Friday, January 30, 2009

Steele on conspiracy theories

OK, one more post on conspiracy theories, and then I’m done with them for a while. Here is an important article by David Ramsay Steele on the JFK assassination, which emphasizes two points I made in a previous post: that conspiracy theories of the sort I have been criticizing unmoor themselves from any rational foundation by making the conspirators so powerful that all the relevant evidence becomes untrustworthy; and that the “just raising questions” pretense of conspiracy theorists keeps them from seeing that the answers implied by their loaded “questions” are so fantastically implausible that no one who thinks them through very carefully could take them seriously for a moment. Steele’s points apply mutatis mutandis to 9/11 inside job theories, which are vastly less plausible than JFK conspiracy theories in any case.

Steele, incidentally, is the author of the highly recommended From Marx to Mises, and also of Atheism Explained, a better book on atheism than anything written by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, or Hitchens. (Still totally wrong, mind you, and in particular woefully inadequate in its treatment of Aquinas. But not dishonest and incompetent like the other books. Steele and I had a very gentlemanly radio debate on atheism last year.)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Another conspiracy?

Caught The China Syndrome, the 1979 nuclear power plant disaster movie, on TV tonight. A character in the movie says that a nuclear meltdown could result in an area the size of Pennsylvania becoming permanently uninhabitable. And the filmmakers clearly had an agenda: to damage the nuclear power industry. Do you know what happened just twelve days after the movie was released? The famous Three Mile Island nuclear power plant disaster. Do you know where Three Mile Island is? Pennsylvania. Do you know what happened after the accident? The movie took off at the box office. And construction of new nuclear power plants effectively ceased.

Coincidence? Put on your thinking caps, people! Don't be sheeple!

Was the Three Mile Island accident engineered by Columbia Pictures (the film’s distributor) and its allies in the anti-nuclear movement so as to generate publicity for the movie? Was the reference to “Pennsylvania” an inadvertent slip by a screenwriter or actor having foreknowledge of the event? In the same year, Columbia Pictures co-produced the Steven Spielberg flop 1941 with Universal Studios. Universal was at the time controlled by mogul Lew Wasserman, well-known as a patron of the Democratic Party. Jimmy Carter, the president at the time and a Democrat, visited the site of the Three Mile Island disaster, thereby lending the power of his office to fostering the perception that the accident was a major one which ought to raise concerns about nuclear power. Carter’s daughter Amy once famously advised her father that the control of nuclear arms was the most pressing issue in the election of 1980 -- one year after the movie and the accident.

Again, could this all just be coincidence?

Hey, I’m just asking questions here. Surely more research is needed?

The answer, of course, is yes, it is just a coincidence. And no, no further "research" is needed. Such “eyebrow-raising coincidences” are a dime a dozen, and are utterly meaningless. People overly impressed with Marvin Bush’s “links” to Larry Silverstein or Prescott Bush’s “links” to Hitler take note.

People predisposed to believe that there is a leftist screenwriter lurking under every bed will, of course, no doubt see in this something more than coincidence – just as someone predisposed to look for Zionists or neo-cons under every bed will see all sorts of strange things in other entirely innocent patterns. But the “six degrees of separation” phenomenon has a name because it is real, and what it shows is that there are all sorts of patterns in social affairs that tell us… precisely nothing of interest.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The trouble with conspiracy theories

People who think the U.S. government was complicit in 9/11 or in the JFK assassination sometimes complain that those who dismiss them as “conspiracy theorists” are guilty of inconsistency. For don’t the defenders of the “official story” behind 9/11 themselves believe in a conspiracy, namely one masterminded by Osama bin Laden? Don’t they acknowledge the existence of conspiracies like Watergate, as well as everyday garden variety criminal conspiracies?

The objection is superficial. Critics of the best known “conspiracy theories” don’t deny the possibility of conspiracies per se. Rather they deny the possibility, or at least the plausibility, of conspiracies of the scale of those posited by 9/11 and JFK assassination skeptics. One reason for this has to do with considerations about the nature of modern bureaucracies, especially governmental ones. They are notoriously sclerotic and risk-averse, structurally incapable of implementing any decision without reams of paperwork and committee oversight, and dominated by ass-covering careerists concerned above all with job security. The personnel who comprise them largely preexist and outlast the particular administrations that are voted in and out every few years, and have interests and attitudes that often conflict with those of the politicians they temporarily serve. Like the rest of society, they are staffed by individuals with wildly divergent worldviews that are difficult to harmonize. The lack of market incentives and the power of public employee unions make them extremely inefficient. And so forth. All of this makes the chances of organizing diverse reaches of the bureaucracy (just the right set of people spread across the Army, the Air Force, the FBI, the CIA, the FAA, etc. – not to mention within private firms having their own bureaucracies and diversity of corporate and individual interests) in a short period of time (e.g. the months between Bush’s inauguration and 9/11) to carry out a plot and cover-up of such staggering complexity, close to nil.

Another reason has to do with the nature of liberal democratic societies, and the way in which they differ from totalitarian societies like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, whose leaders did conspire to do great evil. The point is not that the leaders of liberal democratic societies are not capable of great evil. Of course they are. But they do not, and cannot, commit evils in the same way that totalitarian leaders do. There are both structural and sociological reasons for this. The structural reasons have to do with the adversarial, checks-and-balances nature of liberal democratic polities, which make it extremely difficult for any faction or interest to impose its agenda by force on the others. In the American context, the courts, the legislature, and the executive branch are all jealous of their power, even when controlled by the same party. The Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, CIA, FBI, etc. are all also notoriously often at odds with one another, as are the various departments within the executive branch. The same is true of private interests – the press, corporations, universities, and the like. All must work through public legal channels, and when they try to do otherwise they risk exposure from competing interests. Unlike traditional societies, in which the various elements of society agree (if only because they’ve never known any alternative) to subordinate their interests to a common end (e.g. a religious end), and totalitarian societies, which openly and brutally force every element to subordinate their interests to a common end (e.g. a utopian or dystopian political end), liberal democratic societies eschew any common end in the interests of allowing each individual and faction to pursue their own often conflicting ends as far as possible.

Now I do not claim that liberal democratic societies in fact perfectly realize this ideal of eschewing any common end. Far from it. The liberal democratic ethos inevitably becomes an end in itself, and all factions that refuse to incorporate it are ultimately pushed to the margins or even persecuted. (John Rawls’s so-called “political liberalism” is nothing more and nothing less than an attempt to rationalize this “soft totalitarianism.”) But that does not affect my point. The imposition of the liberal ethos may involve an occasional bold power grab on the part of one faction (as Roe v. Wade did in the case of the Supreme Court). It may involve attempts culturally to marginalize the opposition (as in the universities and entertainment industry). But the other factions know about these efforts – they are hardly carried out unobserved in smoke-filled rooms – and never roll over and play dead, as they would in a totalitarian society. Liberal ideologues must work through the very adversarial institutions that their ideology calls for, which is why these alleged arch-democrats are constantly complaining about the choices their fellow citizens democratically make (electing Bush, voting for Prop 8, opposing gun control, supporting capital punishment, etc.). For them to impose their egalitarian ethos on everyone else through force of law takes generations, and a series of public battles, before the other side is gradually ground down. The evil that results is typically the result of a slowly and gradually evolving public consensus to do, or at least to give in to, evil – not a sudden and secret conspiratorial act.

So, structurally, there is just no plausible way for an “inside job” conspiracy of the JFK assassination or 9/11 type to work. There is simply not enough harmony between the different institutions that would have to be involved, either of a natural sort or the type imposed by force. And this brings me to the sociological point that the liberal ethos itself, precisely because it tends so deeply to permeate the thinking even of the professedly conservative elements of liberal democratic societies, makes a conspiracy of the sort in question impossible to carry out. “Freedom,” “tolerance,” “democracy,” “majority rule,” and the like are as much the watchwords of contemporary American conservatives as they are of American liberals. Indeed, contemporary conservatives tend to defend their own positions precisely in these terms, and are uncomfortable with any suggestion that there might be something in conservatism inconsistent with them. The good side of this is that contemporary American conservatives will have absolutely no truck with the likes of Tim McVeigh, and will condemn right-wing political violence as loudly as any liberal would. The bad side is that some of them also seem willing to tolerate almost any evil as long as there is a consensus in favor of it and it is done legally. (Same-sex marriage? Well, the courts imposed it without voter approval. But what if the voters do someday approve it? Will conservatives then decide that it’s OK after all? Some of them already have.)

The point, in any event, is that just as the structure of a liberal democratic society differs from that of totalitarian states, so too does the ethos of its leaders. They generally like to do their evil in legal and political ways, through demagoguery, getting evil laws passed, destroying reputations, and other generally bloodless means. Occasionally they’ll resort also to ballot-box stuffing, and maybe the odd piece of union thuggery or police brutality. But outright murder is extremely rare, and usually folded into some legitimate context so as to make it seem justifiable (e.g. My Lai or the firebombing of Dresden, atrocities committed in the course of otherwise just wars). Do ideologically motivated sociopaths like General Jack D. Ripper of Dr. Strangelove fame sometimes exist even in liberal democratic societies? Sure. But hundreds or even just dozens of Jack D. Rippers, occupying just the right positions at just the right times in the executive branch, the FBI, the FAA, the NYPD, the FDNY, the Air Force, American Airlines, United Airlines, Larry Silverstein’s office, CNN, NBC, Fox News, The New York Times, etc. etc., never accidentally tipping off hostile co-workers or fatally screwing up in other ways? All happily risking their careers and reputations, indeed maybe even their lives, in the interests of the Zionist cause, or Big Oil, or whatever? Not a chance. Indeed, the very idea is ludicrous.

Of course, some conspiracy theorists will insist that the adversarial, checks-and-balances nature of liberal democracies and their tolerant ethos are themselves just part of the illusion created by the conspirators. Somehow, even the fact that conspiracy theorists are perfectly free to publish their books, organize rallies, etc. in a way they would not for a moment be able to do in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia is nevertheless just part of a more subtle and diabolical form of police state.

Here we’ve gone through the looking glass indeed, and come to a third and more philosophically interesting problem with conspiracy theories, one that can be understood on the basis of an analogy with philosophical skepticism and its differences from ordinary skepticism. Doubting whether you really saw your cousin walking across the bridge, or just a lookalike, can be perfectly reasonable. Doubting whether cousins or bridges really exist in the first place – maybe you’re only dreaming they exist, or maybe there’s a Cartesian demon deceiving you, or maybe you’re trapped in The Matrix – is not reasonable. It only seems reasonable when one is beholden to a misguided theory of knowledge, a theory that effectively undermines the possibility of any knowledge whatsoever. The difference here is sometimes described as a difference between "local" doubt and "global" doubt. Local doubts arise on the basis of other beliefs taken to be secure. You know that you are nearsighted or that your glasses are dirty, so you doubt whether you really saw your cousin. Global doubts have a tendency to undermine all beliefs, or at least all beliefs within a certain domain. You know that your senses have sometimes deceived you about some things, and being a philosopher you start to wonder whether they are always deceiving you about everything.

Notice that unlike local doubt, global doubt tends to undermine even the evidence that led to the doubt in the first place. Doubting that you really saw your cousin doesn’t lead you to think that your belief that you are nearsighted or that your glasses are dirty might also be false. But suppose your belief that you sometimes have been fooled by visual illusions leads you to doubt your senses in general. You came to believe that your perceptual experience of a bent stick in the water was illusory because you also believed that your experience of seeing the stick as straight when removed from the water was not illusory. But you end up with the view that maybe that experience, and all experience, is illusory after all. You came to believe that you might be dreaming right now because in the past you’ve had vivid dreams from which you woke up. You end up with the view that maybe even the experience of waking up was itself a dream, so that you’ve never really been awake at all. Again, the doubt tends to swallow up even the evidence that led to the doubt. (Philosophers like J. L. Austin have suggested that this shows that philosophical skepticism is not even conceptually coherent, but we needn’t commit ourselves to that claim to make the point that it does at least tend to undermine the very evidence that leads to it.)

I suggest that the distinction between ordinary, everyday conspiracies (among mobsters, or Watergate conspirators, or whatever) and vast conspiracies of the sort alleged by 9/11 and JFK assassination skeptics, parallels the scenarios described by commonsense or “local” forms of doubt and philosophical or “global” forms of doubt, respectively. We know that the former sorts of conspiracies occur because we trust the sources that tell us about them – news accounts, history books, reports issued by government commissions, eyewitnesses, and so forth. And there is nothing in the nature of those conspiracies that would lead us to doubt these sources. But conspiracies of the latter sort, if they were real, would undermine all such sources. And yet it is only through such sources that conspiracy theorists defend their theories in the first place. They point to isolated statements from this or that history book or government document (the Warren Report, say), to this or that allegedly anomalous claim made in a newspaper story or by an eyewitness, and build their case on a collection of such sources. But the conspiracy they posit is one so vast that they end up claiming that all such sources are suspect wherever they conflict with the conspiracy theory. Indeed, even some sources apparently supportive of the conspiracy theory are sometimes suspected of being plants subtly insinuated by the conspirators themselves, so that they might later be discredited, thereby discrediting conspiracy theorists generally. Overall, the history books, news sources, government commissions, and eyewitnesses are all taken to be in some way subject to the power of the conspirators (out of sympathy, or because of threats, or because the sources are themselves being lied to). Nothing is certain. But in that case the grounds for believing in the conspiracy in the first place are themselves uncertain. At the very least, the decision to accept some source claims and not others inevitably becomes arbitrary and question-begging, driven by belief in the conspiracy rather than providing independent support for believing in it.

Now, while “global” forms of skepticism might be fun to think about and pose interesting philosophical puzzles, it would hardly be rational to think for a moment that they might be true. Seriously to wonder whether one is a “brain in a vat,” or trapped in The Matrix, or always asleep and dreaming – not as a fantasy, not in the course of a late-night dorm room bull session, but as a live option – would be lunacy. Certainly it would make almost any further rational thought nearly impossible, because it would strip almost any inference of any rational foundation. But something similar seems to be true of conspiracy theories of the sort in question. The reason their adherents often seem to others to be paranoid and delusional is because they are committed to an epistemological position which inherently tends toward paranoia and delusion, just as a serious belief in Cartesian demons or omnipotent matrix-building mad scientists or supercomputers would. Their skepticism about the social order is so radical that it precludes the possibility of coming to any stable or justified beliefs about the social order.

Am I saying that news organizations, government commissions, and the like never lie? Of course not. I am saying that it is at the very least improbable in the extreme that they do lie or even could lie on the vast scale and in the manner in which conspiracy theorists say they do, and that it is hard to see how the belief that they do so could ever be rationally justified. But what about government agencies and news sources in totalitarian countries? Doesn’t the fact of their existence refute this claim of mine? Not at all. For citizens in totalitarian countries generally do not trust these sources in the first place. Indeed, they often treat them as something of a joke, and though they might believe some of what they are told by these sources, they are also constantly seeking out more reliable alternative sources from outside. Moreover, these citizens already know full well that their governments are doing horrible things, and many of these things are done openly anyway. Hence, we don’t have in this case anything close to a parallel to what conspiracy theorists claim happens in liberal democracies: evil things done by governments on a massive scale, of which the general population has no inkling because they generally trust the news sources and government agencies from which they get their information, and where these sources and agencies purport to be, and are generally perceived to be, independent.

On such general epistemological and social-scientific grounds, then, I maintain that conspiracy theories of the sort in question are so a priori improbable that they are not worth taking seriously. That does not mean that the specific empirical claims made by conspiracy theorists are never significant. In my college days I read a great deal about the JFK assassination case, and was even convinced for a time that there was a conspiracy involving the government. While I no longer believe that – I believe that Oswald killed Kennedy, and acted alone – I concede that there are certain pieces of evidence (e.g. the backward movement of Kennedy’s head, Ruby’s assassination of Oswald) that might lead a reasonable person who hasn’t investigated the case very deeply to doubt the “official story.” (I’ve also examined a fair amount of the 9/11 conspiracy theory material, though I must say that in this case this has only made the whole idea seem to me even more preposterous than it did initially, if that is possible. They don’t make conspiracy theorists like they used to.) But in my judgment, in the vast majority of cases the alleged “evidence” of falsehood in the “official story” is nothing of the kind, and where it is it can easily and most plausibly be accounted for in terms of the sort of bureaucratic ass-covering, incompetence, or just honest error that is common to investigations in general (whether by police, insurance companies, or whatever).

If one is going to claim more than this, then just as in these other sorts of investigations, one needs to provide some plausible alternative explanation. The “I’m just raising questions” shtick is not intellectually or morally serious, certainly not when you’re accusing people of mass murder. And given the considerations raised above, it is hard to see how conspiracy theories of the sort in question could ever be plausible alternatives.

Why, then, do people fall for these theories? Largely out of simple intellectual error. But what makes someone susceptible of this particular kind of error? That is a question I have addressed before, in a TCS Daily article which suggested that the answer has something to do with the (false) post-Enlightenment notion that science and critical thinking are of their nature in the business of unmasking received ideas, popular opinion, and common sense in general. Some readers of that article asked a good question: How does this suggestion account for the existence of conspiracy theories on the Right, which generally sees itself as upholding received ideas and common sense?

I would make two points in response. First, consider some standard examples of such right-wing conspiracy theories, such as those involving Freemasons or Communists. These can be understood in two ways. On one interpretation, the idea would be that Freemasons, Communists, or whomever, given their ideological commitments, have actively sought to get themselves and their sympathizers into positions of power and influence so as to promote and implement their ideas, and that they have done so subtly and by using duplicity. But there is nothing in this idea that conflicts with anything I’ve been saying. In particular, there is nothing in it that entails that any single massively complex event was engineered in detail by a small elite manipulating, with precision, dozens or hundreds of actors across a bewildering variety of conflicting institutions and agencies in the context of a society that is to all appearances reasonably open, all the while skillfully covering their tracks to hide their actions to all but the most devoted conspiracy theory adepts. Rather, it just involves like-minded people working systematically and deviously to further their common interests in a general way over the course of a long period of time – a phenomenon that is well-known from everyday life, and does not require belief in any radical gap between appearance and reality in the social and political worlds. In short, it does not involve belief in any “conspiracy theory” of the specific sort I’ve been criticizing.

The alternative interpretation would be that Freemasons, Communists, and the like have done more than this, that they have indeed conspired to produce individual events of the sort in question, in just the manner in question – that they conspired across national boundaries and bureaucracies to engineer World War I, say, or various stock market crashes, or whatever. Here the right-wing sort of conspiracy theory does indeed run into the problems I have been identifying, and is as a consequence just as irrational as its left-wing counterparts. And this brings me to my second point. As I said earlier, given the hegemony of liberal, post-Enlightenment ideas in modern Western society, even many conservatives can find themselves taking some of them for granted. Ironically, this sometimes includes even those conservatives most self-consciously hostile to liberal and Enlightenment ideas, namely paleoconservatives (the sort, not coincidentally, who are most likely to be drawn to conspiracy theories). And it does so, even more ironically, precisely because of their awareness of this hegemony. Because they quite understandably feel besieged on all sides by modernity, and utterly shut out of its ruling institutions, they are tempted by at least one modern, post-Enlightenment, left-wing illusion, and the most beguiling one at that: that all authority is a manifestation of a smothering, omnipotent malevolence. Like the Marxist or anarchist, they find themselves shaking their fist at the entire social order as nothing more than a mask for hidden forces of evil, and even the most absurd conspiracy theories come to seem to them to be a priori plausible.

The overall result is something eerily like the old Gnostic heresy, on which the apparently benign world of our experience is really the creation of an evil demiurge, and where this dark and hidden truth is known only to those few insiders acquainted with a special gnosis. (Into the bargain, the demiurge was often identified by the Gnostics with the God of the Jews.) For “world” read modern Western society, for “demiurge” read Freemasons, Communists, or Zionists, and for “gnosis” read the vast labyrinth of conspiracy theory literature. Alternatively, it is like the Cartesian fantasy of a malin genie who deceives us with a world of appearances that masks a hidden reality. Certainly these similarities should give any traditionalist pause; and the conspiracy theory mindset is in any event a very odd thing to try to combine with the traditional Christian anti-Gnostic emphasis on the public and open nature of truth, and the Aristotelian-Thomistic rejection of any radical Cartesian appearance/reality distinction in favor of moderation and common sense.

Anyway, if the question is how, given that (as I argue in the TCS Daily article) conspiracy theories are essentially an artifact of certain key modern, post-Enlightenment attitudes and assumptions, right-wingers could ever accept them, the answer is that here, as elsewhere, conservatives and traditionalists are too often not conservative and traditional enough.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Behe blackballed at Borders?

Notwithstanding my deep philosophical disagreements with ID theorists (familiar to readers of The Last Superstition), I do respect many of them and condemn the thuggish treatment they’ve gotten at the hands of certain Darwinians. So while browsing at the local Borders last night, I was dismayed to see that the esteemed Michael Behe’s books seem to have been relegated to what someone or other apparently regards as an intellectual ghetto, or at least a residence less exalted than “science.” Both Darwin’s Black Box and The Edge of Evolution had “Biology” printed on the category section of the price sticker, but this had been crossed out and replaced by hand with “Western Phil.” And that is where I found poor Prof. Behe – hanging out somewhere between Alain Badiou and George Berkeley. Having checked the Borders website, I can confirm that this was no prank pulled by some Darwinist customer. Behe has been unnaturally selected out of the “Biology” category; indeed, he isn’t even welcome in “General Science.”

Of course, from my point of view this is an upgrade, since metaphysics is the queen of the sciences. But I hardly think it was meant that way. An ideological statement by the Borders higher-ups? Just askin’.

(I remember years ago finding in another Borders that every copy they had of John Lott’s More Guns, Less Crime, a trade paperback, had been mispriced at a jaw-dropping $120 – not hand-written either, but “officially” printed out on the price sticker. An attempt on the part of some crazed leftist employee to discourage purchase of said book? Or just a glitch? Again, just askin’.)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Purely academic

In his recent book Save the World on Your Own Time, Stanley Fish tells his fellow academics to shut up and teach, and stop politicizing the classroom. Here is my review of the book, for the online edition of City Journal.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Change you can believe in

No, I don’t mean that nonsense. I mean something I came across while doing some vanity Googling. Here is an atheist blogger who appears to have changed his mind as a result of reading The Last Superstition. (See also here and here.) He writes:

I suppose I'm going to have to call myself a theist now. Having worked through most of Feser's book I don't see any way around it. If his argument for the Aristotelian/Thomistic theory of causation is true -- and it seems airtight -- then some kind of God (the Unmoved Mover) is logically necessary.

Now that is change you can believe in. Unless he changes his mind again after rereading the book and discovering the crucial fallacy I carefully embedded in footnote 35 of chapter 6. Before he does, though, discover the life-changing potential of The Last Superstition for yourself. Reserve your own copy here.

Apologia pro George W. Bush

Andrew Roberts summarizes the case for the defense. Power Line offers a balanced assessment. National Review recently devoted a fine special issue, and today a symposium, to evaluating Bush’s presidency. NR puts Bush in “the middle ranks” of American presidents. Power Line judges him “reasonably good.” That’s about my take, though how history remembers him will depend to a great extent on how both Iraq and the economic crisis ultimately turn out. If Iraq remains a stable and reasonably just country (Western-style liberal democracy ain’t gonna happen, but something much much better than Saddam certainly could), and if the economic crisis is resolved over the next couple of years, then Bush could ultimately find his way closer to the top ranks. If Iraq reverts to chaos and the economic crisis turns into a prolonged depression, then he might be stuck forever in the company of Herbert Hoover (though since in both cases much depends on what Obama does, we cannot predict for certain how much blame would placed by historians on Bush).

In any event, the “worst president ever” mantra is (like most criticism of Bush over the last eight years) disconnected from reality. Conservatives are right to lament Bush’s record on spending, his naïveté regarding illegal immigration, the folly of the Harriet Miers nomination, and his lack of realism vis-à-vis exporting liberal democracy to the Middle East. They are also right to be very wary of the measures he took over the last several months in dealing with the financial crisis (though I’m not myself convinced that anyone has really put forward a better solution, and he did at least try to head it off some time back over the obstructions of the likes of Barney Frank).

At the same time, they are living in a fantasy world if they believe any conservative president could have done much better on the first two issues. Sad to say, the majority of voters simply do not want smaller government, and never have. (Newt Gingrich attempted the first serious, if small, effort in this direction and the result was Bill Clinton’s reelection.) Nor will the state of the culture permit any serious attempt to deal with immigration. True, voters often say they want smaller government and enforcement of immigration laws, but the minute any conservative makes an effort in either direction, they are sure to turn on him, half-believing as they do the propaganda shoveled at them in the schools and by the media. Overall, on these issues, Bush’s record does not seem significantly worse than that of Reagan.

The Miers nomination was a failure of judgment rather than a betrayal of conservative principle, and the error was in any case corrected and amply made up for by the Roberts and Alito nominations. Though promoting liberal democracy per se in the Middle East was never realistic, removing Saddam and replacing his regime with a better one was justified, as I have argued at length elsewhere (here, here, and here). Moreover, Bush did real good in advancing the pro-life cause, cutting taxes, and destroying terrorist networks. He made a more serious effort to enact conservative reforms of Social Security than any previous president dared, and his failure here reflects the will of the electorate rather than any lack of principle on his part. And it cannot be emphasized too much that he succeeded admirably in preventing any further terrorist attacks on American soil after 9/11.

The standard leftist criticisms of the president are without merit. We are assured that President Bush “damaged America’s standing in the world.” People who say this apparently think “the world” means “Western Europe,” since Bush hardly made the U.S less popular in Muslim countries (where we have long been hated), maintained good relations with India, Pakistan, China, Japan, South Korea, most Eastern European countries and most South American countries, and is personally popular in Africa because of the enormous amounts of aid the U.S. has sent there at his direction. Even in Western Europe, Bush left America on good terms with Brown’s UK, Sarkozy’s France, Merkel’s Germany, and Berlusconi’s Italy. It is true that he was not popular with the likes of Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder, or Hugo Chavez. But no one who values the opinions of such men is worth taking seriously.

The demonization of Bush as a promoter of “torture” is especially disgraceful, resting entirely on a refusal to use language carefully or report facts honestly. Relentlessly to describe even the harshest interrogation methods used by American operatives on known terrorists (e.g. waterboarding) as if they were remotely on a moral par with the sort of thing Saddam’s regime inflicted on innocents, is outrageous in the extreme, and itself a grave injustice. Nor do the president’s critics ever bother to offer an argument to show how exactly a man like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, known to be guilty of mass murder and thus himself already meriting the death penalty (at least on any sound moral philosophy, such as classical natural law theory), suffered an injustice in being subjected to methods which, while extremely unpleasant, are simply not comparable to the Quentin Tarantino-ish clichés most people have in mind when they hear the word “torture.” Nor do they deal honestly in implying that the harshest methods were employed at all frequently (waterboarding, it seems, was used on no more than three prisoners), that the disgraceful actions at Abu Ghraib were the implementation of Bush policy (a claim rejected by a bipartisan panel), or that the administration violated the Geneva convention (which does not apply to irregular combatants like al-Qaeda fighters or to those who have already violated the laws of war, but which the administration largely applied to them anyway).

Then there are the ridiculous charges that Bush was a “racist” and stirred up animus against Muslims – the sort of slanderous charges leftists always make a priori against any Republican, whatever the actual evidence. Even Michael Kinsley, in an otherwise unfair and ungracious retrospective in Time a few weeks ago, conceded that Bush “came up with serious money to treat AIDS and malaria in Africa. He used the bully pulpit to embrace Muslims in the great post-9/11 American bear hug, when there was real danger of the opposite reaction.” Some racist.

The main reason Bush is hated by the left, everyone knows, and it is the same reason Sarah Palin is hated by them. He was hated above all for his adherence to Christian morality, and in particular his opposition to abortion and “same-sex marriage,” his insistence on describing the actions of bin Laden, Saddam, and other mass murderers as “evil,” and his open acknowledgement that he was answerable to God for how he used his office. (To be sure, this is not the make-it-up-as-you-feel-like-it liberalism-in-religious-drag pseudo-Christian “morality” of Obama, but it is the sort of morality all Christians historically, up to about 40 or 50 years ago, would have regarded as obvious.) They hated him for this from the get-go, before he had a chance to cut taxes, send troops into Iraq, or indeed even to take the oath of office. It was, you might say, a “pre-emptive” hatred, and every criticism that followed was simply a rationalization of this original, irrational, primal loathing.

And then there was the matter of payback. As Andrew Breitbart writes:

The demonization of President George W. Bush was a fait accompli before he was even inaugurated. The rage and hatred against Bush developed before his election and before his political enemies got to know him. The Democratic party facing the 2000 election was not just determined to get Democrats elected. It was also determined to rehabilitate the newly impeached Bill Clinton and to help create Hillary Clinton’s future. Part of the mandate was to send the message to Republicans that the Democrats could do to ‘their guy’ what the Republicans had done to theirs—but on a much larger scale, with the majority of the media in tow.

The former president can take comfort in the words of Jesus Christ: “If the world hate you, know ye that it hated me before you.” (John 15:18)

A “reasonably good” president, and a good man. Thank you for your service to our country, President Bush, and God bless you.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Walters on TLS

JD Walters of the blog Unnatural Theology kindly reviews The Last Superstition. (The review is cross-posted at CADRE Comments.) He says some very nice things about it, and puts forward some thoughtful criticisms. I thank him for the compliments, and want to offer here some replies to his objections.

First, Walters takes exception to what he describes as the “very, very abrasive” tone I take in the book toward my opponents, and implies that it would be more appropriate for a Christian to take a softer touch. I concede that the book is often just as abrasive as he says. But while I do describe certain opinions and practices, and even certain specific individuals, in very harsh terms, it is not fair to say that I direct this abuse to people I disagree with in general. (To be sure, Walters does not explicitly say that I do this, but he does seem to me to give that impression.) On the contrary, I make it very clear several times in the book that I am happy to acknowledge that there are secularists and atheists of good will and for whom I have respect. The polemics are directed only at specific people who have themselves either taken an unjustifiably obnoxious and unfair tone toward religious believers, or have defended views so extreme and despicable that no one who is sane and/or morally decent could put them forward. In other words, I aim my fire only at people who have been “asking for it.”

Of course, many readers will object: “Shouldn’t we always separate the opinion from the character of the person advancing it? Couldn’t any view, however outrageous, nevertheless be defended by someone who, because he sincerely holds it, might still be morally admirable, or at least morally blameless?” The answer to both questions is a firm No, and each question is based on a false understanding of moral psychology that flows from the same bad modern philosophical assumptions I attack in the book. I maintain that there are some views that are so evil that no one who is morally upright could possibly uphold them. To take just one, particularly disgusting, example, it is precisely because Peter Singer sincerely believes that bestiality is morally justifiable that we can know that he has a corrupt moral character. For given the correct (classical natural law) approach to morality and moral psychology, no one whose sensibilities are such that he could seriously entertain such an idea could possibly fail to be morally corrupt.

Hence, I maintain that there are certain ideas that cannot be described accurately and objectively unless they, and sometimes even the people who hold them, are described in language that might seem abusive and polemical. (E.g. not to see that someone even seriously considering whether bestiality might be permissible is morally corrupt is not to understand what moral corruption objectively is.) The assumptions that lead modern people to assume otherwise (the so-called “fact/value distinction,” the cult of “authenticity,” etc.) are just false, and themselves morally corrupting. I have said a little more about this elsewhere, and though the topic is not explicitly discussed in The Last Superstition, readers of that book will get a pretty clear idea of why this view follows from a classical natural law approach to morality. Suffice it to say that, from an Aristotelian point of view, moral character is more a matter of having the right dispositions, habits, and sensibilities than it is a matter of having the right opinions.

I also deny that a Christian should always take a softer touch. There is a time and place for that, of course, but there is also a time when a good Christian ought to take the bark off of an opponent, and indeed when it would be immoral not to do so. Everyone acknowledges that harm to, or a threat to, another person’s life, liberty, or possessions can merit harsh retaliation (e.g. imprisonment, and in extreme cases even death). Similarly, someone who spreads calumnies, or corrupts public morals, or in some other way harms others spiritually, can also merit harsh treatment of a verbal and moral sort. Now of course, that someone deserves some punishment or reproof does not always entail that it should be inflicted upon him; there are many cases where mercy is called for. But not always, especially where the public good or the safety of innocents is concerned, and where the offender is unrepentant. This is as true in the spiritual realm as in the material realm. Some ideas are so odious, and some purveyors of those ideas so dangerous and corrupt, that it can be justifiable to expose them to ridicule and contempt, so as to bring infamy upon them and counteract the bad effect they might have on others. And in some cases, I maintain, this might even be morally required of us.

(There is an old book called Liberalism is a Sin by Fr. Felix Sarda y Salvany which has a couple of useful chapters on this subject, showing, among other things, how polemical attacks, even against individuals, have always rightly been among the weapons in the arsenal of Christian apologists. See here and here. Be warned that this is not a book likely to cause anything but offense to modern progressive ears!)

Walters also laments my failure to say much in the book about why the God of the philosophers is identical to the God of Christianity (though he does seem to recognize that this was simply beyond the scope of the book, which is concerned almost entirely with natural theology). This is an issue that might be approached from two directions. On the one hand there are those who sympathize with the arguments of natural theology but who reject the move from these philosophical arguments to the God of divine revelation. On the other hand there are certain Christian theologians who are uncomfortable identifying the God of the Bible with the God whose existence is argued for in the classical theistic proofs. Walters’ concern seems to be of the latter sort, given that he emphasizes that “more than one great theologian has doubted whether the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle and God the Father of Abraham, Isaac and Jesus can be equated.” I have never understood this latter sort of worry. The classical theistic arguments either work or they do not work. I claim to show in my book that they do work, and thus that the God whose existence they argue for really exists. (Not that Aristotle himself personally got everything right, mind you, but only that the approach of the broad Aristotelian tradition gets you to a correct, if incomplete, account of God’s existence and nature.) Whether Walters agrees with me or not, he at least doesn’t dispute this claim in his review. But in that case, what’s the problem exactly? If the God of the philosophers really exists and if the God of Christianity exists, then it follows that they must be identical, since both the philosophical arguments and divine revelation entail that there is and can only be one God.

To be sure, Walters also appeals to the role “higher biblical criticism” has had in leading some theologians away from identifying the God of the Bible with the God of the philosophers, though he suspects that I “would probably see it as yet another symptom of the modern malaise.” Exactly right. I consider much of modern biblical “scholarship” totally worthless. Bad enough is the false methodological naturalism it simply takes for granted without any serious philosophical argumentation whatsoever. (Bultmann’s famously glib dismissal of supernaturalism as out of place in the “age of the wireless” has long been an object of ridicule among Christian philosophers, and the philosophical acumen of biblical scholars since his time hasn’t gotten any better.) But there is also the ludicrous methodology of boldly reconstructing hypothetical texts, indeed hypothetical texts within hypothetical texts, identifying hypothetical oral traditions and the like underlying these hypothetical texts, reconstructing the theology and ethos of the “communities” who allegedly produced these purported traditions and texts, and then confidently claiming to have discovered on the basis of this set of fantasies what e.g. the historical Jesus (and/or the original “Jesus movement”) “really” believed. What is amazing is not that traditional Christian belief has survived in the face of this “challenge”; what is amazing is that this preposterous pseudo-historical method ever survived the laugh test in the first place. To paraphrase Rowan Atkinson, I wouldn’t trust the average modernist biblical scholar to sit down the right way on a toilet seat.

Anyway, as I’m sure Walters would agree, merely pointing out that some theologians reject any identification of the God of the philosophers with the God of the Bible doesn’t by itself prove anything. The devil is in the details. What is needed is a specific argument showing there to be some incompatibility, and it had better not be an argument that begs the question against the case I make in the book for the existence of the God of the philosophers and the falsity of naturalism.

Regarding the ethics-related material in The Last Superstition, Walters says that he is “skeptical of natural law arguments because of the way they have been used throughout history to legitimize degrading, exploitative conditions for certain classes of people, such as slaves and women.” Two points must be made in response. First of all, and as I note in the book, one must be careful in accusing classical natural law theory of entailing the justifiability of slavery. In fact the sorts of things most people think of when they hear the word “slavery” – chattel slavery, racial slavery, kidnapping, breaking up families, the African slave trade, etc. – are not justifiable on classical natural law theory. Indeed, classical natural law theory condemns these things as immoral even in principle. What it does allow as justifiable in principle is the much less harsh form of servitude involving a prolonged obligation to labor for another as payment of a debt, punishment for a crime, and so forth. And even this has rightly been regarded by modern natural law theorists as too fraught with moral hazard to be justifiable in practice. The common charge that natural law theory would support slavery as it was known in the American context is therefore simply a slander.

Secondly, Walters’ complaint isn’t really an argument in the first place. He says, for example, that “great care is required in employing natural law arguments, to make sure that they do not simply reinforce or legitimize an unjust or corrupt status quo.” OK, but that just raises the question of how we know what counts as unjust or corrupt in the first place, if we don’t know it through natural law theory itself. And to assert that natural law theory must be wrong because it leads to such-and-such a conclusion that we don’t like is simply to beg this question. From a classical natural law point of view, it isn’t natural law theory that must be judged in terms of modern liberal attitudes about sexual morality, traditional sex roles, etc., but rather those attitudes which must be judged in terms of natural law theory. Simply pointing out that there is a conflict proves precisely nothing if one does not also independently prove (and not simply assume) that modern liberal attitudes are correct.

Walters takes issue with my criticism in the book of the “representationalist” approach to the mind that came to dominate modern philosophy after Descartes, and he cites various empirical considerations in support of the idea that representations of a sort do exist in the brain. But his objection is misplaced, because he fails to take note of the distinction between the objects of the intellect on the one hand (abstract concepts and propositions) and the objects of sensation and imagination on the other (such as mental images and the like). My criticisms of representationalism pertained to the former. Sensation and imagination, which from an Aristotelian point of view are (unlike the intellect) material in nature anyway, no doubt do involve processes in the brain that can be characterized as “representations” of a sort. (I have discussed this issue several times in earlier posts, most recently here.)

Finally, Walters complains that I fail to explain why the Aristotelian approach I favor is superior to “an interpretation of the world in terms of Atman, Brahman, Dharma and Samsara.” It is true that I don’t explicitly address this question, again for reasons of space. But it should be clear why I think the Aristotelian approach is superior. I claim to have shown in the book, through detailed arguments, that the Aristotelico-Thomistic metaphysical picture of the world is correct. If that is true, then since its key elements – classical theism, the existence of distinct individual immortal souls, etc. – are incompatible with the key ideas of Indian philosophy (such as pantheism), it follows that those latter ideas are false.

Some small points: It is Aquinas’s brief summary of the theistic proofs in the Summa Theologiae (rather than in the Summa contra Gentiles, as Walters says) that I say are all that most atheists have bothered to read. And while Walters is right that I have no truck with “Intelligent Design” theory, it is not quite right to claim, as he does, that I advocate an “undiluted evolutionary theory.” As I note in the book, while the standard Darwinian story no doubt contains much that is correct, I reject the view that it can explain every aspect of the biological realm, even in principle. For example (and again, as I make clear in the book) I maintain that it cannot possibly account for the origin of the human intellect, precisely because the intellect is immaterial. On general Aristotelian (not “Intelligent Design”) grounds, I also reject the claim that it can account for the transition from inorganic processes to organic ones, or from non-sentient life to sentient life. But that takes us into issues that go beyond anything I say much about in the book, and which need not be addressed in order to make the case I want to make in the book.

Vallicella on Rand

Caught the end of The Passion of Ayn Rand on TV last night, and awoke this morning to find the esteemed Bill Vallicella giving the old girl a philosophical thrashing. Take a look. I’m with Bill: Rand can be interesting, and she delivered some effective polemical blows against socialism and other idiocies, but as a philosopher she is an amateur in the worst sense of the term. (Here is an archived version of a 2005 post of mine on Rand from the old Conservative Philosopher group blog.)

Bill addresses some of Rand’s arguments concerning what she calls “the basic metaphysical issue that lies at the root of any system of philosophy: the primacy of existence or the primacy of consciousness.” He effectively exposes their muddleheadedness, or so it seems to me. I think there might be a little more to what she is saying than Bill gives her credit for, though not much. Neo-Scholastic philosophers sometimes distinguished between what they called the “philosophy of being” and the “philosophy of consciousness.” The former starts with a metaphysical account of reality in general and then deals with human nature, and the human mind in particular, only within that larger context. The latter reverses this order of inquiry, beginning with an account of the conscious human subject and working from it to an account of reality in general. The former is the approach of classical philosophy, of Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas. The latter is the approach of moderns like Descartes, the British empiricists, and Kant. The Neo-Scholastics defended Aristotelico-Thomism as the most adequate expression of a philosophy of being, and opposed it to the errors of the moderns’ philosophy of consciousness. Since Rand was an Aristotelian of sorts, I imagine that at least part of what she had in mind in drawing the distinction Bill cites is this clash between classical and modern approaches, and that she meant to ally herself with the former. More power to her as far as that goes. Still, as Bill shows, it is by no means clear that she really presented a strong case of her own for classical realism.

Bill also evaluates Rand’s argument to the effect that “to grasp the axiom that existence exists, means to grasp the fact that nature, i.e., the universe as a whole, cannot be created or annihilated, that it cannot come into or go out of existence.” He sees in this an inadvertent echo of modal Spinozism, and not implausibly. But to me it is even more reminiscent of the even more extreme metaphysics of Parmenides; at least, to start with “existence exists” and deduce from it claims about the impossibility of a thing either coming into being or going out of being seems little different from Parmenides’ procedure. Needless to say, this is not the sort of view Rand would have wanted to defend!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Computers, minds, and Aristotle

The recently published Philosophy of Computing and Information: 5 Questions, edited by Luciano Floridi, is a collection of quasi-interviews with prominent philosophers, cognitive scientists, and computer scientists. (The same five questions were sent to each of the contributors, who were asked to respond to them either question-by-question or in the form of an informal essay. Hence my label “quasi-interviews.”) Several of the contributions are particularly interesting from an Aristotelian point of view.

As readers of The Last Superstition know, I argue there that the “computationalist” view that the mind should be thought of as “software” run by the “hardware” of the brain is either incoherent or (if it is to be made coherent) implicitly committed to a broadly Aristotelian metaphysics. And in neither case can it vindicate a materialist conception of human nature. One reason for this is that the key concepts required to spell out this position – “software,” “program,” “information,” “algorithm,” and so forth (all of which are somehow to be understood as purely physical properties alongside mass, electric charge, and the like, if the materialist is going to make hay out of the view) – are suffused with intentionality, the “directedness” of a thing toward something beyond itself. Now on at least one common interpretation of the computationalist view, intentionality is among the features of the mind the view is supposed to explain – in which case it cannot coherently appeal to notions which presuppose the existence of intentionality. Even those versions of computationalism which do not claim to explain intentionality face the problem that nothing like intentionality is supposed to exist at the level of physics, at least given the mechanistic conception of nature materialists are implicitly committed to. As Jerry Fodor puts it in Psychosemantics:

“I suppose that sooner or later the physicists will complete the catalogue they’ve been compiling of the ultimate and irreducible properties of things. When they do, the likes of spin, charm, and charge will perhaps appear on their list. But aboutness surely won’t; intentionality simply doesn’t go that deep.” (p. 97)

Hence the notions in question are simply not available to a consistent materialist. And if a materialist nevertheless digs in his heels and insists that “information,” “algorithms,” and the like really are somehow intrinsic to the physical world, then he will in effect have conceded that something like Aristotelian final causes exist after all, and thus abandoned materialism. For if purely physical processes embody genuine “information,” follow “algorithms,” etc., then that entails that of their nature (by virtue of their form, as Aristotelians would say) they point beyond themselves as toward a goal, after the manner of a final cause. (“Information” is information about something; an “algorithm” has an inherent end the rules it embodies are meant to lead to; and so on.) Materialists fail to see this because, like most modern philosophers, they have only the vaguest idea of what Aristotelian formal and final causes are, and labor under all sorts of crude misconceptions (e.g. that for a physical process to have a final cause is for it to seek a goal in something like a conscious way).

For the details, see The Last Superstition (especially pp. 235-47). It was interesting, though, to see that at least one contributor to Philosophy of Computing and Information seems to have come to something like the conclusion I defend in the book. Specifically, the neuroscientist Valentino Braitenberg says:

“The concept of information, properly understood, is fully sufficient to do away with popular dualistic schemes invoking spiritual substances distinct from anything in physics. This is Aristotle redivivus, the concept of matter and form united in every object of this world, body and soul, where the latter is nothing but the formal aspect of the former. The very term ‘information’ clearly demonstrates its Aristotelian origin in its linguistic root.” (Floridi, p. 16)

In other words, to describe some physical process as inherently embodying “information,” while it does rule out dualism of the Cartesian sort, nevertheless is not consistent with the crude materialist claim that “matter is all that exists”; for it is implicitly to accept something like Aristotle’s notion of formal cause (precisely, I would add, because it is implicitly to accept something like his notion of final cause). As I have put it in earlier posts, the neural processes underlying e.g. a given action are merely the material-cum-efficient causal side of an event of which the thoughts and intentions of the agent are the formal-cum-final causes, to allude to all of the famous Aristotelian four causes. (I develop the point a little bit in this review of the psychologist Jerome Kagan’s An Argument for Mind.)

To be sure, Braitenberg’s own claims are only suggestive, and I do not claim he would accept everything I say about this issue in my book (much less everything, or anything, else I say there!) But he clearly sees that the standard materialist assumptions are faulty, as do some other contributors to the Floridi volume. Brian Cantwell-Smith’s chapter, which is among the more lengthy and philosophically substantial contributions, is very good on the deep conceptual problems underlying much work done in this area. Key concepts are ill-defined, and unjustified slippage between or conflation of various possible senses of crucial theoretical terms (including “computation” itself) is rife. But the key problem, as he sees, is what he calls the “300-year rift between matter and mattering” that opened up with Descartes (p. 46) – that is to say, the early moderns’ conception of matter as inherently devoid of meaning or significance. Cantwell-Smith calls for a new metaphysics to “heal” this rift (being apparently unaware of, or at least not reconsidering as Braitenberg does, the old Aristotelian metaphysics the rejection of which was precisely what opened up the rift in the first place).

In his own chapter, Hubert Dreyfus, summarizing themes that have long characterized his work, also criticizes “Descartes’ understanding of the world as a set of meaningless facts to which the mind assigned what Descartes called values” (p. 80). Attempts to find some computational mechanism by means of which the brain assigns significance or meaning to the world always end up surreptitiously presupposing significance or meaning, and attempts to avoid this result tend to lead to a vicious regress. (This, as Dreyfus argues, is what ultimately underlies the well-known “frame problem” in Artificial Intelligence research and the “binding problem” in neuroscience.) As is well-known, Dreyfus makes good use of the work of writers like Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty in criticizing AI, and in particular the notion that we can make sense of the idea of a world inherently devoid of significance for us. But this phenomenological point does not answer the metaphysical question of how and why the world, and ourselves as part of the world, have significance or meaning in the first place. For that – as I argue in The Last Superstition – we need to turn to the Aristotelian tradition, to the concepts of formal and final causation rejection of which set modern thought, and modern civilization, on its long intellectual and moral downward slide.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The critics’ choice

I am pleased to announce that, having already given it a starred review in their October issue, the American Library Association's Booklist magazine has now put The Last Superstition on its Editors’ Choice list of the best books of 2008. Ignatius Insight has also put it on their Best Books of 2008 list. (For reviews, see here, here, and here.)

America, empire, and conservatism

The label “empire” is often applied to the United States as an epithet, not only by left-wingers but also by paleoconservatives. But imperialism is neither inherently immoral nor inherently unconservative, and it is false to assume that the fact that some American policy might plausibly be described as “imperialist” is ipso facto a reason for a conservative to disapprove of it. (Of course, there might be other reasons to disapprove of it. That something is “imperialist” doesn’t make it necessarily good either. The point is that imperialism per se is morally neutral.)

I recently came across this article by the Catholic writer Charles Coulombe which usefully explains some of the reasons why. H. W. Crocker’s article “The Case for an American Empire,” which appeared in Crisis magazine back in October 2004, made some similar points. (Unfortunately, I have been unable to find a working link to it.) Significantly, Coulombe and Crocker are writers with “paleoconservative“ tendencies; their views cannot be written off as “neocon” propaganda. And Coulombe, at least, is not a defender of the war in Iraq. (This is good evidence, by the way, that “paleocon” is as useless as “neocon” has become as a term of serious political analysis. In any case, and as I have argued at length elsewhere – here, here, and here – whatever one thinks of the wisdom or prosecution of the war in Iraq, that it is at least a just war is a proposition that can be readily defended on grounds that any paleoconservative must take seriously. But I have no intention of revisiting this issue just now.)

Two small criticisms of Coulombe’s article. First, while I think he is right to hold that Americans ultimately don’t have the stomach for imperialism, his pessimistic conclusions about the American project in Iraq have been undermined somewhat by General Petraeus’ successes. (Though in fairness, Coulombe’s article was written over a year ago.)

Second, Coulombe gives the impression that the legalization of abortion in Japan in 1949 was both the policy of General Douglas MacArthur and the expression of a messianic American liberalism intent on imposing its mores on the world. In fact it was neither. (One suspects Coulombe has bought into the myth that MacArthur governed as an absolute dictator in Japan and remade Japanese society entirely according to his personal vision. In fact the Japanese were allowed a fair bit of leeway in settling matters of detail for themselves, and the policies MacArthur did impose were largely, though not entirely, formulated in Washington.)

For one thing, the legalization of abortion was not on the radar screen of mainstream American liberalism in 1949, even if there were radicals who foresaw a day when it might be. For another, one of those radicals, Margaret Sanger, was prevented by MacArthur from even entering Japan, so controversial at the time were her views on birth control and related matters. MacArthur also suppressed a report on overpopulation that favored birth control, under pressure from Catholic and other religious organizations who objected to it, and resolved to stay neutral on the matter, letting the Japanese Diet settle things for itself. Far from being an American import, abortion seems to have been something already practiced in Japan as a means of birth control, and the 1949 law merely codified it. And far from pushing for it in the interests of imposing American liberalism, MacArthur refused to get involved precisely to avoid seeming to meddle too closely in Japanese affairs, and also, perhaps, to avoid offending American religious groups and thus damaging his prospects as a future presidential candidate. (For a useful discussion of this subject, see D. Clayton James’s The Years of MacArthur, Vol. 3: Triumph and Disaster 1945-1964, pp. 279-281.)