Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Taliban at Yale


OpinionJournal - John Fund on the Trail

Never has an article made me blink with astonishment as much as when I read in yesterday's New York Times magazine that Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, former ambassador-at-large for the Taliban, is now studying at Yale on a U.S. student visa. This is taking the obsession that U.S. universities have with promoting diversity a bit too far. Something is very wrong at our elite universities.

Oh, dear. When I was Mr. Hashemi's age I was a member of SDS and took part in an abortive plot to blow up the Pump House at Lake Forest College--a small, octagonal building at the campus edge of Faculty Circle. Since there was no ROTC program we planned to put up a sign saying "ROTC Building" first, and then blow it up. Fortunately, even though we knew a cooperative chemistry major who cooked meth, we couldn't find anyone willing or able to provide high explosives.

This was definitely small potatoes, but we were Cromwells guiltless our our country's blood. There just weren't any explosives to be had in the North Shore suburbs, or AK-47s. And, with GREs and LSATs in the offing our SDS chapter dissipated: we were, as some of the true believers complained, co-opted.

I'm all for co-optation. According to some ancient statistic I picked up, it costs more to sent a boy to Borstal (is there still such a thing?) than to Eton. The solution is obvious, although Borstal Boy Brendan Behan seems to have enjoyed his experience in the youth correctional system and writes of it with nostalgia reminiscent of Tom Brown's School Days. As for twenty-something terrorists, I'm all for sending them to Yale--or at least Lake Forest College--in the interests of strategic co-optation.

There are mad, bad people all over who can't be co-opted. But they don't get much of a following from people who have to prepare for the LSATs. Most of us are only moderately bad and, even if we wish it were otherwise, not mad at all. We're prudent, self-interested and corrupt: given the prospect of crass material comfort we wouldn't blow up an ornamental gazebo.

This is an extension of Jarad Dimond's Dangerous Idea that "tribal peoples often damage their environments and make war. Why is this idea dangerous?" asks Diamond.

Because too many people today believe that a reason not to mistreat tribal people is that they are too nice or wise or peaceful to do those evil things, which only we evil citizens of state governments do. The idea is dangerous because, if you believe that that's the reason not to mistreat tribal peoples, then proof of the idea's truth would suggest that it's OK to mistreat them. In fact, the evidence seems to me overwhelming that the dangerous idea is true. But we should treat other people well because of ethical reasons, not because of naïve anthropological theories that will almost surely prove false.

More generally, people who are badly off--poor, ignorant and oppressed--behave badly and, arguably, they behave badly because they are badly off. To cope with hard, brutal circumstances you have to be hard and brutal. The richer, more educated and more privileged people are the nicer they are--because they can afford to be, and because there are opportunity costs for bad behavior. So the solution, again, is obvious. Treat people well--not out of a smarmy sense of compassion, or because we think they're too nice or wise or peaceful to do evil things, but because it produces results. Prep school, not reform school; Yale, not Gitmo.

2 comments:

Boofykatz said...

Woot, enlightened self-interest! But the end only justifies the means, even to a utilitarian, if 'the end' includes all the sufficient ends for one's particular brand of utilitarianism. There are occasions when the means may subvert a hitherto unrecognised end, and as a fallibilist I am reluctant to identify a utilitarian authority, in fact I think there are some complex social indicators of virtue that override fallible utilitarianism - such as 'killing innocents for pleasure is wrong'. And before you dismiss this as the ravings of a loon - which it may well be - consider your own espousal, wrt to right to life, that what I want trumps everything.. or did I get that wrong?

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