Saturday, April 30, 2005

Every year the State department puts out a series of human rights reports, assessing the state of human rights in countries around the world. Here, for example, is the most recent one. It seems to me this has become a largely pointless exercise.

The premise, I suppose, is that because the United States performs more or less OK according to reasonable human rights metrics, it has the moral rights to admonish countries that do not. Recent news, however, have revealed that in fact that United States "renditions" program sends people to countries that freely torture prisoners in order to extract useful information - most famously Syria and other middle eastern countries. The latest news, in todays Times, tells us that the U.S. has been sending people to Uzbekistan where
...the most common techniques were "beating, often with blunt weapons, and asphyxiation with a gas mask." Separately, international human rights groups had reported that torture in Uzbek jails included boiling of body parts, using electroshock on genitals and plucking off fingernails and toenails with pliers.
Given that the U.S. sends people to the worst human rights offenders, in what sense is the U.S. any better, from a moral standpoint, than the worst human rights offenders? And why should anyone view the State Department's human rights reports any differently than if they were produced by Iran, North Korea, or Zimbabwe?

Update: Henry Farell writes a post that tackles this question.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

I don't think I've ever "fisked" before (if you don't know what "fisking" means, consider youreself lucky). Largely, it is because it seems rather strange to me to take apart, line by line, a piece which you clearly dislike. But hey, there is always a first time.

I'm going to try to tacke this piece ("Love's Language Lost" by Bradley C. Watson) which tries to argue that liberals are baaaaaad for pushing gay marriage. My motivation is that I keep hearing the same sorts of arguments and I'd like to set my response down in print. As a result it won't even be a true fisking, as I'll interject responses between groups of paragraphs.

"It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words…. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it…. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."

So says a philologist—an expert in "Newspeak"—in George Orwell's 1984. He is explaining to the novel's hero, Winston Smith, the ultimate purpose behind the manipulation and command of language.

The advocates of same-sex marriage have a similar political and linguistic purpose. They have pushed their agenda with stunning rapidity. Laws that confer unique legal status and benefits on the union of a man and woman have come under attack only recently. In America, the first major legal decision was Baker vs. State of Vermont (1999), in which the Vermont Supreme Court held, on the basis of indeterminate language in the state's 1777 constitution, that the state legislature must provide same-sex couples in "committed relationships" with identical benefits to married "opposite-sex couples." The Vermont legislature responded by creating "civil unions"—though not marriage—for same-sex couples. Under the Baker holding and subsequent legislation, civil unions were to be materially and therefore legally indistinguishable from marriage for all purposes of Vermont law and the benefits it conferred. But much more was at stake than the right of same-sex partners to enjoy such mutually fulfilling experiences as filing a joint state tax return.

In winning the right to "civil unions," same-sex partners and their lawyers slipped the camel's nose under the tent. Unsatisfied with the reservation of the word "marriage" to opposite- sex couples, lawyers before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts won (just five years after Baker) the right for their clients to be called "married." In so doing, they forced the entire camel into the tent, and effectively wrested control of the English language from popular usage and from the dictionaries in which that usage was enshrined (we await with bated breath the revisions that will now be required).

If all the benefits and incidents of "marriage" might have been conferred via civil union status, the Massachusetts litigants effectively vindicated a quite different, indeed arresting claim—the right to a noun. This is something unknown to the common law or American constitutional law. We have entered a brave new world in which major legal arguments are not so much about the statutes, the constitutions of the various states, or the federal Constitution, but about the contents of Webster's Dictionary. As the Massachusetts court declared in a subsequent advisory opinion, invidious "labeling" by government is now impermissible. It is as though black citizens of the United States had won, by judicial decree, the "right" to be called African-American. This is truly a revolutionary development that will breed unprecedented mischief.

The legal conscription of the English language has the effect of limiting our range of thought. Terms of such recent origins as "same-sex partnerships" or "domestic partnerships" are already obsolete in Massachusetts. The even more recent phrase "civil unions" became antique with head-snapping speed—redundant almost before it entered the lexicon. The result is that it becomes increasingly difficult for us to view same-sex relationships as essentially, and therefore morally, distinguishable from heterosexual relationships.
The beginning, I've found, is rather incoherent. I'll agree that it is self evident that language has power to shape thought, and that changing the way we talk about gay relationships will change the way we think about gay relationships. But so what? Our current way of talking about gay relationships already moulds the way we think about them.

Indeed, because we have a different word for lifelong opposite-sex relationships ("marriage") than we do for same-sex lifelong relationships( partner? civil union? same-sex marriage?), we have a strong incentive to think of these as fundamentally different things. Now maybe they are different things, and maybe they arent; but language as it is already affects our thoughts in this matter.

Watson, therefore, is guilty of the very same thing that he accuses his opponents of doings: he would like to "legally conscript" the English language to serve his political agenda (more precisely, it is currently so conscripted, and he would like to keep it that way). The most he can say of his opponents is that they would prefer to conscript the English language for a cause he disagrees with.

Now it could be argued that Watson is merely describing the recent liberal activism on the issue before going on to explain why he believes it is activism on behalf of the wrong cause. Such a reading, though, strikes me as implausible. We all know that many liberals are pushing for the legalization of gay marriage; a quick introduction would have sufficed before Watson moved on to his argument. Instead, Watson rambles for 6-7 paragraphs; he uses this space to go in detail on liberal attempts to change language and terminology through the courts. He accuses liberals of trying to ban thoughtcrime in an Orwellian manner (is it even possible to evoke Orwell in this way without criticizing?). Now if you do not see this as a criticism, in and out of itself, then you must believe that Watson is a pretty bad writer for dyspeptically rambling about language, on which both sides are equally "guilty," which supposedly has nothing to do with the main point (gay marriage is bad). On the other, it seems to me pretty natural to read accusations of thought control as criticism, and for the reasons I layed out above, not a terrribly coherent criticism.

Lets come back to this passage,

This is something unknown to the common law or American constitutional law. We have entered a brave new world in which major legal arguments are not so much about the statutes, the constitutions of the various states, or the federal Constitution, but about the contents of Webster's Dictionary.

Here Watson only shows his ignorance. Judges have been arguing about the precise meaning of the words of the constitution - "due process," "arms," "establishment," "executive power" - for a long time.

Our lament, therefore, must not be for the loss of a word, for all words are, in themselves, purely conventional. Nor should we lament the redefinition of "marriage" merely because of the immediate moral, political, or policy consequences. As judicial review becomes literary deconstructionism, our lament must be for the loss of the possibility of a natural basis for human laws. The argument for same-sex "marriage" (and even much of the argument against it) elides the question of whether the noun "marriage" refers to anything in nature. Is the thing that marriage signifies a particular concept with an essence outside the mind and control of the observer—or is it a whim subject to infinite reinterpretation by lawyers and judges?
Here Watson simply attributes a random position to his opponents and criticizes it. No, we have not lost a "natural basis" for human laws; same-sex marriage can be defended on the same basis (more below). Note that certainly many people are of the opinion that marriage signifies a concept inside the mind - I, myself, am one of them - but to attribute such a view to supporters of gay marriage is plain sillyness. Many people support gay marriage for many diverse reasons.

Next, Watson rambles for a long time on realism, nominalism, and how the proponents of gay marriage believes marriage is a concept inside the mind. No actual reasons are given, however, and for this reason I have nothing to rebut, so I think I will skip this part. Moving on,

"Marriage" across all religions and cultures has had a similar, though not identical, meaning. It is a rite of passage signifying and reminding us of the divine or natural order's purposes with respect to procreation. (Love or "commitment" are, at best, incidental to this rite.) As Blackstone says, the relationship between husband and wife is founded in the natural desire to propagate the species—which is marriage's "principal end and design." "The most universal relation in nature"—that between parent and child—proceeds directly from marriage. The "natural obligation" of the father to provide for his children is in turn cemented by the marriage tie.
This one paragraphs is all the argument that Watson musters in support of his position. I find it difficult to see how anyone can buy this pseudo-anthropology.

Lets start with, "As Blackstone says, the relationship between husband and wife is founded in the natural desire to propagate the species—which is marriage's "principal end and design."" Unless "Blackstone says" is sufficient to end the argument - God forbid someone disagree with Blackstone - this is a comically bad argument. How exactly does Blackstone know what marriage's principal end and design is? Who told him?

Conservatives are fond of saying that marriage exists to propagate the species. But, err, why? How do they know this?

I could, just as well, claim that the purpose of marriage is to ensure the orderly well-functioning of society (after all, if everyone shagged everyone else all the time, we'd get into quite a few conflicts). For one thing, I will have some empirical evidence on my side: anthropologists have spent quite a bit of time documenting the social effect of marriage structures. One example is the role Tibetan polyandry plays in managing low-capital resources; another is the polygamy of the Yamomamo which offsets the high female-male ratio due to frequent warfare.

The point is not that I am right and Watson is wrong. The point is that that we are saddled with this institution - "marriage" - handed down to us from tradition. We can certainly speculate why it was set up in the first place, and some speculations are more well-founded than others; but anyone claiming "the purpose of marriage is X" is a quack. Nor has the purpose of marriage, whatever it was, remained constant over time: looking back over the last few centuries we see definite changes.

As for, once again,
"Marriage" across all religions and cultures has had a similar, though not identical, meaning. It is a rite of passage signifying and reminding us of the divine or natural order's purposes with respect to procreation. (Love or "commitment" are, at best, incidental to this rite.)
Well I have one society for you that blatantly violates this rule: us, here and now.

Marriage, to us, has lost all connection to reproduction or procreation (Britney Spears anyone?). This should be patently obvious to anyone who has ever went to see a romance movie or picked up a cheap paperback novel at the bookstore or turned on Lifetime, for God's sakes. And its hardly a new developement. On the other hand, if you find the above activities difficult to engage in, a simple look at our marriage and divorce laws, which allow couples to get married who cannot have children, should be convincing enough.

Coming back to this bit:
our lament must be for the loss of the possibility of a natural basis for human laws. The argument for same-sex "marriage" (and even much of the argument against it) elides the question of whether the noun "marriage" refers to anything in nature.
Its blatantly false. There is no shortage of concepts in human nature that are referred to by the new definition of marriage, two of which I have just described for you (marriage as an institution for the well-functioning of society, or marriage as our society conceives and practices it today). Moroever, pro-gay-marriage advocates constantly bring up our changed definition of marriage and point out that it is based only on maintaining relationships. A "natural basis" argument for gay marriage is right there, if only Watson bothered to think this true.

But yes it is true that a lot of people think all this "natural basis" pseudo-science is bullshit. Follow the argument to its conclusion:

Marriage, throughout all human cultures, had mostly had the same form. Polygamy. It turns out that that "Of 1170 societies recorded in Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas, polygamy (some men having more than one wife) is prevalent in 850." As for propagating the species: Wikipedia tells us that polygenous societies are four times more prevalent. I wonder what Watson would say to mandating polygamy for everyone: after all, it follows so naturally from his arguments.

Theres a few more paragraphs of Watson's essay, which you can go read if you want to for some strange reason, but due to a shortage of arguments for me to address, I will stop here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

All this time I've been thinking I am a moral relativist. But today I read Left2Right (post and comment) and found out that I am not a relativist at all. It turns out that I am a nihilist.

The things you learn from blogs.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

The last New Yorker contains a good piece by Hendrik Hertzberg on Tom DeLay:

...when asked who is to blame for "activist judges," he was jaw-droppingly candid:
I blame Congress over the last fifty to a hundred years for not standing up and taking its responsibility given to it by the Constitution. The reason the judiciary has been able to impose a separation of church and state that's nowhere in the Constitution is that Congress didn't stop them. The reason we had judicial review is because Congress didn't stop them. The reason we had a right to privacy is because Congress didn't stop them.
So there you have it, the DeLay agenda: no separation of church and state, no judidical review, no right to privacy. Next to this the President's effort to repeal the New Deal social contract by phasing out Social Security is the mewing of a kitten. DeLay may stay or DeLay may go. But the real danger is not DeLay's agenda. It's his vision. It's his "values."
Keep in mind its one thing for a judge to oppose privacy or separation of church and state due to his belief it's not in the contitution; quite another for a lawmaker to oppose them as a matter of legislation.

This local news column - Suit Against Prayer Sparks Backlash - is worth reading in its entirety:

But the lawsuit brought by Mona and Marco Dobrich on behalf of their children, and a second unnamed family, said prayer at school board meetings, athletic events, banquets and graduation ceremonies has created "an environment of religious exclusion."

The lawsuit accuses the district of promoting Christianity in the classroom. It claims that students who participate in the Bible club at Selbyville Middle School receive preferential treatment...

The Rev. Lehman Tomlin, the pastor of Zoar United Methodist Church, conceded that if a Jewish family feels discriminated against when Christian prayers are offered at school, there's a problem. But "the answer is not me giving up the Christ to assuage someone else's feelings," he said.

"They pray in Congress, so why can't we pray in schools?" asked Virginia Smith, 69, of Gumboro.

The feelings of one family should not overrule 1,000, said Bruce Scott, 58, the owner of Scotty's clothing store in downtown Selbyville. "That's ridiculous."

'If they don't like it - go to another school,' one resident said of religious minorities

First time anyone has told me I am a member of the libertarian right.

President Bush signed the bankruptcy bill last week. I'd like to take some time to update my old entry on it to reflect the recent developements.

The bill is a transparent attempt by Republicans to screw the poor. I've documented the reasons for this in my old post, but here are some more:

-- There are some estimates for exactly how large the increase in fees as a result of this bill will be. Recall that the bill introduces much more paperwork, many more affidavits, new liability for layweyrs, more court dates.

Overall, the Congressional Budget Office projects that attorney fees will jump by $150 to $500 per case, on average, under the new law.

Legal costs for the more expensive and lengthy type of bankruptcy filing, a Chapter 13, could surge locally from about $2,000 to $3,000 per case, said Paul McElrath, head of the bankruptcy practice at Moody, McElrath & Johnston, Downtown. He's advising clients considering bankruptcy to act now before the new rules take effect.

-- The bill forbids anyone who makes above their state's median income to file for chapter 13 bankruptcy, which allows you to keep some assets after the process is complete. Republicans have repeatedly voted down exemptions for bankruptcies due to medical costs. Imagine someone who makes above the median income diagnosed with a complex disease and ratchet up huge medical costs. Under this law, they would lose every penny.

-- As far as income determination goes, the bill allows debtors to write off their mortgage payments, but not rental or lease payments, thus disadvantaging the poor.

Take a look at this post (scroll down) from the American Constitution Society for more details.

One of the more annoying things about the debate over this bill has been the readiness of the supporters of the legislation to offer meaningless or one-sided statistics, or to try to cast doubt on legitimate studies that do not support their point of view. I am thinking in particular of Todd Zywicki of the Volokh Conspiracy who is perhaps the most egregious example.

For example, note how Zywicki takes on the assertion that over 50% of medical bankruptcies are due to health reasons. Now anytime you want to produce such a statistic, you have a measurement problem: how do you decide when a bankruptcy is "due" to a health problem? Zywicki took one study and quibbled to death with it. Repeatedly, he asked, but what if you change this detail? But what if you change that?

Anyway, it turns out that if you change the definition, the numbers don't change much. We can hardly blame Zywicky for not being precient, but lets note that a number of previous studies (see question 8 here) had come to exactly the same conclusion, despite using different methodology.

Or consider how Zywicky supports the notion that there is significant fraud in the system. He cites numbers provided by law enforcement agencies who have a clear interest in more money to police the issue, and he cites an estimate by an outlet closely linked to credit card agencies. By contrast, the non-partisan American Bankruptcy Institute has a much, much lower estimate.

Zywicki's dishonesty is not in outright lying, but in continually presenting one side of the data. He cites numbers that support his position, even if the sources are dubious, and ignores numbers that do not. He quibbles with one study, ignoring the others out there, and avoiding comment on updated numbers that disprove his point.


As a final note, I should say that the 50% of bankruptcies due to medical debt figure, while as solid as can be expected from such a study, still suffers from the same problem that plague all studies on this issue: self-reporting. People have a statistically documented tendency to mislead the interviewer in studies and one can expect people to lie and say that their bankruptcies were due to reasons beyond their control. In this case, however, this problem was mitigated as the respondents had to write responses while in the presence of their bankruptcy trustee, who was familiar with the facts of the case, and in front of whom they had been sworn to tell the truth. The interviewers also made a lot of effort in following up with detailed medical questions to make sure that the respondents were telling the truth. Nevertheless, despite these efforts - which I really cannot evaluate since there is no data at how often people mislead in such circumstances - I'm skeptical that any trustworthy numbers can be obtained on this issue.

Excellent post on Crooked Timber.

So we all knew that italians are lazy. The japanese numbers are understated because japanese women are far more likely to work part time. zealand? Weird.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005


[Uganda] Environment Minister Kahinda Otafiire said the opposition was unfit to govern, "like Nigerians who don't know how to count themselves".

Nigeria has struggled to conduct a reliable census for more than half a century and it is a sensitive issue.

[Nigeria] Envoy CD Orike said the minister should educate himself on Nigerian successes.

"In every field of human endeavour Nigerians have excelled in Africa."

He then proceeded to list a number of famous Nigerians from including sports stars and musicians.

"That Mr Otafiire did not know all these facts about Nigeria is clear evidence that he must have some learning problems," he said.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

During the Q&A of a recent Scalia speech at NYU, one of the law students asked "Do you sodomize your wife?" Scalia replied by saying the question is not worth answering.

Here is an attempt at justification from an email later written by the same student,
It should be clear that I intended to be offensive, obnoxious, and inflammatory. There is a time to discuss and there are times when acts and opposition are necessary. Debate is useless when one participant denies the full dignity of the other. How am I to docilely engage a man who sarcastically rants about the “beauty of homosexual relationships” (at the Q&A) and believes that gay school teachers will try to convert children to a homosexual lifestyle (at oral argument for Lawrence)?

Although my question was legally relevant, as I explain below, an independent motivation for my speech-act was to simply subject a homophobic government official to the same indignity to which he would subject millions of gay Americans. It was partially a naked act of resistance and a refusal to be silenced. I wanted to make him and everyone in the room aware of the dehumanizing effect of trivializing such an important relationship. Justice Scalia has no pity for the millions of gay Americans on whom sodomy laws and official homophobia have such an effect, so it is difficult to sympathize with his brief moment of “humiliation,” as some have called it.

I'm inclined to agree. Scalia wishes to allow the government to peer into the life of every homosexual, to investigate whether any of them has engaged in sodomy, and to jail them if they did. In doing so he transforms what is done between consenting adults in the bedroom from a private act to a public spectacle. He can hardly claim that the question isn't "worth answering" given his often-expressed desire to legally empower the police to obtain answers to the same question by force.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Interesting data on book purchasing in Turkey:

Turkey's government Monday played down soaring sales of Adolf Hitler's anti-Semitic book "Mein Kampf" ("My Struggle") and said there were no racists in the large Muslim country.

Booksellers say "Mein Kampf," or "Kavgam" in Turkish, has featured among the top 10 bestsellers in the past two months...

Political analysts say "Mein Kampf" probably reflects rising nationalism and anti-American sentiment rather than anti-Semitism or specific support for Hitler and his ideas...

The current No. 1 bestseller in Turkey, ahead of "Mein Kampf," is "Metal Storm," which depicts a U.S. invasion of the country. The Turkish hero avenges his homeland by destroying Washington with a nuclear device.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Two interesting columns on blogging from Scott McLemee that are definitely worth reading.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Poll results from South Korea's Chosun Ilbo:

A recent [South Korean] survey asked people which country they believes most threatens [South] Korea's security. 33 percent named North Korea, and 39 percent named the United States. Among people in their twenties, 58 percent said the U.S. was the bigger threat, while only 20 percent cited the North. If we were to act upon the results of that survey, then the U.S. should be considered the Republic of Korea's main adversary, instead of North Korea.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Just thought I'd briefly note here a point I have mentioned many times before on this blog and on various comment boards:

There really is no way in which conservatives are discriminated against in hard sciences. Conservative mathematicians, for example, produce output of exactly the same quality and type as liberal mathematicians, and there is no way to discriminate on the basis of a person's cv, publication record, or job talk.

Conservative bloggers have been passign around the recent study on the liberal domination of academia. It seems to me, though, that the data collected in this study undermines the claims of bias much more than it supports them. If one looks at the imbalance between liberals and conservatives by discipline, we find that liberals outnumber conservatives 70%-to-20% in the sciences, 75%-to-10% in the social sciences, and 80-to-10% in the humanities.

The conclusion from this is that if somehow the politicization of the humanities was entirely removed - and furthermore the ability to pinpoint conservatives eliminated - we should not be surprised to find liberals outnumber conservatives 70%-to-20% as they do in math.

Of course, liberals outnumber conservatives 80%-to-10% in the humanities. How much of the difference is due to bias and how much of it is to other factors like difference in inclination is unclear for now.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

According to a poll conducted yesterday, 42% of Russians think Russia needs a leader "like Stalin," 50% of Russians think Stalin's "had a positive role in Russia's history."

This tidbit from the report is dead on (my own translation):

It is notable that positive feeling towards Stalin is prevalent not only among older people but also among the youth [18-24], whle middle aged respondents tended to feel negatively about Stalin's times.