THE SCENE (a.k.a. |
Comments on current ideas and events
Week of December 10, 2001
MORE CULTURAL LIBERTARIANISM: Michael Kelly writes, "I am Catholic and my wife is Jewish, so in our house we celebrate both Hanukah and Christmas, which our sons, Tom and Jack, regard as an excellent thing. People sometimes ask me if it is hard to raise children in respect and love for two great faiths that have a slight doctrinal disagreement between them, and I say: Not if you give them presents every day for eight days of Hanukah and for Christmas. The more Gods, the merrier is Tom and Jack's strong belief."
It's a fun column, mostly about the white-vs.-colored lights divide. [Posted 12/15.]
FROM UNDER THE BURQA: My Aussie friend Jason Soon has launched a new blog, with the esoteric Hayekian name Catallaxy Files. In a posting devoted to the component myths behind the common Anglo-Australian opinion that "the U.S. is always wrong," he calls readers' attention to a remarkable Sydney Morning Herald story. It explains how an underground of Afghan civilians told U.S. bombers where to strike in Kandahar:
Mr [Abdul] Ali, 45, a soft-spoken former United Nations worker, identified targets in Kandahar for the US-led air campaign that blasted the Taliban out of their southern stronghold. He counted on women who risked their lives to carry his satellite phone under their all-encompassing burqas, moving it from house to house to avoid detection.
Ali says he's the one who called for the strike on the Red Cross building, which he'd been told was a Taliban safe-house, and says that the bombers first hit the building next to it, killing 16 civilians. [Posted 12/14.]
YEAH, YEAH: To answer your many emails, yes, I'll eventually get around to responding to Jonah Goldberg's latest anti-libertarian outburst, even though I strongly suspects he writes these things mostly to get a rise out of us so we'll link to his site. (Notice: no link.) But I've got to concentrate on my book, and besides if I wait long enough all I'll need to do is quote other people's responses.
Best so far: Nick Gillespie (of course); Sarah Walker on Samizdata, who gets the important point that this attack was aimed not at all libertarians (Randians are completely irrelevant) but at fallibilists, who "think that whilst truth is objective, it is also conjectural, [and who] therefore realise the foolishness of imposing by force what can only ever be conjecture" (thanks to Andrew Olmsted's excellent blog for pointing to this posting); Will Wilkinson, who makes the good (and obvious but not to Jonah) points that "If you ask whether porn or Christian books are better, you have to ask 'better in what respect?'," "Goldberg owes us moral arguments against porn and drugs if he wants to be taken seriously," and "Cultural libertarianism isn't a philosophy of child rearing." (I suspect Nick's kids could set Jonah straight on that last one.)
Non-libertarian Charles Murtaugh also makes the good point that Jonah doesn't actually make a case for the validity of Western culture, only for teaching kids "things," a prescription a radical mullah could fulfill with his brand of theology and theocracy. In Jonah's world (to play the same caricature game he does), there's not any testing for truth, so any truth will do as long as you say it loudly enough, and Western culture is just good because Jonah says so. Charlie disagrees. "When we inculcate our way of life into our children, we are not simply reinforcing the bonds of a leviathan culture, useful only because it happens to be common among us," he writes, citing some real-world tests. "We are insuring that this wonderful, and preeminently worthy society of ours, into which we were lucky enough ourselves to be born, continues to offer its fruits to future generations."
I would say that the goodness of that society is a great discovery, learned through difficult trial and error over a long history. It's possible to improve even a good society, although it should be done by decentralized trial and error, to limit the consequences of bad experiments, not through revolution from the top. That's what all this fallibilist "cultural libertarianism" is about. Not murderous nihilism, as the headline writers at NRO would like you to believe.
Unlike many of Jonah's critics, I do not believe that Christianity, within a liberal order, is a bad thing, although I pretty obviously believe it's untrue. (That whole conversion to Judaism thing ought to be a clue.) On balance, Christianity seems to do a lot of social and personal good, as long as it doesn't get to have coercive power. I therefore don't see any reason to go around annoying good, happy Christians by attacking their religion. But I also don't see the evidence that pornography is a terrible thing and don't feel the need to harass my friends who enjoy it. Is it worse to buy a Buttman tape or Left Behind novel? Jonah is right about this one narrow point. I have no opinion. I'm not in the market for either, but I don't see the evidence that, on balance, either does much harm.
That view does not make me a "nihilist," which is one of those intellectual curse words that writers use mostly to attack people who disagree with their favorite form of absolutism. I do have the strong, and often-stated, belief that all sorts of ideas are evil and dangerous, among them the ones professed by John Walker (or Karl Marx), while others (including many in National Review) are just plain wrong. Contrary to Jonah's caricature, I am not known as a woman who has no opinions and makes no value judgments.
Ideas are generally more dangerous than products (and porn is a product, not a worldview). That doesn't mean it's "nihilistic" to prefer to live a country where ideas have to compete, rather than one in which a few big shots get to kill, or otherwise suppress, everyone who doesn't buy the party line. That's the fallibist, or "cultural libertarian," argument. (A good discussion of the fallibilist approach is Jonathan Rauch's Kindly Inquisitors. Jonathan's no nihilist either.)
Well, thanks to Steve's incredibly late return from grading hell, I've written something that approaches a real response. It's not fully adequate, but it will have to do for now. [Posted 12/14.]
THE LP/JDL CONNECTION: Jesse Walker points out this March 2000 Libertarian Party News story, trumpeting Jewish Defense League head Irv Rubin's affiliation with the party (complete with what looks to be a very old photo). Rubin, who is at the very least the sort of scary, strange guy most thinking people would be loathe to associate with, was arrested yesterday for allegedly plotting to bomb an L.A.-area mosque and an Lebanese-American congressman's office.
So far 10 people have written to inform me that, contrary to what the LP press release said, Neil Peart is the drummer, not the guitarist, for Rush. Charles Oliver had the best line: "Sort of like calling Eric Clapton the drummer for Cream." I will return to the LP at a later date, and print some of the reader mail. [Posted 12/13.]
CLARIFICATION: Lots of you have written me about the posting below on the Libertarian Party, and almost all have agreed with it. A few have wondered whether the last line indicates some falling out with Reason. It does not. Although I'm leaving the magazine's staff, we are on good terms. The LP does, however, tend to react to even friendly published criticism—which mine was not—in essentially the way I suggested. I prefer that the party not waste any of the staff's precious time by harrassing them about my post. [Posted 12/13.]
MINCING WORDS: Compare these two headlines, on the same A.P. story: The New York Times says F.B.I. Arrests Chairman of Militant Anti-Arab Group, while the Dallas Morning News says "Two Jewish militants charged in bomb plot," a far more accurate and informative headline. On its own article, the Times offers the slightly more useful "2 Held in Plot to Attack Mosque and Congressman."
I hate to say it (not as much as the Times does), but the Jewish Defense League is, well, Jewish. Who does the Times think it's fooling with those headlines? (The Los Angeles Times, for which this is a local story, assumes an in-the-know readership with JDL Leader Accused in Mosque Bomb Plot".) [Posted 12/13.]
RESILIENCE VS. ANTICIPATION: Several readers wrote me about Sen. Charles Schumer's Washington Post column on Monday, in which he argued that the federal government needs to manage pretty much everything in America to assure our safety from terrorism. The essence of Schumer's argument is in these two paragraphs:
Our society will have to examine the vulnerable pressure points in our country—air travel, nuclear power plants, public health systems, power and computer grids, border crossings—and work to protect each from terrorist attack. The list of vulnerable areas will grow as technology evolves and continues to allow small groups of terrorists to threaten large parts of our society. Only one entity has the breadth, strength and resources to lead this recalibration and pay for its costs—the federal government.This argument is not merely a crass attempt to use the current atmosphere to reinvigorate a moribund command-and-control ideology. It does not simply ignore the fact that those federal "resources" have to come from same places that supposedly have no resources. The approach Schumer advocates is actually dangerous to national security.
We are not facing a known threat against a few well-known targets. If we were, the federal government, or some other centralized entity, might well be able to mount the most effective possible defense. But there is simply no way to know in advance where, when, or how terrorists might strike.
Does Senator Schumer seriously believe that every mall, movie theater, college dorm, elementary school, church, grocery store, and gas station in America should be guarded by federal authorities? Does he really believe that a central bureau in Washington is the best place from which to distinguish suspicious activity from normal behavior? Aren't locals, whether law enforcement officers or ordinary citizens, more likely to know if something's off in their own neighborhoods?
We are faced with a classic case in which "resilience," rather than "anticipation," is the proper response to risk. (My best exploration of this dichotomy is the Forbes ASAP article I wrote about the difference between the high-tech communities in Silicon Valley and Boston. Trust me, it only seems to be about a narrow subject, or about the weather.) When a threat is unpredictable, the ability to improvise and adapt, and to bounce back, is critical. While we should take obvious steps to protect obvious targets, such as dams and natural gas pipelines, there is simply no way to anticipate every threat against every target.
Reader Andrew Olmsted, a U.S. Army captain (but he speaks for himself), was taking apart the Schumer column almost as soon as it was published, offering this TFAIE-inspired analysis on his "Reflections" blog. A sample:
Rather than allowing people to test a number of ideas to determine which is the best, Schumer wants to pick the best idea up front, (with no proof that it is, in fact, the best idea), and use the federal government to impose that idea. But we've already tried that—the federal government decided the one best way to deal with hijackers was to allow them to take control of the plane. I believe we're all now aware of the dangers of this technique. And it was not the government that saved unknown numbers of lives on September 11—it was the civilian passengers of United Flight 93, who realized what their hijackers intended to do with their plane and acted to stop them. If the government once again acts unilaterally to choose one best way to defend the United States, it is a virtual certainty something will be missed."
The decentralized strategy of organizing for resilience is well represented by an email I got from reader Diane Jacobs. She asked my opinion of the advice the Parent Teacher Organization at her son's school had come up with to give parents with small children. What I particularly like about this advice is that it would be good even if there were no terrorist threat—useful preparation for natural disasters, heavy snowstorms, or even kids lost in the shopping mall. Handled in the right spirit, it can give kids confidence and competence, rather than creating a sense of helplessness and panic. I encourage readers to pass it on. Here's the letter Diane sent to friends:
In light of the incidents that have occurred, and with little direction coming from Washington, the PTO at my son's school has drafted 5 tips that we thought would be helpful for all parents with small children. Be advised—these have no government sanction, and we simply came up with them. (We have tried to discuss with our school what their plans are for a major emergency, and, God help us, they don't have one.) If you have other simple, inexpensive tips, please add them and forward this on. Here are ours:
I feel a lot safer trusting the good sense of people like Andrew and Diane than relying on Chuck Schumer's omnipotent, omnicompetent bureaucracy. So does David Brin, whose article on the subject has been in my "to recommend" list for quite a while. [Posted 12/13.]
MILITARY RESILIENCE: The administration's military planners are smarter than Chuck Schumer, or at least more serious, and their strategy of moving from emphasizing "threats" to emphasizing "capabilities" is designed to be resilient. Successful military doctrine will have to be based on expecting to be surprised. Paul Wolfowitz's speech here is essential reading:
One thing we can be sure of: adapting to surprise—adapting quickly and effectively—must be a central element of defense planning. That is hard to do. We were spoiled by the seeming certainties of the Cold War. Then we perceived a predictable, albeit growing, threat, a threat we could make precise predictions about. We knew the schedule on which enemy divisions planned to mobilize; we matched our armies to meet our adversary on a very precise schedule on the battlefields of Europe; we measured our ballistic missile capabilities so they would be "sufficient" to strike the right balance. We knew the threat, we planned for it, we matched it. But, that is not where we are today. There has been a revolution in threats that calls for a revolution in how we think about defense.
DIVERSE SUBURBS: A Census analysis by The Dallas Morning News discovers what a cursory glance at the sidewalks of uptown or malls of Plano would suggest: You find a lot more racial and ethnic mixing out in the suburban sprawl. Writes Michael A. Lindenberger, "Texans who move to big cities to live in more diverse neighborhoods, or those who rush to the suburbs looking for the opposite, are probably headed in the wrong direction."
In the booming suburbs of the U.S. Southwest, as opposed to the more traditional East, homebuyers are just looking for the best house for the money, never mind the color of the people next door. As a Plano real estate agent puts it, "They tend to look at what we have in their price range and just go out and look at that." A city council member in Arlington says, "We've got everyone in our neighborhood. Across the street is a Native American household. A black family lives next door to them, and next door to me. And down the street are Asians and a family of Arabic background." (To see where these places are, click here, and hope the complex link works. [Posted 12/12.]
FRIEDMAN PRIZE: The Cato Institute is soliciting nominees for the first Milton Friedman Prize for the Advancement of Liberty. The prize, a $500,000 cash award, will be presented every other year "to the individual who has done the most to advance human freedom." That's quite a challenge—and quite a lot of money. (The Nobel Prize is about $1 million, and often has multiple winners.) Readers are encouraged to copy their nominations to me, for later posting. (But send them to Cato directly.) [Posted 12/12.]
THE OTHER VIRGINIA: Reader Jim Henley has a good answer to my Mike Mulligan question below, which, "in a blatant bid for attention," he has posted on his blog. This may sound like a joke, but if you're interested in the stasis/dynamism tension, Virginia Lee Burton's kids' books are worth taking a look at. What we need now is someone who accurately remembers The Little House. Beyond "it's about change," I don't recall the plot. [Posted 12/11.]
ASHCROFT'S SMEAR: In an unsigned editorial in the Las Vegas Review Journal, my buddy Rick Henderson compares John Ashcroft's rhetorical bullying to another politician who used terrorism to smear his political enemies: "Mr. Ashcroft's reaction was sadly reminiscent of the Clinton administration in the days following the Oklahoma City bombing. At the time, Mr. Clinton and his underlings asserted that the critics of White House policies were no better than terrorists who ignited truck bombs. In both cases, the reactions were uncalled for." [Posted 12/11.]
THIRD WHEEL: My friend Nick Schulz of TechCentral Station marks the 30th anniversary of the Libertarian Party with a call for the party to "grow up." As a small-l libertarian who occasionally votes Libertarian, I'd rather the party just go away. As satisfying as it may be to cast a protest vote, they're bad for the cause.
Their 30th-anniversary press release eliminates any ambivalence I might feel. It's not enough that the party's rules have defined "libertarian" to exclude every major libertarian thinker except Murray Rothbard (who was really an anarchist) and that they have a foreign policy that amounts to defending America on the beaches of Santa Monica. They also have to spin their way through their celebratory press release, desperately claiming credit for trends they played little or no part in. That spin operation pretty much proves that they are, indeed, just what they claim: an honest-to-God political party.
The most ridiculous paragraph details this supposed accomplishment: "Started to win over America's celebrities."
Over the past decade, public figures including movie star Clint Eastwood, humorist Dave Barry, comedian Dennis Miller, actor Kurt Russell, magician Penn Jillette, author Camille Paglia, TV reporter John Stossell, author P.J. O'Rourke, Rush guitarist Neil Peart, country star Dwight Yoakam, and former 20/20 newsman Hugh Downs have all described themselves as "libertarian."The LP didn't "win over" these celebrities. Calling yourself "libertarian" is no more partisan than calling yourself "republican" or "democratic." Clint Eastwood is a former Republican mayor. P.J. O'Rourke calls himself a Republican Party Reptile. Camille Paglia is a self-proclaimed Democrat who voted for Ralph Nader and who heaps patented Paglia-style scorn on the LP. John Stossel spells his name with one l. If they knew him, they'd know that.
Best of all, they had Bill Maher on the list this morning, but they've taken him down.
P.S. All you pissed-off LPers, do not call Reason and try to get me fired. It wouldn't work, and I've already quit. [Posted 12/11.]
TRADE SELLOUTS: What does it take to get West Coast members of Congress to sell out their constituents' interests (forget principle) and vote against free trade? Safe seats and Democratic Party pressure to kowtow to midwestern labor interests. Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters suggests that the weakness of the state's pro-trade industries—technology, aerospace, and agriculture—actually encouraged representatives to vote against them, which is a strange sort of California logic.
With the direction of California's export-minded industries in doubt, many Democrats who in the past automatically endorsed lower trade barriers became more susceptible to pressure from their leaders, such as newly installed Democratic House Whip Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, to deny Bush a win, and labor and environmental groups to oppose what they term "globalization."
Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times calls my attention to their editorial, which began this way:
No bill before Congress for a long time has been as crucial to this state as fast-track trade authority. It is a matter in which this state cannot be neutral. From aircraft to apples, plywood to potatoes, pharmaceuticals to baseball, we have chosen to depend on foreigners. We sell to them, buy from them, invest with them and recruit them. In the issue of trade we are biased - very biased, all the time. It was a relief on Thursday that the Thomas fast-track bill passed. It was a shock that it passed by one vote, 215-214, and that five of this state's congressmen, Jim McDermott, Brian Baird, Jay Inslee, Rick Larsen and Adam Smith, all voted against it. A year ago, The Times endorsed all of these Democrats, several with enthusiasm. Their votes are a disappointment.Tut, tut, tut. Shocked, shocked, shocked. "New Democrats" are a myth, at least in elective office, an elaborate con for the benefit of editorialists and social liberals who believe in open markets. You've got a better chance of finding Republicans who'll vote against open-ended police powers and bans on cell research.
The result of this West Coast weakness is not just that industries there will be hurt. Thanks to the swing-vote deal with South Carolina Rep. Jim DeMint, textile workers in Latin America and the Carribbean will have fewer opportunities to climb out of poverty—as South Carolina did, thanks to the free trade zone known as the United States—and Americans will pay more for clothes. But as reader Michael Wells points out, the tut-tutting will mean nothing at the ballot box:
Eshoo's vote is no surprise. She's been voting against Silicon Valley's interests for years. She even voted for both Internet censorship bills, but she routinely gets re-elected with wide margins. She's safe and she knows it, as does Lofgren, Pelosi, and most of the rest of the Bay Area congresscreatures. Democrats can complain all they like, but a Democratic politician would have to be caught in bed with Mullah Omar before they'd vote Republican (and in Berkeley they probably still wouldn't). So Eshoo and the rest are free to curry whatever funding and favors they like. My prediction: Eshoo will win re-election next year with at least 60% of the vote. But she won't get mine.
Wanted: Primary challengers who really are New Democrats. And a rich Republican to run an expensive, but nearly impossible, campaign to unseat Nancy Pelosi. [Posted 12/11.]
GRAPHIC REMINDERS: The State Department has put together this collection of photos titled "New York: Three Months Later." Graphic designers have created these images in memory of 9/11 (click on the thumbnail picture for a full view); the online gallery was assembled by the American Institute of Graphic Artists.
And while we're remembering, Glenn Reynolds presents the Dropped Ball Awards, "Presented in memory of September 11, to the pundits and political figures who got it wrongest in the past three months." Never forget. But their editors and producers already have. [Posted 12/11.]
DUH: "Dallas-Fort Worth area short on nature-based tourist dollars" reads the headline on a story from our local NBC TV station. The story describes the area as "a place plopped onto the prairie with no natural lakes and no significant hills, mountains, cliffs, or canyons to pique a person's interest." Decent place to live, but you wouldn't want to visit. [Posted 12/11.]
WHY PEOPLE THINK FEMINISTS ARE DUMB: Susan McGee of Ann Arbor, Michigan, (a Google search suggests she runs a battered-women's shelter there) posts the following Amazon review of the children's classic Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, published in 1939:
It's discouraging to me that no one even mentions the extremely rigid gender roles in this book (straight out of the early 1950s). All the fireMEN are MEN, all the policeMEN are MEN, there is no gender neutral language, and worse, all the girls and women are in totally old fashioned roles...
While we're turning kids' books into political discussion material, here's a question for readers of The Future and Its Enemies: Mike Mulligan, dynamist or stasist?
AOLTW: I've said it before, nearly a year ago, and I'll say it again, now that the results are once again news: The AOL Time Warner merger made no business sense, except as a way to buy assets with inflated stock. (The Time Warner-CNN merger made no sense, period.) Instead of exercising a chokehold on information, the company is struggling to justify its existence as a conglomerate. And keepers of the conventional wisdom are starting to notice. [Posted 12/11.]
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