It’s All Been Said (Kinda)

About a week and a half ago I wrote about how John Stuart Mill’s remarks on conventional Christianity in 1859 remained remarkably relevant today. Not quite two weeks before that I’d written about ancient Greek and Roman views of the injustice of slavery, suggesting that they might help us remember that what seems obvious to us has not always been so obvious to all intelligent and thoughtful people. After all, many of us might be similarly content with social institutions and practices that later, more enlightened ages will regard as obviously unjust. Today I was reminded that Mill had already made that point, too.

All persons are deemed to have a right to equality of treatment, except when some recognized social expediency requires the reverse. And hence all social inequalities, which have ceased to be considered expedient, assume the character, not of simple inexpediency, but of injustice, and appear so tyrannical, that people are apt to wonder how they ever could have been tolerated; forgetful that they themselves perhaps tolerate other inequalities under an equally mistaken notion of expediency, the correction of which would make that which they approve seem quite as monstrous as what they have at last learnt to condemn. The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of a universally stigmatized injustice and tyranny. So it has been with the distinctions of slaves and freemen, nobles and serfs, patricians and plebeians; and so it will be, and in part already is, with the aristocracies of color, race, and sex. — Utilitarianism, chapter 5.

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Voter Fraud: Devil, Details, etc.

Does voter fraud exist? I mean, really exist?

The answer, from an article in yesterday’s New York Times:

The court found that all five restrictions “disproportionately affected African-Americans.” The law’s voter identification provision, for instance, “retained only those types of photo ID disproportionately held by whites and excluded those disproportionately held by African-Americans.”

That was the case, the court said, even though the state had “failed to identify even a single individual who has ever been charged with committing in-person voter fraud in North Carolina.” But it did find that there was evidence of fraud in absentee voting by mail, a method used disproportionately by white voters. The Legislature, however, exempted absentee voting from the photo ID requirement.

So it does exist. Continue reading

The Past is Another Country, but Rather Like Ours

One of the chief reasons for studying the past and reading old books, as for learning about our contemporaries in other cultures and other parts of the world, is to appreciate the tremendous diversity of human possibilities. It is, however, difficult to spend much time studying the past without being impressed by how similar people can be across wide spans of time and despite great differences of culture. For someone who, like me, has spent many years with his head crammed in books written over two millennia ago, 1859 AD doesn’t seem so long ago, and Victorian England doesn’t seem quite so different from America in 2017. But of course the differences are striking once we zoom in a bit; to take but a few examples, neither the lightbulb nor cocaine had yet been invented, women could not vote and the United States had about 4 million slaves, and probably nobody believed that it would ever be possible to create bombs that could kill millions of people in seconds. It was a different world. Yet John Stuart Mill could write this in On Liberty:

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Thoughts such as ‘It would be wrong for me to PHI’ and ‘You would be wrong in PHI-ing’ seem to be special in that, in addition to having an essential cognitive function as ordinary beliefs do, they seem to have an essential motivating function as well.  (And we might say similar things about other bits of moral thought or moral thought in general, but I’ll focus on ‘wrong’ here.)  So, in this sort of way, the concept ‘wrong’ appears to be essentially motivating as well as essentially descriptive or cognitive.

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Aristotle, Seneca, and Gregory of Nyssa on Slavery

Aristotle gets a lot of flack for defending slavery. It’s not bad enough that he accepted it, like so many Greek thinkers before him; he went to the trouble of arguing for it. Worse still, his argument is, by almost universal scholarly consensus, pretty bad. The gist of the argument is that some human beings are so rationally deficient that they cannot lead autonomous lives and therefore need to be ruled by others in order to keep out of trouble, or at least in order to live decently; slavery is actually beneficial for them, and they’re better off being slaves than being left to their own devices.

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Plato on the Ridiculous and Donald Trump

Donald Trump is a fairly ridiculous human being. Though he has somehow managed to inspire admiration in many, even some of his supporters concede that he isn’t especially admirable, and many of his detractors apparently agree that he is not merely a bad person and unfit for public office, but positively absurd, a laughingstock of the sort we more readily expect from political satire than from political reality, perhaps all the more ridiculous for being real rather than fictional. Such, at least, we might infer from the frequency with which social media users and some traditional media outlets subject Trump to ridicule and present him as an object of derision and mockery. Admittedly, politicians in general, and especially presidents, are always easy targets for humor and satire, and the most successful comedians can find a way to make almost anything funny. In some conservative circles Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were — and in some, still are — laughed at with tedious regularity, and it may not be that Trump is made fun of more than they were, or by more people, but simply more often by people I happen to pay attention to. Even so, Trump gets made fun of. A lot. This worries me.

In some ordinary, imprecise sense of the word, I find Donald Trump ridiculous. What I don’t find him is funny, in any way, someone who inspires laughter of any kind. I share what some readers will no doubt regard as the Standard Liberal Elitist Disdain for Trump; pick a widely held complaint about Trump, and I probably at least sympathize with it. So my inability to laugh at him is not an expression of any kind of respect for the man or his office. I simply can’t laugh at him, or at any of the many discussions or representations of him designed to make me laugh at him, from Alec Baldwin’s caricatures to the latest post on my Facebook feed. This isn’t because I’m a generally humorless guy; anybody who knows me well will probably tell you that I’m at least occasionally too silly. It’s that I don’t think I should laugh at him. More than that, I don’t think you should either. I don’t think anyone should. Insofar as something that is ridiculous is something worth laughing at in a contemptuous, dismissive way, I don’t find Donald Trump ridiculous.

Plato explains why.

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Criticisms of Academia

Academics are no strangers to criticism. When scientists, historians, philosophers, and scholars of all kinds publish their research, part of what they are doing is setting their ideas forth to be criticized. In many cases, criticism of past work is an integral part of new work, and sometimes new work consists exclusively in criticism of old work. Though members of different academic disciplines differ widely in the ways that they criticize their colleagues and how they respond to criticism, in most fields criticism is expected, and in some a publication that provokes no criticism can even seem like a failure. Criticism and disagreement are ideally instruments of intellectual progress, and while I have never met an academic who has not received some bad, useless criticism, I have also never met a successful academic who has not benefited tremendously from criticism somewhere along the line. Criticism isn’t just familiar to academics; it’s an essential component of what they do.

For better or worse, however, most academics are familiar with another sort of criticism that is at least not so clearly essential to what they do, or useful at all: criticisms of academia as such. For at least the last four decades, sweeping general denunciations of academic research, colleges and universities, and professors themselves have become a recognizable part of American culture, or at least that part of it that cares at all about such things. The critiques have often been expressed as complaints about academia in general, but more often than not the target in view has been the humanities and certain of the ‘softer’ social sciences like anthropology and sociology, as opposed to natural sciences like physics, chemistry, and biology or certain ‘harder’ social sciences like economics and some areas of psychology. The familiar complaints are that academic research is more and more narrowly specialized and technical, that as a result it is increasingly obscure and inaccessible to non-specialists or at least to non-academics, that it deals less and less with questions and problems that matter to ordinary people, and so has become more and more irrelevant. Frequently the critics add that academic disciplines are largely driven by fashion and strongly discourage creative, original thinking, so that most professors and scholars are in fact conformists unwilling to challenge the dominant dogmas of their colleagues rather than bold, daring intellectual innovators. Occasionally they charge that when academic research seems to have some bearing on important, real-world problems, this appearance is deceptive, and that all too many academics are uninterested in putting their ideas into practice and acting on what they at least pretend to be their convictions. Different critics differ in which of these charges they include or emphasize, but each is a familiar part of the wider genre of academia-bashing: academic research is too specialized, too technical, obscure, inaccessible, trivial, irrelevant, conformist, impractical, and too tenuously connected to real life.

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Felician University Event: “Policing the Police”

For those of you in the area, Felician University’s Committee on Leadership & Social Justice will be sponsoring the fourth and final event in its year-long series on “Race and Criminal Justice in America.” Previous events covered racial profiling in Bloomfield, the ethics and constitutionality of police stops, and community policing in Bergen County.

Our upcoming event is “Policing the Police,” about allegations of police abuses by the Newark Police Department, featuring a public screening of the PBS Frontline documentary of that name, followed by commentary and discussion by Junius Williams, the Newark-based author and activist. I’ll be moderating. (We may have some other speakers, but for now, Mr. Williams is the confirmed speaker.)

The event takes place Thursday evening, April 27, at 6:30 pm, in the Education Commons auditorium on Felician’s Rutherford campus (227 Montross Ave, Rutherford, New Jersey 07070). The event is free and open to the public, and is sponsored by Felician’s Committee on Leadership & Social Justice, its Pre-Law Program, its Department of Criminal Justice, and its UN Fellows Program.

Hope to see some of you there.

Extra reading: Here’s an an article about Newark’s policing problems in The New Yorker by Jelani Cobb, the filmmaker. Here’s the U.S. Justice Dept’s consent decree re the Newark Police Department. Here’s the Department of Justice’s list of special litigation (including consent decrees against law enforcement agencies). The website of Newark’s Independent Monitoring team. Jelani Cobb, again, on the fate of federal consent decrees under the Sessions Justice Department.

Blogging Hiatus (for real this time)

So I’m on my way to the office today, thinking,

I’ve been on a de facto blogging hiatus for the past two weeks, and am not sure when I’m going to get the chance to write again. Truth is, I simply can’t do justice to the blog while juggling all of my other commitments right now. Yes, I could write a lot of crap for the blog that would adversely affect my other commitments, but I can’t do justice to both.

In the past, I’ve threatened to go on blogging hiatus but not done it. Having been on blogging hiatus this time, I should hurry up and announce it before anyone draws attention to it, lest it look as though I’ve gone on blogging hiatus without announcing it. I mean, that would be absurd.

So I get here and discover that Riesbeck has posted just before I have, drawing explicit attention to my de facto blogging hiatus, and making it look for all the world as though I’ve gone on blogging hiatus without announcing it. Damn it all! Continue reading

Inconsistency, Hypocrisy, and Bombs

In the past, Irfan has often threatened to go on blogging hiatus, only to succumb to weakness of will after a few days. So it figures that now he’s gone on blogging hiatus without first threatening it. This may be evidence that his current hiatus is itself a result of weakness of will, or it may just be evidence that he has a life. Or, you know, work.

Whatever the reasons and causes for Irfan’s extended absence, I can’t bring myself to allow a post over two weeks old to stand as the first post on this blog. So, at the risk of revealing my own incompetence, I’m going to write a post about politics.

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