Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Third and the Seventh

The Third & The Seventh from Alex Roman on Vimeo.
CG in its entirety. This deserves your time in full-screen.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Arguments Over the Libyan Intervention

It is bewildering that those who deny we are bound by any moral responsibility to intervene in Libya simultaneously argue that once we grant the desperate calls of the bloodied and besieged, we thereby morally commit ourselves to an endless, all-out war.

Hours before the U.N. Security Council would vote on Resolution 1973, a morning on which Benghazi awaited its inevitable fall, Andrew Sullivan askedif the UN Resolution passes... do we not have a moral obligation to support [the rebels] in an open-ended civil war?... we do know that if we break it, we own it, do we not?”

But the consequence is one that simply does not follow. The chaos in the Maghreb is not, as they say, a case of “you break it, you own it.” Though critics habitually raise the specter of Iraq, to which that cliché is more aptly applied, this relative difference in culpability for the Libyan crisis is salient. We did not “break” Libya, and none but a tyrant did. If this argument is to be applied here, it should be reworded “you [try to] fix it, you own it,” which to anyone should seem the most absurd of rules.

A moral responsibility to protect civilians exists whether or not we choose act in its service; but such a responsibility doesn't exist in a vacuum, nor is it of infinite weight. If there comes a time when NATO countries begin to suffer in such a way as to undermine their responsibilities at home, they would not then be morally bound to continue the operation unreasonably or without end. Isn't it better to be able to say “Libya, when you asked for help, we tried to help you,” than it is to apologize, mealy-mouthed and blushingly, that we the world's rich and liberal democracies could not afford the risk of trying?

Americans are justifiably war-tired, but we should not let the predictable ignorances of nonequivalency between Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan so tunnel our vision that we balk at the mention of intervention, even when obliged, so long as it involves a Muslim country. Of the arguments critical toward the operation in Libya, those styled by exasperation at the very mention of military action in another “Muslim” land are guilty of a sort of indiscrimination. These also taste somewhat of the Bin Ladenist claim that countries occupying certain portions of this planet are immunized from foreign intervention by an ancient book.

Thankfully, the opinions of Middle Eastern citizenries are passionately against Gaddafi. That a vital portion of the support for action came from a two-faced body comprised almost entirely of despotic regimes is irrelevant. The unprecedented support from the Arab League gave a measure of political cover to the voting nations of the U.N.S.C. (We should, however, pause to consider why such is even deemed necessary when debating whether to attempt the salvation of an Arab populace under attack. When a family owns and disposes of its citizens less humanely than a farmer culls diseased livestock, coming to that public's requested aid is something which should not require “cover.”)

Quickly out-populating the others, however, is the consistency argument. This is the wet noodle critics repeatedly throw up in hopes that it will stick, but it's tired and overcooked and I wish they would consign it to the dog bowl. This most frequent criticism asserts that if we intervene to prevent the massacre of democrats in one case, we must therefore intervene in all cases where liberalizing forces are suppressed or murdered. But consistency, so defined, is a foreign policy fallacy.

The philosophical dictum “ought implies canis virtually elevated to the state of a law, and a non-pedantic application of it in response to the cries for “consistency” is clarifying. Surely if an action cannot be taken, a nation cannot be morally obliged to take it. Why should we not, in the spirit of consistency, take military action in iron-fisted Saudi Arabia (or North Korea, for that matter) where dissidents suffer so morbidly? The answer is simple: because we cannot. To do so would be suicidal.

If the question asked is “why not Bahrain,” seemingly small and powerless enough on its own, it is answered when, on second thought, the kingdom is recognized as the Saudi protectorate it is today. Military intervention in Yemen, where Al-Qaeda and its analogues have well-established terror networks, would have been, likewise, unwise. The one small and totally inadequate consolation is that Yemeni civilians are not currently being airbombed by their own military.

Oddly, many who make the consistency argument think themselves to have reinforced it with the question “why not Darfur?,” when in fact many of these same critics (and incidentally, myself) believed that inaction to be a regretful scar on our collective conscience. “Why not Darfur,” then, is exactly right.

In fact, in its service, critics can bring themselves to some fascinatingly bizarre analogies when dispatching the “why Libya” argument. Consider the following, from Sullivan:

If we are prepared to do this in Libya, why not in Congo, where the casualties and brutality have been immensely greater?”

But exactly who, or what movement, would Sullivan put forth as a candidate for Western military support in the septo-national mess that is Congo? Both sides use rape as a weapon, and the rebels fancy that eating the native Pygmies will supplement their strength and courage, and so do. How would a military air-campaign be conducted through the obstruction of a rainforest canopy and at which targets should such an operation be aimed? Impossibly and “not enough information to say” are the answers, and my guess is that Sullivan would agree with both. Therefore, to ask “why not Congo” in relation to Libya is to advance nothing more than a fallacy of indiscrimination. The definity of the targets in the Libyan case, while imperfect, is in blinding contrast with the indefinity of targets in others.

It is important to consider the frameworks under which we discuss the case for and against action. In doing so it becomes clear that of the better arguments against intervention, most fall primarily under a realpolitikal calculus rather than under a moral one. Understandably, many legitimate criticisms hinge on affordability or diplomatic costs, which are obvious material implications of intervention to consider, but are insufficient when operating at the exclusion of primarily moral concerns. If we agree that an ethical responsibility to protect civilians is valid, then a discussion remains to be had regarding the lengths to which such a responsibility extends. I would argue that the Libyan case is, shall we say, covered.

Of course, the morality of military action can never be totally separated from strategic and monetary concerns; military efforts overseas, just though they may be, can come at high cost. But, so far, the arguments against aiding the Libyan rebels have been heavily weighted to the material side of the ledger. We owe ourselves and others more than that. There is something deeply wrong with a critique of military action in which the conspicuous omission common to the criticisms of both left and right is one of moral justice.

It has often been repeated that since our and our allies' vital interests in Libya are few-to-none, we have no justification for involvement. But should our policy therefore be to protect civilians from slaughter in only those cases where the U.S. has material or strategic interests? No, abiding such base conservatism is the very habit that stained us with the precedents of Rwanda and Sudan.

It is hard to know what the man who imagined himself the future king of an United Africa and who, apparently without irony, wanted the union's currency called the “Afro,” has in his mind (other than probably circus music); but while he shops the living room for material from which to misconceive his next sorcerer's gown, Gaddafi is simultaneously orchestrating the poisoning of wells, the rape of children, and the infiltration of plain-clothed, fratricidal snipers into “his” cities.

We should take some pride in our decision to help Libyans put an end to this twisted circus, and we should remember that whereas without help the revolution was foredoomed, the intervention was, and still is, not.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

How Would It Sound If You Couldn't Understand American English?

Like this, probably. The girl at the start asks something close to "have you ever written a song that doesn't say anything?" (h/t 1, 2, and 3).

Friday, April 22, 2011

Christopher Hitchens' Voice, Unspoken

Hitchens was scheduled to speak at the American Atheists Convention, but is forced to offer this beautiful letter in place of himself.
Dear fellow-unbelievers,
    Nothing would have kept me from joining you except the loss of my voice (at least my speaking voice) which in turn is due to a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death. Nobody ever wins this argument, though there are some solid points to be made while the discussion goes on. I have found, as the enemy becomes more familiar, that all the special pleading for salvation, redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before. I hope to help defend and pass on the lessons of this for many years to come, but for now I have found my trust better placed in two things: the skill and principle of advanced medical science, and the comradeship of innumerable friends and family, all of them immune to the false consolations of religion. It is these forces among others which will speed the day when humanity emancipates itself from the mind-forged manacles of servility and superstitition. It is our innate solidarity, and not some despotism of the sky, which is the source of our morality and our sense of decency. 
      That essential sense of decency is outraged every day. Our theocratic enemy is in plain view. Protean in form, it extends from the overt menace of nuclear-armed mullahs to the insidious campaigns to have stultifying pseudo-science taught in American schools. But in the past few years, there have been heartening signs of a genuine and spontaneous resistance to this sinister nonsense: a resistance which repudiates the right of bullies and tyrants to make the absurd claim that they have god on their side. To have had a small part in this resistance has been the greatest honor of my lifetime: the pattern and original of all dictatorship is the surrender of reason to absolutism and the abandonment of critical, objective inquiry. The cheap name for this lethal delusion is religion, and we must learn new ways of combating it in the public sphere, just as we have learned to free ourselves of it in private. 
    Our weapons are the ironic mind against the literal: the open mind against the credulous; the courageous pursuit of truth against the fearful and abject forces who would set limits to investigation (and who stupidly claim that we already have all the truth we need). Perhaps above all, we affirm life over the cults of death and human sacrifice and are afraid, not of inevitable death, but rather of a human life that is cramped and distorted by the pathetic need to offer mindless adulation, or the dismal belief that the laws of nature respond to wailings and incantations. 
       As the heirs of a secular revolution, American atheists have a special responsibility to defend and uphold the Constitution that patrols the boundary between Church and State. This, too, is an honor and a privilege. Believe me when I say that I am present with you, even if not corporeally (and only metaphorically in spirit...) Resolve to build up Mr Jefferson's wall of separation. And don't keep the faith.
Christopher Hitchens
Thanks to PZ for getting this out first. We can only hope for extreme luck in this case.

What's in a Meme?

James Gleick explains a continuum in Smithsonian Magazine:
What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life.’ It is information, words, instructions,” Richard Dawkins declared in 1986. Already one of the world’s foremost evolutionary biologists, he had caught the spirit of a new age. The cells of an organism are nodes in a richly interwoven communications network, transmitting and receiving, coding and decoding. Evolution itself embodies an ongoing exchange of information between organism and environment. “If you want to understand life,” Dawkins wrote, “don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.”

We have become surrounded by information technology; our furniture includes iPods and plasma displays, and our skills include texting and Googling. But our capacity to understand the role of information has been sorely taxed. “TMI,” we say. Stand back, however, and the past does come back into focus.

[…] Jacques Monod, the Parisian biologist who shared a Nobel Prize in 1965 for working out the role of messenger RNA in the transfer of genetic information, proposed an analogy: just as the biosphere stands above the world of nonliving matter, so an “abstract kingdom” rises above the biosphere. The denizens of this kingdom? Ideas.

“Ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms,” he wrote. “Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role.”

Ideas have “spreading power,” he noted—“infectivity, as it were”—and some more than others. An example of an infectious idea might be a religious ideology that gains sway over a large group of people.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Salman Rushdie on Ai Weiwei's Detention

In the New York Times:
It seems the regime, irritated by the outspokenness of its most celebrated art export, whose renown has protected him up to now, has decided to silence him in the most brutal fashion.
The disappearance is made worse by reports that Mr. Ai has started to “confess.” His release is a matter of extreme urgency and the governments of the free world have a clear duty in this matter.
…We can perhaps bet on art to win over tyrants. It is the world’s artists, particularly those courageous enough to stand up against authoritarianism, for whom we need to be concerned, and for whose safety we must fight.
Not all writers or artists seek or ably perform a public role, and those who do risk obloquy and derision, even in free societies. Susan Sontag, an outspoken commentator on the Bosnian conflict, was giggled at because she sometimes sounded as if she “owned” the subject of Sarajevo. Harold Pinter’s tirades against American foreign policy and his “Champagne socialism” were much derided. Günter Grass’s visibility as a public intellectual and scourge of Germany’s rulers led to a degree of schadenfreude when it came to light that he had concealed his brief service in the Waffen-SS as a conscript at the tail end of World War II. Gabriel García Márquez’s friendship with Fidel Castro, and Graham Greene’s chumminess with Panama’s Omar Torrijos, made them political targets.
When artists venture into politics the risks to reputation and integrity are ever-present. But outside the free world, where criticism of power is at best difficult and at worst all but impossible, creative figures like Mr. Ai and his colleagues are often the only ones with the courage to speak truth against the lies of tyrants. We needed the samizdat truth-tellers to reveal the ugliness of the Soviet Union. Today the government of China has become the world’s greatest threat to freedom of speech, and so we need Ai Weiwei, Liao Yiwu and Liu Xiaobo.
I recently read what is so commonly written: an apologetic for China's Orwellianism as something which is to be taken "in the context" of progress. That snakish phrase is, of course, one that we should cringe upon hearing when suppression of rights is the topic. It strikes me how many are willing to use "context" as the ocean in which to drown their guilt of silence. If anything, China's rising stardom requires more of us to be more critical, more loudly. A responsibility that I am guilty of failing.
 - - - - - - - - - -
Somewhat relatedly, The Guardian summarizes Martin Amis on Prince Charles (h/t 3QD):
When he met the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip "appeared very surprised" at the bestselling author's profession. "Ah, you're a writer?" he said, according to Amis. Prince Charles, though, is "charming", with a "pretty extraordinary laugh, like the snore of a pig". Amis added that he recalled "one fairly memorable conversation with him on the subject of Salman Rushdie, just after the fatwa, in 1989. He was very anti-Rushdie. I asked him why. He told me: 'I'm sorry, but when someone insults the profound beliefs of a people ...'" Amis replied that a novel is not a stance. "It insults nobody. It asserts nothing. A novel is a game, a mind play," he told Charles.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Richard Feyman, Spooky Mirrors

Lawrence Krauss gave a great talk yesterday at Cal-Tech on his just-released Feynman biography Quantum Man, at the close of which he played a short clip from Horizon's The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. It reminded me of Feynman's perspicuity in explaining the complex, and lighter adventures such as this one:

"Khyber Impasse"

James Traub sighs at the masochistic marriage the U.S. must maintain with Pakistan:
There's something special about a relationship that only gets worse, but never actually falls apart. Pakistan has been selling itself to the United States as a national security bulwark since the earliest days of the Cold War, and Washington has been an eager and often uncritical buyer, subcontracting to Pakistani military and intelligence operatives much of the effort to arm and train the mujahideen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Only in the 1990s, with the Soviet menace gone, did Washington allow the bonds to fray altogether, over Pakistan's nuclear program. The terrorist attacks of 9/11, however, gave Pakistan a new purchase on its self-appointed role. And the country's unique combination of a nuclear arsenal and a thriving population of Islamic extremists has made it not so much indispensable to Washington as terrifying to it. The United States can't walk away, and Pakistan knows it can't, and the United States knows Pakistan knows. Etc. It's the diplomatic equivalent of Tolstoy's dictum that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own special way.

…This is the crux of the new dilemma: The fundamental incompatibility of Pakistani and American national security interests can no longer be avoided. And it can't be cured; it can't even be admitted.

…A divorce would be satisfying; but Pakistan needs U.S. aid, equipment, and training, and Washington is too afraid of what Pakistan might become to let it go. Christine Fair, a Pakistan expert at Georgetown University, is convinced that Islamabad has the upper hand in the confrontation and thus notes that U.S. officials will swallow their ire and make real concessions on drones and perhaps also on the presence of special operations forces.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dennett on Determinism and Evolved Free-Will

Begin at the 13:35 minutes mark:


"The great thing about the United States and the historically magnetic effect it has had on a lot of people like me is its generosity, to put it simply. Broadness of mind, curiosity, willingness to accept strangers, allowing them to become citizens really quite easily, assimilate to their arrival...
There is a tremendously cramped feeling now, a mean spirited feeling, that was very much to be detected in the last election cycle. People talking in what I would once I suppose described as Dennis Thatcherite terms, you know, curmudgeonly, but rather less amusing than him. The country is filling up with riff-raff, the country is going to the dogs, the President doesn’t seem to be sixteen anas to the rupee, he might even be a Kenyan. Petty, spiteful stuff of that kind and coming from some quite senior people. It hardly even deserves the name of cynicism or pessimism, it’s just sour and nasty and boring."
 Christopher Hitchens, on Beltway climate trends.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Womanhood, Under Saudi Ownership

On the Banning of the Burka

Mike Labossiere gets it right in The Philosopher's Magazine:
The main stated justification for the law is that it is intended to protect Muslim women from oppression. The idea seems to be that Muslim men in France force women to wear the veil. As such, it is a sign of male oppression. This line of reasoning has been used to win over support on the left in France. 
This does have some appeal. After all, Islam does not have the best track record when it comes to the treatment of women. It is also the case that some Muslim women are forced to cover themselves against their wills. 
However, the law does not  merely forbid forcing women to cover up. Rather, it also outlaws appearing in public while covered. While the fine and jail sentences for forcing someone to cover up are greater than those to be imposed on those who are caught covered up, it seems reasonable to question the claim that this law is aimed at protecting women from oppression. A law aimed at protecting women would, it seem, only punish those who forced women to cover up. Women who freely chose to cover themselves should, one would imagine, be exempt from such punishment. After all, a person who chooses to dress in a certain way would not seem to be the victim of oppression-even if others might not approve of her choice.
We should aim our criticism at the barbaric and patriarchal ideology out of which the burka is a manifestation, rather than carelessly legislate the wearing of cloth.

Monday, April 11, 2011


Budget Federally Funds Sectarian Schools

Washington has effectively drained the available reserves of public exasperation, so expect this "small" perversion to go relatively unnoticed, even among secularists. From Rob Boston at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State:
As part of the [budget] deal, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) got his way and breathed new life into a controversial school voucher plan in Washington, D.C. Boehner has pushed the voucher idea relentlessly, and it apparently became a bargaining chip during negotiations. Unfortunately, President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) agreed to Boehner’s demands.
This is really is quite remarkable. This budget deal, as many critics have pointed out, slashes federal spending in lots of programs. Millions of Americans may take hits. Yet somehow, amidst all of the slicing and dicing, Congress managed to come up with millions in taxpayer dollars to revive a scheme that subsidizes religious and other private schools in D.C.

They did this, even though (as AU has pointed out repeatedly) the voucher plan undercuts civil rights and civil liberties. It directs federal funds to Catholic, Protestant and Islamic schools that are free to indoctrinate children in the tenets of their sponsoring faiths and discriminate in hiring on grounds of religion and sexual orientation.
If you are a federal taxpayer, that means you will be putting your hard-earned money in the collection plates of religious denominations whether you like or not. It violates the fundamental American principle that religion must be supported by voluntary donations, not coerced support from the taxpayers.