Killing the Intellectuals — If

Killing the Intellectuals — If you're a new tyrant, what's up near the top of your to-do list? Kill the wordsmiths! Kill the artists! Kill the musicians! Or at least, shut them up or ship them out. Why is that? Because political reality is a kind of social reality. Tyrants have guns, and guns can get you far. But the main place it gets you is a valley of acquiescence. The guns themselves cannot secure power. Only deference can secure power. And guns help with that, but don't suffice. You need to establish a set of shared representations — shared intentions, to regard you, Mr. Tyrant, as the uncontested ruler of all you survey. You need the folk to go along. The problem with intellectuals and artists is that they trade in representations. They excel in spreading them around. And wouldn't you know it, but they're always the wrong representations, like “Mr. Tyrant is a sociopathic moneygrubbing brute of a homocidal megalomaniac and has no real authority over us, a rightfully free people who should be able to live like we want to. (And he's got a tiny cock.)” Not only do these incredibly inconvenient thoughts get around, but the eyeglasses set encode these nasty thoughts in clever little stories filled with emotion, or, heaven forbid, set them to music, which certainly gets the folks mighty riled. No good. Kill 'em all.

Here's an idea: strive to be the kind of person who, if landed in a certain kind of bad place, would be disappeared in days.

I'm rambling. But this is something I've taken a strong interest in. I want to collect stories of corrupt regimes killing, kidnapping, and expelling the intelligentsia. What do you know about this? Historical examples? Places where it's happening now? Books and articles that discuss it? I hope to write a nice little piece in which these stories will play an important role. Help me out, O great distributed mind of the world wide web!

Middies & Johnnies, Oh My!

Middies & Johnnies, Oh My! — Because Mollie Ziegler has commanded it, I'm making note of Saturday's St. John's College/U.S. Naval Academy annual croquet match at the St. John's campus in Annapolis, the quaint seaside capital of the ironically nicknamed “Free State.” The event is singular and must be experienced to be fully appreciated. For those of you who don't know, St. John's is a little liberal arts college devoted to a “great books” curriculum designed by the late pop-Aristotelian Mortimer Adler. While kids at State U are busy taking “Gynocentric Critiques of Post-Capitalist Logocentric Discourses” the Johnnies are reading Platonic dialogues to each other (naked?) and doing geometry straight out of Euclid, and generally keeping Western Civilization and The Canon alive. The average Johnnie is quirky, having decided that it would be a good idea to read Thucydides and dwell on the nature of Virtue for four years, rather than skip Gyno-Critiques, knock up sorority girls, and bribe NCAA athletes into throwing games.

Anyway, they do have organized competitve sports at St John's, and as far as I know, the athletic program culminates in croquet. Each year, Navy comes to the St John's lawn for a fierce best-of-five bout. It must have been exciting, but I couldn't tell you because I was drunk. I did notice that all the St. John's guys decided to dress like the Luke Wilson character in the Royal Tennenbaums, what with the headbands and sports jackets with shorts. Which cut a nice contrast with Navy's natty white 1952 sweaters complete with a big golden letterman 'N', and assisted by pointless croquet caddies decked out like stewards from The Love Boat. But like I said, I was drunk, the croquet game being quite beside the point.

The point is that St. John's alumni gather on the lawn, set up tables, fill them with little sandwiches, strawberries and lots and lots of booze, and get drunk. Or that's the point I gathered from the experience. It should come as no surprise that St. John's does not attract young inner city toughs yearning to read Herodotus in the original. The crowd is stunningly pale, and not only pale, but preppy beyond the bounds of taste. Some fellow in the party to which I had been invited (by Marnie Nicholson – thanks!) was wearing something like a pink checked shirt with a green tie, a navy jacket and navy pants covered with tiny green alligators or ducks or some such obscene icon of the country club. “Chipper! Oh, do fetch Heather! We're taking the yacht for a spin!” You know, that sort of thing. Some Johnnies, having immersed themselves so long in the past, seem to pine for a bygone era when women wore white lace dresses, twirled white parasols as they strolled, and died in childbirth. I had forgotten the overwhelming WASPiness of the affair, and was forced to apologize to my date, a dazzlingly majestic young Belizian-Indian-Scottish-Japanese-American woman to whom I had utterly failed to convey the standards of attire. But it didn't matter. She was still most beautiful and admired. And there was champagne. And it beats a College Park riot.

My New Man-Crush — I've

My New Man-Crush — I've recently discovered that I have an intellectual crush on Christopher Hitchens. I can think of no active intellectual so free of cant and dogma, and so driven by intellectual honesty. And his prose kills. Here's a good bit, from The Nation. Spot on, too. This takes off from a discussion of a nauseating little anti-semitic exchange between Billy Graham and Nixon, and of the generally sorry state of the monotheisms.

… After all, in the National Cathedral after September 11 he [Billy Graham] was allowed in the presence of our country's elite to assert that all the murder victims were in paradise and happy to be there–a wild outburst of evil and stupidity that implicitly copies the fantasies of bin Laden. So there you have it: The country's senior Protestant is a gaping and mendacious anti-Jewish peasant; the leaders of official Jewry are cringingly yoked with him for the purpose of a disastrous crusade and meanwhile the cardinals are running a rape fiesta for twitchy “celibates.” All official attention turns, meanwhile, upon the weird beliefs to be found in the Koran, which may be partly because the Attorney General himself is a tuneless, clueless, evangelical Confederate dunce.

Damn! Something to aggravate everyone. Yet so unavoidably true. He goes on to correctly argue that:

The struggle against theocratic fascism should, therefore, be inseparable from the struggle for a truly secular state. This need not mean an atheist state; the religious impulse itself seems to be partly innate at our present stage of evolution. But it need not necessarily take the extremely backward form that it assumes in our society, nor need its recognition eventuate in the present sickly “multiculturalism,” whereby all forms of religious stupidity are granted equal “respect” while challenges to, say, scientific teaching are greeted with nervous tolerance.

That's pretty much my view. All the monotheisms are dangers to sanity and freedom unless culturally and politically gutted by wholesale assimilation to the market liberal order. Thus, my periodic spats with certain sorts of conservative.

Anyway, go forth read the rest of the piece.

The Repugnance of "Repugnance" —

The Repugnance of “Repugnance” — We're all now wearily familiar with Leon Kass's “wisdom of repugnance” arguments. I want to point out a class of cases in which these arguments (if we're charitable enough to consider them arguments) commit the fallacy of begging the question, that is, of using the conclusion as a premise in the argument, merely assuming what needs to be proved.

For just about any intervention in the genome, Kass's tactic is to say that the intervention itself, or one if its allegedly likely consequences, strikes our native moral sense as repugnant. This, of course, assumes that the human moral sense is constituted in such a way as to deliver authoritative judgments that we have good reason to trust, rather than delivering manifestations of, say, ingrained prejudice.

Now, suppose that I believe that utilitarianism is true (just as an example), and that we morally ought to be totally impartial about the welfare of persons. People starving in Africa count exactly as much as your own children, or your beloved grandmother, or yourself. And so buying a new SUV to take the kids to soccer practice is exactly morally equivalent to standing idly by while a baby drowns helplessly in a puddle at your feet. The money spent for the SUV could have saved countless lives. But our native moral sense is a more or less accidental product of the course human evolution happened to take, and it happens to have a built-in bias for advancing the welfare of our genetic relatives and the members of our local tribe. So our evolutionary endowment, our moral sense as it is presently configured, interferes with our ability to recognize the equal importance of everyone's welfare, and with our motivation to provide for strangers on an equal basis as our own friends and family. We are constitutionally unable to do our moral duty. UNTIL NOW! Advances in genetic engineering (just suppose) have made it possible to reconfigure the human moral sense for the total impartiality utilitarianism demands. So morality demands that we manipulate the human genome to make a truly moral world finally possible (although our moral sense naturally makes it hard to see that this is so).

How can Kass (or an intellectual clone thereof) reply to this? Suppose he says, “We all agree that manipulating the genome to alter the human moral sense is morally repugnant.” Well, then he's begging the question. My toy utilitarian is challenging the authority of our moral sense. The claim is that we need to alter the moral sense, because it now gets in the way of being genuinely moral. An appeal to the moral sense assumes what needs to be shown: that the moral sense as it is presently constituted has rational authority.

You could even make it much simpler and just do the following: Make a list of all the very morally worthy and life-enhancing procedures Kass finds repugnant. Now, declare that what we need to do is re-engineer people so that we don't find those things repugnant anymore, because those kinds of unreasoned sentiments prevent us from improving our lot here on Earth. How can a Kassian respond? The only non-fallacious course is to argue for the moral authority of the human moral sense as it is presently constituted, without assuming its authority in the argument. And that's what I want from Kass, and from all those who argue via “the argument from 'yuck.'” And that's what we never get.

Posthuman Blues — I haven't

Posthuman Blues — I haven't read Francis Fukuyama's new book, Our Posthuman Future, but I did get a chance to chat with the man himself a couple weeks back in St Louis. While I don't agree with him on most counts, I respect the fact that he didn't resort to table thumping “repugnance” assertions about genetic manipulation, but rather set forth creative and thought-provoking arguments. Here are two that struck me (as best as I remember them).

First, about life extension… Our worldviews tend to get cemented into place sometime in our twenties. The usual course of things is that generations die out and are replaced by the next in line. And this is one main way the world changes. It is common for academic fields, for instance, to become ossified as the elderly doyen of the discipline wields his influence over the research programs for decades. The field is revitalized only when the master succumbs, releasing the creative energies he has suppressed. The same can and does go for society as a whole. However, suppose life expectancy is increased to, say, 200 years. We won't then see this generational churning, and as a consequence we may get locked into the control of elder generations for long stretches, stifling innovation and social evolution. And we don't want that.

Second, about cloning…. Suppose an infertile couple decides to have a daughter by creating a clone from the mother's genes. The daughter, a perfect genetic replica of the mother, grows up into late adolescence, and the father finds himself looking into the very face of the young women he fell in love with so long ago. Won't he experience uncanny echoes of his desire for his young wife? But it is not his wife; it is his daughter. Does this not create an unhealthy, perhaps dangerous, psychosexual tension in their relationship. Can their relationship ever be normal? And doesn't a daughter deserve that?

I was about to grace you with my replies, but I think it might be fun to see what others come up with first (and I need to go to bed). I think the debate over scientific freedom is likely to be among the most important, with the most profound consequences, over the next decades. So if you disagree with Fukuyama, as I do, you need to know what to say. Technology is opening up possibilities we don't yet know how to think clearly about. So it won't be easy. But we've got to give it a shot. So shoot!

Telos Schmelos — All this

Telos Schmelos — All this talk about embryos is frustrating. It's frustrating because there's little middle ground between 'lump of cells' talk and 'person' talk. There's little middle ground because there's little middle ground between reality and fantasy. There's really no getting through, is there? The “it's a person because it's a potential person” argument is just so shoddy that one despairs for Reason (the faculty, not the magazine) when it is advanced. But, hey. I'll just try again…

To say that something is a potential x is a way of saying that it is NOT an x. I am a potential brain surgeon. But I CANNOT sever your corpus collosum. Because potential means not actual. I'm a potential serial murderer. I'm a potential father. I'm a potential car crash victim. But I'm not hunted by the police, don't get deductions for dependents, and haven't been eulogized. Potential persons are not actual persons, that is, aren't persons at all, just as I'm not a corpse at all. Rights are something persons have. Things that aren't persons don't have them. Potential persons aren't persons. So potential persons don't have rights!

Got that? Well, no. No you didn't. Oh well. What? I forgot to address the hypothesis that bad fairies spoil milk, or that superspecial spiritual substances animate fertilized gametes. Oh, and that superspecial spiritual substances magically create binding moral obligations on all of humankind! (You mustn't hurt me! I'm imbued with superspecial spiritual substance!) Well, I wouldn't call it forgetting exactly… but I try. I try.