Monday, October 29, 2007

Eating Our Fellow Animals: The Real Question

Which is the proper condition for a duck to be in? Like this (call it condition #1)?

Or like this (call it condition #2)?

Okay, I'm going a little too fast here. I should back up and say first why I am putting the question this way. (What question? I'll eventually get to that too.)

Robert Nozick has asks some very interesting questions about eating animals.

Suppose (as I believe the evidence supports) that eating animals is not necessary for health and is not less expensive than alternative equally healthy diets available to people in the United States. The gain, then, from the eating of animals is pleasures of the palate, gustatory delights, varied tastes. I would not claim that these are not truly pleasant, delightful, and interesting. The question is: do they, or rather does the marginal addition in them gained by eating animals rather than only nonanimals, outweigh the moral weight to be given to animals' lives and pain? Given that animals are to count for something, is the extra gain obtained by eating them rather than nonanimals products greater than the moral cost? How might these questions be decided? (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 36-37.)
Yes, these are indeed the questions. Note that on this account of it the question is not whether killing and eating the duck violates its rights.

The idea of animal rights makes little or no sense to me, probably because I think of rights as freedom-extenders. The reason it is important that I have rights to this pencil, this computer, this car, etc. is that it means it is not wrong of me to use it without anyone's consent and, at least as important, that I can exchange them by mutual consent with other rights-holders, to get things I want more. Nothing a duck can do is either right or wrong in this sense, nor can it give or withhold consent. [Very different implications follow if you hold another view of rights: that they are security-enhancers. The fact that you have a right to something is important because it enhances the security of your holding on to it. Security, safety, is something animals can have.]

But supposing I am right about this, that animals do not have rights, it does not follow that they aren't morally considerable at all, that you can do just any old thing you want with them, without justifying your actions. What would a justification of eating animals be like, in that case? Again, Nozick asks an interesting and helpful question:
Suppose then that I enjoy swinging a baseball bat. It happens that in front of the only place to swing it stands a cow. Swinging the bat unfortunately would involve smashing the cow's head. But I wouldn't get fun from doing that; the pleasure comes from exercising my muscles, swinging well, and so on. ... Is there some principle that would allow the killing and eating of animals, but would not allow swinging the bat for the extra pleasure it brings? (ASU p. 37.)
So now you can see why I put my question in the way I did at the beginning. The value humans get from moving the duck from condition #1 to condition #2: is it relevantly different from the pleasure of swinging that baseball bat? Nozick thinks the answer is "no."

I'll be talking to the students in my political philosophy class about this tomorrow. I'll post on possible answers to this question after that.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Richard Taruskin, Pottymouth

Richard Taruskin has a sometimes interesting, sometimes wacky, and at all events if way too long article in The New Republic on what I guess you might call the death of classical music. In case you haven't heard of this phenomenon, here is one of many pieces of evidence he brings forth:
Since the "British invasion," nearly half a century ago, it has been socially acceptable, even fashionable, for intellectuals to pay attention primarily to commercial music, and they often seem oblivious to the very existence of other genres. Of no other art medium is this true. Intellectuals in America distinguish between commercial and "literary" fiction, between commercial and "fine" art, between mass-market and "art" cinema. But the distinction in music is no longer drawn, except by professionals. Nowadays most educated persons maintain a lifelong fealty to the popular groups they embraced as adolescents, and generation gaps between parents and children now manifest themselves musically in contests between rock styles.
Taruskin's article is a review of three new books that argue, with one degree of nostalgia or another, that the death of classical music is regrettable and should not be allowed to happen. Since Taruskin is the chair of the music department at Berkeley (where I once audited a fine course on Beethoven's symphonies), you might think he would be favorably disposed toward these books and inclined to help their authors along. Well, you would think wrong, my friend! He dislikes all these books, with an aversion amounting in one case to apparent hatred.

His hatred goes to the author who defends classical music most vigorously, Julian Johnson of the University of London: "disgraceful," a "rant," "Adorno epigone," "futile," "moral grandstander," "obviously mendacious (unless stunningly ignorant)." Johnson, it turns out, is even (almost) guilty of the worst thoughtcrime of them all: "[His] social snobbery," Taruskin says, "borders on racism (we have minds, they have bodies) and the browbeating is blatant (assent or be lumped with Them)." How it borders on racism he never tells us, beyond this cryptic parenthetical remark. (Maybe he's thinking that classical music is only interesting to white people, while popular music is the property of some other race.... Wait a minute. Isn't that sort of racist?)

The rhetorical low point comes when Taruskin points out that a passage from Johnson's book "resonates with" a nasty, anti-semitic passage from Wagner's Das Judentum in der Musik. He tells us that Wagner's obnoxious attack on Mendelssohn (Wikipedia picture above) "echoes" Johnson's attack on rock 'n' roll. How it does so is not entirely clear. There's no hint of anti-semitism or racism in what Johnson says. The only obvious connection is that both Johnson and Wagner are attributing quasi-ethical traits (like shallowness) to the music they don't like. But such accusations are best left obscure aren't they? They do more damage that way. They create a sort of guilt by association.

What is all this about? What, one wonders, is the real object of Taruskin's hatred? At one point he attacks another of these authors for having seven index entries under "political correctness," which, Taruskin explains, is "the discredited euphemism through which privileged people have gone on the offensive in defense of their privileges." At this point I think I begin to understand. What we have here is an over-the-top sort of egalitarianism. Even defending classical music is suspect because that suggests it might be better than some other sort of music, which in turn suggests that the people who like it might be better than people who don't and ... oh, the the humanity! Sob!

All this name calling is the PC version of pottymouth. This is as dirty as this guy knows how to talk, at least for publication. He is really, really provoked.

My point here is not to defend Johnson (though from the picture of him on his website he looks like a nice enough person) or Taruskin's other victims. I just think it's amazing that the ongoing egalitarian revolt against the very idea "high" or "fine" art has gone so far that the Chair of the Berkeley music department is actually a partisan of the revolution. Just that.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

"Islamofascism": More Sloppyspeak

This week, David Horowitz brought his "Islamofascism Awareness Week" campaign here, speaking on campus on Monday. I wasn't there, but I hear that the always-entertaining Kevin Barret created a disturbance and was removed from the hall.

Before this event, a faculty email list I'm on heated up considerably when someone attacked Horowitz' use of the term "Islamofascism." I guess it's okay if I reveal that this was Howard Schweber of the Poli Sci Department. More conservative people on the list were inclined to defend Horowitz on this point, and one sent around an essay of Christopher Hitchens' in which he defends this usage.

I have to side with Howard on this one. I think this is another example of the morally sloppy sort of talk for which I earlier snapped Desmond Tutu's suspenders.

Fascism is a political ideology with several distinctive features. One is the idea that the state is more important and valuable than the individual or any other part of the total social whole. Another is corporatism: the idea that the individual and all other social units are to be "incorporated" into the whole by various political means, including government-controlled unions and guilds, heavy regulation, and a deliberately cartelized economy. These means do not include the state owning everything outright, as in Communism, but the intended result is the same: total control. Much of this is reflected in Mussolini's memorable motto: "All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state."

Obviously, this has little to do with Islamism (a much better word than that of Horowitz and Hitchens*), which generally boils down to the idea that the state ought to impose Sharia (Islamic morality written up as a legal code) on the entire population, regardless of their own religious convictions. Osama probably doesn't give a damn about cartelizing the economy. He's much more interested in beating women up for not wearing their veils properly.

In the wide, nasty family of authoritarian political ideologies, Islamism and fascism are not even first cousins, let alone identical twins. To speak as if they were is to blur factors that are morally and politically distinct.

Hitchen's argument (see the link above) seems to go more or less like this:
1. Islamism is murderous, anti-intellectual, and authoritarian.
2. Fascism is murderous, anti-intellectual, and authoritarian.
3. Therefore, Islamism is fascism.
So interpreted, the argument is an obvious example of the fallacy of the undistributed middle:
1. Dogs are animals.
2. Pigeons are animals.
3. Therefore, dogs are pigeons.
There is, however, a more charitable way of reading what he is saying, which involves a more modest conclusion, something like: It is alright to speak of Islamism and fascism as if they were the same. But then the argument will need a new premise, something like the one labeled #3 below:
1. Islamism is murderous, anti-intellectual, and authoritarian.
2. Fascism is murderous, anti-intellectual, and authoritarian.
3. It is alright to speak of two things as the same if they share common features.
4. Therefore, It is alright to speak of Islamism and fascism as if they were the same.
With some trivial revision, this will become an obviously valid argument -- except that the new line 3 is not true as stated. To justify speaking of two things as if they were the same, the common features involved have to be essential, or really important, or so important that they outweigh the features you are blurring out of focus when you speak of these two things as if they were the same. Are Islamism and fascism similar in that way?

Here's where things get interesting.

I think, in a way, that Horowitz and and Hitchens do have a reason to say "yes," but that I do not and most likely neither do you. They, unlike most of us, are from the Old Left, or, in Horowitz' case, from the New Left of the 'sixties. In that political environment, the word "fascist" was a loose, sloppy term of political abuse. It meant "any sort of anti-progressive authoritarianism," as contrasted with Communism, which was progressive authoritarianism.

When they moved from the Left to the Right, these two men brought some of their old bad habits with them, like unruly boys tracking mud into a Victorian parlor. I don't think American conservatives should pick this particular habit up from them, of using "fascist" as a term for a broad spectrum of things they don't like. I think they should get out the carpet-sweeper.
* I admit though that it is far from perfect, because it might seem to obscure the absolute difference between Islam and Islamism. But to call the phenomenon "Islamic extremism" or "Islamic fundamentalism" seems clearly objectionable in other ways, and on the whole worse. I am certainly open to suggestions on this point.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The New Politics of Fear

H. L. Mencken said it:
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
Today, both American political parties are inflaming the fears of the populace in ways that are more or less obvious. The Republican party is dominated by people who appeal to your fear that you will be killed by a Middle Eastern terrorist. The Democratic party is more and more under the influence of people who appeal to your fear that a vast, diffuse, sometimes contradictory array of catastrophic results will follow from human-caused global warming. (For a remarkable piece of Chicken-Little-ism, see this website, which is overseen by Bill Clinton's former chief of staff.)

I will never forget what it was like to be a small child at the height of the Cold War. I remember lying awake at night wondering what would happen to our house if they dropped The Bomb. There was a naval base in our town and San Francisco was just on the other side of the hills to the west, so there wasn't much chance of the Russians missing us. I hoped that the fact that I slept on the bottom bunk of our bunk bed might afford me some protection. The collapsing ceiling would regrettably crush my little brother to death, but at least I might have a chance to climb out of the rubble....

It's a terrible thing that anybody, especially children, should have to live in an atmosphere of politically-caused fear. In 1989 Communism collapsed, and with it our fear of it, and of nuclear annihilation. I thought the millennium had arrived: at last, the Freedom from Fear that politicians had been promising us!

Hardly more than a decade later, these two new fears had taken deep root, almost as if they had always been there. They are spreading like crabgrass. No sooner had the very real (though government-produced) danger of nuclear annihilation receded into the background than people began to obsess about these new grounds for worry. It's as if people find life without fear hardly worth living.

I sometimes think that humans have a deep, thanatos-like urge to scare themselves silly. But something tells me this can't be right. Humans are not masochists. A more likely explanation, less counter-intuitive in its assumptions, is social and not psychological. This explanation holds that this phenomenon is, as Mencken half-hints, a byproduct of the state. Like nuclear terror, the new fears are government-produced, though in a completely different way.

The state is a massive instrument of coercion. It is a way to gain power and wealth, and quickly. But in a democracy, you can only use this coercive apparatus if you justify it to your fellow human beings, to the very people who are to lose their freedom and their wealth for your benefit. This is of course difficult to sell.

My hypothesis is that the most effective way to do this is to generate fear. Clearly, the best strategy will be to appeal to some emotion or other. Emotions rivet one's attention to the desired goal and jam up one's ability to put the goal into context and see the big picture. An emotional reaction is always an overreaction. It is always a context-dropping reaction. That is of course just what you want, if you are trying to get people to let you take away their freedom or their hard-earned wealth. It seems to me that all of the emotions are either irrelevant to this goal (eg., lust), to difficult to arouse (eg., love of truth), or too weak (eg., pity for the sufferings of our fellow human beings) -- except for fear. I predict that all political factions and parties will compete at all times to scare themselves and each other into a witless stupor.

What this theory predicts is of course that people will act as if they actually want to be scared, that human life will resemble one continuous Halloween, a non-stop, self-generated fright fest. Well, that is pretty much what it is, isn't it?

If Mencken and I are right about this, this system is one huge protection racket. What Bush and Gore are selling is relief from fear -- a fear you wouldn't have if it weren't for them! There is one big difference, though, from a criminal protection racket. If you ignore the gangster's offer of protection, they really will blow your store up. If you ignore Bush and Gore, then your chances of being killed by a terrorist, or a human-caused hurricane are, well, much less serious. Basically, you have nothing to lose but your mental chains.

Having said that, I suppose I'd better add a qualification: I'm not suggesting that either terrorism or human-called global warming don't exist. Nor do I advocate "doing nothing" about them. What I am suggesting is that we do our best to ignore the enormous amount of shamelessly obvious fear-mongering on these issues. Fear-mongering on the terror issue has already cost us horribly, and continues to do so. Environmental fear-mongering promises to be disastrous as well -- unless we cast off those mental chains.

People want to live in peace and tranquility, yet they have created a system that traps them in a state of perpetual alarm and even at times of craven hysteria. Voters of the world, unite!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Why are Prize Committees So Laughable?

Yes yes yes, I know. The Nobel Peace Prize is now impossible to take seriously. But hasn't this been true for a long time? After all, it's been awarded to not only Al Gore but to Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat, Jimmy Carter - and other people whose contributions to peace were negligible or on balance negative. And then there was Rigoberta Menchu, who got the prize for a book that was later shown to contain a significant quantity of deliberate lies. And for her "work" as a Marxist revolutionary.

There's a phenomenon here that is much larger than this one prize.

Consider the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here is a list of some of the people who did not get that one, but could have, because they were very much alive when the award was being given: Leo Tolstoy, George Meredith, Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, August Strindberg, Henry James, William Dean Howells, Georg Trakl, Guillaume Apollinaire, Sigmund Freud, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Rainer Maria Rilke, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Miguel de Unamuno, Constantine P. Cavafy, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Stefan Zweig, Luigi Pirandello, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Robert Musil, W. H. Auden, George Orwell, Hermann Broch, André Gide, Ludwig Wittgenstein, E. M. Forster, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov... Well, it goes on and on. [These names are from a highly entertaining article in which Ted Gioia imagines a parallel universe in which the prize goes to people who actually deserve it.]

Then, perhaps most disgracefully inept of them all, there are the Academy Awards. Here are some directors who never won an award for best director, and who could have, because each one made several (at least!) pictures in this country: Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Charles Chaplin, Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Nicholas Ray, Stanley Kubrick, Max Ophuls, Jean Renoir.

Why are these prizes so absurd, so easy to ridicule and laugh at?

Here is one partial explanation. Judging who is "the best" in one of these fields involves weighing and deciding between incommensurable factors, in the sense that we cannot find one candidate better than another simply on the grounds that they possess more of some specific quality than another. It is not like judging which horse crossed the finish line first. "Competitions are for horses, not artists," said Bela Bartok (who as far as I know never won a prize for anything). He was right.

We do make judgments like these, but we do so by sorting imponderable factors on the basis of moral, philosophical, or ideological principles. Why do you suppose that the pro-Communist Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel, while the libertarian Mario Vargas Llosa (who once punched Marquez in the face) did not? Isn't it pretty obvious?

All such judgments are necessarily ideological or, in this sense, biased.

The trouble with the above awards is that they are ideological and pretend not to be: they are just prizes for "the best" in a whole vast field of endeavor. As a result, they are dishonestly and inconsistently biased. The prizes that are not ridiculous, that make perfect sense, are the ones that are openly ideological, like the Prometheus Awards.

I am not saying that the other sort of list have no value. They are, more than anything else, entertaining. They are also fun ways to raise issues and start discussions, like the tempting project of drawing up one's own "top ten" lists. But they are only fun if not taken too seriously.

What I personally do take seriously, I have to admit, is five Norwegian politicians trying to use the Peace Prize to influence who the outcome of the next American Presidential election. If that is what they were trying to do. But I won't get started on that here.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Happy Birthday, Atlas!

This week marked the fiftieth anniversary of Atlas Shrugged, a huge novel everyone should read -- preferably while they are still young enough to appreciate its boundless idealism. In that way it is like reading Shelly's Prometheus Unbound, or indeed anything by Shelly. Or Hugo or Schiller (Rand's own youthful favorites). I first read it in the summer after my senior year in high school, and it's by now safe to say that it was an experience I'll never forget. I did nothing else for three or four days, immersing myself in the 1084 pages of the 1963 Signet paperback edition. It put me in a near-hallucinated state of mind, surrounded by railroad tracks, smoky tunnels, a dystopia ruled by demented intellectuals, and a shining utopia in the sky, gloriously ruled by -- no one. When I went away to college, my best buddy gave me a copy of the original Random House hardbound edition, which I still have. ... I couldn't let the anniversary slip by without mentioning it, though for the moment I'm sort of written out on this subject. I recently wrote an essay on its structural aspects that expresses about everything I have to say about it that I haven't said before, for now at least. I will mention one remarkable feature of the book that I discuss there: what I call its "meaning-saturation." Before you've read very far, you know that everything in it means something, often several mutually consistent things at once. Rand once said of her favorite movie, Fritz Lang's Siegfrieds Tod, that while it was in production Lang had a sign in his office, "Nothing in this film is accidental." The same seems to be true of this book. It is a very intentional book. That I think is one thing that makes it so re-readable, even beyond the age when most of us are able to share fully and heedlessly in its glowing spirit.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

New Assaults on Free Discussion in the University

Here is an excellent essay by Kurt Anderson (with whom I don't often agree) about the current wave of attempts to end discussion and silence disagreement. He says, inter alia:
Some of these episodes were trivial, some significant. Some were about trying to prevent speech (Ahmadinejad, Summers, NARAL), some only about stupendously overreacting to it (O’Reilly, MoveOn). But they all reflect a common temperament: an instinct to repress the disagreeable or the impolitic. Almost any argument about race, gender, Israel, or the war is now apt to be infected by a spirit of self-righteous grievance and demonization.
One thing I like about his essay is that it clearly recognizes the pervasiveness of this curious phenomenon. It comes from all parts of the political spectrum, left, right, and center.

Over the years, I've noticed that these things do, as I've just suggested, come in waves.

During the nineties, hundreds of universities across the land enacted speech codes to protect various races, ethnicities, and life-style groups from language that is "hurtful," "demeaning," or "degrading," but usually not otherwise clearly defined. Most of them by far are still on the books.

Currently, there is a wave of angry controversies over the very idea of allowing some guest speaker or other the use of a university forum.

For several years there has been another wave, one that is still rolling on as I write. Anderson does not mention it, probably because he does not see it as part of the same phenomenon. I have in mind a series of incidents in which there are moves against faculty members who are, so to speak, not clearly enough "on the right side" of the War on Terror. Ward Churchill is detenured and fired for reasons that would probably apply to others who are not being molested. Norman Finkelstein is denied tenure at de Paul, under suspicious circumstances. The summer before last, a Wisconsin state legislator hears a university instructor espousing his 9/11 conspiracy theories on talk radio, and demands he be fired. He nearly succeeds.

I am very sorry to say that almost none of the people who resisted the speech codes of the nineties have uttered a single objection to this last, obviously most vicious, series of moves against academic freedom. Last year, when some of us at UW circulated a letter urging that the 9/11 conspiracy theorist not be fired (see link above), we could not find a single political conservative who would sign the letter. (That is, to the best of my memory. If someone shows me I am wrong about this I will gladly publish a retraction.) Nat Hentoff said it years ago in the title of a book: Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee.

Should we just figure that there is a division of labor here and leave it at that? The right will defend the speech rights of its pet violators (racists, homophobes, etc.) while the left will defend those of its own favored offensive ones (left-wing anti-Semites, people who appear to be soft on terrorism, etc.). I don't think such an arrangement would be stable in the long run, because it would fail to fully recognize the basic principles at stake. One such is to be found in the wise words of William Allen White: "Liberty is the only thing you cannot have unless you are willing to give it to others." Those who will not defend the other fellow's freedom stand to lose their own.
PS: For a brand-new case of the speech-code type, see Gene Volokh's blog for today. (Be sure to look at the linked news story at the end to see the suspended professor's defense. Some of the commenters didn't, and probably ended up thinking his behavior is much more odd than it was.) For an abundance of material on this case, see Barry Dank's Dankprofessor blog, link in the panel at the left. PPS: The graphic above is from the Mises Blog. Go there! Gain enlightenment!

Friday, October 05, 2007

University of St. Thomas Disinvites Tutu

As many of you know, the administration of the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis has revoked an invitation to former Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak there next year. In a possibly unrelated development, the chair of the department that invited him has been removed as chair. Here is the story. (Hat-tip to Ruchira Paul for alerting me to it.)

I can't resist pointing out that the things the administration, and those sympathetic with its decision, said in defense of that decision were right out of the lexicon of "political correctness." That he has said things that are "offensive," things that are "hurtful" to Jews. Critics of their decision claim that he was disinvited simply for being critical of Israel. I'll post about this later.

Added later: I just want say two things about this. 1.) I doubt that it was just for criticizing Israel that he was disinvited. For many years, many Jews have found comments he has made offensive, and I don't think it is unreasonable to find them so. 2.) Nonetheless, he should not have been disinvited.

1.) The Wikipedia article about him says in part:
When lobbying for divestment at a 2002 conference in Boston, Tutu stated, "My heart aches. I say why are our memories so short. Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their humiliation? Have they forgotten the collective punishment, the home demolitions, in their own history so soon? Have they turned their backs on their profound and noble religious traditions? Have they forgotten that God cares deeply about the downtrodden?" He continued by saying, "People are scared in this country [the US], to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful - very powerful. Well, so what? For goodness sake, this is God's world! We live in a moral universe. The apartheid government was very powerful, but today it no longer exists. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pinochet, Milosevic, and Idi Amin were all powerful, but in the end they bit the dust." ... Tutu's comment about a "Jewish lobby " [in the print version of the speech, Tutu wisely changed the phrase to "pro-Israel lobby" -- LH], as well as some prior remarks, caused some offense, including by some who believed he was making a direct comparison of it to Hitler. Speaking in a Connecticut church in 1984, Tutu said that "the Jews thought they had a monopoly on God; Jesus was angry that they could shut out other human beings." In the same speech, he compared the features of the Temple in Jeursalem, Israel's holiest site, to the features of the apartheid system. In conversations during the 1980s with the Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Eliahu Lankin, Tutu "refused to call Israel by its name, he kept referring to it as Palestine," Lankin recalled. In 1988, he rejected the charge of antisemitism, saying that criticism of the Israeli government is "immediately dubbed anti-semitic as if the Palestinians were not Semitic" by some.
One thing that is potentially offensive about some of these comments, and things he has said elsewhere, is his habit of indulging in sloppy moral equivalences: the Israelis' treatment of the Palestinians is like the Nazis' treatment of them, Zionism is like racism, Israeli policy is morally evil in just the same way that Apartheid was, Israelis knocking a man's house down is like the same man blowing up Israelis with a bomb. Surely, there are different degrees of evil and injustice, and in all these cases there are obvious and profound differences that he does not seem to to care about very much.

Particularly annoying is his persistent tsk! for goodness sake! dismissiveness when Jews are offended by his comments. He seems to be a man who is so convinced of his own virtue that he literally can't believe it when others seem to find something about him morally objectionable. It must be the "Jewish" lobby! This guy would not survive as an assistant professor in a modern American university, with its speech codes and its atmosphere of heightened linguistic sensitivity. In my world, you might be forgiven for offending members of some protected group of people, but you had better show that you understand why they were offended by what you said!

Offensive in a different way is the following, also from the Wikipedia article:
During a 1989 trip to Israel's Yad Vashem museum, Tutu said, "We pray for those who made it happen, help us to forgive them and help us so that we in our turn will not make others suffer."
Now, I am sure that as a Christian clergyman he often has to advise somebody to forgive some past wrong and get over it. You should forgive the professor who gave you a B when you deserved an A. You should forgive your wife for having an affair with her tennis instructor. That is often very good advice. But to apply this to the Holocaust, and to say it to people who survived its horrors ... how many different things are wrong with that? (I leave this question as an exercise for the reader.)

2.) About Tutu I have somewhat the same problem that I had with Rumsfeld and Ahmedinejad: If I were voting on whether to bring him to my university, I would ask, rather skeptically, why we should expect him to say something that would advance the discussion of some subject that we find interesting or important. But of course St. Thomas is not Wisconsin. They would no doubt have different views from mine about who would be a good contributor in the academic forum. Fine. By inviting him in the first place, they have as an institution decided that he is a qualified contributor. In that context, to disinvite him can only mean that he is being barred on account of his having made comments like the ones quoted above.

My own view -- of course! -- is that none of these are reasons why someone should be barred from a university campus. He has said things that would be offensive to many (probably not all) of the Jews I have known. But that sort of thing is always true in free speech cases. No one was ever censored for giving no one cause to be angry.

Further, as I do with university speech codes, I doubt that the disinvitation was a good thing for the people who were supposed to be "protected" by it. I happen to know Jews who live in Minneapolis, and I bet they are rather uncomfortable right now, knowing that it was for their sake that this man was barred from St. Thomas. It's not a position I would want to be in, at all!
Added still later: Maybe I should point out that I have said nothing about the one issue that most people are arguing about here -- whether Tutu is an anti-Semite. I think this issue is a red herring. For one thing, the St. Thomas administration was careful to avoid accusing Tutu of being an anti-Semite. In addition, the evidence I have seen so far suggests that the charge of anti-Semitism may represent the same sort of sloppy use of language of which he himself is chronically guilty. There is no smoking gun on this question. However, a case can be made that he indulges in the sort of behavior that can get a person into big trouble under a typical university speech code: chronic, targeted, unrepenting linguistic insensitivity toward a historically oppressed or persecuted group of people. In other words, the leftists who are attacking St. Thomas' decision (rightly, in my view!) ought to be against speech codes as well.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The War: Stories vs. Maps

Here is an interesting article by Edward Rothstein of the NYT on Ken Burns' new documentary. Burns does his thing, masterfully, this time with World War II as his subject, weaving together vintage photos and clips, actor's voices, interviews with survivors, and powerful music brilliantly chosen (in this case by Wynton Marsalis). (Among many pieces memorably used: two by Edward Elgar, one of the world's most underrated composers. There is "Nimrod" from the Enigma Variations, played on the piano, and Sospiri, for string orchestra. There wasn't a dry eye in our rec room!)

Rothstein points out that this narrative method, though not ideologically motivated, is hardly politically neutral. Burns' dominant motive, as always, is to create something that appeals to your emotions and will become a beloved classic. To human beings, no image is more meaningful than a human face, and no speech is more powerful than the story behind that face. Dealing entirely in faces and stories,The War goes straight to your gut.

But in fact such narrative accounts of great events have a built in bias of sorts. What is the nature of this bias? This question involves issues that Martha Nussbaum has written about, as I have (from a rather different point of view).

Martha points out that, because these stories hook us in by appealing to our sympathies for the travails of others, they have a certain built-in bias in favor of the under-dog. The under-doggier they are, the better their story plays out. This bias also tends to be individualistic. That human face we see belongs to one person.

This means that narrative has a certain tendency to block utilitarian thinking. Utilitarianism finds the best action by performing a calculation: do what will have the best results for everyone who is affected by what you do, when you add everybody together. You can count the effects on yourself, of course, but you may just be one person in millions. The same is true of counting your friends and loved ones. The utilitarian calculation is a melting pot in which people merge into the whole. What we care about is that whole.

So if you present a great human issue in terms of affecting stories, your method of presentation chokes off the source of material for the utilitarian melting pot. In viewing The War, we don't melt down the individuals that we see. In a way, this makes the viewing experience more painful. What is real and vivid to us is the terrible things we see the war doing to these people. Occasionally, the narration asserts that it was all "necessary" but, as Rothstein points out, this feels somehow very abstract. What we are aware of at every turn is, as the inevitable cliche has it, "the horrors of war."

Rothstein objects to this. The more conventional way of telling the story of the war, the one that emphasizes maps, with armies advancing like tide across them or evaporating into isolated puddles, makes it easier to see the nobility of the thing, to see the horror as somehow worth it. We focus on the big picture.

Of course, the conventional method has this effect because it to some extend derealizes the human individual, and brings collectivities into the foreground.

For my part, the fact that it does not do this is just what I like about The War. Regardless of what you think about this "necessary" war, we shouldn't forget for a minute the vast horrors such things inflict on innocent people. Yes, this will make is more difficult to launch the next "just" war. But ... should such things ever be easy?

Another thing that I found refreshing in this narrative was the preference for the underdog. Most war war narratives (such as those on the sadly mis-named History Channel) are given from the general's point of view. They present the things the generals are aware of -- the maps, the lines, the tides -- and tend to deemphasize the things the generals do not see too clearly -- the young men, virtually children, that they are sending to their deaths. In this narrative, the generals do not come off too well. General John Dahlquist, for instance, comes off little better than the vicious morons who send men to pointlessly horrible fates in Catch-22. This, too, seems to me a healthy corrective.
Footnote: Over at Lew Rockwell, historian Gary North writes a review of The War that is as unfavorable as mine is favorable. Interestingly, he gives more or less the same reasons for his assessment that I gave for mine: that Burns ignores the generals and focuses on randomly selected individuals, avoiding the big picture. In effect, he says, this approach takes the history out of history. I guess this is true: it replaces history with biography. But if you are an individualist, this is not a entirely a bad move. North repeatedly asks: So what? The So what?, he suggests, can only be answered by seeing things from the general's point of view, by looking at such things as maps. I would reverse this strategy. Look at a map. So what? The answer can only be given by what these tides and forces do to individuals. And in war, what they do is mainly horrific. ... One more major difference between North's account and mine: he focuses on the intended theme of the series, that the war was "necessary," and complains that it does nothing at all to support this idea. Like Rothstein, I point out that the functional theme -- which is subversive and individualistic -- actually undermines the intended theme, presenting a work that is in a way anti-war. This is a result of the narrative technique it employs.