Monday, October 08, 2007

What if they gave a war and nobody came?

I've gotten a certain amount of flak for defending John McAdams' piece in WI Interest. I am, depending on who you listen to, in the tank for all conservatives or for anyone and anything associated with Marquette, presumably in an attempt to curry favor with my new paymasters. (I doubt they're all that impressed.)

So what happens next, but John McAdams takes issue with my views on the Folsom Street Fair. Apparently John and I failed to get the memo that we are supposed to think alike.

But watch, here's the way that this political debate thing can work.

John's position has a certain realpolitik attraction. If the game is to shut up your opponents by insisting upon one-sided standards of propriety, then it may be necessary to respond in kind. John thinks it's like a prisoner's dilemma. Both sides would be better off if they stopped trying to shut up their opponents, but if either one stops unilaterally, it'll get creamed. Describing the impact of an ordinance that prohibited only certain types of "hate speech," Justice Scalia summed up the kind of debate that John is concerned with:

One could hold up a sign saying, for example, that all "anti-Catholic bigots" are misbegotten; but not that all "papists" are, for that would insult and provoke violence "on the basis of religion." St. Paul has no such authority to license one side of a debate to fight freestyle, while requiring the other to follow Marquis of Queensberry rules.

But the thing about a prisoner's dilemma is that the players are prisoners. They must play and they have no ability to try to change the rules of the game. But we don't have to play. We (and I mean people of varying political views) can try to point out that throwing a conniption fit every time you hear something that you don't like is no way to go through life. We can try to reassert the value of free and rational discourse. All of that will carry more credibility if we try to avoid our own conniption fits.

I suppose that John would say that I am naive. I may think I can reason with people about this but I can't. In a political war, you can't throw beanbags if the other side has rifles.

In this view, it is useful that someone on the right tries to match the left in the sensitivity sweepstakes. Think of it as a politics of mutually assured destruction. In an iterated prisoner's dilemma, both sides learn to cooperate because their defection is repeatedly punished by the defection of the other side. (Think of the computer's game of tic-tac-toe at the end of the spectacularly bad 80s movie, WarGames.)

(I appreciate that some people on the left are going to say that they are the ones that need to react to the aggression of the right, although in the case of academia raised by John, it would seem that the breakdown is usually as he says.)

Is Professor McAdams right? I am not as pessimistic about the prospect for cooperation without retaliation or that one doesn't actually win points in this game by taking the high ground. I am also influenced by a comment by Dad29 on John's blog. He thinks that I am "surprisingly laid back" about attacks on Western civilization. (He must not have gotten the groupthink memo either.)

But he's wrong. I'm not so laid back. There are some attacks on western values - of which overweening political correctness is one - that you cannot be laid back about. This is another area where the PD breaks down. There are areas where I must defect and, unless you try to change the rules of the game by pointing our what's wrong with perpetual offense and attacks on discourse, that defection will destroy the cooperative equilibrium. That's why I think you have to be careful about when and why you boycott.

The PD analogy suggests that toleration of opposing viewpoints is a weak strategy. People would really prefer a world in which their views are tolerated and opposing views are not. They can only be made to buy into cooperation (in this case, toleration) by the threat of retaliation. That, if it is true, is itself an abandonment of the values of western civilization and we ought to point that out.


Dad29 said...

1) Please send the memo; I am not on the MU/Sykes mailing list.

2) (a bit more serious)

I am inclined to agree with your take that being a screaming meeemeeee is not productive (with some exceptions.)

But the Miller case has some exceptional pieces. First among them is that they contributed to an event which "celebrates" a lifestyle which is repulsive to 99%++ of society. This is not a "gay" event--it's an S&M event (albeit there is a heavy "gay" overtone in some sub-sets of the group.)

Few 'gays' would endorse the event's purposes--and in fact, most 'gays' I know are singularly un-enthusiastic about it. Same can be said for straights, although there's more vocal opposition from them.

So it's a "minority of a minority."

In addition, that sponsorship included a direct and open slap at a very dearly held religious sensibility--that which surrounds the Last Supper. It cannot be compared to placing a cigarette between the fingers of a statue of the Pope, or even putting a skirt on that statue.

It goes way beyond that--it is a slap at Christ and the entire Triduum 'thing,' not a secondary character or disciplinary thing.

Obviously, we can and should choose our battles, and the battle here is not adjudicable, IMHO. But it can be economically-fought, which Donohue would do, and so will I.

At the same time, a strike at the core of Christian/Catholic belief is tantamount to a strike at Western civilization. And just as we construct fences and install locks on doors to protect valuables, we can and should (in analogy) do the same for core religious beliefs--in order to protect the civilization which they have produced, to a great degree.

Thus, the particular instance is, I think, more significant than merely 'dissing' the Pope or an icon of some Saint.

It could be compared to the KKK's cross-burnings, I think, and should be treated as such.

But ever the nice guy, I'll give Miller credit for removing their logo. "Pattern of practice" counts, too, and perhaps Miller has learned something.

Jim C. said...

I agree with Rick on this one.

Here's what I wrote on McAdams' blog:

Disingenuous "offense"--and perhaps even authentic "offense"--will never make for a good political strategy for the left or the right. (Wendy Brown's fantastic States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity also makes a similar claim.)

Here's why: Any time we represent ourselves as injured in order to achieve a political effect, we tend to fall efficiently and quickly into an us-versus-them, injured-versus-injuring dynamic that reproduces the status quo.

Such a state of injury can, of course, be a powerful political tool. Much of conservative radio thrives on painting white men as incessantly injured (by feminists, elites, immigrants, gays, and so on) in order to secure its political potency, moral authority, and emotional appeal. McAdams' blog masthead attempts the same device by claiming that his speech is particularly vulnerable to censorship; he speaks, literally, under the banner of the always-already victim. This same strategy is also why Dad29 wants to compare an sophomoric representation of a painting to the lynching, murder, and torture of hundreds of African Americans. At universities, the left clearly has this same game down, even the Dad29-esque egregious analogies: left-leaning campus identity politics frequently devolve into meaningless competitions over exactly which group has the greatest claim to injury.

To be injured, in this framework, is not only to acquire a voice, but also to acquire a potent moral force behind that voice (the victim is always right, and power is morally suspect). However, claiming power from a position of injury is always dangerous: it means that, in order to preserve our power, we become committed to the furtherance of our own injury. We derive power precisely through our oppression. Our acts of ostensible challenge to the status quo instead become invested in maintaining that same status quo.

Moreover, under such a strategy, our injuries eventually become unbelievable. The strategy McAdams' proposes is a game of crying wolf more than any prisoners' dilemna, is it not? ("I don't want them [attacks on speech] to succeed, but I do want leftist academics to be afraid that their academic freedom might be taken.") How will such a strategy ever succeed unless such attacks are sometimes successful? And then under what authority can the attackers ever advocate free speech?

This eventual unbelievability is no doubt why McAdams (and, I think, Esenberg) is so invested in claiming that racism and homophobia are minimal social realities. Because racism and homophobia, as claims, give power to those they consider to be political adversaries -- non-conservative African Americans, "liberals," and all gay men and lesbians.

Perhaps it's time for all of us to return to Carl Schmitt, grappling for and asserting power actively rather than acquiring power passively, through the vigilant maintenance of our own victimization.

Joe C. said...

"We can try to reassert the value of free and rational discourse.'


Except, McAdams notes that irrational discourse is rational, and, thereby, implies that that the offense limiting principle controls.

If his argument is meant to be a statement of what should be, and not simply what is, then the professor has sacrificed a greater value (freedom of expression) for a lesser (freedom from offense).

Fred Miller said...

Rick, don't take the criticism so hard. Mike Plaisted is just flat out funny. He's like a pint sized Joel McNally.
As for the Folsom fest, people can dance around the edges all they want, but Miller sponsored a group that expressly and purposely mocked Jesus Christ.
The public mockery of no other group would be seen as tolerable by Miller. Try getting Miller to sponsor an anti-Muslim fest, or a fest associated with pictures of Muhammad with dildo's.
It wouldn't happen and we know why.
God I love it when Plaisted and his sniveling shows up on blogs. It's simply hilarious.

Mike Plaisted said...

Hey, how did I get dragged into this thing? Mind my own business, fred!

Maybe you knew I was going to comment about McAdams latest outrage, which Rick is responding to. I love this: "...I rather applaud attacks on academic freedom from the right. I don't want them to succeed, but I do want leftist academics to be afraid that their academic freedom might be taken." You just can't make up idiocy like that. "Applauding attacks on academic freedom"!! The more McAdams writes, the more my blog writes itself. He is the gift that keeps on giving. I can't wait for his next fawning live-blogging of Sykes or Dolan or whoever is stepping onto Gousha's stage in the coming weeks. Let's get McBride in there -- I hear she's available.

No, seriously, so Esenberg didn't get on the GOP talking-points about the silly thing in San Francisco. So what? Aren't there enough wing-nuts blathering on about that? How many different places do you have to hear the same people saying the same things? What are you going to do, boot him from the club because of insufficient outrage?

But, thanks for dialing in, fred. Oh, and by the way, I'm taller than McNally. But comparisons to Milwaukee's best long-running columnist are always appreciated.

Jay Bullock said...

the spectacularly bad 80s movie, WarGames
Don't ever let me hear you say that again.

Dad29 said...

Jim C: Much of conservative radio thrives on painting white men as incessantly injured (by feminists, elites, immigrants, gays, and so on) in order to secure its political potency, moral authority, and emotional appeal.

I have news for you fella. I cited precisely that "victim" status thing on my blog--but guess what? It was written by a Democrat political theorist.

So happens I don't agree with the "victimology" approach--but being offended is not congruent with being a victim. That is possible, but only for ninnies.

One can also be offended, for example, and smack the living patooties out of the offender. NOW who's a "victim"?


And my "Catholic-bashing" comparo between the KKK and the S&M poster happens to be an accurate analogy, whether you like it or not.

Seems you take offense easily, JimC.

Rick Esenberg said...

I can't wait for his next fawning live-blogging of Sykes or Dolan or whoever is stepping onto Gousha's stage in the coming weeks. Let's get McBride in there -- I hear she's available.

Actually that would be Lena Taylor today and Jim Lehrer on Friday.

Jim C. said...

being offended is not congruent with being a victim.

We agree, though I'd qualify your "congruent" with a "necessarily."

Seems you take offense easily, JimC.

I'm not in the least offended by your comparison. I implied that it doesn't hold water and I used it as evidence to make a claim, but nowhere in my post did I discuss my emotional response to anything you wrote.

So happens I don't agree with the "victimology" approach

I'm surprised to see you forsake the use of states of injury as political strategy and rhetoric. Three times in your initial comment you use a metaphor in which Christianity is beaten up (twice it's slapped; once it's struck) by the poster -- a metaphor that paints a clear perpetrator (the poster) and a clear victim (Christianity). Your comparison between Catholics and African American victims of the KKK goes even further, arguing that the poster enacts a kind of violence, the equivalent of lynching, against Catholics or, at least, spreads among Catholics the fear of such violent persecution. Again, a very clear perpetrator and a very clear victim.

Of course, your "smack the living patooties" analogy is one clear way out of the perpetrator-victim binary. That's exactly what Islamists do when they're offended, and it seems more or less to be an effective strategy.

But what I'm wondering is if there's a third way -- a way of fighting one's political enemies and adversaries by assuming open antagonism rather than passive victimization.

Boycotting Miller is perhaps one such strategy for those who, like you, take the poster to be a worthwhile rallying point; it's active and it does something. Though if it were me organizing a boycott, I wouldn't feel all that hopeful. Unless they're massive and long-term, boycotts are largely ineffective. My guess is that most have forgotten the poster already.

John McAdams said...

Rick, no matter how nice your rhetoric on this sounds, I have history on my side.

It was John Stuart Mill, remember, who pointed out that religious freedom came to England when a lot of different religious factions, each of whom would happily impose its views on others, didn't have the power to do so and then had to settle for freedom -- for themselves and (they weren't so keen on this) for others.

And you might recall Madison's comments in Federalist 10 about how people are so much more likely to "vex and oppress" than to cooperate for the common good.

The Founders, remember, felt that certain kinds of institutions were necessary to deal with the contentious nature of mankind.

Also, I think you are underestimating the extent to which desirable cultural values (tolerance of different views) need to be reinforced by the proper incentives.

People should not have to choose between being tolerant losers and intolerant winners. Too many will pick the latter.

The whole point about the interated prisoners' dilemma is that you don't have to choose. You can be tolerant and enjoy your own freedom.

Mike Plaisted said...

Yeah, sure, Rick, I know who's coming to the show, but McAdams apparently only does his ridiculous live-blogging when people show up who he wants to prop up, like Sykes and Dolan. It's more McAdams I'm looking for, not whoever he is using as an excuse to peck his keyboard during the lunch hour.

McAdams needs more space to expand on "thoughts" like "desirable cultural values (tolerance of different views) need to be reinforced by the proper incentives".

It's just all too funny. I think he should take the semester off and sit in front of the computer and expound, if only for our entertainment. I'm sure the students wouldn't miss him.

Rick Esenberg said...


I am glad that my rhetoric sounds nice. We in the law take pride in that.

Clearly Madison believed there would always be faction and that one of the ways to deal with them was to make power diffuse and allow each of them freedom of speech and participation in the political process.

But that'a my point.

To return to the PD, I am not so sure that the equilibrium in a world of political mutually assured destruction isn't just an expanded notion of politcal correctness. Or even an endless battle over who is more offended because the prisoners will not "learn" that cooperation (tolerance of opposing views) is better.

Remember I am not saying that people naturally want to avoid shutting up the other side but that the law and social custom be built in a way that prevents them from doing so. I think that's Madisonian.

And, in the spirit of that, I look forward to the next time you visit us at Sensenbrenner for a live blog. I, for one, appreciate it.