Rudeness on the web

The mass media tends not to probe too deeply into sacred cows (like religion and patriotism) and when it does so, seems to carefully select only those targets which will not alienate the majority of its customers. People writing on the internet, however, are much more likely to skewer a broader range of ideas, which is something that I welcome.

While public figures have long been fair game for ridicule even in the traditional mass media, a trickier issue arises with the internet, which has created a whole new class of what might be called semi-private individuals. We now have people who are not public figures in the traditional sense of the word writing in personal web pages and blogs which are, in effect, public but often the material is intended for a limited audience. When people write about the minutiae of their lives, their meetings with friends, their children’s achievements, etc., they are in a different class from a politician who makes a speech that is reported in the newspapers or broadcast on TV. While the politician is clearly a justifiable target for close scrutiny and their ideas are open to ridicule, should the same hold true for the average poster on Facebook or the obscure blogger?

In my wanderings around the internet, it seems as if a consensus has emerged that the answer is ‘yes’, that anyone who posts on the internet is seen as being fair game for the kind of treatment that was once reserved for public figures.

But while the people in the mainstream media (apart from the silly talk shows) tend not to use ad hominem attacks, people on the internet will resort to name-calling and obscenities at the slightest provocation. I am often amused at how quickly people get angry and resort to abuse on the web. If one reads the comments sections on many blogs, they rapidly degenerate into name-calling. (This is not true of this blog where commenters are generally very polite and thoughtful.) It is interesting to see why this is so.

I think this may be because before the web people had few options for being part of the public discourse. If one wrote to the papers or called in to a radio show about some issue, there were filters that prevented people from using language likely to offend or from saying outrageous things. That left only private conversation where the rules of language were fairly clear and where people generally instinctively knew how to express themselves in each situation. In private conversation, people generally feel free to use much coarser language than in public, if they are with people whom they know will not be offended.

With the web, one suddenly has the ability to address the whole world while still having the anonymity that provides an illusion of privacy, and this may explain why discussions can degenerate so rapidly into mudslinging and obscenities.

I personally do not get offended by the kind of language one finds on the web. After all, it surely cannot be a secret that people at all levels of society know and use expletives. It surely is no secret that journalists and politicians and even people who act like pillars of rectitude use coarse language in private.

Although I do not use expletives on a routine basis, I am no innocent and know the words. And yet in 2005, when I reproduced an important article about hurricane Katrina, I felt obliged to do some cleaning up of the language. In the article, one person was quoted as saying “Get off the f——- freeway.” Now the original report did not have the dashes, which were inserted by me. I am certain that all readers of this blog know what letters they stand for. In doing this, I was following newspaper conventions of using euphemisms and dashes to replace words that are considered offensive by some, and thus practicing a form of self-censorship.

But my doing so really made no sense. Both reader and writer know what the word is so why does inserting dashes make it less offensive and more acceptable? What exactly was gained by me replacing the last letters of the word with dashes? The only reason I can come up with is so as to avoid offending someone who had led a very sheltered life and did not know the word (and these days that would probably mean a child who has barely learned to talk) and who happened to come across my blog, read the uncensored word and had to ask someone else what it meant, thus causing me to be the cause of that person’s loss of innocence. This scenario is unlikely, to say the least. Such a person is also likely to ask why there was a sudden outbreak of dashes, creating a similar problem. Any reader of my blog is almost certain to know the kinds of words I know, so there really was no reason for my self-censorship, except that by abiding by this quaint convention, I had used a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card to escape censure by some language prude out there in cyberland.

It is hard to explain why I felt obliged to do this kind of editing. It was not because this blog is hosted by a university website and therefore I felt a sense of obligation to act with some propriety. I would have done the same thing on a commercially hosted site. The only reason I can think of is that this is a relic of my upbringing, the sense that using words like that is not appropriate in polite company or in public. I just feel a vague sense of discomfort in writing those words, which is why my blog entries do not use them.

But my sensibilities can only control my own writing and not what I read or watch or hear. I am not offended by, and have no problems with, people who use expletives freely and I have little sympathy for those who reach for their smelling salts and tut-tut about civility when what they seem to be really objecting to is criticism of their cherished ideas or policies. As I said before, I agree totally with Salman Rushdie that no ideas should be immune from scrutiny and what words one uses should be left as a choice for the user. For example, the Rude Pundit writes political commentary that is very incisive but his language is often very rude!

Ultimately it is the quality of the argument and the ideas that matter, not how one says it. But how one says it has an effect on one’s ability to influence others. If used judiciously vulgarities and profanities and expletives can be very effective in making a point, but used indiscriminately or routinely, they can lose their punch. Just as good actors do not use gestures unthinkingly but carefully select their movements to enhance what they are trying to convey, so should writers view language.

Remembering the legacy of Martin Luther King

(On this day in which we remember Dr. King, I thought I would repost something that I wrote last year.)

It is good on a day like this to recognize the importance of resurrecting an essential aspect of the message that Dr. King sought to convey. It is clear that there is a need to remove the layers of gauze that have covered his legacy and blurred the increasingly hard edged vision that characterized the last years of his life.

Most people focus primarily on his “I have a dream speech” given at the March on Washington in 1963. It is important to realize that he did not retire after that oratorical triumph but went on to speak and act in ways that were often different from his pre-1963 positions. His new emphasis on a class-based analysis of American society, his drive to unite the problems of black people with poor and working class white people, coupled with his opposition to the war in Vietnam, were a radical departure from a purely race-based civil rights struggle, cost him some support and alienated some former allies, and are what some believe precipitated his assassination.
[Read more…]

Challenging the sacred

Author Salman Rushdie recently reflected on an aspect of his own education, in opposing an attempt by the British government to pass legislation for a ban on incitement to “hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds.”

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

Rushdie thinks this is a good thing and he has the courage of his convictions, writing things in his novel The Satanic Verses that led to him receiving a death sentence from the Ayatollah Khomeini for blaspheming Islam. But it is good to remind oneself that not all people enjoy this kind of argumentation on a personal level. Some will enjoy the verbal swordplay, the cut and thrust and parry of ideas that the debating societies of Cambridge and Oxford are famous for, and which provide the training for future leaders of England who must excel at the parliamentary debating style. But such an approach is not for everyone since not everyone is comfortable exploring ideas in the context of a ferocious battle of wits.

I agree with Rushdie on the basic premise that no ideas should be immune from criticism and that no one has the right to expect to be shielded from ideas that they might find repugnant. But how one closely scrutinizes ideas depends a lot on the situation. In a classroom, I think treating other people’s ideas with derision or contempt is not appropriate and is likely to shut down thought rather than encourage it. People’s ideas and their identities may be too closely intertwined to enable the neat separation between ideas and people that Rushdie envisages. I don’t think you can be “savagely rude” about someone’s ideas without also being seen as being savagely rude to that person. Perhaps it is possible with very carefully chosen words, but difficult to carry out in spontaneous conversation. If I say that an idea is stupid, am I not implying that the speaker must be stupid to have held that belief in the first place?

This is particularly the case where religion is involved. In my seminar class on the Evolution of Scientific Ideas, we discussed the Rushdie quote in the context of the science-religion conflict that we were discussing. If someone thought (as some in the class did) that all religious faith, or any specific religious faith, was irrational, could they say that without religious believers feeling that they were being labeled as irrational people? On the other hand, believing that religion is irrational is a perfectly legitimate point of view, so if the speaker feels constrained not to say such things because of the conventions of politeness, then he is effectively being censored. The range of views in the discussion become artificially narrowed, depriving all the participants of a growth opportunity.

In my class, we decided that the way out of this dilemma is to first establish a good atmosphere in the class so that people felt respected as individuals and think of the whole groups as their friends. In that situation, people are likely to word their ideas in ways that do not gratuitously offend (such as saying things like “that idea is stupid”) while people did their best not to feel offended if their cherished ideas were critiqued and found wanting. In other words, we would try not to offend others or to be easily offended, while at the same time not avoid expressing unpopular or unpalatable ideas.

Achieving this requires that people assume good intentions on the part of others in the conversation. But establishing such a cordial atmosphere where people can speak frankly without causing offense is only possible in small groups where personal relationships can be established.

Things are different in public life and it is in this situation that I think Rushdie’s position is wholly justified and even admirable. In addition, in public discourse there is necessarily a distance between ideas and people that can act as a kind of protective shield. If, for example, someone on TV ridicules Mormons and says that they are stupid, then although all Mormons are being attacked, any individual Mormon watching does not have the sense of being personally targeted as being stupid. They can console themselves with the notion that the speaker is mistaken because he has not met non-stupid Mormons like themselves.

Public figures like politicians and televangelists, of course, have put their own ideas out for public view and cannot separate themselves from them. Thus when their ideas and actions are directly criticized, they can justifiably feel that they are being personally attacked. But having their ideas and actions held up for public derision and scorn is part of the price they pay for entering the public arena and they go there willingly. It may be unpleasant but they are not forced into that position and they have to take their lumps.

For example, professional comedians depend on parody and satire and even ridicule and derision for their humor. (See comedian Craig Ferguson on TV evangelists like Pat Robertson.) One has to grant them this license, because humor is a powerful weapon for cutting though the fog of ideas and making points effectively. The humor of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report would be far less sharp and effective if they had to worry about the feelings of the public figures they skewer.

I have mixed feelings about Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Ali G. and Borat) when he is working with ordinary people. Although he is obviously a gifted comic and I find him to be very funny, my amusement is mixed with some discomfort. However much I might dislike the views of the people who are ambushed by him, tricking ordinary people into looking foolish in front of a mass audience does not seem quite right somehow.

Again, Rushdie is perfectly right is saying that no ideas should be shielded from criticism. But it seems to me that when doing so in the private sphere, one should be circumspect about how one says things. The more one is challenging someone’s core beliefs, the more one should try to spare that person’s feelings. There just seems to be no point in upsetting people when it can be avoided by more careful use of language and by showing some consideration, while not avoiding the issues.

Next: Rudeness on the web.

Bush speech on Iraq

I almost always avoid watching formal speeches live. You have to listen to a lot of verbiage before getting to the gist. I find it far more efficient to read the transcript afterwards, though that means I miss the nuances that the spoken words provide.

But since Bush’s latest speech was highly advertised as showing a new way forward, I tuned in. You can read the transcript here. As far as I can tell, there was little that I would consider ‘new’ but this may be my fault for being a policy wonk and following this topic closely. Maybe others will find it new and hopeful.

The main new development is, as widely reported before the speech, to increase the number troops in Baghdad by 17,500 troops and those in Anbar province by 4,000. He said the reason that this strategy is new is because while earlier the troops could clear areas, they could not keep them clear once they moved on. The new levels will enable them to ‘clear and hold.’ Also, earlier the US troops had too many restrictions on where they could operate. The hope is that these changes will enable the troops to bring the levels of violence down and thus allow development to take place, thus undermining the destabilization strategies of the insurgents. The rest of the speech seemed to consist of dire warnings about the consequences for the US and the world if the US ‘failed’ in Iraq, plus the now-obligatory digs at Syria and Iran.

It seems to me that this ‘clear and hold’ strategy was tried before so it is not really new. Will it now work with the new higher levels of troops? I have no idea. What is not a hopeful sign is that right now there rages a pitched, long battle in Baghdad on a major thoroughfare just 1,000 yards from the Green Zone. If this is the state of affairs in the capital city nearly four years after the invasion and with 140,000 troops in the country, can another 21,500 tip the balance and bring order?

Also, the implication that US troops will now operate with fewer restrictions sounds ominous, since the earlier ‘hearts and minds’ strategy had failed.

Meanwhile the can has been kicked down the road for another year, because Bush has said that the Iraqi government will take full charge of security by November. So presumably we will have to be patient until then to see if the ‘new’ plan has worked.

There have been some disturbing suggestions that the option of escalating troops levels may have been chosen because Bush did not like the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group’s approach and this was definitely something that went counter to their proposals. The Washington Post reports that:

How to look distinctive from the study group became a recurring theme.

As described by participants in the administration review, some staff members on the National Security Council became enamored of the idea of sending more troops to Iraq in part because it was not a key feature of Baker-Hamilton.

Choosing a policy of troop escalation as a means of thumbing one’s nose at the ISG seems extraordinarily childish and irresponsible on a matter of such gravity. Normally such an allegation would be dismissed out of hand. The very fact that a major newspaper finds it worth mentioning indicates how low the opinion has sunk of this administration’s decision-making abilities and motives.

somalia.gif Meanwhile, there is an ominous development in Somalia. News reports say that US special forces are now operating on the ground in that country, operating from their base in Djibouti, the tiny country on the northwestern tip of Somalia, which separates Somalia from Eritrea.

This suggests that the Ethiopian armies might be running into trouble.

POST SCRIPT: If they’d only listen to him. . .

Problems are so simple to solve if you happen to be a neoconservative theoretician. Michael Ledeen (whom I have written about before here and here) in one very brief column tells everybody exactly what they should do to solve the problems the US is facing in the Middle East.

He tells the lazy, shiftless Iraqis that they should get off their butts and start running the country: “[S]omebody should compel the sleepy defense ministry in Baghdad to pay the Iraqi troops. . . Maliki et. al. say they want sovereign authority. Fine. Let them act like a government and pay their employees.”

He tells the lazy, shiftless US soldiers to get off their butts and do some patrolling: “We’ve got lots of soldiers sitting on megabases all over Iraq. They should be out and about, some of them embedded, others just moving around, tracking the terrorists, hunting them down. I don’t know how many guys and gals are sitting in air-conditioned quarters and drinking designer coffee, but it’s a substantial number. Enough of that.”

He tells the lazy, shiftless Cheney/Bush team to get off their butts and start invading other countries: “[T]he only way to demonstrate a will to win is to go after the Iranians and the Syrians, as well as the terrorists already inside Iraq.”

And to top it off, he tells the lazy, shiftless Iranian people to get off their butts and overthrow their government: “We should propose a better solution to the Iranian people: revolution, leading to their freedom.”

He alerts us to the fact that he is going to give us more valuable suggestions in the future because he ends up with “if we want to win, that’s the first step. Anybody ready?” (my emphasis).

And then, exhausted by giving all this advice, Ledeen lay down on the couch in his air-conditioned home, drank some designer coffee, and watched some football.

In future columns, Ledeen is going to solve the problem of global warming (“People should stop doing things that cause global warming”), crime (“Policemen should solve crimes and arrest all the criminals”), cancer (“Researchers should do experiments that will lead to a cure”), dark matter and dark energy (“Physicists should shine some light on it so that they can see it better”), and poverty (“People who are poor should go out and get jobs instead of sitting on their couches, drinking designer coffee, and watching football”).

I can hardly wait.

When god talks to people

When things look grim in the world, you can always look to Pat Robertson to cheer things up with some new lunacy and he rarely lets you down. Just recently, Robertson said that god has been speaking to him again and there is much merriment in the country. According to CNN:

Evangelical broadcaster Pat Robertson said Tuesday that God has told him that a terrorist attack on the United States would cause a “mass killing” late in 2007.

“I’m not necessarily saying it’s going to be nuclear,” he said during his news-and-talk television show “The 700 Club” on the Christian Broadcasting Network.

“The Lord didn’t say nuclear. But I do believe it will be something like that.”

Robertson said God told him about the impending tragedy during a recent prayer retreat.

God also said, he claims, that major cities and possibly millions of people will be affected by the attack, which should take place sometime after September.

The funny thing is why would god tell him just the problem and not how to solve it? During these cozy chats, Robertson never seems to have the sense to ask god for more details about the impending attack so that the disasters might be minimized. We need to give him some journalistic training so that he will ask the when, where, how, who questions that will give us usable information.

Although his past predictions have not turned out well, this does not stop the irrepressible Robertson from continuing to make them. The millions of viewers of his show who send him money presumably take his claims seriously, despite the lack of details. But the interesting question is how the rest of us respond to his claim that god speaks to him.

As an atheist, this question is easy to answer. Since we don’t believe in a god, anyone who says that they received a message from god about anything can be dismissed as either simply lying, or mistaken (because they took some random event or a coincidence as a special message from god), or delusional (because they were dreaming or in an otherwise less than fully rational and conscious state of mind) or, in the most serious cases, psychotic. I tend to agree with the TV character House who in one episode about a faith healer tells a colleague: “You talk to god, you’re religious. God talks to you, you’re psychotic.”

So for atheists the obvious and easy conclusion is that Robertson must be either psychotic or an insatiable publicity-seeking liar who knows that this kind of thing will propel him into the news, since his chats with god occur too often to be taken as mistakes or temporary delusions.

But if you are a believer in a god who can and does act in mysterious ways in the world, on what basis can you judge if god is talking to some chosen people or even to you? Some have said that Bush feels that god talks to him too. How can religious people judge if that is true?

This is not a trivial matter since people have been known to shoot up other people and claim in justification that god told them to do it. If people are psychotic, they need help before they can harm themselves or others. And yet, news reporters are willing to flatly report the statements of a public person like Robertson without asking the obvious follow-up question about whether he is certifiably insane, despite the clear indications that they don’t believe him. If they did, they would ask him questions like “What does god’s voice sound like? What were you doing when he spoke to you?”

Suppose someone said that Abraham Lincoln spoke to him or her on a regular basis. Since Christians believe in an afterlife, they should have as little difficulty believing in this as in believing that god speaks to people. But anyone claiming to have cozy chats with old Abe would be immediately looked upon askance, and such an assertion would cast serious doubt on their sanity. But a similar statement about god speaking to them does not raise the same warning flags. Assertions by some people that god speaks to them are received with an indulgent smile but are not openly dismissed as crazy either.

Why is this? I can see no rational reason for this casual attitude except to think that even devout Christians, in their heart of hearts, really don’t believe any of this stuff about god speaking to people but don’t want to come right out and say it. Richard Dawkins in his latest book The God Delusion quotes a believer who describes what I think is a common attitude among religious believers. (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the link.)

Every thinking person, perhaps, is assailed at times with religious doubt. My own faith has wavered many a time. But I never told anyone of my spiritual aberrations for two reasons: (1) I feared that I might, by mere suggestion, disturb and damage the life and hopes of some fellow being; (2) because I agree with the writer who said, ‘There is a mean streak in anyone who will destroy another’s faith.’

It is very much an ’emperor’s new clothes’ syndrome. The vast mass of people keep their doubts and skepticism to themselves, possibly out of fear that others will confess their own skepticism and the whole house of cards will collapse, leaving them with an existential void that they are not equipped or prepared to fill.

This is another reason why it is such a relief to be an atheist. Once you require evidence for assertions of fact, it becomes so much easier to distinguish the credible from the crazy and to simply say so.

POST SCRIPT: Cell phones and driving

I just went to a memorial service. It was for a lovely and talented 24-year old woman, the daughter of a friend and former colleague and who was also a classmate of my own daughter. I was told that she apparently lost control of her car and crashed into a pole. She was supposedly using her cell phone when it happened.

It is always hard to tell in such cases if the cell phone use was the direct cause of the accident or not. All I know is that when I see the great sadness that has descended on all her family and friends, I felt the need to ask all readers of this blog (and through them the people they know) to not take the chance.

I am hoping the day will come soon when putting away the cell phone when you begin to drive becomes as automatic as putting on your seat belt.

How freedoms are stolen away

I have written before about how this government has steadily and stealthily taken away the rights that have been taken for granted. The latest atrocity, though seemingly minor when compared to the awful Military Commissions Act was done stealthily, by means of the infamous ‘signing’ statements, whereby the President issues a statement while signing a bill into law. Usually, these statements are meant to provide guidance to the executive branch on how to interpret the law. But Bush has used these statements to counter the intent of the law or even to assert new powers for himself.

I have already written about the loss of habeas corpus which Jeffrey Toobin also writes about in an article in the New Yorker.

We have already seen that the government is guilty of torturing those in its custody in the infamous case of Jose Padilla, where it is clear that the government’s goal is to destroy him as a human being. This new article explains why he was forced to wear blinders and sound-proof ear muffs on his way to see a dentist.

“From 1950 to 1962,” [Alfred] McCoy writes, “the CIA became involved in torture through a massive mind-control effort, with psychological warfare and secret research into human consciousness that reached a cost of a billion dollars annually – a veritable Manhattan Project of the mind.” This research amounted to “the first real revolution in the cruel science of pain in more than three centuries.” This “black budget” research has never stopped and elements of it were rushed into practice after 9/11.

No need for thumbscrews, racks, phone-crank generators to the genitals or Black & Decker drills. This was “no-touch torture,” using extreme isolation and sensory deprivation to create confusion while establishing in the subject’s mind the sense that any pain is self-inflicted, that he had chosen the course that led to the pain he was suffering. All it required was extended periods of time and the total elimination of all stimulation and human contact other than that of the jailer and the interrogator.

Padilla spent 21 months in a South Carolina brig especially re-designed after 9/11 to handle interrogation cases like his. A 10- cell wing was devoted solely to Padilla. The windows of his cell were blackened, and he wasn’t allowed a clock or calendar.

McCoy says the no-touch torture chamber “has the theatricality of a set with special lighting, sound effects, props, and backdrops, all designed with a perverse stagecraft to evoke an aura of fear… The psychological component of torture becomes a kind of total theater, a constructed unreality of lies and inversion, in a plot that ends inexorably with the victim’s self-betrayal and destruction…”

“As a result of his experiences during his detention and interrogation,” the New York Times quoted psychiatrist Dr. Angela Hegarty as saying, Padilla “has impairments in reasoning… complicated by the neuropsychiatric effects of prolonged isolation.”

For more grim details of the inhumane treatment Padilla has received, see here. For other examples of torture by the US, see here

And now, after previously asserting his right to conduct warrantless wiretapping of phones, Bush has declared that he now also has the right to open people’s mail without a judge’s warrant. “That claim is contrary to existing law and contradicted the bill he had just signed, say experts who have reviewed it.”

This further erosion of the rights of citizens will probably be ignored by a nation that is either apathetic to the loss of rights that earlier generations fought so hard to enshrine into law or so fearful of terrorism that they are willing to trade away all their rights for a spurious sense of security.

I found on the web this extended quote from Milton Mayer’s book They Thought They Were Free, The Germans, 1938-45 that shows how a similar creeping erosion of freedom happened at another time and place.

What no one seemed to notice. . . was the ever widening gap. . .between the government and the people. . . And it became always wider. . . the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting, it provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway . . . (it) gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about . . .and kept us so busy with continuous changes and ‘crises’ and so fascinated . . . by the machinations of the ‘national enemies,’ without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. . .

Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’. . . must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. . . .Each act. . . is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.

You don’t want to act, or even talk, alone. . . you don’t want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ . . .But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves, when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. . . .You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things your father. . . could never have imagined.

It is a chilling reminder of how easily people be persuaded to accept things, provided they can be made fearful and the changes made gradually.

POST SCRIPT: Somalia update

The US Air Force has joined the Navy in carrying out operations in Somalia, against purported al Qaeda targets. The Ethiopian troops, already inside the country for a month are facing guerilla attacks, which are being urged on by Ayman al Zawahiri, who is using the Iraq and Afghanistan examples as rallying cries.

Concern is being expressed at the consequences of Ethiopia being seen as a US puppet. It does not help that Ethiopia is a Christian-led country in a heavily Muslim area. It is not hard to see how a US-Ethiopian alliance can be stigmatized as a new Crusade.

Words and actions

One of the things that often puzzles me about some public figures is how insensitive they are to what their words might seem to people who are suffering. Bush seems to be a classic case.

When questioned in December 2006 about how he is handling things, he says that “I’m sleeping a lot better than people would assume.”

This is a curious thing to say, and extraordinarily insensitive when you think about it. After all, tens of thousands of US soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed or injured as a result of his decisions. You would think that a person who had the weight of his decisions on his hands would worry at least a little about it and spend at least some time tossing and turning wondering how to improve the situation.

And yet, Bush goes out of his way to say that it does not bother him. What is baffling is why he would say it even if that is true. Surely he must realize that the families of the dead and injured US soldiers would expect him to not be so insouciant about it. Surely for the sake of sparing their feelings he would say that he does lose sleep wondering how to make sure their sacrifice was worth it. And yet, it seems to him to be more important to convey his own confidence that he is right than be concerned about how it might be perceived by others who are directly affected by his decisions.

In an interview with Buzzflash, Justin A. Frank, M.D., author of the book Bush on the Couch says that this is typical of sociopathic behavior:

A sociopath is. . .a person who can be very charming, but psychologically is so massively defended against experiencing guilt that he cannot feel empathy. If you don’t feel guilt, you can’t empathize, because you never can feel concern about having hurt somebody else, or anybody else suffering. Guilt reins in destructive behavior. But if you don’t have any guilt, you don’t have to feel any anxiety or anything that will hold you back in terms of being destructive or being hurtful. And that leads you to being unable to feel empathy, because empathy actually threatens your safety.

If you feel somebody else is in trouble, then you may feel you are obligated to do something about it. That’s something that is anathema to a psychopath, and it’s certainly anathema to Bush. So he is really incapable of feeling empathy. What he has figured out, with the help of his advisors, is to run as a “compassionate conservative” so he looks like a person who’s empathic. And his affability is what fooled a lot of people into making them feel that he really was connected to them, because he’s so charming. That is classic psychopathy.

This kind of insensitivity extends to other public figures. Recall former Secretary of State Madeline Albright saying in 1996 that the deaths of half a million Iraqi children as a result of the US-imposed sanctions was “worth it”, or the current Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice saying last month that that Iraq is “worth the investment” in American lives and dollars.

I am not naïve. When they say “worth it”, they are referring to their calculations about the willingness of the American public to continue to support their actions. And in Rice’s case, the families of the dead might feel even worse if they said the Iraq war was not worth it. But by saying these things in this way, they are insensitive to the fact that in the deals they have weighed and found satisfactory, the huge price involved being paid is by others. You would think that they would phrase their responses in such a way that it does not cause needless anguish to those actually paying that price through the deaths of their loved ones. Instead these political leaders come across as cold and callous and calculating.

In the early days of the Iraq war, Bush’s aides tried to portray a person who worried about the consequences of his actions. On April 2, 2003, as the initial invasion of Iraq was in full swing, aides tried to portray a president who “spends a lot of time stewing about the families of the slain, the safety of POWs and the flow of humanitarian aid into Iraq.” So far so good. But then they botched it by adding that “People who know Bush well say the strain of war is palpable. He rarely jokes with staffers these days and occasionally startles them with sarcastic putdowns. He’s being hard on himself; he gave up sweets just before the war began.” (my emphasis)

So Iraqi and American families are asked to sacrifice the lives of their loved ones for his war and in return Bush gives up sweets. Even when they try, they end up trivializing.

It has now been nearly four years since that war began. Iraqi and American lives are still being “sacrificed” and in his upcoming speech on a “new” policy in Iraq, we are told that Bush will call for an escalation of the troop levels in Iraq and emphasize the need for all of us to “sacrifice.”

I don’t believe that the sacrifices will be anything of the kind we normally associate with the word. We are not going to be asked to pay more taxes to fund an expansion of the war without driving up the debt. We are not going to have the draft reinstated. We are not going to be asked to tighten our belts and do without in any way. We are not going to be asked to do anything tangible because with Bush’s general job approval ratings now at only 30% and approval of his handling of Iraq at an astoundingly low level of 23%, it is unlikely that he will ask people to experience any real pain. When coupled with a very recent poll showing that “For the first time, more troops disapprove of the president’s handling of the war than approve of it. . .Barely one-third of service members approve of the way the president is handling the war”, it shows that the bottom has dropped out of Bush’s support for this war, something that he cannot help but realize.

I have long believed that there is no proposition, however idiotic, for which you cannot obtain about 10-20% support in opinion polls. For example, a recent Associated Press poll finds that 25% of Americans believe that 2007 will see the second coming of Jesus! (Jesus’ General astutely surmises that these must be the very same people who still approve of Bush’s handling of Iraq.) So Bush’s support has gone about as low as it can go. These editorial page cartoons pretty much sum up what people in general feel about the likely escalation (aka “surge”) that is to be announced soon in his speech.



In his much-hyped speech about what he is going to do next, what we will likely be told is to expect more of the same, apart from shifts in personnel. I expect to hear that the US occupation is going to be long and costly and that we must be patient and not expect any results from this ‘new’ plan for at least 18 months, which means that it will effectively last for more than two years, or until Bush leaves office and his successor is left to clean up the mess.

The ‘sacrifice’ asked of us will be to give up the right to criticize the actions of the worst president in US history.

POST SCRIPT: Misleading people about global warming

In August of last year, I wrote of how there were powerful economic forces that had a vested interest in creating confusion about global warming, in ways that were similar to how the tobacco industry tried to cloud the issue of whether smoking caused cancer.

It has now been revealed that:

ExxonMobil Corp. gave $16 million to 43 ideological groups between 1998 and 2005 in a coordinated effort to mislead the public by discrediting the science behind global warming
. . .
Alden Meyer, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ strategy and policy director, said in a teleconference that ExxonMobil based its tactics on those of tobacco companies, spreading uncertainty by misrepresenting peer-reviewed scientific studies or cherry-picking facts.

Dr. James McCarthy, a professor at Harvard University, said the company has sought to “create the illusion of a vigorous debate” about global warming.

The ExxonMobil executives do not care if future generations (even their own children and grandchildren) suffer from the effects of global warming as long as present profits are high.


A troubled start to 2007

I am by nature an optimist but frankly I do not see much good lying in wait in 2007. Peace shows no sign of breaking out anywhere.

In Sri Lanka, the conflict between the Tamil Tiger separatists and the government seems to be intensifying again, with the attempts at talks by the Norwegian mediators going nowhere.

The situation in Iraq shows no signs of easing and the idea of escalating the war there by sending in more US trooops seems to be the option that is being favored by Bush.

Afghanistan seems to be unraveling, with some analysts foreseeing increased strength for the Taliban and that the US will be defeated by the insurgency there.

All these things have been steadily worsening situations. What alarmed me over the break was a new conflict, the sudden invasion by Ethiopian troops into Somalia, to depose the government of the Union of Islamic Courts. At first blush, this seems like a regional conflict that has nothing to do with the US but in actuality the US is quite deeply involved in it and this recent development is not a good sign, since it indicates a further escalation.

somalia.gifTo understand what is involved there, we first need to look at the map, which immediately shows why the US is concerned about what goes on there. Somalia occupies a very strategic position on the horn of Africa. It overlooks crucial bodies of water (the Red Sea and Arabian Sea) across which lie Saudi Arabia and Yemen and the Gulf states.

Then we need to look at the history of the country. Somalia has been a country with an unstable government for some time, battling with its neighbor Ethiopia, suppressing secessionist movements, and subject to periods of being ruled by military coup leaders like Mohammed Siad Barre (1970-1991), and after he was overthrown, being in a state of near anarchy, with warlords and clan leaders battling for supremacy.

In 2004 a truce was cobbled together and a shaky transitional government was formed by the warlords, but it failed to establish any security or provide basic services. In June 2006, this transitional government was overthrown by an Islamist group that seized control of most of the country and the capital Mogadishu. It crushed the power of the warlords and set up the government called the Union of Islamic Courts and managed to bring some sort of order and security. In many ways, the UIC reminds me of the Taliban in Afghanistan, a group that advocates enforcement of a strict Islamic code on its people but is also able to provide security and basic services. It puts the Somali people in the tough position of having to balance the disadvantages of strict religious rules enforced in all aspects of life against the advantage of security and the promise of a reasonably ordered society.

It is the UIC government that was routed by the Ethiopian armies over Christmas. Its followers have dispersed but not disarmed. The Ethiopian armies have restored the fragile transitional government that was dominated by the corrupt warlords that was routed by the UIC six months earlier.

Here is the danger. It is clear that the Ethiopian government, which is pro-US and whose powerful military is supplied by the US, is acting as a proxy for the US in this conflict, although they have their own goals as well. But Ethiopia has its own internal ethnic problems as well as a long-standing border conflict with its northern neighbor Eritrea (which broke away from Ethiopia in 1993) and its government has a reputation for brutality. Furthermore, Ethiopia has had wars with Somalia in the past so they are not likely to been by the Somalis as a disinterested party.

The Ethiopians have indicated that they will stay in Somalia as long as the weak transitional government needs them but the history of what happens to foreign invading forces who don’t leave immediately is not a pleasant one, as we should have all learned from the bitter lessons of history but which countries seem to repeatedly ignore.

What happens if the UIC supporters, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, regroup and wage an insurgency against the Ethiopian forces, as they have threatened to do? There are already signs that this is their plan. The ability of the Iraqi insurgency to hold off the US forces cannot help but encourage them in the belief that they can do the same to the Ethiopians. If the Ethiopians start sustaining losses in a guerilla war, what are the options available to them and the US? Have the Ethiopians withdraw, allowing the UIC to regain power in a country that has great strategic value? Or reinforce support for the Ethiopians and give them the green light to unleash massive casualties in an attempt to eliminate all UIC sympathizers? Or even directly send in US forces? The US navy is already involved and acting in concert with Ethiopian forces.

The ethnic and religious and clan politics of Somalia is, if you can imagine it, even more complicated than in Iraq. (See this excellent analysis of the Somali situation by Eric Margolis. Justin Raimondo also provides some useful background and history.) By throwing its support behind the corrupt and warlord-backed transitional government (the very warlords who were behind the killing of 18 US troops in 1993 that was dramatized in Black Hawk Down), the US has reversed course, deciding that the warlords it once opposed and hunted down are now its friends, or at least preferable to the Islamists.

If there is one lesson that Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught is to tread very warily into the sectarian disputes of other countries. The US in its seeming determination to prevent an Islamic government emerging in the strategic horn of Africa has, through its proxy Ethiopia, got involved in another dangerous and volatile situation that does not look at all good for the future.

I fear that the people of Somalia are going to end up like the beleaguered people of Afghanistan, constantly buffeted by outside powers in a geostrategic game. And the US is opening up a third front of involvement in an Islamic country even while the other two fronts are going badly.

Not a good way to start 2007.

Cults and Religions-2: Is secrecy the difference?

In the previous post, I showed how some journalists and media pundits like Christopher Hitchens and Jacob Weisberg think that believing in Mormonism indicates stupidity and disqualifies the holder of the right to high office. Weisberg states “Such views are disqualifying because they’re dogmatic, irrational, and absurd. By holding them, someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is.” I suspect that many people share that view.

This is an interesting argument. But it raises the obvious question as to why beliefs in mainstream religions are not considered dogmatic or irrational or absurd. Why should believing in Mormonism be considered be considered outside the bounds of acceptability while believing in Christianity or Judaism or Islam is not? For that matter, why is the Church of Scientology or the Unification Church or the Hare Krishnas seen as so outlandish by many people?

Weisberg makes a stab at addressing this problem:

One may object that all religious beliefs are irrational—what’s the difference between Smith’s “seer stone” and the virgin birth or the parting of the Red Sea? But Mormonism is different because it is based on such a transparent and recent fraud. It’s Scientology plus 125 years. Perhaps Christianity and Judaism are merely more venerable and poetic versions of the same. But a few eons makes a big difference. The world’s greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor. (my emphasis)

Basically he seems to be saying that although Mormonism may be a fraud just like Christianity and Judaism, its problem is that it is not old enough. If the fraud is old and opaque enough, that would pass muster. That is really such a weak argument as to not be an argument at all. It is the kind of reasoning one comes up with when one has already decided on the conclusion and is now scrambling around to justify it by any means possible.

The reasons for popular disdain cannot lie in the nature of the beliefs itself, that the beliefs of Mormonism or Scientology are so bizarre as to be beyond the pale. If one is a Christian or Jew or Muslim or Hindu, one is already committed to believing things so bizarre (the virgin birth of Jesus or that god spoke to Moses via a burning bush or that god dictated the Koran verbatim to Mohammed) that one would have to be disqualified from sitting in judgment on the credibility of the beliefs of others. So while I have little idea of what Mormons actually are required to believe (for all I know they believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster), I cannot see how it could be any more preposterous than the beliefs of other so-called mainstream religions. It seems to me that once one has abandoned the need for any scientific evidence for one’s beliefs, all bets are off and you might as well believe in fairies and unicorns.

So what makes something a cult and something else a religion? It cannot be the existence of a prophetic leader. It is true that most modern-day phenomena that we call cults tend to be founded by a charismatic leader. One thinks of cult leaders David Koresh and Jim Jones for example. While it is true that Mormonism was also founded by a so-called prophet Joseph Smith, so also was Christianity and Judaism and Islam, and yet we do not label those as a Jesus cult or Moses cult or Mohammed cult.

It is tempting to conclude that the difference between religions and cults is based purely on size and acceptance, that as cults become established, are around for a long time, and grow in size, they become mainstream and thus accepted by the community at large. It seems as long as a large number of people believe in something, that belief, however preposterous objectively, becomes viewed as reasonable. If every other person in your community is a member of a particular group, it is hard to see that group as different and threatening, the way that a very small group can be seen.

But there may be something more tangible that divides those groups that we call religions from those we call cults. It could be argued that cults tend to have secrets that are revealed only to the initiated, and that there is some tangible repercussion, if not punishment, for leaving the group once you had joined.

With mainstream religions, there is really no secrecy as to what being a member involves. You can know before going into it what being a Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim or Jew means. And you can leave the group later if you want to, without being shunned or ostracized or threatened or worse. But with groups like the Mormons, there are secrets that only Mormons supposedly know. When I visited Salt Lake City, for example, the main tabernacle was closed off for non-Mormon visitors and the Mormons apparently have rituals that are not revealed to non-Mormons.

Again, this may be a factor largely determined by size. When groups become large, as the mainstream religions became over time, it becomes hard to keep its internal secrets from becoming public knowledge. Even now, one can find some of the secrets of the Mormon religion on the web, put there by former members, with all this revelatory activity triggered by Andrew Sullivan’s post that more than 43% of the population would not vote for a Mormon because they do not consider them to be Christians. This spread of information is inevitable these days and perhaps if Church of Latter Day Saints made all its beliefs public, the Mormons would be more accepted.

But returning to the original question of whether Mitt Romney being a Mormon is sufficient reason for him not being considered suitable for being president, being a member of a group that had secrets has not disqualified others in the past. After all, both George Bush and John Kerry were members of a secret society at Yale and many Presidents have been Masons. And yet, there is clearly some discomfort with the idea of having a Mormon president. Perhaps that will pass with time, the way that Kennedy managed to overcome objections to his Catholicism, an objection that seems far-fetched just a little over forty years later.

As more and more Mormons become visible and are seen as being just like others, being a Mormon might not be a negative factor for holding high office. After all, George Bush takes great pride in being a very religious Christian and see where that has taken us. It is hard to imagine that a Mormon could be any worse.

Cults and Religions-1: Should a Mormon be President?

I was involved in a discussion recently about what differences, if any, existed between those beliefs that we label as religion and those we label as cults. The formal definition of the word cult (as given by Merriam-Webster) seems to cover religion as well since it says: “1: formal religious veneration, 2: a system of religious beliefs and ritual; 3: a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; 4: a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator, 5 a: great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially: such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad b: the object of such devotion c: a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion.”

Apart from definition 4, which struck me as a rarely-used meaning of the word, the rest of the definitions seemed to cover religions as well, with the only possible distinctions arising from the words ‘usually small’ in 5c and ‘unorthodox or spurious’ in 3. Is a cult then merely a religion that has not (yet) attracted a large number of followers or something that is simply looked down upon for no objective reason?

But while there may not be a clear dictionary distinction between a cult and a religion, it is clear that the words have a different emotional impact, with the word religion having a neutral flavor to it, while the word cult definitely has pejorative connotations.

The question of cults versus religions came up in the context of speculations about Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2008. It turns out that he is a Mormon and some have suggested that the country is not ready for a Mormon president, alleging that the Church of the Latter Day Saints is a cult.

Take, for example, this exchange between Hugh Hewitt and Christopher Hitchens. Hewitt asked Hitchens his opinion of the incoming senate majority leader Harry Reid, who is also a Mormon.

CH: A Mormon mediocrity, and extraordinary, sort of reactionary, nullity.

HH: Now isn’t that bigoted to say a Mormon mediocrity, Christopher Hitchens?

CH: No, no. I’m always in favor of pointing out which cult people belong to.

HH: You see, I think that is very, very harsh and offensive, but I will allow the Mormon listeners to call you on that.

CH: No, he’s a Smithite, for Heaven’s sake. I mean, he believes that some idiot found gold plates buried in the ground.

HH: But it is religious bigotry to call that out. And do you make similar comments…

CH: No, it’s not me who says he’s a Mormon. Excuse me, it’s he who says it.

HH: I know that, but I still think…

CH: I say that anyone who believes that stuff is an idiot.

HH: I know you believe that, but isn’t it sort of randomly bigoted to bring that out and throw it onto the table?

CH: Not at all, no. It’s essential to point out…

HH: I disagree.

CH: Especially at a time when people are always saying it’s the Republican Party that’s run by religious crackpots and nutbags. And it’s very important to point out these people have a big foothold in the Democratic Party, too.

HH: I think that’s terribly religiously bigoted. I think that is up there with, like, saying about Jesse Jackson that he’s African-American in the course of commenting on him.

CH: Well, I don’t really see how he could keep that a secret, how one could…

HH: Well, it’s not a secret that he’s a Mormon. It’s just sort of a random attack on a guy’s faith. I don’t like Reid at all, but…

CH: No, I think less of him because of the stupid cult of which he’s a member. I would say the same if he was a Scientologist.

As another example of the strong feelings against Mormonism that some have, take Jacob Weisberg writing in Slate:

There are millions of religious Americans who would never vote for an atheist for president, because they believe that faith is necessary to lead the country. Others, myself included, would not, under most imaginable circumstances, vote for a fanatic or fundamentalist—a Hassidic Jew who regards Rabbi Menachem Schneerson as the Messiah, a Christian literalist who thinks that the Earth is less than 7,000 years old, or a Scientologist who thinks it is haunted by the souls of space aliens sent by the evil lord Xenu. Such views are disqualifying because they’re dogmatic, irrational, and absurd. By holding them, someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is.

By the same token, I wouldn’t vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism. The LDS church holds that Joseph Smith, directed by the angel Moroni, unearthed a book of golden plates buried in a hillside in Western New York in 1827. The plates were inscribed in “reformed” Egyptian hieroglyphics—a nonexistent version of the ancient language that had yet to be decoded. If you don’t know the story, it’s worth spending some time with Fawn Brodie’s wonderful biography No Man Knows My History. Smith was able to dictate his “translation” of the Book of Mormon first by looking through diamond-encrusted decoder glasses and then by burying his face in a hat with a brown rock at the bottom of it. He was an obvious con man. Romney has every right to believe in con men, but I want to know if he does, and if so, I don’t want him running the country.

The attitudes of Hitchens and Weisberg that Mormonism and scientology are beyond the pale of ‘respectable’ beliefs are apparently shared by many people and in the next post we will see how well they withstand close scrutiny.