Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Reformation or Renaissance?

I often hear people claiming that what Islam really needs is a Martin Luther or a Reformation. I wonder if they really know what they are calling for. In my opinion the so-called Islamists today in many cases have a lot in common with the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century, for they were the major fundamentalists of that era (of whom, let us not forget, the Puritans were an offshoot). In terms of inter-confessional hostility often not a great deal distinguished the Protestants and Catholics of the era, and the Catholics certainly committed their share of heinous crimes: the Spanish Inquisition, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and the Spanish campaign of extermination in the Netherlands spring to mind, to say nothing of the atrocities perpetrated in the New World. But for the most part, except in Spain and the Balkans, where old conflicts with Muslim states continued, it was the Protestants who reawakened religious fanaticism and a spirit of sectarian rancor which had been largely absent since the days of the late Roman Empire. Of course the Protestants had legitimate grievances, but many of the abuses that they wanted to “reform” were of an opposite nature from those condemned by liberal society in religious fanatics today: venality, corruption and a conspicious lack of moral austerity. The Catholic Church had entered a decadent stage, and it is not hard even to identify the liberal Western society of today more with it than with the Protestant fundamentalists who challenged it. Indeed, Islamists often follow an analogous course: they deplore the corruption and venality of leaders of the Muslim world (although there is nothing analogous to the formal institution of the Church in Islam), they arrogate to themselves, not to the clerical authorities, the authority to interpret scripture, and they preach a general return to the austere holiness of the nascent days of the faith. The Reformation and the Renaissance arose from a somewhat similar revolt against ossified social institutions, particularly the Catholic Church, and a desire to bring power back into the fold of common humanity, but the viciousness of the religious wars and persecutions sparked by the Reformation vitiated to a considerable degree the achievements of the Renaissance in beating back dogmatism, and the Reformers returned an intransigent militarism to intellectual life. What Islam needs is not a Luther but an Erasmus, or better yet a Rabelais.

Of exploitable domains

Chalk up the Indian Health Service branch of the federal government as another example of exploitable government domains. In culling out comment spam yesterday, I noticed that a number of comments had links to URLs starting with “ihs.gov”. Now, say what you will about the government, but at least it doesn’t usually spam this blog, so it’s a little odd to see .gov links among the spam. A closer look, though, revealed that this links were of the following form:

 http://www.ihs.gov/PublicInfo/Publications/Kids/safety/
 IHS_DisclaimerKids_prod.cfm?link_out=http://spam.url.here

where I’ve replaced an actual spam URL with “http://spam.url.here”. As it turns out, the first part of the above points to a little script on the IHS website that will display any URL you like in a frame wrapped by an IHS banner (try it out by replacing the fake URL with anything you like). Which, of course, allows spam URLs to slip by blacklists by masquerading as something more innocuous. As, perhaps, a side benefit, it makes it look like the site is endorsed or at least condoned by a governmental agency.

It hardly even needs to be mentioned that having such a script readily available on one’s website is, at the least, highly irresponsible, and possibly actionable if someone were dumb enough to interpret the frame wrapper was an endorsement (and, as history teaches us, there’s always someone dumb enough). → …and illustrates yet again why frames suck. But that’s another story. Even more so if you keep in mind that, since it’s on a government website, you’re paying for the privilege of allowing spammers to cloak their URLs. And it should be pointed out that the IHS isn’t the only example; until recently the comment spammers around here were using a virtually identical script on the state of Mississippi website.

That’s not to say that governments are the only culprits. Plenty of corporations and other private organizations have similarly exploitable websites, but (a) none, that I can recall, have made their way into my comment box and (b) if one did, I could (and would) refuse to do business with the offending organization. Not so with the government; since I have to pay them anyway, the only thing I can do is bitch about them on the Internet.

(And yes, before anyone asks, I did send an email to the IHS webmaster pointing out the vulnerability and suggesting that it makes his organization look bad to facilitate spammers like this)

Everything’s relative

Yesterday Arts & Letters Daily linked to a New Yorker article suggesting that poverty is a relative, not absolute, condition. Which is to say, an attempted rebuttal of the “How poor can you really be if you own a car, a color TV and a microwave?” argument. While I think there’s some merit to this position, I have issues with several aspects of the article.

First, there’s the evidence provided to support this claim: the article cites a British study which found that mid-level civil servants die sooner than their bosses, research by Amartya Sen which found that Indians live longer than African-Americans despite being absolutely poorer, and animal studies suggesting that low-status monkeys are more stressed than their high-status counterparts.

Of course, you can’t directly compare the health or mortality of rich/high-status to that of poor/low-status people and animals; the rich and powerful typically eat better, smoke less, etc. In the case of the British study, the New Yorker article claims that a follow-up study demonstrated that “less than a third of the difference in patterns of disease and mortality can be ascribed to behavior associated with coronary risk, such as smoking or lack of exercise”, which would be a relatively easy thing to check with some regression. Straightforward as that sounds, though, it’s misleading. The one third only applies (assuming the paraphrase is accurate) to coronary risk, but what about other health risks that might correspond to poverty? For example, does the coronary risk associated with smoking also take into account the increased lung cancer risk? What about non-coronary nutritional issues? What about the increased environmental toxicity (and thus cancer risk) of low-income neighborhoods relative to their high income counterparts? What about the (presumable: I know virtually nothing about British health care other than that a lot of people I know say it sucks) lower access to preventative and emergency health care that poor people have? If volitional coronary risks account for one-third of the difference, mightn’t these other factors explain a good chunk of the remainder?

The above isn’t relevant in the case of African-Americans versus Indians, since in that case the richer group dies sooner. The article suggests that African-Americans are dying younger because, although they’re absolutely richer than the Indians they’re compared to, they’re poorer relative to the society that they live in. But the direct comparison is misleading here as well. Being richer in an absolute sense, African-Americans are more able to indulge in a number of activities that are bad for you but (in a global sense) quite expensive: Yes, I’m aware of the disjunction in simultaneously claiming that poor British people engage in more health-antagonistic activities than rich British people and that poor Indians might have healthier lifestyles than the (absolutely) richer African-Americans. But this is at least plausible if not definitively true: vice is, coarsely speaking, a luxury good and both the poor British and African-Americans are, on an absolute scale, quite wealthy and so likely to consume more vice than Indians who are poorer. So why don’t rich Brits consume even more vice? Because, as with many luxury goods, income inelasticity of demand isn’t constant; for the super-rich, vice (maybe) takes on more of the qualities of a normal or even inferior good. Plus, it has to compete with the whole health food/healthy lifestyle thing, which seems to follow a complementary trajectory. drug and alcohol abuse, smoking, a sedentary lifestyle and eating high-lipid foods, among others (only one such, recreational homicide, is addressed in the article). Dietary issues are of special interest, since the majority of people in Kerala (the region of India used for the comparison) are Hindus, meaning that vegetarianism was probably much more prevalent among the Indians in the study (especially since vegetarianism is particularly prevalent among South Indian Hindus) than among the Americans.

That’s not to say the argument that relative status is an important component of wealth (in the broad sense of that word) is completely dead: the animal studies cited are (presumably; I haven’t read them) compelling counter-evidence, as is the argument that you need more than color TV and microwaves to be able to navigate the modern job market. That being said, I also take issue with the statistic cited to cap this section of the article:

Research by Tom Hertz, an economist at American University, shows that a child whose parents are in the bottom fifth of the income distribution has only a six-per-cent chance of attaining an average yearly income in the top fifth. Most people who start out relatively poor stay relatively poor.

This is one of those statistics that sounds impressive but is, absent significant context, almost worthless. First, note the misdirection in the statement: by using “fifth” rather than percentages to describe the income levels, the above encourages a subconscious comparison of 6% to 100% rather than the 20% one would expect in a perfectly meritocratic society in which everyone had completely equal access to education and the job market (a.k.a. fantasyland). Also, counting the numbers of poor who make it to the top fifth is misleading in and of itself, since comparing top and bottom is guaranteed to give the least encouraging picture of income mobility; another measure might test what percentage of the children of the poor end up in poverty themselves: is it 20% (the utopian ideal)? 30%? 50%?

Anyway, these statistical quibbles aside, my more serious objections are to the “solutions” section of the article. The author suggests calculating poverty on a relative basis (set the poverty line at half the median income) rather than–as currently calculated–absolutely (the purported minimum necessary to afford food, clothing, housing, etc.). I don’t necessarily have a problem with that (other than to the extent that setting a poverty line is only relevant if you’re going to give tax-funded benefits to the poor), but his refutation of objections is weak. For example:

Many Americans are skeptical about government anti-poverty programs, because they believe that the impoverished bear some responsibility for their plight by dropping out of high school, taking drugs, or committing crimes. Raising public awareness about relative deprivation could help to change attitudes toward the poor, by showing how those at the bottom of the social hierarchy continue to face obstacles even as they, along with the rest of the society, become more prosperous. The Times recently reported that more than half of black men in inner cities fail to finish high school, and that, nationwide, almost three-quarters of black male high-school dropouts in their twenties are unemployed. “It doesn’t do a poor person any good to say ‘You are better off than you would have been thirty years ago,’ ” Fuchs said. “The pathologies we associate with poverty—crime, drug use, family disintegration—we haven’t eliminated them at all.”

It may just be me, but responding to the notion that many of the poor bear responsibility for their plight by saying that half of inner-city blacks drop out of high school and that three-quarters of those end up unemployed seems pretty non-sensical. I mean, if you drop out of high school despite the fact that three-quarters of the guys in your neighborhood who did the same are unemployed, then it seems to me that your probable future unemployment is, in large measure, your own fault. That’s not to say that a high school diploma (especially from an inner-city high school, where, based on my own limited experience, it seems like you only need a pulse and a willingness to get out of bed every morning to get a diploma) is a guarantee of employment, but neglecting to expend even that minimal amount of effort to make yourself employable seems to almost perfectly embody the responsibility argument that the author so casually dismisses.

Next paragraph:

The conservative case against a relative-poverty line asserts that since some people will always earn less than others the relative-poverty rate will never go down. Fortunately, this isn’t necessarily true. If incomes were distributed more equally, fewer families would earn less than half the median income. Therefore, the way to reduce relative poverty is to reduce income inequality—perhaps by increasing the minimum wage and raising taxes on the rich. Between 1979 and 2000, the inflation-adjusted earnings of the poorest fifth of Americans increased just nine per cent; the earnings of the middle fifth rose fifteen per cent; and the earnings of the top fifth climbed sixty-eight per cent.

The third sentence in the above is only partially true; really, only incomes below the median are relevant to the argument being advanced here. It’s easy to visualize a hypothetical income distribution with vast wealth differentials between the richest and the median, but with nobody earning below half the median: simply cluster the bottom half near the median.

With this picture in mind, it’s immediately apparent that raising taxes on the rich has absolutely no effect on poverty as defined in the article (other than insofar as those tax revenues on the one hand fund welfare programs and, on the other hand, reduce the ability of the rich to employ the poor). In fact, this definition of poverty makes an entirely different tax strategy orders of magnitude more effective: repeal all taxes on everybody who makes more than the median (since their income is irrelevant to what the median actually is) while aggressively taxing those who make between 50 and 100% of the median. Implement this tax regime and pretty soon there will be no poverty under the given definition (of course, as typically happens in such scenarios, the definition would be changed). Sound ludicrous? I guarantee that, if this new definition of poverty becomes the governmental standard, you’ll see more subtle implementations of similar strategies within five years.

But that’s not even the dumbest part of the sentence in which it’s suggested: that honor goes to the suggestion that raising the minimum wage would reduce relative poverty. It’s unbelievable to me that there still people who think raising the minimum wage helps the poor. Of course, some people still believe the earth is flat; what’s really unbelievable is that the belief that minimum wages are negatively correlated to poverty is a common, probably majority view. As pointed out by Matt MacIntosh on Wednesday, it’s common knowledge among economists that raising the minimum wage is bad for poor people. As with many economic truths, this is self-evident if you just think about it. If raising the minimum wage really helps the poor, why not just raise the minimum wage to, oh, $500/hour? In fact, mandating a “living wage” of, say, 50% of the median would, most likely, increase the number of households below that threshold.

Finally, a more general objection: while I do think there’s some merit to the idea that poverty is a relative (as opposed to purely absolute) phenomenon, the argument (especially in context of the dodginess of much of the supporting evidence and, especially, of the purported solutions) strikes me as superfluous (or, perhaps, self-aggrandizing) in much the way that modern Western feminists have made themselves largely superfluous. In both cases, a lesser domestic evil is being subjected to the minutest scrutiny while a greater global evil is largely ignored. After all, no matter how bad relative poverty is, absolute poverty still exists in the world and is unquestionably worse.

Conspiracy deluxe (now with smug math references)

The following was intended to be a direct response to a couple of statements in Curt’s last post, but, as these things tend to do, the direct response quickly metastasized into a rambling diatribe only tangentially related to the initial impetus. So, never one to lose an opportunity to pad my post count, I’m pulling it out of its original destination in the comment box and posting it here for all to see, comment on and, if need be, snicker quietly under their breath.

Would complicity in 9/11 change your estimation of the American government’s valuation of human life and liberty?

In the sense that I have a hard time accepting the concept that an institution as massive as the federal government even has a coherent “valuation of human life and liberty”, no. But, even if you think that George W. Bush is Satan’s person knob-polisher, he didn’t personally orchestrate the entire thing even if we accept the hypothesis that he (or Cheney, or whoever) is ultimately behind it, so in the sense that rather a lot of people, presumably not all sociopaths, would have had to have been involved, it would be quite troubling.

In both cases, the assumption seems to be that there are only two possible theories, so any nagging inconsistencies or incompleteness in one theory is implicitly support for the other. The towers falling straight down so quickly or life getting started in the first place might be problematic for the conventional explanations, but they are not really positive evidence that God exists or that the U.S. government blew up its own buildings.

I’ve spent rather a lot of time interacting with “conspiracy theorists”, so I think I’m qualified to say that this is a somewhat inaccurate caricature. Are there some conspiracy theorists who see the nefarious USG behind any unusual or hard-to-explain occurrences with bad results? Of course. Are there more who always blame evil Republicans for 9/11, global warming, cold winters and bad television? Absolutely. But there are plenty who were/are at least moderately more rational. To extend the towers-falling-straight-down example, some pursued a thought process more or less like the following: first, questioning (more or less idly, at least initially) whether the towers falling straight down was a plausible outcome given the purported circumstances, then deciding that the circumstances as stated weren’t a plausible explanation, then questioning what set of circumstances would have led to the indisputable result of both towers collapsing straight down and then, finally, in most (but not all) cases embracing some alternative set of circumstances that would be more plausible.

It’s instructive to point out that the conspiracy theories tend, on the whole, to lose their coherence at this last stage. The controlled demolition theory is popular, but by no means universal; there are those who are convinced the planes were loaded with missiles, or that they were drogues full, not of passengers, but of high explosives, or whatever. Oh, sure, most blame the thing on the government, but, assuming one accepts the reasoning in the above paragraph as more or less sane, there’s no escaping the fact that someone had to have placed the demolition charges or put missiles on the planes or flew the drogues or whatever your favorite explanation is and, really, it’s hard to think of any organization other than the USG that could have pulled any of those off. Unbelievable as it might seem to argue that the federal government placed, wired up, timed and ignited demolition charges in three separate buildings (don’t forget WTC 7) without anyone noticing (which, given the precision required would be rather a hard thing to do), it’s orders of magnitude more difficult to believe that the Mafia or the Chinese or even al Qaeda could have done it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, provided one thinks more is going on than meets the eye, involving the government in your explanation (though perhaps not actively) is more or less inevitable.

Note that I’m not necessarily endorsing this particular line of reasoning; I’m just saying it’s not as cracked out as it might first seem. In broad outline the path to becoming a conspiracy theorist isn’t terribly unreasonable: something seems fishy, seek alternative explanation, recognize alternative explanation requires additional participants with significant resources and opportunity, deduce participation of local actor with most of both. Any particular deduction of a conspiracy theory almost certainly rests on questionable assumptions, but that’s likely to be the case even for a true conspiracy theory, since a conspiracy theorist is, by definition, someone not in on the conspiracy.

At this point a number of “conspiracy theorists” of my acquaintance point out that the official explanation is itself a conspiracy theory in that it seeks to explain what happened by means of a secret conspiracy: in this case, of Arab fanatics. This is, presumably, intended to justify alternative theories by putting them on the same level as the official one (whether by raising up the alternatives or by dragging down the official explanation I leave up to you); semantics, granted, but sometimes semantics are important. Of course, this means that, be the official explanation never so true, it’s likely to suffer the same defects as any other conspiracy theory; it would actually be much more troubling if the official explanation explained everything perfectly, since this would imply that either the people who came up with it were themselves a part of the conspiracy or that they were able to perfectly reconstruct rather a lot of events that were only observed by people who are now dead. The conspiracy-minded response to this observation is obvious and the ensuing recursivity is left as a simple exercise for the reader.

At this point any freshman English teacher could tell you that I ought to end with some sort of coherent conclusion that ties all of the above together, but I guess the point is that I don’t have one. I do think there are some suspicious aspects of the official theory, but an inevitable consequence of the above exercise is that at least some such difficulties are a priori inevitable, especially when one takes into account the equally inevitable mixture of incompetence, corruption and coincidence. On the other hand, there are some aspects of various “conspiracy theories” which sound compelling at least to a non-expert like myself. So there.

A reasonable European view of religion?–alackaday!

I have criticized Frank Furedi in the past quite a bit, so I was quite happily surprised at what a penetrating analysis of the anti-religious hysteria in Britain and the States he has written, especially since he is, as far as I can tell, one of the old European leftists of the ambiguously socialist variety. I think he gets it exactly right in the following passage:

“Until recently, cultural expressions of religious faith were simply considered old-fashioned and gauche. But over the past decade, scorn has turned into bigotry and hatred…This trend for blaming the rise of theocracy on ordinary folks’ apparent penchant for simplistic black-and-white solutions shifts the focus from the elite’s failure to promote and uphold a positive vision of the future on to the alleged political illiteracy of the masses. That is why discussions of so-called fundamentalist movements often contain an implicit condemnation of the people who support them – and why the alleged creations of fundamentalist culture are implicitly condemned as immoral. It is the insecurity of the Anglo-American cultural elites about their own values and moral vision of the world that encourages their frenzied attacks on religion. There is a powerful element of bad faith here: many leftists and liberals denounce those who appeal to moral values as being inferior, but they are also envious of them…In the confused cultural elite’s fears of a powerful religious right winning over the masses, we can see a good example of bad faith worrying about real faith.”

There are so many perceptive elements here. It’s certainly true that there seems to be a growing intolerance in certain circles simply of people having religious beliefs, apart from how or even if they act upon them. And I have to imagine that it is in fact based on the persistence and strength, so baffling to leftists (Marxism is after all “dialectical materialism”), of a religious-based mindset that is not ostensibly based on material concerns. One hears constantly the frustrated complaint that this mindset “makes people vote against their own economic and social interests.” And so one sees a dramatic shift in attitude. The leftists who used to rant supposedly in favor of the poor, oppressed working-class, having seen that that working-class, even when given the choice, rejects their platform, turns on it for being stupid, fanatical and duped by the manipulation of superstition. And of course they attack the propagators of religion for having supposedly brain-washed the masses to ignore their best interests. And I would add another element: the zealously anti-religious, at least those mentioned in the article, frequently tack away from a direct argument as to the merits of the core beliefs of religion, atheism, etc. Instead, they focus on auxiliary, less controversial issues like the supposed intolerance or fanaticism of the religious. Well, let’s face it, believing you’re right and those who disagree with you are wrong is inherently intolerant at some level, and in that respect there is no difference between, say, creationists and Darwinists. The secularists set up this bugaboo without acknowledging that everyone acts in defense of and to further their own beliefs. What it comes right down to is what beliefs you choose to adopt. I feel that there is a sort of uncomfortable awareness that if you get right down to, say, two naked propositions: “God exists” and “There is no God,” one does not really seem more inherently logical than the other, both seem like equally irrational (or rational) assumptions. But if you can cut the theists off at the base by condemning them for “intolerance,” then you don’t have to grapple with their actual beliefs, or, more importantly, the fact that your own are, at root, also just based on arbitrary assumptions.

Furedi makes one other excellent point. After reading most of the article, I was dreading the typical leftist idea that, having seen the power of religion, one should try to harness it even if one puts no credence in it, the attitude embodied by the London think-tanker who says “the liberal, secular left has somehow to find ways of supplying citizens with emotional and metaphysical comforts even when it does not itself believe in such things.” But as Furedi correctly points out, this is a totally cynical ploy, and hypocritical too in that it would involve leftists in the manipulation of religious beliefs in the the same way they accuse the conservatives of doing. He seems to imply that one ought to perhaps re-evaluate the strength and validity of one’s own beliefs rather than simply trying to manipulate others’. As for myself, I find it more empowering both on the indvidual and general level to provisionally accept the materialistic scientific view because it seems to make it easier to understand, to predict and ultimately control our environment when one assumes that everything is a manipulable object devoid of supernatural forces beyond our control. But this is not an ontological but merely an instrumental belief, and hence not based on the belief that it is true, but only that it is most useful. In one sense this is kind of a meaningless distinction, but the difference is one of emphasis and value; from my point of view the most important thing is that people adopt whatever beliefs most allow them to improve their own living conditions. The metaphysical beliefs are only valuable insofar as they support this project; they have no value in and of themselves. It seems to me that the really committed theists, atheists, etc. have the values of these reversed–our personal lives ought to be put at the service of these big beliefs rather than vice versa.

p.s. I think Furedi is right that religious fundamentalism, far from taking over, has been considerably marginalized, even in America. As he points out, the Intelligent Design equation of Darwinism+God to start the process is, in a sense, an enormous concession to science, certainly a long way from strict creationism. After all, it may be unwarranted from a scientific point of view, but since natural selection has nothing to say about how the whole process got started in the first place, it’s not necessarily any worse than any other speculation about ultimate origins. On the other hand, I seriously doubt that many of those propounding Intelligent Design themselves believe it sincerely, and I suspect that should they ever come to control school curriculae we would be back to purely scripturally-based dogmas soon enough.

Rousseau-less sinning than sinned against?

I’ve been reading Du contrat social (The Social Contract) by Rousseau, and I would have to say that, generally speaking, I find the liberal abhorrence of it to be a little overwrought. I think the main mistake has been to see it as a realistic, rather than idealistic, representation of society. I myself have criticized the notion of the “social contract” in the past as not being at all the foundation of our society and for being somewhat empty, given the relative impossibility of opting out of social living in the world today. But in reality the social contract is just a hypothetical for Rousseau, an idea of what should be the basis for society, rather than what really is.

And the basic problem with the notion is that there is no real concrete practical program of how to achieve the utopia described in the book starting from our own fallible, self-interested world. The view of Rousseau as a totalitarian is definitely unfair, although he does give the rather amorphous “general will” absolute sovereignty over the members of society. But the phrase “general will” is not entirely disingenuous, even though it is clearly a conception of the general welfare of society which trumps the desires of any individual citizen. But Rousseau is very clear that society can only work if its members themselves work first and foremost for the welfare of others and not only their own private interest. So while one might criticize his insistence on the general social good as being somewhat empty and unrealistic, it is not a coercive system that he has in mind, of which many liberals have accused him. One might question if and how people are supposed to place the general good above their own interests. Rousseau’s answer is education. This is why his political and educational programs are virtually synonymous. Again, one can question the feasability and validity of the ultimate end, but he means to bring about those ends by inculcating his ideas as education principles so that people will really want to pursue the general good rather than having it forced upon them. No doubt the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution and 80 years of communism has made many of us cynical about this kind of idealism and suspicious that when the peaceful revolution doesn’t work out a violent dictatorship will likely become the vehicle of social change, but in that case one can only Rousseau of naïveté, not of himself having totalitarian ideas.

And, quite honestly, although I can’t share his belief in the existence of a social collective and a unitary “social good,” and I don’t really believe that the basic psychology of humanity can really be fundamentally changed, in the big picture he is right in the sense that social living does require people to look beyond their own self-interest and consider the good of others. The difference is that, in the absence of some sort of extra-human collective will that he envisions, we must do this as subjective individual beings, and with less regard for the strict chimeric equality that he prizes so highly than with a respect for the diversity of things in which people place value.

The possessed at the mosque

To me this book seems like perhaps the first analysis of “jihadi” terrorism that really digests the psychology behind it. The central point that the author, Faisal Devji, makes is that for the likes of al-Qaeda violence is an “ethical” rather than a “political” act. As I understand it, what that means is this: in the 20th century even the most murderous ideologies like Nazism and Bolshevism tended to justify themselves teleologically, i.e. the end justifies the means. Of course there was idolization of militarism, but generally they envisioned an ultimate world order that would sanctify the ideals of peace, harmony and unity. Of course this may well have been merely a fig-leaf to justify the inherent violence of the movements, but at least ostensibly this long-term goals made the violence tactical, a means of arriving at a future which would not itself be violent.

If i understand Devji right, al-Qaeda and its ilk have functionally discarded long-term reconciliation with bourgeois morality. They look at the warrior-life of constant battle and overcoming as their ideal of day-to-day existence. Their utopia really would be a war without end. I don’t know if this makes jihadis any different than Nazis or Maoists practically speaking, but it does make the possibility of any compromise or common-ground between our society’s ideals and their even more inconceivable, in the sense that it would be theoretically possible to rearrange our social institutions to accomodate Marxist ideals or whatever and thus circumvent a murderous struggle with its opponents. But when the very essence of jihadi culture consists of strife and battle we literally cannot coexist with them, because the movement is predicated upon the destruction of those outside the group. Of course this may deepen jihadism’s threat but it also limits its reach, since it necessarily turns the whole world into the enemies of its followers. As the self-negating implications of this become clearer, the ideology will no doubt soften. The reversion to simple demands for territory like Palestine and Iraq is probably symptomatic of that.

p.s. Three cheers for anyone who noticed that my post-title is a Dostoyevsky reference.

I’m not hitched to this bandwagon

Since I offered this cautious defense of Christopher Hitchens’ overall assessment of Iraq about a month ago, I feel it to be my personal responsibility to mention this article, which lays out some of the really troubling aspects of his philosophy. Being a moral consequentialist, I feel that the effects of an action are more important than who or according to what principle they are committed. Thus, I feel that on a theoretical level Hitchens generally has a stronger position on Iraq than those who are anti-interventionist on principle. In other words, if a country has tyrannical leadership without which it would be inarguably better off (and of course the damage caused by their removal and absense must be considered in this, as well as the nature of their successors), its removal is probably morally justifiable no matter by whom or under what circumstances. I’m not saying that the invasion of Iraq fulfills those criteria, I merely posit that it is according to them that it should be judged, rather than some a priori principle regarding the “law of nations” or national sovereignty.

Now it is distinctly possible that the result of the entire Iraq fiasco will, after considering all of these factors, be considered a net gain for its people and the rest of the world. However, even the most enthusiastic supporters would surely have had grave doubts about this at some point in the last couple of years–if, at least, their concern was principally for the material quality of life of those affected. Which is why Hitchens’ complete lack of doubt seems dubious at best. What the article points out is that he seems to be at least as concerned with eradicating conservative religious values and beliefs as with improving those material conditions of life. Of course, even at that he should logically be hesitant at this point, since one of the few concrete results of the invasion so far is a draft of a constitution which would a establish a government that, unlike the previous one, would not be officially secular. I don’t believe that Hitchens is dogmatic enough to believe that the only measure of a society’s well-being is the relative absence of religion from its institutions, but his vitriolic attacks on Mother Theresa and the pope do suggest a mind which does not fully distinguish morally between powerful people with superstitious beliefs and murderous autocrats.

Why sloth isn’t a vice

Curt’s J.B.S. Haldane quote got me thinking a bit about science and technology and such the other day, which quickly morphed into some musings about technology vs. politics and why one works and the other doesn’t. Of course, it doesn’t take much thought on that subject to recognize the answer: people are lazy.

Think about it: virtually every technological innovation throughout history is due to laziness. In every case, someone got sick of doing something hard or boring and figured out some new way to do it faster or make it unnecessary to do at all. Computers are obvious: doing long division sucks, so people invented machines to do it for them. Same with the printing press: handcopying manuscripts is really tedious (not to mention hard on the carpals), so Gutenberg figured out how to make a machine do all the work. But this doesn’t just hold true for gadgets. For example, animals you’re trying to eat have a nasty tendency to run away, bite back and migrate every six months; eventually, someone got sick of all that nonsense, looked at some plants that couldn’t move or fight back and presto! agriculture was born. → Yes, I’m aware it wasn’t quite so simple To steal a line from Heinlein, “progress doesn’t come from early risers – progress is made by lazy men looking for easier ways to do things.” → Time Enough for Love, pg. 53

Continuing this line of thought, it hardly even needs to be said that new technology proliferates and makes lives better because everybody else is just as lazy as the inventors (though, admittedly, less creative in their laziness). After all, the scientific calculator wouldn’t have sold if people liked doing long division and looking up logarithms in giant tables. Since laziness and technology are so complementary, the vast technological advances throughout human history seem only natural. → To borrow a single example from Paul Graham, “[i]n 1800 an empty plastic drink bottle with a screw top would have seemed a miracle of workmanship.”

On the other hand, politics has advanced hardly at all in the last 2500 years. In broad outline (oversimplification alert!), the only major political differences between a modern Western democracy and classical Athens are: (i) owning slaves is no longer considered couth and (ii) a higher percentage of people get to vote. (i) and (ii) are obviously important, but two major advances in 2500 years isn’t what I would call speedy progress (especially since both really only became fashionable in the last 150 years).

Now, maybe politics is an inherently more tractable problem than how to avoid boring, sweaty work. In that case, maybe the ancient Greeks already had it mostly worked out and there were only a couple of things to improve upon. Alternatively, maybe the Athenians just got lucky and guessed the answer that otherwise would have taken centuries to figure out. But neither of these answers seems likely or particularly satisfying, especially since there still seem to be lots of political problems that nobody knows how to solve.

Actually, that last phrase is a complete lie. Everybody knows how to solve all the political problems in the world and they’ll be more than happy to explain their solutions at the slightest provocation. The problem is, nobody seems to be able to implement his solution.

Why is that? Because laziness is like Kryptonite for politics. Why did Communism fail? At least half the answer is that people are much too lazy to work hard when they can do the bare minimum for the same compensation. → The other half of the answer is the “Knowledge Problem,” which has the same counter-intuitive aesthetic appeal as the notion that progress comes from laziness Why do politicians that anybody who’s paying attention knows are corrupt, dishonest and/or incompetent get elected? Because people are much too lazy to devote hundreds of hours to researching the candidates, reading position papers and thinking through the logical conclusions of a candidate’s platform. Why do monarchy, feudalism and totalitarianism fail? Because the people in charge are too lazy to formulate good policies and then stick to them; oppression and plunder are much easier. → In these contexts, it’s fashionable to call laziness “rational self-interest”, but I disagree with this convention. Not because I’m against rationalism or self-interest, but because this particular phrase obscures the issue.

The list goes on and on. Think about virtually any political problem you can come up with (Why do countries fight unnecessary wars? Why can’t we “win” the Drug War? What’s up with Social Security?) and odds are the reason the “solutions” don’t work is because they require too much hard work. Of course, the basic system in which solutions have to be implemented is already broken because it requires too much hard work, but it could be argued that the fundamental problem is cultural: being lazy seems like cheating. Since nobody wants to view himself as a cheater, I’m convinced that everybody is secretly ashamed of his laziness and, therefor, trumpets diligence and industriousness as the ideal.

I, for one, say screw that. Until we recognize that we’re all lazy bastards at heart, realize that that’s not necessarily such a bad thing and accept the implications of this fact, we’re going to continue to find political problems insoluble.

p.s. Please don’t interpret this as a “call to action” or anything silly like that. Like the man said, “I’m just sayin’, is all.”

Judge the water, not the well

I don’t really want to add anything further to what I’ve said about Iraq, but Christopher Hitchens makes a good point in the Weekly Standard, a point I have made myself in the past, directed at those who blame the current violence there on the American occupation:

“Anyone with the smallest knowledge of Iraq knows that its society and infrastructure and institutions have been appallingly maimed and beggared by three decades of war and fascism (and the “divide-and-rule” tactics by which Saddam maintained his own tribal minority of the Sunni minority in power). In logic and morality, one must therefore compare the current state of the country with the likely or probable state of it had Saddam and his sons been allowed to go on ruling.

At once, one sees that all the alternatives would have been infinitely worse, and would most likely have led to an implosion–as well as opportunistic invasions from Iran and Turkey and Saudi Arabia, on behalf of their respective interests or confessional clienteles. This would in turn have necessitated a more costly and bloody intervention by some kind of coalition, much too late and on even worse terms and conditions. This is the lesson of Bosnia and Rwanda yesterday, and of Darfur today. When I have made this point in public, I have never had anyone offer an answer to it. A broken Iraq was in our future no matter what, and was a responsibility (somewhat conditioned by our past blunders) that no decent person could shirk.”

I don’t whole-heartedly agree with him, especially when he concludes from this that “The only unthinkable policy was one of abstention.” First of all, that implies that the only form that intervention could have taken was what actually happened, which is a pretty limited and fatalistic view. And secondly, it is not inconceivable that we c0uld have continued to abstain from getting involved even if Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia all invaded together. Isn’t that another lesson from Rwanda and Bosnia? I know that Hitchens is basically making a moral case, but that doesn’t make “ought to” the same as “have to.” Nevertheless, his basic point that Iraq was heading for sectarian ethnic conflict and probably a civil war as soon as Saddam died or got deposed no matter what the conditions is pretty hard to argue with. In fact, the presence of American troops has probably had a unifying effect both on Iraqis opposed to and supportive of their presence, although that by itself doesn’t necessarily legitimate or make worthwhile the whole engagement. So those who argue that the Americans turned Iraq from a peaceful and orderly little haven into Palestine/Rwanda should definitely shut the fuck up.

p.s. I also like his similarly inarguable headline “Prison conditions at Abu Ghraib have improved markedly and dramatically since the arrival of Coalition troops in Baghdad,” although surely he would be the first to admit that that is not saying a whole lot.