Category Archives: philosophy

Thoughts on the ontology of Prohibition and origin stories

I was thinking about the notion of Prohibition lately, and realized there was a valuable insight to be garnered from the telling of the Original Prohibition story, or at least the way I see it.

What I refer to as the Original Prohibition, of course, was Adam & Eve’s experiment* with the mind-altering “fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good & evil”. And here is the crux of the story. It is a story about free will, and about how divine and human will interact, and the consequences of your choices.

I have the suspicion that many people (on both the right and the left) receive this narrative and think that the lesson from the story was that God’s Prohibition was not strong enough. It was not strong enough because it did not work to prevent our prototypical human ancestors from making a choice that brought misery and the profane to human existence. If Adam & Eve could have been prevented from eating that fruit, perhaps, the human race would not be in this ambiguous, pitiable state of earthly existence. The divine would be the sole content of human experience, and who wouldn’t want that?

But having the freedom to choose involves the awkward notion of living with the consequences of your actions. Not the false, legal, human-created consequences (at least in consensual actions where there is no victim), but the consequences of living with the knowledge, and the impact of your free will.

I have the sense that people who support prohibitions on consensual, non-tortuous activity really have the mindset that if we can just engineer society to this end or that end that we can prevent all bad outcomes, all miserable outcomes. But this is the worst kind of foolishness. Society is best served by criminalizing tortuous behavior, not non-tortuous behavior. To criminalize non-tortuous behavior is to subsume the notion of free will and human choice beneath the spectre of a glorious and impossible future.

The end result of criminalizing consensual, non-tortuous behavior, is that you create markets and industries that are dependent on the existence of the law and the need for its enforcement and not the real demand for goods and services by individuals. Ultimately, you can criminalize the entire canon of human activity through some extension of the law. The phrase “slippery slope” is appropriate here.

This is the ugly machine of fascism. It is the request to abrogate your rights and your choices for the ever-greater pursuit of security. But it is an ontological abyss. From a vantage point above, one can see the Gulag below, the (in)evitable promise of the Soviet Dream.

*One might replace the Judeo-Christian origin story with any of the many other different origin stories of similar structure and plot for the purposes of this argument.

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Thoughts From A Debate Tournament

I judged several rounds of debate at the Heart of America National Forensic League District tournament at Liberty High School in Kansas City this past weekend with my friends Carl Werner and Rick Puig, both former Kansas City public forum debaters; they also own DB8Zone, producing quality LD and public forum briefs.

My high school debate career was 4 years of policy for Parkway North in St. Louis. Later on I debated at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where I spent 2 years debating policy on the NDT/CEDA circuit. Curiously, for some time I was involved in, through which I met, virtually speaking, Phil Kerpen. I had many great conversations with Phil over the years and he has an exceptionally sharp mind, though he is far more radically libertarian (dare I say conservative?) than I am.

At this tournament I saw some interesting rounds of value debate (Lincoln-Douglas) over the topic of jury nullification. Debaters on this topic tended to make extreme arguments, getting away with claims like ‘jury nullification overturns entire bodies of law’. That’s true when multiple juries nullify multiple trials over the same issue with the same law, but doesn’t generally exist in the more common and likely example of juries nullifying specific trials on a one time basis. I thought the argument was generally stronger in favor of the affirmative on this topic, though I did vote negative in one of these rounds.

Policy debate results were mixed. I think I judged all three teams who qualified to nationals, and was fairly impressed by one. They ran an affirmative expanding Medicaid reimbursement to midwives, making an argument that the existing restrictions on reimbursement excluding midwives constituted a meaningful and illegitimate restriction on women’s reproductive rights, linking it to larger claims about biopolitics and governmentality. The negative made arguments about topicality, federalism, and the economy. The level of debate seemed fairly comparable to St. Louis debate and the debaters seem to know what to do when they recognize that their judge is familiar with the structure and language of policy debate. I do remain concerned about the short and intermediate viability of policy debate teams particularly in the state as school districts face budget shortfalls.

The sole public forum debate round I judged was the break round to nationals (a 7-judge panel). The topic was affirmative action. I believe I was the only judge with any policy experience, and also the only judge to vote negative in a 6-1 decision for the affirmative. I’d voted on a framework argument advanced in the initial speech by the con side making the claim that we should evaluate oppression and inequality from a class-based, not a race-based, perspective. I’m not sure I can claim to have made a correct decision, but I found it curious that I was the only judge in the round that evaluated that framework.

I am hearing good things about debate in Missouri this year. More high school teams are traveling and receiving TOC bids, and the team at Missouri State did fantastically well at the NDT last year. I don’t know if my anecdotal sample lets me come to any conclusions about how vibrant the circuit remains, and it’s hard to comparatively evaluate teams from this year against teams I remember. I find good argumentative development and not a lot of strategic development, but that’s generally true of high school debate in all years.

After the entirety of my experience, I conclude the the single most urgent problem facing debaters is the lack of consistent quality judging at tournaments. It is a hard thing to get qualified former debaters to high school tournaments, mostly because they’re in college and the short distance they’re willing to travel is inversely proportional to the amount they get paid. I am gratified to see several former debaters continue to be active in the activity, coaching and teaching debate at high schools, and I am gratified to see the restrictions on competition imposed by the Missouri State High School Athletics Association ease after years of diligent pressure.

The other problem facing high school debate programs is the one no one wants to talk about. Where does the funding come from in rocky financial times?

Thought: do any charter schools offer debate programs?

Oh, and if any former debater or interested person is interested in judging at state and national qualifiers in the upcoming month, information on tournaments is available on, here.

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Traiberman-Li Blog

Two of my former high school debate friends, Sharon Traiberman and Jimmy Li, have graduated college and have started a blog. I highly recommend it for people interested in good analytical arguments, particularly with regard to economics and ethics.

On an aside, Sharon Traiberman remains one of the people I felt were truly treated unfairly by the the politics of Missouri high school debate. He has always been a brilliant thinker and unfortunately innovation outside of the narrow political box of Missouri high school debate has never been consistently rewarded.

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On the Uniqueness of St. Louis

Generally speaking, the monuments that represent cities can be categorized as masculine phallic symbols. A quick list: Paris/Eiffel Tower, Seattle/Space Needle, Washington DC/Washington Monument, London/Tower of London, etc.

This is by and large true with one very unique exception: St. Louis. St. Louis is the only city that I know of that is represented by a monument that is a feminine sexual symbol: an Arch. The conceit also underlies the famous slogan: St. Louis, Gateway to the West.

HT: Dr. Barb Osburg

Edit: Here is the Liberty Memorial in KC, courtesy Sam Burnett.

Thought of the Day, Fight Club Edition

Actually, I have a few thoughts. About Fight Club. And they aren’t about the book (which I have yet to read)

1. If you think that the lessons from Fight Club are in the vein of Marx and anti-capitalism, sure, there are some lessons there. But the really interesting connections are to the psychology of mass movements, a topic that invokes Eric Hoffer’s seminal work The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.

2. Viewing Fight Club through a Dostoyevskian lens also yields many insights. Indeed, the main character’s psychological fragmentation is a core theme of the narrative through which the narrative itself is possible. Here is a brief summary of Dostoyevsky that those not familiar might find useful.

3. Heidegger’s insights on what he calls ‘techne‘ also have much to offer, though I find Heidegger only worth mentioning for his exposition on a few concepts and find other thinkers provide much more fruitful avenues for development.

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Some Posts Just Write Themselves, Umberto Eco Edition

This interview in the German daily der Spiegel with the famous author of Foucault’s Pendulum has this gem:

Eco: The people from the Louvre approached me and asked whether I’d like to curate an exhibition there, and they asked me to come up with a program of events. Just the idea of working in a museum was appealing to me. I was there alone recently, and I felt like a character in a Dan Brown novel.

The irony of Eco commenting on Dan Brown is too wonderful to miss. The article by the way is interesting throughout and Eco has brilliant things to say on the origin of culture and lists.

Edit: Just for the record, I don’t think I could ever say something nearly as nice about Dan Brown.

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On Reality

I don’t watch much television so my knowledge of the historical background is shaky but lately I have become fascinated by a couple of television dramas, Lost and Heroes. Both have exceptionally convoluted plots in which reality itself is a main player. Lost is a show where I’m never sure precisely what the reality is and Heroes tells stories in which reality itself is constantly shifting through the actions of several main characters, one of whom can time travel and change the path of time itself.

I find in these stories a wonderful skepticism. If there is one dominant strategy or Nash equilibrium for the people in these worlds it is to never completely accept the reality in front of them: it may be imaginary (hallucination), it may be systemically unpredictable (particularly when invisibility or shapeshifting or any one of a dozen other idiosyncratic factors are at play), and it may be variable, as when the fabric of time is accidentally or willfully rewoven. In these worlds history and sensory knowledge are even poorer guides than the one I know and one must be willing to accept the constant possibility of delusion as well as a knowledge base that is terminally unstable. Survival means the ability to accept the fluidity of paradigms through which experience is optimized.

In a sense this is very minimalist. At the same time one is aware of the utter scale of possibility and learns that the worst enemy is not being aware of one’s cognitive biases and limitations. In a sentence, self-knowledge is the only meaningful currency for these realities (and by extension, our own).

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