You are currently browsing the monthly archive for September 2009.

Robert Halford made a compelling point yesterday, which I will rephrase as a question:  given that the absolute best thing that we can say about Roman Polanski’s conduct is that he raped a drugged and drunk thirteen-year-old and that grand jury testimony by design is one-sided, why should we even bother considering it?  What he’s done is bad enough and the jerk should be in prison, runs the argument, and what he might have done is speculative enough, that the prudent thing to do should be to focus on the agreed upon facts lest speculation become a distraction.

I disagree.  While we can’t know what the facts are with a high degree of certainty, I think that knowing what the grand jury testimony said, and that although the victim forgives him, she has not recanted her claims, is highly relevant to how we think about this case.  My reasoning, such as it is, after the jump:
Read the rest of this entry »

One of the interesting features of the Polanski conversations around the internet is the way the director’s defenders emphasize that he pled guilty to statutory rape while the prosecutorial-minded among us emphasize that he is guilty of rape. And if the victim’s grand jury testimony is accurate, this was a case of rape regardless of her age. (That she kept saying no was one clue.) This leads to some thinking about statutory rape and why people tend to find it…if not exculpatory, at least a mitigating factor, not-quite-real-rape. I should note that I’m not endorsing this, just wondering why it happens.

First, it’s worth noting that “statutory rape” covers a lot of moral ground. Clearly seriously wrong case of SR: sexual activity with a person who is obviously not old enough to give consent, e.g., a ten-year-old. A morally innocuous case of SR: two competent people who want to have sex with each other and do so, though one partner is just over, and the other just under, the relevant legal lines. (Supposing there’s no “Romeo and Juliette” exception to the law– or you can move the ages to be just out of reach of that exception.) My hunch is that if you asked people to describe a generic case of statutory rape, they’d come up with something like this.

This, in turn, I suspect, leads people to think of SR as wink-nudge rape, i.e., not really rape. And this is true of some SR instances, e.g. the second of my two examples above, though it’s clearly not true of all of them. (Though I wonder if the harm done to the really young victim and the harm done to an adult victim are different in kind if not in seriousness because of the way these two people are likely to conceptualize sex and violation.)

So let’s take a detour through the concepts-as-prototypes literature, one of the few psychological research programs inspired by philosophy, in this case, Wittgenstein’s remarks about family resemblance in the Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein noted that with some concepts, e.g. game, there’s no one set of necessary and sufficient conditions for something to count as an instance of that concept. Games are a really diverse group, and Wittgenstein suggested that their similarities are more like a family resemblance– one feature shared by some, another by others– than like a group united by a single feature or defining condition. Another common metaphor is that of a rope no one strand of which continues from one end to the other. Maybe our psychological representations have the same structure: more like a cluster of features and less like a list of conditions. I think the picture is that we’d have a prototype– a clear and obvious instance of something that falls under a concept– and then classify things by thinking about how they relate to that prototype.

There are some suggestive empirical results. People are quicker to classify clear cases of Fs, slower to classify unusual cases, for example, and they identify clear cases as “better examples.” I think–please keep in mind that this is not my area and I refuse to look things up in books when blogging– that the same prototype concept structure would explain conjunction-fallacy results like subjects’ willingness to judge the probability of “Linda is a bank teller and she is active in the feminist movement” as, impossibly, higher than the probability of “Linda is a bank teller.”

So is this what’s going on in the rape case? Thinking of “statutory rape” brings to mind the most salient examples– people having sex with almost-old-enough consenting partners. And those cases are far from the prototype of rape that most people carry around in their heads (the violent stranger cases). Hence it doesn’t seem as wrong. As a result, describing it as “statutory rape” is a rhetorical move that reduces the judged degree of wrongness. Of course, this description is true but misleading, as if I killed a person and said “I just killed a mammal.” (It violates a coversational implicature, in other words.) It brings to mind (I’m guessing) the most-permissible case of SR, which this case is clearly not.

This would also make sense of the mistake (I think) people are making when thinking of SR as not-real-rape. Here’s a big problem for the concepts-as-prototypes view: it doesn’t distinguish between features typical of Fs and those that are constitutive of Fs. A penguin is just as much a bird as an eagle, though a penguin is an unusual bird. A large prime number is just as prime as 3 is. (Yet the concept of prime number exhibits the same prototype effects of classification time, ranking as a “good example” and so on.)

So I suspect something like this is happening: a prototypical rape involves a stranger and physical coercion. Other cases– acquaintances, underage partners, and so on– are often quite a bit of representative distance from that prototype, and so people tend to take them less seriously, or think that degree of distance translates to degree of permissibility, or something like this. But the typical features and the wrong-making features are different, so representational distance from the prototype doesn’t track degrees of wrongness.

This might be all wrong on a number of levels, of course.

In an interview with the Orthodox Jewish paper Hamodia, Justice Scalia says,

More recently we have allowed the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas State Legislature. I think we have been moving back towards what the American Constitution provided.

I am not sure how Orthodox Jews feel about the Establishment Clause, but I assume they do not like driving G-d out of public life.

Steve Benen comments,

How would government staying neutral on matters of faith “drive God out of public life”? Scalia didn’t say.

Actually, I think it’s reasonably clear. Scalia is blurring, deliberately or not, the distinction between the public sphere and the government. Public life and the transactions of the Lege are not to be distinguished.

I’m no scholar of the Constitution, but it seems plain in the Preamble that it and the institutions it lays out are, at least conceptually, ordained and established by the People. (Even the people of the State of Texas likewise “ordain and establish”, though not before invoking G-d.) Government may control us in more ways than we’d like, it may employ more of us than we care to admit, but it is our creature.

I wouldn’t have thought there was a particular political chirality to this common error, but it may well now belong, if only as a rhetorical strategy, to the right. Certainly much of the Republican opposition voiced over the past year to Keynesian deficit spending was phrased in these terms — when times are tough, we have to tighten our belts! — as if the government were just like a private individual, or were the aggregate of all the private individuals it governs. (And I’ve heard the same from a winger friend.)

Am I right? It seems downright perverse that the party of the rhetoric of small government should so freely resort to a confusion that implies a kind of statism.

And does the confusion have a history? From what I recall of my civics, the Founders did their founding out of an experience in which the distinction between government and the governed had grown all too stark.

UPDATE: I posted this quickly and without reading up on the case at all. Commenters provide interesting, though horrifying, links. I think we now have very good evidence that the rape wasn’t “merely” statutory and that drugs and alcohol were given to the girl. Although Anne Applebaum reminds us that Polanski too has suffered mightily, so really, who’s to judge? Original post below.

Not sure what to make of this. Sure, he’s an old man who makes films, and there seemed to be an implicit agreement not to arrest him. Also, alleged procedural weirdness involving the plea deal. Justice: cut it with mercy! On the other hand, sex with a 13 year old involving (allegedly) alcohol and a quaalude. Ick, and the laws against that don’t have an artist exemption. The weird reactions give me the creeps, frankly.

French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand said he was “stunned” by the news, adding that both he and French President Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to see the acclaimed director returned swiftly to his family….”(Mitterrand) profoundly regrets that a new ordeal is being inflicted on someone who has already known so many during his life,” the culture ministry said in a statement….Robert Harris, a British novelist who said he had been working with Polanski for much of the past three years writing two screenplays, expressed outrage over the arrest….”I am shocked that any man of 76, whether distinguished or not, should have been treated in such a fashion,” he said in a statement, adding that Polanski had often visited Switzerland and even had a house in Gstaad….”It is hard not to believe that this heavy-handed action must be in some way politically motivated,” he said.

Even a house in Gstaad! Hard not to see this as the “he’s one of us” defense.

Interesting comments on my post about one God/different Gods. Musings:

1. I should think more about the role that theism plays in the definite-descriptions view. My intuition is that, should God exist, it would be easier to say that both Christian and Islamic thought refer to that Thing rather than to different things. My further intuition is that this is so because of the centrality of certain descriptions to the reference of the name, i.e., if we find out that there’s a Being who created the world, etc., but He is really tripartite, we’d say, yikes, turns out the Christians were right about the Being we worshipped rather than saying that we were worshipping a nonexistent entity. If atheism is true, it might be harder to secure shared reference because there’s no there, there.

2. I should expand on my opaque remark about error theory, in case anyone is interested. Let me tell you a story. Suppose you think that moral properties are part of the world independent of our judgment. RM Hare calls this view “descriptivism” (because moral claims describe), and he gives this neat argument against it.

Imagine a Christian missionary landing on a cannibal island. Both the missionary and the cannibal use “good” (or “right” or…) to evaluate and commend, but they have very different criteria for applying those terms. The descriptivist is forced to say that “good” (or whatever) means different things coming from Christian and Cannibal: when the Christian says it, it just means meek, mild, etc., and when the Cannibal says it it means fierce, scalp-taking, etc. So they don’t really disagree, according to the descriptivist story; they’re simply using different terms. But they do disagree. Hence, descriptivism is false.

For a long time this argument looked pretty convincing. Then Kripke’s “Naming and necessity” convinced a lot of people that proper names picked out individuals because of the causal ties between a name and what it names, and a little later Putnam and Burge and others extended this in various ways to, for example, natural kind terms. Descriptivists (under different names) took up the thought and ran with it: maybe Christian and Cannibal are talking about the same thing because their use of “good” is causally tied to the property goodness despite their differences in theory. If so, the Hare argument looks bad. (You don’t actually need a causal view of reference; you might also do the same work with a sophisticated descriptions view or in some other way. All you need is a way of putting some space between the real referent and what the speaker thinks.)

So how does that tie into error theory? Error theorists think there are no moral properties. Hence they can’t say that Christian and Cannibal (or any other speakers with big disagreements) are causally attached to the same property. If they want to preserve the intuition that moral speakers disagree with one another, they need an account of how these speakers are arguing about one thing rather than talking about different fictions. Harder to do! If I remember Olson’s talk right, he uses this sort of argument against one sort of error theory that says our discourse about morality is like our talk about fictions, and he claims that this doesn’t make sense of disagreement. A lot of the questions were along these lines: but we can argue about fictions even when there’s no canonical text! E.g., fights over fan fiction. And furthermore you might think there is a canonical text of sorts, namely, our cluster of agreed-upon intuitions about cases and principles.

One can arrest the progress of a boat about to hit an iceberg with a giant squid.

Sweet.

Sometimes as historians we have reason to sum up our careers to date and make a projection forward as to what we’re doing next. Here’s mine. I don’t think this will really interest people for discussion, so I’m putting it below the fold by backdating it 72 hours, and people who read the blog on the web probably won’t notice it. Those of you who get these posts on RSS will of course see it presented as if it were fresh and intriguing; sorry about that.

Read the rest of this entry »

Okay, so this didn’t happen when Alexander Graham Bell made his famous call, but imagine if it had:

In scientific circles where solar flares, magnetic storms and other unique solar events are discussed, the occurrences of September 1-2, 1859, are the star stuff of legend. Even 144 years ago, many of Earth’s inhabitants realized something momentous had just occurred. Within hours, telegraph wires in both the United States and Europe spontaneously shorted out, causing numerous fires, while the Northern Lights, solar-induced phenomena more closely associated with regions near Earth’s North Pole, were documented as far south as Rome, Havana and Hawaii, with similar effects at the South Pole.

And so my answer to Ari’s question: just because history is cooler than you can imagine, and even when you’re finished realizing that and stretching your imagination, history is still cooler.

Apparently a bunch of Muslims are gathering in DC to pray jummah in front of the Capitol Building. (I didn’t get the memo, which is a clue as to why the Islamization of America will never happen– the ummah just does not have its shit together.) Anyway, this has the usual suspects upset:

We know that our contest is with spiritual forces (Ephesians 6:12), and we firmly believe that He Who is within us is greater than any other god or force (1 John 4:4), so I encourage you to fill America with prayer to the True God this coming Friday.

Whatever, it’s what they do. But what interests me is the way in which their language suggests that Muslim God is different from Christian God.
Read the rest of this entry »

…I give you UC President Mark Yudof. A sample of his comedic stylings:

Question — U.C. is facing a budget shortfall of at least $753 million, largely because of cuts in state financing. Do you blame Governor Schwarzenegger for your troubles?

Mark Yudof — I do not. This is a long-term secular trend across the entire country. Higher education is being squeezed out. It’s systemic. We have an aging population nationally. We have a lot of concern, as we should, with health care.

Question — And education?

Mark Yudof — The shine is off of it. It’s really a question of being crowded out by other priorities.*

Question — Already professors on all 10 U.C. campuses are taking required “furloughs,” to use a buzzword.

Mark Yudof — Let me tell you why we used it. The faculty said “furlough” sounds more temporary than “salary cut,” and being president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery: there are many people under you, but no one is listening. I listen to them.

And here’s some bonus anti-intellectualism:

Question — The word “furlough,” I recently read, comes from the Dutch word “verlof,” which means permission, as in soldiers’ getting permission to take a few days off. How has it come to be a euphemism for salary cuts?

Mark Yudof — Look, I’m from West Philadelphia. My dad was an electrician. We didn’t look up stuff like this. It wasn’t part of what we did. When I was growing up we didn’t debate the finer points of what the word “furlough” meant.

Question — How did you get into education?

Mark Yudof — I don’t know. It’s all an accident. I thought I’d go work for a law firm.

Oh, President Yudof, you’re such a card! Look, I know he’s being glib and that humor’s a coping mechanism. But comedy’s all about timing. And his stinks.

* Emphasis added. For emphasis.

Via pf in the comments.

Sybil tells of the development of a troubling classroom dynamic: some of the male students in her survey course seem to have a hard time taking a pretty, young female instructor seriously, and as a result, in class they either doze, disrupt, or sulk.  Unfortunately, dealing with them has been hard on the other students, leading to a classroom atmosphere which is tense and generally unpleasant for everyone.

Sybil’s an experienced instructor and I suspect she doesn’t need advice and her post didn’t solicit any, but her difficulty struck me as an instance of a problem that easily generalizes away from the specifics of her situation.  Whatever the ultimate source of the toxin, it’s likely those of us who have taught have all had classroom environments become unpleasant and unproductive places.  (Not you.  You’re an excellent instructor.  Your friend.)

What’s worked to restore a pleasant environment in which to learn and teach?  What hasn’t?  If you’ve been a student in a class that foundered, what things worked to right the course?

So this is not cool. It’s a little better in context, where Kealey is writing on the sin of “lust” as one of the seven deadly sins of the academy, and it’s meant to be lighthearted.  But it really should go without saying that female students are not “perks” and it’s entirely possible that the curvy young woman asking for help on an essay just wants help on an essay, and good advice would not say “look, but don’t touch”, but “be a professional.”

The problem here is not the common claim that Kealey was brave enough to voice that “look, don’t touch” ethic that all professors have towards their female students but are terrified to mention because of the fear of PC police.  It flirts with establishing the idea that female students should expect to be ogled, and as long as one goes home and tackles the wife* afterwards in lieu of taking up with the student, there’s no harm done.

*All professors are married men.**

**One wonders what the wife thinks about thoughts of undergrads spicing up their sex life.

Suppose hypothetically a major state university were about to raise its fees significantly. What happens when low-income, well qualified students get in and decide they can’t afford it? Not good things.

The first problem that Mr. Bowen, Mr. McPherson and the book’s third author, Matthew Chingos, a doctoral candidate, diagnose is something they call under-matching. It refers to students who choose not to attend the best college they can get into. They instead go to a less selective one, perhaps one that’s closer to home or, given the torturous financial aid process, less expensive.

About half of low-income students with a high school grade-point average of at least 3.5 and an SAT score of at least 1,200 do not attend the best college they could have. Many don’t even apply. Some apply but don’t enroll. “I was really astonished by the degree to which presumptively well-qualified students from poor families under-matched,” Mr. Bowen told me.

They could have been admitted to Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus (graduation rate: 88 percent, according to College Results Online) or Michigan State (74 percent), but they went, say, to Eastern Michigan (39 percent) or Western Michigan (54 percent). If they graduate, it would be hard to get upset about their choice. But large numbers do not. You can see that in the chart with this column.

In effect, well-off students – many of whom will graduate no matter where they go – attend the colleges that do the best job of producing graduates. These are the places where many students live on campus (which raises graduation rates) and graduation is the norm. Meanwhile, lower-income students – even when they are better qualified – often go to colleges that excel in producing dropouts.

“It’s really a waste,” Mr. Bowen says, “and a big problem for the country.” As the authors point out, the only way to lift the college graduation rate significantly is to lift it among poor and working-class students. Instead, it appears to have fallen somewhat since the 1970s. …

Tellingly, net tuition has no impact on the graduation rates of high-income students. Yet it does affect low-income students. All else equal, they are less likely to make it through a more expensive state college than a less expensive one, the book shows.

Should you ever be interviewed by The History Channel in your office, it would be best not to have the Wikipedia entry for the topic about which they are interviewing you clearly visible on your monitor.  Have a little faith in your expertise or dignity enough to close that damn tab.*


*Shamelessly stolen from my own Facebook note of a couple days past, but posted here because some member of the increasingly Duggar-esque family of The History Channel networks repeated the episode of Mega Movers in which I first noticed it . . . and because it’s sound advice.

Alan Turing was one of the most important computer scientists of the 20th century. He contributed not only to the foundations of the study of artificial intelligence, but played an important–perhaps the most important–role in the British World War II code-breaking effort that was headquartered at Bletchley Park, north of London. After the war was over, Turing continued his work in both the civilian and military worlds and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1951.

Turing was gay, a not unusual situation for a British intellectual of the period. That latter did not help, however, when he was arrested and convicted in 1952 of “gross indecency” for his relationship with a young Manchester man. This was the same crime for which Oscar Wilde had been convicted more than half a century previously.

Turing’s choice was jail or probation contingent on him being “chemically castrated” through regular injections of estrogen. He chose the latter, and remained out of jail. But the Cold War panic over security meant that the government would no longer give security clearances for avowed homosexuals. The rationale was that they could be easily blackmailed by the Soviets, though logic would suggest that avowed homosexuals no longer had anything about which to be blackmailed. Despite that rather obvious conclusion, Turing’s security clearance was revoked and he was forbidden from working on military cryptanalysis projects.

On June 8, 1954, Turing’s cleaning lady found Turing dead in bed. He had ingested potassium cyanide, whether accidentally (as his mother insisted) or deliberately (as most others seem to think).

And there things might have remained, an appalling story of injustice rapidly fading into the depths of the past. Read the rest of this entry »

I once saw Joel Garreau give a talk in which he promised (promised!) that brick-and-mortar stores would soon be gone (gone!) because everybody (everybody!) would be doing all their shopping online. Big boxes, especially, were dinosaurs (dinosaurs!), he claimed. And one of the major challenges facing urbanists would be what to do with the empty shell of the discarded consumer landscape after all of the consumers had moved to Internet. Garreau told his rapt audience that this process of creative destruction would take less than a decade.*

That was eleven years ago. And Davis’s gigantic new Target, a palace to hyper-modern consumer culture, is slated to open in less than a month.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that I’ve long had doubts about the idea that online education will spell the death of brick-and-mortar colleges and universities. But this article, coupled with the University of California’s decision to try to raise fees by A LOT over the next two years, gives me pause. My sense is that the children of relatively well-off parents will continue to go to traditional colleges and universities for the foreseeable future: to learn, for credentials, to network, for finishing school, etc. What I don’t know, though, is what will happen when some significant chunk of non-traditional students, coupled with the children of not-especially-affluent families, decide that higher education for $99/month sounds pretty darned good. What will that do to the revenue stream that colleges and universities now rely upon for survival? What will it do to the economies of scale that currently make higher education viable? And what will the ripple effects be? I guess I could give Joel Garreau a call and ask him what he thinks.

* Word to the wise: elements of this paragraph may be slightly exaggerated for effect. But only slightly. The talk, by the way, happened at a conference on cultural landscape studies held at the University of New Mexico in 1998. As part of that conference, I got to tour J.B. Jackson‘s house, which was cool.

It may have taken awhile, but thanks to Patrick Courrielche’s exposé at, of all places, Big Hollywood, conservatives are positively fuming over the Bush Administrations decision to funnel $2.2 billion through the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives into programs that specifically support the President’s ideological and policy commitments, like the Abstinence Education Program, designed to “enable states to provide abstinence education and mentoring, counseling, and adult supervision to promote abstinence from sexual activity.”

Conservatives are rightly upset with a speech Bush delivered at the 2004 White House National Conference on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, in which he said “[i]t’s hard to be a faith-based program if you can’t practice faith [and] the message to you is, we’re changing the culture here in America.”

“It’s hard to read his comments as anything but a call for groups to engage in a partisan campaign on behalf of the Bush Administration’s policy agenda,” argued John Hinderaker. Nick Gillespie agreed, saying that “[i]f you’ve ever wondered—and worried—about where government support of the arts leads, look no further than the full transcript of an August 10, 2009 telecon[ference call] between an official at the National Endowment for the Arts and a group of ‘independent artists from around the country.'”

Wait wait wait—I thought conservatives were upset because the White House created an office, installed it five federal agencies, then used them to fund a clearly partisan policy agenda to the tune of $2.2 billion. You mean to tell me all those links are about an August 10th conference call that tried to wrangle up support for the current President’s National Day of Service—a call in which not one cent of the NEA’s $155 million budget was dispensed or even offered?

They are.

Read the rest of this entry »

Of other people’s career arcs, you mean? Well, yes, occasionally I am. Look, I’m not proud of my covetous nature, particularly not with the Day of Atonement fast approaching (note to self: get right with God). But there it is. And this interview with Jill Lepore didn’t exactly make me feel better. An endowed chair at Harvard, a published novelist, a staff writer for the New Yorker, sigh, it is to want.

Anyway, the interview is interesting. And you should read it. But the part that caught my eye was where Lepore talks about why she became a historian. Oddly enough, someone asked me that question over the weekend. Usually the issue doesn’t come up, because when people ask me what I do for a living, I say that I’m a teacher. Or a shepherd*. Anyway, before my older boy’s soccer game on Saturday, one of the other parents wanted to know why I became a historian. And I totally fumbled the answer, pointing to various teachers**; an untold number of childhood Shabbat dinners, during which my grandparents screamed**** at each other about their experiences during World War II; and my rather extraordinary success at National History Day*****. Thinking more deeply about it, I think the answer is probably some combination of those things. Regardless, I need a stock reply that I can get out in 30 seconds or less. And you? Why are you in this line of work?

* A guy can dream, right?
** Thanks Dr. Newby, Mrs. Stout, and Professor Sewell.***
*** This list is not exhaustive.
**** Always with love. Seriously, my grandfather insisted, ’til his dying day, that he and my grandmother never had an argument. They simply had loud discussions.
***** Ask me! Oh please, ask me!

Via Ralph.

An xkcd for US historians. After all, why should the math and computer science folks have all the fun?

I look forward to an FDR installment.

The 21st century update of the old saw where the burglar leaves his wallet in the sofa cushions:

The popular online social networking site Facebook helped lead to an alleged burglar’s arrest after he stopped check his account on the victim’s computer, but forgot to log out before leaving the home with two diamond rings.

While this particular breed of clumsiness is of course quite rare, according to a friend of mine who is a cop, it is becoming standard practice in certain kind of crimes to check the suspect’s public Facebook profile.

The default settings on Facebook show a limited version of someone’s profile, but also show with whom they are friends.  So suppose you’ve just arrested some kid who knocked over a 7-11.  From witnesses, you know he had help.  But who could have been his associates?  The friends list in some cases is an exceedingly helpful starting point.

Recent comments

This is officially an award-winning blog

Best group blog: "Witty and insightful, the Edge of the American West puts the group in group blog, with frequent contributions from an irreverent band.... Always entertaining, often enlightening, the blog features snazzy visuals—graphs, photos, videos—and zippy writing...."
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 180 other followers