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Saturday, June 25, 2022

Smart people missing the point

This isn't exactly a philosophical piece. Really it's just a cry of frustration. But I don't know where else I can say it. For reasons that will rapidly become apparent, I'm reluctant to discuss it with my friends and family under my own name.

On February 24 of this year, Russian military forces invaded the Ukraine. Since then, we have seen an entire industry blossom of analysts explaining it all. What frustrates me so much is that so many of the ones I read seem to miss the important points so magnificently.

To be clear right up front, the one analyst I find most persuasive is John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago. Mearsheimer is a foreign policy realist, who thinks in terms of the power dynamics among rivals on the international stage. Of course I understand that there can be other factors which drive international behavior as well—religion, ideology, and idealism all come to mind as examples—but I am persuaded that considerations of power and security are a baseline, and that all these other factors are built on top of them. In other words, I believe (and there are plenty of historical examples) that countries who differ in religion or ideology but who feel secure from each other at the level of power dynamics can remain at peace (though they might not always stay that way); but countries who agree on religion or ideology but who feel threatened by each other will inevitably go to war. Power and security are not everything, but they are fundamental.

Mearsheimer's analysis of the current situation in Ukraine is that the West triggered it by trying to bring Ukraine into NATO. Vladimir Putin considered that the prospect of having a hostile alliance directly bordering Russia was an unacceptable threat (in the same way, and for the exact same reason, that John Kennedy considered it unacceptable for the Soviet Union to station nuclear missiles in Cuba) and responded with a military invasion. It's a simple theory, economical in its assumptions and explaining all the observable data. Also I find it very easy to believe.

But Mearsheimer's perspective is, to put it charitably, a minority view in America today. In the last couple of weeks I have read three different accounts, all by men who sound smart and well-informed, who criticize or dismiss Mearsheimer by name, and yet who seem to misunderstand Mearsheimer's remarkably simple explanation. It's frustrating.

Case 1

So for example, back in March* David Remnick of the New Yorker interviewed Stephen Kotkin of Princeton University and the Hoover Institution. You can find the resulting article here. Right up front, Remnick asks Kotkin his opinion of Mearsheimer's thesis, and Kotkin replies:

John Mearsheimer is a giant of a scholar. But I respectfully disagree. The problem with [his] argument is that it assumes that, had NATO not expanded, Russia wouldn’t be the same or very likely close to what it is today. What we have today in Russia is not some kind of surprise. It’s not some kind of deviation from a historical pattern. Way before NATO existed—in the nineteenth century—Russia looked like this: it had an autocrat. It had repression. It had militarism. It had suspicion of foreigners and the West. This is a Russia that we know, and it’s not a Russia that arrived yesterday or in the nineteen-nineties. It’s not a response to the actions of the West. There are internal processes in Russia that account for where we are today.

The error

Kotkin has changed the subject. The important question is not, How did Russia get to be the kind of place it is today? The important question is, Why did Russia invade Ukraine? All the historical analysis of Russian culture and the Russian psyche might be very interesting as background, but a country can be pathologically dysfunctional on the inside and still not invade its neighbors. North Korea** maintains a belligerent pose of threatening South Korea, but in fact the two countries haven't come to blows since the 1950's because balance-of-power politics stops them: specifically, they are restrained by their stronger allies (China and the United States, respectively). So everything Kotkin says about Russian militarism and autocracy as historical phenomena is irrelevant. The real question, which he completely fails to answer, is Why now? 

Case 2

Two weeks later, YouTube published a conversation where Konstantin Kisin and Francis Foster interview Andrey Illarionov, a former economic policy advisor to Putin. It's a wide-ranging discussion, but starting at about 12:02 the interviewers ask Illarionov about the Mearsheimer thesis. Illarionov replies that Mearsheimer "belongs to the class of thinkers who prefer to see empires in the world." He goes on to explain that Mearsheimer clearly believes that only certain countries have a right to exist; in particular the small ones have no right to exist independently. Illarionov concludes that this kind of thinking is appropriate for the 19th century but not for the 21st.

The error

Again, Illarionov has changed the subject. Mearsheimer says nothing about the "right to exist." The whole realist argument has nothing to do with rights, but with what is politically prudent. To use an analogy, you have a perfect right to walk alone down a dark alley in a bad neighborhood, flashing your expensive watch and letting your wallet show out of your back pocket. But you're a damned fool if you do it. Rights or no rights, you are inviting someone to mug you and take your valuables. It's even worse on the international stage. In the dark alley, at least there's a tiny chance that a policeman will happen to wander by on his rounds at the exact same moment and protect you. But there is no international policeman, because there is no World Government.

Case 3

A month after that, Nassim Nicholas Taleb published an article called "A Clash of Two Systems," in which he describes the Ukraine conflict in almost metaphysical terms. Among other things, he writes:

These sloppy thinkers such as Mearsheimer and similar handwavers conflate states with individual interests; they believe that there is only a balance of power between powers — for Mearsheimer, Putin is only reacting to undue progress by the West on its ground. But the reality is quite different: what Ukrainians want is to be part of what I would call an international “benign” order, which works well because it is self-correcting, and where the balance of power can exist but remain harmless. Putin and the “realists” are the wrong century, they do not think in terms of systems or in terms of individuals. They suffer from what I call the “Westphalia Syndrome” — the reification of states as natural and fixed Platonic entities.

The error

What the f---?? Read that paragraph a second time: Taleb is arguing that Putin is wrong to think of states as fixed entities, when in reality he should think in terms of individuals and systems. But who cares whether his thinking is wrong in that way? If that's how he thinks, then that's how he thinks! Big frappin' deal. As long as he has thousands of nuclear weapons and over a million armed men at his command, it behooves us to take him seriously even if we disagree with the way he thinks about things. In particular, it behooves us to try to understand how he thinks rather than simply dismissing him for not thinking the way we do. It doesn't matter if he might be wrong at a theoretical level as long as he's the one holding the gun.


None of these are stupid people. None of them are ill-informed. So it baffles and distresses me to see them making such simple intellectual mistakes. It's not like the understanding of great-power politics is something so novel that they haven't heard of it yet. None of it depends on Mearsheimer himself, after all—nor on George Kennan, nor on Hans Morgenthau or Raymond Aron, nor even on Otto von Bismarck. The simplest and clearest explanation of the underlying principles that clarify the reasons behind the Russian invasion of Ukraine was spelled out for all time by the Athenian delegation to the island of Melos, as reported in Thucydides' classic History of the Peloponnesian War:***

As for the favor of the gods, we expect to have it as well as you, for we neither do, nor require anything contrary to what mankind hath decreed, either concerning the worship of the gods, or concerning themselves. For of the gods we think (in agreement with the common opinion), and of men we know for a fact, that for certain by necessity of nature they will everywhere rule over such as they be too strong for.             


* Yes, I only read it this week.

** Surely high on anyone's list of "pathologically dysfunctional" countries. 

*** I follow, and slightly adapt, the translation of Thomas Hobbes.      

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

What is tradition good for?

A while ago—I guess it was a couple of months, more or less—an artist came to town. More exactly, it was not the artist herself but a show of her work; and the show didn't come to town so much as it came to the big State University just outside of town. But that's close enough. Admission was free, and I went to see it. 

By Tmanner38 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
The artist is Harmonia Rosales. You can find her website here. She is an Afro-Cuban artist from Chicago, and she started painting about ten years ago. Her craftsmanship is very careful, and she paints in the style of the Renaissance masters. But the pictures shown at the exhibition I went to used that style in a very specific way.

What Rosales did—what she does—is to paint representations of the orishas, the gods of Yoruba tradition and of Santería. But she paints these figures using the arrangement and composition of famous Renaissance masterpieces. So her 2017 "Creation of God" is modeled on Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" from the Sistine Chapel. Her "Birth of Oshun" (also from 2017) is modeled on Botticelli's "Birth of Venus."

The explanatory panels at the exhibit described at some length how Rosales "undermines" or "subverts" the Renaissance painting tradition with her works, to call attention to the peoples and traditions of Africa and the African diaspora.

But the truth is that she undermines nothing. Her painting falls squarely inside the Renaissance tradition; in fact I'd like to argue that she should be considered simply a latter-day Renaissance master. In fact, so far is she from "subverting" the Renaissance tradition that she actually uses that tradition exactly how it is supposed to be used!

After all, the point of an artistic tradition is not for everyone to paint exactly the same pictures on and on into eternity, any more than the point of a literary tradition is for everyone to write like Shakespeare or Chaucer. The whole point of a tradition in painting is to provide a common visual language so that viewers know what they are looking at. And this is where Rosales succeeds remarkably well. 

Start from the idea that she wants to show us something about Santería and the orishas, a living religious tradition that those of us in the white American middle class know almost nothing of. Well and good. But if she showed us purely indigenous artwork, we would be lost. All of it would be strange and foreign, so we would not be able to distinguish signal from background. We could not tell what was important, because it would all look too strange.

But by using the composition and conventions of familiar Renaissance masterpieces, Rosales neatly avoids that problem. When we see the "Birth of Oshun," right away we understand it in the context of the "Birth of Venus." That tells us at a glance who Oshun is (because clearly she must be a goddess kind of like Venus) and why she matters. All the parts that are more or less the same as in Botticelli's painting are clearly background. And therefore we know that the rest—whatever is different—must be foreground. So we focus (at least to start) on the figure of Oshun herself: her dark skin; her African features; her short, natural hair; and the vitiligo that Rosales renders in gold leaf. What is more, when we recognize that this figure is standing in the shell where Botticelli placed Venus, we let her hold our attention; and as soon as we pay attention, we see her awesome, radiant beauty, a beauty that shines out of the painting as if the figure were alive. We let Oshun speak to us, and we let ourselves adore her. 

This is surely what Rosales wants from us, or at least part of it. And it is all made possible because Rosales uses the Renaissance tradition exactly the way it was meant to be usedto serve as a common language between herself and the American professional class she is trying to reach. To reach a different audience, she might have to paint in the style of a different tradition. But this one is ours, and Rosales has shown herself a master of it. I would love to see her added into art history curricula: right after Michelangelo and Botticelli, and a little before Titian. Also I wish I could afford to own some of her work. But mostly I am grateful to know that she and her work exist, and that she has revitalized the Renaissance tradition in such vibrant and exciting ways.      


Thursday, June 16, 2022

Death of the Monroe Doctrine

James Monroe is dead.

Maybe that's not much of a news flash, since the man himself died in 1831. But the Monroe Doctrine has been a cornerstone of American policy for most of our history, defining the entire Western Hemisphere as our sphere of influence. It was never 100% effective: France installed an emperor in Mexico in 1864, and Cuba famously joined the Soviet bloc under Fidel Castro a little less than a century later. But on the whole it had a remarkably good run.

No longer. This week, Nicaragua announced an agreement with Russia allowing the latter to import ships and troops from time to time, for purposes of law enforcement, "humanitarian aid, rescue and search missions in emergencies or natural disasters."

Clearly neither Nicaragua nor Russia is concerned that the United States will try to block this agreement in any effective way. Our role as regional (to say nothing of global!) hegemon must no longer look credible to them. In other words, our self-proclaimed sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere is over.

Stay tuned for further developments.


Monday, May 9, 2022

What would it take to eliminate abortion?

In my last post, I wrote about the political aspects of the Supreme Court's 1973 decision Roe v. Wade, particularly in light of the possibility that the current Court might end up overturning it when they decide Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization later this year. But there's another aspect of the abortion debate that I would like to consider. There are strong political forces in this country that say it is their goal to eliminate abortion. But what would it take to do that? Is it even possible?

Naturally it's possible to pass laws against abortion, and to define penalties for those who break the laws. That's the easy part. But surely everybody knows that merely passing laws won't actually eliminate abortions—they'll just happen illegally. In the same way that illegalizing drugs just drove the drug trade underground, so illegalizing abortions will—in the absence of any other changes—just drive the abortion trade underground. Anyone who considers the subject honestly knows this.

But wait. "In the absence of any other changes"? Is it possible that there are indirect ways to reduce or eliminate the number of abortions in the country, by eliminating the causes that create the demand for them? What would such an approach even look like?

What would it take to eliminate abortion?

According to nature

My thinking about this topic was inspired by Frederica Mathewes-Green, who wrote in a 2016 essay as follows:

If you were in charge of a nature preserve and you noticed that the pregnant female mammals were trying to miscarry their pregnancies, eating poisonous plants or injuring themselves, what would you do? Would you think of it as a battle between the pregnant female and her unborn and find ways to help those pregnant animals miscarry? No, of course not. You would immediately think, “Something must be really wrong in this environment.” Something is creating intolerable stress, so much so that animals would rather destroy their own offspring than bring them into the world. You would strive to identify and correct whatever factors were causing this stress in the animals.

The same thing goes for the human animal. Abortion gets presented to us as if it’s something women want; both pro-choice and pro-life rhetoric can reinforce that idea. But women do this only if all their other options look worse. It’s supposed to be “her choice,” yet so many women say, “I really didn’t have a choice.”

Of course she's right. In a trivial sense, the only reason anyone chooses anything is that it looks better than the other options. As for her charge that many women feel trapped into having an abortion, I have no idea whether that's true or not. All I can say is that Frederica* has talked to a lot more women pre- and post-abortion than I have. So maybe provisionally I can take her word for it.

But I want to go back to one sentence that represents, for me, the key insight in this passage: You would immediately think, “Something must be really wrong in this environment.” This is important. If we take Frederica's insight seriously, we have to conclude that something is badly wrong with the way we live.

You remember that the original point of this blog was to try to see the world "with classical eyes," and that this phrase implies in part a willingness "to accept that things have a nature, and that at least some things have a purpose." By these lights, there must be such a thing as "how we are meant to live by nature"; and abortion is so manifestly artificial an arrangement that it is very unlikely that abortion itself is by nature. (I mean medically-induced abortion here. There is a kind of abortion which is indeed by nature, but we call it miscarriage.) So if we find that there is currently a demand for medical abortions, there must be a reason. To put it broadly, we must be doing something wrong for such a demand to have arisen in the first place. In Frederica's terms, something must be really wrong in our environment.   

So when I ask whether abortion can be eliminated, I am really asking: What factors are causing this kind of stress in us, in the human animals? What's wrong with our environment that is pushing women to want access to abortions which presumably (in the absence of such stresses or other factors) they would not seek out in the same kinds of numbers? What would we have to change in our environment to eliminate that demand?

Why do women seek out abortions?

The first step is to inquire why women seek out abortions? Fortunately, it turns out there are studies on exactly this question. A quick Google search turns up three studies from different years, but their results are largely consistent. The studies are these:

Collating the results from these three studies, the primary reasons that women have abortions are, in order from most to least common, as follows:
  1. They can't afford a baby financially.
  2. They can't afford the disruption a baby will cause to their lives at this time.
  3. They don't have the support they need (unmarried, partner does not want baby, partner is abusive, etc.).
  4. They need to focus on other children.
  5. A baby will ruin their future opportunities (education, employment).
  6. They don't want people to know they had sex or got pregnant.
  7. They are not mentally or emotionally ready to be mothers.
  8. Health-related reasons (baby will be damaged, baby will endanger their health).
  9. They cannot provide a good life for the baby.
  10. They don't want to give the baby up for adoption.
  11. They were victims of rape or incest.

There were minor differences among the three lists, but no significant ones. And these eleven reasons pretty much sum up all the reasons that were listed. So now the question that I posed above can be reframed as: What is wrong with our social environment today that makes these reasons possible? 

Or, to put it another way: If we were living the way we were meant to live, would these reasons all go away? What are the changes or gaps between how we were meant to live and how we actually live that make these reasons happen? 

Also, Can we go back? Can these reasons be eliminated? What would it take?

What do we have to change?

If we look at each of the eleven reasons in the list, our first question should be: What is the fundamental assumption behind each of these in turn that makes it a reason to abort one's child? Let me explain what I mean by giving an example. The first reason listed is, "They [the mothers] can't afford a baby financially." One assumption which makes that into a reason to abort is, "The mother has to bear the financial costs of the baby." Do you see what I mean? If that assumption were false—in other words, if mothers never had to bear the costs of their babies—then limited financial resources would no longer be a reason to abort a child. 

Note that when I say this, I'm not making any argument for or against a particular way of doing things. I'm not making an argument about who should bear the costs of babies. I'm just trying to explain what I mean by "finding the assumption behind a reason that makes it a reason." And the example I give doesn't have to be the only one. Maybe you can find another assumption too, that works the same way. This is just an example.

In fact, the list of fundamental assumptions behind these reasons is a lot shorter than the list of reasons itself. I think it's possible to write a minimal list of fundamental assumptions as follows:

  • Nuclear families: We assume that mothers (and their partners, if any) are solely responsible for the care, nurturing, and expenses of their children OR ELSE they have to give up those children completely to someone else, in another nuclear family, who will accept that responsibility. (This covers reasons #1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10.) 
  • Sexual propriety: We assume certain kinds of rules around what constitutes decent or proper sexual behavior, with the result that women (or at least some women) will be shamed or punished if other people find out that they had sex or got pregnant. (This covers reason #6.)
  • Health: We assume that it is bad to bear a child whose health will be fundamentally damaged from birth OR to continue a pregnancy which might kill the mother. (This covers reason #8.)
  • Rape and incest: We assume that it is bad to bear a child that you will always hate and resent because you hate how he or she was conceived. (This covers reason #11.)

That's just four basic assumptions. What would it take to reverse them?

1. Nuclear families

This is the big one. Mothers are solely responsible for their children, OR ELSE they have to give up the children completely to somebody else. What would it take to undo this assumption, or to make it false?

Note, by the way, that the assumption has two parts to it. The first part says we assume that mothers are responsible for their children.** At this point it is easy to object, "But what about all those wonderful families waiting to adopt? If a mother can't take care of her own child, why can't she give him or her to a family who can provide a better life?" But that is just the second half of the same assumption. Underlying it all is the clear assumption that somebody—some one, identifiable, nameable person!—has to be responsible for the child, and also that people are naturally organized into households which contain either solitary adults or else nuclear families. Therefore, if a mother cannot take on the heavy and expensive responsibility to be that unique caregiver, she has to let someone else do it; and "letting someone else do it" means she will never see her baby again.

This is a lot to ask. Even mothers who know that they can't undertake the responsibility for their children don't want to give their babies up. In fact, the 2005 study identified above specifically discusses attitudes towards adoption (p. 117) and remarks: "While fewer than 1% of women in the quantitative survey volunteered that they would not consider or did not favor having a baby and giving it up for adoption, more than one-third of interview respondents said they had considered adoption and concluded that it was a morally unconscionable option because giving one’s child away is wrong." [Emphasis added.] In other words, more than a third of the women interviewed concluded that giving their child away for adoption was morally worse than aborting him or her.

This is the time that someone should object, "But what are the other alternatives? Surely either you look after your child or someone else does—right? Are there really any other choices?"

Of course there are other choices. Just not here and now.

  • In an earlier day, the extended family offered an alternative. Especially if many members of the family lived all together (or at any rate very close by), there would have been any number of sisters and aunts and cousins to help raise one's child. Other people could share the work, other people could share the expense, and one wouldn't have to give up him or her completely.

  • More fundamentally, if (as I have suggested earlier) "we were meant to live [tribally] in immediate-return foraging communities," children would have been raised by the whole tribe. Mothers would never have to give them up completely, but at the same time they would not have had to shoulder the awesome burden of sole responsibility that faces them today.

In other words, the first unnatural stress that makes the environment in our "nature preserve" so toxic is the nuclear family.

2. Sexual propriety

What's next? Because of our social rules of sexual propriety, women (or at least some women) will be shamed or punished if other people find out that they had sex or got pregnant. What would it take to undo this assumption, or to make it false?

To undo this assumption means eliminating the situation where any women are shamed or punished for having sex: to cover all the bases, let me clarify that this means for having sex at all, and for having sex at the wrong time, and for having sex with the wrong person. I insist on all those variants, because any one of them might result in a pregnancy that a woman would want to hide or make go away. 

Now clearly there are at least two ways to avoid that any woman ever fears shame or punishment for one of these things. One way is if she never has the wrong kind of sex. The other way is if she won't get punished for any kind of sex, regardless. In principle either approach would achieve the goal. But I consider that it is impossible to guarantee the first one. Therefore if we want to adjust society in order to eliminate this cause for abortions, we have to go after the second.

That is, the second thing that makes our environment so toxic are all our ideals of sexual propriety, including in particular: virginity, chastity, and monogamy. In saying this, I am not saying that everyone should live in a riotous carouse at all times. Do not misunderstand me. There are a lot of good things to be said in favor of monogamy and the rest. But to make them ideals or principles, whereby people who fail to live up to them are shamed or punished—well, the data show that doing so causes (a certain number of) abortions. 

In other words, holding up those ideals is the second unnatural stress that makes the environment in our "nature preserve" so toxic.

3. Health

Our third fundamental assumption is this one: It is bad to bear a child whose health will be fundamentally damaged from birth OR to continue a pregnancy which might kill the mother.

This one is more difficult. In the case where a pregnancy might actually kill the mother, I think I have to agree with Florence King: the mother was there first, so if it really is a strict choice between them, then she takes priority. In other cases of severe health risk, it is possible that better availability of health care might help sometimes. It is also true that some children born with severe health problems might well die young. Of the four fundamental assumptions supporting abortion, I think this is the hardest one to eliminate completely.*** So even if we eliminate all other causes, I think there would likely still be a small number of abortions resulting from health-related problems.

4. Rape and incest

The last fundamental assumption is this one: It is bad to bear a child that you will always hate and resent because you hate how he or she was conceived.

I admit I don't know what to say about this case. I have not known anyone personally who has had to face this situation, and in the absence of such personal acquaintance I would feel presumptuous laying down the law about a situation so intimate and so painful. It is possible that some of the pain could be alleviated if the child were able to fade back into the rest of the community or the tribe—not given away, exactly, but allowed to spend more and more time with other people, and therefore not posing the same kind of lifelong reminder to the mother. But I might be wrong. I am willing to listen to suggestions from someone else. For what it is worth, all three studies that I reference above list this as the cause of only a very small percentage of abortions.

My conclusion is that yes, if we pursue Frederica's thought-experiment, we can identify toxic stressors in our environment that push women to abort their unborn children. What is more, nine of the eleven regularly identified causes—accounting, cumulatively, for over 85% of all abortions****—can be traced to just two assumptions in our society. These two fundamental assumptions, these two "toxic stressors," are: 

  • the nuclear family
  • the ideals of virginity, chastity, and monogamy

Maybe these won't be so easy to eliminate. But that means maybe it won't be so easy to eliminate abortion. 

I have speculated before that we were meant to live in the way described by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá—and also, be it noted, by the divine Plato. It is worth observing that such a life would indeed avoid all these toxins. So perhaps it is fair to say that the fundamental reason so many women seek out abortions is that our lives are out of joint. We are not living as we should live, or as we were made to live, and the resulting stress is making us do crazy things.

The sad part is that, as I discuss in the earlier article, we may not be able to get back there from here. Still, it's nice to understand, at least. 


* I will refer to Ms. Mathewes-Green consistently by her first name, because that's the name of her blog and how she refers to herself. This does not mean that I know her personally, more's the pity.   

** Naturally if the mother has a husband or other partner who is supportive and willing to share the burden and the expense, that's great. But all too often she doesn't (reason #3), or even if she does they just don't have the money (reason #1) or something like that. To keep the discussion simpler, I will say "mothers are solely responsible for their children" even though I recognize that these other cases exist.   

*** Not that any of them is easy. Eliminating the nuclear family, or all our ideals about sexual propriety? Good luck with that. 

**** Nearly all the rest are health-related. The number of abortions resulting from rape or incest add to less than 1.5% of the total. 


Saturday, May 7, 2022

What's wrong with Roe?

 Five days ago, Politico magazine published a leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court in the case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. While this opinion was only a draft, Chief Justice John Roberts confirmed that it is authentic. So it is always possible that the final decision might look very different, but you probably shouldn't bet your life savings that it will.

The leaked draft has caused a lot of noise in American society, to say nothing of our journalistic and political-commentary industries, because—as written—it would overturn Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and might endanger the legal presumption of a right to privacy. It's hard to characterize the impact of such a ruling, except to say that it would change some of the fundamental legal assumptions that have undergirded American society for at least the last fifty years. Indeed if the right to privacy is eliminated root and branch, the time span in question will be longer than that, because the right to privacy was implied in the decision of Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)—and perhaps even in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), albeit in what might be called (you should forgive the expression) an embryonic form. 

But it is safe to say that Roe v. Wade itself has caused a lot of noise in American society ever since it was decided, and this on several levels. At the very least, there are many who have attacked the decision vigorously on substantive grounds, because they wish the outcome had been different; and meanwhile a somewhat smaller group has criticized the decision on legal or technical grounds, because (regardless what outcome they would have preferred) they think that the justices made a mess of the argument. On the other side, there are also many people who have defended Roe every bit as as vigorously. (So far as I can tell, all of Roe's supporters are motivated by the substantive outcome of the decision; to date I have heard of no one moved to tears by any elegant beauty found in the argument.)

I don't propose to argue any of these points.* What I want to discuss is a feature of the Roe decision that hasn't gotten much air time, but that is in many ways responsible for the tumultuous arguments which have wracked American society ever since it was handed down. In an unexpected way, the decision in Roe v. Wade has been bad for the supporters of legal abortion and has crippled their movement. If I were an activist in support of legal abortion (which I'm not), there is at least one respect in which I would welcome the overturning of Roe so that we could replace it with something better.

What do I mean?

Abortion law in the United States

Think back to the time before Roe was decided. The first statute banning abortion anywhere in the United States was in Connecticut in 1821, although there had been some opposition** to abortion in the English Common Law before that time. By 1900, every state had some kind of abortion legislation. Interestingly, these laws had a variety of motivations, which were not always clearly distinguished from each other: "One ... was to preserve the life of the fetus, another was to protect the life of the mother, ... and another was avoid injuring the mother's ability to have [other] children [later]." (It should be noted that some of these motivations appear to have been pragmatic reactions to the poor quality of early medical practice.) As the twentieth century wore on, the pendulum began to swing back the other way: by 1971, abortion was available legally and on demand in Alaska, California, Washington, D.C., Washington state, Hawaii, and New York. (For all this history, including the quotation, see the article "Roe v. Wade" in Wikipedia.) In other words, from the perspective of those who supported legal abortion, progress was being made but it was slow.***

How to achieve social change

But normally any change in social attitudes is slow, and it always requires patient work on the part of the advocates of change to sell it to the rest of society. Usually there will always be a small remnant who remain unconvinced no matter what; but once the advocates of change have convinced enough people—either a majority or else a large enough minority to sway the large group in the middle who really don't care either way—then the change can become effective. And any change which comes about this way is stable. It is not likely to swing back to the status quo ante, because there is no constituency large enough with a stake in reverting. Also, bringing about a significant change in social attitudes is hard work. This is another reason that, once a change has really taken root, things aren't likely to slide back to the old ways. Once the change has really taken root, changing back is just as hard as the initial change was at the beginning. Most advocacy groups will be scared off by the size of the challenge.

In a political sense, the technical term for this process is grassroots democracy, and it is fundamental to the American system. It is also, as noted, a lot of work. But when it succeeds (and it doesn't always), nothing else can stand up to it, for the reasons I just described.

There are other ways to make a change irreversible, but not many. When slavery was abolished, there must have been many who were privately unreconciled to the change; but they had just lost a catastrophic war, and the pro-slavery position was ever after linked in the popular mind with treason and rebellion. When the New Deal was enacted, there were certainly active politicians who opposed it,**** to say nothing of the citizens they represented; but the political coalition forged by Franklin Roosevelt was so successful that it was fifty years before any challenges stood a chance of being taken seriously.

You could argue that Roe v. Wade has been in place for half a century just like the New Deal, so there's really no difference between them with respect to political effectiveness. But you'd be wrong. During the forty-eight years from 1932 to 1980, criticism of the New Deal was almost unheard-of; the few serious politicians who carped about Roosevelt's "tyranny" or "socialism" mostly lost elections by wide margins, and the non-politicians who expressed the same opinions were typically cranks. During the forty-nine years between 1973 (when Roe was decided) and today, public argument over legalized abortion has been consistently acrimonious and sometimes violent; and ever since 1976 the Republican Party platform has included a plank opposing legal abortion. Unlike opposition to the New Deal, opposition to legal abortion has never in all that time been the province of losers and cranks.

What went wrong? Why has the issue been consistently so contentious?

Failing to build a coalition

Naturally there are several answers. Part of the answer is that the Religious Right weaponized opposition to legal abortion in the late 1970's, as part of a strategy to acquire political power and influence. (Randall Balmer discusses the unexpected complexity of this history in a number of places, for example in this article here.) Ironically though, at the same time that men like Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell were building a political coalition to support the causes they favored (and in particular to oppose abortion), the supporters of legal abortion did not build the same kind of coalition on their side. To be sure, there were specific organizations like NARAL devoted to defending the access to legal abortions. But it was less clear that there were any broad political constituencies in American society which supported abortion rights with the same fervor that the Religious Right deployed to oppose them. If asked, the supporters of legal abortion would have said that they fought on behalf of "all women," but this answer was plainly untrue as there were many women who opposed legal abortion. 

To be clear, I do not argue that building a successful coalition in favor of legal abortion would by itself have made the issue less contentious. There were strong coalitions both for and against slavery, and in the end we had to fight a war over it. But abortion is not slavery. If a coalition supporting abortion had been powerful enough, very likely it could have dominated the discussion the way the New Deal coalition did. If a supporting coalition had been powerful enough, the abortion issue would never have looked like a tempting target to the Religious Right; Weyrich and Falwell and the rest would have gone after something else. What made the issue of abortion such an appealing target for the Religious Right was precisely that its political support was weak enough to be challenged.

The key flaw

But this answer isn't enough. It just pushes the discussion back one step. Why did the supporters of legal abortion fail to build a national coalition to back their side? Why did they allow their side to remain weak and vulnerable? Why didn't they engage in the slow, steady work of grassroots organization that would have allowed them to sell their position successfully to the whole country? Already they had successfully changed attitudes in half a dozen states. Why didn't they keep going?

Because they won.

Because the Supreme Court handed them a victory with Roe v. Wade. And after that they didn't have to sell anything to anyone any more.

But the victory came too soon. The battle was over before the supporters of legal abortion had a chance to engage with the main forces of their opposition. And as a result the opposition was (so to speak) undefeated on the battlefield of public opinion, even though they lost in the courtroom.

The supporters of legal abortion won the fight for the law before they had a chance to win the hearts and minds of the citizens. And so this premature victory left the movement permanently weakened.

Waiting for the grown-ups to intervene

The after-effects of this victory have hobbled the Democratic Party ever since. 

One of the most significant after-effects has been that activists who support progressive***** causes have focused more and more on winning in courts rather than in legislatures. As a consequence (just as an example) confirmation hearings for Supreme Court justices have become bitter partisan fights, where as recently as 1986 Antonin Scalia (nobody's idea of a middle-of-the-road justice) was confirmed 98–0. But the assumption, at least among progressives,***** is that courtrooms are now where the action is. While there are some feints made towards favorable redistricting and getting out the vote on Election Day, the dominant strategy seems to be to let the state and federal legislatures pass whatever bills they like, and then to sue in court to have those bills overturned.

I'm not the only one who thinks this. Back in August 2019, a blogger named Jane analyzed the observed behavior of the Democratic Party in terms that are almost identical, although she references the career of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a proximate cause, rather than Roe v. Wade. I will quote her at some length because her account is so clear and trenchant. This text comes originally from her Tumblr blog here, although I first encountered it as an extended quote in an article by John Michael Greer here:

I think the narrativized, reinvented MLK that white liberal establishments hold up as an icon is responsible for this shift away from politics to (political) eschatology. Because in order to produce a MLK that was not threatening to the status quo, white liberals had to come up with some reason for his success other than mass mobilization. King’s nonviolence, of course, was a tactic intended to take advantage of breakthroughs in mass media that the state was not used to dealing with. Its audience was the masses, the people who would be shocked by the one-sided violence on their television screen.

The reinvented MLK, however, practiced nonviolence because it was morally right. His audience was not the masses but was rather God, or (in slightly more secular, though no less teleological, terms) the arc of the moral universe. This MLK did not win because he was politically savvy; he won (and it is important in this conception that he did win, regardless of the messy topic of just what exactly he won) because he was right, because he was moral. He proved that he was just, and the moral arc of the universe accordingly bent in his direction. Good triumphed over evil not because it mobilized people but merely by virtue of being good

And this is what modern liberal politics has inherited — the belief that being right is more important than winning, because somebody, be it the Supreme Court or God, will throw the penalty flag and everything will be set aright. Democrats aren’t trying to win elections, they’re trying to build cases as to why, upon review, they should have won, why they’re right, so that when the ref reviews the play it’ll be awarded to them. But it’s important to note the origins of this approach. White liberal establishments created a Civil Rights Movement narrative that disavowed the masses (because revolutionary populism is dangerous but how could they claim to support civil rights gains if they condemned all of the civil rights leaders and the means by which those gains came about?) and then promptly fell in love with their own fiction. They told each other and us over and over again about how MLK won because he was right, because he was just, and they told it so much that they began to believe it themselves. They began to see victory as something that just sorta happens when you’re right, maybe not immediately, but inevitably.

A losing strategy

It feels almost churlish to point out that this is a losing strategy. You can't always trust that the grown-ups will swoop down onto the playground to set everything right. Supreme Courts come and go, after all. If you have pinned all your hopes for a Better Tomorrow on a fluctuating body of nine people, sooner or later statistical probability is going to catch up with you and there will be a majority who disagree. Nine people is not a large enough sample to protect you from the effects of randomness.

It's a losing strategy for another reason too. Court decisions are actually very weak tools for making changes in the world. Everyone has heard the story (perhaps apocryphal) that after the Supreme Court ruled against the State of Georgia in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), Andrew Jackson is supposed to have said, "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!" In modern times, everyone has heard that public schools were racially desegregated as a result of the decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954). But in fact very few schools were desegregated after the Brown decision, or for another sixteen years thereafter. Wide scale desegregation did not come until Richard Nixon made it a priority for his administration, and put the significant weight of the Presidency behind it. (See here for a detailed reminiscence.) Progressives should reflect on this history, and then put more effort into electing Senators, Congressmen, and Presidents. Leave the Supreme Court as an afterthought.

It's a losing strategy, finally, at a symbolic level, because striving to achieve your agenda through the power of appointed, unelected authorities means turning your back on the democratic process. Look at the very word court:****** an appeal to the courtroom is ultimately an appeal to a king. As far as the rhetorical battle is concerned, it might as well be an appeal to King George to overrule the silly colonial assemblies that don't know what's good for them. There is no way that such an undemocratic and antipopulist model can remain victorious in the United States for long.

We are Americans. We are supposed to understand how to carry out self-government. We can do better than this. If, indeed, Roe v. Wade is ultimately overturned by the current Supreme Court, the supporters of legal abortion should not despair, but should take it as a temporary setback and an opportunity to tackle the fight the right way.  

Come on. We've got this.



* Of course I have opinions. What I mean is that I don't want to discuss my overall opinions in this essay. Everybody's got an opinion, and you probably like your own better than you like mine anyway. But if you really want to know, my opinions are as follows.
     On the substantive level, I think an absolute ban on abortions is impractical because there will always be a small number of bizarre and dangerous medical situations that cannot be handled safely in any other way. I am intrigued by the Donohue-Levitt hypothesis that legalized abortion in the 1970s explains a substantial part of the crime decline in the 1990s. (See also this discussion here.) And I have already argued in a post two years ago that there are natural moral purposes in sexual activity that have no connection to procreation. So on the whole, on the substantive level, I think some kind of access to safe medical abortion does more good than harm. But I don't mean to hold my opinions ideologically, and I am willing to consider "corner cases" where the reasoning gets iffy.
     On the legal or technical level, I am not qualified to judge how good the reasoning behind Roe was, but I have to say that the way it was communicated to the public was appallingly clumsy. What we heard was that the right to an abortion was found lurking in the penumbra of the Constitution.
     —Wait, what? Which article is the penumbra in?
I am reasonably sure that, to those who already opposed Roe on substantive grounds, the idea of being governed by a penumbra appeared much the same as being governed by a Magic 8-Ball. Reply hazy; try again later.

** Judicial, non-statutory   

*** I specify that this is "from the perspective of those who supported legal abortion," because perspective is the only thing that distinguishes "progress" from "regress."   

**** Among them, for example: Herbert Hoover, Robert Taft, and (a little later) Barry Goldwater.   

***** Here and in what follows, I use the word "progressive" the way it is commonly used in the United States today, both by those who consider themselves "progressive" and by their opponents. I am aware of the deep theoretical criticisms that have been leveled at the whole concept of "progress" (see, e.g., the work of John Michael Greer in this article and many others). But in a political sense, the word "progressive" serves as a tag to identify a certain bundle of public policy proposals in modern America, and the people who support them. Both supporters and opponents tend to agree which policies and which people count as "progressive," so the term is comparatively objective and unambiguous. It is in that sense that I use it here.   

****** "The meaning of a judicial assembly is first attested in the 12th century, and derives from the earlier usage to designate a sovereign and his entourage, which met to adjudicate disputes." (From the Wikipedia article "Court.")   


Friday, May 6, 2022

The other meaning of karma

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post about reincarnation, where I discussed the doctrine of karma. In that post, I argued that there is no clear way to tell whether the doctrine of karma is true in a metaphysical sense, but that it is nonetheless wholesome in an ethical sense because it impels us to care about strangers, and therefore to act better towards them.

But there is another way in which the doctrine can be interpreted, one that is undeniably true. Reflect, for a minute, that our actions, good or bad, shape the kind of person that we become in this life. If you make a habit of behaving kindly, that habit shapes you over time into a kinder person. If you make a habit of behaving callously, that habit shapes you over time into a more callous person. We all know this is true. Aristotle talks about the importance of habit in training for virtue. Plato spends most of Books 8 and 9 of the Republic talking about the very same effects. And we can see it in our own lives, and the lives of the people we know.

What does this have to do with karma? The word karma literally means "action, work, or deed." The doctrine of karma is, in essence, no more than a doctrine that the laws of cause and effect apply in the ethical sphere just as much as they do in the material world: the actual details of how these laws operate can be left vague or can change around depending on the author. But the effect that our actions have in shaping our character, as I described in the previous paragraph, is precisely a kind of causality in the ethical sphere. This means that it fits the basic requirements of the doctrine of karma; and because it is a phenomenon that we can all observe in this life, it requires no belief in any further lives beyond this one. 

What's more, the action of these laws is pretty relentless. If you are a thief, you are punished by having to live your life as a thief: this means among other things that you start seeing other people inescapably as either predators or prey, which reduces or eliminates your ability to form solid friendships with them. And living a life without friendship is a heavy burden for anyone. For more horrible crimes, it's like I wrote in a post two years ago about the moral side of natural law:

As long as you are a human being, your inner nature will reject with disgust any attempt to violate the Good for Man. You can talk yourself out of it ... and if you do that then you probably won't listen to any of my arguments to the contrary. But some night, at 3:00 in the morning, you will find yourself huddled in a ball under your blankets keening softly to yourself, "Dear God what have I done?"

For what it is worth, when I started to look up the references for this post I stumbled across some early Hindu verses concerning karma that make exactly the point I've made here about the nature of karmic causality. Since karma is, after all, a Sanskrit word, maybe it is appropriate if I let these verses stand at the end.

Now as a man is like this or like that,
according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be;
a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts, bad;
he becomes pure by pure deeds, bad by bad deeds;

And here they say that a person consists of desires,
and as is his desire, so is his will;
and as is his will, so is his deed;
and whatever deed he does, that he will reap.

— from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 7th century BCE, as quoted in the Wikipedia article "Karma"


Sunday, April 24, 2022

Is life fair?

Is life fair or unfair? 

I mean really, which is it? It's got to be one or the other, right? Law of the Excluded Middle, and all that?


I love this question, because I can argue equally sincerely either Yes or No. It's not that my opinions are inconsistent. It's not even that the word fair has two different meanings, though I guess the shadings of meaning are not quite the same in the two cases. No, it's a choice based on pure pragmatics. What am I trying to do with the answer? What is the questioner going to do with what I tell him? What is he really asking?


On the one hand, we are all told that life isn't fair. Everybody knows this. It's hardly news. Bad things happen to good people; virtue suffers while vice triumphs. People have known this for a long time. Well over two thousand years ago, Kohelet, a son of King David, wrote:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11)


On the other hand, we are also told that you get out of life what you put into it — which is another way of saying that life is fair, after all. Yes, accidents happen. Yes, there is horrible injustice. Since we know that in advance, we can prepare for it. And if you know that there's a chance of something bad happening but you take no steps to protect yourself, ... how exactly is it unfair when the disaster finally comes?

Of course there has to be a little leeway in this position. If a whole population is oppressed or held in servitude, it's a little harsh to say that it's their own fault for not taking the steps to free themselves.* For various reasons they might be literally unable to do so. And it's equally callous to suggest a man is at fault for not buying an expensive insurance policy when he has but two cents to his name. You can't reasonably ask someone to do everything for himself in all possible circumstances, because for any individual you care to name — be he never so heroic — it is possible to construct circumstances that are stacked so far against him that he cannot prevail. Even Superman is undone by kryptonite.


But in normal, workaday circumstances, you can oscillate between the two positions almost frivolously, without any sense of inconsistency. Let's say your friend is looking for a job, and has two different interviews lined up today. After the first one, he says that by bad luck it just so happened that the Perfect Applicant walked in an hour earlier, so the company hired him on the spot and turned your friend away without even interviewing him. Right away you say, "Wow, that really is bad luck. Life is so unfair." 

Then after the second interview he tells you that it turns out the company absolutely requires applicants to have a certain certification that your friend doesn't have. They said so explicitly in the advertisement, but your friend admits he didn't read it all. And so they threw him out with some harsh words about his wasting their time. This time you say, "I'm really sorry it didn't work out for you, but what were you thinking? You applied for the job without even reading the complete advertisement? No wonder they were annoyed. It's only fair. If you don't look where you're going, you'll bump into things. Life's like that." In the space of five minutes you have told your friend both that life is unfair, and that life is fair. And you meant it both times.

It's just a really funny question to ask.  


* To be sure, the sheer pointlessness of such an accusation didn't stop Ezra Pound from making it. Till now I have not traced the quote to its source, but he is said to have written, "A slave is one who waits for someone to come and free him."