Sunday, 23 December 2007


I leave you this fine evening with an essay by Arthur Herman.

Twenty Years Ago

12-23-87 . . . While browsing in the library, I happened upon a 1971 article by P. H. Nowell-Smith [1914-2006] entitled “Cultural Relativism”. [P. H. Nowell-Smith, “Cultural Relativism,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 1 (January 1971): 1-17.] I read it tonight. What a brilliant writer and analyst Nowell-Smith is! He distinguishes four theses that a relativist might make and then shows how they are related and what sort of thesis each is. I may use the article in my next Introduction to Philosophy course. As Craig Gabriel and I have discussed many times, our students tend to be relativistic about morals and truth. “What’s right for one person or culture may not be right for another”, they say. But this platitude is ambiguous. In part, it’s the ambiguity that makes it so attractive and so immune from refutation. So the first step in refuting relativism is to pull things apart, to get clear on what kind of claim it is and what sort of consideration or evidence would refute it. Nowell-Smith does this in his article. I enjoyed it.

Jonathan Wolff on Democracy

In a direct democracy the electorate votes for or against laws or policies, rather than for candidates. Ideally, every major issue is put before the entire electorate, by way of referendum. A representative democracy, on the other hand, is the more familiar system in which the citizens vote to determine who will represent them at governmental level. It is these representatives who then go on to make laws. The former system, it seems, is truer to the pure spirit of democracy, yet it is virtually unknown in the modern world. Modern democracies adhere to the representative model, in which elections are used to determine who will form the government, rather than to decide the particular issues of the day. But if this representative system is thought undemocratic, then almost no democracies have ever existed on any large scale. This conclusion is drawn by many critics of contemporary ‘liberal democracy’. Democracy would be a fine thing, they say, if only we had it.

(Jonathan Wolff, An Introduction to Political Philosophy, rev. ed. [New York: Oxford University Press, 2006], 65)

A Year Ago


From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

The mortgage crisis can be attributed to a number of factors, from the greed of the originators of the loans to the ignorance of unsophisticated borrowers.

Not least among the culprits are the advocates of “getting the government off our backs.” This canard dates back to the Reagan administration and has been perpetuated by the Bush administration.

The talk by right-wing politicians and their supporters about the oppression of big government is usually an attempt to return to the laissez-faire practices reminiscent of the Victorian-era Social Darwinists.

As more people become victims of the “hands off” policies of our elected officials and their appointees, the populism former Senator John Edwards is advocating in his presidential bid will gain greater appeal.

John A. Viteritti
Southold, N.Y., Dec. 19, 2007

Note from KBJ: I love the smell of class warfare in the morning! (Okay, it’s after noon.) By the way, do you see any sign of the concept of personal responsibility in this letter? Those greedy capitalists are duping the ignorant and unsophisticated!

Safire on Language