Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Whatever You Do, Please Don't Hurt Charlie Hebdo's Feelings

It's almost impossible to overstate how surreal this is:
But let's try to see how we've come to this very strange moment.  Recall that the case against Charlie Hebdo is that the magazine published material highly likely to make Muslims feel oppressed, humiliated, and unwelcome in their own country.  Maybe the magazine went out of its way to make Muslims feel this way, maybe it simply acted with extreme disregard for their feelings.

The most coherent defense of Charlie Hebdo—there are many, many incoherent defenses, as I have learned from Caleb Crain's retweets—is that the magazine was an equal-opportunity offender, that it was by and large taking on powerful people and institutions, and that when it occasionally commented on Muslims it did so with the same irreverence and disregard for personal feelings that it applied to all of its targets.  People should toughen up, a free society demands thick skins.

Now Dominique Sopo's point is that people who have criticized Charlie Hebdo should be ashamed of themselves, because when you express a negative view of someone, you do deep and terrible harm—you kill him a second time.  To criticize a publication is to go beyond the pale.  There are feelings at stake here!  Maybe you have a legal right to say something bad about Charlie Hebdo, but you have no moral right to do so.

This seems to me to be a highly bizarre thing to say at a gala honoring Charlie Hebdo.  It is in fact the most explicit criticism of Charlie Hebdo's values that I have seen anyone make.  I wonder if the crowd booed him off the stage.

Self-Driving Data

You may have seen a feature on the New York Times website, part of its "Upshot" section.  Based on recent research, the feature allows you to select a county and then see the effect of that county on the children who grow up there.  My own county, Kings County in New York, is apparently fairly bad for poor children and fairly good for rich children.  (This isn't universally true, as you might expect.  There are counties that are far better for poor children than for rich children.  A good example is Montgomery County, Maryland, which is part of the D.C. metro area.)

But you've got to be very careful when you are dealing with "data-driven" analysis.  And in this case, the data are highly misleading.  The key is something that was divulged in an accompanying article, which assesses why the data seem to indicate that Manhattan is a bad place to grow up at all income levels (but especially for affluent children):

A third factor is marriage, which clearly plays a role in the Manhattan effect. Children who grow up there are less likely to marry, at least by age 30 and probably over all, than similar children elsewhere. About one-third of the income penalty stems from the fact that Manhattan children are more likely to be living without another adult in their late 20s, and of course a second adult often bring a second income. (Our analysis measures household income.)

Aha!  The study looks at household income, and so the timing of marriage affects the conclusion.  Imagine two counties.  In one, children grow up to have average per capita income of $25,000.  In the other, they grow up to have average per capita income of $45,000.  But in the first county, virtually all children are married by the age of 25.  In the second county, virtually no one marries by the age of 25.  The first county, the one in which children end up with vastly lower per capita income, will appear to bestow somewhat better economic outcomes on children who grow up there (at least, by age 25).  They will have household income of ~$50,000, whereas in the other county the comparable number will be ~$45,000.

This may go a long way to explaining something odd about the data:  some of the best counties seem to be extremely rural.  There is a big swath of blue (which is the "good" color) through the plains states, out in counties with miniscule populations.  But the big cities out there—Omaha, Minneapolis, and so forth—are not particularly "good."  There's something about being extremely rural that seems to help.  And the answer may very well be that people get married much younger in those rural counties.

And this is one of the things that gets me about the fetishization of "data-driven" approaches to public policy.  How many people who play around with that map will fail to understand that the results are being driven to a significant degree by marriage rates?  And how many of them will reach false conclusions about the world based on that ignorance?  And (here is the crucial part) how many of them will congratulate themselves for being conversant with the data, for basing their views on "scientific evidence"?  Put something in the right format, and publish it on a reputable website, and just about everyone will believe it.  And not just believe it—attribute a high degree of confidence to it, because quantitative approaches are good and qualitative approaches are bad!  It's frustrating and obnoxious beyond measure.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

When Should We Brand People As Immoral?

Having written a rather long post about why I think reasonable people can disagree about how praiseworthy Charlie Hebdo is, I want to make a more general point about how we think about social norms.

Alan believes something like:  "It is immoral not to attend the PEN gala in honor of Charlie Hebdo."  Well, actually, that's not quite right.  Alan himself won't be in attendance, but presumably he isn't pointing the finger of blame at himself.  Why not?  Because he wasn't invited.

Fair enough.  Maybe Alan believes:  "It is immoral not to attend the PEN gala if you were invited."  But Caleb Crain probably was invited, and yet won't attend.  Why not?  Because he didn't read the email from PEN that contained the invitation.  (He may have deleted it without thought, or he may have unsubscribed from the list long ago.  We can't be certain.)

And yet Alan isn't pointing the finger of blame at Crain, either.  Why not?  Isn't there some kind of moral obligation to attend?

Apparently not.  It is fine not to attend the gala for reasons of convenience.  So let's try again.  "It is immoral not to attend the PEN gala if your reason for not attending is a matter of conscience."

Now this might seem bizarre, since the more natural approach might be to respect people's conscientious beliefs, at least where those beliefs are within the bounds of reason and decency.

But maybe we can explain it this way.  Alan has considered the matter, and he has decided that there can be no two opinions on whether Charlie Hebdo did enough to avoid humiliating Muslims.  So in other words, he disagrees with my previous blog post.  He doesn't think any reasonable person could possibly take the view that Charlie Hebdo crossed the line in its humiliation of Muslims.  And since no reasonable person could take that view, and the PEN dissenters are reasonable people, Alan concludes that darker motives are at play.  Hence the immorality of their stance, and hence the efforts of people like Caleb Crain to shame the dissenters for following the dictates of their consciences.

I suppose this makes sense.  Imagine a Catholic nun who sheltered Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide.  As a result of this bravery, the nun has been invited to attend a gala in honor of social justice.  The nun finds out that the gala intends to honor an abortion rights group that is fighting for on-demand, publicly-funded abortions.  The nun decides not to attend the gala, observing that according to her religious and moral beliefs, abortion is murder.  What I think Alan would say is something like, "Look, this nun is clearly committing an immoral act by declining to attend the gala."

Or imagine an animal rights activist who has been invited to a gala.  When she discovers that the gala will honor an organization dedicated to bringing American-style factory farming to the developing world, the animal rights activist declines to attend.  Alan might say, "Look, there are millions of people starving.  Are you really going to try to deny the developing world the agricultural tools that it needs to feed itself?  You are immoral for declining to attend the gala."

Or maybe not.  Maybe Alan would say that reasonable people can disagree about the morality of abortion, or factory farming, but not about the morality of humiliating Muslims.  I don't know.

My own opinion is that it makes no sense to attack people for taking a principled view on the question of whether Charlie Hebdo crossed the line when it repeatedly humiliated and provoked Muslims.  Do we really think there are no two legitimate opinions on this question?  Do we really want to embrace a kind of forced unanimity on this question, by shaming people whose views differ from our own?  Is it really morally mandatory to honor a publication that you believe went out of its way to humiliate a vulnerable and much-put-upon minority?

Lawyers who read this blog may recall the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the famous "flag-salute" case.  The question was whether students could be required to salute the American flag.  (The students who declined to salute were Jehovah's Witnesses who had principled objections to saluting the flag.)  Of course the dispute was about whether the government could legally compel students to salute the flag, and the Court determined that it could not.  But it strikes me that when political and moral issues are sufficiently complicated that reasonable people can disagree, it is as wrong to force people to salute Charlie Hebdo as it is to force them to salute a flag.  And that doesn't just apply to legal coercion, it applies to public shaming and accusations of immorality as well.  If you think Charlie Hebdo stayed on the right side of the line, then say so.  But does it really make sense to engage in a campaign of public shaming of the dissenters?  Does it make sense to try to intimidate them into not expressing their views?  To question their morality in public?

I think Caleb Crain and Alan bear a heavy burden if they want to demonstrate that it's immoral to decline to attend the gala for reasons of conscience.  They need to show, not just that Charlie Hebdo was on the right side of the line, but that this is so obvious that no reasonable person could take the opposite view.  I don't think they've met that burden.  I don't think they've come close.

[So to be clear about what I believe:  It is completely fine to express the view that Charlie Hebdo was on the right side of the line, if that is what you believe.  But I don't think makes much sense to ask, "Were the dissenters right to decline to attend the gala?"  That question is not really at issue on these facts.  Of course they were right to do what their consciences told them to do—how could any reasonable person think otherwise?  If you think they deserve to be criticized, it is because you believe this issue is so clear-cut that there are no two reasonable opinions, and therefore their consciences don't deserve anyone's respect.  In  other words, you want to exclude the view that Charlie Hebdo crossed the line from reasoned debate.  You believe that in this discussion there are no meaningful nuances, gray areas, or difficult questions.  This is a very hard argument to accept.]

Charlie Hebdo and Drawing Lines

The tort system is something that I hadn't thought much about before I took a class in law and economics.  For those who aren't as familiar, tort law concerns the ability of an injured person to bring a lawsuit against the responsible party, both for recompense and in some cases for punitive damages.

Every first-year law student in the United States takes a class on torts.  The basic concept is so obvious that it barely needs to be stated:  if you make it expensive to cause harm to other people, then you will induce potential harm-doers to change their behavior so as to avoid harm.  A less obvious point, though, is that we sometimes decline to impose liability, not because the behavior is harmless, but because the injured party is in a better position to avoid the harm.  This is sometimes encapsulated in the term "lowest-cost avoider," that is, the person who can avoid the harm at the lowest overall cost.

Let's say a train has hit a person and injured him.  But he wasn't at a crosswalk or train station, he was walking along the tracks in the middle of nowhere.  Although the railroad has done him injury, we are inclined to say that it is really his negligence that has caused the harm.  (But note that this is a legal conclusion, not a statement of fact.  We don't derive these things out of thin air, we define them to accomplish social goals.)  We could theoretically require the railroad to take steps to ensure that their trains don't hit people in the middle of nowhere.  But that might require very expensive measures, such as running trains at a low speed even in the open country (making trains uncompetitive as a method of transportation).  Instead we simply deny recovery for people injured in these circumstances.  (It would be a different story if the railroad had some sort of culpability, for instance if it built its tracks along a pre-existing walking path.  It might also be a different story if the railroad could cheaply prevent people from walking along its tracks.)

So now we come to Charlie Hebdo and its treatment of Muslims.  One might ask:  does Charlie Hebdo bear any responsibility for reducing the harm that it causes when it publishes its cartoons?

As a legal matter, of course, our tradition is that free expression trumps the rights of other people (though of course, remember the Parades Commission and its restrictions on where Orangemen can march).

But in terms of social norms, I think things are more complicated.  We might ask people to express their ideas in the lowest-harm manner possible, or at least to take harm into account when expressing their ideas.  So for instance, imagine that Charlie Hebdo has submitted an ad to be posted in the Paris metro.  And imagine that the metro authorities have come to Charlie Hebdo and said, "Look, your poster is obviously well-intentioned, but by some freak accident it looks a lot like our emergency exit signs, and people who can't read French could be confused.  This could be very dangerous in an emergency situation.  Could you please consider submitting a different advertisement for us to post?"

As with the railroad example, we might ask how to allocate responsibility for the potential harm that might occur from Charlie Hebdo's means of expressing itself.  On the one hand, we might say that Charlie Hebdo is the lowest-cost avoider, because surely it can come up with advertisements that won't confuse people.  On the other hand, we might say that in a free society, it's always the responsibility of the reader to do the necessary work of understanding the poster and deriving its true intent (to advertise the publication, not to indicate an emergency exit).  People who misread Charlie Hebdo's expression shouldn't be heard to complain about the harm that it causes them.  They are like people walking alongside railroads:  they do so at their own risk.

I can respect this point of view.  But I have to ask:  doesn't the opposite point of view also have some merit?  After all, not everyone has the time or the capacity to delve into Charlie Hebdo's true intentions in posting the advertisement.  To a lot of people, it looks just like an emergency exit sign.  And if there is a fire or other emergency, people could incur a tremendous amount of harm if they can't find the real exits quickly.  Shouldn't Charlie Hebdo find another way to advertise itself?  Maybe it should be legally permitted to publish the advertisements, and even to compel the metro to post them.  But is it really moral for it to do so, knowing the potential harm that could be done?

And the same goes for the harm that comes, not from confusing people about the location of emergency exits, but rather from causing feelings of humiliation and degradation.  We don't ask comedians or essayists or cartoonists to minimize emotional harm when they do their work—we understand that this would basically eliminate their ability to express their ideas.  (We don't ask railroads to run their trains at 10 m.p.h., for essentially the same reason.)  But we do ask them to take emotional harm into account.  A comedian who uses the word "nigger" had better do so with sensitivity and discretion, or we will not hesitate to express our disapproval.  We don't ask black people to "get over it," we don't treat them like people who walk along railroad tracks.

Now I would be the first to say that reasonable people can disagree on where to draw the line.  PETA famously uses scantily-clad women in its animal-rights campaigns, not because objectifying women has anything to do with animal rights, but because the controversy inevitably attracts much more attention than the campaigns otherwise would.  I think a reasonable person could say that this approach is morally questionable (though, I repeat, legally protected).  We don't give PETA a free pass merely because its mode of expression helps it to reach a larger audience.

Or maybe we do.  Again, I'm not dogmatic about where to draw the line.  My point is just that there is a line, and that Charlie Hebdo at the very least flirted with that line.  Reasonable people can disagree about just how far over the line Charlie Hebdo may or may not have gone.  But I don't think it makes sense to say that Charlie Hebdo is automatically exempt from all such criticism, by virtue of its status as a non-racist publication (assuming that to be the case).  When Muslims face near-constant harassment, humiliation, and discrimination, I think it's fair to ask whether Charlie Hebdo really needed to pour salt in the wounds.  When you have the power to hurt people, you have the responsibility not just to avoid outright racism, but to be careful and thoughtful about how you deploy your power.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Smoke Signals

And now for something completely different.

My parents during the 1990s worked at a large public hospital.  At some point (I don't know when) the hospital banned smoking indoors.  This was obviously a sensible policy.  However, it had the odd result that the entrance to the hospital was always surrounded by a thick cloud of second-hand cigarette smoke.  You couldn't get into or out of the hospital without running the gantlet.  Patients, doctors, nurses…  it seemed that everyone smoked, and there was always a crowd around the door, even in bad weather.

The lesson is more general.  When you banish an activity from one area, you often find it popping up in another area.  And this is what I think has happened with flirtation/hitting on women.  Once upon a time, men felt entitled to hit on women just about everywhere.  Just like smoking in a hospital, this was terrible.  There was no space in which women could be treated like professionals.  We've made a lot of progress, though of course there is still room for improvement.

But as we've pushed flirting out of professional life, it has become more concentrated in the places where it is still permitted.  And the result is that it has become an annoyance in a variety of surprising places.  Women complain about being hit on in the gym and on the subway.  (I thought Matt Walker had written a blog post about this, but the only one I could find was this one, which doesn't indicate any problem with subway flirtation.)  I wouldn't have thought it was socially unacceptable to hit on someone in a gym!  (I'm guessing gay guys are still okay with gym flirtation, but maybe I'm engaging in hurtful stereotypes.)  I guess it makes sense.  Just like the annoying clouds of smoke surrounding the hospital entrance, flirting must be overwhelming and gross when it is constant and unrelenting.

Presumably the one place where it's still okay to hit on a woman is in a bar.  But even this can be really obnoxious, so I wonder if our culture is inexorably driving toward internet dating as the primary or even exclusive venue for flirtation.

Now I should say a word about the manner of flirtation.  Mild flirtation, like smiling at a woman (not leering, just smiling) is probably still okay in the gym or on the subway.  And somewhat more aggressive flirting is probably still okay in a bar.  Of course, you've got to read her body language, and your ability to do so might be impaired when you are drunk.

But so when it comes to unambiguous indications of interest, I think we are probably moving to an equilibrium in which a woman has to opt in to being hit on, for instance by signing onto a dating website or an app like Tinder.  And probably this is a good thing, like the elimination of cigarettes from pretty much everywhere people go.  (I'm certainly happy that the default presumption has switched to:  if you're creating cigarette smoke around other people, you're an asshole.)  But it's a pretty remarkable cultural shift nonetheless, and I wonder what will come of it.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Boycotting the Orangemen

As I waited for the subway today, I realized something that might explain why I feel so strongly about the Charlie Hebdo/PEN discussion.  I'm going to write a few more posts dealing with particular issues, and some of those posts will try to map things out in detail.  This is a higher-level post that tries to use an analogy to draw out the key issues.

In Northern Ireland, there is an institution called the Orange Order, a sort of social/cultural organization representing Northern Ireland's Protestant community.  Under the auspices of the Orange Order, Protestants periodically hold marches, most notably on July 12.  Why July 12?  That is the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, in which Protestant William of Orange (hence the name) defeated Catholic James II.  The history is very complicated and I'm no expert on it, but suffice it to say that William's victory helped ensure that British rule in Ireland would continue for more than two centuries, a time period marked by brutal oppression, the Great Famine, and cultural displacement, including the near-total elimination of the Irish language.  And a time period dominated by the Protestant "ascendency" in Ireland, which is to say, political and economic supremacy.  So in other words, today the battle is celebrated by the Protestants and much-regretted by the Catholics.  And remember, we are talking about Northern Ireland, which to this day is ruled by the United Kingdom.  The Irish achieved limited self-governance in 1922 and complete independence in 1937.  But that was the Republic of Ireland.  In the North, British rule has never ended.  So for the Catholics in Northern Ireland, you can turn that "two centuries" of British rule into "three centuries, and counting."

Now what's interesting is that the Orangemen specifically like to march through Catholic neighborhoods.  They like to give their Catholic neighbors a little reminder of what happened in 1690, and of how things shook out after that.  They bang drums and sing songs and generally do everything they can to make the Catholics feel humiliated and downtrodden.  In past decades they were permitted to march where they liked.  Today their free-speech rights are violated by the Parades Commission, which puts limits on their ability to march through Catholic neighborhoods.

In real life, there is almost always violence accompanying these marches.  Certainly rocks will be thrown, but petrol bombs (what Americans would call "Molotov cocktails") are also popular.  You can get a flavor here.

Now imagine, counterfactually, that during one of these marches, a large bomb goes off, killing twelve Orangemen.  A Republican terrorist group takes "credit."  (By "Republican" I mean that the group supports splitting from the United Kingdom and joining the Republic of Ireland.  We can assume that the members of the terrorist group are Catholic, in terms of ethnic identity though not necessarily in terms of devout belief.)  And then, the next year, the Orange Order marches again, despite renewed threats from the Republican terrorist group.

And so our analogy is this.  PEN decides to honor the Orange Order for its courage in continuing to express itself in the face of terrorist violence.  PEN invites me, James, to attend the ceremony.  (Remember, this is a hypothetical, suspend your disbelief.)  I decline to attend, specifically because PEN is honoring the Orange Order.

At this point, Alan and Caleb Crain and Robert McLiam Wilson would presumably lash out at me.  And they would have a seemingly airtight case that my behavior is immoral.  Consider the facts:

1.  There is no question that when the Orangemen march, they are expressing freedom of expression, what in the U.S. we would call "First Amendment rights."

2.  There is no question that they are running grave risks to do so.  Not only could they die in a large-scale attack like the bombing that killed 12 of them, they could also be injured or killed in the more ordinary violence that they encounter when they march through Catholic neighborhoods.

3.  If they hadn't marched, they would have "let the terrorists win."  But they did march—courageously.

4.  As Caleb Crain might point out, if you take the time to understand their politics, you will find that there is no evidence whatsoever that they are racist.  Northern Ireland is 98.2% white, and (as far as I know) the Orangemen have no argument with the country's non-white residents as such.

5.  Even if they're not racists, the Orangemen might seem like complete assholes.  But to reach that judgment, you would have to have a deep understanding of North Irish history, culture, politics, etc.  Since I (James) don't have that understanding, I'm not entitled to form an opinion about the Orangemen.  Anyway, it's important to note that alongside their Catholic-bashing, the Orangemen stand up for all kinds of good things, like community involvement.  And, not to cast aspersions on James's view of women, but it just so happens that abortion is legal in the United Kingdom, but not the Republic of Ireland.  So if the Orangemen lose the fight, then a lot of North Irish women will be the victims.

6.  It is true that the Orangemen go out of their way to offend Catholics.  But that's the whole point!  In a free country you should be permitted to offend.  And a lot of their expression would have less meaning if it weren't for its offensiveness.  (Lording it over the Catholics is a major reason they march in the first place.  Take that away, and the expression loses its "punch.")  Please note that the PEN award does not relate to the content of the Orangemen's expression.  Rather, the award relates purely to their courage in the face of violence.  And their physical courage is beyond question.  And in this connection, note that the big thing the Orangemen want to accomplish is to remind the Catholics of the events of July 12, 1690.  That is, they want to teach a history lesson (or at least, give a refresher course).  I can picture the tweets.  How can historical fact be offensive?!?  What's next, does James want to get rid of history classes?!?!?  We see the kind of scum we're dealing with here, with this anti-education James character.

7.  So in "boycotting" the PEN award (note the etymology), I am performing an immoral act.  I am failing to honor a courageous group that isn't racist.  And per Alan, in these circumstances I should be branded "immoral."  Quod erat demonstrandum.

I suspect that Alan will say that the Orangemen are somehow worse than Charlie Hebdo, because their goal is to make Catholics feel bad.  I wonder if Alan will then embrace the doctrine of the double effect.  By which I mean, there is little question that Charlie Hebdo set out to offend Muslims to the greatest extent possible—to a much greater extent than would be necessary to express the same ideas.  But, as with the Orangemen, the offense is the point.  Without the offense, the expression loses its flavor.  With the Orangemen, the offense is the goal.  (Although, not entirely.  The Orangemen do march through Protestant neighborhoods, too, where there is no one to offend.  It's mixed, as reality always is.)  With Charlie Hebdo, the offense is presumably instrumental:  Charlie Hebdo wants to get attention and provoke outrage.  (But again, not entirely.  Are we really to believe that Charlie Hebdo never offended Muslims just for the sake of offending Muslims?  And isn't that exactly what the Orangemen do to Catholics?)

In any event the effect is much the same:  to make Catholics (Muslims) feel humiliated and unwelcome in their own country.  So we would need a doctrine like the doctrine of the double effect to separate the two.

I am not saying that Charlie Hebdo is evil.  (I don't think the Orangemen are evil either.)  I just don't think they're particularly deserving of being honored for their efforts to humiliate and degrade Muslims.  I think they are (maybe unwittingly) joined in a continent-wide fight to alienate and radicalize Muslims.  They didn't deserve to die.  But not everyone who has a right to life (which is everyone) gets feted at literary galas.  That honor should be reserved for people who aren't consciously making downtrodden people even more miserable, making the world a worse place.

(I almost forgot to mention:  my ancestors were Irish Catholic.  When they fled Ireland, they did it on the notorious "coffin ships" that went to Canada during the Great Famine.  (The ships to the U.S. were regulated and were therefore safer but marginally more expensive.  If you were on a ship to Canada, it's because you were truly desperate.)   When I see pictures of Orangemen I see people who like to celebrate my ancestors' misery, who like to shove it in our faces and remind us that we are shit.  I wouldn't bomb them but I damn sure wouldn't be caught at a fucking party in their honor.  And I'm several generations removed from the events in question.  I can't imagine how Muslims feel when they're exposed to the same kind of humiliation on a daily basis.)

(And if Caleb Crain tried to shame me on Twitter for refusing to honor the Orangemen, and Alan took to the comments section of my blog to call me immoral, I would flip my shit.)

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Should We Be Permitted to Think About Charlie Hebdo's Role in the Struggle for Muslim Inclusion?

In all of this Charlie Hebdo controversy, I think it's useful to take a step back and ask why anyone would particularly care what the publication was like.  Wouldn't it be equally wrong to murder the employees of almost any type of publication?  And wouldn't it then be right to honor just about anyone who risked murder to express a view?

Well, the answer to the first question is "yes," and the answer to the second question is "it depends, that's why we're having this discussion."

What I think must be borne in mind is that there is a specter haunting Europe, a decisive collective choice that is being made step by step, with every step hugely consequential.  One possibility is that Muslims will be accepted into European institutions as equal participants and as rights-bearing people.  Muslims will turn away from extremism.  They will be woven into European politics, not as dogs to be kicked, but as voting blocs and political leaders.  In short, they will be folded into European society in roughly the same way that African-Americans became full citizens when they got the right to vote.  (I'm not pretending things suddenly turned rosy for blacks when they started voting en masse, but I can say with certainty that things got much, much better.)  We only hope that the process in Europe is quicker and creates less residual hatred and distrust.

But I am using "we" loosely, because a lot of Europeans are cheering for the opposite outcome:  that Muslims will be increasingly alienated and driven to extremism, that they will be denied full participation as equals in society, that they will ultimately be expelled from Europe and forced to seek decent lives somewhere else.  There are Europeans who devote themselves to harassing Muslims at every turn, to humiliating them whenever possible, to inflaming racial and religious tensions so as to prevent integration and mutual understanding.

So for instance, in the Netherlands several years ago the legislature advanced a bill to outlaw the production of halal meat, on the pretense of preventing animal cruelty.  It so happens that this would also make it impossible to produce kosher meat, but when you set out to make life as difficult as possible for Muslims, a little collateral damage is inevitable, and completely tolerable if we are just talking about Jews.

Or take the recent case of a French Muslim schoolgirl, forced to go home and change clothes because her skirt wasn't revealing enough.  It is very hard to understand this as anything but a flagrant attempt to make her life miserable, to humiliate her, because she is a Muslim.  ["What's the matter, girl?  You think what you've got under there is too precious for French eyes to look at?  Go put on a shorter skirt!"]

Now the right response to this is to vote the bastards out.  To engage in peaceful protest.  To lobby the government and bring the spotlight of world attention on these bigots.  (I suspect France, under international pressure, will soon adopt a policy that female students cannot be compelled to wear revealing skirts.  I mean, my God.)

But there is a contingent in Europe that hopes Muslims will take a darker path.  That hopes that with non-stop harassment they can be radicalized, marginalized, and ultimately thrown out.

And now we have to ask ourselves:  where does Charlie Hebdo fit into this?  Was it trying to make Europe a welcoming place for Muslims?  Or was it trying to inflame their worst passions, humiliate them, pillory them, and generally do everything possible to prevent their successful integration into European society?

This isn't an either-or.  Charlie Hebdo fits somewhere on a spectrum.  Charlie Hebdo was not the UKIP or the Lega Nord.  But by the same token, Charlie Hebdo was very far from praiseworthy.  And it's no defense that Charlie Hebdo liked to lash out at Jews as well as Muslims.  As we've seen, Jews are considered expendable in this fight.

In the U.S., one way that we brought blacks into mainstream life is by adopting very strong norms against explicit racism.  (I am not arguing that we banished all forms of racism from our society, just that certain explicit forms of racism became socially unacceptable.)  If you look, you can find plenty of crude hatred.  But it is almost entirely relegated to the margins of society, to informal institutions like the gaming community (which, in its defense, has plenty of anti-bigots as well).  Telling a racist joke can be career-ending.  We've arguably over-shot, so that using the word "niggardly," even in a good-faith way, can be career-threatening.

But in any case, the point is that we adopted these norms for the very good reason that in their absence it would be virtually impossible to make blacks feel as though they are welcome in our society.  We sent the FBI down to the South to go to war with our own little fascist domestic terrorists.  We adopted widespread affirmative action in our major public institutions (you can criticize how it has operated, but there is little question that it has drawn a lot of blacks quickly into the elite echelons of society).  In fact, we probably focused too heavily on black elites and not nearly enough on the rest of the black population.  But the point is that we have an aversion to explicit racism that is almost instinctual at this point.  We all understood that Trent Lott was toast once it became common knowledge that he had praised Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign.  In other words, our racial sensitivity is almost automatic at this point.  (And again, I'm not defending it in all of its nuances.  We paid a lot more attention to Trent Lott's remarks than we did to the cauldron of injustice that is the U.S. justice system, and that was a mistake.)

And so, Charlie Hebdo is a big "fuck you" to racial sensitivity.  It is a big middle finger to the process of inculcating norms of decency and mutual respect that are virtually preconditions to the successful integration of the Muslim population.

We can debate exactly how Charlie Hebdo fits in, and exactly how beneficial it is to treat people with respect.  Maybe the U.S. would have been better off with less racial sensitivity over the last 50 years.  Maybe free speech is more important than successful Muslim integration into the Western world—so much more important that it is not merely to be legally protected, but lionized.  Maybe Charlie Hebdo wasn't nearly so racially insensitive as it facially appears.  But this is the argument.  This is the discussion that everyone seems to want to preempt by claiming that there is no possible reason, other than some weird hatred of free speech, that anyone would decline to stand up and cheer for Charlie Hebdo.  By claiming that Charlie Hebdo's bravery is simply undeniable, its entitlement to our praise beyond question.

And I think that's wrong.  Charlie Hebdo is a strategic player in a very important game, and one of the sides in that game is repugnantly evil.  We can't come to a reasonable opinion on Charlie Hebdo until we have an open discussion about where it fits in.

(I emphasize, as if it needs to be said, that even if Charlie Hebdo is at the very worst end of the spectrum, which it is not, it is still utterly evil to kill its employees.  In fact, the killers were themselves useful idiots in the game of Muslim exclusion, since their actions have done more to lower the stature of Muslims in Europe than Charlie Hebdo could ever hope to accomplish.  But that is not the main reason they are evil, the main reason they are evil is that they murdered 12 people.)

The Strange Case of the Attack on the Charlie Hebdo Dissenters

My feeling that the world has gone mad continues to grow.  The latest evidence is that intelligent people seem to find this blog post by Dorian Lynskey not only non-disgusting, but compelling.  I will quote from the blog post (which is discussing the decision of several writers not to attend a PEN gala in honor of Charlie Hebdo):

Explanations have come in dribs and drabs. The longest, and worst, was published yesterday by Francine Prose — a former PEN President, no less. It opens with a classic case of the Liar’s But, where the whole paragraph preceding “but” is disingenuous blather: “tragic murders”, “nothing but sympathy”, “abhor censorship”, blah blah blah. This is the language of the politician, not the novelist, lacking both intellectual honesty and emotional truth. It’s only there to pay lip-service to the nine staff members murdered by Islamist gunmen on January 7 so that Prose can get on with the business of denigrating them.

I'd like to think that if I had Lynskey's remarkable mind-reading power, I would use it to live a life of dissipation in Las Vegas rather than exposing insidious freedom-haters like Francine Prose.  But heavy is the head that wears the crown, I suppose.  Lynskey is the one burdened with the responsibilities that come with the super-power, and he should do with it what he thinks is best.  (Lynskey isn't the only one with mind-reading powers.  Dave has divined that I think the Charlie Hebdo workers deserved to die.  This is an opinion I have kept so well-hidden that it remains hidden even from myself.)

Taking a step back, the logic seems to run like this.  The people who worked for Charlie Hebdo were unquestionably brave.  The PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award is intended precisely to honor bravery in exercising free speech.  Therefore there is no possible argument against giving the award to Charlie Hebdo.  Therefore the writers who "feel compelled to take a stand against Charlie Hebdo"—that is, who don't plan to attend a gala in honor of the publication—must be motivated not by their stated reasons but by some sinister hatred of everything we hold dear.  "There must be something that has led them to throw a basic principle under the bus."  (I am not embellishing these quotations—Lynskey really did write that.  Again, this is the allegedly non-disgusting blog post that is being quoted approvingly by intelligent people on Twitter.)

So what are we to make of this logic?  I think the first question to struggle with is whether it is ever legitimate to say something like, "I defend his right to express his views, but I disagree with those views and I wish he wouldn't express them."  The consensus seems to be that this is an incoherent thing to say.  Jonathan Chait wrote, "The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism. One cannot defend the right without defending the practice."  In other words, it is not enough to defend Charlie Hebdo's right to publish blasphemous (some might add:  racist) cartoons.  We must defend the blasphemy itself.

I think a simple example suffices to show why the consensus is wrong.  A few days ago President Nixon tweeted:  "I'm sure the writers who declined the PEN Award for association with 'Charlie Hebdo' sip their tea and soberly agree with NSPA vs. Skokie."  (He was referring to the Supreme Court decision permitting the National Socialist Party of America—the Nazis—to march through Skokie, Illinois, a town with a large Jewish population.)  The first reply to the tweet was:  "No one ever said, 'Je suis NSPA', though."  That is, it would seem to be possible to believe that Nazis have the right to express their views while at the same time despising those views, and even expressing your disapproval of them.  It turns out maybe you can defend the right without defending the practice, after all.

Having recognized this as a logical possibility, let's consider whether it might have any traction in this case.  Is it possible to believe that it was wrong to murder the employees of Charlie Hebdo while simultaneously declining to recognize the bravery of the publication?

I think so, and this is because "bravery" is not so simple a concept as its dictionary definition might suggest.  I don't think it makes much sense to deny that the people who worked for Charlie Hebdo were brave.  But we don't go around giving awards to everyone who demonstrates physical courage.  Dave acknowledged that the 9/11 hijackers were brave, but he stopped short of suggesting that they deserve to be awarded the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award posthumously.  And I suspect this isn't just because their mode of expression was destructive.  The bravery that the hijackers displayed somehow doesn't seem praiseworthy.

And here we have the key to understanding the position of the dissenters.  Not all bravery is praiseworthy.  If you spend your career doing everything you can to make minorities feel unwelcome in your country, if you go out of your way to antagonize them, if your goal is to bring out the worst in people, then you certainly don't deserve to die, but it's hard to see how you deserve an award, either.

Now one can certainly dispute whether my previous paragraph accurately characterizes the work that Charlie Hebdo did.  But this would be an argument, with two sides, and that is precisely what the people who are attacking the dissenters are trying to avoid.  They've done it by preemptively discrediting the views of anyone who doesn't speak French.  They've done it by attributing hateful motives to the dissenters without evidence.  They've tried to delegitimize any discussion of the merits, and then they've used the alleged absence of meritorious disagreement to suggest that the dissenters must have ulterior motives.  (This reasoning, to borrow Dave's line, accomplishes the unlikely feat of being both elliptical and circular at the same time.)

All in all it's a disgusting display of irrationality and I think that its practitioners should feel a deep sense of shame.  It's fine to disagree with the dissenters.  But this insistence on attacking them rather than engaging with their arguments shows a lack of intellectual confidence and a strange craving for forced unanimity, the one thing Charlie Hebdo probably can't be accused of ever promoting.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Robert McLiam Wilson and the Right to Form an Opinion

I sometimes get the sense that our society is plumbing new depths in terms of irrationality, and I have to remind myself that things have been much worse in the past.

Today Caleb Crain published a tweet linking to a piece by Robert McLiam Wilson in the New Statesman. The headline/subheadline of the piece is: "If you don't speak French, how can you judge if Charlie Hebdo is racist? Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole and Rachel Kushner are among the writers who chose to boycott a PEN gala in honour of Charlie Hebdo. But are they in any position to pass judgement?"

This is an argument about who is entitled to form an opinion on Charlie Hebdo.  Wilson's position is:  French-speakers only.  People who don't speak the French language simply aren't equipped to judge the merits of the cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo.  They aren't entitled to form an opinion.

This strikes me as dangerously misguided.  In fact I think it is almost always dangerous to disqualify people's opinions because of who they are.  (Of course it is legitimate to "consider the source"—but that is a question of assessing motives, not excluding people from the discourse because of their identity.)

By Wilson's logic, most of the world would be disqualified from forming an opinion on foreign affairs.  Is it offensive for senior Japanese officials to visit the Yasukuni Shrine?  Wilson would presumably say that unless you are steeped in Japanese culture and language, you must simply remain neutral on this question.  If a (non-Japanese-speaking) Korean woman who was a victim of sexual slavery at the hands of the Japanese Empire ventured to express an opinion on the matter, Wilson might take to the pages of the New Statesman to instruct us to ignore her.  She simply doesn't have the right to pass judgment.  She is permitted to form opinions only about matters within her own cultural and linguistic tradition (presumably Korean, though she may have learned other languages as well).

Or imagine a judge who is considering whether to grant asylum to an immigrant.  The immigrant claims that as a homosexual he is subject to severe prejudice, harassment, and violence in his home country.  But here's the thing:  he makes his case through a translator, because the judge doesn't speak the immigrant's native language and the immigrant doesn't speak English.  Let's say the immigrant produces evidence in the form of death threats he has received (again, written in his native language).  The translator assures the judge (who can't read the evidence) that the death threats are terrifying.  What I think Wilson would tell us is that the judge shouldn't grant asylum on these facts, and the immigrant should be sent back to his country to face the music.  Why?  Because if you don't speak the language, how can you judge if the letters are death threats?  The judge is not competent to pass judgment.

I hope I've made it clear that I don't agree.  I think non-Japanese-speakers are entitled to express views on the Yasukuni Shrine, and I think judges should be permitted to grant asylum on the basis of translated testimony and evidence.  I can't imagine how else we could run our society.

Why do arguments like Wilson's get any traction whatsoever?  I genuinely don't know.  Hilary Putnam has written about the idea that you can never understand another person's meaning unless you share that person's worldview (so, for instance, modern humans can't pass judgment on the accuracy of medieval beliefs about, say, astronomy).  The idea is strangely popular despite having (as Putnam demonstrates) rather odd implications.

I think some people understand Wilson to be making the much more reasonable argument that Charlie Hebdo's offensiveness is exaggerated in the English-speaking world due to cultural misunderstandings.  Of course, if that's what Wilson thinks, then that is what he should write.  And indeed, Wilson argues that in one instance, the caption to a Charlie Hebdo cartoon exculpates the publication from charges of racism.  (The cartoon depicted Christiane Taubira, the French minister of justice and a black woman, as a monkey.  The caption read "Racist Blue Rally," which pokes fun at a far-right French political party's slogan.  So, obviously, the cartoon wasn't offensive.)

The problem here is that it is very hard to imagine that Charlie Hebdo, in its hundreds or maybe thousands of facially racist cartoons, managed to avoid actually expressing racist ideas by its skillful use of French-language captioning.  It is possible, of course, but it seems unlikely.  It's a hard case to make.  So rather than making that case, Wilson opted to "go nuclear" and simply declare that non-French-speakers can't form legitimate opinions on the matter.  Thinking people should recognize his scurrilous tactic for what it is and give it the derision it deserves.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Local Taxation and Justice

A note on federalism and local governance in the United States.

Federal income taxes are actually quite progressive, even if you include payroll taxes (Medicare and Social Security).  But state and local taxes are not.  And the thing I want to note is that this is no accident, that our country is structurally inclined to punish poor people and to under-provide public goods and services.  This is because (A) almost all public services are provided at the local level and paid for with local taxes, (B) local governments are engaged in a brutal competition for tax revenue, and (C) at the margin, rich people are very attractive citizens (and poor people unattractive citizens) if taxes are at all progressive.

The first point here is taxpayer mobility.  There aren't many people who will move out of the United States in response to an increase in taxes.  (Anyway where would they move?  Canada?  Taxpayer mobility is a bigger problem in Europe where there are little asshole jurisdictions that welcome rich people from the real countries.)  But it is almost trivially easy for a lot of people to move to another town or county or even state.  Many big metro areas are near state borders—New York City is easily reachable from New Jersey and (to a slightly lesser degree) Connecticut.  Kansas City actually straddles the border between Missouri and Kansas.  The District of Columbia is obviously highly accessible from Virginia and Maryland.  The Quad Cities offer several towns in each state, so you can have your pick.  And even for cities like Los Angeles and Seattle, which are pretty far from the closest neighboring state, there are suburbs that are designed to make commuting as easy as possible.

The second point is that in tax-and-spending terms, rich people are desirable citizens, and the more redistributive the taxes, the more desirable they are.  (Please note that I'm not arguing rich people are desirable citizens/neighbors in any other way.)  Rich people tend to pay a lot in taxes and they are not particularly heavy users of public services.  But in a competitive equilibrium, redistribution at the local level tends to be unsustainable—a town that imposes a more regressive tax scheme will disproportionately attract rich people, while a town that imposes progressive taxes will disproportionately drive them away.  (Likewise, poor people are attracted to localities that provide good public services without imposing big tax burdens on poor people, which is to say, localities with highly progressive taxes.)  And as we observed above, our system is designed so that rich people can move within a metro area to escape taxes much more easily than they can move to a new country.  The result is that in equilibrium, local taxes tend to be regressive and public services tend to be under-provided.

This isn't always true.  In areas where poor people can be excluded, rich people are happy to tax themselves heavily and spend the revenue on public goods.  This is why many public school districts in Westchester County (where exclusionary zoning keeps the poor people away) are extremely well-funded.  But in any area that is economically diverse, rich people will generally prefer to obtain their goods and services through the market (private schools, doormen, security guards, private country clubs) rather than through the government (public schools, police, parks).

The point here is that there are structural barriers to progressive taxation and well-funded public sectors, so that even in very liberal cities, the public sector tends to be under-funded and the taxes tend to be regressive.  (Again, there are partial exceptions.  New York City has a bit of a captive rich population, and it extracts a reasonable amount of taxes from it.  Meanwhile New York doesn't tax groceries, for instance, which is nice for poor people.  But in a way New York proves my point, because even in such a liberal, economically diverse jurisdiction with a relatively immobile rich population, the public sector is under-funded and poor people are over-taxed.)

By the way, a little evidence for my argument.  Both St. Louis and Baltimore seceded from their counties at a time when rich people tended to live in the city and the counties were relatively poor.  With the advent of commuting by car, both of those cities lost their affluent populations to surrounding areas, and they had no way of taxing them.  By contrast, Chicago never seceded from Cook County, and today it can use the county to tax its affluent suburbs.  It is no coincidence that St. Louis and Baltimore are two of the poorest and most crime-ridden cities in the United States.

A couple of policy implications.  First, I think there is a good argument for increasing federal income taxes and then block-granting it to states and local governments on a per capita basis.  This idea is usually associated with conservatives, but I think it should have quite a bit of appeal to liberals.  It would shift the overall tax burden in a progressive direction and it would significantly dampen tax competition among local governments.  Well-financed city governments don't have to skimp on important public services, and they don't have to squeeze the poor.  (They can, but they don't have to.)

The second policy implication is a bit more complicated.  Basically, we should question whether it makes sense to make it easy to commute from suburbs into cities.  This is complicated for at least two reasons:  (1) it makes a lot of sense for people to commute by rail, and on a big-picture level it makes sense to enable a certain amount of train-based sprawl while facilitating a dense central business district, and (2) if you make it hard to travel into a city, it is possible that employers will move to the suburbs rather than rich people moving into the city.  Nevertheless, it's important to bear in mind that the more money you spend providing easy transportation into a city, the more tax competition you are engendering.  In fact I think a likely partial explanation for the decline and re-emergence of New York City is that there was a large "shock" in the form of easier transportation (both by rail and by car), spurring a big move to the suburbs, but that eventually the spare capacity in these transportation systems got used up, commutes got shitty, and people were motivated to move back into the city.  Not every city will be able to clog up the transportation systems linking it to its suburbs, and so a lot of cities will find it much harder to spark a revival.

So far I've avoided linking these ideas specifically to what is going on in Baltimore and Ferguson, because clearly there are a lot of other factors in play there.  But I do think people should consider these structural factors as well.  Baltimore isn't shitty for poor people merely because of racism, rotten police culture, etc.  It is also shitty for poor people because even a local government with the best intentions is fighting an uphill battle just to be halfway decent to its poor residents.  This isn't about the intentions of individual political leaders, it's about the economic and political geography of the country.  It's about the architecture of our system.  If you want to change the world, attend to its fundamental structure.