Our problems remain epistemological.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

A Response to Professor Kevin Jon Heller’s “Norway Murders Freya the Walrus”




Why do I write (nonfiction)? Generally, I write for three reasons. First, I write to make inquiries or to open up wider discussions by posing questions. Second, I write to inform others. And, third, I write to persuade others. Sometimes, I think, others write for different reasons. Here may be one such example.


Perhaps, you read the recent story about Freya, the walrus, who wandered into a Norwegian harbour and took over a pier and some boats (which Freya damaged). A Norwegian government agency, the Directorate of Fisheries, took the view that despite warnings, people were engaging with Freya at too close a distance, and this posed a danger to human life. For this reason, i.e., basically giving priority to human life, the agency ended Freya’s life. The decision to do so was defended by the agency’s director: Frank Bakke-Jensen.


Many with strong views about animal welfare/animal rights condemned the government agency’s move. Professor Heller, a self-described vegetarian, was one such person. He wrote a strongly worded blog post on the subject. See Kevin Jon Heller, ‘Norway Murders Freya the Walrus,’ OpinioJuris (Aug. 15, 2022), <http://opiniojuris.org/2022/08/15/norway-murders-freya-the-walrus/>. The position of animals in our moral framework is contestable. I do not doubt Heller’s sincerity. I take no position whether his view in regard to the agency’s decision was the right one or the wrong one. He puts forward facts and explains his reasoning for criticising the agency’s decision. And he is not alone—he is far from alone. One might criticize Heller’s blog post’s title as extreme and also for misusing the word “murder”—but those criticisms would be petty. People who refrain from using strong language frequently find that their voice is not heard over the din. Generally, his post is squarely within the realm of good (academic) writing.


Still, in his Opinio Juris blog post, Professor Heller also wrote:

Before getting to the substance of [Fisheries Director Frank] Bakke-Jensen’s comments, it’s worth noting that he is a member of Norway’s Conservative Party and a former Minister of Defence. In other words, he’s pretty much the last person you would want making a decision about whether to protect or kill an innocent animal.

What is Heller’s point here? Is Heller expert on modern Norwegian history, government, and parties, including Bakke-Jensen’s “Conservative Party,” and is he telling us that this particular party is weak on animal welfare/animal rights issues? I suppose that is possible, but how is the reader to know that Heller has such expertise? Or is Heller’s point that Bakke-Jensen is a member of a little-c “conservative party,” and he is telling us that all (or, at least, most) such conservative parties—and their members—are weak on animal welfare/animal rights issues? Is that his point?


What is one to make of Heller’s critiquing Bakke-Jensen for being a former Norwegian Minister of Defense? Is Heller’s point that Norwegian ministers of defense are weak on animal welfare/animal rights? Or is his point that all (or, at least, most) ministers of defense world-wide (or in Scandinavia?, or in Western Europe?) are weak on animal welfare/animal rights? Is that his point?


I suppose there could be some empirical basis for Heller’s criticism of Bakke-Jensen for being a Norwegian Conservative Party member and a former minister of defense, but it is noteworthy that he puts nothing forward. Nothing at all. Heller’s views here appear to be little more than personally held and strongly held stereotypes and prejudices.


Another possibility is that Heller really did not mean to make either of those claims—in the sense that he gave them any thought. Rather, his blog post was a primordial scream baring his tortured soul for all—i.e., publicly exhibiting his pain for the death of Freya. If the reputations of members of the Norwegian Conservative Party or of former ministers of defense (in Norway or elsewhere) were injured or if their feelings were hurt, so what—what is their pain compared to his and Freya’s? After all, the real story is Freya’s death, not any mistakes about the attribution of wrongdoing made along the way.


The problem with this latter explanation is that it is essentially self-defeating. If Professor Hellers claims are untrue, if Norwegian Conservative Party members are not weak on animal welfare/animal rights, then his criticising its members in this way is unlikely to win his cause many new supporters and might very well alienate an important electoral and parliamentary constituency when animal welfare/animal rights issues are being decided. The Norwegian Conservative Party was the leading party in the prior government, which sat from 2013 to 2021, and it is now the largest opposition party. Heller may be successfully baring his soul, but I do not think his unsupported criticisms (prejudices?) here have limited the likelihood of another Freya. Indeed, Heller’s blog post might have done just the opposite. Heller might just be alienating the very people needed to change the policies which he objects to.


I suppose there is another possibility. Heller’s blog post is not indicative of prejudice. And, it is not an attempt to persuade. Rather, it is an attempt at self-identification to other members of the Elect. Heller is identifying himself to other similarly minded people as one who deeply cares; he has his heart and mind in the right place. Moreover, he wants other similar thinking individuals to know he is one of them. That would be why his relying on unsupported stereotypes is OK—because he is not trying to change future policy and he is not really trying to persuade those thinking differently from what he thinks.


That might be the explanation. But it is not a good approach for an academic to take. An academic holds a safe perch, and is unlikely to lose his position merely for announcing a few less than thoughtful and less than well-reasoned views. Reliance on stereotypes poses little risk to most academics—particularly if the views are shared by the majority (or even a vocal minority). The problem is that Heller’s less sophisticated students and others will read this writing style and copy it. Students do not enjoy the protections academics enjoy. Future prospective (public and private) employers will scan student-applicants social media footprints, and applicants’ writing in a style like Professor Hellers might bar the applicants from opportunities that they might otherwise have gained. That would be an unfortunate result, which will benefit no one; indeed, it is not even likely to stop the Directorate of Fisheries from killing future Freyas.


So why write this way?



Seth Barrett Tillman, ‘A Response to Professor Kevin Jon Heller’s “Norway Murders Freya the Walrus”,’ New Reform Club (Aug. 16, 2022, 8:22 AM), <https://reformclub.blogspot.com/2022/08/a-response-to-professor-kevin-jon.html>;

Friday, August 12, 2022

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Monday, August 01, 2022

Our Culture’s Muse

     It is also noteworthy that Enoch Powell was in life and continues to be—even long after his death in 1998—a muse or focal point for much art, drama, other fiction, pop music, and modern political and wider social commentary. One recalls: Jonathan Coe’s Middle England (2018) (fiction); Chris Hannan’s What Shadows (2016) (a play); Andrew Smith’s The Speech (2016) (fiction); Sunder Katwala, ‘Powell: “best understood as part of our history”,’ British Future (June 15, 2012), <https://tinyurl.com/24ffucxt> (“There are many debates about identity, immigration and integration that we still need to have. A centenary after his birth, Enoch Powell’s contribution to them are best understood as part of our history now.”) (commentary); C.J. Sansom’s Dominion (2012) (fiction); Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe (2009) (commentary); Brian Walden (Labour-MP, for Birmingham–All Saints, and Ladywood), Walden Reminisces, BBC Radio 4 (Oct. 3, 2004), <https://tinyurl.com/3786xawk> (“On the issues [Powell and I] were fiercely opposed and [we] couldn’t discuss immigration for five minutes without disagreeing. But unlike many people, including leading Tories, I never regarded Powell as a racist.”); ‘NCS: Manhunt,’ BBC One (Mar. 12, 2002), <https://tinyurl.com/yu6j75uy> (Marc Warren’s “I am an Englishman” speech was expressly influenced by Powell’s St. George’s Day speech (1961)) (television drama); Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club (2001) (fiction); Shivaji Sondhi, ‘Enoch Powell and the invention of Thatcherism’ (1999) IV(7/8) Biblio: A Review of Books 24 (reviewing Simon Heffer, Like The Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1998)) (“It has come as a delight then to come across Simon Heffer’s recent biography of the man who died last February 9th, and to discover that the cardboard Powell was fiction.”) (Biblio is an Indian literary journal), <https://tinyurl.com/249kz7ar>; Christopher Morgan, ‘[Westminster] Abbey vigil for Powell enrages bishops,’ The Sunday Times (Feb. 15, 1998) (“Unexpected backing [for the abbey vigil], however, came from the Association of Black Clergy. Charles Lawrence, its chairman, said: ‘Powell was not a single-subject person and served his country well. Each person stands before God and deserves the same level of love.’”); Ayub Khan Din’s East Is East (1996) (a play); Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) (fiction); Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) (fiction); Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (1987) (commentary); Samuel Selvon’s Moses Migrating (1983) (fiction); Howard Barker’s The Loud Boy’s Life (1980) (a play); David Edgar’s Destiny (1976) (a play) and Tedderella (1971) (a play); Millie Small’s Enoch Power (1970) (pop recording); Arthur Wise’s Who Killed Enoch Powell (1970) (fiction); The Beatles’ Get Back (1969) (pop recording); Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre’s Muggins’ Awakening (1968) (a play); and any number of items within the collection of the United Kingdom National Portrait Gallery, <https://tinyurl.com/kc5dpnp2>. 

See also ‘Question Time,’ BBC One (Dec. 11, 2014), <https://tinyurl.com/2uk7jc44> (Russell Brand describing Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party and Member of the European Parliament (South East England), as a “pound shop Enoch Powell”) (at 1:45ff). One cannot help but notice that Brand thought “pound shop” was a legitimate criticism.

For an effort (which I think succeeds) at portraying Powell (the individual) and also the debate on Powell fairly, see: Denys Blakeway, Documentary, ‘Rivers of Blood,’ BBC Two (Mar. 8, 2008), <https://tinyurl.com/3ma6jmeb> (produced for the 40th anniversary of Powell’s 1968 Birmingham speech).

Seth Barrett Tillman, Our Cultures Muse, New Reform Club (Aug. 1, 2022, 2:36 AM), <https://reformclub.blogspot.com/2022/08/our-cultures-muse.html>;

I forgot one: Monty Python's Travel Agent Sketch: <http://montypython.net/scripts/travagent.php>; <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ewY8CnFae0> (at 3:08ff); 

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

DOBBS is now The Law of the Land

At 18 weeks, you may call this what you want. But it is manifestly more than a "clump of cells" and 2/3 of Americans consistently agree that there is no "right" for anyone to kill it. Roe silenced all principled debate and nuance — and the conscience of America — for 50 years. But as one wag put it, ROE was a clump of words. Let us begin again.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Monday, July 11, 2022

Friday, July 08, 2022

Two Issues: Overturning Roe v. Wade, and Immigration

Seth Barrett Tillman, Two Issues: Overturning Roe v. Wade, and Immigration,  New Reform Club (July 8, 2022, 2:22 PM), <https://reformclub.blogspot.com/2022/07/two-issues-overturning-roe-v-wade-and.html>; 


Wednesday, July 06, 2022