Friday, January 31, 2003
MORTALITY MAKES MEANING?
Mark of Minute Particulars again takes on atheists who assert that "Things matter because they end." In his multiple posts on this subject, he touches on several facets of it and gathers together many consonant views of atheists from across the Web, but has still left some of the basic thinking behind the statement unexplored.
Justin Katz of Just Thinking is on to the aspects I want to discuss in his take on the subject when he reformulates the statement as "Because our lives are finite and short... they are so very 'precious.'" The reasoning behind this line of thinking comes out most clearly in discussions over "life extension" and anti-aging research, specifically debates over the desirability of a significantly extended and/or "immortal" (physical) life.  Some dissenting voices claim that it is the shortness and ultimate termination of our lives that give meaning to what we do, and thus overcoming these things will gradually sap our lives of meaning. There is a certain logic to this. Everything we choose to do uses up a portion of the time remaining to us in our lives, and the less time that we have to spare, the more costly and greater the sacrifice made for each and every choice becomes. What we do with our lives has a greater value, and thus greater meaning, because it comes at a greater cost. The basic idea here is valid. With an endless amount of life, frittering away our time would not be the loss that it is when life is short... there is always more to spare, always more living to spend on all the things we could ever want to do. The mistake arises in equating meaning with this life-costliness. Things we find meaningful do not have that meaning because of their costliness. For example, marriage is one of the life-costliest actions to take because in it you are devoting a large swath of your life to another, and only one, person, but this costliness is the absolute last reason why I'd consider proposing to my love! The meaning of anything ultimately exists independently of its life-costliness. Something that is inherently worthless does not become more worthwhile simply because it is gained at a greater sacrifice. Thus the persistence or termination of a thing or state alone has no real bearing on its worth or meaning.
The strange thing is that atheists of this sort actually do an about-face and paradoxically accept the very argument I just made, while still holding to the original assertion. For example, Jody of Naked Writing, who himself coined the very statement "Things matter because they end," says this in the very same piece:
In other words, things matter despite the fact that they end. Jody effectively agrees that one is doomed to despair if meaning is contingent on the persistence of one's material creations and effects on the world, as so famously expressed in Shelley's "Ozymandias":
...but then reassures us that we need not despair because meaning is not in fact contingent on it.
The truth is, however, that we have prematurely stopped on a much longer path of reasoning that step by step increasingly constricts the grounds for meaning for the atheist. As Mark points out, the fact that "We remember, to the end of our days, what we accomplished and what transpired as a product of our efforts" doesn't count for much given that one day we will no longer be around to remember our accomplishments. It's almost as if atheists who hold these sentiments picture themselves continuing after death as some sort of faint specter, almost nonexistent except for a residual awareness of its earthly life. But in the atheist worldview one is obliterated at death, so we must purge ourselves of any sentiments that rely on this sort of implicit persistence. And the atheist's view of death goes on to push us one step farther: Since nothing of us remains after death to be aware of our having existed, it is as if we had never existed at all. Thus picturing our lives as a bright stretch of existence hovering forever in the void of non-being (as Jody does when he states "While we were here, while we did what we did, and acted as we acted, that is what was important. That can never be removed, even on our passing") must be tossed aside as well. The constriction continues as we consider the atheist's take on objective meaning, as stated by USS Clueless:
So we also cannot gain any sort of comfort from the thought that our actions were at least meaningful or worthy or good in an objective sense, one that stands true outside of our own heads.
What remains at the bottom of this spiral, from which we can derive meaning for our lives? Only this: Whatever pleasure we gain from doing something we inexplicably and arbitrarily deem worthwhile in the immediate moment in which it is done, and our increasingly fading recollections of it. Not nothing, yet also very far from the rich and sustaining foundation available to the believer.
But perhaps even atheists realize there is more to the story than this, when despite what their intellects should tell them they persist in eloquent defenses, such as Jody's, of life's meaning.
 Of course, the possibility of a truly eternal life in the physical universe is vanishingly small because sooner or later something will destroy you, even if it's only the ultimate heat death or implosion of the universe itself.
Thursday, January 30, 2003
SADDAM'S LATEST ECO-WARFARE
Some of Saddam Hussein's more malicious acts have been those involving environmental destruction, such as his dumping of oil in the Persian Gulf and dynamiting of oil wells during the Gulf War. One that is less well-known is his intentional destruction of the wetlands surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in an attempt to eliminate the rebellious Marsh Arabs. I had heard some vague statements about this here and there, but it was not until some information was posted in my department that I became aware of the full story. The information was a call for participation in a workshop for the Eden Again Mesopotamian Marsh Restoration Project to be held February 17th at the University of California, Irvine. The Project summarizes the situation thusly:
The Mesopotamian Marshlands, historically covering over 20,000 square kilometers of interconnected lakes, mudflats, and wetlands within modern-day Iraq and Iran, have disappeared. In what the United Nations has declared "one of the world's greatest environmental disasters," over 90% of the marshlands have been desiccated through the combined actions of upstream damming and downstream drainage projects undertaken by the regime of Saddam Hussein.
For satellite imagery illustrating this destruction, see this site.
After reading the announcement, I did a little research and confirmed that the vast majority of the wetlands destruction has indeed been done solely for the purpose of destroying the livelihood of the Marsh Arabs. Like the Kurds in the North, the Shi'ite Marsh Arabs are another ethnic group opposed to Hussein's regime, though in their case the preferred means of crushing them has been environmental destruction rather than chemical warfare. This strategy has resulted in the fleeing of perhaps 40,000 Marsh Arabs to southern Iran, with the total number of displaced people ranging from 100,000 to 190,000.
For more details on this issue, look at this site and this site.
Tuesday, January 28, 2003
JOSEPH WILSON ON IRAQ
A Firsthand Report by Varenius
Last Wednesday I attended a lecture by former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson on the Iraq issue here at my campus, as well as a special extended question-and-answer session held the following day. It was undoubtedly the best Iraq-related presentation that's been held here yet -- far, far above that ridiculous teach-in I wrote about previously. Although he is adamantly opposed to a full-scale invasion of Iraq, he fully advocates a harsh, forceful approach to dealing with Hussein, namely serious, unfettered inspections and disarmament backed by the threat of an expanded and sustained 1998 Operation Desert Fox-style military response to any infractions. (Read this editorial by him to get a good sense of his perspective.) There was just one problem with the lecture: This message was almost entirely lost in the course of it.
Wilson unquestionably has a great deal of credibility on this topic. He had an extensive career of diplomatic service, and much more importantly, served as Ambassador to Iraq during the invasion of Kuwait and the months leading up to Desert Storm. He dealt with Hussein in person on numerous occasions, successfully foiling several of Hussein's diplomatic ploys and managing to free many Western hostages before the outbreak of war. He is also fully aware of how despotic and oppressive the Ba'athist regime is and stressed this over and over again, calling Hussein a "bad man" perhaps 20 times (though he never used the word "evil," perhaps not surprisingly). In fact, in the next day's question-and-answer session Wilson explained that he refused to sign an anti-war petition given to him by one of our sociology professors precisely because it contained no condemnation of Hussein's atrocities.
Wilson also clearly has none of the naivete that plagues much of the anti-war movement. Although stated too gingerly for me, he said that actions like the exhibitionism of Baring Wit[l]ess make it all too easy for war supporters to shrug off and ridicule the peace activists as not credible. His sensible mindset was made most clear by his response to the very first question he got at the lecture. A perky young woman in a "I Love New York" tank top gave a pitch for her peace activist group and then announced that she would soon be leaving for Iraq with other Americans to become a human shield for "the people of Iraq," asking Wilson for his opinion on how successful this tactic will be. Wilson was visibly shaken and clearly aghast at her plans. He answered (both directly and by implication) that she was making a big mistake and would probably end up a hostage and used as a diplomatic pawn -- if she even managed to survive --and that instead she should stay in the U.S. and try to change things using political means. (She clearly didn't agree, since she trailed off saying something about how Hussein wouldn't let "guests" come to harm because it would make him look bad!)
The former Ambassador was also quite an engaging speaker, and had many fascinating and insightful stories to tell of his time in Iraq. One was his story about how he foiled Hussein's favorite handshaking ploy. Hussein likes to keep his hand by his thigh when shaking with diplomats so that the other party has to bend over to grasp his hand. After this has been played on him once, at the next meeting Wilson remained straight, kept his eyes on Saddam, and blindly reached out his hand, nearly grabbing a very different appendage in the process!
Most importantly, Wilson had a serious alternative to a full-blown invasion of Iraq to offer. His suggestion may not be the best path to follow, but at least he is offering something substantive -- not just the airy-fairy "peace is the answer" wishful thinking of your average peacenik.
The biggest problem with Wilson's presentation was that his true message was simply not coming across effectively. His position as I summarized it in the first paragraph was stitched together from bits and pieces scattered between both the lecture and the follow-up session. His primary focus should have been on his alternative to all-out war, but this was severely diffused amid his much more lengthy anti-war statements and stories. Several others who attended only the lecture were surprised when I told them what his actual position is, having quite understandably come away with the main impression that an invasion is wrong, and the secondary impression that some sort of diplomatic solution of... some... kind... could be worked out. This is especially surprising given how clearly his position is stated in his editorial mentioned previously. The only explanation I can come up with it is that either his views have softened in the months since he wrote the column, or he is simply a much more effective writer than he is a speaker.
In addition, Wilson proved himself to be quite a partisan Democrat, especially during the next day's special question-and-answer session. Some of his sentiments seemed to be due more to anti-Republican feelings than anything else, and he got in several cheap shots. One of these was his sneering at the Bush Administration for criticizing Clinton's soft approach to North Korea only to now be adopting a similar one itself. (Excuse me, but there's one tiny little difference: North Korea now has the Bomb, which ties Bush's hands in a way that Clinton's were not... and Wilson knows that.) Another cheap shot was his bashing of Ashcroft for being a Pentecostal Christian, specifically implying that he is unfit for his position because he "speaks in tongues and handles snakes." In fact, there was a subtle but pervasive anti-religious animosity underlying several of Wilson's comments. His studious avoidance of the word "evil" was perhaps another manifestation of this.
I was able to ask Wilson several questions at both the lecture and follow-up session. My first question (which I got to ask after Ms. Human Shield Chick did her spiel) was his opinion of the postwar occupation of Germany and Japan by the U.S. as counter-evidence to his claim that "nation-building" in Iraq is an impossible task. He did a decent job responding, stating that Iraq is a different situation and that in any case the task is a tremendous one, which is a fair argument to make.
In response to his belittling of those who brand the peace activists as "Communists," I pointed out that while doing so is indeed a low and cheap rhetorical tactic, the truth is that the Workers World Party is the prime mover behind much of the activism, and it is within the more mainstream activists' best interest to strongly disavow that group if they want to be taken more seriously. Wilson had to admit that he knows very little about these connections.
I also asked Wilson if he had read anything by Victor Davis Hanson. He answered that he hadn't, and asked who Hanson is. I told him a bit about Hanson, but by the time I mentioned that he writes for National Review, Wilson and the majority of the audience appeared to have written him off (the National Review comment even drew some snickers... but I can't complain, since I snickered whenever the Nation was mentioned!).
Finally, I told Wilson that it seemed a very tricky task to balance the need to be hard and confrontational toward Hussein with a refusal to invade, and asked him how it can be achieved. He and I went back and forth a bit on this and didn't really reach a definite conclusion, but it was useful because it revealed to me how much more hawkish Wilson actually is than the presentation let on. For example, he mentioned a recent incident in which a Predator spy plane observed Iraqi soldiers moving equipment out the back of a suspect facility as U.N. inspectors were driving up to the front. He suggested that missiles should have been fired into the retreating personnel as soon as they were sighted to show that absolutely no shenanigans will be tolerated and that they will be dealt with harshly. That's hardly a position that your average anti-war activist would take! It was also worthwhile because he mentioned the 1998 Operation Desert Fox as a specific example of an excellent template for a military response to noncompliance, which had not been emphasized before.
I was very impressed with Joseph Wilson's presentation, mainly because it was the first truly credible and serious anti-war statement that I've come across. What set it apart was his laying out of a reasonable alternative solution to the Iraq crisis, the lack of which has been the primary weakness of the anti-war movement. Wilson's lecture has made me less skeptical of the effectiveness of solutions falling short of the invasion of Iraq, although I fear invasion and occupation may be the only viable long-term solution and the one which will lay the strongest blow to international terrorism. At a minimum, it is clear that the anti-war movement will continue to be largely ignored until it begins to widely publicize serious, carefully considered alternative solutions of the type that Wilson has offered.
Sunday, January 26, 2003
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY
The republic’s founders were, I’m afraid, British subjects animated by certain eighteenth-century English theories about liberty, themselves deriving from the principles of common law and Magna Carta. It is not “Eurocentric” to make such an obvious point. Indeed, “Europe” was noticeably antipathetic to these ideas and in many ways still is. That’s why, while America still has only the same yellowing parchment it started out with two centuries ago, the continent has lurched through its Third Reichs and Fourth Republics and wholesale constitutional rewrites every generation. The U.S. Constitution is not only older than the French, German, Italian, Belgian, Greek, and Spanish constitutions, it’s older than all of them put together. The ideas of a relatively small group of Englishmen on the rule of law and responsible government have been responsible for centuries of sustained peaceful constitutional evolution in America, Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Barbados, Mauritius.... [A]round the world, the likelihood of living your life unmolested by the arbitrary cruelties of government is inversely proportional to how far the state departs from Anglo-American theories of liberty.
-- Mark Steyn, "The Slyer Virus: The West's Anti-Westernism"
OPENDEMOCRACY ON IRAQ WAR
During my Internet wanderings for information on the Iraq issue, I came across this openDemocracy forum on the question of war in Iraq. Billed as thoughts from "writers, artists and civic leaders", it includes participants such as Salman Rushdie, Roger Scruton, and Guenther Grass. It starts off with a very brief version of the notorious anti-American piece by John le Carre that was widely torn apart across the Blogosphere (most masterfully by James Lileks). I'm just a teensy bit biased, of course, but I think the pro-war statements are much better than the anti-war ones.
I hope to post more on the Iraq issue in the week ahead, as time permits.
Thursday, January 23, 2003
MR. MUSTARD VISITS BIZARRO BERKELEY
The irascible Mean Mr. Mustard is taking a course that has him wondering if he's actually attending the real Berkeley after all. Curious why? Just take a look at these quotes from the syllabus for the class, Political Science 137B: Marxism and Fascism in the Far East:
No, really, it is that Berkeley! I envy you, Mr. M. If only some of the professors here would have the same sense and chutzpah...
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON ON C-SPAN
After months of reading and admiring his columns, I was delighted to finally get a chance to see Victor Davis Hanson in this recent C-SPAN interview where he discusses the roots of anti-Americanism as explored in his column entitled Bomb Texas. The guy is truly impressive -- very sharp and able to remain cool as a cucumber through some appallingly vitriolic call-ins (including one from a guy who badly needs to read this entry of mine). You can't help but laugh at how several of the callers prove his point beautifully!
Thursday, January 16, 2003
DOGGIES FOR MERCEDES-BENZ
Anti-war activists, here's some advice: If you insist on humiliating your poor dog by using him as a protest placard, at least make sure you are drawing a peace symbol instead of an advertisement for Mercedes-Benz. That is, unless you are making a commentary on the Running Dogs of Capitalism!
Monday, January 13, 2003
Poor Australian socialists... so happy with their shiny new website until Tex of Whacking Day came along and spoiled their fun. The big meanie teases them for such enlightened, noble thoughts as this:
Capitalism is a system of crisis, exploitation and war in which production is profit not human need. [sic]
Hey Tex, what's the problem? They are just being honest. After all, it is socialism that's designed to produce human need, not capitalism!
Friday, January 10, 2003
BRAZIL MARXISM WATCH
Good Financial Signs... Maybe
The election of a Marxist president in Brazil has been an ongoing topic here on my blog, and I intend to continue following the story under the heading "Brazil Marxism Watch".
After some initial trepidation, Brazil's investors seem to be feeling increasingly confident about the new administration, reflected in the rising stock and currency markets in the country. If the investors' apparent evaluation is sound, the da Silva administration may indeed be honest in its declaration that it will steer the country on the middle course rather than banking to the far Left. But writing a few months before the election, Brazilian philosopher Olavo de Carvalho warned that actions that will initially please investors need not be a sign that the country's course is not Marxist. Let's hope that he is wrong.
But there's no need to worry: The Swedish Prime Minister says everything will be okay! [snicker]
BIN LADEN LIES COUNTERED
As my contribution to helping make the previously mentioned graffiti artist's wish come true (though not quite in the way he'd like!), here's a great article countering all aspects of the lie that the CIA "created" bin Laden. A great consolidation of material that I've only found scattered here and there before.
Coming on to campus yesterday, I was greeted by the following (presumably anti-war) graffiti in very large black letters:
PLEASE WAKE THE F--K UP
My immediate response: "What makes you so certain that you are awake?"
Thursday, January 09, 2003
CLONING FANTASY NO. 2, CONTINUED
I want to expand on one of the points in my previous post in this series. Near the end, I refer to definitions of humanity/personhood based on the possession of certain functional abilities, and state that these definitions are what will make a Blade Runner world possible. Since the article to which Postrel refers regarding personhood only has 2 scant lines on the issue, I want to provide more background to prove that I am not overstating the case.
In a First Things article entitled The Second Tablet Project, J. Budziszewski gives this example of one such definition:
In contemporary secular ethics, the ruling tendency is to concede that there are such things as persons, but to define them in terms of their functions or capacities—not by what they are... but by what they can do.To give but a single well–known illustration, philosopher Mary Ann Warren defines “personhood” in terms of consciousness, reasoning, self–motivated activity, the capacity to communicate about indefinitely many topics, and conceptual self–awareness. If you can do all those things, you’re a person; if you can’t, you’re not....
The disturbing implications of this are obvious with just a moment's reflection, and Budziszewski proceeds to spell them out:
Warren offers her definition to justify abortion. Obviously, unborn babies are not capable of reasoning, complex communication, and so on. If they cannot perform these functions, then by Warren’s definition they aren’t persons, and if they aren’t persons, they have no inherent right to life. But it cannot end with abortion. If unborn babies may be killed because they lack these functions, then a great many other individuals may also be killed for the same reasons—for example the asleep, unconscious, demented, addicted, and very young, not to mention sundry other cases, such as deaf–mutes who have not been taught sign language. In Warren’s language, none of these are persons... She does claim to oppose infanticide—but only because any given infant is probably wanted by someone. She does not concede that the infant has an inherent claim to our regard, and if no one does happen to want it, then, she says, “its destruction is permissible.”
Warren is by no means alone in this view. In a review of Wesley Smith's Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America, Richard Doerflinger gives two more examples:
Peter Singer is not at the most radical fringe of modern bioethics. He at least believes that some people (and animals) deserve to be respected as persons because of an attribute they possess, like the ability to feel pleasure and pain. More radical bioethicists assert that all claims of personhood are merely social constructs, that there is no objective quality in any human being that requires us to treat him or her as a person. This is the view of Professor Ronald Green of Dartmouth College... Green’s “revolution” amounts to the stunning insight that those of us who wield power in society can band together and define other people (especially the very young and very old) in and out of personhood, depending on how urgently we feel the need to do lethal experiments on them to benefit ourselves. [emp. in orig.]
Clearly, it is these definitions--not the pro-life ones in which personhood is an innate quality of all humans--that make it morally permissible to create a class of manufactured slaves that can conveniently be treated as property. It's a measure of the shallowness of Postrel's thinking on the matter that she is totally oblivious to this.
THE SIBERIAN ZION
Lowell Ponte has a fascinating article on the history of the USSR's Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan. The Soviet Union opened up this region in the far east of Siberia in 1928 to Jewish land colonization, and what followed was a story of idealistic naivete, success against the odds, and brutal oppression, following the pattern of events so often found in Russian history. I'm certainly no expert in Soviet history, but this is totally new to me.
Wednesday, January 08, 2003
CLONING FANTASY NO. 2
Asleep During Blade Runner
As I mentioned in my piece on the Raelian cult's claims of a successful human cloning, Pontifex Ex Machina had some good comments about the broader implications of the news. Specifically, he tears apart Virginia Postrel's "breathtaking display of bad reasoning" in her take on the issue (scroll down to "Clone Wars" on her page). Her post is such a goldmine of error, however, that there is still plenty left for me to go after! Here's one of her core points:
Both neoconservatives and traditionalist pro-lifers accept the Blade Runner definition of 'humanity': We are human, and therefore free, because we have the right DNA and were born without 'manufacture.' As I've written elsewhere, 'They are the ones who measure the worth of human beings by the circumstances of their conception and the purity of their genetic makeup. They are the ones who say "natural" genes are the mark of true humanity.'
Pontifex replies to that bizarre view of the pro-life perspective with this quote from National Review Online's Ramesh Ponneru:
Most of the traditionalist pro-lifers I know oppose the creation of human embryos through cloning (or nuclear transplantation or whatever you want to call it). But they have no doubt that the embryos thus created are truly human beings. That's why they are even more opposed to the intentional destruction of those embryos than they are to their creation. (I'm speaking, again, of the pro-lifers, not necessarily the neoconservatives.) In the debate over embryo research, it's not the opponents who keep harping on the fact that cloned embryos are brought into being in a lab rather than a womb. It's the supporters.
Ponneru is on the right track, but does not state the case strongly enough. Contra Postrel, it is precisely the broadness of the pro-life definition of humanity that leads pro-lifers to oppose much of bioengineering. It is the extension of the umbrella of humanity to its earliest stages--in fact, across every single point of existence touching upon a human life--that results in the opposition to cloning and other manipulations of human embryos. The argument is not that what we are creating is not truly human, but rather that we are violating the sanctity of the fully human lives that are being created.
Postrel further reveals her cluelessness with this statement:
Or, I suppose, a cloned baby could have both effects, igniting pro-life efforts to protect reproductive cloning but to ban destroying blastocysts for research. [emph. added]
I'd sure like to know who these pro-lifers set to protect reproductive cloning are, because I have yet to come across any of whatever stripe who support it. Postrel seems to think that being "pro-life" means pushing to make as many children as possible through every possible means, whatever its nature.
But all of this is simply laying the groundwork for her central point, which is also her greatest error:
One of Charlie [Murtaugh]'s continuing themes is the bioethical importance of Blade Runner. He's worried about the deliberate creation of sentient beings who, because they aren't "human," can be treated as slaves or worse.... The Blade Runner scenario is what you get when you combine conservative definitions of legal personhood with the science and commerce that produce manufactured nonhuman persons.... The danger lies less in the research itself than in crabbed definitions of who's fully human. Defining personhood as something more than the right set of genes is not permissive. It merely sets different—and more humane—limits.
Postrel is absolutely right that the problem lies in "crabbed definitions of who's fully human," but she is dead wrong on whose definition of personhood is the one that will bring this nightmare about. What does she give as an example of a perspective that will supposedly prevent Blade Runner from becoming reality? This, a non pro-life discussion of stem cell research, which offers the following criterion for judging one's personhood:
But what makes us human are our brains from which our hopes, our plans, our moral choices and our consciousnesses arise. Blastocysts do not have nerve cells much less brains.
Such a position, of course, is squarely within the tradition of equating humanity and personhood with certain functional abilities rather than seeing them as essential part of our nature, something that is innate to all those of our species. This tradition is the one invoked to allow infants, the disabled, and those near death to be pushed outside the boundaries of humanity and thus dealt with and dispatched accordingly. It is this type of definition that will allow "the deliberate creation of sentient beings who, because they aren't "human," can be treated as slaves or worse" to be countenanced, not those that do not allow arbitrary lines to be drawn dividing those privileged to be considered human persons from those who merit no more concern than a barnyard animal.
Tuesday, January 07, 2003
REVISITING THE REFURBISHED GLOBAL VILLAGE
Reader Robert Wenson has sent in some thoughts regarding my item about The Refurbished Global Village. He makes a very good point about this correction by Urban Legends of the original piece's statement about America's wealth:
"Wealth" is a concept difficult to measure with any precision, but we can use Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a reasonable approximation. If we take some figures from the CIA's World Factbook 2000, we find that the estimated GDP of the United States in 1999 was $9.255 trillion, out of a world total of $40.7 trillion. In other words, in 1999 the United States possessed about 23% of the world's wealth.
Mr. Wenson responds:
If I may be permitted a minor quibble, GDP may not necessarily be an accurate measure of wealth. "Wealth" is, I would think, assets rather than income; using income to measure assets works only if one knows (a) that all assets are invested, (b) that all investments have the same rate of return, and (c) what that rate of return is (although (c) is not necessary if one is calculating relative rather than absolute wealth). For example, I have $100 in my mattress, you have $50 in a 5% CD. Your GDP is $2.50, but mine is zero, yet I have twice your wealth. If one assumes that the United States uses its wealth more efficiently than the rest of the world (not a totally unreasonable assumption, seeing as we have comparatively less corruption and regulation, comparatively more respect for property rights and the rule of law, and a highly developed financial system), then using GDP as a measure of wealth would overstate the percentage of wealth controlled by Americans; in other words, we may not even possess that 23%.
That's certainly true, and I'm sure we could further improve the picture with careful analysis of the other points as well. But it's interesting to me that even without the most generous take on the statistics, the global inequalities are still significantly smaller than the piece in question portrays.
Monday, January 06, 2003
NAIVE NAKED NINNIES REDUX
Not having gotten enough ridicule the first time around, the peacenik women of Marin County are now taking their strip show to the streets. I'm sure that the people of Iraq are sleeping more peacefully tonight thanks to your plans, ladies...
Sunday, January 05, 2003
WHY DECEMBER 25?
As a follow-up to my post about pagan solstice holidays and Christmas, here's an interesting article on How December 25 Became Christmas. The author traces the development of the Christmas holiday and discusses the two main theories regarding the reason for its date. The first of these, that Christmas was designed to take over the pagan holiday(s), has several shortcomings. A lesser-known alternative theory, and one that fares better, involves the fact that Dec. 25 is nine months after the date of the Crucifixion. Follow the link for the details.
(Via Dappled Things)
READ BURKE, BE A WINNER!
Now I know you were all getting tired of my constant references to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, but knowing the book so well has made me a winner! I am now the widely applauded champion of Apologia's famous Guess the Author Game, having correctly guessed Burke as the author of the quote. Well, OK, I did only come in fifth, and was taunted for using too many question marks to boot, but hey, you take whatever accolades you can get...
Unfortunately, though, William caught me in a little deception that I now must confess. He's right, my real name is not Berhardt Varenius, that's a pseudonym. My name is actually Bernhardt Varenius. I accidentally misspelled it when setting up the blog and haven't managed to correct it yet. I apologize for the mistake, but when you are about to turn 381 years old, your fingers are just not as nimble on the keyboard as they used to be.
Saturday, January 04, 2003
LATEST MARXIST FOLLIES
Eric Hobsbawm, Corrupt Historian
In the latest issue of the incomparable New Criterion, David Pryce-Jones explores how a lifelong commitment to communism corrupted historian Eric Hobsbawm, both intellectually and morally. Pryce-Jones describes Hobsbawm's nature thusly:
A mystery peculiar to the twentieth century is that intellectuals were eager to endorse the terror and mass-murder which characterized Soviet rule, at one and the same time abdicating humane feelings and all sense of responsibility towards others, and of course perverting the pursuit of truth. The man who sets dogs on concentration camp victims or fires his revolver into the back of their necks is evidently a brute; the intellectual who devises justifications for the brutality is harder to deal with, and far more sinister in the long run. Apologizing for the Soviet Union, such intellectuals licensed and ratified unprecedented crime and tyranny, to degrade and confuse all standards of humanity and morality. Hobsbawm is an outstanding example of the type.
Pryce-Jones concludes with the following observation:
The Soviet Union collapsed with hardly a sigh, like gas going out of a balloon, because it was all a lie. Hobsbawm and his supporters will never admit their share in the central intellectual and moral failure of the times. They lost out in the real historical process, but they hope to win the historiography by turning Communism into some spectral romantic myth shimmering tantalizingly above the surface of things, out of range of truth, and therefore fit to be started up all over again. All it takes is what it always took—an unscrupulous character, lack of interest in the world of people, and well-crafted lying to the credulous.
Friday, January 03, 2003
THE RAELIAN CLONING FANTASY
Last week the research company Clonaid, a branch of the UFO cult the Raelians, announced that it has supposedly produced the first human clone. Experts remain skeptical, questioning whether the group actually has the technical know-how to do so (although
Rael's 55,000 Raelian followers believe humans were created in labs by aliens. Rael claims to have been visited by aliens in his native France, and says his ultimate goal is to clone people at the point of death, grow the clone to adulthood in a few hours and download their memory into the clone's body – a technique he says will lead to eternal life and which he believes will be attainable in 25 years.
Rael seems to be making the mistake that many others do in these "body-hopping" schemes: assuming that an exact copy of you is you -- in other words, a genetically identical body with your memories etched in its brain is the exact same entity/consciousness/soul as you, so that if you die and the copy lives, you still live. This, of course, is nonsense. It's the same as saying that if you have identical twins (who happen to have the same memories), nobody dies if you kill one of them. Even an insanely relentless materialist who believes that the mind doesn't exist and we are nothing more than our brain cells should know better than to make this mistake, since even an identical brain is still a different object. It might be nice to know that a copy of you will continue on in the world after you are extinguished, but this is hardly "immortality" in any meaningful sense of the word.
What's needed to continue your life via a clone is not a way to merely copy your memories into another brain, but rather a means of transferring your consciousness into another brain. If this is even possible, the technology for it is even more remote than the already improbable technology of complete memory copying. At least with memory copying, it is somewhat conceivable (based on the minuscule understanding we have now of how memory is stored in the brain) that one could perhaps arrange the makeup of each cell to make it identical to that in another brain, and thus give the mind of that other brain the same memories. But given that we have no direct way of detecting the mind, no idea of how it is "generated" and resides in the brain, no way of "capturing" it and storing it elsewhere, and not the faintest inkling of how to implant it in another brain, confidently stating that this is just around the corner is totally absurd. 
Maybe Rael is actually aware of all this and, perhaps with the help of his extraterrestrial friends, has indeed developed just this technology. But until I see evidence of this, I have to conclude that he is simply selling pipe dreams to those who have never bothered to seriously contemplate the nature of these things.
 This also raises the interesting question of whether such a transfer would eradicate a pre-existing (perhaps we could say "already generated") consciousness in the recipient brain... in effect, murdering your twin in the process.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY
No quote for this today, just a link to this moving reminiscence by William Luse over at Apologia.
MARXIST WINS IN BRAZIL
The election results are in, and Brazil has elected Marxist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as president. As I previously blogged here and here, the possible implications of this are very disturbing. Early events are not especially encouraging, as only a day after his inauguration da Silva met with fellow Marxists Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, fueling fears of a coalition among the three nations. But only time will tell...
Wednesday, January 01, 2003
WICCA, CHRISTMAS, AND NATURE WORSHIP
The crotchety Old Oligarch has given us his thoughts on neopagan claims about Christmas and what they reveal about the Christian spirituality of nature. OO writes about a run-in with a Wiccan making a variation on the claim that the Christian celebration of Christmas was instituted to take over a pagan solstice holiday and thus help eliminate pagan competition for believers. Her main complaint about this was that it eliminated nature worship from the holiday, so OO gave her an earful on the spirituality of nature in Christianity. In a nutshell:
The point is that the Church has always possessed a spirituality of nature that runs much deeper than the pagans, and frequently trumps paganism at its own game.... The Church is not playing second fiddle to a pre-existing custom by celebrating the birth of the Immortal, Invincible Son of God in place of the sol invictus. She doesn't "appropriate" naturalistic imagery to "appeal" to paganism. She does something bolder, and much more frustrating to the pagan: She claims to be the original and exclusive owner of the basis of all naturalistic religion. She affirms that the mysteries of nature point to the Creator, and His plan. Christ alone is the truest, most complete meaning of the Light in Darkness.
... but go read the whole thing for the details.
Chesterton on Nature Worship
Old Oligarch's piece brought to mind this passage from G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy:
[It will be best] if Jones does not worship the sun and moon. If he does, there is a tendency for him to imitate them.... Nature worship is natural enough while the society is young, or, in other words, Pantheism is all right as long as it is the worship of Pan. But Nature has another side which experience and sin are not slow in finding out, and it is no flippancy to say of the god Pan that he soon showed the cloven hoof.... A man loves Nature in the morning for her innocence and amiability, and at nightfall, if he is loving her still, it is for her darkness and her cruelty.... Physical nature must not be made the direct object of obedience; it must be enjoyed, not worshipped. Stars and mountains must not be taken seriously. If they are, we end where the pagan nature worship ended.... The theory that everything was good [became] an orgy of everything that was bad.
Chesterton's point is that nature contains bad along with good, so that if one worships it and takes it as the ground of values, one can easily end up embracing these destructive and evil aspects of nature. (For similar thoughts from a very different direction, see Jeffrey Satinover's article Jungians and Gnostics.) Chesterton goes on to contrast the pagan view of nature with that of Christianity:
The essence of all pantheism... is really in this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. [In Christianity] Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity.... Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.
THE REFURBISHED GLOBAL VILLAGE
Have you ever seen this description of the world as a village of 100 people? It turns out that many of the figures in it are wrong, and that overall the picture painted by it is unfoundedly bleak. The Urban Legends Reference Pages did some fact-checking and came up with this analysis of the piece's statistics. Some of the mistakes pointed out are stating that 80% of the world lives in "substandard" housing (33% is more realistic) and that 70% is illiterate (according to UNICEF, the world illiteracy rate is only 16%!). Read their analysis to be prepared for the next time this piece appears in your e-mail inbox!
(Via Eve Tushnet)
MORE LORD OF THE RINGS HUMOR
Continuing in the vein of The Frodo Seminar, I've come across some hysterically funny Lord of the Rings humor sites recently. The Tolkien Sarcasm Page is a veritable cornucopia of Middle-Earth hilarity. There's Ten Rejected Plot Twists, the recently discovered Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in Middle-earth, and Shakespeare's classic The Tragedie of Frodo Baggins. But the greatest masterpiece of all of these, hands down, has to be this film of Lord of the Rings as a 1940s detective movie -- not to be missed!! Also, over at The Strait Dope's message boards, readers have come up with some incredible parodies of Tolkien done by other authors (Hemingway, Ayn Rand, Dr. Suess, etc.).