Friday, September 29, 2006

Weirdness in El Pais de Murdoch

This article contains the line 'In January 2000, al-Qa'ida tried and failed to attack the USS The Sullivans off Yemen'. Does the US Navy really have a vessel called The Sullivans? I hope so.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Chastened Dr Clam

Nato presents me with a fine discourse on humility, which I ignore. I proceed to get stuck into Jim Wallis for recognising that poverty is bad but not giving any serious thought to what courses of action are best suited to get rid of it. Then Marco kindly and gently points out that this is exactly what I tend to do about abortion. Curses!
It seems that the lowest rates of abortion in the world are in Western European countries characterised by extremely high rates of contraceptive use encouraged by universal public health care. (Note to self: find out if anyone in the United States has been game enough to suggest this lately). Prohibition per se does not seem to be very helpful. This seems to suggest: (1) as with so many other things, economic growth is what humanity needs, and abortion rates can be expected to fall as more folks have more stuff; (2) ideologists such as Dr Clam should remain ever aware that forwarding the aims of their meme-bundle in society at large may require entirely different courses of action than those mandated for those who share his meme-bundle. I am a humbler and a wiser Dr Clam this afternoon- thank you, gentlebeings!

Saturday, September 23, 2006

A long, long, time ago...

...I was brought up in the same sort of liberal Christian orthodoxy that Jim Wallis is espousing. I have to admit that I haven't yet found his recent book, Nato, but I have skimmed two from the early eighties I found at the library. It is all wearily familiar and pretty much as I remember it from the guitar-playing nuns of my childhood. They never said anything about abortion. They said a lot about the evils of American militarism. They said a lot about the evils of poverty. They never said anything much about the evils of America's enemies, and they left me with the strong impression that poor people were poor just because the rich people were keeping all the money for themselves.

I am one of those 16% of people in the poll Jim Wallis talks about who would say abortion is the greatest moral crisis facing America. It is a wrong that is obviously wrong, it is symptomatic of a deep philosophical loss of bearings that separates our age from the earlier centuries of Western civilisation, and it is a wrong that is easy to fix. Poverty is also a wrong that is obviously wrong, but it is something that is non-trivial to fix, and the 'obvious' solutions to fixing it are not solutions that work. The empirical evidence seems to be that the best way to alleviate poverty worldwide, an outcome I fervently desire, is to eliminate artificial barriers to the movement of goods, services, and most of all, labour. At the moment, the people who are pushing for the removal of these barriers in the United States are overwhelmingly on the right-wing side of politics. So, if we accept Jim Wallis' vision of poverty reduction as the single overriding concern for Christian voters, voting for the Democrats is still daft.

You might notice in one of the Gospels, Nato- I can't remember which one- Judas says 'This is a waste of money: this perfume should have been sold and given to the poor' and Jesus says 'Don't sweat it. The poor will be with you always', and in the next chapter Judas goes off to betray Jesus? That synchronicity of events has seemed important to me ever since I noticed it. It still bugs me. I think Judas really believed Jesus was all about eliminating poverty and forwarding the historical praxis of liberation (like me, circa 1990, and like Jim) and that when he found out that the truth was something different, he couldn't handle it.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The One Thing

I will have a go at answering Dave's question about whether I am diminishing myself by being a single-issue voter. It is my self-description, so I have to wear it. But I will redefine what it means to suit my purposes at the moment. When I say I am a single-issue voter, is the single issue really 'abortion', or is it something larger? Remember, the most important thing about a person is their philosophy. Does holding a correct opinion about abortion necessarily indicate that an aspiring politician holds a philosophy that is consistent with my own? No. But, does holding an incorrect opinion about abortion necessarily indicate that an aspiring politician holds a philosophy that is inconsistent with my own? Yes.

I have recently been forcibly reminded of a minor flaw in my character- the extreme contempt with which I regard all arbitrary rules. For this reason I must necessarily believe in the existence of non-arbitrary rules. Are there philosophies that permit abortion and hold that there are non-arbitrary moral rules? Yes. Are these philosophies internally consistent and not inconsistent with our experimental observations of the universe? No. And since internal consistency and harmony with the results of observation are the two other things that I look for in a philosophy, there I must part company with the Sikhs and Dr Ahmadinejad et al. There are of course philosophies that are internally consistent and not contradicted by the universe which would allow abortion: the philosophies of moral relativism.

Which brings me to the Pope's speech at Regensburg. It is really about how a philosophy needs to be internally consistent and not inconsistent with observations of the universe, but that those two things are not enough. He was talking about how faith (that there are absolute rules) must be combined with reason (those rules have to make sense). These are the two things that need to be believed before anything else is possible. Science accepts these two things, without explicitly saying that is what it is doing. They are the assumptions you have to make before you can begin doing science. I don't think the Pope's philosophy is entirely internally consistent or in harmony with experimental evidence, but he is entirely correct to say that is how a philsophy ought to be. The bits of his speech that have caused all the trouble are where he is talking about religious philosophies that reject these as values. But he spent more time discussing the irreligious philosophies that reject the other half of the equation.
Quote number one from the Pope, on what happens when we reject absolute morality:
It is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by "science" and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective "conscience" becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.

Quote number two from the Pope, on what this rejection means to the relation between the West and Islam:
In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world's profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.

Which is sufficient unto the moment.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Dave Challenge

You know, having done some perfunctory research, I reckon Al Gore would have done a pretty good job.

Q. Would September 11th have unfolded in a similar fashion?
A. Yes, I think so. I don’t believe the left-wing blogosphere when it says that the intelligence failures were all in Bush’s eight months, and I don’t believe the right-wing blogosphere when it says that the intelligence failures were all in Clinton’s eight years. I think the problems in the American intelligence services were bipartisan.

Q. Would Afghanistan have been invaded in a similar fashion?

A. Yes, I think so. The difference Al mentions is that he would have more troops on the ground, and I believe him, since nation-building was a big Clinton-era thing and the Democrats LBJ and Truman were the lads who got lots of troops on the grounds in the last two big ground wars in Asia.

Q. Would Afghanistan be better off now?
A. Pretty definitely. The idea that nation building is something that they might have to do has really had to be hammered home to the Bush administration with a two-by-four, but Gore would have grasped it from the start.

Q. Would Iraq still have been invaded?
A. This is the big question. Regime change irrespective of the presence of weapons of mass destruction was a Clinton administration policy, and after September 11th I think the combination of possible intent, probable capability, and easy-to-knock-the-stuffing-out-of-nature of Iraq would have made it an obvious target for any hyperpower government worried about terrorism. I think iraq still would have been invaded. I think the pro-war/anti-war dynamic really was government/opposition, not right/left. Gore would have been Blair. He would have weighed the strategicl pros and cons and gone to war over the opposition of much of his own party. There is a mainstream current in the left-leaning blogosphere that believes someone came up in early 2003 or late 2002 waving a piece of paper and shouting, ‘Mr President! Mr President! Here is incontrovertible proof that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction and no program to acquire them!’, and that evil Mr Bush told them to bugger off, but good, saintly Mr Gore would have immediately said, ‘Oh, that’s alright then, We’d better stand down then, and leave Saddam in power.’ I do not place much credence in this story.
Maybe Gore would have been more successful in gaining the support of the United Nations, but I don’t think so. He probably would have spent more time in pursuing the UN path, and depending on domestic politics might have been tempted to leave Iraq for his second term. I would assume he would get a second term, what with the increased benefits of incumbency in times of crisis. I don’t think we need pay to much attention to what Gore says he would have done, when he’s talking now: the internal dynamics of his party have changed too much in the past few years.

Q. Would Iraq be better off?
A. I think if there had been an invasion there would be a lot more troops on the ground, which would be a good thing. It is very hard to say. The longer the invasion was foreshadowed before happening, the longer Saddam (and Syria and Iran) would have had to prepare, but then the invasion was foreshadowed for a very long time already. I can imagine a scenario in which the US decides to go for funneling money to opposition groups within Iraq and hardening sanctions, with the result that in April 2003 a ground force rolls in from Iran and kicks over the enfeebled regime. We would have all the bloodshed we’ve seen in places like Anbar province, and another godawful mess in Kurdistan, but there wouldn’t be any television cameras to show it to us so it wouldn’t matter.

Q. What about Israel?
A. I think Israel has put off a lot of unilateral actions this century because of an expectation that the US would take care of things for it. I’m not sure if this would still have been the case under Gore, but with Vice President Lieberman I’m guessing yes, Israel wouldn’t have been tempted to take care of Saddam itself.

Q. And what about Kyoto?
A. Well, the President of the United States is not a despot, and I think Gore would have had a tough time getting it ratified by a Republican-controlled congress. I’m quite certain that congress would have remained Republican-controlled, what with the traditional American habit of keeping government divided- like our entrenching different parties at the State and Federal level. The last six years have been unusual and unfortunate that way. Of course, I don’t mind about the very-bad-and-expensive-sentimental-gesture protocol not being ratified, but on balance it would have been a splendid thing if the United States had kept different parties dominating the legislative and executive branches. The costs of government wouldn’t have ballooned out so spectacularly, and there wouldn’t be so much quasi-dictatorial Homeland Security legislation. Another thing we surely wouldn't have with President Gore is such a sickly, poisoned, vile political atmosphere in the United States, with both sides saying such awful things about each other. After all, the Republicans just moved on when Kennedy stole the election from Nixon.

Q. So what’s up with you and chimpface, Clam? It sounds like you’re convinced Gore would trounce him, foreignpolicywise (if there was such a word, which I doubt).
A. Single issue thing, remember? Basically, its never been about the foreign policy. It’s about those two conservative Supreme Court Justices.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

O Captain My Captain!

The other day I read something by John Birmingham on Steve Irwin
in which he wrote that we would all always remember what we were doing when we heard that Steve Irwin was dead, and I thought, er, what was I doing? I can’t remember. But I thought for a while and eventually remembered, so that is okay.

I do not have to think very hard at all to remember what I was doing at about half past six or seven in the morning, five years ago today. I was in the bad habit of waking up and turning on the television in those days, and had an easy familiarity with the lives of Mel and Kochie, who now seem utter strangers to me. I turned on the television and there was a picture that did not make any sense: a sort of textured grey thing with a blot in the middle. I remember looking at it having no idea what it could be, and figuring out from the sounds that the television was making that it was a wall of the World Trade Center. I needed to be at work early, so I did not tarry long before the television, but I have the impression that the entire story to that point was imparted to me rather quickly. I walked off briskly towards the train station, and I remember that my main thoughts were neither Christian nor civilised.
One thought was, what an audacious thing to do!
And the other was, someone is going down for this in a big way!
The thoughts had the ‘!’ on them, and I am sure I felt almost exultant. How dreadful. I did not have a strong sense of ‘how dreadful’ then or afterwards, because I have read too much and thought so long and so often about the numerically greater tragedies of our time and other times- The Gulag Archipelago, the Hungry Ghosts, the War Against the Jews, the genocide in Rwanda and against the unborn. I rarely think about the events of September 11th without thinking also of the 100,000 villagers murdered by jihadists in Algeria, whose memory rose in my mind unbidden in those days whenever I heard any commentator seize upon the attacks on Washington and New York as startling new evidence that islamofascists were bad. Most of that day I spent worrying about one particular person who I knew was working in the Pentagon until I heard they were alright, but I never dwelled upon the day as a great catastrophe. Three-thousand is, what, 48 hours of AIDS deaths in Africa? 24 hours? 12?
So, I have never thought of that day as a particularly bad human tragedy, but it was immediately obvious as a turning point in history. Independently from any Neoconservative cabal, I could see immediately that it was an opportunity. There seemed no better moment to cast down tyrants from their thrones. Why should the world endure half slave and half free? Democracy in its essence is a revolutionary ideology.
Carpe diem.