Saturday, May 07, 2005

Column on Why I Write Columns

Columns for Mind Teasing

Tibor R. Machan

What motivates people to write columns? There is no one answer that fits
all columnists?that?s a start of an answer. In my own case there is no one
motive?depends on the day, time, circumstances, my own state of mind, and
probably much I don?t even bother to learn of.

A few things I do know, about why I write columns, involve certain goals.
Among these foremost is the achievement of a world in which freedom is in
greater rather than lesser abundance, the freedom of the individual from
coercive intervention in his or her life. But why bother about this, one
might ask?

Well, I am convinced, from years of experiencing, thinking about, and
reading or otherwise studying the issue, that such freedom is a
precondition of moral conduct at any level whatsoever. Only free men and
women can choose to do what is right. And this is their first and foremost
task in life, so freedom as a condition of their community lives enhances
this task better than anything else.

Contrary to very popular belief, regimenting, regulating, ordering people
about to do what?s right is not the road to that goal at all. That?s
because choice is indispensable for right conduct. So if one wishes to
strive for a better world, one in which people more often than not do the
right thing, one cannot do much more as a general rule than promote human
liberty. Sure, one can make suggestions, implore people, advocate and
materially support this or that course of conduct, too. And one can and
should, needless to say, guide oneself to act properly. But as a matter of
the common good, championing and fighting for individual liberty is really
the best method.

Yet this is only my primary reason. Another is that I keep my own mind in
shape by writing on innumerable things. For this I need, of course, to
study, to keep up with what is going on in many disciplines. And by doing
all this I also generate discussions between me and those who take some
interest in my topics and how I treat them. This keeps me sharper than I
otherwise would be?use it or lose it, as the saying goes.

There are limits, though, to the value of the exchanges that are
generated from published writing, the main one being that some people
enter the exchange in a mean-minded fashion, wishing not to argue but to
insult and make the writer feel badly. I used to take the bait earlier in
my life but no longer. There is too much to do that?s constructive,
helpful, interesting, and so forth than to waste time on hurling insults
back and forth.

So I have this policy now?if I see an insult in the first few lines of an
email or letter?and even in a book review, when one of mine manages to
prompt one?I toss it. I don?t even continue. Sure, I risk losing some
possibly useful follow-up comments but not likely, I figure, since folks
who resort to insults usually haven?t much else to offer. And there are
lots of civil interlocutors around whom one would like not to ignore while
hassling with the uncivil ones.

In some ways there is benefit to not being a very famous columnist
because this makes it more likely that there is time to answer people who
make interesting, often critical, points in response to the mind-teasers
that short columns necessarily have to be. These missives merely raise
some issue, offer a few arguments and a bit of evidence, and then the rest
has to be worked out in more detail. And that?s OK?the division of labor
applies here as everywhere: Some folks need to do such mind-teasing both
for themselves and as a service, while others best do something else

There is also that motive of aiming to say things in ways that are
succinct yet clear. That?s sort of the artistic part of writing columns, I
believe. Crafting one is not all that simple?structure, form, expression,
language, and the rest all need to be managed reasonably well for the
thing to amount to something of value. And to get there now and then is,
of course, quite satisfying.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Column on Trampling the First (some additional quotes and corrections)

Coercive Zeal Gone Wild

Tibor R. Machan

If there are supposed to be some liberties that have still not been
massively undermined in America, they are those codified in the First
Amendment to the US Constitution. Both freedom of the press and of
religion?basically about holding and voicing beliefs of one?s own
choosing?are supposedly basic rights of all US citizens. (Some folks
dispute that this is so, claiming, I believe implausibly, that only the
federal government may not limit freedom of speech. Yet, of course, the
right is supposedly held by all citizens of the USA, anywhere?it derives
from our unalienable and equal natural right to liberty, listed in the US
Declaration, so if there is to be protection for this right, it clearly
must be provided in every nook and cranny of the country.)

These days, however, a great many people seem to believe that their
worries, sensibilities, feelings and such trump the First Amendment. I
have had a recent personal experience with just this trend.

In one of my columns I criticized the Americans for Disabilities Act for
imposing on various establishments, commercial and not, a legally enforced
duty of generosity and kindness toward disabled people. I noted that some
activists have gone so far as to harass small shops?for example, wineries
in the Central California regions (near Paso Robles and San Louis
Obispo)?with lawsuits that are then settled for big bucks in favor of the
complainants. I noted that this abuse, even officially condemned by a San
Francisco judge recently, is natural with a law that shouldn?t even be on
the books?no one?s generosity or good will ought ever to be compelled,
coerced from the person or corporation. What?s the moral merit in being
helpful to the disabled if one?s doing it at the point of the gun?

Well, several people with disability groups took umbrage with my views
but they didn?t simply leave it at writing letters to the editor to the
papers in which the column appeared. Nor did they think it enough to send
me several pretty nasty emails, claiming that I have offended them. All
that would have been par for the course and part and parcel of free?if not
entirely civil?exchange among citizens of a relatively free society.

No, all that?s not enough. The Executive Director, Ruthee Goldkorn, for
the Ms. Wheelchair California Pageant, contacted the president of the
university at which I teach and demanded that punitive action be taken
against me for voicing my views. Indeed, a demand was launched that I be
fired for my having published my views. Ms. Goldkorn wrote to Chapman's
president, saying "The purpose of this correspondence is to demand an
investigation of Prof. Machan and his prompt removal from your staff." She
went on, "I trust you will take this information very seriously, conduct a
full and open investigation and ultimately remove Professor Machan,?
adding, "This person has no business shaping minds and influencing
students of any age. He is the worst kind of bigot; the kind who hides
behind academia. He must be removed immediately." When the president
responded saying he will not fire or even reprimand me, Ms. Goldkorn
replied, ?Although Prof. Machan has received numerous emails and
correspondences expressing outrage at the sentiments expressed, I guess he
is safe and secure in his position at your institution.? Well, yes, he is,
since what he did is offer his ideas on some subject, and for this most
reputable academic institutions do not fire someone.

Several others approached the student newspaper claiming that I have done
some grave wrong for which I need to be punished by the university,
although the resulting article in the student paper never made clear just
what the complaining individuals actually wanted done. (One may wonder
what these folks want to happen to Greg Perry, a handicapped author of the
high critical book Disabling America [WND Books, 2003].)

Now what is extraordinary about this isn?t that the folks who support the
ADA and its vigilant enforcement were upset. One expects members of
special interest groups who gain government support to try to hang on to
that support. One need only check out the massive lobbying efforts
throughout the country?s various capitols to confirm the point. What is
really disturbing here is that some of the beneficiaries of these laws and
regulations are now perfectly willing to demand that people who disagree
with them be muzzled, fired, perhaps even jailed for their opinions. They
don't simply suggest such policies but demand them, as if they were
entitled to have their will imposed on the dissidents.

This outlook seems to be fueled by the conviction that everyone's support
of entitlements to special favoritism by government is of far greater
importance in our legal system than is the right of freedom of thought or
speech itself. The zeal with which they go to bat for their entitlements
is so fervent that not even the rights of freedom of speech and press are
supposed to remain in place if it means making it possible to give voice
to opposition to those entitlements.

It is interesting that often people fear the undermining of the First
Amendment from those on the political Right, mainly because they associate
such efforts with the attempt to censor pornography or blasphemy. Already
a few decades ago this proved to be a mistake, when some Leftist
feminists, such as law Professor Catherine MacKinnon, decided that
speaking badly of women should not gain constitutional protection (see her
book Only Words [Harvard University Press, 1993]). Today, thinking it's
the Right that's a threat to civil liberties is clearly wrong, what with
political correctness guiding universities and other institutions in their
hiring and promotion policies.

Although the ACLU is still holding to its defense of the First Amendment,
many statists and their constituency, including many members of special
interest groups, have nearly totally abandoned their commitment to the
free discussion of topics that make some people uncomfortable or that some
consider offensive. Which just goes to show you: Back during the McCarthy
era, when the Left was being harassed, its supporters were unyielding in
their defense of civil liberties, especially the right to free thought or

Now that they are running many government agencies, their outlook seems
to be: Forget about those inconvenient basic rights if they may hamper the
march toward total state control over our lives.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Column on Intelligent Design

Puzzles of Intelligent Design

Tibor R. Machan

When I was a child I was being raised as a Roman Catholic. I was, of
course, baptized, took first communion, and was confirmed. I attended
church pretty regularly although this was in Communist Hungary where we
later learned that many of those giving sermons belonged to what were
called ?the red priests,? members of the clergy who made some kind of
appeasement with the Communist government. Yet there were some famous
members, as well, who opposed communism with great courage?Cardinal
Midszenty, for example.

In time, however, I came to wonder just what I was believing and why. I
argued with priests after they gave sermons on angels and the duty of
self-sacrifice, finding these notions incredible. But I carried on as a
good soldier, blaming myself for daring to question. One time while in the
US Air Force, when I was about 19, I went to confession on Sunday and
heard myself saying the ritualistic sentence, ?And I will do my best not
to sin again,? when I realized that Monday I was planning to go on a date
and had every intention to sin, so I said to the priest hearing my
confession, ?But father, I am not sure I am being honest about this, since
I have a date tomorrow evening and will probably sin and I know this now.?
Without missing a beat he replied, ?Just mean it for now.?

This was that proverbial last straw on the camel?s back?it made no sense
to me to make a promise you know you are going to break by just intending
it ?for now.? It set me off on a very long journey of reexamination of
what I was believing, why, did it make sense, how dare I question
something so well established in my world, etc., and so forth.

Of course, all along I had raised questions of the elementary kind?could
God ever make a rock so big He couldn?t lift it? How could God could come
from nothing but the world needed Him to create it? If everything in the
world needs a cause, does this mean the world itself, which contains all
the causes, could be caused by something else?where would that come from?
Yes, I was a devil of a kid.

Eventually I decided to take up the study of philosophy in order to
refine my inquires, to meet up with some pretty good
thinkers?philosophers, theologians, psychologists?who would help me get
clear on some of these issues (and many others). At the end of the day?at
least for most of the days I recall?I decided I wasn?t going to believe in
these things; I simply couldn?t get past my doubts even if it showed
strong hubris. (Indeed, another nail in the coffin was reading Thomas a
Kempis [circa 1379], Imitation of Christ, who had claimed we humans sin by
seeking knowledge since this is an affront to God, the only one who can
really know.)

Nevertheless, the issue of God is always before us, especially if one
teaches philosophy, and being dogmatic in whatever side one takes is very
bad form, indeed. So now I am thinking about this ?Intelligent Design?
position that is making the rounds, although by all accounts it is a
variation on what is known as the cosmological argument.

As the Stanford (on line) Encyclopedia of philosophy tells it, ?[i]t uses
a general pattern of argumentation (logos) that makes an inference from
certain alleged facts about the world (cosmos) to the existence of a
unique being, generally referred to as God. Among these initial claims are
that the world came into being, that the world is such that at any future
time it could either be or not be (the world is contingent), or that
certain beings in the world are causally dependent or contingent. From
these facts philosophers infer either deductively or inductively that a
first cause, a necessary being, an unmoved mover, or a personal being
(God) exists. The cosmological argument is part of classical natural
theology, whose goal has been to provide some evidence for the claim that
God exists.? The current version, ID, holds that since there are numerous
facts about our world that are very orderly and work in a lawlike fashion,
and since we haven?t got naturalistic (e.g., Darwinian) explanations for
all of them, it must have been God, an intelligent designer, who created
it all.

This being a fairly big issue, I want to just convey my two big problems
with it. First, the design of the world isn?t actually all that
intelligent, considering how many matters seem to go awry all the time,
especially with us. Second, and more importantly, intelligence is produced
by a living brain, so the idea that there had been intelligence prior to
the world defies what we know pretty well?a brain requires the world for
it to exist.

I guess, I remain unconvinced and the advocates of ID need to go back to
the drawing board.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Column on Whether to Besmirch or Praise Liberty

To Besmirch or to Praise, that's the Question

Tibor R. Machan

One may, I think, assume that from the beginning of human thought there
has been this battle between those who stress our capacity to screw up and
those who focus mainly on all the nifty things we can accomplish. Just
think about the idea of original sin?why make such a big deal of the fact
that people are, of course, free to sin or do vicious things, when they
are also just as able and even more likely to act virtuously, creatively,

Alas, it would be quite a task to do the math here. Are people more
likely to do well or badly? It looks like on the whole the more optimistic
assessment wins out, although it is difficult to show this without a
pretty well worked out set of standards, ones that are likely to be highly
controversial. On a common sense level, too, the task is daunting because
the reporting of good news is so much less popular in the mainstream
media; even the fictional representation of humanity?s lot tends to stress
the dark side. In the realms of art and entertainment the macabre or
horrible, wherein people and their circumstances come off pretty much on
the downside, seems to dominate. While some religions, like the Seventh
Day Adventists, do advise us to look on the bright side of things?I am
thinking here of my favorite bumper sticker, ?Notice the good and praise
it,? which I recall them producing some years ago?mostly they tend to
focus on us all as sinners.

I am reflecting on this after having finally seen the award winning
German movie, ?Good Bye, Lenin,? about the East German lady who falls into
a coma just before the Berlin Wall comes down and, so as to spare her any
excitement when she awakens, she is kept in the dark about all the changes
that have occurred in consequence of this momentous event. As the changes
are depicted in the movie, you get a good illustration of how some folks
revel in a negatives of human affairs.

The West, of course, has been much more free for people than the East,
during the Cold War, and this can use examination and illustration in a
film like ?Good Bye, Lenin.? So what do we get from the people who gave us
this widely acclaimed little gem?

Well, the first thing about the free West that?s depicted for us is
pornography. Next come some pretty gaudy advertisements. Then scenes after
scenes of decadence. That is how the prevailing freedom in West Germany is
represented for the viewing audience.

There is not a thing about the benign creative initiative that freedom
unleashes, no showing of how freedom of commerce makes lives so much more
promising for everyone, nothing much about the bustling employment market
or about civil liberties, no. It?s all about how when you get to be free,
you can make a gory mess of things.

And for this the flick was hailed as being so insightful, so quaint, so
important to make so as to show how East German idealism had to give way
to crass ?McCapitalism.? The director and co-author, [ ]Wolfgang Becker, never tires of
rubbing it in that where freedom reigns, people can behave in less that
admirable, noble ways. This is probably the criticism that has undermined
the free, capitalist society for centuries, indeed from the very beginning
when the idea of human political and economic liberty began to be floated
among political theorists. Acknowledging that human beings ought to live
in freedom has always been undermined by this pessimist outlook, one that
while true, is also far less than half of the truth.

A classic example comes from Karl Marx, when he said, in his famous
essay, ?On the Jewish Question,? that ?the right of man to property is the
right to enjoy his possessions and dispose of the same arbitrarily,
without regard for other men, independently from society, the right of
selfishness.? Never mind for the moment that ?selfishness? may not be all
that terrible, should it include, for example, one?s better education, the
health care of one?s loved ones, etc. Let us just grant, for the sake of
argument, that such a right?as the right to one?s life or one?s
liberty?makes it possible for people to do some shady stuff, including to
dispose of their possessions arbitrarily, ?without regard to other men,
independently of society.?

Yet, of course, they could and mostly do make use of their private
property productively, creatively, in what is called a win-win fashion,
exchanging what they have for what others have in a way that everyone is
better off. But no. Old Karl, just like our little movie, had to focus on
the worst possible cases, on how some folks might make less than the most
efficient, most admirable use of what they have the right to do and own.

To all this I wish to recall our nifty bumper sticker: ?Notice the good
and praise it.? Just pay attention and notice if I?m right.