Asylum Seekers at Christmas

Our national sentiment has hardened considerably against immigrants and refugees in recent years. Our fears have been stoked by fast and furious stereotyping and our attentions spans can barely accommodate the sort of narrative that more accurately represents the human stories of immigration or refuge seeking. Christmas, the celebration of the birth of a loving and forgiving refugee, approaches. There can be no more appropriate time to hear the stories of those seeking shelter from chaos, or simply a better life for their children. 

I’ll start with a relatively merry story from my own family. My in-laws now include a Syrian refugee. My wife’s third cousin, a vibrant and conscientious young nurse started volunteering in the refugee camps in Berlin a few years ago and took up with a bright, affable young man who had fled the violence in Syria. This young man doesn’t recognize terrorists and Islamic extremists as Muslim. He is just baffled at how anyone could so badly misunderstand the point of Islam. But as a young man of fighting age, neither the extremists nor the forces of Assad were inclined to give him the option of living peaceably. As a student in a government school, he was seen by the Assad Government as prime material for his armed forces. Rebels recognized this too, and saw him as soon to be against them if he wasn’t ready to join up with them. To obtain food for his family and avoid getting drafted, he obtained a fake military ID. This was risky move. It made him a target of militants against the government and put him at risk of execution if he got found out by government forces. So eventually, after seeing too many friends killed and being forced into hiding himself, he fled and wound up in Germany.

It was challenging for a few older members of my wife’s family when the young woman had a child with the Syrian man. But, his German has come along rapidly, and he’s well on the way towards winning them over. Being a good soccer player and a handy wrench with a BMW has helped him a good deal with the older men. A few more diaper changes would help him with the women in the family. He’s now integrating himself into his new homeland and my extended family. The very German culture of my wife’s family is hardly compromised. So there you go, turns out you can sustain German culture with Syrian babies.

It’s gratifying to have a relatively happy story of successful refuge seeking in my own family. But distressing to have so many frustrated ones so close to my own culture and nation. At our southern border a humanitarian crisis looms. Asylum seekers from Central America pile up in camps. It is legal for foreign nationals to present themselves at our international border seeking asylum. But our government has slowed processing of asylum pleas to prevent the entry of asylum seekers to our territory. Rallying in frustration a month before Christmas, asylum seekers were repelled with tear gas.

So what is the story of these people? Why would people walk thousands of miles from their homes to seek refuge in a country now infamously unwelcoming? These must be stories of desperation, but the politics of America First has drowned these stories. As we celebrate the birth of a refugee born thousands of years ago, we should find some time to hear the stories of asylum seekers at our own border today. I have catching up to do here, but for me these stories are much closer to home than the stories of Syrian refugees in Berlin.

I grew up in the presence of Latino gangs in the 70s. In my neighborhood in Mesa Arizona, it was the 8th Ave. Locos. There was machismo and mystique in it, but little violence. After school in the 70s, it was the sounds emanating from lowered mid 60s Chevys, primed and ready for paint for years on end, that introduced me to Shuggie Otis’ Strawberry Letter 23, The Eagles, Hotel California and lots of Carlos Santana. These remain in my mind as sounds of style, brotherhood, and self-esteem in the midst of prejudice. A Latino gang, then, was just a bunch of marginalized young men from the neighborhood that looked out for each other. 

Then came the Reagan era war on drugs and many of those young men were sent to prison. As a white kid, I had the good fortune of moving on to a different life. But as I lived adjacent to 70s Latino gang life, people in Central America were experiencing the brutality of the cold war, which was not really cold in places like El Salvador and Nicaragua. Central America was never highly prosperous and was always highly unequal. The struggle in the 70s of poor farmers for land reform and economic opportunity that would allow for merely a modest subsistence, combined with the ideological and armed interventions of the USSR and the USA, blossomed into a series of civil wars in the region that sent tides of immigrants fleeing chaos and violence north to the US. El Salvadorans established communities in Southern California and this was the birthplace of the now dreaded MS13 gang.

Originally, MS13 was not so different from the 8th Ave. Locos I grew up with. It was just a band of young men looking out for each other on the somewhat meaner streets of the LA area. But then came the war on drugs and mass incarceration. And in the 90s, mass deportation. A loosely organized population of men hardened off in US prisons was sent back to El Salvador, now a vulnerable fledgling democracy. In the context of poor populations, weak governments and the drug trade, gangs like MS 13 have spread across Central America and grown into a social movement of nihilistic sociopaths. Young men are pressured with violence into joining and then pressured to commit violence as members, facing only violence from the state if they try to escape the violence of gang life. Sociopaths are made, not born. Regard for lives of others is systematically stripped from young men in the pervasive and too frequently unavoidable trap of Central American gang life. The crisis is now to the point where “of the 20 countries in the world with the highest murder rates, 17 are Latin American.” This is what the desperate asylum seekers congregating at our southern border are fleeing.

It’s hard to miss our complicity in any honest account of the conditions that have brought a humanitarian crisis to our own border. As a well-to-do American taxpayer, I am implicated as well. But the guilt of the privileged is just another facet of privileged self-absorption, usually useless and often counterproductive. My task, our task, at Christmas especially and through the year, is to get over ourselves and exercise some compassion for the suffering. The people most vulnerable to gang violence aren’t relatively well-off Americans, but the people piled up at our doorstep. We get that when we see photos of mothers with children in tow, fleeing tear gas at the San Ysidro border crossing. As I try to exercise better informed and more rational compassion this Christmas season, what strikes me most vividly is that the most vulnerable are often the young men our leaders tell us to fear. I want to thank my new Syrian brother in Berlin for that insight.

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Capitalism vs. Socialism: Why are we still having this debate?

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My Intro to Philosophy text says very little about capitalism and socialism and this is mainly because these aren’t political philosophies so much as positions about how economies should be structured. Perhaps it is due for the following supplement.

Capitalism the view that the means of production should be privately owned. Socialism is the polar opposite, the view that is the view that the means of production should be publicly owned. That is the traditional meaning anyway, though we should note that “socialist” has for some decades been used as a general epithet by demagogues like Rush Limbaugh to insult anyone less conservative than they are. Some of those people, like Bernie Sanders, have taken to owning the insult. But don’t worry, Bernie doesn’t want the government to run Chick fil a.

Neither pure capitalism nor pure socialism has ever sustained a developed functioning economy for long. Every developed economy in the world has a substantial public sector and a usually larger private sector. The public sector is just that portion of the economy that is publicly controlled and financed ultimately through taxes and fees of one sort or another. The private sector is that portion of the economy that is controlled by private individuals or organizations and it is financed through private spending and investment.

We can see certain political philosophies aligned with socialism and capitalism respectively. Libertarian political philosophy would aim for the purest possible form of capitalism, where the public sector is limited to securing property rights, e.g. prosecuting fraud or theft. Communism would aim for the purest possible version of socialism, complete public ownership of all industry, for example.

Communism has been tried, and hasn’t done so well. Aside from squashing economic liberty for individuals, the completely state run economy isn’t responsive to market signals indicating demand for more of this or less of that. It also stifles innovation that boosts productivity, economic growth and increasing standards of living.

No country has been successful in implementing a completely state run economy. The entrepreneurial spirit is hard to suppress and where it’s been tried, doing so has only fostered the black market. For instance, my wife had relatives in the DDR, communist Eastern Germany. One was a doctor, who’s salary was no higher than his brothers who were blue collar workers. When re-unification happened, however, the doctor had a rather eye popping stash of East German marks to trade in. In addition to being a doctor, he was an avid gardener and he had built a small fortune propagating and selling exotic orchids he brought back from vacations in Cuba. A great many East Germans were and still are serious gardeners. I don’t find this surprising since, on Lockean terms, this is the most basic means of creating private property, through mixing your own labor with the stuff of the Earth.

So communism has been tried and its shortcomings are known through experience. Libertarianism though, is pretty much just theoretical. Perhaps fairly primitive underdeveloped economies like small agrarian villages of the old west were more or less libertarian. But libertarianism and the kind of pure capitalism it recommends has never been implemented on a larger scale in a more developed society. Every developed country around the world has a mixed economy, one that has a substantial public sector and a generally more substantial private sector. This is largely because there are many functions required in a developed society that the private market just isn’t going to take up on its own, like basic infrastructure and universal education. Even on a broadly Lockean approach, which heavily favors the private sector as a matter of personal economic liberty, a developed economy will require a significant public sector to manage and regulate the use of commonly held resources like roads, watersheds, air quality, public health and so on.

And so it is curious to me why we still have debates about socialism vs. capitalism. These are the extreme and unworkable poles on a spectrum of possible economic arrangements. The world has plenty of examples of highly prosperous, free and open societies and in every one of these cases we find mixed economies with both substantial private and public sectors. Indeed, when things are functioning well, these exist in a kind of symbiotic relationship. In our own, for instance, the public sector has a long history of generously funding basic research in science and technology. When new technological innovations get close enough to profitability in the market place, and only then, private capital funds new investment based on patents and brings new products to the market.

The machine you are working at is a prime example of this. Apple, Google and Microsoft have brought great products to the market that have boosted our productivity, improved our quality of life, and created lots of wealth along the way. But these companies are running the last stage of a relay race that began long ago in the public sector. The groundwork for IT as we know it was built with public sector support starting over a century ago (partly with the development of logic, remember Bertrand Russell?) and continuing into the present through university research, military research and development, and many other forms of support for technological development. The relationship between the private and public sector is generally cooperative. Research and development for things like better batteries or touch screens, for instance, has been funded by government grants (often connected to military and national security projects) and carried out by private IT corporations. In other instances, private corporations serve as contractors on government projects.

There is plenty of reasonable debate to be had concerning just how the public and private sectors should work together in this or that economic role. But the idea that one can do without the other is a non-starter.

In the context of such fruitful collaboration between government and private companies, the widespread anti-government sentiment we find in this country, especially on economic matters, strikes me as a kind of blinkered ingratitude. Beyond that, it is a hazard to the prosperity and standard of living we enjoy (witness the state of our roads and educational institutions).

Illiberal Political Philosophy

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Both what we popularly know as “liberalism” and “conservativism” are positions within a broader tradition of liberal political thought. We can understand a political philosophy as laying within that broader liberal tradition when it gives priority to the liberty of individuals as a political value. Illiberal political philosophies will just be those that reject the rights and liberties of individuals as being of paramount importance. I originally prefaced this chapter with a discussion of Plato to provide some historical perspective, some appreciation for how recent an ethical innovation it is to treat individual rights and liberties as important in political thought. Over the past few years, though, the broad tradition of liberal political thought that has guided this country since its inception, in both its “liberal” and “conservative” variants, has come under threat. So, a few cautionary words about illiberal ways of thought are in order.

Political observers have recently heard lots of talk about authoritarianism, populism, nationalism and other assorted “isms.” I’m not going to take up a detailed analysis of these here, but I do want to address an underlying current common among them. Authoritarianism, as the term suggests, prioritizes the will of an authority figure. But for an authority figure to gain and sustain power, he must have the support of a sizable chunk of the population. So, would-be authoritarians will need to appeal to the concerns of ordinary people and make themselves popular (and this is what populism is). So, populism can lead to authoritarianism, though that depends on the concerns of the people appealed to. If ordinary people to care most about individual rights and liberties and have some ability to defend themselves against the rhetorical trickery of a demagogue (a leader who appeals to people through emotion and prejudice rather than rational argument), then populism won’t provoke a turn away from individual rights and liberties. But people have concerns beyond individual rights and liberties and these can eclipse the tenets of liberalism.

We’d be hard pressed to explain how popular opinion could turn against the broad tradition of liberalism if varieties of illiberalism had nothing to offer people. Mass movements in support of nationalism (which prioritizes national interest over individual rights and liberties), offer the powerful appeal of a shared identity and the social cohesion of a common cause. Indeed, one of the classic criticisms of liberal political thought is that it fails to provide shared ideals that can be the basis of a sense of shared identity, purpose and community. Liberty alone is thin gruel for those seeking a sense of meaning and purpose in life. And prioritizing liberty as a political value requires taking a fairly neutral political stand on a broad range of other values and conceptions of the good life. Pushing a specific further set of values in the realm of politics as the basis of community and shared identity is bound to marginalize and threaten adherents of other value systems, But the whole point of liberal values like freedom of conscience is to avoid this.

Conservative political thinkers like Edmund Burke and the contemporary writer David Brooks have sought some middle ground, like upholding liberty as a primary political value while supporting the development of community built around shared values beyond the realm of politics.

Communism also held the appeal of a shared identity based on commonly held values to its adherents in its heyday. In direct opposition to liberal traditions, both communism and nationalism prioritize the good of a collective over concern for citizens as individuals. Fairly recent history is rife with examples of how collectivist thinking, both on the left in the form of communism and on the right in the form of nationalism, have licensed extreme brutality. I won’t pursue historical examples or details here. But it should come as no surprise that prioritizing collectives over individuals is liable to be pretty hard on individuals.

What I do want to say in the way of caution concerning collectivist ideologies of all stripes is mainly that collectives don’t suffer. The very idea of a collective is an abstraction. A collective has no existence beyond the individuals that make it up. And so, it is hard to see how a collective can have any value of its own. My intuition is roughly Kantian here. People have intrinsic moral worth. Not nations. America is not a human being. But we might consider making America humane again.

 

 

Race and Political Correctness

A few brilliant recent essays in the NY times on these topics. I’ve become a admirer of Charles Blow’s work lately. He illuminates some important points in moral psychology in this editorial. The key insight here is that moral injury and moral outrage are not the same thing and should probably be kept separate. Blow explains his lack of any sense of injury from racist comments as follows:

You see, racism is a moral corruption built on an intellectual fallacy and exists as a construction invented for the very purpose of violence. So, when people demonstrate that they subscribe to theories of racism, they have shown their hand, and I am immediately roused by the euphoric understanding that they are compromised, diminished and assailable. Instead of reducing me, their racism reduces them. That is the ironic, poetic justice of it.

Of course, one only has to think about it for a moment to find the enormous hole in the logic that racism morally weakens the object of the sickness rather than the possessor of the sickness.

Still, from a position of moral strength, Blow goes on to explain how he feels outraged by expressions of racism, especially from people in positions of power. One can be outraged at injustice without feeling victimized or playing the victim. It might be asking a bit much to expect reactionary voices to track this difference. But it remains important for the rest of us to track this difference. When moral outrage is intermingled with a sense of personal injury it becomes hard to focus on moral considerations that can appeal to the better nature of everyone without injecting special pleading for the dear self. Leading with a sense of injury can appeal to those who readily identify with us or our cause while at the same time creating deeper divisions between us and those we really need to be reaching. The injured don’t fight well, rhetorically or otherwise. The racist elements in our society get this at some level. The troll’s game is to undermine those working for justice by instilling a sense of injury in them. This is a game that can’t be won and is best not played. We do better when we fight for justice on the basis of justice and keep our wounds out of the arena.

 

Next, I’m happy to be learning from Lindy West about the chimera of Political Correctness. As a philosopher who does metaphysics, I love the “What is that?” questions. In several classroom discussions I’ve asked students just what political correctness is. Once we press past examples in seeking a more general account of the “essence” of political correctness, or some understanding of what political correctness is about, we’ve invariably settled on something to the effect that the point of political correctness is just to encourage treating different kinds of people with the sort of dignity and respect we’d expect for ourselves. Hard to see what anyone would find objectionable about this.

While I think this exercise has been useful and I’ll continue having this conversation with students, I can also see that it fails to diagnose the insidious rhetorical role talk of political correctness plays in our public discourse. Have I too been duped into treating political correctness as if it were a thing, the nature of which we might look into? Here’s Lindy:

The term “political correctness” (much like the slimy “pro-life”) is a right-wing neologism, a tactical bending of reality, an attempt to colonize the playing field, a bluff to lure dupes into dignifying propaganda. True to form, the credulous left adopted it wholesale in the early ’90s, electively embroiling us in three decades of bad-faith “debate” over whether discouraging white people from using racial slurs constitutes government censorship. Of course it doesn’t. Debate over. Treating anti-P.C. arguments as anything but a shell game props up the lie that it is somehow unfair to identify and point out racism, let alone fight to eradicate it. Pointing out and fighting to eradicate racism is how we build the racism-free world that all but racists profess to want.

The anti-P.C. set deliberately frames political correctness as a sovereign entity, separate from real human beings — like an advisory board or a nutritional label or a silly after-school club that one can heed or ignore with no moral implications — as though if we simply reject political correctness we can still have “Roseanne.” But the reality is that there’s no such thing as political correctness — it’s a rhetorical device to depersonalize oppression.

So, as a metaphysics guy, I must also profess my distaste for “re-ifying entities” (that is, making stuff up, or treating nothing as if it were something).

 

 

 

Jordan Peterson’s analysis of Political Correctness

Peterson’s Straw Man diagnosis of campus social justice activists is concisely put here:

 

 

Peterson attributes a fairly sophisticated, if utterly wrong headed, theoretical framework to so called SJWs. He sees Political Correctness as based on an impure amalgam of Marxism and Postmodernism. I too think that Marxism and Postmodernism are terrible things and not just for the reasons Peterson articulates so well. But I think he is mistaken in his blanket attribution of Marxism and Postmodernism to social justice activists. I think Peterson hasn’t done enough field work to give an accurate diagnosis of the psychology and motivation of the average social justice promoting member of the campus community. For there just aren’t that many social justice activists that are this theoretically committed. However, social justice activists do tend to be pretty evidence based in ways Peterson’s analysis completely ignores.

What is most present to mind among, say Black Lives Matter activists is the historical legacy and ongoing perpetuation of a clearly unjust and often brutal practices. The specific injustices complained of would be clear injustices on any number of theoretical approaches, but perhaps not clearly so unjust on a marriage of Postmodernism and Marxism. In any case, theoretical commitments aren’t what really matters to the social justice crowd, at least not on my campus.

Trans people not getting murdered matters. Black people not getting harassed by the police matters. Women not getting sexually harassed in the workplace matters. You certainly don’t need to think that the interests of groups supersedes that of individuals to make sense out of this. The more noxious forms of Identity Politics occasionally make brief appearances in the form of uncritically invoking some hackneyed relativistic cliches, but we’d just be mistaken to attribute sophisticated if incoherent and self-defeating theoretical perspectives to folks on this thin basis.

Of course we do talk about groups in diagnosing systemic injustices, especially those groupings that have have served as the bases of historically well documented injustices. But this doesn’t demand that we take groups to matter more than individuals. We can quite coherently contend, as most people ordinarily do, that groups are mere abstractions, having no real existence apart from the members that make them up, and still be on the look out for unfair disadvantages that people face because they are black, or trans, or women. Even the current slogans avoid the mistake of reifying groups. Its, “Black lives matter” not “Blackness matters” and its “me too”, not “please also consider the collective identity of women.”

 

The Emotional Roots of Prejudice and Bigotry

At the social level, bigotry and prejudice are tools of oppression where in groups dominate and exploit out groups. But analysis at this sociological level leaves important questions unanswered about why people are are so prone to in group – out group thinking in the first place. Note that the most stridently prejudiced are often not those who benefit significantly from exploitative power dynamics between groups. Prejudice, bigotry and discrimination have deeper emotional roots in individual psychology than sociological analysis can fully illuminate.

We are familiar with fear mongering in racist demagoguery and fear often does play a central role in othering The Other. We see this in the long history of racial prejudice against African Americans and more recently against Muslims. This fear is irrational given that the perceived threat is largely based on fantasy stereotypes. But fear does little to explain misogyny or other cases of discrimination like anti-semitism in Nazi Germany or the caste system in India.

Disgust, according to Martha Nussbaum, does shed broader light on the psychology of prejudice. But what exactly is disgust? And how does it lead to prejudice, discrimination and oppression? These are the questions I will briefly explore in this essay. But first, I want to mention that the occasion for this reflection was a wonderful event at Seattle Town Hall the other night where Martha Nussbaum spoke about her new book, Aging Thoughtfully, co-authored with Saul Levmore. The full event is online here. While the main focus of the evening was ageism, her discussion also explored disgust and its role in prejudice and discrimination more generally.

We should also note that Nussbaum is a cognitivist about the emotions. That is, she thinks that emotions aren’t just feelings, but that emotions have at their core a cognitive element of judgment or belief. At the core of fear, for instance, is the judgment that something or someone presents some kind of danger. Similarly it would not make sense to understand a person as experiencing grief unless that person believes they have lost something or someone dear to them. Having this cognitive component means that emotions can be well grounded or irrational. A person’s fear, for instance, is rational to just the degree that the perceived threat is real. A fear based on distorted or fantastic belief is not rational. So, given this theoretical context, exploring the emotional roots of prejudice in no way excuses prejudice and discrimination as somehow beyond the scope rational critique. To the contrary, exploring the emotional roots of prejudice will be an attempt to get at what is going wrong in the mind of the bigot or the misogynist. The goal here is to illuminate the irrationality of prejudice.

So back to disgust. Nussbaum takes disgust to be aversion to contamination. In particular, disgust is repulsion against things we associate with decay, disease and death. What Nussbaum calls primary disgust probably has a biological basis. It’s easy to see how evolution would favor a strongly felt repulsion from things like rotting flesh or signs of communicable disease. Disgust in these cases is rational, just like our fear of tigers. Of course even here we often find overriding reasons for caring for the sick or facing down our fear of the tiger.

But then, people also suffer what Nussbaum calls “projective disgust.” As she puts it, “people seek to create a buffer zone between themselves and their own animality by identifying a group (usually a powerless minority) who can be targeted as the quasi-animals and projecting onto that group various animal characteristics, which they have to no greater degree than the ones doing the projecting: bad smell, animal sexuality and so on.”

Projective disgust is neither rational nor obviously adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint. So how do so many people across so many cultures become saddled with this irrational, socially problematic emotional attitude? Well, as slightly rational, self-aware beings, we must somehow cope with the foreknowledge of our own eventual decline, decay and demise. Gifted self-deceivers that we are, a widespread strategy for dealing with this long run crisis and the anxiety it can provoke is to deny and distance ourselves from our own animality and mortality. Indeed most of our major religious traditions seem to be overly concerned with assimilating us more closely to God or gods and thereby distancing us from our essential nature as mortal, disease prone, biological organisms.

Projective disgust is a dishonest mode of dividing the person against its self, cleaving our elevated, rational, self-aware minds from our ultimately decaying flesh. Descartes had it hard wired into the nature of reality. But the comfort of this dualism comes at a steep price. In elevating ourselves as something more than animal and mortal, we extend this elevation only to those we can readily identify with. Others can be literally left to rot. And so we other The Other. There are no doubt assorted other ways in which we other The Other, but failing to come to terms with our own humanity, and our own animality and mortality in particular, is surely among the deepest and most universal. Prejudice and bigotry is, in varying degrees, grounded in self-deception aimed at evading self-loathing. But if we can muster the courage to see ourselves with clear eyes, susceptible to all manner of corruption and decay, ultimately destined to demise, we might also hope to get over our disgust and find ourselves, along with all our fellow vulnerable, decaying, mortal organisms, as lovable all the same.

James Baldwin invokes this wisdom in connection with racism in America when he writes,

White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this – which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never – the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.