A Tale of Two Op-Eds

Last week, I unsubscribed from the New York Times after they published an op-ed advocating censorship. This week, a whole bunch of people (many of whom have blue check marks) have gotten upset about Bret Stephens’s first column in the paper, which said that claiming absolute certainty about climate science is counterproductive and dishonest.

Above is the tweet with the article. Below are some responses to the tweet:

musician

Chuck is a musician and blogger. He is also disappointed. NYT = fake news for publishing an op-ed that questions the value of asserting absolute certainty on climate change. Questioning the certainty of climate science = science denial.

erick

Erick writes at HuffPo, that paragon of journalistic responsibility. He has written hard-hitting pieces such as “Bernie Sanders’ Jumpshot Is More Impressive Than His Primary Win” and “Here Is President Obama’s 2016 March Madness Bracket.” How dare the NYT say anything about climate change that doesn’t reinforce what everyone else is saying all the time, namely, that if you deviate from the consensus at all, then you’re anti-science.

monica

I guess Monica is just some kind of writer. But she recognizes that Times readers don’t necessarily have much critical thinking ability, and that therefore they can only publish things that Monica agrees with, lest somebody be led astray.

What is unbelievable to me is that it doesn’t seem like Stephens is making a particularly strong claim. He concedes that the earth is growing warmer, and that humans are playing a significant part in contributing to the earth’s increased temperature. That is all the science really tells us, as Stephens notes. The main point of the article is not to deny climate change, but to question the strategy of people who want to pass legislation to counteract climate change.

And his point is obviously correct. The more dogmatically you hold to a position, the more you assert that you are 100 percent correct, the more likely it is that other people will think something is fishy. The lady doth protest too much, methinks. If you want people to listen to you, don’t tell them that they are stupid if they disagree with you. No one will want to engage with you, because you have made conversation impossible.

I can’t say for sure, but it seems like Stephens’s column provoked more outrage than Ulrich Baer’s op-ed on free speech, which I find quite disturbing. I base this on the twitter responses to the tweet above versus the tweet below. Thus, this claim might only apply to people in the media, who are disproportionately likely to be on twitter. Nevertheless, what this indicates is that the media is more committed to its claims about climate change than it is to free speech. They’ve got it totally backwards.

Anyhow, I liked Stephens’s column, and I’m glad the NYT published it. I won’t be renewing my subscription, but I will use up an occasional free article view on Stephens, I am sure.

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Remembering the Confederacy

A handful of southern states celebrate Confederate Memorial Day. I’m not entirely clear on the purpose of the holiday for those who observe it, but my understanding is that it is to honor the confederate soldiers who served and died during the Civil War. Understandably, this holiday is controversial:

Are these fair assessments of the holiday? I’d say that, for the most part, they are.

The simple fact is that the Confederate States of America existed for the sole purpose of maintaining the institution of slavery, which is almost certainly the greatest evil in the history of the country. Southern apologists may tell you that the Civil War was about “states’ rights.” Don’t be fooled. The South wanted to extend slavery as far as it could, even into free states, if possible. At common law, before the zenith of antebellum sectional tension, slaves went free after residing in free jurisdictions. Southern states, however, stopped enforcing the common law, instead deciding that their own laws governed the status of slaves regardless of where they were. In other words, once a slave, always a slave, and the laws of free states could do nothing to change that. So much for states’ rights.

And if you don’t believe me, listen to the Mississippi declaration of secession:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world…

The hostility to this institution commenced before the adoption of the Constitution, and was manifested in the well-known Ordinance of 1787, in regard to the Northwestern Territory…

It refuses the admission of new slave States into the Union, and seeks to extinguish it by confining it within its present limits, denying the power of expansion… [emphasis added]

The Confederacy was a self-declared nation committed primarily to the preservation and expansion of the perpetual subjugation of one race to another. There is no justification for regarding it with anything except horror.

But what about the individual soldiers who bravely “fought in defense of their homes, their families, their way of life, and their state”? After all, they are the subject of the holiday, not the Confederacy itself.

Some of them were undoubtedly admirable individuals. Nevertheless, they fought, killed, and were killed for the sake of perpetuating a grievous moral abomination. Why honor that? When good men are sacrificed for an abominable cause, there is nothing to celebrate.

That’s not to say, however, that the confederacy should not be remembered. But if we are to observe Confederate Memorial Day, it should be the same kind of observance as Holocaust Memorial Day. We should mourn our egregious moral failures as a nation and pray to God that we don’t repeat them. After all, we are always in danger of participating in grave collective evils, whether through our action or inaction, especially when we are willfully blind to the dark episodes in our history.

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is instructive:

The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

To honor those who fought in the Civil War instead of grieving and repenting of the collective sins that led to the war is to flout the advice Lincoln gives in his speech. Both North and South justly incurred the wrath of God by their willful moral blindness. Today, we still have not yet come to terms with the grave evils our ancestors committed. Indeed, we cannot atone for this sin, which has become our sin. We cannot escape the responsibility to remember it with grief and horror, and to promise that we will guard ourselves from committing such atrocities in the future.

Bravery and valor are virtues when used in service of the good, but they are vices when used in the service of evil. Let’s not gloss over the fact that the confederate soldiers honored by southerners on Confederate Memorial Day were fighting to preserve evil, even though they may not have been evil people themselves.

Blogs I Read

There’s a lot of good content on the internet. There’s also a lot of bad content on the internet. Here are some places where I regularly find more good content than bad. They are mostly focused on law, but there’s also a lot of commentary on free speech and the campus controversies surrounding it.

Simple Justice

This is Scott Greenfield’s blog. Greenfield is a criminal defense lawyer. He writes about the Supreme Court and constitutional law, as well as campus free speech controversies, several times a day. I’ve been reading every post that goes up on the blog since I found it, and they’re always good.

Popehat

Popehat is a blog run primarily by Ken White, another criminal defense lawyer. White and the others who run the blog have libertarian leanings, and one of the main topics they write on is free speech. They also have some commentary on media coverage of legal controversies (journalists are usually bad at legal analysis), in addition to commentary on appellate and Supreme Court decisions. Every once in a while they publish something funny just for kicks.

The Volokh Conspiracy

Eugene and Sasha Volokh started this law blog in 2002. It has since moved to the Washington Post and gained a bunch more authors, most of whom are law professors. The blog is generally conservative/libertarian in its leanings, although many of the posts are focused on technical legal questions, rather than political issues.

SCOTUSblog

This blog is, far and away, the best resource for people interested in quick updates on what is happening at the Supreme Court. They have all the case materials available for download, including cert petitions and amicus briefs. They also have a calendar that indicates when the Court is expected to release orders or decisions, when oral arguments for different cases are happening, and when the Justices will have conferences. There’s also a lot of helpful posts that explain why particular cases are important and what the relevant legal questions are for those cases.

Rules for Civil Discourse

People are bad at talking about divisive issues in a way that is productive. I think that the norm is for one of two things to happen when people discuss issues about which they’re passionate. The first possibility is that those around them will agree with everything they say, strengthening pre-existing biases. The second is that someone will raise a contrary viewpoint, resulting in an all-out war of words. Perhaps I’m being too pessimistic. I don’t know what most people are actually like, as I do not know most people; they might be much better at dialogue than I think they are. Nevertheless, this tendency toward polarization and toxic disagreement is real, and it is a problem. People need to be able to disagree without being at each other’s throats.

Here are some principles that I try to follow in order to avoid starting/exacerbating ideological flame-wars while still discussing controversial issues publicly:

Recognize that every opinion you express is an invitation for criticism or disagreement

When you say something about a controversial or politically charged topic, you should expect some resistance from people who disagree with you. This can be a sign that you have said something interesting that is worth engaging with. It can also be a sign that you’ve said something stupid. In any case, when you share an opinion, expect others to share contrary opinions. Even more, expect others to respond in ways that might annoy you or make you mad, and do your best to prepare yourself for it.

Attack ideas, not people

The quickest way to inject unnecessary drama into an argument is by calling one of the participants an idiot. Remember, smart people can believe dumb things. The way to convince people that your ideas are better than theirs is through reasoned argument, not through name-calling. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Ad hominem attacks are counterproductive; they make you sound like a childish fool.

Sometimes, it can be tempting to comment on someone’s critical thinking abilities (or lack thereof). This is a bad idea, even in cases when the person in question is demonstrating pretty severe deficiencies in critical thinking. When you tell someone that they’re thinking poorly, they will likely ignore everything else you say. In contrast, if you explain specifically what about their reasoning you think is wrong, they are more likely to continue engaging with you.

Don’t play to win, play to learn

Every disagreement is an opportunity to learn something. It’s possible that your views are wrong, and challenges to them from other intelligent people might lead you to change your mind. This is a good thing. Clinging to bad beliefs for the purpose of winning an argument is stupid (obviously).

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t make the best arguments that you can for your position. Productive debate requires that both sides make the strongest case that they can for their position. In the end, one side may or may not triumph over the other. Regardless, everyone will learn something. When you try to make a convincing argument, you need to think carefully about what you believe and to what extent the evidence actually supports your belief. Likewise, you need to consider the arguments of the other side and rebut them. As a result, you will think more clearly about the issue at hand.

Remember, you’re not as smart as you think you are

Arrogance is the enemy of learning. If you think you already know what you need to know, then you have no reason to listen to people who disagree with you. Chances are, many of the beliefs you hold are flawed or flat-out wrong. As a result, it might be a really good thing for someone to come along and change your mind. You get smarter by listening to other people, not by ignoring anyone who challenges your presuppositions.

*  *  *

I think that if everyone tried to follow these rules, then the world would be a much better place. Charity is sorely lacking in our political discourse, these days (not that it has ever been present). If we focus on pursuing the truth instead of demonstrating our intellectual or moral superiority over others when we discuss controversial topics, then we are far more likely to come to some kind of agreement. So let’s do that. Let’s argue vigorously, but treat people with kindness and respect. Let’s seriously consider contrary viewpoints in their strongest form. And of course, let’s change our minds when we’re wrong. Otherwise we’re doomed to stay as dumb as we are. Which is pretty dumb.

Dream: Slaying the Plesiosauria

It started on an island. I was on a trip with classmates (an odd mishmash of people I know from college and high school). I don’t remember much of what happened on the island, but it was someone’s birthday, and I was commanded to dance in celebration. I refused.

We were boarding a plane to leave the island. I was searching frantically through my bag for some kind of ID that everybody else had. All I could find was my passport and boarding pass. Would they let me on? They did. I let out a sigh of relief.

When on the plane, I go over to a bunch of my college friends and sit down with them. The interior of the plane resembles a fast-food restaurant, except with more open space. My friends’ table is fully occupied, so I go over to another table. This table has an open seat, and is populated by friends from my high school. They are all Asian.

Next thing I recall, I am in a house. I have a rifle. One of my friends and I are on a mission of some sort. We go out for the purpose of reconnaissance. I see our enemies exploring an abandoned building. I lift up the rifle, but I can’t line up a good shot, and it’s not worth blowing our cover. I go back to the house and go to sleep.

When I wake up, there’s an emergency. It is pouring rain outside. I know that I need to go out and take out the bad guys. I grab the rifle and fumble around with some gloves before deciding that I don’t need them. I exit the house through a door that is a bit below street level. There is a staircase that leads up to the street. I start climbing it. They’re coming. I lie prone on the staircase and watch. I don’t know how many of them there are, so I don’t want to shoot the first one that comes by. Instead, I watch.

Only one passes by, but I am now able to track him.

Next thing I know, the house morphs into a pool of some kind, and what appears to be the Loch Ness Monster (in retrospect, it seems to be a plesiosauria) emerges and swims toward me. It is going to kill me if I don’t act.

I dodge its first attack. The house has continued to morph, and now I’m in a large cylindrical chamber with high walls and a pool in the middle. I swim to the edge of the pool and get out. There is a few square meters of dry ground for me to stand on. The monster is coming at me. I lift the rifle and shoot it in the head.

It looks stunned, but not dead. Slowly, a gate drops between my little patch of dry ground and the pool. I wait. And the gate lifts, just as slowly. I shoot the monster in the head once more. The gate does the same thing. A third time, I shoot the monster in the head. This time, the gate comes down, and the ground beneath me starts rising, bringing me back to the surface.

A Thought on Dreams

I’m currently reading through Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. While I find much of what Freud says implausible, I think he’s right to say that dreams do have a meaning and can therefore be interpreted meaningfully. A few years ago, I would have dismissed Freud as nothing more than a pseudoscientist, and I thought that dream interpretation was bunk. That changed when I started listening to Jordan Peterson’s lectures.

Peterson relies on Jung more than on Freud, but Jung himself drew heavily from Freud’s work. What Peterson has taught me is that there is something (or a collection of things) in your mind that can be reasonably referred to as “the unconscious.” One can phrase this more intuitively as follows: There are components of your personality/mind that are somehow in opposition to one another and to the part of you that you think of as you (i.e. the ego).

How does this relate to dreaming? Dreams seem to be a product, at least in part, of the unconscious mind. My current mental picture of how dreams work is that there is a part of our minds which retrieves random information from the unconscious. We cannot direct this process, as far as I know. We have no control over what comes into our mind. Things just occur to us. This “occurring” happens both when we are awake and when we are asleep, but the presence of other stimuli causes us to mostly disregard these occurrences unless they are directly relevant. There are some exceptions, however. Earlier today, I had the chicken dance song pop into my head. God knows why.

I think our brain is constantly doing this, whether we are awake or asleep. When we are asleep, however, we don’t filter out the noise. Instead, we build on it and construct a world out of it. This is why dreams are often so nonsensical. They are the product of unfiltered thought.

It is hard to say exactly what dreams mean. But what is retained in memory is an indication of what is important. Dreams devoid of significant content are not as likely to be remembered. Likewise, the details which stick with you most are probably the ones that are most meaningful. It’s important to remember, though, that the fact that something sticks doesn’t make it significant. The chicken dance song wasn’t important to me this morning, but it stayed in my head for much longer than I would have liked.

I certainly put a lot less stock in dream interpretation than Freud does. I do not think that what the unconscious dreaming process produces has a lot to say about you on its own. I do, however, think that the nature of the things in your dreams which strike you most can tell you something important about what you value. The same is true of the way that unwarranted thoughts that occur to us affect us. What matters is not the thought itself, but our reaction to it.

Christ is Risen

In the beginning, God created the universe out of nothing. He spoke it into being, and then he filled it, using the creative power of his Word. Likewise, when his creation had fallen into disrepair, he restored it by the same creative power. Whereas he once said, “let there be light” and there was light, now he says “let these sinners be my children; let them be righteous.” We are now children of God, righteous in his sight.

The Word of God brings life out of death, good out of evil, righteousness out of unrighteousness, something from nothing. We know that God has this power, because he created the world, because he kept his promise to make of Abraham a great nation, because he delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and because he raised his Son Jesus Christ from the dead.

God’s craftsmanship does not depend on the raw material available to him. He needs no raw material at all. And indeed, we have no righteousness of our own. He creates all our righteousness for us ex nihilo and declares it to be ours. It is his gift.

A skilled doctor can sometimes help a sick person recover. But no one can make a dead person live again. Except God. Nature can only bring life out of life, but God can bring life out of death. He has done so by redeeming us from our wretched state of sin. We were wholly in the grasp of evil, inside and out, and God has freed us, inside and out.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The resurrection is the greatest thing that has ever happened. God came down from heaven to live life as a man. He died a death befitting a slave, bloodied and hanging from a cross, bearing all of our sins in his body. On the third day, he conquered the grave. Death fled from his body. He has made us heirs of the Kingdom of God alongside him. He has created righteousness for us to replace our many sins. He has defeated our enemies for good.

When Christ was crucified, it was our flesh that was crucified with him. But when he rose, it was not our flesh that rose. God has made us new.

Patience and Hope

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about Holy Saturday. At the time, I had just started attending a church called Calvary-St. George’s, which I am still involved with. The gist of the post is that the time Jesus spent lying in the tomb after dying on the cross, but before being raised on the third day, is worth thinking about.

It’s worth thinking about because it reminds us of the painful necessity of waiting for God to bring his acts to completion. Christ died on the cross. He had told his disciples that he would be raised in three days. Those three days must have felt like an eternity to the disciples, going back and forth between grief over their dead teacher and hope that what he said would come to pass.

When you really want something to happen, sometimes you convince yourself that it’s impossible so that you won’t get your hopes up. I think that the disciples did something like this. Perhaps that’s why Thomas doubted. He didn’t want to get his hopes up. Living in that state of tension between wanting something and suspecting that you will not receive that something takes a serious toll on you.

To the disciples, who saw Jesus’ power over the world first-hand, to whom he predicted his own death, what could furnish better hope in Christ’s resurrection than his claim that he would, indeed, rise from the dead? There can be no better grounds for believing such an extraordinary claim. And yet, the disciples doubted. How can one hope for something so great?

We are in the same kind of in-between period that the disciples were in after Christ’s death, but before his resurrection. We have been told that our flesh has been put to death in Christ’s death. We have been told that Christ will return, establishing his kingdom in full, glorifying our bodies, and making us righteous. We know that this will come to pass. We have been told by one who does not lie, and who has the power to make such a thing come to pass. But we must wait, just as the disciples had to wait for Christ to rise from death.

As it is, we wait and hope for something greater than we can imagine. We wait and hope for something impossible. We wait and hope for the total restoration of the world, a world in which the innocent suffer egregious evils, and in which the wicked prosper. How can this be?

I don’t know how it can be. But I also don’t know how it can be that God could be born on earth as a human infant for the purpose of eventually dying on the cross for the sins of mankind. I don’t know how he could rise from the dead. I don’t even know how it is that Christ’s death on the cross could possibly rescue the world from sin. I just know that it is so. In the same way, I know that God will restore the world, even if I do not understand how.

Because of the resurrection, we wait in confidence, rather than in suspense. Christ has already demonstrated his dominion over all the forces of evil in his death and resurrection. On Holy Saturday, we can remember his promise to his disciples that he would die and be raised on the third day, which he fulfilled. And in remembering his faithfulness in fulfilling one extraordinary promise, we can trust that he will be faithful in fulfilling his other promises to us, no matter how extravagant they may be.

Daily Blog Challenge

I’ve decided to post daily to this blog. This may be difficult. I tend to have trouble writing things that I feel are worthy of sharing on the internet. No matter. When it comes to blogs, I suppose it’s better to write poorly than not to write at all.

I plan to discuss a variety of topics in this blog, but I expect the main recurring themes to be law, theology, and philosophy. Not all of my posts will be long. In fact, most of them will probably be about as brief as this one—just a few paragraphs. My future posts will link to content that I either find interesting or feel the need to criticize. I will also discuss the books that I’m reading.

Hopefully, if I get in the habit of writing, the quality of my writing and the clarity of my thinking will both improve. I have a lot of thoughts that might be interesting, but I usually disappoint myself when I try to articulate them. My expectation is that trial and error will help me to sort the wheat from the chaff and build on what is worth building on.