Thursday, April 24, 2008

Willie Horton and Reverend Wright-Type Ads

These are ads that show despicable people who are black in an association, of one kind or another, with a candidate for office. The premise of the day is that these ads are racist. This premise rests upon the further premise that:

Showing such black people on TV, and linking them to a candidate, is racist.

But what is the basis for that premise? There are only two possibilities:


1. Blacks are a lowly race and linking them to the candidate wrongfully taints him by association to a lowly race.


2. The ad creator knows that many viewers of the ad incorrectly believe that blacks are a lowly race and will therefore decide not to vote for the candidate associated with blacks in the ad.

Now, #1 is a racist premise. So, anyone who objects to the Horton/Wright-type ads on its grounds is a racist. It shouldn't come as a surprise if many liberals fall under this category. So many of them practice the bigotry of low expectations (excusing Obama's attending a socially diseased church, for example, or refusing to accept that black people can make it on their own in this world, for another example.)

So, the non-racist alternative seems to be #2. But it rests upon a problematic premise. It assumes that it is the intent of the ad creator to influence racist viewers and not to influence viewers who prefer not to vote for candidates associated with despicable people. In fact, as the ads show despicable people linked to a candidate, it is simpler to assume that the ad creator wants to target viewers who don't want to vote for candidates who are linked to despicable people. To prove that the ad creator has the racist viewer in mind carries quite a burden when it's a matter of common sense that very many viewers will not like to vote for candidates who associate with despicable people. This is because not liking to vote for such candidates is itself a common-sense attitude. So, to assume that the target of Horton/Wright-type ads is people with common sense makes more sense than to assume that the target is racists.

In fact, it's a bit loopy to take #2 as the premise for viewing the Horton/Wright-type ads as racist. For this implies that if an ad creator is to escape the sin of racism, he may show only despicable white people, but no despicable black people, in any ad intended to denigrate a candidate by associating him with those people. This implies that any candidate who adores certain despicable people may not be criticized for it in any ad which shows the color of those people's skin if it is black skin. That's simply loopy. Think about it. Horton and Wright may not be shown. Because they're black. If they were white it would be okay. That's nutty.

So, if you think the Horton/Wright ads are racist, then either (#1) you are a racist or (#2) you are committed to a rather loopy premise.

UPDATE: A technical aside: #2 portrays the ad creator as a cynical race-baiter and therefore not a racist in the narrow sense of "racist"; #2 does not entail that the ad creator himself believes that blacks are a lowly race. However, there is an extended sense of the term in which the race-baiter is a racist. In that he is willing to stoke the fires of racism, he is a racist in this extended sense.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Billy Budd V: Susan Mendus's "Innocent Before God"

I take Vere's decision straightforwardly. Vere and his jury did the right thing. Billy committed a capital offense. Instead of sparing Billy's life, they protected the ship and England (from mutiny and the French Revolution, respectively.) Billy's sacrifice, like that of other decent young men sacrificed in war, is just. The book is a microcosmic allegory of the great disaster of war.

Still, there is something to be said for Susan Mendus's idea that the captain's particular personal characteristics made a difference. For Mendus, Vere's choice was right because it fit his character and the agreement he had with his employer to act as captain with such a character. I can imagine a captain of great charisma and persuasive power, able to spare Billy's life while dousing the flames of mutiny. This would be the right path for him to take, while Vere's was right for him. Here the relativistic "right for" locution which Mendus uses makes sense. Right depends, in some sense, on the particular characteristics of the agent and his situation. (A further illustration: what it is right for a person who happens upon a car crash with a badly injured victim to do may depend upon the person's characteristics: Is he a doctor? Is he strong enough to carry the victim? Or better able to flag down a passing motorist? Etc.)

Nevertheless, Mendus's analysis of this particularism about Vere ambiguates over theses that are either trivial or false. No non-trivially true thesis is evident in her article. Even the interesting point about a more charismatic captain than Vere was left unmade by Mendus.

The trivial sense of her thesis is that what is right for the captain of the ship to do depends upon the understanding he has with his employers about what he is to do as captain, given his particular, personal characteristics. Of course, contracts matter, even tacit ones. Whether the captain has promised to use his ingenuity to solve problems or to follow the letter of the law, the promise matters and we all knew that. So, this is trivial. Only if you make the point about a charismatic captain does it become a little more interesting.

The false sense of Mendus's thesis is that the right depends entirely on the agent's desires, talents, and contracts. It does not. This is where the "right for" locution leads one into trouble. There are heavy constraints on right action which are not usually defeasible by the agent's particulars. The situation Vere faces is heavily constrained by the duty not to kill an innocent man, the duty not to allow mutiny, and the duty not to allow the French Revolution to spread to England. Without recognizing this Mendus dwells upon a fanciful melding of the right with the good, under the supposedly liberal flag of value pluralism. She thinks it appropriately liberal and soundly in the tradition of Mill and Rawls to allow that the particular values of the agent determine what it is right for him to do. In fact, Mendus's account suffers from a deficit of value pluralism. John Kekes, the best conservative philosopher we have now, is a value pluralist; his is a model which takes heavy constraints on right seriously. Mendus, on the other hand, dwells on personal preference (good), confusing it with right and not taking seriously the variety of heavy constraints on right. Her account founders on a misconstrual of which values to be pluralistic about and on a confusion of good with right. The failure to be serious about embracing a wide variety of values seems to me an essential defect of liberalism. Duties that don't involve transferring power or wealth to the poor or require that we respect as good and right each person's particular inclinations do not play a significant role in liberal moral and political deliberations. Mendus's article is no exception.

In short, the false sense of Mendus's thesis is that it reduces right to an individualistic good. If Vere were a sadist, then on Mendus's view torturing Billy before executing him might be right; her analysis has no means by which to avoid this conclusion. Alternatively, the trivial sense of the thesis is that the agent's characteristics and contracts matter in moral deliberation. There is no non-trivial true alternative sense of Mendus's thesis.

So, Mendus's thesis has only a little to be said in its favor. It stumbles unknowingly over something interesting and true (the case of the charismatic captain.) But it fails in its derivation of right from a liberal conception of good and it ignores important constraints on the right.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Billy Budd IV: The Bully as Hypnotist

The innocent and good are not always prepared for the psychological subterfuge of the bully or psychopath. The proper preparation is an immobility of the emotions, a kind of stillness at a resting point or sweet spot of sorts, from which it is impossible to be driven to rage or inappropriate guilt. Billy Budd is not so prepared. He is stricken by John Claggart's attempt to frame him as a mutineer. Meeting his accuser face-to-face, he is unable to respond appropriately. A typical psychopath or bully, Claggart depends upon his hypnotic powers to subdue his prey.

[Billy] stood like one impaled and gagged.... [Claggart's] first mesmeric glance was one of serpent fascination; the last was as the hungry lurch of the torpedo-fish.

"Speak, man!" said Captain Vere to the transfixed one, struck by his aspect even more than by Claggart's, "Speak! defend yourself." Which appeal caused but a strange dumb gesturing and gurgling in Billy; amazement at such an accusation so suddenly sprung on inexperienced nonage; this, and, it may be, horror of the accuser, serving to bring out his lurking defect and in this instance for the time intensifying it into a convulsed tongue-tie; while the intent head and entire form straining forward in an agony of ineffectual eagerness to obey the injunction to speak and defend himself, gave an expression to the face like that of a condemned Vestal priestess in the moment of being buried alive, and in the first struggle against suffocation.

...Billy's aspect recalled to [Vere] that of a bright young schoolmate of his whom he had once seen struck by much the same startling impotence in the act of eagerly rising in the class to be foremost in response to a testing question put to it by the master. Going close up to the young sailor, and laying a soothing hand on his shoulder, he said, "There is no hurry, my boy. Take your time, take your time." Contrary to the effect intended, these words so fatherly in tone, doubtless touching Billy's heart to the quick, prompted yet more violent efforts at utterance--efforts soon ending for the time in confirming the paralysis, and bringing to his face an expression which was as a crucifixion to behold. The next instant, quick as the flame from a discharged cannon at night, his right arm shot out, and Claggart dropped to the deck.

The blow brings about exactly what Claggart desired: Billy's complete undoing.

The good and innocent need to be prepared to respond to bullies with calmness and decisiveness. The bully depends upon the crippling effect of rage, the shame associated with that effect, and the guilt one feels for feeling rage. No attempt to resist these emotions will work because they are eliminated only through a certain calm strength that cannot be created when attempts to resist them are underway. A better tactic is simply to observe these emotions detachedly and without antipathy to them. They pass and one discovers reserves of strength.

Bullies desire their victims to experience impotent rage and guilty self-loathing. What they dread is that the victims have reserves of calmness and impassivity necessary to defeat them.

This advice may bear some partial similarity to various pacifistic philosophies that counsel non-aggression or non-violence. But it is perfectly compatible with more forward-leaning points of view, according to which bullies and psychopaths are to be aggressively hunted down and subdued and, when it's necessary, crushed with preemptive violence. Indeed, I think pacifists mistakenly infer from the preferability of calmness and impassiveness to false conclusions about the preferability of passivity and non-violence.
Marc Bennett, RIP

I had a friend well worth having two decades ago, during my college days at Swarthmore. Marc Bennett passed away last year, leaving behind a wife, Anna, and young son, Asher.

My memory of Marc has stayed fresh these twenty years. He was at once funny and serious, friendly and, let's just say, prickly. Put it this way, he was a gentleman who didn't shy away from letting me know where there were deficiencies in my character obvious to him though not to me. Heedless as I was, I'm grateful that the memory stuck with me and that I was able to have quite a few laughs with him.

To Asher I say, You may someday be lucky enough to have memories of your father pointing the way for you to be a better man. I'd say don't ignore them as much as I did when I was twenty.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Billy Budd III: John Claggart

John Claggart, a psychopath, will frame Billy Budd for mutiny simply because he hates him. Melville applies the label "mystery" to the intelligent psychopath's "antipathy spontaneous and profound," offering only the pseudo-explanation that Claggart has a "natural depravity." Lacking ordinary concern for others' welfare, the psychopath employs reason and a respectable demeanor in order to accomplish evil ends that the rest of us, who do not lack such concern, find uncanny. As Hume might have said, the psychopath prefers the destruction of others to a slight scratch on his finger.

Two further observations suggest themselves. One is that Claggart and Billy likely come from good stock: fine genes. Melville says so. They naturally have the potential for excellence. Claggart's potential has gone to naught, while Billy is a happy and excellent young man.

The form of Billy Budd was heroic; and if his face was without the intellectual look of the pallid Claggart's, not the less was it lit, like his, from within, though from a different source.

Billy is admired, Claggart despised. Claggart resents Billy's happiness; he is utterly consumed by hatred and resentment. He even hates himself for resenting Billy, as his private facial expression becomes distorted with anger when it is publicly proclaimed that he is "down on Billy." Claggart resents his ruined life and present station, he resents Billy, and he resents his resentments. He is not just a psychopath; he has been driven to distraction by resentment.

As I've suggested, unless the novel is just the story of an unusual case of crime and punishment on a boat, Claggart represents war. War is, after all, in part senseless death and mad violence. Much of what occurs in the trenches and in "boarding her in the smoke" is similar to the rage and violence in Claggart's soul. He represents the enemy's ability to deliver this brutality and evil in war. Billy must die when he slays this enemy. If we spare his life, then we end up defenseless against more of the same enemy.

Not only does Billy Budd portray a country's need to sacrifice its fine young men in its own defense; it also shows that the war to which they are sacrificed is a monster who will add a senselessness and indecency to their deaths. What makes sense and is good may be recouped from the senseless and the evil by men of Vere and Budd's caliber. Yet even then, some of them will be psychologically wounded by having to do so, as in Vere's case. We see why; the sensible sacrifice has a senselessness in it. In war, what is good partakes deeply in what is senseless and indecent.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Billy Budd II

In Omoo, Melville writes:

I do not wish to be understood as applauding the flogging system practiced in men-of-war. As long, however, as navies are needed, there is no substitute for it. War being the greatest of evils all its accessories necessarily partake of the same character; and this is about all that can be said in defense of flogging.

Billy sees the results of a brutal flogging and is cowed by it, resolving never to do anything to bring such punishment down upon him. If flogging is justified, then so is the death of a sailor or soldier in battle. Because navies are needed. Because war is unavoidable.

Melville's little tale of criminal justice aboard the Bellipotent is a thumbnail sketch of the justice of sending Billy to war. Billy is a man least deserving of death at war. Yet it is just that he be sent to that fate.

The Dansker says, "Baby Budd, [Claggart] is down on you." Billy: "What for? Why, he calls me 'the sweet and pleasant young fellow,' they tell me." But this is precisely why Claggart intends to send Billy to his death. Rather than being those who we should send to war last, the good are the very ones we need at the front lines. They are the ones who can look death in the face without blinking, as Billy does.

Claggart does not represent just leaders who justly send men to war, of course. He is unsuccessful in his mission to send Billy to his death. The punishment of death comes to Billy for the act of eliminating this enemy out of an instinctive and natural rage and indignance for him, the sort of instinct the young and good, those who we must send to war, should have.

War's evil: Billy and Vere, good men, are accessories to it who necessarily partake of the same character.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

O Mio Babbino Caro

Maria Callas, singing this song so beautifully.

This performance draws tears. But why?

There is a certain nobility of spirit in the girl, a purity of intention to make something good, an admirable self-direction, and a fortitude of will. Tragically, these very virtues will ruin her because she lacks an additional one: wisdom. We are particularly stricken when we see such nobility bring undeserved ruin to itself.

I fret and suffer torments
Oh God, I would rather die
Daddy, have pity, have pity

In addition, we can vaguely detect that the girl has been someone's victim here. We don't have sympathy for a simply unbalanced character that cooks up some infatuation and then destroys itself. We feel, rather, for the one who has this vulnerability of naivety, a weak spot which is exploited, either by the one she loves or someone else. The girl is a noble victim, too innocent to know how to protect herself from developing an intention to ruin herself.

The music expresses this state of affairs very well, as Callas brings the whole package together. This is why it is especially beautiful and melancholy.

Sissel and Carmen Monarcha also stand out.

Also: Hayley Westenra here and here.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Maverick

Thanks for the Mavericklanche, Bill!

Folks, if you want to see what a real philosophy blog looks like just keep scrolling. I like the posts on metaethics, my favorite field of philosophy. Unlike Philosoblog, The Maverick has loads of epistemology and metaphysics for you. Plus, he often has great photos of the southwestern landscape. And yes, I did mean "'lanche." That's how popular his philosophy blog is, and deservedly so.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Billy Budd (I)

Get this edition.

Captain Vere must send boys to their deaths. War is a fact, not a debatable proposition. We will send our good boys, and their instinctive and noble fighting spirit will get them killed, just as Billy's did him. And just as in Billy's case, the justice of their fate will be owing to the requirement of a society to defend itself and not to any inherent criminality of their acts.

We can if we like demonstrate to ourselves the need for our country to send good men to their deaths in order to protect the country. Vere argues carefully to his jury (a drumhead court-marshal) that Billy must hang. The problem is that sending Billy or any other decent young man to his death is an indecent act. It make one ill. It renders Vere a broken man.

Billy is an even better man than most, perhaps even Vere. He causes peace and harmony where he dwells. He accepts the sentence Vere hands down and blesses Vere. This expresses the position in which one finds oneself with regard to some soldiers: embarrassed by their superior character and infinite sacrifice.

In war one says, as Billy did on the occasion of his being impressed into the navy, "Goodbye to you, old rights of man." War overrides its participants' rights to be treated with decency and as worthy of respect. War is therefore a fact of the human predicament which is irreconcilable to the rationalistic position that the moral rules demanded by decency and dignity hold absolutely. They don't. We can, however, aim at accepting this reality and this justice as easily as Billy did. In his utterance, he did not mean that war violates our boys' right to life and liberty. And in fact it doesn't. It overrides them.

Of course, there are layers upon layers in Billy Budd. This is only one layer.