Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote?

Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, says no. Or at least, they should be able to vote, but smarter people should have more votes than the stupid people in order to balance them out.

In his new book, "The Myth of the Rational Voter", Caplan argues that American voters are not just ignorant of the major public policy issues facing the nation, they are actually irrational. They simply do not know how to think about politics and make systematic mistakes that reflect no rational choices.

His offers two suggestions: 1) there should be economic competency tests for voters, so they have to demonstrate they understand basic principles of rational choice theory; 2) economic experts should have more votes than the nonexperts, so that elections reflect the will of at least some people who know what they are talking about.

The idea of giving more votes to educated people is not a new one. John Stuart Mill advocated for this idea.

In thinking about this proposal, I am reminded of a passage in W.E.B. Du Bois's collection of essays entitled "Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil" (1919):

"We say easily, for instance, 'The ignorant ought not to vote'. We would say 'No civilized state should have citizens too ignorant to participate in government' and this statement is but a step to the fact: that no state is civilized which has citizens too ignorant to help rule it. Or, in other words, education is not a prerequisite to political control--political control is the cause of popular education."

So perhaps the problems of American democracy are not because of "stupid" voters, but with our political and educational leaders who do little to create the conditions by which the public can engage in rational discussion, debate, and decision making with one another.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Is Islam Bad for Women?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has made a name for herself recently with her memoir, "Infidel". In it she describes growing up in Somalia to Muslim parents, undergoing ritual female genital mutilation and then, later, as an adult moving to Europe and becoming a critic of Islam. She first gained notice as the writer of the script for Theo van Gogh's film "Submission"--in which women's bodies were shown with verses from the Koran written upon them. Van Gogh was later brutally murdered and a death threat to Ali was nailed to his chest with a knife.

In this interview with Ali, she talks about Islam as a culture or civilization that is inherently violent and brutal towards women. For too long, she claims, the West has failed to call Islamic socieites on their immorality and abuse of human rights for fear of being racist or colonialist and warns that Muslims don't share that same good will toward the West. She calls for a kind of Enlightenment critique of Islamic culture from within--including a willingness to critique the Prophet as a provincial product of a tribal society whose teaching may not be compatible with a modern society.

The interview is good in asking Ali about her employment with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank that also employs the man who thought up the term "axis of evil" and others who seem to accept the "clash of civiliations" thesis, first made popular by Samuel Huntington.

Ali's views on Islam are challenged by this interview with Yanar Mohammed, founder of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq. Mohammed argues that there is less freedom for women now in Iraq than there was under the reign of Saddam Hussein. Part of the reason is that Iraq had very progressive secular law under Hussein that gave women many rights and urban women, such as Mohammed, experienced quite a bit of personal liberty in terms of dress and lifestyle. All this changed with the new Iraqi constitution which gave a cornerstone to Islamic law.

Mohammed is just as critical about aspects of fundamentalist Islam as is Ali. However, Mohammed's account doesn't generalize to the entirety of Islamic culture--she points out that Islam can be compatible with a secular, pluralist state (as it was in Hussein's Iraq--even if there was not democracy) and even in some cases where there might be the beginnings of democratic rule (as in Kurdish Iraq), Islam is not necessarily a complete barrier.

Is it possbile to make judgments about cultures in the way that Ali does? Are some cultures "better" than others for women?

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Engaged Philosophy on the Rise: Socratic Dialogue Anyone?

Imagine celebrating National Philosophy Month in the U.S.! A Dutch philosopher recently spent several days sitting in a tub and having deep conversations with passerbys in order to recreate the life of the Cynic Diogenes and give honor to the calling of philosophy. This article by Mark Vernon, in the Financial Times of London, talks about the urgent need for philosophy in the public sphere today.

I agree with Vernon that the practice of philosophy has become overly professionalized. He makes a questionable distinction, however, when he says that the fault lies mostly with those involved in doing "analytic philosophy". First, these distinctions between analytic and continental philosophy are suspicious and are notorious for being placeholder for ego trips and terroritory markers in academic departments. But even so called analytic philosophy does not have a monopoly on obscure and technical writing that is impenetrable to people who have not spent 5-8 years in graduate study--Being and Time is not light, summer reading by the pool!

A professor of mine in graduate school said there is a difference between philosophers and teachers of philosophy. This suggests a difference between philosophy as a way of life, a practice (in Alasdair MacIntyre's sense), and philosophy as a set of techniques or prepackaged content (a canon?)

When we talk about the need for engaging philosophy with the contemporary world, what is it that we seek to bring out? What contribution does philosophy have to the "real world"?


Monday, May 14, 2007

Pope Benedict XVI and the Conquest of the Americas

Pope Benedict XVI concluded his first trip as pontiff to Latin America last week. He affirmed his resistance to liberation theology--not surprising since as Cardinal Ratzinger, his job was to be the enforcer of the pope and church doctrine, and he did so with relish against many liberation theologians, such as Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino, who taught about the need for the church adopting a "preferential option for the poor".

But some of his most controversial remarks had to do with the history of the church in Latin America and its relationship to indigenous peoples. Benedict claimed that the church did not engage in the "imposition of a foreign culture" on the indigenous peoples but had helped to forge a "synthesis between their cultures and the Christian faith."

Clearly, the pope is engaging in a bit of revisionist history here. Its hard to see how the indigenous people of the Americas were in any position, post Conquest, to engage in a dialogue about synthesizing their worldviews with those of the Europeans. The pope's comments suggest a dialogue among equals or peers about theology. As Bartolome de las Casas makes very clear in his analyses of the Americas, the Europeans, in large part, did not treat the indigenous with any sort of humane respect. Instead, they were beaten into submission and treated like cattle.

Other chroniclers of the Conquest, such as Alonso de Zorita and Fray Mendieta, point out that there was a spiritual dimension to the take over as well. The religious developed very sophisticated techniques for evangelizing among the native peoples that were far from benign. They included dramatic recreations of hell in which dogs and cats were thrown into ovens before crowds, creating cadres of children who could spy on their parents and tell the church if their families still practiced native religions in the home, and forms of corporeal punishment for parishioners who came late or not at all to Mass. Such techniques seemed designed to create a climate of fear or intimidation rather than calm discussion. Indeed, Mendieta recounts how some natives would quake and shiver in the presence of a rosary. He took this as a sign of their awe before the Holy Spirit. Seems more likely they were afraid of being beaten yet again.

It would appear that after 500 years, the colonial mindset of Europe is still very strong.

UPDATE (May 23, 2007:

As a result of strong objections from Latin Americans, the Pope recently backpedaled his remarks about the treatment of the indigenous, acknowledging that serious injustices had been perpetuated in the name of Christianity there. Perhaps there can be room for restorative justice.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

May 1, 2007: The Last Days of the Republic?

May 1, 2007 is, of course, the worldwide worker's holiday. Today, millions of people will celebrate and honor the contributions of labor to the world we inhabit.

May 1 has also come to be a date in the history of the immigrant justice movement here in the United States. Last year at this time, millions of immigrants and their supporters marched in the streets of major American citizens, demanding attention to the increasingly punitive attitude of lawmakers toward the men and women who work in some of America's most dangerous and difficult industries. These marches brought immigration reform before the minds of many. However, over the summer of 2006, lawmakers stumbled and the possibility of any legislation passing by the end of the year evaporated.

Immigrant justice supporters are trying to revive the movement by planning a series of events, marches, rallies on May 1, 2007 around the nation. In some places, supporters are being asked to wear white, red, or blue shirts to show their solidarity with the movement and with the ideals of justice in America.

A recent editorial by Peter Phillips raises some very troubling questions about whether those ideals of justice have any room in the United States any longer. Phillips argues that the threat of illegal immigrants pouring over the border has been used to justify the building up of a national security state that really dispels the idea that this nation is a democratic republic. Increasingly, Americans claim that the only major institution they trust is the military--more so than Congress, or the President, or the news media. In this discussion from Harper's Magazine of 2006, military officals discuss why they think that a military take over of American society would be unlikely--but they admit that a large scale terrorist attack might push leaders toward that kind of militarization. As Phillips points out, with new federal legislation enacted this year, the President has the ability now to station regular Army and National Guard units on the streets of the United States without having to have the consent of local officials.

As thousands of immigrants and their supporters gather today, seeking to demonstrate their willingness to share in the fruits and burdens of American society, perhaps we all need to stop and ask: What kind of society are they asking to be a part of?

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