Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Now Ain't The Time For Your Tears

This piece in the most recent LRB, on Michael Moore's Sicko, ends with a rather interesting and intentionally exculpatory description of him as "the last great American protest singer". I have my doubts about Moore: the way Fahrenheit 9/11 makes use of the grieving mother of a dead American soldier seemed to me, whether or not she was happy to be used that way, quite wrong, stepping over the line between the use of individuals harmed by some policy or other as examples into a demand that we turn one woman's total consumption by grief into the basis of public policy; a lapse into exactly the sort of personalised politics of vengeance that were drawn on to justify the war Moore is in that film arguing against. Whatever. Maybe no omelettes without broken eggs is the right attitude to take towards degradation of a public sphere that is already clearly not characterised by a commitment to argument in terms that all can share. The thought that he is the last great American protest singer is what is interesting.

I remember having a discussion with a friend about the way that Billy Bragg, maybe particularly in the songs from the earlier part of his career, sounds curiously out of time now. The sense of joy in a project dedicated to human emancipation despite its futility so perfectly articulated in 'Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards' seems so hopelessly naive now, and not just because of the references to the Soviet Union; I can't think that anyone can really take simple pleasure in the moral vision presented by Gordon Brown's inward looking and defensive capitulation to the forces of reaction and the common-sense of the Washington Consensus. We will most definitely not prevail, not like this. The hope, even if it so often seemed vain, seems to have leached out of left-wing politics, and without that hope the sense of a moral community united by a sense of justice that demands public affirmation that protest singers thrive on - that the genius of that Bragg song relies on the evocation of - seems to just fall away.

That's sad though, and not just because we lose the possibility of new protest songs. As I mentioned in my last post, I've been working on a paper on the proper subject of theories of social justice (roughly), where I argue that proper attention needs to be paid to the fact that political institutions are institutions and not just sets of isolated incidents of coercion, and that that institutional nature makes special demands of our theories of their justification. But Bob Dylan says this better than I could ever say it in 'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll': you're only supposed to bury the rag in your face only when institutions of attitudes to race and class allow William Zanzinger to escape proper punishment. Likewise, 'Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards' is one of the best ways of arguing for the good of a community of justice anyone could possibly come up with, which I am currently trying, when not swamped by teaching-related demands, to think about. We need protest songs so I can keep doing political theory, damnit!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

What Would Rawls Do?

Tell you to ask Kant, or at least, so I am briefly about to argue. Last week, I gave a paper in which I argued that right libertarians - and implicitly with them a substantial number of post-Rawlsian political philosophers - make a fatal mistake about how to go about the justification of political institutions. Basically, the thought is that they, at least if Robert Nozick is representative, assume that our intuitions about single-shot, often two person cases unproblematically give us direct instruction about what we ought to do when designing political institutions which are defintionally not single-shot - what it means to be an institution is to create a structure within which many interactions between many people take place, over a lengthy period of time. The Wilt Chamberlain example says nothing about what happens the day after Wilt Chamberlain gets his $250,000, for example. Since there are all kinds of effects which are related directly to an institution being extended both over time and over space, this misses any normative significance which might attach to those effects, and therefore gets what institutions ought to look like wrong.

Anyway, whether or not this claim is correct, I attributed it - not prominently enough, I think, actually - to Rawls in the paper; indeed, I regard what I took thirty-odd pages to say as an extrapolation of remarks Rawls made in about two pages in Political Liberalism which have been unfortunately largely ignored. Obviously, so far as I'm concerned, that's pretty much enough to show it's correct, but just in case anyone still wasn't convinced, I want to invoke another name in moral philosophy to demonstrate that this isn't just me and Jack being totally crazy, that of Immanuel Kant. Kant notoriously says that a maxim is only one which it is morally permissible to act on if it can be shown to be a Categorical Imperative. Maxims that are Categorical Imperatives all, at least so far as Kant claims, fulfil three criteria: the criteria of the universal law, the criteria of treating humanity always as an end in itself, and the criteria of the kingdom of ends. Now, ignoring the idea that only maxims which treat humanity as an end in itself rather than solely as a means for the time being, notice something about the other two criteria. They both invoke institutions.

The idea in the criteria of the universal law is that something is only a permissible maxim on which to act if it could be willed as a maxim by everyone when they are relevantly similarly situated. Kant obviously from his discussion in the Groundwork takes this to mean it being an institution; his examples of maxims failing that test are related to either it being impossible to act on the maxim when it exists as an institution - as in the case of telling false promises, where we when all tell false promises, there is no institution of promising for us to be parasitic on - or it being impossible to will the institution which would result from the universal willing of the maxim - as in the case of a refusal to give assistance, where we come to the realisation that if no-one ever helps us, we will not be able to reliably achieve our ends. Likewise, in the formula of the kingdom of ends, the thought involves testing a maxim against the possibility of whether or not it could exist as a viable and acceptable institution, one in which all participated, and all were treated as lawmakers. In that case, though, Kant, with Rawls, thinks that single-shot, two-person cases are not going to tell us anything helpful about what we ought to do. Now, I think that Kant and Rawls likely actually think this for different reasons, but isn't it interesting that Nozick, who invokes Kant in favour of his view, so singularly fails to notice this relatively central aspect of Kant's own doctrine? Equally, isn't it interesting that a whole bunch of deontologically-inclined egalitarians are similarly uninterested in the claims of what must a central figure in that tradition?

PS: Wasn't Spooks good?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Call For Asylum

So, it turns out the British government is not allowing asylum applications from Iraqis who worked for the Coalition Forces in the south of Iraq. Iraqis who worked for the British are, it would appear, being killed for precisely that reason. This combination of facts is, I think, pretty shameful. Lots of other sets of facts may also be pretty shameful, but this is fairly transparently pretty shameful, and therefore hopefully relatively easily dealt with. Publicising it, as a number of blogs have been doing, and asking people to write to their MPs, seems like a sensible way of trying to do so.

Now, obviously, given that Iraq is clearly generally not a very nice place to be at the moment, it would be better if the British government accepted asylum applications from more or less any Iraqis who want to come, especially given the share of the responsibility Britain bears for making Iraq into somewhere decidedly undesirable to live. This though is unlikely to happen. Furthermore, campaigning for this more limited goal does not preventing anyone from campaigning for the more general goal.

Equally, whilst there may be other groups who are similarly at risk of becoming the victims of violence because of specific personal affiliations, these are people that the British have some kind of special responsibility for, in virtue of having employed them, and, again, it doesn't stop anyone from trying to get Iraqis similarly at risk for other reasons let in as well. And if you thought that, like I did, that the invasion was a bad idea in the first place, you presumably thought so on the grounds that it would be bad for Iraqis, and we shouldn't do things that would be bad for Iraqis. Well, preventing them from leaving Iraq and coming here is now pretty bad for them. You know it's right. Write to your MP, asking them to press for Iraqis who worked with the British forces in the south of Iraq to be granted asylum as soon as possible. Pro-forma letter and so on here.

Approval of the above, by the way, is in no way incompatible with thinking that Dan Hardie is an argumentative and unneccessarily abusive c*nt. Even f*ckwits can be right from time to time. It's the whole monkeys-typewriters-Shakespeare/f*cked clock thing.

Update, 10/08/07: My MP is on holiday, which I suppose is reasonable enough, and so I got a holding reply from someone in his office, saying that a lot of the MP's caseload is to do with immigration, which I guess is supposed to mean he cares, and, further, that it is understood that something may soon be done.

Further update, 20/09/07: Chris Brooke points out that there is a meeting organised for the 9th of October for MPs, at which national media will be present. Urge your MP to attend. Details of the situation which those who have worked with the British face are available here and here, and you can contact your MP through WriteToThem.

More, 10/10/07: This really isn't bloody good enough (via). Keep up the pressure.

Again, 12 /12/07: You'd think that this was sorted now. No, apparently not (via). Write to your MP again.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


First, this game. I thought it would probably work as well with Rawls' 'Political Liberalism', but maybe not.

"They differ from citizens holding the first two views in our model case in having no fully (as opposed to partially) comprehensive doctrine within which they see all values and virtues as being more or less systematically ordered."

Second, this news story (via). I'm slightly worried about the state the amputated leg was in if it was being stored in a device for smoking meat rather than, say, a freezer.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Confirming Yer Priors

First, more Get Your War On (via).

Second, relatively mild bitching about MediaLens. I've written before about the difficulties of reporting on politically controversial matters - as if there might be much else that's worth reporting on, I suppose - and although I think MediaLens is an often useful source of information, their stance towards what they call the corporate media is one that seems to see any departure from a politically controversial and quite tightly structured set of views as deliberately mendacious. That is, as Gavin Esler says and MediaLens ridicules him for, a kind of totalitarianism, at least in the sense that totalitarianism is manichean and intolerant of diversity, and more so, I think, than a corporate media which, for example, publishes George Monbiot's books and gives him a relatively regular column in a national newspaper. You can see this in the way Esler's reporting on the surge is criticised. For example, when Esler is criticised for allegedly faux-innocently swallowing a line about the aims of the surge by asking whether it is disappointing for a member of the Bush administration that the security of the civilian population in Iraq cannot by guaranteed, the standard against which Esler is being judged is seems to be one where if you don't call Bush administration officials war-criminals at least every other sentence, you lose your claim to be a functioning moral agent. Esler's question does not presuppose anything about the aims of the surge, and neither do the aims of the surge given by MediaLens mean that the presupposition, were it made, would be ridiculous, since it is possible to hold more than one goal at the same time: I can constrain, for example, my pursuit of a goal by refusing to break the law. Indeed, it seems reasonable on the evidence MediaLens present to think that Esler is setting Burns up for a classic one-two: if he is disappointed, then why isn't more being done, and if he isn't, then what the hell is wrong with him?

Third, on the Today programme this morning, sometime after 8.30 (well, about 8.41, if you want to listen here), they had an economist on talking about some research he'd done on the effects of Weber's Protestant Work Ethic, who had found that there was an average difference of 6% between employment levels in Protestant and non-Protestant countries. Interestingly, he said that women's levels of workforce participation in particular were 11% lower in non-Protestant countries. That would mean women's failure to get out of the home in non-Protestant accounts for almost all the average difference in levels of workforce participation between Protestant and non-Protestant countries. Because I misheard him describe his dataset, I thought he was only dealing with Europe, and so when I heard him say this, I instantly thought, the dread southern-European-family-structure strikes again! Actually, in the accompanying press release, he mentions the hostility to paid work by women, even if it wasn't the story for the Today programme, so it's not just a confirmation bias on my part.