Cuando la sangre llega al río

La muerte de Nisman–y más en general el enfrentamiento entre el gobierno argentino y el poder judicial–hacen recordar el argumento de Milan Svolik sobre la intervención de los militares en política (este libro, cap. 5).

¿Por qué los militares hacen golpes? A primera vista la respuesta parece obvia: porque sus preferencias políticas difieren de las del gobierno de turno. Pero organizar un golpe implica un riesgo, porque si las cosas salen mal los cabecillas pueden esperar ser pasados a retiro, y el país puede llegar a caer en una guerra civil. En otras palabras, para los militares el mejor de los mundos posibles es uno donde la amenaza de un golpe es suficiente para inducir al gobierno a cambiar sus políticas. Pero si las autoridades civiles intuyen que los militares no quieren sacar los tanques a la calle, van a hacer caso omiso de las amenazas que reciban (o cumplir con ellas sólo en parte). Dependiendo del nivel de credibilidad del que goce la amenaza de dar un golpe, las relaciones cívico-militares pueden van a estar caracterizadas por uno de tres equilibrios:

  1. Sujeción militar al poder político. Cuando la amenaza de lanzar un golpe nunca es creíble, las autoridades civiles implementan sus políticas preferidas y los militares obedecen sin chistar. En otras palabras, no hay golpes porque las fuerzas armadas son muy débiles. Ejemplos: países desarrollados, Argentina post-1995.
  2. Tutela militar. Cuando el gobierno depende absolutamente del apoyo de los militares, la amenaza de golpe es tan creíble que las decisiones del poder civil están absolutamente subordinadas a las preferencias castrenses. Pero aunque los militares tienen mucho poder, los golpes son escasos porque no resultan necesarios. Ejemplos: El Salvador durante la segunda mitad del s. XX.
  3. Riesgo calculado (“brinkmanship“). Cuando la amenaza de intervención militar no puede ser descartada de plano pero tampoco resulta enteramente creíble, los militares y el gobierno se embarcan en un juego de póker: los unos piden más de lo que esperan obtener, el otro estima que puede evitar un golpe dando menos de lo que le piden. En otras palabras, nadie sabe hasta dónde el otro está dispuesto a ceder, y entonces ambos tratan de correr los límites un poco más allá, hasta que alguno comete un error de cálculo:

Military interventions occur when, in this push-and-shove play for influence between the military and the government, the latter oversteps and “rocks the boat” too much. (Milan Svolik, The Politics of Authoritarian Rule, Cambridge University Press, 2012, ch. 5)

El enfrentamiento entre el kirchnerismo y la justicia puede ser descrito con la misma lógica. Por supuesto, el poder judicial no hace golpes pero decide estratégicamente si investiga a los funcionarios gubernamentales que cometen delitos. Pero como en el caso anterior, independientemente de quién gane la pulseada, tanto el gobierno como los jueces están mejor si no hay conflicto: si a la larga va a ganar el gobierno, jueces y fiscales prefieren no quedar marcados como enemigos del poder de turno; mientras que si va a predominar la justicia, los funcionarios gubernamentales prefieren no incurrir en comportamientos que puedan ser juzgados. Como en el caso de las relaciones cívico-militares, esto da lugar a tres equilibrios:

  1. En un escenario de subordinación judicial al poder político, ningún juez o fiscal investiga a los funcionarios de turno porque es absolutamente inútil; los únicos políticos investigados–posiblemente con causas armadas–son los de la oposición. Como en el caso de la sujeción militar al poder político, el conflicto no existe: si a algún funcionario judicial quijotesco se le ocurre investigar al poder de turno, es removido inmediatamente de su cargo.
  2. Cuando se respeta la independencia judicial, jueces y fiscales se sienten en libertad de investigar, porque el gobierno no puede responder cargando contra el poder judicial. Por supuesto, los funcionarios acusados tienen el derecho a defenderse, pero dicha defensa de limita a una causa concreta; la investigación de un funcionario, por importante que sea, no termina en un conflicto con el poder judicial in toto.
  3. Cuando el poder judicial no es completamente autónomo pero tampoco opera como un apéndice del poder político, el resultado es un enfrentamiento entre poderes que vemos en la Argentina de hoy: unos disparan con causas e investigaciones no siempre creíbles, en tanto que los otros responden con presiones, operaciones mediáticas, y reformas institucionales destinadas a subordinar la justicia al poder de turno. Como en el caso de las relaciones cívico-militares, aunque ninguna de las partes quiere el conflicto, ambas tienen incentivos para exagerar su posición y descubrir dónde están los límites. Hasta que la sangre termina por llegar al río.

Desde mediados de los 90, la Argentina se encuentra empantanada en este último equilibrio. La acusación de Nisman y su muerte son tanto un reflejo de ello como un intento de extender los límites un poco más allá y establecer un equilibrio diferente. Nuestra reacción va a determinar con qué nos vamos a encontrar mañana: si la muerte de Nisman permanece impune, la muerte del fiscal que acusó a la presidenta va a colgar como espada de Damocles sobre el resto de los funcionarios judiciales, independientemente de que el gobierno sea el responsable directo de su muerte; sólo si el caso se resuelve de manera satisfactoria vamos a avanzar a un escenario donde jueces y fiscales se sienten dispuestos a investigar al poder de turno.

(Publicado originalmente en https://elpaisgeneroso.wordpress.com/)

From (Another Blog’s) Comments: An Ethic of Offense

Dr. Khawaja and his colleague Dr. Riesbeck have a very lively discussion on the ethics of offensive behavior on his blog, which I was privileged to join and offer my thoughts.

The post and discussion are all worth reading, but for now I’ll just quote the summary I gave of both Dr. Khawaja’s and Dr. Riesbeck’s points, along with some of their comments, with edits for flow:

“As a general principle, it is better to not offend than to offend. This is dependent on the nature of the offense, of the offender, of the offendee, and of the status of the place in which the offense occurs. Simply stating “don’t offend” like it is a categorical imperative ignores the nuance, the uses and abuses inherent to offensive sayings and actions.
-The nature of the offense is whether it was deliberate (I go up to a devout Muslim in the street and whisper discretely “Islam is false”) or accidental (I put up my feet in a Greek restaurant).
-The nature of the offender is a question of whether he is a deliberate or an accidental offender, which is often epistemically impossible to determine without intimate knowledge.
-The nature of the offendee is a question of how the offense will be borne, and whether it is profitable in some way to offend (see principles 2 and 3 below). If I am speaking with my friend, who is Muslim, and who I know is a relatively open-minded person, I can say to him “Islam is false” in the course of a conversation on religion, because we are both assumed to possess a nature of open enquiry, and the nature of the place in which we are speaking is considered to be open (more on this in the next point). If I am at a protest against America, where effigies of the president and the flag are being burned, and angry Muslims with Kalashnikovs are shooting into the air, prudence alone dictates that I keep my opinions to myself.
-Finally, the status of the place where the offense takes place is important. If I want to walk around naked at the Folsom Street Fair, a place specifically designated for the expression of non-mainstream sexuality, then that is okay, because it is a space for such people. If I want to do the same thing in Notre Dame cathedral, then I am infringing on the space of others, who do not want to see my nakedness, and have a stronger claim to that space. However, in neutral, public space such as a city park, it is a little bit trickier. Who really “owns” that space, especially when there are groups within the same society and culture that have different ideas for the park?

This idea is based on three principles, really just one:
1. In social intercourse, we ought to act so as to bring out the best in the people with whom we interact, and not the worst.
2. We must do this at a minimum cost to our own best principles
3. We must do this at a minimum cost to the well-being of the other parties”

Discussion centered around several thought experiments:
1. Putting up one’s feet in Greece, where it is purportedly considered offensive.
2. Printing a picture of the prophet Muhammed in a textbook and using it in class
3. Public displays of affection.
4. Saying that Islam is false.

I’ll quote Dr. Khawaja in his response to No. 2:

“I think the image should be published regardless of the offense it may cause. The ban on images of the Prophet is patently irrational. Implicitly, it involves an attack on the very idea of mimetic art, and it does so in a cultural context where mimetic art is perfectly acceptable. Arguably, it’s not even an authentically Islamic idea.

Someone may argue that an image of the Prophet Muhammad has no educational value, but I think that’s too narrowly informational a conception of educational value. Granted, the image cannot literally tell us what the Prophet Muhammad looked like. Granted, it cannot impart specific information about his life. But that isn’t its point. Image-production is an act of the imagination. We put images in books because it’s pleasant to do so–for producer as well as consumer–and students should eventually come to see that and ideally participate in it. When Muslims attack non-derisive imagistic depictions of the Prophet, they are asking those of us at home in a mimetic culture to subordinate our justifiable desire for mimetic expression to their iconoclasm. We have no reason to accept that, and we should not do so. After all, if we took iconoclasm seriously–more seriously than its tribalist defenders tend to, who haven’t quite grasped its point–we would have to emulate the Taliban and regard all images as somehow suspect and offensive. In that case, if we followed the norm to its logical conclusion, we’d have to avoid reprinting images of any kind in any public setting. We’d then have to consider dismantling all public art of a mimetic nature, as is done in Afghanistan, and as is sometimes contemplated in Pakistan.”

There is plenty of room to disagree with the eudaimonistic principle, especially concerning the many exceptions that were deemed necessary to make it coherent. For example, Dr. Khawaja highlights what I will call the “asshole clause” as an exception:

“…there are interactions in which we’re obliged to deal with people we can’t avoid dealing with, and who by their previous actions have forfeited a very strong claim to sensitivity on our part. I think such dealings should be minimized, but they can’t be entirely avoided. People like this need to be divided into those who deserve intentional offense, and those who merely deserve foreseeable but not intentional offense. You have to be a real asshole to go into the first category. You just need to have done some asshole things to fall into the second.”

With such people, we do not desire to bring out the best in them, presumably because we consider them to be irredeemably noxious individuals. The general principle to not offend is the basis for this theory of social interaction, and since it has been suspended, so too has its subordinate principles: to minimize harm to our principles, and to the sensibilities of our interlocutor. Calling an asshole an asshole to his face presents no issue, even if it is done offensively and without tact, because it may be in our best interests to retaliate more vehemently against a real ass than we would against a more sensible person.

Indeed, it might be said that doing so would do the asshole a favor. “Shocking” a person out of their bad habits through a corresponding breach of social etiquette is often an effective tactic. To cite my own experience, I once had a friend who was widely regarded as a real asshole by all the friends in his social circle, me included. Case in point: during a rainstorm he intentionally pushed me into a puddle, and then laughed as I got soaked. We eventually all told him he was an asshole and that we wouldn’t spend any more time with him. He mended his ways immediately. Dr. Riesbeck earlier credits his personal intuitions as a guide for determining the costs and benefits of giving – or not giving – offense in these cases. In general, I would agree that intuitions aren’t too far off the mark. Everyone knows an asshole when he sees one, after all.

Furthermore, even if the general principle is maintained, it will often conflict with other principles, that may have greater weight. Sometimes not giving offense, and maintaining candor, authenticity, or rationality, are opposed goals. At this point, it must be asked whether giving offense offers a greater benefit to the offender, which outweighs the harm to the offender by not giving offense, and the harm to the offendee given by the offense (apologies for the tortured prose). To quote Dr. Khawaja one more time:

“If a norm is patently irrational, it offends the dignity of any rational agent, and there can’t be a reason to respect it. Personally, I think the full-veil burqa falls into this category. Similarly, a norm that requires lying must be rejected: there are extreme conceptions of politeness in some cultures that require people to lie to one another. Arguably, the Pakistani norm of takallaf–or assiduous attention to formal etiquette–is one of them. (It’s not often remarked that both takallaf and ikhlas (sincerity) are supposed to be norms of Pakistani culture, but takallaf systematically violates iklhas.)”

I enjoyed the discussion, and I would like to open it up to further comment and critique from the fine readers of NOL. What do ya’ll think?

“Mohammed — in pictures”

That is the title of this piece by Barnaby Rogerson in the Spectator. There are three beautiful pieces of medieval art (two Persian and one Turkish), and those alone are worth the price of the click. There is, of course, a short essay explaining why there is now so much resistance to depicting Mohammed in art (of both the high and low brow variety). Check it out:

Whatever the heritage of their medieval past, Sunni Islam — in the Arab-speaking Middle East — had decisively turned its back on depictions of the Prophet well before the 18th-century emergence of Wahhabism. Once again there are no definite answers. It may have been a gut reaction to the magnificent art produced by their Iranian Shiite rivals but it also reflects a very real fear that Mohammed was slowly being turned into a demi-god and that in the process his actual prophetic message would be ignored. This was especially true in the far eastern frontiers of Islam, such as India and Indonesia (numerically the two largest Muslim nations in the world) with their ancient syncretic traditions. So the attack on imagery can also be seen to have a constructive element embedded within it, concentrating all attention on the text of the Koran and reinforcing the Arab nature of that revelation.

Take this as you will. My instinct is to suspect “the Arab nature of that revelation” as the initial reason for this change in Islamic aesthetics. That is to say, I suspect that a medieval notion of Arab chauvinism is responsible for the shift.

The Best Book I Have Read Recently

I make some notes about almost all the books I read. I am thinking my notes may be useful to others. Here is an instance; it’s about a good book I read recently:

Jared Diamond’s 2012 The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

A confession first: When I die, I want to come back as Jared Diamond. He had the exemplary academic career; he wasted no time; he took advantage of academia’s largess and low standards to change himself several times into a different kind of scholar. He addresses ordinary literate people with much success. He is a great teacher.

What Diamond means by “traditional societies”  (in the title) is an imaginary aggregate of what social scientists call “hunters-gatherers” and “horticulturalists.” The latter are largely hoe cultivators, people who don’t use the plow but who grow food. Horticulturalists live entirely in tropical and equatorial climates.

Diamond’s book makes very good reading and, in addition, he tries to make it practical, useful at every step. His guiding theme is that by observing traditional people more closely, we may be able to improve many of our civilized practices. He visits in turn how his traditional societies define strangers and how they deal with war, child rearing, the treatment of the aged, attitudes toward danger, religion, language and health.

Traditionals, in general (also called “primitives”) live in fairly small units because their technologies (plural) cannot support large concentrations of people. They have no cities; they are not “civilized.” Diamond makes the implicit assumption (implicit, I think) that small scale and the preservation of “traditional beliefs” go hand in hand. He makes the further assumption – a fairly common one – that today’s traditional societies are similar to the societies in our own past. Thus, the part of the title that says, “Until Yesterday.” According to this assumption, the observation of such societies has much to teach us about how we – civilized people – grew up, so to speak, and about what we lost while growing up.

I am skeptical about both assumptions, not rejecting, skeptical. First, I don’t really believe that tradition does not change. I think that traditional people live in environments that change to some extent, sometimes rapidly. They change, in particular, because the powerful civilized societies in which they are embedded tend to grow, thus threatening or reducing the traditionals’ physical space and their resources. The tragedy of the Plains Indians reduction to near nothing must have happened many times before. Thus the thing that defines traditional people, “tradition” itself must change to some extent to accommodate change in their environments. The mere fact that traditional societies are around to be observed at all tells us that they must have adjusted to some extent. Thus, when considering them we don’t know if we are looking at our own past, or at pathetic survivors next to extinction, or on the contrary, at extraordinarily skillful ones. That’ s a problem for the generalizing Diamond invites us to engage in. That’s my second main objection to Diamond’s overall approach.

In point of fact, the traditional societies to which Diamond alludes include none situated in the temperate zone. It’s not his fault, of course, Lapps in Northern Scandinavia and Finland may be the only ones left more or less intact. But this fact aggravates my skepticism about the exemplarity of the primitive groups Diamond describes. I cannot eliminate from my mind the fact that civilization arose only in temperate zones, in the Middle East, in Europe, and in China. And independently, in the temperate elevations of meso-America and of South America. Perhaps, possibly, probably this is not a coincidence. Diamond’s tropical, desert, and far north groups may be in no way similar to our ancestors.

Beyond these general remarks, I have two specific quarrels with Diamond. The first is about health and the second about language acquisition. Diamond contends that the maladies of old age that affect civilized people today, including arthritis, cardiac illness, and diabetes, are practically non-existent among primitive people. He also says that primitive people have low life expectancy, I think he means at all ages. So, I am wondering if the first statement is not simply the result of a major sampling error, of a major optical illusion: If people seldom live beyond age fifty-five there will be few of the illnesses associated with old age in their society. It would seem like a gross error for a man of Diamond’s intellectual distinction to make. He may have in fact taken care of this objection and I missed it. Or, he did not do it loudly enough and then, why?

My second specific objection concerns one of the many statement he makes on language acquisition. At one point, he declares himself in favor of “crib bilingualism.” That’s the practice of speaking to babies in more than one language from birth. Personally, I think it’s a dangerous gamble. I don’t have any systematic data. My judgment relies on anecdotal evidence spread over fifty years. So does his. I believe he has not done enough due diligence of tracking possible downsides of the practice. (I don’t need to track its upsides because they are obvious: Get two languages for the same price, same as heads of cabbage at the flea market.)

I may write Prof. Diamond soon at UCLA where he teaches to ask him to discuss these points. Don’t wait on me to act to read this wonderful book though. Do it, do it critically if you can.

Also, read my book : I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography

A Tale of Free Banking

Herewith we visit an imaginary future where free banking prevails. Government regulation of banks is a thing of the past. Banks have the freedom and the responsibility that they lacked under government regulation. In particular, private banks are free to print money, either literally, in the form of paper banknotes for the shrinking number of customers who want them, but in electronic form for most.

Print money? Horrors, you say! Fraud! Runaway inflation!

Not so fast. Come with me on a fantasy visit to the local branch of my bank, a future incarnation of Wells Fargo to be specific.

The first thing we notice is a display case showing a number of gold coins and a placard that says, “available here for 1,000 Wells Fargo Dollars each, now and forever.” I have in my wallet a number of Wells Fargo banknotes in various denominations. I could walk up to a teller and plunk down 1,000 of them and the smiling young lady would hand over one of these coins. More likely I would whip out my smartphone and hold it up to the near-field reader, validate my thumbprint, and complete the transaction without paper.

I have a few of these beautiful gold coins socked away at home but I don’t want any more today nor do I want to carry them around. Electronic money is ever so much safer and more convenient. Still, I am reassured by the knowledge that I could get the gold any time I wanted it. That is the basis for my confidence in this bank, not the FDIC sticker we used to see in the bank’s window.

Confidence? What about inflation? Wells Fargo can create as many of these dollars as they want, out of thin air. Without government regulation, who will stop them from creating and spending as many dollars as they want?

The market will stop them, that’s who.

In my scenario, Consumer Reports and a number of lesser known organizations track Wells Fargo and other banks. These organizations post daily figures online showing the number of Wells Fargo dollars (WF$) outstanding and the amount of gold holdings that the bank keeps in reserve to back these dollars. Premium subscribers, I imagine, can get an email alert any time a bank’s reserves fall below some specified levels. Large depositors will notify Wells Fargo of their intention to begin withdrawing deposits and/or demanding physical gold. Small depositors piggyback on the vigilance efforts of big depositors. They know it is not necessary for them to pester the bank when the big guys are doing it for everybody.

Wells Fargo practices fractional reserve banking. They cannot redeem all their banknote liabilities and demand deposit liabilities at the stated rate of one ounce of gold per thousand WF$. This situation is clearly outlined in the contract that depositors sign and is printed on their banknotes.

Let’s assume Wells Fargo backs just 40% of its banknotes and deposits with physical gold. How is this figure arrived at? By trial and error. Managers believe that if they let the reserve ratio slip much below 40% they will start getting flak from the monitoring websites and their big depositors. If they let it rise much above that figure their stockholders will begin complaining about missed profit opportunities.

Under fractional reserve banking, bank runs are possible. A bank run is a situation where a few depositors lose confidence in a bank and demand redemption of their deposits in gold or in notes of another bank. Seeing this, other depositors line up to get their money out, and if left unchecked, the bank is wiped out along with the depositors who were last in line. Bank runs are not a pretty sight.

Wells Fargo has a number of strategies for heading off a bank run. They have an agreement with the private clearing house of which they are a member that allows the bank to draw on a line of credit under certain circumstances. There is a clause, clearly indicated in the agreement with their depositors, allowing them to delay gold redemption for up to 60 days under special circumstances. They can reduce the supply of WF$ by calling in loans as permitted by loan agreements. Most important, though, is Wells Fargo’s reputation. Not once in their long history has Wells Fargo been subject to a bank run. Management is keenly aware of the value of their reputation and will move heaven and earth to preserve it.

To sum up, Wells Fargo’s ability to create unbacked money is limited by the public’s willingness to hold that money. The bank can respond to changes in the demand to hold WF$ whether those changes are seasonal in nature or secular.  They have strategies in place to head off runs should one appear imminent or actually begin.

What about competing banks, you may ask. Does Bank of America issue its own money? If so, there must be chaos with several different brands of money in the market. Are there floating exchange rates? Is a BofA$ worth WF$1.05 one day and WF$0.95 the next? What else but government regulation could put an end to such chaos?

The market, that’s what else.

Competing suppliers of all sorts of products have an incentive to adhere to standards even as they compete vigorously. If we were in a classroom right now I would point to the fluorescent lights overhead. The tubes are all four feet long and 1.5 inches in diameter, with standard connectors. They run on 110 volt 60 Hz AC current. Suppliers all adhere to this standard while competing vigorously with one another. If they don’t adhere to the standards people won’t buy their light bulbs.

So it is that competing banks in my fantasy world have all converged on a gold standard. They all adhere to the standard one ounce of gold per thousand dollars. (I trust it’s obvious that I just made up this number. Any number would do.)

Why gold? Gold has physical properties that have endeared it to people over the ages—durability, divisibility, scarcity to name a few. But other standards might have evolved such as a basket of commodities—gold, silver, copper, whatever.

You may raise another objection. All this gold sitting in vaults detracts from the supply available for jewelry, electronics, etc. That’s a real cost to these industries and their customers.

Yes, it is. It’s called the “resource cost” of commodity-backed money. To get a handle on this cost we must recognize that gold sitting in vaults is not really idle, but is actively providing a service. It is ensuring a stable monetary system immune from political meddling. How valuable is that? The market will balance the benefits of stability against the resource costs of a gold standard.

Furthermore we can expect resource costs to decline slowly as confidence in the banking system increases and people are comfortable with declining reserve ratios. Wells Fargo may find that a 30% reserve ratio rather 40% will be enough to maintain confidence. Other things equal, this development would boost profits temporarily, but those profits would soon be competed away, to the benefit of depositors and the economy as a whole.

Let’s go back to bank runs. Aren’t they something horrible, to be avoided at all costs?

Actually an occasional bank run is something to be celebrated. Not for those involved, of course, but to remind depositors and bank managers alike that they need to be careful. The same is true of the recent Radio Shack bankruptcy. Bad news for stockholders, suppliers and employees but an opportunity for competitors to learn from this bankruptcy.

Under my free banking scenario, depositors must take some responsibility for their actions. That doesn’t mean they have to become professional examiners. They just have to take some care to check with Consumer Reports or other rating organizations before signing on with a bank.

Have I sketched out a perfect situation? There’s no such thing as perfection in human affairs but I submit that this situation would be vastly superior to what we have now, where the Federal Reserve’s policy of printing money to finance government deficits will end badly. Furthermore, relatively free banking has existed in the past and worked well. To learn more, start with Larry White’s “Free Banking in Britain.”

From the Comments: Foucault, Obscurity, and Liberty

Jacques and Barry had an excellent back-and-forth on Barry’s post about Foucault’s contributions to liberty. Here is Dr Stocker’s final response to Dr Delacroix’s questions:

Well Jacques, my last comment was not supposed to be the full reply to your preceding comment, as I tried to make clear. As I said I needed time to think before posting anything from Foucault. I was just preparing the way with comments on the background to Foucault’s style. On Montaigne, how easy is Montaigne? Maybe he seems clear to you and other French people who read him in the Lycée. I teach a lot of Montaigne in Istanbul and students don’t find him easy. Maybe his style at a sentence by sentence level is clearer than Foucault, but I would say only Foucault at his most supposedly obscure. Montaigne can seem clear because he writes in a conversational way, appearing to just comment informally on something in his mind. However, his essays are endlessly digressive and shifting in viewpoint and claim within just one essay, some of which are very long and very detached from the starting point. He mixes quotations from classics, historical illustrations, unreliable anecdotes, and personal memories, in ways which could be often said to obscure as much as clarify any underlying claim, though sometimes a relatively simple maxim seems to be the point. Even there, one really has to think about the relation between the apparent maxim and Montaigne’s shifting point of view to get the underlying point/points. The way that the style interacts with Montaigne’s mind and the uncertainties of his point of view, and the persistent anxieties about saving his world of experience from extinction in death, all have some echoes in Foucault and in various ways it seems to be me that Foucault works on a basis in Montaigne, even if adding the kind of abstract language, vocabulary and sentence construction coming from a mixture of German philosophy since Kant, and poetic-literary language since the Romantics.

Now for a couple of quotations. The first is a random selection from the book that first made him famous, History of Madness. The second is a less random selection from his late essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’.

History of Madness, page 29 (2006 Routledge edition translated by Murphy and Khalfa)

Rising up in spirit towards God and sounding the bottomless depths into which we find ourselves plunged are one and the same, and in Calvin’s experience madness is the measure of man when he is compared to the boundless reason of God.

In its finitude, man’s spirit is less a shaft of the great light than a fragment of shadow. The partial and transitory truth of appearances is not available to his limited intelligence; his madness discovers but the reverse of things, their dark side, the immediate contradiction of their truth. In his journey to God, man must do more than surpass himself—he must rip himself away from his essential weakness, and in one bound cross from the things of this world to their divine essence, for whatever transpires of truth appearances is not its reflection but a cruel contradiction.

‘What is Enlightenment?’ (as published in Michel Foucault Essential Works vol 1, ed. Rabinow, 2000), p 315

We must obviously give a more positive content to what may be a philosophical ethos consisting in a critique of what we are saying, thinking, and doing, and through a historical ontology of ourselves.
1. This philosophical ethos may be characterised as a limit-attitude. We are not talking about a gesture of rejection. We have to move beyond the outside-inside alternative; we have to be at the frontiers. Criticism indeed consists of analysing and reflecting upon limits. But if the Kantian question must was that of knowing what limits knowledge must renounce exceeding, it seems to me that the critical question today must be turned back into a positive one: In what is given to us as universal, necessary, obligatory, what place is occupied by whatever is singular, contingent, and the product of arbitrary constraints? The point in brief, is to transform the critique conducted in the form of necessary limitation into a practical critique that takes the form of a possible crossing-over.

In the first passage above, Foucault uses a language recognisable to anyone who has read much Heidegger to discuss the thought of the 16th century religious reformer Calvin. Since Heidegger’s thought in Being and Time has some roots in Reformation theology this maybe a particularly intriguing way of using Heidegger. The finitude of man compared to God is something that alludes to Heidegger’s understanding of the essential mortality, finitude, temporality of humanity. It also brings out how for Calvin, madness is an aspect of the limitation of human consciousness compared with that of God. In this passage Foucault is bringing together 16th century religious thought, the way that some 20th century philosophy approaches the themes of earlier philosophy and religion when concerned with questions of the limit of experience, how the question of defining ‘madness’ relates to the questions of defining consciousness, experience and limits from the viewpoints of the dominant ways of thinking and organising experience at the time, the ideology operating in the institutions and laws which are applied to the ‘mad’. What Foucault also brings out is that madness’ was closely related to a positive idea of transcending human bounds, so that the stigmatisation of madness then as now is intimately associated with altered states of consciousness that are given value. The use of a ‘mad’ perspective in 20th century Surrealism is one of the aspects that Foucault is alluding to here, an the ways that such aestheticised encounters with the limits of consciousness and rationality relate to earlier religious ideas of exalted spiritual states.

In the second passage above, Foucault is still concerned with the limit and while individual passages in Foucault may seem obscure, he had a very persistent interest in limits of experience, and related questions over some decades, so it is possible to build up an accumulating familiarity with Foucault’s treatment of the issue. The ‘message’ in that passage is the value of moving from Enlightenment of a Kantian kind, which places limits on the claims of universality, to a a kind of Enlightenment based on exploration of the non-necessity of limits, the exploration of the plurality of individual instances unlimited by rationalistic limitations. This is a very Montaigne-like thought, even if the language is more ‘obscure’. There is a commitment to a ‘historical ontology’, that is the understanding of ourselves as individuals and of the ‘human’ in general as the product of contingency and circumstances rather than a deep self or deep humanity detached from experience and history. This is both a proposal for the study of human institutions and discourses as Foucault already had been doing for decades and a proposal for an ethics which values subjectivity in its variability and different contexts. There is no clear limit to knowledge or consciousness, just as there is no clear limit between different areas of knowledge or experience. Foucault’s idea of Enlightenment knowledge and ethics is to keep exploring and pushing at the limits that have been assumed, which is a way of showing their continent constructed nature as well as the way that consciousness is always dealing with a sense of inside and outside that is open to transformation.

In both passages above, I would argue, Foucault uses allusion and compression of multiple allusions, to show connections and differences, and to make us think about those connections and differences. Calvin’s thought about theology has implications for defining ‘madness’, Enlightenment scientific inquiry is related to assumptions about limits of reason and experience. The ‘obscurity’ arises from the way that the syntheses, allusions, and challenges to a priori boundaries are put in a language which shows these things at work rather than just saying that they exist and makes us aware that the language we constantly use is structured and energised by the unions and tensions contained within these thoughts.

If one simply wants the ideas about institutions, history, discourse and so on in Foucault, without the ‘obscure’ language, then to some degree these can be found in Foucault’s lectures, and then maybe more so in those commentators committed to a clarification of Foucault for those not immersed in the use of philosophical language to convey meaning beyond the most literal transmission of messages, commentators including Gary Gutting, Ian Hacking, and Hans Sluga. I recommend them to anyone who finds Foucault’s style to be a chore but wants to find out about ideas which have certainly influenced a lot of work in the humanities and the social sciences.

The whole dialogue between the two starts here, if you’re interested.

Martin Luther King Jr Day and Civil Rights: A (True?) Libertarian’s Lazy Perspective

History professor and fellow Notewriter Jonathan Bean has an op-ed out in the Daily Caller titled “Civil Rights Are Too Important To Be Left To Special-Interest Advocates.” From the opening paragraph:

“War is too important to be left to the generals,” the saying goes. Similarly, civil rights are too important to be left to professional advocates who champion only their own particular racial, ethnic, or religious causes. Unfortunately, in the “official” civil rights community of today a spirit of inclusiveness may be the exception, not the rule.

Read the rest.

Dr Bean’s post has reminded me of how to best tell the difference between a libertarian and a conservative (overseas readers: here is my reminder to you that, in US parlance, libertarian means liberal): libertarians have a deep, principled commitment to equality that is simply missing in conservative thought.

Libertarians will argue that all individuals are born equal, whereas conservatives will tell you individuals are not. Libertarian notions of equality are thus caught in the middle of two extremes: on the Right you have conservatives who believe that inequality equality is not possible on an individual, regional, national, or international scale and on the Left you have egalitarians who harbor all sorts of utopian pipedreams based on “equality.” These three paradigms are by no means obvious, and sometimes you have to think about the implications of a person’s argument.

The libertarian notion is utopian, as it has never been reached and probably never will be, but it is always within reach and is based upon civil and legal equality rather than some of the asinine notions of the Left. When I say “civil and legal equality” I mean that all human beings are deserving of the same fundamental individual rights. Conservatives don’t believe in this (think about their views on immigrants, for example, or ethnic/religious minorities).

So the libertarian, when faced with a hypothetical that looks at an immigrant who came to the US illegally, will say the immigrant is deserving of the same legal and civil rights as a native. A conservative will not. I know many self-described libertarians will give the second answer, and my response to them would be, “well, I guess you’re a conservative then, and not a libertarian.”

Ouch!

I understand that the complexities of politics in federal democracies make ideological arguments useless, so my only goal with this post is to help readers clarify their own political views. If you don’t support the civil and legal rights of illegal immigrants (for example), you are not a libertarian. I don’t mean to be in such a purge-y mood, but that’s a fairly basic tenet of the creed.

Also, Malcolm X did more for the civil rights of Americans than MLK did. The government chose MLK to represent the civil rights struggle, though, because he never toted a gun in public. Same thing happened in South Asia just before the UK left. Gandhi didn’t have nearly as much influence as the armed insurrections happening all over the subcontinent. Bring it!