A Must Read: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

I just finished reading The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathon Haidt, a social psychologist formerly at UVA and now at NYU. I highly recommend it. It touches on a boatload of topics that we have talked about here, including that perennial issue of the source and nature of morality. It is written by a self-proclaimed very liberal academic, but he does a pretty good job of setting that aside and except in a couple of places it happily does not approach things within the confines of liberal premises. In fact much of it is aimed at explaining why premises differ so much from person to person.

I’ve discovered (after already purchasing and reading it) that it is actually out there on the internet for free, here.

To entice you to read it, I’ll leave you with one of the concluding passages, which hopefully shows that my recommendation doesn’t derive simply out of confirmation bias.

If you take home one souvenir from this part of the tour, may I suggest that it be a suspicion of moral monists. Beware of anyone who insists that there is one true morality for all people, times, and places—particularly if that morality is founded upon a single moral foundation. Human societies are complex; their needs and challenges are variable. Our minds contain a toolbox of psychological systems, including the six moral foundations, which can be used to meet those challenges and construct effective moral communities. You don’t need to use all six, and there may be certain organizations or subcultures that can thrive with just one. But anyone who tells you that all societies, in all eras, should be using one particular moral matrix, resting on one particular configuration of moral foundations, is a fundamentalist of one sort or another.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrestled throughout his career with the problem of the world’s moral diversity and what to make of it. He firmly rejected moral relativism:

I am not a relativist; I do not say “I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps”—each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. This I believe to be false.

He endorsed pluralism instead, and justified it in this way:

I came to the conclusion that there is a plurality of ideals, as there is a plurality of cultures and of temperaments.… There is not an infinity of [values]: the number of human values, of values which I can pursue while maintaining my human semblance, my human character, is finite—let us say 74, or perhaps 122, or 27, but finite, whatever it may be. And the difference this makes is that if a man pursues one of these values, I, who do not, am able to understand why he pursues it or what it would be like, in his circumstances, for me to be induced to pursue it. Hence the possibility of human understanding.”

Emily Meier, RIP

On behalf on Lulu:

I just received this email from Emily’s husband.


Emily died last night at a little after 9. She was peaceful and without pain. She stopped breathing for 15 seconds or so, and then took a big breath. Then stopped again for longer, and then took another breath, not as strong as the first. Then a third, and a fourth. And then no more.

She was a wonderful person and a wonderful wife.


I’m really going to miss my correspondence with her. She was a terrific friend, a wonderful writer, a devoted wife, mother and grandmother, and a political junkie extraordinaire. She’s at peace now dammit.

I will never forget her generosity, humor, and intelligence, especially demonstrated when she discussed Suite Harmonic with us.

“Unbroken” – A Book Review

Interestingly enough this was a difficult book for me to read. Next month will be the five year anniversary of my father’s death. He was a bombardier (First Lieutenant) in WWII and flew over Germany in support of Patton’s Army. Their B17 suffered from structural problems, not unlike the B24.

Part of a passage from my father’s diary reminds me how dangerous their mission was:

Al and I were looking up records of previous missions of the Group. Since they started B-17’s they have had three times as many “major aircraft damage” in half as many missions. Ratio-six to one. That isn’t good.

A couple of years ago I received a copy of a letter my father wrote to one of his buddies after arriving in Europe that never reached his friend. He went down with the plane and the pilot during a terrible fire on the plane, originating in the bomb bay, while most of the crew was able to abandon ship. His nephew tracked me down and I sent him a copy of my dad’s diary and he sent me a copy of the letter my father wrote to his uncle.

My father was also raised in Southern California, not far from Torrance, and graduated from USC. He attended college after the war however, taking advantage of the GI Bill. Reading Louie’s story occupied my time with a lot of reflection and comparing and contrasting stories. It was very strange for me. I kept wishing I could ask my dad what he knew about Louie, if anything.

My father was also an athlete, although not in the same league as Louie (football and swimming), and always stressed participation in athletics as a character building exercise and that the discipline needed to succeed in sports would be useful in fighting life’s adversities. It’s one of the lessons I tried to pass on to our children. Reading Unbroken, I couldn’t help but believe that Louie’s passion for, and commitment to running taught him how to survive in some of the worst circumstances we can imagine.

Anyway, it was an odd experience for me reading the book, even down to the description of the crew flying the Enola Gay and dropping the bomb over Hiroshima. One of my father’s best friends, Rick Nelson, was the radio man on that flight. Reading how the pilot desperately tried to maneuver the plane away from the blast and how the fillings in his teeth tingled gave me chills. I sat around a dining room table on many occasions listening to that story and more.

Luckily my father had a much different experience than Louie. Even though there were bomb bay door fires, feathered engines, blown tires, damaged landing gear, hot flak breaking through the skin of the airplane, and even one emergency landing in Belgium, he flew his 36 missions and came home without suffering the terrible conditions many of these young men did, if they were lucky enough to survive at all.

Another reason I had trouble reading the book was because of the awful conditions the POW’s suffered from. It was a very vivid reminder of why we used to be so careful in our treatment of enemy combatants, at least I thought we were. That kind of brutality and suffering is difficult for me to read about.

This passage from the book really resonated with me.

Few societies treasured dignity, and feared humiliation, as did the Japanese, for whom a loss of honor could merit suicide. This is likely one of the reasons why Japanese soldiers in World War II debased their prisoners with such zeal, seeking to take from them that which was most painful and destructive to lose. On Kwajalein, Louie and Phil learned a dark truth known to the doomed in Hitler’s death camps, the slaves of the American South, and a hundred other generations of betrayed people. Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty.

I’ll be curious to hear what the rest of you thought of the book.

Open Thread – Monday (Edited)

I’m still working but took a break this afternoon to do a little reading. I’m trying to finish Unbroken but I’m not there yet. Next weekend is the book review………..hint, hint. I’ve also been working on our taxes, that’s right we filed an extension (just like the Romneys), but I have even less money now than I did in April to pay what we still owe……………yikes. And we finally got the rest of the parts we needed to finish our big export order to Taiwan, which we’re trying to get out the door (that’s money in the bank). Anyway, I did read a couple of interesting pieces during my breaks this weekend that might spark a little conversation.

Last week Nova linked this piece from the Atlantic about why liberals shouldn’t vote for Obama. It was interesting but didn’t sway me. I’d already explored all of the issues and decided I’m going to vote for him anyway. The most important issue for me is health care reform and even though he didn’t get the bill I wanted I’ve decided repealing the ACA is too big of a threat for me to not support him.

One of the issues discussed was our drone policy, particularly in Pakistan.

Obama terrorizes innocent Pakistanis on an almost daily basis. The drone war he is waging in North Waziristan isn’t “precise” or “surgical” as he would have Americans believe. It kills hundreds of innocents, including children. And for thousands of more innocents who live in the targeted communities, the drone war makes their lives into a nightmare worthy of dystopian novels. People are always afraid. Women cower in their homes. Children are kept out of school. The stress they endure gives them psychiatric disorders. Men are driven crazy by an inability to sleep as drones buzz overhead 24 hours a day, a deadly strike possible at any moment. At worst, this policy creates more terrorists than it kills; at best, America is ruining the lives of thousands of innocent people and killing hundreds of innocents for a small increase in safety from terrorists. It is a cowardly, immoral, and illegal policy, deliberately cloaked in opportunistic secrecy. And Democrats who believe that it is the most moral of all responsible policy alternatives are as misinformed and blinded by partisanship as any conservative ideologue.

Then today I saw these charts and thought what the hell? I haven’t had the time to look into where exactly the information came from but according to them there have been exactly zero civilian deaths in Pakistan due to drone strikes this year. Can that be true?

This piece, “Is Karl Rove Losing It?”, is a pretty interesting take on Karl Rove and the author wonders if he really has as much power as he thinks he does. It’s probably just wishful thinking, those of us on the left aren’t too fond of the guy.

Karl Rove is back as GOP party boss, but this time it’s clear that even the best-laid plans of the savviest political strategists often go awry.

That became obvious earlier this week, on Sept. 25, when Missouri senatorial candidate Todd Akin reaffirmed that he was staying in the race in defiance of Rove, who had demanded Akin’s withdrawal and yanked American Crossroads’ millions from his campaign after Akin touted the prophylactic character of “legitimate rape.”

When pulling the super PAC dough didn’t faze the stubborn Missouri Tea Partyer, Rove went ballistic. “We should sink Todd Akin,” he declared , according to Bloomberg Businessweek. “If he’s found mysteriously murdered, don’t look for my whereabouts!”

Rove’s remarks did more than just reopen the schism between the GOP establishment he embodies and the Tea Party, which has begun to see him as a ruthless party boss. It also showed that the Republicans have another serious problem in addition to Mitt Romney’s disastrous candidacy: Karl Christian Rove.

And lastly this one suggests three reasons why Romney isn’t doing better than he is. I do realize it’s not over though…..believe me.

1. His stand on the auto bailout “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” has hurt him in states like Ohio.

2. He probably lost Florida when he chose Ryan as his running mate as the majority of seniors apparently don’t like their plans for Medicare…………even if they were excluded from the cuts.

3. His lack of connection with ordinary Americans exemplified by his 47% comments.

I, Judas – A Book Review

James Reich is both novelist and poet.  If you accept that he has the soul of a poet, then I, Judas is one of the most difficult and lengthy poems you’ll ever read.  I say difficult not in an “oh my God, what lousy poetry” way, but in the sense of being “uncomfortable while reading” way.  I felt, while I was reading, as if I were a child being allowed to sit at the adult’s dinner table for the first time and discovering that it was much more fun at the children’s table.

Perhaps you disagree that he is a poet, then I offer this passage about that fateful morning in Dallas in November of 1963:

“jackals careened about the passenger door. Scarlet broth ran down her sunglasses. His back brace held him corseted to his cross, and the shot pealed again.”

Judas pops up in numerous momentous, and not so momentous, occasions like a modern day Lucifer peddling his influence as he skips around the globe and history.

I was raised by atheists to be a Christian.  As such I’ve always had great difficulty accepting Jesus as the Son of God but even I, perhaps because I still attend church for inspiration and solace, was shocked to contemplate biblical characters in such brazen terms.  For example, Mary Magdalene as the reckless whore and Joseph crafting the rude cross of his own son’s crucifixion, in the hopes that his wife’s lover will one day hang from one.

Recently, I was discussing the Lochness Monster with my six year old grandson as he has been doing research on Nessy lately.  I asked him if he believed the Lochness Monster was real or not and he said “I believe in all the legends Grandma”.  Reading I, Judas would cure him of that……………………….luckily he’s too young still.  I sort of wished I hadn’t read the book, if you know what I mean.

Please add your comments below if you’ve read the book.  If anyone misunderstands my comments above, I enjoyed the book, in a rather painful way.

Discussion of Suite Harmonic by Emily Meier

There’s something about the words below that resonate with me and remind me, again, how truly awful war is.  This is toward the end of John Given’s enlistment in the Union Army and he’s quite close to returning home to Harmony, a greatly changed man, in a greatly changed nation.

……it struck him even more how blasted Decatur was.  It was very easy to get tired of looking at nothing except a soldier’s face and, without women, there was singular lack of beauty.  And color was missing.  Clothes were the sea of uniforms, faded to a vague blue, which the men, in the heat, shed as often as they could.  In a place where a normal year would have meant a host of summer flowers everywhere, the ground was unplanted-chewed up and battered by the boots of so many men.  There were no blossoms of any color.  There was no foliage.  There was only the wasted, treeless town and the mud and wood of the fort.

Emily will be checking in periodically so if you want to leave a question for her I’m sure she’ll be more than happy to respond.  It’s impossible to pin everyone down to a specific discussion time so just come in and out as time allows over the weekend.


Mark adds:

Suite Harmonic is a lovingly crafted narrative of war and family woven from personal written histories, especially from the letters of John Given and his sister Kate.  It is essentially a novel of manners interspersed with battle scenes.  For those of us who love Civil War stories, as I do, it is satisfying.  The main characters, John and Kate, become known to us as they become assimilated, as their Irish Catholicism fades, as they mature, and as they internalize the issues of their time.

That John survives Shiloh is amazing, that he learns that he will keep his head in combat is what gives him resiliency throughout the War.  Kate, back home in Indiana, is an interesting study in both duty and stepping out of her “place” as an Irish maid to wealthy Protestants.  Both siblings are smart and literate, which is how so much of their material survived.

The eventual love stories, after the War, especially Kate and Harry’s, are truly sweet.

The tragedies of 19th C. health care follow the characters into peace time.

A picky critic might find two anachronisms of speech, but I was not picky and did not catalog them.  My own disappointment with the novel was limited to my high expectations for it – I love historical novels.  I have been through all of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels twice.  Suite Harmonic has no plot.  Think of a lifetime series of interconnected events as told through the eyes of two siblings, in which there is no struggle between good and evil, no climax, no anti-climax, and no denouement.  John and Kate were surely so likable and admirable as presented by ABC, and the incidents themselves so fascinating in detail and social (or combat) observation, as to allow Suite Harmonic to stand without a plot.  I think it does actually present a harmonic suite of the interplay of lives shaped by the Civil War, and by the integration of immigrants into society, and by the daily struggles of people we can still recognize, although their hardships were of a different time.  I am sure it does what Emily intended it to do, and that my expectations were irrelevant.

Book Review – New ATiM Feature

Welcome to the launch of our first ATiM Book Review.  This is something I’ve been thinking about since we first envisioned ATiM and honestly, I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to it.  I’m going to pull a popular Presidential move and choose our first book by “Executive Order” and have therefore chosen Suite Harmonic by Emily Meier.  Next time we’ll take suggestions and vote or something.  I’m reading I,Judas next, by Mark’s son-in-law, but don’t let that influence your vote.

Emily Meier (AllButCertain here at ATiM) has not only published six books, but has also launched her own publishing company, Sky Spinner Press, in the past year.  Suite Harmonic is her longest novel so we’ll get back together the weekend of April 13th  for a discussion, that should be enough time for everyone to read it.  In the meantime, be thinking of suggestions for our next reading assignment……and try not to think of it as homework.

From a recent interview:

Her honors include Minnesota State Arts Board and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and Loft Mentor and Loft McKnight awards. Her stories have been published in national literary journals, and she’s won national fiction contests at Florida Review and Passages North. One of her stories is in “The Second Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories.”

From her website:

During this 150th anniversary year of the beginning of the Civil War, Suite Harmonic:  A Civil War Novel of Rediscovery is the indispensable novel for readers interested in discovering the intense experience of both battlefield and homefront in the teeming world of the Civil War.

Excerpt from Chapter One:

It was eleven charged days since the 25th Indiana, Volunteer Infantry, had left St. Louis on the Continental and traveled with the fleet down the Mississippi. The men had watched warily as flatboats edged between ice floes. They’d rushed to fill buckets to keep the deck wet beneath the boat’s fiery chimneys. Steaming past canebrakes and turkeys perched on tree branches, they’d kept a lookout for guerrillas and spotted herons and red-tailed hawks flying at water’s edge, eyed pignut hickories and saw Judas trees not yet in bud. A steamer suddenly crossed their bow, and the captain reversed engines just in time to avoid a collision.

At Cairo, its broad levee swarming with soldiers, they escorted angry mutineers to quarters. One of them, hearing the west of Ireland in John’s voice, cursed him in Gaelic. At Paducah they saw an otherworldly boat, brightly lit: plumed officers and beautifully gowned women strolling its upper deck. Then, the Iatan had turned from the Ohio into the Tennessee. It had pushed down the western knob of Kentucky. It had steamed into Tennessee. It had entered the Confederacy itself where the citizens weren’t just wavering but gone. When at last the boat came into view of the Stars and Stripes newly flying on Fort Henry after the navy’s victory, a thunderous, foot-stomping yell erupted around John. The wood of the boat shuddered clear through him. He was cheering so loud his throat hurt. A big fight was coming. He knew it. They all did. 

Now, after a night bivouacking at Fort Henry and the march to Fort Donelson and the long, sleepless hours in front of the Confederate rifle pits, the fight had arrived.

You can purchase Emily’s book, Suite Harmonic, from Amazon here, or from her website here.  I hope many of you will read it and enjoy it, and then we can have a lively discussion afterward, beginning the weekend of April 13th.  I’ve added a sidebar under the log in feature as a friendly reminder of our (my) choice of book and the date we’ll have our discussion as well as links for purchasing the book.

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