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A taste of evil


If you go into an ice cream parlor these days, you’re apt to be offered a free sample. You walk in, and some cheery college student (who really ought to be reading a book or doing problem sets or something) says, “Would you like to sample our new chocolate cream mousse pistachio mint mango raspberry radicchio flavor? It’s free!” After wondering a bit what language you’ve just heard, you say OK, helping yourself to a tiny sample of what’s on offer, and steeling yourself to leave it at that, for God’s sake. Within minutes, of course, you find yourself buying and consuming a gallon of ice cream on the spot, and resolving never to walk into this den of iniquity again–at least until tomorrow.

Anyway–long preface I know–but this post is a free sample of evil, gleaned from a few days’ reading of my fave newspaper, The New York Times.  The aim here is not to induce you to swallow any more evil, but to spit out (or throw up) whatever portion you may unwittingly have taken in and digested. In addition, I hope to induce you to reflect on the banality of evil, which exhibits itself throughout. (I had to throw that last part in, because no discussion of evil is allowed to take place in this post-Arendtian age unless allusion is made to “the banality of evil,” despite the fact that no one–including Hannah Arendt–has ever known what “the banality of evil” is supposed to mean.)

(1) Sample 1: housing regulation cobbler

America’s left-wingers are very angry nowadays at its right-wingers. That’s because the left is convinced that regulation will save us from the evils of selfishness and greed, and their baneful effects, poverty and inequality. Meanwhile, the right is generally anti-regulatory in economic matters, which seems to imply to many people that it is in favor of selfishness, greed, poverty, and inequality.

All this brings us to the strange case of the housing market. An editorial in The New York Times this week defends the New Jersey Supreme Court’s re-affirmation of the Mt. Laurel housing decision on the grounds that Mt. Laurel rectifies exclusionary zoning, a barrier to entry into the market.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has wisely rejected an attempt by Gov. Chris Christie to undermine its 30-year-old-ruling in the Mount Laurel fair housing case, one of the more important civil rights decisions of the modern era. In last week’s strongly worded decision, the court made clear that it would be keeping a close eye on both the Christie administration and wealthy communities that might be inclined to flout the law, which limits the use of exclusionary zoning as a means of preventing the construction of affordable housing.

I agree with Mt. Laurel, at least as a stop-gap remedy for exclusionary zoning, which seems to me much worse in its effects than the inclusionary zoning that Mt. Laurel demands. It seems to have escaped the Times’s notice, however, that zoning is not exactly a right-wing idea, and that the “wealthy communities” in question are not exactly right-wing enclaves, either. It also seems to have escaped notice that “limiting the use of exclusionary zoning” is a form of de-regulation that permits the construction of affordable housing that zoning and other regulations inhibit. In my experience, this last thought tends to be too much for the average New Jersey liberal to process; in lieu of processing it, we’re obliged to go back to execration of the conspicuously overweight Chris Christie, using his excessive weight as a metaphor for the gluttony of the market, Republicans, developers, and other stereotypical specimens of human depravity. One day, however, perhaps people will discover that judgments of appearance are really not a reliable proxy for moral judgments, and then come to realize that making fun of Chris Christie’s weight is not in fact a proxy for thinking about the housing market. We can all dream.

Anyway, flip a few pages back in the same day’s edition of the Times, and you can read a great story, “Tenant’s Fine for Renting to Tourist Is Overturned.” Once you get past the banal details of the story, and the totalitarian name of the agency involved (“the Environmental Control Board“), you’ll realize that the real story is this: the City of New York actually has a law on its books that criminalizes the subletting of one’s apartment–regardless of the content of the lease or the permission of one’s landlord–to anyone for even a few days. Many diverse points of view are mentioned in the article, discussing various fine points about “fairness,” but apparently the reporter could find no one to question the “fairness” of the law itself, much less the procedural problematics of a regulatory agency that functions as a de facto police department. (“911, what is your emergency?” –“My quality of life is under attack! A profitable and voluntary exchange is taking place right next to me! I…I can’t move…my apartment is rent-controlled…” –“Hold on, sir; ECB units are en route.”)

So I’ll question it. It’s one thing, and perhaps an unfair thing, that rental leases are often written so as to prevent sub-leasing. But in my experience in New Jersey, one can often get around such explicit prohibitions by means of the commodity known as “persuasion.” Carrie-Ann and I once managed to convince our tough Jersey landlord to allow us to sublet our apartment to someone for six months. He pointed out at first that the lease disallowed subletting, whereupon we responded that he was lord and master of the lease, rather than the other way around, and that it should be his pleasure to dictate terms to the lease rather than let that peasant-like document push him around. Acknowledging this insight with a favorable but wordless gesture, he indicated his acquiescence in our subletting proposal. So reader, we sublet it (the apartment). The anecdote (and frankly, the ease of the negotiation) indicates that even with an unfavorable lease, subletting is at least possible and legal in New Jersey. 

Oh, but not in New York. Try it, and whatever your lease says, whatever your landlord says, whatever agreement you manage to make between you, you’ve broken the law, and the fines begin to mount. What if you’re too poor to hire an attorney? Tough luck. What if you get evicted? Tough luck. What if you go broke? Tough luck. What if it was financial problems that induced you to sublease in the first place? Tough luck. Tough luck: thus speak the champions of affordable housing and “environmental control.” I guess people are the main part of the “environment” they’d like to control. A right-wing Republican conspiracy against the poor? Not exactly. Evil? I’d say so.

Here’s my question: how long can the left go on pretending that an a priori default position in favor of, say, existing housing regulations makes coherent sense and benefits the poor? If we can’t assume that the existing structure of property relations benefits the poor, why assume that the existing structure of regulatory relations does? As an Objectivist myself, even I don’t make the first assumption. So I don’t see any reason to acquiesce in a consensus that accepts the second. (Not that the poor are the only people who count, but my point is, they do count.)

If the existing structure of regulations really doesn’t make sense or confer obvious benefits, what exactly is wrong with a zealous commitment to plowing through the statute books and deregulating the housing market, one painstaking step at a time? I know that the very word “deregulation” makes a certain kind of leftist or liberal angry, but I guess I’d like to ask whether leftists and liberals are the only people entitled to a sense of righteous indignation at the way the world works. I’m inclined to think not. It really is not clear to me why the world should be governed by “control boards” whose regulatory powers make no apparent sense. I don’t see that anyone has so far made the reasons transparent.

(2) Sample 2: sexy anorexia (in vanilla)

An article on the same page highlights the great investment we all ought to have in the self-esteem of girls and their need to cultivate a healthy body image. In fact, an article on the Op-Ed page a few weeks ago sounded the same theme. Fair enough. None of us should take pleasure in the exploitation or humiliation of others.

Now turn three pages to the fashion section of the Times, where you get to read–with no sense of irony or consciousness of absurdity–about deathly emaciated models showing off fashions that literally seem fashioned to be devices of torture. I guess you’re supposed to take pleasure in the display, though I’m not sure how anyone could. Take a look.

I can't even manage a smart-ass comment on this one.

I can’t even manage a smart-ass comment on this one.

Our fashion correspondent has a lot of BS to sling at readers about the “endearing” yet “naïve” “idealism” of the scene just above. Right. Actually, I was thinking that I’ve seen impoverished children in the inner city of Lahore who look better nourished than the four women pictured here.

So here’s a thought: maybe the City of New York, in its solicitude for the self-image of “girls,” might begin its crusade with some (purely verbal) criticisms of the Times’s fashion pages, following which the Times can cover the story with a story on itself, followed by some serious editorial tongue self-lashings about its own callous insensitivity as a journalistic institution. I mean surely revenue can’t be the relevant consideration here, can it? I can’t imagine that the Times outdoes Maxim and Playboy in overlooking the obvious exploitation here simply to make a buck. That would certainly call its moral credibility into question. It might even be evil.

(3) Sample 3: rocky road

An article on p. A16 of the same day’s paper details an (alleged) attack by a bunch of motorcyclists on a driver on the Henry Hudson Parkway. The facts are not in, so I am, ex hypothesi, going to treat the facts that have emerged so far as though they were true. They may end up being false, but adjudication of the case as such is not my topic here.

Suppose the facts are as reported, and assume that the victim had a right of self-defense. I assume, then, that he could have exercised that right. How? Well, one obvious way might have been to call the police. But the police weren’t there, and wouldn’t have gotten there on time. Another way was to use his vehicle as a weapon against his attackers. Evidently, that’s what he did, and he hasn’t been charged with any crime for doing so. Inference: using your vehicle to run someone over when you’re under attack by a mob–even someone not directly attacking you–is not obviously a legal predicate for battery. Prima facie, it may well be a case of self-defense, even according to the NYPD.

So here’s a question: what if the victim had had a firearm in his possession? Could he, morally speaking, have turned it on his attackers to defend himself?

My answer is “yes,” but that is not how this reader (in the same day’s letters column) thinks about things. The “you” is the Times’s editorial board, and the “service” is an earlier editorial.

To the Editor:

You have performed a necessary service in emphasizing the unnecessary deaths, injuries and destroyed lives based on our country’s gun culture. I have contributed to several gun control groups, but have come to realize that while they do some good, they are basically ineffective, because their goal is gun control.

Gun control concedes the National Rifle Association’s contention that the Second Amendment gives most Americans an absolute right to own or use guns. This is not true.

I suggest that the phrase “gun control” be replaced with “no guns.” If such a notion were carried out, this would free us of the shame of legalized killings.

Ann Arbor, Mich., Sept. 29, 2013

But if “such a notion were carried out,” wouldn’t we also be “freed” of a right of self-defense in cases like the preceding one?

Here, I’d pose a version of the problem I posed in a previous post about health care: how is it in the self-interest of a potential victim of violence to relinquish all rights to possession of firearms? And who isn’t a potential victim of violence?

Either it is in our self-interest, or it isn’t. If it is, how is it? What benefit do all of us get from everyone’s indiscriminately being debarred from acquiring firearms? If it isn’t, why should anyone sacrifice his self-interest (i.e., his right to effective self-defense) for the sake of Robert Gelman’s policy prescriptions? I don’t ask the question because I want to buy a gun (I don’t feel the need for one). I ask the question because I can imagine that someone else might legitimately want to.  Apparently, Robert Gelman seems to lack the requisite capacity for moral imagination.

Of course, like so many letters published in the Times, Gelman’s letter equivocates on the key point, and thereby manages to have things all ways at once. Is he against guns as such, or is he against an “absolute” right for anyone to have any gun one wants, whenever one wants, to use it any way one wants, etc.? Read the first way, his letter makes no sense; read the other way, it evades the relevant issue.  As for the right to self-defense, one gets the impression from what Gelman says that in the clutch situation, one is to face down one’s attackers armed only with lethal cliches about gun control. But I wonder whether that would actually work against a determined attacker, and somehow doubt that it would.

I wanted to highlight two distinct evils in this section of my post–the people who attacked that motorist on the Henry Hudson, and people like Robert Gelman, who would like to pretend that you can dispose of the idea of a right to firearms by generating hot air about the gun culture and NRA. The first evil is obvious, the second subtler. But a piece of advice for anyone who espouses the second sort of view: try facing someone who wants to kill you with that attitude, and see how far you get.

(4) Sample 4: Nixonian-Kissingerian genocidal swirl

Now that we’re talking about death, I figure I can safely bring up the evilest thing on today’s agenda of evil, namely genocide.

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger are not the most popular figures in American politics, but despite the decades-long efforts of the late Christopher Hitchens, Kissinger at least is still regarded as a respectable senior sage on the American scene, and Nixon sometimes gets some passing affection. Put it this way: it’s doubtful that when Kissinger kicks the bucket, his obituaries will come right out and call him a criminal or a madman. And I think few have really pondered the possibility that we were, during the Nixon presidency, governed by a kind of psychopath. But both hypotheses are seriously worth considering.

I haven’t read it, but I’m impressed by descriptions I’ve read of Gary Bass’s new book on Kissinger’s and Nixon’s roles in the 1971 Pakistani civil war, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide. The book is summarized in an excellent book review in last Sunday’s Times (by Dexter Filkins) and in an op-ed by Bass himself later in the week. A quick taste of its revelations:

Nixon and Kissinger were not just motivated by dispassionate realpolitik, weighing Pakistan’s help with the secret opening to China or India’s pro-Soviet leanings. The White House tapes capture their emotional rage, going far beyond Nixon’s habitual vulgarity. In the Oval Office, Nixon told Kissinger that the Indians needed “a mass famine.” Kissinger sneered at people who “bleed” for “the dying Bengalis.”

Anyone who knows the relevant history will find himself experiencing vertigo and nausea at what Bass has discovered. Just read it, and ask yourself how moral trash of this caliber ever got elected, managed to govern us, and stay within the good graces of our political culture.

Speaking of buckets, I hope you have one nearby. If you’ve made it this far, you probably need one. I know I do.


P.S. A palette cleanser, care of Van Halen.


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