DON QUIXOTE’S BLESSING

 

Why is it that some truths have to be learned over and over and over again? I suppose it’s because they’re just too hard to believe. I learned about fifteen years ago that many of the people I work with don’t share what I thought were the values we all share, because, well, surely we must! It turns out not that they don’t share my values. It’s that I don’t share theirs.

The difference between these seemingly equivalent propositions is who’s the odd man out. Turns out I am. So the question is not why they don’t share my values. It’s why I don’t share theirs. And the answer is I was just wrong about the values of the institution I was joining.

So about fifteen years ago – borrowing from Pierre Elliott Trudeau – I took what I call my “walk in the snow”. Like Trudeau, I could have resigned and found something else to do with the rest of my life. But why? Why not just do the job I thought I’d signed up for, and instead of trying to browbeat others into joining me, just leave them to their own devices? Which, to be fair, they’ve by and large left me to mine. It’s a resolution that’s not always easy to stick to. My own idiosyncratic values keep getting in the way. But it’s like any other resolution. Falling short is no excuse to stop trying.

Still, these occasional lapses are God-given opportunities, if only I’d take them, to rethink who needs to do the rethinking. I thought my colleagues didn’t understand there are solutions to collective action problems. As it turns out I didn’t understand that they don’t think these are actions that need to be taken in the first place.

Examples are legion, but the most recent has been the attack on academic freedom exemplified by the Tony Hall case. Tony is – I guess I should now say was – a colleague down the hall and around two corners. Tony’s an affable enough fellow, but not, perhaps, the sharpest pencil in the box. Tony is convinced 9/11 was an Israeli false flag operation.

Well, say I, that would be grounds to believe we Jews really are the most clever people on the planet. As if the official story wasn’t caper enough!

But apparently I’m the odd man out here. Most people, including Tony, view this charge as a criticism of the State of Israel. And apparently any criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitism, and so, by associative implicature, 9/11 Trutherism is Holocaust-denial.

Once again, odd man out. I just don’t get these connections.

In any event, the Zionist lobby seized upon this ‘indiscretion’ – and who could blame them? – to make Tony the standard bearer for everything up with which no publicly funded university should put, and demanded his immediate dismissal. The Administration – acting, as I say, on values I alone don’t share – acceded to this demand. The invertebrate faculty association came to Tony’s token defense, a war of attrition dragged on for almost two years, and finally, having taken its intended toll, Tony retired.

And all this time, like a fool, I was trying to come to Tony’s defense. Why? Because I thought at least he shared with me the value of academic freedom. Turns out that wasn’t it at all. Turns out for him it was his crusade against the neocons he’s convinced are ruling the world, not his right to crusade against them.

So now I just feel foolish. I understand that people get tired, especially people Tony’s and my age. That’s one of the reasons I’d long since resolved never to enter a fight I don’t have the stamina to win. And I’ve never wavered from that resolution. But the lesson I keep having to learn, over and over and over again, is never enter a fight for or along side an ally who hasn’t adopted a similar resolution.

Don Quixote never did figure out he was tilting at windmills. I suppose that was his blessing.

AN ALIEN PERSPECTIVE

 

Three score and eight years ago I landed on this planet, but I think it might have been from another one. I say this because I understand so little of why humans think as they do, and they seem to understand even less of why I think as I do. So that my cognitive apparatus wasn’t naturally selected for for living on this planet seems a not unreasonable hypothesis.

Where I think the stork was meant to drop me was a place as “red in tooth and claw” as this one, both between and within species, but where people with common cause knew it and acted accordingly. Here people seem to know when they have common cause, but they seem incapable of joint action even when such action is risk-free and guaranteed to win them the day.

It could be that what they’re afraid of is not failure but success. We don’t need to storm the Bastille and behead the tyrant. A critical mass of us could bring down a malfeasant government, be it of a nation or a village or a university, by simply withdrawing uptake to its authority. But if we do we’re worried that others might deploy the same surefire tactic against us. And so there’s an unwritten understanding that we won’t do this to each other.

If this is right, and I suspect it is, it’s a fascinating – I won’t say departure, so I’ll just say – twist in the logic of social evolution. It places stability ahead of virtually every other value, including prosperity, justice, even survival. Think of the hundreds of thousands who, even when the war was clearly lost, walked upright into volley after volley of Soviet artillery because the Fuhrer told them to. Think of our own policemen who, knowing full well that the law was unconscionable, nevertheless felt it their duty to arrest some acne-ed kid for enjoying a spliff in the park.

“Ours is not to reason why …” And yet I would have thought it is.

On the planet where I think I come from, we don’t march on the capitol or city hall or the Dean’s office demanding that he step down. We just all act as if he has. What can he do? Yes, he can appeal to due process. But to suppose due process is going to shield him from our indifference presupposes we’re not indifferent to what process is due. But we are, at least when it cease to do what it’s there for. It’s almost as if Germany had won the war

Another thing I don’t understand is why people think every question is a rhetorical one. I made the mistake of wondering aloud how 9/11 could’ve been an inside job with nary a one of the hundreds who’d have had to have been involved spilling the beans, and for my troubles I was dubbed a paid defender of the official story. Mind you, the same 9/11-Truther who’d reasoned this way about me got his own comeuppance recently when he asked a question about the Shoah and found himself written up in the newspapers as a Holocaust denier. So I suppose what goes around comes around.

On the planet where I think I come from, if the sentence is an interrogative we’re not asserting anything, we’re asking a question. By contrast, when we want to assert something we make it a declarative. I figured out fairly early on in my sojourn here how rhetorical questions function in human speech. But what I can’t figure out is how humans go about asking a question to which they don’t pretend to already have the answer. Is it possible that so many questions remain unanswered on this planet because no way has been found to ask them?

If this is right – and I think it might be – then this would explain why people can’t seem to get their shit together about global warming, or vaccination safety, or any of a hundred other challenges to the survival of the species. Solutions require answers to questions. But if no question can be asked without coming across as already having the answer, then no new answers can be forthcoming. Wouldn’t it be a cosmic embarrassment if the human race rendered itself extinct because of a grammatical trope? Grist indeed for Douglas Adams, though sadly he’s no longer with us.

I could go on, so I will.

There’s a South Park episode in which there’s a plane crash, and the deceased are being processed through the Pearly Gates. One of them asks which religion got it right. The presiding official checks his clipboard and, looking very surprised himself, announces, “The Mormons. Now who would have guessed that?!”

Well, as a matter of fact the Mormons did get it right. But after visiting the New World, Jesus went on to the one I now remember I do come from. He came, we chatted, and, not unlike what He did when He was here, on His way out to His next appointment He graced us with the set of rules it was His Father’s wish that we henceforth live by.

It’s not that we didn’t read them. In fact we agreed with the ones that were analytic. For example, “Thou shalt not kill,” He told us.

Ever? we asked.

“Well no, not when you should.”

And when is that?

“Well, that’s something you’re going to have to work out among yourselves.”

So you’re telling us we shouldn’t kill when we think we shouldn’t kill. Is that it? Yeah, I guess we could manage that.

But some of the more substantive ones we thought were patently ridiculous. I shouldn’t lie with a man as with a women? But what if I want to?

“No, that’s gross.”

Have you looked at some of the women some of us sleep with?

So to make a long story short, we asked Jesus to thank his Dad for His kind counsel, and carried on as we had before.

But when I got here, people seemed to think that this kind counsel was somehow incumbent upon us, as if someone Who’d never shared an incarnate life with other incarnate creatures knew something we didn’t know, notwithstanding we’ve had thousands of years of experience to inform our judgments.

I just don’t get it. I’m not sure that even God gets it. I think why any of us would think we need to comport ourselves to His druthers is as much a mystery to Him as it was to my people back where I now remember I came from. But people here, thinking the answer is too self-evident to articulate, have forgotten what it is.

This happens a lot among the Earthlings. It’s like having the name of that actor on the tip of your tongue, but …

That you can google. But I’ve tried googling why I should want God to make me an instrument of His will, and all I get is a do-you-mean “Make me an instrument of Thy will,” followed by millions of sites offering to pray with me, and millions more offering to pray for me. I especially appreciate the latter. It is a much-needed service. Many of us are too busy to pray for ourselves. But for all that, not one of these sites seems to understand my question, let alone tries to answer it.

So there you have it. Just three of what are hundreds of disconnects between me and those of you who’ve been kind enough to host me lo these last three score years and eight.

I knew you’d ask, and so yes, I have called home, and I’ve been assured I will be picked up in the fullness of time. In the fullness of time, they said. In the fullness of time. What the hell does in the fullness of time mean?!

THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE WORLD

Once upon a time – or outside of it, if we’re to have it Boethius’ way – having nothing else to do, God decided to conjure in His mind all the worlds He could bring into being were He so inclined. (By a ‘world’, at least at this planning stage, is meant that set of propositions that would be true of a world if God decided to make it.) Then having made a print-out of each, He began picking them up pairwise, keeping the one He preferred and consigning the other to the trash.

In virtue of what He preferred this one over that one shall forever remain a mystery to us. But that plays no part in this story. All that matters is that at the end of the day He held in His hand the one He most preferred. And then, still having nothing else to do, He brought it into being.

How He brought it into being shall forever remain a mystery to us. But that too plays no part in this story.

That’s Leibniz’ story and he’s stickin’ to it. And as the setup to my story, so am I. So here’s my story.

Sometime later – though how much later is what this is all about – someone came along and, having nothing else to do, decided to conjure up all the possible histories of this world that God had created. In other words, all the possible sets of the sets of propositions that could be true of this world, from the moment of its creation to and including the present moment. Then, having made a print-out of each, he began picking them up pairwise, trying to decide which was more likely to actually be the history of the world, his hope being that, at the end of the day, what he’d hold in his hand would be the print-out of the set of propositions most likely to be the true history of the world.

Why anyone would want to know the true history of the world shall forever remain a mystery to me. But that plays no part in my story. All that matters is that there are people who do. And that it’s my job, as a cheque-casher of the widow’s mite, to help them get what they want.

Some of these possible histories were fifteen billion years long, others a scant six thousand, and still others only five minutes. But unlike how God did it, how long ago He did it – or if He didn’t do it someone or something did – seems to be the one part of the story the taxpayer wants to see resolved. So let’s see if we can fill that in.

Now some people think that histories leave footprints. That’s how I can tell there was a prowler in the yard last night. But what makes me think that’s how I can tell? Don’t I have to already believe that footprints – which there clearly are! – are caused by the temporally prior footfall of feet? And how did I come to know that?

Well, presumably because I saw someone step on a patch of ground, and immediately thereafter there was a footprint that hadn’t been there before. One such observation doth not a causal relation make, but enough of them, in the right order and without exception, doth. That’s just what and all a causal relation is. Histories leave footprints because what it is ‘to leave’ is just another way of saying ‘to cause’. Whatever happened, whenever it happened, caused other things to happen. And so even if we can’t always trace backwards from what’s happening now to what must have happened sometime back then, we can be reasonably confident that there was something that happened back then which was among the causal antecedents of what’s happening now.

Well, perhaps. But doesn’t this presuppose that this footfall followed by this footprint was a single event? Isn’t it possible that the footprint was one event, and a second event was the memory of a footfalling? In fact isn’t that a more precise account of what actually transpired? So it’s not that you saw a footfall causing a footprint. Nor is it even, as David Hume suggests instead, that you inferred the causal connection between the footprint and the footfall. It’s that you inferred the causal connection between the footprint and the memory of the footfall.

But it seems to me that once one grants this, she’s given away the farm. For what comes next is the possibility that that memory is in fact a pseudo-memory. What if the world came into being just at the moment you observed the footprint, but it came into being with the pseudo-memory of a footfall in your head? How can this possibility be discharged?

Note that you can’t discharge it by citing your observation that this kind of thing just doesn’t happen, since that presupposes what needs to be shown. But there’s no way it can be shown.

So what is shown? That philosophers of science are wrong to argue that what disqualifies the Five Minute Hypothesis is that it’s non-falsifiable. It is non-falsifiable, but then so are any of the more standard hypotheses about the age of the world. What would count as evidence that whatever data we could appeal to to falsify some hypothesis could not be merely pseudo-remembered? Certainly not that we have data we can appeal to to falsify the hypothesis that that data is only pseudo-remembered.

These same philosophers of science insist that the asymmetry they need to dismiss if not discharge the Five Minute Hypothesis is that science is grounded on induction, induction on observation, and observation presupposes realism about the past. So the Five Minute Hypothesis cannot but be a species of scientific skepticism.

The argument is valid but unsound. Induction is not grounded on observation. It’s grounded on reports of observation. If the Five Minute Hypothesis is true, then what accounts for the fingers-crossed reliability of those reports is precisely what would account for their fingers-crossed reliability if the Five Minute Hypothesis were false. That is, if the Five Minute Hypothesis is true, we’ve just been damn lucky. But given that there’s no reason to suppose the future will resemble the past, if the Five Minute Hypothesis is false we’ve been just as lucky.

So contrary to its critics, the Five Minute Hypothesis is not a species of skepticism. Skepticism is not the view that we can’t know what’s true. It’s the view that we can’t rely on what we take to be true. Subscribers to the Five Minute Hypothesis put precisely as much reliance on those pseudo-history books and those pseudo-memories as does the straightforward realist about the past. And for the same reason. We’re all just crossing our fingers.

So why bother advancing the Five Minute Hypothesis if it makes no difference? Because it does make a difference. Not to science, but to ethics. It allows us to correct a number of metonymy errors in our ethical and political judgments. Such as? Well, it tells us that what’s wrong with pedophilia can’t have anything to do with the disparate ages of the participants. It tells us that entitlement can only be contingently a function of contribution. These are hard cases to make, but they’re made considerably easier when one can ask, “What if the world came into being only five minutes ago?” The most incorrigible intuitions immediately take a nosedive. Trust me. I’ve seen it.

In short, my colleagues are right. In flogging the Five Minute Hypothesis as I do, I am mad. But there is method to my madness.

THE PERILS OF PATTER

 

Given the number of times a politician’s heart goes out to the families of this tragedy or of that, one wonders whether it ever stays home.

This kind of patter isn’t as innocent as it might appear. It’s not that anyone’s so Asperger’s that she doesn’t understand the metaphor. Nor is it that anyone’s so untutored in the nature of human emotion that she thinks the speaker really does feel equally and deeply saddened by each and every tragedy he’s required to publicly lament. It’s that at a certain point we become so inured to the patter that we cease to hear it. Having ceased to hear it we cease to listen to what’s actually being said. And then before we know it we’ve let pass a blatant and dangerous falsehood.

“All Canadians are outraged by …”

No they’re not. I wasn’t. In fact I thought the bastards deserved what they got on 9/11.

“Global warming is the most urgent problem facing the world today.”

Then certainly it’s the most urgent problem facing you too. More urgent than your having to pee? Or driving your wife to the hospital for her knee operation? Or flying off to your next save-the-world conference? If you’re wondering why none of us is doing anything about global warming it’s because there’s not a single person on the planet – nor a married one for that matter – for whom it’s an urgent problem, let alone the most urgent one. But your saying that it is blinds you to why it isn’t.

We have a colleague who’s bragged that he “can’t even imagine what would count as evidence that the Holocaust didn’t happen.”

If he meant that he couldn’t have an IQ over sixty. So let’s hope it was rhetorical flourish. But what it says is worse. It says that he’s not open to counter-evidence. That neither should anyone else be. And that therefore the historicity of the Holocaust is no more an empirical question than the existence of God, or that homosexuality is contra natura.

And that’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because it leaves it open to the Holocaust denier to likewise declare, as some have, that nothing could count as evidence that the Holocaust did happen. And then, since any and all evidence has been ruled out of court, the question can only be settled by who can muster the most deafening ad hominem circumstantial, as in:

“How much is B’nai Brith paying you?”, countered by

“Less than what the Iranians are paying you!”

It will, of course, be objected that getting from some politician’s heart going out to the irrelevance of evidence in the vaccination safety debate is a bit of a stretch. I don’t think it is. I think they’re of a piece. Tolerating sloppy reasoning in one domain encourages it in another. We’ve been watching this dialectic in action on the other side of the border. And some of us, my colleagues included, are watching it creep northward with growing alarm. Our mistake is focusing on its right-wing content rather than its form. But idiocy is ambidextrous.

Many of us have reached what Jonathan Kay calls the ‘Legacy Stage’ of an academic career. Not content to let the chips fall where they have, we’re desperate to convince ourselves, before taking down our shingle, that we changed the world. In that desperation decades of training gets cast to the wind. Our students can see it even when we can’t. What’s consoling is they love us all the more for it. One could even say their hearts go out to us.

CURMUDGEONISM # 618 – OF YO, YA, AND TARDS

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.

NOTES FROM THE JUNGLE

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.

THE CRITICAL THINKING PROFESSOR’S DILEMMA

 

  • 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?

THE MIGRANT DILEMMA

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.

NO SYMPATHY FOR SARAH SANDERS

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.

PEOPLE SAY THE DARNDEST THINGS

Correlation is not causation.

Yes it is. In fact that’s all it is. Isn’t that exactly what Hume showed us? You can’t see a cause, you can only infer it. And you can only infer it from a correlation. Sheesh!

If all and only smokers get lung cancer, then, dammit, smoking causes lung cancer. If there’s only a high correlation – most smokers and very few non-smokers – then it has to be smoking plus something else. If the higher correlation is with the something else then it’s that something else plus maybe the smoking. And so on. But for sure there’s no causation without any correlation. So where did this correlation is not causation nonsense come from?

That’s just one of many stupid things people say notwithstanding its stupidity should be staring them right in the face. Here’s another:

Rape isn’t about sex, it’s about violence.

Let’s check this out. Send an undercover policewoman out to where she’s likely to be raped. Tell her that, as her would-be rapist approaches, she’s to come on to him. If that stops him in his tracks, you might be on to something. But whatever you’re on to it’s the same thing you’d be on to if you observed how a lot of couples like to play. So no, Virginia, rape really is about what it seems to be about. It’s about sex.

If someone tells you she’s been sexually assaulted, tell her you believe her.

So, if he then tells you she’s lying, then he must, right? If he gets to you first and tells you she’s going to say she was sexually assaulted but she’s lying, you can’t tell him you believe him, because then you’ll have to tell her you don’t. Believe her, that is. So it’s not who gets to you first. It’s her word over his whenever she gets to you.

But now suppose he’s your son, your brother, your husband, or your best friend. You can’t tell him you believe him because you’ve already told her you believe her. So maybe you ought not to have told her you believe her, just in case your son or brother or husband or best friend comes along later and tells you she’s lying. Or worse yet, suppose she comes along second. Now you have to tell her you don’t believe her. So now it seems it’s her word unless he’s your son or brother or husband or best friend. But hang on. Even if he’s not your son or brother or husband or best friend, isn’t he someone’s son or brother or husband or best friend? And so shouldn’t that someone believe him rather than her?

So now you have to say it depends not on whether it’s a she or a he, but rather your particular relationship to each of them. That seems fair enough. But then shouldn’t you be telling her not that you believe her categorically, but only until someone else comes along you have reason to believe more? But that’s equivalent to saying you’re suspending judgment, which is precisely what “I believe you!” advocates want saying you believe her to replace.

94% of sexual assaults go unreported.

No, because it had to be reported that they went unreported, in which case they were reported. Presumably, then, what’s meant is that a random sampling of people were interviewed and of those who said they’d been sexually assaulted 94% of them reported they did not reported it in a timely manner and to the appropriate authorities. But even that can’t be right, because a goodly number of those reports, both the reported ones and the unreported ones, will turn out to be false, whereas to count them as sexual assaults they have to be sexual assaults. So the most that can be said is that 94% of accusations of sexual assault go unreported in a timely manner and to the appropriate authorities.

But hang on. That, even if true, tells us nothing about how serious the problem of sexual assault might be unless we’re also told the cardinals involved. For example, if there were only 47 such accusations in the entire country over the last decade, as a woman I’d be more concerned about the prevalence of boa constrictor attacks when walking through the park at night. She needs the numbers, and they’d better be high enough to make her think twice about her route home.

But even that’s not the worst of it. If only 6% of women are willing to file an information that they’ve been sexually assaulted by a man, what percentage of men do you suppose are willing to file a report that they’ve been sexually assaulted by another man? And what percentage of men do you suppose would be willing to file a report that they’ve been sexually assaulted by a woman? I have no idea. Do you? So what does “94% of sexual assaults go unreported!” tell us about anything we might want to know? Not a whole lot. But it certainly sounds like something drastic has to be done, don’t you think?

1% of the American population hold 40% of the nation’s wealth.

What exactly does this say about inequality in America? That there are vast discrepancies in wealth in America. Got it. But what does that say? That America is a long way from being an egalitarian society. Seems pretty obvious. Obvious, but manifestly false. In fact America is one of the most egalitarian societies on the planet.

By wealth is meant assets. And by assets is meant chicken scratches on a computer screen. The only asset one can eat is what’s in the refrigerator. The only asset one can live in is the roof over one’s head. The only asset one can drive is the car in the driveway. And so on. So let’s take a look at a graph representing the distribution in America of the only assets one could give a shit about.

Let’s start with longevity. What would a graph of assets on the x axis and longevity on the y look like? Near as dammit to flat. Let’s look at the nutritional value of what’s on an American dinner table. Flat. Let’s look at the reliability of the family car, as measured by breakdowns per trip to the office or grocery store or hockey practice. Flat. Hours of work per week. Flat. Days of paid vacation. Flat. Access to health care. Not as flat as it is in Canada, the Antipodes, and most European countries, but a helluva flatter than most other polities in the world. Internet access. Flat. Number of colored TVs per household. Flat. Incidence of spousal or child abuse. Flat. Number of laughs per fiscal quarter that make your sides hurt. Flat. Number of puppy paws scrabbling up onto the bed. Flat.

Need I go on? Probably not. But I will anyhow.

Anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is the most urgent problem facing the world today.

No it’s not. Worlds just aren’t the kind of things that can have problems facing them. Only people can. And there’s not a single person on the planet – nor a married one for that matter – for whom AGW is in any wise urgent. Far more urgent for me right now is I have to pee. After that I need lunch. Then I have papers to mark. Give me your to-do list. I’m curious as to how far down I’d have to look to find “Do something about global warming.” I’m guessing it’s not there. If it’s not there for the people who claim to be so deeply concerned about AGW, why are they surprised it’s not there for people who should be but aren’t?

We don’t negotiate with terrorists.

Yes we do. A terrorist is someone who targets a civilian population with a view to their pressuring their government to accede to the terrorist’s demands. So if we don’t negotiate with terrorists, and they know that, then they can’t be terrorists. The most they can be are vandals. We don’t negotiate with vandals, but that’s because all they want is to, well, vandalize. But here’s the proof that terrorists aren’t vandals. Give them what they want and they stop doing what they’re doing. Funny that.

Okay, I think that’s enough. But what’s my point? People say stupid things, but that doesn’t mean they believe them. People know rape is about sex. Rape victims who are told we believe them know perfectly well it’s just what we’re supposed to say, like “my condolences” when someone’s partner dies, even though we might think she’s well rid of the bastard. People know that the moment one converts an asset to something useful it’s no longer an asset, because he no longer has it in reserve. People know AGW isn’t urgent, which is why no one’s doing anything about it. And they know we negotiate with terrorists all the time, since otherwise we wouldn’t be paying welfare to those who’d otherwise have no choice but to steal.

So what’s the harm in people saying these stupid things? There is none, provided they do know enough not to believe what, with such heartfelt conviction, they say. My job is to just keep reminding them. It’s a dirty job, and it hasn’t made me many friends. But someone has to do it. Maybe that’s what should be put on my tombstone. “It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it.”

Let’s just hope I’m not buried next to one of the SS officers who worked at Auschwitz.