Give me the gun

4 08 2013

Yet another article about yet another shitty government official and in the comments, the usual:

Yeah, we should totally give up our guns to these tyrants!

Okay, yeah, comments (often a cesspool, not representative, blah blah), but this sentiment is so commonly expressed in the comments that someone less obsessed with gun regs/rights (take yer pick) is likely simply to skip past them.

I, for example, usually skip past.

But today a new thought hit: Guns are a simple answer to a tough problem.

I’m a good-government type of gal, but any leftist who isn’t at least skeptical of governmental power isn’t doing it right. I like big, messy, pluralist, complicated societies, and the only way to live well in a big, messy, pluralist, complicated societies is to establish some kind of rule of law to navigate those messes and complications.  And if that law is to have a chance at approaching justice, good government is required.

But it’s also manifestly the case that government isn’t always good, that law falls short of justice, and sometimes you really do have to defend yourself by any means necessary.

Thus, while it’s easy for me to roll my eyes at so-called gun-nuts, there is some small part of me that gets some small part of their agenda. There’s a lot I don’t get and a lot I don’t agree with, but the notion that the government is not always to be trusted. . . ?

Anyway, trying to wrest good government out of bad is hard, hard work, rarely straightforward, and almost always takes too long. And even if you think you’ll fail, you have to believe enough in the worth of good government to try.

Not everyone believes this, of course, which is why some prefer the quick recourse to weaponry. But there may be others who are driven less by animus against the government (or the big messy society which requires it) than a frustration that the Right and the Good are just so goddamned obvious and just as goddamned obviously never to be achieved by standard operating procedures, that the best way to the Right and the Good is to blow a hole through those SOPs.

Thus, the gun: It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s done.


h/t: Brad DeLong


On the tv and the media

29 06 2013

I’m no good at personal confrontation.

I know, I know, y’all are thinking But absurdbeats, you can be such a bitch!  And it’s true! I can be! But as comfortable as I am tearing into an argument, I am no good at tearing into a person—so much so that I cringe at witnessing a person getting chewed out.

That said, my discomfort transformed into awe over the course of this video:

Maybe because this guy wasn’t some poor schmoe but a CEO, maybe because Congresswoman Duckworth was so righteous, maybe because he was so. goddamned. shameless, but I actually enjoyed this, uh, little exchange.

Commenters on other sites have pointed out that the problem may lie less with Mr. Owie-I-Turned-My-Ankle-Once than with a system that allows him to claim a veteran’s disability for an injury sustained in prep school, and I don’t disagree.

But: a shitty system does not excuse shitty behavior.

Systems matter. The ancients pointed out that the type of society in which one lives affects one’s behavior, and over the millenia thinkers have exhausted a lotta brain cells trying to figure out how, exactly, culture may shore up or degrade virtue. Aristotle wondered whether one could be good in a bad polis, Diogenes wandered about searching for that one honest man, and today those of very different political persuasions bewail the corruption of our culture and the doom which awaits us all.

So, okay, culture matters.

But so, too, does conscience. I don’t know the exact relationship between culture and conscience, what resources any one individual needs to reflect on this relationship, nor what one needs to choose conscience over an interest which culture may promote, but I doubt that conscience is always and everywhere collapsible into culture.

There’s something called ‘virtue ethics‘ which focuses on conscience and character. I am dubious of its efficacy on its own—it’s too easy to slide from virtue as a goal to virtue as an excuse—but as part of a comprehensive set of standards, it’s can help to check oneself. If you want to think of yourself as a good person, then you need to consider what are the actions of a good person, and how do my actions compare.

This is where the whole conscience-culture nexus gets tangled (as least for us epistemological nihilists): If culture decides what is ‘good’, and I want to be ‘good’, then how can I go against culture?

That’s a tough one, and in its abstract form I can only offer multiple, partial answers.

The case of Mr. Owie-Ankle, happily, is not so abstract, and thus more amenable to judgement.

Braulio Castillo clearly cares about goodness. He’s a man who contributes to charity and gives back to his community.  Given that he publicizes these good works, one can safely say that Castillo has at least thought about what is good.

As such, it is telling that he both highlights his “military service” and obscures the details by which he came to claim veteran’s disability based on that “service”. On his company’s website it is noted that he

attended the United States Military Academy (West Point) Preparatory School. Braulio was honorably discharged from the United States Army and received a service connected, disability rating from the Department of Veterans Affairs for his active duty service as an enlisted soldier in the US Army.

Did you catch that? He attended not West Point, but West Point Prep, doesn’t detail the injury (injured his foot in an exercise), and calls his time spent at that prep school “active duty service as an enlisted soldier in the US Army.”

It was not.

If he thought that he did nothing wrong in claiming a 30-percent disability for an injury sustained prior to an active college-football career, then why not publicize the details?

It’s entirely possible that he thinks that doing good here makes good whatever he does there (another skew in virtue ethics), so why bother with such petty matters as, um, fudging the facts?

It is also entirely possible that he may have been suffering from a malady Upton Sinclair identified long ago: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”  And perhaps he could point to the particular business culture in which he operated—in which not understanding something is SOP—and say B-b-b-but everyone’s doing it! and claim that if his acts aren’t, y’know, good-good, they are at least par for the course.

(Of that last possibility, I would be unshocked.)

But that he called himself an “enlisted soldier in the US Navy Army” on “active duty service” when he was neither tells me he knew he was fucking with the facts, and was fucking with those facts for money.

That’s not good, Mr. Castillo, not good at all. You richly deserved that shredding.

And because of that, I richly enjoyed that dessert.

And fear the silence is the voice of God

19 09 2009

Legos or coins—which are you?

What, you don’t get what I’m referencing? Oh, that’s right, you weren’t in class this past Thursday.

As I’ve mentioned, I teach political science at a CUNY school, an endeavor which doesn’t pay much (or not at all: see previous post), but which I enjoy. Most of what I teach is pretty basic—100- and 200-level stuff (with occasional forays into the 300s)—which means I don’t usually get much of a chance to toss mind-blowing stuff at my students.

Except. . . except for the one lecture near the beginning of this particular 200-level course. I tell the students this will help them make sense of the readings, and I’m not lying, but, honestly, they could get by without this. I spend 60 or 75 minutes on this stuff because I dig it.

I begin by writing on the chalkboard the following:

The Good




(Because I’m html-illiterate, I’m unable to show the arrows running up and down between the levels. Luckily, the chalkboard doesn’t require html.)

I like to explain this spatially: epistemology is deep in the ground, ontology is in the middle layers, the practical-reflective on the surface, and the Good out in the sky.

After the requisite this-would-not-pass-muster-in-a-philosophy-class disclaimer, I dive into epistemology, or, How do you know what you know. The stuff of late night conversations, drug trips, or too many viewings of The Matrix. It’s tricky, I note, not least because any answer you give can be parried with a ‘. . . but how do you know that?’ and lead to endless regress.

Above that is ontology, which I define existentially: as a matter of Being-in-the-world. The key question here, I note, is Who are you? How do you understand yourself, your relationship to others, and to existence itself.

The practical-reflective: this is where most of us live, with the main question What to do? The use of the practical often stands in for pragmatic, but in this case I use it in terms of practice, as in the practices in which we engage, of how we order the doings of our lives. These aren’t merely banal issues: what to do can involve questions of love, work, where to live, whether to have children, etc.—hence, the reflective part. (And, as I tell the class, it’s also the level of politics, of how to arrange ourselves vis-a-vis one another and any authority we choose to install over and above ourselves.)

Before ascending to the Good, I pause and note that at times of crisis the ontological may crack open, and people may question who they are and what they’re doing with their lives. (More rarely, they may tumble into the epistemological abyss, a place more mind-blowing than any intoxicant, and one best scrambled out of as quickly as possible. Voluntary spelunking in the epistemological is to be discouraged, especially if unaccompanied by a guide.) In any case, while most people don’t think of their lives in terms of ontology, the questions which arise from it are not unfamiliar. I then point out that while most of our work for the course will deal with the practical-reflective, we will occasionally bounce down to the ontological—or up to the Good.

Finally, then, the Good. This term is taken from Plato, and denotes an eternal, fixed, reality—the Really Real, the True. Given that most people on the planet are religious, I point out, the Good is often understood in terms of God or gods*. It is that around which people orient themselves, or seek, or toward which they aim. Understandably, then, contemplation of the Good can affect how one approaches the questions at the other levels as well as how one acts.

(*The main secular competitor to god/s may be nationalism, with very strong versions allowing the nation to stand in for the god/s; less common would be an utter devotion to science and methodological naturalism. There are likely other ideological permutations as well.)

At this point, I gesture toward the arrows running along side of this little chart. One happens at one level can affect what happens at other levels, both up and down, but not necessarily so.

And thus, the Lego-vs-coin question.

For some people, the four levels are locked tightly together, as if they were Lego blocks. Knowing the Good can tell you how to act in the world, how to understand yourself in that world, and how you know anything at all. It is a comprehensive vision.

I’ll give at this point the example of the devout Christian who has a very strong sense of God, who tries to live her life according to her understanding of God, who thinks of herself as in this world but not of it, and who knows what she knows because God allows her to know. Even if her understanding is imperfect or she is occasionally confused, she nonetheless allows for very little light between the levels.

For others of us, however, the relationship between the levels is less certain; we have at best partial visions. I’m an epistemological skeptic, I’ll admit, and am not sure if we can know anything, not even, against Descartes, whether we exist. This past Thursday I analogized the levels to lumps in a bag, shifting and bumping against one another, but I think the better analogy is that of coins. Yeah, I can stack them on top of one another, but they don’t lock in, and they can be fairly easily scattered.

I didn’t go so far as to state that followers of the Good are all Lego-folk, and agnostics, coin collectors—and not just because that would  have taken me away from the point of this exercise (which was to tie it all back into political analysis). I think the predisposition to Legos or coins is a temperamental one, and that this temperament has no necessary relation to belief or skepticism.

(Okay, so dogmatic skepticism is difficult to square, but it’s also clear that devout believers may  carry a doubt or a humility great enough to prevent any lockdown. In any case, if it is temperamental, it’s not clear how much it can be changed.)

The students are popping in with questions and comments all throughout this exercise, and when we finish with the Good, usually one student will ask But what if we don’t all have the same Good?

Yesss! This leads rather nicely to a discussion of the theory we’ll be examining for the next month or two, and how it seeks to create framework for development which allows individuals to choose their own versions of the Good, and which discourages the imposition of any, one, version. Onward to politics!

This is all very nice, you might say, but I’m not your student, so why are you telling me this?

Because I’ve been preoccupied of late with matters which, I realize, are related to Legos and coins, and I don’t know that I could have approached them in this blog without sketching out the underpinnings of that approach.

Of course, now that I’ve so sketched them, it’ll probably be awhile before I bother with the matters themselves.

What can I say? My coins have scattered.