Saturday, May 04, 2002

New York City>

HEY! APRIL TRAFFIC SHOWS A 55.5% increase over May with 4,037 visits from 3,410 unique IP addresses in a month with only thirty days. World dominance can't be far....

New York City>

JOSH CHAFETZ OVER AT OXBLOG is right to point out a strange disparity between the treatment of allegedly offensive Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirts and the relatively common practice of wearing clothes emblazoned with "CCCP" or some other Soviet reference.

As an owner of one such shirt -- it bears the replicated image of a late-NEP era Soviet poster urging: "women of rural russia -- build Communism!" -- I'd like to defend both kinds of shirts. What ties them together, I think, is not advocacy of Soviet Communism or a desire to spread stereotypical attitudes abotu Asian Americans. Rather, both kinds of shirts are, you know, ironic. Indeed, one might think that openess to this kind of irony and personal expression through the purchase and display of consumer goods is a good part of what makes the Western lifestyle so appealing.

Of course, I should note that I'm not familiar with the specific shirts that Josh has in mind, so there are potentially some large differences here.

New York City>

WELL, I'M BACK IN NEW YORK, SO I'm reading the Metro section of the Times again and I came across this nice piece by Clyde Haberman on excessive anti-smoking laws. Given that smoking is unhealthy and that it tends to waft over and invade the personal space of others, some kind of regulation of where people can smoke is surely justified, but this country has long since passed that mark.

Cambridge, MA>

IN AN AUMUSING POST, Brink Lindsey wonders about what you need to do to qualify as a "warlord," "strongman," or "kingpin" in the eyes of the US media. It's an interesting question -- I've been thinking of a career in warlordism after I graduate, but I can't seem to find out how to get the credentials.

Friday, May 03, 2002

Cambridge, MA>

PLEASE GO VISIT BRIAN LINSE and Ted Barlow's sites for some excellent criticism of The Professor's strange attitude toward gay bashing by the NRA. Incidentally, it's good to have these two paragons of liberal blogging back after significant absences by both.

UPDATE: Glenn was apparently holding off on putting forward a strident view on this topic until he could complete this bit of original reporting.

Cambridge, MA>

IF YOU'RE THE KIND OF MODERATE DEMOCRAT who since September 11 has been feeling like a conservative sometimes you might want to check out this National Review editorial on my favorite subject, virtual kiddie porn.

The Supreme Court threw out a federal law banning "virtual" child pornography, including both computer-generated images of minors in sexual situations and depictions of minors in sexual situations by adult actors. If the Court had struck down the law because the Constitution reserves the regulation of pornography to states and localities, its decision would perhaps be defensible. But the Court's rationale for its decision was different.
Thinking the Supreme Court was wrong to rule that the freedom of speech requires the striking down of a law that would have prohibited Traffic and Romeo and Juliet is bad enough, but saying that they would have been making the right decision if only they'd struck it down on federalism grounds means that the good people of NR have entered the strange twilight world of self-parody. I don't even know what to say, except that I hope this post will raise my hit count again.

Say it with me, kids, virtual kiddie porn...virtual kiddie porn...virtual kiddie porn....

Cambridge, MA>

I FOUND MYSELF AN EMINENTLY blog-worthy nugget smack in the middle of
this rambling AP rundown of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today. The following graph is about an American supporter of mass murder peace:

Kristen Schurr, a 33-year-old activist from New York City, said she spent her first night in the ornately decorated birth grotto below the church's central altar. A Palestinian gave Schurr a floor mat, blanket and pillow. ``It's funny that even in this dreadful situation, they are still so hospitable and kind,'' she said.
I think that this approach to forming moral judgments is a bit, as the French say, simplisme. I hear Hitler was always very indulgent to his dogs, that didn't make him OK.

Coming to the wider point, though, shouldn't the US government be doing something to prevent its citizens from traveling around the world as part of a global terrorist network? I dunno too much about passport and visa law, but I'm sure there's something in there somewhere.

Cambridge, MA>

INTERESTING EUGENE VOLOKH POST actually brings some evidence to bear on the whole "was the civil war about slavery?" question. Verdict -- it was. I have to say that I couldn't be more opposed to the idea of the confederate flag in any sort of official context. It manages to be a symbol of both racism and treason.

In general, the recasting of Civil War-era history as though it were just another American political conflict where the leaders on both sides get to be heroic historical figures strikes me as deplorable.

I think my favorite thing about Harvard as an institution is that we have a statue of Charles Sumner right outside our main gate and a Civil War memorial that honors all and only the Harvard-affiliated Union dead. The administration always -- and rightly -- rejects the occasional movement to give the Confederates some kind of a monument somewhere.

Cambridge, MA>

THE GREAT JEFF GOLDSTEIN OF Protein Wisdom along with a few others have pointed out that my lengthy post on relativism plays fast-and-loose with the metaphysics/epistemology distinction in ways they don't approve of. I must please guilty to the confounding of these two subjects and agree with them that one can't simply go around drawing metaphysicaly conclusions from epistemological premises unless you have an argument about why this is a legitimate procedure.

I could whip up such an argument, but I fear it wouldn't be very good. My reasoning is, as Jeff noted in an e-mail to me, Rorty-esque, so you might as well just look into what Richard Rorty has to say. His website has a few paper of his that give you a sense of what's going on, but you'll really have to buy Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature if you want to understand his point. I suspect that Rorty's work wouldn't be very popular out in the blogosphere and, indeed, I wouldn't wish to endorse all his conclusions, but on the broad issues of Realism and Objectivity, I'm with him.

Now one might wonder why, if I'm opposed to the metaphysics/epistemology distinction, I'm in the midst of writing a paper taking Thomas Kuhn to task for failing to make it in his work. The answer: My TF thinks its important and I'm a cynical bastard. And that is what's wrong with higher education today -- people like me!

Cambridge, MA>

SO I'M HANGING OUT AT THE Indy office in lovely Canaday basement and I see this girl emerge from the Islamic Prayer Center that's next to our office wearing one of those headscarf thingies that I think is called a hijab and she's talking in French on her cellphone to someone and buying a bag of pretzels from the vending machine with the nifty electronic pseudo-money that's stored on our Harvard ID cards and I thought that's what makes our country great.

Then I started walking over to my computer to write that up and this blond freshman chick who I guess lives in the dorm and has huge tits starts running down the hall to recover her laundry from the dryer and I think, now that's what makes our country great.

Now I'm back in the office writing this and some Shakira song in Spanish is playing on the radio and I'm realizing that I'm really drunk and I think, no that's what makes our country great.

The point is: America -- great.

It's also occuring to me that the beautiful Arielle may read this post some day and get upset about about the huge tits component to this post, so let me just say that I love you more than anything and think you're the most beautiful girl in the whole world and I'd rather have you than 72 huge titted virgins or whatever it is that the "martyrs" get, and that you would be what makes America great except for the fact that you're in Belgium right now.

Thursday, May 02, 2002

Cambridge, MA>

ACCORDING TO THE NEW YORK POST the "The Bachelor was rigged" e-mail chain floating around campus and reported on this site is a hoax. Ah irresponsible journalism.....

Cambridge, MA>

WANT TO KNOW WHAT HARVARD KIDS are up to when they're not spreading rumors about innocent "reality" show contestants? Probably not, but if you do, there's no better place to look than The Harvard Independent's annual survey (affectionately known on campus as the Indy Sex Survey) of campus life. It's fascinating stuff. Turns out Harvard kids are rich and Canadians (well, Canadians at Harvard at least) are sluts.

Wednesday, May 01, 2002

Cambridge, MA>

HEY! MY UNCLE PAUL JOSKOW a professor of economics at MIT has himself an op-ed in The New York Times about the joys of emissions trading and the horrifiying counterproductiveness of the Clean Air Act's distinction between old and new sources of pollution.

Cambridge, MA>

THE NEW WALL STREET JOURNAL FEATURE "The Western Front" opens with this paragraph designed to warm the cockles of every warbloggers heart:

"The problem with America," a college professor told me recently, "is that it can't get over the idea that it is somehow special among nations." His name is Robert Jensen and he teaches journalism at the University of Texas, Austin. He's flat wrong. The problem with America and Western civilization in general is that it lost confidence in itself and started accepting relativist arguments.

I'm very much in sympathy with what I take to be the main point the Journal is trying to make here -- that the values of western culture are worth defending against their enemies -- but I have to disagree with the notion than the problem is "relativism." This is a complaint that one frequently hears from more-or-less conservative journalists and it is, indeed, true that many sloppy academics in the nation's humanities departments use what they take to be relativist arguments to derive outlandish conclusions. As a part-time moral philosopher, however, I have to say that I think this is a misunderstanding both of relativism and of what both pro- and anti-western westerners are trying to say.

The target of Brendan Miniter's argument is people who fail to see that western values -- democracy, equality, etc. -- are superior to competing models like, say, Islamic fundamentalism. We should note here that at last one significant body of people who fail to see this western superiority are not relativists at all, they are Islamic fundamentalists. Clearly, domestic opponents of the war on terror are not Islamic fundamentalists, so they may still be relativists after all, but this just goes to show that there are plenty of reasons people might be anti-american that have nothing to do with relativism.

What Miniter's really after, however, are not people who think America is worse than, say, the Taliban under Afghanistan, but rather people who think that these two ways of organizing society are (in some sense) morally equivalent.

We need to see, though, that there are many reasons one might hold two non-identical things to be equivalent that do not depend on relativism.

One might think, for example, that there is an objective standard by which to judge two non-identical things, but that they just happen to be equivalent. Consider the value of currencies under the era of the gold standard. A US dollar was not the same thing as a British pound, but there was some quantity of dollars and pounds such that they were equal in reference to the objective standard of gold. Back to the realm of politics, a Communist might think, I suppose, that there was an objective standard by which to evaluate social systems (namely, the degree to which they approximate Communism) but that the United States and Saudi Arabia are just both equally far from reaching the ideal. There would, therefore, be no reason (other than tactical advantage) to favor one over the other, even though there is a fact of the matter about how politics should be organized.

I actually think that something like this is what motivates most left-wing opponents of US policy. Not a sense that there is no best way to do things, but rather the sense that there is -- some kind of "third way" besides liberal/capitalist democracy and Islamic fundamentalism -- and that since western capitalism is the stronger of the two competing social systems it's the more important adversary.

This, however, is not relativism at all, but rather depends on the anti-relativist premise that the instigators of the "anti-globalization" protest movement could build some kind of utopia if only the evil IMF would get out of their way.

Another reason one might hold two non-identical things to be equivalent is that you think they're incommensurable. I love the plays of Henrik Ibsen and the paintings of Renee Magritte. That I love them is perfectly consistent with the thesis that objectivity exists in the aesthetic realm, but it doesn't follow from this that I ought to be able to say whether or not Hedda Gabler is better than "The Lovers." Of course, one might think that I can't answer this question (this is what I actually think) because there is no objective truth about aesthetics, but it also makes perfect sense to claim that it can't be done because the two works are incommensurable and that while one can say that both are great works of art, one cannot just choose which is the better one.

I think that lots of self-respecting pro-westerners would feel sympathetic to incommensurability arguments about politics in general. It seems pretty clear to me that debating questions like "who was worse -- Hitler or Stalin?" is pointless at best and demeaning to the victims of whoever is chosen as the lesser evil at worst. These two figures both represent a radical emergence of badness onto the world stage, but their crimes are each in their own ways unique horrors in the history of mankind, not just two currencies that look the same and are both exchangeable for gold. Note that not only does this argument about Hitler and Stalin not depend on the adoption of moral relativism, it depends precisely on not adopting the relativist stance.

Then we come to truly relativist views. At the most basic level to be a relativist about morality means to deny the objectivity of moral judgments -- denying their independence from the existence of humans and human prejudice. If you want to be a relativist (or, as they say in the business, "anti-realist") about the theoretical entities of science you will want to say that there is no fact of the matter about whether or not the world contains lots and lots of tiny protons. Instead you will say that at some point in time a set of social practices known as "science" came into existence in the western world. These practices purport to draw conclusions about the makeup of reality and, as a side-benefit, allow for the invention of new and often useful technologies.

Largely due to the success of science in permitting technological innovation, the western world came to have a dominant position in world affairs and the set of social practices we call "science" came to be very prestigious in the west. Moreover, a subset of the scientific community proposed at one point that we ought to conceive of matter as being made up of (among other things) protons, and this belief has come to have universal adherence within the relevant groups of scientists.

That's a kind of nutty philosophical position, but it's a good example of how relativism works. No one (I think) proposes that we should stop doing science -- it gives us lots of useful stuff, after all, that people like to use, and other people like to do it (or at least will like to do it if we pay them), so everyone wins by letting science continue to exist. All the relativist is denying is that this is an effective procedure for obtaining the truth. So it's a nutty view, but it doesn't really have any practical consequences.

I think it's basically the same with moral relativism.

So you wake up one day and realize that you don't believe in God. You realize that you do think it's self-evident that people are "endowed" with certain rights, but endowed by whom? No one, right? And you realize that lots and lots of people haven't found this to be self-evident at all. Good upstanding people like John Stuart Mill who had no desire whatsoever to stop anyone from speaking freely and very very bad people like Osama bin Laden who find it self-evident that some eccentric interpretation of the Koran should be forcibly imposed on the world. But so if it's not self-evident, then how do we know it's true.

The only answer that makes sense to me is that we don't. I've heard a lot of different moral theories, read a lot of books, talked to a lot of people, thought about a lot of things, and been raised in certain ways. For better or for worse, I've come to have opinions on the issues these books, etc. talk about. I think that people do have inalienable rights and that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But I probably wouldn't think any of that if I'd been raised in a refugee camp in the West Bank and taught to think that the only important thing in life is killing Jews. My moral opinions, in other words, don't stem from my wonderous insight into the Platonic Realm of Moral Truth but rather from my upringing, from my reading, from my conversations, and from the experiences I've had in life.

Moral views are, in a word relative.

Uh oh.

This has the consequence that there is a sense in which I don't think that moral opinions that I think are true are objectively true. But what follows from that? Well, just as the scientific relativist could give up the truth of science but not science's byproducts, I can give up the objectivity of ethics but not its byproducts: namely, guiding my actions in the world.

In life, one must constantly make decisions. We typically think of these as guided by means-ends rationality ("if I want a banana, I should go to the banana store"), but often we need to wonder about appropriate ends. Should I vote for Bush or Gore? Well, Bush will cut my taxes, so if I want tax cuts I should vote for him. But Gore will save the caribou from the rapacious oil companies, so if I love the caribou I should vote for him. But who should I vote for? Well, that's going to depend on a moral judgment.

Saying you're just not going to pick won't help. As the song says "if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." There probably are Floridians out there who thought they just wouldn't pick a side. I don't know that they regret their choice, but they probably see now that refusing to pick has just as much impact on what happens as choosing would have. So you need to do something.

At this point there are two things you can do. The first is to just say that, well, the situation calls for a moral choice but moral judgments aren't objective, so I guess it just doesn't matter what happens. There is no right or wrong, whatever is is, and whatever will be will be. Que sera. You can call this relativism if you like, but it's really nihilism the view that nothing matters. If you really don't think that it matters whether al-Qaida or the US wins, whether Palestinian terrorism stops or not, whether Bush beats Gore or not and not just because you think things will be more-or-less as good one way or another, but because you just don't care what happens to anyone or anything, then I don't really know what to say to you.

That's not so much an incorrect view as it is a sad one, and I think that someone who can't even motivate himself to care about his life, his families' lives, his friends' lives, his countrymen's lives, etc. is more in need of psychological help than philosophical argument.

The other attitude to take is that it does matter what I do and that therefore I've got to make some moral judgments whether or not it's possible to make them objective. That means I need to decide what I think is right and go stand up for that belief. Of course, a reasonable person will want to hold the right views, not just some views, and he'll be open-minded about the arguments of peopel who disagree with him. Listening to your opponents arguments is, I think, an important part of making moral judgments. But at the end of the day, if the other guy's pointing a gun at some woman's head and he's failing to convince you that he's doing the right thing, you'd better take action and save the girl.

This, I think, is relativism and I endorse it. To reiterate a point made earlier, I think that what so-called "relativist" critics of the west really think is not that morality is relative (or at least not just that), but that compared to the correct ideal, both the contemporary west and the Islamic world come up so short that it's not worth taking sides one way or the other. This is a stupid judgment, both tactically and morally, but not because it's a relativist judgment -- it's stupid because it's wrong.

Tuesday, April 30, 2002

Cambridge, MA>

SLEAZY REALITY SHOW SHOCKER! Alex Rubalcava is reporting via his sources in the insidious Ivy League old boys' club network, that ABC pressured The Bachelor contestant (and Harvard alumn) Alex Michel to choose Amanda (who is allegedly fat) rather than Trista. Who would've thought these shows weren't really real?

Cambridge, MA>

READER N.K. LAND SENDS ME this link to "Joseph Kennedy and the Jews" a piece interesting on purely historical terms but also a case study in how casual, social anti-semitism creeps into out-and-out support for fascism. Also on the History News Network is this appalling tale of the attempted censorship of Daniel Pipes.

Cambridge, MA&ht;

ODDS ARE THAT YOU'RE NEITHER FORCED to study the philosophy of science nor to suffer through endless Marxist "analyses" of 19th century French history, but since I am, I turn frequently to the work of the underappreciated Karl Popper and I'm always happen to see a nice story defending him against his legions of misinterpreters, even if it appears in the loathsome Guardian.

Cambridge, MA>

WHEN I READ A STORY LIKE this I'm proud to say I used to work for Chuck Schumer. I bet a lot of high-minded bloggers out there will be all scandalized that a bill about bankruptcy is being held hostage to the narrow agenda of a Democratic Party interest group, I guess I'm just part of the problem.

Monday, April 29, 2002

Cambridge, MA>

I HESITATE TO SPEAK WITH TOO MUCH confident about the motives of the lovely leaders of the wonderful Middle East, but I think that this proves that Arafat is perfectly capable of restraining his "desperate" people when he thinks it'll save his sorry ass.

Cambridge, MA>

ACCORDING TO A SHOCKING STUDY reported in today's Crimson, "only three of the 204 portraits and busts on campus have non-white subjects," possibly because they're portraits and busts of people who lived and worked a long time ago. Well, the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, one of the worst ideas to ever come out of the American academy, has ascertained that this artwork discrimination is at the root of all campus injustice and must be ended.

Other proposals include more House (i.e. dorm)-based activities "dealing with issues of diversity" (I think I'll be blogging then, sorry), the affirmative action hiring one professor each of Native American Studies, Asian American Studies, Latino Studies, and Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies.

Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies doesn't sound like a good idea to me ("well, black people are good at sports, but Asians are good at math, so I guess we're all equal!"), but then again, neither do the others. Leaving aside the question of whether these are real disciplines, just consider the infighting. Is our professor of Latino studies going to be Mexican, Cuban, or Puerto Rican? Anyone who doesn't think this is going to be an issue had better start paying more attention to the fact that the idea of a Latino is a completely bogus construct of the US government and media.

I don't know if the other groups feel the same way, but I'd venture that picking an Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean?) would get pretty contentious too.

Last but not least (well, actually it is least) the Foundation wants more office space for student groups and a full student center. This is why you can't involve students in the governance of a university. You ask people to recommend some ways to improve race relations and they come up with a long-standing and totally unrelated student demand. Now I think student groups here should have more office space (the further you can get from the faculty the more you learn), and I'd like a student center too, but that clearly has nothing whatsoever to do with diversity.

On the other hand, on like the other proposals at least a student center won't make things worse.

Cambridge, MA>

THIS IS ENCOURAGING, THE VATICAN said during the big meeting that the US Conference of Bishops would decide on a new child abuse policy, but now Cardinal Law says the Vatican's in charge after all. Good work guys!

Cambridge, MA>

NOT ONLY IS INSTAPUNDIT QUITE right to recommend this hilarious Neal Pollack column about the Middle East, but Pollack actually has a whole book (albeit a short one) filled with delicious journo-parodies like this one. I read the whole thing straight through without a break. Go buy it.

Cambridge, MA>

THE POWER OF BLOGGING PROVED! In just two months time I've moved from being the 109th Matthew on google to the prestigeous number 12 spot, right behind the book of Matthew and right ahead of Matthew Hennessy, professor of Computer Science at the University of Sussex. The insidious Matthews Shepard and Sweet still have me beat, though. Keep on linking!

Cambridge, MA>

TERRY PRISTIN OF THE NEW YORK TIMES reports that Starbucks coffee bars are sprouting up all over New York City, leading me to wonder where Terry and his editors have been for, say, the past three years back when this event actually occured. I'm thinking that back in '98 or '99 he must have written this story up as a feature and then it got bumped for some kind of breaking news and has been spending the interim lost behind the copy machine or something. As an editor, I know that if you cut something under circumstances where the writer was blameless you try to work hard to find someplace to fit it in later, but I really think this is taking things to far.

Speaking of Starbucks I feel that I can leak to you, the blog-reading public, the astounding fact that well over half of Harvard undergraduates deny patronising the chain despite its many convenient locations right here in the square. For more fascinating tidbits, however, you'll just need to wait 'till Thursday when the annual Indy Survey is released.

Sunday, April 28, 2002

Cambridge, MA>

I LOVE PERSONALITY TESTS, so check this one out:

Take the What High School
Stereotype Are You?
quiz, by Angel.

Via Amygdala

Cambridge, MA>

I DO HAVE ONE THING TO SAY, though, about the plan endorsed by many (including, I think, me at one point) to just have Israel unilaterally withdraw to something resembling the 1967 borders and then build a wall separating the West Bank from Israel.

I think that unless and until Israel can cut some kind of deal about the holy sites in Jerusalem that most Muslims find acceptable, that sooner or later we're going to see a nuclear attack on Tel Aviv. It's not that hard to build a missle -- ain't no wall high enough.

Cambridge, MA>

MY FATHER E-MAILED ME SAYING that I must be working hard, given the lack of recent blogging. I won't deny having engaged in a bit of hard work this weekend (or having more that needs to be done) but I've also been largely silenced by the imponderability of recent events.

Is Yasser Arafat a dangerous terrorist, or isn't he? Are our plans to invade Iraq really being released to The New York Times?

Over at Oxford, however, they don't give their students any real work to do (thus luring my lovely girlfriend Arielle Simon into a semester abroad), giving the boys of OxBlog the opportunity to try and figure some of this stuff out.

UPDATE: Arielle points out, quite rightly, that she is beautiful as well as lovely.