In-Groups Defend Their Turf? Philosophy versus Psychology in the New York Times

A showdown of sorts with Jonathan Haidt is brewing on The Stone.

Michael P. Lynch gives us “A Vote for Reason.”

The judgment that reasons play no role in judgment is itself a judgment. And Haidt has defended it with reasons. So if those reasons convince me that his theory is true, then reasons can play a role in judgment — contra the theory. Think about the passage I quoted above in this context: those who love truth need to take a good, hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. This sounds like a self-defeating argument: we are being advised to use reason to see that reason is flawed.

Gary Gutting adds “Haidt’s Problem with Plato.”

Plato’s intuitions derive from a long and complex process of physical, emotional and intellectual formation in a supportive social system.  (This is what Plato means by the “education” of his philosopher-rulers.) These intuitions are what — given sufficient experience, maturity and, especially, responsible intellectual engagement with others — we hope will replace the snap-judgment intuitions Haidt rightly sees as underlying so much of our moral life.

Haidt is scheduled to respond this Sunday evening. (My own previous challenge to Haidt has gone unanswered.)

Bullshit and Journalism

This weekend’s revelation that Mike Daisey’s story about Apple and Foxconn was partly fabricated has led some bloggers and journalists to return to the question of how we should interpret the relationship between something called “facts” and something Daisey is calling “higher truth.” This distinction seems spurious to me, though we often hear it described in reference to art and fiction.

I can certainly see how fiction helps to illuminate fact. At least when they are marked out as created-rather-than-discovered, works of fiction can create vivid and meaningful depictions of the world which would otherwise recede into the massiveness of numbers and complexity. As much as I love fiction, however, I’ve never been quite clear why this fictionalized vividness is preferable to the real experiences of real folks, which are also vivid (literally lived), concrete (literally occurrent), and meaningful (literally full of significance for those who underwent them).

At its best, the fictionalization of an event makes it more palatable by fitting it into a pre-arranged narrative structure: a science-fiction fan prefers the rhythms and conventions of a certain kind of story, so she might be better able to understand the horrors of colonialism through the lens of a film like Avatar than she could through an ethnographic account of the post-colonial misery of the Peyizan Yo of Haiti. The great white savior-gone-native in that film stands as an important fictionalized falsehood that must then be overcome, but we must start from somewhere and fiction is frequently an easier beginning.

But would anyone really want to say that the fiction is truer or preferable to the ethnography? I haven’t encountered that argument, at least, outside of hyperbolic Rortyanism. Instead, we occasionally get arguments like Martha Nussbaum’s “‘Finely Aware and Richly Responsible’: Literature and the Moral Imagination.” Because of her specific views on the role of the concrete and particular in informing and grounding our general ethical views, Nussbaum argues that:

“we will need to turn to texts no less elaborate, no less linguistically fine-tuned, concrete, and intensely focused, no less metaphorically resourceful, than this novel [Henry James’ The Golden Bowl.]”

But even for Nussbaum, who differs a bit from the dogmatic particularists like Jonathan Dancy, it is possible to “take fine-tuned perception to a dangerous rootless extreme” such that we “delight in the complexity of particulars for its own sake, without sufficiently feeling the pull of a moral obligation to any.” Such imagining “too freely strays, embroiders, embellishes.”

For Nussbaum, then, we turn to fictional texts as a pedagogical exercise to cultivate the kind of moral imagination that attends to and improvises with the concrete: “an ability to miss less, while being responsible to more.” But this pedagogical exercise actually constrains the fictional text:

“We must at the same time remember that artists, as James sees it, are not free simply to create anything they like.”

The fictional text must at least aspire to the complexity of the human phenomena it intends to map. Yet one thing that jumps out of Daisey’s show is how heavy-handed and simplistic it is:

“You will carry it to your homes, and when you sit down in front of your laptops, when you open them up, you will see the blood welling up between the keys.”

This is not the cultivation of a bewildering modern tragedy, where harsh working conditions and negligent dangers are the perhaps-too-high price developing countries pay for their development. It is bullshit, a technical term best analyzed by Harry Frankfurt:

 ‎”One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinateand knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit.”

Deliberate fabrication in order to tell a “better story” doesn’t ever really reveal a greater truth, because it undermines the truth-seeking sensibility. From the perspective of truth seeking, bullshitters who don’t care much about truth seem particularly pernicious: the cost of false vividness is the loss of the trust and credulity that make story-telling meaningful. Of course, some readers may not care much about the truth, either. From some other perspective than truth-seeking, like an aesthetic of care, bullshitting is not necessarily a big deal…. except: what happens when that unconcern with truth leads to a threat to the values of that particular perspective?

One group who care about the truth of these reports are the Chinese who read a report on the iEconomy by the New York Times that included many of the same allegations, better fact-checked than Daisey’s theater piece. Here’s some of what they had to say:

There are two stories about Apple: one is about its brilliant business performance, and the other is about the blood and sweat behind Apple miracles. I strongly recommend that all Apple fans read this. Corporations should bear social responsibilities, and customers should also understand and be responsible to the society. — 花甲小猪

Apple is definitely a vampire factory. But if you boycott Apple, what would those workers eat without demand (for Apple products)? By then they would even lose their job! And now the U.S. is planning to move a chunk of manufacturing back to its soil, as manufacturing costs in China are soaring. What would these surplus workers be facing? The profit margin for the entire Chinese manufacturing sector is thin, nobody enjoys high salary and good benefits; yet their work intensity is strong and working conditions are poor. This is common, not only for the manufacturers of Apple! Think first how to change the miserable status quo of a giant manufacturing country! —Quasi-Economist

There are many others, collected by the New York Times. Their responses were not all finely aware or richly responsible, and possibly some of them were working for China’s infamous “Fifty Cent Party,” (a state corps of internet propagandists) but certainly less was lost on them than seems to have been lost on us.

Finally, it seems worth noting that the facts, such as we have them, mostly come from Apple’s own Supplier Responsibility Reports. Watch that space. Daisey’s story and the resultant outrage may well have forced Apple to join the Fair Labor Association and reveal the identities of its suppliers.

Just because his story wasn’t true doesn’t mean it didn’t make a difference: this is largely the reason that police officers lie, right?

Lin-Manuel Miranda Previews The Hamilton Mixtape

I tried to get tickets after I saw this New York Times piece, but no luck.

“I am not throwing away my shot” is just an awesomely perfect refrain: it refers to ‘reserving and throwing away’ the shot in a pistol duel: deliberately firing into the ground in order to make a merely symbolic gesture of courage. It was early American custom to fire until satisfaction: this could mean until one duelist was unable to continue, or until the mutual exchange of volleys had so spooked one of the parties that they acquiesced, usually through their second, to whatever half-hearted apology was offered. Death was very rarely the result: most opponents would be satisfied with whatever face-saving injury they managed to inflict or sustain in the first three volleys, especially because of the legal and social repercussions of committing a murder in a country that viewed dueling as a European extravagance.

More honor could be lost by stubbornly refusing to accept a negotiated settlement and thus killing a man than might have been at stake in the original insult. The desire to maintain decorum even in the midst of violence required participants to restrain their rage or bloody-minded vengefulness. Today we see a similar judgment in the opprobrium heaped upon those who ‘kick a man while he’s down.’ A defeat suffered with aplomb is better than a victory sullied by distasteful displays of man’s base instincts. However, Alexander Hamilton supposedly did “throw away his shot” in the duel with Aaron Burr:

I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire.

Thus Hamilton claimed that he would take at most one or two shots at Burr. His first shot was a deliberate miss. Since Burr’s responding shot killed him, we can’t know what he would have done for the second round. The noted traitor Burr is said to have responded to the allegation that Hamilton never intended to fire upon him with a laconic, “Contemptible, if true.”

Previously: Hamilton Mixtape. I cannot wait for this album!

(Video autoplays, so I’ve placed it below the “read more…”)

Continue reading Lin-Manuel Miranda Previews The Hamilton Mixtape

Václav Havel: To the Castle and Back

Peter Levine’s post on Havel’s 1992 speech in Poland reminded me that I had planned to do some writing about Havel before he died. The New York Times titled his obituary “A Melding of the Artist’s Politics and the Politician’s Art,” and yet it focuses only on his writing career and offers not a single observation about his practice of “the Politician’s Art.” Given the outpouring of vitriol against Christopher Hitchens, perhaps you’ll excuse me if I spend a moment criticizing rather than praising the Czech Republic’s former president.

The line in Havel’s 1992 “Advent Speech” that has always troubled me is this one:

What was essential was something different: the courage to confront evil together and in solidarity, the will to come to an agreement and to cooperate, the willingness to place the common and general interest over any personal or group interests, the feeling of common responsibility for the world and the willingness personally to stand behind one’s own deeds. Truth and certain elementary values such as respect for human rights, civil society, the indivisibility of freedom, the rule of law these were notions that bound us together and made it worth our while to enter again and again into an unequal struggle with the powers that be.

There’s something poetically seductive about his call to “confront evil together and in solidarity,” to be bound only by “Truth and certain elementary values.” Yet I’ve always thought that his promise that the dissidents would overcome ideological and technological politics was an empty one.  I think that Havel’s life gives us some insight into why this promise remained unfulfilled and unfulfillable, “easy to say but difficult to do.” In short: his politics was rooted in the sense that the spiritual dimension that “transcends” politics, but this really means it runs away from politics.

Indeed, this was the subject of his later book, To the Castle and Back, where he tried to explain how he had approached politics during his presidency:

Politics—as an area of activity that demands general support—requires, more than anything else, that people understand it, that they grasp what the purpose of it is in any given moment, how what follows comes out of what went before, and why everything has the kind tempo that it has. But as I’ve already suggested, politics, by its very nature, resists that kind of understanding. It’s true that here and there a policy may succeed or fail, and everyone recognizes that at once. But for the most part that’s nor how it works. Politics is more of a strange, never-ending process with no clear turning points and no unambiguous and immediately recognizable outcomes. It seems to me particularly important, therefore, that politicians have an elementary dramatic instinct, that is, a sense of how to make distinctions between various acts or events, how to order them, stack them up, give them a meaningful sequence, gradation, or structure.

Just think about what this means: “It’s true that here and there a policy may succeed or fail.” This is a romantic sense of the political world: policies are stage-dressing for the operatic play of great personages in the public sphere. Can you blame the Czech media for deeming Havel a dreamer? He never really succeeded in giving his policies “a meaningful sequence, gradation, or structure.” Certainly we need dreamers in the world, but I’m reminded of Zizek’s line:

There is no ethnic cleansing without poetry. Why? Because we live in an era that perceives itself as post-ideological. Given that great public causes no longer have the force to mobilise people for mass violence, a larger sacred cause is needed, one that makes petty individual concerns about killing seem trivial.

Havel’s poetry never inspired genocide, it’s true. But his spiritual approach failed to prevent ethnic cleansing just when it was needed most: the 1992 dissolution of the political union between Czechs and Slovaks.

As I said, “transcending” politics is really a kind of “flight from politics,” and the “Velvet Divorce” is just one more piece of evidence in favor of that claim. Havel resigned rather than oversee the dissolution, so he certainly stuck to his principles, though I’m not sure this is quite the same thing as “confronting evil.” (It seems more like what Arendt called “inner emigration.”) But the seeds for the dissolution were sown before the fateful election in 1992: dissolution was fueled by heavy nationalism and anti-Semitic rhetoric against pro-federation politicians.

None of this was Havel’s fault, exactly, but this was a moment that called for a poet to “sing the nation-state” rather than a politician to try to lead it. What’s worse: it was the end of transfer payments to Slovakia that allowed the Czech Republic to enjoy a decade of unalloyed growth:

The end of the so-called penezovod (“money pipeline”) — regular transfer of subsidies to Slovakia — meant further fiscal saving amounting to 7 percent of the national budget (25 billion koruna, close to $1 billion).

As a result, while the Czech Republic traded on its highly-educated workforce and Prague tourist attractions, across the newly-minted border, Slovakia was not so lucky:

Unemployment has climbed to 15.1 percent, even though virtually no restructuring or privatization of industry has taken place under the leadership of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. Inflation stands at 22 percent and is forecast to grow. The gross domestic product of Slovakia last year declined by 3.5 percent from the 1992 level.

That, I think, is the real legacy of successful dreamers: their dreams always come at someone else’s expense. “Here and there” Havel’s ineffectual policies “succeeded or failed.” But mostly, they failed. When they needed the artist, Czechoslovakia got an artless politican. When they needed the politician, they got the artist’s principles.

As a playwright, Havel certainly had a sense of the dramatic, and I think he was on to something when he insisted that bureaucracy and administrative efficiency threaten to render the political boringly inaccessible:

A basic danger facing politics in the modern world is that it will appear to be hopelessly boring, a gray, dull, daily administrative grind, enlivened occasionally by a scandal or pseudo-scandal that is forgotten as soon as it’s over; in other words, something that has no point, and thus no thinking behind it. Naturally,  it’s in the general interest to confront this danger.

But I can’t say that Havel’s failures give me much hope for a new era of dramatic “nonpolitical politics.” Havel got lots of mileage out of paradoxical rhetoric, but I don’t think he got much good policy out of it, precisely because “politics… requires that people understand it, that they grasp what the purpose of it is in any given moment.” Havel’s plays were absurdist dramas that successfully undermined the legitimacy of totalitarianism, but he never learned how to “transcend” irony and absurdity. He never developed a sincere political project that could make this absurd world a little bit more habitable.

If anything, Havel gives us a clue to the lengths we will go to dramatize political events, to identify and reify one great personage to take responsibility for the efforts of millions. I’m sorry he died, but I wish the remembrances were as mixed and honest as they have been for Hitchens: the continuation of these great conversations seems a better memorial than stick-figure heroism.

Staying Au Courant

I’m taking stock of my reading. Almost every morning, I wake up, pour a cup of coffee, and log on to the internet. Unless I still need to prepare my class notes, I’ll generally click through what I’ve come to think of as a standard set of sites to stay abreast of news and ideas:

  1. Metafilter.com: Users of this site aggregate the ‘best of the web’ and many days I can use up my allotted internet time just following the links there.  Since it’s populated by user-selected content, there’s an assortment of political and IT news, editorializing, random meme jokes like the RickRoll or LOLCat, and so on. I gravitate to the political and technological posts: the commentaries by other uses tend to supply the highest level of internet deliberation available. It’s a real community, in which I’m an infrequent participant.
  2. Financial Times, Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, and Google Finance: For the last six months or so, these sites have been helping me understand the economic world and the mess in which we’ve landed. Most days I’ll skim the headlines at Bloomberg and WSJ, and then turn to the Financial Times for the best actual reporting and analysis. I’ve been watching as Rupert Murdoch turns the Wall Street Journal into a partisan forum, and the Financial Times has definitely won my respect for taking advantage of the sudden hole in financial reportage. Plus, the pink background is very calming during market collapse.
  3. Washington Post: My wife reads the New York Times, and I’ll generally encounter all the must-read articles from the Times at some point during my week, but since I live in DC I like to check in with the local news. Having lived in NYC as well, I must say that WaPo juggles its local/national/international responsibilities better than the New York Times.
  4. Bookforum: Looking for controversy? Hoping for some long-form articles from the likes of the New Yorker or Harper’s? This is the place. Three times a day, bookforum posts a bevvy of links to generally great writing. This replaces Arts and Letters Daily, which frankly had started going heavy on the controversy and given up on quality.
  5. The Big Picture: The Boston Globe aggregates photographs the way other sites aggregate blog posts or newspaper articles. Their latest picture spread on the recession captures the part of the downturn that words and statistics mostly fail to express. Go there now.
  6. SignandSight.com: Once a week or so, I’ll check in with international news, generally using Sign and Sight’s international roundup of magazines. That takes me to the Guardian, the Economist, ResetDoc, and the Times Literary Supplement, and summarizes articles from European magazines like L’espresso and Le Nouvel Obseravateur
  7. ReadMoreWriteMoreThinkMoreBeMore, Public Reason, Peter Levine: I still read a number of small blogs on a regular basis, using Google Reader. I’ve got about thirty subscriptions, but many of them don’t really post regularly or else they pile up so quickly I just skim the headlines. (Brian Leiter’s blogs are like that. When does he find the time, damn it?!?) Dr. J is a friend, Public Reason is the best source for political philosophers I’ve found, and Peter Levine is a polymath who works on civic engagement. They all post regularly enough to be counted as daily reading. (In the case of Public Reason, this is partially because people post papers that take several days to digest.)
  8. All this ignores my other internet uses: Gmail manages all my e-mail, and I stay in touch with folks using Facebook and Twitter as well. I buy most books through Amazon, most of my clothes from Lands End and Charles Tyrwhitt. I watch television on Hulu. I blog here. I bank online, pay my credit card online. I’m in the process of setting up a Windows Home Server for my family to do regular backups and share Itunes and other media. I am the very model of a modern networked know-it-all.

So why am I listing all my daily reading? It’s not to show off my breadth of knowledge, I assure you. This isn’t bragging: it’s a cry for help! People often describe reading the internet as ‘drinking from a firehose.’ I think that’s right, and I think it’s one more reason to judge poorly the prudence of anyone who makes a serious effort at it. Rather, I’m working on diagnosing a problem, which is that the writerly world is all here, at my fingertips, and it’s fascinating: beautiful, complex, and unjust. But it’s too much, and ‘more’ is the enemy of ‘enough.’ Basically, staying au courant is beginning to eat up a little bit too much of my time. I need to pare it back, but that’s not how I’m built: I’m a ‘more’ junkie from way back.

All this takes me back to Stephen Elliot’s “month without the internet,”  his effort to break the “addiction to continual bursts of small information.” It also takes me back to the first book I was asked to read as an undergraduate, Sven Birkerts’ Gutenberg Elegies:

The physical arrangements of print are in accord with our traditional sense of history. Materials are layered; they lend themselves to rereading and to sustained attention. The pace of reading is variable, with progress determined by the reader’s focus and comprehension.

The electronic order is in most ways opposite. Information and contents do not simply move from one private space to another, but they travel along a network. Engagement is intrinsically public, taking place within a circuit of larger connectedness. The vast resources of the network are always there, potential, even if they do not impinge on the immediate communication. Electronic communication can be passive, as with television watching, or interactive, as with computers. Contents, unless they are printed out (at which point they become part of the static order of print) are felt to be evanescent. They can be changed or deleted with the stroke of a key. With visual media (television, projected graphs, highlighted “bullets”) impression and image take precedence over logic and concept, and detail and linear sequentiality are sacrificed. The pace is rapid, driven by jump-cut increments, and the basic movement is laterally associative rather than vertically cumulative. The presentation structures the reception and, in time, the expectation about how information is organized. 

Further, the visual and nonvisual technology in every way encourages in the user a heightened and ever-changing awareness of the present. It works against historical perception, which must depend on the inimical notions of logic and sequential succession. If the print medium exalts the word, fixing it into permanence, the electronic counterpart reduces it to a signal, a means to an end.

Birkerts argues that this transition threatens the humanities, especially, and I think he’s probably right. As he puts it elsehwhere: “Part of any essential understanding of the world is that it is opaque, obdurate.” Birkerts is fighting other battles in his book, battles against something called “postmodernism” that probably was always a chimera, but in this he is on to something. The world is to be loved in its distance and difficulty, not lusted after as a series of nuggets to be consumed, the newest off the line of ersatz products to be used until they’re used up.

And so, I’m taking stock of my reading to see what I can safely throw out. There’s always a bit too much. If I were wiser and a faster reader than I am, I’d also read the Le Monde and the Christian Science Monitor. In reality, many days I just stop at Metafilter and then get on with my day, but the feeling that I’ve left something undone haunts me. 

As a culture we’ve been arguing lately whether Google makes us stupid or smart, but that’s not really the question: does it make us happier? Does it give us tools for real communal engagement? Does it engage our souls in a virtuous activity? Is it sustainable? Does it help us solve our problems? Is it what we’d want to be doing if we actually stopped to look at how we’re using it and what the alternatives are?

UPDATE: Can you tell I’ve been teaching Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics?

UPDATE 2 via xkcd:

Morning Routine