December 20, 2006

When divas attack.

Virginia Postrel -- who's competing with me in a diva contest -- paraphrases something I wrote like this:
Grande Conservative Blogress Diva frontrunner Ann Althouse attends a Liberty Fund conference and decides libertarian and conservative intellectuals are scarily like the 9/11 hijackers. (My response to her specifics is in the comments.) It does seem rather divalike...
What did I actually say?
I am struck ... by how deeply and seriously libertarians and conservatives believe in their ideas. I'm used to the way lefties and liberals take themselves seriously and how deeply they believe. Me, I find true believers strange and -- if they have power -- frightening. And my first reaction is to doubt that they really do truly believe.

One of the reasons 9/11 had such a big impact on me is that it was such a profound demonstration of the fact that these people are serious. They really believe.
Is the Postrel paraphrase apt? It does omit the fact that I made a closer comparison between libertarians and conservatives on the one hand and lefties and liberals on the other. And, in context -- what terse context there is -- you can see that I'm talking about the ideologues and hardcore fundamentalists of either stripe.

I mean to say -- and it's there to be seen if you are a sympathetic reader -- that I instinctively think of my fellow human beings as sensible and practical. We have some ideas and principles but we also watch how things play out in the real world and are prepared to modify what with think and correct our course when things aren't going well. People who embrace an idea with a death grip scare me, and they should scare you too. Look at history. Look what happens when people believe so deeply they lose sight of where their ideas are taking them and go along with their ideas even if they require other people to suffer and die. I don't trust the true believers and ideologues. I find them strange when they don't seem to feel the pull of common sense and human empathy. I don't want them to have power. They can sit around thinking and talking or praying and brooding, but I don't want to see what they would do with the world. That said, obviously, most people who are attracted to religion or politics of the left and the right are ordinary practical, sensible people. I still think that. It will still surprise me to encounter anyone in a death embrace with an idea.

Let's look at what Virginia said in the comments:
I don't know who was at this conference, and I've never read Frank Meyer, but I have been to dozens of Liberty Fund conferences and, more often than not, found them to be genuine conversations where disagreements are invited. The point is the conversation, and no one is invited to a conference in order to be "persuaded" or tested for ideological purity. (Lately, Liberty Fund has, however, been interested in including bloggers.)
That was true here, and I never said otherwise. But no one was invited to represent the liberal or left positions, and things were set up to create a sense that we were honoring Meyer.
But, and this may be why Ann is so uncomfortable, assumptions that go without questioning in some contexts--like Madison, Wisc.--do not necessarily enjoy such lack of scrutiny around a Liberty Fund table.
Well, that completely misunderstands what I wrote! I said that people at the table shared assumptions that would have been instantly challenged in my usual place of Madison, Wisconsin, and that I continually felt I needed to voice positions that were quite obvious and needed to be said and that would have been ignored if I hadn't taken on something of the role of resident liberal. By the way, if they had wanted to persuade me or proselytize, it would have been a horrible mistake to leave that vacuum, which I got sucked into. That left me feeling far more antagonistic than I would otherwise have been.
On the specific issue of civil rights, in my experience libertarians then and now have been divided about the question of public accommodation (as opposed to desegregation of government facilities like schools). Some, including myself, are acutely aware of the need to break the racial caste system that had been enforced through a combination of legal strictures and legally tolerated terrorism in the South. We are therefore willing to make the tradeoff in sacrificing freedom of association.
And, in that case, I won't classify you with the fundamentalists and ideologues who scare me. But you concede that you've got some libertarian friends who -- even today -- in the name of property rights, would have allowed private businesses to continue to discriminate based on race for as long as they felt like it. I was amazed to encounter people who not only thought that and admitted it, but insisted on fighting about it with idealistic fervor.
But, unlike our blog hostess, we explicitly recognize that such a tradeoff exists.
I don't know where that comes from. Explicitly recognize? Maybe that only means that I didn't write out a sentence in my post saying that I am capable of seeing something. So what? Obviously, I know that if you tell a restaurant owner he can't exclude black people that diminishes his autonomy and personal freedom. Telling people they can't rape and murder also limits individual choice, but I don't have to explicitly recognize that every time I write about it.
Others, most notably Richard Epstein among contemporaries, think that tradeoff has had too many negative consequences, including tangled arguments about whether private employers should be allowed to implement affirmative action. (He thinks they should be allowed to.)

As for the argument about whether economic pressures would or could have ended Jim Crow, it's hard to know how such a counterfactual would have worked out in practice; certainly there is some evidence, e.g., from the steel industry in Birmingham, that "foreign" (i.e., northern) firms resisted segregation. It's hard to picture a South full of segregated McDonald's, but one never knows. Certainly outsiders who wanted to integrate their customer bases or workforces were freer to do so than locals, who were subject to financial pressures (local banks could be nasty enforcers) and, in many cases, physical threats.

It can indeed be shocking to encounter such arguments for the first time, but that doesn't mean those arguments aren't worth thinking about, if only to understand why, other than knee-jerk "this is what everybody I know thinks" reasons, you believe they are wrong. The quality of the discussion at a Liberty Fund conference depends largely on exactly who the 16 people are and whether they are willing and able to enter into the spirit of the discussion.
I'm not encountering these arguments for the first time. I teach about them every year when we do Heart of Atlanta and Katzenbach v. McClung in Con Law. What is shocking is to encounter walking relics who are in love with the ideas that were used back in the 1960s to fight off the Civil Rights movement... and who aren't ashamed to declare their love publicly.

I'm not referring to everyone at the conference, it should be noted. Generally, people were smart, articulate, and decent. The conference was extremely well-run, interesting, and valuable. I don't want my following up on this point to cause anyone to think otherwise.

(To vote in the diva contest, go here. You can vote once a day.)

38 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ann - Make your list of the 5 or 10 most powerful people in the history of the world. Include on your list only those whom you feel to be, on balance, a positive force for humanity. How many of the names on your list would you characterize as "true believers"? How many would fall into the "practical" category?

CB said...

Oh, I get it--only a true diva bloggress would expect her readers to read a post this long first thing in the morning. Nicely done ;)

Mark said...

As one of those you label a "walking relic", I predict that you will increasingly have doubts in the years to come about the wisdom of forced association as aggressive muslims use the same arguments the black civil rights advocates did. They will wedge themselves into our society with these arguments based on the idea that there should be no real freedom of association if it means that some minority group finds it difficult to operate. As you watch the shiny domes of mosques appear in cities across America, and as the aggressiveness towards and intimidation of we natives increases, you may find yourself doubting whether policies that forbid a people to protect itself from invasion by incompatible Others is really that noble rather than naive and suicidal.

In my opinion the entire modern multiculturalist idea that America is a creedal nation is founded on a flawed understanding of human nature. It just doesn't work to try to mix very different peoples in a single nation. The way to peace and goodwill is for each people to have their own nation and to respect the borders of other nations. America has worked as well as it has because it was mainly a monolithic white Christian nation; but even with the high degree of similarity between the European ethnic groups that made up America, there was plenty of friction and it took centuries for the groups to assimilate. Blacks have still not assimilated and look less likely to as time passes. And muslims are perhaps the most incompatible group on earth for Westerners.

So call me a walking relic if you like but I predict that within the next twenty or thirty years you will feel differently. By then the failure of the multiculturalist worldview will have been quite apparent.

SteveR said...

I have been around here for awhile and I was pretty certain about what you said about the conference and more importantly pretty sure about what you didn't say.

When you feel you have to write something and don't have a good understandiung of your topic, easy to misunderstand it.

I'm not a blogger but seems to me just because you feel like writing something and just because you can, and just because people expect you to... doesn't mean you should.

Anonymous said...

Having read (and participated in) the comments of your original post, it seems to me that the lack of detail (as you just provided) inadvertantly allowed people to make assumptions about what you "really meant."

In my case, I figured you encountered some people like you just explained you did: those who buy into classical libertarian philosophy hook, line, and sinker. They are, as you so aptly state: "People who embrace an idea with a death grip," and, in my experience, very definitely "believe so deeply they lose sight of where their ideas are taking them and go along with their ideas even if they require other people to suffer and die."

Perhaps I am fortunate that I was probably corect in my guess as to what happened. I'm surprised that Virginia Postrel didn't recognize the same possibilities, and instead fell into the trap of assuming rather than asking for a clarification.

dklittl said...

Mark,

Simply wow. I was trying to understand where Ann was coming from and then I read your post and everything is perfectly clear. I will play nice and call you a "nativist" at best, but your "White Christian nation" thing sounds a lot more extreme than that.

Anonymous said...

That's the trouble with people - once they think you're not on their side, they don't tend to give your words very charitable interpretions any more.

Funny to see this coming from Atrios _and_ Jane Galt in the space of what, a week? :)

Maybe this is why Volokh is always so verbose.

stephenb said...

Oh no...another blog brawl.

Gahrie said...

Is it virtuous to be tolerant, or even welcoming, to that which is intolerant and even inimical?

Ann Althouse said...

Trevor: But here are some things about me you have to understand:

1. I care about the writing itself.

2. I like terse writing that poses a puzzle for the reader. I am trying to challenge (and amuse), not to ensure that everyone knows exactly what my opinions and is persuaded that they are good.

3. I want to be provocative, and when people react, even when they misread and misunderstand, I like it.

4. People get mad at me every day in the blogosphere and have for a long time. You're not seeing me change my technique as a result. It's not because I don't know what I'm doing.

Anonymous said...

[Mark] your notion that "the way to peace and goodwill is for each people to have their own nation and to respect the borders of other nations" is at odds with the wisdom of Emo Phillips:

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said "Stop! don't do it!"
"Why shouldn't I?" he said. I said,
"Well, there's so much to live for!"
He said, "Like what?"
I said, "Well...are you religious or atheist?"
He said, "Religious."
I said, "Me too!
Are you christian or buddhist?"
He said, "Christian."
I said, "Me too!
Are you catholic or protestant?"
He said, "Protestant."
I said, "Me too!
Are you episcopalian or baptist?"
He said, "Baptist!"
I said,"Wow! Me too!
Are you baptist church of god or baptist church of the lord?"
He said, "Baptist church of god!"
I said, "Me too!
Are you original baptist church of god, or are you reformed baptist church of god?"
He said,"Reformed Baptist church of god!"
I said, "Me too!
Are you reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1879, or reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915?"
He said, "Reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915!"
I said, "Die, heretic scum", and pushed him off.
-- Emo Phillips

Anonymous said...

I want to help you out in your dick fight for blog diva: a GIS for Virginia Postrel reveals several breast shots!

For what it's worth, her paraphrase was in fact, quite apt.

corporate law drudge said...

Second that "Wow"

Paul Zrimsek said...

I mean to say -- and it's there to be seen if you are a sympathetic reader -- that I instinctively think of my fellow human beings as sensible and practical.

Clearly so-- if you really and truly did think of Islamist terrosists up through 9/10 as pragmatic skeptics who'd happened to reach the tentative conclusion, based on the best available studies, that the public interest would best be served by more suicide attacks on American warships and embassies. (Confidence interval 0.90. More study is needed.) The rest of us, to the extent we'd thought about them at all, pretty much took it for granted that they were fanatics and therefore were shocked only to learn how much damage they were capable of doing to us here in the US.

Anonymous said...

Gahrie: Perhaps it is more a case of drawing a line in the sand. Almost everyone agrees that a line needs be drawn but disagrees about where to draw that line.

Some are shocked that others would draw it so far above the shoreline as to be inland, while others are dismayed by those who would keep re-drawing the line at the low tide mark with full knowledge that it will disappear at the onset of high tide.

Gahrie said...

internet ronin:

Some of us are a little concerned about the mobile nature of the line. Those on the left seem to draw a line that may not be passed, only to draw another line that may not be passed once the first one has.

Meanwhile, Islam seems to reject the notion of any lines at all.

Anonymous said...

Oh I understand. I just said it was funny. Funny is good.

Anonymous said...

4. People get mad at me every day in the blogosphere and have for a long time. You're not seeing me change my technique as a result. It's not because I don't know what I'm doing.

Ann Althouse works in mysterious ways.

rafinlay said...

An honest query: do you have the same reaction to those who hold "leftier" death-grip beliefs (like multiculturalism)? I guess I would expect that an emotional reaction would be stronger if the belief were from further out of your normal milieu, but I am curious.
Personally, I am not far from where I perceive you to be (which probably means something completely different than your own perception, admittedly), but may have less faith in human nature.

Der Hahn said...

My guess is that Ms Postrel zeroed in on these replies in the comments (posted 6:39pm 12/15/2006)

to Daryl Herbert

I think: 1. because of the blog, 2. as a test to see if I would fit, and 3. out of a delusional belief that their ideas would be persuasive.

and in reply to knoxgirl

There were some fine people there, but I don't think they would have invited me if they had known what I would end up being, and I think there were many people there who felt deprived of what they wanted it to be because I brought up things that they would have preferred not to have to hear about, things that the regular world brings up all the time.

Those statements seem pretty clear to me.

Daryl Herbert said...

What is shocking is to encounter walking relics who are in love with the ideas that were used back in the 1960s to fight off the Civil Rights movement... and who aren't ashamed to declare their love publicly.

So maybe I was right in the previous post--it's not that Ann is afraid of any strongly-held beliefs, she's afraid of bad ideas that are strongly held.

Like, let's destroy America to usher in the Caliphate--and let's believe in it so strongly we're willing to carry out the 9/11 attacks.

Or, let's roll back important civil rights laws--and let's believe in it so strongly that we're willing to make an ass of ourselves at parties.

Of course, #2 is only scary if those people have political power and can actually bring about their "reforms," whereas #1 is scary all the time, because only a few people need to get together to pull off something relatively big.

Is Ann's big scary revelation that one or two libertarians have crazy beliefs (big shock, there--like there's any group devoid of that), or how the other libertarians reacted towards those expressing a higher degree of ideological purity? I hope Ann didn't just get bent out of shape over one or two dweebs. Her post conveyed the idea that she is more skeptical of libertarians in general.

knoxgirl said...

Admittedly, the very same quotes that der hahn cited came to my mind reading this. I certainly left that first discussion under the assumption that you believed you were invited to be "converted," but when it clearly wasn't working, you were unwelcome.

I took your word for it. Now I don't know what to think about the conference, because now it seems that isn't so... ?

Anyway, my interest is about the conference, and the people's attitude there, by the way, not in the endless speculation as to your personal political beliefs.

Simon said...

"So maybe I was right in the previous post--it's not that Ann is afraid of any strongly-held beliefs, she's afraid of bad ideas that are strongly held."

That would be my preferred interpretation, too.

John Kindley said...

I wonder whether it might do more good than harm to humbly acknowledge those rare but inevitable occasions when you've been wrong or at least expressed things poorly or inadequately. I understand the President's refusal to fall into the purely political traps of those who have frequently called for him to admit error, real or perceived, but a blogger is not similarly constrained by his/her function in society (though a blogress cultivating a diva image and trying to win a diva contest might be;).

I think it's safe to say that your post and associated comments to which Virginia Postrel is responding did cast a distinctly negative light on the Liberty Fund conference itself and libertarians in general. Perhaps what's called for is not so much a tail-between-your-legs-apology, but a civil acknowledgment of the validity of Postrel's critique of what you actually did say, which at the very least had the merit of eliciting from you important clarifications that were lacking in your original posts and comments.

I understand your point about wanting to be terse and provacative, but this in itself does not lessen the validity of critiques thus provoked. Moreover, terse writing that is somewhat amibiguous and naturally challenges the reader to fruitfully inquire into the writer's meaning is one thing; terse writing that on its face appears to distinctly convey a meaning that the reader will naturally construe as disparaging particular viewpoints or people is another -- even if, and especially if, the writer doesn't really believe what she has conveyed.

knoxgirl said...

Rereading, I see V. Postrel basically satisfied my curiosity: The quality of the discussion at a Liberty Fund conference depends largely on exactly who the 16 people are and whether they are willing and able to enter into the spirit of the discussion.

Henry said...

Ann - What is shocking is to encounter walking relics who are in love with the ideas that were used back in the 1960s to fight off the Civil Rights movement

Could I propose a non-libertarian example?

One of the biggest challenges for civil rights leaders was dealing with Southern juries that would not convict racist thugs and murderers. This created a conundrum for union leaders who supported the civil rights movement. Labor organizers had fought hard to win the right of trial by jury in their own struggles. It was very difficult for them to support any call to set that right aside.

It's not shocking that someone may lionize ideas that can be corrupted by cretins; it is shocking if someone is unwilling to recognize the real-world cost when this happens.

Simon said...

I agree with John to some extent - in truth, even the regular Althousian commentariat read those two posts and found them unclear enough to spawn a lot of different interpretations over what exactly the message was. This isn't to say that Postrel's interpretation was reasonable, just that these were posts that were written in strong and sweeping language but which lacked clear statements of what it was that they were criticizing and hence, their scope.

Henry,
But what was at issue in the south wasn't the right to trial by jury, but jury nullification, which is a quite different issue. Coincidentally, I am reading a book on that very subject at present, Jury Nullification: The Evolution of a Doctrine by Clay Conrad, and I thoroughly recomend it.

Oxbay said...

Hey Althouse, here's a question. Absent the historical application of Jim Crow laws in a black/white context would you still be willing to cede important individual rights to the federal government?

Simon said...

Oxbay,
I don't mean to presume to answer for Ann, but to the extent you answered a binary question, I suppose that whether the answer is yes or no would depend on just how important, how morally imperative and how constitutionally permissable the goal was relative to the importance of the rights that would need to be ceded to achieve it.

Jim Hu said...

I think Virginia Postrel's reading of the original post is not unfair, and this clarification does little to alter the impression that you find libertarians not just misguided but also scary.

In particular, the comparison of allowing private businesses to choose who their customers with allowing rape and murder is...interesting? Since Althouse knows what she's doing, I'm sure this choice was made for a reason.

Disclaimer: I read both Althouse and Postrel regularly, and I nominated VP for the GP Grande Conservative Blogress Diva. As much as I enjoy Althouse, Virginia's blogging about kidney donation is one of the major highlights of my blog reading from 2006.

katiebakes said...

Jon Krakauer makes a an interesting observation about zealousness (zeal?) in his book about Mormon fundamentalists, "Under the Banner of Heaven".

Krakauer is far better known for writing "Into Thin Air", the account of a doomed Everest expedition, and "Into the Wild" which is about a doomed Thoreau wannabe who dies of hypothermia in the desolate woods.

In the introduction to "Under the Banner..." he compares Mormon Fundamentalists with the type of extreme adventure-loving mountain climbers he typically writes about, noting that they are the same in their blind devotion to one thing, whether that be thrill-seeking/mountaineering or Mormonism.

It is an interesting comparison - however tame something may seem at the outset, it can be dangerous to oneself and others if taken to the extreme.

Hey said...

I'm dismayed that you reject the position so completely as to be anathema, rather than just that it is impractical or doesn't accept the very real problems of society.

Your strawmen are further areas of disappointment, in that the life and health of an individual is very different from their ability to shop at a given location.

The final aspect is that this sort of discrimination is only punishable when it is committed by certain groups. It is not enforced, nor thought to be a legal requirement, equally or equivalently, rather only with regards to power structures (to use a Madison term). Now there are good reasons for that, and the application of FHA rules (derivative of Heart, used as but one of many anti-discrimination laws) on gender or sexuality lines tends to be exceedingly stupid (women or gays do have VERY good reasons for discriminating in providing housing), but this raises questions about the offended such as yourself.

This isn't really about equality, as you note in your explanation of why it is necessary. So then it is about the appropriate way to use government power unequally against people whom you don't like. Especially given the social progress that has been made, perhaps we need to restrain the state more. It's also not completely out of line to note that much social progress was made without the color of law, and that it would perhaps have been a better idea to continue that instead of the intrusion of the federal government. These arguments mirror the analysis of other governmental intrusions into working hours, minimum wage, minimum age etc.

You can very easily see the limits of Heart, etc by going into neighbourhoods or businesses where you definitively don't resemble the clientele. In a non-trivial amount of places you will be encouraged or required to leave. In a greater number of places you will face hostility, sub-par service, and interesting problems. Given our respective pallors its not a big deal and we're unlikely to make a federal case out of it. Offering up less intrusive and oppressive solutions to this behaviour isn't so horrific. Misguided, perhaps (I can argue 19 different sides of it and convince myself), but not inherently evil, unless you are such a Madisonite that anything to do with the pale-penis conspiracy is evil.

knoxgirl said...

It is an interesting comparison - however tame something may seem at the outset, it can be dangerous to oneself and others if taken to the extreme.

There is indeed a very real danger of Pepsi overdose if Mormonism is taken to its extreme.

Joseph Hovsep said...

I read this post this morning and basically thought through the original post on the conference and then came back tonight and read though the comments and have nothing really to add, except that I didn't even notice the title of the post this morning but tonight it made me laugh out loud.

Revenant said...

Ann,

I believe it was your comment "I need to be more vigilant", in conjunction with the 9/11 invocation, that made it seem like you were comparing libertarians to terrorists. The "vigilant" remark implied that, as with terrorists, libertarians were a threat that needed to be guarded against.

Telling people they can't rape and murder also limits individual choice, but I don't have to explicitly recognize that every time I write about it.

You've missed Ms. Postrel's point, I think. Her point is that it is *wrong* to forbid private racial discrimination, but a wrong which was necessary to fix a far greater wrong. The lesser evil, basically. Your rape/murder parallel suggests that you don't see anything wrong at all with banning racial discrimination for whatever reason. A libertarian would say that banning rape is a pure good, as the libertarian "cardinal sin" is unprovoked and unjustified against another person's body or property.

What is shocking is to encounter walking relics who are in love with the ideas that were used back in the 1960s to fight off the Civil Rights movement... and who aren't ashamed to declare their love publicly.

I don't see what's so shocking about encountering them *now*, since the argument against their position has largely evaporated over the years. A very strong case could be made that government bans on racial discrimination were necessary to break the cultural inertia of hundreds of years of racism. No credible case can be made that the laws are still necessary for that original purpose.

I would also point out that anyone who supports affirmative action believes that businesses can refuse to sell to someone of the "wrong" skin color -- that is, after all, exactly what happens when a university allocates its limited number of freshman enrollments on the basis of race. Yet presumably you don't find it shocking that people support affirmative action; I'd guess that most of your coworkers support it, if UW Madison is a typical college. Why is it "shocking" to see nothing wrong with allowing store owners to charge blacks more than whites for a candy bar, but not shocking to see nothing wrong with letting university owners demand higher admissions criteria of whites and Asians? How is denying a poor white kid a college education less of an affront to human decency than not letting a black guy shop at the Circle-KKK?

Simon said...

"the libertarian 'cardinal sin' is unprovoked and unjustified against another person's body or property."

Then why is unprovoked and unjustified racial discrimination against another person's body or property acceptable? That victim is still injured.

Zeb Quinn said...

Let's get this out of the way first: Ending the repulsive and abhorrent practice of slavery, including all badges and incidents of slavery, and knocking down the barriers which were preventing the former slaves and their descendants from participating as fully-fledged equal citizens in America, were all very important undertakings, first as a basic item of fundamental human dignity, and second as a country that purports to be the land of freedom and liberty for all, and holds itself out as the beacon on the hill for that.

Okay?

But, nevertheless, with all that said and acknowledged, at some point it needs to be decided whether those values and efforts, important, noble, and laudable as they are, necessarily and always trump and supercede all else. Are we saying that all the other values we hold dear, all the other rights contained in the Bill of Rights and elsewhere, everybody else's individual rights, and everybody else's property rights, must necessarily yield when the Important Work of Equality is afoot? It seems to be where we're at. If it is seriously stated or opined that this or that, whatever it is, must happen because it serves the value of civil rights and/or racial equality, then everything else must give way. Is that really where we want to be as a society?

It is a simple thing for the liberal mind to sweep those concerns aside as mere trivialities, but, trust me, they don't seem trivial at all when it is your rights and it is your property that are at issue.

I'm suggesting that the rights of black people, the descendants of slaves, and all other peoples too for that matter, to participate in America equally regardless of skin color is an important right and an important value, but it is only one right and value among several others --indeed many others-- not less important than any of those others, but not more important than any other either. It must coexist with all the other private individual rights that all Americans have in our pantheon of rights. And there are times --many times in fact-- when it must yield too.

Revenant said...

Then why is unprovoked and unjustified racial discrimination against another person's body or property acceptable? That victim is still injured.

Only in some dippy metaphorical sense. No actual injury to body or property occurs.