There’s yet to be a scientific consensus on the frequency of alien abduction. But there’s already data indicating that the frequency of reports of alien abduction – as evidenced by the number of confirmed cases of Post-Alien Abduction Stress Disorder (PAASD) – is not orders of magnitude off the frequency of being hit by lightning, which worldwide is well over 215,000 per year. Some of these are no doubt the product of #Me-Too-ism, and so may be more wishful thinking than a genuine belief. But for the past few years what’s been dominating the seminar circuit for professionals specializing in PAASD has been whether therapists should Start by Believing, even though they probably don’t.

Why is it such a difficult question? Because unlike with sexual assault, there’s no one in a position to say the alleged victim is lying. And so there’s no reason to suspend judgment. And besides, whether it happened or not, she believes it did.

The therapist might think it’s unhealthy to believe one’s been abducted and sexually examined by aliens. But if so, isn’t it equally unhealthy to believe one’s been sexually assaulted by a man? Well, you might say, not if she had been sexually assaulted by a man. In fact it would be unhealthy for her to try to suppress the experience. But then surely the same can be said if she had been abducted and sexually examined by aliens. She’s been victimized once. To doubt her is just to victimize her a second time.

I know whereof I speak. Because I’d had a prostatectomy, the aliens kept me for over a week trying to figure me out. I couldn’t turn my head, but just before they released me I’m sure I caught one of them in the corner of my eye writing something down in his notebook with a shrug that seemed to say, “Damned if I know!”

I say ‘his’ notebook, but of course I can’t be sure of that. I certainly have no more reason to say ‘her’ notebook. And to refer to whichever he or she was as an it just seems … Well, I can’t say dehumanizing, but you know what I mean.

Anyhow, I’m posting this blog in the hope that other PAASD-sufferers will feel free to share their experiences, as I’ve just done, without fear of being disbelieved or ridiculed. I’m not sure if they’ve deciphered our language. But if they have, they’re probably as disgusted as they are baffled by how insensitive human beings can be to each other. Being the victim of PAASD-mocking has certainly made me more appreciative of the Start by Believing campaign.


What Donald Trump has done, both during the campaign and in the year and a half since, is tapped into the backlash against both political correctness and what’s correct politically.

The backlash against political correctness was long overdue. In saying what was on his mind he’s given permission to millions of Americans to say what’s on theirs. None of what’s on either of their minds is all that pretty. But kudos for their saying it, even if not for what they’re saying. Now that we know what these millions of Americans are thinking, we can start working on ways to disabuse them of it.

The backlash against what’s correct politically is a harder nut to crack. It turns out that millions of Americans don’t want cradle to grave health care. Nor, it seems, do they want America to be burdened by the mantle of leadership in creating a better world. What they want, and all they want, is to be free to put their own interests not just first but pretty much full-stop. Trump isn’t looking to be respected abroad, because neither are the people he represents.

This is a world removed from the lofty rhetoric of the Kennedys or Obamas. We’ve entered the age of a littler America. And maybe we’ll all be the better off for it. After all, it was the Kennedys who got Americans into a war they then couldn’t get out of. It was Obama who pledged to close Guantanamo Bay and eight years later never got around to it. So let America shrink back into its isolationism. Power abhors a vacuum. Someone will step in. It should be clear from Vietnam and Afghanistan and now Iraq that America has struck out. Can the next batter up, be it Europe or China, do much worse?

People from the south are invading the north. Walls and naval blockades won’t stop it. Nothing can. Europeans and Americans are going to become a mutt race. What of it? Maybe when the ugly places empty themselves into the beautiful places, they can be recolonized. They’ll have to be. And then maybe they won’t be so ugly anymore.

As that schlocky poem Desiderata says, “The universe is unfolding as it should.” In the meantime tend your garden and be patient with what you perceive as, and in large measure is, idiocy. The Thousand Year Reich lasted less than twelve. Trump has at most another six and half to go. How much damage could he do? More than his predecessors but less than the National Socialists. Germany recovered to become a nation among nations instead of uber them. And so will America.

In the meantime, “you are a child of the universe. You have a right to be here.” There’s no need to shout it from the rooftops. Nor even to quietly proclaim it. Just calmly stand your ground.


Am I answerable for what was said in Curmudgeonism # 618 (below) when it’s entirely possible I didn’t write it?

The technology is now such that anyone with a little savvy can hijack your blog or social media account and have you saying things that would rightly have you crucified, drawn and quartered, beheaded, and then disinvited to dinner. He or she – though it’s usually a he – can even post a video of you mouthing these words. And then the onus falls on you to prove that it wasn’t you, though by then the damage is already done. You couldn’t even confirm or deny it really was you because that communication could be hijacked too. This is going to happen more and more, to the point that texting or blogging or Facebooking will cease to be a reliable way to communicate.

So my question is, what would be the argument against putting the kibosh on this behavior by a) criminalizing it, b) hunting down a few high-profile miscreants, and then c) imposing a penalty severe enough to wipe it out?

Most murders are crimes of passion, most theft of self-preservation or aggrandizement. But this is nothing but gratuitous vandalism. It’s not spontaneous. It involves meticulous execution. In short, it’s maliciousness pure and simple. But it’s undermining a public good as powerfully life-enhancing as was the invention of the printing press.

The problem is that tort law doesn’t do the problem justice. In the first place, the police won’t investigate a private action, so it’s on your dime. And in the second, even if the miscreant can be identified, tort requires proof of loss. But the loss I’m talking about here is one suffered not by the hackee but by all of us. It’s the sabotage of a public facility.

Online scammers are different. What makes it difficult to identify, prosecute, and punish online scammers is that they’re protected by jurisdictional barriers. The Nigerian prince with the $20,000,000 he wants to send you is the sister-in-law of the beat cop in Bucharest. But there are no financial interests to be protected in the kind of thing I’m talking about here, and in very few cases any cross-border involvement. This is just Melissa trying to make trouble for her high school rival Tiffany.

If so, does that mere mischief really warrant a ten-year sentence? Yes. Not for the damage done to Tiffany, but for the damage done to the rest of us.

But there’s a second-order problem involved here. Because of the speed at which online technology is moving, any attempt to constrain the uses of that technology is widely regarded as both futile and neo-Luddite. So on the first count we don’t ask ourselves whether we can, and so we just assume that we can’t. And on the second we’re two enamored to want to.

Sometimes I feel like Laocoon being devoured by the serpents.



It’s a little known fact – probably because it isn’t one – that as well as its gendered third person pronouns – he and his, she and hers – for a long time English had gendered second person pronouns. If you were male I’d be speaking to yo, if female to ya. The plural for yo, by the way, has lived on in the slang youze, whereas yas has completely fallen out of use.

Then sometime in the late 16th or early 17th century, theatre-goers rushing backstage to either congratulate or excoriate the cast, found they couldn’t decide whether to call the male actor playing Desdemona yo or ya. So to alleviate this awkwardness it was Shakespeare himself, according to some scholars, who proposed the gender-neutral you. And the rest, as they say, is history. Though this wasn’t.

My son brought home his report card today, and you ask, “Was it nachos or tsuris?” (Nachos is Yiddish for the joy one takes in one’s children, tsuris for the grief.) “Vut shud it matter?” injects his unconditionally loving Baba, as if he’d just joined the Gay-Straight Alliance.

So language is always adding and subtracting, disambiguating and re-ambiguating. It tells us what we believe, or in some cases what we’re allowed to believe. At least this week. Next week who knows? I’ve been mocked mercilessly for calling the remote a wand. She’s been told it’s infantilizing, but Baba still calls everyone dearie. Black, African Canadian, native, aboriginal, First Nation, retarded, challenged, disabled, differently abled, overweight, full-bodied … How does anyone keep up?

So I’ve decided to declare myself a Linguistically Responsibility Free (LRF) zone. I categorize an LRF-speaker as a sub-species of ESL-speaker. That way I can claim my first language is Neanderthal. I consider conflating the race with the language an ethnic slur, but my protests have fallen on deaf ears.

Being under an LRF cone is not license to call a black a nigger or a Jew a kike. But if I know they’re a couple, then notwithstanding she has a Ph.D. and he doesn’t, I can call her Mrs. His-Last-Name because, as the song says, “If [she’s] good enough to be [his] woman, [she’s] good enough to be [his] wife.” If some tard complains to the Dean, he can hardly call me out for racist language without calling out his latest fresh-out-of-China chemistry instructor for not speaking proper English either.

Ah, you say, but she can be taught, whereas I’ve declared I won’t be.

I accept this as a slam-dunk objection to my position. So let me offer an alternative justification for my declaring myself LRF. Don’t we pride ourselves in our cultural diversity? And isn’t linguistic archaic-ism just as charming as haggis or gefilte fish? If you say that bigoted language isn’t worth preserving, why are we still allowing such unpalatable excuses for food?

Okay, that’s enough political incorrectness for one day. Who knows what will move me tomorrow, in much the way this entire bag of prunes has yet to today.


Monika Schaefer, a Jasper, Alberta woman, and daughter of post-war German immigrants, is currently in a German prison awaiting trial for Holocaust denial, a criminal offense in that and several other European countries, though not in Canada. The charge was triggered by a seven-minute video entitled “Sorry Mom, I was wrong about the Holocaust.” (I recommend you google it.)

In it Ms. Schaefer recounts that for years she excoriated her mother, and her mother’s entire generation of Germans. “You must have known. Why,” she asked, “didn’t you do something to stop these terrible things from happening?”

Her mother didn’t deny these things happened, but, she insisted, “We didn’t know. We just didn’t know.”

“Well,” says Monika, “now we know why she didn’t know. It’s because these things did not happen.”

I‘m not interested, at least not here, in the historicity of the Holocaust, nor in the dubious advisability of laws against historical revisionism. Here I’m only interested in the mother’s defense, and so the appropriateness of the daughter’s apology.

I’m prepared to concede that the average German citizen was not privy to the drafting of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, but only if Monika will concede that a goodly number of German citizens were delighted with their passage. I’ll concede that delight in the misfortunes of others is not a crime, but only if she’ll concede that authorship of those misfortunes might be. And if she’ll concede that complicity in a crime, if it is a crime, can itself be a crime.

In the absence of these concessions we’re not in a position to talk further. So assuming we can talk, let’s.

Note that I’m not asking her to concede that the Holocaust was not a Zionist myth. That’s not what this is about. I’m only asking her to concede that if the Steven Spielberg version of the events of 1939 to 1945 is more or less accurate, those events would have been a crime. And that if those events were a crime, then complicity with them would have been, perhaps a lesser crime, but a crime nonetheless.

Nor am I asking her to concede that if the Holocaust was a crime, it was the kind of crime to which anything that could count as the rule of law could respond. That is, I’m prepared to concede, if she likes, that the Eichmann trial was a violation of natural justice on every count one could imagine, including 1) the retroactivity of the offense for which Eichmann was tried, 2) the jurisdictional incompetence of the Israeli court that presumed to try him, and 3) the manner in which he was removed from Argentina and brought to Israel to stand trial in the first place. None of this is what this is about. I’m only asking Monika to concede that if it was the kind of crime to which something that could count as the rule of law could respond, then complicity with that crime could itself be a crime, even if only a lesser one.

Can we continue to talk?

On the assumption that we can, I’ll concede that the average German citizen did not know that those erstwhile neighbors – those who disappeared from their homes during the night, never to be heard from again – had been shipped in cattle cars to extermination camps and gassed. That would have been a remarkable thing not to have come up at the breakfast table. In exchange I trust that she’ll concede that this never-being-heard-from-again would have been remarkable. So the average German citizen can claim she didn’t know about the exterminations, but she can’t claim she didn’t know about the internment camps. She knew about the internment camps because if she thought her erstwhile neighbors were not in internment camps, then at least a few of them would have made their way back to the neighborhood. Or they would have written. But none did.

Now then, I’ll concede that it would not be remarkable if the next door neighbor were to disappear in the middle of the night and never be heard from again, if he were to disappear for some explicable reason. But only if she’ll concede that it would be remarkable if his wife and children were to disappear along with him. So the average German citizen must have thought these women and children were being consigned to internment camps for no reason other than their race. In fact the race-only justification for that internment should have been clear from the Nuremberg Laws, which, by all accounts, were painstakingly promulgated.

So the only concession I need now is that the internment of women and children for no reason other than their race would have been regarded by the average German citizen in 1939 as a crime, as much as the average German citizen today would regard the internment of women and children for no reason other than their race a crime. To suppose they would not – to allow they’d have considered these internments perfectly reasonable – is to think what those who liberated the camps did think, namely that those who authored or sanctioned these internments could only have been moral monsters!

To repeat: it wasn’t the gas chambers, because maybe there weren’t any. It wasn’t the emaciated condition of the survivors. That could have been photo-shopped. It was the very being of these people in those camps in the first place. That couldn’t be a Zionist invention, because given that they were no longer next door, where else could they have been? So the average German citizen, including Ms. Schaefer’s mother, knew about it, and she knew it was a crime

What remains to be determined is whether that knowledge, and the silence that accompanied it, does or does not constitute the lesser crime of complicity.

I’ve been thinking about the meaning of complicity ever since I spent my sabbatical in 2006 at the Gregorian Institute in Rome studying the proceedings of the Cause for Beatification of Pius XII. (The Cause failed, by the way.) I will not report on any of my conclusions here, except to make the following two concessions:

First, it’s widely accepted – and I accept it too – that if the alternative to complicity is serious self-endangerment, then it’s not complicity. So the question becomes, at what point, and with respect to what, did the average German citizen fear for her own safety?

Were she a Catholic, the time to speak out would have been prior to the signing of the Concordat of 1933, but only if she could have reasonably anticipated that its terms would have prevented her speaking out against the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. (The Concordat was, in essence, a rendering unto Caesar.) But with respect to non-Catholics, we’re left with a purely empirical question. Between their ascension to power in 1933 (or perhaps even earlier) and the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, had the National Socialists already instilled sufficient fear to exculpate silence? I’m in no position to answer that question, but presumably some historian is.

The second concession is that any speaking out that one can reasonably anticipate will be to no avail cannot be morally mandatory. In fact in some cases it’s morally counter-indicated. So we face not an empirical question but a counterfactual one. Had she spoken out, and had a critical mass of others done likewise, would that have put the brakes on the Nazi program? I’m in no position to try to answer that question either, but maybe some braver soul will.

So though we can’t conclude that the average German citizen was complicit in the minimum crime for which the German state is culpable, namely the internment of people for no reason other than their race, we can conclude that Monika’s mother can’t say she didn’t know. Thus at the very least she’s guilty of perjury. A lesser crime perhaps. but a crime nonetheless.

The case of Pius is very different. From what I read, it was hard for the Examiners to deny Pius knew what was happening. In fact the Devil’s Advocate went so far as to suggest he might have been secretly pleased by it. But, it was argued, he can be exculpated for his silence on either or both of the grounds cited above. Put aside that he would have violated the Concordat which, as the then-Secretary of State for the Holy See he had himself negotiated with the German state in 1933. Had he spoken out he would have imperiled the Church over which he had the cura, and he would have done so to no avail.

Once again we have an empirical question followed by a counterfactual one. But in this case, and on both questions, I am prepared to pronounce. As to the first, the Church is not its buildings, nor its clergy, nor even its community of believers. It’s what those believers believe. And if anything has imperiled those beliefs it was the Church’s silence.

And as to the second, had Pius threatened to excommunicate any and all persons giving succor of any sort to what was going on, the Reich would have been torn internally asunder. The German people, and their collaborators in those territories under occupation, would have had to make a choice between their Fuhrer and their God. If Pius believed, whether rightly or wrongly, they would have chosen the former over the latter, then I’m at a loss as to over what he thought he still had the cura.

Some analysts argue that if Pius is ever canonized it will put Christian-Jewish relations back centuries. But if I were a Catholic, that would be the least of my worries. The Concordat that then-Cardinal Pacelli signed in 1933 was signed by a man. But according to Catholic doctrine, his elevation to pope in 1939 was the work of the Holy Spirit. Since God could hardly have overlooked Pacelli’s signing of the Concordat, his elevation amounted to God ratifying the Concordat. But if God thought it appropriate to render unto Hitler then, what must He think of liberation theology today?

Actions have consequences. Sometimes those consequences are theological. Theology has consequences. Try denying that to women seeking reproductive autonomy in this–is-a-Christian-country-dammit! America.

By contrast, I’m not sure what harm’s being done by Monika’s unwarranted apology to her mother. My advice has always been, if someone’s offended, apologize even if you’re not in the wrong, because an apology costs you nothing. But apparently that’s not always the case. Monika’s apology has cost her considerably.


Whenever I give a talk, one of my favorite opening schticks is, “Of the things I care least about, the historicity of the Empty Tomb and global warming are pretty much in a dead heat. What I do care about, however, is …” And then I introduce my topic.

I do this mostly because it irritates the hell out of an otherwise much-beloved colleague for whom global warming is the most urgent problem facing the world today, including anyone’s having to pee. But it also sends the message that I don’t want to squander what (rapidly diminishing) mental resources I still have on things that don’t matter, or if they do matter we can’t or won’t do anything about them. Whether the tomb was empty, or whether after three days it stank as it would were it not, says nothing about the truth of Christianity. And whether global warming is true or not, my colleagues are going to continue to drive their Hummers and fly rather than skype themselves into their various save-the-world conferences.

So I talk instead about things that do matter, and about which we can do something. Like what? Like whether the occupation of space is or is not infinitely divisible. I argue that it’s not, which if I’m right solves Zeno’s Paradox, which in turn means my getting from my office to the classroom is not an illusion. Because if it were, my students would have had to come to me rather than me to them, and there wouldn’t have been enough room in my office for even half of them.

Okay, that was tongue in cheek. Metaphysics is fun. It’s brain candy. But it trains the mind for being meticulous where one’s philosophical rubber does his the road. And where is that? On how to distribute the material and liberal dividends of civil society to keep it civil. On how to avoid war, or at least constrain its destructiveness when it can’t be avoided. On whether a woman’s right to reproductive autonomy is a trumping right or a merely contingent one, and if the later, contingent on what? And so on.

Whether the tomb was empty or not is not a philosophical problem. Whether life after death makes any sense is. Whether there is or is not global warming is not a philosophical problem. How we come to believe what we do about it is.

It’s not a matter of sticking to what we’re good at. Some philosophers are equally good at other things, and some who are good at other things aren’t very good at philosophy. Rather it’s a matter of making it clear when we’ve changed hats.

To try to put philosophy at the service of some cause, no matter how laudable that cause, is to undercut its credibility. Our job is to take the wind out of the sails of the Crusader’s ships. Our job is to browbeat the proselytizer, whether for Jesus or for global justice, into getting clear on the concepts she trots out on the other side of the screen door. It’s to demand of the social justice warrior, if need be kicking and screaming, what she means by ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ and ‘sustainability’. We can’t do this by joining in this sloppiness.

This is not to say that practitioners of other disciplines, or teachers of homiletics, are required by some cosmic ordinance to submit themselves to the admittedly peculiar demands of our discipline. On the contrary, one does not analyze a love poem for its syntax, nor purge Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech of all its metaphors. Poets and preachers have their work, we ours. But philosophy is neither poetry nor homily. It’s soulless because it has to be. A surgeon who can’t abide the sight of blood needs to hand the scalpel to a colleague who can.

Why do I say all this? Because sometimes I get the feeling that I’m the last survivor of the Vienna Circle. That not unlike the Japanese soldier in the jungle, I didn’t get the news the war is over, and that what was for me the discipline of philosophy has long since moved on.

Sometimes I hide at the edge of the clearing and listen in on what these round-eyes – all scandalously out of uniform, by the way – are jabbering on about. LGBT rights, trans-sexuals … For the longest time I couldn’t figure out what they’re talking about. But I think I have it now. We used to call the former fags and the latter confused. Now they talk is as if we were confused. Our textbooks used to have titles like The Enduring Questions of Philosophy. But I don’t remember Plato asking any questions about what bathroom one should be allowed to use, and so these can’t be among the questions that have endured..

It’s a brave new world out there beyond my jungle home. I was told to hold until relieved, so I guess that’s what I’ll do. And besides, I have a bumper crop of wild rice, so it should be a good year for making saki.



  • S asserts that not-p.
  • S is paid. Therefore
  • S is paid to assert that not-p.
  • The likelihood of the truth of not-p varies inversely with what one is paid to assert it.
  • If one’s been exposed to the evidence available to her for p, and yet she asserts that not-p nonetheless, she asserts what she believes to be false, and she does so because she’s paid to assert it. Therefore
  • anyone who asserts that not-p is asserting what she believes to be false because she’s paid to assert it, or else she’s a dupe of those who assert what they believe to be false because they’re paid to assert it. Therefore
  • p.


(3) does not follow from (1) and (2). (4) is pulled out of the arguer’s ass. (5) fails to realize that one can be exposed to evidence without being convinced by it. And even if (5) were true, (6) doesn’t follow from it. And worst of all, nothing in (1) through (6) entitles the arguer to (7).

This astounding set of inferences is made all the more astounding by being drawn by people who’ve spent a lifetime learning how not to draw them,. And who’ve taken unstinting pains to teach their students not to draw them either.

How is this possible? The answer can only be that they’re so convinced of p on grounds independent of this shilling argument that they don’t think it matters whether any supplementary arguments for p are sound or even valid.

It wouldn’t matter if they were addressing the shilling argument to those already in their tribe on the p versus not-p debate, though in that case one wonders why any further argumentation is even called for. But it does matter to any of their students who are as yet unaligned, and have taken pains to learn what was taught them about invalid arguments.

The shilling argument is a particularly egregious example of critical thinking skills thrown out the window in the service of a heart-felt conviction. If one sifts through the threads, be they on desmogblog.com or False Flag Weekly – I’ve found that these stupidities are pretty much evenly distributed – she can confidently cover every fallacy there is, and some of which she wouldn’t have thought anyone over six years old was even capable.

The key question, for those of us professional philosophers psychopathic enough not to have any heart-felt convictions – be it about anthropogenic climate change or 9/11 or whatever – is what to do about these blogs. Keep silent and be thought a fool? Or open one’s mouth and remove all doubt? For logic aside, in the real world of conversational implicature, a criticism of an argument for p is taken to be a subscription to not-p. I’ve already been described as a global warming denier and as a paid spokesperson for the official story about 9/11, notwithstanding I neither know nor care one whit about either of these issues. And now, because I’ve been foolish enough to announce that I don’t think any criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitism, I’m soon to be listed as one of Canada’s most notorious Holocaust deniers.

The temptation, of course, is to just retire, or at the very least go to ground. Right now I’m waffling between the two. Any suggestions?


By a human right, as distinct from a civil right, is meant, presumably, one one has independently of the polity to which she happens to belong. But a human right does not extend between sovereign jurisdictions. By this I mean that the freedom of religion that I enjoy in Canada, for example, does not entitle me to enter Saudi Arabia to make my Haj, even if Saudi Arabia honors freedom of religion no less than Canada does. Likewise, then, freedom of association does not give me license to travel to another country to associate with one of its nationals, nor does it entitle her to enter Canada to associate with me. So even though human rights, if they exist, are universal, their exercise is confined to within the sovereign jurisdiction that recognizes them.

And it seems strange to me that that doesn’t seem strange to people who are sanguine on human rights. One would think they’d at least lament this, if not protest it.

To be fair there are people who think the existence of borders is incompatible with human rights. They allow that sovereignty is compatible with human rights. That is, they acknowledge that rights require the protection of governments. But, they rightly point out, governments have duties beyond the protection of human rights, duties that entitle and obligate them to exercise sovereignty over these people here but not those over there. But if they can’t control who enters into their jurisdiction, they’re in no position to husband the resources necessary to fulfill those other duties.

Still, counters the open-borders advocate, the right of association does not entail a right to health care or employment or education. So why couldn’t we say that a Somali can associate with whomever wants to associate with her here in Canada, but association is a negative right. No one, including the Canadian government, has a right to interfere with their associating, but the government has no obligation to facilitate that association by providing whatever might prove to be the sine qua non of it, such as English language classes or bus fare.

The difficulty, however, is a practical one. We have good reason to believe that a two-tiered system of entitlements is morally and politically unviable. We simply can’t have millions of people freezing or starving to death for the other 364 days because they want to spend Christmas Day with one of us.

But the problem at the Mexico-US border and in Lampadusa is a very different one. It’s that those human rights to which people are entitled no matter where they live are not being afforded them where they live. What rights are those? In some cases subsistence. But as often as not they’re freedom of expression, of assembly, of religion … the so-called liberty rights. Rights which, unlike subsistence, could be afforded them even if subsistence couldn’t be. So they’ve come to the southern gates of America or Western Europe to access rights that either cannot be, or simply aren’t being, afforded them where they’ve been living.

If the problem is subsistence, the obvious solution is to feed them there so they don’t have to come here. And if the problem is oppression the obvious solution is to forcibly remove whoever’s oppressing them. And if this were what Trump and Salvini are trying to do, we could stand behind them. But it’s not. Instead they’re aiding and abetting the oppression that’s driving these people northward.

Too quick. Liberation invariably morphs into imperialism to cover its own costs. So on second thought we couldn’t stand behind imposing American-style democracy on the rest of the world.

So it’s a case of revealed preferences falsifying declared ones. What’s revealed is that we don’t really believe there are human rights that it’s incumbent upon us to ensure. There are only civil rights. And a civil right is one enjoyed only by members of the polity assigning them those rights. Members of that polity have a right to so remain. But no one has a right to become a member of that polity.

Nor does anyone have the right not to be discriminated against in her application to be a member. Any right not to be discriminated against can only be conferred by the polity to which one is applying for membership. But there’s no call for consistency between those rights and those conferred on its own citizens. So though in Canada I cannot refuse to rent to you because you’re black, my government can refuse to admit you into the country because you’re black.

That, at any rate, is the Trump-Salvini take on the migrant crisis on their respective southern borders. And it’s hard to see where they’re wrong, because, well, they’re not.

So the counterargument has to avoid rights-talk altogether and appeal instead to compassion. There is no right to rescue. But when you see someone drowning you reach over the side and you pull them in. If you don’t you’re not unjust. You’re just, but also ‘just’ a moral monster. Sending them back to Libya is just tossing them back in the water, because that’s where you’ll find them tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. Until what you’re pulling out of the water is a corpse. So what to do?

Trump and Salvini think of America and Europe as lifeboats. Any more taken on board and we capsize. So yes, hard though it may be, we do have to let them drown. It’s a matter of self-preservation.

The counterargument is that they’re cooking these carrying capacities. It’s not that America and Europe couldn’t feed and house and employ another ten or twenty million souls. Nor is the worry that all or any of them are rapists. It’s that they’ll change the smells coming from open windows. Our sons will marry their daughters, and then those smells will be coming from our open windows. Their call to prayers will make our own church bells ring quaint to us, as if they betoken just one invitation to worship among many. We’ll have lost community.

That “Tis always thus!” is no argument that we should let it be. There is no irresistible Marxist historical determinism to be succumbed to here!

But there is. It’s those skeletons in the dessert. It’s those corpses that keep washing up where Italians go to sunbathe. If live bodies won’t change us, dead ones will. It’s moral determinism. It’s not whether we’re going to change. It’s into what.


To the best of my knowledge, since the fall of Apartheid there’s no jurisdiction anywhere in the world under which it’s illegal for me to prefer a white woman in my bed to a black one. But in most jurisdictions, at least here in the West, not only for the government but also for private enterprise, it’s illegal to deny service to someone because of her race or religion or ethnicity. And many jurisdictions are now including sexual orientation in this list of prohibited grounds. What remains a grab bag are things like the customer’s criminal record, or her political affiliation. That varies from country to country and from state to state.

But – or so it’s argued – it’s not just the rights of the customer that have to be considered here. What about the rights of the service provider not to violate her religious or moral convictions? Well, it turns out that too is something of a grab bag.

There are a lot of issues here. Let’s see if we can parse at least some of them.

There’s no denying that in a virulently racist town, a black man sitting at the lunch counter might turn some white patrons off their food. But we’ve decided that in this case the rights of the black man trump, the idea being that eventually no lunch counter will be found in which there won’t sometimes be a black man at the counter, and so any good ol’ boy hold-outs will just have to get used to it. That is, a no-smoking bylaw doesn’t kill one’s business provided it applies equally to her competitors, so it should be the same with a no-discrimination law.

But now suppose my religion tells me that it’s an abomination in the eyes of God that a white man should break bread with a black one. Now we have a head-on with freedom of religion. This one’s easy. My religion might tell me that we’re to suffer no homosexual to live, and so a law protecting homosexuals from stoning is a violation of freedom of religion. Well, live with it!

The problem case – the one that’s actually making its way upwards in the courts – is whether a baker can decline to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. I’m inclined to say he can, but only because he’s not the only baker in town. But what if he is? Well, we might say, they’ll just have to do without a cake.

But are we going to say the same thing about abortion if the only accessible hospital is Catholic? That she’ll just have to carry the product of a rape through to term?

One thing that’s at issue here is whether access to abortion is a negative right or a positive one. If it’s a negative right then she has a right not to be interfered with, but there’s no one who has a duty to assist her. If she has a positive right then it falls to the state to ensure that assistance.

And if it can’t? That one’s easy too. Since ought implies can, if it can’t then it can’t be obligated to. And if it can’t be obligated to, then she can’t have a positive right to it. So any positive right, it would seem, is a contingent one. If but only if the state can, then it must.

This seems to dovetail with our intuitions about subsistence. If one has a right to subsistence, then the polity to which she belongs has an obligation to provide it. But not if it can’t because it doesn’t have the wherewithal, for example if there’s a famine. That covers much of the Horn of Africa.

But what if it could feed her, but only by forcibly expropriating food already in the rightful possession of others? This is precisely what governments are forced to do in times of famine or war. And what this shows is that ‘rightful possession’ is always subject to this contingency clause. What’s yours is yours unless and until it’s needed more urgently by others.

But hang on. Why should it be any different with the ‘rightful practice’ of one’s religion? If yours is the only hospital within range of a woman legitimately seeking to end a pregnancy, why can’t your services be forcibly expropriated? They could, you answer, if she were suffering from a gunshot wound, for which she has a positive right to assistance. But to assistance in ending a non-therapeutic pregnancy she only has a negative right.

That seems right to me. Or at least it would, until it’s pointed out that a right not to be interfered with can be trivially honored by seeing to it that no interference is necessary. By this I mean that if there’s no hospital that will assist her, she’s only trivially not being interfered with. So where such trivialization is available, the distinction between a positive and negative right can ring more than a tad hollow.

And then so does the right to one’s religious convictions. If your religious convictions stand in the way of what would be my positive right to, say, a blood transfusion, or if they trivialize my negative right to a non-therapeutic abortion, then something’s got to go. And then it comes down to what we consider more important, one’s life and/or reproductive autonomy, or another’s religious liberty.

Is there a fact-of-the-matter about which we should consider more important? Not categorically more important, because we can imagine circumstances under which siding against religion would lead to civil war. And as is well known, war, which is virtually defined by killing and rape, is a respecter of neither lives nor reproductive autonomy.

Now let’s bring this discussion home to what it’s really all about. Should a member of a reviled Administration have the right to eat in peace at a privately owned restaurant? Does she have a right to eat in a privately owned restaurant at all? A supporter of that Administration was recently asked to remove a hat proclaiming that support. Suppose he removed it. Should his having announced his support for the Administration be grounds to refuse him service, even though he is now indistinguishable from any other patron?

To all of the above, I’m reluctantly inclined to say yes.

The question is not whether the Trump Administration is rightly reviled, though I think it is. The most benign Administration will be reviled by someone. Nor is the question whether the rest of us have a right to harangue the likes of Sanders while she tries to eat. Of course we do. Make the bitch’s life as miserable as possible! say I. It’s whether one has the right to withhold a service which is understood to be being offered to the public.

Some people argue that we prohibit grounds about which the victim of discrimination has no choice, like sex or race. But one does have a choice about serving as a President’s press secretary, or wearing a Make America Great Again (MAGA) cap. But that can’t be the right sortal. One also has a choice about hanging a Star of David or cross around her neck, or wearing a burka. Why should a MAGA hat be any different? If certain political affiliations are grounds for shunning, why not certain religious affiliations? And if religion, why not race? The grounds for discrimination is not whether you chose to be what others revile. It’s that you are what others revile.

What this shows, I submit, is that whether your right to be served does or does not trump my right not to serve you has nothing to do with the grounds I have for not wanting to serve you. Nor is which trumps which a metaphysical or moral issue. It’s a purely political one. We can imagine circumstances in which the first would trump the second, and others in which the second would trump the first. For that matter we could imagine circumstances under which it should be illegal for me to prefer a white woman in my bed to a black one. If this be doubted, remember that there was a time and place in which it seemed equally unimaginable that it should be legal for me to prefer a black women to a white one.

So I think the question comes down to one similar to the right to bear arms. Whether rightly or wrongly, the American people have decided that maintaining the means of rebellion against a government that’s turned against them is worth those deaths brought about by domestic and criminal gun violence. That’s a judgment call, about which reasonable people can and do disagree. But I think it would be unreasonable to withdraw the right to shun. If the after-hours lives of members of the Trump Administration can be made sufficiently uncomfortable, if not downright intolerable, then the Administration won’t be able to recruit, and if it can’t recruit, it can’t function, and if it can’t function, it has to step down.

But, of course, this opposition to the Administration faces a collective action problem. So long as Sanders and her ilk can find venues that will welcome them – and instead will refuse service to those who would harangue them – the shunning becomes a merely symbolic gesture, though not for that reason to be in any wise dismissed.

The danger – or so some have suggested – is that if this shunning isn’t nipped in the bud, it could lead to Democrat- and Republican-only restaurants, and then to partisan segregated housing, and then … And that would make an already-polarized polity indistinguishable from Apartheid. And what’s wrong with Apartheid? Just that people who break bread together don’t kill each other. It’s people who don’t that do.

This is the argument against my position, and it’s a damn good one. What I can’t get out of my mind, however, is all the decent Germans who continued to invite their Nazi neighbors to dinner because it would have been churlish not to.