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Arabs vs. Parks

Via Capitalism Bad, Tree Pretty, I came across an interesting example of the all too common use of environmental policy to create or perpetuate social injustice. One common form is disposessing people of their land by creating conservation areas where human settlement is off-limits. Political ecologists have written extensively about this phenomenon in the third world (especially Africa), but CBTP found an example of environmental law being used against Arabs in Jerusalem:

One method of preventing further construction by Arabs in the east of the city has been to declare many open areas to be "green zones" protected from building. Bollens says about 40% of East Jerusalem is designated as a green zone, but that this is really a mechanism for land transfer. "The government calls it a green zone to stop Palestinians building homes there, and then when the government wants to develop an area [as Jewish] it lifts that green zoning miraculously and it becomes a development place."

Jerusalem's mayor, Uri Lupolianski - who chaired the city's planning and zoning committee in the 1990s - declined to be interviewed in person on these issues, but responded to written questions. "We have to keep a reasonable balance between residential areas and open green zones. We've designated green zones in all parts of Jerusalem, not just the eastern one," he wrote. "We're keeping the green zones in the entire city free from construction, and we plan to keep it this way. We believe that the development of parks and green zones in eastern Jerusalem will improve the quality of life of the people living there."

What makes this situation tricky is that Lupolianski has a point. Cities do need zoning laws that preserve green space. Because that green space is a public good, it will be under-provided if private development is allowed free rein in dense urban areas. So planning is necessary to overcome the collective action problems.

What is not necessary, however, is for that planning to be done by a centralized bureaucracy -- particularly when there is a group of people (in this case, the Arabs) who hold a disproportionately small share of the power. Even taking him at his word that there was no malicious intent, the paternalism in Lupolianski's perspective is clear, and is the root of the problem. Decisions about green space (and other city planning questions) need to be made with the broad, genuine, and effective participation of the affected people. The Arabs of East Jerusalem are the one who will have to live with the effects of zoning policy in the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, so it is the Arabs of East Jerusalem who should be making the decisions (with the facilitation of the municipal planners) about how to balance the values of green space and new housing.


T-shirts Now Available In Fetus Size

Feministing points out that some Christians are trying to "take back the rainbow" from the gay rights movement. Personally, I think the post-flood covenant is an episode that Christians ought not to draw attention to -- it doesn't say much for God's love that he was only willing to promise to never totally destroy the earth by flood again.

Poking around the site, I ran into another Christian T-shirt that I found rather bizarre. It reads "Support pro-life judges: someday your life may depend on it." Now, I admittedly try to stay as far away from the abortion debate as possible, but I think I know enough to say that if you're old enough to be wearing a T-shirt, you're too old to be saved by banning abortion.


It's Easy To Defend The KKK

It's long been fashionable, particularly for Americans, to make grandiose claims about one's commitment to freedom of speech. Such claims typically take the form of defending the KKK, although Naziism is a popular form of bad-but-should-be-defended speech as well -- Abiola Lapite's statement that "It's cases like the one of Holocaust denier David Irving which provide the strongest tests of how truly committed one is to freedom of speech" is typical. But I think these examples miss the mark a bit by confusing extremeness with unacceptability.

Everyone has a limit to what speech they will allow (if not in society as a whole, at least in certain contexts). The KKK and Holocaust denial examples assume that that limit is defined by extremeness -- that everyone will accept speech that they agree with and speech that's close or sounds reasonable, but moving away from your own beliefs you eventually hit some speech that's so wrong and so contrary to your moral ideals that you can no longer handle it. Lynching black people is so wrong in the minds of most Americans that it provides a good example of extreme speech. If you'd even defend the KKK's right to speak, then it seems to follow that you'd defend any more "reasonable" ideas.

But what actually makes speech potentially ban-worthy is not its extremeness, it's how threatening it is. Take the classic example of yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. Saying that the theater is on fire is not a particularly extreme viewpoint -- theaters do catch on fire from time to time, and there's nothing particularly immoral about believing that a building is burning (or the implicit claim that we ought therefore to evacuate). But it is threatening, because were the other theatergoers to hear this speech, they would believe it and cause a dangerous stampede.

Thus, it's easy for the average American -- particularly white northerners -- to defend the KKK's right to speak. The possibility of lots of people signing on to the KKK's brand of extreme racism seems so remote that a few guys in white hoods ranting about the evils of equality doesn't feel like a threat. And even if the KKK did win some converts, most of the noble defenders of their speech would not be among those in line to be lynched. Indeed, it's the very extremeness of the KKK's views that makes it easy to defend them, since extreme views are unlikely to win adherents. This, then, is why Europe has more restrictive Holocaust denial laws than the US -- since the Nazis came from Europe, the threat posed by Holocaust denial feels much more real to them than it does on this side of the Atlantic.

This is not necessarily to say that Europe's laws are right, as there is room for much debate about how likely a Nazi revival really is, and how threatening speech must be before it can be banned. I'll close with an interesting quote from Sebastian Holsclaw. I'm not sure how accurate the empirical claim in it is, but it does illustrate my point about the threatening-ness of speech being the grounds for wanting to ban speech.

This reminds me of an interesting discussion I read a few years ago--I regret that I can't remember exactly where. The gist was that one of the practical reasons European countries have more restrictive speech laws than the US is that their political systems allow small group extremists to wield more electoral power. Our system tends toward only allowing two successful parties at a time. This is reinforced by first-past-the-post vote counting and by the fact that the administrative branch is elected apart from the legislative body. The parliamentary system of many European democracies and the voting schemes tend to make small parties very powerful when coalition governments are required. As a result, a party which is popular in only a very few areas can have enormous power from time to time. The US system tends to filter out small extremist parties. As a result we can tolerate a somewhat larger range of outrageous speech because the speaker can rarely gain the leverage needed for real power without appealing to a broad spectrum of people. I don't know if there is something to that, but it struck me as an interesting conjecture.


Trust Versus Information in the GE Food Debate

A recent review of survey data has found that Americans are still pretty evenly split over their acceptance of genetically engineered (GE) food. What struck me, though, was this sociologically naive explanation of one difference between supporters and opponents:

The researchers also found that people who pay more attention to the news tend to support GE food more than those who don't.

"Overall, research shows that GE foods are safe and effective, though some people still harbor reservations about it," said Shanahan. "I suspect that the more people are exposed to the news, the more aware they are of biotechnology and, therefore, more supportive of it."

I call Shanahan's explanation naive because it flies in the face of decades of environmental sociology. One of the most robust findings is that providing information has very little effect on people's thinking about an issue. The idea that if we just got the facts out to people they'd change their minds is powerfully appealing, but also wrong.

Let me propose an alternative hypothesis to explain the correlation between GE support and newspaper readership that is more consistent with environmental sociology and psychology. (It's an explanation couched in two extreme "ideal types," with the obvious caveat that the population is actually made up of people on a gradient in between them.) Newspaper readers and GE supporters tend to be middle-class white men. They're people who buy in to the system -- they feel like government and corporations do, or at least can, understand and listen to them. They feel competent in interacting with the system and trying to get what they want from it. They read newspapers because they basically trust information that has been endorsed by prestigious publications, and feel that information written by the system about the system is reliable and useful to them. They trust the results of science to be basically competent and to ask the right questions. And they trust that a combination of the invisible hand and government oversight would keep really bad products off the shelves.

Opponents of GE are just the opposite. They come disproportionately from among women, the poor, and non-whites -- people who have been abused by the system. They have learned to distrust the system because they have seen it ignore or even undercut their values and interests. They don't feel efficacious in their dealings with the system, or even confident in their understanding of it. They don't bother reading the news because it doesn't contain information that's relevant to their lives or their struggle for survival. And they don't trust science, or the government and corporate decision-makers using it. From their perspective, even when science is done rigorously and honestly (which is not always the case), it doesn't ask the right questsions -- scientists' pro-system values critically shape the framing of the questions. So it's no wonder they're suspicious of GE food.

In summary, people's feelings toward GE and their news reading habits are both effects of their trust in the political-economic system. Just showing the "facts" produced by the system* to people who distrust the system is unlikely to change any minds.

*Whether or not the system's facts are true ones is irrelevant here.

The Log Cabin Strategy

The Log Cabin Republicans get a lot of crap from people who think that the votes of all disadvantaged groups rightfully belong to the Democratic party. This is particularly ridiculous on the gay rights issue, where the major parties present us with the choice between "same sex marriage should be illegal" and "same sex marriage should be super double illegal." But I actually think the Log Cabin Republicans are on the right track as far as making political progress on gay rights. I've come to believe that the only thing that will ever make the Democrats come out in favor of gay rights would be if the Republicans came out in favor of gay rights.


Read It

This article on the environmental justice implications of wildfire and wildfire management is what my dissertation ought to have been.


Three Kinds Of Ambivalence

Hugo Schwyzer has a post up expressing concern about his own ambivalence about many issues (abortion is the example he focuses on). He worries that his ambivalence is a moral fault and an instance of privilege, since the fact that the issues in question don't directly affect him means he has the luxury of being undecided.

His commenters rush to reassure him that ambivalence can be a virtue, contrasting it favorably with blind dogmatism. But I think to really parse this question out, we need to distinguish between at least three types of ambivalence, which I'll call (with apologies for the alliteration) avoidant, affective, and active.

Avoidant ambivalence occurs when one declines to think about an issue enough to form an opinion. Both sides' arguments sound superficially plausible, so one shrugs one's shoulders and moves on to other things. This type of ambivalence is most clearly indicative of privilege, since only someone not immediately impacted by the consequences of an issue can so easily decline to think more about it. Avoidant ambivalence is often a defense mechanism for sloth -- after all, you can't feel compelled to take action on a contentious issue if you don't know which side you support.

Affective ambivalence is ambivalence maintained as a deliberate affectation. Because active ambivalence is often seen as a virtue, many people will put on a deliberate show of ambivalence to convince themselves and others of their open-mindedness. The affectively ambivalent person refuses to let one side's arguments convince him, deliberately seeking out contrary evidence so as not to become a hated partisan. This too is a privilege, since only when an issue's resolution is of minor importance can one sacrifice it in the quest to appear open-minded. And like avoidant ambivalence, it can be a refuge for those who don't want to do the hard work of taking action.

Active ambivalence is the type of ambivalence that Schwyzer and his commenters all believe that he has. Active ambivalence arises when, despite one's best efforts to figure things out, one is unable to come down for certain on one side or the other. This is a respectable intellectual position, but it brings with it a responsibility -- the responsibility to remain actively trying to move to committed open-mindedness, rather than giving up (avoidant ambivalence) or becoming too attached to your own ambivalence (affective ambivalence). Committed open-mindedness is the condition in which the weight of evidence and argument on one side of a question is definitely stronger, but one remains sympathetic to the way that others could find the alternative more convincing. Committed open-mindedness is a virtue because it allows one to take action, but avoids demonizing one's opponents or remaining closed to any new and better arguments they may put forth. Someone coming out of active ambivalence is in a good position to be committedly open-minded, having so recently felt the pull of the other side's arguments. But we should be careful of the lure of fanaticism -- to be so happy to have finally made up one's mind that one becomes dogmatic.


Animal Rights And The Ecological Fallacy

Martha Nussbaum has an interesting, but I think ultimately unsuccessful, article arguing for a different approach to establishing moral status for animals. Her view is basically consequentialist, but she rejects the aggregation characteristic of utilitarianism. Where utilitarianism measures all aspects of an individual's life in a single metric of pleasure or satisfaction, and then sums the pleasures or satisfactions of all individuals, Nussbaum wants to consider the separate goods that make up each individual's life, goods which cannot be traded off either within or across individuals. She further rejects the psychological subjectivism of utilitarianism's metrics, preferring to state her list of goods as objective conditions for the dignified flourishing of the being.

There's a lot to take apart in Nussbaum's article, but the thing I want to focus on for now is how Nussbaum falls prey to what I see as one of the key critiques made by utilitarians against Kantian arguments that accord rights to all and only humans: the ecological fallacy. The Kantian argument says, in essence: "since the average human is capable of reason, whereas the average animal is not, then every human has the set of rights that come from the ability to reason, whereas no animal has those rights. Utilitarians rightly point out that it is fallacious to judge an individual by the characteristics of the other members of some arbitrarily-selected group (in this case the species -- but the argument has also powerfully been made by feminists in response to those who would base universal gender roles on differences in the average capabilities of the sexes). Nussbaum seems to recognize the problem when she argues for an individualist, rather than "species rights" perspective. But she falls right into the ecological fallacy in her discussion of how we decide what are the list of goods contributing to a creature's flourishing:

Capacities do crisscross and overlap: A chimpanzee may have more capacity for empathy and perspectival thinking than a very young child, or than an older child with autism. And capacities that humans sometimes arrogantly claim for themselves alone are found very widely in nature. But it seems wrong to conclude from such facts that species membership is morally and politically irrelevant. A child with mental disabilities is actually very different from a chimpanzee, though in certain respects some of her capacities may be comparable. Such a child's life is difficult in a way that the life of a chimpanzee is not difficult: She is cut off from forms of flourishing that, but for the disability, she might have had. There is something blighted and disharmonious in her life, whereas the life of a chimpanzee may be perfectly flourishing. Her social and political functioning, her friendships, her ability to have a family all may be threatened by her disabilities, in a way that the normal functioning of a chimpanzee in the community of chimpanzees is not threatened by its cognitive endowment.

That is relevant when we consider issues of basic justice. For children born with Down syndrome, it is crucial that the political culture in which they live make a big effort to extend to them the fullest benefits of citizenship they can attain, through health benefits, education, and re-education of public culture. That is so because they can flourish only as human beings. They have no option of flourishing as happy chimpanzees. For a chimpanzee, on the other hand, it seems to me that expensive efforts to teach language, while interesting and revealing for human scientists, are not matters of basic justice. A chimpanzee flourishes in its own way, communicating with its own community in a perfectly adequate manner that has gone on for ages.

I see no reason why the species should be taken as the fundamental unit for the allocation of conditions for flourishing. Why not, instead, subdivide the species so that a child with Down's Syndrome has a different list of capabilities than a non-Down's child? Or go the other way, and say that all the primates have a list of capabilities proper to them?

In the end, I think the only way to tell whether a being is flourishing is to ask it (or to observe other behavioral indicators). This brings us back, though, to one of the key points of utilitarianism -- that what is good for a being is based on that being's subjective self-assessment. And for all Nussbaum's talk of maintaining the dignity of beings, it seems to me that respecting individuals' perspectives is ultimately more dignified than ascribing to them a set of capabilities based on a philosopher's intuitions about what is appropriate to a creature of its species.


I Am Dumb

I've written before about the travesty that is the Indian Trust Fund case, and about the way federal lands are treated as subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, but somehow it never occurred to me to see the connection between the two.

The Uses and Uselessness of Civility

One of the recurring arguments in the political blogosphere is over civility. My impressionistic estimate is that 75% of blog posts and 90% of comments involve heaping either vitriol or ridicule on those who disagree. So it's inevitable that there will be periodic pious calls for civility, to cut out the swearing and ad hominems and respect the arguments of those who disagree. Various arguments are made against civility -- we need to fight fire with fire, civility is an instrument of oppression, it's important to express the rage we feel, etc. -- but the arguments for civility boil down to the pragmatic. The proponents of civility charge that the only way to make political progress is to state one's ideas in a calm and logical way, thereby engaging in real dialogue with the other side and winning them over by the force of reason.

The argument for civility is either "a steaming load of crap" or "inconsistent with what we know about human psychology," depending on what your civility preference is. Let me put it this way: have you ever seen a blogger state that their mind was changed on an issue of importance because they read one or more reasoned arguments from the other side? I've been reading political blogs for four years, and I can't recall a single example. There are some superficially suitable cases, but upon deeper examination they quickly collapse into one of several alternative cases -- 1) the blogger in question had been on the fence, not really committed to a position on the issue at hand, or 2) the change of opinion was due to other, non-rational causes (e.g. a desire to stake out an identity as a contrarian, or a wholesale ideological conversion), and their new compatriots' civil arguments (as well as their vitriolic ones!) are invoked as a post-hoc rationalization, or 3) the thing at issue was not a major question upon which very much was staked, and thus there was little to lose or gain by switching sides.

By and large, one's receptiveness to arguments is based not on the merits of the argument, but on what kind of a person one wants to be and who one wants to be allied with. One side -- even its "civil" memebers -- is not going to really listen to civil arguments coming from the other side. Arguments are rejected first, and then that rejection is justified. Rejection of a vitriolic argument will be based on its ad hominems, while rejection of a civil argument will be rejected on the basis that the opposing side must not have any logical foundation, since its best attempt failed to convince.

Does that mean civility is pointless, and that those bloggers that practice it should give up and join the rest in mockery and brow-beating? No. Civil blogging may preach to the same choir, but it has a different sermon. A civil post tells like-minded thinkers that their side's views are rooted in ironclad logic. They reassure the vitriolic crowd that their positions could be justified were they ever to find that elusive creature, the openminded opponent. The lack of response to civil posts goes to prove to likeminded partisans that the other side will listen only to force.

And of course there are those of us who just enjoy writing and reading civil posts. They play to our skills and flatter our self-concepts. But I -- and those who already agree with me, or who may come to agree with me for non-rational reasons -- recognize that the show of appealing to the other side's logical capacity is just a show.


Oil Promises

Check for airborne pork -- I'm about to point out that something Bush said isn't as bad as it looks.

The big story about the State of the Union has been Bush's promise to reduce imports of Middle Eastern oil by 75%. This cheered many environmentalists as matter of agenda-setting, despite the recognition that the actual amount of reduction in Bush's plan is piddling. But now we learn that Bush didn't quite mean what he said:

One day after President Bush vowed to reduce America's dependence on Middle East oil by cutting imports from there 75 percent by 2025, his energy secretary and national economic adviser said Wednesday that the president didn't mean it literally.

What the president meant, they said in a conference call with reporters, was that alternative fuels could displace an amount of oil imports equivalent to most of what America is expected to import from the Middle East in 2025.

Environmentalists are upset. But I don't think there's any reason to be. The change from "reduce oil imports from the Middle East by 75%" and "reduce oil imports by an amount equivalent to 75% of what we get from the Middle East" makes no difference from an environmental perspective. Oil is oil, and reducing our consumption of it will have the same effect regardless of where the remaining oil comes from.

Indeed, because the oil market is global, it's hard to see how we could meaningfully target Middle Eastern oil for reductions. Sure, we could shift around so that the oil that actually enters the US comes all from Canada and Venezuela. But that would just mean that Middle Eastern oil would shift around to fill in the reductions in supply to those countries' other customers. So even if Middle Eastern oil were somehow dirtier than Canadian oil, the same amount of Middle Eastern oil would be getting burned, and thus the same amount of greenhouse gasses would be released. The only thing that matters is the overall supply and demand.

I don't for a minute believe that Bush will actually reduce our oil consumption by 75% of our Middle Eastern imports. And I suppose this correction will provide another entry in those lists of Bush's lies that have been oh so successful in changing the minds of Bush's supporters. But from an environmental perspective, this correction does not change the substance of Bush's promise.