As Mideast peace talks recommence…

Here is something I wrote for the bloggingheadstv fora about ten weeks ago, just after the flotilla incident.  The post attracted a certain amount of praise, so I am putting it here also, as I probably should have done at the outset.

The blockade is not just collective punishment. It is collective punishment that may or may not be intended to elicit a particular reaction in the residents of Gaza, namely to oust Hamas, to take collective action to eliminate military and terrorist actions against Israel, and to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

But there are two possibilities here. One is that there is no such intention to elicit reactions, and in this case Israel’s announced desire for peace with the Palestinians and a two-state solution is disingenuous. The other possibility is that it is sincere, but misguided, because who, in his right mind, thinks that the Gazan population is going to be worn down to such an extent by Israel’s blockade and occupation without occupation that the ostensible desired political goals would be achieved? No people with even a minority of committed political actors who wish to retain their human dignity is going to give into this sort of blackmail, and, as I pointed out previously, the Jews of Europe ought to know this as well, or better, than any people. So the policy is either stupid and misguided, or it is dishonest. And my guess is that it is a mixture of these two things, it’s both at once, but that is small comfort to those of us who really want a two-state solution (please, Wonderment, don’t chime in here on cue, I know your views).

However, at the current moment the balance of power in Israel is with those for whom the stated goals of the occupation without occupation are disingenuous. But I’m not too sure, in this instance, what the proponents of the policy are really after. They are going to grind people down militarily until what, exactly? I don’t think even they know. Maybe it’s just a way of temporizing until the world is so overwhelmed by its other incalculably great problems that this festering sore just becomes a minor annoyance. And in this sense, the problem is analogous to America’s historical race problem, because clearly in the early 1960’s there were lots of white Southerners who thought the problem would eventually go away, that there was a legal/military solution that would be in favor of separate but equal.

The Israelis are on the wrong side of history here. Everyone seems to know this, except for the Israelis and the Americans. But the Americans will come to know it, they are coming to know it now.

So as we throw up our hands in despair, and the Eli’s of the world demand that Israel have a serious and reputable partner for peace on the Palestinian side which recognizes Israel’s right to survive as a Jewish state in the region,
the Heathers of the world just reply that, yes, it would be nice to eliminate the most radical elements on the Palestinian side and to be left only with those who are realistic and will accept the continued existence of the Jewish state in their midst, run by descendants of the people who stole their land, but that’s not going to happen, so Israel had better find another way of addressing the problem than the military way.

This problem has been complicated infinitely by Israel’s settlement policy. Every goddam person in the world knows this. Eli talks about the painful steps Israel took to dismantle some settlements in Gaza. That’s not enough, Eli, not nearly enough. The USA has sat by and watched Israel annex ever more land on the West Bank, it has a declared policy of saying that the settlements are either illegal or “unhelpful,” but in the end it does nothing. So if the USA wants peace there, and a two-state solution, it has to try to force Israel to take yet more painful steps, and either start dismantling settlements on the West Bank, instead of expanding them, or make it clear that some of those settlements are coming down in a final disposition of things. It’s that simple. Yes, that will be difficult politically, but tough.

Anyone who doubts the veracity of what I am saying can listen to a recent speech given by James Baker III to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, at foratv or on youtube. This is James Baker we’re talking about, not Noam Chomsky.

But hey, what does James Baker know, when compared with Victor Davis Hanson, or Rush Limbaugh, or Eli fucking Lake?

Israel’s strategic error has been to think that it could expand territorially and win its political struggle with the Palestinians militarily. At first, the expansion of settlements was probably thought of as a bargaining chip. Settlements would come down in a final settlement. The problem is that the policy got away from the Israelis, so that now dismantling West Bank settlements is, in fact, going to be extremely painful and difficult for Israel politically. What Israel ought to have done, and must still try to do, is to make it clear that it wants to make amends, that it will accept a final disposition that the EU, for example, would regard as just. It must regain the moral high ground in order to marginalize the Palestinian extremists. It cannot do this by offering a cantonized hodge-podge of territories to the Palestinians, that’s simply impossible. Israel’s entire problem has been that it has come to be dominated by the “peace through strength” crowd, every concession made in advance is regarded as a debilitating sign of weakness. It is true that peace through weakness is not a good strategy. Here, the problem is that peace through strength has been misinterpreted, and Israel cannot possibly win its struggle for survival if it continues on the path it is on. It is simply too small, and will be too isolated in the world, nuclear arsenal or not. The best parallel here is, in fact, South Africa.


Conversation about aging and mortality

The following recorded conversation about aging and mortality resulted from the friendships that formed in an online chat group ostensibly devoted to the NBA professional basketball team, the Golden State Warriors.  So this is something that has come from my participation in the online experience.

I have always lived under the shadow of death, because my father died at a young age very suddenly.  This summer has imposed the reality of mortality yet more upon my consciousness.  The kind of conversation that occurs here should be much more common than it is.

The recording I am citing begins with an excursion into astrology.  Those who are not astrologically disposed can skip straight to the interview segment.  The broadcast may not be available at no cost much longer.

California’s same-sex marriage decision

I have now read Judge Walker’s decision in California (, and I think I conceded far too much in a recent online colloquy with someone in the blogginheadstv fora who was opposing same-sex marriage, primarily on the grounds that heterosexual marriage has been the preferred means for achieving the state’s interest in perpetuating or increasing its population.

According to evidence offered in the case, 18% of same-sex couples in California are raising children, a much higher percentage than I had imagined.  The male couple plaintiffs say that they want to be married prior to starting a family.

According to evidence offered by plaintiffs, there is a body of social scientific work that demonstrates that children raised by same-sex couples are as well-adjusted as those raised by heterosexual couples.  The State of CA offered no evidence on this question, and the proponents of Proposition 8 offered only evidence which compared childred raised by two parents of the opposite sex with children raised by single parents or divorced parents, but in no case with children raised by two parents of the same sex.

On the question of whether California’s domestic partnership classification satisfies the desires of same-sex couples to marry, the judge is unequivocal in saying that it does not.  The domestic partnership classification is simply an invidious form of discrimination.

On the question of whether the discrimination felt by gays and lesbians is overstated, not just in the past, but recently (as the entire Proposition 8 campaign apparently demonstrated – I was not in California to witness it), the judge was equally unequivocal in rejecting claims that the extent and degree of such discrimination are overstated, at least in the US.

In his legal conclusions, Walker states that, “Proponents did not, however, advance any reason why the government may use sexual orientation as a proxy for fertility or why the government may need to take into account fertility when legislating.”

No evidence was offered to the effect that same-sex marriage reduces the rate of marriage or the fertility rate among heterosexual couples.  I am myself somewhat skeptical about this lack of evidence, because we know that people have children within heterosexual couples and subsequently become gay or lesbian.  Presumably, some subset of gays and lesbians will eschew the earlier stage of heterosexual relationships entirely, and the bearing of children within them, if same-sex marriage is available to them.  On the other hand, their hypothetical heterosexual partners might find other partners with whom to procreate, and some lesbian couples will bear biological children, so the effect of same-sex marriage on the fertility rate could be minimal.  Looking at the matter of a nation’s fertility rate in an a priori way, an argument can be made that any effect of the introduction of same-sex marriage on a nation’s fertility would be nil or very slight.  In principle, the fertility rate could even increase, for the reasons noted.  The real danger here, the imagined one, is that heterosexuals will be converted to the “gay lifestyle”, that people who would otherwise be expected to marry heterosexually and have children will not, because of the introduction of same-sex marriage.  Another possible danger is that the divorce rate among same-sex couples would exceed that of heterosexual couples and thus further undermine the claim of marriage to contribute to the stability of society and of the way in which the state’s interest in perpetuating its population expresses itself.  But the opposite result is also equally conceivable, that the divorce rate among married same-sex couples will be lower than that among heterosexual couples.  In fact, I would expect this to be the case, at least for some initial period.

The tenor of the decision lends credence to my hypothesis that more children would be adopted, in the aggregate, if same-sex marriage were available.   Plaintiffs, including the City and County of San Francisco, also offered a lot of economic evidence that tends to demonstrate advantages to the state of allowing same-sex marriage.  Reduction of crime is not offered as such a reason, however.

I find it virtually inconceivable that Scalia, Thomas, Alito, or Roberts will vote in favor of same-sex marriage.   Kennedy may be more in play than I have estimated.  It will be interesting to see whether the conservatives emphasize the fertility criterion, and, if they do, how they do so.

A recent CNN poll cited by Frank Rich in his NYT column of August 15, 2010, found that 52% of Americans favor a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

Judge Walker is very clear, however, that the question before us is not one that can be subjected to plebiscite, but is one of fundamental constitutional rights that can have nothing to do with elections or polls or the absolute number of citizens whose fundamental rights are being denied.  So two things are true for my interlocutor, that the majority opposes same-sex marriage and that there is no widespread discrimination against gays and lesbians.  But the first true thing may not be true and would not be relevant, even if it were true, and the second supposedly true thing is false.

Having read the decision, I am more confident than I had been that none of the four liberal Supreme Court justices will vote against gay marriage.  Therefore, it really is up to Kennedy, in my view.   I don’t know how the conservative justices will frame their opposition, but I am sure that they will find a way.

Academic philosophers and morality

I wrote the following in response to a conversation at bloggingheadstv, in which a professor of philosophy at U.C. Riverside discusses his empirical research into the behavior of philosophy professors who specialize in ethics, morality, or political philosophy.

Having known a substantial number of academic philosophers engaged in ethical/moral inquiry, or in political philosophy, I would not expect them to be any “better” or worse than other people.   There are some ethical/moral “philosophers” I have known in whose behavior I could be greatly disappointed, but in most cases things do not even rise to this level.  They’re just people doing a job.  How and why they are doing the job they are doing is usually something of a mystery, but it does not appear to be because of an overwhelming desire for justice.

My problem with the studies undertaken by Prof.  Schwitzgebel of U.C. Riverside is that they focus on trivial questions.  The charitable giving question is less trivial than the others, and Peter Singer has paved the way there for establishing quantitative principles of giving and, apparently, sticking to them.  Obviously, not every academic philosopher will agree with Singer’s premises or conclusions and so will not feel bound by them.  But there was a good review of all this in a recent “New York Review of Books,” and I am certainly glad that Singer is out there, doing what he does.

This conversation was undermined, in my opinion, by what seemed to be a willing refusal to confront what the professionalization of philosophy implies, and what the professionalization of philosophy as an exercise in logic or applied logic implies.  More interesting than these studies would be well-designed psychological studies about the kinds of people who become academic ethicists in the US, about what their moral thinking was like before they became professional academic philosophers.

First, one has to know what is just in a given ethically or morally troubling situation, which is very difficult.  Then, one has to have the courage, or conviction, or character to do what justice demands.  Those are two very different things, although Socrates appears to have claimed that they were not different, that knowledge is virtue, and vice versa.  A philosopher might well be good at establishing a moral principle and then not be good at all at implementing it, not because he can’t see how the principle applies to a situation, but simply due to a character defect.  There is nothing surprising here.

But I don’t see why one would expect people who are working in an industry, an industry that rewards finding arguments for things and expressing those arguments concisely, elegantly, sometimes with wit, an industry that rewards apparent novelty considerably more than it rewards humanitarianism, for lack of a better short description, and does not care about unreturned library books or voting behavior, or even effectiveness in teaching, why would one expect such an industry to produce just or humanitarian behavior more than some other line of work, say the bar, or waste management?