Academia Suppresses ‘Firefly’

Firefly is a canceled science fiction television program with the most thoughtful writing and most devoted fan base since Star Trek. Whereas Star Trek articulated the values and aspirations of Kennedy liberalism, Firefly is unusual in articulating a distinctively libertarian vision. Part of how it does this is by modeling its imagined universe on the decades after the American Civil War, but a Civil War in which the Union’s only purpose was to extend and intensify its sway, and the South’s only purpose was to retain its self-government, a postbellum world seen through the eyes of the South. Naturally, slavery does not enter into it. Our hero, Captain Malcolm, finds no place in the new order and becomes a wanderer and a smuggler. He is presented as an honorable man trying to live a self-sufficient existence. Since he has no use for the State that would put him out of business or worse, he must make his own freedom and justice, and thus is always personally armed. Unlike scores of pop culture icons, he is never seen using force to take revenge, but only to protect himself or his crew. Part of his charm is that he is almost never truly angry. These are not unconnected facts if you think about it, and I hope you do.

Because his self-help approach to justice is unfamiliar to those who rely on the authorities for their protection, he can seem dangerous, even villainous, but this is a misunderstanding. At one point he addresses precisely the concern that another character raises about whether anyone is safe around him, by saying “You don’t know me, son, so let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me. And you’ll be armed.”

Notice that he says “if” not “when.” “When” is revenge talk. In fact, if this were one of those scads of ressentiment-filled pop culture confections, this really should read “When I kill you, you’ll never see me coming. You could be enjoying a meal, playing with your children, and before you know what hit you, I will be there, and that moment will be your last.” Now Captain Malcolm is not “deconstructing” this sort of comment, he is simply rejecting it. But this must be explained because we don’t know him. He is explaining that he does not do this, this is not who he is. He does not prey on people and he does not hunt people down. He says “if” and the full meaning of the “if” is “if you force me to kill you by your actions.” What would those be? Endangering him or those under his protection, by their own acts of violence.

The rest of the quote explains something I discussed in my last post. There are two reasons why the opponent will be armed, one of which we just alluded to: the opponent will be armed because he is acting violently in a way that endangers others, but so violently that nothing short of lethal force will be able to protect them. In short, the aggressor will be armed. If he were not, he is either not acting violently, or his violence can be managed with less harsh action, action which, Malcolm implies, can preserve the aggressor’s life. Second, Malcolm is alluding to a norm he follows regarding a fair fight. Even if all justice is on one side and none on the other, an honorable man gives his opponent a fighting chance. An honorable man does not kill the disarmed or insensate. Which, by the way, is why an honorable man cannot accept the State’s most awful activity, the activity of execution.

The reason for such a code of honor is necessity. If there is no institution that will achieve justice between us, then we must internalize standards of justice in our dealings with each other, and when a man is just because this is who he is, independent of what the State would induce him to do and to be, that is what it is to be honorable.

It may come as no surprise to you that these are all ideas which are somewhat foreign to academia. So when an academic who is also a Firefly fan (like myself) posted a picture of Captain Malcolm, uttering the above quote, on his office door on September 12, at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, it should also not surprise us that campus police removed it, saying that “it is unacceptable to have postings such as this that refer to killing.” Perhaps if it were a picture of Gandhi saying “never kill” in so many words, the point would have been more congenial? But here’s the thing: the quote is about not killing, it explains why, on the whole, an honorable man does not kill. And that means that if the hypothetical Gandhi poster were acceptable, but an actual poster that says, in so many words “never kill unless it is necessary to protect someone from violence” is not, then this is what constitutional lawyers call “viewpoint discrimination.” Wisconsin, and her universities, are state institutions, and thanks to the First and Fourteenth Amendments, Wisconsin cannot use force (a police officer) to engage in viewpoint discrimination. It cannot implicitly insist that Nathan Fillion’s sarcastic mug be replaced with Gandhi’s sanctimonious one. Now there are exceptions to the First Amendment, the “clear and present danger” doctrine and the “fighting words” doctrine: if we can assume that violence will immediately ensue because of this act of speech, it is not protected. The conditionality and temporal remoteness involved in the speech (“if I ever kill you, you will be awake”) make this an impossible argument. So the poster is protected. Whoah. Good Constitution.

Naturally, the officer of the State would prefer a world in which individuals are disarmed and do not even suggest that there are alternatives. This is the only explanation for why it is that when the professor in question put in the place of the Captain Malcolm poster a poster that read “Warning: Fascism. Fascism can cause blunt head trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets” this too was removed. Now reasonable people can differ about what the First Amendment’s outer boundaries are. But few fail to grasp the fact that the First Amendment’s core is the protection of political speech. It is hard to imagine someone so obtuse as to fail to grasp that the second poster’s comment expresses a political opinion, and an opinion which is critical of violence.

To understand this entire episode, one would need to be able to do three things: know something about the libertarian values expressed in the Captain Malcolm quote, understand the constitutional law of one’s own nation, and read language for meaning. And yet all of these things were in short supply precisely at a government-sponsored institution of higher learning. I’m thinkin’ someone weren’t burdened with an overabundance of schooling.

[hat tip Foundation for Individual Rights in Education]

The Death Penalty

The ceremony of law smells of both blood and paper, for it is when the impulse of violence becomes subject to rule, when combat becomes contest. I know nothing about the specific case we are all thinking about. I simply want to propose a thesis.

The question is, under what circumstances within a civilized society is violence (threat of or infliction of physical pain, injury or death) permissible? To say none is to value the life of an assailant over that of a victim, and I can think of no argument for that. Rules have purposes, and life, all life, has value. So my suggestion is that violence is justified only to protect innocent life from imminent violence, and the justification for that is the value of innocent life, and necessity. Because life itself has value, there is an obligation to minimize harm to the assailant the degree compatible with ensuring safety for the prospective victim. Here centuries of common law agrees with me, as long as we are out in the world. It is when we enter the prison that everything changes.

But why does it? I can see no justification for inflicting physical pain, injury or death on the defenseless and the disarmed. A person in custody is defenseless and disarmed. Therefore there is no justification for executing a prisoner.

This view is not a “Christian” view. No one is being asked to turn the other cheek, and none of this precludes vigorous self-defense when an assailant is at liberty, police firefights in pursuits, what have you. War is hell. The intuition behind this is not one which finds self-assertion itself repugnant. Rather, it is an intuition about what constitutes a “fair fight.”

In our culture, we make films that gratify the desire to see violence unleashed against the absolutely helpless. The genre is called “torture porn.” When the State does it to gratify the same impulse, it is live theater torture porn. Turning the condemned into a gladiator would be more moral. Give up the complete control, or give up the violence, for you cannot have both, without arousing the revulsion of all civilized people.


[revised and reposted; original posted July 21, 2011]

There seems to be a certain amount of confusion about what is going on with NASA politically, and at the risk of getting it wrong, allow me to speculate, from a great distance.

NASA is a creature of politics, being a public sector entity. Its raison d’etre is manned space exploration. The public has no real appetite for funding something called “NASA” that will never again take human beings somewhere off the earth. Even in the case of robotic exploration, the public’s interest, which is considerable, is due to it seeming to be a proxy for and preliminary to us going there. If the robotic explorers did nothing but send back spreadsheets with data on the composition of Martian soil, there would be zero interest. And if you look at the data that does interest people, it is, unsurprisingly, data related to habitability. I believe that if NASA does not at least pretend to make motions toward a renewed manned program, now that it has no capacity to field astronauts itself, over time pressure would build for its abolition, and no amount of spin-off technology, journal articles or pretty pictures would keep it alive. I speak here as a tribune of the People. Go somewhere or shut it down.

NASA is a creature of politics. Among other things, it is “pork” (what we call programs we disapprove of). Both parties have some incentive to keep it going, as it funnels money to various constituencies, but these constituencies are not exactly the same for Democrats and Republicans. For example, much of President Bush’s Constellation Program, since cancelled by President Obama, created jobs in Alabama, a Republican stronghold. Though President Obama would presumably have to remove the reference to President Kennedy’s call to send a man to the moon from his speeches if he were to kill all manned space flight, he gains little politically from sending patronage dollars to Huntsville, Alabama. By contrast, he does gain something by sending business to Southern California, home of SpaceX.

NASA is a creature of politics. This means that while it exists, it will be an arena where Democrats and Republicans tussle over spending priorities, and the mission agendas that best rationalize them. I suspect that “Apollo on steroids” as Bush appointee and former NASA chief Mike Griffin called it, will always be the preferred vision for the party of the New South, and of the large defense contractor. That means that for the time being, manned space exploration will benefit from Republicans and suffer under Democrats. That means that just as Mike Griffin was once criticized from the Left for shifting resources within NASA’s budget from unmanned to manned related programs, Obama appointee Charles Bolden will be criticized from the Right for doing the opposite. The recent NASA Authorization Bill envisioned a grand compromise of sorts: Lockheed continues to develop what was previously Constellation’s command module, and with Alliant Techsystems, a rocket to put under it, but technically Constellation is cancelled, Elon Musk gets to develop a low earth orbit vehicle for access to the International Space Station, and the determinate plan of Moon-then-Mars gets replaced by flexible-then-we’ll-see.

But even without competing patronage agendas between the two parties, and competing visions of the meaning of NASA as between advocates of manned and unmanned programs, NASA can still die. Because even within the community of those who advocate for manned space exploration there are divisions, because its most passionate advocates are largely conservatives, and there is more than one kind of conservative. Conservatives generally believe in limited government, but a strong defense. Unsurprisingly, then, there is something of a fratricidal mood within this community. Some think, wrongly, that NASA is sort of like defense spending, and that large, expensive projects that benefit established defense contractors are for the glory of the nation, and thus somehow the good kind of extravagant non-defense spending. By contrast, libertarian devotees of ‘privatization’ and the free market are skeptical of government boondoggles and need to vindicate this belief by seeing large non-defense projects fail. Ironically, they prefer directing billions of taxpayer dollars toward small upstart government contractors because only in this way will the ‘market’ prevail over big government. As you see, both deceive themselves in the very essence of their thinking, by their studied refusal to consider that there are such things as public goods other than defense, and that their favorite government activity is one of them. Instead of trying to persuade others who already accept the concept of a public good that this activity is worthy of support, they waste their time venting their resentment and dogmatism at each other. If, in ten years time, we have no more space program, by attacking each other pseudo-libertarians and crypto-neocons will have done as much as indifferent progressives to bring about that sad end. Because space is ultimately about expansion and openness to a larger universe and wonderment in the face of it; dogmatism and hostility have no place in its vastness.

None of this is particularly hard to understand. But while Democrats play games with NASA, punishing Republican constituencies and rewarding Democratic ones, and Republicans score true believer points against one another, it must be remembered that if NASA cannot produce credible evidence to the public that eventually someone with a pulse will walk on Mars, the public (remember them? they pick up the tab, even when it is spent on pseudo-private ventures) will rapidly lose its appetite for jobs that go to regions where they don’t live, research it cannot understand, images more cheaply produced by Industrial Light and Magic, and bitter arguments that seem more about self-deception than idealism. NASA, and the community that cares about her, has yet to find its Kennedyesque voice. Let’s hope it does so before it is too late.

Defending Pat Robertson

Yes, I shock even myself. But the ignorant and sanctimonious response by so many to his remarks about Alzheimer’s and divorce is the sort of thing that makes me ashamed to be a liberal.

Here’s what he said:

“I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her.” In response to a question about how that tallies with the marriage vow “Until death do us part, he replied, “This is a kind of death.”

This statement is remarkable in many respects. First, it is non-literalistic. Historical Jesus scholars will disagree about many things, but the one thing we know with a high degree of confidence is that Jesus prohibits divorce. More theologically liberal interpreters of the scripture they regard as authoritative look to the spirit and not the letter (as Christian supporters of same-sex marriage do, for example). Robertson has followed them, eschewing a more simplistic approach, on several levels.

He did not say “what part of ‘no divorce’ do you not understand?” Instead, Robertson is clearly thinking in terms of the experiences and functions of the marital relationship. He is not giving a get out of jail free card to those who lazily refuse to honor the commitment of care “in sickness and in health.” The presupposition of his comment is clearly meant to be late stage dementia, where custodial care is, of necessity, being provided by a facility and not by the spouse. The only alternatives are for the surviving spouse to live alone in honor of what once was, a “once was” that lives on only in their own heart and not that of the spouse, or to seek solace and companionship outside of marriage. To think that either of these choices obviously honors the meaning of marriage more than what Robertson advised is to be dogmatic and ignorant at best. At worst, it is simply to define one’s own positions by negation and a spirit of blithering partisanship.

To his further credit, Robertson does here what millions of religious opponents of abortion have not done: drawn metaphysical conclusions about selfhood in light of empirical evidence instead of conceptual reflection. Instead of saying that there is a soul which enters the body at conception and leaves it at death, Robertson has followed Wittgenstein’s demand that we look instead of “think.” And what he sees is that after a certain point in time, a point that cannot be reassuringly defined by a bright line, nothing worthy of the word “soul” remains. If a few religious conservatives would do as much with regard to the beginning of life and mentality as he has done here about its end, a sensitive discussion of abortion could begin, instead of the ridiculous all-or-nothing dogmatism that has dominated it for the past forty years.

But perhaps the most important thing about this episode is that Robertson was not only thinking afresh about something that, soon enough, all of us as a society will have to think about, but he was thinking compassionately in light of the concrete experiences involved. No one abandons a spouse willingly; all spousal caregivers endure and bear as long as humanly possible. A terrifyingly large number of the self-righteous who stood in judgment over him and his remarks today will someday find themselves stretched to their breaking point and look beyond themselves to their community for compassion. Those who resemble their former selves will show nothing but contempt and misunderstanding; Pat Robertson and those who understood their plight will offer compassion instead, for the spirit of the words of the man they follow says: love one another, and judge not.

Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,

The old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position: how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

—W. H. Auden

Rhetoric Alert

One of the things I share with libertarians and conservatives is the belief in the importance of economic freedom (though how I conceptualize its relationship to political freedom appears to be different philosophically). Thus I share their concerns about erosions of economic freedom as a part of a larger concern with freedom. However, for me, political freedom is more fundamental, and more important, and thus the ‘health’ of our political institutions and political culture by far the more important. During the past few years, there has been a great deal of anticipatory campaign rhetoric devised to suggest that we are now living or will soon be living in a socialist state. If such talk were true, it would warrant a certain degree of urgency. But there is a huge difference between the economy being in bad shape and economic freedom being at risk. If you look at the Heritage Foundation country rankings for economic freedom (which I appeal to not because it is without flaw but because this is an internal criticism), we get a more sane picture of what is at stake. According to it, Barack Obama’s America is seventh in the world in economic freedom. Now I think that the better lesson to take away here is that this is so high that making economic freedom a campaign issue is somewhat silly. But if one were to make an issue out of it, consider that when George W. Bush took office in 2000, the ranking was eighth. Did we shoot from there into the stratosphere of liberty, only to be dragged back down by Mr. Obama? Well, perhaps. When Mr. Bush left office, we were ranked fifth. Our relative economic freedom has fallen by two positions as a result (we assume) of Mr. Obama’s policies. Or perhaps economic liberalization has intensified in New Zealand, Canada and Switzerland? Do I need to spell out the sheer silliness of regarding a minor reshuffling of positions within the ten most economic liberalized countries in the world as an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of freedom and tyranny? If anyone should be upset here, it should be the Left, which, of course, it is. It may seem counter-intuitive that the economy is in such bad shape and yet so economically free (I have argued elsewhere in this blog that this is essentially due to bad monetary policy prior to 2008), but it would seem that the burden is on the Right to explain that, not the Left. We do have serious problems here, of course: in the short term, unemployment, and in the longer term, fiscal soundness. But for better or worse, you still live in a largely capitalist country in which there is broad consensus between the two parties about the basic form the system should take, plus or minus some tweaking at the edges and some essentially symbolic political issues. Perhaps you think you have been betrayed because you really believed that Mr. Obama was going to introduce socialism and he didn’t. Or maybe you think you have been betrayed because you think he already did. Either way (if I may crib a line from The Last Psychiatrist) you are being lied to, by yourself.


In the final moments of the film United 93 as the passengers enter the cockpit, you can make out a photograph of the Capitol Building scotch-taped to the controls of the plane. All the evidence suggests that either this or the White House was the intended target. Either way, the goal was to destroy the site of one of the two political branches and symbols of the People’s self-government. Both are still here, occupied by the People’s representatives; the passengers who prevented the plane from reaching its destination are not. Think about that the next time you hear over-the-top anti-government rhetoric, whether of the Left or the Right. However much you may disagree with what some of your fellows wish to do in it, this is still your Republic. While elections are still held, the People’s laws enforced, and courts are in session, no one rules over us here, no one but ourselves.