Monday, July 31, 2006

Pick your favorite species of bear with tongue out picture

(AP Photo/Fabian Bimmer)

(AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

I'm partial to the polar bear, myself. I figure it will be the first to go extinct.

The book that wants to be read

The other day I took the opportunity to read a bit of Butterflies and Wheels contributor Julian Baggini's The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher while in Barnes & Noble.

The book is comprised of 100 brief yet stimulating thought experiments that introduce various aspects of philosophy to the reader. Baggini bases the experiments on famous philosophical ideas from popular culture and philosophy (the title of the book is an allusion to a meal in Douglass Adams' Hitchhiker series that could talk and requested to be eaten), and poses the questions to engender thinking about the topic rather than to tell anyone what the proper answer might be (although Baggini suggests ways to approach the problem in the comment section that follows each experiment.)

This book would make an excellent introduction to philosophical thought. If interested, here is a review from the Guardian.Their description:

Some of the most famous arguments and problems in philosophy are based around thought experiments. Bizarre stories about brain-transplants, runaway trams, concrete sheep and invisible gardeners abound. In The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, Julian Baggini has collected together 100 entertaining examples. The format is essentially the same as that first successfully introduced by Martin Cohen's 101 Philosophy Problems. Each thought experiment is set up in one or two paragraphs, followed by a few hundred words of thought-provoking discussion. Baggini offers us a tempting smorgasbord of some of the most baffling, weird and occasionally downright creepy scenarios ever envisaged.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Samson's revenge?

While most attention is focued on the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel has also been engaged in military actions against Hamas in the Gaza strip. These actions are code-named "Samson's Pillars."

Why in the world would Israel choose to call a mission in which they have stated that they are doing everything possible to protect innocents "Samson's Pillars"? For those unaware, this is an allusion to the Old Testament tale of Samson and Delihah, in which the Israelite hero Samson, after being a prisoner of the Philistines in Gaza, pulls down the pillars of a religious temple during a ritual sacrifice, indiscriminately killing all - men, women, children, and himself - in the temple. Could Israel have possibly chosen a more inappropriate or religiously provacative title for this mission?

Does Operation Samson's Pillars really say "we're doing everything we can to protect innocents from harm."

Personally, I find this choice of mission title obscene, irrespective of any consideration of whether or not the actual mission is just and proper. That the irony of choosing a story of a man committing suicide in order to kill "the enemy" (since in the story the people in the temple are equivalent to the enemy state of the Philistines) escapes Israel is troubling. And for civilians in Gaza who have heard Israel's (proper and justified) lamentation that Hamas and Hezbollah hide among civilian populations, a mission with a title that equivocates Israel's actions to an act in which the roof is fatally pulled down on everyone can not be all that reassuring.

Edit - Plus, I find naming military missions after portions of the Old Testament in itself offensive. The Old Testament God is a god of retributional violence, cruelty, and mass slaughter. Any mission paying homage to him is starting out on the wrong foot.

Mid day round up

Here goes:

  • Sen. Pat Roberts is still stone-walling an investigation of pre-war intelligence claims, with the section on the administration's public proclamations on intelligence versus the intelligence they were presented with in private not looking like it will be done before the November elections. Imagine that.
  • The New York Times has done a profile on the Dobrich family that was run out of town after they challenged the local school district's habit of religious coercion. Notes and Comments has parsed the town's inverted sense of "religious freedom."
  • Quote of the day: "My politics are pretty simple. Killing people is bad. Killing civilians is worse. Killing children is an obscenity—whether it's the Katyusha rockets that killed two kids playing in their yard in Nazareth or the 6-year-old girl killed in her house in Shajiya." -
  • "Environmentalists are warning of widespread and lasting damage" as a result of the air strikes in Lebanon which caused approximately 25,000 tons of oil to spill into the Medditeranean and other environmental degredations.
  • Media Channel has its own round up of recent news stories that haven't managed to garner much attention. All stories that deserve some consideration.
  • MoJo blogger Clara Jeffery on Iraq reconstruction overcosts being withheld from Congress.
  • Human Rights Watch has done an informative (and balanced) Q & A on the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Pay particular attention to this answer regarding Hezbollah's use of civilians as human shields and attacks on urban areas.

Sunday morning art

Flowers, Butterfly, and Bird (1820) - Count Feodor Tolstoy

Leo's cousin had some talent, too.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The religion of air power

I've finished reading Grayling's Among the Dead Cities and will probably write something about it in a day or so, but until then Tom Engelhardt's essay "Air War, Barbarity, and the Middle East" is worth reading.

Engelhardt argues that air war has always been barbaric (in that civilians disproportionately take the brunt of it) yet has never been an effective means of breaking the will of an enemy.

On our we/they planet, most groups don't consider themselves barbarians. Nonetheless, we have largely achieved non-barbaric status in an interesting way -- by removing the most essential aspect of the American (and, right now, Israeli) way of war from the category of the barbaric. I'm talking, of course, about air power, about raining destruction down on the earth from the skies, and about the belief -- so common, so long-lasting, so deep-seated -- that bombing others, including civilian populations, is a "strategic" thing to do; that air power can, in relatively swift measure, break the "will" not just of the enemy, but of that enemy's society; and that such a way of war is the royal path to victory.

This set of beliefs was common to air-power advocates even before modern air war had been tested, and repeated unsuccessful attempts to put these convictions into practice have never really shaken -- not for long anyway – what is essentially a war-making religion. The result has been the development of the most barbaric style of warfare imaginable, one that has seldom succeeded in breaking any societal will, though it has destroyed innumerable bodies, lives, stretches of countryside, villages, towns, and cities.
It's a long essay that addresses the history of air war and puts the current air wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon into the context of a tactic that historically when used "to 'surgically' separate a movement and its supporters from the air" ends up having the opposite effect.

I wouldn't say that air war is the most barbaric form of war imaginable (images of an army of Joss Whedon's Reavers come to mind, for instance), but it certainly has contributed to some of the most horrific killings of civilians in human history.

Secretly plotting war with Iran

In "Iran: The Next War" for Rolling Stone (link via the Center for Media and Democracy) James Bamford writes that a small group of officials within the Pentagon have been secretly attempting to drive US policy towards war with Iran for the last five years.

War with Iran has been in the works for the past five years, shaped in almost complete secrecy by a small group of senior Pentagon officials attached to the Office of Special Plans. The man who created the OSP was Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy. A former Middle East specialist on the National Security Council in the Reagan administration, Feith had long urged Israel to secure its borders in the Middle East by attacking Iraq and Iran. After Bush's election, Feith went to work to make that vision a reality, putting together a team of neoconservative hawks determined to drive the U.S. to attack Tehran.
The article connects the conviction of Defense Intelligence Agency employee Larry Franklin for leaking intelligence to AIPAC and Ahmed Chalabi's* alleged leaks which crippled the NSA's ability to listen to messages from Tehran to Iranian embassies to neoconservative plans for war with Iran. Bamford concludes by noting that neoconservatives are now citing the Israeli-Hezbollah/Lebanese conflict as a pretext for their desired war with Iran and "how frighteningly easy it is for a small group of government officials to join forces with agents of foreign powers—whether it is AIPAC or the MEK or the INC—to sell the country on a disastrous war."

In the end, the work of Franklin and the other members of Feith's secret office had the desired effect. Working behind the scenes, the members of the Office of Special Plans succeeded in setting the United States on the path to all-out war with Iran. Indeed, since Bush was re-elected to a second term, he has made no secret of his desire to see Tehran fall. In a victory speech of sorts on Inauguration Day in January 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney warned bluntly that Iran was "right at the top" of the administration's list of "trouble spots"—and that Israel "might well decide to act first" by attacking Iran. The Israelis, Cheney added in an obvious swipe at moderates in the State Department, would "let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterward."

Over the past six months, the administration has adopted almost all of the hard-line stance advocated by the war cabal in the Pentagon. In May, Bush's ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, appeared before AIPAC's annual conference and warned that Iran "must be made aware that if it continues down the path of international isolation, there will be tangible and painful consequences." To back up the tough talk, the State Department is spending $66 million to promote political change inside Iran—funding the same kind of dissident groups that helped drive the U.S. to war in Iraq. "We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared.
*Recall that Chalabi had been the administration's choice to be the new leader of Iraq and that his CIA funded INC had provided a substantial portion of the faulty intelligence used to sell/market a war with Iraq. This is fairly disturbing considering Chalabi is suspected of being an Iranian double-agent who had advocated war with Iraq in order to install a pro-Iranian Shiite regime.

So that's where it came from

Not too long ago, in the course of a discussion on why the 1st amendment entails the separation of church and state, I heard someone claim that the Jefferson Bible - The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth - was created as a Christian primer to help convert Indians to Christianity. This is a ridiculous claim, considering that Jefferson created his edited version of the New Testament as a personal edition that he kept private.

Today, I see that Ed Brayton links to an article that shows that this claim originated with David Barton, who is infamous for using to fraudulent quotes to argue that church/state separation is a myth. And Barton was hired by the RNC to tour the country to promote the idea of the separation "myth" and to encourage pastors to endorse political candidates in church (despite that being prohibited by law so long as the church has tax-exempt status).

Update: I forgot to add - for more on the Jefferson Bible, see "Jesus Without the Miracles" by Erik Reece for Harper's.

Spinoza and the Middle East

Rebecca Goldstein, author of Betraying Spinoza, has an op-ed today in the New York Times on Spinoza and how his views on religious tolerance and the importance of reason could be of some use in the Middle East today.

THURSDAY marked the 350th anniversary of the excommunication of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza from the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam in which he had been raised.

Given the events of the last week, particularly those emanating from the Middle East, the Spinoza anniversary didn’t get a lot of attention. But it’s one worth remembering — in large measure because Spinoza’s life and though have the power to illuminate the kind of events that at the moment seem so intractable and overwhelming.

The exact reasons for the excommunication of the 23-year-old Spinoza remain murky, but the reasons he came to be vilified throughout all of Europe are not. Spinoza argued that no group or religion could rightly claim infallible knowledge of the Creator’s partiality to its beliefs and ways. After the excommunication, he spent the rest of his life — he died in 1677 at the age of 44 — studying the varieties of religious intolerance. The conclusions he drew are still of dismaying relevance.

The Jews who banished Spinoza had themselves been victims of intolerance, refugees from the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition. The Jews on the Iberian Peninsula had been forced to convert to Christianity at the end of the 15th century. In the intervening century, they had been kept under the vigilant gaze of the Inquisitors, who suspected the “New Christians,” as they were called even after generations of Christian practice, of carrying the rejection of Christ in their very blood. It can be argued that the Iberian Inquisition was Europe’s first experiment in racialist ideology.

Spinoza’s reaction to the religious intolerance he saw around him was to try to think his way out of all sectarian thinking. He understood the powerful tendency in each of us toward developing a view of the truth that favors the circumstances into which we happened to have been born. Self-aggrandizement can be the invisible scaffolding of religion, politics or ideology.

Continue reading ...

Trivia of the day

Question: What did Charlie Brown's father do for a living?

Answer: He was a barber, as was Charles Schulz's father in real life.

Thursday, July 27, 2006


Anyone familiar with the arguments of creationists seeking to denigrate evolutionary theory is familiar with quote-mining, an intellectually dishonest tactic where quotes from scientists are taken out of context in order to show that scientists themselves cast doubt on evolution. Talk Origins, a website devoted to evolution/creationism, defines quote-mining thusly:

It is the use of a (usually short) passage, taken from the work of an authority in some field, "which superficially appears to support one's position, but [from which] significant context is omitted and contrary evidence is conveniently ignored."
The classic example of quote-mining is the creationist claim that Charles Darwin did not believe that evolution could account for the human eye, which they bolster with the following quote from The Origin of Species (1859):

To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.
Ok, sounds like Darwin thought evolution explaining the eye was absurd. But here's how the quote appears in context

To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of Spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei ["the voice of the people = the voice of God "], as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certain the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.
Obviously, Darwin is in fact expressing the opposite of what creationists who snip the context of the quote suggest. One can see how fundamentally dishonest such a practice is.

Today, PZ Myers directs our attention to an Op-Ed in the New York Times by a scientist who has been quote-mined by global warming skeptics (like Ann Coulter and Michael Crichton) to make the case that the Earth is not warming. Peter Moran, the author of the piece, points out that his work does not suggest that and that he does not dispute global warming.

My research colleagues and I found that from 1996 to 2000, one small, ice-free area of the Antarctic mainland had actually cooled. Our report also analyzed temperatures for the mainland in such a way as to remove the influence of the peninsula warming and found that, from 1966 to 2000, more of the continent had cooled than had warmed. Our summary statement pointed out how the cooling trend posed challenges to models of Antarctic climate and ecosystem change.

Newspaper and television reports focused on this part of the paper. And many news and opinion writers linked our study with another bit of polar research published that month, in Science, showing that part of Antarctica’s ice sheet had been thickening — and erroneously concluded that the earth was not warming at all. “Scientific findings run counter to theory of global warming,” said a headline on an editorial in The San Diego Union-Tribune. One conservative commentator wrote, “It’s ironic that two studies suggesting that a new Ice Age may be under way may end the global warming debate.”

In a rebuttal in The Providence Journal, in Rhode Island, the lead author of the Science paper and I explained that our studies offered no evidence that the earth was cooling. But the misinterpretation had already become legend, and in the four and half years since, it has only grown.
Although it can result from deliberate dishonesty, quote-mining is primarily an error of methodology. It is a form of "cherry-picking" where a person just looks for information that confirms his/her beliefs, and it results from a disregard for careful consideration of the evidence. Anyone who cares about honest discourse and respecting the intellectual work of others should take care to check their source to see if it says what they think it says before using it to make a case that the quote does not actually make.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Not cool: a brief rant

For some time now, the bane of my existence has been MTV's My Super Sweet 16, a show that celebrates decadence and glamorizes super rich spoiled girls throwing tantrums and fits over various astronomically superficial matters despite having extravagant hundreds of thousands of dollars birthday parties being thrown for them as if this is something other children should aspire to.

Teens fly into the party in a helicopter. They make potential guests gather outside of their home and beg for an invitation. They cry when their daddy won't buy them the hundred thousand dollar car they want on the spot. The actual behavior at the parties looks like something you might see at a club in Cancun during college spring break. One girl performed a half-naked belly dance at her party.

If I was turning 16, I would be embarrassed to have so much money spent on me, especially spent on me in front of friends. I'd be ashamed to have a couple hundred thousand dollars spent on a birthday party when there are people starving to death who'd be happy to earn a hundred dollars a year. Of all the episodes, there is only one episode that didn't glory in the wasting of ridiculous amounts of money on spoiled brats, and that was an episode in which the birthday girls used their super party to raise money for charity.

To sum: it is the most offensive show on television, and the following quote from that link perfectly reflects my feeling of it: "There may be no better contraceptive than that show, as its pampered, materialistic brats are enough to make anyone reconsider procreation."

Cool site of the day

The Discovery of Global Warming

Via RealClimate, so here is their description

If you haven't already seen the American Institute of Physics website by Spencer Weart on the 'The Discovery of Global Warming', we heartily recommend it. It provides both a summary of science, and more importantly, a history of how an obscure speculation from over one hundred years ago has become the scientific consensus of today. It has recently been updated with many more references from 1873 to the present, and so is even more worth reading
The site could use a make-over (it has a rather plain look,) but there is a lot of great information to be found there.

Edit - One reason that this sort of site is valuable is that a problem with science education is that people are not taught how science arrives at its conclusions. They see science as a static body of facts, and when science changes on some issue, they take that to mean science isn't trustworthy. But in fact, the self-corrective nature of science is its virtue. Science is dynamic body of provisional conclusions, always to be revised in light of new evidence.

What this site does is show how our understanding of the science of global warming has progressed and evolved over the last century to arrive at the point it is at now. I suspect that if more people were made aware of the history of the science of climate change they would more readily accept the current consensus understanding that global warming is happening and is anthropogenic (human caused.)

Blame and the Middle East

Brian Doherty at Reason tries to figure out who is to blame for problems in the Middle East. As Doherty demonstrates, there is much grey area involved when it comes to assigning blame, but we are obligated to wade the murky moral waters, lest we find ourselves in an endless cycle of violence.

From the conclusion

To bring the blame game back home, for those who can blithely excuse either side of this conflict—who think the life of an Israeli civilian is justly forfeit because of the actions of the Israeli state, or that of a Lebanese civilian because of its sort-of state's failure to curb Hezbollah—could you admit, even to your self, in the deepest most secret part of your blog, that any bomb dropped or missile shot by the U.S. government anywhere—Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Japan, Panama, Grenada—could possibly have been the moral equivalent of the ones Hezbollah lobbed at Israel, or Israel at Hezbollah, and suck it up and admit that you are to blame as your home and families are killed when someone decides to retaliate on our territory?

It might be that in a truly just world, we all are getting exactly what we deserve for moral crimes of commission and omission, for letting evils be committed by states in our name, for failing to stop whatever wrongs we could stop, or die trying. And in the face of recent Lebanese events, dithering online about who is to blame might seem morally suspect itself. But moral thinking about blame and responsibility (and attempts at finding such moral arguments that are convincing beyond national, ideological, or religious communities of affinity) is important even when the grim realities make morality seem the most ineffectual of phantasms: There will be many living aggrieved victims, and families of dead ones, of what is happening in Lebanon now.

And while some of them will just try to go on with life as best they can, some of them will want answers, and justice, and vengeance. And in the year 2025, if blogs are still alive, if armchair commenters still thrive, we will find another maddening, conclusionless, muddled discussion of morality and blame regarding a fresh series of bloody attacks and counterattacks in the Middle East.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Lack of WMDs in Iraq confirms Americans' beliefs that there were WMDs in Iraq

Well, apparently, another year of there not being evidence of WMDs in Iraq has caused 14% of Americans to change their minds about whether Iraq had them when we invaded in 2003, as a recent Harris poll shows that the percent of Americans who believe that is up from 36% to 50%.

64% of those polled also believed Saddam had "strong ties" to al Qaeda.

Congratulations media and public relations industry, you've out marketed reality.

Everyone else, welcome to Fairy Land.

You can't prove a negative?

Actually, you can. It's just not easy.

Richard Carrier explains.

I know the myth of "you can't prove a negative" circulates throughout the nontheist community, and it is good to dispel myths whenever we can. As it happens, there really isn't such a thing as a "purely" negative statement, because every negative entails a positive, and vice versa. Thus, "there are no crows in this box" entails "this box contains something other than crows" (in the sense that even "no things" is something, e.g. a vacuum). "Something" is here a set restricted only by excluding crows, such that for every set S there is a set Not-S, and vice versa, so every negative entails a positive and vice versa. And to test the negative proposition one merely has to look in the box: since crows being in the box (p) entails that we would see crows when we look in the box (q), if we find q false, we know that p is false. Thus, we have proved a negative. Of course, we could be mistaken about what we saw, or about what a crow is, or things could have changed after we looked, but within the limits of our knowing anything at all, and given a full understanding of what a proposition means and thus entails, we can easily prove a negative in such a case. This is not "proof" in the same sense as a mathematical proof, which establishes that something is inherent in the meaning of something else (and that therefore the conclusion is necessarily true), but it is proof in the scientific sense and in the sense used in law courts and in everyday life. So the example holds because when p entails q, it means that q is included in the very meaning of p. Whenever you assert p, you are also asserting q (and perhaps also r and s and t). In other words, q is nothing more than an element of p. Thus, all else being as we expect, "there are big green Martians in my bathtub" means if you look in your bathtub you will see big green Martians, so not seeing them means the negative of "there are big green Martians in my bathtub."

Negative statements often make claims that are hard to prove because they make predictions about things we are in practice unable to observe in a finite time. For instance, "there are no big green Martians" means "there are no big green Martians in this or any universe," and unlike your bathtub, it is not possible to look in every corner of every universe, thus we cannot completely test this proposition--we can just look around within the limits of our ability and our desire to expend time and resources on looking, and prove that, where we have looked so far, and within the limits of our knowing anything at all, there are no big green Martians. In such a case we have proved a negative, just not the negative of the sweeping proposition in question.
Carrier continues on, dileniating why scientific methodology seeks to disprove negatives rather than prove them, and then he expands by stating what "proving a negative" means in relation to Christian theism.

Quote of the day

"To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection." - Henri Poincaré, Science and Hypothesis (1905)

Monday, July 24, 2006

Women's rights endangered in Afghanistan

From Times (via Butterflies and Wheels)

AFGHANISTAN’S notorious Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which was set up by the Taliban to enforce bans on women doing anything from working to wearing nail varnish or laughing out loud, is to be re-created by the government in Kabul.

The decision has provoked an outcry among women and human rights activists who fear a return to the days when religious police patrolled the streets, beating or arresting any woman who was not properly covered by a burqa or accompanied by a male relative.
This does not bode well for the liberty of the people of Afghanistan.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

On bombing civilians

As I've mentioned previously, I'm working my way through A.C. Grayling's Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan. The book could not be of more importance given the state of affairs the world still finds itself in.

When I'm done I'll do a review, but until then, I would direct your attention to an editorial that Grayling wrote in The Guardian on this topic. In light of the previous post, and the Ben Stein article which can be found in the Jesus General link, it may be of some benefit to read.

One other thing, in Stein's article he writes, "we were killing 30,000 in a few hours in World War II and glorying in it."

Well, no. Not everyone was. Some people recognized it for the atrocity that it was.

As Grayling states

The second world war bombing story is clouded by misunderstandings, largely because the victor nations, rightly condemning the far greater crimes committed by nazism, have yet to inquire properly into aspects of their own behaviour.

Confessing to a tactic which for decades before 1939 had been universally condemned as immoral, and which from early in the war was recognised as having little military value (and indeed perhaps the opposite), would have invited awkward questions about why it was done, and seemed unfair to the airmen whose extraordinary courage and sacrifice was called upon to carry it out.
What people like Stein would have us do is continue to avoid proper inquiry into aspects of our own behavior, for the sake of our conscience. But to do so is unfair to ourselves, and to the people who die as a result of our actions. We owe it to them, at the least, to engage the ethics of our actions, to struggle to make sure we are doing everything possible to protect the innocent from harm.

Unhuman quote of the day

"I am not buying into the innocent civilians meme. If by ignorance, complicity, neglect or helplessness the Lebanese wouldn't throw Hezbollah out and establish a strong government, then they must pay the price for the sins of Hizbollah." - Atlas Shrugs

I agree with Jesus General, fuck you Pamela. Tell that child's parents the children of Lebanon you're "not buying into the innocent civilians meme." As Alonzo suggests, look each of those children in the eye and tell them, "You deserve this because you did not throw Hezbollah out of the country and/or you did not force your parents to do so."

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Will she live or die

No blogging today, I've committed myself to finding out if Dejah Thoris died at the end of Edgar Rice Burrough's The God of Mars or if she lived. John Carter had to wait six months to find out; I've waited four years.

Off to finish The Warlord of Mars. I'll officially mark this as my geekiest post to date.


Once again I refused a throne, for I would not believe that the mighty Tardos Mors, or his no less redoubtable son, was dead.

"Let one of their own blood rule you until they return," I said to the assembled nobles of Helium, as I addressed them from the Pedestal of Truth beside the Throne of Righteousness in the Temple of Reward, from the very spot where I had stood a year before when Zat Arras pronounced the sentence of death upon me.

As I spoke I stepped forward and laid my hand upon the shoulder of Carthoris where he stood in the front rank of the circle of nobles about me.

As one, the nobles and the people lifted their voices in a long cheer of approbation. Ten thousand swords sprang on high from as many scabbards, and the glorious fighting men of ancient Helium hailed Carthoris Jeddak of Helium.
Pulp fiction at its finest.

Literary quote of the day

'How am I to get in?' asked Alice again, in a louder tone.

'Are you to get in at all?' said the Footman. `That's the first question, you know.'

- Lewis Carrol, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Friday, July 21, 2006

Teaching Hate

In Marc Levin's documentary, Protocols of Zion, about the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, there is one segment where an Egyptian newsreporter is shown interviewing a 3.5 year old girl. I'm reconstructing from memory, so the following might be off slightly (but not much):

Reporter: Do you hate the Jews?
Girl: Yes.
Reporter: Why?
Girl: Because they are apes and pigs.

That child wasn't born hating Jews. Someone poisoned her mind with hate. I would posit that teaching a child to hate is a crime against both the child and humanity. It transforms the child into a vehicle for the children of hate - bigotry, intolerance, cruelty, and violence. These can only serve to make the world a more miserable place. Hate begets more hate, and that child is likely to in turn become the target of someone else's hate.

A few days ago, a picture of two Jewish girls happily writing messages on missiles destined for Lebanon was circulating the internet. Someone failed to let those girls know that some of those missiles, possibly the ones they wrote message on, would end up killing girls their age in Lebanon, girls whose only crime was to be unfortunate enough to be born in a part of the world which has been unable to escape a cycle of hate which has lasted for over a thousand years.

If one truely wants to make the world a better place, one should teach children to hate intolerance, prejudice, and violence. They should be taught to imagine themselves in the place of others, and to see injustice committed against another as injustice committed against themself. A child who hates these things, but loves his/her fellow man, is a child who will likely strive to make the world a less miserable place. This child will hate the suffering of anyone, everywhere.

Hate blinds. A mind filled with hate is blinded to cruelty and suffering. As R. G. Ingersoll put it:

It is by imagination that we put ourselves in the place of another. When the whigs of that faculty are folded, the master does not put himself in the place of the slave; the tyrant is not locked in the dungeon, chained with his victim. The inquisitor did not feel the flames that devoured the martyr. The imaginative man, giving to the beggar, gives to himself. Those who feel indignant at the perpetration of wrong, feel for the instant that they are the victims; and when they attack the aggressor they feel that they are defending themselves. Love and pity are the children of the imagination.
It's just so terribly frustrating and disheartening to see children taught to hate other children. Those children are not the enemy of each other - their enemy is hate. They should be working together to put an end to hate. I'm reminded of another great speaker, Martin Luther King, maybe we can airdrop these words on the Middle East

In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Bill O'Reilly: up is down

Obviously, the following is parody, but it's parody that illustrates a point.

Bill O'Reilly (7/15/06): It's a well known fact, two plus two equals five.

Media Matters (7/16/06): On July 15, Bill O'Reilly stated that "It's a well known fact, two plus two equals five." Actually, mathematicians have proven rigorously that two plus two equals four, not five.

Bill O'Reilly (7/18/06)

O'REILLY: OK. I'm not happy, and I'll tell you why.


O'REILLY: Because this money going to be used for, as I said, nefarious purposes. And here's how it's going to be used. The pipeline is the money goes to smear websites, right? Gets into the smear websites. And the websites can say anything about Laura Ingraham or Bill O'Reilly they want to say. OK?


O'REILLY: They can lie. They can give directions to our homes.

INGRAHAM: So what?

O'REILLY: OK. Well, puts us some physical danger, Number 1.

INGRAHAM: No. I'm not worried.

O'REILLY: There's defamation, Number 2. Well, you're much more courageous than I am. Defamation, Number 2. And they can --

INGRAHAM: No, I'm not, but -- they're losers.

O'REILLY: -- and they can basically do all of these things. But it comes out of the smear websites and it goes into the far-left newspaper columnists.

INGRAHAM: It's not working, though, Bill, Bill --

O'REILLY: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. It does work. Here's how it works.

INGRAHAM: Soros spent $50 million in 2004. It doesn't work.

O'REILLY: Laura, here's how it works. It intimidates good people who may want to come into the public arena as politicians or commentators. It intimidates them. They don't want to put themselves --

INGRAHAM: I disagree. I hate to disagree with you, Bill, but I disagree. If someone is intimidated by George Soros and Media Matters, then they have no business being in politics or in our business. If you can't stand up for what you think is right and for the values that you think most Americans hold and for what you think is good for this country, then get out of the game, get out of the kitchen, whatever you want to call it, because these people are going to do that. That's the nature of this game. That has been politics for longer than you and I have been alive, and it's going to continue to be politics. And I understand what you're saying. I mean, it's amplified because of the new media and the Internet and everything.

O'REILLY: I'm not going to go over the Limbaugh thing in Palm Beach, which was a total setup. I'm not going to go over Bill Bennett, who said a remark metaphorically, and it was used to bludgeon him. And this kind of stuff -- I know you're just saying, hey, you gotta to take it. This kind of stuff is dangerous, Number 1, because kooks are out there.

Yep, Bill O'Reilly is worried that "character assassins" and "smear websites" like Media Matters, which provides a person's statements in context with links to the original statement and fact checks them with links to information so that their methodology is transparent so that a person can judge for themselves whether or not the original statement was truthful and accurate, are dangerous because "It intimidates good people who may want to come into the public arena as politicians or commentators" because "They can lie. They can give directions to our homes."

Yes, they can do that. Just like any person who has the ability to write or speak and had such information is capable of doing. But being capable of doing something and actually doing it are not the same thing, and Media Matters hasn't. Nevermind that self-described right-wing organizations and bloggers actually HAVE dangerously intimidated individuals in the public arena by character assassination and posting their home address. And nevermind that Media Matters documents such actions.

More from Rep. Akin

The Lippard Blog notes that Rep Akin explained the legislation preventing federal courts from hearing pledge cases thusly, "We're creating a fence. The fence goes around the federal judiciary. We're doing that because we don't trust them."

So according to Rep Akin, federal courts only get to hear cases if he's confident that they will reach decisions that he agrees with.

The tortured "logic" of the House GOP

Via Yahoo

"Granting jurisdiction is the constitutional job of this body," argued House Republican Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri. The pledge "is an important civic ritual; it binds us together as Americans," he said. Judges should not be able to rewrite the pledge."
The pledge which says that America is one nation of believers in the Judeo-Christian god is an important civic ritual that should be conducted in public schools so that students will bind together as Americans by excluding persons who don't believe in the Judeo-Christian god from being a part of the nation which has liberty and justice for all who believe in the Judeo-Christian god.

Judges should not be able to review whether or not an act of Congress (like amending the Pledge of allegiance in 1954 after the lobby of the Christian Knights of Columbus to include "under god") is Constitutional (when a Republican majority Congress passes or approves of the act, that is.)

Nevermind that judges aren't attempting to rewrite the Pledge (as Congress did as a charm to ward off Communism.)

Rep Todd Aiken, who sponsored the bill to prevent parents from challenging the legality of inculcating their chidren to believe they have to believe in the Judeo-Christian god to be patriots guaranteed liberty and justice, explained further

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., said America was a nation of God-given inalienable rights and that's why the country is in a war against "radical Islamists." Democrats wouldn't want to "cut and run" in Iraq, he said, "if they understood the importance of those basic principles and that inalienable rights are impossible without a recognition of God and that's why the pledge bill is important and not irrelevant or trivial."
According to Rep. Akin, you have the constitutional right to freedom of religion, which means you have the freedom to have no religion, but unless you believe that the Judeo-Christian god gave you the right to have no religion, then you have no right to have no religion, so to have the right to have no religion, you have to have religion, or else the Democrats will make us lose the inalienable right to not believe in the Judeo-Christian god if you believe in the Judeo-Christian god, because the Democrats do not understand that we are at war with "radical Islamists," which we somehow have despite there being no declaration of war with "radical Islamists", because the Judeo-Christian god gave us the inalienable right to not believe in him if we believe in him. By withdrawing troops from the country we invaded, which did not have operational ties to al Qaeda and did not host al Qaeda, but now hosts al Qaeda terrorists because we invaded it, Democrats will cause the Judeo-Christian god to revoke the inalienable right to inalienable rights if you believe in him.

The House GOP says that this bill, which is designed to prevent parents from challenging the legality of the State teaching their children that non-believers in the Judeo-Christian god are not part of the American nation but would effectively give state courts sovereignity from federal courts (at least on this specific issue,) is necessary to "defend America's founding principles." Apparently, the freedom of religion is not a founding principle of the nation; and the House GOP seems to think our government is still based upon the Articles of Confederation and not the Constitution.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

President Bush outlaws male masturbation, bans contraceptives

Via the AP

Today, President Bush signed legislation that criminalized recreational masturbation. "I believe that recreational masturbation crosses a moral boundary," said the President.

"This bill will prevent the taking of innocent lives for the sake of another's personal enjoyment," Bush said while surrounded by families who had adopted sperm not wanted by men, and then used that sperm to fertilize an egg and have children.

"Each of these children was adopted while still a sperm and has been blessed with a chance to grow, to grow up in a loving family. These boys and girls are not disposable parts," he said.

"They remind us of what is lost when sperm are disposed of in the name of pleasure. They remind us that we all begin our lives as a gamete. And they remind us that in our zeal for new sexual pleasure, America must never abandon our fundamental morals," Bush said.

"I also today signed legislation outlawing contraception. Each one of these children here today wouldn't be here today if they hadn't had the chance as a sperm to fertilize an egg. No one has the right to stop a sperm from fertilizing an egg and becoming a child, to rob that innocent human life of its pursuit of happiness and its right to life. It is unethical to prevent a male gamete human life from merging with a female gamete human life, from having the opportunity to grow for the sake of seeking sexual gratification," the President told the audience.

Although most Americans opposed the criminalization of recreational masterbation and the ban on contraceptives, the President's stand is popular with his Religous Right base whom the party is counting on energizing in the elections.

Yesterday, when asked why the President opposed recreational masterbation and contraception, the President's press secretary had answered, "The simple answer is he thinks murder’s wrong. And he has said."

What responsible discourse might look like

Peter Singer is a radical utilitarian philosopher, self-described as being on the political "Left," who believes in the justice of taxation that redistributes wealth. Yet when he reviewed in 1975 libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Union, in which Nozick gave an argument for a minimal "Nightwatchman" state as a rebuttal to his Harvard colleague John Rawls' argument for social democracy in A Theory of Justice (which itself was partly an alternative to utilitarian political theory), he wrote

When times are hard and governments are looking for ways to reduce expenditure, a book like Anarchy, State, and Utopia is about the last thing we need. That will be the reaction of some readers to this book. It is, of course, an unfair reaction, since a work of philosophy that consists of rigorous argument and needle-sharp analysis with absolutely none of the unsupported vague waffle that characterizes too many philosophy books must be welcomed whatever we think of its conclusions. The chances of Gerald Ford reasoning his way through Nozick's book to the conviction that he ought to cut back the activities of the state in fields like welfare, education, and health are not high. The book will probably do more good in raising the level of philosophical discussion than it will do harm in practical politics.

Robert Nozick's book is a major event in contemporary political philosophy. There has, in recent years, been no sustained and competently argued challenge to the prevailing conceptions of social justice and the role of the state. Political philosophers have tended to assume without argument that justice demands an extensive redistribution of wealth in the direction of equality; and that it is a legitimate function of the state to bring about this redistribution by coercive means like progressive taxation. These assumptions may be correct; but after Anarchy, State, and Utopia they will need to be defended and argued for instead of being taken for granted.
The rest of the review is worth reading, as it serves as a reminder of what civil discourse is supposed to look like, and that there is such a thing as nuance in political discussions. Rawls, Nozick, and Singer all have differing views of the conception of how society might best be ordered, but they all were able to respect and appreciate the arguments of the others (Nozick consulted with Rawls while writing his rebuttal of Rawls, for example.)

It's a matter of tone. Singer is able to present and praise Nozick's work even though he doesn't neccesarily agree with its conclusions. And he gives Nozick's argument fair representation so that a reader might make up his own mind about the strength of the argument.

Obviously, we can't expect all discussion to rise to this level, as Nozick, Rawls, and Singer are three of the most eminent philosophers of the 20th century, but it does provide an ideal that we can strive to achieve.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Framing freedom

George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist whose area of research has been the way that metaphors shape thought. The central theme of his work has been that metaphors provide conceptual cognitive frames that allow us to interpret and understand facts about the world.

All of our concepts are organized into conceptual structures called "frames" (which may include images and metaphors) and all words are defined relative to those frames. Conventional frames are pretty much fixed in the neural structures of our brains. In order for a fact to be comprehended, it must fit the relevant frames. If the facts contradict the frames, the frames, being fixed in the brain, will be kept and the facts ignored.
A classic example of facts not fitting a frame would be fossils before Darwin. In the Creationist frame of natural history, the Earth and all its life was created spontaneously at once by God. Fossils of organisms that that no longer existed and had not existed in the course of recorded human history were difficult to account for in this frame, and had to be fitted to the frame (they were species eliminated in the Great Flood.) The fact that many of these fossils appeared to represent transitions between species did not fit the frame of Creation, and was thus rejected. Then Darwin came along with his theory of evolution. In the evolutionary frame of natural history, species evolved gradually from other species, a process driven by natural selection. Fossils fit this frame, and the frame made it possible to understand the fact of transitional forms.

Applying his ideas about framing to the realm of politics, Lakoff came to the conclusion that the reason "liberals" and "conservatives" see the positions of the other as illogical is because they are using different frames to evaluate the facts related to those positions. In 1996 he wrote Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, in which he argued there are two major frames of morality which dominate political culture: The Nurturant Parent Family ("liberals") and the Strict Father Family ("conservatives".) The central premise of the book is that these models provide conceptual metaphors which shape the way that people think about politics.

In American culture there are two opposed and idealized models of the family, the Nurturant Parent model and the Strict Father model. The metaphor of the Nation as a Family maps the values and relationships from those family models onto our politics, creating "liberal" and "conservative" political positions that we understand through our models of family structure.

The progressive worldview represents, metaphorically, the Nurturant Parent family model, and the conservative worldview represents the Strict Father model. The two models come with distinct moral systems that are founded on different assumptions about the world, interpret shared values such as responsibility or fairness differently, and center around different moral priorities.

In other words, our beliefs about what a family should be exert a powerful influence over our beliefs about what kind of society we should build. For instance, those with a strong Strict Father model are likely to support a more punitive welfare or foreign policy than someone with a strong Nurturant Parent model, who are likely to favor more cooperative approaches. Those with a strong Nurturant Parent model are more likely to favor social policies that ensure the well-being of people such as health care and education, whereas someone with a strong Strict Father model would object to social programs in favor of promoting self-reliance.
Lakoff followed up on this with Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate in 2004 which was basically a condensed version of Moral Politics which advised progressives that conservatives are doing a better job of communicating their values to voters and that progressives need to learn how to frame issues to better reflect their own values so that people will have the conceptual tools needed to be able to understand how progressive policy fits into the framework of progressive values.

In his latest work, Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America's Most Important Idea, Lakoff focuses specifically on the way that the concept of freedom is being reframed by "radical conservatives" in such a way that the traditionally progressive American idea of freedom is being framed out of existence. Again, the two family metaphors account for the different versions of freedom.

In the Nuturant Parent Model, freedom is achieved through the commonwealth principle in which members of society contribute as a community to build the infrastructure (public education, court system, scientific research, roads, etc) necessary to achieve liberty and equality for all members of the society. Taxation should be progressive because the wealthy use more infrastructure than the poor and because it helps provide the opportunity all citizens should have to be free.

In the Strict Father Model, freedom is achieved through individualist principles in which each individual is free from government interference to act as an individual in the market place, where the morally good are rewarded for their success and the morally bad are punished for their failure. This means freedom from progressive taxation which is viewed as punishment of those who have succeeded in the market and freedom from government regulations which inihibit moral agent's ability to compete in the marketplace.

One interesting thing that Lakoff believes is at the root of the different conceptions of freedom is the role that causation plays to freewill. Liberals tend to recognize systemic causation and how their individual actions directly contribute to systemic affects while conservatives tend to recognize direct affects while ignoring systemic causation. Since systemic causation doesn't fit into their frame, according to Lakoff, they don't see it. If you take this distinction to be true, then it might explain why liberals and conservatives seem to have opposing visions of reality.

Many questions of freedom come down to questions of causation - systemic or direct. because of the details of the strict father versus nururant parent models, radical conservatives and progressives tend to see causality - and with it, morality - in very different ways. Moral responisibility is, of course, about freedom, about the question of what you are morally free to do. Differences in perceptions of causation have everything to do with differences in judgements about freedom and hence about what is moral.

Suppose it is true that those using strict father morality tend to favor direct causation in moral decision and largely ignore systemic causality, while those with nurturant parent morality readily admit systemic causality into moral decision. What follows is a major split in our understanding of what is real - a split along moral and political lines!

It is hard to overestimate how important this is. Our understanding of causation defines what we take to be real in the world and what we take to be the consequence our our actions. Political decisions affect reality. What is disturbing is that political ideology can so deeply affect the understanding of what is real and so thoroughly hide the real consequences of so many political decisions.
Lakoff spends the majority of the book explaining how domestic and foreign policies can be framed in their relation to either the Strict Father or Nurturant Parent family metaphor. Conservatives better understand their conception of freedom and are shifting its definition:

via words and idioms, like as"death tax," "tax relief," "judicial activism," "war against terror," "liberal elites," "defending freedom," "pro-life," "tax and spend," "legislate from the bench," "cut spending" "up-or-down vote," "homosexual lifestyle" "ownership society," "cut and run," and so on. Second, via arguments such as "It's your money. You earned it. You can spend it better than the government can."
The message of the book is that those who do not like the direction the country is going need to first understand how their values relate to the conception of freedom, then learn to frame issues in terms of those values in order to communicate a positive message reflecting your own conception of freedom rather than one that just reactivates the other guys frame and legitimizes his version of freedom, keeping the range of disourse limited by his framework.

Another benefit of learning to frame issues according to your own values and being able to recognize the frames that are evoked by someone else's language and arguments which isn't explicitly addressed in the book is that it facilitates responsible civic discourse. Afterall, democratic debate isn't possible if you can't communicate with someone because you're speaking different languages.

For more on the book and the ideas within, see this blog interview, and for more on framing see the Rockridge Institute.

Monday, July 17, 2006

New York Slimes again!

If you had any questions what side the New York Times was on, this photograph should clear that up for you. The moonbat unhinged luny lefty leftists blabbermouths aren't content to treasonistcally treason to kill our soldiers and spy for al Qaeda. No, they also treason by treasonously treasoning aid and comfort to America's enemies by taking pictures of terrorists whom the New York not worth the Times aren't "agnostic" about. Clearly, this is another example of the treasonisms of the moonbat paper pushing propaganda for the enemy in an effort to aid and abet the enemy's efforts to kill our soldiers and you. How much longer will America stand for the moonbat Slimes treasonistically undermining every single effort that the US has taken to fight terrorists? It's clear that the blabbermouth Pulitzer for treason treasoners are spying for al Qaeda, revealing to them that the NSA no longer abides by the 1978 law which prohibits the government from spying on US citizens without a warrant and that the temporary emergency power to track financial records, which President Bush announced he would do five years ago, had become a permanent Presidential power without congressional approval. What possible intention could the treasonistic Times have by publishing this photograph other than to kill US soldiers and you? If the Times was on our side, they would be publishing pictures of photographers bravely beating snipers to death with their cameras, like any real patriot would say he would do from the comfort of his home in the United States of America, instead of cowardly taking the pictures of an enemy that most Americans have little understanding of and an enemy that has a habit of capturing journalists and cutting their heads off.

Also included in the slideshow celebrating terrorists was this photo, another clear instance of the Times treasonally siding with our enemies in WWII. This photo giving aid and comfort to the Viet Cong. This photo where the pervert Times uses child pornography to treasonously comfort the enemy in Vietnam. This photo celebrating the death of a New York police officer as a result of the 9/11 attacks. But most disgusting of all is this photo, clearly an attempt to blabber to al Qaeda what kind of car Karl Rove drives in the hopes that al Qaeda will kill Karl Rove in his car.

There is no question any longer, the New York Times is clearly on the side of the enemy. They are actively treasoning to aid and comfort the enemy's efforts to kill our soldiers and you. The only question that remains is how much longer can we abide the dangerous treasonality of this Bush Derangement Syndrome infected objectively pro-terrorist propaganda mouthpiece.

H/t Michelle Malkin.

Update: Some unhinged leftist moonbats, obviously blinded by their Bush Derangement Syndrome to the objectively demonstratable fact that is the treasonamity of the seditious treasonental Times, have taken to attacking and slandering Michelle by accusing her of taking the treasonamolous Bill Keller's treasonating confession that the Slimes is on the side of terrorists out of context. Thankfully, a commenter provided a link to the transcript from which Keller's statement was taken which completely vindicates Michelle.

Here is how the statement was presented in Michelle's Hot Air video after Michelle demonstrated that the New Jerk Slimes is objectively pro-terrorist as an answer to her rhetorical question about what side the treasontantaful Slimes is on.

If you're under the impression that the press is neutral in this war on terror, or that we're agnostic, that couldn't be more wrong.
And now this is how the full quote appears in the transcript.

I guess I would say if you're under the impression that the press is neutral in this war on terror, or that we're agnostic--and you could get that impression from some of the criticism--that couldn't be more wrong. We have people traveling in the frontlines with soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. We've had people who've been murdered in trying to figure out the terrorist threat. You know, we live in cities that are targets, proven targets, for the terrorists. So we--we're not neutral in this.
See? Same exact difference. Only an unhinged moonbat who hates America wouldn't be able to tell Keller is clearly confessing that the Slimes is treasonatically on the side of the terrorists.

You know what I'll say when all of the treasonable treasoners at the Slimes are in prison, sent to Gitmo, renditioned to a country on our State Dept.'s list of countries that engage in torture, or executed for their treason? Boo-freakin-hoo.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Cool site of the day - your Guide to the Gods

Via The Secular Outpost, who I'll let describe the site

P.Z. Myers at Pharyngula points out Godchecker's "Your Guide to the Gods," a searchable database of over 2,850 gods. You can search by pantheon (African, Australian, Aztec, Caribbean, Celtic, Chinese, Egyptian, Finnish, Greek, Incan, Japanese, Mayan, Mesopotamian, Middle Eastern, Native American, Norse, Oceanic, Roman, Slavic and Baltic, South American, and Southeast Asian), look at the Deity of the Day (available via RSS feed), read feature articles, or purchase items from the God Shop. There are also collections of links to other resources on mythology.

Light blogging round up

Hopefully I'll be able to write some more substantial posts this week starting tomorrow with a review of Whose Freedom? by George Lakoff (which I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy of), but until then here's a round up of some items worthy of consideration.

  • Newt Gingrich thinks World War III would be good for Republicans.
  • Greenwald suggests that journalists should devote some attention to the eliminationist nature of the rhetoric coming from the pro-Bush blogosphere.
  • Alonzo Fyfe on the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah and the need to protect innocents from harm.
  • In Turkey, if you call the 1915 - 1923 Turkish genocide of Armenians genocide, you can be placed in prison for three years.
  • Matthew Yglesias has developed a Green Lantern theory of geopolitics (via, ironically enough, The Green Knight)
  • Kevin Baker's must read Harper's essay on the development of the Götterdämmerung (stabbed in the back by internal enemies) meme in American politics.
  • A thought provoking interview about the universal principle of human rights (and related topics) from a man I'd never heard of before seeing the article linked at Butterflies and Wheels.

Finally, a quote. I saw this on the cover of Of Empire, a collection of essays* by Francis Bacon:

"Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider..."

*The entire line of Great Ideas books from Penguin have fantastic quotes on the cover.

Quote of the day

From The Economist's review of Guantanamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power (via The Lippard Blog)

IN HIS new book on the American jail at Guantánamo Bay, Joseph Margulies recounts the story of a prisoner who told his interrogators of plans to use bacteriological weapons. The man named many others involved, and before long his interrogators had confessions from 35 further prisoners, “page upon page of chilling, meticulously detailed admissions”. The problem is that the prisoners he is writing about here were not suspected members of al-Qaeda, but American soldiers. The questioning took place 50 years ago and the interrogators were North Korean.

Sunday afternoon art

The Seine at the Pont d'Iena, Snowy Weather (1875) - Paul Gauguin

Saturday, July 15, 2006

People hoping for the end of the world

Gee, won't it be swell for Jesus when we all die in a horrible rain of nuclear fire?

Here is the cached version of the thread that got deleted.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Quote of the day

"Among precautions against ambition, it may not be amiss to take one precaution against our own. I must fairly say, I dread our own power and our own ambition; I dread our being too much dreaded...It is ridiculous to say we are not men, and that, as men we shall never wish to aggrandize ourselves in some way or other...we may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing and hitherto unheard of power. But every other nation will think we shall abuse it. It is impossible but that, sooner or later, this state of things must produce a combination against us which may end in our ruin." - Edmund Burke

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Free will and the law

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." - Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise (1670)

In the July/August edition of The Humanist Michael Hanson has written an article, entitled "Towards a New Assumption in Law and Ethics," which raises an important but often undiscussed point about the ethical obligation we have to reform our legal system given the insights that the field of neuroscience has given us about the nature of free will. The short of it? Freewill is not as "free" as we'd like to think it is, and as such, we should, while maintaining legal liability for criminal actions, shift the emphasis of our justice system from retributional punishment of criminals towards rehabilitation and the prevention of crime.

This new assumption would dramatically humanize the legal system, since it would allow us to hate criminal actions, but to understand and thus pity the person who commits them. As Hanson puts it

By accepting the possibility that evil is not freely chosen, we can focus our justification for punishing a wrongdoer on the threat that person faces to the public. Society can be protected by incarcerating dangerous individuals and through the deterrent effect of threatened punishment. Accepting the "new assumption" provides a philosophical basis for respecting the human dignity of even violent criminals and provides a sound rationale for working to rehabilitate convicted offenders where such rehabilitation is physically and medically possible. A side benefit of a more humane punishment system is that the innocent who are wrongfully punished need not suffer quite as much.
If the article piques your interest, I'd recommend The Moral Animal by Robert Wright, which discussed similar themes at length.

Quote of the day

"As politics go, we're surprised so many readers expect us or any publication to provide 'balance,' which reflects a belief in the fallacy that there are two equally valid sides to every story. You see this in the debate over global warming and evolution. Thousands of scientists stand on one side of the issue, recognizing that global warming is a problem and that evolution is firmly established, while only a few detractors stand on the other." - Playboy magazine (via Pharyngula)

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

You've got to be kidding me

From ThinkProgress

Last night, Bill O’Reilly and radio host Laura Ingraham tag teamed to slam the New York Times for publishing a picture of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s vacation home. O’Reilly repeatedly called the publication of the picture “awful.” O’Reilly didn’t mention that the pictures were taken with Rumsfeld’s permission and the Secret Service said the photo did not constitute a security threat. Watch it:

I keep hearing the refrain, "why waste your time writing about Michelle Malkin and the like" whenever someone spends time addressing her and her compatriots. This is the short answer: because we have to.

The utterly ridiculous furor over the Times Travel section story (which resulted in the home address and phone number of the Travel section photographer being posted on the internet along with another blogger issuing a call to "Go hunt [Times editors and reporters] down and do America a favor. Get their photo, street address, where their kids go to school, anything you can dig up, and send it to the link above" to be posted on the internet) started at the blogs of Malkin and compatriots. Those bloggers should have been left with zero credibility after this incident.

Yet here we are, a week later, and one of the most influential pundits with one of the largest audiences in the country, is recycling the complaints of the bloggers as if they are legitimate complaints without mentioning or addressing the thuggish behavior that resulted from their posts.

O'Reilly reaches a target audience of millions. That's millions of people that this nonsense is transmitted to.

So that's why we must spend time responding to these bloggers. Ignored, their message only amplifies and gets louder.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Jungle turns 100

Karen Olson at Slate reflects on the 100th anniversary of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, the muckraking novel that led to the creation of the FDA.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Quote of the day

"Remember the old law-and-order saw about how 'a conservative is a liberal who got mugged'? How about this: A liberal is a conservative who got thrown in jail without charge. An update to reflect the times...." - The Cunning Realist

The Cunning Realist was commenting on the following passage from a story in the LA Times about a US filmmaker who is suing the United States government for his 55 day detention in Iraq (bold emphasis his)

"Mr. Kar was and remains traumatized by his indefinite and virtually incommunicado detention, in solitary confinement, by the U.S. military without charge," the suit says.

What happened to him in Iraq was "a life-altering experience," Kar said. "I am not a left-wing liberal. I agree with many of George Bush's policies."

But, he added, "I don't think the Constitution has to be gutted to achieve our objectives" in the war on terrorism. "I felt it was my duty as an American to take a stand for the constitutional rights guaranteed to all Americans."

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Our partisan brains

When I checked the front page of ScienceBlogs this morning, I noticed that Ed Brayton was listed as "The Must Read" entry of the day. So I read it. Sure enough, it is a must read.

In the entry, Ed comments on Michael Shermer's latest Skeptic column for Scientific American about the study on the way in which partisans process information, noting that as humans we are naturally predisposed to confirmation bias, but being aware of that fact gives us a way to escape our built-in prejudices by remembering to subject our own beliefs to scrutiny.

It sounds blatantly obvious, but we all need reminding from time to time.

Sunday morning art

Lady Writing a Letter (1665 - 1670) - Jan Vermer

Link decay

I was looking at one of the posts I've written that I'm most fond of, my secular humanism primer, and noticed that five of the links no longer worked. I was able to repair four of the five, but I was unable to recover "The Secular Sphinx", as that one got lost when the Skeptic Society redid their website a few months back.

Hmph, now I have to find an article to replace that one.

Update: Thanks to kingless in the comments, here is a cached version of "The Secular Sphinx."

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Eating ethics

Peter Singer has a new book (co-written with Jim Mason) out called The Way We Eat: Why our Food Choices Matter.

I've never really given much thought to the ethics of eating, but a previous article by Singer caused me to abandon eating eggs that are not hatched by cage free chickens, and issues raised in Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (see here for chapter excerpts) about the economic, environmental, social, and political pressures and conditions created by various food industries opened my mind up to the consideration that there could be reasons other than concern for animals not to eat particular foods. I've since then also decided to not eat pork anymore (which isn't much of a sacrifice, since the only pork I ate was ham, and that rarely) because it just didn't seem right to eat something that is as intelligent as a dog; plus, as Singer describes in his newest column, they are raised in miserable conditions.

I think this is a subject that more people might benefit from considering, as it's one that most people have never really paused to give much consideration to. I know I haven't.

Even if you don't change your mind, one can only benefit from challenging their beliefs. And you likely won't find someone more challenging than a philosopher like Singer.

Quote of the day

"Al Gore and a fringe group of radical liberals known as 'scientists' believe that the earth is being damaged by man-made carbon dioxide." - Jon Stewart (via Studying Biology and Environmental Science)

Friday, July 07, 2006

Pray or die

From Middle East Online (via Butterflies and Wheels)

Somali Muslims who fail to perform daily prayers will be killed in accordance with Koranic law under a new edict issued by a leading cleric in the Islamic courts union that controls Mogadishu.

The requirement for Muslims to observe the five-times daily ritual under penalty of death was announced late Wednesday and appears to confirm the hardline nature of the increasingly powerful Sharia courts in the capital.
How can anyone worship a God that endorses such barbarity? How can anyone call this god which advocates such brutal intimidation tactics "good?"

"I will call no being good who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow creatures; and if such a creature can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go." - John Stuart Mill, An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (1865)

Of course, the apologist for this action will tell you that "good" is obediance to God. This person is not a morally autonomous individual, because by making "good" synonymous with arbitrary divine fiat, he has given up the ability to make ethical judgements, leaving him incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong. Instead, he can only decide whether an action is approved or disapproved by his master. Given that he is no longer bound by moral considerations, there is no limitation to his behavior. Anything that he believes to be sanctioned by God, his master, no matter how cruel or irrational, is acceptable.

"The man who does not do his own thinking is a slave, and is a traitor to himself and to his fellow-men." - Robert Green Ingersoll, "The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child" (1877)

Two minutes hate + ritual defamation = ?

"The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one's will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic..." - George Orwell, 1984

In the novel 1984, "two minutes hate" was a daily routine where the citizens of Oceania gather in front of telescreens to watch two minutes of video denouncing an enemy of the nation. It was a means by which the passions of the populace were mobilized, for the purpose of control, by directing them at a demonized enemy. The point of the video is not to refute the argument of the identified "enemy" but to get the public to hate the target for making the argument in the first place. Consequently, the specific individual targeted is irrelevant, what matters is that the public knows to hate someone who is a symbol which is supposed to represent an abstract Manichean conception of "Enemy."

This is the image that comes to me when I reflect on the rampant accusations of treason that now litter our political landscape, and especially when I think about stories like the Travel section of the New York Times being accused of conspiracy to help al Qaeda assassinate Donald Rumfield and Dick Cheney and the former chancellor of UC-Santa Cruz being accused of sedition. In both stories, after readers were told that these respective targets were traitors to the nation, they were given the contact information of these "enemies" and told to hold them accountable.

Glenn Greenwald, writing about the intimidation tactic of "publicly railing against someone's grave crimes and then publishing their home address," says

These self-evidently dangerous tactics are merely a natural outgrowth of the hate-mongering bullying sessions which have become the staple of right-wing television shows such as Bill O'Reilly's and websites such as Michelle Malkin's (who, unsurprisingly, has become one of O'Reilly's favorite guests). One of the most constant features of these hate fests is the singling out of some unprotected, private individual -- a public school teacher here, a university administrator there -- who is dragged before hundreds of thousands of readers (or millions of viewers), accused of committing some grave cultural crime or identified as a subversive and an enemy, and then held out as the daily target of unbridled contempt, a symbol of all that is Evil.
Notice how Greenwald's description sounds to the description of "two minutes hate". The similarity is not superficial, as both have the same goal in mind, the repression or censorship of ideas. But what Greenwald describes is different in that unlike the novel, where the hate videos were directed at a somewhat abstracted political enemy (Goldstein), the targets of these pundits are actual people. In this instance, the "two minutes hate" of Malkin and compatriots is actually an act of ritual defamation.

Looking at the essay above, one could imagine it was written specifically in response to the tactics Greenwald is describing. The essay begins

Defamation is the destruction or attempted destruction of the reputation, status, character or standing in the community of a person or group of persons by unfair, wrongful, or malicious speech or publication. For the purposes of this essay, the central element is defamation in retaliation for the real or imagined attitudes, opinions or beliefs of the victim, with the intention of silencing or neutralizing his or her influence, and/or making an example of them so as to discourage similar independence and "insensitivity" or non-observance of taboos.
Wilcox, the essay's author, goes on to list eight common elements of ritual defamation. If we note that the primary tool of ritual defamation is character assassination and then look specifically at elements 4:

The victim is often somebody in the public eye - someone who is vulnerable to public opinion - although perhaps in a very modest way. It could be a schoolteacher, writer, businessman, minor official, or merely an outspoken citizen. Visibility enhances vulnerability to ritual defamation.
and 6 (which I truncated for emphasis):

In order for a ritual defamation to be effective, the victim must be dehumanized to the extent that he becomes identical with the offending attitude, opinion or belief, and in a manner which distorts it to the point where it appears at its most extreme. For example, a victim who is defamed as a "subversive" will be identified with the worst images of subversion, such as espionage, terrorism or treason.
And notice that the sum of the other elements are that others are directed to participate in the defamation in an effort "to bring pressure and humiliation on the victim from every quarter" we see that this is what the pundits Greenwald describes are engaging in when they identify some figure as an enemy to the country and then invite their audience to "hold them accountable."

In her response to David Weigel, which I wrote about here, Michelle Malkin asked the following straw-man question:

"Are we to withhold criticism now of all public figures because they might be going through 'troubled' times and any call for accountability might send them over the edge?"

If we substitute in "Two Minutes Hate" and ritual defamation for "criticism" and "call for accountability," respectively, (which I believe is justified from the obvious ways in which her behavior matches the elements described in the essay), then the question is no longer straw-man and Wilcox's concluding paragraph answers why such should be withheld.

Like all propaganda and disinformation campaigns [ritual defamation] is accomplished primarily through the manipulation of words and symbols. It is not used to persuade, but to punish. Although it may have cognitive elements, its thrust is primarily emotional. Ritual Defamation is used to hurt, to intimidate, to destroy, and to persecute, and to avoid the dialogue, debate and discussion upon which a free society depends. On those grounds it must be opposed no matter who tries to justify its use.