Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The Internment Issue

Well, everything is conspiring to make sure I do no work; first this cold, which set me back a day or two, and now the computers in the Philosophy Department are unable to connect to the server. I'm currently writing thisin Robarts Library, which is a surprisingly noisy place to do work. I can't really do any work, because my work is all online, in my Yahoo! Briefcase, and I don't have a disk, so I can't save any work I'd do here.

Since it came up, I thought I would say something on the internment dispute. I don't really have much to contribute; I haven't read Malkin on the subject, and the factual issues lie well outside any area in which I am competent to speak. I've been following Vox Day's criticisms of Malkin, and if he has his facts right, and if he is characterizing her correctly, he seems to have built a decisive refutation of her main factual claims (I can't evaluate whether his facts are all right; those few I can seem to be). In any case, there is a sense in which the point is rather moot; for a government to engage in the internment of its own citizens without any regard for their guilt or innocence is not justifiable by any of the basic principles of republican government, whatever the facts of the situation. I take this as fairly obvious; if necessary I could expand on exactly how such internment violates consent of the governed, sovereignty of the people, and due process, but I won't unless there's a reader out there who really has difficulty seeing how they do. The only way I can see that anyone would consider it justifiable is if they held that utilitarian or realpolitical considerations overruled matters of principle. And that would only work if Malkin has her facts straight and if they were of the sort that would trigger the right utilitarian or realpolitical considerations. But as I said, the point is moot; such considerations do not overrule the moral-philosophical foundations of government. Such internments are indefensible.

Nonetheless I would like to defend bloggers in the blogosphere from the charge that they are being inconsistent or somehow have their priorities wrong in focusing so much on the memo scandal and not very much on the internment scandal. I think one can make a reasonable argument that bloggers should worry more about Malkin's position on internments. But this is a far cry from saying they are being unreasonable by not worrying much about it. There are several things that need to be kept in mind:

1. The issue with the memos is not, contrary to how some have tried to spin it, over Bush's TANG service in the Vietnam War. The issue is the journalistic integrity of a major news organization here and now. This is what bloggers have focused on; many of them don't care the slightest bit what happened in the Vietnam War. I do care somewhat; but the only value it has (beyond the purely academic) is what it contributes to our knowledge of the character of the Presidential candidates. I will not be deciding the politics of the next four years entirely, or even largely, on the basis of things that happened before I was born. And while I can't vouch for the 'before I was born' part, I think this is a common view. In any case, to return to my point: what made the issue important for the blogosphere was what is happening here and now. And questions about the journalistic integrity of a major news organization make for a very serious, very important issue. It is not a matter of memos but a matter of what they tell us about news journalism; and people are very disturbed by what they seem to say.

2. There is a sense in which Malkin's defense of internment is rather like Ferguson's defense of imperialism. Lots of people have heard about it, and know about it. But I think we should not overestimate how many people really pay much attention to it in the first place; certainly it's the sort of thing people find interesting if they fancy themselves intellectuals without wanting to work too hard at being so. But it's really about some rather abstract philosophical conclusions drawn from events that happened years ago (at least the way it is usually portrayed; like most people, I haven't read or paid much attention to Malkin on this subject at all); disputes about what really happened in the British Empire or in World War II are historical questions requiring historical expertise (and even historical expertise, depending on the events and evidence being considered, can be rather wrong). The memos just depended on being able to trace down the accurate technical knowledge, and the conclusions drawn were conclusions about a living person and contemporary news organization. I take the Chestertonian view that the abstract, philosophical conclusions are really the more serious -- I love the Chestertonian fancy of a 'philosophical detective' in The Man Who Was Thursday, someone who instead of solving crimes already committed prevents crimes yet to be committed by rooting out their philosophical roots before they begin to sprout -- but I can entirely understand that many people wouldn't. And as for the sort of knowledge required, deciding whether (for instance) FDR had reason to believe that the Japanese could actually invade the West Coast, or (to take another instance) whether on the evidence FDR had there was genuinely good reason to worry about a Fifth Column, is an entirely different order of complexity (both complexity of argumentation and complexity of evidence) compared to deciding whether the spacing on a memo could be accomplished by a typewriter. It is a more intimidating issue. It is an issue to which fewer people are exposed. It trades on matters in which fewer people have an obvious, direct, and concrete interest.

3. As I said, the issue about the memos is a matter of the journalistic integrity of a news organization. The focus is on Rather; but CBS has a major stake in it all. The journalistic integrity of Malkin is a much less significant issue.

Again, my argument is not that the memos issue is more important than the internment issue, but that 1) the memos issue is not as trivial as some people have pretended; and 2) that the case for the greater importance of the internment issue has to be made, not assumed; and, indeed, 3) that the case for it occupying the attention of a considerable portion of the blogosphere also has to be made, not assumed. It's perhaps clear that internment is a matter of greater moment than forgery; but that is not in itself sufficient. The end of the world is a matter of greater moment than either of them, but that doesn't mean bloggers should take time off from considering memos or internment in order to investigate and refute the claims of the crazy guy with the sandwich board that says "THE END IS NEAR." And it doesn't mean that there would be much to say if they did. I think the internment issue is important, but I think it important because I think philosophy is, in a sense, more important than facts, not in the sense that facts are unimportant, but that what makes facts really important is always philosophical. And there are clear philosophical issues. But, really, as I said above, even given that I don't have much to add to the matter; at least, nothing that I think isn't obvious if formulated the right way. As I said, I think Malkin's work is a bit like Ferguson's; it excites a bunch of people who fancy themselves intellectuals and think that means chasing after every new trail. And it worries, quite rightly, people whose actual field of study or interest touches on their own subject in some way. But most people are quite simply only vaguely aware of it at all, and would have to delve into quite a bit of research before they could really say much on the subject. If it becomes a bigger issue, in the sense of an issue that's harder to ignore, more would have to be said, and, I think, more would be said. Bloggers are not being unreasonable on this point; and this may be said even if it would be better if they paid more attention to the internment issue.

Such are my initial thoughts, anyway; I'm entirely open to being persuaded otherwise, since this is just my first impression.

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