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Two Disparate Examples of The Principle That You Can Depend Upon Most People To Do The Wrong Thing Most Of The Time

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Message Lawrence Velvel
January 16, 2007

Re: Two Disparate Examples of The Ever-Operative Principle That You Can Depend Upon Most People To Do The Wrong Thing Most Of The Time: Cutting Off Funds For Iraq And The Presidency Of Harvard.

From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

Dear Colleagues:

When writing a slightly fictionalized four volume memoir in the early and mid parts of this decade, I began to understand the partial truth of a proposition that, until then, I had always thought exactly backwards. One had often read the statement by writers that writing enabled them to understand what they think about a matter. To me this had always seemed backwards. For I had thought you write about a matter because you have a view on it, not that you develop a view on it because you write about it. In writing a memoir, which forces one to focus on what, if anything, was the meaning of decades of life, however, I began to realize that writing about events can indeed be the cause of views on them, rather than only the result of views already held. In particular, writing about decades of experience, and reflecting on the events being described, caused me to conclude that you can depend upon most people to do the wrong thing most of the time. That you can depend upon most people to do the wrong thing most of the time is not a happy thought, and can be considered a cynical one, but nonetheless is, I'm afraid, a fundamentally true one.

A couple of recent examples of this unhappy principle have hit the news recently in wildly disparate fields. One involves cutting off funds for the war in Iraq. The other involves the presidency of Harvard.

Lots of Democrats are strongly against appropriating funds to finance the increased number of troops that Bush wants in Iraq. Most, probably all, of these Democrats believe that increasing the number of troops we have in Iraq will not lead to success.

As a strictly logical matter in the circumstances that obtain, and as an undoubted fact of the world as well, the Democrats who don't want to increase our troops because they think this will not bring success also happen to think that the war is a 24 carat failure at the current level of troops. Yet, just as they don't want to increase funds to support more troops because this will not avoid failure, so too they are refusing to cut off funds for the existing level of troops though that level is a failure.

This is obviously immoral. If you don't think that even 20,000 more troops will avoid failure, then all you are doing by continuing to fund existing troop levels is that you are condemning hundreds, probably thousands, of Americans and God knows how many thousands of Iraqis to deaths and maimings because of American actions and for no purpose. That seems to me to be the very epitome of immorality, and to be an unfortunately terrific example of the principle that you can depend on most people to do the wrong thing most of the time.

Now as to the Presidency of Harvard. The Boston Globe recently carried a story saying that the powers that be at Harvard had cut down the candidates for its Presidency to a short list. The list included some prominent women academics. One of them was the Dean of the Harvard Law School, Elena Kagan. Because of the principle that you can depend on most people to do the wrong thing most of the time, it is odds-on that Kagan will ultimately be the selection for President.

Why would making her President illustrate this principle? Because she has shown herself extensively insensitive to a fundamental principle of the academic world: that professors must not plagiarize the work of others, or have others, such as students, write books and articles for which the professors then claim authorship, indeed sole authorship. Yet, as was discussed here in a large number of postings in 2004 and 2005, although such wrongful claims are exactly the claims that were made by a couple of very prominent Harvard law professors, when the matters became exposed Kagan did not act properly. She did not impose the serious punishments that should have been imposed -- and that would have been imposed on a Harvard student who was caught out doing such things. Instead, Kagan had the matter investigated confidentially by high ranking Harvard officials (including Harvard's former and currently interim President), who treated them rather lightly. She allegedly imposed some punishment, but what those punishments were was kept confidential and they obviously were very light -- if they in fact existed at all -- since there is no sign that the careers of the professors were in any way affected (as occurred to some professors at other universities who plagiarized). And she issued statements, at least once in conjunction with (the lamentable) Lawrence Summers, that soft pedaled the extreme seriousness of what the professors did. (And all of this is totally apart from the fact, as to which she expressed great pride, that she hired, to be a Harvard law professor, one of the lawyers who contributed to a Justice Department memo giving the green light to some of the horrible acts that Bush ordered up during his so-called war on terror.)

For anyone who is interested in knowing the details regarding the Kaganian actions mentioned above, they have been set forth in extenso in postings in VelvelOnNationalAffairs.com, dated September 10, 2004, September 24, 2004, September 30, 2004, October 4, 2004, October 16, 2004, November 10, 2004, November 11, 2004, November 29, 2004, December 15, 2004, January 16, 2005, April 22, 2005, May 6, 2005, May 26, 2005. These postings were subsequently printed, in a book entitled Blogs From The Liberal Standpoint: 2004-2005, at pp. 86-88, 93-100, 336-400. I shall not here reiterate the details available elsewhere. Here, rather, the point is that, judged by the lightness, the non-grave quality, of her actions, Kagan gave hardly a tinker's damn about a truly crucial aspect of academic life -- about not (fraudulently) claiming credit for work done by others. She was evidently far more moved by the prestige of and a desire to protect (and brag about) the prestigious offenders than she was by the cardinal necessity of academic honesty. Yet, one knows that she nonetheless is well thought of at Harvard; the people there don't seem to care much about her transgressions against academic honesty. The very fact that she is on the short list for the Presidency confirms her high standing at Harvard and the lack of concern there about what she did. And under the ever-operative principle that you can depend on most people to do the wrong thing most of the time, one thinks that, precisely because it is very wrong to appoint as President of Harvard a person whose actions bespeak indifference to the cardinal necessity of academic honesty, it is odds-on that she will in fact be selected President. Indeed, the other candidates on the short list may as well give up and withdraw, unless they too can point to some disqualifying dereliction they committed.*

 *This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at velvel@mslaw.edu. Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.

VelvelOnNationalAffairs is now available as a podcast. To subscribe please visit VelvelOnNationalAffairs.com, and click on the link on the top left corner of the page. The podcasts can also be found on iTunes or at www.lrvelvel.libsyn.com
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Lawrence R. Velvel is a cofounder and the Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, and is the founder of the American College of History and Legal Studies.
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