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The Precious Steven Pinker

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in First Things which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.

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I sometimes find it hard to believe that Steven Pinker really believes what he believes; surely, I think, some occult agency in his mind is forcing his conscious intellect to accept premises and conclusions that it ought to reject as utterly fantastic. I suppose, though, that that is one’s normal reaction to ardent expressions of a faith one does not share; at its worst, it is just a reflex of supercilious fastidiousness, like feeling only an annoyed consternation at having to step over someone in the throes of mystical ecstasy in order to retrieve an umbrella from the closet. A healthier sentiment would be generous and patient curiosity, a desire to learn whether the believer has in fact—guided by a rare purity of heart—glimpsed truths to which one’s own cynicism or coarseness has blinded one.

Not, of course, that Pinker would care for that way of putting the matter. He detests religion and thinks of himself as a champion of something he blandly calls “reason” (that is the most enchantingly guileless aspect of his creed). In his latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, he devotes over seven hundred pages to arguing the case that modernity, contrary to the common impression, has seen a steep decrease in every kind of violence—domestic, political, criminal, and martial—as a result of a variety of causes, but principally because of the triumph of “Enlightenment” ideas. It is a simple narrative, and at many points a painfully simplistic one, but it is clear and bracing and merits sympathetic consideration.

Whether Pinker himself does the tale justice, however, is debatable. He is definitely not an adept historian; his view of the past—particularly of the Middle Ages, which he tends to treat as a single historical, geographical, and cultural moment—is often not merely crude, but almost cartoonish (of course, he is a professed admirer of Norbert Elias). He even adduces two edited images from Das Mittelalterliche Hausbuch as illustrations of “the everyday texture of life in medieval Europe,” without noting that they come from a set of astrological allegories about planetary influences, from which he has chosen those for Saturn and Mars rather than, say, Venus and Jupiter. (Think what a collection of Saturnine or Martial pictures he might have gathered from more recent history.)

It is perfectly fair for Pinker to call attention to the many brutal features of much of medieval life, but one would have more confidence in his evenhandedness if he acknowledged at least a few of the moral goods that medieval society achieved despite its material privations. He says nothing of almshouses, free hospitals, municipal physicians, hospices, the decline of chattel slavery, the Pax Dei and Treuga Dei, and so on. Of the more admirable cultural, intellectual, legal, spiritual, scientific, and social movements of the High Middle Ages, he appears to know nothing. And his understanding of early modernity is little better. His vague remarks on the long-misnamed “Wars of Religion” are tantalizing intimations of a fairly large ignorance.

Perhaps such complaints miss the point, though. Pinker’s is a story not of continuous moral evolution, but of an irruptive redemptive event. It would not serve his purpose to admit that, in addition to the gradual development of the material conditions that led to modernity, there might also have been the persistent pressure of moral ideas and values that reached back to antique or medieval sources, or that there might have been occasional institutional adumbrations of modern “progress” in the Middle Ages, albeit in a religious guise.

He certainly would not want to grant that many of his own moral beliefs are inherited contingencies of a long cultural history rather than discoveries recently made by the application of disinterested “reason.” For him, modern culture’s moral advances were born from the sudden and fortuitous advent of the “Age of Reason,” which—aided by the printing press—produced a “coherent philosophy” called “Enlightenment humanism,” distilled from the ideas of “Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and John Stuart Mill.” We know what he means: not the dark side of the “Enlightenment” and the printing press—“scientific racism,” state absolutism, Jacobinism, the rise of murderous ideologies, and so on—but the nice Enlightenment of “perpetual peace,” the “rights of man,” and so on.

Well, each to his or her own tribalism, I suppose. It is pleasant to believe one’s society is more “enlightened” or “rational” than all others, and Pinker has every right to try to prove the point. He would be more convincing, though, if only the central claim of his book were not so entirely dependent upon a statistical fiction.

That is to say, yes, of course modern societies have reduced certain kinds of brutality, cruelty, and injustice. Modern technology makes it far easier to control crime. We have weapons both too terrifying to use in open combat and so precise that we can kill at great distances, without great armies, out of sight and mind. We have succeeded at reforming our own nations internally in ways that make them ever more comfortable, less threatening, and more complacent. Our prison system is barbaric, but not overtly sadistic, and our more draconian laws rarely inconvenience the affluent among us. We have learned to exploit the labor and resources of poorer peoples not by enslaving them, but merely by making them “beneficiaries” of globalization. The violence we commit is more hygienic, subtler, and less inconvenient than that committed by our forebears.

Even so, the numbers do not add up. Pinker’s method for assessing the relative ferocity of different centuries is to calculate the total of violent deaths not as an absolute quantity, but as a percentage of global population. But statistical comparisons like that are notoriously vacuous. Population sample sizes can vary by billions, but a single life remains a static sum, so the smaller the sample the larger the percentage each life represents. Obviously, though, a remote Inuit village of one hundred souls where someone gets killed in a fistfight is not twice as violent as a nation of 200 million that exterminates one million of its citizens. And even where the orders of magnitude are not quite so divergent, comparison on a global scale is useless, especially since over the past century modern medicine has reduced infant mortality and radically extended life spans nearly everywhere (meaning, for one thing, there are now far more persons too young or too old to fight). So Pinker’s assertion that a person would be thirty-five times more likely to be murdered in the Middle Ages than now is empirically meaningless.

In the end, what Pinker calls a “decline of violence” in modernity actually has been, in real body counts, a continual and extravagant increase in violence that has been outstripped by an even more exorbitant demographic explosion. Well, not to put too fine a point on it: So what? What on earth can he truly imagine that tells us about “progress” or “Enlightenment”—or about the past, the present, or the future? By all means, praise the modern world for what is good about it, but spare us the mythology.

And yet, oddly enough, I like Pinker’s book. On one level, perhaps, it is all terrific nonsense: historically superficial, philosophically platitudinous, occasionally threatening to degenerate into the dulcet bleating of a contented bourgeois. But there is also something exhilarating about this fideist who thinks he is a rationalist. Over the past few decades, so much of secularist discourse has been drearily clouded by irony, realist disenchantment, spiritual fatigue, self-lacerating sophistication: a postmodern sense of failure, an appetite for caustic cultural genealogies, a meek surrender of all “metanarrative” ambitions.

Pinker’s is an older, more buoyant, more hopeful commitment to the “Enlightenment”—and I would not wake him from his dogmatic slumber for all the tea in China. In his book, one encounters the ecstatic innocence of a faith unsullied by prudent doubt. For me, it reaffirms the human spirit’s lunatic and heroic capacity to believe a beautiful falsehood, not only in excess of the facts, but in resolute defiance of them.

By David Bentley Hart in First Things from January 2012 and can be seen here.

 

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Fired Legislative Staffer Can Move Ahead With Suit Alleging Use of State Funds To Promote Church Facility

My firm, the Law Office of Faye Riva Cohen, P.C., represents the Plaintiff in the case captioned as Ali v. McClinton, (ED PA, June 14, 2017).  The Ali case has been featured in an article entitled “Fired Legislative Staffer Can Move Ahead With Suit Alleging Use of State Funds to Promote Church Facility,” by Religion Clause on June 15, 2017, which can be found here.  You can also read it below:

“In Ali v. McClinton, (ED PA, June 14, 2017), a Pennsylvania federal district court refused to dismiss on 11th Amendment grounds a suit against a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in her personal capacity. The court permitted fired constituent services staffer El Shafiyq Asad Ali to move ahead on his 1st Amendment Establishment Clause claim and one of his Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law claims.  Ali alleges that Rep. Joanna McClinton fired him after he objected to McClinton’s asking him to organize an event, to be paid for from state funds, at a Philadelphia Housing Authority site. The event was designed to promote a nearby facility that the Open Door Mission True Light Church planned to open.  Rep. McClinton is a minister at the Church.  The court however did dismiss Ali’s religious discrimination claims, certain of his Whistleblower Act claims and all of his “official capacity” claims against McClinton and the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.”

Refusal To Enter Requested Surname on Birth Certificate Did Not Violate Free Exercise Rights

This is from religionclause.blogspot.com which you can find here:

“In Nix El v. Williams, (D DC, March 30, 2016), the D.C. federal district court rejected a claim by the father of a newborn daughter that his religious rights were infringed when D.C. Department of Health officials refused to list his daughter’s surname on her birth certificate as “Nix El” rather than as “Nix”, the parents’ surname. D.C. statutes require the surname to match that of a family member. Plaintiff, who is a member of the Moorish Science Temple, contended that he wished to add “El” to his daughter’s name because it is a title of nobility. In the suit, plaintiff had asked for declaratory and injunctive relief, compensatory damages of $136 million plus punitive damages of $1 million per day for each day his daughter did not have a birth certificate.”

You can learn more about this issue here.

Montana Court Issues Preliminary Injunction To Allow Parochial School Participation In Tax Credits

This is from religionclause.blogspot.com which you can find here:

“According to The Missoulian, in Montana on Thursday, a state trial court judge issued a preliminary injunction barring the Montana Department of Revenue from enforcing its rule that excludes religiously affiliated schools from participating in the state’s new School Contributions Tax Credit law. (See prior posting.) The Department of Revenue takes the position that participation in the school aid program by religiously affiliated schools violates state constitutional bans on that prohibit direct and indirect payments or appropriations to religious or sectarian schools. ”

You can learn more about this issue here.

Tactical Retreat: Carpe Diem

My friend and co-worker Brian M. Lambert has founded an online sketch comedy project called Tactical Retreat which you can find here on Facebook and here on Youtube.

As Tactical Retreat releases new videos, I will post them here.  So far, I have found them rather funny and clever and they seem to get better with each release.

Here are the links to Tactical Retreat‘s previously released sketches:

 

When Elite Parents Dominate Volunteers, Children Lose

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in The New York Times which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.

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One long-ago day my mother took cupcakes to school wearing a pale yellow coat — not warm enough for the winter day, but she wanted to look nice. A classmate admired her. I was a little proud. I hoped to impress this classmate, or anyone. My dad was an alcoholic. A friend with a similar childhood calls it “impoverished.” I lacked currency: cash or social sway.

Thanks to student loans, I went to college. More improbably, I got a Ph.D. I took a job teaching at what was then a small state university in Texas. I was broke as I paid back loans. I stayed broke as I saved to adopt. When my daughter arrived, I had a modest income and the illusion of poise — more than a lot of people, and I knew it.

I lived in a village miles from the university because housing was cheaper. By the time my daughter started school, the village was turning into an Austin exurb, with people moving in after the high-tech boom. A flier came home, asking parents to volunteer because we would be helping all students. I signed up. Parents who worked for an hourly wage and chose between volunteering or earning money were unrepresented. Parents who lived in big, new houses ran the show.

Volunteering meant parties, I discovered. It meant “let them eat chocolate-mousse cake.”

No one actually said that. But one volunteer insisted on chocolate-mousse cake for Valentine’s Day, even as another argued it was too unfamiliar for third-graders. At the celebration, a boy who lived in a rundown house a few miles from me said he had been excited all week about cake. His face fell when he tasted it. “Gunk in the middle,” he said.

Another volunteer set the price for a Christmas gift exchange at $25. Too high, I said. She said to spend what I could. “I can afford $25,” I said, “but some people can’t.” She smiled. “No one but you is objecting.” On the day of the party, she was gone. A widow raising a grandchild had worried that some kids would show up without gifts and feel bad, so she had bought eight spares. They were necessary, and we remaining volunteers ponied up.

Then I married and moved to Austin proper. My salary is good. My husband’s is better. But this life is so new, so stroke-of-luck, I sometimes dream I’m moving back into one of the grim apartments I rented as a student. Then I wake up in my good neighborhood, its school district drawn in an amoeba shape for diversity’s sake. A second effect is the polarized student body: students from the poorest neighborhoods, students from the richest.

When a volunteer for a middle-school party wondered what food to serve, I suggested pizza. She said: “The kids want nice food. Spring rolls?” Another mentioned sushi. “My son loves it.” The first said, “My kids don’t.” No sushi for sixth grade then. Instead, spring rolls.

A girl who was homeless — couch-surfing with her mother — spent the night with us so she could attend this party. She arrived with a too-big dress with a broken zipper. I hand-sewed her into it and snipped out stitches at the end of the night. She looked at me with wallflower timidity. She was hungry, she said. The party food was “weird.” I fed her.

When my daughter started high school, I hoped students would plan their own events and that the dynamic that makes public school democratic — a place to confront the humanity of others — would prevail. Then I received an email outlining fees for girls who made cheerleading: $2,250. My daughter made the squad. So did her friend, whose mother requested a payment plan. No dice, said the organizers. Use a credit card. A payment plan would delay the order: multiple top-of-the-line uniforms per girl. I paid up, my emotions as divided as the student body. I felt happy for my daughter, yet guilty, complicit, thinking of girls who can’t afford to succeed.

A childless friend said to me: “You need to give that committee an earful.” Yet my daughter asked me not to object, not this time. She had worked hard to make cheerleading.

The problem is bigger than that. It’s an inescapable fact that extracurricular activities, which increase student investment in school, are planned by parents who have ample time and money, who sometimes lack insight into the lives of students whose parents don’t. I tried to advocate for these students. My empathy is tangible. Where exactly do you live again? a volunteer asked when I said pizza, not sushi.

 I felt the condescension behind the question. I smiled while clenching my teeth — overruled, because parents who would agree with me can’t leave work.
By Debra Monroe, published on January 19, 2014, and can be found here.

 

Law Office Video: Radio Segment #2/2

My law firm, the Law Office of Faye Riva Cohen, P.C., has established a YouTube channel which you can see here.

We are in the process of creating videos to upload to our new YouTube channel and hope to post a new video about once per month.

We hope our viewers can be edified by the information we convey.  Please contact us with your legal needs!

Here are the links to our previous videos:

Here is our latest video:

September 2017: “The Evangelist” Newsletter from St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church, Abington, PA

The Evangelist is the monthly newsletter of St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in Abington, Pennsylvania.  The September 2017 issue of The Evangelist is now out which you can read here.

Tactical Retreat: Strawman Argument: Best Movie Of All Time!

My friend and co-worker Brian M. Lambert has founded an online sketch comedy project called Tactical Retreat which you can find here on Facebook and here on Youtube.

As Tactical Retreat releases new videos, I will post them here.  So far, I have found them rather funny and clever and they seem to get better with each release.

Here are the links to Tactical Retreat‘s previously released sketches:

Tactical Retreat‘s latest sketch is entitled “Strawman Arguments: Best Movie of All Time” can be viewed below.

 

8 great female-penned YA sci-fi novels

Here is the latest post by Angela and Daz Croucher to their blog A.D. Croucher! They are up-and-coming young adult authors. Check them out!

A.D. Croucher

There are SO MANY awesome female-penned YA sci-fi novels. Here are 8 of the very best!

Claudia Gray Leia

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