Subjects and sovereigns.

Greg Sisk hyperventilates at the thought of…

the US government imposing legal duties on its citizens:

If the Court had upheld the individual mandate to purchase insurance as a proper regulation under the Commerce Clause, the federal government would have been affirmed as having the power to impose an affirmative duty on a person, not because of any action taken by that person, but simply because the person lives inside the borders of the United States.  If the federal government were permitted to exercise such direct power over a person based on that person’s mere existence, it would be difficult to avoid the conclusion that this person had been relegated into a mere “subject” of that government.  By virtue of being born, each person would become the proper subject of intrusive governmental direction.  Government would be the first principle in all matters, the first actor of that society.

If the people are sovereign, then they must be understood to precede government.  In the United States, the government proceeds from the people and is directed by the people.  Government must have power to act, within crucial limits, for the common good of the people.  But the federal government does not assume immediate power at the moment of birth and regardless of actions and choices affirmatively undertaken by that person.

Where to begin with this? Firstly, if an elected President and Congress passing legislation they campaigned on does not count as an example of government ‘proceeding’ from the people as sovereign, I don’t know what does.  And secondly, regardless of that, what’s with the obsessive hostility towards the idea that the government can tell Americans what to do simply by virtue of them being in America? Does Sisk seriously want exemptions from laws against rape for those that object to such a rule? Of course not. Why? Because it doesn’t matter what the rapist wants; his actions would have adverse affects on others which require regulating. Sound familiar? Perhaps that’s because choosing to not have health insurance is analogous. No, it’s not as bad as rape. But yes, it creates a sufficient burden on the rest of society as to warrant the imposition of a duty. And why, exactly, does it thus matter if that person objects?

Was Boris right to ban the bus ads?

Boris Johnson has intervened to stop an ad that celebrates corrective therapy for homosexuals being plastered over London buses:

London is one of the most tolerant cities in the world and intolerant of intolerance. It is clearly offensive to suggest that being gay is an illness that someone recovers from and I am not prepared to have that suggestion driven around.

Labour MP Chris Bryant condemns the ad, but thinks it should have been allowed to run in the name of free speech:

The emotional damage that is done to the individuals who try to suppress their sexuality, the women they marry and the children they might have is immeasurable. Most sane Christians believe that homosexuality is not a lifestyle or a choice but is a fact to be discovered or not. The pretence that homosexuality is something you can be weaned off in some way is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of creation.

The Guardian quotes the British Medical Association as agreeing with him about the status of corrective therapy as discredited, harmful ‘science’.

Jon Robinson uses Mill’s On Liberty to reach a novel conclusion:

There is no danger that racist, sexist and homophobic discourses have been under-represented, and no risk that they have not had thorough enough examination. If they have come to be heterodox positions then this is because they have been rejected, not because they need promotion. This nullifies the instrumental value of free speech here, leaving us only with a choice between clinging to free speech on nothing but intrinsic value and rejecting and censoring these ads on the grounds of all the harms they create.

I trust my posting the Real Time video, whilst not directly relevant, makes sense. This is, at heart, an issue about the value of liberty in light of some pretty crass speech. And I think it’s a debate that was already hinted at by current affairs very recently, when a man was jailed for tweeting racist slurs.

There’s no point pretending this is an easy case. It’s such a longstanding problem precisely because our intuitions tear us in two directions, and there’s no easy solution which won’t let doubts about the morality of the conclusion linger. Nevertheless, a few comments.

I struggle to see how the science is relevant. It may be the case that corrective therapy does not work, but there’s sufficient ambiguity in the words of the ad to mean banning it on the grounds that it is misleading and empirically false will never wash. The sponsors could, clearly, claim their ad is reasonably interpreted as meaning that homosexual desires can be sufficiently suppressed as to prevent acting upon them, and in this sense corrective therapy is possible. And the BMA could hardly deny that. Only if the ad explicitly claimed homosexual desires could be eradicated would there be reason to pursue this route.

I also suspect Chris Bryant is right to not seek a ban on the grounds that the speech is likely to do no good for those struggling to deal with their sexuality. If there was ever a slope to be slipped down, this would be it. Any combination of words could be interpreted in a way that means they have such effects. If this became the litmus test for free speech, we’d soon reach Russia.

The interesting part of Johnson’s defence of his decision is, I think, his implicitly invoking the fact that London buses are public. That raises the suspicion that this is a little different than normal issues of free speech. Does the Mayor have a duty to ensure such messages don’t appear to be state sanctioned?

This is, surely, once more a red herring. Nobody who sees posters for The Hunger Games on the Underground can fairly assume the government is encouraging a trip to the cinema.

So instead we’re left with the question of what the value of liberty is conditional on. It’s interesting that Robinson thinks Mill may be used to justify a ban, because despite Mill’s thinking that free speech is valuable because it fosters critical thinking about how we should live, which in turn is most likely to lead to happiness, this looks to me like it warrants the protection of speech even in cases like these, because even something as obviously bad as homophobia can never be propped up enough times only to then be knocked down.

But I’ve never found this line of defence for liberty appealing. It strikes me as entirely wrong to make the value of free speech contingent on social consequences. Much more intuitive, surely, to seek the basis for an unconditional right possessed by all individuals to express whatever views they have. And the day the state starts to intentionally block that is the day to be worried. I don’t want any elected officials possessing the power to qualitatively discriminate between the value of various messages.

Robinson notes some ugly consequences:

This should mean that people could freely publish signs reading “blacks go home” and “women: stay in the kitchen”. If anyone’s liberal tendencies mean they’re willing to defend all of this then we can carry on talking about the value of unrestricted expression, but if you can accept the CIT ad but not those, then you may need to ask yourself some serious questions.

These are big bullets, of course, and they’re not to be bitten lightly. But despite concerns about the potential effects of such speech on someone’s sense of esteem and worth, and despite the fact the ads are on public buses, hint at junk science and only arguably provoke fruitful debate, I still can’t shake the feeling that liberty, if it is to be real, requires stubborn acceptance. Followed, of course, by mockery, and robust refutation.

Quote for the day.

Fear and liberty are consistent: as when a man throweth his goods into the sea for fear the ship should sink, he doth it nevertheless very willingly, and may refuse to do it if he will; it is therefore the action of one that was free: so a man sometimes pays his debt, only for fear of imprisonment, which, because no body hindered him from detaining, was the action of a man at liberty. And generally all actions which men do in Commonwealths, for fear of the law, are actions which the doers had liberty to omit.

Hobbes, on the notorious problem of whether people in sticky situations act freely.

Iranian humanity.

The Dish links us to this:

I’ve gone all goosey. Just, wow.

I posted before about Iran and the power of Western culture to win the hearts of Middle Eastern people; and does this fit the thought and tell quite a story or what?

I’m reminded of a passage from one of Hitch’s finest essays:

Iran today exists in a state of dual power and split personality. The huge billboards and murals proclaim it an Islamic republic, under the eternal guidance of the immortal memory of Ayatollah Khomeini. A large force of Revolutionary Guards and a pervasive religious police stand ready to make good on this grim pledge. But directly underneath these forbidding posters and right under the noses of the morals enforcers, Iranians are buying and selling videos, making and consuming alcohol, tuning in to satellite TV stations, producing subversive films and plays and books, and defying the dress code. All women are supposed to cover all their hair at all times, and to wear a long jacket, or manteau, that covers them from neck to knee. But it’s amazing how enticing the compulsory scarf can be when worn practically on the back of the head and held in place only by hair spray. As for the obligatory manteau, any woman with any fashion sense can cut it to mold an enviable silhouette. I found a bootlegger on my arrival at Tehran’s airport and was offered alcohol on principle in every home I entered—Khomeini’s excepted—even by people who did not drink. Almost every Iranian has a relative overseas and is in regular touch with foreign news and trends. The country is an “as if” society. People live as if they were free, as if they were in the West, as if they had the right to an opinion, or a private life. And they don’t do too badly at it. I have now visited all three of the states that make up the so-called axis of evil. Rough as their regime can certainly be, the citizens of Iran live on a different planet from the wretched, frightened serfs of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il.

Fight on, brave souls, until the ‘as if’ becomes reality.

Santorum, freedom and happiness.

The Economist digs this gem up from Santorum:

’Happiness’ actually had a different definition, ‘way back at the time of our founders. Like many words in our lexicon, they evolve and change over time. ‘Happiness’ was one of them. Go back and look it up. You’ll see one of the principal definitions of happiness is ‘to do the morally right thing.’ God gave us rights to life and to freedom to pursue His will. That’s what the moral foundation of our country is.

I have few problems with equating morality and happiness, but when this philosophical belief becomes the crux of one’s politics, and when it grows to be seen as a licence for imposing one’s own obviously correct whacky morality on everyone else for their own good – that’s when America must get worried. Santorum thinks his natural law logic is flawless, and he thinks we can liberate gays by banning same-sex marriage.  The nerve is quite shocking.

There are some things, I believe, we can all agree on as the valid content of a political morality which we do feel entitled to be bold about when it comes to enforcement. I don’t doubt the legitimacy of installing secularism and defending the right to freely pursue one’s own idea of what the good life is, assuming one uses this liberty in a way consistent with the freedom of others to do likewise. And that’s what America is really about, and its diversity reflects that.

But Santorum’s not interested in it. He’s blind to the fact that this is most reasonable. Because of his special relationship with God, he knows the exact details of the good life, and he’ll help you by coercing you into copying it. By ‘the pursuit of happiness’, what we must realise is that the Founding Fathers really meant the ‘freedom’ to follow the dictates of Catholicism as revealed specifically to Rick (not as revealed to the Vatican, because they get it wrong on torture). So don’t dare think freedom requires the ability to use birth control. Because that’s contrary to how things ought to be.

Sullivan summarises the ideology:

America is a special nation because of this unique founding on the Judeo-Christian God. It must therefore always be guided by God’s will, and that will is self-evident to anyone, Catholic or Protestant, atheist or Mormon, Jew or Muslim, from natural law… [In] its fusion of explicit religion and explicit politics, [the GOP] is itself, in my view, an attack on America – and the possibility of a civil republic.

Earning citizenship.

Liu at The Atlantic asks the awkward question of why we grant citizenship arbitrarily to all persons born in a state’s territory, and yet require immigrants to display merit to gain similar privileges. Despite vast bureaucratic impracticalities, the moral and political case is clear. Consider the consequences:

Today, public understanding of our past and our system of government is pitifully low: As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has archly observed, far more Americans can name a judge on American Idol than a justice of the Supreme Court. Only a third can name all three branches of government. One simple remedy would be to update the citizenship test now given to naturalizing immigrants – and administer it to everyone. That would boost knowledge in a hurry.

On the allegation that this would be un-American, contrary to liberty:

It is indeed contrary to the currently prevailing ethic of American life — an ethic of market fundamentalism and personal libertarianism. But were any of the founding generation to return today — or if Lincoln or the authors of the 14th Amendment  were among us now — they would ask what had happened to the civic republican tradition of citizenship as a responsibility. For this tradition is as deeply American as raw self-seeking.

Republicans and freedom.

It might seem odd that a set of candidates so intent on imposing their Christian agenda upon a nation can simultaneously claim to be beacons of freedom, and in a sense it is odd. Most people understand freedom to mean one is able to do a variety of things, and you are conversely oppressed to the extent that your activities are instead interfered with. And yet, Rick Santorum claims liberty is the key issue in his campaign, as he also pledges to consider the prospect of states banning condoms, if they so wished, on the grounds that it encourages a sexual order contrary to how things ‘ought to be’.

You heard right. A man claiming to be about freedom wants to employ the state to coerce you with threats into no longer using those little pieces of rubber to prevent pregnancy. He genuinely thinks not only that he should be able to control American citizens and their lives and choices in that way, but that he can do so without jeopardising liberty.

Is this remotely defensible? Well, clearly not, and I’m the first one to find it repulsive and absurd. But I can think of three ways in which he could at least try to claim he’s not committing an obvious contradiction in talking this way:

  1. Obviously nobody protests that a candidate is unfairly attacking their freedom when they support laws banning murder. The whole point being, of course, that we don’t value in any sense the freedom of someone to kill somebody else without their permission. Now, no, I’m not suggesting using a condom is analogous to murdering. But in Santorum’s mind, both are wrong, and perhaps for similar reasons: they’re contrary to the will of God. And if that’s the criterion for the permissibility and subsequent legality of something, you can see why he can convince himself that he can run the two together without batting an eyelid. “Of course you shouldn’t be free to use contraception. Doing stuff like that isn’t what we mean by freedom.”
  2. This is probably only a more sophisticated way of saying the same thing, but there is a tendency for us to talk of freedom in terms of achieving an end goal. Buddhists talk of the ‘liberation’ of reaching Nirvana, existentialists of breaking free from social conventions and living authentically according to your true desires, and, similarly, Christians can talk of the ‘freedom’ that attaches to following their interpretation of Scripture. This is a surprisingly popular way of understanding freedom. It is, clearly, in direct conflict with the idea of freedom as having a variety of choices (instead it’s about following the one path – the ‘right’ one) – but it’s still a tradition with backers from Plato through to Rousseau. It’s an understanding of freedom that Isaiah Berlin called ‘positive’ liberty. Santorum could claim he’s forcing us to be free by helping us to see the ‘perversions’ of sex not geared towards procreation, and by encouraging us to follow the True Path instead. I know, I know. But it’s an option…
  3. Finally, and I imagine, given his limited intellectual capacities and non-existent acquaintance with political philosophy, that this is what he in fact has in mind, he may just think that freedom isn’t about social issues. For some reason in America, their two leading values of capitalism and liberty have been conflated so badly that what it means to be free is to be buying and selling things, period. There is no liberty beyond the realm of economics. Now this goes some way to explaining their apparent ignorance of the fact they claim to be promoting liberty despite staunch conservatism on social issues, and it also explains their implicit opinion that big government spending wise (not in bedroom-invading terms) is oppressive: it involves taking lots of your money.

All three options are deeply objectionable and shouldn’t be mainstream opinion in any decent society. But they are a few ways of making Republicans sound slight less simple. Look at it as the flawed but intriguing substance a charitable interviewer could add to their horrible soundbites.