We continue awaiting the decision of a grand jury on whether or not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, exactly 15 weeks ago today on a suburban street in Ferguson, Missouri. News reporters from across the globe have been camped out in Ferguson for months, their expectation of an announcement teased and disappointed several times in the last week alone. On Monday, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard in advance of the grand jury's decision. Yesterday, President Barack Obama, in what can only be judged to be an anticipation of Wilson's non-indictment, preemptively urged protesters not to use Ferguson as an "excuse for violence." In the meantime, demonstrators of various ilk remain on standby, rallying their troops, refining their organizational strategies, painting their oppositional signs, standing vigilantly at the ready for whatever may come.
But what are we waiting for, really, as we wait for Ferguson?
How we ought to understand the terms "civility" and "collegiality" and to what extent they can be enforced as professional norms are dominating discussions in academic journalism and the academic blogosphere right now. (So much so, in fact, that it's practically impossible for me to select among the literally hundreds of recent articles/posts and provide for you links to the most representative here.) Of course, the efficient cause of civility/collegiality debates' meteoric rise to prominence is the controversy surrounding Dr. Steven Salaita's firing (or de-hiring, depending on your read of the situation) by the University of Illinois only a month ago, but there are a host of longstanding, deeply contentious and previously seething-just-below-the-surface agendas that have been given just enough air now by the Salaita case to fan their smoldering duff into a blazing fire.
In the interest of full disclosure, I'll just note here at the start that I articulated my concerns about (and opposition to) policing norms of civility/collegiality or otherwise instituting "codes" to enforce such norms some months ago (March 2014) in a piece I co-authored with Edward Kazarian on this blog here (and reproduced on the NewAPPS site) entitled "Please do NOT revise your tone." My concern was then, as it remains still today, that instituting or policing norms of civility/collegiality is far more likely to protect objectionable behavior/speech by those who already possess the power to avoid sanction and, more importantly, is likely to further disempower those in vulnerable professional positions by effectively providing a back-door manner of sanctioning what may be their otherwise legitimately critical behaviors/speech. I'm particularly sympathetic to the recent piece "Civility is for Suckers" in Salon by David Palumbo-Liu (Stanford) who retraces the case-history of civility and free speech and concludes, rightly in my view, that "civility is in the eye of the powerful."
As someone who has spent the better part of her career researching, analyzing and teaching not only about the structure and nature of oppressive power regimes, but also better and worse ways to resist or transform such regimes, I've nevertheless been unable to settle in my own mind, to my own satisfaction, my position with regard to the moral or political value of revolutionary violence. I can say that my core moral intuitions (for whatever those are worth) definitely incline me toward favoring nonviolence as a principled ethical commitment... though, over the years, I have found those intuitive inclinations fading in both intensity and persuasiveness. As a philosopher, a citizen and a moral agent, I continue to be deeply unsettled by my own ambivalence on this matter.
First, a preliminary autobiographical anecdote: I spent a year between undergraduate and gradate school in the nonprofit sector, as the Director of the M.K.Gandhi Institute for the Study of Nonviolence. (That was back in 2000, when the Gandhi Institute was still housed at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, which is now my academic home, evidencing the kind of bizarro turn-of-fate that can only be credited to some particularly clever-- or ironically humorous-- supernatural bureaucrat.) I went to the Gandhi Institute initially because nonviolence was an all-but-unquestioned moral virtue for me at the time. But, after a few years in graduate school and consistently since, the many and varied until-then-unposed questions about the moral or political legitimacy of violence pressed their way to the fore of my mind. In roughly chronological order, I'd say that the combination of (1) my first real engagement with Frantz Fanon's argument in "Concerning Violence" (from his Wretched of the Earth), the arguments by Marx (and Marxists) in various texts advocating more or less violent revolution, and Noam Chomsky's considerations of the same, (2) my extensive research into human rights violations, transitional justice and transitional democracies, postcolonial theory, feminist theory and critical race theory, which collectively constituted the subject of my dissertation, (3) the radically dramatic shift in what counts as properly-speaking "political" and/or "revolutionary" violence in the post-9/11 world and (4) my own experiences, from near and afar, with the increasing number of (threatened, proto-, aborted, defeated and/or more-or-less successful) revolutions taking place in my adult lifetime (e.g., OWS, the Arab Spring and, much closer to home and far less violent, the current and ongoing academic revolution surrounding the Salaita case), all worked together to contribute to my rethinking the merits and demerits of violence as a way of resisting/combatting/correcting oppressive, exclusionary or otherwise unjust power regimes.
[Update 2: The report on which this discussion has been based is now being called into question. UIUC English Professor Ted Underwood tweets as follows: "@Ted_Underwood: Regret to say that last night's report from students appears premature. Faculty have since met with Wise, & report no change in position."]
[Update: Thanks to John Protevi for providing the correspondence address for the UIUC Board of Trustees in the comments below.]
Yesterday evening, reports began to emerge that University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise has forwarded Steven Salaita's appointment to the University's Board of Trustees, who will vote on it at their meeting ten days from now, on September 11th.
Obviously, this is a hopeful sign, given that the Chancellor's position until how has been to refuse to submit the appointment to the board—as Corey Robin puts the point, what amounts to a 'pocket veto.' That said, it's difficult to feel too much confidence that the process now underway is intended or should be expected to terminate in the restoration of Professor Salaita's position. Robin has spent some time parsing a couple of scenrios here; but the key thing to recognize, as John Protevi also noticed very quickly last night, is that this could easily be a move that the University is legally required to make or that it would be in its best interest to make if it wants to avoid being sued for denying Salaita due process.
Nevertheless, as Robin points out in his post, these developments also mean that those supporting the causes of academic freedom and faculty governance* in this case now have an important opportunity: ten days in which to bring maximum pressure on the Trustees to vote in favor of Salaita's appointment. In other words, the game is still on, and it must continue to be.
As I write this, at least 543 philosophers have signed our disciplinary pledge to boycott UIUC until this matter is resolved in Salaita's favor—see this post by Eric Schwitzgebel, where he explains his rationale for honoring the boycott.** Please consider adding your name if you have not yet done so. Additionally, please consider writing to the trustees directly expressing your support for Salaita's appointment, as well as your sense of the cost to the Unviersity's reputation should it fail to respect the principles of academic freedom and faculty governance in this case.
For they know they are not animals. And at the very moment when they discover their humanity, they begin to sharpen their weapons to secure its victory. --Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth America has been and remains an apartheid state. That sad but increasingly undeniable fact was made apparent last night in Ferguson, Missouri to a group of peaceful protesters amidst tanks, deafening LRADs, a haze of tear gas and a firestorm of rubber (and real) bullets. The other tragic fact made apparent in Ferguson last night is that America is only ever a hair's-breadth away from a police state... if we understand by "police"not a regulated body of law-enforcement peacekeepers empowered to serve and protect the citizenry, but rather a heavily-armed, extra-constitutional, militarized cadre of domestic soldiers who provoke and terrorize with impunity. Much of the time, we are able to forget or ignore these unfortunate truths about contemporary America-- and by "we" I mean our elected officials, our bureaucrats and financiers, and a lot of self-delusionally "post-racial," though really white, people-- but the mean truth of gross inequality, both de facto and de jure, remains ever-present in spite of our disavowals, simmering steadily just below the allegedly free and fair democratic veneer of our polis.
Greg Howard, journalist and parrhesiates, said it about as plainly as it can be said this past Tuesday in his article for Deadspin: America is not for black people. The truth of "American apartheid" should make us all ashamed, saddened, angry, deeply troubled as moral and political agents. And, what is more, it should frighten us all.
There's been a good bit conversation recently about the merits and demerits of "public philosophy" and, as someone who considers herself committed to public philosophy (whatever that is). I'm always happy to stumble across a piece of remarkably insightful philosophical work in the public realm. Case in point: Robin James (Philosophy, UNC-Charlotte) posted a really fascinating and original short-essay on the Cyborgology blog a couple of days ago entitled "An attempt at a precise & substantive definition of 'neoliberalism,' plus some thoughts on algorithms." There, she primarily aims to distinguish the sense in which we use the term "neoliberalism" to indicate an ideology from its use as a historical indicator, and she does so by employing some extremely helpful insights about algorithms, data analysis, the mathematics of music, harmony, and how we understand consonance and dissonance. I'm deeply sympathetic with James' underlying motivation for this piece, namely, her concern that our use of the term "neoliberalism" (or its corresponding descriptor "neoliberal") has become so ubiquitous that it is in danger of being evacuated of "precise and substantive" meaning altogether. I'm sympathetic, first, as a philosopher, for whom precise and substantive definitions are as essential as hammers and nails are to a carpenter. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I'm sympathetic with James' effort because as Jacques Derrida once said "the more confused the concept, the more it lends itself to opportunistic appropriation." Especially in the last decade or so, "neoliberalism" is perhaps the sine qua non term that has been, by both the Left and the Right, opportunistically appropriated.
James' definition of neoliberalism's ideological position ("everything in the universe works like a deregulated, competitive, financialized, capitalist market") ends up relying heavily on her distinction of neoliberalism as a particular type of ideology, i.e., one "in which epistemology and ontology collapse into one another, an epistemontology." In sum, James conjectures that neoliberal epistemontology purports to know what it knows (objects, beings, states of affairs, persons, the world) vis-a-vis "the general field of reference of economic anaylsis."
Suspecting that a disappointing Court decision is coming doesn’t make it any better when it arrives, as did the Hobby Lobby opinion this morning, in which a 5-4 majority (led by Justice Alito) said that it violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1992 to require a “closely held corporation” (“family-owned,” but expect lots of litigation; apparently some 90% of American corporations may qualify!) to purchase a health insurance policy that provided free contraception to which the owners of that corporation object on religious grounds (nice summary here). There is a substantial silver lining, which is that the Court seems to endorse an opt-out like the one provided for non-profits: certify that you object to providing contraception coverage, and you don’t pay for that part of the plan. Either the insurer or the government does. Accordingly, today’s ruling would also appear to pre-emptively resolve (see also here) the next round of religious objections to the ACA, where some of those non-profits contend that even signing the paperwork saying they object to providing contraception somehow violates their religious beliefs, because signing the paperwork means they start a process the end of which is contraception (so would employing women at all, but never mind that, apparently).
In a post last month for Demos, Matt Bruenig argued that if one in fact cares about childhood poverty, a recent conservative position promoting marriage as a means of reducing childhood poverty rates is as cruel as it is misguided (http://www.demos.org/blog/4/14/14/single-mother-child-poverty-myth). In a nutshell, Bruenig notes that countries with low childhood poverty rates have not achieved this success via promoting marriage, nor are their rates of single-parenthood markedly different from those in the U.S.
One way to put this basic observation is that people promoting marriage are deliberately ignoring most of the variation that matters. Yes, it is true (ceteris paribus, of course!) that in the international sample Bruenig looks at, in every country, the children of single parents are more likely to be poor than the children of married parents living together.* But far more variation in childhood poverty rates is associated with different policies in the different countries, and not with the relationship status of the parents; indeed, even if the child poverty rate in the U.S. dropped to the level associated with children living with married parents living together in the U.S. today, it would still be substantially higher, indeed, quite grossly higher, than in the other countries Bruenig looks at.
My friend Alan Nelson recently posted a link on facebook to the following article: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/23/business/economic-view-when-the-scientist-is-also-a-philosopher.html with an appropriately snarky note that the author, N. Gregory Mankiw (the Chair of the econ department at Harvard, natch), seemed to be arguing that the only changes to the status quo permissible are those that are verifiably Perato efficient improvements. An obvious corollary is that, since every reasonably substantive and complex policy change will have winners and losers, we should never change policies at all.
... in Turkey. I suppose no one should be surprised by what Recep Tayyip Erdogan is capable of by now, but this is definitely a new low. Below is a short BBC video narrating the chronology of events, and here is a piece in the Guardian from the point of view of those fighting back against the suppression of internet freedom in Turkey (H/T Lucas Thorpe for both).
I invite well informed readers to offer further elements on the situation in comments below.
The news has just been released that Rev. Fred Phelps, founder and lifelong shepherd of the Westboro Baptist Church (in Topeka, Kansas) has died at the age of 84. I find it difficult, I confess, to summon the normal human compassion that usually accompanies news of another's death in this case, largely because Phelps dedicated his life to broadcasting his rejection of-- not to mention enlisting others, including children, to stage carnival-like circuses around his rejection of-- what most people would consider even the most minimally-decent exhibitions of human compassion. Fred Phelps was one of the most infamous, outrageous, dishonorable and genuinely despicable hatemongers of my generation. And, what is more, Fred Phelps' hate was as ferocious and vicious as it was blind. Through the prism of his delusional and evangelical abhorrence, the Westboro congregants en masse considered themselves justified in casting an unjustifiably wide net of Judgment. Caught in that net were many: ranging from bona fide innocents against whom no reasonable person could or ought cast aspersions, like Matthew Shepard, to a whole host of other "collateral-damage" victims of Phelps' quasi-political positions who found themselves the inadvertent and inauspicious targets of his his flock's detestation.
I say again: I find it very, very difficult to summon the normal human compassion that ought to accompany the news of Fred Phelps' passing.
Nevertheless, these are the moments when our inclination toward Schadenfreude, however deeply affirming and deeply satisfactory indulging that sentiment may feel, ought to be on principle squelched.
This is just a short note to express my hope that all the celebrities and ordinary folks celebrating the two former members of pussy riot will recall that there are political prisoners rotting in US prisons as well. This is not to criticize TFMPR - I don't really understand the issues behind the split, but that aside, I take it that their primary moral responsibility is to stand up to abuses in Russia. On the other hand, while there is nothing at all wrong with cheering on these efforts from the safe Brooklyn sidelines, this is not the primary moral responsibility of someone in the US. For those who would like to learn more about US political prisoners, there are quite a few excellent resources Here
Is an African American political prisoner in the US. He was convicted of killing a police officer in the course of resistance work with the armed wing of the New African Liberation Army. He has been held in solitary confinement for the last 30 years, in violation of numerious international agreements, and under conditions that clearly constitute torture. Below is a letter from various Nobel Laureates calling for his release into the general population, and information on how to support him.
He is gone. When someone is 94, you can't call it a surprise. But when someone has always been there as a part of just about everything you cared about politically your entire life, it somehow is. We are much the poorer.
There is a theme I'm seeing over and over in the coverage of Mandela's funeral - in everything from mainstream press, to "expert" commentators both inside and outside the press, and essays on the left. People note how brilliant, effective, humane, democratic, strategic, etc. Mandela was when leading the resistance movement. Then they note that he was less effective, less strategic, less brilliant, less democratic as president. (Those on the left add that he began collaborating with international corporations, imperialist or otherwise disreputable states, etc.) And then they move onto how much this negative trend has continued and in some cases wonder whether there is a leader who can bring South Africa back to the excitement and progress of the revolution.
What is striking is that everyone takes this history to reflect on Mandela, on Mandela's legacy as a person. It is if the main observation is that this guy was great for a time and only good later, to be followed by people who were massively worse. And so we are led to take from this the lesson that we need to find someone who is as he was earlier but able to maintain this disciplined humanity as president.
No one that I have seen has so much as entertained the possibility that this difference might imply not changes in Mandela, but the difference between democratic voluntary movement coalitions and institutionalized states, even ones with marvelous constitutions like that of South Africa. If we did consider seriously this other possibility - that it is the structures that were the independent variable in this experiment - might we possibly be led to the thought that the way such revolutions are organized is a better model for society than the way states are?
My own involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle began in the mid 1980s when I was a graduate student at Pitt. It was a formative period for me, a time when I was learning to be an activist and organizer, and taking that on as part of my life and identity. throughout that time, Mandela was a symbol more than a real live figure. We read his speeches and analysis, studied his life. But locked up in prison, he was not someone we interacted with, even from a distance. Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Joe Slovo, Ruth First, and many others were the ongoing partners in our thinking. Numerous less well known representatives came to our campuses and engaged with us directly. Mandela was this figure on "free Nelson Mandela" posters, but nonetheless important for all that. Of course this change with his release from prison and the transformation of roles that he took on as a result. In this first post, I want to reflect on the importance that this time had for me, by passing on a few little vignettes. I invite others to do the same in comments. this might seem odd, talking about my own life on the occasion of the passing of one of the world-historical greats. But as I see it, a good measure of the importance of Mandela lies in the changes he brought about in so many thousands of less significant people like me.
This is my first foray into newAPPS waters-- and I thank the newAPPS coterie for the invitation!-- so I thought I’d start by tossing out a fairly straightforward philosophical claim: Tolerance is not a virtue.
When I say that tolerance is not a virtue, to be clear, I don’t mean to imply that tolerance is a vice. No reasonable moral agent, certainly no moral philosopher worth his or her salt, would concede that. Rather, I only want to point out that “being tolerant” requires at most little if not nothing more than refraining from being vicious. Not only is it the case that we don’t define any other virtue in this explicitly negative way, but we also don't generally ascribe any particular kind of moral credit to persons who are merely refraining from being vicious.
Aside from the nauseating mythological reminiscences of the Kennedy presidency, news today is dominated by discussion of the US Senate's decision to eliminate the possibility of filibuster for certain nomination votes. All manner of dire consequence has been suggested on both sides of this procedural issue. (Has there ever been a more hyperbolic characterization of anything than calling this change in voting procedures a "nuclear option"?) It seems to me that there is a deeper issue here that points to a rather depressingly misguided focus of intellectual thought on collective rationality, one that cuts across a wide variety of disciplines.
In the end, that’s the real danger we are now facing. Not just the
shutdown, but the rise of the shutdown strategy. By unraveling the
threads of our joint commitment to shared governance, it raises the
chances those threads will be rewoven into something else: something
deeply, and tragically, undemocratic.--Michael Lynch, Opinionator, New York Times, 10/15/2013
Plato's most important observation in political philosophy is that no constitutional system lasts forever. As Michael Lynch discerns in the important piece that I quote above (it's the concluding paragraph), there are dynamics internal to the democratic process that may lead to its own unraveling. Lynch mentions three distinct ones: (i) if "legislative gridlock" becomes "a fixture of American
political life, it will be more tempting, more reasonable, to think that
someone should “step in” to make the decisions. The chorus
calling for action — for the president, for example, to go around the
Congress — will only increase." (ii) When politics stops being perceived to be about (Madisonian) give-and-take, then the sense of shared identity will unravel. (iii) A permanent albeit powerful minority systematically makes normal state functioning impossible--the so-called regular "shut-down strategy." [In (iii) I blend Lynch and Schliesser.]
In response to (i) the Cato's Institute's Roger Pilon, remarks: "Well, that’s already happening – witness the many lawless changes to the
Obamacare law that have been unilaterally imposed by the president,
without so much as a notice to Congress. But it’s not because of any
shutdown threat. It’s because (iv) respect for constitutional limits is today
so atrophied." [HT Jason Stanley on Facebook] From context, it is clear that Pilon is thinking of the growth of the welfare state ("special interest juggernaut poured through with one redistributive
program after another, leading to the unsustainable war of all against
all we see today.") Given his focus on limitations, it is surprising that Pilon does not express concern about the limitless growth of executive power that leads to permanent foreign wars and the surveillance state. Either way, we can recognize in (iv) Hayek's old road to serfdom thesis. But with this particular twist that, rather than edging our way toward totalitarianism, we have already returned to the state of nature ("war of all against
all.") Obviously, if we are in the state of nature then the need for a Hobbesian sovereign to get us out of it will be embraced by all minimally rational agents.
Following on Eric's post about the Nobel in economics, a brief comment on the latest Peace Prize. A number of recent prizes have been truly bizarre - given to Obama in 2009 for, I guess, getting elected and not being Bush; to the EU in 2012 for, I guess, not totally dissolving, and now to the UNs Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for, I guess, being pressed into service in Syria where they might, at some future date, possibly do something useful as that country dissolves into chaos and mass death. But as an award to the person (well, nevermind) who "shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses" color me skeptical. In particular, it is worth remembering the role this body was assigned by the UN in the leadup to the criminal invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Neil has an interesting analysis of "why Congressional Republicans are taking extreme bargaining positions
that shut down the government and risk defaulting on debt." He points to Republican "primary problem, which "makes Republican officeholders do the crazy things that the Tea
Party likes, because they fear losing their primaries even more than
they fear losing the general election." This has it backward in two important respects. First, it fails to understand the rationality of the Tea Party caucus. Second, by demonizing the Tea Party as "crazy," it facilitates the far more dangerous tendency among educated people to grow impatient with democracy and pine for rule by experts.
First, since 1988, the Republicans have won the popular vote once: in 2004. Their House majority is now primarily a product of gerrymandering and superior mid-term turn-out. If you look at the congressional Tea Party heartland (see this good map at the New Yorker), it is primarily rural, elderly, white, and Evangelical. With the exception of 'Evangelical,' perhaps, this is not the future of America. And even born again America is remarkably fluid when it comes to so-called 'life-style' choices--the generational shift of opinion on Gay Marriage has been phenomenally fast. That is to say, these are folk that know they will loose national elections time and again. Obviously Republicans can still put together winning national coalitions, but as the Tea Party heartland learned under the three Bush presidencies, these will not reflect their values and interests. They are not acting as co-partners in government awaiting their turn at the helm, but as the legal opposition. They are playing a lousy hand superbly and -- best of all -- by democratic means.
That's not crazy.
We sought ways around the gridlock of current debates over the role
of religion in public life by examining the way an early 18th century
philosopher and theologian had responded to similar circumstances by
refashioning the concept of God to accommodate modern ways of thought.
The Australian Research Council’s panel of experts, acting on the advice
of independent specialist assessors, deemed it worth pursuing. On the
basis of its title alone, however, Briggs deems it “ridiculous”.
Just as Hannah Arendt saw that the combined action of loyal managers can
give rise to unspeakable systemic evil, so too generation W has seen
that complicity within the surveillance state can give rise to evil as
well — not the horrific evil that Eichmann’s bureaucratic efficiency
brought us, but still an Orwellian future that must be avoided at all
costs.--Peter Ludlow, "The Banality of Systematic Evil" in the NYT's The Stone.
This splendid review by Kelly Sorensen of Wolterstorff's recent volume of essays (edited by the distinguished philosopher, Terence Cuneo [this goes unremarked in the review]) calls attention to six "arguments against public reason liberalism." The first two are described as follows:
First, public reason liberalism actually is not realistic
enough. One's capable adult fellow citizens clearly do not universally
endorse the same reasons. So public reason liberalism has to idealize --
it has to imagine what reasons capable adult fellow citizens would endorse
if they met certain hypothetical conditions, with the presumption that a
consensus or convergence about these reasons would emerge. The
hypothetical conditions vary from one brand of public reason liberalism
to another...Why think
disagreement about these reasons will disappear under idealization? ... So public reason liberalism is not realistic
enough: we are stuck with pluralism, and we cannot idealize our way out
Second, public reason liberalism is paternalistic and patronizing,
despite its lip service to respect. Suppose Jones favors some policy on
religious reasons that do not qualify as public reasons. Smith, a fan of
public reason liberalism, is stuck with telling Jones, "You shouldn't
express your reasons in public discussion, and you shouldn't vote on
them. Here instead are the kinds of reasons that count -- reasons you
would endorse if you were not under-informed and rationally impaired."
Jones will of course find this condescending and patronizing.
Some might wish to explore the degree public reason Liberalism (Rawls, Larmore, etc.) can respond to these problems or needs to be amended by what Sorensen calls "aspirational public reason liberalism." That's not my concern here. Rather, it's fascinating (to me) to see the embrace of political pluralism by a central figure in Reformed philosophy and theology. (Now, one might claim that this just continues Dooyeweerd's embrace of pluralism in a religiously divided society, but Dooyeweerd's philosophy has its own problem(s) with paternalism. [Recall this on Dooyeweerd & Plantinga.]) Progressive and Conservative American protestant political thought is generally characterized by monistic conceptions of the good, which animate a variety of (often noble) moral 'crusades.'
Over lunch my dad asked me why the use of chemical weapons is thought morally worse than other weapons (some of which capable of tremendous carnage and deaths). I couldn't do much better than, "it's against international law." Upon reflection my answer is not entirely silly (I return to that below). It is worth nothing that as so-called 'weapons of mass destruction' go chemical weapons are by no means the worst in killing potential. First I turn to Owen Schaefer, who wrote a very thoughtful blog post with a purported answer:
It is indeed generally worse to be killed by a chemical weapon than a conventional one. Chemical agents such as nerve gas typically cause significant suffering before death – choking, vomiting, chemical burns, defecation, convulsions and the like. For those lucky enough to survive, chronic neurological damage can be expected. Conventional weapons are not pleasant either, to be sure, and can similarly cause severe burns, painful wounds, infections, loss of limbs and so on. Nevertheless, the suffering is pretty much inevitable in a chemical attack, whereas at least those killed by conventional weapons may be killed quickly, even instantly. What’s more, chemical weapons are more dispersive than most conventional weapons, more likely to cause collateral damage to noncombatants. These factors indicate we have strong pro tanto reasons to prefer, if a conflict is going to occur at all, that conventional rather than chemical weapons be used.--Schaefer.
I doubt this answer will fully satisfy my dad (a Holocaust survivor who has seen his share of horrors). For Schaefer does not really address the hypocrisy charge given the fact that the legal status quo on the use of Nuclear weapons is -- pace this advisory opinion -- far more permissive. (I am no expert, so feel free to correct me.) Because I am skeptical about the 'more likely to cause collateral damage' claim, it appears that the main moral rationale for focused outrage over the use of chemical weapons is that we prefer our mass killing without prior suffering to the killed. It is, thus, in the spirit of the displacement of torture and needless suffering in 'civilized' penal codes (suggested by Foucault) since the late Enlightenment.
It is, of course, no argument against this anti-suffering ethic to note that it fits a common anesthized (or aestheticized) picture of war. Yet, if consequences matter (as they clearly do in Schaefer's analysis), we also need to ask ourselves if we are taking all the relevant consequences into considerations.
Most of you will have seen this fine Slate article praising
Stevie Wonder for his boycott of Florida as long as the ‘Stand your Ground’ law
is in place. It starts by pointing out the paradox of the position of African
Americans in the US society: American music (and one might add, sports) has
been dominated by African Americans for decades, which means that a small group
of African Americans are among the most respected and praised citizens of the
country, and yet as a group African Americans suffer systematic injustice and
exclusion at several levels. (Recall for example that they constitute an
absolutely disproportionate percentage of the prison population.)
This means that a few prominent African Americans such as
Stevie Wonder may be in a position to campaign (and be heard) against the
systematic exclusion of African Americans, and in particular to hit the
establishment where it hurts: hit them with music, or more precisely with the lack
thereof. Such a simple and yet coherent idea: as long as some segments of the
population do not treat African Americans with respect, they don’t get to enjoy
their music either. It’s only fair!
Suppose that you want to defend someone or some institution from criticism that it has engaged in unacceptable behavior of type t. Here's a common rhetorical strategy understood by all professional pundits: First, you define some spectrum, relevant to t. Then you find a way to identify demons at the right and left-hand ends of that spectrum that will allow you to place your hero in the rational middle. It helps if one of the demons can be associated - even if unfairly - with actual people, preferably people that are already demonized by your likely readers. Balancing that first demon needn't actually be real people. Rather, you can use some vague phrase that suggests demonizable extremism. Such non-referential vaguery is useful because it allows you to suggest to readers that real critics fit this extreme, without having to actually defend claims about what they really say. Next you assume the middle, with high fanfare and moral certainty. Finally, you rhetorically assimilate your spectrum to three discrete points: point occupied by you and your hero; the crazies on one end, and all critics on the other.
Voila: Hero defended without having to actually address any of the substantive criticisms. No one who is a crazy spectrum-ending demon needs to be engaged with seriously.
It is not only in Turkey that police
brutality is being deployed against protesters: last Thursday, a protest
against an increase in bus and subway fares in São Paulo turned very sour, with
the police using the well-known arsenal of tear gas, rubber bullets etc. against
peaceful protesters holding flowers. In particular, many journalists were badly
hurt and/or detained while covering the events. (To be clear, what happened in
São Paulo does not come anywhere near the severity of the current situation in
Turkey, but there are some striking similarities.) Since then, protests in
other Brazilian cities have erupted, indicating a general situation of
There are two factors worth pointing out to
explain how such events could have come about. The first is the fact that,
while there has been undeniable prosperity in Brazil over the last decade, and
much has been done to fight social and economic inequality (such as the
successful ‘Bolsa Familia’ program), prices have ski-rocketed everywhere, especially in cities such as Rio and São Paulo. (I remember when we went to
Brazil on holiday 10 years ago, and everything was so much cheaper than in Europe. Now, I don’t even bother converting the prices into Euros, otherwise
I’d be constantly in shock and would not enjoy the vacation.) Public transport,
in particular, came to represent a big toll in a family’s monthly expenses, but
dissatisfaction with the higher transport fares represents dissatisfaction with
outrageous prices everywhere, for everything.