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August 30, 2006

Europe's Christian roots?

I read Without Roots alongside Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism because they seemed to exemplify two common responses to the problem of cultural intolerance and violence. Appiah's book describes the familiar liberal response: we can avoid violence by recognizing that most differences between people aren't as serious as they seem, and by treating the differences that remain as irrelevant to the practical problem of living together. The book by Pera and Ratzinger promised to argue for some version of the cultural conservative's response: stable toleration requires that we all recognize some fundamental "moral essence" of humanity; the Christian tradition of Europe recognizes this moral essence; therefore the foundations of a stable, nonviolent society must somehow embrace our Judeo-Christian roots.

I'm not very sympathetic to the accretions of right-wing opinion that cling to the religious traditionalists like barnacles, but on one point at least, they're more effective than the liberals. The conservatives say that there are moral values that we must recognize as universal and superior to all others. Otherwise, our efforts at peaceful toleration will allow hideous evil to flourish. Toleration based on relativism rather than on absolute moral standards cannot recognize the evil of regimes like Mao's or Stalin's.

Liberals, of course, recognize that murder can't be tolerated, much less genocide. The problem is that liberal arguments aren't usually very good at explaining why. A morally crippled person, reading Kwame Anthony Appiah's arguments, might easily fail to see why a society or regime like Stalin's ought to be one of the "losers" when it conflicts with a regime or society that prohibits torturing political opponents in gulags. Appiah certainly doesn't give compelling reasons; he simply says that there will be winners and losers when irreconcilable values conflict, and that the losers won't be happy about it. The closest Appiah comes to actually giving a reason is when he says that some values (like not hurting others) are actually shared almost universally; the defenders of Hitler are not very numerous. But even if this is empirically true, Appiah can't give a reason why it's a good thing that this is true.

The problem that most liberals face, no matter how morally upstanding they may be, is that reasoned arguments are the most subtle and difficult means of distinguishing good from evil. I don't know whether there's a philosophical consensus about whether it's even possible to reason about the concepts of good and evil without resorting to non-rational discourse, such as the language of faith. But one thing's for sure: it's much, much easier to talk about good and evil in the language of faith and religion than it is to talk about these things using rational arguments. That's why most people who aren't moral philosophers in fact look to things other than reason when they make judgments about morality. Something's evil because the Bible or the Koran or their priest or their mother says it is, or beause it just is, period. No reasoned arguments necessary (or possible?).

This is why the conservatives are more effective than most liberals, at least on this question. Joseph Ratzinger can explicitly appeal to faith in order to say "this, my friends, is evil." Appiah perhaps ought to do this too, but his attachment to reason and fear of un-reason lead him to make hand-wavy gestures at the point when he wants to argue that some things just shouldn't be tolerated.

Ok, so on that much I think Without Roots is a better book than Appiah's, because it's more straightforward and honest. But what about the rest?

Pera and Ratzinger: Saving the world by invading Iraq and outlawing gay marriage

Joseph Ratzinger is, of course, the Pope, but he wrote these materials when he was merely one of the most influential thinkers high up in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Pera is an Italian politician, and one of the most interesting things about this book is to see how Ratzinger keeps his distance from politics, preferring to discuss ideas and issues in the abstract or in historical terms, while Pera is more willing to apply these ideas to practical policies. This dynamic is fascinating. Ratzinger alone is very measured, interesting, and even compelling. One can't help but admire his historical knowledge, and his tone is scholarly and pleasant. It's easy to simply think along with Ratzinger, but when you read Pera's contributions, you can no longer be a curious spectator. With Pera, you have to declare yourself as an ally or an enemy. And since Ratzinger nowhere says that he disagrees with Pera and often claims to agree with him, you realize that if ideas have consequences you'd better be either for Ratzinger or against him.

Here's what Ratzinger says: the history of Europe is a long, slow process of moving religion out of the public sphere -- Ratzinger wants to bring it back. The initial moves of this long process were good ones. In the Western Roman Empire, temporal power was divided from spiritual power, with the former resting with kings and the latter resting with the Pope. This was good because human pride makes absolute power too dangerous. It's not clear where along the road to the modern secular state Ratzinger thinks Europe ran off the tracks, but he certainly thinks it has done so by now. Today, Ratzinger says, Europe's "broad Christian consensus" is threatened. The modern European state has succumbed to a "hollow" belief in technology and progress as a secular substitute for spiritual values. Totalitarianism and dictatorship remain a real threat because the relativism that permitted the regimes of Stalin and Hitler is stronger than ever.

The proper response to this sorry trajectory is to ensure that any future European Constitution protects fundamental human rights as "values that take precedence over the jurisdiction of any state." Modern abominations such as cloning, "trafficking in organs for transplants," and gay marriage would be stopped in their tracks.

I'm sympathetic to Ratzinger's worries about an unbounded faith in technological progress. And he's surely right that without some absolute moral values that limit the permissible uses of new technologies, we will again have to confront massive horrors of the sort that we saw in the 20th century. I'm thinking here about, you know, mass genocide and nuclear annihilation. That's why it's so lame to end, as too many conservative screeds against secularism do, by trotting out organ transplants and gay marriage as the sort of horrors that should motivate us to change essential aspects of modern state power. Unless you're a believer in a very particular interpretation of a very particular bit of religious scripture, the threat of gay marriage is not going to chill you to the core.

It only gets worse when you read Marcello Pera's pieces. As a practicing Italian politician sympathetic to Ratzinger's views, Pera allows himself greater license to talk about specific political controversies. The war in Iraq is the best example. Pera praises the Bush Doctrine generally as a shining example of what a leader with moral convictions can do, and he praises the invasion of Iraq specifically as something Bush and the U.S., but not the hollow and hopelessly secular European states, had the courage to do. If it's true that Ratzinger's brand of moral absolutism would be reliably translated by politicians like Pera into policies like George W. Bush's, then I know where I stand. I'm against it, full stop.

Kwame Anthony Appiah's liberalism leads him to belittle people's cultural and religious convictions, but Pera and Ratzinger's religious convictions lead them to all but explictly reject toleration. We can believe in whatever we want, so long as we submit to the authority of leaders espousing the Christian (and specifically Catholic) religion. What else can Ratzinger mean when he chooses such a particular "evil" as gay marriage to condemn? It would be fine if, like Appiah but without Appiah's hemming and hawing, Ratzinger had espoused absolute moral values that could at least pretend to be universal.

Reading both of these books, I get the sense that any solution to the toleration problem is a fine balance between Appiah's toleration and Ratzinger and Pera's convictions. But I'm not optimistic that any one author or theorist will get it right. If we manage to achieve it in practice, it's going to be because both sides check each other's excesses.

August 28, 2006

Heading west on vacation

For a blessed two weeks, I'll be away from the city that I love, namely Chicago, on vacation to the land that I love and the region that I call home, namely the American West. Colorado first, then California. Can't wait to feel that dry air again.

Since I've gotta catch some Zs before my flight tomorrow, I won't say much about this piece by Sebastian Mallaby. Save to say that I viscerally disagree with every last thing in it.

August 27, 2006

Two months of small patients

Tomorrow is my last shift in the pediatric ER. I'll miss it; it's been a fun month.

But I'm also looking forward to finally seeing some adults. The kids are great, but there's only so many fevers and rashes and sore throats and crying and ear infections that I can take before I go stark raving mad.

August 25, 2006

No one loves me

I've told everyone I can think of, "you've gotta read China Miéville, he's great."

Has anyone bothered? No.

You'd think I had no friends in the whole world. :(

August 24, 2006

Advice for 2L law students

3L Epiphany has a nice post with advice for 2Ls. I've thrown in a bit of my own advice in the comments to that post.

I'd like to remind 2Ls, though, of Gildor Inglorion's words to Frodo and company in the hills above Woodhall:

Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. . . . But if you demand advice, I will for friendship's sake give it.
My advice is offered in the same spirit of friendship, and with the same cautions. Of course, the conseqences if "courses run ill" in law school aren't quite the same as they are when one is pursued by the Nazgûl.

August 23, 2006

How to crack the USNews Top 10

1) Count freshman writing courses
2) Don't count alums that can't be located (Steve Yalovitser, where are you?)
3) Recount library expenditures as an educational expenditure

The shocking thing is, even after all this accounting and reaccounting mumbo-jumbo, the University of Chicago is still just about the same school from the perspective of an undergraduate as it was last year. Except now USNews ranks it #9 instead of #15.

News Flash for prospective undergrads who've had their heads in holes: the U of C is the best place on earth for some of you, but not for others. Regardless of how it counts its library expenditures.

August 22, 2006

Fear of a Mexican planet

Daniel Larison's post sets out, clearly and pithily, the reasons why we should worry about Mexican immigration.

I've linked to it because I'm not worried about the Mexicans, and it's because I don't think any of Larison's reasons give cause for alarm.

  • Assimilation just isn't the problem Larison thinks it is. How exactly do we suffer if Mexicans remain "unassimilated?" i'm sure this doesn't hold true for Mr. Larison, but for many opponents of immigration, "assimilation" is a code word for not having to hear Spanish spoken on the street. One faces this problem in Europe, so it cannot be that this is a threat to our "European culture." What else can "assimilation" mean? That Mexicans won't soon be driving SUVs and shopping at WalMart like the rest of us? Even if this is true, which it isn't, both of these behaviors are salutary.
  • Mr. Larison fears that large numbers of Mexicans won't adopt the "habits of the natives." Well, in some cases, that would be a bad thing -- but only when those habits are good ones. For neutral habits, like the preference among 50-something whites of European heritage for lime-green Izod golf shirts, or bad habits, like the preference among native 20-somethings to sit on their ass all day complaining about how no employer worthy of their great talent will hire them, rather than going out and getting a job, the refusal of Mexicans to adopt the local habits will benefit our great Nation.
  • The most bizzare part of Mr. Larison's post, though, is its worries about democracy. I want to believe that it's saying this: that large numbers of immigrants unaccustomed to democracy threatens our own democratic traditions, which depend upon a cultural assumption that it's democracy or the highway. But it would be so much easier to read the post this way if there wasn't all that stuff in there about the new immigrants' self-interested preference for left-wing politics. If you're worried that the bill of rights and the protection of minorities will be trampled, that's one thing. But lovers of democracy, even "liberal democracy" (which I generously take to mean a democracy that preserves basic human rights), have nothing to fear from people of any background that prefer left-wing policies and candidates for office. The only people who have anything to fear from these are people that prefer right-wing policies. Don't try to misdescribe this as a fear for "liberal democracy."
  • Even if everything Mr. Larison says about Mexican immigrants were true, these threats pale against the threats to our democracy and culture from other sources. The chief among these being, of course, globalized trade, the de facto rule of multinational corporations, and the strictly industrialist mindset that goes with this. It wasn't Mexicans who deprived Ms. Kelo and the citizens of New London, Connecticut, of their private property. It was a state apparatus bent on catering to the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. Show me a concrete case where Mexican immigrants have eroded our respect for private property as much, and I'll reconsider my criticisms.
Most of my friends who are sympathetic to my agrarian tendencies are also opponents of immigration from Mexico. Perhaps I'm dense, but I still fail to see any crisis here.

Cosmopolitanism's limits

Last winter when I was in Hyde Park to interview for a residency spot, I stopped in at 57th Street Books and found two books on the front table. One was Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. The other was by Italian politician Marcello Pera and Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), entitled Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam.

I thought it would be fun to read them together. One offered "cosmopolitanism" as an antidote to the inevitable conflicts that arise in a globalized "world of strangers." The other saw a threat to "tolerance and civility among peoples of diverse convictions" in Europe's "apostasy toward . . . the spiritual roots of European civilization" as George Weigel's preface puts it. Nonviolent coexistence demands some degree of toleration, and toleration seems to demand that we embrace some kind of relativism. Could one really argue for a renewed commitment to religious values on the grounds that this apparent absolutism is more conducive to toleration than some form of relativism? This post addresses Appiah's book; I'lll talk about Pera and Ratzinger separately.

Anthony Appiah: Virginia Postrel on steroids

I admit that the comparison might not be entirely fair, but for the sake of brevity I'm going to call Kwame Anthony Appiah the thinking man's Virginia Postrel (or perhaps Thomas Friedman, if you prefer).

Appiah argues that we can't be cosmopolitans until we give substantial weight to our shared humanity, relative to the weight we give to our shared identity with our co-religionists, countrymen, or ethnic group. The "golden rule of cosmopolitanism" according to Appiah is something like the Roman playwright Terence's "I am human; nothing human is alien to me." When it comes to culture, we ought to recognize the empirical reality that there is no such thing as cultural purity. Every culture has been "contaminated" by others, whether by trade, migration, or Hollywood movies. "We do not need, have never needed, settled community, a homogenous system of values, in order to have a home. Cultural purity is an oxymoron."

This does not mean that there are no differences among peoples. In fact, the threat of cutural imperialism shouldn't be overstated, because even when the same television show is seen worldwide, different peoples have different reactions to it. Even when Coke is marketed around the world, local people often prefer local beverages when they're available. "And whatever loss of difference there has been, [people] are constantly inventing new forms of difference: new hairstyles, new slang, even, from time to time, new religions."

But if homogenization isn't a problem, why do so many people think that it is? According to Appiah, it's because they don't like change. "So why do people in [the world's villages] sometimes feel that their identity is threatened? Because the world, their world, is changing, and some of them don't like it."

Well, duh. It isn't that people don't like change per se; they don't like change that threatens their identity. The problem with all of this breezy talk about sources of conflict that, illusory or not, lead people to kill each other in mass numbers, is the same problem that Postrel and Friedman have also failed to solve. Appiah never takes the proper measure of the non-cosmopolitan's objections to our modern circumstances. You can see this when he equates threats to a person's identity with a mere distaste for change in general. These are clearly problems of a different order of magnitude. We can't conjure away the problem Postrel-style by describing millions of people who feel the need to kill or be killed in a war against modernity as merely stubborn.

Appiah also sets up an all-too common straw man to represent those who argue that elements of our tradition should be preserved. He speaks as if all these people simply want to foreclose choice, and force everyone to be small farmers. For instance (p. 103-4):

Above all, relationships are changing. When my father was young, a man in a village would farm some land that a chief had granted him, and his [family] would work it with him. If extra hands were needed in the harvest season, he would pay the migrant workers who came from the north. . . . Nowadays, everything has changed. Cocoa prices have not kept pace with the cost of living. Gas prices have made the trasportation of the crop more expensive. And there are new possibilities for the young in the towns, in other parts of the country, and in other parts of the world. Once, perhaps, you could have commanded your nephews and nieces to stay. Now they have the right to leave; in any case, you many not make enough to feed and clothe and educate them all. So the time of the successful farming family has gone; and those who were settled in that way of life are as sad to see it go as some of the American family farmers whose lands are being accumulated by giant agribusinesses. We can sympathize with them. But we cannot force their children to stay in the name of protecting their authentic culture; and we cannot afford to subsidize indefinitely thousands of distinct islands of homogeneity that no longer make economic sense.

This is simply modern superstition thoughtlessly repeated. The economy (conceived of as a natural "force" for which we are not responsible) has made it impossible to pursue a way of life that has sustained many generations of people. Despite the economic impossibility of pursuing the old ways of life, the abandonment of these old ways and the adoption of the modern ways is glorified as a "choice" that young people freely make. Appiah doesn't recognize the contradiction, perhaps because he's so eager to condemn those who would "force" their children to remain on the farm as enemies of free choice. But who are these people? We here a lot from Anthony Appiah and Virginia Postrel about these family-farming tyrants, but we're never told who they are. It's just assumed that they exist. But I haven't met one, or read their articles or books, or seen any of the draconian stay-on-the-farm laws that they're trying to pass.

I suspect that, if we were really more concerned about "freedom" than about defending modernity as such, we'd be willing to acknowledge that much of what young people do when they leave the family farm is done because there isn't any other real choice to make. Economic realities, to the extent that they make the family farm unprofitable, make moving to the cities a necessity and not a choice. Appiah (and Friedman) can argue that the family farm doesn't make economic sense, but they can't have it both ways and simultaneously claim that the abandonment of the farms is a glorious example of personal freedom.

The fact is that the modern economic realities that are condemning family farms in favor of global agribusiness are not natural events. We subsidize global agribusiness, not family farms. Much less do we subsidize "thousands of distinct islands of homogeneity," whatever that might mean.

Appiah does discuss more serious sources of conflict than changing hairstyles and new slang. He points out that the conflict in the United States between people who favor and who oppose legal abortion is not a conflict over fundamentally incompatible values. Instead, it's a conflict over how the shared values of life and freedom ought to be applied in a particular case. The conflict between observant Muslims and observant Jews wouldn't be as fierce if they didn't both share similar beliefs about the importance of Jerusalem. The resistance to British colonization of Ghana was fiercest among the most Westernized Ghanaians, who shared with the British the values of nationalism and self-determination.

Appiah comes close to acknowledging that when people disagree like this, reason will often fail. These differences don't arise because people aren't being reasonable. There are going to be winners and losers, and the losers will be very angry, and they may respond with violence. But I suspect that to just say this and stop would be to admit the defeat of cosmopolitanism, and Appiah is unwilling to do this explicitly. Instead, he turns quickly away from a discussion of winners and losers to a discussion of habit. He acknowledges the limits of reason: "I have learned in a life of university teaching and research that even the cleverest [why not simply "most intelligent"?] people are not easily shifted by reason alone. . . " The point of conversation and cultural interchange isn't to arrive at a consensus about values. "...[I]t's enough that it helps people get used to one another." End of chapter.

Sure, living with someone different teaches us about them and makes them less unfamiliar. But if Appiah wants to suggest also that it makes us more tolerant of them, he leaves it as merely a suggestion. Who wants to kill Iraqi Sunnis? Iraqi Shiites, not Alabama Baptists. Who routinely killed Irish Catholics? Irish Protestants, not Buddists in Japan. Will cosmopolitan cultural interchange lead to a safer and less violent "world of strangers?" Appiah doesn't argue convincingly that it will.

August 21, 2006

Blogging about patients

Here's another reason I haven't been posting much recently: I haven't quite gotten comfortable with blogging about patients.

It's not a HIPAA thing. I'm not tempted to post anything on my blog that would identify a specific patient, and that shouldn't be surprising. Plenty of great medical bloggers put up interesting posts all the time about the patients they see, and HIPAA's never an issue. See, for example, Dr. Bard-Parker's post about this stabbing victim. I'm hesitating not because of patient confidentiality, but because of my knowledge that the patient himself or herself might sometimes be able to identify themselves if they read my blog. And even though I'm fairly certain that they aren't reading my blog (famous last words, those), I'm still a bit wary of the whole thing. I ask myself: if I were a patient and I read about myself some evening on a doc's blog, what would I think? Well, I personally wouldn't feel upset if I wasn't being mocked in the post, and provided that no one else could tell it was me. But I can imagine that other patients might feel differently.

And that's why I'm not rushing to blog about my shifts in the pediatric ER, or my days and nights in the PICU (yes, my schedule has been peds-heavy so far this year).

Eventually, I'll find the approach that works for me -- the right level of detail, the right amount of historical separation between when I've seen a patient and when I've blogged about what I've seen. But for the time being, I'm not posting a lot about what I've spent most of my time doing. Draining abscesses, stiching up lacs, getting LPs (my first successful one two weeks ago!). I suppose I could blog about the single most time-consuming activity of my residency so far: filling out paperwork. But that'd be boring.

In the meantime, I'll post a part of a poem relevant to hospitals and sickness by one of my favorite authors:

Let him escape hospital and doctor,
the manners and odors of strange places,
the dispassionate skills of experts.

Let him go free of tubes and needles,
public corridors, the surgical white
of life dwindled to poor pain.

Foreseeing the possibility of life without
possibility of joy, let him give it up.

Let him die in one of the old rooms
of his living, no stranger near him.

Let him go in peace out of the bodies
of his life--
flesh and marriage and household.

From the wide vision of his own windows
let him go out of sight; and the final

time and light of his life's place be
last seen before his eyes' slow
opening in the earth.

Let him go like one familiar with the way
into the wooded and tracked and
furrowed hill, his body.
. . . .

--Wendell Berry

August 20, 2006

Stephen King's Lord of the Rings

GunslingerA few months ago when I was still in law school (how long ago that seems already!) I started in on Stephen King's version of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Ok, so I'm stretching things a bit -- the Dark Tower isn't anything like LoTR. It's certainly not one of those faux-Tolkien fantasy trilogies that we usually get when an author cites LoTR as an inspiration for their own work, as King has here. King says in his preface that he knew he had to write his own story, not Tolkien's, and after twenty three years or so from beginning to end, he's given us the Dark Tower.

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

It's a strange and trippy story that's turned me into a Stephen King fan. The reviews I've seen are decidedly mixed, primarily because readers don't agree about the quality of the ending or about the wisdom of including Stephen King as one of the characters in the story. On both questions, I'm one of those readers who think King got it right. The ending is subtle, dismaying, hopeful, and aggravating all at once. I don't think it's something that could have been written by a young author -- it's just too trippy. Contemplative, even. After reading this ending, I know that I'll have to reread all these books again, sometime. Maybe something will be different the next time through. . . .

As for King-the-character, it won't give anything away to say that Stephen King the author uses this opportunity to talk about the creative process. I suppose if you have no interest whatsoever in how a writer dreams up the funky shit in his books, you might be put off by the appearance of the King character here. Especially because he's not a particularly noble or even likeable guy. But I think that's to Stephen King's credit -- he resists the temptation to make himself the hero of his own book. Perhaps he overstates the importance of the author to a story, but there's room for a juicy argument here, and it's why you should read the series. If Stephen had died when that minivan ran him over in Maine, Roland and Eddy and Susannah and Oy would have died too. If Tolkien had died early, Aragorn would never have returned as the King. No David Lynch, no people like Frank in this world.

In matters of creativity, the artist matters. Which is why I'm glad Phillip Pullman's still alive.

August 19, 2006

Ford loses by winning

One of the reasons why I haven't been blogging recently, I think, has to do with my apartment. Right now, it hasn't got a lot of furniture, and I don't have a lamp for the table where I usually sit to work with my computer. The place just doesn't feel like home yet, so I've been spending most of my non-working time in coffeeshops. It's just been easier to sit and read, rather than blog.

But I've got to say something about the announcement that Ford is cutting production in the face of what it insists are surprisingly high gasoline prices. Surprising? The NYT times article appropriately quotes an analyst who ridicules that notion: "they might say nobody could see it coming; well, nobody but everyone in the world." This talk of "surprisingly" high gas prices is pure CYA from Ford.

But the real point I'd like to make is this: Ford's competitive disadvantage in the market for fuel-efficient cars is in part a product of its own success at resisting government regulation. It was Ford, and the other American carmakers, who have fought tooth and nail against any increase in the corporate average fuel economy (or CAFE) standards, and who have gotten what they've asked for from the compliant administration of George W. Bush. Now that gas is over $3 a gallon (not a surprising thing), the market is eating Ford's gas-guzzling fleet of pickups and SUVs alive. Ford would probably be in a better competitive position vis-a-vis Toyota if the government had gotten serious about improving domestic fuel efficiency.

Frankly, I laugh when I read about Ford's troubles selling cars. The problem is, it's no laughing matter for Ford's workers, who ought to worry about layoffs like Ford should have worried about higher gas prices. And next time, hopefully, the industry's anti-regulation lobbying efforts won't be so successful.