Friday, June 17, 2005

Culture Wars

Comment, 6/17/2005 on Michael Berube's blog

The basic idea is simple: it’s not a democracy unless the “outs” have a reasonable hope of someday becoming the “ins.... Since gaining office, [Republicans] have shown an equal willingness to trash democracy in order to make their own power more effective. They are utterly driven by content-and either have no understanding of or utter contempt for form. Legal and procedural niceties are for sissies seems to sum up their basic, thuggish, approach to governing.

This is a thought-provoking piece, and I agree on the theory-but it’s a case where what you see depends on where you sit. I hope you will agree that most of the content-driven policy-making has been on culture-war issues; you have to look at what has happened from the conservative side.

On most of the culture-war issues of the last 55 years, the “outs” have had no reasonable chance of becoming the “ins”-and the clearer that became, the less willing cultural conservatives have been to play along with “legal and procedural norms” that seem designed to lock them out.

It started with Brown, which broke the Solid South. Remember, Brown was not a democratic decision, nor did it follow any procedural niceties; it ignored 70 years of precedent, and the laws of the majority of the country, and ended up being enforced by using Federal troops to do domestic police work. It was a liberal (freedom-based) decision, but it wasn’t democratic, and it couldn’t be overturned democratically.

Then came Murray v. Curlett / Abington Township v. Schempp-the school prayer cases. Again, the decision went against long-established precedent and the practices of much (probably most) of the country. And again, there was no way that it could be changed by the normal Democratic process.

Ditto for Roe v Wade; ditto for Lawrence; and given the Loving precedent, court-mandated recognition of same-sex marriage could easily follow the same path.

Becoming your enemy is always a risk; I think that the cultural conservatives have fallen into it, but-it is easy to see why “legal and procedural niceties” are being ignored, when you realize that cultural conservatives have been losing battles where the other side wasn’t constrained by those niceties, and they were, for 50 years.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Academia and Western Studies

Posted on Left2Right Selling the Curriculum 2/2/2005.

I think there is a significant difference between outsiders' attitude toward academia, and academia's attitude toward itself. This difference has showed up in several threads here--notably [not teaching english] and [affirmative action]. Academia's view of itself tends to be aristocratic; it exists to study interesting problems and should be allowed to do so with no outside accountability (only internal accountability via peer review and the like). Outsiders' view of academia is that it exists to be useful, and to the extent that we give it money, we expect something useful in return. There are several ideas of the goals toward which it is useful, but the most common two are the following: to train and enable people to take on certain roles in society and to provide a better understanding of certain practical questions. This difference in approach shows up, for example, in Pedro's comments on What’s Up at the Universities. "You may very well argue that English scholars are no longer focusing on teaching a sort of cultural canon to 'civilize' undergraduates…. The fact that they are no longer just doing that…is a good sign. It is a sign that they are asking interesting questions about culture and canons." That is an academic's statement; a non-academic will often conclude that however Shakespeare became important, being thoroughly familiar with his plays is useful, so academia should ensure that people are thoroughly familiar with them. This same difference of opinion shows up in discussing this topic.
I'm writing as an outsider, so maybe I'm missing something obvious. Why should there be a difference in funding models between the sciences and the humanities? Both are good in themselves, but are also considered to benefit society; thus, the funding is directed (both by legislatures and by donors) to areas where they consider it to be most likely to be valuable. Thus, a corporation may fund a study of subject X in science, because it thinks X would be particularly worth understanding better; clearly, that infringes on the faculty's control of the curriculum to some extent (they can't take the funding and study Y, which might be just as interesting and potentially useful), but it is commonly accepted. Why is this same direction via funding inappropriate in the humanities?
I believe the “vague and sprawling” criticism of the "Western Studies" curriculum that you make is applicable to many (not all) * Studies programs; they tend to be politically motivated, and not really a reasonable division of study. I remember hearing Al Young make this criticism of Black Studies. "You can study the theology of the Black church; you can study the history of the Black Codes; you can study the sociology of the Black communities in the northern industrial studies; but there is no body of knowledge or consistent approach that would coherently constitute 'Black Studies'". But to the extent that * Studies programs are justified, they seem to be as justified for Western Studies as for any other area studies.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Cooperation, Interdependence, and the Democrats

Posted 1/22/2005 on Matthew Yglesias in response to this piece by Timothy Burke.

I just don't think the independence vs. inter-dependence idea is sufficiently reflective of reality to work. Whatever you think of Evangelicals, Evangelical religion (both belief and practice) is very centered on interdependent communities. To the extent where non-minority communities that function as communities still exist, they are almost entirely Republican (rural areas and small towns have the strongest everyone-looks-out-for-everyone ethos). And unions? Private-sector union members are majority Republican--the Democrats lost them 20 years ago; they were the "Reagan Democrats." It's only the government-based unions (AFSCME, NEA) that are generally Democratic.

And Thresholder, you're right; President Bush is not conservative. The seriously conservative portion of the Republican Party (National Review, Club for Growth) is not very happy with him--on immigration, on NCLB, on DHS, on the growth of government spending in general, most especially on Medicare. BUT the party is stronger than he is and is growing in strength nationwide(look at state races, Senate races, House races) and is growing in strength among some traditionally Democratic constituencies (Jews because of Israel, Blacks because of homosexuality).

I think that the core issue has already been captured in this thread; the Democratic Party thinks government is the solution to most problems; Republicans (and a majority of voters) don't.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Comment 1/20/2005 on Left2Right

Biological explanations can do two things: they can justify different policies, or they can explain outcomes. I would argue that the first is almost always illegitimate, but the second is very useful.

Sam’s rule of government: governments should consider individuals as individuals, not as members of a group. Making group-based policies strengthens factionalism, increases tensions between the groups and hardens definitions of the group, and is thus dangerous and corrosive to liberty.

However, government treating people as “equal before the law” does not mean that all groups will end up proportionately represented in every field of endeavor. Studying how groups differ in ability, inclination, etc is useful for understanding why that happens.

One area of law and practice where this realization is very helpful is in anti-discrimination law. On principle, I oppose anti-discrimination law that applies to non-government actors—but that’s another issue. One big problem with anti-discrimination law as currently implemented is that numerical disparities are considered evidence of discrimination. (If there is significant under-representation of a protected group, the burden of proof is on the employer to prove that it does not discriminate.) Realizing that there can be real biological reasons that groups will not, in every endeavor, be represented proportionately, helps show why this presumption is inaccurate and can be dangerous.

Just to clarify--I believe biological differences almost never justify governments treating people differently. Most of the abuses mentioned above (eugenics, segregation) are examples of governments treating people differently on the basis of biology.

Democracy vs democracy

Posted 1/21/2005 to Left2Right

Part of the problem here is the confusion between(what I'll denote as) "democracy" (the majority rules) and "Democracy" (used by politicians and the public to denote a liberal state). So Hong Kong in 1997 was a Democracy but not a democracy; Zimbabwe today is a democracy but not a Democracy.

In practice, democracy is dangerous--as Jeff Cooper said, "It's the system that says that in a boat with 5 castaways, 3 can legitimately decide to eat the other two". There are plenty of historical examples--the Terror in France, Hitler in Germany, the Tojo government in Japan--of democracies treating minorities horrifically; pure democracy doesn't protect minorities.

When the President opposes Democracy to tyranny, he is clearly using the second meaning--Democracy as in liberty, respect for minority rights, and so forth.

The USA is not designed as a democracy; that was very clearly not the intent of its Constitution or of its Founders. Many of the un-democratic features of US government--the Senate, the Supreme Court, the Electoral college--were explicitly designed to protect minorities. First-past-the-post elections are beneficial in some ways; they protect geographical minorities, and they reduce the influence of fringe groups (Greens, nativists, etc) which is often desirable.

There are numerous national laws, though, that reduce the ability of the States to experiment with different electoral arrangements; almost all of these are in the democratic direction. For example, the Motor Voter Act and the proscription of a requirement to show ID before voting (which make effective controls on election fraud much more difficult to implement), the proscription of literacy and property qualifications for voting (which protect property-owners against others), and the proscription of geographically based voting districts in the States (although they are permitted in the Senate).

So while I certainly wouldn't argue that the US system of government is perfect, I think it does a better job of protecting minority rights, and has proven to be more stable and resilient over time, than any other system that's out there. As such, I think it prudent to let States and cities experiment, but to be very hesitant to do so at the national level.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Comment on Left2Right, 1/14/2005

Pat Robertson’s criticism of the universities is familiar; in my opinion, it has three bases.

1) The change in emphasis from learning particular bodies of knowledge to learning habits of thought. For example, most universities still do teach courses in writing; however, a much smaller proportion of college students today can write consistently formal English and get complicated grammatical structures correct than was the case 50 years ago. Similarly, a smaller proportion can list the Presidents in order, describe the main Greek philosophers and the differences among them, or summarize the main plots and characters from Shakespeare’s plays. Many traditionalists argue that the primary focus of education should be learning existing bodies of knowledge.
2) To the extent that the university is based on some body of knowledge, that body of knowledge has changed in ways that conservatives dislike, particularly within the humanities. There is much greater emphasis on race, class and gender in readings of history, philosophy, and literature; correspondingly, there is much less emphasis on Western Civilization as uniquely good. There is more emphasis on respect for different ways of thinking about morals; correspondingly, less effort is devoted to learning traditional systems of moral thought thoroughly. For me (one of the UnReconstructed), there seems to be a pervasive effort to eliminate positive portrayals of the South and the Confederacy.
3) Certain professors (whom it is to be hoped are atypical) have definitely brought politics into the classroom in inappropriate ways. Most of the horror stories center around one of two things; designing classes that presuppose particular political views and effectively exclude those who don’t share them (for example, by requiring activism on behalf of particular causes as part of the course work), or requiring agreement with the professor, in politically loaded ways, to get good grades.

These problems are not new. Changes in the body of knowledge have been happening since there were universities; the change to include philosophy in the theological curriculum was controversial in its time, as was the inclusion of modern languages in the curriculum.

Secondly, these problems seem to most frequently occur in lower-tier state schools. That’s the thing to realize about Liberty and Regent; they aren’t competing with Harvard, or even with U. Va. They are primarily competing with the second-tier state schools.

Thirdly, diversity both within and among institutions is a good thing. The attempts of some to fight the accreditation of explicitly Christian schools because they are Christian and conservative have definitely made the academy look bad. And the sense that most conservatives have of being unwelcome in the Academy at every stage (which has been endlessly discussed elsewhere) has also angered conservatives and made real diversity of opinion less common in the universities than would be desirable.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Posted in comments on Left2Right

Interesting points! I believe the taxation=theft equivalence comes from Bastiat, whose rule was that governments had no legitimate right to do anything individuals could not. Given Locke’s statements, one might argue that individuals legitimately can take from others, by force, what they need for survival.

I think, though, that the above interpretation may be mistaken. Note Locke’s words:

“As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another's plenty, as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise.”

Many political scientists put justice as the only legitimate concern of government. Charity is a moral virtue, but governments cannot force people to be charitable; they can force them to act charitably, but that harms their ability to actually BE charitable. This point is very strongly argued by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn; I am not a sufficient scholar of Locke to know whether he made this distinction, but the idea that charity is not a proper concern of government is fairly old.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Chistianity in public

Cross-posted from Left2Right
Dr. Velleman, the first thing I think of with “a cross on a city seal” is the recent controversy over the LA city seal; this has been a big deal in religious circles. (To recap, the cross was on a mission, which was one of 6 tableaux of in a seal dominated by Pomona—it was quite clearly a historical, not a religious reference.)

Josh Jasper, a good part of the “unpopularity” of being an atheist in red-state America has to do with incomprehension, not dislike. When religion is one of the three big organizations in your life and that of everyone you know, the idea that someone could be unreligious is just strange. It’s the same kind of incomprehension as that of most academics for an 18-year-old who is not planning to attend college.

In general, on discussions of religion in the public sphere, I find Stephen Carter’s The Culture of Disbelief to be very instructive; I recommend it to all of you. (And as a law professor, he documents well how laws can affect religious practice.)

There are numerous people urging the view that “America is a Christian nation”; they don’t all understand that to mean the same thing. Here are some of the recent issues that make Christians believe they’re under threat:

1) The banning of prayer in public schools. Regardless of your position on the issue, Christian prayer was the norm in many public schools until Supreme Court decision in the 1960’s; the interpretation of the Establishment Clause that forbids it is relatively new.
2) The banning of prayer at school events. This happened in the 80’s and 90’s; it is a logical extension of the jurisprudence banning prayer in school generally, but again, changes established practice to the disadvantage of Christians.
3) The frequent statements opposing “imposing your morality on others.” All law reflects a moral commitment of some sort; this language is almost always used to oppose the imposition of Christian morality, in favor of the imposition of some other moral commitment. (e.g. Canada’s use of “hate speech” laws to punish religious statements opposing homosexual behaviour.)
4) The increasingly loud opposition to religious government officials. A good deal of the opposition to Ashcroft initially, and to Judge Prior, was explicitly based on their Christian faith. (This tendency reached its culmination in the EU with the argument over confirming Buttiglione to the European Commission).
5) At Christmas, there are the inevitable fights over exactly how Christmas is presented in schools. Why is a menorah less religious than a crèche? Taken to the extremes that self-protective bureaucrats take them, such questions reach to nonsensical extremes (well-parodied in the South Park Christmas special with the “Inoffensive Winter Celebration”, and self-parodied in this year’s ban by a school principal on red and green napkins.)

All the problems of religious actions and symbolism are hugely aggravated by the size and reach of the government. If schools were chosen by parents and included both religious and secular schools, exactly what is taught about religion would not be a political fight.