January 25, 2014Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Politics.
Tags: Milan Kundera
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From Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984):
Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers.
Then everyone took to shouting at the Communists: You’re the ones responsible for our country’s misfortunes (it had grown poor and desolate), for its loss of independence (it had fallen into the hands of the Russians), for its judicial murders!
And the accused responded: We didn’t know! We were deceived! We were true believers! Deep in our hearts we are innocent!
… whether they knew or didn’t know is not the main issue; the main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn’t know. Is a fool on the throne relieved of all responsibility merely because he is a fool?
… Isn’t his “I didn’t know! I was a believer!” at the very root of his irreparable guilt?