Tuesday, 11 September 2007

All Fred, All the Time

I leave you this fine evening with poll results showing that Fred Thompson is overtaking Rudy Giuliani. I think Rudy will make a fine vice-presidential candidate. I’m sure Peg Kaplan will agree.

Yankee Watch

Both the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees won today, so Boston’s magic number to eliminate New York is down to 13. If Boston (88-58, .602) wins just half its remaining 16 games (10 of which are against teams with losing records), New York (82-62, .569) will have to go 14-4 (.777) to tie. If the Yankees win the wild-card berth, they’ll play the Los Angeles Angels or the Cleveland Indians. Either team will crush the Yankees. Expect A-Rod to go AWOL in the postseason, as he did in 2005 and 2006. (A-Rod, who is the highest-paid player in Major League Baseball, was 3-29 [.103] the past two years. I call that “sinking to the occasion.” Perhaps we should coin a new term: “the A-Rod line.” It’s like the Mendoza line, only lower.)


Here is what I wrote three years ago today, on the third anniversary of 9-11.

Conceptual Inflation

If you read anything to which I link today, read this. The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal notices that the concept of lying has been inflated—by progressives—beyond recognition. I now think I’ve underestimated the degree of inflation. A lie, strictly speaking, is the utterance of a falsehood (or what the utterer believes to be false, even if in fact it’s not false) with the intent to deceive. Some progressives use the term “lie” in a broader sense, to mean something like “the utterance of a falsehood.” Obviously, saying something false isn’t the same as lying. For one thing, the utterer may not believe it’s false. There are, after all, innocent mistakes. For another thing, there may be no intent to deceive anyone.

I now think the word “lie” has come to mean something even broader. To progressives, a lie is an utterance with which they disagree, or an utterance by a person whom they consider an enemy and wish to discredit. How often have you heard the expression “Bush lied”? On how many of those occasions was a case made for this outrageous claim? Have progressives lost their decency? Is there any limit to what they will say or do to gain political power? Does the Golden Rule have any authority to them? For surely, they would not like to be called a liar without supporting evidence. What’s next: calling all homicides “murders”? Murder is a special type of homicide, just as lying is a special type of false utterance. Imagine calling all those who kill by accident or mistake, or while defending themselves from lethal force, or while carrying out a capital sentence, or while fighting a just war, “murderers.”

There may be some good that comes of this. If the accusation of lying is made often enough, without supporting evidence, those who make it will eventually lose their credibility among those whose minds are not made up. It’s a case of crying wolf. Let us hope that the loss of credibility, if and when it occurs, is limited to progressives, for they’re the ones who have inflated the concept beyond recognition. That they did so for selfish reasons—the pursuit of power—only makes it worse.

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Absence and Innocence

My professorial salary, which is for nine months of work, is spread (at my request) over 12 months. My contract with the State of Texas begins each year on 1 September and ends on 31 May. This means that I have no obligations during June, July, or August. I can do anything I want during those months. I can practice law; I can live in a cottage in Montana; I can travel the world. In fact, I do pretty much the same thing all year around. The only difference is that I don’t teach (or attend committee meetings) during the summer. I didn’t go to campus from the time I gave my last final exam in the spring semester to the first day of class this fall, not even to pick up my mail.

For many years now, UTA employees (including professors) have had to complete a form which details their “absences.” There is a form for September, for October, and so forth. These forms are silly in the case of professors, because professors pretty much do as they please. For example, the only place I have to be, during a semester, is in the classroom at the appointed hours. (There are also occasional committee meetings.) Many professors work at home rather than in their offices. The only time I ever wrote anything other than “none” under “absences” was this past spring, when I missed two days of teaching because of influenza.

When I got to my office today, I found forms for July and August. I’ve never given any thought to these forms; I just write “none” under “absences,” sign my name, and give them to the secretary. But today it dawned on me that I should not put “none” on the forms for June, July, and August. Why? Because saying that I was not absent implies that I was supposed to be present—and I wasn’t supposed to be present during these months. I returned the forms—unsigned—with a notation to this effect. It’ll be interesting to see what reaction I get (if any).

As I drove home this morning, after teaching my Logic class, I realized that the word “absent” is ambiguous. It has both a generic and a specific meaning. In the generic sense, “absent” means, simply, “not present.” In the specific sense, it means “not present when one is supposed [or obligated] to be present.” While I was absent during July and August in the generic sense, since I wasn’t present on campus, I was not absent during those months in the specific sense, since I was not supposed [obligated] to be anywhere. Do you see the difference?

This reminded me of a debate I had with retired philosophy professor Len Carrier, who used to blog with me at The Ethics of War. I forget how the issue came up, but Len denied that animals are innocent. It was (and is) obvious to me that animals are innocent, in the same sense in which children are innocent. I now realize that we weren’t engaging one another. The word “innocent,” like the word “absent,” has both a generic and a specific meaning. In the generic sense, “innocent” means, simply, “not guilty.” In the specific sense, it means “possibly guilty but not [in fact] guilty.” While animals are innocent in the generic sense, since they are not in fact guilty of anything, they are not innocent in the specific sense, since they are not possibly guilty. The reason they are not possibly guilty is that they are not moral agents. (Only moral agents can be guilty.)

The moral of the story is that ambiguity matters. It can prevent two people from engaging one another (as in the case of “innocent”), and it can commit a person to something that he or she doesn’t intend to commit to (as in the case of “absent”).


Here is the blurb of Bob Herbert’s latest New York Times column. It sounds as though he is arguing that, since many or most of the women involved in prostitution are coerced (by whom?), prostitution should be prohibited and punished. But what about those cases in which coercion is not present? Surely it’s possible for two adults to consent to sexual intercourse for a fee. Isn’t it unjust to punish someone for an act that, while not coerced, is of a type that often is? If coercion is the problem, then coerced sex, rather than prostitution per se, should be prohibited and punished. Indeed, it already is: It’s called rape. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Herbert, since I haven’t read his column and don’t know what he’s arguing. I’m reacting to a line of argument suggested by the blurb.

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “To Ease a City’s Traffic, Shifting from 4 Wheels to 2” (news article, Sept. 4):

As someone who has traveled on two wheels in great cycling cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, I know that New York City has a long way to go before the city truly feels like a welcoming place for bicyclists.

Past city administrations have shown little faith that, if nurtured, bicycling could grow into a major transportation alternative; and they have been loath to force motorists to cede even a small part of their dominion over our streetscape.

Happily, it appears that the Bloomberg administration has grasped the fundamental point that “if you build it, they will come.” But as important as infrastructure improvements like protected bike lanes are, equally crucial is a recognition on the part of all New Yorkers that bicyclists are not interlopers on our streets, but are to be respected as legitimate users with equal rights.

This respect will gradually increase as conditions improve and bicycling rises in popularity, but the mayor could give it a huge push by launching a public information campaign with a simple message: “Bikes belong.”

Kenneth M. Coughlin
New York, Sept. 5, 2007


If this isn’t the best album ever made, then I’m a hippopotamus‘s second cousin.

A Year Ago