Monday, May 14, 2012

A discussion at Crooked Timber, that covers both Holbo and Singapore but not the fact that he lives there, engaging as always political liberalism as idea but not practice. Nothing new, but it goaded me in the end to look up the best thing I've ever read on the site.

Commenter "Marfrks", on Greenwald vs Kerr
What an extraordinarily interesting debate. Thanks to everyone. It seems clear to this reader—who has nothing at stake—that Henry is refusing to see things, while Kerr is smoothly awful (the last line about natural law theory and legal positivism is so absurd that I thought at first it was a joke). I feel a cliched impulse to find something balancing to say about Greenwald, but no impression of him is as strong as those two impressions of the others. My own view of the divide may only reflect that it hits a fault line in my life: the difference between an academic and a non-academic approach to things. I have been a lawyer for many years, and then got a chance to teach at a non-lawyerly academic institution. I loved it; I loved playing in the garden of the mind. Eventually, however, it became clear to me that academics and non-academics have very different approaches to ideas. Academics, though it sounds odd to say it, don’t take ideas seriously. For academics, ideas are games, as Kerr illustrates when he speaks so proudly about how he follows reason wherever it takes him. He seems to find that admirable, whereas I—having now sat through many faculty meetings where the propriety of rules about faculty parking are argued from Platonic first principles—find it both tiresome and puerile. Ideas about the Constitution should not be treated as intellectual exercises only. It is a practical document, with clear principles relating to freedom and the protection of the powerless from the abuses of authority that every government in the history of the world has been tempted to engage in. If someone’s version of reason leads him or her to contemplate the weakening or contravention of those principles, that is not admirable or disciplined or honorable. It is misguided games-playing. It reminds me of all those right wingers who used to talk about the “courageous” decisions to bomb various countries that were made by “serious” people. Academics were playing war games and recommending intellectualized experiments with other people’s lives. That was allowed to happen in part because those people seemed so nice and smooth and academically intriguing. “Don’t be shrill,” we were told, when we pointed out that the war in Iraq was morally wrong. That was lousy advice for the country and for the world. I don’t enjoy being shrill myself, but I’m inclined to think that someone needs to be shrill when intellectuals play games with surveillance, imprisonment, torture and death.
I could say he makes some things seem simpler than they are -language is a grey area by definition, which is what panicked Gödel- but you have to be willing to argue at some point that a line's been crossed. It's Farrell's passivity that's so grotesque: the refusal to have an opinion because opinions are subjective. If you argue only from shades of grey then you'll be the last to admit that white's become black.

The next comment on the thread reads: "@Marfrks. Let me second seth and move that this thread might as well be closed because imho Marfrks has driven a stake through Henry and Kerr (sorry I can’t — although I deny that I did — mangle a metaphor for you)."
My comments of course were removed.

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