Continued elsewhere

I've decided to abandon this blog in favor of a newer, more experimental hypertext form of writing. Come over and see the new place.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

End of year wordle

Who knew I was such a people person? This is based on the last few months of my rantings here and elsewhere.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Boob obsessed

I don't usually spend that much time viewing the really retarded wingnut sites, or bother to comment on the nuggets of inanity found there. There are many other sites that do a fine job (and in fact, it's voting time for The Golden Winger Awards). But here's a good one from Debbie Schlussel (sort of a down-market Jewish version of Ann Coulter) that hasn't gotten much play:
Much is being made of the photo of President-elect Barack Hussein Obama shirtless and buff in Hawaii (where he's still failed to memorialize "typical White person" granny).
But in fact, it's a carefully orchestrated exercise in the homo-erotic, dreamed up by the Uber-conceit of Obama himself (look at me, I'm bugg) and his largely male team of advisor-ooglers. Just wondering if this is his sad attempt to mollify the gay men who are angry over his invitation to Pastor Rick Warren to make the invocation at the Inauguration. Don't count that out. A lot of gay men can be bought off by a man who looks nice (in their eyes) with his shirt off.
The bit about his grandmother was a gratuitous near-lie, since it was well-known that Obama was planning to attend a memorial service for his grandmother towards the end of his Hawaiian trip (and did). The part about homoeroticism, though, achieves a certain near-perfect combination of dumbness, nastiness, projection, and obsession with trivia. Stuff like that isn't flashy, it won't garner Schlussel a Kippie any time soon, but I salute it for its presentation of the conservative mind in all its splendor.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Birthday Yeshua

A follower of neither Jesus nor Buddha, I feel free to misinterpret them both, together. There's a similarity in their stories: a bit of sacrifice of the divine to save the rest of us benighted creatures. In Jesus' case it involved a one-time event of bloody sacrifice. In Mahayana Buddhism, bodhisattvaa take a vow to renounce nirvana until all sentient beings can likewise be liberated. While the emotions and narrative arc of the stories seem similar, their interpretations are very different. The sacrifice of Jesus is taken to be a literal historical event; the Buddhist version seems abstract, distributed, and continuous. Buddhism has always seemed light-years more sophisticated philosophically than Christianity. The latter's insistence on interpreting spiritual teachings as literal truths gives rise to a lot of nonsense enforced by violence and torture.

BUT, I don't come to give Christianity shit on this day, I'm rather trying to appreciate the shared feelings, longings, motivations, needs, whatever, that are common to both religions and perhaps all religion. The belief in a better way of being; the universal truths that bind all humans together; the thread of compassion that links humans and the divine. The longing for a savior. The role of religion as a focus for these otherwise inchoate feelings.

I'm no good at all at this kind of stuff, but what the hell, it's Xmas. So I'm taking a moment to dwell in these feelings before returning to the usual rounds of sectarian hatred. I'm by nature a negative person, an againstist (like Mr. Rollins who on another day I would be sparring with), I'm with Heraclitus that conflict is the father of all things. But I'm tired of it, I want and need to get more peace love and understanding into my personal mix. Hence this slow, reluctant, erratic, but seemingly inevitable slide into religion. Most of my being resists it, truth to tell. But I have to assume that I'm just as human as the rest of the billions of people that exist now and in the past, and religion is just something humans do, as much a part of the game as eating, shitting, making love and dieing.


Well, as is quite often the case when I think I've had an original thought, I find there have been plenty of others there before me. In this case, there is an entire academic journal devoted to Christian-Buddhist studies, and numerous probably crank sites that purport that Christianity was lifted in whole from Buddhist sources. Here's an excellent article from the Boston Globe that describes some of the syncretic interactions between Christianity and Asian religions in the early history of the faith:

By the 12th century, flourishing churches in China and southern India were using the lotus-cross. The lotus is a superbly beautiful flower that grows out of muck and slime. No symbol could better represent the rise of the soul from the material, the victory of enlightenment over ignorance, desire, and attachment. For 2,000 years, Buddhist artists have used the lotus to convey these messages in countless paintings and sculptures. The Christian cross, meanwhile, teaches a comparable lesson, of divine victory over sin and injustice, of the defeat of the world. Somewhere in Asia, Yeshua's forgotten followers made the daring decision to integrate the two emblems, which still today forces us to think about the parallels between the kinds of liberation and redemption offered by each faith.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Never seen in the same room at the same time

It's always been somewhat confusing to me that there are two rather good bloggers, one named John Cole and the other named Juan Cole. And now that they've both made postings that more-or-less defend Obama's selection of Rick Warren for the inaugural, I wonder if they are the same person, like Stephen Colbert and Esteban Colberto.

For the record, Warren's pick pissed me off, but think we should at least let Obama hold office for a week or two before dismissing him as a complete sell-out.

Myth of the outsider intellectual

A review of The Myth of Natural Rights by L.A. Rollins.

You know, I like outsider art as much as the next hipster, and outsider intellectuals too, at least in theory. People like Eric Hoffer, Harry Smith, various sixties visionaries (who are now part of the establishment, but weren't when I liked them), Robert Anton Wilson. Can't think of too many others right now, probably because I myself have gone mainstream long ago. But I am very sympathetic to the general feeling that the academic establishment has climbed up its own bunghole when it comes to actual thinking. Oh, academics can do wonderful work when they have actual subject matter, scientific or otherwise, but who expects shattering philosophical insight to come from someone with tenure? Mad geniuses on the margins, that's what we need.

Unfortunately simply being marginal and bereft of higher education does not in itself constitute a guarantee of quality. So I have to report that The Myth of Natural Rights by L.A. Rollins and with an introduction by omniorthogonal reader tggp, is for the most part a combination of the banal and the offensively stupid.

The book itself: I was impressed with the jacket design and typography, although the cover illustration is ugly and I have no idea what it is supposed to mean. It's a nice package -- too bad about the contents. There are four sections:

1) A long argument that rights are not natural objects like rocks or the law of gravity. Well, duh. I figured that out all by myself long ago. I suppose this might be useful new information for dim-witted libertarians, but I didn't get anything out of it. Rollins goes on to declare that all morality is a sham, which is the kind of deep insight most people have and get past at age 16 or so. The interesting questions lie beyond that realization -- if morality isn't dictated by god or nature, then what is it, how does it work, how should we deal with moral issues if we can't refer back to god's authority? It's not like people haven't given this some thought, but Rollins ignores this work, preferring to spend a hundred pages beating a mostly-dead horse.

2) Holocaust revisionism. This part made me sorry to have paid money for the book. Here's a rule of thumb: anyone trafficking in this crap is ipso fact a moron, a dipshit, a bottom-dwelling creep. It's hard to tell whether Rollins actually believes the Holocaust didn't happen, or if he's just trying to prove some point by being independent of respectable opinion. In the former case, he's an idiot. In the latter case, he's playing around with the deaths of millions for his amusement and retarded self-gratification. I guess I'd hope it's the former; stupidity is more forgivable and correctable than being an asshole.

3) A satiric lexicon in the style of Ambrose Bierce / Bob Black, which was actually pretty good.

4) Some juvenile stuff aimed at Allah and George Bush. Yawn.

So much for the alternatives to the mainstream. The one good outcome for me from reading this book is that it caused me to move Marc Hauser's Moral Minds to the top of my pile. Kind of establishment, being a scientist at Harvard no less, but he actually knows what he is talking about (I presume) and doesn't (I presume) regurgitate sophomoric philosophy as if it were news.

It occurs to me that I might be less hard on section (1) if not for the offensive nature of section (2). Is that fair? Who knows. Presumably Rollins doesn't believe in fair, so he can't complain.

There are two points that merit longer responses and I may get to them eventually: First, if rights are not natural objects, then what are they? I hinted at an answer to that here but it deserves a longer explanation. Second, the question of how one evaluates the quality of information sources is one that interests me. Holocaust revisionism itself is supremely non-interesting, but how do I know that I should trust mainstream historians and not the dedicated scholars of the Journal of Historical Review? That is an interesting question in this age when all sorts of information and mis-information flows freely across the internet.

[2014 postscript -- how did I not realize until just now that this Rollins book was, in its earlier incarnation, the inspiration for Robert Anton Wilson's book Natural Law: or Don't Put a Rubber on Your Willy? I am remarkably dense sometimes.]

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Proud parent moment

My youngest kid developed an out-of-the-blue interest in ballet a year ago, and this week he's performing in the SF Ballet's production of the Nutcracker. This is one of the top ballet companies in the country and it's all a very big deal. I saw the show yesterday and he did great (he's a "party boy"). Classical ballet is probably the art form furthest from my usual tastes, but nothing like having your flesh and blood up on stage to broaden one's horizons.

More pictures here and a version of the production from last year is going to be shown on PBS Wednesday evening.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Human Rights Day

Today is the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Universal Human Rights.

Got nothing very interesting to say about it, but it hasn't been very widely publicized so I thought I'd do my little bit.

If anyone wants to debate what a right is or if they exist, go wild. I will just point out that a Declaration is a performative speech act, akin to wedding vows, that creates a state of being (or hopes to) by virtue of being produced.

Blagojevich Blagojevich Blagojevich

My reaction to the Blagojevich story is something along the lines of "I'm shocked, shocked, to find corruption going on in the Illinois State House!". It doesn't seem to me that Blagojevich has done anything qualitatively different from what nearly every politician does, namely, dispense offices and favors to those who contribute to their campaigns or give them political favors. The sale of ambassadorships is essentially institutionalized, an entire street in DC is given over to funnelers of money from industry to congress, etc. In California, the state is basically completely in thrall to the prison guards union, which is one reason we have more people in prison than in college.

What Blagojevich did wrong was to be just really, really, blatant and stupid about the way he played the game. For that he will be punished, but he's just the sacrificial goat for the entire culture.

On the other hand, the idea has been floated that Patrick Fitzgerald be appointed special prosecuter to investigate the numerous crimes of the Bush administration. Won't happen -- if Obama was going to do anything like that, he wouldn't have retained Bush officials like Robert Gates -- but it's a nice dream.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Kicking conservatism while it's down

P.J. O'Rourke wrote a widely-read article called "We Blew It" about how the right unaccountably has lost power despite their manifestly better approaches to life, money, etc.

For some reason the article calls to mind Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin. The Party has been let down, it has clearly lost sight of the true nature of (conservatism) (Marxism/Leninism), we need to do better in the future. We are absolutely certain that our party, armed with the historical resolutions of the 20th Congress. will lead the Soviet people along the Leninist path to new successes, to new victories. We see how well that worked out.
Where is this land of freedom and responsibility, knowledge, opportunity, accomplishment, honor, truth, trust, ...It lies in ruins at our feet, as well it might, since we ourselves kicked the shining city upon a hill into dust and rubble. The progeny of the Reagan Revolution will live instead in the universe that revolves around Hyde Park....Those leafy precincts will be reserved for the micromanagers and macro-apparatchiks of liberalism--for Secretary of the Department of Peace Bill Ayers and Secretary of the Department of Fairness Bernardine Dohrn.
I really like this effort to paint Hyde Park (home of the University of Chicago) as the new Berkeley, since I was born there. I haven't spent much time there in the last 30 years, but it's hard to imagine a more sober-minded academic community. The winters help with that.
After the events of the 20th century--national socialism, international socialism, inter-species socialism from Earth First--anyone who is still on the left is obviously insane and not responsible for his or her actions.
Oh, it's "Hitler -- man of the left" time again. I thought Jonah Goldberg had the copyright on that.
Blacks used to poll Republican. They did so right up until Mrs. Roosevelt made some sympathetic noises in 1932.
No, they did so because the Democratic party used to be the party of southern segregationists, until the Dixiecrats split off, Johnson realigned the party behind civil rights, and Nixon grabbed the racist demographic. Roosevelt did start this process, to be sure, but it took considerably more work than "sympathetic noises".

The subtext of this is that Blacks are stupid enough to change parties because someone make sympathetic noises, and it ought to be easy for the Republicans t make similar noises and recapture them. Right. Good luck with that.
Nobody with kids is a liberal, except maybe one pothead in Marin County. Everybody wants his or her children to respect freedom, exercise responsibility, be honest, get educated, have opportunities, and own a bunch of guns.
Well, I have kids and live in the Bay Area, so maybe I'm the one pothead, but it's deep thinking like this that got the Republicans out of power. Yes, I know O'Rourke is allegedly some kind of humorist, but he is also supposed to be one of the saner people on the right -- his article is structured as a plea for Republicans to refrain from various religious excesses, including giving up opposition to abortion. REAL good luck with that one!

Furthermore, having kids tends to put one in mind of thinking a bit more seriously about the future, and who can doubt that the Democratic party is the one who can take us into the future? The Republican party is dominated by apocalyptic types, including the straightforwardly mad religious ones who expect Jesus to come back any minute now, and the neoconservative ones whose theory of government is to keep launching wars of aggression and break the treasury until government is completely non-functional?

Kids will require, among other things, education, healthcare, a functioning climate, a decent economy. They would be better off in a world with less war and a world in which Americans are not seen as lawless advocates of military force and torture. Can anyone with kids and a functioning brain support the Republican party?

There's this quaint notion of conservatism as somehow involving realism, caution, prudence, and attunement to moral values. Those sound like very nice things, but they are entirely absent from the governing provided by actual conservatives.

For a nice analysis of what conservatism really is, I recommend this paper by Phil Agre, What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It?.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Art Notes

Psychedelic artist Alex Grey does his part to feed the Obama-as-messiah/antichrist meme.

Also revealed at his website: HR Giger looks even creepier than his art does.

via Sentient Developments.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Psychic Unity of Mankind

Via tggp, a long flame by John Derbyshire on inherent genetic differences and "culturalism".

I find racists like Derbyshire and Steve Sailer fascinatingly odious to read. The fascination comes from trying to untangle the nuggets of truth and insight from the general stew of confusion and prejudice. This human biodiversity stuff is important, and it's a shame to leave it to right-wing wankers. Somehow, the progressive and sane part of the world will need to grapple with this stuff.

Right now, I just have to pick at a nit that has bothered me for awhile and came up again in Derbyshire's latest, namely, the complete misuse of the concept "psychic unity of mankind":
This idea of the "œpsychic unity of mankind"is a sort of blank slate principle. It says that all human beings everywhere have the same physiological nature, most especially the same brains, and that all observed differences, both group and individual, are the result of "œculture" acting on this infinitely plastic substratum -- writing words on this "blank slate."
This is confused in at least two different ways: first, the assumptions that PUM implies that there are no innate physiological differences in brains, and second, that PUM is identical to blank-slate theories of the brain. This is a complete inversion of the concept.

The psychic unity of mankind (PUM) does not mean that human brains are biologically identical. That would, of course, be stupid. PUM means that human brains are constructed in roughly the same way, with the roughly similar biological hardware, computing architectures, modules, built-in capabilities, and areas of functionality. PUM describes the built-in commonalities between human minds and is thus exactly the opposite of the blank-slate model.

Here's Wikipedia on PUM:
In arguing for the "œpsychic unity of mankind," Bastian proposed a straightforward project for the long-term development of a science of human culture and consciousness based upon this notion. He argued that the mental acts of all people everywhere on the planet are the products of physiological mechanisms characteristic of the human species (what today we might term the genetic loading on the organization and functioning of the human neuroendocrine system). Every human mind inherits a complement of species-specific "œelementary ideas" (Elementargedanken), and hence the minds of all people, regardless of their race or culture, operate in the same way.
If you've read Pinkers' The Blank Slate, you may remember he presents a list of human universal ideas at the end of the book, as evidence of the non-blankness of the biological mind. These seem almost exactly the same as the Elementargedanken proposed by Bastian.

Richard Shweder (a major cultural anthropologist) Thinking in Cultures, p77: (and note that he is generally skeptical of the notion of psychic unity, but for very different reasons than the race-baiters):
The principle of general psychology that "people are the same wherever you go" does not mean that people are the same in every respect. It means that transcendentally, "deep down" or "inside," where the central processing mechanism lives, people are the same....

...It is crucial to recognize that the long-lived and imaginative idea of an inherent (fixed, universal) and central (transcendent, abstract) processing mechanism, a psychic unity to mankind, will never be seriously threatened by the mere existence of performance differences between individuals or populations.
I see Gregory Cochran makes the same mistake as Derbyshire.

Is this just a minor nitpick over the use of a 19th-century phrase? After all, regardless of how you define your terms, recent human genetic selection is either real or not, differences in cognitive capabilities between individuals or races are real or not. But I think this confusion points to something important. The scientific facts are facts and will be revealed in more detail with time, but the moral, social, and political implications of the facts are very much undetermined. Humans will, fairly obviously, be revealed to have some things in common and other things that vary. Whether you want to pay more attention to the commonalities or more to the differences is a political and moral question, not a scientific one.

"All men are created equal" -- the would-be scientific racists like Derbyshire are licking their chops over the prospect that their prejudices will be given the backing of science, and this enlightenment slogan can be thrown under the bus for good. The rest of us should be reinterpreting it in the light of new science. It doesn't mean that everyone has exactly the same innate intelligence any more than it means they have the same height or muscle mass. It means, rather, that we are all built the same way, that we are qualitatively the same despite quantitative differences, that we all have language, consciousness, morality. social skills, social needs, music, concern for kin, and a thousand other similarities.

The left stresses our commonalities; the racist right would like to magnify differences. As a leftist, I'd like to see the our side form a strategy to deal with the facts of human biodiversity; sticking our heads in the sand won't work for very long.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Blowing up hospitals

[Expanded from a comment on Daniel Larison's blog.]

In the last Batman movie, the Joker blew up a hospital to prove some kind of demented point, but he was supposed to be the embodiment of sociopathic evil. I hadn’t realized that the Catholic hierarchy had descended to the same level. Yet they are threating to close all Catholic hospitals if the FOCA bill passes. They are even unwilling to sell the facilities to other healthcare providers, preferring to shutter them. This would deprive millions of people of health care, and almost certainly causing some to die much earlier than they otherwise would have. Yet we are supposed to consider these people “pro-life”.

More here.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Free fall

FDIC seizes three more banks. Citibank has traded at around 45-50 as recently as mid-2007, today it closed at 3.77. So, it's lost over 90% of its value in a bit more than a year. Some analysts are predicting that all US financial institutions will be under government control in a year. Switzerland seems to be in danger of complete collapse, the way Iceland has -- it has banks that are so leveraged that the country doesn't have nearly enough resources to rescue it, in fact "A 16% fall in UBS's assets would wipe out not only all of its equity but 100% of Swiss GDP on top."

Sure wish I had a farm in some out of the way place that I could retreat to when the food riots start.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


While browsing at the Stanford bookstore I came across this book about Christian heresies and how to avoid them. Various mistaken beliefs are outlined, such as theopaschitism (a belief that God can suffer, I think), and Eutychianism (a form of monophysitism):

The tenet "one nature" was common to all Monophysites and Eutychians, and they affected to call Catholics Diphysites or Dyophysites. The error took its rise in a reaction against Nestorianism, which taught that in Christ there is a human hypostasis or person as well as a Divine. This was interpreted to imply a want of reality in the union of the Word with the assumed Humanity, and even to result in two Christs, two Sons, though this was far from the intention of Nestorius himself in giving his incorrect explanation of the union. He was ready to admit one prosopon, but not one hypostasis, a "prosopic" union, though not a "hypostatic" union, which is the Catholic expression.
I wonder if the people who were into this stuff were the obsessional geeks of their day. Rather then spending long tedious hours arguing about which programming language is best or who would win if Spiderman fought Batman, they argue over obscure points of theology that nobody sensible could care about. And like today's geeks, their Asperger's-like focus on meaningless formalism had real-world conseqeuences.

And today I see that our president-elect is being accused of heresy for an awkwardly-phrased response he gave in a 2004 interview. This is not happening in the fever-swamps of the batshit-insane right, but in the pages of respectable journals of opinion, including The Atlantic.

All I can say is, this sort of thing makes the baby Jesus cry. Did he really go through the trouble of incarnating and getting crucified so nerds could squabble over whether he is two natures in one person or vice versa? That some people would appoint themselves arbiters of who is a "real Christian"? I'm no kind of Christian at all and that kind of thing pisses me off.

Meanwhile for contrast here is a very good post about how to think about religious ritual and the sacred without having to adopt ridiculous metaphysical beliefs.

[[Update: Here's an accompanying soundtrack courtesy of Slim Gaillard]]

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Sacred State

[Updated below]

Since I'm lecturing tggp on politics and religion, I thought I should expand the thought:

The state always partakes of the sacred. We have theoretically split them apart here in the USA -- no state religion, no divine monarch -- yet somehow "flag desecration" is still a viable concept. You can't desecrate something unless it's sacred to begin with. I'm not saying this is good, or bad, it's just the way things are. Humans work the way they do, not how you think they should.

What I mean is: there is always an aspect to government that constitutes a civic religion. It has rituals, sacred places, heroes and demigods, a whole mythology. This is essential to its function -- otherwise, it would be nothing but a bureaucracy. This mythology is what makes it capable of being the object of the People's Romance. This is not exactly a new idea, but it suddenly popped into clarity for me. And it explains why I have the same complex relationship I do to both atheists (those who reject religion) and libertarian/anarchists (those who reject the state) -- I say "yes, I am in sympathy with you, but your rejection is simplistic, you don't understand how people and societies work".

I've recently been watching West Wing reruns with similarly mixed emotions. The show always struck me as hokey, sentimental, and enamored of yuppie/Clinton/workaholic values to an embarassing extent. Nevertheless -- it's a well-made show, most of the time, and one of the things it does well is provide insiders views on all sorts of obscure rituals of government, such as the procedures for clearing out the White House for a presidential transition. It takes a naive, civics textbook view of government and presents a mildly insiderish view of it, without cynicism. I'm not sure why I like the show, since my default setting is extreme cynicism bordering on paranoia, but maybe it's just a welcome relief, an anodyne.

To make up for it, I found this article which presents the black and bloody symbolic heart of nationalism in the best apocalyptic/academic mode:

Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Revisiting Civil Religion, Carolyn Marvin and David W. Ingle

Americans traditionally regard the nation-state as the domain of unassailable force and religion as the domain of unassailable truth. This separation of faith and force is markedly unstable and collapses completely in wartime. The more usual arrangement elsewhere has been strongly forged links between spiritual and political power. This is because the only religion that can truly deliver the goods must have visible agency, worldly power... Wherever religion is fervently embraced, it follows in the minds of many believers that it is entitled to glory in missions of conquest that reflect God's will. Islam did this for centuries before European monarchies accomplished it for Christianity. And though religions have long survived and flourished in persecution and powerlessness, supplicants nevertheless take manifestations of power as blessed evidence of the truth of faith.

.... The social geographer Wilbur Zelinsky observes that the contemporary American flag has a visual power and presence for its believers that is comparable to the medieval crucifix. We agree. The flag in high patriotic ritual is treated with an awe and deference that marks it as the sacred object of the religion of patriotism. The flag is the skin of the totem ancestor held high. It represents the sacrificed bodies of its devotees just as the cross, the sacred object of Christianity, represents the body sacrificed to a Christian god.

The soldier carries his flag into battle as a sign of his willingness to die, just as Jesus carried his cross to show his willingness to die. Both the cross and the flag mark the border, the transformative point at which the believer crosses over into death. In both Christianity and nationalism the violently sacrificed body becomes the god renewed--in Durkheimian terms, the transformed totem. In Christianity the revivified totem is the risen Christ. In American nationalism the transformed totem is the soldier resurrected in the raised flag. On the basis of his sacrifice the nation is rejuvenated. As the embodiment of sacrifice, the flag has transforming power. Certain acts cannot be performed except in its presence. It must be kept whole and perfect, as holy things are, and ceremonially disposed of when it is no longer fit to perform the functions of the totem object.

Some citizens openly speak of the American flag as sacred. Can we disregard the impassioned testimony of others that it is not, and neither is the nation it represents? The answer lies in the ritual gestures that surround the flag...The sanctity of national symbols is protected by treating them gesturally as sacred, even while we insist in language that they are not. And when the god commands it, we must perform the ritual sacrifice, war, that sustains the group.

Cohesion in enduring groups is accomplished within a framework of violence as a structural rather than contingent social force, religion as the truth that we are willing to die for, and the re-presentation of society to itself through blood sacrifice rituals performed on the bodies of supplicants. The most powerful expression of this religious framework in the United States, and perhaps not only there, is nationalism. On the surface, we deny nationalism's religious attributes and functions in order to keep the the killing authority of the group from being challenged by sectarian faiths that have been stripped of the power to sacrifice the lives of devotees.

Heady stuff. It certainly helps to understand the appeal of red-state warriors, and the troubles sane urban cosmpolitans have in displaying patriotism and pulling the country together. Sending young men to die is good for you and good for the country's geist, apparently. But only when it works, and it hasn't worked properly in the last few wars.

[Update: didn't realize when I was writing this that Veteran's Day was imminent. That's one of the chief holidays (holy day) of the state religion, where the ritual sacrifice is celebrated and the sacred honor of the military is upheld and reinforced.

The epiphany behind this post helps me get outside of this ritual and be skeptical of it. Not that I have anything against veterans as individuals, but maybe holding them up as a holy warrior class is a bad idea. The results of the presidential campaign indicate that military service is not as big a deal as the right would like it to be.

I happen to be working at a startup run by Mercurians who don't have much to do with veterans or military culture, so no day off for me.]

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Joining the celebration

Well, that was awesome. Despite my built-in distrust of politicians, despite a lifelong cynicsm, despite knowing that the president is a largely symbolic figure whose ability to actually change anything is severely limited -- despite all that, I got the spirit last night, I really do think we've lived through a transformational event, I believe that Obama will bring at least basic competence and intelligence to bear on the government, which alone is a vast improvement. I'm happy that my kids got their wish and that they will grow up believing in the power of potential, hope, and change, and that they won't become cynical too early. I'm so fucking happy that the Bushites will be turned out of office.

The President is a symbol, but symbols are important. We've collectively decided that our symbol should represent youth, intelligence, diversity, hope, and change, rather than fear, small-mindedness, and agression. That is huge.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Breaking news!

Shocking McCain video surfaces...must credit Omniorthogonal!!!!!

Election eve weirdness

I was really hoping for some even more unhinged Obama rumors to surface in the few days before the election, but so far nothing has surpassed the satanist/mesmerist/Malcolm X charges that everyone knows about already. Here's a jokey one, but I seek the real thing. And in the same vein (I think), there's this:

On a slightly different tangent, here's white supremicists for Obama (via).

And here is a bunch of Peruvian shamans putting a whammy on John McCain.

Only a couple more days of this...I am ready for it to be over.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Could it be...Satan?!???

Of course you know that Barack Obama is a celebrity radical Muslim black nationalist socialist appeaser elitist Chicago politician pedophile racist, but did you know that he's also a satanist and practices mesmerism? I read it on the Internet so it must be true (and I might point out that the first link is to a web blog hosted by Fox News, so you know it's especially trustworthy).

More Obama-related evil as it appears over the next week -- I expect quite a lot will be surfacing.

Shocking news: religious foundation run by homophobic wingnuts!

Over the past few years I've observed the Templeton Foundation with some bemusement, as it seems to sponsor all sorts of things that seem interesting-but-bordering-on-flakey. I don't have a problem with its general goal, which to explore the connections between science and religion. As a moderate in the God wars I'm all for people trying to find a middle way.

So, I was a bit disturbed to find out that a boatload of Templeton money is going to the forces behind California's regressive Proposition 8, which would strip away the rights of gays to be married (rights they gained under a recent CA Supreme Court decision). John Templeton (son of the founder of the Templeton Foundation and its current chairman) has contributed $1 million dollars to a collection of groups campaigning for this odious law (along with Howard Ahmanson, another crazy rich guy who funded the similar but less respectable Discovery Institute).

Templeton funds many interesting scientific and quasi-scientific efforts, including the Foundational Questions Institute, which lists many prominent people as members and affiliates, including science bloggers Scott Aaronson and Sean Carroll.

I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with taking money from the Templeton Foundation, no matter what dubious causes they may be linked to. Money they spend on actual research is money not being spent on supporting regressive legislation. However, if I was taking money from such people (and I have been in somewhat similar situations, where I've accepted military funding for my own research), I would feel some extra obligation to speak out for goodness, righteousness, and truth in areas where my patron is spreading evil, hatred, and lies. Just saying.

On the intellectual level, I'm disappointed to learn that Templeton-brand religion is the fundamentalist/wingnut variety -- the kind of God that hates teh gay, not the kind of abstract principle of existence and value that an intelligent person might conceivably have truck with; not the unnameable of mysticism or apophatic theology; no, this is a God with very firm opinions about the proper deployment of human genitalia. There are sane people who work on reconciling science and religion, but they apparently have no crazed billionaires behind their efforts.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Word of the week

Zoopharmacognosy refers to the process by which animals self-medicate, by selecting and utilizing plants, soils, and insects to treat and prevent disease. Coined by Dr. Eloy Rodriguez, a biochemist and professor at Cornell University, the word is derived from roots zoo ("animal"), pharma ("drug"), and gnosy ("knowing").

Came up when reading this interesting article on human drug-seeking behavior, which came up in the course of another stupid flamewar with an idiot libertarian. My only excuse for doing this is that it leads me down interesting pathways to new words and ideas. Did you know that two of the most important Nobels in biology are partially attributable to the influence of LSD? Kary Mullis everyone knows about, but Francis Crick?

Friday, October 17, 2008

I'd go broke but I can't afford it

Credit has gotten so tight in recent weeks that companies contemplating a bankruptcy filing can't find the cash needed to get through the process.

-- from the WSJ via Obsidian Wings

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Break Every Yoke

Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to HaShem?

Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?

Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?

Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of HaShem shall be thy rear guard.

-- Isaiah 58:5-8

[for Kol Nidre]

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The other meltdown

The ongoing financial crisis may be causing some distress, but it's reallyt nothing -- a bunch of financial fictions suddenly being exposed as worthless, what a surprise -- compared to the melting of permafrost, leading perhaps to a runaway release of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent that CO2.

The Independent has been passed details of preliminary findings suggesting that massive deposits of sub-sea methane are bubbling to the surface as the Arctic region becomes warmer and its ice retreats...

Methane is about 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and many scientists fear that its release could accelerate global warming in a giant positive feedback where more atmospheric methane causes higher temperatures, leading to further permafrost melting and the release of yet more methane.

And moreL:

Yesterday, researchers on board the British research ship the James Clark Ross said they had counted about 250 methane plumes bubbling from the seabed in an area of about 30 square miles in water less than 400 metres (1,300 feet) deep off the west coast of Svalbard. They have also discovered a set of deeper plumes at depths of about 1,200 metres at a second site near by. Analysis of sediments and seawater has confirmed the rising gas is methane, said Professor Graham Westbrook of Birmingham University, the study's principal investigator.

Even more scary take, with proposed solutions:

Oy, a methane clathrate melt is surmised to have caused the biggest mass extinction event in Earth's history.

Some (mild) skepticism.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Could it really be this simple?

Mark Chu-Carroll has an explanation of what went wrong in the financial institution's risk assessment procedures, which I find a bit hard to believe, but only a bit. If true, it means that these highly-paid technical portfolio analysts were making the kind of mistake you drill out of undergraduates in the second week of an introductory probability course, namely, assuming the independence of evevents (mortgage defaults) that are in fact highly correlated. This seems way too simple an explanation, but maybe it really is as stupid as that.

The slightly more complex version of this is that they knew this calculation was bogus, but were under incentives that promoted the collections of short-term gains at the expense of long-term risks, and somehow shoved this knowledge under the rug.

Also caught a bit of this weekends This American Life episode, which talked to some Wall Street types about what was going on. Sounded interesting but I didn't catch the whole thing and it isn't on the web yet.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is getting a boost in his reputation from all this, but I'm not sure exactly why. This particular meltdown was not a "black swan", in that it was entirely predictable. But perhaps his distinction between Mediocristan and Extremistan is a key to the theory above. Normally, mortgage defaults are uncorrelated, but in extreme cases they suddenly become highly correlated.

More Taleb here.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

All for the lack of tuppence, patiently, cautiously invested...

And you'll achieve the sense of stature
As your influence expands
To the high financial strata
That established credit now commands!

Foreclosures! Bonds! Chattels! Dividends! Shares! Bankruptcies! Debtor sales! Opportunities!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The blame game

The latest meme on the financial crisis from the right: it's all the fault of Carter, Clinton, and "socialists", who forced the banks to make all these subprime loans via the Community Reinvestment Act in 1975. I actually listed to this piece of right-wing hate radio from Mark Levin where this theory is expounded.

For someone who rarely listens to this stuff like me, the tone is downright scary. Levin has a voice like a dentist's drill. I have a hard time imagining the audience for this stuff -- I imagine bitter, hate-filled members of the downwardly mobile white sub-working class -- Joe Pesci, minus any charm or charisma. I hesitate once again to throw out the f-word but I can't help but think of Hitler's speeches and the Two Minute Hate from 1984.

The thing is, there may even be some truth in what he's saying. No doubt Democrats have had a hand in this crisis; they are just as much in bed with Wall Street as the Republican party (not sure how that squares with them being "socialists"). But how can you take someone seriously who not only sounds like that but writes things like this:
I want to congratulate the attorneys who work with me at Landmark Legal Foundation for tenaciously pursuing the untold story of the systematic abuse of American MPs by the al-Qaeda terrorists at Guantanamo Bay.
Here's a counterattack to this sort of theory; the most commonsensical refutation is that most of the bad subprime loans were made in the last five years; so if a bill passed in 1975 is responsible why was there a 25-year lag time?

And also this report (via) which says:
CRA Banks were substantially less likely than other lenders to make the kinds of risky home purchase loans that helped fuel the foreclosure crisis.
Oh well, so much for alternative points of view. The facts don't matter too much, what matters is whether Levin et al are going to succeed get this notion into the minds of the populace.

If things get really ugly economically, I mean ugly in people's real lives, not just the financial markets, don't be surprised if this sort of hate boils out of the backwoods of AM radio and into the mainstream, wherever the hell that is. People are going to be looking for someone to blame, and the right has been honing their eliminationist rhetoric on progressives and Democrats for many years now. Fuck, I feel like stringing someone up myself, and while I'd start on the other side of the political divide there is plenty of blame to go around.

Oh, the humanity!

Won't somebody think of the investment bankers?
It'™s going to be very hard psychologically for these people, Frank said. œI talked to one guy who had to give up his private jet recently. And he said of all the trials in his life, giving that up was the hardest thing he'™s ever done.
The chairman of Lehman Brothers, Richard Fuld, still has his mansion in Greenwich, CT, his oceanfront estate on Jupiter Island in FL, and his Park Avenue co-op in Manhattan. Many at Lehman blame Fuld for dallying while his investment bank went bust, taking risks with other people's money while he cleared over $40 million in salary and stock in the last year alone.
Former Bear Stearns CEO Alan Schwartz collected more than $38 million in salary and bonuses in the last three years for which figures are available, though he and Lehman executives also saw their net worths drastically plummet as stock values crashed.
via. Some of his commenters suggest some rather, ah, extreme measures that should be taken by ordinary people who have to work hard and will now be pushed further into poverty and financial stress by the incompetencies and thievery of the moneyed class. Like I said last post, I have some sympathy for this but it ain't going to happen. It made me recall this earlier post. There's no defending the murderous excesses of communism, but I am sympathetic to the underlying rage. In the words of Principal Skinner, "There's no justice like angry mob justice."

Friday, September 19, 2008

A trillion here, a trillion there, soon you're talking real money.

  • Long-term cost of the Iraq war: $3 trillion.
  • Long-term cost of the government's bailout of the financial industry: $2 trillion. (today's figure is 1T, doubling that is probably being conservative).
  • A president you can have a beer with: priceless

That's about 2 years total federal spending. Pissed down the toilet, and you and me are saddled with the bill, or about $25,000 for every adult in the US. Those numbers don't quite convey the enormous opportunity cost these liabilities represent. That is $5 trillion dollars not being spent on repairing infrastructure, fixing our health and education systems, funding alternative energy research, or even protecting us against terrorist threats.

Somebody somewhere pointed out that what we have now, clearly, is a system that could be described as "vacuum up" rather than trickle-down. Wealth is sucked out of the pockets of the working strat into the coffers of the extremely wealthy. Now the Wall Street types can go enjoy their bonuses while the ordinary taxpayer is on the hook for the downside of their fun and games.

If ever a situation called for angry mobs, this is it. Citizens should be stringing up the bankers and politicians from the lampposts. Not likey to happen in this spread-out and obese country.

Addendum: there must be a great disturbance in the force when people like Tyler Cowan are saying things like this:
You can blame lots of the crisis on government -- more than most people think -- but at the end of the day it is hard to escape the conclusion that markets simply have performed horribly in a number of important regards.
Also, one of his commenters identifies an important point that I haven't seen elsewhere:
The Secretarys authority to purchase mortgage-related assets under this Act shall be limited to $700,000,000,000 outstanding at any one time
This is clever and nobody in the mainstream media has figured it out.

If you think the cost of this bill is $700 billion, you're wrong. The cost is actually infinite and the entire bill constitutes a giant money-laundering scheme.

Paulson can (and presumably will) buy up to $700 billion of these "assets", then sell them. Let's say he decides to buy them at 60 cents on the dollar and sell them for 10. You, the taxpayer, will eat the fifty cents, for an immediate cost of $350 billion dollars.

Having done so, he is then authorized to do so again, since the $700 billion is no longer on the government's balance sheet.

In fact, he can do this without limit, other than possibly due to the federal debt ceiling, which of course Congress will raise any time we get close to it. Oh yeah, this bill does that right up front too. No need to bother with it the first time around.

Folks, $700 billion isn't even close to the total cost of this monster.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

History and Justification of Torture

Here's a report I made for my synagogue's social action committee, which has decided to focus on torture and human rights issues. It's a big long and formless for a blog post, but here for the historical record and so all my readers can help me improve it by telling me how wrong I am.


Torture is the use of extreme physical or psychological violence on captives by political actors (governments, militarise, or paramilitary groups) in pursuit of political and military ends. I take it as axiomatic that this practice should be curtailed. To fight this practice, we must understand its psychological motivations, legal justification, and its systems of institutional support.

I think it's worthwhile trying to honestly understand the arguments and rationales used by people who advocate or even practice torture, difficult or impossible though this may be. Torture may be the ultimate form of dehumanization, but it is our duty to acknowledge that the practitioners of dehumanization are themselves human beings. We know that quite normal human beings are capable of evil and despicable acts when placed in an environment that encourages and supports them. Our enemy should be the institutional structures that support torture, not the torturers themselves.

Some of the questions that the issue of torture raises:

  • What is the history of torture in the Western world?
  • What is torture's relationship to government and the law?
  • Who advocates for and against torture?
  • What are the stated and real purposes of torture? Does it ever work?
  • What are the arguments for and against it?
  • What is the psychology that leads people to practice torture?
  • What is the effect of torture on the institutions that practice it?

Obviously, this document can only begin to scratch the surface of these issues.


Torture has its origins in the ancient world, and was in common use in imperial Rome and before (but even there its limitations and hazards were known). Christian Europe initially banned torture as antithetical to Christ's teachings, then reintroduced it as Christian theology changed its focus from the life of Jesus to his death by judicial torture. Around the 12 century the Inquisition and European state courts revived torture as a tool to force confession and as a punishment.

Torture practices may also be found in the Bible, ie in 2 Samuel 12:31
And David gathered all the people together, and went to Rabbah, and fought against it, and took it...And he brought forth the people that were therein, and put them under saws, and under harrows of iron, and under axes of iron, and made them pass through the brick-kiln: and thus did he unto all the cities of the children of Ammon. So David and all the people returned unto Jerusalem.

And Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky remarked that:
Indeed, with the exception of the Black Death, torture is the oldest scourge on our planet (hence there are so many conventions against it). Every Russian czar after Peter the Great solemnly abolished torture upon being enthroned, and every time his successor had to abolish it all over again. These czars were hardly bleeding-heart liberals, but long experience in the use of these "interrogation" practices in Russia had taught them that once condoned, torture will destroy their security apparatus. They understood that torture is the professional disease of any investigative machinery.
Torture was used on and off during the rise of the modern period, gradually coming into disfavor in the modern state as a relic of monarchy. There's an interesting passage from William Blackstone, one of the most influential of English jurists:
The rack is an engine of the state, not of law.

-- William Blackstone, 1769
What Blackstone meant in the context of his times was that torture had no place in the system of common law that he was in the process ofcodifying, but was still available to the state (the monarch) as a tool for wielding power. This distinction remains with us today, as torture exists as a generally extra-legal practice of governments, wielded by the executive and military arms of government regardless of what the law says.

During the 18th and 19th century the state apparatus of torture was gradually replaced with a more rationalized system of criminology that included police, courts, and prisons. The rise of totalitarian states in the 20th century reversed this trend rather dramatically, as torture practices were employed by Nazi Germany and the USSR. These practices were also adopted by the opponents of these regimes, including the US (see below).

The era of colonialism allowed all sorts of practices that were unacceptable domestically to be employed on colonial subjects, who rarely had the legal or psychological status of full human beings. The United States ushered in the 20th century by deploying torture in its occupation of the Philippines, where it waged a savage war against indigenous political forces. ....Philippine water torture, 1901, practices that were later adopted by the Japanese and used on their POWs and occupied territories during WWII.

In the post-WW II era US, torture was driven underground as the revelations of Nazi and Japanese war crimes had soured peoples tastes for brutality. Eleanor Roosevelt led the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and the Geneva Conventions were also enacted and signed around this time. However, by the mid 1950s Cold War paranoia had reduced the US's commitment to internationalism and to human rights. It was around this time that the CIA was quietly researching psychological manipulation techniques that included torturous practices such as sensory deprivation. As in physics, Nazi torture psychologists were quietly imported and encouraged to continue their research, an effort known as Operation Paperclip. Nazi interrogation techniques including "drugs, electro-shock, hypnosis, and psycho-surgery" were reviewed and tested. The newly discovered LSD was tested as an interrogation technique. These projects eventually were combined under the name MK-Ultra, under Dr. Sidney Gottlieb. This effort continued for the next 20 years.

The next phase of CIA sponsored torture was the Phoenix program, which created a large network of interrogation centers in South Vietnam, which practiced assassination and brutal interrogation of suspected Viet Cong. The number of people tortured reached into the hundreds of thousands, according to Douglas Valentine [ref] -- providing an endless supply of subjects to experiment on. The Phoenix program was investigated by Congress in 1970 and found to have been in violation of the Geneva Conventions, and shut down. However, the techniques and ideology that underlied it lived on and were used in later government operations in South and Central America.

US military trainers at Guantanmo Bay were equipped with a training chart copied verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist interrogation techniques. This was the SERE Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) program, used by both the CIA nad the military.

The chart also listed other techniques used by the Chinese, including “Semi-Starvation, “Exploitation of Wounds,” and Filthy, Infested Surroundings, and with their effects: “Makes Victim Dependent on Interrogator, “Weakens Mental and Physical Ability to Resist, and “Reduces Prisoner to Animal Level’ Concerns.”

The only change made in the chart presented at Guantanamo was to drop its original title: Communist Coercive Methods for Eliciting Individual Compliance.


Although we tend to think of torture as a form of dehumanization, accounts of coercive interrogation often take on a shockingly intimate tone. Torturers understand all too well the workings of the mind of their victims, as they force them to act in a "perverse theater in which he is compelled to play the lead in a drama of his own humiliation" (QoT, p80).
Torture plumbs the recesses of human consciousness, unleashing an unfathomable capacity for cruelty as well as seductive illusions of omnipotence...Once torture begins, its perpetrators...are often swept away by dark reveries, by frenzies of potency, mastery, and control. Just as interrogators are often drawn in by an empowering sense of dominance, so their superiors, even at the highest level, can succumb to fantasies of torture as an all-powerful weapon.

-- Alfred McCoy, A Question of Torture p13
Outside of the torture chamber itself, political support for torture is generally an expression of the authoritarian mindset, which constructs an enemy that is alien, subhuman and yet posing an existential threat. As Bob Altemeyer described it in his book The Authoritarians:
Authoritarianism is something authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders cook up between themselves. It happens when the followers submit too much to the leaders, trust them too much, and give them too much leeway to do whatever they want--which often is something undemocratic, tyrannical and brutal. In my day, authoritarian fascist and authoritarian communist dictatorships posed the biggest threats to democracies, and eventually lost to them in wars both hot and cold. But authoritarianism itself has not disappeared, and I'm going to present the case in this book that the greatest threat to American democracy today arises from a militant authoritarianism that has become a cancer upon the nation.
One point to take away from Altemeyer is that authoritarians are largely driven by fear. They are by nature fearful, and project their fears and worries on external enemies, real and imagined. The fear justifies the dehumanization:
Chronically frightened authoritarian followers, looking for someone to attack because fighting is one of the things people do when they are afraid, are particularly likely to do so when they can find a moral justification for their hostility. Despite all the things in scriptures about loving others, forgiving others, leaving punishment to God, and so on, authoritarian followers feel empowered to isolate and segregate, to humiliate, to persecute, to beat, and to kill in the middle of the night, ...if you know how highly people scored on the Dangerous World scale, and if you know how self-righteous they are, you can explain rather well the homophobia of authoritarian followers, their heavy- handedness in sentencing criminals, their prejudices against racial and ethnic minorities, why they are so mean-spirited toward those who have erred and suffered, and their readiness to join posses to ride down Communists, radicals, or whomever.
When the authoritarian mindset is allowed to fester it can lead to genocide of alien groups (Jews, Bosnian Serbs, Tutsis). In the US in the present day, the rhetoric of right-wing hate radio approaches this level of exterminationism, and sets the tone in which torture practices can be justified.

The justification of torture

We can't just close our eyes and pretend we live in a pure world.

-- Alan Dershowitz
It is extremely common to hear utilitarian or cost-benefit justifications for torture -- surely it's worth doing something horrible to a probably guilty person if by doing so it would save the lives of hundreds of innocent citizens. The reductio of this is the ticking-bomb scenario, in which a suspected terrorist is captured at the exact right time in which a bomb has been plnted but before it goes off, and only by torturing the terrorist can the explosion and loss of life be stopped. The extreme unliklihood of this scenario has not stopped it from becoming the basis of both popular entertainment and proposed law.
The Geneva Conventions are so outdated and are written so broadly that they have become a sword used by terrorists to kill civilians, rather than a shield to protect civilians from terrorists. These international laws have become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

-- Alan Dershowitz
More fundamentally, the infliction of violence is at the heart of what the state is. The perverse drama of torture is enacting the fundamental role of the state vs the individual. This bleak view was articulated by the ultraconservative poltical theorist Joseph de Maistre in his defense of the Spanish Inquisition, citing: of the most incontestable of political axioms," i.e., "Never could great political evils, never especially could violent attacks against the body of the state, be prevented or repelled, except by means equally violent.

This is the exact argument used by conservatives today to justify torture by authoritarian regimes:
Both did tolerate limited apposition, including opposition newspapers and political parties, but both were also confronted by radical, violent opponents bent on social and political revolution. Both rulers, therefore, sometimes invoked martial law to arrest, imprison, exile, and occasionally, it was alleged, torture their opponents.

-- Jeanne Kirkpatrick, defending the Shah of Iran and Somoza:
Some critics of torture emphasize the point that the information and confessions it produces is extremely unreliable. People in unbearable pain will say anything to make it stop; their false confessions become part of the police information store and thus lead to further false arrests and confessions. But it's likely that this is no barrier to the use of torture; the point of torture and the security structure around it is often not to obtain true information and disrupt terrorists, but to enhance the power of the security appartus.

Why would the government want to do this, consciously or unconsciously? War is the health of the state and the war on terror is the health, such as it is, of the Bush/Cheney administration. Wars and states want to perpetuate themselves; inflating the strength of your enemies is an important technique for accomplishing this.

And for the cogs, big or little, who are the participants in a government torture machine, surely you must feel a need to excuse your appalling acts. Every confession elicited by torture lets you pretend that the torture was justified all along, and on into the future. And once this dynamic is in motion, the truth or falsity of confessions hardly matters at all.

Does torture work?

Does torture work? That is, does it accomplish its stated goals of protecting society against national security threats? A great many people from the military and intelligence communities say no:

The use of force, mental torture, threats, insults, or exposure to unpleasant and inhumane treatment of any kind is prohibited by law and is neither authorized nor condoned by the US Government. Experience indicates that the use of force is not necessary to gain the cooperation of sources for interrogation. Therefore, the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.

-- Army Field Manual


No democracy, other than Israel, has ever employed torture within the law.

-- Alan Dershowitz
Torture is clearly illegal under the US Constitution and international law, but that has not interfered with its practice on massive scale by the US government since at least the Philippine colonization. However, it has never before been attempted to be legitimized until the Bush administration. In our urge to excoriate them, let's stop and give thanks to them for stripping away the rhetoric of human rights talk and exposing practices that have been ongoing for more than a century. What has gone on in the shadows now goes on under color of law and with the blessings of the people's representatives. We are now officially a torture state.

Is torture legitimized and practiced openly worse than torture practiced in a strictly underground, black-ops fashion, or better? I think I tend to prefer the earlier hypocrisy -- a sense of guilt is better than outright, flagrant immorality. Torture as a dirty secret is one thing, torture as something openly practiced and defended at the highest levels of government is something else. It moves the Overton window by making the unthinkable thinkable -- if torture is a recognized and acknowledged instrument of government, what even worse things will sprout up in the shadows?

Alan Dershowitz has proposed the idea of practicing torture under the color of law by means of torture warrants, while at the same time acknowledging that torture has been practiced extra-judicially.
Under my proposal, no torture would be permitted without a "torture warrant" being issued by a judge. An application for a torture warrant would have to be based on the absolute need to obtain immediate information in order to save lives coupled with probable cause that the suspect had such information and is unwilling to reveal it. The suspect would be given immunity from prosecution based on information elicited by the torture. The warrant would limit the torture to nonlethal means, such as sterile needles, being inserted beneath the nails to cause excruciating pain without endangering life.
Torture warrants purport to make torture a tightly controlled activity under the authority of law, but past historical experience (ie, see the Bukovsky quote above) indicates that this is an illusory goal. Torture is a fatal temptation, promising security while in fact serving to undermine the discipline, authority, and legitimacy of the police and military organizations that practice it, and eventually, the entire structure of government.

Corruption of institution

McCoy describes how the torture program in the Phillipines undermined military discipline and laid the foundations for a miltiary revolt;
Through their years of torturing priests and senior officers for Marcos, the officers slowly gained the daring to arttack marcos himself...In retrospect, psychological torture played a catlyting role in the rupture of military socialization, investing the RAM leaders with a self-image as protean cresator/destroyers.

--QoT p 
A similar process happend in France after its massive program of torture in Algeria. Military officials disappointedwith the restraints put on them by the French government attempted a military overthrow of the Algerian and French governments in 1961.

What to do?

It's a hard truth to face, but there is a substantial proportion of the electorate that is pro-torture, pro-war, pro-dehumanization. These people make up the base of the authoritarian right. The battle is over the people in the middle, the vague and formless undecideds, who need to be informed of torture practices and convinced that they are both morally wrong and ineffective. At present, up to 2/3 of the electorate say that torture is justified.

Aside from the obvious strategies of pressuring officals to conform to the established rules of law, it is possible to make a number of cases against torture to convince people who are not instinctively opposed to torture:
  • The utilitarian arguments that torture actually damages national security; and that information obtained by torture is unreliable.
  • The libertarian argument that governments are not to be trusted with such powers.
  • The moral argument that torture violates human dignity.
Given that this is a largely Christian nation, the most effective strategy might be to lend our strength to ecumenical progressive efforts such as the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.
The Christian in me knows this is wrong, but the corrections officer in me can't help but love to make a grown man piss himself.

-- Cpl. Charles Graner (guard at Abu Ghraib, convicted of abuse)
As liberal, middle-class or above Jews in America we are generally very far removed from the apparatus of state security. The situation in Israel is obviously different, and there Jews have proved themselves as capable of becoming torturers as anyone else. The Israeli security apparatus has had a practice of routine, legal, institutionalized torture, but has gradually changed its methods:

This is the destiny of democracy, as not all means are acceptable to it, and not all practices employed by its enemies are open before it. Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand.

-- Aaron Barak, Israeli Supreme Court President, in a unanimous 1999 decision banning abuse of Palestinian prisoners

If Israel, under much more serious threats of terrorism than the US, can reform its practices, than so can the US.


Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A whiff of fascism

I hesitate to toss around the f-word, but the rhetoric of this passage from Victor Davis Hanson is striking (h/t LGM). He's talking about Sarah Palin of course:
If she can beat off the frothing Newsweek/MSNBC/New York Times inbred rabid wolves, and do it with the grace she has shown so far, she will fill a deep yearning among Americans for someone like her... who reminds us with pride that a muscular world of action, not community organizing, creates the bounty that others use and take for granted but so often sneer at the methods of its acquisition.
The "inbred rabid wolves" is nice, but "vermin" would have been more traditional. "Muscular" seals the deal. Anyone who can't hear where this sort of talk is pointing isn't paying attention. And then there was George Bush last night comparing "the far left" (ie, people who criticize John McCain) with the Viet Cong. And just now Rudy Giulani dropped "cosmpolitan" as a slur on Obama, shortly followed by "flashy". Nice signalling going on there. I'm in the midst of reading Yury Slezine's The Jewish Century and it is probably coloring my perspective, but this election seems unusually striking in how much it is highlighting the cultural differences between the party of urban cosmopolitans and the ersatz blood-and-soilers. The candidates are not especially radical, but somehow they exemplify the images of their respective parties, and the polarization of values they represent, than any past election I can remember.

Monday, September 01, 2008

The party of fecundity

I've been browsing Sarah Palin stories all weekend, not sure why -- some political soap operas just grab my attention for reasons that are not always clear to me. Moldbug has put up a special post analyzing the class issues in play. As usual, his approach is incredibly reductive, but he's probably onto somsthing nevertheless. Palin seems like an incredibly weak play from the Democratic (aka "Eloi/Brahmin") perspective. But the right is crowing about how wonderful she is, how she's going to show all those tofu-eating elitists what real Americans are like, etc. Who is right?

The real red/blue split in this country is not betweeen economic classes so much as it is between urban and rural values ("rural" is a misnomer, since the locus for these values has long ceased being actual farm country and is more like exurban sprawl). The former are cosmoplitian, multicultural, worldly, intellectual, and transnational. The latter are traditionalist, nationalistic, religious, and jingoistic. They are based on entirely different value systems, and even though the platforms of the two parties are not all that different, when compared to the range of possible political opinion, their emotional and values appeals seem to be poles apart and getting more polarized over time.

From this standpoint, Palin is an inspired choice. She is lively, and adds a spark of vitality to the McCain image which otherwise seems to have one foot in a rest home if not the grave. She makes rural values seem dynamic and attractive, rather than old and fusty. Her inexperience and fecklessness is no handicap to getting Republicans elected, as demonstrated by the last two cycles. Weird stuff about Palin has been breaking all weekend, culminating with the recent revelation that her 17-year old daughter is pregnant and unmarried. But I don't think that's going to hurt her, nor are the fact that she herself has a young child. Contrast it with the carefully controlled reproduction of the Clintons, or Obamas. These rugged Alaskans rut and reproduce in the all natural way. If a Down's baby or teenage mother is the result, well, la-di-da, that's part of the circle of life.

So all these baby eruptions are going to help her image and appeal, I predict. It's going to interfere with Obama's somewhat ethereal charisma by presenting a much more primal variety. Obama was poised to be a unifier, and might have pulled it off, but this brilliant play has boxed him into his native urban elitist demographic. His appeal ultimately is to the head, Palin's is rooted somewhere south of that, in the lower chakras.

This feeds into another idea which I don't have time to treat, which is that the religion of the Christian right is not particularly Christian from my perspective. The Jewish and universalist aspects of Christianity (which are the only ones that resonate with me) have been largely discarded, and replaced with a variety of authoritarian, militaristic paganism. Blue Christians seem to have largely disappeared from the political scene. The "pro-life" movement has little basis in historical Christianity but makes a lot of sense as part of a nationalistic fertility rite.

[Update: ah, here we go.][and here][Oh, yuck, Steve Sailer is on to the same idea. I feel dirty.][I wish I had come up with this post title.]

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Mismanagement and grief (unhappy anniversary)

This blog got its start three years ago, mostly in reaction to the Katrina diaster. Looks like history is quite predictably repeating itself. Oh well, good luck to the people in affected areas, you will need it. At least you know what to expect from your government.

As I remarked on another blog:
Nothing like a few floating corpses to spice up convention coverage. Of course, if Americans didn’t have the attention span of meth-addicted chickens, we’d remember them from three years ago.

And as Auden remarked on September 1, 1939:
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed them all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

A blogoversary is an excuse to go back and read the archives and look for common themes and try to figure out just what the hell this blog is about and whether it is worth pursuing:

  • atheism, naturalism, philosophy in general

  • politics

  • economics, libertarianism

  • doom, boom, futurism

  • social networks, netarchy, solidarity, coordination, collective action

  • media, the web, googlectualism, infoglut, attention management

  • technology, coding, hacks, standards, knowledge representation

  • right-wing loons

I'm sure these all have something to do with one another, other than occupying space in my disorderly brain.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Power has made reality its bitch

This is one of the better openings to a speech I've come across:

Words in a Time of War

Taking the Measure of the First Rhetoric-Major President
By Mark Danner

[Note: This commencement address was given to graduates of the Department of Rhetoric at Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley, on May 10, 2007]

When my assistant greeted me, a number of weeks ago, with the news that I had been invited to deliver the commencement address to the Department of Rhetoric, I thought it was a bad joke. There is a sense, I'm afraid, that being invited to deliver The Speech to students of Rhetoric is akin to being asked out for a romantic evening by a porn star: Whatever prospect you might have of pleasure is inevitably dampened by performance anxiety -- the suspicion that your efforts, however enthusiastic, will inevitably be judged according to stern professional standards. A daunting prospect.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ubiquitious PubMed

Ubiquity is a way-cool Firefox plugin that enables all sorts of client-side mashups, and is easily extendable.

Here's my 10-minute effort to add PubMed search. When I have more time I'll try to add a preview.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Priest Off!

Since I am apparently obsessed with bashing the Catholic Church, I can't resist posting this very funny video:

From Crackle: Priest Off!

h/t to Evolving Thoughts, where I am having yet another unsatisfactory argument, this time taking a relatively pro-religion position. Scienceblogs seems quite dominated by simpleminded atheism, even among philosophers who ought to be capable of a little more nuance.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Word pair of the day

irenology (peace studies)
in contrast to:
polemology (conflict studies)

(thanks to Wikipedia).

Peace studies looks pretty fuzzy-minded at first glance, but on the other hand, these guys seem to come out of that area and are the only writings I've found that are close to my own view:

As conflict escalates, new, more militant leadership often develops. Leaders who fear that they will be replaced by challengers will not want to be seen as weak or submissive. As a result, they will often refuse to admit that any past actions were mistaken and are likely to grow in militancy and become more "hardline."[51] Furthermore, conflicts that already involve contentious activity are likely to fall into the hands of militants who have strong negative attitudes and tend to use extreme tactics.[52] In many instances, these leaders seek to ritualize the conflict and exhibit a complete lack of interest in resolution.[53] All of this contributes to conflict escalation.

Oh well, I knew this couldn't be a completely original idea...that's the problem with Google, it's always too easy to find prior art.

World War III 2.0

Ooh, goody, sabre-rattling with Russia! Grand alliances, evil empires forward siting of nuclear missles! If the 80s are coming back, maybe the Talking Heads will get back together. Actually the current situation seems to blend elements of WWs III and I, as we'll see.

I find it somewhat disturbing when I read a Pat Buchanan piece (esp. when it's at Lew Rockwell's site) and find myself nodding at his sagacity. But even better on the war in Georgia is Billmon, who has quietly returned to blogging after a long hiatus. Both writers point out how the US had a hand in stirring up this shit. Among the many nuggets in Billmon's piece is the revelation that Congress had passed something called the "NATO Freedom Consolidation Act", which enables the US to treat Ukraine and Georgia as full-fledged NATO allies in all but name. Might this make the Russians a little antsy? Apparently so. Who could have known?

Hardnosed realists at Stratfor point out that this minor war simply serves as a signal of a shift in the balance of power that has already occured.

And of course Jim Kunstler jumps in with a word about how its going to bring our financial system crashing down. If he keeps on saying that eventually he'll be right.

Chris Floyd muses that the US deliberately encouraged Georgia to attack, essentially hoping for a Russian reaction that would enable more sabre-rattling at home, giving a boost to warriors in US politics, notably John McCain:

However, at this point, it is still unlikely that Butt-Thumper and the gang will actually take a pop at the Russians. But they don't have to, not right now. The racheting up of tensions, the resurrection of the mega-profitable Cold War tropes, and the convenient burial of the huge, fetid mountain of Bush Regime crime -- torture, aggression, corruption, tyranny -- by a juiced-up media with a new conflict to play with: all of these will serve the militarists very nicely, thank you.

I have no problems at all believing that the motivation and will to do something like this exists; but I have some doubts about whether the current administration is capable of being that strategically devious.

What's the other side saying? Here's Michael Gerson, a reliable gauge of offical neocon opinion (h/t IOZ):

The worst option would be to excuse Russia by blaming ourselves. NATO expansion did not cause Russian belligerence. The desire to be part of NATO in liberated Europe was fueled, in part, by a justified fear of Russian belligerence. ....
Georgia has been foolish. But Russia's crude overreach has had one good effect -- revealing the courage of others. Poland has quickly upgraded its relations with America, even under nuclear threat from Russia. Ukraine has been defiant, even though Russia still makes claims on Crimea. These nations have recent memories of Russian national "pride." And their courage should provoke our own.

Oh yeah. There's battle lines being drawn / And no one's right, if everybody's wrong.

More Gerson:

Again and again in European history, there has been a temptation to sacrifice the freedom of small countries to the interests of great powers. And it generally hasn't worked out very well, for them or for us.

Oh yes, and pulling small countries under the blanket of great power alliances in an atmosphere of saber-rattling has worked out so wonderfully in the past.

Well, this at least returns this post to one of the consistent themes of this blog, which is the dynamics of militarization and polarization. Militarists everywhere create the justifications for militarism everywhere else. We can see it happening here. McCain the militarist ought to be sending Saakashvili and Putin muffin baskets, at the very least.

The reality of this dynamic is perfectly obvious to me at this point, maybe because I've been obsessing about this idea for years. What's less obvious is how much the players in these games are aware of the dynamics versus how much they are simply being pushed around by them. Do militarists genuinely want war? I suppose they do. If it's what you are good at, it's what you want. Firemen would be bored and depressed without fires, and so they occasionally go and create some. Similarly warfighters must needs be warmakers, shit-stirrers, conflict-amplifiers. Like the fireman-arsonists, they probably don't mean for things to get out of hand, but they always do.

[[update: Jim Henley caught a Wall Street Journal article that highlights the financial aspect, which is of course a hugely important driver of all this:

Russia's attack on Georgia has become an unexpected source of support for big U.S. weapons programs, including flashy fighter jets and high-tech destroyers, that have had to battle for funding this year because they appear obsolete for today's conflicts with insurgent opponents...

Some Wall Street stock analysts early on saw the invasion as reason to make bullish calls on the defense sector. A report from JSA Research in Newport, R.I., earlier in the week called the invasion "a bell-ringer for defense stocks."...

Now, the Russian situation makes the debate over the equipping of the U.S. military a front-burner issue. "The threat always drives procurement," said a defense-industry official. "It doesn't matter what party is in office."

Ah, well. All my nattering about dynamics and I'm ignoring the most important driver of all, namely money.]]