Saturday, November 22, 2008

That's a shame.

I understand perfectly well that the business model no longer makes a lick of sense and that there are probably better uses for the space these days, but I'm still nostalgically sorry to see the end of Harvard Square's Out of Town News. When I was in Cambridge I'd sometimes still buy some newspaper or magazine from some far-distant point, just 'cuz. Undoubtedly I wouldn't been able to find it online, but equally undoubtedly I wouldn't have happened upon it. I liked browsing the headlines of the world.

Montreal's book and magazine retailers seem to operate in an alternate universe in which the internet was never invented. I don't understand how a place like the Renaud-Bray around the corner from me can support what's probably 750 square feet of retail space on the ground floor on the main street of a major commercial district just for magazines-- and how many of the magazines are French reviews of history of the human sciences or philosophy. Little hole-in-the-wall used bookstores abound-- and the one across Mont-Royal from my house has a much larger philosophy section than does the McGill Bookstore. It's a puzzlement, and almost-certainly a temporary anomaly, but I'll enjoy it while I've got it.

Of related interest, I loved this NYT Magazine articleon the challenge to improve Netflix' recommendation software. (Related because of the switch from corner video stores where you might plausibly browse and find new things to an online system with many more choices that will nonetheless be hidden from you unless there's good recommendation software.) I love the list of movies that are proving impossible to predict or correlate: especially Napoleon Dynamite but also “I Heart Huckabees,” “Lost in Translation,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” “Kill Bill: Volume 1” and “Sideways.” Two cheers for unpredictability.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Well, yes and no.

According to the Chronicle, "Bob Jones U. Apologizes for Past Racist Policies." The university has issued this statement:

At Bob Jones University, Scripture is our final authority for faith and practice and it is our intent to have it govern all of our policies. It teaches that God created the human race as one race. History, reality and Scripture affirm that in that act of creation was the potential for great diversity, manifested today by the remarkable racial and cultural diversity of humanity. Scripture also teaches that this beautiful, God-caused and sustained diversity is divinely intended to incline mankind to seek the Lord and depend on Him for salvation from sin (Acts 17:24–28).

The true unity of humanity is found only through faith in Christ alone for salvation from sin—in contrast to the superficial unity found in humanistic philosophies or political points of view. For those made new in Christ, all sinful social, cultural and racial barriers are erased (Colossians 3:11), allowing the beauty of redeemed human unity in diversity to be demonstrated through the Church.

The Christian is set free by Christ’s redeeming grace to love God fully and to love his neighbor as himself, regardless of his neighbor’s race or culture. As believers, we demonstrate our love for others first by presenting Christ our Great Savior to every person, irrespective of race, culture, or national origin. This we do in obedience to Christ’s final command to proclaim the Gospel to all men (Matthew 28:19–20). As believers we are also committed to demonstrating the love of Christ daily in our relationships with others, disregarding the economic, cultural and racial divisions invented by sinful humanity (Luke 10:25–37; James 2:1–13).

Bob Jones University has existed since 1927 as a private Christian institution of higher learning for the purpose of helping young men and women cultivate a biblical worldview, represent Christ and His Gospel to others, and glorify God in every dimension of life.

BJU’s history has been chiefly characterized by striving to achieve those goals; but like any human institution, we have failures as well. For almost two centuries American Christianity, including BJU in its early stages, was characterized by the segregationist ethos of American culture. Consequently, for far too long, we allowed institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that ethos than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures. We conformed to the culture rather than provide a clear Christian counterpoint to it.

In so doing, we failed to accurately represent the Lord and to fulfill the commandment to love others as ourselves. For these failures we are profoundly sorry. Though no known antagonism toward minorities or expressions of racism on a personal level have ever been tolerated on our campus, we allowed institutional policies to remain in place that were racially hurtful.

On national television in March 2000, Bob Jones III, who was the university’s president until 2005, stated that BJU was wrong in not admitting African-American students before 1971, which sadly was a common practice of both public and private universities in the years prior to that time. On the same program, he announced the lifting of the University’s policy against interracial dating.

Emphasis added.

As statements of repentance go, this is... not the greatest.

Bob Jones University didn't admit blacks until 1971-- seven years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and a generation after Brown v. Board. For several years thereafter it admitted only married black students. Once unmarrarried blacks were admitted, it promulgated a strict ban on interracial dating as well as on the advocacy of interracial dating; these policies endured until 2000, 33 years after Loving v Virginia, which itself, after all, represented a forced incorporation of those southern outlier states that still forbade interracial marriage into a then-already-existing national consensus against such bans. In other words, the ban on interracial dating was put in place only after the surrounding culture had rejected such rules as racist. And the university famously fought all the way to the Supreme Court in the 1980s to preserve its tax exemption in the face of an IRS revocation due to its racist policies. It lost the legal fight, paid a million dollars in back taxes, and kept the policies. Now, 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status for educational institutions in the U.S. is mighty easy to come by. To have it stripped away-- whatever the constitutional merits-- is a pretty clear sign that you're way outside the boundaries of acceptable opinion or behavior in the American political culture.

In short, Bob Jones University did not passively float along on the tide of American racism, and it was not racist only in its "early stages." It was worse on racial questions, longer, than any other university in the country. And it was actively, determinedly, passionately worse. The University did not conform itself to a surrounding ethos. It fought to resist changes to that ethos; it fought hard, at serious institutional cost.

Now, resisting the surrounding culture is something one expects from religiously dissident institutions. Of course a fundamentalist Christian university views itself as being at odds with the surrounding world-- for better and for worse. Passive conformity is no great virtue, and fighting hard for one's beliefs is admirable. But if it turns out that your beliefs were grotesquely, abominably wrong, then it's cowardice to suddenly plead passive conformity. That's a vice of which Bob Jones University has never been guilty-- and the lie that it has been strips its supposed apology of any moral force.

I suspect that someone at BJU really thinks this was a good faith effort to come to terms with the past. It's not. It's a pretend-apology, unworthy of the name, one that deflects all blame to the outside world. Shame on the Chronicle for falling for the pretense.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Settling Moral Accounts: Law, Politics and Morality

Montreal Political Theory Workshop

Settling Moral Accounts: Law, Politics and Morality

0930-1630 hours

Friday 5 December 2008

Room 16, Old Chancellor Day Hall
3644 Peel Street

McGill University

This workshop is funded by the Groupe de Recherche Interuniversitaire en Philosophie Politique (GRIPP), and co-hosted by the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism.

Panel I: 0930 – 1230 hrs.

Settling Moral Accounts: Conceptual Issues

Chair: Jacob Levy (Political Science, McGill)

Farid Abdel-Nour (Political Science, San Diego State University), “Citizen Responsibility in Democratic States”


Citizens of democratic states are implicated morally when their state’s functionaries bring about bad outcomes on either the domestic or the global political stage. In such states, citizens have at least the right to vote in competitive elections and the right to intervene in public political debates that can potentially alter the available electoral options. At a minimum, elections usually result in the selection of legislators and other decision-making personnel who in turn, through the law or otherwise, are connected to political outcomes. For example, significant aspects of foreign as well as domestic policy are determined by the results of elections. Thus the role that citizens play in elections connects them morally to those political outcomes that are largely determined by the results. Faced with the right to vote, citizens can in most contexts choose whether to vote. And if they do they can choose among limited existing options of how to vote. In this paper I differentiate between three main burdens of political responsibility that citizens bear as a result of this minimal right. There is a burden they bear simply by virtue of participating in elections, no matter how they do so. For by participating, they implicitly agree to own the results, even if with their vote they opposed them. How citizens participate in elections involves another layer of responsibility. For example, those who with their vote further a particular result, bear an additional burden for bad outcomes associated with it. As to those who fail to participate they are not entirely off the hook. Depending on the specificity of the situation, they may end up bearing responsibility for failing to do their part to prevent a bad outcome. Citizenship in democratic societies, even in its most minimal form is a burdensome political role in which ordinary individuals are thrust. It involves a responsibility that they cannot shake off, and serves to make them complicit in the outcomes of state actions on the domestic as well a global political stage.

Gaëlle Fiasse (Philosophy and Religious Studies, McGill), “Should I Merely Excuse the Ignorant but Forgive the Wicked?”


In the debates on forgiveness, contemporary philosophers place too much emphasis on the distinction between forgiving and excusing. Furthermore, they do not make enough effort to explicate the notion of actions done out of ignorance. In this vein, Jankélévitch asserts that “we forgive the wicked but excuse the ignorant”. Derrida goes on to arrive at the paradox that the more an action is intentionally wicked, the more it calls for forgiveness. To counter both claims, I suggest looking at the question of forgiveness, both by 1) revisiting the degrees of evil in moral action within the Aristotelian framework of voluntary and involuntary action, and by 2) making a comparison between love and forgiveness. I show in which sense unintentional actions are not necessarily outside of the field of forgiveness, and why it is false to consider that the worst evil action calls more towards forgiveness than other kinds of wrongdoing. Such a view neglects the distinction between the agent and his action in the process of forgiveness, the role of regret, and the fact that ignorance of what is morally wrong can actually constitute an extreme form of wrongdoing. I thus revisit the “intellectualist” claim that puts too much emphasis on knowledge versus ignorance, while neglecting the role of passions, and, more importantly, the fact that reason itself can have a corrupt goal. Insisting on excusing the ignorant could lead to neglecting the responsibility of wrongdoers who ignore the fact that what they do is bad. Limiting forgiveness to intentional wrongdoing underestimates the many other actions and feelings that might call for forgiveness.

Catherine Lu (Political Science, McGill), “Accounting for Political Catastrophe”


What is involved in accounting for political catastrophes, including genocide, interstate and civil war, and oppression? One way to think about this question is to focus on the task of settling moral accounts through tribunals, truth commissions or other state-sponsored institutional mechanisms. Such moral accountings focus on the judgement of individual, institutional and social responsibility for political catastrophe. Yet, in contexts of political conflict that have culminated in catastrophe, the authority to judge and settle moral accounts is highly controversial. Typically, the question of authority to settle moral accounts is tied to the question of authority to punish. Judgements about responsibility and punishment, however, do not exhaust the task of accounting for political catastrophe. Recognizing a more pluralistic notion of moral accounting for political catastrophes, including other forms of public narrative and self-reflection, opens room for a pluralistic view of the agents who can engage in the task of accounting for political catastrophes. One implication of a pluralistic view of moral accountants and accountings is that contestations about authority to settle moral accounts are mitigated by an acknowledgement that any accounting for political catastrophe – including judicial judgements – are incomplete, subject to contestation and revision, and will likely remain unsettled. The quest to settle moral accounts once and for all may in fact turn out to be excessively authoritarian and ahistorical, undemocratic or inequitable, and morally as well as politically counterproductive.


Christiane Wilke (Law, Carleton)

Lunch Break 1230-1415 hrs.

Panel II: 1415 – 1630 hrs.

Responsibility for Crimes Against Humanity and International Law

Chair: Catherine Lu (Political Science, McGill)

Kirsten J. Fisher (Political Science, McGill), ‘Individual Responsibility in Collectively Committed Atrocity’

In its aim to answer the question, ‘for what can individual contributors to collectively committed atrocity be held criminally accountable?’, this paper suggests new categories of international charges. It briefly examines what individual responsibility for collective wrongs can mean. Then, in defining necessary distinctions between acts of international criminal behaviour, it recommends the need for new categories of charges. This paper argues that while leaders (planners, instigators, commanders) possess the greatest amount of criminal responsibility, the criminal actions of other perpetrators are both aggravated and mitigated by the fact that they contribute to the greater atrocity. Any reasonable conception of international crime must reflect that contributing actions (murder, rape, etc) of “lesser” offenders require their own distinct category of crime which signifies the mitigating and aggravating circumstances surrounding them. This paper also argues that although leaders must be held responsible for the actions they plan, set in motion and command, the generally accepted policy of command responsibility, by which leaders can be held legally responsible for genocide or crimes against humanity for the actions of their subordinates, risks unfair labeling.

Christiane Wilke (Law, Carleton University), ‘Between Civilization and Humanity:

Visions of Law and Community in the Nuremberg Trial of the Judges’


The 1947 Nuremberg Trial of Nazi Judges is one of the rare occasions in which judges sat in judgment on other (former) judges. Nazi judges and judicial administrators were accused and ultimately convicted of crimes against humanity and war crimes. Yet how did the Nuremberg Court arrive at its judgment? This paper analyzes the function of two overlapping markers in the judgment: “civilization” and “humanity”. The Nuremberg judgments, I argue, are based on the 19th century framework that conceived of international law as tied to a Eurocentric “standard of civilization”. The Nuremberg Court addresses the Nazi judges not simply as human beings but as member of the judiciary of a formerly “civilized” country that committed “barbarous” atrocities. In this imaginary, “law” and “civilization” are seen as mutually constitutive. The paper inquires into the consequences of this mode of thinking. For example, how does the Nuremberg Court construct the difference between its own mode of judgment and the practices of the accused Nazi judges? How does the Court justify the use of novel legal concepts such as “crimes against humanity”? And what is gained and lost in the Court’s insistence on describing Nazi state violence as “lawless” as opposed to organized through law and bureaucracy? These questions have implications for contemporary transitional justice scholarship that too often identifies the task of moving away from state repression with the “return” of the rule of law.


René Provost (Law, McGill)
Book launch: For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War

Wednesday, November 19, 5-7 pm, McGill Bookstore: Book launch for Stephen Saideman and R. William Ayres, For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War, Columbia University Press, 2008.