Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Posted by confused, maybe not , 8/1/07

Dr. Raphael Lemkin was horrified by the Armenian genocide, and was virtually broken when his family was murdered in Nazi concentration camps. But Dr. Lemkin’s concern for human life resurrected him into a force for human rights. Coining the term genocide, helping draft the treaty that became international law, the genocide convention, Dr. Lemkin spent a decade and a half relentlessly lobbying (to the annoyance of many) for the passage of the genocide convention. He succeeded with the UN, but the United States would not pass it until the Reagan administration. Dr. Lemkin died penniless on August 28th, 1959 “of a heart attack in the public relations office of Milton H. Blow on Park Avenue, his blazer leaking papers at the seams.” The New York Times memorialized him:

"Diplomats of this and other nations who used to feel a certain concern
when they saw the slightly stooped figure of Dr. Raphael Lemkin
approaching them in the corridors of the United Nations need not be
uneasy anymore. They will not have to think up explanations for a
failure to ratify the genocide convention for which Dr. Lemkin worked so
patiently and so unselfishly for a decade and a half…. Death in action was
his final argument – a final word to our own State Department, which has
feared that an agreement not to kill would infringe upon our sovereignty."

“Seven People attended Lemkin’s funeral.”
(Taken from Samantha Powers Pulitzer prize winning book, “A PROLBEM FROM HELL: AMERICA and the AGE OF GENOCIDE.” Page 78.)

Although he’s dead, Dr. Lemkin’s lips are moved when we fight genocide. His work has given us a moral and legal frame through which to understand murderous horrors perpetrated by leaders against ethnic, racial, religious, or political groups. Yet, one would be hard pressed to find a case where genocide was stopped by the signatories of the genocide convention, with the exception of Kosovo. In many respects this is the partial fault of us, citizens, as the following example shows.

Former Colorado Representative Patricia Schroeder showed a candid moment for a politician when asked about the genocide in Rwanda. She commented that congressional legislation to help the Gorillas of Rwanda (during the genocide) was inspired by letters to congressional offices on behalf of the Gorillas. Letters were not received demanding action on behalf of humans being murdered. Thus, nothing was (legislatively) done for the Rwandans snared in the genocide. Former Illinois Senator Paul Simon said, “If every member of the House and Senate had received 100 letters from people back home saying we have to do something about RWNDA, when the crisis was first developing, then I think the response would have been different.” (Powers, pages 374-377.)

Their point is that citizens are a catalyst for governmental action or inaction. Though, citizens did not have as much access to the events in Rwanda as we have to global happenings today. Information generally came from government officials and journalists that were not in Rwanda. The internet has changed this.


The ability for those in genocidal regions to text message, call, record events with cell-phones, upload photos and videos onto the net - provide journalists, NGOs, government agencies and people like you and me beyond genocide virtual access to genocidal regions. Google allows one to survey lands (from satellite photos) where genocide is inflicted. You can literally see the burned out villages in Darfur. This is remarkable. Historically, governments like the United States used to say, as in WWII, “We are aware of concentration camps, but we are unable to confirm reports of mass murder.”

Determining that genocide was taking place required one to go to the region, which rarely happened; perpetrators of genocide normally did not allow outsiders to view the murdering. In addition, fact finders needed to find refugees, record their stories and find collaborating stories to verify them. This was more difficult than one might imagine. One, most victims (witnesses) had been murdered. Two, getting to the refugees was not always easy, and refugees sometimes exaggerated events and conveyed events they did not personally witness. Historically, medical check ups for refugees sometimes showed traces of genocide, especially when chemicals were used. But depending on the interests of the medical professionals, bodily signs of suffering genocide were sometimes attributed to environmental causes that had nothing to do with genocide, such as when U.S. medical experts examined Kurds who were gassed, but survived and escaped Sadaam Hussein’s chemical assault. The misdirection of genocidal evidence happened for a variety of reasons. Two of which were: Outsiders had a hard time believing genocide was occurring. Victims’ stories were often beyond the listener’s ability to imagine. Two, sometimes outside countries had a vested interest in denying that genocide was taking place, such as the U.S. response to Sadaam Hussein’s genocide against the Kurds and the U.S. responses to Bosnia and Rwanda. When mass murder is defined as genocide, signatories of the genocide convention are legally bound to try and stop it. When it is not in a countries interest to stop the genocide, the leaders of the country will often dispute the claim of genocide by complicating the issue. For example, during the Bosnian Genocide, former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher responded to questions of genocide in Bosnia with the following:

Secretary Christopher: “With respect to genocide, the definition of genocide is a fairly technical definition. Let me just get it for you here….. I would say that some of the acts that have been committed by various parties in Bosnia, principally by the Serbians, could constitute genocide under the 1948 convention, if their purpose was to
Destroy the religious or ethnic group in whole or in part. And that seems to me to be
a standard that may well have been reached n some of the aspects of Bosnia. Certainly some of the conduct there is tantamount to genocide.” ( Powers, page 319.)

Secretary Christopher’s use of “could constitute genocide” suggests that more facts are needed to determine if it is genocide. Furthermore, his use of “tantamount” also complicates the issue. Tantamount may mean the equivalent to, but it does not mean exactly the same. Christopher did not deny the obvious horrors, but he obfuscated or sidestepped defining the horrors as genocide to avoid legally binding the U.S. to a course of action. Leaders will work to make sure the horror is framed in ways that cater to the countries interest, which are often valid. We see this in the following exchange between former Indiana Representative McCloskey and former Secretary of State Christopher.

Rep. McCloskey: “… when the history books are written, we cannot say that we allowed genocide because health care was a priority. We cannot say that we allowed genocide because the American people were more concerned with domestic issues. History will record, Mr. Secretary, that this happened on our watch, on your watch, that you and the [Clinton] administration could and should have done more. I plead to you, there are hundreds of thousands of people that can still die…. I plead for you and the administration to make a more aggressive – to take a more aggressive interest in this.”

Secretary Christopher: “At rock bottom, you would be willing to put hundreds of thousands of American troops into Bosnia to compel a settlement satisfactory to the Bosnian government. I would not do so…. I do not believe we should put hundreds of thousands of troops into Bosnia to compel a settlement. I’d go on to say, Mr. McCloskey, that it seems to me that your very strong feelings on this subject have
affected adversely your judgment.”

Each has framed the issue differently. McCloskey's tours of the region had rightly convinced him that hundreds of thousands of people were going to die. Serbian run concentration camps were soon discovered in the region. Christopher framed the atrocities as a multi-ethnic conflict in need of a settlement that should not overly favor the Bosnians.
Today, such exchanges would hopefully be complicated by the abundance of evidence from wireless technology. With this technology, one might think that responses to genocide would be faster; maybe they are, but not quick enough for those murdered and about to be murdered.


Genocide is presently being sponsored in Darfur by a Sudanese government that receives a great deal of its genocidal hardware from Sudanese oil buying China. Approximately two to four hundred thousand people have been murdered in Darfur and two million have been ethnically cleaned out of the region since 2003. Planes that attack or bear arms for the genocide are often painted white to look like UN planes, which confuses civilians and relief workers on the ground.

President Bush and the U.S. congress are leading the international response to this horror. The U.S. has done more for the victims of Darfur than any other country, which is disheartening, for we’re hardly doing anything. But here’s what we are doing. The United States has donated close to a billion dollars in aide; I believe the U.S. is the first country to acknowledge this as genocide, which makes it an issue for international law. Furthermore, in October of 2006, congress passed the “Darfur Peace and Accountability Act” that was signed by President Bush. This act calls for sanctions on individuals and governments responsible for the genocide in Sudan and authorizes funds for peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts. On June 5, 2007 Congress passed House Resolution 422, which calls on China to end its support for the Sudanese government and to cut commercial ties with it. This resolution passed 410-0. But notice that it only calls on China to do this, which means nothing is going to happen. And as of yesterday, the threat of sanctions is off the table. The UN Security Council approved sending 26,000 peace keepers from the African Union and the United Nations into Darfur. This force will not attack those committing violence, but will be positioned to protect humanitarian workers and civilians from attack. The peace keepers will monitor the use of illegal weapons, but are not mandated to apprehend and dispose of such weapons. Sadly, the force will not be complete until October. The resolution also removes the threat of sanctions.

It should come as no surprise that the Security Council, in which China is one of five permanent members with veto power, approved a sanction free resolution that sends 26,000 peace keeping soldiers who are authorized to do little more than watch, and even that’s two months away. On the other hand, fighting guerilla based genocide would most likely spell disaster for the 26,000 troops. Let’s hope the presence of the peace keepers brings enough exposure to stop the murdering. If it doesn’t, and in the mean time, what should we do?


Stopping genocide is complex and difficult. Countries often explain they cannot stop an active genocide for a number of reasons. One, countries are sovereign entities and are accordingly free to exercise domestic policies. (For example, the UN would legally be unable to send troops to Sudan if the Sudanese government did not agree to host them and also agree on what the peace keepers can and cannot do.) Countries that commit genocide often argue they are fighting an insurrection, which is sometimes true, as is the case in Sudan, but most of the victims are not part of an insurrection. In such cases, a government holds an entire people accountable for the actions of a few, arguing one cannot tell the difference between insurrectionists and civilians. (For example, such arguments were made in the following genocides; the U.S. and the Native populations, Turkey and the Armenians, Iraq and the Kurds, Serbia and the Bosnian/Kosovo Muslims, etc.) Two, proof is needed that genocide is taking place. Up until recently, proof was hard to come by. Three, if it is determined to be taking place and troops are brought in to both protect and ensure that supplies get to the refugees, these troops need to be protected, which means committing many more troops, and perhaps committing to war. (E.G. Somalia in the early nineties, although there was no government to hold accountable in Somalia, so it may be too different to compare.) A ‘no fly zone’ is an alternative to ground troops.

One lesson learned before the Unites States’ second major war with Iraq was that when there was a no fly zone, Shia and Kurdish populations were far more secure, and Hussein’s genocidal actions toward both groups stopped. No fly zones are difficult, though. One cannot determine how long one must exercise them. They are expensive and cost the lives of many soldiers enforcing them. On the other hand, as I write this, hundreds of people are being murdered in Darfur and by the 14th of August up to five thousand people will be dead from exposure to genocide. A no fly zone would most likely be more effective at stopping the genocide than the 26,000 peace keepers who will not fully arrive until October and who are empowered to do very little, not to mention ground troops may be more at risk than those enforcing a no fly zone.

What do you think we should do? Should we have a back up plan? What happens to Darfur’s populace from now to October? What happens if the peace keepers prove ineffective at stopping the genocide? Should we assert that if peace keepers are unable to immediately stop the genocide, we will sanction China, impose stronger sanctions against Sudan, and set up a no fly zone? What about Europe’s role? Do we push the Europeans who have done very little to do more and perhaps prepare to enact a no fly zone, or prepare to use NATO for one? If the European’s balk, should the U.S. set one up?

On a final note, I have a request. On behalf of someone in Darfur, take twenty minutes and e-mail your federally elected officials and President Bush. (Believe it or not, you will receive a snail mail response thanking you for your concern.) Express your concern and if you desire stronger actions, ask them to do more, such as protest the removal of sanctions from the UN resolution, sanction China, and call more attention to this horror by sending Secretary Rice to the region.

Guest Posts

I'll be spending the next week in the land of Ben and Jerry's, that beautiful state Senator Bernie calls home and where Howard Dean is known as moderate to conservative. During that time, some of the regulars around the joint have agreed to guest post. I expect all of you to show them the same disrespect you have for me and know that I've given them free reign to try to be provocative, insightful, funny, and to piss off the pathologically self-righteous wherever they may be found.

Why You Can't Depoliticize Abortion

Scott over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money has an interesting amplification of Dana's post on the futility of the calls to depoliticize abortion. Both are worth a read, but there is a crucial point missing from both of these, which I discussed here, that warrants rehashing.

Dana's point is a pragmatic one.

"I dream about a world in which women's health choices are de-politicized, but alas, I don't live in one. So until I do, it's something I'll be looking out for in every election. Conservatives certainly are."
Abortion has always been politicized, she argues, and as such those like Will Saletan who call for a negotiated third way are really advising Democrats that we would be better off bringing a knife to a political gun fight.

Scott argues that the depoliticization is impossible because abortion satisfies two necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for an issue to be necessarily political:
We've already been through this with respect to the Iraq War, but you can't "de-politicize" an issue that is a) salient, and b) on which substantial groups of people have fundamentally incommensurable views.
The Iraq analogy is a good one, but for a reason that neither Scott nor Dana address.

It is not merely because there are deeply held, mutually exclusive viewpoints on an issue as salient as reproductive rights that we possess our bifurcated political situation. To understand what is happening it is crucial to see that there is a slickly designed equivocation in our political discussions. There is a difference between abortion and *ABORTION*. Our discourse concerns *ABORTION* and has little if anything to do with abortion. *ABORTION* is a wholly political animal. To depoliticize *ABORTION* would be tantamount to creating Steven Wright's famed "dehydrated water." What is crucial to understand, but missed by many, is that *ABORTION* has eaten abortion such that any time we think we're talking about abortion, we have no choice but to descend into the terms of *ABORTION* and this was done intentionally.

If it were possible to decouple them and to have a conversation about abortion, then views like Saletan's in which we act in such a way to minimize the number of unwanted pregnancies would provide us with hope of being able to bridge the cultural divide and come to policy changes that would better the world and the lives of those in it. He can't figure out why pro-lifers aren't in favor of common sense measures like funding contraception. If they really are so deeply committed to making sure abortions do not occur, then surely they would be strongly in favor of any policy that would allow us to avoid the precondition for the possibility of an abortion. What makes Saletan's discussion so naive that you want to pat him on the head and buy him an ice cream cone is that the silly boy thinks that when he hears people talking about *ABORTION*, he thinks they are really talking about abortion.

*ABORTION* is a front, a shill issue, for those who are pushing a radical Evangelical Christian theocratic agenda. Those leading the charge against *ABORTION* are not interested in pragmatic policy options to that would bring about fewer abortions, they are interested in Christianizing American law, culture, and politics. Pragmatism is every bit as much an enemy to them as opposing ideology. It isn't a question of helping women avoid unfortunate and undesired circumstances for them. *ABORTION* is the leading edge, the public face of their righteous crusade between absolute good and anyone who disagrees with them. They do not merely want to decrease the number of abortions, they want to make sure that unmarried people don't have sex, they want to make sure that abortions are made illegal and punishable by law, they want their Dominionist worldview and the policies that they see as springing from it to be unassailably instantiated.

Why use *ABORTION* for this? This requires understanding one of the most effective conservative rhetorical gambits of the last couple decades, what we can call the "cage and frame" strategy. Framing, as discussed by linguist George Lakoff, is the act of setting the parameters for discussion by choosing the language of the debate. What Lakoff shows is that words are not just "Hello, my name is" stickers that we put on things, they come with ways of seeing the world packed into them. Selecting certain words instead of others limits the discussion by putting certain topics on the table and others off the table. Both sides have done this in their choice of designators. "Pro-choice" frames the issue in terms of liberty and who wants to oppose freedoms to choose? "Pro-life" frames the issue in terms of the life or death of a fetus and who wants to be pro-death? The selection of the name is designed not only to designate which side one is on, but also to elevate (in a fallacious question-begging fashion) one part of the complex of inter-related moral issues in this incredibly difficult ethical question.

But what we see is more than framing. We see another trick which I term "caging" in which one takes a series of related issues that you do not want acted upon and then selects a small single issue to pull attention way from all the rest. Like magicians who will do something flamboyant and fascinating with their left hand to keep you from seeing what they are doing with their right hand, the idea is to make one insignificant issue the focus of all attention in order to make sure that all other related issues are ignored. As long as there is a raucous passionate debate around that issue and it is made to seem of paramount importance, then the assumption by most listeners is that a fair and open debate on all issues is taking place and no one will notice what you are doing with regard to the other issues.

In this way, women's rights have been caged by abortion. All the time, effort, and money that could be going into furthering women's rights on a number of fronts are sucked into the abortion fight. Not only that, but how to cage the issue is determined by what issue is easiest to frame when let out of the cage. If conservatives chose to openly fight against voting rights or equal pay for equal work legislation, it would put them clearly on the side of immoral support of injustice and they would lose quickly and decisively. But by caging women's rights and only letting abortion out of the cage, any possible advances on the women's rights front are stopped in their tracks and pro-lifers can portray themselves as the defenders of families and innocent life, not the opponents of women's rights.

In the same way, civil rights issues have been caged with only affirmative action set outside the cage. We can bring the civil rights charge to a halt by focusing all attention only on hiring in a small set of cases. Again, this is made more effective when the caging is combined with framing -- affirmative action is only to be addressed in terms of quotas. In this way, the advancement of civil rights legislation not only stops, but those stopping it do so by portraying themselves as opposing discrimination.

Gay rights? Cage questions about hate crimes, workplace discrimination, housing discrimination,... only let out marriage. Then frame it in terms of "protecting the family." Cage and frame.

You cage all but the issue that is easiest for you to frame and for this reason, abortion was selected. The murder of innocent babies by promiscuous fornicators to protect their hedonistic lifestyle was seen as the perfect high-ground from which to attack the Fort Sumter of contemporary secular American politics. And it was in this role that abortion became *ABORTION*. When we talk about about reproductive rights, we are fighting a proxy battle. Yes, protecting reproductive rights is important, but that is not really what is happening here. *ABORTION* is not just about abortion, a salient issue on which substantial groups of people have fundamentally incommensurable views. No, *ABORTION* is the "Battle of the Bulg(ing Belly)" in the culture wars. It is their recruiting mechanism, their rallying cry, the place they've chosen to make their definitive stand. If they can't win substantial battles on that hill, on the most easily framable ground there is, their movement withers.

Abortion cannot be depoliticized because one of the most important political developments of the late 20th/early 21st century developments in American politics --the movement that began with Goldwater's defeat and Nixon's Southern strategy, moved through Gingrich's Contract with America and its sponsorship by the Christian Coalition, and reached its high water mark with Bush's re-election -- has staked its very existence on making sure that abortion is inseparable from *ABORTION*. As such, you can't depoliticize abortion without depoliticizing *ABORTION*. And you can't depoliticize *ABORTION* without depoliticizing politics itself. But that, of course, would be like dehydrating water.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Bullshit or Not: Hitchens Edition

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon and one of the bits is a parody of the old Leonard Nimoy show, "In Search Of..." called, "Bullshit or Not?" with the tagline "Bullshit or not? You decide." So I've stolen it for what is seeming to be a fairly regular series of posts.

This week, it's a passage from Christopher Hitchens' Letters to a Young Contrarian:

One is sometimes asked "by what right" one presumes to offer judgement. Quo warranto? is a very old and very justified question. But the right and warrant of an individual critic does not need to be demonstrated in the same way as that of a holder of power. It is in most ways its own justification. That is why so many irritating dissidents have been described by their enemies as "self-appointed." (Once again, you see, the surreptitious suggestion of elitism and arrogance.) "Self-appointed" suits me fine. Nobody asked me to do this and it would not be the same thing I do if they had asked me. I can't be fired anymore than I can be promoted. I am happy in the ranks of the self-employed. If I am stupid or in poor form, nobody suffers but me. To the question, Who do you think you are? I can return the calm response: Who wants to know?
When I am asked, my response tends to be "a thinking person who cares."

And that is what interests me in this passage. What are the criteria for being a legitimate critic? Is the bar really lower on the critic than it is on the person being criticized? If you criticize without having a positive alternative, a better way that you are proposing, are you just throwing stones? If and/or when Hitchens is stupid, in poor form, or drunk, is it really true that only he suffers? Does the bad critic really hurt no one else? Is criticism self-justifying on Enlightenment grounds, wherein testing claims by subjecting them to the most rigorous scrutiny is a necessary condition for finding truth? Or is someone who is merely a critic doing something less noble? We certainly treat being judgmental as contrary to etiquette in contemporary culture. Is this a problem or a solution?

As usual, feel free to leave responses ranging from a single word to a worked out dissertation. So, bullshit or not? You decide.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Comedist Theology

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

For those who are new to the Playground, weekends are dedicated to Comedism, the new religion. It's been a while since we've looked at the basic tents of the faith,so this weekend we'll do a little housekeeping.

As so many religions do, this one began with an epiphany. I was teaching an evening ethics class at a community college and we were discussing the difference between ethical precepts and social mores. A student in the front row raised his hand and asked me, "Steve, what are mores?" I looked him straight in the eye and replied, "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's amore." Bathed in the groans of pun induced pain, I instantly understood that set ups that perfect don't just happen. That could not have been a random humorous occurrence...no, that was Divine Comedic Intervention, it had to be the work of the Cosmic Comic.

And so I came to realize that it was my job to spread the gospel of Comedism.

Other religions may have Gods that are all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful, but our God is funnier than their God.

The structure is similar to that of the Judeo-Christian picture. Life is a test, when you die, your soul ascends to the pearly gates...in front of which is The Book. Behind The Book is Saint Shecky who tells you of your eternal judgment. You get only so many set ups in your few years on Earth and for every punchline you deliver, that is one mark in your favor. The "that's amore" line, one in the plus column for me. But if you miss one...

A year after the ethics class, I was out for a walk. As I ambled along, a couple walked past me. The man looked at me with a strange puzzled look on his face. He said to me, "Didn't we just see you with a dog?" I said, "No. You must have me confused with someone else." As they walked away, I realized the correct answer was, "Excuse me. That was my wife." I had lost a Divine set up. So much the worse for my comic soul.

If you make more than you miss, you are admitted into comedy heaven where you sit at the right hand of Groucho. If you miss more than you make, you go to comedy hell where it is very hot and all the drinks are in dribble glasses. If you come out even, it is comedy purgatory for you, where you have to watch nothing but re-runs of Three's Company for all eternity.

Our sacred text is, of course, the Comedist Manifesto and it is being revealed bit by bit each year on our holiest day of the year, April 1. You can read the first two installments here and here.

We fully believe in gay marriage because it would be wrong to deprive one tenth of humanity of being able to tell mother-in-law jokes and because "Take my civilly-united, legally recognized, domestic partner, please" just really screws up the timing.

Best of all, friends, because Comedism is a young religion if you join now, as one of the early adopters, you are all but guaranteed sainthood. Leave a sufficient number of comments that are funny enough, bam, you're a disciple. Think about it, to go anywhere in the more established religious corporations, you need to be Mother Teresa or Pat Robertson and, let's face it, the wardrobe options either way are not what you would call optimal. All you need to do to join is say you did.

People ask me whether this new religion is a joke. I tell them, of course it is; it wouldn't be holy if it wasn't.

We end today with this classic:

A preacher is buying a parrot.

"Are you sure it doesn't scream, yell, or swear?" asked the preacher.

"Oh absolutely. It's a religious parrot," the storekeeper assures him.

"Do you see those strings on his legs? When you pull the right one, he recites the lord's prayer, and when you pull on the left he recites the 23rd Psalm."

"Wonderful!" says the preacher, "but what happens if you pull both strings?"

"I fall off my perch, you moron!" screeched the parrot
Other churches ask for monetary donations, we pass the plate for jokes. Leave your contribution in the comments and say five "hail Grouchos."

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

On Ward Churchill and Fat Friends

Two seemingly unrelated stories from academicland that can be connected in an interesting way. First is the news that Ward Churchill has been fired by the board of regents at the University of Colorado for plagiarism and other acts of scholarly misconduct. Second is a article in the New England Journal of Medicine that one's chances of becoming obese increase by 57% if someone close to you socially also becomes obese.

Ward Churchill is the scholar of Native American studies who came to national prominence when his comment that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were chicken coming home to roost and that those in the Twin Towers were "little Eichmanns." These comments served as red meat for conservatives who clamored for his dismissal. When first amendment and academic freedom concerns stood in the way, his academic research was combed for actionable incidents and enough were found to bring about the current result.

Are there actually serious incidents of plagiarism and misrepresentation of sources? No clue. But to say that Ward Churchill was not fired for his comments is like saying that Einstein did not receive the Nobel Prize for his theory of relativity or that Socrates was executed for being an atheist. Those may be the official explanations and surely Einstein's work on quantum mechanics was impressive and Socrates' religious views were unorthodox, but let's be real.

The fact is that it was the Eichmann comment that was the truly operative causal factor here. Of course, it was completely misunderstood. Any German reference in contemporary American political discourse is instantly taken as an ad hominem attack. Calling someone a Nazi, Hitler, or Goebbels is meant as a rhetorical nuclear option -- it brands the other person as factually wrong, morally insufferable, insufficiently rational, and so hostile to open discussion that they cannot be taken seriously. These utterances are meant to end the conversation rather than contribute meaningfully to it.

And so when Churchill invoked the name Eichmann, Adolf Eichmann was a Nazi bureaucrat seized by Israeli special forces in Argentina and tried in Israel, the general interpretation of what he was saying was that the victims in New York were evil Nazis and deserved to die. And since they were just average citizens, it follows that Churchill is equating contemporary America with Nazi Germany and saying that all average Joes are morally equivalent to anti-Semitic mass murderers and therefore to be hated. He is a classic example of those darn liberals who hate America -- see, he thinks we're all Nazis.

Of course, that was not what he was saying at all. The reference was to Hannah Arendt's work Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which the German Jewish philosopher reported from the trial that her preconceptions of him were completely inaccurate. There was no raving anti-Semitic madman, there was no overt hatred or irrationality, not even a real attachment to National Socialist doctrine. Instead, there was just a normal guy looking for a promotion. She coined the term, "the banality of evil," for this sense that the system itself could become so incredibly morally bankrupt and evil can become so thoroughly ensconced into the fabric of daily life that one could live a plain life, be a middle manager just going to the office and doing your job pushing papers, holding the elevator for someone and the door for others, being polite, picking up the tab for lunch, and yet all the while be contributing to the most horrible of horrors. When those in power have created a corrupt system, doing evil doesn't require tying young women to train tracks while fondling your handlebar moustache and laughing maniacally; in fact, it is often observationally identical to just living day to day life. So much so, that you can isolate yourself in the minutia of your life and not pay attention to the larger project you are contributing to.

In the same way, Churchill contended, those in the Towers were just going about their lives, but their jobs contributed to a global economic system which entrenched unfairness in wealth and power. And, he was arguing, this imbalance was a factor in causing people to be desperate enough to embrace terrorism. Is the globalized economy morally equivalent to the final solution? Can the genocides in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and Sudan be linked to the distribution of wealth and power and then be compared to the death camps of WWII? Are the forced labor camps of the Nazi war effort commensurate with the sweat shops of the Marianas Islands and Asia or the forced labor of Chinese prisoners making goods for Western markets? Dunno, but the idea here is clearly to contribute to a debate and not shut it down by branding Americans as Nazis as held by those in the neo-McCarthyist camp of pre-Katrina America.

There is no doubt Churchill's head is a trophy of the conservative wall, but what he was doing was dangerous to conservatism in a much more subtle way than they realize. the danger he posed was in his argument for a systemic approach to social questions, instead of an atomistic one. Conservatives love "personal responsibility" rhetoric because it limits the scope of discourse in a fashion that removes social factors from the table. Instead of there being social problems that we need to address with policy solutions, instead, we just blame individuals, a few bad apples.

That is what is so interesting about the obesity report. Instead of looking at genetic predisposition, diet, exercise regimens or anything else that focuses on the atomic individual, the question became "how do environmental factors affect people?"

Their analysis was unique, Christakis said, because it moved beyond a simple analysis of one person and his or her social contacts, and instead examined an entire social network at once, looking at how a friend's friends' friends, or a spouse's siblings' friends, could have an influence on a person's weight. The effects, Christakis said, "highlight the importance of a spreading process, a kind of social contagion, that spreads through the network."
These researchers, like Churchill, are saying let's look at the interconnectedness if we really want to understand why unfortunate things like terrorist attacks and public health epidemics occur.

We must be careful not to fall into the trap of false dilemma and say effects are all individual or all sociological, it is not black and white. Individual choices are choices, but then again, they are deeply influenced by our environment. What we perceive as normal -- even if we are wrong about how normal something is -- has an incredible effect on what we belief, what we do, and how we react. We can choose to deviate from social norms, but it is true -- and this is the first axiom of advertising -- that there is an incredible pull from perceived normality, both internal and external. From the youngest ages, those who are different are picked on, there is incredible pressure to conform and this is internalized. When the environment around us changes, we absorb the change. Look at fashion, especially decades old fashion. you look at the pictures and think, "How could you possibly think it was a good idea to look like that?"

If we want to make this a better world, we need to take the social aspects seriously. But, of course, the fear is that it will only to lead to more "Churchillings":
It also might mean that the way to avoid becoming fat is to avoid having fat friends.

That is not the message they meant to convey, say the study investigators, Christakis and his colleague James Fowler, an associate professor of political science at the University of California in San Diego. You don't want to lose a friend who becomes obese, Christakis said. Friends are good for your overall health, he explains.

So why not make friends with a thin person, he suggests, and let the thin person's behavior influence you and your obese friend?

That answer does not satisfy obesity researchers like Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

"I think there's a great risk here in blaming obese people even more for things that are caused by a terrible environment," Brownell said.
Instead of understanding the role of the intense power of normalizing obesity, obese people will be picked out as "the cause" and deserving of blame for the unhealthiness of others. The danger is that we will again shrink down the scope of discussion to "personal responsibility" and miss the point. So there is a lesson to be taken away from these two episodes about how to think about complex problems. That being said, never ever refer to those suffering from obesity as "big fat Eichmanns." Trust me, the results ain't gonna be pretty.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

This Ain't Watergate

In All the President's Men (one of TheWife's favorite films -- it got us through these last six years), there's a scene where Ben Bradlee is fed up with the fact that sources will not go on the record about the goings on in the Nixon White House. He angrily says,

Goddammit, when is somebody going to go on the record in this story? You guys are about to write a story that says the former Attorney General, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in this country, is a crook! Just be sure you're right.
Those were tough days, back when you had to investigate to determine whether the Attorney General was a criminal.

These days, he'll look you in the eye and perjure himself...repeatedly, if you ask him nicely...or not so nicely..in fact, it seems like he'll do it you ask him just about anything.

So, this is a guy who took an agency, the Department of Justice, that is supposed to be non-partisan in order to ensure that the law is enforced fairly, to make sure that the nation has confidence that prosecution is based on evidence and not politics and fired en masse eight U.S. Attorneys -- one of whom was to be replaced by Karl Rove's assistant.

When asked about it under oath, he lied about it saying that the firings were for job effectiveness, not politics.

Then it came out that the fired prosecutors had stellar records, but were not in the words of one of his assistants in a memo "loyal Bushies," where loyalty meant pursuing false charges of voter fraud in minority heavy districts or vigorously bringing trumped up charges against Democratic candidates in closely contested districts.

So he argued that the firings were in fact for job effectiveness because they serve at the pleasure of the President and not doing what the President wants -- even if he wants it for political reasons -- is to be ineffective. So it wasn't political, it was just political. I mean if it was problematically political, then there would be fingerprints from the political part o the White House and he testified under oath that there were no such traces.

When his assistant Monica Goodling was called to testify in front of Congress about the matter, Gonzales had a meeting with her. Can you say witness tampering?

He testified under oath that the White House's political arm had no role in the firings. But now, Josh Bolton and Harriet Meiers -- muscles in the White House's political arm -- have been called to testify, but have been ordered not to by the President in violation of Congressional subpoenas.

This is a guy who when legal council for the President went to the Department of Justice to seek an ok for warrantless wiretapping. Under oath, he said there was no serious disagreement about its Constitutional legality within the administration.

But then the acting Attorney General, James Comey, said, huh? I absolutely said no frickin' way. In other words, Gonzales lied under oath about it.

But it gets weirder. Comey was acting Attorney General because the real Attorney General John Ashcroft was undergoing surgery to remove his gallbladder because he clearly had an overabundance of gall. When Comey refused to sign off, Gonzales paid a midnight visit to John Ashcroft in the hospital in order to get him to rubber stamp it while Ashcroft was under sedation.

When confronted about this, he tried to justify it. Sure, the Attorney General had transferred his powers while in a drug induced haze, Gonzales agreed, but he could just take them back whenever he wanted...even if really stoned. There are no rules against it, he argued. And besides, that wasn't what I went there to talk about. Or, so he says now.

But, of course, that was a lie...under oath and when caught in this one, he tried another lie. Trying to maintain that there was no dissent about the warrantless eavesdropping, he denied that he briefed Congressional leaders on the complete disapproval of the acting Attorney General. Then the briefed Congressional leaders called him a liar...as did the pesky notes of the meeting.

He testified in front of Congress that the USAPATRIOT Act had never given rise to any abuses of civil rights, all the time knowing it was false. When the report he had been given outlining such an abuse was made public, Gonzales was caught in yet another lie.

I guess the Bush administration finally learned the real lesson of Watergate, "it's not the crime, it's the cover up that'll get you in the end." So, they simply don't cover it up, committing crimes right out there in the open, clearly, blatantly, for all to see. No cover up. No digging. There's no glory for young investigative reporters if all they do is point out the obvious. It's not news if everyone knows it.

The Attorney General, the highest ranking law enforcement officer in the country, is a crook, we're sure we're right, and he's more than happy to go on the record in this story. This ain't Watergate, it's a whole lot weirder.

Are Philosophy Blogs For Philosophy?

I don't know if you are like this, but things tend to bounce around in my head for a while in search of something to latch onto and occasionally several of them come together to have a convention. Four of these things have joined forces and seem worth reflecting upon.

One has been this post by Helmut over at phronesisiacal in which he thinks about Peter Levine's discussion about the usefulness of political philosophy. Helmut writes,

philosophy ought to be and can be more than a set of intellectual puzzles. Teaching philosophy is one thing - among other things, we want students to exercise and develop their minds, become analytical thinkers and decent people, to explore how we say things and what experience is about, and so on. Philosophical puzzles are sometimes a good way of contributing to that. They just become amusement, however...many philosophers confuse the difficulty and complexity of the puzzles with an inherent merit to philosophy when it is human experience in its difficulty and complexity that lends philosophy any merit it has.
The rest is worth reading, but I've been wanting to comment upon this idea that philosophy is, as Confused, Maybe Not is frequently fond of putting it, "just a puzzle-fuck," the linguistic/conceptual equivalent of trying to figure out what's going on in an Escher print. But, of course, it would be worrisome if we tried to equate that sort of activity with analyzing the Zapruder film for evidence of a second gunman.

The second is the departing of a playground playfriend who was a regular for quite a while in discussions. This is not unusual. People come and go all the time in the blogosphere. Games are a blast for a while, but life is busy and there are many other playgrounds. But this one seems to have left because of dissatisfaction with my sloppiness in analysis here. Philosophy done well has a number of virtues and one of them is clarity and precision, something I will freely admit much of my public on-line work does not display to a level commensurate with what I consider my best professional writing. This is intentional for a couple of reasons: (1) writing philosophy well is extremely difficult and time consuming and I would not be able to post daily or get anything else in life done if I were to try to write "proper philosophy" here and (2) I view the playground as a more informal venue like a dinner party than a professional conference in which I am less trying to "do" philosophy than to spark interesting discussions and I find that most people only respond when they think they've found an error in what you are saying and so sloppiness here in some sense is a plus.

The third is this "surgeon general's warning" that Thinking Girl has found necessary to put up over at her place.
PLEASE NOTE: This is NOT a Feminism 101 blog. This is Feminism Intermediate-Advanced. Visit the Feminism page for more information about MY feminism.
Feminist bloggers are the foreign language professors of the web -- language profs are lit scholars, experts in the context and rich meanings of fascinating texts, yet much of what they get to do is to conjugate the verb "to be" in front of rooms full of students who refuse to do the work and resent having to be there in the first place. They are authorities in a field whose insights and intricacies fascinate them, but which they never get to share because they are always dragged back to square one by people with attitudes. And so it is with feminist bloggers who are steeped in a vibrant interdisciplinary endeavor, but who are inevitably reduced to beating back the same old unschooled nonsense time after time in the comments to wonderful posts.

The fourth was driving in this morning listening to the BBC and hearing A. C. Grayling, prestigious philosopher from the University of London, reviewing the Simpsons Movie. It was fascinating hearing a philosopher put in a place that simultaneously seemed absolutely intuitive and utterly peculiar. I, myself, just edited a volume reflecting on philosophical issues and an aspect of popular culture, yet to hear a respected philosopher as a go-to guy for cultural criticism and hearing playful and insightful conversation from one of our own made me slightly giddy.

So all of these came together in the question, "Are philosophy blogs for philosophy?" Some certainly try to be. There are some really interesting blogs written by hard working philosophers (and I include in this group undergrad and grad students) who are putting up posts about technical issues. They write interesting posts about modal semantics, the concept-dependence of qualia, and set theoretical discussions of internal and external logical relations. Some of these are well-read, others not so much. A lot of these are folks who are working on papers trying to get early feedback on moves critical to their arguments. Between journals (and refereeing requests), professional conferences (and refereeing requests), list-serves for academic types in my sub and sub-subfield, and correspondences with other scholars, I get my fill of "the game" so I feel no need to play it here in front of everyone.

In fact, I'll admit my mixed feelings about public philosophy. On the one hand, it is worrisome that we don't let people see us at work often enough. People have intuitive senses of what a physicist, a psychologist, a letter carrier, a line chef, or a basketball player do at work. But it is not infrequent, even from students, that I'll get asked "But what exactly is it that you do other than teach?" People don't have a sense of what philosophy is and showing them philosophers at work is seemingly the only solution.

On the other hand, it is an odd game. When people watch lacrosse for the first time, you can see startled looks. Everything moves very fast, play starts and stops with players leaving the field for seemingly no good reason. They know there is an internal logic to what's going on, but damn if they get it. Philosophy is like that, except that instead of it being "someone else's game," people feel a sense of possession of philosophy because on sleepless nights (when not watching bad infomercials, Rutger Hauer movies, or Andy Griffith reruns on tv) they too think hard about the deeper questions of life, the universe, and everything. "These philosophers aren't high priests, they don't have special, magical routes to truth and insight that make them wiser than me. Who are they to lay claim to these questions, forcing me out of the place to find meaning in life?"

This sense of indignation only gets deeper when they see the sort of questions that philosophers work on. Usually greeted with a disdainful "huh?" the things that get philosophers all worked up seem incredibly trivial or utterly inscrutable. How could the important questions lead to such pointless wastes of brain power? This may very well be a legitimate concern.

Some then weigh in with "common sense" replies that irritate "the pros" because they get annoyed at having to go back to day two of their intro class to explain why the seemingly obvious counter-example the novice brings up with a sense of arrogance (look, I'll show these stupid philosophers why they are so wrong) is easily defeated leaving a question whose answer was debated in the 4th century B.C. and whose great-great-great-great-great-grandchild of a debate is the one that the pro is trying to discuss, only with a clever little twist he or she is proud of.

My own non-confrontational approach to this problem is to avoid talking a lot of philosophy here. Let me do something philosophers love to do, draw a distinction. There is a difference between doing philosophy and talking philosophically. I think that philosophers are important voices in areas other than philosophy (for example, look back a few years at the Dover intelligent design kerfuffle), although - or, indeed, because - their contributions will necessarily be informed by the content and methodologies of philosophy. Philosophers going back to Plato and Descartes have had an inflated sense of philosophy as the foundation for all other rational belief that is simply false, but the insights of the puzzle-masters playing their (our) insular games do sometimes have insights and ramifications that make major differences. I think that philosophers' voices need to be heard on the issues of the day, not as authorities to be deferred to, but as significant contributors to the discourse. That is what I love about this playground. I know that we have a mix of voices including pros and interesting insightful minds who have not been corrupted by academic philosophy negotiating contentious questions. Surely, it's not the only model for philosophy blogs, but I think it's one that is worth having.

So there. That's all I got today.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Is Human Excellence the Mark of Mental Illness?

Last week's Chronicle of Higher Ed featured a trio of articles on followers of Ayn Rand. In one of them, an organization fronted by the bank BB&T's CEO is bribing philosophy departments with large barrels of cash if they will add a position for a pro-Rand member. It has set me to thinking.

You see, when you get on an airplane for a cross-country flight as a philosopher, you would much rather be seated next to the person who suffers from intense airsickness the entire way than the white guy who turns and says, "Oh, I'm kind of a philosopher, too. I LOVE Ayn Rand." Turns out that those little headphones they sell to listen to the in-flight movie are insufficient to strangle such an individual and the airline magazines do not produce papercuts deep enough to slice your wrists.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. If you take the writings of Nietzsche and remove everything insightful, interesting, and funny, what's left are the writings of Ayn Rand. these works are a narcotic to the upper-middle class white male of above average means and intelligence because it simultaneously meets two needs:

(1) Ego-stroking

Your comfortable place in society is a result of your being a more fit human who is the model of what the species should look like. You can sublimate the insecurity you feel about whether you will remain in your little bubble of contentment because the mere fact that you are there now is (unfalsifiable and tautological) proof that you are a superior human specimen who is realizing the excellence that the rest could achieve if they were not dragged down by those inferior welfare cases. You are where others want to be because you are who they strive to be...even if you can't get laid.

(2) Rationalization for Not Being an Empathetic Individual

Not caring about the less-fortunate when you have so much more than you need might be thought to be morally problematic. Those gosh darn bleeding hearts are always prattling on about how we should consider the needy and help those who are less fortunate. But I don't want to. Yet, holding my hands over my ears and loudly proclaiming, "LALALALALALALA," somehow seems insufficiently intellectual. I don't just want "I can't hear you," I need "I shouldn't hear you." But if I mix two parts social Darwinism with one part attacks on strawmen of Communism, I have the solution. I'm left with the idea that caring about others is actually going to harm others. If only I think about nothing but myself, I'm doing the best for everyone else because the rest will become better. My selfishness is the tide that raises all boats, so it would be immoral of me to be moral. Hence, I can relax and be a jerk who never helps anyone because only jerks never help anyone truly help anyone.

But while this may be a psychological explanation for the appeal, there is still the central doctrine itself which stands apart from its proponents. The view contends that human society ought to be oriented in such a way as to maximize the production of great individuals and that concern for all only causes, in a zero-sum game, the weak to be elevated at the expense of the great, an effect that evolutionarily has disastrous consequences for the species as a whole. The pivot of this view, of course, is this notion of great individuals of human excellence.

The notion is reminiscent of Aristotle who held that within each member of a species is a potentiality, the ultimate figure of that species, and through its lifespan each individual is acting to actualize that potential. The great ones are those who come closest to full actualization, who come closest to becoming the embodiment of the perfect being. Excellence, the line goes, is a mark of attaining a higher level of human perfection and the more people we have of higher levels of perfection, the more they will serve as models for even higher perfection to follow.

But the fly in the ointment here is whether it actually is true that excellent people are, in fact, better people. Let me put forward the possibility that those who achieve excellence are the last ones we would want to serve as models of lives well-lived.

Let me posit that humans are multi-faceted and that all people will have a range of projects and relationships. We are all being pulled in many directions at the same time. Excellence in any of these areas requires focus that will necessarily detract from our excellence in other areas. There is example after example of great political leaders who are terrible parents, great athletes who are horrible spouses, great academics who are pathetic teachers, great figure skaters and tennis players who are sorry excuses for teenagers. Excellence, rising above the crowd, requires a mixture of talent and determination. The determination means that there will be other parts of life that fail to receive the attention they need to help the individual flourish. Excellence in one area seems to have deleterious effects in others, meaning that this naive picture of human excellence that the Randians hold is worrisome. Indeed, it seems not to be evolutionary at all, but rather harken back to the old religious pre-Darwinian notion of the Great Chain of Being. Could it be that these objectivists are much more religious than they let on?

This leads to the next question, which is where this single-minded drive to excel in an area of life comes from. What would lead you to neglect central parts of your life in the name of excellence? I wonder how much of this disregard on the part of those we consider truly great is actually the result of mental illness or at least extremely deep-seated insecurity. I remember an interview with Lance Alworth, the hall of fame wide receiver for the San Diego Chargers, who said that the thing that always drove him was a memory of his father advising him with the old chestnut, "No matter how good you are, there's always someone better." Apparently missing the point that the lesson to be learned from the aphorism is to always be humble, Alworth was so irritated by his father's insistence that he would never be the absolute best that he was constantly driven to make sure he was. At all times, it was of paramount importance to him that he prove his father wrong. Maybe it's me, but this seems more than a little pathological...and, I would contend, not particularly unusual. Those who are so driven often have something that is driving them.

To be more than good, but truly great requires sacrifice that would make most normal (and I would argue, rational) people say, "No, thank you." I posit that "love of the game," whether the game is football, academic scholarship, attaining political power, seeking social change, or whatever else one might engage in, will only get you to really good. To become great requires more and that more requires the willingness to step away from that which would make your life, writ large, well lived.

Am I glad that there are those who have made such irrational choices -- doctors who work all night and day to develop life-saving measures, civil rights activists who gave their bodies and lives in leading the charge for equality, artists who suffered to create great beauty? Yeah, I am. But while I am glad there are such people, I am also glad I am not one. Their works should be admired, but I am not sure they should be. Let me argue from a cliche...I'll assert as a premise, "jack of all trades, master of none," and conclude that the masters don't know jack.

If these Rand lovers want idols, they should not look at excellence, but at well-rounded competence. Of course, that would mean their heroes would not be heroic and so they couldn't set themselves up as superior, and that they would have to care about folks other than themselves since success in inter-personal relationships would become one measure of human achievement. But then, what do I know? I'm just a bleeding heart, mediocre philosopher who will never achieve greatness because he has too much fun playing around.

The Arab League in Israel

Post from Confused, Maybe Not today:

Israel may be on the path to a dream come true. First, let’s go back a little. After the six day war in 1967, Israel found itself occupying the Sinai peninsula from Egypt (including the Gaza strip), the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank from Jordan. Israel quickly offered to return the occupied land for peace and diplomatic relations. In September of 1967, The Arab League met in Khartoum Sudan and said “no” to peace with Israel, “no” to recognition of Israel, and “no” to negotiations with Israel. Six years later, Israel was nearly defeated in October, 1973 when Israeli forces were initially overrun by Egyptian and Syrian forces.

The 73 war cracked the perceived invincibility of Israel, which enabled Egypt to count it as a military victory. This sense of victory paved the way for Egyptian head of State Anwar Sadat to fly to Israel in 1977 where he spoke before the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem. (Sadat was assassinated by Islamic revivalists in October, 1981.)

Egypt was and is the only Arab State to negotiate land for peace with Israel, but Egypt did not take back Gaza, even though Israel virtually begged it, too. Egypt preferred that it stay occupied by Israel. Why? Gaza is hot bed for Palestinian nationalism and religious revivalism. Egypt’s secular regime had and has enough problems with its revivalists, The Muslim Brotherhood. Plus, Gaza was to be part of a future Palestinian state, which was part of Egypt’s negotiated settlement with Israel.

Jordan has also made peace with Israel, but it did not take back the West Bank. This time Israel did not beg the country to take back conquered land. Why? Many Israelis were and are deeply attached to the West Bank for three different reasons. One, the West Bank, which is called Judea and Samaria in Israel, is the heart and soul of ancient Israel. , and perhaps more importantly, the West Bank widened a very narrow country. (Before Israel occupied it, Israel was nine miles wide at its center, which includes Tel Aviv. Approximately, 60 percent of the Israeli populous lives in this nine mile wide area.) And three, Israel has built so many settlements on it that negotiating it away would be very complicated.

But as most Israelis have come to realize that it is impossible for Israel to occupy the West Bank indefinitely, the original idea of returning it to Jordan got a little currency while negotiating peace with Jordan. But Jordan did not and does not want the West Bank back, even though it would bring a great deal of agricultural fertility to Jordan. (In 1988, Jordan ceded its West Bank territorial rights to the PLO.) Jordan does not want it for four reasons. One, Palestinian nationalism is now fully grown. Two, this land is marked for a Palestinian state. Three, Jordan is ruled by the Hashemites, a clan that comes from Arabia, where as most Jordanians are Palestinian. The Hashemite rulers do not want or need a few million frustrated, nationalistic, angry Palestinians to ignite the underlying nationalism of the majority of Jordanians against the (Arabian) Hashemite dynasty, not to mention the rulers do not want their constituents being reminded that Jordan was once 76 percent of British occupied Palestine. And four, Jordan would not want to deal with Israeli reprisals for Palestinian strikes against Israel from Jordan. (In 1970 the PLO tried to overthrow the Hashemite ruler, King Hussein, which resulted in the war called Black September.) These are some of the many reasons King Abdullah is pushing both sides to make peace and make it quickly. Another, and perhaps a bigger reason, is his growing concern over Shi’a power in Iraq. (I suspect the Iraqi Shi’a have not forgotten that Jordan was Saddam Hussein’s ally when he murdered thousands of them right after the United States first Iraq war. (However, Jordan was not involved in the massacres.) Thus, Abdullah not only needs the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolved for domestic reasons, but also for a more focused, regional foreign policy.

As Israel builds its fence/wall and continues to expand settlements, the sense of urgency for a negotiated settlement is not lost on Palestinian President Abbas, and he is beginning to truly address Israeli security concerns. And Israel is doing what it should have done long ago in making it easier for Abbas to do this. In addition, the Arab league that once said, “No, no, no,” is ostensibly aware of the closing window on Palestinian Statehood and is sending an exploratory group to Israel to go over the Saudi Peace initiative. (A more likely reason for the Arab League’s new found desire to resolve the Palestinian crisis with Israel is to transfer resources from a potential war with Israel to a regional alliance against Iran’s expanding influence.) For the first time in Israel’s history, the Arab league will be hosted in Israel and its flag will be flown on Israel’s sovereign territory. (It’s important not to get too excited about this, for the exploratory committee will be made up of Jordanians and Egyptians, the only countries who have peace treaties with Israel.)

If peace is to emerge, it will most likely come from this path. But don’t count on it. Time has a way of changing things. Israel knows this and knows how to bide its time. Here’s another scenario.


Over a short period of time, the landscape has changed and is changing. King Hussein of Jordan died and his son, Abdullah, succeeded him. Abdullah is married to a Palestinian and their children are half Palestinian. This does not mean Abdullah wants the West Bank, but it does mean that if he ends up with it, the West Bank Palestinians will have a ruler whose successor will be half Palestinian, assuming the dynasty lasts. This is important, for it will make Jordan Palestinian from top to bottom. Why would Jordan end up with the West Bank? If the Palestinians do not unite and negotiate an independent state with Israel, Israel will unilaterally withdrawal to its soon to be completed wall/fence, leaving behind the most heavily populated Palestinian areas. Israel will pull up its own settlements and settlers, some of whom will threaten civil war, and bring them back to Israel. Israel did this with the settlers of Sinai and Gaza. (If some of the settlers resist, Israel will use its military as it almost did in Sinai and was prepared to do in Gaza. It’s important to note that many religious Jews – and there are some extreme messianic types in the West bank – are far more attached to the West Bank than they were to Sinai and Gaza. It could get messy, but the bulk of settlers live around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which places them on the Israeli side of the wall/fence.) If this happens, what happens to the rest of the West Bank? Does Jordan sever ties with Israel? Not likely, especially with the growing Shi’a power on its border with Iraq.

What will most likely happen is the West Bank will become a federated state with Jordan, which is what Israel has always wanted. Down the road, Israel and Jordan will negotiate a horizontal settlement over the Al Aqsa Mosque and East Jerusalem, while keeping the Western Wall and the Jewish sections of the old city. Israel has always felt more comfortable with a Jordanian solution than an independent solution with the Palestinians.

What will happen to Gaza? Egypt may accept it as a federated state. Most likely, Gaza will become a small, densely populated country. Most people in the West are unaware that there are significant cultural, economic and religious differences between the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank. Israel would like to see this separation emerge. One could argue that Israel’s greatest security asset, next to its skilled military, technological know how and nuclear arsenal, is the disunity of it neighbors. One of my (anti-Israel) undergraduate Professors once told me: “If a country is going to be surrounded by enemies, Israel is in the right spot. It’s neighbors can’t even agree to take a piss together.” And if the Palestinians are unable to unite, we may be watching the emergence of a very different status quo than what most non-Israelis hope and expect to emerge. But I wouldn’t bet on the above the possibility, especially when one looks at this from the goals of Palestinian President Abbas, and perhaps the Arab league.


We recently witnessed a Palestinian civil war in Gaza, which is on the brink of becoming a humanitarian disaster for the Palestinians there, if it isn’t already. Gaza is the most densely populated area on the planet, not to mention one of the most impoverished. With Hamas now in control of Gaza, what little money came in is no longer coming in from Europe and the Arab states (with perhaps the exception of Syria and non-Arab Iran). Unbelievably, Gaza is more isolated today than it has been, which is saying a lot, when one considers how isolated it has been.

With this said there may be a flicker of long term hope for the loser in Gaza’s civil war; west Bank resident, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. (Abbas’s PLO still controls the West Bank.) After visiting the U.S., Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, agreed to release Palestinian tax revenues totaling over 500 million dollars. Tragically, this money will not touch Gaza, but will solely be poured into the West Bank to strengthen Abbas. Israel is also taking steps to make travel easier for Palestinians in the West Bank. Under the table, the Bush administration is pushing Israel hard to make these moves, but paying them well for such decisions. Bush has agreed to give Israel 600 million more dollars next year.

What a strange moment for the European Jews of Israel. (I emphasize European, for the majority of Jewish Israelis come from or descend from those who came from Arab countries.) In his dissertation, Abbas basically denied the Holocaust and asserted that the Zionists worked with the Nazis to destroy some Jews in Europe to facilitate the Jewish colonization of Palestine. But that was then and this is now. Abbas is now the moderate from both his and Israel’s perspective.

Olmert also recently met with leaders from Egypt, Jordan and Abbas in Egypt. The messages from these meetings are twofold. One, Israel is being pushed to negotiate with Abbas. Two, life will get better in the West Bank. This twofold message ostensibly demands that Israel can no longer claim there is no one with whom to negotiate. More than ever, the surrounding states, Europe and the U.S. want to see an independent Palestinian State emerge and for Israel to help facilitate this development, which means Israel will be pressured like never before to negotiate a final settlement with Abbas. If this happens and we see an independent state emerge in the West Bank, (which is a very big if) Gaza will count as part of this country, whether Hamas accepts it or not.

What will happen to Hamas in Gaza? No one knows, which is one reason that Abbas’s hope is only a flicker. Hamas remains powerful in the West Bank and any support Abbas receives from Israel will taint Abbas as a collaborator in Hamas circles, which includes a great deal of the Palestinian population. On the other hand, if Israel comes to final status agreements with Abbas – peace (not a feel-good conclusion to hostilities, but an agreement to avoid violence between mutually antagonistic factions) could begin to emerge, which Abbas believes will be good for Gazans in the long run.

But whatever happens, and Abbas is well aware of this, the disunity – as explained above - serves Israel. If negotiations work, great. If they do not work, Israel gets the water in the West Bank and its dream come true as outlined above. For now, Israel will ostensibly pursue the path of Abbas’s dream with the understanding that when Palestinians fight each other, their attention is not focused on Israel. It’s important to remember when analyzing this conflict that Israel does not think like the U.S. does. Israelis accept terrorism as a given, as an in eliminable part of life. They understand that terrorism will never completely be eliminated, but begin from the standpoint that terrorist acts can be minimized through security measures, such as building the fence/wall, which has greatly reduced the number of suicide bombers getting into Israel from the West Bank. This approach renders American notions like “winning a war on terror” meaningless, instead speaking in more realistic term of achieving security objectives. In this way, Palestinian fighting/disunity serves Israel’s immediate security objectives.

Despite this, Abbas hopes that international pressure and Arab League diplomatic carrots will continue to pressure Olmert to (quietly) empower him (Abbas) in ways that create the ground for him to negotiate a final peace settlement with Israel. One thing about the Arab-Israeli conflict, when all seems lost, miracles happen, e.g. Sadat going to Jerusalem, the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn, etc. Let’s hope it’s time for a miracle of peace in the holy land.

Friday, July 20, 2007

I Just Live Here

It ain't my world, I just live here. Somedays, the world seems a little too weird not to have been conceived of by the Cosmic Comic. A few news stories:

From Gwydion's Things I Love and/or Hate comes this tale out of the Washington Post of an armed robbery, almost.

A grand feast of marinated steaks and jumbo shrimp was winding down, and a group of friends was sitting on the back patio of a Capitol Hill home, sipping red wine. Suddenly, a hooded man slid in through an open gate and put the barrel of a handgun to the head of a 14-year-old guest.

"Give me your money, or I'll start shooting," he demanded, according to D.C. police and witness accounts. The five other guests, including the girls' parents, froze -- and then one spoke. "We were just finishing dinner," Cristina "Cha Cha" Rowan, 43, blurted out. "Why don't you have a glass of wine with us?"

The intruder took a sip of their Chateau Malescot St-Exupéry and said, "Damn, that's good wine." The girl's father, Michael Rabdau, 51, who described the harrowing evening in an interview, told the intruder, described as being in his 20s, to take the whole glass. Rowan offered him the bottle. The would-be robber, his hood now down, took another sip and had a bite of Camembert cheese that was on the table.

Then he tucked the gun into the pocket of his nylon sweatpants. "I think I may have come to the wrong house," he said, looking around the patio of the home in the 1300 block of Constitution Avenue NE. "I'm sorry," he told the group. "Can I get a hug?"

Rowan, who lives in Falls Church and works part time at her children's school, stood up and wrapped her arms around him. Then it was Rabdau's turn. Then his wife's. The other two guests complied.

"That's really good wine," the man said, taking another sip. He had a final request: "Can we have a group hug?" The five adults surrounded him, arms out. With that, the man walked out with a crystal wine glass in hand, filled with Chateau Malescot. No one was hurt, and nothing was stolen.
Chateau Malescot St-Exupéry, yes, a fine choice. For armed robbery, you definitely need a big red. Now if it had been, say, embezzlement, you definitely would have wanted to go with something lighter. I mean, they don't call it "white" collar crime for nothing.

Confused, Maybe Not sent me this one about Daniel Kaufman, star pitcher for the Tel Aviv Lightning who had a no-hitter going against the Netanya Tigers at the opening of the new Sportek Field until it was broken up by a solo home run in the seventh. Tuesday night marked the grand opening of Sportek Field in Tel Aviv so Tel Aviv pitcher Daniel Kaufman commemorated the night with a dominating one-hitter, leading the Lightning to a 5-1 win over the Netanya Tigers.
Kaufman tossed a no-hitter through six innings before giving up a solo homerun to Dominican Julio Guerrero in the top of the seventh. The right-handed Georgian struck out nine batters while walking just one in 6 1/3 innings of work to earn his second win of the season.
Israeli professional baseball is much like it is here except that when they hit the ball, they run to third. That and after your seventh game, they take about an inch and a half off the end of your bat. Look for Kaufman to lead Tel Aviv to the Vorld Series. Oh, and when they say that Guerrero is a Dominican, they are not refering to his country of birth, he really is a Catholic friar.

And then from the "irony can be so ironic" file comes this pointed out to me by coyotesqrl from Eric Schwitzgebel of the wonderful Mind Splinters.
Why don't ethics professors behave better?

If you spent your whole life trying to work out how to be ethical, you would think you'd be more moral in everyday life. Philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel has found that this isn't the case, and asks the question "Why don't ethics professors behave better than they do?". Initially, this was based on a hunch, but Schwitzgebel, with colleague Joshua Rust, has begun to do research into the question. They've found some surprising results.

At a recent philosophy conference, he offered chocolate to anyone who filled in a questionnaire asking whether ethicists behaved better than other philosophers. It wasn't long before an ethics professor stole a chocolate without filling in a questionnaire. (This reminds me of a famous psychology study that found that trainee priests on their way to give a talk on 'The Good Samaritan' mostly ignored someone in need if they were in a hurry!).

When the results came in, ethicists rated other ethicists as behaving better, but other philosophers rated them as no more moral than everyone else.
I heard it said that a significant proportion of psychology majors are really attempts to self-diagnose. Maybe it's the same sort of thing here. In the same line, I will never forget hearing one philosopher considered as "that guy teaching ethics is like a blind man teaching aesthetics."

Ethicists stealing chocolate. Maybe they thought it would be helpful in case they needed a quick caffeine boost should they come across run-away trains and had to quickly decide whether to pull the lever and send it towards groups of infants or their sick mothers both of whom are tied to the tracks. In that case, taking the time to fill out the form would have led to unecessary death and taking the chocolate would not only maximize overall utility, but make sure the care-based relationships received ample consideration and the right to life of innocents would be figured in.

Yeah, I just live here.

Meaning and Memorial

I tend not to do too much on local politics, but this one is worth broader discussion. Frederick, Maryland was the home of the fifth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (the first Roman Catholic to hold that position), a man who was also the former Attorney General of the United States under Andrew Jackson. A man who was the brother-in-law of fellow Frederick lawyer Francis Scott Key, author of the "Star Spangled Banner." Surely such a mark of distinction and historical importance, especially for a small community, warrants prominent display of a public statue, and so such a remembrance -- and so there is a bust in front of city hall.

Nothing particularly interesting there, except that this man just happens to be Roger Brooke Taney, author of the infamous Dred Scott decision that declared any attempt by the legislatures of free states to undermine the ownership of slaves by those in slave-owning states to be inherently unconstitutional.

Taney declared that slaves could not to be considered people under the Constitution, especially not citizens of the United States (even those who had been freed or who were born in states which had abolished slavery) with the infamous words,

In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument.

It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted. But the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken.
His argument is that there is such precedent in English, Colonial, and early American law (both federal and state) that considered inferior and unfit for political inclusion that the language of all laws must be read to exclude them. The framers of the Declaration of Independence did assert that
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,
but since this group of signatories included slave owners, this sentiment can only be interpreted such that
neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument.

In light of his place making sure that institutional racism would be indelibly ensconced in our legal and political systems, many take it to be undesirable to memorialize him in such a public fashion. The fight is brewing and will be fought out on two questions.

(1) Is Taney more than the Dred Scott decision? He was certainly a figure of his time and while we may be bothered by the injustices of our past, the fact is that having had a local son as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court ought to be a mark of pride whether or not we are proud of his work. It is the office we are celebrating, not necessarily the results of the office. If there is something to learn from having overcome the problematic views of the past, we need to have them front and center and not whitewashed away. On the other hand, it is a celebration of the man and not just the office. Having been Chief Injustice of the Supreme Court ought to be a mark of embarrassment, not something to laud with one of the highest marks of civic pride. To overlook the decision of Scott v. Sandford is the equivalent of asking "Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the play?"

(2) It is a racial issue. Maryland is an odd state, neither wholly Union nor confederate during the Civil War, Frederick was a battleground. Its other historical claim to fame (beside John Greenleaf Whittier's poem of Frederick's clustered spires") is being the home of Barbara Fritchie, a resident who hung an American flag out her window as Stonewall Jackson's troops marched by and was shot to death for it. It is an area where racial tensions have never really abated. There are parts of Frederick county where you go in to buy sheets and they don't come in twin, queen or king, but 42 regular and the pillow cases come with eye holes in them. This is a case of celebrating or rejecting the areas racist history. The Dred Scott decision is a pivot point in American history for those who favor States' Rights and legal originalism. They argue that Taney was right to appeal to the framers' frame of mind and his defense of the Southern right to refuse northern intellectual aggression on its societal norms. These issues which have today been set out in much more abstract terms are not conceptual questions, but are inextricably linked to questions of liberation and equality, questions of who has the power. This move to remove Taney's bust is a power play by uppity local minority leaders to show that they now have power that local conservatives don't want them to have...and I say, more power to them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Meanings and Experts

A cliche I detest is "its just a matter of semantics," as if the meaning of words is a matter both simple and unimportant. As someone who works on questions of semantics for a living, let me tell you that it is neither trivial nor meaningless. What we mean by our terms and what falls under them can be crucial. Consider the notions of genocide or civil war.

Meanings are social things and usage changes over time. There is no doubt that definitions evolve over time due to any number of factors, one of them being politics. This has accelerated with folks like Frank Luntz feeding ready made re-worked categories to the media who lap up anything that looks like an easy narrative with ready to apply bumper sticker soundbites. As a result, any number of notions have been redefined for explicitly political ends. Perhaps the first one to really make clear the relation between political power and the ability to redefine crucial social terms was Friedrich Nietzsche in the Genealogy of Morals and he was exactly right when he argued that sometimes the triumph is so complete that the change in meaning of a term becomes invisible. We become so used to the new meaning, that we forget it used to mean something else. This is why it ought to frustrate progressives to no end when we hear Democrats speaking in those very terms, and tickle us when we see people challenging the frame of a question and not getting sucked into the presupposition that the language provide, as George Lakoff suggests.

The one of these terms that has undergone semantic plastic surgery that particularly gets under my skin is "values," usually employed in the phrase "values voter." The standard media usage of the term indicates that to have values, one must oppose all abortions and favor discrimination against gays and lesbians under the law, whereas anyone who cares about the plight of those in need, the health of the environment, economic fairness, and opposes bigotry clearly cannot be considered to be one who votes based upon his or her values.

A similar and not at all unrelated change has befallen the terms "religion" and "religious." From the "Methinks the Lady doth protest too much" school of political rhetoric, those who most loudly assert their "values" are often doing it precisely because their actions run counter to morally acceptable values. The appeal to religion puts their value claims beyond dispute or at least reflects badly on those who would question them. "How intolerant, you who preach tolerance." This usurpation of religious language by fundamentalist Christians has been long in the making. In one of the finest blog posts I have read, Barbara over at the Mahablog discusses the history and politics of this move. I generally don't like to link to articles that I don't have something to add in terms of constructive conversation, but this one is an exception. Please read it.

It is posts like this one that undermine arguments like that of Matt Bai. Quoted and discussed by Mike the livid life scientist, Bai writes,

The emergence of the Internet age has been accompanied, in general, by a steady devaluing of expertise. A generation ago, you went to the doctor to find out about the pain in your knee; now you go to WebMD, diagnose it yourself and tell him what medicines you want. People used to trust stockbrokers and insurance agents; now they buy and sell at E*Trade and compare policies online. American voters who once looked to newspaper columnists for guidance on politics now blog their own idle punditry. Suddenly, experience is downright suspect -- it's the barrier that so-called professionals use to wall themselves off from everyone else.
As Mike correctly points out, the pundits who have been given the positions to shape public discourse and belief generally are not legitimate authorities. Those we see commenting on Hardball, the MacLaughlin Report, or This Week, those on Diane Rehm's Friday round table or on the op/ed sections of the major papers are generally not people with a deep education in the fields they comment on. Instead they are part of a journalistic in-crowd. There is no doubt that there are Daniel Schorrs, Helen Thomases, and Jack Germonds who are well worth listening to because they are genuinely insightful with long memories and keen minds. But they are not the rule. The pundrity has largely become a club of insiders who confute membership and access for background and insight.

Well, but they are reporters, they've been doing their homework. Ah, yeah. Read David Corn's discussion of Bill Kristol who has permanent pundit status and instant access on demand to any major editorial page. Is Juan Cole, Professor of Near East studies at Michigan and author of Informed Comment, a better voice on the Middle East? Um, yeah. Can just anyone start a blog or post a diary on Daily Kos and spout off even if they don't really know what they are talking about? Yeah. Sure. Is there a lot of that out there? Mhm. But then there are folks like Glenn Greenwald, and Digby, and Barbara, who are more astute, better informed, and more cogent arguers than most anyone you read on the New York Times' op/ed page -- or at least did before it went behind the wall (Krugman excepted).

Most blogs are meant to be individual contributions to the general discourse, as the old Yiddish saying would put it, pissing in the ocean of public opinion. These are not meant to be substitutes for expert discussion. They are a substitute for large dinner table discussions that happen less and less. It is good for us to take on more responsibility for shaping our thoughts, sharpening our arguments. It is also good to go into the doctor having an understanding of what may be wrong with us and having thought through treatment options. The web does not make experts unnecessary, rather it elevates us to the point where we can make use of their expertise instead of merely bowing down before it.

Bullshit or Not: Einstein Edition

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon and one of the bits is a parody of the old Leonard Nimoy show, "In Search Of..." called, "Bullshit or Not?" (found a link to it on YouTube!) with the tagline "Bullshit or not? You decide." So I've stolen it for what is seeming to be a fairly regular series of posts.

This week, Albert Einstein on the two-state solution:

I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state. Apart from practical consideration, my awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power no matter how modest. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain -- especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks, against which we we have already had to fight strongly, even without a Jewish state. We are no longer the Jews of the Maccabee period. A return to nation in the political sense of the word would be equivalent to to turning away from the spiritualization of our community which we owe to the genius of our prophets.
So? Insightful? Naive? Utopian? Ignorant of the facts on the ground? Prophetic?

Does having a nation necessarily breed nationalism and does nationalism undermine that which we have to learn from culture? Is this an explicitly Jewish concern or something more universal?

Or...is it bullshit? As usual, feel free to leave responses ranging from a single word to a worked out dissertation. So, bullshit or not? You decide.