Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Classless No More

One of the things I loved about the USA when I was young was that we were a classless society. As I got older I was more realistic; I celebrated that we were much less of a class-based society than others around the world.
But in our new Gilded Age we are losing even the appearance of classlessness.
Today I saw a cartoon by one of my favorite cartoonists, Jen Sorenson, that illustrates the new class-stratification. Not long ago Thanksgiving was an almost universal holiday. Only those who filled the essential jobs in our society—police, nurse, firemen—worked on that day. Now of course, with Black Friday starting ever earlier, more and more of the working class are being required to work as if this holiday were just another day of the week. Sorensen writes, “Like so many aspects of American life, holidays have become two-tiered.” 

Lots of people will be flying this Thanksgiving weekend and have a front-row seat, if you will, to the increasingly class-tiered airlines. I don’t fly often, but last summer I went to see family. I bought my ticket four months in advance and was surprised at how limited the seat choices were. When I was waiting to board my first flight I learned the reason: the airlines are now selling access to aisle seats, selling the right to board early to get first-crack at the overhead bins, etc. As the gate attendant called off the boarding zones I realized I was in the “brown” group, one of the pitiful povs who boarded last (nod to SouthPark).

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Seven Deadly Sins are Now Virtues

Recently Matthew Fox spoke at Jubilee, in Asheville. He spoke of an affliction of our time: “Couchpotatoitis.” He also used an old word for this condition, “sloth,” and it reminded me of an article I had written years ago:
When I read Kevin Phillips’ Wealth and Democracy a passage jumped out at me: A research firm called SRI International had written that the Catholic Church’s “seven deadly sins”—pride, gluttony, envy, sloth, greed, lust, and wrath—are capitalism’s virtues.
I think this is a profound observation. For a long time I have felt there is a flaw in capitalism but struggled to find a way to express it, and this may be it.
Early in its history the Catholic Church developed a classification system for sins: some were minor and could be forgiven easily but others were “mortal”; these carried the threat of eternal punishment. These mortal sins are the seven deadly sins and were obviously extremely serious transgressions. 

In the Medieval era artists helped to warn Christians of the peril of committing one of these sins, for an example see “Seven Deadly Sins,” by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1480, above). In Inferno (written around 1315), Dante Alighieri envisioned nine circles of Hell. Sinners condemned for the relatively less serious sins of the flesh (lust, gluttony, and avarice) were in the upper circles, while those condemned for sins of the spirit (sloth, anger, envy, and pride) were placed in the deepest circles of Hell.
Why did the Church consider these feelings so deadly? By looking at them in terms of relationship to God we can discover some answers. Three can be seen as choosing the material world over the spiritual: greed, gluttony, and lust all imply an unhealthy desire for more money or food or sex than the body needs.
The other four can be seen as sinning in thought against God. Envy means you desire something someone else has and you don’t—in other words you are saying God made a mistake in your creation. Wrath likewise implies a judgment that something is wrong with God’s creation. In medieval times sloth didn’t mean general laziness like we think today, it meant laziness towards the things of the spirit. Thus it was a rejection of God. Pride has been called the “deadliest sin.” Pride means wanting to set yourself above everyone, including God.
What do we think of these “sins” today?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Low Minimum Wage Means Taxpayers Are Subsidizing Corporations

In the news this week is a story about an Ohio Wal-Mart that has set up bins in its employee-only section asking for food donations for needy fellow workers.
This story reminded me of a “New Rules” segment on Bill Maher’s show a few months ago when fast food workers were striking. Maher pointed out that a high number of minimum-wage workers have to use federal programs like food stamps and Medicaid to survive, and that this means the American taxpayer is subsidizing these large corporations. In other words, part of Wal-Mart and McDonald’s profit comes straight out of your tax payment.
Maher said,
If Colonel Sanders isn’t going to pay the lady behind the counter enough to live on, then Uncle Sam has to. And I for one am getting a little tired of helping highly profitable companies pay their workers.
A site called “Good Jobs First” has a report on use of Medicaid by employees of various corporations, divided by state. Wal-Mart stands out, frequently with the most employees on Medicaid in a particular state, followed by fast food companies and grocery stores. (Here’s another article with lots of links.)
The cost of low wages at Wal-Mart are at the center of a new report released last week by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
The report details assistance that includes not only Medicaid and food stamps, but subsidized housing, reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches, subsidies for home heating, the earned income tax credit, and child care subsidies.
Factoring in what taxpayers contribute for public programs, the report estimated that one Wal-Mart supercenter employing 300 workers could cost taxpayers at least $904,000 annually.
That comes to $3000 a person per year. If each employee works 40 hours per week for 50 weeks, that’s 2000 hours (of course part of the problem is that Wal-Mart doesn’t allow employees to work full-time to evade federal regulations), means a pay increase of $1.50 an hour would cover this cost.
A DailyKos story from last year on this issue reported:
At over $446 billion per year, Wal-Mart is the third highest revenue-grossing corporation in the world. Wal-Mart earns over $15 billion per year in pure profit and pays its executives handsomely. In 2011, Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke – already a millionaire a dozen times over – received an $18.1 million compensation package. The Walton family controlling over 48 percent of the corporation through stock ownership does even better. Together, members of the Walton family are worth in excess of $102 billion – which makes them one of the richest families in the world.
Our American system of capitalism is deeply flawed. Proponents of the “free market” claim that Wal-Mart is just paying its employees what the market demands. This is completely false; there is nothing “free” about this taxpayer-subsidized system of low-wage employment.
Can you feel the resentment rising? How long can the American people bear this injustice? Maybe as we learn that this is hurting all of us, we will stand up together and demand change.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Masters of Sex

I was intrigued when I heard Showtime was going to do a series on Masters and Johnson, the sex researchers, so even though I almost never watch modern soap operas, I made an exception and have watched all of the episodes so far.
After a couple of episodes I got impatient to learn what was true and what was invented, so I got the book that inspired the series, Masters of Sex, by Thomas Maier. I was glad to see that much of the television material is true to what is presented in the book.
From my point of view Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson were heroic people, willing to make sacrifices to study an incredibly central part of human life that had been ignored because of puritanical fears. Masters had an extremely successful ob-gyn practice and was a respected member of the Washington University medical school, and studying sex put all of that on the line. In fact, because of the small-mindedness of many of the doctors at Washington University, he ended up walking away from it so he could continue the research. Johnson was a single mother and she spent very little time with her children because she was so devoted to the work.
As a female, I was fascinated by Virginia Johnson. She didn’t ever get a college degree, yet through her intelligence, talent, and hard work she became Dr. Masters’ equal in the research. And this makes Masters equally fascinating: he was capable of letting go of the arrogance so many doctors take as their right.
Another thing that made Johnson unusual and the perfect partner for this research was her attitude towards sex. She was a free-spirit born before her time, a woman who somehow escaped the indoctrination that sex had to be linked to love and relationship. Her enthusiasm and openness drew volunteers to participate in the study, and the volunteers included doctors and doctor’s wives! Because she was comfortable with her own sexuality, she was able to create an atmosphere that allowed volunteers to feel at ease having sex in a clinical setting. When they switched from research to creating therapies, Johnson actually took the lead, and once again I think it was because of her understanding of the fundamental importance of sex in our lives.
This attitude is clear in the (following) comment Johnson made about the therapy, called “sensate focus,” which was a series of touching exercises, without intercourse, to restore/establish intimacy. Maier writes:
So many patients had been taught that sex was wrong that it rendered them unable to make love in a mature or even adequate way. “What is totally foreign to effective sexual development, in spite of centuries of practice, is the notion that sex is dirty, supplemented by various controls exercised through fear, rejection, ignorance, and misconception,” Johnson later said.
It’s easy to watch the TV show and assume a sense of cultural superiority—our 21st century sexuality is so much freer than that of the repressed 1950’s. But is it really? I was an adolescent during the height of the Sixties free-love and women’s liberation movements and I took them to heart. I thought women would/could escape the cultural demands to look a certain way—makeup, high heels, bras, etc.—and we could just love the one we’re with without it meaning anything other than mutual pleasure.
Carina Chocano eloquently expressed the way I perceive modern female presentation in a recent article in the New York Times:
[The Showtime series] prods us to look at sex not as entertainment (even, of course, as it provides that) but as both basic animal behavior and a societal construct...
Sex may be completely out in the open now, but for all its prevalence…it still feels schematic and hidebound. In the past 30 years, ideas about what makes women “sexy” have become narrower, more rigid and more pornographic in their focus on display and performance. The pervasiveness of the porn aesthetic is especially insidious for young girls’ self-perception, as they constantly absorb the message that the modern choice comes down to either abject invisibility or duck-faced selfies across a portfolio of social-media accounts. I’m not exactly sure what I’m looking at when I see Kim Kardashian or Miley Cyrus, or their millions of adolescent imitators. But I’m pretty sure it’s not liberation.
The idea that frank presentations of sex are somehow daring or iconoclastic is an enduring idea whose time has, perhaps, come and gone. As symbols of a repressive norm, we may have simply replaced “’50s housewife” with “porn star.”
I liked her phrase, “societal construct.” Most of us don’t think of sex that way, but our attitudes towards it are heavily influenced by our society’s belief systems. It was foolish of course to think in the 1970s that we could overthrow thousands of years of social rules overnight, but still, I’d love to live to see the day when the norm about sex wasn’t “repressive.”
One of the fascinating aspects of Masters and Johnson is that they started having sex during the research project. Unfortunately some things never get explained in Maier’s book, and chief among them (in my mind) is Masters and Johnson’s attitude about their sexual relationship. Clearly it happened, but neither of them ever spoke or wrote about it in detail (at least according to Maier’s research), so we can only speculate. There is talk that Masters demanded sex early in their work as a condition of Johnson’s continued employment, and Johnson did give some support for that having happened in an interview with Maier. The TV show portrays their sex as part of a long-standing scientific tradition of scientists experimenting on themselves. I imagine, given both of their dedication, that this was at least partially true. Their lives also demonstrated how difficult it is to separate sex from emotional attachment: they did eventually marry.
One huge disappointment: Virginia Johnson destroyed all the audiotapes of interviews and films that had been created during their research. These could and should have been donated to a university, and it’s a great loss to our culture. It’s kind of inexplicable considering her devotion to the studies, other than an expression of spite towards Masters (who had divorced her to marry his first love) or towards the society that had rendered Masters and Johnson somewhat irrelevant after a decade or so of being on the cutting edge.
A bit of trivia: I was raised in St. Louis, where Masters and Johnson did all of their research. I lived there from 1961 until I graduated from high school in 1976 and I was completely unaware that they were based in my hometown. This was the height of their fame, and when I asked my mother about it she professed ignorance also, even though my father was associated with the medical school of Washington University at the time this research was taking place.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Promise of the Internet

For many years I have been excited about what the Internet will bring via the interconnection of the planet. YouTube alone is an amazing force for world peace, I think (see this blog post). With the seemingly universal love of cute cat videos, people all around the world find themselves watching a video and realizing an unknown language is being spoken in the background. This cat lives in another country, maybe even a country that is perceived as an enemy, and the owner plays with the cat in the exact same way the viewer does. Or they love their baby the same way the foreigner in the cute baby video does. By watching ordinary people do ordinary things we learn that all human beings are more alike than different.

Today I read about something extraordinary that will help save countless mothers and babies during childbirth, and it was inspired by a YouTube video.

Jorge Odón, an auto mechanic in Argentina, watched a video about extracting a "lost" cork from a wine bottle with some friends. That night he had a dream that this same principle could work extracting a baby from a mother's vagina during difficult births. 
The next morning he rigged up a crude prototype using a large glass bottle and one of his daughter's dolls. He showed it to an obstetrician, who helped him obtain more realistic materials for future prototypes, and the World Health Organization is now conducting a test in a few countries around the world. 
A medical devices company has signed on to make the devices and they should cost less than $50 to make, meaning the life-saving device will be available in poor countries.
“This is very exciting,” said Dr. Mario Merialdi, the W.H.O.’s chief coordinator for improving maternal and perinatal health and an early champion of the Odón Device. “This critical moment of life is one in which there’s been very little advancement for years.”
In wealthy countries, fetal distress results in a rush to the operating room. In poor, rural clinics, Dr. Merialdi said, “if the baby doesn’t come out, the woman is on her own." The current options in those cases are forceps — large, rounded pliers — or suction cups attached to the baby’s scalp. In untrained hands, either can cause hemorrhages, crush the baby’s head or twist its spine. 
"This problem needed someone like Jorge,” Dr. Merialdi said. “An obstetrician would have tried to improve the forceps or the vacuum extractor, but obstructed labor needed a mechanic. And 10 years ago, this would not have been possible. Without YouTube, he never would have seen the video.”
This is just the beginning...

Monday, November 11, 2013

An Objective Morality

I’ve been involved in a couple of forums where the subject of morality has come up. In one, the members are interested in spirituality. Some of these people seem to think that non-dualist spirituality means there is no such thing as bad or good. Everything’s perfect so morality is basically meaningless.
On the other forum, most of the members are atheists, and they’re trying to understand how an objective morality could exist. The question is, without a God imposing morality on humanity, how can a human system be anything but relative?
I’m not an atheist, but I don’t think God intervenes in the evolution of the universe. In other words, I think the unfolding of evolution proceeds in an inevitable fashion. So I like to find ways to explain phenomena like “morality” and “love” without recourse to metaphysics (although I think there can be an explanation from an underlying ground of consciousness, see note at end).
This question of the objectivity of morality is important. By objective I mean something that can be agreed upon by other people. If morality is subjective, that means you can just do what you like; there would be no difference between saving someone from drowning and cheating that person out of their life’s savings. Any society that adopted that ethos would quickly descend into chaos. 
Last year I read philosopher Alexander Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality and enjoyed it quite a bit more than I thought I would. I think part of the reason is that Rosenberg attempts to understand concepts such as morality as evolved behaviors.
Evolutionary biologists propose that a special dynamic of evolution called “group selection” has brought about altruism in humans: groups in which the members cooperated and could trust each other did better than groups in which there was a lot of infighting and deceit (see this blog post). This process led to the development of moral attributes.
Rosenberg asserts that there is a core morality that all human societies share, and the most basic components of that morality are: reciprocity, fairness/equality, trustworthiness/honesty, and caring for your children. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind (you can read chapter 9 free online which discusses morality) has identified six candidates: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty. Other possibilities, he says, are property, honesty, and a dislike of wastefulness.
Rosenberg writes, “All societies and cultures have words for anger, disdain, shame, and guilt, and in each, they name roughly the same set of bodily feelings.” Shame is the feeling we get when we go against core moral principles, and blushing is a signal to the others in the group that we realized we made an error.
When it appears that other cultures don’t share this core morality, Rosenberg says it is because of the interference of beliefs (see this post for more on beliefs):
The next step in understanding moral disagreement involves recognizing that such disagreements always result from the combination of core morality with different factual beliefs. When you combine the uncontroversial norms of the moral core with some of the wild and crazy beliefs people have about nature, human nature, and especially the supernatural, you get the ethical disagreements that are so familiar to cultural anthropology.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Cornel West: Be Ready to Die

Dr. Cornel West came to Asheville last night and spoke at UNCA. His talk was an inspiring mix of philosophy, spirituality, and political activism.
He started with the admonition he gives his students at the beginning of every school year at Union Theological Seminary: be ready to die. What he means by this is be willing to question your beliefs. When we swallow the beliefs and preconceptions of our family and culture we are nothing more than sleepwalkers. Instead, Dr. West told us, we should be critical thinkers and question everything. He approvingly quoted a black woman at the 1964 Democratic National Convention saying, “I question America.”
This resonated deeply with Arthur and me, because survival is at the foundation of our philosophy (see this blog post by Arthur). When you look at what’s going on in the physical world all around us, it’s clear that all physical form attempts to survive unchanged from one moment to the next. Everything tries to maintain its existent structural identity through time. But the forces of change work on everything, from a bacterium that lives and dies in 20 minutes to a star that is born and goes supernova in 100 million years. Nothing physical stays the same.
But thoughts and beliefs are non-physical forms. Because they’re forms they’re bound to attempt to survive, but because they are non-physical, they’re immune from the physical forces of change. A belief, like “America is the best country on earth—love it or leave it” can survive unchanged across generations of believers. Unless it’s questioned. The only thing that can kill a belief is questioning by the believer.
In addition, we identify with our beliefs. They define who we are. The belief “I’m an American and that makes me superior to other people around the globe” becomes part of my identity. So if that belief is threatened, it feels like I’m being threatened. When that belief is “killed,” that is, when I no longer believe it, it feels like part of me has been killed.
Dr. West asserted in his speech that this willingness to question and die is absolutely essential to a democracy. Slavery is an example: our country was founded with the belief that it was acceptable to own human beings. This meant that for seventy-five years a significant percentage of the population of the country were not citizens and could not participate in civic society and in government. This meant we were not fully a democracy. Through the questioning and killing of the belief “slavery is acceptable,” which took a Civil War and the Civil Rights movement to fully accomplish, our democracy has gotten stronger.
Bringing this principle into the modern day, Dr. West questioned the priorities of not just the Republican Party, but the Democratic Party as well (which clearly stunned many in the crowd, there wasn’t much applause for that line). He questioned the cupidity of our culture, the greed and grasping, the elevation of the financial sector over all others, the increasing income divide between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of us. He questioned President Obama’s priorities, which, he said, has brought him a lot of criticism as a black man.
Unfortunately, Dr. West said, our present culture feeds the tendency to sleepwalk with somnolence-inducing television, movies, and the Internet.
Get out of your comfort zone. Take risks. Challenge your holy cows. Question everything. Think for yourself. This, Dr. West says, is the only hope for the future of democracy. Without the willingness of each individual to die, our fragile, precious democracy will die.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Dental Cyst

Last week I learned I had what’s called a “lateral periodontal cyst” between two of my front teeth that required surgery to remove. I’ve decided to do a blog post because when I googled the condition almost nothing comes up. I guess it must be fairly rare.
Symptoms: One of the problems with this condition is there aren’t symptoms. My periodontist told me that the vast majority are discovered only when they have broken through the bone structure between the teeth and created horrible gum pockets. They can be detected with X-rays, but from the little information I have gleaned, the cysts are most often found between the front teeth, which are not usually X-rayed. My cyst is between tooth 9 (which is the left front tooth) and 10.
However, in retrospect I can report two symptoms: first was the feeling of having something stuck between these two teeth, like a piece of straw, but nothing would be there. I have felt this intermittently for a couple of years, but I really didn’t give it much thought.
Second, about eight months ago it felt as if someone had socked me in the mouth. This has never happened to me, but the feeling was that all my teeth, particularly the top front teeth, were aching. This lasted for a few days. I had a regular dental cleaning not long after this happened so I remembered to mention it to the hygienist. She said that this could be caused by grinding your jaw or a sinus infection. I do tend to clench my jaw so it made sense that this was the cause.
Three weeks ago the aching started again, and this time it didn’t go away. After about a week I got a sharp pain centered on one of my front teeth (#9) and the gum above it. It felt like a gum infection, so I waited a couple of days because I had just been to my dentist for another regular visit and I was a little irritated about having to go back. The gum pain eased over the next couple of days, but the funny feeling in my tooth didn’t. It was very sensitive when I bit into something. There were also a couple of small bumps on the ridge above the front tooth and the one to the side. So I called my dentist.