Wednesday, December 27, 2006

On Break for a While

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

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

Monday, December 18, 2006

Holocaust Denial: Typical Conspiracist Quackery

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

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

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

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

Ethical Anarchism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Utopian Flight: Finish Privatizing the University!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Karl Kraus and Tom Szasz Go After Sigmund Freud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Ask the Right Questions

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 01, 2006

State and Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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