Thursday, April 30, 2009

[Heart] God, [Heart] Torture?

It would seem that fans of god are also supporters of torture:

More than half of people who attend services at least once a week -- 54 percent -- said the use of torture against suspected terrorists is "often" or "sometimes" justified. Only 42 percent of people who "seldom or never" go to services agreed, according the analysis released Wednesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
42% of torture support among the unchurched -- whatever that means in terms of beliefs about gods -- is still disturbingly high, but they trail the churchgoing by a substantial margin.

Whatever they're teaching in churches these days, it is not reverence for humankind or concern for human rights. Apparently it overlaps significantly with what we see from the torture-supporting faction in politics: hand-waving, fear-mongering, and disgusting casuistries.

Question Dodged

Last night's 100-days* press conference included this statement by President Obama:

Q Thank you, Mr. President. You've said in the past that waterboarding, in your opinion, is torture. Torture is a violation of international law and the Geneva conventions. Do you believe that the previous administration sanctioned torture?

THE PRESIDENT: What I've said -- and I will repeat -- is that waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture. I don't think that's just my opinion; that's the opinion of many who've examined the topic. ... I believe that waterboarding was torture.
The reporter was too much the sycophant to pose the real question lurking in the one he posed, namely: if torture is illegal under domestic and international law, and if waterboarding is torture, then didn't a serious crime occur? And if a serious crime occurred, shouldn't a competent legal tribunal consider all the facts and legal arguments, and assess the question of guilt or innocence?

I see three alternatives open to President Obama, and I would like to see a reporter with the courage to put forward the question:
  • Does the president intend to pardon those who sanctioned torture?
  • Does the president intend to to ignore the laws against torture?
  • Does the president intend, via the office of Attorney General, to initiate a formal legal investigation?
To date, President Obama's statements suggest the second option, which is unacceptable under our system of government.

Glennzilla has more on these topics.

* A Hallmark Holiday of presidential politics if there ever was one.

TV Torture

Jon Stewart's extended Daily Show interview with Cliff May is embedded below and it's well worth taking in. I agree with May's comment that this is the most lucid, candid discussion of torture I've found outside the blogosphere. Beyond that, I don't agree with much of what May is arguing.

May's position seems to come down to the claim that the rightness of torture varies with the person being tortured (this comes out in the part II video). Since I am feeling too generous to translate this to rank racism, i.e., any northern African or southwestern Asian sort of person who is not Israeli is morally torture-worthy in May's book, it is tantamount to the claim that the rightness of torture varies with the gravity of the accusations made against the person being tortured. We would not torture common criminals or enemy soldiers wearing crisply-pressed uniforms, he says, but we should willingly torture Al Qaida types because, I gather, 9/11 changed everything. Or something.

I say this has it exactly wrong in at least two ways. First, I agree with Stewart's counterpoint, namely, that whether we torture human beings bears on and reflects our morality. And second, further to this and filling in the premise that Stewart did not elaborate explicitly, is that torture of human beings is wrong because human beings have rights whether we love or hate them -- even olive-skinned ones who take the Koran too seriously. Norm Geras states it plainly, that torture is wrong

... because human beings have some rights from which there can be no derogation, not in any circumstances. It is because to torture is to violate a human right that is absolute and to violate a human being ... If you make this question one exclusively about 'us', it is that much easier to trade off aspects of our moral character against our safety - to argue that in extremis we may have to be worse in order to be protected against threats. But the barrier against resorting to torture is not about computing costs and benefits in this way. It is a peremptory norm of civilized law and morality, and may not be traded.
Here are the videos of John Stewart's discussion with Cliff May:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Cliff May Unedited Interview Pt. 1
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisFirst 100 Days

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Cliff May Unedited Interview Pt. 2
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisFirst 100 Days

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Cliff May Unedited Interview Pt. 3
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisFirst 100 Days

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Not All Fights

Max Fisher has sighed deeply, clenched his fist, and taken the time to detail some of the travails of vegetarianism as he experiences them: his account features phrases such as "learning to accept," "fundamentally immoral," "vegetarianism making sense to me in the abstract but seeming impossible in the actual," "overcome the fears," "changed lives." And all that comes by the fourth paragraph!

Apparently I'm doing vegetarianism the wrong way, because my experience is nothing as overwrought as all that. It's all but unnoticeable, in fact. Among friends and family, I accept or decline food when offered, and its rare that this should require a prolonged, let alone agonizing, explanatory digression. In restaurants, I read menus and make selections. At the grocer, I generally know what I'm putting in the cart, but if not, I read the label and make a choice. No one's feelings are exposed; no bonds of affection are strained to any limits; no tears, trials, or revelations of character are needed.

As someone with an endless appetite (so to speak) for certain fights that others report finding pointless, I suppose I should find a lesson lurking somewhere nearby.

Maybe. But to Max Fisher's histrionics, I will borrow a reply from Sergeant Hulka given to the character of Francis in this perfect scene from Stripes.

A Secular Case Against Gay Marriage?

Bradlaugh at Secular Right has weighed in with a six-part secular case against gay marriage. I consider each six with all the gravity they deserve, which is to say, fair to middling:

(1) I wonder if this "anti-minoritarianism" bears any resemblance to "the majority gets to dictate private affairs, even on matters of individual conscience"? If this noble-sounding "anti-minoritarianism" differs from rank majoritarianism, I have no idea how. No, I take that back -- there's nothing noble-sounding about it.

I have read and re-read (2) to ensure that my reading eyes are not deceiving me, but indeed, Bradlaugh wrote it in public, where others might read it:

Counter-arguments like “so was slavery” [long-established by tradition] are unconvincing, as the occasional slights suffered by homosexual couples are microscopic by comparison with the injustice of human beings buying and selling other human beings. Gay marriage proponents make much of the cruelty and injustices of the past.
The most charitable way to read this is to say that tradition-based injustices are excusable so long as the wrongs fall short of outright human chattel slavery. That's bad enough, but the subsequent fleshing out of the argument validates a not-so-charitable reading under which Bradlaugh means to minimize and dismiss the injustices done to gay people in the name of "tradition" (and little more):
Gay marriage proponents make much of the cruelty and injustices of the past. I must say, though, being old enough to remember some of that past, I am unimpressed. I was in college in the early 1960s. There were homosexual students, and nobody minded them.
Shorter Bradlaugh: in the good ol' days before they got so uppity, the homos seemed happy -- always smiling ear to ear, whistling while they shined our shoes, bowing before the ladies, always addressing white-folk, er, straight-folk with a peppy "Yes Sir!" or "Yes Ma'am!"

So, for Bradlaugh's sake, here goes: traditionally, men had greater lattitude for physically abusing women. Traditionally, parents had greater lattitude for physically abusing children. Traditionally, women were restricted in their access to professions and to institutions of higher learning. "Because it's tradition" was a bad argument against the social and legal changes that have rolled back these non-slavery injustices, and it is an equally poor argument against gay equality.

(3) There really is, avers Bradlaugh, a slippery slope tilting from decriminalizing gay marriage straight down to the sanctioning of any imaginable coupling: three-ways, four-ways, entire counties populated by a mutually-intermarried blob, interspecies couplings, interplanetary interspecies couplings, couplings with long-dead historical personages, couplings with everyday objects, couplings with diacritical marks and abstract nouns. Can't we, urges Bradlaugh, love umlauts and fuck justice without changing the law?

At no point does Bradlaugh mount a substantive argument against the end point of the slide, but he's certainly against it. To be clear, I think there are clear and bright lines we can draw that will allow people to run their own lives, structure their own households, build their own families, and order their own romantic affairs, without trampling the rights of others. The slide can be framed fairly and reasonably.

(4) I quote this one in full, that all may marvel at it as I do:
If you have a cognitively-challenged underclass, as every large nation has, you need some anchoring institutions for them to aspire to; and those institutions should have some continuity and stability. Heterosexual marriage is a key such institution. In a society in which nobody had an IQ below 120, homosexual marriage might be plausible. In the actual societies we have, other considerations kick in.
Neat! If I had some idea of what he's getting at, I might try to assess it. But no, I have no idea what he's getting at. Without unjust institutions and arbitrary legal inequalities, dumb people will be confused and angry? And this counts in favor of arbitrary legal inequalities?

(5) I don't even disagree with this premise:
Homophobia seems to be a rooted condition in us. It has been present always and everywhere, if only minimally (and unfairly — there has always been a double standard here) in disdain for “the man who plays the part of a woman.”
But the premise does not determine the conclusion. Assume homophobia is deeply ingrained; assume it is difficult to overcome; assume it will always be present to some degree. This doesn't make it right, nor does it negate the plain injustices that ensue from it. There are numerous "rooted conditions" against which civilized people -- as a matter of definition -- rebel.

(6) The last is essentially a restatement of the second, spiced with a complaint that the pro-gay side is against injustices but lacks a positive vision:
How many times have you heard that gay marriage is necessary so that gay people will not be hindered in visiting a hospitalized partner? But if hospitals have such rules — a thing I find hard to believe in this PC-whipped age [really, Bradlaugh? Do you?]— the rules can be changed, by legislation if necessary. What need to overturn a millennial institution for such trivial ends?
To which I would simply say that identifying, opposing, and trying to redress injustices is a worthwhile aim whether or not attached to an abundantly detailed alternative vision. Moreover, full equality for gay people is, in and of itself, a positive vision; and for that matter, there is no shortage of detail on how this equality might look and fit existing society: to name only one place to look, Andrew Sullivan expounds on it regularly on his blog, and has written at least one book expanding on it.

At least Bradlaugh's arguments, such as they are, count as secular -- he was right about that.

The Pope as PR Front-Man

In his visit to some of the earthquake-hit areas of Italy, the Pope is reminiscent of a CEO who emerges and makes himself ubiquitous to quell a public relations catastrophe ensuing from the release of sensitive customer data, toxic toy paint, or tainted cheese. Heather MacDonald puts the best face she can manage on this, well, facial presentation:

The Pope is undoubtedly a caring, generous man who has brought much-needed solace to the stricken survivors of the earthquake. Still, nonbelievers will be eternally puzzled by the logic of praising and praying to a God after a natural disaster that he could have averted. If God is sensitive enough and powerful enough to respond to prayers now, why didn’t he intervene before? And we know that he can intervene: see, e.g., the Bible and the daily priestly practice of asking for God’s protection against a whole host of human ills. The Pope may pray to God to show his mercy to the dead children of Abruzzo. Wouldn’t it have been more useful for God to have shown his mercy before they were killed? Presumably, believers see proof of God’s love in the survival of quake victims rescued from collapsed buildings, leaving unexplained why other quake victims were not so blessed.
Those are all good questions for which this pope has no better answers than the popes that came before. Still, wandering onto the scene of disasters and spreading the good news that the pain of today's crushed children is the fulfillment of tomorrow's divine plan, and otherwise issuing platitudes about the mysteriousness of god's ways, comes with the papal office. It follows that not having answers is part and parcel of being pope, which renews the question of why the pope should be taken seriously.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Arguments and Intuitions About Abortion

That the question of abortion is important does not make the debate over it any less exhausting, so it's refreshing when someone can break out of the usual frames. Steven Waldman characterizes the tedious predominance of claims and counter-claims about 'when human life begins':

The debate has evolved that way in part because of the fundamentally religious nature of the pro-life activist position. The essential point about the position of pro-life activists-- including the Catholic Church and conservative evangelicals--is not that they believe "life" begins at conception. It's that they believe a life that God creates on Day One is morally equivalent to a life at month one or month nine or 18 years. "The whole point of pro-life reasoning," says Charmaine Yoest of Americans United for Life, "is to encourage people toward intellectual, ethical and scientific consistency: A life is a life, no matter how small."
For those of us on the pro-choice side, this claim is jarringly off-base, which while not precisely the same as wrong, still locates it well in the category of unhelpful. Waldman captures it:
Actually, what the [polling] data proclaim is something that politicians and activists can't: Most Americans believe there are gradations of life. Some living things are more alive than others, and so the later in the pregnancy it gets, the more uncomfortable people become with the idea of ending it. But in reality they believe both that a life stirs very early on and that a one-week-old embryo is more "killable" than a nine-month-old fetus. For them, determining whether "life" begins at conception really doesn't determine anything.
That there are gradations of life that merit gradations of moral concern, even when it comes to human life, fits the intuition. This does not mean it resolves the questions or implies quick resolutions, and it makes for a terrible bumper sticker, but it is a more promising start than any supernatural fancy about soul-creation.

As we say on the internets, read the rest.

Time to Reconsider?

Pigs have apparently been dropping their flu strain on us via flight judging from the fact that Arlen Specter has joined the Democratic party:

"Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans."
Will the last Republican moderate please turn off the lights on the way out of the small studio apartment where they're meeting?

Now that Specter has left the Republican party, does it mean I have to reconsider the magic bullet theory? Or does it free Specter to question it? I'm not sure how all this works; it's all rather discombobulating.


Monday, April 27, 2009

J.S. Mill and William Shakespeare: Not the Same Guy

There is some dispute over whether Shakespeare was a real individual by that name or a pseudonym for someone else. If only because Shakespeare's works appeared a few centuries before John Stuart Mill was born, I have never heard Mill advanced as a candidate as the "real" Shakespeare. Surely Terry Eagleton, Englishman and lettered scholar of literature, is aware of this? And yet:

Liberals are supposed to value nuanced analysis and moral complexity, neither of which are apparent in the slanderous reduction of Islam to a barbarous blood cult. They are noted for their judicious discriminations, rather than the airy dismissal of all religion as so much garbage. There is also an honorable legacy of qualifying too-absolute judgments with an awareness of context: the genuine liberal is appalled by Islamist terrorism, but conscious of the national injury and humiliation that underlie it. None of the writers I have mentioned is remarkable for such balance. On the whole, they are more preoccupied with freedom of expression than freedom from imperial rule.
Eagleton's notion of liberalism gets fuzzier with closer inspection. It seems odd to say so, but this passage sounds as though he is confusing liberalism with art.

Under at least a few schools of aesthetics, good art is that which values and achieves "nuanced analysis and moral complexity;" it makes "judicious discriminations;" it suspends or qualifies "too-absolute judgements" by suffusing what it portrays with "an awareness of context."

This sounds a lot like the most revered works of Shakespeare; its resemblance to the works of John Stuart Mill is considerably less straightforward. There is a neutrality at the heart of liberalism, but Eagleton's is a crude bastardization of it: to the extent that liberalism cherishes neutrality, it is the neutrality of the state vis-a-vis questions impinging on individual conscience, not the neutrality of individual conscience.

Artifacts of the Olden Days: Maude and Pontiac

RIP Bea Arthur, comic and star of TV's Maude. I don't remember whether Maude was any good or not, only that my mother considered it appointment viewing. According to the wikipedia entry, Maude was

... an outspoken, middle-aged, politically liberal woman living in suburban Tuckahoe, Westchester County, New York with her fourth husband. Maude embraced the tenets of women's liberation, always voted for Democratic Party candidates, strongly supported legal abortion, and advocated for civil rights and racial and gender equality. However, her overbearing and sometimes domineering personality often got her into trouble when speaking out on these issues.
Mystery solved! Except for the stuff about Tuckahoe, New York and the fourth husband, that's a dead-on description of my mom. Watching Maude was, for her, something like looking in a mirror -- more or less the viewing experience I have with TV's Peter Griffin:
Peter is unintelligent and consistently depicted as crude and lowbrow. He enjoys stereotypical blue-collar activities such as causing mischief while drinking with his friends. His favorite pastime is watching television. An I.Q. test confirms that his low intellect places him in a category slightly below mentally retarded.[4] Peter's brash impulsiveness leads to several odd scenarios, such as attempting to molest Meg in order to adopt a redneck lifestyle. He is incredibly jealous of other attractions Lois has in her life, an attitude that tends to get out of hand in most cases. He mostly loves his children, although he emotionally abuses Meg, and neglects Stewie a great deal.
Granted, I don't have children with those names, and a few other details fail to match, but by the standards of today -- as distinguished from the greater verisimilitude of the sit-coms of the 1970s -- this is close enough.

And RIP also to Pontiac, soon to be disbanded makers of the Trans-Am, Firebird, GTO, and, in more recent years, the comically hideous Aztek. Pontiac will surely be missed by those who were once gainfully employed by it, and possibly a few others.

David Broder, Sage

David Broder disagrees with those of us who favor enforcement of criminal laws:

Their argument is that without identifying and punishing the perpetrators, there can be no accountability -- and therefore no deterrent lesson for future administrations. It is a plausible-sounding rationale, but it cloaks an unworthy desire for vengeance.
As one would expect from a widely-read, well-respected columnist of one of the USA's leading newspapers, Broder's argument peers beneath the meretricious patina of plausibility to this notion of deterrence and alerts his readers to that which only a man of his rare wisdom can divine: "an unworthy desire for vengeance."

A lesser columnist might issue this claim as only the beginning of a longer argument -- perhaps by fleshing out this claim that prosecuting war criminals won't deter any future would-be war criminals on grounds of psychology, history, philosophy, political theory, or the like. Or a lesser columnist might take time to provide some plausible evidence for the assertion that "an unworthy desire for vengeance" lies at the black-hearted center of the pro-prosecution argument.

Not David Broder!

David Broder sees this desire for vengeance; and he sees that it is unworthy. This is David Broder, not just some toadying hack who seems to have achieved his comfortable and prestigious station in life by virtue of having won some kind of perverse lottery! This is David freaking Broder!

As is curiously often the case, David Broder sees what is happening in Washington DC's corridors of power, and sees that it is good:
Obama is being blamed by some for unleashing the furies with his decision to override the objections of past and current national intelligence officials and release four highly sensitive memos detailing the methods used on some "high-value" detainees.

Again, he was right to do so, because these policies were carried out in the name of the American people, and it is only just that we the people confront what we did. Squeamishness is not justified in this case.

But having vowed to end the practices, Obama should use all the influence of his office to stop the retroactive search for scapegoats.
Let it be known to all would-be war criminals of the future: none less than David Broder might just expect you to confront what you did by reading the memos your lawyers wrote about it. Hear this and tremble!

In his willingness to take a tough-worded stand for whatever the moment's asinine, depraved beltway consensus demands, David Broder is reminiscent of Tim Russert. Would it be wrong to suggest Broder becoming even more like Russert?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Great Moments in Cinematic Freestyle

I don't care if it flags me as several kinds of lame: I love 8 Mile, and this culminating moment from it (spoiler alert).

Slurs and Criticism, Individuals and Creeds

Something more stood out in that twaddle-fest from Terry Eagleton:

Both Hitchens and Salman Rushdie have defended [Martin] Amis's slurs on Muslims. Whether they like it or not, Dawkins and his ilk have become weapons in the war on terror. Western supremacism has gravitated from the Bible to atheism. [emphasis mine]
Which slurs on which Muslims does Eagleton have in mind? Maybe one of the "four horsemen", Rushdie, or Amis has said an untoward thing about a Muslim here or there; I don't follow the gossip at that level, so I'm not the one to say, but if so, there are libel and slander laws on the books for redress of such wrongs.

Presumably Eagleton is aware of such laws; more obviously, this is not about legal torts or the ugliness that sometimes erupts among British writers, academics, and clerics. This is about establishing a sloppy elision between Muslims-as-people and Islam-as-creed: these unspecified "slurs on Muslims," which sound like the stuff of an interpersonal spat, serve as evidence for something far wider, "Western supremacism." But this is a category mistake.

Islam is a creed, a set of ideas. Criticism of this body of ideas and their social and political effects is not a "slur," any more than criticism of communism or fascism is a "slur" against particular communists or fascists.

When atheists criticize Islam or Christianity or other faiths, what can fairly be inferred about their views of avowed Muslims and Christians and other believers? Not much, really. They can be fairly accused of accusing believers of faulty judgment -- Dawkins rather prominently uses the word "delusion" -- but this is an entailment of any disagreement on any topic. Investing this sort of conversation with a charged label such as "slur" is, at best, misleading and unhelpful. More commonly -- and this is what I think is going on with Eagleton -- it's a maneuver to silence one side of the dispute, and to evade consideration of the merits.

Eagleton's Pratfall

Terry Eagleton has issued a rather scattered accusation that the "new atheists" are verging on illiberalism, and Russell Blackford has replied:

[T]o oppose other views of the good simply by way of criticism or satire is not illiberal at all. There is no reason why liberals should refrain from criticising or satirising viewpoints that they consider benighted. Liberalism isn't an agreement that we all shut up and say nothing nasty about each other; it is not an agreement that we cease to regard our own respective worldviews as superior to others on offer; it is merely an agreement that we stop trying to get our hands on the levers of state power for the purpose of imposing our worldviews by coercion. It implies that the powers of the state should be somewhat limited, or at least exercised with a certain deference to the choices of individuals (I disagree, however, if Eagleton thinks, as he seems to, that it rules out any socialist economic program).

Eagleton is simply wrong to say that there's only a short step from superiority to supremacy. Anyone who could say such a thing does not understand liberalism at all and needs to go back to school. A liberal is not someone who takes the contorted view that her own viewpoint is no better than others on offer (that would be a vulgar and implausible sort of relativism). She is someone who takes the principled political stance that, although she considers her comprehensive worldview (perhaps a rationalist one, but perhaps even a religious one of some sort) to be superior, she will not attempt to impose it by means of fire and sword, as long as others do not attempt to use fire and sword to impose their views on her.
People who make an effort to understand liberalism as a theory of political economy simply don't make mistakes of the sort called out by Blackford here. On the other hand, people who deploy liberalism as a term for expressing dismissive opproprium -- self-styled conservatives who spit it out as though it's an obscenity, self-labeled leftists indulging in radical chic -- produce incoherent nonsense such as Eagleton's.

Further to that, how could Eagleton expect to be taken seriously after writing something deserving of this criticism made by Norm Geras?
Eagleton says that 'socialists as well as Islamists reject the liberal state'. Another simplification. It may be true of some socialists, but it isn't true of all of us; and one of the great divisions within the left is precisely over this - the valuation of the liberal state.
The notion that Islamists and socialists are coming from the same place, or close to the same place, in their respective critiques of liberalism isn't just plainly wrong, but positively unhinged in the context of an article decrying others' lack of nuance.

If Terry Eagleton wants to be considered a proponent of human liberation, he needs to do better than write a piece subject to this criticism by Ophelia Benson:
'[T]errorism' - by which he makes sure to let us know at the beginning he means only blowing legs off, he does not mean the terrorism of threatening girls with death if they keep going to school, of butchering girls who refuse a marriage or want to marry someone of their own choosing or get a job or wear jeans or refuse to wear a hijab, of yanking girls out of school and out of the country and marrying them off to a stranger. How dare he keep silent about all that? How dare he rant and rave at Hitchens and Grayling for not keeping silent about that?
Note to The Guardian and Terry Eagleton: this is really shabby stuff. You should aim to do better than this or back quietly away from the topics in question in favor of something for which you'll willingly make a serious effort -- celebrity gossip, unreadable literary theory, whatever.

Run for the Cheetah 2009: Almost Like Cheating

I completed the Run for the Cheetah 8K today and did reasonably well (35:01 time, 7:03 pace, 10th place overall) but it felt like cheating: every inch of the course is very familar to me, with about 85% of it -- including 100% of its toughest hills -- overlapping with one of my regular training runs. I could have run it with my eyes closed, although I might have been tempted to peek during that ~15% that I've only run about 20 or 30 times before.

None of which is to disparage the course, a challenging stretch of steep hills in and near Portland's Washington Park, beginning and ending at the Oregon Zoo. I run these hills so regularly because they are beautiful all days, hours, and seasons. It never fails to thrill me to draw near enough to the zoo to hear the calls of the animals there -- elephants, primates, birds, and even, from time to time, the big cats. It's a fine prize for having climbed those nasty hills.

Speaking of big cats, I am glad to say the proceeds of this race went to cheetah conservation. Cheetahs are amazing.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Embarassment on Behalf of Planet Earth

Michele Bachman is a member of the US Congress, which means several thousand people thought she had the knowledge and experience for that role. They were gravely mistaken.

I want to believe those voters were unaware of her profound psychological and intellectual shortcomings, as revealed recently when she said the following -- mind you, this was on the floor of the House of Representatives, where every word spoken is entered into a permanent and public record:

Carbon dioxide, Mister Speaker, is a natural byproduct of nature. Carbon dioxide is natural. It occurs in Earth. It is a part of the regular lifecycle of Earth. In fact, life on planet Earth can't even exist without carbon dioxide. So necessary is it to human life, to animal life, to plant life, to the oceans, to the vegetation that's on the Earth, to the, to the fowl that -- that flies in the air, we need to have carbon dioxide as part of the fundamental lifecycle of Earth.
Regrettably, underscoring the perils of live broadcasting, cameras and microphones were trained on her as she spoke these words, delivering a real-time feed of the proceedings to viewers of C-Span and, sadly, to any advanced alien species that may ever chance to pick up earth's signals.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Things to Make You Go 'Ulp.'

This promotional image of an early CD player is just one of many visual treats at SUNY Buffalo's Retro Media page.

It's also a feast for the conscience of any self-respecting packrat, including this bracing summary of the life-span of various forms of media, past and present:

3.5” floppy drive (Introduced 1980)

Less than 3% of computers sold today have a floppy drive. Expected data life: 5-6 years or less

mp3 Player (Introduced 1998)

All the rage now, but will Vorbis, WMA Pro, AAC, or ?? supersede it?
Expected life of device: 3-5 years, but what does a 1-year warranty imply?

Flash Drive (Introduced 2000)

USB ports are ubiquitous, for now. Expected life of data: 10 years (assuming you don’t lose it.)

DVD-Blue Ray (Introduced 2006)

Regular DVD format introduced less than 10 years ago. The descent to obsolescence has already begun.
Expected life of data: 10-12 years

Printed book (9th century China wood block, 1140 CE moveable type)

Expected life of data: 1,000 years

Shoe box of family photographs and computer hard drive

Will your grandchildren be able to find any pictures of you? Photographs can last over 100 years depending on storage. Hard drives last 5-8 years at best.
If you are one of those people untroubled with any concern about whether the images and sounds you store today will be usable in the distant future, count yourself fortunate. The rest of us have fresh reasons to fret.

Friday Sadness-of-Love Blogging

What better song for such an occasion than Bob Dylan's "Girl From the North Country," which, among its other highlights, just might include the best use of harmonica in the history of recorded music? The lines "in the darkness of my night / in the brightness of my day" are alone worth the price of admission:

Bob Dylan, "Girl From the North Country"

Well, if you're travelin' in the north country fair,
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline,
Remember me to one who lives there.
She once was a true love of mine.

Well, if you go when the snowflakes storm,
When the rivers freeze and summer ends,
Please see if she's wearing a coat so warm,
To keep her from the howlin' winds.

Please see for me if her hair hangs long,
If it rolls and flows all down her breast.
Please see for me if her hair hangs long,
That's the way I remember her best.

I'm a-wonderin' if she remembers me at all.
Many times I've often prayed
In the darkness of my night,
In the brightness of my day.

So if you're travelin' in the north country fair,
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline,
Remember me to one who lives there.
She once was a true love of mine.

Here's another version Dylan performed for a Canadian TV special in 1964. (Who knew they had television in Canada in the 1960s?!)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Shakespeare at 445

Today marks the 393rd anniversary of William Shakespeare's death, but I prefer to think of it as the 445th anniversary of his birth. The latter is now, apparently, the subject of scholarly dispute, as reliable records can only place his baptism on April 26, 1564; but I was always given 23 April as the date of both his death and birth, and I have always preferred to believe that he died like a rock star: painlessly yet somehow hilariously, amid birthday-inspired bacchanalia that would shock today's late night cable TV programmers.

To commemorate, I've begun watching BBC's lackluster but competent 1984 production of one of his least-celebrated plays, Coriolanus, which contains this small but illustrative instance of The Bard's peerless gifts:


O' my word, the father's son: I'll swear,'tis a
very pretty boy. O' my troth, I looked upon him o'
Wednesday half an hour together: has such a
confirmed countenance. I saw him run after a gilded
butterfly: and when he caught it, he let it go
again; and after it again; and over and over he
comes, and again; catched it again; or whether his
fall enraged him, or how 'twas, he did so set his
teeth and tear it; O, I warrant it, how he mammocked


One on 's father's moods.


Indeed, la, 'tis a noble child.


A crack, madam.


Come, lay aside your stitchery; I must have you play
the idle husewife with me this afternoon.


No, good madam; I will not out of doors.


Not out of doors!


She shall, she shall.


Indeed, no, by your patience; I'll not over the
threshold till my lord return from the wars.


Fie, you confine yourself most unreasonably: come,
you must go visit the good lady that lies in.


I will wish her speedy strength, and visit her with
my prayers; but I cannot go thither.


Why, I pray you?


'Tis not to save labour, nor that I want love.


You would be another Penelope: yet, they say, all
the yarn she spun in Ulysses' absence did but fill
Ithaca full of moths. Come; I would your cambric
were sensible as your finger, that you might leave
pricking it for pity. Come, you shall go with us.


No, good madam, pardon me; indeed, I will not forth.
It's a pretty good day's work for any poet to drop in an allusion to Homer to propel a significant establishing scene about an important character or two, and weave it all around a "gilded butterfly" (eventually torn with teeth) and an "Ithaca full of moths" (and a pricked finger). Flip the script indeed!

Shakespeare is as far from dead as anyone.

Waterboarding Sean Hannity

No, I have no interest in seeing Sean Hannity allow himself to be waterboarded only to rise and continue lying about it. Sean Hannity's personal experiences do not impinge on the question in any important way. Waterboarding Sean Hannity would be an attention-whoring gimmick, a phony simulation, and worse, too indulgent of the idiotic, debasing premise that human beings should be debating the legal and moral status of waterboarding.

This, however, would interest me slightly: Sean Hannity's public avowal, sworn on the holy book of his very favorite god, that he repudidates every accusation (moral, legal, or other) of every waterboarder in history. This includes every fascist, communist, Islamist, and every other enemy of the USA that might have deployed it.

I would be slightly interested to hear Sean Hannity publicly affirm that all such condemnations, accusations, and prosecutions were wrong-headed, misguided, and unjust. I would like to hear him declare to the world that every instance of waterboarding ever done to anyone was a legal and ethical triviality, one that passes beneath the concern of serious people.

From Sean Hannity and all other home-team apologists for torture, I would like to see that. To affirm this would be to affirm what civilized people already know to be false, but it cannot hurt to be utterly clear about where the pro-torture faction stands in relation to civilized human conduct.

The Vatican and the USA - Born to Fight?

Ed Brayton reports (via) that a fake nation-state has come up with fake objections to President Obama's ambassadorial appointments:

The Vatican has quietly rejected at least three of President Obama's candidates to serve as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See because they support abortion ...
To which Brayton proposes a sensible diplomatic response:
I've got a better idea: how about the telling the Vatican to go to hell?
This is exactly right, and not only in a snarky way. The USA rests on founding documents that lay out a distinct set of principles; the Vatican is also founded on a well-defined set of principles and outright doctrines; the USA's founders did not consult the Pope in forming its doctrines, nor did the Vatican consult the USA in forming its own; and now, to no reasonable observer's surprise, the foundational ideals of these respective nation-states differ markedly.

For example, the Vatican is constitionally (so to speak) obsessed with the fate of blastocysts, while the USA is not; the Vatican is committed to turning the world Catholic, while the USA is not; the USA stands for separation of church and state, while the Vatican is both a church and a state; the USA institutionalizes democracy (both representative and direct), while the Vatican rejects it as a dangerous vulgarity; the USA prosecutes and imprisons child rapists under due process of law, while the Vatican shuffles them to different jurisdictions, tells them to confess, and insists they rub magic beads together while chanting things in Latin.

If these nation-states come to too much comity, it should be taken as a strong indicator that at least one of them is compromising its fundamental ideals.

I say President Obama should just keep offering qualified delegates to the Vatican, and the Vatican can go ahead and keep rejecting and/or denouncing them. The perpetuation of this cycle can remind everyone who cares to look that these two nation-states -- well, one nation-state and a half, tops -- stand for profoundly different things. That which is not worth doing is not worth doing well, and placing a US delegation inside the walls of the Vatican is not worth doing.

None of which is to say the USA should not speak with the Vatican or indulge its pretensions to nationhood. The USA can and should engage with the Vatican when matters of shared concern arise, but there is such a thing as too much goodwill between a democratic republic and a theocracy.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

God Awful: The Logo

Some or other arm of the Catholic Church used this logo in 1973.

I say it was a cry for help.

(via Andrew Sullivan, via Afrojacks)

Dealing with the Crazies

Matt Yglesias self-narrates:

I was saying the other day that large-scale punishment for the perpetrators of Bush-era war crimes is less important than establishing some form of political consensus that torture is wrong for the future.
After this, Yglesias ruefully concedes the improbability of any such civilized concensus given the presence of FoxNews, the WSJ editorial page, and other outposts of the right-wing scream machine that, quoting Neil Sinhababu, "continually sustain a substantial minority of crazy people."

It would be delightful to live in a world in which people would step back and realize that torture, warrantless searches, and other blatant violations of longstanding law are wrong, counterproductive, and contrary to our best ideals. Likewise, it would be delightful to live in a world in which violent Islamists would step back and realize that attacking non-Muslims is wrong and that enshrining worldwide Sharia is not a worthy goal, either morally or practically.

We do not live in that world. Here on this planet, we have the depraved extremists we have, not the more moderate replacements we would prefer to have. The arguments and reasons have been laid out for all to see, and these have done their share of persuading. Those reasons should continue to be presented forcefully and unapologetically in the good-faith hope that crazy people will find the error of their ways.

Meanwhile, for the sake of those who have already been persuaded and are attempting to live in a more civilized world for all, the unpersuaded fringe of crazies will require harsher measures, beginning with shunning and shaming.

For the more obdurate and clear-cut cases, it calls for their due day in court, or that failing, a bullet through the head.

Equality and Respect, Celebrities and Pageants

If she's any sort of liberal at all, Eva Rodriguez is the sort of liberal that does liberalism no favors judging from her musings on the kerfuffle concerning Miss California, gay marriage, and pageant judge Perez Hilton. Rodriguez:

Prejean [Miss California] lost, Hilton averred, not because she gave the wrong answer in opposing gay marriage, but because she is a "dumb b----" who failed to offer any serious rationale for her position. I doubt that even a nuanced, sophisticated argument that rejected same-sex marriage would have appeased Hilton.
The epithets are arguably unhelpful, but wouldn't the failure to offer any serious rationale for a position on a controversial question constitute a valid reason to subtract points in a pageant? Sponsors of beauty pageants want to pretend that something is being assessed beyond physical beauty, so they require the contestants to speak improvisationally. This notoriously produces bland, boilerplate encomiums to the family, education, life's simple pleasures, interracial harmony, world peace, US Americans, South Africa, the Iraq, and the importance of maps, but asked about gay marriage, Miss California replied with a mix of misinformation and confusion. As a judge of the contestants, Hilton was right to notice the poor quality of the answer and subtract points for it.

As for Rodriguez's mention of a "nuanced, sophisticated argument that rejected same-sex marriage," she should recognize the futility of expecting any such from Miss California when even the best minds of the anti-gay faction have failed to produce one. Rodriguez continues:
Prejean and millions others like her have a right to their opinion -- and a right to express that opinion without facing the kind of adolescent vitriol spewed by Hilton over the past couple of days. It's the height of hypocrisy, not to mention counterproductive, that people such as Hilton demand rights and respect for their beliefs and lifestyles and yet try to pulverize those who express a different point of view.
And here is where Rodriquez truly goes off the rails: yes, Miss California has a right to her opinions; no, Miss California does not have a right to live free of sharp criticism of those opinions after expressing them in front of millions; and insofar as Hilton is demanding respect for his sexuality -- I'm not sure what the evidence for this demand is, but I grant it may be among his demands (I don't follow him) -- yes, he is prey to hypocrisy insofar as he does not grant reciprocal respect to that which he finds abhorrent. But insofar as Hilton's demand is for equal rights under the law, he is on the firmest of ground, and if she is a liberal, Eva Rodriguez should be able to separate the demand for equality from the emotional, cultural, and political atmospherics that tend to encumber and cloud it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Reason Goes Weekly (And Then Some)

Reason Weekly is holding a vote on the best spoof of the asinine, bigoted, insulting anti-gay ad. I am voting for Stephen Colbert's entry, but all the entries are worthy. Vote!

While you're over there, take a moment to consider Reason Weekly's "What's the Harm" feature. It abundantly answers a question frequently put to active, vocal, unpleasant, terrible, horrible, no good, very bad atheists and other skeptics: namely, what's the harm of believing in baseless bullshit? It's a fair question, and its multi-faceted answer is available to those who pose it from a good-faith desire to discover the answer. Those posing it merely as a rhetorical gambit are probably better-served to devote the energy instead to coming up with a remotely convincing argument against gay marriage, for adding religion to science education, for destroying the church-state wall, for negating the rights of women, or whatever the current theocratic fancy.

Speaking of all that, is this a joke or do they mean it?

Burn Your Running Shoes?

Are specialized running shoes an overall benefit for the health and conditioning of those of us who wear them? Or do they encourage weakness in joints, tendons, and muscles? The argument for the anti-shoe proposition seems to come down to this:

'Putting your feet in shoes is similar to putting them in a plaster cast,' says Dr Hartmann. 'If I put your leg in plaster, we'll find 40 to 60 per cent atrophy of the musculature within six weeks. Something similar happens to your feet when they're encased in shoes.'

When shoes are doing the work, tendons stiffen and muscles shrivel. Work them out and they'll arc up. 'I've worked with the best Kenyan runners,' says Hartmann, 'and they all have marvellous elasticity in their feet. That comes from never running in shoes until you're 17.'
"Encased in shoes" -- wow, does that ever sound grim! Everything I can recall ever having seen encased in anything -- Han Solo in Boba Fett's carbonite brick, insects in ancient amber, errant mobsters in the end zone concrete of Giants Stadium -- is dead. Well, OK, except Han Solo, who remained medically alive.

As for "the best Kenyan runners," one thing so many of us who aren't the best Kenyan runners don't share with them is that first seventeen years of shoe-free running in Kenya. I, for one, have never set foot in Kenya (or anywhere else in Africa), shoed or unshoed, running or standing. I daresay most of us will concede the same.

That many of my tendons and muscles have been atrophied, shriveled, hardened, or otherwise vitiated by the constant use of shoes strikes me as a strong argument in favor of continuing to wear shoes.

Maybe this is sheer hubris talking, but as I face the question squarely, I think of running shoes in the way I think of clothing generally, indoor plumbing, microwave ovens, toilet paper, and countless other conveniences: frankly, I assume the continuing availability of running shoes, and without going so far as to believe that running shoes will protect me from injury -- certainly not every injury, perhaps not even most injuries runners are prone to -- I do not see a genuine need to ween myself from them. Should we reach a point where they are no longer available, I trust it will either be the conclusion of a long and subjectively welcome period of transition, or one consequence of a rapid deterioration in living standards. In the latter case, the availability of running shoes is sure to rank low on the list of worries.

Important German Phrases

This piece from My Best Fiend shows Klaus Kinski in his moody glory (via this look at Werner Herzog on 3QD). It provides subtitles for those of us who don't speak German, but what's interesting is how certain phrases are repeated and enunciated with all the clarity of a language lesson.

Now we can all say "you can lick my ass" in perfect German!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Libertarians: Time to Change the Secret Password?

Maybe I'm missing something important here, but it seems to me this statement from Will Wilkinson is grounds for banishment from the libertarian treehouse:

I think we have recently punctured some dangerous misconception about the real value of certain kinds of “financial innovation,” and so we should reconsider how much those who have become wealthy in these fields have actually enhanced general welfare. I think a lot of execs basically failed to do their primary job: to manage their firms’ assets responsibly on behalf of the owners of those assets: the shareholders and creditors. This makes them justifiable targets of outrage. We’ve learned a lot of lessons. I think we’ve been given reason to think much harder about the principal-agent problem — the mismatch of incentives between owners and managers — at the heart of corporate organization. I think we’ve learned just how “socially responsible” maximizing long-term value really is, and how anything that distracts from focus on long-term value creation (whether it be myopic bonus systems or irrelevant-to-the-business “corporate social responsibility” initiatives) is a potentially hazardous nuisance. The Smithian congruence between self-interest and the general welfare is not a natural fact of the world, but is mediated by social norms and the structure of institutions. We need to make sure the desire for wealth takes the right shape, and that the institutions within which people pursue wealth tend to actually work to convert “low” aspirations into real social benefits.
Granted, Wilkinson takes a characteristically glibertarian swipe at the state of "corporate organization" to incant outrage at the real world's ever-disappointing tendency to produce situations not countenanced in the works of Robert Nozick, Milton Friedman, and Ayn Rand, but that aside, this business of "lessons learned" -- and oh, such non-libertarian-sounding lessons! -- is surely grounds for exclusion.

That I think he's mostly right in this statement surely counts against him in the counsels of the treehouse. Mostly, as in: I simply don't share the libertarian fancy under which human beings lack the ability to forecast outcomes. We can accurately forecast the short-, middle-, and long-term consequences of our actions and choices, and do so regularly: we do so in business, politics, education, religion, among family groups, and in virtually every situation that might be called social.

As to the specific area of concern here, surely not everything that labels itself "socially responsible" in business will pan out as expected, or as well as expected; and it's easy enough to cite instances where positively bad outcomes arise where good outcomes were expected, but this know-nothing pose is contrary to the most commonplace experience of humankind.

All that aside, the treehouse required a new password at "lessons learned," let alone at "[w]e need to make sure the desire for wealth takes the right shape."

Free Sacred Trickster

Sonic Youth and Matador records have generously made "Sacred Trickster," a song from the group's forthcoming album, The Eternal, available for free download.

I like it. I'm at risk of overplaying it.

They're Running in Boston

For the interested, the Boston Marathon's official web site is posting real-time updates of today's 113th running of the Boston Marathon. I'd say I don't regret not having qualified this year, but that wouldn't make it true.

Men's updates

Women's updates

"The Winds Will Be Blowing Each Other"

In case you've been hiding in a cave without cable or satellite, here is Stephen Colbert's treatment of the asinine "gathering storm" ad campaign:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Colbert Coalition's Anti-Gay Marriage Ad
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorNASA Name Contest

I particularly enjoy the little dig at the Mormon church toward the end.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Out of the Marital Rape Fat, Into the Marital Rape Fire

In the face of domestic and international condemnation of a new law legalizing marital rape, Afghan President Karzai seems to want to be seen as upholding human rights. Quoth Karzai:

"Now I have instructed, in consultation with clergy of the country, that the law be revised and any article that is not in keeping with the Afghan constitution and Islamic Sharia must be removed from this law."
This would represent a step toward human rights and away from marital rape if it were true that the Afghan constitution and Sharia actually did proscribe marital rape; but no, the Afghan constitution explicitly proclaims the supremacy of Islam -- there is nothing like a wall of separation of Mosque and state -- and the supporters of the pro-marital-rape law are quite insistent that Islam grants husbands the right to rape their wives (even though they realize the expediency of deploying euphemism to cloud this):
Those in favour of the new law chanted “Down with the Christians. Down with the apostates.” At one stage both sides chanted “We want honour and dignity for women” — reflecting their starkly different interpretations of the new law.

We think those who oppose this law in fact oppose the Koran,” said Nesa Naseri, a female student of Sharia Studies who took part in the women’s counter-demonstration.

“This law does not approve rape, it is rather about loyalty of wife to husband and husband to wife. Rape is what you can see in the West, where men don’t feel responsibility for their wives and leave them to go with several men.”
Stopping marital rape by invoking Sharia is a bit like stopping gluttony by invoking the rules of a cruise ship.

This is the sort of miserable mischief that gets smuggled in with the labeling of Islam as a "religion of peace" that we ought to "respect." No it is not, and therefore no we should not. Karzai can play to this delusional cant by claiming to outlaw marital rape by following Sharia, knowing the "Islam is a religion of peace" crowd will nod blithely along and divert their attention elsewhere. Meanwhile, he signals to the Islamist fanatics that their barbaric nostrums won't be challenged. It's a brilliant piece of realpolitik in its disgusting way.

On "Well-Adjusted People"

Who will speak for the well-adjusted people? They do not, after all, trouble themselves with painting, writing, music, or other creative endeavors. They do not run for high office; they do not show up on stage or screen. They lack the traces of grit from which others must try to fashion pearls.

How can their histories be traced? Who can claim to understand their ways?

Not that it bothers them; but their elusiveness bothers me.

A Sermon of Sorts

Since it's Sunday morning and all, "What would Jesus NOT do?" explores the question with cartoon characters speaking with delightful New Zealand-ish accents.

It would be easy to dismiss this as mere snark, but any such dismissal would not address the valid questions raised.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Music Changes Everything

This post explores the power of music.

Exhibit A: The opening sequence of Diff'rent Strokes set to a diff'rent soundtrack.

Exhibit B: the brilliant Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, accompanied by pianist Alfred Brendel, sings Schubert's "Erstarrung."

Nietzsche was right: without music, life would be a mistake.

(Diff'rent soundtrack via Andrew Sullivan)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Marcus Aurelius Resists the Haters

Marcus Aurelius had more than his share of conflicts with people of radically different backgrounds, and shared what he learned:

Do not hold the same views as the person who does you harm, or even wishes to harm you. Rather, see these judgments for what they truly are.
That's from book four of the Meditations as translated by Needleman and Piazza; the same passage as translated by George Long might be clearer:
Do not have such an opinion of things as he has who does thee wrong, or such as he wishes thee to have, but look at them as they are in truth.
It seems to me the "9/11 changed everything" mindset could benefit from careful attention to this stoical wisdom. We fail civilization when we allow its enemies to set the boundaries, define the terms, and otherwise move us in directions we know to be wrong. As Aurelius expressed it a little further along in the same work:
The noblest way of taking revenge on others is by refusing to become like them.

Goalpost Sighted?

Rod Dreher, who lives bathed in a persistent cold sweat over the supposed harm that married gay people might do to The Precious Institution of Marriage, has this and only this to say of Mel Gibson's impending divorce:

Files for divorce after 28 years of marriage. No reasons given, and absent that, not much any of us can say, except to make the entirely obvious and banal observation that that man has some pretty serious demons, in the same way that China has a lot of people. [emphasis mine]
Suddenly there is "not much any of us can say" about someone else's plan to change his/her marital status? These are the words of Rod Dreher!? Neat!

I realize I am aiming for a goalpost that is never likely to slow down, let alone stop moving, but does this mean that if gay people can show that they lack "some pretty serious demons," it's OK for them to get married if they so choose? If they make the best, bloodiest, most tricked-out snuff film of Jesus they can possibly afford, will this qualify them in Dreher's mind as safe-for-marriage?

Civilization Wears No Particular Jersey

Here's Phila on the sickly cycle in which accommodation begets further abuse:

Nor am I thrilled with this fretting over "disunity." I don't want to be unified with torturers or the people who defend them. It's like being forced into a shotgun marriage with a man who just raped you and burned down your house. The monstrous ideological imposition of "unity" is what made crimes like these possible, and now it's supposed to justify putting them beyond the reach of the law...presumably so that we can once again present a monolithic front against this dangerous world full of evildoers who hate our freedom. And if "our" unwillingness to uphold the law leads to some new atrocity, and we're "fortunate" enough to find out about it, Obama or someone else will undoubtedly urge us once more to "resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future."
In the world as it actually is, lines must be drawn. The "forces that divide us" sound like bad things, but a moment's reflection will show that we do not and should not want "unity" with just anyone or just anything. It very much depends. We should be eager to find bright, clear divisions between ourselves and the Taliban, the Khmer Rouge, and the Nazis, to pick only three obvious illustrations.

The defense of civilization is worthwhile and even meaningful only if we draw the lines between civilization and its adversaries clearly and without reference to team jersey.

The problems of expedience and lawlessness cannot be solved with more expedience and lawlessness.

The Yes Men Will Fix the World

Yes they will in their new film, and they will make your sides hurt with laughter as they do so:

Their first film was quite good too.

That Torture is Torture

Andrew Sullivan uses a rhetorical question to state what should be obvious:

Does anyone believe that if Iran, say, captured an American soldier, kept him awake for eleven days straight, bashed his head and body against plywood walls with a towel around his neck, forced him to stand and sit in stress positions finessed by the Communist Chinese, stuck him in a dark coffin for hours, and then waterboarded him, that the NYT would describe him as a victim of "harsh interrogation techniques"? Do you think Mike Allen [of Politico] would give anonymity to a top Iranian official who defended these techniques as vital to Iran's national security?
Torture does not change definitions with changes to the torturer's uniform, insignia, or national flag. Under US and international law, torture is a crime. Under the most fundamental principles of the rule of law, crimes are subject to investigation and prosecution.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Torture Memos & The Rule of Law

Glenn Greenwald is providing excellent coverage and commentary on the previously-secret, newly-released memos detailing the Bush administration's use of torture. President Obama did a good thing in making the memos public, but his unwillingness to pursue full, independent investigations and, where merited, criminial prosecutions, is cowardly and unacceptable. Greenwald:

The more one reads of this, the harder it is to credit Obama's statement today that "this is a time for reflection, not retribution." At least when it comes to the orders of our highest government leaders and the DOJ lawyers who authorized them, these are pure war crimes, justified in the most disgustingly clinical language and with clear intent of wrongdoing. FDL has a petition urging Eric Holder to immediately appoint a Special Prosecutor to determine if criminal proceedings should commence.

Obama did the right thing by releasing these memos, providing all the information and impetus the citizenry should need to demand investigations and prosecutions. But it is up to citizens to demand that the rule of law be applied.
There is a time and a place for reflection and, where the facts and evidence call for it, retribution. The time is now, and the means is legal due process.

Further along, Greenwald emphasizes an important point:
These memos describe grotesque war crimes -- legalized by classic banality-of-evil criminals and ordered by pure criminals -- that must be prosecuted if the rule of law is to have any meaning. But the decision of whether to prosecute is not Obama's to make; ultimately, it is Holder's and/or a Special Prosecutor's.
If we are to be bound by law, Greenwald is exactly right. Whether to follow and obey the law is not properly subject to the discretion of any person, whether president or pauper.

"Let's focus on the future" is not an acceptable criminal defense.

Preserving the rule of law has to override any political calculus. Here again is that petition urging Eric Holder to appoint a Special Prosecutor.

Will God Shoot?

I think this might be one of those ads where something in the presentation is deliberately skewed, scrambled, or disordered -- a psychological trick that forces you to pay closer attention to figure it out:

As given, the ad's audio states an outright non-sequitur: "If you don't matter to god, you don't matter to anyone." How to evaluate this? Does this mean that if you do matter to god, you matter to everyone? To one person? To some unspecified, arbitrary, non-zero number of people? If I check around and find that I do, in fact, matter to someone, does it follow that I matter to the god mentioned in the ad? If I find more and more people for whom I matter, does my mattering-to-god scale up accordingly?

Suppose I am a hermit entirely unknown to other people, but keep a large number of cats, guinea pigs, ferrets, chickens, and, oh, say, a couple of ponies and three chimpanzees. Further stipulate that I matter to all of these creatures in some valid sense of "matter to" or another -- I feed them, shelter them, teach them to interact peacefully, change the chimps' diapers, etc. What follows about my mattering-to-god based upon this ad's verbal presentation?

The ad's video only raises more questions. Is the boy and his unsafe wielding of firearms meant to represent all of humankind, i.e., the non-god candidates for supplying the coveted mattering-to? Perhaps he is all of the known universe except for god, i.e., the gun-crazy indifference of not only humankind but nature too?

Or is the boy meant to represent god? Consider that he seems cut from a recognizably human form, as one would expect of a god that made mankind in his own image; he comes across as threatening and wrathful, ready and able but not yet willing to pull the trigger (shades of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," no?); he doesn't say anything to clarify his intentions or wishes, but keeps his ways mysterious; he seems to know his way around a revolver, which one would expect of omniscience.

Then again, who gives a shit? Maybe the best "reading" of this ad is simply to observe that stupid, nihilistic people can be expected to make stupid, nihilistic advertisements.

(via Andrew Sullivan)

The Not-Worth-Doing Is Also the Not-Worth-Undoing

An English man was baptised as an infant, and the thought of it leaves him in a state of fist-shaking outrage:

Now 56 and living in Croydon, he said he wanted parish records amended to note he did not consent to the baptism in 1953.

He was told that his baptism cannot be deleted because it is a matter of historical record.

He then secured a "de-baptism" certificate produced by the National Secular Society (NSS), rejecting "superstitions" or the idea of original sin.

It reads: "I reject all its creeds and other such superstitions in particular the perfidious belief that any baby needs to be cleansed of original sin."
I agree with the man on the narrow point, but the point (if I may overuse the word point to such a point that it loses meaning) is that the point is narrow. In other words: dude, lighten up! A man in a dress splashed around some magic water and mouthed some enchanted phrases in your general direction when you were an ankle-biter. It meant nothing then, and means as little now.

Still. We should not impede the accurate tracing of the historical records, and the historical records show as follows: as an infant, the man was baptised. As an adult, he made an arse of himself complaining about it.

It's All Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Damon Linker outlines "moralistic therapeutic deism," which he claims will henceforth be the consensus theology of the USA:

1. "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth."
2. "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions."
3. "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself."
4. "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem."
5. "Good people go to heaven when they die."
Linker declares this theology "watered-down, anemic, insipid ... repulsive," before concluding that these qualities make it "salutary," by which he means well-suited to wide public acceptance.

Ross Douthat demurs, calling it the sort of milquetoast, putrid sap that flows from those who shrink from a good fight. More sharply, he claims to trace the theology's real-world consequences:
[Y]ou don't have to look terribly hard to see a connection between the kind of self-centered, sentimental, and panglossian religion described above and the spirit of unwarranted optimism and metaphysical self-regard that animated some of Bush's worst hours as President (his second inaugural address could have been subtitled: "Moral Therapeutic Deism Goes to War") and some of his fellow Americans' worst hours as homeowners and investors. In the wake of two consecutive bubble economies, it takes an inordinate fear of culture war, I think, to immerse yourself in the literature of Oprahfied religion - from nominal Christians like Joel Osteen to New Age gurus like Eckhart Tolle and Rhonda Byrne - and come away convinced that this theological turn has been "salutary" for the country overall.
Douthat wants to claim that Catholic dogma -- the kind to which he subscribes, thus the kind he labels as "traditionalist" -- would have fared better, but this is far from clear, and he declines to spell it out. If there are theological stilts that raise presidents above ill-advised wars and people generally above short-term thinking, avarice, and "metaphysical self-regard," they are not to be found in his favorite church or its headquarters. Or were dogmatic Catholics disproportionately shielded from the problems he cites?

Abrahamic theologies, whether associated with widely-despised television personalities or with ancient cults headquartered in their own pretend nation-states, tend to cultivate and reinforce "metaphysical self-regard" by the very act of drawing boundaries between the damned and the saved. All prate for love, peace, harmony, charity, and good will; all prate against lust, greed, war, and excess. In practice, this theology gives us exactly what we have seen since the first identifiably Abrahamic theology appeared.

Any stilt erected on a false foundation fails in the same way.