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Archive for February, 2007

Crazy Canucks Invade Beltway Journalism

[ 0 ] February 23, 2007 |

Hmm, Can West has taken over the New Republic–but, alas, Marty Peretz is keeping his stake. Apparently they’ll be moving to a bi-weekly, twice-the-length format (if this means more space for the book review, frankly it could be an improvement.) Amusingly, Kit Seelye’s article takes at face value claims that the decline in circulation was largely due to voluntary “culling” while not mentioning, say, its full-throated endorsement of a disastrous and unpopular war (especially among its target audience), its endorsement of Joe Liberman’s walking-punchline primary run, etc.

Meanwhile, J-Pod sez:

I can’t think of a publication that has ever altered its publication schedule in this way that has benefited from the change.

Um, didn’t the National Review start as a weekly? Its founder seemed to think so:

The launching of a conservative weekly journal of opinion in a country widely assumed to be a bastion of conservatism at first glance looks like a work of supererogation, rather like publishing a royalist weekly within the walls of Buckingham Palace.

Of course, I suppose you could say he still has a point…

UPDATE: The article I read in the print edition today does discuss the Lieberman endorsement and the war. I’m 99% sure that this was not in the version of the article I read, but if so obviously I retract that criticism.

Academic Freedom and Political Blogging

[ 0 ] February 23, 2007 |

Obviously, I agree entirely with the substance of Paul Campos’s reply to Glenn Reynolds’s attempts to defend illegal and counterproductive assassinations. Since it came up in comments too, I should perhaps further address the question of academic freedom that Campos brings up:

A final note: My column suggested that, given the support of people like Reynolds and Hugh Hewitt for disciplinary action against Ward Churchill, it wouldn’t be untoward to inquire if the University of Tennessee’s employment policies require unlimited toleration of, for example, a law professor who uses lies to justify murder. Again, this isn’t a rhetorical question: it genuinely interests me. Obviously, academic freedom isn’t unlimited. No one, I presume, would defend a professor’s “right” to, for instance, verbally abuse students with racial slurs, or to appropriate the work of others without proper citation, and so forth. And I certainly respect the views of people like Glenn Greenwald and Scott Lemieux, who if I understand them correctly go very far toward arguing that no expression of opinion per se should ever be a basis for the sanctioning of an academic.

This basically gets my position right; no rights are absolute, but I’m a near-absolutist on such questions. (I’m speaking here about what people say in their personal lives–obviously, academic freedom is not compromised if someone is fired for professional misconduct such as plagiarism or attacking students personally):

  • The biggest problem here is: who decides which political comments are beyond the pale? There are, after all, scholars who could sincerely argue that because I’ve argued that Roe v. Wade was correctly decided I’m an advocate of lawlessness and murder. Before one advocates consequences for political statements, remember that it’s not just your standards but David Horowitz’s that will determine whether people can keep their jobs. This is a cycle where nobody wins.
  • Even if we could come up with a principled way of determining that Reynolds’s comments were uniquely problematic and wouldn’t affect others, I still wouldn’t support any professional consequences. Indeed, for me this goes beyond academia and applies to anybody. People who remember my writings about the “Ivan Tribble” controversy will know I’m something of a crank about this, but people should be evaluated for jobs based on their ability to do the job, full stop. Even when employers are within their legal rights–which outside tenured academia is most of the time–people who use hiring and firing authority to indulge political, personal or cultural grievances are engaging in appalling (and, to the extent that they’re responsible to other stakeholders, grossly irresponsible) behavior. I suppose I’m an old-fashioned Millian, but I believe there are enough social pressures to conform and cower to authority, and employers have far too much power over employees’ private lives. That may be unavoidable, but I’m not going to contribute to it. Reynolds–barring some extreme misbehavior that would go well beyond a reactionary and poorly reasoned blog post–should be evaluated based on his teaching, research, and professional behavior, period. And this applies to everyone as far as I’m concerned.
  • Finally, I don’t know about Hewitt but if I understand correctly Reynolds–at least nominally–didn’t call on Churchill to be fired for his 9/11 comments. He may have called for him to be fired for his professional misconduct, but that’s different. Admittedly, it’s a complex issue because the legitimate questions about Churchill were the fruits of a wholly illegitimate political witch hunt, but I still don’t think it’s strictly accurate to call Reynolds a hypocrite on this unless he wrote something I couldn’t find in a quick search. But even if he did, I don’t think it matters. It’s very tempting to say turnabout is fair play, given Reynolds’s constant reliance on the tu quoque (or, at least, attempted reliance: as with the current case, one generally finds under cursory inspection that his tus fail to even quoque) but even if Reynolds called on Churchill to be fired or investigated for his political views it means he was wrong, not that he should also be subject to unjust treatment.

While we’re on the subject . . .

[ 0 ] February 23, 2007 |

Since I’m apparently incapable of coming up with ideas of my own this week, I’m going to add once again to something Rob just wrote. I’ve never been particularly involved with distance education — mostly because my life is so utterly disorganized that I’d be a horrible candidate for teaching courses like that — but I did begin podcasting my US History II survey lectures this semester and have considered making even more of the course content available online (Powerpoint slideshows, tests, etc.)

The podcasting has been an interesting experiment. Although I’ve developed extensive lecture notes over the year, I no longer rely on them so heavily in class and usually just yak away without them. Occasionally, I spiral off into tangents whose substance I can’t remember later on; by recording the lectures, I’m able to keep track of what I say on the off chance that something interesting happens. As far as the students are concerned, I was quite wary of this at the start of the semester, and I warned the group on the first day of class that their iPods should not be the primary delivery system for the course content. So far, though, I haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary as far as attendance is concerned. In fact, I’m pleasantly surprised at how many students seem to be showing up for lectures and subscribing to the podcast. Whether they’re listening to them or not to flesh out their lecture notes, I can’t really say. Thus far the test scores haven’t looked any different than in years past, but that might in fact be because the tests themselves haven’t been altered to suit the new format.

The other surprising effect of all this has been watching the subscription numbers climb throughout the semester and monitoring how those figures have shaped my attitude toward the course. Right now, for reasons that I can’t quite explain, several hundred people are receiving (and possibly even listening to) these lectures. I don’t know much about these folks, but knowing that other people might be paying [attention] has definitely had an effect on the course. I hate to admit this, but I find myself being more cautious about certain things that I should be doing automatically in a survey course — explaining key concepts more clearly, not assuming any prior knowledge of US history, and so on. I also notice — probably for the worse — that I’m lecturing more and allowing fewer opportunities for discussion. Though I’m usually not conscious of the fact that I’m recording everything once class begins, I’m clearly teaching in a way that’s more appropriate for a class of 300 than for a class of 30. I’m just grateful I don’t have to grade 300 students . . .

If you have nothing better to do with your time, you can subscribe to the feed here. It’s better than “Audible Althouse” or the “Glenn and Helen Show.”

. . . i should have written that i find myself being more conscientious about “doing certain things” in the survey this time through. what i wrote made it sound as if the podcasting is somehow restraining me. it’s not, though readers here would be surprised at how infrequently i swear or refer to wingnuts as “wingnuts.” and i never mention Jonah Goldberg, Ann Althouse, or Victor Davis Hanson! How strange!

Courses Without Degrees

[ 0 ] February 22, 2007 |

Indeed, it’s now remarkable easy to construct a course such that the benefits (other than the degree) are pretty much non-exclusive. In my Defense Statecraft course, for example, anyone could participate on the blog and follow along with the syllabus. Were I not as lazy and shiftless as I am, I would already have posted PowerPoint slides for all the lectures that I’ve given thus far, as well as the weekly student presentations. In fact, it wouldn’t be so much of a hardship to record the lectures and discussions and have them available as podcasts. Texts are easily available from Amazon, although it might be difficult for someone without easy access to a college campus to get access to some of the online readings.

The problem, of course, is that without the discipline provided by a degree program, regular assignments, and a grade at the end, almost no one sticks with a semester long course. I have often, in my career, been asked for permission to sit in, and I’ve always said yes. I’d say that the fraction of people who actually follow through with attendance, much less the course reading, is less then 10%. Sticking with a class, even one that you have an interest in, is tough work, and all the formal requirements associated with enrollment have an important disciplining effect.

Worst American Birthdays

[ 0 ] February 22, 2007 |

Today, I am sorry to report, concludes another year of Bill Frist’s unwholesome existence. Happily for all, though, Frist’s 55th birthday marks the first time since 1995 that he’s not passed his special day violating the Hippocratic Oath by representing Tennessee in the US Senate.

Frist’s birthdays in the Millionaire’s Club were likely more eventful than this one will be. His 45th birthday must have been something of a downer, for example. It was on that day that a group of scientists in Scotland announced that a sheep named Dolly had been cloned; as Frist ruefully prodded his cake and ice cream that night, he must have wondered what the announcement meant for the future of human cloning, which he resolutely opposed. Several years later, on Frist’s 53rd birthday, issues of Life and Death were once again on the minds of Good, Decent Americans like Bill. The Senator had no doubt already heard about the plight of one Terri Schiavo, but he had not yet demonstrated his patented VHS diagnostic method to an incredulous public.

In his younger, more carefree days, Bill Frist passed several years as a medical student at Harvard. While studying to be a cardiac surgeon, Frist carried on a secret life as a cat murderer — stealing away to animal shelters in the Boston area, adopting stray felines, “treating them as pets for a few days” before euthanizing and dissecting them. As Frist recalled in his autobiography,

It was, of course, a heinous and dishonest thing to do. And I was totally schizoid about the entire matter. By day, I was little Billy Frist, the boy who lived on Bowling Avenue in Nashville and had decided to become a doctor because of his gentle father and a dog named Scratchy. By night, I was Dr. William Harrison Frist, future cardiothoracic surgeon, who was not going to let a few sentiments about cute, furry little creatures stand in the way of his career.

In short, I was going a little crazy.

Only Frist knows if he suspended his campaign of death each year on February 22. Did he offer his “pets” an extra mound of wet food that day? Did he crumple up a few extra wads of tin foil, or let them play with the wrapping paper from his presents? Did he let them sleep on the bed — a birthday reprieve of sorts before the machinery of death chugged back into action the next day? Only Bill knows.

Happy birthday, Bill Frist. Don’t kill anything today.

Compared To What?

[ 0 ] February 22, 2007 |

In comments to this post, I’m afraid that regular commenter Anderson has fallen for the old conservertarian bait-and-switch:

Yeah, quite frankly, I think punitives are a terrible idea in general — they take what should be a policy issue & make it a judicial one. And it makes no sense for the plaintiff to collect the punitives, except of course for the unspoken assumption of a 40% or more contingency fee.

It’s not, exactly, that I disagree with him. The punitive damage system does lead to arbitrary windfalls to individuals to provide broader incentives, and on balance I would prefer the European regulatory model to the American system, which relies more heavily on torts to constrain injurious corporate behavior (although obviously the more bureaucratic model also comes with costs.) But I don’t see how any of this is relevant to the question of whether the due process clause should be read as limiting punitive damages:

  • Arbitrarily limiting damage awards based on how many of his fingers Tony Kennedy decides to count on a given day doesn’t solve the windfall problem; it just reduces the disincentives for bad behavior.
  • It’s not as if Roberts, Alito and Kennedy are voting to limit damage awards to that the U.S. can move closer to the European system of regulating corporations. As soon as regulations to replace a less effective tort system are proposed, Republicans will immediately start talking about how the genius of the American legal system means we don’t need more regulations.
  • Most importantly, when construing whether the due process clause limits punitive damages, surely we must consider the issue in the context of the American state as it actually exists, not some pony state we would actually prefer instead. Whether it’s optimal or not, punitive damages are a major method for constraining behavior that is ccontrary to the public interest in the American system. If legislatures want to limit punitive damages–whether to move to a more bureaucratic model of (much more likely) to make it easier for corporate donors to injure people without consequences–that’s their privilege. But I don’t see any basis for using a (to put it mildly) highly contestable reading of the Constitution to limit damages in the hope that a better system might spring up in its place.

The BMW v. Gore line of cases should be overruled, and the latest (to borrow Stevens’s phrase) adventure in doctrinal wonderland just makes the rules more confusing for no good reason.

All Your Uterus Are Not Belong To South Dakota (Yet)

[ 0 ] February 22, 2007 |

Good news from the Great Faces, Great Places state:

An abortion ban with exceptions for rape, incest and health of the mother was rejected Wednesday morning by legislative committee in Pierre.

The Senate State Affairs Committee just voted 8 to 1 to kill HB1293 without a vote of the full Senate.

Supporters of the bill can still force the bill out of committee with a one-third vote of the full Senate, but even key supporters of last year’s ban spoke against the measure.

Given that the law would have been unenforceable, the biggest winner here is the South Dakota taxpayer–who won’t be footing the bill for a frivolous lawsuit by the forced pregnancy lobby–but it’s nice to see all around.

Fred Hiatt: Not the Median Democratic Primary Voter

[ 0 ] February 22, 2007 |

In addition to being bad on the merits, what puzzles me about Tom Vilsack’s decision to end his campaign yesterday is what makes him think it would work. I’ll admit that I’m no political consultant; I don’t have a strong idea of what would appeal to Middle America (TM) except to say that you probably want to analyze how I express ideas and do the precise opposite. But I do understand at least one thing: running to the right on an extremely popular entitlement program in a Democratic primary is remarkably stupid. Just ask Joe Lieberman.

More on Luck

[ 0 ] February 22, 2007 |

Rob’s post on luck and wingnuttery reminded me of a Times editorial written four years ago by historian Jackson Lears on the subject of George W. Bush and his Providential sense of history. Lears points out the obvious, which is that Der Preznit doesn’t believe in luck — or, if you like, he will not profess such a belief because it would ruin two aspects of his public reputation that he’s aggressively cultivated over the past decade: (a) his conviction that fate is guided not by chance but by the hands of the Divine; and (b) that his decisions, while coming from the gut, are correct because he believes them to be so. Needless to say, these delusions are perfectly compatible with the pathologies of the gambler; they’re also the pathologies associated with other addictions that don’t require much elaboration here. So Lears may have overstated the differences between the President-as-divine-vessel and the President-as-reckless-gambler, but in my view he gets one thing terrifyingly correct:

[S]oldiers know the arbitrary cruelties of fate at first hand — maiming this one, leaving that one alone. They know the power of luck.

There may be no atheists in foxholes, but there are not many believers in Providence in them either. Combat soldiers have always been less confident than politicians that God is on the premises. They have paid homage to an older deity, Fortuna. From the Civil War through the Persian Gulf war, American soldiers have festooned themselves with amulets and lucky charms — everything from St. Christopher medals and smooth stones to their girlfriends’ locks of hair. And why not? Ritual efforts to conjure luck speak directly to their own experience.

If, as Rob points out, people at the Weekly Standard or Investors’ Business Daily are calling for a “high risk, low reward strategy,” it’s for the obvious reason that (as Ogged pointed out in the comments) they’re betting with someone else’s money. People who by virtue of their distance from actual risk should be–ok, ok, unless you’re Hugh Hewitt, Mark Steyn or Jeff Goldstein — the people who by virtue of their distance from actual risk should be thinking and planning and acting with great sobriety are in fact doing nothing of the sort. They could at least have the good sense to admit that they evidently don’t believe in God anymore.

Han Solo and the Odds

[ 0 ] February 21, 2007 |

At some point within the manly space that is the wingnutosphere, it became fashionable to talk about things like war with Iraq or the Surge in terms of long odds. The odds may be against us, the argument conventionally goes, but it (whatever “it” may be) is worth a try. Recall that the Surge was initially justified as “doubling down”, which pursued the gambling metaphor even further. One would almost come to believe that the value of a particular policy is inversely related to the likelihood that it will succeed…

I think that Han Solo is partially responsible. Recall:

C-3PO: Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1.
Han Solo: Never tell me the odds.

Indeed. While girly men and gay robots may think that a 1 in 3720 chance of success is a reason not to undertake a particular course of action, real men understand that high risk strategies are inherently manly, and thus valuable. Again, the “doubling down” argument is particularly notable, as doubling down in blackjack is typically done when the odds are heavily in your favor (holding 11 while the dealer shows a 6, for example), not when your position is weak (holding 16 while the dealer shows a 10, for instance). Somehow, and I think in part because of Han Solo, the basic logic of gambling has been inverted such that high risk, low reward strategies are preferable to low risk, high reward strategies.

I would dearly, dearly love to own a casino hosting a convention of conservative bloggers. Indeed, I think I can already see the outlines of the plot of Ocean’s 14…

Real Country Music

[ 0 ] February 21, 2007 |

Erik makes an important point regarding the political backlash against the Dixie Chicks in his good commentary on J. Lester Feder’s fine article on the right wing shift of country music:

But it’s hardly just politics that has led to this scenario for them. They always existed on the margins of acceptability in mainstream country music. They sold well and that got them airplay but it is not as they ever represented the mainstream of the Nashville establishment. Their music (which I am quite tepid about by the way) is not Brooks & Dunn and therefore you didn’t see too much sadness by the music establishment when they were banished from the mainstream.

Exactly. The battle against the Dixie Chicks wasn’t just political; it was over the definition of country music. A lot of people on the Nashville scene don’t think that Faith Hill, Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks et al are actually country music, and the fight to redefine those artists as part of the pop world has been going on for a long time. Now, I obviously have no patience with any genre that can define the reprehensible dreck vomited forth by the aesthetic monstrosity that calls itself Tim McGraw as within acceptable limits, but nevertheless.

How About We Keep Aesthetic Stalinists Out Of Movie Screenings First?

[ 0 ] February 21, 2007 |

Shorter Michael Medved: The sheer terror of potentially working with somebody who might find you sexually attractive totally justifies hating fags. And might I add, no fat chicks?

This whole line of reasoning–famous for justifying the exclusion of gay people and women from countless workplaces well beyond the NBA–has always been so silly. Really, by the time they become adults, most people understand 1)that they may come into professional contact with people who have sexual interests in you that you don’t reciprocate, and 2)you can’t necessarily have sex with everyone you’re attracted to. People who fail to understand these basic underpinnings of civilization need to grow up before they start using their hatreds and immaturities to justify exclusionary policies; the world really can’t operate around you.

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