Warning: I am about to tread the dangerous ground of talking about my perceptions of race. This scares me to death. I am afraid of being perceived as racist, simply because I am a white person talking about the way I categorize other people into races. So I am making this disclaimer at the beginning - I do not think that any race is better than any other race.
I have been thinking about race lately because of the discussion on InstaPundit about interracial marriage. I think that people are only comfortable in relationships with people they define as being similar to themselves. Race can be one component of this, but there's also education, social status, areas of interest, being from the same geographical location, and a million other subdivisions people can make. I've been in relationships before with men I considered to be "unlike me" in some way - too old, less intelligent, not sharing my philosophy of life - and these relationships always made me feel anxious and uncomfortable. A relationship cannot work if one or both people see their partner as somehow "other". So reading InstaPundit's posts, I began to think about what role race plays for me in marking someone as "other".
There is a young woman who lives on my hall in the dorm. She is a very dark-skinned American of South Asian descent. She and I are just acquaintances, so I see her only when we happen to pass each other in the hall. Every time I see her, I do a small double-take at the fact that her skin is so dark. In my mind, she is not marked as being a different race than me, so I am always surprised when I notice that she is.
I know many African-Americans with a skin tone similar to that of this woman, and also African-Americans with darker and lighter skin. These people never surprise me. They are marked as "other" in my mind, and so I expect them to be non-white.
The only other group of people I seem to class as "other" are Hispanics, but this is more of a linguistic category than a racial one. Growing up in Texas, I discovered that people who speak Spanish were "not like me" because they could form their own groups, speak Spanish, and keep me from interacting with them. Even after I took four years of Spanish lessons in high school, I didn't know enough Spanish to carry on a decent conversation with a native speaker.
I think that when I was a child, I was in a sense "overtrained" in the lesson that black people are just like you and me. I never heard a racist remark, except in novels by Mark Twain which I did not understand. But I did hear a constant refrain, over and over, that "black people are just like you and me." And yet, I didn't have any friends who were black. The schools I went to had unbelievably few black students - usually less than 10 - and I either happened not to run into them, or didn't share their interests. I think that the combination of little interaction with black people and the repeated exhortations that I should not be prejudiced against black people caused me to notice that people are black. Every time I am introduced to a black person, my pre-school lesson runs through the back of my head: "This person is black, but she is no different from you and me. You should be nice to her." I think this actually makes it more difficult for me to interact with black people, because I am always too aware of what I am doing and saying.
Nobody ever told me, when I was a small child, that Asian people are just like you and me. Consequently, I had no reason to think they might be different from myself, and today I interact freely with Asians without even noticing their race.
We should be careful - what we tell our children is not always what we end up teaching them.
We Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident: OpinionJournal stands up for Western civilization, moral certainty, and the Enlightenment in a new weekly column. This is the best thing I've read in a long time!
My sister linked a National Review article, "What is Man?" by Peter Lawler, on my other website yesterday. It's about biotechnology and human nature, but Lawler throws in a million other things and muddles through his points. He comes across like a conflicted person trying to sound certain. But the issues he is wrestling with are interesting ones, so I've decided to write an extended meditation on his ramblings.
Issue 1: The Natural and the Artificial Lawler first attacks the idea that humans are somehow outside of nature. Under this view, the actions of insects, birds, and chimpanzees are natural, but the actions of humans are not. It's true that humans operate in a vastly different way than other animals. We have the ability to change our environment to better suit ourselves. But this ability is our natural mode of living. It is inherent in the nature of mankind - our genes give us the ability to reason at this level and accomplish these things. The human mode of behavior (generalized to an appropriate level) is as natural as the wolf mode of behavior.
Lawler wants to play the libertarian-conservative "human naturalists" against the liberal-socialist "human unnaturalists". But a belief in human nature is not necessarily at the root of libertarian-conservative political thought. I've seen many a rights theorist fall into the unnaturalist falacy at a later stage of the argument: interaction between humans is natural, but the creation of governments is unnatural. It's actually quite difficult to draw a clean line between natural and artificial.
Issue 2: Social Constructionism Lawler (to start a third paragraph with the same word) sees social constructionism as an all-or-nothing issue. The fall of Communism shows us that you can't just erase society and start over, therefore, he claims, social constructionism must be false.
But it's pretty clear that many of the ideas people hold are a product of the environment in which they were raised. A squirrel in North Carolina and a squirrel in Pakistan behave pretty much the same way. (Are there actually squirrels in Pakistan?) But a human being in North Carolina and a human being in Pakistan will have wildly different lives, taking actions based on vastly different belief sets.
We can find similarities across cultures, and determine parts of our universal human nature. We can observe the positive and negative outcomes of various courses of action and of various beliefs, and we can conclude from this that certain beliefs are better than others. But we cannot deny that there are many ways to be a human, and many ways to construct a society, that work reasonably well. For an example close to home, just compare people in Kansas and California.
Issue 3: Constructing a Culture Combining issues 1 and 2, one can say that it's natural for people to be affected to a certain extent by the ideas of the culture in which they find themselves. And as I noted before, some cultures are better than others - more rights-respecting, more wealthy, etc. But what cultural beliefs would create the best possible outcome? Nobody knows. This is what politicians and ethicists argue about all the time. Conservatives place their faith in traditional morals, while liberals set their hopes on the future betterment of mankind. And there are millions of views in between.
The fall of Communism did prove rather definitively that it's a bad idea to try to erase an entire culture and start over from scratch. But culture changes all the time, planned or unplanned. Consequently, the people living in a society change from generation to generation. This will always be the case. Change is natural for human civilization.
But the fall of Communism does not prove, as Lawler claims, that capitalism and freedom are genetically hard-wired into the human brain. Clearly not, since the USSR managed to avoid capitalism for so many years, and since humans have survived under other oppressive regimes. It simply proves that the way individual humans are wired to make individual choices provides better results in a free society than in an unfree one.
Issue 4: Evolution Evolution is an extremely slow process and it does not always provide the best designs. Evolution proceeds through a series of random mutations. Those organisms who have random mutations that happen to be useful will prosper and pass on the new genes to their offspring. If the best possible mutation happens not to occur, or occurs in an animal that dies in a forest fire while it is still a baby, there will be no new species of that type.
Evolution does not ensure that a species will flourish. It wipes out any species that is not well enough adapted to survive. This means that the species which stick around are those adapted well enough to survive and reproduce.
The human body is not perfect, not even in the healthiest person. We get backaches and neck pain and arthritis in our joints. Our appendices are liable to burst and we can get cancer just from sitting out in the sun. There is no reason to suppose that human instincts are better evolved than the human body. Quite the opposite, when you consider that our social environment has been changing far more quickly than our physical environment.
Issue 5: Perfecting the Human Species Biotechnology will allow us to change the genes of our children. We will undoubtedly use this technology to make the human race more perfect. First we'll banish physical genetic diseases like Down's Syndrome. Then mental genetic diseases like depression. Pretty much everyone agrees that those things are bad, so anyone having a child will independently choose to be rid of these diseases.
But beyond this, people have very different views of what constitutes perfection. What is the perfect hair color? The perfect disposition? The perfect height? Ask a hundred people, you'll get a hundred answers. Even if people are able to choose these features for their children, we will not descend into a world of sameness.
In addition, even the child with the best-designed genes still has to grow up somewhere. He will be affected by his environment. The most intelligent child, if he has overprotective parents, could still become a rebel or an alcoholic. Genetic manipulation can't cure all of society's ills, only some of them.
Issue 6: Biotechnology and Child Abuse Lawler brings up a good point here. As genetically engineering your children becomes more common, not doing so could be seen as a form of child abuse. Allowing your child to be born with Down's Syndrome, or with the possibility of developing Alzheimer's, or with a bad temper, may come to be seen as barbaric and cruel, and could eventually become illegal. This is the same problem we have today with people who refuse medical treatment for their children for religious reasons.
To find our way out of this dilemma, we first have to realize that the value of a life can only be determined by the person living it. I cannot objectively say that it is better for someone else not to have been born, or that it would be better if they were put out of their misery now. Only the person living that life can make that judgement - he is the only one who has all the necessary information, and he is the one to whom it matters the most.
We also need to realize that genetic manipulation before birth, and particularly before implantation in the womb, creates an entirely different person. A lot of people think that the doctor would take one potential person (in the form of a fertilized egg) and cure that person of future diseases. This is not the case. Instead, the doctor would take one potential person (in the form of a fertilized egg), destroy it, and create another potential person in its place. I realize that this will cause some moral problems for some people, but it is certainly no worse than destroying embryos for stem cell research, nor is it worse than choosing among several fertilized eggs to implant and destroying the others.
The point is that the person who would have been born from that egg will now not exist. Instead, a different person will exist. This is no different from what happens in many in vitro fertilization procedures, when multiple eggs are created and only one is chosen to be born - the one without disease.
If a parent decides to bring into this world a child with a genetic disease, who are you to say that the child's life has no value? Who is the government to say that the parents have committed a crime by creating a life?
Issue 7: Life Expectancy and the Birthrate Lawler makes a bizarre and unsupported statement on this point: "The longer human-life expectancy becomes, the more human fertility will have to decrease." I can only assume he's talking about overpopulation issues. If this is the case, he should read some Julian Simon.
Issue 8: Long Life, Happiness, and Death A lot of people think that living longer and being smarter will make them happier. Lawler is correct to point out that this equation does not always hold true. Just as wealth alone doesn't make people happy, neither does intelligence alone or long life alone. There will certainly be many people who extend their lives with biotechnology and end up miserable.
But there will be many people who are happy to begin with, and who extend their lives in order to be happy for even longer. The government shouldn't deny people the opportunity to live longer lives. That would be forced euthanasia.
Issue 9: Biotechnology and Unnaturalness After claiming that long life will make people miserable, Lawler says that we will treat this misery with psychoactive drugs and even more genetic manipulation, until we finally lose our self-consciousness.
I know several people who were perscribed psychoactive medication to treat depression and other disorders, who did not like the "forced happiness" they felt from the medication and thus went off the treatments. Anti-depressants have improved the lives of many people, but others prefer to keep their original selves. If people with severe depression make this choice, even more people with mild anxiety or sadness would choose to withhold treatment. I don't think we're in any danger of becoming an unconscious, unfeeling race of animals. And if we did, there would be nobody left to manufacture the medications, and we would revert to our previous state of self-consciousness. This is a very silly argument.
A much better argument is that genetic manipulation will make humans unnatural. But once again, the line between the natural and the artificial is very fuzzy. If it is in the nature of humans to alter our environment, perhaps it is also in the nature of humans to alter ourselves.
"The 'I don't know any [gays / gun owners / affirmative action opponents / etc.]' phenomenon, I suspect, tells us less about the actual prevalence of these groups in a particular circle, and more about how tolerant the circle is with respect to those groups (or, to be more precise, how tolerant the groups see the circle as being). I never knew that two of my colleagues were interested in guns until I put up a target from the shooting range outside my office door; that's not the sort of thing people talk much about in my circle unless they know they're talking to someone who's gun-friendly. All the more reason, I say, to come out of the closet."
This is exactly the phenomenon I've discovered with Unpopular Opinions, my new alternative student newspaper. There are a great many libertarian and conservative students who are afraid to speak out for fear they'll be discriminated against. But if just one person will be open about his or her beliefs, others will find the courage to speak up as well.
I came across this article on CNN.com today about a school shooting in Germany. The choice of wording in one of the final paragraphs caught my eye:
"Germany already has strict laws governing the right to a gun, but experts say the country is awash with illegal weapons smuggled into the country from eastern Europe and the Balkans." (emphasis added)
Normally I'd expect a mainstream-liberal news organization like CNN to talk about "laws governing gun ownership" or "gun control legislation" (a phrase used in the paragraph directly above the one I quoted). I wonder whether this "gun rights" language is evidence of a change in the way people are thinking about guns.
Philadelphia is about to destroy one of the best community parks in the city, an internationally famous location, because they don't like what it's famous for - skateboarding. Instead, they'd like to turn it into an abandoned grassy area, possibly to be used by drug dealers and prostitutes.
One of the founding principles of this country is the right to the pursuit of happiness. You are free to pursue your happiness, but you are not guaranteed to find it. It's not the government's job to give it to you, whether in the form of welfare payments or in the form of encouragement to get married. It's not even the government's job to encourage you to be happy. It's the government's job to stay out of your way and make sure you don't get stopped by some law-breaking moron while you are pursuing your own happiness in your own way.
Benjamin Netanyahu's article in OpinionJournal today is almost exactly right. He explains how tyranny leads to terrorism, and argues that the cure is democracy.
The true root of terrorism (and I'm showing my Objectivist roots here) is collectivism, a philosophical position very much tied up with tyrannical governments. If you believe that the group is more important than the individuals, you have no qualms about sacrificing yourself and others to the group's cause. But people who hold this collective worldview forget that groups are illusory - a group is no more than the individuals who make it up.
Democracy is a worldview based on individualism. Rights are respected in free nations because individuals are valued more than any "greater good" that could be accomplished by hurting a few individuals. Perhaps Netanyahu understands this - he does talk about "the seeds of freedom." But this is not fundamentally a political problem It is a philosophical problem - and those take a lot longer to solve.
Virginia Postrel, pro-cloning crusader. There are so many good things on her page lately that I can't choose just one to link. Go read.
You know, sometimes I feel silly linking Virginia Postrel and Glenn Reynolds. There couldn't possibly be anyone who reads my blog, but doesn't read InstaPundit and The Scene, except perhaps my mother. I'm torn between searching for useful links and creating an accurate record of what I find to be interesting. But naval gazing is for my journal, not my weblog.
These ideological battles over school curricula are distressing. But they're the result of the one-size-fits-all model of education. If parents were free to send their children to a variety of schools with different curricula, each parent could pick the education model they agreed with and that worked best for their child. Don't like sex ed? Send your kids to a school with an abstinence-only program. Want your kids to learn New Math? Send them to an experimental alternative school. And leave my kids alone.
Another reason not to buy the X10 camera: If the comparison shopping in Slate didn't keep you away and the excessive advertising didn't turn you off (click here to opt out of the X10 popup window ads), maybe the security holes will change your mind. The New York Times explains how to peek into homes and businesses with a car, a laptop, and $250 of radio equipment.
"America's long history of racial progress has continued and if anything accelerated in recent years," says an article in OpinionJournal. Census data shows remarkable increases in the economic situation of African-Americans and in integration.
I say we should kill the penny. While we're at it, we should kill the nickel - it's far too heavy and bulky for its value.
To determine the exact payment amount, we should have a two-tiered system. People paying with checks and credit cards can pay the actual price, while people paying with cash would have their totals rounded up to the nearest dime. This would encourage the use of clean, sanitary, efficient payment methods instead of cash, which spreads diseases and facilitates illegal activities.
Of course, this would adversely affect the poor, who are less likely to have credit cards and checking accounts. But that's okay, because nobody actually cares about poor people.
Eugene Volokh questions the Colorado Supreme Court's decision that buying a book is a type of speech more protected than statements you make to a friend.
Only a lawyer would think to refer to book-buying as speech. It's a lot more like listening than speaking. Usually you buy a book because you don't yet know what the author thinks and haven't decided whether you agree with it. A list of your book purchases doesn't show anyone what you believe - it shows them what you've been thinking about lately. It's similar to attending a lecture or club meeting. If the government has access to attendance lists for lectures by controversial speakers, they should also have access to book purchases. I, not being a lawyer, don't know whether the government has this access.
Perhaps Bryn Mawr College is a more reasonable place than I'd thought. In OpinionJournal today, Collin Levey discusses campus solidarity with terrorists. Nothing of the sort has occurred here at Bryn Mawr.
Shortly after the September 11 attacks, students were concerned about harrassment of Muslim students on campus. To help prevent this, the Muslim-Jewish Alliance club encouraged students of all religions to veil their hair, so that it would be more difficult for would-be harrassers both to find Muslim students and to see them as an isolated minority. It was actually nice to see Muslim students lending veils to their Christian and Jewish friends for a day or two.
Bryn Mawr also had a Walk-Out For Peace on the first day of bombing in Afghanistan. I'm not sure how disrupting a private educational environment was supposed to send a message to the United States government. The rally was heavily attended, but few people skipped class for it.
But nobody here has been running any campaigns for the Palestinians, at least not that I've seen. The current burning issues on campus are rape of Kenyan women by police officers, products that are not tested on animals, and "fair trade" coffee for the campus cafe. Oh yeah, and that weird new alternative newspaper called Unpopular Opinions. Shocking - there are people at this school who aren't liberals!
Several weeks ago I wrote about a proposal in Maryland to extend affirmative action to poor white men. A Maryland Senate committee correctly decided it was a bad idea, but their reasoning was even more absurd than the bill itself. Selected quotes:
"Besides, [Sen. Clarence W. Blount] said, if a white male from Appalachia wants to move up, all he needs to do is 'put his overalls aside and put on a suit.'" (Oh, and also find some source of higher education he can afford.)
"White men already benefit from the program through its inclusion of white women, said Sen. Joan Carter Conway." (In addition, women don't need to vote because they already have a voice through their influence on their husbands.)
Michael Kinsley declares support for cloning in a bland article for Slate. It's always good to have a friend of progress, but couldn't he have waited until he had something interesting an new to say? The best line in the article is the "About the Author" at the end, which reads "Michael Kinsley is Not Editor of Slate." Hey, what a coincidence - I'm not editor of Slate, too!
A California middle school is holding segregated parent meetings to talk about standardized test scores. If the issue really is embarrassment at talking about your kids' grades in front of parents of smarter kids, why not hold one meeting for parents of A students, another for parents of B students, and so on? But instead, the school is saying to black and Hispanic parents, "Based on the color of your skin, I believe that your child is stupid. Let's talk about this away from the smart white people, so that you don't feel bad about yourself."
FoxNews has a good article today on homeschooling, though I think it focuses too much on religious homeschoolers. Still, they have a lot of good points: homeschooling is good for education, social development, and family togetherness. High school is dysfunctional and scary. And homeschooled kids grow up to be educated, responsible young adults.
Did these terrorists in Afghanistan really think they could accomplish anything? Even if their plot to overthrow the interrim government and halt elections had worked, the U.S. would have immediately knocked them out of power just as we did to the Taliban.
The Racial Privacy Initiative would stop the government of California from classifying people by race in all but a few narrow areas. This is an excellent idea, but I will never be able to understand how California can be simultaneously so conservative and so liberal.