May 15, 2010

Mummy powder, anyone?

Beginning with Arab physicians in the Middle Ages, and continuing for centuries afterward in Europe and the Middle East, it was widely believed that powder made from ground up Egyptian mummies was a powerful medicine. The fancier the mummy, the more medicinal power it was believed to possess.

How's that for a random weekend factoid?

May 14, 2010

Sweet reason

As far back as Plato, a cherished idea among philosophers and reformers is that people only do wrong out of ignorance. If we really got it, presumably, we wouldn't act badly.

The European Enlightenment was based on the idea that the spread of education and knowledge would eliminate most social evils. To be fair, that has happened, sort of. We don't literally burn as many witches and heretics as they used to anyhow.

But reason isn't a cure all, as Reinhold Niebuhr argues in Moral Man and Immoral Society. While acknowledging its very real contributions to social betterment, Niebuhr points out that

Men will not cease to be dishonest, merely because their dishonesties have been revealed or because they have discovered their own deceptions. Wherever men hold unequal power in society, they will use whatever means are most convenient to that end and will seek to justify them by the most plausible arguments they are able to devise...

...Men will never be wholly reasonable, and the proportion of reason to impulse becomes increasingly negative when we proceed from the life of individuals to that of social groups...

Those are some reasons why we shouldn't have unreasonable expectations about reason.

ALL GONE. Many jobs lost in the recession won't be coming back.

COLLEGE GRADUATES are facing higher unemployment rates.

FIZZLING OUT. The drying up of Recovery Act aid to states could worsen the recession and harm state budgets and education. Meanwhile, WV has been slow in spending its share.

APPLES AND ORANGES. Here's Paul Krugman on the difference between the situation in Greece and the US.



May 13, 2010

Conscience and power

Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society is a masterpiece of anti-utopianism. The book, like much of his other work, is an extended polemic against naive and overly optimistic views of human nature and society.

While he doesn't hold to the idea of the "total depravity" of humanity, he takes the idea of sin very seriously. By sin, he doesn't mean disobeying this or that divine rule but rather the self-centeredness which causes people to do harm to others, the creation and even themselves. And if individual humans have sinful tendencies, groups are much more selfish and imperialistic.

He also argued that human motivations are inherently ambiguous and people often do the most harm when they think they are being the most righteous. Oppressors often quite sincerely believe that they are acting for the good of those they oppress--and some of the oppressed might do the same given the chance.

If that's the case, then while we might make this or that social improvement, society will always be an arena of struggle:

there is good reason to believe that the sentiments of benevolence and social goodwill will never be so pure and powerful, and the rational capacity to consider the rights and needs of others in fair competition with our own will never be so fully developed as to create the possibility for the anarchistic millennium...

While democracy represents a great advance over other forms of government, it still doesn't and can't eliminate the element of struggle:

Politics will, to the end of history, be an area where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and coercive factors of human life will interpenetrate and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises.

EASY STREET. Here's economist Dean Baker's latest rant on Wall Street.

ONE TO WATCH. WV Governor Joe Manchin has issued a call for a special session of the legislature to convene today. One item is health care related in the wake of national health care reform. The most contentious issues are those related to education.

CLIMATE. Here's some coverage of the new energy/climate bill that has just been introduced in the US Senate.

ONE SHOT DEAL. There's more scientific evidence that life on earth arose exactly once and that all living things have a single common ancestor.


May 12, 2010

Individuals and groups

Reinhold Niebuhr was one of the 20th century's greatest theologians and philosophers. One of his most influential works was the 1932 classic Moral Man and Immoral Society.

The title may be a bit misleading as Niebuhr wasn't convinced that human individuals were necessarily all that moral--it's just that we are even more dangerous when we're in groups. Compared to group behavior, human individuals seem pretty harmless.

As he put it,

In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships.

In his view, one of the (many) tragic features of human life is that we are social animals and need others in order to survive and thrive. Group orientation can bring out the best in people, but it can just as easily bring out the worst. I'll be looking at some over his ideas over the next little stretch. Stay tuned.

WHILE TEA PARTIERS PROTEST high taxes, most Americans paid less than at any time since 1950.

UNEMPLOYMENT. This report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recommends a moratorium on interest payments for states that borrow from the federal government to fund unemployment insurance.



May 11, 2010

Seriously but not literally

I guess one mark of a great theologian is that they have something to say even to people outside of their religious tradition. Several names come to mind in this context: Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Kierkegaard, Paul Tillich. And Reinhold Niebuhr would certainly be on many people's short list.

Niebuhr was born in Missouri in 1892, the son of a pastor in the German Evangelical tradition. He followed in his father's footsteps and served as a pastor in industrial Detroit for several years, where he criticized the brutality of the factory system.

From 1928 until 1960 he taught theology at Union Theological Seminary and for most of those years was very active in political life. In the 1930s he supported the Socialist Party but later became something of a New Deal pragmatist and political realist. He has been claimed by people across the political spectrum, from progressives to neo-cons.

His theology is sometimes described as neo-orthodox, which takes the Biblical and Christian theological tradition seriously if not literally. Above all, Niebuhr takes the idea of sin very seriously indeed and applies it broadly to human social life.

I think one reason I like him so much is that this is one of the few areas in which El Cabrero is in the orthodox camp.

One of his most famous books is the 1932 Moral Man and Immoral Society, parts of which holds up remarkably well. More on that tomorrow.

GOING LOCAL. This item looks at the importance of local economies.

HARD SCIENCE. Here's some research on marital felicity.

ARCHAEOLOGY MADE EASY. New technology makes it possible to map ancient civilizations in a fraction of the time required by traditional methods.

IT PASSED. NOW WHAT? Now that health care reform is the law of the land, it will take a lot of education and outreach to help people understand what it is and isn't. Here's what local groups in WV are planning to do.


May 10, 2010

One that stuck

El Cabrero has a theologian in common with President Obama, his 2008 opponent John McCain and quite a few people across the political spectrum. That would be Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), a professor at Union Theological Seminary who was very influential in the US in secular as well as religious circles.

I guess I can claim to be a second generation student of Niebuhr. When I was in junior high, a new priest came to the Episcopal Church I was brought up in. At the time, I didn't have much use for religion in general, a periodically recurring condition with me.

I'd been involved in a civil war over this with the Maternal Unit until we agreed to a ceasefire on the following terms: I'd complete confirmation classes and go through the ceremony and after that I was on my own.

The priest taught the confirmation classes, during which I came to realize that the whole thing might not have been as stupid as I thought. The priest in question, Fr. William Kirkland, had studied at Edinburgh and later with Niebuhr himself at Union, although I didn't realize that at the time.

It was much much later, when I had begun working for the American Friends Service Committee that I really began to study his thought. I made it a habit to study social movements of the past to look at what worked and what didn't and became aware of Niebuhr's profound influence on Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.

It stuck with me. Lately, I've revisited his writings, which will probably show up here for the next little stretch.

OIL SLICK. Paul Krugman opines on the Gulf oil disaster and the role of government in his latest column.

MEDIA AND MORE. Here's the latest edition of the Rev. Jim Lewis' Notes from Under the Fig Tree. Jim appears to be going through some static with the Episcopal bishop of WV.

EAT LOCAL. This item looks at the economics of organic gardening and local food production.

GETTING INVOLVED can make you happier.