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This Is Your Jazz Piano Interlude

I have blogging block, so in the meantime you can listen to Michel Petrucciani:


Separation of Powers or Duplication of Powers?

One aspect of the US government that we're often proud of is the separation of powers. Our federal government is divided into three branches, and each does a separate piece of the governing process -- making the laws, interpreting what they mean, and implementing them. So no one branch can just do whatever it wants, because it can be checked by the other two branches.

The Bush administration has been intent on showing how hollow the separation of powers really is. The problem is the kind of power that each branch has. All of the physical power belongs to the executive branch. They have the guns and the keys to the jail and the PIN for the nation's treasury. The other two branches only have the soft power to give or withhold approval. They only have as much power as the executive branch is willing to grant them by caring what they say.

The Bush administration hasn't blatantly defied Congress or the courts yet. They still claim that they're respecting the other branches' authority, even though the legal fig leaves they use to create the appearance of legitimacy have become more and more caterpillar-chewed. We're in a situation now where Bush can use signing statements to rewrite laws as he pleases, and attempts to hold him accountable to Congress (e.g. in the Justice Department firing scandal) have ground to a halt because the only way to compel the executive branch's testimony is to have it prosecuted by the executive branch.

But if unitary power is no good, and separation of powers is no good (because it just collapses into unitary power as soon as the right branch gets a leader with big enough gonads), what's the solution? It seems to me we should consider some form of duplication of powers. That is, each branch of government will have the same set of powers, so they can directly check each other rather than writing sternly worded letters that another branch can just toss in the circular file. I don't know quite what a duplication of powers system would look like, but it seems to be an avenue worth exploring. In other words, eventually, President Bush (or President Romney, or President Clinton) whill essentially say to the other branches "oh yeah? You and what army?" So perhaps the solution is to give them their own armies.


Some Thoughts About Animals

There's an interesting, albeit somewhat disjointed (because it's written by a reporter surveying others' opinions rather than a single person making a sustained argument) article on animal rights in the Financial Times. I have a number of disjointed points to make that it prompted.

The article opens with a commonly used analogy: could super-intelligent and super-powerful aliens treat humans the way we treat animals? I think a key point when considering analogies like this is the difference between absolute levels of intelligence and power (or whatever characteristic makes humans superior to animals), and relative ones. Aliens-versus-humans is only an analogy to humans-versus-animals if humans' treatment of animals is based on relative superiority. I think relative superiority arguments, while popular, are very weak, as it seems difficult to prevent them from deteriorating into might-makes-right. Absolute levels of various characteristics, on the other hand, make more sense as a basis for differentiation. Peter Singer makes the point:

You stop, Singer said, at the point where you have included all beings that have some sort of conscious awareness of what is happening to them. A tree would be outside that boundary, whereas a dog or a cat would fall within it. But that did not mean the dog or the cat should have the right to vote or the right to free speech, any more than men needed the right to an abortion. The rights they needed were those that were relevant to them, such as the right not to be subjected to unnecessary suffering.

The article also touches on the common question of whether a being can have rights (or at least be owed some form of moral consideration) if it can't exercise moral duties. A common anti-animal rights argument is to assert that animals can perform no moral duties, so therefore they are owed no rights. Animal rights defenders reply that you can have rights without being able to perform duties. I think the animal rights defenders are correct on the philosophical question of the rights-duties coupling, but I wonder why both sides are so quick to assume that all animals are incapable of performing moral duties. Certainly their ability to make fine and complex moral judgments is less than that of a typical human, and if you go far enough away from humans (e.g. oysters) morality seems nonexistent. But companion animals clearly are able to excercise a degree of morality -- they learn some basic principles of right and wrong, and pet owners clearly interact with them in a moral fashion. And in the wild, many animals exercise what seems to be a clear form of moral structure (e.g. obeying pecking orders). Perhaps you could chalk it all up to a complex combination of amoral instinct and self-interest -- but then how would you avoid applying the same sort of reductionist explanation to human morality too?

A final note is the question of where breeding fits in. The author has a tendency to list selective breeding in among a litany of the other things we do to animals, like eating them or dressing them in funny clothes for our amusement. But I think there's more work to be done to clarify what exactly is wrong about animal breeding. There are certainly a lot of collateral wrongs that can be done in the process of breeding animals -- if the breeder keeps them in poor conditions, if he forces two animals to mate when they'd rather not, or if the resulting phenotypes are detrimental to the offspring (e.g. some specialized dog breeds have a lot of joint problems or breathing difficulties). The implication in the article, however, is that interference in the "natural" course of breeding is itself wrong, and that an individual is harmed if his or her genome is the product of conscious selection by another individual.

I find this type of alleged harm difficult to accept, in part because it would seem to condemn all breeding other than giant blind orgies. After all, the genetic makeup of every individual who is currently living was the product of a choice by at least one of their biological parents as to which combination of genes should come together. You may say that your parents didn't have any explicit eugenic intentions when they chose each other for partners. But considerations of intent only affect the culpability of the harm-causer, not the exitence of a harm (I'm just as dead if you shoot me by accident or on purpose). And it's strange to say that we have some sort of fundamental interest in certain things being unintended byproducts -- normally morality requires that we think about our actions and their consequences, not that we deliberately ignore some set of important consequences.

Slippery Slopes and Parallel Rhetoric

Philocrites is worried that pushing for polyamory to be recognized will give aid and comfort to people who oppose same-sex marriage due to fears of a slippery slope. One would think that he would therefore be careful to present the two issues as clearly different cases to which different reasons apply. So it was with some befuddlement that I took his recommendation to read this post by LT laying out the anti-polyamory case, because LT uses almost the exact set of arguments that social conservatives use against same-sex marriage (edited to add specific quotes from LT):

It's contrary to the way we've done things for hundreds of years -- check ("Monogamy has been the norm in this culture for a long time.")

The burden of proof is on innovators to show they won't disrupt society -- check ("I believe that those who propose changing our collective position on two-person marriage bear the burden of proof that such a change is warranted, necessary, and socially responsible.")

It will harm kids in some unspecified way -- check (Polyamory advocates must "demonstrate that the widespread and eventual legal recognition of multi-partnered relationships ... will increase the stability of families for the benefit of children, women and the social order.")

It's really just about overprivileged people indulging their selfishness and avoiding responsibility -- check ("There has been, also, a bohemian rebellion against monogamy among the more privileged sets for quite a while..." "Our experiments with "open marriage" in the 60's-70's proved to be not prophetic of a liberated future, but an exercise in self-indulgence.")

If everybody did that, society would fall apart -- check ("One of my tests is a question that my mother used to ask me when she objected to some aspect of my behavior, "What if everybody did that?"")

It's a choice, so I don't have to respect it -- check ("They have adopted the stance that the potential disapproval of their fellow congregants is a prejudice against them, similar to homophobia, or racism. But there is no convincing evidence offered that being in a multi-partnered relationship is anything other than a choice that they have made.")

The only ones I see missing are "it's against God's law" (an argument the Judeo-Christian tradition cannot support) and "it's physically unhealthy."

While I'm editing, I should clarify as well that my point is about the rhetorical relationship between these arguments and slippery slope concerns. Whether they're valid arguments is a different post.


Blogospheric Domination Will Eventually Be Mine

I always forget exactly when I started blogging, but today I thought I should check (since I knew it was mid-summer), and lo and behold, today is my 6 year blogiversary (though technically I should have stayed up just past midnight last night to announce it). Judging from my original blogroll, I had 12 readers back then. Right now I'm averaging 36 or so, a tripling in readership over that 6 years. At this rate, I'll be getting as many hits as Alas in 25 more years, and in a little over 50 years I'll overtake Daily Kos.

A Note On Names

Just a word of advice to anyone who doesn't know a lot about Australia: every now and then I notice someone using the word "Aboriginal" as a noun when referring to the indigenous people of Australia -- e.g. "Aboriginals are discriminated against in Australian society." This is considered archaic and offensive, a bit like "colored people" in the US. "Aboriginal" is fine as an adjective, but the noun is "Aborigine" (or "Aboriginal person"). Or you could say "indigenous Australian," which has the advantage of including the Torres Strait Islanders as well as the Aborigines. (My impression, which I don't have any definite information on, is that the use of "Aboriginal" as a noun is more acceptable in Canada for referring to that country's indigenous people.)


Atheist Wishful Thinking

Atheists often (correctly) point out that many religious people justify their belief based on wishful thinking. It would be really nice if there was a loving and powerful God who had planned your life out for a purpose and will take you to heaven in the end. Unfortunately, I've seen atheists turn right around and make a wishful thinking argument for their own position. (This post isn't the clearest example, because while both Brent Rasmussen and RickU hint at the atheist wishful thinking argument, neither of them directly makes it. But it was that post that reminded me that I'd seen this argument used more directly elsewhere.)

The atheist wishful thinking argument is a spinoff of the Problem of Evil. The atheist wishful thinker says that if God does exist, then the existence of evil (either worldly evil or hell) proves that he's a jerk, and therefore not worthy of worship. So far so good -- we can debate the pragmatic merits of refusing to grovel before a powerful yet evil entity, but it's not illogical to stand on principle and refuse to praise a being you find to be evil. Where the argument becomes illegitimate wishful thinking is when the non-praiseworthiness of God becomes a reason not to believe. But of course something's evilness is no reason to think it doesn't exist -- after all, I still believe that George W. Bush, global warming, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers exist. And many religions through history have in fact held that at least some of their gods were immoral and deserving of at most placation and fear.

This is part of a larger phenomenon of narrow vision among many atheists -- the idea that the choice is between orthodox Christianity and atheism (or at least that any religion is going to be based on the paradigm of orthodox Christianity with the names of the gods and prophets changed). It's an understandable narrowness given the pool of people that Western atheists are going to end up arguing with (and many of those people hold the same false dilemma). But it's important to recognize that an argument against orthodox Christianity is not necessarily a general argument for atheism, because the objection may have no grip on an alternative religion. Indeed, given the diversity of religions, I find it hard to imagine anyone could come up with a positive argument for atheism that would rebut them all. So the argument for atheism must remain negative -- the combination of Ockham's Razor and the failure of any pro-religion argument so far to meet the burden of proof.



William Moseley says that it's overconsumption, not overpopulation, that's the main culprit behind environmental degradation. I more or less agree with him, but I have three concerns about the article.

1. Moseley refers to the popular I=PAT theory -- environmental Impact is the result of Population, Affluence, and Technology. For I=PAT to make sense, the T has to encompass "social technologies" like institutional arrangements (e.g. the tragedy of the commons) and access to one resource rather than another (e.g. poor people degrading their resources because they've been shut out of other options to make ends meet). But this point is not often brought out, leading T to be interpreted in the sense of "stuff that comes out of an R&D department."

2. Moseley ends his article by saying "It's time population control came off the top of the environmental agenda." As far as I can tell, population control is nowhere near the top of the modern environmental agenda. The key issues of environmentalists today all fall under A or T -- organic and local agriculture, more efficient or sparing use of fossil fuels, clean energy, etc. The drivers behind increased use of contraceptives in the third world are feminists, and their motivations put population control a distant second to women's rights.

3. Obviously Moseley had no control over the illustration they chose for his article, but it's still obectionable -- a fat face staring out of a map of the US. While I admit to using the fat = overconsumption visual device in cartoons in the past, I think it's one that should be retired. It perpetuates the idea that fatness is about irresponsible overindulgence, gobbling up food without self-control. This ideology leads to prejudice against and blame of fat people.


Studying People Like Yourself

In the academics_anonymous LiveJournal community, ne_pas raised concern about a percieved growing tendency in the social sciences and humanities to find it at best surprising and at worst inappropriate for a member of one group to study another group. I think we need to distinguish three senses in which you might question someone else's decision to study people unlike themselves, because discussion of the first two senses tends to crowd out consideration of the third.

1. The motivational sense: "It directly affects me, or people I identify with" is a pretty obvious and understandable motivation for choosing a subject area. It's so obvious that people often become befuddled when they can't explain someone's choice of study in these terms (especially if there's an obvious personally-relevant topic of study for that person).

2. The epistemological sense: This is the classic insider/outsider problem -- can an outsider ever really understand the thing they're studying? On this question I think pretty much everyone agrees that both insiders and outsiders have useful perspectives.

3. The political sense: In studying a group, you're setting yourself up to in some way speak for them, producing authoritative representations of their situation. But speaking for some group becomes ethically/politically sticky when there is a power differential between your group and the group you're studying. One of the key techniques of oppression is that the oppressor claims the right and the ability to speak for the oppressed -- white people have long been the ones making the official pronouncements on what black people are all about, men get to define womanhood, abled doctors are the source of information about the disabled, etc. The voices of the oppressed are crowded out, either by being overtly excluded (eg denying members of some group a place in academia) or by being drowned out because the oppressor group's voice is amplified by their financial, status, and other types of resources. The ability to speak for and define oneself is a key right claimed by liberation movements. Thus, to study a group that is oppressed relative to you is in some way to perpetuate the oppressor's claim to speak for the oppressed. This is not to say that members of oppressor group can never study the oppressed -- after all, oppression is multidimensional and your study may still be a net oppression-reducer. But concern about the politics of speaking for others is still a real concern.

My dissertation research raises questions about studying others in the first two senses, since I'm a Pennsylvanian with no experience of wildfire* studying what people in New Jersey and New South Wales think about wildfires. But it doesn't raise questions in the third sense, because Pennsylvania vs New Jersey, the US vs Australia, and people with vs without wildfire experience are not significant axes of oppression or power differential. And on many of potential power axes, I'm actually an insider with respect to my study population -- we're both largely white, middle-class, and from a semi-rural background.

For my other research project, on community involvement in Superfund cleanups**, however, there is a political question. For our Waukegan case study, one important part of our study involves looking at the views of the Latino community. So I am to some degree a white person speaking for a group of Latinos. However, that alone doesn't revoke my right to do this study, because I would argue that the net effect of the study is to reduce oppression. At the moment, the Latinos in Waukegan have very little voice of any sort, and are often spoken for by whites who (while in my experience invariably well-meaning) lack broad, systematic knowledge of what Latinos think about the harbor cleanup. Our research, being based on listening to the Latino community, is able to both speak more authentically for them as well as pave the way for their voices to be heard more loudly and directly in the cleanup process itself (in Waukegan and hopefully elsewhere). Or at least that's the theory by which I would claim a right to do research on people of another race in this situation.

As for whether this concern is increasing, I would suspect that it is for all three senses. The growing diversity of the academy means that many areas of study now have more people who can study them due to personal connection (including areas of study that didn't even exist until the academy had a critical mass of directly involved people). With respect to the epistemological sense, I think we're increasingly recognizing how deeply culture shapes our understanding of the world, with the result that the special insights of insiders are gaining prominence relative to the insights of outsiders. And in the political sense, the moral/political shift associated with the rise of "identity politics" has brought questions of speaking for others to the forefront.

*Judging from the conferences I've been to, I think I'm the only person studying wildfires in the US who isn't a former firefighter.

**Which I'm in one sense more of an insider to, having grown up in a Superfund site. I even wrote a paper (.doc) on my hometown for an Environmental Justice class long ago, which I may one day revise into something publishable.


(for some reason Blogger won't let me click in the Title box to write a title)

It's not the foaming-at-the-mouth crazies that scare me the most. It's the people who can very calmly and rationally explain their consistently immoral position:

I do not want my grandson to know about homosexuality, I do not want him to hear about homosexuality, or see it in the media. I do not want him to meet any homosexuals, or play with children of homosexual guardians.

At least with the crazies, you can hope that one day they'll stop and think things through reasonably and realize the error of their ways. But what hope is there if they've already calculated the bottom line and yet don't grasp that it leaves them morally bankrupt?


I Think You're Supposed To Do This On Friday, But I'm Late

I'm going to be like all the cool kids and post some YouTube videos.

Yothu Yindi, Djäpanna

The Whitlams sing about their namesake (note the Australia-shaped guitar in one segment -- if I ever learn to play guitar, I totally want one shaped like Australia):

And for something non-Australian, here's Värttinä singing "Riena." (Unfortunately there's no video of my favorite song from the album, "Synti," in which they warn the people calling the narrator a slut that they'll be cursed with lizard foetuses.)

Racist If You Do, Racist If You Don't

Here's a thought experiment for my white readers: say somebody came up to you and said they could turn you into a black person. How much money would you ask for as compensation?

Got your answer? Well, it turns out that by answering that amount that you did -- whatever it was -- we can see that you're racist. I say this because I've recently seen this experiment cited as evidence for white racism in two mutually contradictory ways.

The first place I heard about this -- I unfortunately can't remember the source -- said this experiment showed racism because white people asked for too much compensation. After all, the author reasoned, if you truly think there's nothing wrong with being black, you shouldn't need much money to be a fair compensation for switching races (though I think this author underestimated the importance of transition costs -- imagine going to the DMV and asking for a new driver's license because your race changed).

But I just read a post by Amanda Marcotte in which she cites other authors claiming that the participants in a similar experiment are racist because they demand too little money. The logic here is that black people suffer a lot of oppression, so giving up the privileges of being white ought to be worth quite a bit of money, so lowballing your demand shows you underestimate the degree of racial oppression that exists. (Here I question how well the experimenters' and participants' definitions matched up with respect tp the line between the effects of being a new race and the "everything else" that's held constant, since so many things are partially shaped by race and partially shaped by other things. So it wouldn't be unreasonable for a participant to assume that the researchers meant for him or her to hold their economic status, at least up until the point of the change, constant, even though the researchers were factoring in racial disparities in income to calculate the real non-racist cost of switching.)

The point is that given two plausible but contradictory interpretations of the experiment, it becomes difficult to assume the experiment participants were thinking in just one of those ways and therefore to draw one conclusion. We'll have to find different ways of demonstrating how racist white people are.


Confessions Of An Independent Partisan

I've been a registered independent ever since I was old enough to vote. But in every election I've voted in (2000, 2004, 2005, 2006), I've voted for Democrats in every state or federal level race.

To some people, this makes me somehow dishonest or not a real independent. If the Democrats and the Republicans represent the only two choices, "independent" is conflated with "swing voter," someone who has not settled on one side or the other because their views are nebulous, hybrid, or centrist. A "real" independent is therefore someone who is in some way between the two parties. This shared betweenness makes it possible to talk about "independents" as a homogeneous group equivalent in some way to "Democrats" or "Republicans." Commenting on a recent Washington Post story about what independents think, Matt Yglesias declares that "Many independents are actually partisans." But I don't think it's inconsistent to be both.

To understand why, it's important to distinguish two forms of partisanship: ideological and institutional. Ideological partisanship means that your political views are consistently either liberal or consistently conservative. Institutional partisanship means loyalty to a political organization or party. The conventional analysis of independents conflates the two, assuming that if you're ideologically partisan, you should be institutionally partisan, since after all the parties exist to promote their respective ideologies, and when you go in the voting booth you have to advance your ideology by picking between parties. This tends to breed a sense of entitlement on the part of people who are partisan in both senses (visible most clearly in the incoherent rage directed against Ralph Nader and his supporters, and which is now brewing against Mike Bloomberg*).

But ideological and institutional partisanship are different things, because there's a lot more to politics than voting in elections and expressing ideological positions. It's been darkly hilarious to read blogs like Daily Kos this year, watching their former paeans to the virtues of the filibuster evaporate now that the Dems are on the recieving end**.

Being a registered independent is strictly an institutional matter. It allows me to maintain a pragmatic support for the Democratic Party at the ballot box while refusing to commit myself to any institutional loyalty to the party's goings-on. Since I'm not inclined to get involved in electoral campaign organizing, and I live in a state with a partially open primary, I gain nothing from joining a party.

*Lest I be misinterpreted, let me be clear that I never considered voting for Nader or Bloomberg.

**Yes, I'm sure they can surely come up with all kinds of rationalizations as to why the details of the two situations make them somehow totally different.