Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Anti-nutritionist Screed

Update: Link fixed

Do people become dieticians because they like tinkering endlessly with other people "for their own good," or does the field make them that way? Extremes of weight on my current caseload has the nutritionist at every team meeting these days. We have a 5'5" gentleman who weighs 357 pounds, and a 4'11" woman who once got down to 56 pounds. The dietician can't shut up. Neither of them are here for their weight problems, lady! The man is a personality-disordered registered sex offender who can't find anymore landlords who will rent to him, so he's "depressed" (he's actually having a ball holding court in the day area) and suicidal. The woman is at 92 pounds presently and has been working nicely on her underlying anxiety and codependency problems in the community but had a setback over Christmas because of her crazy, controlling family. We don't want to be tinkering with her food issues more than we have to, because that will set off all her control issues with us again and we'll have her here forever fighting with us over tube feedings, you interfering twit! Her fascination with the balanced life practices of Hindu mystics doesn't inspire confidence that she is at heart much of a scientist in the field, either.

"I called several of my friends over Christmas who specialize in eating disorders..."
Well don't! Bug off!

Thus it was with great irony that I read this article in the NYT science section (their science section continues to be pretty good, despite the front-page bias). The damn nutritionists have made us all fat.

On The Road To Robot Sex

Decades ago, I picked up a rock at a lake shore and threw it into the water. “That rock worked for 10,000 years to get that far up the shore,” my brother intoned, “and you just threw it back.” I cursed him for knowing me so well, predicting that I would find the comment absurd and funny, yet feeling just a little guilty anyway. People attribute sentience or feeling to inanimate objects all the time, with no encouragement from the objects themselves. But what if the objects were programmed to mimic human cuteness? There will be significant difficulty for us pulling back from falling in love with them. It sounds extremely disquieting, and not what we expected, but I think current trends lead us to that conclusion.
Glenn Reynolds links to a WaPo story this week that set off this whole train of thought in me.

We rely too heavily on the “ick” factor in our belief that such things will not happen, or will not commonly happen. The slight shudder and dyspeptic expression we experience we think will be enough for most other real human beings to stay away from such acts. But current trends are not leading to a science-fiction scenario of assembling a mail-order Bride of Frankenstein who speaks in some unnatural mechanical voice. That would indeed be an easy temptation to resist.

The likely extension of current trends will be much more difficult to stay aloof from. The evidence for this is that we are well down the road to loving such creatures already. Offices name the cute little robots that deliver the mail. Servicemen in Iraq grow attached to the bomb-dismantling robots assigned to their units. We don’t resist making other objects in our environment human – we actively seek it.

Since movie makers stopped filming galloping horses and moved on to the more lucrative practice of displaying lightly-clad dancers, we have been moving in a direction of sexual artificiality. There may not be a difference in principle between Ziegfield Follies and a painting by Titian, but few people in the 1920”s had art theaters with new works on display every week in their neighborhoods, or had a Titian hung in their family room. From the perspective of our ancestors, birth control is a remarkable step toward artificiality in sex. As with the paintings versus the movies, it is not that sex without possibility of conception was unknown before the 1960’s, but the change in availability is so enormous as to mark a qualitative change.

In any activity, we do not move from natural to artificial in one jump, and this holds for all switches from real to virtual as well. Putting realistic touches on an obviously artificial reality doesn’t bother us much, nor does enhancing a real experience through technology. People have alter-egos in RPG’s, and even alternate lives in Second Life. As those lives become more sophisticated, we will be having increasingly real interactions with other human beings who have accented different parts of their own real personality and place it in a different body. Those personalities will develop in new ways consistent with the new culture. Is that sex with robots? Sort of.

Arriving from the other direction, we have cosmetic surgery, ED medicines, and what used to be delicately called “marital aids.” What’s next? Chemicals or techniques that allow you to read your partner’s signals better? Gravity-reducing (or weight ameliorating) environments? Timing devices that communicate with each other and allow you to get your approximately correct rhythm in sync to the millisecond? (Would those be installed on a Wii or on the ear or hip? Hmm.) Whole programs you can install or uninstall on your skin like a CD, complete with starred reviews, compatible interfaces for your partner’s program, and medical warnings? Is that sex with robots?

Pornography has leveled off getting increasingly realistic, I am told. HD porn isn’t that attractive, being too much like us with our imperfections. I imagine something new, something better than mere realism, will soon replace it and start attracting all those porn dollars that have driven all our recent new communications technologies. (Instead of the predicted increase in sexual crime from ubiquitous pornography, it seems to have had the opposite effect, BTW. Kinkyporn-soaked Japan has a dangerously low birthrate.)

I have a humorous but troubling image of people saying some thirty years from now after they’ve been camping, or the power went out “We made love the old-fashioned, natural way. It was kind of nice. We decided we should do that more often.” There would be natural-sex advocates much like the natural food advocates now, publishing books and magazines.

Artificial pets are increasingly lifelike, programmed to hit all our cuteness buttons. Inveigling us to anthropomorphize them is not going to be a challenge. We already do that naturally. Sidekicks are only a step beyond that. Heck, I’d love to have a sidekick. The common complaint “But I wouldn’t want to have a friend who was completely predictable or under my control – that would be boring” would not apply. Too boring? We’ll make your sidekick a little more unpredictable, even eccentric or difficult. Like a book or game which we love because it challenges us, sidekicks will have self-adjusting levels of frustration. They will read your behavior, tones of voice, and facial expressions and gradually respond to them. I will bet that they will be installed with educational programs, so that your kid’s cute sidekick Binky makes her smarter than all the other little girls in her class, and better-adjusted, too. Specialty sidekicks for children with special needs will come to be seen as more efficient teachers than natural environments.

It’s pretty easy to imagine feeling guilty about trading in your sidekick for a new one, or having him reprogrammed. Wouldn’t it feel disloyal, even murderous in some weak sense? Artificial people are likely to be less irritating than real ones, not least because we can turn them off or put them away. More likely, one would upgrade the sidekick, adding new features to the old model. Every family would have one or two, like an ever-improving pet that did little errands and humorous things, whose expressions were a cause of merriment but whose abilities, especially in interacting with the other computers in the house, exceeded yours. They wouldn’t be human, particularly, but humanish, programmed with some of the endearing qualities we automatically respond do after generations of interacting with each other.

We would likely have their data backed up in a secure location regularly, in case something went wrong and we had to animate a new machine body with the old data. We would get used to “friends” of a sort being replaced with new bodies but much the same.

I don’t know where things might go from there. We can make up science-fiction endings based on the plausible extensions I have put forward, but real events take too many unexpected twists, and projecting too far forward rapidly leads to predictions of air cars and bubble cities. Perhaps the sidekicks will become rapidly more human. Or perhaps we won’t like that, and they will become something other than us, well-liked but different, as a pet or a character from a book might be. When we die, it may be possible for to use the data from our sidekicks to reverse-engineer us, creating something eerily like us in gesture and tone, closer to our real personalities than even our Alzheimered selves are late in life. Will we even want that? Will we be able to resist it even if we know it is bad for us?

But even without the fevered imaginings of grouchy old guys, we can plausibly see this far in thirty years: You have a Second Life character who has had some friends for decades in an enhanced, detailed 3-D world. Your kid’s artificial pets and sidekick are like members of the family, much easier to relate to than 90% of the human beings you know. The eccentric interactions of your own sidekick with your friends and relatives is a source of joy, reminding you that you not only chose well but have had a bit of luck as well – not everyone’s family has such good humans and sidekicks relations. You find people whose bodies and personalities are completely unenhanced to be somewhat unattractive and tedious, rather low-class. You still do see a few people in live reality, and keep in touch with many more electronically, because you think that’s important for a balanced life.

It’s not robot sex. But it’s starting to get disquietingly close, isn’t it?

Monday, December 24, 2007

Another UN Slam

Claudia Rosett is on the case again. The US is an all-you-can-eat buffet (or perhaps bouffe) at the UN.

Unexpected (Mildly) Good News

The rhetoric among the Democrats that Obama is the one to bring us together has irritated me for three reasons. First, it is that reliance on charisma again, beloved of all progressives, most independents, and even an annoying subset of conservatives, who see charm as a solution rather than a danger in a political figure. Secondly, it smacks of the childish self-centeredness which says “We wouldn’t be having all this conflict if you would just do things my way.” The country is divided. The Democrats solution: vote for a Democrat – then we won’t have to argue any more. What? You mean you don’t want to get along? Third, on what possible basis do we found the belief that he will bring us together? The man has never run anything. BHO has never done anything but make some nice speeches. Couldn’t we watch him at least run a committee or a golf tournament before making him president?

Yet I have discovered a positive side to this identification of Obama as one who can unite us. The idea contains within it the dim recognition that maybe Hillary Clinton divides the country not because some conservatives just don’t like her but because she is herself divisive. The gradual dawning that we have been especially angry at each other since before 2000 back to hey, 1992(!) strikes me as an encouraging step.

Part IV - The Long, Boring Part

I have spent a great deal of preparatory time discussing the failure of the United Nations in the lead-up to discussing the morality of the war. This is not because I consider the UN to be so important in discussing war, but the opposite. An enormous percentage of the population believes that discussions of the Just War begin and end with the Security Council. When I researched the moral arguments from that time, the references to the UN in Catholic, WCC, Anglican, Methodist, and general Christian debate was even more pronounced than expected.

If you google some of the combinations of “Iraq,” “Just War,” “morality,” “War on terror,” and the like, you will find that nearly every writer commenting negatively on the morality of the war makes almost immediate reference to the UN. Even Catholic writers, who presumably have a longer perspective than 60 years when writing, often reference the UN Charter or resolutions in their discussion. Interestingly, the two most recent popes have highlighted other issues in their discouragement of going to war, and I will deal with those in Part V.

Discussions since then of the war’s morality are less likely to include explicit references to the UN, but if you poke them a bit, you will find them running like a subterranean river underneath. It is all a bit disquieting. One can easily see how the UN could be the moral authority for post-Christian thinkers, but how has the idea so rapidly, and yet so quietly, taken over the thinking of Christians?

Even those angry and frustrated by the actions of the UN were (and are) likely to say “It’s too bad that the UN is such a mess, because it’s all we’ve got.” Is it

The Anglican and Lutheran Churches in Europe show the same thing, as do the traditional denominations in the US and Canada. In all discussions of Just War, they regard the UN, not individual nations, as the legitimate authority. Notably, the Orthodox churches do nothing of the kind. Non-Christian religious traditions make little reference to the resolutions of the General Assembly as having much to do with any moral question whatever. Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems – they make some nice comments about the UN and everyone working together and all that. The Dalai Lama does not look to the UN for moral guidance, nor do the Sufi mystics.

Nor do the nonwestern nations assign much moral importance to the UN, unless it is to their advantage. Do the Russians, the Chinese, or the Saudis ever reference the UN in explaining why they do what they do? Don’t be silly. Unless the UN is already going where they want to go, they don’t mention it.

The churches of the West have turned over moral authority to the UN because it is their brainchild, or even daughter. Catholics developed international law for over a century before anyone else even got involved (though there are strong winds of it in Jewish thought dating back centuries). The internationalism of the UN is a derivative of the Vatican’s view of itself as transcendent over mere nations. But Vatican City is in Europe and European in outlook; Catholic thought and later, Protestant thought are inextricable from European thought. The overlap is so enormous in science, art, philosophy, and law that it is impossible to discuss these without reference to each other.

Digression: I know the preferred explanation of the arc of Western history, such as recently made by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, is that it was Other Forces, with a large emphasis on science, that made us into our exalted selves, and that the church was a bystander, obstacle, or passive participant rather than a force for progress. I find that ludicrous. It comes from knowing the secular narrative and selectively choosing bits of historical data to illustrate it. End digression.

This reassignment of moral authority by the churches is informal, perhaps even unconscious. If you put the specific question before the Methodists or the Catholics, I imagine they would soundly reject the idea that the UN had a moral jurisdiction to which they were subject. Yet in general, their pronouncements suggest exactly that. In deciding whether a nation’s actions are proportionate or justified, the intellectuals of the western churches believe it is the UN’s call to make. Only occasionally, when they believe the UN has not gone far enough in its pacifism, do the mainstream denominations assert that they have a higher authority all their own. Until then, they are happy to sublet the space to the Security Council.

Simple pronouncement. The idea of the United States is better than the idea of the United Nations. The latter idea aims higher and claims more, but is thus even more spectacular – and potentially diabolic - in its fall. The idea of the US is a plan to have an actual good government somewhere on the earth, and we have succeeded about 75% with that. The UN, with its exalted goals, has succeeded about 15% - and that total is not rising.

This is not just an I-support-George-Bush-and-the-neocons argument. If you were to tell me that in 2011, President Clinton and Congress, plus Prime Minister Brown and Parliament, declared that we should invade Greater Bumblestan but the UN said no, I believe it is much more likely that the Hillary and Gordon would get it right than that the Security Council did.

This is because nations have to actually eventually do something, and the UN does not. The UN will never do anything but talk, harbor spies, and spend money (see Part III). It is not capable of doing anything but talk, harbor spies, and spend money. It was designed that way, though not intentionally. The three things it is actually dedicated to preserving are the right of western intellectuals to talk like moral authorities, the right of dictators to use international organizations as espionage tools, and the right of rich people in poor nations to demand money. If one nation wishes to do anything, the UN can always counsel inaction, because it pays no cost for inaction. Nations do pay a cost. Nations, real actors in a real world, know that both intervention and nonintervention are unstable, calculated risks.

There is a wide variety of ethical perspectives one can take to judging war, but most of them answer back to Just War doctrine in some way. More importantly, most of the political discourse in America and Europe has sprung from this approach, implicitly or explicitly. Just War Theory actually does take into account the cost of inaction, so let’s run through the criteria. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Just War gets us off to a solid start.

Historically, the just-war tradition—a set of mutually agreed rules of combat—commonly evolves between two similar enemies. When enemies differ greatly because of different religious beliefs, race, or language, war conventions have rarely been applied. It is only when the enemy is seen to be a people with whom one will do business in the following peace that tacit or explicit rules are formed for how wars should be fought and who they should involve. In part the motivation is seen to be mutually beneficial—it is preferable to remove any underhand tactics or weapons that may provoke an indefinite series of vengeance acts. Nonetheless, it has been the concern of the majority of just war theorists that such asymmetrical morality should be denounced, and that the rules of war should apply to all equally; that is, just war theory should be universal.

Jus ad bellum includes: 1) having just cause, 2) being declared by a proper authority, 3) possessing right intention, 4) having a reasonable chance of success, and 5) the end being proportional to the means used. All of these were used in the run-up to the war – all discussions of whether sanctions were working, whether Saddam had any connections to Al Qaeda, or whether democracy was possible in Iraq fall under one of these categories.

We might learn from actions in retrospect, but we can only judge the morality of actions in real time. We cannot acquire new justifications post hoc (“Hey look! Saddam had the Lindberg baby!”), nor can we deny previous justifications on the basis of information that was not then available – that is, we can fault the police for breaking down the wrong door, but not for finding methamphetamine instead of cocaine with a legitimate search warrant.

For those who immediately suspect that I am using this to skirt the WMD issue, I contend that this limitation works more against my argument than for it. We now know for certain that sanctions were not working – we only thought it likely then. We now know for certain that France and Russia were going to veto any resolution to the Security Council because of the Oil For Food money they were raking in – we only suspected it then. We now know for certain that Hussein supported religious as well as secular terrorists (including even AQ) – we only thought it probable then. If we get to use post hoc justifications, our reasons for going into Iraq are strengthened, not weakened.

JUST CAUSE The framing of the question pretty much dictates one’s answer. If, in your discussion of whether to go to war to overthrow Saddam Hussein, you are picturing Iraq and the US as the only players in the room, you are likely to decide that Operation Iraqi Freedom was only marginally justified. This would be a traditional framing of a Just War debate. I still think there is something to go on to make a case for justification – funding declared enemies of the US, and an attempt to assassinate an ex-president, for example. But if one’s goal in determining the morality of the US is to narrow the question to the simplest possible framing, then this argument that we should not have done so has considerable merit.

The consequence of that refining the question is that we are not ever likely to see those conditions met in the modern world. Our conflicts are increasingly with non-state actors surreptitiously supported by states. Twisted governments will simply maintain distance and deniability while funding and supplying our enemies. The type of warfare we automatically picture – the land invasion of bordering states or naval battles to secure access to an area – is already mostly a thing of the past, and will be increasingly rarer. Odd that those who are readiest to refuse this deniability to America and see the CIA behind every conflict abroad are the quickest to grant deniability to regimes which actively support Islamic terrorism.

Expanding or restricting this category is double-edged, as it is inversely related to the Chance of Success requirement. For this section, it is enough put forward the notion that this bar should get lower in response to a changing world. The raising of the bar for Chance of Success I will discuss in that section.

If we consider the US and Iraq as parts of a large, complicated international battle, the just cause is clearer, even obvious. 1. Saddam repeatedly broke treaties he had signed after the Kuwait invasion, sending aircraft into the No-fly zone, refusing to allow inspections, possessing prohibited weapons. Those were enough in themselves. 2. Iraq did not destroy all WMD, as required; did not document the supposed destruction of others, as required; continued to pursue WMD, especially chemical weapons, as prohibited. Those were enough in themselves. The almost gleeful focus on “no-WMD’s” misses the point: we found little gold but much silver. For those who find this single issue large enough to need more persuading I will add a further point. Israeli intelligence continues to believe that Iraq did have WMD which were dispersed out of the country by a dozen routes in late 2002 and early 2003 in a Sarindar operation. I trust Israeli intelligence on this more than I trust the CIA. 3. The Baathist government funded, harbored, and trained Islamic terrorists of many stripes, including religious terrorist groups and including Al Qaeda in specific. That in itself is enough. 4. Saddam’s depredations against his own people are a more iffy justification. It is a fair argument that many despots in the world do such things, we seldom invade them, why pick on Iraq? I would counter that the existence of many evils does not mean we should do nothing until we can do everything, but I agree that Baathist persecution of its internal enemies is a weak argument for war if considered alone. While not enough in itself, #4 is a significant supporting argument.

The US rationale in the more complicated, state/non-state setting was: State support for non-state actors has to be consequated. A. Iraq has one of the craziest dictators, though there are worse nutjobs. B. Iraq is one of the more powerful of the insane states, able to create real trouble because of its military, its oil, and its location. C. Iraq keeps sticking its neck out, throwing itself on the world stage claiming to be a Big Falafel. Conclusion: North Korea or six African nations may be worse, but Iraq is the best overall nomination to be changed.

The cloudiness creeps in because these are not strictly national issues, and people believe the determination of just cause was not America’s to make. See how the UN-as-authority argument has smuggled itself back in, eh? The US, with the UK, Australia, several Eastern European countries and even some Western European ones are not considered to be an adequate international determination; people think that whether just cause was obtained was decided in the negative by the Security Council of the UN. Oh gee. Too bad, then. Necessary or not, we can’t go. Rubbish.

LEGITIMATE AUTHORITY I think my views are more than clear on this. A US President acting with Congress is more than enough. Throw in 20 other countries – heck, you could even throw in UN resolutions up to the penultimate one, which declared force would be allowable – and this issue is null. Unilateral was never more than code for “without UN approval.”

CHANCE OF SUCCESS In a conventional sense, this would not bear even discussing, given the relative size of the Coalition forces versus the Iraqis. Thus in traditional Just War theory, there would be no moral objection to US actions on this ground. But in asymmetric warfare, where the goal is not to subdue a people but to democratize them, not to conquer a government but make it grow up, whether we ever did (or still have) a reasonable chance of success is a fair question. Many on both the left and right estimated that bringing democracy to the Middle East would be like teaching a pig to sing. They still might prove right, even though things look encouraging now.

There is a reverse relationship between the flexibility of this requirement and Just Cause. If we can expand the right of nations to act against states because of their relation to non-state terrorists, then we must measure success in terms of the larger, more complicated situation as well. Otherwise we are simply taking pointless revenge on states which displease us. Such states might deserve to be punished, but we would not hold the right to administer that punishment. Who does? Don’t know.

A particularly nasty conflict-of-interest comes up here. Those who were in favor of going to war in Iraq have an interest in whatever PR help they can get in the information war to actually make the change occur. It provides some post hoc evidence proving them correct in their estimation of success. The other side of that conflict-of-interest is even nastier. Those who predicted failure then have an interest in seeing failure occur. The metric for “chance of success” then is unstable. It can be undermined as things go along.
RIGHT INTENTION The arguments that Bush and the neocons were determined to go into Iraq regardless of circumstances I dismiss out of hand. One can isolate quotes from the Clarke book or the Woodward book or other well-placed sources, but this is political PR rubbish. There are too many comments and actions, from those books and a dozen other sources, that show the opposite. The many ironies of when we helped an ally who later became an enemy are likewise barely worth responding to. Every country has shifting needs and alliances. Russia was among the Allies in WWII. Countries change sides in the middle of a war, never mind twenty years later. Most of the complaint against US motives stem from a belief that we should act only from altruism, never self interest. (I noted last year that his is a worse, not greater moral justification). Some few even raised the complaints in order to work against US interests, adopting an elevated moral pose as a disguise. Progressives seriously underestimate how many of these there are. Redefining patriotism to include other values fools them every time. (Conservatives likely overestimate how many of these there are. We get nervous because they get significant press and are treated as if they are morally serious. But outside of the academic world, I don’t find much opposition to American interests, just a fashionable cynical streak about them.)

Simplest contradictions to this argument: If Bush wanted to increase his re-election chances, he would have invaded in 2004 instead. If the neocons had just want to make a buck for their oil buddies, we could have saved a bundle by simply buying it on the sly or by declaring Saddam to be rehabilitated enough. If America wanted to manipulate the data, we could easily have "found" WMD after we got there. Good enough or not, Bush’s stated motives are the ones which best fit the available data.

PROPORTIONAL (Some discussions of Just War would divide this into two sections: Last Resort and Comparative Justice) This is where I believe the strongest argument against the morality of the war can be made. Pope John Paul II at least partially agrees with me on this. The questions of pre-emption, sanctions, and installing a new form of government come under this section, which I will discuss in Part V.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Part IV - Summary, 2 Anecdotes, 2 Thought Experiments

To be followed by "Part IV - The Long Boring Part"

Summary statement, for those who wish to avoid the evidence and reasoning and want to just take my word for things: Nearly every pre-2004 accusation, including religious, that the War in Iraq was immoral had the authority of the United Nations as its foundation. Yet no one has made the Christian case that the UN should have that status, and there is ample reason that it emphatically should not have that moral authority. Take the UN out of the equation and most complaints fall to the ground. Looking at Just War doctrine with those new eyes reveals that the US acted on very justifiable moral authority. When one frames the moral question accurately, the US answer doesn’t look in the least iffy. (Some caveats apply.)

I have a favorite Johnny Hart comic strip, of B.C with golf club in hand, explaining the game to Wiley. “The object is to go around the course in as few strokes as possible.” Wiley asks “Then why play at all?” The last panel shows B.C. rooted to the same spot, though now it is night, with a moon in the background. “Then…why play…at all?”

Some things become so automatic in a culture that it is difficult for people to even ask themselves to question it. This is why it is good to read primary source material from other eras – one can be brought up short by the assumptions other ages don’t have, giving fresh perspective on our own thought. We also get some idea how quickly limiting an assumption can be on our opinions.

Incident from 2002 or 2003: A student at St. Anselm’s was telling me how fascinating her ethics course was in terms of the lead-up to the war. The Benedictine brother teaching the course was showing them how George Bush was setting it up to make it look like he was going according to Just War theory in preparing to invade Iraq, but it was all a pretence. I love getting into discussions like that, so I smiled “Let me guess – your professor is saying that the UN is the “legitimate authority” for jus ad bellum.” She looked at me in surprise. “Well, yeah.” “Okay, ask him when the Magisterium changed to that view.” I went on to note that belief in the UN is just “one of those things” that have grown up in churches without anyone sitting down and making the case for it.

Try these two related thought experiments: What if we were reading up on the quieter philosophers and theologians of the 1920’s discussing the morality of war and kept running across references to the League of Nations as an important consideration in arbitrating war for as far into the future as the eye could see? Wouldn’t we rather chuckle and think “Whoa, they got that wrong. The League of Nations ended up being a useless nothing.” Trying to apply that understanding of Just War philosophy today would be simply silly. We would lightly abandon reading any further what they had to say. Similarly, if we touched down anywhere in the last 200 years of Europe and North America and read the secular and religious prophets discussing what justified war, there would be references to the Rights of Man, to liberalism and the Spring of Revolutions, or to the Communist International. These fevers overtake mankind all the time. The UN is simply the current article of Western Intellectuals. The second half of the thought experiment is to drop in on Catholic theologians a hundred years hence, listening to them puzzling over us and our fixation on the United Nations in our discussing Just War Doctrine. They will wonder “What was up with that? How did Catholics forget centuries of theological foundation and get caught up in this United Nations thing?”

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Huckabee Outshone By 7-Year Old Girl

“Who is your favorite author?” Aleya Deatsch, 7, of West Des Moines asked Mr. Huckabee in one of those posing-like-a-shopping-mall-Santa moments.

Mr. Huckabee paused, then said his favorite author was Dr. Seuss.

In an interview afterward with the news media, Aleya said she was somewhat surprised. She thought the candidate would be reading at a higher level.

“My favorite author is C. S. Lewis,” she said.
I love that girl.

I got the quote from Reason, which linked to the NYT article.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


I have finished Part IV. I think it covers the waterfront. In fact, it covers not only the waterfront, but most piers, some changing rooms, three seafood restaurants, and a salt marsh. I'm going to tidy it up a bit before I send it on.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Postmodern Cold

A postmodernist is one who enters the lecture hall to discourse on the flexibility of meaning; he chooses as his example the word cold and notes how completely contextual the concept is. “Cold has a different meaning whether you are inside or outside, whether it is January or July, whether you are male or female, old or young. The word has a different meaning in Fort Collins and Fort Myers, and is entirely dependent in meaning on the wind and precipitation. Our expectations change the meaning of cold, as do night and day, and the weather over the past week. We assign numbers to cold, to give ourselves an illusion of precision and meaning, but in fact the word cold is so ambiguous as to be ultimately meaningless.”

He then leaves the building and bundles against the weather. Because it’s really cold.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Maybe It's Not So Bad

On any continuum of interest one cares to name, we each regard those farther on as fanatics, and those farther back as apathetic. The correct amount of interest in anything is the amount of interest our exalted self shows.

Those of us who follow national and international events often cultivate a quiet condescension for those less interested. During election season, when all misstatements or misbehaviors are magnified in meaning, there is frustration among the intensely political that Other People vote with so little thought or real information. They respond too much to image, impression, and chance events, we think. Sometimes this will spill out as a complaint that those other people should not be allowed (or at least not encouraged) to vote at all. Let those of us paying attention make the choice, eh? This is not a good attitude, as I noted before the 2006 elections. If we enforced such a thing, then the fanatics would be electing all our leaders. Well-informed fanatics, perhaps, but True Believers nonetheless.

The general population may be evaluating candidates better than we think. First, a lot of people who say stupid things are not going to be voting anyway. People just like to have something to say about popular subjects, and everyone, voter or no, finds a few rehearsed bromides to spout. That these often correspond to the image that a candidate is trying to project, which we have evidence is not fully accurate, is hardly surprising. It may be irritating. The repetition of such vacuities may have some influence on actual voters. But in general, it’s just noise. Pay no heed.

Secondly, we the intense may be measuring the sensibleness of others’ views in an unfair way. In a fully objective world, all candidates would start at zero and have to earn points to earn our vote. We all pretend that we ourselves do that, but it’s hardly likely. Most of us take the image that the candidate is going for, and then start comparing him or her against it. It is a variation of Goethe’s first question for art: What is the artist trying to do?

I find that most people, even those who don't pay much attention to current events or everything the candidates say, run a couple of tests on someone they are thinking of voting for - perhaps on a particular issue, perhaps on some less-definable quality like "leadership." They do eliminate candidates this way.

If I run fifty tests on each candidate I'm considering and they run three, I will have the impression that there is a great deal they don't know that they should. But spread over a population, it may not be such a bad method. Briefly test-drive a few models that have the styling, or dependability, or the features that you like, pick one and take it home. It sets a general direction for the country (or party, or state) and weeds out some bad 'uns.

How It Looks From Here

I forget how few of you are in NH, and that part of my responsibility is to let you know what the primary looks and sounds like from inside.

The Edwards and Thompson signs are few but very large; one never knows what that translates to in support. There are lots of Obama bumper-stickers, but not so may signs. Hillary and Romney have more signs out than the others, but not so many that they dwarf the others. Ron Paul, especially, is not dwarfed. His supporters, 8% of the Republican likely voters though they be, are clearly into getting signs out, including big ones. Those sometimes seem to be in odd places, though I can’t put my finger on what that is. McCain has mostly small signs, but a fair number. The small dark-blue background McCain, Romney, and Thompson signs look similar enough that they are becoming ambiguous – political signs for some generic Republican. Which is fine with me, as that is what I plan to vote for: a generic Republican. Huckabee’s and Tancredo’s signs are different enough to stand out a bit.

Giuliani and Richardson must have signs out, but I don’t recall any.

The phone rings daily with invitations to hear candidates, or from pollsters of varying legitimacy, or recorded statements. Ron Paul’s people are apparently big on recorded messages too.

For those who like to read the tea-leaves from a single voter’s mind, this is how it looks three weeks out. Giuliani has dropped off my list, and I am actively hoping for him to do poorly here. I liked Huckabee during his rise, but have decided he is a social conservative who is too centrist on foreign policy and too liberal on economic policy for my taste. My wife still likes him, and she’s got a sign in the yard. I’ll be following the polls and Iowa results closely, as I want to vote for Thompson if it looks like he has a fighting chance. Otherwise I will vacillate between Romney and McCain, each of whom I like for different reasons.

Ron Paul was never on my list, as I see him as only partly libertarian. Nationwide, libertarians are getting excited at the boost he’s giving their ideas, but I think that they misread NH at least. Their conventional wisdom is that Dr. Paul is charisma-impaired and a little odd, so his intense support must be based on affection for his ideals. Not in NH, though even the Democrats have a libertarian streak here. There is a significant subset of Republicans here who seem to rejoice in contrariness. They want to be “a different sort of conservative, not like you others.” A lot of them voted for Buchanan and Perot, neither of which would be considered particularly libertarian. These contrarians don’t necessarily agree with these candidates’ positions, but with their “outcast, bloody-but-unbowed” images.

Which is fine, by the way. The tribe needs a certain amount of that going on to be healthy. They are the yeast of society.

Suspicions Confirmed - Newsweek Again

My father-in-law sends on the magazines he’s finished with. He also sometimes sends on treasures he has found at the dump, but years of living in New England will do that even to sensible men. He sends on Sports Illustrated, which I am less interested in since the internet brings me my sports news, but they are sometimes worth a browse. Smithsonian is nice, and those usually stay around awhile. Discover is a tease, its covers holding out promise of real information, its articles coming up short. History Channel Magazine is a mixed bag. While it is certainly history lite, it does cover subjects I am less familiar with at times, and lite is often good enough.

Newsweek is always the wry amusement in the pile. I scan each cover, ready to compare the photos of conservatives in black-and-white, or with half their faces in shadow - to the colorful, smiling liberals. One can count on at least one cover story framed as a leading question – “Have We Lost Iraq?” and at least one sub-headline about how the Republicans are breaking up.

I admit I am surprised how many covers are devoted to health issues. For some reason this just doesn’t stick in my memory. But this latest batch is true to form. A smiling, pink Hillary on the campaign trail, with Bill whispering into her ear – wisely and affectionately, we assume. Bill Clinton behind Hillary is not portrayed as Cheney behind Bush, the latter always being a disembodied head of the VP looking sternly over the shoulder of a troubled Bush. Then Hillary speaking with a blue sky and clouds behind her. The prominent colorful Republican is Mike Bloomberg, and how his running would remake the political landscape – are they kidding me? Does anyone at Newsweek actually believe that?

The B&W cover of the series is of Afghan mountains, noting that Osama is still out there, dated just before Petraeus came to Washington to discuss the Surge. Like bin Laden matters? The fracturing Republicans are covered in a headline reading “The GOP’s Iraq Rebellion.” The pivotal year 1968 is featured, with essays by six liberals about why it was so important* and pictures of famous liberals from the era – Cronkite, The Smothers Brothers, Ethel Kennedy… and one maverick conservative, Tom Wolfe.

What it reminds me of is the Soviet-era art on sale at Szoborpark in Budapest, with beautiful and healthy peasants and machinists staring off to the horizon, abundant grain at their feet and solid tools in their hands. Though for really good examples, the Chicoms did it better.

There’s a thesis for an adventurous art or communications student in the covers of news magazines over the last fifty years.

Ah well, those Newsweeks are now going into the recycling.

*Jerry Adler’s essay was quite interesting, though, noting how 1908 was just as pivotal or more so.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Is The War Moral? - Part III

There is a large wooden horse next to the Epsom traffic circle in NH. It now sits unidentified, a mere puzzling curiosity with a No Trespassing sign attached to it. It was once a local landmark, bedecked with large homemade sign about how the UN was a Trojan Horse in the US, and surrounded by a makeshift cemetery of crosses, each inscribed with the name of a country under communism and the year it fell. The guy was a kook, with some odd religious and nutritional ideas as well – amazing how those seem to go together so often.

That display made the only criticism of the UN that I recall encountering as a child, perhaps even into young adulthood. No one criticized the idea of the UN. People would complain that it was rendered less effective by the USSR’s veto power in the Security Council, or grumble that it had gotten things somewhat wrong by holding the well-behaved nations to high standards when the insane nations started acting up, but it was universally acknowledged by my family, teachers, and church – especially my church, as I was a UCC Congregationalist – as a force for good. (A particularly delicious recent example of liberal squealing with delight over the UN can be found here.) The UN also ran TV ads in the 1960’s to remind us of what a great job they had done in – no lie – Cyprus and Gaza. Only kooks could oppose such a wonderful idea, the great dream of the nations of the world sitting down to discuss matters instead of going to war.

As I grew older and read more, I encountered people who were opposed to the US being in the UN, but these were dismissed as cranks, their motives being paranoid fantasies or complete misunderstanding. All sensible people supported the UN, everyone knew that.

Sure. When you only look at one side of the balance scale, what’s not to like? Any failure by the UN to bring peace to an area was only because it wasn’t working well enough, not yet. However long the teaching of the stupid warmongering people of the world took, it was going to eventually happen. People would get it, and conflicts would be resolved evermore.

What’s in the other balance scale? What things can we see in retrospect went wrong with the core idea of the UN?

Every government – not country - chose its representatives at the UN, and each of course chose its aristocrats. The Western nations sent their intellectuals, the communist nations sent their secret police, and the poor countries sent educated members of whatever organized crime families were currently ruling the nation. It sounds like a lead-in to a joke: An intellectual, a 3rd-world crime boss, and a KGB officer walk into a bar… But it was no joke. We now know that the Soviet legations were not merely “infiltrated by” or even “riddled with” KGB agents, but were composed entirely of such agents.

The people of Russia or China were never represented – the governments were. The people of Ghana, Guyana, and New Guinea were never represented – their governments, formed entirely of ruling castes – went to Turtle Bay. Even in the democratic nations there was a certain “type” who went to the UN: Dag Hammarskjold* was the son of a prime minister, from a family which had directly served the Swedish crown since the 17th Century. He had taken graduate degrees in political subjects, then gone to work in government.

The Americans sent folks like Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr, Adlai Stevenson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, George H.W. Bush, Charles Yost, James Russell Wiggins – politicians, academic lawyers, major newspaper editors. Intelligent, well-meaning, good-government types, and you could not find better evidence of our good-faith effort to make this work than the quality of people we have sent over the years. The Brits sent Lord this and Baron that, all educated at Eton or Harrow, Oxford or Cambridge, then immediately on to government posts.

The rest of Europe had different goals for the UN: A. no wars on European soil. B. Prove that socialism solves everything.

The non-aligned nations sent people like Kofi Annan, smooth-talking members of corrupt ruling families eager to get in on some international money action. The UN is not only imperfectly democratic, it is anti-democratic. Under the guise of giving every nation, no matter how poor and weak, a vote in the world’s governance, it is actually a force for giving every aristocracy, no matter how evilly chosen, international power. Even if it were the United Less-Than-Half-Insane Nations the aristocracy issue would still be a problem. Heck, Even the United Sensible Nations would have that problem.

Because - even the Sensible Nations sent too many people with that 1939World of Tomorrow outlook on life. The UN is to international relations as air cars and bubble cities are to science. What all the smart people predicted turned out to be not completely untrue, but far enough off the mark as to be ridiculous. The UN is the government we imagined The Jetsons would have.

Thus, one group went to the UN with the goal of teaching the peoples of the world how to be sensible, one group sent the secret police, and the third came to find the line where the dollars were. What do we expect to happen in such a situation?

Exactly what did happen. Europe and North America thought that public relations meant getting the word out what great ideas they had, and giving people stuff. The Soviets played a deeper public relations game, exploiting regional hatreds to turn people against the US. Romanian secret police defector Ion Mihai Pacepa revealed that it had been specific Eastern Bloc policy to incite Arabs against the US by sponsoring resolutions against Israel, incite African sentiment against the US by sponsoring resolutions against South Africa, and siding with all post-colonial governments regardless of ideology in order to highlight disparities of wealth.

Now the UN resolutions I suggested you read up on should come to mind. The UN docket has been taken up with exactly those three things for 60 years. That Russian strategy worked pretty well. Well enough that they even convinced the intellectuals of the Western nations. UN Resolutions over the years have been dominated by Israel, South Africa, and the plight of former colonies now ruled by kleptocrats. Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Cambodia, North Korea, vast slaughters in China, religious persecution in Arab countries – Historians will find no record of such things by studying the UN archives.

One irony is that the USSR did not have particularly bad relations with Israel or South Africa, trading peacefully with each. They didn’t have to have their names on the resolutions against these nations, just so long as the fires were stoked. They used the UN in order to have it both ways.

You would think there would be more suspicion about coming to the same point of view that the KGB is trying to steer you into, but I guess not. The second inherent weakness of the UN comes into full view here.

The United Nations, and any similarly constituted body, provides a stage for the world’s despotic and nutcase governments, with no mechanism for getting them off that stage, no matter what they do. Winston Churchill first used the words “United Nations” to refer to the Allies, those nations united against the Axis – and he wanted the Russians out of there as soon as it was polite.

We see this on full display still. Castro addresses the UN, Ahmadinejad addresses the UN, Chavez addresses the UN and we tell ourselves that giving such folks their say on the national stage will allow people to see how poor their ideas are, yet show how open dialogue can lead to Greater Understanding. And as a bonus, they’ll kick the United States. Shrewd nutcases come and tickle the intellectuals in the right places, beg for more money on behalf of the world’s kleptocracies, and leave with elevated world status. It’s been going on for years, but the UN ‘n’ Chat crowd keeps thinking that the world’s people will hear more than the insults against the US. This time Jan, this time Maria, enlightenment will begin to dawn on them. They will not only hate the US but love Europe.

*Dag Hammarskjold was also a complete doofus. “The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you," he wrote, "the better you will hear what is sounding outside."

Everything will be all right - you know when? When people, just people, stop thinking of the United Nations as a weird Picasso abstraction and see it as a drawing they made themselves." The KGB must've licked their chops waiting to get at that schoolboy. In the words of PJ O'Rourke "Earnestness is just stupidity that has been sent to college."

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Is The War Moral? -Quick Review

Part I drew a comparison between the moral justifications for America’s other wars and the Operation Iraqi Freedom. Despite widespread opinion that the justification for this war was marginal at best, it in fact exceeds all our other wars except WWII.

Part II identified the founding of the United Nations as the dominant reason for the change in American expectations of what is necessary to justify a war. We now expect the UN to be “in charge of” international questions. I drew a distinction between the idea of the UN and its actuality, claiming that its uselessness has been so profound that it would be worthy of our contempt even if it were not corrupt.

There is much more I could have said about problems with the UN-Actual, but figured that others have done it better.

The Mezzanine floor and UN Resolutions posts linked to larger caches of data about both the uselessness and the corruption.

I have not yet made any positive case for the morality of the GWOT in general or the War in Iraq in specific. That is coming. First I will go into the other issue left hanging: the Idea of the UN, and whether anything might be salvaged from it.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Browsing For Resolutions

In preparation for where we are going next in the discussion, you might enjoy browsing the index of UN Resolutions over the years. This form is relatively painless, organized by year, and then by title. I thought I knew what to expect, but as our opinion comes up against data there are always surprises. I expected to see X, but not so much, and Of course they did a lot of Y, I should have thought it before...

Do click all the way through to an actual full resolution or two, to get a sense of the style and approach.

Update: jbussey thinks the link to the Security Council Resolutions is better and I concur. Less cluttery.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Is The War Moral? - Intermission

While you are going out to the bathroom or having a glass of wine in the lobby, I thought these two bits would entertain.

Thought number one: Now that the Patriots are 13-0, the first few teams that play them next year had better start praying that they actually win the Super Bowl this year. If the Pats go down now, they are going to be nuts next year and run scores up to 70-10. (Quick quiz - what's the record? Hint: Sammy Baugh).

Next, check out the Vegetable Orchestra over at Maggie's Farm. (Bethany take note).

Is The War Moral? - Mezzanine Floor

I neglected to link to the best source for documenting the billions of dollars in UN corruption.

Is The War Moral? - Part II

We have different standards for war because we believe that the existence of the UN changes the rules. Perhaps it did change the rules, or should have, or gradually will. But we must first make that connection – the standards are now different. Whether or not the presence of a supranational body should change the rules for nations, many people believe that it has. Rightly or wrongly, many Americans now have a much higher threshhold for going to war, because they believe that the UN is “in charge” of international affairs.

I use here the term “United Nations” to refer not only to that body, but other similar international bodies, such as the IAEA or ICJ. The UN is by far the largest and most important of these, it is the parent organization for many others, and works closely with the rest. What is said of it applies in lesser measure to the others.

There are two UN’s, and confusing the two promotes the uttering of a great deal of foolishness. There is the UN- Idea, a place where the nations of the world can yell and argue, threaten and cajole, but generally work things out without resorting to warfare. There is also the UN-Actual, more corrupt than any banana republic, less competent militarily than even small nations, a vast sinkhole for money and attention, unable to effect even minor improvements.

Both UN’s, Idea and Actual, have failed, though not in the same way or for entirely the same reasons.

The first perplexity is to wonder why so many people cannot acknowledge the failure of the UN-Actual. What is up with that? Why is the obvious so hard to see? The farther Right has long had dark suspicions that UN supporters are secret (or not-so-secret) One World Government types, or general anti-Americans. There are less conspiratorial explanations which might be brought forward: that the workings of the UN are remote from our day-to-day existence, and we pay about as much attention to its corruptions and failures as we would to those of a foreign country – less in fact, than we would care about Canada’s or Great Britain’s problems. Most conservatives would suggest that people just don’t want to give up the dream.

There are also variations on the theme of people supporting the idea of the UN to the neglect of seeing the actuality. Some people like the simple assurance that such an organization exists, believing that it must improve things somehow and not bothering too much about the details. A more nervous extreme of this last are those who believe that we have no choice but to support international organizations, because after the UN, The Deluge. Others, especially on the Left, believe that the UN would work if the US didn’t keep undermining it, and all talk of corruption and inadequacy is mere smokescreen from the Right, which wants an America dangerously unconstrained. There is even a negative version, in which those who support the idea of a UN regard any criticism of it as an attack on its vison of a noble world – the criticism of those who would keep us in a world of violence and inequality for their own ends. There are likely other reasons which have not occurred to my imagination why we as a people almost universally ignore the corruption and failure of the UN. I suppose each of the above possibilities has some truth in it.

I don’t know which of these reasons is the true one. They each likely have someone in their bin. But the first fact is that the current article is a disaster, not just because it gets in America’s way, or because it is an ossifed corrupt bureaucracy, but because it does no positive good whatsoever. We must keep this central fact fixed in front of us, always returning to the question “But what good has it achieved?” All excuses for why the UN “has not done as well as it might” need to be countered by the lack of a positive case for its accomplishments. The imagined dialogue must remain like a litany.

The world would be worse without the UN.
We don’t know that. What good has it achieved?
A lot of the criticism comes from people with an agenda.
True. But what good has the UN done?
UN resolutions have held despots accountable.
There is no evidence for that, and much against it. What good has it achieved?
UN peacekeepers have reduced tensions in volatile areas around the world.
That is an article of faith, not evidence. The evidence says that the entry of UN troops makes things worse. What good has the UN achieved?
Well, even Churchill said that “Jaw, jaw, jaw, is better than war, war, war.” Isn’t it better that nations try to resolve their differences peacefully?
Churchill spoke at its inception, about the idea of a UN. What good has it achieved?
We have the weapons capacity to destroy all mankind.
The UN has prevented no nations from acquiring nuclear weapons. What good has it done?
But the UN does other things like bringing food and medicine to children.
That is generous and well-meant, but it has eventually left most of them in greater poverty. What good has it done? Point to something.
Well, there’s the World Health Organization.
Its results are mixed, but it has done some good. That I concede.
There’s Unicef.
A net loss for the nations it helped. Plus, it has permanently installed corrupt leaders.

I concede, as with the WHO above, that there are branches and programs of the UN which have done some good. These results are meager, and could have been accomplished by any number of medium-sized nations acting independently. For a fraction of the cost. Without installing corrupt aristocrats in the receiving nations.

If the idea of a UN is so necessary, wouldn’t that make reforming it more important, more deserving of our attention, its failure more of a scandal?

Against that background, the horrors of all the raped children in Africa, the innocents unprotected because UN soldiers don’t do their jobs, and the billions of dollars funneled to corrupt governments, terrorist organizations, and organized crime become even more maddening. We are not putting up with these horrors and corruptions as the unfortunate but necessary price of bringing stability – we are paying this price and we are getting nothing back.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Is The War Moral?

My Uncle Dave has challenged me to discuss whether the War In Iraq is moral. My impression is that he believes it is not, and wishes me to trap myself. Perhaps I do him a disservice on that, and he is really asking my opinion. I mention two or three parts to this in my first paragraph. Here at the site it will be more. I will break it up to keep y'all from going to sleep, however.

You asked me to reveal my thoughts on that question, and it has been fun to get started on it. I will comment in two parts, perhaps three, and the latter parts are not very organized at present. So here is the first part:

Our standards for war have changed over the years, and this is likely a good thing. It is hard to draw exact comparisons – America entered its various wars not only with various degrees of provocation, but different types of provocation. We try and draw analogies, but no war is that much like another. Despite that difficulty, I think you can show pretty quickly that going into Iraq is morally justifiable.

This rather banal fact has been almost completely neglected in criticism of the war (and somewhat in its justification as well). When discussions start by neglecting the most obvious facts it is frustrating to me – I wonder whether I should bother to enter such a discussion at all.

So if we start by comparison to our other wars, our invasion of Iraq easily exceeds all our previous standards. We went into WWI because the Germans sunk some of our ships (bringing supplies to their enemies), sent a telegram to Mexico suggesting that they’d help get Texas back for them if they entered the war, and then topped it by sinking ships with civilians. That is well below the standard of what has been happening with international terrorism since 1979, and especially since 1993.

That is one of the differences in choosing our data for these evaluations. If we start on Sept 10, 2001, then no, we don't have near the justification to have gone to war with Iraq, and even Afghanistan is doubtful. But if one regards 9-11 as a final straw, an escalation of what had been building for decades, it's quite a different story.

We regard the Civil War as one of our moral high points because it got rid of slavery. But our provocation was secession, which we tried to prevent. By what right do we prevent secession? And according to the Constitution at the time, southern states did have the right to do whatever they damn well pleased without anyone invading them. “Preserving the Union” has a nice ring to it, but what is the legal or moral underpinning for that idea? Even WWII, the gold standard for entering wars, isn’t as clean as we pretend. The Japanese attacked a military base, but it wasn’t just for the hell of it. We were supplying their enemies. They had no plan or desire to invade the US and rule it, they just wanted to dominate the Pacific. They knocked out a bunch of ships in hopes of winning the war before we could recover, presenting us with a fait accompli of Japan unhindered in the Pacific.

King Phillip’s War, Spanish American War, War of 1812 – way ahead of all of those.

America’s entry into Iraq, therefore exceeds in moral justification all our previous wars, with the propable exception of WWII. That the question of moral justification even comes up, rather than being laughed off the table, tells us that our standards for going to war have changed. Maybe we were right then, maybe we are right now, but it’s different. Neglecting this obvious fact makes any subsequent discussion rather pointless, like discussing communication without mentioning the internet.

What has changed? Are we gradually becoming a more moral or rational people? There might be evidence for that. We are a less physically cruel people, for example. Animal fighting has a long tradition in the world up until very recent times, even in America, but now we send even famous rich people to jail for sponsoring dogfights. Much of what we call torture of prisoners now does not approach what was done to prisoners by even the Allies in WWII. It might be that we are dimly approaching some kinder, gentler stage of human interaction, and should do everything possible to hold to highest standards and not drop back except under the most extreme provocation. There are many who believe that this is precisely what is happening, and such a belief guides what they think about warfare and international conflict.

I also believe that is happening, but that this improvement is a small part of how our view of war has changed. I think the major change lies elsewhere.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Absolutely Stomped

I took this Patriots Quiz over at ESPN, and got only 2 out of 10 correct. Ouchies.

The Truth About Hillary

The Truth About Hillary: What She Knew, When She Knew It, and How Far She’ll Go To Become President by Edward Klein

Klein was a NYTimes Magazine editor, with excellent liberal credentials. He starts the book by talking about Monica, providing more evidence for my contention that it is liberals who remain focused on the sex angle. Perhaps he has a point in starting a Hillary book there, though. His contention is that it was the Monica story which made the First Lady a presidential candidate, by softening her image with the “wounded wife” addition. Before that, her popularity among the general population was below 30%. Ironic, if true.

Hand #1: In the long run, as people no longer fear retribution from Hillary Clinton and are willing to speak for attribution, I suspect a great deal of this book will prove out. Klein is familiar with how to source and protect sources, and knows how the lack of proof and verifiability for his claims weakens them. In current form, what we are left with is more like a well-researched historical novel than like a history.

Hand #2: Or perhaps not. He may have just wanted to sell books and so was sloppy in his verification. He gives the impression that he is offering the maximum proof he can in the face of sources that need to remain anonymous, and that is certainly plausible. But it’s an impression, and whole sections may turn out to be misinterpretations or inaccurate.

Hand #1 Yet the incidents he relates do fit one of the most common narratives about Hillary, a narrative that surfaced in 1992 and has been confirmed rather than undermined by subsequent events. Controlling, ambitious, vengeful, corrupt, disingenuous – these have floated since she came on the national scene in 1992, and according to many reports, date back even farther.

Hand #2: We know how I feel about narratives.

For the record, I liked Hillary much better than Bill back in 1992. I believed them that they were New Democrats and thought she was the brains of their organization. I interpreted the aura of chill about her as a positive – she was no-nonsense and practical while her handsome and sloppy sentimental husband brought in the votes. And if she was a little strident, a little sharp – no problem. For this reason I am very unsympathetic to the idea that people don’t like Hillary because she is a strong woman. No, it’s more than that. I am contemptuous of that idea, because I know from my own experience that it was untrue for conservative Democrats and some Republicans in 1992 (Yes, children, there were many conservative Democrats as recently as 15 years ago – even 10 years ago). When a myth persists without evidence for years, always check if the opposite is true. Many of Hillary’s supporters like her because she is a (liberal) woman, but they don’t want to admit that. So they accuse you instead. Rubbish.

Back to Klein’s book. Despite my general assent that much of this will prove accurate, there is much to dislike about the book. Klein indulges in psychologising, guessing at Hillary’s motives and putative pathologies for why she acts the way she does. I hate that crap. We barely know our own motives, so our speculations about others are even more sensitive to invented narratives. We all do everything for mixed reasons – there is never just one. The most an outside observer can do is raise the possibility that a particular motive or pathology is in play, and give actual evidence for this. More frequently, observers put their energy into making the narrative tidy. Because most readers and listeners fall for this, I don’t see any of this changing soon.

Klein pretends to know what’s going on in Senator Clinton’s head a lot. I acknowledge that all his explanations sound plausible; none seems solid.

He also seems to gravitate toward the seedier details, especially sexual ones. Why go there so much? Why go there at all, in fact? Unless one can tie it pretty directly to behavior that will affect the country, why do we care? With the Clintons, it has seldom been so much what they have done but how they have covered it up: blocking Vince Foster’s office from the FBI investigation after his suicide, until they had emptied armloads of stuff out. Foster was not involved with national security issues – it was a raw dictatorial act worthy of a banana republic. So also with the 900 FBI files of political enemies. Lying to a grand jury. Stunning in their audacity.

With events like that all over the map, why be concerned about Gennifer Flowers? The only worry there is the type of threatening they did to try and get her to shut up. That’s the issue for the American people. Not affairs, not even lying about them, but threatening the helpless victims – that’s what needs to come front and center. Klein mentions these things, but they don’t get the play that the image questions do. There is too much about Hillary’s insecurity about her appearance and how the new stylists help; too much about how she treats the WH staff; too much about how many of her friends are lesbians. Just get off that.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Where Are My Manners?

BS King, from Fair Trade Certified, who often comments here, is engaged.
She joins Erin, who is also engaged and comments here, but has a much less interesting site, mostly because she works full-time, goes to graduate school, and is overconscientious.

Lauren, also in our circle, is also engaged, but she is neither overconscientious nor posting on any blogs. There are also several serious girlfriends smoothing their hair and waiting to step out on stage in the little troupe that is my younger friends. This circle of life thing seems to be spiraling out of control at present.

PTSD and Blinders

I linked a few weeks ago to a post by Grim at Blackfive, On PTSD, or More Properly, On Coming Home. I said at the time:
The idea that what we call PTSD is a normal response to an abnormal situation is not new. Blackfive takes it a step further, suggesting that it is the combat veterans who see a side of mankind as it is, and it is we at home who have the misperception. There is a great deal to that. Warfare, pain, danger, and evil have been the common lot of mankind, and we live in one of the few islands of time and place separated from them.
The milder version is that we tend to be happier when we don't read the news. Being less informed may cause us to slowly revise upward our estimations of life's events. I forwarded the article to a psychologist friend in Cambridge, MA, who had a similar take.
I enjoyed the link and discussion of War PTSD. Two threads of response from me. The more fun one (for me, at least): I've often embraced the half truth (probably more than 1/2), that normality requires being in a trance state. Some mental disorders involve breaking out of the trance when one is not prepared, or one is unable to generate a more helpful trance state. Some of the normative trance (a way of selecting, neglecting, and deflecting reality) involves developing a false view of human nature and human relationships. I often think that one strain of Borderline Personality Disorder involves a literal dis-illusion-ment with humans. They lose some very helpful blinders due to what they have been through in life. What this guy says about PTSD is similar. These warriors lose some very helpful blinders. At least helpful in the terms of making it easier to fit in and get along with mainstream society.

The less interesting line of thought is that true PTSD (meeting all the DSM criteria) is something more and beyond what he is talking about. I think its clear if you look at the DSM criteria or at individuals suffering from it.

But, back to what interests me more - most people who were subject to untoward nastiness in childhood also don't develop true PTSD either and the strain of BPD I referred to might be seen as being like the warrior syndrome this fellow called PTSD - a dis-illusion-ment, aka a breaking of the happy nice spell that makes life easy for us.

Maybe this should go in my book of lies - semi truths that relate all kinds of stuff in fun ways.

Overcoming Bias

There is a post over at Overcoming Bias which was linked from Maggie's Farm. Though I take that post to task here, the site is quite interesting. To name your blog "Overcoming Bias" is to beg to be slapped around by every wanderer who wants to show how clever he is by illustrating your bias. So it takes a fair bit of courage to even show up in the arena. I recall visiting the site some months ago, but I do not recall whether my view was positive or negative then.

Secondly, bias is more like an onion than like scales of justice. We endeavor to remove a discovered bias in hopes of reaching some point of complete neutrality and objectivity, but what we find is that there were other biases underneath the one we took off. Depressing, really, but there's nothing for it. We must muddle along and do the best we can. I continue to believe that removing a bias in ourselves makes things at least some better.

It is a group blog, and the post linked above is by Eliezer Yudkowsky. In quick summary, he woke up in Sept 2001 and was immediately worried that the reaction to 9-11 would be "ten times worse" than what had happened in the attack. He relates his worry to the quite reasonable idea that when passions are aroused, people will believe any evil and no good about their enemies - to the point of ridiculousness. Notes of caution will be drowned out by the public chorus. It is entitled "When None Dare Urge Restraint."

My reply:
The longer I consider this post the more it troubles me. Your argument is The American public was destined to overreact to the events of 9-11. Therefore, what they did do must be an overreaction. When I state it that way, you would of course rise in protest – “No, no. What the American response was to 9-11 can be demonstrated to be an overreaction in its own right. That goes without saying.”

Well, it did go without saying, because you didn’t say it. You provide no evidence for either half of the argument and are going in a circle. I could as well write “I woke up on the morning of 9-11 and just knew that even though we are under attack, those buffleheads at Overcoming Bias would underreact.” Then I could define whatever you did as underreacting and prove myself correct, at least in my own mind. Who would choose between us, then, whose actions were over…and whose under?

You may well have offered elsewhere why you believe our responses have been an overreaction, but it is not here or in the linked article that preceeds it. The entire focus of this essay was the groupthink of the public, and how difficult it is to counteract that, combined with (I am sorry to have to say it) your weary superiority. That simply isn’t enough. Worse, the mere fact that it was the focus suggests that this part of the equation predominates over the real question.

That one notices a bandwagon effect and deplores it does not in itself persuade me that it’s a bad bandwagon to be on.

I will note additionally that this is precisely the accusation that conservatives often make against progressives: that they are elitists who “just know” that GW Bush and the neocons are wrong because “everyone knows it,” but when pressed are unable to provide sustained arguments for the premise. You should thus be especially careful not to step in that whole if you hope to persuade. Many commenters on the thread demonstrate the same sloppiness. I don’t hold the host responsible for that, of course, but it may be significant that the same error occurs so frequently in the group.

Thus also with the discussion of courage, which you call the “best example” and wave off counterarguments dismissively. I grant that it takes a modicum of physical courage to face certain death, but let’s not overrate it. The hijackers faced no prospect of pain or even discomfort – they didn’t even deny themselves lap dancers the night before. In a state of excitement for what one believes to be a noble cause, even cowards can nerve themselves up for a few moments, especially under group pressure. That the network itself is cowardly is also easy to demonstrate: they sent a very few to kill many innocents who were unprepared. I take your point that there is a phenomenon by which we will hear no ill of our own and no good of our enemies, but if this is your best example then perhaps you overstate how important this is in group psychology.

Note two: Studies from evolutionary psychology, PTSD, depression, and personality disorders suggests that day-to-day civilization and cooperation is dependent on our wearing blinders. Life is far more painful and dangerous than we could endure if we did not delude ourselves slightly in an overoptimistic way. As events like 9-11 recede in time, we come to regard them as one-off events which should not rule our lives. Perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps those events are closer to human reality, and the receding of the fear is reentering the too-rosy narrative we call normalcy. Those who are not directly in harm’s way, then, would be especially likely to underestimate threats.

I doubtless noticed this because I do not believe America’s actions to have been an overreaction. Iraq is not much more than a police action, made outrageously expensive by our insistence on creating as few fatalities as possible, whether our own troops or semi-innocent bystanders. I approve of that insistence despite the expense because it is consonant with our values. But I have every recognition that this is a new way of waging war, made necessary by the impact of media and quick communication on our foreign policy.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Bad For Your Health

Yet another coworker has gotten injured while exercising - in this instance riding a bicycle - and will be out over three weeks. The nature of the injury is such that without surgery that would keep him out even longer, it will be an increasing inconvenience for the rest of his life.

People get really ticked when I repeat one of my favorites: Exercise is bad for your health, which I traditionally follow with You go into an emergency room, it's just filled with people who have been exercising. (Admittedly, more true during the day than at night. But still...)

Let me rephrase this in a less humorous, but more accurate way: Exercise is really good for you - when everything goes right. Capice?

Good Writing

In all the complaining discussion about "The Golden Compass," based on Pullman's His Dark Materials, the comment keeps surfacing that Pullman is a very good writer, even though a lot of folks don't like his themes.

We know what we mean by that, of course - we mean a person who crafts phrases well, or assembles plot elements in a nifty way. Good writing refers to the technical skill, as a painter or musician might be proficient, though happen to work in a style or genre we don't favor.

Bear in mind that most societies don't make this distinction, and it is a recent idea even in Western Intellectual History. To do a bad thing well has not been admired in most times and places, and we would not grant such a compliment to a person who was a terrible poet with good penmanship. To even think of technical skill apart from theme (and we can't help it now. Once the distinction is made it remains forever) speaks volumes about our view of what art is and what it is for. Statements of style and proficiency are powerful indicators of what we believe artists should be allowed, or at least encouraged, to say.

The movie isn't doing so well, BTW.


The hospital had its yearly Longevity Celebration today, which I attempted to stay through in support of two friends who have worked at here many years. I couldn’t last longer than ten minutes, as usual. The event grew out of the Longevity Tea, from the days when many people worked at one place for an entire career, this being even more common among state hospital employees. Speeches are made by department heads about members who have passed multiple-of-5-year milestones. Even for those employees who are receiving 35 or 40 year recognitions, the speeches are usually less warm than retirement party speeches. The sentiments expressed are similar, but more restrained.

It impresses me that most people intuitively know this. We are not given specific instruction on these social subtleties, yet we read the situation and know what is required. More interesting still is that some people do not pick up the cues, and make speeches of varying degrees of inappropriateness. In discussing it after, people just know that Dr. Udo went on too long, or made complimentary remarks that were not quite right for the event. In gossip, we may try to capture exactly what was inappropriate, and speculate why.

It’s an amusing type of gossip, but I think we get it wrong far more often than we admit.

Some of the dislocation is style, which has enormous cultural underpinnings: regional, ethnic, generational, occupational. How much slack we are willing to cut others on such matters is often a product of how we feel about the cultural difference. I am sounding very multi-culti here, focusing on feelings and impressions. But these social subtleties are precisely the realm where multiculturalism is a valid prism. Like any other evil, multiculturalism is a good thing gone bad, a value swollen out of proportion and encroaching on the territory of other values.

Slack/no slack. “Well, she’s from the south, and has more of that effusiveness and open affection.” Whether we say that sentence with fondness or with a slight disapproving tone says more about how we feel about Southerners (or our impression of them) than how we feel about the individual. “He has a sort of old-school formality” can be said with approval, disapproval, or a thousand shadings in between.

We pretend we are talking about the individual. That is not completely untrue, as people from any group are not all of a piece – we like some but not others. Yet even here I think we hide the truth from ourselves. We wrestle with old ghosts – we like Roman Catholics alright, but not that sort of Roman Catholic, and thus pretend that it is something about the individual. It’s not that we don’t like formal people, or Germans, or nurses or auto mechanics, oh no, no, no. There are plenty of those that we do like, doncha know. It’s just that they are that wrong sort.

We lie.

Humorless Feminists

I never got into complaining at feminists for their supposed humorlessness. I relate to the irritation one feels when a person or group is made fun of for the wrong reasons. It is one thing to make fun of personal or group eccentricities, or ironies and inconsistencies, but quite another to mock a group for their core beliefs.

No, that's not it. Mocking core beliefs is often acceptable in American discourse as well. It is misunderstanding the core beliefs and making fun of those caricatures that is not funny. To note that many of the oppressed feminist leaders are wealthy, educated, white, and attractive is fair game. To claim that they all "just hate men" and make fun of that with lesbian or castration jokes is bogus. It may be legal, it may signal a strength of our democracy, but it's just low.

Which brings us to George Bush. (And every feminist I just won over I just lost again with that.) To make fun of his wealthy background contrasted with his humble-folk style is fair. To believe that he likes war or hates the poor is a different kettle of fish. These things, were they true, would not be humorous, but abhorrent. And if they are false, why mention them at all? In this I understand the anger of the KosKids - the type of things they believe about Bush admit of no humor. Using humor in that way can hide a basic dishonesty - we don't dare make the actual accusation, because then we would have to move to a ground of proofs and refutations. Much better to just sneer, and when challenged say "What? Can't you take a joke?"

It's rather like the political cartoons of Lincoln not caring about the deaths, or of MLK Jr preaching hate. Such things are legal, and may even be a sign of a healthy democracy, but they are low. They are unconscious but often intentional attempts to deceive. It is not criticism and dissent which make America special, but our toleration of them.

There is dark humor, and context changes many things, so I don't want to be laying down any rules for political humor here. But I think the self-deceit is more common than we admit. For a political cartoon to be effective, it must oversimplify to the point of untruth. Yet the rhetoric of cartoons is spilling over into our other discourse.

Sometimes it's just a base insult dressed up in clown makeup.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


I picked up the Samuel Adams Winter Variety Pack today, mostly on the basis of one of the names: Old Fezziwig Ale. How can you pass that up? That is the strength of marketing well - create a brand that a certain market segment could not face themselves if they didn't buy it.

I don't even drink ale that much, though a best bitters is not that different from an IPA. Old Fezziwig is described
These roasted caramel and chocalate malts give it a very full body and a smooth taste that's then spiced with a touch of cinnamon, ginger, and orange.
Is it any good? How would I know? It's ale.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Killing With Kindness

An Englishman's Castle has a BBC video that shows what the League Against Cruel Sports has wrought in terms of suffering animals.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Here Is Better

The women who visit this site apparently reason better than Robin Gerber, who is described as Senior Faculty at the Gallup Organization.

Gerber's point seems to be that because many people would perceive Hillary as untrustworthy anyway because she is a woman, she is therefore not untrustworthy. Those little Lewis Carroll counters and all those a/-a statements from logic textbooks might be helpful here, Robin.

The research she cites is interesting, and even illuminating about how women are perceived and the special difficulties they face in positions of authority. But with Senator Clinton, we are not talking about impressions. She is untrustworthy because she says things that are later shown to be untrue.

Who Is Minding The Store?

Eric Scheie over at Classical Values has an excellent question about the new National Intelligence Estimate: Does anyone in our intelligence services have a clue? New reports, when they are not so vague as to be useless, contradict each other with little explanation why. Who should be responsible for sorting this out? (Via Instapundit).


It is painful to watch one's team lose a game it could have or even should have won. Lord knows I've seen enough of that in my life, as have all sports fans. Today's outbursts by Baltimore Ravens players, and the online insanity by fans does require comment.

Review the films. On what percentage of plays was Randy Moss held or interfered with? Discussion closed.

Snow Driving

I complain after every first winter storm how many drivers seem unable to comprehend that snow is more slippery than pavement. I have usually blamed this foolishness on people moving to NH from away, but I have come around to a more depressing conclusion. A lot of the folks sliding off the road are indeed NH natives, who should know better.


I thank the reader for his indulgence.

Beowulf Brouhaha

So Hollywood shoehorned sex into every possible place in the plot of Beowulf. Like no one saw that coming. Suffice it to say that I never pictured Grendel’s Mother that way.

I was a Tolkien geek in college, and took two semesters of Anglo-Saxon mostly as a pose, so I could be more-hobbitish-than-thou in conversation. I thus read Beowulf in Old English, after a fashion. That fashion was general laziness, though I actually did show up for that course, bright and shiny while I was present. So you can trust that what I tell you is absolutely authoritative. Compared to most people, I’m an expert is rather a guiding principle in my life. Compared to an actual expert, I am revealed as a dilettante, here as elsewhere.

Without Tolkien’s essay in the 1930’s, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” it is doubtful that anyone would have ever considered making a 2007 movie about the Hero of Heorot. I have been unable to find the text online, but the wikipedia article is here. (Note to those who followed that link: you are now just about as much an expert as I am, except you will forget this information in a few days.) Tolkien changed Beowulf criticism for the rest of the century with that one presentation. Until that time, Beowulf was regarded as a purely academic curiosity, to be studied for whatever nuggets of history and language could be unearthed. It was not assigned for English survey courses, and was little better known than say, The Battle of Maldon is now. (Maldon would make a great movie, BTW, rather like 300.)

Tolkien pointed out the obvious: “Whoa, cool! This is about monsters!” As the obvious had been eluding academics for two centuries, this was a great contribution. Professors and even high-school educators realized that students might actually be interested in something written before last week, if they could only package it well enough. “Smedley, this is actually a good story. I never noticed before. Perhaps we can get those toads in Fifth Form to actually read something.” The essay is quite magnificent, and still an excellent introductory to what can go wrong with literary criticism. Because the rest of English literature before 1400 lacks adventure and plot, experts became accustomed to overlooking them. Schools can try and assign The Canterbury Tales, a series of sarcastic stories with occasional ribaldry; Pearl or The Dream of the Rood, a religious vision; fragments of poems about death, the sea, and home; or you can compare translations of the New Testament. (Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, Morte D’Arthur are later). Thus Beowulf in English literature survey courses, by default. It’s older. It’s got drinking, combat, and monsters. It wins.

Packaging has been a problem. Monsters are all well and good, but it’s still poetry, and poetry of an unfamiliar sort. Epic poetry seems to be beloved by great readers, and my own irritation with that form is why I will never rise higher than middlebrow. So be it. I still can’t stomach most poetry. I will have an opportunity to try Beowulf again at least twice. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney has done a new translation which is reported to be excellent and readable. More interesting for Tolkien fans is the discovery in the Bodleian Library of his translation of Beowulf, not previously known to exist. Anglo-Saxon scholar Michael Drout discovered the handwritten notebooks last year, buried underneath other Tolkien writings in an old box.

This seems to happen at the Bodleian with alarming frequency. Stuff shows up in overlooked boxes all the time, it seems. Doesn’t anyone catalog or organize there?