So far, the BHL crowd has had literally nothing useful–explanatory, action-guiding, otherwise illuminating–to say about the COVID-19 pandemic. They have mostly kept their counsel, and offered up a series of pointless, incoherent, ranting tweets masquerading as the latest wisdom in statistical modeling. Add it all together, and it amounts to less in the way of insight than might be dished up by a just-buried corpse.
Their recent tactic is to suggest that my criticisms of Phil Magness on COVID-19 (mostly on Facebook, not here) are somehow untoward, chiefly because I’ve made them. Hence, the guy who wandered drunkenly onto my blog a few years ago to tell the world that “clinical psych is easy as pie” now offers up the insinuation that I am mentally ill. Well, Freud thought we all were. But if I really am mentally ill, the sad fact is that Jason Brennan’s about to get his clock cleaned by a crazy person. Sad but true.
Because Brennan et al are not to be trusted on anything they say or do, I’ve cut and pasted his BHL post in the comments, verbatim, as I saw it at 1:05 pm (and a comment I saw somewhat later). I do this because Brennan has said that he reserves the right to eat his words and regurgitate new ones whenever it belatedly occurs to him that he’s getting his ass thrashed in any discursive confrontation with anyone. To be fair, he hasn’t put it quite that way. But to borrow a phrase, regardless of his intentions, that’s kind of what he means.*
Philosopher Irfan Khawaja–who has been posting obsessive rants about Phil Magness–thinks so.
Obsessive how? Magness made some public posts on Facebook and Twitter, and I responded. And I will continue to do so, on my own timeline, and at my leisure. What’s obsessive about that? Isn’t that the purpose of a public post? To be read and commented on? How could the response to a bunch of posts be more obsessive than the posts themselves? Granted, my commentary takes a slightly more adverse form than the sycophantic slop to which Jason and Phil are accustomed. But in that case, maybe they should find a different crowd to hang out with, and come up with better arguments.
Brennan then quotes me. I hesitate to quote a quote of me, but when you’re dealing with Jason Brennan, you have to exercise the caution appropriate to dealing with a pathogen. So here goes.
Khawaja, quoted by Brennan:
There is no moral reason why we must leave social distancing to voluntary persuasion or agreement. If we make unenforceable suggestions, people will flout them, as they already have. Those free riders aren’t just creating some morally neutral or equanimity-compatible “externality”; they are aggressing against others by an epidemiological version of Russian roulette–where a bullet in the chamber means critical care hospitalization or death for others (or oneself, come to that).
Those who refuse to distance are initiating force against innocent victims. And like it or not, that force must be met with sufficient retaliatory force to stop its initiation. We don’t let bank robbers or rapists rob or rape, whether or not they kill their victims. We don’t even just shame them, and hope they’ll stop. We stop them. If they fight back and resist arrest, we escalate force against them; if they keep resisting, escalating force against police escalations of force, they invite death by engraved invitation, and should unapologetically be obliged.
He got that right. I did say that. Bravo.
Here’s his comment, putatively on what I said. I’ve inserted numbers for ease of reference:
(1) He says that if people “fight back and resist arrest,” they should be killed on the spot. (2) Why killed rather than, say, subdued? (3) Isn’t killing an extreme measure to be used as a last resort? (4) Why not try to make them go home, and if they absolutely refuse, issue them a monetary fine and call it a day?
Verdict: incompetent reading comprehension in an inchoate attempt to build a straw man to knock down. Slow down, Jason, catch your breath, and try again. I understand the imperative of having to defend your friend, but ask yourself if you really want to wreck your exalted philosophical reputation on Phil Magness. I wouldn’t, if I were you. Not that I am.
(1) I didn’t say that. Re-read, please. I said: “if they keep resisting, escalating force against police escalations of force, they invite” death. I didn’t specify any further than that. Nor did I have to. All I meant is that there is some point at which, once you climb up the escalation ladder, you invite death. I didn’t say where. And because I didn’t, it’s hard to insist that I put it there, however badly you wish I did.
(2) Second sentence: see just above.
(3) Third sentence: yes, it is, but I’m focusing ex hypothesi on the last resort situation, wherever it happens to be.
(4) Fourth sentence: see above.
(5) Fifth sentence: see above.
So far, so dumb. Next?
I wonder what Irfan considers “resistance”? Does that include simply ignoring the orders and continuing to do things such sit in one’s car watching the sunset near a California beach?
What does Irfan even have in mind? People already avoid strangers on the street. Strangers don’t interact unless they voluntarily choose to do so. No one is walking up to Irfan and coughing on him.
So, does he mean that if my neighbor has an outdoor party with 20 friends who come over voluntarily, the police should show up and kill anyone who refuses to go home?
Lots of rhetorical questions. Just FYI, Jason: you can’t refute anyone with rhetorical questions. A question is a request for information. A refutation is a demonstration of the falsity of a claim, or a defect in an argument. There’s just a basic mismatch there, and the rhetorical gusto of your questions isn’t going to fix it.
It’s particularly difficult to refute someone when the rhetorical questions you’re asking just amount to confessions of ignorance. “I wonder what you mean by p, hence I have refuted your claim that p” is an inference whose “hence” is its own refutation.
Digression: Take a second glance at the preceding passage of Brennan’s. One of the interesting features of Brennan’s rhetoric is the ad hoc attitude he takes toward that favorite thing of his, data. Sometimes, “our” data is so “shitty” (as he puts it in the comments) that we’re left in a wilderness of Cartesian doubt, such as when we find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic, and have to do something about it. But sometimes, the complete absence of data entails that Jason Brennan is an all-knowing deity who, sitting in his armchair, can tell you what’s happening in your neighborhood and even in your personal life, hundreds of miles away from him. In other words, health care workers cannot be believed when they tell you, repeatedly, that we are in the middle of a dire emergency. But Jason Brennan is to be believed when, from the Wizard of Oz’s satellite campus in northern Virginia, he tells you what’s going on in your state, your neighborhood, and even your immediate physical vicinity.
People already avoid strangers on the street.
Really? All people? Everywhere? Not really.
Strangers don’t interact unless they voluntarily choose to do so.
I could be uncharitable and point out that there is a phenomenon called crime, which often involves involuntary stranger-to-stranger interaction. Another one called torts, and so on.
More charitably, I think I’ll just point out that the preceding bold-ass assertion is, on an ordinary day, falsified hundreds of thousands of times a day on the New York subway, or on mass transit generally, or on the average urban sidewalk, or in a store, or when you stand in line for take-out.
During the current pandemic, it’s also falsified in any context where one person passes within virus-transmitting distance of another. Take two strangers, Smith and Jones. Smith comes closer to Jones than is safe under present conditions, and breathes on Jones. Behold: two strangers have just interacted, and one hadn’t voluntarily chosen to. Welcome to the ABCs of life. Brennan seems to be staking his claim here on the oddly anti-empirical supposition that commonplace occurrences just never happen. I realize there’s a quarantine on, but maybe we can justify his breaking it, just to clue in to the world around him.
No one is walking up to Irfan and coughing on him.
So now he’s stalking me. Who’s the obsessive here?
Anyway, back to the main issue: sorry to be so Leibnizian about this, but I was talking about the case I was talking about, and no other. The case I had in mind was of concerted violent resistance to a justifiable order. Can you shoot someone under such circumstances? Yes, you can. Would I do it myself? Yes, I would. Do I need lectures about police malfeasance from people who, unlike me, have never seen the inside of a jail cell, been strip searched, falsely accused of murder, shot at, and ordered around with an M-16 pointed at his torso? Not really. Does anyone really think that Khawaja is a deranged defender of police brutality? No. But when you live in a 2×4 echo chamber of the sort inhabited by Jason Brennan et al, is it convenient to confabulate such an impression for rhetorical purposes? It sure is.
This is my favorite passage in the whole piece, the khutbah, or homily, like the departing thoughts at the end of an episode of the Jerry Springer show (numbers again inserted for ease of reference):
(1) American police summarily execute people for all sort of minor crimes, and tend to interpret “resisting arrest” in an absurdly broad way. (2) (See my When All Else Fails for examples–all the stories about police murdering innocent people are true.) (3) So, in practice, whether this is Irfan’s intention or not, we wouldn’t want to tell American police it’s okay to kill people who resist arrest for ignoring social distancing rules.
Golly. Who knew?
(1) True. But then, there are cases where people do in fact resist arrest, and in such cases, something has to be done about them. The world is a complicated place.
(2) No need to keep advertising–I bought the book awhile back. By the way, I spend my summers hanging out in the West Bank. I’ve been shot at, I have friends who have been shot, and they have friends who have been killed. So I don’t really need Brennan’s book or lectures to grasp the phenomenon. Reality does just fine.
Claim (3) is really the piece de resistance, so to speak:
(3) So, in practice, whether this is Irfan’s intention or not, we wouldn’t want to tell American police it’s okay to kill people who resist arrest for ignoring social distancing rules.
The lesson here is that it it didn’t really matter what Irfan said, and didn’t matter what he intended, either. Either way, Jason Brennan was going to dish up whatever rhetorical bullshit he could come up with on the fly, and hope some of it stuck. It has stuck. The problem is, it hasn’t stuck to me. And both Brennan and Magness are going to have to do a better job of making it stick than they so far have before it does. Keep it coming, boys. I’m not going anywhere.
P.S., April 9, 7 pm: I went over to BHL to respond directly to comments there, but naturally, Brennan–who refused to link to my blog in his original post–deleted every word I wrote. Magness has now deleted the March 10 Facebook post to which I took vehement exception, and has now written a finger-wagging public post, written in a tone of disingenuous consternation as to the reasons for my opposition to his claims. He’s referring, of course, to my opposition to the claims that, with a guilty conscience, he’s discreetly taken down. That’s OK. I have screen shots, which I have every intention of displaying here, with commentary. They’re still up at my Facebook page. You’ll have to do some tedious scrolling, but feel free to take a look.
*True to form, Brennan had originally called me a “mentally disturbed individual,” then deleted it and left things at “philosopher.” Have the courage of your convictions, Jason. If you really think a fellow member of the profession is “mentally disturbed,” say so out loud. The online evidence has a bad habit of remaining in existence long after you hit “delete.”