Friday, September 30, 2011

because I am involved in mankind

An interesting question from an email this morning.
I suppose that you object to the killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki, out of some sort of pacifist conviction. That's fine as far as it goes, I guess. But I'm curious about how this opposition can stand compared to your loud opposition to the execution of Troy Davis. [he's likely talking about this.] If you oppose all intentional taking of human life, doesn't that mean that there's essentially no difference between your opposition to killing Troy Davis, a likely innocent man put to death, and Al-Awlaki, a terrorist? Or Osama bin Laden? I don't understand how a blanket opposition to killing people gives you room to sort good from bad from worse.
There are some provisos and qualifications, but then there's the answer.

For a society of law, the killing of Al-Awlaki should be even more disturbing than the killing of Troy Davis. Davis at least enjoyed some kind of due process, although it was the flawed, biased due process of a hideously racist system and one that is massively bent towards maintaining guilt and punishment. Al-Awlaki, an American citizen, was given no trial, no representation, no appeal, no opportunity to defend himself legally at all. None. He was declared a terrorist by the government, again with no due process, and assassinated. That doesn't mean that the moral discrimination about the killing itself is changed, only that the consequences for a supposedly free society are different.

The two men are of course different animals and I judge them, in that way people do, as of different moral character. I have different feelings towards all of the many victims of murder that I'm aware of. I don't suggest that Anwar Al-Awlaki is the same as Troy Davis, nor do I judge Davis in precisely the same way that I judge the victims of any other killing. My stance on the righteousness of killing is not the same as my stance on the righteousness of individuals.

But let me be absolutely clear and unambiguous: on the moral status of the act of killing Troy Davis, or Anwar Al-Alwaki, or the victims of 9/11, or of American soldiers killed by insurgents, or of insurgents killed by American soldiers, or of Osama bin Laden-- I recognize no difference. Not one solitary ounce of difference. The character of someone killed is utterly and permanently irrelevant to the moral status of that killing. It is as wrong to kill Hitler as it was wrong to kill his victims. I have thought for a long time and I have decided that I am forever out of the business of adjudicating the rightness of this killing or that. It has taken time but my conscience has decided on "always wrong."

Please, tell all the keyboard warriors you know, and let them flame on. I really don't give a shit.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

a thousand times, this

Thank you

what the Catechism says

 Since people keep telling me the Catholic Church isn't officially against the death penalty, here's the Catechism:
Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."68
Update: I am fully convinced by all the people telling me that the prohibition against the death penalty is not of the same binding nature as the prohibition against abortion or gay marriage. Trust me: I now understand that a Catholic is not bound by his or her Catholicism to oppose state sanctioned killing.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

PEG's open letter

Pascal Emmanuel Gobry has written an open letter to me here. I am copying and pasting my reply from the comments there below.

So, trying this again: I wish you would consider the possibility that I described that post as fascist not because I wanted to use that as a vague insult but because I find that a fair description of the platform you’re describing.

The text of your piece advocates the imposition of an economic platform that you admit is broadly unpopular, enforced if necessary with emergency powers, and dictated by small committees of elites. By invoking emergency powers and admitting that this program would be deeply unpopular with the French people, you’re walking into disturbing territory. Corporate capture of government, enforced by the threat of violence and under the direction of undemocratic oligarchies, sounds like textbook fascism to me. I am opposed to fascism.

Also, I just disagree about the nature of Catholic teachings on the death penalty. The pope is not only the leader of the Holy Roman Church but according to doctrine an infallible (literally) leader of God’s vehicle for righteousness on earth. The last pope wrote unambiguously and explicitly that the death penalty is cruel, unnecessary, and anti-Christian. If your morality is informed by Catholicism (as Douthat’s surely is) when the topic is abortion, it is fair for me to ask that you be consistent when the topic is the death penalty.

Further, I disagree with your argument that it would be better for those condemned to death to be executed rather than spend life in prison. It seems to me that this is straightforwardly contradicted by the fact that most of those on death row (and certainly Troy Davis in particular) fight desperately to prevent their own executions.
I don’t find anything particularly personal about any of that. If you are really personally affronted, please email me at freddie7 AT gmail DOT com.

Monday, September 26, 2011

those to whom evil is done

Our fingerprints are all over this. Tell Nicholas Kristof if you see him.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

why do they pay bloggers, anyhow?

Yglesias has always written very thoughtfully about the university, so I'm a little disturbed by his recent forays into fortune telling. (I wonder if its a matter of that product differentiation he's always talking about.) His argument is that newspapers have been dying out because delivering information online is very cheap, and their business is delivering information in a more expensive way, and the university's business is also to deliver information, and so the university is imperiled. No, not imperiled, which implies there's some chance it'll survive. It's just doomed in its current form. As is usual with this sort of "digital revolution" talk, essentially evidence-free speculation is married to a rhetoric of certainty.

Now, I could respond to this in several different ways. I could point out the vast differences between what newspapers do and what universities do. I could point out that everything but the feel and smell of the newsprint can be delivered entirely digitally, but that only a tiny fraction of what universities do is adequately digitized. I could point out that universities are willing to offer this content online for free precisely because they know it represents no threat to them. I could point out the simple fact that the purpose of the university has never been solely, or even primarily, or even largely to deliver information,  that this is not why they are funded, and that this is not why students attend them. If I'm provoked enough, I might write all that out.

But let me try a different tack and take Yglesias's analogy in a much more convincing direction: paid blogging is doomed. Utterly, totally doomed. It's only a matter of time, and anyone who maintains otherwise is simply standing against progress.

How do I know? Well, many, many people are willing to blog for free. Thousands. Some of them are quite good at it. And since the costs of starting a free blog are close to zero, and even poorly paid bloggers cost a lot more than zero, professional blogging is doomed. You might well argue that the quality of blogs would decline without for-pay blogging, and I might even concede the point. But as Wikipedia shows, pretty good and free trumps great and for pay all the time. So clearly, professional blogging is dead. Like me, Yglesias should be hitting the want ads, because our professions are doomed.

Of course, I haven't remotely proven anything at all, and I would never act as if I had. That kind of speculation can be fun, but it doesn't have anything to do with genuine knowledge generation. It's perfectly reasonable to think that paid blogs, like other paid media, aren't going to survive. And, indeed, analogizing paid blogging to paid newspaper writing is vastly more coherent and convincing than the analogy to college. But reasonable analogies can be applied to an entire host of topics without having any genuine predictive value at all. Life is like that: difficult to predict. Yet there isn't the remotest indication in his post that Yglesias believes his prediction could fail.

As it happens, pay blogging has actually been on the uptick, as Yglesias himself has pointed out-- with reference to evidence, making this post vastly more valuable than his recent ones on college. If he treated them in that way, I wouldn't mind the conjecture, but that's not the case. There is no indication in these posts that Yglesias takes one more seriously than the other, or that he recognizes the value of empirical evidence and the poverty of speculative claims about the future. This is a really good example of what I was recently complaining about on Balloon Juice, the conspicuous lack of epistemological distinctions and accountability in the blogosphere. Yglesias is essentially making things up here, whereas he was responsibly reading empirical data when it came to the blogging boom. Yet there's no consistent system of knowledge generation that privileges the latter over the former, and no accountability to be found within blogging to correct his poor reasoning.

Somehow I doubt that Yglesias will sign on to my claim about paid blogging, even though consistency would seem to require it. Personal investments are like that, and adopting a breezy, showy certainty about the supposed doom of a cherished institution strikes me as cruel.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

life in the time of the great kludge

Today on the quad at my university there was a kind of showcase by potential employers, designed to lure the many brilliant, technically and scientifically minded students we have here. These firms are among the leading innovators in the world, giant tech, aerospace, and communication companies that create incredible tools for our age. You have young students who are quite literally the future of digital and technical innovation being wooed  by companies that represent the present. And they brought toys-- lots of attractive, impressive, cutting age digital toys to show off.

Yet I was struck by a glaring contrast: many of the tents were being powered by a loud, smelly generator, belching out black smoke and making the immediate area rather unpleasant. It probably wasn't meaningfully different from one you could find a quarter century ago All of these near-miraculous modern technologies, produced by companies with massive resources and engineered by people who understand things I couldn't if I spent the rest of my life trying, are still tied to the burning of dirty fuels which pollute our air, warm the planet, and perhaps are coming close to depletion. You can stick as long of a power cord on there as you want; sooner or later, the chain leads to fossil fuels and pollutants. It has me thinking back to the central question of near futurism: do we have the tools necessary to end our dependence on fossil fuels? There's a great faith out there that, well, we'll think of something. We always innovate when we have to. But it's remarkable when you observe how much of the innovation of the last several centuries was made possible by incredibly abundant, incredibly cheap energy. Those invested in the idea of the singularity sometimes point out that, in their view, human progress is exponential. But is that because of some magical property of progress, or because of a uniquely powerful but dangerous set of technologies?

In the era of cheap fossil fuels, we've enjoyed the fruits of what might prove to be the ultimate kludge. Many people writing on the Internet have faith that a long term, better solution is coming, and that it will be one that won't call for great sacrifice and great hardship for a species that has grown used to cheap energy. Only time will tell. Maybe they will prove to be right. This post is all just conjecture, really, and you know what that's worth. I do believe our lives as they exist now are lived on borrowed time.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

issues that aren't

Now, here's the sort of thing that just goes and gets me really cranky.

Look, friends and sundry: moral stances only have value beyond their correctness to the degree that they involve risk. Sometimes the risks are big, like "I may get killed if I speak out against this that I find immoral, or in favor of what I find moral." Sometimes the risks are medium, like "I risk ostracism and serious social unrest from my peers or community if I speak out on this moral issue." Sometimes the risks are minor, like "speaking out on this might make this party awkward and harsh my mellow."

Then there's the risk of opposing things no one supports, like genocide. One way to term this would be to call it "no risk whatsoever." That's probably the best way to describe Andrew Sullivan's showy opposition to Che t-shirts. It is a proud denunciation of that which no one of consequence condones. I mean, if I stood on a street corner, yelling that people shouldn't randomly walk up to strangers and punch them in the dick, nobody would be nominating me for the Nobel Peace Prize. Nobody would imagine that I was making any kind of morally proud stance. Indeed, even taking a stand would be praising too highly. It's an enterprise without moral weight because it does nothing but suggest the superior morality of the speaker at no cost to the speaker.

Yet, to my surprise, not only did Andrew stamp about on his blog, burnishing his credibility by opposing tasteless casual wear, we now get a post (likely the first of several) where his emailers can participate and let the world know what lions of liberalism they are by denigrating laundry.

You might well ask what important news event inspired these posts. Did some unthinking public figure praise Che Guevara? Or, worse still, Stalin and Hitler? (They of course have been brought into the discussion, for reasons that escape me)? No. Nothing at all happened. Somebody else wrote a post expressing the utterly banal and thus utterly unpraiseworthy commitment against genocide. That's all. This post could have appeared five years ago and could appear five years from now and nothing would have changed. It's inspired only by the desire to be seen.

What is being accomplished here? Who is being served? What positive impact on the world can this possibly have? What is at stake? What matter of genuine controversy is being debated? What minimally mainstream figure is out there singing the praises of Che?

Sadder still, they can't even get their story straight. Since this is the Internet, and you have to say these things: no, I am not at all an apologist for Che Guevara. But genocide-- well, that's the sort of term that's supposed to have a special meaning, you know? Aside from how  unseemly it is to trade on the victims of real genocides for psychic comfort, it's unhelpful (and that's being charitable) to dilute the term to mean any kind of senseless slaughter. A barely literate weak man emailed, but even with his limited abilities, the emailer makes the essential point that Andrew has equated Che with Stalin, Mao, and Hitler without actually pointing towards the actual genocide. In response, Andrew links to a similarly self-aggrandizing piece from the Independence Institute:
Guevara might have been enamored of his own death, but he was much more enamored of other people’s deaths. In April 1967, speaking from experience, he summed up his homicidal idea of justice in his “Message to the Tricontinental”: “hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine.” ... It is hardly a surprise that during the armed struggle against Batista, and then after the triumphant entry into Havana, Guevara murdered or oversaw the executions in summary trials of scores of people—proven enemies, suspected enemies, and those who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In January 1957, as his diary from the Sierra Maestra indicates, Guevara shot Eutimio Guerra because he suspected him of passing on information: “I ended the problem with a .32 caliber pistol, in the right side of his brain.... His belongings were now mine.” Later he shot Aristidio, a peasant who expressed the desire to leave whenever the rebels moved on. While he wondered whether this particular victim “was really guilty enough to deserve death,” he had no qualms about ordering the death of Echevarría, a brother of one of his comrades, because of unspecified crimes: “He had to pay the price.” At other times he would simulate executions without carrying them out, as a method of psychological torture.
I'm happen to be one of a tiny handful of people in the blogosphere who is willing to voice a blanket denunciation of the intentional taking of human life in any context. But this is not genocide. Killing rivals when you take power is not genocide. It is monstrous and it is senseless but it is not genocide. If it is genocide, it is a genocide that has been perpetrated by the vast majority of what are commonly referred to as "great leaders." Is Augustus Caesar guilty of genocide? He was ruthless with his rivals to power, absolutely ruthless. There were a lot of people put to death when he took control. Is having a bust of Augustus an equally terrible crime in Andrew's eyes? If not, why not? How about Vlad the Impaler? Is dressing up as Dracula for Halloween an equally repellent act? I oppose Che's murders because they are murders. To dress this up as genocide for the purpose of grinding an axe against imaginary enemies is, at the very least, a distortion of history.

To reduce genocide into a generic term for violence that is politically unpalatable is childish and dishonors genocides victims. Again, Andrew's post and his emailers have directly equated Che with Stalin, Mao, and Hitler. This is simply a category error. You don't have to praise Guevara to recognize the carelessness of such a comparison.

It gets worse. Because despite Andrew's considerable distaste for hipsters who wear Che t-shirts, he actually has equal disdain for hipsters who... take meaningless statements against genocide. He mocks a photo from Look at this Fucking Hipster featuring a women with "Fuck you Hitler" written on her arms. So hipsters who wear Che t-shirts, an utterly meaningless act connected to no existing power or political movement whatsoever, is bad, but so are hipsters who make empty waves against Hitler. As I hope is clear, there is no difference between that woman's photograph and these posts. They are the same animal.

Look: right now, this country is killing innocent people. Right now. We are using lobbing ordnance on completely innocent civilians as a matter of course. We are involved in two official wars and perhaps five unofficial ones and in all cases we are sowing destruction on people who have absolutely no recourse against it, no democratic or legal process to oppose it. These actions are being undertaken with the blessing of Barack Obama. Now a real moral stance, one that would actually involve sacrifice and risk, would be for Obama's champion Andrew Sullivan to invest as much outrage and anger against Obama for presiding over it all. That would cost something. That would be a stance that would carry risks. That would have relevance to actual, existing, meaningful, contemporary political debates. That would involve an actual painful choice, given Sullivan's regard for Obama. And he might even contribute to the cause of right, rather than the cause of righteousness.

no words

This isn't some random Twitter asshole, by the way; that's the account for the manager of a PAC.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

we can't selectively invoke parental satisfaction

I think it's important for those of us who are critical of the school reform movement to be consistent in our application of evaluative criteria. Part of that lies in taking empirical measures that demonstrate benefits or strengths of reform efforts we don't like as seriously as those that demonstrate deficiencies or weaknesses. There are of course complications. One of the difficulties for the reform movement is that it typically weds a strong faith in standardized testing as effective assessment to a belief in particular mechanisms for raising them. That means that when structures like private school vouchers are advocated as a solution for raising standardized tests scores, and then fail to, those advocating them have to deal with their preferred method of improvement failing on their preferred method of assessment. Those critical of much of the school reform movement often criticize both the method of improvement and the method of assessment-- leading us, at times, to embrace data that discourages particular reforms even though we might reject the tests that were the mechanism through which the data was gathered.

(The key, I think, is to be careful in saying "by your own preferred method of assessment, your program is failing to achieve the gains you have predicted"-- and incidentally, I'm actually fairly amenable to certain kinds of standardized testing in certain contexts, at least compared to other school reform critics.)

Additionally, I will continue to say that the mere efficacy of anti-union school reforms is not enough to compel their adoption. Union rights are rights. They are not legitimately curtailed simply because it becomes convenient to society to do so. School reformers need to do more than demonstrate the effectiveness of their proposed reforms; they need to demonstrate that implementing them will not illegitimately trod on union rights of teachers. (Of course, until the school reform demonstrates consistent, valid, and reliable gains that are not later revealed to be the product of fraud, the question is somewhat academic.)

Anyway, to be more specific and useful, I want to say that we need to take care not to trumpet parent satisfaction data as proof of success in public schools when we wouldn't do so when it comes to charter schools, private school vouchers, and the like. Many have pointed to encouraging statistics about parental satisfaction with their local public schools, and also to the disconnect between a parent's perception of his or her own child's school and American public schools in general. USA Today summarizes a study by PDK:
Nearly eight in 10 Americans — 79% — give an "A or B" grade to the school their oldest child attends, according to findings released today by Phi Delta Kappa (PDK) International, an educators association. That's up from 68% in 2001, and the highest percentage of favorable ratings since PDK began asking the question in 1985. That year, 71% of parents gave their kids' school top grades.
It is indeed encouraging and important that Americans feel their local public schools are succeeding, and there are some complex epistemelogical questions about how to evaluate and incorporate this kind of data. But let's be clear: if we consider this evidence for the success of public education, we must also consider similar data evidence of success in charter schools.

Susan Phillips's School Choice: Policies and Effects: An International Literature Review (2004), while not a text that I would endorse without qualification, has a good rundown of extant evidence. See also Buckley and Schneider (2006), available here (PDF), and this Pew Research Institute report (2010, PDF) which includes satisfaction data for parents of students in charter schools, local Catholic schools, and public schools in the Philadelphia area. Generally speaking, a broad collection of data suggests that parents rate themselves as highly satisfied with their child's charter schools.

As I've said many times, there is a fierce debate about how we develop knowledge and what constitutes appropriate epistemology hiding in the school reform debate. It's perhaps unsurprising that parents of both public school students and private school students profess high satisfaction with their child's school. Parents are the definition of invested respondents; to rate low satisfaction for your school is essentially to say that you're failing your child. I don't take parent's self-reported satisfaction too seriously for school quality for the specific reason that it's quite hard for anyone to effectively rate a school's quality and the general reason that self-reported data has to be taken with a handful of salt.

And, indeed, the self-same Pew report that shows high satisfaction levels with Philadelphia charter schools admits that this satisfaction comes despite "widely publicized reports of financial mismanagement at several schools and test results indicating that students in some charters are not performing as well as those in district-run schools." So we have again this basic dynamic in school reform: empirical evidence contradicts conventional wisdom, deductive thinking, and the opinion of interested parties. I will continue to say that we have to privilege that empirical evidence over the alternatives, which for now redounds to the benefit of critics of the reform movement like me. But I also think that we have to be consistent in how we evaluate our evidence.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

inductive views of history and our postcapitalist future

I've got a host of opinions on blogospheric orientation towards presentism, triumphalism, and belief in progress. But I want to make this point with as little provocation as possible, so let me narrow myself to a particular point: I believe we have a postcapitalist future due to a simple inductive vision of history.

I'm inspired to write this by this Dave Roberts post on the limits of economic growth. It's a rare bird in that it does not assert that our current system is essentially healthy and will exist into perpetuity. There is a cottage industry online of a kind of "everything's great and will only get better" essay. It's notable both for its frequency and its cross-ideological flavor. I read essays online that assert the basic health of our system and the inevitability of progress nearly every week, and I read them written by people who identify themselves as liberal, conservative, and libertarian. Many people are very dedicated to the idea that this globalizing liberal capitalism is, while not a perfect system, the best possible system, and one that is here to stay.

The existence of this trope is, in its own way, self-troubling: why do so many people who claim to be so confident in the state of the liberal democratic capitalist system spend so much time announcing that confidence? The repetition of these ideas itself suggests a profound unspoken dissonance. Those who are genuinely confident generally have little cause to say so. You can accuse me of a psychoanalytic reading here, and it's a fair criticism, but I tend to find these arguments pregnant with anxiety.

In any event, rearticulations of Francis Fukuyama's general thesis from The End of History are common and popular. Some prominent resistances include the (numerically tiny) orthodox Marxists, who believe in the classically Marxist or Troskyist notions of overproduction and exhaustion of markets of exploitation, and the inevitability of proletarian takeover; environmentalist critics, as one of half of Dave Roberts argues, who contend that capitalism depends on the consumption of material resources which can be exhausted and which despoil the planet in their collection and use; and a revanchist Christian conservatism which holds that Western civilization and its attendant strengths are the product of a divine moral framework that is expressed in the Christian bible, and that our turn away from that worldview dooms us to collapse.

I'm not going to articulate an argument for the mechanism by which capitalism will be replaced. I won't articulate what I think the next order will be. I'm only going to offer a weak inductive claim: human systems of political and economic organization are temporary. Human beings have declared their systems the final system, the truth of humankind, for the entirety of human history. One of the odd things about how people talk about Fukuyama is that they act like it is somehow unusual or even unprecedented. And yet people have assumed that their system would be perpetuated forever throughout history. (Well, absent religious belief in literal apocalypse, that is.) The Roman system, complete with such ugliness as slavery and rigid castes, was the right and sensible system of governance and resource distribution. Feudalism comported not only with divine law but with natural reality. The Catholic church was the most powerful human force in the world and would always be. Chattel slavery underwrote the Anglo-Saxon domination of the world and was supported by the widespread belief that those enslaved where inherently inferior and thus ineligible for liberty. Explicit and unapologetic imperialism by great powers was the inevitable result of inequities in national character or human capital. On and on: people believe that their way is the way that it will always be.

Here in the post-Marxist world, we enjoy an intellectual tradition that has a vocabulary of ideologies, economic systems, and sociopolitical orders. Yet we don't seem to enjoy the fruits of that sophistication. Premodern peoples tended not to think in terms of social or economic orders but rather simply of "the way things are." Here, we are aware that social orders change and that the human project has been marked by permanent impermanence, and yet the consensus view is that we have transcended change. I don't feel that way. I think that, since humankind is constantly declaring one system or the other the endpoint, and constantly being proven wrong, it is sensible to believe that the capitalist system we now live under will itself be swallowed by a new order.

Constitutionally, I'm not an optimist. Unlike what some people assume, I don't believe that a socialist system is inevitable or near. Predictions are hard, particularly about the future, and history is filled with events that were not only unpredicted but essentially unpredictable. I don't pretend that the next stage will be in keeping with my political or moral preferences. Nor, incidentally, do I think that the next stage will be the final stage; that too will pass. And you'll note that I haven't said anything about my various disagreements with the present age.

Like I said, it's a fairly weak claim; just because things have always happened doesn't mean they will always happen. I'm definitely not arguing with as much certainty as the other side, who are very, very certain. Like their forebears in every other era of history, they believe completely in their ability to assess the present and predict the future. I just think that history and human life teach us to expect change.