Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Self-Aware Meta Post

Yeah, I totally squandered inauguration day posting opportunity on something rather light and filler-y. But hey, today was awesome, and I don't have much to add to the moment. But, if you want to read something smart and meaningful without ever dropping the ball, I recommend this post. It isn't a long read, and it says vital things. If you can take a break from frolicking, it is well worth your time.

Oh, and, umm, I'm not the kind of person who cries with joy, but I read his speech (I only saw 6 minutes of the actual inauguration), and I think the emotional impact it had on me was similar. Rhetoric has its limits, but wow. I've always been proud to be American, but it is so nice to have the sentiments behind that echoed, and for my understanding of what being American means to count. There is so much good left to be done, and it is so nice to have a president who asks us to do it.

On Morality

(Editors Note: I am in the process of writing a trial sermon on anti-racism, for no purpose other than some disappointment over the anti-racism sermon at FUUNO last Sunday. In the meantime, I have this piece, which was a response to a friend asking on Facebook how one would define morality. He asked us to define it in the context of a lecture, but one that did not exceed 500 words. I did this, and realized that Facebook is not the appropriate place for such at-length musings, but my blog is. So, here you go. 500 words on morality.)

Morality is one of those wonderfully vague concepts, nestled somewhere between honor and ethics, under the category of justice and in the general area of human interactions. I'm tempted to quote Confucius, about how everything flows from everything being in proper order and circumstance, but morality isn't a fixed set or rigid code to be applied in all situations. It isn't really rigid in execution - this is not channeling Machiavelli so much as it is acknowledging that, in the whole of human experience, internal principles matter only so long as they can be consistently applied to varying circumstances. Coming from a religious tradition where reason predominates, dogma is shunned, and the genuinely unanswerable is acknowledged as such, morality seems to me to be the exact point at which justice, personal philosophy, and social norms collide. Morality varies from person to person, moreso from culture to culture, and yet it circles around a platonic absolute.

What is that absolute? Far as I can tell, it is the way to interact with an other, and with any other, and with every other, that is not just straightforward but honors notions of inherent dignity and respect. Of course, we have as always the bugbears of outliers to confound everything - how does on respect the inherent dignity of, say, a child molester? The reply that seems most appropriate, that is the easiest best fit, is that one acts with ones inherent dignity, using the capacity as not-a-child-molester to figure out justice for that individual who has broken rules of both society and morality. And yet, that perspective, acting civilized in the face of acts deemed barbaric, is not enough - too much of that is defaulting to an ingroup/outgroup, and us/them, an acceptable/other perspective. That ignores the relational aspects of this - it is Balder being the god of justice, but largely ignored because he has only kindness and no judgment. And this cannot be the reaction of a vigilante - Rorschach, for all his power as a punisher of wrongdoing, has no capacity to act as a righter of wrongs. In this situation, as in every situation, to act with morality is to acknowledge the harm done, and to work towards a future where such harm is not done again. To not just rehabilitate the individual, but to better engineer the structure of the individuals environment, of the environment of all individuals, so that one can move as quickly as humanly possible to rectify a situation while still respecting the rights of all innocents.

I've been talking a lot about justice. It is what I deem the most important constituent part of morality, but it is far from alone. Justice in isolation is how a society regulates it's internal functioning - morality is how individuals within society function together in a manner that respects justice. More importantly, it is the way that individuals interact with one another without the need for society to do any more than be composed of individuals.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gaza Redux

(Thanks to Christine at iMinister for the link recommendation)

Last week, I wrote a post on Gaza. In my post, I attempted to do two things - paint the Gazans as innocents, and point to the breakup of negotiation as the key failing, not the Israeli invasion or the firing of rockets. I succeeded in part, but by defending the Gazans so vehemently, I ended up demonizing the Israelis. Part of this is fatigue from a long discussion with an ardent supporter of Israel - heated discussion polarizes, and I as I was unclear of my orignal stance, I ended up playing the opposition to his point. Another part of this is my natural sympathies towards the historic underdog, engendered in part by my identification with the left and in part by my identification with browncoats (no joke). But arguing on behalf of one side is folly - innocent Israelis suffer too, and playing an umbers game doesn't work here. My post fell short of its aspirations.

Fortunately, the infinite typewriters of the blogosphere have come up with a far, far better post and position to take. This position was hinted at by the above-mentioned Christine's post on the inhumanity of it all, but it's true genesis is found elsewhere. That elsewhere happens to be Doug Muders' Weekly Sift blog post. What I like about Doug's post is that he firstly hits upon my main point - if Israel wanted to solve with entirely with violence, they'd act differently and be committing genocide. But he expands from that to the greater political reason behind all of this:
Many of the things done by terrorists (and corresponding anti-terrorist extremists) may look crazy, but they are actually part of a coherent strategy. To understand that strategy you need to grasp one key idea: If you're an extremist, your first enemy isn't the extremist of the opposite side, it's the moderate of your own side. Opposing extremists are actually allies in a battle against the center.

Let me repeat that, because it takes a while to sink in: Opposing extremists are actually allies in a battle against the center. They'll fight each other in the second round, after the center is eliminated.

Now, I'm not saying that opposing extremists actually conspire. They don't need to. But those cycles of attack-and-reprisal that look insane and counterproductive are in fact very productive, if the purpose is to derail any possible compromise and make the center untenable.
(bold italics his; bold on its own emphasis mine).

That, right there, is the heart of the matter. Doug makes the point I couldn't, and does it concisely. I couldn't be happier.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Jim Scarantino/Post-Partisanship

For those outside of Albuquerque, you have almost certainly not heard of Jim Scarantino. He
presents himself as a brainy and moderate -- if somewhat pompous -- independent "libertarian."
according to Democracy for New Mexico. They have a fantastic piece up as a takedown of Scarantino's latest column about pending Domestic Partnership legislation. My favorite part of the piece, besides the fact-checking (which is always awesome in the blogosphere) is that they don't attack Scarantino so much for his stated partisan allegiance, but that they expose him for misrepresenting a bill in a wretchedly partisan way. It's a 'gotcha', but it's a really good gotcha, and it is exactly what the blogosphere can do best.

Scarantino, presenting himself as rational if disagreeable, attempts to make a broad appeal to the evangelical base of conservative movements, directly borrowing a line touted in defense of Proposition 8. He does this despite claiming that he's "on record supporting this concept", and he then goes on to say that "Every major religion continues to reject homosexual unions." I can't imagine any clear objective in his mind - do religions that support homosexual unions count as minor? Does he, the free and rational thinker he claims to be, think that the silent majority is justified in their fears, especially given that those fears have no real basis in the law? And, most importantly of all, is Jim's column anything more than masturbatory leftist-blaming?

What's a leftist, a moderate, or a genuine libertarian to do in the face of this? Tom Tomorrow of "This Modern World" suggests that we are now in an era of turning a blind eye to such deeds, in the spirit of post-partisanship. It's implied that because the left has been proven right on behalf of our electoral success that we forgive and forget the grievances placed upon us in the past. But post-partisanship isn't about forgetting - the left won with popular support, so it's not like we're forgetting the things we got right. And just because Obama has made a call for national unity and moving beyond party divisions (that'd be the forgiving) doesn't mean that we can't call someone out on blatant, civil-discourse-destroying partisan mud-slinging. Jim Scarantino here has nothing constructive to bring to the table - by advocating an opinion he disagrees with, whose basis in the law is non-existent, he has more or less decided that rather than engaging in a discussion about the boundary between church and state, he will instead claim rightness and hurl vitriol at those he disagrees with. (Really, Jim, fascist as a meaningful insult? This isn't 7th grade, and you are this close to breaking Godwin's Law).

Being post-partisan doesn't mean letting him say whatever he wants in the spirit of discourse (freedom of speech covers that). Being post-partisan means that when someone shows up to the discourse with a pile of unsubstantiated lies and the Cliff's Notes to 1984, we are allowed to ignore them and talk to the actual libertarians in the room. Because at least they are taking the discussion seriously. Because their intent is finding that line between church and state, instead of asserting their line is absolutely and infallibly correct. Because governments and political parties don't deal in infallibility, Jim - that's the realm of the Church.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Christine at iMinister has a much more thoughtful piece up about being a bystander to a conflict that goes against ones values. It's much more diplomatic than my post, and it avoids the word "annihilationist", so please read her post if you think that this one will be unsavory.

My thoughts on Gaza have been scattered in many places across the Internet this week. In an exercise of demonstrating exactly what twitter isn't for, a friend and I have had banter going back and forth all week in 140 character increments. Snappy, but not the space for thoughts to become thoughtful. It was an especially weird conversation because my friend was advocating on behalf of Israel, and I was advocating on behalf of Gazans. My role in that conversation was to distinguish the terrorists from the innocents, and his role was to find the innocents complicit. In the abstract, it was a fascinating thought experiment. In reality, it was among the most unpleasant experiences of political discourse I have engaged in. The stakes in conversation about this are high, and the ability of one to convince another of the rightness of their opinion is very low. Following my advice, I wouldn't have this conversation.

The problem with a conversation treated as a war is that it lingers. It's not a pleasant place to dwell, but like all optimistic Generals, it's easy to look at a fixed row of trenches, aim for a weak spot, and make a push to remove the stalemate. It doesn't work for two reasons. One: while it is incredibly hard for one side to 'win' a conversation like this, it is really easy for someone acting in opposition to restore it to stalemate status. Two: conversations aren't battles, discussion topics aren't wars, and while the metaphors are at times handy, treating this as a tooth-and-nail battle to fight isn't helping.

My discussion on twitter swung in interesting directions in the attempt to break through. My central conceit, which made discussion possible, was that while Israel was justified in the right of response. their response was both unjust and disproportionate. Disproportionate is an interesting word here. In a letter to the editor in Albuquerque's Weekly Alibi, political scientist Brandon Curtis argues that the term itself is meaningless and a cheap shot from people who don't understand the issue. I respectfully disagree, but I think it's easy to understand why the word seems inappropriate.

In October 2001, NATO went to war in Afghanistan in response to a terrorist attack by a group that country hosted. In 2003, the American public (and, more importantly, it's elected officials) felt it was appropriate to overthrow and destroy the government of Iraq based on the possibility that it might be fostering future terrorists, or giving them weapons, or was itself a terrorististic state. Recent memory serves that no degree of force is too little to adequately protect a nation from terrorism. We forget, then, other responses. In October 2000, in response to the bombing of the USS Cole by terrorists, Clinton sent out legal experts to track down and arrest the specific culprits. In October* 1983, the US marine barracks (which also housed French troops) was bombed in Beirut. The response was a small punitive bombing of alleged terrorists by France, followed by a quiet retreat of US forces in February. And, as popularized in the film Munich, it is assumed that Israel responded to the kidnapping and murder of it's Olympic Athletes by hunting down people assumed to be connected.

All these responses, at the time, have been justified as proportionate. Since that list includes everything from abandonment to assassination, and from legal action to pre-emptive war, the field of declaring proportionality is wide open. So, while I think that Israel has a right to respond to attacks against its citizens, I don't think that the method of response (bombing, followed by a ground invasion) is proportionate. Israel is responding to terrorism by treating it as a war, and that greatly complicates the issue.

If this is a war, one has to assume that Hamas itself, as the government of Gaza, is marshaling the terrorists as a formal army. While I'm more toward ambivalent about Hamas belligerance in this conflict, I am inclined to suspect that they have little choice besides acting in control or being seen as even more powerless than they are. In conversation with my friend, I argued disproportionality because, while the terrorists targeted civilians, the correct response of a government is to target terrorists. Yes, this is holding Israel to a higher standard. They are a western democracy, and that means we are allowed to expect better of them. But suppose that Hamas itself is directing the attacks, is responsible for them, feels no qualms over the death of it's own citizens, and that they are fighting this war in the same way that European nations fought WWI. In that case, it makes more sense that Israel is responding with a war of annihilation - it's unjust as all hell, but at the very least it makes sense.

Because if Israel isn't fighting a war of annihilation against another nation that would do the same, they are certainly acting like it. In my conversation over twitter, I argued with the friend that the majority of Gazans are in fact innocents, and not complicit in the attacks. He responded by claiming that if they were not in complicit in the attacks, why weren't they doing anything to stop them. I think they don't have the resources necessary to stop the attacks, and I'm inclined to think that all the former Gazans with resources have left. People with means tend not to remain in ghettoized nations. Hamas, whether or not it actively encouraged the terrorists who started this conflict, has very little choice but to support them now. They are, after all, the ones with the weapons, and despite the relatively calm two-year ceasefire, Hamas is well aware that no Israeli operation in the area would be complete without an attempt to remove Hamas from power. Hamas has had to very quickly move itself into the role of fighting against Israel, because the only thing worse than a government that fails to prevent war is a government that fails to effectively fight it.

And this, here, is the tragedy. Before the conflict broke out, Hamas wanted a new ceasefire. Hamas is an organization whose main appeal is their unequivocal call for the eradication of Israel, and yet by advocating for a new ceasefire they had shown that they were willing to accept the two state solution, at least temporarily. Skeptics can throw this off as an attempt to keep things calm before the war itself broke out, but they are missing the potential inherent in that ceasefire. Hamas wanted, at least temporarily, a ceasefire. This is a militant party that came to power democratically, and whose future as a party of rule depends upon public opinion. Most war-mongering parties in history go to war as soon as they are elected, else the public change its mind and elect others. Hamas didn't want this, and I cannot fathom why the opportunity to forge a slightly less imperfect peace was not seized upon, especially if it is Israel's goal to prevent Palestinian terrorism, rather than to wipe Gaza out.

There are two broad categories of eliminating terrorism, and they are the same broad categories categories people use to deal with crime. One: kill/capture/disable all those who would commit terrorism. Two: make sure other options exist for people who would otherwise turn to terrorism. The first response is the one that militaries can do, to some extent. It was fortunate for the US in the early stages of its operations in Afghanistan that many al Qaeda fighters were willing to straightforwardly fight against the US - that makes the work much, much easier. In Iraq, of course, the terrorists didn't emerge until after the war, and being terrorists, they weren't interested in fighting set-piece battles. Instead, they formed militias (for defensive purposes) and acted anonymously amidst the population when attacking US troops. Iraq is large - with ~ 170,000 square miles and a population of 29 million, it is easy for people to hide and it is hard to kill them all. Gaza, on the other hand, is tiny - 139 square miles, and 1.5 million people in that little area. For a more relevant size comparison, the city of Albuquerque is 181 square miles, and about a third the population of Gaza. Gaza is a place where approach one, kill everyone who might be terrorists, could work.

To even have that on the table is ridiculous. And yet, Israel seeks punitive attacks with overwhelming force against terrorists operating within the area. Not that some attacks wouldn't work, and not that some retaliation doesn't make sense, but the scale and the manner of the tactics, if they aren't annihilationist, are beyond excessive, and if they are annihilationist, then they are patently immoral.

Option two for fighting terrorism is the one that I think has the most promise for Gaza, and had it been adopted as part of a renewed ceasefire, I think it would have eventually had the effect that Israel's attack aims to achieve. When Gazans (and Palestinians more generally) know that they are safe in Palestine, that their rights are respected, and that Israeli invasion is a distant (if not non-existent) possibility, they will be able to concentrate on issues other than injustices visited upon them by Israel.

But I don't think that's what the response to this attack will be, and the time for wishful thinking about ceasefires has passed and is not yet at hand again. Instead, I predict that the same will always happen in Gaza as has tended to happen - punitive strikes by Israel, followed by calm, followed by stagnation and oppression in Gaza, followed by terrorist attacks originating in Gaza, followed by punitive attacks on behalf of Israel, rinse, repeat.

There are two ways out of this mess, out of this most vicious and petty of cycles. The first, the annihilationist war, is patently immoral, and I don't imagine that Israel will actually do it. The second, the long slow development of Gaza into a safe and stable place, with terms negotiated over years that slowly grant better and better conditions for Palestine, is the option I'm holding out for. It's also an option that will take a willingness on behalf of Israel to keep working, even in the face of terrorist attacks. And it will take an effort reciprocated by Gazans, to go from an attitude that, though not complicit, is indifferent to terrorism, towards an attitude that condemns terrorism as much as it condemns injustice visited upon Palestinians. When the people have other options, they will use them. Bombing people into non-existence doesn't do that, and in fact is a very active way of removing options from people.

Our 43rd president intended to make his legacy one of fighting terrorism and of nation building. That's an entirely compatible goal set, but it's impossible to do in a flashy way - people remember wars. People don't remember long, gradual movements towards peace and stability. They just wake up one day and realize how happy they are that they haven't experienced a war in decades. That's the goal, and that's the possibility that existed in Hamas offer of extending the ceasefire. It's a possibility that remains, and its one well worth keeping in mind for the next time.

*Seriously, what is with October showing up so much. Did al qaeda watch Red October, and misinterpret that Americans were scared of October when they were really scared of Reds?

Editor's Note:
The easy way to avoid this conversation is to say something like "these issues go back to biblical times, why discuss them?". My other big Internet conversation about this before my post was on facebook, and after someone replied with the 'biblical times' comment, I responded with this:
I think we're terribly mistaken to pass this off as going back to biblical times - the modern conflict isn't Jews versus Palestinians, it started Israelis versus Arabs; the Arabs in question have, post 1968, become Palestinian by virtue of abandonment of by the rest of the Arab world. Israel still sees Palestinian action as an attempt by Arab states to remove Israel from existence, while Palestine is largely on it's own, despite moves by Iran-affiliated Hezbollah in Lebanon and posturing on behalf of other Arab leaders. And now we're even past issues of Israel's right to exist - Hamas at least temporarily accepts a two-state solution. The trick is figuring out modern terms, and how Palestine will negotiate itself into a position less asymmetrical than the one it currently enjoys. The conflict has involved into a very modern form, and while historical legacy plays a role, it's much more recent history than millennial or even centuries old.
So, yeah, no this isn't an old issue. A much better way to avoid the conversation would be to say "lets ride bikes".

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Drugs/Drug Culture

In my head, I've been writing this post since at least May 2007. In that month, I wrote a post about "The Social Norms of Intellectual Dissidents". It's one of my favorite posts, but I spent the whole of it tip-toeing around the main issue in my mind. Since it's relevant here, I'll go ahead and quote the relevant parts in full:
I support decriminalization of marijuana, but I don't and cannot allow myself to smoke it (at all, ever) as while the law is unjust, the illegality of the act is something I feel should be officially overturned, rather than quietly disregarded.
It is here that I have my biggest break with drug culture in its aspirations, and I'm well aware that I may be creating an artificial distinction. My stance and my point seem far more valid in the 1960s US than they do in the present one, and perhaps that's because of the point I made later in that post:

This is the stand of the moderate intelligentsia, and it's saving grace is that their ideas are easier to legitimize than what happens at the fringe. It helps to defy stereotypes and bring people around, and it slowly changes attitudes, usually only slightly (at most a generation or two) ahead of the common perception.
My thinking in that post was that drug culture, from hippies to hipsters to the drug culture of punk rock and now to such phenomena as "urban" crack and rural meth use, was forcibly distinct from mainstream society. Rather than making drug use more common and everyday, drug culture instead served to alienate most people and made demonization of drug users easy. A "War on Drugs" in this country was possible and supported in a way that a "War on Booze" seems impossible today. Of course, this nation once had prohibition of alcohol, but that was overturned in a depression (haha) and after a decade of realizing that people would still consume alcohol legal or illegal. It was also ended under the realization that the social cost of outlawing alcohol, especially the rise of powerful gangs and criminal empires, outweighed the social goods of banning it.

There are many today who call for an end to prohibition on similar accounts - after all, isn't it the common knowledge of the collective American psyche that marijuana is really not a harmful thing at all? (Editor's note - that previous sentence is hyperbole and quite possibly untrue) But there are very interesting distinctions made here - I will advocate completely for the decriminilization, and maybe even for the outright legalization, or marijuana, but I will go to great lengths to say that I don't want this for myself, that I don't ever intend to partake of the drug, and that I think the illegality of the drug is wrong more than I think the drug is right. I do this because I don't want to be associated with the societal images of drug culture, and because I really have little fondness for being smeared with the same revolusion that has motivated US politics agaisnt the far left since the sixties.

The problem with living this fine distinction is that the culture of the US has moved faster than the intellectuals defending it. As of 2001, 77% of US teenagers surveyed admitted to having at the least tried marijuana. That's no minority sentiment - that's an overhelming majority of the population. Not an exclusive majority, and the figures for current use are just under half of the population, but that is still an awful lot of people. Enough to not constitute fringe groups or minorities, beyond the fact that they are teenagers. And that, soon enough, becomes a majority of the population - no one who was a teenager at the time of the survey is a teenager now. Given a generation or two, casual (and perhaps infrequent) drug use will be part of what is officially normal in American society. And it's worth adding to that - for the societal change to take effect, this will require drug users to live into thier forties and fifties, and probably even into old age. That can't be done without responsible, sane drug use, and it probably can't be done with the drugs that have high mortality rates. Our population will self-select what is minimally harmful, what one can use and still function in society, and what is and always will be a bad idea.

Ending prohibition of alcohol came with the realization that some societal woes are to be accepted, but that criminalizing an activity found to be generally accepted and practiced is the better way to go. This is no better exemplified than in the "If-by-whiskey" speech (hat tip NoraReed). Given another decade or so, I imagine that marijuana will become decriminalized more generally, if not legal, and that it will be accepted as both a medicine and a drug than can safely be used in moderation. And my guess is that, as this becomes more and more openly mainstream, drug culture itself will fade into the background, and people's immediate reactions to news about a drug will no longer be based on their disapproval of stereotypes about drug users. (Similarly, I also hope the same for people's reactions to Christianity no longer be based on fear of the religious right, but that's another post.)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Society Isn't Battles

Today in London and elsewhere, an advertising campaign is running on city buses. The ads are catchy, with Atheist slogans that I would put in the "mildly harmful" section, and not the "completely benign" one. They aren't bad, certainly, and they are at most slightly offensive, but I cannot really say that I'm a fan.

The ad campaign is a response to a previous ad campaign which ran on British buses, linking to a website which discussed Jesus, hellfire, and how non-believers are destined for it. The sources I've found online don't actually say what the bus ads contained (beyond the URL), and so I'm inclined to think that this is more confrontational than it needs to be.

And it's a tricky little thing - I'm all for the acceptance of Atheism, and since I self-identify as agnostic it's not hard for me to agree with their emphasis on being kind to people and living in this world. Those are good things, integral to my understanding of the world. And I'm certainly not in favor of advertising campaigns who go around screaming "Hellfire!" at folk. That's rude, and while it can be motivated by an intense concerning for the spiritual well-being of an individual, it comes across as the opposite of affirming inherent worth and dignity.

But I'm not sure the ad campaign being reacted to was an unpleasant as envisioned, and while I think the Atheist statements are pretty positivistic in intent, it is choir-preaching to say "I don't think there is a God, and I don't need that". It won't convert the uninitiated, and while it may lead more people begrudgingly to tolerance, it doesn't build towards acceptance, which I think is key.

Perhaps I'm over-reacting, and feel free to tell me you think so in the comments. I just - I don't think any side needs to go around claiming exclusive moral superiority, and I don't think that all the denialist and combative elements of Atheism help their cause. The whole thing just strikes me as rather petty.

Edit: saw a new term today, and it hit what I've been trying to get at for a while. Post-Partisan