Freedom of Speech and Religion


Salon’s Brian Beutler weighs in on the Duck Dynasty kerfuffle:

“If you write about politics for a living, and you were bored by the ‘Duck Dynasty’ story, or wrote it off like you might write off a gaffe or some other creation of the outrage industry, you’re in the wrong line of work. Phil Robertson’s comments about gay and black people and social welfare — and the way they pierced public consciousness — explain more about our country’s political culture than almost anything else that happened all year.”  Beutler implies that the outrage machine and our political culture are mutually exclusive, but the outrage machine is a huge part of our political culture.

Beutler claims that Robertson’s comments were “ugly and wrong,” saying other writers have already supplied the proof of this claim.

He also says the comments “don’t fly in most of America.  If Robertson were, say, running for Senate in Missouri as a Republican, the GOP would have disowned him immediately. But Robertson isn’t a politician. He’s not a mouthpiece for a political party that needs to maintain a national brand identity. Rather, his remarks reflect the views of an American cultural subset the GOP depends on for its survival. His suspension made him a tribune of modern conservatism. Thus, conservative Republicans (not just opportunists like Sarah Palin, but party standard-bearers) felt impelled to rally to his side without actually echoing anything Robertson said.”  Beutler’s account does not explain how the GOP base could let it get away with disowning a Senate candidate but not a cultural figure.  Yet it assumes that this is somehow a paradoxical state of affairs. 

The explanation, though, is that party bases accept that the goal in politics is to get the best deal you can, meaning it is necessary to field candidates with broad appeal and prioritize political goals.  In the non-political realm, they want to be able to express their ideas, free of the constraints of politics power struggle.  When their ideological opponents extend the power struggle to the cultural sphere, it is natural that they should fight back- they are fighting for a country where it is permissible to believe certain things, even if these ideas do not become policy.  For example, many of Brian Beutler’s progressive friends, and possibly Beutler himself, support a single payer insurance program.  But they accept the need for the Democratic Party to field candidates who do not support single payer.  However, if a pundit on CNN argued for single payer health care, and the Tea Party launched an effort to boycott, Beutler would likely strongly oppose this boycott, and try to put pressure in the opposite direction.  Also, the Democratic Party in 2004 did not run candidates who went to foreign countries and said they were embarrassed by George W. Bush, but most progressives strongly denounced the campaign to boycott the Dixie Chicks and delegitimize such expression as unpatriotic.


Progressives often note that the First Amendment does not apply to A&E’s (since reversed) suspension of the Duck Emperor, arguing that businesses can fire who they want and private organizations can bring whatever pressure they want.  (The roles were reversed in the case of the Dixie Chicks.)  The narrow argument is a bit of an awkward one for progressives, who tend to argue that an unfettered, “formally” free market leaves people vulnerable to concentrated economic power.  Probably no progressives (and very few conservatives) want companies to be allowed to fire people from their job for political organization or expression off the job. 

That being said, I don’t think the government should have forced A&E to rehire the Duck Founder, or forced radio stations to play Dixie Chicks music.  Rather, just as the Duck Patriarch is free to express his views, and GLAAD is free to use its economic clout to delegitimizes such expression, I am free to deplore and condemn their doing so.  I may value a culture of free expression and openness (not just a political regime founded on these ideas) just as strongly as GLAAD or the duck guy do their views about sex. I accept that there is only a very narrow range of things politicians can say, but I don’t want those rules for all of society.


To return to Beutler: “Republicans are getting extremely good at defending the right’s cultural revanchism* on fictitious Constitutional grounds rather than on the merits.”  In the case of the Duck Dynasty row, Beutler is correct that there is no Constitutional ground for opposing GLAAD’s bullying.  However, again, there is nothing paradoxical in not endorsing an idea (not defending it on “the merits”), while nevertheless supporting cultural tolerance of its expression.  Moreover, there is a distinction to be made between a position being wrong on the merits and its being unpopular or treated as illegitimate- something Beutler likely recognizes in the case of the Dixie Chicks.  For that matter, GLAAD’s right to denounce Phil Robertson and threaten to boycott A&E is not contingent on their being right on the merits, any more than Robertson’s right to speech is dependent on his being correct on the merits.  The merits really have nothing to do with the question.

Beutler continues on the theme of defending unpopular positions on “fictitious Constitutional grounds”: “In addition to Robertson, they also support private companies fighting [the contraception mandate]—not because they have a problem with birth control mind you but because something something religious freedom.”  Or, in other words, because of religious freedom.  The contraception issue, unlike the duck dynasty kerfuffle, involves government force.  In linking the two, Beutler is himself equating government force with private enforcement of norms.  This goes against the argument strongly distinguishing private efforts to punish and silence speech some people don’t like from government censorship, which is the whole premise of the progressive defense of GLAAD.

Beutler also equates opposition to forcing a private company to provide contraception with opposition to contraception itself- meaning, if I understand him correctly, opposition to a woman’s right to use contraception at all.  This obliterates any distinction between economic and political power, whereas, again, the defense of GLAAD’s attempt to silence Robinson as consistent with free speech requires making this distinction strongly.


More broadly, Beutler’s and progressives’ support for the contraception mandate abolishes the concept of government neutrality on moral questions, or in other words of tolerance.  If we distinguish between morally opposing contraception on one hand, and opposition to forcing A to pay for contraception for B on the other, people can act on different moral views and still coexist peacefully.  If we reject that distinction, government has to impose one moral concept on the entire country.

Indeed, Beutler quite casually does away with the entire liberal tradition of religious toleration.  “If certain religious objectors should be exempt from the contraception mandate then other religious objectors should be allowed to ignore other laws…And that obviously would invite chaos.”  Luther and Calvin had no doubt that there would be chaos if a single moral theory didn’t dominate a society; nor did Mohammed.  In some form or another, people throughout history have believed religious freedom is incompatible with order.  A few centuries ago in a small part of the world, as a result of enormous intellectual and political effort, people began to demonstrate that this wasn’t true. 

One might object at this point that Beutler isn’t saying that religious freedom is incompatible with order, but that exempting people from laws on religious grounds is incompatible with order.  But one can easily resolve this by not imposing the sort of laws that people have religious objections to.  The question is whether this approach is compatible with social order.  Again, people have been with Beutler on this question for the vast majority of history, but the modern liberal tradition demonstrates otherwise.  Beutler acts as if this entire tradition just hasn’t happened.

Now, obviously, the government has to ban, for instance, human sacrifice.  The liberal project is about basing the state on the minimum moral claims consistent with order and a certain amount of justice.**  But Beutler would throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

Even where a liberal regime doesn’t refrain from imposing a law in the first place, it can in fact grant religious objections without creating chaos.  America has a tradition of allowing conscientious objections to military service, and of giving Catholic priests immunity from revealing what was said to them in confession.  The Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to allow many such exemptions, including allowing some Indians to use illegal drugs for religious reasons.

* According to Wikipedia, “Revanchism is a term used since the 1870s to describe a political manifestation of the will to reverse territorial losses incurred by a country.”  Obviously, Beutler is using the phrase to refer to conservative attempts to reclaim culture war ground.  Yet it isn’t clear that Phil Robertson was trying to fight the culture war- he was expressing his own views, but not trying to make them dominant, the way GLAAD does.  Note also that GLAAD ultimately lost its fight, so it may be GLAAD that is now fighting for ground it lost, or that it never had.

** Usually it is conservatives making this point as an offensive argument, whereas here I am making it as a concession to Beutler.  The whole concept of being personally opposed to abortion as the taking of human life, but supporting its legality, obviously falls apart on Beutler’s theory.


On the Use of Mandela’s Legacy as an Argument


One Center for American Progress post, on the history of conservative anti-Mandela and anti-anti-apartheid positions, appears to assert that the U.S. should have adopted an idealist foreign policy toward apartheid South Africa, disregarding Cold War, power-based considerations and opposing the regime for its immoral domestic policies.  You could argue for this position on moral absolutist grounds, but the CAP poster instead appears to want to show that in hindsight, the realpolitikers have been proven wrong.  Everyone praises Mandela now, everyone knows he was a hero, and apartheid was evil, and the results prove that those favoring pressure on the apartheid regime were right.  Yet Mandela only came to power once the Cold War was over; it’s easy to say that promotion of morality should take priority over geopolitical considerations once geopolitical considerations have ceased to exist.  These results don’t really say anything about what good policy was in 1985.*

A different CAP post, on the other hand, quotes Mandela defending his friendship with Castro’s Cuba and Gaddafi’s Libya, on realist grounds: “’One of the mistakes the Western world makes is to think that their enemies should be our enemies…We have our own struggle.’  He added that those leaders ‘are placing resources at our disposal to win the struggle.’”  Well, good.  You have your struggle, good luck with that.  You want to be friends with Castro, and not ask too many questions about his political prisons, well hey, we understand, business is business.  But of course, Mandela was pretty sure his enemies should be our enemies.

The first CAP post, the one about how conservatives were wrong about Mandela, uses Mandela’s saintly status to show that he should have been uncontroversial all along.  The other post, the one that notes his friendship with Cuba and Libya, is very different:

“In the desire to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s life — an iconic figure who triumphed over South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime — it’s tempting to homogenize his views into something everyone can support. This is not, however, an accurate representation of the man.

As one commentator put it shortly after the announcement of the freedom fighter’s death, “Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel. Over the next few days you will try so, so hard to make him something he was not, and you will fail. You will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X. You will try to hide his anger from view.”

So when we look back on people who criticized Mandela, because of his “Malcom X” side, we can point to his current reputation as someone “everyone can support,” an iconic opponent of apartheid and nothing else.  But when we want to shock the bourgeois, we can point to the shocking positions this sainted figure held.

If Mandela’s legacy were in question, CAP would have every incentive to downplay his extreme side, and dismiss concern about it as paranoia- as it does in pointing retrospectively to conservative criticism.  Much of the material in the “Mandela as Malcom X” post could be used to criticize his moral judgment, if such a thing were at all considered a matter of legitimate question. 

For instance, according to the Malcom X post, Mandela claimed that Bush wanted “to plunge the world into a holocaust” by going to war in Iraq.  It is highly unlikely that this was Bush’s goal, however.  “Mandela even speculated that then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan was being undermined in the process because he was black.  ‘They never did that when secretary generals were white,’ he said.”  This just isn’t sensible analysis.  When a leader wants to go to war, he is going to try to go around or through those trying to get in his way.  I guess Kofi Annan in some symbolic sense represented the portion of the international community that Bush was defying, but his more meaningful defiance was of the U.N. Security Council.

Mandela claimed that poverty and inequality “rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils.”  I don’t know what a social evil is, but what kind of evil is poverty, and what kind of evil is slavery?  They aren’t the same kind of thing at all.  Poverty might bring suffering, a kind of physical evil.  Slavery and apartheid are evil actions that people do to one another, a moral evil.  Let’s not conflate the two.  If slavery or apartheid is just another physical reality, like poverty, one might do something about it through economic progress or improving knowledge of how to deal with it, but there is no urgent moral obligation to bring it to an end; it becomes a matter of degree and social trade-offs.  The Southerners’ argument, that their system was no worse morally than Northern low-wage, factory work, becomes valid if, as Mandela said, “while poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”  For that matter, any persistent poverty in South Africa would undermine Mandela’s status as a liberator.

* Moreover, a pro-South Africa President and an anti-apartheid Congress gave us the always invaluable good cop-bad cop dynamic.  If you think near-total isolation helps improve a country’s behavior, I point you to North Korea.

Iran Nuclear Agreement


Critics of the Iran deal say Iran doesn’t give up much and gets a lot.  It makes sense to try to get just about any deal whatsoever, though, if you assume Iran does not find it in its interests to build a bomb and is looking for a face-saving way out.  (I recommend this 2009 article for an analysis of Iran’s national interests along these lines.)  If you assume Iran has grand or even apocalyptic ideological ambitions, like Stalin’s USSR or Mao’s China, or that it is entirely irrational, the deal seems to make less sense.  On the other hand, if Iran isn’t deterred by rational considerations like the response of other Middle Eastern nations, why should it be deterred by sanctions?

When countries view it as a kind of law of nature that their actions will lead to counteractions by other powers, their national pride doesn’t come much into play; no point in getting angry about a law of nature.  So for Iran, if its acquiring the bomb leads to a Saudi bomb program or various other destabilizing and undesirable results, and doesn’t end up advancing their interests, well, no reason to do it.  Diplomatically presented threats can allow communication of intentions with less guesswork, while still not ruffling feathers.  But years of very public threats, and America’s denial of Iran’s perceived “right” to uranium enrichment, bring national pride into play, and the desire not to give in. 

There’s counters to this argument: Iran may be rational, but doesn’t it have grand ambitions?  Might they really mean this “death to America” stuff, and their rhetoric about Israel?  Moreover, there’s reasons we’ve long sought to marginalize this regime as uniquely dangerous, rather than treating it as just another competitor for power: the taking of Americans as hostages, the sponsorship of terrorism, the 1994 attack on Jews in Argentina. 

However, though a state functions as a single actor, it of course is the product of the actions of many people.  Different people in Iran will have different ambitions.  It is at least possible that we can calculate that hard-liners are out, and that a confidence-building deal will help keep them out.  Indeed, the worse the deal is for the West from the perspective of critics, the better it serves as a signal of trust.

Was Kennedy a Conservative?


A month ago, Jeff Jacoby claimed in the Boston Globe that JFK was conservative.  Some evidence he marshals in support of this claim:

Kennedy cut taxes

He cut top marginal tax rates from 90% to 70%.  If direction is all that matters, then that makes him a conservative.  But on top marginal rates the Overton Window, and the current state of policy, is well to the right of where it was in Kennedy’s time.

Kennedy said “I do not believe that Washington should do for the people what they can do for themselves through local and private effort.”

That’s just the sort of token, lip-service reassurances that are a staple of the rhetoric of all Democratic Presidents and candidates.  It’s a defensive point coming from them, not an offensive one.  A similar remark from the first Nixon-Kennedy debate, with fuller context, is revealing: “I know that there are those who want to turn everything over to the government. I don’t at all. I want the individuals to meet their responsibilities. And I want the states to meet their responsibilities. But I think there is also a national responsibility. The argument has been used against every piece of social legislation in the last twenty-five years.  The people of the United States individually could not have developed the Tennessee Valley; collectively they could have. A cotton farmer in Georgia or a peanut farmer or a dairy farmer in Wisconsin and Minnesota, he cannot protect himself against the forces of supply and demand in the market place; but working together in effective governmental programs he can do so.  I don’t believe in big government, but I believe in effective governmental action.”  Everybody wants the government to do only what it can do best, I suppose, but there are different ideas of how extensive that sphere is, to say the least.

He favored huge increases in military spending

Absolutely true, of course.  This wouldn’t be welcome in today’s Democratic Party.  And I can’t just say this is because the Cold War is over, because obviously in the 70s and 80s the left hated defense spending.  Nevertheless, more defense spending was just part of Kennedy’s theme that the U.S. needed a more vigorous government to defeat the USSR.  Political alliances are now such that supporters of high defense spending form a coalition with opponents of social spending.  Kennedy-Johnson years were a time of commitment, usually excessive, in all directions- coming off beating the Depression, winning WWII, the 50s boom, and dominating the world economically, what could America not accomplish if only it got some will power and a sense of purpose.  We would pay any price, bear any burden, end poverty, go to the moon, etc.  Kennedy’s opening remarks in that debate set the tone.

Liberal Republicans were more liberal than Kennedy

That just tells us that the Parties weren’t as ideologically sorted as they are today.  It tells us nothing about whether the center was left or right of where it is today, or whether Kennedy was left or right of center.  Idiosyncratic Northeastern aristocrats like Rockefeller and Cabot Lodge are one thing, but I don’t think they represented the mainstream of the Party; that would be Nixon, right of Rockefeller but obviously well left of Goldwater or, later, Reagan.  Kennedy was considered more liberal than Nixon, and it’s clear in the debate that both candidates see it that way, but also that there’s really very little difference- it’s really a coin flip, it’s a time of post-New Deal ideological consensus. 

I think it’s clear that Nixon would be too far left for the GOP today.  I’m not even sure he was right of Clinton or Obama as President (I mean 70% taxes, wage and price controls, a national health insurance proposal, “we are all Keynesians now,” the 55 mph speed limit- you could make the case, right?)  On the other hand, Kennedy didn’t support gay marriage or abortion, so maybe he was conservative after all- these exercises are sort of problematic.

Kennedy was anticommunist

Language and Politics


The Economist notes that Democrats believe their intellectual and moral superiority prevents them from winning elections.  A linguist named Lakoff provides affirmation of this superiority, and advice on how to overcome it, and so has become trendy in lefty circles.  The Economist mostly refutes this Democratic self-image (Democrats win plenty of elections, all politicians waffle and manipulate language) but still gives it undeserved credence. 

“When Republicans and Democrats use different terms for the same thing, the Republican phrase is nearly always shorter and more concrete, observes [an expert.]  He has a point.  When talking about abortion, Republicans favour (sic) ‘life’ (evocative) while Democrats talk about ‘choice’ (abstract.)”

“Life” as pro-lifers use it is an abstract noun, and choice is a crisp, one-syllable word, so so much for that argument.  Moreover, the whole challenge for the pro-life position is that it is so abstract; it has to argue that human life in the abstract is good, or that unborn babies fall under the category.  The pro-choice argument is often that all that’s well and good in theory, but a fetus just doesn’t feel like human life (a clump of cells, more like it.)  If unborn life were really evocative, opposing abortion would be like opposing infanticide- no argument would be necessary.

As for choice, yes, it’s an abstraction, but it’s a pretty powerful one.  Republicans employ it in different debates.  School choice, for instance (vs. the Democrats’ highly concrete defense of public schools.)  The right to abortion is easily made more concrete through various rhetorical devices (“a woman should control her own body,” “let’s not have back-alley abortions.”)  And in case you missed the last election campaign here in the states, like The Economist apparently did, we were introduced to the charming and delightful rhetorical device of the War on Women- that’s two very short nouns, one with very primal appeal, with a humble preposition between them, plenty simple enough to move legions of voters.

The Economist continues: “Republicans talk about ‘taxes’ and ‘spending’ while Democrats want to raise ‘revenue’ for ‘investment.’” But this is a case where Republicans adopt neutral terms, while Democrats resort to euphemism or positive spin.  The whole point is to make unclear what you’re talking about, so it’s only natural your language is going to be less crisp.  On the other hand, Democrats and their pet parrots all know how to say “tax cuts for the rich” and “Medicare, Medicaid, social security, education,” nice and crisp, simplistic and effective.  (And everyone knows we spent wildly under GWB, so who cares about the partisan distribution of power, anyway?)

“George W. Bush had the ‘Patriot Act,’ whereas Mr. Obama has the ‘Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.’”  George W. Bush and 90% of Congress have the Patriot Act.  It wasn’t, originally, a Republican thing.  9/11 had just happened, cynicism was out and patriotism and trust of government were in.  The law could have been called anything and passed; patriot act, in the mood of the times, just seemed like the most natural thing to call it. 

Meanwhile, dozens of universal health care plans have failed in America; it’s not like you can get people to change their basic relationship to the state with a linguistic trick.  Ordinarily, a piece of legislation will have an unwieldy name, but politicians can and do refer to things like “universal health care,” “health care reform,” “health insurance reform,” etc.  At the beginning of the debate, when people have little other information, these snappy slogans even produce favorable polling results.  ObamaCare’s PR failure wasn’t a matter of Obama and Pelosi spending months stumbling over the phrase “patient protection and affordable care.” 

“Mr Lakoff urges Democrats to be more concrete.  ‘Have I seen it with my own eyes?’ he asks.  ‘Can I take a pen and draw a picture of it?’  ‘Air’, ‘water’ and ‘soil’ are better than the ‘environment’, for example…”  But Democrats talk about air and water all the time, and who’s to say “environment” isn’t effective?  I’d at least like some kind of evidence.  When we consider specific environmental issues, global warming is less concrete and evocative than poisoned water or destruction of pristine species and environments, but that’s just the nature of the issue.  Obviously, Democrats attempt to overcome these barriers as best they can by talking about the children’s future and dying polar bears and storms and droughts. 

“[Democrats] struggle to unite around a slogan because their base includes disparate groups…who do not, themselves, speak the same way.”  I’m for The People, not The Powerful.  There, problem solved (Gore, 2000.)  “The Republican base is varied too, including both small government types and devout Christians, but they unite around slogans such as ‘liberty’, whether freedom from taxes or the freedom to pray in schools.”  Waaait a second!  A few paragraphs ago, “choice” was too much of a big word, but now the abstract, three-syllable “liberty” is an effective rallying cry.  Here, of course, Democrats’ typical objection is that Republicans are too abstract, that they make all government action into a threat to Liberty, as a step down the Road to Serfdom, whereas Democrats claim such deep principles are often not implicated and we must look at policies on more of a case-by-case basis. 

In reality, both parties employ a mix of demagoguery and sophistication, of abstract and concrete, and are about equally effective.

Measure for Measure


In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Vienna is undergoing a wave of Puritanism.  Isabella begs the ruler Angelo to spare the life of her brother, who is sentenced to death for premarital sex.  Angelo finds his unyielding morality giving way under her charms, and offers to do so if she will have sex with him.  She rejects him, horrified.  In his twisted mind, he is offering a fair deal; if he is to yield his moral integrity for her benefit, she should for his.  Eventually Angelo, an interim duke, is called to account for his crimes when the old Duke returns; Isabella pleads for mercy for him, too. 

Isaac Asimov, in his Guide to Shakespeare, treats the play as dealing with the theme of “justice versus mercy,” and treats mercy as obviously superior and justice as barbaric. “We all favor mercy for those with whom we sympathize, but are not as keen when mercy is sought for those we hate.  In this play Shakespeare carries through the notion of mercy to ultimate consistency, and in offering mercy to the villain makes critics unhappy….[I]s it only for those with whom we sympathize that mercy is to be sought?  If that is so, then what credit is there in mercy?…It is precisely to those whom we hate that we must show mercy if the word is to have meaning at all.”

About Isabella’s entreating Angelo Asimov writes “Claudio’s moment of execution is approaching, and now his sister, Isabella, comes to plead for his life.  Yet she is as strictyly virtuous as Angelo and has no great sympathy for her brother’s sexual offense.  She says (very Angelo-like): There is a vice that most I do abhor/And most desire should meet the blow of justice,”

So on one hand, Asimov holds that mercy is all about being lenient with those with whom you do not sympathize, but here he seems to reject the idea that you can abhor someone’s actions and still show mercy.  Isabella basically embraces the idea of condemning the sin and loving the sinner.  To quote her more fully:

There is a vice that most I do abhor,
And most desire should meet the blow of justice;
For which I would not plead, but that I must;
For which I must not plead, but that I am
At war ‘twixt will and will not….
I have a brother is condemn’d to die:
I do beseech you, let it be his fault,
And not my brother.


In rejecting this distinction, it is Asimov who becomes like Angelo (“Condemn the fault and not the actor of it?”)

Of Isabella’s refusal to yield to the Duke, Asimov writes: “It is now Isabella’s turn to be unbendingly virtuous.  She refuses the price even if that means her brother must die, doing so without hesitation, and marches off to inform her brother of that fact.”

But actually, Isabella is badly torn, and it is Asimov who is being unsympathetic to her human predicament in light of his strict moral code.  She goes to her brother hoping he will tell her what she wants to hear, which is that she must not yield to the Duke, that he might die in such a way as to leave them both at peace.  In comparing Isabella’s “unbending virtue” with that of Angelo’s, Asimov inadvertently endorses Angelo’s twisted reasoning.


Admit no other way to save his life,–
As I subscribe not that, nor any other,
But in the loss of question,–that you, his sister,
Finding yourself desired of such a person,
Whose credit with the judge, or own great place,
Could fetch your brother from the manacles
Of the all-building law; and that there were
No earthly mean to save him, but that either
You must lay down the treasures of your body
To this supposed, or else to let him suffer;
What would you do?


As much for my poor brother as myself:
That is, were I under the terms of death,
The impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death, as to a bed
That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield
My body up to shame.


Then must your brother die.


And ‘twere the cheaper way:
Better it were a brother died at once,
Than that a sister, by redeeming him,
Should die for ever.


Were not you then as cruel as the sentence
That you have slander’d so?

(Emphasis mine)

But this is obviously wrong.  As Isabella retorts,

Ignomy in ransom and free pardon
Are of two houses: lawful mercy
Is nothing kin to foul redemption.


Claudio initially tells his sister what she wants to hear, that he would not sacrifice her to save his life, but then contemplates the terror of death and afterlife, and asks her to reconsider.  She turns on him brutally.

Asimov writes “We might expect from Isabella the mercy she had requested so movingly of Angelo.  She might not give in to Claudio, but she might at least sympathize with his fear of death and forgive him his human weakness.  She does not.  As rigid and extreme as Angelo…Isabella shrieks out at her brother…”  But she has come to her brother for comfort and support, and has been disappointed.  We might sympathize with her weakness, which comes in a moment of passion, not out of “rigid and extreme” Puritanism.

Shakespeare has the good Duke keep from Isabella the fact that he has saved the life of her brother Claudio.  “Some critics are appalled at the Duke’s needless cruelty in hiding from Isabella the fact that her brother has been saved.  The Duke’s action seems reasonable to me, however.  He was present when Isabella cruelly turned on her death-fearing brother and excoriated him, saying she would pray for his death.  That might teach her a little something about justice and mercy…”  But obviously this is a form of rigid, cruel justice. 

The Duke’s own explanation makes no mention of such a reason; he tells the audience he will tell Isabella that Claudio has been killed so that she will be that much more overjoyed when she learns the truth (But I will keep her ignorant of her good,/To make her heavenly comforts of despair,/When it is least expected.)  This unpersuasive explanation is really just an excuse for the Duke, and Shakespeare, to create an absurd and dramatic situation.

I don’t think the theme is “mercy versus justice,” or an argument that justice generally ought to yield to mercy.  The characters argue that people are strongly prone to temptation to premarital sex, and human law must make allowances for human weakness; and the play argues that the pretense of being above such weakness is likely to be hypocrisy.  It’s a question, in part, of what human justice should demand.

Isabella’s request for mercy for Angelo, a powerful moment, follows an internal struggle and comes because Angelo’s fiancé (whom he had cast aside long ago and who had, naturally, disguised herself as Isabella and gone to have sex with Angelo to trap him into marriage in a plot hatched by the good-guy Duke disguised as a priest) urges her to do so.  The circumstances are crucial.

Austen and Game Theory II


A while back, I commented here regarding an article about the claim by a game theorist, Michael Chwe, who credits Jane Austen with founding game theory.  I found the claim to be thought-provoking, but wondered how one would define game theory in a way that’s broad enough to include literature rather than just specialized economics, but narrow enough to be able to say that one author, specifically, founded the field, and that author was Jane Austen.  The NYTimes article really didn’t give enough information to evaluate Chwe’s claim.

Chwe has since spoken for himself at PBS.  He describes game theory as “the mathematical analysis of strategic thinking.”  While he acknowledges Austen did not use mathematics in her analysis of strategic thinking, he does find in her “theoretical analysis of strategic thinking,” along with “the emphasis on choice” and “the theory of utility.”  Elsewhere in the article he provides a more useful definition of game theory: “the discipline of looking ahead (to what others will do) and reasoning backward (to figure out what you should do in anticipation of what others will do.)”

Chwe acknowledges that game theory can and has been applied to other literature (the Bible, for instance.)  I suppose Austen could be considered more purely game theoretic than, for instance, Shakespeare or the Bible, where strategic reasoning tends to take place to an extent but then be superceded by other aspects of psychology.  To see what Chwe might have found distinctive in Austen, let’s consider where the attempt to treat pre-Austen literature as game theory breaks down.


Contrast Austen with Shakespeare.  Hamlet’s internal psychological battles (“to be or not to be”) are his own, and they ultimately dominate more than his strategic games with the King.  Generally, moreover, Shakespeare will sacrifice a kind of realism and have his characters pursue outlandish strategies, to create dramatic situations that fully reveal character.  Obviously, Jane Austen and the modern economist are aware that people’s selection of goals is pre-rational, but they take goals as given to a greater extent, and focus less on the extent to which other psychological factors get in the way of the pursuit of one’s goals.  People’s driving forces are things like sense, sensibility, pride and prejudice- rather tame and…well, sensible.  Catherine imagines something darker in Northanger Abbey, but Henry Tilney explains that the institutions, laws and culture of England makes such things practically impossible.  There are no ghosts and spirits in Austen or econ, and not many existential leaps of faith. 

In the Merchant of Venice, Shylock the Jew demands his pound of flesh from Antonio, counting on the fact that although the Duke sympathizes strongly with Antonio, he understands that Venice needs to maintain a strong rule of law to keep the trade and investment that is the basis for its prosperity.  Ordinarily, capitalist institutions such as contract law are conducive to the pursuit of wealth, and merchants are focused on the pursuit of wealth, but merchants are human and they have other motives.  They are of course aware that others in society may hate and despise them, as for instance Antonio repeatedly insults Shylock as a moneylender and a Jew.  Shylock can defend capitalist and bourgeoisie morality, and the humanity of Jews, and does, but the pound of flesh is his resort to more drastic measures against Antonio, combining bourgeoisie, game theoretic calculations with aristocratic devotion to revenge and honor. 

Portia intervenes on behalf of Antonio, of course, disguising herself as a lawyer.  She recognizes that Antonio is not himself knowledgeable in law, and if she can first persuade the Duke and, ideally, Shylock himself of her own credibility as a legal authority, and make legalistic arguments that are at least as plausible as Shylock’s, she can carry the day.  She gets Shylock to endorse her legal wisdom by appearing to side with him, as she emphasizes the importance of sticking to the letter of the law rather than allowing emotions to dictate decisions.  She then argues that Shylock can have his pound of flesh, but not any blood, and moreover it has to be exactly one pound.  So far, she has matched her actions to the incentive structures of the Duke and Shylock to produce the desired result, and provided a case study in how judges get what they want under the guise of impartiality.

But at this point, sound strategy would dictate that she leave well enough alone.  She is of course bluffing.  Her decision to seek revenge by demanding Shylock’s life might cause Shylock to challenge her legalistic façade, regain the legal upper-hand and again use his leverage to threaten Venice’s commerce-friendly reputation.  Or it might cause him to become desperate and stab Antonio (he still has the knife, right?)  In her own desire for revenge, she has ceased to think rationally.  However, at a pre-rational level Shylock is rattled; he does not regain the upper hand.  So in this play game theory governs some decisions, but other aspects of psychology are more prominent in other crucial ones.

Hamlet and King Claudio work hard to strategically anticipate each other’s actions, but Hamlet uses the play-within-a-play to strike Claudio at a pre-strategic level: ‘twill catch the conscience of the King, before the King knows what he’s doing.  Hamlet’s leap of faith to believe the ghost really is his father rather than some wicked spirit is obviously pre-rational.  His decision to sword fight Laertes makes no sense from a game theory perspective, and so is obviously driven by non-strategic psychological needs.  He provides a goal-oriented justification for not striking down Claudio while Claudio is apparently praying (he doesn’t want Claudio to go to heaven,) but I suspect he really just doesn’t feel right about it. 

In Midsummer Night’s Dream, shifting romantic urges and the hidden spirit world completely drive action, and only the most rudimentary efforts at pursuit of goals is possible.  In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet tries her best to secure a credible commitment from Romeo, but given the breakneck pace forced on them she has to take him mostly on faith.  The attempt by the priest to arrange things is probably not the soundest elopement strategy one could conceive of; again, Shakespeare sacrifices realism and sound strategy when necessary to fully reveal his characters.


Chwe mentioned Austen’s focus on choice as crucial to his seeing her work as game theory.  A problem with treating Shakespeare, the Bible, or Greek literature as game theory is that destiny dominates these works, meaning our choices matter less.  “There’s a destiny that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will,” said Hamlet.  This is only partly true in Shakespeare, certainly less true in him than in the Iliad or Oedipus, but the fact that his characters partly believe it is true itself shapes their choices, away from game theory types of strategy. 

As for the Bible, Old Testament or New, God’s plan dominates, and the human choice that matters is whether to have faith.  Characters can only to a very small extent practice game theory on God.  Jacob is the only character I can think of who makes any attempt to extract credible commitments from God.  There is no place for strategic thinking in Abraham’s binding of Isaac, or Adam and Eve’s eating the fruit, or Noah building the ark.  These stories are if anything a precursor to existentialism, as Kierkegaard thought.  There is strategic thinking in relationships between humans (how can I get the birth right, how can I get out of this prison, what should Egypt’s agricultural policy be, how can I contain Hebrew population growth, how can I get the birth right, how can I have sex with Bathsheba, etc.), and it does matter, but man’s strategic relationship with man is much less fully developed than man’s relationship with God.

Fatalism is weakening in Shakespeare compared with in ancient Greece, but it is weakened further by time of the Enlightenment and Austen’s writing, as I read the situation.  Now, obviously even once we have eliminated or weakened Destiny, there are limits to how much we can control with our choices.  Chwe explains that economics expects firms to calculate one another’s actions when they aren’t in an oligopoly situation- there is simply a market price that they must accept, reflecting diffuse information that nobody could calculate.  The point is, Austen focuses her attention on the limits within which choices do matter.  Chwe cites Fanny’s rejection of Henry Crawford, against her uncle’s wishes.  It’s eighteen-hundred-something, and if Fanny absolutely refuses to marry Henry Crawford, she just isn’t going to marry him.  Juliet Capulet didn’t feel she was in that position.  It takes heroic firmness for Fanny to make her stand, but not the kind of desperate measures that left things in the hands of destiny and fate in Shakespeare.


In my comments on the NYT article on Chwe on Austen on game theory, I wrote “Chwe finds in Austen a concept of ‘cluelessness,’ which he thinks should be part of game theory.  Rather than treating players as equally rational, cluelessness analysis allows one player to make strategic mistakes because, from a position of social dominance, one party ‘may not realize it even needs to think strategically.’”  In the PBS peace, he likens this to dominant companies’ dismissing “disruptive potential” of competitors.  He also likens it to what he says is U.S. failure to anticipate the Iraqi insurgency, when Iraq’s tactics were obviously the correct response to superior U.S. firepower; and to the humanities establishment dismissing efforts to economically analyze literature.

In my previous piece on Chwe I suggested Henry Tilney’s turning Catherine Moreland out of his house as an instance of cluelessness, and in his PBS piece Chwe cites this.  (There’s much more subtle cluelessness in Northanger Abbey, though- see my previous post.)

In Sense and Sensibility, Chwe sees Marianne Dashwood as deliberately bringing about her illness in order to get Willoughby to explain his actions and confess his love for her (even though his lack of integrity means she no longer wants to marry him, she cannot be satisfied without an explanation.)  Don’t know what I think about that.