Saturday, 22 March 2008


Nothing so discombobulates a progressive as a black man with a mind of his own.

Twenty Years Ago

3-22-88 Congress recently passed the Civil Rights Restoration Act. From what I’ve read and heard, it makes the full body of civil-rights law applicable to any institution that receives federal assistance, including religious colleges whose students obtain federal loans. President [Ronald] Reagan and many conservatives opposed the bill, calling it an act of overreaching by the federal government. Jerry Falwell and other preachers have been saying that it is a threat to religious freedom and that it would require religious schools to hire homosexual teachers. When the time came, Reagan vetoed the bill. Today that veto was overridden by Congress, making it law. I’m tickled. I’ve never thought that antidiscrimination measures should be restricted to public entities like school districts, police departments, and federally funded day-care centers. They should be applied across the board, to both public and nonpublic entities. This bill is a step in the right direction. It’s also nice to see the conservatives squirm, especially when they’ve been exaggerating the reach and effects of the bill.

A few weeks ago I told my [Introduction to Logic] students that I would try to teach outside at least one day this semester. As I approached the Social Sciences Building with my coffee this morning, I realized that the time was perfect. Not only was the weather good (warm, sunny, and dry), but I didn’t need the chalkboard for the day’s lecture. So I drafted a short note, taped it to the door of the classroom, and told the students who were already there to follow me. Nobody objected (or if anyone did, he or she didn’t say anything). We found a partially shaded area on the north side of the building, under the palm trees, and took seats. I sat in the shade. As we talked, dozens of people walked by, probably wondering what we were doing. I saw Ann Levey in the distance, reading next to a tree; and later I saw Ann Hickman walk by. It was perfect. So I kept my promise to the students and had a good time to boot.

. . .

I’ve been collecting grammatical and logical errors throughout the impeachment trial [of Arizona Governor Evan Mecham]. One commonly phrased question goes as follows: “Is it fair to say that P?” Not “Is it true that P?”, mind you, but “Is it fair to say that P?”. This got me wondering. Literally, the question is about fairness, and specifically about what it is fair to say; but this can’t be what the attorney means, since fairness isn’t in issue. I think the questioner is asking about truth in the language of fairness, but wants to soften the question. Witnesses tend to be defensive, to resist answering questions with “Yes” or “No”. Realizing this, the attorney softens it and gives the witness a chance to assent to something without committing himself or herself to a particular statement. It’s a ploy, like so many other legal ploys, and I don’t even think witnesses realize it.


Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara, who is the reigning World Champion in the individual time trial, won today’s 185.1-mile race from Milan to San Remo. There are not many people in the world who can get a bicycle going 25.56 miles per hour. Cancellara held that speed for seven hours, 14 minutes, 35 seconds. It’s mind-boggling. Here is the story. My pick to win, Robbie McEwen, finished 80th, 2:05 behind Cancellara. George Hincapie finished 42d, just 18 seconds behind.

Being Principled

There’s a debate about whether delegates selected in Florida and Michigan should be seated. Some say yes; some say no. What percentage of those who say yes are supporters of Hillary Clinton? 99? What percentage of those who say no are supporters of Barack Obama? 99? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear a Clinton supporter say no? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear an Obama supporter say yes? But that would mean some Democrats are principled. Have you ever met a principled Democrat?

A Year Ago


C. D. Broad (1887-1971) on Conscientious Action

As far as I can see, the right feeling toward any act that exhibits conscientiousness is pro tanto approbation, though we may believe that the results of the act will be so bad that our total feeling ought to be condemnatory.

(C. D. Broad, “The Doctrine of Consequences in Ethics,” International Journal of Ethics 24 [April 1914]: 293-320, at 309)

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

If it’s true that 30 percent of blacks in 1990 thought it plausible that the AIDS virus was a government plot to kill black people, then what is needed is for certain black churches to stop fanning the fires by creating these false beliefs or confirming them. The clergy who do this use fear to hold on to their power, just as politicians do. So a countervailing influence must be introduced.

If politicians say these things, opposition candidates can forcefully point out their errors, and television news will publicize their views. But with religious leaders, there is no opposition in the church. These hostile, irrational feelings get passed down, get entrenched and affect behavior in negative ways. Clergy certainly can do their helpful good works without trying to control people with fear and irrationality.

Meredith Balk
Forest Hills, Queens, March 20, 2008