Sunday, October 31, 2004

October's Factoid

The electorate I currently live in had the lowest informal vote in the country (tied with somewhere in Melbourne). This means that we have the lowest aggregate population of incompetents and disaffected radicals voting for Osama bin Laden or the Easter Bunny, so we must be statistically both more clever and more smugly satisfied with our lot than the rest of the country...

The Invisible Unicorn's Poison Memes: #1

Long ago, I managed to read the entire Divine Comedy in three successive days, on the 31st of October and first and 2nd of November- the Inferno the first day, Purgatorio the second, and Paradiso the third. I have always wanted to do this again, but have never managed. This anniversary has reminded me of something I wrote not so long ago, in November 2001, which was intended to be the first part in a series on horrible memes rampant on the Earth:

November, 2001

I would like to talk about the rational implications of a certain relatively common meme.

This is the meme that people who fail to perform certain acts, or say certain words, will continue to exist for an infinitely-prolonged period of time after death in a state of physical and mental agony.

If you have not encountered this meme before, I suggest you read “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, by James Joyce.

Interesting things happen when you introduce infinity into any calculation. With moral calculations, the renormalisation problem is especially acute.

Most people of my acquaintance who are infected with this meme apparently solve the problem by ignoring it. They say they believe it with their mouths and never allow the words they speak to percolate into their brains at all. Most of them have never made any visible effort to convince me, for instance, to perform the acts or say the words they believe will save me from this fate. I have always been offended by this, as it suggests they have no strong feeling one way or another whether I am tortured eternally.

They may, however, be consciously following the renormalisation strategy of fatalism. If God decides who lives and who dies, free-will is an illusion, and no human act can save or condemn, then they are let off the hook, and don’t need to act on their meme. This strategy was splendidly elaborated and proudly proclaimed by the Protestant Reformers as their chief contribution to the well-being of Christendom, though it has been present there from the beginning, and is also very strong in Dar-al-Islam.

The strategy of fatalism is a good one, since it saves the rest of us from the rational consequences of a meme that says there is such a thing as Hell and that human actions can play any part in deciding who goes there and who doesn’t. Let us consider those rational consequences, hmmm?

First of all, and pretty obvious, people who go around convincing people not to do the things your meme bundle says are required to avoid Hell should be removed from the picture. This is why preaching Christianity is a crime in so much of the Muslim world. This is why Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews and Muslims from Spain. This explains the witty advice of the Archbishop of Beziers to the crusaders against the Cathars: “Kill them all, let God sort them out.” Even people who were very strong on fatalism, like Jean Calvin, burnt the odd heretic just in case.

Of course, if you really care, you will torture the heretics until they confess and repent, so they can be saved too. Every version of this meme has ended up here, no matter how strongly it has been bundled with statements like ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

Now, for a slightly more extreme example.

Lots of people are being born all the time. A relatively small number of these perform the right acts or say the right words prescribed by the particular strain of the meme. The total number of people who are condemned to infinite suffering is increasing all the time. If you are a very very good person who is infected by this meme, therefore, and you are kept awake at night worrying about all the innocent children – most versions of this meme have some form of innocent children – growing up, dying, and being condemned to infinite suffering, you will strive to do the logical, rational, and humane thing.

Kill them. Kill them all. Now. Stop this infinite horror, save the children, save the future generations who would suffer from ever being born at all. Destroy the world.

A finite amount of suffering inflicted in this life – divided by an infinite amount of suffering inflicted in a future one = 0.

The world hasn’t been destroyed yet, for a few good reasons.

(1) We haven’t had weapons that could destroy the world for all that long
(2) There aren’t very many very very good people around. To go through with destroying the world, you need to believe implicitly, at the very core of your worldview, in the existence of Hell, and it would take a Hell of a lot of courage to carry out an act that would (most memes agree) send you there, too, no matter how many innocents you saved.
(3) This meme is usually bundled together with some other memes. For instance, on the Fundamentalist Christian fringe, it is also believed that Jesus will return next Friday, or before the end of the Third Test at the latest, and put an end to the whole show anyway. Among us Catholics, where fatalism is weaker, those who express this meme most strongly are also those with the strongest obedience to the Church hierarchy. So until the Pope decides destroying the world is a good idea, we are safe.

Which brings us to Osama-bin-Laden. He is not a bad man. He has spent tens of millions of dollars on schools and hospitals and food for hungry people. He has abandoned a life of luxury to live in a hole in the ground and be chased from place to place like an animal. He has given himself over to be hated by billions of people. Osama bin-Laden is not insane. He is most probably a much better man than 99.9% of us. He has all the makings of a Saint. But he is infected with this particular meme.

Any activist, non-fatalist Muslim, anyone who is into building schools and hospitals and feeding the hungry, is in particular danger of going over the edge. All religions are not created equal, much though the secular world would like to think so. There is no Muslim second coming. There is no Muslim Pope. Heretic removal goes right back to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. And there is no second hurdle to get over – all Muslims are saved, no matter what they do. For Muslim sinners, Hell is finite; there is no need to terrify Muslim schoolboys with homilies on the physical and mental torments that await them should they stray (see James Joyce again). It is very easy to reach a certain conclusion:

Anything that protects Muslims from apostasy is permissible.

And that is, I think, as far as Osama bin-Laden has thought things out. I don’t think we are in danger of Osama bin-Laden destroying the world. It is not that he is not evil or insane enough; he is not good enough, not quite good enough to be kept awake at night by the suffering of the world. He is kept awake at night by the suffering of millions of starving Iraqi children. If more of us were, the world would be a better place.

Now, let’s have a look at the first speech Osama bin-Laden released , shortly after the bombing of Afghanistan began. An important thing to remember is that it is primarily addressed to the Muslim world; we infidels do not really intrude on his world view except as cardboard cutouts. It is like I found growing up Catholic, if you are surrounded by the One True religion you do not notice the others much. To begin:

Here is America struck by God Almighty in one of its vital organs, so that its greatest buildings are destroyed. Grace and gratitude to God.
America has been filled with horror from north to south and east to west, and thanks be to God that what America is tasting now is only a copy of what we have tasted. Our Islamic nation has been tasting the same for more than 80 years, of humiliation and disgrace, its sons killed and their blood spilled, its sanctities desecrated.

Now Osama is exultant that the Great Satan is being punished for its evil acts, but is also thankful that America has been struck with only a weak copy of what Muslims have suffered. He is exultant because he sees this as the first step towards making a difference, a first step towards saving Dar-al-Islam from the poison memes of the West.

God has blessed a group of vanguard Muslims, the forefront of Islam, to destroy America. May God bless them and allot them a supreme place in heaven, for He is the only one capable and entitled to do so. When those who have stood in defence of their weak children, their brothers and sisters in Palestine and other Muslim nations, the whole world went into an uproar, the infidels followed by the hypocrites.

We in the West are of course the infidels, and the hypocrites are all the Muslim governments that have rushed to the side of the United States.

A million innocent children are dying at this time as we speak, killed in Iraq without any guilt. We hear no denunciation, we hear no edict from the hereditary rulers.

The Saudi government is especially targeted here (the ‘hereditary rulers’) – they are happy to support the United States but have done nothing when so many more have died because of sanctions in Iraq.

In these days, Israeli tanks rampage across Palestine, in Ramallah, Rafah and Beit Jala and many other parts of the land of Islam, and we do not hear anyone raising his voice or reacting. But when the sword fell upon America after 80 years, hypocrisy raised its head up high bemoaning those killers who toyed with the blood, honour, and sanctities of Muslims.
The least that can be said about those hypocrites is that they are apostates who followed the wrong path. They backed the butcher against the victim, the oppressor against the innocent child. I seek refuge in God against them and I ask Him to let us see them in what they deserve.

Again, this is addressed to Muslims; Osama doesn’t care anything for the West, and what its leaders think or do about Palestine. The Arab League has done nothing since the current crisis erupted in late 2000. Muslim leaders have given no military aid to the Palestinian Authority; they have even cut, rather than expanded, their humanitarian aid. They have offered only the most perfunctory condemnations of any Israeli act. But they were quick to condemn the killers of those who had their hands on the levers of American military and economic world hegemony, the machine that pumps the poison of paganism into the Muslim world. The picture of these Muslim leaders is bitter and scathing; ‘what they deserve’ is most likely a euphemism for ‘Hell’.

Every Muslim after this event [should fight for their religion], after the senior officials in the United States of America starting with the head of international infidels, Bush and his staff who went on a display of vanity with their men and horses, those who turned even the countries that believe in Islam against us – the group that resorted to God, the Almighty, the group that refuses to be subdued in its religion.

‘Display of vanity with their men and horses’ – this seems to me to be a reference to Pharoah’s army, which was cast down in the Red Sea. A reminder that long before, great armies with impressive vehicles and weapons have been cast down by the power of God.

They have been telling the world falsehoods that they are fighting terrorism. In a nation at the far end of the world, Japan, hundreds of thousands, young and old, were killed and [they say] this is not a world crime. To them it is not a clear issue. A million children in Iraq, to them this is not a clear issue.

The question is, if the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified, if sanctions on Iraq are justified, why is not the attack of September 11th a legitimate act of war? Dropping a bomb on civilians in Hamburg, Tokyo, Tripoli, or Basra is an act of state-sponsored terrorism. There is absolutely no difference except that these acts were done by men who could dilute the responsibility among themselves and hid behind a faceless bureaucracy, the other was done by a few brave men.
Osama bin Laden did not set out to kill civilians; he did not bomb discotheques or buses, like the young men sent out with ‘peace partner’ Yasser Arafat’s blessing, but the buildings where the greatest concentration of people directly involved with the U.S. military and the U.S. financial juggernaut were to be found. You do not have to be Noam Chomsky to believe that the Pentagon has killed its millions, but Wall Street its tens of millions. 20 000 children died last year in the country my mother was born because it needed to service its foreign debt.
Of course it is evident that the passengers on the hijacked planes were more innocent, but by definition anyone innocent dying in a jihad is a shahid, or sanctified martyr. I believe would have been easy to insure the salvation of those aboard the planes by getting them to recite "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah." I hope that this was done.

But when a few more than 10 were killed in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, Afghanistan and Iraq were bombed, and hypocrisy stood behind the head of international infidels, the modern world’s symbol of paganism, America, and its allies.

This is ugly. It is ugly because he does not count the hundreds of African victims; perhaps he is doing so because from the American point of view only dead Americans count – which may be unfortunately true.
It is also important to note that Osama does not see this as a war with the Nazarenes, but with the Pagans. The image he has of the United States is a pagan nation, the chief herald of godlessness. This would be less the case if Muslim countries had less severe prohibitions against preaching Christianity – if he could have seen the Benny Hinn show in Saudi Arabia, for instance - for in fact the United States is the least godless nation of the West.

I tell them that these events have divided the world into two camps, the camp of the faithful and the camp of infidels. May God shield us and you from them. Every Muslim must rise to defend his religion. The wind of change is blowing to remove evil from the Peninsula of Muhammad.
As to America, I say to it and its people a few words: I swear to God that America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine, and before all the army of infidels depart the land of Muhammad, peace be upon him.

Again, his concerns are local rather than global; we in the West can go to Hell, as long as we keep our hands off of Dar-al-Islam. He is not good enough to destroy the world.

Mind-Numbingly Dull Minutiae again

T minus 11 hours and counting- Nanowrimo is almost here!

I may stay up late to randomly roll the setting for this year's novel, or I may decide that is too geeky. Or I may *yawn* fall asleep early this afternoon and not wake up until it is time to go to work...

Arik and Me

Oceans of ink have been spilt over the Arab-Israeli thing (and more recently, uncounted numbers of electrons have been fired through cathode-ray tubes in vain), so it is sort of irresponsible for me to add more, but I will anyway. You all know what my oldest and most strongly held political position is. For a very long time (1982-2000) my second oldest and most strongly held political position was support for the Palestinian struggle and a one-state solution to the whole Arab-Israeli thing. It seems strange now, but that’s the way it was. I was just struck very heavily at an impressionable age by the massacres in the Lebanese refugee camps, and my position was reinforced by reading the liberal Catholic press throughout the First Intifada.
When the Al-Aqsa Intifada erupted, I rapidly became confused, because the stories I was reading in the Devil Bunny City Morning Herald just didn’t make sense. Why would all of this stuff be happening now, when a final deal seemed so close? The meaningless ‘cycle of violence’ seemed, well, meaningless… I started wandering around the web looking for a more coherent narrative. The Palestinian web-sites were short on facts and long on whinging, and didn’t make any more sense than the Australian newspapers. But the narrative I found in the Jerusalem Post did make sense. Within a few weeks I found that I had been transformed from a rather vague supporter of the PLO to an enthusiastic supporter of the Zionist state. This was a little bit scary. What else did I believe in that was wrong? Would I wake up one morning and discover that Margaret Sanger was right after all? God, I hope not.

But enough personal human-interest stuff. What are my cosmically arrogant ex cathedra pronouncements for today?

Pronouncement One:
The Palestinian refugee problem is first and foremost the creation of the Arab states. The leaders of the Arab nations have kept millions of people in miserable limbo for generations to score political points against the Jews. Imagine we are back at the beginning of last century, and you live in one village, and a few miles away your brother lives in another village. Both villages have had the same culture and religion for more than a thousand years, and have been part of the same Ottoman administrative unit since fifteen-hundred and something. Far away in France, somebody draws a line on a map, and your village is now in the British Mandate of Palestine, and your brother’s village is in the French Mandate of Lebanon.
Twenty-eight years later, you run away from your village because you don’t want to end up as collateral damage. And fifty-six years after that, your great-grandchildren are still denied the rights of citizens in Lebanon.
Millions of Greeks were kicked out of Asia Minor in the 1920s, and were absorbed into Greece. Millions of Germans were kicked out of Eastern Europe in the 1940s, and were absorbed into Germany. About the same number of Ukrainians were expelled from Poland in the 1940s as Arabs left Palestine. Who has heard of them? Nobody, since they were absorbed without incident into the Ukraine. The Japanese kicked out of Sakhalin were absorbed without incident into Japan. The South Asians kicked out of Uganda have been absorbed without incident into the United Kingdom. The Arab world is vastly larger than Greece or Germany, has not been devastated by a general war, and has vast resources. Its leaders did not allow the absorption of a relatively small population of people of the same religion, culture, and heritage, using them instead as a political football.

Pronouncement Two: It seems to me that the government of any democratic country faced with the situation Israel is in would react in the same way. You can allow your subjects to be blown up, but not your constituents. And again it seems to me that almost any democratic country faced with a proportional rate of civilian casualties (say, about 400 a year if it was us) would react with much more ‘bombing them back to the stone age’ than Israel has.

Pronouncement Three: The Middle East would be in far better shape today if Israel had simply annexed the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 and given their inhabitants the same rights as other Arab citizens of Israel. Despite my conversion, a two-state solution is still rubbish. A Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza strip would be an unworkable Bantustan. In 1948 the leaders of the Yishuv accepted a U.N. partition plan that gave them a state with a 60:40 Jewish:Arab population. Why is a single state between the river and the sea with a 60:40 Jewish:Arab population so unthinkable today? Yet even the most liberal Meretz-voting commentators I read in the Israeli press are terrified of the ‘demographic time bomb’ that would lead to Jews becoming a minority in Israel/Palestine. This is doubtless due to the fact that a high proportion of the Palestinian population really do want to drive the Jews into the sea. Yet far, far larger numbers, relative to the Jewish civilian population, were murdered by Arab extremists in the years 1929-1948 than in the latest uprising. And the leaders of Israel then accepted a state with a 40% Arab population. The national myth is that during the War of Independence, that 40% was reduced to 10% because the Arabs left of their own free will. If that is true, and they were not expelled as a matter of policy, why is it so unthinkable that they ever return?

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Book Meme

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 23.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your journal...
5. ...along with these instructions.

"From where I sat, I could actually see the tiny white crystals on his shoulders."

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Fallacy Number Six

Grey vs. black. Or grey vs. grey?
It should be obvious that to someone like me, who apparently wants to drag the western world kicking and screaming into the 13th century, the United States and the Deranged Islamofascist conspirators are both mottled grey, and that the Islamofascists even have a few patches that are paler than the corresponding patches on the Great Satan.
But I am fortunate in that I am not forced to make such a choice, because this is only an existential conflict for the Islamofascists, and the dynamics of global hegemony are such that they will inevitably be bombed and Coca-colonised out of existence. Similarly, the Pope is not forced to make a choice, and can afford to indulge in pious platitudes against war, knowing his words are not going to have any bearing on the outcome. It is not like Spain in the 30's, when the Church had the potential to determine which of two equally powerful and very dark grey movements would prevail. Yes, we are very lucky. Powerless, but lucky.

Given that there is no existential threat to the West, there is no analogy to the stark choice facing the U.S. liberals addressed by Koestler. There is no need for such people to abandon long-term principles to defeat a non-existential threat. If you are someone who sincerely believes that Bush is leading the world towards tyranny, then you should not care if Al-Qaeda appear to be a bit darker grey than the military-industrial complex. The military-industrial complex does not need your help to squash them. The 'war on terror' may be a little longer, and more unpleasant for frontline countries like Israel (and perhaps the one or two American cities taken out by terrorist nukes) because of your liberal efforts, but if the resulting Orbis Americanis is a kinder, gentler one, it will be an acceptable sacrifice.

No Blood for Cotton - Stop Lincoln's War

Dammit, the residents of a state ought to have the right to secede if they want. The more power is centralised, the more potential there is for totalitarianism. What does a guy have to do to get some democracy around here? Just been reading Gore Vidal on how much of the U.S. Constitution was supended by Lincoln under special 'war powers' legislation, beginning the rot of the Republic. Since the emancipation of the slaves was an unintended consequence of hostilities, I now endorse the slogan at the head of this post, which I coined in Neo-COnservative jest last year.

Dammit, I don't want world government. World government is the unpaltable but undeniable alternative to Mutually Assured Destruction, Mark Two. The Pax Americana is the only game in town, and while I do count myself lucky we are not looking at the Pax Sinica or Pax Ruritanica, I would much rather live in Happy Fun WorldTM. But nobody can even agree on what Happy Fun WorldTM would look like, let alone how to get there.

More disconcerting discoveries:

*Vidal calls the 'New York Times' 'neofascist'. I am used to it being derided as the flagship of the liberal media conspiracy, so this is refreshing. It pleases me nearly as much as the claim I read years ago that Nixon was a communist stooge.

*'Derrick', as in 'Derrick the Dragonslayer' actually is a real name. I saw a Lieutenant Derrick Something-or-Other being interviewed at a school in Kirkuk on CNN the other night.

*The last discovery is too disconcerting to go into right now, and what I really want to talk about is Koestler's fallacy number six. I keep changing my mind what it is I am going to say, is all...

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Revisiting Koestler's Fallacies, Part Two

Okay, before I start on another fallacy, I would like to issue a (probably unnecessary) warning about applying historical analogies too literally. Islamic fundamentalism is infinitely less of a threat to the United States than Communism or Nazism was. I find it difficult to even conceive of any possible way it could ever threaten the existence of the United States, except through war hysteria. This means that avoiding war hysteria ought to be the main aim of US rhetoric and policy. Appeasement will not hurt the United States for generations to come. Of course, it will probably have disastrous effects in countries that are struggling with a real islamofascist threat, but the world as a whole should potter along reasonably well. This has just come clear to me recently, if it seems to contradict anything have written before...

If you are not someone seduced by the Utopian Neo-Conservative vision of making the world safe for democracy (i.e., if you are not someone like, er, myself) then appeasement is a perfectly rational strategy anywhere islamofascists do not have a realistic chance of overthrowing the government. Hmm, it all makes sense now. Within its pragmatic assumptions, Old Europe is right.

Okay, to the first fallacy. There is no real analogy in our time to the confusion of 'East' and 'Left' Koestler talks about, but we do suffer from a severe problem of a similar linguistic/conceptual nature. This is the problem of habitually talking about the struggle we are involved in as a 'war on a noun.' Indeed, a war on a noun with no universally agreed upon definition. The 'war on terror' is a dumb, dumb, dumb name. Where to draw the line between 'terrorism' and 'legitimate armed struggle'? It depends entirely, it seems, on whether we are the good guys fighting the bad guys, or the bad guys fighting us back. I would like to suggest the following definition:

Terrorism is the deliberate use of lethal force against civilians for political ends.

'Use' is there so that no one may be prosecuted for thoughtcrime, or for what they write or say. Writing that the Pentagon ought to be blown up is not terrorism.

'Lethal' is there to avoid snaring in the definition every picketer who ever threw an egg at a scab's car.

'Political ends' are, in my opinion, and in the opinion of the South African Truth and Justice Commission, always a mitigating factor for any crime. A terrorist is a better person than a psychopath, not a worse one.

The main elasticity in my definition, which could be argued about endlessly, lies in in the words 'deliberate' and 'civilian'.

First of all, there are many degrees of carelessness between 'collateral damage' through an accident that could not reasonably have been avoided and an unequivocal terrorist act. If you are expecting an armoured personnel carrier to drive over your booby trap, and a busload of villagers drives over it instead, you are not a terrorist. But if you lay your trap without particularly caring who drives over it, you certainly are.

The word 'civilian' will cause the most trouble. There are infinitely many degrees of being organised, and degrees of being armed, between the barefoot boy who stoops to pick up a rock and the uniformed officer on the deck of an aircraft carrier. In those numberless conflicts around the world where combatants do not wear uniforms, and move among the civilian population like fish in the sea, it will be particularly difficult to draw a line. The Arab world, for instance, has consistently tried to define Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza as 'non-civilians'.

Taking a step backward, what can we say is definitely not terrorism?

*Blowing up soldiers at a checkpoint, while bad for them, is not terrorism.

*Blowing up oil pipelines in Colombia, no matter how much it helps the US State Department demonstrate that there is less terrorism now than there was in 2002, is not terrorism.

*Blowing up the US Marine HQ in Beirut with a truck bomb in 1983 was not terrorism.

*I think we can confidently assert, following the exegesis of 'Return of the Jedi' given in the movie 'Clerks', that strikes against civilian employees of military organisations is not terrorism. Thus, the attack on the Pentagon would not have been terrorism, if everyone on the plane was a volunteer shahid.

*Blowing up a Hamas leader is not terrorism, if you are sure he is one. Knocking down his family home is not terrorism, because it does not involve the use of lethal force. Unless you don't bother to check if his mother is still inside; then it's terrorism.

*By the same token, shooting a settler on the West Bank as goes about his business is not terrorism, if you are sure he is a member of a paramilitary organisation. But shooting a rocket at his settlement, not giving any consideration as to whether it hits an armoury or a kindergarten, that is terrorism.

By any stretch of my definition, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were state-sponsored terrorism. The greatest terrorist acts in history. So how can the President of the United States claim that all terrorists are evil men? Or that all their motives are evil? Perhaps another name for 'terrorism' is simply 'total war'. What makes Timothy McVeigh's declaration of total war on the United States any less valid than Harry S Truman's declaration of total war on Japan? Total wars are bad things, whether they are fought by nations or individuals. And a 'war on total war' is a dumb, dumb, dumb concept.

A Brief Digression

Here is a picture I found on a Libertarian website this morning.

My loyal audience has unanimously asked: "Leave aside for a second the single-issue-voter thing you have going, and tell me: is there any reason whatsoever to support the notion that The Incumbent is capable of doing the job at all, let alone with distinction? Because to me he looks like a genuinely dull-witted man with no decision-making abilities, no economic or foreign policy credentials and a collection of almost random beliefs that he is more prepared to espouse than live by."

Leaving aside my single-issue thing, I don't think there is very much to choose between them. To me they both look very much like genuinely dull-witted men with no decision-making abilities, no economic or foreign policy credentials and a collection of almost random beliefs that they are more prepared to espouse than live by. I think the difference between what their foreign policies will be in practice will not be very great, and that the anti-Bush media will be sorely disappointed by a President Kerry.

Considering them both as ciphers manipulated by faceless cabals of sinister conspirators, and attempting to put aside not only my single issue thing but fallacy number four...

...All that leaps to mind is that the Republicans have traditionally paid slightly more lip-service to trade liberalisation, which I consider the single most important factor in reducing poverty worldwide. Except, the question was 'Is there any reason to expect he will do a good job?' not, 'Is there any reason to vote for him?'

This is the only reason I can see: The American public (who are in the best position to know whether he is currently doing a good job or not) are still supporting him in roughly the same proportions they did in 2000. If he was an absolute incompetenet dropkick, this would not be the case, no matter how much he was in tune with whatever selfish blinkered Zeitgeist was dominating the country. Dubya is also (according to these poll results I just read on the web, which means they must be true) more popular than Kerry in the frontline countries in the War on Terror, Israel and Russia. They may also be blinkered and selfish and deluded; but they surely have more experience of terrorism and what to do about it than we do...

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Fallacy Number Four

I guess I have spent enough time on my high horse writing about what's wrong with the world; now it is time for a mea culpa; what's wrong with me? I suspect it may be Koestler's fallacy number four.

Notwithstanding the fact that the gutting of the higher education system and the mandatory detention of asylum seekers began on Keating's watch, they have been enthusiastically continued by the Howard government. And I think both things are very bad.

I am in favour of an increase in the Medicare levy. I love Medicare. I hate private health insurance. It is elitist and inequitable. I am a refugee from the American health care system.

I am in favour of a reallocation of government funds from private to public schools. I love public schools. I think they are the institution that does the most to build up a decent society. I hate private schools. They are divisive and inequitable. I think Malik Fahd and the other King's School do an equally bad job of educating young people to live in a pluralistic democracy.

One reason I am a vegetarian is because I think raising sheep and cattle has comprehensively destroyed Australia's flora and fauna. I think the prices we pay for water and petrol are much too low and should be increased to reflect their true environmental cost.

Yet, I was not annoyed at the weekend's election results. I was gleeful. This is not just because I really do support trade liberalisation, stoning adulterers, and the Pax Americana. I think I have fallen prey to the anti-anti fallacy. I am an anti-anti-Howardist. Whatever the merits of their case, I cannot stand to be on the same side as Phillip Adams and Alan Ramsey, and the rest of the anti-Howard legion. Their hyperbole is so ludicrous, their hatred so vitriolic, that I cannot help being for whatever it is they are against.

Fallacy number four also has a bearing on my position on the war in Iraq. If the vociferous spokespeople for non-intervention had not so obviously been the 'usual suspects', if they had not so openly been kneejerk anti-Americans being anti-American, if they had not so often been Marxists defending a fellow Marxist, or the elected representatives of states run like businesses defending their business interests; if the 'left' contribution to the debate had been even as sensible and nuanced as Dick Cheney's contribution on the 'right'; if someone had logically argued some reasonable alternative plan, I would have been more sensible and nuanced myself.

'No Blood for Oil'? 'Bush = Hitler'? 'Fuck War'? I would rather chew off my own leg than associate with the people who would march under such slogans. I am indulging in the fourth fallacy.

There may have been some alternative that did not necessitate war, that did not continue to deny Iraqi civilians food and medicine, that did not just let Saddam thumb his nose at all those UN resolutions. Maybe there wasn't. Maybe we do live in the best of all possible worlds and the current situation is the best we could reasonably hope for at this stage. But I confess I did not spend much time looking for such an alternative, in my instinctive revulsion to the puerile rubbish the 'usual suspects' sprayed at the three leaders of the Anglosphere.

Revisiting Koestler's Fallacies, Part 1

Re-read yesterday the essay ‘The Seven Deadly Fallacies’ by Arthur Koestler, which doesn’t appear to have been illegally posted on the web by anyone yet. It seems in many ways appropriate to our present international situation, so I thought I would reproduce almost all of it here:

[This is a condensed version of a compressed version of an extempore lecture given in Carnegie Hall, New York, in March 1948.]

The war hysteria from which a considerable number of people seem to suffer here in the United States is not a sign of mature awareness. Nor is the mentality of appeasement. Appeasement of an expanding power creates a fog in which neither of the opponents knows where he is; and so the world slides into war, without either of the opponents wanting it. Appeasement means playing poker; a firm, clearly outlined, principled policy means playing chess. I shall take it for granted henceforth that war hysteria and appeasement are our Scylla and Charybdis, and that the liberal’s precarious task is to navigate like Ulysses between the two.

Allow me, as an aid to navigation, to point out some of the logical fallacies and emotional eddies in which young idealists frequently get shipwrecked. Here they are:

1. First is the confusion of Left and East. Some sections of the reactionary press are unable or unwilling to distinguish between liberals, New Dealers, Social Democrats, and Communists; they are all damned Reds. Naturally we are indignant at such poisonous imbecility. But the Left itself is partly responsible for this confusion. The Left Babbitt assumes that there is a continuous spectrum stretching from pale pink liberals to red socialists and so on to infrared Communists. It is time that he got it into his head that Moscow is not to his left but to his east. The Soviet Union is not a socialist country, and Cominform policy is not socialist policy. So let us bear in mind that ‘East is east and Left is left’ and if the twain sometimes still meet, the meeting is purely coincidental.

2. The second fallacy is the soul-searching fallacy. The other day there was a press conference at which I mentioned that the frightened people in Italy and France look upon you Americans as their only hope of salvation, both from the economic point of view through ERP, and from the military point of view against open or disguised Russian aggression. Thereupon one of the reporters present said, ‘Do you really believe that we can help Europe with our dirty hands?’ I asked: ‘What do you mean by “dirty hands”?’ He said: ‘Well, I mean our policy in Greece, and in Palestine, and backing up Franco, and the way we treat Negroes and Jews. We are dirty all over, and when we pose as defenders of democracy it is sheer hypocrisy.’

The answer to this fallacy is to project the argument back to 1938. Then it would have run as follows: ‘We have no right to fight Hitler’s plan of sending the Jews to the gas chambers as long as there are “restricted” hotels in America and so long as Negroes do not have absolute equality here. Once American democracy has become a perfect democracy, then and then only shall we have a right to defend what remains of Europe. And if Europe goes to the dogs before we have finished, that’s just too bad and cannot be helped.’

3. Third, and closely related to the soul-searching fallacy, is the fallacy of the false equation. Its European version runs: ‘Soviet totalitarianism is bad. American imperialism is equally bad. There is nothing to choose between them, so let us stay in No Man’s land until fate catches up with us.’ To prove that the American system is ‘just as bad’ as the Russian system, to make the two sides of the equation balance, your purist has recourse to half-conscious little subterfuges. He equates the Hollywood purges with the Moscow purges. He has never lived under a totalitarian regime, so when he draws comparisons he does not know what he is talking about. His conscience is in revolt against the appalling slums of Chicago, in which the Negro workers of the slaughter-house industry live like rats. I have spent a few days in Chicago, and I was appalled by what I saw and heard and smelled. Do not think I am a naïve tourist, a romantic admirer of your system. But now compare your treatment of racial minorities at its worst, with the Soviet treatment of the minorities of Crimean Republic, the Chechen Republic, the Volga-German Republic, whose total populations were deported because they had, as the official Soviet communiqué said, ‘proved themselves unreliable during the war’. Even the babes in their cradles were unreliable and had to go to Siberia. In Chicago I saw men on strike, and sympathised with them. In Russia strikes, or incitement to strike, are qualified as high treason and punished by the maximum penalty. In American elections political machines corrupt and distort the People’s will. In Russian elections 99½ per cent vote for the one official list- the remaining ½ per cent presumably being in bed with influenza. Your enlightened Babbitt equates in imperfect democracy with a perfect totalitarian regime; his philosophy boils down to the maxim that there is nothing to choose between measles and leprosy.

4. Fallacy number four is the anti-anti attitude. It runs: ‘I am not a Communist. In fact, I dislike Communist politics, but I don’t want to be identified with anti-Communist witch-hunting. Hence I am neither a Communist nor an anti-Communist, but an anti-anti-Communist. If W. R. Hearst says that twice two is four, I shall automatically hold that twice two is five, or at least 4½.’

Don’t laugh, for the roots of this fallacy are very deep in all of us, myself included. I remember how painful it was when a doddering elder in a London club walked up to me and said with a tap on my shoulder: ‘Well, young man, I am glad that at last you have come round to see reason. I myself knew twenty-five years ago what Bolshevism means, and it’s never too late to repent.’

You can’t help this sort of thing; you can’t help people being right for the wrong reasons. In the last war we fought in the name of democracy in an alliance with Dictator Metaxas of Greece, Dictator Chiang Kai-Shek and Dictator Stalin. At that time Nazism was the main menace to the world, and politics is based on forming alliances. But there is a fundamental difference between a war-time alliance, and political identification with one’s allies. Being allied to Chiang did not mean that we wished to imitate the Chinese regime. Being against our will in one camp with the Hearst press or Senator McCarthy does not mean that we identify ourselves with their ideas and methods. This fear of finding oneself in bad company is not an expression of political purity; it is an expression of a lack of self-confidence. If you are sure of yourself- politically and ideologically- you will no longer be frightened to say that twice two makes four, even if Colonel McCormick says the same.

5. Fallacy number five is the sentimental fallacy. For years we were allied to Communists in the struggle against Nazism, and now when we have to part company, the roots of past loyalty are difficult to tear out. Our bedfellows of yesterday do not share this sentimental squeamishness. Over the slightest disagreement they will denounce us as Fascists, traitors and cannibals. These emotional ties are one-way ties, and it is essential to bear in mind that they are entirely irrational and conservative in nature.

6. Fallacy number six is the fallacy of the perfect cause. It is related to number two, the soul-searching fallacy. Only absolutely clean hands have a right to reach out to protect and save what remains of Europe. Only an absolutely perfect cause is worth fighting for. And the search for the perfect cause becomes an excuse for quietism.

History knows no perfect causes, no situation of white against black. Eastern totalitarianism is black; its victory would mean the end of our civilization. Western democracy is not white but grey. To live, even to die for a perfect cause is a luxury permitted to few. In 1942 or ’43 I published an article which began with the words: ‘In this war we are fighting a total lie in the name of a half-truth.’ The total lie was Hitler’s New Order. The half-truth was our democracy. Today we face a similar emergency and a similar predicament. Once more the choice between us is merely that between a grey twilight and total darkness. But ask the refugees who manage to escape, at the risk of their lives, from behind the iron curtain into our grey twilight world whether this choice is worth fighting for. They know. You don’t.

7. The last fallacy, number seven, is the confusion between short-term and long-term aims. It is the most dangerous of all. By long-term aims I mean the age-old struggle for reform, for social justice, for a more equitable system of government. By short-term aims I mean the necessity of fighting an immediate emergency.

The danger of confusion is twofold. Your leftist Babbitt may refuse to fight against the short-term emergency until he has finished the job of creating a perfect government in his country, in a century or two. The opposite danger is to become so obsessed with the immediate emergency, that all principles of the long-term struggle are thrown overboard. Ex-Communists and disappointed radicals are in particular danger of toppling over the other extreme. It is essential that we should keep in mind that there are two distinct levels involved in our struggle; that to defend our system against a deadly threat does not imply acceptance of everything in this system, does not imply giving up our long-term fight to improve it; and vice versa, that our criticism of the shortcomings of this system does not free us from the duty to defend it, despite its ambiguous greyness, against the total corruption of the human ideal.

The power-vacuum which two world wars have created in Central and Western Europe, has inescapably linked your fate with that of the European continent. I feel the enormous burden which is falling on your shoulders. For there will either be a Pax American in the world, or there will be no pax. Never has such a burden and such a responsibility been borne by any single nation in history. It is the more unfair to you as yours is an adolescent civilization, with adolescent enthusiasms and adolescent pimples. The task of the progressive intelligentsia of your country is to help the rest of the nation to face its enormous responsibilities. It is time for the American liberal to grow up.

Ill-informed comments from me to follow…

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The View from Reid

There are not enough 'progressive' voters in this country to form a government. This is not a fact that will go away no matter how much the the 'progressive' voters call those who vote against them things like 'brainless, spineless, selfish, blinkered'.

Chances are there will never be enough 'progressive' voters to form a government under our present system. These 'progressive' voters do not have very many children, and they are also losing control of the education system, so they are not maintaining their numbers. The only way 'progressive' voters could form a government would be if compulsory preferential voting was scrapped and we went to a hyper-American system where only the most extremist fanatics bothered to vote.

We recently moved out of Laurie Ferguson's seat of Reid, one of the safest Labor seats in the country. This is one of those seats where there was a swing of about 3% to the coalition in the weekend's election. Reid is one of those seats where people have to keep voting Labor in order for there ever to be another government that is to Phillip Adams' liking.

*Hardly anyone in Reid reads Phillip Adams. Hardly anyone in Reid reads the Sydney Morning Herald. My letters to the editor and your letters to the editor will not be read by the voters of Reid.

*A 'mean and tricky' government, in the experience of many of the people of Reid, would mean having to bribe an official to have your telephone installed, or having your neighbour dragged off by the secret police in the middle of the night. Little Johnny does not rate on the 'mean and tricky' scale.

*People in Reid care about the environment as long as it will not cost jobs. Tasmanian old growth forests and the Kyoto Protocol do not rate there.

*Most of the anti-war posters I saw at the station when I got on the train in the morning had been torn down by the evening. The people in Reid were not solidly against the war. Being anti-war does not rate there.

*At my son's public school, he was one of the few children in the 'non-religious' segment in Tuesday morning scripture classes. I'm sure a lot of the others in that group were actually from some religion, since most of them were of east asian ancestry, and there was no buddhist scripture teacher. My guess is that very few six year olds in Reid are not nominally religious. Being socially conservative is probably a safe bet in Reid.

*People in Reid care about interest rates, and about jobs, only because they are not DINKs with a shitload of money. They are not any more or less selfish than voters in Greenway. The economy definitely rates in Reid.

I don't know why the coalition couldn't win Reid. It is just Labor's good luck that people there habitually vote for them. The federal Labor party is certainly not doing much to hold on to it.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

The Twilight of the Novel

"It hardly needs pointing out that that at this moment the prestige of the novel is extremely low ... the novel is likely, if the best literary brains cannot be induced to return to it, to survive in some perfunctory, despised and hopelessly degenerate form, like modern tomb-stones, or the Punch and Judy show."

Only twenty-nine days to National Novel Writing Month! I will resist any cheap shots about writing a novel about a frustrated Nanowrimo novelist who bitches endlessly about wordcounts on his weblog. Oops. I guess my powers of resistance are at a low ebb. I have caught the Nanowrimo bug, thanks to the endless enthusiasm of the Great Androoo (thanks again!), and cannot be dissuaded from writing another one. I posted the first one two months ago, and so far it has been read by... my Mum. She liked it. So it must be alright, I guess. I don't think it is perfunctory and hopelessly degenerate. It doesn't have any abortionists in it and never mentions John Kerry. In fact, it doesn't mention any Americans at all. It isn't a propaganda vehicle for my outlandish opinions and it isn't written in baroquely florid unending sentences. In fact, it has hardly any adverbs. You should read it. Please read it. If you exist...

A close relative has suggested that I chose the time and place for my next Nanowrimo novel by rolling dice. I think this is a good idea, and will do so on November 1st. For time, I thought about constructing some sort of function to give a greater likelihood at times when there were more people around, but couldn't figure out an elegant way to achieve this. So I am thinking of using the Jewish calendar, which starts with the theoretical date of the creation of the world. I am not yet sure whether to roll 1-5765 or 1-9999. I plan to roll longitude (E or W, 1-180) and then latitude (N or S, sin-1(0-1), to avoid stacking the deck in favour of the poles). Hmmm. It seems like I have capitulated entirely to the blogging medium, and have ended up writing about the mind-numbingly dull minutiae of my life again.

The quote I found in a Salman Rushdie essay. It is George Orwell, writing in 1936.

The Only Problem

I am absolutely alone in my essential ethical position, and therefore useless.”
- Lord Acton

There is only ever one problem in life, and that is, ‘what do we do next?’ Two things are necessary to answer this question. Firstly, we need to know how doing whatever we do next is likely to affect the universe. This will affect the options open to us for future action, and hence our probability of obtaining whatever ultimate effect on the universe we desire. Secondly, we need to have some consistent idea of what ultimate effect we desire. The first things we need- to help us in assigning probabilities- are reason, science, and a knowledge of history. The second thing is a set of absolute moral axioms, like the principles of Euclid, from which a moral law can be built.

The problem with our society today (and probably with all societies everywhere at all times) is that for the most part those who have science have a narrow science, and no faith; and those who have faith have a fossilized faith, or a nebulous faith, and no science. So we bumble along.

Some of the most intelligent, reasonable, scientific people I have known have been absolute blackguards and fiends; among the wisest words of moral instruction I ever heard were uttered by a man who believed the world was 6000 years old, that the Gospel arrived in Australia in 1958, and that 99.99% of the world’s population was predestined to eternal suffering. I have noticed that those who do have science or religion are more optimistic than those who neither; and that those who have both are often so unreasonably cheerful that they shake the foundations of our society with each step they take. They know where they are aimed, and how to get there, and their one sorrow (yet what a great sorrow, what a tremendous burden) is that they cannot by any effort of will or imagination bring the rest of humanity along with them.

I guess I am, with my customary cosmic arrogance, claiming a place for myself at that near-empty intersection of these two sets; people who have a workable understanding of reason and science, and people who have a grasp of the eternal moral law, or tao. Though since humility has to be an integral part of the latter, I guess I can’t be claiming a place for myself. Which means that I am, with a yet deeper level of cosmic arrogance…
And with this cosmic arrogance, I will briefly pontificate on what is wrong with how we provide ourselves with these two essentials for determining what to do next.

Experiments are the only means of knowledge at our disposal. Everything else is poetry, imagination.”
- Max Planck

What is wrong with scientific education?

It is too narrow. Every scientist has a sense of the amazing potentialities of their own science, the problems being overcome in their own narrow area of science, yet they do not know what problems are being overcome in the narrow specialty next door. They do not know how to fit what they know into an overall picture of the universe. In the overall picture of the universe we have figured out, you cannot feel lost; you can only feel wonder. You know ‘where you are’; you know ‘what you are doing.’
A scientific education that ignores history is also too narrow, because history teaches us the limitations of human nature, and discourages us from advocating ridiculous experiments in social engineering. One thing history teaches us is that scientists who lift their noses from the bench are very likely to advocate ridiculous experiments in social engineering.

Opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but the moral law is written on the tablets of eternity.”
- Lord Acton

What is wrong with moral education?

It is too narrow. Our culture labours under a false dichotomy between ‘obeying the rules’ and ‘making up your own rules’. This is a byproduct of thousands of years of Judaeo-Christo-Islamic civilization, where moral axioms were ramified into a bewildering tangle of laws, which were then codified and fossilized, in the Talmud, in canon law, in the Hadith, in the voluminous writings of the Baha’i prophets. We could conceive only obedience to the rules, or disobedience. Both ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ religion in the west is flawed, for we can conceive of modernizing religion only in terms of a loosening of restrictions, which in practice means bowing down before the most ephemeral fashions of the century we live in.

Between order and chaos lies complexity, and complexity means life.

Between ‘obeying the rules’ and ‘making up the rules’ lies ‘figuring out the rules’, and this means internalizing that set of inviolable moral axioms that can be discerned in the analects of Confucius, in the sagas of the Vikings, in the prophet Isaiah, and seeing how they unfold into a set of limit conditions proscribing the actions lawful to us in each situation.

Now I must go out and pay my library fines, in obedience to the moral law…