Friday, November 30, 2007

The Small Benefits of the Discussion Seminar for Philosophy

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Politics of Torture: Rejali in the News

Darius Rejali appears in a new interview in the Portland based weekly Willamette Week. A highlight:

I think the bottom line is, do Americans want to defend their values with methods that are so well-known and so barbaric that they take away from the values that they had?...But it’s an important point. Is it better to be loved or feared? The answer is, if we fight with one hand tied behind our back, and we win, we will be loved and feared. If we’re merely loved, we might be despised. But if we’re merely feared, we’ll be despised. The important thing is to do it right.

Fans of Machiavelli will, of course, recognize that this question is one of the central issues that princes must resolve in order to stay in power.

Later in the interview, Rejali says he sees himself as a member of the House of Slytherin. How many political philosophers do you know can go from The Prince to Harry Potter?


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Racism in Europe and and the Democratic Possibility of Immigrants

Lest you think immigration is only an American issue, this article from the Economist clarifies how Western Europe is undergoing a spasm of xenophobia and outright racism against foreigners.

The racism is unmistakeable. You can watch this video, produced by the Swiss People's Party, for the most recent parlimentary campaign in which the SPP won a sizeable plurality. The video contrasts the "heaven" that could be Switzerland or the "hell" that will result if the leftists win and bring all their dark-skinned friends with them.

Yet, the problem is not completely racial. Some, like French President Sarkozy, are railing against Turkish entry into the EU, of course, but many in Europe are opposed to "white" immigrants from Eastern Europe as well. What is interesting are the contrasting attitudes. As this article makes clear out about Polish immigrants to the UK, many people see them as harder working than natives, and yet feel that they might pose a social problem by taking away jobs. While the situation of Polish immigrants is unique (many are highly educated and yet doing menial labor), the rhetoric surrounding their presence sounds familiar to American ears about Mexicans.

What is interesting about the above article from the Christian Science Monitor is the point about cultural attitudes. Poles are excited about learning new cultural and political attitudes and bringing then back to Poland--a kind of cultural remittance. But as this article examines, maybe there is something that Brits can learn about democratic renewal and the revitalizing of public spaces of discussion from the presence of Poles. Perhaps this can be lesson to Americans--maybe we can learn how to be more democratic by listening to the experiences of our immigrants and take lessons from the way they live their lives around us instead of assuming that it is only they that have something to learn about democracy from us.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

It's Only Racism When I Say It Is

Sony Corp. got into trouble in Europe last year with these Dutch ads meant to announce the release of the PlayStation Portable (PSP) in two distinct colors: White and Black. Many gamers found the ads to be racist. Sony responded saying that the ads had "no other message or purpose" than to let people know about the launching of the new products:

"A variety of different treatments have been created as a campaign to either highlight the whiteness of the new model or contrast the black and the white models. Central to this campaign has been the creation of some stunningly photographed imagery, that has been used on large billboards throughout Holland."

Essentially, Sony's defense is that the ads are only about colors, there is no other way to understand these images, and anyone who reads them differently is imposing an interpretation that Sony did not intend (or, in other words, they are seeing something that is just not there). Thus, Sony cannot be racist because they did not mean this ad to be about race at all.

Sony's reponse here seems to confirm an argument made by UC Berkeley law professor Ian Haney-Lopez: In the coming years, as the U.S. confronts increasing numbers of minorities in the population, whites will assert an ideology that is meant to maintain white dominanence in most social, political, and economic institutions. This will be the ideology of colorblindness. It will hold that racism is a moral evil and the way to overcome it is to completely ignore race and racial classifications. Government policy should, in no way, take racial distinctions into account, even if the policy is meant to remedy past discrimination based on race.

Anti racism, then, means making sure that no one notices or mentions race. Thus, a racist will be someone who purposely or deliberately introduces race, with the intent to demean a group of people, into civic life.

The result of this kind of ideology is, in effect, the policing of racial justice discourse by whites. Haney Lopez hints at this in an interview:

"Let’s be clear, then, about its political and racial valences: colorblindness is strongly conservative, by which I mean that colorblindness as a current practice (rather than as a distant ideal) conserves the racial status quo. And in this, colorblindness takes on a racial cast, inasmuch as preserving the present works best for those currently racially dominant. In short, whatever its antiracist pretensions, colorblindness primarily serves the political and racial interests of whites."

Under this kind of colorblindness, whites get to define what is or is not racist. If someone didn't intend to demean a group of people based on skin color, then they are not racist, no matter what they did or said. Indeed, to call someone racist who didn't intend to be racist is usually to make race more of an issue than it merits in today's world in which things such as de jure segregation are relics of the past. If Blacks are offended by the Sony ads, they are being too sensitive. Sony didn't mean to be offensive and that's all that should count in the issue.

But it's not clear why intention should be the defining factor in deciding whether an ad, idea, or action is racist. It seems the idea is that since no harm is intended, no harm actually occurs. But that is not a valid conclusion. A person can unintentionally harm another quite easily. Accidents are quite common--you can turn around quickly in the grocery store and bump into someone. In such cases, we usually say "Oh, I'm sorry" not "Hey, get out of the way, its your problem", even when we know that we didn't intend to hit the person.

The law also recognizes many different kinds of crimes in which a clear intention to harm someone was not part of a person's action. These are crimes of negligence. A person who is impaired by drugs or alcohol and kills someone with their car is still culpable for the action even though they didn't intend to harm anyone. They are blameworthy because they should have known better than to operate a vehicle under the influence of intoxicants. If we follow Sony's logic, we should excuse drunk drivers because they didn't mean to do it.

I would contend that the burden of proof lies on those who think that intention is all that matters in terms of racism to explain why that is, given that it is quite common to imagine unintended harms in both everyday ethics and the law. Why should the harms of racism be different (unless or course, Sony's reasoning is a part of the ideology of colorblindness meant to discredit the harms of people of color and protect its "negligent" racism) ?


Saturday, November 17, 2007

Was Martin Luther King, Jr. a terrorist?

In the aftermath of 9/11, many states passed anti-terrorism laws modeled on the federal Patriot Act. These state laws copied language from the Patriot Act, making it a crime to "intimidate or coerce a civlian population" or to "intimidate or coerce a government unit to change its policies". At the time, civil libertarians worried that this language would be applied in an overly broad manner. It seems like the slippery slope ride might be beginning.

Edgar Morales, 25, was convicted this month under the New York state anti-terrorism law. He was a member of a Mexican street gang in the Bronx that apparently preyed on Mexican immigrants, extorting money, and engaging in street crime and muggings. In 2006, Morales was involved in a shooting in which a 10 year old girl was accidentally murdered. Instead of being charged with mere first degree murder, he was convicted under the terrorism law for trying to "intimidate a civilian population". The minimum for such a crime is 25 years to life. Under the full charges, Morales faces up to 50 years minimum. You can read more about the conviction here.

Civil libertarians are concerned with the application of the statute in this way. They point out there should be a difference between Morales and Osama bin Ladin. Others are concerned that there are already laws on the books that could convict Morales and that adding these kinds of charges penalize thought, not actions (these are the same people that complain about hate crime legislation, too).

I mentioned this case in one of my classes last week and a student pointed out that such laws could be used to convict even nonviolent protestors. I don't see why not.

In his famous, "Letter from a Birmingham City Jail", Martin Luther King Jr. argues that the purpose of nonviolent direct action (such as marches, sit-ins, lunch counter take overs, etc) is not simply to raise awareness, or get media attention for a social issue, but to create "tension" in a community. He also calls it "crisis". The point is to make a community so unable to function normally that it must deal with a social problem that it has been willing to sweep under the rug all things considered.

Why couldn't it be possible to see the lunch counter sit ins of the Civil Rights Movmements as attempts to "intimidate or coerce a civilian population"? Indeed, that's what they were trying to do--change the minds of people through forceful action--but without violence. Wasn't Martin Luther King's Poor People's Campaign--the idea to send thousands of people to sit in on the lawn of the Washington Monument for weeks, until Congress would pass anti-poverty legislation--an attempt to coerce a government unit to change policy? Its not clear that these anti-terrorism laws make such a fine distinction between violent methods and nonviolent direct action.

Edgar Morales probably deserves jail time for his actions. And its probably true that some gangs are sophisticated enough to be able to inflict widespread intimidation throughout the communities in which they exist. But there are two severe implications of this conviction:

It serves to increase the stereotypical perception that Latino immigrants are criminals, indeed, terrorists (just add Jose "Dirty Bomber" Padilla to this list along with Morales) who deserve increased surveillance and severe penalties, lest they degrade American public life even more. An excellent discussion of these kinds of stereotypes is found in Steven Bender's book, Greasers and Gringos.

It also implies that people engaged in the struggle for social justice need to be aware of the state tools now available that might severely limit their ability to enact social change in a nonviolent way. MLK was called a terrorist by those who wanted to maintain white supremacy--now there are laws in some 36 states that could have made that kind of talk more than just a metaphor.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Origin of Love

One of my favorite pieces of philosophy is Plato's Symposium. When I think about this work, I believe in the ability of philosophy to touch on the sublime.

Here is a podcast, from the program Philosophy Bites, discussing the nature of erotic love from the Symposium.

For those who haven't read this dialogue, a great way to see how it has influenced our ideals of romance is to check out this clip from one of my favorite films Hedwig and the Angry Inch:

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Friday, November 09, 2007

Tired Democracy or Just Tired of Democracy?

The Economist complains that the world is suffering from something like "democracy" fatigue. We are not tired of the form of government, but of the word and the idea. The word democracy is being overused today to the point that it has almost no meaning. To say that a society is democratic anymore is like saying "Hi. How are you?" upon greeting someone--its something socially pleasant, but we're not really interesting in hearing about all the good and bad things going on in someone's life when we ask that. Today, to say that a society is democratic or a leader is democratic doesn't mean much; after all, brutal regimes exist which have as their official names "The People's Democratic Republic of _____" and world leaders claim the mantle of democratic reformers while clamping down on civil liberties.

The Economist recommends that we do away with talking about democracy and speak of socieities and leaders in terms of different values. Instead of democracy, we should measure a society in terms of: 1) being "law governed"; 2) free, and 3) having "public spiritedness". As the Economist points out: "Better terminology means clearer thinking, but it does not guarantee victory. Nearly 20 years on, the gains [of democratic renewal around the world] of the heady and happy late 1980s are looking troublingly fragile and temporary."

In looking over this list, I immediately thought how it bore some resemblance to the list of attributes which Pericles gave to Athenian Democracy in his Funeral Oration. So I looked over the speech again and realized how really different, and impoverished this modern conception of democracy seemed by comparison.

According to the Economist, to be law governed is to refer a society in which the law is the supreme authority (the "rule of law" in other words), especially over executive powers. Pericles thinks this is an important part of democracy too, but immediatly after talking about the rule of law, he mentions another aspect that is absent from this modern description. He says that it is important that all citizens be equal before the law (isonomia). It is true, of course, that Athenian democracy was notoriously unegalitarian--women and slaves were not given any kind of rights or civic regard. Equality only applied to male heads of households. But equality is notoriously absent from the Economist's description of values that we should honor today when we talk about democracy. And the way that the Economist describes this value, its hard to see how it might be different from plain "law and order". A society can be very rule governed and still not be a good society--laws do not automatically mean that justice is present. Brutal dictatorships might have more rules on the books that freer societies. As Roman orator Tacitus put it: "The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws."

For the Economist, freedom means the abilty to petition government, complain, and not be afraid of government persecution. This does, in fact, seem like an important value to have in modern societies. It forms the centerpiece of our Bill of Rights. Pericles argues that freedom (eleutheria) is crucial to democracy as well. I won't go into the great debates about the different between the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns, i.e. the difference between negative and positive liberty, but just say that for the Athenians freedom meant more than just being left alone by government, but the capacity to be a self-determining individual. And sometimes this required government to assist a person to determine their life, either by providing opportunities for the development of their virtues or public assistance so that they could partake in the civic conversations about the law.

Finally, the Economist writes that democracy must involve public spiritedness. This is more than blind patriotism, but the view family ties and selfish gain are not as important as the community good. This would be a sentiment that would make Pericles happy, but he does not talk about mere public spiritedness. He believes that citizens ought to have an orientation to the public well-being, but also that they actively engage in politics and political deliberation. He says that in Athens, the view is that a person who says he is too busy to come to the political forum is not successful, but a failure. Democracy, requires that people be public minded but that they also walk the talk, get involved, and make spaces for involvement by others, especially in terms of those places where deliberation about public values can take place.

The Economist gives us a very thin notion of democracy that seems to leave out values we ought to consider important parts of modern societies and encourages us to get public minded while not saying very much about how we ought to think of our participation in political self rule. For my money, I think a more fruitful discussion comes from this amazing women, Grace Lee Boggs. Check out her ideas on the requirements of citizenship for a modern age.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Say "Strappado": New Work on Torture

Anthony Grafton has an article in The New Republic about what he learned about torture from studying the Renaissance. He looks at transcripts from trials against Jews (accused of using human blood to make mazo) and witches and concludes that torture is the most ineffective way to gather information. He concludes:

"Living mostly in the Renaissance, I have learned something that matters from my colleagues. Torture does not obtain truth. Applied with leading questions, it can make most ordinary people--as it would certainly make me--say anything their examiners want, if they can only work out what that is. Applied to the extraordinarily defiant, it may not work at all. In either case, it is not an instrument that a decent society has any business applying. Anyone who claims otherwise abandons the Enlightenment ideals that brought our country into being--and stands with the torturers of Trent against the Jews who did their best to speak the truth".

Most chilling is the descriptions he has of the methods used by the inquisitors, particularly the strappado. As horrific as the practice sounds, what is more awful is the fact that the method is still used today. It has alledgedly been used by Israeli forces and developed into what is called the "Palestinian hanging" method. It has also been used by U.S. forces in Iraq (Along with a whole host of other techniques). In 2003, an Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib died as a result of having his hands handcuffed behind his back and then hanged.

Regulars to Engage will remember Darius Rejali's interview about the ethics of torture. His new book Torture and Democracy is finally out. You can pre order it with a big discount right now at

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