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Category: Politics and Partisanship

Should advocating for genocide against the Jews constitute a violation of campus codes of conduct?

It is only reasonable to defend repugnant proclamations as the unfortunate but unavoidable result of a principled policy of support for “free speech” if you actually and consistently have such a policy.

Defending repugnant proclamations on that basis when you, instead, have a well documented history of suppressing free speech to assuage the feelings of a panoply of highly offendable favored constituencies sounds exactly like what everyone is seeing it for: a defensive self-justification for treating one particular disfavored constituency with contempt.

When faced with situations that are murky or difficult or fraught with contradictions — when our own knowledge and experience seem inadequate, when we are simply ignorant or when our hearts and our heads seem to pull us in different directions and we are unsure of which to follow — we often look to “established experts” and “leaders” of various types to guide us. We accept that guidance not merely because of some perceived expertise but because of a perceived moral authority — an authority to guide us not merely on what is “true” or “effective” but on what is “good” and “proper”.

In some other world, the Presidents of three of our most prestigious centers of academic excellence, institutions nominally dedicated to the extension, dissemination, and preservation of knowledge, to the pursuit of truth and wisdom, would seem to be exactly the kinds of “leaders” and “experts” we might call upon for guidance.

Yet, the fact is, because of what has been happening on their campuses on their watch, those three had no moral authority to lecture us on the value of “freedom of speech”.

Their testimony was akin to Donald Trump asserting the moral authority to lecture us on the value of honesty…

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Protecting Civilians in Gaza

What if Israel’s warning had come with another option? What if they had said:

We recommend civilians in Northern Gaza evacuate.

OR, as an alternative…

We request that the military units of Hamas do the honorable and civilized thing  — evacuate Northern Gaza, and clear it of all military facilities and supplies, so that they are no longer using their civilians as human shields.

It is doubtful it would have made any difference in the end — Hamas’ use of civilians as shields appears to be an inherent part of their strategy; it seems wholly unlikely that they would give that up.

But, it is important to remind people of something fundamental: the reason the civilians of Gaza are in danger is specifically because their own government’s military uses them in that way.

That should be obvious.  Alas, to far too many people in the Arab world and on the self-described Western “Progressive” far left, it appears that it is not.

Hamas could spare their own civilians all the upcoming misery by doing the honorable and civilized thing.

That they won’t do so should make the distinction between them and the Israelis clear.

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First, Do No Harm

What is it that makes someone “worth” voting for?  Or not?

My primary answer — where I place the essential boundary — comes from the formal ethics developed for the practice of medicine — another discipline that, like democratic government, is supposed to be all about improving things for people subject to its practice:

First, do no harm!

A huge number of people — essentially everyone on the left, but also all the “never Trumpers” (count me among them) and, now, many “used-to-be Trumpers” — see Trump as immutably harmful.  Their common argument is, “You must vote against Trump (and against his Trump-lite Republican acolytes) because he is actively dangerous.  Anything is better than that!

And, there is a lot of truth in that position — but, only a lot of truth, not complete truth.  It may be conditionally true, but it is not fundamentally true. It does not represent The Truth.

For, many people — not only ‘conservatives’ but, also, those on the ‘center right’ (like me) and on much of the ‘center’ left — would say that there are plenty of Democrats who could and would, in their own fashions, also actively cause a ruinous harm if we were to hand them the reins of power.

I want a candidate to vote for that won’t actually actively harm me!

Alas, all too often, I’m merely offered a choice of which harm seems less immediate and/or less painful.

Faced with that choice, I really would rather abstain…

And, faced with that choice, I refuse to accept the notion that I have an obligation — nay, a moral duty — to affirmatively participate in my own destruction by validating one form of harm or the other with my vote.  To the contrary: I stubbornly reserve the right to reject both as intolerable.

Upon reflection, I realize — in the context of the heart attack vs. cancer metaphor — that the fundamental question is this: What if treating the heart attack makes the cancer more virulent?  What if the actions required to save myself from the heart attack today cause the cancer to kill me tomorrow, instead of next week or next year?

The populist Progressive left treated Biden’s victory as if it were a mandate to go for broke, in the same way that, four years earlier, the populist Fascist right treated Trump’s victory as if it were a mandate to go for broke. No doubt, they will treat another Biden victory the same way. Although the Democrats (unlike the Republicans) are, at least for now, still occasionally grounded by some members who call out desperately from the reasonable middle, both parties are, in large measure, allowing their agendas, and especially their rhetoric, to be set and controlled from the extremes.

Alas, no matter how narrow the victory nor how broad the defeat in any given election, the lesson both parties insist on learning from it is not, “We seem to be out of step with the electorate,” but rather, “The problem was we were not extreme enough!“.

It occurs to me that what I really long for in the upcoming election is a way to definitively reject Trump and Trumpism — which will, it appears in practice, mean accepting Biden/Harris — while simultaneously definitively rejecting the most extreme variants of the “progressive” (and “socialist”, democratic or otherwise) program for American transformation.

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Guns and Gun Control

A few highlights: click through for the full discussion…

Bottom line: As both a moral and a practical matter (“practical” meaning if they want to elicit enough cooperation to actually move forward on solving the problem), people who understandably and legitimately want to minimize the damage that guns do to the innocent need to respect and accommodate the concerns of those who value their own equally understandable and legitimate right to bear arms; but those who value their right to bear arms need to take responsibility for minimizing the damage guns do to the innocent — and must, without doubt, accept some amount of constraint, and even sacrifice, to achieve that end.

And, yes, “gun culture” and its fetishization of guns — which is completely different than the right to bear arms — is pathological…

* * * * *

People who value free speech object vociferously and in absolutist terms to any suggestion that anyone have any authority to censor anything.  Why?  Because they fear – and justifiably so – that a large fraction of the people who say they want “reasonable” authority to censor things are not actually reasonable.  They fear that talk of “reasonable” limits on speech is disingenuous and offered in bad faith.  They fear that people who talk of “reasonable” limits on speech actually have much more extreme limits in mind, if they could only achieve them; and that their push for “reasonable” limits are intended merely as a starting salvo in a longer battle to ban speech outright (or, at least, to ban outright any speech they disagree with, which is effectively the same thing).

People who value access to abortion object vociferously and in absolutist terms to any suggestion that anyone have any authority to limit such access at any time and under any circumstances.  Why?  Because they fear – and justifiably so – that a large fraction of the people who say they want “reasonable” authority to place constraints on abortion are not actually reasonable.  They fear that talk of “reasonable” constraints on abortion is disingenuous and offered in bad faith.  They fear that people who talk of “reasonable” constraints on abortion actually have much more extreme limits in mind, if they could only achieve them; and that their push for “reasonable” limits are intended merely as a starting salvo in a longer battle to ban abortion outright.

And, yes.  People who value access to guns object vociferously and in absolutist terms to any suggestion that anyone have any authority to limit such access at any time and under any circumstances.  Why?  Because they fear – and justifiably so – that a large fraction the people who say they want “reasonable” authority to place constraints on gun access are not actually reasonable.  They fear that talk of “reasonable” constraints on guns is disingenuous and offered in bad faith.  They fear that people who talk of “reasonable” constraints on guns actually have much more extreme limits in mind, if they could only achieve them; and that their push for “reasonable” limits are intended merely as a starting salvo in a longer battle to ban guns outright.

If you want to bring along the sensible, practical people who lament the current state of affairs and, yet, who value their right to have access to guns for self-protection and/or sport, you need to do more than “re-frame” the language and the argument.  You need to convince them that you are both sincere and trustworthy.

You are asking them to rein in (or, at least, have the political courage to ignore, or even oppose) the most extreme voices in their coalition.  In the same way, you need to convince them that you can effectively rein in (or, at least, have the political courage to ignore, or even oppose) the most extreme voices in your coalition.  You need to convince them that the “reasonable” proposals you have in mind really are — truly — your ends, and not merely a means to initiate a march toward something more extreme.

It has been a bedrock principle of liberal American justice that people are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty; and it has often been said (typically by those on the “left”) that it is better that ten murderers go free than that one innocent man be unjustly condemned and punished as a murderer. We are exquisitely sensitive to injustice and unfairness. It has, arguably, both instigated and consumed much of our political discourse in recent years.

If we want to pursue policies that try to predict who should not be trusted with exercising legitimate individual prerogatives (like owning guns – or, say, owning cars), we had best design such policies with multiple and nimble levels of appeal and review, with ample opportunities for error correction, and with the onus of the major effort resting on those who would curtail such prerogatives rather than on those who would retain them.

And we had best design them to minimize, as much as possible, false positives.

To be clear: we all need to acknowledge that it is unreasonable and implausible to expect we can define a system that generates no false positives at all.  Gun rights enthusiasts just need to come to grips with that fact: any system that is effective enough to be useful in reducing the carnage is going to sweep a few innocents into its net.

But, the alternative is what we have now: far too many other innocents being swept into the net of gun mayhem.  That is unacceptable.

Yes, there is a price to be paid for freedom.  But, news flash for the gun crowd: not being shot in your classroom or at the supermarket or while playing on your front stoop is also a kind of freedom, and arguably more fundamental than a right to own a gun.  We need to be willing to pay the price to protect that freedom, as well.

That said, people who want to enact various gun-related policies (and many other “progressive” policies) also need to acknowledge something: that restrictions on liberty, of any kind and no matter how “reasonable”, do, indeed, come with costs as well as benefits – yes, immediate human costs but, also, through legislative/legal precedent and an induced cultural complacency about such restrictions in principle, long-term systemic costs as well.  The fact that the short-term, human costs are not ones that you, yourself, care about or will pay, or that the long-term systemic costs seem distant and abstract or are not ones you can imagine or lament, does not mean they don’t exist or are unimportant.

If you want cooperation from people who will bear those costs, you need at least to acknowledge them, and to acknowledge that building in safeguards to minimize those costs is a reasonable and beneficial part of any such policy.  Insisting – as many on the “left” do – that concern about those costs is irrational or illegitimate – or, worse, is depraved and malevolent – is guaranteed to make cooperation impossible.

Being averse to research on “gun violence” is not irrational, for the reasons of trust cited above: the people calling for and performing such research are, in far too many cases, doing so in bad faith.  Calling for research on “gun violence” is a nearly certain sign that the proposed “research” is not actually about science: it isn’t aimed at investigating and understanding root causes; and it isn’t aimed at testing a variety of hypotheses.  Rather, it is aimed narrowly at proving a specific hypothesis: that “Guns cause violence (and should, therefore, be banned).”

That is poor science because it presumes the result it is purported to be researching.

More importantly, that is poor science because it is overtly political – it implies that the “research” is not as much intended to expand the boundaries of knowledge as it is to manufacture justifications for pasting a “scientific” patina onto a pre-determined policy preference.  It is, all too often, advocacy disguised as science.  It would be like proposing research narrowly focused on “Black criminality” or on “The cognitive bases for gender disparities”.  There may be real-world observational evidence that those things exist — quite likely the result of historical circumstances, including historical injustices.  But, we can and would probably safely assume that anyone proposing such narrowly-defined “research” had some agenda in mind beyond the simple advancement of human wisdom.

Yes, by all means, let us research the nature and sources of violence and what might be done about it.  But, don’t limit our focus to one specific tool.  Ask, rather: what is it about our culture (including, but not limited to, “gun culture”) that breeds such solipsism and lack of empathy?  Ask, rather: what is it about our culture that fails to discourage people from acting out that solipsism, from inflicting it on others?  Ask, rather: what is it about our culture that so consistently fails to instill in its citizenry a respect for other people and a reverence for the Golden Rule?  And what can we do about that?

I would venture that the “framing” I identified – that people who want to be able to use guns thereby assume a responsibility for ensuring that all gun use is responsible gun use – may be the key to engaging with those who value access to guns.  Because, if we can turn the conversation from “rights” to “responsibilities” – if we can turn the conversation from “how we plan to impose our coercion upon you” to “how we expect you to step up and do the right thing” – the rest of the conversation will be immeasurably easier.

Perhaps, if we can find a way to turn our conversation about guns toward the duties of responsibility, rather than making it an argument about rights and regulation, we can not only make progress on guns but, then, extend that approach to politics and governance beyond guns into all the other subjects that currently divide us.

It occurs to me that perhaps the most effective policy for controlling gun violence would actually be to require any gun that can accept an external ammunition clip — which is a reasonably good proxy for its potential high-volume/long-term rate of fire — to be colored hot pink and fitted with a grip shaped like a phallus.

It would have no effect on the gun’s performance or its availability.  But, slinging a giant pink penis over your shoulder or strapping a giant pink penis to your hip to carry it around, or wrapping your hand around a giant pink penis in order to aim and shoot, would simply not look macho or cool.  It would not be photogenic.  It would not project an automatic aura of menace and authority.  It would, to the contrary, be rather emasculating.  It would indeed, make you look silly.

That would somewhat clarify exactly why it is that people think they need such firepower — it would tend to separate those who have some genuine need for a tool with that kind of performance from those whose primary need is actually for a brace to prop up their sagging self-esteem.

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Why is “the right” so hostile to “climate change”?

The American “right” latched onto an “anti-climate change” attitude — and took that to the ridiculous extreme of being proof-of-membership-in-the-group — in large measure as a direct response to the early (and, alas, continuing) attitudes of the American “left” toward the subject.

From the earliest discussions of the potential for climate change and what we might do about it, the left succeeded in tying “climate change” nearly inextricably to “highly coercive and disruptive government mandated emergency command-and-control remedies”.

In that environment, there was simply no way to be both ‘conservative’ and accepted as someone who took climate change seriously. You were either wildly progressive or you were a “denier”. As far as the green left and the media that echoed its talking points was concerned, there was nothing, and no room for anything, in between.

To the extent that the “left” succeeded in transforming “climate change” from a legitimate scientific and policy debate into merely another excuse for getting what it had always wanted anyway and for other reasons — a self-righteous justification for telling us all how to live our lives coupled to yet more coercive authority concentrated in the hands of politicians and government bureaucrats (to be guided, of course, by academic intellectuals) — it did mean that the opposition from the “right” to “climate change” was much more about opposing that coercive policy agenda than it was about the science, itself.

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Expertise and Ego

I sincerely hope that ‘experts’ of all stripes — and not merely economists — take note of your admonition toward humility.

The kind of humility you advocate, however, is something one rarely sees among the ‘experts’ — within government and think-tanks and academia — who routinely proclaim to us all that they know “the truth” and that the proper role and responsibility for the rest of us is simply to shut up and do as they say.

That may not be completely fair: it may be that the apparent hubris of expertise is exaggerated by reporters and a news media that is besotted with the idea of ‘expertise’ and, therefore, amplifies the voices of the most self-certain while muting the voices of the humble.  It may be that many or most experts are, indeed, well  aware of their self-limitations but that their voices are not the ones that the media chooses to tell us about; or, it may be that the various caveats and disclaimers with which they accompany their assertions never make it through the filter of the reporters’ perceptions into the news stories and analyses written about them.

And, it may also be that those, in particular, who choose to go into government are self-selected from among the most hubristic precisely because their very self-confidence leads them to the belief that they should also have the power to impose their chosen “solutions” upon others.

Regardless of the reason, however, what is presented as ‘expertise’ for public consumption is, all too often, the farthest thing from your humble ideal:  it is, rather, most often arrogant; and it is, far too frequently, also condescending.

And that arrogance and condescension is exacerbated by the fact that such experts frequently extend their claims to ‘expertise’ beyond what is justified by their training and experience.  A medical researcher will discover some (perhaps tentative) connection between a chemical or a food and some health state, like heart disease.  They will then not only exaggerate their certainty, proclaiming that the evidence of such connection is irrefutable and unequivocal (Eat this and you will die!), rather than provisional and subject to chance, but will also proclaim, with equal certainty, that a particular policy prescription — Ban that chemical! — is, by extension, mandatory; and they will claim that their policy prescription is simply a matter of “following the science” and, therefore, also wholly within their ‘expertise’, as if such policies have no other economic or practical or emotional or moral dimensions beyond the narrow realm of “science” that might require consideration.

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What picture of America do we carry in our heads…?

In today’s Wall Street Journal, in an article about the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, Peggy Noonan asked this question:

Why did the White House think the 20th anniversary of 9/11 was the right date for a pullout? What picture of America do they carry in their heads that told them that would be symbolically satisfying? It is as if they are governed by symbols with no understanding of what the symbols mean.

It occurs to me that the question — “What picture of America do they carry in their heads…?” — is much broader than the context of our policy in Afghanistan. It is, in fact, the question at the heart of nearly all the cultural and political divisions rending America these days.

The right asks that question of the left.  The left asks that question of the right.  And both left and right — and the vast middle that both left and right disdain and ignore — fear and despise the answer that they think and feel — or, all too often, imagine — the other side would offer if it was ever to be explicitly articulated.

That is, perhaps, the most important conversation of our generation: What picture of America do we carry in our heads? And can we come to some, if not consensus, then at least forbearance on what that picture looks like?

If not, we are truly lost…

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Should Washington, DC be a State?

Is it either accurate or fair to say that there is not, and cannot be, any reason to object to statehood for the nation’s capital that doesn’t drag in racial antipathy and civil rights recidivism?

No.  Statehood for Washington, DC, is a troubling prospect.  And, it is troubling for reasons that have nothing to do with race.

The most compelling reason, however, to oppose statehood for DC is not that a city isn’t really a state, though that is true.  And it is not that DC statehood has the real potential to interfere with the autonomy of the Federal government, though that is also true.  And it is not that there are simple and practical remedies to the disenfranchisement of DC’s citizens that fall short of outright statehood and that would not, therefore, threaten Federal autonomy — though that, too, is true.

No.  The most compelling reason to oppose statehood for DC is that DC is a company town.

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