Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Individual Mandate: Finally Controversial?

The one thing about the health care debate that has surprised me the most is the lack of interest in "the individual mandate," the provision that forces millions of people to buy insurance from private companies on pain of stiff penalties. Penalties will eventually rise to $750 per adult ($375 per child), maximum $2,250 per family, or 2% of family income, whichever is higher. Presumably, if you persist in refusing to pay these penalties, you go to prison.

In the last couple of weeks, there has at last been some criticism of this provision from the left. At 10:15 in the above video you see Keith Olbermann calling for civil disobedience against this provision if the health insurance bill is passed in its present form. I don't see how a really conscientious leftist could do otherwise than disobey it. As Jim Dean of Democracy for America has said:
So, the bill doesn’t actually 'cover' 30 million more Americans — instead it makes them criminals if they don’t buy insurance from the same companies that got us into this mess. A public option would have provided the competition needed to drive down costs and improve coverage. ... That's why, without a public option, this bill is almost a trillion dollar taxpayer giveaway to insurance companies.
Yes, exactly. The individual mandate is a gigantic tax levy, paid not to the government but directly to corporate America. The only thing I would add would be to point out that a public option or medicare buy-in would merely have diverted some of this money to the government. It still would have been a gigantic gift to the insurance industry at the expense of the consumer.

Monday, December 28, 2009

"The reaction to the Christmas Day attack should be exactly what it would have been if Abdulmutallab's device had not malfunctioned."

The above statement is the title of a blog post by one of the many terrorism-alarmists who have been overreacting for several days now to the Nigerian passenger who attempted to detonate a device on a plane over Michigan. (As everyone knows by now, either because his detonator didn't work properly or because passengers subdued him, his attempt failed.)

I think this is a very silly statement, but it is silly in an interesting way. As our government rushes to make travel on an American plane even more unpleasant and degrading than it already is, we really should think about how rational people react to risk and danger.

The idea expressed in this statement is that Obama should have cut his Hawaiian vacation short and come home to "reassure" the nation, just as if this bumbling fanatic actually had blown up a plane and taken three hundred innocent people with him. Probably there are a lot of folks who would also apply the same idea to TSA policy: we should change the system in just the way we would if the attempt had been a deadly success.

I think as a general rule we should act as if what happened is what actually did happen, and not what might have happened. Avoid alarmism, that cowardly tendency to treat a might be as an is.

The attempted crime should of course be taken into consideration. But we should also take into consideration the fact that alert and courageous passengers and crew foiled the attempt. In addition, we should take into consideration that the device seems to have been poorly designed. While we are at it, we should also take into consideration the fact that the government, the same government that would be glad to take more freedom away from us if we get into a tizzy about this, failed to prevent the attempt, despite having been warned about Abdulmutallab.

Maybe the urge to treat a might be as an is comes from the vague notion (expressed in the above-linked blog post) that "it's just luck" that this loon didn't blow the plane up. We shouldn't bank on luck. Therefore, disasters that are averted by pure luck should be treated as if they had actually happened.

Well, as Nietzsche says, victors don't believe in luck. I don't think things happen because of "luck" at all. They happen because of things like the alertness of responsible individuals, or the ineptitude of a would-be murderer. They happen because of things that are real and actually occur.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

"It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year"

The line from that old Andy Williams song is the real miracle of Christmas. My house is buried in snow, and the TV news just announced that a "life threatening" blizzard is on its way. The shortest, darkest day of the year was two days ago. This is the season when I have to pay hundreds of dollars just to keep my house warm enough that I do not freeze to death. This is when it really seems that Nature is actually trying to kill me. Why on Earth would anyone call the season of darkness and death "the most wonderful"?

The answer is obvious: humans invented this great holiday that spreads cheer and brightness and they put it in the darkest time in the annual cycle, the time that needs it the most. This is testimony to the fact that we are more the product of culture than of nature. By creating culture we triumph over nature, which, for all its awesome beauty, is also brutally indifferent to us. We can win.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

No Duty to Buy Health Insurance: The Car Insurance Analogy

As the senate health bill lumbers toward passage, leaving tracks of slime behind it, it is obvious that it will contain the "individual mandate," requiring individuals to purchase health insurance, on pain of heavy fines.

I thought I would take this opportunity to repost an entry I put up in September, which got virtually no attention at the time. Maybe it will be of more interest now:

It's okay for the government to force you to buy auto insurance. So why can't they also force you to buy health insurance? What's the difference between the two cases?

You often hear this argument as a response to another one, which says that the proposed "individual mandate," represents the government moving into a completely new area of coercive interference: forcing everyone to buy a specific commercial product.

The shortest answer to this argument is that they don't force you to buy car insurance. What they do is prohibit you from driving without insurance. You are perfectly free to avoid the premiums by avoiding driving.

That is exactly what I did when a car insurance law was passed in my state while I was a student. I couldn't afford insurance, so I shifted my transportation activities from driving to walking, biking, and hitchhiking.

Further, there is a principled reason for linking insurance -- keeping in mind that it is liability insurance that we are talking about here -- to driving in this way, and the principle involved does not apply to the case of health insurance.

Requiring liability insurance is the only way to prevent massive, widespread injustice: people being hurt or maimed by automobiles without being compensated for it.

To drive a car is to knowingly subject others to risk that you will, perhaps in a moment of negligence, injure or kill them. What could render this just? Putting yourself in a position to fully compensate your (surviving) victims would certainly help.

The liability insurance mandate can be justified by the principle that it is wrong to subject others to heightened risk that you will injure them unless you can compensate them if you do.

No such principle is applicable to the health insurance mandate, and that is a huge ethical difference between them.

[Note than I am not justifying the liability insurance mandate, I am only arguing that is is morally different, and in a way favorable to it, from the health insurance mandate.]

Sunday, December 20, 2009


I saw James Cameron’s new movie last night. (And it really is Cameron's movie: he gets sole screen credit, not only for direction but for writing, and shared credit for producing and editing.) As with Aliens and Titanic, among the villainous characters is a business corporation and a character who obviously represents the (evil) corporate point of view. What makes the business corporation in this movie so evil? Well, it engages in the following practices: using military force to invade and conquer foreign lands, slaughtering wholesale numbers of the inhabitants and burning their dwellings, all in order to steal their property.

As I was sitting through its 162 minutes, my mind began to wander from the vulgarly eye-popping sights on the screen: Gee, I thought, I can’t think of a single business corporation that engages in those particular practices. Office Depot doesn't, and I'm pretty sure Mircrosoft and Dell Inc don't either. Still, such behavior has been far from uncommon throughout history. I can think of any number of corporate bodies that have, to one extent or another, engaged in these very practices.

When I got home, I consulted my research assistant, Ms. Google, for some examples. What we came up with includes, to give a woefully truncated list: the Kingdom of England, the Mongols, the Russians, the Spanish, Umayyads, the French, the Abbasids, the the Almoravids, Portuguese, the Achaemenids, the Sassanids, the Japanese, the Romans, the Uyghurs, the Macedonians, the Ottomans, the Italians, the Dutch, the Germans, the Shaybanids, the Byzantines, the Khazars, the Bactrians, the Belgians, the Assyrians, the Malians, the the Carolingians, the Merovingian, the Thai, the Swedes, the Khmer, the Avars, the Kanems, the Bulgars, the Akkadians, the Ghanians, the Bagans, the Hyksos, the Visigoths, the the Lydians, the the Ostrogoths, the Hittites, the Armenians, the Carthaginians, the Babylonians, the Aztecs, and the Incas. This is not to mention whole series of Chinese states, Indian states, Persian states, and Egyptian states too numerous to mention (they are also confusing because sometimes overlap). Last, but hardly least, there is of course the United States of America.

These corporate bodies are, of course, all states, or proto-states, or markedly state-like entities. These practices are the sorts of things that states do, and have done for thousands of years, going back almost to the beginning of the neolithic (about 12,000 years ago). They are not the sorts of things that private, voluntary associations such as business corporations do.

This is a phenomenon I've noticed many times. In trying to express in a satisfying way their hatred of business corporations, in conveying their extreme moral indignation against them, storytellers like Cameron often end up making them sound like governments. Why would that be, I wonder?

Update: I just noticed that someone at has written that Avatar is libertarian on the grounds that the corporation in it is "really a mine-state." I would say that there is no evidence that Cameron noticed this fact, nor that it garbles his lumpen-leftist message.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Capitalism vs. Tiger Woods

Columnist Ron Hart has an interesting observation on the lessons to be learned from the Tiger Woods scandal (hat-tip to Nick Gillespie):
One great lesson learned is the value of capitalism and its ability to enforce good behavior. Accenture and Gillette are cutting Tiger's pay over this. The supposedly "immoral" free markets are speaking louder and with more reprisal than anyone
He's got a point there. Woods' commercial endorsement contracts are melting away like dew upon a sunny morn as news of his compulsive philanderies grows and spreads. But is it really true that markets punish bad behavior?

Here is a parallel case: The Hollywood blacklist of the late 'forties and early 'fifties. It is usually presented as a case of government oppression, and to some extent it was. A notorious congressional committee played a role in encouraging it. But it was also a market phenomenon. Why did the moguls who ran the studios dispense with the services of proven earners like Howard Koch and the Hollywood Ten? There were a few hard anti-Communists among the studio tycoons, like Jack Warner, men who would be willing to lose income in order to impose their own political opinions -- but surely most were too interested in making as much money as possible to want to do such a thing. No, they were worried about ticket sales. They knew that the millions of Americans who hated and feared Stalin would also hate and fear people who were trying to bring Stalin's system to America. They did not want that kind of animosity associated with their commercial products. Communism, Schmommunism. What they really wanted to avoid was anything controversial or unpopular. That is what they had always wanted.

I have never seen anyone on the front of a box of Wheaties who suffered from unsightly deformities, be they physical or moral. To be exact: what the market punishes (in the sense that it fails to reward it) is behavior that arouses popular anger and disgust. It punishes unpopular behavior.

Sometimes this is a good thing, because among the things that are unpopular are a lot of behaviors that are really bad. But it does have a down side as well. Ironically, markets do not encourage extremely individualistic behavior. Corporate board rooms are not the place to look for audacious Randian heroes and brooding Walden Pond hermits.

Markets impose a cost on extreme vice, and on extreme virtue as well. The very simple reason is that markets, as Ludwig von Mises pointed out many times, are true economic democracy: rule by the people. Rule by the people is rule by l'homme moyen sensuel, the middling man, the man in the middle.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Paul Samuelson, RIP

Economist Paul Samuelson died on the thirteenth. His text, Economics, was for decades the most widely used econ text, probably in the world. I once heard it described as the biggest selling textbook on any subject. His influence was literally incalculable.

Samuelson famously said: "I don't care who writes a nation's laws–or crafts its advanced treaties–if I can write its economics textbooks."

This week, a less well known quotation has been reported in the blogs. Allegedly, in the 1989 edition of his text, he said this: ""The Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive."

As every schoolboy knows, that date, 1989, indicates that Samuelson wrote this just before the Soviet Union collapsed from internal rot.

Other Samuelson quotes reported this week include these:

'It is a vulgar mistake to think that most people in Eastern Europe are miserable." [1981]

"What counts is results, and there can be no doubt that the Soviet planning system has been a powerful engine for economic growth...The Soviet model has surely demonstrated that a command economy is capable of mobilizing resources for rapid growth." [1985]

Surely, he is a tragic instance of the fact that academic prestige and technical proficiency can go together with disastrous ignorance and error in things that really matter. Indeed, the one can conceal and propagate the other.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Snow Day!

Okay, enough about Sen. Reid. I want to talk about another icy white thing: the ton of snow that covers my house (see illustration).

Today I shoveled more snow than ever, since moving in to this house twenty years ago.

17.5 inches we got. The University of Wisconsin got a snow day -- first time, I think, in the quarter century I've been employed here.

This winter is shaping up to be big!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

"We Have a Voluntary Tax System"

This is amazing. I see this all the time, but here we have an extreme example of it. Here is an interviewer struggling to explain to Sen. Harry Reid, as if he were a five year old child, that taxation by definition is money collected by force, and the Senate Majority Leader understands less than the five year old would understand.

Reid's argument, if you can call it that, is far too stupid to deserve a refutation. What is worth thinking about is: Why do so many people not get this very simple fact, the fact that we see him gagging on here?

What I suspect is that that they are evading a further very simple fact. What fact? Here it is:

A law requiring a to do x can only be just if it would also be just to hold a at gunpoint and force a to do x.

I just don't see how anyone can deny this, anyone that is who is not a complete idiot (again, see the above video_).

This would apply to any given quantum of tax money. Hence a corollary would be a principle at least as strong as that stated by Calvin Coolidge long ago:
"The collection of taxes which are not absolutely required, which do not beyond reasonable doubt contribute to the public welfare, is only
a species of legalized larceny."

Friday, December 04, 2009

Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura

Wednesday I watched the first episode of this show, which attracted a phenomenal 1.6 million viewers.

I was very disappointed. The thesis of the episode was that the American military has a mysterious* scientific program in remote Alaska, called HAARP, that might involve research into ways to cause disastrous storms, or possibly earth quakes, or might be a way to "knock planes out of the sky," or (who knows?) may involve the production of mind-control rays. Ventura only presents "evidence" in favor of these ideas, and never interviews a single skeptic.

This is not modern journalism as we know it in the civilized world. It was more like a lawyer's brief for one side of a case (and a rather silly case at that). In a court of law, there is nothing wrong with that, as there is another skilled presenter in the room whose job it is to give an equally one-sided argument for the opposite side of the case. In the clash of arguments, we can hope, the truth will come out. Here there is no clash, only goofball paranoia.

Not so long ago, I had some hope that Ventura might be some sort of useful contrarian voice speaking in opposition to government power. It now looks like he is simply becoming another nut job.

Anti-government conspiracy theories are where the anti-authoritarian mind goes to die.
* Actually, the site is not even classified. They hold an open house once a year.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Don't Talk, Tiger!

I am amazed by how many talking heads on TV have insisted that Tiger Woods "has to" talk to the police about his bizarre early morning mishap over the weekend -- shockingly, I have noticed that these include (so far) two lawyers. Haven't these people heard of the Fifth Amendment?

As explained in this excellent video, it is generally a very poor idea to talk to the police at all (and it is a terrible idea if you do not have either immunity or a lawyer present). The main point is one that people find it very hard to understand: the police do not have your best interests in mind, as an individual. They are, at best, interested in protecting the public in general, and this means building a case. The case may turn out to be against you.

Who is Sarah Palin?

Like half a million other people, I purchased this book before it was published. There was a glitch in the delivery, though, and I didn't get my copy until it had be reviewed by everybody else.

At this moment, I am only on p. 188, but I thought I might jot down some things I've learned from the book, limiting myself to things that I haven't seen anyone else mention.

(Disclaimer: The first three numbered propositions below should be prefaced with "As she presents herself in this book..." How this image is related to reality is something I can't comment on.)

1. She is strongly pro-free-market. She actually characterizes her position as laissez-faire at one point.

2. She is not, however, pro-giant-corporation. She seems to understand that big business likes big government, and that the feeling is mutual. Early in the first chapter, she presents the big-picture context of her career as governor of her state:
Like most Alaskans, I could see that the votes of many lawmakers lined up conveniently with what was best for Big Oil, sometimes to the detriment of their own constituents.

When oil began flowing from Prudhoe Bay in 1977, billions of dollars flowed into state coffers with it. The state raked in more revenue than anyone could have imagined—billions of dollars almost overnight! And the politicians spent it. Government grew rapidly. One quarter of our workforce was employed by state and local governments, and even more was tied to the state budget through contracts and subsidies. Everyone knew there was a certain amount of back-scratching going on. But an economic crash in the 1980s collapsed the oil boom. Businesses closed and unemployment soared.

During the oil boom, anyone who questioned the government's giving more power to the oil companies was condemned: What are you trying to do, slay the golden goose? But when the boom went bust, the golden goose still ruled the roost. By then, state government was essentially surrendering its ability to act in the best interests of the people. So I ran for governor.
As she sees it, politicians should act "on the side of the people," which means to some extent acting against the interest of the corporate/bureaucratic complex that tends to control things. She might be the only prominent politician, other than Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, who sees it this way. This could explain why some of her bitterest enemies in Alaska are Republicans. Could it also help to explain why some of the nasty comments on her book are by conservatives?

3. Like John Locke, she believes that undeveloped natural resources are the collective property of the people. This, I take it, is why she saw fit to impose a new tax on North Slope oil profits and give a cash rebate to every man, woman, and child in the state. The idea seems to be that extracted materials like raw petroleum are a special case as far as property rights are concerned: the "true owners" (her words) are the people. Obviously, such an argument cannot be made for refined gasoline, which is a human artifact.

4. The final point is an impression I get from the book that Palin obviously does not intend to convey: Being governor of Alaska is not a very good preparation for being president of the US. Alaska is a vast area with an extremely sparse population, including a large number of natives. Towns with no paved roads are very common. Its economy is inordinately dependent on a single industry, which consists of resource extraction and not producing finished materials or goods (such as food). In all these respects it is much like the Mother Lode and Comstock Lode areas of the West in the 1850s and 60s. If Ms. Palin is interested in the highest political office in the world, she needs to first find a national-level daytime job, such as serving in Congress.

For a rather different view, there's this:

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Climategate Email

One document from the pro-AGW (anthropogenic global warming) University of East Anglia CRU (pictured) caught my notice. It purports to be an email about a published article expressing a non-AGW point of view.* It is said to be part of a "long series" of messages in which AGW proponents discuss how to prevent such views from being published.

Here is the message:

“This was the danger of always criticising the skeptics for not publishing in the “peer-reviewed literature”. Obviously, they found a solution to that–take over a journal! So what do we do about this? I think we have to stop considering “Climate Research” as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal. We would also need to consider what we tell or request of our more reasonable colleagues who currently sit on the editorial board…What do others think?

“I will be emailing the journal to tell them I’m having nothing more to do with it until they rid themselves of this troublesome editor.”“It results from this journal having a number of editors. The responsible one for this is a well-known skeptic in NZ. He has let a few papers through by Michaels and Gray in the past. I’ve had words with Hans von Storch about this, but got nowhere. Another thing to discuss in Nice !”

Note first the comment about "not publishing in the 'peer-reviewed literature'." As any academic with unorthodox views can tell you, it can be very difficult getting those views published. A few years ago I wrote (with then grad student Todd Huges) an article on gun control that takes a strongly pro-gun stance. It is now reprinted in a couple of widely-used textbooks. At the time it was written, though, I did not bother to send it to (for lack of a better word) mainstream journals like Ethics, where my friend Hugh LaFollette published a strongly pro-gun article at about the same time. Ethics is a fine journal, but I was too familiar with the views of its editorial board, as well as the boards of most front-line journals, to want to waste my valuable time waiting to be rejected by them. Instead, I sent it to a journal that, I believe, was founded by Nicholas Rescher with the purpose of allowing non-leftists a place where their views would not be forbidden. It was published there and I later served on their editorial board. I believe that it provides a forum for genuinely diverse views: left, right, center, and off the map. This is not the case with most philosophy journals that deal with policy matters.

I am sure that the situation in the philosophy-and-contemporary-issues field prevails in the world of climate change studies -- and that it is much worse over there. Climatologists, unlike philosophers, have real world power, so with them a lot is at stake.

Evidently, to judge by what the author of this email says, there was one editor (of several) at this journal who had started to let articles with forbidden views through. This is what these guys are referring to as their opponents "taking over a journal"! Clearly, these are people who are very used to having things their own way, and think it is their right never to have to face competent defenses of contrary ideas.

Note also the method by which the writer plans to combat the forbidden view. Is he going to analyze the methodology of the article, or present data that support a contrary case? Of course not. The plan is to organize a boycott of the journal, in which people refuse to submit work to it or even to cite articles in the journal (regardless, apparently, of the scientific value of the individual article).

If these messages are indeed genuine, what we have here is a stunning breach of professional ethics. If there is a single principle that is fundamental to the scientific community, it is that scientific ideas are to combated by scientific means only, and never by strategically inflicting any costs on a scientist other than those of being proved wrong.

... After writing the above, I found this interview with a climatologist regarding the CRU emails. It confirms some of what I wrote and adds a lot of details. Hat-tip to Watts Up With That blog.

* It was allegedly written by Michael E. Mann, who at the time was apparently teaching at the University of Virginia. Here is a handy compendium of issues raised by these documents, with links to the actual texts.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

November 22

This is one of my favorite pictures of him. It is the frontispiece of the 1962 volume of The Public Papers of the Presidents: John F. Kennedy. Yes, I do own the complete set.

I really don't know why I find this man so fascinating. I was not a fan of his policies and they have not by any means improved with age. This is, I think, an interesting question, because I am far from being alone in giving him more attention than, objectively, he seems to deserve. Why is he such a powerful mythos?

His only lasting accomplishments in office, other than the Peace Corps, were the beginning of the Vietnam war and a tax cut that seemed to be (perhaps was) irresponsible at the time (and years later gave the Republicans one of their worst ideas). To these I suppose we must add a series of beautiful images and memorable speeches.

Yes, the fact that he and his wife and his children were physically beautiful is part of the the solution to the mystery of the Kennedy myth. If, as Jay Leno said, politics is show business for ugly people, he had a great (and of course unfair) advantage over the rest of the field.

Being tragically cut down was another advantage, in a way. He became one of those magic people, like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, who never grew old. They created a few images of glowing beauty while their flaws and shortcomings, which in all human beings are obvious enough, never developed and ripened into something really repulsive.

James K. Polk came into office, announced four goals he meant to accomplish, achieved all of them, and retired after four years. Unlike Polk, Kennedy was not a superlatively skilled politician and did not do much with the three years that fate allotted him. But he did manage to withdraw from the scene before, like Johnson, he had managed to do anything that was clearly awful. So only those images remain -- which is an accomplishment of sorts in itself.

Many die too late, and some die too early. Yet strange sounds the doctrine: "Die at the right time!" Die at the right time: so teaches Zarathustra.


A huge batch of computer files from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU) in Norwich, UK, have mysteriously appeared on the blogs of various climate skeptics. The most recent reports indicate that hackers are responsible.

What the files seem to show, in the words of Australian columnist Andrew Bolt, is:
Conspiracy, collusion in exaggerating warming data, possibly illegal destruction of embarrassing information, organised resistance to disclosure, manipulation of data, private admissions of flaws in their public claims and much more.
Here is a brief account of some of the disturbing details. Here is an account of how the scandal seems to have broken out (at the end of this one are links that enable you to access the entire archive). For a these-things-will-happen sort of account, go here.

From what I have seen of them, they are a rather shocking picture of how academics act when they have lots of money and power, and a political agenda in which the end justifies the means.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Military Tribunals or Civilian Trials?

Pres. Obama's decision (announced through the Attorney General) to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other accused terrorists to Manhattan, to stand trial in a civilian court rather than a military tribunal, has provoked a storm of angry protests.

Some people I respect a lot (including Andrew Napolitano and Glenn Greenwald) have vigorously defended this decision, but I am not so sure.

Civilian courts and military tribunals are quite different. Civilian courts are adversarial, while tribunals are inquisitorial. The former requires a unanimous vote for conviction and sentencing, while the other requires only a two thirds vote. The rules of evidence in a tribunal are much more favorable to the prosecution and, unlike a civilian court, these proceedings can be held in secret.

It is easy to make military commissions sound really bad. Within the memory of people now living, military tribunals have been the instruments of injustice right here on American soil. But whether they are bad or good depends on the appropriate comparison class.

Trials have something in common with the decisions made during battle. Both are processes by with agents of the state decide whether to inflict damage on someone in the state's name. War is an extremely rough and dirt way of doing this. The agent in question presses a button and some part of the world, with all its inhabitants, is reduced to a smoking crater. If we are aiming at the enemy and happen to kill their family members and neighbors, we regard that as "collateral damage." We may even deliberately target the innocent (as we did in many bombing raids in WW II) in order to get the guilty to stop fighting.

As a decision-making procedure, a trial lies at the opposite extreme from warfare. It is the most accurate mechanism that a society has for deciding whether to inflict suffering on our fellow human beings. Here in the West, these procedures take pains to avoid hurting the innocent that are literally unprecedented.

For centuries, a captured enemy combatant who was thought to have been fighting unlawfully (eg., spying or committing sabotage behind the lines) was simply executed on the spot. To subject such people to a system of tribunals with rules and regulations is a considerable step, toward civilization and decency, beyond this rough and ready justice. How far should this process go? The answer is not obvious.

If I were charged with a crime, the state would not be allowed to use any evidence against me that was collected illegally. They would not punish the person who collected the evidence illegally and then use the evidence against me -- they would simply throw the evidence out. The is a right I have. It is not a natural right that all human beings have, it is a legal right that (for various reasons) our system confers on me.

Is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed entitled to this right, and the other extraordinary rights that the American legal system grants to its subjects? Well, if the "war on terrorism" is a legitimate war, and if he is an ememy combatant captured in the field, and if he is believed to have violated the rules of war, then the answer might well be "no, he is not."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Terrorist or Madman?

The right and the left have been involved in a tussle over whether the Fort Hood shooter is a terrorist/jihadist or a madman/criminal.

Isn't there quite a bit of evidence he is both?

I realize this is a rather naive question. The tussle is not really about what Major Hasan is, it is about various other things, with Hasan serving as a proxy for the real issues. In both cases, the arguments have a sub-text that is the real message. And I have serious doubts about both of these messages.

I think the subtext on the left is something like: Please, let's not emphasize this person's religion or any Islamist motives behind what he did. It might hurt the feelings of the overwhelming majority of law-abiding Muslim Americans and provoke the general public to turn against them. Surely this is an insult, both the Muslim Americans and the general public. For the past eight years the American public has made it very clear that it can distinguish between a Muslim and a jihadist. They didn't take their anger over 9/11 out on their Muslim neighbors and colleagues: why would they start now? And the Muslims I know don't get all trembly when the subject of Muslim terrorism comes up. Give people some credit for their rationality and decency. Behind the don't-say-terrorist position I think detect a real contempt for the average human being.

I suspect that the subtext of the argument from the right is something like this: Now do you see why we are in Aghanistan and Iraq? This is what the war on terror is all about! We should be doing more, maybe much more! No, this is not what the war on terror -- if this includes the invasions of those two countries -- is about. This atrocity is "blowback" -- part of the unintended consequences -- of those efforts. If we had never invaded Afghanistan or Iraq, those thirteen people would be alive today. I am not saying this is a good reason for not invading those countries. I am only saying it is no sort of reason for the other side.

Is he a madman or a terrorist? People don't have arguments about questions that have such obvious answers. They are really arguing about something else. And I say a pox on both their houses.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Nazism or Communism: Which is More Evil?

People have been commenting on a curiously neglected anniversary. No, I don't mean H. L. Mencken's celebrated bathtub hoax of 1917. I mean the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Its twentieth anniversary is now upon us, and, considering that, it is surprising that it is so seldom mentioned.

Tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. They are celebrating it in Germany, but Obama declined Una Merkel's invitation to participate.

Why, when there are still so many books and movies about the Nazis is this other and much more recent murderous regime relatively little noticed?

One reason that is often given: a lot of the people who control what is mentioned and noticed in our world think the Nazis were much more evil than the Communists, who were really just leftist do-gooders gone wrong. So its implosion was not all that wonderful an event.

Is this true?

In one way, I think the Nazis were more horrifyingly evil than the Soviets. The Holocaust had from the beginning a markedly different character from the Soviet Gulag. (See Wikipedia picture below, from the notebooks of inmate Eufrosinia Kersnovskaya. The caption reads: "The hungry child cried but did not ask for food. He understood.") In the Gulag you were put to work in conditions that, if your sentence was long enough, meant being worked to death. A twenty year sentence was a death sentence. The Nazi camps had the same function, but they also had another, which was lacking in the Gulag: they were there to execute people outright, in large numbers. As I understand it, the more sophisticated sort of Holocaust deniers admit the existence of the German camps -- that is well established -- but deny that they had this function. In other words, the claim that (in this respect) the German camps were no worse than the Soviet ones is a form of Holocaust denial. This speaks rather strongly in favor of the superior evil of the Nazis.

On the other hand, there is the well known fact that the Communists murdered far, far more people than the Nazis did. For the Germans, the familiar figure is six million. For the Communists, the estimates vary widely, but the publishers of The Black Book of Communism summarize its conclusions in part as "as many as 25 million in the former Soviet Union, 65 million in China, 1.7 million in Cambodia."

So far, comparing Nazism and Communism is like comparing evil apples and depraved oranges. In terms of the amount of (non-military) damage done, the Communists were much worse. But you could argue that in terms of sheer contempt for human life and rights, the Nazis were worse. Which matters more: numbers of dead or attitude? Utilitarians say numbers, virtue ethicists say attitude.

On a deeper level, though, they represent the same thing. Both had visions of how the whole of society ought to be, a detailed plan for humanity, and they were determined to bring about this holistic plan via the crushing power of the state.

Whatever your holistic plan is, there are some people who will never fit in. This includes those who do not share your vision of a better world and never will. They will have to be neutralized somehow. If you are a true believer in your vision and you see no moral constraints on your behavior (you, after all, have the one true vision) then you will kill them. Anything less is just wimping out.

This, I think, is the root of the evil of Nazism and Communism. It is the same in both.

... After I wrote most of the above, I found this interesting essay by the neo-Marxist philosopher, Slavoj Zizek. After a thoughtful and probing comparison of Communism and Fascism (including Nazism) in which Fascism appears in important ways the less evil of the two, he suddenly lurches into the following bizarre non-sequitur:
It is here that one has to make a choice. The ‘pure’ liberal attitude towards Leftist and Rightist ‘totalitarianism’ – that they are both bad, based on the intolerance of political and other differences, the rejection of democratic and humanist values etc – is a priori false. It is necessary to take sides and proclaim Fascism fundamentally ‘worse’ than Communism. The alternative, the notion that it is even possible to compare rationally the two totalitarianisms, tends to produce the conclusion – explicit or implicit – that Fascism was the lesser evil, an understandable reaction to the Communist threat. When, in September 2003, Silvio Berlusconi provoked a violent outcry with his observation that Mussolini, unlike Hitler, Stalin or Saddam Hussein, never killed anyone ... his statement was part of an ongoing project to change the terms of a postwar European identity hitherto based on anti-Fascist unity. That is the proper context in which to understand the European conservatives’ call for the prohibition of Communist symbols.
In other words, if we compared them rationally, Fascism would actually be less evil than Communism. Therefore, don't compare them rationally: just declare it to be the greater evil, for political reasons.

I think this tells us something about the motivation behind the current relative silence about the collapse of Communism. It's political.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Fort Hood

The backstory of the monstrous shooting of 50 people in a confined space at Fort Hood by one army psychiatrist, Major Nidal Hasan, is very curious. Raised a Muslim, the man accused of the crimes joined the army in 1997, little dreaming that the next evil empire the US military would attempt to crush would be radical Islam. His cousin told Fox News that his attitude toward the service changed completely after 9/11. He tried to buy his way out of the army, which had taken on huge expenses in paying for his entire medical education. His aunt told a similar story. Of course it did not work. In the following years he became increasingly pious and increasingly bitter about the war in the Middle East. He got into nasty arguments with other service personnel by expressing sympathy for suicide bombers and suggesting that Muslims had the right to "rise up" and kill Americans. He had argued against the war in therapy sessions with his patients.

Then, when he learned recently that he was going to be deployed to Iraq (other versions say Afghanistan), he became increasingly distraught. Finally, he snapped.

It seems an obvious and serious mistake on the army's part to deploy this man to the Middle East. It sounds like he provided plenty of evidence over the years that if he ever went over there his sympathies would be with the enemy. Why on Earth did they think this was a good idea?

I realize that the military cannot let you out of being deployed just because you don't want to go. I'm sure most of those who go don't want to. But this seems to be well beyond not wanting to go.

One of the many reasons I have always been against the draft is that in the field you certainly want your own people to be completely on your own side. An army of slaves is not going to be reliably on your side. Obviously, neither was Major Hasan.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bring Back "Folly"

Here is an interesting column by Martin Gardner on late chess great, and anti-Semitic and anti-American (America is run by Jews, dontcha know) nut case Bobby Fischer. It contains some facts I did not previously know -- as for instance that in his later years, after he went completely over the edge, he seldom changed his clothes or removed his baseball cap. I imagine downwind of him was a bad place to be.

Gardner's main thesis seems wrong to me, though. The explanation of the Fischer phenomenon, he suggests, is that he was very very intelligent about chess and very very unintelligent -- in fact a complete moron -- about everything else. He suffered from unevenly distributed intelligence.

The modern notion of "intelligence" denotes a certain value-free adroitness in manipulating symbols of certain sorts, such as words and numerals. It enables you to solve problems of certain a certain kind. If your problem is "how do I make this crackpot theory of mine seem plausible so I can continue believing it?" then this intelligence-thing is just what you need.

As I suggested when Fischer died, a failure of intelligence was probably not his problem. Rather, his problem was with something that people don't talk about much any more: wisdom. Wisdom means understanding the things that must be understood in order to live a good life and be a good person. A person who lacks wisdom is -- another nearly obsolete word -- a fool. Fischer was a straight up, confirmed, incurable fool.

Back in the days when people respected wisdom and abhorred folly, intelligence was called "cleverness" and was not worshiped as it is now. Cleverness, like wisdom, is good, but, unlike wisdom, it is also dangerous. It is what makes a successful thief and a fluent, plausible and captivating liar.

You don't need a lot of intelligence, just enough to balance your checkbook and do your job. What you cannot do without is wisdom. Without it you are a poor lost soul, wandering in life's dusky maze without a clue, indeed without a will or a way to find one. And that I think is what Fischer was. A damned fool.

I wish we could bring back the ideas of wisdom and folly. But that would mean a huge cultural change. It would mean placing value on things that we hardly even have words for any more, and letting go of things that we value too highly.

By the way, it just occurred to me, this probably means we're all fools now.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Public Option is not Optional

The term "public option" is a clever piece of propaganda. It underwrites equally slippery bits of sophistry. Wouldn't you like to have the opportunity to choose between private and public insurance? Don't you like having choices?

A better question would be "Wouldn't you like to be forced to pay for the insurance policies of millions of other people? Don't you like being forced to pay for things that you don't get?" The "option" of some is the compulsion of others. They are two sides of the same thing.

Look, either this government insurance company will "pay its own way" (with money collected from customers) or it will not. If it does, it is pointless. It is just another commercial enterprise (though a non-profit one). If it is a good idea, why hasn't the market come up with it all ready.

If it does not, you are forced to pay for it. That is not an option.

Yet everyone calls it the public "option." On that point, its proponents have won the propaganda war. Yet there is one aspect of this that pleases me. It shows that the proponents of coercion and compulsion find it helps their cause if they sound like libertarians. Isn't that the sincerest form of flattery?

Don't you like having choices?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Balloon Boy

Say, did someone repeal the Constitution while I was in the bathroom just now? What happened to the presumption of innocence? It seems to have turned up missing.

I think the pathetic lunatic, Richard Heene, and his wife are getting a very raw deal from the Larimer County Sheriff's Department.

Sheriff Jim Alderden has held press conferences in which he does not merely announce that charges will be brought but actually presents arguments for Heene's guilt. He has also bloviated to the same effect on The O'Reilly Factor. (Bill O'Reilly, being a worshipper of authority figures, such as police officers, treated him like royalty.)

Richard Heene's chances of getting a fair trial anywhere on planet Earth are looking pretty thin. He should get his day in court.

Move along folks, there's nothing to see here. Nothing to see. It's time to find something else to be obsessed about.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My Contribution to the Whole Foods Buy-cott

In the spirit of the Whole Foods Buycott, here is a recipe of mine that probably will require that you shop at Whole Foods. In my town, as far as I know, that is the only place you can get one of the ingredients. I have been making it since I was a poor student back in the hippy era.

Brown rice is good for you. Unfortunately, as it cooks, many of the grains tend to explode, turning it into a starchy glop. Also, considering that it is a whole grain, it has disappointingly little flavor. Vegans are used to it, but people who are used to fine food find it hard to get down. My secret is to cook it with wheat "berries" (ie., whole grains -- I don't know why they call them that, it just sounds stupid to me). They hold their shape and add both flavor and texture. Nowadays you can get it as a boxed mix in your grocery store, but I find it doesn't work well as a mix because the wheat takes longer to cook properly than the rice does.

Good-Enough-to-Eat Brown Rice


1 1/2 cups Whole Foods basmati brown rice.
1/2 cup Whole Foods hard red wheat berries.
One medium onion, minced.
Three garlic cloves, minced.
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme.
Salt and pepper to taste.
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil.
2 1/3 cups broth (chicken or vegetable are good).


Simmer wheat in about 2/3 cup of water or broth for 10 minutes (I do it in the microwave while doing the other preparations.) In a 2 quart pan, saute the onions in the butter/oil until translucent. Add garlic and saute briefly. Add all the other ingredients, including wheat with its water/broth. Cover tightly and simmer for 50 minutes.

Note that by making the obvious ingredient choices this dish can easily be made vegan.

Though it is palatable, this dish is bland enough to serve under something with more flavor and protein, such as curried cecci or lentils. If served as a side dish, I recommend stirring in some toasted pecans after cooking (toast raw pecans in a skillet).

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Get-Limbaugh Obsession Explained

All week I have been trying to figure out the left's curious fascination with Rush Limbaugh, and I just now think I figured it out.

As you probably know, it spiked when, last Monday, news leaked out that he was part of a group of investors who are bidding to buy the St. Louis Rams. Immediately, there was a wide-spectrum establishment media blitz in which an array of people attributed to him some absolutely vile racist comments, one saying that the monster who killed MLK should get a medal, and another saying that slavery had its good points because at least it kept a bunch of criminals off the streets. When these quotes turned out to be complete fabrications -- the source being a vandalized Wikipedia page -- few of these people came out with retractions or apologies. Meanwhile, Limbaugh was fired from that consortium of investors.

Why this never-ending campaign against Limbaugh? And why (as we hear from Time magazine) is it vigorously encouraged by very high-ranking members of the Obama administration? It's as if their hatred of him is literally boundless.

What the Hell? He's a radio talk show host, fer Chrissakes! He obviously has no influence on anyone outside the approximately 30% of Americans who already agree with his conservative views. Don't the administration and its friends in the media have more important things to talk about? You know, things like the threatened end of the dollar, the continually worsening economy, or the fact that the Taliban may already have won the war in Afghanistan?

The realization I just had is that actually this obsession may have little to do with sincere hatred.* These folks are simply applying Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, a cynical and mean-spirited book in which Alinsky -- who has long been one of Obama's heroes, and one of Hillary Clinton's as well -- explains his methods for bringing about social change. Specifically, they are applying the last rule in Alinsky's list:

RULE 13: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.

In the present case, this means: 1) Pick your institutional target. For better or worse, the Republican Party is the only institution with any real power that stands in the way of the administration and the left. 2) Put a human face on it. They chose the unattractive, already unpopular face of Rush Limbaugh. If they can just make this mask stick to the Republicans, they won't have to discuss them, much less any ideas that they may or may not stand for. 3) Isolate this human proxy from anything that would make it morally or emotionally legitimate. The National Football League is an institution for which many Americans have some respect and which they take half-way seriously. (Whether this is foolish or wise is irrelevant here.) Limbaugh must not be allowed to involve himself with any such institution. The line about him has to be that he is an isolated hate-crazed nut that no one you respect would have anything to do with. Thus, as silly as this might sound at first, it is actually important that he not be permitted to buy a share in an NFL football team.

I think this sort of strategy fails in the long run. However, I have to point out that I am prejudiced. For decades I have worked at helping young people understand ideas, theories, and arguments. Ideas, I have always assumed, are extremely important. If this sort of strategy represents the correct way to connect with the minds of your fellow human beings, my life has been a big fat mistake. So bear that in mind when I say, I think this will fail. However, perhaps out of wishful thinking, that is what I believe.
* Maybe I should qualify this: it may not depend on sincere hate. For hate there surely is. Note, for instance, Chris Matthews' recent on-air comment, about Limbaugh, that "at some point somebody's going to jam a CO2 pellet into his head and he's going to explode like a giant blimp. That day may come. Not yet. But we'll be there to watch." I wonder why no one seems to worry that this "climate of hate" might result in violence.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Real Ruling Class

Is there a ruling class in our world? Surely, there have been castes or classes in the past, with some ruling and extracting the product of the labor of others, while others must obey and be exploited.

Marxists say there is such a class and that it is the capitalists. Others think that insofar as the power of capital rests on voluntary market transactions, the ideas of "ruling" and "exploitation" do not really apply here. Others look for more mysterious, hard-to-see rulers. Who really rules us? Is it the Trilateral Commission? The Jews? The Bavarian Illuminati? Each theory is more arcane than the last.

I think the answer to the question is the one that is right under your nose. Consider the very words, "ruling class." Who literally rules you? Who has the power de facto to extract wealth from you without your consent and even against your wishes?

The answer of course is the state, the government and its employees (see also the above graph, click to enlarge). For most its history and prehistory, the human race has lived in stateless societies, in conditions that were very primitive but also very equal. With the birth of the state, extreme political and economic inequality comes about. Primitive states were often frankly wealth-extraction devices and had virtually no other declared function. Modern states have evolved considerably and, I admit, do some things that are for the common good.

The wonder of it is that, though this answer is screamingly obvious, it is almost never given. Looking to see who the real overlords and masters of the Earth are, people consider everything but the obvious.

My point here is not (yet) to judge or blame. Maybe these people deserve all this wealth and power. My point here is the irrefultably obvious one: that they do indeed have them, staggering amounts of them, and that they are gaining on the rest of us day by day.

Beyond that, my only point is that we probably should not give them any more than they already have. It is in this context that I view the health care reform bills now before congress. Any one of them would surely be one of the largest gains in government power in the history of the republic.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Pelosi Gets Creeped Out

To view this video, I recommend you hit the PLAY button first, then the FULL SCREEN button. In fact, if you've already seen this viral clip of Harry Reid's patronizing and creepy gesture with Nancy Pelosi's very human response, scroll forward to 5:25 and you will be able to see the whole cringe-worthy episode in slow motion (!).

This clip is the gift that goes on giving. I laugh out loud every time I see it. And cringe at the same time.

Here's an extra dimension of creepiness in what Reid is doing: his obvious lie about how everyone in the meeting pledged to support BHO's Afghanistan policy, whenever he gets one and whatever it ends up being, is an attempt to conscript her into a policy position that is not congenial to her at all. The eye-roll rather graciously fends off this crude attempt.

She is from San Francisco and he is from Searchlight NV, two places that are at least as different as the Senate and the House. I can see how it might get clashy at times.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Obama Wins Prize for Not Being George Bush

Actually, I'm not George Bush either, could I also get something for that?

For a serious discussion of the award, see this. For a list of the people who were passed over to give Obama the prize,look at this. [Later: The same blogger explains this list here.] I wrote on the weirdness of prize committees in general here.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Twilight Zone Episodes: MyTop 10 List

I don't take top ten (or top n, where n is any number) lists seriously, especially after the AFI's loathesome "100 Years, 100 Movies" list) but they can be fun to do. Here, in no particular order, is my attempt at a plausible list of the 10 greatest T-Zone episodes, presented in knowledge of the fact that there are many other possible "top 10" lists. Except where noted, all were written by Rod Serling.

1. "The Midnight Sun" (Season 3)
About this one, I have already written this:

... a brilliantly crafted piece, full of irony and surprises. The surprises begin immediately after the title, which suggests a land of frosty cold, but soon is revealed to refer to a world of searing heat, where the sun is so huge and bright it still lights the sky at midnight. They continue to the end, which is one of the best "twist" endings (Rod called them his "snappers") in the series. The closing narration is also mercifully free of any preachy or patronizing moral.
2. "The Eye of the Beholder" (Season 2)
The closing narration gives the impression that this episode is about relativism: what is ugly to the aliens in the story is beautiful to us. But a closer look at the dialogue suggests it is about race. At one point, the doctors tell the protagonist that if the operation fails they do at least have special places where people like her can live with others of their kind. Her response is the most emotionally intense line she says, delivered almost as a scream: "You mean a ghetto, don't you!?" Earlier in the fifties, Serling had written realistic teleplays for dramatic shows like "Playhouse 90," and had never been allowed to deal seriously with the subject of race, generally because a sponsor objected (God forbid cigarettes should be associated in the viewer's mind with something that upsets people!). Now that he dealt in fantasies and parables, he could discuss it to his heart's content.
3. "Walking Distance" (Season 1)
Rod Serling was an intense, chain-smoking workaholic. Two of the most heartfelt and personal episodes are about an overworked man who is overcome by nostalgia for the slower-paced, easier-living world of the past. The town that is walking distance from the hero's malfunctioning car is no doubt based on Serling's childhood home, Binghamton, New York. Note the original score by the great Bernard Herrmann.
4. "A Stop at Willoughby" (Season 1)
This is the other great flipping-out-from-overwork story. This one suggests, disturbingly, that actually being dead is better than living that way. Or maybe the idea is that this nostalgia for the low-pressure world of the past is actually a death wish and should be avoided. We report, you decide.
5 "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (Season 5, Richard Matheson)
Even more disturbing than the monster on the wing of the plane (at least for the viewer) is the possibility that no one will believe the hero when he says he has actually seen it.
6. "Nick of Time" (Season 2)
A marvelous parable about how irrational beliefs can be as enslaving as chains and bars, if not more so. A young man finds himself unable to disobey the advice of a fortune telling machine in cheap diner.
7. "The Odyssey of Flight 33" (Season 2)
No philosophical point here, just a disturbing story about an airliner lost, not in space, but in time. I vividly remember seeing, probably on the original airdate in February 1961, a certain shot at the end of the episode. It turned out to be the most expensive piece of film made for a TV show up to that time ($2,500). It was a clay animation of a brontosaurus looking up from what was supposed to be New York city.
8. "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" (Season 1)
Probably the original inspiration for this one was the idea, common among Cold War liberals like Serling, that right-wingers who make reckless accusations of Communist sympathies are playing into the enemy's hands. We must have national unity! Fortunately, because he was expressing himself indirectly through images and action, this little drama has a much wider and deeper application.
9. "The Invaders" (Season 2, Richard Matheson)
One of the "reversal of perspective" episodes, of which there are many. One remarkable thing about it: until the very end, it contains no dialogue at all.
10. "It's a Good Life" (Season 3)
Is it about life in PC university? Or the constant pressure to be upbeat and optimistic? Or is it a nightmare vision of a world dominated by the young? All of the above and more!
That was fun, though I had to leave out some of my favorite episodes, including ones that I have written on for publication: "A Quality of Mercy" and "The Purple Testament."

By the way, numbers 2, 5, 6, and 7 are discussed at length in "Philosophy in the Twilight Zone."

Monday, October 05, 2009

Was Michelle Obama Begging?

I'm finding it hard to understand the logic of Michelle Obama's speech to the International Olympics Committee. When I heard somebody describe it as "begging," I had to think about it. I'm still thinking.

It does seem to fit the correct definition of begging. What, after all, is begging?

As I see it, there are four ways to get something from other people. One is to offer something in trade, trying to elicit the voluntary consent of the other party. On the other hand, you can pretend to offer something in trade and then fail to carry out your offer (fraud) or you can violate their rights or threaten to do so (including the various forms of theft). Somewhere in the twilit realm between these extremes is begging, in which you do not violate the rights of the other person, but neither do you offer them anything of value. The reason you give them for transferring the desired object to your possession is simply your own naked desire for it. You have nothing else to offer.

In this sense, most of Ms. Obama's speech clearly consists of begging. Give us the Olympics, she seems to be saying, because I have wonderful childhood memories of watching them on my father's lap. Give it to us because my dead father would want it. Give is to us because I want it. I truly, sincerely want it a lot.

In fact, her speech is a case of what you might call mega-begging-by-proxy, because she is presenting the IOC with, in addition to her own unadorned desire to get the Olympics for Chicago, the desire of the children of America, who want it too. They, too, love baseball, and so forth.

To this the skeptic might say, What about the children of Brazil, of Spain, of Japan? Don't they want the Olympics too? Don't they love sports just as much as American children? Well, sure, what she is saying makes no sense if you think of it as a logical argument about who deserves what. But it makes perfect sense if you think of it as begging, which isn't logical and isn't about desert.

If I am homeless and starving and out on the street, and I approach you asking for money, I'm not saying I deserve your money more than some other panhandler, or more than you do, I'm just asking for it. If you have other requests for your wealth that you are considering at the moment, it's your job to weigh them, not mine. But I do want the money.

What Ms. Obama is doing here clearly fits the definition of begging. But there is something that gives me pause here: the psychology seems all wrong. If I am on the street asking you for money for a meal, my manner and bearing will reflect that I realize how weak my claim on you is: I am a stranger and there are no bonds between us other than that we are both human. My request will be cringing and obsequious.

On the other hand, just because my claim is so weak, my manner will show that I would appreciate so much the more your kindness and generosity at conferring this undeserved benefit on someone with no claims on you or your property, if you should see fit to confer it.

I see none of this in Michelle's demeanor. Especially, I see no cringing. Her desire for the games is presented almost proudly, almost as if it were a promissory note the world signed when she was sitting on her father's lap.

Is it possible to beg without realizing that's what you are doing? Or is there a fifth way to get things from other people, in which naked desire is presented, not with cringing and prospective assurances of gratitude, but as a claim and a right? I don't quite get it.

Added Later: Until I read this column by George Will, I was the only person I knew of who had written in any detail about the speeches that either of the two Obamas gave in Copenhagen. Here he points out, as I do here in the comments section below, that both of them are actually very poor persuasive speeches. For me their amazing badness consists in the fact that neither one of them raises a single consideration that could possibly be regarded as a reason why the IOC should give the games to Chicago instead of Rio, Madrid, or Tokyo. The interesting question is what they thought they were doing.

Further Update: The humorless media have taken it upon themselves to combat the above, very rare for the establishment media, foray into Obama-satire. Note the grim warning that someone may poke fun of the president again, in the future:

Friday, October 02, 2009

Philosophy in the Twilight Zone

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the airing of the first episode ("Where is Everybody?") of The Twilight Zone, one one of the two greatest dramatic TV series ever (the other one being of course The Sopranos).

Maybe this is a good time to announce that a book of original philosophical essays on the series that I edited with Noel Carroll is out in paperback.

My own contribution (other than the introduction to the book and a lot of editorial work) is a biographical essay on the development of Rod Serling, the creator of the series and author of 92 of the 156 episodes, as a writer. It is a very interesting story, dramatic and funny by turns. As I say in that chapter:
The emergence of the Rod Serling who created The Twilight Zone is a rather odd case of artistic evolution. He changed, rather abruptly and driven by the pressure of circumstance, from an artist who thought it was his highest calling to comment on the problems of the day by depicting them directly, to one who commented on principles and universals involved, not merely in the problems of the moment, but of human life itself. In so doing, he became just the sort of author who deserves the sort of treatment he is given in the essays in this volume. For to move from the concrete issues of the day to the principles that underlie them is to move from a journalistic approach to these problems to a philosophical one.
My favorite T-Zone episode is probably "The Midnight Sun". Partly I'm sure this is due to my childhood crush on the star, Lois Nettleton (a half hour of a sweaty Lois wearing nothing but a slip -- woo hoo!), but it does happen to be a brilliantly crafted piece, full of irony and surprises. The surprises begin immediately after the title, which suggests a land of frosty cold, but soon is revealed to refer to a world of searing heat, where the sun is so huge and bright it still lights the sky at midnight. They continue to the end, which is one of the best "twist" endings (Rod called them his "snappers") in the series. The closing narration is also mercifully free of any preachy or patronizing moral:
The poles of fear, the extremes of how the Earth might conceivably be doomed. Minor exercise in the care and feeding of a nightmare, respectfully submitted by all the thermometer-watchers in the Twilight Zone.
The tale is full of meaning, but the meaning is for you to find. Kind of like life.