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    I'm taking a break from blogging this weekend to run in the Kentucky Derby Festival mini-Marathon (mini = 13.1 mi.). Running– especially distance running– is primarily a mental sport. Here's an interesting study on the psychology of running. Also, I just read that running may also enhance creativity. So maybe you can expect better blogging to come. Don't get your hopes up, though; it's only a mini-Marathon.

Daniel Corbett


   Morgan, you raise an interesting question with your last post, and that is this: how much are we willing to let non-quantitative factors influence our political and moral judgements? To me, Greenpeace's position on Chernobyl makes a lot of sense. They have an interest in painting nuclear power to be much more threatening than it actually is. So merely describing the death toll in dry, numerical terms isn't enough. They need to rely on emotive argument.

   I'd like to draw a parallel with the current debate over gay marriage. Opponents of gay marriage have an interest in framing gay couples as "deviant" and otherwise undeserving of an erstwhile heterosexual privilege. So you obviously will not hear them spouting any statistics such as the increase in gay couples adopting, the number of gay and lesbian people who attend religious services, and so on. They, too, need to rely on emotive argument to make their case.

   OK, so emotion and politics? What's so bad about mixing the two? Many postmodern political theorists argue that the two are inseperable and that reason and objectivity are "myths." I'm not convinced, however. And here's why:

1. Emotional politics can easily be abused. Any organization– from a humble non-profit to a large corporation– can exploit the worst tragedy to meet its own institutional needs. These arguments typically take familiar forms such as "for your own good…" and "what about the children?!?"   

2. Emotional politics silences meaningful discourse. At some level, emotive arguments become articles of faith and as such very difficult to approach with a contrary argument. We can argue about the scientific effects of Chernobyl, for example, but we can't argue definitively one way "how bad it was." (Unless, of course, we are speaking in terms of death counts.)

3. Emotional politics is intellectually insulting. It doesn't take much to be offended, upset, excited, or dismayed. But it does require much more work to think through every side of an issue and lay out a reasoned case for what you feel to be true.

   In the 1920s, Herbert Feigl and other European philosophers and scientists formed the "Vienna Circle" whose fundamental goal was to make philosophy more scientific. In the early Twentieth Century, this was a controversial position to hold, as many philosphers wanted to cling to universal truths within the realm of metaphysics. Now, of couse, it's much different. The position of the Vienna Circle– that a good argument is one that its verifiable– is seen to be out of vogue in our postmodern world. But I rather like it. And I think we can solve a lot of problems in our political and ethical debates if we simply "look to the facts."

–Daniel Corbett

Mark Zuckerberg of facebook fame actually has business cards that read “I’m CEO, bitch!“Melanie Colburn waxes philosophical on Generation Y growing up. “Just imagine, the beat generation brought jeans into the office, tomorrow hipsters will probably glide through the boardroom in distressed cords-cum slacks.”

Daniel Corbett

David Bernstein at the Volokh Conspiracy has been assiduously tracking a developing censorship debacle at Penn State. The case involves a student art exhibit that has been deemed too controversial to be displayed in the School of Visual Arts. The student, Joshua Stulman received an email from the university charging that his exhibit on the culture of Palestinian terrorism "did not promote cultural diversity" or "opportunities for democratic dialogue." The university's stance amounts to outright denial of student expression on the basis of its content. This sort of thing smacks of a university "speech code." (The majority of these policies were deflated in federal courts during the 1990's.)

But Penn State has changed its tune, maintaining instead that Stulman's exhibit was rejected because of its "commercial" nature. The school refuses to show exhibits with outside sponsorship. In this case, the "commercial" argument comes into play because Hillel has offered a paltry sum ($75-$100) for refreshments following the opening.

Stulman has the evidence on his side: an email containing the obvious language of censorship. It seems, then, that the university's argument falls flat. But even so, I think there's a problem with the university's stance. I can understand the "commercial" exhibit proviso. No one wants college art to become political football. But I think the policy must know some limits. If Hillel (or any nonpartisan, student, or otherwise "small" organization) wants to help out by buying a few snacks, I don't think there's a problem. The university needs a more substantive approach to hashing out these decisions. Above all, what it needs, however, is to stop couching censorship in the language of "diversity" or institutional impartiality. Stulman's exhibit may not echo the sentiments of the university, or for that matter, many of the people who view it. But this is a good thing The future of academia depends on more victories for intellectually honest people like Stulman and fewer for the academic thought police.

Daniel Corbett

Brendan O'Neill makes an excellent case for recasting the debate over human "trafficking." "[T]rendy NGOs and the liberal broadsheets-turned-tabloids," he argues are distorting the issue and creating a moral panic on which national governments can cash in. To be sure, human trafficking does occur, and strong measures should be taken to stop it. O'Neill drills in this point. His criticism is not that trafficking is a fiction; it is that "trafficking" is being too broadly defined. According to UNICEF's definition, both cross-border adoption and international union organizing constitute forms of "trafficking." The African family who sends its son or daughter to England to seek a better life is not a criminal cartel and deserves praise, not chastisement.

O'Neill also criticizes media coverage of immigration. He castigates journalists for painting a dark, other-worldly portrait of immigrants. (Note: in the British press this is not limited to sensationalized stories of immigrants as witch doctors and pimps, frenzied hangers-on who hunt swans in public parks for sustenance.) There is nothing conservative or trumped up about O'Neill's charge here. Even Edward Said would be in his corner, commending him for exposing a fanatical Orientalist depiction of the downtrodden.

So what is this getting at? I think O'Neill's argument is essentially an argument against the State's role as "victim-maker." Governments everywhere like to have "wars" on various social problems. This reinforces their power– and if it is a war to help "victims" of any sort– gives them a high moral ground. This double-edged sword, as history tells us, can be quite problematic when given to the wrong people and implemented in the wrong ways. Where do we go from here? O'Neill leaves us with a nice suggestion:

"If we really want to put an end to trafficking, then we should call for an end to all restrictions on immigration and for an open-door policy. In the meantime, please stop fantasising that trafficking is occurring everywhere, and stop labelling immigrants as victims who need the state kindly to take them back home again."

Daniel Corbett

Baylor University professor Thomas Hibbs explores this question in an article for Christianity Today. First, and most obviously, Hibbs suggests that Donnie Darko's ascendency can be attributed to a general thirst among young people for films with substance and meaning. College students want, Hibbs notes, something better than the "superficially flattering portrait of sophisticated, jaded, and self-satisfied teens routinely provided by Hollywood." This is obviously true, but what about the content of the film– its metaphysics, its significance?

Hibbs doesn't express exasperation (as many do) at the film's blatantly inconclusive nature. (Think about the first time you saw the film and just  how long you spent trying to figure out what, exactly, had happened?) He even casts a light of sympathy on this directorial choice, applauding it for leaving some of life's bigger questions, as the should be, open.

None of this is to say that a persistent and unquenched thirst for meaning is a good thing. In fact, Hibbs aruges the opposite. He seems to think that teenage brooding and pop psychology alike are not desirable in themselves:

"…bereft of direction or models of compelling beauty and sacrifice—aimless, adolescent longing will turn to destruction. One of the lessons of a film such as Darko is that facile self-help transcendence is as likely to breed reactionary nihilism in some children as it is to produce compliant souls in others."

Interesting. I rather like to see teen angst put in its place. Hibbs does not leave us without answers to these questions, and does not think college students should abandon their questioning. Rather, he suggest students should take a look at the Graham Greene story "The Destructors" (which I plan to soon) for a richer exploration into these questions.

Daniel Corbett

On his blog, Sivacracy, NYU professor Siva Vaidhyanathan has linked to a study that shows the p2p does not adversely affect CD sales.

The study, which opens by admitting that "[r]ecent technological and market forces have profoundly impacted the music industry" eventually concludes that this impact does not include a decline in CD sales. Interestingly, the study finds that p2p has lead to a decrease in songs' chart survival.

I believe this insight is just one more example of how p2p is supportive of, not antithetical to, free markets. That songs have a shorter shelf life means p2p has created more competition among artists. That CD sales have not gone down means that everyone is better off.

Daniel Corbett

I’m with you on this one, Morgan. In a response to comments on my first post, I suggested that Pianka may be a good scientist and a bad metaphysician at the same time. So long as I am not wearing a lab coat, I am comfortable with this assesment. I simply lack the scientific oomph to put someone like Pianka in his place. But I do know this: the debate is by no means a closed one. As I suggested in the first post, the UN has put forth some solid data suggesting that we may not be that bad off after all.

So where do we go from here? There can never be an all-out winner to be found in a debate over how humanity will meet its end. Hence our insistence on lumping Pianka together with “doomsday” preachers. So the question then becomes a matter of one’s life outlook. If you have strong humanistic tendencies, you will eschew debates over the end of the world, and if pressed, will make a prediction that emphasizes the triumph of the individual spirt. But if you have other motivations (religious or secular) that require a frail, sickly view of humanity it’s pretty tempting to simply say “we’re all doomed.”

Also, Morgan: nice job, by the way, on teasing out a connection between the latter world view and statism.

Daniel Corbett

Chilling tales of the "end of times" and various other apocalyptic stories have long been in the purview of religion. But it seems the church doesn't have a monopoly on these gloom and doom yarns. If you want the best end of times story, you may just want to find a good environmental scientist.

Recently, Eric Pianka, an ecologist at the University of Texas gave a speech at a meeting of the Texas Academy of Sciences in which he laid out a grim vision for the fate of humankind. According to Pianka, overpopulation is likely to trigger a sweeping epidemic that will wipe out 80 to 90 percent of humanity. From the speech:

"Things are gonna get better after the collapse because we won't be able to decimate the earth so much. And, I actually think the world will be much better when there's only 10 or 20 percent of us left."

It would be foolish to immediately dismiss Pianka as a hack. And there is certainly something to be said for scientists who spend their time researching controversial problems like overpopulation. Evidence can be found to support claims on both extremes ("were all going to die" vs. "overpopulation shmoverpopulation !"), but for the time being, things are actually looking pretty sanguine. According to a March 2002 report conducted by the UN, we need not fear overpopulation as much for two reasons: 1.) the development of new agricultural and medical tecnhnologies, and 2.) the relative decline in fertility on the global level.

Moving beyond the nuts and bolts of scientific arguments, Pianka's view is troubling for a much more profound reason: his naked lack of humanity. Like Pianka, I too am an environmentalist. I believe in preserving clean water, land, and air for all human beings. Unlike Pianka, I insist on grounding my claims on humanistic values. Simply put, I don't think the earth would be "much better when there's only 10 or 20 percent of us left." There is a startling similarity in the postures of Pianka and a Southern Baptist minister. Both stand on their moral high ground and proudly condemn the people of the earth for their "wickedness."

Daniel Corbett

Mandy Milliman, a very talented friend of mine at Maryland, has a piece up called 'So I Can Tell Them' on the National Society of Collegiate Scholars website. 

–Morgan Hubbard 

April 2006
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