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Jul. 29 2010 — 12:09 am | 2,470 views | 0 recommendations | 45 comments

Was Jesus a Conservative or a Liberal?

The ancient art of cherry picking passages from the Bible to support this or that argument has found new life in recent decades as conservatives claim Jesus as their political ally and in the past year with the Tea Party movement invoking Christ’s conservativism. What Would Jesus Do? (WWJD?) has morphed into Who Would Jesus Vote For? (WWJVF?) Was Jesus a conservative? I don’t think so, but the entire enterprise of politicizing historical figures with modern labels is fraught with fallacy.

Employing modern political terms such as “liberal” and “conservative” to someone who live 2,000 years ago is an absurd game to play because those terms as they are used today do not even apply to people who lived a scant few centuries ago. The original meaning of “liberal,” for example, was what we would today call a “classical liberal,” or someone who believes in laissez faire capitalism and small government. Followers of Adam Smith were liberals, but today are called classical liberals, or conservatives, because they want to conserve the political and economic principles of classical Enlightenment thought. Those who are vehemently opposed to these conservative principles are sometimes today called progressives, who want to progress beyond—instead of conserving—classical liberalism, and their type specimen is Franklin D. Roosevelt, who originally had the support of pro-laissez faire capitalists until he launched the New Deal. One of FDR’s ideological descendents was Bill Clinton, who turned out to be one of the strongest Democratic proponents of free markets in history, which makes him, what? A conservatively classical progressive liberal? You can see how odious such label making becomes even for modern figures.

Jesus was, for the most part, apolitical. There were a number of political factions in his time, yet there is no evidence that he joined or even endorsed any of them. He emphasized the “Kingdom of God” over the kingdom of man, and heaven over earth, and his central message was to love God and to love one another. When Jesus was asked, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” he replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40). In the next chapter in Matthew (23:9-12) Jesus punctuated the point by comparing earthly fathers to the heavenly father: “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Lacking clear political leanings we have to examine the moral teachings of Jesus to see if they more closely fit the moral principles of liberals or conservatives. As I read the record, Jesus sounds like a liberal when he admonishes us to turn the other cheek and practice forgiveness, not to judge lest ye be judged, to show great compassion for the poor, and especially when he admonishes the money changers and tells his followers to give up their belongings, abandon their families, and follow his religious movement. Remember, it was Jesus who said, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

And let’s not forget the Beatitudes from the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5: 3-9), which do more closely echo the sentiments of liberals instead of conservatives:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

Matthew 7: 1-5 is the classic statement of liberal tolerance:

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

Indeed, would any red-blooded, gun-totting, Hummer-driving, hard-drinking, Bible-totting conservative today saying anything like this? (Matthes 5:43-44): “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….”

Even on the current hot-button issue driving the Tea Party train—taxes—when asked if it was proper to pay taxes, Jesus famously said (Matthew 22:21): “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

Of course, I’m cherry picking passages myself here, but I found the process much more conducive to fitting Jesus into left-leaning politics than into the right. I suppose the following passage from the Messiah (Matthew 5:27-30) might be construed as Jesus’s expression of conservative values, but I’m not sure anyone in their right mind would endorse such a moral principle:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.

Speaking of the 7th commandment, I found one web page dedicated to this matter of the Messiah’s politics in which the author wrote:

At times, Jesus blended His Liberal and Conservative sides in perfect balance. One example was when He asked the woman accused of adultery, “Where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?”, and the woman answered, “No one, Lord.” Jesus told her, “Neither do I condemn you; from now on, sin no more.” The Liberal Jesus did not condemn the woman, but the Conservative Jesus called her behavior “sin”, which she needed to stop.

So…are we to infer from this interpretation that liberals would not call adultery a sin that should be avoided, and if committed need not be stopped? All married liberals reading this column raise your hands if you think an act of adultery on the part of your spouse is acceptable. That’s what I thought. In point of fact, adultery is a sin because it deeply injures a loved one, it breaks the bonds of trust so essential to the deepest of all human relations, and it leads to the breakdown of families. And you don’t need the Bible to understand this simple fact. Adultery as a sin is an evolved characteristic of our species.

We evolved as pair-bonded primates for whom monogamy, or at least serial monogamy (a sequence of monogamous marriages), is the norm. Adultery is a violation of a monogamous relationship and there is copious scientific data (and loads of anecdotal examples) showing how destructive adulterous behavior is to a monogamous relationship. In fact, one of the reasons that serial monogamy (and not just monogamy) best describes the mating behavior of our species is that adultery typically destroys a relationship, forcing couples to split up and start over with someone new. Thus, adultery is immoral because of its destructive consequences no matter what God or the patriarchs said about it. And evolutionary theory provides a deeper reason for adultery’s immoral nature that is transcendent because it belongs to the species. If there is a God, and if He does condemn adultery as an immoral act, it is because evolution made it immoral.

Jul. 21 2010 — 11:01 am | 2,528 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

The Passion of Saint Mel (Gibson that is)

To understand the lunatic rantings of Mel Gibson you need know only a few core characters of the man, starting with his first name, which comes from Saint Mel (or Moel), a fifth-century Irish saint who worked to evangelize Ireland in the name of the Papacy. Saint Mel is the patron saint of the Roman Catholic diocese of Ardagh, where Mel Gibson’s mother came of religious age.

The young (modern) Mel was brought up by his Traditionalist Catholic father, Hutton Gibson, where the doctrine of “Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” (“Outside the Church there is no salvation”) was preached. Of course, what constitutes “the church” determines the circumference of the salvation circle, with religious liberals opting for those who accept Jesus as their savior as eligible for salvation, while religious fundamentalists, literalists, and apparently traditionalists holding to the strict dogma that if you are not Catholic you are not saved. Here is what Mel Gibson once said about his own (apparently long-suffering) wife Robyn, who is an Episcopalian: “There is no salvation for those outside the Church … I believe it. Put it this way. My wife is a saint. She’s a much better person than I am. Honestly. She’s… Episcopalian, Church of England. She prays, she believes in God, she knows Jesus, she believes in that stuff. And it’s just not fair if she doesn’t make it, she’s better than I am. But that is a pronouncement from the chair. I go with it.” The Chair. That’s refreshing. Here’s a bumper sticker for Saint Mel’s car: The Pope Said it, I believe it, That Settles it.

The intolerance of this dogma cannot be overstated, but to be fair the Papacy is merely channeling the gospel, in this case John 14:5-6: “Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” And this means what for the Jews?

Speaking of the blood libel against the Jews, Saint Mel’s filmic opus, The Passion of the Christ, was one long argument (amplified with copious blood and raw flesh) for the justification of two millennia of anti-Semitism: the Jews killed our Lord. In point of fact it was the Romans who killed Jesus who, let’s not forget, was Jewish, so if the Jews were the perpetrators this would only mean that Jesus was killed by his own clan. (Do people really need to be reminded that before Christ there was no Christianity and there were no Christians? Apparently so.) And in any case, if the life of Jesus had to unfold as it did in order for him to transmogrify into the Christ (the Messiah)—which we are told had to happen for the atonement of original sin that would otherwise condemn all of us to eternity without God—then shouldn’t Christians be thanking the Jews for doing what, after all, they had to do? In any case, here is what the best extra-biblical source, the Roman historian Tacitus, said about it in chapter 15 of his Annals of Imperial Rome:

Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judea (where the mischief had started), but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capitol.

Skeptic magazine’s religion editor, Tim Callahan, concludes:

Here Tacitus, showing the same antagonism for Christianity evidenced in the Talmudic writers, says that it was temporarily checked when Pontius Pilate—not the Jewish authorities—executed Jesus. In summation, the trial before Ciaphas, the Barabbas episode, the reluctance of Pilate to condemn Jesus, and the Jewish mob demanding his death are, like every other aspect of the Passion and Resurrection narratives, pure fiction. The bare bones of the historical core of what is essentially grand myth is that Jesus was put to death by the Romans—not the Jews—for sedition.

Anti-Semitism has roots running deep, and Mel’s go back to his father. Although today we do not hold to the moral precept that the son should suffer for the sins of the father, the Ten Commandments insists otherwise: “I. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. II. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. III. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” Unfortunately for Mel, who claims to believe in all of the good book’s moral principles, his father had lots of doubts about the Holocaust but few doubts about the nefarious actions of the Learned Elders of Zion. Christopher Hitchens has read the Old Man’s anti-Semitic screeds, noting this gem from Hutton’s self-published book The Enemy is Still Here (the sequel to The Enemy is Here, just in case you didn’t get it the first time): “Our ‘civilization’ tolerates open sodomy and condones murder of the unborn, but shrinks in horror from burning incorrigible heretics—essentially a charitable act.” When Pope John Paul II said of the Jews in a conciliatory outreach across the theological divide, “You are our predilect brothers and, in a certain way, one could say our oldest brothers,” Gibson Senior penned this rejoinder: “Abel had an older brother.” Was he suggesting siblicide writ large?

This brings us to the Holocaust, which deniers publicly deny ever happened while privately wishing that it had (as in “Hitler didn’t implement the Holocaust but he should have”). Mel Gibson’s flirtations with Holocaust “revisionism” also stem from the Patriarch Hutton, who expressed his skepticism in a March, 2003 New York Times Magazine article as to how the Nazis could have logistically exterminated six million Jews. “Go and ask an undertaker or the guy who operates the crematorium what it takes to get rid of a dead body. It takes one liter of petrol and 20 minutes. Now, six million?” From where did the six million figure come? “The entire catastrophe was manufactured” in a deal between Hitler and “financiers” to move Jews out of the Reich. Hitler “had this deal where he was supposed to make it rough on them so they would all get out and migrate to Israel because they needed people there to fight the Arabs.” Hutton’s wife added parenthetically: “There weren’t even that many Jews in all of Europe.” Hutton punctuated the point: “Anyway, there were more after the war than before.”

A sampling of popular books at the Institute for Historical Review conference.

Here is what actually happened. In the 1930s the Nazis did try to get rid of the Jews by eliminating their civil liberties, then banning them from professions, then confiscating their property, then rounding them up into ghettos, then locking them up in concentration camps. In the early and successful (for the Nazis) years of the Second World War, the Third Reich grew in size with each territorial conquest, which meant that the number of Jews grew, along with the measures the Nazis were willing to take to reach their ultimate goal, which by 1942 had morphed from elimination to extermination.

To this combustionable cocktail of wrong-headed ideas and evil intent, add three more characteristics to bring Saint Mel into full light: a hot head temper with a hair trigger mouth and a propensity to drink.

Jul. 16 2010 — 12:09 am | 4,571 views | 1 recommendations | 10 comments

My Dinner (and Drinks) with Christopher (Hitchens that is)

The conjunction of reading Christopher Hitchens’ new memoir, Hitch 22, and the news of his treatment for esophageal cancer, reminded me that I should share my (admittedly limited) experiences of dining (and drinking) with one of the greatest literary masters and creative thinkers of our age.

First, I’m half way through listening to the unabridged audio book of Hitch 22, which I wholeheartedly recommend because Christopher reads it himself in that inimitable classically-educated British accent with his style of flowing quiet narrative punctuated with occasional bursts of accented emphasis. In other words, Hitchens sort of mumbles modestly along, then suddenly his voice rises into crystal clarity when he wants you to get the point hard and fast. Hitch 22 is a literary masterpiece, an absolute joy to listen to. I’ll leave it to his literary/politico peers to critique the ideas within (see, for example, the latest issue of The New York Review of Books with Ian Buruma’s review, as well as David Horowitz’s insightful analysis of Hitchens’ evolving political beliefs.

Although I’m a self-professed libertarian (fiscally conservative and socially liberal), I’m really not much of a politico or social commentator, especially when it comes to foreign affairs, about which I am woefully ignorant compared to Hitchens’ vast database he has accumulated throughout his many travels abroad. So I’m just enjoying the ride listening to Christopher’s many amusing stories. (One funny anecdote is when Hitchens explained that in an early writing job for a publication, his editor said something to him that, as he explained it, made it simply impossible for him to continue employment there. It turned out that the editor told him “you’re fired.”)

My intersection with Hitchens is through our mutual concern about the influence of religion on science. Hitchens, of course, has many other worries about the effects of religious beliefs on political, economic, and social conditions around the world (particularly the Middle East), but he was kind and generous enough to provide a back-jacket blurb for my book, Why Darwin Matters, and noted in his letter to me that contained said blurb that he had found a couple of minor errors in the book, adding parenthetically (in case I missed it) that this meant that he did, indeed, actually read the book. (In the book publishing business it is common practice for authors who are friends and colleagues to blurb each other’s books, and sometimes I suspect this means that the blurb was generated based on a cursory scan of the manuscript. To his credit and energy—considering how many blurb requests he must receive—Christopher really did read the entire manuscript.

I first met Christopher in Hollywood in 1997 at a preview showing of the film FairyTale: A True Story, starring Harvey Keitel as Harry Houdini and Peter O’Toole as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which recounted the story of the two giants’ intersection over the fake fairy photographs that Doyle fell for and Houdini did not. Hitch and I had dinner (well lubricated with adult beverages) before the preview, and although I was a bit distressed at the ending of the film that implied that fairies may actually be real (after showing that Doyle was duped), I rather enjoyed the film. Christopher’s review in Vanity Fair, which included a thoughtful and much appreciated endorsement of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, was much deeper and more insightful than anything I thought of during the viewing. Even though I’m a professional skeptic, for some reason when I watch a film I willing suspend disbelief in order to enjoy the process, and this sometimes interferes with my critical thought processes.

A decade later, in 2007, as I was meandering through the sensory overloaded Las Vegas airport on my way to The Amazing Meeting 5 and Freedom Fest, both conferences at which Hitchens and I were speaking, we encountered each other in search of our respective limo drivers, so we ended up sharing a ride to the hotel. Checking in early (it was around 11:00 am) our rooms were not yet ready, so Hitch suggested that we put the time to good use at the bar. Before. Noon. So there we were, my nursing a Corona with lime for as long as I could socially get away with it while Hitchens ordered a Johnny Walker Black, a red wine, and a bottle of water to mix with JWB in what appeared to be a well-choreographed routine. A couple of rounds later Hitch seemed completely unfazed, while my empty-stomach imbibing on that single beer left me feeling less than adequate to keep up with the conversation. (Hey, when you drink with a professional come prepared. I didn’t have the training miles I’m afraid.) When the bill came I had the singular honor of buying Christopher Hitchens’ drinks because (1) his wallet was in his baggage with the bellman, and (2) the room keys were not yet activated to put it on his room. I didn’t mind a bit—blurb reciprocity an all that, you know.

After hammering down two rounds of the Hitch Mix, Christopher was nearly (but not quite) ready for his noon-time luncheon speech, so he ordered a third round to go. At the podium where Hitch stood, before him were a glass of whiskey, a red wine, and a bottle of water. (Just as we cyclists always ride with water bottles filled with fluid replacement drinks, Christopher apparently never speaks without his Hitch Mix to top off his energy needs.) I can’t for the life of me remember what his speech was about (politics I’m sure) but I recall that Hitchens was extemporaneous, clever, and worldly.

That night the host of Freedom Fest, Mark Skousen, invited Christopher and myself to join a group of Big Thinkers at an exclusive (and quite expensive I’m sure) dinner at one of the posher restaurants in Las Vegas (no prices on the menu is all you need to know). Even though everyone at the table was someone of some import and standing, it was clear throughout the evening that Hitch was Sol and we were his orbiting planets gathering up the warmth of his verbal rays. He told stories—lots and lots of stories—about his travels, his encounters with names we would all surely know, and especially about his ideological battles with this and that ideologue. Other people’s comments were, for the most part, stimulants for another Hitch story. I can see why some people might find that this rubs them the wrong way, but for some reason—at least for me—that was how it should have been. If you invite Christopher Hitchens to your dinner, expect to be entertained, and the more the waiter poured expensive wine, the more histrionic Hitchens became, until four hours and who-knows-how-many-drinks later I detected a slight slowing of his verbal and cognitive skills…so there are limits after all.

The next time I saw Hitch was at a party in Washington D.C., when I was touring for the release of my book, The Mind of the Market. Reason magazine kindly arranged for a book party at a bar and restaurant that was so crowded and so loud that it was physically uncomfortable. After an obligatory drink and a few stories to entertain the troops, Hitchens leaned in and said “Michael, why don’t we retire to a restaurant down the street where they know me?” Exiting the cacophony, we walked a few blocks to what turned out to be one of Hitches’s regular haunts. “The usual place, Mr. Hitchens?” the maitre’d inquired. We were escorted to a quite corner of the restaurant, where Hitch positioned himself to be able to scan the room, and soon we were joined by his wife and an occasional passerby who recognized him and dropped in for a story (and drink) or two.

Shortly after the waiter took our drink orders (“the usual?” was all Hitch needed to hear, to which he nodded affirmatively), the Hitch Mix was on the table, followed by a fabulous dinner and, of course, lots of stories, none of which were repeated from my previous dinner (at least that I could remember—I too imbibed). After a couple hours at the restaurant, Hitch invited me to his home not far from the restaurant, where I was treated to a visual delight: mountains of books, oceans of books, a sea of books—pick your geographical metaphor. As the recipient myself of bound galleys and newly published volumes sent to Skeptic magazine for review, I know how quickly a mass accumulates on my desk that then migrates to the floor and eventually peaks above the desk again. But these are just science books. As a literary polymath Hitch receives books for review from virtually every category in the Dewey Decimal System. And he actually seems to read the books he reviews.

But the library is not where we adjourned for the evening. It wasn’t long before I found myself at a rectangular table in the dining room chockablock full of whiskey bottles from around the world. I’m not a whiskey connoisseur so I couldn’t tell you the brand names, but even a teetotaler like me could tell from the labels and bottle designs that here was a collection of the very best whiskeys that money can buy from all over the world, and I suspect that Hitch didn’t have to buy many of them, since such gifts seem to naturally flow his way. So I sampled and sipped and sauced my way into a late-night bliss that I paid for dearly the next day. I think I had an interview for an early morning television show, but I honestly don’t remember because I barely recall even having a next day.

Was it worth it? I once had an opportunity to ride my bike 50 miles on a fundraising event next to the great Belgian champion Eddy Merckx, considered the greatest cyclist of all time. I was so nervous about crashing and taking him down that I just concentrated on the bumper in front of us that we were drafting behind at 30 miles per hour. But just the experience of riding side by side with one of the greatest athletes to ever grace the planet was enough for me. That’s how I felt drinking and dining and delighting in the presence of Christopher Hitchens.

Jul. 12 2010 — 8:24 pm | 348 views | 0 recommendations | 8 comments

Minority Merits: The U.C. System Proves Minorities Can Compete Without Aid

The best thing that can or should be said about Affirmative Action is what the Democratic civil rights champion Sammy Davis Jr. purportedly said when asked why he hugged Richard Nixon at a 1970 Republican fundraiser: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Why not fight racism with reverse racism? If a racist and corrupt system discriminates against minorities then one means of righting this wrong is to reverse the racism by discriminating for instead of against said minorities. This is precisely what the University of California system did in its admissions policy until Proposition 209 passed 54% to 45% in 1996, prohibiting the state from discriminating against or giving preferences to anyone on the basis of “race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.”

Here we have the basis for a social experiment in which one set of variables is altered: before 1996 the University of California system discriminated against whites and in favor of minorities in their admissions policy; after 1996 students were admitted based on their merits alone. Opponents of Prop 209—believing that minorities lack the merits to make it on their own—predicted that minority admissions would decrease after 1996. Proponents of 209—believing that minorities are just as smart, creative, and hard working as any other group—predicted the opposite. What happened?

Admissions for the Fall of 2010 for the University of California reveals that the number of minorities in both absolute numbers and percentages exceeds that of 1996:

African American            1996: 4% (1,628)                  2010: 4.2% (2,624)

Latino                         1996: 15.4% (5,744)             2010: 23% (14,081)

Asians                         1996: 29.8% (11,085)                       2010: 37.5% (22,877)

Native Americans            1996: 0.9% (360)                  2010: 0.8% (531)

Whites                         1996: 44% (16,465)              2010: 34% (20,807)

So it would appear that a meritocracy in educational admissions works, and in this (the University of California), one of the largest educational laboratories in the world. Blacks and Latinos in particular do not need affirmative action, special favors, handouts, proportional set asides, or any other discriminatory practice in order to succeed. And how insulting to ever to have implied that they do! Did anyone believe that the only way minorities could succeed in American education would be for the government to step in and order educational institutions to discriminate on their behalf? Yes, they did, and they still are: the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action filed a lawsuit this year to overturn Prop 209. Why? According to the suit: “The percentage of Latina/o, black and Native American students in the UC as a whole has not kept pace with the rising percentage of those groups among high school graduates of the state.”

So the purpose of higher education is to be an extension of K-12 education, matching percentages precisely or else? And that “or else” should include a top-down, government enforced racist policy of discrimination based on high school racial demographics? Is this what American higher education has come down to? If the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action has its way it will, because, in fact, the full name and mission of this organization, according to it’s web page, is: “The Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) is building the new civil rights movement. We are a primarily student- and youth-based organization of leaders in our schools and communities, committed to making real the promises of American democracy and equality.” Read that ominous acronym again: By Any Means Necessary. If the law is not overturned, what other means do these folks have in mind? Violence? The threat of violence?

I am white. My “race” lost a full 10 percentage points in U.C. admissions after the passage of Prop 209. Will BAMN step up and demand that the U.C. admissions office set aside a fixed number of admits for whites regardless of SAT scores, GPAs, student essays, and the like? Somehow I doubt it, but if they did, and I were applying to college, I would give the same response that any self-respecting individual should today to such racist policies:

“No thanks. I don’t need your racist discriminatory policies to succeed in life. And how insulting that you would think otherwise—I can make it on my own without your snobby elitist attitude that without your help I will fail. I don’t need you or any other patronizing thugs to threaten a university to let me in or else they will be in violation of a law that could land them in jail for choosing to not admit me. And if that were the reason they did let me in, I wouldn’t go. I am smart. I am creative. I am hard working. I am responsible for my actions. I will make my own way in life, and if I succeed then I succeed on my own merits, and if I fail then I fail on my own lack of merits. Period. If you don’t understand that, then get lost.”

Jul. 7 2010 — 12:09 am | 1,010 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Nash Equilibrium, the Omerta Rule, and Doping in Cycling

The Tour de France is underway and it is already shaping up to be one of the grandest and most epic races in the event’s century-long history. If you haven’t seen a stage yet be sure to tune into the Versus Network that covers it every day, with repeat airings all day and evening. Lance is still in contention even after several crashes. In fact, I’ve never seen so many crashes in a Tour before. This event is so hard it is not surprising that, as usual, allegations and suspicions of doping have surrounded the race even before it began. Unfortunately, it appears that doping has long been a part of this—and many other—sports. Here is my explanation for why athletes in general and cyclists (my sport) in particular dope, why race organizations have such a hard time enforcing the rules, and what can be done about it.

In criminal organizations such as the Cosa Nostra in 19th century Sicily and the Mafia in 20th century southern Italy, the “omerta rule” is the code of silence, a tacit agreement among cohort members that the collective violation of the law means if you get caught you keep your mouth shut and under no circumstances cooperate with the authorities. The penalty for an omerta betrayal is ultimate and final—death.

Something like the omerta rule operates in the dark and dirty underbelly of doping in sports, or the employment of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) against the rules (and in some cases the law), in which a positive test leads to an obligatory statement of shock and denial by the guilty party, followed by a plausible explanation for how the drug mysteriously appeared in the blood or urine, ending in fines paid and/or time served and eventual return to the sport, no names named and no further questions asked.

After testing positive for steroids following his 2006 Tour de France victory, Floyd Landis obeyed the omerta rule, albeit in grander style than most, publishing a bestselling book, Positively False: The Real Story of How I Won the Tour de France, raising upwards of $600,000 for a legal defense fund, and taking his case to sports arbitration. The three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond told me in a phone conversation during the arbitration trial that Landis consulted him about what to do next, at which point LeMond encouraged him to come clean. “What would I gain doing that?,” LeMond recalled Landis saying. “You would clear your conscience and help save cycling,” LeMond replied.

Three years later Landis has apparently decided to take LeMond’s advice, confessing during the recent Tour of California that the “real story” of how he—and Lance Armstrong—won the Tour de France is drugs, lots and lots of PEDs: recombinant Erythropoietin (r-EPO) to artificially stimulate the production of oxygen carrying red blood cells, steroids and human growth hormone for recovery and the development of lean muscle mass, and blood boosting, or withdrawing your own blood early in the season and then re-injecting it during the Tour de France to boost red blood cell count with your own blood (thereby sidestepping the test for EPO while gaining a comparable advantage). In published emails Landis defiantly slapped the omerta rule across the face, naming names and providing details:

“I was instructed on how to use Testosterone patches by [Team Director] Johan Bruyneel”

“Mr Armstrong was not witness to the [blood] extraction but he and I had lengthy discussions about it on our training rides during which time he also explained to me the evolution of EPO testing and how transfusions were now necessary due to the inconvenience of the new test.”

Armstrong “tested positive for EPO at which point he and Mr Bruyneel flew to the UCI headquarters and made a financial agreement with Mr. Vrubrugen to keep the positive test hidden.”

“ During that Tour de France I personally witnessed George Hincapie, Lance Armstrong, Chechu Rubiera, and myself receiving blood transfusions. Also during that Tour de France the team doctor would give my room mate, George Hincapie and I a small syringe of olive oil in which was disolved andriol, a form of ingestible testosterone on two out of three nights throughout the duration.”

It’s a good thing for Landis that the penalty for an omerta rule violation in sports is not what it is in the Mafia, or else he’d be the Luca Brasi of cycling and sleeping with the fishes. Why did Landis break the code of silence? The answer to this question, along with the larger question of why athletes dope, comes from game theory and something called Nash equilibrium, discovered by the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash (of Beautiful Mind fame), in which two or more players in a contest reach an equilibrium where neither one has anything to gain by unilaterally changing strategies. If each player has selected a tactic such that no player can benefit by changing tactics while the other players hold to their plans, then that particular arrangement of strategy choices is said to have reached a point of equilibrium.

Here’s how it works in sports. The point of an athletic contest is to win, and players will do whatever they can to achieve victory, which is why well-defined and strictly enforced rules are the sine qua non of all sports. The rules clearly prohibit the use of PEDs, but because the drugs are extremely effective and the payoffs for success are so high, and because most of the drugs are difficult if not impossible to detect, or the tests can be beat with countermeasures, or the governing body of the sport itself doesn’t fully support a comprehensive anti-doping testing program (as in the case of Major League Baseball and the National Football League), the incentive to dope is powerful. Once a few elite athletes in a sport defect to gain an advantage over their competitors, they too must defect (even if they only think others are doping), leading to a cascade of defection down through the ranks.

If everyone is doping there is equilibrium if and only if everyone has something to lose by violating the tacit omerta agreement. Disequilibriums can arise when not everyone is doping, or when the drug testers begin to catch up with the drug takers, or when some cheaters have nothing to lose and possibly something to gain by turning state’s evidence.

Which brings us back to Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong, who for a decade have been in a state of relative Nash equilibrium. But when Landis lost his savings, his home, his marriage, and his livelihood, he reached a state of disequilibrium, and when he was turned down from even riding in the Tour of California after, according to Armstrong, making threats to the race organizers to let him in “or else,” he apparently decided to make good on his threat.

There is nothing more important for a sporting organization to do than to enforce the rules. If you don’t, athletes will cheat. Anyone who believes otherwise does not understand sports or human nature. As Landis explained in his confessional: “I don’t feel guilty at all about having doped. I did what I did because that’s what we [cyclists] did and it was a choice I had to make after 10 years or 12 years of hard work to get there, and that was a decision I had to make to make the next step. My choices were, do it and see if I can win, or don’t do it and I tell people I just don’t want to do that, and I decided to do it.”

Solutions. The only hope of salvaging professional sports is to change the game matrix. To that end I have five recommendations:

1. Immunity for all athletes pre-2010. Since the entire system is corrupt and most competitors have been doping, it accomplishes nothing to strip the winner of his title after the fact when it is almost certain that the runners’ up were also doping. Immunity will enable retired athletes to work with governing bodies and anti-doping agencies for improving the anti-doping system.

2. Increase the number of competitors tested, in competition, out-of-competition, and especially immediately before or after a race to prevent counter-measures from being employed. Sport sanctioning bodies should create a baseline biological profile on each athlete before the season begins to allow for proper comparison of unusual spikes in performance in competition.

3. An X-Prize type reward to increase the incentive of anti-doping scientists to develop new tests for presently undetectable doping agents, in order to equalize the incentive for drug testers to that of drug takers.

4. Increase substantially the penalty for getting caught. A 50-game ban on Manny Ramirez last year was a joke. No Major League player will take that seriously as a deterrent. Professional cycling has a two-year ban, which is a good start. But it’s not enough.

5. A return of all salary paid and prize monies earned by the convicted athlete to the team and/or its sponsors and investors, and extensive team testing of their own athletes.

Cycling is ahead of all other sports in implementing these and other preventative measures, and still some doping goes on, so vigilance is the watchword for fairness along with freedom.

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    About Me

    Dr. Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine and editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an Adjunct Professor at Claremont Graduate University. His latest book is The Mind of the Market, on evolutionary economics. His last book was Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design, and he is also the author of The Science of Good and Evil and of Why People Believe Weird Things. He received his B.A. in psychology from Pepperdine University, M.A. in experimental psychology from California State University, Fullerton, and his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University (1991). He was a college professor for 20 years, and since his creation of Skeptic magazine he has appeared on such shows as The Colbert Report, 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, and Larry King Live (but, proudly, never Jerry Springer!).

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