Dorks on Parade

— No doubt if you should know about it, you know about it. But, anyway, Blogorama on Kalorama IV: this Thursday at the Rendevous Lounge (18th and Kalorama NW) at 7:00 or so.

Maybe I should just think of these announcements as a coordination device. Some people don't want to come unless they know enough other will. So I hereby announce that I will be present, in case that is a marginal inducement to your attendance. If you're lucky, you may get invited to my nearby phat new digs for after-party. That is, if you're sufficiently geek-cool (or sufficiently estrogen-sculpted.) Consider it a challenge.

Teeny Tiny Comment Box

— Some administrivia . . . Because every third comment I receive is a complaint about my comments software, I decided finally to repair the problem, which, for the most part, was simply the size of the text fields. This took some doing on my part as by now I had totally forgotten how I had installed my comments software, how the template editing interface works, etc… But I did it, FOR YOU, the loyal commentator.

Grotius to the Max

— My thinking about international relations remains hazy, but I felt there was something quite wrong about Martha Nussbaum's essay about Grotius and the current international scene. My skeptical feeling, I believe, flows from my skepticism about the moral status of the nation state. I believe that there may be morally legitimate political units, and morally legitimate associations among those units. But I fear that almost no contemporary nation state is morally legitimate and that almost no association is legitimate. Therefore, laments about American unilateralism strike me as misplaced.

If any states are legitimate, then they are liberal democracies. (I'm not sure that any are in fact legitimate, but see Chris Morris's Essay on the Modern State.) However, there are very few genuinely liberal democracies. There seems to be little that is not totally arbitrary in favor of the notion that a state like Iraq (prior to the occupation) has any moral standing whatsoever. Talk of sovereignty is totally hollow when a state is NOTHING more than a territorial monopoly on force–a Mafia with a whole lotta “turf.” Recognition of moral standing for nations comprised mainly of an autocrat who treats the entire land as his private property, and the people as his chattel, is not only perverse, but evil. But that's the arrangement of a good chunk of the globe.

As for associations of states, the fact that the UN fails to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate states saps it totally of legitimacy. The idea that, in order to invade a morally arbitrary geo-political unit with no legitimacy or moral standing, a legitimate state must get consent from an organization containing members states that have no use for the notion of 'consent' in general is absurd on its face. This is not to say that invasion is morally permitted, only that entities with no moral standing have NO MORAL STANDING and thus cannot be wronged. People within a territory (the Iraqis) can be wronged, but not the agency that claims dominion over the territory (the state of Iraq). And organizations, like the UN, largely constituted by entities of no moral standing, generally have no moral standing, and thus cannot claim to be wronged as the “voice” of the “international community.”

Clearly Nussbaum understands something of this:

National sovereignty also is limited internally by morality. If a nation commits certain very bad acts against its own population, such as torture and mass murder, another nation may intervene – what we now call “humanitarian intervention” – to help the people. National sovereignty's importance derives from its value to people and their freedom; it cannot be invoked to justify genocide and torture.

But this is too little. A predatory and oppressive state has no legitimacy, and thus no claim to sovereignty. So there is no basis for restricting intervention to missions to “help the people,” and no basis for restricting the agent of intervention to “other nations.” Indeed, other nations strike me as less likely to be able to legitimately intervene than private agencies, because the legitimacy of states is derived from the value to ITS people, and so intervention must be justified by reference to the interests of the states subjects. (This is where the justification of the Iraqi invasion fails.) An invasion by a capable, privately-funded force aiming to bring liberal democracy to Iraq would have been easily justified.

Nussbaum waxes lyrical about Grotian internationalism:

Grotius' vision was not the way the world was seen in his own day. But by insisting on the power of this vision he created a climate of opinion in which that vision increasingly became real. Although his contemporary Thomas Hobbes influentially developed the pre-Grotian idea that the realm between nations is one of force and interest only, Immanuel Kant in the 18th century sided with Grotius, envisaging a world that achieved lasting peace through a federation of nations. Such ideas eventually led to the United Nations and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although the UN treats nations as the major actors in international affairs, the human rights movement moves us closer to Grotius' picture of a world in which national boundaries are porous, and international agreements have at least some power to constrain nations.

And then shits on the Bush administration:

Are these ideas still alive? The Bush administration treats such moralized visions with utter scorn, casting the United States as the Hobbesian sovereign needed to bring order to an amoral realm. This stance is deeply alien to America's founding traditions: Thomas Paine and other founders were steeped in the continental human rights tradition that had grown out of Grotius' ideas.

The Bush crack is a total, ideologically motivated failure on Nussbaum's part. Bush obviously has an extremely moralized vision of international affairs — one clearly based on a strong notion of human rights. Say what you will about the vision of Wolfowitz, Perle, and the quasi-liberal neo-Trotskyites, but it is not a Hobbesian vision.

In the State of the Union Bush proclaimed:

America will lead by defending liberty and justice because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere. No nation owns these aspirations, and no nation is exempt from them. We have no intention of imposing our culture. But America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the power of the state; respect for women; private property; free speech; equal justice; and religious tolerance. America will take the side of brave men and women who advocate these values around the world, including the Islamic world, because we have a greater objective than eliminating threats and containing resentment. We seek a just and peaceful world beyond the war on terror.

Bush is clearly “steeped” in the human rights tradition, and I believe he is sincere. It is obtuse, willful misinterpretation to read Bush's vision as one of the imposition of sheer power.

In general, Nussbaum is too complacent about the dubious standing of most nation states. I too am concerned with peaceful, liberal, global order.
But this seems most likely to emerge from the voluntary cooperation of non-state associations, bound together by affinities less arbitrary than territory, force, and ethnicity. The Grotian framework is an artifact of its time, when international relations were limited to interactions among kingdoms, and a relatively small network of international trade. But we now live in an age of airlines, email, Ebay, global culture, massive economic interdependence, and therefore in an age of heretofore unknown ability to forge associations more distributed, more closely tied to our individual interests, and less dangerous and unstable than states.

Little Minds

— Julian has a good analysis of that ever-abused Emerson quote: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…,” which, as it is usually used, is the last resort of the incoherent. (Julian is complaining, again, of the NRO crowd.)

I really love the quote, properly understood. (Go see it.) It's about having the courage to assail your own convictions, and thus your own identity. It's a little mind that craves so badly to BE something, to BELIEVE a meaning-conferring doctrine, that it cannot countenance the prospect of admitting error or ignorance or limitation and thus cannot do justice to the world by admitting new facts and revising old opinions.

Folks seem to miss the crucial difference between doing one's best to be consistent at any given time, and being doggedly consistent OVER time, which is foolish. Inconsistency over time is required by the effort to be consistent at a given time. New information comes to light, and that has to be integrated with one's prior beliefs, and when it is, some of those old beliefs have to be jettisoned or revised to comport with the new information. Emerson is arguing FOR unfoolish synchronic consistency–for holding to what makes for the most coherent story NOW in light of one's ever-shifting context of evidence–and its incompatibilty with the sort of dogma that rules the little minds of the folks at NRO .

X-Men and the Circumstances of Justice

— There is a massive rash of philosophical comic geekdom breaking out in the blogosphere over the arrival of the new X-Men movie. See, for example Matthew Yglesias and Jacob Levy. As I am a philosophical geek who bought his first issue of X-Men almost 20 years ago for I think $.65 (It had the Juggernaut in it), I will do my part…

Among Hume's “circumstances of justice” is the requirement that there be no great asymmetries in power. “Moral standing” requires that a party to an agreement be able to contribute and gain roughly equally from cooperative agreements, and be roughly equally disposed to comply with those agreements. We are not in the circumstances of justice with young children and the severly handicapped, and this entails that for certain purposes they lack moral standing. Now, are homo sapiens and homo superior in the circumstances of justice with respect to one another, or do we mere humans lack moral standing relative to certain mutants with massive powers? Given a contractarian framework sensitive to the Humean requirements, is the moral message of the X-Men even intelligible? Does the massive asymmetries in power introduced by the story render the underlying analogy with the struggle for civil rights moot?


The Dissident

— Check out the great new campus publication produced by the Critical Review Foundation. 50,000 copies of the first issue has gone out to fancy schools, in an attempt to reach out to bright undergrads who rarely have a chance to hear ideas that fall anywhere outside of the center-left to radical-left range that dominates in the universities. The Dissident is the smartest campus think mag I've ever seen. Indeed, it's smarter than lots of think mags for adults. And I'm not saying that just because of my piece trashing the World Bank and the IMF is in it. Jeff Friedman's long piece is a great summary of his extremely provocative post-post libertarianism, and a good taste of what one gets at the Critical Review seminar (highly recommended for undergrads in poltical theory and thinky journalism.)

Federal City vs. Chocolate City

— Washington, the District of Columbia, is the capital city of the wealthiest and most powerful nation (empire?) in the history of the known universe. It is a city that teems with entrepeneurs of expropriation, dandyfied lobbyists, scrubbed legislative aides from the hinterlands, scores of Lewinskys and Levys hyperventilating amidst the faux Roman grandeur of the Federal City at the thought of their proximity to power. But beyond the shadows of the monuments, there is a city where interns fear to tread. A city of hand dancing, go-go music, and, yes, black people. With only thinly veiled racism, the tourist guidebooks firmly steer innocents away from all but the whitest and most gentrified portions of the District.

The 2002 Let's Go DC guide warns us of the Darkest DC:

In 1942, DC doubled New York City's murder rate and, according to Newsweek, became the 'Murder Capital of the US.' Exactly 50 years later, the title was resurrected, thanks to widespread crack addiction and the increasing availability of assault weapons. The murder epidemic, while mostly an affair of drug dealers shooting one another, sometimes catches innocents in the crossfire. Most crime occurs in places that do not get many visitors, primarily the Northeast and Southeast neighborhoods, and east of 14th St. NW. Try to enter these regions only in a car, and always exercise extreme caution.

Now, it is true that DC retains the murder crown. However, the outrage of the Let's Go passage is in the flip manner in which it, in effect, excises 2/3 of the city, as if these areas are uniformly populated with Glock-wielding crack fiends, murdering each other indiscriminately among delapidated ruins. But this is, of course, bullshit. There is much worth seeing and doing in North- and Southeast, and one does not face certain death should one wander into the neighborhoods where MOST of DC's residents raise their families and live their lives. Thankfully, my future roommates have set out to rectify this injustice, and have produced a guide to the sites, sounds, and tastes of the DC beyond the the Mall and the two or three tony neighborhoods approved by skittish guide book authors. Their site is . Even if you've lived in DC for years, you are sure to discover something new.

But check it out soon. We're moving east of 14th Street, so, no doubt, we will all be dead in weeks.