A Teachable Moment For The Republican Party

That famous Republican Party discipline (or, ideological commitment), the one that made sure that many of Barack Obama’s legislative priorities were derailed through relentless parliamentary grandstanding, that ensured the federal government’s operations were shut down, producing misery and inconvenience for many, that produced budgetary brinksmanship of the highest order and negatively affected the national debt rating, it also ensured a stinging defeat for the Donald Trump-Paul Ryan effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The Freedom Caucus–that benign moniker which identifies a group of apparently sworn nihilists determined to gut government from the inside out–did not find the modified Republican replacement for ‘Obamacare’ sufficiently heartless; it healed too many, served too many; not even the prospect of doing damage to Paul Ryan’s risible and entirely concocted image as a policy wonk was enough to deter them from their opposition to the bill. (The Trump Administration’s attempts to placate this crew led in turn to so-called Republican ‘moderates’ to threaten to abandon ship; causal responsibility rests solely with the Freedom Caucus.)

Captain Trump and the USS Republican Party were headed for the shoals, and that’s where they ended up. Capitol Hill is not a campaign rally venue. There are old lessons here to be learned, apparently.  In writing of the various Athenian power struggles that preceded the Battle of Marathon against Persian forces (The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon, And Its Impact on Western Civilization, Bantam, New York, 2013, p. 80), Jim Lacey makes note of the struggles between the aristocrats Isagoras and Cleisthenes:

With Isagoras deposed, Cleisthenes and his supporters returned. Whatever his own predisposition, he now had to deliver on the promises he had made during his political struggles with Isagoras and the other noble families. He probably was also beginning to understand that it is easier for an adroit politician to manipulate the masses than it is to manage powerful competing factions.

It is small comfort for the American polity to realize that this bill failed because a Republican faction did not find it dastardly enough, because its primary architects were simply too incompetent to shepherd it through the legislative gauntlet. This same factionalization and incompetence could very well help produce a more radical version of another bill, which would gut comfort and safety elsewhere.

But there is another side to this story of Republican failure, which is that Republican representatives and senators chickened out of a ‘No’ vote because their constituents threatened them with electoral reprisals. They did so by calling in, by attending town halls, by sending postcards; in so doing, they proved, yet again, that old-fashioned citizen pressure on elected representatives works. Give the bastards hell, indeed. Elected Republicans are finding out–the hard way–that the President’s popularity is both deep and wide; it brings all the formerly somnolent members of the electorate to the yard; that loud presence has made the threat of disaster in 2018 more likely; and if there is anything that will help induce flight from His Orangeness’ apparently contagious success, it is the fear of contracting a fatal electoral disease.

Much damage could still be done to the Republic and its denizens; there are more bullets to be dodged; but also some lessons to be learned by those infected with hubris.

Report On Brooklyn College Teach-In On ‘Web Surveillance And Security’

Yesterday, as part of ‘The Brooklyn College Teach-In & Workshop Series on Resistance to the Trump Agenda,’ I facilitated a teach-in on the topic of ‘web surveillance and security.’ During my session I made note of some of the technical and legal issues that are play in these domains, and how technology and law have conspired to ensure that: a) we live in a regime of constant, pervasive surveillance; b) current legal protections–including the disastrous ‘third-party doctrine‘ and the rubber-stamping of governmental surveillance ‘requests’ by FISA courts–are simply inadequate to safeguard our informational and decisional privacy; c) there is no daylight between the government and large corporations in their use and abuse of our personal information. (I also pointed my audience to James Grimmelmann‘s excellent series of posts on protecting digital privacy, which began the day after Donald Trump was elected and continued right up to inauguration. In that post, Grimmelmann links to ‘self-defense’ resources provided by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Ars Technica.)

I began my talk by describing how the level of surveillance desired by secret police organizations of the past–like the East German Stasi, for instance–was now available to the NSA, CIA, and FBI, because of social networking systems; our voluntary provision of every detail of our lives to these systems is a spook’s delight. For instance, the photographs we upload to Facebook will, eventually, make their way into the gigantic corpus of learning data used by law enforcement agencies’ facial recognition software.

During the ensuing discussion I remarked that traditional activism directed at increasing privacy protections–or the enacting of ‘self-defense’ measures–should be part of a broader strategy aimed at reversing the so-called ‘asymmetric panopticon‘: citizens need to demand ‘surveillance’ in the other direction, back at government and corporations. For the former, this would mean pushing back against the current classification craze, which sees an increasing number of documents marked ‘Secret’ ‘Top Secret’ or some other risible security level–and which results in absurd sentences being levied on those who, like Chelsea Manning, violate such constraints; for the latter, this entails demanding that corporations offer greater transparency about their data collection, usage, and analysis–and are not able to easily rely on the protection of trade secret law in claiming that these techniques are ‘proprietary.’ This ‘push back,’ of course, relies on changing the nature of the discourse surrounding governmental and corporate secrecy, which is all too often able to offer facile arguments that link secrecy and security or secrecy and business strategy. In many ways, this might be the  most onerous challenge of all; all too many citizens are still persuaded by the ludicrous ‘if you’ve done nothing illegal you’ve got nothing to hide’ and ‘knowing everything about you is essential for us to keep you safe (or sell you goods’ arguments.

Note: After I finished my talk and returned to my office, I received an email from one of the attendees who wrote:


Talking Philosophy With Kids At The Brooklyn Public Library

This Sunday afternoon at 4PM, I will be participating in a Philosophy for Kids event at the Grand Army Plaza branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (in the Info Commons Lab); the event is sponsored by the Cultural Services Office of the French Embassy. I’ll be functioning as a kind of Philosophical Advice Columnist taking on, and considering, the following question with an audience made up of six to twelve-year old youngsters):

A friend of mine has a three-year old daughter. Every piece of clothing he buys her is pink and floral. Every toy is a doll or makeup kit. He’s already started joking about how she won’t be allowed to have a boyfriend until she’s 30. This all makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I don’t know whether I’d be crossing a line if I said something. Can I let him know how I feel?

After I posted this announcement on my Facebook page, a friend asked the following question–in what seems a rather irate tone of voice:

The bigger question is why someone should think that they have a right to even think about how someone else is raising their children in the first place, let alone believe that have a right to interfere.

This is a very good question. The straightforward response to it is that because we live in a community, a society, our actions always carry the possibility of bearing on the welfare of others, no matter how self-directed or ‘personal’ they might seem; it is a libertarian and liberal fantasy to imagine that we are isolated islands in the social sea; we are caught up, inextricably, in the lives of others, and they in ours. A family bringing up their child in a sexist or racist environment is raising someone who might very well inculcate those pernicious doctrines and then act on them–to the detriment of someone else’s child. We form political communities directed toward the common good, even as we strive to maximize our individual welfare; the challenge of figuring out how individual freedoms and self-determination can be safeguarded and enhanced while ensuring the rights of others are not infringed on is a central challenge to political and moral philosophy.

To make this discussion a little more personal: I’m the father of a four-year old daughter, and I try my best to bring her up as well as I can to prepare her for the challenges that will undoubtedly confront her in a patriarchal society. My task would be made incomparably easier if the parents of male offspring brought up their children to be sensitive to such considerations as well; it undoubtedly takes a village to raise a child.

This afternoon, I will not pretend the question raised above has a straightforward answer, and will not attempt to provide one to my ‘discussion group’; instead, I will try to draw out some of the central issues involved, perhaps by engaging in some level of abstraction so that the general form of this particular query can be exposed, and the difficulties of answering it can be confronted directly. I’m looking forward to it.

Dehumanization As Prerequisite For Moral Failure

In An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (§III – Of Justice, Part I, Hackett Edition, Indianapolis, 1983, pp. 25-26), David Hume writes:

Were there a species of creatures intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment; the necessary consequence, I think, is that we should be bound by the laws of humanity to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not, properly speaking, lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them, nor could they possess any right or property, exclusive of such arbitrary lords. Our intercourse with them could not be called society, which supposes a degree of equality; but absolute command on the one side, and servile obedience on the other. Whatever we covet, they must instantly resign: Our permission is the only tenure, by which they hold their possessions: Our compassion and kindness the only check, by which they curb our lawless will: And as no inconvenience ever results from the exercise of a power, so firmly established in nature, the restraints of justice and property, being totally USELESS, would never have place in so unequal a confederacy.

This is plainly the situation of men, with regard to animals; and how far these may be said to possess reason, I leave it to others to determine. The great superiority of civilized Europeans above barbarous Indians, tempted us to imagine ourselves on the same footing with regard to them, and made us throw off all restraints of justice, and even of humanity, in our treatment of them.

For the past couple of weeks my students in my Landmarks of Philosophy class have been reading and discussing Hume’s Enquiry. In the course of our classroom discussion this past Wednesday–on §V – Why Utility Pleases–one of my students said, “It seems that if our moral behavior depends on a kind of sympathy or empathy with our fellow human beings, then one way to make possible immoral behavior would be to dehumanize others so that we don’t see them as our fellow human beings at all.” In the course of the discussion that followed, I did not specifically invoke the passage cited above–instead, we spent some time discussing historical examples of this potentially and actually genocidal maneuver and examined some of the kinds of language deployed in them instead. (Slavery and the Holocaust provide ample evidence of the systematic deployment of dehumanizing rhetoric and action in inducing and sustaining racism and genocide.) But in that passage, Hume captures quite well the possibility alluded to by my student; if morality depends on recognizing our fellow humans as moral subjects, a feeling grounded in sentiment, emotion, sympathy, and empathy, then dehumanization–by language, action, systematic ‘education’–becomes a necessary prelude to overriding these feelings of ours so that the stage may be set for moral atrocity. This is a lesson that seems to have been learned well by all those who rely on humans mistreating other humans in order to implement their favored political ideologies; the modern tactic of the utter effacement of the victims of moral failure by remote warfare or by invisibility in media reports is but the latest dishonorable instance of this continuing miseducation of mankind.

A Modest Proposal To Cull The Human Herd

Feeding the elderly and the young i.e., the economically unproductive, is a terribly wasteful, irrational enterprise–programs like Meals on Wheels and after-school lunches are but the most glaring instances of this catastrophically misdirected act of charity; acts like these will never produce any tangible, meaningful results like an increase in the Gross Domestic Product or the Gross National Product, indeed, the Gross Product of anything whatsoever. The elderly and the young merely consume resources, among which is the most valuable of all, the time and attention of those who could be otherwise engaged in more useful and productive endeavors–all of which may be located in those zones of virtue and redemption, the workspace and the office of the corporation (not the public sector enterprise.) Parents all too often have to turn their eyes away from useful work to attend to the plaintive cries of their useless children, while on the other end of the age spectrum, those same workers have to minister to their useless parents, who continue to occupy space, drink drinking water, eat edible food, and contribute to this planet’s terrible climate change situation by increasing our atmosphere’s carbon dioxide content. Children can at least be mildly amusing, while the elderly are anything but. Enough is enough; our civilization is at a genuine point of crisis.

Any strategy to ameliorate this state of affairs must begin with a recognition of our fundamental human nature: we are individuals, first and foremost. We are born free, radically independent of family and home and state; we die free, hopefully alone, all by ourselves. We take care of ourselves from the moment of our birth, tending to our needs with rugged solitary enterprise; we disdain the helping hand at every step. We feed ourselves, we clean ourselves, we clothe ourselves; we are pioneers of the spirit, heart, and mind. The company of other human beings is always an irritation, one only tolerated in our recognition of them as potential future consumers for the goods we will try to sell them at some point in the future.  The care of others is a burden; we need little care as we grow up, and indeed receive none, so why should we extend our care outwards? We were left by the wayside at birth; so must we do to others.

Faced with these incontrovertible facts about ourselves, a simple plan of action suggests itself for dealing with the problem of the too-young and the too-old: a gentle but firm shove over the edge. No more bleating for attention from the children; no more calls for assistance from the elderly. A population made up entirely of working-age adults is an economist’s delight; it should be our aspirational ideal, guiding our social and economic policies at every step; it should inform the moral instruction we provide to our child..er, each other. The qualms we might feel as we prepare to enact this policy are merely the vestiges of an archaic sensibility, one that must bow its head before the relentless logic of the economic enterprise, and the moral demands it places upon us.

On Being Honored By Inclusion In The Canary Mission’s ‘Blacklist’

Yesterday, the Canary Mission–a “fear-mongering, McCarthyesque” organization that claims to “document the people and groups that are promoting hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on college campuses in North America”–decided to place me on its so-called ‘watch-list.’ Roughly, the Canary Mission looks for college professors or student activists that speak up about, or participate in, any on-campus happenings related to the rights of the Palestinian people, and then tries to cow them with the publications of its ‘profiles’ on its website and social media; as might be expected, the epithet ‘anti-Semite’ is thrown around rather freely. The Canary Mission accuses me of ‘defending hate speech’ and ‘defending student militancy’:

Defending Hate Speech

Chopra regularly champions the cause of Professor Steven Salaita, the Edward Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and a frequent subject of Chopra’s blog….In November 2014, the philosophy department at Brooklyn co-sponsored a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) event to support Salaita and critique Salaita’s firing from U of I. In addition, SJP invited students to witness a “conversation” about “the constant push by Zionists to silence academic discourse relating to the Palestinian struggle and criticisms of Israel.”

Chopra, who was instrumental in securing the philosophy department’s sponsorship, wrote that it was an “honorable act by this department to ‘co-sponsor’ the event.”

Defending Student Militancy

On May 20, 2016, Chopra testified in defense of two SJP activists, Sarah Aly and Thomas DeAngelis, who were among nine Brooklyn College Student Coalition (BCSC) members whose disruptive behavior prompted the shutdown of a Faculty Council meeting on campus….Aly and DeAnglis were initially charged with violating CUNY’s code of conduct, including intentional obstruction, failure to comply with lawful directions, unauthorized occupancy of college facilities and disorderly conduct.

On May 20, 2016, Chopra disputed the veracity of the charges and urged the administration to “Drop the charges; apologize to the students.” The next day, Chopra wrote that “Acquittals don’t address this damage; reparations are due” to Aly and DeAngelis.

On May 31, 2016, the anti-Israel legal advocacy organizations Palestine Legal andCenter for Constitutional Rights (CCR) represented Aly and DeAngelis at a five hour  disciplinary hearing, where they were ultimately charged and admonished by the university with “failure to comply with lawful directions.”

I plead not guilty to the first charge, and guilty to the second.

Rather predictably, after the Canary Mission tweeted a link to my profile–which sadly, fails to recognize my ‘full professor’ rank and demotes me to ‘associate professor’–along with my photograph, some abusive, poorly written tweets were sent my way. Name and ‘shame’; set up a target who can be then abused on social media and elsewhere; induce, hopefully, a chilling effect. This is the Canary Mission’s style, so to speak. (Some background on its work may be found here in this Alternet piece; these articles at Electronic Intifada serve to highlight its many attempted interventions at stifling free speech on American university campuses.)

Needless to say, I’m honored to be so ‘recognized’ by the Canary Mission. Clearly, someone has been reading my posts here; such confirmation of widespread readership is always gratifying. Furthermore, one can only hope that this newfound fame will bring me more readers, and perhaps direct more attention to the very issues the Canary Mission would like to sweep under the rug. The folks at the Mission were kind enough to include links to my blog posts on my profile page, though disappointingly enough, the ‘Infamous Quotes’ section is not filled out yet, and neither have I seen a sharp upswing in ‘hits’ yet on my blog; one can still hope, I suppose.

Needless to say, there’s little to be done with this attempt at blacklisting other than to make note of its risibility, and to carry on as before.

Brave Analytic Philosophers Use Trump Regime To Settle Old Academic Scores

Recently, Daniel Dennett took the opportunity to, as John Protevi put it, “settle some old academic scores.” He did this by making the following observation in an interview with The Guardian:

I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: “Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.””

Roughly, postmodernism brought you Donald Trump. If only Trump voters hadn’t read so much Deleuze or Derrida or Spivak, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are now. Dennett has now been joined in this valiant enterprise of Defending Truth and Knowledge by Timothy Williamson who makes the following remarks in an interview with The Irish Times:

No philosophical manoeuvre can stop politicians telling lies. But some philosophical manoeuvres do help politicians obscure the distinction between truth and falsity.

When I visited Lima, a woman interviewed me for YouTube. She had recently interviewed a ‘postmodernist’ philosopher. When she pointed at a black chair and asked ‘Is that chair black or white?’ he replied ‘Things are not so simple’.

The more philosophers take up such obscurantist lines, the more spurious intellectual respectability they give to those who try to confuse the issues in public debate when they are caught out in lies. Of course, many things in public affairs are genuinely very complicated, but that’s all the more reason not to bring in bogus complexity….

Obviously it wasn’t mainly postmodernism or relativism that won it for Trump, indeed those philosophical views are presumably more widespread amongst his liberal opponents than amongst his supporters, perhaps most of whom have never heard of them. Still, those who think it somehow intolerant to classify beliefs as true or false should be aware that they are making it easier for people like Trump, by providing them with a kind of smokescreen.

In the course of an informal Facebook discussion, I made the following responses to Dennett’s remarks (which I described as ‘very silly’):

[We] could just as well lay the blame on the very idea of truth. Perhaps if truth wasn’t so exalted so much, we wouldn’t have so many people claiming that they should be followed just because what they said was the truth. Especially because many lies really are better for us than some truths. Perhaps we would have been better off seeing what worked for us, rather than obsessing about naming things as true or false.

Fascist insurgencies like the ones here in our country are not relying on post-modern critiques of truth and fact to prop up their claims; they need only rely on something far simpler: the fact that talking of truth and facts grants them an aura of respectability. The elevation (or demotion) of this political debate to a matter of metaphysics and epistemology is to play their game because we will find these pillars of ours to actually rest on sand. Far better to point out to proponents of ‘alternative facts’ that these facts will not help them send their kids to school or cure their illnesses. Let us not forget that these ‘facts’ help them in many ways now: it finds them a community, makes them secure, gives vent to their anger and so on. I’ve never liked the way everyone is jumping up and down about how some great methodological crisis is upon us in this new era, which is entirely ab initio. People have been using ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ all through history and using them to achieve political ends.

On a related note, Ali Minai responds to another set of claims against ‘relativism’ made in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Alan Jay Levinovitz:

In fact, it is non-relativism that has generally been the weapon of choice for authoritarians. The weaponization of “alternative facts” may be aided by relativism but its efficacy still relies on the opposite attitude. It works only when its targets accept “alternative facts” as actually true.

What these responses to the Defenders of Truth Against Relativism make quite clear are the following propositions:

  1. So-called ‘postmodern’ critiques are more often than not, the political weapons of choice for those critiquing authoritarian regimes: they serve as a theoretical grounding for claims against ‘dominant’ or ‘totalizing’ narratives that issue from such regimes.
  2. Non-relativism or absolutism about truth is the preferred theoretical, argumentative, and rhetorical platform for authoritarians. Let us not forget that science was a challenge to the absolutism about truth that revealed religions claimed to profess; the Enlightenment brought many ‘alternative facts’ in its wake. Those worked; their ‘truth’ was established by their working. All the mathematical proofs and telescope gazings would have been useless had the science and technology built on them not ‘worked.’
  3. When fascists and authoritarians present ‘alternative facts’ and reject established knowledge claims, they do not present their alternative claims as ‘false’ because ‘truth’ is to be disdained; rather, they take an explicitly orthodox line in claiming ‘truth’ for their claims. ‘Truth’ is still valuable; it is still ‘correspondence’ to facts that matters.

The target of the critiques above then, is misplaced several times over. (Moreover, Willamson’s invocation of the philosopher who could not give a ‘straightforward’ answer to his interlocutor is disingenous at best. What if the ‘postmodernist’ philosopher wanted to make a point about colorblindness, or primary or secondary qualities? I presume Williamson would have no trouble with an analytic philosopher ‘complicating’ matters in such fashion. What would Williamson say to Wilfrid Sellars who might, as part of his answer, say, “To call that chair ‘black’ would be to show mastery of the linguistic concept ‘black’ in the space of reasons.” Another perfectly respectable philosophical answer, which Williamson would not find objectionable. Willamson’s glib answer to the question of whether the definition of truth offered by Aristotle correct is just that; surely, he would not begrudge the reams of scholarship produced in exploring the adequacy of the ‘correspondence theory of truth,’ what it leaves out, and indeed, the many devastating critiques leveled at it? The bogus invocation of ‘bogus complexity’ serves no one here.)

Critiques like Williamson and Dennett’s are exercises in systematic, dishonest misunderstandings of the claims made by their supposed targets. They refuse to note that it is the valorization of truth that does all the work for the political regimes they critique, that it is the disagreement about political ends that leads to the retrospective hunt for the ‘right, true, facts’ that will enable the desired political end. There is not a whiff of relativism in the air.

But such a confusion is only to be expected when the epistemology that Williamson and Dennett take themselves to be defending rests on a fundamental confusion itself: an incoherent notion of ‘correspondence to the facts’ and a refusal to acknowledge that beliefs are just rules for actions–directed to some end.