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Archive for January, 2010

David, Meet Brit

January 28, 2010 3 comments

Tiger Woods has all but disappeared from the news in recent weeks, displaced by stories about health care legislation, late night comedy, and the earthquake in Haiti. Before the golfer dropped out of the headlines, however, Fox News’ Brit Hume went on television to offer Tiger some advice:

Tiger Woods will recover as a golfer. Whether he can recover as a person, I think is a very open question, and it’s a tragic situation with him. He’s lost his family, it’s not clear to me whether he’ll be able to have a relationship with his children, but the Tiger Woods that emerges once the news value dies out of this scandal, the extent to which he can recover, it seems to me, depends on his faith. He’s said to be a Buddhist, I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith, so my message to Tiger would be “Tiger, turn to the Christian faith, and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.

Hume’s comment spread quickly, and responses were negative. Ezra Klein, a Washington Post blogger, found the statement “offensive”:

Imagine if a Jewish commentator had taken to national television to say that a popular Christian adulterer should really consider converting, because “the Christian faith’s emphasis on forgiveness provides an ethical get-out-of-jail-free card that contributes to these sorts of transgressions.” Or if a Muslim suggested that a Protestant cheater should consider a conversion to a “rules-based religion. Christianity, sadly, erred when it focused on man’s relationship with God rather than God’s laws for man.”

In either case, said commentator would resign within a day or two. But Hume will certainly survive this controversy. Remember that next time someone complains that we’ve lost our identity as a Christian nation. Frankly, we haven’t lost nearly enough of it.

Taking Klein’s invitation to imagine, I don’t think any of these statements, including Hume’s, are offensive. There may be some sense in which these statements would be inappropriate because they came from a news journalist, but Klein more appropriately asks us to consider the statements as being those of “commentator[s].” Commentators engage in editorializing– there is little doubt that this is what happens on cable news networks— especially those individuals not in traditional newscaster roles.

As long as these statements (Hume’s and those Klein proposed) are genuine, meaning that the speaker is honest, meaningful, and desirous of the outcome behind the means prescribed, we should not find them objectionable. We should not be surprised that Hume, (presumably) a Christian, thinks that the tenets of his religion offer a positive, redemptive path for Tiger. If Hume is genuine in offering these observations, why should we reject him? His critique of Buddhism may ring uninformed, but in general, one ought to be able to speak frankly about other religions, and to the point here, Hume’s critics have seized on the core of his statement, not his remarks about Buddhism. This same line of thinking applies with equal force to Klein’s imagined commentators. In the public forum, honesty should guide our discourse, whether we’re talking about policy, religion, or sports.

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Categories: Current, Discourse, Poll, Sports

Phonetically Speaking: Dead Language Edition

January 23, 2010 10 comments

Iceland is fascinating for many reasons– the geographically isolated country is geologically, ecologically, and culturally unique– and I am fortunate to have spent time exploring the land of the ice. One of Iceland’s many notable features is its language. Icelandic is a living language, meaning that Icelanders create new words for new things, rather than acquiesce in the name the new thing bears. Put another way, there is an Icelandic word for everything; the language adopts no foreign words.

English is not a living language and so provides an illustrative counterexample. Americans enjoy foreign cuisine, and when they refer to one of these non-domestic delights, they do so by using the food’s original name. They happily call a Mexican favorite “taco,” rather than some newly created American word meaning “folded flat bread sandwich.” By contrast, Icelandic roughly mirrors the latter approach.*

As the comparison with Icelandic demonstrates, English speakers adopt foreign words into their vocabularies as often as they learn about new things that originated in cultures of a different tongue. Sometimes these words come from languages that do not use the English alphabet. These words require a new spelling using English alphabet letters. For example, the word “photography” comes from Greek roots (photos (ϕοτοσ), light, and graphos (γραοσ), writing). Another example is the word “giraffe,” which etymologists trace through French to Arabic, and possibly to an African dialect.

My question: why do English speakers denote the “f” sound with a written “f” for words from some languages and a written “ph” for words from others? Because phonetics likely is the primary guide in the described written translation process, a difference in pronunciation probably explains most spelling decisions. In America, at least, “f” and “ph” have the same pronunciation, however, so if there is a reason for the difference, it must be something else. Is there an explanation for this particular spelling decision?

* This may not be exactly correct, but it is my basic understanding of Icelandic linguistics. If there are any Icelanders reading this, they should feel free to correct me in the comment section.

Categories: International, Language

On the Road from Jerusalem to Jericho: Question-Framing, Action, and Compassion

January 19, 2010 2 comments

As mentioned earlier, the presentation or framing of a question shapes subsequent discourse and action. Setting the terms of debate, whether in a lawsuit or some other form of dispute resolution, often is itself a matter of dispute because of the determinative power the question carries. Even casual, friendly conversations need to be organized around a common point to be functional. When consequences heighten the stakes of a conversation’s outcome, the framing of the central point– the question presented– becomes critical and contentious.

We have already touched on the importance of action generally, see supra here and here, and in the specific context of compassion, see supra here (particularly the video of the Swami’s presentation).

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Junior knew the value of question-framing, the importance of action to compassion, and the relationship between the two:

One day a man came to Jesus, and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters in life. At points, he wanted to trick Jesus and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew, and through this, throw him off base. Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy, but with him, administering first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother. Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to church meetings—an ecclesiastical gathering—and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that “One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.” And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to…Jericho…to organize a “Jericho Road Improvement Association.” That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effort.

But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that these men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as a setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about…1,200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about 2,200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.

Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Address at Mason Temple, Memphis, TN: I’ve Been to the Mountaintop (Apr. 3, 1968) (excerpt), available at http://www.afscme.org/about/1549.cfm. (Assassins killed King on April 4, 1968.)

Categories: Action, Compassion

Privatize…Everything?

January 15, 2010 1 comment

The last post elicited discussion about the difference between public and private institutions and whether there is a basis for individuals to distinguish between the two when considering abuses of power and authority. In terms of the provision of goods and services in society, some commenters and many other people continue to argue for privatization. Simply stated, the notion behind calls for privatization is that private entities can better provide goods and services– perhaps medical treatment, education, roads, or security– than the government.

Should there be limits to privatization? Most Americans, either through an express push for privatization or through actions designed to avoid a variety of costs, have argued for the privatization of the administration of justice under the law for decades. A vast majority of Americans avoid some or all of the process the public judicial system (i.e., courts of law) offers, preferring party-driven contractual resolutions to the unpredictability and transactional costs of courts.

David Souter was known as a private justice, but it is likely that he sees justice as a public good.

By some estimates, as few as one percent of lawsuits filed actually go to trial. Most resolve their disputes through what might broadly be understood as contractual means. These forms of alternative dispute resolution include settlement, mediation, and arbitration, as well as ex ante agreements requiring dispute resolution by means other than traditional lawsuits in court.

Private initiative has not been the sole driver of competition with the judiciary. The first version of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, issued in 1938, did not mention settlement, although many cases were settling even then. Today, by contrast, the Rules direct judges to encourage out-of-court resolution of suits. In certain situations, judges may be required or requested to evaluate and approve proposed settlements and enforce settlements against post-settlement breaches of the agreement. A relevant, common feature of these contractual agreements is privacy. In contrast to a trial, rarely are the terms of settlement available to the public. This can include the amount of money for which the parties settled, the facts of the dispute, or even the fact that there was a dispute at all.

If courts are nothing more than venues for dispute resolution, a public service the government offers to its citizens (and non-citizens), then competition from private substitutes probably is not of much concern. Not everyone agrees with this vision of the judiciary, however. Judith Resnik and David Luban both argue that trials are public goods. According to them, we have reason to worry about the rise of contractual, private dispute resolution. Resnik sees value in trials because they produce precedent. The judge’s ruling in a particular case applies to everyone, not just the parties to the case. Private, contractual dispute resolution deprives the public of precedent, which clarifies the law and its applicability to different factual circumstances, and which serves to develop the common law. Luban’s vision is broader, couched in civic republican terminology. He argues that trials are an opportunity for expression and development of societal values. Private dispute resolution deprives the public of both of these public goods.

Product liability class actions provide another, more practical concern. If the defendant-product manufacturer resolves the dispute with a group of injured plaintiffs privately, the allegedly dangerous product likely will continue to be available on the market, and potential customers likely will not be aware of the possibility of injury associated with that product.

Should Americans be concerned with their overwhelming preference for privatized justice? Are courts something more than dispute resolution service centers? Is contractual dispute resolution worth the cost of less judicial precedent? Are courts valid and valuable enunciators and developers of social and political values?

Categories: Legal, Privatize

The Thin Line Between Libertarianism and Anarchy

January 6, 2010 12 comments

Before 2007, most Americans probably did not know what a libertarian was, or where one fit along the familiar political spectrum. Vague notions of liberty, radicalism, and Montana may have come to mind. During the 2008 presidential campaign, however, Representative Ron Paul, a Texas Republican, brought libertarian ideals to the fore of American consciousness. It was Paul, not Senator Hilary Clinton, Governor Mitt Romney, or Senator Barack Obama who set the campaign’s fundraising records with his $6 million Money Bomb. Paul attracted further attention when he disagreed with other Republican candidates about the War in Iraq. Listening to his rhetoric, laced with allusions to the Constitution and references to “small government” and “non-interventionist foreign policy,” people began to gain a substantive understanding of libertarianism, and many found themselves agreeing with a line of political thinking that fits neatly neither on the Left nor Right.

Although people, particularly academics, tend to haggle over what exactly it means to be a libertarian, the concept of a “small government” is a necessary element. A small government, in this sense, is one that does little in the way of taxation, spending, and regulation. Advocates of small government often frame their position in terms of a government of enumerated, and therefore limited, powers. The idea comes from the early defenders of the Constitution during the state ratification debates, and it was their reason for opposing a bill of rights. Excepting the amendments, the Constitution contains mostly grants of power. The idea was and is that government could exercise those specifically enumerated powers and no others. The short story of American history is that government practice has not supported this view.

The constitutional basis does not seem to be the only reason libertarians want small government: they tend to think it’s good policy, too. Libertarians value a private sphere, within which government has no place. The expanse of this private sphere is directly proportional to the magnitude of freedom and liberty in one’s life. Liberties are not safe, and freedom cannot exist where government regulates.

If personal liberty is prized above all else, is government the only enemy of freedom or merely the most visible?

Libertarians often call for privatization. They believe that the private sector can provide more efficiently many or all of the services the public sector endeavors to provide. In the quest for liberty, though, is the public-private distinction the most worthwhile one to draw?

Those Duke boys undoubtedly had an appetite for destruction, but it would be hard to call Luke and Bo (and Daisy) anarchists.

I am not an expert on anarchy, but I understand it to be less concerned with this public-private distinction than libertarianism. Libertarians worry about domestic surveillance and national identification programs that put personal information in the government’s hands, but do not appear to have any problem with surrendering this information to private entities. Anarchists, it seems, do not make such a distinction. In theory, they would be just as likely to resist a federal identification program as they would giving similar information to a private corporation, like Google. Google offers a wide set of services free of financial cost, but with high information costs. Users give to Google the full contents of their emails, chats, and internet searches. Those who use Google’s web browser, Chrome, offer up the entirety of their online activity. It seems likely that even non-libertarians would think twice before granting the FBI full access to this information, but many Americans– perhaps a majority of internet users– use some of Google’s services every day without second thought.

Google isn’t the only example of private (non-governmental) gathering of personal information, of course. Private schools, financial institutions, athletic clubs, and grocery stores collect identifying information all the time and almost certainly without significant resistance. Even video stores ask for a substantial amount of personal information before issuing a membership card.

The question for libertarians is whether there is any basis for opposing perceived privacy invasions by government but not by corporations and other private entities. Indeed, one might think that there is more reason to be concerned with the information we give to Google and Visa than with that the Department of Homeland Security or the Internal Revenue Service collects; after all, libertarians do believe in democracy.

The libertarian response might have something to do with the voluntary nature of private engagement and the perceived involuntary nature of public information-gathering. For example, individuals can choose to rent movies from Blockbuster or not. If they don’t want to give the weird amount of information the store requests before customers can rent a video, they don’t have to patronize that store. On the other side, people perceive less participatory choice when it comes to governmental solicitation of information.

I am not sure that voluntariness is enough for libertarians to justify their public-private distinction. If there are reasons they don’t want to give personal information to the government, wouldn’t many of those reasons apply with equal force to private entities (or even counsel, as suggested above, a preference for public institutions over private ones)? Is there any solid foothold that allows libertarians to preserve this distinction and avoid pushing their views to their logical conclusion and down the slippery slope to anarchy?

Categories: Corporations, Privatize Tags: