South Dakota

A fellow PSU alumnus, Dom Eggert over at Sentiments of Rationality, has been worrying about those crazy South Dakotans’ test-ban on abortions. He cites the reluctance of conservatives to actually criminalize abortion in the way that seems consistent with their views, i.e. by charging mothers who seek abortions with murder. The upshot of the famous “Fire in the Fertility Clinic” test (which would you save, a freezer full of embyos or an unconscious nurse?) is, for my colleague, that pro-lifers must fully prosecute abortions if they want to ban it at all. It is not sufficient to prosecute the doctor who performs the procedure if we allow the mother seeking it to go free.

I like this argument, (since it’s sound) but I have some concerns. I suspect I missed a talking points memo, because I’ve seen similar arguments popping up throughout the liberal blogging community. Obviously, there’s been some strategizing over on the fundie side of things, and they’re starting small. The liberal response has been mostly from the gut, however. I can’t help wondering if the apparent contradiction between what pro-lifers think they can pull off politically and what their position entails is a gap we should be exposing.

The thing is, “embryos are human-beings,” is a first-order proposition for these people. It’s the primary principle of their moral and political identities. That’s why they can call abortion genocide without investing equal energy and political capital into curtailing the Sudanese genocides, for instance. Militant pro-lifers, militant marxists, militant feminists, and militant cross-stitchers all derive a crucial sense of self from their position: they can’t sacrifice those positions just because they are absurd. Instead, they’ll twist the rest of their reality to fit the endangered proposition.

Won’t pin-pointing contradictions in their position only help them to clarify it? When my students are trying to figure out how to be existentialists, I’ll often work with them through this kind of maieutics. That’s because I’m basically on their side… and that’s what they pay me for. Right now, fundamentalists everywhere are trying to figure out how to deal with their new political hegemony. Why should we help them formulate their policies? I know it seems like we’re making them look like fools, but that’s not the effect I anticipate. When they realize they can’t outlaw abortion without prosecuting mothers, they’ll simply convince themselves to prosecute the mothers. And the result will be some self-satisfied, internally consistent fundamentalists, and a bunch of unwanted children with felons for parents.

Actually, *politics* is the experimental wing of political philosophy….

“Social software is the experimental wing of political philsophy, a discipline that doesn’t realize it has an experimental wing. We are literally encoding the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of expression in our tools.”

Notes from a talk by Clay Shirky(?)

Shirky compares a Buffy fansite to Slashdot and suggests that moderated listservs are tyrannical. Ok, fine: troubling if true. But he’s not just grandiose, he seems to be on to something.

Just asking

I’m very interesting in the way questions are framed. Here’s an interesting set of questions from the Guardian’s Gary Younge, who seems similarly interested:

Do you think of yourself as white or British or both? Does it worry you that you got your job just because of your race? Where are you from? No, but really? Since this is where you live, don’t you think you should try and integrate with other races more? Is your first loyalty to your God, or to your country? Is it true what they say about white guys? Given the genocide, slavery and colonialism unleashed in the name of Christianity over the last two centuries, do you feel your religion is compatible with democracy? Mr Grant, do you think of yourself as a white actor or an actor who happens to be white? I don’t mind white people, but if they want to live here then why shouldn’t they have to fit in with our traditions? Shouldn’t the police be doing more to tackle white-on-white crime? Given the objectification of women in your culture and the rise in teenage pregnancies, don’t you think it’s time to ban young girls wearing make up? What do you make of the tribal conflict in Ukraine? I thought you asked for flesh-coloured tights? Don’t you feel that this politically correct belief that we have to respect white people’s feelings has stifled honest discussion and debate? Isn’t it a shame that white people cannot pick more responsible leaders? What do you mean, you can’t Morris dance? Don’t you ever worry about being pigeonholed as a white person? Why aren’t you doing more to check the rise in Christian fundamentalism? Who are your community leaders? Why should we balance our belief in human rights with our tolerance for Christians? What do white people think about Jews? How would you define “white” style? Mr Amis, why do you write about white people all the time? Don’t you find that limiting? What are you doing for your people? Have you seen what the Bible says about women? Are you the token white guy? Don’t take this personally, but why are white men so aggressive? Now the Olympics are over, can we finally admit that white people are genetically equipped to excel in archery and rowing? What is it with white people and homophobia? You know what white women are like, don’t you? I understand that as a white person you come at this from a particular place, but can’t you try to look at it objectively for a moment? Why do you people have such a chip on your shoulder? Don’t get offended, I was only asking.

Perpetual Peace

The Enlightenment project was, if not exactly founded upon, at least encouraged and made international, by the challenge of Saint-Pierre’s A Project for Settling an Everlasting Peace in Europe. All of the eighteenth century’s philosophers took it up, and while they disagreed on the exact means, all felt that reason could lead the way. Saint-Pierre and Rousseau were persuaded that only an international federation, which brought together various European nations and restricted their sovereigns in military matters, could overcome the amour-propre (overweening self-regard) of monarchs. Voltaire challenged the notion that the rule of law would be sufficient to eliminate colonial violence, since he argued that the worst barbarities were performed by Christians against those whose religions they could not tolerate. In this, Voltaire demonstrates a keen grasp of the growing exportation of violence to the empires of the various European states, and argues that toleration for difference, inculcated through the unprejudiced use of reason, is the only solution. (“Peace, without toleration, is a chimera.”) Yet Kant did him one better, arguing that understanding and logic alone could not enforce toleration, but that specifically moral reason must be cultivated: he eventually recognized that this would require a cabal of reason, a sort of secret Masonry that would attempt to change religious and political institutions from within by exerting slow, but constant, rational pressure. Neither rules nor education alone could accomplish world peace: it would be necessary to change both the institutions and the culture simultaneously, which could only happen over time.

In the twentieth century, we’ve largely given up on the association of reason with pacifism. It has become popular to show that Enlightenment sensibilities bring their own, much more deeply embedded reasons for intolerace and barbarity, such that Voltaire’s hoped-for transition from religion to reason is the primary obstacle to peace. Perhaps the most famous argument for this view is Foucault’s book Madness and Civilization, where he argues that our pathologization of difference has gained the respect of medical experts, who allow their prejudices to become diagnoses, and then torture their subjects in an attempt to make them ‘well.’ Foucault’s work sparked a major shift in psychiatric practice, and his general concerns were popularized by novels like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Catch-22: today, we seem unwilling to electrocute those who make us uncomfortable.

Yet after two world wars, and in the midst of the Cold War, there did not seem to be any hope for a cessation of violence as such: just a softening of the domestic injustices that were close enough and small enough for a citizen to intervene. We have washed our hands of reason, since it seems only to supply firmer resolve in war and more dangerous weapons with which to fight it. What happened to any hope that an international federation like the UN might suppress hostilities? Obviously, the UN can’t accomplish anything without abridging the sovereignty of its member-states, just as Saint-Pierre initially proposed. What about education? Well, with such ambivalence amongst the world’s educators regarding the desirability of violence, it’s no surprise that our children come out as divided as their parents and teachers. What about the cabal of reasonable men and women, committed to ending violence a little bit at a time? In this case, I think the pacifists are losing ground to the neo-conservative, fundamentalist, and totalitarian cabals, since the major problem with secrecy is that it always confounds the means of reasonable discourse.

The fact that reasonable people (libertarians, egalitarians, and thoughtful conservatives) are more concerned with marginal tax rates, identity politics, and electoral mishaps than with sharing their freedom from domination with the rest of the world, means that they’ve abandoned the most important part of their participation in reason. They’ve lost track of which goals are worth striving for and devoting your life to, and which ones are simply amusing or interesting diversions. The fact that many Americans think that freedom can be shared at the business end of a rifle means that they’ve misunderstood the entailment relationship between means and ends. We need, I think, a new course of study in teleological reasoning.

International Women’s Day

So today is International Women’s Day, smack dab in the middle of Women’s History Month. Yet most people probably kicked off their month thinking about Ash Wednesday (or recovering from their first Mardi Gras without New Orleans,) celebrating Spring Break, or focusing on their studies, and I guess a lot of my friends are looking forward to St. Patrick’s Day. So who’s really taking the time to think about women or their history? GWB (the Great White Beast) took a moment to point out that he’d heard of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, and to make cracks about gendered language (haha, “ambassadresses”). Makes you wonder how ‘international’ women are faring with the gag rule on abortion, doesn’t it?

As much as I like the notion of the holiday, the festive or serious commemoration of a struggle or a cause, I can’t help wondering what we’ve got to celebrate. If you can’t take a vacation day to go march in protest, why bring it up at all? And has anyone noticed that Women’s History is playing second fiddle to the Red Cross, Irish Americans, Peanuts, Frozen Foods, Crafts, and Music in Our Schools, all of which also celebrate the month of March?