Take the Toys from the Boys

If the time has come to repeal the Second Amendment so be it. This atavistic relic of a less civilized age is not worth the carnage it imposes daily on American life. The Constitution countenanced slavery; modern society has outlawed it, albeit at great cost. The time has come to outlaw guns.

There is a spurious reasonableness to the argument that Americans need guns. Even strong advocates of controls kowtow before the "right" of Americans to engage in blood sports. Why we outlaw dog fighting but not deer hunting is a mystery to me. (If starving families in Appalachia depend on hunting to survive, I am sure exceptions could be made.) By and large, however, hunters engaged in the practice of gunning down defenseless animals in the name of so-called "sport" should be unabashedly labeled what it is - "barbaric."

As for the self-defense argument, it is both circular and spurious. Circular because there would be little pretext for owning guns if we were not so afraid of our neighbors who presumably have them. Spurious because gun ownership is largely unavailing for self-defense, particularly in the hands of the largely ill-trained and unprepared American civilian population. As Michael Moore so aptly pointed out, owning five guns did not help Nancy Lanza. (And it is very little exculpation that guns are owned in quantity in sociopathic backwaters such as Texas (whose oft-expressed desire to secede should perhaps be given greater consideration)).

Why Hitch Is Still Winning the Debate

Christopher Hitchens:

Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather then sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.

From: a program at Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture on "Moral Emancipation":

Faith, Culture, Skepticism, and the “New Atheism”

            --Patrick Flynn, Benedictine University

[In the wake of 9-11, five best-selling authors became known as New Atheists and their arguments, movement, the New Atheism.  It is my contention that there is much epistemologically objectionable with these highly equivocal and misleading New Atheist arguments.]

Farewell to Barnes & Noble

I made my last trip yesterday to what used to be our local Barnes & Noble bookstore.  There was still a small cluster of fiction, war history, foreign language and diet books in the center of the store, along with some bestsellers on display.  But the front of the store had been taken over by a simulacrum of an Apple Store pushing the "Nook," and the rest of the store seemed largely devoted to toys for small children.  Even the music section had been gutted and turned over to video sales.  The incredible shrinking book selection is so limited that it no longer presents a credible alternative to shopping on line.  My prediction: within five years, Barnes and Noble, if it exists, will be a virtual operation: the brick and mortar stores will have gone the way of Borders.

Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border

Anyone with an interest in my review of Scotland: The Story of a Nation might also find their interest piqued by the Corries' collection of Scottish ballads Scots Wha Hae, which takes its title from the rather sanguine Robert Burns' poem celebrating the exploits of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. The Corries were noteworthy as one of Scotland's leading folk groups in recent decades, and are known particularly for such songs as Flower of Scotland, which in some quarters has superseded Scots Wha Hae as a de facto national anthem. This album runs the gamut of Scottish history from Wallace's victory at Stirling Bridge to the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden, and the hokey nature of the commentary should not obscure the beauty and poignancy of the ballads.

Stereotyping Our Sisters

Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in AmericaSister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa V. Harris-Perry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up Sister Citizen because I am interested from a legal perspective in the implications that stereotyping of African American women has in the workplace. The book more than rewarded my interest.

The book is a pastiche of literary excerpts, critical essays, news analysis, focus group reporting, and statistical surveys that covers everything from the writings of Zora Neale Hurston and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the success of Michelle Obama and the shaming of Shirley Sherrod. In between it packs powerful statistical analyses of the attitudes of African American women toward everything from themselves to God.

Unifying the work are several potent themes. One is the way in which the expectation that African American women will live up to the image of the "Strong Black Woman" is both a source of strength for African American women and an obstacle to full political involvement in the community. The obverse of self-reliance is inhibition about seeking help from others. A second is that the way in which women are treated is often determined by which of several stereotypes are imposed on them. A third is the way in which community solidarity can turn into community shame.

A particularly valuable contribution of Ms. Harris-Perry's opus is that not only does it reveal the results of introspection on the part of the women it studies, but it also reflects their attitudes toward the larger white community. As such, it shines a spotlight on some common ground between the two, but also reveals significant gulfs in understanding.

African American women occupy a unique place in the Black Community and in society at large. They are among our most vulnerable citizens both in terms of resources and negative stereotyping, At the same time, the word they used most often to describe themselves was "strong," and they are pillars of their families, churches, communities, and society at large. The aim of this book is to point the way toward their fuller integration into American society, both so that their contributions will be more fully realized and so that they can lay claim to the broad support of the society to which they contribute.

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The Moral Blindness of Michele Bachmann

The most disturbing portion of Ryan Lizza's lengthy profile of Michele Bachmann comes almost at the end, when he describes her "must-read" list. Third on the list is a biography of Robert E. Lee by J. Steven Wilkins, which Lizza characterizes as a celebration of the godly antebellum South versus the godless abolitionist North. Admittedly, I have not personally read Mr. Wilkins' biography, but if Lizza is accurate, the book essentially echoes John C. Calhoun's argument that "slavery is a positive good" with a "Christian" twist. Lizza's article includes the following damning quotation:

Slavery, as it operated in the pervasively Christian society which was the old South, was not an adversarial relationship founded upon racial animosity. In fact, it bred on the whole, not contempt, but, over time, mutual respect. This produced a mutual esteem of the sort that always results when men give themselves to a common cause. The credit for this startling reality must go to the Christian faith. . . . The unity and companionship that existed between the races in the South prior to the war was the fruit of a common faith.

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When Bachmann or Sarah Palin make such minor historical slips as confusing the birthplaces of John Wayne and John Wayne Gacy or claiming that Paul Revere was warning the British, it simply makes one wonder whether they have a sufficient education and grasp of detail to lead their local Rotary Club, much less the United States. But espousing a "Christian" ideology that obliterates our country's central moral struggle with a "Big Lie" is a far more serious matter. This is not merely carelessness born of ignorance, it is indifference in the service of oppression.

Good Books and Last Meals (Well Read and Well Fed)

I suppose that I am like many other people in that as I get older, I read fewer books, choose them more carefully, and finish a smaller number. Youth has the luxury of reading indiscriminately and the opportunity to do so. As one gets older, there is not only less time to read, but there will be less time to enjoy what one has read. So one might as well choose carefully, because the universe of books that one could profitably read will always dwarf the number of books one actually can read.

If I am granted free choice of my last meal, it will be a sushi starter, harira, lobster and caviar, filet and foie gras, artichokes, mechoui, tajine dial djej ma zaitoun, and creme brulee, washed down with good red wine, followed by mint tea, espresso, and laphroaig.

NOT a cold glass of wheat grass juice.

I aspire to a literary banquet just as rich and varied.

Cognitive Dissonance of the American Right

The American Right has reigned triumphant in American politics for at least a decade. Other than the blip of the crippled Obama presidency and two years of an ineffectual Democratic majority in Congress, the Right has had a virtual lock on all branches of the American political system. To this day, they have a resurgent majority in the House of Representatives, and the Supreme Court rules as though it were the American Enterprise Institute. One would think that the Right would be basking in assurance that it is the real force in American politics.

Oddly enough, however, it seems the rhetoric of the American Right often reflects a defensiveness and paranoia more appropriate to 1936 or 1964, years in which it seemed that a triumphant liberalism had put the continued survival of the conservative movement into question. Possibly, were it not for the intransigence of the Solid South and the disaster of the Vietnam War, it would have. I actually read a post today in which one conservative was arguing that American liberals had an "exterminationist" attitude toward the Christian Right. Critical, certainly; hostile, possibly, but exterminationist? Hardly. The Democratic Party is hardly going to set up a gulag if they were actually able to take and wield power. But to read some conservative rhetoric, one would think that it what is at stake. And that irrational attitude might explain such phenomena as the American Right's willingness to wreck the country's credit rather that compromise on revenues. Unfortunately, they do not have a Franklin Delano Roosevelt or a Lyndon Baines Johnson to reckon with.

The Press Pack

Amidst all the fuss over the misdeeds of Murdoch's minions, lets remember that the people most interested in neat and tidy rules for journalists are the people with information they would prefer not make the news. Journalism is sometimes a bit like dumpster diving; people with too nice a palate come back with nothing. I believe that journalists are subject to the same criminal code as anyone else; and if a journalist does something any other person should be prosecuted for, the journalist should likewise be prosecuted. But beware of taming the appetite of the press for information; in general the press is too tame already. We need hell hounds not lapdogs.

Digital Retro - No Love for Tablets

Steve Jobs while introducing the iPad in San F...

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When it comes to computers, I know how the owner of a late-seventies classic Cadillac must feel about modern automobiles. Faced with the tablet revolution, I am putting computer makers on notice that they will pry my wide, clicky, hard keyboard from my cold dead fingers before they take it away, and I am not even that good a typist. I realize that I am part of dying breed, the last generation that spent the eighth grade pounding out "f j f" on Ms. Wells' manual typewriters. By law school, I had graduated to a self-correcting electric for my exams. (The school still did not allow computers for exams, although I had been using my trusty Mac IIsi at home for a number of years.)

A tablet is too big to be as portable as an iPhone and too small to be a laptop. And try typing on one! Even my normal slow pace is reduced to an erratic crawl. Besides which, while I prefer to do as much as I can from the keyboard, the touchscreen is only a marginal improvement on the mouse, unless one is drawing on the screen.

Finally, there seems to be little defense to the charge that tablets are the new TV, that they exist primarily for the consumption of content rather than its creation or exchange. Every time I bring up the iPad, I hear that it is not a tool for "sheeple."

Steve Jobs is no fool, however, and I can see the writing on the wall. Welcome to the brave new world of the tablet.

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The Future of Social Networking Is Not Here Yet

Social networking is a matter of absorbing interest for more reasons than just a popular movie. Facebook currently boasts of 500 million users. It is credited, along with Twitter, with playing an instrumental role in the ongoing Arab revolt, while at the same time consistently being dogged by privacy concerns.

A recent speech by Columbia Law Professor Eben Moglen, covered in the New York Times, highlighted the real dangers of centralized control over networks and data upon which people depend not only for information but sometimes for their lives. Moglen observed, "Friends of ours, people seeking freedom, are going to get arrested, beaten, tortured, and eventually killed somewhere on earth because they're depending for their political survival in their movements for freedom on technology we know is built to sell them out." In Egypt, he pointed out, the Egyptian government was neither sufficiently ruthless nor sufficiently in control of the network to turn the protesters' reliance on Facebook and Twitter against them. But no revolutionary movement is safe if the confidentiality of their communications is entirely at the disposal of one corporate executive easily susceptible to government pressure.

The answer, Mr. Moglen posits, is federated not centralized computing, in which, in lieu of the massive central servers that drive Facebook and Google today, people are able to access the Internet with cheap, portable, individual servers on which their data is stored under their control.

As a step in that direction, a number of developers have launched federated social networking software. Two I have tried, One Social Web and Diaspora, are both still in their infancy. However, they have advanced to the point that with some ingenuity and persistence, it is possible to set up a personal server on your personal computer and exchange information with your friends. As yet, they are still a long way from the promise of cheap, secure, decentralized, private communication. But at least the promise is there.

Eat Fat to Get Thin

Good Calories, Bad CaloriesGood Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My new motto is "145 by July," meaning I would like to trim 50 pounds of fat accumulated over 20 years in approximately six months. In the process, I am hoping to see a reduction in my blood pressure and the level of triglycerides in my bloodstream to a more acceptable level. For anyone who subscribes to the conventional wisdom about dieting, this is a truly Quixotic aspiration.

Gary Taubes, in Good Calories, Bad Calories, attempts to turn the conventional wisdom on its a head. A historian of science and a writer for Science magazine, Taubes argues trenchantly that the fundamental assumptions driving popular wisdom about diet in the United States are based on bad science, and that the studies necessary to draw truly scientific conclusions about diet have not been performed.

Taubes assails the notion that every extra calorie consumed adds to the bulge on the waistline, and that the only way to lose weight is semi-starvation. Rather, he suggests, the root of our modern obesity epidemic is more likely to be found in our consumption of refined grains, refined sugar, and high fructose corn syrup, all of which are comparatively recent phenomena in evolutionary terms.

Taubes posits that weight gain has more to do with hormonal regulation of energy storage than with the simple addition of calories. In simple terms, heavy carbohydrate consumption causes an insulin rush that halts the body's use of fat for energy and encourages the conversion of glucose into fat, which both contributes to weight gain and encourages overconsumption.

Taubes' response is to encourage a high fat, low carbohydrate diet. To critics who suggest that such an approach is fraught with peril in that it increases the risk of heart disease, Taubes argues that the best science suggests that the risk of heart disease has far more to do with being overweight than with the consumption of fat or cholesterol. And, he argues, being overweight has more to do with carbohydrate consumption than fat consumption.

In one sense, Gary Taubes is the Robert Caro of diet writers. His book is so thoroughly researched, tightly written, and copiously annotated that it hard for a layman to contest his assertions. If you find a better explanation of the origin of obesity and effective strategies to counter it, read it.

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John Brown Remembered

John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil RightsJohn Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights by David S. Reynolds

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sentimentality is not an appropriate reaction to the life and career of John Brown. When the question of whether "Bleeding Kansas" would become a slave or a free state hung in the balance, Brown's gang tipped the balance against Missouri's pro-slavery marauders by hauling five of them from their beds and hacking them to pieces with broadswords. As a result, "Old Brown" not only terrorized the pro-slavery forces, mostly invaders from Missouri who were not above such tactics themselves, but also transformed the the stereotype in the South of Northern abolitionists from "cowardly pacifists" to "murderous fanatics."

In John Brown: Abolitionist, David Reynolds draws a straight line from John Brown's massacre at Pottawatomie through the Emancipation Proclamation to William Tecumseh Sherman's March to the Sea and the tactics of total war that ultimately led to victory for the Union.

Brown was unusual among Northern Abolitionists in his willingness to employ violence against slaveholders; he was virtually unique in his radical passion for complete equality and full integration into American society of African Americans, Native Americans, and women. Brown lived what her preached, spending many of his later years as a member of a largely African American community in North Elba.

In the famous raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859, Brown gave the ultimate expression to his devotion to the cause of liberation of the slaves and full equality for African Americans. With a small company of whites and African Americans, Brown seized the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry and held off several hundred state militia until he was finally overwhelmed by Col. Robert E. Lee in command of some 60 United States Marines.

In staging the raid, Brown was inspired in part by past slave revolts led by such figures as Toussaint L'Ouverture, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner. That a white Northern Abolitionist would attempt to raise such a revolt on Southern soil horrified and terrified the South, giving a major impetus toward secession.

In the North, initial reaction was largely negative, as Brown's raid was derided as "suicide" and "folly." So it might have remained, were it not for the perhaps surprising response of New England Transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau, who wrote a lengthy Plea for Captain John Brown, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who proclaimed that Brown's execution would "make the gallows as glorious as the cross." In the event, Brown became a hero to the North, thousands of whose troops marched South singing, "John Brown's body lies a mouldering in the grave." If Brown assumed an almost Christ-like status in the North, in the South he was regarded as the devil incarnate.

Reynolds' history is particularly effective as "cultural history." He deftly explores the religious antecedents to Brown, who was often characterized as an old-style Puritan in the mold of Oliver Cromwell and whose favorite sermon was John Edwards' Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. He persuasively explains how the influences of the New England Transcendentalists helped shape public perceptions of Brown that hardened the nation's attitudes toward war. And he has a thoughtful coda on Brown's influence on such prominent African American figures as Frederick Douglass (a friend), W.E.B. DuBois, and Malcolm X.

White opinion of Brown reached its nadir after the collapse of Reconstruction, and it is no surprise that Southern revisionist historians derided him as a lunatic. Books such as Reynolds', however, suggest that while Brown may have been capable of great brutality (albeit also great kindness), he was far from being insane, and that the nobility of his conduct during and following the raid on Harper's Ferry was a crucial element in galvanizing public determination to end the evil of slavery.

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John Brown Day

Hon. Bob McDonnell

Governor of Virginia

Dear Governor McDonnell:

In light your enthusiasm for Civil War history and your desire to perpetuate the memory of the conflict, I propose the official commemoration of one of two memorable days in Virginia Civil War history (the other being April 9, 1865, the day of the surrender at Appomattox). For those who truly wish to recall the significance of the Civil War, let us declare December 2 a holiday in memory of the death of the patriot John Brown, who gave his life that this country should live up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence that "All men are created equal."

Respectfully yours,

Bill Day

The Perversion of Adam Smith

Donatien-Alphonse-Fran├žois de Sade, the Divine...

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The name of Donatien Alphonse Francois, Marquis de Sade, has unfortunately been reduced in modern times to a cliche for a sexual kink. Spinning out his fantasies of sex and power, mostly from within prison walls, as France's corrupt ancien regime crumbled, de Sade had a clear-eyed view of the implications of the pursuit of self-gratification without restraint; not only did he see it, but he exalted it into a philosophy.

Dipping into Justine on my subway ride into work, I am continually struck by the elegance and simplicity of the creed of le bon Marquis. It might be crudely rendered, "Good guys finish last," but that would be incomplete. The Marquis spells out the full implications of that little phrase, and maybe his spirit is better captured in P.T. Barnum's credo, "Never give a sucker an even break." For de Sade, this is not merely a maxim, but a principle. Not only do the strong oppress the weak in de Sade's writings, but the strong should oppress the weak. To do otherwise would be frankly irrational.

The weak are not wholly helpless, of course. They can volunteer as the minions of their oppressors in the hopes that they will be spared so long as they are useful or entertaining. And even strong personalities need allies; so prudential considerations sometimes temporarily restrain the impulse to dominate and exploit. Or, finally, the weak can resort to crime:

"Think it over, my child, and understand that nature has placed us in a situation where evil is necessary, and that she gives us at the same time the means to employ it, so that evil obeys its own laws just as good does, and natures gains as much from one as the other; we were created equal, but what changes this equality is no more culpable than what seeks to reestablish it."

Justine, 467 (my translation).

De Sade was a contemporary of Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant. In a way, de Sade is a bit like Smith with the gloves taken off. Smith postulated a world of perfect competition in which the invisible hand of the marketplace would regulate men's affairs as each person pursued his own self-interest. De Sade turns Smith's orderly marketplace into a carnival in which self-interest runs amok. The invisible hand does not cease to order the mechanism of society, but the social consequences are poisonous. De Sade has a clear-eyed view of the real consequences of unrestrained self-interest, in which the strong prosper and the weak go to the wall, and he glories in it. De Sade sees people prosper by rapine and murder, so he concludes that this is the natural order, and "virtue" but a fantasy of the weak or a deceit of the strong. In his lawless dystopia, everyone is free and no one is safe; self-interest reigns supreme, and we are once again microbes brewing in Jack London's "yeasty ferment." De Sade is the anti-Kant: Kant cautioned that people should always be viewed as ends rather than means; de Sade retorts the people should always be exploited as means rather than ends, and that Smith and Kant are sentimental ninnies.

Firs page from Justine (Justine ou les malheur...

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Louis XV is famous for very little other than his epigram "Apres moi, le deluge." (After me, the flood -- as in Noah.) That little epigram was more prescient than perhaps he, or his successor, realized. As America groans under the weight of foreign wars, foreign debt, high unemployment, eroding education, yawning debt, and corrupt financing, no one would be more at home in the board rooms of American's big banks and brokerages than le bon Marquis, once he adjusted to the prudery of the bourgoisie and the boorishness of the commercial class. But the exercise of power; the understanding not only that the weak go to the wall but that it is right and necessary that they go to the wall as we foreclose their mortgages, call in their debts, reposess their automobiles, export their jobs, and jack their credit -- how could the sensuality of a mere orgy compare to the aphrodisiac of power, domination, and destruction! Ah, Marquis, if only you could see the deluge to come! In his lifetime, the Marquis was treated to a very graphic illustration of the triumph of the weak, although perhaps he simply thought of the Revolution as another vindication of the prosperity of crime.

If those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, then perhaps the bankers and brokers of today's ancien regime should dust off the history books and remind themselves that the Place de la Concorde once went by a very different name. We teeter on the abyss, but we can save ourselves yet if only we take heed.

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Your point being . . .

As I was skimming the New York Times this afternoon, I ran across an op-ed piece analyzing liberal and conservative reactions to the announcement of former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman that he is gay. After the relentless campaign against gay marriage that Mehlman abetted, it is not surprising that many on the left are not charitably disposed toward his decision to come out so late in the game. Some voices on the right are more charitably disposed, and one person is quoted as saying that conservative opposition to gay marriage and military service does not equate to "hatred."

So far, so good. Such an opinion split is unsurprising and perhaps even predictable. But a comment from a certain Ralph Dempsey of Pennsylvania reveals the heart of darkness in the conservative position:

Dempsey, PA
August 28th, 2010
9:35 am

"... because most conservatives don't support gay marriage and don't support gays openly serving in the military, they 'hate' them"

I am so sick of being called a 'homophobe' just because I oppose gay marriage and want to keep homosexuals out of the military. The liberal Left is trying to play the same game they play with the race card. Sincere, honest, loving, genuine people oppose two men or two women attacking the sanctity of those in heterosexual marriages. That is not bigoted any more than people who opposed interracial marriages were racist. Over 85% of the country during the early 60's did not want Black men trying to procure white women - were all these people racist? Give me a break. We should be free to oppose minority lifestyles without being labelled as haters.

Something tells me that Mr. Dempsey will not soon get his wish, given his breathtaking combination of bigotry and moral blindness.

In one sense, Mr. Dempsey does get it right. The left is playing the same "game" it "played" in the civil rights movement, including the Supreme Court's belated recognition in 1967 that legal bars to interracial marriage are unconstitutional. See Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967). The name of this "game" is "equal rights for all," something which Mr. Dempsey and the rest of the scrofulous underbelly of American politics rightly recognize as a threat to centuries of white privilege. Mr. Dempsey is all about keeping anyone else out of "his" military, "his" marital institutions," and "his" women. The assumption of white supremacy is so deeply engrained in the consciousness of the Dempsey-ites that they do not even recognize it as such, and the notion that a person with a different sexual orientation or a different skin color could possibly expect the same entitlements is deeply threatening — hence the accusation of "playing the race card." Bizarrely, the implication is that in the world of the Dempsey-ites, it is the white man who is being oppressed by some sort of racial chicanery.

Of course, while the presumably unsophisticated Mr. Dempsey reveals the true ugliness of the conservative positions on race and sexuality, it is after all the smooth sophistication and polished civility of the likes of Ken Mehlman that do far more damage. One hopes, at least, that few in this day and age are likely to fall for the raw bile of a Ralph Dempsey, but far more are comforted in their prejudices by rationalizations honed by the likes of Mehlman's Harvard Law School training. It is not so hard to see why so many might regard Mehlman's belated coming out as "too little, too late."

What is Good? A Coda

Picture of George Orwell which appears in an o...

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No discussion of economic good and political reform would be complete without reference to George Orwell's famous quote from his essay on Kipling:

All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are 'enlightened' all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our 'enlightenment', demands that the robbery shall continue.

If our society is based on exploitation, then it is hard to break the exploitation and save the society.

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Re: What is Good and How to Do It?

I don't often have the presumption to take on a topic of this scope, but having been invited by Hisham, who is known as both a frequent contributor to Global Voices and as co-administrator of Talk Morocco, to respond to his essay on the topic, I figured I would briefly give it a go.

As I read it, Hisham's essay is really divided into two parts.  The first is a philosophical inquiry into the nature of individual good from the point of view of a crumbling religious faith.  The second, illustrated through a series of three videos showing discourses by Slavoj Zizek, Milton Friedman, and Michael Albert, poses three questions respectively: 1) Is there any such thing as a benevolent capitalist? 2) Is greed ultimately good? and 3) Are there any credible and viable alternatives? My quick riff on both inquiries follows:

Individual Good

In the spirit of Voltaire, I distrust systems.  "Good" is such a polymorphic and elusive idea that it resolutely eludes any particular attempt to pin it down.  The one positive conclusion I come to is that if any person tells me that he has definitively defined "the good," at the end of our conversation I am going to check my pockets to be sure my wallet is still there.  I guess the best guide I know, in the spirit of distrusting systems, is that a little kindness goes a long way.

Sex, Drugs & Rock 'n Roll

"Living well is the best revenge" F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald's quotation is perhaps a little inapt for the present topic, since quite a few people would dispute that he had hedonism in mind.  Hedonism may be underrated, however, particularly in its Epicurean incarnation.  If one could live surrounded always by comfort and beauty, knowledge and pleasure, excitation of the palate, gratification of appetite, and stimulation of the intellect, who is to say that would be so bad?  The knock on hedonism is usually twofold: it is self indulgent and it is selfish.  In response to the former criticism, I suppose we could always have boot camp vacations.  Alas, the latter criticism anticipates the critique of economic good; it is not that hedonism is so bad, but that we have not found the means to achieve it for everybody.

The Straight and Narrow

"What is moral is what you feel good after, and what is immoral is what you feel bad after." Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway is not bad when it comes to epigrams, but when it comes to morals, it is really Immanuel Kant who most earns my admiration, for two reasons.  First, Kant made the bold move of attempting to construct an ethics independent of religion.  His project, as I understand, was not anti-religious, but universality requires dispensing with differences of creed.  Second, the idea that one's conduct should be guided by the precept that one should only take actions what one could wish were formulated as universal laws strikes me as a profound insight.  Of course, "do as you would be done by" goes back at least as far as Jesus, but I admire Kant's attempts to systematize the notion.  For those interested purely in the pursuit of pleasure, Kant may be a bit of a spoilsport, not to mention Jesus.

Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth

"History pardons him for writing well."  W.H. Auden

Equally at odds with moral good (sometimes) is the aesthetic good.  Let's face it, for all the artists who have been pillars of rectitude, there are any number who have been rotten, selfish bastards.  Unfortunately perhaps, there does not appear to much correlation between humane treatment of one's fellows and the ability to produce awe-inspiring works of timeless beauty and insight.  And yet, would we really wish that artists were nicer people if it meant we had to live without their art?

Economic Good

"There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will."  Shakespeare.

The second part of Hisham's essay -- the series of video quotations about capitalism -- raises the question of how individual "good" affects social good.  Not being a social theorist or economist, I feel that I have a limited amount to say in response to this section.  However, I might observe that many of the evils ascribed to "capitalism" are perhaps more aptly ascribed to "corporatism."  Adam Smith had in mind a level playing field in which small, similarly situated economic actors with perfect information strove to better each other.  In the pursuit of individual benefits, they generated benefits for society. It is not that "greed is good" but that individual self-interest can have beneficial collateral effects.  This does not negate the benefit of charity; it merely touts the virtues of efficiency through individual self-interest.  Our present system is a gross distortion of Smithian capitalism in which gargantuan corporate monsters hoard information, distort the market, suppress competition, subvert governments, and create poisonous externalities.  That these monsters have been dubbed "persons" by our legal system grotesquely expands their anti-social tendencies.  If is probably fair to say that we do not really know if capitalism works, because it has never been tried.  But the drawbacks of our failure to tame the giant corporation, from Enron to BP, are clear.

I do think that the "greed is good" crowd has it wrong, however.  Just because there may be unintended benefits to our baser nature, does not mean that there is anything amiss about trying to achieve individual "goodness"

Family and Friends

Last week I took my family on their first trip to Los Angeles.  For the girls, it was a series of firsts: first trip on an airplane, first trip to the West Coast, first trip to the beach, first view of the ocean, first ride on a boat, first stay at a hotel.  In addition to being sunburnt to a precancerous fiery red, highlights of the trip included a visit to the La Brea tar pits, Venice Beach, Dume Beach, and yes, inevitably, Disneyland.  (It is amazing what a cheap bailing wire and pasteboard aspect Disneyland presented in comparison with my memories of several decades past.)  And no, the years have not made me fonder of carnival rides that go high and fast.

Logo of the United States Peace Corps.

Image via Wikipedia

But the occasion of the trip was not merely a vacation, although a vacation was overdue.  Rather, it was a rendezvous with the core of my class ("stage") of Peace Corps Volunteers assigned to Morocco in 1988.  While I have good friends from other times in my life, as a group these are the best people I know.  In 1988, they assembled to teach English and development, rebuild the water infrastructure, promote reforestation, improve infant and child care, raise healthier livestock, teach health and sanitation, and even promote sounder beekeeping.  These enterprises met with varying degrees of success, although not for lack of effort.  And they were tackled with an unparalleled joie de vivre and a robust skepticism.  I am honored to have served among them.

The cross section of people that assembled for the reunion continue to be an inspirational cadre who are promoting the common good on a daily basis. From the engineers who are keeping the water supply safe and promoting solar and geothermal energy, to the teachers who are educating our children, particularly our special needs children, to the environmental scientists who struggle to save our own wilderness heritage in the face of too much bureaucracy and too little money, this is a group that has remained committed to making a difference.  My old friends, and I say that proudly, include an eye doctor, an U.N. translator, a software executive, and an entrepreneur and are involved in endeavors that span the globe from France to Australia to China.

On a personal note, I was particularly glad to see three people who made my experience in Morocco especially meaningful, The first, a co-organizer of the event, was one of the first people I met in Peace Corps and one of the ones I have known best and seen most over the years - a crazy-assed water baby who once griped, "I am everybody's best friend in Peace Corps."  I am glad he is mine.  The second was my next-door neighbor, only four hours away by way of the derelict Mercedes known as "grand taxis."  A person of style, poise, and grace, she was the best neighbor one could have -- supportive, present when needed, and tolerant of the foibles of someone who has spent too long in an isolated Moroccan village.  Third was the volunteer who organized the program at the La Creche Lalla Hasna orphanage where I spent my summer filling in between teaching stints in the countryside, an exemplar not only of concern and compassion for children but also of grace and cultural sophistication.  (By way of example, she travels with the music of the Tuareg on her iPhone).  

Justice requires a longer tribute than space allows; there is not space here to discharge my debt to the many Volunteers who bettered my life both during and after Peace Corps.  But at our reunion, for one brief shining moment, we were again Peace Corps Morocco.  And for that moment, hijinks aside, we could remember that we were and are heirs to the clarion call issued in a simpler time by President John F. Kennedy in his Inaugural Address: "And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for
- ask what you can do for your country."

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Racist Email Rocks Harvard Law School

The legal world was shaken today by the discovery that a promising third-year student at Harvard Law School had unleashed a group email to a number of other law students in which she discussed at some length the purported genetic and intellectual inferiority of African Americans. These views were all the more remarkable coming from a young woman rumored to be a candidate for a clerkship with a Judge on the prestigious United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. (The only Court higher than a United States Court of Appeals is the Supreme Court, and the Ninth Circuit is generally considered to be one of the most liberal Circuits in the country.) The statements in the email were shocking in themselves, but more shocking was the fact that they were coming out of Harvard Law School, a supposed bastion of liberal enlightenment and the bellwether for legal education in America. The Law School has been put on the defensive to the point that Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow, a possible candidate for the Supreme Court, felt compelled to make an official statement.

Despite being dressed up in a certain amount of scientific jargon, however, such sentiments are nothing new to America, and in fact served as a principal justification for Southern entry into the Civil War. Particularly noteworthy was Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens' Corner-stone Speech in Savannah, Georgia, on March 21, 1861, proclaiming the Southern States to be founded on the principle of white supremacy. In relevant part, Stephens explained his theory of white supremacy as follows:

"Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal."
Since the Southern defeat in the Civil War, white racists have been more hesitant to avow such sentiments openly. Today's news, however, shows that a young, white woman in America's most privileged educational institution, the crucible of the profession dedicated to upholding the rule of law, could casually espouse justifications in support of white supremacy and assume they would not arouse objections among her fellow students. A candid observer of white America would not be surprised that such attitudes, while decried when they become public, are widely held, at least tacitly, among white Americans, and occasionally even receive a patina of intellectual respectability with the publication of such books as the controversial Bell Curve published in the mid-nineties.

It would be comforting to believe that notions of racial inferiority -- indeed, of race as a biological concept -- had been laid to rest as part of our benighted past, or that they had been effectively marginalized to the point where they were limited to such economically disenfranchised and intellectually impoverished groups as the Tea Party and the Klan. To castigate the young woman at Harvard without a deeper examination of our beliefs as a society is to miss half the point; as a privileged young white woman at America's most elite institution, who appeared destined to dwell in the inner sanctum of privilege and power, she reveals that the corrosive stain of racism in the white American soul is with us yet, and that racism is a problem we have yet to deal with as a people not merely as a person. Thanks in part to such courageous leaders as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lewis, we have been to the mountaintop, but we are still a long way from the Promised Land.

Thanks to my friend Thomas Nephew for first pointing me in the direction of the Corner-stone speech. (He is otherwise not responsible for any of the views in this post, which are mine.)

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