Tag Archives: Sarah Palin

CEO Compensation

One side effect of the economic meltdown was the creation of the loose Occupy Wall Street movement. This had the interesting effect of getting some attention paid to economic issues, such as income disparity and class issues. This attention revealed that there is significant disparity between (to use the terminology of the occupy movement) the 1% and the 99%.

As I noted in a previous essay, there has been considerable disparity between the income increases of the various classes in the United States. The after-tax income of the top 1% in the United States increased 275% from 1979 to 2007. In contrast,  the top 20% (excluding the top 1%) had a 65% increase in earnings. Those in the bottom 20% also saw an increase, but this was only 18%. As might be imagined, this has created some concern.

The disparity becomes even more extreme if one examines the income of CEOs relative to the workers. One well paid CEO, David Simon, received a pay package worth over $137 million in 2011. The national median salary is $39,312. Doing the math, that means that a person earning the media salary would need to work 3,489 years to earn what Simon received. Someone who is earning the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour would need to work 9,095 years and 11 months to earn what Simon earned last year. Of course, Simon’s pay is above average, so it would be fairer to compare the median CEO salary with the national median salary.

The median CEO salary as of May, 2012 is $9.587 million per year. A minimum wage worker would only need to work 636 years to earn that much while a person making the national average salary would need a mere 244 to match the one year income of the average CEO. Interestingly, while many workers are facing salary cuts, the average compensation for CEOs increased by 6% from 2011 (and there had been an increase from 2010 to 2011). While there is considerable debate over how to determine the value of a person’s work, accepting that this disparity is just would require accepting that the average CEO is equivalent in productivity to 636 minimum wage workers and to 244 average workers. As anyone who has every worked knows, people do vary in productivity because of skills, talents, motivation and so on. For example, one roofer might put in a roof faster and better than another and thus she would be more productive. It is even easy to imagine one worker being equivalent to many workers in terms of productivity (and this is sometimes demonstrated when people are fired and other people are forced to do these jobs as well as their own original jobs). However it seems unlikely that CEOs are the economic equivalent of superheroes and thus can produce 244 times what an average worker can produce. As such, this would seem to indicate a clear injustice in regards to the pay of those who work for the companies with well paid CEOs.

One obvious reply is that while it would be absurd to claim that one CEO can do the work of 244 average workers, it could be argued that they actually generate value equal to (or greater than) 244 workers. After all, the value of what is produced can vary greatly. To use an obvious example, when I painted houses for money, I was paid much less than I am paid as a professor. However, this is because the service I offer as a professor has more value than that of the services I offered as a painter. In part this is due to the economics of scarcity: almost anyone can work a paintbrush, but few people can teach critical thinking or ethics at the college level. In part the difference is due to the fact that when I painted, the result was just a painted house. When I teach, the result is often a person with a college degree who goes on to get a job (or create them) and contribute to society. As such, by creating more value as a professor, I thus justly earn better pay than I did as a painter. Provided that the value I produce as a professor is proportional to the pay, then the disparity between the pay of Mike the painter and Dr. LaBossiere the professor would be just.

Turning back to the CEOs, if the average CEO is able to produce 244 times the value of the average worker, then the pay disparity would be justified. While this might strike some as unlikely, it does not seem impossible. After all, the writer Suzanne Collins has made vastly more than I ever will as a writer because her book outsell mine to some absurd degree. My books in turn outsell some other authors’ books. However, the disparity does (in general) seem fair. After all, if I could write like Collins and was able to make the right connections, then I could also be a very successful author instead of a low-end scribe. As another example, the author and speaker Sarah Palin vastly out earns me. This is because many people want to buy her books and want to hear her speak. While I do sell a few books, people generally only come to hear me speak because their grades depend on it. And sometimes not even then. As such, the income disparity between myself and Palin could be regarded as just. After all, if I could only write and speak as well as she, then I surely could earn a comparable income.

In the case of the CEOs it could be thus argued that they are like the better authors-what they produce is vastly more valuable than what other workers produce and hence they justly earn their vast incomes. As such, all a defender of disparity would need to do is make a reasonable case that CEOs do generate value proportional to their compensation and that the same is true of the average workers (and minimum wage workers).

Of course, it might be countered that the ability to create such  great value depends on an economic and political system that is rife with injustice. To use an analogy, a skilled thief might “earn” much more than an unskilled thief, however it would be odd to say that the better thief has justly “earned” her wealth. The obvious counter to defend the disparity is to show that the economic and political system is just and, as such, the disparity in compensation is warranted rather than being based on exploiting an unjust system.

My Amazon author page.

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Of Limbaugh & Maher

English: Rush Limbaugh at CPAC in February 2009.

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When American radio personality Rush Limbaugh accused Sandra Fluke of being a slut and a prostitute, it created quite a stir. Folks on the left were suitably outraged and responded with both condemnations and attempts to exploit the situation to raise funds for political purposes. Some folks on the right also condemned Limbaugh’s behavior (or at least his semantics) and others pointed out that the left often seems to give a free pass to the apparently misogynist statements made by liberal celebrities, such as comedian Bill Maher.

I have seen Maher’s TV show and listened to Limbaugh’s radio program. While they certainly appeal to a specific audience, I found both of them to be fairly uninteresting and somewhat less than entertaining. Both men do, however, excel at being nasty to their opponents and both seem adept in expressions of misogyny. After all, while Limbaugh called Fluke a slut and a prostitute, Maher called Sarah Palin a “dumb twat.”Given that Maher and Limbaugh can be seen as two peas in a pod (although one is the left pea and the other the right pea), it is hardly shocking that Maher has come to Limbaugh’s defense as criticism mounts and sponsors have begun to dump Limbaugh. While there are many issues to address here, my main concern is with the ethical matters in regards to the claim that liberals like Maher often get a free pass while Limbaugh is being savaged.

It is, of course, worth considering the possibility that although the two men are being treated differently, the difference is fair. Making this claim stick would require showing a morally relevant difference between the two.

One approach that has been taken by some folks is to point out that Maher has gone  after the likes of Palin and Bachmann with his seemingly misogynistic comments while Limbaugh went after a young law school student. This approach does have some merit. After all, Palin is a public political figure and such attacks are part of the political game. In contrast, Fluke is just a young law student and hence attacking her is a different matter. To use an analogy, Palin is like an armed combatant who is a legitimate target and Fluke is like a civilian who happened to enter the combat zone. As such, attacking Palin is acceptable while going after Fluke is not.

One obvious reply is that if being in the public arena justifies such attacks, then Fluke made herself into a combatant. Metaphorically speaking, she took up arms and charged into battle-thus making her a legitimate target. However, there still seems something dubious about accepting that women who enter the public arena are thus fair game for being called “sluts” or “twats.” This takes me to the second reply.

Another obvious reply is that even though Palin is a public figure and hence fair game for harsh criticism, this hardly justifies calling her a twat. Going back to the war analogy, the mere fact that someone is a legitimate target does not entail that anything can be done to them without it being wrong. Intuitively, using misogynistic terms like “twat” and “slut” to attack women seems to be wrong. As such, if Limbaugh is in the wrong here, so are folks like Maher.

A second approach is to claim that liberals cannot be sexists using the same sort of logic that people use when they say that minorities cannot be racists or women cannot be sexists.

On the one hand, it could be argued that this is true. After all, someone who really is a liberal would seem to hold liberal views regarding women and sexism is hardly liberal.

On the other hand, this could be seen as being a bit like saying that a person cannot be a liar because they are honest. But, of course, the person might not be honest. Likewise, although liberals like Maher claim to be liberals, perhaps they are not.  After all, calling women “twats” hardly seems like enlightened liberalism. There is also the possibility that just as when we say someone is honest we do not mean that they never lie when we say that someone is liberal we do not mean that they are liberal about everything. As such, someone like Maher could be liberal in some areas and not so much in others (such as when it comes to saying hateful things about women he dislikes).

As a final point on the liberal matter, there is also the tradition of folks who love humanity but who are not so keen about actual humans. As such, a person who holds to liberal ideas in theory might not apply them to specific individuals. So, a person might profess to the liberal values of equality and be opposed, in theory, to sexism and yet not practice those values. As such, it seems quite possible for alleged liberals to be sexist. Thus, trying to defend Maher and his ilk by appealing to their liberalism does not work. In fact, this sort of appeal makes them seem worse-they appear to be failing to live up to ideals that they are supposed to hold as good liberals.

A third approach is to argue that while both men said seemingly misogynistic things about specific women, Limbaugh’s attack can be seen as a general attack on women while Maher was expressing his dislike of particular women. In the case of Limbaugh’s remarks, the implication seems to clearly be that any woman who argues for having health insurance cover contraception is a slut and a prostitute. In the case of Maher, he seems to simply be using misogynistic terms like “twat” to express his dislike of particular women. He does not, however, present a general attack that claims all women are dumb twats-just, for example, Sarah Palin.

Thus, Limbaugh could be seen as presenting what might be regarded as a misogynist position while Maher is only using misogynistic language. While this might seem like a rather fine distinction, it does have the potential to be a morally relevant difference in that Mahers might be less bad than Limbaugh in terms of what they say about women. That is, Maher is being mean to specific women he dislikes and using hateful language whereas Limbaugh is not only attacking a specific woman but also engaging in a much broader attack on women (or at least a large subset of woman). That said, some might see Maher as also attacking a subset of women, namely conservative women that Maher’s dislikes.

While I do see something of a distinction here, this does not seem to warrant giving Maher a free pass while Limbaugh is being attacked. After all, Maher is still in the wrong for using such terms.

A final approach, and one that seems to have the most merit, is to argue that there is a relevant distinction between the two men in regards to their role. While Limbaugh and Maher are both media personalities, Maher presents himself as a comedian while Limbaugh presents himself as a commentator. As such, it could be contended that the role of a comedian differs from that of a commentator in ways that warrant the difference in treatment.

On the face of it, this does have some appeal. After all, when comedic shows such as South Park include insulting material, they are often given a pass on the grounds that this sort of thing is a legitimate part of comedy. To use another example, when stand up comedians include sexist and racist remarks as part of their acts, this is typically just considered part of comedy (with some notable exceptions, of course) and not taken as racism or sexism.

One reason for this, obviously enough, is that the comedians often employ racist and sexist language to lampoon racism and sexism. That is, they are laughing at/parodying  these things rather than being racist or sexist.  In the case of Maher calling Sarah Palin a “dumb twat” it does not seem that he is using comedy to criticize sexism against women. Rather, he seems to simply be calling her a “dumb twat.” As such, another reason is needed.

Comedy, as the saying goes, is not pretty. Aristotle, in his Poetics, regards the ludicrous as a subdivision of the ugly. As he saw it, comedy  involves “an imitation of characters of a lower type” and “consists in some defect or ugliness.” Given this view of comedy, it could be argued that comics can thus be excused for ugliness and acting as “characters of a lower type.” Thus, since Maher is acting as a comedian, then he can be excused for such behavior-he is just acting within the legitimate parameters of comedy. In contrast. Limbaugh is not acting as a comedian and hence subject to criticism that Maher legitimately avoids.

That said, there seem to be some points worth considering. The first is that  while Maher is a comedian, this does not give him a free pass across the board-only in the limited context of comedy. As such, if he is acting as a commentator (like Limbaugh) then his comic cloak does not protect him.

The second point is that the comic pass is not all encompassing. Aristotle notes that while the comic character is of the lower, it is ” not in the full sense of the word bad.” He also adds that the ugliness of comedy “is not painful or destructive. ” As such, a comedian can thus exceed the bounds of comedy (as has happened in other cases, such as Michael Richard’s infamous rant) and cross over into evil. While this can be a matter that involves some degree of subjectivity, it seems quite reasonable to regard calling Sarah Palin a “dumb twat” as going beyond comedy and into what is painful or destructive. As such, Maher cannot cloak himself in comedy to avoid the criticism he is due.

A third point is that Limbaugh can also claim to be a comedian-a very good case could be made that he is playing a role and is a parody of what he professes to be. Of course, this would almost certainly not get him that free pass, for the same reason Maher’s remarks are not covered by his comedic cloak.

In light of the above discussion it seems clear that if Limbaugh should be taken to task for his “slut” comments, Maher should also be criticized on moral grounds for his misogynistic remarks. The fact that Maher has largely enjoyed a free pass shows a problem well worth considering: the wink and laugh all to often given to misogyny coming from the left.

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The Media, Gotcha Questions and Tacos

English: Sarah Palin speaking at a rally in El...

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It has long been a common practice on the right to accuse the media of having a liberal bias. Sarah Palin added a new spin on this approach by popularizing the notion of the “gotcha” question. As might be imagined, politicians continue to avail themselves of the notion that the media is out to get them.

In some cases the media does act in ways that seem to indicate that certain folks are out to get politicians. For example, CNN’s John King started off a presidential debate by asking Newt about what his second wife had said about his alleged request for an open marriage. While Newt handed King his rump on a platter, Newt also launched into an attack on the media.

On the one hand, Newt made some legitimate criticisms about how the media folks tend to bring up matters that are salacious yet lacking in actual merit as news stories. In the case of Newt, his character is relevant. However, as Newt points out, the story of his infidelity is old news and bringing it up at the start of the debate does seem to be rather uncalled for. This does, as one might imagine, raise some interesting questions about media ethics in regards to the timing of stories as well as the focus the media folks place on certain stories.

On the other hand, the media did not make up the story-Newt did, in fact, behave in ways contrary to his own currently espoused morality. Newt’s claim that the media makes it difficult for decent people to run for office seems to be questionable in that the professional media merely reports what people do and, as such, decent people would have no such sordid tales in their background. For politicians to complain that the media folks are reporting what they do and say is comparable to Meletus’ anger at Socrates for making evident his failings. The misdeed lies not with the person who reveals the misdeed but with the person who commits it.

More recently, East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. was asked by the press about the alleged harassment of Hispanics by members of the town’s police force. In reply to a very straightforward question about what he would do about the situation, he said he   “might have tacos.” As might be imagined, this did not go over very well.

While he did say he took responsibility for his actions, he also blamed the media and accused the reporter of asking a “gotcha” question. However, the question hardly appears to be anything that would legitimately count as a “gotcha” question in that it is not loaded, overly complicated, confusing, or otherwise trap-like in content. Also, the media folks presented his claim in full context. If they had, for example, asked him what he would have for dinner and then edited that in as his reply, then he could justly accuse the media of being unfair. However, he was asked a straightforward question and his reply was presented in context. As such, the only one he has to blame for his words is himself. Perhaps the biggest gripe that politicians have with the media folks is that they so often make public what politicians actually say and do (“how dare they report what I said!”). That, however, does not seem to be anything unfair or unjust on the part of the media. Rather, that seems to be their job.

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Just Doesn’t Get It

Rhetoric of Reason

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When it comes to persuading people, a catchy bit of rhetoric tends to be far more effective than an actual argument. One rather neat bit of rhetoric that seems to be favored by Tea Party folks and others is the “just doesn’t get it” device.

As a rhetorical device, it is typically used with the intent of dismissing or rejecting a person’s (or group’s) claims or views. For example, someone might say “liberals just don’t get it. They think raising taxes is the way to go.” The idea is that the audience is supposed to accept that liberals are wrong about tax increases on the grounds that its has been asserted that they “just don’t get it.”Obviously enough, saying “they just don’t get it” does not prove that a claim or view is in error.

This method can also be cast as a fallacy, specifically an ad hominem. The idea is that a claim should be rejected based on a personal attack, namely the assertion that the person does not get it. It can also be seen as a genetic fallacy when used against a group.

This method is also sometimes used with the intent of showing that a view is correct, usually by claiming that someone (or some group) that (allegedly) disagrees is wrong. For example, someone might say “liberals just don’t get it. Raising taxes on the job creators hurts the economy.” Obviously enough, saying that someone (or some group) “just doesn’t get it” does not prove (or disprove) anything. What is needed is, obviously enough, evidence that the claim in question is true. In the example, this would involve showing that raising taxes on the job creators hurts the economy.

In general, the psychology behind this method seems to be that when a person says  (or hears)”X doesn’t get it”, he means (or takes it to mean)”X does not believe what I believe” and thus rejects X’s claim. Obviously enough, this is not good reasoning.

It is worth noting that if it can be shown that someone “just doesn’t get it”, then this would not be mere rhetoric or a fallacy. However, what would be needed is evidence that the person is in error and thus does not, in fact, get it.

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Gotcha Questions

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

The Gotchas are Coming!

Sarah Palin certainly deserves credit for introducing the world to the notion of the “gotcha” question. Given the name, a “gotcha” question should be a question that is intended to trap a person in some devious or tricky manner. This, naturally enough, makes me think that perhaps Palin had in mind something like the fallacy of complex question or a loaded question.

The fallacy of complex question is committed by attempting to support a claim by presenting a question that rests on one or more unwarranted assumptions. The fallacy has the following form:

1)      Question Q is asked which rests on assumption (or assumptions) A.

2)      Therefore A is true.

This version of the fallacy is similar to begging the question in that what is in need of proof is assumed rather than properly
established.Complex question is also often defined as presenting two or more questions as if they were a single question and then using the answer to the single question to answer both questions. The answer is then used as a premise to support a conclusion. This version has the following form:

1)      Question Q is presented that is actually formed of two (or more) questions Q1 and Q2 (etc.).

2)      Question Q is based on one or more unwarranted assumptions, U.

3)      An answer, A, is received to Q and treated as if it answers Q1 and Q2.

4)      On the basis of A, U is concluded to be true.

This is a fallacy because the answer, A, is acquired on the basis of one or more unwarranted assumptions. As such, the conclusion is not adequately supported.

This fallacy needs to be distinguished from the rhetorical technique of the loaded question. In this technique a question is raised that rests on one or more unwarranted assumptions, but there is no attempt to make an argument.  In the context of law, a loaded question is sometimes referred to as a leading question.  The classic example of a loaded question is “have you stopped beating your wife?”

I think it would be quite reasonable (and colorful) to refer to complex and loaded questions as “gotcha” questions. However, this view of “gotcha” questions is based on there being some sort of trap or unwarranted assumption in the question. That is, the “gotchaness” is a property of the question. This does not, in practice, seem to match how Palin uses the term. After all, in defending her mistakes regarding the ride of Paul Revere she claimed that the question “”What have you seen so far today and what are you going to take away from your visit?”” was a “gotcha” question. The question itself does not seem to have any tricks, traps, or unwarranted assumptions built into it. In fact, it seems like an easy and innocuous sort of question. As such, either she is wrong about it being a “gotcha” question or she means something else by the term.

If she is not in error, then the most plausible account of the “gotcha” question is that it is defined not by what is asked but by what Palin answers. To be specific, if she gives a rather bad answer to a question, then it is a “gotcha” question, regardless of the content of the actual question. Presumably anyone can help themselves to this defense. So, if you give an incorrect or embarrassing answer to any question, be sure to insist that it is a “gotcha” question. That will surely show that either you are not accountable for your answer or that your answer is, in fact, right.

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The Nanny Corporation

Nanny and the Professor

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While the “nanny state” is commonly presented as a bugbear, there is typically little talk of the nanny corporation. Like the nanny state, the nanny corporation acts to control people “for their own good.” Interestingly, this is a rather old idea: Henry Ford docked his workers’ pay if they smoked, drank or visited hookers.

While all companies impose a certain degree of tyranny at work (think about all the rules for decoration, dress, behavior and so on that go beyond mere professionalism), the nanny corporation purports to have the right to control people outside of work.

For example, Scotts Miracle-Gro does random urine tests for nicotine. Those who fail are fired. As such, the company demands that workers not smoke-even on their own time. As another example, Clarian Health fines employees $10 per check for being fat and $5 each time they exceed the allowed levels for glucose, blood pressure and cholesterol on regular tests. These are, of course, the sort of impositions that folks who loath the nanny state rail against.

It might be argued that since employees are free to leave a job, these “nannyisms” are a matter of free choice and thus are not truly impositions. After all, a person who wants to smoke can simply elect to not work for Scotts Miracle Grow. In the case of the state, people have far less choice. While they can leave the country, this is something  rather more difficult than merely seeking a different job.

That said, it could be argued that the nanny state is, at least in the case of democracies, also a matter of choice. People vote for or against the nannyisms and are obligated, as per John Locke;s arguments,  to accept the results of these votes (with some notable exceptions that would justify rebellion and resistance). As such, the nanny state would be little worse than the nanny corporation and if choice justifies the nannying, then the state nannyisms wold be just as justified as those of corporations.

It might also be argued that the corporations are merely acting in the way they are supposed to act: to maximize profits. While this nannying might be seen as for the workers’ own good, these impositions actually aim at the bottom line. Healthy employees are more productive, have fewer sick days and cost the company less in health care. As such, nannying is a way to enhance profits or, at least, lower costs.

Of course, proponents of the nanny state can avail themselves of the same sort of argument. Citizens who take poor care of themselves and engage in risky behavior are a greater burden on the public than people who take care of themselves and elect to follow healthy behavior patterns. As such, the same sort of financial and productivity argument can be given. After all, what is good for Miracle Grow is thus good for the nation.

Naturally enough, some people (such as myself) find the public and private nannying to be rather undesirable. After all, as Mill effectively argued, as long as I am a competent adult and not harming others, then I should not be forced to act as others think I should act. Even if it is, in fact, for my own good.

Of course, the argument that the individual is being imposed upon for the general good (or corporate profits) does have some bite. An unhealthy employee who is unhealthy through his/her own choices and actions is unfairly harming the company with lowered productivity, more missed days, and often greater costs. As such, the company would seem to have the right to impose to avoid said harms and fire workers who refused. Likewise, the state has the right to impose on citizens in order to avoid the harms that would accrue from their poor choices regarding health and behavior.

People should, however, have the chance to opt out. As noted above, people who wish to engage in behavior that goes against company policy can find another job. If they prefer to behave in harmful ways, then they cannot expect the company to bear the cost of this behavior. In the case of citizens, they should also have the option to opt out. This can be done by leaving or, less extremely, by forfeiting their claims to state support. So, for example, a person could elect to smoke and forgo buying health insurance. However on that day when she finds she has lung cancer, she cannot expect the state (that is, the rest of us) to pick up the tab for her. She had her choice and, as they say, choices have consequences. While it might be argued that such people would still be owed care and support, the failure would not be on the part of the state. Rather, the person could see who failed them by looking in the mirror. Naturally,  citizens can also seek to change the laws so that they can behave in unhealthy ways and yet still have others bear some of the costs for them.

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Freedom of (Angry) Expression

After the terrible shootings in Arizona, some folks rushed to use the spilled blood as fuel in their political machines. Some hurried to blame the right, especially Sarah Palin and her infamous map of “surveyor symbols.” Others leaped to place the blame on the left.

Among the more reasonable folks and experts the consensus arose that the shooter was motivated by neither the right nor the left. Rather, he seemed to have made his choice under the influence of his own troubled mental states. As such, the blame seems to rest (as it should) primarily on the person who pulled the trigger. This incident did, of course, raise legitimate concerns about various relevant issues such as whether or not more laws should be created in the hopes of preventing another incident like this one.

Some people do, of course, want to pass laws against  speech containing violent rhetoric and images that are suggestive of violence-at least when these are directed at politicians.  The hope is, naturally enough,  that such laws will help prevent future incidents.

Those who traffic in angry rhetoric were quick to angrily denounce such proposals as violating their right to free expression. While I am not in agreement with the angry rhetoric, I do agree that such laws would tend to violate that right. I also contend that such new laws are neither needed nor desirable.

One reason to not add new laws is the obvious fact that actual threats of violence are already against the law. As such, there does not seem to be a compelling need to add new laws to make illegal what is already illegal.

However, some of the suggestions involve laws that go beyond outlawing actual threats. The idea seems to be that new laws should cover vaguely threatening rhetoric and suggestive images.

While this might have some appeal, to expand the laws to restrict expression that might merely be seen as vaguely threatening or suggestive of violence (like cross hairs on a map) would seem to infringe too far into the freedom of expression without adequate justification. After all, restricting the freedom of expression requires justifying that restriction-typically on the basis of harm or potential harm. Something that merely seems threatening or suggestive does not seem to be harmful enough to warrant such a restriction.

These two points could be combined into something of a dilemma: if an act of expression is an actual threat, then it is already covered by existing laws and hence no new law is needed. If an act of expression cannot be classified as an actual threat, then it would seem to be protected by the freedom of expression and hence no new law is needed. Thus, there would seem to be no need for new laws in this area.

There is also the practical concern that laws vague enough to cover what is vaguely threatening or suggestive of violence could easily be misused by politicians against their opponents and critics. This would, as some have said, have a chilling effect on free speech.

In light of these reasons, it would seem that no new restrictions on expression should be made into laws. This, oddly enough, puts me in agreement with folks who want to continue to use angry and violent political rhetoric. However, I do disagree with them in a key way.

While I do agree that people should be free to spew hateful rhetoric that does not cross over into actual threats and incitements to violence, I also believe that people should tone down the violent rhetoric and the anger. At the very least, people should consider whether their anger is proportional to reality. Political discussion and the general good are not well served by vitriol. They are not aided by disproportionate anger. They are not enhanced by rage. While we do have disagreements, we should remember that we are not blood enemies and that we can discuss our differences in a rational way, free of allusions to violence. Before sputtering in rage, we should think of those people lying dead on the tar and temper our words. After all, their blood shows us the true fruits of hatred and rage.

My point is, of course, that there is an important distinction between what people should be allowed to express and what they should choose to express. To use an analogy, there should be no law that forbids spouses from referring to each other as “whore”, “sh@thead” and so on. However, spouses really should not use such language with each other. Likewise for the angry rhetoric-people have the right to use it, but they should really consider not doing so.

Night thoughts on vigilantism

Suppose that you’re the American media, and you’re trying to make sense of the recent mass murder and attempted assassination in Arizona. There are many simple ways that you can try to come to terms with the event. And since you’re the American media, you are going to treat the process of explanation as if it were as easy as doing a multiple choice test. So the murders happened because a) Jared Loughner is crazy; or they happened because b) America’s crazy; or, c) We don’t know one way or another. Using the pencil provided, pick one (1) option that best fits your answer.

You can predict which answers people will give by asking them their party affiliation and political ideology. Partisan Democrats will point to SarahPAC‘s crosshairs. Ideological democrats will tend to be skeptical that we can tell a simple causal story that will explain these seemingly unexplainable acts. And Republicans will say: he was mentally incompetent, and had nothing to do with the right-wing regime.

Me? — I’d have a hard time filling out my Scantron sheet. Based on the evidence, it’s reasonable to think that Loughner is not mentally competent. But I don’t know if the alleged assassin is mentally competent — that’s one of the things that we’re going to have to find out. And I don’t know if the climate of hostility is responsible for the actions of someone who is not mentally competent, because I don’t know how you go about holding a culture responsible for anything. But that doesn’t mean that the culture of violence and vigilante justice didn’t help cause it.

That’s option d): all of the above.

~

While we may not know much about the details of the case, we certainly do know that post-9/11 politics is unhinged from reality. The right-wing noise machine is the vanguard of the American Tea Party movement. We also know that the vanguard of the Tea Party self-consciously attempts to goad people into violence against civilians. And we know that Loughner was influenced by the right-wing group American Renaissance. So if the right-wing vanguard has created a society that acts as an incubator for violent resentment, and if this culture gave an outlet for a disturbed mind, then it would be a plausible explanation for why Loughner’s actions took the form that they did.

I can hear some of you gentle readers bristling at one of these premises. You might think that it is very bold for someone to say, “so-and-so self-consciously attempts to goad people into violence”. Like Jon Stewart, you might shudder at any suggestion that there is a causal connection between the culture of vigilantism and Loughner’s attack.

But you have no right to bristle. There’s no reasonable doubt that their explicit intent is to legitimize violence against civilians. Consider these opinions about the fate of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange:

“I’d like to ask a simple question: Why isn’t Julian Assange dead? …Why wasn’t Assange garroted in his hotel room years ago? It’s a serious question.” Jonah Goldberg, National Review Online

“Julian Assange should be targeted like the Taliban.”Sarah Palin

“This fellow Anwar al-Awlaki – a joint U.S. citizen hiding out in Yemen – is on a ‘kill list’ [for inciting terrorism against the U.S.]. Mr. Assange should be put on the same list.”G Gordon Liddy, former Nixon advisor and ex-felon

And so on. That is their vision of justice. As a corporate whole, they think they’re The Punisher. The vanguard believes in do-it-yourself homicide, not law and order or due process. Vigilantism is a lynchpin of the Tea Party ethos.

Notice: I am not saying that the case of Julian Assange is identical to that of Gabrielle Giffords. Nor do I bring it up in order to suggest that Loughner was directly influenced by the right-wing vanguard — presumably, he has never met Palin in person, for instance. My point is that you can’t underestimate the causal role of a climate of violence. You might absolve the vanguard of responsibility for crimes committed by irrational actors — but you can hold the vanguard accountable for bringing about the culture.

vanguard1

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To see what I’m arguing against, consider Brandon’s recent post (at the philosophy blog Siris). Brandon rightly calls for moderation and temperance by saying:

In cases like this it is important not to over-read the evidence. There is at present no evidence whatsoever linking Loughner to Sarah Palin, and no evidence whatsoever that Loughner was influenced by Palin’s crosshairs list (or, since it had become a popular device in the past three or four years, any of the many bullseye/crosshairs/target lists, Republican or Democrat, that predate Palin’s). There is at present, in fact, no clear association of Loughner with any political group… All these are rather elementary examples, and don’t require much more than basic critical thinking skills and a little research.

(Note: this was written before we found out that Loughner is associated with American Renaissance, so it’s not fair to criticize Brandon for not making that connection.)

The quoted paragraph includes a red herring. For, the way I see it, the “climate of violence” argument doesn’t depend on us knowing anything about Loughner’s “link” to Sarah Palin. A culture is a feature of populations, not just particular interacting persons. You don’t need to know the details about how a society connects specific people with other specific people in order to understand how the culture has had a predictable influence. You just need to establish that the person plays some role in the culture, and that the culture has certain features. By analogy, we will sometimes explain a case of the flu by saying, “there’s a flu going around” — we don’t bother going through the effort of naming the exact person who gave you the virus.

I find it puzzling that Brandon seems to want more evidence before we can offer responsible explanations on the basis of what we have. Our explanations will, of course, be revisable and tentative. And just because we say that the Tea Party helped cause these events, doesn’t mean we’re entitled to lay the blame on particular people. But we can sure blame particular people — the vanguard — for making the culture in the first place.

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There is another possible objection. You might say that, even if the climate of violence played some role in Loughner’s crime, it would still not be Palin’s fault for producing that culture of violence. The idea is that there is some analogy between Palin’s role in the Tucson murders and Marilyn Manson’s role in the murders at Columbine. In the next post,  Some time soon, I’m going to show you how this analogy is completely off base.

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The Real

As a professor (and even worse, a philosophy professor) I have become accustomed to people talking about the real world as a land far from the ivory tower in which I am supposed to dwell. Naturally I, and folks who are supposed to be like me, are not supposed “to get” how the real world works. Thanks to Sarah Palin and others, I have also grown familiar with the idea of a Real America, which is also presumably a place where I do not live. Not surprisingly, all this talk of the real got me thinking.

When folks accuse me, as a professor, of not being in the real world I tend to smile a bit. After all, there is a certain irony in accusing a philosophy professor of being far from the real world or not “getting” the way the real world works. This is because, obviously enough, of Plato’s famous discussion of the distinction between the lovers of wisdom (philosophers) and the lovers of sights and sounds. For Plato, the true philosophers were the ones who deal with the real.  The real for Plato is, of course, those mysterious forms. The other folks, those who seem to now claim to be the kings of the real, were characterized as merely playing with images and opinions.

Naturally, talking about Platonic forms and other philosophical stuff does little to convince folks that I  do not live many zip codes removed from the real world. As such, it seems like a reasonable approach to set aside talk about unseen realities and take a somewhat different approach.

One reasonable approach involves considering what is supposed to distinguish the real world from the sort of world that I and other philosopher types are supposed to reside.

On the face of it, my “world” seems to be just as real as the “world” of the folks who accuse me of keeping it unreal. After all, the buildings seem solid enough as do the people around me. I do work, I get paid, I interact with people, and do the things that other folks do. As such, my “world” just seems to be part of the world, rather than an unreal realm distinct from the allegedly real world.

But, someone might say, you philosopher types deal with things that are not real. You live in books, talk about made up ideas and so on. In the real world we deal with real things.

One obvious reply is that the “real” world contains an abundance of made up ideas and other such things that are supposed to be part of the unreal world. To use an obvious example, consider politics. As another obvious example, consider the financial system. The so-called real world seems no more (or no less) real than the world of philosophers and other academic folk.

But, suppose that I am willing to accept that the “world” I occupy is not the same as the “real” world. That is, that there are differences between what I do in my professional life and what, for example, people who are bankers, construction workers, engineers, financial planners, bureaucrats, priests, and so on do. There is still the obvious question as to why their “way of life” should be considered real and mine should be considered unreal.

This would seem to take us to the old saw that philosophy in particular and intellectual endeavors in general are useless. The real world is the world in which people bake, build and kill rather than think, talk and write. However, this seems to be a mere prejudice on par with intellectuals looking down on those who bake and build for not discussing Proust over lattes in the cafe. These “worlds” seem to all be quite real. I see the value in being able to repair a two stroke engine (having done it myself), cook a fine steak (or tofu) or put a round through a person’s head at 800 meters (haven’t done that, but could). I can also see the value in being able to consider various moral views, speculate on the nature of the universe or do mathematical proofs.

This is not to say that different professions are not different and that some professions (or specific people) might be less than useful. However, the blanket dismissal via the use of “the real world” seems to have no real substance.

As far as “getting it” or being part of the Real America (or Real Britain or whatever), this seems to be primarily a rhetorical device. Merely saying that someone does not get it or accusing them of not being Real Xs does not prove that they are in error or morally wrong. For example, someone might tell me that I “just don’t get it” when it comes to taxes and government spending because I argue that cutting the deficit requires increasing some taxes and reducing major expenditures, such as defense spending. Obviously enough, no matter how many times someone says that I do not “get how the real world works” or that I am not part of the Real America, he does not show that my view is in error.  What is wanting is, of course, an argument that shows that I am, in fact, in error.

In many cases it seems that accusing someone of “not getting it” or “not understanding the real world” or of not being “real whatever” is merely another way of saying “they don’t believe what I believe” or “they don’t see the world as I see it” or “they do not have the same values as me.” Obviously enough, the mere fact that someone has different beliefs, views or values does not prove that these beliefs, views or values are inferior or mistaken. Of course, the use of such rhetorical devices can be rather effective. After all, the real people want to get it.

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America, Iran & The Obedient Mind

Reading Maziar Bahari’s article about his ordeal in Iran reminded me very much of the novel 1984 and all the other descriptions of “interrogations” I have read. Thinking about this, I began to suspect that there is a core authoritarian mindset that remains the same across a wide variety of ideologies. In the case of Maziar Bahari’s horrible ordeal in Iran, he faced this mind in the form of Mr. Rosewater-his primary tormentor. While Mr. Rosewater is an individual, he is token of a type-that of the authoritarian mind.

The first, and most obvious, quality of this mind is that it is obedient to authority. While Milgram‘s famous experiment showed that most people seem to be naturally obedient, the authoritarian mind takes this obedience to a greater extreme. While the obedience does come in degrees, the truly authoritarian mind reaches a state of almost unquestioning obedience. This sort of obedience is, of course, critical to rulers everywhere-without such “dogs” (as per Animal Farm) they would lack an essential tool of their power. These “dogs” are the people who tortured Bahari, the people who ran the Nazi camps, and those folks who tortured in the name of defending freedom and democracy.

The second quality of this mind is a self-fulfilling paranoia. This sort of person sees any disagreement as the mark of an enemy, thus often forcing such people to become enemies in fact. Hobbes, of course, took this sort of view in the Leviathan when he noted that people see a failure to agree as the mark of disagreement and that people react with hostility to such things. Of course, the authoritarian mind takes this to a greater extreme than normal and tends to be willing to take violent action against those who disagree.

The third quality of this mind is a distrust and fear of the freedom of thought and expression. As such, these people tend to regard intellectuals and journalists as natural enemies. After all, people who think tend not to obey unquestionably and they often raise difficult moral concerns by failing to see the world as those in power wish it to be seen. Journalists, at least those not owned by the state, have a tendency to report unpleasant truths rather than the official “truths” of those in power.

Interestingly enough, both the hardliners in Iran and those in the United States have very similar views about the intellectuals and the media. In both countries, these folks blame the media for creating dissent, undermining the state, and encouraging immorality. The intellectuals and elites are also criticized and regarded as enemies. After all, these people are out of touch with “the people” and are not part of the true America/Iran.  Needless to say, it was interesting to learn that Mr. Rosewater’s view of the media is the same as that of Sarah Palin.

Of course, the dislike of the authoritarians for folks who think and talk is ancient. The sort of people who killed Socrates are the same sort of people who tortured Bahari.

The fourth quality is a flexible moral absolutism. In general, authoritarian folks believe that their cause or side is absolutely right. They also tend to hold to an absolute moral view of pure good and evil: the enemy is pure evil while they are pure good. This is often associate with a religion (for example, Islam in Iran and Christianity in the US).

What makes their absolutism flexible is that although they see the world in absolutes, they accept that they can do terrible things in service to their cause. For example, Mr. Rosewater worked very hard trying to paint Bahari as a morally evil man. Meanwhile, Mr. Rosewater was beating Bahari, subjecting him to mental torment and keeping him locked away for no legitimate reason. That is, Mr. Rosewater was evil and doing evil things. Likewise, in the United States people advocated using torture and imprisonment without trial and justified this by claiming that America is good and hence must be protected.

But, perhaps the authoritarians are not really flexible absolutists. Perhaps they just have two absolute principles: “my cause is right, so anything done its defense is also right” and “my enemies are wrong, so anything they do is wrong.” These two principles do seem to nicely capture the authoritarian mind.

A fifth quality of the authoritarian mind is a lack of concern about truth. In the case of Mr. Rosewater, his goal was not to find out the truth about reality (that Bahari was just a journalist and not a spy or agent). Rather, his goal was to impose a “truth” upon reality. For the authoritarian mind, “truth” is not something that one finds by objective investigation. The “truth” is provided by those above and it is “confirmed” by the use of force and torture. For example, if the authorities say that Bahari is a spy, then Mr. Rosewater would torture him to get him to say that he is a spy, thus “confirming” the “truth.” In contrast, real journalists and “intellectuals” investigate reality to see what the truth is-yet another reason why authoritarians hate intellectuals and journalists they do not control.

Authoritarians might also think that other people do what they do in this regard and this might also help explain this hostility. After all, if they think that the intellectuals and media people are trying to impose “truth” on the world, they would see these people as competitors to their “truth” and hence enemies. Perhaps the idea of objective truth is foreign to the authoritarian mind (as nicely illustrated in 1984).

Not surprisingly, authoritarians are terribly dangerous and help make small and great evils possible. Unfortunately, criticism of them generally tends to reinforce their paranoia as they see any criticism as an attack (especially if it is true). For example, criticism of Iran tends to simply make the hardliners take an ever harder line as they see more and more “evidence” that their paranoia is correct.

They also tend to be immune to reason and moral appeals-they are, after all, confident in their own moral goodness and regard reason as an attempt to create dissent.

So, then, how do we deal with such people? In some cases, they can be reached-after all, they are still human. For example, Bahari’s article reveals a great deal about Mr. Rosewater, such as the fact that he seems to truly love his wife. In some cases, these people cannot be reached and then it comes down to what they understand quite well-force.

Perhaps the best way to deal with this sort of person is by increasing the numbers of people who are not them. While authoritarians are very dangerous because of their willingness to obey and do terrible things, they are obviously not superhuman. As such, their power can be countered by numbers of people who are willing to resist them and the evils that they defend.

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