Robert Moses follow-up

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE: The real lesson of the Power Broker isn’t about urban planning or even centralized planning, both of which have their own internal problems and contradictions the way everything in grown-up life has. The lesson from Robert Moses’ career, and The Power Broker book that details it, concerns public institutions and the power of the state, which anybody associated with the state would do well to approach with fear and trembling if they want to be an ethical practitioner in ANY of the public-serving professions. (That means…all the professions.)

So I got people unsettled over the weekend about Robert Moses by noting that his academic background was in political science, and by putting some fighting words out there:

The whole narrative strikes me more as a lesson power and rationality: If something goes wrong, then the planners did it. If something goes right, the engineers/city managers/real estate developers/economists/architects/community did it right, despite all them dadgum planners.

Well screw that. Robert Moses wasn’t ours and it’s time another intellectual tradition took responsibility for him.

The post had the predictable effect with Twitter debates ensuing, with people telling me that Moses was a planner because he “functioned as planner” and assertions that “Caro or no Caro, Moses was a planner!”

And the debate was the point. People are awfully emotionally and intellectually invested in the idea of what Moses stands for in planning.

But not a single argument convinced me, and I stuck to my guns. Why?

Because my major goal here was to shake people up by exploiting the theoretical ambiguity that surrounds planning to do the *opposite* of what people usually do: reject blame cast on the planning profession rather than project blame onto the profession (Aaron Wildavsky, any one). My argument is that people use the field’s indistinctness to make it into anything they want, and if they want to cast all of government’s and market’s ills onto the profession, there is precious little to keep them from doing so. If something goes wrong with development, it was an urban planning problem–not a problem inherent to liberal progressive politics and managerialism, not a problem with capitalist real estate development, not the wholesale abandonment of the welfare state functions of government institutions that people now expect unregulated markets to provide even though they have never done so in the past (solutions for externalities, for one).

So if a PhD in political science becomes the chairman or director of a bunch of powerful commissions in New York with precious little public oversight, then that must be planning. (BTW, the title of Chairman or Director is a signal to me that you’ve moved into public management. It doesn’t mean there is a Grand Canyon of distinction between planning and public management as they are plenty connected, but still, exploring the connections between public management and planning is a fruitful exercise.)

The argument: he drew lines on a map and planned projects. He didn’t manage or build them.

The response: Engineers, architects, and developers also draw lines on maps and build projects. And they also manage them. So did he.

The argument: He traveled and consulted on planning and infrastructure projects. That’s planning.

The response: If that’s what makes a planner, then there are an awful lot of engineers drawing an engineering salary doing planning all over the place all the time.

The argument: Planners promoted his ideas…

The response: Planners promote Andres Duany’s ideas. Does that mean he’s stopped being an architect and has become a planner? Planners promote Don Shoup’s ideas. Does that mean Donald is no longer an economist? (I’d argue that Donald’s intellectual life, moving from economics and delving deeply into planning produces exactly the sort of fruitful insights that interdisciplinary research should.)

The argument: But planning has become even more technocratic (sends me a link to a gillian-page EIR)

The response: The planning profession is hardly technocratic anymore, and that gillian-page EIR likely employed 10 engineers for every 1 planner, optimistically on the planning side. Engineering has rolled forward out of urban renewal and highway-building (something else blamed on planners rather than engineers) largely unchastened by the failures of the era to market themselves as the *competent* technocrats, unlike planners. Reflexive modernism in play.

The argument: Jane Jacobs was against central planning so planners must be wrong to plan.

The response: Okey dokey, Jacobs-follower, then stop planning. Go right ahead on. Don’t do it anymore. Swear it off, like donuts and cigarettes.

The argument: Have YOOOUUUUUU read the entire Jacobs corpus?

The response: Yes, yes, I have. And I still challenge you to go ahead and start your urban libertarian utopia. Go get ’em, Tiger. Far be it from me to hold anybody back from bold social experiments. But in the end when all that goes ‘phut’ you might find Hobbes was right and Jacobs guilty of exactly the blame projection that I described above. (I think Jacobs wrote very fine books and made really important contributions. I think she was right about a bunch of stuff. I also think she was wrong about a bunch of stuff, too, that people seldom talk about because they are too busy cherrypicking what they like. That’s fine as far as it goes, but plaster saints bore me.)

If Robert Moses was a planner by the standards of “functioning,” Jane Jacobs was, too. She made big normative claims about how cities should be. Planners do that *all the time.* And people like me argue that those normative claims are central to the profession and to the practice (two separate things).

Does it ultimately matter if Moses was a planner? Or Jacobs? I do not know. Labels really are not important, except to the degree that they come with a set of assumptions, and it’s those assumptions that make me squiggly.

That said, if you get a Robert Moses question on Jeopardy! you should say “urban planner” just to be safe.

I think the real lesson of the Power Broker isn’t about central planning, which has its own internal problems and contradictions the way everything in grown-up life has. The central of the power broker concerns institutions and the power of the state, which anybody associated with the state would do well to approach with fear and trembling if they want to be an ethical practitioner in the public professions.

Aristotle and the Devices of Tyranny

In Book VII, we leave Aristotle on a terrible note, where he, like many a Greek, advises society to do things that sound dreadful to modern ears, such as exposing infants who have deformities. Eyugh. Mercy was not necessarily a virtue for Aristotle or others.

Students often ask me why I stay fascinated by the Greeks of 2000 years ago. There’s a lot to talk to about; for one, you understand our language much better if you know Greek and Latin.

And second…King Priam and Achilles…you got to be kidding me if you can’t read that and learn something abut the human condition.

Third, reading classical literature in its original language is now somewhat subversive, a smack in the eye towards where the university is going, which is becoming one giant business school where “The Knowledge That Matters” is the “Knowledge that Might Pay if You Please Your Corporate Masters Well Enough.” Learning a living language, which is a fine thing, for sure, and to be encouraged, can always be rationalized and instrumentalized: “Oh, you can work for This Industry if you know That Language.” Maybe I’d just like to make it easier to talk to my friends from Africa, or I’d like my brain to work better. For me.

Finally, ancient Greece and Roman are nice comparisons, and really attempting to learn those similarities and differences between the way they thought and they way we think has rewarded me again and again. You go into reading the ancients thinking that it’s all different; there’s no way that a people who, as a matter of routine, advocated for the death of deformed babies. And then you go through and read the material and find, again and again, writing which is utterly contemporary. Those moments are when I feel like I might actually catch a rare glimpse of the ideas that might actually be universal to humanity. It happens when I read a novel by an Indonesian writer, and it happens when I read those long dead.

As I finish off my special study if Aristotle, one little bit from Book V in the Politics that has to make one think about America of the past 30 years:

And it is a device of tyranny to make the subjects poor, so that a guard may not be kept, and also that the people being busy with their daily affairs may not have leisure to plot against their ruler. Instances of this are the pyramids in Egypt and the votive offerings of the Cypselids, and the building of the temple of Olympian Zeus by the Pisistratidae and of the temples at Samos, works of Polycrates (for all these undertakings produce the same effect, constant occupation and poverty among the subject people); and the levying of taxes, as at Syracuse (for in the reign of Dionysius the result of taxation used to be that in five years men had contributed the whole of their substance). Also the tyrant is a stirrer-up of war, with the deliberate purpose of keeping the people busy and also of making them constantly in need of a leader. Also whereas friends are a means of security to royalty, it is a mark of a tyrant to be extremely distrustful of his friends, on the ground that, while all have the wish, these chiefly have the power. Also the things that occur in connection with the final form of democracy are all favorable to tyranny—dominance of women in the homes, in order that they may carry abroad reports against the men, and lack of discipline among the slaves, for the same reason; for slaves and women do not plot against tyrants, and also, if they prosper under tyrannies, must feel well-disposed to them, and to democracies as well (for the common people also wishes to be sole ruler). Hence also the flatterer is in honor with both—with democracies the demagogue (for the demagogue is a flatterer of the people), and with the tyrants those who associate with them humbly, which is the task of flattery.

ZOMGosh! All that democracy, letting the wimmens control the house! Where will it end? And yet there’s a bunch of wisdom here, too, about the role of poverty in keeping people controlled, and the use of war as a means to isolate and control one’s own people.

One advantage of reading the Greek, as slow-going as it is for me, is that you get all Aristotle’s good misogyny words. Here he uses the phrase γυναικοκρατια τε περι τ`ας `οικιας for the “The rule of woman in the households”…γυναικοκρατια is even an ugly world in Greek, made even more so by that double K in the middle. Women in charge! Horrors.

Fortunately we seem highly unlikely from having to fret too much about that, 2,300 years later.

Thomas Jefferson on Bonaparte

I was complaining on Fboo about how my students won’t read a page and a half of Thomas Jefferson, which is a shame, because he wrote like so:

Instead of the parricide treason of Bonaparte, in perverting the means confided to him as a republican magistrate, to the subversion of that republic and erection of a military despotism for himself and his family, had he used it honestly for the establishment and support of a free government in his own country, France would now have been in freedom and rest; and her example operating in a contrary direction, every nation in Europe would have had a government over which the will of the people would have had some control. His atrocious egotism has checked the salutary progress of principle, and deluged it with rivers of blood which are not yet run out. To the vast sum of devastation and of human misery, of which he has been the guilty cause, much is still to be added. But the object is fixed in the eye of nations, and they will press on to its accomplishment and to the general amelioration of the condition of man. What a germ have we planted, and how faithfully should we cherish the parent tree at home!

Bam a lam.

Why would this writing appeal to me right at this political moment, I wonder. Atrocious egotism. Hmm. I wonder.

Hitler, Mussolini analogies are more important than Godwin’s Law leads one to think

I took a long time to respond to a FBoo post this morning and I decided to turn it into a blog post.

So the new round of “let’s incessantly discuss a certain celebrity candidate” seems to involve people dismissing analogies to Mussolini and Hitler because of Godwin’s Law.

Now, I really do like Mike Godwin’s writing, and he did us a solid by giving us a shorthand term to something one of my mentors credited to Michael Walzer: you can prove anything you want using Hitler. Walzer’s point was that Hitler was so extreme, and so terrifies us, that any moral argument you want to make either dominates or falls apart around analogies to Hitler. Why? Because most moral arguments concern about general conditions, about behavior in every life, society, or politics, and they are not about the extremes (unless one is Kant, and unless one has never read Wittgenstein or Rorty.) Now, I like to use extremes to bound arguments and use them as thought experiments, but they are often much less useful than we want them to be.

That said, I really do not want Godwin’s law to shame people away from thinking about or even invoking Hitler.

First of all, most people are not sufficiently versed in either a) politics or b) European History to make claims about what is or isn’t fascism in detail. Of course Donald Trump is not Hitler or Mussolini—those guys already lived, and every politician is a product of their time, place, etc. But people are afraid of Hitler, Mussolini, and fascism for damn good reasons including 1) their ascent to power was incremental, opportunistically drew on both sides of the political spectrum, and easier than I suspect anybody would have predicted it to be; and 2) the consequences should be unimaginable, but unfortunately are not. So in general, I am happy enough letting people dwell on Hitler, trying to figure out where the lines are between individualism and collectivism, patriotism and nationalism, etc etc.

I think it’s very, very dangerous to get into a comfortable model of thinking that “It can’t happen here.” The fact that people are worried about it happening…it’s good that people worry, that they use Hitler as a chastening idea. No, I don’t think you should let people get away with just throwing out the label and moving on–FoxNews looooooves to label people Nazis, and they of course associate Nazis wth lefties. This neither accurate or fair; I think they would have more grounds to do so with Mussolini and the Italian fascists who did start from the left, but both men exploited the fears of the right and the utopian desires of progressives simultaneously, so I have trouble sorting who is to blame. (Hint: lots of people; that’s one of the problems that should make our hearts stop with fear when we look at it closely. )

So all that said, I see definite fascistic tendencies in Trump’s style and rhetoric, and those deserve scrutiny, if only as a means to learn more about fascism as a political phenomenon.

Things I see in Trump that reflect elements of historical fascism, based on my read of the various histories I’ve read over the years:

  • Trump’s “enemy within” narrative based on derogative ethnic stereotypes;
  • his prelapsarian narratives about about how a once-great nation has now just turned into a giant mess who needs a strong man to fix it;
  • He emphasizes metaphors and emotions over practical arguments or reason. Every effective leader mixes these forms of rhetoric to varying degrees, and that is not a problem in my mind (Remember: “Hope”) but fascistic leaders emphasized emotions to the extreme, even becoming violent or belligerent if somebody questions their impressionistic claims about the world based on other ways of knowing or communicating;
  • Trump, like fascist leaders before him, exploits and inflames fears about foreigners;
  • He’s absolutely in his element in front of a large crowd; he’s masterful in front of his rallies, and he makes damn sure that anybody who might heckle, shame, disrupt or best him in front of that crowd is disciplined, either by encouraging his followers to be violent or using security to shut them down.
  • He openly brags about the extra-legal things he wants to do as president (like torture) and revels in the cheers that ensue, thereby creating opportunities to legitimate lawlessness.

Some of these are really scary and people are not being weenies with their concerns. If he convinced enough generals to go along with him…he could lead us to some damn dark places. Any leader can if we don’t critically examine what we are doing.

THAT’S WHY POLITICS IS IMPORTANT, PEOPLE, and not some dirty word you think yourself somehow “above” because you’d rather focus on your family, your job, and your friends. If good people eschew politics, the people who step into the vacuum left are often not the people we want there.

I see Robert Paxton is getting quite a bit of press on this. He has somewhat overlapping, somewhat different views on Trump as a fascist you can see here.


Paxton, R. The Anatomy of Fascism.

Payne, Stanley G. Fascism: Comparison and Definition.

‘Splaining versus deliberation

I’ve been taking a little break from Aristotle this week to read more in the post-democracy theories in political science, and this literature is making me miss Aristotle. Not because it’s bad theory, by any means; it’s a very good set of ideas, quite useful for trying to understand planning, but, man, is it depressing. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it’s had that effect on me.

It’s particularly interesting during this presidential election season and the difficulties of mass deliberation via the Internet, where pundit after pundit has made broad statements about who should appeal to whom. These difficulties are too numerous to count, but one has simply been the tendency to confuse “splaining” with deliberation. The former is a cute term that has emerged from the resistance to power and privilege grabbing the role of “knower” and explaining to the lesser, marginal person what’s what because, of course, knowers know and dumb wommins and peoples with different skin tones and young peoples and old peoples just don’t know, not at all. Whether it’s liberals deciding that people who support Trump are idiots, Bernie Bros talking down to blacks about why they should like Bernie more than Hillary, or George Will condescending to Millennials who support Sanders because they “don’t remember the Soviet Union” as he conflates democratic socialism with Soviet-style communism…it’s all the same behavior, and it reflects a fundamental lack of humility on the part of the writer/speaker and a disrespect toward voters.

Deliberation, by contrast, involves exploration and reaching out to understand what other people know, what they understand, and how they view the candidates. Deliberation means taking responsibility for what you think candidates’ ideas represent and the consequences of those ideas for different policies and groups. I don’t think Donald Trump will work for working people, but others think he will. Why do they think that? I have no idea, but I would like to.

For the record, I do have major problems with the incivility Trump has brought into the campaign, and I can be very hard on civility as virtue in other contexts. The refrain we see quoted over and over about how Trump “Tells it like it is” strikes me as a juvenile and self-indulgent rationalization for “Trump hates all the people I do and I like that he has the power to insult them.” There is no political or social value to the slurs he has slung at women and people of color–none whatsoever. Liberty does not mean license, and nobody’s free speech is really impinged when a person is asked to be responsible, or kind, with what they say and how they say it. People running around the world whining about political correctness have done jack diddly to evidence that anybody has really suffered in any material way, let alone being jailed in the manner of real repression, from being asked to say “chair” instead of “chairman.”

Leaders should set a better tone than he has, no matter what you think about the policy implications of the ideas or the man himself. I loathed Ronald Reagen’s policies, but I admired what I saw of the man in his interpersonal conduct. I disliked many of Bill Clinton’s policies and disliked what I knew of him intensely. I didn’t like the way he seemed to treat people around him, at all.

I myself have wondered a great deal about Trump’s appeal, and I’ve not seen a single, convincing explanation from anybody–not from political science or popular press of “this is what his supporters are thinking.” The wonderful thing about perceived political outsiders, like Trump, is that you can make them into anything you want to in your mind. So the refrain of “he’ll do things differently” and “he won’t be beholden to elites” is fine, but we have no real idea what he will do as president because he doesn’t have a governing record to extrapolate from. We might try to import his managerial style from his business life into what we might envision him to be as a governing executive, but there are many instances of people who are successful leaders and managers in one context who do not flourish in other contexts.

One idea I have circled around has to do with all this reading in post-democracy. Celebrities tend to do very well in elections (not governance, but elections), whether it is Schwarzenegger, Reagen, Sonny Bono, Fred Grandy, Ben Jones, Jesse Ventura, or, now, Donald Trump. I am not clear why, but it may have to do with the ready-made platform of celebrity; I know less than I would like to about the phenomenon of celebrity politics. In a post-democratic America, in a Baudrilliardian sense of the word, people perhaps believe that elites govern, and that’s that, and whoever they elect to the “big chair” will be dropped into that mire–and thus, they perceive that it doesn’t matter who gets elected. At least with celebrities, that person is entertaining.

Copenhagen Zoo, Edutainment, and Public Ethics

Attention conservation notice: I’m not going to make an animal rights argument; instead, I’ll give you a public interest argument. I’m sad they killed the giraffe, for a bunch of reasons, but I am mostly sad at our inability to come together about important global environmental problems in a meaningful way.

The Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark recently killed Marius, a baby giraffe, this week, despite widespread outcry, and then butchered it in public and fed it to the zoo’s lions.

As one can imagine, there is quite a bit of public commentary. This piece from PolicyMic gives a good overview of the scientific rationale for killing the giraffe. The online support for the killing draws on various logics:

1) We kill animals for food all the time; lions eat meat, humans eat meat, why do we care about this particular giraffe? Those lions are getting fed pigs and other animals slaughtered for their benefit, why is this different?

Pigs aren’t an endangered species. Giraffes are.

2. But lions eat baby giraffes in the wild. This is natural.

Yes, they do, but in the wild, people with bolt guns don’t kill a giraffe, butcher it front of an audience, and hand feed it to lions in another enclosure. Human fingerprints are all over this practice. It’s perfectly legitimate to question the human agents at work well as the priorities reflected in the choices they made.

If you are, in fact, interested in the natural relations between giraffes and lions, you should probably focus on habitat preservation rather than zoos.

3. It’s important to show kids where meat comes from.

Denmark has farms. It also has abattoirs. The world is not so full of giraffes. You do the math. If you really want kids to know where meat comes from, show them. It isn’t done humanely or in a sanitary way, like Marius’ death, unfortunately. That’s reality. This is a staged event that has little to do with human food systems except that Marius was made of flesh and flesh is meat. You could do the same with a specimen of a non-endangered species.

4) This is a scientific problem, and we shouldn’t be guided by emotions. (The quote from the zoo’s scientific director in the PolicyMic piece basically claims this.

Oh, how very 1940s and 1950s of you.

Ok, that was snarky, and I know that plenty of people walk around thinking that scientific questions are not moral questions, but those people are what I like to refer to as “completely wrong.” They remind me of libertarians and communitarians who think that “society” and “self” come in distinct little packages like your dried noodles and flavor pack in a Ramen. Precious few questions undertaken in science–I can’t actually think of any–get to divorce themselves from the ethical and moral context of the world they exist in.

In this case, Marius was deemed to be genetically less important than other giraffes who might have his place. I have no doubt that genetics is hard science. Adjudicating what is “important”, however, and our role in determining what is genetically important? Those are social and moral questions within the community of geneticists and subject to scrutiny among the whole of humanity, which has a stake in the survival of an endangered species. It’s not an easy answer either way; if Marius was not particularly important and preserving him at the cost of letting a more important specimen die is just as much of a choice as the choice they took in killing him. But let’s not pretend that the latter has no subjective value judgments embedded in it, either.

If there is one thing we have proven with science, it’s that we don’t escape ourselves with it. It can expand us, enlighten us, and better us, but at the end, it is always a part of, not above or outside, the society in which it is practiced.

Moreover, this was a cost-benefit decision, not a hard science question, and so blowing smoke up people’s fannies about “hard science and emotion” is not going to fool anybody. If somebody had come up with an $800 million donation to save Marius, it’s more than a little likely that he would be galumphing his young adulthood merrily away in a new enclosure at the zoo. Please stop treating us like we’re stupid just because we are not geneticists. We can understand what tradeoffs are.

So Copenhagen Zoo sold plenty of tickets for zoo-goers to come ogle at little Marius when he was tinier and cuter. Now that he’s not as little and cute, and his maintenance is going to cost real money, and he is going to take up real estate, the spreadsheet says it’s time for him to go. That’s what controlled this decision. Not the sort of hard science that makes objects fall when you drop them. You can still argue that killing Marius was the right thing to do, given resources, but pretending it’s not a money-value discussion is disingenuous. This is a judgment about value. Period. Be prepared to detail it.

Why? Because cost-benefit analyses are most insightful when they ARE debated, contested, and detailed, in depth, in dialogue with people who have an interest at stake in the decision.

And that’s the part that really rubs me the wrong way. I am an animal lover, and my default is to let things live whenever we can, but even I can understand why there is a question here.

The Copenhagen Zoo’s public stance, however, has very much been “This is our giraffe and our decision.” Instead of opening up a dialogue about *exactly* the issues raised in the PolicyMic piece, the Zoo marched forward on its own schedule. There was, after all, some bloodsport/educational butchering meant to happen as a big event, and we wouldn’t want the spectators disappointed. There is a great deal that is unseemly about the butchering as zoo showmanship even as they call it educational. Did nobody watch Blackfish? But that strikes me as rather small onions compared to the apparent assumption that members of the world community have *no business* telling zoo managers about the value they place on Marius. You do not get to hold a special status as a custodian of globally relevant genetic material and animal life in the name of the global public and then turn around and tell the global public to piss off when it has feelings about the values in play.

Given more time, another arrangement might have been made for Marius–or more people might have been brought around to the scientific director’s thinking. But the zoo wasn’t having any of it; throughout, it was THEIR giraffe, THEIR decision, THEIR “educational” event that they prioritized. Some of the backlash has reflected quite a bit of Danish nationalism in play, like how dare those American and British ninnies judge us? I’m pretty sure that international visitors and donors contribute substantially to this zoo, as do international foundations and governmental coalitions. Yep, the zoo did what they have the legal power to do. But whether it is right is still another question. (Ask Socrates the next time you run into him.)

My guess: the scientists involved are convinced that giraffes are going to be extinct in the wild sooner rather than later, and their one hope is that zoos will be able to preserve enough genetic diversity in captivity to retain the species. Given that Marius and his kind are doomed and we already have his DNA on tap, we might as well as kill him, cut him up for edutainment, and get as much play of out of it as possible and hope that we get another, nonrelated giraffe to bring more genetic diversity to our conservation efforts.

That discussion strikes me as way, way too important to keep on the down low while you slaughter a baby giraffe and whine that the world is judging you. Yeah, the world may be in an uproar, but engaging with that uproar–instead of pushing ahead on something that was a nonemergency–is the duty of both public institutions and scientists that would hold they have a special role to play in conservation. They have may started this discussion with killing Marius, but I doubt it. It looks far more like that specimens of endangered species are disposable in the zoo business. Well then.

Here’s some Dr. Benton Quest because the whole damn thing makes me sad:

Noble lies and transit

Attention Conservation Notice: I may have just come up with a rationale for overly optimistic ridership and cost forecasts, and having sprouted horns and a tail, may need to go bathe in holy water or visit an exorcist. Crimony.

In the how-on-earth-did-the-argument-wind-up-here department, I am beavering away on Chapter 3 on public transit. It’s a tricky chapter because it doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the book. The major thrust of the book concerns the virtues that urbanists should embrace in order to foster Jane Jacobs’ style urbanism. The transit chapter digresses a bit from that theme, as most of the chapter develops an argument for why cities as a political community have the duty to supply transit (I am then going on to write about whether people have a duty to take transit.) Through many twists and turns, I have come to the topic of bad transit forecasting and whether these might be covered under the rubric of the ‘noble lie’ in politics.

Plato, in Book III of the Republic, has Socrates verbally sparring with Glaucon, Plato’s brother. Glaucon, as we discover, is no slouch when it comes to debate. He also has the will to power, and Socrates often toys with Glaucon, talking about what extremes a society would have to go in order to achieve social harmony. The noble lie is no exception. There are two parts of the lie: the first lie concerns the idea that a society can be, somehow, autochthonous, without politics, or history, or established systems of relationships. That is the pseudoi. The second part is described as a myth, one that would need to be believed by all classes of workers in a utopian political community. Socrates’ myth consists of convincing the members of the polis that each is born with different metals at his core: the rulers infused with gold, their experts and helpers have silver, and the common men made of brass or iron. Leo Strauss noted that Socrates’ description of the ‘noble lie’ captures the idea that leadership is selective, and that society requires these types of myths about social order in order to achieve social cohesion.

Political theorist Kateri Carmola made a somewhat different argument I favor, largely because it ties into its interpretation the positions that Glaucon has taken in favor of seizing power and imposing justice, the context, and the dramatic gestures Socrates makes. It also ties in all those long digressions about genealogy that many take as simple eugenics, though they don’t hold together as simple eugenics because of the way Socrates keeps pointing out that fine breeding only leads to exceptional specimens every so often, and in some cases, leads to some real duds. Carmola’s approach also explains Plato’s focus on cosmogony: the focus on making and breeding is a metaphor for making society, from one generation to the next. Carmola also links the idea of the noble lie to Socrates’ reference to Cadmus and the House of Thebes, one of the most violent intergenerational myths available to him. In the case of the cosmogony, the tales of the origins contained in Hesiod contain a great deal of intergenerational violence and familial abuse. The preconditions of political and social life are bloody and unjust.

Carmola suggests that Plato uses the noble lie to smooth over, and yet highlight, the “incompatibility between historical reality and absolute justice.” (p. 51). The lie is a children’s story, in Socrates’ manner of educating children, that helps them transition to the necessity of a politically established conception of justice, and away from an individual, idealized right order of justice. It concerns the political act of founding, or transforming, a political community. The dialogue in Book III is a means for helping Glaucon, and those like him, to see the problems inherent in believing that justice may be imposed, even as one stretches out and seeks to influence the course of human affairs. Carmola’s paper is delightful, and I highly recommend it.

Applied to transit politics, the idea that public agencies like transit companies might engage in myth making in their future visioning comes out most strongly in Jonathan Richmond’s Transport of Delight: The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles . Richmond traces the development of Los Angeles’s new rail construction, highlighting the manner of myth making that occurred between the region’s transit providers and the public it serves. Richmond is critical, not unlike Glaucon when he tells Socrates that he should be ashamed of such lies within a political community, deluding people with promises of something that isn’t simply because of the outcomes the vision offers. Plans and visions are in many ways, lies; leaders and the forecasters they employ can not guarantee all the outcomes. They can offer visions and paths, through a glass darkly as Paul warned us. What rail advocates throughout the 1980s, 1990s,2000s and today offered to Los Angeles is a vision of what isn’t–yet. Actualities may or may not follow; shouldn’t adult citizens be capable of understanding that in the dialogic, deliberative venue that is contemporary democracy? As Socrates helps Glaucon see in Book III to Book VII, there are no bright lines and transparent, easy-to-read boundaries in leading for justice. Is it really so wrong for mission-oriented public agencies, founded because somebody had a vision for what they might do, describe their visions in dream states on the one hand, and nightmare states on the other? The rest of us are not bound to subscribe unless we see ourselves as enthralled by ‘what the experts say’ about what cities should build and how–hardly true in planning now, if it ever was true (which I doubt; I think it was more to do with lack of constitutional protections for individuals vis-a-vis state decisions). If most of us know forecasts are diddled, and I think it’s fair to say that secret is out, and yet voters continue to vote for projects, anyway, it is probably fair to say that voters are voter for the grand vision and not the details.

Even if the lines are not bright, there is still a line, as Socrates’ use of the word “lie” indicates, between the poetic license of agencies and advocates seeking to lead through rainbows-and-sunshine visions and the propaganda and overreach of despots, not to mention the political penalties that ensue from such such disastrous-if-one-gets-caught misinformation as Obama’s reassurances about keeping your plan (no matter how crappy), reading lips about “no new taxes, and California’s High Speed Rail Agency strategic distortions of their cost estimates early on.

Carmola, Kateri. “Noble Lying: Justice and Intergenerational Tension in Plato’s “Republic”.” Political Theory 31, no. 1 (2003): doi:10.2307/3595658.

Richmond, Jonathan. Transport of Delight : The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 2005

Michael Walzer “retires” from Dissent so that he write a bunch of other cool stuff

So this is Michael Walzer’s idea of retiring, as written up The New Republic:

There is no drama surrounding Walzer’s retirement. He was not purged or anything like that (remember, Dissent is anti-Stalinist!). “I just can’t keep up anymore,” he said. Walzer’s co-editor, Michael Kazin, will run the magazine, which in addition to its print iteration has an increasingly robust online presence. Walzer, a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey (and a New Republic contributing editor), will continue to contribute to Dissent as well as write a book on national liberation movements, a subject on which he is currently lecturing at Yale. Plus, volumes three and four of The Jewish Political Tradition aren’t just going to co-edit themselves.

Wow. Just wow. I have to admit I was crabby when I first saw his initial foray into Jewish thought, as I thought I was going to miss him in the realm of (okImagoingsayit) “pure” normative political theory, but…he’s so good at both, and his philosophical perspective was so deeply informed by the Jewish tradition anyway that he was right; there was no way to understand the one without the other.

The New Republic writer highlights his book on the notion of a Just War, and it’s a very good book, indeed. But the real deal–Walzer at his unparalleled best– is Spheres of Justice. Drop what you are doing and read it.

Should movies have ethics?

Well now I do have a conundrum. I’ve always been one of those people who are rather impatient with those who complain about how movies distort history/get the book wrong. Does it really matter if the elves were not at Helm’s Deep in Tolkien’s book, but Peter Jackson gave some of his hunky actors more screen time and, thus, put elves at Helm’s Deep?

I am pretty sure that Abraham Lincoln was not really a vampire hunter, and I sincerely hope there are no teenage vampires in Washington state.

I don’t think either Beatrix Potter or Jane Austen charged about solving mysteries in between writing novels and doing beautiful illustrations of small animals in frocks.

So up until about this morning, I’ve been in the “it’s a movie categorized as drama, fer Chrissakes, not a documentary” camp and thought little more about it.

But the controversies around Zero Dark Thirty strike me as rather important. It’s a drama–straight up. When you have “based on real events,” shouldn’t the viewer know full well that you are dealing with artistic license on the scale of “these people lived and did something roughly related to the topic herein presented” but treat the whole story as a matter of fiction until they have investigated the reality behind the story?

I’m betting Jesus does have relatives alive in the world. Whether DaVinci ever thought about them is another story.

So torture makes for good drama, as the Bond films have been making clear for roughly 40 years. But the problem is that there appears to be a strong consensus among interrogators that torture doesn’t work all that well. In fact, many have come forward and argued that the movie suggests that the CIA’s use of torture yielded crucial information to catching bin Laden, when that information was obtained using more humane–and far less cinematically titillating–methods. That gap between the state of the practice and what is shown on screen strikes me as rendering the movie rather into propaganda territory. It’s one thing to lay bare the reality of the CIA’s torture policy; it’s another to hint that it was effective when it wasn’t.

The major ethical arguments for torture are all consequentialist in nature. Take away the ends, and you have little left to stand on.

Either way, I’m now confused about my position. The movie fairly does not purport to be a documentary. But…