On Sunday, December 2nd, people around the world (108 cities) will Walk for Capitalism! Tired of clueless protests against liberty and prosperity? Check to see if your city is involved, and walk in celebration of freedom, markets and commercial culture! I'll be joining Washington, D.C. folks at the Rosslyn Metro at 2:00 pm on Sunday, and we'll stroll down to Iota in Clarendon and party like capitalists should. Should be fun!
Scientific American reports on the First Human Cloned Embryo. Reason Online prints a series of mini-essays by opponents to the ominous Left-Right coalition petition against certain kinds of genetic research.
Thankfully, Leon Kass has caught a lot of heat from the likes of Virginia Postrel and others for his retrograde views. Kass's anti-science position flows from his curious conception of human nature and moral judgment. Kass thinks of human nature in strikingly static, essentialist terms, and he is happy to use his notion of a static human essence as a standard for moral evaluation. If something is inconsistent with our nature, then it's morally out. That sounds OK, but Kass extends it to such vital matters as the right way to eat. Further, Kass thinks that our intuitive judgments of repugnance should be treated as morally authoritative. He recognizes that some folks have always been a little sickened by the shock of the new, and that we can't let troglodyte sensibilities hold us back. Yet he thinks our visceral aversion to some things is so universal and deep-seated that it stands as a decisive objection against some things, and genetic manipulation is one of them.
My response to Kass is twofold. First, the argument from “it makes me feel funny” is a bit wanting in terms of rational foundations. We need an argument why our moral intuitions should be heeded. Incest makes us all feel pretty funny (the idea of it, I mean), and the Darwinian logic of that kind of aversion is easy to follow. But hey! With the advent of birth control, is there anything really wrong with loving your sister? Sure it's gross, but once the natural necessity for that sentiment has been overcome by technology, is there any deeper argument against it? Likewise our feelings about cloning and such. Why not think that our repugnance is a vestige of an evolutionary environment that has no relation to our present situation.
Second, there is no essential human nature. We are products of evolution. Evolution works because of variation in populations. So we should expect quite a bit of difference between individual humans, and between human moral sensibilities. I for one have absolutely no bad feelings about cloning. Am I a deviant or is Kass? At best there are historically transient statistical norms; evolution continues apace. Additionally, few appreciate how close Kass comes to begging the question when the issue is genetic manipulation. Manipulation opens the possibility for changing human nature, including our moral sensibilities. If one proposes to change human nature, one can't use human nature as a standard of judgment without begging the question. Conservatives like Kass may turn out to be a tricky kind of relativist according to which right and wrong are relative to the kind of psychological constitution you happen to have as a matter of evolutionary accident. But in that case, there is no way to rationally rule out proposals to modify our psychological natures, and then it'll have to come down to force.
Slate's Jacob Weisberg sensibly (thought weakly) opposes new calls for conscription, but he wrongly plumps for an enlarged AmeriCorps. It's voluntary, and we can use it to reap some of the cohesive benefits of war time, he says. Weisberg's all kinds of supportive for the McCain/Bayh bill that will quintuple AmeriCorps. He writes:
This approach avoids both the democratic problem of unjustified compulsion and the practical one of finding useful work for millions of young people in the midst of recession and war. At the same time, it points in the direction of national service one day becoming a kind of social norm and expectation.
I have two big problems with this: (1) Nationalizing voluntarism will have a degrading effect on the national ethos; (2) “National Service” does not require a collective, taxpayer-funded organization.
Concerning (1), US citizens already contribute enormous amounts of money and time to charity, more than any other nation, and it is used effectively. Americans tend to focus on actually solving problems rather than devising symbols, like AmeriCorps, that help wrap the state in the rhetoric of concern. Exactly what service does Weisberg think the AmeriCorpers are going to be providing? It's funny how little he focuses on this. The value that Weisberg seems mainly interested in is a vague sense of national we're-in-it-togetherness. He's not thinking first about people on the ground getting help.
Americans in fact get helped through a multitude of decentralized charities and organizations. AmeriCorps will (a) be competing for these volunteers, (b) cause folks to think they don't have to help because those kids from AmeriCorps will do it, and thus (c) degrade the spirit of charity and solidarity at the local level. Because people live at the local level, that's where we need we're-in-it-togetherness. If you're in Mobile, Alabama, you're not really in it with folks in Seattle any more than your in it with folks from Vancouver. What's really the point of peacetime national solidarity and national service, other than the aggrandizement of the nation-state?
Concerning (2), it aggravates me that people working in the private sector aren't understood to be doing a public service. Researchers at Human Genome Sciences who find the genes for certain medical disorders, or traders on Wall Street who help move resources to their most efficient uses, do much greater service to the nation than people who volunteer to clean up vacant lots or tutor kids. Yes, cleaning and tutoring is fantastic, and we should encourage folks to do it. But compared to the for-profit endeavors that make our country so enormously wealthy and secure, these are national service garnishes. And how about folks like me who work at privately funded non-profits. I'm not doing a national service by introducing hundreds of college students to the classical liberal political tradition?
So, we're all doing “national service” anyway. But if national service has to be understood as something that flows from altruistic/nationalistic impulses, there's no reason why it cannot be privately funded. Let Warren Buffet and Bill Gates team up to privately fund a public service organization. The problem with taxpayer funded adventures is that people are coerced into contributing — a kind of financial conscription, which is inconsistent with the spirit of benevolence and voluntarism. Being forced to fund Americorps is not so different from being forced to serve in it.
Speaking of Randiana… learn how to get the Ayn Rand Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for your verifiably rational products.
The coolest quiz on the web for determining your political orientation is Politopia.com. Politopia is an island where your political opinions determine where you live, and it's not bound down by the tired one dimensional left/right model (represented in Politopia by the Old Main Stream). Look at the funny cartoons, take the quiz, tell a friend! Put in firstname.lastname@example.org and find out where I live. And complain to the webmaster that Jesse Ventura is not a libertarian. (Full disclosure: Politopia is a production of The Institute for Humane Studies, my employer.)
Another reason for dropping an MTV bomb on the middle east: Mary-Kate and Ashley Olson! Just saw the Full House twins on MTV's Fake ID Club, and oh my… our babies are all growed up! The fifteen year-old nascent ultra-babes stand atop a media empire worth close to $1 billion! Have you seen the Mary-Kate and Ashley magazine? The Saturday Morning cartoon? The clothing line (brought to you by the world largest retailer)? The made-for-video movie series? The Gameboy games? You haven't? Well, the rising cohort of young women — sure to be the wealthiest, most powerful generation of women ever — certainly have. While not artists of the highest order, the Olson's have a bred-in-the-bone sensibility for media, marketing, and the overwhelming power of beauty and fashion (Virginia Postrel, take note!) And they know branding — they've been a brand since their earliest inkling of memory. The Taliban would not approve. And neither, I suspect, would our beloved old-school feminists. But this is what girlpower is about: using femininity to evoke aesthetic and sexual admiration, and exploting it to rule the market. Or: courting objectification for fun and profit. It's Mary-Kate and Ashley's world. We menfolk just live in it.
Apparently MTV is set to do it's part in the middle east propaganda war. The idea is to spam the 15-30 y/o middle east demo with Rock the Vote-like public service efforts to cast westerners in a favorable light. They've clearly got the wrong idea. MTV is a schizoid basketcase message-wise. Their “very special” socially conscious programming is the worst sort of misinformed, pusillanimous liberalism posing as broad-minded humanism, while the videos (once their raison d'etre) are full of the grossest sort of flesh-peddling bling bling — which is excellent! Clearly middle eastern Muslims need spiritual liberation, and a gyrating Britney Spears slathered in oil singing “I'm a Slave for You” is rather more liberating than MTV's stylized NPR-lite quasi-politics (although Serena Altschul is… desirable). The Afghans & Arabs don't need after-school specials with Serena's sedated earnesty. They need T&A, thuglife and Slipknot! They need their MTV2! If they don't know who we be, give 'em DMX!
Like much of the English-speaking world, I went to see Harry Potter this weekend. Although I resisted Harry-mania for well over two years, I ended up getting hooked this spring when my girlfriend at the time read the first book to me in the car during a trip down to Charleston & Savannah and back. I then shredded through the rest of the series. (And I'm not embarrassed to admit it!) Anyway, the movie was a rather rote interpretation, and was so compressed that much of the considerable feeling (for neglect, friendship, ambition, etc.) in the book was almost entirely squeezed out. I'd have loved to have seen what Terry Gilliam, say, would have done with it.
How about some philosophical commentary? In the climactic scene, where Harry confronts “he-who-must-not-be-named,” the Evil One announces, Nietzsche fashion: “There is no good and evil. There is only power and those too fearful to grab it.” (Or something to that effect.) This is a popular theme in fantasy movies. Think Star Wars. The idea is that the acme of evil is the refusal to recognize that there really is such a thing as evil. Evil people think big ticket moral categories are just a way of keeping us down, from becoming all that we can really be. Enlightenment is abandoning our spiritually enslaving scruples and just going for it. But, Harry argues, that's just what evil is!
Now, what Harry and Luke have to show us is that there is compensation for abiding by the big ticket moral categories, and this is where these stories become very strained. Harry just happens to be extremely powerful. He didn't do anything to earn it, he's just got it. So, it's not so bad being good if you're Harry, because you've got all this power you never asked for, and every time you use it, you're a big hero. Yet most of us aren't aren't set up so well to attain mass adoration.
But I'm being cynical. There is a hint in Harry that adherence to the marquee moral categories makes it possible to attain things that really do matter. Harry himself was saved from evil because his very skin was infused with his mother's overwhelming love. Perhaps acceding to our intuitions about good and evil is what makes it possible to love and be loved, and if that's the case, then that's probably compensation enough. Yet, I bet when kids fantasize about being Harry, they fantasize about his power and not his capacity for love.
Lovely defense of materialism and individualism as the source of American generosity by Lawrence Lindsay (economic advisor to Bush) at Declan McCullagh's Politech. Especially cool: Lindsay gives props to Frank O'Connor (i.e., Ayn Rand's wife), and dwells on skyscraper symbolism.
I hereby innaugarate my new weblog, The Fly Bottle. The title comes from Wittgenstein's statement that the aim of his philosophy was to show the fly the way from the fly bottle. What can this possibly mean? Well, Wittgenstein was weird. We're flies. When we philosophize we buzz around bumping into an unseen enclosing barrier, the glass, erected by the philosopher in the attempt to use perfectly good words for perverse intellectual purposes. Once we cease abusing words by ripping them from their native habitats and acquiesce to language as it is unselfconsciously used in “the wild,” we'll find that our philosophical “problems” were nothing but artifacts of our linguistic abuse. We'll be free! Now, I don't agree with this. Philosophical problems aren't generally figments of a bad way with words. But Wittgenstein is right that a lot of confusion will vanish if you carefully attend to the contours of common thought and language. What I want to do in this weblog, is to bring this kind of attentiveness to bear on intellectual questions of the day, and perhaps to help see the way out of the intellectual traps built for us by misguided contemporary intellectuals (you know, those bad leftist postmodernists). I'm quite sure that I shan't be half so prodigious as Instapundit, my blogging hero. However, I do hope to post something every day or so, and I hope that my eclectic range of interests will be more interesting than offputting.