Slouching Toward Annapolis

This morning, up the road a ways in Annapolis, MD, the Bush administration is hosting belated Mideast Peace Talks between Israel and Palestine. Maybe this is just a last race to save face for the Bush administration after all it has done to create havoc in the Middle East.  But still we all hope for the best.

Two op-eds in this morning’s Washington Post bring home what is at stake and how hard it is going to be—maybe not in the cushy confines of Annapolis but certainly back home in Palestine and Israel.  Richard Cohen describes the impasse between two mothers, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, whose two daughters were killed when one of them set off a suicide bomb.

Beyond the Reach of Annapolis

By Richard Cohen

Tuesday, November 27, 2007; Page A17

On March 29, 2002, an 18-year-old woman walked into a Jerusalem supermarket and blew herself up. One of her victims was a woman just a year younger than herself. The two women looked so much alike, Palestinian and Israeli, and their mortal wounds were so similar, that the pathologist had trouble reassembling the two girls. They had so much in common.

So it was perhaps understandable that the mother of Rachel Levy would try to contact the mother of Ayat al-Akhras because they, too, had so much in common. read more

Also on the Post’s op-ed page
, Maher Najjar, the deputy director of Gaza’s water utility, pleads with the west to help persuade the Israeli military to stop its collective punishment of Palestinians by cutting off electricity, fuel, and clean water whenever militants set of a Qassam rocket.  As the Israelis try to punish the Palestinians into policing themselves, the Palestinian reaction, as anyone would suspect, becomes more defiant.

The majority of the 1.5 million men, women and children living in Gaza do not fire Qassam rockets. Most of us want normal lives, starting with the ability to provide for ourselves. We want to live in peace with our neighbors. We hope that Israel will realize, before it is too late, that in Gaza, playing with water is playing with fire.

It’s going to take more than a couple of days eating crab cakes together in Annapolis for Israelis and Palestinians to get through these impasses and begin to forge some kind of peace.  Still, fingers crossed.

Ignatieff’s Bad Judgment

In yesterday’s New York Times magazine, Michael Ignatieff, the professor-turned-politician, almost acknowledges that he made a terrible mistaking in supporting the U.S. invasion into Iraq. Recall that Ignatieff was one of the leading liberal intellectuals who bolstered the Bush administration’s case for war. Along with the liberal journalist Christopher Hitchens, he helped lend a veneer of legitimacy to the U.S. invasion. If liberals supported the war, then what’s the problem, the right all but said.

Well now the massiveness of the problem is something even conservatives have a hard time denying. And now that he is a member of the Canadian parliament and the leader of the liberal party, Ignatieff says he sees things differently from before. The difference, he says, is between being in a position of making political judgments and being in the academy making academic judgments. “In academic life, false ideas are merely false and useless ones can be fun to play with,” Ignatieff writes. “In political life, false ideas can ruin the lives of millions and useless ones can waste precious resources.”

Who listens to an academic from Harvard, anyway, he feigns? Who? How about the Bush administration as it tries to grab legitimacy wherever it can find it? Ignatieff’s collosal mistake is in thinking that what an academic thinks and writes is of little or no consequence. But as the poet Adrienne Rich wrote in her poem, “North American Time,” we are responsible for everything we write: “These are the terms, / take them or leave them. / Poetry never stood a chance / of standing outside history.” And neither do the writings of an academic from the Kennedy School.

Despite the essay’s title — “Getting Iraq Wrong: what the war has taught me about political judgment” — Ignatieff never admits he was wrong, much less does he apologize. He seems to simply regret that now that he is a politician he has to be accountable. And he denies that he did anything wrong as a professor or that he has any responsibility for the political consequences of his academic writing. Strangely, he doesn’t seem to see that there are indeed political consequences for what we academics say in our writings. “In private life, we pay the price of our own mistakes,” Ignatieff writes. “In public life, a politician’s mistakes are first paid by others.” Oh, for the days, Ignatieff seems to long, when one could write without consequence. Forget such dreams, Adrienne Rich implores:

We move but our words stand

become responsible

for more than we intended

Whether we speak and write in the private realm or the public realm is inconsequential. What is of massive consequence is the quality of the judgments we make in a world with others on matters of common concern. For that we are all responsible.

The Bad Boy of Philosophy

Last Friday, at age 75, Richard Rorty died. Yesterday both the New York Times and the Washington Post ran nice obituaries, highlighting his youth in a socialist family and his adulthood as a renegade philosopher who’d splashily divorced analytic philosophy in order to embrace American pragmatism. The break-up began in the 60s. “He was a restless intellectual for much of his career,” the Washington Post‘s Adam Bernstein wrote. “While editing the 1967 book ‘The Linguistic Turn,’ he expressed doubts about the idea that analytic philosophy had made great progress by recasting traditional questons about the relation between thought and reality as questions about how language manages to represent the world.”

By the late 70s, with the publication of his book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, the divorce was complete. As the Post’s obit aptly notes, “The book sought to dispense with what he considered the grandiose and fruitless attempts to seek out the foundations of knowledge and ethics—presented over the years as timeless truths. Instead he wanted to focus on what was often called a nonfoundationalist philosophy that combined teachings of Dewey, Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein.”

As someone who’d helped renew interest in the works of the American pragmatist tradition, he could have been a hero for contemporary pragmatist philosophers toiling away in colleges and universities throughout the states. But this was never the case. For nearly a decade now I’ve been a member of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, and more often than not, when his name is mentioned there, it is to discredit his views on pragmatism. It’s true that he nearly invited the epithets slung at him: relativist, provacateur, flat-footed, cynical, irresponsible, nihilistic, denier of scientific truths. He did overstate things, often it seemed just to get a rise out of people. At the same time, though, he was a central figure, especially in the 90s, in developments in political thought. Just read Habermas’s book Between Facts and Norms, and Rawls’s book, Political Liberalism, to see how he was a major interlocutor in thinking through democratic self-government.

When I was finishing up my dissertation, I had a side job as an occasional guest host for a public affairs program for the public TV station in Austin, Texas. I scheduled an interview with Richard Rorty. At the appointed hour he walked into the darkened studio, put out his hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Dick Rorty”— as if I’d respond, “Hi, Dick, I’m Noelle McAfee.” I did nothing of the kind, much too in awe of this world-renowned philosopher who had already profoundly affected my own thinking to call him by his first name. I loved his essay, “Solidarity or Objectivity,” which showed why solidarity was a much better ideal than the impossible ideal of having a view from nowhere. But I was still concerned about the political implication of his work, that there may be no basis for talking across cultural divides. If there’s no foundation for our own thinking apart from the way we are raised and the tastes we cultivate, how could we ever appeal to people from different orientations? If our own beliefs are the result of our own upbringing, and little more, how do we come to reflexively criticize and improve our own culture? In the interview, I asked him these questions, and he didn’t seem to have an answer. That might be okay for “gotcha” journalism, but I sincerely wanted to know how to answer those questions. Today they seem more pressing than ever.

On Torture

Peter Levine has been thinking through ways to rebut consequentialist arguments that might condone torture.

John Yoo, who wrote the official memo justifying the use of torture, still thinks that there are situations when torture is acceptable. “Look, death is worse than torture, but everyone except pacifists thinks there are circumstances in which war is justified. War means killing people. If we are entitled to kill people, we must be entitled to injure them. I don’t see how it can be reasonable to have an absolute prohibition on torture when you don’t have an absolute prohibition on killing. Reasonable people will disagree about when torture is justified. But that, in some circumstances, it is justified seems to me to be just moral common sense. How could it be better that 10,000 or 50,000 or a million people die than that one person be injured?”

Most knowledgeable people say that torture is wrong even on consequentialist grounds — because it simply doesn’t work: people say false things just to get the torture to stop.  But what if it did work, Peter asks? What about human rights, the claims of the intrinsic dignity of every human being?

I believe in universal human rights, which rest on a sense of the dignity and intrinsic worth of all people. I also think that virtue excludes the use of torture, which is dishonorable. However, I am not so much of a “deontologist” that I’ll stick to principles regardless of their consequences. I won’t say “fiat lex pereat mundus”–let the [moral] law prevail even if the world perishes. Instead, I hope that the effects of torture prove harmful, because then arguments about consequences will line up with arguments about principles and virtues and the case will be easy.

I think we need more than hope.  How about an argument for why torture is wrong even if the consequences seem to be beneficial, an argument that would put morality before utility.  With state-sponsored torture, we’re talking about the morality of an entire people, not just individual actions. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts it in today’s New York Times: “Morality is never just a matter of individual conscience. It thrives only if it is sustained by what Hegel called “objective spirit,” the set of unwritten rules that form the background of every individual’s activity, telling us what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.”

For example, a clear sign of progress in Western society is that one does not need to argue against rape: it is “dogmatically” clear to everyone that rape is wrong. If someone were to advocate the legitimacy of rape, he would appear so ridiculous as to disqualify himself from any further consideration. And the same should hold for torture.

Are we aware what lies at the end of the road opened up by the normalization of torture? A significant detail of Mr. Mohammed’s confession gives a hint. It was reported that the interrogators submitted to waterboarding and were able to endure it for less than 15 seconds on average before being ready to confess anything and everything. Mr. Mohammed, however, gained their grudging admiration by enduring it for two and a half minutes.

Are we aware that the last time such things were part of public discourse was back in the late Middle Ages, when torture was still a public spectacle, an honorable way to test a captured enemy who might gain the admiration of the crowd if he bore the pain with dignity? Do we really want to return to this kind of primitive warrior ethics?

This is why, in the end, the greatest victims of torture-as-usual are the rest of us, the informed public. A precious part of our collective identity has been irretrievably lost. We are in the middle of a process of moral corruption: those in power are literally trying to break a part of our ethical backbone, to dampen and undo what is arguably our civilization’s greatest achievement, the growth of our spontaneous moral sensitivity.

Or from a Kantian point of view, when a state condones torture it exiles itself from the realm of humanity.  Treating prisoners as mere means to our own ends makes us inhumane — and I mean that in a very deep way.  If we want to be part of what we might think of as an international space of humanity, we need treat all others as deserving of fundamental rights. Otherwise we become an outlaw state.  Now we seem to be there.

Karl Rove’s Links

Full disclosure: I have two immediate links to Karl Rove. First, I sat next to him at a meeting in Austin, Texas, in the late 1990s when he was the political mastermind behind Dubya’s governership of Texas. There were about eight people in the room. I don’t remember saying anything but “hello” to him. Second, there was once a small item in the Austin American Statesman noting that Karl and I were two new occasional guest hosts of a public affairs program on the local public television station. My interviewees included Richard Rorty and Ernie Cortes.  I don’t think Karl ever interviewed any pragmatist philosophers or community organizers.

But enough about me. What about Karl? This morning’s New York Times has him linked to an “early query over dismissals” of U.S. attorneys. Yes, even before Alberto R. Gonzales showed up to take over the justice department, Karl Rove dropped by the office of a white house lawyer asking if it would be possible to start replacing some “underperforming” prosecutors. As Kyle Samson (a White House lawyer who later became Gonzales’ chief of staff and this week resigned), recounted in an email, “If Karl thinks there’s the political will to do it, then so do I.” In that email, Sampson also wrote, “The vast majority of U.S. Attorneys, 80-85 percent, I would guess, are doing a great job, are loyal Bushies, etc.”

Get it? Doing a good job as a U.S. attorney, in their minds, equals being a “loyal Bushy.”

I’m hoping that, contra Rorty (see his “Solidarity or Objectivity” article in his collected papers), there’s got to be more to “doing a great job” than solidarity. Or perhaps, with Rorty, solidarity can be more than narrow factionalism. A measure for even political performance should be more than does it promote the values of me and mine, of my partisan faction, but whether it promotes something a little bigger than that. Maybe a U.S. attorney should be looking out for the larger aspirations of the U.S. (and I’m hoping these are something better than what we’ve seen lately) and not just the Bush clan?

Rove so far has deflected fall out from the Valerie Plame scandal. How’s he going to fare here?


See also today’s Daily Kos

Does policy need democracy?

A friend told me this morning that when he was in graduate school in public policy he mentioned to his advisor that he might opt for the concentration in public policy and democracy. His advisor advised him: “Don’t bother.”

“Is that because the school’s offerings in democracy were lame?” I asked. “Or because the idea he thought the idea was lame?”

The latter. Seems the adivsor didn’t see what democracy could possibly have to do with public policy.

This may be true in practice — but certainly not in theory (to turn a phrase of Kant’s).

If we want to take seriously democracy as a regulative idea — and I certainly do — then public policy should be grounded in an idea of democracy, at least if policy is not just for a public but in some way by a public.

Okay, maybe I am naive, the same way I was naive back when I enrolled in policy school, thinking that public policy might be something that actually has democratic, public aspirations. I was quickly disappointed, but my mission ever since has been to set this wrongheaded attitude right. Take that, Walter Lippmann.

The Groundhog Verdict

I think it’s safe to say, this day after Groundhog Day, that summer will be coming soon. In my part of the world, it was cloudy all day yesterday. No groundhog would see its shadow; winter will soon end.

More confirmation, this morning’s New York Times screams out, “Science Panel Says Global Warming is ‘Unequivocal’ — Cites Human Role — 3-year study foresees centuries of rising temperatures.” Above the fold on its first page, the Washington Post headline reads, “Humans Faulted for Global Warming.” The words and graphs are ominous. The Post’s Juliet Eilperin writes:

Declaring that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” the authors said in their “Summary for Policymakers” that even in the best-case scenario, temperatures are on track to cross a threshold to an unsustainable level. A rise of more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels would cause global effects — such as massive species extinctions and melting of ice sheets — that could be irreversible within a human lifetime. Under the most conservative IPCC scenario, the increase will be 4.5 degrees by 2100.

Much damage has already been done and the amount of greenhouse gases already in the environment will continue to wreak further havoc even if industrial countries stopped emitting gases tomorrow. Bush and company can’t deny the facts any more, but they are still dissembling and stalling, pretending that new technologies can fix the problem rather than taking responsibility and capping emissions now.

It’s easy to feel like the problem is too big to handle. But this isn’t daunting Howard Ruby, the chief executive of Oakwood Worldwide, who, according to another Washington Post article today, is encouraging conservation measures in all 40 of the rental complexes he owns in the U.S. and Canada. The Post’s Mike Salmon writes,

Oakwood’s chief executive, Howard Ruby, became an environmental evangelist after a cruise last year off the Norwegian coast where he saw the effects of warming temperatures on polar bears. His ship should have been dodging ice floes, but he saw open water everywhere. Just 500 miles from the North Pole, “there were no ice floes,” he said. With no ice, the polar bears have nothing to support their offshore fishing expeditions and are now in danger. “They’re dying fast,” he said.

Moved by the plight of the polar bears, Ruby started putting money into environmentally friendly plumbing and building materials and encouraging renters to do common-sense things to cut down on emissions. According to the Post, Ruby gives out a calendar that suggests things like limiting showers to five minutes, unplugging items when not being used, and other simple things, that if even 10 percent of his renters carry out, will reduce greenhouse gases by 1 million pounds.

Reportedly, many of his tenants are happy to cooperate. But some don’t see the point, including one woman that the Post says “didn’t buy the global warming concept,” and another at Oakwood Rosslyn who “said she thought the planet was destined to incinerate for religious reasons.”

So, dear readers, think on this. Reply with your thoughts: What’s the connection between the United States’ unwillingness to cap emissions and its frighteningly large percentage of religious fundamentalists who think we are all going to incinerate anyway?

God, if there be a god, save us from ourselves.

D’Souza: Dangerous or Wrong?

In his opinion piece in todays’ Washington Post, conservative author Dinesh D’Souza responds to critics of his new book, The Enemy at Home.

Why the onslaught? Just this: In my book, published this month, I argue that the American left bears a measure of responsibility for the volcano of anger from the Muslim world that produced the 9/11 attacks. President Jimmy Carter’s withdrawal of support for the shah of Iran, for example, helped Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime come to power in Iran, thus giving radical Islamists control of a major state; and President Bill Clinton’s failure to respond to Islamic attacks confirmed bin Laden’s perceptions of U.S. weakness and emboldened him to strike on 9/11. I also argue that the policies that U.S. “progressives” promote around the world — including abortion rights, contraception for teenagers and gay rights — are viewed as an assault on traditional values by many cultures, and have contributed to the blowback of Islamic rage.

No stranger to criticism, D’Souza says critics are calling him and the book dangersous because his book “exposes something in the culture that some people are eager to keep hidden.”

And what is that? It is that the far left seems to hate Bush nearly as much as it hates bin Laden. Bin Laden may want sharia, or Islamic law, in Baghdad, they reason, but Bush wants sharia in Boston. Indeed, leftists routinely portray Bush’s war on terrorism as a battle of competing fundamentalisms, Islamic vs. Christian. It is Bush, more than bin Laden, they say, who threatens abortion rights and same-sex marriage and the entire social liberal agenda in the United States. So leftist activists such as Michael Moore and Howard Zinn and Cindy Sheehan seem willing to let the enemy win in Iraq so they can use that defeat in 2008 to rout Bush — their enemy at home.

When I began writing my new book, this concern was largely theoretical, because the left was outside the corridors of power. Now I fear that the extreme cultural left is whispering into the ears of the Democratic Congress. Cut off the funding. Block the increase in troops. Shut down Guantanamo Bay. Lose the war on terrorism — and blame Bush.

D’Souza denounces the supposedly far left for casting 9/11 and the ensuing war in Iraq as a clash of fundamentalisms. But it is hard to see what D’Souza is offering other than more fundamentalism. The problem, he suggests, is that the Muslim world — both mainstream and radical — is appalled at the West’s wanton ways, ways that have been supposedly encouraged, fostered, and exported by “the radical left.” I’ll let slide the massive dubiousness of this claim — it was Wall Street and the Pentagon that were struck, after all, not SoHo or Hollywood Boulevard. D’Souza wants us to believe that if our values were conservative and not profligate that we wouldn’t be seen as a threat to the conservative-and-not-profligate world of Islam.

I applaud Dinesh D’Souza for looking anew at “why they hate us.” We as a society dropped that question and went to war without any real scrutiny. But it’s wrong, I think, to think that “they” hate us because we are moderns and they are traditionalists. Or that the contemporary Islamic world is as traditional as he thinks it is. Much of the Muslim world is quite modern indeed. Even in some of the most rigid countries, including Iran, the people themselves are rather casual about religion. If the French scholar of Islam, Olivier Roy, is right, Islamic extremists are often well educated young people unmoored or alienated or expatriated from their own traditions, cultures, families, and nations who are romantically longing for an impossible universal brotherhood. Whatever cultural threat we pose to these people on the margins of their own society is something of history’s making, of unresolved trauma, not of the makings of Michael Moore, Howard Zinn, or Cindy Sheehan. Please.