Monday, July 4, 2022

Declaration of Dissent

 [Reprinted and edited from earlier version(s).]

When, in the course of another year, Americans again laud an unjust war, a decent respect for these otherwise decent people requires me to declare the reasons I dissent from the general celebration.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

Coming to grips with Dobbs

Through most of my adult life (I am almost 50), I have claimed to be pro-choice. I usually voted in the pro-choice direction when it came to ballot measures. I usually voted for pro-choice candidates for office.

I took that position on the cheap. Roe v. Wade created a distance between me and whatever abortion policy I claimed to endorse. As long as Roe was the law of the land, my pro-choice position mattered less. How I voted affected the policy along some margin, but it was a very slim margin.

For me, that mattered because in spite of my professed support for the pro-choice position, I also hold a deeply felt sense that human life begins at conception. If I carry that deeply felt sense to one logical conclusion, then it requires me to hold that the decision to abort is the decision to kill a person. I'm not quite there yet, and my never get there. But I'm almost there, and I cannot escape the implication at any rate.

To be clear, mine is not an absolute, rock solid belief. I cannot articulate exactly why I hold it or exactly how I came about it. I have no strong evidence or arguments. For any point I might offer to support that deeply felt sense, I can think of  counterarguments, contradictory evidence, and reductios ad absurdum that challenge my belief at every turn.

But still: I can't or won't forsake my deeply felt sense about when life begins. I can't do it in the same way I can't will myself to be who I am not. I won't do it in the same way that if I claim to have a disposition to the truth, I must follow where the truth, as I'm given to see the truth, leads me. How I act on that belief; when, whether, and with whom I choose to share it; what tone and what degree of understanding and compassion I bring to any discussion--those I can change as the circumstances warrant. But absent some sea change on the order of a religious conversion, my base belief won't change.

As long as Roe was the law, I could debate abortion with myself as a mostly abstract proposition. I could explain to myself that however we settle when life begins, abortion should be legal as a matter of policy. And going beyond the question of policy, I could explain to myself that I supported a woman's near absolute prerogative to choose an abortion. I have indulged in some heroic mental gymnastics to get to that second point. And frankly, I fear my reasoning is ad hoc and motivated. But while Roe was the law, I could engage in such musings and call it a theoretical exercise.

Now, Roe is not the law.

Now, how I vote affects abortion policy more than before.

Now, I must consider how much and in what ways I support the pro-choice position.

Now, I must ponder the, for me, terrible and terrifying prospect of taking a more active stand, of more directly causing more abortions to happen that otherwise wouldn't happen. I could--I have the means--donate money to those who would help women obtain abortions.

(Of course, I could also do nothing. That's probably what I shall do. But I hold seriously to my other belief that abortion is and ought to be a woman's prerogative, that impeding that prerogative is a deep wrong, and that the primary and secondary effects of criminalization make for a dangerous and unjust policy.)

I always knew that under Roe, taking the pro-choice position enabled abortion. I never agreed, as a factual matter, that "people will just get abortions anyway, just not safe ones" even though some will get indeed risk getting unsafe abortions, especially if abortion is banned nationally.

But now any stance I take is of more consequence. The margin along which my actions can affect the outcome is larger. I can no longer outsource my supposed pro-choice convictions to the Supreme Court.

Friday, July 1, 2022

Book buying online

When I look at a book advertisement on, say, Amazon, most of the time two key pieces of information are missing or very difficult to find. The first is the date of publication. The second is the table of contents.

Those two items are, in my view, very important for judging whether I'm inclined to want to read or buy the book. The date of publication tells me the approximate historical context. The table of contents says a lot (not everything, but a lot) about, well, the content of the book.

What perplexes me is why it's so hard to find this info on the book-selling sites. I would have thought those would be disclosed by default.

To be clear, it's not impossible to find that information. Book-selling sites usually have a "read an excerpt" and that excerpt usually includes the title/copyright pages and table of contents. But not always. And it's one extra step.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Twelve thoughts on covid

#1. For most of my adult life, I knew that I could carry diseases that may not be harmful to me, but fatal to others. And yet, only during the covid pandemic was I admonished to protect others by, for example, wearing masks or staying away from others. That's a good lesson, and I'll try to abide by it.

Monday, February 7, 2022

Why I might not resubscribe to Astral Codex Ten

I've said before that I'm a fan of Scott Alexander, his current blog, Astral Codex Ten, and his former blog, Slate Star Codex. Last year, I paid for a subscription to his current blog. Now that the subscription is expired, I probably won't renew. Here, I'll explain why.

The main reason is that he doesn't really write that much content. He offers lots of open threads and "rationalist community meetup" events. He also offers what seem to me to be unending reader submitted book review contests. I'm sure they're good reviews (I actually haven't read them), but I didn't subscribe to the blog to read other people's work.

Another reason is that what he does write, now, seems to lack the heft of his earlier pieces. Frankly, his pieces are shorter than before. He wraps up his essays a bit too quickly for my tastes. What I used to like about his writing is that he seemed to devote a lot more time in each essay exploring whatever issue he was exploring. And he tends to wrap things up too neatly. In that, his writing style reminds me of Richard Roeper's film reviews at the Chicago Sun-Times.

A third reason, not a major one, is that I suspect he wasn't completely honest about the controversy with the New York Times that led to him cancelling his former blog. I don't think he lied about anything. But I suspect he portrayed the situation as a bit more dire than it was. That said, I do believe him when he says he's gotten death threats. And even if the threats weren't credible, they're still freaking death threats and I don't blame anyone who gets concerned about such things, especially because that's never happened to me.

It's possible all my reasons are off base. Maybe Scott always posted so little content, but because I wasn't paying to read it, I wasn't inclined to (and didn't have any standing to) complain.

While it's probably true that his essays are now shorter, I can't promise his longer essays were necessarily better. I usually skimmed huge chunks of his essays. It's quite possible that when he wrote (to make up numbers) 2,000-word blog posts, I read only 1,200 words and skipped the rest, while now he writes 1,300-word posts and I read everything.

For the New York Times thing, I obviously don't know the whole story. I'll never know the whole story.

I should say that I don't bear Scott any ill will. In fact, I might even re-subscribe to his blog. But for now I'm taking a break.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Dr. X and my anti-anti-Trumpism

I have, for the most part, stopped reading Dr. X's blog. I have a lot of respect for Dr. X, and he's welcome to comment here if he wishes. But it's just hard for me to read what he has to write. In particular, I'm referring to his frequent criticisms of Trump and his penchant for diagnosing Trump and his supporters.

I find my own reaction strange. I consider myself an opponent of Trump. And to my knowledge, nothing Dr. X says is factually wrong. Neither do I find (most of) what Dr. X's moral judgments against Trump to be wrong. And when I disagree with Dr. X, I still believe his judgments are within the pale of what is reasonable. And frankly, Dr. X does a service by documenting the shenanigans of a group of people who are so dangerous and wrong. Somebody has to do it.

I even concede that Dr. X's extra-clinical diagnoses of Trump and Trump supporters are "within the pale." We all have the duty to discern motivations and character in our politicians and those who enter the public sphere. There's no principled reason for me to criticize a mental health professional for bringing their expertise to the table. Nobody complains when I talk about Trump's place in U.S. History.

To be sure, my concession is grudging. I still think Dr. X too seldom actually demonstrates the bases for his diagnoses. He too seldom (if at all) grapples in any significant way with the conflict between his role as a mental health professional and his willingness to diagnose (or strongly hint that he's diagnosing even if he doesn't use the word "diagnose"). Or if he does grapple with it, he rarely shows how he does so.

Of course, I'm basing my accusations based on a very small number of his posts that I have actually read. But still, I concede the point.

Concessions notwithstanding, I believe I'm quite right to demur about the effectiveness of such diagnoses and, more broadly, about the effectiveness of pointing out "the bad things Trump and his supporters do." It becomes a bludgeon in the culture war. They reaffirm the convictions of a group of people who didn't need convincing. They tend to turn others in any number of ways. How many belong in each group and how bad the effect is, I don't know, beyond anecdote and my own personal feelings.

Speaking of my feelings, I feel defensive whenever I read Dr. X's posts. Not only defensive, but punchy. So much so that I often want to lob a very critical comment. Sometimes I do (and to my recollection, Dr. X has always published my comments, no matter how critical).

That's not Dr. X's fault. My defensiveness is probably some combination of a choice and a feeling that has almost nothing to do with him. I feel the same way about a number of comedians (for example, Seth Myers) or commentators (for example, Rachel Maddow), and that feeling has almost nothing to do with them.

The "almost" in "almost nothing" does a lot of work there. There probably is something personal going on, even though I've never met Dr. X in person, and I've certainly never interacted with Myers or Maddow aside from watching a couple of their shows. There's a certain snide or smug attitude that I have a hard time explaining. Or at least there's something that strikes me as snide as well as a usually but not always defensible belief that snideness and smugness are bad.

Strangely, I don't feel that way about all anti-Trump commentators. Will Truman at Ordinary Times, for example, doesn't elicit that reaction from me. I'm not sure why, exactly. There are probably others, whose names escape me at the moment. I do remember watching a comedian on TV (I forget his name) who gave a very Trump-critical standup routine, and I liked it, without getting in a huff about it.

I'm tempted to say there's something that goes beyond reason here, to say that reason and my sense of right and wrong tell me one thing while my own inclination tells me another.  And yes, Whatever visceral inclinations I have are important and probably more important than reason and right and wrong here.

But that's not the whole story. I do think there's something wrong in the diagnosing and perpetual cataloging of the sins of Donald Trump and his supporters. There seems to me something wrong in snideness and smugness that goes beyond whether it's effective or not. Reason and right and wrong enter the picture in a weird way I have trouble pinning down.

I'm picking on Dr. X here, but again, it's not really about him. He owes me nothing and he owes the blogosphere nothing. I personally prefer he do more posts on mental health issues that go beyond extra-clinical diagnoses. But he can and ought to write pretty much whatever he wants.

He is welcome to comment, but I'll tell him (and anyone else reading) that I'll be busy for the next couple weeks and probably won't have time to respond until  sometime in January.)

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Unclear on the concept: Public health vs. personal choice

Eoin Higgins's essay at The Atlantic--unfortunately titled "Not Getting Vaccinated to Own Your Fellow Libs"*--about liberals who are vaccine hesitant [pay walled, probably] raises some real concerns. But seems clueless about some of the stakes.

Speaking of the liberal, but vaccine hesitant, Higgins asks [bold added by me],

Do they remain on the left, even as the politics around the conspiracy theories they embrace lead them out of their ideological comfort zones? Or do they dispense with progressivism in favor of a view of the world that holds that public health is subordinate to personal choice?

Well....if we live in a polity that respects individual rights, then we need to recognize that there is always a tension between public health and personal choice. I also think we need to recognize that sometimes personal choice does indeed trump public health, at least sometimes.

Look: I'm in favor of covid vaccines (and other vaccines). I'm also in favor of government imposed mandates to require people to get those vaccines. But to say, as Higgins seems to, that one cannot be liberal without sometimes questioning whether public health should override personal choice is part of the problem.

I'm using "liberal" where Higgins uses "progressive." If Higgins is likening the current Democratic party coalition to the (subset of) people who were called "progressives" in the early 20th century, then I confess that he's onto something. As a historian, I'm skeptical there was really such a thing as the "progressive movement" in the early 1900s U.S., but there were a number of people who have since been called "progressives" who showed almost no respect for individual rights when it came to public health concerns. Recall Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s statement from Buck v. Bell: "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." 

I don't think that's what Higgins intends. Or I hope he doesn't intend it. A more charitable reading is that he's using loaded terminology and unfortunate turns of phrase to critique non-conservative vaccine hesitancy. But he shouldn't be surprised if non-members of the choir don't listen to the sermon.

*I'm critical of that title. The liberals whom Higgins discusses don't seem to intend to "own" liberals the way that non-liberals do. In fact one of his arguments is that those liberals don't see any contradiction and are somehow ignorant that non-liberals are also vaccine hesitant. I strongly suspect Higgins is either misinterpreting his interviewees' lack of public awareness, or is way over-emphasizing the point. But as far as the title goes: I understand authors don't necessarily get to choose the titles that magazines assign to their articles. So we can give Higgins a pass on that.