Monday, February 28, 2005

If One Thinks Fearlessly, One Cannot Be Politically Orthodox

--George Orwell

Sunday, February 27, 2005

True SUV Tales of Action Adventure

True story.

Two weeks ago, I was on my way down I-64 to Canis Major, home of the inimitable Canis Major. Just outside of Charlottesville (VA, that is), one mile West of the Crozet exit, all traffic comes to a dead stop. After sitting at said dead stop for several minutes, I called up CM to inform him that I'd undoubtedly be late, perhaps very so. Signing off, I got out of my trusty Honda Accord to scout out what was going on up ahead. Soon CM called back to inform me that he had called a local radio station and been told that a tractor-trailer had overturned, caught on fire, and exploded, blocking all lanes of 64, East- and West-bound.

After chatting with some folks about the situation, I began the return trip to my car, resolved to drive down the shoulder, get off at Crozet, and make my way East via 250. As I'm walking up the shoulder, some others with the same idea come driving down it, stopping to ask me what I know. When I tell them, they take off down the shoulder with a vengance.

Getting back to my car, I take off after them. But after about a half a mile, most of our little caravan comes to a halt. Turns out that a tractor-trailer has for some reason stopped with its left half in the right-hand lane and its right half on the shoulder. Since everything's at a dead stop, the truck can't move. The first few cars made it through between the truck and the guardrail...but the third or fourth vehicle in line was an SUV. The tractor-trailer was too close to the guard rail, and the SUV couldn't squeeze through. We sat there for five minutes while the land behemoth moved almost imperceptibly forward and back, trying to fit through the gap, blocking egress for ten cars. Finally the driver gave up and pulled back onto the highway, leaving the shoulder clear for the rest of us to get through and get off the interstate. The Accord squeezes through with only inches to spare on each side.

I have to admit that my irritation was mixed with joy at seeing that the Extreme He-Man Action Adventure Wagon--complete, no doubt, with built-in Extreme First Aid Kit--couldn't cut it in our little mini-quasi-emergency, and was proved, in this case, inferior to our Hondas, Tauruses, and Jettas. I realize that this probably makes me a bad person, but there it is.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Obnoxiousness and Aggressiveness in Politics and Philosophy

Analytic philosophy has a problem. It’s probably not the only discipline with this problem, and it’s not the only problem that this discipline has. But it may be of wider interest because it’s a problem that afflicts political discourse as well.

The problem is that verbal aggressiveness is extremely common and perhaps even the norm.

In academic philosophy—at least in its analytic (or “post-analytic,” or Anglo-American) manifestation—one develops a reputation by being confident, strident, unyielding, quick on your feet…and verbally aggressive. This is no secret in the discipline.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with being unyielding in the face of bad criticism. And confidence is a virtue when confidence is warranted. And it’s good to be quick on your feet if your quickness is used in the service of truth rather than sophistry. But sadly, and contrary to what one might think, confidence, quickness, and unyieldingness are misused in academic philosophy about as often as they are used rightly. Similarly in American political discourse. We are taught to expect sophistry in politics, but I—perhaps naively—thought that we could expect better from philosophers.

Of course if that way of proceeding really were the best route to the truth, then that’s the route we should take, no matter how unpleasant it might be. But it is not the best route to the truth. Far from it. And to think that it is is to ignore the importance of human psychology in inquiry.

In many branches of inquiry—and in philosophy and politics in particular—the difference between a better position and worse one is often almost vanishingly small. We are often called upon to compare one position, blessed with virtues and laden with problems, to another that is only slightly less blessed and only slightly more heavily-laden. Such decisions are extraordinarily difficult even for minds unburdened by anger and resentment and unclouded by competitive impulses. For minds that are so burdened and so clouded, success is basically a pipe dream.

Sadly, the culture in analytic philosophy fosters competition and, consequently, sophistry. When you read a paper in public, you know that much of the audience will be gunning for you in the question-and-answer session. Sometimes it will be because they are committed to a contrary position. Sometimes the goal will merely be glory--for nothing brings glory faster in philosophy than humiliating a speaker by revealing some niggling problem with his view, or raising some question he cannot answer.

I can speak with some authority on this subject I think given that I was once one of Them. I liked aggressive argument, I was very, very good at it, and I somehow came to believe—or at least I said that I that believed—that such argument was the best way to the truth. Let the proponents of the various positions have at it, and devil take the hindmost. Some people found such an atmosphere off-putting, but if you can’t stand the heat—so I thought and said on several occasions—get out of the kitchen.

The immediate point here is that I am not writing as someone who is bad at this kind of competition, nor as someone who finds it upsetting. I am, rather, writing as someone who has come to see that it is an impediment to attaining the truth. When the subtext of Professor Jones’s question is “You are a piece of shit, and I am smarter than you,” it's difficult to assess the question on its merits. And it's even harder to admit it if Professor Jones happens to be right. Especially in front of a roomful of people. And especially when you know that, if you do concede the point, you will not be seen as the honest inquirer that you are, but, rather as the intellectually inferior loser of a verbal battle for supremacy.

Consider this story from my first year of graduate school:
A well-known philosopher was one of the speakers a the annual Chapel Hill colloquium. After his paper, one of my professors asked him a question—a perfectly civil one, in this case—but the answer was impenetrable. My professor rephrased his question and tried again. The answer was so baffling that it seemed as if the speaker had misunderstood the question. So a third attempt was made. No luck. Afterwards, as he later told me, my professor went up to the speaker, who he knew well, and tried to explain his question again. With no one else within earshot, the speaker told him “Oh, I understood your question just fine, but what could I do? You had me dead to rights.” Weep if you will over Anna Karenina, this is one of the saddest stories I’ve ever heard…

But all of this should sound familiar even to people outside of academia, for this is, in essence, the Crossfire model of discourse: start the discussion with the goal of ending the discussion with the same position you started with. Any change of position signals that you have lost what is, in effect, a fight. When problems are raised for your position, the goal is not to consider them honestly, but to say something—anything—to muddy the waters or change the subject. The preferred method is to employ some kind of ad hominem attack—preferably a tu quoque or “you too” response. Is W a big fat liar? Well, Clinton lied, too. So there.

We know that the passions that are stirred up in aggressive and competitive discourse are very strong. We know, in particular, that these passions make admitting error particularly difficult. We know that admitting error is required for making progress and achieving agreement. Yet we continue to employ this aggressive, competitive model of discourse. We continue to employ a method that is virtually guaranteed not to achieve our goals.

We continue to debate when we should be inquiring.

[In the comments, Richard points us to Norman Schwarz's "Philosophy as a Blood Sport," which, somehow, I wasn't even aware of. For those interested in the current (sad) state of academic philosophy, this (very short) essay is worth a read.]

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Lawrence Summers: The Final Chapter

Thanks to Mark of Braving the Elements and to Canis Major who both sent me the transcript of the infamous Lawrence Summers speech, which you, too, can find here.

I've read it twice, but not with notable care. It's mostly pretty general, and there's a good bit of hand-waving and conjecture, but that seems to be the kind of talk he was aiming for. I have to say, in my two admittedly relatively incautious readings of the thing, I haven't seen anything that changes my mind on this matter. There just doesn't seem to be anything in the speech that comes anywhere close to supporting the kinds of criticisms that have been launched against Summers. He may be wrong, but there is absolutely nothing in the transcript that supports charges of sexism so far as I can tell.

In fact, Summers's comments seem to me to be unusually sober and cautious. They are comments that reasonable people might disagree with, but they are not comments that a reasonable person could take to be sexist. If those on the left continue to make a fuss about this matter, it will be to their great shame.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Kristof on Darfur

Please check out this by Kristof in today's NYT.

And when you're done, write an e-mail to your Congresspersons. ONE e-mail. A paragraph. You can use the same one multiple times. If one out of a thousand of us took five minutes to do this, the U.S. government would do something. People are being raped and mutilated and murdered--living and dying in ways so horrible we cannot really conceive of them--even as I write, and even as you read.

Nobody's asking you to storm Normandy beach here. Just write a paragraph.

(Although you don't need me to tell you this, you can contact your Senators here and your Representative here.)

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Queer as Volk:
The Jeff Gannon Affair

Well, you can get the long (and NC-17-rated) version of the Jeff Gannon saga here at Americablog.

I barely read blogs anymore, but my guess is that this story has been analyzed to death already. But that the Bush administration is dishonest, prone to propagandize, and getting significant assistance from phoney and semi-phoney right-wing "news" organizations comes as no surprise. So this sordid little episode doesn't seem to me to tell us much more about them than we already knew.

I'm sorta more interested in the few things I've seen in the leftosphere, most of which made a big deal about Mr. Gannon's sexual preferences. Is it--and if so, why is it--permissible to make an issue of who Mr. Gannon chooses to have sex with? If the tables were turned, I expect that most of us on this side of the fence would be rather upset if the rightosphere were focusing on the sexuality of the person concerned.

Even if he is, in fact, some kind of male prostitute it isn't clear that it's sporting to make a big deal out of this. I, for instance, have no in-principle objection to prostitution. So, as long as no one is being oppressed or exploited I don't see that I have any grounds for complaint. And I take it that a white male American who chooses to be a prostitute is probably in a better position to make an autonomous choice than, say, a thirteen-year-old Thai girl.

If Mr. Gannon were a murderer or a liar or a plagiarist that would be one thing. But those of us who don't have any moral objections to the kinds of choices he has made in his personal life should, I think, refrain from trying to make an issue of those choices in the case at hand.

Some complain that this is proof of the administration's hypocrisy given their promotion of anti-homosexual policies. This criticism strikes me as being weak and perhaps even a bit disingenuous. Politics makes strange bedfellows (as it were) and even someone who is genuinely and strongly anti-homosexual need not eschew all dealings with everyone who is gay. I would, in fact, be somewhat happier upon discovering that the administration's anti-homosexual stance was, in fact, merely a pose--a pose struck in order to appear fetching to the radical right. Bad as that would be, it would be better than real bigotry. At any rate, I am not suggesting that there is nothing to the charge of hypocrisy, but it's not really grabbing me at this point.

None of this is to say that there aren't real questions surrounding this matter. Just that I don't think that Mr. Gannon's sexuality is among them.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Top Ten Reasons to Matriculate at Dook

10. When at the University of Phoenix, there was no one to admire your new Lexus SUV.

9. Knock-off Princetonian architecture makes it easy to pretend you got into an Ivy League


8. Only six hours from New Jersey, so trips home are easy.

7. That cool ESP lab is, like, so cool and, like, scientific.

6. Easy to hobnob with other scions of the plutocracy.

5. Best library in the South located only 8 miles away.

4. No assault committed against prone opponents in over ten years!

3. Retirement of Dean Smith.

2. Daddy’s $40k/year guarantees you all ‘A’s and ‘B’s.

1. No more failing to fit in because you are an obnoxious rich kid.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005


Expect ye not any postings this eve, for will I be preparing myself for the impending--indeed, even imminent--showdown between good and eeee-vil--surely an event of world-historical proportions...

Surely if the universe is just, even to a modest degree, the rich spoiled yankees from the University of New Jersey at Durham (UNJ-D) will be thrashed, and goodness and truth will prevail. Verily, verily. Forsooth, forsooth...

Goeth, ye Heels of Tar!

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Clinton and W: A Comparison

Want to know why I tend to identify with the Democrats these days? This from Dan Froomkin in the WaPo sums up one of the main kinds of reasons pretty well. The most salient Democratic president of my lifetime has been Bill Clinton. He may have lied about where he put his wee-wee (and who wouldn't?), but he was an honest inquirer about policy. This, needless to say, contrasts fairly dramatically with the two most salient Republican presidents of my adult lifetime, Reagan and W.

As far as I'm concerned, the right has taken itself out of the game by refusing to take democracy and public and foreign policy seriously. If I know that one side in a debate is being fairly open and honest with me about the facts and arguments, and I know that the other side isn't, I'm going to side with the former side on all close calls.

In fact, since I think that honesty about these matters is of paramount importance, I'll tend to side with the honest side even in some cases in which I suspect them of being wrong--simply because I think that one of the very most important characteristics a government can have is honesty. I'd rather have an honest, open, and slightly incompetent government than a highly competent, secretive and dishonest one.

Of course this administration has not forced us to make such a choice...

[Thanks to the mighty Statisticasaurus Rex for this link.]
Psychologists Discover Evil

'Bout time.

Via BoingBoing.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Neiwert: Times Drops Story About Bush Debate Cheating Just Before Election

Well, Dave Neiwert is on the case again. Apparently the alleged bastion of liberalism the NYT dropped a story about Bush's debate cheating because it was going to come out too close to the election.

Who here used to think that the job of the press was precisely to inform us about such minor details?

Anybody? Anybody?

Oh, and: which is more baffling: that they would think that they could get away with something like that...or that they could?
Michael Kinsley: "The Thinker"

According to me, this op-ed is worth reading.

I think that the leftier parts of the left radically over-play the society done it card...but I also think that the right tends to dramatically under-estimate the effects of social forces. Kinsley is right to call W on his inconsistency about the nature and causes of terrorism. He (Kinsley) suggests that this may represent an evolution in the president's thinking--though it isn't clear how serious he is about that hypothesis. My first inclination is to think that this is just standard Dubyan post hoc rationalization...but I hold out a tiny bit of hope that it's something more.

Seriously. While I'm on this topic, I'll say something that I haven't said for awhile: I sometimes wonder whether W might be a more decent fellow if he were surrounded by more decent fellows...or if he'd had a better upbringing.

As we all know, W strikes many folks as a plain-talkin' straight-shootin', good ol' regular guy--and they desperately want a guy like that for president. Some of W's liberal detractors don't believe he's that kind of guy; others believe he is--but don't want one as president. I count myself among the former. I really have no time for liberals (or conservatives) who think that one can't be intelligent and inarticulate, or plain-spoken and knowledgeable. I can't really believe that that many liberals think such things, but that's what many criticisms of Bush seem to entail.

Me, I am about 65% sure that W is not a good guy. Having spent a good bit of my life around regular folks, and another decent chunk around spoiled frat brats, I have to say that W seems much more like the latter than the former to me. But I don't think it's completely his fault.

Since he didn't have to turn out like he did, I do blame him for his character to some extent. Though...well, to a large extent I blame society. And his parents. First, they were rich as Croessus. This is a bad start. The only thing more likely to make you a worthless human being than soul-crushing poverty is vast wealth. So I think we've got to cut W at least a little slack on these grounds. Of course many people are rich and decent, however, so the Bush's wealth only excuses so much. Going to an Ivy league school is o.k. if you're going because you love ideas...if not, might still turn out o.k. if you don't join a fraternity...but we know how that turned out in W's case...

At any rate, some of the blame also must go to those rich Friends of Poppy and Aspiring Friends of Poppy who bailed W out every time he failed in business. Failure is hard to live with, and one can be excused--to some extent--for allowing oneself to spin failure as success under such conditions. The almost inevitable result, however, will be an overestimation of one's own abilities.

But society is really to blame for electing this fellow--a guy who might have been, say, a perfectly good functionary for, say, a major-league baseball team--president of the United States. He's patently unqualified, unfit for office, and he has not the slightest idea what he's doing.

But if a state elects an unqualified person to its highest office, who's to blame? The poor sap who finds himself in over his head, or the benighted multitudes who put him there?

But, still, W might have turned out to be a good enough guy if he hadn't fallen in with Cheney and that lot. Had he had a group of decent small-'d'-democrats around him during the 2000 election debacle, a group that would have pointed out to him that he had lost, and that--obviously--attempts to prevent votes from being counted were anti-democratic and antithetical to the principles the president must defend...well, I can't help but wonder whether he might not have seen the light of reason.

Maybe I'm being too easy on the guy here, but, unlike some of my acquaintances, I don't think he's practically evil incarnate.

To some extent, he may just be an ordinary guy who lead an overly hard--by which I mean charmed--life.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

The Social Security Question

Just thought you'd like to hear my opinion about something I know nothing about. "So what's new?" the cynical among you might ask... But, see, I know even less about economics than I do about other things...

On the other hand, I do know a little bit about what to do when you don't know what you're talking about. Most importantly, go to the experts. Sadly, the experts seem divided. The most interesting bit of data I've seen on this so far is a poll of economists done by The Economist before the election. As I recall, the only one of Bush's economic proposals they rated higher than Kerry's was the plan for partial privatization of Social Security. The Economist seems a bit conservative to me, and I don't weigh this single piece of data very heavily, but it's something.

I have my doubts about privatization, of course. It seems that it will inevitably reward risk-takers at the expense of the more prudent, since risk takers who win will get richer, while those who lose will still have to be supported by the rest of us. But the extent of this will depend on the details of the plan I suppose.

My real point here is this:
As you know, I'm currently more sympathetic with the Democrats than the Republicans. (And I have a hunch that the Republicans' recent selling of what remained of their collective soul by purging the House ethics committee might make those sympathies unshakable well into the forseeable future). But according to some of my friends, I'm not at all a good Democrat. For example, I'm more than willing to listen to the arguments on both sides of the privatization debate, and to take the opinions of the majority of economists very seriously.

In a way, I'm more interested in the fact that, once again, the administration is deploying the big lie strategy in the service of a policy initiative. I recognize full well that one can promote a good policy with lies and bad arguments--but the use of such arguments should, I think, put us on alert. Is it that this administration has somehow forgotten how to tell the truth? Is it that they simply fail to respect us and/or democracy? Their actions during the election of 2000 were criminal and anti-democratic. Similarly many of their actions since then. As others have noted, their strategy in the current debate is much like their strategy in the build-up to the Iraq war: they are taking a genuine problem and blowing it out of all proportion.

I never thought I'd see anything as disgusting as Watergate again in my life. Then came Iran-Contra, something that was, if anything, even worse. I thought I'd never see the like of that again, but then came the virtual theft of the election of 2000. I think it was reasonable to think then that things would have to get better after that, but then came the Iraq debacle. It is hard for me to believe that a single president could have pulled off two of the most loathsome political scams of my life, but there it is. Given this track record, it is impossible to have any rational faith in the character or abilities of this president or his administration. Consequently, it is very difficult for me to view the Social Security issue in a dispassionate way.

This administration has fooled us twice already, and is now employing the same kinds of political and rhetorical strategies that they employed before. It seems that even the slowest learners among us should be getting suspicious by this point.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Torture as Terrorism

I'm sure others have had this thought but, despite the vagueness of these two concepts, it seems plausible to think that the former is a species of the latter. Torture does seem to be the use of violence and threats thereof to induce terror as a means of achieving political ends. If this is correct, then the use of torture as a weapon in the "war" against terrorism may be particularly problematic.

This is not to suggest that torture is never warranted, since it clearly is in "A-bomb in Manhattan" cases. Philosophers have thought about those cases for years, and they're widely-discussed now for obvious reasons. The case is this: we capture Smith, who has placed a nuclear bomb in Manhattan and set it to go off in one hour. There is no way to evacuate the island in time, but Smith won't tell us where the bomb is. We know that Smith is likely to cave under severe physical and mental abuse. So: should we torture Smith and save millions or not? The answer seems obvious.

This case tells us little about the permissibility of using torture in more ordinary cases, especially since we rarely have the kind of certainty about the guilt of the potential torture victim that we have simply stipulated in the Manhattan case. One objection to the use of torture in real cases is that it is inevitable that it will be used against innocents in some cases. But the Manhattan case does seem to indicate that torture is permissible in principle, and permissible in certain exceptional actual cases.

But if torture is sometimes permissible and if torture is a form of terrorism, then terrorism is sometimes permissible. One might, of course, concoct cases concerning other types of terrorism that are analogous to the Manhattan case. For example: the entire U.S. will be destroyed if we don't perpetrate some relatively minor act of terrorism against a country that threatens us.

The United States has engaged in terrorism in the past, most notably in WWII, mostly notably in the form of strategic bombing, most notably the incindiary attacks on Japanese cities. The avowed purpose of such attacks was to generate terror in the population in order to destroy the will to fight.

Of course from the mere fact that we did it it does not follow that it was permissible to do so, and there are many reasons to believe that it was not. But many of those who believe that our past acts of terrorism and our current alleged acts of torture are justified also seem to have committed themselves to the position that the war on terrorism is justified because terrorism is an unmitigated evil.

But the above reflections indicate that at least some people (fervent supporters of the war on terrorism in particular) may be committed to the claim that acts of terrorism must be evaluated individually. Particularly heinous acts of terrorism, such as those on 9/11, seem impossible to justify. On the other hand, that conclusion may depend on some controversial empirical claims. Why were the 9/11 attacks carried out? To what extent is the United States responsible for suffering in the Middle East? Was the U.S. responsive to other efforts to change its foreign policy? And so forth.

Interestingly, those kinds of questions have been raised by some on the left in an effort to suggest that the 9/11 attacks may not simply have been irrational acts of pure evil. Thus it seems that some on the right and some on the left can agree that torture and other varieties of terrorism may sometimes be warranted.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Stacking the Ethics Committee
The Republican Party Goes Another Mile Down the Road to Perdition

From Josh Marshall. What's to be done when a party becomes unethical enough to purge the ethics committee for issuing a ruling that was merely absurdly partisan instead of the desired hyper-absurdly partisan ruling? This is almost too depressing for words.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Iraqi Chic: Crackpot Idea #MLXVIII

So, while not sleeping last night, I had the following idea:

The Iraqis need money and jobs. Americans have money and are currently enamored of Iraq and the [knock on wood] emerging Iraqi democracy. Now, the U.S. governement and its parent company, Halliburton, haven't exactly been doing the best of all possible jobs of getting money and jobs to Iraqis.

Anyway, if somebody--perhaps some charitable and talented-at-such-tasks Americans--could come up with some cool Iraq-o-centric tee shirt (etc.) designs, and/or provide some money to some Iraqis to help them start making the items, I think Americans would buy 'em. You know, "proudly display your solidarity with Iraqi Democrats" or somesuch thing. Be better if the Iraqis could do it all themselves, but they'd probably need at least a bit of help. Maybe the DNC or MoveOn or somebody could do something like this.

Um, given the current political tone in the States, one does worry that the right wing would try to "own" such items, but, well, we shouldn't let them do so. Hell, they've already taken over the American flag...they don't need the Iraqi flag, too.

Anyway, there's the idea.