On Utopia

As long as there has been civilization, it has been imperfect. As long as there have been philosophers, they have imagined perfect worlds. But the word utopia, coined by Thomas More in his eponymous book, is derived from the Ancient Greek οὐτοπία, which means “no such place.”

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ vision of a communist society has been the most widespread of all such ideas. Just as notable are the American states founded on utopian ideals — namely, Massachusetts and Utah. Such experiments on a smaller scale can be found throughout the United States. But these all have one thing in common — they have never succeeded.

Why is this? Why have Communist movements, despite their high ideals, always failed or been corrupted into totalitarianism? Why did New Harmony and Equality Colony falter while Packingtown had to be exterminated by the progressive movement? The answer, I believe, lies in an inherent flaw in the idea of a utopian society: every one of the members of the society must make conscious, continual efforts to adhere to its ‘central goal’, be it collectivism or theocracy or respect for nature. There is no room in such an idealized imagining for the realities of dissent and individualism; no place for the diversity of human beings, one of our most important characteristics, to shine. Instead, all people in the society are assumed to have the same slavish devotion to its principles as its creator. This is why utopias always collapse into debt or squabbling — because they cannot handle even small differences in opinion and action.

In contrast, philosophies of government that have ascended in power and proven their worth in matters of stability portray the opposite belief: capitalism, regardless of its lack of economic support for those who need it most, glorifies the individual’s ability to make choices, while functional democracy is based on the disparate opinions of its individual members.

Socialism cannot last because of its utopian attitude towards collectivism and economic welfare, whereas free market capitalism does nothing to alleviate the suffering of the poor. So is there a coherent economical philosophy that is both sustainable and receptive to the people’s problems? I believe there are several, which will be discussed in another post. #

kjk

Solidarity

The authors of Il Piano do not blog in a vacuum, and while our ability to make a global impact is small, we stand in support and solidarity with many greater organizations. Because of this, we are launching a Solidarity page, which will show our support for organization, movements, and individuals around the world. #

kjk

Recognizing Pseudoscience

I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience. And in addition, to whatever measure this term has any meaning, science has the additional virtue, and it is not an inconsiderable one, of being true.

Carl Sagan

Four and a half centuries ago, a boy was born in Pisa, Italy. He soon became a prominent inventor, professor, merchant, philosopher, and (in the modern usage of the term) the very first scientist on Earth. Almost having become a priest, this man instead laid the groundwork for an objective study of the universe. His name was Galileo Galilei.

Using the telescopes he constructed for himself, Galileo The Galilean Moonsdiscovered Jupiter’s four largest moons, Saturn’s rings, and topological variance on the Moon’s surface. But more importantly for science as a whole, he used the observational evidence he gathered to champion the theory of heliocentrism, that the Earth and other celestial bodies revolved around the Sun, to a point where the reactionary Catholic Church could no longer ignore it.

Heliocentrism contradicts Scripture, the church authorities maintained, so Galileo was denounced, vilified, insulted, and eventually put under indefinite house arrest for his heresy. But ideas are not so easy to imprison. Eventually, of course, his ideas withstood objective tests and were accepted by the scientific and religious alike.

However, Galileo’s work is not yet over. For as long as pseudoscience crouches in the shadows of society’s discourse, it can do harm to actual science as well as the practical realms of technology and medicine.

So how can we recognize pseudoscience in the wild?

There are several useful approaches of deciding whether a theory, hypothesis, or medical treatment is pseudoscientific. (Note: some items may appear in more than one category.)

  • Lack of definitive evidence. Examples of this category are regarded as truth by some without any rigorous experimental evidence, so they should be disregarded by a scientific mind.
    • The paranormal, defined by some as lying “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” Ghosts and psychic powers fall into this category.
    • Beliefs in an afterlife or reincarnation. Any scientific proof of either of these would grab world headlines.
    • Alternative medicine, such as acupuncture, homeopathy, unproven herbal remedies, and faith healing. “Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.” – Tim Minchin
    • Modern mysticism. Astrology, feng shui, tarot, numerology, and general superstition make definite predictions that have never seen success in the laboratory.
  • Conflicting evidence. Items here predict outcomes specifically at odds with reality.
  • Unfalsifiability. When there is literally no evidence that can even hypothetically shed doubt on a claim, it is unfalsifiable and thus its veracity cannot be determined from evidence alone. Like the claim that the world is filled with invisible and inaudible ghosts that cannot be detected by anything whatsoever, the following are unscientific and meaningless in a rational world.
    • Religion. Almost all hypotheses and tenets of major religions, such as the existence of an omnipotent being, an afterlife or reincarnation, creationism, and a “soul” or dual component of the human body, proudly depend on faith rather than reason, and so cannot be proven or disproven.
    • Conspiracy theories. There is no fact or evidence that could make proponents of the “moon landing hoax” hypothesis or the New World Order stop doubting the Establishment.
  • The anthropocentric fallacy.This is the conviction that in some manner, the laws of the universe treat humans differently than anything else. Somewhat of a litmus test for pseudoscience, the presence of this fallacy has never been found empirically in the real world. From the Catholic Church in Galileo’s time to the telepaths and zealots of today, some have never been able to accept that fact.
    • The paranormal. If humans had souls or could read minds, that would necessitate new laws of the universe dealing with just people, for which evidence has never been found.
    • Religion. Always the domain solely of humans, or humans and the animals on the same planet as humans, all major religions postulate specific beliefs pertaining to humans alone, the most characteristic and hubristic of which is “Man was made in God’s image.”
    • Mysticism. The best example of the anthropocentric fallacy is astrology, which posits that the stars, in all their universal glory, are mere vessels for predicting human events.

While unscientific claims may be topical in churches or at parties, they have no place in our schools, laboratories, and hospitals. #

kjk

Contempt of the People

Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald sent this email to his Republican cronies earlier today (bolding mine):

From: Sen.Fitzgerald
Sent: Monday, March 14, 2011 3:52 PM
To: *Legislative Senate Republicans
Subject: Senate Democrat voting privileges in standing committees

Dear Members,

With the return of the Senate Democrats this weekend, questions have arisen regarding Democrat members’ participation in Senate standing committee public hearings and executive sessions.

Please note that all 14 Democrat senators are still in contempt of the Senate. Therefore, when taking roll call votes on amendments and bills during executive sessions, Senate Democrats’ votes will not be reflected in the Records of Committee Proceedings or the Senate Journal. They are free to attend hearings, listen to testimony, debate legislation, introduce amendments, and cast votes to signal their support/opposition, but those votes will not count, and will not be recorded.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact my office.

Thank you,

Scott Fitzgerald
Senate Majority Leader
13th Senate District

Questions, Senator Fitzgerald? I have plenty. But most of them fall under the general headings of why are you disenfranchising your political opponents? Who does holding the Senators in contempt help, besides yourselves? When will the true voice of Wisconsin be heard again?

If you’re an eligible voter in Wisconsin, sign on to recall Governor Walker, Lieutenant Governor Kleefisch, and the Republican Senators here. #

– kjk

Lies All The Way Down

Today, let us mourn for Wisconsin.

Today, let us stand in unison and decry the appalling torrent of falsehood condemning so many public workers to financial ruin, an unmatched reduction in their voice in democracy, and an abhorrent status as Wisconsin’s new second-class citizens.

Today, this despicable maelstrom of political and social warfare has barreled through Madison’s statehouse, claiming yet another casualty: collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin’s public workers. In a move founded on extreme cynicism and utter disregard for their own talking points, the Republican-dominated State Senate separated the collective bargaining measure from other sections of Senate Bill 11 and passed it on a reduced non-financial quorum, despite Governor Walker’s past incongruous assertions that the bill is somehow about Wisconsin’s budget. This was on the same day that Walker’s staff sent multiple e-mails pretending to be open for negotiations with the 14 Democratic state senators.

But we must realize that this is not the extent of the dishonesty which has culminated in such an attack on workers’ rights. Almost every premise used to arrive at this conclusion, even those accepted in conventional wisdom, is assuredly incorrect.

  • Public sector workers do not ‘deserve’ any budget cuts and are in fact under-compensated.
  • Wisconsin is not in a ‘financial crisis’. Wisconsin’s budget woes, while substantial, are absolutely no cause for apocalyptic alarm or immediate action for Wisconsin citizens. With a 7.4% unemployment rate and substantial tax revenue, Wisconsin was in solid economic shape, especially compared to other states across America.
  • Neither the budget repair bill or layoffs are necessary to balance the budget. Walker would definitely agree with the statement that “everyone should contribute their fair share” to eking out gains in Wisconsin’s budget. But there is no reason for these new measures — there’s already a time-honored, universally effective way of increasing governmental revenue. It’s called ‘taxes’. Best of all, it even ensures that everyone contributes proportional amounts based on their income. Indeed, Wisconsin’s budget deficit could most likely be erased without even raising individual income taxes — currently, two-thirds of Wisconsin corporations do not pay state taxes.
  • America is in no financial danger. The proposed cuts in Wisconsin are part of a national, sobering mood that America’s “fiscal house” is not “in order” and that we need to fix this by heaping abuse on our most downtrodden citizens. But the United States deficit is less than 10% of GDP. An actual financial crisis, the one seen in Greece, involved a worldwide financial crunch exacerbating a deficit over 100% of GDP for fifteen straight years. To quote Harvard economist Larry Summers, “[a]nyone who takes seriously the idea that the debt limit could not be extended and there could be a default even for a nanosecond on U.S. debt is a child with a mach in a dynamite storeroom.”
  • Even if financial doom was assured for the world, we should not take such measures. The very raison d’être of the modern government is to assure a certain minimum quality of life for its citizens. Disregarding such obligations is at once reckless, irresponsible, and dangerous — absolutely nothing should be as important to the United States and Wisconsin governments as the well-being of all of their citizens. Arbitrarily deeming the United States and Wisconsin deficits, mere projections of abstract financial goals, as more important than the very lives of untold millions is one of the most disturbing and destructive mainstream legislative opinions held in America today.

To Governor Walker: your days in office are numbered. To Representative John Boehner, Senator Mitch McConnell, Michelle Bachmann, Koch Industries, and all those who would favor green on a balance sheet over food in someone else’s stomach: your utter disregard for humanity itself is appalling. You are the problem with America today. #

kjk

Corruption

A sleeping giant has awoken in Libya.

Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, the country’s odious 42-year dictator, has repeatedly crushed peaceful protests, including funeral marches, by firing on and ultimately killing the unarmed protesters.

The people of the country have responded in true revolutionary style by fixing their description as ‘unarmed’. In the eastern area of the country, where Gaddafi’s power was already weak, the former jamahiriya, or “state of the masses,” has turned into an actual rule by the actual masses. Eastern towns like Tobruk, Bayda, and Benghazi, the nation’s second largest city, were the first to revolt, and are the strongest holdings of the rebels.

Recently, central and western cities of strategic importance like Brega, Ras Lanuf, Misrata, and Zawiyah (only 33 miles away from the Gaddafi-held capital of Tripoli) have been claimed by opposition forces despite multiple attacks by pro-Gaddafi mercenaries. The colonel’s strongholds now consist of Tripoli and his birth town of Surt, with almost every other area still under Gaddafi’s control seeing fierce liberation attempts.

That the peace of Egypt’s revolution could not be sustained across the border is deplorable. But with his hard-line tactics and callous disregard for the lives of his own people, that is the fault of none but Gaddafi himself. This struggle in Libya, besides determining the fate of the country’s own 6.5 million, will show hard-line governments around the world whether a response of violence to peaceful protests is a viable strategy.

It seems only natural that the news media would report on the revolution for Libyan freedom, especially in America, since freedom was won here in the same manner. But inspection of articles in the media shows a rather… different approach to reporting.

Libya turmoil drives up oil prices

CRUDE oil prices raced higher at the weekend, with the New York contract closing at a fresh two-year peak as traders watched heavy fighting in Libya, particularly in the oil-important east.

New York’s light sweet crude for April delivery closed at $US104.42 a barrel, a hefty $US2.51 gain.

Libya produces about 2 per cent of the world’s crude oil.

It typically pumps about 1.6 million barrels a day, but the head of Libya’s National Oil Corporation, Shukri Ghanem, said last week that oil production had been halved.

– Sydney Morning Herald

Japanese Shares Fall as Oil Surges, Libyan Conflict Escalates

March 7 (Bloomberg) — Japanese stocks fell as oil prices surged amid escalating conflict in Libya, deepening concern that higher fuel costs will weigh on an economic recovery.

– San Francisco Chronicle

And everyone’s favorite reporting source, FOX News, had this to say:

Oil Rises on Libya Clashes, Mideast Unrest

Brent oil prices pushed back above $116 a barrel and U.S. oil hit its highest since September 2008 on Friday, as fighting in Libya intensified and threatened the country’s oil sector.

Investors feared extended supply disruptions as rebels fought Libyan security forces in Ras Lanuf, a major oil terminal, and as fighting broke out in Bahrain and Yemen and top-exporter Saudi Arabia, where Saudi Shi’ites staged protests on Thursday.

Even in news reports about Libya refreshingly unrelated to oil, at least a mention is slipped in – “Remember, this is a country that exports 2% of the world’s oil, so this could affect us! somehow.” But more deplorable than just this focus itself on a chemical commodity rather than on the actual rights of actual human beings is the pervasiveness of this entire ideology.

If the Year 2011 Revolutions were taking place in, say, Latin America, where a refugee influx could possibly have negative consequences for the United States, would we see such broad political support for freedom? Would the American public know about the entire issue? Would the major news corporations even report on it? Or would resources trump rights, the true indifference to people who are Not Like Us supersede our common human bond?

For if there were truly massive protests in Chicago or New York or Houston tomorrow, demonstrations surpassing the size of those in Madison and actually reaching the levels of Cairo or Alexandria, there would be nothing else in the news. And Americans would be outraged if Chinese headlines read “US Protests, Corn Prices Skyrocket”. But this is exactly how some conservative politicians, foreign policy analysts, and especially media institutions are seeing the Libyan fight for freedom.

I cannot speak for the people of Libya. I know what I do partly from the same news media that I have just decried. But I can assure you that the Libyan people are fighting for freedom, not oil. #

kjk

What’s disgusting? Union busting.

Kill the bill. This statement is short, concise, elegant, and best of all, it rhymes. This rhyming allows it to be a chant, a slogan, and a rallying call, present on the lips and in the hearts of all who recognize its truth. The Wisconsin state capitol in Madison has been occupied for the past two weeks by protesters carrying this statement high, drumming the mantra for countless hours, protesters from not just Wisconsin, but Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and New York. This is not the protest of a few, but the protest of workers, families, children, any and all affected by Governor Scott Walker’s proposal. The bill in question? Governor Scott Walker’s “Budget Repair Bill”, which focuses not so much on fixing the deficit as it does on fixing the opposition to corporate interests and the wealthy elite. The bill calls for, among other things, drastic pay cuts to public employees (excepting the police force, firefighters, and state troopers – interestingly, groups that backed Walker’s campaign), and the elimination of their right to collectively bargain, to fix a $137 million hole in the state budget. Some see this as necessary, citing the relative salary of Wisconsin public employees in relation to other states, or the apparent issue of public employees not paying for benefits, or the allegedly overpowered unions. Though these may be partly truthful, they are overwhelmingly flawed analysis. Wisconsin state employees may earn more in relation to other states, but when compared with private sector employees, public employees earn an average of 8.2% less, in some cases as much as 25% less; when compared with similar skilled positions, Wisconsin public employees are simply undercompensated. Additionally, though public employees may appear to not be paying anything towards their benefits, public unions have actually negotiated lower salaries for the cost of including these benefits; thus, in effect, state employees actually do contribute, but via the institution of collective bargaining. Furthermore, unions and state employees had actually agreed to cuts prior to this bill, in recognition of the need for decreased expenditures, so any indignation expressed for state employees “not pulling their weight” is an incorrect analysis. The “overpowered” unions have also been cited in the disagreement, with calls for their removal from government. This call, however, is essentially representative of the major political swing away from legitimate issues towards party politics and power jockeying. This bill is at its core a scheme to strip the unions of their power, and, by extension, strip the power from progressive reforms. Scott Walker said as much in the now infamous prank call by newspaper editor Ian Murphy, posing as billionaire David Koch, one of the top contributors to Walker’s campaign. Walker spoke of his union-busting goals, and the “slugger with [his] name on it” that he keeps in his office for such negotiations. Barring the serious ethical violations in Walker’s words and the questionably legal gambling of state jobs to bring the Democrats back (Walker called threatening layoffs “raising pressure” on the Democrats to return), the goals of union-busting become quite apparent, especially when viewing provisions that negate the mandatory participation in unions and the paying of union dues for state workers, the main source of unions’ income. Having thus destroyed the finances of the unions, Walker moves on to the very rights that define them – the right for workers to collectively bargain. Wisconsin was the first state to provide this right, as we have historically been very progressive and pro-labor. Walker’s actions have even been described as not like him, and not as radical as his normal politics, suggesting an interest or group behind him pulling the strings – and with similar actions against unions being taken at this moment in other states, we cannot help but see the grip of corporate control ensnaring the very rights and freedoms which define us as a people. This “budget repair” nonsense makes no economic sense; it will pull over a billion dollars in purchasing power (based on an 8% pay cut for all publicly employed) from Wisconsin’s economy. The egregious effects of this are not difficult to understand, and are, in fact, basic high school economics. A decrease in consumer expenditures, from the decrease in pay, leads to a direct contraction in the economy, only worsening problems like unemployment and state debt. The bill is party politics for corporate gains, false economics and elimination of rights. If Walker had wanted to fix the deficit, he needn’t have given $117 million in corporate tax breaks, or spent $140 million on special interest groups. This bill is not a credible political proposition, it is a travesty of democracy in which the people of the state of Wisconsin are being lied to and cheated by officials elected to represent them. More have protested this bill in Madison than protested the Vietnam War; the people are letting their voices be heard. We are a democracy, literally “rule by the people”, and the people are not going to sit down and accept legislation that serves no other purpose than to increase the power of its writers, and the corporations that finance them. This, Wisconsin, is democracy. It’s not going anywhere. #

– adh