The Panda Reflex

Because it’s that special Roe v. Wade anniversary time of year . . .

I once heard somebody refer to “a vegetarian pro-choicer” as a contradiction in terms.  At the time, I chuckled appreciatively, since it made sense to me; how could you feel concerned over the lost lives of chickens, but not unborn human children?  Since then, however, I’ve come to appreciate that there’s no contradiction there at all.  In fact, I would argue that it is logically inconsistent for a pro-choice individual to not be vegetarian, or indeed fail to show what most of us would consider an inordinate concern for animal welfare.

In general, the pro-life stance is based on the idea that fetuses (and possibly embryos, blastocysts, etc., depending how one defines “pro-life”) are human and thus worthy of protection.  In turn, the typical retort from the pro-choice side is that, while a fetus may be human, it has not acquired personhood prior to one particular point in development.  There are other arguments–Post-Abortion Syndrome, the “famous violinist”–but these are largely peripheral.

Let us suppose that personhood is definitely acquired by the time of birth (again, I have read arguments to the effect that infanticide is morally permissible, but that’s thankfully a fringe position).  The notion of personhood, in this context, is usually contingent on the entity in question having reached a certain level of mental sophistication–it has a mind, and is therefore a real person.  So, the intellectual level of a newborn is definitely enough to make you a person. Continue reading

Head and Hands

As the father of a two-year-old, I face many challenges.  One of the most persistent and difficult has been getting my little man to stop throwing.  For the longest time, his first (and only) impulse on catching sight of a small object was to pick it up and hurl it in a random direction, purely to see how well it flew.  It took a long time, and a lot of reminders, to get him to the point where he is now: he only forgets and starts chucking things around when we are not present, or when he’s suddenly distracted by something.  So, once or twice a day, that we know of.  It helps a bit to channel the urge by letting him go outside and throw his balls or his Frisbee.

In the course of this long quest for civilized behavior, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the causes of such a deeply ingrained urge.  I’ve concluded that, in essence, I’m fighting evolution here: he has a strong urge to learn how to throw hard and accurate, and we are frustrating it when we tell him no.  And that urge exists for a very good reason.  For millions of years, our ancestors needed every hand in the group to pummel the snot out of any large predator that showed its fanged mug around their territory.  Even when predators were not a risk, it would have been an essential hunting skill for a pre-archery group.

At any rate, my son learns quickly; I showed him how to throw the Frisbee less than a month ago, and he straightaway adapted the sideways technique to double his distance with a ball (still working on doing it accurately).  If my boy’s desire to hurl were indulged completely, I imagine that by age five he would be able to throw a rock with sufficient force to knock a full-grown man unconscious.  If you do not believe me, you clearly are not the parent of a little boy.  Perhaps girls do it too; I don’t know. Continue reading

The Darkened Ages

“You see this boat, children?  Do you know who used to row boats like that?  Slaves.  All slaves.  They were chained to their oars, and they were whipped to make them work, and if the ship sank they went down with it.  Isn’t that horrible?”

I manage to hold back my sigh and grimace.  In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t much matter if these sixth-graders swallow a grossly incorrect tidbit of information about ancient history.  Certainly it would be both foolish and wrong to interrupt her in front of the class and undermine her authority by explaining that she’s thinking of Turkish galleys from nearly two thousand years later than the Greek trireme she is pointing to.  I wait until the end of class, while the students are chattering, to go up and quietly tell her that those rowers, far from being slaves, were the core voting bloc of the world’s first democracy.  That rowing a trireme was highly skilled labor, and they took pride in it, and the fact that their work was turning their little city-state into an empire.  That their importance in both war and peace had won them the franchise; that we vote today because they rowed back then.  That they did go down with the ship a lot–but it didn’t stop them from signing up in droves, because the back-breaking work made them the thriving middle class of the Greek world.  She nods and thanks me; I don’t know how much she’s taken in.  By and by, the end-of-day bell rings. Continue reading

Sound and Fury

At the risk of sounding colossally pretentious, I believe that an important part of being human is to live and think in narratives.  We love stories, and not just stories.  Everything about healthy human life is drenched in multiple layers of meaning.  Early modern thinkers thought of the mind as a blank slate that received impressions; now we know that perception is an immensely complex feat of computation.  Our minds are constantly receiving a flood of impressions and assembling them into an intricate internal mock-up or copy of the world.  As I write this, I am telling myself, “That narrow yellow thing with a broad white thing on top to my left is a lamp.  The bumpy clicky thing under my fingers is a keyboard,” and so on for all the hundreds of different objects in the cluttered room I’m typing this in.  You might say I have never actually known the world I live in, strictly speaking; I experience it through the gigantic copy of it I am making in my head. Continue reading

Revolutionary Privilege

I think that, in general, militants and revolutionaries come in three types:

  1. Idealistic, intelligent men (no theoretical bar to women, but typically men), usually educated and from the middle or upper classes, dedicated to the achievement of their ideals, with some idea how to achieve them, and willing to sacrifice for them.  The ideals are not always good–think Mao–but these folks know what they’re doing.
  2. Mercenary types clever enough to attain power, but not interested in any higher principle.  Saddam Hussein comes to mind.  The revolution ends when the leader is able to use tax money to build himself an art collection, or some palaces.  The best you can say is that this type knows not to kill the goose who’s laying the golden eggs.  They’ll keep their country together enough to continue sucking the lifeblood out of it.
  3. Violent, desperate men who have no particular skill beyond sudden, spastic outbursts of cruelty.  At this they may be very skilled–they live from murder to murder, gaining momentum from the chaos they make–but, when and if they win, they have no idea what to do with their victory.

Continue reading

A Shameful Display

Don’t have much free time to type gigantic blog posts this week, so here’s something I wrote a while ago.  Probably more polished anyway.

It’s one of the perverse ironies of modern life that Americans, living in the most individualistic society on earth, tend to be deeply uncomfortable with the actual exercise of free speech. Not openly, of course; in terms of legal accommodation, we’ll go to astonishing lengths to preserve the outward form of tolerance, to the point where a significant percentage of us thought it was in some sense wrong to keep the late Fred Phelps and his “church” from picketing the funerals of soldiers and politicians for free publicity. Continue reading