Sunday, January 20, 2013

From "Mandate" to "A Country Divided"

A post apropos of Inauguration Day.

Last month, Hendrik Hertzberg pointed out that after the 2004 election, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal congratulated George W. Bush for "what by any measure is a decisive mandate for a second term."  This past election, the Journal's board described Obama as "eking out a second term."  In 2004, the Journal was quick to say, "Just because an election is close doesn't mean it isn't decisive."  In 2012, the Journal intoned gravely about a country "divided" and "polarized."  Apparently, when your side wins narrowly, the results are a "decisive" vindication of how right you are, but when the other side wins narrowly (but still by more than you did the last time around), it still doesn't mean you're wrong.  I especially liked how the Journal commented on how Obama was able to win re-election "even as he lost independents and won only 40% of the overall white vote."  Ah, now I understand why the most recent election results were not "decisive": it's because the white folks haven't bought in!  Say what you want about the Journal, but it knows its constituency.

Hendrik did not mention the following: in 2004, the Journal noted:

***Referendums opposing gay marriage went 11 for 11 on Tuesday, winning even in Oregon where the 57% to 43% landslide was the smallest majority among the 11. This is not a message of intolerance toward gays; it is a rebuke to those liberals who insist that courts impose their values on venerable American institutions.***

In 2012, the news that voters (not courts) in Maine, Maryland, and Washington approved same-sex marriage prompted the Journal to respond with -- complete silence.  I just think that's funny.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Don't Mess With Texas: Football and Faith

I wrote this piece a while ago but didn't post it b/c it's rather incomplete.  I'm posting it now despite its incompleteness as I tidy up in the new year:

It being football season, I pretty much am listening to sports radio all the time these days.  Earlier this week, the talk show hosts mentioned a dust-up at Kountze ISD, where the superintendent forbade the cheerleaders from displaying Biblically, and specifically Christian-inspired messages, on paper banners through which the football team ran through before each game.  One cheerleader said, "We're fighting for God's word.  We're not fighting for our rights or anything, we're fighting for God."  I'm pretty sure that even as a prepubescent, I would have found that distinction less than fully compelling.  But let's not pick on cheerleaders.

One parent said in a different segment, "I don't see a problem with it, I don't understand.  If you don't like it, don't look."  This is an interesting comment because it could reflect at least two attitudes that shade into one another but I think deserve to be differentiated.  The comment might reflect the attitude, "This happens to be something I agree with so I don't care that you disagree with it," or the attitude of indifference.  That attitude can normally be challenged with the norm of fairness or reciprocity (as survey research makes abundantly clear). 

But it can also mean, "I don't see the harm."  We can call this the attitude of "no harm, no foul" or "live and let live."  I am sympathetic to this attitude.  In case my blogger profile doesn't make it apparent enough, I am no Christian.  But it doesn't bother me when people open a ceremony or event with a prayer.  I once attended a hearing in a rural county in Texas where the judge recited a prayer before conducting the business of the court.  I was amused rather than offended.  Even in my high school days, when I was a virulent atheist, I wouldn't have cared about some Christian banners being paraded around.  Like the Kountze parent, I also find it hard to understand why anyone, including athesists, would get all worked up over a prayer.  Where's the harm?

But though I am sympathetic to that attitude, it is not one I share.  I just said that I don't really get the harm in letting the religious express their convictions.  However, that's because religion is not important to me.  Therefore, the benefits and harms that other people experience from expressing or not expressing their religious beliefs, or being subjected to the expression of other people's religious beliefs, are not entirely transparent to me.  I acknowledge that defect in my understanding and hence take a tolerant attitude.  But precisely for the people for whom such expression is important, one would think that they would understand why believers of a different stripe (and atheists are believers in this sense) might take offense and rebel against said expression.  The same reasons that make religious expression highly cherished to the one group make it anathema to the other group.
I think what the parent is trying to express is actually more directly articulated by the football player who said, "The one parent that did complain, it's just one--you know, if you don't like it don't come to our games."  The young man's "if you don't like it don't come" langauge captures the parent's "If you don't like it, don't look" language.  However, willy or nilly, the student ties that sentiment to something else: the principle of majority rule.  Perhaps being a football player, being part of a greater whole, a collective whose good may not completely coincide with his own, has attuned him to this aspect.  Now we begin to approach the constitutional issue: the issue of the conflict between the free exercise clause and the anti-Establishment Clause.

Clearly there are limits on free exercise.  The majority cannot go so far as to establish an official state religion.  The question is how far the majority can go, and when expression in a public sphere turns into state endorsement or establishment.  The cheerleaders' lawyers craft the controversy as a free exercise issue, naturally.  However, the cheerleaders' lawyers have to admit that the school, being public, is an extension of the State.  They therefore have to admit that there are at least Establishment concerns.  They seem to want to ignore that aspect of the case, which, I think, is very poor legal strategy, even if it is a winning political strategy.  Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority in Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992), declared, "What to most believers may seem nothing more than a reasonable request that the nonbeliever respect their religious practices, in a school context may appear to the nonbeliever or dissenter to be an attempt to employ the machinery of the State to enforce a religious orthodoxy."
Now perhaps you are one of my Texas neighbors, in which case you are likely to think, "Well, but that's Kennedy, and his conservative credentials are highly suspect."  Let us turn to someone whose conservative credentials are well-nigh unimpeachable, then.  Here now Scalia, writing in dissent in the aforementioned case: "I ... concede that our constitutional tradition, from the Declaration of Independence and the first inaugural address of Washington, quoted earlier, down to the present day, has ... ruled out of order government-sponsored endorsement of religion ... where the endorsement is sectarian."  Even Scalia would have to admit that there is an issue regarding Establishment in Kountze, even if in his judgment there is ultimately no state endorsement.  What amazes me is how blithely my neighbors in Kountze ignore or brush aside the Establishment concerns.  And this from people most eager to avow their dedication to the Constitution.  Perhaps my Kountze neighbors should, along with boning up on the Constitution, call to mind those Biblical passages that address hypocrisy.  It is worth remembering that the Biblical condemnation of hypocrisy is one flip side to its high praise of humility, and that humility tends to support Christian charity and the brotherhood of men in Christ.  Something for my Christian neighbors to keep in mind, if they wish, as they undertake to spread the Word of God.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Thing about Surveys

Everyone knows that there are lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics.  Nowhere is this more obvious than when interpreting survey results.

In a March essay on America's political polarization in The New Republic, Bill Galston noted:
above and beyond their ideological disagreements, conservatives and liberals have come to understand the practice of politics differently. In a survey taken right after the Republican sweep in the 2010 midterm elections, 47 percent of American said that it was more important to compromise in order to get things done, versus 27 percent who thought it was more important for leaders to stick to their beliefs even if little got done. Liberal Democrats weighed in on the side of compromise, 58 to 16, moderate Democrats by 64 to 17. But conservative Republicans (the overwhelming majority of their party) favored sticking to their beliefs by 45 to 26. Ten months later, after the debt ceiling fiasco, an outright majority of adults favored compromise, including 62 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of liberals. But pluralities of Republicans and conservatives continued to favor leaders who stuck to their beliefs.
Republicans disdain compromise more than Democrats.  This is not surprising to anyone who has any familiarity with American politics.  There is, for example, no corresponding term for RINO on the left.  Republicans are much more concerned with ideological purity than Democrats.  Republicans tend to prize clarity and certainty more than Democrats.

But while a full 20% more Americans thought it was more important to compromise to get things done (a testament to Americans' once vaunted pragmatism), if you actually go to the USA Today/Gallup Poll survey, you find that 49% of these same respondents wanted Congress to have more influence over the direction of the country, while 41% wanted President Obama to have more influence over the direction of the country.  Now, the sampling error is +/-4%, which means this is almost a statistical dead heat, but that's not the point.  The point is that while Americans want our politicians to compromise, we also want to give more influence to the party that we ourselves perceive to be less inclined to compromise!  Galston's omission of this detail in his description of the survey results is misleading.  I know that politicans pick and choose the facts they use to score political points, but the aims of scholars should be different, even when they put on the pundit's hat.

Now the survey results do not necesarily mean that Americans don't know what they want, or want mutually incompatible things.  They could be the result of careful consideration of competing political values such as the value of the spirit of compromise as a political virtue against the prerogatives of institutional authority and separation of powers concerns.  I leave it to you to decide which is more likely.

Monday, September 17, 2012

"The half-life of love is forever."

Junot Diaz is coming to Houston next week to read from his latest collection of short stories.  Several weeks ago, his short story "The Cheater's Guide to Love" was published in The New Yorker, with the line, "The half-life of love is forever."  In an interview, Diaz said that he wanted to write a story about "those heartbreaks that never seem to leave us—that stay in us like radiation—those heartbreaks where getting over it becomes an epic battle with ourselves."  Of course, there are different ways of battling oneself.  One could say that the very struggle to overcome heartbreak is a battle with oneself.  But more interesting are those situations when we are ourselves are in some way the cause of our own heartbreak.

There is a long tradition in ethics which holds that men's lives are directed towards the good.  What Diaz raises is the possibility that a life could become so broken that such direction becomes impossible, and that this brokenness could result from some relatively minor and trivial thing.  Or--let me amend myself--that we do not realize the true importance and weight of things when we do them.  And Diaz ties this lack of self-knowledge to our habitual inability or unwillingness to fully recognize another in his/her otherness (in Kant's words, to interact with another as an end in himself rather than as a means), i.e., an ethical deficiency.  Diaz speaks of a "typical masculine deficiency:" an inability to see women as fully human, but I wonder how much we ever truly experience or treat any other person as fully an end in themselves.  Only, it seems, when we love another selflessly and without self-regard, with "the love that overflows."  But that, of course, is not the nature of erotic love.  At least not at first blush.

Diaz quotes from Derek Walcott: "Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole."  Hegel taught that man is a perpetual falling-apart-and-coming-back-together-again; man is constantly broken and shattered and must always heal himself anew.  Tagore taught that wisdom begins, not indeed in fear, but in abiding sorrow.  All of these claims give a central place to personal suffering in the formation of a fully human life.  Suffering reminds us of our frailties and vulnerabilities, which we are otherwise too apt to forget.  It is a lesson in humility and gratitude.

We have none of us learned well enough the experiences of others, especially and above all their experiences of us.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Drake, Aristotle, Two French Films, and The Question of Nihilism

"Looking for the right way to do the wrong things"  --Drake, "Lord Knows"

"[V]irtue aims at the median.  I am referring to moral virtue ... We can experience fear, confidence, desire, anger, pity, and generally any kind of pleasure and pain either too much or too little, and in either case not properly.  But to experience all this at the right time, toward the right objects, toward the right people, for the right reason, and in the right manner--that is the median and the best course, the course that is a mark of virtue.


Not every action nor every emotion admits of a mean.  There are some actions and emotions whose very names connote baseness, e.g., spite, shamelessness, envy; and among actions, adultery, theft, and murder.... In cases of this sort, let us say adultery, rightness and wrongness do not depend on committing it with the right woman at the right time and in the right manner, but the mere fact of committing such action at all is to do wrong."  --Aristotle, N. Ethics, II.6

That Aristotle, such a comedian!  With his understated style and dry wit, one might almost mistake him for an Englishman.

I recently watched two French films, L'Auberge Espagnole and Les PoupĂ©es Russes.  They form a sort of coming-of-age tale, though in this case the coming of age does not end with adolescence but continues into the protagonist's late 20s/early 30s.  (It has been said that we live in an age of protracted adolescence.  I would say that that is a subject for another time, but there is a sense in which that is the recurring subject in all my messages, antedating this blog).  What struck me was the commonness of cheating and affairs in the movies.  In my mind, this all goes back to Romanticism and hence to Rousseau.  This is not a novel idea; Allan Bloom said as much (with the caveat that the roots really go back to Hobbes and therewith to Machiavelli).  It is Rousseau who provides the most forceful argument that, not our intellectual life, but our emotional life, is what makes us essentially human and ourselves, for ideas can be shared in common by everyone, whereas our emotions are all our own.  From there it is a small step to the belief that "The sole duty of a man is to follow the inclinations of the heart in everything."  That is a maxim that Rousseau himself vehemently opposed, but what Strauss said about Nietzsche and Nazism can be applied to Rousseau and Romanticism: the subtleties of his distinctions are easily lost in the general spirit and tenor of his argument.

I said that the movies follow the form of a Bildungsroman.  The defining characteristic of adolescence is that it is a transitional period.  I had almost said that adolescence is by definition a time of confusion, of groping one's way toward adulthood.  But of course that is not true.  Transitions can be orderly and be made with a clear view of one's goal and aspirations.  But we residents of modernity have lost that orderliness and clarity, as everyone knows by now.  I wonder to what extent this is the result of the clamor of philosophical factions--and, more specifically, of the modern philosophical factions.  This question needs to be posed carefully.  It may be, as Strauss suggests, that there is something in the substance of modern philosophical doctrines themselves that leads toward nihilism.  But another possibility is that philosophical disagreement, even between "classical" doctrines, would still be nihilistic by the mere fact that they occur in the setting of modern times.  That is, perhaps the modern world is so constituted that the disagreements between a Plato and a Aristotle without the subsequent history would be as intractable and disorienting today as our disagreements between Heideggerians and Platonists.  This is almost tantamount to asking whether modernity is intrinsically nihilistic.  The question is further muddled in that one cannot easily separate out the modern world from modern philosophy.

I have gone far afield; I have gone from two French movies to Romanticism to nihilism to the question of philosophical culpability.  But in a sense, I have not gone very far afield at all; I am like the Monkey King in the Buddha's palm: it only appears that I have traveled to the end of the universe, when in fact I never left the Buddha's palm.  After all, the juxtaposition of Drake and Aristotle served to implicate all that I've said, in a compressed and allusive manner to be sure.  No?  Not buying it?  Well, let me say this.  One might say that Drake, after all, is not nihilistic, because he still apparently believes in the possibility of distinguishing right from wrong, whereas a genuine nihilist would deny the possibility of making any such disticntions in any nonarbitray way.  But if nihilism is the situation in which "everything is permitted," and the only issue Drake has is with the how and not with the whether--that is, if morality becomes a nonissue and all that is left is mere prudence, then what is that if not nihilism?  I am reminded of what my friend Joe likes to say: one can say anything with words.  But that does not mean that one is using words appropriately.  I am suggesting that someone who says something like, "Yeah I know it's wrong but I don't care," does not know what she is saying.  I am suggesting that you cannot be indifferent to things that you believe to be genuinely wrong.  These statements, like almost all general statements of the sort, need to be qualified.  Let me leave it at saying that arguments can be made in and through action as well as through speech.

Oh, but wait, Joe, I just remembered: Socrates said that it is in the nature of things that speech attains to more of the truth than deeds.  In this case, I could translate that in a slightly provocative way by asking: what is the truth of nihilism?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Trading Up

Several months ago, Simon Rich wrote a humor piece for The New Yorker in which he imagined that boyfriends are traded like ball players.  The male protagonist of the story is feeling pretty bummed about being traded to a new owner by his ex-grirlfriend when he arrives at his new owner's/girlfriend's apartment.  But when his new owner tells him that she engineered the deal because she thought he'd be a "good deal," his spirits lift.  Rich ends the piece thusly: "He wrapped his arms around her, laughing with relief.  There was nothing like joining a new team; there was nothing like Opening Day."  Which prompted me to write in the margin: "the excitement of the new, of possibility; of being desired."  And every time I think about our need or desire for another person's desire, I think of Kojeve.  And that invariably leads me to revisiting old haunts and setting out on new vistas.

Begin with our desire to be desired.  What is it that we wish to be desired for?  Some people have said, We wish to be desired for ourselves, and not for our specific attributes.  I wonder if that's true.  What does it mean to be desired for ourselves?  After all, we are not just an abstraction.  We exist (punning on the Heideggerian and non-Heideggerian senses of that word).  The people who say that we desire to be desired for ourselves put forward (implicitly or explicitly) the thesis that we are more and other than the sum of our specific attributes.  In the words of Simone de Beauvoir, "to love him genuinely is to love him in his otherness and in that freedom by which he escapes."  In Heideggerian terms, to genuinely love someone means to love their existence.  On this basis, then, one might think to correct the error in Kojeve's statement, "man is loved solely because he is, and independently of what he does," by replacing the "is" with "exists."

But is it true that we love the existence of others?  Is Kojeve altogether wrong in saying that we love the being of others?  The father of existentialism, Heidegger himself, had seduced the young Arendt by (mis?)quoting Augustine and telling her, "I want you to be what you are."  We can grant straightaway that loving someone to some extent entails loving a mystery, an absence, a remainder, a trace, etc.  But to love someone means precisely to love someone, ie, to recognize someone in their particularity.  And that recognition is possible only on the basis of something other than "that freedom by which [another] escapes," which characterizes all others and so cannot serve as the basis for differentiating anyone from any other.  Ironically, the emphasis on existence renders the beloved into an anonymous One (das Man).  Anyone who has loved another creature has loved specific attributes of the beloved, without falling into the error of thinking that the beloved simply was the sum of some specific list of attributes.

The notion of identity I think nicely fuses the existence and being dimensions, and goes some way to answering what we wish to be loved/desired for.  "For ourselves" is indeed the place to start.

Now let us return to the Rich article.  Boyfriends are traded based upon what owners/girlfriends see on the stat sheets (though there is acknowledgement of intangibles such as "attitude" and "effort").  Is this world compatible or incomptaible with being loved "for ourselves"?  Discuss.  Be sure to include in your answer whether you think ballplayers in the real world are desired "for themselves."

Just kidding.

The keyword of modern social relationships is freedom.  We have choices today in who to be with that would not have been possible in previous times.  But what Rich's article shows is that from another angle, freedom means "commodification."  I do not mean that simply in a narrowly materialist sense.  Meaningful choice means the opportunity to avail oneself of different alternatives.  Where there are differential alternatives subject to choice, there exists a market.  In any market, sellers try to differentiate their product.  The market for paramours is different today from previous eras in that: (1) there are now different buyers (parents of marriageable-age women versus the women themselves) and (2) sellers can no longer be as certain as formerly that they will, eventually, be able to sell their product (true for both men and women).  This has all sorts of implications that have been discussed by various people that you can look up on your own because I need to sleep now.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Wal-Mart v. Dukes

Yeah, so I've been a little lax in my blogging.  Anyway, in the past Supreme Court term, the Court decided that the nationwide class of female employees who filed an anti-discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart did not constitute a certifiable class.  Dahlia Lithwick at Slate had the most entertaining line about it: "Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer, seems to have figured out that the key to low-cost discrimination lies in discriminating on a massive scale."  I express no opinion on the merits of the lawsuit, except to note that, while one may be sympathetic to Lithwick's outrage, the fact of the matter is that employers are generally given the benefit of the doubt in employer discrimination cases.  Viewed in the context of employment law as a whole, the ruling is not as outrageous as it might first appear.  Again, this is not to say it was correctly (or incorrectly) decided.