Thursday, September 23, 2004

The Poor Monkeys

[Written several weeks ago in a late-night, I-can't-sleep fury, in response to an article in the Isthmus, which is the local (Madison, Wisconsin) alternative weekly newspaper. The article detailed the ongoing torture and killing of monkeys at the Primate Center at the University of Wisconsin. Everybody in Madison knows about this, but nobody does anything about it. I never sent in the letter, because I'm a wimp.]

I was appalled by the descriptions of the tortures inflicted on monkeys in the primate research center here in Madison. Immediately, the question comes to mind: is all of this really necessary?

I am a layman and completely unqualified to judge the importance of these experiments, even if the research itself could be explained to me. Most readers of the Isthmus no doubt find themselves in a similar quandary. We are disgusted by the descriptions of the experiments, and we would very much like for them to stop. But the experts are telling us they have to continue. We both trust and distrust the experts. Despite our suspicions, we finally feel that we just don’t know enough. We have to submit to the scientists’ judgment on this issue. We decide to just put down the newspaper and try to forget that it’s happening, because it’s not going to stop anyway.

But let’s step back a minute. Let’s imagine a world where we take seriously the thought that animals, especially highly intelligent animals such as these monkeys, should not be tortured indiscriminately. We would ask, in a serious fashion, whether the center should be shut down. People would speak on the pro and the con sides. Arguments would be weighed. And the center’s existence might continue, or it might not.

Any research program that involves the use of animals, especially highly intelligent animals, has some moral down side. We all know that some research programs are more worthwhile than others. Some are critical, some are just sort of interesting. If we were to take the suffering and death of animals seriously, we would point out that some of these programs, some of the time, are not morally justified, and should stop.

So let’s ask: is this research program, conducted at our university, morally acceptable?

Of course, the individuals involved will insist that the specific procedures involved in this research program, even with all the pain and suffering they cause, are necessary as part of the growth of knowledge. No doubt stopping these experiments would have untold negative effects on human life in the future. No doubt the net effect on human suffering is negative. No doubt these animals, like animals all over the world, must suffer for the benefit of humanity. Are we going to outlaw eating meat next? The university, government, and all other institutions with a stake in the continued existence of the program will leap to defend the program with arguments like these.

In a world where we took the suffering of primates seriously, though, there would be some challenges to this thinking. Let me put forward just a couple of easy ones.

Point 1. If the Madison experiments are not morally justified, the people involved in the program will not be the ones to point this out. When and if the quality of the research deteriorates to the point that the suffering of the monkeys is not being justified, nobody involved in the program will be out front demanding that it be shut down for the sake of the animals.

The university gets grant money. The individual researchers get paid. The reviewers of the scientific proposals get paid. Also making money, directly or indirectly, because of the suffering and death of the monkeys: a university dean or two, some supervisory faculty, building and program staff, a few janitors. No doubt several scientists’ reputational futures, complete with tenure, depend on the continued existence of the program.

All of these people will be upset, to one degree or another, if the program is shut down. Together with other people, and the institutions that bind them together, they form a self-perpetuating network.

None of this is necessarily a bad thing. If the program is ethically justified, then it should continue. But let’s not pretend that the forces keeping the system going are really all about the future benefit to humanity. Let’s take seriously the reality that the program continues because programs like this take on a life of their own.

This means that if there are morally serious questions about whether the program should continue, those questions are going to have to be asked by people who are outside the program. That’s just the way institutions work. In the words of the popular book, these people know where their cheese is, and they don’t want it moved.

Even if they aren’t directly involved, every scientist who uses animals in research would find their professional lives much more difficult in a world where animal testing research programs are even occasionally shut down for moral reasons. They all have a stake in this, and none is likely to go out on a limb by condemning one of these research programs.

How many working scientists who do animal research, in the history of the world, have ever come out strongly against the continued existence of any research program that uses animals? (A serious question. Does anybody have any examples of this happening?) The animal suffering of a series of experiments can be immense, and their scientific value close to zero, but animal-using research scientists will rarely if ever speak out in favor of shutting them down.
In short, there are good reasons not to trust the moral judgments of the scientific experts, because they are among those who benefit (directly or indirectly) from the program’s existence.

Point 2. You can trust an expert – but only if they have a stake in coming to the right answer, not the easy answer.

So we can’t trust the experts. They’re the ones with the scientific judgment, but they also benefit from the center’s existence.

What then do we do?

In the real world, not much. Seriously. In the world we live in, this program is going to continue, and nobody is going to do a damn thing about it.

In a world where people took seriously the suffering and death of highly intelligent animals, it would be very easy to take steps in the right direction. We could construct mechanisms to make sure that scientists really believe that their experiments on these animals are justified by the scientific benefit.

One simple way would be like this.

We would ask our scientist friends, how many of these monkeys’ lives are worth the life of one human being? A thousand? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? A million? Pick a number, any number, but live with that number. Human life is valuable, but it is not infinitely more valuable than any other type of life. (If it is infinitely more valuable, then there is no moral problem! You can sacrifice infinite numbers of rats, monkeys, cats, and dogs just to add one minute to the life of one single human being.)

So, take your number. Let’s say a hundred thousand. That’s an incredibly large number of monkeys to sacrifice just to save the life of one person, but let’s use that number. (We could maybe use a million for cats and dogs, and ten million for rats.)

Then every monkey being tortured and killed in the city of Madison is equivalent to the torture and murder of 1/100,000th of a human being. So, to make sure that scientists are serious when they say that this experiment requires the sacrifice of this many monkeys, we will ask them to put their humans where their mouth is.

For every monkey you want to use in this experiment, we will roll some dice. In 99,999 cases out of 100,000, you can use your monkey. But in the incredibly unlikely 1 in 100,000th case, we are going to use a human being in this experiment instead. We will use exactly the same procedures on the human being that we were using on the monkey. We will keep him or her in the same cages (adjusted for size, no doubt), with exactly the same protocols. We will treat him or her exactly as we treat the monkeys. In the end, if the monkey has to be euthanized, then we do the same for the human.

Which human? No doubt justice would call for using the scientist him or herself. Or perhaps his or her thesis adviser. Maybe the professor who reviewed and approved the experiment. How about a dean?

Just imagine the ceremonies, the hoopla, as the few who died would be honored in their martyrdom for their willingness to sacrifice for the future benefit of humanity. They would join the glorious ranks of those who have died for the truth. Oh, the splendor of it all!

Imagine a world where this policy actually existed. Imagine how much more careful research scientists would be before they claimed that their work was worth the sacrifice of these monkeys’ lives. Imagine how much harder they would work to ensure that there really was no other way to advance scientific research. Imagine how much more serious the oversight committees would be.

It’s really easy to imagine that world. You can see it, can’t you? Not necessarily the world where humans are sacrificed, but the world where every scientific experiment that uses intelligent animals is subject to that kind of oversight, that kind of care, that kind of pressure to explore every possible alternative to animal testing. In that world, the horrible, horrible things reported in the Isthmus article really would only happen when they were absolutely necessary.

That’s the way the world would look if we actually gave a damn.
Wow. It's been a long time. Way too long.

So many news items, so much going on. So I'll skip them all.

The beauty of music is hard to describe. It's there, you know? It makes you want to dance, sometimes. Even a 5 year old who "doesn't like music" (like mine) can want to dance. Sometimes. If it's the right song, you know? Anyway, the world seems like a more beautiful place than usual lately. It seems like the world is huge. And it seems like I'm small and unimportant and going to die. And that that is scary but at the same time sort of OK.

I read an interview in the Onion with Stephen Fry, who is someone I admire a lot: a novelist, playwright, actor, and now the writer and director of a movie. He's really very good as an actor, and I have very much liked the novels of his I've read, too. They definitely cross lines that are not supposed to be crossed, and they do so joyfully. Whether they're brilliant literature, well, whatever, maybe not. Anyway, in the interview he said that Darwinism is the biggest change to thinking, one of them, in the history of the world. And I had heard that before, and I knew that, but it made me think of it afresh. Darwin really made people think about the world as being potentially a really mean, nasty awful place. All progress comes via death. What does Fry say? He says,

what was shocking about it was that it said "all life is struggle." It's necessary for our survival that someone is going to suffer at our expense. With most animals, there are runts who are discarded, and nature just tries again in its merciless, relentless, remorseless way. The discovery of that was profoundly shattering....

Not much of a paragraph, actually just a few sentences, to have sparked so much in my head. Maybe it wasn't that much in my head. It sure seemed like it was, though. I'm just out of practice in the deep thoughts department, what with being in real estate now and all that.

We're just people, you know? We're not masters of all we survey. We have a hard time even being "masters of our domain," let alone the world. The people who think they can rule everything and have everything figured out -- whether they call themselves "political realists" or "neocons" or "Wilsonian democrats" or "Islamic jihadists" -- mostly what they manage to do is get a lot of people killed for their ideas. Not that there aren't ideas worth dying for. And not that ideas aren't important. What was I saying?

I was saying this, I think: chutzpah kills. That's a bumper sticker for you. Sometimes chutzpah kills the chutzpah-er, but mostly it gets other people killed. A little modesty about one's ability to understand and control the world is a damned good idea.

Maybe political realists would agree with what I'm saying. But I think I'm saying it almost from a more John Howard Yoder type of viewpoint. Yoder was a Christian pacifist. He had a lot of arguments against war. His book "Nevertheless" addresses pretty much every pro-war a person can make, and tries to show how all of them are problematic or false in their own way. I don't know if Yoder says this, but this is my "Nevertheless" to the save-the-worlders: We do not know enough, and we do not control enough, to make things come out right with war. War only gets people killed. And most of the people who get killed didn't have anything to say about whether the war was a good idea or not. Almost all of the people who had anything to say about whether the war was a good idea or not -- those people are still alive. They won't get within a zillion miles of risking their lives.

I want to post more about this, and link it to something I wrote a while back about animal testing. I'll do that soon, and link in the thing that I wrote then. But right now I have to go to a movie.

Monday, April 05, 2004

Right wingers against the war

I rarely drive much these days, as I live so close to work. But last Thursday evening I was driving for about five minutes. Feeling in need of some conversation, I flipped on the radio, and the only thing I could find apart from ads was Michael Savage, with his insane right-wing program. I found myself listening, just for the hell of it.

The call I heard went something like this.

Caller: Hey, Mike, I've been listening to you a long time. And what I want to say first is, the second amendment is the foundation of this country. I know you've heard this before, but I am not going to let anybody take my gun away from me until they pry it from my cold, dead hands. I mean that. (Continuation of rant on guns for another 30 seconds, using even more hardcore language.)

Savage: Yeah, yeah, OK. But that's not really what you wanted to talk about, is it? Let's get to what you really wanted to say.

Caller: (Long rant against the invasion of Iraq. Conclusion:) The government lied about the weapons of mass destruction, and they lied saying that Al Qaeda had anything to do with Iraq.

Savage: So what you're telling me is, Saddam was a peace-loving man who posed no danger to anybody.

Caller: Don't put words in my mouth. I'm not saying that. But that's not why we invaded Iraq, to get rid of a dictator....

And that's about all I heard. But just for the record, even some crazy gun nuts are against the war, and they're calling the right-wing talk shows about it. And in this case at least, the talk show host has no answer at all except to attack straw men.

It made my day.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Audrey Seiler vs. George Bush

Audrey Seiler is a young University of Wisconsin-Madison student who disappeared for several days and then re-appeared, pretending to have been abducted. Apparently the story made national headlines. It was absolutely huge here in Madison, where I live.

There were main sets of stories the media told us, as the days went by. First, she was missing for several days (tragedy; family suffering, friends worried; community concerned about her and about crime in the area). Then she was found (great relief! Joy, family togetherness, community relief). Finally, the details of the hoax came out (scandal; anger, sadness, feelings of betrayal from the community; calls to throw her in jail or make her pay restitution for the police dollars spent trying to find her).

A lot could be said about her, and the case itself. Quite a lot has been said, and written, in Madison alone.

One thing that struck me was how fast and how easily her story came apart in the hands of a competent police department. They did some investigating and found some inconsistencies. They then took Audrey into a room and confronted her with the evidence that she had been making it all up. There were apparently inconsistencies in the stories she had told various people; there was physical evidence that she had not been where she said she had been; there was evidence on her computer that she had been searching for good places to hide, and checking out long-term weather forecasts. There was even evidence that she had been back in her apartment during the time when she was “missing.” The police just rounded up all the information, presented her with it, and she confessed to having made it all up.

It took only a couple of days from the time the police began having suspicions about Audrey, to the time when her story completely fell apart and she told the truth. And almost immediately, everybody in town knew a great deal about the story.

The anger at Audrey is pretty much universal in the Madison area. Some people do argue that we should pity her as we treat her apparent mental illness. But that’s about as positive as the conventional wisdom around here gets. Nobody has anything positive to say about her. Some people are angry about the money the City of Madison wasted trying to find her -- about $75,000 by the estimates I have seen.

Being the political junkie that I apparently have become, I just have to compare all of this to the story of George Bush misleading the nation into invading Iraq, and lying like crazy about what happened on 9/11 and shortly before and afterwards.

First, how long does it take to find out that someone is lying? In Audrey’s case, a couple of days. In the case of the Bush lies, the answer is months and years, and counting. Why the difference? In part, no doubt, because Audrey is not a lifelong student of the art of lying, unlike our political leaders. (I can’t believe that I didn’t know until recently that Cheney and other Bush folks were in the Nixon administration.) And in part because the cops can’t just get Bush (or Cheney, or Rice, or anybody) in a room and confront him with all the evidence of his lies until they just up and admit it. (The 9/11 commission is working on it, of course, and we can hope for the best.)

Second, what does it take to get people really angry? In Audrey’s case, we were lied to, but not by any prominent elected official. Nobody died. It cost the City of Madison about $75,000. In Bush’s case, we were lied to by the people we elected; hundreds of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have died; and we’re out hundreds of billions. And yes, true story, there are many people in Madison angrier at Audrey than they are at Bush.

Scary stuff.

Friday, April 02, 2004

More on gerrymandering

I got a letter or two back from David Lublin, the guy who wrote that Gadflyer article. He says that I have taken the point way too far. And of course, in a sense, I have.

He says (via e-mail):

I'm reminded a bit of David Mayhew's point in Congress: The Electoral Connection. They can only stay in power as long as they keep people in their districts satisfied. This means that you have to please your primary and general election electorates to stay where you are. A safe district is really only "safe" as long as you do this. Most representatives want to stay around and do this.
Of course he's right about this. There are obviously structural differences between elections not counting at all, and efforts to make them as safe as possible. I still think the latter are seriously undemocratic. But I have overstated the case in my previous post. Of course.

And yet, I still think there is more to be said here, though not with the broad brush I was using before.

I guess I need to think about this some more. Which is always good.

One important question is, what does it take to "please your base"? How hard is that? Does it just mean that if you're a Republican in a Republican district, you have to keep on the right side of all the Republican issues? Sure.

What that does is lock you in to these positions. If you wobble at all, or think for yourself outside the party system, you are only endangering your position, with respect to both party insiders and voters in your district. If a district is split something close to 50/50, then a Republican may pick up as many voters as he/she loses by departing from the party line on one or another specific issue. You have the chance to pick up as many Democratic votes as you lose in Republican votes. (It may not happen that way, but at least it's possible.) But if your district is solidly 60 or 70 percent Republican, then you had better not act up, or you'll be replaced with another Republican who's more willing to toe the party line, in a heartbeat.

Overall, of course, the whole system only lasts as long as the voters can be kept in the mood to follow along with what the parties are saying and doing. A massive revolt could do some damage to the system. But at the same time, every safe district gives the national parties some leeway to screw up, to alienate portions of their base without actually losing any seats.

Still thinking. More later.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Gerrymandering versus democracy

There is a moral and political principle at stake in every redistricting battle -- namely, participative democracy. Will people's votes actually matter?

How many times have you heard someone (usually conservatives) refer to the "undemocratic judicial branch" making decisions that amount to legislation? The idea is that actual legislation ought to be written and debated by democratically elected representatives of the people. I think this is a good principle, although it seems that many of those who use it to attack "judicial activism" are really just attacking judicial decisions that they happen not to like.

Step back from the judicial branch of government, and look at the legislative, especially the House of Representatives. In the House, as this article in The Gadflyer points out, there is no real election to be contested in more than 90 percent of cases. As a result, our "representatives" are really not elected at all. They may have been elected once, but their continued hold on power is due to gerrymandering.

My thesis is that because of the extent of gerrymandering, the House of Representatives is literally not an elected body. They are unelected, every bit as much as judges are unelected. And, unlike judges, these people literally are making legislation.

Let me try to put just a little bit of conceptual rigor behind this thesis.

Representative democracy, in order to be democratic, requires that representatives receive the approval of the voters. If there is no way to remove a representative from power, then that representative's power is no longer democratically controlled. We have, instead, a form of dictatorship.

Let's imagine a prototype dictator. Let's call him "Dic" (short for Dictator).

Imagine that Dic was democratically elected once, long ago. But elections have now been outlawed. Dic is still a dictator, right?

Now imagine that there are "elections" every so often, but that in those elections, people who would vote against Dic are systematically denied the opportunity to vote. Not everybody is denied the vote, just enough people to make sure that Dic will be "re-elected." The votes are a sham. Dic is still a dictator, right?

Yes, Dic is a dictator.

Frighteningly enough, that is precisely what we have in this country with respect to the House of Representatives, right now. People who might be expected to vote against Dic are carefully peeled out of Dic's district, so their votes don't count against Dic. (They count for a different Dic, in a different district.) Not everyone who is anti-Dic will be removed from Dic's district, of course -- just enough people to make sure that Dic will be "re-elected."

Thanks to gerrymandering, the people's votes literally do not count. The House of Representatives is selected, not elected. The people doing the gerrymandering are in charge.

Of course, the House has hundreds of Dics, not just one, and they all can be expected to vote against each other, most of the time. It seems strange to call them "dictators" when there are so many of them and they disagree with each other. But individually, even if we don't want to call them "dictators," we need to remember that none of these people is democratically elected.

We need a good word to describe these people. They're not dictators, exactly. But they're certainly not elected. What are they? We need a nice, punchy tag for them. (I do sort of like "House of Dictators," as a start. But I’m sure there's something better out there.)

In any case, I think this is something that democrats (both big-D and small-d) should jump on. Until gerrymandering is outlawed, across the board, we should start referring to the "undemocratïc House of Representatives," "taxation without representation," and so on. And the next time you hear a Republican mentioning the "undemocratic judicial branch," you might want to mention the "undemocratic House of Representatives."

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Moral and political principles vs. “Hooray for our side”

So I’m watching the Richard Clarke drama unfold. The guy is a great speaker, and he really has the goods on the administration. Liberals everywhere are delighted, even gleeful. Conservatives are in some serious pain, as they watch their guys get skewered. Liberals attack the Bush Administration, and their attacks (in my judgment) land on target. Ouch! Conservatives defend the president and his team, but their defenses are so pathetic it’s hard to imagine they are even convincing themselves.

In brief, Richard Clarke is correct. The administration really did screw up, very badly. They were not interested in terrorism before September 11th, as they were still fighting the cold war. After September 11th, as is their wont, they shoehorned all of their previous goals into the new situation. Yadda yadda yadda. Liberals right, conservatives wrong.

I have to admit, I find the whole situation terribly amusing and enjoyable. I love that the liberals are right and the conservatives are wrong. My liberal soul is enjoying a really new set of sensations here. It’s not so much that I’m used to being wrong: no, not that at all. What I am used to is thinking that, yes, my point of view has a lot to say for itself, but I can also see the other point of view, and I can understand how rational, reasonable, good people can hold that other point of view.

For instance, take the minimum wage. I am in favor of raising the minimum wage. Conservatives will argue, of course, that raising the minimum wage always costs jobs, so that raising the minimum wage would actually hurt the people I want to help. I have what I think are pretty good reasons to doubt that simple equation (which I don’t want to get into here), so I continue to favor minimum-wage increases, at least from their present very low level. But I can see the point that conservatives make on this argument, and I am willing to admit that they may be right.

On the Bush thing, though, and 9/11, there is just no reason whatever for me to think, even for a second, that the administration has done much of anything right. They really are a bunch of incompetent fools, still fighting the wars of a previous generation, unable to deal with the new realities. They think fighting terrorism has to equal attacking nations. They really do think that it’s a military problem. You know the saying: when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

So again, I’m having a damn good time. It’s painful to watch how badly our country was screwed by these people, but it’s wonderful to have just about everyone come to realize what a pack of losers has been running this country.

I spent some time with my parents tonight. They are lifelong liberals, and very strong Christians. (I’m the one with the Ph.D. in religion with a focus on Christian ethics and theology, but they’re the ones who actually believe it, and go to church, and so on.) Tonight, my parents are as one with me in their joy at the recent turn of events, the smoking that the Bush people are taking. I’m enjoying their joy. A good time is being had by all.

And yet, I step back, and think. Wait a minute. All three of us have, or had, some pretty basic principles. Things that we believe in.

We believe, among other things, that every human life matters. In Christian terms, God loves us, every one. We abhor the destruction of human life through terrorism, war, the death penalty, or assassinations. We also know (in Christian terms, again) that people are sinful and prone to evil, so we try not to be hopelessly naïve. We’re not quite pacifists, any of us. But we certainly find it difficult to support direct government policies of killing people.

And yet we (my parents and I) rush to embrace the charges of Clarke, that Bush wasn’t serious enough about going after Bin Laden and al Qaeda. We certainly believe that Bush failed. But if the current administration had pursued assassinations or other paramilitary or military action against members of Al Qaeda before 9/11, we would hardly have supported them!

So I step back and think again about Richard Clarke. Now, people like my parents and me are sort of glad, in the back of our minds, that there are hardcore people out there like Clarke, fighting terrorism by whatever means necessary. He makes us safer, and he does the borderline immoral deeds to get us there. He would order an assassination without thinking twice, if he had what he thought were good reasons to do so. So he’s hardly the kind of guy we would embrace, or support wholeheartedly, without misgivings.

But now that he’s going after the Bush administration, we are delighted. Go Clarke Go! Kick Bush’s Butt! (Do we really like Clarke? As a person, no, not really. But never mind that.) Go Clarke Go!

We love that this president is failing, not just by our very liberal, borderline pacifist standards, but even by the standards of reasonable, intelligent Republicans like Clarke. We detest the current administration, and we are delighted that there are so many good reasons, even beyond our reasons, to do so. We are delighted and hopeful that someone less awful than Bush will be elected, and that the Democrats may even take back the House and Senate.

These are good reasons, yes. But when it comes down to it, all of these reasons are still about our side winning. Go Clarke. Go Democrats. Beat up on Bush, using whatever weapons you have. Elect more Democrats. Yay, team.

In a minor but real way, “Hooray for our side!” is winning out over my moral principles. I’m finding myself delighted by things that I don’t really believe in. I’m finding myself hitting Republicans over the head for not doing things that, had they done them, I would have been horrified by (or at least ambivalent about).

I think the same thing can be said from the other side -- and much more so! -- about conservative defenders of the president. These poor people have felt compelled to attack Clarke with every smear they can come up with. (Not very well, by the way: it’s been pretty pathetic.) These people really ought to be asking themselves some hard questions, too. Let me put the question to you guys. Is this really the way you want to treat Richard Clarke? He’s a life-long public servant, a hard-core, smart, tough man who dedicated his entire life, obsessively, to something you wholeheartedly support! (You guys are political realists, right? You don’t have the moral qualms about assassinations and covert military actions and all that.) Do you really want to attack the guy just because he says something that damages your “side” in a political argument? Doesn’t the world need more people like Clarke, and fewer people who are so concerned with political gain that they will sacrifice what is really true, good, and right?

Which is more important, guys? Your principles, or winning the “Go Team Go” battle? Justice, truth, hard-headed realism and good government, or the Bush administration? Because (as Clarke, Paul O’Neill, and many others have shown us) you can’t have both.
Liberal hawks and the Bush administration: Some basic thoughts

Take the following situation: we agree with what our leaders are doing, but for very different reasons from their reasons. What are we to do?

A moralist says: “Saddam Hussein is an evil man and his rule over Iraq is harmful to Iraqis. It is a good thing to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Getting rid of Hussein is a positive end, which justifies war as the only means through which to achieve it. I support this war, because the ends justify the means. I understand that the Bush administration is not going after Saddam Hussein for that reason, and indeed, I feel that Bush’s reasons for going after Hussein are very immoral, ugly reasons, and that the administration’s larger goals for American foreign policy are ones that I wholeheartedly reject. Nonetheless, I support this war.”

We have here a variation on the old “ends justifies the means” question. The variation is this. What happens when “the ends justify the means” is used in a situation in which the person doing the moral deliberation is not the actor, and in fact violently disagrees with the goals and ideals of the person who is the actor? My argument is that the result is is a very dangerous way of reasoning. It is misleading and potentially very harmful.

Let us call give our moralist a name. He is called “Liberal Hawk.” (Think “Dances with Wolves.”) Liberal Hawk may disagree with Bush on just about everything else, but he agrees with him that the war is a good idea.

Imagine, for the sake of argument, that Liberal Hawk and his many ideological brothers and sisters constitute a critical element of support for the president’s invasion of Iraq. They allow Bush to say, truthfully, that he is pursuing a war that is generally popular and approved of (the war becomes much more popular than Bush himself). These people provide moral justifications for the war, and those justifications themselves both make the war more likely and provide political cover for the president in his decision to take the country to war.

OK. There’s the situation. Not so far-fetched. Let’s think about it for a minute.

The goals (ends) of Liberal Hawk are not the same as those of the Bush administration. Bush’s goals are (stipulated to be) immoral ones. So our situation is not one in which the (good) end is justifying the (bad) means. No matter what (good) results may come from it, those results are not the goal of the person doing the actual acting in the situation (George Bush and his administration, not Liberal Hawk -- and not you, and not me). The good results are, at best, a byproduct. So what we really have is: the semi-intended byproduct of the action justifies the means.

Subject for careful contemplation: can evil means ever justify a good semi-intended byproduct?

Beyond this quandary, we have a second problem. Let us think about the further consequences of the war in Iraq. It is not as if Bush would get rid of Saddam Hussein, and that would be the end of it. Bush’s actual goals were (stipulated to be) not good goals to be pursuing, but immoral, ugly goals. Those goals, and the ideals that underlie them, continue to be in force even after Hussein is gone. The further results in the region, to the extent that Bush has the power to produce results, will be in accord with his immoral goals and ideals. So we do not have a simple situation with one (bad) means, and one (good) end. We have an evil means, a good byproduct, and a host of (largely bad) results that are more or less directly intended (by Bush, though not by Liberal Hawk).

The attack on Iraq gets America into the region. The moral legitimation offered by Liberal Hawk and his ilk provides moral cover for the president in launching his war. The war, in turn, provides the Bush administration with tremendous additional leverage in the region. By supporting Bush’s initial war, Liberal Hawk is also supporting -- in advance -- everything the administration does after that.

Many Liberal Hawks will object to this assertion. They will say: I supported the war, but I do not support the way Bush has acted since Hussein was toppled. But that response is bogus, because it does not take account of very basic political realities.

Most fundamentally, Bush is no longer asking for support. Bush needed Liberal Hawk’s support at one time, and at one time only: before he went to war. At that point, if enough people had said no, we don’t want the war, then we would not have had this war. (Yes, it would have had to have been a huge number of people, because the millions who demonstrated, in this country and around the world, were clearly not enough.) It was possible to stop this war before it began. But Liberal Hawk did not try to stop the war; Liberal Hawk supported it.

By contrast, there have been no moments -- zero -- since the beginning of the war when Bush seriously had to worry about whether or not his actions had popular support in the United States. He can do what he wants. There have been no political referenda on his conduct of the war, and there are unlikely to be any, anytime soon. Such critical moments in wartime are always very rare, especially near the beginning of a war.

This is for two reasons. (a) Once the war has begun, sentiment always swings toward patriotism, supporting the troops, and so forth -- giving any president a huge outpouring of support, far more than he needs. (b) Even when support wanes for the war, there is only rarely a clear, obvious moment when those who oppose the war can try to turn their opposition into political reality. In the day-to-day conduct of the war, no president needs the support of the people to do what he wants to do. The people will not rise up on Day 186 of the war and say “No more war! 185 days was enough, but stop now!”

This is an important angle from which to look at the Democrats who made an issue of spending the $87 billion for the war. As Wesley Clark and other pointed out, voting against the $87 billion was a way for the Democrats to try to say “I don’t like the way this war is being waged. I think we need to have a plan. I don’t trust our current leaders or their plan.”

Let me say, first, that I sympathize with that point of view. The aftermath of the war has in many ways not gone well. It would have been wonderful to take a time-out to assess things and try to figure out how to make them go better. It would be great to make the President responsible to Congress, or the American people, for his actual day-to-day handling of the war. And refusing to fund the war would have done that!

But holding up the $87 billion -- even talking about it -- is a terrible political move, as it looks a whole lot like undermining the troops. Hell, maybe it is undermining the troops. It’s a ludicrously ineffective way to try to bring the administration to account. But note this: there is no good way to bring the administration to account. There almost never is. Even as a U.S. Senator or Representative, you are only guaranteed one real moment when your support for or opposition to a war really matters: at the beginning.

An additional difficulty confronts Liberal Hawks who decide, halfway through, that they no longer support the war. Before the war, being against the war was intellectually straightforward. We could simply say “No, let us not go to war.” Now, those who are against the continuation of the war have to say what we would do instead. And (let’s admit it, all liberals, both hawks and doves) we can’t answer that question, because there are no good options. Once the war began, we were in this thing, and there is no easy way out.

Does this surprise anybody? Has there ever been a war that one could get out of easily? (Imagine a situation in any war, ever, where even a full 100% of the population came to believe that the war was a bad thing to be involved in. Getting out would still be difficult.)

Again, my claim is that it is a bogus response to say “I supported the war, but I do not support the way the war has been waged.” That is not an option you get. You get two choices: support the whole war, or none of it. If you choose to support the war -- a choice you make at the beginning -- you need to make damn sure that you believe in the person who is going to have responsibility for prosecuting the war. You need to trust them, and you need to agree with their ideals and goals.

And this is why, to return to my initial point, we need to be very careful about using “the ends justify the means” in a situation where our goals are not the same as the administration’s goals.

This administration’s goals never were basically positive, or even basically OK. The administration was not in this thing to depose a tyrant for the sake of the freedom of a people -- as is obvious, or they would have chosen a different tyrant. (Various nasty African dictators, for instance, could have been removed with much fewer American casualties, much less hostility to America in the world, and entirely without the war being cast all over the world as USA-vs.-Islam, with attendant very bad results.) The administration was not in this thing to fight terrorism -- as is obvious, or they would have finished going after Osama bin Laden first. They were clearly not in it to eliminate Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, as they had to work hard to convince even themselves that Saddam had any to start with. All the “good” reasons -- all the reasons that moralists might have used to justify the war -- are bogus.

Given that the administration’s actual goals were not (morally) good ones, it was the duty of moral people not to delude themselves. We should not have tried to convince ourselves that because we could think of good reasons for going after Saddam Hussein, therefore we should support an administration that was going after Saddam Hussein, no matter its reasons for doing so. Deposing Hussein was not the end of the story. The rest of the story is still being enacted, and the main actors in the story are people we should have known not to trust.

This is my proposal, in a nutshell. In situations of war, it is our duty to insist that our leaders do the right thing, for the right reasons. If their reasons, goals, and ideals are bad ones, then we should not support their actions, even if one of the effects of their actions will be something that we support. Even if -- for instance, getting rid of Hussein -- we support it very much indeed.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

You’re a wimp if you disagree with me

I have been thinking about what I wrote about the Forbes article recently, trying to decide why that article came as such a revelation to me. It is not, after all, as though the argument of that article says anything really new. I’ve read things like it dozens of times before. I think what happened is, I finally managed to get straight in my head the difference between rational impact and emotional impact. Some arguments are really good arguments; they convince through the sheer power of rationality. Others are not good arguments, but they may convince anyway by appealing in subtle ways to something in us besides our rationality.

The “stop whining” motif has little or no intellectual oomph behind it. (“Whining” can mean noting that something is wrong that needs to be made right; if so, it is refusing to whine, refusing to notice or to point out, that is the morally problematic position.) But “you are a whiner” still has the power to invoke self-doubt in its hearers. That self-doubt has haunted me in the rooms at the back of my mind, and I needed to get it out in the open and confront it.

The philosopher Mary Midgley made the general point much better than I can. She writes:

William James pointed out how we often dramatize an argument as a clash between tough-minded and tender-minded attitudes, between partisans, as it were, of science and sympathy. This habit chronically infests and distorts certain philosophical controversies, particularly about such tough-seeming but confused positions as determinism, hedonism, egoism and behaviorism. Role-playing of this kind paralyzes our thinking because it makes thought seem unnecessary; the positions are ready-made for us. Once they have imagined themselves to be tough-minded, people are quite liable to accept the loosest and most vacuous ideas uncritically, provided they are put forward in the right contemptuous tone of voice (Beast and Man, p. 122).

Republican arguments that liberals need to “stop whining” are another example of precisely the same faux-tough-mindedness, as are libertarian-flavored economic arguments. Go ahead and read, say, Ayn Rand, B. F. Skinner, and George Will. They’re writing about utterly different topics (egoism, determinism, conservativsm), and they would all violently disagree among themselves about most issues. But I get the same feeling from all three. “I am right, and if you can’t see how right I am, it is because your emotional attachments to beliefs that feel nice are getting in the way of seeing the hard, cold truth about the world.” It can be difficult to get past that veneer to tackle the real arguments at stake. But over time, people get over feeling afraid of the power of this appeal, and analyze the content of the arguments. And once that happens, many of the arguments prove to be pretty stupid. Skinner was, it turns out, wrong about almost everything. Rand was a borderline nutcase. We shall see what time makes of George Will and his ilk.

This isn’t just ad hominem. These people share a real intellectual defect: a willingness to believe (on some level) that because something sounds harsh and difficult to hear, it must be true. Many of us share that tendency, to some extent. I do. It’s important that we resist it -- though not to make the opposite mistake, of course! But we need to remember that the rightness or wrongness of an argument is something very different from how tough it makes us feel to believe it.

“You’re a wimp if you disagree with me” is not an argument, though it is often deployed as one.

I read Beast and Man before, in graduate school. I remembered it as one of my favorite books, so I pulled it out again lately and started rereading it. It’s damn good. Read it if you have any philosophical bent at all. It’s about human nature in its relation to the nature of animals. Her argument, in brief, is that humans are animals, and that we need to stop denying that, because denying or ignoring that fundamental aspect of human nature has done a great deal of damage to our scientific and philosphical self-understanding -- and, of course, has helped us ignore the damage we have done and continue to do to animals and the natural world. Midgley is not by trade an animal-rights advocate, or indeed anything in the political field, but a philosopher, and a very good one.

Friday, March 05, 2004

Forbes ferrets out injustice

I spend a fair amount of time reading and listening to conservatives and Republicans. Sometimes I start to believe that there must really be something there that’s really better than, well, what my basic liberal soul tells me

I’m not talking about the rationality or rightness of the actual content of conservative arguments. Sometimes that’s pretty good, sometimes so-so, usually craptacular. I try to learn from the reasonable points I hear, and discard the rest. But there’s something underneath going on that hits me. Something in the tone, maybe, or in the subtext, that seems to be trying to convince me of something. And some part of me, well, sort of cringes, really. I feel like there’s some superior virtue going on, somehow.

One of the virtues for Republicans is definitely not whining about how unfair things are all the time. Suck it up and deal with it. Work harder, and get ahead. The race isto the swift, dammit. People get what they deserve. Liberals enable the weak and cripple people who try. You know, that whole line.

This one hits me, sometimes, even though it doesn’t have a lot of intellectual weight behind it. I know that I could be working harder, for one thing. Maybe other folks could, too. Of course, many people do work insanely hard and never get out of poverty anyway. Back and forth….

Well, anyway. Whatever the intellectual merits, I can sort of feel the force of the general dictum, Thou shalt not whine.

This is way too long an introduction to something I read in the March 15th, 2004 Forbes. Rich Karlgaard writes in “One Huge Tax Disparity” (page 41):

A typical 4,000-square-foot home in a tony New York City suburb such as Greenwich costs:

* Twice as much as its counterpart in Lake Forest, a suburb outside of Chicago, Ill.
* Four times more than one in Auburn Hills, a suburb outside of Detroit, Mich.
* Six times more than a spread in Clive, the best address in Des Moines, Iowa.
The same ratios hold for smaller houses….

So, OK, nothing new so far. You knew that, more or less, right? What’s the point?

Let’s say you want to enjoy an executive-class lifestyle…. [First, you need a big house with a gourmet kitchen and so on.] … Let’s further suppose you want to drive a Lexus, BMW, or Cadillac, join a country club, keep a wardrobe suitable for business and business casual, put your kids in private schools and give to your favorite charity, as well as save money. Tally it all up, and you’ll discover this takes about a $500,000 income in New York or San Francisco, a $400,000 one in Boston, Los Angeles or Washington, D.C….

But in Des Moines you’ll need $150,000. In fact, maybe only $100,000, because the public schools are so good and so few people give a rat’s patootie about the status competitions of clothes, cars and clubs, anyway.

These calculations are beforetaxes.

Rich's argument is that these gaps lead to tax unfairness. Why? Because federal income tax rates do not notice these differences. So “the coastal urban executive class, drawing mid-six-figure salaries or beetter, has become America’s prime tax patsy.” And if Bush isn’t re-elected, it’s only going to get worse, because “John Edwards can make a $200,000 family income in Summit, N.J. or Pasadena, Calif. sound like the treasury of Louis XIV.” Higher taxes for rich folks, here we come! And that is just sad. His conclusion: You might want to move to Des Moines. (No, really, that's his conclusion. New Yorkers, move to Des Moines. You have nothing to lose but your chains.)

Let me tell you, I read this and I smiled. I still smile. A weight has been lifted off my shoulders.

Did you hear the man? People making half a mill in New York City are just barely getting by! It’s … it’s … it’s unfair!


We have a new champion of whining.

Let’s look around. You have people all over Africa starving and dying in civil wars, people all over the third world dying of AIDS for lack of money for the vaccine, people in Haiti with raw sewage in their drinking water. You have forty million people in the United States without health care. One-fourth of all black children in New York City have asthma because of environmental problems. The Bush administration is doing everything they can to make sure that people with repetitive stress injuries from working on the job cannot get compensated for their injuries. And so on, and so on, and so on. People in this world are really suffering, they are really getting screwed.

Liberals complain about these injustices, and we’re called whiners.

Now Rich looks around for the great injustices of the world to write about. What does he see? He sees the lifestyles of half-a-million-a-year executive-lifestyle BMW-driving country-club folks with gourmet kitchens, nice furniture, and kids in private school. And his heart goes out to these poor, suffering people.

I swear, you can’t make this stuff up.

It isn’t just Rich, of course. It’s the whole Forbes worldview. We are a magazine about capitalism. We can devote an issue every year to all the billionaires in the world. But never in our pages will you see stories exploring what victims capitalism might produce. Not one. The only victims we see are the multi-millionaires living on the coasts.

I never want to hear another Republican complain about liberal whining. Not once.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Making the big numbers in the budget make sense to people

I've been thinking about this one for a while, and I just want to get it down real quick. It seems really important.

The federal budget is really, really, really important to all of us. It is also held to be really, really, really boring. But it's not boring at all! Everybody is interested in money, how much they have, how much they're spending. Nor is it the budget that difficult to understand, at least the basics.

The real problem is that the numbers are big. Very, very big. So big that people lose track of what they mean. It also doesn't help that the English language has that little problem where "million," "billion," and "trillion" sound so damned similar. It's easy to get confused, or not to remember properly, especially if you're only half-listening. "Are we spending $89 billion or $89 million in Iraq? And is the budget for the NEA $50 million or $50 billion? Well, they're probably about the same, right?"

We need a new way to talk about money. I propose something I call the $PAF, or Dollars Per American Family. I want to make this as easy as possible for everyone to use, so I'm going to use a very, very rough estimate: there are about 100 million American families -- American households, that is, but I prefer the term "family" because darn it everybody likes families. "Household" is not telegenic. And I know there's not exactly 100 million households -- maybe it's 70 million, maybe it's 125 million, I don't know. But 100 million is such an easy number to work with.

My idea is, every time anybody says anything about how much money the federal government is spending on something, they convert it to "$PAFs." Newspapers, television shows, everybody. Then we can understand the relative size of the numbers we're talking about.

The total budget is, what, $2 trillion? That's $20,000 PAF. Now that's a number we can all understand. We're used to numbers like 20 grand. That's a nice chunk of change. It's a family budget.

In that context, it's real easy to understand what it means when the president proposes spending $89 billion for war in Iraq for a few months: that's $890 PAF. That's a big hunk out of my $20,000 budget. How are we going to pay for that?

The current budget deficit will probably go over $500 billion; that's $5,000 PAF. Put it that way, and I guarantee people will sit up and take notice. The national debt is, what, $5 trillion by now; that's $50,000 PAF. Yikes! The budget for the National Endowment for the Arts is under a buck PAF. Chump change; who cares?

I think even busy people could pay attention and understand much more quickly. I think it could make a difference.

One more quick framing issue.

The Republicans won big with the phrase “death tax.” It’s time to take that one back.

I propose “Paris Hilton tax.”

Ratchet up the minimum at which the tax kicks in to $10 million or $20 million. And then let Republicans have fun defending the inalienable right of Paris Hilton to have all of the billions her family is going to leave her, not just part of it. In the face of Republican cuts in social security. Bring it on!
"Ought implies can" destroys religious exclusivism

Typical conservative Christians, as well as many Muslims, Jews, and no doubt adherents of many other religions, hold (among their many other beliefs) the following belief. Anybody who does not follow (or believe in) the tenets of my religion is headed for eternal damnation (or the equivalent specified by my religion). I will call this position “religious exclusivism.”

Religious exclusivism comes in various sizes. So, for instance, one might claim that salvation is available to Christians only, and that all non-Christians are bound for hell. Or one might limit salvation to born-again Christians. Or perhaps only to born-again Baptists, or even to born-again Baptists who affirm the absolute truth of the Bible, etc.

Religious exclusivism is politically important for several reasons. Let me lay out just one of those. (Here I am following a discussion in Robert Paul Wolff, The Poverty of Liberalism.) One of the intellectual justifications for a liberal political order is, broadly, utilitarianism: the belief that the good (good actions, motives, people, etc.) can be distinguished from the bad by looking at the relative amount of pain and pleasure caused. The good is that which results in a state of affairs in which the greatest number of people are as happy (feeling pleasure, in some sense) as possible.

Wolff argues that both free-market and welfare-state liberalism invoke utilitarian justifications for their positions. At one point very early in the book, he notes that the alliance between utilitarianism and liberalism is very uneasy when it comes to religious issues. “Christianity … promises eternal bliss, and threatens eternal torment. Nothing could be more important to a true utilitarian.” At the same time, Christianity “claims to have the truth about God, to offer through the savior, Jesus Christ, the true path to salvation.” He goes on to say that if one sees any reason to think that Christianity might be true, then on good utilitarian grounds what is called for is intolerance toward all other religions: “…since each creed holds out the promise of infinite reward, any probability of its truth, however small,” means that I ought to hold to it dogmatically, and insist on its promotion throughout society. If heaven and hell are real, then utilitarianism is best served by coercing unbelievers into faith. “On Mill’s own principles, then, men who have no religoius beliefs should favor religious toleration, while men who have any faith at all, however tentative, should be dogmatic, illiberal, and exclusionary.” He concludes his section: “should I ever become persuaded of even the probability of religion, I shall with Mill’s On Liberty in hand become as intolerant and persecutory as ever the Inquisition was.”


Those of us who favor a political order that is neutral among religions need help at this point. We need to make the case that a religion-neutral political order is a good thing, and that this is the case not for agnostics and atheists, but also for believers.

There seem to be two ways of going about this. One might try to show, from within religious belief, that a religion-neutral political order is a good thing. I myself hold that there are very good theological reasons for Christians to reject the establishment of any religion. There may also be good reasons that can be given from the point of view of other religions. But at best, it would be difficult to convince every believer in every religion that their religion is better off not being established.

I propose a much quicker route to the same goal. I propose to show that religious exclusivism, in the sense defined above, is simply false. No morally decent religion can truthfully claim that it is the only path to salvation.

The proof is straightforward, following almost instantly from the simple truth that (as the philosophers say) “ought implies can.” This means that anything that I ought to do, I am able to do. Put otherwise, no moral obligation can possibly oblige me to do anything that I am unable to do. The inability destroys the obligation.

For instance, in many circumstances, I have an obligation to save a person who is dying. But if I obviously cannot save the person, the obligation disappears. Let us say that a man is suffocating right now for lack of oxygen on the moon, and will be dead in twenty seconds, while I sit here on earth. I have no moral obligation to jump to the moon and save him. Why? Because it is impossible.

Where there is no ability to do a thing, there is no moral obligation to do that thing. This is a contested claim in some places, and I can’t prove that it’s true. But it certainly works for most of us. Think about what you would say to someone who would claim that you were going to go to hell because you didn’t jump to the moon to save a dying man.

The claim of the religious exclusivist, again, is that I face eternal damnation (or whatever) if I do not follow the appropriate religious faith.

I take it, first, that the religious exclusivist is committed to the claim that I have done something morally wrong by not believing in or following the tenets of the right religion. That is, the issue at stake is moral, not only intellectual. If I were to believe that the world was flat and the moon made of green cheese, that would be an intellectual failing, but not a moral one. Not the sort that would get me sent to hell. If I were mistakenly to believe that the first book in the Bible is Exodus, not Genesis, that would be a religious mistake, but it would be silly to think of that as the sort of mistake that might get me sent to hell. In order for the punishment of hell or the blessings of heaven even to make sense, we have to be talking about a moral question.

So, for the religious exclusivist, belief or unbelief in the appropriate religion is a moral question, and whatever I believe I will be held morally responsible for my belief.

This, of course, is where “ought implies can” becomes relevant. I can only be held morally responsible for failing to do something if it is possible for me to do that thing. But it is clearly impossible, right now, for anyone to know which religion one ought to believe in.

There are no knock-down arguments, indeed no arguments of any sort, that tend to rationally favor one religion over all the others, or indeed over no religion. I say this, not as an easy agnostic or an atheist who thinks that all religions are obviously false, but on the contrary as someone who has spent years of his life working through the intellectual and existential arguments for various religions. Many of these arguments attain a very high level of sophistication, philosophically and theologically. But none of them convinces anybody who wasn’t already more or less convinced, or prepared to be convinced.

Even the most educated, most rational person in the world, devoting all of his or her hours to studying the arguments, will not be able to come to a clear conclusion on this matter based on reason alone. The problem is not only difficult, it is literally impossible.

Now, Christians (and adherents of many other religions) have long known this and admitted it gladly. St. Augustine formulated the classic understanding of the relation of faith and knowledge: theology, he said, should be “faith seeking understanding.” That is, one begins with faith -- faith that comes only as a supernatural gift from God -- and, once one has that, one can begin to think rationally about the faith and what it means. There is no purely rational path from unfaith to faith, or from one religion to another.

It is true that many arguments exist that try to prove God’s existence. I am probably one of the few people in the United States today who thinks that at least one of the arguments -- the ontological argument as formulated by St. Anselm and reformulated by Charles Hartshorne -- might actually work. But it is a long, long way from proving God’s existence to saying anything at all about one religion being preferable to another, let alone to the extent that people holding the wrong religious faith will go to hell. Nobody has even begun to make any rational arguments for those propositions.

I conclude, then, that the claims of religious exclusivism are false.

Let us grant that we want to believe in whichever religion is true. Let us further grant that there is only one true religion in the world. Still, if I do not believe in the correct religion already, then it is not possible for me to come to know that that religion is the true religion. I will be faced with any number of competing religions claims, only one of which is true. And this number is very large -- not just Christian vs. Muslim (etc.), but Baptist vs. Presybeterian (etc.), and Baptist pre-tribulation pre-millenialist vs. Baptist post-tribuation pre-millenialist (etc.). Among all of these, I can only guess randomly, and I am unlikely to guess correctly.

The claims of the religious exclusivist, then, violate the principle of “ought implies can.” Take even the most intelligent person in the world, doing nothing for one hundred years except studying religion, all the time with the best faith in the world that there is one true religion. Even this person could never come to know which faith is the true one.

A God who would send me to hell for not believing in the right religion is therefore every bit the moral monster as a God who would send me to hell for not jumping to the moon to save a dying man. And yes, maybe God is that moral monster. If so, I can live with myself just fine not playing God’s game.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Evil in Hollywood. A review of the film "8MM"

“8MM” stars Nicholas Cage as a private investigator tracking down the origin of a snuff film. A snuff film is one in which a person is tortured and killed, for real, on camera. The idea is that the viewer would get a thrill from viewing this ultimate forbidden. This thrill is supposed to be broadly sexual in nature: when mainstream pornography doesn’t do it for you anymore, you can turn to films depicting ritualized S&M, bondage, torture, and (at the extreme) death.

“Real” snuff films -- films that depict real deaths, not just deaths that are faked for the camera -- do not really exist. Or at least so says everyone in “8MM.” The premise of the film, however, is that one man, an apparently rich, famous and powerful person, has paid a million dollars (why is it always exactly one million dollars?) to have one made. He has found a filmmaker and actors who specialize in violent pornography, and hired them to film the torture and execution of a young woman. This powerful man, named “Mr. Christian,” has died of old age (or something) as “8MM” begins. His elderly wife has found the tape in his safe. She hires Nicholas Cage, playing a private investigator, to find out whether or not the girl being killed on the tape was really killed, and who she was.

The subject is sensationalistic, but it gives “8MM” the possibility for greatness. By taking on this subject, the makers of this movie had a chance to say something about their understanding of the nature of evil. There are not a lot of subjects that Hollywood filmmakers can take up when they want to try to talk seriously about evil. But they are interested. We have seen several films about Nazi Germany and concentration camps recently. “Seven” and “Devil’s Advocate” also explored the nature of evil, in their own ways.

The filmmakers, to their credit, seem to be trying to do more than make a generic thriller. They want to talk about the nature of evil and its effects on basically good people. Unfortunately, they fail. They fail big. But we can learn something important about their failure: a lesson about the limitations and blindness of Hollywood (and much of America) when it comes to understanding evil.

Evil is traditionally a concept with strong religious overtones, so it is worth noting what the film makes of religion. Short answer: damn little. Here's everything I noticed.

First, the person who paid to have the snuff film made, though he never appears on camera, is made known to us as a widely respected, upstanding man. His name, Mr. Christian, suggests him to be pious as well. For her part, Mrs. Christian is a typical Hollywood “old lady”: she has little to do except inform Nicholas Cage of the existence of the film, give him some hints about how much was paid for it during the course of his investigation, and then kill herself (off camera) when she finds out that the movie was real. So the people named “Christian” turn out to be a murderer with extremely sick sexual fantasies and a pathetic old woman who can’t handle the truth and commits suicide. (Of course, traditional Christianity has held suicide to be the unforgiveable sin. Were the filmmakers ignorant of this? Either way, it does not speak well of their view of the faith.)

Another mention of religion comes near the end of the film. Nicholas Cage is tracking down the man who starred in the snuff film, the man who actually killed the girl. As Cage arrives at the man’s house, his wife is just leaving their home in a van that is clearly marked as being from a local church: she is off to a Christian function of some sort.

This is pretty much it for Christianity in the movie. None of them are even vaguely necessary to the plot. The old couple could have been named “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” of course, and the church van moment is a complete throwaway.

So the filmmakers want to talk about evil without even looking at the Christian or religious aspects of it. (By the way, both “Seven” and “Devil’s Advocate” take seriously at least something of the historical Christian ideas about evil.) Now, I am no Michael Medved: I don’t particularly care whether Christianity is treated well or badly in any given movie. But by refusing to even bring in any Christian or other religious concepts to a discussion of evil, the filmmakers have thrown out a lot of possible material.

"8MM” is structured around Nicholas Cage’s physical and psychological struggle with the evils he finds as he delves into the world of violent pornography. The sort of evil at issue might better be called “sickness” -- as in, “that violent pornography is sick.” “Sick” in two linked senses: disgusting, and mentally deranged.

Nicholas Cage leaves the sunny world where he lives with his wife and newborn child, and dives into the dark, dark world of extreme pornography (filmed in shadows throughout). He meets Joaquim Phoenix, playing an unusually intellectual but apparently low-level employee in a mainstream pornography store who conveniently has connections in the deep, dark world of violent porn. Phoenix himself seems basically normal, but he constantly warns Cage that watching too much of this stuff will “get in your head.”

Phoenix’s warnings are prescient. As Cage spends hours watching violent pornography as part of his investigation (searching for other films in which the “actors” in the snuff film might have appeared), things start to go wrong. He finds himself alienated from his wife (who is back home while he investigates). He forgets to call her for long periods of time, and doesn’t answer her calls on his cell phone. (Why he loses contact is not clear. Cage seems to be wrapped up in his hours of porn watching. But why doesn’t he leave the porn to talk to his wife? Does he start to enjoy the porn? The thought occurs to the viewer, and it would certainly make sense of his actions, but in an apparent failure of nerve the filmmakers never make this clear.)

Cage also forgets that his mission is only to find out whether the tape is real, and who the girl was. He discovers the answers to both those questions by about the middle of the film, but he keeps investigating, trying to find out who actually made the film, and forgetting even to report his results to Mrs. Christian. (Does his forgetfulness point to a mental breakdown, or is it just a hole in the plot?)

Then, when Cage does find out who made the film, he tracks them all down and, well, they all end up dead. Several of the bad guys conveniently kill each other, so Cage only has to kill two himself. One he ties up and then leaves alone for several hours before killing him in cold blood. He tracks the other man to his house and kills him in a bloody, mano-a-mano, hands-grappling-around-the-neck fight scene.

The last man that Cage kills, in the final fight scene, is an interesting case. We have seen this man on the snuff film, several times, and in other places "8MM". He is an actor in the snuff film, and in many other violent pornographic films. He always wears a black leather mask while making these films. It turns out that nobody in the porn world has ever seen his face, or has any idea who the man is.

When Cage finds him, he turns out to be, in appearance at least, just a regular guy. This is suggested by the brief scene where his wife leaves for church in the van, and by the normality of his house, his lawn, his white picket fence. It is confirmed during the fight scene, when his mask is torn from him and Cage sees him. Cage is stunned, and the camera and music make clear that we the audience are supposed to be stunned, that the man looks so normal. He looks like an accountant. Cage’s astonishment (and ours?) increases as we learn what has made the man spend his life in violent pornography and the making of a snuff film. (The man gets a little monologue during a break in the fight scene.) The man’s explanation: there is no explanation. He was not molested, or mistreated as a child. Typical psychological explanations don't fit. The man's life has been normal. Frightening message to audience: evil can come out of nowhere!

We are supposed to be utterly astonished, perplexed, and unable to understand this. Now, this is a classic approach to evil: evil as a surd, as that which defies explanation or understanding within our conceptual categories. Christian theologians have been saying this for centuries. But within "8MM," the attempt to define evil that way falls flat after a moment’s contemplation.

Remember, the movie has ruled any Christian notions out of bounds. But it is precisely Christian notions that can be brought in to explain evil in this case. After all, why should anyone be surprised that a person who looks perfectly normal would be evil? Classic Christian doctrine holds that the body and the soul are distinct entities. Evil infects the soul; it need not show up in the body. Moreover, on a Christian view of the world it is no surprise that we may find evil in anyone, even people who were not abused as a child (or whatever). Humans have been given the freedom to choose; evil is something people have always chosen. This is part of the writings of every Christian theologian in the last two thousand years! Our choices build on each other to become habits, either good habits (virtues) or bad ones (vices). With God's grace, we may attain a life of some virtue; otherwise we fall into sin and evil.

The filmmakers think they are shocking us. But the reality of evil that does not stem from obvious psychological root causes shouldn't shock anybody. A life of the greatest evil begins with a single step. And anybody can take that step. I thought we knew that. Does that really shock anybody?

Anyway, back to "8MM."

The film ends shortly after this final fight scene, in which Cage kills the actor. The ending leaves the viewer in a strange place: we do not know how to understand Cage’s character.

Note that there is no moral justification for Cage’s actions. Neither of the men he kills was responsible for the death of the girl, or the making of the film. The man who ordered the film made, Mr. Christian, is already dead. Dead too are the actual killer and the filmmaker who planned the details of the snuff film.

The two men Cage kills were only actors. Of course, they should not have participated in the movie. Like German citizens under Hitler, they participated in a great evil. They were not themselves responsible for the murder, but they did have a responsibility to refuse to participate, to try to stop it from happening: call the police, alert the media! Technically, the actors are probably accessories to murder. They are due for some serious jail time.

But why kill them? After the deaths of the men responsible for the murder of the girl, why not simply call it a day and go home, present your evidence to the cops? That would be the moral and civilized thing to do. Instead, Cage sentences the men to death, and carries out the sentence himself.

For what reason? The film makes clear that neither man is a danger to Cage; self-defense is not involved. Cage has to go out of his way, at real danger to himself, to track these men down and kill them.

The movie focuses on Cage’s face as he kills the men: he is furious, beside himself, vengeful. He makes no effort to control himself. He looks evil. He has become a cold-blooded murderer, even worse than the people he kills. The moral of the story seems clear: witnessing all the violent pornography has destroyed Cage’s sense of right and wrong, and turned him into a moral monster. Evil begets evil.

One problem with this reading of the film is that the filmmakers do not give it some needed support. If Cage’s actions are wrong, then presumably there were other, better options available to him. But nothing in the film leads us to think that Cage should have or could have done anything different. No other options are explored. There is no suggestion, from any quarter, that Cage might try to quash rather than indulge his desire for revenge. Nobody speaks a word on behalf of moderation. Even the men Cage kills seem to understand that, from his perspective, they have to die.

This reading of the film also coexists unhappily with a reading that makes more sense to viewers of typical Hollywood fare. Every Hollywood thriller seems to end with all the bad guys dead. No matter what their sins were, they have to die for those sins. And when the bad guys are dead, murdered by the good guys -- that’s an upbeat ending, and the good guys are not expected to be introspective about the morality of their actions. The good guys are not really “good,” they’re just the guys that we’ve been watching all movie long: we’re rooting for them. These bad guys need to die because, well, they’re the bad guys. Careful distinctions about actual culpability are beside the point.

On this reading, Cage is on the side of good. He is an avenging angel, making wrongs right, taking an eye for an eye. He plays the role of God, judge of sin and scourge of unrighteousness. He restores justice to the world. He is a hero, Hollywood-style.

Of course, this second reading of the film undercuts what we thought the movie was about. We were taking a close look at what repeated witnessing of sickness and evil can do to a man. It’s strange to think that what it does is to bless him, above all others, to dispense justice.

So we walk out of the movie not knowing what to think. Do Cage’s actions show the depth of his descent into madness and evil, or his ascension into Hollywood glory? It is a strange feeling to walk out of a movie not knowing whether the main character is supposed to be a psychopath or a hero.

And it’s not that the film leaves us with a pleasant sense of moral ambiguity. On the contrary, the impression is that the filmmakers had no idea what they were doing. “8MM” turns out to be a total failure, a mishmash. At first, it wants to be about the theme that evil begets evil. But the filmmakers don’t appear to believe in that theme, so they turn it into a typical Hollywood thriller. Now Cage looks like the good guy, the classic Hollywood hero. But because we, the audience, have been thinking about the infectiousness of evil, we suspect Cage’s character of having turned to evil, so we can’t quite buy that notion, either. We notice that Cage really is pretty unhinged and scary at the end of the film. But at no point in the film are we actually supported in the thought that he should not have done what he did. So we are left with nothing. We may start wondering whether Hollywood thrillers in general are wrongheaded and evil themselves, because they make us root for evil people. But clearly, this film does not intend to make us believe that!

If “8MM” teaches us something about evil, and about the limits of Hollywood’s ability to make evil real, it is despite what the film is trying to do, not because of it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

“Abstinence-only sex education.”

It’s a lousy kind of sex education. It teaches kids to be conflicted about their bodies and their sexuality. It doesn’t cut down on pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.

If you agree with this, please pledge to start calling it by a new name. Framing is important. The Republicans changed our national discourse by getting the media to use phrases like “death tax” and “tax relief” and “marriage penalty.”

Liberals need to frame issues in ways that support our positions. And this one is so, so easy.

Call it what it is. “Nice girls don’t” sex ed.