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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Foxholes don't prove god, just desperation

Stephen H. Provost

Believers are fond of saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” as though this statement somehow proved the existence of a god. And not just a god, but their god.

I’m not here to attack anyone’s traditions. The best of societies, in my view, is an open one that allows room for all manner of beliefs — or lack thereof — as long as they’re expressed, rather than imposed. But I do want to point out that the absence of “atheists in foxholes” does not, logically or otherwise, prove the existence of a deity.

To begin with, there are atheists in foxholes, and there's no basis for stating otherwise. (You can’t start with a premise like that and fail to provide evidence for it; since it’s impossible to prove a negative in a case like this, so you’re behind the 8-ball from the get-go.) Millions of people have sacrificed their lives for their principles, and the refusal to compromise those principles under threat of death isn’t exclusively religious. If it were, every soldier tortured would turn traitor rather than die for his or her country. No one would ever give his or her life for anything. 

But say, for the sake of argument, that the premise is valid. Let’s assume that, in the face of death, every single atheist will, in fact, call out to some deity in the hope of deliverance. If that were so, would it prove the existence of a god?

Hardly. The mere fact that you want something is no proof that it exists: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. No, if such an impulse is evidence of anything, it’s that human beings (like other organisms) have a fierce will to survive, and that, in extreme circumstances, they’ll go to extreme lengths to do so.

Darwin’s monkey wrench

If necessity is the mother of invention, desperation is the nursemaid of hope. It’s not religion that impels us to contemplate actions at the far edge of possibility, it is — perhaps ironically — the very Darwinian struggle to survive. (Isn’t it just like that Darwin to throw a monkey wrench into the grinding gears of dogma?)

The impulse that drives foxhole conversions, when they do occur, is the same one that spurs the destitute to spend money on a lottery ticket, even in the face of ten million-to-one odds. It’s the reason a cancer patient might pay thousands of dollars for a snake-oil remedy on the slim hope that something, anything, might ward off the inevitable.

With everything at stake and nothing left to lose, what can it hurt? When all else fails, throw that Hail Mary. It's natural, it's human, and it has nothing at all to do with religion.

Proof of human desperation is no proof of any god. It’s merely proof that well-meaning people will sometimes enter into contracts under duress. Those contracts, however, are never binding to either party. They won’t hold up in a court of law, and the argument that they somehow prove the existence of a deity won’t hold up in a logical argument.

You can take that to the bank. Or the foxhole.

Author’s note: This essay is presented, not as a critique of a specific belief system, but of fallacious argument used in the defense of any belief system. For more on this subject, see Requiem for a Phantom God (2012).


How Citizens United paved the way for Donald Trump

Stephen H. Provost

We went to sleep in Bedford Falls, and we’re waking up in Pottersville. A lot of us would rather go back to sleep.

For years, many of us have yearned for a leader who would “run the country like a business.” Well, we got what we wished for, but despite the shock of waking up more than a year ago with a six-times-bankrupt real estate mogul for a president, none of this happened overnight.

There are two kinds of businessmen. There are the old-school merchants who put the customer first, because the customer could always take his business elsewhere. Then there’s the new corporate model, which puts the shareholders first, because that’s where the real money is. Customers can’t nickel-and-dime you to death if you’ve got investors slipping millions into your back pocket at regular intervals.

There are, similarly, two approaches to government. The traditional approach — which made America great in the first place — puts the voter first. Officials are elected to represent their constituents, and if they don’t, those constituents can take their votes elsewhere. But under the new model, big-money donors come first, because they can control the conversation. Voters can’t elect you if they don't know who you are, and they can't kick you out of office if they don’t know you're robbing them blind.


We’ve been morphing from the traditional form of government into a corporate model for some time: Ronald Reagan’s supply-side economics and the Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy were among the early signs of this progression. But the tipping point came in 2010, when the Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for corporate donors and blew the last vestiges of a fair playing field to smithereens.  

Once this model was firmly in place, its proponents thought they’d use it, along with the tool of Gerrymandering, to corner the market on public policy for the benefit of their corporate sponsors. One thing they hadn’t counted on, though, is an inconvenient aspect of corporate life: the hostile takeover.

That’s where Donald Trump came in. He knew the voters didn’t like the idea of corporate big wigs telling them what to do, so he tapped into that, presenting himself as an “outsider” who was ready to “drain the swamp” and take on the Washington elites: notably, the Clinton Democratic machine, but also Republican lawmakers like “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz and “Little” Marco Rubio.

George, I am an old man, and most people hate me. But I don’t like them either so that makes it all even.
— Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter in "It’s a Wonderful Life"

Whatever you think of Trump, his takeover of the Republican Party was a masterstroke worthy of “corporate raider” Carl Icahn (who later served briefly in Trump’s administration as a special economic adviser). The Republican establishment, which had banked on corporate support from the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson and their ilk, was nonplussed at the idea that someone outside their ranks turning the tables on them.

Cruz called him a “pathological liar,” “utterly amoral” and “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen.” Fellow candidate Lindsay Graham said Republicans should “tell Donald Trump to go to hell.” But that was during the primaries. Cruz eventually endorsed Trump (conveniently forgetting insults toward Cruz's wife and father), and Graham now plays golf with him on a fairly regular basis.

Why the change?

Two reasons: Trump runs the show, but it’s still their show.

Since assuming office, Trump has been anything but an outsider. In fact, he’s become the very thing he ran against in the primaries, morphing into the quintessential NeoCon Republican. During his first year in office, he has, almost without fail, championed the same causes establishment Republicans have supported for years: increased military spending, anti-gay policies, regulation rollbacks and overt “patriotism.” But he’s done so while playing to the crowd as though he were still an outsider.

This is likely one reason Trump has clung to his tweeting habit so tenaciously. His rash and often offensive outbursts, and the conspiracy theories that go along with them, are all that separate him from the people he ran against in the primaries. He’s basically keeping up appearances.

Whether he’s a maverick or a traditional Republican at heart doesn’t matter to Trump, just as ideology doesn’t matter to most CEOs. It’s the bottom line that counts, and for Trump, the bottom line is his own ego. The Republicans who railed against him in the primaries have figured this out, and they know he’ll execute their agenda as long as they play along with his little charade. So, that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Imperfect storm

No wonder people on the other side of the political fence are so enraged. To them, the current situation is the worst of both worlds: a Republican majority that’s still indebted to corporate interests, working hand in glove with a president who lacks a moral compass and who insults friend and foe alike.

Trump’s Mad Hatter act is, in part, a function of who he is — a self-serving narcissist who uses chaos to further his own ends. But it’s also a function of the new corporate government system we’ve created. Under the corporate model, a board of directors makes policy to benefit shareholders (not customers), and the CEO both executes and sells that policy as the face of the company. Think Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, Richard Branson or Carly Fiorina. Or, in Britain, the royal family.

Trump likes to think he's royalty, with Mar-a-Lago as his palace and a bunch of toadies groveling at his feet.

Whatever else he is, he's the face of our nation, and it’s an ugly one, rather like Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. Maybe we’re not threatening to jump of a bridge, as George Bailey did in that iconic film, but some people are threatening to move overseas and a whole lot of others are distraught, disconsolate and downright embarrassed.

Trump didn’t create this mess on his own. He merely stepped into the role we created for him when, fed up with gridlock and do-nothing lawmakers, we clamored for a "businesslike" approach to government. We asked for it; now we’ve got it. But is this really what we had in mind?

The sad irony is that we hired a third-rate businessman with a first-rate ego to work for 1 percent of Americans.

Welcome to Pottersville, otherwise known as Trumpsylvania. But don’t make yourself at home. In this little slice of faux-Rockwell Americana, foreclosure’s always just around the corner.


Spanking violates everything we say we believe in

Stephen H. Provost

Why is hitting someone OK?

I'm not talking about self-defense; I'm talking about taking your own initiative to hit someone who isn't threatening you.

That would be bad enough. But what about hitting someone who can't fight back?

Our society condemns "kicking people when their down." Football players are penalized for late hits. Boxers can lose points for hitting after the belt, and shooting someone in the back is considered the coward's way.

But somehow these rules don't apply to the most defenseless among us, those least capable of fighting back: young children. Somehow, spanking a child is viewed not only as appropriate, but necessary by a majority of Americans. It's rationalized as a "teaching tool" or a "deterrent" or a way to impose social norms on kids who don't know any better.

"Spare the rod, spoil the child," the saying goes.


But how is that different than "teaching someone a lesson"? That's what spanking is supposed to do, right? Teach the child a lesson?

First point: It doesn't work. A 2016 study by professors from the universities of Texas and Michigan found that the more children are spanked, the more apt they are to defy their parents. They're also more likely to exhibit anti-social behaviors and to develop mental health and cognitive problems. So, not only does spanking fail to achieve its supposed goal, it makes the problem worse. And not just for the kids, because ...

Second point: It doesn't stop there. Now, a new study has found that children who are spanked are more likely to engage in dating violence. The kids who are spanked aren't the only victims; they're more likely to victimize others, too.

Apparently, they are learning a lesson ... just the wrong one. They're learning it's appropriate, even desirable, to inflict physical pain upon people when they're at their most vulnerable.

Children can't fight back. They trust their parents implicitly, and spanking breaks that trust. It creates a conundrum of cognitive dissonance: "This person loves me, but he's hurting me." There are two ways to resolve this. Either the child can defy the parents (as the 2016 study found is more likely to occur among those who are spanked) or that child can learn to equate corporal punishment with love.


It should come as no surprise that spanking should be predictive of physical abuse in dating relationships, which also involve high levels of trust and vulnerability. If you agree to go out on a date with someone, you presumably like them (at least a little), and you put yourself in a position of being vulnerable, both emotionally and in terms of physical proximity. 

The link to future sexual abuse in the dating study should hardly be surprising: Spanking children not only involves hitting the most vulnerable people among us, it entails hitting them in one of their most vulnerable areas (the buttocks): an area that, in our society, remains covered in public because of its sexual associations.

If the person you're dating thinks it's appropriate, or even an expression of love, to hit you, trust and vulnerability go out the window. Not to mention that the person has just engaged in a criminal act (assault) according to our social norms.

But those same social norms tell us it's fine to spank a child. Parents can't be prosecuted for it, and they don't even have to endure much (if any) societal disapproval for it. A United Nations committee calls the practice "invariably degrading," and 53 countries ban corporal punishment outright, but the United States isn't one of them.

Indeed, nearly three-quarters of the U.S. population  agrees or strongly agrees "that it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking."

The evidence against spanking is one of the most consistent findings in the field of psychology.
— Elizabeth T. Gershoff, associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin

The upshot: We tell our kids not to "resort to violence" and urge them to solve problems rationally, while at the same time resorting to violence ourselves ... and violence that's anything but rational, since it doesn't work.

I find this incomprehensible. When it comes to how we, as adults, treat other adults, we condemn "throwing the first punch" and justify physical violence only in self-defense. We don't shoot people in the back. We don't pile on after the whistle blows or the bell rings. We observe the boundaries that apply across society ... except, inexplicably, to the most vulnerable among us, our children.

Spanking doesn't work. It makes the problem worse. It's predictive of adult violence. But most of all, it's wrong.

It's wrong to hit someone without provocation, to inflict pain, and it's even more egregiously wrong if that person is defenseless. That's what we're supposed to believe as a society.

So why the hell do we keep doing it to our kids?