Sidney Rittenberg on Participating in the Cultural Revolution

Danwei has an interview with Sidney Rittenberg, the first American citizen to join the Chinese Communist Party. Rittenberg lived in China from 1944 to 1975, and spent the time alternating between serving as an adviser to China’s leaders and serving time in prison. Reflecting on his active participation in the Cultural Revolution:

I only got to take part in the first (and worst) 14 months of the Cultural Revolution, but I saw it as a great democratic uprising which was creating a new, lively, democratic form of Socialism. People elected their own leaders, formed their own political organizations, published their own opinions – it seemed like a marvelous new world, while it lasted. I was thrilled to be a part of it, and didn’t realize that it was conceived as a stage in the establishment of a “total dictatorship of the proletariat,” in Mao’s words. I thought he was the great liberator, who was really introducing a vibrant  democratic society.

It’s a good reminder that economic and political motivations don’t always pull in the same direction. There are a lot of people today, particularly in the West, who refer to China’s government as “Communist” as if that were a synonym for authoritarian. There are also plenty of people in China whose main problem with the government is that it isn’t Communist enough, with its anti-democratic features a secondary complaint (or not a complaint at all). It’s interesting to see the tension between democratic and communist values at play in Rittenberg’s account—and the idea that democratic governance was a motivating force behind at least some of the players in the Cultural Revolution is new to me.

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Abortion: Not Just to Rally the Base Anymore

In a new piece over at The American Prospect, I look at how the political winds have shifted enough that we now have a Democratic political candidate (i.e. President Obama) using abortion as a wedge issue to attack a Republican. In recent years, abortion politics has mostly been a tactic to rally the base, but it looks like the Obama team is trying to change that. And they might be successful:

For most Americans, the abortion question is not all-or-nothing—it’s about where one draws the line. Opinion polling on abortion is highly sensitive to phrasing; despite a majority of the country identifying as “pro-life,” polls also consistently show that a majority of respondents supports access to abortion in at least some circumstances. Politicians have been walking this tightrope for years—“I’m personally pro-life but believe in a woman’s right to choose”; “I believe the issue should be left up to the states to decide”; “Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.” With the GOP moving further to the right, a wider space has opened for Democrats to pick up abortion moderates. As Ed Kilgore wrote in Washington Monthly earlier this year, if a woman’s right to choose continues to be eroded around the country, it could become more likely that the quiet pro-choice sentiments of the American majority will emerge as a political force.

It’s not in the article, but I also just saw a new poll that has Obama doing more than 20 points better than Romney among women in Ohio, one of the states in which Obama’s new abortion-centered ad is airing.

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A New Office for Your City: Municipal Philosophers

The tiny, ethnically Greek town of Corigliano d’Otranto in Italy has created a new position: an officially designated “Municipal Philosopher,” who hangs around City Hall for philosophical consultation between 3pm and 7pm on Fridays:

Lupo [the first one to hold the office-DT] engaged clients in Socratic dialogue and did not “dwell on their past, but their present and their perspectives on the future”.

Much of her work was about getting people to think clearly, listen to each other and formulate questions that bore on the subject in hand, the mayor said. The bosses of some local companies had been in touch with the council to see if the municipal philosopher could come and speak to their employees, she said.

Beginning her work last September, before the post became official, Lupo had so far seen about 500 people at the town hall, either on an individual basis or in groups. She charged €15 (£12) a session for her services, so her appointment had not involved any additional cost to taxpayers, the mayor said.

It may be about 200 spots down on the list of what American cities need right now, but who wouldn’t want some free (to the taxpayers) philosophical consultation? The idea reminds me a bit of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association, a group of philosophically educated individuals who help clients resolve issues that are more philosophical than psychological in nature. Maybe they could offer their services for free at local city halls; if Corigliano d’Otranto is any indication, at least it’d gin up some publicity.

(ht Leiter Reports)

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T.M. Scanlon on Polarization and the Want to Feel Justified

There’s a wonderful, very long interview with philosopher T.M. Scanlon posted recently at The Utopian. Scanlon is one of the most respected living philosophers, and has lots to say, but one thing that struck me in particular was his discussion about how, at times, our desire to feel like our actions are justifiable to others doesn’t make us act better, but instead makes us revise our ideas of “right” and “wrong” to be more in line with our actions:

The Utopian:

In What We Owe To Each Other you write at one point:

“The combined blows of the civil rights movement and the movement that arose in reaction to the war in Vietnam shattered these illusions beyond repair. Different people reacted to this in different ways, some by protesting against the war and working for civil rights, others by vehemently denying that the charges of injustice at home and criminality abroad had any foundation. What these reactions had in common was a deep sense of shock and loss; both testify, I believe, to the value people set on the belief that their lives and institutions are justifiable to others”.

When I read that I wondered to what degree that was autobiographical. But I guess it actually wasn’t?

Tim Scanlon:

No, no. It’s entirely a piece of armchair social science. I guess I should be ashamed of it. But nonetheless it seemed to me to make sense of what was happening around me. And I put it in there because I was trying to say that I thought a lot of people really do care about the thing that I’m identifying as central to morality – even though they don’t think of it that way.

Look: this is an explanation for why people react. If people care about justifiability to others, this doesn’t necessarily operate only as something that motivates them to do better, morally speaking. In a certain way, caring about morality can be a reason for doing things that are in some way worse. It’s a version – but not the same thing – as what you were saying earlier about wanting to minimize the cases in which you’re doing something wrong. This isn’t doing that by choosing a different style of action; it’s doing that by changing your view about what is right and wrong.

That’s a very familiar kind of denial. But it seems to me, as an observer of the country, that that’s a lot of what’s going on. That people want to believe that they got what they got honestly and fairly. That somehow they’re particularly, distinctively entitled to what they have, and that their institutions are just. This means a lot to people. And people who want to deny this seem to them to be people who, as they say, hate America.

There are plenty of political points to be made about polarization here (and also about the claims Scanlon makes in that last paragraph), but I mostly think it’s a cautionary tale for—well, everyone. Sometimes rationalizing is easier than doing what’s right, and the impulse to think about right and wrong can make that easier.

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How we deal with hate speech

Over at The American Prospect I’ve written a review of Jeremy Waldron’s new book The Harm in Hate Speech. It’s a good book for making you reconsider some of the sacred cows in the liberal approach to freedom of speech. It’s also a great model of a book that consciously fits into a broader conversation, as Waldron engages with a few different authors throughout the whole work. After reading it, you get the feeling that you’ve just been exposed to several books’ worth of arguments and ideas.

There are some strange parts, though, as I mention:

When discussing the 2005 controversy in which a Danish newspaper published cartoons depicting Muhammad as a bomb-throwing terrorist, Waldron says “where there are fine lines to be drawn the law should generally stay on the liberal side of them.” Yet Waldron describes how it would be defamatory to publish a statement saying “Tea Party politicians cannot be trusted with public funds,” or “Tea Party politicians are dishonest,” ignoring arguments mentioned elsewhere in the book that speech about elected officials should be given the widest freedoms. And in an interesting but underdeveloped chapter, Waldron draws an analogy between defamatory speech and pornography, arguing that sexualized images—including television, billboard, and subway advertising—undermine society’s assurance of equality to women. What he seems to suggest is that it would be more legitimate to outlaw lingerie ads or broad statements about political leaders than to prohibit the Danish cartoons—a strange vision of “balance,” and not one that errs on the side of liberalism.

It would’ve been nice to see him work a bit more on drawing lines and other, more concrete questions his arguments raise. Still, it’s good to be reminded that conversations about hate speech shouldn’t end with “but that’s the price we pay for having the First Amendment.”

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Our disagreeing parties

On Monday, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released its Trends in American Values report, a survey that the Center has been conducting since 1987 to determine where Americans stand on 48 “political values” like national security, the social safety net, religiosity, and the scope of government. Among the most noteworthy findings of the report is that the values gap between Americans from different political parties is now significantly greater than the values gap between Americans of different race, class, gender, or age.

So far, many responses have simply incorporated the report’s findings into the familiar narrative of America’s growing partisan divide, with the general sentiment being “it hardly took a study to tell us that we’re politically divided.” But it’s a mistake to lump the study in to the conventional wisdom. First, it’s important to note that Pew generally found “much more stability than change” across political values in the last 25 years. What’s significant is that the average gap in responses between Republicans and Democrats has almost doubled, from 10 percentage points in 1987 to 18 now. Most of that jump has happened during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

There’s at least one reason to think that it might not be so bad to have partisan differences outpace those based on race, gender, and other demographic indicators. The Pew study measures how much people agree with statements like “it’s the government’s responsibility to take care of people who are unable to take care of themselves.” Political parties are, at their most basic, groups of people who band together because of common ideology—in other words, because they have similar answers to questions like these. It might be nice if society had no disagreements about political questions. But if disagreements exist, the fact that they are drawn along political lines shouldn’t be particularly surprising. And the study focuses on the partisan values divide in part because race- and class-based differences have remained stable—with many of the different demographics noted in the study hovering in the 10-percentage-point disagreement zone or lower.

What’s more troubling than when party members disagree about political values—which we should expect—is when they disagree about facts. The study found that one of the main drivers of the growing divide is disagreements over environmentalism—an area where Americans’ perceptions of factual questions (like whether we’re causing global warming) is heavily influenced by their political leanings. In one 2011 study, for instance, 19% of Republicans said they believe that humans are causing the earth to warm, compared with 78% of Democrats. That difference—59 percentage points—dwarfs the 18-point average disagreement over political values. Even scarier are the efforts to politicize the analysis and reporting of scientific data, such as the bill being considered in North Carolina that would limit state agencies to linear predictions of sea level rises, banning “scenarios of accelerated rates.”

Disagreements over values are pretty normal for our political parties. But when we start tying facts and values together, we risk losing our ability to reach policy compromises—or simply to understand what the people on the other side of the aisle are saying. That’s the real risk hiding in the Pew study: not that we are living in a world where we disagree more frequently, but that we may increasingly be living in different worlds.

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How to Save the Internet – Again

…is the title of my new piece at The American Prospect:

The “Privacy is Awesome” campaign, one of the leading anti-CISPA efforts, is banking on Congress’s Memorial Day recess to encourage constituents to reach out to legislators and voice their opposition. But compared to the massive campaign against SOPA and PIPA, the campaign has been anemic, with a mere 19,000 “likes” on Facebook compared with one million for the campaign against SOPA. This raises the question: Can the one-time groundswell of opposition to SOPA be mobilized for the long haul?

The answer, I think, is to not “just say no” to bad bills but to be more proactive about getting legislation passed that embodies the values of the digital civil liberties movement. There are some great organizations and coalitions out there – the Center for Democracy and Technology, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Digital Due Process Initiative all come to mind – who are working on doing just that.

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Party Tricks

There’s a new blog in town: The Mischiefs of Faction. It’s written by a group of academics with political experience, “devoted to advancing and debating our knowledge of political parties,” and looks great. The name comes from James Madison’s Federalist Paper #10, and some of the early posts from Hans Noel have been exploring what Madison might have to say about our current political parties. On the much-discussed issue of partisanship, Noel writes:

Rather than trying to fix our party system, Madison would advocate fixing out institutions, so that they would, in his words from Federalist 51, “oblige [government] to control itself.” In short, we shouldn’t be trying to fix our parties to make them work within our institutions. We should be trying to fix our institutions so that they can handle our parties.

Over at Plain Blog, Jonathan Bernstein weighs in with a breakdown of hazards to Madison’s view of democracy, which among other things breaks government into branches to avoid a domination of any one faction (i.e. party). The threats:

1. Everyone begins to care deeply about the exact same issue, especially one which appears to everyone to have only two choices. This is, essentially, the story of slavery; we can think of the Civil War as the consequence of everyone believing that everything hinged on slavery and all compromise positions disappeared, leaving only two choices.

2. The party one: everyone begins to be passionately partisan. In this case, not only are the stakes very high if your side loses and election, but a loss threatens to be permanent, because if everyone is partisan then there will be few if any swing voters.

3. Ideology. Everyone becomes convinced that all issues are linked together in some fashion so that if you support X then you also support Y and Z and A and B and C.

As Bernstein sees it, we don’t have #1 or #3 in our society right now, and he says that we don’t have a #2 situation but “we’re closer to it than we once were.” That seems about right to me, although I think it probably makes more sense to view it as a spectrum rather than a situation that “does or doesn’t” exist. I also think #2 and #3 can be linked: someone who identifies passionately with a party (as in #2) can look to the party’s stance on a given issue to help inform their own, linking issues together (#3). People sometimes form a party identity because of their stance on various issues, but sometimes take stances on certain issues because they see themselves as members of a party.

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Does moral theory create extremism? No.

The Philosopher’s Beard has a post up asking “Does moral theory create extremism?” As usual for TPB, it’s a thoughtful and interesting essay; this time around, though, I found myself disagreeing with a fair amount of it.

First, TPB does a great job of delineating moral theory and the moral reasoning that most of us use in everyday life. Moral theory is “what most moral philosophers spend our time doing,” and is generally an attempt to assess different moral systems in terms of “theoretical virtues,” namely consistency, clarity, and other desiderata that would get you a stronger essay grade from a college professor. In contrast, how we actually actually make moral decisions is not nearly as consistent, principled, or focused as moral theory usually strives to be.

So far so good. But TPB runs a bit far afield when he* claims that the tensions between practical moral reasoning and moral theory tends to create “moral extremism,” which he defines as the combination of “a narrow perception of an issue in black and white terms with a structural inability to consider it from any other perspective.”

TPB writes:

Theories are able to give consistent answers to questions because they are set up to assess questions in the same way every time. In other words, any good (logically coherent) theory has its conclusions baked into its assumptions. And they are able to give precise answers because they only consider certain information. To put this another way, theories introduce clarity to moral reasoning by excluding most of our prima facie relevant moral concerns and intuitions from being counted.

TPB then gives two examples – abortion and animal research – where the exclusion of different perspectives leads to opposing sides talking past each other. Regarding the abortion debate, he describes how one side regards a fetus as a human being, the other regards it as part of a woman’s body, and therefore the two theoretical sides polarize the debate:

The bemusing feature is not that they are based on false intuitions, but that by opting for the rigour and clarity of a moral theory approach to the issue (albeit an extremely crude version of this), other seemingly relevant aspects are systematically excluded. … these two theoretical camps dominate the moral, political, and legal debate about abortion, despite the fact that they are, by construction, mutually exclusive. Proponents of either theory are structurally unable to see the other side’s point of view because their accounts can assign no value or place to each other’s central moral intuitions. The public ‘debate’ that results from this theory-driven extremism rather resembles a shouting match across a chasm than an effort at intellectual engagement.

I think that TPB here is making two errors, one analytical (i.e. regarding the philosophical arguments on their merits) and one social (a misrepresentation of the role of moral theory in public debates). The analytical problem is in part that TPB is creating a straw man: to summarize the abortion debate, he takes two camps of long and varied moral, scientific, and metaphysical arguments and reduces them into a pair of syllogisms. Then, he says it’s a problem that the two camps exclude so much.

It may be true that proponents of abortion rights are likely to have different opinions on whether a fetus is a human person than abortion opponents. But it’s hardly the case that serious moral thinkers who discuss abortion create theories that ignore the question to begin with. The line of causality can just as plausibly run the other way: first, a thinker raises the issue of what moral status to give the fetus, and then decides what theoretical framework fits best – whether, for example, the issue is one of murder or of women’s rights. Or, the argument about abortion could be made in a way designed to hold true no matter what designation we assign a fetus, as Judith Jarvis Thomson famously did in her essay A Defense of Abortion.

Then, there’s the popularity of moral theorists that TPB perceives: “the authority provided by rigour and clarity means that theorists tend to dominate public debate and thereby exclude the non-theorised opinions of the great majority.” There’s very little doubt in my mind that when it comes to the abortion debate the vast majority of the country does not feel like the discussion is dominated by academic moral philosophers. Now, I am a strong proponent of rigorous moral debate outside of academia, and I think that nuanced and sophisticated points are made in public debates all the time. But it seems like a misrepresentation to say that American politics is being radicalized by “polarized political factions whose representatives demand that you choose a theory.” It’s hard to make a more convincing rebuttal of TPB’s claims about the social dominance of moral theorists, in part because he does not specify who he considers a “representative” of the theoretical establishment and gives no examples of particular forums that are dominated by theoreticians. But given the many other proposed factors behind the polarization of political issues in the U.S. – polarized communities, polarized media, polarized political primaries – TPB has his empirical work cut out for him.

Academic theorizing definitely does not correspond perfectly with the act of moral decision-making in everyday life. But the removedness of moral theory can be a great asset, as TPB acknowledges – it can show people how their own practices are in tension with moral values they claim to have, for instance. And my experience with moral theorizing is nearly the opposite of the radicalism he describes – I’ve seen many who engage with moral theory plagued by an ability to see all sides of an issue, which inhibits decision-making. While decision paralysis itself is undesirable, I think the propensity to think about multiple factors and perspectives is something generally to be encouraged, and is a strength of moral philosophy. When it comes to political radicalism, I think we could use more exposure to great moral theories, not less.

*TPB blogs anonymously, but as he promises “I have a beard,” I am going to assume the male pronoun.

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A blog about “political ideas”?

When I started this blog, one challenge was figuring out how to differentiate its subject matter from the kind of “politics” writing that focuses on campaigns and politicians. I settled on “political ideas” as the catch-all phrase, but I wanted to write a post clarifying just what it is the blog is meant to cover.

“Political ideas” is my take on what in other venues might be called political philosophy. Political philosophy is a subject matter very dear to my heart, but the “philosophy” part of the name brings with it connotations of the ivory tower. One of the goals of this blog is to illustrate how political philosophy is being conducted all the time – by newspaper columnists, politicians, civics teachers, and taxi cab drivers. “Philosophy” sounds like something done by philosophers, whereas anyone can have an idea. The point is a small one, and not worth belaboring too much. So, throughout the blog I’ll use the terms “political philosophy,” “political ideas,” and “political thought” pretty interchangeably, but always bearing in mind that people can have principled and thoughtful opinions on questions of political value without citing the Enlightenment philosophe who best supports their views. (Not that that’s a bad thing to be able to do.)

Definitions of “politics” and “political philosophy” abound, and it’s a fool’s errand to find one both universal and specific enough to make everyone happy. My working definition for political philosophy is “the questions, answers, and debates over how societies should be organized.” This definition is my own, and intentionally errs on the side of broadness. It also helps point out something important: political philosophy is about “oughts” and “shoulds.” That is to say, when asking questions about individuals, groups, laws, etc, political philosophy aims to do more than just describe how the world works or predict what would happen if certain things change. Political philosophy makes what some people call “normative” claims, which are arguments about values and morals. In particular, political philosophy is concerned with the morals and value systems that we use to hypothesize about what ideal (or maybe just “better”) societies would look like.

It’s this concern with “ought” questions that differentiates political philosophy from other fields. An economist, for instance, might be interested in questions about similar topics such as taxation and income redistribution. But while an economist would ask whether a given amount of taxation and redistribution affects labor productivity or economic growth (descriptive questions), normative questions about what kinds of taxation and redistribution are fair, just, or most desirable are questions for political philosophy. This isn’t to say that economists shouldn’t weigh in – factual questions about growth and productivity are obviously relevant to deciding what is just and desirable. What if the highest productivity is only possible under the barest levels of taxation, which would not sustain much of a social safety net? Or what if it seems possible to tax the highest earners at 90% without slowing growth or innovation? Economists might be among those with the best grasp of the relevant tradeoffs. But when it comes time to choose the best tax policy, deliberation involves not only questions of fact but questions of fairness and social priorities as well. How much growth should we sacrifice to promote social equality? Should top marginal tax rates be limited by concerns over fairness?

It’s easy to see how broadly relevant political philosophy is; normative questions of the “what should we do about this?” variety are raised by many findings in nearly all social science and policy-related disciplines. What’s surprising is how infrequently these kinds of questions are given a treatment as thorough as the empirical questions that inform them. Political values are both over-employed and under-scrutinized in public conversations. Over-employed because of the frequency with which terms like freedom, fairness, equality, and human rights are invoked by writers, pundits, and politicians as the unimpeachable justification for a cause.  Under-scrutinized because when values show up, they’re usually sound bites or trump cards rather than conversation starters. Right now, political talking points make it seem like you can simultaneously have your cake, eat it, and give it away for free to small business owners. Critical discussion of priorities and conflicts just isn’t what we’ve come to expect.

That’s not to say that this kind of discussion is absent from the public sphere. As I mentioned with the newspaper-columnist-and-cab-driver point above, there actually are conversations about values happening all around us. But they often take place in the introduction or conclusion of that new popular book about economics or evolutionary psychology, or as small digressions in op/ed pieces. Other times, conversations about political philosophy take place very explicitly but in less mainstream sources. It’s understandable to a degree – these conversations are often complicated, messy, and leave many issues unresolved. But they’re also fascinating and important, and there should be more space for them. This blog is my attempt to highlight existing spaces and add to the conversation.

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