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Comments by Robert Greer
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On “Ignorance Be Not Proud (10 Years After, Cont’d)

It's nice to see a piece that lays out the case for Syria intervention so clearly. But you might have guessed that I still think it's inadequate.

Diehl spends a lot of words about how the Syrian situation is more dire than Iraq, and I don't think anyone really disputes that fact. But Diehl's point is irrelevant until a separate threshold is met: whether American intervention would actually improve the situation. In Iraq, American involvement inflamed ethnic tensions beyond already-high levels, and the introduction of American arms appears to have prolonged the conflict. Diehl needs to make an argument that something similar wouldn't happen in Syria, despite his own acknowledgment that Syria is much more like Iraq than all but a handful of other countries. Diehl seems to think that the anti-war view of Iraq is that the war was beneficial but not worth the costs, but in fact many war opponents plausibly believe that American involvement only made things worse.

Diehl's argument is also downright troublesome: One of its main planks is that without intervention, the U.S. will lose its status as hegemon. This could never convince those who believe that the hegemonic status causes bellicosity in the first place.

On “Government by Other Means

Left-libertarianism can certainly be taken too far. But if it's posed as procedurally conservative (i.e., calling for continual marginal adjustments to the status quo), then it avoids the utopianism charge, and can be a useful check on the leftist impulse to enable centralized states (which have high potential for oppression, it's safe to say) in the name of social justice. Think Bleeding Heart Libertarians without the weird ideological commitments to the protection of capital.

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No worries on the lack of time. I'll respond mainly to organize my own thoughts, and to give you something to chew on in case you get more time in the future.

I think some kinds of pacifism (and related ideological valences that tend to disclaim interest in Will) can be rehabilitated from the problem of hopelessly navel-gazing abstraction. Pacifism can be thought of as an exhortation to continually examine one's own motivations for power, or as a reminder that the reasoning behind the exertion of power is never complete. If taken dogmatically, then yes, pacifism can lead a person to collapse into a perfectly inert singularity. But if pacifism is used as a tool, as an exercise of stepping outside of one's own Will in order to explore its very boundaries, then instead of shrinking the Self out of existence, pacifism can instead expand self-schemas and allow for the expression of Wills that were even more capacious than existed before.

This all reminds me of a verse in the Tao Te Ching, talking about those virtuous non-actors whose "natural rhythms of action play midwife to the highest good of each pregnant moment". There is detachment here, yes, but it is not inert. Later the same book remarks that "when we sincerely follow the Great Integrity, we become one with it, and it embraces us": It claims that stepping outside of one's self can lead to recognition of a greater Self, Whose powers may then be drawn upon (or exercised, if the agent is conceived to fully merge into the principal). The Western world might recognize this as "He who loseth his life for my sake shall find it."

But the ideological commitments of the secular West do not easily allow for this kind of thinking about the Will. I think it would be profitable here to discuss intentionality as it is generally conceived in the scientific literature. Per the Enlightenment convention, intentionality resides in the individual (human) Self, is generally though not always denied to non-human animals, and is invariably denied to "inanimate" "objects". However, the more we try to recreate intelligence in a lab, the more we realize that it is highly dependent on external inputs, even to the point of necessity: Virtually nobody in AI argues these days that individual cognition is not in a very important sense "embodied" in an individual's environment. Thus the Enlightenment insistence on this narrow concept of "Will" shows itself to be a species-wide solipsism: the implausible conceit that only we humans are possibly moral agents.

You see a lot of this in right-libertarianism as well, where only "movers and shakers" have "freedom" (of will?) and merit inclusion in the moral community. I think you're absolutely right that right-libertarianism is the core ideology of Enlightenment-related politics, and I'd argue that the intense policing of intentionality and agency among right-libertarians figures largely in the ideology's development. You've skirted along the question of what separates the right-libertarian from the left-libertarian, and an interesting sociological datum I'd present for rumination is that right-libertarians are far more likely to deny that humans owe moral obligations to animals. I would explain this difference by reference to the right-libertarians' insistence on an especially-rigid ontology of the individual Will. And I'd go further to gently suggest that perhaps critics of pacifism owe more of their position to this mistaken perspective than they'd like to think.

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No, thank you for this great blog! It's such a great forum for thinking out loud.

I think of anarchism as almost a kind of religious practice: Perhaps it's too ethereal to ever be fully realized, but the practice and striving for it are intrinsically valuable. It's like pacifism in that respect, which is perhaps no surprise given that a consistent pacifist would have to practice something very similar to anarchism.

As far as forcing anarchism to commit to consistent prescriptions, I think that's easy enough. Anarchism decries the common element of violence in both socialism and minarchist right-libertarianism. It's as simple as that. Of course one can point out that proscribing one act of violence might lead to other more serious breaches of peace, but this problem is endemic to all political philosophies in some way or another.

I wasn't saying that you took any position on the "morality" of any kind of governance. But Hanley takes such a position, and I don't think your equivalence between regulation, government, and power duly acknowledges the differences that Hanley would plausibly see between all these.

As for your last big paragraph: I wholeheartedly agree that libertarians deserve flack for pretending that reducing government power necessarily reduces coercion, but I don't think it's quite fair to lump the anarchists in with this particular critique of anti-statism. Powerful corporate entities are able to be coercive in a vacuum of government regulation usually because the government sanctions their property rights.

I think your First Law of Conservation of Governance, insofar as it purports to refute the libertarian dream of excising problematic government, is inconsistent with your acknowledgement that acts of governance can be collusive or cooperative. In my view, you're trying to have it both ways by saying that government/regulation/power is synonymous when Hanley uses those terms, but allowing for a more nuanced diffraction in your own framework. But maybe I'm just misunderstanding you?

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CK, I'm curious how much of this critique you think would similarly apply to left-libertarianism (anarchism). I would argue that the anarchist position sidesteps some of the tougher difficulties that right-libertarianism poses to itself.

I think it'll be helpful first for me to lay out an anarchist critique of right-libertarianism. Right-libertarianism is oxymoronic, I'd say, because on the one hand it bemoans state interference, but on the other it relies heavily on state interference for markets to function in the way libertarians desire. Libertarians generally try to hide this inconsistency by naturalizing their favored state coercion as "property rights" that are somehow prior to or independent from government. But it's trivial to show that the protection of private property exhibits all the characteristics of regulation. Indeed, the public choice critiques libertarians love to use against the government actions they disfavor can be applied to all of the minarchist functions required in their proposed system. But libertarians can't admit any of this without blurring the distinction between state action and private liberty that serves to focus their whole worldview. I think this is the core mistake of right-libertarianism, and many of the critiques you've mentioned above flow from it.

But I think your claim that there will always be some governing power is too pat. There are many different kinds of governing, and not all of them are identically immoral. Indeed, you get at this when you say that governments can either be collusive or cooperative.

I think in some respects, your disagreement with Hanley is merely verbal. Government can be defined as the monopolist of force, and this definition renders government inherently violent. (I suspect this is what Hanley often has in mind.) But there are lots of organizations that we'd think of as "governmental" that are pretty far removed from the exercise of this force. I suspect that Hanley would have much less of a problem with, say, a local city council that regulated workplace standards with moral suasion, and community support. There's still regulation of a kind there, but there is no coercion that distorts decisionmaking and invites thuggish corruption or its milder bureaucratic forms. There's a lot of room to explore here, and so your equivocation of "government's regulatory power" into "government's governing governance" perhaps obscures more than illuminates. When you say that there's this Law of Conservation of Power, and that it's as sensible to fight that as to fight the First Law of Thermodynamics, I think you're a) being inconsistent with yourself, and b) preemptively closing off what could be a fruitful area of discussion.

Think about it this way: Government is closely related with violence, perhaps even definitionally so as its putative monopolist. But we know that violence distorts decisionmaking and can be oppressive even when justified as a mechanism for keeping order. Libertarians and anarchists can be useful in that they remind statists that the imposed order they favor comes with serious costs. You Tweeted recently that the best libertarians are not utopian but rather have a strong bent toward reformism. I agree, and I think the kinds of reforms that libertarians and anarchists would propose are indispensable critiques of any imposed political order.

On “not discussing a conservative understanding of the sexual division of labor

CK, I love this. Like you, I've had misgivings about the liberal feminism that's popular right now, and I've found it hard to articulate these concerns without being lumped in with actual reactionaries. I'm probably rehashing stuff that was already said at the League, but your post here inspired me to articulate my own related musings.

The problems with the feminism that is currently popular are the problems with the classical liberalism from which it sprung. The prescription to "treat like like" -- which is so general as to be unobjectionable -- has become a rigid, difference-eliding dogma. Liberals have not fully appreciated that applying "equality" as the perennial prescription can be expected to result in a stultifying homogeneity of values. Liberal feminists, by mandating that women achieve all the traditionally male trappings of "success", have not only made it difficult to extol the traditionally-feminine virtues, they've made it difficult to talk about feminine virtues at all. By erasing non-masculine virtues from public discourse, liberal feminists have reified the patriarchy more fundamentally than any misogynist ever could.

Of course, men and women and transgender people are individuals and cannot be treated as exemplars of the category into which society assigns them arbitrarily. Liberals are surely right about this. But this is not the same as saying that manhood and womanhood (or trans-hood, if we're at that point) are identical. And just because it is improper to prejudicially categorize people based on their sexual organs doesn't mean that some kind of benign, celebrated diversity between groups is inferior to an enforced homogeneity.

On “What neither a “drone court” nor any other legal structure will change about our system

I think this is the strongest point against the anti-drone crowd. It's hard for us to admit that military solutions are actually pretty politically popular, at least in the abstract. Ideally your criticism should goad anti-droners to explore how political demand for drone attacks arises from cultural sources, so their critiques can attack the root of drone evil.

That said, you seem to think that drone critics are necessarily confused, and I think this goes too far. Some critics hate drones because they think they create more "terrorists" than they eliminate, and because they turn local populations against the United States and thus disrupt intelligence-gathering, and so drone strikes are theorized to perpetuate an avoidable cycle of violence. Insofar as these concerns are empirically plausible, they don't seem to fall prey to the theoretical criticisms you've made here and elsewhere (though other criticisms may deal sound blows). What do you make of this?

On “Only gradually… (toward anismism) (disbelief in disbelief 4)

I love this, CK. Thanks for writing it. I might have a few thoughts later.

On “Society of the First-Person Shooter

I think you accidentally a word. If you mean what I think you do, then I admit the connections I made may be hyperassociative. But what I'm getting is this: Big government measures like gun control are dependent on a powerful security apparatus to enforce them, and this apparatus is in turn dependent on a normalization of weaponry in the eyes of the public. I don't think this is a defeater for gun control because legislation can (as you say) enshrine and solidify our "moral commitment" against lethal weaponry. But I think lefties would do well to keep this worry in mind.

I also think there's something to the criticism that we freak out over twenty dead American kids but hundreds of dead Pakistani kids fly under the radar. If our first instinct is to ask what the Feds can do for us, maybe it shouldn't surprise us that our discourse perpetuates the more problematic aspects of nationalism.

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Great post CK, though I have to issue a humblebrag alert for your saying you were just gonna throw a piece up real quick. ;-)

I'm intrigued by your remark about mass violence being a spillover of societal infirmities, perhaps making us our own "collateral damage". I'd say there's not much reason to be coy about it, because it's pretty clear this is happening. Our foreign policy meddling puts us in a position where we think we need a huge police state to protect us, but we feel a need to retain a counterbalancing capacity for violence so we allow assault rifles, and so people who feel wronged by society can kill dozens at a time. The glorification of military-as-protector makes ownership of lethal machines respectable, and those who object to their very existence as possibly corrosive of the nation's moral fabric.

When mass killings occur, many people are quick to claim that death isn't the fault of guns, but rather of the people who use those "tools". But tools can pervert the way we conceive of our relationships to other people by naturalizing oppressive modes of interaction. Objects themselves can thus be morally fraught.

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Yeah, and this comes out in full relief once you delve deeper into what Egyptians mean when they say they want "Sharia-based law". Some mean the literal legal application of their sect's internal rules (just like many American Christian fundamentalists), while most hem a bit and say they mean that broad Muslim principles like "charity" and "justice" be the basis of the Egyptian constitution. I think when people say that their country should be a "Christian/Muslim/Hindu/whatever nation," what they're really saying is that issues of morality should figure in the nation's primary rules, which is impossible to prevent in the first place. So "secular" Westerners who are concerned about Egyptian fundamentalism shouldn't be hung up by popular clamors for Sharia law, but should instead be reading up on traditions within Islam and Arab culture that emphasize pluralism, and creating conditions where those coalitions can flourish.

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Great post CK. Miguel, I don't think anyone denies that Christianity is the predominant sectarian trend in America, or even really that this Christian flavor affects the laws in some inchoate way. It's more that the unique pluralistic history of America has diminished the connection between this sectarian flavor and the governance of the country in a way that doesn't obtain for a place like Egypt, where people have been overwhelmingly the same religion for over a millennium. So I think CK could (and probably would) take your claim and run with it, by arguing that secularists should be more accepting of the idea that "America is a Christian nation" in at least some sense, and inviting Egypt's critics to see more benign commonalities between the American system and the "Sharia Law" to which most Egyptians would like to b subject.

On “The Libya Intervention: another worst decision except for all the others

I dunno, it seems to me that conservatives are largely right that the Bill of Rights was initially conceived as allowing more religion in public life than recent social-liberal thoughts (or even nonpartisan court rulings) would suggest. There might yet be a way to square "theodemocracy" with pluralism -- Romney's vaunted speech on religion and public life might even serve as a template.

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I think you're absolutely right, but I also have some sympathy for Larison and his fellow-sojourners because liberals have thoroughly clinicized public discourse with secularism. I think our sanitized liberal version of public reason ought to be revisited with the intent of bringing back religious thinkers into the conversation on the up-and-up.

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I think you're right that Larison is being intellectually lazy, but there's something unsatisfying about arguing from a (lack of) counterfactuals. Hopefully you and Larison ('s defenders) can hash out more specific models of what might have happened.

On “On Mitt Romney and American Theodemocracy

I guess what animates my grumpiness with your connection between Jews and Mormons is that Mormons see themselves as thoroughly Restorationist, which precludes the kind of philosemitism that evangelicals regularly practice. Evangelicals regularly appeal to the practices of ancient Jews when sussing out proper contemporary behavior, while Mormons think they have no need for this because they have a living Prophet of God to clear up doctrinal confusions.

Other than that, I got nothin'! Thanks for the dialogue, CK; I'm looking forward to more after it's published.

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I saw your express denial, and I could definitely just be being a contrarian ass, but my gut is still skeptical of even the more tenuous connection you claim. Maybe it's because Mormons' "continuing revelation" makes Judeo-Christian common scriptures less of a binding agent like it is with Ten Commandments-Christian fundamentalism? I really think Mormonism's Zionism is a different beast than Judeo-Christian fusionism, whether theological or merely sociopolitical.

In the Israel/Palestine context, the flipside of Mormonism's anti-Near-East-Zionism is its legacy of racial theology. The Book of Mormon talks repeatedly about dark skin being a curse from God and being correlated with sin either in the premortal existence or even on this side of the veil, and Romney's comments about Palestinian GDP dovetailed disturbingly well to this sordid history.

It's a really thought-provoking piece, CK. Thanks for letting me push back on it so hard.

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To expand on what I was trying to say on Twitter about Mormonism's Christian-Jewish fusion, I think the connection is more complex and dubious than you think. To me it seems like Mormons repurposed Zionism to flatter Americanism. Imitation is only winsome flattery before it crosses into cultural appropriation: when Mormons baptise Holocaust victims or call Jews "Gentiles" (ouch!!), there doesn't seem to be much actual interfacing of the ideologies. That said I knew a handful of "Jewish Mormons" in the S.F. Valley and they got along well with the ward, although they had idiosyncratic doctrinal views and I can't imagine there were many more than the ones I knew.

I think you're wrong that Mormonism represents a Judeo-Christian fusion that threatens heightened Islamophobia. It might be useful for me to talk about the interesting connection between Mormons and Muslims here. Unlike most American right-wing Christian sects, Mormonism is officially neutral on the Israel/Palestine conflict. BYU has an Islamic Studies department that's very similar to secular I-S departments in its sympathetic treatment of the faith. After Mormons, BYU enrolls more Muslims than members of any other faith group, probably because of the alcohol prohibition and the strict "honor code". BYU-Hawaii even has a Muslim student president this year. If Romney wins, one of the things I'll wish for is a rapprochement between Muslims and the Judeo-Christian American military complex. Maybe I'm being too hopeful there, but weirder things have happened.

On “Ecology, Economics, and Spirituality

Unfortunately I was never quite Mormon enough to write science fiction, though it surprises me how often people think I should. Maybe I should take that as a sign.

In a certain sense we're already zombies, right? We lurch through life aware of nothing but our most immediate concerns (food! sex! status! braiiiiiins!), we waste lives through gluttonous consumption, and we propagate our lust by harvesting the minds of the innocent to feed our unthinking greed...

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Hi Scott, thanks for your comment. I think it's interesting that you'd label scientific understanding of nuclear bomb physics as a kind of stupidity. I think this is consonant with the broad theme of my post, which is that we should be skeptical of scientific "progress" because we're continuously "rebuilding the boat" in which we're traveling.

Some evo-biologists think the reason humans were able to develop such large brains is that at some point they started eating a lot more meat, which is a more efficient source of nutrients. I have doubts this is actually true, but if it were, it would pose an interesting parallel to the Garden of Eden story: Humans eats the forbidden fruit (of the womb of an animal), thereby increasing the brain size of Adam's progeny, which enables them to settle in environments their biologies were not adapted to (human ancestors were likely frugivores), which leads to the necessity of nutrient-poor agriculture of grains (the "herb of the field" from which Adam wrests his bread). Increased brain size also makes childbirth a much more painful affair for women, which could be a secular account of God's curse upon Eve. And of course Adam and Eve have to go East of Eden, which is the same direction the primordial humans got to the savannah after leaving the rainforest...

Posited: The Garden of Eden is in equatorial West Africa, and God is the Forest. What do you think?

On “On “Capturing the God Vote”

Yet for these believers the two ideas, American and Christian, if properly understood and realized, are mutually reinforcing, complementary, and bi-conditional. For them, and in their view for all of us, Americanism embodies the Christian mission as viewed from a world historical perspective, with an expanding democratic community of free, equally infinitely worthy individuals being the purest implication in social, economic, and political terms of Niebuhr’s radical monotheistic proposition.

This idea seems to have a lot in common with (what I understand is) Jeremy Waldron's thesis in God, Locke, and Equality. I've never read it, but you might find it a useful mine.

In the more specific context of presidential politics: I think it might be valuable to talk about how the ecumenicism of Mormonism relates to American ideals of religious liberty. Mormons view the precepts of their faith as constituting some natural order of the universe, and believe that even non-Mormons can access them. Modern Mormons distinguish between "The Holy Spirit," who can inspire anyone no matter their religion, and "the gift of the Holy Spirit," which is conferred upon Mormon baptism. There are even stories in the Book of Mormon about how the pre-Colombian Native American Mormons (Nephites) periodically had to called to repentance by righteous non-Mormons (Lamanites).

On “Occupy Nothing

This is exactly right, and I'm sure I'll appropriate this explanation of ecologism for my own discussions. Thanks for putting in the legwork, CK.

On “They also demagogue who sit and snark

Anyone who thinks the Iranians want to annihilate a region where many of their own holy sites are located is either an idiot or lying. I agree with Miguel that the most likely explanation for this apparent, uhh, discrepancy is that "Israel" almost certainly should be translated as "the state of Israel as currently constituted." But the annihilation** of THAT entity has been the foreign policy of every U.S. President in the past forty years, which means this interpretation doesn't paint the Iranians as bloodthirsty maniacs, and that Goldberg therefore can't entertain it.

**and subsequent reorganization, okay, but you get the point.

*Comment archive for non-registered commenters assembled by email address as provided.

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