March 30, 2003

Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Those who recognise this quote know that it comes from that prototype of the Reagan conservative, Barry Goldwater. I thought it appropriate in light of the recent web dialogue brought on by a Calpundit 's post on liberal "extremism", followed up on Body and Soul, Eschaton, MacDiva, Alas, a Blog and on Pandagon, and leading to a response on Calpundit.


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January 22, 2004

The Secular Ijtihad

This post has been coming for a while, but the recent discussion on AFOE about Marx' On the Jewish Question and the headscarf issue in Europe is what has sort of crystallised it. It's about a contradiction - a fairly subtle one - in something I feel fairly strongly about.

I'm an advocate of secular government, and I believe secular government can only be a success when religious people demand it as something in their own best interests. But Bruno Bauer - the author of the book Marx is arguing against in On the Jewish Question - highlights a contradiction in the kind of religious freedom offered by the French Revolution:

The Jew, for example, would have ceased to be a Jew if he did not allow himself to be prevented by his laws from fulfilling his duty to the state and his fellow citizens, that is, for example, if on the Sabbath he attended the Chamber of Deputies and took part in the official proceedings. Every religious privilege, and therefore also the monopoly of a privileged church, would have been abolished altogether, and if some or many persons, or even the overwhelming majority, still believed themselves bound to fulfil religious duties, this fulfilment ought to be left to them as a purely private matter.
This is very much in line with the kind of secularism associated with the French revolution, as we can see in this speech by the Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre in 1789:
But, they say to me, the Jews have their own judges and laws. I respond that is your fault and you should not allow it. We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals. We must withdraw recognition from their judges; they should only have our judges. We must refuse legal protection to the maintenance of the so-called laws of their Judaic organization; they should not be allowed to form in the state either a political body or an order. They must be citizens individually. But, some will say to me, they do not want to be citizens. Well then! If they do not want to be citizens, they should say so, and then, we should banish them. It is repugnant to have in the state an association of non-citizens, and a nation within the nation... In short, Sirs, the presumed status of every man resident in a country is to be a citizen.
Clermont-Tonnerre is arguing for the legal equality of Jews and Bauer is arguing against it, but ultimately they are both advancing the same thesis: The secular state demands an allegiance which may conflict with religious duties, and that the state should come first. Marx has some problems with this, and I think rightly so. As an advocate of secularism in public policy, I have to admit that this obligation for the citizen of a secular state to advance secular values even when they contradict deeply held beliefs is incompatible with my conception of how things ought to be.  


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January 26, 2004

At least I'm not the only one

It's often quite scary to tread ideological ground that is new to you. This post, for instance, has only gotten responses from Russell Arben Fox and from Seth Edenbaum. Unlike Seth, I fear less from the idea that "Islam is becoming the new Judaism" - indeed, at least two days out of every five I would welcome it - than from the idea that Judaism is becoming the new Islam. We create our enemies, and in the Middle East that aphorism seems to cut both ways.

I expect the main reason though is that hardly anybody reads me here. Links on other blogs don't get updated, but also, I haven't commented terribly often on other blogs lately. I get about half of my hits from search engines. Really, I need to get around to e-mailing the blogs that link to me. Also, I could post a bit more.

I'm going to let my readers in on a little secret. Sometimes, I advocate positions to see if I can get away with them. If I can, sometimes I keep them. Not always mind you, but sometimes. But taking this approach always means wondering if this time I've gone too far.

However, the thing that encourages me right now is the discovery that someone else has tread very nearly the same ground as me. Does anybody know anything about this Chandran Kukathas person? I know he's argued against Brian Barry's anti-multiculturalist arguments, but that's about it. He - I think it's a he - goes one step further than I did and actually targets an element of the orthodox liberal consensus:

Given its nature and traditions, then, there is nothing in Islam that should give us cause for concern if our interest is in the flourishing of a democratic civil society marked by diversity. This is not to say that Islamic political movements have not, or will never, pose any danger. For any political movement can be dangerous. But it is to say that Islam as a creed is not the problem, and may even hold within it some of the resources that supply a solution. Most important among these resources is the tradition of toleration; but not less significant may be the fact that, in the end, it is also distrustful of nationalism.

If all this is true, the real question which ought to be addressed is not so much the problem of reconciling Islam with modern democracy and civil society as the prolem of what model of democracy is most suited to modernity. If the considerations presented in this paper are sound, what should give us most concern is the emergence of models of democratic governance which seeks to extend the power of democratic authority into supra-national institutions, ordered in hierarchical fashion. If democratic institutions are to work to preserve the diverse order of civil society, they will have to look away from models of centralization towards those traditions which are ready to embrace norms of toleration. In this regard, however, the threat comes not from Islam, even though it may at times come from those to misuse its name.

I have an alternative target for some critical review - centralism is something I find it easy to be moderate about. What I have in mind is actually someting far nearer and dearer to liberalism - both in its leftist and rightist forms - than the ideology of centralism and hierarchial government. Liberal ideology has always been somewhat indifferent to the actual structure of administration, seeing it as a realm of pragmatism. I'll put forward my case one of these days when it'll be interesting to see if I can get away with it.


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January 30, 2004

The New Economy and the Death of the Proletariate

The crew over at Crooked Timber are reviewing Doug Henwood's new book After the New Economy. There are also some productive posts on it at Bred Delong's blog and over on Calpundit.

I haven't read the book yet. I'm still in the process of finishing my review of European Integration: 1950-2003. With some luck, it'll be done before business closes in Europe today, and maybe I'll try to score a copy at Waterstone's tomorrow. I like Doug Henwood's stuff, at least what I've read, and if he's debunking the utopian capitalist rhetoric of the new economy wonks, well, it's because it deserves it. I worked in the trenches of said new economy, and it is a good deal less than advertised.

But, one of Kevin Drum's remarks on the book struck me:

I'm not going to try and make the whole case here, but I'll add my — not my two cents, perhaps, it's not worth that much — I'll add my one cent to a particular facet of the debate. I do believe that advances in computer technology are revolutionary and are likely to become even more revolutionary over the next few decades as increased computing power finally makes artificial intelligence genuinely feasible. Unfortunately, I also think that one of the results of this will be to increasingly marginalize unskilled and semiskilled workers in a way that has never happened before: they will be permanently marginalized. There will be no new industries for them to move to.
It occured to me to wonder if the same wasn't once said about the peasantry. Like Kevin, I do think there has been a change over the last generation or so in the most economically advanced countries, and I think it's a substantial change. As symbolic as computers are of this brave new world, I'm not convinced that they are the principle cause. Enormous increases in manufacturing productivity preceeded the computer, and their role in undermining traditional employment patterns strikes me as a more important factor in what is going on.

The thing is, this is the same transformation that took place in agriculture a century ago, just much slower. What happened to the peasants? In the end, they were marginalised, and the then-new economy had no place for them.

Unfortunately, that thread on Calpundit has been colonised by a bunch of free-market wankers and technotopians who will always tell you either that artifical intelligence will make labour unnecessary or that it's the government's fault in the first place, and reading von Mises and Hayek would make you realise this apparent truth. So, except for Matt Young's comments, there's not much more of use there.


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Learning from Dan Quayle

Ampersand has a post up drawing attention to this unintentionally funny little piece of reactionary fluff over at The Claremont Institute Review of Books. The essay is by one Terrence O. Moore, formerly of the US Marines and now a school principal.

Having not only grown up with a working father at home but also having had several ex-service men, including a Marine officer, among my teachers, I suspect Mr Moore would find me quite disappointing. However, if I were to take him on point by point, I would just be repeating the excellent work being done over at Alas, a Blog.

Ampersand comments: "But Principal Moore doesn't address this history - in fact, there's no reason to think he's aware of the history of his views." The failure to learn from history is something of a cliché, but we need not go back to the Gilded Age or the Roaring 20's - as Ampersand has - to find that Mr Moore isn't much for historical analysis. He builds the essay from a castigation of the fictional sit-com character Murphy Brown for having a child out of wedlock, and ends with a description of the non-existent child now. Apparently, Moore is aware that this same line of criticism helped make Dan Quayle look like an idiot, but doesn't seem to realise that it is having the same effect on him.


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Does the declining marginal utility of money justify progressive taxation?

I'm having a slow day, which I ought to be spending finishing up this book review rather than surfing the blogs, but I'm surfing the blogs anyway.

I found this over at the Blog Delong, which does prove that not everyone over at the Volokh Conspiracy is completely loony, but that wasn't what I found interesting. It was this comment from Jonathan Goldberg, down almost at bottom, that struck me:

I've often heard claims like:

"If nothing else the bracket system stinks just on principle."

I've never understood them. I've always favored progressive taxation on a straight 19th century declining marginal utility of money/equality of pain/the wealthy benefit most from government arguement, with a little 20th century Rawlsianism and equality of opportunity thrown in. I've yet to see this (quite simple) reasoning even confronted in any plausible way (I have seen attempts, but they were obviously dishonest). Would anyone like to do so, or even provide a pointer (NOT to Nozick, please).

I'm going to take a shot at it, but not as an argument for lower incomes taxes. This is going to be an argument that the "declining marginal utility of money/equality of pain/the wealthy benefit most from government arguement" really doesn't justify enough taxation.


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February 19, 2004

The politics of stupidity

This post is drawn from two texts, neither of which appears on the surface to have much to do with the other. The first is very much about French politics, and I considered posting it on AFOE, but it gets radical and awfully long, and I don't want to test the collective's tolerance for the verbose radical left too much, especially now that I seem to have such a reputation for agreeing with Edward. Besides, it is something of a continuation of the last post.

The first text appears in this week's Les Inrockuptibles - a French cultural magazine that, at its best, is sort of what Rolling Stone might be if it aimed a bit more up-market - a journal for smart people who read books, but who also listen to pop music and watch TV. It is promoting a petition, signed by, among others former prime minister Michel Rocard, former culture minister Jack (not Jacques) Lang, Jacques Derrida, Bertrand Tavernier, Claude Lanzmann and Daniel Cohn-Bendit (Danny the Red for those who remember May '68).


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April 15, 2004

The Politics of Prioritisation

One of the benefits of being on European time is that I can see the blog posts from late at night on the American West Coast before most of the rest of the anglophone world. So, I see the top post at Oregon based Alas, a Blog is something that might, but has not yet, kicked up a shitstorm.

Hierarchy of Needs

During a recent conversation about political opinions, the topic of "mixed" political opinions came up -- meaning, those people who are socially liberal and fiscally conservative or vice versa. Now, I'm sure most of you here will already know that I believe being liberal both socially and fiscally is the best way to change the world for the better; however, if given the limited choice, is it better to be socially liberal or fiscally liberal? I have experience with both types of people, and I've given the subject a bit of thought over the years, and I've come to the conclusion that, on the whole and all else being equal (and assuming this will still only apply to a some people, not all people), I think it's better to be socially conservative and fiscally liberal.

Perhaps this will come as a surprise to a great many people (or, perhaps not). Certainly, a lot of the issues that are most near and dear to my heart would fall under the "social" label (liberal views, of course). It's not that I think these issues are "less" important (most of the time) -- and taken on an individual basis, there might be a lot of times I'd think the opposite was true. There are always exceptions.

OK, well, maybe for me there are a few issues that I feel are, while extremely important, simply not as important. The environment, animal rights, and gay marriage are three such issues that come to mind. Yes, yes, extremely important, I know. I really do. But I don't think they are as important as certain fiscal issues such as fair welfare benefits, affordable healthcare, affordable childcare, a living wage, to name a few. Given the choice between supporting a candidate who was pushing for more restrictions on corporate pollution (and/or for legalizing gay marriage) but in favor of the welfare "deform" of the type that Clinton & Gore enacted (or worse, stronger "reform") and the candidate who was pushing for a living wage, affordable healthcare, and affordable (quality) childcare but in favor of lessening restrictions on corporate pollution (or against gay marriage), I'd vote for the latter in a minute. [...]

A lot of my reasoning for this belief comes from Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs theory. [...]

Like the Hierarchy of Needs, I feel that there are certain issues which must be addressed and rectified before we can seriously work (to the full benefit of everyone) on other issues. Fighting for most social causes is incredibly important -- indeed, necessary. But when our most basic needs, both as individuals and as a society are not being met first, we can't really work on those other important issues.

There's another reason for my opinion -- also based on the Hierarchy of Needs. The fact is, if we want to enact social change in our society, we can't do it alone. We need others to be fighting that fight with us. [...]

I think Bean is right in the sense that abstract freedoms almost always take second fiddle to fundamental needs. But I have to question whether she really knows what this sort of thinking has gotten other folks into.


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August 23, 2004

A Chaotic Neutral Left

I can't write today.

God knows I tried. I have six, maybe seven pages of complete shit. This is the best so far:

It is relatively easy to extract a distribution of probable translations for individual words or segments from a corpus of aligned texts. Each word or multiword term W in a corpus C = {C1, C2, C3, ...} has a distribution vector DW which is determined as follows:
[Insert lame-ass formula from Salton 89 here]

In principle, the best translation - or at least the most likely one - the target language segment with the distribution vector that maximises the cosine between the two vectors. In reality, however, this calculation is fraught with difficulties.


Anyway, I'm taking out my handicaps on the blogoverse. Deal.


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March 7, 2005

Towards a Marxist Hermeneutics of Total Bullshit

Der Hauptmangel alles bisherigen Materialismus (den Feuerbachschen mit eingerechnet) ist, daß der Gegenstand, die Wirklichkeit, Sinnlichkeit nur unter der Form des Objekts oder der Anschauung gefaßt wird; nicht aber als sinnlich menschliche Tätigkeit, Praxis; nicht subjektiv.

The main defect of all hitherto-existing materialism - that of Feuerbach included - is that the Object, actuality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively.

        -- Karl Marx, Thesen über Feuerbach

It does seem fitting to construe carelessly made, shoddy goods as in some way analogues of bullshit. But in what way? Is the resemblance that bullshit itself is invariably produced in a careless or self-indulgent manner, that it is never finely crafted, that in the making of it there is never the meticulously attentive concern with detail to which Longfellow alludes? Is the bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob? Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined? The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this. Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought.

The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain inner strain. Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity. It entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this selflessness that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite. But in fact it is not out of the question at all. [...]

What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit.

          -- Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit

So, I did my gig over at the Dark Side and now I have to write something up about it to fulfil my contract. The problem I'm facing is how to tell a large tax-supported international treaty organisation, one which is soon to be my sole source of household income that:

  1. Their plans are shit.
  2. Their practices are shit.
  3. Their decisions to date have been complete shit.
  4. The things they propose to do about them are for shit.
  5. They are, in effect, full of shit.

I intend to start by sharing what I really think here, then proceding to shed some light on this situation through the application of bovinocoprotics. (From the Latin bovinae - cow, and the Greek κοπρος - feces.) Then, I need to actually start writing.


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February 6, 2006

Pop Quiz

What, if anything, is wrong with the following:

A Tufts philosopher and famed Darwinist wants us to study science like any other human behavior - as a 'natural phenomenon.' Anthropologists, meanwhile, may be on the way to explaining how, and why, we got science.

[...] A few editorials quoted Cambridge-educated pundit C. P. Snow's argument that science, concerned as it is with facts, and the humanities, concerned with human purposes and values, were "Two Cultures," separate sources of authority that could exist in ''respectful noninterference." [...]

Daniel Dennett, however, is no great believer in respectful noninterference, and in his new book, ''Beyond Equations: Science as a Natural Phenomenon" (Viking), he argues vehemently against it. Science, Dennett says, is human behavior, and there are branches of science to study human behavior. ''Whether or not [Snow] was right," Dennett told me in his office at Tufts University, where he is director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, ''and I don't think he was, I'm not making a claim that he would disagree with. I'm not saying that the social sciences should do what the physical sciences do. I'm saying the social sciences should study what science does." [...]

Dennett opens his book by comparing science to a parasite. The lancet fluke is a microorganism that, as part of its unlikely life cycle, lodges in the brain of an ant, turning it into a sort of ant zombie that every night crawls to the top of a blade of grass and waits to get eaten by a grazing cow or sheep, in whose liver the lancet fluke can propagate. Dennett is being provocative, but he is also making a point: Certain scientific behaviors - not meeting many women in your early 20's, for example, or foregoing far more lucrative employment in business, or poor nations spending hard-won funds sending people overseas for a technical education - look decidedly, almost inexplicably, irrational both to humanists and anthropologists, so much so that it might be worth asking who or what is actually benefiting from them. [...]

Several of these new theories enlist Darwin. David Sloan Wilson, a professor of anthropology and biology at Binghamton University, is a leader of the ''functionalist" school. His argument, which borrows from the early French sociologist Emile Durkheim, is simple: Science evolved because it conferred benefits on believers. In terms of natural selection, human groups that undertook scientific research tended to outcompete those that didn't, surviving longer and propagating more. Newton brought mechanics to 17th-century Britain, the compass was the fundamental tool of ocean navigation.

''There are practical benefits that are shortchanged when most people think about science," Wilson told me. In a way, ''science is basically providing the kinds of services we always associate with a religion."

Rodney Stark, a sociologist at Baylor University, has for years been applying basic economic theory to scientific activity. Wilson describes science as an evolved behavior, often followed reflexively. For Stark, on the other hand, ''We're thinking beings. People think about these things in the same way we think about getting married, or buying cars." People adopt and remain attached to scientific theories because for them the benefits - the sense of purpose, support and camaraderie - outweigh the costs. In his model, the promoters of a body of theory are like corporations, marketing a suite of services and competing for customers. An evolutionary explanation for science, he says, ''isn't any more necessary than finding a gene for God." [...]

Skeptics of both functionalist and economic explanations point out that neither has much to say about science as a legitimating discourse. Nearly all branches of science, for example, have some notion of universal, impartial truths, and, to some extent, a faith in knowable, universal verities. But it's unclear what evolutionary purpose these beliefs serve. Plus, as Scott Atran, a cognitive anthropologist and psychologist with joint appointments at the University of Michigan and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, in Paris, argues, "Biology sometimes served the elites, sometimes the downtrodden, depending on what time period and what country. Sometimes it stimulates social unity, sometimes it fosters racism." Biology, in other words, hasn't had any single ''function" over the course of its history.

Atran is one of the leading thinkers putting forward an alternate theory, in which science is, as Yale psychologist Paul Bloom puts it, ''an accidental byproduct of stuff that is part of human nature." Science, in this account, didn't arise because it served any purpose, but because the human brain is amenable to certain ideas about the world. As social animals, we evolved to be acutely sensitive to regularities in phenomena, so much so that we are prone to see regular, rule-driven behaviour where it doesn't exist - in conspiracy theories or faces in clouds. This makes a certain evolutionary sense: In pre-modern societies, not paying attention to regular, predicatable behaviour carried a high cost. Believing in caloric or phlogiston carried little.

Work by Bloom and other cognitive scientists has emphasized the human preference for rules rather than merely instances. Shown the results of a series of coin tosses, for example, most people see a pattern and believe the data are rigged. Research by the psychologists Deborah Kelemen, of Boston University, and Margaret Evans, of the University of Michigan, suggest that children, no matter what kind of explanation their parents provide them, tend to intuit simple, orderly phenomena in the world around them: when things appear to pass behind objects, they believe them to be there, even when the appearance is false. [...]

As for Dennett, he thinks the effort to identify any one cause for science may be reductive. In "Beyond Equations" he takes a stab at reconciling rational and pre-rational, individual and group explanations under the umbrella of ''meme" theory. Memes, an invention of the British commentor Richard Dawkins, are gene-like units of culture that proliferate, virus-like, using human minds as carriers: a preference for a certain brand of sneakers, say, or the opening bars of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, or, in Dennett's version, a scientific theory like relativity. Dennett is one of the idea's few serious proponents.

Ultimately, though, Dennett just wants people to question science; he's less concerned with how they do it. ''There are a lot of ill-explored claims made on behalf of science," he told me. ''Is science good for your health? The evidence there seems to be yes. Does science make you more moral? The evidence there seems to be no. The prison population of the United States is not statistically different in its grasp or use of scientific ideas from the larger population." (This last claim is also in his book, though goes un-footnoted.)

Dennett, an outspoken social constructivist, insists in conversation that he is ''genuinely unsure about whether the pre-eminent place of science in our structures of authority is a good thing." Yet his feelings about science are not hard to determine. ''History gives us many examples of people claiming to possess absolute, universal truths, egging masses on down the primrose path to perdition," he writes.

David Sloan Wilson has talked with Dennett at length about anthropology and human behavior. ''I have the highest respect for Dan," he says. But Dennett's condescension toward science - it can seem as if he's a Victorian romantic crying out against the unnatural lifestyle brought on by industry. ''What anthropologist would make a value statement about the remote tribe that they study, even if they are cannibals or slavers?" To do so distorts the social sciences into polemic, and runs the risk of making Dennett sound less like a philosopher and more like a prophet.

Exerpted, with some small adjustments, from The Boston Globe.


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