Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Thoughts on Patriotism With Beer and A Pretty Girl 

I unbuttoned another button on my shirt and blew some cool air down my neck. My chest was slick with sweat, and shined a bit under the street lamps on Orchard Street. Nothing felt like it was moving. The air was still. No one else was on the street. I imagined that even the rats I knew were just out of sight in the shadows were refusing to move in the July heat.

I tried to think about how things could be worse. I could be in Queens, where they haven’t even had electricity for eight days. Were people still even living in Queens? Or had they fled the borough for places with ice and air conditioning.

I turned off Ludlow and onto Rivington. From the east there was something close to wind. Only the breeze was warm. It stirred things up a bit but didn’t do much to cool things off.

They shut down my old bar this spring. It had been called the Cellar and had been my home away from home. And you can scratch that “away from home” bit. It had been my home straight-up while my actual apartment, the place I paid rent, was more like my home away from the bar. The usual crowd was always there, tilting back drinks and telling each other outrageous lies or courageous truths. I never cared which and never bothered to sort one out from the other. If it didn’t involve me handing someone my wallet or leaving my barstool, what business of mine was it whether the stories the drinkers at the Cellar told were true or just stories that ought to have been true. I liked the place so much I actually stopped keeping whiskey in my apartment just so I would always have an excuse to go down there.

So now I was on my way to a new bar. The new place had actually been around longer than the Cellar but it was new to me. I’m not particularly a fan of new things, and I dislike old things that are just new to me even more than than the genuinely new. The old ways and places are best. The only exception I know to this rule has to do with women. But let’s not get into all that just now.

I’m sorry to get all nostalgic about my old place. Especially when it doesn’t have much to do with what happened next. The Cellar doesn’t even come up in the conversation I was about to have with Hillary. But that’s how I was feeling while I walked across Rivington Street to meet her, and that’s about all I was feeling. Sad for myself and my bar. And unbelievably uncomfortable in the heat.

Even though nothing was right with the world, Hillary is the kind of girl who makes you forget that for a moment. Your see her and the world stops for a minute. No. That’s not right. It doesn’t stop. It just moves differently, seems to get on the right track again. If I were a dancing man, I might say that it finds the rhythm it had lost. But I’m not really sure what that’s like because I only dance to the slow songs.

Let me put it different. When you sit down on a barstool beside her, the things that shouldn’t happen don’t, and the things the shouldn’t have happened haven’t. I’m not sure I’d say that she makes anything that should happen actually happen. It’s more like standing athwart all of life’s little disasters and yelling stop.

She might be the perfect woman if she wasn’t so full of ideas. When she’s talking about music or clothes or what bastards men are or how come the bartender hasn’t bought us a free round yet, well, at those moments you start to think maybe you love her. But then she starts talking about ideas and things go all wrong.

At some point someone taught her economics, and with that came a few lessons about politics. Not practical economics—like how to save money or run a business. And not practical politics—like how to win elections. She learned about economic theories and political theories. Ideas, like I was saying. And they filled her head up and now sometimes—okay most times—its hard to have a talk with her about the world without your words bumping up against her ideas. They’re like a road block standing between the world and her mind.

Here’s where we hit the problem with ideas. At some point I mentioned something about how a friend of mine had started a little Mexican food place a couple of blocks away. They served great fish tacos that you can get coated with guacamole. They’re real cheap and they sell beer too. Hillary wanted to know why she hadn’t ever met the guy who owned the place. I told her how he had moved out of New York City when it became uncomfortable for him to keep living here on account of his opinions about immigration. She shifted a bit in her seat and I knew we were in trouble.

“What was he saying about immigration?” Hillary asked.

“He took the position that the immigration policy of the United States should, first and foremost, be decided on the basis of what was good for the citizens of the United States,” I said.

“Why should it be decided on such a narrow basis?” she said.

“Well, I’m not saying there aren’t other considerations. And neither was he. It’s just that it seems kind of self-evident that the job of the Untied States government should be to look out for its people first, to put their lives, liberties and interests before anyone elses,” I said.

“Not self-evident to me at all,” she said.

“Hillary. You’re not that dense. It’s called patriotism. It’s a pretty normal human way of looking at things.” I shouldn’t have used the word dense. She was getting agitated.

“I think there are plenty of practical reasons to be patriotic. Of course, nations should in many cases devote more resources to their own citizens than to foreigners, and therefore be more concentrated on the interest of those foreigners, because they are more familiar with them and less likely to make errors about how best to use those resources. But the kind of patriotism that thinks foreigners are ‘worth less’ than citizens or that the government should treat them as if they were worth less, is based on a falsehood,” she said.

I took the top off my pint of Six Points Sweet Action. “What do you mean it’s based on a falsehood?”

“It’s an error of moral arithmetic. The ‘worth less’ position is false and does not follow from the practical argument for patriotism,” she said. She was hardly drinking at all anymore, and she was talking about arithmetic and morals in the same sentence. Neither of those are good signs.

I should have let it go. Nodded my head and said something about not being very good at either arithmetic or morals anyway. Ordered us some shots of Wild Turkey. Let her smile return and set the world right. But she wouldn’t let me.

“Hillary, I’m curious about how you’re so certain you know what’s morally true about nations and people? I know you believe in individual liberty and I’m not arguing against that stuff now. But that’s a pretty strong statement, you’re making. I mean, if we all were to try to care for everyone equally on the basis of equal self-worth, wouldn’t that mean…”

“Stop,” she said. “I knew you’d go straight for that reductio ad absurdum. Let me turn this around and say that I think you need to make a positive argument for national borders as sources of moral delineation.”

“Fine. I’ll tell you what I think. First, I want to get off this abstract idea about whether people are ‘worth less.’ We’re not talking about arithmetic, or cash registers or God’s score board in the sky. We’re talking about how we treat people, and our duties toward others. So I’ll say that I do not agree that we have any duties to people from other countries that arise their being the equal members of a community composed of all the people in the world.

“And that’s because I’m not sure I can follow your assumption of a world wide moral community of people. So I’m not sure you are entitled to demand reasons for why we should carve that up into nations. From what I see, we’ve got a world of nations, for the most part. And for a long time, people in nations have generally preferred their own to foreigners. So the way I see it, this is the way things are whether you like it or not,” I said.

“You cannot prove an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’ Just because that’s the way people act doesn’t mean that it’s right. In fact, these facts are irrelevant to the argument. You’re just showing that lots of people make the mistake in moral arithmetic I was talking about earlier,” she said.

“I don’t agree that it’s irrelevant. Let me put it this way. Suppose there were eighty people on a tiny island in the South Pacific, mostly tourists (and for our purposes, all women—perhaps the island is a terrible fishing destination, keeping away the men). And suppose there was a tsunami coming to sink the island. Forty of these folks are Americans, and forty of them are foreigners. If the US could get four helicopters to the island to rescue ten people each, I suppose you would have to say that we should be neutral about whether the helicopters rescued American women or foreigner women. (And now you see why I made them all women—so we wouldn’t get distracted by issues about women and children getting off before men.) But any normal American would say that the American helicopters should rescue the Americans. And if the copters were British or Chinese, the people of those countries would expect their nationals to be rescued first. Now why should this be, since there are not purely practical reasons involved here? I think it’s because we have a deep moral intuition about our people, and I think this moral intuition tells us that our people are not equally all people, but subsets of that larger group.”

“I know you probably still don’t like the idea of relying on habit, tradition or intuition but I’m afraid that’s a problem for your argument and not mine. In fact, I think I won the argument the moment you said that it was false to think that we shouldn’t treat our fellow citizens as if they were worth more than others. That is a losing position. If your philosophy says that nations are morally irrelevant, I’m afraid it is your philosophy that will have to go.

“This is my positive argument for the moral importance of nations, and for the morality of preferring citizens to foreigners—because I think my position coheres with the way we think about the world and ourselves, with what we know about the world, with the way we live and the way we want to live. And I don’t think the contrary position makes as much sense with any of these things.”

That’s it. I was done. I didn’t want to talk about it anymore but I could tell she did. There was a look on her face that I’ll call an emotional Manhattan—one part confused and two parts angry.

“Your position is almost nihilistic. No it is nihilistic. You aren’t offering reasons or arguments, you are offering up feelings, sentiments and popular opinion. You are denying the role of reason in moral arithmetic,” she said.

“Actually, I’m not. I mean, I'm borrowing some of my arguments--probably even my words--from guys like Richard Posner and Socrates, who have questionable relationships to morality. But I think it’s strange that you think I’m nihilistic for defending the all-but universal moral intuitions of the world’s peoples. I’m not even denying the role of reason, either. Not really. I’m saying that the kind of reason we use when we make moral arguments is different than the kind we use when we calculate interest rates. You keep using the phrase ‘moral arithmetic’ and I think that’s where you are going wrong. The problem with moral arguments is that we aren’t adding things up. It’s trickier than that. We have to take positions on a particular understanding of what it means to be human, what kind of world we live in, and what kind of human good our public life should be concerned with.”

“So, then,” she said. “Out with it. What’s your underlying position?”

“I guess my position is that being human means being human together. Social animals and all that. And that being together means being together with particular people, not all people and not people in the abstract. I guess there are concentric circles of togetherness, and I think each one probably has moral significance. Practical significance too, but moral also.”

“Oh, MT,” she said. “You are a wonderful drinking companion. You might even be the perfect man if you’d slow down with the whiskey. And if you didn’t have so many ideas in your head.”