Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Twenty Years Ago

5-23-87 . . . A few days ago one of our naval vessels, the USS Stark, was struck by an Iraqi missile. Iraq has been at war with Iran for several years, and apparently our ship was there to protect our oil interests. Iraq immediately apologized for the strike, calling it an “accident.” President [Ronald] Reagan has accepted the apology and spent the past couple of days mourning for the thirty-seven American sailors killed. That’s the most disgusting thing of all. There on television are the president and his wife, Nancy, crying, kissing mourning parents and spouses, and carrying on. You would think that the victims had had no idea that there was risk involved in what they were doing. But stop to think about it for a moment. You volunteer for the military, you volunteer or are assigned to one of the world’s most volatile spots, the Middle East, and you get killed. Should we say that this was a tragedy? No. It was an assumption of the risk. Were the sailors heroes, as Reagan said in a speech? No. They were just doing their job. As you can see, I’m a bit disgusted by the whole incident: first, because Americans were there in the first place; second, because Reagan made political hay of it; and third, because he mischaracterized what happened and those who were killed. Whatever happened to honesty?


As many of you know, I subscribe to First Things. I read every word of every issue and quote some of its authors in this blog. Guess what? I’ve canceled my subscription. Let me explain why, for it sheds light on a bad (perhaps a fraudulent) business practice. When I subscribed, I was promised one year’s worth of issues. The card said, in parentheses, “12.” It then added, “Plus two free issues.” That’s 14, right? 12 + 2 = 14. At about the time my 12th issue arrived, I got a notice saying that it was my final issue. I wrote back (via e-mail) saying that I had two more issues to go. One of the interns wrote that he was passing my e-mail on to the appropriate person. A day or so later, a woman wrote to me to say that I had misunderstood the offer. There are, she said, only 10 issues per year. When added to the two free issues, therefore, I was to receive 12, not 14. I protested that the offer was, at best, ambiguous, and made it clear that if I don’t receive two more issues, I’m canceling my subscription. I never heard from her again.

Let’s think this through. Assume, for the sake of argument, that the offer was ambiguous, even though it was not. (I’m a lawyer and a philosopher. I’m hypersensitive to meanings.) You would think that First Things would give me the two issues I expected to receive, in order to keep me as a subscriber. After all, I’m not responsible for the ambiguity. I acted in good faith. Now assume, again for the sake of argument, that I’m in the wrong—that the offer clearly and unambiguously indicated that I would receive only 12 issues. Wouldn’t it still be in the interest of First Things to give me the two issues, since not to do so would be to lose me as a subscriber? Can a business this unfriendly (or stupid) survive? Maybe not. I see today that First Things is begging for money. Deal with this publication at your peril.


As usual, Thomas Sowell nails it. Meanwhile, Dick Morris argues that Republicans should support the immigration bill, on the ground that—wait for it—it’s in their political interest to do so. Okay, but what’s in the nation’s interest? Is everything just politics? Have we lost the capacity to evaluate measures on the basis of whether they’re good for the nation as a whole? I can’t think of any issue that’s more important than immigration. It will determine whether this nation retains its distinctive character, values, culture, traditions, and language. Indeed, it will determine whether this nation remains a nation (as opposed to a mere place).


I feel sorry for this little boy, who will grow up without a father.

Utilitarianism and Iraq

I’m still waiting for a utilitarian analysis of the situation in Iraq. Where is Peter Singer? Where is William Shaw? Where are J. J. C. Smart, Shelly Kagan, Brad Hooker, David Brink, L. W. Sumner, R. G. Frey, Jonathan Glover, Timothy Sprigge, D. W. Haslett, Philip Pettit, Peter Railton, and Derek Parfit? Utilitarianism is purely forward-looking, so what took place in the past is irrelevant to what the United States should do now. Even if it was wrong of the United States to invade Iraq, in other words, it might also be wrong for it to withdraw. What is likely to happen if the United States withdraws its military forces from Iraq? Will there be a civil war? Will al Qaeda assume control of the country; and if so, what will it do? Will Iran invade Iraq? Utilitarians believe that a person is as responsible for what he or she allows as for what he or she does, so if tens of thousands of people would be killed as a result of a United States withdrawal, the United States would be responsible for their sufferings and deaths. It may be that no matter what the United States does at this juncture, tens of thousands of people will be killed. The question is which course of action, of all those available to us, will produce the fewest deaths (actually, the greatest net sum of utility). Utilitarians also insist on strict impartiality, which means that the death of an American soldier is no more important than that of an Iraqi, even an Iraqi who is bent on mass murder. Utilitarians such as Singer were quick to condemn the invasion. It’s interesting that they have nothing to say about what should now be done. If you know of a utilitarian analysis of the situation in Iraq, please bring it to my attention.


Here is a scene from today’s stage of the Giro d’Italia, won by Italian Alessandro Petacchi. The Giro moves into the high mountains tomorrow. See here for the frightening stage profile.

John M. Ellis on Academic Zealotry

The change within the campus left occurred in part because some new departments (such as women’s studies) were founded by political activists. But that’s not the whole story. For a more complete explanation we must turn to Mill again. With respect to the two major strains of political thought, Mill said, “it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity.” This remark gives us the meaning of the rise of radicalism within the campus left: where there are no right-of-center voices to keep the left intellectually on its toes, the once thoughtful analysis of the campus liberal left will degenerate into the incoherence of the radical left. The academic’s focus on careful analysis of and abstraction from all relevant evidence gradually gives way to the zealot’s selective use of partial evidence to bolster trains of thought fathered by political wishes and even fantasies, not by fact. Here Mill puts his finger on the mechanism that is at work as the one-party climate degrades the intellectual quality of the academy until, in his words, it breaches the limits of reason and sanity. This is where all of those campus horror stories come from; they are not atypical and isolated—they are the symptoms of a sickness that is systemic. Thus nonsensical conspiracy theories about 9/11 as the work of the U.S. government itself are what we must expect when the campus descends into a political monoculture.

(John M. Ellis, “How Serious Is the Damage?” Academic Questions 20 [winter 2006-07]: 14-21, at 16)


For better or for worse, more and more academics are starting blogs. Here is the new blog of Harvard economist George Borjas, who has interesting things to say about immigration. By the way, I have said disparaging things about economics in the past. I have said, for example, that economics is “politics disguised as social science.” This is an indictment not of economics as it might be, or should be, but of economics as it all too often is. Economists, as such, have no evaluative expertise. Like philosophers, they are technicians. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which it is seen as boring to perform technical tasks. Everyone wants to make policy.


I still chuckle about the e-mail I received a couple of years ago. I had said in this blog that the American Civil Liberties Union is a left-wing organization. The letter writer vehemently denied it and demanded that I back up my claim. I was speechless, for it’s obvious to anyone but a left-wing zealot that the ACLU has long since abandoned the defense of civil liberties. Its aim is not to protect individuals from the state; it is to engineer society so that it conforms to a progressive vision. See here for Wendy Kaminer’s column about the ACLU.

Addendum: In case you’re wondering, I have no problem with progressive organizations. I do have a problem with false advertising. The ACLU should change its name to “Progressive Civil Liberties Union,” or perhaps the “American Progressive Union.”

Best of the Web Today



One minute I think Hillary Clinton doesn’t have a chance to be elected president. The next I think the office is hers for the taking. See here for a story. Suppose Hillary is elected. Will there be as much hatred for her emanating from the right as there is for President Bush from the left? Are conservatives more civil than progressives?

Addendum: Hillary Clinton is running third in Iowa, behind John “Pretty Boy” Edwards and Barack “I’m Tired” Obama. Not surprisingly, some members of the Clinton campaign want to skip Iowa.


The Anglican church is in upheaval over homosexuality. Any predictions as to how things will turn out?


How can you take seriously a movie reviewer who can’t resist taking cheap shots at politicians with whom he or she disagrees? A. O. Scott of The New York Times is one such reviewer. Read the second review here. Key paragraph:

Viewed alongside some other American entries here—David Fincher’s “Zodiac” and Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old Men”—“Death Proof” provides one of those festival coincidences that can sometimes be taken for a theme. All three films have at their center a serial killer who acts without apparent motive or sense—a manifestation of pure evil beyond the reach of reason and, in two cases out of three, of justice. In contrast with their Asian and European counterparts, American filmmakers in Cannes seem to operate in a Manichean moral universe. Perhaps our role is to keep the world supplied with bad guys. But only in the movies, right?

Is Scott saying that there are no good or bad guys? Does he deny the reality of evil? Worse, is he suggesting that if it weren’t for Americans, there would be no “bad guys”? Has Scott read any history?

Hall of Fame?

Steve Garvey. (For an explanation of this feature, see here.)

Home Schooling

One of my friends (a former student of mine) asked for advice about whether to home-school his son. The friend is able and willing to do it, but doesn’t know whether he should. I advised against it. I would never send a child to public schools, which are little more than cesspools, but there’s a third option: private school. One of my colleagues sent his two children to a private (but to my knowledge nonreligious) school. One of the children is now in a private college. I think this is how I would go, even though it would be expensive. What better gift to give your children than a high-quality education? Studies show that children are influenced far more by their peers than by their parents, so home-schooling your children as a way of shielding them from the pernicious influences of their peers (or the larger culture) is bound to fail. The question is not whether they will be influenced by their peers, but which peers they will be influenced by. Children in private schools are expected to meet demanding standards. When they look around, they see highly motivated students, not slackers. I’m leery of home-schooling for many reasons, not least of which is that education should be a social experience. I, for one, loved the competitive atmosphere of the classroom. It brought out the best in me. Who would I be competing against if I were taught at home? Any thoughts you can provide on this matter are welcome. I’m sure my friend and his wife will take them to heart as they deliberate about what to do with their son.