Tuesday, June 30, 2009


The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Michael Jackson's Media Attention
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorJeff Goldblum

When I came out of a stay in the wilderness on Thursday, I checked into a private campground. Almost the the first human speech I had heard in days was the lady at the campground office, a perfect stranger, telling me "Michael Jackson died!"

Now, five days later, the news channels are starting to talk about other things. The weekend that just ended reminded me of the weekend after John Kennedy was shot (which happened on a Friday) -- a weekend in which the media seemed to have only one thing on their mind.

These have been five days during which Americans who listens to music that is not transparently easy to understand at first listening, or who occasionally read a book, has been reminded that most of the people in this country aren't like them at all.

I suppose this is a good thing to remember every once in a while. We live in a system of capitalist democracy, which means everything is driven by the voter/consumer. The tastes and interests of l'homme moyen sensuel explain a lot of what we see in the public forum. Why is Congress jamming through a crippling anti-global-warming bill, though there has been no global warming since 1998? Why did we go to war against Iraq, a country that posed no threat to us whatsoever? We have here is not the whole answer, but surely it is an indispensable part of it.

I find this rather comforting, oddly enough. The world is not really insane, as it often seems. It just isn't terribly bright. That's better. Isn't it?
Added later: It is now a week since his passing and, turning on the TV, I see that CNN, Headline News, Fox, and MSNBC are all talking about him simultaneously. I gather that he is still dead, and turn the thing off.

Friday, June 26, 2009

False Dichotomy on Iran

Comments on Obama's reaction to the Iran protests were at times dominated by a false dichotomy. People on the right have said that the president might just as well take sides in the recent Iranian election as the current regime has shown that it cannot be sweet-talked or negotiated with. Voices on the left say that the United States is in no position to give moral lectures to any Iranian government about democracy, given our disgraceful treatment of that country since 1953. Obama should keep quiet.

Of these two positions, I feel the most sympathy for the leftist one, but the two of them actually represent a false dichotomy. In fact, it is a good example of why false dichotomy is a fallacy. The obvious flaws in one position lends plausibility to the other one. But it is an unearned plausibility, because there is a third possibility. It is to do what Obama eventually did: make a principled statement that the U. S. has always stood for the rights of free speech, freedom of assembly, and petition for redress of grievances -- and against all violations of those rights.

The effect of BHO's statement was undermined by his earlier maintaining silence on the grounds that he didn't want to be seen as "meddling" and, worse yet, but his statement that the two candidates are "two of a kind." This last was particularly absurd.* If saying you prefer one side is meddling, then isn't saying neither one is preferable also meddling? And, in the event that there is a difference between the candidates, wouldn't it amount to meddling in favor of the wrong side?

I think there are some important issues involved here. For well over its first half-century, America was an inspiration to the rest of the world. It is hard to imagine today, but at one time one country that was heavily influenced by American ideas was France. France! It was just one of many countries so influenced. Interestingly, this period of greatest influence coincided with that in which our foreign policy was at its most "isolationist." We had this influence, not by meddling, but by representing principles of individual rights and by saying clearly what these principles are. Maybe it is possible to move step by step to an updated version of that policy.
* Someone's making a statement can be absurd even though the statement itself is true.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

More from the Parade of Human Folly

Okay, I know this is an obsession of mine and I go way overboard with it, but here goes. I am here in South Dakota, and I see this front page article in the Argus Leader: Wis. Town Mourns Loss: Victims Were Headed to S. D. to Hunt Prairie Dogs." I was startled -- not so much by the crash itself, as that is a more or less regular tragedy nowadays. It was to realize that three guys would go all the way from Wisconsin to South Dakota to "hunt" prairie dogs. That's taking into consideration what hunting prairie dogs means: 1) Sitting in front of a prairie dog town in which the prairie dogs (Cynomis ludovicianus) must leave their burrows or starve, 2) blowing their little heads off with a high-powered rifle and scope when they do, and 3) leaving their bodies to rot uselessly in the prairie sun.* They were doing this at the same time that I was coming here to watch prairie dogs through binoculars and telescope whilst sipping iced drinks and catching up on my reading. I just hope they weren't planning on killing the same animals that I was watching.

May these poor lost souls rest in peace.
* As near as I can tell, humans do not eat Cynomis species. A search for "prairie dog recipies" turned up only foods to feed to your pet prairie dogs. Yes, people do keep them as pets. One owner has emailed me to say that they are intelligent and affectionate.

In the picture above (click to enlarge), the white mounds in the grass are prairie dog burrows.

Monday, June 22, 2009

On the Road Again

In in South Dakota now, cleansing my soul. Right now I am at a (privately owned) campground that has high speed wireless internet access (!), but there won't be too many of those. Just thought I would explain why I am going to be a mite scarce.

I notice that this place seems to have a lot more customers than last summer, partly no doubt because of the drop in gas prices. Also I guess campgrounds might be one of those "depression-proof businesses," being cheaper by far than a hotel. That would mean that this is a bearish economic indicator, in other words.

May prosperity find you nonetheless!


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Mr. Conservative

I guess you'd call this a review. I just watched the DVD of Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater (Zeitgeist Films, 2007). Watched it about five times in fact. The mysterious subtitle refers to the fact that it was made by Barry's granddaughter, C. C. Goldwater, who was five when he ran for the presidency (at which time, she points out, she looked a lot like the little girl who is vaporized before our horrified eyes here).

This is a deeply personal and very moving document, but what makes it so unique is that it is also quite enlightening on political and ideological matters.

Some things I learned:

  • Barry had a gay grandson with whom he was very close, Ty Ross Goldwater. Ty thinks that this contributed to the senator's eventual support for gays in the military and gay marriage.
  • His daughter Joanne had an abortion back in the fifties, when it was very illegal. In the film she reads a warm letter of support he wrote to her when he was told of her decision.
  • His wife Peggy was a co-founder of the first Arizona chapter of Planned Parenthood back in the thirties.
  • A TV commercial run by the Johnson campaign in 1964 linked Goldwater, who would have been the first Jewish president, with the KKK.*
  • When he was struggling to decide whether to testify against Nixon or not, John Dean consulted Barry, who was the father of his best friend. The Senator's advice: "That son of a bitch was always a liar. Go ahead and nail him."
Barry was always basically a libertarian on domestic issues. When the national agenda changed in the post-Roe-v.-Wade era, his deviations from conservative orthodoxy started to come out, giving rise to the myth that he had "become a liberal" (the liberal version) or "gone crazy" (the conservative version). It's true he did change his views on a few things, but in terms of basic principles and attitudes, he was very much the same person he always was.

I think the key to understanding a number of things about him was that he in him the soul of a politician was turned upside down. Politicians use words and ideas, but typically as a means to an end. The end of course is gaining and keeping power. In Goldwater, this order was reversed. He only wanted power (a seat in the senate) in order to have a pulpit for expressing his views. This explains why he would, for example, shmooze with reporters about different ways to defoliate the Ho Chi Minh trail. Low yield tactical nukes would be one way. Nukes?! Eeeeeeek! This gave him a reputation for "shooting from the hip" -- as if this showed he was a dangerously impulsive or unstable person. He wasn't. He just loved to opine and pontificate, and he did not generally speak in a craftily strategic way.


Also indispensable for fans of the Goldwater family is the book, Pure Goldwater, ed. by Barry Goldwater Jr. and John Dean. The most riveting part of this one, for me, was the transcript of Barry's testimony in his (successful) lawsuit against Fact magazine for their notorious article, "1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater is Psychologically Unfit to Govern."
* The campaign that Johnson waged was beyond doubt the most vicious one directed against a major party candidate in the twentieth century, surpassed only by the worst of the distant past, such as the one that probably killed Andrew Jackson's beloved Rachel and embittered him for the rest of his life, or the one that created the myth, still current today, that Thomas Jefferson was rolling in the shrubbery with his daughters' handmaid.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Iranian Government Violence Gets Deadlier

Another compilation of amateur videos from Iran. Violence warning! Not for the squeamish.

Here is one that is liable to give me nightmares. It evidently is taken by two men in an apartment, looking discreetly out their window at a neighboring apartment. As translated on CNN, what you hear is something like this: Woman screaming: "They are coming! They are coming! They are coming from the terrace! They are coming from the balcony! [Sound of door-knock.] Get out! Get out! Oh God! Oh God!" Voice of man making the recording: "They are smashing the windows of the cars [sound of car alarms, flashing car lights]."

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Iran Uprising

Violence Warning! What you may be seeing in the first video below is a human being being beaten to death by government thugs in the yard of a private home.

This is a collection of videos from Iran assembled by Breitbart. My favorite is video 7, where riot police charge into a crowd only to be surrounded and engulfed by it.

Last night (Thursday) a heard a talking head say that we should be careful not to overestimate the importance of this given that we are only getting news from Tehran, which is strongly pro-reform but is very different from the rest of the country. However, some of the scenes below are in Tabriz and Esbahan.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

That Viral Oklahoma Cop Video

I generally refrain from posting about police brutality incidents because William Grigg over at LewRockwell.com does such an excellent job of doing so that in most cases I would just have to parrot what he says. Today he had one about the "choke-hold seen 'round the world" which seems to me so astute that I'll just paste the whole thing in below.

State Trooper Daniel Martin, whose foul-mouthed, petulant assault on paramedic Maurice White, Jr. was recorded and widely disseminated on the Web, “is an Iraq war veteran who returned from the Middle East about a month before the May 24 incident in Paden, 40 miles east of Oklahoma City,” reports the AP.

Martin, who was speeding in a frantic rush to get nowhere in particular, had his feelings hurt when the ambulance — which was actually providing a useful service by ferrying Stella Davis to the hospital — didn’t pull over for him. He then compounded his useless rage by imagining that the driver flipped him off.

When he finally pulled the ambulance over, Mr. White — a man of amazing patience and dignity — intervened to explain that the ambulance was carrying a patient. This prompted a tantrum from Martin, who assaulted White twice and threatened to arrest both him and the driver. That attempt failed, but not before Martin actually placed a hand on White’s throat to choke him as the patient’s family looked on in stunned, disgusted disbelief.

Later, at the hospital, Martin actually said in the presence of witnesses that he was prepared to pull his gun and use lethal force against White. [LH: I'd like to add, though, that to Martin's credit, he did apologize to these people at this time. He had enough sense to realize that what he had just done, in front of two cameras, was probably a very poor career move.]

This, according to Martin’s attorney, is “a good man…. He’s not this ogre, this depriver of people’s rights.” Ogre he may not be. Petty tyrant with a gun he most certainly is. And both he and his tantrum make the case for two badly needed reforms.

First, assuming that we’re stuck with government police agencies, nobody who has served in the military should ever be permitted to work as a civilian police officer. Martin’s conduct is typical of a solider in an army of occupation; perhaps he thought that Mr. White, a black man, could be treated like a “Haji.”

Second, the states need to restore the legal protection for the common law right to resist unlawful arrest. If an actual criminal resists arrest, this could be taken into account for the purposes of enhancing the sentence for an actual crime against persons or property.

According to Gary James, Trooper Martin’s attorney, “One thing that police officers are taught is that a person that will fight a police officer is an extreme danger to the public.”

As to which party to this assault (called, in typical fashion, a “fight,” “scuffle,” or “altercation,” rather than by its proper name) is an “extreme danger,” the public can watch the video. To use the proper legal expression, res ipsa loquitir.

Mr. White’s calm, dignified resistance in the face of Martin’s splenetic, adolescent rage was genuinely inspiring. His was the conduct of a citizen, rather than a “submitizen.”

All I would add to or subtract from this:

I think I would demote the suggestion about people who have served in the military from a requirement to a rough desideratum, directed toward peopled charged with hiring new police officers. It is one factor that surely could be offset by other considerations. Also, I would further modify it to specifying only that the candidate not have served recently in an occupying military force. If he/she served at a desk in Ft. Dix, then I don't think that would by itself be relevant to whether they would be a good bet as a cop.

I am shocked to hear that resisting an illegal arrest is not already a right. Years ago, a student of mine who was a captain in the army at the time (he now
happens to be a general) told me that every soldier, believe it or not, has a perfect legal right to disobey any illegal order. The military doesn't publicize this very well, but it is the law just the same.

This makes sense to me. After all, a legitimate order imposes a legal duty (to do what the order commands) on the part of the person to whom it was issued. Under the rule of law, the source of that duty is not the personality of the individual who issues the order, but the legal system that backs them up. In that case, an order that violates that system would be void and could not impose any duties.

Surely the same reasoning applies to an arrest. An arrest is nothing but an order that alters my duties and rights ("come with me"). Resisting arrest is nothing but disobedience. (It does not necessarily involve assaulting or even touching the officer.) Shouldn't we civilians have the same right that a soldier has?

Come to think of it, I should add one more thing. In addition to the occupying army explanation for Martin's behavior (which was suggested by Martin's own account) there is another possible contributing factor. He had his wife with him in the front seat of the patrol car (which I would imagine is illegal) and may have been enraged by the thought that someone had "flipped him off" in front of his wife. Primitive as this is, some men do go ballistic about stuff like that. (My wife would simply have flipped back, but she probably would not be entirely at home in small-town Oklahoma.) I just thought I should point that out before someone else did.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Check Out this Summer Seminar

Some people I know are planning to start a new college in the Chicago area. As a sort of preview or pilot project, they are offering a week-long seminar for high school and college students later this summer. Below is their statement. I think this sounds exciting. If you have a youngster in this age group, be sure to click on the links!

The Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute is a foundation working to open a new liberal arts college in Chicago with a radically different curriculum and approach than most contemporary institutions.
The Great Books and other classics will be the foundation of the curriculum. Additionally, major works of classical liberalism, free-market economics, and modern science will also be incorporated into the core. The methods and organization of the curriculum will have a special emphasis on reasoning throughout the subjects, from science to art, history to mathematics.

Students will learn philosophy, reasoning skills, economic literacy, and how to exercise their own independent rational judgment. They will study and debate the ideas of important thinkers such as Ludwig von Mises and Carl Menger and Ayn Rand-whom other institutions now often ignore or even disparage.

One of the College’s major goals is to counter the irrationalist and collectivist trends that currently dominate higher education. The hallmark of The College is objective inquiry and reasoned debate, and the presentation of a complete spectrum of knowledge and ideas.

Although the College is not yet ready to open, something exciting is happening in just a few weeks...

I’m writing about it today because the Institute is holding a seminar for high school and college students in Chicago this July. It's called The Great Connections: Mastering the Intellectual Tools that Transform a College Education into Lifetime Success.

This week-long event will serve as a demonstration of, and introduction to, The College's distinctive approach. But it will benefit participants regardless of the institution they choose to attend.

This unique seminar will develop attendees' independence and knowledge of key ideas in the battle for liberty. They will be equipped to maintain their integrity despite the political correctness and collectivist pressures they may encounter on other campuses. They will learn first-hand about a variety of career paths and their rewards and challenges. And they will realize many other benefits that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.

It's So Bee-Czar!

You've probably heard of the Reuter's article that says that Obama has now appointed "upwards of twenty" czars. Here is one blogger's list of 21. As many have pointed out, he has now produced more Czars than the ever-fecund Romanov family.

The above list seems incomplete to me, as it fails to mention the Weather Czar and (not the same person) the Green Czar, which are mentioned by Katherine Mangu-Ward here. My favorite one so far is the Stimulus Accountability Czar, partly because the name strikes me as funny. Also, the SAC is the only one that might actually do something good (in the sense in which diminishing evil is good). The rest are apt to be a plague of locusts.

What do you suppose is next? A Teleprompter Technical Support Czar? A Czar of All the First Lady's Wardrobe? (This one would need an assistant: The Grand Duke of Sleeveless Garments.) There definitely should be a Public-Sector Union Czar, in charge of giving BHO's most powerful group of supporters more stuff at our expense.

I've been trying to figure out what is going on here. This is all so silly-sounding and easy to make fun of, BHO must have a really important reason for doing this. But what?

I've seen two reasons mentioned that make sense to me. First, unlike cabinet officers, these Czars don't have to be approved by congress. So this represents a shift of power from congress to the president. Second, it is a way of getting control of this vast, unwieldy bureaucracy. In other words, it shifts power from the chaotic hordes of low-level bureaucrats toward the level of the president. In the last analysis, then, it is a presidential power-enhancer.

So it is just the sort of thing you expect a president to do, unless there is someone who is able to stop him, and wants to. And there is no stopping this guy. So you might as well give up and get a laugh out of it if you possibly can.

How about a Czar of the Next Bailout?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Okay, Let's Revisit the DHS Report

Private security guard Steven Johns saw an 88 year old man approaching the entrance of the Holocaust Museum and went to hold the door open for him. As you probably know, the man turned out to be a deranged neo-Nazi killer.

In the wake of Mr. Johns' murder many on the left are saying, "Hmmm, that Department of Homeland Security report doesn't sound so silly now, does it?" Maybe we should revisit its prescient wisdom.

The only things I can say about this have been said before (in some cases by me) but they bear repeating:

The problem with the report was not that it predicted a resurgence of right wing violence. I have been making the same prediction since last October and saying that we should be ready for it if we can. There are people on the far right who feel like they have been strapped to a table and had nasty things done to them. They will do anything to feel important and powerful again. If for some reason they have lost the normal fear of death, this is all too easy to do.

The problem with the report was that it cast its net too widely, targeting all sorts of groups as possible sources of terrorists, including "anti-government" groups, groups that target single issues such as immigration, and returning Afghanistan and Iraq vets. The Holocaust Museum killer was not a member of any of these groups and accordingly the report and the policy it represents would presumably have done absolutely nothing to prevent this horror.

The underlying problem behind that report, it seems to me, is the DHS itself and the sorts of paranoid narratives it tends to enable. The Republican narrative was that the threat to America is Islamofascism. That of the Democrats is that the threat is gun-toting Christian white people. They are both insane and trying to make the rest of us as crazy as they are.

There is no "the" threat. There are threats all around us, and they get much worse in economic hard times. They will get worse before they get better.

These paranoid narratives always seem to misdirect our attention, as the Clinton administration was misdirected on the day of the first World Trade Center bombing. (Remember the serious threat to America posed by David Koresh?) As some have pointed out, there is also something more sinister about these narratives: they can also be used as a club with which you can pound your opponents. If you can brand your opponents and their organizations as possible sources of terrorism, you can thereby disconnect their microphone: that is, make it impossible for others to hear what they are saying as if it were rational speech requiring a thoughtful response.

(Added later: A day after I wrote this, the struggle for control of the Holocaust Museum narrative has begun to look like the O K Corral shootout. A brief consultation with my research assistant, Ms. Google, will reveal Rush Limbaugh arguing that the killer, James von Brunn, was a leftist, and various neocon and pro-central-banking sources arguing, just as absurdly, that he was a Ron Paul supporter with darkly significant libertarian "connections." The explanation for this bizarre behavior is fairly obvious: these people are all either trying to use this narrative to beat up on opponents, or trying to defend against being bashed with it themselves.)

The ultimate source of these narratives I believe is the human Will to Power. The senseless violence around us makes us feel powerless. We would feel a lot better if it were all the work of one section of society, preferably an organization that can be infiltrated, neutralized, and wiped out. Indeed, the very act of telling these stories enhances the feeling of power. It provides dominant imagery that ties things together and makes sense of the senseless. But, like so much that makes us feel powerful, it is mainly a concoction of ignorance, stupidity, and discreditable motives.

Here is a beautiful tribute to Mr. Johns from his son. What a great kid. His dad would have been proud.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Judges: Don't Rely on Empathy

When Obama announced that his SCOTUS pick would be "empathetic," I immediately thought of Martha Nussbaum's theory that empathy (she often calls it sympathy) ought indeed to be the basis of legal reasoning, and that empathy-inspiring stories always lead our judgment in the right direction, a theory that she sets out in books like her Poetic Justice. I'm not the only one who made this connection. See here and here. (And see this for a discussion of the same issues that does not mention Nussbaum.)

The apparent connection here might be no coincidence. Both Obama and Nussbaum taught at the University of Chicago Law School (he as a non-tenure-track lecturer, she as a "distinguished service professor"), and their careers there overlapped by five years.

Obama had many opportunities to soak up Nussbaumian nostrums.

I sometimes hear it said that empathy is a source of fairness and balance in legal decisions. I believe the opposite is true.

Bear in mind what empathy is: feeling -- or more accurately, thinking you feel -- the feelings of another person based on seeing or hearing their story play out. "I feel your pain."

Now, suppose you are a judge hearing the case of a (assume for the sake of the argument) guilty criminal. Where will your empathy lead you? Well, here is the accused criminal with their affecting story to tell. Entering into the feelings of the defendant will incline you to leniency. Of course, you could also enter into the feelings of their victim. The victim will have very strong feelings about the accused. But sharing these feelings and being influenced by them would mean acting on vicarious revenge. You can't do that. Who else could you empathize with? Well, there are the future victims of crimes that you would be failing to deter if you are too lenient on the accused. But in the present decision-making situation, these other victims are mere theoretical possibilities, bloodless abstractions. You can't empathize with abstractions. So, unless you are willing to act on revenge, empathy will lead you to favor the accused criminal and to undervalue your duty to protect society against crime. Here empathy leads to bias.

Again, suppose you are on the Supreme Court, deciding a case involving the continued legality of abortion. Here there are plenty of empathy-inducing narratives about women who want or need an abortion. There are plenty of people to empathize with here. Who else? Could you empathize with the aborted fetuses? Of course not. In its early stages, when most abortions are performed, the fetus has a brain that is about as complex as that of a small fish. And it is not able to appear in your court and tell you its sad story. Empathy will bias you, then, in favor of the pro-choice position and agains the pro-life position.

Don't get me wrong: I am pro-choice myself. But this would be a very bad and unjust reason for being pro-choice.

In general, empathy will favor the person with the affecting story to tell, the one into whose feelings you (think) you can enter: the underdog, the attractive person, the person who seems nice, the person who resembles you. In the law, however, it is not the good guy who should win, but the person who has rights. Rights do not necessarily coincide with traits that make me melt with compassion.

It is best to stick with the old fashioned ideal of rational fairness. That ideal cannot be achieved perfectly, I admit. But empathy does not correct its imperfections. Like revenge, like any other sort of emotion-based decision-making, empathy systematically biases you in favor of one party at the expense of the other.

(I have criticized Nussbaum's sympathy theory at greater length here; a short version under a different title can be found here. I have attacked her on a variety of other, related issues here. If you are able to access it, you can find John Kekes' blistering review of her book Hiding from Humanity here.)

Thursday, June 04, 2009

All Tied Up!

At the current moment I am teaching in the "three week session" of summer school here at UW -- ie., an entire semester compressed into three weeks. Each day equals a week of normal time. So that's why I'm blogging rather sparsely nowadays. Also, I am participating in a Liberty Fund colloquium (on the idea of freedom, directed by good old John Kekes). I'll return to the blogosphere soon.