Pedantry - Moved to

Friday, April 11, 2003
Wars, Massacres and Atrocities of the Twentieth Century

I found this site through Bruce Sterling's blog. In an era when "he kills his own people" is bandied around so freely in political discourse, I thought some of the points being made here were quite important, especially this bit:

From Wars, Massacres and Atrocities of the Twentieth Century:
If you look carefully at the chart with the intention of determining which race, religion or ideology has been the most brutal, you'll see a pattern emerge. It's quite a startling pattern, so I'd rather you find it by yourself. Go back and take a second look. I'll meet you at the next paragraph after I explain that, honestly, I did not manipulate the data. I simply took the most likely death toll (military and civilian) among the natives of each country (such as all the South Vietnamese -- ARVN soldiers, civilians and Viet Cong -- who were killed in the Vietnam War), and divided it by the population of that country (prewar). I didn't take, say, only the military dead, or only the victims of genocide. I didn't arbitrarily decide to split one horror into two in order to make each seem smaller (the only borderline case is that I calculated the Russians dead from WW2 and Stalin separately. A judgement call.), or eliminate countries of a certain size. No, I had no predetermined point to prove. I did the math and let the chips fall where they would. (Here are the raw numbers if you want to check behind me.)

That's why I was so startled to discover that there is absolutely no pattern to the chart. If I had simply picked 25 countries out of a hat, I could not have gotten a more diverse spread than we've got here. We've got rich countries and poor countries; industrial and agrarian; big and small. We've got people of all colors -- white, black, yellow and brown -- widely represented among both the slaughterers and the slaughterees. We've got Christians, Moslems, Buddhists and Atheists all butchering one another in the name of their various gods or lack thereof. Among the perpetrators, we've got political leanings of the left, right and middle; some are monarchies; some are dictatorships and some are even democracies. We've got innocent victims invaded by big, bad neighbors, and we've got plenty of countries who brought it on themselves, sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind. Go on -- take a third look. Find any type of country that is not represented among the agents of a major blooding, and probably the only reason for that is that there aren't that many countries in that category to begin with (There are no Hindu or Jewish countries on the chart, but then, there's only one of each on the whole planet, and they're both waiting in the wings among the next 25.).

In a way, it's rather disheartening to realize that we can't smugly blame the brutality of the century on the Communists, or the imperialists, or the Moslem fundamentalists, or the godless. Every major category of human has done it's share to boost the body count, so replacing, say, Moslem rulers with Christian rulers, or white rulers with black rulers, is not going to change it at all.

And Iraq isn't even in the top 25, or at least it isn't yet.

Homosexuality as a class issue

There's some interesting points up on MacDiva's website about the very subject I blogged on below.

Liberals, as reflected in the poll, tend to think homosexuality is genetically determined. I believe that is because we perceive gays as outsiders like racial minorities. There is ample proof of historical discrimination against gays, in criminal law particularly. So, it is easy to perceive homosexuals as being disfavored by the status quo. The reality, as I described above, is more complex, once class, race, education and political positions of gays as a group are considered. The U.S. Supreme Court has chosen to apply a tiered analysis to gender and race discrimination, with racial discrimination subject to more scrutiny because there is less basis for it. Add sexual preference (there is no constitutional protection for homosexuality) and I believe it would fall even lower in the tiered analysis because so little of what justifies protections for women and minorities is applicable to gays.

But why do liberals believe homosexuality is innate? I will hazard a guess that it has to do with gays being an invisible minority. Racial minorities' visibility makes them subject to very overt discrimination every day of their public lives. Homosexuals need not be subject to such scrutiny. However, if they are also Other, though less apparently, they fit under the umbrella of oppressed minority as well as women and the non-white. A people being abused by society because of something it can't help is on the wrong side of the status quo. Liberals consider such people part of our constituency.

She may have a point. Claiming something is biologically fixed makes it a lot easier to link someone's civil rights as a political cause to the battle - to some extent already over and won - over the rights of visible minorities. This is not dissimilar to the analysis I put forward, but mine was oriented towards a somewhat different end.

I think MacDiva's version is neater from a rhetorical point of view, although I discourage the use of the capitalised "Other" for the same reasons that I dislike speaking of the "Right" and "Left" in capitals. My reasons for doing so are basically the ones she uses in her arguments: the "Other" is not quite so simple and monolithic as the term's usage would lead you to think.

Doing a little bit of remodelling on a slow Friday

I had hoped to have all the heavy equipment through fast enough that hardly anyone would notice. So, if stuff keeps moving around while you reload, bear with us, it will all be over soon.

Update: The blogroll is now self-randomising. I'm hoping that shifting it over to won't slow load times down too much.
Further Update: I think it's over now.
Final Update: Fixed the bug when there's no javascript. Now I'm done.


Did anybody else know that there is a royal wedding tommorow? I mean, besides Vaara.

I must not be watching enough television.

Get Your War On

The new Get Your War On is up.

Thursday, April 10, 2003
The gay gene

Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, and Kieran Healey have all blogged today on the apparent paradox of liberals believing that homosexuality is inherited and conservatives rejecting that conclusion, when on most issues the tendency is for the reverse to be true.

Since Mrs. Tilton at The 6th International is preparing to resume our running debate on the merits and faults of evolutionary psychology, I thought I might comment on this issue to get back into practice.

First of all, I'm a liberal and I'm critical of the idea that homosexuality is in our genes in any rigourously causal way. I'm critical in general of the idea that all but the very simplest properties of humans are linked in a rigourously causal way to our genes, and this issue is no exception.

It's true that both sides are putting ideology ahead of... well, their other ideologies. People like to think that if something is genetic then we can't attach blame to the person, as if the person is in some way separable from their bodies and their genes. I have little truck with this sort of informal Cartesianism. I think that is why many liberals and gay people are attached to the idea that homosexuality is inherited, and I think it's a bad way to go for the champions of social equality.

People who believe that homosexuality is an unhealthy, corruptive, evil influence in the world are not going to say, "Oh, it's genetic. Well, that's alright then. Go ahead and an get it on with as many people of the same gender as you like."

I am not saying that homosexuals just "decide" to be gay, as if it was like choosing where to go to college. I refuse the false dichotomy that says that if it isn't genetic, it must somehow be a personal choice, or that if being gay isn't in the genes then it must somehow be "curable." I'm not gay and I have no special insight to offer into the psychology of sexual preferences. Frankly, the causes of sexual orientation are not something I'm terribly concerned about.

I hate to use cliché platitudes, but just to make it clear where I stand on this - and since I have at least one gay friend who reads this blog - I don't think there's anything wrong or unnatural about being gay and I fully support the political agenda of social equality without regard to sexual orientation. It's just that I have come to that conclusion on grounds that have nothing to do with whatever causes sexual orientation in humans.

Love and companionship are hard enough to find in the world. (Heck, just finding good sex can be a challenge.) I just can't see any reason other than cruelty to deny it to people on the trivial grounds of gender. That seems to me to be a more than good enough justification for my political convictions.

Note: This is a revised version of this post, and some of the comments refer to an earlier version.

More silly quizzes on the web

Via Matthew Yglesias, there is a quiz to match you up with a Protestant denomination. My results: apparently, I'm a Methodist.

The result listed 25 denominiations in order of how well they matched my answers. Number one was the United Methodist church, followed by the Presbyterians and the Evangelical Lutherans. Number six is the fairly mainstream Mennonite Church USA and number eleven is my grandfather's church, the Mennonite Brethren.

I have to admit to being kind of surprised to see such a good match for evangelical churches, and especially for the Mennonites. But, the Southern Baptists came in at #22 - and I think they're a horrible match for me - so I suspect that the results are skewed by a fairly small database of denominations.

Wednesday, April 09, 2003
Found on the web

[Via The Path of the Paddle (who really ought to go on the blogroll when I get off my butt and add it) and The Infrequent Itinerant, who I stole it from.]

"These are not the droids you are looking for. Move along."

All your thesis belong to us

Reading Thoughts Arguments and Rants this afternoon while feeling frustrated at a misbehaving web craplet that I am currently authoring, I came across Battlefield God. It is a quiz that tests for consistency in your beliefs about God.

I appear to have done pretty well. I took no hits and bit one bullet. The average to date, apparently, is 1.37 hits and 1.10 bullets. From the explanation, I take it to mean that my beliefs are consistent, although in one case I've had to agree to a conclusion most people have trouble with.

The bullet I bit is described as follows:

Bitten Bullet 1

You answered "True" to questions 7, and 15.

These answers generated the following response:

You've just bitten a bullet! You are consistent in applying the principle that it is justifiable to base one's beliefs about the external world on a firm, inner conviction, regardless of the external evidence, or lack of it, for the truth or falsity this conviction. The problem is that it seems you have to accept that people might be justified in their belief that God could demand something terrible.

This is something many religious people are willing to accept. For example, Kierkegaard believed that it is precisely because Abraham had to contravene established morality to follow God's will and attempt to sacrifice his son which made his act the supreme act of faith.

But as Kierkegaard also stressed, this makes the act incomprehensible from a rational point of view. The rational alternative - that people should require more than such an inner conviction to justify such a belief - is more attractive to most people, but you reject this alternative and bite the bullet.

The actual question was as follows:

Question 15:

The serial rapist Peter Sutcliffe had a firm, inner conviction that God wanted him to rape and murder prostitutes. He was, therefore, justified in believing that he was carrying out God's will in undertaking these actions.

I answered that this is true.

Now, if there is anyone who reads me for my rather far from mainstream philosophical principles, you should know that I am quite happy to bite this bullet and I am completely comfortable with my conclusion.

Peter Sutcliffe was justified in believing that he was carrying out God's will. Of course, he was - to use the professional criminological term - nuts. When someone is nuts, what may be perfectly reasonable to them is no less nuts just because it may be perfectly reasonable to them. And just because they may be quite justified in holding their beliefs doesn't mean that I, as a member of society who seeks protection from murderous loons, have to put up with it.

This is part of the false paradox people seem to believe is tied up in the ill-defined doctrine called relativism. I admit that my own convictions probably do not really derive from some Spock-like logical examiniation of the universe. I am hard pressed to guarantee, even to myself, that the chains of reasoning I use to justify my beliefs aren't just rationalisations. I've seen plenty of people rationalise without ever being aware that they are doing it, and I don't think that I am in some way naturally superior to them.

Furthermore, making the effort to ensure that you only believe that which follows logically from dispassionate and rigourous deduction is a pointless exercise best left to late night arguments in undergraduate dorms. My principles are the product of a limited life path and a mind of finite and not fully understood properties. So were Peter Sutcliffe's, and I have no access to any sort of God's eye view that would enable me to know, with rigourous and unquestionable certainty, that God didn't want him to go rape and murder those women.

However, such an admission does not mean that I am indifferent. I do not concede the authority and power to judge Peter Sutcliffe's actions. I don't want to live in a world where serial rapists and murders can act freely and openly. If you tell me that that desire is the product of my prejudices and narrow perspective on the universe, so be it. I'm still happier to see the guy locked up somewhere.

I can not avoid judging other people's beliefs, and I do not have some ironclad logical foundation to base my judgements on. That doesn't mean my judgements are arbitrary, or that I don't think them right, but it does mean that my principles only have force to the limited degree that other people are willing to tolerate the actions that follow from my beliefs.

That may help explain why I think creationism is an ideological issue, and not a matter of true and false.

This sort of metatheory is hardly original. I've read bits and snippets of it here and there, but I've never seen someone else put it all together. But, I'm not as well read in philosophy as I ought to be. At any rate, that is what I mean by relativism and that is why I treat a lot of things as matters of ideological preference when many people treat them as matters of scientific certainty or simple morality.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003
If the name Robert Nozick means anything to you...

...then you have to read this post over on Brad Delong's blog. I snorted Diet Coke out my nose all over my keyboard when I read it. (Dammit! I can't find another qwerty keyboard and I am not using azerty!)

Greeley, Colorado

If there is a place on earth that I never imagined I would revisit, even rhetorically, it is the city of Greeley, Colorado.

Greeley has recently made the blogs, starting with this post on Eschaton. It was something of a shock to me, because Greeley makes the news basically never, and because Greeley, Colorado was the very first place in the United States where I lived. My family moved there in the fall of 1980 so that my father could pursue a graduate degree at the University of Northern Colorado. We stayed a total of three years, until my mother had completed her Bachelor's degree and obtained a Master's degree, and my father had completed the coursework for his Ph.D.

Some students at a high school in Greeley undertook a symbolic walkout the other day against the war in Iraq, apparently only during the period they would have had free anyway and only after consulting with the school authorities. This - as far as I can tell from that bastion of the fourth estate The Greeley Tribune - has caused a great deal of unhappiness and tension in the community. The comments at the Greeley Tribune are rife with bad stuff. Like this:

These are nothing but educated idiots. Since when have the students taken charge of the school? They have no responsibility, nor sympathy for the Iraqi people, or education of what happens if we let these psychos' become more powerful. Every country is in danger. Freedom of speech is one thing. Doing it in the appropriate place is another. I'm not putting my money in a school system that allows kids to take charge.

Or this:

Most of the American heroes that are fighting for freedom are close in age to the protesters. I would like to see the students tell the heroes face to face why they are protesting against freedom.

And this one is a particular gem:

Vanquishing the Oppressor:

The Bible states in Proverbs 3:31 “Envy thou not the oppressor, and choose none of his ways.” I wish the protesters in this “the land of the free and the home of the brave” would read and understand this and many verses of the Bible which talk about wicked leaders and people. [...] To you protestors, this is the oppressor that you are supporting when you protest a righteous liberation of a people by the United States military. Iraq is totalitarian country where the only law is the law of Sadaam Hussein. One man in Iraq controls the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion. That man is Sadaam Hussein. He does not allow dissent.

The Greeley Central students who walked out and protested the United States act of liberating a nation of people ought to be ashamed of themselves. These students are probably the offspring of the 1960’s hippie generation that protested during the Vietnam era. With the help of those protestors in the 1960’s, our military was not allowed to win the war in Vietnam and the people of South Vietnam were then placed under the tyrannical communist oppression of those in Hanoi. Thousands of South Vietnamese citizens were killed and placed into reeducation prisons and their children taken prisoner by a cruel form of government. Thousands of our military were kept imprisoned and tortured even-though the war was over. These protestors of today firmly align themselves with the communist led United Nations instead of the freely elected government of their own nation. I am ashamed of the protestors of this nation. The soldiers of this nation have shed their blood for your freedom. They have lost their lives for your right to assemble. They have given it all so that you may have liberty. You have slapped them in the face and given comfort to the enemy for the blood that they have shed for you.

I hope that the majority of the people of this nation that still respect this the only Representative Republic on the face of God’s earth will join me in praying for the leadership of this nation, our military personnel, the civilians of Iraq, for Sadaam Hussein and his subordinates to be vanquished and for the liberation of the nation of Iraq. I will also pray for the souls of you idiotic protestors who do not understand the gift of liberty that our forefathers have given you. I also apologize if you public school educated protestors don’t understand that the United States has never been what you were taught in school, a democracy. It is a Representative Republic.

May God bless and Protect all of our military personnel stationed throughout this world and with his grace bring them home safely after the battle has been won. For those who perish in this battle against oppression, Lord, please assure them that their lives were not given in vain and without our heartfelt gratitude and love.

Of course, there are a few less negative views expressed. Not many in support of the protests, but a few in support of students being allowed to protest. There are at least a few people in Greeley who know what freedom of speech and assembly mean. But the rest, especially the long quote above, is probably at least as representative of the townspeople.

Let me tell you about Greeley. Greeley was founded, IIRC, shortly after the Civil War as a utopian community of morals and piety. When I lived there, I think bars were still banned inside the city limits. It was named after Horace Greeley, who never set foot in the town, and was built on the then fashionable "American" city plan: numbered streets and avenues, in consecutive order, all perpendicular and evenly spaced. You need only know the address of a house in Greeley to know precisely how to find it, unless it's in an area built after WWII. From the 50's onwards, city planning styles in America changed, and cul-de-sacs with streets named after trees became the norm. Anyone who has traveled in the Great Plains will know exactly how Greeley looks from the dozens of other small cities just like it.

The town had two industries. One was the university, a source of state money and income transfers from people all over Colorado whose kids just weren't good enough to get into UC Boulder. The school also had a surprisingly large body of foreign students.

The other industry was the Monfort feedlot. Monfort was - and I believe still is - the single largest feedlot in the world. At any time, a quarter of a million head of cattle were there, spending the last three weeks of their lives in tiny open-air compartments, gorging themselves on an endless supply of food. There are many things I've forgotten about Greeley, but the one I will never forget is the smell when the wind turned and the city found itself downwind from Monfort. You see, when a quarter-million head of cattle are all in one place and you're basically pouring food through their bodies, well, they shit. They shit a lot. Vast mountains of cowshit.

But, for many folks, the occasional ill odour was a small price to pay for secure, unionised jobs with benefits and regular raises requiring no advanced education. The community was an active centre for trucking and rail - cows come in, beef goes out - as well as having a thriving local agricultural economy, providing mountains of feed to the plant despite the notoriously low rainfall and poor fertility of Colorado soils. And the university added that smattering of culture and cosmopolitanism that let people convince themselves that Greeley was not all about cows.

Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation documents much of what was going on at Monfort during the period when I lived in Greeley. The short version: The owner shut down the plant and reopened it later, in large part in order to rid himself of an unwanted union. For Greeley, this was devastating. One family that we knew well had a house with a mortgage so far in arrears that their bank actually gave them free furniture and carpets when the bank remodelled, in order to raise the value of the house when they inevitably seized it.

Greeley was a town being screwed by the Reagan revolution and the recession Paul Volcker engineered to end stagflation, and not incidentally to rid American businesses of their unions. While I remember people at the university with "Impeach Reagan" bumperstickers, the town seemed implacably conservative. It was not, however, a lily-white middle-American community. It had a large Mexican and Mexican-American population as well as a very large Arab student body. I remember one of my mother's friends was a Palestinian from the West Bank, and our neighbours in Student Family Housing (dorms for grown-ups with kids) were Iraqi. I don't remember the foreign students causing much tension, but if they had, I probably wouldn't have known. I wonder if Greeley still has so many Middle Eastern students?

My parents, hoping to keep me out of reach of the hated American public school system, sent me to a "Christian" school. There, I learned that the answer to "What would Jesus do?" is "Nuke Russia!" My 5th grade teacher was a rabid anti-feminist and former Marine, for whom God seemed inextricably linked to patriotism, patriarchy and military service.

It was there that I learned that the "Christian Nation" has a flag and an anthem, and that churches sometimes fly the Stars-and-Stripes right next to it. It was in Greeley that I was first exposed to the notion that God was an American, that America lost in Vietnam because of the "liberal" media (as opposed to the idea that many people in Vietnam didn't want America to win), and that America had never lost a war before they got rid of prayer in schools. I also learned that the Book of Revelations describes how the Soviet Union is going to attack Israel with its Syrian allies, bringing on the rapture and the End Times and that this simple truth is obvious to anyone who has studied scripture. I learned that the war in Afghanistan was really about how the Soviet Union needed a warm water port, so it had to occupy Pakistan. (For some reason, my teachers were unaware of the Soviet naval base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, even though one of them had been stationed there less than a decade earlier when it had still been an American naval base.)

I learned that the Civil War wasn't about slavery, it was about "secular European culture." I learned that Southern people loved their Negros, and that most would have been quite happy to free them, except that they were culturally unprepared for American life. Slavery, you see, was an altruistic act on the part of the slave owners. I was quite surprised to find out that black people have problems in America because they were freed too soon. I was informed, to my great surprise, that the founding fathers had explicitly intended for America to be a Christian nation, and that the separation of church and state was the creation of a cabal of Yankee liberals who the true, Christian sons of the South had tried, and failed, to resist.

I learned so many things there.

I learned that many teachers are in the habit of dividing their students into exactly two groups: the compliant and the non-compliant, and that I wanted to be non-compliant. It was in Greeley that I learned that if you don't want to say the Pledge of Allegiance, you don't have to. And I didn't. And it was there that I learned that there is only one thing that will keep your teachers in line: well-spoken and extremely vocal parents. You can cause fear indirectly if your parents scare the hell out of your teachers.

So, I took to using Canadian spellings in school. I reminded my history teacher that America had lost the War of 1812. (It was not a victory for the US nor a draw - the British burned Washington DC down. When you loose your capital and have to make concessions at the peace talks, you've lost.) I relished my different identity and I enjoyed failing to fit any pigeonhole my teachers could try to put me in. These are habits that have stayed with me through school, where I have always enjoyed grinding my teachers down before they can grind me down.

But I do recall one particular incident that has some bearing on student protests.

After two years of private school, my parents had to place me in a public middle school for grade 7. There, I encountered a much more diverse student body. We didn't live in the best part of town, so many students were the children of the school's many Middle Eastern graduate students or the local Hispanic underclass. Half of the school - me included - benefitted from the free school lunch programme that Reagan tried to kill. (Remember how ketchup was a vegetable?) We still had to say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, and I still wouldn't do it. My teachers though, a far more battle-hardened lot than my private school teachers, mostly just left me alone.

On the 5th of May 1983, just as the school year was ending, a large group of students simply left the campus. I remember watching them walk off, a couple lighting up cigarettes as they went. They were all Hispanic. When I asked the teacher what had happened she said that it was Cinco de Mayo, and that the Mexican students had asked for the day off because of it.

That is why it surprises me so much to hear that Greeleyans are in such a snit about a little protest that didn't even disrupt school. If the Mexican kids could go then, why can't the protesters do this now?

Perhaps Greeley schools no longer permit children to just leave because they might prefer a non-gringo cultural identity. Back in the early 80's, the racial lines were still pretty clearly drawn in Greeley, but unless the town has done a 180 degree turn in its cultural relations, I expect that it is still a place where the people who aren't accepted as Americans are still grudgingly allowed to not be American.

It is a real shame that it is also a place where Americans are not allowed to be themselves.

But there is one other thing I want to share about Greeley.

I learned so much about American life in Greeley, and today, I have learned that I am not the only one who learned a lot of lessons about America there. You see, Greeley has a link to Middle Eastern terrorism - a very important one. I have learned today, from the Guardian and Eschaton's comments that Greeley, Colorado figures prominently in the works of one Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual founder of modern Islamic fundamentalism. This is a man whose words and ideas permeate the speeches and writings of Osama bin Laden himself.

It seems that Qutb attended the Colorado State College of Education - the institution now called the University of Northern Colorado - in the late 1940's. Perhaps that is why there seemed to be so many Middle Eastern students there in my youth? At any rate, upon his return from Greeley, Qutb had gone from having a moderately poor view of the West, primarily from his experiences under British colonial government and his objections to US and UK support for Israel, to completely rejecting the West and all its values.

A quote from Qutb about his observations of American religion in Greeley: Nobody goes to church as often as Americans do [...] Yet no one is as distant as they are from the spiritual aspect of religion. Remarkably, I remember my father saying more or less the same thing.

So, in the unlikely event that anyone from Greeley who thinks war protests are treasonous is reading this, I want to point out that your community has already once served as an example of America to someone whose ideas matter a great deal. Right now, you may well be serving as an example of American tolerance to some future Sayyid Qutb. What lessons are you teaching them?

Monday, April 07, 2003
Evolution, but not evolutionary psychology

There's a long comments section on the "Tennessee Taliban" on several blogs right now. It starts with an article in some local Tennessee newspaper over a school board debate about textbooks, continues on Eschaton (links foobar), Matt Yglesias, Pandagon and probably elsewhere. This is a good chance for me to post something not about the war or about how depressed I am about American politics, so I'm going to jump at it.

At the root of this debate is always the tension between the idea that government should either not advance any sort of ideology and the idea that some things, like evolution, are simply true and the state should have no truck with falsehoods even if the public likes them.

Bollocks. It is nonsense to imagine evolution, or any scientific notion, to be an eternal truth held entirely apart from what people think about it. How many people - including evolutionary biologists - can claim to have personally verified the morphology of every fossil, or done the DNA tests, or read even most of the debates within evolutionary theory? Perhaps none? No more than a very small handful, I should think. How much less likely is it that those of us who are not specialised in biology, but merely think of ourselves as cosmopolitain, twenty-first century kinds of people, have personally verified the truth of evolution? Expressing a preference for evolution over some other idea about the origin of life is a decision which few people can claim to have made exclusively on the grounds of personal verification of any aspect of it.

Religious creationists take creationism to be true because they accept the authority of the Bible, or rather a particular tradition of interpretation of selected portions of the Bible, as an authority about the history of the world. People who agree with the core claims of evolution accept a vaguely defined notion of scientific acceptance as an authority about the same things. These claims can not be reconciled. They are equivalent in the sense that both are claims about the proper source of authority.

People must not be mistaken about this because it is important: the battle over evolution is about the proper source of authority over certain claims about the world.

Now, in recent years, having discovered that opposition to science per se is boldly going nowhere, creationists have adopted a sort of vulgar relativist position. They claim that both sources of authority are equal and that the state shouldn't favour one over another. Again, bollocks. The state not only can, but should and must have an ideology. A state - or any kind of society - free of ideological predispositions is utter nonsense. Does anyone imagine that the American state has no predispositions about the legitmacy of elected government? Is it even dimly plausible that the state has no economic ideology whatsoever? The state is, hopefully, rightly tolerant of those who might disagree with its ideology. By claiming the state must have an ideology, I am not in any way advocating the criminalisation of contrary beliefs. I think a liberal state's ideology ought to include the notion that a crime can only be an act, or a failure to act when the consequences are clear, and not any purely mental or ideological stance or a purely communicative act.

The real issue is what ideology do you want the state to favour. I want the state to recognise the authority of scientists over certain kinds of claims in preference to religious claims. I am expressly quite vague about just which those claims are, and I do not believe that scientists should have authority over just any sort of claim that someone might think is within their purview. I do not think scientific authority should be accepted without criticism or caveats both from within and from outside of the scientific community. I have no desire to establish an unlimited technocracy, and I have no intention whatsoever of claiming that scientists are above corruption or dishonesty. I merely think it is appropriate for the state to advance an ideology which rejects religious authority as grounds for public policy and does not automatically reject comparable claims to scientific authority.

I reject vulgar relativist claims that there is no way to judge between two different claims to authority. I can damn well judge between them if I want to. Why should I prefer scientific authority to religious authority? I might well prefer an authority that has a history of limiting its claims and tempers them with extended criticism. I might point to the cultural traditions of scientists, who are largely tolerant of diversity outside of their own rather parochial debates. I might look at the homophobia, sexism and racism that for many people derives from the acceptance of a religious authority of some kind. Or I might simply look at the world around me, the food in my fridge, the machines that make my life vastly easier than my agricultural ancestors and the cushy job I have programming computers and say that science has done a whole hell of a lot more for me than religion has. Any or all of those things, and no doubt many others, might serve as reasons why someone would want the state to recognise scientific authority and not religious authority.

But don't fool yourselves. This is a political and ideological fight. I want one side to win and not the other, and I want it because I have a preference for the consequences of that ideology, not because of some all-powerful debate-ending incontestable logic that the other side is simply choosing to ignore. Creationists certainly know that this is about culture and the authorities our culture recognises, and we will not beat them by pretending that it is about something else.

Freedom begins at home

People have a variety of reasons for denouncing the war in Iraq, varying from the highly pragmatic to the deeply personal. Mine is basically that this war is at best nothing but vigilanteism masquerading as liberation - displaced revenge for 9/11 - and at worst an attack on the liberties of everyone in the world.

To wit, I cite the following article in this morining's Pakistan Daily Times which I found via Road to Surfdom:

If everyone falls into line, who will ask the questions?

For three more British soldiers, this war is over. These men did not die in accidents though, or in combat, or in friendly fire. They have instead been sent home to their base in Colchester after raising objections to the conduct of the war.

They specifically questioned the killing of innocent civilians, more of who are reported to have died in the invasion of Iraq than soldiers. The Ministry of Defence says there is “no evidence” to suggest that the men refused to fight. Nevertheless, the three may face court martial and up to two years in prison.

The soldiers, who include a private and a technician, are from 16 Air Assault Brigade, which is engaged in protecting oilfields in Southern Iraq. While their protests are obviously embarrassing to the Government, some reports suggest that its discomfort will be all the greater, since military chiefs are already deeply concerned about “growing evidence” of civilians being killed in fighting by US soldiers in the urban areas of the south. [...]

Yet the plight of these three men, who will necessarily be punished for speaking their minds, even though they were in Iraq ostensibly to liberate people so they could have that very freedom, throws light on the attitudes of those who say that a failure to back the troops in Iraq from the “home front” is a betrayal.

This is the kind of thing that makes one suspicious of the liberators. Indeed, stories of mass civilian deaths are beginning to leak out, and they will no doubt be attributed to Saddam. I suspect that is the very essence of the American media strategy, clamp down on reporting during the war, and afterwards blame Saddam for everything.

But what is the most suspicious here is the treatment by the "liberators" of those who might exercise some measure of freedom. To be court-martialed for expressing some doubts about this war is disturbing, especially since the US is encouraging Iraqi commanders to refuse to fight, a potential death penalty offense for an American soldier.

Unfortunately, it is not the only recent event that leads one to question the liberties so-called liberators are willing to extend. Via Talk Left:

Bail denied for Arab American being held as material witness

A Portland federal judge, in a secret court hearing, denied bail for an Arab American held since March 20 as a material witness in an ongoing terrorism investigation.

Maher "Mike" Hawash, a contract software engineer at Intel, has not been charged with a crime. Federal law enforcement officials and his defense lawyers have refused to talk about the case, citing a gag order imposed by the judge.

Furthermore, there is no public court record of his arrest or searches of his home and office. On Thursday Hawash was listed on the U.S Bureau of Prison's Web site as an inmate at the federal prison in Sheridan, but on Friday, his name had been removed.

Hawash, who was born in the Palestinian city of Nablus on the West Bank and has been U.S. citizen since 1988, was arrested at his Intel office by agents with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force.

If the US government has suspended habeas corpus, it certainly has not been reported in the press. Arbitrary detention is one of the crimes Saddam Hussein is being accused of. So is torture:

Reports of Torture of Al-Qaeda Suspects

The [Washington] Post article, U.S. Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations, describes how persons held in the CIA interrogation center at Bagram air base in Afghanistan are being subject to “stress and duress” techniques, including “standing or kneeling for hours” and being “held in awkward, painful positions.” Such acts, if true, violate international legal prohibitions against torture and other ill-treatment under treaties that the United States has ratified. These prohibitions apply in times of war as well as peace and protect all captured combatants, whether privileged or not, as well as civilians, whether criminal suspects or not.

The Post article states that thousands of persons have been arrested and detained with U.S. assistance in countries known for the brutal treatment of prisoners. The Convention against Torture, which the United States has ratified, specifically prohibits torture and mistreatment, as well as sending detainees to countries where such practices are likely to occur. That would include, according to the U.S. State Department's own annual human rights report, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Jordan and Morocco, where detainees have reportedly been sent.

Direct involvement or complicity in torture, as well as the failure to prevent torture by subordinates, may subject U.S. officials to prosecution under international law. Such acts are “grave breaches,” or war crimes, under the 1949 Geneva Conventions. In addition, the Convention against Torture obligates all countries to prosecute persons within their jurisdiction who are implicated or complicit in acts of torture. Any competent court anywhere in the world is required to prosecute violations of the prohibition against torture. Moreover, should senior U.S. officials become aware of acts of torture by their subordinates and fail to take immediate and effective steps to end such practices, they would be criminally liable under international law for “command responsibility.”

Now, how am I supposed to look at stuff like this and trust the American government to rule the world? How can I trust the American public to keep their own government in line? Is it any wonder people are so hestant to back America?

Freedom begins at home. If the nations fighting in Iraq use torture and arbitrary detention and deny freedom of speech or transparency of government to their own citizens, why should the people of Iraq believe that this war will improve their lives? Why should I?

Sunday, April 06, 2003
Koh Samui International Airport

A recent post on Electrolite about how much Saddam International Airport looks like airports everywhere has triggered this posting. The New York Times has some photos of US troops in the airport.

I have flown once into a truely different airport: the one on Samui Island in Thailand. It is an open-air airport, where there are no enclosed buildings whatsoever. My wife has some photos:

The departures area and check-in counters.

Trolley service for disabled passengers.

Furniture in the departure lounge area.

The concessions.

Shrines for the religious.


Slow week

I've been somewhat preocupied this last week and there hasn't been much blogging. I've only just gotten around to adding to the blogroll the folks who've recently linked to me. I've also put up a list of obscure web comics that I read with some frequency, and I'd like to add a few more sites to the "Not quite mainstream media" category. The comics are in many cases well into PG-13 territory, so be warned.

I've finally finished reading Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes. His account of the end of the Soviet Union and "really existing socialism" is far, far more credible than the accounts I've seen published in the mainstream media. He points out, for one thing, that except for the Baltic states, large majorities in every Soviet Republic voted to preserve the union. The collapse came because there was no longer any central authority able to prevent local powers from carving out their own enclaves. The Reagan administration - for all that American conservatives claim he brought about the end of the Soviet Union - plays no role in this story at all. No American media has - as far as I can tell - actually tried to report on the real causes of the fall of the USSR at any time in the last 12 years. There is no perspective, no challenge at all to the notion that we won and they lost and bully for us.

Watching war coverage on CNN, BBC the French networks, it's impossible to miss the gap between American media and the rest of the world in terms of the underlying assumptions behind stories. Yesterday, American foces advanced into the centre of Baghdad, or so the US claims. No one in Baghdad - including the western reporters still there - seems ot have seen any of it. I have to wonder if this story has been planted by the US as a morale booster for US troops.

People seem to get all riled when someone suggests that American military statements should be treated with the same distrust as Iraqi ones. I've never seen the logic in this. These are people who are willing to kill in order to win, and I'd tell a stack of lies before I'd be willing to kill anyone. If you're already in combat, you can just assume that honesty has gone out the window.

I doubt that there will ever be a fully honest accounting of this war, and I suspect once all the main players are dead and gone, this war will either be viewed as a shameful mistake like the Spanish-American war or as the beginning of something far worse, like the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

I feel like a refugee from Europe in the 30's must have felt, reading the news from wherever they came from with growing horror. It's hard to look at stuff like this and still feel optimistic about America:

Support of U.S. Military Role in Mideast Grows

Bush's overall job approval rating jumped to 68%, the highest level since last summer, and three-fourths of those polled said they trust him to make the right decisions on Iraq. [...]

Americans are divided almost in half when asked whether the United States should take military action against Syria, which Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has accused of providing Iraq with military supplies. Syria has denied the accusation. But 42% said the United States should take action if Syria, in fact, provides aid to Iraq, while 46% said no.

More Americans take a hard line on Iran, which recently disclosed an advanced program to develop the enriched uranium that could be used in nuclear weapons.

Exactly half said the United States should take military action against Iran if it continues to move toward nuclear-weapon development; 36% disagreed. Perhaps surprisingly, women are slightly more supportive of such action than men. [...]

Nearly eight in 10 Americans now accept the Bush administration's contention — disputed by some experts — that Hussein has "close ties" to Al Qaeda (even 70% of Democrats agree). And 60% of Americans say they believe Hussein bears at least some responsibility for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — a charge even the administration hasn't levied against him.

Eight in ten Americans believe that Saddam Hussein has close ties to Al Qaeda and three-fifths believe he has some responsibility for 9/11. That is a sign that America has either gone irretrievably nuts or is just plain stupid.

Stupid is as stupid does, or so says Forest Gump. For a supporter of Activity Theory like me, it's a good line. In a year and a half, Americans will get the chance to prove that they either are or aren't stupid. Until then, all I can do is shake my head in incomprehension.