The Myth of Neutrality

After dabbling in Wikipedia for several months, it has finally become clear to me exactly what is wrong with its neutral point-of-view (NPOV) policy, reflecting a similar problem that pervades modern liberal discourse. In order for an article to maintain NPOV, every popular position on an issue needs to be presented, often at the expense of properly expressing their relative likelihood or importance. Not only does this make articles read like haphazard assortments of facts, but the discussion is vulnerable to the demands of every advocacy group. When a structured article does occur, it is often because one advocacy group has won the day and imposed its editorial judgments about what is important.

Editing, in the traditional sense, has been one of Wikipedia’s weakest points, because there many Indians and no chiefs, and the NPOV is often interpreted to preclude making editorial judgments about what is significant. When I read an encyclopedia, I expect more than a collection of facts. I expect the author to have exercised judgment in using his limited space to provide me the most relevant facts in a meaningful structure. That is what makes an encyclopedia a useful springboard for research. I am not advocating opinionated articles, but simply pointing out the practical necessity of editorial judgments that necessarily come in conflict with NPOV as commonly interpreted.

More broadly, liberal discourse suffers from self-stultification through its aversion to making judgments about what is significant and relevant, out of concern for radical egalitarianism. This relativizing tendency ignores the inescapable fact that all genuine intellectual activity involves making judgments. Anything less is just data collection, without understanding the data’s meaning. This debases human discourse and lends credence to notions like artificial intelligence and collective intelligence, only because the notion of human intelligence has been dumbed down.

A Word on Affirmative Action

I am now totally against so-called “affirmative action”, based on how I’ve seen it implemented at my place of employment. To hire faculty, it is a requirement that at least one of three search committee members be female, which strikes me as blatantly sexist. Also, if I hire any staff who is white and male, I have to explain why he was more qualified than the other candidates, whereas no explanation is required if I hire a female or minority. Due to this atmosphere, some people try to say it would be good to hire so-and-so because they’re female or a minority, so it would look good for us. Thankfully, my boss and I have too much integrity to accept this kind of thinking, and we hire based solely on merit. So far, everyone I’ve hired is female and white or Indian, not by design, but it simply worked out that way. If next year all our hires are male, so be it.

What disgusts me about this policy is not an inordinate concern for the ability of white males to get a job, but the fact that it forces me to become acutely race-conscious when I have no such inclination. I am totally colorblind in my professional dealings with people, but this policy which is supposed to cure racism has actually created racism in someone who has none. Even if candidates do not declare their race, I am supposed to “guess” and enter that on the affirmative action form. This strikes me as profoundly immoral, to gather racial data without a person’s consent. If the person is hired, our payroll won’t run unless the “ethnicity” field is filled. I wonder what foreign students think of our country when they’re asked to fill an “optional” form asking for their race.

The origin of “affirmative action” is very different from the modern understanding of trying to actively recruit underrepresented minorities over equally (or even better) qualified applicants who are not minorities. President Johnson, in a 1965 executive order, ordered federal contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” Ironically, in implementing such safeguards, most employers have chosen to show much regard for the race, color, and gender of their employees. This flows from a results-oriented ethic where the only acceptable proof of non-discrimination is the actual presence and success of minority employees. An authentically non-racist ethic would not look at demographic results, but the mode of hiring, i.e., whether the hirer dismisses candidates or mistreats their employees on the basis of race. This is a more difficult thing to measure, since it is much harder to prove a person’s motives than one’s deeds. This is probably why the results-based “affirmative action” is favored, at the expense of perpetuating benign racism.

This kind of affirmative action presumes that any gross statistical inequities in hiring must be evidence of discrimination, which would require us to accept the demonstrably false supposition that people of all races and genders will be comfortable in all career paths in similar proportions. When we outgrow this fallacy, we can accept that mathematics departments are not overwhelmingly male because of sexism (in fact most mathematicians are rather liberal in their politics). Maybe then we will also accept that diversity of character and experience is a much truer measure of cultural vitality than diversity of physical features.

The President of Iran Is Not Insane…

…just religious, which in the West amounts to the same thing. Taking a broader view of history, encompassing all the cultures that ever existed, the president of Iran is actually more “in the mainstream” than our secular liberal democratic culture, which is something of an oddity. To appreciate how extreme our secularism is, consider that George W. Bush is considered an extremely religious president, yet political circumstances prevent him from mentioning the name of Jesus Christ in his public pronouncements, whereas the “extremist” Muslim president of Iran can freely speak praise of Jesus, as he does in his recent letter to President Bush.

Ahmadinejad’s letter is fascinating to me for several reasons. First, the leader of an Islamic state is much more comfortable explicitly appealing to the teachings of Jesus and Moses than that of a majority Christian country. It is almost quaint how Muslims still speak to the West as though we were Christian, even as we take ever greater measures to banish Christianity from the public sphere. (The radical separation of church and state is the subject of another essay to be posted soon.) Ahmadinejad appeals not only to Christian mercy and concern for the poor, but also to the eventual reign of Christ on earth in the end times! The supposed radical antipathy between Christianity and Islam is defused not only by this shared belief in Christian millennialism, but by numerous quotes from the Koran expressing solidarity among monotheists.

Ahmadinejad points out the incompatibility of Christianity or human rights with the idea that it is acceptable to kill hundreds of innocent villagers because there are a few criminals among them (in apparent reference to Afghanistan), or to devastate a country (Iraq) on account of the mere possibility of WMDs. Few had greater reason to fear or hate Saddam Hussein than the Iranians, against whom Saddam waged a brutal and devastating war with the full support of the U.S. If anyone was threatened by Saddam’s WMDs, it would be Iran, against whom Saddam used chemical weapons in the late 80s, without facing any repercussions from the U.S. Yet Ahmadinejad does not let us forget that the pretext for war was finding WMD, not toppling Saddam.

Ahmadinejad also mentions the Iranian passenger airliner accidentally shot down by the U.S. in the eighties. The fact that this has become a historical footnote in the West is consistent with a latent belief in the inferior value of the life of foreigners, as expressed in the term “collateral damage,” which is never applied to American life.

Ahmadinejad can point to concrete examples of human rights abuses committed by the U.S. in recent years. It is unfortunate that this “rogue leader” can make such accusations and actually have the facts on his side, and we have only ourselves to blame.

Interestingly, the president backtracks on his statements of Holocaust denial, and assumes hypothetically that the Holocaust did happen. Nonetheless, this does not justify the forcible displacement of indigenous Arabs and numerous war crimes committed by Israel. His appeal to a referendum including all Palestinian Arabs and Jews is based on his confidence that Arabs would constitute a majority, and exposes the fundamentally non-democratic Israeli objective of requiring a permanent Jewish majority.

His treatment of the nuclear weapons issue is insubstantial, making standard arguments for the right to pursue peaceful technology, so Secretary Rice is somewhat justified in dismissing it as a basis for nuclear diplomacy, though there are many other points of rapprochement here that would be foolish to ignore.

Ahmadinejad refers to the past history of U.S.-supported military dictatorships in Latin America, and the West’s exploitation of the natural resources of Africa. A foreign policy motivated by economic self-interest often brings the U.S. in conflict with Christian principles and human rights.

Another thing fascinating to me is how even this “extremist” Muslim appeals to democracy and human rights as ideals. The superiority of democracy is not something that admits of rational demonstration, so it is remarkable that this idea should have such complete universal appeal, especially considering its past unpopularity. Admittedly, most of the world’s governments are in fact more or less oligarchic, but the fact that democracy is a universal ideal is still remarkable and merits explanation.

The last interesting point, misunderstood by some Western journalists, is the notion that “liberal democratic systems” have “failed”. Some have misquoted this as opposing democracy, but Ahmadinejad espouses democratic ideals throughout the letter. What he opposes is liberal democracy, which prohibits religion and other traditional cultural values from directly informing the political sphere. This reduces public policy to economics and social engineering, resulting in the amoral policies exhibited by the West in recent decades, as well as the breakdown of the family and civil society. This argument is debatable, of course, but the fact the Iranian president makes it shows a point of congruence with conservative cultural critics in the West. Intriguingly, he notes that “people around the world are flocking towards a main focal point — that is, the Almighty God.” The global resurgence of traditional monotheistic religion is cited as evidence of the failure of liberal democracy.

All in all, while the president does not make the case for his nuclear program, his appeal to the prophetic tradition reminds us of how we have willfully set aside our own religious and cultural traditions. The liberal democratic experiment of the last 200 years may have gone too far, corroding the traditional cultural institutions which made possible its success. While we may not turn to a Christian analogue of an Islamic Republic, we may wish to re-examine the separation of politics from religion, culture, and morality.

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