Category Archives: american politics

Brooks on the Snowden leak; aka, What a twit


The banality of evil, indeed

What an infinite boob is David Brooks. His argument against Snowden is that the NSA leak (a) betrayed the trust of those who were party to the secret, and (b) invites the state to crack down on security further.

Note, the logic here rules out not just Snowden’s leak but the entire business of leaking categorically. It would equally rule out someone in Hitler’s inner circle’s leaking plans of the gas chambers (a ridiculous example, yes, but fitting for a ridiculous argument).

Granted, Brooks admits the possibility (and how could he not?) that a leaker could possess information so momentous it morally overrides these concerns. But he just rumps this onto the original argument, never integrating it into the line of thought. This is just cheating: You can’t make an argument with absurd implications (e.g., “nobody should leak anything, ever”) and save it with, “but of course this implication is so absurd it can’t always hold.” (No, Brooks, that’s what I’m saying.)

Rather, you have to specify the conditions under which the exception holds or doesn’t hold. Brooks only hints at a line without actually drawing it; but then, he can’t be sure Snowden falls afoul of it. He is like a meteorologist getting on TV, day after day, and telling us what causes rain, but never getting around to whether or not it is actually going to rain today.

So yeah, leaking state secrets risks serious repercussions. We knew that. The question is, just how does NSA fail to justify the risk? What exactly would need to be added to it to qualify as leak-worthy? In other words, just why was Snowden wrong and under what conditions would he have been right? Isn’t that the whole fucking issue?

Do the work, man. Make the case. Or go the fuck home.

Tax Day Special: Tea Partiers, et al, and the conceptual poverty of “lower taxes”

(Also see this video, which is more to the target demographic.)

* * *

Among Tea Party types, “lower taxes” is a hallmark demand. I would call this a unifying thread, but that would falsely suggest there is much more to many of the participants; often, “lower taxes” is about it. There is of course “reduced spending,” but this marks a difference which makes no difference. And there is a reason Tea Baggers choose Tax Day to protest spending (and immigration, and Muslims, and all the rest).

Bad history from the getup

“Tea Party,” then, is probably a misnomer. At bottom the Boston Tea Party had little to do with “high taxes.” First, it was as much a protest against tax relief against taxation of any kind. The colonists were aggrieved that King George had granted his tea-merchant cohorts a tax exemption—a tax cut, if you will, recalling our own would-be King George of late—among other favors having nothing to do with taxation at all. Second, the revolt couldn’t have been about “high taxes” because the colonists’ taxes weren’t high.

British citizens in the homeland were being taxed up to fifty times what the colonists were, to artificially fund the lifestyles of the latter. Of course, the colonists were upset about the ”without representation” part of being taxed. But the Tea Bag folks are represented—at least, in the sense that the colonists were on about.

The incoherence of “lower taxes”

It is fair to ask: But what’s in a name? We must look at the substance of the protest.

With other conservatives, Tea Baggers are notoriously poor at naming just what they would cut from the federal budget (i.e., just which “taxes” they would “lower.”) But their demand means absolutely nothing without this content. The failure to specify becomes worse when you consider that they intend “lower taxes” as a virtue, a general recommendation: It is not just low taxes for this or that budget, but for budgeting; thus, the details can’t be spelled out in advance. I argue that this abstractness makes the “lower taxes” mantra worse than incomplete; it is incoherent.

* * *

Bear with me. I could see if somebody wanted no taxes whatsoever. This isn’t my position, but it is clear and coherent.

Likewise, I could see if they wanted taxes to fund only certain things and not others. This would not be so far from the first position; instead of “no taxes for anything,” it would be “no taxes for this thing.” Again, this is clear and coherent. And formally speaking, this does describe the Tea Bag position; for instance, they want taxes for defense, but not for (certain) health care.

But then, why their focus on “lower,” plain and simple? I mean, lower for health care, OK; but then what for defense, and all the other things they want to tax for? Once they drop the health care budget, can we, say, jack up every other region of taxable spending by more than the “liberals” ever dreamed of paying for health care alone?—Or jointly depress them to less than health care was before the drop?

I just don’t know what to do with “lower taxes.” It gives us only slightly more direction on budgeting a nation as “no live tigers” gives us on decorating a home.

Economic versus moral arguments for “lower taxes”

There is more than one kind of argument against (high) taxation emerging from this camp. Some ground the position in rights and justice—people have a right not to be taxed, or a right to their taxable income. Here, however, I’m interested in a different argument: The idea that taxation should be kept low so that people can “keep more of their money in their pockets.”

This is the argument you hear first and oftenest from Tea Party types. And one expects that; these “bread and butter” concerns (or “materialist” ones, for the Marxists present) are, I think, a necessary condition for mobilizing large groups of people in protest. Sure, there will always be some who march and shout on bare principle; but I imagine if Obama pounded through a bill that raised everyone’s taxes by 5%, but raised their wages by 200%, the “Tea Parties” would dry up post-haste, “principles” clunking in tow.

Yes: In theory, taxes could contribute to, even create, financial insecurity for taxpayers. But just how does “needing more money” relate to “lower taxes”? I mean, if the issue is simply “having,” why make a fetish of “keeping my money” versus “making more in the first place”? For an increase in either will result in an increase in “having.” In theory, TP’ers could talk about taxes, or wages, or both—right?

What’s more, “earning” or “making” occupies a kind of intuitive, quasi-logical priority over ”keeping”: To use an analogy, if I am a farmer who is vastly underproducing her crops, I am probably not going to focus the bulk of my complaints on the carrots the rabbits steal after the harvest. My point is, unless the issue is pure, distinterested procedural justice, bitching about taxes only makes sense if you are getting “enough” in the very first place.

Why the real problem is (and must always be) wages

Some considerations

It is true that, by some measures, the tax burden for most non-wealthy sorts has increased over the last, say, thirty years. (I don’t intend to argue that here.) But other facts suggest that the economic problems affecting most rank-and-file Tea Baggers (and other lower and middle earners) are due primarily to wage and benefit deficits, rather than taxes taken out after the fact:

(1) During the same 30-year period, consumption levels have been maintained by this group only because of an explosion in consumer debt. In turn, this reflects a decrease in real wages across the same period.

(This, in relative and absolute senses, e.g., the share going to low and middle earners, as well as the per- dollar spending power of this share.)

(2) This decrease in real wages has outpaced any rise in taxes.

And most importantly,

(3) The gap between the value of what this group of wage earners produce at their jobs, and what they are paid for it, is far greater than the gap between what they make and what they would make if they kept what is presently taxed.

(Note: Any alternative to this (3)-scenario—that is, any reversal in the relative sizes of the two “gaps” in question—is utterly unthinkable. The net worth of the entire working class is less than the dollar-value of their collective alienated production; long before they could be taxed enough to rival the latter, they would run out of money, stop buying the products they make, and the economy collapse.)

A “tax relief dividend” versus a “productivity dividend”

To illustrate the enormous import of this last point, consider economist Juliet Schor’s observation that “since the 1970’s, labor productivity has roughly doubled.” This means that today, we can reproduce a 1970s standard of living (measured in ”marketed goods and services”) in half the time it took then.

Schor’s main emphasis is on the extra free time this could mean for workers. But the productivity dividend can be viewed in ‘material’ terms as well. It means, conversely, that across the period in question, we could have doubled the standard of living for each worker without increasing the work day. Needless to say, recalling point (1), nothing even close to this has happened. The dividend has been reinvested back into the productive apparatus itself (and luxury consumption for the capitalists) rather than the pockets of workers.

Clearly, there is simply no way any parallel “tax relief dividend” could compete with this “productivity dividend.” The added standard of living which could have accrued if workers kept everything they earned since the 70s comes nowhere close to what they could have earned in the first place.

All of which suggests that the employer class, rather than the state, is the proper primary target when it comes to materialist grievances.


A possible Tea Party response is to say that the state is a fairer target than the owning class. The state is “unjust” in (over)taxing, as it lacks any claim to the contested funds in the first place. Employers, on the other hand, have property rights to the productive yield; while it might be nice if they gave workers more, they are not under the same moral obligation as the state. As employees, we are only in a position to ask; as citizens, we can make demands.

This moves us from the economic-materialist realm of argument to a moral, rights-and-justice based one. Though we’ve focused on the former, most Tea Partiers will in reality appeal to both. But this dual approach suggests an incoherence of its own.

Appealing to rights at this point seems to invalidate the ‘material’ complaint we began with—and the same could be said of most formulations (or formulators) of “laissez-faire.” They are asking us to believe: “Yes, it is morally wrong to violate property rights in order to enhance human welfare; and it would remain so even if heaven fell blazing to earth as a result of maintaining this principle. (For how could a mere want override a right?) But hey, whew, wonder of wonders: Gratefully, it only so happens that respecting these rights is the best way to maximize human welfare anyway! (If it weren’t, though, we’d still have to bite the bullet and respect them.”)

(I for one find this counterintuitive in the highest. I mean, holy shit, what are the chances?)

Final thoughts

A scalpel not a cave-club

What a person “has” is determined by a complex of earnings, benefits, expenditures, taxes, waste, and so forth. Each of these could be sub-typed as you wish; there are different sorts of earnings, expenditures, etc. Opposing “high taxes” amounts to arbitrarily opposing a certain “type” of expenditure rather than the net, balanced outcome of credits-versus-debits. This approach is like that of someone who had gotten lost by making a wrong left turn, and so began opposing all left turns, rather than just working to combine left and right turns in such a pattern as to best get from A to B. It is not so much left turns, but the specific “mixture” of left and right turns which gets one lost (or indeed, which gets one to her destination when the journey is a success).

What would it mean to “preserve the white race”?

[Parts I and II here. Part III later.]

This past weekend the white power people came to town. This has prompted me to get a handle on what makes these assholes tick.

Part I

“White power” has any number of meanings, not all of them compatible. There is white supremacy, white nationalism/separatism, “mere” white pride, and so forth. The most basic corollary can be termed “white preservation” (WP). The brief 14 Words manifesto (probably the one thing every white power group agrees on) begins, “We must secure the existence of our people….” In a debate with Tim Wise, WP advocate Jared Taylor expresses the fear that “…whites, who are perhaps 7% of the population of the world now, will disappear in a flood of miscegenation; is that what you would like to see happen?”

WP means ensuring the conditions for whites to reproduce into the future. It is the tenet upon which all the others depend; if it fails, so do the rest. (No whites, no “white-anything.”) This makes it a natural starting point for examining white power “theory.”

Who is it being preserved for?

It is obvious that white preservationists (WPs) view WP not as a nice thing to have happen, but a mandate. That is, the numerical decrease in the white population (real or perceived, present or pending, by human or natural causes) is something “happening to them,” a bad circumstance that warrants self-defense.

The difficulty rests in trying to locate a victim in this process. Just who is it happening (or would it happen) to? Suppose that multiculturalism, immigration, and miscegenation actually brought about the “extinction” of the white race. Just who is harmed by this? The fear is not that whites are directly endangered, being “killed off.” (If anyone claims this, they’re crazy.) So whites’ “preserving themselves” cannot mean “saving we particular here-now individuals from death.” It could only mean “ensuring future white generations.” Fine, but in what sense is this a self-defense?—as “the existence of our people” would suggest. How would ensuring future whites serve the self-interests of present-day whites? To say “both groups are white” only begs the question; the whole issue is why the fact that they are both white makes them “ourselves.”

The seduction of grammar

WPs speak in terms of a “loss” that they themselves “suffer.” “Whiteness” is a quantity they have, and must hold onto. The whites of today must preserve their whiteness. Indeed, they could speak no other way; a self-defensive imperative always takes this form. This way of speaking is inspired, or reinforced, by the formal structures of language: Grammatically, “whiteness,” like “being married,” is a transient property, one which can be lost and gained by the self-same underlying subject. But WPs seem to have forgotten that it isn’t transient in real life; unlike marriage, if you ever had “whiteness,” you still do, and vice-versa.

Thus, to say that whites have failed to preserve, have “lost their” whiteness must really mean: Some whites died; and later, some non-whites were born. This describes two distinct events, with two corresponding subjects. The first event in no sense “happens to” the second subject. Indeed, if the relevant event is “the extinction of the white race,” it didn’t “happen to” the first group either! (An individual can’t “go extinct”—any more than running out of jellybeans means this particular jellybean ran out.)

Indeed, a numerical decrease is the very sort of thing that “happens to” no one in particular. For whites to suffer a “loss of whiteness” just means that there are no whites left to suffer any kind of loss at all. What “they” have “lost” is precisely their status as a “they.” (And if there is no “they” to be harmed, then, from a self-defensive point of view, there is no harm.)

* * *

In conclusion: The “extinct” whites can hardly be victims of “extinction”; they simply died out naturally, as they would have without any process of “white loss.” Their position is precisely the same either way. The only possible victims are the future survivors of this “tragedy.” But this is a miscegenated future; the survivors are (at best) biracial. The implicit logic of WP would have us view these persons as “potential” or “supposed-to-be” whites who missed out on “their” whiteness. One imagines them sitting and lamenting to themselves: “We” have been robbed of “our” proper racial inheritance. The absurdity is (hopefully) manifest.

I conclude the “self-defense” argument for WP is simply incoherent.

Part II

Arguments from analogy: ”But we preserve so many other things”

At times, WPs set aside the negative consequences of failing to preserve the race (i.e., those “harms” to be “defended against”) in favor of the positive virtues of preservation. One argument is that those features associated with whites—say, “white culture” or Caucasian physical anthropology—are unique and valuable, and thus should, all things being equal, be kept around. (For now, we set aside questions as to whether a “white culture” exists, and is preservable by moral means.)

For example, an alternate 14 Words with wide currency in white power circles demands, “Because the beauty of the White Aryan woman must not perish from the earth.” This aesthetic sentiment is matched by those which exploit the discourse of multiculturalism. These are typically heard at those “cultural celebrations” held by WP groups, e.g. Irish, Scottish, or Southern (US) “heritage events”: “If they (Mexicans, etc.) can celebrate (promote, “preserve”) their culture, why can’t we?”

Notwithstanding the near coextension of ‘those who make these statements’ with ‘racist whites,’ by themselves the statements are not necessarily noxious. That is, to say they often indicate racist beliefs is not to say they are themselves racist (any more than a weather vane is a southerly wind). And the analogy of whites to other groups holds a surface plausibility; every culture has folkways, coping mechanisms and other specialized knowledge borne of a particular social housing, which in principle can inspire, enrich, entertain, or aid anyone.

A more advanced argument from analogy is heard as well: Parsing the words alone, the concept “white preservation” seems to resemble other kinds of morally benign “preservations.” Consider the ecological impulse to “preserve” endangered species. By this I do not mean the desire to preserve as a means to some end “beyond” the species (or beyond biodiversity) itself, e.g. ecosystem balance. Nor do I intend anything having to do with protecting species members from pain and harm per se. Rather, I mean the “moral” impulse to save a biological group for its own worth.)

The idea is that each animal group contributes a unique layer of novelty and interest to the world, and this is (all things being equal) a value to be preserved. For instance, we wish to “save the Great Apes” because apes are beautiful, interesting, and so forth; that is, a world in which apes exist is a more interesting, beautiful, etc. world than one in which they are absent.) In short, if a species is worth saving, why not a race? (This could even rescue the earlier “self-defense” argument: If neither extinct whites nor the miscegenated generations of the future would be harmed by white extinction, maybe it is the whole group of survivors, of all racial complexions, that are harmed in being denied that cultural or aesthetic inheritance associated with whites.)

When it “doesn’t” it doesn’t matter whether it “can’t”

Even if this argument can be defended, it is not clear it can be defended from a white power perspective. The WP project as we know it is not simply concerned to endow a unique value to the world. If it were, we could expect to hear from WPs—in parallel with other “multicultural” affections—that WP will benefit and enrich other racial groups. Indeed, one could expect other racial groups themselves to make these arguments alongside the WPs.

The WPs attribute their exclusion from the multicultural catalogue to anti-white discrimination; but this hardly explains why they welcome and foster the “exclusivity” themselves: Whatever benefit they believe “white culture” has conferred upon the world, this benefaction forms no part of their motivation. They don’t give a damn about how this legacy benefits non-whites. (In fact, they probably resent it.)

The point (here) is not whether this racial exclusivity is wrong or right. The point is that it cannot be deduced from the bare preservationist impulse—any more than an impulse to “save the whales” for their beautiful songs and mating rituals implies that whalewatch trips and aquariums should be limited to white patronage. Such delimitations must be “grafted on” from outside, and their merits independently argued.

I don’t doubt that the disanalogies between WP and ecological-preservationism (EP) reflect something sinister; to the extent the WPs use the “us too” argument, it is disingenuous, a mere tactic, a wedge issue to make palatable some other agenda. For present purposes, though, the disanalogy just means: We cannot take the benign character of EP as support for the benign character of WP—as the white power folks actually conceive it. (More on the “multicultural” comparisons in the concluding Part III, soon to come.)

Too easy: Yet more proof the Murfreesboro mosque protest is about bigotry and not security

If you missed the last few posts (see here and here), those protesting the new mosque/Islamic center in Murfreesboro, TN “officially” say they are merely opposed to the legal process used to vet the plan. However, when you look at their rally signs, and the comments made in the commission meeting, there is nothing but anti-Islam sentiments.

Kevin Fisher, the main guy pushing against the mosque proposal, wrote a shitty letter to the Tennessean outlining his case. Among the very few specific “concerns” he lists, he is upset that “there is [no] ref­er­ence to 9/11 on its his­tory sec­tion of its web­site.” (“It” being the Murfreesboro Islamic Center, the group trying to build the new facility.)

He didn’t elaborate on this point, which is odd, as this could mean a few different things. But I’ll make some educated guesses.

First, the reality is that virtually no church with a history section is going to mention 9/11, nor the great majority of other human events that have ever occurred. For theirs is not “History” but rather “a history”—a selective account tailored for a less-than-general purpose. (I hear Muslims don’t list 9/11 on their medical “histories” either.)

The purpose of the Center website could be anything. Maybe it aims to educate new Muslims on events they may not know about yet. (Surely they’ve heard of 9/11.) Or one of a million other things having nothing to do with 9/11.

However, I am almost certain Fisher is not looking for a “history” of any kind. He is looking for a denunciation of 9/11. He wants the Center to state that they don’t support the terror, didn’t have ties to the bombers, etc. If not this, explicitly, he wants some mention of the event because it would show that the Center is not “avoiding the subject,” ashamed to acknowledge it.

But think about how weird this request is: If the Center is truly innocent of supporting 9/11, why should it have any greater obligation to denounce it than anyone else who is innocent of that act? Again, Fisher doesn’t demand this disclaimer of other websites, church or otherwise; he himself has writings online that don’t mention 9/11. How is an innocent Muslim different from an innocent anyone-else?

I contend Fisher demands this disclaimer because he believes that simply being Muslim means that the site indeed “has something to do with 9/11”—that it is someway or another implicated in terror, etc.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying Fisher finds the Muslims guilty. By analogy: Many readers have found themselves in a restaurant sitting with someone who is rude to the server. We are not guilty of this behavior, but we usually feel some responsibility to apologize on its behalf—as if saying nothing would be to condone it. At least, we have more responsibility than someone at another table, or who had the same table last week, or a grocery clerk in Holland.

At best, Fisher is acting like a server who wants this apology and hasn’t gotten it. His request only makes sense on the assumption that the Center Muslims are at least responsible in a way that other Americans are not.

Let me put this another way. Demanding the statement only makes sense if Fisher is unprepared to accept such a statement in the first place. Think about it: If Fisher were sincerely prepared to accept the Center’s plea of “innocence,” such a plea would be neither necessary nor sufficient. You might take the word of someone who tells you they aren’t a murderer (or a murder-supporter), if, for whatever oddball reason, they brought up the subject. But if you already assume they might be guilty, surely a paltry verbal assurance won’t be enough to make you feel secure: “Oh, you’re not going to chop off my head, you say? Shit, I really thought you might. OK, works for me!” Of course a guilty person will claim innocence; a suspect’s own assurances are worthless for evidentiary purposes.

* * *

This gives further lie to Fisher’s and the other protester’s claims that they are disinterestedly “investigating” the Muslims for security purposes, e.g. “We don’t hate anyone for their religion, we just want to vet them before the mosque gets the go-ahead.” Not so. Fisher’s expectation of a 9/11 disclaimer is insane unless he has already made up his mind that they are “bad guys.” Again, since there is nothing about this group that tells Fisher they are “bad guys” except for the fact that they are Muslim—this is plain and simple religious bigotry.

The worst argument against reparations for slavery (and a qualification on arguments in its favor)

It is argued that contemporary whites—the ostensible “reparators” for black slavery—were “not there,” didn’t hold or trade slaves or otherwise commit the associated wrongs, thus it would be unjust to hold them accountable for another’s crimes.

The argument fails in supposing the only way to be responsible for something is to be “at fault.” Human experience is replete with counterexamples: There is, for one, a sense that a parent should pay when his child’s baseball breaks a window. One could, of course, answer that this “responsibility” amounts to merely a useful legal fiction, just a scheme for ensuring windows get paid for in view of the likelihood that the average child is penniless. But a person of this view shouldn’t be opposed to some other arbitrary scheme, whereby, say, the victim of the broken window, or the nearest adult to his left, or sharing his initials or taste is television comedies, is legally responsible for the window. Instead, we have some sense that the legal arrangement reflects, or ratifies, some real, underlying norm that would remain in effect with or without the law’s recognition.

There is the further sense that a person can be responsible when nobody is at fault: The baseball player might not have been able to prevent the ball from hitting the glass. Maybe no one could have. The child remains “at fault” in some sense—a causal and (again) legal one—but not in the moral sense invoked by those opponents of reparations. Strictly speaking, no real “fault” has occurred. But a responsibility remains.

Finally, there is the sense that persons sometimes have a responsibility to act in some way when sheer dumb luck places them between another person, or persons, and some undesirable outcome. An island castaway with survival skills may be morally responsible to step up and lead the group, whether or not he wishes to; and someone at an intersection of railroad crossings may be responsible to throw the switch that diverts the crosswise passenger trains from colliding. In such cases there is no implication that either person, or any person, is “at fault” for the shipwreck or the train mix up.

In these ways, the scope of moral responsibility exceeds the scope of “fault.” The reparations opponent must give us more.

* * *

But the problem runs deeper. For it is arguable that nobody is ever strictly “at fault” for anything at all—that is, that “fault” is a pretty sketchy concept in the end. The point is “philosophical” and like many such points, counterintuitive. (Thankfully, this doesn’t make it false.)

Common sense tells us that when we hold another responsible, the self at “fault” is the same entity as the self which committed the transgression; anything else would be unfair. However, as the Buddhists and process philosophers show, this identification cannot be made. Those things which give the self its character—that make it the self that it is—are in a state of restless change. One’s field of experience or mind-state alters from moment to moment.[1] It follows that a new self replaces its predecessor with each change. “Me” at time t is not the same as “me” at time t+1. I do not get sick; rather, a new, sick self succeeds a healthy one.[2] What common sense thinks of as the self—for example, what we call “John”—is an abstraction from the processive “chain” of one-instantaneous-John-after- another.[3]

Thus, it does no good to plead that modern whites “weren’t there” for slavery. Nobody who is ever responsible for anything “was there” either. Accountability is always “for another’s crimes.” The transgressing self, by metaphysical necessity, never sticks around long enough for sentencing.

It does not follow from this that nobody is ever responsible—any more than it follows from the common sense view that no parents are ever responsible for their children’s actions. (It does follow that our metaethics is due for a reconception.[4])

* * *

All the above being said, I suspect that reparations concedes too much to bourgeois procedural justice: Slavery stole something that belonged to black slaves, and contemporary blacks, as their ostensible heirs, are owed what was due them from the white heirs of slaveowners.[5] In my view, such things as “natural rights” to property (in one’s labor or anything else) simply don’t exist, and thinking of them as existing is one of many ideological girders of capitalism.

I do support a radical redistribution of wealth in favor of American blacks; I would support a distributional outcome which is more generous than what most reparations proponents envision. But I support this because blacks need it, not because their or their ancestors’ property rights were violated.

At the same time, I understand the strategic value of speaking to “power”—in this case, bourgeois power—in its own language, of demanding that it be consistent with its own rules, even if these rules are not our own. In this way, Marxists use the theory of worker exploitation to show that capitalism is unjust according to its own laws of “equal exchange.” However, while Marxists are quite open that the goal is not merely a more consistent system of “equal exchange,” I don’t see a parallel qualification emerging much from the reparations camp. This could be because that camp, unlike the Marxist one, includes bourgeois-minded persons—but still.

Finally, I am compelled to solidarize with those black comrades who are directly affected by the debate and who in my experience are largely wedded to the reparations framework. By no means am I prepared to break common cause with the program. But I have my ‘druthers.

* * *

[Postscript: I just read a transcript where Chris Matthews accuses Al Sharpton of “wanting us to pay reparations because we happen to be white.” This is like saying we wanted O.J. to go to jail because he happened to wear Bruno Magli shoes.]


[1] This is not to identify the self with a “field of experience” or “mind-state”; only to say that if these things change, so does the self.

[2] Even this simplifies, as both the healthy and the sick selves are composed respectively of many sick and healthy, momentary selves.

[3] Social intercourse is possible because each “John” closely resembles its predecessors; they are not “the same,” but are similar enough for identification in practice.

[4] At the least, holding people responsible becomes (or becomes consistently) a matter of managing behavior rather than punishment. It is about treating present selves in such a way that later selves are influenced in a certain direction. This could include treating them as if they are “at fault” for the behaviors of earlier ones; but this would be merely a corrective device, a useful fiction.

[5] Granted, there are other arguments for reparations. But these are either (a) less coherent; (b) reducible (I argue) to a bourgeois property rights schema in the end; or (c) simply not the ones I’m talking about here.

Horowitz versus Chomsky on the best way to get rid of a dictator

To harp on a theme, I hate those abuses of language which are just cute enough to be dangerous. The latest to come across my digital desk is from an old article in the Jewish World Review, authored by the slimy ex-socialist David Horowitz of FrontpageMag.

Horowitz chronicles an argument between himself and still-socialist sociology prof. Maurice Zeitlin. He sees a contradiction in Zeitlin’s being opposed to both Saddam Hussein and the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and others.

This phrase stuck in my gullet:

This cri de couer begs the most important question: What does it mean [for Zeitlin] to oppose Saddam Hussein’s “execrable regime” and at the same time to oppose the effort to change it?

Reread those last five words. I know Horowitz used to have better politics, but this comment is just fucking stupid. Yes, Zeitlin opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was certainly an effort to change the regime. But was it “the effort”? If Horowitz declines my advice that he take a pottery class, can I conclude that he opposes “the effort to improve himself,” rather than just this particular effort? Horowitz’s use of the definite article snakily suggests that Zeitlin rejects not just the invasion, but the very effort—that is, the idea of an effort being exerted at all—to change the regime.

Horowitz’s implication is doubtful in the highest. Zeitlin would not have opposed every imaginable effort to overthrow Saddam. Suppose Saddam had agreed to step down voluntarily. Let us further assume this was done according to some benign process which did not create a chaotic vacuum of power or other seriously bad outcomes. (Maybe S.H. converted to liberal democracy and had himself jailed—or something.) Surely, Zeitlin would not have excoriated Saddam for failing to remain in power. (Below, we will consider another scenario which he would have supported.)

Further, at any given time before 2003, there were other, actual “efforts” afoot to change the regime. (Indeed, the US intervened to crush a few of them.) Would Horowitz consider any of these, in their time, the effort to change the regime, requiring our support on pain of being numbered among Hussein’s apologists?

Add to this plurality of actual efforts any number of potential ones that might have been dreamed up: Suppose that in February of 2003, a crazy billionaire had dropped babies armed with pink umbrellas into Baghdad to fight the Republican Guard and topple the regime. Babies can’t fight with umbrellas, you say?—The billionaire has cast a spell which he feels strongly will allow them to. Surely this is an effort—somebody’s effort—to change the regime. Would it become the effort, then, demanding our allegiance?

In sum: Surely opposing some bad thing does commit to just any old “effort to change” it; just any solution someone can pull out of his ass doesn’t become a referendum on how authentically we oppose the thing needing changing.

The question is, rather: Is it a good effort, a sensible effort; one that can be reasonably assumed to (a) work, and (b) do so in a non-counterproductive way (that is, in a net sense of not creating so many bad, unintended outcomes that the overall outcome, even with the met goal, becomes bad). It should also (c) be better than other possible schemes to accomplish the same outcome.

The 2003 effort to remove Saddam has (a) “worked” in the meagre sense that it did remove him. But is has been (b)  counterproductive in the more important sense of exacerbating all of those factors that supposedly made removing him a good idea. I don’t want to take this space to make that point fully. Just to note:

*Instead of ending one WMD regime, the war has set two others (Iran and North Korea) in motion.

* The war created a jihadist enclave in the one place in the region where that threat had been completely pacified. As I have noted elsewhere, this was not the result of drawing in terrorists from other locations but of making new ones. Terrorist attacks against Westerners have spiked since the invasion. The balance of “our own” reports (Pentagon, State Dept., FBI, CIA, etc.) blame the War on Terror for this.

*The occupiers have killed and jailed far more innocents than Saddam. The Iraqi government remains a police state, complete with nightly curfews in the capital, bans on public assumbly, and the like. It has the worst human rights record in the region and is dollar for dollar its most corrupt.

*The war completed the process, begun with the sanctions, of bombing into the 3rd World what used to be the most technologically, economically and socially advanced nation in the Middle East. It is difficult to think of a welfare index which is not much, much, worse than before the war.

*Skilled human capital needed for reconstruction has fled en masse to the West with the middle class diaspora. The US has wrenched control of domestic oil away from Iraqis themselves toward “production sharing agreements” which get the oil flowing at the cost of redirecting its proceeds away from national development.

* * *

My main point is: (c) Was there another, a better option for removing Saddam? Will there be with the next guy? As Noam Chomsky has many times noted: Thug leaders who enjoy the support of the US are typically overthrown from within—at far less human cost than an outside force would inflict. Examples include Ceaucescu, Suharto, Marcos, Duvalier, Chun Doo Hwan, and Mobutu. In the case of Saddam, the US withdrew economic and diplomatic support on the eve of Gulf War and pinched Iraq with the severest sanctions regime in history. This course of action hurt precisely everyone in Iraq except the regime. It forced the population to cling to Saddam for survival, weakening the possibility for opposition currents to thrive. There is no reason to doubt the typical pattern would have held had the US taken a more “hands off” course.

The flaw in “racial profiling” for terrorists

Watching old footage of Ann Coulter turned up an argument heard in this country many times since 9/11. Coulter begins by citing patterns in the terrorist demographic. She lists bombing attacks in which Americans have died, concluding, “The perpetrators have all had the same eye color, hair color, skin color and half of them have been named Muhammad…This is not racial profiling; it’s a description of the suspect.”

Of course, she is being characteristically cheeky. She advocates “racial profiling” by name on the basis of this demonstrated pattern. In short, a terrorist is more likely to come from x-racial-group than from y or z groups; therefore, we are warranted in searching for terrorists among that group particularly. This might include singling out men fitting this description for random baggage or ID checks in subways, or funneling them through a separate check-in line at airports.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that Coulter’s data on terrorists is correct (though it isn’t); it is the form of the argument that is most suspect. It gives too much weight to the (statistical) relationship of racial groups to one another—that is, to the relative percentages of terrorists within each group. If we’re thinking properly, what should matter instead is the relationship of terrorists to their own racial groups.

The important point is not what percentage of terrorists are ‘middle eastern males with funny sounding names,’ versus males of some other group—but rather, what percentage of ‘middle eastern males with funny sounding names’ are actually terrorists.

Analogy #1: For all I know, men named George are .000003% more likely to be serial killers than men with other names. This would this hardly mean that shaking down a bunch of Georges would be a wise deployment of police resources. Shit, even if 100% of serial killers were named George, those Georges who actually commit serial murder are such a tiny minority among men named George that the strategy would still be suspect.

Analogy #2: Imagine we have a haystack which has some probability of containing a needle. (That is, there is some probability that one of the straws is a needle.) Let this probability match that of a given, random Arabic man’s being a terrorist; drawing a random straw is as likely to yield a needle as “drawing” a random Arabic man is likely to yield a terrorist. Let us assume this method of finding needles is ineffective, counterproductive, even immoral; also, that we have some far better method of finding needles in haystacks—using magnets, X-ray, floating the straw on water so the needle sinks, etc. We still want to root out needles, but have long abandoned the strategy of drawing random straws.

Now, imagine we discover that all along there has been a second haystack nearby which has an even lower probability of yielding a needle than our haystack. Perhaps we discover several more, each with some probability lower than the original, but still more than zero. It has become clear that a needle is more likely to come from the first haystack than from any of the others. Still, it would be irrational in the highest to conclude that we should, on this basis, resume our random straw draws. The simple fact that a less promising haystack exists does not magically make checking this stack a good idea, if it wasn’t a good idea before.

Similarly, the simple fact that terrorists are more likely to come from middle eastern men than from some other group doesn’t mean that the likelihood of randomly finding them among middle eastern men is very good at all.


The obvious question is just how good that likelihood is. I haven’t exactly crunched the numbers; you can do the math if you like. But there are millions of men in the world who fit Coulter’s “profile” and very nearly zero of these commit terrorist acts against Americans. Even fewer do so in those stereotypical ways that profiling would address. Even fewer operate in the U.S., where ours laws can actually penetrate. Clearly, we are dealing with numbers akin to those Georges who commit serial killing. It is quite likely that if we incarcerated every other Muslim male in the world, it would register nothing in practical terms to diminish the odds of the next terror attack. Yes, we can theoretically halve a .000003% chance of something. Getting married later in life will halve one’s chances of committing suicide someday. Buying a second ticket will double one’s chances of winning the lottery. There is shit you could do right now to halve your chances of being brainwashed by a cult or eaten by a mountain lion. Who gives a shit? Differences of this infinitesimal grade should no more drive policy than they drive anybody’s consideration of anything else in the real world.

This is not to mention that radical Islamists come in all “colors” and (duh) will easily work around any profile we make. Plus, racial profiling is counterproductive; it alienates those communities which are most critical for intelligence on the potential attackers that move and live among and gain cover from them. “Profiled” individuals tend to avoid law enforcement as much as possible.

Finally, as with finding needles in haystacks, we have a much better alternative strategy for fighting terrorism. Granted, jihadists will cite a number of gripes against the US if you ask them. Some of these concern cultural factors like our women’s liberation and sexy music and movies. But according to the evidence, these aren’t the “root” reasons they turn to terror. As I’ve argued elsewhere (link below), the violence is a response to US foreign policy in and toward Muslim countries and populations. Thankfully, these concerns are quite reasonable, technically solvable, and are morally “overdetermined”—that is, they should be met for a host of reasons even aside from fighting terror.

[See the last boldface section of the post here.]