Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Citizens United

The recent Supreme Court decision that gives corporations the right to make unlimited campaign contributions has been defended by some people, including, notably, Glenn Greenwald, who take an absolutist view of the First Amendment. On their view, the issue is not whether corporations are persons since the amendment merely states that Congress shall make no laws abridging the freedom of speech and does not refer to who does the speaking. I find this argument utterly unconvincing and not just because it seems to imply that Congress can’t limit the rights of tarot decks, Ouija boards, and Urim and Thummim to protected speech. Governments make corporations and grant them privileges and immunities that natural human persons do not possess. It is settled law, as I understand, that the speech of military officers, teachers, and doctors in clinics receiving federal funds can be limited so long as they are acting in their official capacity, so the rights of corporations, which are creatures of the state in an even more fundamental way, should not be sacrosanct either, especially since corporations aggregate money in ways that living human individuals cannot. Precisely because they surpass the citizens in actual power, it is wise and right to limit their legal status to prevent them from being more than persons under the law.

It has been suggested that the practical effect of Citizens United has been overestimated and that corporations will either not choose to or not be able to control elections by throwing around huge sums of money or, more plausibly, that the newly discovered rights of the corporate superpersons will turn out to be superfluous since they already own the political process. More optimistically, it might be also be pointed out that a vigilant public could find ways to get around the ruling: it is hard, after all, to write checks while hanging from a lamppost. The actual effects of legal rulings are always hard to predict, and ironic outcomes are quite likely. Unfortunately, ironic is not a reliable synonym for good.

I note in passing that I do agree with the majority of the Court in one respect. Neither one of us take the words or the meaning of the Constitution as sacred and inviolate. The majority bases its opinions on what it thinks is best for the Republican party at a given time while I read the fundamental documents by the light of what I find enduringly moral and defensible in them. I would probably try to respect precedent more than the Roger’s court because I perceive a huge practical value in the predictability of the law, but I recognize that you can’t dispense with special pleading just because you think you’re sincere. On some fundamental level, it isn’t the methodology but the ethics of these jurists that I find vicious.
Princes of Peace

Ecumenicalism, at least in Europe and the Americas, is largely a reaction to the threat of unbelief. Atheists are the only people that the Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Calvinists, Lutherans, Pentacostals, Muslims, and Jews hate more than each other; and this hatred draws them together. I think of Gregg Easterbrook as the anti-Aristotle of our age, the master of those who don’t know, but even Easterbrook seems to understand the essentially defensive character of the current vogue for a shared faith in merely having some sort of faith.

Momentary controversies over Islam aside, in America's contemporary spiritual landscape, the dividing line is not between Christians and non-Christians, nor drawn along any religious perimeter. It is between believers and nonbelievers. Persons of faith of almost any stripe have begun to embrace each other as allies against the encroachment of pure secularism, philosophical positivism, and legal hostility toward belief in the public square.

Now despising atheists is nothing new—John Locke thought atheism should be illegal and the public affirmation of disbelief in God has long been a capital crime in Muslim nations—but apparently the atheist menace had not seemed sufficiently urgent to compose religious divides that are centuries or millennia old and make priests, bonzes, and imams conveniently ignore the plain contradictions among their respective doctrines. The Enlightenment wasn’t quite enough, apparently, or even Marxism; but the New Atheism has at last done the trick and brought a truce to the religious wars. So let us give thanks to Dawkins and Hitchens and P.Z. Myers and the other princes of peace who have brought this blessing on mankind. I have often been critical of the New Atheists if only because I couldn’t detect anything new in what they had to say, but neither I nor anybody else should claim that they are not a force. Of course it may be that the effectiveness of their message is more a reflection of the startling fragility of religion than the intrinsic merit of their own point of view, which is often little more than unreflective positivism that seems to think the only thing besides science is some sort of theology. Thing is, though, pricks don’t have to be especially sharp to puncture a balloon.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reality, What a Concept!

America appears to be paralyzed by discord; but a closer look at the evidence, for example, an hour or two reading comment threads on Internet discussion sites, will set you straight. There is plenty of conflict, obviously, but few actual differences of opinion, that is, if disagreement means I assert P and you assert non-P, there is almost none to be found. We don’t agree enough to meaningfully disagree. What one encounters instead of dialogue are fistfights and simultaneous monologues. Now by my lights, that’s exactly what we should expect granted the true volume of possible ideas—in that immensity actually encountering another is quite improbable, though the illusion of contact is not. If you think that all-that-is is a big room with stuff in it, you won’t agree, assuming, that is, I’ve correctly guessed what’s going on over there in the adjoining monads.

Consider the interminable struggle over abortion. One could construe the issue as revolving around whether or not one wishes there to be fewer abortions, but that is pretty clearly not the case since even those who, like me, don’t consider abortions an evil don’t consider them a good either while those who wave around the pictures of bloody fetuses seldom argue that outlawing abortion will actually reduce the number of abortions. They may assume that criminalization will have that result, but they mostly simply ignore the question of its real world consequences. What matters, apparently, is maintaining an attitude of official abhorrence towards the act. When pro-choice people argue that a policy of legalized abortion and free family planning services would probably make abortions less common, they are missing the point. Pro-lifers make the corresponding error in assuming that their opponents share their overwhelming concern about meanings. What is an argument about attitudes for one side is an argument about facts for the other. Sorting out the debate doesn’t call for moral philosophy but a better understanding of data types.

Something similar takes place in arguments about drug legalization. Drug warriors are not very interested in evidence that the criminalization of drugs may not decrease drug use, and they are especially not interested in weighing the bad consequences of drug use against the bad consequences of the legal efforts to suppress it. After all, it would be pretty hard to argue that the unfavorable health and economic consequences of smoking pot or even using heroin are remotely comparable to the obvious expense, suffering, and death that result from their legal suppression. One would have to be a moral monster to throw people in vile jails, destroy families, promote organize crime, subvert civil rights, and raise taxes in the name of what is obviously a futile effort to avoid the rather notional evils of marijuana use. But anti-drug people aren’t moral monsters; they simply put a tremendously high value on attitudes. Those of us who throw statistics at the crusaders are suffering from our own illusion.