I’ve already run interviews with True’s contributors Jennifer Weiner and Mike Straw. I finally got my newest contributor, Alexander Cohen, to take time from has day job and his True sideline work to answer some questions — just in time to get some feedback from him about two stories he wrote that promise to be …controversial. Let’s start with those two stories, from True’s 11 September 2011 issue.
Would You Shoot a Bully?
“It was beyond ‘your clothes are ugly’ or ‘you don’t have any brand clothes’ or ‘you are ugly, your hair is not right.’ It was vicious,” says Jennifer McKendrick. She was describing comments she found on a public Facebook page, and she recognized the speakers: McKendrick is a self-employed photographer, and she had contracted to take their high-school senior pictures. So she sent back their deposits — and sent their parents screen shots of the Facebook page; a couple of parents said they would “take care of it,” McKendrick said. The southwestern Pennsylvania photographer explained that the students were not “the type of client I want to represent my business.” (AC/WTAE-TV) …Which is the bigger bullying move: Posting insults on a Facebook page the subject never has to visit, or tattling to the person who has control over nearly every aspect of your victim’s life?
Shooting People Is Still Illegal
Opponents of a new Virginia law allowing concealed-carry permit holders to carry guns into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol warned that the bill would bring about a booze-fueled “blood bath,” recalls Philip Van Cleave, president of a gun-rights organization. But now that the law has been in effect for a year, Van Cleave wants an apology: What’s actually gone down at the Commonwealth’s bars and restaurants is the rate of major gun-related crimes — by 5.2 percent. While the law is still controversial, there is no restriction in Virginia against people who carry weapons openly (vs. concealed weapons with permits) from drinking alcohol. (AC/Richmond Times-Dispatch) …Now that bars are safer, how about making Virginia’s college campuses safer?
I think Alexander likes to turn around True’s mission — to entertain …and provoke thought.
The Interview: Alexander Cohen
Randy Cassingham: When I sent you the Virginia “blood bath in bars” story to write, I suggested “can you do it in such a way that it doesn’t seem like you’re taking sides too much?” I sent you this for one example (but noted it still got lots of feedback!) and this for another. My general idea is to illuminate topics so people will think about them, rather than stomp away mad (which pretty much guarantees they won’t think about them). You apparently had a different idea.
Alexander Cohen: Actually, I thought it might make people think — but perhaps not the same people you had in mind. Even in relatively pro-gun states such as Virginia, colleges often forbid their students to carry guns — which suggests that some people who are willing to accept that bar patrons ought to be free to be armed, aren’t willing to acknowledge that college students have the same right. Yet we’ve had a series of large-scale school shootings in this country, including one in Virginia, and it seems to me that having guns in the hands of those students who aren’t angry and miserable enough to kill others and then themselves would make such shootings less successful.
RC: You of course knew that would be controversial: it was quite the debate after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, after all.
AC: Indeed. And yet Virginia, several of whose universities place remarkable confidence in their students in other ways, did not uphold the right to carry on campus.
RC: So I presume that after Columbine, Virginia Tech, and heck even 9/11, you agree with the security consultant I quoted in my Virginia Tech blog entry, who said that “cowering under a desk and waiting for help to come is no longer an option. American schools must teach their students to respond aggressively to attacks by people bent on mayhem.” How do you teach that without the significant risk that a student will pull a gun when frustrated with a teacher?
AC: Most people, even when angry, are rational enough to understand that pulling a gun without clear justification is a very bad idea. I’ve dealt with angry and disappointed students as an adjunct and a TA, and I don’t think there are a lot of students out there eager to go to prison over a B-. Why do you think there’s a significant risk they will?
RC: Just because the odds are good. Presumably, by requiring permits (which almost always are proceeded by a background check and required training), most of the more unstable types would be weeded out, but sometimes people do get unreasonably angry and don’t think about the consequences of their actions. That is, in part, what True is about, eh?
AC: Sure there’s a risk — there’s always a risk. The question is whether there’s a significant risk — which in context, I took to mean a risk substantially greater than in the general run of human interactions.
Also, I don’t believe students should be required to get permits in order to carry guns openly.
RC: Of course, the odds are bad, too — odds are, the next big shooting is pending. I know if I was there, I would want a gun to fight back. I can’t argue effectively that I should have that right, and others should not.
AC: Which gets to one of the main reasons it’s important to defend other people’s rights: If a principle of rights isn’t upheld in every case, it’s harder to defend it in any case. By defending the rights of others, you defend your own. (It’s also important because rights protect people’s ability to flourish, and we often benefit from one another’s flourishing.)
RC: I assume you agree that Jennifer McKendrick, the freelance school photographer, should have the absolute right to do business — or refuse to do business — with whomever she chooses. What do you think she should have done when she saw what she considered reprehensible conduct by her clients? Surely those parents would want to know why she was returning the deposits paid for those senior portraits.
AC: Certainly people have a right to refuse to do business with anyone they wish — although I’ll point out that McKendrick had already agreed to do business with these people and had accepted deposits and scheduled appointments, so there’s an issue of contract there. As to whether, setting aside the contract issue, she was justified in refusing (and not everything that’s within your rights is the right thing to do), I think refusal to do routine business with someone because of unrelated conduct should be reserved for truly extreme cases — but there’s an argument to be made that given the nature of McKendrick’s work, her knowledge of her subjects’ character is relevant.
Adults often forget that teenagers live in near-dictatorships, with their liberty, property, and even bodily autonomy under the control of other people — people whose goals in the use of such power are often contrary to the teenagers’ own values. Granted, some parents do struggle to behave decently despite having such power, but when you tell a parent his daughter has done something of which he likely wouldn’t approve, you have no way of limiting the consequences. So McKendrick, unless she knew these families very well, exposed these young women to substantial risk.
Should that be a crime? No. But I disapprove of it a lot more strongly than I disapprove of making insulting comments on Facebook. And if I were a young person in southwestern Pennsylvania, I’d refuse to be photographed by McKendrick, because she has proved that young clients cannot trust her not to expose them to unnecessary risks. (Though I should acknowledge in mitigation that she has chosen not to reveal the individuals’ names.)
You asked what she should have done. If she was justified, as she may or may not have been, in refusing to proceed with the shoots she had scheduled, she should have said that while she had seen an ugly side of the girls’ character, it was not her place to get into the matter any further.
RC: Let’s switch to more general questions.You’re trained as a lawyer, but didn’t practice as an attorney. Did you intend to, and then change your mind? Or was your law degree part of a bigger idea?
AC: I never intended to make a career of it.
RC: Then you went on to study philosophy in grad school. Why? What’s the ultimate goal?
AC: I call myself a “philosopher-journalist.” With one eye, I look into the most important questions: What is it to be a good human being? How does one achieve happiness? How can political society and other associations and relationships contribute? As Aristotle said, ethics is not like other inquiries, because its goal is “not to understand what virtue is, but to become good”; I was drawn to the study of philosophy for guidance for my own life, and as a professional matter, I’m interested in working towards a political society where people are free to flourish — and a culture where they actually do. So with the other eye, I look toward concrete facts, and try to see — and show — how the relevant moral and political principles apply. Or if it’s not clear to me, or I don’t have the space to make it clear to my reader, I try to find the right direction to inquire, and show that.
RC: Meanwhile, you’re very active with the philosophy of Objectivism — what Ayn Rand introduced to the world with her writings, including the novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged — and your day job is Managing Editor of the Business Rights Center of The Atlas Society. What do you find attractive about Rand’s ideas?
AC: Rand recognized a wide range of fundamental truths about man and his world. For example, she identified the fundamental basis of morality by asking why we need ethics. She provided rationally defended virtues, and showed thereby that virtue pays.
But one of the things that caught me before I began to study philosophy in depth was that she explained the significance of something I had always felt: that the skyline of New York City, where I grew up, was more beautiful than any forest or mountain. I love the beauty of human ambition and achievement — and Objectivism is the philosophy that embraces those values.
RC: What is the Business Rights Center?
AC: Human life is sustained by production, and being productive is, therefore, an important virtue. But all too often, people who try to be productive find the government in their way — sometimes even trying to put them in prison for their acts of production and trade. See, for example, the prosecution of people who buy and sell stock based on “nonpublic information” — information they know, that the public doesn’t know and has no right to know. Knowledge should guide action — but the securities laws say, if you have this knowledge, and you gained it in certain (often perfectly legitimate) ways, you’re not allowed to act on it by taking what would otherwise be the perfectly legal actions of buying and selling stock.
The Atlas Society’s Business Rights Center defends, through advocacy, the freedom of production and trade.
RC: What does the “Managing Editor” job entail?
RC: How long have you been reading True, and do you remember how you heard of it?
AC: I’d have to dig around in email archives I can’t access now to answer, but I think I got my first free subscription sometime in the 90s. I know that by 2002, I was reading True’s spinoff HeroicStories, which I found out about from True — I know, because the week of Sept. 11, 2002, HeroicStories ran my piece “Greeting Ground Zero”.
RC: It was a good piece. What’s your favorite kind of True story?
AC: Depends on the day: either the kind I’m writing, or the kind I’ve already written.
RC: Heh! And your least favorite?
AC: The kind where someone else wrote it and didn’t get the moral question right.
RC: Intriguing. To be sure, not all of the stories are meant to have a moral question, or even to provoke deep thought; sometimes, entertainment is enough.
AC: Indeed. And I enjoy both reading and writing stories that are just funny. Of course, sometimes, either because of my unconventional views or just because I’m a philosopher, I see moral questions where others might not.
RC: Which is why I thought maybe you like to reverse True’s mission of “entertain …and provoke thought.” How will writing for True fit in to your long-term plans, a Ph.D. in philosophy, and everything else you’re working on?
AC: I’ve got a full-time job and a dissertation to write, so I think it’ll fit by means of a shoehorn.
RC: I’ve noticed that you often take an unconventional view of stories that involve teenagers. Why?
AC: I believe that what rights a person has do not depend on how many times he has orbited the sun. Nor is one person entitled to greater respect than another because he’s been around longer. Young people who have the capacity for reason, like the rest of us, have the right to identify and pursue their values; they have the same right — and the same need — to think independently and to act on their independent judgment. The conventional view of many issues involving young people fails to take their liberty and dignity seriously. Moreover, the conventional view tends to trust parents and see nothing wrong with their vast powers over their children’s lives, but once you see those children as people with rights and values that ought to be taken as seriously as their elders’, parental actions that win applause from adults often look rather more dangerous — and likewise actions involving parents.
RC: You do have a qualifier in there: “…who have the capacity for reason.” While I pretty much agree with you — that is, after all, a lot of what’s behind my “zero tolerance” series (that kids, including young ones, often have their rights trampled upon in egregious and indefensible ways), sometimes adults do have to step in and make decisions for kids since kids don’t always appreciate the ramifications of their actions. How does that fit in?
AC: It doesn’t. Merely because the adult thinks the minor hasn’t weighed all the ramifications of his actions isn’t justification to intervene, except when it would also be appropriate among adults. (If I’m about to step into traffic because I’m so focused on my smartphone that I don’t realize there are cars coming, please stop me — and if I were 13 instead of 33, that wouldn’t affect the issue.) When I say, “who have the capacity for reason,” I mean: who are able to think in concepts and principles. Put it this way, as a rule of thumb: Anyone who can argue about rights has them.
I actually got to combine my interest in youth rights with my interest in Objectivism this summer, when I gave a talk at The Atlas Society’s Summer Seminar in which I laid out two Objectivist arguments for youth rights. I think I got some people to rethink their views — but some people were quite clearly unconvinced.
By the way, for more information on youth rights you can visit the National Youth Rights Association. It’s an interesting group of people, diverse philosophically, politically, and — of course! — in age.
RC: Well, this has certainly met my goal: plenty to think about here!