The Tea Party Movement

The New York Times’ article on Tea Party ‘founder’ Keli Carender, struck me as an interesting corrective to much of the treatment of the movement as either a Fox News ‘stunt’ or a wing of the Republican Party run by the same old white men with a few token non-males and non-whites. Carendar is apparently a bit of a libertarian:

“Well,” she said, thinking for a long time and then sighing. “Let’s see. Some days I’m very Randian. I feel like there shouldn’t be any of those programs [Medicaid and Medicare] that it should all be charitable organizations. Sometimes I think, well, maybe it really should be just state, and there should be no federal part in it at all. I bounce around in my solutions to the problem.”

Progressives have largely ignored this movement, because of its association with organizations like the John Birch Society and those who deny that Barack Obama is an American citizen. But I’m struck by how much the Tea Party is beginning to coalesce as a a group of bipartisan deficit hawks, fiscal conservatives, and libertarians.

The Tea Party doesn’t have settled leadership or a national platform, and its members have largely rebuffed attempts by some in the old guard of the Republican Party to define it. It also seems significantly younger than the Republican Party. In the same light, it doesn’t seem that all of the people currently flirting with the Tea Party movement would recognize themselves in the image of potentially violent disenfranchisement described by Frank Rich, who identifies an ideological affinity between the Tea Party and Joe Stack, the terrorist who flew a private plane into the IRS building in Austin, TX:

…most Tea Party groups have no affiliation with the G.O.P. despite the party’s ham-handed efforts to co-opt them. The more we learn about the Tea Partiers, the more we can see why. They loathe John McCain and the free-spending, TARP-tainted presidency of George W. Bush. They really do hate all of Washington, and if they hate Obama more than the Republican establishment, it’s only by a hair or two. The distinction between the Tea Party movement and the official G.O.P. is real, and we ignore it at our peril.

Now Rich is convinced that Tea Party members is a nascent hate group, but I’m not persuaded. Certainly there are hate groups out there, and some of them have put out feelers, trying to determine whether the Tea Party might grant them some legitimacy, as it has done for the John Birch Society. But the membership doesn’t know what it is, yet.

Because I teach college students at a pretty expensive private university, I asked this morning if anybody would be willing to talk to me about the Tea Party. I’ve just concluded a discussion with one Tea Partier, not necessarily representative, but very interesting. Continue reading The Tea Party Movement

How NOT To Do Law, Philosophy, and Neuroscience

I’ve just returned from the Understanding Humans through Neuroscience conference at the American Enterprise Institute, where I heard papers by Roger Scruton, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, and Stephen Morse. What struck me was how mired the three papers were in defending against a certain kind of agency-undermining determinism that few people take seriously any more. All of them were worried about the implications of this kind of case:

a 40-year-old man who inexplicably became a sexual impulsive with paedophilia. The patient had no prior history of sexual misconduct, but it was soon noted that he was frequenting prostitutes and that he attempted to molest his 12-year-old step-daughter. He was quickly reported to the local authorities, was found guilty of child molestation, and was sentenced to either attend a 12-step sexual addiction program or face jail. Despite a strong yearning not to go to prison, the patient could not inhibit his sexual impulses. It was soon discovered that the defendant had a large tumour pressing on his right orbitofrontal cortex (Figure 2). Upon the resection of the tumour, the patient’s sexual impulsiveness diminished. When the sexual impulsiveness later reappeared, a brain scan revealed that the tumour had grown back. A second resection of tumour again diminished the patient’s sexual impulsiveness [42].

This is basically an unrepeatable experiment in neuroanatomy, but for some reason folks in law really worry about it. Continue reading How NOT To Do Law, Philosophy, and Neuroscience

Citizens United v. FEC: Yes, corporations are people, too.

Let’s get the jokes out of the way:

  • “If corporations are people, do they get to vote?”
  • “If corporations are people, can we start incarcerating them when they commit crimes?”
  • “Does this mean I can marry my bank?”
  • “Does charging a fee for incorporation constitute an unconstitutional violation of their reproductive rights?”
  • “Thank God we’ve finally ended the scourge of anti-corporate discrimination!”

The New York Times apparently thinks that democracy is done for:

With a single, disastrous 5-to-4 ruling, the Supreme Court has thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century. Disingenuously waving the flag of the First Amendment, the court’s conservative majority has paved the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections and intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding.

Okay, let’s tone down the rhetoric. Here’s the thing: corporations are people and have been since at least 1830, though chartered personhood seems to have operated as an implicit norm even before that:

The great object of an incorporation is to bestow the character and properties of individuality on a collective and changing body of men. This capacity is always given to such a body. Any privileges which may exempt it from the burdens common to individuals, do not flow necessarily from the charter, but must be expressed in it, or they do not exist.

Continue reading Citizens United v. FEC: Yes, corporations are people, too.

The Parable of the Three Rings

When I am feeling thoughtful and imprecise, I like to say that philosophers embrace disagreement and pluralism because we are not, ultimately, ‘friends  of wisdom’: we are practitioners of an ancient art of ‘wise friendship’ in which our disagreements and disputes are understood as a part of a larger project of amicability or relation. We obsess over metaphysical minutiae because these are source of the distinction by which our friendships flourish. Because of this, I was grateful to see my friend Leigh Johnson, Dr. J, ‘go meta’ on our dispute over moral realism in her latest discussion of Aristotelian friendship. To be counted among her friends is a very great distinction.

In his play Nathan the Wise, Gotthold Lessing responds to a challenge levied at his friend Moses Mendelssohn with a parable about three rings. Mendelssohn, a Jew, had been publically challenged to refute the Pietist theology of Charles Bonnet, or else convert to Christianity. Lessing represented this challenge with a scenario in which Nathan, a Jewish merchant living in Jerusalem under the sultanate of Saladin, is asked to judge which of the three monotheisms is true: Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. The Sultan’s goal is to trick Nathan into taking a position with which he can blackmail him, so that he can force Nathan to finance his administration.

Instead of responding to the question directly, Nathan begins a story of a man who owned a ring which rendered its wearer “pleasing in both the sight of God and man.”

The man has three sons, to each of whom he promises both the ring and the inheritance of the family’s estates and titles. Before his death, he has counterfeits made and gives each son a copy. In the ensuing controversy, a judge determines that none of the sons can be granted an undivided claim on the inheritance, as none of the rings appears more authentic than the others. Instead, he decrees that the three should compete to

“demonstrate the magic virtue vested in his ring and help that power to grow with gentleness, with heartfelt tolerance, with charity and deep submission to the will of God!”

Their competition in tolerance might someday reveal the bearer of the true ring, since the only evidence available for judgment is the display of these ‘pleasing virtues.’

Of course, the story can be read as a set of truth conditions for determining the true religion. We see this in the work of Roger Scruton, for instance, who has argued that Christianity’s ascendency and devotion to the freedom of religion makes it superior to Islam, which “wishes to exterminate it.”

Arguing that Christianity tolerates religious differences but cannot tolerate challenges to its political ascendency, he concludes:

“Freedom of association can be granted only to associations which… [do not] entertain rival legislative ambitions.”

This is a version of the old cliché: toleration cannot tolerate intolerance, and communities of faith ought to be judged by their most intolerant dogmas.

In contrast, Hannah Arendt interpreted the story as a paean to continuing dialogue and tolerance:

“[Lessing] was glad that… [truth] if it ever existed, had been lost; he was glad for the sake of the infinite number of opinions that arise when men discuss the affairs of the world.”

She suggests that Lessing would always trade certainty for friendship and debate. The plurality of religious dogmas provides an opportunity to encounter others, rather than a set of differences which must be managed or equalized. If Arendt is right, then Scruton’s liberal tolerance is worthless, a mere modus vivendi for putting up with each other. The measure of tolerance is the friendships that are possible despite disagreements or rivalries. Thus she repeats Nathan’s refrain:

“We must, we must be friends.”

Between Arendt’s account of plurality as the fundamental prerequisite for friendship, and Scruton’s use of contradiction as a condition to be analyzed, falsified, and suppressed, we can see the difference between the Enlightenment’s quest for ‘truth’ and the scientific demand for accuracy or ‘being right.’

“[T]he question of truth was in Lessing’s time still a question of philosophy and of religion, whereas our problem of being right arises within the framework of science and is always decided by a mode of thought oriented toward science.”

Where philosophy concerns itself with the various ultimates: God, immortaliy, and freedom, science attempts to settle these questions the same way it settles the specific gravity of milk or the load-bearing capacities of a bridge. Arendt argues that the loss of this distinction comes at the expense of friendship, and ultimately threatens the foundations of political life as well.

As philosophers we often find ourselves at odds with the ‘common sense’, in part because we venture into questions where common sense fears to tread. Where the common sense abandons inquiry in the name of prudence, convenience, tradition, or respect, it is not unusual for philosophers to proceed, to question foundational assumptions or hubristically interrogate the gods. The image on the Thracian maid, giggling at the sight of Thales tripping into a well because his gaze was skyward, captures this view well. Philosophers aspire to be unworldly: our attentions turned inward or upward as we stumble through the physical world. We spend our days speculating, staring, obsessively observing minutia and scribbling unsettling conclusions; sometimes we are indistinguishable from madmen. Our  investigations end best when our insights simply draw the mockery and derision of our fellow citizens, because the alternative is that the philosopher will find herself persecuted, exiled or executed for the unsettling direction of her results.

Even when we retreat to our armchairs for solitary thought, we are not alone: we are drawn to each other because we share a commitment to these inquiries no matter where they may lead, and because we need the support of a community of fellow inquirers. The corrollary is that, among philosophers, it is considered honorable to take on the position of devil’s advocate in order to introduce needed pluralism and distinction into a discussion. Among us, holding unfashionable views is needed and strangely satisfying. When we find ourselves at odds, when we begin to take what Dr. J calls ‘friendly fire,’ it is a reason to rejoice: our friends have arrived!