This Country Needs to Stop Beating around the Bush on Abortion

You’ve all heard the brouhaha surrounding Obama’s commencement speech at Notre Dame, and you’ve also probably heard the somewhat emerging consensus that he handled the controversy well, mostly by doing that “Obama” thing that he does, which, according to this John Dickerson piece in Slate, is this:

“Here’s how he explained this approach as it applies to his decision-making: “[Opponents] might not, at the end of it, agree with me, but having seen how I’m thinking about a problem, having a sense of how I’m making decisions, that I understand their point of view, that I can actually make their argument for them, and that that’s part of the decision-making process, it gives them a sense, at least, that they’ve been heard, and … it pushes us away from the dogmas and caricatures that I think get in the way of good policymaking and a more civil tone in our politics.””

This is all well and good, except it does not address the underlying normative question: whether the coercive powers of the state should be used to either allow or prohibit abortions.

Having a fair interpretation of your political/philosophical opponents’ arguments might be necessary to resolve political/philosophical questions, but it surely cannot be sufficient. Let me give an example. In any undergraduate philosophy course on applied ethics, abortion is usually taught. And in such a typical course, the student usually reads two papers, considered paradigmatic, by Don Marquis (PDF version here) and Judith Thompson (regular HTML version here), arguing against and for abortion, respectively. And in this typical undergraduate philosophy course on applied ethics, you can expect a typical essay assignment to be defending either Marquis’ or Thompson’s position regarding abortion. Now, at the very least, a competent paper at the undergraduate level will provide a fair reading of the two papers, examine their various premises, and then critique one or the other to support the student’s own position. If the student does well, the paper usually gets a decent to good grade.

If this were the case, the student would be acting exactly the same as Obama says: he has taken his opponent’s arguments, gave them a fair reading, critically examined them in depth, critiqued them cogently, and made a normative argument. But would anyone consider this, by itself, sufficient to resolve the underlying philosophical difference?


So really, Obama is dodging the issue big time here. One can easily demonstrate one’s good faith in taking one’s opponents’ arguments seriously, but what does this have to do, ultimately, with taking a stand one way or another? How does this really resolve the question at hand?

But here, one must give at least a crude account of what it means to “resolve” the questions. My own crude account is that there are at broadly two ways of conceiving a resolution to the question. First, there is the realist conception: namely, one can resolve the question by arguing that either one side or the other is TRUE in a normative sense. That is, either abortion is right, or it is wrong. The history of the debate shows that this question isn’t likely going to be resolved soon on this realist account, but nothing in the question itself suggests that an answer is conceptually impossible. One thing is for sure: knowing the other side’s arguments, giving them a fair reading, and showing the other side that you have given their arguments a fair reading, aren’t enough to resolve the question.

Which leads me to the second broad conception of resolving the abortion question: the political resolution. In this conception, the question of whether abortion IS right or wrong is bracketed aside. The appeal to one’s opponents is no longer based on the truth of the normative claim, but on consensus. Take, for example, the right to free speech. A citizen who happens to be a Christian, an utilitarian of the Millian persuasion, or a dyed-in-the-wools Kantian might all agree that free speech should be protected, but their reasons for their conclusions are probably very much different from one another’s. But nevertheless, the question of “should the state protect free speech” is resolved politically because the resolution does not depend on harmony between the differing and conflicted normative schemes these citizens hold.

Is such a political resolution possible for abortion? Again, Obama simply evades the issue, by talking about how both pro- and anti-abortion folks can agree on the fact that we should institute policies that decrease unwanted pregnancies. Sure, there might factually be a consensus, but what does this have to do with the question at hand?

In this case, the history of the intractability of the abortion debate does constitute very strong evidence that perhaps a political resolution is not possible for abortion, because the history and the content of the debate both show that inevitably, debates about abortion could not bracket aside these differing, conflicted, and fundamental normative schemes that each side holds.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us in a stalemate, both philosophically and politically. At least philosophically, we have not closed the door on the possibility of resolving the questions, but for all intents and purposes, politically, abortion is at a stand still. Obama can do all he wants to make the debate itself not acrimonious in how it is carried on, but he can’t do anything about the intractability of it. We can all be very civil, but civility ultimately does nothing to answer the question.

What will ultimately answer the question, at least on a political level, is coercion: coercion in the form of a fair vote with the majority, whichever side that might be, “winning.” But this result isn’t going to satisfy anyone, because the losing side will feel alienated from the decision and feel that it is illegitimate. And political winds change over time, so the majority will also change. But this isn’t going to be something that the losing side, whichever it might be, can reasonably accept. No matter who “wins” politically, the losing side will feel the “win” to be illegitimate and arbitrary.

And in a sense, it is arbitrary, because we have simply not answered the question. But the existence of this arbitrary conclusion, for a question of this magnitude, both normatively and politically, presents a challenge to our notions of political legitimacy.

And this is the possible conclusion that this country, Obama included, has been trying so hard to push to the bottom. This country simply refuses to acknowledge even the possibility of this conclusion, but given all the history, all the evidence, I don’t see how anyone can simply brush the possibility of this conclusion aside.

No matter how much Obama talks about the need to find common ground, to make the debate civil and not acrimonious, this possibility exists. And it is time that we, as citizens, start to think seriously about its implications.


Watching “Tyson” and “Anvil” – Why Failure is as American as Apple Pie

The timing is truly fortuitous: two non-fictional movies about people in decline, having once been successes in their fields, trying to restore whatever former glory they had, all captured on film, yielding movies that are critically acclaimed, psychologically penetrating, fascinating to behold, and revealing, accidentally, the true character of America.

I’m talking about “Tyson” and “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” two limited release documentaries about Mike Tyson and hair-metal band Anvil, respectively. If you are in the DC area, “Tyson” is playing at the Gallery Place Regal Cinema, and “Anvil!” is playing at the Est Landmark Theatre. I cannot recommend these two films enough.

Structurally and thematically, these two films are very familiar. They are both documentaries, shot in very plain style, about Mike Tyson and the hair-metal band Anvil. Both of these subjects share the dubious distinction of having once been successes in their respective fields–boxing and hair-metal, respectively–but who now find themselves mired in faded glory.

Of the two, “Tyson” is more self-conscious, simply by virtue of the fact that the entire film consists of Mike Tyson talking about himself. While this may sound like a very unappealing prospect, after all, who wants to listen to a brutal thug, former convicted rapist, ear-biter, money waster, womanizer like Mike Tyson talk about himself for 70 minutes? I wouldn’t blame you, but all the critical acclaim piqued my curiosity, and I’m glad I watched the movie, because Mike Tyson turns out to be a fascinating, if not likable or sympathetic, human being. He is extremely self-aware (but in a way that both obscures and reveals, more on that later), very articulate and eloquent, brutally honest, and completely fucked up inside, and completely aware of it.

Mike Tyson has no illusions about his psychological motivation and need to fight, as he recalls a youth as an overweight kid, constantly being picked up, and using that resentment and fear to eventually channel into aggression. It’s absolutely fascinating to understand Mike Tyson as he understands himself, because beneath the ferociousness, the sheer power of his technique, now you, as the audience, know that there is a deep current of childhood insecurity, fear, and an alienation bordering on sociopathy, that fuels Mike Tyson’s impeccable boxing skills during his peak.

The most poigant part of the film is the part when Tyson recalls Cus D’Mato, his mentor, and more importantly, his father figure which he has been missing for his whole life. When Tyson talks about D’Mato, he does so affectionately and sincerely: he talks about how his mentor gave his life purpose, taught him discipline, channeled his raw skills into controlled technique, and gave his life some badly-needed stability. Which, of course, are all gone when his mentor dies before he won his first world championship. And you can tell, and Tyson can tell you in no uncertain terms, that the loss of his mentor re-awoke all his fears of abandonment, and the film makes it clear that was the beginning of Tyson’s fall.

Tyson then goes on to talk about his various fights, his problems with women, and how he lost all his money. And here Tyson tries to be revealing to the last drop, but it is also here that his self-analysis runs into a wall that Mike Tyson, perhaps out of an instinctive need to protect his psyche, cannot get past. He candidly talks about how his need to dominate women, sexually and psychologically, has come to hurt him, as evidenced by his disastrous marriage to Robin Givens and his rape conviction. But he refuses to acknowledge his own responsibility in this, especially in his rape conviction: he simply brushes it aside and calls Desiree Washington a “filthy swine of a woman.” Similarly, when he talks about his legal battle with Don King and his attempt to get his money back, Tyson reveals that he really has no concept of money, because he speaks of $10 or $20 million as a “very small sum.” Yes, Tyson admits that he has no one to blame but himself, but his refusal to really go deep both obscures his own self-understanding but also reveals, to the viewers, the limits of one man’s, and perhaps every man’s, ability to be fully accountable to himself.

In the end, Tyson acknowledges that he is fucked up inside, that he has never had a normal, psychologically healthy life, that he has never had any resemblance of a family, and that he’s trying to have a normal family relationship. I never got the sense that Tyson blames all this for his problems, because if there is anything that Mike Tyson wants you to know, he blames no one but himself. Now, whether you buy this or not is another question, but for my part, I tend to believe him, for the most part.

Switching gears a little bit, “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” is by no means so self-focused. It’s marketed as a real-life version of “Spinal Tap,” which really goes to show you that life imitates art. But if you are going in expecting a real life Spinal Tap, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, you’ll be treated to a genuinely warm, affectionate documentary about two friends who saw each other through everything, who genuinely love what they do, and who cheerfully carry on their tasks in spite of everything.

Anvil, along with other bands of that era and genre, like Whitesnake, Quiet Riot, Poison, played a part in establishing hair metal, and it is by no means a joke, as the filmmaker got everyone from that time period, including Slash, to talk about the role and influence of Anvil. But for whatever reason, they never found lasting success, so now the two guys in Anvil have regular jobs, but they still soldier on, recording their 13th (!) album, hoping for something, anything. The film is a chronicle of their attempt as they go about doing this.

Is it funny? Undoubtedly, but it’s not played for cheap laughs. The film never laughs at the two guys in the band, but takes its humor from mishaps on their tour through Europe, managed by an incompetent, if very loyal, fan of theirs. This movie could have been a disaster, especially during the parts when you see how the band is playing in clubs for audience of tens. It could have easily taken the route of too much bathos or too much mean-spiritedness at their decline. However, the film avoids both, and instead, strikes a gentle balance: chronicling the improbable comeback attempt with much sincerity and cheerfulness as the guys in the band treat their own efforts. In the end, the film comes across as a genuinely affecting look at friendship, because really, it is the friendship between the two guys in the band that form the core dramatic relationship in the film. They are like an old married couple: they bicker, finish each other sentences, see each other through no matter what. Truly, this is a testament to friendship, united by a common love of music that comes across not the least bit phony but totally genuine. By the end of the movie, you will truly appreciate their friendship, and even more, you genuinely want to see them succeed.

Switching gears once more, now I want to talk about the more meta-textual aspects of these two films. In truth, these two films are very sophisticated in terms of what they demand from the audience. They both require the audience to have a meta-textual understanding of these movies: because neither “Tyson” nor “Anvil!” would make much sense, if any at all, if the audience were not aware of their subjects. In fact, both films derive their thematic heft precisely because they require the audience to know what happened to Mike Tyson and Anvil, their histories, and more importantly, what the movies are created for.

Why is the last reason important? It is important, as I will argue, because if you understand the reasons why these movies are made, you will have understood the true essence of the American character. For all intents and purposes, these two movies are made as deliberate attempts by the subjects they portray, Mike Tyson and Anvil, to rehabilitate or revive their own brands in the public consciousness, and as such, part of an overall effort to make money for the subjects.

There is nothing wrong with this, in it of itself. But it does sort of change the view you understand the movies. It doesn’t change the fact that both movies are interesting and fascinating to watch, and it blunts none of their aesthetic achievements. However, what it does change is the audience’s perception of the movies. Now you understand that neither Mike Tyson nor Anvil is so acutely self-aware and psychologically penetrating for the sake of being acutely self-aware and psychological penetrating: they are only so because being so helps them come across as more sympathetic figures. Because if there is one persistent, running theme in the American consciousness, it is the tale of the fallen celebrity, baring his soul for the world to see. We’ve seen this time and time again, and time and time again industry people know that this is the type of product that sells. It sure got me to see these two movies.

What is even more revealing is that the subjects of the films know this too. And again, like I said before, just because they are doing it for commercial reasons doesn’t change the fact that both Mike Tyson and Anvil say a lot of interesting things about themselves. You should not discount the movies because of this. But what this reveals about the American character is three-fold: first, that we are fascinated by failures, especially failures of famous people; second, that we are even more interested in seeing these failures unfold in public, and often spectacularly messy manner; third, that beyond all this, we are most interested by the way famous people understand their own public, spectacular failures and having this understanding process unfold in public as well.

But wait, there is yet another layer: that these people, who has had their public, spectacular failure, who has come to terms with their failure in public ways, KNOW that this is what Americans are fascinated by, and are willing to commercialize this, without necessarily being completely becoming commercialistic shills.

I submit that this is the very essence of America, because the way America deal with failure is an interesting balance between two extremes. On the one extreme, there is what I would call the Don Quixote approach, that is, complete and utter denial of reality and trying to succeed despite the certainty of failure. On the other extreme, there is what I would call the Sysphus approach, that is, knowing with certainty that the effort is futile, but doing it anyways out of some existential anguish, or a sense of nobility at braving the meaninglessness of an absurd situation.

Instead, the American way of dealing with failures is somewhere in the middle: aware of the unlikelihood (but not complete impossibility) of making a comeback, giving it everything that one has got, including being totally public and transparent about oneself and one’s efforts, and hoping that success, even in some attenuated, lesser form, would come. And if that success, however slight compared to what has come before, is that proverbial “second act” in American lives.

In this light, I think it is appropriate that both “Tyson” and “Anvil!” ends ambigously with no resolution: Tyson doesn’t know what he’s going to do, and Anvil doesn’t know if its 13th album will bring them any more recognition. But what these two films show, and what the subjects are conscious of, is that their last, best hope lies in coming clean about their own failures in public, and hoping for the best.

And if that’s not American, I don’t know what is.

The Analytic Turn in Basketball: Achieving Reflective Equilibrium on Player Values

Anyone who remotely keeps up with professional basketball has heard the following, whether it’s from pundits or other fans, and the familiar refrain goes something like this: “Player X (insert name here) does a lot of things that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet/box score, but he adds value to the team.”

The very fact that basketball watchers have been hearing this refrain for years on end is indicative of one thing: namely, that professional basketball has not achieved reflective equilibrium on how to measure player values.

But first, what is reflective equilibrium? The term itself is philosophical in origin, and this entry (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) does a pretty good job of defining the term:

“The method of reflective equilibrium consists in working back and forth among our considered judgments (some say our “intuitions”) about particular instances or cases, the principles or rules that we believe govern them, and the theoretical considerations that we believe bear on accepting these considered judgments, principles, or rules, revising any of these elements wherever necessary in order to achieve an acceptable coherence among them. The method succeeds and we achieve reflective equilibrium when we arrive at an acceptable coherence among these beliefs. An acceptable coherence requires that our beliefs not only be consistent with each other (a weak requirement), but that some of these beliefs provide support or provide a best explanation for others. Moreover, in the process we may not only modify priori beliefs but add new beliefs as well. In practical contexts, this deliberation may help us come to a conclusion about what we ought to do when we had not at all been sure earlier. We arrive at an optimal equilibrium when the component judgments, principles, and theories are ones we are un-inclined to revise any further because together they have the highest degree of acceptability or credibility for us.”

Defined thus, reflective equilibrium is both a process and a result. The process comes from the fact that we need to reconcile our claims about particular instances with general principles, and the result is the state in which claims about particulars and the principles are coherent with each other.

How does this apply to the context of measuring a player’s value in professional basketball? There are, in my opinion, two levels of gauging player values. First, on a more intuitive level, there is just simply the act of watching how a player plays in games. If you watch enough basketball, if you keep up with certain teams, if you follow certain players, eventually you come to gain an intuitive, if not articulated, sense of how valuable that player is to his team. However, there is a higher, more abstract level of measuring player values, namely: statistics. Currently, professional basketball has an official set of statistics that it measures for each player, and they are the items that make up the box score as we know it: minutes played, points, rebounds (sub-divided into offensive and defensive), assists, steals, blocks, personal fouls, turnovers, field goals, 3-point field goals, and free-throw percentages.

The reflective disequilibrium comes from the fact that one’s intuitive understanding of a player’s value is sometimes dramatically different from the statistical measures of a player’s value. Hence, that familiar refrain: “Player X does a lot of things that do not show up on the box score, but he adds a lot of values to the team.” That this is true is undeniable, as anyone who watches basketball somewhat seriously can tell you. So this suggests that thus far, we have no achieved coherence between two ways of gauging player value, even though on some level, most basketball fans acknowledge that both ways of measuring player values are true in a non-trivial sense.

An aside: for a really good example of this reflective disequilibrium, check out Michael Lewis’ (he of Moneyball fame) in-depth profile on Shane Battier, which, in my opinion, demonstrates in no uncertain terms the very real existence of this reflective disequilibrium.

If this reflective disequilibrium exists, how can we achieve equilibrium? I think the effort is already underway, and this is what I call the “analytic turn” in professional basketball. How does the analytical turn try to achieve equilibrium? It does so by coming up with new statistical measurements that better match our experienced, intuitive understanding of player values. While it would take too long to examine all the ways in which these new statistical measurements better capture our intuitive, if very experienced, understanding, certain things are easy to pick out. For example, one low-hanging fruit would be to measure charges taken: this is one long-neglected stat that fail to capture an important aspect of playing defense. A good defender will often voluntarily take the charge from an oncoming opponent, resulting in the opponent’s being hit with a foul and preventing him from scoring. This has a double positive effect: it stops a score, and it limits the opposing player by getting him into foul trouble. This is easily measurable, but yet it is not a part of the official box score that the league keeps.

This is just one little example out of many, and actors in the league, whether it’s statisticians or teams, are coming up with even more sophisticated measurements. As far as I can tell, the Holy Grail, so to speak, right now in the analytic movement in professional basketball, is to find the “Be-All, End-All” stat that accurately captures a player’s value. Some prominent examples include Dave Berry’s “Wins Produced Per Player,” John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating, Adjusted Plus Minus, and BasketballProspectusWins Above Replacement Player (WARP). And this is not even to mention the various proprietary and confidental statistical measurements used by teams like the Rockets.

But, it’s just as important to note the fact that the reflective disequilibrium goes the other way too: sometimes, our understanding of a particular player’s value is based on official statistics that overrate their true value. I call this the “Fantasy Basketball Syndrome.” That is to say, these players would be great for your fantasy league, because they excel in all some of the official statistical categories, but in real life, they do not add value to their teams. That they exist is also undeniably true, but people tend to overrate them because they happen to excel in particular statistical categories.

So clearly, the disequilibirum exists on both ends, and the purpose of these new statistical measurements is to adjust both our intuitive understanding of player value with their quantative aspects. The ideal, at least in theory, is a set of statistical measurements that achieves coherence between our qualitative evaluations and our quantative measurements.

That this effort is underway is no doubt true, and some of these advancements are very interesting. However, the problem I see it, as it is with any emergent field, is the lack of consensus. Although many of the players in this movement share the same goal, they naturally have different, competing conceptions of how to go about it. I think it is high time that all the actors involved: fans, players, teams, statisticians, economists, and the league to start a commission of some sort to actively start developing a new system of statistics.

But will it happen? I have my doubts, because the current statistical measures officially kept by the NBA has entrenched a set of incentives. These statistics are part of contract negotiations. If you change the statistics, you inevitably change incentives from the various stakeholders involved, and in any large and entrenched institution like the NBA, change is unlikely, and if it does happen, it’s likely to happen because of a crisis.

Anyways, enough geeking out for the day.