Thursday, December 30, 2004

Bona Saturnalia, Everybody... A Wee Bit Late...

Hey! After almost two weeks with The Folks (Johnny Quest's, then mine, then Johnny Quest's again), we're now enjoying the hospitality of the formidable Statisticasaurus Rex. One consequence of this being that I have web access again! Woohoo! Glad to see nobody's torn up the place while I was gone... Will post again in a couple of days, as soon as I can do something besides lament the tsunami tragedy.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Human Rights and the American Right

I've been writing a post on this subject for quite some time, but I've figured out that, like most of what I try to write, it'll never be done right. Since I'll be heading back to Missouri to see the folks soon, and since there ain't no web access on the farm, I've decided to post a short, rough-and-ready version before I go.

This could be another in my semi-series Why I Am Not A Republican. Ever since I can remember, the American right has been almost exactly wrong about human rights and foreign policy. As a kid, I first began to develop something like my own political opinions during the lead-up to the '76 election, Ford vs. Carter. I decided that I should support Ford (for what that was worth) because he was (allegedly) tougher on communism, and I regarded totalitarianism as the biggest threat to humanity.

I still think I was right about the threat that communism and other versions of totalitarianism pose, but I was wrong about how to oppose them. Partway through Carter's presidency, some things began to become clear to me. I've changed my mind about the details several times in the intervening years, but I still affirm the basic idea.

If there's no real evil in the world, then there's something that is basically indistinguishable from it. It must be opposed. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are all that good at opposing it, but the former are lots better at doing so than the latter.

For one thing, Democrats have not, in my lifetime, shrunk from making human rights a central part of American foreign policy. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton--the only two Democratic presidents of my conscious lifetime--both pushed the U.S. to do things for purely moral reasons, even when those courses of action were not in our narrow national interest. Both men were harassed and ridiculed mercilessly by their conservative foes for doing so. "We can't be the world's policeman" was the battle cry of the right. It became clear to me that at the heart of the American right was a type of ethical egoism that urged us--individually but in particular as a nation--to get what we could get just about however we could get it from just about whoever we could get it from. As long as it wasn't outright murder or theft, it was America first and devil take the hindmost.

Republicans of course made a big show of opposing Communism, but it was never clear how much of this opposition was based in morality and how much in the mere prudence associated with national interest. Totalitarian communism was evil, but it was also a threat to the U.S.

Over the years, however, evidence mounted that the right was willing to deal with even the most heinous dictators--and even install them in power--to gain even the slightest advantage for the U.S. When the demands of morality and the counsels of prudence agreed, then the right was willing to do the right thing, and point to morality in its public justifications. When morality and prudence diverged, however, it was prudence that won.

On the other hand, when Democrats urged us to give up slight advantages in the name of human rights, Republicans trotted out the "world's policeman" charge, accusing the Democrats of being soft-hearted, fuzzy-headed and naive.

It is common to confuse hard-heartedness with hard-headedness.

This trend has continued up to the present. Look, for example, at the scorn Tom DeLay and other Republicans heaped on our efforts to stop genocide in the former Yugoslavia. Then look at their pathetic efforts to pretend that their motives in Gulf Wars I and II were moral rather than...otherwise.

Democrats, on the other hand, have been willing to expend American blood and treasure to help the downtrodden, even when there is nothing in it for us. They have not done this lightly, but only in the most egregious cases.

They are portrayed as "soft" on defense, but this charge simply does not accord with the facts. It was Democratic presidents who shepherded through two world wars. More recently, Democrats almost unanimously supported military action in Afghanistan--where such action was clearly justified--and opposed it only in Iraq where it was pretty clearly not.

In general, Democrats have been reasonably sensible about the use of American military might, whereas Republicans have tended to use it recklessly and/or merely in the service of our narrow national interest.

In the first Gulf War, for example, Bush '41 used moral reasons to persuade us to go to war, whereas it is fairly clear that he would have taken no action were oil not involved. He also lied to us, but that's a different subject. In the new Gulf War, moral reasons were proffered when prudential reasons were debunked. What the real reasons were for this second war we may never know.

It's also important to note that, had we actually listened to the allegedly naive Carter, we would not be in our current fix. Had we followed through with Carter's push for energy independence, we would have been able to avoid both Gulf wars. At least we could have reasoned more objectively about whether to get involved. And if we'd have kept human rights concerns at the center of our foreign policy, we wouldn't still be stuck defending the Middle Eastern tyrants that fan the flames of anti-Americanism there.

And, finally, we should realize that if we had conducted ourselves in a more Democratic and a less Republican manner, we would also probably be safer today. What Democrats seem to realize is that the good will of the world pays prudential dividends. The rest of the world seems to desperately want to like us, and when we conduct ourselves in a minimaly decent manner, the civilized part of the world is generally on our side. We would be better off if we exercised a minimal amount of common sense and recognized that, having and needing a big stick, we should speak softly. That is how the hero acts.

The guy with the big stick and the loud talk, he's probably the villain. And the more we act like him, the less we will deserve to be liked and admired.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Madison Did Not Assert That "Our Future Is Staked On The Ten Commandments"

I'm preparing a long post on a similar issue, but for right now I just wanted to direct your attention to this post. Apparently Rush Limbaugh or one of those babbling heads recently said that James Madison asserted that "our future is staked on the Ten Commandments." This should smell like BS to anyone who knows anything about Madison's thought, but the above link provides evidence for what should already be evident.

Incidentally: it should be clear after even brief reflection that the claim in question would be false even if Madison had said it.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Pinochet Indicted on Human Rights Charges!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Frankly, I hope he hangs.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Groupthink And the Atrios Groupies

WHEW! I don't know why I do this to myself, but every now and then I'll leave a comment over on Eschaton. No matter how mildly critical of the orthodoxy over thattaway, the comments almost invariably invite massively irrational retaliation (MIR). If you want to see something funny (by which I mean sad and pathetic), go check out the comments on this post.

Perhaps you didn't realize that I was a brainwashed wingnut lackey of the Bush administration? Well, fortunately this was revealed by some of the insightful inquirers over on Eschaton. How'd they blow my cover? Well, I asserted that it was not absurd to worry about a breach of journalistic ethics in the recent Rumsfeld dust-up. I even noted that I thought that what Pitts (the Times Free Press reporter) did seemed o.k. to me...I just don't think it's crazy to think that legitimate questions are raised.

What's worse--and this'll be the subject of a later post--the most common defense of Pitts over there was of the "there's no such thing as objectivity anyway, so I don't know what all the fuss is about" variety.


Dropping the irrationalism bomb always helps. I asked 'em how they had any grounds for complaining about W's distortion of WMD evidence if they don't believe in objectivity, hence can't believe that there's any such thing as distortion...but didn't, oddly enough, receive an answer.

Sheesh, I was afraid they were going to chip a nail trying to scratch my eyes out...

Anyway, you wanna know why liberals get a bad name? Wanna know why the right thinks the left is shrill and irrational? Go check out those comments, dude.

Not that this bothers me personally... I figure that if I can keep the charges of left-wing kookiness and the charges of right-wing kookiness balanced out, I'm probably about where I ought to be...

Thursday, December 09, 2004

David Brooks on "Natalism"
Reproduction and the Meaning of Life

[1] Shorter David Brooks:
If you aren't mindlessly striving to overpopulate the planet, you're an ambitious, egotistical, amoral piece of crap.

[2] Longer Shorter David Brooks

For some reason I cannot fathom, I continue to have a soft spot for Brooks. It is becoming more and more clear that this is irrational.

I know it's up against some stiff competition, but this may be his worst op-ed yet. For one thing, it combines a couple of ploys that just drive me nuts. First and least importantly, giving a name to a group or movement that is either too goofy, unimportant, or indistinct to warrant one ("Nascar Dads," "Voluntary Simplicity," etc.)--in this case "natalism."

Second, and more importantly, spinning a tendency that's either neutral or pernicious to try to make it look virtuous. Having too many kids? That's good! We gotta keep driving that population up! After all, there's still some (relatively) unspoiled land left on this earth! Not to mention that we need more consumers. It is a little-known fact that some states have fewer than one strip-mall per square mile. The danger that the population might return to reasonable levels is real, people!

Um, not to mention that there is something distinctly paradoxical about the claim that one's life becomes meaningful as a result of reproduction. If life is meaningless without reproduction, then reproduction is not going to change that--producing another person who will, in turn, have a meaningless life can't make your life meaningful. On the other hand, if life can be meaningful without reproducing, then, well, it's not necessary to reproduce in order to live a meaningful life.

None of this is to say that reproduction can't be an important part of some kinds of meaningful lives, of course, but it probably can't be the centerpiece of them. This is similar to a point that is missed by those who think that it is the fact of our mortality that generates problems about the meaning of life. If your life isn't already meaningful, then more of the same won't make it so. A really long meaningless life isn't meaningful; in fact, it's really, really meaningless...

Perhaps the most amusing (by which I mean angrifying) part of Brooks's essay is his suggestion that those who elect not to reproduce are in the grip of "hyper-individualism." Nice. Suggest we should all pull together and use tax money (e.g.) for child care and we're collectivist wackos who fail to recognize the value of individualism. Decide to have fewer than three kids and we're hyper-individualist wackos who fail to recognize the value being too individualistic... Am I out of line in suggesting that just the tiniest dash of consistency might be a good idea here?

Note also that many or most people reproduce either (a) mindlessly or (b) for the selfish reason that it will give them some feeling of immortality. Consequently it's absurd to see Brooks's "natalists" (or, as I'd prefer to call them, "overpopulationists") as inherently more virtuous than the rest of us ("non-natalists," formerly known as "people who don't want too many kids").

Gosh, it's really too bad that there is no way to help my fellow man, nor to contribute to the great project of Western civilization without having tons of kids. 'Cause, you know, I really wanted to help out...

But that was before I found out that humans are little more than bipedal kudzu.

Now I'm not so interested...

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Temporary Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Related Quietude

O.k., I don't expect to get away with this without absorbing a hefty amount of ridicule, but I just finished watching the final season of Buffy Monday night (never seen it all before) and I've been moping around ever since. So don't expect any posts for a couple of days. (Oh, yeah, I'm grading finals, too...but that seems less important right now...).

Cripes, what am I, thirteen? (Answer: noooo.... More like triple that...) Some of my friends, they mope around after finishing Anna Karenina and, I'm depressed over the end of a t.v. show about teenage vampire chop socky.

And can anybody explain to me WHY I decided to be a school marm instead of a chop socky demon fighter? Or a Nazi hunter? Or fighter pilot? Or Raider of the Lost Ark?


Friday, December 03, 2004

Medal of Freedom Follies

Back in the day, I thought I had somehow stepped through the looking-glass when I heard that Ronald Reagan had awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom--allegedly America's highest civilian honor--to Frank Sinatra. Could this be for real, I wondered? Could our highest civilian honor be so inconsequential as to be deserved by someone whose greatest distinction was that he was a popular singer? (Not to mention a notable asshole?) Believe it or not, I think about this from time to time. It still makes me kind of ill.

Well, W's announced the 2004 winners of the medal. Apparently, the people most deserving of our highest civilian honor include Doris Day and Rita Moreno (entertainers), Arnold Palmer (a golfer), Gordon B. Hinckley (President of the Mormon Church), Estee Lauder (a make-up/clothing merchant).

I'm not even going to complain about Walter Wriston, Norman Pohoretz, or the Pope. I might not be too happy about those, but at least they aren't embarrassing...

You know, have no idea who Carter and Clinton gave such awards to...I actually have a feeling that I don't want to know...but it'd be kind of interesting to see whether their awardees were quite as lame as Frank Sinatra and Doris Day...

My nominees for next year:

Carrot-Top, noted entertainer and social critic
P Diddy, noted entertainer and boffer of J Lo
J Lo, noted entertainer with notable butt
The Unknown Comic, noted unknown comic
Right Said Fred, noted freaks
Whoever Those Folks Were Who Sang That "Macarena" (sp?) Song, Noted singers of "Macarena" (sp?) Song

Maybe we could also find the inventor of the Pet Rock...and how about Michael Bolton and Kenny G? How come THEY aren't getting this award? Perhaps Donald Trump, or Bob "Gilligan" Denver? Maybe Kenny Boy Lay should get one. Apparently Julia Child got one (note: not making this up) why not the Emeril guy? Oh! Or that nutty dude from The Iron Chef! That'd be AWESOME...

God, is our country really this pathetic?

[Note: this is obviously a job for Norbizness... Somebody needs to get him on this...]
More Right-Wing Lysenkoism

Well, this comes from Atrios.

You know, I don't associate with people who lie to me, nor with people who don't respect truth and reason. Well, I have one or two associates who are marginal, but I see them primarily as people who need help, not as close friends. My hope is to reform them.

My guess is that most people are like this. And that's why I'm flabbergasted by the fact that the majority of Americans seem indifferent to the fact that it's all lies all the time from this administration.

Many readers of this blog might be surprised to find out how much I agree with the conservatives on some big, important issues--like issues about the morality and rationality of the welfare state. (Hint: I have my doubts about it.) Not to mention firearms issues...

I disagree with them about even more things, but that's reasonably obvious.

But voting for Republicans for important national posts is, in general, simply not an option for me anymore. (Though I did vote for John Warner the last time he was on the ballot...but that was a special case for a number of reasons.)

Anyway, why not?

It's the dishonesty, stupid.

The current Republican leadership seems to have some constitutional inability to tell the truth. I'm averse to even moderate spin by politicians, though that's something I've come to recognize that I have to live with. But the current Republican leadership--including, of course, the current occupant of the White House--seems to have committed itself to the all lies, all the time policy.

Despite my policy-wonkiness, I came to realize a few years back that I just didn't understand most complex policy issues well enough for my opinion about them to be of much value. So, in general, I began toseek out the opinions of experts on such matters.

It was that realization that lead me to recognize that the best I could really do was assess the characters (both moral and intellectual) of candidates, and to vote for the one who was most honest and reasonable, most open to facts and reasons, and the most likely to listen to the experts when appropriate.

The Bush administration is, of course, the worst of my lifetime on all of these scores. The worst by quite a long shot.

This administration's continued campaign of spin and dishonesty in almost every area of public and foreign policy has, sadly, probably so put me off of the Republican party that I may never be able to bring myself to vote for them again.

Too bad because I, like so many other people, don't really completely agree with the Democrats. It'd sure be nice to have a reasonable alternative to them...