Friday, October 31, 2003

Gregg Easterbrook has once again been tripped up by his views on religion. This time, he's complaining that while physicists propose all kinds of wild, incomprehensible models of the universe--multiple hidden dimensions, for example--spirituality gets no similar respect in academic circles. "To modern thought, one extra spiritual dimension is a preposterous idea," he writes, "while the notion that there are incredible numbers of extra physical dimensions gives no pause."

Crooked Timber's Kieran Healy and Eric "Educated Guesswork" Rescorla have taken Easterbrook to task, on the perfectly reasonable grounds that string theory's idea of hidden dimensions is actually scientifically defensible, whereas Easterbrook's "spiritual dimension" is not exactly bursting with empirical or theoretical support. However, I believe they miss the more fundamental sense in which Easterbrook is off-base.

Imagine, for a moment, that we were to take Easterbrook seriously, and consider his "spiritual dimension" a valid scientific concept. What would we do? Well, we'd ask physicists to conduct experiments, work out theories, and generally explore the possibility. And let us suppose that they did so, and concluded that the "spiritual dimension" is in fact the seventh of the ten-or-eleven dimensions currently being proposed by string theorists, with its properties and behavior governed by such-and-such set of equations. Would Easterbrook be any happier?

Not at all. For the whole point of the "spiritual dimension" of which he speaks is that it's not describable in scientific terms. As he notes when discussing "intelligent design" theory (what Eric Rescorla correctly calls "warmed-over creationism"), "[w]hen it comes to intellectual rigidity, there's little difference between the national academy declaring that only natural forces may be considered, and the church declaring that only divine explanations may be considered."

Well, neither Easterbrook nor the church acknowledge the possibility that God might just be a boring old physical phenomenon, governed by a bunch of differential equations--but he likely doesn't see anything wrong with that. Such a claim would be incompatible with Christianity as just about every Christian understands it. Similarly, "intelligent design" and a "spiritual dimension" are not simply bad science, but rather non-science. Easterbrook believes there's more to the universe than science, and he's entitled to believe that. But he's not entitled to demand that his belief be considered in any way relevant to the scientific endeavor.

The fact that both science and (Jewish or Christian) theology assume an independently existing reality (or "truth") doesn't mean that both pursuits necessarily have to--or are even remotely likely to--converge on the same version of it. They are in fact two decidedly different approaches to knowledge, and appreciating them both means recognizing that one has very little to say about the other, and that they needn't be--and probably can't be--fully reconciled. Then again, Easterbrook's mocking treatment of science makes it quite clear that he's not really interested in such a reconciliation at all. Rather, he'd like both to be governed by (his own) "common sense"--which is clearly more thoroughly informed by religion than by science.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

The New York Times apparently doesn't want Walter Duranty's 1932 Pulitzer Prize for journalism revoked. Times editor Bill Keller writes, "[a]s someone who spent time in the Soviet Union while it still existed, the notion of airbrushing history kind of gives me the creeps." Eugene Volokh disagrees: "No-one is suggesting that the Pulitzer people and the Times enter into some conspiracy to pretend that the award had never been given....This isn't airbrushing history; it's correcting error."

Volokh's argument is superficially appealing, and the Times is obviously not without a vested interest in seeking to avoid an embarrassing revocation of its reporter's honor. But I believe Keller's point actually reflects a more accurate view of such prizes in general, and the Pulitzers in particular. For in fact they do not represent today's consensus verdict on any particular past year's best reporting, but rather the consensus of the Pulitzer committee of the year in question. Moreover, it is doubtful that Duranty's is anywhere near alone among all past Pulitzers in being considered today to have been awarded "in error". And it is entirely possible that decades from now, several past Pulitzer winners will be seen to have been even more egregiously chosen than Duranty's.

Thus to revoke Duranty's prize today would be to imply--completely falsely--that the historical list of "unrescinded" Pulitzers reflects a current consensus regarding the best journalism of past years. Such a consensus would in fact be very difficult to achieve, and quite possibly less useful to catalog, in the end, than the choices of contemporaries reflected in the unaltered Pulitzer list.

That Duranty was awarded a Pulitzer is a blot upon the prize's reputation. The only purpose of rescinding the prize today would be to imply--again, completely falsely--that today's Pulitzer committee is somehow less prone to the shortsightedness that led to Duranty's being honored seventy years ago. Future generations are free to judge that for themselves, and would be foolish to rely on this year's committee to make the decision for them.

Monday, October 27, 2003

Both Oxblog's Patrick Belton and Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds have concluded that a fascinating first-hand account of travelling through Cuba is in fact a searing indictment of that country's economic mismanagement and political repression. Oddly enough, I got a very different impression of the place from the piece. The Cuban countryside, it seems, is sadly poverty-stricken and backward. But it's not so much repressed as resigned--the people lead their simple, spartan, difficult lives as best they can, and many of them believe the government's propaganda simply because it's the natural thing to do. It is only those with unusual ambition, energy and initiative who chafe under the heavy hand of governmental regimentation. And what fraction of the population fits that description is far from clear.

Now, I don't deny for a second that Cuba would be better off with a freer economy and polity. I believe that idyllic ignorance does not exist, and that those who are satisfied with their lives only because they don't know of better alternatives are better off enlightened--even if they may end up sadder as a result. To me, knowledge and understanding are the essence of humanness, and mere uncomprehending bliss is no substitute.

But taking a moral position against such ignorance is not the same as objectively failing to recognize its existence, even its prevalence, in benighted corners of the world. Few peoples, for example, suffer more from their government than the North Koreans, who live under a regime of unparalleled cruelty and incompetence, who have repeatedly faced famine and starvation over the years, and who can be executed merely for trying to escape their vast national prison. Yet it's unlikely that all that many North Koreans, heavily regimented and information-starved as they are, can see through the official government's lies and blame their "Dear Leader", instead of the regime's numerous claimed foreign enemies, for the horrible conditions in which they live.

In fact, ignorance isn't even a prerequisite for ruinous political self-delusion. The Palestinians who continue to endorse the terrorist "armed struggle" that has impoverished and immiserated them, the former East Germans wallowing in "Ostalgie", the neo-luddite Westerners who shun the marvels of modern medicine, modern agriculture, and other modern technologies that have so improved their material living conditions--all are choosing to embrace choices that are objectively associated with severe hardship. It would hardly be surprising if many Cubans, insulated as they are from information about conditions elsewhere, choose to believe that their lives, their country and their leaders are every bit as great--relatively speaking, at least--as their government tells them.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

The case of Terri Schiavo, a profoundly brain-damaged Florida woman whose husband wants to disconnect her feeding tube so that she may die--and whose parents and siblings want to keep her alive--is one of those hard cases that ought to give even the most self-assured moral thinker pause to consider other perspectives. Ideally, one might hope for a rich public debate on the subject, leading to a democratic consensus as to the necessary conditions for concluding that someone ought not be kept alive, and the proper role of various parties' preferences in determining that decision.

At least that's what one would hope for if one were not a fanatical devotee of American Legal Religion. But here's Slate's Dahlia Lithwick foaming at the mouth over the people's representatives' unbearable uppitiness in daring to pronounce on the issue:
Whether one believes that Terri Schiavo is in a "persistent vegetative state" or a "minimally conscious state" is immaterial. Whether one believes that her blinks and smiles are signs of cognition or automated reflexes is similarly not the issue. All that matters is that these disputes are governed by law, that the law says Michael Schiavo is her legal guardian, and that his decision ought to have been final.

Since 1990, when the Supreme Court decided Cruzan v. Missouri Department of Health, there has been a constitutionally protected right to decline unwanted medical procedures. How does the Florida Legislature justify overriding that decision and its own Constitution—which guarantees a right to privacy and allows residents or their legal guardians to terminate life support—by enacting a "law" that expressly violates that right? And how dare Jeb Bush call for the appointment of a new guardian for Schiavo? The courts have already named one—her husband.
To Lithwick, the courts make the law; any so-called "law" produced by mere legislators is insolent usurpation of judicial prerogatives, and should be ignored. One wonders how Americans can ever hope to establish democracy in Iraq, when this kind of rank contempt for it is so commonplace back home.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

It's not terribly surprising that Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad turned his speech to the Islamic Summit Conference into a foul anti-Semitic diatribe about how "the Jews rule this world by proxy". After all, he has a long history of anti-Semitic pronouncements. Nor is it exactly shocking that the delegates attending the conference gave him a standing ovation. After all, anti-Semitic hate literature has been a staple in public discourse throughout most of the Islamic world for years. What was more interesting, however, was the occasional reaction--from the New York Times' Paul Krugman, for example--to the effect that, sure, the guy may be a wild-eyed Jew-hater, but as Muslim leaders go, at least he makes the trains run on time.

Now, I'm normally the last one in the world to trot out such trite analogies to World-War-II fascism. But in this case, I think the chairman of the Anti-Defamation League has it exactly right. The reason the analogy is appropriate is that although few people today are aware of it, those who made excuses for Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and the rest--at the beginning at least--were hardly all moral monsters or clueless ignorami. Rather, they looked at the unappetizing smorgasbord of potential leaders available for a collection of seemingly ungovernable countries in the throes of economic collapse and social chaos, and decided that a bit of over-the-top racial rhetoric was a small price to pay. Think of it as a geopolitical version of Moynihan's concept of "defining deviancy down": When an entire region's leadership consists of ruthless, deluded incompetents, then a ruthless, deluded competent seems appealing by comparison.

The problem with this reasoning, of course, is that ruthless, deluded leaders never stay competent for long. Eventually, demagogues who flirt with violent rhetoric reach the point of being compelled to live up to their bombast, with disastrous results. Gamal Abdel Nasser, to choose one famous example, rode his fiery brand of Pan-Arabist militancy to de facto leadership of the entire Arab world in the 1950s. But he found himself trapped by his own ideology in 1967, failed to back down from a recklessly escalating confrontation with Israel, and ended up provoking his own devastating military defeat.

We don't know where the Malaysian Prime Minister's rhetoric will lead him--or perhaps his successors--but chances are that it will not be particularly good for Malaysia. No leader is perfect, of course, and dictators are generally less perfect than most. (Democracy provides a useful quality control mechanism, if nothing else.) But among leadership flaws, the willingness to discount reality entirely, repeatedly, and in public, is a lot more serious than Krugman et al. seem to recognize.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

The folks at the Volokh Conspiracy and "Crooked Timber" are discussing their favorite (and least favorite) bumperstickers. I can't resist mentioning one I saw recently: it was bright red, and bore the slogan, "if this sticker is blue, you're driving too fast."

Well, Oxblog's Josh Chafetz liked it.
An update to the Easterbrook story: Easterbrook has apologized, and The New Republic has also apologized to its readers, excoriating Easterbrook's comments, but accepting his apology and defending him against charges of anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, ESPN has summarily fired Easterbrook, who used to write an excellent weekly football column for them. (It's unclear, though, whether Easterbrook's crime in their eyes was singling out Jews, or merely singling out Disney CEO Michael Eisner, whose empire includes ESPN.)

Many pixels have since been rendered on this matter, including by Meryl Yourish (who accepts Easterbrook's apology) and Roger Simon (who accepts it with reservations). Perhaps the most interesting take is Mickey Kaus'--he thinks that Easterbrook simply got carried away with his rhetoric, recklessly casting about for any argument that came to mind, and stumbled on an offensive one. (Kaus who is a former journalistic colleague of Easterbrook's, also recalls once making a similar blunder himself.)

My own best guess as to Easterbrook's thinking (not that it necessarily matters) is that he appears to be something of an "Old Testament Christian" who thinks of his stern religiously-derived morality as common to both the Christian and Jewish traditions. (He writes in his apology of belonging to a joint Jewish-Christian congregation, of emphasizing the Jewish roots of Christianity, and of berating the Jewish producers of violent movies in exactly the same way as he did the Catholic Mel Gibson for the same transgression.) He therefore felt entitled to address the two Jewish film producers, not just as fellow Americans, but also as quasi-co-religionists.

His key error, then, was to forget that he's not Jewish, and hence that if he tries to tell certain Jews how they should behave as Jews (rather than simply as people), he's walking straight onto a moral minefield. A Jew haranguing other Jews who make violent films by invoking the lessons of the Holocaust would merely be engaging in incoherent sophistry. But a Christian scolding Jews for failing to learn the lessons of the Holocaust cannot but sound suspiciously as though he's threatening a future refresher course.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Gregg Easterbrook, of all people, has echoed--and in The New Republic, of all places--a standard, and extremely stupid, criticism routinely levied at Jews. Complaining about brutal violence in Hollywood movies, he writes,
Disney's CEO, Michael Eisner, is Jewish; the chief of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein, is Jewish. Yes, there are plenty of Christian and other Hollywood executives who worship money above all else, promoting for profit the adulation of violence. Does that make it right for Jewish executives to worship money above all else, by promoting for profit the adulation of violence? Recent European history alone ought to cause Jewish executives to experience second thoughts about glorifying the killing of the helpless as a fun lifestyle choice.
Now, these two film executives' religion are obviously staggeringly irrelevant to the topic at hand. Why not their race? Their sex? Their belly button orientation? The first part of Easterbrook's entirely vacuous argument makes equal sense--that is, none at all--if any of these categories are used in place of faith. (Yes, there are awful people with "outies", but does that excuse the behavior of these "innies"?)

But the real peak of Easterbrook's illogic is his reference to "[r]ecent European History" as an argument against Jews "glorifying the killing of the helpless". In fact, the only inference that Jews in particular are better placed than Gentiles to draw from the Holocaust, by virtue of their experience of suffering, is the practical observation that "glorifying the killing of the helpless" is, all things considered, a lot safer than failing to do so. And presumably that's not the lesson Easterbrook has in mind.

There are also a great many more morally salutary lessons to be drawn from the Holocaust, of course--but these are not lessons that Jews are particularly well-placed to receive, or needful of receiving. (One never hears, for example, assertions that the Palestinian Arabs' history of collective misfortune should have taught them the horrors of militant nationalism.) On the contrary, it is the decendants of 20th-century Europe's Gentile brutalizers of Jews, rather than Jews themselves, who stand to learn the most from the negative example of their ancestors. After all, if there's no such a thing as a cultural propensity towards some kind of behavior--say, racist violence--then Jews have no more or less reason to worry about emulating their ancestors' murderers than anybody else. And if such cultural propensities do exist, then why would one expect to find dangerous ones in the cultures of the victims of past atrocities, rather than in those of the perpetrators?

I won't waste any time discussing the radioactive a-S-word, but for insulting irrationality alone, Easterbrook deserves all the opprobrium Meryl Yourish and Roger Simon can throw at him.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Mickey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan are strangely giddy over the news: a state with a strong populist tradition has elected, by a plurality in a multi-way race, a charismatic, muscle-bound showbiz figure with a weak political track record, a somewhat tainted sexual past, and a suspiciously vague policy platform. I suppose Kaus and Sullivan are buoyed by their memories of the spectacularly successful result the last time this happened....

The key factors in the above discription, of course, are "weak political track record" and "suspiciously vague policy platform". It's a common myth in democratic countries that a good, decent, intelligent leader can simply look at each of the day's issues, choose the sensible position to take in every case, and then take it, thus winning the accolades of a grateful populace imbued with the same straighforward good sense. Unfortunately, the public are neither particularly imbued with good sense, nor inclined to use what little of it they have to overcome their own selfish interests, prejudices and superstitions.

Fortunately, though, democracy doesn't need a particularly wise, high-minded electorate. All it needs is a collection of people with enough vigorously competing interests, prejudices and superstitions that the exhausting task of brokering among them tends to impede leaders from causing any grievous harm. A really superb leader can even spot a few nuggets of popular consensus hidden in the cacophony, and cater to them--usually, though not always, to the good.

What almost always sinks the "outsider" candidate is his or her inability to recognize and take advantage of those instances of consensus. Elected to knock some sense into slimy, business-as-usual politicians, the outsider typically believes him- or herself to have a deep, natural rapport with the common people that allows him or her to disdain pandering and poll-taking and simply intuit what the public wants. Of course, such a person inevitably confuses "what the public wants" with what he or she personally wants, and ends up spearheading unpopular campaigns on behalf of hobbyhorse causes.

Perhaps the latest outsider candidate, faced with a colossal state budget deficit, a hostile state legislature, and a choppy economy, can rapidly acquire the skills that more polished politicians take years to hone, and build a solid constituency for various popular initiatives while offending as few voters as possible. And with roughly the same likelihood, the politicians he defeated might take up bodybuilding and learn to excel at the art of playing a Hollywood action film hero.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Why is America so hated around the world, and particularly in the Middle East? According to an "advisory group" of alleged Middle East experts, the problem is a lack of "public diplomacy"--i.e., insufficient pro-American PR. Michael Holtzman argues instead for more retail generosity--"doctors, teachers, businesses, religious leaders, athletic teams and entertainers" helping and bonding with the inhabitants of the region. In other words, both writers imagine folks in that part of the world scratching their heads, contemplating their last personal encounter with something or someone American, and forming their geopolitical judgments accordingly.

One wonders if any of these people have bothered to consider how their own countrymen form their opinions of foreign countries. The only major public relations campaign I've heard of initiated by a foreign country in the US was undertaken by Saudi Arabia, and I doubt it's done much good. And how many Americans, really, think in terms of their personal contact with, say, French, or British, or Israeli visitors when deciding on their attitudes towards those countries?

On the contrary, Americans' opinions of other countries are an extension of their general political views, and we should expect non-Americans to form their opinions of America the same way. Fortunately, as a non-American, I can study the origins of anti-Americanism with a certain amount of dispassionate detachment. I discern at least three factors contributing to its steep rise:

  • As with anti-Israel sentiment, anti-Americanism is to a great extent a function of local partisan conflicts. In Canada, for example--the country with which I'm most familiar--anti-Americanism is strongly correlated with liberal (as opposed to conservative) leanings, Eastern (as opposed to Western) regional loyalties, and an educated or intellectual class affiliation.

    Something similar is likely happening in the Middle East as well. Bernard Lewis has written that there are two types of countries in the Middle East: those (e.g., Egypt, Saudi Arabia) where the government is allied with America, and the population is virulently anti-American, and those (e.g., Iran, Iraq under Saddam)where the government is virulently anti-American, and the public is enthusiastically pro-US. In other words, Middle Eastern anti-Americanism is, in his view, simply an extension of local dissatisfaction with oppressive national governments that happen to be friendly with America. I'm not sure this analysis is necessarily 100% accurate, but I expect that it's closer to the mark than any correlation between popular sentiment and American ads or Peace Corps volunteers.

  • Like every other political event, the end of the Cold War took time to sink into the world's consciousness. The slow-but-steady rise in worldwide anti-Americanism over the last decade or so is partly a reflection of--and a reaction to--everyone's gradual realization that America is globally dominant in a way it was not when it was in competition with the Soviet Union. The most powerful country may get the lion's share of the world's respect--but it will inevitably also get its share of the world's resentment, as well.

  • The upsurge in globalization during the nineties was wonderful for the world's economies. But any such boom inevitably causes rapid changes and dislocations, and thus provokes a serious backlash from those who were harmed--or who simply feel uncomfortable with and disoriented by all the upheaval, however lucrative. Most of the anti-American unrest we see around the world today--from Islamist terrorism to anti-globalist activism in the developed world--is of a romantic, anti-materialist, anti-modernist cast, railing against commerce, technology and luxury rather than tyranny, corruption and impoverishment. America is, of course, the world's primary symbol of the former list of "ills".

  • I'm sure there are more factors behind the global surge in anti-Americanism than just these three. But lack of cheerleading TV spots or earnest aid programs certainly isn't among them.