Sun Jun 12 07:03:26 EDT 2005

Dates and crusades

A fascinating story: someone is said to have sprouted a date seed unearthed at Masada, from a date eaten during the siege there almost 2,000 years ago. It appears that 500-year-old seeds had been sprouted in England, and 1200-year old seeds in China, but this would be the first 2,000-year-old seed.

The dates of ancient Judea were famous, but they've since disappeared, so if the tree is female and it continues to do well maybe we'll see what the fame was about. Which brings us to one of the mysteries of history, and of Times historiography: when did the dates of Judea disappear? At the beginning of the story the guy says they were "destroyed by the crusaders," [why? just because they were evil?] but by the end it appears they were "destroyed before the Middle Ages," and thus long before the Crusades.

Since I'm a bit of a hothead, I decided to write the Times about it. My letter:

Dear Mr. Calame,

At the beginning of Mr. Erlanger's piece today on the sprouting of a 2,000-year-old date seed he says the dates of Judea were "destroyed by the Crusaders," but by the end he's saying they were "destroyed before the Middle Ages," and thus long before the Crusades.

This might seem a minor inconsistency, but (1) the story's surprising enough to raise some doubts, so the reader needs assurance that Mr. Erlanger and the editors are at least thinking about what they're writing, (2) the Crusades are relevant to current events, so a well-informed journalist who writes about the Middle East should be very familiar with their approximate dates (no pun intended!), and (3) the claim the Crusaders destroyed the date palms is a bit surprising, and passing it on in direct contradiction to something else in the story may lend color to complaints about the Times' anti-Christian bias.


UPDATE: I heard back from the Times:

Dear Mr. Kalb,

Thanks for writing and sorry for the delayed response. In case you missed it, this correction ran today:

Correction: June 15, 2005, Wednesday An article on Sunday about the successful germination of a 2,000-year-old date seed by Israeli doctors and scientists referred incorrectly to the Koran's mentions of the date palm. They were to the tree in general, not to the date palm of Judea. The article also misstated the timing of the Crusades, when the date palms of Judea were destroyed. The Crusades took place during the Middle Ages, not before.

Joe Plambeck
Office of the Public Editor
The New York Times

My response:
Dear Mr. Plambeck,

Thanks much for the response.

The assertion that "the crusaders destroyed the date palms" still seems odd:

1. A conqueror, would-be conqueror or occupier wouldn't intentionally reduce the economic value of land.

2. Trees were commonly destroyed in the course of pre-modern military operations, especially sieges. Still, would that really extend to all trees of a certain type over such a large region?

3. If it did, and the date palms were so wonderful, why didn't anybody replant? The seeds last 2,000 years, and seedlings (presumably) would have been available from nearby areas the Crusaders didn't go. It appears from the piece that after the Crusaders destroyed the palms nobody in Judea wanted to grow dates for the next 750 years, until new nobody in Judea wanted to grow dates for the next 750 years, until new plants were brought in from California. That seems extraordinarily strange.

All in all, it seems more likely to a non-specialist that the date palms disappeared as a result of general conditions than specific actions of a specific group like the Crusaders. All that, of course, is a priori reasoning that could be wrong. Still, the other errors in the piece give one pause. Could Mr. Erlanger have gotten this point wrong as well?

Best wishes,

James Kalb

Posted by jkalb | Permalink | Categories: General

Fri Jun 10 16:44:12 EDT 2005

Life and law

While I was preparing to give a talk about law, I did a little reading on the philosophy of law. One thing that struck me was what might be called the "external" point of view taken in current thought on the subject.

Here's a quote from Blackstone:

This law of nature, being co-eval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original.
Blackstone here is looking at the law not as an outsider but but from within, as a participant in a world the order of which depended on law. In other words, he is looking at the law as a human being. For him, law was a particular type of obligation, one that's enforced by a political society and derives at least some of its binding quality from that feature. "What is the law" meant something like "what enforceable norms bind us as members of a particular political society." As such, the law was part of the general system of binding norms, and there was no place outside that system from which it could be viewed and analyzed. That's what it meant to say it was based on the law of God.

Today the philosopher doesn't look at law from a standpoint within the human world. He studies it the way a natural scientist might study a pattern of behavior displayed by some species of insect. Hence legal positivism. That way of approaching the matter is of course consistent with the liberal and modernist view of man as basically an ego with no essential qualities or connections to anything outside itself.

I also note in the linked article the bizarre treatment of what the article refers to as "legal moralism," defined as

the view that the law can legitimately be used to prohibit behaviors that conflict with society's collective moral judgments even when those behaviors do not result in physical or psychological harm to others.
The thought seems to be that a society's "collective moral judgments" have nothing to do with the society's functioning. Any relevance they might have can be reduced to possible direct physical or psychological harm to others resulting from violating them. The article observes that some people have claimed (apparently without sufficient ground) that they might be necessary for the society's existence, but apart from that there seems to be no basis for treating such things as relevant to the law.

Does the author of the piece think that collective moral judgments are simply odd psychological phenomena? How does he suppose they arise and get credit? Why does he think people find them so important? Is everybody except the author and his friends simply irrational? Sometimes I think that professionalized thought is necessarily professionalized ignorance. In order to be defined and organized clearly enough for professional standards to apply so much has to be left out that what's left over isn't worth bothering with.

Posted by jkalb | Permalink | Categories: Philosophy

Fri Jun 10 10:22:24 EDT 2005

Functions and "values"

A problem with discussions of social issues today is that they are carried on as if what is at stake were simply attitudes, feelings and "values" — purely subjective stuff — and not social functions. Social function is presumed to be a matter of formal arrangements set up with a goal in mind, business deals or bureaucratic institutions for example, and everything else is thought to be a matter of feelings. As a result, "gay marriage" (for example) becomes a matter of whether you like or don't like homosexuality or homosexuals.

That approach already concedes radical liberalism. In actual human life function and value are intertwined and can't be unravelled. Fundamental human institutions — friendship or marriage or ethnicity or nationality — have functions, but they aren't designed with an end in view and can't be reduced to a way of realizing particular benefits. You help your friend, that's part of what friendship means, but you don't make friends with the intent of maximizing benefits, and your friend is still your friend even if helpfulness is no longer possible because you are both sick, poor and in prison. Nonetheless, if you refused to help each other when occasion offered you wouldn't be friends. If you claimed that you shouldn't have to help because after all some people who don't help each other are still friends you'd be ridiculous. And if you said that friendship can't be a necessary part of social well-being, because it's not a mechanism designed to deliver particular benefits, you'd be out of touch with reality.

Similar sorts of things apply to marriage and other basic human connections. The point of social conservatism is not simply that friendship or families or nationhood or whatnot is something we like, or that we like people who are involved in them and hate people who aren't. It's that those things are needed for social functioning even though they can't be reduced to their functions, that you have to live with them pretty much as they are and can't make them whatever you choose, and that the moral and institutional conditions that make it possible for them to exist and function — in the case of marriage, sexual roles and standards — need to be supported.

Posted by jkalb | Permalink | Categories: Culture and politics

Thu Jun 9 07:28:24 EDT 2005

Channelling history

I use the Nordic Track sometimes, and when I do I watch the History Channel. It's the only TV I watch. The pieces are formulaic, it's hard to know what else the producers could do and churn out enough footage. A lot of them involve war, with lots of things blowing up, or supposed solutions to historical mysteries. Those are the topics for popular historical works that sell, so the producers know what they're doing.

Anyway, the last one I saw has to be one of their top programs ever. It was about Hitler's medical condition, so it was about (1) Hitler, (2) war, with lots of clips of Stalingrad, allied bombings and the siege of Berlin, (3) medical mystery, and (4) scandalous sexual etc. doings involving higher-ups (Hitler may have been an amphetamine addict, he may have suffered from tertiary syphillis, his personal physician was a somewhat doubtful character, etc.). A possible problem with the piece is that they solved the mystery of Hitler's condition too many times. Could Hitler really have been a drug addict AND a tertiary syphilletic AND a Parkinson's sufferer AND poisoned by anti-flatulency medicine that contained strychnine?

Anyway, it was a good piece to watch while doing Nordic Track. An additional benefit was all the color footage of the Russian front and Hitler's home life. Color makes such a huge difference in the immediacy of what you see. Maybe that's one reason it's harder to make a gripping color movie than a gripping black and white movie. With all the immediate reality right in front of you it's harder to appeal to the imagination. No doubt that's an extension of the general principle that it doesn't work to have overbearing physical realities (sex, realistic violence or whatnot) on stage.

Posted by jkalb | Permalink | Categories: Culture and politics

Wed Jun 8 17:01:13 EDT 2005

TVs and firewater

It's said there are genetic differences among peoples depending on the length of their exposure to alcohol. The Mediterranean races, for example, have been living with wine for thousands of years and tolerate it well, with very few drunkards among them. The Northern European races have greater problems, since beer came in later and apparently wasn't available as readily (or that's my impression from reading the Icelandic sagas).

The story makes sense: compare the Jews or Italians with the Irish, Swedes or Russians, and then think about the American Indians. I wonder if something similar will turn out to be true of the things that are so addictive in modern life: junk food, TV, hard drugs, pornography and whatnot. Eventually the welfare state is going to collapse, I think, and the ways of life that support themselves will support themselves and those that don't will run aground. To the extent resistance to some of these things is genetic maybe that will play a role as well. It's all hard to imagine though, since selection of the fittest would require such a different state of society.

Posted by jkalb | Permalink | Categories: Culture and politics

Tue Jun 7 17:59:57 EDT 2005

Avoiding the limitations of the real

People, at least some people, routinely turn down actual goods because once something becomes actual it's limited and so not as good as it might have been or been imagined. Some examples:
  • A woman I know who puts off decisions endlessly while she tries to decide which choice would be the best choice. She also acquires endless amounts of stuff she never uses, presumably because if she didn't have the stuff some possibility would be foreclosed or something might not be as good as it might otherwise have been.
  • The same woman told me she had put off getting contact lenses because as long as she put it off she could tell herself she was going to do something that would greatly improve the way she looked. Once she did the deed, though, the effect was what it was, and she could no longer tell herself that what she saw in the mirror didn't really count.
  • People who habitually choose impossible love objects and so spare themselves the realities and limitations they would have to face if they actually got the girl. One man I know of chose Miss Impossible as his main object and kept stringing several other women along as his secondary girlfriends. The goal seemed to be keeping himself in a sort of perpetual cloud of possibility, and so avoiding all problems, by keeping anything decisive from ever happening.

Posted by jkalb | Permalink | Categories: My life and blog

Sun Jun 5 16:50:59 EDT 2005

Moral panic

I had run into "moral panic" in British publications, as a term used to debunk traditionalist concerns about various initiatives of the cultural Left, and decided to look it up in Wikipedia:
A moral panic is a mass movement based on the perception that some individual or group, frequently a minority group or a subculture, is dangerously deviant and poses a menace to society. These panics are generally fuelled by media coverage of social issues (although semi-spontaneous moral panics do occur), and often include a large element of mass hysteria. A moral panic is specifically framed in terms of morality, and usually expressed as outrage rather than unadulterated fear. Though not always, very often moral panics revolve around issues of sex and sexuality. A widely circulated and new-seeming urban legend is frequently involved.
The idea seems to be that you have a moral panic when people are concerned about a moral issue. Then the issue gets dramatized, personalized and made concrete by some particular situation, and there's a lot of misinformation and tendentious media coverage floating around (as always when people feel strongly about a moral issue). The resulting state of affairs is a "moral panic."

So it sounds like almost any big social movement that gets media support, feminism, antiracism, opposition to the Viet Nam war or whatever, would involve a series of moral panics. The Matthew Shepard situation would be a moral panic. The complaints about racial profiling or burning of black churches would be moral panics. The problem, of course, is that the expression isn't used that way. It's applied only when one doesn't like the general tendency of the outrage and wants people to shut up. Since it's social science jargon it's typically used against people like traditionalists who oppose the institutional interests of social science experts.

So what else is new?

Posted by jkalb | Permalink | Categories: Culture and politics

Sun Jun 5 09:35:30 EDT 2005

Lefties and virtues

In an email discussion a Lefty said:
The religious right believes promiscuity is bad because the Supreme Being and Creator of the Universe doesn't like it, never has and never will. The left believes it's good or bad depending on the consequences on this earth, in this lifetime, and those are going to change over time. The left's morality comes from the ground, not from the sky.
Between liberals, fundies, fideists and bad education that's quite a common view here in America. My response:
If Catholics are part of the religious right then at least one wing of the RR thinks natural law is enough to cover the point. Natural law says promiscuity is at odds with a good life here and now as the good life can be understood without reference to any specific revelation. From that point of view to attempt to deal with something that touches us as closely as sex by a sort of technical and administrative analysis of the kind the Consumer Products Safety Board might apply to microwave emissions seems inhuman and bizarre.

The problem, I think, is that the Left sees man as self-created, at least socially and morally, and on that view things like natural law and virtue make no sense. Instead your good becomes getting what you want, or maybe self-assertion simply as such. That view doesn't work, though. People want something more than getting what they want, they want to take part in a world that makes sense in a way they don't simply make up themselves. Also, you can't bootstrap the self. If you aren't already something to start with (that is, by nature) then you aren't going to be able to create yourself ex nihilo. So your self-assertion will have nothing to assert, and very likely will end up asserting nothingness by destruction.

Posted by jkalb | Permalink | Categories: Philosophy

Sat Jun 4 17:35:41 EDT 2005

Just got shriven

I just went off to confession at one of the local churches. The church is quite a big one, a lot of Hispanics go there and others as well. They have confession one hour a week and I was the only one there. I was there for 10 minutes or so, shortly after the beginning of the hour. The priest, an African, had settled into his place in the booth to read some magazine when I showed up. He seemed as if he could hardly care less what I had to say, which of course was fine with me.

I couldn't help but think though that the church would do better if they seemed to take the sacrament more seriously. By that I mean both the Church in general and that church in particular. It seems obvious that even putting sacramental efficacy aside confesssion is a very useful exercise. Every month or so you think about the things you do and put into words, well enough to discuss it with someone, what some of the problems are. Don't all the self-help things say that defining a problem is halfway to solving it? If that's the belief, and going to confession is part of what you sign on to when you agree to be Catholic, then why don't more people act on it?

Posted by jkalb | Permalink | Categories: Religion

Sat Jun 4 11:06:19 EDT 2005

Why the EU always has to win

My wife noted a recent New York Times piece in which the writer was absolutely unable to conceive that anti-EU types might have a legitimate point. So far as he was concerned, they're just a bunch of blue-collar know-nothings who can't deal with the fact that the world has passed them by. What they need is retraining and re-education.

I didn't read the piece, but the view makes sense from the standpoint of the NYT and its readers. After all, you can only have a legitimate point if:

  • What you want is good. But "good" means giving people what they want, as much, equally, controllably and measurably as possible. Any other definition would be irrational, unscientific and oppressive. But if that's what's good, then it's obvious that what's good depends on getting everything controlled as much as possible by expert administrators and people who read the New York Times (or its European equivalents). With that in mind, how could cutting back on the EU possibly be good?
  • You know something. Knowledge is what experts say, though, and experts are functionaries with appropriate certifications and affiliations who make their living providing information and analysis to government and business to help them attain institutional goals. It follows that if something (like local loyalties) doesn't feed into large-scale formalized ways of getting things done it's not going to constitute knowledge. It's just going to be some weird idea that has to be gotten rid of so things will go on more sensibly.
These points are more serious than they appear. People talk about the EU's "democratic deficit" and what not, but the basic problem is that the people who run it quite literally can't conceive of anything else as rational. The EU is the technological outlook writ large and transferred to politics, so that anything at odds with it is mysticism, ignorance, bigotry or some other variety of non-thought. If all that's true, it's hard to see why anyone should listen if there's a referendum and the people mouth some incomprehensible gibberish like "no." After all, how can you obey something when you can't even make sense of it?

Posted by jkalb | Permalink | Categories: Culture and politics

Fri Jun 3 15:42:04 EDT 2005

Slow going

Taking a bunch of essays and whatnot and turning them into a book is like trying to take a bunch of circus animals apart and putting them back together to make an elephant. It's extremely painstaking and time-consuming.

Posted by jkalb | Permalink | Categories: The written word

Fri Jun 3 10:54:30 EDT 2005

A rant on multiculti v. the Religious Right

Liberal multicultural tolerance is a radical project that claims to be neutral, organized and imposed by people who claim to be professionals who are only there to help you. To listen to Thomas Frank, disagreement with the project is irrational, and totally incomprehensible except as a result of manipulation by dark forces. (He writes for Harper's, so presumably he knows what he's talking about.)

If he's right, then what some preacher in Kansas says to the people who decide to listen to him is a bigger threat to democracy than the amazing consistency on social issues of the views of the presidents of the top 50 universities and the deans of the top 50 law schools. Doubts creep in, though. Why aren't the political views of the preacher's adherents simply a reflection of personal conviction, which is supposed to be a good thing? On the face of it, there is no significant religious discipline in America and very little quasi-ethnic religious solidarity. Everything's voluntary and organizationally fragmented. So where does theocracy come in? And why doesn't the uniformity of what top academics say suggest common interests that lead to support of a common ideology that makes experts and professionals the rulers of the world?

In fact, it seems clear that the secular left has more backing from organized groups with an ax to grind than the religious right does. Why would right-wingers have to rely on informal participatory vehicles like talk radio and the internet if the left/liberals didn't control official opinion-forming institutions? It's not as if what schools, universities, the national press and all mainline Protestant religious leaders say is simply a reflection of the average outlook of the average American or the average net outcome of the particular views of particular people. America is professionalized, and such institutions feel a call to remake the social world. That means their attitudes on social issues are organized, inculcated and made official in various ways.

There's public attitude data suggesting that a quarter of the white population hates and fears fundies as much as the most antisemitic 1% hates and fears Jews. Regardless of the reliability of social science surveys, that corresponds pretty well with my impressions. We can agree that bigotry, divisiveness and social danger are bad things. But where are they found today?

Posted by jkalb | Permalink | Categories: Religion

Fri Jun 3 09:40:57 EDT 2005

"Just this once"

Suppose someone wants to lose weight and is trying to decide whether to have one more spoonful of ice cream. It's obvious that one more spoonful won't make any difference to the overall goal of a healthy weight. So why not just go ahead? Wouldn't it be irrational self-punishment not to? It's not an answer to say that there will be a problem if he always has an additional spoonful, because that's not the question being considered. The issue is whether to have this spoonful.

The problem's the same as the sorites paradox: if one grain of wheat isn't a heap (Gk. soros), and two grains aren't either, and if a single additional grain never makes something that isn't a heap into a heap (it's hard to see how it could), then how could you ever get a heap of grain by piling up one grain after another?

Another example is procrastination. If you don't feel like doing something there's never a reason to do it just yet, you could always wait until after you look at Drudge or whatever. So it seems that to act reasonably -- in a way that makes sense overall -- always requires an element of irrationality in your particular actions.

Posted by jkalb | Permalink | Categories: My life and blog

Fri Jun 3 07:59:06 EDT 2005

Beer for breakfast!

I felt like it, so I'm doing it. Up to some point in the 19th c. it was the ordinary English breakfast drink even among the nobs, at least that's what I think G. K. Chesterton said.

Posted by jkalb | Permalink | Categories: My life and blog

Mon May 2 13:29:59 EDT 2005

Getting started

The reason for this weblog is a huge writing project that I have ahead of me, a book dealing with vast and contentious issues. That kind of project becomes a way of life, and I want a place where I can say things that don't have to be so serious and responsible and impersonal. I've been a blogger for years, but my other blog has been a place for stuff like what's going into my book. Putting more stuff there hardly seems like a break. I hope this can be a bit more expressive and fun!

Posted by jkalb | Permalink | Categories: My life and blog