Tuesday, June 03, 2003
Sometimes it seems as if reality is considerably more absurd than anything fiction could dream up. And so another American administration embarks on yet another attempt to achieve a settlement between the Arabs and Israelis. The proper image this brings to mind is best exemplified in a number of recent Cox & Forkum cartoons such as this one and this one as well as this one. President Bush like every American President before him will unfortunately learn the hard way that treating the Israelis and Palestianians as moral equals will only perpetuate the problem. As for Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, he too will learn that he is not smarter than former Israeli Prime Minister's Rabin or Barak and his following in their footsteps will lead to exactly the same results --- more terror against Israelis.
Actually, I almost returned to writing in this blog several days ago when I first came across Dennis Prager's column Monkeys and atheists . As usual, Prager returns to the false alternative between "randomness is the creator" and God as the "Creator/Designer." It was not so much this theme that upset me but the way Prager presents it and the implicit "you would have to be a complete moron to believe otherwise" attitude that pervades the column. At first the column so outraged me that I thought I had to respond to it in detail and take it apart line by line. I even considered writing a reverse column, perhaps titled "Monkeys and theists." But in the end I thought better of it. I reminded myself that I have addressed the essential issue before (although for some reason I can't locate it in my archives). Briefly, the Chance/Randomness vs. Creator/Designer false alternative is resolved via the forgotten third option of Identity/Causality and the absurdities in the culture and science have to do with the decline of reason not the decline of religion. And frankly I have better things to do than constantly harp on Prager's misrepresentations of the supposed consequences of secular thinking.
It's been brought to my attention that I haven't posted in a while which is certainly true. Let me explain: As regular readers of this blog know, most of its content has been devoted to comments on the Dennis Prager show, which I used to listen to on a daily basis. However, since I have recently stopped listening to the show, much of my inspiration for writing has gone away. In addition, the company where I work has quite properly issued reminders that access to the Internet is provided to employees and contractors such as myself for business purposes only. As a result, I have stopped all non-business web browsing at work and this eliminated literally several hours of Internet time a day and thus virtually all my blog writing time since I don't tend to browse the web as much when I'm at home. Nevertheless, a number of issues have come up recently which do require some comment so I have returned.
Tuesday, May 13, 2003
The tragic case of the attack on the American intelligence gathering ship Liberty by Israeli forces during the 1967 war continues to be discussed among conspiracy theorists despite the availability of a detailed explanation of what happened. Basically the incident is similar to friendly fire incidents that have occured in every war.
Via Gil Shterzer of Israeli Guy, we learn that, before, during and after operation Iraqi Freedom, numerous American planes flew over Israeli airspace moving men and materiel into battle. However, during a recent such flight a mistaken identification almost led to repeat of the Liberty tragedy. Fortunately it was averted. Here's an excerpt from an article called Confusion Reigns in The Heavens Above Israel from Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper:
A mistake in identifying American Hercules aircraft, which were flying above Israel yesterday evening, caused an immediate closure of the southern fly- zone and the launching of F-15 fighter planes because of a concern that there was an enemy incursion.
Southern Air force inspectors identified several Hercules aircraft entering Israeli airspace yesterday evening around 6 PM. The inspectors suspected that the sightings were of enemy aircraft and gave an instruction to dozens of aircraft, civilian and military, to land as quickly as possible. At the same time f-15 planes were sent up to intercept.
Inspectors told Maariv that for the course of half an hour confusion reigned in the heavens above southern Israel, and the aircraft that were flying in the region. Commander of the Air force, General Dan Halutz, has instructed the chief of operations in the Air force to investigate the event.
Wednesday, April 30, 2003
Friday, April 25, 2003
Why is it that so many Americans think democracy is the best form of government? Why is it that so many Americans believe we live in a democracy? Why is it that democracy, once regarded as a terrible form of government, is now elevated to the status of an ideal?
It must be the profound failure of the education system and media in America...
...our Constitution and Declaration of Independence and other founding documents never mention the word "democracy"...Democracy means the majority rules. That was never the intent of our founders. They believed in the rule of law, not the rule of men. They understood that because of the fallen state of man, he would inevitably vote himself into slavery and tyranny if provided the tools.
Since I am not a Christian, I wouldn't blame it on the "fallen state of man" (I would blame it on philosophy -- there is no so-called "fallen state of man", only ordinary men, their ideas and choices) but that's pretty much what we've done in numerous ways. Farah concludes:
It wasn't that long ago that most Americans understood these issues. In 1928, for example, the U.S. Army published training Manual 2000-25 for its officers. Here are some two definitions included in it:
"DEMOCRACY: A government of masses. Authority derived through mass meeting or any other kind of "direct" expression. Results in mobocracy. Attitude toward property is communistic – negating property rights. Attitude toward law is that the majority shall regulate, whether it be based upon deliberation or governed by passion, prejudice or impulse, without restraint or regard to consequences. Results in demagoguism, license, agitation, discontent, anarchy."
"REPUBLIC: Authority is derived through the election by the people of public officials best fitted to represent them. Attitude toward property is respect for laws and individual rights, and a sensible economic procedure. Attitude toward law is the administration of justice in accord with fixed principles and established evidence, with a strict regard for consequences. A great number of citizens and extent of territory may be brought within its compass. Avoids the dangerous extreme of either tyranny or mobocracy. Results in statesmanship, liberty, reason, justice, contentment, and progress."
Tuesday, April 22, 2003
First, it is unclear what Prager means by religious "jerks." Does he mean that these people would be wise if it weren't for the fact that they are bad? Why can't I as a secular person say that just as there are religious "jerks," there are secular "jerks" and yet at the same time there are numerous wise people among the secular? There are in fact numerous secular people with a great amount of wisdom. Wisdom is not some special mystic quality that only religious people possess. Two things are necessary for wisdom: Knowledge and thinking. Neither is the exclusive prerogative of either religion or secularism. Once again it is necessary to recall that secularism simply means: "indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations" (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). It does not say anything about what in fact one does not reject, is not indifferent to, or does not exclude. Ayn Rand, Sydney Hooke, Karl Marx and Jean Paul Sartre were secular, in fact, they were all atheists. But they didn't have much in common otherwise. Ayn Rand was an Objectivist with all that implies, Sidney Hooke was a Pragmatist, while at the same time being somewhat of a socialist but also an fervent anti-communist, Karl Marx was the father of Marxist Communism, Jean Paul Sartre was an Existentialist and in some moods a Marxist. (By the way, of the four, I would say the first two possessed some wisdom, the last two very little).
My basic point is really that goodness and wisdom are not special to religion at all. Religion is a set of beliefs, customs and instituitions. Over the millenia there have been a wide variety of religions and religious movements some with more wisdom and some with considerably less. It is not so much that the most wise periods were the least religious, but more importantly, the most wise periods were the most rational, whether most people were religious or secular. I believe religion cannot ultimately be as rational as a proper secular philosophy such as Objectivism but unfortunately most secular philosophies ever since Kant have been considerably more irrational than the mainstream religions. It is a common mistake to consider the 20th century as somehow illustrating the hazards of secularism. What it in fact demonstrates are the hazards of irrationalism, an irrationalism that is clearly making its influence felt on both religious and secular people of many varieties.
Prager often accuses people in the secular left of not having any good arguments because they are not exposed to any real criticism of their position. Prager certainly seems to have much experience debating people of the secular left. However, it does seem that he does not have much experience debating people of the secular right and thus he cannot take their views very seriously, much as he accuses that the left cannot take religious views very seriously.
Monday, April 21, 2003
John Stossel's specials on ABC have been a rare treat in the frequently rather dreary world of investigative reporting. Tonight's special on addiction promises to be quite good. From the preview page at ABC:
In Help Me, I Can't Help Myself, ABCNEWS' John Stossel reports on conflicting views about addiction and popular treatments and asks: is addiction a choice? The hour-long special airs MONDAY, APRIL 21, at 8 p.m. on ABC.
Cancer is a disease — you cannot "quit" cancer. Addiction is a choice. It can be difficult to quit, but people choose to do that every day.
Wednesday, April 16, 2003
While commenting on Passover Prager made some interesting points, some of which I agree with. Just to review, Passover tells the story of the Israelites exodus from Egypt where they had been slaves. Prager makes the point that in addition to being physically freed Israelites had to free themselves from the ideas of Egypt. Egypt's culture was focused on death as evidenced by the pyramids, which while architecturally impressive structures, were giant tombs, as well as the so-called Egyptian Book of the Dead. Prager argues that on the other hand, the Torah or teaching that God provided the Israelites is focused on life as evidenced by the kosher rules, including prohibition on drinking any blood (hence the large quantities of salt in kosher meats to draw the blood out before eating) and the prohibition of combining milk and meat (supposedly to avoid mixing a symbol of life -- milk -- with a symbol of death -- dead flesh). In addition Jewish priests (which today means descendents of the priests that originally served the Jewish temple) are prohibited from visiting cemeteries. I might also add that it is widely known that Jews cheer drinks with the phrase L'Chaim meaning "To life".
I can agree with Prager on Egypt but I only have limited agreement on Judaism. Egypt, to the best of my knowledge, was indeed a culture devoted to death as shown by the examples that Prager gave. It is also illustrated by the little progress it achieved in 3000 years of history. However, it is much more difficult to make the case that Judaism is the religion of life, especially based on a few rather nonsensical symbolic theological commands. This much can be said in Judaism's favor based on my own knowledge and experience. It is focused on living this life according to the rules God gave because God gave them. However, it cannot be fully considered life oriented because while it does focus on this life, it examines it in light of laws that came from outside life. Fortunately, it does have an effective fail-safe mechanism, a passage in the Bible that is interpreted to mean that since God ordered man to live by the laws, he never intended death (or even injury) to result from them. This is interpreted in such a way that almost no law is to be followed if it results in one's own injury or death. Also, it is quite clear that the more rational Greek philosophy had a substantial influence on Judaism making it more difficult to pursue some of its more absurd notions. Today, both Judaism and Christianity have been substantially tempered by the Enlightenment ideas of the 18th century and it is those ideas of reason and individual rights that are the true culture of life.
Prager's second hour included an interview with an Palestinian Arab intellectual which once again illustrated the fantasy world in which the Arabs live. Interviews such as this one give little hope for the future in the Middle East. Finally, Prager's third hour today discussed the absurdity of the Dutch court giving former Holland prime ministerial candidate Pim Fortuyn's assassin a mere 18 years in prison and once again pointed out that far from Europe being morally superior for having abolished the death penalty, it is American that is morally superior for preserving it and not keeping murderers alive.
...something terrible happened to us on September 11, and that gives us the right to interpret all future events in a way that everyone else in the world must agree with us...And if they don't, they can go straight to hell
Let's hope President Bush is following President Clinton's inadvertent advice.
After the POWs were found over the weekend various people started referring to them as heroes, even though the former POWs insist they are nothing of the sort. It seems there are two major problems with the use of the word hero. First, it is frequently not applied to people deserving the term such as the great industrialists and businessmen, who are usually villified. This point is covered adequately in an op-ed piece by Scott McConnell of the Ayn Rand Institute. Second, and the point that relates to the POWs, is that it is frequently applied to people, who while they may be termed brave and good, simply do not deserve to be put in the same category of people who actually are heroes.
In my opinion the term hero should be limited to exceptional people who, through their own effort either create or preserve a great value. Thus a firefighter who fights fires and preserves peoples' lives and property can be a hero. A soldier who exhibits exceptional bravery under fire and saves his fellow injured soldiers or achieves a difficult military objective is a hero. An inventor who builds a new beneficial machine is a hero. A businessman who builds a business empire that provides goods and services to people where there was nothing before is a hero. However, simply surviving under torturous conditions may be admirable in many ways but it simply does not rise to the level of heroism. In order to be hero one must have acted in some way to be deserving of the term and simply being held in dire circumstances does not qualify. Of course, if we really wish to dilute the term we could say that all soldiers are heroes because compared to us civilians they do exceptional things every day but the problem with such an approach is that we then lose the distinctive positive moral meaning of the term hero and I think that would be shame.
Friday, April 11, 2003
I saved myself a weekday trip to Irvine last night. Thanks to Mark Da Cunha's Capitalism Magazine I was able to watch Leonard Peikoff's Ford Hall Forum talk over the Internet. I have to say that having now actually watched the speech I am much relieved. Based on the summaries I read I thought perhaps I would be embarrassed but Peikoff actually makes a perfectly reasonable argument. I was happy to find out that the part about total war and civilian casualities was a rather small, unemphasized part of his talk, which focused primarily on the deterioration of the American people. Despite some of my misgivings about the kind of war Peikoff would like to wage, Peikoff's criticisms of our self-imposed restrictions do have some justice on their side. I am not as pessimistic as Peikoff but the points he made about the present state of the American people do give one pause and remind us that thanks to 100 years of progressive eduction the people are intellectually nowhere near where they need to be. I do agree with Paul Blair who said that it once again shows how radical Objectivism is. We have our work cut out for us.
Wednesday, April 09, 2003
Meanwhile among the PalestiniansThis fascinating article from today's Jerusalem Post by KHALED ABU TOAMEH describes the realization of Palestinian Arabs that they have been lied to:
There was shock and disbelief in the West Bank and Gaza Strip Wednesday as Palestinians gathered around TV sets to watch US Marines and Iraqi residents knock down a giant statute of Saddam Hussein in Tahrir Square in central Baghdad.
"I'm stunned and appalled. I can't understand what is happening," said Rustum Abu Ghazalah, a 30-year-old shopkeeper in the center of Ramallah.
Some Palestinians chose to vent their anger on the Arab media, especially al-Jazeera, Abu Dhabi and al-Arabiya TV stations, for broadcasting lies about the developments on the battlefield. "For the past three weeks these stations gave us the impression that Iraq had the upper hand in the fighting against the US and British forces," complained Yahya al-Natsheh, the owner of a boutique in al-Bireh, the twin city of Ramallah.
"Where is the liar [Iraqi information minister Mohammed] Sahhaf," he asked rhetorically. "He sounded and looked so confidant when he told us that the Iraqis were slaughtering the crusaders and mercenaries at the gates of Baghdad. Everyone believed that the Iraqis were cleverly luring the Americans and British into Baghdad, which was supposed into a huge graveyard for the crusaders."
Older Palestinians said the events in Iraq are reminiscent of the Six Day War, when Arab radio stations and leaders told their audiences that Israel was on the verge of defeat. They said the TV appearances of the Iraqi information minister, who remained defiant till the last minute, insisting that everything was under control and that the enemy had been defeated.
"Sahhaf reminded me of [Egyptian radio propagandist] Ahmed Said, who during the 1967 war, told us that the Israeli warplanes were falling like flies," said Abed al-Zamel, a 70-year-old retired schoolteacher from Silwad village near Ramallah. "Once again the Arabs have fallen victim to the lies of their leaders and media. We never learn from our mistakes. When the war erupted, I warned my sons not to watch Arab TV stations so they would not be disappointed and depressed when the truth eventually comes out."
This is so pathetic that one is almost tempted to feel sorry for them. But, given that they are in Israel with plenty of access to Western media (perhaps that's part of the problem) they have only themselves to blame. They chose to believe what they wanted to believe rather than the facts.
Monday, April 07, 2003
Meanwhile, in BaghdadSome pictures are just plain cool. This is one of them.
Taking five in the palaceU.S. Army Staff Sgt. Chad Touchett, center, relaxes with comrades from A Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, following a search in one of Saddam Hussein's Baghdad palaces on Monday.
Friday, April 04, 2003
Michael Kelly, 1957-2003From today's Washington Post:
Michael Kelly, 46, the Atlantic Monthly editor-at-large and Washington Post columnist who abandoned the safety of editorial offices to cover the war in Iraq, has been killed in a Humvee accident while traveling with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division.
Ever since 9/11 I have regularly read Michael Kelly's columns and I will miss them now. Here's a quote from the column. . . Pacifist Claptrap that I particularly liked, published on September 26, 2001 in the Washington Post:
As President Bush said of nations: A war has been declared; you are either on one side or another. You are either for doing what is necessary to capture or kill those who control and fund and harbor the terrorists, or you are for not doing this. If you are for not doing this, you are for allowing the terrorists to continue their attacks on America. You are saying, in fact: I believe that it is better to allow more Americans -- perhaps a great many more -- to be murdered than to capture or kill the murderers.
That is the pacifists' position, and it is evil.
Thursday, April 03, 2003
I think I have two frustrations with Dennis Prager. Both have to do with his religious views. The first is his complete denial of any possibility of a secular right. Prager speaks highly of Conservatives on the right and their Judeo-Christian values. He denounces Liberals and their secular values. He recognizes that there is such a thing as a religious left but he thinks they are either completely misinterpreting their religions or are in some way insincerely religious. A secular right however, of which Objectivism would be the main (in my view the only true) example, simply does not exist for him -- at least he never talks about it. This is evident in Prager's frequent denials of the possibility of a non-religious basis for morality.
The second of my frustrations with Prager came up today during an interview with Larry A. Witham, author of By Design: Science and the Search for God, a book which from the description that amazon quotes from Publisher's Weekly "surveys the ongoing dialogue between scientists and theologians about the relationship between science and religion." Generally, Prager berates people for expecting science to provide anything other than mere descriptions of nature. Science, Prager thinks, cannot provide fundamental explanations, for that we need religion. Prager also argues that religion should not be looked at for detailed natural descriptions. It is a mistake to interpret the sacred texts too literally. Thus, science and religion are like apples and oranges. Science discovers the "how," while religion reveals the "why." The two should not and cannot conflict. Nevertheless, during the interview Prager clearly pressed for the theistic point of view by argueing that any attempt to explain the universe without God is doomed to absurdity because such an attempt would have to conclude that everything we experience is a result of a fundamental randomness or chance. It is this last that I have to challenge.
Randomness, chance, accident: These are not concepts relating to inherent properties of objects. Rather, they are descriptions of a relation of one or more entities' actions with respect to some purpose. If the entities act without relation to any known purpose they are presumed to be random. Thus for example, genetic mutations in evolution are termed random. Why? Because such mutations happen regardless of the purposes or goals of the organism involved. There are in fact perfectly good biochemical and physical reasons and causes for these mutations but these causes are entirely independent of the survival goals of the organism involved. In other words the mutations happen for a reason but the reason is not related to the organism's needs. The mutations do not happen in order to help the organism (or hurt it for that matter). They are purposeless. Thus they are termed chance, accidental or random mutations but they are not inherently random -- they happened because of definite physical causes relating to the specific molecules involved. They are not causeless. And here lies the crux of the matter. The choice in looking at the universe is not merely purpose/design vs. randomness. Randomness as an inherent property does not and cannot exist. The alternative to purpose vs randomness are the laws of identity and causality. Identity is the law which describes the fact that everything in the universe has a nature, it is something and not something else. Causality then takes the fact of identity and applies it to action. Causality is the law of cause and effect, the fact that things act the way they act because of the kinds of things that they are.
If one is not already a theist, the application of the term "random" to the whole universe is really quite mysterious. With respect to who's purposes is the universe's operation supposed to be random? The universe just is, it does not and cannot have any purposes. And since the universe is all that there is there could not be anything outside of it with respect to which it could have purposes. Only conscious organisms within the universe have purposes and it is only with respect to their purposes that entities can be described as acting randomly (i.e., apart from their purposes) or deliberately (i.e., determined by their purposes). (More broadly, this point can be expanded to all living things, as all living things are goal directed, having been genetically programmed to be so). The evaluation of the whole universe as random or chance is improper and relies on a prior assumption that God exists and the universe somehow exists independently of God's purpose.
Finally let me counter the point made by Prager during the show that he cannot understand how all sorts of things make sense in the universe without God. You cannot have infinite regress. The facts are that the universe exists, human beings exists and human beings are able to make choices and think conceptually. The reason for the existence of great works of art and other human achievements are obviously human choices, thinking and action. The credit goes to the creators and discoverers of these things not to God. As to the natural laws -- here the explanation ultimately has to be that's the way things necessarily are. Religious people gain nothing by saying in effect: A self-sufficient universe is not enough, I need a self-sufficient God. To that the obvious retort is: And why did God create the world in the way he did? Well the fundamental answer given by religious people of all times is that God's purposes are ultimately unknowable. Since there is absolutely no evidence for God, and in fact to the extent that God is defined at all the concept is self-contradictory, I will remain loyal to the reality that I see everyday and accept no supernatural fairy tales.
Wednesday, April 02, 2003
This little item from the Jerusalem Post caught my eye. The article informatively entitled First-ever religious channel kicks off this weekend mentions efforts to provide television programming for the Jewish Orthodox community in Israel. Here are some samples of what they can expect to see:
A soap opera tracking the rivalries, ambitions, and secrets of a Tel Aviv hassidic court...
The Modest and the Charming, a chat show presented by eight religious women dealing with women's issues, male-female relations, Jewish and social affairs and The Wandering Jew, a travel show revisiting the various places where Jewish communities have thrived, hosted by religious actor Jackie Levi.
Beit Midrash Techelet will also air, mixing Kabbala and mysticism with psychology, self knowledge and science.
Of course, what really caught my eye was the following paradoxical statement:
He also said that efforts will be made to reach out to the haredi community in a way that will not require them to "buy a whole cow for a cup of milk," explaining that since many haredi families don't own televisions, Techelet might reach them through the sale of videotapes.
It was not made clear in the article what people who don't own televisions are supposed to do with videotapes. :-)
Tuesday, April 01, 2003
Monday, March 31, 2003
Agence France Presse
A U.S. Army soldier inspects a convoy as it arrives at the front gate of an allied airbase which coalition forces have nicknamed "Bush International Airport" today in the southern Iraqi desert.
Thursday, March 27, 2003
Prager's second point about this letter writing assignment was the fact that Jesus and Christianity were used as arguments against the war. Prager asked Christians to call in to give their views as to whether such an interpretation of Christianity was justified. The Christians who did call in argued that individuals using Christianity and Jesus in opposition to war were engaging in a rather selective reading of the New Testament, and several cited sections of the New Testament that do lend support to governments engaging in wars to root out evil. Prager added that they were completely ignoring pro-war sentiments expressed in the Old Testament.
It was during a call by a Christian expressing his frustration with "humanist" opponents of war and other issues that Prager made a comment to which I am utterly opposed. The caller described situations in which policy issues were discussed with secular people and whenever the Christian would offer his faith as a justification for the policy, the secular side would argue that they would only accept secular arguments and any policy arguments backed by faith are by that very fact invalid. To this Prager responded that all moral evaluations whether secular or religious are based on faith.
It is to this last statement I have to respond. Let's take this seriously for a moment. Prager claims that all moral evaluations are based on faith. Faith is basically belief in the absence of evidence. This means that faith is the feeling that something is right without any rational reason to support it. And how is the feeling that war is right to be justified? How can any appeal to feeling be justified? It cannot. Not if feelings are claimed to be the fundamental basis our moral judgements and on which all our subsequents argument for or against an issue are depend. Imagine any argument of a high level of complexity. The argument begins with both sides making the case rationally but according to Prager necessarily ends with both sides reaching their fundamental feelings on the matter about which they cannot argue at all. So basically the secular Pragmatists like Dewey and Peirce who argued that moral pronouncements amount to emotional ejaculations are correct. I thought Prager's reason for support of religion over secularism was that religion provides an objective basis for moral values. But clearly Prager has now entirely conceded the case to the moral relativists. Their positions are based just as much on feelings as Prager's faith. Who's to say who's right? I do feel Prager is right most of the time but others feel differently. Why are some people's feelings better than others? Is there no way in which feelings can be judged rationally?
Make no mistake about it, this is precisely the reason why our culture is in the mess that it is. The religious and the secular, despite some vigorous denials to the contrary primarily from the religious side, agree entirely with the statement that Prager made which basically means: There is no rational, objective, scientific basis for morality. There are only faith and feelings. Faith that God's pronouncements are correct, the feelings of the majority or the feelings of the individual. This is the great myth of the present culture. Only the remnants of the Enlightenment ideas of the founding of this country are keeping it from turning into the moral wasteland of Europe. The fact is that it is possible to base morality on something other than faith. And this fact has been known since the publication of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged in 1957 where Ayn Rand first offered her Objectivist ethics, the first truly objective, rational, and scientific morality in history, to the world. I will not attempt to reconstruct her argument for it here. In the early sixties Ayn Rand published an essay called Introduction to Objectivist Ethics, in which the argument is clearly presented. The essay is reprinted in her book Virtue of Selfishness. In addition Leonard Peikoff in his 1991 book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand gives a complete and thorough presentation based partly on a lecture course authorized by Ayn Rand that he gave in the seventies. Tara Smith's Viable Values published in 2000 gives a detailed academic presentation of the metaethics of Objectivism with some important criticisms of non-Objectivist alternatives. Finally, Craig Biddle's Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It published in 2002 gives a complete, easy to read, presentation of Objectivist ethics for the educated layman and demolishes the false alternative of religion vs. relativism.
Wednesday, March 26, 2003
Of course, this should all sound very familiar, as that is almost exactly how the Afghan war was fought, and, I might add won, despite various politically correct efforts which seemed to undermine it. It does appear that we have some leeway in the extent to which we can undermine our own efforts, at least up to a certain point. An interesting thought experiment would be to imagine how the battle would go if we did not engage in these pc shenanigans. I suspect it might just go a lot better than people would expect (not that things are going particularly bad at the moment).
What is one to say to such fantasies?
Add to that Barry Rubin's column titled "Can the 'wall of lies' be breached?" Rubin recounts his participation in a "a panel discussion on the US war with Iraq, facing journalists and academics in three Arab capitals." Here are some choice excerpts of some of the assertions he encountered:
* The United States was leveling Baghdad, deliberately attacking residential areas and hitting such buildings as hospitals. One panelist said he knew Baghdad well and that the neighborhood being hit was a place where many people lived.
* The plan for the attack had been set at a 1997 meeting to honor the centennial of the first Zionist Congress.
* Americans hated Arabs and Muslims.
* Bush was the true leader of the Axis of Evil, and basically the United States was seeking world conquest. Of course the widespread opposition to the war in Europe and even in the US was cited in this regard.
I can only echo Rubin's conclusion:
What remains so disturbing is the disconnection between reality and the beliefs and ideas offered up by most of the Arab world. What will it take to shake these misperceptions, which have led to so much suffering and failure? Perhaps Iraq, at least, might escape the treadmill to nowhere.
Monday, March 24, 2003
A U.S. pilot flashes a victory sign. (AP)
Having watched the watched the war coverage since its inception about 5 days ago, it is still amazing to me how quickly some of the coverage has turned negative, implying that the war is not going as well as it in fact is. For an excellent analysis of this kind of coverage see James Lileks blog. I will just add that I still expect the actual major fighting in this war to be over in a matter of weeks, not months. I expect the casualties to be in the hundreds, not thousands. And yes, I do expect most Iraqis will cheer us when we finally liberate them from Saddam's grip. Unfortunately most still means "not all" and thus there will be some Iraqis who will fight us for various reasons. As I was telling my wife the other night, a country is not held in terror by one man alone. Saddam had numerous henchmen and they feel in many ways more sympathetic to Saddam than we do. So it is not surprising that not everybody has surrendered just yet. Saddam also has access to various hired goons and terrorists as we are already seeing in Northern Iraq. None of that will help him. We will be victorious.
Prager read detailed excerpts from an essay by Daniel Pepper a former "human shield." The essay was appropriately titled "I was a naive fool to be a human shield for Saddam". Mr. Pepper describes that upon his encounter of real Iraqis supporting a war by the US to overthrow Saddam he began to question his assumptions and change his mind about the war to the point where he is not "exactly pro-war - no, [...] ambivalent - but [with] a strong desire to see Saddam removed." It is certainly to Daniel Pepper's credit that he did change his mind and was willing to admit he was wrong. But I can't help but wonder why it took going to Iraq to figure this all out -- after all the information of which Mr. Pepper speaks is widely available in the West. I have to conclude that people like Mr. Pepper are so completely distrustful of their goverment and any sources to the right of Noam Chomsky that they have to actually have people in Iraq tell them personally that they are wrong.
During the first hour Prager talked about the spectacle of the academy awards which could not find time for any supportive comments for the troops presently fighting for their freedom. He also talked about Michael Moore's statement against the President and the war, as well as about Adrien Brody's statement. Ironically, my wife and I while sitting in the kitchen eating dinner couldn't find anything interesting on TV so we tuned to ABC to watch the Oscars just as the nominations for Best Documentary Features were announced. To our great dismay Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine won at which point we immediately changed the channel.
If we had stayed tune, we would have heard Michael Moore say the following:
"We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president," Moore said. "We live in a time where we have a man who's sending us to war for fictitious reasons, whether it's the fiction of duct tape or the fiction of orange alerts. "
AP via Yahoo News
Fortunately, Moore was booed by the crowd.
Meanwhile Adrien Brody, upon winning the Academy Award for best actor in the movie The Pianist said the following:
"After making this film, I am aware of the sadness and dehumanization of people at times of war and the repercussions of war. Whatever you believe in, whether it be God or Allah, may he watch over you and pray for a peaceful and swift resolution."
Let me begin by saying that I saw The Pianist with my dad. Neither of us thought it was a particularly good movie. While the acting was good, the main character in the story is not much of a protagonist and is simply moved about by events entirely outside of his control. A minor point was that according to my dad, some of the brutality of the Nazi soldiers seemed to be slightly exaggerated for effect. The movie was definitely in what Ayn Rand called the naturalistic tradition and thus portrayed events rather journalistically. Of course this is not surprising since this movie was attempting to portray a real person's life. Nevertheless, it does not make for particularly appealing drama.
Now, as Prager pointed out with respect to the comment that Mr. Brody made, Mr. Brody does not seem to have understood anything from making this film. Prager asserted that it is not war that dehumanizes people but Evil. "Were American soldiers who freed concentration camp inmates in Europe dehumanized?" Prager asked rhetorically. I couldn't agree more. There was no war within the areas under German control, yet one could hardly imagine a group of people more dehumanized. As a wise woman once pointed out there is something worse than war -- dictatorship. And dictatorship is the cause of war. Free people do not initiate wars against other free peoples.
Unfortunately, Brody's comment, having a neutral air about it, was cheered by the crowd at the Oscars, indicating that the above subleties entirely escaped their understanding.
Let me also comment on something that Prager didn't. Last night a confessed rapist received the academy award for best director. I was vaguely aware of the rumors surrounding Roman Polanski before watching The Pianist. However, it was only recently that I was able to read Grand Jury testimony of his victim. Reading it made me ashamed of having seen any movie by that monster. And it is a further shame on the Academy that they ignored this man's criminal history in their award selection.
Thursday, March 20, 2003
Wednesday, March 19, 2003
Tuesday, March 18, 2003
Monday, March 17, 2003
Virtually all of my knowledge of history, particularly US history, came from my own reading. In High School I had the required year of U.S. History though I don't really remember too much of it. I only took one history course at UCLA and that was Japanese history which I actually did enjoy. The Professor was clearly Liberal, though he seemed mostly fair. It was clear from the way he talked that his personal view was that we should not have bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though he allowed some discussion of this and did not press the point to the best of my knowledge.
Friday, March 14, 2003
Originally written on January 23, 2003
By the way, I can't resist commenting on the "Nazism is an extreme right-wing goverment" claim that Prager made and defended during the week against numerous unfortunate right-wing callers. I think you know my basic take on this. The right/left continuum is in my opinion at best rather limited in utility and
Apparently historically (and I haven't checked on this but it's repeated everywhere) this distinction traces itself to the assembly during the French
revolution where the supporters of the monarchy sat on the right and the revolutionaries sat on the left. Since then the continuum's basic distinctions
are usually regarded as follows:
On the right wing we generally put the following ideas (in no particular order):
Nationalism, racism, religion, capitalism, fascism
On the left wing we generally put the following ideas:
Socialism, Communism, internationalism
Of course this list is not meant to be exhaustive. The extreme right is represented by fascism, national socialism, and religious theocracies. The extreme left is represented by the communist countries. The continuum is curved and thus the extreme right and extreme left almost meet. The center is taken to be liberal democracy presumably with a little religion and capitalism as well as a welfare state.
I would say this scheme is okay as far as it goes and of course I frequently refer to it myself. But I would say it is in the end not very helpful either morally or politically.
I reject the idea that because something is held to be "extreme" it is therefore necessarily bad and for that matter if an idea is "moderate" it is therefore necessarily good. I think this is part of the assumption that Prager works from; he calls himself "a passionate moderate" (or is it centrist?) after
all. In response, I could pose the same criticism that he posed to the poor right-wingers who called up and tried to say that only extreme left-wing
regimes are evil. He said their position is self-serving since by their definition no matter how extreme the right, it can do no wrong. But it seems to
me by a similar argument I could say that Prager's position is self-serving since he implies nothing evil could ever come from a moderate position. I claim
the so called "extremity" of a position (whatever that is supposed to mean) has little to do with whether something is right or wrong. We evaluate right and
wrong by comparisons with a proper moral standard. If systems meet the standard then to that extent they are good whether they are right-wing or left-wing. If
systems fail to meet or go against the standard, then to that extent they are bad. A properly defined moral standard should be consistently upheld. I don't
think it would be more moral to be "moderate" and uphold it only 50% of the time. Rather one should be "extreme" (consistent) and uphold it 100% of the
time or as close as one can get.
To give a simple example: There are two extremist positions: 1. We should execute all murderers. 2. We should not execute any murderers. Presumably the
moderate position is: We should execute some murderers. It may be the moderate position but it is not the moral one. Morally, we want position 1. It may
always be possible to find an extreme that is bad but that is because of the way we set up the continuum. I could set up the positions in such a way that
both the extremes are bad: 1. All criminals should be executed 2. No criminals should be executed. Here the presumably moderate position is:
Only some criminals should be executed which is the moral position since presumably we don't want pick-pockets executed. But this all depends on how the
continuum is set up.
In politics a proper moral standard would be the protection of individual rights and in that respect there is indeed a proper continuum. From the U.S.
and the West in general where individual rights are largely respected to the various totalitarians, whether right or left, religious or secular where rights
are basically absent.
So to summarize, I think it's okay to continue to use the terms right-wing and left-wing. I will certainly continue to do so. But the reality is that both are
grab-bags of different ideological strains and movements, most of which, frankly, are bad to varying degrees. These days I still say I am part of the
right but if I announce it to a stranger I have to spend quite a few minutes distinguishing my views from all the other right-wingers (moderate or extreme).
So again I think the terms are at best of limited utility and ideally would be replaced with actual ideological terms such as Objectivist, Catholic, Orthodox
Jew, Marxist, Socialist, Pragmatist, etc.
By the way I think the terms "liberal" and "conservative" are basically as limited as "right" and "left" and in some ways more so. But that's a whole
Thursday, March 13, 2003
I think I shall keep my comments brief. I am somewhat worried about rising antisemitism in the world but less so in the US. I think the fact that the US is neither racially nor religiously homogeneous prevents anything untoward from happening here. My own experience in this regard has fortunately been limited to only one incident in college where I recall a conversation that ended with the claim that the Jews control the media. Other than that I don't think I have really encountered any antisemitism. Nevertheless, the increasing number of antisemitic voices on the Left in the US, as well as a few definite voices on the Right are worthy of keeping an eye on.
On the issue of marriage I agree with Prager with the the usual provisos. I also believe marriage is important and signifies a public declaration of commitment. As he says it is certainly a contract but in many ways more than a contract. I cannot agree with his view that a religious ceremony is necessarily superior to a secular one. A religious ceremony is certainly usually more elaborate but whether it means that the individuals involved will take their vows more seriously depends on their integrity and rationality (and the rationality of the vows themselves). Of course, if one religiously believes that divorce should never happen (as some Catholics still do) then one will stay together for life regardless of the consequences. I don't consider such an outcome superior to a secular divorce.
Finally, the interview with Mr. Kristol reviewed some of the arguments for war with Iraq and some of the positions that Mr. Kristol's publication took over the years with respect to terrorism and other issues. In general, I like Mr. Kristol's positions in the area of foreign policy far more than his stances on some social policy issues. However there are exceptions in both cases.
Wednesday, March 12, 2003
But it is equally critical that we are not misled into trying to win the hearts and minds of the Islamic fantasists. We must not set about trying to convert them in believing in our principles and accepting our values, however noble and lofty these values might be. Nor must we be seduced into believing that we are in a popularity contest, as if we were trying to sell Western values as if it were a consumer product. If it should happen to come about that these values make inroads in the Islamic world, fine and good. But it must not became our aim.
Our aim is simple. It is to make the Islamic fantasists respect the dictates of reality...
And that is why, in order to achieve our end of heightening their grasp on reality, no means should be ruled out. We must be prepared to use force "unstintingly," as Woodrow Wilson declared on America's reluctant entry into World War I. On this count, we must have no illusions. Until they are willing to play by our rules, we must be prepared to play by theirs.
Postcolonial, or multicultural, feminists who tend to congregate in the universities have a different reason than gender feminists for not wanting to speak up about the oppression of women in the Muslim world. For them, the guilty legacy of imperialism has made any judgment of formerly colonized peoples an immoral expression of "orientalism" and a corrupt attempt to brand "the other." If Muslim men could be said to oppress their women, it is in any case the fault of Western imperialists, or more specifically, Western men. "When men are traumatized [by colonial rule], they tend to traumatize their own women," says Miriam Cooke, a Duke professor and head of the Association for Middle East Women's Studies. The postcolonial feminist condemns not just war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but any instances of what Columbia professor Gayatri Spivak calls "white men saving brown women from brown men."
During my 10th grade year in 1985 at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, CA, I was enrolled in a Hebrew class. One day during the class a teacher introduced a guest speaker who proceeded to take over the class and gave a talk about how Israel should withdraw from the territories it originally conquered in the 1967 Six Day War and how that would result in peace for Israel with the Arab countries in the Middle East. I have to say that, being even then substantially opposed to such notions, I was not amused. Fortunately, few people in the class (except, of course, the teacher) agreed with the speaker and his attempt at indoctrination ended in failure.
Of course the main point here is that the incident recounted should not have happened at all. As Prager correctly pointed out on his show, regardless of the whether the political views presented are right or wrong, "left-wing" or "right-wing," this sort of thing simply has no place in school. The students at that age generally do not have the knowledge or intellectual means to properly understand the issues involved. Perhaps if students were properly taught logic and rhetoric, then as part of a debate class some analysis of political positions might be appropriate during the last years of High School. But the reports that I've read on the web and the calls on the Prager show indicate that these are not attempts at debate or logic at all and the target audience appears around the age of Middle School and younger. Apparently the situation in schools has only gotten worse over the last 18 years. Yet another reason why my wife and I will homeschool our child.
Tuesday, March 11, 2003
Interestingly Prager insisted he was not trying to convert any atheists or encourage anyone to believe in God. He was simply trying to make clear the consequences of what he termed secularism. He was arguing in effect that no matter what side of the issue one is on, one has to acknowledge that without religious Judeo-Christian values the consequences he enumerated are inevitable. Prager as usual is merely insisting on "clarity."
I will begin by commenting that not all the consequences mentioned by Prager are bad in my view. For example, the issue of whether or not one has children, everything else being equal, is not a moral issue in my view. Context can make it a moral issue in both directions: There are people to whom children would be a great value and there are people who should never have had their children. But human beings as such do not have a moral obligation to have children, notwithstanding the biblical view.
Prager is quite correct on the university as the source and instigator of numerous foolish (and in fact worse than foolish) ideas. They are in fact the source of his two other examples: The consensus view of morality and the moral equivalency of human and animal suffering. The consensus view dates back to the pragmatists such as John Dewey and Charles Peirce, who ultimately derive their ideas from Immanuel Kant. The moral equivalency of humans and animals is a view pushed by Princeton's Peter Singer, among others. Singer's utilitarianism traces its roots to the original utilititarians Mill and Bentham who themselves in effect combine the views of Epicurus and Kant. Ultimately the reason for the presence of these ideas is not secularism as such but a long philosophical development of increasing irrationality that started all the way back in times when most people (and universities as well) were still quite religious. It was the errors and absurdities of the various early religious philosophers which then culminated in the errors and absurdities in the later secular ones. There were parallel trends: The increasing secularism and the increasing tower of irrational errors. Initially, various religious ideas were quite properly rejected in the name of reason. Later on as philosophers made crucial mistakes in understanding how reason works and concluded that reason is impotent, they started to reject almost all abstract principles and concepts due to their initial mistakes. Religion was rejected at the same time as reason. This unfortunately doomed proper secular morality until the arrival of novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand's Objectivism in the 20th century.
Monday, March 10, 2003
Not being Catholic or religious for that matter I am not as such bothered by this but I can see how Catholic supporters of the war such as Michael Novak of National Review would have a problem.
Religion and I have a love-hate relationship. There are many aspects of many religions that I can respect, for example, their systemic approach to the world, their insistence on treating issues from a moral perspective, the kindness and generosity of many of their practitioners. On the other hand, I have some severe (and ultimately fatal) objections as well, including, the untenability of the idea of God, the irrationality of a belief in miracles, their advocacy of self-sacrifice (altruism) as a virtue and pride as a sin.
But religions can be interpreted in many different ways, and at least in the limited context of this war, with certain qualifications, I am grateful that our current President is religious. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I am grateful for his specific religiousity which is of a distinctively American kind and thus in many ways superior to, for example, the Pope's.
Sooner or later however, due to inherent limitations, something more than relatively good Americanized religion will be required. But that will depend upon wider cultural changes that may not happen for decades.
As a Christian and as a president who was severely provoked by international crises, I became thoroughly familiar with the principles of a just war, and it is clear that a substantially unilateral attack on Iraq does not meet these standards. This is an almost universal conviction of religious leaders, with the most notable exception of a few spokesmen of the Southern Baptist Convention who are greatly influenced by their commitment to Israel based on eschatological, or final days, theology.
The unanimous vote of approval in the Security Council to eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction can still be honored, but our announced goals are now to achieve regime change and to establish a Pax Americana in the region, perhaps occupying the ethnically divided country for as long as a decade. For these objectives, we do not have international authority. Other members of the Security Council have so far resisted the enormous economic and political influence that is being exerted from Washington, and we are faced with the possibility of either a failure to get the necessary votes or else a veto from Russia, France and China.
Prager was very much upset that Carter seemed to claim his religious values are part of reasons for opposing a war against Iraq. Prager argued that there is no religion that decides the morality of a war based on the number of countries that support its prosecution. I think the broader point is also true: Moral principle (regardless whether its source is considered religious or not) is not decided by a popularity contest.
The idea that moral principles come from the majority seems to have ultimately come from Immanuel Kant (who made collective subjectivism a substitute for objectivity), via a long series of intermediate philosophers. More on that some other time.
Frankly, I don't want to spend too much time on Carter, the worst President in U.S. history, as Prager has accurately characterized him.
This has been one of my frustrations with the news for some time. In the case of Israel, the media refuses to characterize anything violent that the Palestinians do as terror and instead always identifies the perpetrators as militants. Interestingly, the media and some intellectuals also do the reverse to some extent, occasionally characterizing some attacks on military targets as terrorism. This is undesirable and unneccessary. The words terrorism, terror, and terrorist should properly only be used when the civilian population is deliberately targeted in an attempt to terrorize it. When such is clearly the case, as with Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the like, to use an inappropriate term adds to the injury done to the victims.
I might also mention the morally unjustifiable habit that the media has of adding the death of the terrorist bombers to the total victim count. Proper coverage of such an event should always separate the deaths of the victims from the terrorists.
Among other issues today, Prager discussed former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's op-ed piece in the Sunday NY Times, as well as whether or not Catholic supporters of President Bush's stance on war with Iraq experience frustration and anguish when it comes to the position of the Pope and much of the Catholic hierarchy in general since it is substantially against this war. In addition Prager talked to representatives of the group Minnesotans Against Terrorism.