Saturday, 23 February 2008



Twenty Years Ago

2-23-88 . . . Tonight, while the focus of the Olympics was figure skating, I watched a classic comedy: The Jerk, starring Steve Martin. I’ve seen all or part of this movie several times, but I wanted to see it again in its entirety. What a hilarious movie! Martin plays Navin Johnson, a “poor black child” (actually a white who was raised by a black family) who strikes it rich with a silly invention, then falls into poverty. The ending is happy. After a weekend of work, it felt good to relax and forget about school.

Ronald Dworkin on Torture

The right not to be tortured has long been thought the paradigm human right, first on everyone’s list. Pain is horrible, but torture is not just a matter of pain. It is sometimes inflicted as a grotesque emblem of power and subjugation, and it violates human rights for that reason. But torture is also used as a tactic in defense of security, and then the case against it must be more complicated. Bush’s attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, argued in his confirmation hearings that coercive interrogation, which may include various levels of torture, is a particularly effective means of discovering the information we need to save Americans’ lives. That claim is controversial: many experts on interrogation believe that information obtained through torture is almost always useless. But we must nevertheless ask whether torture would still violate human rights even if Gonzales is right. Yes, it would, because torture’s object is precisely not just to damage but to destroy a human being’s power to decide for himself what his loyalty and convictions permit him to do. Offering inducements such as a reduced sentence to an accused criminal in exchange for information, however objectionable this might seem on other grounds, leaves a prisoner’s ability to weigh costs and consequences intact. Torture is designed to extinguish that power, to reduce its victim to a screaming animal for whom decision is no longer possible—the most profound insult to his humanity, the most profound outrage of his human rights.

(Ronald Dworkin, Is Democracy Possible Here? Principles for a New Political Debate [Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006], 38-9)

Note from KBJ: This is a remarkable paragraph. Dworkin assumes for the sake of argument that torture is necessary to save innocent Americans’ lives and will in fact do so. It still violates the tortured person’s rights, he says. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said that certain acts, such as lying, must never be performed, no matter how much evil is thereby prevented. Dworkin—also an absolutist deontologist—says that torture must never be performed, no matter how much evil is thereby prevented. He values the bodily integrity of the tortured person more highly than the lives of many innocent people. Suppose Dworkin, his family, his friends, and all of his colleagues at New York University were endangered by a bomb. Authorities have a suspect, but he won’t talk. To be consistent, Dworkin must say that torture of the suspect is impermissible, even if it means that he and all the others die.


Only Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick can play this guitar.

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “For ‘EcoMoms,’ Saving Earth Begins at Home” (front page, Feb. 16):

I am thrilled that more people are starting to realize that small actions, like changing light bulbs, can decrease carbon emissions and slow the march of global warming.

However, by far the most dramatic thing these “EcoMoms” can do to help the environment is to live in smaller homes in more densely populated areas. Why not scale down to a smaller home—like the 1,500-square-foot homes commonplace 20 years ago—within walking distance of commercial areas and schools?

The closer we live to cafes and restaurants, the more we can use the outside world as our family rooms. After all, New York City is the densest city in America, and also by far the greenest.

Kate Gordon
Program Director, Apollo Alliance
San Francisco, Feb. 16, 2008

First Anniversary

I bought my 2007 Honda Accord SE V-6 a year ago today. During that time, I drove it 5,011 miles. I have no idea how I racked up so many miles. I live only six miles from campus, which I visit only twice a week during the spring and fall semesters. Most of my miles were driven to and from bike rallies, of which I did 25 in 2007. At this rate, it’ll take me 20 years to reach 100,000 miles. Don’t laugh. I drove my 1989 Pontiac Grand Am for 17½ years. The Accord has run well, but a couple of months ago, I began to notice a faint siren-like noise emanating from the right side of the engine compartment when I’m traveling between 30 and 45 miles per hour. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t there from the outset. I’ve taken the car in twice in recent weeks. On both occasions, the technician who rode with me told me that the siren is “normal transmission noise.” I find this hard to believe, especially since I’ve never heard it in any other car. No dash lights have come on during the past year, and the car is otherwise fine. Has anyone had this experience? Part of me wants to raise holy hell about it, but another part of me isn’t sure there’s a problem. If I raise holy hell and there’s no problem, I’m a jerk. If there’s a problem and I don’t raise holy hell, I’m a dupe. If the noise gets worse, I’ll lay down the law.

A Year Ago