Friday, November 19, 2010

On "The Statist Media"

Radley Balko proposes that the "legacy media" (i.e. mainstream media) is authoritarian, not liberal (due to their treatment of the TSA body scanner policy). I don't have much to say on this, except that these institutions cannot be pigeon-holed into any preconceived ideological categories. They have their own interests and their own culture, and this article provides some insight into that culture: The Statist Media | The Agitator

Update: The EFF provides instructions for filing complaints against the TSA.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Our own Cultural Revolution?

As an academic with some Chinese colleagues, I've heard the horror stories of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution ™. I've never even considered whether it could happen in America, but a couple of essays from conservative academics have pushed the possibility into my mind.

First, the stage is set by the class/culture war masterpiece from Angelo Cordevilla, "America's Ruling Class and the Perils of Revolution", presenting the "ruling class" as culturally disconnected from the rest of the country (oddly called "the country class", even though for the past century or so the majority of Americans have lived in cities). As is common in these criticisms of the liberal elite, academics take much of the blame for ignoring the culture of the common man, who just isn't going to take it anymore. The second reading, Whoring it in Higher Education from Jason Peters, bemoans the loss of academic integrity in the face of financial incentives. He seems to be saying that everyone involved in higher education, from the students to the professors, has abandoned the nobility of learning in favor of social status and prosperity.

The following excerpt is what reminded me of the Cultural Revolution:
I’d like to see more people with soft hands working harder, professors and students alike. I would allow no one on a liberal arts college campus to eat in the cafeteria who has not participated that week in serious food production.

And I would make more stringent demands on faculty members who enjoy arguing in the faculty dining room the merits of various single-malt scotches. Let them argue, but let them do some real work first. Let them, for example, castrate a ram for every gyro they eat.

Of course, Professor Peters is not suggesting that this solution be forced upon schools from the outside, let alone that children be separated from their parents or that unrepentant ivory tower snobs be executed. I see no reason the believe that anything like the Cultural Revolution is likely, but I wonder if there might be the slightest seed of it somewhere in contemporary political movements like the Tea Party. America is different from China of the 1960's both in the large portion of population that may qualify as "elite" (e.g. college educated) and the mobility among classes. However, if the economy continues as it has, with lawyers, bankers, and computer programmers getting additional raises even as the non-college crowd struggles to make ends meet...then maybe, just maybe.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Where's the respect?

Yesterday, I wrote that the rhetoric and political agenda of conservative Christianity can easily be interpreted as disrespectful towards those of us who don't share their religious views and policy preferences (Don't say "abortion is murder"). This rhetoric is often moralistic -- suggesting that anyone who disagrees is fundamentally degenerate, rather than simply being mistaken about one rather small part of life. The political agenda is often punitive -- insisting that certain behaviors are obligatory or prohibited, rather than simply being encouraged or discouraged.

While I believe that conservative Christians are the main source of this disrespect in public discourse, I figure that I should try to figure out where they may feel disrespected by the people whom they disagree with. Unfortunately, many public figures make constant spurious claims that Christians are the victims of frequent disrespect, yet the examples that they cite (e.g. "The War on Christmas") are typically nothing more than non-Christians challenging the cultural dominance of Christianity.

Here are the issues where I expect that conservative Christians (really, social conservatives more generally) may feel that their sense of morality is being disparaged, or that they are being prohibited from engaging in important aspects of their desired lifestyle.

  • Animal rights: There's nothing worse than being called a murderer. Animal rights activists can get pretty extreme in their rhetoric. Luckily, the absolutists have no real political or social influence. While conservatives may call these people "leftists", in fact they are just as likely to target their fellow "leftists" as anyone else. In fact, one of their favorite targets is another stereotypical "leftist" group -- biologists engaged in animal research. Another favorite target of animal rightists is the hedonistic, fur-clad cosmopolitan elite who the cultural conservatives often rail against. Regular Americans eating cheeseburgers almost never receive any attention from these people. The small-town family farm of conservative ideal is typically viewed as being a pretty humane system for producing meat. Vegetarians are definitely more common on "the left" than "the right", but they are typically pretty tolerant of us carnivores, and there isn't any reason that a Christian must eat meat (is there?). The only real conflict between traditionalists and vegetarians arises over hunting, but vegetarians will typically cede the issue if the hunters make the case that it is an important part of non-elite culture and livelihood (but British fox hunting doesn't get a pass).
  • Gun prohibition: As with hunting, some extremists will attribute base motives to people who want to own guns, such as bloodlust or a desire to dominate others (frankly, many Republicans have done a lot to connect these ideas in public perception). However, most calls for restricting gun ownership are framed as utilitarian anti-crime measures. As with meat-eating, gun ownership doesn't have anything to do with Christianity, though guns do play a role in some traditional lifestyles. The prospect of broad gun prohibition is politically plausible, but remote. If conservatives are concerned about losing their guns, that risk is nothing compared to the prohibitions that they are imposing on others.
  • Multiculturalism/Libertinism: Conservatives are often depicted as "hateful" or "dictatorial" for holding others to certain standards. This is often a reasonable response to attempts by conservatives to impose their cultural preferences on others. However, this hostile response is not justified if the conservative is trying to persuade others to change their lifestyle in the absence of coercion. But unless we have a culturally libertarian state (including unlimited immigration), non-conservatives will be justifiably suspicious that any advocacy for cultural uniformity is just a prelude to violence.
  • Abortion: Opposition to abortion is often ascribed to an attitude that women are subordinate to men. This accusation is probably made to quickly in many cases, but I cannot say that it is unprovoked; if you want to dictate major life decisions to women, be prepared to be called "sexist". While not all opponents of abortion are sexist, there is good evidence than a good portion of them are, and America traditionally was sexist, so a traditionalist should not be too shocked by this accusation.
To sum it up, these non-traditionalist moralists typically have little influence and very rarely pass legislation that severely interferes with the continuation of traditions. The only issue where I think that traditionalists could reasonably feel disrespected by mainstream attitudes is with regards to gun ownership, and even there they face rather weak opposition.

Aside from partisan posturing and attacks on politicians, most disrespect in public discourse originates from conservatives.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Let's talk, but don't say "abortion is murder"

Todd Hartch, has written an interesting essay about what drove him to get involved in the gay marriage debate at his workplace. Many of us try to avoid the topics of politics and religion at our workplaces, but things are a little different for Mr. Hartch since he's a (tenured) professor of history at a public university. He's also a socially conservative Christian, and like many conservatives, feels that he's been pressured to keep his mouth shut by the fabled "campus political correctness".

I am probably the ideological opposite of Prof. Hartch, but I liked a lot of what he said in his essay, and my first impulse is to endorse his call for his political/ideological allies to speak up. Below are some of the key points of his essay, with my thoughts interjected:

Campus Political Correctness and the Costs of Free Speech

For at least two generations, Catholics, Orthodox, Evangelicals, and other religious conservatives have sought to “get along” with the prevailing American campus culture of relativism and moral license. We have dedicated ourselves to academic excellence, to fair and balanced teaching, and to keeping a low profile. We have kept quiet in department meetings, in the faculty senate, and on university committees. We have bitten our tongues when colleagues disparaged our religion, our morality, and our most cherished beliefs. We have convinced our colleagues that religious conservatives can be surprisingly thoughtful and urbane.

The above description matches my own impression of the situation in academia (at least in the sciences). I have a number of conservative religious colleagues who allow their religious identity to be known, but don't make a fuss when they disagree with others. Political comments are often shared among like-minded colleagues, though a few faculty members will make leftist/anti-religious comments to broader audiences and sometimes earn a rebuke for unprofessional behavior.

Overall, most members of the department follow the same strategy as Hartch described. It's just good manners. There is good reason to avoid this sort of confrontation with one's colleagues. At best, it distracts from work, and it may even make it impossible for colleagues to work together.

In the end, what have such actions won for us? ...Our jobs are secure and our careers give every sign of continuing success.

We have watched, though, as our campuses veered farther and farther off course. Sexual license is now taken for granted. Mentions of abortion, homosexuality, and even bestiality [I think Hartch didn't get the joke -R] hardly merit a second glance in our campus papers. Many students have never heard a rational conservative argument about any moral issue.
I agree that rational conservative voices are hard to find. At least, it's hard to find any who can speak meaningfully about social issues to a person who doesn't share their own religious and cultural identity (Hartch is only the second such writer that I've encountered).

This is something that conservatives should keep in mind if they want to engage in thoughtful discussions with others. Hartch was bothered by derisive comments targeted at his culture, but I think that conservatives most often are the ones dishing out derisive comments. Liberals may make snide comments about conservatives in their private conversations, but conservatives regularly announce to the world that liberals are degenerates who are destroying everything good in our society. Off the top of my head, I recall a Republican candidate for Congress who attacked his Democratic opponent for supporting "San Francisco values", and the Pope recently blamed atheists for Nazism. These are mainstream conservative Christians. To further illustrate the point, conservatives regularly use moral reasoning to justify criminal punishment of many actions that others engage in (e.g. drug use).

A thoughtful conservative will have to keep this in mind when he tries to hold a conversation with others: mainstream conservatism regularly denigrates the morality of others and even threatens others with physical punishment. The epitome is probably the rhetoric around abortion. Mainstream conservatives regularly equate abortion with murder and the holocaust. If you tell your colleague that "abortion is murder", think about what you are saying. This person may have had an abortion, or may know someone who had an abortion. In that situation, you would be calling that person or their friend a murderer. That's quite a loaded word, and even if you don't mean to say that abortion should be punished by imprisonment or execution, it isn't hard for another person to make that inference (at least at an emotional level).

Many conservative positions can be viewed as threatening, and must be thoughtfully worded if they are not going to start a fight. I've seen what happens when the words "abortion is murder" are uttered to the wrong person. So, if you want to have a thoughtful conversation, don't say "abortion is murder"; you may also want to be clear to distance yourself from anyone who does make those statements in public.

Perhaps all this might be justified if students were somehow benefitting from this atmosphere of license and relativism. The opposite is the case. Most students, even at the best universities, have no passion, no love of learning. Focused on careers, at best, or, more often, on nothing at all, they approach texts that have changed the world as if they were being forced to read the dictionary. Faced with the results of painstaking research, they yawn and check their phones. They do less homework than American students have ever done before because professors have relaxed their requirements. The result is that, amazingly enough, students are bored in their modern Sodom.

What is to be done?

It’s time to speak up. It is time to make a public case for truth, for human dignity, for academic standards, and for the joy of learning. I guarantee that students will not be bored when they see us defending the truth. (I should point out that speaking up is not a synonym for being rude.)
I agree that students typically don't appreciate the opportunities that they have at a university, and faculty have a responsibility to engage them in any way possible. If that means discussing politics and morality, then so be it. If there is anyplace where Americans can have a respectful political discussion, it is on campus.

We need to go into this process knowing that the risks are real....we risk our jobs. There’s not much that can be said to minimize this threat, but I can propose that if universities make it a common practice to fire their vocally conservative professors, it will publicize our arguments more than anything we could do on our own.

Interestingly, most calls to fire politicized professors (e.g. Ward Churchill) come from conservatives. David Horowitz has made it his mission to discourage professors from discussing political, moral, or religious issues with their students.

However, let's assume that universities manage to protect the free speech rights of everyone. Professors still must not appear to be prostletyzing to their students. Hartch has provided examples of how professors can participate in these discussions outside of the classroom, but even there the power relationship between students and professors still holds. A professor will have to be impeccably respectful of others in order to avoid intimidating students into silence on this issue. I think this will be difficult if a professor such as Hartch effectively says "my sexual impulses are healthy, while yours are worthless if not destructive".

[W]e need to dialogue with those most opposed to our ideas. Some professors and students will respond to our more visible presence on campus with anger and ridicule, but some will want to understand us. With this latter group we must make every effort to communicate clearly and to forge relationships of trust and respect.
Well, good luck with all this. Such discussions should have intellectual value, and they may even overcome some of the divisiveness of mainstream political discourse. Finally, a tradition of open discussion of issues outside of one's own specialty may allow truly fringe opinions to be expressed openly. Maybe the radicals will be a bit more visible. Maybe recent immigrants will become stronger advocates for their traditional religions. There is also the chance that the anti-religious expressions that Hartch wants to counter will become much more frequent and ubiquitous as more people feel comfortable discussing these issues.

As you may have noticed, my own opinions are well outside of the mainstream (largely opposite to Hartch's). As things stand, I avoid talking about a lot of my political and moral opinions. When I do discuss these issues, I take care to avoid direct contradiction of mainstream values (though I will openly question the value of voting). I was more open about my fringe opinions during my first couple of years in college, but as I entered a more professional environment, I kept my mouth shut more and more.

Whatever happens, part of the purpose of the university is to hash out these issues and clearly expose the purely idiotic arguments that are so common in public discourse.

For further thought: International travel is part of the job description for many academics. Would open discussion of sensitive issues interfere with their ability to travel, particularly to more restrictive countries? Even in the USA, one academic was denied entrance due to what he had said about drug use, and another may have been denied entrance dues to his political opinions (since visa's can be denied without any evidence, we can't really know).

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Fraud everywhere

From News of the Weird:
A lawyer in Xian, China, filed a lawsuit in September against a movie house and film distributor for wasting her time -- because she was exposed to 20 minutes of advertisements that began at the posted time for the actual movie to begin. Ms. Chen Xiaomei is requesting a refund (equivalent of about $5.20) plus damages of an equal amount, plus the equivalent of about 15 cents for "emotional" damages -- plus an apology. [The Guardian (London), 9-8-10]
I hope she wins. In fact, I hope that she comes to America leads a billion-dollar class-action fraud lawsuit against the movie theaters and movie studios. If the movie studios will sue their audience for illegally distributing copyrighted material, then we should sue them for this sort of systematic nickel-and-dime fraud that regularly emanates from the marketing departments of corporate America.

Fair is fair, but I'm willing to accept a truce if they are.