Thursday, March 23, 2006

Why I am Opposed to Multiculturalism

In a book review he wrote a while back, John Derbyshire said:

In the Empire Boys' Annuals of my own British childhood, the human world was a diverse place indeed, populated by head-hunters, cannibals, Polynesian bungee-jumpers, ferocious Gurkhas, exquisitely polite Japanese, reed dwellers, cave dwellers, tree dwellers, suttees, thuggees, fellows who inserted four-inch wooden disks into their lower lips and women who elongated their necks by adding a metal ring every year. Now youngsters are assured that though people who live in foreign parts may sometimes look a bit odd, they are really just middle-class Americans in thin disguise. Little Masai boys like to play soccer, says the "Social Science" textbook issued to my fourth-grader. In China they prefer volleyball. Uh-huh.


What happened between Derbyshire's childhood and the educational regime to which children are subjected today? The answer of course is "multiculturalism," the idea that all cultures are equally good -- or at least equally un-bad.

Right now this is a very influential idea. Why? I think the main reason is that a lot of people think that it is the only alternative to chauvinism -- the idea that all cultures that are different from one's own are inferior to it.

Isn't it a little obvious that multiculturalism is not the only alternative to chauvinism? In my opinion, they are actually two forms of the very same mistake: the moralistic fallacy of deciding what the value of something is without sufficient regard for the facts. Multiculturalists edit out facts that are unfavorable to others. Chauvinists edit out facts that are embarrassing to themselves. Both are behaving irrationally.

There is an obvious alternative to both: the modern, scientific world view that has dominated Western thinking for the last century or so(at least until recently). According to this view, whatever your moral evaluation of the world might be, it should be based on the facts. If you find another culture that you can learn from, admit it. If you encounter one that, on reflection, you think is wrong, then admit that too. In neither case should you say "Eeek!" and cover your eyes.

I, too, "celebrate diversity," but I hold that the diverse individuals, corportate bodies, and peoples of the earth are related to one another by varying degrees of contrariety, opposition, and competition. This world that we live in, with its lavish variety of types, is an arena of competition, and not a giant group-hug. In such a world, the only way to think that diverse ways of life are all equally good would be to deny that they are really all that diverse. And this of course is Derbyshire's point.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Fish Swallows Hook

Now that the dust has settled in the area of cartoon rage violence (is it too early to say that?), it's safe to say that one of the strangest comments was made by the always-reliable Prof. Stanley Fish (now of Florida International University). You apparently can't read the whole piece on line without subscribing to the New York Times, but you can see part of it here.

For years now Prof. Fish has consistently argued that censors are right and their victims are wrong, or at least that they have equal value, provided only that the censors are sincerely offended at verbal affronts to their dignity. My own view is that his comments on the cartoon violence, in which he appears to take the side of the rioters, make his basic position look absurd, but you of course can make up your own mind.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Self-Medication is Self-Determination!

Theodore Dalrymple, the prison doctor and brilliant conservative essayist has a new book out, which everyone should buy and read. There is an essay in it with the self-explanatory title "Don't Legalize Drugs," which you can find here.

I've learned a lot from the Doctor from Hell (as I fondly think of him) and this essay is no exception. In this case, though, what I learned is mostly (but not by any means entirely) of the "Know your foe" variety: gaining insight into how your opponent thinks. He makes as good a case as one can in such brief compass, and (unlike almost all of us academics) speaks from extensive experience with the dark underside (mutilated, botched, failed, or malevolent) of human life, so I take his arguments very seriously.

Here are of few comments on why I, nonetheless, think he is wrong.

Here is how Dr. Dalrymple puts the major premise of the argument from the anti-prohibition camp:

The philosophic argument is that, in a free society, adults should be permitted to do whatever they please, always provided that they are prepared to take the consequences of their own choices and that they cause no direct harm to others. The locus classicus for this point of view is John Stuart Mill's famous essay On Liberty: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of the community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others," Mill wrote. "His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant."


My own view is that, roughly, this is indeed the principal "philosophical" reason that tells against drug prohibition, though I would prefer to speak of rights violations rather than use the Millian notion of "harm."

His main response to this idea is this:

Human affairs cannot be decided by an appeal to an infallible rule, expressible in a few words, whose simple application can decide all cases, including whether drugs should be freely available to the entire adult population.


The idea is that we can decide to permit alchohol consumption and prohibit cocaine consumption, making these decisions on a case-by case basis, on the grounds of -- what?

That of course is the question. It's all very well to say that you don't believe in exceptionless principles -- of course, all rules have exceptions of some sort -- but that doesn't take you off the hook from the responsibility to justify yourself, nor from principled thinking. Why should we make this particular exception? Whatever answer you give, that becomes a new principle, which you have to apply consistently, unless you can come up with another exception ... which becomes a principle ... and so forth.

Well, the good doctor does give a reason why drugs should represent an exception to the general rule that you should be left alone as long as you are not violating anyone else's rights. Like a philosopher, he makes a distinction. There are, he says, important freedoms and trivial ones. The freedom to criticize ideas is important. The freedom to take LSD is trivial. Furthermore, drugs themselves restrict your freedom by shrinking the set of alternatives open to you. So drug prohibition takes away a lesser freedom and gives you a greater one.

Believe it or not, I am convinced that both these ideas, despite their plausibility, are profoundly wrong. The freedom to take drugs is not a trivial one. And they do not per se restrict your freedom -- which would of course imply that, if I am right, drug prohibition does not enhance your freedom. It does just what it seems to do: it takes a certain decision-making power away from you and transfers it to the state.

Most of the standard theories of happiness or human well-being agree that happiness includes having some power to control one's world, and most also agree that it has something to do with how you feel, with mood. Well, drugs give you some power over your mood, so they are clearly relevant to well-being or happiness. Right now, I am orally ingesting a drug -- a hot cup of instant coffee I heated in the microwave. The reason is that I just got out of bed and my current mood (groggy) doesn't suit me. It's interfering with what I want to do (write this blog). So I am trying to adjust it with this caffeine. Like any drug, it doesn't do the whole trick, but it does help.

Dr. Dalrymple would of course find this argument silly. Caffeine helps people to (sometimes) function better. It is a legal drug. He would claim that illegal drugs make people function worse, or prevent them from functioning at all. They cause people to sit in a stupor. I would only point out that this claim is at best a wild over-generalization. Many illicit drugs have effects similar to caffeine: they are "stimulants," and people take them to be more alert, not to stupefy themselves. Even the illegal drugs that are "depressants" might have legitimate uses in mood-control.

Obviously, there are many complicated issues involved here. But right now my point is a relatively simple one: Drugs are a technology, and technology means power over your world. Any state that takes a tecnology away from you is taking power out of your hands and giving it to someone else. That is not a trivial matter at all. Further, such a seizure does not (simply) enhance your freedom. To some extent, it takes freedom away.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Deconstructing Deconstruction

Recently, an old friend of mine, Bill Macomber, wrote to me asking me to explain Jacques Derrida to him. Bill has been out of the philosophy business for over thirty years (no need to retell that sad story here) and he must have assumed that I would be well informed about the latest developments, and able to wise him up with a minimum of effort: always bad assumptions where I am concerned!

Here is my reply:

My Dear Bill,

You asked me to explain Jacques Derrida. I always tell my students when they say I should include, eg., some text from Eastern philosophy or post-modernism in my class: you are really better off to ask someone who, unlike me, believes in that stuff and thinks it is important. I would have to go back to school to understand it at all, and then I would not be as good at explaining it as the other guy already is. Meanwhile, the thing that I can do better than they can, would go undone!

Anyway, as I understand it, Derrida really had two ideas. First, works of literature, which seem to be attempts to entertain you with beautiful or at any rate interesting images, are actually mind-traps: the author in each case is trying to trap you inside his or her own belief-system. What you need to do is to deconstruct the author’s would-be mind-trap. This is of course his other idea. Deconstructing the work basically means realizing that the author is really a bungling fool who, in trying to throw a net over you, has already tripped over his or her own shoelaces.

I have to say that I really have very little patience for this sort of thing. Isn’t it a little obvious what Jacques’ motives were? That this is just one more attempt to make critics, like himself, more important than creative writers?

More importantly, as Camille Paglia has pointed out, his message is much less applicable in America than it is in France. Over there, the masses may well be dangerously in awe of the literary set, which does have a dangerously authoritarian attitude. They even have an Academy (or did recently) that decides whether new words should be allowed in the language or not! Now that is real power! Here, the writing set has no such influence at all. In democratic America, the arts are drowning in a flood of popular culture, and languishing without friends among the powerful. In such a context, to tell people that they should view literature with Derridean wariness is to send the very worst sort of message. Just exactly the opposite of what people need to hear.

Now Paglia, there’s someone you should be thinking about: she may save us yet!

Yrs.,

Lester

Support Freedom: Listen to Carl Nielsen!

Lee Harris of TCS Daily has a wonderful way to show support for the beleagered little land of Denmark: buy Carl Nielsen CDs! (See link above.)

Okay, it doesn't exactly hit intolerant Islamism where it hurts, but the great Dane is my favorite composer, at least since the death of Dvorak in 1904, so I am seconding his motion anyway.

If you don't know Nielsen's stuff you are in for a real treat. One Nielsen symphony contains more different rhythms, and more real excitement, than a whole shelf of rock CDs. The three greatest are numbers 3, 4 and 5.

Start with 3, the "Sinfonia espansiva," especially if you can find the classic Leonard Bernstein recording, with the Royal Danish Orchestra. It's impossible to imagine a better recording of that explosively joyous work. Music will never sound the same again.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Theory of Censorship Envy

In his wonderful blog, The Volokh Conspiracy, law prof. Eugene Volokh has put forth an idea that I think is a real breakthrough in the our understanding of the dynamics of free speech and censorship. Suppose you are a European Muslim, deeply offended by the publication (and republication, and republication) of those cartoons. European Christians and Jews tell you that they feel your pain, but you must bear it as part of the cost of freedom. But your country does have a law against denying the holocaust. The Jews don't have to pay the "cost of freedom," but you do! Thus the bitter resentment of the uneven way these costs are distributed: censorship envy!

The same would happen in this country if we passed a constitutional amendment banning flag burning. It would be hard to tell Muslim Americans, "Get used to it, buddy, sometimes freedom hurts!" "Funny how it doesn't seem to be hurting you!" they would say.

BTW, this helps to explain something that advocates of censorship often find hard to understand: That their opponents tend to make "fetishes" of extreme cases. "Why to do care about whether people can burn the flag (deny the holocaust, use the word "Nigger," etc.)? Don't you detest that sort of behavior? Sure we do, but if we ban the speech we hate, we give others a passionate motive to ban the speech they hate.

We see this motive in a particularly nasty form in the Iranian newspaper that is seeking cartoons "humorously" dealing with the holocaust (mainly by suggesting that it never happened, probably). For a lot of European intellectuals, this gesture puts them in a tough position. On the one hand, they defended their mainstream press's right to publish the cartoons lampooning Mohammed, on the other hand they defend their governments' laws censoring holocaust deniers. Why is the first a case of free speech while the latter is not?

In the US, where the mainstream press did not publish the cartoons, and where the Bill of Rights makes holocaust denial laws illegal, we do not have that problem. We can attack the Iranian newspaper's viciously ignorant gesture without lugging around so much baggage of our own.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Selective Cartoon Rage

I earlier suggested that the offendedness of the masses who committed arson and mayhem over the Danish cartoons was perfectly sincere. This is no doubt true by and large, but the story about the people who deliberately ignited the violence is less pretty. In an interesting article about Arab libertarians who are promoting classical liberalism (anonymously, of course) in the blogosphere, Jonathan Rauch links to a site where one of them points out that the notorious cartoons appeared on the front page of an Egyptian newspaper. Why aren't we boycotting Egypt, they wonder? They then pointed out how various authoritarian Middle East regimes benefited from the riots.

(Note: Rauch's article may only be available for a short while without a subscription to the National Journal.)

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Psychology of the Academy Awards Audience

Luis Bunuel, one of the greatest filmmakers, says somewhere that the Academy Awards may be the world's only perfect democracy, because it is run entirely by idiots. (Being a member of the Academy himself, it was okay for him to say that.)

Here's a problem that may be as profound as that of the psychology of political correctness (see below). Every year at this time the web produces more articles top tem lists on the the most ridiculous oscar snubs ever grows and grows. Many of my favorite filmmakers never got one: Greta Garbo, W. C. Fields, the Marx brothers, Fritz Lang, Joseph von Sternberg, Orson Wells, James Dean, John Barrymore ... most of them, come to think of it. (Democracy is so unfair!) Most people who are seriously interested in movies can tell a similar story.

That's on the one hand. On the other hand, I keep seeing articles in which people try to predict who will win the awards this time, and in some cases the predictions are based on claims about how good and deserving the films in question are. As if the awards are based on merit, and are not prizes for moral uplift and cronyism.

What gives? Above all, why do so many people watch the show itself? It's just a slow-paced variety show, with a small amount of suspense to spice it up. Why don't the ceremonies get the utter contempt that they have earned so many, many times over?

Its one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of life in this great Republic.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Psychology of Political Correctness

Conservative essayist Theodore Dalrymple made a comment in a recent interview that I found very disturbing, even terrifying. It is either a paranoid delusion or the most profound statement on freedom of speech that I've read since J. M. Coetzee's Giving Offense (Univ. of Chicago Press) appeared in 1996. Here is what he says:

Political correctness is communist propaganda writ small. In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, nor to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is to co-operate with evil, and in some small way to become evil oneself. One's standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control. I think if you examine political correctness, it has the same effect and is intended to.


To get an idea of what he is talking about, I think you first need a reasonable definition of "political correctness." I would say that any such definition has to have at least two parts. PC consists, first, of a certain method, which is coercion. This can be a speech code, a national "hate speech" law, or a brow-beating kind of moral disapproval. Second, there is the behavior being coercively repressed. This consist in expressions of opinions that denigrate members of various groups, which can be a race or a sex or a sexual preference or a national or ethnic group, which has historically been oppressed.

There is also a possible third part, which I have never been sure of. This is the theory that is sometimes given as the justification for political correctness. It states that a significant part of the cause of the continuing hardships of these historically oppressed groups is the spread of denigrating opinions about them by means of disapproving speech.

The problem I have always had about this is, frankly, that it seems so silly. Does anybody really think that we can change the world be changing what people say about it? That a main cause of the problems in the world are the negative thoughts we transfer from one brain to another by means of disapproving words?

What Dalrymple is doing is to offer an alternative to the third aspect of political correctness. Don't look at the silly theory that backs it up, look at reality, look at what it actually accomplishes. What it accomplishes is to create a generation of people whose speech does not match their actual view of the world. No one can make sure that all their disapproving thoughts are about men, Americans, white people, Republicans, capitalists, and other oppressor groups. We know we have incorrect thoughts all the time. But we stifle any negative thought we might have about anybody else because we don't want to be pounced on for our insensitivity. The result is a population whose bright shining outward behavior masks a nasty inner world, a population of compulsory hypocrites or, as Dalrymple says, a "society of emasculated liars."

This is what inevitably happens whenever we coercively repress people's expression of their wrong thoughts, instead of having it out with them in an environment of rational discussion. But how could this be the point of the coercion? Who could possibly profit from such a situation? Isn't this just one more example of how the coercive schemes of world-savers always seem to have unintended consequences that make the world all the more lost?

This of course is Dalrymple's point. This situation is highly profitable to anyone who wants the have power over these guilt-riddled hypocrites. That is his frightening proposal.

I'm really not sure what to make of this proposal. I can see four alternatives to it.

First, there is the unintended consequences idea, which I've already mentioned. Don't underestimate human short-sightedness. It is a very powerful explanation.

Second, there is a more moderate version of Dalrymple's view. It isn't that PC is intended to make us weaker and easier to dominate, but it obviously does make people more hypocritical, and the perpetrators of PC don't mind this. Why not? Because even hypocrisy can serve their cause, so who cares if that's what it is? Call this the callous indifference explanation. Explanation via callous indifference isn't the same thing as explanation via intention.

Then there is the third possibility: The hypocrisy explanation. That PC is perpetrated by people who are genuine, spontaneous, uncoerced hypocrites themselves. They use "correct" discourse to hide their own incorrect, unkind, hierarchical thoughts from their own awareness. So they don't see, or don't care about, the hypocrisy they breed in others.

Finally, there is the possibility that people do seriously, sincerely believe the official theory behind political correctness, that injustice is actually caused by bad words spreading bad thoughts. After all, there is some truth to this theory, and it is the one that is actually used by PC advocates to identify their motives. It must be part of the explanation.