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SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE (SEVEN-FOOT) FRIEND! A famous philosopher thought about Wilt–and raised our incomparable question: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MARCH 7, 2008

BROOKS AND DIONNE, TOGETHER AT LAST: In today’s Post and Times columns, E. J. Dionne and David Brooks express a similar view of the Democratic campaign. “Clinton has shown she is willing to say anything about Obama to bring him down,” Dionne mournfully writes. But then, Brooks is on a similar wave length. Speaking of Obama, he says this: “When he was under assault in South Carolina, he rose above the barrage and made the Clintons look sleazy.” A bit later, he presents the boo-hooing, goo-goo view of recent events: In Texas and Ohio, “Clinton attacked [Obama], and the attacks worked.” Rachel Maddow couldn’t sob it out better.

We’ll probably examine this view of the race in more detail next week. But please note: Almost surely, this is not the way the Clinton campaign would describe these matters. Did Obama “rise above” in South Carolina? The Clinton campaign would most likely say that Obama, his campaign and his surrogates played the race card during that period, making a string of claims (some of which, to be honest, were completely absurd) which painted the Clintons as slobbering racists. Sean Wilentz doesn’t speak for the Clinton campaign, but his recent piece in The New Republic probably captures the Clinton camp’s general view of these matters.

Which campaign’s view of these matters is right? It’s always hard to sort out such matters. But quite commonly, the “press corps” adopts one view or another during the course of our White House campaigns. During the primary race in Campaign 2000, for example, the mainstream press corps’ brilliant savants widely adopted the story-lines being pushed by Bradley and McCain, their widely-beloved twin authentics. Result? Al Gore now holds the Nobel Peace Prize—but at the time, Dionne’s brilliant colleagues were reciting a mantra: Al Gore is willing to do and say anything! Dionne was too gutless to speak at the time—and this morning, he recites the same line, this time aimed at Clinton. “Clinton has shown she is willing to say anything about Obama,” the sage instructs. Alas! He kept his trap shut during Campaign 2000, speaks up unwisely today.

For ourselves, we’ll stick with prior assessments. When we watched the South Carolina debate, we thought this: We’ve never seen a three-person debate with three candidates this good. When we watched the two-person debate from LA, we thought this: It’s a shame that one of these two has to lose. The human brain is deeply (and dumbly) wired to trick us into “us and them” thinking; if we surrender to what it directs, we end up thinking that one candidate in a race is The Very Good Person, and the other is Very Bad Indeed. This is often a silly appraisal; we think that’s basically true in this case. But understand: In Campaign 2000, Dionne’s tribe cast Gore as The Very Bad Person—and Dionne never voiced a word of complaint. Today, Gore holds the Nobel Peace Prize—and the man this cohort helped put into office has made a vast wreck of the world.

How do you like the kind of judgment these savants have displayed in the past?

Al Gore is willing to say and do anything! And not only that: He’ll lick the bathroom floor to be president! They repeated it over and over again, presenting utterly ludicrous “proofs.” When people like Dionne failed to dissent, many liberals and centrists came to believe that it must be basically accurate. So it was that E. J. Dionne displayed his destructive cowardice.

Dionne hid from service back then, refusing to challenge his cohort’s behavior. Today, he himself recites their old line, this time about Vile Clinton II. It’s great to see Brooks and Dionne together at last, but we’ll stick with our previous views: We’ve never seen three candidates that good. It’s a real shame that two have to lose.

IT CRIES REAL TEARS: Won’t you buy the E. J. doll? Readers, it cries real tears:

DIONNE (3/7/08): Think of where this leaves the Democrats. The success of Clinton’s tough anti-media, anti-Obama campaign means that Obama will have to get just as rough on her.

“Clinton’s tough anti-media campaign!” Oh. Our. God. It can’t get dumber! If we could adapt an old talking-point: These babies will do and say anything!

Has Clinton run a “tough anti-media campaign?” The statement is so foolish we barely know how to start. Eight years ago, Dionne—a Hardball regular—sat around saying nothing for twenty straight months, while his cohort savaged Gore, calling him every name in the book. Eight years later, he sat around saying nothing last year while major members of his cohort (sorry—of his social set) conducted a gender-based trashing of Clinton—a trashing which began to reach full flower on October 30. But readers, there’s one more bit of Hard Pundit Law ruling life inside Dionne’s Village: You aren’t allowed to criticize the brilliant mainstream press corps! (Unless you complain of their “liberal bias,” a complaint which is thoroughly kosher.) In recent weeks, Clinton has finally uttered a few modest peeps, saying things so baldly obvious that Saturday Night Live could even see what was happening. And here is E. J., crying real tears, discussing her “tough” campaign!

Guess what, people? If E. J. had written a few “tough” columns in 1999, perhaps his cohort’s War Against Gore could have been halted, or moderated. And it wouldn’t have taken much, we now know, to reverse that campaign’s outcome. So gaze on your insider “liberal” elite! E. J. kept quiet all the way as his cohort invented fake tales about Gore. Eight years later, the dead of Iraq look up from the ground as he cries about Clinton’s “tough” criticisms.

MUCH AS WE EARLIER TOLD YOU: We’ve long admired Obama adviser Samantha Power, and, of course, we continue to do so. Yesterday, she called Hillary Clinton a “monster” (then apologized). She went off the record as she made this remark—but apparently did so too late.

People say lots of things in campaigns; if journalists are involved in the stew, most of these things are said off the record. As we told you a few weeks back, we’ll make a small guess: If the Billy Shaheen incident is ever told in more detail, we’ll guess that the phrase “off the record” may play a role there too.

We’re not attempting to “equate” the two incidents, or to say that the role played by that phrase will be the same in each case. We don’t know who acted in good faith, journos included (Shaheen got nailed by the always-ethical Post)—and we don’t know who didn’t. But here are two thoughts: We’ve long admired Samantha Power. And we think the incident involving Shaheen makes little sense as recounted.

By the way: If you’re a fool—or if you’re seven years old—you know that the people on your side say Only Good Pure Things in these incidents. You know that because you know the candidate you prefer is The One Good Honest Just Person.

As we said, we’ve long admired Samantha Power. Because we also admire former governor Jeanne Shaheen, we assume her husband is OK too. These advanced theoretics may not work for you. It’s fun to be seven years old.

[Discuss: Shaheen told the Post to explore a candidate’s past drug use. An Obama adviser told the Atlantic to explore a spouse’s sex life. We see a bit of parity here, since these are two of the dumbest things a press corps could possibly waste its time on. But then, we haven’t persuaded ourselves that one of the candidates is The Very Good Person, and the other is Just Very Awful. People say lots of things in campaigns. Many of these things, on all sides, are just basically dumb.]

Special feature: Philosopher Fridays!


READ EACH THRILLING INSTALLMENT: In today’s post, we add to previous “Philosopher Fridays.” These two are especially relevant:

Brush with greatness: We miserable freshmen groused and complained—about a future giant. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/1/08.

That accessible style: Everyone praised his “accessible style.” Why in the world did they do that? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/15/08.

Today, we take our first look at a widely-cited part of Robert Nozick’s first book. Before we begin, let’s recall one key fact: The late Bob Nozick was thoroughly decent to us miserable freshmen.

SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE (SEVEN-FOOT) FRIEND: If we may adapt the old Sam Clemens riff, reports of Bob Nozick’s “accessible style” have been greatly exaggerated. When Professor Nozick died in 2002, a steady stream of licensed observers praised his writing’s everydayness. This widely praised “accessible style” made him a friend of the general reader—or so his elegists claimed. Some critics had even made such claims when his books first appeared.

As we noted in our last installment, these claims were greatly exaggerated. As we noted, the buzz-kill was seldom far away when Nozick settled into his chair and began to expound on philosophical topics. Sometimes he tended toward technical language, sometimes toward highly abstruse types of problems—the types of “problems” likely to interest no one but his professional colleagues. This doesn’t mean that his work lacked merit, though it seems to us that it typically did. It does bring to mind a basic fact: Modern “elites” are strangely drawn to deeply puzzling, or inaccurate, Group Stories. As of the year 2002, one such script demanded praise for Nozick’s “accessible style.”

That said, we want to remind you of one basic fact. The people who praised that “accessible style” are often the very same people who have insisted, down through the years, that Nozick was one of the greatest philosophers (or simply “thinkers”) of the last century. We’ll suggest that you judge the merits yourself, in the ruminations which follow, as we continue to ask our great question: With giants like Nozick abroad in the land over the course of the past several decades, how did our political discourse become so utterly fatuous? With other philosophical giants about, why is our discourse so brain-dead? At some point, we’ll even return to that Medicare debate—the one which screamed, for two solid years, for intervention from someone with logical skills. If you believe the conventional wisdom, our universities teem with top-notch logicians. Why didn’t these giants take pity on suffering humanity and clarify the silly things being said?

With “logicians” and “thinkers” abroad in the land—some of them being “political philosophers”—why is our discourse so god-awful stupid? What has kept this gang of savants from sharing their manifest skills?

AS WE’VE NOTED, BOB NOZICK WAS ALWAYS PERFECTLY decent to us grumbling freshmen. (We can’t stress that point quite enough.) That said, a simple look at the texts-in-themselves may start to show why so little help has come to us poor helpless rubes from giants inside the academy.

As noted, the book which made Nozick a star was Anarchy, State and Utopia. It was published in 1974; its author was 34 years of age at the time. Later, at the time of his premature death, The Harvard Gazette summarized his book’s considerable history:

HARVARD GAZETTE (1/17/02): His first book, "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" (1974), transformed him from a young philosophy professor known only within his profession to the reluctant theoretician of a national political movement.

He wrote the book as a critique of "Theory of Justice" (1971), by his Harvard colleague John Rawls... Rawls' book provided a philosophical underpinning for the bureaucratic welfare state, a methodically reasoned argument for why it was right for the state to redistribute wealth in order to help the poor and disadvantaged.

Nozick's book argued that the rights of the individual are primary and that nothing more than a minimal state...is justified. "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" won the National Book Award and was named by The Times Literary Supplement as one of "The Hundred Most Influential Books Since the War."

“The book gained him fame seldom attracted by philosophers and their work,” Richard Pearson wrote in the Washington Post. “He was widely interviewed by the mainstream media and became quoted by a new generation of conservatives...who were seizing national power on both sides of the Atlantic.” And from the time of Anarchy’s publication forward, Nozick and Rawls were routinely twinned in the philosophic imagination. If you were inclined to believe the sorts of people who spoke of Nozick’s “accessible style,” you were told that the books of the two Harvard colleagues provided the philosophical underpinnings for the liberal and conservative views of the world. And if you read about Nozick’s book, you would soon be told of its greatest highlight. That was the “famous Wilt Chamberlain argument,” a chunk of the book in which Nozick considered—well, let’s try to see what he said:

When Anarchy, State and Utopia appeared, Peter Singer reviewed it for The New York Review of Books. Singer was a man of the left—clearly, more Rawls than Nozick. But in just his second paragraph, Singer heaped praise on the brilliance of Nozick’s new book. Conventional wisdom was being born—or, pre-existing inside the academy, was merely being expressed:

SINGER (3/6/75): Robert Nozick's book is a major event in contemporary political philosophy. There has, in recent years, been no sustained and competently argued challenge to the prevailing conceptions of social justice and the role of the state. Political philosophers have tended to assume without argument that justice demands an extensive redistribution of wealth in the direction of equality; and that it is a legitimate function of the state to bring about this redistribution by coercive means like progressive taxation. These assumptions may be correct; but after Anarchy, State, and Utopia they will need to be defended and argued for instead of being taken for granted.

According to Singer, Nozick had presented a definitive text—“a major event in contemporary philosophy.” To his credit, Singer didn’t boast of Nozick’s “accessible style;” this folk tale hadn’t become the norm yet. But for reasons we’ll admit we can’t quite explain, Singer gushed about Nozick’s effort. “A reader who is sympathetic to government policies designed to redistribute wealth and who has taken for granted the justice of such policies will be surprised at the strength of the arguments Nozick brings against this view,” Singer wrote. And when he got to the heart of the book—to the part where Nozick argues against “redistribution”—Singer praised “an ingenious illustration,” an illustration involving Wilt Chamberlain.

Who knows? Perhaps this is what people had in mind when they later agreed to say that Nozick possessed an accessible style. Imagine! Instead of dry-as-dust philosophical tracts, we encountered a “playful” illustration involving the famous Big Dipper! At the time, Chamberlain was the NBA’s most famous player; he’d once averaged 50 points per game for an entire season. Indeed, how vast was Chamberlain’s greatness? He had done this wearing Chuck Taylors, his era’s rubbery footwear of choice!

At any rate, the “Wilt Chamberlain argument” was Nozick’s way of illustrating his book’s fundamental notion. “The position Nozick takes is a radical departure from the theories of distributive justice discussed by most philosophers, especially in recent years,” Singer wrote. According to Singer, most of these “philosophers” had advocated “government policies designed to redistribute wealth;” Nozick’s book now argued against the justice of such approaches. Warning! Some of Nozick’s language may seem counterintuitive, given the meaning of the word “entitlement” in standard political discourse today. But according to Singer, Nozick proposed something he called the “entitlement theory;” in Singer’s account of this theory, “a distribution is just if it arises from a prior just distribution by legitimate means.” To simplify matters a bit (but not much), if you didn’t steal your money or land, you were damn straight “entitled” to keep it. Why this would qualify as “philosophy”—as any sort of a “theory” at all—well, that question sometimes enters the mind. But to Singer, Anarchy, State and Utopia was a landmark—and an “ingenious illustration” ran through it:

SINGER: An ingenious illustration buttresses the entitlement theory. [The theory that you’re “entitled” to keep holdings you’ve acquired by legitimate means.] We start by supposing that holdings are distributed in accordance with some patterned conception of justice—let's say the conception of equality, so that everyone has exactly equal holdings. Now suppose that several basketball teams would like to have Wilt Chamberlain playing for them. He signs a special contract with one, stipulating that he gets twenty-five cents from the price of every home game ticket. The fans are happy to pay the surcharge; the excitement of seeing Chamberlain play is worth it to them. One million people attend during the season, so that Chamberlain winds up with $250,000, far more than anyone else in the society.

In Nozick’s “ingenious” rumination, therefore, we are asked to imagine the following: Everyone starts out equal, by decree, in accordance with someone’s notion of justice. But because people want to see him play, Wilt soon has far more than anyone else! What’s “ingenious” about this “illustration?” As he continues, Singer semi-explains it:

SINGER (continuing directly): The transactions between Chamberlain and his fans have upset the original, hypothetically just, pattern of holdings; but, Nozick asks, is the new distribution unjust, and if so, why? Can it be a source of injustice that a million people chose to spend twenty-five cents on seeing Chamberlain play, rather than on candy bars or magazines? Since they chose to spend it in this way, knowing that it would go to Chamberlain, surely they can have no just claim against the man they have made rich. As for those citizens who did not attend the games, their holdings are entirely unaffected by the transactions between Chamberlain and his fans. If these third parties had no just claim against the holdings of the transacting parties before the payments took place, how can the transfer give them a just claim to part of what was transferred? Yet that is precisely what those who accept taxation for redistributive purposes must believe.

In general, Nozick says, no patterned principle of justice can prevail without continuous interference in people's lives. A socialist society would, as he puts it, have to "forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults."

There’s more about Wilt in Singer’s review, though not much. Meanwhile, however “ingenious” this illustration may be, it has indeed become “famous,” at least in philosophical circles. But should it be famous? Is it really ingenious? Or is this famous illustration perhaps “ingenious” in the same way Nozick’s style was “accessible?” Perhaps we’ve tipped our hand a bit as we look ahead to our next rumination.

Should this illustration be famous? We’ll try to answer that question next time. But here’s an even better question: Does this illustration help us see why our discourse has become such a joke—even with “thinkers,” “logicians” and “political philosophers” like its inventor around?

NEXT FRIDAY: Pondering Chamberlain’s holdings

ABOUT THAT ACCESSIBLE STYLE: It sometimes seems that we sorry frosh weren’t alone in our grumbling reaction to Nozick. Scanning the web, we stumbled on a brief memoir by Matt Yglesias, whose “brush with greatness” came some years after the one we’ve described. At this link, Matt makes the first comment:

YGLESIAS (3/5/05): Interestingly, I was in the last undergraduate class Nozick taught. Enrollment was capped at 18 but it was actually undersubscribed.

We’re not sure where the “interestingly” comes in. But jeez! They couldn’t get eighteen people to attend? We feel like we’ve had that experience! (At The Comic Strip in Ft. Lauderdale, the show wouldn’t start until there were ten.) At any rate, a few spots further along in the thread, someone else posted this revery:

QUITTER: Nozick once gave a lecture at my college. SRO at first; 30 minutes later 80 percent of the audience (including yours truly) had walked out.

But what about his “accessible style?” The next poster offered a similar review—along with a cheerful explanation for Nozick’s apparent dreariness:

BZA: I took a graduate seminar with Nozick in the mid-90s. He was most definitely coasting in his later years.

Dude! When we freshmen took Nozick, he was just 26. And we thought he was “coasting” back then!

Nozick was always thoroughly decent to us; meanwhile, just for the record, the “ideological” drift of his political work isn’t a factor in our assessment. But we think a review of Nozick’s work might help answer that burning question: Why is our political discourse so deeply inane, when giants like this stride the earth?

Unanimity bites: Another commenter expressed ennui with Nozick’s accessible style:

KEVIN: I took “Thinking about Thinking” a decade or so ago, with Nozick, Stephen Jay Gould, and Alan Dershowitz at the helm. Huge lecture hall class and, frankly, not worth all that much.

The upshot was lawyers, scientists, and philosophers tend to approach problems differently. Who knew?

“Thinking About Thinking!” Some dean should have cancelled the class right then! At any rate, let’s append an illustrative note on a famous argument: In this thread, the first reference to Nozick’s seven-foot friend appears early on—comment 5.