Wednesday, December 27, 2006

On Break for a While

Well, it's the mid-winter "vacation" season, which in my case means I'm off to DC to participate in a panel on Tara Smith's exciting new book, after which I will be busy writing a paper for a conference on the ideal of equal respect at the University of Pavia in Italy. (For me, "vacation" means catching up on the stuff I fell behind on while I was teaching!)

It will be a little while before I will be able to post again. Check back after the first of the new year.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Holocaust Denial: Typical Conspiracist Quackery

As I write, there is a huge conference of holocaust-deniers in full swing in (not too surprisingly) Iran. David Duke, formerly of the KKK, is "representing" the United States. I wouldn't normally think a gaggle of Jew-baiting "researchers" and admirers of Hitler is worthy of comment, but I want to take this opportunity to quote from an excellent statement about the conference made my Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (and, by the way, a holocaust survivor):
Holocaust denial is an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that posits that Jews, for their own selfish purposes, created a monstrous tale of their own destruction and deliberately inflicted the hoax on the entire world, It presumes that Jews control the international media and all other forms of information, for how else could such a 'fantasy' flourish the way it has.
This is worth bearing in mind: Holocaust denial is not only a conspiracy theory, it has to a remarkable degree a quality that I have identified, in earlier posts, as definitive of conspiracism: the attribution of miraculous powers to the alleged conspirators. Those who think that conspiracism is freedom-friendly (because it is often anti-government) should think again. With the possible exception of the Communists, the Nazis were the champion conspiracists of all time. As I've argued earlier, this is no coincidence. These guys were only anti-government when they were not in charge of the government.

Mr. Foxman's point here is to explain, as briefly as possible, why Holocaust denial is not just another "theory," but actually a form of anti-semitism. I maintain a thesis that is a generalization of this: that conspiracist writing is always (or virtually always) a form of hate literature, because it ascribes horrific, hate-worthy Powers to the Evil Other.

One reason we don't usually think of Holocaust-denial as a conspiracy theory: the Holocaust was itself a conspiracy. It was a real conspiracy, and like any large-scale real conspiracy, it was impossible to keep secret. It was known about in the West while it was going on. The first reports of it reach the World Jewish Congress in Switzerland in mid-1942, weeks after it began. American Jews held public rallies about it. They begged FDR to allow more Jewish refugees into the US so that they could escape the genocide. Chaim Weizmann asked Roosevelt to bomb the rail routes to the death mills. Can a conspiracy theory take the form of denying a(nother) conspiracy? Sure. In fact, 9/11 conspiracism does exactly that: it denies a conspiracy of 19 religious nutcases to destroy various American landmarks. Being a real conspiracy, unlike the fabulous ones hatched by conspiracists, it came unraveled even while it was being executed (the fourth plane crashed in the Pennsylvania courtryside). Evil, real evil, does not have any special Powers.

[To see my earlier posts on conspiracism, look here, here, here, here, here, and here.]

Ethical Anarchism

I've come up with a theory (really, a possible theory, since I've worked out almost no details) in political philosophy which I think may be original -- in the strong sense that no one has said it before. Better yet, if it is true, it is far from trivial. I also more than half suspect that it is true!

I call it "ethical anarchism." I am not really sure that this is what I should call it. It sounds like "ethical egoism," which is a sort of ethical theory. But what I call "ethical anarchism" is not a sort of ethic. It is a sort of anarchism.

First, as to nomenclature, let me say that this theory has nothing (necessarily!) to do with the idea that we ought to act now to abolish the state. In political philosophy, anarchism of whatever type is really a view about the value of the state or its moral justification. What we should do about it is a different question, though no doubt a related one.

It is a theory about the relation between two "realms," ie., two domains of explanation and justification, namely the moral and the political. In this sense, "the political" refers to matters that essentially involve the state.

First, before I tell you what the idea is, I need to clarify one point. I make a sharp distinction between law and the state, between rule by law and state rule. Failure to make this distinction is probably the single most potent factor that prevents ethical anarchism from being as obvious as a thunderclap. It also is one thing that makes the very idea of "the government of laws and not of men" seem counterintuitive to some people. What! Aren't laws made by men -- that is, by the state.? I say that, so far from being a creature of the state, rule by law in a certain way an alternative to state-rule.

In its broadest terms, law is the process of subjecting human conduct to the governance of rules. (Here you can see I am influenced by Lon Fuller, who defines it this way in The Morality of Law.) Sometimes states are mechanisms for enforcing the law, and sometimes they are sources of lawlessness and chaos. Law (often in the form of traditional norms of conduct) is much, much older than state rule. Law means standards. State means a certain enduring monopolistic concentration of force.

States have a very powerful mystique. People who are subject to them tend to attribute to them properties that strongly resemble the divine. The state is the creator of the difference between right and wrong. What it says, goes. It is much more closely associated with The Good than other human institutions (except for overtly religious ones). It represents public property, public spaces, and the public good. The rest is narrow, insular, merely "private."

Briefly, ethical anarchism is the thesis that all this is an illusion, a moral illusion (on the analogy of an optical illusion). More exactly, it is the thesis that no political concept has, in and of itself, any moral force whatsoever. If the state tells you to do something, that does not give you a moral duty to do it. If it calls you a citizen, that does not (by itself) morally entitle you to anything. If it calls you an enemy, that does not (same qualification) make you evil.

Another implication: No state, or officer of the state, has any right to do anything that private individuals couldn't do in relevantly similar circumstances. If I can't pull out a gun and stop you from taking an dangerous drug just because I know it is dangerous, then that same knowledge does not entitle the state to do the same thing (no drug-prohibition rights). If I can't forcibly compel you to fight Iraqis or Iranians, neither can the government do so (no conscription rights). If I can't coercively take money from you just because I would spend it more virtuously than you, then virtuous motives to not entitle the state to do the same (no taxation rights). This particular idea was already discussed by Robert Nozick. He called it "no emergent rights." No new rights emerge when private individuals combine to form a state. They don't suddenly get rights that no one had before. Ethical anarchism might be called "no emergent anything."

What makes ethical anarchism possible is the fact that political and moral concepts are isomorphic: both can be formulated as systems of requirements and ideals. Both distinguish between putative right and putative wrong. Both give reasons for doing things. Both give deeper reasons to back up those reasons. Thus it is possible to confuse the two, or to think that the authority of the moral automatically transfers to that of the political. Ethical anarchism says that this is an illusion. It is a form of nihilism. It amounts to realism about the moral and nihilism about the political.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Utopian Flight: Finish Privatizing the University!

As you can see from this news report, the new chair of the University of Wisconsin's senatorial oversight committee is Steve Nass. This is the guy who last summer heard a professor saying things he disagreed with on a talk radio show and tried to get the university to fire him. (You can get my take on that incident here.) He doesn't seem to get the whole academic freedom thing. If I were to tell him that I think one of the most important functions of a university is to promote critical thinking about society and the state, he would probably say it doesn't sound like a good idea. And now he is our principal overseer. Is there anything we can do about this?

Here is a more fundamental question: Why does his committee exist at all? There is no senate committee overseeing the Oscar Mayer bacon factory out by the airport, or the Wisconsin chapters of the Rotary Club. Why us?

The immediately obvious answer to this question is of course that these other institutions are not part of the state government, but we are. What does this mean? That the state pays our expenses, and that money should be followed by control? This argument would have a certain force to it, but its major premise in not exactly true. As you can see from the pie chart on this page, the state of Wisconsin is responsible for less than one fifth of UW-Madison's funds. We get less money from these people than from either the Feds or from students (if you combine current students with alumni). And yet every time someone tries to tell us what to do it is -- guess who? The state. Morally, there are several other sources of funds who, if contribution is what matters, have more right to do so, but who let us do what we want.

I have taught at virtually every kind of university or college in the known universe, including including private religiously-affiliated college (Le Moyne, in Syracuse) and private secular university (The Johns Hopkins and Carnegie-Mellon), and semi-private, semi public hybrid (University of Pittsburgh). I can tell you, from my own experience, that life in these other institutions is not a constant fight for the very idea of a university, against people who really don't get it. To many of my fellow-inmates in the "public" education gulag, that is very hard to believe but, trust me, it is true. The reason it is true is that these other institutions are financed by people who are giving them their own money. Imagine that! Voluntarily! They are doing so because they understand what a university is and believe in it. This is what it is like to be supported by voluntary contributions.

On the other hand, state universities are supported by all the taxpayers, who are forced to do so. Many of them don't understand universities, don't give a damn about them, and in some cases would be hostile to the very idea, if it were correctly explained to them. Of course, they have every right to not get it or give a damn. Why should they? The trouble is, once they are connected to the university by means of their coercively extracted dollars, their lack of understanding of or sympathy for what we are doing immediately impinges on us in a potentially destructive way. We must constantly explain to them and their representatives (eg., Nass) why they should allow us to do what we do.

Once upon a time, attending this university was virtually "free" -- ie., paid for by the taxpayers. Rightly or wrongly, the state has retreated from this position. Why don't we consider completing this revolutionary change, and say: You have more or less cut us adrift as far as money is concerned. Fine, now do the same with control. There should be no senate oversight committee. The university should not be governed by a board of regents appointed by the state. State support is gradually being withdrawn, leaving its empty trappings behind. Why not just get rid of the trappings at last?

I realize that in saying all this I am in a way indulging in a flight into utopia: We won't get rid of the trappings at all. We won't because we are not at all inclined to. That is of course because we fear that getting rid of state control would mean losing even more state money than we have already lost. But in another way I am being hyper-realistic. Rather than whine about our problem, we should understand where it comes from. We have Nass because we have earned him, and will continue to do so many times over. The problem will never really go away until the source is removed: the contamination that always comes from an affiliation with the state.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Karl Kraus and Tom Szasz Go After Sigmund Freud

Karl Kraus, the great Viennese journalist and scourge of everything phony and cowardly, has always been one of my heroes, ever since first reading about him in Wittgenstein's Vienna, as a student in 1973. (As I recall, I read a copy borrowed from my ol' buddy, Treebeard.) I've been reading this amazing little book about him, Karl Kraus and the Soul-Doctors, by Thomas Szasz. Szasz has long been another of my heroes. How did I miss knowing about this book all these years? It was published in 1976, the year I got my Ph. D. and my first full-time teaching job. Maybe I was just too busy with other things!

Anyway, the book is all about Kraus's war of words against psychoanalysis. It's full of brilliant flashes that make unexpected objects leap out of the void, like lightning-bolts at midnight. (All the quotations that follow are from Kraus, as translated by Szasz.)

I have to admit that one reason I like this book is that it expresses a conclusion I have come to lately. This is the idea that the worst harm done by psychoanalysis was not done to their patients. There the harm consisted mainly in getting huge amounts of money which they simply did not deserve. After all, those patients wanted to waste their money. As libertarians, the three of us (Kraus, Szasz, and I) have to respect that!

One feature of psychoanalysis that is particularly salient is that it promises an understanding of human life by a very particular means: the interpretation of symbols. This led very naturally to the interpretation of the arts by Freudian methods. Here, as Kraus points out, the victim is often dead and unable to defend his honor.

"Victim?" you say, "how can interpretation be a form of victimization?"

To see this, you need only understand how psychoanalysis interprets human life. As Kraus says, it "accounts for the anguished soul of the adult by reducing it to the anxious longing of the infant". Inevitably, this method of interpretation is "reductionist" in the deflationary sense of the word. Faced with the great riddle of human life, the Freudian looks for the answer in the nursery and the toilet. "God made man out of dust. The psychoanalyst reduces him to it." Thus: "In the case of Goethe's The Sorcerer's Apprentice, [analysts] disagree only on whether the work is the product of sublimated masturbation or bedwetting. If I tell the [them] to kiss my ass, they tell me that I have an anal fixation."

The fact that it turns giants into dwarfs is one of the two most obvious features of this method. The other follows from the fact that it explains by interpreting: it promises that you can understand without complicated mathematical reasoning or doing any field studies or experiments. Just learn a certain manner of thinking. "Psychoanalysis is a method for making a layman into an 'expert' rather than for making a sick person well."

Thus, Freudianism is an easily developed method that enables the analyst to shrink other people, to be the (comparative) giant. (Hence the expression, "headshrinker," or "shrink" for short.) "Psychoanalysis is, in fact, an act of revenge through which the analyst's inferiority is transformed into superiority." It is the dwarf's revenge against the giant.

For this reason, it also serves as a way to bring meaning and value to your life: "Despite its deceptive terminology, psychoanalysis is not a science but a religion -- the faith of a generation incapable of any other."

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Ask the Right Questions

Some people ask, "Why is there crime in the world?" For most crime, the answer is obvious. Everyone has one reason to steal stuff: the stuff! Don't you want more stuff? Don't ask why there is crime. Ask what features of the world maintain order and protect rights.

Don't ask: "What is the cause of poverty?" There is no cause of poverty. Poverty is nothingness, the lack of things that people must make. Nothing comes from nothing. Ask: "What is the cause of wealth?" Ask the right question and everything changes.

I am sure there are exceptions to this, but as a general rule I think theories about human life have to be primarily theories about the good. The reason is not metaphyscial, as the Neoplatonists would claim (good = being, bad = non-being). The reason is that everything good in human life (but not of other animals) is someone's achievement. Bad is something that happens when no one effectively moves off the zero-point to achieve needed things.

For many years, psychologists asked why people are sick and irrational. Now they are asking how healthy and rational people manage the chaos their sense-organs throw at them and navigate to success in the world. Now maybe everything will change.

Friday, December 01, 2006

State and Church

Someone -- I can't seem to find out who -- said that the state is the one institution that is only judged by what it promises to do, never by what it accomplishes.

Here is a literally frightening document: The CATO Interactive Map of Botched Paramilitary Police Raids in the US. All these horrors seem to have been drug raids (surprise, surprise!).

The reason the War on Drugs is renewed every year is not the results it is having: it's that what it is meant to do is so important. People respond to that. The program isn't going so well? We must need more of it!

Actually, there is another human institution, other than the state, that gets just this sort of free ride: the church. Two thousand years of sermons have failed to cause Christians to -- well, to act like Christians. What conclusion do we draw? We must need more sermons!

The greatest faith-based initiative of the twenty first century so far is, of course, the 9/11 attacks. But most of us will not draw any conclusions from that about whether religion is a good thing.

What else do these two institutions, state and church, have in common?

Here's a pretty obvious answer: Both are institutions that are regarded as authorities -- that is, as agents that may tell other agents what to do, or what to believe. We have an ages-old habit of accepting the say-so of these agents as a reason to do or believe what they say.

This could explain a certain irrational tendency to give them the benefit of every possible doubt!

One characteristic all such vested authorities seem to have, is something that might be called "the sacred." The sacred is that whose value is so fundamental that to deny this value, to question it, or even to privately doubt it, are all treated as sins. Sacred beings are unique repositories of value. To attack them is to attack Goodness itself.

Hence, things that would be evidence of failure in other institutions -- onces that are mere means to good things, rather than embodiments of The Good Itself -- are not taken that way here. Bungled police raids? Pedophile priests? Suicide bombers? They are simply evidence that we need more of ... The Good.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Thanksgiving Day Visit

I don't usually use this site for personal-diary-type entries, but today I am experimenting with the camera-function of my new cellphone. ... Say, it works! How 'bout that!

We just went to River Falls to spend Thanksgiving with my friend, Imtiaz Moosa, pictured here. He is a Nietzsche scholar who teaches at the UW campus there. This is the morning after the great turkey-pig-out, over breakfast at the local Perkins.

Since the last time I saw him, Imtiaz has gone more or less completely blind. Hence the dark glasses, which he is not wearing in order to look cool. It is an inspiration to see how he continues to flourish, despite the gathering darkness. May we all have a portion of his courage and good cheer!

Thanksgiving Thoughts: Those Lying, Cheating Pilgrims!

Here is an interesting Chapter from Murray Rothbard's Conceived in Liberty, with some surprising facts about the Pilgrim fathers. One that particularly impressed me:

Slightly more than one hundred people sailed in the Mayflower in 1620. Of these, only forty one were Pilgrims. Eighteen were indentured servants, by contract bound to seven years' service to their masters, and the rest were mainly Anglicans coming west in search of economic opportunity. The original plans were to start a colony in southern Virginia, but the Pilgrim masters of the ship decided to veer well to the colder, wilder north. At this news, some of the indentured servants threatened to exercise their contractual rights: they had agreed to be indentured servants in Virginia, not in some unknown northern wilderness! In the words of an early chronicle: "They would use their own liberty, for none had power to command them." They had the right idea, oh my brothers!

Partly in response to this threat, the Pilgrim minority, though still at sea, constituted themselves the first state in New England, by entering into the Mayflower Compact. Thus they cemented their dominance over the non-Pilgrim majority. The Mayflower Compact, far from being an assertion of independence and individualism, was an attempt to oppress, enslave and expropriate their fellow human beings. In this way, it was like every state established on so far on Earth.

Having said this, it occurs to me that this last statement might sound extreme. To avoid misunderstanding, let me extract my Aesopian moral as a stand-alone, properly qualified, but universally quantified proposition. Every state heretofore is an alliance of some human beings to kill, enslave, or (in the very most benign of cases) to rob their fellows. There! This I think is a statement I can stand by.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Trouble with Borat

Sacha Baron Cohen, comedian of Borat fame, recently gave a rare out-of-Borat-character interview to the British newpaper The Independent. In it, he expresses surprise that real-world Kazakhs have taken offense at his portrayal of them as urine-drinking cow-raping antisemitic morons:

I was surprised, because I always had faith in the audience that they would realize that this was a fictitious country and the mere purpose of it was to allow people to bring out their own prejudices. And the reason we chose Kazakhstan was because it was a country that no one had heard anything about, so we could essentially play on stereotypes they might have about this ex-Soviet backwater.

I find this an amazing statement. He seems to be saying that if he and his friends don't know anything about you, then it's just as if you don't exist and, if he portrays you in a stereotypical way, you shouldn't complain because you are just a fictional character anyway. Could it be that he has some of the same insensitivity that he cleverly satirizes in others? The Greeks had a word for that.

Okay, I admit there are more charitable ways of reading what he is trying to say here, but I think my underlying point is valid. In the Borat movie there is nothing, from one end to the other, that is the least bit threatening to the Western liberal point of view. It's all about what what racist, homophobic, antisemitic jerks all the people in the world who are not Western liberals -- from Middle-Eastern Muslims to red state Americans -- are. If you are a Western liberal, this movie is very favorable to your Self and very unfavorable to the Other. How stupid it is, how nasty, how unlike you and me!

Some of the liberal reviewers of Borat said the movie made them think. What it made them think, of course, was that their old opinions are even more true than they always thought they were. What it made me think is how similar Western liberalism can be to the narrow ideologies that it piously denounces.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Who is More Virtuous: Liberals or Conservatives?

Now this is interesting! There are a number of studies out that correlate personality (or you might say, "character") traits with political ideoleology. There is a study correlating correlating being a liberal with being "open minded" and being a conservative with being, well, closed. Now there are some studies correlating being "conservative" with positive traits: More exactly, according to Eugene Volokh, people who are against income redistribution (making the poor richer and the rich less so) tend to be less angry, less vengeful, less unhappy, and more generous than people who are in favor of it. There is a new book by Albert C. Brooks, Who Really Cares, that reports similar findings. (You can see a review presenting more of Brooks' findings here.)

I have two comments:

First, the latter sort of finding is exactly what Nietzsche would have predicted. Egalitarianism and revenge are products of the very same existential stance: excessive moralizing, the insistence on re-editing reality based on one's views of how it "ought" to be. Further, he claimed that true generosity is a result, not of a sense that one shares the underdog's neediness, but on the contrary of a sense of overfull vitality and prosperity. The generous person would be the one that does not need the nasty defenses of the moralizer.

Second, these two sets of findings are logically consistent with one another. It could be true that anti-redistributionists are more happy, less vengeful, less angry, more generous, and less open-minded. It could be true that pro-redistributionists are less happy, more vengeful, more angry, less generous, and more open-minded.

Why not?

Volokh does report one result that surprised me. Being pro-redistributionist is positively, not negatively, correlated with racist attitudes. I suppose that surprises me because the redistributionists I know are all highly educated academics, who are members of a small sub-culture that is militantly anti-racist. If you go out there into the real world, where pro-redistributionists are not members of this tiny group, you might find very different associations between ideas.

Once again, I can't resist pointing out that this is just the sort of thing that Nietzsche would have predicted, at least if you define racism as involving bitter, rancorous thoughts about the racial Other. The mechanism that explains revenge could explain this too. In fact, that is how Nietzche explained the "ism" that, tragically, was coming to dominate German public discourse in his time: namely, anti-semitism. In fact, he strongly associated anti-semitism with egalitarianism. I assume it was indeed so associated in the writings of anti-semitic socialists of Nietzsche's day such as Eugen Duehring, Karl Marx, and Nietzsche's brother-in-law Bernhard Foerster.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Tasering Incident at UCLA

Rod Long has an article here on an incident at UCLA: Campus police repeatedly administered electric shocks to a student (note his Muslim-sounding name) who failed to show his ID at the customary 11:00 o'clock ID check. As he was attempting to leave the building, he objected to one of the police officer's grabbing his arm. That's when the violence (all perpetrated by the police) began. Even according to police statements (contested by witnesses, one of whom photographed the incident), the worst thing he did was to "go limp" when they tried to eject him from the building. (Some reports have the police saying that he requested others to help him. Apart from the fact that other witnesses apparently denied this, I would say this was clearly within his rights.) As their victim screamed and writhed on the floor, sympathetic onlookers stood "helplessly" by and argued with the police. Like Rod, I suspect that someone should have tried to drag the cops off of him, at least if they were not armed with lethal weapons. But put a uniform on a guy and suddenly the rest of us are "helpless."

You can see the hair-raising video of the event on YouTube.

I think the student's behavior in the video is exactly right. He says everything he says at the top of his lungs, to get as many witnesses as possible, and points out at every turn what the police are doing to him: "I've been tased for no reason! ... I was leaving! ... This is your Patriot Act! ... This is your abuse of power!" Note perfect. When you are being abused by the authorities, secrecy is in their interest. Publicity is in yours. Go thou and do likewise!

BTW as Patri Friedman points out in the Catallarchy blog, there is one good thing about this: we all should give thanks for these electronic technologies. which make it easy to record events like these. In the past we would probably never have heard of this incident, and even if we had, it would have been obscured by the fog of official lies and prevarications. No longer! Praise the Lord!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Milton Friedman, RIP

Milton Friedman died today at the age of 94. He was a very smart person who used his considerable talents to fight for everybody's freedom. He is one of the people who ended the horror of military conscription in America, and he did more than any one person to spread the idea that the "war on drugs" is simply wrong. He was a great man.

Here is a story about him from the Chicago Tribune obituary:

When Nixon appointed Friedman to a panel examining whether to abolish the draft, Friedman found himself at odds with Gen. William Westmoreland, the Army chief of staff and former Vietnam commander.

At one point, Westmoreland declared that he did not want to command an army of "mercenaries."

"I stopped him and said, "General, would you rather command an army of slaves?" Friedman later recalled. "He drew himself up and said, 'I don't like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves.' I replied, 'I don't like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries.'"
The most sophisticated of the many obits I've seen is Charles Goodhart's, in the Guardian.

Friedman's grandson, Patri Friedman, has some links to delightful videos of Friedman here. To view them is to see how one participates in public discussion with both brilliance and urbanity.

I met Prof. Friedman just once. It was over lunch in Berlin, at the Mont Pelerin Society meetings of 1982 or 1983. He had just come from a trip to the USSR. His impression of the then-extant workers' paradise were, as you might imagine, not favorable. Of course, he had expected as much. But he also noticed that other visitors had similar reactions. On the return flight, when the pilot announced that they had crossed the Finnish border, the passengers burst into applause. Later, a Finnish cab driver gleefully told him, by means of broken English and hand-gestures, "Oh yes, I've been to Russia! I've dropped bombs on Russia!" referring to the brief period in 1940 and 41 when tiny Finland humiliated the Red Tsar, Stalin.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

My Economist is Bigger than Your Economist

I was astonished to read in a little op-ed piece in Scientific American (one of the world's most overrated publications, BTW) by one Jeffrey Sachs that the corporatist politico-economic systems of "the Nordic countries" prove that "Friedrich Von Hayek was wrong": the welfare state does not lead to serfdom but to social justice and a "vibrant" economy, both! What? Wasn't I just reading an article (which I blogged a couple of weeks ago) by a man who had just won the Nobel Prize for studying these very questions -- where virtually the opposite thesis was asserted? What gives?

Well, these country-to-country comparisons are very messy but, roughly speaking, Sachs is wrong, is what gives. For a brilliant account of a lot of what is wrong with what Sachs was saying, see Tim Worstall here and especially here.

There is one mistake that Worstall did not point out and, call me petty, but it really cheeses me off.

There is a small typo in the first edition of Thoreau's Walden, which is corrected in editions that are carefully re-edited, but survives in a vast array of crappy ones (such as the shoddy Modern Library one, the really horrible Barnes and Noble one, etc.). Turning to that page is a quick and easy way to tell whether an edition is a good one or not.

Similarly, there is a quick and easy way to spot people who talk about Hayek and just don't know anything about him. Hayek was not a "von." Furthermore, even if he were, the word would not be capitalized. The fact that Jeffry von Sachs didn't even know what Hayek's name was, was an early indicator (in addition to his grossly obvious misinterpretations of what Hayek was saying) that Sachs was talking through his pantseat.

Few people in the history of the planet Earth have been as roundly denounced for being wrong during their lifetime, or as resoundingly proved to be right subsequently, as Friedrich August Hayek (his real name!). He should be honored for it, and I do so here!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

A Darwinian Argument for Paternalistic Coercion?

Economist David Friedman has a very interesting post on a clever argument for paternalism, forcing decisions on a person because the coerced option is deemed to be for their own good. The basic idea is that, since biological evolution lags behind cultural evolution, there can be ways in which we are systematically prone to make bad decisions about our own welfare.

Not too long ago, it was actually a very good idea to stuff yourself whenever you had food because for all you know you might be enduring drought and famine soon -- and living off your fat! For most of human history, becoming fat was perfectly rational. Very recently, we humans have created an environment in which our hard-wired behavior is no longer rational. So m-- here comes the paternalism -- why not impose a tax on refined starch, refined sugar, and fat. This would revise the incentives we have to eat one sort of food rather than another, bringing our behavior back in line with conduct that is rational. We would become healthy and wealthy, without ever incurring the expense of becoming wise! (A related idea is considered by Gary Becker here.)

Here is David's comment on this:
If we had a government run by benevolent philosopher kings, that might make sense. The problem with it in the world we live in is that although I may sometimes be a bad judge of my own welfare, sometimes even a bad judge in predictable ways--arguably the central point of behavioral economics--I have one enormous advantage over any one else when it comes to making decisions about my own welfare. Unlike almost everyone else in the world, I can be trusted to put my own welfare very high in my priorities. Once we shift the decision to someone else, however rational, we can expect him to make decisions for me in his interest rather than mine.
The goal of self-control is generally self-interest. The goal of other-control is unfortunately other-interest.

My own view is that other-control is even worse, in comparison with a regime of self-control, than David makes it sound. When others control me, I have noticed, they often aren't even trying to promote their own rational self-interest (at least as we would intuitively think of it). They often are trying to make me do what is "right" (not use drugs, not use hate-speech, not carry a hand-gun, etc.).

The potential for irrationality in this sort of regime is truly immense.

One trouble with this sort of decision-making is that it does not set up any feed-back mechanism that would cause the controller to change his or her policy. If they were trying to exploit me economically then at least they could look at the bottom line and see whether they are making any money off of me. But if the decision was made just because it was "right," why, no amount of bad stuff that happens either to me or to them would prove them wrong. If I am unhappy with my drug-free life or get killed because I didn't have a gun, those are just some of the costs "we" have to pay on order to do our duty! If the war on drugs puts a third of a million young men in prison, and use of dangerous drugs is still rampant, that is a reason to -- redouble our efforts! Does this sound familiar at all?

What both rebuttals to the Darwinian argument, mine and David's, have in common is of course the idea that in the real world, other-controllers are not going to make precise re-adjustments of the incentive-structure in the direction of true rationality. So a model in which they do so, while interesting perhaps, has no implications for what we ought to do about real governments. What we should do with them is -- replace paternalistic other-control with self-control!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Someone to Vote For

Boy, this election is a tough one for me. Which group do I disagree with most strongly? The gang of coercive world-savers the Republicans have been since 2001? Or the gang of coercive world-savers the Democrats have been since 1933? The people who are pursuing America's post-WWII foreign policy to its insane conclusion (the Republicans)? Or the people who invented this policy in the first place, during the Truman and Roosevelt administrations (the Democrats)?

And then there are the second-order issues. If the Republicans are beaten up as badly as they deserve, after their performance as one of the most incompetent ruling parties history, the Dems will of course claim that this is a great vote of confidence for their statist policies. On the other hand, if the Repubs somehow escape the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate, they will naturally claim that that is a great vote of confidence for their statist policies. Personally, I find it hard to see how anyone can have any confidence in either of these gangs of idiots any longer, but then I realize that about these second-order issues I tend to be an optimist.

The only way out for me is to vote for third party candidates. Voting for the right third-party candidate sends a relatively clear message, which takes care of the second-order sort of issue. Then there is the first-order sort of problem, including of course the why-waste-your-vote issue. Well, there are all sorts of low-profile (but in some cases important) offices that third party candidates do have a shot at. For that reason, I am planning on voting for Tim Peterson, Libertarian candidate for Wisconsin State Treasurer. If you are a Wisconsin resident and inclined to laugh at this suggestion, just think for a minute about how you feel about living in one of the states with the very highest tax burdens, far ahead of both Taxechusetts and Taxifornia. See here.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Is My Dismissal of Conspiracism Unscientific?

A blogger writing under the name of Erasmo makes an interesting point, here, about my original post on Conspiracism. My view, which I admit is an extreme one, is this: conspiracism is actually qualitatively different from legitimate scientific and scholarly work. It is in some ways closer to magical and religious thinking than to scientific thought.

Erasmo points out, in effect, that I am using a priori reasoning to justify ignoring empirical evidence. This is itself a very unscientific thing to do. So I am the one who is being unscientific and not (necessarily) the conspiracy "theorist."

He is quite right that by implication I am saying that scientists and scholars are right to ignore the latest conspiracy theory, without even looking at the evidence for that theory. But I would add that a priori reasoning, of this sort, is not alien to science at all.

Suppose I am an astronomer, specializing in the study of planets. I am deluged with new findings about extrasolar planets, more than I can keep up with. One fine day I get a self-published monograph in the mail, detailing "new evidence" that planet earth is flat. You know what I am going to do. I'm going to toss the book, and without looking at the new evidence. Is this unscientific? Is this irrational?

I think the answer to both questions is "no." We have many different methods for determining the truth, and they vary widely in quality. The highest-quality procedures -- such as (in science) a controlled experiment or a (in the legal realm) a trial with elaborate rules of evidence -- are difficult and expensive, and consequently are reserved for resolving a special category of issues. There are, however, many questions we answer every day of our lives, and as rational beings we generally apply lower-quality truth-determining procedures to them. An astronomer who tosses a flat-earth treatise is acting, with barely a moment's conscious thought, on a lifetime of experience that tells him or her that the earth is not flat at all. This almost instantaneous reaction is a very very low-grade truth-determining procedure, admittedly. It is barely a procedure at all! But I would point out that it is not anti-empirical. It is a priori only in the sense that it does not collect any new evidence.

Now you've probably guessed where I am going with this analogy. I probably will not go out and investigate all the web sites that Erasmo recommends to me. (I also, though this will take a lot of will power on my part, am planning to never read another book on the Kennedy assassination.) There are a number of reasons for this, but one, and a sufficient one, is just this: these theories basically posit the existence of super-brilliant human beings with amazing superpowers, who can bring off wildly complicated, all-but-perfect deceptions. If I did believe that such beings are possible, I certainly would not think that they work for the federal government. And if I did believe that, I certainly, certainly would not identify them with the Bush administration. I admit that having such a thought and acting on it constitutes a very low-grade truth-determining procedure. Like I say, it barely qualifies as a procedure at all. But it does not consist in ignoring empirical evidence. To the contrary! If I were to waste a lot of time reading 9/11 conspiracist websites I would be ignoring empirical evidence: six decades of experience with my fellow-humans, which convinces me that this is just not the way the world works.

That is one pretty good reason for rejecting conspiracism, lock, stock and kaboodle, without looking at the details of each theory. Here is another: Conspiracism, like religion, is an obvious case of motivated belief. It's obvious why Christians believe they have immortal souls, and it has nothing to do with evidence. If the belief is true, then the world is the sort of world they want to live in. Therefore, they believe it. In a similar way, it is obvious that 9/11 conspiracists have reasons, political or religious or both, to believe that 9/11 was not brought off by nineteen hate-crazed religious wack-jobs from the Middle East. A world in which this is true is more their kind of world. Ergo, they believe in it. This, in fact, is painfully obvious to everyone but the conspiracists themselves. Conspiracism is a kind of thinking that, in general and as a kind of thinking, does not deserve to be taken seriously.

Mark Twain's defense of lying -- "The truth is the most valuable thing we have: let us economize it!" -- can also be applied to empiricism, in the sense of examining new empirical evidence. We have to economize it, and that means investing it on hypotheses that deserve that high-quality sort of attention. Conspiracism, I am afraid, just does not make the grade.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Anniversary: The Hungarian Revolution

Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. Here you can read the moving story of journalist Kati Marton's memories of those terrible events. Reading it is a good way to commemorate the many people who were imprisoned or shot down in cold blood because they stood up for freedom.

Added later: Another great article on the Revolotion can be found on blogger Nick Szabo's site. You youngsters out there who only know of Communists as those imaginary people who were the object of hysterical witch-hunts back in the bad old days of the fifties should take a look at this article to find out what Communism was actually all about. Let us never forget those who have died resisting tyranny!


Friday, October 20, 2006

Borat, Transgressor of Boundaries

The anthropologist Grant McCracken has a fascinating post comparing Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat character and television's Mr. Monk as cultural symptons. Monk is obsessed with maintaining and preserving boundaries (especially, I would say, the boundary between himself and contamination of all sorts) while Borat raises the disturbing question of whether there are really any boundaries left. McCracken also tweaks those who praise Cohen for his "courage": I'll praise his courage, he says, when he makes fun of Western liberals like himself. Make fun of your own, and there is no place to hide! Make fun of The Other and there is generally no need to hide.

You can read his post here.

Here is a comment I just posted on McCracken's blog:


A very interesting post! I have two comments:

First, you may be right in saying that making fun of Kazakhstan is not an act of courage, but I think it does have some social and political value. Kazakhstan is one of those little countries left in that part of the world by collapse of the Soviet Union (sometimes called "the 'stans") that have mostly become police states, characterized by "flawed elections" and "human rights abuses" (two phrases that have always sounded like chilling euphemisms to me). It would be a good thing if the people in that part of the world (both victims and perpetrators) feel that the rest of the world is watching them and that, despite the pieties of cultural relativism, is willing to judge and disapprove.

Second, saying that the significance of Borat is that there are few or no boundaries left for many of us is, again, a very interesting claim, but I wonder what a "boundary" is in that case. My friends and I do not steal each others' wallets: that is, we respect the boundary between "mine" and "thine," quite independently of any threat of its being enforced. So one sort of boundary is still very much in place. On the other hand, most of us are quite willing to step into a voting booth and vote that friend's property shall henceforth be ours. So it is also true that another sort of boundary (or the same boundary in another context) has become "porous."
Clearly, once all boundaries have ceased to exist (by the way, would this be the same thing as "becoming porous"?) then we will no longer be able to live together in peace. We will be in the Hobbesean war of all against all.

Bottom line: Borat is about violating certain kinds of boundaries, not all of them. But which kinds?


Having said that, it occurs to me that McCracken makes one comment that I think is revealing about what sorts of "boundaries" he is talking about:

"Well, in certain social circles (both conservative and radical), there will always be boundaries left. (It is interesting to see how often these groups devote themselves almost entirely to what the boundaries are. ...)"

A sample left-wing boundary would be: "Thou shalt treat the ethnicities and national origins of others as if there were always deserving of admiration." A sample right-wing boundary: "Thou shalt treat every human fetus as if it had the same rights as an adult human being." These sorts of boundaries do not protect us from falling back into the Hobbesean jungle. Indeed, they may just be excuses for bossing other people around. They are the sorts of boundaries that John Stuart Mill was arguing against in On Liberty. If Borat is about demolishing boundaries like those, maybe he should be welcomed!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Weirdest Campus Censorship Case Yet!

... and it happened this semester, in a philosophy department right here in Wisconsin. It makes me proud to be a cheesehead.

A graduate student at Marquette University posted this quote from Dave Barry on his office door:

"As Americans we must always remember that we all have a common enemy, an enemy that is dangerous, powerful, and relentless. I refer, of course, to the federal government."

The department chair, one James South, summarily removed it, explaining after the fact that he had received "several complaints" about it and that it is "patently offensive."

Sheesh! What the heck am I missing? Why is this patently (which I believe means obviously) offensive? After all, it is very close to being literally true! It barely even counts as satire, which requires that the truth be exaggerated. I guess some people, including this Professor South (damn, there's got to be a pun there somewhere), literally worship the state as a god.

Clearly, there is simply no telling when someone, somewhere is going to be offended. If you are thinking of spending your life trying not to offend anyone, give up! That's one battle you can only lose!

By the way, South's email justifying his action, which you can find at the above link, is a remarkable document. It is effusive about how he's in favor of academic freedom and free speech -- but he adds that the halls of the philosophy department are not "a free speech zone." In other words: I'm all for free speech, but you don't have it here!

This is something that will never cease to amaze me: in our culture, censorship rules and acts of censorship are generally clothed in endorsements of free speech and denials that we are censoring anything. If you want to know whether someone is for freedom, pay no attention to what they say about it. Look at what they do. If you know how to read their actions, they will tell you the whole story.

Which Economic System is Distributively Just?

Edmund S. Phelps just won the Nobel Prize for economics, so we're all more likely to pay attention to what he says (is that the point of the prize, do you think?). Fortunately, he's a pretty interesting guy. Unlike a lot of economists (and academic philosophers) nowadays, he still talks about the Big Questions. Anyway, he has a very interesting op ed piece on economics and distributive justice in The Wall Street Journal. (Okay okay, I know, the WSJ is a capitalist tool. Just shut up and read the article.)

Phelps believes in John Rawls' difference principle: to be economically just, a system has to allow (all and?) only those inequalities that are in the interest of the least advantaged group of people. It may be that the only way to get good enough brain surgeons is to pay them a lot more than we pay the people whose lives they save, but that will be just because it's good for those who are least well off (such as, maybe, sick people).

Phelps asks which of the two major Western economic systems is just, according to the Difference Principle. The European Model is obviously designed to conform to the Difference Principle. The Anglo-American model obviously is not. The answer will probably surprise you, at least if you haven't read Hayek.

Gordon Baldwin, RIP

I was devastated to learn this week of the death from cancer of Gordon Baldwin, long time law prof here at UW.

Gordon described himself to me (accurately, I think) as a "moderate Republican." This made him an oddball, extremist, and weirdo in the context of the UW, where political opinion generally ranges from three centimeters to three light years left of center. Gordon was a gentleman of the old school, and his affable manners were not always reciprocated by faculty who disagreed with him, but that never deterred him from requiting evil with good.

Back in the early 1990s, when I started going around, trying to convince people that we had a faculty speech code and ought to get rid of it, Gordon was the very first person I talked to. It was, I said, part of the University's harassment rule. He said he didn't think the current harassment rule contained a speech code because -- he was one of the people who wrote it! However, he was glad to listen to an argument to the contrary. He agreed to meet me at a luncheon meeting at the Madison Club. As I recall, the Wisconsin Supreme Court -- the whole damn thing -- was dining at the table next to ours. I showed him the troublesome sections and what I thought the problems with them were. He was an easy convert, my first.

He was a person of clear convictions. Solid as a rock, or as Emerson would say, a man you can't pass your hand through. I will miss him.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Happy Birthday Friedrich!

Today is October 15th, the 162nd aniversary of Friedrich Nietzsche's birth, a day that will recur infinitely many times (already has!), each one as perfect in eternal joy as all the others.

The amazing thing about this is, not the Eternal Recurrence thing, but the fact that after 162 years, we are still reading him. Indeed, interest in him shows no signs of fading. If anything, it's on the rise! Why?

Surely there are many reasons. But one is that he is one of the very few major philosophers who is just plain out-and-out fun to read. The only ones who even come close in this respect, in the whole history of philosophy, are Robert Nozick and Jose Ortega y Gasset.

Then there are the substantive reasons. Ortega says somewhere that, for most of us, the pleasure of reading is simply the pleasure of agreeing with someone. This is clearly not true of Friedrich. Whatever your views are, you will eventually see Nietzsche not merely disagreeing with you but actually ridiculing things you hold sacred. And making you laugh in spite of yourself.

Partly for that reason, I think that reading Nietzsche is actually good for your character. It's hard to imagine someone who has studied Nietzsche getting all shocked and huffy because someone disagrees with them. (You know, the way Madison lefties get when you tell them you are for gun-owners' rights.) Students of Nietzsche are used to it. And more than that, they understand that it is actually good that there are radically different views out there. It means we can grow.

Come to think of it, it's hard to imagine somebody who has read Nietzsche coming up with something as nauseatingly pious as the UW Office of the Dean of Students Think Respect Program. I don't know who came up with that monstrosity, but they really ought to sit down and read Nietzsche. Now! (And joyously partake of a hotdog on Friday.)

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Nietzsche Family Circus

The Nietzsche Family Circus is a web page (tip of the sombrero to Paul Hsieh here) that juxtaposes a randomized Family Circus cartoon with a randomized Nietzsche quote.

The illusion of quote-to-picture relevance is laugh-out-loud funny. This illusion, I think, is closely related to a classic idea from film theory, the Kuleshov Effect, in which a given shot is interpreted, sometimes with startling results, in terms of neighboring shots. This is one of the many illusions that, according to my favorite theory, are always going on when one is watching a film. An even more closely related one is the illusion in virtue of which we hear various sounds in the sound track as if they were coming from various areas on the screen, and not out of a mesh-covered box next to it.

And this, my young friends, shows how powerful a meaning-finder the mind is, so powerful indeed that it often finds meaning where there is none. And thank God for that! Also, I suppose, thank that for God. That could be one of the origins of religious experience, after all.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Kevin Barrett: Why, Believe it or Not, I Still Support this Guy

Last July, when the University community was debating whether to fire Kevin Barrett (see immediately below) there were two questions that absorbed our attention. There was (1) the substantive question of whether he should have been hired. And (2) there was the procedural question of whether this is the right process by which to answer question (1). A politcian hears a professor on talk radio and finds his/her views offensive. Should this result in the professor being fired? That is question (2).

My position was, and is, that it is very, very important, for the sake of academic freedom, that questions like (2) should trump questions like (1). In other words, if this is not the right process, then (1) becomes merely academic. Interesting, maybe even fascinating, but not a reason for taking action at this time.

It's obvious what my answer to (2) is: As a member of the UW community, I ought to hold my nose and fall into formation behind this guy. If we were to make the fateful decision that offended politicians can get professors fired, we would be buying no end of problems. I'm sure that I have views that would be offensive to some people at the other end of State Street: if not Steve Nass, then maybe somebody else who doesn't quite understand what freedom is all about. It's true of many others as well, no doubt about it. As tempting as it might be to throw Barrett to the wolves, one of us might be on the wolves' menu as well.

In addition, however, it is becoming obvious what the answer to question (1) is. It's not just Barrett's conspiracy "theories." It's his errors of judgment, his egregiously bad taste, his lame and nasty attempts at humor, his Michael-Jackson-like inability to appreciate how weird he seems to others. Now it can be said: This guy is a jerk.

But the tiny number of people (if any) who have been following this blog will know that, with respect to question (1), I think the situation is actually much worse than that. By itself, the mere matter of being a jerk is not decisive. There are a number of brilliant professors who happen to be jerks. Hell, some of my best friends have been jerks! What is much more decisive, for me, is that I believe that conspiracism is to history as astrology is to astronomy, as alchemy is to chemistry, as magic and religion are to science and scholarship. Well, you might ask, what would I do if the UW Astronomy Department hired a part-time instructor to teach a course in which, as it turns out, he will spend a week discussing astrology as an interesting, alternative type of astronomy. Would I just stand by and do nothing?

Before I answer that, let me remind you that, somethimes, doing nothing is the best course of action. It can also be a difficult one.

Second, let me give the question a bit of a context. Over the years, the idea of academic freedom has evolved, and part of this process was the development of various traditions and practices that support it or spell out, in institutional detail, exactly what it is. One of these practices is the tradition of departmental autonomy. Suppose I were to complain to the Dean that the Philosophy Department is not paying me enough. There are strict limits to what he can do about that. If he tells them to correct the situation, it cannot be because he has made a substantive judgment about the merits of my work in academic philosophy. Any orders coming from him would have to be made on procedural grounds; the idea would have to be that there is some unfairness in the process by which they have decided on my pay. The substantive issue of my actual merits is owned, free and clear, by the Philosophy Department. Within the confines of their academic discipline, they govern themselves: which is what "autonomy" means.

There are a number of reasons for departmental autonomy, but the most obvious and important one is the fact that it enables people in the university to pursue inquiry in their fields with a minumum of second-guessing and pressure from people outside the discipline.

Now consider what we would be doing to the Astronomy Department if we moved in and fired the astrology buff. We would be telling them that they have made such a totally dumb-ass decision on the substantive question that people who know nothing about the field are qualified to second-quess them and, more than that, breach departmental autonomy and to take control of their personnel decisions out of their hands and give it to outsiders. This would be to put the relationship between their department and the rest of the University on an entirely new footing. This would be a very significant institutional change, and we would be dealing with the fallout from it for some time to come.

Is the Barrett case egregious enough to justify such radical move? My answer is: of course not. Not even close. Just live with it. If that seems hard to do, you have this consolation: His fifteen minutes of fame, that gift lavished upon him by the Wisconsin Republicans, will soon be over.

Comparing Bush to Hitler Would be Insult to Hitler, Declares Conspiracy "Theorist"

Ever since certain Dr. Frankensteins in the Wisconsin state legislature decided to give conspiracy "theorist" Kevin Barret tons of priceless free publicity by demaning that UW fire him, there seems no stopping the embarrassing public relations monster they have created. Since I was one of those who publicly opposed firing this guy, I guess I'd better say something about it. Here, in case you have been sojourning at the bottom of the proverbial mineshaft, is the latest cringe-worthy devolopment:

UW Instructor Compares Bush to Hitler


The Associated PressWednesday, October 11, 2006; 5:38 AM MILWAUKEE --

A university instructor who came under scrutiny for arguing that the U.S. government orchestrated the Sept. 11 attacks likens President Bush to Adolf Hitler in an essay his students are being required to buy for his course. The essay by Kevin Barrett, "Interpreting the Unspeakable: The Myth of 9/11," is part of a $20 book of essays by 15 authors, according to an unedited copy first obtained by WKOW-TV in Madison and later by The Associated Press.

The book's title is "9/11 and American Empire: Muslims, Jews, and Christians Speak Out." It is on the syllabus for Barrett's course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, "Islam: Religion and Culture," but only three of the essays are required reading, not including Barrett's essay. Barrett, a part-time instructor who holds a doctorate in African languages and literature and folklore from UW-Madison, is active in a group called Scholars for 9/11 Truth. The group's members say U.S. officials, not al-Qaida terrorists, were behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Like Bush and the neocons, Hitler and the Nazis inaugurated their new era by destroying an architectural monument and blaming its destruction on their designated enemies," he wrote. Barrett said Tuesday he was comparing the attacks to the burning of the German parliament building, the Reichstag, in 1933, a key event in the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship.

"That's not comparing them as people, that's comparing the Reichstag fire to the demolition of the World Trade Center, and that's an accurate comparison that I would stand by," he said. He added: "Hitler had a good 20 to 30 IQ points on Bush, so comparing Bush to Hitler would in many ways be an insult to Hitler."

Moira Megargee, publicity director for the Northampton, Mass., publisher Interlink, said the book is due out at the end of November and the editing isn't finished. "It is not final and for all we know that essay may not be in the book or may be edited," she said. The university's decision to allow Barrett to teach the course touched off a controversy over the summer once his views became widely known. Sixty-one state legislators denounced the move.

One county board cut its funding for the UW-Extension by $8,247 _ the amount Barrett will earn for teaching the course _ in a symbolic protest, even though the course is unrelated to that branch of the UW System. Democratic
Gov. Jim Doyle and his Republican challenger, Mark Green, have both said they believe Barrett should be fired.

One essay Barrett is requiring students to read is entitled: "A Clash Between Justice and Greed," and argues that conflicts between Islam and the western world were made up after the "collapse of the Soviet Union to justify U.S. 'defense' spending, and to provide a pretext of controlling the world's resources." The author of another essay, "Interpreting Terrorism: Muslim Problem or Covert Operations Nightmare?," contends some western intelligence agencies are commiting acts of terrorism to make them look like the work of radical Islamics.

The university's chief academic officer, Provost Patrick Farrell, decided to retain Barrett for the course after reviewing his plans and qualifications. He said Barrett could present his ideas during one week of the course as long as students were allowed to challenge them.

He later warned Barrett to stop seeking publicity for his personal political views. Farrell said he has not seen the essay, but faculty can assign readings that may not be popular to everyone. "I think part of the role of any challenging course here is going to encourage students to think of things from a variety of perspectives," he said.

I will try to post on this later today.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Religion versus Family Values?

A study from the Barna Research Group, based on interviews with 3,854 adults in the lower 48 states, with a margin of error of 1 or 2%, finds the following:

Variation in divorce rates by religion:
Religion % have been divorced
Jews 30%
Born-again Christians 27%
Other Christians 24%
Atheists, Agnostics 21%

As an atheist who has been married to the same fellow-unbeliever for 29 years, I shouldn't be surprized at this, but I am. Like everyone else, I tend to believe what I am told, rather than what I see with my own eyes. I'll have to work on that...

By the way, notice what some church leaders are saying about this study: flat declarations that they will not believe it. In other words, for some people, the idea that religion has a positive effect on moral behavior ... is itself a religious tenet, insulated from scientific evidence.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Conspiracies Real and Imaginary

A Finnish individual, writing as "Nordic," posted an interesting comment on my original positing on conspiracy theories. Nordic points out that there have been many real conspiracies throughout history. This is undeniably true -- though I would deny one of Nordic's examples, the conspiracy that killed JFK. But many examples of perfectly real conspiracies come to mind. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, not by a lone gunman, but by a conspiracy that was aimed at several members of his administration. The Watergate break-in and coverup was a real conspiracy. Heck, the 9/11 attacks themselves were the work of a conspiracy -- not a conpiracy of Israeli and American military organizations by of 19 religious nutcases. So conspiracies are real.

But given that my account of conspiracism holds that there is a sharp discontinuity between that sort of thinking and real theories, I probably have to find a difference between the conspiracies that conspiracists obsess about, and the conspiracies that exist in the real world that you and I actually live in. The alternative would be to say that conspiracism only differs from legitimate theoretical work in terms of it its methodology, and that might end up blurring my supposedly sharp distinction. The difference might then be at most a difference of degree: they are being less rigorous, etc., but they are really in the same business as the social scientist.

Note that a similar issue arises in the case of cryptozoology, the belief in creatures like yetti, sasquatch, and the Loch Ness monster. If cryptozoology is bunk, how is it that scientists find find new species, or ones thought extinct, all the time? What about the ceolocanth ("the living fossil") and the giant squid? Isn't the cryptozoologist just doing what the legitimate zoologist is doing all the time?

How, indeed, is the coelocanth different from Bigfoot? Answer: verifiable physical traces. They reeled in the coelocanth. They netted the giant squid. But they've never found a dead sasquatch, nor any traces from which dna can be extracted. No skeletons. No hair. No poop. Unlike bears, sasquatches do not shit in the woods. (Tip of the hat here to the wonderful "Penn and Teller: Bullshit!" episode on cryptozoology.)

What is the similar sharp difference between the infinitude of real conspiracies, and those that are products of conspiracist fantasy? I can think of several, but they all rest on a single one. Real conspirators are, like you and me, fallible. For that reason, real conspiracies tend to be, if they are successful, rather small and short-lived. The successful ones also tend to be very simple, in terms of the number and difficulty of the individual actions required to bring them off. The Reichstag fire, for instance was very simple indeed: just start a fire when nobody is looking. Real conspiracies in general have a marked tendency to come unraveled. The ones that are large and long-lasting are extremely well-known (the CIA, the Communist Party, etc.).

By contrast, the phony conpiracies of conspiracists have God-like powers, including an almost supernatural capacity to stay (unlike the CIA and the CP) virtually invisible to anyone but the conspiracy theorist. Just think how many hundreds of people would have to be involved in order to fake a moon landing or the 9/11 attacks. With no mistakes made by any, any of them, and no defectors, never a death-bed confession, etc. Truly, these were organizations of supermen! The conspiracy that killed JFK was a very, very different sort of thing from the one that killed Lincoln. The latter began to fall apart almost immediately. The former has remained airtight and without a single flaw or weakness for over 4 decades. Pretty interesting, don't you think?

Real conspiracies, I would claim, inhabit the world as it is understood by modern science or by common sense. This is a world of finite beings with finite powers. It is a world where ever gain has its cost, and every strength its Achilles' heel. It is a world of probabilities and degrees of rational certitude. The world of the conspiracist is not like this. It is a world inhabitied by fabulous superbeings with amazing superpowers. A world of absolutes and infallibilities. It is basically the world as apprehended by magical and religious ways of thinking. It is the world of faith, of what Eric Hoffer called the "True Believer."

That is I suppose its greatest attraction.

Are Conspiracists Really Enemies of Authority as Such?

I've been thinking about Edward Feser's conservative take on conspiracy theories: that they are really a case of the Enlightenment spirit taken to its logical limit, with the individualistic "theorist" rejecting tradition and authority in favor of the judgement of his (it always is a "he") own mind. It's an application, he says, of the "skim milk principle," so named after the Sir Arthur Sullivan lines "Things are seldom what they seem/Skim milk maskerades as cream."

I should probably point out first of all that my own account and Feser's have something in common. They are both basically epistemological accounts of cospiracism. That is, they both interpret it as a knowledge claim and assess it in terms of whether its methodology is competent to (or seriously meant to) support claims to knowledge.

However, within the wide parameters of epistemological accounts of conspiracism, my view is virtually opposite of Feser's. Connspiracy "theories" are not really theories at all. They are, as Plato would say, not logos but mythos, stories that deliver the subjective satisfaction (the drug-like high) of theories without the difficulty, discipline, or rigor of doing actual theoretical work.

As I said below, Feser's account does admittedly explain something that my own account seemingly cannot: namely, that conspiracists tend to be individualists who are "agin the guvmint." I should add something to my account. But what?

I guess what I am inclined to add is a denial that the explanandum phenomenon, the thing to be explained, exists. True, we do think of the typical conspiracist as some weird guy who lives in his mom's garage and has a web site that reveals the key to human history. But that is a sort of illusion of perspective we get by looking only at the conspiracists immediately around us. Step back and look at the big picture.

Historically, conspiracism has often been a very nasty tool in the hands of authority, the worst and most authoritarian authorities. What was Nazi antisemitism but a giant conspiracy theory? Soviet Communism was rife with conspiracy theories. At the time he died (and it was just in time) Stalin was obsessed with The Doctors' Plot, a conspiracy theory that was to have served as the basis for massive arrests and killings. Just the other day, the dictator of Sudan used a conspiracy theory to deny responsibility for mass murder in the Darfur region and blame it all on Israel.

Again, Medieval witchraft hysteria had the most salient traits of conpiracism, inasmuch as it opposed a foe that was a) very powerful, b) very, very bad, and c) invisible (undetectable by ordinary common sense thinking).

Conspiracism is a wonderful excuse for doing terrible things to innocent people. A conspiracy theory would, if true, justify taking extraordinary means against people who look innocent because, don't you know, THEY are about to do terrible things to us, and they are very good at looking innocent. It's what they do!

As a non-conservative, I maintain that beating up on people in just this way is one thing that authority, throughout history, has shown a certain tendency to do. Lord Acton said it: Power corrupts.

Exploding Bycicles Explained

My friend Valeria Ottonelli at the University of Genoa (I'll be seeing her at a conference in November, when she will teach me how to pronounce my blog's name) has explained to me the Critical Mass bycicle event (see below).

It's a worldwide network of people who stage events at which they try to get enough cyclists together in one place (hence the critical mass theme) to call attention to cycling as an alternative means of transportation.

I happen to agree that it is a good idea to avoid burning dinosaur fossils whenever you can, so here is a tiny increment of free publicity for them.

(I actually don't even own a bycicle, but I am a big walker, both with and without a backpack, with and without trekking poles, both town and country, etc. I guess that makes me even more of a Luddite in a way than these cycling advocates.)

Thursday, October 05, 2006

My New Name

Well, when I started this little blog in February I called it Critical Mass. I liked the idea of announcing up front that I would be offering some critical thinking, and I liked the suggestion that critique can be explosive. I was being teddibly clevah.

Or maybe not. There are now two or three other blogs with the same name -- on the Blogger server alone! One of them is a blog for book reviewers (get it? critical). There is also (and I really do not get this) some kind of bycicle race called Critical Mass. (What the Hell?) Anyway, the idea must have been pretty obvious.

I trust that my new name is sufficiently obscure to protect it against becoming popular. But of course only time will tell.

What the heck does it mean, you ask? Ayn Rand says somewhere that she thought that Galileo was right to lie to the Inquisition. Indeed, she thought his delibarate lie to these pious thugs was a noble symbol of the fact that though you can force a body, you cannot force a mind. I've always thought she was right about this. The story is also a perfect symbol of the objectivity of the truth: how no amount of talking, opining, browbeating, or bullying is going to change it. We might as well try to find out what it is, before we trip over it in the night. Such are the thoughts behind my new name.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Why Conspiracism Persists: Another Take

There is a very interesting article on why conspiracism is so pervasive and popular, despite its obvious stupidity, here at TCS Daily

Interestingly, the author, Edward Feser, a conservative professor of philosophy, gives an explanation that is virtually the opposite of mine. I see these "theories" (which aren't real theories at all, as I've said) as offering all the comforts and advantages of irrationality, while he seems to see them as the product of an over-reliance on -- reason! He points out the the intellectual posture of the conspiracist is inevitably that of the lone skeptic, casting aside "the official story" and thus overthrowing the power of authority, to which the masses have uncritically submitted. The governing myth, in his view, is that of the Enlightenment: truth is on the side of the lone intellect, while custom, tradition, and authority represent nothing but illusion.

As a matter of history, I think Feser's Enlightenment-run-amok theory is plainly wrong. Modern conspiracism begins with the Abbe Agustin Baruel's writings about the Bavarian Illuminati. The Illuminati -- the bad guys in this conspiracist yarn -- are Enlightenment extremists, free-thinking foes of both king and church who sought to establish a new regime of freedom and reason on the ruins of all traditional institutions. The first thing the Illuminati did, according to Baruel, was to cause the French Revolution. (How? I guess they pulled some of those "strings" you've heard about.) The arch conspiracy theorist of my own lifetime, Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, believed the the Illuminati were the ones at the bottom of all the other conspiracies. The Commies were just one part of it.

Anyway, Baruel's conspiracy "theories" were apparently the product of a profoundly reactionary hatred of the Enlightenment, not the reverse.

I have to admit, though, that Feser's view does explain something that mine so far does not: that conspiracism tends to have an anti-authoritarian slant. The conspiracist is usually, like Huck Finn's Pap, "agin the guvmint." Or in some cases, the Church. (Da Vinci Code, anyone?)

So I have to add something to my explanation. But what? I'll have to think about that.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Yet Another Conspiracy Theory: Lower Gas Prices

The day before yesterday I wrote the posting immediately below. One of the examples of conspiracy theories I cited was the "capitalist plot" explanation of rising oil prices. Since the middle of the summer, as you probably know, gas prices have been sliding downward. And what do we see in the press and on the net but a conspiracist explanation of dropping oil prices. There is simply no end and no limit!

There is an interesting piece on this by one Dan Gainor at Human Events. Okay, Human Events is a right wing publication and Gainor's charming essay is an attack some talking head at CNN (which unlike him I do not watch) who has been purveying this particular "theory." As a matter of fact, as a recent USA Today and Gallup poll shows, some 42% of Americans believe some form of this idea, so unfortunately we can't blame it all on those pointy-headed liberals at CNN. The appeal of conspiracism is very, very broad. This is the one thing that makes it, in all its irrational stupidity, worth thinking about. Something is going on there that tells us a lot about what makes most people tick.

On thing that just amazes me about this is how little responsibilty conspiracists feel to explain how THEY are supposed to be able to bring off the spectacular effects that conspiracists attribute to THEM. What is the source and nature of their mysterious super-powers? USA reports, from a knucklead-on-the-street interview, some guy in LA saying "I'm sure there's some sort of string-pulling going on." That's it. THEY are doing this to us. How? Somehow. End of story.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Conspiracy Theories: What's Really Going on There?

I’ve been reading a really interesting book: Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in the United States, by historian Robert Allen Goldberg (Yale U. Press, 2001). I’m trying to figure out what these seemingly mad ideas are so powerful, and so popular. What the Hell is going on there?

Conspiracy theories have popped up many times in history, Goldberg tells us. You might think that it all began with the Jewish plot to take over the (nineteenth century) world, but what about the Antichrist, and the grand-daddy of them all, Satan and all his devils? And in the eighteenth century there was the Adam Weishaupt and the fabulous Bavarian Illuminati. But recent decades do seem to represent something new in history: conspiracy theories have been multiplying like mad. Among them are: JFK was killed by a conspiracy that did not include Oswald (or in which he was “just a patsy”), ditto for RFK/Sirhan and MLK/James Earl Ray. The Oklahoma City bombing was perpetrated by the government – with Timothy MacVeigh as the patsy! The Moon landing took place on a Hollywood sound stage. Marilyn Monroe was murdered, Elvis’s death was faked so he could avoid publicity, Princess Di’s death was faked so she could get away from the paparazzi. Vince Foster was murdered because he knew too much. Then there are Roswell and Area 51. In fact, JFK was killed because, like Foster, he knew too much, but in his case it was about – UFOs! The Elian who was sent back to Cuba was a ringer. And of course, every time a reduction in the supply of petroleum results in an increase in the price of gas at the pump, it isn’t because of some abstruse, hard to understand “law” of supply and demand, it’s because of a conspiracy of oil companies fixing the prices. And, since Golderberg's book was written, the dawn of what may turn out to be the Golden Age of conspiracist lunacy. The WTC towers and the pentagon were hit by cruise missiles, cleverly disguised as passenger planes (which were somehow spirited away and disappeared). Light and telephone poles next to the Pentagon that seem to have been sheared off by a large passenger plane were actually stage props. The cellphone messages from United 93 were fakes concocted by actors. And on it goes.

What do all these ideas have in common? Goldberg points out that they all weave together disparate facts into a consistent, unified structure. They also promise one power: to find the behind-the scenes cause of things feels very empowering.

Also, as Goldberg points out, conspiracists tend overwhelmingly to be male. Joe MacCarthy, Robert Welch, Mark Lane, Louis Farrakhan, Oliver Stone, Fetzer and Barrett. The leading Roswell nut-cases and Area 51 wack-jobs – all men. Conspiracism is a testosterone-rich environment. I would add that this can be partially explained by the fact that conspiracist thinking is a power-grabbing fantasy. This is something that men seem to be more interested in than women.

I would also add, though, that both these functions are filled by real theories. Boyle’s law and the law of supply and demand integrate diverse phenomena and promise to empower us through understanding. But I maintain that conspiracy “theories” are not real theories. What is the difference?

For one thing, real theories mean work. It takes work to understand them. They are abstract, difficult. They always use often use a highly specialized conceptual aparatus, and math symbols that only those who have spent long, boring hours of study can understand. And even after you understand them, they assign you more work. The law of supply and demand means that, if you don’t like gradually rising gas prices, you have to get off your butt and find more sources of fuel. (Damn! That could take years! Let’s just sit here and hate the oil companies some more!)

Of course, once you realize that everything is the fault of Big Oil or the Jews, there is nothing at all that you can do about it. But that is actually liberating: Nothing to do! You’re off the hook! The power rush was from the insight itself, realizing what the real cause was. You’ve penetrated the Veil of Maya. Actually gaining and using real power – that’s just more work!

There is one more huge difference between conspiracism and real theory. Conspiracies make good stories, as Goldberg reminds us. Think how many movies depict conspiracies, from Birth of a Nation through Meet John Doe and and The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May to dozens of current offerings. By contrast, a real theory is a cold minuet of bloodless abstractions. No story there.

In addition, I would point out that a conspiracy theory appeals to a common and pervasive human emotion: namely, hatred. Conspiracies have the two characteristics that separate the Hateful from all other things: they are powerful, and they are very, very bad. If your dominant emotion is a haunting, free floating hatred, and you need something to fasten it to and justify it, try a conspiracy theory! If might be just what you were looking for!

So conspiracy theories are the sort of theory that would naturally appeal to someone who is intellectually lazy, prefers instant gratification, thinks in terms of concrete images instead of abstractions and mathematical symbols, and needs to feel more powerful; someone who is troubled by nasty emotions that do not seem to be appropriate responses to the world that they actually see around them.

So my explanation has to be that conspiracism is so popular because there are a lot of people like that -- or there is a lot of that in people!