Saturday, September 13, 2008

Standing on my neck, smiling

     Have you ever witnessed a politician lying while somehow revealing that he knows that you know that he is lying?
     I recall, years ago, watching one of our trustees (in the South Orange County Community College District) saying something. He was saying something that he knew to be false. I studied him carefully. He had a peculiar look. It was almost a chuckle. He was concentrating on the person to whom he was speaking, not on what he was saying. The attitude of his body and head was askew—he seemed to be maintaining a kind of sidelong glance.
     It seemed to me that he was enjoying himself. That was because he was not merely lying; rather, he was displaying his capacity to lie while getting away with it. He wanted his opponents—that would be me—to know that he was just then doing the sort of thing that caused me to contemn and oppose him. He was standing on my neck as I lay powerless on the ground. He wanted me to know that this is the sort of thing that he does and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.
     I marveled at this guy. I thought: he’s nothing like me. For whom, I asked myself, is he a trustee?

* * *

     I don’t get it. Sarah Palin is running around telling bald-faced lies, and her running mate, Senator McCain, who has come close to doing some of the same in recent months, is backing her up.
     In class recently, this issue came up. A student who seemed to be defending Palin immediately suggested that all politicians lie (or perhaps she meant that the current crew of Democratic and Republican Prez/Vice-Prez candidates lie).
     Well, yes, I said, but not all lies are equally egregious. If, for instance, a candidate were to plan to do X, announcing that plan, and then find himself in unexpected circumstances that compel him to not do X, the initial “lie” would not trouble us much.
     That was not a particularly good example. Still, everyone seemed to agree that lies and deceptions and untruths come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and they aren’t all egregious or equally egregious.
     What about Sarah Palin? Since her “coming out” two weeks ago, she has consistently communicated these ideas among others

• That she has championed the elimination of earmarks (a form of pork-barrel politics)
• That she was offered the “bridge to nowhere” but turned it down

     Well, no, she is hardly a champion of the "end earmarks" cause. Both as Mayor of Wasilla and as Governor of Alaska, she pursued earmarks vigorously.
     Not only did she not turn down federal funds for the “bridge to nowhere,” she actively supported the bill that was supposed to provide it. Congress then removed the “bridge” from the bill, which passed, providing Alaska with over $200 million of federal money, which she did not turn down. (Even without the bridge, the bill was "pork.")
     Any way you cut it, some of the key points and impressions that she is communicating to Americans are bold attempts at deception.
     They are lies.
     This was made clear early on by numerous journalists. So has she backed off? That’s what Hillary Clinton did when it became clear that her Bosnian “sniper fire” tale proved to be distinctly erroneous.
     Palin has not backed off. She has simply repeated her lies.

* * *

     Obviously, deception is and has long been a routine element of American politics. But I cannot readily recall a case like this one: the (national) candidate lies boldly; the lies are revealed to be lies; nevertheless, the lies are repeated often and noisily even as respected journalists and news organizations draw attention to their status as lies.
     Some deceptions are defended with implausible but available explanations according to which what is “really meant” by the deceptive claim is actually true. There can be no doubt that Senator McCain’s oft-repeated assertion—made before groups of people who are not rich—that Senator Obama wants to “raise our taxes” is in this category. (In truth, Obama would raise the taxes of wealthy taxpayers who constitute a small percentage of Americans.) McCain can explain, of course, that Obama does indeed want to raise taxes for some Americans. And perhaps he (McCain) is simply failing to notice that the people to whom he is speaking aren’t those whose taxes would be raised by Obama. So he isn’t necessarily lying.
     I suppose people differ with regard to whether we should give McCain any slack here. I’m not inclined to do so. Others may be more charitable.
     Palin’s lies seem to be the unvarnished sort. There is no defense possible for them, unless it’s “well, the other side lies too.”
     Does Senator Obama lie? He does. Like many Democrats, he often says or implies that, according to Senator McCain, the country might have to fight in Iraq for 100 years. Well, no, that isn’t what he said. In context, he was talking about (or easily could have been talking about) an American military presence in Iraq like those in Germany, Japan, and South Korea. (No fighting goes on in those places.)
     Once again, Obama can fall back on an implausible but available explanation: McCain was not terribly clear what sort of “staying” he was talking about, now was he? Maybe he really did mean to say that we might have to fight in Iraq for 100 years! Could be!
     So should we give him some slack? Not much, it seems to me.
     Sometimes, the lies seem to be in some sense part of a game in which an opponent’s flubs are punished by constant repetitions of the false interpretations that they make possible. My guess is that Senator Obama is thinking that it serves McCain right, being smacked endlessly about his “100 years” remark. After all, there is no excuse for speaking so inarticulately about so important a matter!
     And does anyone really think that McCain would have us fight in Iraq for 100 years? Surely few are that stupid. So maybe the audience is in on the “game,” and so the lie is not really a lie. Maybe.
     I guess I’m less sympathetic to McCain when he stands before crowds, points at them, and then says that Obama will raise their taxes. Here, I don’t see the game. But maybe I’m missing something. I wouldn’t be surprised. Is it possible that most of the people in those crowds know better but are just going along with this bit of ironic political theater? I guess it’s possible.

* * *

     Let’s get back to this curious new Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. Surely there is virtually no one, aside from the truly clueless, who will not acknowledge that she is a poor choice insofar as experience and knowledge are important virtues for a potential President to possess. But politics can get complicated, and we are in a race between McCain and Obama, and—from the point of view of many conservatives, I think—if McCain needs to choose an unimpressive minor politician like Sarah Palin as his running mate in order to win, then it is worth it, given the alternative, namely, the victory of a Democrat who would impose a left-of-center Democratic administration upon the nation for 4 or even 8 years.
     Does such a judgment make sense, logically or morally? Should conservatives be willing to risk having this shallow neophyte become President (should the old and sickly McCain die) in order to help secure McCain’s victory over Obama?
     Obviously, there are Americans who believe that Sarah Palin is a good choice for VP candidate. Some of them are impressed by her credentials as a “social conservative”—an ardent opponent of abortion, homosexuality, “Darwinism,” and all the rest. So desperate are they to further their “social conservative” agenda that they are willing to overlook her lack of experience and knowledge.
     But what about her stature as the Bold Liar? Surely that is a problem for these self-consciously moral voters!
     Well, again, the stakes may seem to be very high. So much so that, well, if she has to lie to get elected, then so be it. Nobody gets elected without getting their hands dirty.

* * *

     But my guess is that many who support Palin do not possess this kind of sophistication. There is considerable evidence that a large percentage of Americans are appallingly ignorant about issues (and about much else). And many Americans, especially conservative Americans, seem inclined to accept the Republican Party’s cynically-offered conspiracy theory about the “leftist” or “liberal” media. This theory is seldom clearly articulated in the course of the ongoing spectacle of mainstream politics. When such politicians as those we saw at the recent GOP convention appeal to it—always without details or any elaboration—they permit and indeed count on voters’ filling in the blank spaces: that journalists and newspapers flat lie and that, horribly, it is entirely possible that the nasty things that they are saying about our Sarah Palin (and our George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, et al.) aren’t true!
     This cabal theory, of course, is preposterous.
     Please tell me that I’m wrong, but it appears to me that a large proportion of the American public is sufficiently ignorant (and desperate?) that they will embrace this kind of daft conspiracy theory that the GOP leadership plainly wants them to embrace (judging by the speeches and Pavlovian roars of the recent convention).
     And so I suggest to you that, in some sense, among the real issues of our time is the spectacular ignorance and cluelessness of much of the voting public. I think that the real worry about Sarah Palin’s lies is that a great many Americans can deny that she is lying. It does not occur to such people to pick up a newspaper to find out. Indeed, for some of them, the world is the kind of place in which journalists and editors and executives constitute a cabal that secretly does what is necessary to turn mainstream newspapers and TV news programs into a seamless leftist mechanism of thought control.
     Sometimes, the leaders of our mainstream parties seem to be standing on my neck, smiling.
     And I wonder: for whom are they leaders?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Peevish conservative musings about words

When it comes to words and concepts, boy do I hate the trendy. And I love the traditional. This is one way in which I’m a very conservative guy.

Language is a beautiful and powerful thing, and its beauty and power depends on a kind of conservative impulse: recognition that words and their sometimes delicate and complex meanings must be preserved and maintained and appreciated.

Take a word like “awesome.” Having been raised by wolves, I approached adulthood thinking that “awesome” meant “terrific” (and “terrific,” of course, meant “bitchen”).

Evidently, many people were raised by wolves. It’s not just me.

But somewhere along the way, I developed a love of words and history. And, now, I cannot separate the word “awesome” from “awe,” and I cannot think of “awe” without thinking about our linguistic predecessors, centuries ago, struck with fear or reverence by things big or powerful or intricate—in ways that are increasingly lost to us. I sense a link to these people, and all people in between, through this one word.

Or consider the word “creature.” For many, a creature is simply a monster, or perhaps an animal. But I cannot now use this word without thinking of the act of creating and the thing that creates. The word has a depth and history that embraces all that, and so, to me, the word seems rich and wonderful, snaking through time.

Imagine having no sense of such things!

 * * *

Well, it’s 2008, and I’m a teacher, and so I don’t have to imagine it.

Today, I read through some student writing. I had asked the students of my Ethics class to write a brief answer to the question, “What is morality?” Mostly, I just wanted to see how they write and think (it’s early in the semester).

Students expressed some curious ideas about morality. One common theme is the notion that morality is “personal,” not in the sense that it is something a person has, but in the sense that it expresses the individual’s distinctive perspective—perhaps even his whims. To these students, morality is somehow a creature of the individual!

Students tend to show up with trendy junk in their heads, which is understandable, since everyone, and especially young people, live in a world piled high with such junk, obscuring anything old or venerable. Often, they’ve picked up various chunks of pseudo-sophistication (“well, of course, everyone has his own reality”), popular psychology (“he’s in denial and so he can’t see the truth”), and New Age blather (“I’m not very religious, but I’m very spiritual”).

They’re young, and so this stuff can still be scraped out or supplanted without great effort.

Unfortunately, well-educated adults, too, sometimes embrace this groovy junk. For instance, several of my friends insist that “morality” is somehow a personal matter—like a personal “philosophy.” For them, “morality” is not a synonym (more or less) for “ethics.”

“Oh no,” they’ll say. “Morality and ethics are quite distinct!”

What on earth are they talking about?

I am aware that, in the last few decades, a sense of “ethics” as a code of conduct associated with a particular profession has become more familiar. People are now accustomed to speaking of the ethics of the doctor, the lawyer, the teacher, the engineer, and so on. And it makes sense to think of this kind of code as being distinct from morality or ethics in the ordinary sense.

“Morality or ethics in the ordinary sense.” —Is there anyone left who even knows what I’m talking about? (Do remember that I am in California.)

I do hope you all understand that there was a time when people talked about right and wrong, virtue and vice, duty and obligation. People would say that so-and-so is a “good woman” or that she “takes her obligations seriously.”

Some people still say such things!

So, what is the name of that area of life that they are talking about? Evidently, “ethics” is out, since that’s about professional codes, etc. And “morality” is out, since that’s about one’s “personal” code or one’s dating practices.

Trendy (including academic) language and thinking have made people idiots.

Listen, we’ve got words for this. In the English language, that area of life is called “morality,” otherwise known as “ethics.”

* * *

Earlier this evening, I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary. I looked up “morality” and “ethics.”

Let’s start with “ethics.” The OED cites many instances of usage starting in the 17th Century in which “ethics” means a kind of study of “morals,” or it means the “study concerned with the principles of human duty.” (Ethics as a branch of knowledge of right and wrong.) A bit later, the term was also used to refer to “moral principles” and also rules of conduct for “certain associations or departments of human life.” —Aha! That’s that narrower professional sense of ethics, I suppose.

The adjective “ethical” has been used to mean “pertaining to morality” (and also pertaining to the “science of ethics”) since the 17th Century at least.

Now let’s turn to the word “morality.” Very early on, the term was associated with “ethical wisdom.” Also early on, “morality” was used to refer to “moral virtue”—especially “in relation to sexual matters” and “personal qualities” that are good.

This narrower sense of morality appears to have survived.

At the end of the 16th Century, “morality” started to be used to refer to “Conformity of an idea, practice, etc., to moral law; moral goodness or rightness.” This is what I have long taken to be the word’s central meaning. The OED cites contemporary usage of this meaning.

Starting in the 17th Century, “morality” was used to mean “the quality or fact of being morally right or wrong; the goodness or badness of an action.” The OED again cites some contemporary examples of this usage.

Starting in the 18th Century, “morality” could refer to the study of right and wrong conduct, i.e., “ethics.” Sound familiar?

OK, so now hear this. If one takes the long (and the OED) view concerning the meaning of words, then there is little justification for insisting on some sort of clear or systematic difference in the meaning of the words “morality” and “ethics.” These words are largely synonymous. They have been used to refer to “right and wrong conduct,” and they have been used to refer to bodies of knowledge (or areas of study) concerning right and wrong conduct.

Unsurprisingly, they are not exactly the same. “Morality” has at times been used narrowly to refer to moral virtue especially “in relation to sexual matters.” But this is not a dominant meaning.

And “ethics” more than “morality” has been used to refer to a code for a particular profession. But, again, this has not been a dominant meaning, as far as I can tell.

So where do people get this idea that “morality” and “ethics” are quite distinct?

And where do my students get the notion that morality is some sort of personal take or philosophy about conduct?

* * *

Obviously, language has always been a dynamic thing. Words do change over time; they take on new senses and lose older ones. Sometimes new words appear and old words are abandoned.

But I think there was a time, not so long ago, when the educated elite (yes, I’m using that phrase) were routinely brought up to speed concerning those delicate meanings and histories that I talked about earlier. These people could generally be counted on (for instance) to understand that “awesome” has to do with “awe” or that “creatures” are things created.

The conservative within me is pleased to contemplate this inertial mechanism.

But the machine seems to be breaking down now, at least in my world. That lovely inertia of meaning that tied us to our past has eroded away, and now, even among the educated, words are often just words, meaning only what the noisy and colorful knuckleheads of our time mean by them, which is usually a cheap and trashy thing with no provenance and zero wisdom.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

In defense of extremism (Part 1)

"Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

.....—Barry Goldwater, 1964

A couple of days ago, I was watching news coverage of the Republican Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. A reporter offered a minor segment on demonstrators who had been handled roughly by riot gear-equipped local police. The reporter seemed to dismiss the protesters’ views, noting briefly that they were “extremists.”

It was as though he were saying, “they’re just extremists, so we won’t bother explaining their beef with the Republicans.”

Why do we think in this way?

In this country, we seem to use the term “extremist” more or less descriptively: an “extremist” is one who holds a view that is at an extreme on the spectrum of views—with regard to politics, more or less.

I add “with regard to politics” because I do not think that most people would use the term “extremist” to refer to someone who, say, took an “extreme” religious view (such people are dismissed as “cultists”) or someone who, say, took an “extreme” view regarding diet, such as a vegan or “meatarian” (such people are dismissed as eccentrics, not as extremists).

Only some extreme views or activities are labeled “extremist,” then. Someone who seeks to overthrow the government is surely an extremist. A “radical” who destroys banks or sewers is an extremist.

Note that a prolific serial killer or “mad bomber” is not an extremist. Extremists need to have an agenda that is in some sense political or social. Extreme activity is not in itself extremism.

OK, so what do we think about these extremists? Well, clearly, we tend to "think" along these lines:

View (or activity) V is extremist.
Therefore V is beyond the pale.

But such reasoning is plainly defective. Our own (American) history provides ready examples of conduct and thinking that was once widely regarded as “extremist” but that eventually prevailed and is now embraced and insisted upon. Think of abolitionism, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and so on.

So history—our own history—teaches us that what is “extreme” one day can turn out to be “our way of thinking and living” later on. So why do we simply reject extreme views and philosophies?

One might argue that, though the occasional extremist view turns out to be “true” (or whatever we should call it), most extremist views are exactly as absurd as they seem (to many of us) to be, or at least that is the pattern historically.

I’m not sure that’s true, but let’s suppose that it is. What does the alleged factoid tell us? It certainly doesn’t tell us to reject extremist views out of hand. Doesn’t history tell us that we had better be careful not to assume that things that strike us as extreme and outrageous (or ridiculous, etc.) are really so? After all, in making that assumption, we run the risk—OK, the slight risk—of being among the bad guys—like slaveholders, wife beaters, child exploiters, racists, and all the other monsters we absolutely do not want to be.

It is unwise to run a slight but significant risk of catastrophe. Turning out to be like the KKK is surely a moral catastrophe.

The risk is not like the possibility of being hit by lightning. It is the possibility that we are vicious, that we are not trying hard enough, that we are dropping the ball, morally. If we are in error, then we can detect it; after all, we can think about what is right and good, what is wrong and wicked.

We don’t look back at slaveholders and judge them as simply having different values that were somehow wrong values. Rather, we look at them as in some sense having betrayed or failed to live by “our values.” So if an extremist comes along, we can stop and think about what he or she is saying. We should have the humility to recognize that we (who are not extremists) could be in error—we could be incautious or inattentive or stubborn, etc. We should try hard to live up to our values and not assume that that just happens by itself, without effort or thought.

Well, anyway, I can see no justification for simply rejecting extremist views out of hand. We at least need to think about them. Mill was right, I think, when he said that challenges to our thinking are good, for even when the challengers are utterly wrong-headed, by challenging us, they keep us thinking about the meaning and justification of what it is that we think and do. It's never a good idea to be comfortable, morally.

There is a kind of thinking that pops up here and there in our way of thinking according to which the truth is the middle between extremes. But, again, clearly, that is often not true. Anyone can come up with counterexamples.

People sometimes seem to think that it is not possible that either of the “two sides” in a dispute is totally in error. According to this thinking, when there is a dispute, each “side” has at least a piece of the truth, and, if we are wise, we will identify everybody's pieces.

Think of journalists who value “balance.” They drive me nuts.

Clearly, sometimes, one “side” is indeed fundamentally wrong and they are in possession of no piece of the truth. People who insist that the Earth is flat are very silly or disturbed. I’ve read their arguments. They’ve got nothing. Really. Nothing.

Imagine insisting that we must carefully consider their view in order to find that fragment of truth that they bring to the discussion. Consider Holocaust deniers. Is the truth about European history (from 1938 to 1945) some sort of blend of their take on history and the take according to which the Holocaust occurred?

* * * *

For me and some of my friends, both “sides” in the current contest over who should become President are pretty far off the mark. (For us, one side is regarded as much more benighted than the other; nevertheless, both “sides”—both the Democrats and the Republicans—are viewed as hugely mistaken about priorities and such.) We would argue, I think, that, sometimes, the only remotely acceptable view isn’t even on the horizon for most people.

Sometimes, I suggest that “we” should consider urging people to have fewer children. After all, virtually all of the major difficulties that challenge humanity (and the rest of the world!) are related to high human populations. And if we tweak the rate of children-production just a little bit, we actually lower population very rapidly. It wouldn't be hard to reduce the human population vastly in just two or three generations.

Generally, when I make this suggestion, I am regarded as having said something that is so outrageous that it can be rejected out of hand.


I'm sorry, but I'm onto something here. If we could just get people to see the advantages of smallish families—just as we are trying now to get people to see the value of "green living"—then all sorts of difficulties will be greatly ameliorated. Isn't that obvious?

It is frustrating to have no voice at all in so important a debate.

Another example: prima facie, the jury system, as it now exists, is ridiculous. Why can't voices demanding reform even get a hearing? (I'm not sure this view even qualifies as "extremist." Sometimes, I think that what we tend to reject isn't extremism; rather, it is common sense.)

* * *

I have never understood people's reactions to those who resort to violence in combating abortions. I do not think of (most) abortions as the murder of infants. But if I did think that, then I would be horrified by what goes on in abortion clinics. I would be inclined to use terms like "Holocaust." Why wouldn't I?

And, being intelligent, I would realize that there is virtually no hope that a significant number of my fellow citizens will see the situation as I do—as a Holocaust. I would be placed in a terrible moral predicament, for I would have essentially no prospects of stopping the murders through the political process. I would find myself living in a hellish world of terrible violence. (It is easy for people who care about the pain of animals to feel exactly this way.)

When anti-abortionists bomb clinics, I understand that. I don't agree with them that these clinics are committing murders. But I do understand why they resort to violence. I think we should really listen to these people and at least let them know that we sympathize with their plight, even if we don't agree with their premise.

It must drive them mad, being simply dismissed as extremists. But how can they do nothing?