Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Iraq, Tinkerbell, Leo Strauss, and Nuclear Energy

Hanno asks,

If, as Bush argued, our leaving Vietnam lead to such harmful consequences, and if that is being used as a reason to stay in Iraq, doesn't the analogy only hold if Bush also thinks we should have stayed in Vietnam? If so, then by the argument, even though we had been there 20 years, lost 50,000 soldiers, destroyed the fighting capacity of our army, ripped the country in two, it would have been worth the cost... are we supposed to be willing to pay that price this time, too?
Are "we" supposed to be willing to pay that price? Whom do you mean by "we"? Bush paid little price for Vietnam, except for having to have his father call in a favor from the Texas governor to pull some strings for him and to make sure that the noble sacrifice would be made by others. So, yes, I think Bush is more than willing to pay the same price.

But what we are seeing here is a classic appeal to the "Tinkerbell strategy" -- in Peter Pan, we were told, "if you really believe in fairies, clap your hands and bring Tinkerbell back to life." Reality is not a Disney movie, so when Tinkerbell is not brought back, it would seem to make the most sense to argue that it's because fairies aren't real. But there's another approach: you could point to those who say fairies aren't real and contend that it is exactly your lack of support for Tinkerbell that kept her from coming back.

This invocation is beautiful because it is unfalsifiable. As long as you believe in your side's indomitable power, the only explanation for failure is lack of will on the part of your political enemies. My policy wasn't flawed, it was your opposition that doomed it. If only you would not oppose my ideas, they would all work. And even if you do go along, if my policies fail, it's not my fault, it's your fault because you were insufficiently enthusiastic about giving me more power. Works everytime.

It's the same line that German conservatives took after WWI and its the same line that American conservatives have spun since Vietnam. We lost because of those DFHs (dirty fucking hippies). The enemy is emboldened by your rational objections and lack of blind faith. Hemorrhaging American lives on the battlefield is like bloodletting with leeches, it actually makes you healthier. If we lose in Iraq, it is not because it was a bad idea from the start to invade a country that had not attacked us, dragging us into the very quagmire that the very people who were the architects of this war predicted when they didn't go into Iraq in the first Gulf War. It won't be because the combination of ideology, incompetence, and crony capitalism caused every single move in the country to be blundered. It won't be because the neo-conservative strategy is based upon a fairy story. Nope, it's those damn peace-loving DFHs again. If only they had been real men (who dodged the draft in Vietnam) and had the iron will (to let other people die), victory would have been ours.

Speaking of neo-conservative fairy stories, pm asks,
This article: appeared in this week's edition of the Reader. Apparently there is a movement among political theorists to revise the "popular" conception of Strauss' belief in the necessity of the "noble lie." I'm wondering what your take on this particular stripe of Straussian apologetics, centered as it is on Strauss' interpretation of Plato...
Great question. In my on-going project conducting oral histories with people connected to early logical empiricism, I had the pleasure of interviewing Franz Alt, who studied at the University of Vienna with Hans Hahn, Rudolf Carnap, and was a friend and classmate of Kurt Godel. His wife had studied political science at Chicago with Strauss and she, a liberal New Yorker, expressed the same sort of sentiment that's in the article, outrage at the neo-cons, but not seeing what they did in what she learned from the man himself.

Strauss was, in a term coined by our own Confused, Maybe Not, a philosopher of catastrophe. He was a Jewish intellectual fleeing the Holocaust and trying to make sense of what just happened. How did a society of high culture and science turn into hell on earth and how can we keep it from ever happening again?

Strauss saw the common person as being complicit in what happened in Germany, Austria, Poland, and so many other places and thought that his beloved Plato had it exactly right when he argued against Democracy. The people are not wise enough for the power. So, then, how does one rule them and keep their support while keeping their worst appetites at bay? This was the question he was left with in exile. His answer involved, amongst other things, controlling the masses, something his experience seemed to require.

While Strauss himself was never politically active, he happened to be at the right place (University of Chicago) at the right time to be an influence on a group that would form the forefathers and core of the neo-conservative movement: Irving Kristol, Allan Bloom, Paul Wolfowitz, and Abram Shulsky. Through them, a particular interpretation of Strauss emphasizing the themes that would become the intellectual heart of neo-conservative doctrine (when coupled with Francis Fukuyama's neo-Hegelian doctrine set out in The End of History) became dogma in the contemporary right as propelled and enforced by the American Enterprise Institute, Project for the New American Century, and other well-funded, highly influential institutions of the right.

Can we trace all of neo-conservativism's policy decisions and failures to Strauss himself? No. Are his writings an inextricable part of the story of today's world and the mess it is in? Yes.

BKriplur asks,
1. Are you for Nuclear energy? I took a tour of Limerick last year with my school's environmental law society. Looked OK to me...

2. Why didn't we read Wittgenstein in Language, Truth, and Reality? Not that I think we should have, but I am just curious.
Let's take them in order. Nuclear energy is a fantastic idea if you take it indirectly. Our sun is a star that maintains itself through nuclear fusion. That energy should be used to help free us from our dependence on fossil fuels. Nuclear fission, on the other hand, what happens with nuclear generating facilities is a different matter.

It turns out that Aristotle's claim that the moderate path is the best is true for atomic nuclei. Iron, right in the middle of the periodic table, has the nucleus which takes the least amount of energy to maintain making it very stable. If you are lighter or heavier than iron, then it is energy advantageous for you to move towards being iron. In other words, if you are a light atom, by taking in other light atoms as roommates, you save energy which can be given off when you move in together and turned into electricity. This is how the sun works, turning hydrogen into helium and sending the extra energy out as light and heat which we then turn into electricity using solar panels. Or, if you are a heavier element, you could break up your nucleus creating two smaller atoms, each of which takes less energy to maintain than the atomic behemoth it was previously. The extra energy is given off as kinetic energy -- very fast moving neutrons are shot out in the break up. These neutrons then ping off of other molecules, say water, causing them to heat up, causing steam. We can them use the steam to turn a turbine and give us electricity. This is how a nuclear power plant works.

The claim that nuclear energy is zero emissions is correct in that there is no pollution put into the air as a result. But, that does not mean there is no pollution from the process. The fuel used in nuclear power is a particular isotope of Uranium (U-235). It is not the isotope of Uranium most often found in nature (U-238) which is less desirable because it has a longer half-life. So, step one of the process is to separate off the usable 235 from the 238. This causes there to be large amounts of radioactive U-238 to be left around to be disposed at the end of the enrichment process. This is the "depleted Uranium" we hear about which is then used in armaments and left to contaminate war zones.

Then there is the spent fuel rods. the Uranium gives us electricity by giving off electrons and heating up water, but eventually, enough of the fuel will have broken down from Uranium into Plutonium to not be useful anymore and will need to be replaced. Of course, then we are left with radioactive Plutonium mixed in with some remaining U-235.

If we use more nuclear energy, we generate more waste which is very dangerous and difficult and expensive to dispose of well. There is no doubt that we have problems with emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and this is contributing to ecological problems. But to say that nuclear power is the solution because it gives off solid waste and not fumes is like saying that you'd prefer someone take a dump in your livingroom because you don't like the way it smells when he passes gas.

All of this, of course, does not even begin to touch on the eventuality of a Three Mile Island/Chernobyl style accident or terrorist attack on a facility. With other alternative ways of generating energy and needing to find more ways to limit our energy use, nuclear just seems like a really bad idea.

Second question: Why didn't we read Wittgenstein in Language, Truth, and Reality? Um, the rest of us did...I'll admit not a lot, though, so it would be easy to forget. I only look at the section of Philosophical Investigations that looks at names, the Moses section (sections 60-64). Wittgenstein launched much of what is argued on most sides of most debates in the field, so a philosophy of language class could be very heavy of Wittgenstein, looking at his insights and tracing out the arguments that came from them, or you could teach it as I do, looking at the debates post-Wittgenstein. So when we read Kripke, Searle, Austin, and most others, the Wittgenstein was in there, we jumped ahead to how it played out instead of tracing it from him. When you have but 13 weeks and an entire field (and a difficult one at that) to introduce, you have to make choices, and scaling back the Wittgenstein in favor of more contemporary pieces was the choice I made.