Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"Common Reading" and Liberal Bias

There used to be a saying in the world of journalism: "Dog Bites Man" is not news. "Man Bites Dog" -- now that's news!

The National Association of Scholars recently published a report choices made by all of the 290 colleges and universities that have "common reading" programs. That's where someone picks out one book that everyone is supposed to read, so that, in this age on no core curriculum, they have some common topic they can all talk about. The authors of the report find that the book choices reflect the aspirations and world-view of today's academic liberal, and are apt to seem pretty quirky to someone (like me) who does not share this Weltanschauung.

To me, that's a real dog-bites-man story if ever there was. What's amazing to me is that as recounted in this Fox story there seem to be plenty of academics who vehemently, even angrily deny this. (Scroll to the middle of the story.)

It's hard to see your world-view as a view at all: for the most part all we see is -- the world!

You can find the report here and a complete list of all the books assigned here. The report is (surprise!) a lot more nuanced and multi-dimensional than Fox makes it sound. I recommend reading it. The list is especially interesting reading. It is a peek into the claustrophobic world of people who get all their news from NPR, whose idea of an interesting author is Barbara Kingsolver, who are sure that global warming is the most serious emergency we now face, and who don't seem to be aware of the global sovereign debt crisis. That's right. It's the world of the typical humanities professor.

I think some of the urge to deny the NAS charge stems from a failure to understand it. Blogger John Wilson (who I think can fairly be described as a PC denialist) wonders how a list of books can reflect liberal bias when so few of them are political books. As if the NAS complaint is that the list is packed with "liberal books," which ought to be balanced with "conservative books." That's not the point at all. They are saying that the choices reflects what academic liberals think is interesting or important or true, and ignore what the rest of us think is interesting or important or true. Indeed, anyone who is not a PC liberal can immediately detect the PC ethos just by browsing through the assigned book titles. We can smell it, like a choking whiff of sweet incense.

One thing that jumps out at the authors of the report is the enormous emphasis on things non-European. Books on Africa outnumber books on Europe nearly six to one. Frankenstein is the only European literary classic "from Homer to Dostoyevsky" assigned by any of these 290 institutions. (This last is a little misleading, as it might suggest that Dostoyevsky was assigned. He wasn't).

The report interprets this as a sign of a alienation from, perhaps even hostility to, European civilization itself.

I see it somewhat differently. I think there are actually two profoundly different views of what higher education is all about here. In one view, that of the NAS, what we are supposed to be doing in the university is to learn where we come from. The purest expression of this idea is probably Ortega y Gasset's The Mission of the University. What we should be doing is presenting students with an overview of what has been learned so far, an account that is, Ortega tells us, "systematic and synthetic." To introduce the spirit of novelty, of research and criticism, into the process too early is to explode the foundations on which novelty is built.

Of course there is another view, which is just as ancient as the Ortegean/NAS view. This other view holds that what we are supposed to be doing is to explore the new, the different, the other. Admittedly, there's a big difference between Plato's idea that you should think critically in order to get in touch with eternal truth, and the PC view that you should learn about people with a different skin color from your own, but they are members of one family of views.

I think both these views (suitably formulated) are true and the only real issue is about emphasis, ordering, and ranking. What we seem to see in these "common reading" choices is an academic establishment that is tipping over toward one of these views and pretty far away from the other.
Full disclosure: I am an on-again, off-again member of the NAS, with which I've had a complex relationship for some 16 years. I am currently Vice President of the Wisconsin Association of Scholars.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Freedom Wins a Big One

The MacDonald (pictured here) v. Chicago decision came down from the Supreme Court minutes ago. As expected, the Court overturned Chicago's draconian handgun ban, and did it in the least radical (in terms of underlying legal principles) that they could (as was also expected). They did it by "incorporating" the Second Amendment into the Fourteenth via the "due process" clause of the Fourteenth, thus applying the right to own arms to the states and local governments. Except for Justice Thomas, they did not use the plaintiff's more radical argument that incorporation should come via the "privileges and immunities" clause.

Thomas' line would have overturned the widely hated Slaughterhouse Cases, but courts are reluctant to overturn more stuff than they have to, including stuff that that is reason to think is unjust.

The anti-gun people have already started up.

I've been writing on gun rights for several weeks now, so this is a big deal to me. I'll blog about it after I have read the decision.

Here is a good brief account of what happened. There is a link to the entire 214 pg. opinion on attorney Gura's web site.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Irvine Muslim Student's Union and the Heckler's Veto

According to this news story, officials at the U. C. Irvine have recommended that the university's Muslim Students Union be suspended for a year and placed on probation for a year after that. The reason:
The school revealed this week that it had recommended suspending the Muslim group after 11 students were arrested in February for repeatedly disrupting a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren [pictured here], who was repeatedly interrupted and called "murderer" and "war criminal" by pro-Palestinian students as he gave a talk on the Middle East peace process.
An editorial in the L. A. Times described the incident like this:
Oren had been invited to deliver an address on U.S.-Israeli relations. But each time he tried to speak, he was interrupted by students who stood up to shout anti- Israel slogans. ... According to a university report released Monday, e-mails intercepted from members of the Muslim Student Union showed that it had not only planned the protest, but that its members had also subsequently conspired to deny the group's involvement. It was the group's alleged fabrications, along with its disruption of university activities, that prompted the suspension recommendation.
What interests me is comments people have made that suggest that these students were merely exercising their free speech rights. The above-linked news story quotes an "attorney and activist" speaking for the MSU, who
declined to say whether legal action is being planned in the event of an unsuccessful appeal. But she said students were "outraged" and "disappointed" with the university's decision. "It's unprecedented a university would ever do this," she said, adding that the suspension would "create a really dangerous precedent for shutting down dissent."

The Times, in defending the U's decision said that the MSU's "members need to learn that their freedom of speech does not trump that of other people."

This expresses the same idea from the opposite side: yes, the hecklers were exercising free speech, but their speech is not more important than that of the speaker.

As a free speech absolutist, and someone who does not believe in conflicts of (genuine) rights, I have always found the "heckler's veto" troubling. Isn't the heckler just exercising his or her free speech? And if I favor coercively stopping them from doing so, am I not opposing free speech in one of its forms?

Here's the best answer I've come up with so far.

No and no. The reason is that the heckler's offense in these cases is not speech at all. Note that we're not talking about someone who yells an objection during a speech ("You lie!"). That may be rude, but that sort of heckler should not be gagged, cuffed, or dragged from the hall. We're talking disrupting, not interrupting: ie., hecklers who by shouting repeatedly or by drowning the speaker out make it impossible for them to be heard.

It's true that the vetoing heckler is doing what they do by speaking, but their speech has this effect, not as speech, but as noise. The same effect can be accomplished by blowing plastic horns like the ones that caused so much unpleasantness at the World Cup games.

I once heard black conservative Ward Connerly drowned out here at the University of Wisconsin by leftist students in the audience making a loud humming sound. Wasn't that the same thing? Was that speech?

The same point can be made about the supposed counterexample of yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. ("See? There are exceptions to the freedom speech!") The offense here is intentionally or negligently bringing about a dangerous stampede by causing a panic." In this case the cause happens to be brought about by speech, but the same effect can be caused by setting off a fire alarm or igniting a smoke bomb.

On the other hand, someone who offers historical arguments that the Holocaust never happened, or scriptural arguments that homosexuality is evil, is doing something that can only be done by means of human speech. That is one reason why what they are doing is free speech, while the heckler's veto is not.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What's Wrong with Things Like Gerrymandering?

I say "things like" Gerrymandering because of a comment my last post. I had linked to this article by Geo. Will about a measure passed last week by the damphool voters of California. He describes it like this:

Henceforth, in primary elections that select candidates for most state and federal offices -- including almost one-eighth of the U.S. House of Representatives -- all voters, regardless of party registration, or those who have "decline to state" status (no party identification -- 20.2 percent of Californians), will receive the same ballot. All candidates for a particular office will be listed, regardless of party affiliation, if any, which they may choose to state, or not. The two receiving the most votes will be on November ballots, regardless of the desires of the political parties the nominees may claim to represent.

The result, as GFW explains in his masterful way, will be to cluster the November ballot candidates toward the center, disenfranchising everyone who is odd, distinctive, deviant, weird -- whatever you want to call non-moderates. Further, according to Will, it was meant to do so.

An anonymous commenter said this sounds like "a new form of gerrymandering." Hm. Well, it's not literally gerrymandering, which is the redrawing of geographical political boundaries in order to enhance or decrease the probability that one group of voters will win elections -- because it doesn't involve redrawing such boundaries. (See 1812 political cartoon, above.) However, it does seem to have the morally-active ingredient of gerrymandering, which is the intention of changing those probabilities.

In our system, gerrymandering is not regarded as either illegal or unconstitutional. Just take a look (here, on the right) at Illinois' celebrated "earmuff" congressional district, which connects two Hispanic neighborhoods via a thin corridor which seems to include nothing but a freeway. (It is currently represented by Rep. Luis GutiƩrrez.)

Though we do practice it, however, Gerrymandering is typically regarded as immoral.

Why? I guess the intuitive reason is that it tends to, and is often meant to, create a system that does not represent the will of the people. It generally supplants the will of the people with the will of the reapportioners. (Since reapportionment is generally done by incumbents, it tends to represent, specifically, their Will to Incumbency.)

Gov. Schwarzenegger and other supporters of Prop. 14 might say that their measure does enable the electoral process to reflect the will of the people. After all, isn't Joe Sixpack the average voter? Yes, but he's not 100% of the voters, and this measure creates a system in which 100% of the representatives in the districts affected by it represent him and nobody else. The others will be unrepresented.

That of course is exactly the sort of thing that gerrymandering can cause.

On the other hand, Prop. 14 is bad in a way that makes it worse than gerrymandering. As Will points out, it violates the freedom of association of political parties by forcing to take as "their" candidates individuals they would reject if they had a chance.

I don't think this is something that gerrymandering does. The Hispanic residents of Earmuffland are not being forced to associate with someone against their wishes. In fact, gerrymandering in this case has accomplished something like the opposite of that effect. As far as this particular consideration is concerned, gerrymandering does have its points.

Take as another example Rep. Michelle Bachmann's district (on the left). For better or worse, she is one of the most ideologically distinct voices in congress. It's a virtual certainty that she could not be elected if her district cut through the Twin Cities, instead of snaking around them like it does. (This is not in any way a political comment on Bachmann. It's just a fact.)

Though gerrymandering, as actually used in the current political incentive-structure, often muffles the will of the people, it also has a potentiality that is the opposite of the sort of homogenizing sausage-grinder principle represented by Prop 14.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Worst Election Reform Idea Ever?

Well, I'm sitting in the cafe of the Badlands Interior Motel (free internet in the middle of nowhere!) waiting for the gumbo to dry out, and I just read this superb column by George Will (son of philosophy prof. Frederick L. Will). It describes a primary election process voted through last week by the clueless voters of California.

It is designed (literally, intended) to elect politicians who are "moderate" (eg., idea-free, inconsistent) and incidentally makes it impossible for parties like the Greens and the Libertarians to have candidates on November ballots.

With any luck, it will be struck down as unconstitutional.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

On the Road

Just now I am somewhere in South Dakota. On the left is a picture (taken last year) of the place I'm trying to get to.

Whether I'll actually get there remains to be seen.

It's been raining out there, though, so the roads may be impassable gumbo right now.

Fingers crossed!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Classic Battle of the Sexes Moment: Justice v. Forgiveness

I loved this. Most of the comment on this has focused on Mark Haines' sexist wisecrack at the end of the exchange, but I am more impressed by the way it comically contrasts two ethical Weltanschauungen. Haines is incensed because Tigers pitcher Armando Galaraga is cheated of the chance to have his perfect game go into the record books, and Erin Burnett thinks it is "beautiful" that the ump hugged the pitcher and all was forgiven.

Actually, I think they both have a point. Yes it is very important that justice be done and excellence get the honor it deserves. On the other hand, I think it's great that the ump immediately apologized when his mistake had been proven, and that the pitcher accepted his apology. Yes, we do need more of that in this world. (Both these men contrast sharply with the officials who had the authority to correct the record retroactively and simply refused to do so.)

There is still a big issue here though. Which is more important: justice or forgiveness?

I vote for justice.

Justice is a fundamental virtue, forgiveness a derivative one. Without justice, there couldn't be such thing as forgiveness. Forgiveness is one of the traits that fixes things when the process of justice fails to work or has regrettable effects. Ordinarily, it should not be substituted for justice.

That is because we need justice if life is to go on at all. You cannot base a civilization, or a complex institution like baseball, on group hugs.

As Heine said, "One should forgive one's enemies, but not before they have been hanged."

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Woman with the Veil

She was about to leave the country. I realized suddenly that Sunday was my last chance to see her, perhaps forever, so I got in my car and drove to Milwaukee.

I'm referring to Raphael's great portrait, La Velata ("The Woman With the Veil"), which has been touring the US this year, Milwaukee being its last stop. (Click to enlarge.)

It was displayed in a darkened room with dark blue walls. The only other objects in the room, other than two wooden benches (which I had to use after a long stretch of standing and staring) was a sign: PLEASE SPEAK SOFTLY.

Sadly, it is now on its way back to Italy. If you want to see it in the flesh, you now must go to the Palazzo Pitti, which has been the painting's home since the Medici got Matteo Botti's entire art collection in exchange for paying off his substantial debts.

No image of it that I have seen does it justice. One thing that surprised me on seeing it in person is the glowing beauty of her dress, and explosion of silk that seems to defy functionality. It's as if Raphael is boasting, "... and her face is still the center of interest."

A fascinating tradition says that the model for the painting was the love of his life, Margherita Luti, who was even more likely the model for the painting traditionally known as La Fornarina (illustration to the right). She was the daughter of Siennese baker. (The traditional title of the painting could mean "The Baker's Little Daughter.") In an aristocratic system such as theirs, marrying a baker's daughter would be a career-destroying move. So they lived in sin for years. Or did they?

I'm told that representing a woman as veiled was a traditional way of indicating that she is married. Was La Velata Raphael's way of celebrating their secret marriage? X-rays reveal that La Fornarina originally had a ring on her finger, which was later painted over. According to art historian Maurizio Curuz, four months after Raphael's untimely death someone identified as the "widow Margherita" entered a Roman convent, and disappeared from history.

It's not very surprising that there are other paintings for which Signorina Luti may well have been the model. They include "The Madonna of the Chair":

... "The Sistine Madonna":

... and "The Triumph of Galatea":

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Criminal Charges for BP?

Some people are calling for criminal charges against British Petroleum and Transocean, the companies that caused the biggest environmental disaster in living memory.

I am inclined to make a distinction here. On the one hand, some individual might through negligence or malice have have broken the law. Given that the fireball that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon platform killed eleven people, homicide charges are not unthinkable. Maybe someone should go to prison for this.

On the other hand, the government might end up fining BP, not an individual but the corporation itself, as it has in the past, for "environmental crimes." That I am against, for a very simple reason: it would amount to forcing one bad guy to give money to another bad guy.

BP is the target of over 150 lawsuits so far. That is potentially a good thing. The reason is not that it would make BP suffer. Aside from the fact that it is doubtful that corporate bodies can suffer (remember Lord Thurlow's aphorism: "a corporation has no soul to damn and no pants to kick"), lawsuits have a much more constructive function than mere revenge. The function of tort law, unlike criminal law, is to compel wrongdoers to literally "make good," to compensate their innocent victims with cash payments.

By contrast, if BP is fined for corporate crimes, that too is a payment of money, but in this case the cash goes not to its victims but to the government. There is a big difference between the government and the people who are suing BP: the government is not innocent in this matter.

In case that is not obvious to you, ask yourself: why on Earth are we drilling for oil in mile-deep water, in the complete absence of a technology adequate to fix mishaps when they happen? Don't you suppose there are places on dry land, say, in Alaska, or in the vast Federal lands in the western states, where they could be drilling instead? Why would a greedy business corporation be doing something as expensive and dangerous -- to itself as well as everyone else -- as what it is doing? The answer is obvious.

Any dollar BP gives to the feds will be a dollar that is not available to its victims and its customers, and they deserve it a lot more than the government does.