Money quote: "Most criminals are really close-minded. They think that violence is the only answer. Well they're wrong - it's merely the most fun answer."
The piece isn't really about violence as such but substitutes for it. Quite entertaining.
Brood-X is out in force in Central PA, to the point that while I sit here, inside, shooting off one last blog post before driving back to Chattavegas, I can hear their drone from outside. It's loud. And they aren't even really all here yet. In a week or two they should be at their peak, when the entire ground will be crawling.
Cicadas are really strange. I mean, they spend 17 years mucking about up to two feet underground, then come out for a four to six week mating orgy and then die. Frankly, that's one hell of a lead-in time, but hey. Also, they don't fly all that well. They flap pretty spasticly, and are given to flying straight into large, immovable objects like trees and houses, then falling to the ground where they buzz for a bit before flipping over. The dog likes to eat them. And if you hit one with your car... Damn. The things contain a few ccs of the vilest goop you're ever likely to squeegee. In short, cicadas are really freaking cool, but I'm glad they only show up every other decade.
Yeah, this is bad (with hat-tip to Josh). Check out HR163 and SB69. Do a search from the websites of the House and Senate and search for the respective bill numbers. We're talking about the Universal National Service Act, which would require two years of military service or other designated service from everyone between the ages of 18 and 26. Notice I did say everyone. That includes women, college students, and those in foreign countries. Will this pass? I don't know. I know that it's sponsered by Senator Hollings (D-SC, aka Senator Disney) and some other senator trying to make the war unpopular. The Pentegon hasn't asked for any more soldiers, as far as I can tell. But I say again: this is bad.
So what is the answer? How can you stand your ground when you are weak and sensitive to pain, when people you love are still alive, and when you are unprepared?
What do you need to make you stronger than the interrogator and the whole trap?
From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. At the very threshold, you must say to yourself: "My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there's nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. I am condemned to due - now or a little later. But later on, in truth, it will be even harder, and so the sooner the better. I no longer have an property whatsoever. For me those I love have died, and for them I have died. From today on, my body is useless and alien to me. Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me."
Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble.
Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory.
--Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Volume I, Chapter III
The following is a response to the second comment by Ron to my discussion of Abu Ghraib. He pissed me off by trying to get all technical and shit. Well, nice try Ron, but if you're going to quote a document in defense of your position, make sure you read the whole damned thing first.
So it's not the details that we're supposed to be worried about here? Okay, smartass, you want to get technical with me, we can get fucking techincal. Let's take a good look at the Geneva Convention, shall we?
I submit for your perusal this selection from the Third Geneva Convention, Part I, Article 4, paragraph 2. I can be found at this site. This particular section deals with the protections granted to prisoners of war, and the series of paragraphs of which the following is a part lays out who qualifies for POW status:
"(2) Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied, provided that such militias or volunteer corps, including such organized resistance movements, fulfil the following conditions:[ (a) that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates; (b) that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance; (c) that of carrying arms openly; (d) that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war."
The Convention is designed to protect exactly two kinds of people: 1) civilians; 2) regular, uniformed soldiers, including militia. Any combatant captured while not wearing standard issue uniform that renders him readily identifiable as a hostile combatant is not protected by the Geneva Convention. The people at Abu Ghraib are not POWs. POWs are regular, uniformed soldiers captured on the field of combat and regular, organized militia members who are easily and readily identifiable as such. These are not regular soldiers, they wear no uniform, they have no organized command structure, and they blow up civilians in suicide bombings. These people have, by their actions, completely and entirely forfeited all protections offered by the Geneva Convention. They are either directly responsible for or suspected to be connected with people who like to blow up hotels. These are fucking terrorists. Terrorists are offered exactly zero protection by the Geneva Convention, by design. What happened may have been criminal in exactly the same way that this kind of abuse would be criminal in the US, but it is not, I repeat, not a war crime. The victims of this abuse are not protected by the Geneva Convention as they are not POWs and not normal civilians. Got it? Good. Don't try to pull any fancy lawyer bullshit unless you know what the hell you're talking about.
You want to know what bothers me? It isn't that people die. It happens, especially in war. I'm not really all that concerned that prisoners were mistreated. Interrogation isn't a walk in the fucking park. And it isn't like this kind of thing doesn't happen every day in American prisons all across the country. In fact, even the prisoners that suffered the worst of the abuse at Abu Ghraib were treated pretty damn well by Arab standards, seeing the fact that they're all alive and essentially intact (as far as has been officially reported anyway).
What bothers me is the immediate and radical politicization of this whole mess. The response by both the liberal West and the rest of the world is entirely out of proportion to what has happened. Comparing what has happend at Abu Ghraib with the abuses of Saddam is, as I have said before and will continue to say, entirely morally blind.
"If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings; that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (the "secret brand"); that a man's genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov's plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums."
--Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Volume I, Chapter III.
I can't leave politics alone for long, can I? I came across this article about the current move by certain presumably conservative Catholic bishops to deny Eucharist to politicans who vote in favor of abortion.
Frankly, I support this motion, though I do think that it isn't going far enough. A politican who wishes to identify himself as being Catholic doesn't need to toe the Roman party line on every issue - abstaining from measures you want to vote for but the Church opposes would be sufficient - but you also can't actively support measures that the Church opposes. This isn't a church and state issue, this is an ecclesiological issue. If you claim to belong to the church, any church, you need to act like it. Aligning yourself with the Catholic Church while voting for abortion is behavior that could be described as apostate without too much trouble. Can the Church force politicans to vote a certain way? Of course not. But can politicans force the Church to accept them regardless of their voting record? No. Or, at least, they shouldn't be able to.
I'm pretty confident the Church will hold the line on this one. At least, I really hope they do.
The past few posts have been somewhat on the downer side. Here is something a bit more uplifting. Salon has a piece on "second generation traffic calming," a radical urban design plan which furthers the safety and efficiency of intersections by - get this - removing all lane markings, traffic control devices, and other such legislative objects. Basically, just let people, cars, and bikes go where they want to go. By forcing everyone involved to pay attention, safety goes up a lot. Intersections at which people previously died at the rate of two or three per year have seen no fatalities annually after switching to this new plan, and their capacity to transmit traffic has gone up. It's a neat idea. Check it out.
PointlessWasteOfTime has a really insightful piece about the paradoxes of war under representative governments (with nod to MetaFilter). It talks about what a simulation would have to be like to qualify as a real simulation of warfare.
This is a great read. Things like this, in addition to all the other crap that's been going on recently, are convincing me that representative government isn't a right, nor is it morally superior to anything else. Sometimes people just need a damned king. Monarchy is dangerous, and really problematic. But freedom is something you have to earn. Jefferson may have been a benightedly Enlightenment-influenced figure, but he had this right: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." It's been a long time since any American blood was shed for our own liberty. How long will it be before it needs to happen again? I'll gladly donate mine, because there are things worse than dying.
Some perspective is always a good thing, especially in the face of any media blitz. Take, for example, the Abu Ghraib prison abuse. The media is spinning this as a war atrocity of the highest sort. But let's think about this for a minute. Were any Iraqi prisoners killed? No. Did any Iraqi prisoners need medical attention? I don't think so, but anyone who can prove me wrong is welcome to try. Were any Iraqi prisoners subjected to anything more extreme than the frat boy hazing that occurs every day on college campuses the world over? Not as far as I can tell. And anyone who thinks that rape doesn't happen at frat parties is welcome to call back once they've checked back into reality.
So as far as I can tell, what we've got here is a case of pretty intense hazing where there really shouldn't have been any. Is it bad? Yes. Should it cause some major reevaluation of military discipline? Probably. But nobody is dead, nobody has been wounded, and nobody would have been permenantly affected by any of this, were it not for the massive media coverage. Wearing women's panties on one's head is humiliating, but eventually you do get to take them off and go home. So before anyone goes and says that this is a war crime, think about it for a minute.
By now everyone has heard of the video depicting the beheading of Nick Berg that surfaced last week. (It's still around on the net, but you'll have to look deep, as sites that post a link tend to be slashdotted out of existence within hours.) It appears to be a fairly straightforward execution. But there's a lot about the video that doesn't make sense. Like, for example, why there isn't any blood. Had Berg's head been cut off in the manner depicted by the video, there would have been blood spurting everywhere. There wasn't. And, for example, why the self-identified executioner doesn't have an artifical leg. Because Al-Zarqawi was fitted with an artifical leg that doesn't work very well. He is reportedly unable to stand. To make matters more interesting, current intelligence indicates that Al-Zarqawi was killed in a US helicopter attack several months ago.
The conspiracy mongers are, of course, hard at work. I don't really know what to think. In any case, Kuro5hin has a very detailed discussion of the discrepencies, inconsistencies, and downright oddities in the video. This is not looking good. A going theory - and a not entirely implausible one - is that the execution has been staged, by US operatives, as an effort to blunt the effect of the Abu Ghraib scandal. If this is true, this is bad.
I'll get back to Rob's comment later today, I think, but for now I wanted to post a link to Mark Bowden's essay on the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal (with nod to Mr. Sullivan). In short, Mr. Bowden clearly expresses what has always bothered me about the current uproar over these abuses. The opponants of American foreign policy, both domestic and alien, are going ot use this as evidence that the American government is morally equivalent to the Stalinist regime we deposed. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Money quote: "Well, no: whatever the Americans did, it is not the equivalent of cutting out tongues, gouging out eyes, lopping off limbs, stringing people up with piano wire, and executing people by the tens of thousands."
Additional quote: "Any reader of the yearly reports on torture published by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch would pay his weight in antique dinars to stay in an American military prison if the alternative was jail anywhere in the Arab world. Hayder Sabbar Abd, one of the men being abused in the Abu Ghraib photos, said he fully expected to be killed. Of course he did. That's what happens to men thrown in jail in his part of the world."
Those who seek to equate America with totalitarian regimes by equating Abu Ghraib with the systematic and deliberate extermination of millions of people betray a moral sense so twisted and deformed that I serious doubt any dialog is possible. The mere fact that a scandal about these abuses is possible proves beyond doubt that there is a difference. When a select few American soldiers abuse their prisoners, it's a massive deal which threatens to damage our position in the Middle East and world at large for years. But Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-il, Yasser Arafat, Ayatollah Kohmeni, and Muqtada Al-Sadr can consistently use methods that disgrace the very concept of humanity, and we're not allowed to criticize them. There is no excuse for such moral blindness.
It's over as far as I can tell. The half-century of peace and prosperity after WWII - though it did involve fighting and significant tension for most of it - seems to have ended. We've started a new conflict, one that will probably never end, and one that I'm not entirely convinced we can win. The barbarians are at the gates. I really think we're living in the twilight of our civilization, and can't help but think that a pretty big downturn is bound to come in the next century or so. I'm pretty sure I will look back on the late twentieth century as the "good old days", and I'm almost certain my children and their children will.
Oddly enough, this realization struck me while I was watching Troy. So the following will be a discussion of both the previous paragraph and my thoughts on the movie. If that sounds like something you don't want to read, you were warned.
First, Troy. Eric Bana totally stole the show as Hector. In the original Illiad, Hector is by far the most likable character, and posesses the closest thing to what we would consider a noble spirit out of all the people involved. I'm going to assume that the reader is familiar with the events in the Illiad, because if you aren't you should be. Anyway, the slaying of Hector is one of the better emotional moments in the movie, though not nearly the only one the movie tries to have. It just doesn't work most of the time.
The reasons for this have to partly with the dialog - which is pretty stilted most of the time - and partly to do with the fact that three really major elements of the Illiad are almost totally gone. The first is the gods. They are mentioned from time to time, but this seems to be at best a way of confirming that yes, this really is ancient Greece. The few characters that actually believe in the gods are made to seem foolish for doing so. In the original story, the gods take a very active role in the events of the war. Without them, the primary motivation for the war is pretty much gone. The reason for Hector not turning around and taking Helen back to Sparta as soon as he finds Helen onboard are pretty thin. There isn't much reason for Troy to want to fight, nor is there much reason for Agamemnon to rally the armies of Greece and sail to Troy. Achilles was spoken to many times by Athena, who encouraged him and supported him throughout the war. He made a few critical decisions under her guidance, decisions which in the film appear kind of out of nowhere. Agamemnon's motivation in the movie is simple greed (and one can't help but think that the director is trying to make some kind of comment about the war in Iraq), and he seems pretty insane a lot of the time. Agamemnon may have been ambitous, and most of the characters in the Illiad act like petulant children from time to time, but without the presence of the gods, most of the characters don't seem to make much sense.
The other thing present in the original but absent from the movie is a sense of Homeric honor. Achilles was motivated by a desire for glory, as were all the warriors of the Homeric era (or at least, that's what we're given to believe by their descendants who compiled the Illiad), and this was thought to be a virtue, not a liability. A lack of wisdom combined with pride proved to be Achilles downfall, but his flaw was wanting too much of a good thing and having too high an opinion of himself, not wanting the wrong thing. In the movie, the deaths of his opponants weigh on his conscience, and we expresses a weariness in war, wondering why men fight. The real Achilles knew why men fight, or at least why they fought in those days: the sheer glory of combat and victory. The men you kill don't add to your already burdened conscience, they're notches on your sword. This sense of self-promotion as a centerpiece of personal growth and progress being absent also makes the characters really hard to understand. The director and screenwriter are constantly having to come up with political and psychological reasons for the actions of the characters when these reasons are largely absent from the original. Achilles was a pretentious and self-aggrandizing whiner, it's true, but he was just as good as he thought he was, and his actions made sense. In the movie, he's still pretty immature, but I was left wondering what on earth he was doing a lot of the time.
The third big factor missing from the film is, believe it or not, homosexuality. The ancient Greeks were pretty ragingly bisexual, not to mention pederasts. Plato comments that a wealthy city man could expect to have "a wife for legitimate children, a mistress for pleasure, and a boy." In fact, homosexuality was considered a more perfect kind of sexual union as it didn't stand to produce any offspring, and considering the fact that matter is bad, this is a good thing. Patroklos wasn't Achilles cousin, he was his armor-bearer and, more importantly, his lover. Which goes a long way towards explaining why Achilles goes totally apeshit when Patroklos gets killed by Hector.
Generally, I'm not really all that much of a hardass about making movies from books and insisting that things be exactly the same. You'll notice that I haven't complained about the fact that what was a ten-year war in the Illiad is settled in two weeks, nor am I complaining about the fact that a lot of people die who weren't supposed to. But in leaving these three things out of the film, the director has made the choices of his characters really hard to follow and pretty implausible. The answers he is forced to come up with really don't fit with the text, and it shows.
So what the hell does all of that have to do with the Pax Americana I mentioned so long ago? What struck me more than anything watching the film is that basically we were seeing twenty-first century Americans with good postmodern sensibilities doing the Trojan War, and it just doesn't work. We don't think single-handedly killing large numbers of people is something to brag about. We tend not to like war and think that peace is a really valuable and important thing. In the film, someone asks Achilles "Where does it end?" His response was that it never ends.
For some reason - quite possibly because I was pretty sure the director was trying to make a contemporary political statement - I started thinking about the current state of affairs, Islam vs. the West. The Islamists want one thing from us, and one thing only: they want us to die. They aren't interested in learning about our values or gaining the benefits of modern economies. They want to kill as many of us as they can while they reestablish the Caliphate.
This is going to be a state of neverending war until one side collapses or the whole system goes down. Peace is over. The last remnants of the Pax Americana were shattered when America was attacked, and are now being effectively dissolved by the foreign policy of the current administraion (not that I think any of the nine dwarves has a better idea). We can expect conflict from here on out.
To tie the two together, this isn't really something our postmodern psyches are prepared to deal with. We want to talk, discuss, learn, and share. When someone else just wants to kill, we don't seem to have a very effective response. The current President seemed to have one at one point - shoot first and ask questions later - but this has been derailed by both his own ideological incompatence and the heel-dragging emasculatory and entirely unrealistic tactics of his opponants. What we need is a bit of the Homeric to be reborn. Despite being drenched in violence, the influential portions of our culture are really averse to violence to the point of never thinking it justified (though how one can support this and be a Christian is beyond me: violence is essential to the Christian faith).
We need a sense of the virtue involved in killing one's enemies and defending one's nation (oh yeah, the introduction of nationalistic ideologiy about 5000 years too early pissed me off too). Before they became the province of barely civilized rednecks, the arts of war were considered a noble and necessary task, largely because one never really knew when large men with axes were going to come over the next hill with the barbarian triathelon on their minds: raping, looting, and pillaging. We've grown soft. We have forgotten the value and virtue of defending the people we hold dear.
Well the barbarians are indeed at the gates. And if reading about Homeric values will help us remember our fortitude, then go read Homer.
So Rob's latest post set me to thinking. Some things never change. One of these is that not everyone can afford to eat well. Now prior to the twentieth century, this meant that not everyone could afford to eat. They were unhealthy because they were starving. Today, almost all Americans get enough to eat. But it seems that most of them can't or don't eat well. People have noticed that the Atkins diet - which in it's sane form is basically a healthy diet consisting of whole grains and lean meats with lots of vegetables - is rather expensive. Not everyone can afford to go on such a diet. I say again: not everyone can afford to eat well.
With industrial farming and food processing, this means that the poor get fat instead of starving. This is arguably a step up from actual malnutrition, because you can live for a long time with chronic weight issues, but chronic starvation leads to acute death pretty quickly. But the fact remains: only the affluent can afford to feed themselves properly.
This may bother some people. If it bothers you, I recommend repeating this mantra until you feel better: "There is not enough to go around." If this bothers you, fine. Maybe it should. I don't know. But it's true, no matter how you slice it.
I'm standing in the lobby of the student center at Columbia University. What a world of difference from both Covenant and Chattanooga. It's hard to even know where to begin. I'll have a lot to write about in the next few days, and I've only been in town a few hours, and will be leaving in a few hours more. I can't imagine what living here will be like.
So before work this morning I cruised down Rossville Blvd. looking unsuccessfully for a place to hawk the Xerox copier and Lexmark printer in the trunk of my car. This isn't because there aren't any pawn shops, but because no one was interested. But as I drove down the street I saw a lot of title pawn and check advance places, and got really depressed.
There are two relevant articles on Slate that bear reading (1, 2). Basically, the way title pawn places work is that you drive up with the title to your car, hand it over, and leave with cash equal to a discounted trade-in value for your car. You have one month to pay it back. If you do so in the first month, there isn't any charge - the first time. If you can't pay it all back, you can make a payment, the minimum required being the interest on the loan, which can be up to 30%. Per month. The loan will continue until you pay everything back, but if you make only the minimum payment, you will never pay it off.
The way check advance places work is almost worse. You drive up and post-date a check for the amount you wish to borrow plus a hefty fee. First-time borrowers get discounted rates at a few points, but return customers can expect to pay up to 500%. You then walk out with cash, and the lender cashes your check on the specified date. The theory is that you are deposited your paycheck and that the money will be there. If it isn't, you can arrange to make payments, again, frequently for interest only, a not insignificant sum given the rates we're talking about. A common loan contact is for one week, borrowing $200 and paying back $250.
Why isn't this illegal? An explanation can be found in the above articles, but I don't find it satisfactory. This is simply usury, and it's awful. The people who frequent these places will never get out of debt. They will be making payments for the rest of their lives. It is common for them to go to a new lender to pay off an old one.
On Rossville Blvd., these establishments are more common than fleas on a dog. The area is downright seedy, and is pretty economically depressed. The three biggest business types are shitty used-car lots, pawn shops (title and otherwise), and check advance services. These seem to be largely sophisticated ways of cheating the poor out of what little money they do have.
I would be very happy to see them all made illegal. But that isn't very likely, I'm afraid. Last year the check advance business grossed almost $10 billion. It is estimated that they will issue over $18 billion by the end of this year. And with profit margins like these, that's some pretty good money.
There are times a little governmental interference in the economy would be a good thing.
Now, back to covalent bonding...
That's what this multi-blog conversation is going to come to, as far as I'm concerned. Why? Because on Thursday, I'm flying to New York for a planning session with my pre-medical advisor. Along with that I will be taking placement tests for chemistry and math, subjects I haven't touched for a number of years (seven and five respectively). The word "cramming" comes to mind. Still, I sat down with a math text this afternoon and jumped right back into polynomial division, so I think I'll be okay if I spend the next two days doing nothing but studying. So that's what I'm going to do.
Josiah: I’m not saying that personal conviction is wrong, nor am I saying that personal conviction should not affect public policy. If anything, I really want it to. But I am decidedly opposed to having a high enough view of one’s own personal convictions to think that they warrant massive and revolutionary reconfigurations of society. As an example (that I do not want to get into, it’s just an example, and a general one at that) I think that homosexuality is wrong. I think that public policy should not do anything to mainstream it. But I do not think that my moral convictions are significant enough to be willing to execute anyone to see that happen. But more on this distinction later: I think I’ve got something that will clarify things a bit.
Kevin, you have missed my point, though I admit that I can completely understand why my argument would produce a response such as yours. You are saying that by objecting to the dictatorial enforcement of a particular moral perspective on the part of socialist/communist/liberal parties I am also disqualifying myself from countering with my own perspective.
And you would be right, except that this is not the crux of my argument. My objection to the government interfering with economics isn’t because they aren’t allowed to, but because they are allowed to. The problem is that the more the government gets its fingers in the market the more it fucks things up. The government is capable of intervening in economic affairs to whatever extent they desire, and they aren’t inherently immoral for doing so. But the more they act, the worse things are. What I’m afraid of isn’t the fact that the government can interfere with the economy, but of people who are so convinced of their own enlightened perspective that they are willing to use the power of the government to enforce their desires on everyone else. We call these people dictators, and I don’t like them.
This being said, I am not in favor of an entirely lassiez-faire approach to the economy. The government needs to take a hand in certain areas to keep markets free and functional. This isn’t because people don’t know how to spend their money, but because there are certain things that are basically money sinks that no one would choose to invest in. Some things are so essential that it is worth the government screwing with them to ensure their provision – regulation of standardization, health inspectors, pharmaceutical regulation, obviously what counts in this category is controversial – because there isn’t any money to be made there. There is no profit motive for establishing regulatory standards for gasoline production, but that is something that everyone is better off for having around. Now I wouldn’t say that this is a moral good, but it is an economic good. Likewise, it is generally economically good for society to have as educated a populace as can be managed though again, I’m not sure I would call this a moral good. I don’t really think that the government itself should be taking the role of educating them, but it should require schooling and provide financial incentives to make as easy to educate children as possible. I like vouchers. Again, there is no profit margin on education, but we need to have it. I’m in favor of as much charitable activity on this front as possible, but recognize that some level of government involvement is probably needed.
What I want from government are rulers who, aware of the power that they wield, use it as little as possible to ensure the liberty and prosperity of the people they govern. The attitude I want to see from government is a real distaste for interfering with the lives of the governed in general and the economy in particular, viewing such interference as a necessary evil bound to introduce inefficiency and corruption. It should be the attitude of a gardener: we’ve got ourselves a societal tree here, and it’s been around for a long time, and we want it to bear as much fruit as is healthy for it. To that end, there are things that need to be pruned. But too much pruning or pruning without wisdom can be harmful. It’s a balance, and less is usually better than more.
On the other hand, Communism/socialism/modern liberalism is so convinced of the moral rightness of their perspective that they assume other people are not capable of running their own lives. They see the tree and decide they’d rather grow something entirely different, so they tear it out of the ground. The problem with this is that you can’t have a functioning, prosperous society in which people can and want to live. It may be true that one has to break some eggs to make an omelet, but in the words of an observer in early Soviet Russia, “I see the broken eggs. Where is this omelet you speak of?” (The same cannot be said of the neo-cons. They think they’re right of course, but they think that means they need to leave the citizenry alone and kick dictators asses. I’m kind of okay with that most of the time.) Essentially, I think that the status quo is damned fluid as it is. We don’t need to go screwing with it all the time because we don’t like the way things are.
I do not object to governmental interference in economics because it is inherently immoral, but because it’s damnably inefficient and dangerous. Dangerous because a readiness to interfere in the lives of others whenever one feels the need is exactly that attitude which lead to the imprisonment, execution, and starvation of millions and millions of people in the 20th century, not to mention several major wars. Germany: 8 million, plus war casualties. Russia: 30-50 million plus war casualties. China: untold tens of millions. Cambodia: 2 million. Latin America: at least hundreds of thousands to starvation. Cuba: hundreds of thousands to starvation. North Korea: millions. Vietnam: unknown thousands, plus war casualties. All of these were governed by “revolutionaries” so sure of themselves that outright genocide was a price they were willing to pay in the blood of the innocent.
Someone will probably make the charge that there’s a big difference between nationalized health care and the gulag. And there is. But the attitude that leads towards those things tends to be the same. Even the people who created Solzhenitsyn’s archipelago thought they were doing a good thing. I mean, come on, these are enemies of the people we’re talking about, right? Right? Hmm. The similarity is that there is a willingness to sacrifice society in order to save it. Also, both modern liberals and their radical cousins are possessed of the idea that their perspective is important enough to warrant violence and upheaval. Case in point: the 60’s liberals who weren’t useless hippies were terrorists. There were a lot more of the former than the latter, but the difference is one of degree, not kind.
And Kevin, you’re wrong: no government is permitted to slaughter millions of its own citizens, divine ordination be damned. If you think that your perspective on the ordination of earthly governments allows this then I don’t care how Scriptural you think it is, because you’d be wrong. I will take a moral stand on that one, and affirm that any government engaged in such activity needs to be brought to a violent end as quickly as possible. The only problem is finding a way of doing that so that we don’t cause more suffering than we prevent. That’s why we never did anything about Russia. True, we probably knew they were slaughtering millions. But going against them would result in the deaths of even more people, conceivably billions. Ending the suffering of millions is a positive moral good, but someone plunging the world into unending nuclear winter doesn’t seem like it would be a good idea somehow.
Right now, I’m really conflicted about what to think about China. They’re a brutally oppressive government responsible for some of the worst treatment human beings are currently subject to. And we do billions of dollars of business with them every year. I don’t like this. I don’t think they should have been given MFN trade status. I think we should be far more critical of them than we are. But invasion? The phrase “land war in Asia” comes to mind.
Now, the obvious objection to this entire thing is that I’ve got a moral perspective which is influencing my own assertions and is thus disqualified by my own argumentation. Maybe, maybe not. I will, however, expose those moral criteria for examination. I believe that society should be geared towards providing a safe, prosperous environment for as many people as possible. This, I am willing to assert, is an ethical assertion grounded in some sort of ontology. I happen to believe that the best way of doing this is a constitutional government (not necessarily representative) overseeing a mostly free market, but those opinions are not ontological, because I am willing to be proven wrong (good luck though). I guess I would try to get out of the charge I’ve leveled against myself in this paragraph by saying that the scope of my moral foundation doesn’t actually mandate any particular political or economic system, it’s just strongly suggestive of constitutionalism most of the time. But it does preclude me from destroying the society I’m trying to save.
And I guess this is another big difference between conservatives like myself and liberals/radicals. I think that society needs to be tended and cared for. I think it could use a lot of improvement. But I’m not willing to sacrifice the society I’m trying to save in order to save it. That’s the kicker. The mindset present in liberal thinking is willing to make radical changes and have other people pay any cost to achieve its end. I want to use the system to change the system, because I believe that 1) I’m not important enough, wise enough, or significant enough to think that I’m capable of something like that; and 2) I am not willing to endanger the society I am trying to save, even to save it. A little pruning, a little pain here and there is probably a good thing. Societies change, and someone always loses. But it is a good thing to include in one’s goals for society the minimization of that loss. My goals aren’t important enough to discount the lives of others. It isn’t arrogant to say that my moral convictions are right and to let them influence the public policies I suggest and support. It is arrogant to say that my moral convictions are so important that other people and their suffering doesn’t count.
And this, Josiah, is what I was getting at. Yes, we need men of conviction in office. But there’s a big difference between allowing one’s convictions to influence one’s actions – even political actions – and allowing one’s convictions to dictate the actions of others. We need the former and should fear the latter.
Damn, that was long. But heck, I had fun writing it. If anyone has objections or critique, fire away. This is just getting interesting.
You'll probably want to read the discussion in the above link before continuing, though I suppose what I've got stands by itself pretty well. Whatever.
In your original post, you moved from a dissatisfaction with the market valuation of certain non-lucrative professions to a stated desire for a more equal distribution of wealth. As I read that, I realized that as a person who complains about the former is pretty likely to complain about the latter, there is more than likely an underlying assumption that makes the two go together. And that assumption, on further reflection, seemed to me to be that the market is not a just method for determining value or, at best, it is sub-optimal, and that certain professions have inherent worth. Okay. But along with that is the assumption that this inherent worth should for moral reasons be compensated with wealth appropriate to its moral value.
Why this links the two theses is one step further back. The assumption I just laid out comes from the assumption that things other than market forces – namely one’s own sense the moral value of things – ought to determine the way things are. This strikes me as a phenomenally arrogant attitude. More that that, I think it’s really dangerous, and I’ll tell you why.
In a totally free market, the value in terms of wealth of a given good or service is dependent solely upon supply and demand. This may lead to some pretty unpleasant consequences, it is true, but the method has one thing going for it that is quite difficult to dispatch: the mechanism for assigning value is transparent and while the results may be undesirable the methods for achieving those results are beyond dispute. The same is not true if one insists that certain professions be valued as one thinks they ought to be valued. This can lead to far more nasty consequences than simply letting the market do its thing, because if one is willing to overrule the expressed desires of the rest of the population – desires expressed in their willingness to pay for or do without something – one is also quite likely to be willing to force one’s valuation on others. This attitude contains within it the assumption that the general populace cannot be trusted to live their own lives and that their lives must be directed by those more enlightened.
Now, I’m more than willing to argue that the vast majority of the American population consists of raging dumbasses. No difficulty in proving that point, I don’t think. But I’ll fight to the death for their right to live their lives as they see fit, even if that means they’re poor and unhappy. Why? Because that also means that I can live my life the way I see fit, without anyone telling me how to live it or what it’s worth. More importantly, there isn’t much difference between dictating the practical outworking of one’s own value system and actually dictating that value system. I will gladly surrender my right to tell you how to live if you can’t tell me how to live.
Does this make me radically individualistic? Not necessarily. I do believe that there exist authority structures that can dictate values. Like, for example, the church. But these are voluntary organizations. I believe the church can dictate morality to its members, but not to the rest of the world. Paul seems to agree. Can the Catholic church require the United States government outlaw abortion? No. Can the Catholic church refuse communion to politicians who do not oppose abortion? Yes. There’s a difference there.
This ties into what I have previously written about concerning means and ends. I’m definitely coming down on the justice of means side of the argument here, whereas those interested in distribution of wealth are concerned with “just” ends. My way may not generate results that everyone likes, but everyone knows how I got there, and my own personal bias is held to a minimum.
Why should we think that the market’s valuation of a good or service is satisfactory? My answer: that’s a loaded question, for it presumes independent criteria for what is a satisfactory valuation, criteria which have not been adequately disclosed. I can tell you how the market arrives at its valuation. If you disagree, can you tell me why and give a quantitative answer detailing what a better value would be? I'll bet not. And don't give me crap about privilaging numeric answers: we're talking about money.
Is this Salon article by Michelle Goldberg, mentioned in Bissell's article, about the composition of the current antiwar movement. While the majority of demonstraters were simply opposed to the war in general, most of the major organizers of the current antiwar movement are far from doves.
In fact, they're supporters of groups as diverse in locale and unified in action as Peru's "maniacly brutal" Shining Path, the North Korean regime (with the deposing of Saddam the last remaining Stalinist holdout), the Maoist attempts to "liberate" Tibet, and like unsavory causes. Bissell himself points out that a significant portion of organizers behind major opposition voices to the current war are dyed in the wool Stalinists.
An interesting read to be sure.
I've been slowly reaching that position, but Tom Bissell's recent article in the April 2004 issue of The Believer pretty much clinched it. He starts with a long analysis of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipeligo. (Quick note: all those of you who think it's cool to endorse the USSR: words can't describe the unendurable shame you should feel for praising the flag that sent twenty million people up through chimneys in black smoke. Hitler failed to kill this many people, and he was actively trying to.) and launches into a discussion of his feelings towards the current conflict in Iraq.
“Here are words that all of us today might pause to consider, for we are all, as Solzhenitsyn insists, capable of evil. I am capable of evil, you are capable of evil. Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn himself are capable of evil. Our capacity to recognize this is what separates us from all the beasts of the field. And I, too, would prefer not to think of Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein or Ayman al-Zawahiri as “evildoers,” a childish word inappropriate to these frighteningly unchildish times, though all of them have certainly crossed Solzhenitsyn’s threshold magnitude for evildoing and then some. (Some will no doubt quibble over this apparent blending of secular socialist Baathism with Al-Qaeda’s agnostic and fanatical Islamism – until one realizes that both philosophies are, in the words of Paul Berman, “totalitarian death cults,” and that both have received crucial Muslim support by harkening back to the emotional fountainhead of a restored Islamic Caliphate.) But by making “evildoer” a central concept in the war on terror, George W. Bush has succeeded in doing virtually the impossible: he has transformed the struggle between those who believe in freedom and those who believe in fascist theocracy – a profoundly important struggle, simultaneously subtle and explosive, currently playing out in the hearts of human beings across the whole sweep of our planet – and turned it into little better than a comic book. In the evident theater of his mind, Bush himself is clumsy Billy Batson by day and soaring Captain Marvel at night. His thoughtless, his artlessness, his seeming disregard for the complexity of evildoing, his refusal to apprehend and honor a different sort of threshold magnitude toward which – thanks to real doers of evil and, yes, thanks to him – we all have been carelessly flung, has sullied and dishonored what any thoughtful person must now recognize as the central struggle of our time: to what extent can we be expected to alleviate the suffering of others? And if one believes we do have a responsibility to alleviate the suffering of others, how do we do so without going to war, which itself causes tremendous suffering? And how does one answer this question without succumbing to cavalier He-Manism or moral infantilism?”
“It was my fear that a good number of antiwar protestors in the United States were being fooled. In fact, it was my fear that the majority of them were being fooled. I fear they were being fooled by a false and self-congratulatory protest mythology that takes as its emotional secret a belief in the unquenchable evil of the American military. I fear they were being fooled by Michael Moore, whose film Bowling for Columbine notes at its opening that “The United States bombed another country” – which got an irritatingly knowing laugh from every audience with whom I saw the film – without pointing out that the bombing to which Moore referred saved the lives of several hundred thousand innocent Kosovars skinnied and started in preparation for their butchering at Serbian hands. I feared they were being fooled by Noam Chomsky, who, so far as I know, has never once apologized for or explained his 1977 Nation article, “Distortions at Fourth Hand,” cowritten with Edward Herman, which argued that what were then still only rumors of a systematic massacre being carried out by the Communist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia were merely Cold War propaganda, another false pretext for the United States to meddle in the affairs of Southeast Asia. We did not wind up meddling in the affairs of Cambodia, of course. Two million people died. I fear they were being fooled by misleading and inaccurate comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam, and I fear they were being fooled by some of the major antiwar organizers.”
As it turns out, one of the biggest antiwar organizing groups is ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and Racism), which turns out to be essentially a subsidiary of the Workers World Party, an organization unabashedly Stalinist in its leanings. These are the people whose leader “went screaming over his threshold magnitude in a supersonic jet when he took up the cause of defending Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian war criminal and mass murderer, as a brave opponent of US imperialism”.
Final money quote:
“I believe that the war in Iraq was morally wrong, tactically dubious, and probably illegal, while, at the same time, and very nearly impossibly, I believe that the removal from power of Saddam Hussein was a great moral accomplishment, however large the windfall for Halliburton, and however insincere and dishonest the Bush administration’s motives for doing so. The war is far from over, of course, and all I can do now is hope for its success and freedom and peace for the Iraqis, which they are not likely to get without us and the reluctant cooperation of many other countries. That I detest the man conducting the war is immaterial. There is no other option. I may not like it, in fact I may hate it, but we as a nation have crossed a different kind of threshold magnitude, one of great potential good, and only skeptical and determined benevolence will prevent us from turning to vapor.”
So this then, is it: it’s line in the sand time. The question? Do we have an obligation to alleviate the suffering of others? And if you say yes, and you're a self-described liberal, then you have absolutely no business opposing the current Iraq war, sympathizing with Islamist extremists, or thinking that Communist Russia was simply a failed experiment in anti-capitalism.
Furthermore, if you even think about calling our current government totalitarian, your naivete is massive. Our country has a speckled past. We locked up Japanese-Americans in WWII. We treated the Native Americans really badly. There are allegations of atrocities in Vietnam. We now have documented war crimes in Iraq. But does this mean that we are morallty equivalent to those we are currently fighting? Absolutely not. But our government has never operated death camps, has never summarily executed political prisoners, and in fact, does not have many political prisoners to speak of. The current official figure on the number of people thought to have been abused by US soldiers in Iraq is less than 100. Saddam was responsible for the deaths of thousands if not millions of people. Stalin, his ideological predecessor, is single-handedly responsible for the deaths of more human beings than anyone in history. If you want to say that we are equivalent to them, then your moral sense is twisted to the point that I don't want to have anything to do with you.
All that to say that this article is the best thing I've read since yesterday, when I read The End of the Affair, and it has really stirred and solidified my opinion on the current political landscape. There are people out there who really believe that the West is no different than the dictators we have deposed. This seems to be the line which divides the political spectrum in America today. May God have mercy upon us.
I just finished listening to Kid A on my new headphones. I had previously not liked the album all that much. I mean sure, I always thought it was a great album, but couldn't really understand why everyone thought it was actually the shit. I know now. There is a huge amount of exceptionally subtle effects that you miss on normal sound equipment. I felt like two whole layers were added to the experience just by upgrading my speakers. Now it's onto Amnesiac to see if I can appreciate that one the same way.
Sounding good so far.