Friday, May 29, 2009

Music Friday: 4 more covers

Continuing with the theme from last week, here are 4 more covers, each one followed by the original.

5. The Project (info) covers...



...Tchaikovsky.




6. Ben Gibbard (of Postal Service and Death Cab for Cutie fame) covers...



...Michael Jackson.



7. Hanne Hukkelberg (blogged previously) covers...



...the Kinks.




8. M. Ward (featuring Zooey Deschanel) covers...



...Buddy Holly.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

My Dinner with Andre is being reissued.

Finally.

I hope this post is what did it.

UPDATE: My mom's reaction to the reissue:

I have the Fox/Lorber version too, and it's the most atrocious DVD I've ever seen. It's as if somebody made a bad videotape of it when it was on TV, then burned that copy of it to a disc. Yet I've watched it many times. When the movie was out, I saw it in the theater twice -- 2 nights in a row. It will be amazing to see something close to the real thing now, after all these years.

Why gays are lucky to be marriage-free, according to Michael Scott

There's an episode of The Office from a couple years ago (Season 3) where the boss, Michael Scott (Steve Carell), calls a meeting to reveal that one of the other employees is gay. Predictably, he uses the opportunity to lecture the office about homosexuality, and he says this:

MICHAEL: Gay marriage currently is not legal, under U.S. law. I bet a lot of straight men wish that applied to them -- so they could go out there and have some torrid, unabashed monkey sex, as much as they could. You know, that sounds pretty good, right?

KEVIN: That sounds great.
I've watched that episode many times, and I've always laughed at that interchange because of how cheerfully Michael has become convinced of his own fallacious reasoning. But no one would say something so dumb in real life, right?

Well, the Weekly Standard saw fit to print this argument by Sam Schulman, in a piece entitled, "The Worst Thing About Gay Marriage":
[M]arriage changes the nature of sexual relations between a man and a woman. Sexual intercourse between a married couple is licit; sexual intercourse before marriage, or adulterous sex during marriage, is not. Illicit sex is not necessarily a crime, but licit sexual intercourse enjoys a sanction in the moral universe, however we understand it, from which premarital and extramarital copulation is excluded. More important, the illicit or licit nature of heterosexual copulation is transmitted to the child, who is deemed legitimate or illegitimate based on the metaphysical category of its parents’ coition.

Now to live in such a system, in which sexual intercourse can be illicit, is a great nuisance. Many of us feel that licit sexuality loses, moreover, a bit of its oomph. Gay lovers live merrily free of this system. Can we imagine Frank’s family and friends warning him that “If Joe were serious, he would put a ring on your finger”? Do we ask Vera to stop stringing Sally along? Gay sexual practice is not sortable into these categories—licit-if-married but illicit-if-not (children adopted by a gay man or hygienically conceived by a lesbian mom can never be regarded as illegitimate). Neither does gay copulation become in any way more permissible, more noble after marriage. It is a scandal that homosexual intercourse should ever have been illegal, but having become legal, there remains no extra sanction—the kind which fathers with shotguns enforce upon heterosexual lovers. I am not aware of any gay marriage activist who suggests that gay men and women should create a new category of disapproval for their own sexual relationships, after so recently having been freed from the onerous and bigoted legal blight on homosexual acts. But without social disapproval of unmarried sex—what kind of madman would seek marriage? ...

Few men would ever bother to enter into a romantic heterosexual marriage—much less three, as I have done—were it not for the iron grip of necessity that falls upon us when we are unwise enough to fall in love with a woman other than our mom. There would be very few flowerings of domestic ecstasy were it not for the granite underpinnings of marriage. Gay couples who marry are bound to be disappointed in marriage’s impotence without these ghosts of past authority....

Every day thousands of ordinary heterosexual men surrender the dream of gratifying our immediate erotic desires. Instead, heroically, resignedly, we march up the aisle with our new brides, starting out upon what that cad poet Shelley called the longest journey, attired in the chains of the kinship system—a system from which you have been spared. Imitate our self-surrender. If gay men and women could see the price that humanity—particularly the women and children among us—will pay, simply in order that a gay person can say of someone she already loves with perfect competence, “Hey, meet the missus!”—no doubt they will think again.
How do you think his wife -- or his ex-wives -- feel about this article?

To be clear, the above block quote is not a parody. The Weekly Standard is one of the most respected conservative periodicals, and it published this in all seriousness.

(Thanks to Isaac Chotiner for pointing out the Weekly Standard article in TNR, and this site for The Office dialogue.)


UPDATE: A comment on my mom's blog pointed out that I never actually explained my objection to Michael Scott and Sam Schulman's reasoning. Here's my response, for those who'd like to see this spelled out:
Let's concede the point that there are a whole lot of men out there (of all sexual orientations) who would rather have unrestrained, promiscuous sex than be tied down by being married. Does it follow that men are more fortunate if they're gay? Of course not, because straight men aren't forced to get married! Men who want promiscuous sex so much that they'd rather not be married are in the same position whether they're gay, straight, or bisexual: they just shouldn't get married. For those men, the legality of marriage is a wash. But there are still plenty of men, of all sexual orientations, who would rather be married. Among that group of men, the ones who want to legally marry a woman are in a more fortunate situation than the ones who want to legally marry a man, since the former but not the latter are allowed to do what they want.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Abortion rights and quality of life

The other day, I blogged Richard Posner's blog post about his views on the state of conservatism. Since then, he followed up to respond to the hundreds of comments his post received. He said the comments suggest that "global warming, abortion, and guns, in approximately that order, arouse particular emotions among many passionate self-described conservatives."

He added: "About abortion, my personal position is the same as [Gary] Becker's" (referring to the other half of the Becker-Posner blog). So, what is Becker's position on abortion? He says:

[T]here is an obvious conflict between the rights of women to control their bodies and their motherhood, and the rights of fetuses that might be far enough along in their development to be considered human beings. This is a very prominent example of the general difficulty of determining where to draw the line when the rights of children conflict with the rights of their parents. I do not claim to have a definitive resolution of this conflict in the case of abortion, or in some other parent-child conflicts. But I come down on the side of women's rights to make decisions about their body, except in very late term abortions where fetuses can survive outside a woman's body, and therefore can be considered real children.

Abortions often allow women to have children at later dates when they are better prepared emotionally and in other ways to have children. In effect, abortions in these cases would allow women to substitute children who would be born later, and would be better taken care of, for the fetuses that are aborted now. That seems to me to be a tradeoff worth making. Moreover, laws banning abortion would be difficult to enforce against wealthy women since they would be able to get abortions illegally under reasonably good conditions, including by going abroad. Poor women who want abortions would suffer the most from enforcement of an anti-abortion law, as they are the ones who mainly suffer from laws against the use of drugs and many other types of laws.
"Bissage," a commenter on my mom's blog, said this on Mother's Day:
Maybe later today I’ll see a young mother out with her children and I’ll smile as I approach her and then I’ll say, "Your children are very beautiful. Thank you for not aborting them."
I responded:
Wait, how do you know the random mother you see on the street didn't have an abortion before having her child? If so, then the child wouldn't exist if not for that abortion. So, in that case, you'd need to thank her for getting an abortion.
Bissage's comment — conjuring up lovely, happy children who stroll along with their mother and brighten the day of a passerby — also reminded me of an experience my girlfriend Danielle and I had last weekend.

We were walking down Lark Street and passed by someone holding up an enormous sign with a gruesome image supposedly showing an aborted fetus, blown up to the size of an adult. (I say "supposedly" because propaganda photographs in this age of Photoshop generally shouldn't be trusted. Oh, I'm sure aborted fetuses look repulsive -- I'm sure many medical procedures look repulsive. But the photo on the sign may have been artificially bloodied up or who-knows-what.)

We talked about how much we resent the fact that this protester is trying to undermine society's most minimal standards of civility. But we have to accept his freedom of speech.

Just a few minutes later, walking down a different street, we saw a woman and a very young child -- probably just 3 or 4 years old — sitting on a bench. No one else seemed to be nearby, and we were far enough away that the woman might not have seen us for a while. I saw the child drop what looked like a plastic cup, and I saw his mother angrily scolding him. I didn't see what came next because I had instinctively glanced away from the unpleasant scene, but Danielle was still watching. Afterwards, she told me she saw the mother hit the child as punishment for dropping the cup.

Although only Danielle saw that particular moment, both of us saw the mother's contemptuous manner of interacting with her child. It was unmistakable just from that fleeting public incident seen from a distance; who knows how much worse it gets in private, lived up close, day after day? What are the ultimate consequences of this, not just to the boy but to society?

We were convinced that the mother didn't want her child. You can moralize all you want about how pregnant women should give up for adoption any children they don't want, but nothing you or I can say will change the reality of what's happening in that family.

Then we talked about the abortion protester, and how much he glosses over when he waves his fetus sign.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Could we please get an English translation of Shakespeare?

John McWhorter says what everyone has thought but no one is supposed to point out about Shakespeare:

One writer beautifully captures the mood of most audiences at Shakespeare performances as "reverently unreceptive," "gratified that they have come, and gratified that they now may go." One need only take a look at the faces in the lobby as the audience files out--the gray-haired gent's polite grin, the thirty-something couple's set jaws, the adolescent girl's petulant weariness - with general interest oriented suspiciously more towards getting to the rest room and planning where to go for a bite than in discussing the play....

The problem is whether Shakespeare's English is the language we speak at all. English of the late 1500s presents us with a tricky question: At what point do we concede that substantial comprehension across the centuries has become too much of a challenge to expect of anyone but specialists?

The foremost writer in the English language is little more than a symbol in the actual thinking lives of most of us for the simple reason that we cannot understand what the man is saying....

I submit ... that Shakespeare be performed in translations into modern English. I do not mean the utilitarian running translations in textbooks, but richly considered ones, executed by artists equipped to channel Shakespeare to the modern listener with passion, respect and care.
Before you object to his proposal, I recommend reading McWhorter's whole argument.

One commenter on his post, "Simon Greenwood," says:
Half the appeal of Shakespeare is that it's inaccessible, though. If it were possible to understand what was going on then it'd no longer be on its special perch but on the same level as contemporary art. Going to see Shakespeare would no longer be a rite of flagellation to prove your place in the cultural elite but instead directly comparable to going to the movies or watching the boob tube. It may even move some theaters out of the hallowed ground of squeaking by on donations, a la NPR, and instead being crass low-brow self-sustaining businesses.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Americans don't want taxes raised or spending cut.

According to this poll by Harris.

I guess people must love deficits.

Details:

A 71 percent to 15 percent majority of adults do not think "it is necessary to increase taxes to reduce the budget deficit". Large majorities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents feel this way...

When it comes to cutting government spending, there is little support for cutting any substantial programs.
When asked what should be cut if something had to be cut, almost no one, including Republicans, said Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, or education. By far the most popular thing to be cut is the space program.

I found out about the poll from Matthew Yglesias, who links to it on Twitter and sums it up this way:
everything is unpopular
Or is it the opposite? This poll says that people don't want anything taken away. So ... everything's popular!

Americans don't want the government taking away their money. But we want to keep getting everything the government gives them. We want it all.

As the Harris report says,
Once a tax has been cut, there is usually a lot of resistance to increasing it again. And, once money is committed to a program or entitlements are established, cutting back on that spending is also very tough.
RELATED: Thing you're not supposed to point out #1.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Radio show host lets himself get waterboarded to try to prove it's not torture.

And admits he was wrong:

"I don't want to say this: absolutely torture."
And his experience was enviable next to the actual interrogation practice. A paramedic was on hand to supervise the procedure, which they assured him would be stopped if he threw a toy cow he was holding.

He threw the cow after 6 or 7 seconds.

[NOTE: The link in this post originally went to The New Republic, but I've switched it to a different source because the TNR link was lost in their botched redesign.]

Friday, May 22, 2009

Why is my mom talking about breasts?

I don't know. 

Music Friday: 4 covers

For some reason, hearing two different versions of a song side by side usually makes me appreciate both performances more. Here are some particularly adventurous and fruitful covers, followed by the original artist.

1. Mercedes Landazuri (info) covers...



...the Beach Boys.




2. The Futureheads cover...



...Kate Bush.




3. Cake covers...



...Gloria Gaynor.




4. K.T. Tunstall covers...



...the Jackson 5.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

"What are the simple concepts that have most helped you understand the world?"

That question on AskMetafilter yielded 100+ answers.

Samples:

Occam's Razor - the simplest explanation is usually correct.

We want the facts to fit the preconceptions. When they don't, it is easier to ignore the facts than to change the preconceptions.

When I realised that the vast majority of other people were too busy worrying about their own appearance/conversation topic/speaking voice to judge mine, and that random waiters, tellers or passers-by would forget me within a few minutes of seeing me, it was wonderfully liberating.

By the time you have paid enough attention to a work of art to know whether it was a waste of time to take seriously, it is already too late for the answer to be useful.
Here are mine:
Any seemingly objective statement of the facts is actually slanted by the speaker's bias.

The fact that a lot of people believe something isn't a sufficient reason for you to believe it.

The fact that you live in the country you live in, or have the parents you have, is arbitrary.

Think about what's so taboo that it isn't said even though it's true; those things are especially worth thinking of for yourself, since you probably won't hear them said out loud.

Someone with a confident demeanor is trying to persuade; their demeanor doesn't prove they're correct.

The chances are slim that a whole social movement has gotten everything right.

Money is fungible. [And so are many other things.]

If the easy solution you thought of has never been successfully tried, there's probably a good reason for that.

Ask yourself why an intelligent person would disagree with you.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Why are Obama's terrorism policies so similar to Bush's?

In this important article in The New Republic, Jack Goldsmith compares President Obama's policies with former President Bush's on 11 terrorism issues: whether we're fighting a "war" or merely fighting "crime," Guantanamo Bay, military detentions, habeas corpus, military commissions, targeted killings, rendition, secret prisons, surveillance, state secrets, and interrogation techniques (including torture). (Goldsmith was an Assistant Attorney General in the Bush administration.)

The whole article is worth reading, but if you want to cut to the chase, here are some of the main points:

Goldsmith's overall assessment:

The Obama administration is still debating many of these issues, and its final policies are not all set. Its changes to Bush practices thus far--cutting back on secret detentions, probable new restrictions on interrogation, and relatively small procedural changes to military commissions--will leave some suspected terrorists in a better place than they would have been under the Bush regime (although Obama's increase in targeted killings will likely result in more deaths and injuries, without due process, to terror suspects and innocent civilians). Even with these caveats, at the end of the day, Obama practices will be much closer to late Bush practices than almost anyone expected in January 2009.
4 rationales for the continuity:
[1.] [T]he late Bush practices were much different than the early ones.... The law was much clearer in 2009 [than in 2001-2003], and there was much greater consensus--across political parties and the branches of government--about permissible policies and their limits. Many Obama policies reflect that consensus.

[2.] [T]he Bush policies were woven into the fabric of the national security architecture in ways that were hard if not impossible to unravel....
So the Obama administration is a bit like a cleaning company that advertises: "We'll make your home look like new!" Then, when they actually come over, they tell you that your main problem is grime that's been around so long it's impossible to remove, and they can only do some light dusting.

Anyway, doesn't point 2 contradict point 1? Bush's policies are so ingrained they're difficult if not impossible to undo -- and by the way, Bush's policies were dramatically overhauled from 2003 to 2009.

Continuing with the rationales:
[3.] [M]any of the Bush policies reflect longstanding executive branch positions. Every wartime president has asserted the right to detain enemy forces without charge or trial during war. Many of them used military commissions for war criminals. Presidents dating back at least to Carter have maintained that habeas corpus review does not extend to aliens detained outside the United States. The state secrets doctrine is over a century old and has been employed vigorously by presidents since the 1970s. Rendition and targeted killings began under Clinton if not earlier. It is no surprise that President Obama seeks to maintain these presidential powers. It would be a surprise if he did not do so....

[4.] President Obama has gone from a legislator and presidential candidate to the commander in chief wholly responsible for the nation's safety. He now reads the same threat reports as President Bush and confronts the same challenge of stopping Islamist terrorists who hide among civilians and who want to use ever-smaller and more deadly weapons to disrupt our way of life. He also faces the same paucity of truly useful information about the enemy and the same hard tradeoffs between liberty and security. And he knows that the American people will blame him and no one else if the terrorists strike.
Goldsmith's rebuke to Dick Cheney:
[T]he former vice president is wrong to say that the new president is dismantling the Bush approach to terrorism. President Obama has not changed much of substance from the late Bush practices, and the changes he has made, including changes in presentation, are designed to fortify the bulk of the Bush program for the long-run. Viewed this way, President Obama is in the process of strengthening the presidency to fight terrorism.
UPDATE: David Brooks points out that the New Republic article debunks both Obama's and Cheney's dueling speeches this week.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Can you give a neurological or evolutionary explanation of love without debunking the whole idea of love?

Eric Schwitzgebel talks about his feelings for his young child in this post on The Splintered Mind. He says:

[I]f an evolutionary biologist comes along and tells me: “yes, but these feelings of 'love' are really just a bunch of neurons firing—these feelings have been naturally selected for so that parents would care for offspring long enough for them to pass along their genes,” I’d shrug my shoulders or perhaps ask for more details. But this mechanistic/evolutionary explanation wouldn’t in any way undermine my love for my daughter or debunk my belief that I truly love her. Why? Because I’m a naturalist and never presumed that love wouldn’t have this type of explanation.

However, I know people who don’t feel this way about love—someone named Ashley for example. For Ashley, real love cannot just be neurons firing because it was adaptive for her ancestors to have those neurons firing. Real love must have its source in something completely unrelated to the struggle for survival and reproduction. Naturalistic explanations terrify Ashley precisely because they do undermine her belief that she truly loves her children or partner.

But would/should these explanations debunk her belief that she loves her children? . . . [W]hat, in the end, does/should Ashley think about her belief in the existence of her love—is it (a) false or (b) just in need of revision? . . .

[W]e have no agreed-upon method for determining when a belief has been explained and when it has been explained away.
That last point is hugely consequential. It's something to keep in mind when reading the latest New York Times article about researchers who have conducted some experiment that conveniently solves a philosophical problem that's been debated for centuries. Anytime I see one of those articles, I'm betting the experiment doesn't really solve the philosophy problem — even under the generous assumption that their data have been collected using the best available methodologies and reported with scrupulous impartiality.

I'm an anti-reductionist. In other words, I'm skeptical whenever someone, having described how something works, says, "And that's all there is." Even if this person's description is accurate as far as it goes, it might not have gone far enough. One kind of analysis might reveal certain truths, while other equally valid truths are accessible only through other means.

So I don't feel that the very idea of love is threatened by neuroscience or evolutionary psychology. This isn't because I'm privy to some grand theory that unifies our intuitions about love with a scientific explanation of it. But I assume that one could have such a comprehensive understanding in an ideal world.

I don't know if anyone has done so yet. I certainly haven't. But the fact that there are huge areas of life that people haven't yet fully explained doesn't make me despondent or stop me from living my life as usual.

On AskPhilosophers, someone asks:
Suppose that a neuroscientist is studying love, and she discovers that romantic infatuation is caused by high serotonin levels, while attachment is caused by oxytocin. Has she actually learned anything about love? More generally, what is the significance of discovering neural or hormonal correlates to particular human emotions or behavior?
The philosopher Peter Smith responds, taking a view similar to mine:
Compare: someone who tells us about the chemical composition of the pigments used in Botticelli’s Primavera has told us something about the painting. But again such discoveries don’t help us understand the painting in the way that matters, as a work of art, as part of the human world: understanding that requires something quite different from chemistry....

If Mercutio whispers in Romeo's ear, "It's the serotonin, old chap", will that change his feelings for Juliet? Has his love been rudely unmasked, e.g. as just a desire for cheap chemical thrills?

I don't suppose Romeo is much in the mood to be distracted by such thoughts. But, waiting for Juliet's household to get to bed so he can climb up to her balcony, he might reflect how interesting the chemistry of love must be (and one day, when he has less pressing business to attend to, he must learn more about it).... Romeo is only too glad that he is young, his chemical systems are bursting with vim and vigour, and his brain still gets awash with serotonin at the sight of a pretty girl. He is very happy, so to speak, to go with the chemical flow.

So Romeo’s feelings for Juliet aren’t changed by reflecting on their neural causes any more than my belief that there is a screen in front of me and my desire for chocolate are changed by reflecting on their causes. And he’ll think that the fact that his feelings have a “chemical composition” no more shows that they are just chemistry (in any important sense) than the fact that our scientist showed that Primavera is just a load of old chemicals! His feelings have a role and place in his life and it is that which matters about them.

I'm with Romeo on this.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Whose lives are valued more, men's or women's?

Nicholas Kristof's latest op-ed is about women in Africa who die in childbirth. He says:

According to the World Health Organization, Sierra Leone has the highest maternal mortality in the world, and in several African countries, 1 woman in 10 ends up dying in childbirth.

It’s pretty clear that if men were dying at these rates, the United Nations Security Council would be holding urgent consultations, and a country such as this would appoint a minister of paternal mortality. Yet half-a-million women die annually from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth without attracting much interest because the victims are typically among the most voiceless people in the world: impoverished, rural, uneducated and female.
When he links to this op-ed on Twitter, he uses the feminist point as the draw:
If men were dying in childbirth, this would be a crisis.
"Reader_iam" (who sometimes comments on this blog) responds:
It would? Are you sure? Which men? All men? Everywhere?
I've become exhausted with feminist counterfactuals like Kristof's. You hear them frequently: "People would take this problem more seriously if it were happening to men." "No one would care if a man did this." It's easy to make these claims without any evidence, because they're usually unfalsifiable.

But I actually do think Kristof's claim is falsifiable -- and indeed, false. You don't need to go through the Rube Goldberg-esque procedure of (1) starting with a problem that only leads to women's deaths, then (2) imagining a world where it happened to men, then (3) comparing the real-world reactions with the alternate-universe reactions. All you have to do is look at how people react in the real world when a disaster such as an earthquake kills a large number of people. The fact that "women and children" died will be specifically noted, as if the expected reaction is: "Not just people died, but women -- oh no!" It's similar to how the American media will report that a bomb in a foreign country killed a large number of people ... "including 3 Americans" -- horrors!

In fact, even the headline of Kristof's piece (which I know he might not have written) suggests that people are more moved by the deaths of women than of men -- or, at least, the media expects them to be. The headline is: "This Mom Didn't Have to Die." Do you think the Times would be as likely to run a tear-jerker headline: "This Dad Didn't Have to Die"?


IN THE COMMENTS: "Jason (the commenter)" has some questions for Kristof:
Who has longer life expectancies? Who gets off of boats first? Is more money spent on breast or prostate cancer research? ... Does the media worry about men dying unnoticed? Who makes up a greater proportion of the prison population? Who makes up a greater portion of the people begging on the streets?
If the average woman's lifespan were several years less than the average man's, it would be a crisis!

Also, "reader_iam" follows up with a couple important points:
I do want to be clear that the high rate of deaths in childbirth in Sierra Leone, and elsewhere, is not something I wish to make light of (nor you, I know). Indeed, it was the framing that bothered me, especially in light of the broader situation in Sierra Leone, based on other WHO statistics which (coincidentally) I'd happened to review recently, and therefore they jumped to mind when I saw Kristoff's piece.

As you'll notice, the stats here are appalling all the way around, but in all categories divided by sex, you can see that males are slightly worse off.
If you follow that link, you'll see that this includes general lifespan and infant mortality -- both are worse for males than females in Sierra Leone.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why do non-religious people care about their dead loved family members?

Joshua Knobe and Jesse Bering mull over our self-contradictions:



This is at least tangentially related to my post on the afterlife. I don't know if that post contains the answer. Do we really just care about the people who are still alive?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

"You should have a tag: 'Obama is like Bush but with more procedural protections.'"

I make a cameo appearance on the Althouse blog, referring to Obama's newfound support of military commissions in Guantanamo.

My mom adds:

I'm laughing at Obama, but I'm also thanking him for doing the right thing and reasonably tolerant of the way he's tried to save face by pretending he's not doing exactly the same thing Bush did.
And she quotes a commenter who says:
I was convinced that you were wholly deluded when you decided that Obama was going to be more of a pragmatist than most people (especially his own backers) expected. I very grudgingly concede that you may have been somewhat right. I underestimated his willingness to lie.

How to think: Minimize your identity?

Paul Graham says (via Stuart Buck at Overcoming Bias):

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people's identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. ...

Which topics engage people's identity depends on the people, not the topic. For example, a discussion about a battle that included citizens of one or more of the countries involved would probably degenerate into a political argument. But a discussion today about a battle that took place in the Bronze Age probably wouldn't. No one would know what side to be on. So it's not politics that's the source of the trouble, but identity. ...

If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.
What do you think? Good solution, too drastic, or just ridiculous?

IN THE COMMENTS: Responses.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The liberal, conservative way to teach children morals

"Two views of moral education," set forth by Eric Schitzgebel in his blog about philosophy and psychology called The Splintered Mind:

(1.) The "liberal", inward-out model: Moral education should stress moral reflection, with rules and punishment playing a secondary role. ...

(2.) The "conservative", outward-in model: Moral education should stress rules and punishment, with moral reflection playing a secondary role. You can't understand and apply the rules, of course, without some sort of reflection on them, but reflection should be in the context of received norms....
Now, academically affiliated researchers on moral development almost universally prefer the first model to the second.... The common idea is that children (and the morally undeveloped in general) improve morally when they are encouraged to think for themselves and given space to discover their own reactions and values....
But he has an idea for how to blend the two together:
Suppose Sally hits Hank and a liberally-minded teacher comes up and asks her how it made her feel to hurt Hank. What child, realistically, would say, "Well, I know he didn't deserve it, but it just felt good pounding him to a pulp!"? The reality is that the child is being asked to reflect in a situation where she knows that the teacher will approve of one answer and condemn another. This isn't free reflection; and the answer the child gives may not reflect her real feelings and values. Instead, it seems, it is a kind of imposition -- and one perhaps all the more effective if the child mistakes the resulting judgment for one that is genuinely her own.

Therefore, maybe, a liberal-seeming style of moral education is effective not because we have in us all an inclination toward the good that only needs encouragement to flower, but rather because reflection in teacher-child, parent-child, and similar social contexts is really an insidious form of imposition -- and thus, perhaps, the conservative's best secret tool.
As an adult, it can be hard to put yourself back in the child's shoes, since your childhood was so long ago. But anyone who's been to a law school where they use the Socratic method has a more recent memory of what he's talking about.

NOTE: With this post, I've created a new tag, and also applied it to a few old posts: "observed morality."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"PRO TIP: A rousing chorus of 'It's Raining Men' will often trick people into an accidental 'Hallelujah.'"

Advice for a parlour game.

The oldest known artistic depiction of a woman may also be the oldest known pornography.

It's this 35,000-year-old sculpture.

Paul Mellars, an anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, says:

"The figure is explicitly — and blatantly — that of a woman, with an exaggeration of sexual characteristics (large, projecting breasts, a greatly enlarged and explicit vulva, and bloated belly and thighs) that by twenty-first-century standards could be seen as bordering on the pornographic"....
Here's a video segment about it.

So, what does this mean? It may have profound implications about the development of art and intelligence:
The oldest human art dates back much further, to between 75,000 and 95,000 years ago in Africa. But that art was abstract, and consisted of geometrical designs engraved on pieces of red iron oxide. This is the first known art to represent a woman, and possibly the first art to represent anything real at all....

The jump from abstract art to representative art ... might reflect a leap in the cognitive capacity of the human brain around this time. Some experts think that the development might have gone along with a leap in the complexity of human language.
But let's get back to the sex...
"If there's one conclusion you want to draw from this, it's that an obsession with sex goes back at least 35,000 years," [said Mellars].... "But if humans hadn’t been largely obsessed with sex they wouldn’t have survived for the first 2 million years. None of this is at all surprising."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Is feminism dead?

Yes, says Susannah Breslin in one of the first posts on the new "women's" blog, XX Factor:

[I]sn't it intellectually reductive and culturally retarded to imply that the only site for women worth doing is one that follows an abstract set of political rules upon which no one can agree? ... I want to be more than a victim of the patriarchy, go farther than the feminist movement ever did, spend less time reading about women who are wondering if their supposed sisters are doing "the right thing" in terms of antiquated political concepts, and get the hell on with doing it already.
I'm inclined to agree -- if we're assuming that North America and Europe are the only continents in the world.

If other places in the world are also in the picture, I do think feminism can be useful, but it needs to be directed outside the country Breslin and I happen to live in.

As I've said,
I basically agree with most feminists' goals, but I think they too often exemplify William Hazlitt's aphorism, "It is essential for the triumph of reform that it shall never succeed."
I'm hard-pressed to think of a domestic political issue in the United States that requires feminism now, in 2009.

A gap in men and women's pay would be a very important issue, but I'm not convinced there is a real gap.

Abortion and domestic violence are important issues that profoundly affect women, but even with those issue, isn't it more productive to have a non-gendered debate? Upper-echelon Democrats have evidently realized that passionately feminist rhetoric on abortion ("Keep your laws off my body!") is self-defeating. This is a democracy -- you have to appeal to people with different values than yours if you want your side to win.

As for domestic violence and rape, I think most people understand what's so bad about them by now without needing lessons in feminist theory.

Am I missing something?

There's a theme today!

RELATED: Penelope Trunk says: "Take Your Child to Work Day should be cancelled."

Richard Posner gives a history of "the intellectual decline of conservatism" from the '60s to now.

In this blog post (which is woefully in need of paragraph breaks).

Here's his assessment of where it's ended up:

[T]he policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of management and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.
Posner's post helps clarify the disconnect between (1) the fact that he's typically labeled a "conservative" and (2) what he actually says about the issues.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

My parents are arguing about what the best way to blog is.

"Wild and outrageous" or "finely tuned"?

How Amazon can turn Kindle into a book charity

My friend Ben Wikler offers this "idea for a charity project":

Charity makes a deal with book publishers and Amazon. If you donate a book to the charity, the charity gives it to a library in a school or a prison -- and the publisher gives you that same book on your Kindle.
I approve!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Privacy policy

If you and I have any online communications about content on this blog, I may quote them, including your name, unless you specify otherwise.

In contrast, I do not quote in-person communications by name, unless people specify otherwise.

That's my privacy policy.

The latter point is based on the same concerns that Ezekiel J. Emanuel expresses:

When we go out to dinner we should not have to watch what we say, whether we use the right fork, spill the olive oil on the table cloth, or make a mess around our plate.... For most of us anonymous types, we did not have to worry about this when we were younger and our habits were ingrained. But with Twitter, phone-cameras, and the rest, life is different.

It shouldn't be. The assumption should be that we will not appear in print or the blogosphere. Having dinner should not be fodder for Facebook.
He's nervous about this blog post he wrote about having dinner with Larry David. Before he published it, he showed a draft of the post to Larry David, who "happily" gave him permission. But he still has qualms about how he handled it:
After all, if he did not like the piece, he would have been in the awkward position of asking me not to post it. Maybe we need consent before going to dinner, while the date is being arranged? "This one is potentially on the record."
Isn't there a more sensible solution to this? If you want to blog about someone, ask for permission, but don't show them the post word for word -- unless, of course, they're concerned enough that they actually ask to see it before granting permission. I also point out that I could make it anonymous if they'd prefer. This seems to be a pretty effective way to avoid any major ethical dilemmas.

Roxana Saberi has been freed.

Great news about the American journalist who was sentenced to 8 years in an Iranian prison.

But I'm still waiting for Hossein Derakhshan, also in Iran.

And did you know about Laura Ling and Euna Lee in North Korea?

As that Wall St. Journal article notes, the news we've been getting from North Korea has all been about diplomacy and weapons. Clearly, nothing that happens in North Korea is very important unless it involves diplomacy and weapons. It's all about diplomacy and weapons.

Reporters Without Borders says (via the Washington Independent):

North Korea is one of the hardest countries in the world for the foreign media to cover. The North Korean authorities occasionally issue press visas for cultural or sports events or for visits by foreign officials. Once inside North Korea, journalists are closely watched by the North Korean authorities, who prevent them from interviewing members of the public. Entire regions of the country are completely closed to the international media.

It is also very difficult for the foreign press to operate freely in the Chinese provinces adjoining the North Korean border. South Korean and North Korean journalists who often work in the border region say trying to cover refugees and trafficking there is still very risky. “Chinese police raids and the presence of many undercover North Korean agents make working on the border very complicated,” Reporters Without Borders was told by a journalist working for an independent North Korean radio station based in Seoul.

North Koreans take an enormous risk if they provide information to the news media. Reporters Without Borders has documented the case of Kim Sung Chul, a member of the armed forces who has been held since October 2006 after the Kukka Anjon Bowibu (state security) identified him as the person who clandestinely filmed the video of a public execution that was broadcast on the Japanese television station Asahi TV. He is now in a concentration camp.

A North Korean TV journalist, Song Keum Chul, has been detained in a camp since 1996 for questioning the official version of certain historic events.

International human rights organisations estimate that at least 200,000 people are detained in North Korea’s concentration camps and reeducation camps.

Joe the Plumber's hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner homophobia

Christianity Today ("A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction") has an interview of Samuel Wurzelbacher, better known as Joe the Plumber, which contains this nugget:

[Christianity Today:] In the last month, same-sex marriage has become legal in Iowa and Vermont. What do you think about same-sex marriage at a state level?

[Joe the Plumber:] At a state level, it's up to them. I don't want it to be a federal thing. I personally still think it's wrong. People don't understand the dictionary - it's called queer. Queer means strange and unusual. It's not like a slur, like you would call a white person a honky or something like that.
TNR chimes in:
Yes, thank goodness it's not a term used by genuine bigots, like "honky." That's a word that wounds.
Joe continues:
You know, God is pretty explicit in what we're supposed to do - what man and woman are for. Now, at the same time, we're supposed to love everybody and accept people, and preach against the sins. I've had some friends that are actually homosexual. And, I mean, they know where I stand, and they know that I wouldn't have them anywhere near my children. But at the same time, they're people, and they're going to do their thing.
Now, I know that any blog post about Joe the Plumber has to be met with "Who cares what Joe the Plumber says?" Well, I care, because he's a relatively unguarded, unvarnished spokesman for the right. Most of them have figured out how to hide their underlying views better. Joe the Plumber does us the favor of letting us see through the conservative facade.

And here, Joe has let slip the incoherence of the widespread conservative aim for a middle ground on homosexuality -- specifically, the idea that you can "hate the sin" but "love the sinner." If you're so revulsed by someone that you "wouldn't have them anywhere near [your] children" -- and not because of any concern about your children's physical health or security, but out of sheer moral condemnation -- then your claim to "love" that person rings hollow.

The distinction between (1) a person and (2) that person's thoughts, feelings, and actions is a false one. The way a person lives their life is who that person is. If you hate the sexual orientation of my loved ones who are gay or bisexual, you don't love them. And for that matter, even though I'm straight, you don't love me.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Why conservatives should want less car dependence and more mass transit in America

This whole article from Public Discourse is worth reading, but here's a sample:

A common misperception is that the current American state of auto-dependency is a result of the free market doing its work. In fact, a variety of government interventions ensure that the transportation “market” is skewed towards car-ownership. These policy biases are too numerous to list exhaustively, but a few merit special recognition:

- If a state is interested in building a new highway, the only major regulatory obstacle is completing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). After this, the federal government will typically pay for a large portion of the project, and leave the details of its planning and construction to the state’s Department of Transportation. If a state or municipality is interested in a transit project like a subway, a streetcar, or a bus system, however, not only must it complete an EIS, it must also clear a barrage of regulatory hurdles, including a cost-effectiveness analysis, a land-use impact analysis, and a comparison with other transit systems. None of these requirements is necessarily bad in itself (though many of these regulations were designed only to make it harder to build transit systems), but highways aren’t subject to any of them. Naturally, states therefore find it easier to channel transportation dollars into highways....

- Zoning requirements in most municipalities mandate that shops and houses must be separated. It is widely illegal to build the old small-town main street with the mix of shops, houses, and apartments that many find charming (so charming that some of these towns have been turned into tourist attractions). Furthermore, in most states it is mandatory for new schools to be built next to hundreds of acres playing fields, and thus far away from residential neighborhoods (see this report and this paper for a fuller discussion of policies that affect travel to school). These and similar regulations ensure that there are no shops or schools—that is, major household destinations—within walking distance of the average American’s home, which in turn requires the average American to own and use a car, not merely to commute to work but to perform basic tasks like picking up a gallon of milk or sending the kids off to school in the morning....

Consider how small businesses are affected by Americans’ dependency on cars. Since businesses are obliged by zoning restrictions to locate far away from residential areas, most Americans drive to every store they visit. This means that store visits are often discrete trips that must be undertaken consciously and planned out ahead of time. As a consequence, shoppers will want to visit stores that carry the most diverse inventory—Wal-Mart, Costco, et al.—and avoid shops that specialize in one particular kind of good—the local paint store or flower shop, for instance. Moreover, since small shops cannot afford to spend large sums on advertising, they can’t buy the enormous signs and billboards that direct shoppers to large retail outlets, nor gin up hype for their products with coordinated television spots. Perhaps if their potential customers could walk by their storefronts they would have a chance to notice window-displays and similar kinds of small, careful advertising....

As the market diminishes for these specialized stores, so too does opportunity for small-scale entrepreneurship. If opening a small business were a viable option in more markets, more Americans would be interested in starting them. The current situation, where only very large stores can compete in most retail environments, makes starting a business impossible for the vast majority of Americans.
RELATED: Random thing about me #14.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Does music describe things?

The blog Cognitive Daily has conducted an experiment to find out something that musicians and composers have always known: music is ineffectual at describing things in the external world.

Of course, a lot of music is meant to accompany extra-musical images or stories. There are tone poems, movie soundtracks, the Fantasia movies, Peter and the Wolf, and for that matter, song lyrics in general.

But you need to be explicitly shown or told what the music is supposed to evoke -- which means the music on its own doesn't evoke specific things.

Here's how Cognitive Daily did the experiment: they conducted a survey of their blog readers, in which they embedded audio clips from supposedly descriptive pieces of music and asked the readers to say what the music described. For instance, the survey included

a selection from Claude Debussy's La Mer, from the movement intended to represent the wind and the sea. Only 36 of 357 respondents answered correctly. Even when I gave half-credit for mentioning either the wind, or a storm, or waves, or a boat, only an additional 90 got it. Most respondents -- over 200, in fact, got it completely wrong.

I picked seven different clips like this, from seven different works that were all intended by their composers to represent specific things, not just emotions or adjectives. I tried to pick pieces that seemed relatively obvious, based on the composer's initial intentions. I scored each response on a scale of 0 to 2, with 2 being perfect, and 1 meaning some portion of the response was correct. The average score was a mere 0.38, and 72 percent of the time people got the answer completely wrong.
Respondents with musical training did better than those without it, but "not much better."

I'm reminded of an anecdote about a critic who was writing a review of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3, the "Scottish" Symphony (sometimes awkwardly called the "Scotch" Symphony) when it first came out. The critic exulted that Mendelssohn had perfectly captured the essence of Scotland. He had inadvertently listened to Mendelssohn's Fourth, the "Italian" Symphony, which, as you might have guessed, was supposed to evoke Italy, not Scotland.

I do think music is meaningful and important, but for other reasons (which I'll go into in a future blog post). It's not important because it "describes" or "depicts" nature, or a city, or a person. Music doesn't "describe" or "depict" anything.

The famous composer Aaron Copland wrote, in his book What to Listen for in Music (1939):
My own belief is that all music has an expressive power, some more and some less, but that all music has a certain meaning behind the notes and that the meaning behind the notes constitutes, after all, what the piece is saying, what the piece is about.
This whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, "Is there a meaning to music?" My answer to that would be, "Yes." And "Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?" My answer to that would be, "No."
Therein lies the difficulty. Simple-minded souls will never be satisfied with the answer to the second of these questions.
They always want music to have a meaning, and the more concrete it is the better they like it. The more the music reminds them of a train, a storm, a funeral, or any other familiar conception the more expressive it appears to them.
This popular idea of music's meaning -- stimulated and abetted by the usual run of musical commentator -- should be discouraged wherever and whenever it is met.
One timid lady once confessed to me that she suspected something seriously lacking in her appreciation of music because of her inability to connect it with anything definite. That is getting the whole thing backward, of course.*
Copland said more about this question, based on intuition and experience, than any scientific experiment could.



(That's the movement from Debussy's La Mer that the Cognitive Daily survey had readers listen to, "Dialogue du vent et de la mer," conducted by Herbert von Karajan.)

* Line breaks added for readability.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Should we keep collecting statistics on the racial gap in kids' academic performance?

William Saletan doesn't see why we should. He's worried the data will add more fuel to those who claim that blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites. He rhetorically asks:

Why categorize and measure students by race? ... Does that category really help? And what message does it send to kids when headlines assert a persistent "racial gap"?
John McWhorter responds:
I find it hard to imagine that Saletan has seen the countless books and articles on the black-white performance gap and scratched his head wondering just what the epistemological or historical groundings were for addressing race as a metric....

Why would a nationally prominent journalist pretend not to understand why National Assessment of Educational Progress data is broken down by race, as if he lives in a different country--or century--than his own?
Here's Saletan's response, in which backs up his concerns with more details, links, and a metaphor about an oncoming train. He ends on a moralistic note:
Each of us should be judged by his own performance, not by a stereotype.
McWhorter has a powerful reply: data that persistently show an academic-performance gap between blacks and whites, even after controlling for income, could actually help us to clarify our views of how poor black kids' learning environments are less nourishing than poor white kids'. He explains:
[S]ure, it may turn out that whites and/or Asians have higher intelligence than black people. It's not news I would love hearing, for all the same reasons few of us would. But it could happen.

However, to me, the evidence suggests that the difference in question, if it exists, would be quite small. Other factors are just as plausibly responsible for most or even all of the gap between poor white and poor black kids on tests like the NAEP....

[M]ost of us will spontaneously notice that the worst schools in the nation - the violent, understaffed, ramshackle inner-city disasters where little learning happens--don't have many white kids in them....

Poor black kids are routinely subject to less qualified teachers, who stick around for less time, than poor white kids. A classic study on the question by John Kain and Kraig Singleton addressed the situation in Texas.

Or, the typical poor white child is surrounded by fewer poor people than the typical poor black child, and only about 1 in 20 poor white kids go to schools where almost all students are also poor (useful facts on this here).

Notice that I am not claiming (despite sources such as the one I linked because of its handy presentation of other data) that the problem is "segregation"--i.e. that poor black kids are done in by going to school with people the same color as them, a tragic distortion of the meaning and significance of the word segregation in our times which I deplore. "Segregated" KIPP academies are teaching poor black and brown kids brilliantly all over the country (which, itself, is further evidence that the problem is how such kids are taught more than how their brains are configured).

The issue is poverty rather than race, and the cultural baggage it often means kids are bringing to school--which the schools poor black kids attend are less adept at compensating for than those attended by the poor white kids. Plus, poor white kids are more likely to have more fortunate students around them to imitate and learn from.
All 4 linked pieces are worth reading in full.

I think this is a complex debate, but in the end, I have to agree with McWhorter.

One problem I have with Saletan's position is: the data showing the performance gap already exist. So even if we stopped categorizing the students by race, those who are determined to make the case that blacks have genetically low intelligence could simply continue to make the same arguments they've been making, based on the old data. Even worse, they could point to the absence of current data as a sign that the truth is so politically incorrect that the powers-that-be "don't want you to know about it."

It's better to let everyone see all the facts, so that non-racists can drown out the racists' arguments by making the most convincing, reality-based arguments available. If you can continue to make relevant arguments on an issue like education funding, you're more likely to convince the public and lawmakers to make it a high priority.

As an aside, Saletan says he "resent[s]" that his daughter's kindergarten school requires him to fill out a form indicating her race. This is comically unsympathetic. Some things just aren't very important, and the effect of occasional paperwork on white parents' feelings about their own whiteness is one of them.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Can a constitutional provision violate itself?

That's what my mom, Ann Althouse, suggests, based on this thought-provoking post by Eugene Volokh about this case, in which the federal district court for the Central District of California held that a public school teacher violated the Establishment Clause by referring to creationism as "religious, superstitious nonsense" in front of his class.

I recommend reading Volokh's whole post, but here's the crux:

The court may have been quite right as a matter of existing doctrine, and if we are going to say that public institutions can't advocate in favor of creationism, it makes sense for the doctrine -- which has been defended by claims of symmetry, such as that the government may neither endorse nor disapprove of religion, may neither advance nor inhibit religion, and may neither show favoritism nor hostility -- to also bar statements that creationism is superstitious nonsense. But the result is either that (1) teachers can't condemn voodoo, astrology, young-Earthism, and so on as the bunk that they are, (2) courts have to draw lines between which religious beliefs may be disapproved of and which may not be, or (3) teachers are even more at see [sic] about what they are constitutionally barred from saying than we've seen from past endorsement cases.

Should we prosecute Bush administration officials for torture?

Yesterday, I talked about when torture is or isn't morally acceptable. But what should we do about the torture that already happened in the previous administration?

I agree with the general thrust of this conversation between John McWhorter and Glenn Loury (though I abhor Loury's calculation of the value of American lives vs. other lives):



An apt McWhorterism: "an air of recreationality about it."

The discussion does become abstracted from the torture issue at the end, but I included that part because McWhorter makes a hugely consequential point about how we filter issues through personalities and scapegoats. People don't feel satisfied unless they can point to one person and say, "He/she is great," and point to someone else and say, "He/she is terrible." These evaluations are almost always intellectually dishonest, and they have a distorting effect on our views.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Charles Krauthammer botches the torture/"ticking time bomb" hypo.

Charles Krauthammer says there's no reasonable debate over whether you should torture someone if doing so could save the life of one innocent person:

Torture is an impermissible evil. Except under two circumstances. The first is the ticking time bomb. An innocent's life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge. In such a case, the choice is easy....

Some people, however, believe you never torture. Ever. They are akin to conscientious objectors who will never fight in any war under any circumstances, and for whom we correctly show respect by exempting them from war duty. But we would never make one of them Centcom commander. Private principles are fine, but you don't entrust such a person with the military decisions upon which hinges the safety of the nation. It is similarly imprudent to have a person who would abjure torture in all circumstances making national security decisions upon which depends the protection of 300 million countrymen.
It's fine for Krauthammer to express his own view on whether you should torture in this situation. That's his honest opinion. (By the way, it's an opinion he's been repeatedly expressing for years.)

But it's not fine for him to say that no one could reasonably disagree with him, or that this is an "easy" question.

For example, I disagree. Now, maybe I'm wrong and Krauthammer is right. But there's a real debate to be had over who's right.

On what basis does Krauthammer announce that you should always torture someone to save one innocent person's life? If you have to draw the line somewhere, why draw it there? Why not be more stringent and draw the line at 2 people -- or 10 or 100 or 1,000? (For that matter, you could be even more lenient and say you should torture to prevent just one person from being seriously injured.)

If Krauthammer had drawn the line at a truly extreme place -- say, torturing someone to save a whole country from being destroyed by nuclear weapons -- then I'd agree that there'd be no reasonable disagreement. Then Krauthammer's analogy to "conscientious objectors," whom we respect but also don't want holding top decision-making positions, would be as eloquently appropriate as he seemed to think it was in his actual column. But drawing the line at exactly one person, without providing any further argument for this position (which Krauthammer doesn't), is arbitrary.

This is all just balancing pros and cons. Plenty of people would reasonably say that the negatives of torturing outweigh the positive of saving one person's life.

Why? For one thing, there's the sheer badness of the torture itself. Torture is so awful that I have a general presumption against making exceptions to our rule against it based on a desire to save lives. If this is just a "presumption," you can argue that it should be overridden in select circumstances, but you'd need to point to something more extraordinary than saving a single life to convince me.

Everybody is going to die. That's a given. It would be pointless to try to eliminate death from the world. But it's not a given that everybody is going to be tortured. You and I are going to die someday, and we have to accept that, but there's no equivalent sense in which we need to accept being tortured someday. And I do believe we should strive for a world free of torture.

In addition to the basic moral objection focusing on the victim of torture, there are lots of pragmatic problems that apply even if you disregard that person's well-being. As this article in The Economist argues,
[a] pointed objection to George Bush’s policies is not just that they crossed a moral line but that they crossed it to no purpose. Mr Bush’s critics were not confined to bleeding-heart liberals who are even now making a fuss about the rights of a captured Somali pirate. They included a legion, from high-ranking commanders to military lawyers to intelligence operatives, who argued that the techniques were counterproductive.

“Enhanced interrogation” acted as a potent recruitment tool for terrorist organisations. It made it more difficult for America to co-operate with allies, particularly in Europe. It imposed personal burdens on front-line workers who found their values compromised. Dick Cheney points out that the techniques yielded some useful information. But the same information might have been obtained by less controversial means. Torin Nelson, a veteran interrogator, says the administration made a fundamental mistake in focusing on how far it could push detainees, not least because people who are tortured will often confess to anything. It would have been better off recruiting and training more skilled interrogators who knew how to win the trust of their subjects.
Krauthammer has ardently supported U.S. military operations that have predictably killed not just one innocent person, but thousands of innocent people. So he clearly believes that someone can reasonably support a policy that causes regrettable deaths. In fact, it's a lot clearer that the U.S. has caused people to die through wars supported by Krauthammer than that we've saved people's lives through torture (or have allowed people to die by refusing to torture). He can't claim that even he (let alone all reasonable people) is automatically in favor of any policy that prevents someone from dying. Unfortunately, the cost-benefit analysis that we have to engage in is more complicated than Krauthammer would like to think it is.


IN THE COMMENTS: "Jason (the commenter)" makes several important points. For instance, he highlights Krauthammer's statement that "[t]he bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life," and asks:
How does anyone know this with certainty?
My original post may have been too charitable in accepting the hypothetical. You have to factor in the rate of error, and balance that against the value of saving a person's life.

Of course, figuring out the rate of error is inherently difficult if not impossible. Yet Krauthammer calls the moral calculus "easy."

Also, he refers to the captured person as "the bad guy." What counts as a "bad guy"? If someone has only considered committing terrorism but hasn't acted on it, is that person a "bad guy"? Is a cab driver who's driven a terrorist around a "bad guy" for aiding terrorism?

Here's my challenge to Krauthammer or those who agree with them: point to one instance in human history when there's been a "ticking time bomb" scenario along the lines that Krauthammer describes. Has this ever actually happened? If so, how often does it happen?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Kitchen quip

While I'm chopping garlic in the kitchen, my girlfriend, Danielle Pouliot, says:

I should make an all-vegetable children's book and call it Shallot's Web.
Just before I post this, I search and find out there's already a website: Shallots Web.

She says:
Dammit!

But they didn't use an apostrophe!

Friday, May 1, 2009

"Songs you used to love"

Didn't you?

Hey, I still love #198. (And I'm even anti-rap!)

And doesn't everyone love #185? What is it about that one? Is it another "this is what it's all about" song?

#182 has sort of an "it's so bad, it's good" vibe. But once it gets to the guitar solo, it's just good. That's kind of how I feel about the whole band.

Fans of The Office should particularly enjoy #180. (Think: branches merging.)

Do you think it's too embarrassing to admit I still have a soft spot for #178? It instantly transports me to my freshman year at UW-Eau Claire, when this song was inescapable.

If there's one song you can count on to make a group of people burst out singing deliriously, it's #171.

I could do this all day...