Aug 012007

It is a cherished belief, in all Objectivist as well as certain fellow-traveling circles, that economic interventionism must collapse under its own weight. Here, for instance, is Ludwig von Mises, in Planned Chaos:

Many advocates of interventionism are bewildered when one tells them that in recommending interventionism they themselves are fostering antidemocratic and dictatorial tendencies and the establishment of totalitarian socialism. …

What these people fail to realize is that the various measures they suggest are not capable of bringing about the beneficial results aimed at. On the contrary they produce a state of affairs which from the point of view of their advocates is worse than the previous state which they were designed to alter. If the government, faced with this failure of its first intervention, is not prepared to undo its interference with the market and to return to a free economy, it must add to its first measure more and more regulations and restrictions. Proceeding step by step on this way it finally reaches a point in which all economic freedom of individuals has disappeared. Then socialism of the German pattern, the Zwangswirtschaft of the Nazis, emerges.

Mises has just asserted, on the previous page, that for interventionists “the main thing is not to improve the conditions of the masses, but to harm the entrepreneurs and capitalists.” If this is true, it puts his claim that interventionism produces “a state of affairs which from the point of view of [its] advocates is worse than the previous state” in doubt. But what really interests me is the slippery-slope argument that interventionism inherently leads to socialism.

The example Mises chooses to support this thesis is price controls. The government begins by controlling the price of milk. The supply of milk declines, as the marginal producers are driven out of business. This is not what the government wants at all; so it continues by controlling the prices of the factors of milk production. The logic repeats itself a few more times, until we arrive at socialism of the German pattern. Mises, being no mean economist, points out that the government could guarantee milk for poor children more effectively by buying it at the market price and giving it away or selling it at a loss. The populace pays for this in taxes, of course, and you might end up with a black market in milk, but it surely beats price controls. Yet this policy is interventionism, just as price controls are. Does socialism emerge in either case? Or do only particularly stupid forms of interventionism produce the slippery slope?

The Objectivists, as is their wont, go a good deal further. Only Objectivism itself can halt the long, slow slide of the mixed economy into slavery. The go-to guy for over-the-top Objectivist pronouncements is not Ayn Rand herself but her “intellectual heir,” Leonard Peikoff. His book The Ominous Parallels is notable as the only work of German historiography ever written by someone who cannot read German. It also contains this gem:

No one can predict the form or timing of the catastrophe that will befall this country if our direction is not changed. No one can know what concatenation of crises, in what progression of steps and across what interval of years, would finally break the nation’s spirit and system of government. No one can know whether such a breakdown would lead to an American dictatorship directly — or indirectly, after a civil war and/or foreign war and/or protracted Dark Ages of primitive roving gangs.

What one can know is only this much: the end result of the country’s present course is some kind of dictatorship; and the cultural-political signs for many years now have been pointing increasingly to one kind in particular. The signs have been pointing to an American form of Nazism. …

There is only one antidote to today’s trend: a new, pro-reason philosophy.

This new pro-reason philosophy, of course, would be Objectivism. Now I think we can agree that in the twenty-five years since this passage was written two things have not happened. Objectivism has not swept the country, and American-style Nazis have not taken over the government. (Anyone who thinks the Bush gang counts needs to acquaint himself with the real Nazis.)

We have had approximately steady-state interventionism in the United States for a long time. Federal spending has hovered around 20% of GDP since the Second World War — no matter who was President, no matter which party controlled Congress, no matter what. Naturally there has been a great deal of expensive tinkering. The airlines are regulated, then deregulated. Savings and loans are encouraged, through insurance, to invest in risky propositions and then, after they lose hundreds of billions, enjoined from doing so. Liberty advances, when the draft is eliminated; and retreats, when the state sponsors offshore torture and suspends habeas corpus for citizens who are classified as “enemy combatants.” On the one hand the Fairness Doctrine is scrapped. On the other Draconian regulations are imposed in quasi-public spaces like offices, stores, and restaurants. To call these changes marginal would be an exaggeration; to call them a lurch toward fascism would be absurd.

Peikoff hastens to say that neither he nor anyone else can predict “the form or timing” of the coming dictatorship. Mises, similarly, disassociates himself from historical determinism, saying that the socialist tide can be stemmed with “common sense and moral courage,” which does not appear to be in any greater supply now than it was then. Their belief, in other words, commits them to nothing whatever. Barring an unlikely sudden upsurge of Objectivism, common sense, or moral courage, Peikoff and Mises are, epistemologically, on all fours with Christians who await the Rapture.

As Eliezer Yudkowsky puts the matter:

The rationalist virtue of empiricism consists of constantly asking which experiences our beliefs predict — or better yet, prohibit. Do you believe that phlogiston is the cause of fire? Then what do you expect to see happen, because of that? Do you believe that Wulky Wulkinsen is a post-utopian? Then what do you expect to see because of that? No, not “colonial alienation”; what experience will happen to you? Do you believe that if a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, it still makes a sound? Then what experience must therefore befall you?

It is even better to ask: what experience must not happen to me? Do you believe that elan vital explains the mysterious aliveness of living beings? Then what does this belief not allow to happen — what would definitely falsify this belief? A null answer means that your belief does not constrain experience; it permits anything to happen to you. It floats.

When you argue a seemingly factual question, always keep in mind which difference of anticipation you are arguing about. If you can’t find the difference of anticipation, you’re probably arguing about labels in your belief network — or even worse, floating beliefs, barnacles on your network. If you don’t know what experiences are implied by Wulky Wilkinsen being a post-utopian, you can go on arguing about it forever. (You can also publish papers about it forever.)

Above all, don’t ask what to believe — ask what to anticipate. Every question of belief should flow from a question of anticipation, and that question of anticipation should be the center of the inquiry. Every guess of belief should begin by flowing to a specific guess of anticipation, and should continue to pay rent in future anticipations. If a belief turns deadbeat, evict it.

Consider this an eviction notice.

Apr 102004

Next time you’re dilating about how stupid George Bush is — and I know this will be very, very soon — and some annoying right-wing interloper points out that Bush has a Harvard MBA, and you can’t be stupid and graduate Harvard Business School, all you have to do is smile and say:

Kwame Jackson has a Harvard MBA.

No charge.

Feb 082004

Put a libertarian and non-libertarian in a room and you get an argument, always the same argument. Yesterday at my place it was over whether people who got cancer from industrial emissions would be able to collect fifty years hence. A few weeks back at David Sucher’s it was over whether houses would collapse in earthquakes without building codes. The other day at Radley Balko’s it was over whether without animal cruelty laws the evil neighbors would buy up puppies and kittens and torture them without fear of reprisal. Only the details vary.

Thomas Sowell wrote a book on this subject, A Conflict of Visions, in which he claimed that the fundamental divide is between those who believe in the perfectibility of human nature and those who do not. In fact it is less momentous: it’s between those who believe in the perfectibility of the state and those who do not. Some people think that the state can mete out perfect justice, some don’t. Libertarianism fails, in the eyes of the first group, if any evil goes unpunished. Now no one, not the most ardent statist, believes that the state can mete out justice in every case. But a surprisingly large number of people, a substantial majority, believes that, for every case, a theoretical mechanism for redress or punishment ought to exist. They readily concede that in practice eggs must be broken to make omelets. Mistakes are made. But if the mechanism exists, conscience is assuaged, and that is enough.

Good law sometimes produces unjust outcomes; a famous maxim expresses this, conversely, as “hard cases make bad law.” In Waube v. Warrington, a classic torts case from 1935, a woman watched a negligent driver strike and kill her daughter. The woman died a month later, allegedly of shock, and her husband sued. Maybe it was true, maybe not, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court never reached the question, dismissing the suit on the grounds that damages for mental distress require physical contact, and there was none in this case. If the woman really did die of shock, then the outcome was unjust. Yet the law was sound, based on a bright-line, predictable, common-sense standard. Like any such standard, it does not fit every case. Too bad. Law is collective, justice individual. You can swallow this or you can’t.

Buildings collapse sometimes in earthquakes and kill a lot of people. This happens more often in poor countries than rich ones because taking precautions against a rare catastrophe is a luxury, and rich people can afford more luxuries than poor people. It will continue to happen more often in poor countries, no matter how stringent their building codes, because builders will circumvent regulations that they cannot afford. If the codes are rigidly enforced then fewer houses will be built, and people who formerly lived in shoddy houses will do without instead. You can swallow this or you can’t.

The trouble with animal cruelty laws is that animals are property, and such laws infringe property rights. You can tack on riders like “needless” all you like, but infringement is infringement, and when the only question is how much, the laws become a way to harass people in the animal business. (So far the animal rightists have mostly trained their fire on unpopular targets like foie-gras producers and circus trainers; scientists, assuredly, are next.) Of course without the laws Cruella de Ville can sew herself a nice coat out of Dalmatian puppy hides and there isn’t a damn thing the cops can do about it. You can swallow this or you can’t.

If you’re on Team Perfect and I’m on Team Good Enough, we can argue to eternity and never get anywhere. What say we save our breath and stick to poetry, and stuff like that?

(Update: Spelling and capitalization of “Dalmatian” corrected at the behest of Greg Hlatky, who ought to know. David Sucher professes bemusement. Forager notes that the comments go a long way to prove the thesis.)

Feb 062004

“In his first 100 days as President, John Kerry will sign an executive order to end influence peddling and secret deals,” Kerry spokesman Mark Kornblau said.

Senator John Edwards proposes new restrictions on lobbyists in an effort to end “the nasty business of influence peddling” in Washington.

Howard Dean doesn’t like influence peddling either. Neither does Bush.

Whatever influence peddling is, everyone’s against it. But what is it?

peddle, v.t., To sell or offer for sale from place to place. Dope peddlers sell dope, toy peddlers sell toys, ribbon peddlers sell ribbons. Pushcart peddlers sell out of pushcarts. “Influence peddlers,” uniquely, buy influence.

“Influence” is also a euphemism, for “bribe.” “Special interests” offer bribes, in the form of campaign contributions; politicians accept them. Lobbyists broker the transaction.

“Special interests” is itself a nice turn of phrase. Where the State can arbitrarily redistribute wealth, where virtually every federal law robs Peter to pay Paul or vice versa, every interest becomes “special” and politics becomes a Hobbesian war of all against all, a race to stick your snout in the government trough. Grandpa Charlie’s interest in free prescription drugs is as special as Archer Daniels Midland’s interest in ethanol subsidies — more so, really, since ADM employs thousands of people while Grandpa Charlie’s operating solo. Oddly, though, ADM is a “special interest” and Grandpa Charlie is not. I have no love for ADM, an especially vile corporate welfare recipient; but under these circumstances every sizable prudent business employs lobbyists to insure, at a minimum, that its own ox is not constantly gored.

One evening a lobbyist for chemical companies tried to explain his job to me. This man was a moral idiot; the interests of his clients circumscribed his universe. He could not, or would not, distinguish between robbing and being robbed, between, say, supporting a subsidy and opposing a regulation. He was no less instructive for that. So many vastly complicated bills come before legislators that they have no idea what they’re voting for most of the time. His job, he insisted, was to inform. He said that it was no secret that he represented chemical companies, that anything he said was discounted accordingly, and that lying is a long-term poor strategy for being listened to. Grossly self-serving; might still be true! And whether it’s true or not, surely the lobbyist, a pathetic figure scratching out his equivocal living, is the least responsible of all the parties involved. To legislate against him is to shoot the messenger.

The problem, if there is one, is that politicians take bribes. The remedy is supposed to be “campaign finance reform.” The abuse of the term “reform” requires an essay in itself, but here it means giving more tax money to political candidates. In other words, legislators, to prevent themselves from taking bribes, vote to pension themselves off, at public expense. This is absurd. Political euphemism makes absurdity plausible.

And not just absurdity, but evil, as Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language,” sixty years ago:

Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bomabrded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic labor camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

By comparison “campaign finance reform” is not very serious, and if Orwell were alive he would laugh. Yet the mental fog that surrounds it is very serious indeed. Easy to sneer at “People’s Republics”; harder to put one’s own lingustic house in order.

Nov 222003

More pixels for Terry Teachout: he links to a list of Bill Clinton’s 21 favorite books and comments, more discreetly than I will, on its obvious fraudulence. The usual suspects are rounded up — Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, also cited by German ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt as his favorite book, and as sure to appear on a politician’s list as Nietzsche is not to. If we must have philosopher-kings, Plato’s Republic would be more to the point. For gravitas, Max Weber, Thomas à Kempis, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the two safest poets of the 20th century, Eliot and Yeats. Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, possibly the worst-written famous novel of the last two hundred years. The list looks like America too, with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which is quite a good book but, like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, can be dated to virtually the month it came out, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which I doubt Maya Angelou’s mother has read cover to cover: certainly I couldn’t. Clinton throws in The Confessions of Nat Turner and Taylor Branch’s history of the civil rights movement for good measure. His wife’s Living History is there; It Takes a Village I presume just missed the cut.

What is irksome about this list, besides its content, is its length. A favorite book? No. A top ten? A top twenty? No, Clinton needs twenty-one favorite books. The number signifies terminal vacillation. Say what you like about Al Gore, but when he was asked for a favorite book he coughed one up. Stendhal’s The Red and the Black may be a curious choice for someone like Gore, but it is a choice at least.

Terry claims, as if it were an established fact, that Clinton is “known to be unusually smart,” for which I can discern no evidence whatever. He is justly famed for many acts, none of which, except getting himself elected, could remotely be classified as intelligent. During his eight years in the White House — and before, and since — he never shut up. If we exclude “I never had sex with that woman” and “It depends on what the meaning of is is,” did he ever utter a memorable sentence? Calvin Coolidge left a far richer legacy to Bartlett’s than Clinton will, and he barely spoke at all.

Terry doubts that Clinton has read all these books: I don’t. I merely doubt that he has understood them. Clinton is notorious for being able to repeat back reams of what he has read, verbatim. Speaking as someone who had the same faculty in my youth, I am not impressed. It’s a parlor trick, like having an internal hard drive, useful for politics and getting through law school. You can pull up the material on your internal monitor, that’s all. You still have to read it, which is where the thought comes in. A memory is not a mind.

To anyone who subscribes to the myth of Clinton’s coruscating intellect I commend Edith Efron’s mightily persuasive 1994 article for Reason in which she diagnoses him as “cognitively disabled.”

Clinton’s high school friend David Leopoulos visited Clinton when he was at Oxford and found that Clinton had suddenly become a fount of information about painting. Leopoulos told a reporter, “He is interested in everything and wants to consume everything. He is almost a fanatic about information. He gathers and retains it better than anyone I’ve ever known.”

Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post jokes, “That’s Clinton: well-versed in every subject, has memorized the leading economic indicators for every quarter since the ’20s, knows how to say ‘fungibility’ in Farsi.”

Finally, Charles Allen and Jonathan Portis in The Comeback Kid describe the Clinton of the presidential campaign: “Clinton became known as a ‘policy wonk,’ a politician who could spout data and statistics nonstop, a man with a quick answer for every question. Members of the national press were amazed at his ability to formulate answers to complicated questions, seemingly without thinking.”

It is not “seemingly” without thinking. Very often, it is actually without thinking. Clinton can memorize as he breathes. But he finds thinking — analysis, evaluation, reaching conclusions — intensely difficult.

What we have here is a Jeopardy champion. (Bush, in personality the anti-Clinton, is “stupid” with reference to the same implicit standard.) It is an intellect for our time, in which, as Jacques Barzun puts it, an editorialist can commit a gross non-sequitur without comment and will be deluged with letters if he misstates by ten feet the height of the Chrysler Building. Clinton’s bloated book list, I suspect, was composed the same way he decided to nominate Steven Breyer for the Supreme Court, the only difference being that he couldn’t nominate twenty-one judges:

On May 23 [1994], Newsweek portrayed the absurdity of Clinton’s “waffling” in greater detail than ever before. It gave the readers a three-day scenario: “On Wednesday the president had been about to nominate Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt when he suddenly changed his mind. On Thursday, his choice had been an old Arkansas friend, Judge Richard Arnold, but by Friday, Arnold was out and [Judge Stephen] Breyer was in. ‘Let’s go,’ Clinton announced after yet another last minute phone call, and his staff, stung by a rash of media stories about White House dithering, rushed to carry out the presidential command. But before they could get out the door, Clinton hesitated. Maybe, he mused, he should put Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes on the court. That way he could elevate Baltimore’s promising young black mayor, Kurt Schmoke, to the Senate.” This, Newsweek reported, caused the president’s legal counselor, Lloyd Cutler, to grow “exasperated” and to insist that Clinton decide there and then. And thus did Breyer emerge triumphant from Clinton’s “maddening” decision-making process.

In early June, Clinton again felt impelled to defend himself from the charge of indecisiveness. But this time he got someone else to do it for him. Who better than legal counselor Lloyd Cutler? So there was Cutler, who had been privately “exasperated” by Clinton’s indecisiveness, explaining publicly in a long op-ed piece in The Washington Post that the president had not been indecisive at all, that, on the contrary, he had been wonderfully decisive.

A journalist once backed Clinton into a corner and asked him to choose one record, just one, to take with him to a desert island. Clinton waffled, hedged, and finally picked Colors of the Day, The Best of Judy Collins. “She inspired a whole generation who had the same kinda dreams,” said Clinton. He should have checked with Lloyd Cutler.

(Update: I take it all back. Clinton’s favorite book is 100 Years of Solitude — when he’s having dinner with Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)

Sep 112003

MDMA, better-known as Ecstasy, has been shown to cause Parkinson’s Disease in monkeys if the monkeys had actually been getting MDMA. As it happens they were getting methamphetamine instead. Derek Lowe, himself a pharmaceutical chemist, eviscerates the authors politely, as a professional courtesy:

I’m sure that some people are going to point the finger at this group for not checking the samples of MDMA and methamphetamine. But I can’t fault them so much on that point. In vivo pharmacologists are not chemists, and aren’t expected to assay the samples that they’re dosing. In every drug research project I’ve been on, the animal folks make it clear that they depend on compounds being what the label says they are. They have no way to confirm it themselves. (In this case, Research Triangle Institute, the source of the samples, says that things were fine on their end, as you’d figure they would. Depends on where the label came from on that remaining methamphetamine sample, doesn’t it?)

But all that said, I have to then turn around and wonder why the original paper was published at all. I was surprised to learn that their results hadn’t been repeated beforehand. You’d think that this would be necessary, given the public health implications of the work and its variance with the results of others in the field. I can’t help but think that the researchers got their original data, thought they had a hot result that would make everyone sit up straight, and got it into publication as fast as they could.

I’m really taken aback to learn that they hadn’t looked at the original monkeys for MDMA levels before. Getting blood samples from monkeys is no easy task, but why wait until there’s a problem to do the post-mortem brain levels? Those numbers really would have helped to shore up the original results – and would have immediately shown that there was a problem, long before the paper was even published. I don’t like to sound this way, but it’s true: in the drug industry, we consider pharmacokinetic data like this to be essential when interpreting an animal study.

New scientific results are usually new because they’re usually wrong. Science approximates truth only because its results can be replicated. Scientists make mistakes and studies are shot through with error, though rarely so egregiously. You think science journalists might remember this tale next time they trumpet some “ground-breaking” result on the front page? Me neither.

There is a still larger lesson for my vast juvenile readership, who are possibly capable of learning something. Kids, this is very important: don’t do meth thinking it’s Ecstasy. For one thing, it means you got beat, which is embarrassing. For another, it’s linked to neurotoxicity and Parkinson’s Disease. In monkeys.

Sep 092003

Like all products of high school social studies classes (the day history became “social studies” was a watershed in American public education), I have been lectured on the evil of voting literacy tests and poll taxes. They are now against the law, thanks to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 24th Amendment, respectively, and invoking the specter of a “voting literacy test” remains a sure way to rouse the troops. Voting literacy tests often served as an excuse to intimidate blacks at the polls, and they are certainly objectionable if discriminatorily applied. Yet I see nothing wrong with such tests in principle. If someone is going to participate, albeit in a humble way, in the great affairs of state, ought he at the very least to be able to read? And how about a math test while we’re at it? Sample question:

If one million people are taxed $1 each, and the money is given to one of them, how much wealth has been created?

A. One million dollars.
B. Zero.
C. Are we counting transfer costs and malinvestment?

B or C, you get to pull the lever. If you answer A — well, thanks for playing.

Poll taxes I find no more noxious than any other tax. Supposedly the trouble with poll taxes is that they force a citizen to pay for exercising his fundamental rights, but the same criticism applies to property taxes, sales taxes, income taxes, and most other taxes you could name, none of which were ruled unconstitutional on “equal protection” grounds.

The death of one man, Stalin said, is a tragedy; the death of a million men is a statistic. This observation can be generalized into what I will modestly deem Haspel’s First Law: all crime ceases to be criminal when committed on a large enough scale. A liar is only a liar; a gigantic liar is the Minister of Information. If a man owes $5 million he is a bankrupt; if he owes $500 million he is a real estate developer. Giving a bum booze money in return for his vote is election fraud; giving thousands of people a permanent living at taxpayer expense in return for their votes is democracy in action.

Nine of the 27 Amendments to the Constitution deal with the mechanics and the limitations of the franchise, so there’s surely no harm in one more. Why not deny it to full-time government employees? These are paid voting armies, bribed not with liquor for a day but a sinecure for life, and not individually but by the thousands. They ought to be recused from elections, as judges recuse themselves from cases in which they are personally interested. One could extend the logic to argue, for instance, that we ought to recuse Grandpa as well, who has no business voting himself free prescription drugs out of the public largesse. The difficulty here is that in a welfare state, that fiction by which everyone maintains himself at everyone else’s expense, nearly all of us receive government benefits in some form, and the line becomes difficult to draw. If we restrict ourselves to people whose livelihood derives entirely from tax revenue, however, the matter stays simple enough.

Liberty in this country has declined as the franchise has expanded. In 1869 the 14th and 15th Amendments eliminated racial and property qualifications. Along with them came Reconstruction, a program of occupying the South with federal armies, which failed completely even from the point of view of the ex-slaves whose rights it was designed to protect, and was so resented that almost no Southern states voted Republican in a national presidential election for eighty years thereafter. You need not be from the South to regard the episode as less than a highlight in the history of personal liberty.

The immediate consequence of female suffrage was Prohibition; women had always led the temperance movement. In twenty years, with ardent female assistance — Roosevelt, like all Democrats, polled far better with women than men — the top income tax rate rose from 7% to 78%. Thanks, ladies!

In 1971 the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18, adding 11 million potential voters, not quite enough to elect McGovern. I attended a reasonably well-regarded liberal arts college. Out of its 1,000 students there were probably 50, assuredly not including me, who could be trusted with the franchise. “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” was the slogan, which had more force when there was a draft. “Young enough not to drink, young enough not to vote” is less catchy but equally logical. Youth must be served, just not liquor.

Next week: bringing back the property qualification. If I’m in a really bad mood.

(Update: Mg comments. George Junior dissents. Aaron Armitage comments.)

Jun 222003

Eddie Thomas has a longish and interesting post up about “Whiteness Studies,” in which he is characteristically more generous and fair-minded than I’m about to be. Eddie is firmly anti, but one of his commentators, Ted Hinchman, makes the best case in their defense:

What exactly is supposed to be wrong with inquiry into the formation and career of the concept of racial whiteness?

It seems obvious that the normative concept of whiteness had and still has as its core function the justification of a species of social prejudice — once the concept is in hand, you can call this ‘racial’ prejudice. Of course, it doesn’t follow that you can’t use the concept in other ways. When you say ‘White folks are sometimes plagued by racial guilt,’ you obviously aren’t justifying racial prejudice. But you’re using a concept that wouldn’t exist were it not for others’ use of it to justify racial prejudice. And it seems obvious that the justificatory use must be what gave the concept currency…

One might teach a course on the history of the concept of gravitational collapse without provoking hue and cry in the blogosphere. Or of the concept of evolution. Or of the concept of time (I don’t mean the rough draft of Sein und Zeit). So why not a course on the history of the concept of whiteness?

Now this is an argument, for good or ill, but try as you might, you just cannot expand an argument into a curriculum. In my day you had to take eight courses in your major; what might those be, for the aspiring Whiteness Studies major? (Rest assured that today’s course will be tomorrow’s department.) You have the two-semester intro on the social construction of everything, the sophomore-year history of slavery course, with special emphasis, naturally, on the United States, a couple of senior seminars on mortgage discrimination and the difficulty of getting a cab — somebody help me out here. There remains post-graduate work, which I can’t even fathom; doubtless this indicates my own insensitivity.

It isn’t much of an argument either. The concept of “whiteness” may have originated in the well-grounded observation that some people have fairer skin than others. It is obvious to Ted Hinchman that “justificatory use must be what gave the concept currency”; it’s far from obvious to me. “Normative,” then, colossally begs the question. If you wish to demonstrate the social construction of race, then you must demonstrate it, not assume it.

Whiteness Studies advocates insist on the one hand that race “is based on a fantasy” and on the other that everything be viewed through the lens of this fantasy. This WaPo story notes that “most [advocates of whiteness studies] are white liberals who hope to dismantle notions of race.” Of course people who really want to “dismantle notions of race” do not invent an academic discipline entirely devoted to such notions. Professor Gregory Jay of the University of Wisconsin encapsulates this cognitive dissonance in a single, convenient web page. He surrounds race with quotation marks, then asks his students, “How long can one watch television or read a newspaper or magazine without encountering anything but white people, or mostly white people?” I’m not sure: how do you tell?

The central premise of Whiteness Studies, and all social construction arguments, is that one’s thought is somehow externally constrained. This is our old friend, the prisoner of consciousness, which has a long and disreputable history. Plato shackles us in the cave, which keeps the Forms forever inaccessible; Kant in our faculties, which distort the true, “noumenal” world; Marx, himself bourgeois to the core, in our “class,” which renders us incapable of seeing that our arguments are mere bourgeois apologetics. Plato, Kant, and Marx granted themselves special get-out-of-jail-free cards, necessarily, to permit them to make such arguments. Such cards, however, are now for sale, like indulgences: whites will be permitted, with the aid of other, more tutored whites, to transcend their white consciousness for a modest tuition fee. Not so modest at Princeton, one of 30 universities that currently offer instruction in Whiteness Studies; but hey, who said enlightenment comes cheap?

Apr 242003

Sent to The New York Times today. OK, it’s barrel-fishing. I had some free time.

To the Editors:

Bob Herbert’s mendacious column of April 24th on the near-execution of Delma Banks Jr. in Texas omits every piece of evidence that convicted him. Banks was the last man seen with the murder victim, Wayne Whitehead. He unwittingly led the police to the home of Charles Cook, where a gun was found that was matched to the murder on unrebutted ballistics evidence. Cook testified that Banks showed up at his house the morning after the murder with the gun and Whitehead’s car. None of this was disputed at the time or to this day. It is true that the prosecution witnesses perjured themselves and later recanted on minor matters, that the prosecution committed various acts of misconduct, and that on this basis Banks probably deserves another trial. But “a complete reading of the record, including facts uncovered during his appeals, shows that he is most likely innocent”? Come on. If Banks didn’t commit the murder himself, he must know a good deal about who did. So why isn’t he talking?

Herbert is no better with logic. He hauls out the tired argument that the death penalty should be abolished because executions occur far more frequently when whites are the murder victims than when blacks are. Assume this is true. How does it prove that the executions that do take place are unjust? Justice is an individual, not a social matter. One could as easily conclude that more murderers of blacks should be executed.

Sincerely yours,