Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Assassins' Gate (p. 87)

"My most heated and confounding arguments over the war occurred when there was no one else around. I would run down the many compelling reasons why a war would be unwise, only to find at the end that Saddam was still in power, tormenting his people and defying the world. The administration's war was not my war--it was rushed, dishonest, unforgivably partisan, and destructive of alliances--but objecting to the authors and their methods didn't seem reason enough to stand in the way. One doesn't get one's choice of wars. To give my position a label, I belonged to the tiny, insignificant camp of ambivalently prowar liberals, who supported a war by about the same margin that the voting public had supported Al Gore."

Although I ultimately came down against the war, my reasoning was almost identical to Packer's, and I have infinitely more respect for him and pro-invasion liberals like him than I have for the strident, dogmatic sector of the anti-war crowd.

As I've said before, ultimately I came to think that the methods and intentions of the administration did matter--that their divisive and anti-democratic (and anti-Democratic) lies were too harmful to American democracy and international law to be supported. If we had had an even minimally honest, minimally competent administration moving judiciously towards a humanitarian intervention, I would have been an eager supporter. But that, of course, was not the case.

One of the best things about Packer's book so far is that he does a good job of conveying how agonizing it was to be a liberal interventionist in the lead-up to the war. I had nothing but contempt for people who dismissed Saddam's crimes and didn't even feel the urge to take him out. It's hard to imagine how cold and heartless--or out of touch with reality--one would have to be to not even feel the allure of that possibility.

On the other hand, knowing that conservatives weren't really moved by humanitarian concerns, and having come to distrust them in large part for that reason, liberal hawks suspected that we shouldn't be allying ourselves with them. We suspected--and it turns out that we were right--that they could not be trusted to do the job right.

But in the end, as I've said, I opposed the war in large part because I thought that America had to put its collective foot down. We had to show that we could not be lied to and frightened into submission and herded like sheep. The actual cost to American democracy was, I thought, too great. It was too high a price to pay to purchase merely potential democracy in Iraq.

Well, you've heard that all before.

Just go read Packer!

Monday, December 26, 2005

The Assassins' Gate (p. 46)

You have to read this book. That's all there is to it. It's phenomenal.

A bit that resonated with me b/c, if you check, you'll see that I've been saying this for a long time:

"Why did the United States invade Iraq? It still isn't possible to be sure--and this remains the most remarkable thing about the Iraq war. Richard Haass said that he will go to his grave not knowing the answer."

I'm serious. Read this book.
Xmas Books

I got a haul of good books for Xmas, including the latest volume of the Chronological Edition of Peirce's papers, Romeo Dallaire's book on Rwanda Shake Hands With The Devil, Carter's new book Our Endangered Values, and George Packer's Assassin's Gate. I've read some of all of them...they're all so good that it's impossible to stick to just one of them. I've wanted to read Dallaire's book for a long time, and that's the one I've been focusing on most, but Assassin's Gate is really, really great, too, so far.

The first chapter of AG is really about the recent history of the role of human rights in foreign policy in American politics. Not much to say about it yet beyond this: it's really damn interesting, and Packer establishes credibility right away by dealing with the subject in an admirably objective way. One of the reasons I've always (well, since about the age of 16, anyway) been more sympathetic with the Democrats is because I've always thought that they were the only one of the two parties seriously concerned with human rights. I've never been able to figure out Reagan or the neo-cons. Packer's chapter has forced me to ackowledge that the facts are more complicated than that.

Anyway, I guess that's an endorsement, for what it's worth.
Planet of the Red Apes
Stalin: Crazy Motherf#*%er

Like me, you may be sulking around about how crazy and aggressive the U.S. has become, and about the depressingly low quality of our current leaders.

So here's something to compare us against that might lift your spirits: the old Soviet Union was not just WAY crazier than us, but WAY, WAY crazier than us...

Um...is this a joke? This can't be for real, can it?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Jones's Decision in the Dover Evolution Trial

Well, I'm not actually thrilled about it. I haven't read the actual opinion yet, but if the reports are to be believed, what we seem to have here is some fairly weak arguments in support of a correct conclusion. But we can't accept weak reasoning just because it gives us the conclusion we prefer.

For one thing, Jones seems to be taking a position on the dispute about the so-called "demarcation criterion," something most philosophers of science seemed to give up on some time ago. The demarcation criterion is supposed to be the criterion that distinguishes science from non-science. Popper's, to take a well-known example, was falsifiability: a theory was scientific if falsifiable, otherwise not. Unfortunately that criterion doesn't seem to work for some fairly well-known reasons. But those details aren't to the point in this post. Judge Jones seems to suggest, according to the reports, that one definitive difference between science and non- or pseudo-science is that scientific theories are necessarily naturalistic. This is a relatively common thing to say, but it seems to be false.

Remember one of our recent Philosoraptor polls in which I asked whether one could scientifically investigate supernatural phenomena? I asked that because of a discussion I was having with Mark over at Braving the Elements. I think that Mark is inclined to think that Creationism/IDT is clearly non-science, whereas I am not sure that there's a clear distinction between bad science and non-science. One way to look at it is like so: theories and theorizers just get worse and worse until they are so distant from good science that they no longer need to be taken seriously--but there's no clear, bright line between science and non- or pseudo-science. At any rate, almost everyone who responded thought that we could scientifically investigate non- or super-natural phenomena; that means that most who answered should be inclied to reject Judge Jones's proposed criterion.

The Post story also suggests that Jones argues that IDT is non-science because it is an argument from design, and Aquinas used an argument from design as well. Reconstruct that argument if you dare; it's very weak at best.

At any rate, most of us have a tendency to lose our heads in politics and accept any argument that supports a conclusion we favor. That's intellectually dishonest. Though that alone should be enough to persuade you, here's another reason: if you accept bad arguments they can come back to bite you later in unexpected ways.

A footnote in case you're interested: I'm currently most interested in Peirce's demarcation criterion. As I read him, he thinks that inquiry is a fundamentally moral enterprise, and what distinguishes the scientist from the non-scientists is intentional: the former want to know the truth, whatever it might be, while the latter have other motives. IDT folks aren't real scientists on that way of carving things up b/c they have set out to prove a conclusion they already (and dogmatically) believe. But most "scientists" aren't scientists either. If they are doing it for the money, or trying to prove a pet theory or to disprove some other theory because their rival supports it...or engaging in inquiry for any reason other than wanting to know the truth, then they aren't real scientists, no matter how technically adept they may be.

On the other hand I haven't really slept in a couple of weeks, so that may be incoherent. My rendering of it, that is, not Peirce's idea.

Of course that criterion won't be accepted any time soon.
What's Really Happening in Iraq?

Some of my leftier acquaintances get really mad when I suggest that this Iraq misadventure might actually end up working in the long run. Of course, some of my leftier friends get mad at just about everything... But I digress.

This paints a very different picture of Iraq from the one we're used to getting. On the one hand it's (allegedly) a first-hand account. On the other, I found it at Instapundit, so let the reader beware.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Back to the Farm

Heading back to Missouri in a coupla hours. Blogging will be light since my parents fear the internet and have no connection. The upside is that I won't have to watch the U.S. slide into police-state-dom in real time...

Bona Saturnalia to all.
Instapundit Book Recommendations

Not sure I can take 'em too seriously when the notorious A-Y-N's Atlas Shrugged is referred to (apparently in all seriousness) as "perhaps the most important philosophical work of the 20th century"...

Monday, December 19, 2005

Still More Irrelevant and Dishonest Rationalizations for the Wiretaps

From CNN.com.

The short version:

Q: Isn't this illegal?

A: We have to move FAST to stop the terrorists!

Q: But can't you get retroactive warrants?

A: Yes, but we have to move faster than that! The president's approach allows him to actually act so quickly that he travels backward in time to thwart the enemies of freedom!

Q: Since the president has non-zero mass doesn't that violate the laws of physics?

A: The president was granted the authority to violate the laws of physics by the authorization to invade Afghanistan.

Q: Doesn't that not make any f*cking sense whatsoever?

A: We cannot discuss any aspect of this or any other matter because it will compromise national security.

Q: How come you guys are perfectly willing to talk about such matters right up to the point at which your bullshit becomes so painfully evident that even a very young wombat could see through it and then you invariably play the national security card?

A: Guards! Off with his head!

Q: Isn't summary execution illegal?

A: It's not illegal if the president does it.
Freepers Creepers

I don't much like Pandagon anymore, but this post is interesting primarily b/c of the Freeper quotes at the end.

There are some very, very crazy people in this country. Not only are they outraged at any talk of impeaching Bush, but there're several weird references to impeaching the entire Congress (?!?= huh??) should they have the temerity to exercise their duty and investigate this matter.

I often think I have way too little contact with the lunatic fringe to fully understand this country...
Bush to Constitution: Bite Me

Eventually, dictionaries may have a picture of W next to the definiton of incorrigible. (The link is to a Reuters story.)

Five bucks says that if the Court rules against him on this he'll say "John Roberts has made his decision. Now let him enforce it."
Say Anything, or: Who You Gonna Believe, Me Or Your Lyin' Eyes?
or: Pryor's Principle.

Well, now there's this lame gesture towards a rationalization by Alberto Gonzales. Earlier the administration referenced a statute that, so far as I--or anybody else--can tell, does not justify their warrantless wiretaps. Now Gonzales is referencing the authorization for the use of force in Afghanistan as justification, which seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with wiretaps.

But adept hard-core liars know that, once your guilt is clear, it doesn't much matter what you say, you just have to say something. If you have nothing at all to say, then you're fairly screwed. If you admit wrong-doing then you're completely screwed. But if you have something--anything--to say in response, no matter how unutterably nutty, then you place some seed of doubt in the minds of observers. Honest people, on account of dealing mostly with other honest people, are unduly credulous, you see, and at a decided disadvantage when dealing with practiced and committed liars.

I think of this as Pryor's Principle, from an old bit by Richard Pryor about getting busted screwing around on your girlfriend. I can't remember the details of the bit, but it goes something like this: does your girlfriend find another girl's phone number in your pants pocket? Tell her you found a poor single mother and got her number so you could help her out. Lipstick on the collar? Your co-worker stumbled and fell against you. Panties in your car? They blew in the window. Get an STD? Toilet seat. No matter what, never, ever admit guilt. Even it she walks in and catches you flagrante delicto in bed with the other woman, Pryor's advice was to say "I'm not messing around on you. Who you gonna believe, me or your lyin' eyes?"

This strategy works particularly well when you are dealing with someone who desperately wants to believe you. And that, of course, is the situation faced by the Bushies. Everybody in the entire world has come to recognize them as arrogant serial prevaricators with no respect for evidence or truth--except, that is, for American conservatives. A substantial chunk of the latter group still desperately, desperately wants to believe that this administration is minimally honest and rational. Under those conditions, Pryor's Principle has served the administration well, and will probably do so into the forseeable future. What is beginning to look a lot like an impeachable offense will, no doubt, go unpunished since such a large proportion of the current Congressional Republicans puts loyalty to their party ahead of loyalty to the constitution.

Right now, the administration just has to say anything and wait for the public to forget or lose interest...perhaps because some new, perhaps less-severe bit of administration wrong-doing comes along to distract from this high crime.

If bin Laden were smart, this would be the time to attack. The most destructive thing he could do would be to panic the masses into rallying around this incompetent administration and its efforts to re-establish the imperial presidency. Al Qaeda alone could never destroy America or our constitution.

But now they have a powerful ally.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Must Read Post on Bush's Violation of FISA

Via Atrios, by Glenn Greenwald at Unclaimed Territory. I haven't gone through the argument in detail, so I don't know whether it's sound, but Greenwald lays it out clearly. Apparently the Rightosphere echo chamber is wallowing in an argument for the conclusion that Bush didn't violate FISA, but that argument is, according to Greenwald, based on a (he believes deliberate) misreading of FISA. Influential right-blogs like Instapundit that initially endorsed the misreading in question have retracted their endorsements in light of Greenwald's analysis.
More Bullshit Re: Warrantless Wiretaps?

I just want to point to this story in today's Post. I didn't hear Bush speak, and this is a fairly sketchy report, but I do want to note the following 'graph:
Hundreds and perhaps thousands of people have been subjected to the surveillance, according to government officials. Officials have privately credited the eavesdropping with the apprehension of Iyman Faris, a truck driver who pleaded guilty in 2003 to planning to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge. Bush said other plots have been disrupted as well.

Now, if we had an honest administration, we could conclude that 'the wiretaps' here meant 'the wiretaps authorized by Bush which would not have been authorized without his action.' However since we know that this administration will lie and distort with abandon ("there are no plans to invade Iraq on my desk..."), we can't draw that conclusion here. What we need to ask is:

(a) Were the wiretaps that disrupted the plots authorized by the FISC or by the president?
(b) If they were authorized by the president, would they have been authorized by FISC otherwise?

If the answer to (a) is "by the FISC," then Bush is lying to us again by suggesting that it was his wiretaps that disrupted the plots. If the answer to (b) is 'yes' then, again, he is deceiving us by trying to make his authorization sound like a decisive causal factor when in fact it was superfluous.

While we're at it, let's direct some attention to the 'graph that follows the one above:
"The activities I have authorized make it more likely that killers like these 9/11 hijackers will be identified and located in time," he said.

Note that while this may very well be true, alone it's not enough to constitute a defense of the policy. We also need to know whether his actions were legal, how much they increased the likelihood of catching terrorists, and how many wiretaps were authorized. We can radically increase the likelihood of catching terrorists by turning the country into a police state, but that doesn't mean that we should do so. Above we are told that "hundreds and perhaps thousands" of people were subject to these warrantless wiretaps. I've heard that the figure could go as high as 7,000. Apart from the legal questions we also face questions like this one: is it worth it to spy on, say, 5,000 American citizens if this spying will produce, say, a 1 in 10,000 chance of catching a terrorist? We probably can't answer that question unless we have some idea what kind of thing such terrorists are planning...but my point is just that it's not enough just to note that there was some increase in the likelihood of catching the bad guys.

One last question here: is this administration a big civics experiment to see how much dishonesty, corruption and incompetence the American people will put up with before putting their collective foot down?

Just wondering.
Calling Bullshit on Bush's Defense of Warrantless Wiretaps

Shakespeare's Sister, pinch-hitting for KD at the Washington Monthly, makes the same point I made yesterday--Bush's defense of his actions doesn't make any sense. To summarize the outlines of what seem to me like a very obvious case:

1. Terrorists already knew that we were looking for them and could tap their phone lines.

2. It doesn't matter to them whether their lines are tapped with or without a warrant.

3. It does, however, matter to American citizens whether wiretaps are being made with or without warrants.

So (a) the Times story in no way helps the terrorists, but (b) it provides important information to the American electorate.

This is the kind of unadulterated bullshit we have come to expect from this administration. As I've noted elsewhere, the president is privy to a great deal of information about national security that he can't reveal to us. We've (or some of 'we') have elected (well, sort of) him and thereby granted him certain rights and responsibilities with regard to this secret information about national security. One of the worst things he can do is lie to us about this secret information in order to gain political advantage.

We don't know how this story is going to play out yet, but there are many directions this could go that would, I believe, make impeachment an appropriate course of action.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Bush: I Am Not A Crook

At CNN.com.

Note that he continues to play the national security card even though it makes no sense whatsoever. Again: the terrorists already knew we could tap their lines, and they don't care in the slightest whether it's authorized by FISC or by the president.

One of the worst things a president can do is to play the national security card in order to deflect political heat from himself.
Hilzoy on the Illegality of Bush's Wiretaps

This from mighty Hilzoy, expresses and organizes some initial non-lawyerly thoughts about the legality of Bush's wiretaps.
Bush and the Warrantless Wiretaps: Some Thoughts

I saw this story early yesterday morning, but didn't post about it.

Fascinating biographical note: wiped out from too little sleep, my first thought about it went something like this: Jesus Christ! This guy is completely out of control! This is an outrage! Is the U.S. going to become a police state or what? But then outrage fatigue (and regular fatigue) set in and I thought: Why should this surprise me? This is of a piece with the way this administration has operated since the beginning. This is no different than innumerable other outrages, and it will pass almost entirely without comment. Guess I'd better just start getting used to it.

Turns out this may not be true. People may be getting genuinely pissed about this one. My guess is that two forces are fighting it out in the U.S. right now: outrage fatigue vs. the mounting weight of evidence that there is something deeply immoral and unAmerican about this administration. The question now may be one of whether the outrage or the outrage fatigue wins out.

Let me try to be as fair as possible to the President here. These wiretaps by the NSA are, as I understand it, supposed to be authorized through the Foreign Intelligence Surveilance Court. Some, however, say that the FISC is too stingy with warrants. This is, of course, possible. If the court sets the standards for obtaining a warrant too high, and if it is, in fact, legal for the president to authorize such wiretaps, and if he did it only in cases in which the wiretaps were clearly important, then he may, in fact, have done the right thing.

The problem, of course, is that this president has given us many reasons to mistrust his judgment--especially on matters such as this one--and we have been given no good evidence to believe that the FISC was not doing its job competently. Given the authoritarian tendencies of this administration, the smart money--given what we know now--has to be on the proposition that the president overstepped his authority. But we don't have enough evidence to make a reliable judgment on this question at this point. As for the question of whether he even has such legal authority, well, I'm not competent to make any judgment at all about that.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, though, I want to express my outrage at the fact that the administration is once again playing the fear card. Their response to these revelations has been to assert that the Times story has compromised national security. This seems like unadulterated bullshit. Terrorists were already no doubt aware of the fact that wiretaps could be conducted. And the warrants issued by FISC were not made public. To do so would, of course, be stupid. Terrorists have learned nothing important by learning that it is the president rather than FISC that is authorizing wiretaps. This information is important for Americans to know, and it tells the terrorists absolutely nothing of value, nothing important that they didn't already know.

This is, again, of a piece with this administration's general response to dissent: oppose invasion and you are helping the terrorists; disagree with the war strategy and you are helping the terrorists; advocate troop withdrawal and you are helping the terrorists; oppose the "Patriot" Act and advocate civil liberties and you are helping the terrorists; object to immoral and possibly illegal secret searches and wiretaps and you are helping the terrorists. Question the president in any way and you are helping the terrorists.

Sometimes I think that it's not so much any single action by these people that I oppose, but, rather something very general about their character, their conception of America, and their response to disagreement and dissent. Authoritarian tendencies exist in every country--including America--and sometimes I fear that this administration is an expression of and advocate for those tendencies here.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Making Fun of Funny Beliefs: A Slippery Slope Problem (?)

O.k., so I've thought a (very) little bit about this question because I teach philosophy, right? But the same question pops up in other contexts as well. To wit: how crazy/uncommon does a theory have to be before it's o.k. to blatantly make fun of it?

So, example: I think it's probably o.k. to make fun of the cult of Scientology. It's complete and unadulterated horse shit, and in case you've never really looked into it, you must! I mean, it's a hoot and a half. Evil space emperors committing galaxy-cide, possession by demons, past life memories from a "trillion trillion trillion trillion" years ago...I mean, seriously, only a (really, really bad) sci-fi writer could have come up with this crapola.

Now, I don't make fun of Scientology in class, but I think it would probably be morally permissible to do so.

But then what about Mormonism? With the whole story about gold tablets appearning and disappearing, Jesus visiting America, flaming salamanders, huge, thriving pre-Columbian cultures that left no archaeological evidence behind (including a gi-normous battle in 421 A.D. that left hundreds of thousands of people dead and nobody to bury the bodies). I mean, fer chrissake.

But Mormonism lies on a continuum with the rest of Christianity. If you buy the Jesus story, then you shouldn't have any trouble with him visiting North America. And it's more likely that a huge civilization could disappear without a trace than that the son of God came to earth and performed miracles. Not to mention somehow taking people's sins away.

So then we get:

(1) It's permissible to make fun of Scientology
(2) If it's permissible to make fun of Scientology, then it's permissible to make fun of Mormonism
(3) If it's permissible to make fun of Mormonism, then it's permissible to make fun of Christianity in general
(4) It's permissible to make fun of Christianity in general

Maybe (4) is true if you don't have a captive audience, but it isn't true when we're talking about a class. Or is it? Hmm... Perhaps degrees matter here. The occasional joke, but not a concerted campaign of derision?

But anyway: If (4) is false in some context, then by the above argument (1) is false in that context as well. But in what context could it be unreasonable to make fun of a dangerous cult with a laughable doctrine?

Which makes one wonder whether what matters is merely how common the belief in question is. Can we make fun of people who worship Asmodeus just because there are so few of them? Similar to: there are jokes about, e.g., people getting eaten by bears, but no jokes about people dying from cancer, even though the former does happen and is probably roughly as mind-bendingly traumatic and awful as the latter. But it can't matter that the one is just more common than the other, can it?

Nietzsche: "A joke is the epitaph on the death of a feeling."

The Medium Lobster Explains It All For You

One of our Anonymouses (Anonymice?) (one of the sane ones, presumably), left us this below. Don't miss this Very Special Episode of Fafblog, explaining Bush's thinking, the WMD fiasco, and other zany antics here in the round of rebirth.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Good Early Election News from Iraq

You've already seen this, so you don't need me to point you to it. I just couldn't resist the urge. Keep your fingers crossed all day. Drag out the rabbit's foot. Say yourself a prayer if you're into that sort of thing.

This whole damned ridiculous mess could still end up working out. I know, I know--no matter what happens we're still a bunch of idiots that got led by the nose into an unjust war that was against our national interest by an unelected and unqualified moronic religious fanatic. Um, that was bad. But on the bright side, nobody's going to remember that if this works out. (Um, except for people who are paying attention and Americans with political consciences...but those are fairly small groups...) If this debacle turns out to be...well, a debacle, the U.S. will be a target of hatred and derision well into the forseeable future. If this debacle some way, somehow ends up becoming less debacle-like and getting a rough semblance of a democratic government in place, then we just might escape with some small part of our reputation and dignity intact.

These are all secondary or tertiary considerations, of course. The most important thing is that the people of Iraq, who we have taken such an active role in abusing since the Reagan administration, finally get a fighting chance to live good lives. We started the whole damn thing by supporting Saddam and perhaps we could take some satisfaction from turning things around, no matter how accidentally and ineptly.

I'd be an amazing testament to the power of democracy should it succeed under these conditions--despite having been ineptly and unjustly introduced into a country that doesn't really seem ready for it and which is in the grip of hyper-theism. That last bit is the one we should be most concerned with now, I suppose. It's hard enough for America to keep its own theistic extremists in check; God (as it were) help the Iraqis.

Um, that all sounds fairly pessimistic, which wasn't the point of this post. The point was that we--and Iraq--are not dead yet. There's still a fighting chance to pull this thing off, and we'll know a lot more about the chances of success after today.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Io, Saturnalia
Or: The War against "Christmas"
Or: The War against Saturnalia

Um, news flash: Jesus wasn't born on Christmas. (I'm supposing here that there really was such a person as Jesus, because I'm assured by a biblical scholar I know and trust that there's fairly good evidence that this is true. I'm not assuming anything about his divinity, but I suppose you know where I stand on that question.) Anyway, he wasn't born on Christmas. Oh, maybe he was, I dunno. I guess there' s a 1/365 chance that he was. But the Winter Solstice holiday is really (in a somewhat contentious sense of 'really') a celebration honoring Saturn (noted child-eater. Hey, is that any way to promote family values, I ask you?).

So, you see, "Christmas" is really a war on Saturnalia. Since every now and then I'm a born again Pagan, I find this very annoying. If things offended me, I'd find it offensive too, you betcha.
Shorter George W. Bush:
I'm Such a Big Person That I Take Responsibility, Even Though It Wasn't My Fault.

Bush's faux admission of responsibility for the Iraq debacle is truly nauseating. It's a blatant attempt to simultaneously (a) deny responsibility and (b) try to make himself look like a stand-up guy who's taking responsibility for the errors of others. He blames the decision on faulty intelligence, but fails to take responsibility for his part in this mess by failing to admit that it was his administration that put pressure on the intelligence agencies, filtered the information until it suited them and then exaggerated it.

God these people are beneath my disgust.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Some Pretty Damn Good News About Iraq

I have an inclination to believe that many people with whom I tend to agree on political matters are so disgusted about the fact that we were deceived into going to war that they let this affect their views about how things are going in Iraq and about the likelihood of a relatively successful outcome there. As much as I want to see democracy in Iraq, I have to say that I do--to my shame--dread that outcome just a bit. As I've said before, Americans seem to evaluate policies on their success or failure, not on their rationality. If we succeed in Iraq, I expect that Bush will go down in short-term history as a kind of hero, deified perhaps even out of Reaganesque proportions. Nobody will remember that he was unqualified and dishonest, nor that his administration was corrupt and inept. Hmmm....so, you see, the similarities are multitudinous...

But as painful as that outcome would be, disaster in Iraq would, needless to say, be far worse. I can grit my teeth and listen to conservatives crow about black being white for the rest of my life if it means that the Iraqis finally get a decent existence in the trade. But here are some graphical representations of a poll of Iraqis done for "the BBC, ABC news, and other media organizations" that look pretty good. Although we are glutted with information about how things are going in Iraq, I feel like I'm in a reliable information vacuum. The media does tend to emphasize the worst about almost everything (Republican presidents seemingly providing the exception to the rule), and, well, anyone who is still believing this administration about anything must be living in a fantasy world.

But the Iraqis themselves seem fairly happy and optimistic. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a group of people better-situated to assess progress over there.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Niger Uranium Fiction and How the French Tried to Warn Us About It
[Oh, and Why Bush's "Sixteen Words" Were Not Even "Technically Correct"...Again]

Drum has a summary of the LA Times piece.

The one thing KD gets wrong here--and this is common mistake that I've complained about several times before--is that Bush's claim that "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" was "technically correct". (Drum acknowledges, of course, that the claim was "mendaciously misleading.")

Anyway, once again:
'Learned' is a "success term." You can't assert of S that he has learned that p if your best evidence indicates that he's made a mistake. (In fact, you can't even assert it if your best evidence is equivocal and forces you to suspend judgment on the matter.) In such cases all you can assert is something like S has come to believe that p.

The situation is analogous to the case of knowledge claims. If my best evidence indicates that p is false I can't honestly assert that you know that p, but only that you believe that p. If my evidence indicates that p is false (or even that we can't tell whether or not p is true), but I know that Smith has (so far as I can tell) mistakenly come to believe that p, but I tell you that Smith knows or has learned that p, then I am deceiving you.

And that's what Bush did.

There are minor complications here, but they end up not mattering. There are strange and kinda complicated uses of 'know' and its cognates that involve intentional misuse of the term for emphasis, as when people say things like "I just knew Kerry was going to win!" What they mean is that they were really, really sure that he was going to win, but they were wrong. So they didn't know, they just believed fervently. Similarly, there's the "we learned in school" locution we sometimes use to speak about false things we were taught. Again, it's kind of a joke, or intentional misuse of the term for emphasis.

It might be worth noting here that people who've spent more time thinking about it than I have say that Clinton's point about the meaning of 'is' was, in fact, "technically correct." Kinda interesting that no liberals I ever encountered had any inclination to defend Clinton on those grounds. Once it got to that point, people basically called bullshit on him; even if he was, technically speaking, telling the truth, he was still being a weasle. Most of us didn't care about what he was being a weasle about, and thought it was none of Ken Starr's or anybody else's business anyway, and knew that many basically honest people caught in a situation like that would weasle about it, even under oath...but we didn't try to argue that he wasn't weasling just because his claims were "technically correct."

Many Bush supporters are, however, willing to defend Bush's weasling on this vastly more serious point. This is our business, and the weasling matters here in a very profound way. The fact that certain Bush supporters are willing to grasp at this linguistic straw says, I believe, a rather great deal about them.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Al Libi, The Bogus Iraq-al Qaeda Link and the Effects of Torture

By now you've all seen this from the NYT. I'm not sure what there is to say about it.

This story may end up marking a turning point in my thinking about this war. Until now I've usually been inclined to try to distance myself from my judgments about what's going on. That is, though I'm fairly certain the administration handled evidence irresponsibly in the run-up, fairly certain they deceived us, fairly certain that the GWoT (G-SAVE, P-FUNK, whatever) is being run in a sub-optimal manner, and in particular fairly certain that the invasion was hasty at best and completely ill-conceived at worst, I keep trying to back off of those judgments and re-evaluate them, gather more evidence, consider more arguments (like e.g. Den Beste's formulation).

But new evidence in support of the judgments aforementioned seems to pour forth almost every week. The picture becomes clearer and clearer; the parts fit together in a more and more coherent manner.

The Times story (if true) brings at least four conclusions we have arrived at independently into coherence with each other: we have independent reason to believe that:

(i) There was no significant operational relationship between al Qaeda and Saddam
(ii) The evidence the administration used to persuade us that there was was thin and suspicious
(iii) We are employing torture or allowing torture to be employed with our imprimatur
(iv) Torture is an unreliable way to obtain information

The al Libi revelations give us reason to believe that we are, in fact, right about all of the above. In particular the story (if true) establishes certain interesting explanatory relationships. That the administration and/or its agents wanted to hear that (i) was false, together with the fact that torture victims tend to tell their torturers what they want to hear (which entails (iv)) explains why al Libi asserted that (i) was false. The information didn't fit in with other, better information to the effect that there was no significant operational link, and this conflict in part explains (ii). And, of course, the story, if true, means that (iii) is true.

As others have pointed out, none of this should come as a surprise given that the methods of torture being employed were designed to get people to assert certain pre-determined propositions--propositions that the torturers want to hear the tortured assert (if this can, in fact, be properly called 'assertion').

This grisly type of theater has always sent my mind reeling. The North Vietnamese torture our pilots until they get them to say certain words--"this war is illegal" or whatever--then they parade the film around as if it meant something. As if we didn't know that you can inflict enough pain on someone to get them to emit certain noises, including words, including words that sound like assertions.

The image of Christian inquisitors huddled over their victims, pulling out fingernails and burning flesh until the victims made the word-shaped sounds their torturers wanted to hear has always struck me as nauseating almost beyond imagining, not merely because of the inhuman brutality of the thing but almost as much because of its astonishingly sickening irrationality. Who could be so brutal and stupid to think that such quasi-assertions matter? If A knows that, with enough cutting and burning, he can get B to emit whatever words A chooses, why does A feel the urge to go through the gruesome motions at all?

Peirce somewhere says something like: assertion has a hypnotic effect. He may mean something like: merely hearing the words irresistably gives us some inclination to believe them, no matter how much collateral information we have that the asserter cannot be trusted. Maybe this can help explain what's going on in the minds of the torturers, and perhaps even in the minds of the administration, the sponsors and consumers of the resultant misinformation.

So this is what I'm thinking now: it's about time to stop distancing myself from my own considered judgments about all this. In the absence of a reliable official investigation of the matter--and, of course, the administration's resistance to an official investigation is another datum here--our evidence has become about as good as it can get that we were right about (i)-(iv). That's too bad, of course. I wish we'd been wrong, but that possibility seems more and more remote by the day.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

We, The Stupidest People on Earth...

From George F. Will, who I used to admire and may again: the right to digital teevee.

Please believe me when I say that this is the kind of thing that might just make me a Republican...if only the Republicans weren't in on it.

HAS EVERYONE F*CKING GONE INSANE??????????????????????????
Hillary Clinton, Demagogue

Well, now there's this.

This is about as close as I get to a political litmus test. If you don't give enough of a damn about the First Amendment and freedom of (especially political) expression to stand up to the flag fetishists, then it's virtually impossible for me to trust you with the reigns of government.

I've never really known what to make of Hillary Clinton. She strikes me as a smart and reasonably level-headed centrist, much like Bill, but I've never really been able to get a fix on her. Part of me would like to see her get elected president so that the crazies on the right would burst into flames. One benefit of this is that then I might be able to become a Republican and be shed of the hapless Democrats, the Chicago Cubs of politics.

That's a pipe dream, I realize...but less even of a dream anymore.

I've long said that virtually the only thing that would ever make me burn a flag would be the passage of an anti-flag-burning amendment. Perhaps that's what she's trying to ward off, but I suppose I should do the burning thing in the face of any such legislation. I suppose that possibly--just possibly--she's thinking that if we can avoid an amendment now by passing lower-level legislation, then we can overturn all that legislation in 20 or 30 years when the country evolves a bit and regains some measure of sanity. Yeah...maybe that's it...

I do hope some of you will be good enough to bake me a cake with a file in it if such legislation passes widely...

I wrote on this sort of thing before, when Wes Clark came out in favor of such legislation. Ugh, that was a hard one to take. In Clark's case, though, (a) he's do damn good I think I could even overlook this spectacular flaw, and (b) he's probably too smart ever to be elected, so whether I support him or not is irrelevant.

This is how we lose America. Step by step. Domestic spying, weakening of habeus corpus, searches of library records, warnings not to criticize the government, questioning of our patriotism, limitations on political expression...

Hell, man, the terrorists aren't winning, but they don't need to win. We're doing their job for them.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Not So Terrribly Much Wanted, Dead or Alive

Well, here's another reason it would have been good for us to have squashed bin Laden. According to al-Zawahiri, OBL is still running their little jihad. Me, I don't know whether OBL's alive or dead, and--needless to say--al-Zawahiri's word on it means absolutely nothing one way or the other. One might wonder, however, why OBL himself isn't on the tape...

But what we need here is a confirmed kill. It won't do as much good now as it would have done 4 years ago, but I guess it'd still be something.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Rumsfeld(')s Gone Wild?

So this. Johnny Quest heard the press conference and basically concluded that he'd gone nuts, as does Mr. Pizzo.

I didn't see it so I can't comment on his demeanor. His claim that U.S. troops should not intervene to stop Iraqi troops from abusing Iraqis made me feel...and believe me when I say that I never thought I'd have to say this with such frequency...rather ashamed to be an American. It also counts as some evidence against the claim that it's considerations about human rights that are driving this project.

But as for the complaints about Rumsfeld's claim that the insurgents aren't really so much insurgents as they are "enemies of the legally-elected Iraqi government"... Well, the man does have a damn point there, and pointing out that it makes for a funny acronym (EOLIEGs) (note: not an actual acronym) doesn't change that.

Reminds me a bit of the ridicule aimed at him for his extemporaneous epistemological claims about known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Easy to ridicule, but true and sometimes important to keep in mind.

Ridiculing Rumsfeld for these things is no better in my book than ridiculing Kerry for his perfectly intelligible and reasonable claim that he voted before the Iraq funding bill before he voted against it. These kinds of political potshots are beneath people who are serious about this stuff.

And in this case it's very odd to criticize him for this point when he actually said somethng really and importantly terrible during the same press conference. I mean, even if you're only interested in making the guy look bad (note: and you shouldn't be), why distract people from the truly awful thing he just said with this terminological triviality?

Monday, December 05, 2005

Dems Divided on Iraq

From today's Post.

This is a dangerous time for the Democrats. Much of their base--which, IMHO, is only marginally more rational that the Republican base--is clamoring for immediate withdrawal. I hope Democratic leaders realize that the one thing they absolutely cannot do in this situation is allow their base to influence their decision. That's not to say that the base might not be right in this case, just that it's not a question laypeople are capable of answering.

Two of the people I'm most likely to listen to on foreign policy matters, Wes Clark and Z-Big Brzezinsky, disagree on this one, with the latter making a case that's been slowly coalescing in the back of what I sometimes dignify by calling my "mind" over the last few weeks; it goes a little something like this: the current troop levels are just high enough to cause trouble but not high enough to really get the job done. The administration will not/cannot put in enough troops to do the job. The conclusion is left as an exercise for the reader.

People often get paralyzed in situations like this--that is, situations in which the available evidence underdetermines rational theory/action choice. However my line on such cases is that you might as well choose whichever course of action you prefer. So suppose, in the case at hand, that the arguments for staying really are just as strong as the arguments for going. In that case, we might as well flip a coin. Some might say "well, in that case we should opt for the more peaceful option and withdraw," but that would be to miss the point. If the case is as we've imagined it to be, then all considerations, including that one, have already been taken into account and the choice is still rationally underdetermined by the evidence.

So call it in the air, folks: (turn) tails (and run), or (keep our) heads (up our butts).

but in actual fact, nobody seems to agree that the evidence is perfectly equivocal; everybody seems to think that there's a little bit better reason for doing one thing rather than another.

At this point, I have to admit that I simply don't know.

Which brings us to a sort of footnote. I went into the Post article fearing that it was going to say that the Dems were split on the political strategy, and I was already preparing my a pox on both your houses sermon. At least the Dems are keeping some kind of lid on the--gotta be almost irresistable--urge to politicize this thing. And, once again, that's basically my reason for being a quasi-Democrat: they just don't suck quite as bad as the Republicans, who would have an electronic command post outside the White House by now directing syntho-throngs with professionally-printed anti-Gore/Kerry/(insert Democratic name here) signs by now. They'd be on every channel, red in the face and screaming about Democratic foreign policy incompetence, and about how the Dems aren't grown-ups, aren't tough enough to run a superpower, etc., etc. And imagine if a Democratic president got us into a mess like this allegedly in order to attain a humanitarian goal? He'd have been assassinated by now.

Finally, the Post article seems to suggest that there's a problem for the Democrats because they hold both of the following positions: (a) Bush screwed up by getting us into this mess, but (b) no, we don't know what to do about it. Maybe this is confusing enough to baffle the American electorate, but there's really no tension there at all. Bush screwed up really, really bad; and, because it was such a bad screw up nobody knows what to do now.

See, that's frequently what happens when you screw up really, really bad.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Sweden: The Newest Front in the War on Christmas

Listen, people, this is no laughing matter. According to the Post, Vandals Burn Swedish Christmas Goat--Again.

Bill O'Reilly tried to tell us, but we wouldn't listen. Thank God the new front has opened up there rather than here. Perhaps this "flypaper" strategy will keep all the atheists in Sweden, leaving God-fearing Americans free to...er...fear God or whatever.

Incidentally, does anybody know why fearing God is supposed to be a good thing?
Invading Iraq: More on the Den Beste Argument

Our earlier discussion based on the Den Beste argument helped, I believe, to focus our discussion in several important ways. I won't list them all now, but I will point out some that are of particular interest to me. So here goes another episode of 4-I's:

It has become clear that one important proposition here is:

(IMA) The invasion of Iraq was (at the time of invasion) more likely to decrease the number/effectiveness of terrorists in the long run than was the killing of OBL et. al. and the (re)building of Afghanistan.

Another important proposition--more important, I believe, is:

(IMC) The invasion of Iraq was (at the time of invasion) more likely to decrease the number/effectiveness of terrorists in the long run than was (what I will call) the more direct, conventional strategy.

Although I'm perfectly happy to discuss (IMA), it seems like it's (IMC) that we should really be interested in, so I'll start there and then if anyone sees any reason to revert to (IMA) we can do so.

What does the more direct and conventional strategy look like? Well, people who know much more about this than I do have much more interesting things to say about this, but, since to some extent we are discussing the question 'what other relatively obvious strategies should we have been considering in 2002?', I think it might be worthwhile to just sketch out some of the other options that came fairly readily to mind at that time. I take the strategy to include e.g.:

1. Pouring far more military resources into Afghanistan than we did, in order to crush all al Qaeda elements in that country, win the battle of Tora Bora in a resounding fashion, eliminate the Taliban, slap the Afghan warlords and drug lords into line, and kill OBL and other important al Qaeda leaders. Aside from the obvious reasons, one reason for bringing overwhelming force to bear in this case is to show the world that attacking us brings immediate and irresistable annhiliation.

2. Pouring massive resources into the rebuilding of Afghanistan. Among the many other reasons--primarily moral ones--for doing this would also be some prudential reasons. This project would solidify the moral authority of the United States and increase the already astonishing amount of good will directed toward us after 9/11 (good will which has, of course, now more than evaporated). It would also give us a stable, liberal democratic ally in the region, on the border of the crucial and volatile Pakistan. (Mr. Den Beste suggested in the previous discussion that such good will was not very valuable; I disagree in the strongest possible terms. Such good will is crucially important from a prudential perspective.)

3. Achieving independence from Middle Eastern oil in order to make it feasible for us to sever our ties with authoritarian regimes, Saudi Arabia in particular. Jimmy Carter tried to explain the importance of energy independence to America 30 years ago and was ridiculed mercilessly. In retrospect, there can be no doubt that he was right. Had we followed his advice, 9/11 would never have happened. Now that achieving independence from Middle Eastern oil has become even more obviously imperative, we might even have to consider loathesome options like drilling in the ANWR and more nuclear power. Those are terrible options, but we've allowed ourselves to be backed into a corner and must now consider them, even if they may ultimately be avoidable.

4. Providing aid to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Middle Eastern countries to establish secular schools. These schools would be alternatives to the Madrassas. They would introduce the Western, secular idea of liberal education and democratic government into these countries and, from a vocational perspective, help the people of those countries build viable, sustainable (i.e. non-oil-based) economies.

5. Working from outside, with the U.N., to encourage the relevant societies to become more open and liberal. This would include helping them to understand that a secular democratic government need not be anti-religious. This might involve, for example, a massive information campaign conducted through the VoA or some similar organ of the U.S. Satelite television is apparently wildly popular in much of the Middle East, and an extremely well-run, well-funded television channel dedicated to explaining the idea of liberal democracy and multi-cultural society would probably have a significant impact.

6. Eliminating our support for regimes such as those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt which repress their people and do not allow them to express dissent, but allow media outlets to criticize the United States in lieu of criticizing their own governments. Currently we are supporting tyrants who re-direct the rage of their populace against us. But if we no longer need their oil, there will no longer be any need to tolerate this. This is not even to mention the fact that our support of such tyrants is morally inexcusable.

These are, of course, only the most obvious steps. The administration's strategy, as partially represented by the Den Beste argument, is flawed, I believe, because it treats the multifaceted problem that is the Middle East as if it were one single problem solvable by a military "hail Mary." The U.S. seems to have become like the man whose only tool is a hammer, so he treats every problem as a nail. But military problems need military solutions and non-military problems need non-military ones. We needed to use the military not just to defeat OBL et. al., but to vaporize them. There should be a national park at Tora Bora where people can go to see the smudge of ashes on the floor that are the mortal remains of Osama bin Laden, so that people will still go there in a hundred years and, pointing to it, say "The Americans did that." There should also be schools and libraries and highways and water purification plants, and people pointing to them, too, and saying "The Americans also did that."

These are just the obvious alternatives to invading Iraq. I'd bet every cent I have that this strategy would be more likely to work than the invasion of Iraq.

[Forgot to reference the propostions as formulated above: to make the conclusion painfully clear, I think that (IMC) is far from being obviously true, and is, in fact, probably false.]
Carolina 83, Kentucky 79

At Rupp. Oh yeah.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

al Qaeda Finally Does Something Right

See, now that's what I'm talkin' 'bout.

Er, not that I trust this report from the Pakistanis, who, apparently don't actually have the body...