Why didn't the Oak Creek shooting dominate public discourse the way Aurora did?

Coordinated racism (of which Oak Creek shooter is at least in part a product) ought to concern us more than the truly random violence of Aurora. Yet the latter took over the public discourse for days, while the former has not. Robert Wright makes many of the important points, but I would add that James Holmes is probably especially interesting to the people who drive the public discourse, because he isn’t so far from being “one of us.” Same goes for the victims. Going to see a blockbuster is a pretty universal experience.

This made me think of Leigh Bienen’s “A Good Murder.” The perpetrator and the victims have to be properly cast in order for us to pay attention. When violence merely conforms to a pre-existing narrative, it doesn’t have much impact on public consciousness.

NeidlemanPhoto2 (371x470)I teach political theory, along with other subjects I find interesting, such as  the politics of urban land use and urban design, constitutional law, contemporary legal issues, and the politics of the modern Middle East, among others.

My primary research is on the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  I am interested especially in Rousseau as a philosopher of truth, which is the subject of Rousseau’s Ethics of Truth, out this year from Routledge.

“Vitam impendere vero”

Rousseau borrowed this motto (which means “dedicate life to truth”) from Juvenal’s Satires and adopted it for himself in 1758.

What is truth?  Is it the sort of thing that is susceptible to human understanding, and, if so, how?  My research focuses on Rousseau’s approach to asking and answering these questions.

Mansionization Update

I’ve been working to stop mansionization in my Los Angeles neighborhood for five years.  Last week, we had a substantial victory, as Paul Koretz, our councilmember, publicly announced a serious proposal.  Our local paper covered the announcement and published my response:

Kudos to the Beverly Press and to Tim Posada for giving mansionization the coverage it deserves.

Paul Koretz’s handling of the mansionization issue is a simple case of a public official doing the job he was elected to do.  That this is newsworthy is a sad commentary on the state of contemporary politics.  Nevertheless, Councilman Koretz deserves credit for identifying an issue of public concern and responding to it.

A simple walk through the Beverly Grove neighborhood confirms what the councilman’s survey makes abundantly clear:  mansionization threatens the integrity, livability, and beauty of the Beverly Grove neighborhood.

McMansions subvert the long-term interest of the community in favor of the short-term, economic interests of developers and realtors.  In the end, homeowners pay the price as neighborhoods degrade.  Councilman Koretz is to be applauded for standing with homeowners in a political climate that is usually far too deferential to unfettered development.

Jason Neidleman

Beverly Grove homeowner


Miss USA and Scientific Illiteracy

There are those who see the theory of evolution as a threat to the viability of their faith tradition.  Why they fear science is itself a question worthy of investigation.  Science can neither validate nor invalidate a faith tradition,  although it may provide compelling reasons to reconsider particular doctrines or interpretations of scripture. Whatever their reasons, these folks have waged a two front war on the theory of evolution.  On one front, they have called into question the evidence for the theory itself.  On the other front, they have advanced various Creationist alternatives, the most recent of which is the theory of “intelligent design.”

Although none of these competing theories have established themselves as scientifically viable, they have been culturally influential.  In particular they have exploited (and deepened) scientific illiteracy.  Put simply, the theory of evolution is not something that one “believes in” or does not “believe in,” as the contestants for the most recent Miss USA pagaent answered when they were asked whether the theory of evolution should be taught in schools.  (Only two answered that it should be.)  The theory of evolution, like all scietific theories, is something that one evaluates the evidence for.

The theory of evolution is an attempt to explain an empirical phenomenon.  It is the prevailing scientific explanation of that phenomenon because the preponderance of evidence supports it.  That is the standard for scientific validity.  The arguments for creationism trade on a willful disregard for the application of the scientific method.  To say there are multiple explanations for an empirical phenomenon is a commonplace.  What proponents of creationism and intelligent design have managed to do is to transform the notion of competing explanations into the notion of competing, equally valid explanations.  If there is more than one expalanation, then fairness would seem to dictate that they all be given equal weight.  What this ignores is the all-important fact that the evidence for these various explanations differs massively.  There is no evidence for Creationism and substantial evidence for the theory of evolution.

And yet we have the vast majority of Miss USA contestants taking the position that both intelligent design and the theory of evolution should be given equal weight in discussions of the origin and evolution of species.  Now, Miss USA contestants are not generally known for their scientific expertise, and one might be tempted not to worry too much about their scholarly dispositions.  The reality is that these contestants were offering an opinion that is commonly expressed in American society (and in Republican primary debates).  Does it matter that so many people don’t understand science?  Maybe not, although I think it probably does–particularly with regard to environmental policy.  But, even if it doesn’t have much impact on public policy, I can’t help but be offended by (and feel some responsibility for) the prevalence of scientific illiteracy.

This is not a Budget Battle

As the Ryan plan and the debate over cutting funding Planned Parenthood and the EPA make clear, the ongoing budget battles are really just the latest incarnation of the same old arguments over the role of the budget.  There is one difference, though, and it is a difference that works to the clear advantage of conservatives:  this time around, (almost) all parties to the debate  have accepted the premise that there is an imperative cut government spending (over 1/6 of the budget at least) and to cut it dramatically. 

Since conservatives tend to favor smaller government (philosophically, at least), they will have the upper hand in any debate that begins from the premise that a successul outcome requires large cuts in spending.  Moreover, the spending cuts passed for the 2011 budget are restricted to the 1/6 of the budget that includes most of the programs that liberals tend to support and conservatives tend to oppose.  They do not touch military spending, Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.

Barack Obama’s framing of the debate presupposes that it was about cutting the budget, rather than about the role of government.  Consequently, he has described the Democrats’ success in terms of the number of dollars that were cut from the budget.  As Ezra Klein argues, this sets up a discursive context, under which the ongoing budget debates will be constrained by the imperative to make further cuts.  This hurts Democrats in two ways.  First, they will probably have to make further cuts to their favored programs.  Second, they will likely be forced into austerity measures in the midst of an ongoing employment crisis. 

Democrats would be better off if they stop competing with Republicans over who can cut more discretionary spending.  They ought instead to recognize that this is a debate about the role and size of government and to make their case on the basis of the programs they have managed to defend and the role of government spending in spurring employment.  They may have to agree to cuts, but that doesn’t mean that they have to agree to allow the debate to be determined by who proposes to cut the most.

Is Honest Public Discourse a Fantasy? Ctd

Yes, I would say it is.  But I would add a couple of caveats:

First, this applies only to politicians, not to those who comment on politics or judge politicians.

Second, although there will always be incentives for politicians to be dishonest, these incentives can be minimized if constituents are themselves committed to knowing the truth and acting on the basis of solid facts and sensible arguments.

Is Honest Public Discourse a Fantasy?

Politicians care about be re-elected, passing legislation, and accumulating power.   The may or may not also care about honesty in their discourse.  Say they do.  Is it reasonable to expect them to be honest when honesty is not the best route to re-election, the passage of legislation, and/or the accumulation of power?  Probably not.  The base we can do is understand this brute fact of politics and try to call them out when they lie.

Part of the reason lies and manipulation work so well is because constituents often prefer them to the truth.  The more we insist on getting the facts right and keeping the arguments straight, the more politicians will discover that their interest lies in keeping public discourse honest.