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Saturday, September 7, 2013

How do you swagger? Historian, historicize thyself!

[Note:  this is the third of a series on being a jerk in academe.  For the introduction to the series, click here.]

Historians are difficult people to be around and, I imagine, to live with.  We can be jerks in so many ways, it's hard to count.  But one (and only one of many!) of the ways we can be jerks is by calling out irrelevant ahirstoricism.

Ahistoricism is supposedly the cardinal sin for historians, unless we're talking about all the other cardinal sins, such as plagiarism or making up sources.  Unlike academic fraud, but like pride, however, ahistoricism is a sin every historian can plausibly be accused of.  If the historian adopts some sort of founding assumption for his/her study, he/she assumes away certain contingencies and therefore rests on a non-historical foundation.  Simply using the abstraction called language--even though it's a conventional abstraction, constructed socially--he/she must of necessity be at least one remove from the contingencies of the past.  What this boils down to is that if the historian advances an unpopular (in the discipline or to its practitioniers) idea, there's always something ahistorical an opposing historian can detect in it.[1] 

Here's the definition of ahistoricism as far as I can understand it:  It refers to the belief or claim (or assumption) that something is timeless and has not evolved or otherwise been affected by the passage of time.  One way ahistoricism can manifest itself is through an appeal to "tradition" or to the way things used to be, without acknowledging that "tradition" or the way things used to be were in their turn created or informed by historical circumstances.  Usually, this appeal to tradition is made as a counterpoint to a seemingly unprecedented (in degree or kind) present-day change.

There are some conceptual difficulties to the notion of ahistoricism.  For one thing, it feeds a viewpoint that history is about assessing "change over time."  Indeed, if you ask most professionally trained historians if history is about "change over time," at least a solid majority will say yes, assuming they're not being particularly argumentative that day.  "Change over time" is probably the bread and butter of history as it is practiced since the professionalization of the discipline in the late 1800-something.  But it creates a bias toward seeing change and not seeing continuity or persistence.  It's not that historians never see continuity or persistence, but they're challenged to see it as something that must be explained.  That's not a bad thing, just the bias you sign up for when you become a historian.

Another conceptual difficulty is that ahistoricism assumes away important notions of what constitutes truth.  Truth, or that truth which we can know or elucidate, is contingent on time (and place, and social class, etc.).  To be clear, I am not taking the postmodernism of the 1970s through 1990s and projecting backward, forward, and outward to the historical discipline as it has always existed (to do so would be, well, to engage in ahistoricism).  In fact, there have been, are, and always will be (*cough* ahistorical? *cough*) historians who believe in objective truth and in the ability of historians to know or at least get close to that truth.  Rather, what I'm saying is that a burden is placed against that notion of truth that posits the existence of ideal "forms" that determine or are represented by what mere mortals call reality.  In other words, Plato and his mythical Socrates have an uphill battle in convincing a professional historian of anything.[2]  Not that we should all be Platonists, but we should indeed be wary of presumptively shunting aside a huge tradition of thought.

Well, those difficulties are not ones I'm well equipped to elaborate on.  I'm not a philosopher, after all, and I'm not going to publish "Pierre Corneille's Guidebook to the Historical Profession" anytime soon (not the least because the absolutism à la Louis XIV went out of style a long time ago).  I just mention them to suggest that even within the profession, ahistoricism or its opposite (err, historicism) are not without their difficulties, even if they serve as founding assumptions. (To ahistoricism, I'll add historians' supposed aversion to counterfactuals.  It's probably true that we should eschew counterfactuals unless we want to devolve into making up a list of might-have-been's that are never false because they cannot be disproven.  But historians need to realize that whenever they hazard a statement of causality, they are indulging in a counterfactual claim.  To say that X causes Y is to say that if X hadn't happened, then Y wouldn't have happened, or it would have been less likely to have happened.)

Where all this comes into play in our ability to be jerks is the way we sometimes use the "that's ahistorical" card as a club against people who make ahistroical statements where their ahistoricism is either innocuous, or not the whole story.  What I'm saying is, sometimes people make ahistorical claims, and when they do, and even when the making of such claims represents a misunderstanding that needs to be corrected, we shouldn't throw out the amateur historian with the bathwater.  Sometimes even a ahistorical claim has an element of truth in it, or at least an element of something discussable.

To use a not particularly momentous example, I'll note something I often read in self-help books and other pop-psychology or pop-therapy books.  I like reading those books because well, they interest me and every once in a while, I stumble across one that's really thoughtful.  But most of those books, even sometimes the thoughtful ones, dabble at least a little bit in the following type of claim:
Stress [anger, anxiety, narcissism, [3] et cetera, und so weiter] is a challenge many people face.  And in today's ever more complicated world, these challenges are greater than ever.
That isn't a direct quote, but a paraphrased amalgam of the type of statement I see very often in those books.  When I read such phrasing, I turn over uncomfortably, not in my grave (I'm not there yet), but at least on my couch (on which I lounge in the early evening when I get home from work).  Frankly, when people make such statements, they just assume the truth of it.  Our world is ever more complicated, and therefore, the challenges are greater than ever, and therefore you need this book more than your great parents would've.

This phrasing is ahistorical in at least two ways.  First, in these accounts, stress (anger, anxiety, narcissism,[3] et cetera, und so weiter) are fixed, discrete ideas, not something the definition of which might change and has changed over time.

Second, not much or anything is said about stress (anger, anxiety, narcissism, et cetera, und so weiter) in the past, except as illustrations that such have always been with us, but now it's really bad, because with on-demand tv, cell phones, and emails, there are more demands on our time than ever.  I'm not in principle against the notion that modern conveniences (especially cell phones!) come with their own stressors or make life potentially more stressful than in the past.  On the other hand, those of us likely to be stressed out by our access to on-demand tv, cell phones, and emails are likely to belong to that class of people on earth who have avoided the sharper edges of the dire scarcity in basic living essentials that likely was a not unimportant cause of stress for our predecessors and for others in our present-day world not so fortunate. 

This post isn't really a takedown of self-help and pop psychology literature.  In fact, I'm trying to say that the ahistoricism of these works' authors is largely irrelevant.  Stress (anger, anxiety, narcissism, et cetera, und so weiter) can be a problem today even if it (and they) is (are) only as bad, or even not as bad, as in the past.  And even though the notions of what constitutes it (and them) might be socially and historically constructed along some plane, along another plane, it (and they) is (are) instantiation(s) of suffering, and if the book in question offers a way for someone to address or cope with the suffering, then maybe that book is good despite the fact that it's not a work in history.

Don't get me wrong.  The books are often very poorly considered, and maybe in another post I'll advance a deeper criticism of what I see as some of the debilitating assumptions and approaches their authors employ.  But their ahistoricism is not their primary offense.

The self-help industry can take care of itself, with or without my calling attention to its ahistoricism.  (And who knows, maybe some works don't fall into these traps.)  I'm not too afraid that whatever cartel is responsible for printing these books will send their goons to dismantle my blog any time soon.  But I cite this as one way in which historians might make a criticism.

Another way--and one more akin to being a jerk--is in discussions with others when the historian believes that simply calling out those others' ahistoricism is dispositive of the wrongness of their argument and the rightness of his/hers (the historian's).

Over at the Ordinary Times Blog (formerly The League of Ordinary Gentlemen), for example, there is a commenter who frequently criticizes social conservatives as refusing to accept "modernity."  The attitude his language expresses strikes me as akin to "these simple folk need a good dose of federal government--perhaps accompanied by a one- or two-year stay in New York City or San Francisco--to cure them of their provincial benightedness."  (That's actually more of what I read into his comments than anything he's actually said.  So I am putting words into his mouth that he probably would say he didn't intend.)

That, to my mind, oversimplifying and condescending stereotype of a large group of people irritates me.  And I'm tempted to pull out the historians' toolkit and challenge him on his use of "modernity," a word at least a majority of whose users (I'm convinced) haven't a strong idea the meaning of.  (I was introduced to it as a historical concept in my MA program in 1997, and I still haven't figured out what it means.)  I'm tempted to bring to light the argument that so-called anti-modern movements are actually manifestations of modernity and arise because of modernity.

I'll have to admit a few things.  First, that comes very close to the philosopher's almost tu quoque I criticized in my last post. I'm pointing out how the definition of what something is against is so bound up with that something, that those who are against it are in the sense constituted by it.  Technically that's true, but it doesn't really say much.  This commenter would probably point out, rightly, that this group of people overwhelmingly opposes things that he, and I, favor:  legal right to same sex marriage, for example.  I personally believe that invoking their opposition to "modernity" (where modernity, whatever it means, = "good" and anyone who opposes it = "bad") is an extremely poor, even question-begging, way to go about it.  But that's probably closer to what he means than a pedantic rendering of "modernity" and oppositional movements to it.

Second, that pedantic objection of mine does not really express my true objection (and personally, I get annoyed when some historians say "the anti-modernists are actually modernists because they're opposed to the modern"....ugh!).  In fact, I think many of these social conservatives embrace the norms often associated with "modernity" much more than this commenter gives them credit for.  The norms in this case are respect for individual autonomy and limitations placed on the state's ability to intrude into private affairs and a reliance on capital and information networks and the (in some ways) liberating and (in some ways) restrictive effects of that reliance.  (Whether these norms are in fact characteristic of that "thing" called modernity might be open for debate, but I will say they're probably part of the bundle of what a lot of people mean by "modernity.")  Now, when I say that social conservatives are largely already on board with modernity, that doesn't mean they as a group have no objections to it, but I do think that most of them have bought into its basic assumptions, and the commenter I referenced above might find that the ways in which they do object are not consonant with his purported embrace of "new deal" liberalism.

That second point, in fact, is probably closer to what historians mean when they say anti-modern movements are in fact in cahoots with "modernity."  But notice how much more nuanced it is than what I was tempted to say at the beginning, that they can't be anti-modern because (of course!) they're reacting against modernity.

And, for the topic of this already long blog post, that affects the price of tea in China inasmuch as it's very easy for me to call out out that commenter on ahistoricism but not very well engage his principal idea, which in my opinion, deserves to be criticized.

In sum, ahistoricism is often a grave error, but before we historians criticize this "sin," we ought to keep in mind how closely it is aligned with the argument we're engaging.  If someone's argument is not intended to be historical, and commits an ahistoricism as merely a rhetorical or hyperbolic flourish, then maybe we need to let it slide in favor of addressing what the person really (or at least probably) intended.

[1]In my dissertation, for example, some members of my committee were rather critical of my use, in my conclusion, of the term "economic liberty" and my suggestion that it's something we should take seriously when assessing political regulation.  Their criticism was that my use was ahistorical, even though I noted ways in which the concept fell short as a way of helping others and even though I had at least a couple of paragraphs that tried to explain the way some late twentieth century conservatives used the term as a rallying cry for supporting entrenched business interests.  My committee members weren't fully wrong.  I might have looked more closely to how the term, or at least the concept represented by the term, had been used during the time period I studied (I didn't do that at all), and my decision to discuss it only in the conclusion seemed to some of the committee members, quite rightly, as an eleventh hour argument.  Still, I got the sense that even uttering "economic liberty" in the presence of people with certain ideological dispositions was to indulge in fighting words.  Not that I didn't really know that to begin with, so I can't claim to be too shocked.

[2]  This includes, by the way, the proposition that their explorations are anything like a true dialogue in which the interlocutors really have a chance to speak their mind.

[3]As an admittedly irrelevant aside (hence my inclusion of it in a footnote and not the main text), I'll say there are no self-help books for narcissists, or at least I haven't found any yet, even though there are plenty about "dealing with the narcissists in your life."  I can imagine narcissists complaining, "why doesn't anyone write a book for us?"  But it doesn't (necessarily!) stop there.  I think there is a certain kind of self regard that leads some people (e.g., me) who read self-help books to feel themselves particularly aggrieved or in need of special care or attention.  And most of those books I have read have, if one pokes into their implications deeply enough, some variant of the sub-theme "you're a great person, and it's others who are wronging you."  Perhaps a large number of these books are written for narcissists, but the authors don't have the heart (or the financial independence) to admit it.  I'm not claiming any sort of high ground here about this literature's readership.  I intend this speculation is as much as a self-criticism as an accusation about others.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

How do you swagger? The almost tu quoque trick question

[Note:  this is the second of a series on being a jerk in academe.  For the introduction to the series, click here.]

Now I'm going to explain how philosophers sometimes "swagger."  But to do that, I'm going to provide a little background here.

When I was a freshman in college, I took an introduction to biology class that had three components.  The first was the regular three-day-a-week lecture.  The second was the one-day-a-week lab.  The third was a philosophy component.  For that philosophy component, we met one hour a week in a class taught by a professor who specialized in bioethics and in particular, the question of animal cruelty.  All three components worked together very well, and collectively they constituted one of the best classes I ever had.  The lectures were done well, and the biology professor, in addition to introducing us to the nuts and bolts of the science, also asked us to engage some of the more fundamental questions about why scientists believe what they do and whatnot.  (He also occasionally made strawman arguments about what Christians believe, and I found those arguments and the bully-pulpit style in which he delivered them to be rather disconcerting, but that's a discussion for another post.)

Even the lab was good, helped (in my opinion) by the fact that neither the biology professor or philosopher really cared for dissecting, on the (again, in my opinion) very reasonable grounds that what one learns from dissecting in a freshman-level biology class is not going to be of much use even to those who go on to become doctors and veterinarians.

The philosophy of science component was particularly stimulating.  The course itself and the readings we did challenged my perception of what science was and could be.  For the first time I read (and probably misinterpreted) Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions.*  In particular, we were challenged to interrogate the claim that "science is value free."  For the first semester, we had to write a paper on that topic, and although I forget the exact parameters of that paper, the question was more or less "discuss critically the idea that science is value free."

Although every one of the small handful of philosophy classes I've taken have insisted that there are no right answers, there always has been one, and in this case, one element of the "right answer," so to speak, was to point out that the statement "science is value free" is itself a value statement, not only a statement about what science is, but about what it is supposed to be, on the ground that even discussing the value-freeness of science is to engage in a discussion of values and to assign values to science.

This "right answer" irked me.  One reason its irked me was that I didn't come up with it and received a lower grade than I might have (lower by a few points....I still got a pretty good grade).  Another reason is that it seemed like an unfair rigging of the game.  A hapless science researcher, doing his or her research, publishing in peer-reviewed journals, and complaining about young earth creationists, is confronted with the question "is science value free," and simply by answering, he or she concedes the point.  It seemed to me that the question was posed in bad faith, and the gotcha was that nothing is value free.  Quod erat demonstratum.

At least, that's how I interpreted the "right answer" at the time.  In fact, I believe a more charitable way to look at the point is not to think of it as rigging the rules of the game, but rather as a way to demonstrate that value assumptions are not so easily got rid of by saying, for example, that scientists are only trying to find "the truth." Not only is "truth" definitely a value, but one might plausibly have to subordinate other values to get there.

One of the examples the professor gave was what was (and probably is) known as "stage 2" testing for some lifesaving medications.  In this type of testing (which I presume was double blind), some terminally ill patients were given potentially lifesaving, but so far not FDA approved, medications, while others were given placebos.  This was done in the name of trying to figure out how effective, if effective at all, a proposed medication was.  The professor's point was that at least some terminally ill patients were being denied potentially lifesaving treatment all in the name of finding out "the truth" (and, he might have added, in the name of getting a government agency to sign off on the treatment).  In this situation, he argued, a researcher couldn't just plead off by saying "science is value free."  In some cases, perhaps, such an overriding of values is called for, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen.**

Pointing out these kinds of basic assumptions is what philosophers are supposed to do.  And if any circumstances are appropriate for such pointing out of basic assumptions, a philosophy class is one of those circumstances.  But there's a certain gotcha'ness that almost, though admittedly not quite, can venture into what seems like tu quoque territory, tu quoque being the argument by which person A tries to refute person B's argument by pointing out that person B is a hypocrite or at least not personally representative of what person B is arguing for.   There's a sense in which once one points out that another person relies on assumptions he or she is arguing against, that person's overall point has been refuted.

In the case of the scientist, it seems quite clear to me that the researcher would admit that seeking "truth" is a value, but that the researcher did not mean that when he or she said science is value free.  In other words, insisting on the starting value-claim seems to miss at least part of the point.  Pointing out the starting assumption is indeed important and needs to be done, and I personally experience a pretty high level of Schadenfreude whenever scientists are knocked down a few pegs by being reminded that they, too, belong to the human race and engage in value-begging and question-begging assumptions.  Still, scientists should be given their due after the quality of their founding assumptions has been pointed out.

Now, I say that this is a way that "philosophers" swagger.  Maybe that's wrong, although the few explicitly philosophy-inclined persons I know do that kind of assumption-calling occasionally.  Maybe it's more accurate to say it's a philosophy-lite swagger, in which people who have maybe taken a philosophy course or two, or who style themselves as particularly perceptive, use this assumption-calling as a way to refute arguments.

I know I do that sometimes.  One libertarian commenter at the League (now called "Ordinary Times") occasionally calls out liberal commenters on their moralism.  In particular, he calls out those who might say, (to use a made up, but within the pale example), that derivatives trading is "immoral" and ought to be abolished.  In one case, I tried to remind that person that calling out other persons' moralism is in its own way a "moral" claim, and that the libertarian principles that person believes in are in some ways reducible to moral claims about the rightness of certain forms of regulation or about creating a just society.  I think I was right, and I think anyone who calls out moralism in others does well to place his or her own moralism into context, if only to provide a fuller picture of what he/she is objecting to.

Still, my calling out elided an important point.  This commenter wasn't claiming that he was free of moral assumptions so much as he was pointing out a certain type of lazy argument, an argument that assumes because a certain situation is undesirable, it is therefore so wrong that anyone who engages in it is morally suspect, and that the right remedy is, in this case, some sort of law declaring the wrong thing wrong without even addressing why people engage in the "wrong" thing to begin with.  (I submit that another problem with poseur philosophers is that they write in long convoluted sentences whose meaning is hard to decipher.  Even so, I hope the last pre-parenthetical sentence of this paragraph is clear.)

*Pointing out other people's alleged misinterpretations of Kuhn seems to have become a cottage industry among those who "truly understand what Kuhn was saying" almost as if Kuhn wrote the Bible, and proper interpretation of the Bible is the way to find the good life in this world.  My own take is that (some of) the misinterpretations of Kuhn might be useful.

**I've since come to realize, by the way, that my professor's example was a bit too neat.  The problem of some being denied potentially lifesaving medications in order to test the effectiveness of a product is not nonexistent.  See, for example, protests in the 1980s over such testing schemes for anti-HIV medications.  However, I suspect that in a lot of cases, the difference is not always between potentially lifesaving treatments and placebos, but between treatments that might have some effect (say on a patient's protein production or whatnot) and no effect.  As a friend of mine, who had a relative who suffered from pancreatic cancer and agreed to participate in a study, said, there was really no possibility offered that his relative would improve at all, and the researchers were very upfront about this reality.  Still, the attitude has existed.  Paul de Kruif, in his book Microbe Hunters, also demonstrates the attitude that at least some people place a value on finding a control group in order to gauge the effectiveness of potentially lifesaving treatments.  The book is his account of how early twentieth-century scientists combated what were then very serious diseases by isolating the microbes responsible and issuing treatments.  For one such disease (I forget which), he notes a unique situation in which doctors with a prospective treatment for a particular disease were confronted with a ward-full of sufferers.  Instead of cordoning off half of the sufferers to receive placebos and giving the treatment to the other half, they decided to treat everyone.  De Kruif says this move was understandable, but he laments the decision, portraying it as a lost opportunity to discover the truth about that treatment's effectiveness.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

How do you swagger? Addenda to my post on economists

In the last post in my series on being a jerk in academe, I talked about what I interpret as the argumentative style pursued by some economists.  I feel I need to clarify a few things.

By implication I suggested in that post that this style might have something to do with economists as a class, that when they talk to non-economists, they tend to adopt a certain posture that does little to encourage people to listen to them.

In that post, I wrote:
Again, I'm not trying to bait economics by the argumentation style of two people, Landsburg and the blogger I mention.  They all have valuable points. But I'm at a lost [sic!] to understand how the tone is designed to make it easier to listen to what they have to say.
Well, I'm no wholly at a loss.  In fact, I'm partially at a gain. I realize making provocative, outlandish claims,can, from time to time, goad someone to think differently or engage old topics in a new way.  It worked with me, or I wouldn't have written about them.

And it's not just the economists who do this.  I do it, too.  My insistence that the American Revolution wasn't a just war is, in addition to being a defensible statement in my opinion, is something I offer too often as a gadfly as a sneaky way to shock people.

My point about this type of talk being about economists as a class comes from what I observe to be their tendency to talk as if they assume everyone already shares their values and as if their values are not in some ways choices about what to value, sometimes universalizing their values to be some sort of objective truth.

This was part of the point I was trying to make about the letter Landsburg wrote to his daughter's preschool teacher.  In part, that point got lost in my poor writing.  I should clarify what the situation was and what I wanted the takeaway to be:

Landsburg has a strong distrust of some elements of the environmentalist movement, especially those near-religious elements that suggest we have an almost spiritual duty or obligation to take steps to preserve the environment.  Under this view, if we don't take those steps, if we "sin," then we face an assured destruction not unlike the calamities invoked in Revelations.  (That's not wholly Landsburg's point.  Robert H. Nelson has noted this aspect of some forms of the environmentalist movement, but I think Landsburg would probably find Nelson's interpretation congenial, at least insofar as it applies to environmentalists.  He has another point about economists.  See his The New Holy Wars:  Economic Religion versus Environmental Religion in America).  This environmentalist worldview is sometimes used to impose obligations, via shaming or more direly, via government policy, that compels Landsburg to live in a way he doesn't want to live.  There's also an implicit claim by Landsburg that many of the policies and obligations imposed, such as recycling programs, might not work as well as their proponents think they do, and might come with their own externalities.

Now, Landsburg saw his daughter's preschool give an assembly where the preschoolers recited many of the mantras of the environmentalist movement.  Landsburg sees this as the equivalent of a school giving religious instruction to his daughter, and without his consent or approval.  Instead of talking with his daughter's teacher, however, he writes the teacher a letter in which he assumes that the teacher ought to have known that environmentalism is like a religion and that he feels so strongly about the issue that he finds the assembly as imposition of her (the teacher's) religion on his daughter.

My criticism of Landsburg is twofold. First, the snide tone of the letter was unnecessary.  There were simply nicer ways to explain his objections when she asked why he didn't like the assembly than to say, in a letter, "I reject you right to ask that question."

Second, he shouldn't assume the teacher or anybody else sees the environmentalist movement as obviously a religious-like movement.  Even today (about 20 years after Landsburg wrote his book), I imagine if you polled most people in the U.S., they would not think environmentalism is a "religion" in the same way that Christianity, Judaism, or Islam are.  Therefore, someone can believe in the separation of church and state or church and school (I believe this was a private school his daughter attended) and yet out of ignorance or out of having a different definition of religion, simply not recognize that teaching envrionmentalist-centric obligations is like teaching a religion.  To be fair, I do think Landsburg has an argument here.  A lot is done in the name of helping the environment that seems questionable and based on apocalyptic assumptions about what will happen if we don't.  But when people think about secularism in our schools, their (understandable, in my view) default assumption is usually that it's about what formal religions (with their clerisies and thou-shalt-not's) to inculcate or avoid inculcating, and not about claims that at least on the surface are grounded in scientific (and much that is said in support of evironmentalism at least claims to be scientifically backed) notions of the good.  If Landsburg actually discussed this with the teacher, then maybe she would have been receptive to some of his ideas.  (As a side note, I'm bothered by the assumption that once we have shown something is like a religion, we have therefore discredited it.)

Now, I criticized this example as a sneaky way to suggest an objective truth that might be more contestable than the claim of objectivity.  I think that's a type of approach we all can be and often are guilty of, whether we're economists or not.  But economics is given such deference in policy discussions (although perhaps not in actual policies), that economists are wont to talk as if they believe that theirs are the only values.  They have a podium from which to speak, and they are speaking as if the choir and only the choir are before them.

That's not to say they're wrong about any given policy or argument.  While I'm not sure I understand fully how economists define "wealth," I suspect their definition ought to be part of the equation at least for public policy and for one's own personal sense of how wealthy one is.  And  I, for one, buy the argument that freer trade increases aggregate wealth, the argument that voluntary exchange is a good thing (although I find it hard to distill purely voluntary exchange from coercive networks that I feel are embedded in our society), and the assumption that it's usually better to have more choices than fewer.  And for what it's worth, for all my talk about economists' "values" and the non-objectivity of those values, I believe that a majority of people in the western world have already drunk that particular flavor of kool aid.  For good or for ill, most of us like our things, and we like the fact that many of those things are cheaper and more available than before.  Even a nontrivial number of the dissenters seem to base their objections on the claim that some people (i.e., the less affluent) are denied a fair portion of the pie that they want to grow bigger.  (Of course, others, like some environmentalists, offer more fundamental objections.) But these are points that economists either need to be make and defend, or need to show that their interlocutors already agree with them.

Perhaps I was too quick to suggest that economists are peculiarly susceptible to the type of swagger where, so confident of the truth of their religion, they must proselytize it as if there be none others.  After all, I based my illustrations on only two examples, Landsburg and the blogger who discussed sweatshops and the sex trade.  I cannot claim to have been systematic in my "review" of the literature.  In fact, I cannot claim to have reviewed the literature because, well, I haven't.

But I do ask my economist and economics-trained friends to ask themselves whether they do at least sometimes adopt that type of swagger, and then to ask themselves if they are creating more noise than converts.  In fact, this whole "series" of blog posts is much more a call for introspection than it is an attempt at condemnation.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

How do you swagger? Truths, damned truths, and economists

[Note:  this is the first of a series on being a jerk in academe.  For the introduction to the series, click here.]

Economists and those academics whose training is steeped in the study of economics (by which usually is meant something like a combination of classical economics, plus marginalism, plus "Keynes and his critics"),  swagger by positioning themselves as the ultimate truth-tellers.

And in doing so, they challenge us to rethink our approaches to notions of "value" and to notions of choice.  They compel us to answer questions we don't always think of:  why do we choose what we choose?  what do we give up when we choose to do (or buy) something?  how do the policies we claim to want actually affect how people act?  Usually, the chief lessons that economists want us to take away from what they say is something like a paean to the aggregation of wealth, where wealth seems (to me as a non-economist) to be something relating to choices.  The more choices available, the more wealthy "we as a society" are.  The approximation of this wealth might be things and services produced or perhaps the money one earns through the process of producing these goods and services.

My framing here of what economics offers is, again, from my non-economist's point of view.  And other than having read (and probably not fully understanding) Wealth of Nations, having taken Economics 101 in college, and read a smattering of others' work, I don't even have an elementary education in economics.

Moreover, I am taking a deliberately narrow(er) view of the profession.  I am focusing on the libertarian-leaning economists whose comments I read on the blogs I frequent.  In other words, I'm not looking at the Paul Krugmans, or the "radical economists," like Barry Bluestone, Benjamin Harrison, David Gordon, Richard Edwards, or Michael Reich.  Those people undoubtedly swagger in their own way, and perhaps they even swagger like the libertarian-leaning ones.  But they're not my focus.

Sometimes economists style themselves as intrepid tellers of uncomfortable truths.  They are probably not alone in this regard (there's a certain former vice president who has so styled himself, for example).  And woe unto the person who doesn't quite see that truth.

The form of argument I sometimes see is the following:
X, which you thought was bad, is actually good.  As long as we accept my definition of X, and as long X isn't something I currently suffer from.
My source for this style of argumentation is Steven E. Landsburg's The Armchair Economist:  Economics & Everyday Life (New York:  The Free Pres, 1993).  This book, as far as I can tell, is meant as an introduction to economics for the benefit of non-economists.  In particular, Landsburg appears to want to demonstrate how economics is as much of an approach to understanding ourselves and our world (and our choices and others' choices) as it is a "dismal science."  I'll just state that although I have read the chapters I'm discussing in this post, I haven't read the whole book (it's so nice to be out of grad school and to be able to admit I've read only part of a book and not have to pretend I've read the whole thing).

"X" is usually some claim that is designed to evoke outrage in others, until we find out that the definition of X he uses is so narrowly tailored to his purposes that his conclusions follow almost inevitably from the definition he has assigned.

In some cases, this formulation offers pretty good food for thought.  Take his chapter, "The Power of Incentives:  How Seat Belts Kill."  His argument is an interesting and enlightening one.  Seat belts enable car drivers and passengers to better survive accidents.  But because drivers know they are now better able to survive, they tend therefore to drive more recklessly, putting themselves but also others, especially pedestrians, at greater risk.  He uses that argument as a springboard to a broader point about how we structure incentives can often have an effect that's not wanted or not obviously intended.  Sometimes his facts are a little too neat.  One study he cites cites (p. 4) finds that the number of auto-caused deaths in one period were, in Landsburg's paraphrase, exactly the same with seat belts as without, but with different victims.  I'm suspicious of claims that the tradeoff is exactly the same.  However, I haven't read the study in question (and if I had, I wouldn't have the expertise to assess it), so it might be right.  And at any rate, the principal point is made clearly that people respond to incentives.

So far so good.  But sometimes that formulation can get tiresome and leave unaddressed some very important considerations.  Take the chapter entitled "How Statistics Lie:  Unemployment Can Be Good for You."  I'll start with a confession.  I don't think I understand what his argument is here, and my lack of understanding might say more about my unwillingness to engage the chapter rather than give it a quick read.  His argument seems to be that we have to be very very careful about what conclusions we draw from statistics.  Fair enough, and he makes some good points (as in, informative points I hadn't thought of before).  For example, he explores ways in which the alleged increase in the income gap during the 1980s might have been illusory [132-134].  To be sure, he doesn't insist the increase in the income gap was illusory, only that it might have been.

That's a good thing to keep in mind.  But he seems rather glib in some of his asides about unemployment.  Part of his point is that working fewer hours, which is how he seems to define underemployment ("We are all grossly underemployed compared with our ancestors of 100 years ago" [130]) or not having a job at all comes with leisure as a tradeoff.  (Another part of his point is that by getting the current unemployment rate, we don't have a clear view of people's lifetime earnings.)  He seems to almost completely discount the anxiety and fear that unemployment can bring.  He comes close--"[o]f course, unemployment can be accompanied by bad things, such as diminution of income...." [129, emphasis his]--but there is a cost to not having work, and the "leisure" might be hard to enjoy when a new job is not in the offing.

He also seems too eager, in my opinion, to neglect the consideration that certain "choices" regarding employment are constrained [130]:
When Peter chooses to work 80 hours a week an get rich while Paul chooses to work 3 hours a week and get comfortable in other ways, who is to say which choice is the wiser?  I can find nothing in economics, morality, or for that matter my personal instincts that says we should approve more of one than the other.
I don't, either, but judging others' choices is not the only question, is it?  Peter's "choice" to work 80 hours per week might be to a non-trivial degree informed by his needs and the wages he can command, and Paul's "choice" to work 3 hours might be to a non-trivial degree formed by the paucity of available work.  Landsburg goes on to say "Unemployment, or a low level of employment, can be a voluntary choice and a good one."  Yes, but it can be other things, or it can be some messy mixture of voluntary choice and circumstances that channel and limit the available choices.

Don't get me wrong.  I think Landsburg has some important points here.  We shouldn't assume even severe reverses to be unrelentingly, pathetically, bad things, with no upsides.  When I was laid off from my job as a loan processor in 2008, that quickly proved an opportunity to take an emergency adjuncting job that advanced my employment prospects (and a few months later, I met the woman who eventually agreed to marry me).  And although I have to remember that I had no dependents to support and as a student I had access to certain employment networks (hence, my adjuncting job) and other resources, I can say that losing that job was in many ways had corresponding benefits.  (There was also a sense of relief when it finally happened, because rumors of layoffs had been in the office air for at least a couple weeks.)

But there's a certain glibness to his statement of the truths here that turn off, at least me, and probably others who might need to hear what he says.

I'm reminded of a blogger whose site I read regularly and who although not an economist, has a lot of training in economics.  In one post, he wanted to demonstrate, in the context of discussion of sweatshops in developing countries, that sweatshops could mean more choices and therefore made better off those for whom the choice to work at a sweatshop.  In order to illustrate his point that more choices make people better off, he posited the following hypothetical (I paraphrase):
Suppose the only employment available to someone is low wages in a sweatshop.  Suppose also that another propositions that someone to provide sex for money.  That worker is now better off because she has more choices.
Now, I want to be clear about two things.  First, the person who advanced this hypothetical does not in any way think that situation is a good state of affairs.  He doesn't endorse exploiting people sexually, although he might support laws that enable people to do sex work on the (very reasonable) grounds that laws which forbid sex work tend to hurt the sex workers more than anyone (and I might support such laws, too).  Second, the conclusion he draws from his hypothetical is, in my opinion, correct.  The worker in that scenario is (slightly) better off than before because now she has a choice.

But a lot has to be assumed away and some costs have to be discounted for that hypothetical to permit that conclusion (and the blogger I refer to acknowledges that there is a lot of assuming away).  Here are some of the discounted costs that come to mind:
  • The worker in this case faces no opprobrium for agreeing to this "choice."  Rightly or wrongly, people judge others by their sexual choices.  And I'm not an expert the sociology of any developing country, but the stereotype, at least, is that most of these areas are supposedly traditional societies.  "Traditional" is a loaded term, but at least some of these societies might attach a certain opprobrium to sex work that can, again in some cases, lead to ostracization, or worse.
  • STD transmission is a real threat.  The "choice" in this hypothetical relies on a short time horizon.  The worker might be better off now, but if she contracts a fatal or debilitating disease, the cost will grow in the medium and long term horizon.
  • This is just speculation on my part, but I imagine the class of people who offer sex for money has a disproportionate number of people who would take it by force if they can't get it by payment.  I'm not saying all john's are like that, but I suspect that some of them might be like that.  And the person so propositioned might, with very good reason, not be fully confident that the "choice" is really a choice at all.
But let's assume away all those costs and anything else on heaven and earth we can dream of.  And let's acknowledge the worker is indeed better off.  I, for one, am not going to book a plane to that developing country and tell the person how much better off she is now.  She is indeed better off (again, granting the assumptions), but it's not quite my place to tell her that.

To be clear, there is indeed room for discussing the better-off-ness of others, and valid points aren't invalidated just because the point-maker is not likely to be in the position to be "better off" in just that way.  But there's a certain stridency in such invocations that, well, makes the truth harder to swallow or even acknowledge, especially when it's addressed to someone who doesn't already agree with the argument and who needs to be convinced.

Now back to Landsburg.  In his last chapter, we see what in my opinion is a pretty fresh represntation of the type of swagger I'm talking about here.  Entitled, "Why I Am Not an Environmentalist:  The Science of Economics Versus the Religion of Ecology," this chapter takes aim the preachiness of the environmental movement.  As someone who resists the sorts of obligations that are claimed upon me in the name of "protecting the environment," I have a lot of sympathy for his basic point here.

He recounts going to some sort of assembly put on by his daughter's pre-school that, he says, reflects a "naive environmentalism...a force-fed potpourri of myth, superstition, and ritual that has much in comon with the least reputable varieties of religious fundamentalism." [223-4].  In particular, the assembly, a graduation ceremony for the pre-schoolers, required the pre-schoolers to repeat phrases like "'With privilege comes responsibility,'" which, he suggests, functions principally as a way to inculcate the passive acceptance of a certain value, one possible outcome of which is to permit restrictions on our liberty simply by invoking the notion "it's good for the environment, and we do have a responsibility."

As I said, I have a lot of sympathy for Landsburg's point.  And perhaps it's a pity that he witnessed this example of the school's values on what was probably his daughter's last day at pre-school.  If he had learned of it earlier, he might haven't been denied the opportunity to conclude that another dollar spent for another day at her school wasn't worth the additional education, thus permitting him to pull her out of class.

My only real objection to his actual point is that any educational setting seeks to inculcate some values.  And given that he had just written a book expressing how his values are either superior to those of non-economists, or at least deserve a hearing from non-economists, one might think he'd be more reflective on that score.  (I'm also thinking of Robert H. Nelson's book counterposing the "religion" of environmentalism with the "religion" of economics.)

But I have another objection to Mr. Landsburg's "swagger" here.  In this chapter, he not only complains about the inane recourse to cliches as a way to justify all sorts of coercive action.  He also reprints a letter he wrote to his daughter's pre-school teacher.  He had already told the teacher he was dissatisfied with the assembly.  When she asked why, he, by his account, said (I'm quoting from the letter), "I reject your right to ask that question.  The entire program of environmentalism is as foreign to us as the doctrine of Christianity."  [231] Landsburg in a prior paragraph of the same letter noted that he and his family are Jewish and that on other occasions, when he had objected to a Christian-centric assembly at another school, the school's response was to respect the difference in religion.  He then proceeds in the letter to speak as if the teacher ought to have realized that her environmentalist language of obligation was, of course, a "religious" view and that she shouldn't have had even to wonder what anyone might possibly object to.  Here are some of his points [231]:
  • "I do not sense on your [the teacher's] part any acknowledgment that there may be people in the world who do not share your views."
  • "I am frankly a lot more worried about my daughter's becoming an environmentalist than about her becoming a Christian."
  • "[W]e face no current threat of having Christianity imposed on us by petty tyrants; the same cannot be said of environmentalism.  My county government never tried to send me a New Testament, but it did send me a recycling bin."
How dare the teacher not know this!  She displayed no acknowledgment that others might not share her views.  Well, she asked him his views, but other than that, she displayed no such acknowledgment.  "Everybody" knows and in fact starts from the assumption that environmentalism is a religion in exactly the same way that Christianity and Judaism are religions.  How dare she not realize that!  The enlightenment era struggles which resulted in America's secular institutions were waged against the clergy and state established churches.  And presumably environmentalism (but I don't recall learning that).  Even his own county is against him, although it's unclear from the letter whether he's required to recycle or is merely given the opportunity (in Chicago, for example, we have recycling bins in at least some neighborhoods, but (so far at least) the actual decision to recycle is voluntary, with due caveats being granted that we all pay taxes and that taxes fund the recycling service.)

I imagine the teacher, upon reading that letter, is to don a sackcloth and do penance, perhaps by reciting "[t]he government solution to a problem is usually as bad as a the problem," with every 10th recitation interrupted by "and in the long run, we're all dead," or writing 1,000 times on a chalkboard the statement, "a good or service should be consumed at a quantity at which the marginal utility is equal to the marginal cost."

Again, I'm not trying to bait economics by the argumentation style of two people, Landsburg and the blogger I mention.  They all have valuable points. But I'm at a lost to understand how the tone is designed to make it easier to listen to what they have to say.

How do you swagger?, or....being a jerk in academe

It is my firm belief that all of us are jerks at least some of the time but that we are jerks in our own specific ways, determined by such factors as the manner of our upbringing, inherited traits, avocation, and choice of occupation.  Academics, or those with training in academe, are no exception, and depending on the discipline in which we train, we can be jerks in largely discipline-specific ways.  I write this post as an introduction to a series of posts about how people in certain disciplines can be jerks to those they argue or enter conversations with.

So far, I plan to write three posts.  The first two will be about disciplines to which I am an outsider:  economics and philosophy.  The third will be about one to which I am an insider:  history.  By writing these posts, I'm not suggesting that any of those three disciplines is "wrong" or "bad" or better or worse than others.  I'm also not too keen on making the argument that these jerky foibles are so peculiar to any discipline that there is absolutely no overlap with practitioners of other disciplines or even practitioners of non-disciplines.  (The thing I shall criticize philosophers for in my next post, for example, is something I'm often guilty of even though I'm no philosopher.)  In fact, I'm not basing these posts as critiques of those disciplines at all.

What I mean to do, rather, is to gently point out the pitfalls to which their practitioners seem disposed and to gently remind them that if thew want to be listened to and not to be, well, jerks, then they might want to take different approaches to talking with others who do not share their disciplinary assumptions.  I also meant these posts as a guide for how to read others' arguments more charitably than is often the case.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The weirdness of being considered an "expert"

In my last 4 years of grad school and in my current job, which is a temporary assignment, I've been working at an archive for a research library.  I love the job, and would like to sign on permanently if it's possible (it might not be possible--budget cuts, etc.--but I'm not saying this as a complaint, just as a statement of realism).  One thing that's been hard to get used to with this job is that in some ways, I'm considered and even deferred to as, an "expert" in history. 

This isn't all that surprising or even all that new.  When I got the job 4 years ago, I was on the dissertation-writing stage of grad school and had already had my MA.  Now, I'm done with the dissertation.  I suppose that in the several years in which I was a TA, and the three semesters in which I was an adjunct, I was also deferred to as "an expert," or if not an "expert," as someone whose basic competence for doing the job adequately was assumed.

But although my supposed "expertise" is not entirely new, my job in the archives has ratcheted up the way in which people seem to see me as an "expert."  This was clear my first day on the job.  I was taken to the library's warehouse to look at the collection I and other grad students would be processing.  Part of the collection we had been given was pounds and pounds (or thousands and thousands) of receipts for petty purchases and sales conducted by the organization that had donated its records.  My bosses were discussing what to do with them, and they edged toward just having them returned to the donor as material not of interest to researchers.  My suggestion was that we could keep them and they'd be valuable evidence of the donor's day-to-day activity.

I've since come to believe that I was wrong.  And in fact, we did return them to the organization, which as far as I know plans to have them destroyed.  It's not that these receipts were useless.  In some ways, the profession of history is renewed periodically by people who use disregarded or supposedly useless items to construct insight into a given subject.  But frankly, and this is especially the case with 20th-century U.S. history artifacts and documents, the problem is space, or the cost of maintaining all these items, and any archivist who is honest has to acknowledge that certain potentially useless items must be destroyed or not archived just because there's too much other stuff that's more obviously useful.

My point, though, isn't that I was wrong, it's that when I made the suggestion, my bosses actually listened to it seriously and took it into consideration.  And the only real reason they had to do so is that I had the credentials as an aspiring "historian."

I've had that type of treatment at least on a monthly (and often on a weekly) basis at my job since then.  My opinion is asked because it is wanted on a variety of matters, and whether my advice is followed or not (it usually is), it's pretty clear to me that the opinion asker weighs my answer in whatever they decide, because I "know history" and because I "understand what researchers want and look for."

It's also gotten to the point that I'm discouraged from doing the more menial tasks in my workplace, such as paging books or doing photocopying for patrons.  I also have little direct supervision.  If what I'm doing at the time requires me to read a book or to visit a website, I can do it and not be self-conscious that one of my bosses will see me reading and or surfing the net and wonder what I'm up to.  In part, this has to do with the fact that I work at a public institution, which has dedicated funding streams and does not have to earn a profit, so that the archives get money (or not) based largely on factors independent of what gets done (or not) onsite.  (There are exceptions to this, of course, but that's part of what's happening.)

But the weird thing is, I don't really feel like an expert.  I'm not just being falsely modest, but I think a large part of what I do could be done by a very studious undergraduate senior, or by a well-educated layperson.  True, I probably know more about history than those folks would, and more about professional research.  And their learning curve might be steeper than mine was (and is....there's a heckuva lot I still don't know).  But I think that they could learn the ropes without overweening difficulty.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The labor of others

I just finished a two week trip to Denver in which my wife and I got married.  We had already gotten the legalities out of the way in May, but the recent trip was a way to consecrate our marriage in front of family and friends.  It was a great time, and I felt and feel very blessed to be a part of such a nice ceremony, part of a new family, and married to a lovely wife.  I truly am fortunate.

I am also fortunate for the work that others have put into the ceremony.  My wife did a lot of the planning, and was gracious when I was a groomzilla about it all.  Her mother, my mother-in-law, footed the whole bill.  My sister and her partner, along with at least 10 (by my count) of their friends and her partner's relatives, and a goodly smattering of my own relatives, put in a huge amount of work to make it possible.  They drove people around, made and dj'd the music, prepared the food, decorated the backyard, and did scores of other things I know of and I don't know of.  We are fortunate enough to be able to repay them for their expenses, but we can never truly repay the time they put into everything.

In my academic career, one of the key fields of history I've studied has been labor history.  I have my misgivings about labor history as a sub-discipline (number one on the list is that although its scholars have improved, they are still depressingly and predictably rigid in their supposedly "radical" ideology.)  But one thing I've learned is that things usually get done because others have done the work to get them done.  That was true of this wedding ceremony.  One's labor is not just the cash value of what one's skills can command in a given hour of employment found on the open market.  It's also a part of one's life, a gift of oneself for which money is only an approximation.

And as poor of an approximation money is, the money used to pay for the ceremony was itself the product of hours, days, and years of labor by my parents-in-law's frugality, and by my wife's grandparents (and maybe her great-grandparents?....I'm unclear on the story), who fronted the capital, took the risk, and worked hard managing a processing plant, and whose employees worked just as hard and in the process made the risks they took worthwhile.  The first order consumers, too, took the processed materials and finished them into products, and the ultimate consumers bought those products, making the entire enterprise worthwhile.  There's a school of thought that an economy, wealthy and prosperous, thrives from channeled self-interest (it's not from the benevolence of the butcher, etc) and (to mix scholarly metaphors) a release of entrepreneurial energies.  All true, I suppose.  And yet there is cause for gratitude for others who partook of the system and poured their energies therein.

One doesn't have to be an absolutist who believes that "all value comes from labor!" to acknowledge the immensity of the gifts my wife and I have received. Again, I am thankful to all my friends and family and to my wife for everything in the past two weeks.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Pierre Corneille Book Review: Kenneth W. Daniels, Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary"

(This is a reprint of a review I wrote for Goodreads a while back.  I have edited it.)

Kenneth W. Daniels is a former evangelical/fundamentalist missionary to Africa who lost his faith, convinced, he says, by reason and logic that evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity doesn't hold water. Almost all of the arguments he offers are the ones that any thoughtful atheist, agnostic, or theist has encountered, considered, and acknowledged, so there's really nothing new here for the thoughtful atheist, agnostic, or theist.  But it is a welcome critique of religious faith that doesn't rely on the tropes of Hitchensite anti-religionism. 

The weaknesses of the book, such as they are weaknesses, are few. His primary intended audience is those who are probably least likely to read the book, that is, those evangelical/fundamentalist Christians who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. The arguments he offers are devastating to that particular approach to Christianity. He does engage other, less "fundamentalist" defenders of Christianity, such as C. S. Lewis, who, although an evangelical, certainly does not believe in the inerrancy of (most of) the Bible and who doesn't discount that humans may have evolved from "lesser" mammals.  But Daniels's argumentation is focused on addressing the possible objections that members of his primary intended audience might raise. In other words, he is not addressing straw man arguments--because those arguments exist among the audience he means to write for--but he does not delve as fully as do more self-consciously questioning theists. I'm not sure this counts as a "weakness" (he is clear about who his intended audience is), but the book leaves other readers where they probably were when they picked it up.

Another "weakness," if it is right to call it a weakness, is that Daniels does not seem to acknowledge (at least not to the extent that I would prefer) that his naturalistic worldview is based necessarily on unprovable assumptions. This is particularly clear when he spends much time debunking the alleged "miracles" that appear in the Bible. This debunking project is quite well done, but I would have liked him to go the extra mile and point out that miracles, by their very definition, are a-natural. In short, no one who subscribes completely to a naturalistic worldview could acknowledge a miracle even if it ambled up upon the water in their direction because in any such miracle "must have a reasonable explanation and if we don't know the explanation, then it's because we simply haven't uncovered it yet." Again, this isn't so much a weakness as it is a quality of the position for which Mr. Daniels argues so well.

What I liked best about this book is its humility and its tone. Daniels is not out to explain "how religion poisons everything." Rather, he remains consistently respectful to the persons whose worldview he challenges so well. Indeed, my own receptiveness to his book--I usually identify as "an agnostic who leans toward theism" or as an "apophatist"--causes me to wonder about my own antipathy to the atheist/agnostic/naturalist arguments. Perhaps I what I object to in these arguments is more the strident and bigoted tone of the Dawkins and Hitchens crowd than what they actually argue.

At any rate, this book is worth a read.

A Pierre Corneille Book Review: Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" (2007) [UPDATED]

(This is a review I posted on Goodreads a while back.  I have edited it.)

This book is not great.

Hitchens indulges in the most simplistic caricatures of religion and in the process undermines atheism. I'm not an atheist, but if I were, I would be upset that someone had offered a portrayal of atheism so fragile that it would have been considered (rightly) a straw man if a polemicist of faith had advanced it.

But it's actually not as much about atheism, or "humanism" as Hitchens sometimes describes it.  It's about being against religion. What's puzzling is that he doesn't seem to define religion.  Or rather, his definition of religion seems to be that which is irrational and bad. If a "religion" or a religious practice, or a religious person, advocates or performs something Hitchens considers good, then that's not religion talking.  It's instead a nascent humanism that runs counter to the religious.

Sometimes, Hitchens simply overdoes it.  At one point he bemoans a misgynistic prudery he claims resides in all religions.  For example, young woman, he says "will be taught that her monthly visitation of blood is a curse (all religions have expressed a horror of it),..." (bold emphasis added)  His end notes are unclear exactly how he arrived at that conclusion I rendered in bold. I guess we are to assume that after his exhaustive study of goddess religions, present-day goddess cults, Wiccan religions, (or Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims, for that matter) he has definitively failed to find even one religion that does not express horror of menstruation.

Is he only engaging in hyperbole?  That's a tricky question, and I'll admit that I have a tendency to seize upon others' hyperbole when they make an argument with which I disagree and then accuse them of making a too-expansive claim when all they're doing is trying for emphasis.  In short, hyperbole is always usually often sometimes lost on me.  At the same time, if your goal is to critique a set of practices that appear to reach throughout most (all?) of human history and most (all?) localities on this earth, with the historical and geographical diversity that entails, then maybe you shouldn't say "all" when you mean "most," "never" when you mean "not always," or "it" when you mean "a variety of approaches to life and the cosmos that for convenience or for more compelling logical or philosophical reasons we might agree fall under one category (religion) of being human."

Hitchens doesn't seem to grasp that compiling a list of bad things some religious people have done is not an argument in itself against religion. He also needs to demonstrate that religion, as religion, necessarily compels such bad actions. At one point he seems to recognize this. He states (p. 185), "I do not say that if I catch a Buddhist priest stealing all the offerings left by the simple folk at his temple, Buddhism is thereby discredited." Yet so much of his book consists of documenting instances equivalent to priests stealing the offerings, followed by his claim that these instances offer dispositive proof against religion.

That quotation about a wayward Buddhist priest is an example of Hitchens's recourse to false concessions. Smart enough to recognize that readers will raise certain objections, he claims to acknowledge these objections and thereby give the impression that he has accounted for them.  But these occasional and rare acknowledgments are preceded and followed by examples of him neglecting the concession. For instance, in the chapter in which he tries to rebut "the case against secularism"--and in which he gainsays, minimizes, and fundamentally ignores the case some religiously inclined people have made and continued to make for secularism--he concedes some of the faults of "humanism."  Some "humanists," he admits, supported that murderous Stalin, and another he mentions wrote a favorable review of Hitler's Mein Kampf. "Humanism has many crimes for which to apologize," Hitchens writes. (p. 250) "But it can apologize for them and correct them, in its own terms and without having to shake or challenge the basis of any unalterable system of belief."

I'll leave aside my doubts about whether an "ism" has the agency to apologize for anything and point out that in that comment, Hitchens thereby neglects the possibility that some people who confess a religion actually recognize and celebrate changes in doctrines, or adopt hermeneutic traditions that require multiple elaborations on basic tenets of belief, themselves subject to a high level of scrutiny. These types of religious traditions are anything but "unalterable."

Hitchens's eagerness to defend "humanism," "atheism," and "secularism" against the charge of immorality betrays a certain weak spot. Having indulged in the classic logical fallacy of overgeneralizing from a set of examples in order to make a broad claim about the whole, he wants to defend atheism against the charge that it leads to atheist-inspired atrocities such as one might attribute to Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. Part of his defense is that in some ways Stalinism, Hitlerism, and Maoism operated as religions. Yet another part of his defense is some discourse like we see above ("at least humanism can apologize").  But a sufficient argument could have been: just because some atheists do bad things doesn't mean that all atheists do, nor does it mean that they did the bad things because of their atheism. I would buy that argument. Heck, I do buy that argument. In fact, a lot of religious people of good will (and their apophatic fellow travelers like me) buy that argument.

One review I read notes the logical leaps and hints at the falsehoods, but says Hitchens's book still works "as a polemic." Does it?

To answer that question, we need to define the role a polemic is meant to serve. One role is to get people talking about whatever the polemicist has written, or to put it differently, to set the terms of the debate. Here, I think Hitchens succeeds to some degree. My own review here is not the first nor the best argument against Hitchens's books and the other works of the "new atheist" movement. Hitchens was already famous and he got even more famous when this book was published.  But this book gave him, probably, a greater fame than he would otherwise have had (it was how I first heard of him at any rate, and I've now read some of his other books, none of which is as atrocious as this one). People from all over (including at one point Tony Blair) debated him and thereby offered a recognition of his argument as something worthy of being debated. In my own small way, I'm doing the same thing in this blog post.  (For a better, more systematic critique of the "New Atheism" by a more talented author, you can consult, for free, Aphaniptera's Against the Irreligious Right at this link.)

Yet a good, or successful, polemic, in my view, has another role: to argue persuasively for a point, so persuasively that 1) it encourages people already inclined to agree to take action based on what is written, or 2) it compels the reader who is not inclined to agree to concede certain key points, to rethink the position they started out believing, or perhaps to offer their own defense and make their own position stronger.

As for "1," maybe Hitchens's work does this. I know of at least one person not given to extremist, question-begging views (Tod Kelly at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen) who admires Hitchens for his aggressive advocacy of atheism in the face of what, to him (Kelly), is an overwhelming societal disapproval of atheism.

But what is the "action" that is to be taken, and to what end? Hitchens is not clear. At one point, he aligns himself (without acknowledging the alignment) with a large number of religious persons from all backgrounds when he says he doesn't mind other people being religious as long as they don't impose their faiths on others. At another point, such as in his chapter where he asks whether religion constitutes child abuse (his answer: yes), he implies that the state ought to take more aggressive stances against liberty of conscience. My inference from what he wrote here might be debatable.  I'm not sure I recall him ever coming out and suggesting that the state take children away from religious parents. But to raise the issue of child abuse is, in my opinion, to put such discussion as a legitimate policy to be considered.

As for "2," what theistically-inclined person, who is honest and willing to entertain counterarguments and evidence that contradicts his or her religious views, would be compelled to make concessions to this polemic? Inasmuch as thoughtful religionists usually have already conceded that people sometimes do very bad things in the name of religion, or (somewhat more damning) that religion sometimes inspires people to do bad things, I have trouble finding one among them who would be moved by this polemic. There are, of course, fanatics who will dispute even these concessions--and my invocation of the "honest and willing to entertain" theist is probably a question-begging insistence that the fanatics are easily identifiable and separable from the tribe.  And who knows, maybe it's possible that I sometimes am of the fanatics' party without knowing it.  But an appeal to reason--and Hitchens no doubt saw his book as fitting in the tradition of other polemicists like Thomas Paine--is not designed to convince fanatics.

So we're left with where we started: the assertion that religion is bad and that atheism is good, buttressed by the assumption that humanism (however defined, so long as we define it as "good") is necessarily incompatible with religion.

Update 7-9-13:  My spelling is not great!  The original title to this post mentioned Hitchens's subtitle as "How Relition Poisons Everything."  I have corrected the error.I've also clarified some of the language in the post.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Gratitude and the 4th of July [UPDATED]

I hope I made clear in my last post, I have a lot of reservations about some of what is celebrated on the 4th of July, and especially what is called the "American Revolution."  But if I'm not careful, too many of such posts, or expressing that view uninvited to people with few or no reservations about that little squabble, might make me one of those bullies called contrarians who are contrary for the sake of being contrarian, or, say, something like Christopher Hitchens, but without the writing ability.

So I'll say now that I am grateful that to be a U.S. citizen and to live in America, and at least some of that gratitude relates to the consequences of the very "revolution" I have qualms about.

I think you can say that many of the constitutional rights we now enjoy in the U.S. we wouldn't have to nearly the same degree as we do now if there had not been a war for independence.  There are a series of rights elucidated in the constitution, and expanded via interpretation, that I hope I shall never have to avail myself of, but I am glad that they're there.  I say this even though I think these are in some ways curbed,  unconscionably at that, and that they are in some ways being curbed more and more, through, for example, the national security state, the war on terror, and the war on drugs, and, at least according to some people, the ACA.

A large country like the U.S., under a more English-style or Canadian-style (or worse, a French-style) system of laws in which the constituencies served by the wars on terror and drugs and by the national security state held sway would have even worse violations of the liberties I enjoy and appreciate.  (Of course, when speaking of "English-style" and "Canadian-style" systems of law, I'm talking about varying shades of what is arguably an essentially similar system.)  Under another system, the government provided universal health care that I desire might be more likely, but that outcome is not a certain one, and even if it were certain, universal health care can be done badly and with sometimes very perverse results.

Sometimes, though, I'm ambivalent about what, exactly, I'm grateful for, and whether my gratefulness is more a result of circumstances not related to the supposed rights at all.

For example, I like my first amendment rights.  They're part of what gives me the security to blog about almost whatever I want to, with relatively narrow libel exceptions.  Even the recent revelations of NSA "spying" don't bother me at a personal level all that much, although they do disturb me when I think of the direction to which policy might be headed.

But in large part, my "freedom of speech" is as much a function of what vulgar academics like to call "modernity."  To put it into more human language:  I'm playing the numbers game and banking on other people's apathy.  I imagine that anyone with a basic knowledge of how the internet works, or anyone who is willing to pay money to someone with such basic knowledge, could probably find out my ISP address and, with little additional difficulty, could find out where I live and who I am.  I'm banking on the (probably very strong) possibility that nobody outside of specialists in 17th-century French theater really care what Pierre Corneille thinks.  And those specialists are so far removed from any trigger of government power (and are probably disproportionately so unfamiliar with that confangled new thing called "the interwebs") to prove any danger to me.

I also wonder how much of my being grateful for being an American has to do with my being wealthy.  To be clear, I'm no millionaire, and my person, quantifiable net worth is, well,, several thousands shy of "zero" due to student loans.  But I've never in my life been without food or clothing.  Nor have I ever really feared not knowing whether or when I would eat next.  I've been pretty fortunate in life and in the material incidents that can make life enjoyable.  To a large degree, that relative wealth can be attributed to the economic system made possible by the liberties this country secures.

But to another degree, it is made possible by other things.  To the extent that all Americans, or most Americans, or a non-trivial number of Americans, enjoy wealth simply by virtue of being American, that wealth possibly has as much to do with America's power and with accidents of history as it has something to do with the rights America tries to guarantee.  In this sense, my "gratitude" for the rights secured me might possibly be an instance of the arrogance of power, the same arrogance evinced by a healthy person who is proud that he or she "never gets a cold," as if one can control disease and good health so easily.

Also, it helps that I'm white, straight, and male.  I don't always like what the police do--and I think they have way too much power in certain venues--but when I see a cop, I don't really fear that he or she might stop me or look at me suspiciously because of the color of my skin.

My government doesn't deny me the right to marry the class of person (women) I'm most likely to marry, and when my wife and I got legally married about 5 weeks ago, we could afford to take certain things for granted:  the possibility that the judge might look askance at us and treat us coolly--a possibility that I assume exists when gay couples try to get civil unioned--was not at all anything we had to worry about.  Also, as a married straight couple, we can travel throughout the U.S., and probably most countries, with the assurance that whatever jurisdiction we travel in or move to, our marriage will be recognized and not questioned.

Also, while I might be just as subject to street violence as the next person, as a male, I don't have to deal with being the type of target in the way that women are often targeted.  The threat of rape is not something that is systematically leveled against men the same way that it is leveled against women, at least not in open society.  Added to that are the binders-full of male (and white, and straight) privileges I enjoy.  True, those privileges come at a certain cost (see what Noah Berlatsky recently wrote, for example, about how men suffer from anti-woman sexism).  But they come with their perks, too.

My gratitude is further tempered by the realization that under the right (or wrong) circumstances, I might opt for security over liberty in order to secure the enjoyment of that wealth that makes it so easy to say, "Fish yeah.....America!"  I would be wrong to do so.  But who's to say what I would do or think?  I live about two miles from the epicenter of one of the riots in Chicago in 1968.  Regardless of any tsk-tsk'ing I might have indulged in at the time, what would I have really thought if I were around to hear of Richard J. Daley's "shoot to kill" order on the evening news?

I don't know, but I do know that when I was 18 years old and at the time a self-identified conservative, I watched Patrick Buchanan's speech at the Republican convention on TV and inwardly felt a surge of pride when he described the national guard intervention to quell the L.A. riots of that spring:
Greater love than this hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friend. Here were 19-year-old boys ready to lay down their lives to stop a mob from molesting old people they did not even know. And as they took back the streets of LA, block by block, so we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.
My point is not to say that rioting never needs to be stopped.  But Mr. Buchanan in that speech bespeaks a certain idolatry of security (take back our culture), with its thinly veiled racist undertones, that at one time in my life I found appealing.  Who's to say I wouldn't succumb again, to again translate my privilege the armed force that backs it up?

The typical fourth of July post--and typical posts about how grateful one is to be an American--usually includes some acknowledgment of gratitude for the armed forces.  And yes, I am grateful that the U.S. has an army, and I am grateful that the U.S. army, in at least some situations in the past, have fought for causes the outcome of which was at least partially good and the necessity of which was in very large measure defensible.  I do question the extent to which having a military complex as vast and extensive as the United States's is actually conducive to liberty, and I do believe there is a serviceable possibility that the military just might revolt under the right (or wrong) circumstances, although, I assure you, it would be done in the name of "liberty."

But still and at least in some measure, I owe gratitude for the army and the sacrifices of its members, even those members who engaged that unjustified conflict in the 1770s.

So yes, I am grateful to be an American, to live in the U.S., and to be the beneficiary of others' sacrifices.  But I am uncertain of the extent to which that's the gratitude that comes from the accident of good birth and fortune, or the accident from something intrinsic to the ideological vision of those who are credited with founding this country.

UPDATE, 7-5-13:  I've changed some of the content of this post.

Charter of dissent

When, in the course of the earth's circumnavigation around the sun, Americans again find it necessary to laud an unjust war, a decent respect for these otherwise decent people requires me to declare the reasons I dissent from the general celebration.

I hold these truths to be as self-evident as anything can be that all humans are created equal in rights, that all are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among people, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.  Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes, and accordingly all experience has shown, that even the most justified upheaval effects such great hardships upon innocents and upon those who, while not completely innocent of all wrongs the upheaval addresses, are caught up in the complexity in which human life places them and who perhaps do not deserve the extent of the scorn and humiliation such upheaval inflicts upon them.  And when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing generally the same object evinces what seems to be a design t reduce the people under what some of them might believe to be absolute despotism, it is at least understandable that they might see their grievances as justification and even as obligation to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.  Such was the belief of those American colonists who revolted against the crown to which they had declared their loyalty and from the operations of which and of the lawfully sitting representative body they had enjoyed a great measure of security.  But the history of the colonial and British relations up to that time represented a poor excuse to break those bonds that had lately been so strained.  To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

Parliament's punishment of the Massachusetts colony with the "Coercive Acts," or "Intolerable Acts," so called in the colonies, was unduly harsh and in other ways unwise.  But in itself, the punishment had been occasioned by the actions of a cabal of smugglers to destroy the property of the purveyor of a luxury item in the name of protesting a tax on that item, the practical function of the enforcement of which would primarily have been to reduce the price consumers paid for that item and drive the same smugglers out of business.  Although the legally constituted government among the Massachusetts officially disproved of such actions by the cabal, it tolerated or at least acquiesced to those protests.

The riots of 1770, which resulted in the deaths of five protesters, were a key example of the dangers of using the military to enforce civil laws, and the laws in question, duties upon trade, were so unpopular that parliament would have been well-advised to obtain a better means of securing their adoption and enforcement in the colonies.  But the riots themselves placed the occupation soldiers under direct threat of their lives.  And although the soldiers' membership in the military was ostensibly a choice, the policy of press ganging and other constraints placed upon the liberty of those who eventually found themselves in the military, and the soldiers themselves had no say in devising the policy they had been sent to enforce.  The soldiers received a measure of compensation, but were still required to find employment to supplement that compensation to make ends meet, and the riots to which they responded were as much about jobs competition as they were about the principle of the duties upon trade.

The duties in question had been enacted after protests against a colonies-wide Stamp Tax measure, and under a theory of the proper competency of the imperial government, offering indirect as opposed to direct taxation, advanced by one faction of the protesters against the Stamp duty. 

The Stamp duty and the later duties were in fact enacted to help pay the colonists' share of protection offered by the crown during the late war, and the imposition of all those duties still amounted to less a percentage of their incomes than what the colonists' compatriots in Britain had to pay.

Clear and urgent objections might be raised to the requirement that colonists pay for the war, a war instigated by some colonists, one of whom was soon made commander of the rebels after the charter of independence, so called, but admittedly pursued with interests as devised in London and not as devised in Boston, or New York, or Williamsburg, and to secure the colonists' enthusiastic support, the Pitt government offered imperial discounting of their expenses.  But one must reconsider the means designed to object to a change in policy, a change made necessary by fiscal contingencies that faced the empire.

And some other chief objections advanced by the charter of independence, so called, target efforts to secure liberties to other peoples.  The insurrections by "merciless Indian savages" against which the improvident declaration protests can be viewed as the efforts of sovereign nations to claim their share of an agreement they had entered into with the Crown and as assertions of their sovereign prerogative to control incursions into their lands.  The supposed abolition of a "free system of English laws in a neighboring province" amounts to acknowledging the specific religious practices of a conquered people in lieu of imposing the rules of the Church of England upon them.  Perhaps a better option would be to call for no civil enforcement of either church, or any church, but in 1774, when the supposed usurpation was inflicted, and in 1776, when the charter of independence, so called, was promulgated, the ideal of non-recognition was in its infancy, and the choice rested with keeping a civil and religious institution familiar to the conquered peoples, or imposing a one wholly alien upon them.

The charter of independence, so called, declines to discuss the beam of bondage in the eyes of the drafters, and makes only vague reference, and in the final draft even vaguer reference, to the mote of the imperial facilitation of such bondage.  It is true that prior policies of the empire had encouraged, at the request of the band of adventurers lured to the Americas by the promise of wealth, the importation of bound servants.  It is true that the empire had declined to invalidate or cause for the melioration of those laws, imposed by the colonists, designed to strengthen the terms of bondage and make them heritable, and it is true that the empire had at times invalidated measures by some colonies designed to lessen, and perhaps eventually to effect the elimination of, the bondage to labor.  And yet the colonists who most enjoy the fruits of the labor of bound people, either directly in the production of staples, or indirectly in the merchandising of articles sold to those who so directly enjoy those fruits, clamor for direct representation in the imposition of trade duties, long acknowledged as a prerogative of the empire, while denying to bound servants the basic freedom of ownership to labor that is the privilege and right of every English person.  It is only partial, and too slight, an answer to suggest that the remedy be forthcoming, although in some climes, where the colonists stand to continue to benefit from bond servitude indirectly, they might remove the reminder locally through local abolition of the institution.  The authors of the charter of independence, so called, are well-advised to reconsider whether the promise of some future attainment, in a later generation when the then current authors shall have passed away, be justification for the then current iniquity.

In every stage of the "oppressions," so called, enumerated in the charter of independence, so called, the colonists had petitioned for redress in the most humble terms.  Their repeated petitions had been answered sometimes by the force of arms, but just as commonly by efforts at accommodation and compromise.  True causes of concern exist.  The parliament may have overstepped its bounds.  The king may have overstepped his prerogatives.

But the objections the colonists offered, amounting to noticeable but not heavy taxation, to recognition of the rights of neighbor nations and conquered peoples, and to the response of armed violence with armed violence, constitute more the haphazard, if clumsy, and largely good faith, though sometimes also cynical, appraisal of how best to resolve the issues of governance that did not quit the colonists upon their independence, and indeed an in some ways made aggravated by the independence, than it constituted anything like a "long train of abuses" justifying the call to arms the charter of independence, so called, demands.

Great good, it must be admitted, came from the circumstances occasioned by this charter.  But the happy and felicitous outcomes, to the degree they were truly happy and felicitous, were largely unforeseeable.  The cost--in lives and in the civil liberties and in the rights to property of those who dared, with heroic firmness, to offer a different view of the emerging conflict--were too great to address the extant evils, so called.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Reasons for the withholding of the third cheer

In my last post, I stated that I had "two cheers" for the Supreme Court based on its marriage equality decisions.  My principal reason at the time for only two cheers and not three was more or less because I had wished the court had found the wherewithal to declare a constitutional right to marriage equality.  I understand the reasons why the court couldn't or wouldn't do that, and I even have some reservations about the "standing" aspect of the case that struck down section 3 of DOMA (I'm not convinced that the court shouldn't have granted standing, but I'm also not convinced that the court was right to do so).

But there are other reasons to posit only two cheers for the court.

The first is that the court was, in my view, just doing its job.  I recognize that the court is a political institution, and that its decisions can go one way or another, and my preference is that it go one way than another, so I'm happy it went (mostly) my way and not that other way.  I also recognize that there are different modes of constitutional interpretation and different ways to approach civil rights issues, etc.  But at the end of the day, the court's job is to issue decisions, and it and its members deserve no special praise for doing so.  The justices get paid their salary and are free to retire if they don't like the job.

The second, more pressing reason, is some of the court's other decisions of this term, particularly in the Salinas case and the Voting Rights Act (VRA) case.  In Salinas v. Texas, the court decided, if understand correctly, that prosecutors could use a defendant's refusal to speak to police officers against him when the defendant hadn't been formally in custody at the time of the interrogation.  This seems to be one step toward limiting or curbing our fifth amendment right against self-incrimination.   [See Orin Kerr's commentary here.]

Some have suggested that because the basic holding was from a plurality decision--only 3 of the 5 justice majority signed on to the part of the decision that limited the defendant's rights--the decision is limited to this specific case and therefore is not established precedent in the way that a 5-4 decision would have been.  I'm not so confident.  People will cite what they want to cite, and subsequent justices will ignore or entertain the plurality opinion, and those who choose to entertain it will use it as one authority to curb fifth amendment rights even further. 

The VRA case, Shelby County v. Holder, invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  This provision named certain states and certain counties of other states to be subject to what is called a "pre-clearance" requirement, which means that the U.S. Attorney General or a panel of three federal judges had to approve any attempts to revise state (or county) election laws or revise the boundaries of certain electoral districts.  The named states and counties were largely the same as those named in the original 1965 act (which has been renewed several times since, and the current challenge is to the latest renewal in 2006), and the court said that the 1965 formula the Congress used was outdated and reflected an unfair treatment of the subject states.

I'm willing to concede that the 2006 formula might not have been ideal, although I also strongly suspect that those states and counties are still subject to attempts by a majority, or at least a strong and influential plurality, of people to enact measures that will have the effect of limiting access to the polls by persons of color, and (incidentally or not), by poorer persons. 

I have a pragmatic objection and a more principled one.  The pragmatic objection is that, as I've just said, there may be attempts in the near future to enact measures that will have the effect of disfranchising a lot of people.  It's true that other states not covered by the VRA have taken or proposed such measures, and in a perfect world I would like all such attempts to be subject to pre-clearance requirements.  I find it exceedingly unlikely, however, that the current Congress, or one we might have in the foreseeable future, would pass a revised formula (or make the pre-clearance requirements national in scope).  (I'll note in passing that Molly Ball at The Atlantic seems to disagree with this view, but her argument is difficult to understand and contradictory, saying that it was hard enough to pass the renewal in 2006, and therefore people are wrong to think it would be easy now......which seems to me to support my view more than opposing it.)

My more principled objection is that the fifteenth amendment grants Congress the power to enforce its prohibition "by appropriate legislation" against denying the right to vote on the basis of color, race, or previous condition of servitude.  I actually believe Congress would have the power anyway, through inferences provided by the "necessary and proper" clause of the Constitution, but it's stated clearly in the fifteenth amendment so as to, in my mind, leave no doubt as to Congress's competence.

I don't believe the amendment immunizes Congress from any review whatsoever.  I can imagine some potentially arbitrary laws that might be passed by Congress simply in the name of enforcing the fifteenth amendment.  But I do believe the amendment grants a lot of deference to Congress's determination here, and the testimony and other studies the Congress undertook during the 2006 renewal process--even if it was an instance (I actually don't think it was) of just going through the motions--suggests to me something far from, and not even in the same ball park as, arbitrary.  The singling out of certain states and counties might have something of an inequitable effect (and again, I would support a national pre-clearance requirement, at least for electoral laws, but perhaps not for redistricting).  But the named localities are sites of historic abuses and current attempts at new restrictions.