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30.4.04

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Natural Law Or Social Conditioning?

Joe Carter brings up an interesting point with regard to the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.

Most everyone has simply stated that these soldiers “should have known” not to act the way they did. They seem to be under the impression that it is both obvious and beyond dispute and, therefore, no argument even needs to be made. Essentially, they're making an appeal to natural law. Like St. Thomas Aquinas, they agree that good and evil is intrinsic and knowable by all people (ST IaIIae 94, 4). These reservists should have known that such actions were wrong because all humans are endowed with the same moral intuition that humiliation and torture are evil acts.


Joe agrees that there is a natural law, but some degree of social conditioning is necessary to properly develop it. While the military builds a strong moral orientation into its members, reservists (such as the Abu Ghraib torturers) are exposed to the moral relativism of civilian culture that erodes their moral intuition. While not entirely sold on the idea that having the Geneva convention explained to them would have led the torturers to act right, he says "solid training on both the laws of war and the consequences for violating them might have been just the thing to stir their moral conscience."

There are two things I want to pick out of this argument. First is the question of implied natural law. I'm skeptical that humans share much more than a rudimentary inherent conscience (and that things that appear to spring from that inherent conscience are necessarily proper guides to action*). However, I don't think that one needs to presume a natural law framework in order to argue that the soldiers "should have known" not to torture. Though conservatives make a big deal out of the supposed moral relativism of modern life, there is a largely shared ethos -- as evidenced by the practically universal condemnation of the Abu Ghraib torture. Whatever its origin, the idea that you should not wantonly humiliate and torture anyone, even enemy soldiers of a different race and culture, is pretty well entrenched in American culture. So to say the soldiers "should have known" can refer to an element of "nuture" we expect them to share, not necessarily an element of "nature." The soldiers "should have known" not to torture in the same way that they "should have known" that you make words plural by adding "-s."

Second, the possibilities in Carter's post for the source of moral guidance are set up as either conscience or training. Either they just know that torture is wrong, or they should be taught that it's wrong. Both of these are individualistic notions -- either you look within your own heart, or you learn the principles in a rational manner.

What these options leave out is the importance of social reinforcement. People acquire their moral orientations from acting them out, playing the part of a moral person in interactions with others while having morality modeled for them by those who they admire or see as comrades. Eventually, the orientation becomes a habit, a role played effortlessly and subconsciously. This is how the military inculates the ethos that Carter claims non-reservists acquire -- indeed, "total institutions" like the military, or like the fraternities Carter talks about in his nice follow-up post, are especially likely to be scenes of this social production of morality. At Abu Ghraib, acting in accordance with the Geneva convention wasn't "how it's done." In fact, it's not just that they failed to assimilate non-torture morals. As per Carter's example of fraternities, the culture of Abu Ghraib likely reinforced a counter-morality that said that torture was not just acceptable but the proper way to treat prisoners. The same social mechanisms that have instilled in most of us an aversion to torture were twisted into promoting it. In such a scenario, individual conscience would have been swamped (unless it could ally with other consciences -- a classic collective action problem -- or reach out to outside sources of power, as the soldier who publicized the photos did).

*To link it back to my previous exchange with Carter, an evolved conscience is not as trustworthy as a God-given one.

Abu Ghraib

Joe Carter brings up an interesting point with regard to the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.


Most everyone has simply stated that these soldiers “should have known” not to act the way they did. They seem to be under the impression that it is both obvious and beyond dispute and, therefore, no argument even needs to be made. Essentially, they're making an appeal to natural law. Like St. Thomas Aquinas, they agree that good and evil is intrinsic and knowable by all people (ST IaIIae 94, 4). These reservists should have known that such actions were wrong because all humans are endowed with the same moral intuition that humiliation and torture are evil acts.



Joe agrees that there is a natural law, but some degree of social conditioning is necessary to properly develop it. While the military builds a strong moral orientation into its members, reservists (such as the Abu Ghraib torturers) are exposed to the moral relativism of civilian culture that erodes their moral intuition. While not entirely sold on the idea that having the Geneva convention explained to them would have led the torturers to act right, he says "solid training on both the laws of war and the consequences for violating them might have been just the thing to stir their moral conscience."

There are two things I want to pick out of this argument. First is the question of implied natural law. I'm skeptical that humans share much more than a rudimentary inherent conscience (and that things that appear to spring from that inherent conscience are necessarily proper guides to action*). However, I don't think that one needs to presume a natural law framework in order to argue that the soldiers "should have known" not to torture. Though conservatives make a big deal out of the supposed moral relativism of modern life, there is a largely shared ethos -- as evidenced by the practically universal condemnation of the Abu Ghraib torture. Whatever its origin, the idea that you should not wantonly humiliate and torture anyone, even enemy soldiers of a different race and culture, is pretty well entrenched in American culture. So to say the soldiers "should have known" can refer to an element of "nuture" we expect them to share, not necessarily an element of "nature." The soldiers "should have known" not to torture in the same way that they "should have known" that you make words plural by adding "-s."

Second, the possibilities in Carter's post for the source of moral guidance are set up as either conscience or training. Either they just know that torture is wrong, or they should be taught that it's wrong. Both of these are individualistic notions -- either you look within your own heart, or you learn the principles in a rational manner.

What these options leave out is the importance of social reinforcement. People acquire their moral orientations from acting them out, playing the part of a moral person in interactions with others while having morality modeled for them by those who they admire or see as comrades. Eventually, the orientation becomes a habit, a role played effortlessly and subconsciously. This is how the military inculates the ethos that Carter claims non-reservists acquire -- indeed, "total institutions" like the military, or like the fraternities Carter talks about in his nice follow-up post, are especially likely to be scenes of this social production of morality. At Abu Ghraib, acting in accordance with the Geneva convention wasn't "how it's done." In fact, it's not just that they failed to assimilate non-torture morals. As per Carter's example of fraternities, the culture of Abu Ghraib likely reinforced a counter-morality that said that torture was not just acceptable but the proper way to treat prisoners. The same social mechanisms that have instilled in most of us an aversion to torture were twisted into promoting it. In such a scenario, individual conscience would have been swamped (unless it could ally with other consciences -- a classic collective action problem -- or reach out to outside sources of power, as the soldier who publicized the photos did).

*To link it back to my previous exchange with Carter, an evolved conscience is not as trustworthy as a God-given one.

Abu Ghraib

Joe Carter brings up an interesting point with regard to the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.


Most everyone has simply stated that these soldiers “should have known” not to act the way they did. They seem to be under the impression that it is both obvious and beyond dispute and, therefore, no argument even needs to be made. Essentially, they're making an appeal to natural law. Like St. Thomas Aquinas, they agree that good and evil is intrinsic and knowable by all people (ST IaIIae 94, 4). These reservists should have known that such actions were wrong because all humans are endowed with the same moral intuition that humiliation and torture are evil acts.



Joe agrees that there is a natural law, but some degree of social conditioning is necessary to properly develop it. While the military builds a strong moral orientation into its members, reservists (such as the Abu Ghraib torturers) are exposed to the moral relativism of civilian culture that erodes their moral intuition. While not entirely sold on the idea that having the Geneva convention explained to them would have led the torturers to act right, he says "solid training on both the laws of war and the consequences for violating them might have been just the thing to stir their moral conscience."

There are two things I want to pick out of this argument. First is the question of implied natural law. I'm skeptical that humans share much more than a rudimentary inherent conscience (and that things that appear to spring from that inherent conscience are necessarily proper guides to action*). However, I don't think that one needs to presume a natural law framework in order to argue that the soldiers "should have known" not to torture. Though conservatives make a big deal out of the supposed moral relativism of modern life, there is a largely shared ethos -- as evidenced by the practically universal condemnation of the Abu Ghraib torture. Whatever its origin, the idea that you should not wantonly humiliate and torture anyone, even enemy soldiers of a different race and culture, is pretty well entrenched in American culture. So to say the soldiers "should have known" can refer to an element of "nuture" we expect them to share, not necessarily an element of "nature." The soldiers "should have known" not to torture in the same way that they "should have known" that you make words plural by adding "-s."

Second, the possibilities in Carter's post for the source of moral guidance are set up as either conscience or training. Either they just know that torture is wrong, or they should be taught that it's wrong. Both of these are individualistic notions -- either you look within your own heart, or you learn the principles in a rational manner.

What these options leave out is the importance of social reinforcement. People acquire their moral orientations from acting them out, playing the part of a moral person in interactions with others while having morality modeled for them by those who they admire or see as comrades. Eventually, the orientation becomes a habit, a role played effortlessly and subconsciously. This is how the military inculates the ethos that Carter claims non-reservists acquire -- indeed, "total institutions" like the military, or like the fraternities Carter talks about in his nice follow-up post, are especially likely to be scenes of this social production of morality. At Abu Ghraib, acting in accordance with the Geneva convention wasn't "how it's done." In fact, it's not just that they failed to assimilate non-torture morals. As per Carter's example of fraternities, the culture of Abu Ghraib likely reinforced a counter-morality that said that torture was not just acceptable but the proper way to treat prisoners. The same social mechanisms that have instilled in most of us an aversion to torture were twisted into promoting it. In such a scenario, individual conscience would have been swamped (unless it could ally with other consciences -- a classic collective action problem -- or reach out to outside sources of power, as the soldier who publicized the photos did).

*To link it back to my previous exchange with Carter, an evolved conscience is not as trustworthy as a God-given one.

The Social Construction of Nature

I've been reading about the "social construction of nature" debate recently. In basic form, the debate is between constructivists, who believe that our ideas about nature tell us more about the social conditions that produced them than about nature itself, and realists, who believe that we can have some reliable objective knowledge about nature.

It seems to me, though, that we can identify a wider variety of forms of constructivism based on how they connect the three elements of social conditions, ideas about nature, and interactions with nature.

The realist position is that social conditions are either not relevant to the development of ideas about and interaction with nature, or that they can be accounted for in a way that removes their distortion. We can even shape social relations in accordance with our clearly-developed (and thus objective) ideas about nature.

On the constructivist side, there's a distinction to be made between what I call "social constructivism" and "cultural constructivism." Social constructivism -- such as Donna Haraway's idea of "situated knowledges" claims that social conditions shape people's interactions with nature, which in turn shapes their ideas about nature. For example, feminists might argue that social conditions in certain societies assign men work like clearing forests, which encourages them to think of nature as something to be dominated by humans, whereas women's gardening inclines them to view nature as a partner.

Cultural constructivism says that social conditions directly shape ideas about nature, which in turn shape people's interactions with nature. So (to stay on the gender theme) one might argue that men's position of domination within society leads them to apply the domination template to other interactions, and thus they go out and dominate nature. In this view, nature itself plays little role in idea formation. A variant of cultural constructivism could be called idealist constructivism. Under this theory the ideas about nature (including human natue) come first, shaping social relations, which in turn shape how people interact with nature. Such an idealist constructivism is the goal of utilitarianism -- once we have our ideas about nature (derived through realist methods), we can apply them through social systems to shape our interactions with nature.

A crude materialist or environmental determinist perspective would be that interactions with nature shape social relations, which in turn shape our ideas about nature. Social relations thus mediate between nature and thought, shaping the latter to serve the former. If this serving makes a difference -- if the ideas are more than mere epiphenomena -- then the materialist position extends into cultural constructivist territory.

These are not mutually exclusive positions. Chains of causality can run many ways. But they are distinct arguments, which can get lost in the polarization of the constructivist vs. realist battle.

Mercury Delay

EPA Delays Mercury Regulations

Confronted with a flood of public responses to proposed new regulations to limit the amount of toxic mercury emitted by power plants, the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday extended the comment period by two months and said it would push back final action on the rule to March 2005.

Environmentalists had charged that under the proposed rule it would take too long to reduce mercury emissions generated by coal-fired plants. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can interfere with a child's development if a mother is exposed to excessive amounts during pregnancy.

... "There is some irony in NRDC and others complaining that mercury reductions come too slow and then in the next breath demanding a delay," said Scott Segal, who represents utilities as director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council. "That said, a rule that's too inflexible or makes unrealistic assumptions about control technology will result in too much switching to natural gas, and with natural gas prices as high as they are, that's bad news for consumers, the elderly and industrial competitiveness."


I'm not the NRDC, but perhaps I can help explain the difference between doing something expeditiously and doing something hastily. The NRDC is understandably concerned about the EPA using delaying tactics, particularly in a case like this when even the "bad" rule is worse for the environment and better from industry's perspective than the status quo. However, the EPA has not used its time wisely prior to now, focusing more on consulting industry than doing scientific assessments and consulting with the public. Thus it makes sense to cheer for delay if you can count on the time being used to do the assessment right. Mere delay is bad, delay that contributes to an outcome that's better or more legitimate is good.

By "more legitimate" I mean a process that, whatever its outcome, signals that all concerns and issues were taken into consideration. It's possible that control technology really is so expensive and unreliable, and tat the risks of mercury really are so low. But I'm not prepared to believe that conclusion when the process of coming to it was so questionable. On the other side, there have been numerous occasions when industry representatives get stuck in a mental rut about what kind of things are feasible and beneficial to their bottom line, and in retrospect environmental laws have been useful in forcing them to think outside the box. That barrier may be lowered by a fair process.

29.4.04

Endangered Fish Farming

Hatchery Salmon To Count As Wildlife

The Bush administration has decided to count hatchery-bred fish, which are pumped into West Coast rivers by the hundreds of millions yearly, when it decides whether stream-bred wild salmon are entitled to protection under the Endangered Species Act.

This represents a major change in the federal government's approach to protecting Pacific salmon -- a $700 million-a-year effort that it has described as the most expensive and complicated of all attempts to enforce the Endangered Species Act.


I'm cautious about jumping to the conclusion that this is merely an underhanded ploy to wiggle out of environmental obligations. Certainly the Bush administration has given me no justification for giving them the benefit of the doubt in environmental issues, and many of the people in favor of the change have a vested interest in relaxed environmental standards. Nevertheless, from a literal understanding of endangered species protection, counting hatchery fish makes sense. If the point of the ESA is to keep species from dying out, then it's obvious that that goal is being met when fish are able to be bred in large quantities in captivity.

But, as I've argued before, I don't think merely preserving a species is a justification for the ESA. Extinction serves as a proxy for the functioning of ecosystem services. So the important question is not whether there are enough fish, but whether the ecosystem is in good enough working order that the fish can survive in the wild.

"The Day After Tomorrow"

Via "SpoogeDemon" in the comments to this John Cole post, it looks like the NASA "don't talk about global warming" memo story wasn't quite as it appeared:

New York Times Fans Global Warming Film Controversy With NASA Memos

... According to NASA sources the New York Times article wasn't quite accurate. Indeed they got the polarity of the email's intent reversed. There was indeed an email and it was quoted correctly.

However, that email message had to do with NASA employees who had worked on the film (as individuals) proactively seeking interviews by the media in conjunction with the movie. The email had nothing to do with concerns over the editorial content or any attempt to limit response by NASA employees if asked.

The film's directors had apparently worked with NASA's Earth Science people on the script, but, after working with NASA personnel for several years, they failed to eventually sign a Space Act agreement. Signing such an agreement, as was the case with films such as "Mission to Mars" and "Armageddon" is a standing requirement for any project NASA cooperates with. In fact, word has it that NASA is waiting for the film to be released to see if it illegally uses the agency's logo.


The story implies that NASA would be involved in publicity for movies that did sign an agreement. I'm not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, it seems kind of sketchy for a publicly-funded agency to be marketing some company's products. On the other hand, movies can provide a good "hook" for getting people interested in a topic (consider the ammount of discussion about the real meaning of the Crucifixion spurred by The Passion). That seems to be what Al Gore and the other environmentalists that Cole scoffs at are planning to do with their publicity event on the film's opening day. I certainly hope that they'll be proactive in distancing themselves from the particular scientific misrepresentations in the movie -- though they'll understandably be concerned about the media framing them as debunkers in the way I described in my first post on the topic ("Al Gore Says Global Warming Claims Exaggerated" or something like that).

Since the event will be in late May, I think we can trust that people like Cole will be spared having to tell us "it was cold today, therefore talking about global warming is silly." Then again, the movie seems to be based on the idea that global warming will disrupt the Earth's climate mechanisms in such a way that New York winds up having another ice age. So maybe if May 24 is hot, the skeptics can say "it was hot today, and The Day After Tomorrow says global warming will make it colder, therefore talking about global warming -- or at least using TDAT as a hook to talk about it -- is silly."

27.4.04

Bad Management Of Wilderness Fires

Preventing Forest Fires

... Since the bill was signed into law last fall, some of those fears have come to pass. True, more money is being spent: This year, about $230 million is earmarked for hazardous fuel reduction, and the budget proposal for next year -- at $266 million -- contains slightly more still. But of the 1.6 million acres of land designated to be "treated" by the U.S. Forest Service this year, only 1 million, or just over 60 percent, will be close to homes and communities, where fire prevention is most important and effective. Next year, the percentage is projected to be slightly lower -- while money targeted at projects on state and private lands is scheduled to drop. Although the Forest Service denies it, environmentalists say that other logging projects are being justified in part for their "hazardous fuel reduction" value, when in fact they are simply intended for cutting large trees. At least two projects in California, for example, have been held up by lawsuits alleging that logging of large trees is increasing the risks of fire, and controversy has swirled around projects in Oregon as well.

Meanwhile, money is not lacking for other kinds of projects. Under the president's budget, money for "forest products" -- subsidies for commercial logging -- is also scheduled to go up, from $265 million this year to $274.3 million next year. Little of this money has much to do with fire prevention. Some $5 million has been authorized for planning logging projects in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, for example (where the administration has suspended rules against logging in roadless areas), which is hardly a firefighting priority.


The claim at the end of the first quoted paragraph is interesting. The assumption in all the talk about lawsuits holding up fuel reduction projects is that the projects are justified from a fuel-reduction standpoint, and the challenge is based on valuing environmental aspects more than pure fire safety. But this editorial is alleging that the projects are bad projects to begin with. Now, "at least two" isn't very many, but the claim takes on more weight if you take the view that nearly all of the wilderness projects are unlikely to be necessary from a fire safety standpoint. It's become accepted practice that micro-level landscape modifications can drastically reduce the chance that your house will burn down, modifications on the order of a few hundred feet of "defensible space" cleared around your house (assuming a relatively fire-safe home construction).

Thinking about it more, though, I think we should hesitate to immediately condemn wilderness fuel reduction out of hand. There are several arguments. First, there's the need for a once-off fuel reduction to undo the damage done by years of fire suppression. You can't just let some forests go because their ecology has been so modified. Fire ecology is a prime case of "complex systems" multi-equilibrium ecology -- in these environments, you can't count on there being a single climax condition that nature will bounce back to after modification. It could easily "flip" into a different -- and perhaps undesirable -- arrangement.

The case for continuing management of wilderness areas is that homes burning down is not the only harm done by fire. Smoke plumes and disruption of roads are also key, and can be affected by fires burning well away from buildings. Given the built environment that we've created, we can't (or won't) necessarily tolerate the mid-scale "natural" fires that would come from leaving the wilderness alone.

The big question, then, is whether the wilderness projects are actually improving the fire situation, or just enriching logging companies. With this administration, I tend to suspect the latter.

26.4.04

Affordable National Service

Over at Open Source Politics, I have a question. (For the time being, I'm going to keep linking all of my OSP posts here.)

Endangered Species

Activists: U.S. Lost 114 Species In 20 Years

One-hundred-fourteen plant and animal species became extinct or went missing during the 20 years that the Endangered Species Act has been in effect, according to a group that monitors species protections.

...
  • 92 species became extinct without ever having Endangered Species Act protection.

  • Listing delays contributed to the extinction of 88 species.

  • 27 species became extinct while waiting on the federal candidate or warrant review list.

  • 21 species became extinct while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service processed petitions to protect them.


This is not a terribly surprising claim. But I imagine the administration has a response. Let's read on:

The [Fish and Wildlife] service noted that of the 1,248 species on the list in 2003, "only 2 percent of them were extirpated, while 33 percent were stable or improving."

"The assertion that the Endangered Species Act has failed because species went extinct before they were listed ignores the positive benefits other species have received from the act," the service added.


So what they're saying is that being listed helps species, so therefore not being listed couldn't have contributed to the extinction of other species. Somehow I don't find that convincing, or even logical. But I suppose that the environmentalists should be happy that the Fish and Wildlife Service is extoling the benefits of being listed, since that only makes the case for why it helps to get more species listed.

The Interior Department seems to think that making things so good for the listed species is what's keeping them from getting to the unlisted species:

"Two-thirds of the endangered species listing budget is being consumed by court orders and settlement agreements requiring designation of critical habitat for species already on the endangered species list," the department said.


That sounds to me like an argument for an increased budget, so that the endangered species act can be effective and comprehensive.

Assisted Suicide

M. Scott Eiland has given us 20 statements summarizing his political stance. Surprisingly, I more or less agree with a fair number of them -- 2, 4, 6, 12, 14, 15 (if you change statements about actual safety to statements about percieved safety), 16 (except that I do care quite a bit), and 17. But I think he's got something a little backwards in one of his points:

7. Assisted suicide is a dicey issue. I get creeped out by the idea of doctors being officially given approval to help people die, but I'm sympathetic to terminally ill people who want to end their pointless suffering. I'd just as soon not give doctors obtain this sort of license, and rather keep such arrangements informal and therefore subject to review in cases of obvious abuse.


Despite making some strong statements in favor of assisted suicide, I can certainly see Eiland's point about possible abuses and share his general squeamishness about the procedure. His conclusion is that people can do it, but it should be illegal so that we can bust the crooked suicide doctors with ease. But I think that making it formal would make it more subject to review. It would allow a protective structure to grow up around the practice, reducing the frequency of abuse and giving potential patients and families some peace of mind. And it would make the abuse/not abuse line clear and public rather than leaving it to the discretion of prosecutors. (What we have is an implementation of the mild-libertarian "legalize and regulate" argument, most famous for its application to drugs, abortion, and prostitution. I don't think this argument is necessarily applicable in all cases, but assisted suicide seems like a good one.)

25.4.04

Knee-Jerk Secrecy

NASA Curbs Comments On Ice Age Disaster Movie

In "The Day After Tomorrow," a $125 million disaster film set to open on May 28, global warming from accumulating smokestack and tailpipe gases disrupts warm ocean currents and sets off an instant ice age.

Few climate experts think such a prospect is likely, especially in the near future. But the prospect that moviegoers will be alarmed enough to blame the Bush administration for inattention to climate change has stirred alarm at the space agency, scientists there say.

"No one from NASA is to do interviews or otherwise comment on anything having to do with" the film, said the April 1 message, which was sent by Goddard's top press officer. "Any news media wanting to discuss science fiction vs. science fact about climate change will need to seek comment from individuals or organizations not associated with NASA."

-- via Quark Soup


Obviously, the administration would prefer there to be no movie about climate change, and a movie showing climate change to be especially bad is especially bad for an administration that downplays the threat. But in terms of public comment, it seems that it would be in the administration's interest to let its scientists talk all they want.

Sure, they may say that there is a danger of some climate change. The net impact of the movie, regardless of the scientific comment will be to raise public concern. But because the movie is hyperbolic, scientific comment has the potential to dampen concern. The central storyline that will make the biggest impression on people is this:

Movie: Oh no! Catastrophic climate change!
Scientists: Calm down, it won't be that bad.

That's great for people who want to argue that the science is still uncertain on climate change. There's a tendency among a large sector of the population to eat up "debunking," so that angle will be more salient the more scientists get involved.

The Political Economy Of Blogs

A while back Obsidian Wings linked to the Politburo Diktat's Bloggers' Manifesto, in which the Commissar urges proletarian bloggers (those of us with few readers) to rise up against the bourgeois bloggers. Though the Commissar's framing of issues in Soviet-speak is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it got me wondering about what a Marxist analysis of blogging would look like*.

The first point, of course, is to identify the stand-in for capital in blogging. Though some bloggers do make money (either doing it professionally or through ads), and one might treat Blogger and Movable Type as just another industry in the capitalist economy, the real currency (the steering medium, to slip into Habermas-Parsons terminology) is attention**. What we basically want is eyes looking at our sites, and we produce posts in order to "exchange" them for readers.

The Commissar's division of blogs into proletariat and bourgeoisie initially looks kind of weak. In Marxism, the class divide is not just a matter of relative wealth (number of links/hits), it's a structural feature -- the bourgeoisie owns the means of production. But Kevin Drum and Glenn Reynolds don't own the means of production of blog posts. They're free from Blogger and newspaper websites. They do, however, have disproportionate (but by no means total -- in a sense even I can be bourgeois to Kevin Drum's proletariat when I link and respond to one of his posts) control over the means of marketing. It doesn't matter how many car factories you own, if nobody knows they can buy a car from you. As the Commissar points out, big "linker" sites like Instapundit can be exploitative in a sense -- proletarian bloggers labor away on posts that they're then paid for with a wage (an Instalanche). The bourgeois blog keeps some of the profits, though, in the form of consolidated readership (because people value his linking service and the "branding" that comes from his recommendations) as well as the full attention of people who don't bother to click through and "read the whole thing." Of course, many top-tier blogs -- like the Volokh Conspiracy or Political Animal -- do not need to exploit link-hungry minor bloggers. They're like factories that have become completely automated, leaving proletarian bloggers unemployed (except insofar as they can mooch attention through trackbacks and posts in comment sections).

Now here's where we start to see something really interesting. In capitalism, the relations of production are largely independent of the relations of consumption. The process by which the capitalist pays his workers and appropriates their labor is separate from the process by which he sells his goods to the public (with the exception of certain "responsible buying" campaigns like anti-sweatshop and Made in America). But in blogging, the two are inextricably tied together. A proletarian blogger's "paycheck" comes in the form of a link. But that link is also part of the service that the bourgeois blogger is providing to his customers (readers).

Ordinarily there's no issue with that confluence. But it creates problems when a blogger wants to talk about someone that they despise. On the one hand, the service they're offering their readers includes making use of the hypertextual nature of the web to direct people to sources and further information (witness the complaints about newspaper websites not giving links to the original documents that a story discusses). But on the other hand, since attention is the prime commodity, there's a resistance to rewarding people for writing horrible things. Often the latter wins out, leading to those "I won't dignify so-and-so with a link, but I'll spend this post trashing them" posts. Quite annoying, from my perspective as a consumer.

*In general, though, I'm inclined to think that the salient role of "status" and "party" in the blogosphere would make a Weberian view much more appropriate. Moving beyond that great sociological debate, you already know how I feel about Habermas.

**I read this somewhere recently, but I can't for the life of me remember where.

24.4.04

Drafted For Your Own Good

Over at The Bit Bucket, there's a nice post arguing against the newfound enthusiasm of the center-left for the draft. One of his arguments is:

"The draft would spread the burden more fairly": This is wrong on several levels. For starters, even if we assume all the loopholes are closed so everyone has to serve, it's a safe bet that the well-educated and the children of privilege will get put in front of computers, not on the front lines. I probably count of one of those "children of privilege," in the sense that I have clerical and computer skills that would be far more useful to the war effort in a Pentagon office than anything I could do with a rifle in Faluja. So if the goal is to have equal proportions of rich and poor kids die on the front lines, a draft isn't going to equalize things very much.


In the comments to the post, there is a response from Kilroy Was Here that I think highlights something important about the center-left case for the draft. Kilroy says:

In your refutation on spreading the burden, first, you are describing only one version of a draft. One could imagine a draft that did not have this problem (i.e. random assignments).


My initail reaction was that the idea of random assignments is absurd. The reason, though, is that the only sort of argument that could convince me to favor the draft is an argument from military necessity -- i.e., "we need more soldiers or else the bad guys will conquer us." From a standpoint of military necessity, you want people in the positions where they'll do the most good. It may not be fair that the Bit Bucketeer and I are, because of our privileged upbringings, better suited to the low-risk desk jobs. But it's much more efficient in terms of building a winning army. And if we're in dire enough straits that we have to draft people, efficiency of fighting is going to be of overriding importance.

The thing is that the center-left argument for the draft is not about military necessity. It's about using the military (or an equivalent peacetime national service regime like Americorps and the Peace Corps) as a means for social engineering. The ends being served by the draft are ends of social solidarity -- making people love their country because they were forced to serve it shoulder-to-shoulder with a cross-section of the population, making elected officials care about what happens to Joe Schmoe because their own son or daughter could be in Joe's place.

22.4.04

What Would Jesus Emit*

Church Group Slams Bush On Clean Air Act

A national group of Christian leaders is sending a scathing letter to President Bush to coincide with Earth Day, accusing his administration of chipping away at the Clean Air Act.

... "In a spirit of shared faith and respect, we feel called to express grave moral concern about your 'Clear Skies' initiative -- which we believe is The Administration's continuous effort to weaken critical environmental standards to protect God's creation," the council wrote in an advance copy of the letter provided to The Associated Press.

-- via Melanie


The nice thing about Christian environmentalism, I think, is that it doesn't require theological liberalism. Theological and political liberalism tend to go together, and for some issues the bond is tighter than for others. For example, while you needn't be a Unitarian to believe God approves of gay rights, you're not going to get the politically liberal answer if you start out assuming the literal inerrancy of the King James translation. Environmentalism, on the other hand, strikes me as entirely consistent with a conservative exegetical approach. A Biblically-based Christian environmentalism could be an important partner to that conservative environmentalism I'm still holding out hope for, even (especially?) if it focuses more on general principles of stewardship of Creation and environmental justice rather than advocacy of particular policy prescriptions.

*Remember this post for sometime down the road when I put "What Would Jesus X?" jokes in the kiosk.

Liberalism Gone Haywire

Today a forward came over the WoGAN listserv about an action being planned to support the pro-choice "March for Women's Lives" in DC this weekend. Naturally, pro-life groups have organized a counter-demonstration. The email urges people to participate in a "phone jam," calling the hotel where the pro-lifers are staying to let the hotel management know that "we do not appreciate their support of fascism, and that no one in the pro-choice movement will patronize their businesses when they obviously support a right-wing agenda."

My initial reaction was simply disappointment, that members of groups like WoGAN, who are so active in defending their own right to protest and so attentive to the intentional and unintentional ways their own message is silenced, would approve of browbeating not just their opponents but also people who would "support" their opponents by declining to impose an ideological test on customers. It's somewhat analagous to the case of proponents of hate speech laws, who call for tolerance and neutrality when it helps them but are willing to turn to power politics when they can.

Thinking about these led me to think about what liberalism (broadly defined) means. The essence of the liberal tradition, I think, is procedural fairness. The classical liberals had great faith that fair procedures -- the marketplace of ideas, individual choice, democracy, the scientific method -- would lead to outcomes that were both right and legitimate. This is in opposition both to a conservatism that says we people aren't worthy to question the eternal word of God or tradition, and to a leftism that says that reason is an illusion and only raw power exists.

Habermas's distinction between strategic and communicative action is relevant here. Liberalism as I've defined it is a defense of the possibility of communicative action. The fair procedures advocated by liberals are the framework under which something approximating communicative action is possible. For all their rhetorical -- and perhaps honest personal -- commitment to liberal communication, phone bank jammers are not quite willing to take strategic action out of their toolbox, to relax their insistence on winning.

Of course, as Habermas recognized in his more recent work, liberalism is only ever an approximation. Leftist critiques -- Chantal Mouffe's does a good job of not throwing out the baby with the bath water -- are useful as a caution against the hubris of thinking we've come up with the final word in implementations of liberalism, reminding us of the inescapable partiality of our viewpoints. But such humility, coupled with the willingness to take a responsible chance, is entirely consistent with liberal ideals.

This brings us to the question of "beyond the pale" rhetoric. "Beyond the pale" can be framed as a form of conservatism or leftism, denying the freedom to take wrong positions. But I find it more interesting to see it as liberalism gone haywire. Liberalism demands that fair procedural framework under which communicative action can occur. "Beyond the pale" is an attempt to shift the grounds of the argument to the framework rather than the content. It's a charge that the view in question is inherently inimical to communicative discussion. We're left debating the legitimacy, rather than the content, of the view.

It's true that discussions of the framework are necessary. Habermas argued that there are three types of communicative action, and hence three grounds on which one can challenge another's statement -- one of which is legitimacy. Mouffe argues that modern society is necessarily caught in a constant contestation over how to draw the framework, how to resolve its contradictions and get the best approximation of pure communicative action. However, defining the framework is only the first step. There's no point in having the framework if there's no communicative action underneath it that grapples with substance. So the problem with the politics of "beyond the pale" is not just that it makes incorrect charges of illegitimacy, but that it sees nothing beyond the question of legitimacy.

Little Worcester

Maybe it's my rural bias showing, but I had to laugh when I saw some of the responses to the "People on the Street" question in this week's WoMag. Asked "What are your favorite and least favorite things about the Worcester area?" people said things like:

My favorite thing about Worcester is the fact that everyone knows everyone else. It's a very close-knit community.

and
I like the small community setting of Worcester.

21.4.04

Gallup Earth Day Poll

This recent poll from Gallup (link via WitchVox) has to be disappointing to environmentalists, especially after hearing what sounded like the first rumbles of an emerging conservative environmentalism. Americans are now about equally likely to say that the economy should take precedence over the environment as vice-versa, though the environment used to win by a healthy margin. The percent who worry about the environment is down from 77% three years ago to 62% today.

The bright side, though, is that Americans' views of the quality of the environment are nearly stable (with a slight trend toward pessimism). This suggests that people aren't losing interest in the environment so much as having their environmental concern eclipsed by other concerns, especially terrorism and the economy. The overall picture, then, is of a public dissatisfied with the status quo. While the Sierra Club may not like its agenda losing out in the struggle for attention, the forces pushing aside environmental concern may be good for John Kerry's chances.

Sustainability Through Exhortation

For this week's cultural and political ecology class, I have to read a bunch of articles about sustainability science. Some of it -- like adaptive management and Hollings's work on complex systems -- is interesting. But I think that sustainability-wise, we're in deep trouble, since sustainability scientists seem to spend a disproportionate amount of their time writing articles that amount to "we're in deep trouble, so we need an interdisciplinary scientific program to figure out what to do," as opposed to actually carrying out the aforementioned scientific program.

The Secular Left

There's been a flurry of discussion around the blogosphere (centered around this post by Allen Brill citing examples of Air America mocking religion) about the disrespect that the secular left shows for the religious left. Though I've by no means read all the commentary on it (my aversion to entering long comments threads is kicking in), I felt like offering my (disjointed) opinion.

First, I think that "secular left" is a broader term than most people realize. It's not just the lefties among the 10 or so percent of Americans who are atheist or agnostic. It includes a large number of people who are nominally Christians or Jews. They may even go to church/synagogue with some regularity. They may believe that God exists, and their ethical system may be largely rooted in Judeo-Christian teaching. However, as an identity issue and a political issue, they leave their religion at home. Except as a tactical move to reach out to (usually black) religious voters, they speak in terms of Rawlsian "public reasons" or a religion-neutral comprehensive doctrine. (I should note that there's also a substantial secular right that's larger than just the Randian contingent. I'd say that most of the top members of the Bush administration, with the exception of Ashcroft and Bush himself, are secular rightists).

To some degree, the secular left has accepted the need not to alienate the religious left. It's standard for diatribes against the religious right to end with a note that they're only talking about the fundamentalists, who give good Christians a bad name, and some of my best friends are religious people. It's hard to tell how often these statements are sincere, and how often they're tactical (if you can't convert them to secularism, convince them that good Christians are liberal). I've heard about how Jesus was a hippie and the "profound" observation that conservatives don't love their neighbor too many times to think that the secular left doesn't recognize the possibilities of a nod to religious values.

There's a segment of the secular left, though, that seems to see the idea of a religious left as illegitimate. After Kevin Drum echoed Brill's call for secularists to show respect for the religious left, many of his commenters seemed to interpret that as a call to show respect for the religious right, and responded that those people were either beyond hope, or in the grips of an ideology so vile and dangerous that it deserves no respect (and even if it did, the religious people disrespected atheists first with their evangelism). They agree with the religious right that real Christians (you rarely hear about the Pagan left or the Buddhist left) ought to be conservative, and are leery of the presumed hypocrisy involved in being a religious liberal. (It echoes, in a way, one of the conservative arguments against Islam -- "though many Muslims are in fact peaceful, my interpretation of the Qur'an says that Muslims are obligated to slaughter the infidel, therefore those supposed peaceful Muslims are just fooling themselves.")

UPDATE: I accidentally published this before it was done, so if you read it when it was fresh, you may have missed this part (as well as a few minor changes to the above portion):

But that's just the extreme version. Most members of the secular left, I think, aren't anti-religious as such. They're more than happy to have the Martin Luther King Jr.'s on their side. They may find religion silly or try to argue you out of it, but they won't begrudge you your Sunday mornings. What they're unhappy with is religion as a defining political identity, religion outside the house and on Monday, Tuesday, etc. Arguments against the religious right focus not so much on the wrongness of their principles as on the inappropriateness of bringing religion into the public sphere. Again, this is not an aversion to public displays of religion (aside from the few people who are oversensitive about the possibility of being proselytized -- a problem perhaps stemming from the same psychological mechanism that makes some people think that gay PDA is "forcing homosexuality down my throat"). It's an aversion to the idea that your religion has anything to do with me. The secular left doesn't want to hear that they ought to incorporate your religion into their private life (and most are good about not reciprocating). And they definitely don't want your religion being imposed on them even indirectly by inspiring any public policy.

This kind of tension is bound to happen whenever a movement has competing philosophies. For centrist political coalitions, the peace is largely kept by the lack of a fully articulated doctrine on the part of most participants -- when was the last time you heard the utilitarian and Kantian factions of the Democratic Party going at it? (The converse of this is the fractiousness of extreme political movements, where their divergence from the mainstream means that they have fewer positions taken unsystematically and out of habit, thus setting the stage for the vicious battles between the premillennialists and the postmillennialists, or the Trotskyists and the Kropotkinites.) Religion, however, represents itself as a comprehensive doctrine -- and what's more, a comprehensive doctrine adopted wholesale on the basis of faith. There seems to be less room for reconsideration and engagement. This, I think, may be an important reason why the religious-secular split can become such a hot point even when the people involved agree on policy.

UPDATE II: Reading the comments thread on Brill's post, I think JRClarkIII has a point about part of the problem being the religious left not being assertive enough. Given that the secular left is often privately religious, it's easy for members of the religious left to slide into that position, adopting the secular norms of the left's political discourse. Without any system for supporting the use of religion for progressive causes and bringing together members of the religious left, they can be left isolated and become politically secular. This is especially easy on the left because liberal theology (at least within Christianity) places more emphasis on acting in accordance with God's will than on professing one's faith. When getting progressive results becomes the highest priority, it's easy to let maintaining a politically religious identity fall by the wayside, and eventually atrophy from lack of use.

20.4.04

OSP

Moving into the gray area between "post" and "article," I've made my first contribution to the new Open Source Politics front page blog. It's on the Saudi oil deal.

19.4.04

Arlen and Teresa

Kerry's Wife Helped Specter In Past, But Won't This Year

Teresa Heinz Kerry won't be backing Sen. Arlen Specter in his re-election bid this year. And that's news ? at least, apparently ? to Specter.

... "If somebody said to her, 'What do you think about Arlen Specter?' I think she'd say, 'He's been a very good senator. I like him. He's important for Pennsylvania,'" Specter said. "She might say, 'I'm going to vote for him.'"


I'm a bit surprised that Specter could not immediately see how much Heinz Kerry has to distance herself from him this year. I wonder whether Specter might have been playing up the possibility deliberately in order to spark a story like this that would get him some credibility with moderates. Then again, considering how successful Pat Toomey has been in making Specter sound too liberal, in part by linking his voting record to Kerry's, it seems that Specter ought to want to distance himself from Heinz Kerry as well.

It's kind of sad, though, that that's the way it works. Why should Teresa's political affiliations reflect one way or the other on John?

Sew-what?

Good reporters like to get quotes from the public capturing how they feel about an issue. But this example, from a story about a process to destroy sewage sludge, makes it sound like the reporter was really fishing for reaction:

"Huh, how does it work again?" said Jason Hunter of Millbrook. "I have no idea what you just said, but as long as the toilets in my house keep flushing, I’m OK with it."


Then again, it looks like even the mayor has no idea what's going on:

"I still don’t know how it works, and Truel has been explaining it to me for six months," the mayor said. "But I do know if we don’t have sludge, we don’t have to get rid of sludge. That means we don’t have to operate a truck, and face the liability of transporting the stuff on the highway to the field. And the biggest benefit of course is for the environment, since we no longer have sludge to get rid of."

17.4.04

California Wrapup

Let me sum up what I've found with regard to the California Governor's Blue Ribbon Fire Commission report (enormous pdf):

* The emphasis that Chairman Campbell and the news stories place on environmental requirements hindering fire safety is not borne out by the report or by the GAO study they cite.
* The major problem with the fire safety situation in southern California, according to the report, is poor coordination and planning -- between agencies, between levels of government, between administrative and legal codes, and between government and the public.
* The report shows evidence that clearing "defensible space" and using fire-safe construction techniques can greatly help to reduce the potential for damage to property. However, there are suggestions that public education and the implementation and enforcement of standards are lax. This is largely a matter of private fuels reduction, not public projects of the type surveyed by the GAO.

California Burning

I've made it to the point in the 2003 fires inquiry report where they elaborate on the recommendation that environmental laws need to be streamlined to enable swifter fuel reductions. The elaboration doesn't provide much in the way of additional detail. In fact, only two data points are offered (though that's consistent with the presentation of the remainder of the findings and recommendations). There's a quote in the margin from Mayor Judith Valles of the City of San Bernardino claiming to have had a fuel reduction project stalled by the Fish and Wildlife Service (which for all we know could have been a justified move -- there's no reason to suppose that all proposed fuel reduction projects are good, even from a strictly fire safety standpoint).

The report also refers to a June 2003 GAO report claiming that 59% of all fuel reduction projects, and 68% of California's, are delayed due to appeals and litigation. I couldn't find any such report on the GAO site, but this October 2003 GAO report contains a similar figure for fuel reduction projects in FY 2001-2002. The problem is, it's 58% of fuel reduction projects open to appeal that have been appealed, not 58% of all projects. About half of the projects surveyed were not open to appeal. A mere 3% of all projects were litigated. Of the few that were appealed, 73% were subsequently implemented without changes, and 79% (83% in California) were resolved within the prescribed 90-day period. The vast majority of the appeals and litigation were, however, by environmental groups. That's a lot of numbers, so let's put it in chart form (unfortunately the GAO only gives data by number of projects, not acreage).


Without knowing the details of the individual cases, it looks to me like a reasonable appeal rate to keep agencies accountable without jeopardizing safety.

The inquiry report found that clearing areas immediately surrounding homes has a huge impact on the home's survival during a fire, even in a case like the 2003 California fires when a fire could pick up steam raging through fuel-heavy wildlands before pouncing on a town. Interestingly, the GAO report found a lower rate of appeals for projects near settlement -- 53% of appealable projects in the urban-wildland interface were appealed, versus 63% of appealable projects in roadless areas. The difference is stronger in California, where 18% versus 43% of all projects and 59% versus 75% of appealable projects were appealed in the wildland-urban interface and roadless areas, respectively.

16.4.04

A Note On California

California Blue Ribbon Commission Delivers Final Report On Last Year's Wildfires

The head of Califoria's blue-ribbon fire commission says the state will have more deadly wildland blazes if "political conflicts" between environmental and fire agencies are not resolved.

Bill Campbell says fire agencies urge residents in wildland-urban interface areas to clear growth for several hundred feet around their homes. But other agencies forbid homeowners to do that.


I'm still not done reading the actual report (some blogger I am), but I came across this little item that gives some more specifics about how environmental laws conflict with fire protection. But this is still a one-source assessment, as Campbell is the one who wrote the introductory letter to the report that played up the environmental aspect so much more than the report's executive summary.

Bin Laden's Bargain

I've largely stopped doing posts about Iraq and terrorism (there are hundreds of people doing it better than me), but this caught my eye:

Bin Laden Tape Offering Europe A Truce Is Called Authentic

The C.I.A. said today that an audiotape of a man identifying himself as Osama bin Laden, who offered to stop terrorist actions in European countries that ended military action in Muslim nations, was probably authentic.

"After conducting a technical analysis, the C.I.A. assesses that the voice is likely that of Osama bin Laden," an agency official said.

The official described it as "an attempt by bin Laden to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States. This would fall into the category of other bin Laden tapes as a propaganda ploy to bolster morale of Al Qaeda's rank and file. "


The offer is meant to drive a wedge, but not between the US and Europe. It's to drive a wedge between the West and Muslims potentially sympathetic to al-Qaida.

The idea of this as a US-Europe wedge (similar to Saddam's grudging concessions on weapons inspections) assumes that Europe might accept the offer. Certainly many countries would like to reconsider their foreign policy in order to avoid angering Islamists. But they would not do so in the context of coming to an agreement with bin Laden. If anything, his making the offer will make them less likely to withdraw, because they won't want to seem like they're capitulating to terrorism. And I see no reason why anyone would trust al-Qaida -- they'd soon enough find a reason to implicate Europe in anti-Muslim activities. If he could reason that the people in the World Trade Center were guilty of crimes against Islam because of their association with the US, certainly he can find some way to blame Europe no matter what they do.

The offer, I think, was made on the assumption that Europe would turn it down. Now bin Laden can say "I offered to call off terrorism if Europe agreed to not attack Muslims. Europe said no. Therefore they're intent on attacking Muslims." This then provides a justification for his activities, and a proof to his sympathizers that the West is against them.

This Week's Scarlet

I held off on posting my comics and commentary yesterday because I had other things I wanted to post (like the conclusion to my post about the California wildfires inquiry), and I wanted to pace myself. Then I wound up not posting any of those things. So here, a day late, are my contributions to the year's penultimate issue of the Scarlet:



My commentary is "Democrats Don't Need McCain To Win In '04," and its comic is here. The commentary is written in a more snarky and op-ed-ish style than I typically use. It also makes a passing reference to my growing suspicion that the Democratic leadership can be as centrist as it is because it can use "we need to defend Roe v. Wade! as a prod to keep the left wing in line. (Granted, I think the sans-abortion equilibrium point would be much farther to the right than a lot of left-wingers think, but the frequency with which abortion is brought out -- successfully -- as a justification for choosing the lesser of two evils is striking.)

Socialism vs. Math

Today in my decisionmaking class, we did a game theory exercise. We formed into small groups, and within each group each person represented a town that wanted to build a wastewater treatment plant. We had a list of net savings that we could gain by forming coalitions to build joint plants between two or more towns. The idea was that we would each bargain, trying to get the best deal for our own town, by shifting alliances and offering better savings allocations to entice other towns into cooperating with us. The game was deliberately designed to be unstable (i.e., to have no final solution that everyone would be happy with, and thus to be open to endless shifting and backstabbing).

But my group and one other group decided to simply find the combination of coalitions that would give the highest total savings, then divide that savings up equally among the towns. We figured it was better to have an allocation publicly known to be equitable, in order to create stability and fairness. When the professor saw us sitting back satisfied before the time was up, he said "Darn. I should have known not to put all the socialists in the same group."

But I don't think socialism is the explanation (though other members of my group may well have been socialists -- I don't know them well enough to say). The real explanation is that we were geographers. And geographers have an aversion to math*. So we took one look at the constant calculations that would be necessary to figure out our advantages in different arrangements and create offers to other towns, and said "no thanks."

*One might think that GIS people, at least, would be math-inclined. But apparently Ron Eastman, who invented Idrisi, is teaching us mathematical ideas -- like Dempster-Schaefer theory and using principal components beyond the third -- that real mathematicians reject.

Addendum

Matthew Yglesias points out Brian Leiter's post on C-250, which is a refreshingly honest example of "embracing intolerance when possible, and resorting to tolerance when necessary."

As proof that the powerful in the US cannot (unlike their Canadian counterparts) be trusted to regulate speech properly, Leiter claims that dissenting views on the war and economics are effectively barred from public in the US -- a claim that's pretty hard to swallow after Howard Dean became the Democratic front-runner for expressing those very ideas. I think some anti-war and economically leftist people spend so much time telling each other that their views are treated as heresy that they forget that they enjoy substantial freedom of expression. Indeed, I think their major complaint ought to be not that they can't say things, but that the public is less willing to listen to them. If someone can so mispercieve the status of free speech in his own country, I'm disinclined to trust his judgment about which countries are enlightened enough to regulate their citizens' speech.

15.4.04

Deliberation and Hate Speech

David Bernstein is wont to point out stories like the following*:

Stomping On Free Speech

"Canada is a pleasantly authoritarian country," Alan Borovoy, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said a few years ago. An example of what he means is Bill C-250, a repressive, anti-free-speech measure that is on the brink of becoming law in Canada. It would add "sexual orientation" to the Canadian hate propaganda law, thus making public criticism of homosexuality a crime. It is sometimes called the "Bible as Hate Literature" bill, or simply "the chill bill." It could ban publicly expressed opposition to gay marriage or any other political goal of gay groups. The bill has a loophole for religious opposition to homosexuality, but few scholars think it will offer protection, given the strength of the gay lobby and the trend toward censorship in Canada.

... In Sweden, sermons are explicitly covered by an anti-hate-speech law passed to protect homosexuals. The Swedish chancellor of justice said any reference to the Bible's stating that homosexuality is sinful might be a criminal offense, and a Pentecostal minister is already facing charges. In Britain, police investigated Anglican Bishop Peter Forster of Chester after he told a local paper: "Some people who are primarily homosexual can reorientate themselves. I would encourage them to consider that as an option." Police sent a copy of his remarks to prosecutors, but the case was dropped. In Ireland last August, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties warned that clergy who circulated a Vatican statement opposing gay marriages could face prosecution under incitement-to-hatred legislation.


Assuming that the writer is presenting the cases fairly, they're pretty frightening. The usual response is first to assert a commitment to free speech (as a moral principle even in cases when the First Amendment doesn't apply), and second to point out the irony that the promulgators of PC speech restrictions got the power they have today because of the free speech that their opponents accorded to them in the recent past. We might then move on to suggest that they simply suffer from the all-too-common human failing of embracing intolerance when possible, and resorting to tolerance when necessary. (I've been tossing around the idea of how one could construct a left-but-not-liberal justification for restrictions on speech, something along the lines of the idea that discourses have power and that concepts like the marketplace of ideas and "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" are luxuries of the privileged class. But I'll leave that for another day.)

But what strikes me is how bill C-250 delegitimizes the very gay rights movement it seeks to defend. Under a deliberative conception of democracy (a la Habermas), the ideal case of a securely justified law is one in which all citizens affected by it have been rationally persuaded to accept it. To make an argument or proposal in a democratic system is to offer your view as a candidate that could be accepted in such a fashion (or at least it is to attempt to have your hearers believe that that is what you are doing). An idea can only be truly and completely beyond the pale after such a consensus has been reached, because in that case anyone expressing a different view is ipso facto not doing so rationally, and thus is subject to non-rational (i.e. coercive, if only in the loose sense of pressure and shame) measures to change their view.

Of course, the practical barriers to such an ideal are legion, including such varied constraints as the limits of the human mind, the limits of science to produce reliable empirical inputs, and the logistics of carrying out such deliberation across space and time. Thus we have the system of provisional consensus. After a good faith effort to do some deliberating, we take some mechanism -- such as a majority vote -- to come to a resolution. However, that resolution is regarded as legitimate by those on the losing end precisely because it is provisional -- i.e., it is open to being challenged at a later date, at which time the losers can reopen the issue and try again.

What measures like bill C-250 attempt to do is to make a provisional agreement on the legitimacy of homoseuxality into a functionally final consensus. They declare opposing views to be beyond the pale, and subject to coercive (in the strict sense) regulation as if all rational people had accepted homosexuality. However, the agreement on the acceptability of homosexuality is legitimate precisely because of its provisionality, the invitation it extended to gay rights foes to try again later. To take that invitation away through criminalizing the opposing view removes the reason for opponents to grant even provisional legitimacy to the laws regarding homosexuality. With that legitimacy withdrawn, the laws "defended" by C-250 are no longer morally legitimate and binding on all people of Canada.

To put it in short form: You are only morally bound to obey laws that you are free to disagree with.

A law banning disagreement is self-refuting, or at least refuting of the policy it seeks to defend -- the article in question doesn't make it clear whether it would be a crime to say "C-250 is wrong," or just "homosexuality is wrong." In the case of the latter, there remains a two-stage process for overturning the provisional consensus -- you first argue against C-250 to get it repealed, at which point you regain the freedom to argue against homoseuxality. Yet while it may be theoretically justifiable, the practical difficulties associated with it make it effectively self-refuting.

*It would be great if he wrote a book about them or something ...

14.4.04

Australian Independence

Australians Weigh In On Ties to British

Does Australia want to dump the British queen as head of state and replace her with a president? A Senate committee began a round of town hall meetings Tuesday to gauge public support for the idea.

Activists who want to change Australia from a constitutional monarchy to a republic have been lying low since 1999 when a referendum soundly rejected the idea.

... At Tuesday's meeting in a blue collar suburb in Sydney, the monarchists' argument was simple: The system isn't broken, so why fix it?

"We are concerned about the amount of money involved to pay for a change we don't see any point in," said David Flint. "Our people believe Australia should stay as it is, it works well."


Whether it be rational or just an effect of being raised on stories of the righteous revolution against King George, I have an undeniable sympathy for the republican cause. However, I can largely agree with the monarchist argument as presented in the article -- Britain's rule is so ceremonial that, particularly if the Westminster system stays in place, the republican movement is expending a lot of energy on a trivial matter. I can understand the desire to make the transition as palatable and smooth as possible by not rocking the boat, but perhaps they'd get more bang for their buck by introducing additional reforms -- like a bill of rights, separating the executive and legislative branches, or scrapping mandatory voting* -- along with the transition to full independence.

Nevertheless, if the monarchists' argument is merely "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," it seems that that attitude ought to lead to apathy, not organized opposition to the republicans. Such was the case for me when Colgate had its big controversy over introducing the Honor Code, which -- despite the hysterical claims of its supporters and detractors in The Maroon-News -- changed almost nothing. It seems unlikely, given the trend of public opinion, that a concerted monarchist effort could squash the republican movement quickly enough to save more total effort and expense that way than would be saved by acquiescing to the change.

*This list is perhaps more evidence of my being socialized into thinking the American way makes the most sense.

Environmentalism Caused California's Fires?

Calif. Urged to Ease Environmental Rules

California must ease its environmental standards to prevent wildfires like those that killed dozens of people last fall, a panel said Wednesday in its final report on the devastating blazes.

The panel said environmental concerns had hampered efforts to clear brush and trees surrounding housing developments in wildland areas, where fire is part of the natural cycle. That extra growth allowed the wildfires to spread, the commission said.

... Those [48 recommendations] include better cooperation and communication between fire agencies; more training and improved equipment; quicker use of military aircraft; and reconsideration of the sunset deadline for launching firefighting aircraft.


I'll admit to having a bit of a knee-jerk reaction against this claim, since unfairly blaming environmentalists for the ill effects of fire has been a tactic used in promoting the Healthy Forests Initiative. But the storyline that environmental regulations hamper fire safety is not inherently implausible, and there are certain tradeoffs between ecosystem and safety values, so southern California may be a case where it actually happens. Let's go to the report itself (enormous pdf).

I haven't gotten past the executive summary yet, but the story it paints is somewhat different. The introductory letters reflect the emphasis of the AP story on environmental laws as major contributors to the problem. But in the list of findings, the only one that deals with environmental laws is Finding 2:

There are numerous conflicting land management and environmental laws and regulations at all levels of government.


If that's a fair summary of the finding, then it seems to be little help to deregulators and little threat to environmentalists. The problem as described seems to be not with the scope of environmental laws, but with their interjurisdictional confusion. It's not surprising that firefighters being shuttled off to counties and states they aren't familiar with would be tripped up by a patchwork of differing local regulations.

The report goes on to note that fuel accumulation was a major factor, but it is not linked -- as it is in the news story -- to environmental laws. No clear explanation is given in the executive summary, but I can offer one example in which it was disaster aid structure, not environmentalism, that contributed to fuel buildup. California was hit by a beetle infestation that left large swaths of forest dead, prime fuel for a catastrophic fire. County officials tried to get funding to pay for clearing the trees over a year in advance. However, they were turned down first by the state, and later by the feds. The justification was that a state of emergency could only be declared, and the funds resulting from that used, after a disaster had taken place, not for preventative measures.

Moving on to the recommendations, there is again only one that really confronts the issue of environmental laws. Rated as high-priority, it says:

The Commission recommends that a task force be established to review the social, political, economic and scientific issues relating to conflicts between environmental and ecosystem values and land management planning, and their impact on the use of proven fire prevention and fire safety measures to protect lives and property in our WUI [wildland-urban interface] areas.


This suggests a more straightforward environment vs fire safety problem. However, the recommendation is quite vague. This contrasts with the recommendations relating to communications, training, and insurance, which are generally fairly specific.

More to come as I read the remaining 200 pages ...

Vague Compromises

Since the nature-nurture thing came up in the previous post, I'd like to point out something that annoys me about assessments of some theoretical debates. People like to declare that debates like nature-nurture in psychology and structure-agency in sociology are settled or passe because the hardliners for each position have admitted that the real explanation is somewhere in between. I agree that in these cases, "a little from column A and a little from column B" is correct, but it's also not terribly specific. There remains a lot to be asked about what from column A and how much from column B. The problem is how you argue that without your opponents building straw men, or without radicalizing your own position -- e.g. taking a hard-line agency viewpoint in order to get more leverage to move the compromise solution a skosh away from the structure side.

Gender Roles

Act Like A Man

... In the beginning, I was delighted by my children's gender-defying personalities. My feminist credentials are impeccable, beginning with ERA marches and a stint at Ms. magazine and continuing through my children's hyphenated last names. So it was understandable that the special wish I made was for an active, tomboy daughter and a sweet, sensitive son. A fairy godmother must have been listening.

... Liza pays about as much attention to gender expectations as she does to my entreaties to keep her braids out of her dinner plate. When she wrestles with the boys, no one perceives her behavior as a "problem." So why should Matt have to toughen up? What's wrong with being scared of violent battles? Our expectations of how boys should behave are as deeply rooted in our psyches as our expectations of wolves. Wolves, and boys, are not supposed to step out of character.

A friend asked if I'm scared my son will be gay. Right now, the question seems irrelevant. And right now, like any mother, I love my son in all his specialness. Like any mother, I just want him to feel accepted. I don't want him to change; I want the world to change.


I agree entirely with the comment by ampersand, who was like Matt growing up:
Boys don't need gender socialization - they need to be rescued from gender socialization.

I wonder how many of the boys on Matt's soccer team would have been happier at cooking camp with him, but who lacked either the personal strength or the parental support to be different, and thus slipped into conformity with gender expectations and into enforcement of those expectations against Matt.

What interested me, though, is the author's secret wish to burnish her feminist credentials by having a tomboy daughter and a sensitive son*. I can understand the desire. Gender roles need loosening, and that's more likely to happen if the Matts of the world are paired with the feminist parents like this author. It's an unfair burden to place on the shoulders of a kid just for being different, but it would perhaps be even more unfair to assign the duty of challenging gender stereotypes to a boy who really just wants to play soccer (though such a boy would have at the least the duty to not enforce any role, whatever it may be, on others).

More significant, perhaps, is the concern for confirming the anti-feminist view of immutable gender. If Matt had been more like Liza, it would be a constant reminder to his mother that some boys really will just be boys. (Or it could be a suggestion that she failed to keep society from enforcing its gender roles on Matt.)

But the way the author expresses it makes it sound like a desire to set up a counter-hegemony, in which being sensitive is properly masculine, but being traditionally "boyish" is bad. Wouldn't it be better to take a "thy will be done" approach, letting Matt's personality be dictated not by social gender roles or resistance thereto, but by his inherent personality, will, and experience?

The latter sounds nice, but Foucault** suggests reason for pessimism about the possibility. He argues that once society creates categories, it's very difficult to get them to go away. Their presence in society practically forces us to think with reference to them. We get trapped in second-guessing about whether deep down we might be conforming or being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian***. And the bigger the role "nurture" plays in personality development, the harder it is to get outside the categories, because the nurture you experience is coming from a world impregnated with those categories. In such a situation, can there really be an "authentic self" independent of social construction? Perhaps some degree of "nature" is necessary to introduce an unavoidable bit of variation as an anomaly to call into question, even falsify, the prevailing gender paradigm. Alternately, maybe we need some other categorization of personality, built on a more justified basis, that we can use to distract ourselves the gender categories so that they can fade into the background and lose some of their power.

*Interestingly, Matt is not just of a non-dominant form of masculinity (like being a "gamer geek"), but is positively feminine.
**I'm citing a social theorist other than Habermas! Whoa!
***For example, I wrote that passage in a sort of universalizing language that many feminists would argue is typically (and problematically) male. So I considered contextualizing it into my personal second-guessing about my own masculinity. But would I be doing that just to prove that I'm not falling into hegemonic male discourse patterns? If all knowledge is as radically situated and contextual as some feminists make it out to be, I don't even have the "out" of saying that one way of framing my point is objectively better than the other independent of its gender connotations.

13.4.04

Blaming Outsiders

I recently read a study by Greg Winter and Jeremy Fried, which asked some northern Michigan homeowners about their perceptions of wildfire. One interesting finding was that the respondents generally blamed temporary residents and tourists from downstate for starting the fires, through a combination of carelessness and lack of knowledge about the local environment. Discussing this with one of my professors, he said that he noted a similar phenomenon in his study area of southern California -- people there generally blamed illegal immigrants for starting fires. In both cases, the blame seems misplaced. Winter and Fried said that according to state records, the main source of fires was residents' backyards. In the case of illegal immigrants, it seems logical that they would have a strong incentive not to let their fires get anywhere near uncontrollable proportions -- both for their own safety and to avoid attracting the attention of the Border Patrol with even a large-but-under-control fire.

Why would there be this pattern of blame? It could be as simple as the desire to pass the buck to someone else, preferrably someone who won't hear about what you said and give you a hard time about it. That suggests that social connection is an important factor. Outsiders can be slagged because they are not closely tied in with the local social network. But at the same time, the outsiders may be presumed to realize the same thing. They can be careless with fire because the local community means little to them.

Outsiders are dangerous entities because they are not tied into the social network and do not share the local stock of tacit knowledge (the local lifeworld, if you will). Thus their actions are less controllable and less predictable. These are characteristics shared by wildfire in the minds of the Michiganders. Despite their claim to local knowledge, they see wildfire as unpredictable and uncontrollable. It's a disruptive influence on local life, much as the activities of tourists and seasonal residents can be. So perhaps it's no wonder that the two are linked.

Moreover, making the outsiders-fire link helps to moralize fire. There's a strong tendency to blame fire on the arsonists who ignited the particular blaze when possible. As much of a wild card as a person outside the social structure -- whether due to foreignness or deviance -- may be, they're still human. They can be controlled in a way that flame cannot, and they can have moral obligations demanded of them. It's the flip side of the idea that the victims of a catastrophe deserved it (as divine retribution for their immorality, for example). If misfortune is not deserved, it can at least be said to be an injustice, rather than happenstance.

All this is not to say, of course, that placing blame (provided it's properly allocated) for a catastrophe is unwarranted. Certainly there are often numerous human choices that, if made differently, could have mitigated the damage, and which are thus -- barring extenuating circumstances -- blameworthy. I'm just engaging in a bit of speculation about the process by which seeminly natural events are drawn into our moral universe.

11.4.04

When The Sunni Hits The Fan

This article in Reason reminded me that I haven't updated the Kiosk recently. Now, I realize that editors like to come up with catchy headlines, and that puns are one way to do that. But when your pun is either overused or stupid, it makes the headline worse than if it were boring and informative. In honor of one of the worst such puns, gaining in popularity since the US entangled itself in Iraqi ethnic/religious conflict, I am placing the Shi'ite-shit pun in the Kiosk.

Arctic Pollution

Poisons From Afar Threaten Arctic Mothers, Traditions

Scientists say the Arctic, once considered pristine and unspoiled, has become a sinkhole for pollutants. The contaminants -- including heavy metals, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, DDT and other pesticides -- come north by air and water.

... Canadian government studies have found that many Inuit have dangerously high levels of PCBs, DDT and mercury in their blood, fatty tissue and breast milk. A 1997 government study found that 65 percent of women in the Baffin region of Nunavut had levels of PCBs in their blood that were five times higher than the safety threshold set by the Canadian Health Ministry. The study found that women in Broughton Island off the southeastern shore of Baffin Island had more than five times the levels of PCBs in their breast milk than women in other parts of Canada.

... Persistent pollutants are among a number of serious threats to the Inuit, the indigenous people who have lived, hunted and fished in this region for thousands of years. Inuit leaders say climate change, the accelerated melting of sea ice and the possibility of the famed icy Northwest Passage opening to year-round shipping also threaten their people. The Inuit, whose ancestors roamed Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia, plan to petition the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to declare that the pollutants, climate change and the residue from military installations are violating their human rights.


No insightful comments at the moment, I just thought it was worth passing along.

Bad Brochures

Forest Service's Fire Pamphlet Criticized

The Forest Service has been accused of misrepresenting forest conditions by using misleading photographs in a brochure that urges more logging to prevent wildfires in the Sierra Nevada.

The pamphlet, created by a public relations firm, explains that fire risks have risen as the Sierra's forests have grown more dense the past century. Six small black-and-white photos spanning 80 years appear beside descriptions of how the "forests of the past" had fewer trees and less underbrush, making them less susceptible to fire.

However, the 1909 photo does not depict natural conditions - it was taken just after the forest had been logged.

And the pictured forest is nowhere near the Sierra Nevada. It's in Montana.


Well, if they're trying to sell a policy of logging, doesn't it make sense to contrast today's forests to a post-logging scene? The brochure says "Please do not confuse the tree-thinning and underbrush-removal projects of this campaign with the logging operations of decades ago." Sounds like advice the brochure designers could stand to hear. On the other hand, the Swan View Coalition points out that "fuel treatment" in Montana produced a scene remarkably similar to the post-logging one.

The pamphlet in question is here. Treating the photos as diagrams of fuel loads rather than records of the Sierra Nevada's history, the description given of the relative dangers of parklike versus dense forest, and the increase in the latter, is unobjectionable until (near the bottom of the page) they use the word "natural." Obviously the 1909 photo does not depict a natural condition. But neither is it being used as a stand-in for a natural Sierra Nevada ecosystem. The parklike forest that covered much of the west around the turn of the century (when the Forest Service and National Parks Service were created and began land management) was a human artifact. Centuries of burning by Native Americans was aimed at creating such a parklike environment, which was more conducive to hunting and travel as well as being safer from conflagrations. This practice -- derisively called "Paiute forestry" by foresters trained in the European forest-as-garden tradition -- was continued by early white settlers. Had the land been left in a fully "natural" state, fires would have been rarer and more intense. Indeed, some pine species need crown fires to reproduce optimally. The current fuel loads go far beyond anything natural, but ongoing management is necessary to keep them at "safe" levels.

The Swan View Coalition provides us with a photo of the Montana scene prior to the 1909 logging. The density of trees is greater than post-logging, of course, and there looks to be a substantial bed of grass on the forest floor. However, it is still a relatively fire-safe environment (likely due to past Native American and white settler burning). Noticeably, it lacks the profusion of understory ladder fuels visible in subsequent photos.

(And to do my required allotment of griping about "he said, she said" journalism, the article says "Hanson said the Sierra Nevada is the only region discussed." Since there's a link to the Forest Service page right there in the article, you'd think the reporter could have taken a few minutes to read the brochure and verify this claim.)