All posts by pmayo

Progressivism Isn’t Everything, It’s The Only Thing

Sometimes I think the real reason Hume aimed his skeptical arguments at the notion of causation is because he perceived the manifold ways dubious argumentative strategies can give causal arguments tremendous rhetorical force.   George Will was kind enough to provide us with just such a perverse causal claim this week.  Recent events at Penn State, University of Georgia,and Syracuse have prompted many journalists to consider the peculiarly American phenomenon of the state university football coach.  Will surveys the scene and deduces a culprit for this quasi-demagogue: American Progressivism, of course.  Will argues

With two extravagant entertainments under way, it is instructive to note the connection between the presidential election and the college football season: Barack Obama represents progressivism, a doctrine whose many blemishes on American life include universities as football factories, which progressivism helped to create.

To quote my favorite small business owner, I don't even know where to begin to correct that sentence.  But before we being with the correcting, let's get a taste of the argument:

Higher education embraced athletics in the first half of the 19th century, when most colleges were denominational and most instruction was considered mental and moral preparation for a small minority — clergy and other professionals. Physical education had nothing to do with spectator sports entertaining people from outside the campus community. Rather, it was individual fitness — especially gymnastics — for the moral and pedagogic purposes of muscular Christianity — mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body.

Pick a lane, George.  Eliding is fun, but if there's a connection between Progressivism's causing universities to become football factories and this host of religious universities "embracing athletics" as some sort of corporeal moral education, it's not apparent from this graph.  If there isn't such a connection, then this paragraph seems to contradict the one which preceded it. But let's see where this goes:

Intercollegiate football began when Rutgers played Princeton in 1869, four years after Appomattox. In 1878, one of Princeton’s two undergraduate student managers was Thomas — he was called Tommy — Woodrow Wilson. For the rest of the 19th century, football appealed as a venue for valor for collegians whose fathers’ venues had been battlefields. Stephen Crane, author of the Civil War novel “The Red Badge of Courage” (1895) — the badge was a wound — said: “Of course, I have never been in a battle, but I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field.”

Who needs arguments?  String barely-related facts together in temporal order, manufacture narrative, close with pithy quote, QED.  I have wasted my life.

Harvard philosopher William James then spoke of society finding new sources of discipline and inspiration in “the moral equivalent of war.” Society found football, which like war required the subordination of the individual, and which would relieve the supposed monotony of workers enmeshed in mass production. 

Setting aside the risible reading of James…wait, no, let's not set it aside.  Here's what James actually argues:

If now — and this is my idea — there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would remain blind as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man's relations to the globe he lives on, and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life. To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.

Well, we already know how George feels about trains, so it's no small wonder he would drag poor Billy James into the fray.  The problem is Will's completely misrepresented the claim.  James isn't concerned here with the plight of "workers enmeshed in mass production," and Will's desperate attempt at a dogwhistle connection between Progressivism (as represented by a Boston Brahma, natch) and Marxism can't make that so.  James' "moral equivalent to war" is proffered as a mitigation of the seeming impasse between the "war party" and the "peace party."  James sees the former as promoting martial virtues to extremes that actually run counter to goals of human society, while the latter engage in a fool's errand to utterly eliminate martial virtues.  James' middle way mollifies both parties: martial virtues are extolled, but instead of being channeled into war, they are channeled into productive human activity (which activity could plausibly include monotonous mass production-type activities!).  James is thinking here of things like the Peace Corps and Teach For America, not the LSU Tigers (although one might reasonably argue that the argument could extend to those things, but not in terms that Will would accept).  Moreover, there's something else going wrong here, with this talk of the individual. As Will continues,
 

College football became a national phenomenon because it supposedly served the values of progressivism, in two ways. It exemplified specialization, expertise and scientific management. And it would reconcile the public to the transformation of universities, especially public universities, into something progressivism desired but the public found alien. Replicating industrialism’s division of labor, universities introduced the fragmentation of the old curriculum of moral instruction into increasingly specialized and arcane disciplines. These included the recently founded social sciences — economics, sociology, political science — that were supposed to supply progressive governments with the expertise to manage the complexities of the modern economy and the simplicities of the uninstructed masses.

Football taught the progressive virtue of subordinating the individual to the collectivity. Inevitably, this led to the cult of one individual, the coach. Today, in almost every state, at least one public university football coach is paid more than the governor.

I've never been convinced by this sort of "kingdom of the blind"-type argument.  They either seem painfully tautologous ("If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns"), or they seem self referentially incoherent, as is the case above.  But more to the point, the contradictions in this claim point to a deeper flaw in Will's argument, namely that Will doesn't even seem to have a firm grasp on what he takes Progressivism to be, let alone show concern for what it actually is, so he enmeshes himself in a web of contradictions and half-hearted historical claims that ultimately come to nothing. Instead of providing himself a worthy foe, "Progressivism" functions as an umbrella term for a loosely related set of social doctrines to which Will objects.  Will might have proved that some particular doctrine lent a hand in the rise of college sports as public spectacle, but he hasn't shown (1) that American Progressivism as such is a cause, nor has he shown, most importantly, (2) that even a majority of American universities are football factories.  He clearly seems to think so, but he's never offered even a hint of an argument for either view.   In place of an argument, we get a shitty reading of William James and a milquetoast narrative more worthy of small-time sports blog than the Op-Ed pages of a major newspaper.  

Another sparkling moment in our national discourse.

Inner Witlessness

David Brooks has a problem with all you people and your outrage over the rape of young boys.  So take a break from feverishly trying assuage your liberal guilt with innumerable OMG SANDUSKEEZ A PERV OMG #librulzrule tweets and witness the real root of your outrage: your own vain refusal to acknowledge the capacity of human beings to deceive themselves about their willingness to act.

I know. A shocking thesis. Let's hear it again.

People are outraged over the rape of young boys because they are trying to mask their own guilt at knowing they would probably also do nothing.  Quoth Brooks:

First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.

Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption. Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.

So, if people can't stop a genocide, they can't stop a rape.  That seems off to me, but who am I to say? After all, Dave has SCIENCE!

Even in cases where people consciously register some offense, they still often don’t intervene. In research done at Penn State [ed. note: site where study occurred chosen, like, totally at random] and published in 1999, students were asked if they would make a stink if someone made a sexist remark in their presence. Half said yes. When researchers arranged for that to happen, only 16 percent protested.

In another experiment at a different school, 68 percent of students insisted they would refuse to answer if they were asked offensive questions during a job interview. But none actually objected when asked questions like, “Do you think it is appropriate for women to wear bras to work?”

First, we're given no indication of (1) the source of these studies, (2) the size of the samples, or (3) whether or not they were published, and therefore subject to the rigors of peer review.  For all we know, this was some odd balding guy with wire-rimmed glasses and a bow tie and a New York Times press pass, wandering around Happy Valley and Different School University creeping out students with odd questions.  Second, of course self deception could be only explanation for the responses to these studies.  It couldn't be that college age individuals are often poorly educated as to what constitutes sexual harassment or inappropriate sexual behavior, or that the studies appear, at least on their face, engineered to elicit a specific response.  Nope. The only explanation is that people deceive themselves as to the extent they would act to stop another human being from being harmed. Why, you might ask? Dave has answers, bros:

In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that the tendencies noted in the second paragraph stem from an adherence to the codified moral systems whose absence from present day society is implied by the same paragraph! But perhaps I'm simply deceiving myself. After all, as someone who considers himself a vehement opponent of old men raping children, I'm obviously just pontificating from my perch high atop the moral high ground. Right, Dave?

Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How could they have let this happen?”

The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive. That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.

Seems to me the proper question is how we can stop 55 year old football coaches from using the facilities of one of the most illustrious athletic programs in the nation to rape boys.  Seems to me the proper question is how we might rebuild the power structure at Penn State to ensure that the full powers of that institution of higher learning are never put in service of the protection of a child rapist.  Seems to me the proper question is why a judge that worked for the foundation this man used as his child rape pool, was allowed to hear this man's case and then set him free on unconditional bond.  If my thinking that these are the proper questions make me someone who is simply trying to assuage liberal guilt, then I prefer the deception to the alternative.

Which, on the basis of Brooks' claims, seems to be nothing.

Dubious is as dubious does

Apparently, John's latest foray into the entangling brambles of Will's global warming denial struck a chord.  In particular, his questioning the expertise of Will and Mark Steyn to one, deny global warming, and two, to properly adjudicate what qualifies as adequate evidence for their denials seemed to have aroused the ire of none less than Steyn himself. To wit:

In a column about "the environment" the other day, George Will quoted yours truly, and has received a lot of grief ever since for relying on a notorious know-nothing.

As he should.  Part of constructing a refutation of a given position is making sure the expertise of the sources one cites in said refutation is commensurate to level of expertise one is seeking to refute.  In short, you don't go ask a carpenter to cut you a porterhouse.  But rather than acknowledge the dubious nature of his source, Steyn lapses into some dubious rhetorical trickery of his own, quoting Thomas Friedman's (neatly deprived of context) admonition to further reduce carbon footprints, then providing a picture of Friedman's ample estate. The conclusion we're meant to draw?

Well, obviously, being a renowned expert, Thomas Friedman, like Al Gore and the Prince of Wales, needs a supersized carbon footprint.

Ah, yes.  They're all hypocrites.  We've touched on this favorite hobby horse of the global warming deniers before (here and here).  What we said then bears repeating now.  Al Gore, Thomas Friedman and a whole host of pocket-mulching hippies could be the biggest hypocrites that ever walked the face of the earth: they drive the biggest trucks, own the biggest houses, fly to conferences in jets fueled with Ozone Penentrator 2.0 while tossing styrofoam plates out of the plane and it would not matter one whit, in so far as the facts of global warming are concerned.  But you see, it's always easier to attack the arguer than the argument. Moreover, Steyn's not done reasoning like a lazy freshman:

But you don't [need a huge carbon footprint]- you can get by beating your laundry on the rocks down by the river with the native women all day long.

"Environmentalism" is a government restraint on economic advance and, therefore, social mobility. In other words, it's a way to ensure you'll never live like Tom Friedman.

Maybe it's just the fact that I've misplaced my tinfoil hat, but a more bizarre and unwarranted conclusion, I cannot imagine.  Especially in light of the fact that governments the world over have long been among the most vehement opponents of environmental movement.  Of particular note, our own.

Blooming Idiocracy

Oftentimes, there's something inspiring about a person so rigidly dedicated to a particular ideology that not even the existence of contrary facts can sway them. In that vein, there's a movie line that's always stuck in my mind: "Uncompromising men are easy to admire." Nothing could be more apropos of that sentiment than today's sycophantic paean to the Bush Doctrine from the inimitable David Brooks. While the tone of the column is odd–President-Elect Obama as torchbearer of the Bush Doctrine–here's the bit that caught our eye:

Actual progress was slow, but the ideas developed during the second Bush term have taken hold.

Some theoreticians may still talk about Platonic concepts like realism and neoconservatism, but the actual foreign policy doctrine of the future will be hammered out in a bottom-up process as the U.S. and its allies use their varied tools to build government capacity in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, the Philippines and beyond. Grand strategists may imagine a new global architecture built at high-level summits, but the real global architecture of the future will emerge organically from these day-to-day nation-building operations.

Obviously, someone's been reading his Allan Bloom, but I digress.  Brooks' misunderstanding of Plato, coupled with a severe misreading of the President-Elect's decision to retain the services of SECDEF Robert Gates is one thing; defeating the imaginary political theorists in one's mind while acting as if some point has been proven is quite another.  Brooks' dogged devotion to neoconservative ideals has taken him so far afield that he has outpaced any real opponents, so he just creates opposition out of whole cloth; but this ability to outmaneuver notional opponents cannot demonstrate what it purports to show. 

Why We Fight

I'm reminded today of a set of arguments that I find both compelling and well-executed, a set of arguments that is sadly under-appreciated (in my view, anyway). And while much of what we do here is criticism, today we turn our attentions to some good arguments. We've commented recently on certain views on American patriotism, as well as on various uses and abuses of the term "fascism," especially as they are applied to those who might offer up dissent to the policies of the current administration. A troubling trend in recent political op-eds is that fascism–and its (erroneously so-called) cousins, communism and terrorism–has been posited as the binary opposite of patriotism. So, today we discuss dissent. And there could no more fitting day than the anniversary of this manifesto of dissent. The men and women who founded this country were concerned about dissent. After all, its very founding was an act of dissent. And so, once it was born, they worried what might happen if some recalcitrant groups of citizens decided to up and overthrow them.  One of them had an answer:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

I'd like to note two things here: one, Madison begins by clearly defining his terms. He avoids any equivocation and the likelihood of misinterpretation by getting his terms clear from the start. Two, the argument here is clearly and deftly stated. No tricks, no semantic sleight-of-hand, just premises and conclusions. Read it through, please. It's a wonderful piece of argument. On a deeper level though, notice that differing opinions are not only to be tolerated by the government, but cultivated by the government. As Madison will go on to argue, it is only the effects of faction that need to be controlled, and this will happen naturally, as a function of widely differing opinions. This is not the language of fealty and demagoguery; it is the language of free expression and independent thought.

Here's our bit: this was written in a newspaper. It is no small shame that such elevated and concise discourse does not occupy the op-ed pages of today's newspapers. Instead we have partisan-baiting, ad hominem attacks, and rhetorical trickery. Our national discourse is in shambles and we bear the burden of bringing it back up. Don't settle. Demand something better. That's why we do what we do here. Not because we like to titillate ourselves with the cleverness of our ratiocinations, nor because we think the refutation of some pundit's stance on a particular issue proves the veracity of our own privately-held view. We do it because it is in the best American spirit to speak out. So, we'll be here, gentle reader, keeping up the fight. We wish you and yours the very best on this Fourth of July.

Write No More Forever

We normally try to keep current around here, but amidst the revelry and excess of our Spring Break, we missed something.  Okay, we missed a few things, but George Will’s performance of March 16, on ABC’s "This Week with George Stephanopolous," is worth back-tracking a bit.  Will is holding forth on matters of race and politics and then this happens:

If you want to know what America would look like, if liberals really had their way in running it, look at what they’re doing in their own nominating process on two counts. First, they cannot get to a majority because they have exquisitely refined rococo rules about how to achieve fairness. Secondly, they have worked for 20, 30, 40 years to make us all exquisitely sensitive to slights real or imagined, so that you run a 3 AM ad and someone says there’s not enough black people in it or where’s the Hispanics and it must be a racist ad. Hillary Clinton says something absolutely unexceptionable which is it took Lyndon Johnson also to pass the civil rights act. Denounced as racist. The Democrats are reaping what they have sown.

Fairness?! Equality?! Sensitivity?! Heaven forfend!

Ye gods. This logic is going to make Bright Eyes cry.

First, the primary process is to liberal governance as our making a mean Guinness stew is to operating a restaurant. Sure, it’s part of the process, but just as our Guinness stew prowess doesn’t indicate our ability to take over for Vongerichten, neither does the Democratic primary process indicate the inability of either Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton–or any other liberal politician, for that matter–to properly govern the country.

Second, snide attacks and smug elitism are no argument. Will’s tritely insulting claim about sensitivity treats as a disadvantage an awareness that has, at least in part, helped us to advance from a country where blatant displays of racism and sexism and the genocide of indigenous persons are the norm, to a country where no matter what happens, the Democratic nominee for president of the United States will be either a woman or an African American man.  Without specific attempts to make people aware of the deep race and gender divides in this country, we never get to the place where Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are the nominees for President. Yet Will dismisses these effects with a wave of the hand, instead twisting liberal social policies in service of an undergraduate view of liberalism and democratic process.