Don’t Defend Trump

I’ve seen people try to, and it doesn’t work.

Just in case there’s any confusion, this was after Trump walked back the statement he gave on Monday by saying that many of the participants in the Unite the Right rally were “fine people.” Bold, yes. Truthful, no. Any fine person with an ounce of sense would have bolted the moment the anti-Semitic chants started.

For those who do not know, “Alt-right” is a term coined by Richard Spencer. You know, the guy who throws up Nazi salutes, won’t condemn Adolf Hitler, and wants to get rid of the Jews. The alt-right is Spencer’s movement. Steve Bannon, Trump’s Chief Strategist, bragged about making Breitbart a platform for the alt-right. Trump knows who these people are. He just doesn’t want to condemn them because he’s a vile human being.

Sean means here that Trump rightly placed some of the blame for the violence on Antifa (the “alt-left,” as Trump called them). He loves it whenever the left gets unhinged. Unfortunately, he’s also a hack who doesn’t care about the truth unless it serves his agenda.

A common trend you’ll notice with these people is that they sold their souls to the Trump cause long ago, so it’s not too surprising that they’re fighting to the death to defend his utterly indefensible conduct. Unfortunately, these people still have some credibility, and I’m sure that there are many decent Americans who point to Jerry Falwell and think, “look, a good Christian man who thinks Trump said nothing wrong!” Not good. Not good at all.

Equality: a Poor Substitute for Justice

Equality does not matter. Without further context, the mere fact of equality or inequality has zero moral implications. What actually matters is justice. When people talk about the importance of equality, they’re trying to talk about justice, but they’re doing so imprecisely.

It is obvious that different people should be treated differently. A high-achieving student should be given admission to a prestigious college, while a mediocre student should not. To treat the two students equally would, in fact, be unjust. Give to each what he is owed. Through her achievements, the high-achieving student has demonstrated that she is owed something which the mediocre student is not.

There are many ways in which you can be owed something. Personal merit is one of these ways. Another way is by being wronged. If someone steals from you, then they owe you what they stole from you. You can also be owed something by entering into and fulfilling your side of a voluntary exchange with another person. I work for my employer, and as a result, they owe me my salary.

Certain people would have us believe that unequal outcomes between groups are prima facie evidence of injustice. These people are relying on our failure to properly distinguish equality and justice to further their political agenda. A good example of this is the so-called wage gap. We are told that the average woman makes 77 cents per hour for every dollar per hour the average man makes, the implication being that we’re a misogynistic society that values female labor less than male labor. In reality, this gap is more reasonably explained by how women, on average, are less motivated in their career choices by salary than are men, on average, as well as by how women, on average, are more agreeable and therefore less likely to ask for increased pay than are men, on average.

The same people who hold up the “wage gap” as an example of systemic misogyny point to underrepresentation of certain groups in certain sectors of society as further evidence that we are evil. Google engineers are mostly men. This must be because Google hates women. African-Americans are underrepresented at elite undergraduate universities.* White supremacy. We don’t even question the inference, because we don’t understand the difference between inequality and injustice.

And yet, when other inequalities crop up that don’t fit the narrative of the oppressive patriarchy, we ignore them. Far more men than women are incarcerated. Women now earn a majority of academic degrees. The NBA is disproportionately African-American. Does the justice system discriminate against men? Do universities favor women? Is the NBA racist against white people? No, no, and no.

If your goal is really equality, then you should be just as concerned about the inequalities in the last paragraph as you are about the “wage gap” and Google’s sex ratio. But the absurdity of casting the examples I just gave as examples of injustice should lead you to instead reject the goal of equality and put justice in its place. Sometimes, outcomes will be unequal, but if these outcomes are the result of just processes, then there’s no reason to worry about them.

*I recognize that, to a significant degree, this is a result of past injustices. Jim Crow, racist housing policies, and the refusal of local governments to protect blacks from racial violence have had an enduring effect on African-Americans, and I believe that justice demands a remedy. My point, though, is that it is these injustices that are relevant to deciding who is owed what, and not the fact that African-Americans are underrepresented in colleges. Even if they were overrepresented, they would be owed something because of the gross injustices perpetrated against them.

Highlight of My Day

It’s early, but I doubt the day will get better than this. I commented on a Simple Justice post on affirmative action. Scott (author of the blog) responded as I would expect him to (basically, “I don’t care what you think and neither does anyone else”). But then this other guy, Miles, comes in.

I clicked on your link and read your post on this issue. Two thing, one of which SHG alluded to and another based on reading your comment here and your post.

First: you are taken with yourself as a pundit, as if your values are somehow inherently important enough that merely saying “I believe” is a good enough reason for anyone to care or agree with you. Who are you that anyone gives a damn what you believe?

Second: When I read your comment, I was prepared to forgive you for being shallow. It was just a comment, so how deep could one expect you to get? But now that I’ve read your post, you are shallow. That’s fine, as most people lack the capacity for deep thought, but for crying out loud, man, keep it to yourself and don’t broadcast it to the internet.

I guess I’m a self-absorbed, shallow fool. This is the post he’s talking about, by the way. Funnily enough, he doesn’t give me an argument for why my thinking is shallow. He just expects me to take his word for it. And for that reason, I don’t care what Miles has to say, much as he doesn’t care about what I have to say. Everybody wins.

I responded as follows:

I’m not as taken with myself as it may seem. I’m attempting to catalog my thoughts online. No one is required to read them. I recognize that I’m not important enough for my opinions to matter. Plus broadcasting my opinions at people who will call me shallow for them is a good way to toughen myself up to prepare myself for the world. So thank you, kind sir.

And then Scott came back!

You’ve won me over. I suggest you consider how you frame your ideas to make them stand alone rather than dependent on you, but your willingness to take a punch is admirable.

Thanks, Scott!

Even if I am an idiot, I’m at least an idiot who isn’t afraid of criticism, and how else am I supposed to stop being an idiot? So I’ll keep vomiting my half-formed, terrible ideas onto this blog for the whole world to see. Keep the criticism coming. You’re only making me stronger.

How Not to Argue

I got into a Facebook argument with a stranger about gender dysphoria and its classification as a psychological disorder. His rhetorical strategies were, to say the least, not good.

I began by arguing that there are normal and abnormal ways to be, hoping that he would agree with me on that one point (as any sane person would) and then we could determine which ways of being should be considered normal and which abnormal. His response:

ken1

(Note: homosexuality came up because he earlier mentioned that it used to be included in the DSM, and part of the argument was about whether the inclusion of gender dysphoria in the DSM implies that gender dysphoria is a psychological disorder.)

My response:

davis1

Reasonable question, right? Apparently my interlocutor didn’t think so.

ken2

He dodges the question and appeals to his own authority(?). I add the question mark because he’s not really an authority on anything. “I suffer from depression and I’ve taken a handful of undergraduate level courses in psychology, so you should listen to what I have to say.” No thank you. Please give me reasons.

This is pretty much the entirety of what takes place in this discussion. I continue asking for him to give me reasons for his beliefs, explaining why having reasons for what you’re trying to argue is important. He keeps on trying to convince me to give a crap about his being a depressed psych major. Alas, we both fail.

TL;DR Appealing to your own authority is a stupid way to argue, especially if you’re not a real authority on anything. Majoring in something in undergrad is insufficient to make you an authority on something, and if you think that your undergraduate degree obliges other people to take you seriously, then nobody will.

Why Subscribe?

I used to get my news mostly from the New York Times. However, I cancelled my NYT subscription when their editorial board published a terrorist’s Anti-Israel propaganda and a defense of censorship. Nowadays, I learn about current events mostly from my Twitter feed. You can pick up the important details that way, pretty easily. And it makes it really easy to make sure that you find all the good commentary. Just follow the people who have good things to say.

With so much free content on the internet these days, it just doesn’t make much sense for me as an individual to pay for a newspaper subscription. Twitter is good enough for me.

I still subscribe to the NYT crossword, though.

Is America Great?

Every Independence Day, there are people who go on Twitter to tweet about how the United States really has nothing to be proud of. We’re a sucky country because of poverty and racism and sexism, all of which other countries have apparently managed to do away with. Obviously, I support the right of people to express their stupid opinions, but the opinions are still stupid. E.g.:

As I see it, there are two varieties of anti-Americanism on display here. First is the bland liberalism of people who think we should be living in some kind of socialistic utopia. Second is the anger of black Americans who rightly recognize the extent to which our country’s history is drenched in institutionalized racism, but refuse to acknowledge that such racism is a direct violation of our country’s founding principles.

The bland liberalism in the first tweet is less of a concern to me, because I think there’s not much to it. Of course we have people in poverty. Of course we have people that are hungry. But our poverty line is a heck of a lot higher than what counts as poverty in the rest of the world. And should our greatness as a nation even be based upon our material wealth? I’d rather live modestly in a free country than live lavishly in one where individual rights are routinely violated. To be sure, reducing poverty is a good goal for us to have. But the fundamental role of government is not to reduce poverty, but to preserve liberty.

Which relates to a broader point I want to make: America should be judged on its principles more than on the outcomes of adhering to those principles. The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness means that not all of us will be equally wealthy. But it also means that no one can be another man’s slave (sadly, it took our country a long while to bring itself to admit this). Due process of law means that the guilty will sometimes go free. But it also means that the innocent are less likely to be punished for crimes they did not commit. Should we discard these principles because they sometimes lead to outcomes that we don’t like? Of course not. Likewise, our adherence to the founding principles of America will not make this country into a utopia, but rejecting them would be far worse.

But what about slavery, you may ask? The angry tweets from black Americans above seem to be focused more on racism than on the unavoidable inequities that characterize a world in which not everyone is equally talented or intelligent. Some inequality is natural. Racial inequality is not. How, then, do I explain the racist history of the United States in light of our founding principles?

Put simply, we’re hypocrites, and we’ve always been hypocrites. It is obviously impossible to justify slavery in light of the statements made in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The racial injustice of slavery, as well as all the injustices that followed its abolition, are a result of rejecting the founding principles of America, not adhering to them. Slavery, lynchings, ethnic cleansing, segregation—can anyone doubt that each of these violates at least one of the fundamental rights referred to in the Declaration?

Of course, racial injustice did not end on July 4, 1776, so it makes sense to question why we should dedicate this day to celebrating our freedom. As Frederick Douglass famously asked, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” He supplied his own answer to the question: “[A] day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” In the face of persistent injustice and tyranny, it is cruel to behave as if we have achieved freedom or equality. We had not adhered to our founding ideals, and that was obvious to Douglass.

But still, insofar as those ideals have become realized, we should celebrate the day on which we enshrined them in the Declaration. We have done away with slavery. Both legally and socially, equality of the races has been almost universally accepted in America. To be sure, we’re not a post-racial society. We still have significant problems. But racism is no longer a fundamental feature of our national existence—our Congress does not pass laws protecting the slave interest, and our state legislatures do not mandate or permit racial segregation. The seed planted on July 4, 1776 took far too long to bear fruit, but borne fruit it has, and we who enjoy it today should recognize where it came from.

The greatness of America lies in the greatness of its founding principles as set forth in the Declaration of Independence. Insofar as we adhere to them, our nation is great. But when we reject them, we debase ourselves and make ourselves contemptible in the highest degree. The Fourth of July is a day to remember and celebrate our founding principles, to consider how we have implemented them and how we have failed to do so. To some degree it requires that we mourn our country’s many egregious failures at guaranteeing liberty and equality to all. But even more, it demands that we recognize that liberty and equality are the bedrock on which our nation is built, and that whatever rotten structures may have been built upon them before, the foundation is firm. It is our task to continue building a just and virtuous republic on the foundations of liberty and equality. To reject the foundation is to reject the task, and that is not something we are free to do.

Reparations

Last night, I watched the documentary film Banished: How Whites Drove Blacks Out of Town in America. I recommend seeing it. The film discusses how some American communities in the early 20th century purged themselves of black families. The land that had been owned by those driven away was stolen by white families, and some of these communities remain all-white to this day.

What’s particularly interesting about the events described in the documentary is that they occurred fairly recently. The descendants of those who had their property taken from them are able to quite easily trace their ancestry back to the original victims. And there is legal documentation that shows that title to the land never legitimately passed from the victims to their victimizers, but somehow ended up being owned by the victimizers anyway. The injustices that were done are concrete, and we can put a name and a face to those who were wronged. We can even, with some degree of accuracy, put a price on what was taken from them, i.e., the value of the land.

Reminders of such concrete injustices are helpful in an era when much of the discussion about racism revolves around abstract concepts like “privilege” and “implicit bias.” When the discussion is too abstract, it’s unclear to me what there is to be done about anything, or even that anything needs to be done. I’m not convinced that the difference in wealth between the average black family and the average white family in America is primarily a result of a persistent and widespread implicit bias against blacks. It is far more convincing to me to say that the differences in wealth persist because many black families were forced off their land, preventing them from passing it down to future generations.

In other words, I think that concrete instances of racism in the past are more to blame for current inequities than is privilege. One implication of this view is that the way to make things right is not by attempting to correct for privilege by giving people a boost based on the color of their skin. After all, not all dark-skinned populations are having trouble in America. Black immigrants, for instance, are generally doing very well. Rather, justice requires that we make amends for the specific  wrongs that were done in the past. We must return what has been stolen from these communities.

On Dumb Questions

I’ve heard people say that there are no dumb questions. In some circumstances, this is true. In particular, if you’re a child who can’t reasonably be expected to know much of anything, then there are, in fact, no dumb questions. However, most of us are not children. We can reasonably be expected to know some things, or at least we ought to have the capacity to figure those things out, especially in the age of Google.

These thoughts are prompted by a Twitter exchange I had with the person replying to David French in the image below:

dumb questino

David French here is tweeting about Laura Loomer’s obnoxious interruption of the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar, which has been criticized for depicting violence against someone that looks like Trump. The criticism is mostly stupid. But even if it weren’t, charging on stage to interrupt a theatrical production you don’t like is unacceptable for the same reason that interrupting a controversial speaker you don’t like is unacceptable. Free speech, yes. But also, time, place, and manner. Spew your uninformed criticism all you want, but get your own venue to do it instead of stealing the stage from those who own it/have been invited to it/have some other right to it.

Anyhow, my main concern is not the stupidity of the criticism leveled toward the play so much as the stupidity of Mr. Bronxilla’s tweet. Anyone who is remotely familiar with David French’s work should know that he speaks out against left-wing speech restrictions pretty much all the time. He’s also a First Amendment lawyer. This is not difficult to learn. All you have to do is go to French’s page on National Review.

I quoted the stupid question and said that it was stupid, and afterwards had the pleasure of exchanging some words with Mr. Bronxilla:

bronxilla

It’s not like being sincere exempts you from being dumb. I didn’t accuse Bronxilla of insincerity, but of a combination of ignorance and intellectual laziness. Sincerity is enough if you’re in 4th grade, but not if you’re a grown-up trying to discuss grown-up things. That requires a little something extra.

And I really do mean a little something extra. It would have taken literally ten seconds for Bronx to search for David French on Google, click the first search result, and skim his author bio. But he couldn’t be bothered to do so. Instead, he made it everyone else’s job to inform him of the obvious.

There is an absurd amount of information at the tips of your fingers. If you’re not willing to look for it, then how much can you claim to care about being informed? And if you don’t really care about being informed, then why do you ask these questions?

Dialogue is supposed to be an exchange of meaningful ideas. As such, you should come to it prepared to say something meaningful. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions, but it does mean that you should familiarize yourself with the subject you’re discussing to a degree sufficient for you to recognize the difference between good questions and dumb ones. Otherwise, you’re just wasting everyone else’s time.

Some Book Recommendations

I am back at my computer again. This week I read some really good books, some of which I would like to recommend to everyone who cares to read this blog.

Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier

This is an Odyssean novel about a Confederate soldier journeying home to the woman he loves. The narrative shifts back and forth between the two main characters, Inman and Ada. Their stories are wildly different from each other; Inman is journeying through the South trying to avoid being caught by the Home Guard, while Ada is learning to run a farm. Frazier does a good job at weaving these together. His description of the southern landscape is also beautiful.

A Curse on Dostoevsky, by Atiq Rahimi

When I first started reading this book, I expected it to be mediocre at best, but I was pleasantly surprised. The novel transplants Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment into Kabul, Afghanistan. Whereas Dostoevsky focused on the internal sense of turmoil felt by Raskolnikov after he commits his murder, Rahimi highlights the indifference of war-torn Afghanistan to his main character’s murder. When daily life is characterized by violent tribal warfare, personal morality is of less concern than tribal membership.

A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway was a genius. Every time I read him, I’m amazed. In this particular work, his dry sense of humor comes through. I found myself laughing out loud while reading it. One thing I love about Hemingway is how his novels describe life as an expatriate American. The main character in this story is an American serving in the Italian army. As an American who grew up overseas, I enjoy stories that resemble mine, even if the resemblance is minimal.