What Science Tells Us… and Doesn’t


^ conversing with Bill Kristol, Charles Murray explored comprehensively the anomalies in today’s societal structures, but drew conclusions unnecessarily pessimistic. Free will exists, and so does social adaptation

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Much attention is being given these days to three academic thinkers : Steven Pinker, Jordan Peterson, and Charles Murray. All are social scientists and/or psychologists — students of the brain — much given to biological observations. From these biological observations, they draw conclusions about individual behavior and societal accommodations. All three thinkers point toward so-called traditional arrangements and imperatives and away from the revisionism that has affected both these past 50 years since the individualistic revolution of the 1960s.

To what extent do I support these thinkers’ recommendations ? The answer is that I don’t support them much at all. Where I do support the traditional social arrangements, I don’t need their authority; the arguments for traditional set-ups were all established long ago. More, I disagree that biology has anything to tell us about moral questions. Thus I am unconvinced that its observations dictate society’s duties. Observed phenomena are what they are, and nothing else. Data recorded do give the lie to speculation, but they tell us nothing about what is meant, if anything.

Biology certainly affects medicine. Medical discovery usually can’t take place without a biological record. The same is not true of morals. Even if possession of a y chromosome gives the possessor an advantage in certain physical capabilities — and a concomitant disadvantage in others — that finding tells us nothing about how to value the lives of each, the y chromosome person and the person with only x chromosomes. (I use the chromosome distinction only as an example. There are, for sure, other fundamental biological differences between people we describe as “male” and “female.”)

The relationship between biology and the mind  is a complex one as yet quite unsettled. Why some people identify as female even though possessing biologies that we list as “male,” and vice versa,  we have as yet no good answer for. Self-identifications seem embedded deep in  the brain, well below the cortex, in the brain stem or deeper, in the mimetic mind where music and rhythm arise. They are FELT even when no name can be put on the feeling. Nor is gender feeling the only personality outcome that defies biological explanation. The question then arises,:are identity feelings determined, or are they an exercise of free will ? Free will, as we use the term, has little, if anything to do with biology and not much more to do with social science. Free will, when it occurs, can arise unexpectedly — surprising the person willing it, even. All the anecdotal evidence suggests that identity feelings do not arise willingly; that they are felt to pre-exist; are FOUND OUT by the person finding, the way one stumbles by accident upon a secret that was already there, just not noticed. But if that is so, that identity feelings already existed even before noticed, where in one’s being were they ? To this question, biology has no answer, psychology only a guess.

The biology adept would like to assert that gender feelings are random and groundless; that biology rules, feelings have only subjective presence. On these grounds Peterson and Pinker both object to the political use of identity feelings. Are they right to say so ? That depends on what motives we attribute to their opinion. Myself, I agree, that identity feelings have no political bearing. Whatever civil rights our society accords, it accords to all, equally; the question of who one is does not arise, or should not. Only when people try to make identity an issue and to deny civil rights to certain identities does identity become an issue. Is this what Peterson and Pinker tell us ? I am not sure. I do agree with the two that identity should never become a legitimate basis for differentiating, politically, between people.

Back now to the issue of identity.

It is difficult for modern man, given to answers for everything, to accept, or to agree, that identity feelings are real despite there being no answer to where they are : in the body ? In the brain ? In one’s heart ? Augustine, long ago, wrote that sexual feelings arose in him, all the time, no matter how much he wanted them not to. His response was to will them dormant. Our age takes the opposite tack : admit them and let them be. Each outcome is equally deterministic. We can will these feelings to retreat, but we cannot will them to go away.

I don’t think our current trio of thinkers has gotten much farther than Augustine did. They may not even have gotten as far as he did. He said about evil, why does it exist if God is all powerful, that evil exists because people want to do it. They will it. I think Augustine is right; and his conclusion also dignifies humankind enormously by granting every person the capacity to choose the good. The good — or the bad — are not simply the reflex actions of a biological condition that we cannot do anything about. They are choices that all people can make. Thus Augustine’s “capability to will” becomes a basis for the social and idealistic equality that our Framers wrote into the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Our modern thinkers, who assert that biology is destiny, and that different physical sex characteristics are a valid basis of social role assignment, deny the moral basis of political equality.

Charles Murray has advanced the most comprehensive — and insightful — analysis of current social conditions, which he considers broken down and unable to wean an optimally prepared next generation. He considers the two parent family essential and urges that children be born in wedlock, not outside; and that a boy who grows up without a father role model is compromised thereby. I find his view much too lazy. Of course the standard family usually works (but not always!); but so do other family forms. People growing up in single parent homes, or in homes with two fathers or two mothers, don’t just give up; they work around their structure, or they adapt it to make it work. Adults are still role models even if there is only one, or two of the same. And kids want to grow up to be important. Few grow up not caring. Murray mentions finance as a factor, but not in the way that it really is. To him, families at the bottom of the economic scale are denied access to success not by having few funds but by lack of motivation resulting from the overwhelming burdens upon them. So saying, he has it backward. Any divorce lawyer knows that more marriages break up over financial difficulties than for any other reason. lack of finance is a terrible restriction upon lives. Blame becomes the daily yell, the accusation, the poison that splits parents apart and leaves kids in turbulence — never an asset to the acts of will that enable individuals to rise.

Like all the present science-based thinkers, Murray is trapped by the determinism built into scientific observation. Or should I say, he seems deterministic where acts of free will can and do save many the day, and not deterministic enough where basic identity feelings are involved. But while I criticize Murray, I do not puzzle at his outcomes. Human life is a mystery that resists explanation. Augustine and Rabbi Hillel, who gave us the golden rule, and maybe Plato’s Socrates, have come the closest to understanding who we are and what we should do; but even they haven’t the final word. There isn’t one.


—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere



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^ artist’s view of proposed 107-109 Porter Street 28 unit building (rear and to the right). A ell designed building, to be sure; but maybe too dense of a good thing ?

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As downtown Boston becomes ever more the hub of the new era’s business, enterprise, shopping, social life, and residence, it is not clear what, if anything, will remain, much longer, of neighborhood life as we know it. By no means is the new Boston undesirable. Economic boom is very desirable. Try the opposite, and you’ll soon see why. That said, much that is beneficial to the soul is being lost. Can this tide be turned ?

Nowhere has the new Boston tide flooded more deeply than East Boston. For 70 years, from the Depression years to just recently,  East Boston saw almost no change at all. When my Aunt Elizabeth came back for my Mother’s funeral, in 1969, after living kin Cleveland since 1928, she and I drove around her old neighborhood (Eagle Hill); she recognized every building, and every business. Three generations of East Bostonians grew up in an environ dependably the same. Once Irish and Jewish, Eastie from Day Square to Border Street had become largely Italian, as politicians like Jim Coffey and Manasseh Bradley gave way to Mike LoPresti, Senior, Mario Umana, and George DiLorenzo; but as the names changed, the setting did not; and the setting provided the solid rock upon which ethnic change could proceed without undue conflict.

That profound physical stability, reliant on development plans that took shape in the 1840s and were carried out all the way to 1970 without much alteration, has indelibly marked East Boston people. All the more is it culture shock — personal unease — for “Eastie” residents now to see a century of physical certainty erased by enormous surprises difficult to adjust to. Rooftop assumptions at 35 feet give way to overtopping that interrupts vistas; three decker neighborliness finds itself shouted out by nine to fifteen family, even 25 family, complexity.

Can you blame Eastie people for disliking these immensities that undermine ? I can’t.

One principle worth stating : residential development can NOT sim,ply do as it likes. It MUST enhance a neighborhood, not cancel it. A development that ousts neighborhood character is residential only in the most bald headed sense. Yet much of the central part of East Boston has already seen its character erased by oversize, gargantuan, 100-unit complexes of cheap design, a brutal efficiency, and utter disregard for physical facts. I hope that we’re seeing the last of that phase, but I am not sure better is coming.

On Saturday i attended an abutters’ meeting — according to a procedure required by the Boston Planning and Development Agency — concerning a 28-unit building proposed to occupy 107-109 Porter Street. The site is now a large parking area adjacent to the new Craft Restaurant (where Ecco used to be). Embarc proposes to erect a three story building, with parking underneath, of mostly market-rate rentals, in an area where parking is scarce and residential density is deep.

About 15 people of the Gove Street Citizens Association attended. They were not happy.

Almost all of the Gove Street area — Frankfort, Lubec, Cottage Streets, Gove itsels, Porter Street and upper Orleans, as well as lower Chelsea Street and a few very narrow alleys and courts — was first built up 100 years ago, either of wooden three-deckers or brick, or of four story, direct street-front tenement buildings typical of New York City more than of Boston. parking is scarce, open space even more so, street trees not to be found much. Several multi-story factory buildings, one of them enormously large (156 Porter Street) add even more density. I can’t blame the Gove Street neighbors for not wanting more of this. If the Gove neighborhood (in which my grandparents started their life in America back in 1896) needs any structural change, it needs to be opened up, it needs breathing space, it needs its own greenway.

To sum up : residential neighborhoods of Boston need to be able to continue their character, hopefully even top improve their quality of life.

Everywhere I go In East Boston, people cite over-development as their big issue. I think that what they mean by “over development” is “crap development.” I think East Boston would welcome enhancive developments.

The City needs to get this message.

One way in which the Stater can help is to enable economic development all along the corridor from Needham and Newton to Framingham, and Natick and out to Worcester City. Framingham is now a city, no longer a town, which means a much simpler government for developers to navigate. Governor Baker has instituted non-stop train service from Boston to Worcester; and downtown Worcester is radically re-purposing as an innovation district. Expanding the Boston economic boom westward along the Framingham to Worcester axis might relieve some of the pressure incommoding residential life in the most populous Boston neighborhoods.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


senators after vote

Senators Collins and Manchin (R() do not look happy

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Yesterday the United States Senate failed itself. By not finding an immigration reform that it could support with 60 voters, the men and women of our “greatest deliberative body” walked away from the needs of the nation it is supposed to represent.

Almost 90 percent of the nation’s voters support granting the 1.8 million kids of “DACA” (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) a path to citizenship. If the nation’s legislature cannot enact laws that almost 90 percent of its voters want, it is time to vote that legislature out and vote into it legislators who will enact such a law.

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California three months ago suggested a “clean DACA bill” : a simple bill that would establish the rules for that pathway to citizenship, one that involved a wait of five years, payment of taxes, and clean criminal record during the waiting period. Why was such bill not presented for a vote ?

Instead of enacting the law, as our Congress has the power to do, Senators decided to involve Mr. Trump. It proved a fatal mistake. Their offer included granting Mr. Trump’s request for billions of dollars to fund added “border security,” which had nothing to do with the DACA issue at hand. Who among us was surprised that Mr. Trump not only took that offer but added to it additional measures of his own ? Measures that he had to know the offerees could not and would not accept ?

Mr. Trump proceeded to do all in his power to prevent the Senate from enacting a DACA bill other than his. It worked, even if his DACA bill received fewer votes than the Senate’s two versions of its own.

But if the Senate probably would have enacted a DACA bill had not Mr. Trump interfered, that does not excuse the Senate. The Senate does not work for Mr. Trump. It makes laws by its won powers granted it in the Constitution. The Senate had every power to Pass a bill and send it to the House. It failed.

The bill presented by the Senate’s “Compromise Caucus” came the closest. It received 54 Yes votes. Here is a list of the 45 Senators — 3 Democrats and 42 Republicans) who voted no (John McCain did not vote because he is at home trying to defeat the brain cancer that has had him since the middle of last year.)

Enzi and Barrasso (WY) Risch and Crapo (ID) Hoeven (ND) Thune (SD) Fischer and Sasse (NE) Ernst and Grassley (IA) Portman (OH) Toomey (PA) Burr and Tillis (NC) Scott (SC) Perdue (GA) Rubio (FL:) Wicker and Cochran (MS) Shelby (AL) Corker (TN) Cotton and Hutchinson (AR) McConnell and Paul (KY) Young (IN) Cruz and Cornyn (TX); Lankford and Imhofe (OK); Moran and Roberts (KS); Lee and Hatch (UT); Blount (MO); Daines (MT); Cassidy and Kennedy (LA); Johnson (WI): Heller (NV); Sullivan (AK); Capito (WV); Heinrich and Udall (NM); Harris (CA) 

And this is a list of the 54 who voted Yes — 8 Republicans, 2 Independents, and 44 Democrats. We owe them a thank you :

Isakson (GA); Graham (SC); Nelson (FL); Jones (AL); Alexander (TN); Kaine and Warner (VA); Cardin and Van Hollen (MD); Coons and Carper (DE); Casey (PA); Brown (OH); Menendez and Booker (NJ); Gillibrand and Schumer (NY); Warren and Markey (MA); Blumenthal and Murphy (CT); Reed and Whitehouse (RI); Collins and King (ME); Shaheen and Hassan (NH); Sanders and Leahy (VT); Stabenow and Peters (MI); Baldwin (WI); Smith and Klobuchar (MN); Duckworth and Durbin (IL); McCaskill (MO); Rounds (SD); Murkowski (AK); Cantwell and Murray (WA); Wyden and Merkley (OR); Feinstein (CAS): Hirono and Schatz (HI); Flake (AZ); Cortez-Masto (NV); Gardner and Bennett (CO); Manchin (WV); Donnelly (IN); Heitkamp (ND); Tester (MT). 

Where do we go from here ? I don’t know. Mr. Trump wants even legal immigrants gone, especially those from countries where people have dark skin or worship religions other than Christian. He doesn’t care how much suffering he works upon them or how ill his bigotry makes our nation look to the world. The Senate could stop him; but it did not, and from all indications, the House actually agrees with his ugly view of the world and its people.

Dark times lie ahead for the kids of DACA and for our nation, stuck in fear and unable to be itself, its envisioning, its readiness to dream the big dreams that make our nation something special and worth fighting for.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere




^ Senator Graham has been an unshakable advocate for immigration reform. Let’s make it happen — and do it now.

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Some of you may not like that we’re willing to compromise on immigration issues.

So let me make one thing immediately clear : our compromise recommendation is not occasioned by the heartless man who occupies the presidency. He can rant however he likes; the more relevant obstacle is anti-immigrant sentiment in the Congress. Immigration reform must get 60 votes in the Senate — to overcome a filibuster — and a majority in the House. Somehow those of us who value immigrants from all walks of life, and from all corners of the globe, must find a way to win those votes.

Here is our suggestion :

( 1 ) pathway to citizenship — a term of from five to 12 years, whichever works — for all immigrants brought into the country as children, under age 18 at the time of their entry, no matter how far back in time that entry occurred, provided that said immigrants are free of significant criminal history (motor vehicle violations and drug-use convictions do not count).

( 2 ) automatic citizenship for any immigrant, legal or otherwise, who completes two tours of active combat duty in our armed forces

( 3 ) all persons residing in America under a “temporary protected status” executive order in force as of January 20, 2017, and free of significant criminal history, shall be eligible for “green card” legal permanent residency. Same shall also be eligible to apply for citizenship after five years from the date of the enactment of this legislation.

( 4 ) family reunion immigration shall be limited to spouses and children of such applicants.

( 5 ) “HB-1” special permit visas shall continue.

( 6 ) $ 8 billion shall be set aside, at a rate of $ 1 billion every year for the next eight years, for studying border security measures that may or may not recommend a “wall.” Such measures as are found to be effective shall be authorized and sufficient funds appropriated to enable them.

( 7 ) guest worker visas shall continue, so that farms do not lack for seasonal harvesting workers.

( 8 ) vetting measures in force as of January 20, 2017, for judging visa and refugee applications, shall continue in force. Refugee numbers shall be determined by the President subject to express approval by the State Department, Homeland Security, and the Treasury.

( 9 ) the President shall have full power to institute travel bans from nations of his choosing, but no such ban shall discriminate against a religion, nor shall it go into effect without the express approval of the State Department, Homeland Security, and the Treasury, and any such ban shall be limited to three months only, not to be renewed without good and sufficient evidence provided.

( 10 ) ICE shall retain full power to enforce immigration laws, but in no case shall any ICE agent apprehend any green card holder, “DACA”-eligible person, or persons with a valid pending citizenship application. ICE shall prioritize persons with significant criminal history, or whose involvement with a criminal enterprise poses an immediate threat to the peace and safety of the community in which he or she is present; and ICE shall publish, and make widely known, its enforcement priorities in writing. ICE may hold arrested persons in custody, but in no event shall any person held in custody be denied any rights or privileges accorded other types of Federal prisoners awaiting trial. All persons charged or arrested by ICE shall have full access to legal representation and be accorded all due process rights enumerated in the Constitution. ICE shall in no event arrest or search the effects of any person except in full accord with the rights and sanctions set forth in Amendment Three, Four, Five, Six and Eight to the Constitution.

The above does not read much like  a compromise, but it is one. I am accepting immigration hard-liners limitation of the family reunion program, and I am offering billions of dollars to study and put into effect such border security measures as are deemed useful.

However, in exchange for accepting these two “pillars” of immigration reform, as the hard-liners put it, I endorse significant liberality about who, of all current undocumented, or partially protected, immigrants, will receive more permanent protection. There’s no sense at all in tearing families apart or expelling from the nation people who have played an integral part in our economy and society for what may be decades of years.

Democrats may not like it, but the lead here will come from Republicans. Can enough Republican Senators and Congressmen coalesce around any kind of sensible, workable reform ? Probably not, without a major push from the nation’s major business interests.

That push is likely to be there :

Senators McCain and Coons have introduced a basic immigration bill that meets some of my ten points. There is plenty of public support for the facets of their bill. The business community — often a progressive force in our nation’s governance, and very effective at it — also supports a policy of expanding immigration, not lessening it. How difficult can it be for the nation’s chambers of commerce and major corporations to marshal support for measures that expand the nation’s customer base, encourage the most enterprising of our residents, and stabilize communities where cultural and religious multiplicity are norms ?

Business progressivism has, in state after state, from Indiana to Arkansas to Texas,  turned back much of the recent wave of exclusionary legislation. I see no reason why business progressivism can’t win the day for sensible immigration reform. In any case, it’s a damn well worth making the effort. Now.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


7th Congressional Minority-Majority District

The news was not unexpected — Ayanna Pressley fans have been talking her up for this seat for years — but that it actually happened has stunned the political world. City Councillor Pressley, now in her fifth term, will challenge Congressman Michael Capuano in the Democratic primary.

Can she win it ? can she even make a fight of it ? I’m not confident that she can, but if she does make a fight of it, only one political situation gives her the fuel : identity politics.

Pressley is a woman of color. Mike Capuano is an “old white guy.” That’s your campaign in a nutshell.

This should not be. Campaigns for public office should be about policy and character, effectiveness and, yes, incumbency, because long incumbency gives the office holder major influence. In this situation, both candidates have high character, both are justifiably well liked, and both advocate more or less the same policies, though with different priorities. (Capuano emphasizes labor issues, Pressley new-city business matters.) I doubt that the matter of priority has any bearing on the campaign; but who the two candidates are, matters a lot.

It is NOT just a matter of gender and skin color. What’s really happening here is a major incidence of the Democratic party’s increasing split between those who, on the one hand, prefer to accommodate and work bipartisan, and those who on the other hand, reject all compromises. We saw it in the recent government shut-down, where the no-compromise “base” condemned the 34 Democrats who voted to end the shut-down.

The angry radicalism of Mr. Trump has radicalized both political parties. It has all but killed the Republican party and has now split the opposition party. Anger begets anger, and one is tempted to view Mr. Trump’s angry polarization as a bait to trap the Democratic party into responding to him in kind. So much for “when they go low, we go high.” Yet the Democratic party split has other causes than Mr. Trump’s work. The so-called “meToo” movement has split the party badly, never more so than the political assassination of Senator Al Franken by women Senators led by Kirsten Gillibrand. Opponents of that assassination — and I was one such — decried his being bullied out of The Senate without any sort of due process or ethics hearings. Supporters seem to want accusation to be judge, jury, and executioner and to apply the same level of radicalism to all manner of policy and to the Democratic party as a whole. Thus the primary challenge to Capuano, so identical to primary challenges these past four elections against Republicans in Congress.

In the 7th Congressional District, the break down favors Capuano, but not by much. Pressley’s likely support from radicalized white women — who want Capuano types out,  — and voters of color, who support Pressley for her own accomplishments (which are significant), gives her an upper hand in the Boston wards south of the Harbor (but not in Readville and Fairmount Hill), the District’s Cambridge portion, and a strong showing in Milton and Randolph; whereas Capuano can count on Charlestown, most of East Boston, his home town of Somerville, the Matignon area of Cambridge, Everett, and Chelsea. I suspect that Capuano will do worse in Somerville than he should — the City is now home to many young radicals — but better in Randolph and Chelsea than Pressley would like. The decision may be made in Brighton’s Ward 22, a part of Boston much more traditional in its voting than people realize, with long and broad ties to the accommodationist practice of politics and policy. Much will depend upon turnout, in a primary that Secretary Galvin has brutally scheduled the day after Labor Day.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere