Defending “To Kill a Mockingbird” against Watchman-ism.

At the Daily Beast, Allen Barra doesn’t like To Kill a Mocking Bird, and suggests, to my horror, that Go Set a Watchman will be better. Is such a thing possible?  (Note: I started this blog post after initial excerpts had been released, but before the book was out.)

Barra claims that in the years Watchman went unreleased, the world missed out on a rich and complex story, and instead got a “simplistic and soothing” one. Yes, a soothing story in which features an abused girl trying to seduce a black man; a lynch mob; two children who get in the way of the lynch mob, and appear to be in danger of violence; a mysterious man locked in his house; a rape trial in which an innocent man is sentenced to death; and the attempted murder of two children.

In Mockingbird, good characters have to figure out how to live ethically in a deeply flawed society. One can be like Atticus Finch. He largely conforms and compromises up to a point but is absolutely unyielding when he believes his integrity is at stake. He gets through life by seeing others’ point of view and seeing the good in everyone, but this makes him a bit naïve. On the other hand one can be uncompromising and cut oneself off from society altogether, like Boo Radley, the stark alternative to Atticus’s compromises. Jem, Scout, and Dill Harrison don’t appear to be destined to fully embrace either approach; they appear on their way to finding their own alternatives. Dolphus Raymond simply rejects white society and lives with a black woman, pretending to be the town drunk in order to avoid repercussions.

In Watchman, there is no such difficulty: exposure to a better society, a college in New York, simply redeems Scout from her flawed roots. It promises to be as rich and complex as the Archie Bunker show.

Barra’s claims Mockingbird eclipsed the work of other, better Southern writers (William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and so on) because politics fit the civil rights era, and that this politics creates a simplistic, good-versus-evil tale. Yet it is he who is reducing literature to politics, reading Mockingbird as a political tract rather than a story about life or even Southern society: (“At the end of the book, we know exactly what our instincts told us halfway through, that Atticus is a good man, that Tom Robinson, a cipher of a character on paper, is an innocent victim of racism, and that lynching is bad.”) As we’ll see, his own objections to the book are largely political, based on the view that Mockingbird allows too much ambiguity. He might not think saintly Atticus is realistic, but he can’t have his bad guys evil enough.

Barra claims Atticus is “virtuously dull,” that his moral teachings “appeal to a child’s mentality.” But his objection is not that they are straightforwardly true, and therefore boring; his objection is that he disagrees with them. If Mockingbird isn’t defending the obviously, incontrovertibly true, then it isn’t so dull after all, is it?


Here’s Barra on Atticus’s morality: “’The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.’ To which a skeptical reader might reply: Okay, yes, that sounds noble when it refers to questions of racial equality. But Atticus doesn’t tell us how we should respond when someone’s conscience tells them (sic) that the Confederate battle flag should fly over the town square or that gay marriage is wrong on ‘religious grounds.’” How very topical and contemporary a concern! Until just a few years ago, it was a given that culture celebrated individual conscience, but this being 2015, individual conscience has taken on rather pejorative connotations and associations, and many, like Barra, hold it in great suspicion. It is a Hobbesian moment, full of worries about individual conscience disrupting the social order. Barra’s review is as much a product of our time as the TV series retelling the story of Thomas Moore and portraying the state as the good guy and the Catholic and his individual conscience as the villain.

So what to do with the person with a troublesome individual conscience? Well, you could at least try to leave him alone, so far as possible. But Barra’s question is really a misplaced one. The question Atticus faces is not to do with someone else whose conscience disagrees with you; the question is what to do about your own convictions when they run against society.

The morality Atticus teaches Scout is simple in the sense that a child can understand it, but there is no guarantee that a more complicated moral code is more correct than a simple one. Of course it is true that Atticus has to make his teachings understandable by a child; but Scout is a highly intelligent child, and he doesn’t talk down to her.   And anyway, social conformity is something every child can understand much more easily than individual conscience; Scout herself shows an instinctive understanding of it, whereas her individual conscience has to develop and mature.

Barra’s critique of Atticus continues. Atticus: “Why do reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up is something I can’t pretend to understand.” Barra has it all figured out: “What Atticus doesn’t seem to understand is that anyone who goes stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up isn’t a reasonable person in the first place.” Atticus: “If you can learn a reasonable trick, Scout, you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…” Barra: “Oh, I don’t know about that. I think it’s fairly easy to understand the point of view of Dylann Roof. Nor do I particularly want to get along better with people like him.”

Well, that’s very easy to do when racism is so marginal that we can relegate it to the likes of Dylann Roof, a lunatic mass shooter and extreme social outlier. What if the mainstream of society, family members, most of your townspeople are devoted to entrenching white supremacy? Then one doesn’t have the privilege of simply refusing to deal with them, and even understand them; or of writing them off as generally unreasonable.  Unless one wants to go the Boo Radley route.

Barra: “At times, Finch’s sugar-coated myths are downright offensive, as when he tells Scout the “real” story of the Ku Klux Klan. ‘Way back around 1920, there was a Klan. But it was a political organization more than anything. Besides, they couldn’t find anyone to scare.’ He goes on to explain that Klansmen gathered one night at the home of Sam Levy, a Jewish friend of his, and ‘Sam made them so ashamed of themselves they went away.’ I wouldn’t have thought that anyone near or above the age of Scout could read this passage—as blatantly false a characterization of the KKK as D.W. Griffith’s in Birth of A Nation—and not feel that their intelligence had been insulted.”

I don’t have time to look it up, but I’m over 99% sure this is out of context, and Atticus was talking about the Klan in Maycomb, and how it was never really serious there. Atticus’s unwillingness to believe the worst of others sometimes leads him astray, (sometimes it doesn’t- he’s a complicated character) but no, Mockingbird is not Birth of A Nation.


I don’t know anything about any of the Southern authors Barra lists as being better than Harper Lee, but I have a vague idea of most of them as writers whose appeal is to intellectual types. One other book by a Southern writer comes obviously to mind as having mass appeal, that of course being Gone With the Wind. Its appeal of that book certainly doesn’t come from its alignment with enlightened politics, as Barra dismissively alleges about Mockingbird, but he isn’t any happier about it, because its politics are unenlightened. He’s a tough guy to please. “[Mockingbird] was proudly displayed in the living rooms of countless homes alongside Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, a paradox that has never been fully reconciled, or even recognized, by Southerners.”*

It’s almost as if there is more to literature than taking political sides! Both books are rooted in Southern culture and history, both tell important stories, both have real characters and are about real life. Watchman seems to be a political conversation, without any real setting. Again, it appears the Scout of Watchman has simply left the South and been redeemed, so there is no struggle and no real story.

* ”Life is full of paradoxes for fools.” – P.J. O’Rourke

Confederate Flag

Those demanding that South Carolina remove its Confederate flag in response to the Charleston shooting generally argue that the Confederate flag is objectively, necessarily a symbol of racism. That isn’t just one thing the flag can possibly convey, and the subjective intention of those flying the flag doesn’t matter. The Confederate flag is a symbol of slavery, these people say, because the Civil War was about slavery. The lack of ambiguity is central to most of the arguments for stamping out the Confederate flag, and to the uncompromising stridency of those who take that stand. If you’re telling a region of the country that they are morally obligated to reject the flag of the army that fought a great, central war in its history, there is no room for ambiguity.

Now, there are various ways one might describe what a war is about. For instance, the Trojan War was about who would control Helen of Troy, but it was also about whether Troy would be conquered or saved; World War I was variously about making the world safe for democracy, recovering Alsace-Loraine, preventing Germany’s encirclement, Wilson’s Fourteen Points, competition of empires, avenging the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, defending the motherland, defending the fatherland, saving Belgium, preserving the balance of power and all sorts of things. World War II was about both realist national security considerations and freedom versus tyranny. One could describe the Cold War was about communism versus capitalism, freedom versus tyranny, mutually assured destruction, spheres of influence, resisting Soviet expansion, and so forth; the Korean War was about the Cold War (so everything in the previous sentence), plus defending the UN and resisting aggression; the Vietnam War about countless things.

Similarly, one might describe the Civil War as being state versus federal sovereignty, the effort to save (or secede from) the union, a war to defend (or destroy) slavery, or simply an effort to fight off an invading army from the north.

So what does it mean to say a war was about something, or that it had a certain objective meaning? To me, it’s obvious: a war is about the thing the sides are fighting over. If one side wins, they get something, and if they don’t, they don’t get it; that’s why they’re fighting. We don’t have to look at anybody’s subjective motivations, or why they want the thing.

On this understanding, the Civil War was about whether the Southern states would secede or be under the jurisdiction of the United States federal government headquartered in Washington, D.C. It was about secession, in other words, and the Union’s campaign to reverse secession. Then, after the Emancipation Proclamation, it was also about slavery.

But the “war was about slavery” people usually don’t cite the Emancipation Proclamation as evidence. They don’t want to make a humanitarian intervention argument (the North was justified in invading sovereign states to end the inhuman institution of slavery.) Rather, they want it to be the case that secession was by itself illegitimate.

Matthew Yglesias at Vox, in explicitly arguing that there should be no respect or recognition for those who fought for the Confederacy, links to a Vox piece arguing that the Civil War was about slavery. What this evidence really supports, though, (like most such arguments) is the proposition that secession was about slavery.  Basically, Southerners feared that Lincoln would insure that any states added to the Union be free, which would bring about an eventual end to slavery.

But this is an argument about subjective intentions, which will vary from person to person.  If South Carolina had its way, it would have seceded in the 1830s over tariffs, and Lincoln was a backer of economic policies the South hated.  You can go and make a proof about the most prevalent mindset of Southern decision-makerse in 1860, but where does that get you?  The whole thing driving moral fervor against the Confederate flag is that it objectively means something horrible, regardless of the subjective intentions of those flying it.

Moreover, treating slavery as responsible for the Civil War (on the grounds that secession was about slavery) works only if you assume to begin with that the South was the aggressor, or the party that started the war. In other words, the genuine point of disagreement is the legitimacy of secession, or more narrowly the legitimacy of the federal government’s stopping secession through military invasion.

Or to make it more concrete: you’re a Southerner in 1861. The decision to secede has already happened. The Union invades. Do you fight it? You aren’t defending the decision to secede, so the motives there aren’t very relevant. (Remember, we’re talking about the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, not the national flag of the Confederacy.) The question is whether your loyalty is to your state, which seceded, or to the union, because your state entered said union in the 1780s.


So flying a confederate flag doesn’t have to mean an expression of support for slavery; it can mean support for the right to secede, or loyalty to state ahead of United States, or simply the remembrance of a fight against invaders from the North. This might seem obvious, but again , people who demand the removal of the Confederate flag tend to be very insistent that the flag objectively means the defense of slavery, and react with fury to any other possible interpretation. Their stridency comes from the fact that they recognize no moral ambiguity in the Civil War, or the decision by Southerners to fight the Union armies seeking to occupy their states.


Now, what about the American flag? Like the Confederate flag, it flew over a country that practiced slavery. In the Revolutionary War, the British promised freedom to slaves who joined them, so to some small extent they had a humanitarian intervention argument going for them, and American victory meant some of these people’s return to slavery.

When people on the left are feeling nationalistic, they treat the mainstream of American history as basically good (we may have had slavery, but at least we weren’t “created for the express purpose of maintaining slavery”- ideals are more important than actions) while everything detestable is assigned to the fringe of American history, represented by the Confederate flag. When people on the left are feeling anti-nationalistic, they might point to any number of atrocities committed in the name of the American flag, and our founding ideals as hypocritical- actions are more important than ideals.

However, they obviously don’t work themselves to a fever pitch demanding that all American flags be removed, and denouncing as monsters anyone who defends or flies the flag. Imagine the emotional energy it would take to become upset whenever you saw an American flag, or a commemoration of George Washington. Imagine if someone acted and felt like this guy at the Huffington Post about the American flag:

I passed a neighbor’s house [while walking]…I stopped in my tracks and blankly stared until a car honked at me to move out of the way.

This house flies a Confederate flag….

Normally, this would elicit some fleeting contempt and I would go about my day. But with the slayings in Charleston very much on my mind, I found myself getting angry… very angry.

Angry at this person, this ‘neighbor’ of mine. Angry at the culture that permits such blatant hatred.

Humanitarianism alone isn’t sufficient to embolden the protests and vituperation against South Carolina’s Confederate flag; nationalism gives them the kind of front-running confidence they need for these exercises. You don’t see protesters demanding to shut down the FDR memorial because the man interned the Japanese.

Indeed, the man who hates his neighbor for the Confederate flag even said himself that “the savagery of slavery is offensive enough to justify any level of outrage….But what might be the most absurd part of this neo-Confederate ‘heritage’ romanticism is that its advocates are simply glorifying treason.” (His proof is that the firing on Fort Sumter meets the Constitutional definition of treason, which is a good point if you think states still owed loyalty to a union they had seceded from.)

Similarly, Yglesias in his above-mentioned post says “the United States has historically been very unusual in its official commemoration of the leaders of a failed rebellion against the government;” and while the United States has done no such thing, some states and localities of course have. It is this symbol of defiance, the rebellion against federal authority, which seems to upset and energize Yglesias and others at least as much as the idea that the flag is a symbol of slavery.

This emphasis on treason and loyalty to the nation or federal government is, again, why the argument against the Confederate cause never centers on the Emancipation Proclamation- that would imply that the Union’s war was only justified once it was a humanitarian intervention.

In fact, progressives can even become quite enraged at the idea that wars of humanitarian intervention are morally unambiguous, that there are clear good guys and bad guys in such wars. I suppose the human rights violations by Saddam Hussein’s regime were roughly on a par with those of American slavery, if we can quantify these things.  Well, here’s a bit of Vox’s review of the film “American Sniper,” about the Iraq War (here they’re not in a nationalistic mood):

[T]he American occupation…alienated Iraqis with its mismanagement of the country… The real story of Iraq’s insurgency is not just one of monstrous al-Qaeda, and it’s not just of a fight between good and evil…

The [American Sniper] narrative sets up the war as a morality play: there are evil terrorists, and Chris Kyle needs to kill them…all of the violence in Iraq is attributed to simple evil, and…Iraq’s millions of citizens are often barely distinguishable from al-Qaeda…The idea that Iraqis could be much else other than terrorists, or that an Iraqi might take up arms for any reason other than to kill Americans, doesn’t really factor in American Sniper’s narrative….[The film presents] the war…as a black-and-white battle against evil al-Qaeda terrorists, when the truth is far murkier…

But the politics of the Iraq war defy the film’s simple…moral framing. American troops were alternately invaders and protectors. They destroyed the Iraqi state (!) and left murderous chaos in its wake…[In] any even remotely honest portrayal, it is impossible to talk about ethics of fighting in Iraq without acknowledging both sides of this moral coin. But American Sniper has the morality of an especially simple superhero movie: our side good, their side bad.


Now, why would one think someone from Virginia or South Carolina should be loyal to the Union and its occupying armies, when their states have seceded from said union? Perhaps the Constitution creating the union of states is more than a contract of convenience between states; perhaps it is an eternal covenant, like marriage. Perhaps the decisions of statesmen in the 1780s are binding for all time, to be venerated.

Pro-union conservatives often agree with this idea. But generally people on the left strongly reject the idea, and certainly almost none of the people on the left who excoriate secession raise a peep when their cohorts ridicule “Constitution worship.” This 2011 article at Salon, strangely, criticizes both veneration of the Constitution and “neo-Confederate ideology.”

Iran Nuclear Deal

Earlier this month, Bret Stephens attempted to decipher Obama’s thinking behind the Iraq deal- what he would say if he were being honest. Over at Vox, they have been doing the same sort of exercise, trying to decipher, or explain, the thinking of the other side (opponents of Obama’s deal.)

Stephens’ premise is that Obama is giving a lot in negotiations, showing a strong desire to get a deal rather than insisting on terms that a basic distrust of Iran would, on the surface, appear to dictate. (My general perception is that this is the case, and in any case I will assume so for the purposes of this post.) Stephens therefore has his “honest Obama” try to explain why getting almost any deal is worthwhile to him, rather than attempting to deny that he is giving away the farm. He makes a pretty good effort to have “honest Obama” make a good case, but I don’t think he quite captures the best “honest” case for the deal, or, probably, Obama’s actual thinking.

Stephens’s Obama basically argues that we can’t stop Iran from getting the bomb, short of regime change through war, and that isn’t worth it. So we can only hope to delay their acquisition, which a deal will do. Stephens has Obama concedes that “the deal we have negotiated will not, I am afraid, prevent Iran from getting a bomb, should its leaders decide to build one. And eventually they will.” He later offers hope that this isn’t the case, but only if “the Supreme Leader [is] replaced by a new leader cut from better cloth.”

So Stephens forces his Obama to acknowledge that Iran’s current leadership is hell-bent on acquiring the bomb, and that its political decision-makers are monolithic (or that the Supreme Leader is the only one who really matters.) Honest Obama’s case, as a consequence, ends up rather weak.

Here’s a better one:
1) Independent of U.S. sanctions, there are good reasons Iran will not acquire a nuclear bomb. Nuclear weapons acquisition would launch a Mideast arms race, preventing Iran from gaining any permanent advantage over its neighbors and hurting its security overall. Launching its nuclear program as a long-term project gave it options, an understandable course given the time horizons involved (Taiwan, Ukraine and the late Col. Gaddafi all might be wishing they hadn’t given up their nuclear programs/weapons way back when; the future is unpredictable), and given the millions who died in Saddam’s U.S.-backed war of aggression against Iran. However, actually crossing the Rubicon and acquiring a nuclear weapon would uniquely create a backlash. And now Saddam is gone and Iran has a lot of influence in Iraq, and the revolutionary regime has survived all this time and America hasn’t attacked it, so it is in a much more secure position than it was when it launched the program.
2) Iran has strong national pride and will not want to be seen as backing down in the face of international sanctions. Therefore, the sanctions are a stumbling block to Iran following its national interests. The goal, therefore, is to allow Iran to give up its program while saving face.
3) Iran is not a monolithic actor. If we assumed that it were, we could regard it as using different tactics (now intransigence, now a pretense of peacefulness) to pursue the same constant end. But in reality, the different behavior of their regime at different times reflects the fact that hard-liners or soft-liners are up or down at a given time; this isn’t the Kims’ Korea. Ahmadinejad may have been committed to the bomb, while Rouhani may not be. Even if Rouhani is personally secretly committed to nuclearization at all costs, he has acted like he isn’t, domestically as well as internationally, which tells us that it is possible to take such a stance and hold a position of power in the Iranian regime. The Supreme Leader is only one figure among many. We want soft-liners to win internal battles in Iran, and concessions are the best way to do this under the circumstances (see 1 and 2).
4) This is not 1938. Iran is not on a suicide mission and has no expansionist aims; the current regime has not launched any wars to gain territory. Being “a reasonably successful regional power” is enough for Iran. Our goal should be to give it an opportunity to do so, and security to be confident it doesn’t need the bomb as deterrence. There is no plausible scenario in which Iran launches a first strike.
Now, let’s consider Vox’s “devil’s advocate” position:

“Advocates of military action differ from Obama in their assessment of the Iranian regime. They believe the Iranian government is unshakably attached to its nuclear weapons program and will never abandon it willingly. Therefore, the only way to keep Iran from getting a bomb is to destroy its nuclear facilities.

“In this view, Iran’s leaders will never abandon their quest for nuclear weapons because nukes are essential to the revolutionary anti-Western foreign policy Iran has pursued in the Middle East.”

Vox contrasts the critics’ view of the Iranian regime with Obama’s: “The core of the disagreement between Obama and his critics is over the nature of the Iranian regime. Obama sees an Iranian government that’s hostile now, but one that can potentially be reasoned with on specific issues if given the right incentives. “Iran may change. If it doesn’t, our deterrence capabilities, our military superiority stays in place,” he told Tom Friedman on Sunday. The deal is a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see whether or not we can at least take the nuclear issue off the table.’”

I think the critics’ regime argument is, or should be, somewhat different. Public discussion of Iran focuses monomaniacally on The Bomb, but by itself that doesn’t particularly matter. All regimes are attached to maximizing power and security, and one way of achieving this is to acquire nuclear weapons. The U.S. is “unshakably attached” to its nuclear weapons, as is Israel, as I suppose are Russia, India and Pakistan. And nuclear weapons historically are mostly a deterrent, not an offensive weapon.

Rather, the problem is that Iran is different from most other regimes. It isn’t expansionist or on a suicide mission, but neither was the Taliban. The Iranian regime does things most countries just don’t do, and the U.S. and Israel would really be better off if they can attack it if it does these things on too large a scale, and if it knows they can do so.

Naturally, the U.S. and Israel can’t say “we don’t want Iran to have a nuclear deterrent,” so their implication has always kind of been that the bomb would be an offensive weapon. The U.S. is no longer interested in presenting Iran as a major threat, but Netanyahu certainly is, and key to his argument is the idea that an Iranian nuclear weapon would threaten Israel. When he presented this argument to the U.S. Congress, there were reports that Israeli intelligence agencies disagreed.

An “honest Netanyahu” argument might look like this: “We accept a certain low level of killing by Hezbollah without going to war, but if they really escalate things, or if Iran vastly increases its support for their ability to kill, we want to have the option of crushing Hezbollah and striking or even nuking Iran. If Iran itself directly organizes a large-scale terrorist attack against Israel, we want to have the ability to inflict damage on their regime, including with nuclear weapons (not saying we would, but it would be good for everyone to know we could.) If they have a nuclear deterrent, that changes the calculation in unacceptable ways.”

Thoughts on Gary Trudeau

I have major problems with Gary Trudeau’s denunciation of Charlie Hebdo, but I’ve already shared such thoughts at length. I also, however, have a more minor problem with his piece.

The White House took a lot of hits for not sending a high-level representative to the pro-Charlie solidarity march, but that oversight is now starting to look smart.

This form of argument is common: people criticized x at the time for doing y, but y now looks smart. If you can show that subsequent events have vindicated your argument, you’re in great shape. You have a sort of external standard, independent of the argument itself, by which to judge it a success.

If you can’t point to subsequent events, though, all you’re really saying is “people criticized x for doing y, but I think doing y was smart.” (Or perhaps, “elite opinion has subsequently decided that doing y was smart.”) Your argument should stand on its own merits, not on some imaginary external vindication.

In Trudeau’s case, his argument is that Obama was smart not to show solidarity against blasphemy law terrorists because “[t]he French tradition of free expression is too full of contradictions to fully embrace. Even Charlie Hebdo once fired a writer for not retracting an anti-Semitic column. Apparently he crossed some red line that was in place for one minority but not another.” This really has nothing to do with subsequent events vindicating Trudeau’s argument, and so Trudeau is just employing a rhetorical crutch.

Now let’s look at the merits of this particular argument: we should not stand by Charlie Hebdo, because they are contradictory for allowing anti-Islam cartoons, but not anti-Semitic ones. Obviously, being contradictory isn’t the core of his objection- it isn’t that he thinks Charlie Hebdo is too inconsistent a supporter of free speech to warrant Obama’s solidarity, and that if only they unapologetically published anti-Semitic stuff, Obama should stand with them.

His objection, rather, is that cartoons mocking what a religious group holds as sacred are as bad as material that maliciously stereotypes a group of people. So just as there is a taboo on attacking people groups, especially vulnerable ones, Trudeau would place one on attacking people’s beliefs, provided these people consider those beliefs sacred.

As a general rule, “don’t say anything that threatens sacred beliefs” runs into problems. But of course one people don’t agree about what is sacred; a Christian might find a Muslim’s beliefs blasphemous and vice versa; both might find an atheist’s beliefs blasphemous, a vegetarian might find a meat eater’s beliefs blasphemous, someone might find criticism of herbal medicines blasphemous, and it would never end. One solution is to impose a partial theocracy: pick one religious group (Muslims, for instance) and give them veto over what can and cannot be said. Another is a kind of secularist oppression: nobody can say anything in the public realm for or against any religion or belief system, so that we purchase public peace by keeping everyone’s beliefs insulated from each other, and from criticism.

Big Government

One James C. Roumell argues that government should be big.

The closest thing he comes to a precise claim is this: government should be big because the richest countries have large government: the OECD average is 46%, with the U.S. at 40%. This is his closest thing to a precise claim: the size of government ought to be somewhere around where it is now in rich countries, since these countries must be doing something right. But trying to emulate rich countries leaves us with a wide range of spending levels to choose from. (See here for each country’s numbers.) On the low end, Australia is at 35%, Switzerland 34%, South Korea at 30%, Hong Kong is at 18%, Singapore 17%. At the high end, France, Finland, Luxemborg and Denmark are around 53-57%.

Poor countries show similar variance: at the low end, El Salvador (21%) Sierra Leone (22%) Congo (26%), while at the high end Lesotho is at 63%, Cuba and Libya at 67%, and some countries somewhere in between.

So what can we conclude- that government spending should be at least 17% of GDP if you want to be rich? At least 30% if you aren’t a city-state (but then maybe we should all break into city-states?) Even that is unwarranted: if no rich country happens to have a spending level below x%, it doesn’t follow that x% is a minimum threshhold for being a rich country, only that we don’t happen to have any counterexamples.

Besides, why should we care what levels of spending rich countries have now? We ought to care about their levels during the time periods when they became rich. A country that is rich today is generally a country that was rich ten years ago; there’s a strong correlation. It’s not anything that they’re doing now; in fact, most rich countries are rather stagnant right now. So the question to consider is countries’ performances during periods of economic growth. In the U.S., a lot of growth happens between 1850 and the roaring 20s, with very little government spending. Then in the 50s and early 60s, you have growth with spending levels at a little under 30%. Then you had relatively slow growth at higher spending levels. (Remember, I’m not the one arguing for causation here- I’m countering Roumell’s causal claims.)

Countries that are growing today include China (Gov’t spending as %GDP: 24%), India (27.2%), Chile (23%; economy growing at 5% plus since the late 80s), Indonesia (Gov spending 18.5% GDP; annual growth over 5% in recent years and decades) and Cambodia (Gov. spending 20% GDP, 6% annual growth in recent decades and years. Brazil (39%) and Argentina (41%), on the other hand, have grown with higher levels of government spending.

In any case, growth is certainly achievable with spending levels well under 30% GDP, or in the case of pre-1930s America, 10% of GDP. The reason no rich countries today have spending under 10% GDP is the reason no countries anywhere, or almost none, have such low spending levels today. People studying the growth of the state usually come up with explanations relating to industrialization, vast improvements in transportation and communication technology, and nationalist ideology. These are trends that have swept the world (where they haven’t penetrated, as in Afghanistan, foreign aid makes up the difference), so naturally all countries are going to have big states, therefore it follows that rich countries will have big states.

And to some extent, Roumell just has cause and effect backward. Once a country reaches a certain level of wealth, it becomes possible for people to make and government to fulfill demands for a safety net. That at least is what happened in the U.S., Britain and Germany: industrialization and wealth came, and then large safety nets.

(In Germany it happened around the turn of the century; in the U.S. it came in the 30s, in response to growing poverty and, at the same time, a GDP at a high enough level to make it happen; then it grew in the 50s and 60s, in response to growing wealth.) France had political centralization and a big state earlier than anyone, but saw weaker growth and industrialization than the U.S., Britain and Germany in the nineteenth century if I remember my history correctly.)


Another approach to the question of big government is to debate the role of government, rather than looking at how many units of government, as though all units of government spending are the same.

Rather than really delve into the relationship between government size and national wealth, though, or systematically examine the role of government, Rournell blips the former issue, then quickly abandons analysis altogether, moving on to the sorts of intellectual short cuts that are, of course, the only real reason people read articles such as his in the first place. He says “government foes should identify what they believe should be the proper mix between the private and public sector as a percentage of GDP,” and goes on to not do this himself.

Some intellectual shortcuts may even be legitimate, appeals to an a priori principle, ideology or political philosophy that takes precedence over case-specific analysis. Other times, they consist of reasoning from the particular to the general and back to the particular (WWII is good, therefore government is good, therefore this thing government wants to do is good; or else the Holocaust was bad, therefore government is bad, therefore this government program is bad,) or other similar arguments by association or mood affiliation, as Tyler Cowen calls it

Roumell’s appeal to his implied a priori view of government consists mostly of this: “Government haters remind me of adolescents pumping their chests to proclaim that they don’t need mom and dad.” But this self-assertion by adolescents is a necessary process on the way to eventually really becoming an independent adult. With government as parent, on the other hand, the citizen is forever a child, never independent. Why does Roumell want it to be this way? We need food, but the farmer isn’t our Mom and Dad. He’s someone we trade with.

Similarly, we need a binding legal system and national defense, and even some other things, but why anthropomorphize this system into something apart from us, to which we should be grateful and that we should allow to decide what is good for us? Why not regard ourselves as self-governing, creating government for our convenience, to serve us? Or as something to represent us, like a lawyer?

I need my microwave, but I don’t want it to turn into HAL 9000. And I want it to cost as little as possible.

Roumell’s arguments by association are the usual sort of thing: World War II, polio vaccines, etc., therefore government good. And he asks us whether we’d rather be increase government spending by 15% or decrease it by 15%, arbitrarily selecting Mexico and France (rather than Singapore and Libya) as the nations we would end up like. Well, I wouldn’t want to be Mexico, but I wouldn’t want to be France, either. Even if I would reluctantly choose France, I would hate to have to make the choice. And fortunately, I don’t have to! I can engage in marginal, situation-specific analysis of actual policy proposals.

But about World War II. Now, you need government to fight wars; for one, you have to coercively tax to overcome the free rider problem. But once we’ve used government to solve the technical problem of raising money and perhaps conscripting troops, we still use a hierarchical system to coordinate troops’ actions. We don’t leave it to individuals to decide where to march, as there’s no price system or “invisible hand” mechanism to insure that they end up going to the right places in the right numbers, or that will cause them to act in coordinated fashion once they are there. And an individual will be reluctant to launch an attack unless he has reason to believe others will also do so, as there’s really no point otherwise. So there’s a number of collective action problems, and these require a commander.

On the other hand, central planning of war and battles faces the same problems central planning does anywhere. “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy,” it is said. And the aforementioned Eisenhower, due to his lack of local knowledge, once ordered that every American soldier in Europe be given a turkey dinner for Thanksgiving, no matter the conditions, to boost morale. As a result, Americans relying on cover of darkness had to set a fire, making them targets for enormous German cannons. Local knowledge is important!

And the reason we have commanders isn’t because they’re particularly likely to make the right decision, but because there must be a coordinated decision. It’s better that we all act according to one plan, even if it’s the wrong plan. And yet everyone being in on the wrong plan often leads to disaster. For every government that’s won a war, one has lost a war. The government that wins hasn’t overcome the difficulties with central planning, it’s just gone against an enemy that faces those same difficulties.

And knowledgeable people seem to consider individual initiative in war a great advantage to the side that has more of it- see for instance Greece versus Persia.

The Case Against the Case Against Chait’s Case Against Political Correctness

Jonathan Chait wrote an instantly famous criticism of the rising tide of political correctness, which he defined as “a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.”

Amanda Taub at Vox counters by claiming that political correctness does not exist. You might expect that this would mean she denies that there is an attempt on the left to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate. How could she deny such a thing? She never does.

Instead, she argues that political correctness does not exist because the term “political correctness,” she says, “has no actual fixed or specific meaning.” The logic is easy to follow: The phrase does not refer to anything. Therefore, there is no thing the phrase refers to. Therefore, the thing it refers to cannot exist! QED.

Taub’s approach, then, tackles the question at an ontological level, not an empirical one. Instead of taking Chait’s definition of political correctness and examining the world to see if she finds anything conforming to it, she denies us the ability to form such a concept in the first place.

(This reminds me somehow of Douglas Adams’ advice for dealing with a Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal: just wrap a towel around your head. “A mindbogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you.”)

When she says PC has no fixed or specific meaning, she perhaps means that different people use it in different ways. There also isn’t an agreed upon meaning for the universe. (Poof!) What might hit closer to home for Vox readers, there’s no agreed upon meaning for fact or evidence- or even reality, around which an entire community is based. There is no agreed upon meaning for thought or consciousness. There is no agreed upon meaning for life; some pro-choice doctrine holds that it doesn’t begin until birth.

But then, it turns out that for Taub, everybody does use the phrase “political correctness” the same way. Indeed, “What defines it is not what it describes but how it is used: as a way to dismiss a concern or demand as a frivolous grievance rather than a real issue.” The definition of a word is based on how the word is used, sure, but “what it describes” and “how it is used” are not mutually exclusive. Words are used to describe. Unless, again, Taub decrees that something must not be described, must not be discussed; and that the important thing about a word is how it is used, in the sense of used as a weapon. Then the only question is whose weapon it is; “politically correct” is a critique used by the oppressor against victim groups, therefore it is an illegitimate critique.

Chait anticipated all this in his article: “I am white and male, a fact that is certainly worth bearing in mind. I was also a student at the University of Michigan during the Jacobsen incident, and was attacked for writing an article for the campus paper defending the exhibit. If you consider this background and demographic information the very essence of my point of view, then there’s not much point in reading any further. But this pointlessness is exactly the point: Political correctness makes debate irrelevant and frequently impossible.”

One can, in theory, argue forever and never penetrate the PC intellectual bubble. If someone argues evaluating truth or morality based on something other than group power relations, the response can always be “you’re only saying that to entrench group power.” If he then urges the evaluation of his approach and the PC approach by some neutral criterion, the response can still always be the same: “you’re only saying that to entrench group power.” Ultimately, considering other people’s arguments is a choice.
Taub argues that it is opposition to PC that closes minds: “Chait identifies a long list of disputes that he describes as examples of ‘p.c.’ demands that are hurting mainstream liberalism. But calling these concerns ‘political correctness’ is another way of saying that they aren’t important enough to be addressed on the merits.” And, “Chait clearly believes that ‘microaggressions’ aren’t important enough to merit his concern, and that ‘trigger warnings’ are a foolish request made by over-sensitive people. But he doesn’t spend much time considering why the people who demand them might think they do matter. The open communication offered by platforms like Twitter has brought Chait into contact with ideas that he clearly finds weird and silly. But rather than considering their merits, or why they matter to the people who put them forward, he dismisses them as political correctness, and concludes that their very existence constitutes ‘ideological repression.’”

This argument is wrong in an obvious way: if it is okay to label the existence of some ideas as “microaggressions,” why isn’t it okay to label other ideas “ideological repression”? On the other hand, this conclusion creates a moral equivalence between p.c. and anti-p.c., suggesting that neither one truly values open communication.

But demonstrating this requires us to define the concept of open communication. The difference between rejecting as wrong and defining as illegitimate is key to Chait’s thesis. If p.c. people merely tried to refute opposing arguments, that would just be participating in political discourse, not regulating it. On the other hand, to define yourself as right (as Taub does when he defines political correctness as not existing) and opponents as illegitimate is an approach that rejects the possibility or value of open discourse. So the question is which approach to discourse is better, the liberal or p.c. approach. Chait attempts to give arguments for his; Taub does not for hers.

Demonstrating that Chait is guilty of narrow-mindedness also requires examining his arguments to see if he is guilty of this. Taub does not do this, instead making unsupported assertions about what he is saying.

For instance, Chait does evaluate trigger warnings on the merits, referring to evidence that they aren’t a good way to deal with actual trauma. Moreover, Chait isn’t judging p.c. by whether its demands are important or unimportant, or weird/silly or normal. These are categories Taub imposed on his essay. Rather, he evaluates them by the standards of liberalism and openness, the assumption being that the importance of a cause does not justify shutting down opposing ideas.

And Chait looks in detail at the theory and justifications for p.c., quoting its adherents both in general terms (“Freedom of speech is a constitutional guarantee, but who gets to exercise it without chilling restraints of censure depends very much on one’s location in the political and social cartography…the wisdom of a true freedom is inexorably tied to who exercises power and for what ends.”- Bettina Aptheker, feminist studies prof at UCSC, cited by Chait) and their justifications for specific grievances. In fact, he examines politically correct ideas more seriously than Taub who, again, denies that they exists (“political correctness is not a creed at all.”)

Now, let’s look at some of Chait’s examples, in light of Taub’s claim that they are a long list of disputes where he thinks marginalized people’s concerns aren’t important enough to be evaluated on the merits. Chait cites case where a UCSB feminist studies professor stole an anti-abortion sign from two young women on campus, took it to her office to destroy it, and shoved one of them on the way. He cites another where students vandalized a fellow U of M student’s apartment for a campus newspaper column making fun of the school’s offense-taking culture.

Now, what exactly is the concern that Chait is refusing to consider on the merits? And what are these merits? What is so meritorious about stealing a sign from a 16-year-old girl and her 21-year-old sister, and pushing one of them? Chait has explained in detail the professor’s ideological justification for her action, and the deeper theory behind it which holds that the forms of free speech only entrench power relations, and the reasons he rejects these things. It is really up to Taub at this point to say why he is wrong, why (and whether) the feminist studies professor was justified.
Another criticism of Chait, by one Gene Demby, does not suffer from the vicious circularity of the Vox piece. Whereas Taub argues that Chait is wrong by defining political correctness as non-existent, or because he is a voice of privilege, Demby argues that p.c. is good on empirical grounds while entirely ignores the need to define it.

He argues Chait is unpersuasive because he doesn’t present evidence on how political correctness affects the way people exchange ideas, and that someone did some study showing that p.c. improves the creativity of diverse groups.

“Here’s how the study worked: The researchers asked hundreds of college students to brainstorm new busienss ideas for an empty restaurant space on campus. But first, they separated the students into groups and instructed some of the groups to discuss an instance of political correctness they’d heard or personally experienced….Other groups got no such instruction.
“Researchers found that groups that had both men and women and had been exposed to the PC norm went on to generate more ideas – and more novel ideas – for how to use the vacant lot than the mixed-gender groups that hadn’t discussed political correctness.”

So that’s it? That’s his whole argument? Not at all, there’s a whole bunch more, but that’s the whole empirical part of it. We know, quasi-pseudo-scientificishly, that talking about political correctness causes mixed-gender groups to come up with more novel ideas for how to use a vacant lot. How do we get from there to “p.c. improves creativity”? That’s where the story-telling, interpretive, non-empirical stuff our brains are so good at comes in.

The idea is that discussion of political correctness instilled p.c. norms in the group. These norms then reduced uncertainty about how to communicate with someone of the opposite sex, thereby making it easier for men and women to speak their minds in mixed company. Creativity doesn’t come from anarchic rejection of norms; rather, norms provide a framework for society to function, and thus for creativity (at least in group settings) to flourish. Further, (the non-empirical portion of the argument continues), we can expect that this effect holds true not just in the specific instance of groups of people coming up with business ideas, but in other spheres, such as allowing people to communicate politically in “productive ways.”

Now, while we’re in the business of making up interpretations for our poor, helpless data, let me try my hand: people were asked for instances of political correctness, and they immediately thought of cases of someone being hypersensitive. If they had been asked to think of examples of bigotry or insensitivity, or maybe even political incorrectness, they would have come up with examples of things they thought were wrong, and maybe it would have made them more likely to follow p.c. or other norms. But political correctness has negative connotations, and even if it didn’t, being asked to think of an example naturally draws you toward noteworthy examples, and examples are likely to be noteworthy because they are dubious or questionable, or anti-p.c. people have drawn attention to them. It makes political correctness, not political incorrectness, the focus of any criticism.

Another possibility: political correctness is an interesting topic, and discussing how stupid it is made people feel comfortable with each other, and put them in a frame of mind to come up with interesting ideas. Business plans for a vacant lot is a boring topic, and people coming at it cold naturally don’t come up with anything interesting.

Now, evidently neither of us can get anywhere with empiricism without imposing our preexisting theories to the data, let’s go ahead and consider the merits of Demby’s theories and Chait’s theories. Demby’s theory is again that norms are necessary for social functioning, and can enhance creativity. That’s true, but what norms should we have? Can’t the wrong norms, overly restrictive norms, also quash creativity? If so, how do we know how restrictive we should be?

And if “political correctness” is the correct answer, then what is political correctness? To refute Chait’s thesis, you have to show that he is wrong about PC as he defines it. His definition, again, is “a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.” He specifically notes that many people overapply the term “to describe politeness (perhaps to excess), or evasion of hard truths, or…liberalism in general.”

So if we’re grappling with Chait’s argument, we aren’t just talking about any politeness norms. In fact, p.c. violates politeness in the cases of vandalism Chait mentioned, and broadly speaking in its refusal to listen respectfully to certain ideas, and its inclination to get bent out of shape in order to gain advantage, are impolite by some cultural standards.

Let’s consider more fully Demby’s claim that Chait does not present sufficient evidence.
“Chait offers little in the way of hard evidence to back up his warnings. He gives a lot of weight to comments lifted from a Facebook page and an incident in which a feminist studies professor shoved a protester….But when we’re worrying over the future of human communication…anecdotes and isolated incidents…aren’t enough on their own. And…Chait doesn’t present research on how political correctness may or may not affect the way people exchange ideas.”

Why does Chait need more empirical evidence? What points does he make for which he does not offer sufficient evidence? Demby doesn’t ever really say. Somehow, he thinks the “scientific” study he cites is more empirical than the anecdotes Chait cites, but even if that’s the case, it doesn’t mean Demby has used the evidence to effectively contest any of Chait’s claims.

Chait doesn’t give weight to a feminist studies professor pushing a protestor, he gives weight to her ideological justification for doing so, and the reaction to it in the academic community, where professors wrote letters to the judge arguing for leniency on ideological grounds. He also notes 2 million hits for a Buzzfeed article about instances of microaggression, which should count as hard evidence.

And hard, quantitative evidence isn’t the only kind there is. Chait quotes the Harvard Crimson as follows: “If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism…why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom’?” Strictly speaking, that’s an anecdote, but it’s the Harvard Crimson, a pretty qualitatively important bellweather.

Meanwhile, even if we accept Demby’s interpretation of his evidence, we still have the enormous problem of cross-applying p.c. in a business-type setting to p.c. in the world of ideas and politics. Maybe keeping people from being rude to each other, or giving them clear norms so they don’t have to worry about whether they’re being rude, allows people to be more creative and productive, but how would you apply this to the world of discourse? As Chait points out, the result is “endlessly litigating the fraught requirements of p.c. discourse” (to find evidence for this proposition, consider every ideological movement that has ever existed.) Does preventing exposure to threatening ideas improve people’s thinking? Especially I’d actually say that’s impossible; even if that’s going to far, it would take some pretty impressive empirical evidence to convince me. Kant did his best work after Hume awakened him from his “dogmatic slumber” and he set out to create a philosophy that could withstand him. That’s only an anecdote, but it is qualitatively important.

New York Times Won’t Fight for Free Speech

– A New York Times editorial about the ideological fallout from the Charlie Hebdo massacres notes that the Hebdo editor in chief Gerard Biarddemanded that we “finally…rid our political and intellectual vocabulary of the dirty term ‘laicard integriste.” The Times says the following about this: “Loosely translated, those words mean ‘die-hard secularist.’ What Mr. Biard was cahllenging was the argument that committed secularists like himself and the staff of Charlie Hebdo had essentially brought this tragedy upon themselves, and that there is, by implication, a sort of moral equivalence between deeply held secularist views and the ‘religious totalitarianism’ – his words – that he and his staff loved to skewer.”

This is really just using the attack to place the idea his magazine stood for, French-style secularist absolutism, above criticism. (From wikipedia: “French political leaders, though not by any means prohibited from making religious remarks, mostly refrain from it. Religious considerations are generally considered incompatible with reasoned political debate….Many see being discreet with one’s religion as a necessary part of being French. This has led to frequent divisions with some non-Christian immigrants, especially with part of France’s large Muslim population. A debate took place over whether any religious apparel or displays by individuals, such as the Islamic hijab, Sikh turban, (large) Christian crosses and Jewish Stars of David, should be banned from public schools. Such a ban came into effect in France in 2004.”) A satirist’s ideals should be as subject to criticism as the things he satirizes.

– The NYT editorial doesn’t comment on this, instead going on to cite and comment on further remarks by the Hebdo editor in chief:

“Even as people lamented the massacre, he wrote, some of them offered a maddening qualifier: ‘Yes, we condemnt terrorism, but…’…
“Obviously there can be no ‘but’ in condemning the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo, or the ideology that encourages murder in the name of religion….
“Yet” (you knew that was coming!) “there are legitimate questions raised about freedom of expression in this tragedy.
“In the wake of the terror attack, French authorities began aggressive enforcements of a law against supporting or justifying terrorism, including arrests of people who spoke admiringly about the shootings at Charlie Hebdo.”

Well, okay, perhaps free speech demands that we allow those things. Is that what the Times means by “legitimate questions raised about freedom of expression”? No.

“Not surprisingly, their [French authorities’] actions have raised questions of a double standard – one for cartoonists who deliberately insult religion, when their cartoons are certain to antagonize Muslims at a time when anti-Muslim feelings are already at high levels in France and across much of Europe, and another for those who react by applauding terrorists.” This sentence indicates that blasphemy, at least against Islam, is pushing the limits of free expression, somewhere in the range of advocacy of violence.
“The difference, according to French authorities, is between the right to attack an idea and the right to attack people or incite hatred.
“The distinction is recognized in the various laws against hate speech or inciting violence that exist in most Western states.
“Freedom of expression is broader in the United States, but there, too, there are legal limitations on speech that involves incitement, libel, obscenity or child pornography.
“But drawing the line between speech that is disgusting and speech that is dangerous is inherently difficult and risky.”

So for the New York Times, it is difficult to separate blasphemy not only from European “hate speech” crimes, but from banned expression like incitement, libel, and child pornography. Note the description of blasphemy as disgusting- even if one agrees, isn’t free speech all about protecting what some find disgusting? Note the slippery use of the word “dangerous.” It implies that obviously legitimate legal limitations on speech exist only because this speech is “dangerous,” and of course it eliminates the moral distinction between speech that is dangerous because it incites violence and speech that is dangerous because it angers people willing to commit violence in response.
The Times’ editorial closes as follows: “That the tragedy in Paris has served to raise these questions is in no way an insult to the members of the Charlie Hebdo staff who perished.

“Shocking people into confronting reality was, after all, what their journal – which they proudly called a ‘journal irresponsable’ – was all about.”

The reality that we’re supposed to confront is, presumably, that whenever someone makes a point of committing blasphemy against Islam, one can expect that there is a decent chance that a fair number of people will respond murderously or otherwise violently.

Normally, people demanding that we “confront reality” about Muslims, and the possibility that we may have Islamic law violently imposed on us, are right-wingers arguing that we ought to fight for our free institutions and are in a clash of civilizations or something of the sort. The New York Times operates from the same basic premise, but for it the right to blasphemy isn’t worth dying for, so we ought to perhaps abandon it.

– Perhaps if the Times editorial board read, they wouldn’t be worried about any such danger. In contrast to the New York Times, appears to reject the premise that those who commit blasphemy against Islam are in any particular danger, arguing that what we have instead are more or less random murders. Vox noted that they themselves showed the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and didn’t get any death threats from Muslims, and apparently would have us generalize from that experience.

Ezra Klein’s Voxplanation on the matter does at least have the virtue of not giving the terrorists legitimacy, though it has the demerit of being divorced from reality. The NYT editorial board and countless others, including Jeopoardy! champ Arthur Chu, a journalism dean writing in the USA Today, and the Bishop of Rome himself, evidently believe that as long as you give a perfunctory “of course there is no justification for terrorism,” you have unimpeachable antiterrorist credentials.

This is nonsense. I couldn’t care less whether you endorse or condemn terrorism, and neither do the terrorists. What I care about is whether you’re willing to grant them the right to dictate terms because of their terrorism. By “grant them the right,” I don’t mean just saying, on pragmatic grounds, that they have a certain power and one has to appease them, though that would be bad enough. I mean holding that, because they are willing and able to murder for their ideals, those ideals have a certain moral standing; that violence shows just how offended they are, and therefore just how wrong Charlie Hebdo has been. These distressingly common arguments invariably treat offensiveness of the speech and danger of resulting violence as part of the same argument, interchangeable ideas. They treat terrorist violence as natural, understandable. It really doesn’t matter that they condemn it.