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Friday, July 16, 2010

I SPY

As in spyware, malware, mal a la teteware.
The recent sweep that netted a posse of Soviet-era spies seems to have come up one short. That would be the viral mole who's holed up in my computer. When he is found and traded for a good hitter to fill a slot at the end of the Detroit Tigers batting order, Drinks Before Dinner will be back in business.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

RECIPROCITY



Barbara has the week off. If she didn't, she might caution against writing on something about which I know so little. But since that admonishment applies to almost everything in Drinks Before Dinner, onward and upward



























Glenn Beck:
“When I see a 9/11 victim family on television, or whatever, I’m just like, ‘Oh shut up.’ I’m so sick of them because they’re always complaining.”

“The only [Katrina victims] we’re seeing on television are the scumbags.”

Michele Bachmann:
“I don’t know where we’re going to get all this money because we’re running out of rich people in this country.”

Rush Limbaugh:
“We’ve already donated to Haiti. It’s called the U.S. Income Tax.”

Ann Coulter:
“I don’t really like to think of it as a murder. It was terminating [Dr. George] Tiller in the 203rd trimester…. I am personally opposed to shooting abortionists, but I don’t want to impose my moral values on others.”

“There are a lot of bad Republicans. There are no good Democrats.”

Rand Paul:
(on BP) “Sometimes, accidents just happen.”

No to health care reform. No to financial reform. No to environmental legislation. No to temporarily suspending further drilling in the Gulf. No to extending unemployment benefits.

The quotes above from high-profile voices in the Republican Party, along with that party’s unwavering “no” votes in Congress during the last eighteen months cannot be faulted for inconsistency or uncertainty. The party and those voicing its point of view present a unified summary judgment on what makes human beings tick.

Whether it’s the professorial postures struck by Newt Gingrich, the philosophical cheerleading of Ayn Rand’s supporters, or the junkyard-dog approach to conducting the nation’s business perfected by a Mitch McConnell or Richard Shelby, Republicans see human nature in clear terms.

According to the right, human beings thrive when allowed to pursue their self-interest. Logically (goes the argument), entities created by human beings represent extensions of themselves. That is, corporations and profit-driven institutions equal manifestations of human will. Efforts—especially government efforts-- to regulate or control these acts of human will are at best the product of ignorance, at worst a perverse attempt to thwart the innate drive for self-expression and perfection. The quintessential act of this self-expression, and the most human of all focused activity is the business of making money.

Generally, this view takes its cue from Adam Smith's "invisible hand," matched with a nineteenth-century reading of Darwin. Proponents of Social Darwinism assert that natural selection applies not just to individuals, but to races, societies and nations. Remove all impediments to human will, and “successful” people will thrive, while others go to the wall, which is where nature intends for them to go. In concert with “the white man’s burden,” Social Darwinism served Colonialism well.

Such a view applies an early reading of Darwin to the human organism. It sees our species in terms of club-wielding Flintstones in competition for food and females, but this reading has since been rejected by rational people. Even without later refinements made to evolutionary theory, technology alone has rendered it obsolete: it ignores the functional equality of a small woman’s index finger compared to that of a sumo wrestler when pushing a button in, say, a nuclear missile silo.

In the Sixties, British biologist William Hamilton founded studies in animal behavior that later became widely known through E.O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology. In 1964, Hamilton put forth a hypothesis that came to be known as Hamilton’s rule. In the simplest terms, the rule says that we practice altruism (the devil itself to Ayn Rand’s disciples, and to most right wingers) to those whose survival is needed as insurance that our own genes will survive.

In short, you look after kinfolk who carry your genetic code, and you do it for reasons of self-interest. Are you your brother’s keeper? Should you lay down your life for your brother? In genetic terms, the answer is yes, but only for two brothers, or for four cousins, because they will carry forward your genes.

This “rule” has opened the door for further study that seeks to explain acts of generosity and kindness (and ultimately the origins of morality) in terms of evolution.

If all this means anything to you, you can see why any success in locating an evolutionary basis for things like social justice and generosity would cause most conservatives to go ballistic. Provide a verifiable, science-based justification for “doing good” in liberal terms, and the “up yours, Jack, I’ve got mine” philosophy has the rug pulled out from under it.

The champion of this effort is Robert Trivers, an eccentric genius whose early career included advanced study (and self-taught mastery) of multiple disciplines, dangerous breakdowns resulting from bi-polar disorder, radical politics, and much else. Out of this hodgepodge, Trivers finally focused on the knotty question of why it is that animals often come to the aid of others to whom they are not related, sometimes even to members of other species. He refers to it as “the evolution of reciprocal altruism.”

It’s one thing to save your brother from drowning, and thereby, “rescue” copies of your own genes for the future, but why jump in to save a stranger?

Trivers’ studies include not just math (he taught himself calculus at fourteen), biology and psychology, but also history and anthropology. From a growing body of data, what he has come to believe is that, in the primordial past, human evolution rewarded those who practiced kindness in tribal society by establishing a debt of gratitude. If I save you and yours, you are more likely, should the need arise, to save me and mine.
No doubt an Ayn Rander or a latter-day Newt Gingrich or a trickle-down economist like Arthur Laffer will dream up some way to finesse or dismiss this new perspective. Being generous and looking out for others besides those in one’s tiny corner of the gene pool is not compatible with their world view. But if Trivers’ ideas ever capture the popular imagination, “enlightened selfishness” is going to sound more like its true self: a hollow falsehood not even applicable in terms of self-interest.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

SPIES AND WHALES

--It’s a beautiful evening. Want to sit on the patio?
--You go ahead.
--What’s wrong?
--No, go on ahead, I’m fine. I just want to sit here.
--Come on, fess up. What’s wrong?
--“Fess up.” That’s an apt phrase. Eleven Russians were arrested for spying this week. The cold war ended twenty years ago, but they were ordered to maintain their deep-cover mole status anyway.
--I read about it. They were all posing as suburbanites.
--The FBI’s been tracking them for seven years. Seven years, Barbara.
--So what? You thought the Russkies just Fed-Xed all their spycams and shotgun mics back to Moscow? Their wigs and fake beards?
--Apparently, they never learned anything to pass along.
--Well, isn’t that a good thing?
--One of them tried to buy a cell phone. She gave her address as Fake Street. That’s how the crack FBI operatives nabbed her. The only reason the Bureau sprang into action is because one of the others bought a one-way ticket to Cyprus. You can’t invest seven years of taxpayers’ money on monitoring spies who haven’t done any actual spying without making an arrest.
--And this is why you won’t come outside to enjoy a nice summer evening in Michigan? What do I have to do, sweep the patio for bugs and cameras?
--What’s depressing is that “experts” think the spies were kept in place to the tune of millions of rubles just to uphold tradition.
--The spy tradition.
--Yes. Instead of change, tradition. And of course the logical extension is to conclude our own tradition also had to be maintained. Seven years of watching suburbanite spies who never gathered any info worth sending back. And the finance reform legislation has no teeth. Nothing will change in any significant way, so the tradition of Wall Street scams will continue. Just like the drill-baby-drill tradition in the Gulf.
--You really should come outside.
--I will. And after reading about spies, I made the mistake of turning on the TV. Just in time to see footage taken from a plane off the coast of Texas. The footage showed a pod of dolphins. Dead together in the dead sea. Their brains are as big as ours. They can recognize themselves in a mirror. They grasp abstractions. I couldn’t watch and turned it off.
--Then you came in here to be with your thoughts.
--Do you ever have a sense of an ending? Of things getting ready to be over?
--When I do, I go outside to watch evening light in the trees. I recommend it.
--You go on. I’ll be there soon.
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