Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Monday, January 31, 2005
I suspect I have precious few readers left after neglecting them so these past weeks. Off to London now, so I can't promise anything short term. But you never know. So don't go away forever.

And yes, it's wonderful the election went off better than expected. I think that's about the right tone. Neither triumphalism nor carping seems appropriate.

Thursday, January 27, 2005
That said, I wonder whether Rabbi Lapin has read Nobel Prize-winner Isaac Bashevis Singer's celebrated novel, The Family Moskat. If you've read pretty much any Singer, you know the drill: the hero will be the author's YMNUM (Young Man Not Unlike Myself) who is shy, intellectual, fickle, terrified of commitment, and (rather implausibly) a babe magnet. I'm reading Moskat now, and what surprises me isn't that the hero is both fickle and sexually voracious, but that practically everyone in the novel is carrying on an adulterous affair or contemplating doing so. If it weren't for rabbis and the high-school philosophizing, I'd feel like I was reading a John Updike novel.

Meanwhile Rabbi Daniel Lapin wins the Gregg Easterbrook award.

Let's see if I can follow this. Lapin (himself Jewish, and a rabbi) criticizes Jewish entertainers for being (to use Leon Wieseltier's words, not mine or Lapin's) "objectively anti-Semitic" in depicting Jews as depraved, sexually and otherwise. This, he says, only encourages anti-Semitism by giving Jew-haters some objective facts on which to hang their hateful hats.

So critics of Rabbi Lapin attack him for being "objectively anti-Semitic" for saying (as anti-Semites do) that Jews are cultural degenerates.

Wow. Doesn't leave much room for actual discussion anymore, does it?

Well, Steve Sailer and Tommy Franks will certainly be pleased: Doug Feith quits.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005
Work's been busy, so I know I'm late to the party on this one, but Larry Summers is rapidly turning into one of my heroes.

Friday, January 14, 2005
Well, I just lost a huge amount of work explaining the Social Security crisis. If I say so myself, the piece was absolutely brilliant, resolving all contradictions, clarifying all ambiguities, exposing all distortions and elucidating the proper solution to all problems. And it was large enough to fit in Blogger's theoretically infinite margin! But it vanished in a puff of smoke when Internet Explorer crashed, so I'm going to go home, calm down, and attempt to recreate it when I'm feeling less absolutely enraged.


This week's parshah is Bo, and it's a doozy: the end of the ten plagues and the beginning of the Exodus. Lot's of fun stuff.

Among other things, the parshah is responsible for one of the old Sunday school chestnuts: how could God punish the Egyptians for refusing to let Israel go if God hardened Pharaoh's heart in the first place? Doesn't that make it all God's fault? How is that fair?

I've written about this before, but I thought I'd repeat myself, hopefully more tersely this time, because I still think my solution to this particular conundrum is satisfying.

For the first few plagues, Pharaoh resists letting the Israelites go because he wants to keep them: they do useful work, letting them go would mean losing face, etc. Indeed, at first he even disbelieves that he's really facing a power capable of forcing his hand; the magicians, after all, can perform equally impressive miracles (or so it seems). And text relates that Pharaoh hardened his heart - girded himself to resist, so that he would prevail in this contest.

But over time it becomes clear that he is facing a power more awesome than he has ever reckoned with, more awesome than he can fully comprehend. He knows, by the time the last three plagues come around, that he is facing the God that Moses has announced, the Creator of Heaven and Earth.

He responds by negotiating. Okay: you can take a day off for worship, but you can't leave Egypt. Okay: you can go, but you can't take their children. Okay: you can go, but you can't take your cattle. These are attempts to limit to sovereignty of God, to save face by elevating Pharaoh to the status of a relative equal. If the Israelites can worship their God, but not leave Egypt, then Pharaoh is still lord in Egypt, and God is lord elsewhere; allowing the Israelites a day to worship is like offering God an embassy on Egyptian territory. If the Israelites cannot take their children, then this experience of the Divine will die with this generation; God's presence will have come and gone, and Pharaoh will remain as lord of the Earth, if not of Heaven. If the Israelites cannot take their cattle, then Pharaoh will be conceding that he is not lord of God's people, that God is master of their souls, but Pharaoh is still the lord of the material world. These are all strategies to salvage the purportedly divine dignity of Pharaoh: okay, you, God, may be Lord, but I'm also a lord, also a sovereign, someone to negotiate with not someone to rule absolutely.

God does not negotiate, however. Pharaoh is not given an opportunity to save face by limiting God's demands. God, in effect, says to Pharaoh: if I am God, then you are not Pharaoh, the deified Man, but only a man, one of my subjects; and I am indeed God.

So what, in this context, does it mean to say that God hardened Pharaoh's heart? It means that Pharaoh's motivation changed. At first, he did not understand the power he faced, and sought to keep the Israelites for selfish reasons. But at the end, when he knows what kind of entity he is up against, when he knows what he must do, and what the consequences will be of resistance, he resists anyway. He resists no longer because he wants to keep the Israelites; he resists out of a perverse desire to oppose God, because the only way he can still be Pharaoh and retain his quasi-divine dignity is to defy God in the teeth of the most terrible promised retribution. Which, of course, comes, with the death of his own firstborn son, the symbolic end of his continuity through time on Earth, as Pharaoh sought to symbolically limit God's tenure on earth by keeping the Israelite children in Egypt.

I think it's worth noting in this regard that the first lines of the parshah are a bit peculiar. They don't say, "go tell Pharaoh to let my people go - and if he doesn't, then he's going to get it!" They say: "go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants, that I might show these my signs before him; and that you may tell in the ears of your son and of your son's son what things I have done in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord." The purpose of the visit is to make it clear, to Egypt and to Israel, that God is the Lord, and that He is present on Earth. It is to expose the spurious and hollow nature of a dignity of opposition to God for the sake of opposition, for the sake of embodying a denial of God's sovereignty, and it is to establish, through the continuity of Israel as a family and a nation, the continuity of that sovereignty through time.

I've been busy at work, so I somehow missed that my blog on Abbas' election from the beginning of the week didn't get published. Well, it's up now, for what it's worth.

Monday, January 10, 2005
So, in what must surely be seen around the world as a shocking upset, Mahmoud Abbas has been duly elected to lead the Palestinian Authority. A journalist acquaintance from my synagogue once commented that Yasser Arafat was unquestionably the most legitimate ruler in the Arab world: the only one with anything resembling wide popular support, not only in his own polity but across the Arab world, and the only won to have won something like a real election. Mahmoud Abbas has an even greater claim to legitimacy, having won a reasonably free and fair election and having achieved his pre-election status as sole serious candidate through ordinary diplomacy rather than the diplomacy of the Kalashnikov. It will be interesting to see what he does with that legitimacy, and how Israel deals with the fact that they now face a Palestinian leader with serious democratic credentials. Abbas has called Natan Sharansky's (and, for that matter, the Bush Administration's) bluff.

I don't want to be misunderstood: there is a lot more to democracy than holding a single election. The Palestinian areas still suffer from outrageous levels of corruption, the thorough politicization of their economic life, rampant gangsterism, the utter lack of anything like a public administration or basic public services, no semblance of a liberal culture, etc. But the premise of the transformationists in the Bush Administration, and of the liberal right-wing opposition to Sharon in Israel (folks like the "new" Netanyahu, or more than anyone the aforementioned Sharansky) has been that democratic forms will nurture democratic cultures, and democratic cultures will be inclined to solve the ultimately tractable conflicts of the Middle East in a peaceful manner. In that sense, unquestionably it seems to me, Abbas has called their bluff.

So who is Mahmoud Abbas? And what is he going to do? My own feelings fall somewhere between the hopeful tone of this piece by Bret Stephens (no soft-headed peacenik, I might note) and this highly pessimistic piece from a few days ago by Charles Krauthammer. Abbas has actually, I think, been quite clear. He is opposed to the intifadeh, not on the grounds that terrorism is inherently wrong or evil, but on the grounds that it has failed, massively. But he has quite clearly opposed it, quite clearly called for some kind of settlement, for something more than a cease-fire. Krauthammer and others who are saying that Abbas has positioned himself no differently from Yasser Arafat are considerably distorting the picture. Yasser Arafat was the operational leader as well as the symbol of one of the world's most notorious terrorist groups. He never separated himself from the practice of terror; indeed, he continued to orchestrate a terror aparatus from his post-Oslo perch as head of the Palestinian quasi-state. He was overwhelmingly responsible for the corruption of the Palestinian Authority and the immiseration of the Palestinian Arab people. None of these things are true of Abbas. Abbas does not run the various terrorist groups in the P.A. territories, nor does he have Arafat's purse to bribe those he does not control. He is calling for an end to corruption, rather than embodying its worst excesses. He is a vast change from Arafat, and there is reason for hope in Jerusalem and in Washington.

But. Abbas has also been clear about a few other things. He has been abundantly clear that he is not going to fight a civil war between Palestinian Arab factions. He has called for the disarmament of the various militias and terrorist groups, but he has explicitly said several times that he will not disarm them by force. And while he has said - in Arabic - that it is time to end the intifadeh, he has not told his people what a settlement of the conflict means - that Israel will never accept a negotiated end to its own existence, and hence there will be no return to sovereign Israeli territory after such a settlement. Abbas knows that what Barak offered at Taba is more than Israel will give now, and just about all that Israel could ever consider agreeing to. But he has not said that to his people.

So: we know where Abbas stands, pretty well, but we don't know how he will - or can - respond to a challenge from the rejectionists within the Palestinian Arab camp. That is to say: we don't know whether he can be intimidated by the gunmen.

I always resisted talking this way about Arafat, because Arafat was a known quantity, and the leopard does not change his spots. I opposed Oslo from the beginning precisely because I thought empowering Arafat without requiring him to explicitly limit his own claims and ambitions (as Oslo did not) was utter folly. Consistently, throughout his career, Arafat chose the path of revolutionary leadership and the fomenting of chaos over the path of statesmanship and state-building.

But I also resisted talking this way because I know how the logic leads. If Abbas is weak, but willing, ultimately, to deal with Israel and make peace if he can get into a stronger position, then friends of peace in Israel and elsewhere will want to strengthen him. They will try to do this by giving him a chance to prove himself ready to fight terror, and if he does not, they will give him another chance. That's precisely how Israelis talked themselves into continuing to deal with Arafat after he proved within the first year of Oslo that he was absolutely untrustworthy: they kept reminding themselves that they needed a deal, that only Arafat could deliver, and that the alternative to Arafat was either Hamas or chaos. That's a logic that leads only to disaster, and I'm not going to follow it.

Even if Abbas is sincere about wanting a settlement, if he can't deliver then there is little Israel or anyone else can do to build him up. That's the funny thing about facing something that resembles a democracy: Abbas' strength will come from his people and their support, not from Israel or the U.S. and their support.

So how should Israel respond? Israel should respond by engaging Abbas, but also by continuing the unilateral withdrawal. The whole point of the unilateral moves initiated by Sharon do not include the existence of someone to talk to on the other side. The primary premise is: that if Israel does not disengage from the Palestinians then the Palestinians and the world community will shift inevitably away from a two-state solution and towards a one-state solution that would be majority-Arab. (The secondary premises are: that the settlements have less of a security rationale than they used to, and so can be safely surrendered; that they are an enormous drain on the country's resources and weaken the country's military readiness; that, if once perhaps they were a useful bargaining chip that brought the Palestinians to the table, now they do nothing but feed extremism and rejectionism as well as blackening Israel's image abroad; and - most important - that Israel's negotiating position vis-a-vis the Palestinians is always weak if the Palestinians know that Israel needs a deal and has no alternative, so unilateral separation is a way of cutting the Gordian knot.) These premises all obtain regardless of Abbas' ultimate character. So Sharon should proceed.

What Abbas will control by his behavior is not Israel's pace of separation by removing settlements and redeploying the IDF, but rather whether the IDF continues to operate in territories he controls (Israel will not surrender the right to pursue terrorists or retaliate for their attacks); whether his quasi-state gets access to the Israeli economy and is able to develop economic ties beyond its immediate neighbors; the character and details of the ultimate border, water-sharing and other arrangements between Israel and what would become a Palestinian State - all the things that matter if he actually cares about building a state and giving his people a better life and control over their lives.

But Israel should not kid itself that it has a win-win situation on its hands. Abbas is, as I said, a democratically-elected leader. Suppose terrorism continues, and Abbas condemns that terrorism (and is genuinely free from responsibility for it in the sense that he keeps his distance from the groups that plan and commit atrocities) but also condemns Israeli "state terrorism" and calls for an international force to separate Israeli and Palestinian. Israel will have a harder time opposing that call now than before - after all: Abbas is the legitimate, duly-elected leader of his people, and the world community can hardly ignore a call for help. Israel may wind up practically losing their right to hot pursuit, as well as losing some of their attempts to achieve a favorable territorial position in the interim (after a withdrawal but before a final deal) if, say, Tony Blair offers to send troops to region on condition that Israel withdraws to the Green Line.

Similarly, Israel's vulnerability to the charge that it is a "racist" state may well increase in the short term, whether or not it withdraws from settlements with alacrity. Abbas is going to tour the world and say, basically, that Israeli unilateralism is a way of positioning Israel to indefinitely defer the final-status questions of sovereignty, of Jerusalem and of the "right of return" and that the Palestinian quasi-state he's been left with is deliberately too weak and too dependent to ever be able to deliver what Israel demands. He will call on the nations of Europe to pressure Israel to deliver a just peace, and he will have a stronger hand precisely because he is democratically elected and not involved in the terror apparatus.

And I'm not sure Israel is helping its case by floating some of its more "interesting" peace proposals. You know which ones I'm talking about: getting Egypt to give Gaza some land from the Sinai, in exchange for free passage across Israel to Jordan; transferring the triangle region in the Galillee to a Palestinian state in exchange for the major settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria that would be annexed to Israel; that sort of thing. Israel is on the one hand getting itself all excited about ideas that depend on a lot of moving parts to work (has anyone gotten positive feedback from Egypt on giving on chunk of the Sinai away, may I ask? wouldn't that be a good thing to get before you start mouthing off in public?) and, more ominously, reinforcing the charge that it is a "racist" state by suggesting that Israeli *citizens* who are Arab might be transferred to a Palestinian state. Doesn't someone have to ask their permission first? I mean, couldn't these people at least talk about holding binding plebescites in the triangle and in the settlement blocs to determine their ultimate disposition, rather than treating Arabs as chattel whose title is a matter to be negotiated?

But that's ultimately a detail; none of these proposals are coming directly from the Israeli government, and you can't control what freelancers say (especially in Israel, where respect for the government as the sole legitimate organ for statesmanship is at a dangerous low on both the right and the left). The important fact for setting expectations is that the overwhelming majority of Palestinian Arabs - not only in the territories but in Israel proper - reject the justice of the existence of a Jewish state. Most Arabs would probably say they are perfectly willing to live with Jews as fellow citizens of a bi-national state; that's the mainstream position. The extremes - which are non-negligible minorities - on one side accept the necessity of a two-state solution and on the other believe that the Jews should be pushed into the sea. None of this should be surprising to anyone. But that balance of opinion suggests that a democratically elected Palestinian leadership is going to be no more accommodating of reality - the reality that Israel will not agree to dismantle itself and put itself out of existence - than a Palestinian strongman of the old type.

I'm not suggesting that Israel is going to be worse off facing Abbas than she was before. I'm just saying that the most optimistic script - that democratic elections are win-win for everyone and will pave the way for a two-state solution and peace - is unrealistic. Democracy means rule by the people. The Palestinian Arab people do not accept Israel's legitimacy. So whatever else happens and however much progress is possible, there isn't going to be *peace* any time soon.

But things could get better. They've been getting better for a while now, since Operation Defensive Shield. So here's to things getting better, and we'll see where that leads.

Friday, January 07, 2005
Mr. Goldberg, the honor is all mine. Thanks for the link and the kind words.

Small follow-up to the post, though: I note that I say up top that Pragmatism is appealing because it appears to me to describe my own - and many other people's - real way of thinking. I appear to contradict myself mid-piece by saying that it may be "impossible" to think like a pragmatist. Let me clarify.

Pragmatism does indeed sound like a good description of how I think I think, and how I think many other people think. But it may not be possible to be a good, honest Pragmatist about one's own beliefs and actually hold those beliefs in the manner that you pragmatically ought. If you actually believe something, it's true for you. If you will yourself to believe something, or conduct yourself as if you believe something, do you really believe it? Is it pragmatically true for you?

One (to me unappealing) way out of this bind is to take a kind of Straussian reverse-Plato turn, as follows. The elect know that much of what we believe is true (our souls are immortal, we are individuals with rights) is only true pragmatically, not Platonically - that is to say, it's true because it works, not because it's True in some absolute sense unrelated to human psychology. But most people can't follow this logic; to them, if something isn't True then it's, like, not true. So, being pragmatists, the elect behave as if what is true is True, and thereby preserve morality, order, etc. Why this is Straussian is obvious; noble lie and all that. It's reverse-Platonism because, contra Plato, the pragmatic elect knows that there are no Forms, there is no Truth from which we can deduce anything. Outside of the cave it's dark, not sunny.

I find this line of thinking profoundly unappealing, as I said. But I don't think it's an uncommon way of thinking among smart people.

I rise to defend Pragmatism from Jonah Goldberg's vicious, unwarranted and unprovoked attack!

Well, not exactly. The column's not bad at all, and I agree with it on many points. It is a reasonable critique of something. But is it a critique of Pragmatism?

Before I get into that, let me quibble with his first quibble. "Pragmatism" is always used as a positive? Yes - of people you disagree with or have to negotiate with. But was National Review trumpeting, 50 years ago, a "pragmatic" response to the Communist menace? Did - do - so many Republicans love Reagan because of his "pragmatism"? Or pick someone from the other side of the aisle - did Russ Feingold win reelection (on the backs of many Bush voters) because Wisconsinites admired his pragmatism? Did Paul Wellstone elicit such affection because of his pragmatism? Heck, do people admire John McCain for his pragmatism? Maybe he is a pragmatist - but is that why people like him?

In this ordinary-speech context, the opposite of "pragmatic" is "principled" - another positive-association word. If you want negative associations with "pragmatic" they are "unprincipled", "political", "compromising" or "mercenary." People who liked Bill Clinton praised his pragmatism. Remember what people who didn't like him thought of that character trait?

Next, I'm going to quibble with his conclusion and how it relates to his premise. I agree with him that free speech has gone off the rails; he's absolutely right that we now think of it as freedom of expression, and hence are more interested in protecting obnoxious or bizarre speech rather than protecting the freedom to disseminate political arguments. But it's not at all obvious to me that this has anything to do with Pragmatism. If I can compress his argument: the Pragmatists drained us of belief in Truth, and once we stopped believing in Truth we no longer could make distinctions, and once we could no longer make distinctions all hell (also known as the 1960s) broke loose. And this explains McCain-Feingold . . . how? I suppose because a degenerate people like ourselves will no longer jealously defend our ancient liberties. We're a long way from Pragmatism by now, and a long way from an interesting argument.

But Pragmatism is an interesting thing to argue about, and a topical one.

So: to the meat of the matter. Richard Posner and Louis Menand, each in their own way, have sown a great deal of confusion about Pragmatism. Mind you, they've each written great books and said very interesting things in the process. But Posner has conflated Pragmatism with Utilitarianism (something Goldberg does as well) while Menand may have misunderstood the concept entirely.

Pragmatism is ultimately a theory of knowledge. It's central contention is that we know something about an entity if we can distinguish it from other entities. Knowledge isn't about defining but about categorizing; to that extent, Pragmatists are just a variety of Aristotelians, and their enemy is Platonism. But Pragmatism goes further, arguing that knowledge isn't something you have at all, but something you demonstrate. Indeed, for a Pragmatist the meaning of any statement, in fact, is limited to the consequences of that statement in terms of action.

I find this concept very appealing - indeed, more appealing than other explanations for what knowledge is or where meaning comes from. I understand that Pragmatism is out of favor with cognitive scientists; apparently, the brain doesn't work the way a Pragmatist epistemology suggests it might. But it still is a very persuasive account to me of how I think. Pragmatism in this sense provides good warrant for, for example, reasoning to a premise from a conclusion, which is something I do a lot very consciously and a lot of people who are wedded to a more deductive, Platonic model claim they don't do but, in my opinion, do all the time behind the scenes. In any event, when I tell people I'm a Pragmatist, this is what I mean. I don't mean that compromise is always the best policy, or that nothing is worth dying for, or whatever. I mean that knowledge means sorting one thing from another, and meaning is something demonstrated through action.

But the consequences of Pragmatism in this sense can be disturbing, and these disturbing consequences will return us to one of Goldberg's main points. I'll give you an example of what I mean. What is science? Most people would say that science is the repository of our knowledge about the empirical world. Or they would say that science is the method by which we accumulate and organize that knowledge. Or they would say that science is the opposite of magic or religion - a way of understanding the world that limits itself to the natural. Or something.

Very few people would say what a Pragmatist would say. A Pragmatist would say that science is a method of making relatively accurate predictions about the material world (relative, that is, to other methods). Science is not an ideology (a way of understanding the world), nor is it a body of knowledge. Science, like everything else to a Pragmatist, is what it is good for. What science is good for is predicting the future.

Phrased this way, it's easy to see that Pragmatism is, in fact, far more radical than Goldberg is giving it credit for. Goldberg's complaints about Pragmatism as practiced by Oliver Wendell Holmes' jurisprudence (and since Holmes rejected the label, it's rather questionable that Menand calls him a Pragmatist) are mostly complaints about Utilitarianism, which is also the main reason to object to Posner's jurisprudence. Goldberg argues that grounding everything in efficiency leaves people with no grounds for morality. But Pragmatism isn't about grounding everything in some utility-maximizing equation. Pragmatism argues that the meaning of statements resides in their utility; it doesn't argue (necessarily) that the purpose of politics or law is the maximization of general utility.

Here I think it's worth a detour to someone who actually coined the term Pragmatism - William James. James is of towering importance historically as one of the founders of the discipline of psychology. And his philosophical work, his philosophy of Pragmatism was itself very psychological in tenor. What's particularly interesting about him to many of his admirers is that his philosophy is, in large part, an attempt to "make space" for religion and religious claims in an age of science. Pragmatism, as I've said, argues that the meaning of statements resides in their utility. So if, for example, belief in the eternity of the soul pragmatically enables you to get up in the morning, go to work, save for the future, behave morally, and vote Republican, then the doctrine of a life after death is pragmatically true for you. It's meaning is not a scientific one; you're not actually predicting that you will be around after death, not in any way that could be empirically tested. But that doesn't make it meaningless.

This line of thinking has a definite appeal to most people who are not wedded to a kind of tub-thumping atheism or an especially blinkered religious literalism. But it may be entirely specious. It's not obvious to me that one can actually think like a Pragmatist. That is to say: once you are conscious that your beliefs are only pragmatically true, as opposed to Platonically, capital-T true, do those beliefs still work? Is it pragmatic to believe pragmatically in the eternity of one's soul, or is it pragmatically necessary to believe such things to be Platonically true?

Let's look at the same kind of question on the political level. A variety of political ideologies have vied for modern man's allegiance. We are told, among other things, that we are individuals with inalienable rights; that we are equal citizens of a Republic of which We the People, collectively, are sovereign; and that we belong to a nation that has an organic identity in space and time. All of these entities - individuals, rights, people, sovereign, nation - are reified concepts. They are not things; they are beliefs that we treat linguistically as things.

And science, certainly, poses serious questions about the empirical reality of any of these things. We know something about how our minds work and while the individual self may be an impregnable fortress, the siege engines are arrayed around it right now to test its impregnability. And even if the self exists, we know enough already about genetics and neurochemistry to undermine our faith in a sovereign, freely-willed self. The other concepts are even weaker; we know enough about how politics works in our own Republic and elsewhere, and how historically-bound a concept like "nation" is, to know that the sovereignty of the people and the organic nature of a nation are fictions, not facts. As for rights, Matthew Arnold pointed out well over a century ago that such things manifestly cannot exist; they are, rather, merely the flip side of duties and obligations, nothing inalienable about them.

So if these concepts - individuals, rights, the people, the nation - are real they are only pragmatically real. They have meaning inasmuch as people behave as if they were true, inasmuch as people's behavior can only be adequately explained by reference to these beliefs.

And again, the same objection obtains. Is it pragmatically true that it is only pragmatically true that we are rights-bearing individuals? Or is it pragmatically true that it is Platonically true that we are rights-bearing individuals? Does the notion that we are rights-bearing individuals still have the power to explain things - do people still behave as if we are rights-bearing individuals - once we are aware (or have concluded) that we only adhere to the notion pragmatically?

This is what brings us back to Goldberg's point. You don't have to be a vulgar utilitarian to be a Pragmatist; that is to say: you don't have to say, "we execute murderers because that deters murder, and murder is inefficient," to keep your membership in the Pragmatists' Union. You can say, for example, something like the following. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish and short, and that's where we'd be if murder were rampant. We don't want that. Executing murderers conveys the message that murder is wrong, and this belief - that murder is wrong - prevents people from committing murder. If we don't execute murderers, people will come to question whether murder is really wrong. Hence we must continue to execute murderers.

This account sounds like a principled account of why we have capital punishment. But it isn't. A truly principled account goes like this: murder is wrong because we are all made in the image of God/it denies us our inalienable right to life/etc. A murder must be expiated, and the only possible expiation that is proportionate to the crime is for the murderer to lose his life. Hence, murderers must be executed.

You see the difference? Neither account is vulgarly utilitarian. But the latter account presumes that the moral code - murder is wrong; blood must be paid with blood - exists outside of society and its needs. The former is psychological; it justifies the moral code pragmatically, as something true inasmuch as it it has consequences in human behavior. The latter is, in effect, an account of the belief that the former account holds is useful to believe and hence pragmatically true.

I'm frankly not sure that Goldberg isn't, deep down, a Pragmatist to a considerable degree. The political philosophers he likes - Burke, for example - are extremely congenial to a Pragmatist. His arguments tend to be pragmatic - indeed, the argument of his essay on Pragmatism is pragmatic - in that he's ultimately concerned with the consequences of our beliefs rather than their Platonic truth-value. This is one of the reasons I find the Pragmatist account so appealing: it corresponds to how even many people who vehemently reject Pragmatism seem, to me, to actually think.

Thursday, January 06, 2005
Just a quick question: does anyone seriously think Gonzales won't be confirmed as AG? They need 60 Senators to end debate. There are 55 GOP Senators; nothing's been said that remotely suggests they won't vote together. Ken Salazar has already given his support to Gonzales. So they need 4 more Democrats. Does anyone think Joe Lieberman would join a filibuster? Evan Bayh? Tim Johnson? Mary Landrieu? Ben Nelson? Or anyone vulnerable in 2006?

The Democrats deserve an opportunity to air and debate the issue of the memos. It's frankly a good thing for the country to hear the Administration's defense of same. But Bush wouldn't be putting Gonzales up for Attorney General if he thought this issue could sink him politically. Isn't this just the process at work, rather than a situation where the nominee is seriously at risk?

Politically, I feel like Ashcroft was in a tougher spot 4 years ago than Gonzales is now.

Ask China to invade North Korea and install a less-odious regime?

Here's my immediate reaction to the very suggestion: it is more proof that China is winning the diplomatic game in Asia. As I've argued before, our problem with the situation in North Korea is that every possible action by the United States strengthens China. If we appease North Korea, that tells Japan and South Korea that either America no longer considers North Korea a threat (in which case why does South Korea in particular need the alliance with us?) or that we're unwilling to confront the threat (in which case what good is the alliance to either country?). Either conclusion strengthens the argument that their most important relationship is not with the U.S. but with China. If we take an aggressive line against North Korea, we alarm South Korea, who is most likely to suffer if the situation ultimately deteriorates into a shooting war. South Korea would certainly turn against America if attacked by North Korea in response to an unprovoked American attack on the North; it would also logically tilt towards China out of self protection if America merely ramped up its hostility to the North. So either appeasement or confrontation helps China and hurts America's position in Northeast Asia. And Southeast Asian allies are likely to draw similar conclusions.

Asking China to invade North Korea would even more profoundly enhance China's stature at America's expense - whether China said yes or no! If China agreed, it would surely demand something in return from America - a reaffirmation of our support for reunification with Taiwan, or an end to arms sales to the island, or some other gesture of strong support for the Chinese regime and its claims to the "three T's" - Taiwan, Tibet and east Turkestan. And the evidence would be clear for the rest of Asia to read: America cannot manage problems in the region without Chinese help, and is willing to give China what China wants to get that help.

If China said no, meanwhile, the message would be equally clear: America can't manage things without Chinese help. And China has the ability to say "no" to America! Moreover, China would have made a stand for state sovereignty and against the American program of regime change in states it doesn't like. That would make China a new rallying point for all countries worried about American meddling - not only deeply odious regimes like North Korea's and Burma's, but also more ambiguous regimes like Indonesia that have little to fear directly from China (and would have less to fear after China pointedly refused to invade North Korea). And the question remains: is a North Korean bomb really a profound threat to Chinese interests? After all, so long as China can plausibly claim the ability to restrain North Korea from using such weapons against South Korea, the North Korean bomb is a useful tool for Finlandizing South Korea.

The biggest threat to China from a North Korean bomb is that it will prompt Japan to go nuclear. That would alarm Beijing. But using that prospect as a threat to induce China to take out the Kim regime is risky. Because if China is going to invade North Korea to remove a destabilizing nuclear threat, won't China demand that the U.S. similarly police its own "sphere of influence" to prevent any destabilizing actions?

Here's where I'm going with this. If China invaded North Korea, Taiwan would get three messages. First, they'd see that the United States now considers China a partner, rather than a rival, and hence will be likely to appease China on Taiwan as, for example, we've appeased Russia on Chechnya. This view would be exacerbated if we actually made diplomatic concessions to China on Taiwan in exchange for their invasion of North Korea. Second, they'd see that the PLA is ready and able to depose regimes that they don't like, even when these regimes have fairly substantial armed forces. Third, they'd see that the U.S. is either too overstretched militarily to undertake any new military actions itself (hence our turn to China) or simply unwilling to undertake such actions in the wake of Iraq.

So: how would Taiwan react to these three messages? Logically, they could take one of two paths. They could decide that the game is up and that the only safe course is to pursue a return to Chinese rule. That would give China a new deep-water port on Taiwan's east coast, dramatically expand China's economy, and vastly enhance Chinese prestige around the world, to the detriment of America. The alternative is that they could decide that they would have to deter China themselves now that America was no longer reliable. And that should lead to a Taiwanese effort to acquire nuclear weapons. And that would provoke a major crisis. Since the United States would just have explicitly asked China to remove a nuclearizing regime that was destabilizing the region, it would be hard to see how we could oppose a Chinese attempt to remove a Taiwanese nuclear program by force.

Finally, just one small point. We've adopted a "unilateralist" policy of regime change because supposedly the world can't come to agreement on who needs to be offed, at least not in a timely fashion. We, America, and "coalitions of the willing" composed of (mostly) democratic allies with similar interests will do a better job of policing the world. But here comes a proposal to have *another* nation - not an ally, not a democracy, not someone with whom we have clear common interests - unilaterally act to overthrow an odious regime on the grounds of its odiousness. Why on earth would we want to set such a precedent? And why should we prefer it to an attempt to get action authorized by some international body - fine, the UN, for all its own odiousness - that might bless the action with some legitimacy internationally, and act as a restraint on future unilateral action of this sort by other states? Particularly given that one objection to diplomacy on North Korea is that China would have to approve of any UN-authorized action against them, and China is the power we're outsourcing our "regime change" efforts to in this scenario!

It's depressing to think that anyone is seriously suggesting that the only way we can deal with North Korea is to ask the Chinese to invade and install a new regime. Depressing on so many levels, I don't know how to count them.