The death of reason

“In so far as their only recourse to that world is through what they see and do, we may want to say that after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world.”

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions p. 111

I can remember arguing with my cousin right after Michael Brown was shot. “It’s still unclear what happened,” I said, “based soley on testimony” — at that point, we were still waiting on the federal autopsy report by the Department of Justice. He said that in the video, you can clearly see Brown, back to the officer and with his hands up, as he is shot up to eight times.

My cousin doesn’t like police. I’m more ambivalent, but I’ve studied criminal justice for a few years now, and I thought that if both of us watched this video (no such video actually existed), it was probably I who would have the more nuanced grasp of what happened. So I said: “Well, I will look up this video, try and get a less biased take and get back to you.” He replied, sarcastically, “You can’t watch it without bias. We all have biases.”

And that seems to be the sentiment of the times: bias encompasses the human experience, it subsumes all judgments and perceptions. Biases are so rampant, in fact, that no objective analysis is possible. These biases may be cognitive, like confirmation bias, emotional fallacies or that phenomenon of constructive memory; or inductive, like selectivity or ignoring base probability; or, as has been common to think, ingrained into experience itself.

The thing about biases is that they are open to psychological evaluation. There are precedents for eliminating them. For instance, one common explanation of racism is that familiarity breeds acceptance, and infamiliarity breeds intolerance (as Reason points out, people further from fracking sites have more negative opinions on the practice than people closer). So to curb racism (a sort of bias), children should interact with people outside of their singular ethnic group. More clinical methodology seeks to transform mental functions that are automatic to controlled, and thereby enter reflective measures into perception, reducing bias. Apart from these, there is that ancient Greek practice of reasoning, wherein patterns and evidence are used to generate logical conclusions.

If it were true that human bias is all-encompassing, and essentially insurmountable, the whole concept of critical thinking goes out the window. Not only do we lose the critical-rationalist, Popperian mode of discovery, but also Socratic dialectic, as essentially “higher truths” disappear from human lexicon.

The belief that biases are intrinsic to human judgment ignores psychological or philosophical methods to counter prejudice because it posits that objectivity itself is impossible. This viewpoint has been associated with “postmodern” schools of philosophy, such as those Dr. Rosi commented on (e.g., those of Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Butler), although it’s worth pointing out that the analytic tradition, with its origins in Frege, Russell and Moore represents a far greater break from the previous, modern tradition of Descartes and Kant, and often reached similar conclusions as the Continentals.

Although theorists of the “postmodern” clique produced diverse claims about knowledge, society, and politics, the most famous figures are nearly almost always associated or incorporated into the political left. To make a useful simplification of viewpoints: it would seem that progressives have generally accepted Butlerian non-essentialism about gender and Foucauldian terminology (discourse and institutions). Derrida’s poststructuralist critique noted dichotomies and also claimed that the philosophical search for Logos has been patriarchal, almost neoreactionary. (The month before Donald Trump’s victory, the word patriarchy had an all-time high at Google search.) It is not a far right conspiracy that European philosophers with strange theories have influenced and sought to influence American society; it is patent in the new political language.

Some people think of the postmodernists as all social constructivists, holding the theory that many of the categories and identifications we use in the world are social constructs without a human-independent nature (e.g., not natural kinds). Disciplines like anthropology and sociology have long since dipped their toes, and the broader academic community, too, relates that things like gender and race are social constructs. But the ideas can and do go further: “facts” themselves are open to interpretation on this view: to even assert a “fact” is just to affirm power of some sort. This worldview subsequently degrades the status of science into an extended apparatus for confirmation-bias, filling out the details of a committed ideology rather than providing us with new facts about the world. There can be no objectivity outside of a worldview.

Even though philosophy took a naturalistic turn with the philosopher W. V. O. Quine, seeing itself as integrating with and working alongside science, the criticisms of science as an establishment that emerged in the 1950s and 60s (and earlier) often disturbed its unique epistemic privilege in society: ideas that theory is underdetermined by evidence, that scientific progress is nonrational, that unconfirmed auxiliary hypotheses are required to conduct experiments and form theories, and that social norms play a large role in the process of justification all damaged the mythos of science as an exemplar of human rationality.

But once we have dismantled Science, what do we do next? Some critics have held up Nazi German eugenics and phrenology as examples of the damage that science can do to society (nevermind that we now consider them pseudoscience). Yet Lysenkoism and the history of astronomy and cosmology indicate that suppressing scientific discovery can too be deleterious. Austrian physicist and philosopher Paul Feyerabend instead wanted a free society — one where science had equal power as older, more spiritual forms of knowledge. He thought the model of rational science exemplified in Sir Karl Popper was inapplicable to the real machinery of scientific discovery, and the only methodological rule we could impose on science was: “anything goes.”

Feyerabend’s views are almost a caricature of postmodernism, although he denied the label “relativist,” opting instead for philosophical Dadaist. In his pluralism, there is no hierarchy of knowledge, and state power can even be introduced when necessary to break up scientific monopoly. Feyerabend, contra scientists like Richard Dawkins, thought that science was like an organized religion and therefore supported a separation of church and state as well as a separation of state and science. Here is a move forward for a society that has started distrusting the scientific method… but if this is what we should do post-science, it’s still unclear how to proceed. There are still queries for anyone who loathes the hegemony of science in the Western world.

For example, how does the investigation of crimes proceed without strict adherence to the latest scientific protocol? Presumably, Feyerabend didn’t want to privatize law enforcement, but science and the state are very intricately connected. In 2005, Congress authorized the National Academy of Sciences to form a committee and conduct a comprehensive study on contemporary legal science to identify community needs, evaluating laboratory executives, medical examiners, coroners, anthropologists, entomologists, ontologists, and various legal experts. Forensic science — scientific procedure applied to the field of law — exists for two practical goals: exoneration and prosecution. However, the Forensic Science Committee revealed that severe issues riddle forensics (e.g., bite mark analysis), and in their list of recommendations the top priority is establishing an independent federal entity to devise consistent standards and enforce regular practice.

For top scientists, this sort of centralized authority seems necessary to produce reliable work, and it entirely disagrees with Feyerabend’s emphasis on methodological pluralism. Barack Obama formed the National Commission on Forensic Science in 2013 to further investigate problems in the field, and only recently Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Department of Justice will not renew the committee. It’s unclear now what forensic science will do to resolve its ongoing problems, but what is clear is that the American court system would fall apart without the possibility of appealing to scientific consensus (especially forensics), and that the only foreseeable way to solve the existing issues is through stricter methodology. (Just like with McDonalds, there are enforced standards so that the product is consistent wherever one orders.) More on this later.

So it doesn’t seem to be in the interest of things like due process to abandon science or completely separate it from state power. (It does, however, make sense to move forensic laboratories out from under direct administrative control, as the NAS report notes in Recommendation 4. This is, however, specifically to reduce bias.) In a culture where science is viewed as irrational, Eurocentric, ad hoc, and polluted with ideological motivations — or where Reason itself is seen as a particular hegemonic, imperial device to suppress different cultures — not only do we not know what to do, when we try to do things we lose elements of our civilization that everyone agrees are valuable.

Although Aristotle separated pathos, ethos and logos (adding that all informed each other), later philosophers like Feyerabend thought of reason as a sort of “practice,” with history and connotations like any other human activity, falling far short of sublime. One could no more justify reason outside of its European cosmology than the sacrificial rituals of the Aztecs outside of theirs. To communicate across paradigms, participants have to understand each other on a deep level, even becoming entirely new persons. When debates happen, they must happen on a principle of mutual respect and curiosity.

From this one can detect a bold argument for tolerance. Indeed, Feyerabend was heavily influenced by John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Maybe, in a world disillusioned with scientism and objective standards, the next cultural move is multilateral acceptance and tolerance for each others’ ideas.

This has not been the result of postmodern revelations, though. The 2016 election featured the victory of one psychopath over another, from two camps utterly consumed with vitriol for each other. Between Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Americans drifted toward radicalization as the only establishment candidate seemed to offer the same noxious, warmongering mess of the previous few decades of administration. Politics has only polarized further since the inauguration. The alt-right, a nearly perfect symbol of cultural intolerance, is regular news for mainstream media. Trump acolytes physically brawl with black bloc Antifa in the same city of the 1960s Free Speech Movement. It seems to be the worst at universities. Analytic feminist philosophers asked for the retraction of a controversial paper, seemingly without reading it. Professors even get involved in student disputes, at Berkeley and more recently Evergreen. The names each side uses to attack each other (“fascist,” most prominently) — sometimes accurate, usually not — display a political divide with groups that increasingly refuse to argue their own side and prefer silencing their opposition.

There is not a tolerant left or tolerant right any longer, in the mainstream. We are witnessing only shades of authoritarianism, eager to destroy each other. And what is obvious is that the theories and tools of the postmodernists (post-structuralism, social constructivism, deconstruction, critical theory, relativism) are as useful for reactionary praxis as their usual role in left-wing circles. Says Casey Williams in the New York Times: “Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.” The idea of the “post-truth” world originated in postmodern academia. It is the monster turning against Doctor Frankenstein.

Moral (cultural) relativism in particular only promises rejecting our shared humanity. It paralyzes our judgment on female genital mutilation, flogging, stoning, human and animal sacrifice, honor killing, Caste, underground sex trade. The afterbirth of Protagoras, cruelly resurrected once again, does not promise trials at Nuremberg, where the Allied powers appealed to something above and beyond written law to exact judgment on mass murderers. It does not promise justice for the ethnic cleansers in Srebrenica, as the United Nations is helpless to impose a tribunal from outside Bosnia-Herzegovina. Today, this moral pessimism laughs at the phrase “humanitarian crisis,” and Western efforts to change the material conditions of fleeing Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans, Syrians, Venezuelans, North Koreans…

In the absence of universal morality, and the introduction of subjective reality, the vacuum will be filled with something much more awful. And we should be afraid of this because tolerance has not emerged as a replacement. When Harry Potter first encounters Voldemort face-to-scalp, the Dark Lord tells the boy “There is no good and evil. There is only power… and those too weak to seek it.” With the breakdown of concrete moral categories, Feyerabend’s motto — anything goes — is perverted. Voldemort has been compared to Plato’s archetype of the tyrant from the Republic: “It will commit any foul murder, and there is no food it refuses to eat. In a word, it omits no act of folly or shamelessness” … “he is purged of self-discipline and is filled with self-imposed madness.”

Voldemort is the Platonic appetite in the same way he is the psychoanalytic id. Freud’s das Es is able to admit of contradictions, to violate Aristotle’s fundamental laws of logic. It is so base, and removed from the ordinary world of reason, that it follows its own rules we would find utterly abhorrent or impossible. But it is not difficult to imagine that the murder of evidence-based reasoning will result in Death Eater politics. The ego is our rational faculty, adapted to deal with reality; with the death of reason, all that exists is vicious criticism and unfettered libertinism.

Plato predicts Voldemort with the image of the tyrant, and also with one of his primary interlocutors, Thrasymachus, when the sophist opens with “justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.” The one thing Voldemort admires about The Boy Who Lived is his bravery, the trait they share in common. This trait is missing in his Death Eaters. In the fourth novel the Dark Lord is cruel to his reunited followers for abandoning him and losing faith; their cowardice reveals the fundamental logic of his power: his disciples are not true devotees, but opportunists, weak on their own merit and drawn like moths to every Avada Kedavra. Likewise students flock to postmodern relativism to justify their own beliefs when the evidence is an obstacle.

Relativism gives us moral paralysis, allowing in darkness. Another possible move after relativism is supremacy. One look at Richard Spencer’s Twitter demonstrates the incorrigible tenet of the alt-right: the alleged incompatibility of cultures, ethnicities, races: that different groups of humans simply can not get along together. The Final Solution is not about extermination anymore but segregated nationalism. Spencer’s audience is almost entirely men who loathe the current state of things, who share far-reaching conspiracy theories, and despise globalism.

The left, too, creates conspiracies, imagining a bourgeois corporate conglomerate that enlists economists and brainwashes through history books to normalize capitalism; for this reason they despise globalism as well, saying it impoverishes other countries or destroys cultural autonomy. For the alt-right, it is the Jews, and George Soros, who control us; for the burgeoning socialist left, it is the elites, the one-percent. Our minds are not free; fortunately, they will happily supply Übermenschen, in the form of statesmen or critical theorists, to save us from our degeneracy or our false consciousness.

Without the commitment to reasoned debate, tribalism has continued the polarization and inhumility. Each side also accepts science selectively, if they do not question its very justification. The privileged status that the “scientific method” maintains in polite society is denied when convenient; whether it is climate science, evolutionary psychology, sociology, genetics, biology, anatomy or, especially, economics: one side is outright rejecting it, without studying the material enough to immerse oneself in what could be promising knowledge (as Feyerabend urged, and the breakdown of rationality could have encouraged). And ultimately, equal protection, one tenet of individualist thought that allows for multiplicity, is entirely rejected by both: we should be treated differently as humans, often because of the color of our skin.

Relativism and carelessness for standards and communication has given us supremacy and tribalism. It has divided rather than united. Voldemort’s chaotic violence is one possible outcome of rejecting reason as an institution, and it beckons to either political alliance. Are there any examples in Harry Potter of the alternative, Feyerabendian tolerance? Not quite. However, Hermione Granger serves as the Dark Lord’s foil, and gives us a model of reason that is not as archaic as the enemies of rationality would like to suggest. In Against Method (1975), Feyerabend compares different ways rationality has been interpreted alongside practice: in an idealist way, in which reason “completely governs” research, or a naturalist way, in which reason is “completely determined by” research. Taking elements of each, he arrives at an intersection in which one can change the other, both “parts of a single dialectical process.”

“The suggestion can be illustrated by the relation between a map and the adventures of a person using it or by the relation between an artisan and his instruments. Originally maps were constructed as images of and guides to reality and so, presumably, was reason. But maps, like reason, contain idealizations (Hecataeus of Miletus, for examples, imposed the general outlines of Anaximander’s cosmology on his account of the occupied world and represented continents by geometrical figures). The wanderer uses the map to find his way but he also corrects it as he proceeds, removing old idealizations and introducing new ones. Using the map no matter what will soon get him into trouble. But it is better to have maps than to proceed without them. In the same way, the example says, reason without the guidance of a practice will lead us astray while a practice is vastly improved by the addition of reason.” p. 233

Christopher Hitchens pointed out that Granger sounds like Bertrand Russell at times, like this quote about the Resurrection Stone: “You can claim that anything is real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody has proven it doesn’t exist.” Granger is often the embodiment of anemic analytic philosophy, the institution of order, a disciple for the Ministry of Magic. However, though initially law-abiding, she quickly learns with Potter and Weasley the pleasures of rule-breaking. From the first book onward, she is constantly at odds with the de facto norms of the university, becoming more rebellious as time goes on. It is her levelheaded foundation, but ability to transgress rules, that gives her an astute semi-deontological, semi-utilitarian calculus capable of saving the lives of her friends from the dark arts, and helping to defeat the tyranny of Voldemort foretold by Socrates.

Granger presents a model of reason like Feyerabend’s map analogy. Although pure reason gives us an outline of how to think about things, it is not a static or complete blueprint, and it must be fleshed out with experience, risk-taking, discovery, failure, loss, trauma, pleasure, offense, criticism, and occasional transgressions past the foreseeable limits. Adding these addenda to our heuristics means that we explore a more diverse account of thinking about things and moving around in the world.

When reason is increasingly seen as patriarchal, Western, and imperialist, the only thing consistently offered as a replacement is something like lived experience. Some form of this idea is at least a century old, with Husserl, still modest by reason’s Greco-Roman standards. Yet lived experience has always been pivotal to reason; we only need adjust our popular model. And we can see that we need not reject one or the other entirely. Another critique of reason says it is fool-hardy, limiting, antiquated; this is a perversion of its abilities, and plays to justify the first criticism. We can see that there is room within reason for other pursuits and virtues, picked up along the way.

The emphasis on lived experience, which predominantly comes from the political left, is also antithetical for the cause of “social progress.” Those sympathetic to social theory, particularly the cultural leakage of the strong programme, are constantly torn between claiming (a) science is irrational, and can thus be countered by lived experience (or whatnot) or (b) science may be rational but reason itself is a tool of patriarchy and white supremacy and cannot be universal. (If you haven’t seen either of these claims very frequently, and think them a strawman, you have not been following university protests and editorials. Or radical Twitter: ex., ex., ex., ex.) Of course, as in Freud, this is an example of kettle-logic: the signal of a very strong resistance. We see, though, that we need not accept nor deny these claims and lose anything. Reason need not be stagnant nor all-pervasive, and indeed we’ve been critiquing its limits since 1781.

Outright denying the process of science — whether the model is conjectures and refutations or something less stale — ignores that there is no single uniform body of science. Denial also dismisses the most powerful tool for making difficult empirical decisions. Michael Brown’s death was instantly a political affair, with implications for broader social life. The event has completely changed the face of American social issues. The first autopsy report, from St. Louis County, indicated that Brown was shot at close range in the hand, during an encounter with Officer Darren Wilson. The second independent report commissioned by the family concluded the first shot had not in fact been at close range. After the disagreement with my cousin, the Department of Justice released the final investigation report, and determined that material in the hand wound was consistent with gun residue from an up-close encounter.

Prior to the report, the best evidence available as to what happened in Missouri on August 9, 2014, was the ground footage after the shooting and testimonies from the officer and Ferguson residents at the scene. There are two ways to approach the incident: reason or lived experience. The latter route will lead to ambiguities. Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson and another witness reported that Officer Wilson fired his weapon first at range, under no threat, then pursued Brown out of his vehicle, until Brown turned with his hands in the air to surrender. However, in the St. Louis grand jury half a dozen (African-American) eyewitnesses corroborated Wilson’s account: that Brown did not have his hands raised and was moving toward Wilson. In which direction does “lived experience” tell us to go, then? A new moral maxim — the duty to believe people — will lead to no non-arbitrary conclusion. (And a duty to “always believe x,” where x is a closed group, e.g. victims, will put the cart before the horse.) It appears that, in a case like this, treating evidence as objective is the only solution.

Introducing ad hoc hypotheses, e.g., the Justice Department and the county examiner are corrupt, shifts the approach into one that uses induction, and leaves behind lived experience (and also ignores how forensic anthropology is actually done). This is the introduction of, indeed, scientific standards. (By looking at incentives for lying it might also employ findings from public choice theory, psychology, behavioral economics, etc.) So the personal experience method creates unresolvable ambiguities, and presumably will eventually grant some allowance to scientific procedure.

If we don’t posit a baseline-rationality — Hermione Granger pre-Hogwarts — our ability to critique things at all disappears. Utterly rejecting science and reason, denying objective analysis in the presumption of overriding biases, breaking down naïve universalism into naïve relativism — these are paths to paralysis on their own. More than that, they are hysterical symptoms, because they often create problems out of thin air. Recently, a philosopher and mathematician submitted a hoax paper, Sokal-style, to a peer-reviewed gender studies journal in an attempt to demonstrate what they see as a problem “at the heart of academic fields like gender studies.” The idea was to write a nonsensical, postmodernish essay, and if the journal accepted it, that would indicate the field is intellectually bankrupt. Andrew Smart at Psychology Today instead wrote of the prank: “In many ways this academic hoax validates many of postmodernism’s main arguments.” And although Smart makes some informed points about problems in scientific rigor as a whole, he doesn’t hint at what the validation of postmodernism entails: should we abandon standards in journalism and scholarly integrity? Is the whole process of peer-review functionally untenable? Should we start embracing papers written without any intention of making sense, to look at knowledge concealed below the surface of jargon? The paper, “The conceptual penis,” doesn’t necessarily condemn the whole of gender studies; but, against Smart’s reasoning, we do in fact know that counterintuitive or highly heterodox theory is considered perfectly average.

There were other attacks on the hoax, from SlateSalon and elsewhere. Criticisms, often valid for the particular essay, typically didn’t move the conversation far enough. There is much more for this discussion. A 2006 paper from the International Journal of Evidence Based Healthcare, “Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences,” called the use of scientific evidence “fascist.” In the abstract the authors state their allegiance to the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Real Peer Review, a Twitter account that collects abstracts from scholarly articles, regulary features essays from the departments of women and gender studies, including a recent one from a Ph. D student wherein the author identifies as a hippopotamus. Sure, the recent hoax paper doesn’t really say anything. but it intensifies this much-needed debate. It brings out these two currents — reason and the rejection of reason — and demands a solution. And we know that lived experience is going to be often inconclusive.

Opening up lines of communication is a solution. One valid complaint is that gender studies seems too insulated, in a way in which chemistry, for instance, is not. Critiquing a whole field does ask us to genuinely immerse ourselves first, and this is a step toward tolerance: it is a step past the death of reason and the denial of science. It is a step that requires opening the bubble.

The modern infatuation with human biases as well as Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchism upset our faith in prevailing theories, and the idea that our policies and opinions should be guided by the latest discoveries from an anonymous laboratory. Putting politics first and assuming subjectivity is all-encompassing, we move past objective measures to compare belief systems and theories. However, isn’t the whole operation of modern science designed to work within our means? The system by Kant set limits on humanity rationality, and most science is aligned with an acceptance of fallibility. As Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker says, “to understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity.”

Pinker goes for far as to advocate for scientism. Others need not; but we must understand an academic field before utterly rejecting it. We must think we can understand each other, and live with each other. We must think there is a baseline framework that allows permanent cross-cultural correspondence — a shared form of life which means a Ukrainian can interpret a Russian and a Cuban an American. The rejection of Homo Sapiens commensurability, championed by people like Richard Spencer and those in identity politics, is a path to segregation and supremacy. We must reject Gorgian nihilism about communication, and the Presocratic relativism that camps our moral judgments in inert subjectivity. From one Weltanschauung to the next, our common humanity — which endures class, ethnicity, sex, gender — allows open debate across paradigms.

In the face of relativism, there is room for a nuanced middleground between Pinker’s scientism and the rising anti-science, anti-reason philosophy; Paul Feyerabend has sketched out a basic blueprint. Rather than condemning reason as a Hellenic germ of Western cultural supremacy, we need only adjust the theoretical model to incorporate the “new America of knowledge” into our critical faculty. It is the raison d’être of philosophers to present complicated things in a more digestible form; to “put everything before us,” so says Wittgenstein. Hopefully, people can reach their own conclusions, and embrace the communal human spirit as they do.

However, this may not be so convincing. It might be true that we have a competition of cosmologies: one that believes in reason and objectivity, one that thinks reason is callow and all things are subjective.These two perspectives may well be incommensurable. If I try to defend reason, I invariably must appeal to reasons, and thus argue circularly. If I try to claim “everything is subjective,” I make a universal statement, and simultaneously contradict myself. Between begging the question and contradicting oneself, there is not much indication of where to go. Perhaps we just have to look at history and note the results of either course when it has been applied, and take it as a rhetorical move for which path this points us toward.

Staten Island and Cleveland: Different from Ferguson

Having argued in a recent piece that the problem with Ferguson was collectivism, as manifest in the notion of collective guilt, I feel obliged to speak out on recent incidents in Cleveland and Staten Island. None of us (presumably) were there so we need to be cautious, but what we see from those unfortunate places strongly suggests police misconduct.

I am a native of Cleveland and it comes as no surprise to me that the police force there is a troubled one. For many years there has been a divide between the central city and suburbs and despite a few encouraging exceptions, things have gone steadily downhill in the central city. The problems are similar to Detroit’s but on a smaller scale. The best Cleveland Police officers would surely aspire to leave the Cleveland PD for one of the suburban forces at the first opportunity. It doesn’t surprise me that the Justice Department claims there has been systematic excessive use of force by the Cleveland police.

I have only been to Staten Island once and cannot add anything to what is generally known. That the unfortunate victim was selling untaxed cigarettes, of all things only adds to the outrage.

The non-violent demonstrators in both cities are right this time.

When is violence against the state justified?

I am naturally more conservative by disposition. I don’t mean this in the sense of Republicanism, i.e. that I am a foreign interventionist, a drug abolitionist, a rich elitist, etc. Nor do I mean that when I look at the state of American culture, I shake my head, and think back to the halcyon days of the Eisenhower administration – which incidentally I know little about and never experienced firsthand. Rather, I have a preference for order over disorder, justice under the law over vigilantism, quiet over tumult, an uneasy peace over an uncertain war, the familiar over the alien. I like gardens and trees and mountains, and I detest large cities. My friend circle is small but intimate. I drink heavily on holidays and moderately thereafter. I prefer the clashes of philosophy and sport to the far more momentous arenas of war and diplomacy. This innate behavioral trait of mine has, in some way, created or informed most of my political positions.

Many of my friends are self-identified as liberal or progressive, and so in the wake of the Ferguson grand jury decision, I found myself deluged in fashionable white guilt over the “abominable,” “indefensible,” “incomprehensible” verdict. I was greeted to article after article declaring the racist, patriarchal structure of American justice; the oppressive capitalist basis of our condemnation of Ferguson-related looting; the righteousness of looting as an act of protest; the evils of the white race as they have played out over time; and on and on. Based on these factors, so they say, we should not condemn the violence of protestors, but see it for what it is: a legitimate protest of a system that routinely uses violence as a means of coercion. I balked immediately, but then I thought: perhaps there is something more to that charge, than I am giving it credit for?

Violence in this case seems contradictory to me. For the protestors are protesting a senseless act of violence by engaging in seemingly senseless acts of violence. If violence is held to be bad in toto, then any form of violence, even as a form of resistance, is also bad. I suspect many protestors adhere to non-violence in the abstract, but are not prepared to adhere to its most absolute form here. If violence is held to be bad based on whether it has a moral sanction or not – e.g., violence in self-defense is good/acceptable, while murder is bad/unacceptable – then the party which initiated violence is in the wrong, while the party which had violence inflicted upon it and is retaliating, is in the right. I suspect most protestors are in the second category. However, that leads us to the contradiction: the wronged party, Michael Brown, is dead, and so cannot retaliate against the instigator of violence, Darren Wilson – assuming that this is the correct moral equation, and Wilson indeed wronged Brown. The protestors sublimate the injustice perpetrated on Brown from the individual to the collective, asserting that a faceless, nameless, racist, patriarchal, white “system” is actually the perpetrator, while the great mass of black Americans is the victim. Wilson and Brown are only avatars of their respective social groups, which are the real forces in conflict. Because these two groups are in open conflict, and this latest eruption of hostilities is merely a battle in a much longer war, then the metastasizing of hostilities from protest over the police action to looting, arson, and other forms of criminality is justified – because it is against a system that is against them.

But, is this true? I do not think it is time in this enquiry to find out whether the system is as bad as they say. Rather, I would like to explore under what circumstances it becomes legitimate to oppose the system, or the laws that make up that system, by violent means.


I conceive of the legal system, or the laws, in a way similar to Socrates, as he articulated in the Crito: they are the good shepherds of a society, at their ideal, and to violate them is equivalent with disobeying your parents, those who took care of you when you were helpless, and shielded you from the evils lurking in the dark. Once a verdict has been passed under the law, then it is inviolate, and it must be followed to the letter – though one may argue against it, before it has been handed down. This explains Socrates’ mocking dismissal of his trial in the Apology, but his acceptance of the court’s verdict in the Crito, which takes place afterwards in the prison. If we follow Socrates’ example fully, then we may peacefully oppose the reasoning of the laws and their arbitrators, but if we receive a verdict we do not like, then we must respect it regardless. This is because the orderly functioning of a legal system is more valuable than the prevailing of absolute justice in every individual case. If Socrates were to flee from his verdict, he would uphold justice in the absolute, but degrade it in the practical, for he would mock the institutions of the laws and show them to be powerless. Each individual would make himself the arbitrator of justice, and it can be fairly gainsaid, that though some may fulfill this role well – such as Socrates – far more would simply abuse the power of absolute self-determination. Good laws are, to him and to me, a necessary component of social order: without them, the great mass of people would degenerate to the lex talionis.

However, I also conceive of the laws pragmatically, as a tool to further the excellence of a polity, rather than as gods in themselves. When you have a watch, you value the watch only insofar as it can tell time. If it fails in this task, the first thing a prudent watch owner will do is ask: why? If it needs a new battery, it is a simple manner to replace it. If it needs a new winding mechanism, a more complex manner. If the innards are completely shattered, it may be better to chuck it, and procure a new timepiece. So too with the laws: if the system is overall a just enterprise, but may have a few unjust laws scattered amongst the majority of just laws, then it would be foolish to chuck the entire system: better to replace the bad components, rather than the entire apparatus. If many of the laws are unjust, but the system itself may be salvaged, then it is still preferable to work to solve the problems of the system. If the entire system is broken, and it is beyond salvaging, it is at this point better to replace it with a new system.

Thus I come to my own position on the matter*. A state undergirded by just laws, designed to maintain order and peace amongst the members of a polity, is the ideal. Order and peace I define as the state of affairs which, when maintained, allows a polity to about its business without fear of dispossession, intragroup conflict, and so forth. The laws, if they are just and justly upheld, should be maintained and their verdicts followed. If they are just, but unjustly upheld, the laws themselves should be maintained, but the verdicts questioned or protested – the form of these protests should be peaceful, as the state of order under a just system unjustly executed is, more likely than not, preferable to a state of lawlessness. If some laws are just, and some are unjust, the members of the polity should begin to question whether the system that they are governed under is worth maintaining, or whether it should be abolished or replaced. At this point, I think that violent opposition to the laws, or flagrant disregard of them, is not acceptable. Neither is blindly obeying them. The mean, attempting to change the laws through peaceful means, is the best option. However, if the laws uphold a verdict (unjust or not) that is inimical to one’s values, that verdict should be obeyed, because the just rule of law overall is far more important than individual, unjust laws. If they are wholly unjust, they cannot be justly upheld, and all their products are poisoned. At this point, the laws have ceased to serve their purpose as laws, as shepherds of a good society, and so should be opposed actively in their existence and their verdicts, until such a time as a system designed for good and excellence can be created. If peaceful means are ineffective or have been exhausted, violence may be warranted.

To summarize, if the laws fail to serve their proper purpose, viz. being good shepherds of society, then they no longer seek the good of their subjects; and peaceful means of changing or ameliorating these onerous laws have been exhausted, or are unsuccessful, or are impossible; and if the anarchy brought about by disobeying the laws is less bad than the burden of maintaining the laws, then there may be sanction to resist them by violent means. This is a high bar, and I think very few situations merit a violent clash with the laws. A slave revolt would be justified, for example, because the laws exclude slaves from the legal protections afforded to other subjects of the law, means of peaceful resistance are possible but generally ineffectual and unsuccessful, and the anarchy of open revolt is a superior state than the slavery itself.

*If you find amongst my ramblings contradictions, or strange conclusions, let me know: I continue to work out this position at the time of writing.

Now I think I have the means to determine, at least to my satisfaction, whether the system and its laws, as they stand, ought to be opposed by violent means. And thus, whether the violent protests in Ferguson and elsewhere can be justified.

First, indulge me for a brief interlude while I try to summarize the America the Ferguson protestors, or at least their intellectual heavyweights, believe to exist. For them, America is designed to further the interests of white Americans, it was built on the suffering of others, and it continues operating against the interests of other groups, such as black Americans. If you are a white American, or even if you appear white, then you benefit from this system, just as if you are not a white or white-passing American, then you are harmed by this system. The poor cracker jack in the backwaters of Florida, or the slum-dwelling meth head in California’s Central Valley, are despite their various material disadvantages equal beneficiaries of this system with middle- and upper-class whites. For example, they can buy BandAids in their skin tone!

This is called “white privilege,” a symptom of a system that is racist to its core. In this case, racism is defined as this system of power set up for white Americans, so that all whites are racist by virtue of being a part of this system, while all non-whites cannot be racist, by virtue of not being a part of this system. This applies even if the said white does not hold attitudes of prejudice or racial superiority, and the non-white does. For reference, this is the definition of racism as supplied by

“1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.

2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.

3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.”

The revised definition of racism falls into the second sub-definition provided by, i.e. systemic racism. If you attempt to assert the race-neutral sub-definitions, such as the ideology of racial difference in no. 1, or the hatred of such difference in no. 3, then you will often be angrily told that this isn’t the “real” definition of racism. This is because the dictionary, being a product of the white system, is inherently opposed to non-whites and their lived experience, so everything such weighty tomes hold to be true is tainted and suspect. Most people seem to refer to this system without really articulating what it is, but from what I have gathered, it is the constellation of the police, judiciary, prison system, and business class, which are assumed to be dominated by whites. All of these, or so it goes, conspire together actively and implicitly to maintain hegemony over other races.

What is to be done, assuming this system exists, and that it operates in the ways articulated above? Blacks and other minorities do not have to do anything, except continue their mortal struggle with the great white chimera. Whites, on the other hand, have a lot of work to do:

  1. Acknowledge that you are tainted by your whiteness. It is not enough to feel bad about disparities in educational achievement, wealth generation, crime, or policing between members of your race and minorities in America. Instead, you must acknowledge that this stems from a racist system of which you are a beneficiary, even if the supposed benefits are abstract and cannot be calculated, or do not even apply to you (heresy!). I believe John Derbyshire, formerly of National Review, calls this “ethnomasochism.”
  2. After acknowledging this, make some apologies, preferably to other similarly enlightened whites. Self-flagellation is always a grand spectacle.
  3. Work to erode your privilege. This is the tough one, because if it is indeed true that the system benefits white people in small things such as buying BandAids, but also in large ones, like obtaining jobs and loans, then the natural thing to do is to equalize oneself with people of other races, working to dismantle the system of privilege. You don’t have much control over what colors the BandAid corporation produces its products in, but you can quit your job or default on your loan, since they were obtained immorally.
  4. Produce utopia? All the races will exist happily together in a free and open society, with no group asserting dominance over the other. I assume this is the end result, as the entire foregoing narrative depends on a certain amount of Hegelry to be persuasive.

Now, is such a worldview, and its prescription, correct? I cannot say that it is completely wrong, as it is based on a few observations that are undoubtedly true. Namely, that the brunt of state violence is borne by minority communities, mainly blacks and Latinos; that poor minorities are continually segregated into urban slums, and find it very difficult to leave voluntarily; that the educational systems in these ghettos are atrocious; that discrimination based on appearance, name, sex, and all sorts of categories continues; that because of this, white Americans tend to experience less of racism (or prejudice, depending on your preferred definition of racism) than do minorities; that this is unjust. At this point in time I cannot think of many arguments against the facticity of these points.

I do disagree with why this state of affairs has come into being: it is not the fault of “the white man,” though certain white people have played their part in the tale. I have always found this assertion of collective guilt to be completely befuddling. All white Americans are not responsible for the actions of some white Americans, or white Americans of the past, or the police as a force (which is not all white, anyway), or the actions of the federal government, and so forth. This is just another form of the argument black activists use: that all black people are tarred and feathered as criminals, based on the statistics on black crime. Yes, black Americans as a group engage in more criminal activity than white Americans as a group – if the FBI statistics are to be believed – but the individual black man is not the black group, and so it is unfair to judge an individual based on his racial affiliation, rather than who he is, or what he has done.

Collective guilt is a charge levied on white Americans by certain race peddlers, and on black Americans by others, and it stems from a much broader idea: that the world is not composed of individuals, but faceless social forces. Individuals are not responsible for their own actions, but are induced into doing things by the aegis of some higher power. I would never deny that social forces exist, for there is a certain way that human beings behave when they congregate into groups, which they cannot manifest when alone. However, we must always remember, that a group of people is not blended together into a single entity when they become a group – they are still individual people, always capable of individual action and thought. When thinking about this, I recalled Gandalf’s line in the Fellowship of the Ring: “Bilbo was meant to find the ring, and not by its maker. In which case you were meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.” Whites are meant to have privilege (because the racist patriarchal state was made for them), and other minorities are meant to have none, and there is very little they or anyone else can do about it – save destroying the system, of course.

Based on my own categorization, to Ferguson protestors and their academic stalwarts, this is an unjust system of unjust laws, a fruit of the poisoned tree or so it were, and so must be opposed. Whether peacefully for the idealists, or violently for the rest, both are considered to be valid options, for the system is tainted and must be swept away, to be replaced by something better, a future utopia governed by social justice. I am rather blind to this supposed reality, for I do not see the system of white supremacy that exists, lurking, underneath the supposedly race-neutral laws and institutions. The crusaders for social justice ascribe this self-diagnosed myopia as a symptom of my privilege, for I can choose not to see what, for others, is an omnipresent reality. I ascribe it to the fact, and I believe it is a fact, that this system does not exist. There is not a white supremacist system that exists to crush other races into powder. There is a system, though, that exists to crush us all into powder, if we fall into its orbit: the War on Drugs, as Brandon noted in his post on this subject; the War on Terror, encompassing the surveillance state at the domestic level and the covert war machine at the foreign level; cronyism between government and business; and so forth.

Much of this truly unjust system is an outgrowth not of the system of laws, which I see as just, but of abuses conducted in violation of those laws and legitimized by force, fear, and civic laziness. We have let our system, founded on a just* basis, lapse into what we see today: the restriction of our freedom to peaceably assemble and protest; the restriction of our right to privacy, for the sake of safety against the terrorists and other malcontents our government has fostered abroad; the pillaging of the wealth of future Americans by reckless foreign conflicts against such malcontents and their offshoots; the return of policing methods and equipment developed in Iraq and Afghanistan to our own streets. The list continues on and on, and only grows as our days grow darker.

While the Ferguson protestors may see themselves as protesting against a system of laws that is oppressive, I cannot agree with them. The system of laws that we have, if it were enforced equitably, or at all, would be a flawed but a decent model. The problem is that the law as it is written no longer is the law as it is practiced, and our system, good or bad, is simply powerless. Indeed, we already live in a state of legal anarchy, for while order is maintained in some degree and at some times, it is belied by a concentration of power that is not legitimated by the law, but rather by the supposed enforcers of the law.

Thus, to oppose the system of governmental overreach is to oppose a system that excludes all of us, and in particular certain groups, from its protection. Opposing the police and their excesses, opposing our military-industrial state, opposing the curtailment of our civil and political liberties, is just – for we are now in a state where our laws are in decline, and must be protected from a state that no longer serves to protect and uphold them, or our interests, which they are meant to serve. However, in opposing this governmental apparatus, we cannot fail to uphold the laws that deserve our respect. The looting of private property is in violation of one of our most basic rights, the right to property, and does not harm the system of state terror we are living under, but individual people who are also impacted by that system. The implication that one racial group is behind these evils, and that to target them is to target the system that backs them, is both a silly and perfidious idea. We should not be blind to the realities of race, nor to their effects. But nor should we see race as the prime underlying factor behind the evils plaguing our country, for we are all impacted, in one way or another, by this one system. In conclusion, violence against the state apparatus may be justified, and probably is, while violence against those things which are legitimately protected under the law, such as attacking people in the form of their private property and livelihoods, is not justified. Treatise out.

*Just in the sense that the laws, as written, were largely just, in the sense that they promoted a just society (I think here of the Bill of Rights). There was a large stain on this in the form of slavery’s legitimization under the law, and I concede that this may indicate the system of laws itself was unjust. However, the enduring basis of law in the Constitution, and of our rights under law in the Bill of Rights, is just.

Ferguson: the Problem is Collectivism

We Austrians emphasize the fact that only individuals act.  This may sound like a dry academic pronouncement, but sometimes events bring its meaning dramatically to the fore.  The Ferguson story is one such event.

While lunching in Palo Alto recently, I looked outside to see the street briefly blocked by demonstrators chanting and carrying signs with slogans like “black lives matter.”  I wished I could confront one of them with a few facts, but then again, facts matter little to such folk, even in trendy Palo Alto.

The racially mixed grand jury took seventy hours of testimony.  That’s a lot.  They know what happened better than you or I or anyone besides the officer involved.  The shooting was justifiable.  Another fact that seems to have gotten buried: Michael Brown was a criminal, just having completed a robbery when he was shot.  It’s too bad that he died, but hey, criminal activity is risky.

In light of these simple facts, how can people propound such irrationality as the demonstrators exhibited?  The answer lies in the fallacy of collective guilt, a sub-species of collective action.  Because white police officers sometimes shoot innocent black citizens, the fallacy implies that any white police officer who shoots a black civilian is necessarily guilty.

Now I want to extend this piece to the idea of reparations for slavery, a grotesque bit of nonsense that pops up from time to time, most recently, sad to say, in a piece by our own Brandon Christensen, albeit in passing.

Let me get this out of the way: slavery was a vicious, horrible institution.  The idea of reparations or restitution has some rationality on the face of it.  In general, people should be compensated, where possible, for violations of their rights, and what could be a more vicious form of rights violation than slavery?

From an individualist point of view, the idea of reparations is preposterous.  I for one know pretty well who my ancestors were, and I’m quite sure none of them held slaves.  But suppose I did have such an ancestor.  The next question is how much benefit I might have received from his slaveholding.  To answer that, we have to examine the counterfactual situation in which my ancestor did not hold slaves.  How much bigger was the bequest that he passed on (if any) versus what it would have been without slaves?  How much of that bequest filtered down to me, among possibly dozens of his descendents.  Clearly this is a preposterous undertaking, especially at this late date.

Well then, why not force all white people to pay something to all black people?  This of course is the idea of collective guilt, an idea nearly as repulsive as slavery itself.  But let’s carry on with it anyway.  Now we have to decide who is a white person and who is black.  Does Barack Obama count, being half white and half black?  Is one quarter black enough?  One eighth?

Carrying on, where will the loot come from?  White people will have to reduce their consumption and/or savings.This will exacerbate unemployment, at least temporarily, and reduce future productivity.  What would black people do with the money?  Some would judiciously save and invest it but most would not.  I say this because studies have shown that the majority of the winners of large lottery prizes blow the money, unaccustomed as most of them are to saving and investing.  Most blacks, I contend, would blow their reparations windfall on short-term consumption and possibly, like many lottery winners, end up in debt to boot.

Let’s keep things in perspective.  Racism is a minor problem in our society compared to the crushing burden of the welfare-warfare state that we all bear.

My brief thoughts on Ferguson

  • When I first heard the ruling, a few hours after it had been announced, I checked the webpages of the international press. Only two outlets – Germany’s Der Spiegel and Al-Jazeera‘s Arabic language webpage (its English and Turkish language websites were different stories) – had front page headlines not highlighting the riots in the US. The Turkish and British media had the most extensive coverage of events when I checked them out (again, this was a couple of hours after the ruling was announced).
  • The United States has a racist past, and a racist present, that has yet to be fully addressed. Tocqueville saw this coming in 1825. Reparations for stolen labor is the only way I can see this issue being resolved. I don’t see anything that needs to be fixed about black culture. Black culture is an important component of the United States and its image abroad. Every kid in every Ghanaian village knows who 2Pac, Nas, and Jay-Z are, and as a result they implicitly respect the people of the United States. Every teenager in every Chinese city knows who 2Pac, Nas, and Jay-Z are, and as a result they implicitly respect the people of the United States.
  • Ending the War on Drugs will also go a long way to addressing the issue of state-sponsored oppression.
  • Affirmative Action is what you get when you try to address state-sponsored oppression through the legislative process rather than through the judicial process. Few, if any, blacks benefit from AA, and the few who do are highly educated and do not reflect the general population of blacks in the US.
  • Nationalizing policing duties, or giving Washington a more prominent role in policing matters, is a horrible idea that needs to die a thousand, painful deaths.
  • The people who loot and damage private property should be pursued and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
  • There are few things that make me smile more than seeing a police car burning. I hope the bill comes out of the pensions – themselves extracted from the taxpayer by public sector unions – of policemen, though I know this will not happen.
  • I have seen a lot of white, Asian, and Hispanic faces at the protests. There are some blacks who have made a living in academia and in the activist world by claiming that non-blacks are more racist than blacks (“micro-aggression”). I hope these protests will convince the neutral black observer that racism is a structural issue in this country, not a cultural one. I think, through my own anecdotal experience, that most blacks are both neutral and implicitly understand that this is a structural issue.

Ken White explains the legal logic of the Ferguson shooting

Read the whole damned good post at Popehat.

In other news, I read a post from somewhere calling out libertarians for not voicing an opinion about the Ferguson shooting. I think the post also managed to blame libertarians for the militarization of police forces across the country.


Dave Weigel points out the obvious over at Slate; Ilya Somin takes the writer who tried to claim libertarians didn’t care about black people getting shot by police departments to task over at Volokh Conspiracy (a very good blog, by the way); Dan Balz (hehe) points out in the WaPo that Ferguson is only strengthening the libertarian wing of the GOP; Senator Rand Paul’s op-ed in Time is required reading if you take your US citizenship seriously.

Update 8/18: Here is Congressman Ron Paul in 2002 asking rhetorically, on floor of the House of Representatives (the lower parliamentary house in the US federal government), if America has become a police state.