Pur Autre Vie

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

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.

Monday, April 13, 2015


I want to respond to Dave's post on contextualism and skepticism.

I usually like to start these posts with some qualifications.  First, I have no qualifications.  As we will see, I have no familiarity with the relevant philosophical issues.  Second, I am drunk.  For reasons that I don't want to get into, I am a bit upset about things and drowning my sorrows to some extent.

I have no idea what contextualism means.  I don't particularly care to defend it.  But whenever I see arguments like the one that Dave advances, I want to take a step back and ask how several interrelated issues are being addressed - the most notable being, for our purposes, the definition of reality.

We all understand that truth involves some correspondence to reality.  But what is reality?  If you are sufficiently agnostic about what constitutes reality, then just about anything flies, and it becomes impossible to "know" anything.  This I take to be the core of the skeptical approach.  There could always be a demon manipulating your perceptions.  You could always be a brain in a vat.  There can always be a "true" reality underlying your "false" perceptions.

But this is unsatisfying, and there are any number of ways to push back against it.  After all, what is it that separates reality from illusion?  A persistent, predictable "illusion" might be reasonably treated as reality, however "illusory" it is on some level.  Hilary Putnam famously challenged metaphysical realism by questioning our ability to "refer" to the "underlying reality."  (Very briefly, it is difficult to articulate a theory of reference that would allow a "brain in a vat" to refer to the vat, and so a mind in that circumstance could not utter a truthful statement along the lines of, "I am a brain in a vat."  And if you can't truthfully say that you are a brain in a vat, then it's pretty clear that you are not a brain in a vat.)

But I think the real value of Putnam's approach is not its narrow victory over metaphysical realism (which is, as I may discuss in another post, somewhat tenuous).  The value consists in forcefully posing the question, "What good is inaccessible reality?"  In other words, if you know with absolute certainty that every one of your experiences will be dictated by a particular set of facts and rules, then what do you care whether those facts and rules are "illusory" or not?  If "reality" is inaccessible to you, and irrelevant to your life, then what exactly is its claim on your attention?  Shouldn't you pay more attention to the "illusion" that actually governs your life?

So to put it another way, there is a very strong argument that "reality" should be understood in terms of (and relative to) our experiences.  If certain pieces of bread are "really" the body of Christ, but they retain all of the physical characteristics of bread (calories, gluten content, etc.), while having none of the physical characteristics of human flesh, then shouldn't we say, "So much the worse for 'reality.'"?  For our purposes, the bread is bread, not human flesh.  (Of course it is a very different story if you take the afterlife seriously - in that case, I would strongly recommend paying very close attention to whether any particular piece of bread is the flesh of Christ.)  In other words, shouldn't we define "reality" relative to the things we care about?  I simply do not care if this burrito is "really" a hammer, so long as it has all of the physical characteristics of a burrito (and not a hammer).  If on some other level of reality, totally inaccessible and irrelevant to me, it is a hammer, this concerns me not at all.  I will eat any hammer in the world, so long as the consequences are identical to the consequences of eating a burrito.

I've spent more time than I intended on the question of what is reality.  But that's all right, because this is the most important question.  If you conclude that "reality" can be anything (so that the whole world could be an illusion concocted by a demon), then it is very hard to avoid skepticism (since we only have access to the physical world, and can therefore never rule out any metaphysical theory).  If you conclude that "reality" consists only of the world that matters to us - the empirically testable physical world that shapes our experiences - then skepticism has a much narrower appeal.  Skeptics are left to argue that even the physical world is resistant to human knowledge, for whatever reason (maybe Humean doubts about our ability to ascertain whether the future will resemble the past).

Having set the stage in this way, let's consider how a more appealing contextualism might play out.  We will imagine at first that a Protestant has come across what appears to be a piece of bread.  His Catholic friend is urging him not to eat it, because it may not be bread at all - it may be human flesh.  (I apologize for any theological errors I am about to make.)  Catholics, you see, believe that bread can be "transubstantiated" into the flesh of Christ through particular procedures.  After transubstantiation, the object that was formerly bread is no longer bread.  (If it remained bread, while also becoming the flesh of Christ, this would be called consubstantiation, not transubstantiation.  Catholics believe in transubstantiation, while Anglicans believe in consubstantiation.  Or so I have been led to believe.)  So you might say that every Catholic is skeptical about every piece of bread, unless the Catholic has monitored the bread continuously since it came out of the oven and can therefore be assured that it has not been transubstantiated by a priest into the flesh of Christ (at which point it would no longer be bread).

Now I think it's fair for the Protestant to say (in a contextualist manner):  "Look, my friend, this piece of bread may not be a piece of bread to you, but whether or not it has been transubstantiated into the flesh of Christ according to your belief system, it remains a piece of bread to me.  Its suitability for making a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich for my lunch simply doesn't turn on whether it is human flesh, according to your views.  If it were actually human flesh, of course I would recoil in terror, and I wouldn't even consider making a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich with it.  But look at it - it doesn't resemble human flesh at all.  It is extremely bread-like in its physical manifestation."

And I think Dave would say, "Very well.  Protestants don't adhere to a belief system that acknowledges the particular metaphysical reality that Catholics believe in.  But this is a matter of terminology.  Within the Catholic discourse, the use of the term 'bread' to refer to the object would make no sense.  It's just the French/English example all over again."

But I think Dave would be wrong.  It's easy to see how even Catholics, communicating among themselves, might refer to the object as a piece of bread.  After all, it has all the physical characteristics of bread.  It will provide nutrients to most people, but will sicken a celiac.  It is suitable for vegetarians (unless they have a moral objection to eating meat in the form of Christ's flesh - but it is not as though Christ's flesh is produced on a factory farm).  Its nutritional and caloric content, in other words, have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not it is bread, on the one hand, or the flesh of Christ, on the other.  If a Catholic who is a celiac asks whether there is bread in a recipe, another Catholic would be extremely foolish to reply that there is no bread, on the grounds that all of the bread has been transubstantiated into the flesh of Christ.  (Catholics believe that even when bread has been transubstantiated, it retains all of the physical characteristics of bread, including its gluten content.)  In context, the celiac should be informed that there is bread in the recipe, even though no devout Catholic believes that there is any bread in the recipe.  This seems crazy!  How can we explain it?  Well, "bread" can't be understood in some absolute, context-free sense.  What is judged to be "reality" is context-dependent.  When someone's intestinal lining is at stake, you've got to communicate the physical "truth" about the food even if you are lying about its metaphysical "reality."  There are no atheists in foxholes, and there are no metaphysical realists when it comes to allergy labeling.

So if contextualism is another word for "judging truth according to the reality that has been accepted as relevant for the situation," then I think contextualism is eminently defensible, and it "defeats" skepticism to the same extent that anti-metaphysical-realism defeats skepticism more generally.  It's quite possible I've misunderstood contextualism, but it seems to me that there isn't much point in drawing fine lines here.  These discussions all tend to circle back to the same questions about what constitutes reality.  There are any number of ways to restate these arguments, but fundamentally I don't think skepticism (in the "metaphysical realism" sense) deserves the deference it has traditionally been given.  If you take that crap seriously, then it is trivially true that knowledge is impossible.  Since that is a pretty pointless conclusion, we try to redefine knowledge to encompass the "reality" that is relevant to us.  Whether we do this through the Putnam channel, or the "contextualist" channel, or the pragmatist channel, it seems to me that the results are basically the same.  These issues should be dealt with comprehensively and not piecemeal, as the tendency in philosophy seems to be.