Local Optima and Abolitionist Ideals

In The Tyranny of the Ideal, Gerald Gaus draws attention to a trade-off faced by anyone pursuing an ideal conception of justice. What he says here seems almost trivially obvious (at least once he puts it down on paper), and seems to have obvious implications (at least once one sees it set out in print), but I still find it insightful. He calls it The Choice:

The Choice: In cases where there is a clear optimum within our neighborhood that requires movement away from our understanding of the ideal, we often must choose between relatively certain (perhaps large) local improvements in justice and pursuit of a considerably less certain ideal, which would yield optimal justice (Tyranny, p. 82).

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Don’t Come Around Here No More

I can only muster one thought in response to the Ralph Yarl shooting: legalities aside, and taking press reports at face value, it seems to me that having a doorbell constitutes implicit consent to peoples’ ringing it. If you consent to having people ring your doorbell, you’re not entitled to regard someone’s ringing it as indicating a threat that justifies the use of lethal force. If you do, then absent some very clear evidence of a threat, you’ve committed an unforgivable injustice.

And old age will only go so far as an excuse here. A person who invokes old age as an excuse in this context is invoking a kind of admitted debility for accidentally having shot someone who shouldn’t have been shot. But to invoke such an excuse is to know that you have the debility. And knowing it is a reason to refrain from shooting in the first place. So the old age excuse is self-cancelling: to the extent that it functions as an excuse, it also functions as self-incrimination.

Something similar applies, mutatis mutandis, to shootings on long driveways.

I’ve always been skeptical of the idea that a more heavily-armed society is a safer one. Am getting more so.

A Rabbi’s Zig-Zag Learning Curve on Israel/Palestine

I’m sure readers of this blog get sick of my posts on Israel and Palestine, if only from overexposure to a single, somewhat bludgeoning point of view. So here, for a change of pace, is a link to a blog post by Rabbi Maurice Harris, the rabbi of String of Pearls, the Reconstructionist synagogue that I attend. This post of his, “My Israel/Palestine Learning Curve Is a Zig Zag,” reminds me a bit of Robert Nozick’s account of the “zig zag of politics,” and of Chris Sciabarra’s “dialectical libertarianism.” Here’s the first paragraph or so:

I am the child of a family of Moroccan Jewish refugees who found refuge in Israel. My mom was 16 on the day in 1956 when her entire life in Morocco abruptly ended — the day that her father was tipped off by an Arab friend that he was marked for death by the Moroccan liberation fighters (who were trying to oust their French colonizers) because he was discovered to have assisted other Jews to emigrate to Israel. She and her many siblings and their parents packed what they could take with them in suitcases and left their home in the middle of the night, taking their place in steerage on a ship loaded with livestock and other Jewish refugees. They headed to a refugee camp near the southern French coast, penniless and waiting to figure out their future.

Israel gave them that future.

You can read the rest here. Continue reading

Highway to Hellenism

From a Passover service at my synagogue: the rabbi, expounding on Exodus 33, is sent on a long digression, via a question from the congregation, to the story of Solomon’s “shamir.” The question was about “rule worship” in the Hebrew Bible. The shamir was the mythical worm or caterpillar whose mucus was used by King Solomon to build the first Temple at Jerusalem, in adherence to the divine rule that the rocks used to build the temple not be cut with iron implements. (Obviously, the shamir’s mucus is what did the cutting.)

Rabbi (sighing slightly, after a long digression from the Torah portion in front of us): So anyway, that is the story of Solomon’s shamir.

Congregant: Wow, what a story! It’s even better than Homer’s Odyssey!

Rabbi: Not really.

Chatting with Joyce Carol Oates

I guess I’m in name-dropping mode: I just had an impromptu conversation on the train platform with Joyce Carol Oates. The conversation was about the evils of New Jersey Transit. She asked why the train station’s waiting room was closed. I launched immediately into my denunciatory lecture on the immorality of NJT’s policy of closing their waiting rooms when homeless people begin to use them. This wasn’t virtue signaling. I came across like a lunatic.

She asked me if I was a professor. A whole story welled up inside me, threatening to break free. I was tempted to tell her that I used to be one, but that shit had happened, and that as a result, I no longer was, and that we now tragically had something in common.

“No,” I said. “I collect medical bills.”

Me and Bobby Anzilotti

About six years ago, in the fall of 2017, someone at Felician University called the local police to report that a member of the faculty, one Irfan Khawaja, had threatened to bring firearms to a faculty meeting later that day, with the intention of shooting it up and killing everyone there.

Soon after teaching my first class that morning, I was detained on campus by the police and taken to the police station, where I was questioned by Vincent “Vinnie” Quattrone, then the Chief of Police. Having gotten nowhere with me–I doggedly remained silent under questioning–Quattrone brought in the “big guns,” detectives from the Bergen County Prosecutors Office (BCPO) in nearby Hackensack, New Jersey. Continue reading

We Haven’t Got Words for the Pain

This essay contains spoilers throughout about John LeCarré’s novel, The Constant Gardener.

He tried to remember the phrases: pain
Audible at noon, pain torturing itself,
Pain killing pain on the very point of pain.
–Wallace Stevens, “Esthétique du Mal.”

When I was a young man, my life’s ambition was to join the U.S. Foreign Service and become a diplomat. Chastened by the first Gulf War (1990-91), which I opposed, I thought the better of my ambitions, and decided instead to become a dull but conscientious academic.

During my third and presumably final marriage (2018-2021), my wife Alison and I bought a small townhouse in rural New Jersey with a little garden plot out front. Alison had great hopes for the garden, and often expressed the wish that I would help her cultivate it. To her great sorrow and eventually mine, I never did. I was too busy being a dull but conscientious academic. Continue reading

Pedagogy of the Oppressors

From a statement by the National Association of Scholars, a right-wing lobbying group: 

Just last week, Ohio State Senator Jerry Cirino introduced Senate Bill 83—also known as the Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act. This is one of many bills introduced across the U.S., both for K–12 and higher education, that are inspired by model legislation drafted by the National Association of Scholars and the Civics Alliance. In response to SB 83’s introduction, NAS promptly published an enthusiastic endorsement. SB 83 and our Model Higher Education Code provide a solid foundation upon which to rebuild Ohio’s colleges and universities, and to fight back against overreach by diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) activists. …

SB 83 would prohibit state-funded colleges and universities from requiring diversity statements for promotion, hire, and admissions, and would ban DEI concepts in classrooms and on campus. The bill would also mandate syllabus transparency and further commit to intellectual diversity and institutional neutrality. …

In a day and age where free speech is a nonstarter in higher education, legislation like SB 83 offers hope for the preservation of American ideals, as well as the restoration of institutional integrity and academic freedom.

Freedom isn’t free. There’s a hefty fucking fee.