IR School
November 19, 2010

So as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been taking a deeper interest in international relations lately. It’s something I’ve always tried to keep an eye on, and I’d say I have a rudimentary grasp of it, but I’m looking to dig deeper. Basically, having missed out on IR in college, I’m trying to do a post-collegiate extra-curricular IR major.

That’s going to involve a lot of reading. I’m already reading Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and a bunch of blogs committed to the subject, so what I need now are book recommendations. Sergio, we can check off the list. Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy is another one I intend to read.* What else?

*OBVIOUS BUT NONETHELESS WORTH REPEATING DISCLAIMER: Reading and trying to learn from the words of a war criminal does not equal an endorsement of his actions or world view.

Davos Culture
November 13, 2010

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 27JAN07 - Impression of the...
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In his excellent Foreign Affairs essay, Richard Betts describes “Davos culture” as

the transnational consensus of the jet set, who, Huntington wrote, “control virtually all international institutions, many of the world’s governments, and the bulk of the world’s economic and military capabilities.” Huntington, however, saw politics like a populist and pointed out how thin a veneer this elite was — “less than 50 million people or 1 percent of the world’s population.” The masses and middle classes of other civilizations have their own agendas. The progress of democratization celebrated at the end of history does not foster universal values but opens up those agendas and empowers nativist movements. “Politicians in non-Western societies do not win elections by showing how Western they are,” Huntington reminded readers. Although he did not say so, the mistaken identification of modernization with westernization comes naturally to so many U.S. analysts because they understand exotic countries through stays at Western-style hotels and meetings with cosmopolitan Davos people — the local frontmen — rather than through conversations in local languages with upwardly mobile citizens.

I’m a little fascinated by this idea because I think it says quite a lot about how cultures and ideological groupings form in the modern age. People from all over the world from a distinct income bracket and with a certain professional focus have formed a culture that encompasses and overlays the dramatically different cultures of their homelands. Populist leaders (loosely defined to mean “leaders who have any reason to care about what the majority of their citizenry thinks of them”) need to learn how to move between these two cultures with some degree of fluidity.

Of course, as Betts and Huntington suggest, people who spend most of their time in Davos culture are going to come to see it as the default. All of a sudden, it doesn’t look like a culture at all; it’s just the way sane, savvy people understand the world. This is the big category error that most people make about whatever culture they’re most immersed in, and anyone who’s complained about the Beltway elite or the church of the savvy knows what a big problem this is for politics.

But the fact that there is now some common set of norms among most of the major international heavies is both inevitable and desirable. The big questions I have right now are: What are those norms? And what should they be?

International Ethics
November 12, 2010

Sergio Vieira de Mello
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So right now I’m working my way through the first half of Samantha Power’s excellent book Sergio. It’s a biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello (pictured), who the back cover describes as “a charismatic peacemaker and troubleshooter with the United Nations.” Oh, and also, “a ‘cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy.’”

Vieira de Mello himself is a fascinating tour guide, but what makes his story relevant — and not merely compelling — is that his career took him through the slow, painful birth of our current world order. From 1969 to his death in 2003, he watched the bipolar world disappear, Westphalian sovereignty begin to mutate and erode, humanitarianism’s role in foreign affairs change, and terrorism rear its ugly head.

One thing that I think makes Vieira de Mello a particularly good guide to these issues is his philosophical background. He actually juggled his UN duties with earning a doctorate at the Sorbonne, and it’s clear that he made an effort to integrate what he learned about academic philosophy into his thinking on the UN’s mission. It seems that he didn’t have a choice: Power quotes a letter he wrote while taking undergraduate courses at the Sorbonne in which he says he would “never abandon philosophy,” and that, “to do philosophy is to have it in your blood and to do what very few will do — to both be a man and to think everywhere and always.”

Unfortunately, we only get little snippets of his philosophical writing on problems related to foreign policy. Early on, there’s a passing reference to intersubjectivity (in phenomenology, the perception of another as a subject rather than an object) as the basis for dealing with foreign powers. And a little later, we learn that his doctoral dissertation, called “Philosophical History and Real History: The Relevance of Kant’s Political Thought in Current Times,” he argued for a global Kantian “federation of states” that would not breach the sovereignty of other states unless their internal political instability proved to be an international threat.

I mostly picked up this book due to my deepening interest in international relations, but the philosophical angle is an intriguing one. I’m used to thinking about ethics in terms of how individual actors interact with one another, but states are not individual actors in the same way people are. Creating a just society is one thing; imagining just arbitration between societies that are just to varying degrees is another. But when I try to think of philosophers who have addressed this head-on, it’s hard to name any. I know Kant talked about international relations, but I haven’t read the source material itself. I think Kymlicka talked a little about it too.

Who else? Help me out, fellow philosophy nerds.

New Salon Column
October 2, 2010

This went up yesterday. It’s basically an attack on arguments for public policy—but specifically taxation—that put a high premium on notions of what people earn and deserve as central to justice. I do this adapting certain arguments from John Rawls and Peter Unger, the latter of whom originally presented what I turned into the kayak thought experiment in his book Living High, and Letting Die. You should read that book! And also my column!

Just for kicks, you could also check out this weird and confusing rebuttal from Roberty Stacy McCain’s sidekick, Smitty. In it, Smitty:

  • Makes several claims about my beliefs that are either irrelevant (I’m pro-choice), flatly untrue (I don’t believe that it’s immoral for rich people to be rich, nor do I think that “equality of opportunity is meaningless”), or both.
  • Condemns abortion (a legal procedure) and then turns around and adopts a baffling sort of legal-realism-on-crack, in which someone deserves something as long as they didn’t violate the law to acquire it.
  • Implies that my entire argument was dictated to me by my parents and, weirdly enough, Rousseau. (Evidently, Smitty believes that people in Rousseau’s state of nature are subject to a progressive income tax.)
  • And, lastly, gives this as the moral case against progressive taxation: “The moral case for tax cuts is that honest people don’t spend money they lack.” Which I’ll admit I found more than a little mystifying.

Smitty’s post was actually kind of a bummer, because I’m interested in hearing some more sober, coherent rebuttals. I know I’m taking a minority view here, and that a lot of really smart people disagree. But to the extent that Smitty provided anything useful or instructive, I think it was a lesson in the perils of adopting an attitude in which anyone who presents a competing conception of justice is evil or stupid, and just wants to confuse you with his lies. It blinds you to the actual arguments they’re making, and your withering contempt for them obstructs your own ability to persuade. So in the end, nobody really learns anything.

In conclusion: “Smitty” is a fun name to say out loud. Smitty.

The Myth of the Non-Ideological Presidency
August 26, 2010

I’m traveling to DC this weekend, so further Nietzsche blogging will probably be on hold for a day or so—but in the mean time, here’s my Salon column for this week.

“It’s true that Obama often spoke in transformational terms about the practice of politics,” Scheiber writes. “But if you listened to the way he and his campaign discussed policy, it was always clear that they preferred a relatively pragmatic, non-ideological approach to some sweeping progressive vision.”

The offending word here is “non-ideological.” This isn’t the first time someone has used that term to characterize either Obama or his team: Scheiber did it himself in 2008’s “The Audacity of Data,” and others have pointed to the president’s supposed lack of ideology as both one of his greatest strengths and one of his fatal weaknesses.

But to describe anyone as non-ideological is nonsense. Data is non-ideological. Inanimate objects are non-ideological. People, however, are ideological creatures.

Bonus trivia from the piece: Obama is a Nietzsche fan! And a Sartre fan. If I were a paranoid social conservative, I’d be way more freaked out by that than all these “secret Muslim” rumors.

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Nobody’s Saying Muslims Don’t Have the Right to Build a Mosque Near Ground Zero
August 19, 2010

Except, that is, for half of everybody.

There’s a lot to pick apart in this poll—for example, you could point out that whether or not Muslims have the legal right to build a Mosque near Ground Zero has nothing to do with current plans to build an Islamic Cultural Center. But I think the more salient point is regarding what this says about how a lot of Americans view constitutional issues.

There is no debate to be had over whether or not Imam Rauf and co. have a constitutional right to build Park51. They do. It is empirically, demonstrably true that they do.

It is not empirically true that they have a right in the moral or metaphysical sense to build Park51, because that is not the sort of thing that can be empirically verified. (Metaethical naturalists might argue that it can be empirically proven, to which I verified: Then do so.) That doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily wrong to say that they have the right. I believe they do, and I would hope that the vast majority of people who live in a liberal democratic society and also believe that rights exist in the first place would agree with me. But giving a proof of that gets into some thorny, potentially unanswerable ethical questions, whereas a proof answering the constitutional question would be irrefutable and consist of one step, which reads: “Read the goddamn document.”

My point being that if you think that Park51 doesn’t have a constitutional right to exist, then you really have no idea what the constitutional angle is on this. In which case, the only way you can give an answer besides “I don’t know” is by substituting your own moral intuitions for the actual letter of the law.

This is the sort of widespread backwards thinking on legal issues that the Onion lampooned brilliantly awhile back. And if you want another example from today’s news, check out Laura Schlessinger complaining that private individuals and companies violate her first amendment rights when they aren’t sufficiently indulgent of her racist tirades.

(Aside: I know it’s way too easy to pick on Sarah Palin, but compare her full-throated defense of Schlessinger to her previous well-documented condemnations of the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Evidently when brown people construct benign outreach centers too close to the sites of national tragedies it shows an unfortunate lack of sensitivity, but when a white person spouts racial epithets on a popular radio program she’s just exercising her rights and anyone who takes issue with that needs to man up.)

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In Which I Reveal a Hidden Conservative Streak
July 16, 2010

In order to understand what I mean when I say “ethically dubious” in my previous post, I think you’ve got to understand a bit about where I come from when it comes to political philosophy. One small way in which I could be said to have an old-fashioned conservative’s disposition is that I place a great deal of emphasis on stuff like personal responsibility and communitarian obligation. I don’t see this as being at all in contradiction to my fairly orthodox liberal progressive politics; instead, I think it complements it. Liberal democracy, I would argue, should do everything it can to account for and counter human selfishness and venality, but it fundamentally doesn’t work properly unless we expect the average citizen to feel a certain amount of obligation towards his fellow man.

Just as I’ve argued before that our rights expand with the government’s ability to defend and nurture them, I also think individual responsibility grows with the individual’s ability to discharge it. So to connect that back to blogging, the larger an audience you command, the greater your responsibility to produce something good—not just aesthetically, but ethically.

That may sound sort of limiting, but I don’t think it is. Goodness, after all, can be found in a lot of things—I’m inclined to side with John Gardner’s belief, for example, that all good literature is more or less an ethically good proposition.

But the real point is that if we have a responsibility to do right by others, then first we need to figure out what “right,” given one’s present circumstance, even is. That’s not easy; in fact, it’s mind-bogglingly difficult. And the reason why I make such a big deal out of interrogating the ethical dimension of something as seemingly innocuous as, say, writing an autobiographical blog post is because that’s something new and complicated that I believe deserves a lot of thought and open debate.

(If this all, by the way, seems like a way of setting up unreasonably high moral standards that no human being could possibly fulfill satisfactorily, I’d happily concede that. But it seems to me that law is the place for reasonable standards, and philosophy is the place for ideal standards. I haven’t yet to hear of the ethical system that is somehow convenient without being deeply anemic.)

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July 14, 2010

President Barack Obama talks with White House ...
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Steve Clemons is one of my favorite commentators on matters of foreign policy, but, as with many brilliant IR wonks, I often find his thoughts on domestic politics to be rather lacking. Case in point, his scolding of White House press secretary Robert Gibbs for conceding the obvious: that the Democrats might very well lose the House in November.

Clemons fails to acknowledge that by ratcheting down expectations, Gibbs is trying to head off the PR catastrophe for the Democrats if the GOP does seize the House. If Democrats can honestly claim that this is something they anticipated, and is not, in fact, some kind of enormous, unexpected coup, then it will soften the blow a little bit, and potentially blunt some of the Republican momentum.

More to the point, the White House needs the liberal base of the Democratic Party to realize just how likely a possibility Republican control of the House actually is. If that happens, then the left’s legislative agenda could conceivably come to a dead stop for the next two years. Right now, quite a few liberal activists are disappointed with what Obama has been able to accomplish, and as a result they’ve been less than totally onboard with this election. Gibbs is telling them: Get to work, or else this could get a whole lot worse.

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New Salon Column
July 13, 2010

Continuing the trend from yesterday’s post of pissing off my natural allies (in that case, the NYC new media scene that has been relatively kind to me), this week’s Salon column is all about how the American left is weak because we (they) never really got around to formulating a coherent set of first principles.

To which I would only add: Wakka-wakka!

If, on the off chance, you actually liked the column, then be a sweetheart on this fine Tumblr Tuesday and recommend me.

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One More Thought For Rick Barber
July 10, 2010

Since the man communes with the spirits of our founding fathers and seems to think there’s a linear inverse correlation between the size of a government and the individual liberty of its citizens, he should ask Jefferson, Adams, Washington et. al. why they ditched the Articles of Confederation. Considering how much weaker the federal government was under the Articles—and therefore how much more sweet, sweet liberty everyone had—I’m at a loss to explain why the founders scrapped that model and held a Constitutional Convention.

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