Thursday, March 25, 2010

A somewhat uninformed screed that didn't fit in Slate's comment box

I skimmed this piece by Ron Rosenbaum on Slate about a book on the persecution, and insufficient condemnation of said persecution, of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a prominent critic of Islam who has been under death threats for years because of it. I've seen Hirsi Ali; I don't like Hirsi Ali, I disagree with Hirsi Ali, although as I point out below, I certainly believe she shouldn't be threatened and should be protected from the threats on her life. From my reading of her, her strident critiques of Islam are of a piece of Hitchens' and other "New Atheists'" critiques on religion more generally. That is, absolutist critiques that, in their condemnation of persecution, intolerance, and irrationality, veer into irrational essentialism in characterizing religion (Islam or otherwise).

What follows is not an entirely coherent rant, from skimming a piece I found tiresome and somewhat coherent, even if I agreed with the underlying point. I really should address my direct criticisms of Ali at some point, but for the time being, here's my somewhat befuddled, procrastinatory words on Rosenbaum's piece:

Wow... I consider myself an intellectual, but obviously not nearly enough--I haven't heard of most of these people (excepting Hirsi Ali). So I can't comment on, what is to me, the inside baseball here. All mainstream intellectual commentators I know of have condemned violence against dissidents generally and against Hirsi Ali specifically, should the subject arise. And the probability I'm going to read Berman's book is near zero. But from Rosenbaum's piece, it seems like if you strip the sarcasm from his caricatured hypothetical reaction to Rushdie's persecution ("Sure, I'm for his not having his life threatened and all, but I'm tired of all this magic realism stuff, and he seemed arrogant when I saw him interviewed on TV. Maybe he was too contemptuous of the culture of the people who want to murder him"), the main thing wrong with it is the obvious indifference to the threat. But once you mount a vociferous defense of their rights to be free from persecution -- along with whatever material support one might muster as a public intellectual -- isn't taking a critical look at the actual work, attitude, motivations of the persecuted a perfectly valid pursuit? That is, do the "tired of magical realism" and "arrogance" critiques really belong with the lukewarm defense of Rushdie or Hirsi Ali's rights? And should it be verboten to think that, perhaps someone *is* too critical of the culture of the people who want to murder you? After all, if it's *not* possible to be *too critical* of such a culture, then the civilians who have died or been persecuted by US actions, say, under imperialism, foreign adventurism, Iran-Contra, etc. etc. are absolutely justified to have any level of anti-Americanism. (And mayhaps they are.) Or, does persecution only count when it is intellectual, and not when it is, say, blatant disregard for your right to and quality of life? If it's not possible to be "too critical", then both the most extreme Palestinians and the Israelis are right in their abhorrence of the other (if not right in violent actions against one another).

While violence against someone for their ideas -- or nationality, or siting above a resource you covet, or strategic importance of their country -- are all reprehensible and should be opposed in the strongest terms, I don't see why that would exempt the persecuted from criticism. Shouldn't it be possible to abhor the threats against someone, but disagree with them in whole or in part? I agree that the criticisms listed here against Hirsi Ali by intellectuals I've never heard of sound petty and insubstantial, but in my own reading and listening to Hirsi Ali, I find much to substantively disagree with her on, regardless of the righteousness of her freedom to express it and the clarity of *parts of* her critiques.

Since I don't know these intellectuals that are being chided, perhaps they deserve it -- from their quotes here, they do. But the conflation of their pettiness with larger issues of tolerating intolerance and the Enlightenment enterprise itself is, to me, somewhat unconvincing as it's all placed within the rarefied air of commentators I've never heard of. *I* think Hirsi Ali is arrogant, too sweeping, and in a way, racist in her anti-racism, so to speak. I'm no public intellectual, but for me there is no conflict -- I disagree with her on many points, but she should certainly not be threatened. That seems to be a mainstream consensus -- how much does it matter that the Intellectuals' Intellectual are insufficiently down with it? I read two hours of news a day, have a PhD, and feel totally outside of this. I suppose since it's the circles Hirsi Ali, Berman, Rosenbaum and Hitchens move in, it makes sense to be upset at their anti-racism-racist apostasy--for them. But attaching it to a larger critique of Enlightenment and modern liberalism requires more practical connections to the rest of us than this rarefied screed seems to take into account. Otherwise, the implication seems to be simply that one can't criticize the unjustly persecuted--or that one must be very careful to balance enough defense with your criticism, another form of relativism. It's clear that we must defend the persecuted--but what this piece doesn't seem to deal with is how to distinguish the defense of people we disagree with from the obligation of an intellectual to voice disagreement; implying that such disagreement equates to being objectively pro-persecution is an insufficiently rigorous proposition.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Continuing the conversation

Cross-posted in the comments at DconstructingD; responds to D's comment on this post of mine:
Hmm. We seem to be partly talking past each other. The idea that kids are more civic-minded -- or "a generation of polite, smart, civic-minded Kevin Arnolds", is completely besides the point of my argument. The main problem I have is with people justifying their complaints with "it wasn't like this when I was younger" or some such. Your preferences as a consumer, citizen, etc. are perfectly reasonable and I have no particular issue with the things you named. They may not be my preferences in all cases, or my concerns, but I have zero issue with you having them in itself -- it's the idea that in a past age things were simpler or better or more civil that I take issue with. And not even the simple idea that they may have been -- but rather that arguments that things were better are near-uniformly backed up with, not evidence, but anecdotes, assertions and personal memories. I also find the idea that family life was "simpler" rather than full of different problems to be uncompelling; there are a number of added complexities in today's life, but every generation pretty much has faced more complexity than the previous in certain terms; I don't think we can assert a secular progression in the complexity of family life without defining a lot a lot of terms. The proliferation of information and media don't mean life or relationships were less complicated--for example, there are assuredly certain things in life made more simple by not, for example, owning indentured servants or worrying about slave revolts or attacks by the indigenous peoples. We have a complex war on terror, but don't see armies advancing throughout Europe; we have nuclear proliferation, but the risk of nuclear annhilation seems to have decreased from Cold War brinkmanship. We have venereal diseases, but AIDS is no longer a death sentence.

As far as the civic-mindedness of kids these days, I'm not arguing just from personal experience. There actually are several articles (popular and, I think, scholarly, though I don't feel like searching) that have made this argument; indeed, they made it before I believed it. I was equally skeptical. But my students today are quite different than my students 7 years ago, and much much different than my fellow students when I was in school. I vividly remember in the 90s how completely uncool it was to care about anything. This was clearly different than how the 60s and 70s were portrayed, and certainly, the amount of overt political activity on U of M at least decreased dramatically from the 60s to the 90s. I would argue the 90s were more apathetic than usual; some, and FAR from just me (other faculty, as well as several journalists) have argued the pendulum is swinging the other way. As far as I see it, the jury's out, but this isn't my assertion only, it's a number of people's. And it's certainly plausible -- I think the most likely mechanism is that only a minority of people (or kids) are usually politically active at any juncture in history; in the 60s this minority may have swelled to be more significant; during the 90s I would near guarantee that it decreased; there are signs, far from concrete, that it's back on the rise.

It seems like you and I have been talking past each other in our discussions for months now, I don't know why -- your focus wasn't so much on "kids these days" and insofar as it was it was somewhat tongue-in-cheek; my focus wasn't on how kids were objectively better, and I *certainly* never claimed they were uniformly a group of nice Kevin Arnolds (and I firmly remember Dennis the Menace in several incarnations, thank you! :) My larger point is that if one wants to complain about an issue at hand, that's fine and even often laudable/important/necessary; but the assertion that things were better before is both unnecessary and, I think, largely a product of age and not fact. If one wishes to seriously assert that things are qualitatively or quantitatively different, it should require evidence.

My point was that Language Log and other posts have shown that these concerns are perennial, and as they point out in the comments, if it were indeed true that each generation was losing something over the previous generation, then since the complaints heard of insufficient reading and respect to elders in Sumeria, Rome, and Egypt means that, even at some small objective decline of, say, 5% or less per generation, we would now be at approximately 0.01% of the civility or what have you of Rome. The details of whether or not kids or people are more or less civil would require lengthy debate, but I certainly wouldn't argue it's because they're inherently more beneficient--your point that less-racist kids would be a product of their parents' upbringing is, to my mind, clearly a big part of the truth. But the source doesn't affect the existence (or non-existence) of this quality. Kids have mocked each other with racial, sexual, etc. slurs for time immemorial. I don't know that they do it more or less, though perhaps more openly.

Anyway. I don't know why this is the second or third or fourth time we've had a version of a debate where we seem to not be getting each other's points, but I rather enjoyed it more when we were amplifying each other's ideas rather than deconstructing them. It's important to do both, to be sure, but I still prefer the former :) I don't disagree with a number of the things you find bothersome or disturbing, I do on others. As far as this generation, I'm not the first to have thought things are changing among them, nor the only one, and I think the data would back up a change in attitudes, though perhaps not action. I can't make a strong case of this, but as it's based on more than just my own experience, it takes a faint stab at what I'm asking for. I would say that if I wanted to be taken seriously, I need more evidence--just like if I wanted to seriously argue that they are worse. After all, things *do* change, I just think it occasionally behooves us to define what we think is changing and back it up.

Occasionally, but not always, and especially not if the point we're (or you're) making is really something else :)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

More evidence for a pet theory of "Kids Today"

Language Log has a nice bit on the "kids today"/"decline of civilization" trope that consistently gets my goat. (Similar J posts can be found here and, less directly parallel, here.

J-fave & friend D has been on this trope recently, to my mild peevitude.

I'm not sure why this trope annoys me so much, other than perhaps because it seems like a so relativism-laden "my perspective is the objectively correct one" type of attitude. While it can be a source of commiseration, it's also sometimes sallied forth like a prophetic warning. And it is not, of course, that things can't get worse or perhaps haven't gotten worse, but I think it's intellectually incomplete to simply say "Things/Kids/Civilization Is Going To Hell"; Jon Stewart said one of the wisest things I've heard in popular discourse years ago, pointing out to (either Bernard Goldberg or Rick Santorum) that for all the "negative" directions in culture -- violence on TV, swearing, etc. etc. -- it is simply *not OK* to be a racist. You cannot be openly, blatantly racist and a major mainstream public figure--there are certain things that are not OK to say, that were 20, 40, 60 years ago (to say nothing of the sainted times of our blessed and perfect in every way Mary Poppins-like Founding Fathers); there is no de jure, legal segregation, Jim Crow, while still with us in legacy, is not with us in poll taxes or the nearly 5,000 lynchings and racially-motivated murders between 1865 and 1965. As I said on D's page,
"The fact that they used *different* words to curse at people 100 years ago doesn't mean they were more *polite* words. And certainly no one has been caned on the floor of the Senate in a while. Nor has their been a fucking duel between congressmen. Nor are racial epithets, many of which used to be fine in every day speech, acceptable any longer, a huge step FORWARD in my mind. We are, if anything, more civil -- no one has called me "boy" because I was black in my life. I'd say that's plus 1,000,000 points; I'll deduct 100 for inappropriate [placement of the word] "shit" [in an ad that D saw].

The theory I posed years ago, and feel like is increasingly vindicated, is that when people complain of the conditions of youth, civilization, etc. today, they aren't comparing civilization today vs. civilization before, they're comparing their adult perception of civilization vs. their childhood perception of civilization. Of COURSE things were simpler when you were a kid -- to you! Because -- YOU. WERE. A. KID. Don't confuse this with the world actually being materially simpler or different. For example, I believe (though am not going to look for the stats to show) that the "Roaring 20s" had the highest murder rate in US history; there has certainly always been sex out of wedlock, VDs, war, incivility, swearing, porn, violence, etc. This is not to say the rates of all these things have been constant--they clearly haven't--but nor have they been linearly increasing. Some things, like swearing, one has to look at the language used and what was considered indecent when, but you can see people being chided for salty language in Shakespeare's plays and no doubt before that; we didn't invent naughty words nor their overuse, just because *different* words are naughty now. Kids have always, always been seen as not respectful enough to their parents it seems, so to establish this as a fact and not a cranky complaint takes far more effort than any person who's ever said "Kids these days" in my earshot. And like I mentioned, open racism has simply become verboten--surely a nearly unalloyed improvement, if one that is vastly insufficient compared to actually coming to an end of racism (especially its institutional manifestation). Long story short, some things may be worse, others better, but 99.9999 times out of 100, I'll bet you it's because the world SEEMED simpler when you were a kid because you were a freaking kid; you hadn't been exposed to (if you were lucky) the worst that humankind can muster, or the full wages of every day disdain, incivility, and a lack of an regular, caring space (i.e. parents/family). Whether you were poor and lived simply or had a life of quiet elegance in Greenwich, you hadn't seen very much of the world, had you? So let's be careful about comparing how the world seemed to you then and how it seems now; making any grand pronouncements thereof in reality should be a grand research undertaking (UNLESS, you just want to be cranky -- which is completely fine, I like to be sometimes myself, but don't confuse it with having an accurate bead on the world).

Anyway, the Language Log entry as well as the customarily excellent LL comment area is well worth reading on the topic of Kids Today.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

J Signs on to Captain Plaid's Manifesto

J-fave Captain Plaid has briefly returned from his hiatus to lay out why he is (and what is) a "propservralist".

I pretty much sign on to his points without comment; I'm sure I could find things to disagree with, with world enough and time, but his points, on the whole, I find near divine. So why bother? I spend enough of my time disagreeing with things as it is.

He's threatened to take it down, so barring a cease and desist from the ornery Scot himself, here is the pertinent post:

So here’s my first post in what seems like forever. I'd like to think I can do decent work as evidenced by other posts but this one is long, scattered about, likely full of spelling and grammar errors, hardly clear, etc. Still, for the time being, it will have to suffice. I might remove, or even amend, so grab it if you want to keep it and of course please do feel free to offer comments here or via facebook/johngunn or twitter/juntogunto or email at or …

I've used "propservralist" at times to describe how I’m politically geared. Although it is a work on progress, which should be very much refined, I offer the following as a stream of consciousness summary:

I'm proudly PRogressive and find the idea of taking on problems via legislation and regulation a most rational response.

o I like the idea of letting technocrats and experts nail down ideas yet for the average voter this policy wonk gearing isn't very attractive. Frankly, the US has a very anti-intellectual tradition and some have learned to use this to their advantage. Public policy, the common good, planning, regulation … has been demonized all too much in this last four or so decades. I believe information must be made available to the populace and yet also can accept that “leaders” may at times be required to make decisions the masses may resent.

o I favor a Progressive tax system where taxes are minimal on the least among us and shift gradually upward so that percentage paid increases on the margins above a certain level. I don’t want to go back to 90% marginal rates yet I don’t see that much difference between say 33% to upwards of 40 or even 50%. If you don’t understand what “marginal” means in the above please do a little digging or ask someone to explain.

o I also don’t see why we should allow many multi-nationals and the most affluent to often avoid taxes via offshoring, accounting gimmicks, and the like. I highly recommend David Cay Johnston’s “Free Lunch” and “Perfectly Legal” to see how some game our systems. We can use tax policy to accomplish goals, reward, incentivize … but let’s demand accountability for results and use a “claw back” if and when goals aren’t met.

o Sunshine, open meetings, transparency … are must haves. I can distrust big gov’t as much as Big Biz. The worst of any arrangement is Crony Capitalism.

o I want whistleblowers protected and even rewarded.

o I believe information must be made available to the populace and yet also can see when the grownups must make the decisions for the masses.

o I expect some apathy comes from inadequate education, perceived powerlessness, unsatisfactory alternatives to getting involved, insufficient information, the costs of gaining more knowledge (I’m a big fan of Albert Bandura’s self-efficacy” ideas), and simply an unjust status quo.

o I’m very much in favor of government subsidies to be provided to journalists doing public service, fourth-estate, type work. Without a well-informed citizenry that a vigorous press provides democracy won’t work. The current model is folding and the consequences can’t be denied. Watchdogs must be fed. In fact, the care and feeding of young folks and even the more seasoned doing work that can’t be measured by the bottom line of business is something we could do a much better job at as a society.

o Government exists to provide individuals and their families and communities with a chance to live their own lives in dignity. It can also allow them to form relationships with others free from the hand of powerful public and private forces.

I am pOPulist in that I can't help but think bottom up.

o I believe the common man must always confront the powerful interests which often do in fact hold him down.

o You don’t ask for power but rather you take it.

o I worry that the “tea party” types are stealing our mojo here. Some groups tap into fear and frustration easily but the Left left that approach decades ago. The Conservatives (“Cons” hereafter) have learned to reach our lizard brains where the ancient limbic parts respond to threats, emotions, etc. all too well.

o The recent months have seen a revival of “producerism” that worries me however. While some poor are sorry and hardly do their part, I’d argue most do. Working with the poor can be incredibly frustrating yet we’ve hardly invested enough in social work and related fields since the so called “War on Poverty” back during the 60s. We couldn’t have “guns and butter” LBJ. I’ve read persuasive pieces that it was a false war and a drop in the bucket to transform generational poverty.

o I am convinced being a scrapper is necessary in politics, perhaps especially in the South. I like the label “economic elite” as frankly many have obtained the point where they can buy media, PR, marketing, and the like.

o "Fascism, nativism, anti-intellectualism, persecution of unpopular minorities, exaltation of the mediocre and romantic exaggeration of the wisdom and virtue of the masses" are all possible outcomes of populism. Suspicion of elites has a long history here.

o The idea of broader economic growth doesn’t I’d argue make me a Communist.

o A focus on individual civil liberties, private property, popular sovereignty and democratic republican government is what nearly every populism effort has been built off of.

o Labor can work with biz. Free enterprise on steroids, namely neo-liberalism, however is often just a race to the bottom.

o Today's laissez faire is not as Adam Smith envisioned. I’ve been reading some Smith lately and he’d howl at how many of his ideas have been bastardized.

o Popular culture and popular will have a role to play in this process, but only after sufficient education and only after their more passionate elements have been diverted and diffused. Popular anger and uneducated public sentiments are more likely to lead to hasty and irrational judgments. The conflict of elitism in Progressivism and the popular will in Populism is certain.

o I believe it’s generally a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. The way the modern Cons have privatized pretty much everything, the opportunity to profit from making war is hardly just for those selling weaponry. When Eisenhower left office, he warned us of a Military-Industrial Complex but many don’t know an earlier draft also had Intelligence as part of the mix.

I am conSERVative in the sense that I tend to be cautious and greatly respect traditions. Please note some of the following is placed here simply because many of the Cons have managed to make people think these are “Conservative” ideas.

o I can be a bit of an Agrarian at times. Jeffersonian ideas remain rather attractive to me and simplicity from being near the land is likely how I’d like to wind up my days. Hope springs eternal at least.

o I personally find caring for our environment very much a conservative trait.

o Many of the Conservatives I knew long ago wouldn’t recognize today's movement conservatism types. Many of them were more Libertarian geared and I just don’t think they’d fall for the likes of those occupying positions of power in today’s GOP. Then again, the powers that be in the Democratic Party would be run out of town on a rail by many silenced or ignored hippies like yours truly.

o And while I am attracted to Libertarianism personally, I don’t think it will work that well for such an interdependent world. If you want to go Galt, truly it’s possible. Go right ahead. I bet most would make it less than a year in the Gulch. Just don’t take the balance of the world with you involuntarily as you go off into Randian fantasy land please.

o Neighbors, small businesses, local focus and control, …, if they are Conservative valued ideas, which I’m not certain they are, are certainly fine by me.

o As late as the Nixon administration, the provision of public goods by government was considered perfectly compatible with a market economy. Since then, free-market fundamentalists have largely changed and mastered the debate.

I am libeRAL as I believe humanity can advance.

o Our civil liberties must be protected. No exceptions!

o I believe in the power of law. She’s not perfect and I’ve seen injustices, often related to power and poverty frankly. I’m very concerned with the burrowed in Federalist Society sorts on benches across this land. Our Alabama Supreme Court is largely bought and paid for by the Business Council of Alabama and other Big Mules like Alfa. The Court of Criminal Appeals used to be rather hostile to defense lawyers and I know for a fact they dodged a serious question I once raised in a brief.

o Lockean libertarians who recognize the need for social insurance and regulation were once celebrated yet are now having rocks thrown at them.

o I favor same-sex marriages or at least civil unions. Discrimination can hardly be tolerated as to a person’s sexual orientation.

o I had a person once tell me liberals believe people are inherently good. I'm not sure I buy that yet I do think many are. On some of the laggards, ignorant, … I occasionally think of how I used to work with critters by making it easy for them to do the right thing. Policies to prod, channel, and the like are OK for me but then again just help and a hug work on the face to face work I try to do. I know for a fact I helped some kids I taught or have known and likely could have done more if carrying a fair work load and able to really teach and represent.

o Education is an investment. We ought to be proud to spend money for our future generations.

o Clinton’s welfare “reform” sounded perhaps good on paper and was a winner politically yet only a booming economy avoided a train wreck. The costs of having those babies being taken from their mothers so she could do some type of “make work” is hard to measure but I bet there were and are costs.

I'm a pragmatIST in just getting stuff done.

o I can accept the projection of military power can be persuasive and useful in many, many areas yet hardly think we need the footprint we currently have. We can’t afford it. It’s not our job alone. Finally, our national interests do not justify invading or even threatening a sovereign country absent some rather certain and serious threats. Hegemony sends the wrong signals to many in the world.

o Weapons manufacturers and profiteers love war so we’ve a duty to be cautious with our treasure but certainly blood.

o I certainly think alliances, cooperation, treaties, diplomacy, intelligence, etc. aren’t incompatible with national security.

o The religious right annoys the hell out of me. Their abstinence only sex education” is just one disaster. Kids can have their parents opt them out but let’s let the average kid hear the whole story please.

o For someone to impose their morality into another’s personal life is just wrong.

o I have a healthy skepticism of government and authority.

o I worry about climate change and think the science sound. Even if not, what do “we” really have to lose to shift away from a carbon based economy sooner rather than later?

o I think reflexively anti-government libertarianism yield a lack of investment in badly-needed public capital (schools, infrastructure, etc.) and vulnerable to Big Biz. We can’t run a country, state, city “on the cheap” but can certainly demand smart spending with limited waste.

I also like stirring stuff up, bitching, confronting conventional wisdom, challenging authority, reading, studying, pondering, etc. I am perfectly prepared to change my mind. I hope I am not an ideologue. My ideal politicians are those like Russ Feingold and Chuck Hagel. I like Anthony Weiner, Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb, etc. I do not support term limits. More to follow but I’m done for now. Except for this quote:

“When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin; you must, at the price of dearest peace, lay your convictions bare before friend and enemy, with all the fire of your faith.” - Abraham Kuyper

Peace, John

I found a "copy and paste" portion that I can't track down now. I blended some old stuff and apparently let something slip by. I'll tweak as I have time.

--Captain Plaid: Progressivism meets an Ornery Scot