Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 9, 2011

Backing a Candidate Can Be An Act of Faith

The implosion of the Gingrich campaign is a reminder that a myriad of factors go into making a strong candidate and a strong president. There is a tendency sometimes to reduce it simply to where a person stands on the issues. (Do they score eight out of 10 on a checklist or 10 out of 10? Have they cast “heretical” votes?) But Gingrich reminds us that one’s temperament, character, and self-discipline matter too, and those qualities are often harder to discern. One also needs to take into account the passions and convictions of an individual. For example, candidates can say they’re in favor of certain positions — say, entitlement reform — but that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily fight hard for them if they’re elected.

Arguably having a deep, sustained commitment when it comes to the most important issues facing the nation is more important than being on the “right” side of a long list of issues. And how do we measure a candidate’s political courage? Are they persuasive and can they mobilize public opinion? Is their judgment about people right? Are they intellectually curious and open to empirical arguments? Do they have a coherent political philosophy? Have they shown the ability to anticipate the arc of events? Do they have a record of achievement? Et cetera.

This is obviously not an easy thing to sort through, and different times require different strengths. Add to that the fact that certain strengths (someone who is a quick and firm decision-maker) can become weaknesses (stubbornness and rigidity) depending on circumstances. Persistence in the service of a wise and prudential decision is a virtue; persistence in the service of an unwise and foolish decision is a vice.

In the end, most of us rally behind political figures based on intellectual reasons and on intuitions, on things we can see and things that are almost impossible to know. That’s worth bearing in mind, I think, as some people try to apply easy-to-apply tests to different candidates. Some conservatives may believe, for example, that Sarah Palin is rock solid when it comes to her stand on the issues. Others might argue (as I would) that even if that were the case, she is deficient in several other critical areas. And that might tip the scales against her and in favor of someone else.

There’s no way, of course, to know all of these things in advance. Supporting a candidate and electing a president is, at least in part, an act of trust and an act of faith. And it’s worth acknowledging up front that politics, like most things in life, can’t be reduced to simple tests.

The implosion of the Gingrich campaign is a reminder that a myriad of factors go into making a strong candidate and a strong president. There is a tendency sometimes to reduce it simply to where a person stands on the issues. (Do they score eight out of 10 on a checklist or 10 out of 10? Have they cast “heretical” votes?) But Gingrich reminds us that one’s temperament, character, and self-discipline matter too, and those qualities are often harder to discern. One also needs to take into account the passions and convictions of an individual. For example, candidates can say they’re in favor of certain positions — say, entitlement reform — but that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily fight hard for them if they’re elected.

Arguably having a deep, sustained commitment when it comes to the most important issues facing the nation is more important than being on the “right” side of a long list of issues. And how do we measure a candidate’s political courage? Are they persuasive and can they mobilize public opinion? Is their judgment about people right? Are they intellectually curious and open to empirical arguments? Do they have a coherent political philosophy? Have they shown the ability to anticipate the arc of events? Do they have a record of achievement? Et cetera.

This is obviously not an easy thing to sort through, and different times require different strengths. Add to that the fact that certain strengths (someone who is a quick and firm decision-maker) can become weaknesses (stubbornness and rigidity) depending on circumstances. Persistence in the service of a wise and prudential decision is a virtue; persistence in the service of an unwise and foolish decision is a vice.

In the end, most of us rally behind political figures based on intellectual reasons and on intuitions, on things we can see and things that are almost impossible to know. That’s worth bearing in mind, I think, as some people try to apply easy-to-apply tests to different candidates. Some conservatives may believe, for example, that Sarah Palin is rock solid when it comes to her stand on the issues. Others might argue (as I would) that even if that were the case, she is deficient in several other critical areas. And that might tip the scales against her and in favor of someone else.

There’s no way, of course, to know all of these things in advance. Supporting a candidate and electing a president is, at least in part, an act of trust and an act of faith. And it’s worth acknowledging up front that politics, like most things in life, can’t be reduced to simple tests.

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RE: Things Change, Including the National Voter Profile

I agree with John that Republicans had better pay attention to the nation’s changing demographics. As he wrote, “A Republican party that continues to talk and act in ways that alienate Hispanics nationally is a party that is dooming itself.”

And that is why, while I haven’t the faintest idea who will win the presidential nomination, I’ll give you good odds on who the VP nomination will go to: Marco Rubio.

He’s young, he’s attractive, he’s very smart, he’s adroit on his feet in debate, he’s from the crucial state of Florida, where’s he’s popular. And he’s Hispanic.

As they say, what’s not to like?

I agree with John that Republicans had better pay attention to the nation’s changing demographics. As he wrote, “A Republican party that continues to talk and act in ways that alienate Hispanics nationally is a party that is dooming itself.”

And that is why, while I haven’t the faintest idea who will win the presidential nomination, I’ll give you good odds on who the VP nomination will go to: Marco Rubio.

He’s young, he’s attractive, he’s very smart, he’s adroit on his feet in debate, he’s from the crucial state of Florida, where’s he’s popular. And he’s Hispanic.

As they say, what’s not to like?

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Arab-American Group Bans Pro-Democracy Musician from its Conference

Politico reported this morning that the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a supposed Washington “civil rights group” that spends much of its energy opposing Israel, has barred a well-known Syrian singer from its upcoming conference. According to the musician, the ADC opposed a pro-Syrian democracy song that he planned to sing at the event:

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a longtime Washington civil rights group, repeatedly asked the German-born Syrian composer and pianist Malek Jandali to reconsider his piece choice, Jandali told POLITICO. When he refused, Jandali was told today that he couldn’t perform at this weekend’s event. … [O]ther observers speculated that the song’s implications might have troubled the Syrian government, which is in the midst of a bloody crackdown on its citizens, or its allies.

And in case you’re thinking it’s a bit far-fetched that the Syrian government would have significant influence with the ADC, Politico further notes that, “the chairman of the ADC board, gynecologist Safa Rifka, is aligned with Syria’s ambassador to the United States Imad Moustapha. In a blog post, Moustapha called Rifka one of his three ‘best friends’ in Washington D.C.”

But even though the ADC has a troubling history of radical anti-Israel behavior (including honoring Helen Thomas after her notorious anti-Semitic remarks), it still has a respectable amount of clout in Washington.

For example, the group works with the State Department, Homeland Security and other government agencies. And according to the ADC’s website, Reps. Darrell Issa and John Conyers still sit on its advisory board. So far, both congressmen have neglected to respond to requests for comment on the issue. Which raises an interesting question: what exactly would the already highly-controversial ADC have to do that would make it too toxic for these politicians to associate with?

Politico reported this morning that the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a supposed Washington “civil rights group” that spends much of its energy opposing Israel, has barred a well-known Syrian singer from its upcoming conference. According to the musician, the ADC opposed a pro-Syrian democracy song that he planned to sing at the event:

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a longtime Washington civil rights group, repeatedly asked the German-born Syrian composer and pianist Malek Jandali to reconsider his piece choice, Jandali told POLITICO. When he refused, Jandali was told today that he couldn’t perform at this weekend’s event. … [O]ther observers speculated that the song’s implications might have troubled the Syrian government, which is in the midst of a bloody crackdown on its citizens, or its allies.

And in case you’re thinking it’s a bit far-fetched that the Syrian government would have significant influence with the ADC, Politico further notes that, “the chairman of the ADC board, gynecologist Safa Rifka, is aligned with Syria’s ambassador to the United States Imad Moustapha. In a blog post, Moustapha called Rifka one of his three ‘best friends’ in Washington D.C.”

But even though the ADC has a troubling history of radical anti-Israel behavior (including honoring Helen Thomas after her notorious anti-Semitic remarks), it still has a respectable amount of clout in Washington.

For example, the group works with the State Department, Homeland Security and other government agencies. And according to the ADC’s website, Reps. Darrell Issa and John Conyers still sit on its advisory board. So far, both congressmen have neglected to respond to requests for comment on the issue. Which raises an interesting question: what exactly would the already highly-controversial ADC have to do that would make it too toxic for these politicians to associate with?

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Things Change, Including the National Voter Profile

The news that Newt Gingrich’s senior staff has resigned en masse is the final stake in a campaign that made no sense long before it began, and I would wager we’ll be hearing tales that will confirm the worst suppositions of political professionals about Gingrich and about his closest adviser, his wife Callista. But in the end, politics is not personal, it’s business, and what this indicates to some degree is that shifts are underway all over the place as the race against Barack Obama appears more winnable.This is why late entries are not only possible, but likely, and that there is no way on earth to know at this moment who will prevail (although Jon Huntsman’s ignore-New-Hampshire strategy seems to indicate he’s one we can cross off the list). One key point, though. Mike Murphy, one of the most astute political strategists in America, has a piece in Time magazine about the alteration of the national voting demographic. Republicans, he points out sagely, cannot run a campaign as though the electorate were the same one as in 1980:

Here are the numbers: in 1980, white voters cast 88% of the total presidential vote; by 2008, the percentage had shrunk to 74%. Which is why, though George W. Bush in 2000 and John McCain in 2008 both won 55% of the white vote, McCain lost by 7 points and Bush essentially tied Al Gore.

A Republican party that continues to talk and act in ways that alienate Hispanics nationally is a party that is dooming itself.

The news that Newt Gingrich’s senior staff has resigned en masse is the final stake in a campaign that made no sense long before it began, and I would wager we’ll be hearing tales that will confirm the worst suppositions of political professionals about Gingrich and about his closest adviser, his wife Callista. But in the end, politics is not personal, it’s business, and what this indicates to some degree is that shifts are underway all over the place as the race against Barack Obama appears more winnable.This is why late entries are not only possible, but likely, and that there is no way on earth to know at this moment who will prevail (although Jon Huntsman’s ignore-New-Hampshire strategy seems to indicate he’s one we can cross off the list). One key point, though. Mike Murphy, one of the most astute political strategists in America, has a piece in Time magazine about the alteration of the national voting demographic. Republicans, he points out sagely, cannot run a campaign as though the electorate were the same one as in 1980:

Here are the numbers: in 1980, white voters cast 88% of the total presidential vote; by 2008, the percentage had shrunk to 74%. Which is why, though George W. Bush in 2000 and John McCain in 2008 both won 55% of the white vote, McCain lost by 7 points and Bush essentially tied Al Gore.

A Republican party that continues to talk and act in ways that alienate Hispanics nationally is a party that is dooming itself.

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75 Percent of American Voters Support Voter ID Law

A new Rasmussen poll out today found that 75 percent of respondents support a law requiring voters to show ID at the polls. Or, as DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz recently put it, a law that would “drag us all the way back to the Jim Crow” era.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 75% of Likely U.S. Voters believe voters should be required to show photo identification such as a driver’s license before being allowed to vote. Just 18% disagree and oppose such a requirement.

Eighty-five percent (85%) of Republicans support a photo ID requirement at the polls, as do 77% of voters not affiliated with either major party and 63% of Democrats. But then support for such a law is high across virtually all demographic groups.

Wasserman Schultz walked back her hyperbole slightly earlier this week, conceding that “Jim Crow was the wrong analogy to use.” But she still claims that requirements to show ID at the polls – which are designed to cut down on election fraud – are racially discriminatory.

“I don’t regret calling attention to the efforts in a number of states with Republican dominated legislatures, including Florida, to restrict access to the ballot box for all kinds of voters, but particularly young voters, African Americans and Hispanic Americans,” she told CNN on Monday.

But Wasserman Schultz’s allegations seem to be out of sync with the rest of the country. According to the same Rasmussen poll, voters think that the possibility of illegal voting is a much bigger problem than preventing legitimate voters from casting a ballot, by a 48% to 29% margin. And after the rampant ACORN-initiated voter fraud during recent elections, who can blame them?

A new Rasmussen poll out today found that 75 percent of respondents support a law requiring voters to show ID at the polls. Or, as DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz recently put it, a law that would “drag us all the way back to the Jim Crow” era.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 75% of Likely U.S. Voters believe voters should be required to show photo identification such as a driver’s license before being allowed to vote. Just 18% disagree and oppose such a requirement.

Eighty-five percent (85%) of Republicans support a photo ID requirement at the polls, as do 77% of voters not affiliated with either major party and 63% of Democrats. But then support for such a law is high across virtually all demographic groups.

Wasserman Schultz walked back her hyperbole slightly earlier this week, conceding that “Jim Crow was the wrong analogy to use.” But she still claims that requirements to show ID at the polls – which are designed to cut down on election fraud – are racially discriminatory.

“I don’t regret calling attention to the efforts in a number of states with Republican dominated legislatures, including Florida, to restrict access to the ballot box for all kinds of voters, but particularly young voters, African Americans and Hispanic Americans,” she told CNN on Monday.

But Wasserman Schultz’s allegations seem to be out of sync with the rest of the country. According to the same Rasmussen poll, voters think that the possibility of illegal voting is a much bigger problem than preventing legitimate voters from casting a ballot, by a 48% to 29% margin. And after the rampant ACORN-initiated voter fraud during recent elections, who can blame them?

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Egyptian Terror Leader Gives ‘Friendly’ Advice to Obama

Nageh Ibrahim, the leader of an Egyptian Islamist terrorist group, had some interesting words of counsel for his “friend” President Obama, at the end of Eli Lake’s great Washington Times article on Egyptian prisoner escapees today:

Mr. Ibrahim said, however, that he had no ill will toward the United States or President Obama. He said that he was urging Mr. Obama to release Abdel Rahman from prison so he can return to Egypt. “I am giving advice to our friend Obama, release the blind sheik for your own benefit. No, this is not a threat, it’s advice from one friend to another friend. This will save America’s reputation from the cynicism of George W. Bush,” he said.

It’s been three years since Bush left office, and terrorists still can’t stop using left-wing talking points against him.

Nageh Ibrahim, the leader of an Egyptian Islamist terrorist group, had some interesting words of counsel for his “friend” President Obama, at the end of Eli Lake’s great Washington Times article on Egyptian prisoner escapees today:

Mr. Ibrahim said, however, that he had no ill will toward the United States or President Obama. He said that he was urging Mr. Obama to release Abdel Rahman from prison so he can return to Egypt. “I am giving advice to our friend Obama, release the blind sheik for your own benefit. No, this is not a threat, it’s advice from one friend to another friend. This will save America’s reputation from the cynicism of George W. Bush,” he said.

It’s been three years since Bush left office, and terrorists still can’t stop using left-wing talking points against him.

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The Hand That Feeds … the Wrong Mouths … too Much?

Sen. John F. Kerry’s staff at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has just issued a valuable report that examines U.S. civilian aid programs in Afghanistan. They note that the State Department and the US Agency for International Development have spent $18.8 billion there since 2001 and are currently spending $320 million a month—figures which exclude the substantial amounts being spent by the U.S. military on security assistance programs and other counterinsurgency projects.

What are we getting for our money? As the report notes: “The evidence that stabilization programs promote stability in Afghanistan is limited. Some research suggests the opposite, and development best practices question the efficacy of using aid as a stabilization tool over the long run.” The staff are right to note that “foreign aid, when misspent, can fuel corruption, distort labor and goods markets, undermine the host government’s ability to exert control over resources, and contribute to insecurity.”

Afghanistan has encountered all those problems. Too often aid has gone down a rat hole, with most of the benefits accruing to government contractors—and to various crooks. Even the Taliban have often benefited by extorting protection money from U.S.-funded aid projects. Even when aid reaches its intended target, it can result in distorting incentives—for example, Afghan professionals often can make more by working as drivers for international NGOs than as civil servants for the government of Afghanistan.

This is not an argument for eliminating U.S. aid but it is an argument for monitoring it more carefully—and for eliminating unnecessary programs.

Too often the U.S. government in both Iraq and Afghanistan has operated on the gratitude theory of counterinsurgency: that if we build great stuff for the populace, they will reject the insurgents. The problem is, people will not embrace the government if it is dangerous for them to do so. Providing security is job No. 1 for the U.S. in Afghanistan. Aid is valuable only to the extent that it directly supports that objective. Many development projects do not, and should be stopped.

Sen. John F. Kerry’s staff at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has just issued a valuable report that examines U.S. civilian aid programs in Afghanistan. They note that the State Department and the US Agency for International Development have spent $18.8 billion there since 2001 and are currently spending $320 million a month—figures which exclude the substantial amounts being spent by the U.S. military on security assistance programs and other counterinsurgency projects.

What are we getting for our money? As the report notes: “The evidence that stabilization programs promote stability in Afghanistan is limited. Some research suggests the opposite, and development best practices question the efficacy of using aid as a stabilization tool over the long run.” The staff are right to note that “foreign aid, when misspent, can fuel corruption, distort labor and goods markets, undermine the host government’s ability to exert control over resources, and contribute to insecurity.”

Afghanistan has encountered all those problems. Too often aid has gone down a rat hole, with most of the benefits accruing to government contractors—and to various crooks. Even the Taliban have often benefited by extorting protection money from U.S.-funded aid projects. Even when aid reaches its intended target, it can result in distorting incentives—for example, Afghan professionals often can make more by working as drivers for international NGOs than as civil servants for the government of Afghanistan.

This is not an argument for eliminating U.S. aid but it is an argument for monitoring it more carefully—and for eliminating unnecessary programs.

Too often the U.S. government in both Iraq and Afghanistan has operated on the gratitude theory of counterinsurgency: that if we build great stuff for the populace, they will reject the insurgents. The problem is, people will not embrace the government if it is dangerous for them to do so. Providing security is job No. 1 for the U.S. in Afghanistan. Aid is valuable only to the extent that it directly supports that objective. Many development projects do not, and should be stopped.

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On Neuroscience, Free Will, Morality, and Language

I want to add two fairly verbose points to Peter’s post about how contemporary neuroscience very much does not close off debates about free will, no matter how many times or how condescendingly Sam Harris insists otherwise.

You don’t need to read any of that — in fact, you don’t need to know anything about the debate — to know that Harris is way too far out on a limb. Anyone who writes “there is simply no description of mental and physical causation that allows for [free will]” either hasn’t read enough or is being intellectually dishonest (see point #2 for more on this). Google Scholar shows 600,000+ articles that mention “free will” published in the last 18 months. The Wikipedia entry on the Neuroscience of Free Will has 16 sections and subsections and concludes that “there is no consensus among researchers about the significance of findings, their meaning, or what conclusions may be drawn.” Does it really sound right that all of these people just didn’t get the memo that the debate was self-evidently settled, as Harris snidely insists?

As for the content…

(1) It’s hard to escape the impression that Harris is engaging in philosophical debates the contours and stakes of which he doesn’t quite understand. He sometimes seems to confuse different technical concepts of “free will” and “rationality.” Argumentatively the confusion helps him, allowing him to dismiss one theory on the basis of convincing flaws in a related but distinct theory. But it makes it much harder to untangle what he’s claiming, why he thinks he’s so undeniably right, and how he thinks everyone else just hasn’t been paying enough attention.

Let’s separate out two different theories about why human motivation might be “opaque” to us. Read More

I want to add two fairly verbose points to Peter’s post about how contemporary neuroscience very much does not close off debates about free will, no matter how many times or how condescendingly Sam Harris insists otherwise.

You don’t need to read any of that — in fact, you don’t need to know anything about the debate — to know that Harris is way too far out on a limb. Anyone who writes “there is simply no description of mental and physical causation that allows for [free will]” either hasn’t read enough or is being intellectually dishonest (see point #2 for more on this). Google Scholar shows 600,000+ articles that mention “free will” published in the last 18 months. The Wikipedia entry on the Neuroscience of Free Will has 16 sections and subsections and concludes that “there is no consensus among researchers about the significance of findings, their meaning, or what conclusions may be drawn.” Does it really sound right that all of these people just didn’t get the memo that the debate was self-evidently settled, as Harris snidely insists?

As for the content…

(1) It’s hard to escape the impression that Harris is engaging in philosophical debates the contours and stakes of which he doesn’t quite understand. He sometimes seems to confuse different technical concepts of “free will” and “rationality.” Argumentatively the confusion helps him, allowing him to dismiss one theory on the basis of convincing flaws in a related but distinct theory. But it makes it much harder to untangle what he’s claiming, why he thinks he’s so undeniably right, and how he thinks everyone else just hasn’t been paying enough attention.

Let’s separate out two different theories about why human motivation might be “opaque” to us.

The first theory is the psychoanalytic division between the conscious and the unconscious mind. We are motivated by desires and beliefs that we can’t admit to ourselves we have. Psychoanalytic structures like the id and ego obviously can’t get physically mapped on to parts of the brain, which makes psychoanalysis an incomplete theory, but it’s not a bad approximation for a lot of behavior. Psychoanalytic theory and “the talking cure” are almost totally dead in psychology departments — a June 2008 study in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association described psychoanalysis as “desiccated and dead” — but practicing psychotherapists still often have Freudian sensibilities about things like reaction formations. Psychoanalytic theory also helps explain why persuasion can work even when you know how it’s working on you, as in when you still kind of tear up at awkwardly schmaltzy movies. It also accounts for the counter-intuitive finding that introspection is often counterproductive, e.g., the more people work on their cognitive biases the more biased they’re likely to objectively become, and why people are so stunningly, horrifically bad at predicting their own future behavior.

Still, psychoanalysis isn’t really the theory that Harris is talking about. He sometimes throws around pop psychoanalytic language when it rhetorically suits him but it’s not really what he’s after. But, for the sake of argument, it’s worth noting just how many different empirical and theoretical accounts of the mind converge on the idea that we don’t really have access to all our motivations. Harris isn’t totally wrong. He’s just at the beginning of a debate he thinks he’s ending (more on that in point #2 below).

In any case, the distinction that Harris relies on is a second one, the neurological division between the mind and the brain. According to Harris, the physical brain generates everything you do and then your conscious mind tries to catch up and figure out what’s going on. In the process your mind makes you think “you” are the one who sent the orders to your brain, when in fact it was the other way around. There’s an intimidating amount of empirical evidence backing this account, enough that plenty of very smart neuroscientists think it’s flat out true (although Peter’s post runs down plenty who don’t). Harris’s book is filled with expert quotes and experiments, many demonstrating that people’s bodies begin acting before those people “decide” to act.

Some of that sensibility has filtered down into folk wisdom. When lifestyle blogs advise people to smile because it will make them feel better — advice backed by experiments, by the by — that’s more or less a mind/brain issue. Very roughly, the mind sees that you’re smiling so it figures that you must be happy.

Harris’s problem isn’t the neuroscience, an area in which he’s quite literally a certified expert (although it can’t be repeated enough that he provides only half the story; see Peter’s post for the other half). His problem is how he thinks neuroscientific findings map on cleanly to debates over morality and free will. His view of what goes into making us moral or immoral is a kind of first-brush intuitive outline of a theory, developed outside of centuries-old debates over distinctions that make a difference, terms that turned out to be confounded, etc.

Human agency and morality extend beyond individual behavior, and into the relationships that we construct and the institutions that we build. Not only does some of what we produce have emergent characteristics — something that already creates problems for Harris’s simplistic “neuron fires / human acts / no one’s responsible” model — but we can even build things that later affect how we act. We can, together, in the context of collective deliberation, design things that incline us to be more or less moral. That remains true even if our individual “decisions” to participate were in a sense unwilled, and if our future “decisions” will come entirely from our brains. Even if each of us cannot be more or less moral, we can together construct more or less moral institutions.

Where this really becomes problematic for Harris is when the institution that we’re building is language itself. Here things get a little bit complicated and precision becomes kind of important. Even if Harris is right that 100 percent of behavior comes from hardwired subprograms activated in the brain, the subprograms that get activated are influenced (technically, they’re mediated) by language. To take a straightforward example: the people in Texas who felt “we” had been attacked on 9/11 were responding to hardwired impulses involving “us vs. them,” “my territory vs. not my territory,” etc. How did this happen? It can’t be that we evolved on the African Savanah to feel kinship to biologically unrelated animals beyond the horizon. Instead, what happened is that the constructed concepts of nationhood managed to trigger fairly primitive impulses in the brain. The brain may not interact with the world through language, but most of the things that hit the brain have to pass through a linguistic screen.

Our ability to tweak and design language, in other words, gives us the ability to shape how our brains shape us. We can coarsen or purify language, we can clarify or confuse concepts, and so on. We don’t need experimental evidence to show that there’s a give and take between the mind and the brain. It has to be that way, simply based on what we know about how language and meaning get in between our senses and our brains. To his credit, Harris certainly recognizes the centrality of meaning, but he doesn’t seem to follow its implications all the way downstream. If he did, he’d have a much harder time pretending that the people who treat free will as a live debate just haven’t thought about it enough.

Which brings us to…

(2) For a guy making categorical statements about the irrelevance of debates stretching back to the classical age, Harris’s style of thought on free will is striking. Some of his blogged excerpts read like the musings of a stoner trying to sound deep in an undergraduate metaphysics seminar: “Why did I use the term ‘inscrutable’ in the previous sentence? I must confess that I do not know. Was I free to do otherwise? What could such a claim possibly mean?”

Harris oscillates between these skeptical poses, meant to convey the impression of intellectual struggle, and absolutist pronouncements about the free will debate.

The entire act is an echo of Harris’s New Atheist jeremiad The End of Faith, which reads like an undergraduate trying to cut corners in an introductory epistemology seminar. Harris insisted that a society’s belief in God is exactly like any other belief, such that when the proposition “God exists” is disproved, it dissolves as opposed to getting replaced by something equally central but more sinister. Not to step on Harris’s rhetorical shtick, but there is no robust modern theory of persuasion — none — where that’s the case. Thought channeled through language simply doesn’t work that way. Bayesian neural nets sometimes do. Humans don’t. That’s one of many reasons we have trouble getting neural nets to learn natural languages like humans, and getting humans to follow through on probabilistic judgments like neural nets.

All too often Harris acts as if he’s closed an argument when all he’s done is stumble into the fundamental difficulties that set the tenor of contemporary debates. This is a veritable tic with some journalists/public intellectuals who insist that their opponents simply haven’t thought enough about an issue. To take a mundane example, liberal journalists often write as if conservatives oppose Keynesian policies because they just haven’t heard about the multiplier effect. What’s actually going on is that modern debates are precisely over the magnitude of the multiplier effect, with arguments on both sides that liberal journalists haven’t gotten to either because they haven’t been reading long enough or because they don’t read anyone outside their echo chamber.

To take an example closer to Harris, those styling themselves as “New Atheists” often write as if there are self-evident contradictions in religious traditions that should make supernatural beliefs impossible. That there are still people who have supernatural beliefs is ipso facto evidence that they haven’t been exposed to those contradictions. Christopher Hitchens is particularly grating in this regard, which is why he got epically dismantled by Ross Douthat.

So it’s not totally surprising that Harris indulges in strutting, dismissive sentences like “I don’t know of anyone who believes that these animals [chimps, dogs, and mice] have free will.” That’s true in one sense and aggravatingly, typically misleading in another. Dogs and mice and probably chimps can’t symbolize, so they don’t have free will in the same philosophical and moral sense as humans. But they certainly might engage in something approaching motivated willful action, and how that relates to the limits or our free will is very much a live debate. Slavoj Zizek certainly thinks that the question of a mice’s “will” might help unlock how humans experience everything from biomedical implants to ideology.

Zizek’s probably overstating the case, and Harris is probably closer to right than wrong, but it’s just weird to hear a critic boast how he doesn’t “know of anyone who” disagrees with him. It makes him sound like a layman dipping his toes into a debate the implications of which experts have been teasing out for centuries. It’s kind of obnoxious.

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