Anti-Socialist Tendencies

Friday, May 30, 2003

My secret is that I need God--that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.

--- Douglas Coupland, Life After God


I'm continuing to follow the Mesopotamian Marshlands issue (previous postings here and here) and have some good news to report: Life floods back in the wetlands. Dismantling of earthworks and opening of reservoirs has allowed this year's spring flood to reach areas that have been dry for many years. A series of satellite images showing these dramatic changes can be seen at this United Nations Environment Programme site. It's great news, and more is surely on the way in the years ahead.

(Via Pejmanesque)

Thursday, May 29, 2003
A Firsthand Report by Varenius

Last week my campus held an official "Day of Reflection" on the situation in Iraq and the War on Terrorism. It was billed as bringing together a diversity of opinions, which naturally made me snicker given the dismal track record of events claiming this. Sure enough, the day's schedule was exactly as I expected: every single presentation was from an anti-war perspective. The evils of "corporate media" were a favorite topic, and of course, the day wouldn't be complete without a discussion of the "ominous parallels" between 1933 Germany and 2003 America. (I must have been asleep when Bush announced that corporations would only be able to operate so long as they serve the interests of the State, the Volk must have Lebensraum, etc.) It was essentially the far-Left rantings of the student anti-war group writ large.

I would have written it off completely as simply more college foolishness but for one thing: the opening presentation was to be given by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. As I reported here, his speech earlier this year before the Iraq War was quite worthwhile, and I was very curious to hear what he had to say now. I was hoping his approach would be that, although he opposed the war taking place, now that it had happened it was time to come together and determine the best policy for the future of Iraq. I was mostly, but not entirely, disappointed.

Roughly the last quarter of the speech was indeed his advice for dealing with the situation from here on out, but the first 3/4s was mostly a dissection and criticism of the Bush Administration's actions in the months leading up to the war. His basic thesis was that the Administration did not let on to its true purpose for the war -- to set in motion a change in the mindset of the Arab World and concomitant regime changes throughout the region -- which explains why it tended to bounce around between several different justifications such as the Weapons of Mass Distruction threat, ties to terrorism, and liberation. Essentially it was a level-headed version of the neoconservative conspiracy idea, with much more emphasis on the neoconservative than the conspiracy.

One of the more interesting points was his perspective on the WMD issue. His opinion before the war was that many WMD would be found, and it was very, very likely that some would be used against US forces. He was quite surprised at how little has thus far been found, and was not sure what to make of the situation.

After a great deal of this sort of thing, Wilson finally got around to discussing the future of Iraq and his suggestions for our policy there. His prediction is that within a year Iraq will be torn by serious internal conflict between Shia in the South, Ba'athist remnants in the middle, and Kurds in the north, with these groups very likely trying to break free from the federal Iraqi structure. The situation is, in Wilson's own words, "a mess." His advice for dealing with it? Disappointingly, he had little to offer. His main suggestion was to let the United Nations take over rebuilding Iraq so that the entire burden of it will not have to be shouldered by the US alone. He also suggested bringing in European international police forces such as Interpol for Iraqi law enforcement to free the military from this responsibility, and to send an overwhelming amount of humanitarian aid into the country to show our good intentions and ensure that there is never a shortage. His final point was that "the road to peace in the Middle East runs through Jerusalem," though he had no advice on how to end the Arab-Israeli conflict other than for our President to make it an official priority and pledge full diplomatic support for negotiations.

All in all, I was disappointed by former Ambassador Wilson's speech. Given his background, he potentially has a great deal to offer for successfully managing the post-war situation in Iraq, but as yet he does not seem to be living up to this. It may be his very partisan spirit at work here. But since he seems a sensible fellow overall, perhaps this will change as he comes to terms with the fact that the Iraq War has happened -- like it or not and for good or ill -- and the best thing he can do is to help make sure the situation goes as well for the United States, Iraq, and everyone else involved as possible.


While writing this reply to Simon Blackburn's essay, I had a dim recollection of reading a review of his ethics textbook Being Good and tried to find it online. Unfortunately I never did, but instead I came across some commentary in First Things on a book review by Blackburn that provides some interesting (but not unexpected) insight into his mindset. Blackburn reveals himself to be a bit of a throwback to scoffing 19th-century scientism: (I will quote the passage in near-entirety because there's no direct link to it.)

In the course of a long, somewhat catty, and self-consciously clever dissection, Mr. Blackburn finally gets to what he really does not like about Mr. Putnam. "I have heard it said, unkindly or not, that Putnam's project in recent years has been to make the world safe for religion." Unkindly or not? In the intellectual quarters frequented by Mr. Blackburn, it seems most unlikely that anyone would say such a thing kindly. Such a statement made in almost any academic quarters would certainly be taken as a put-down, suggesting as it does that Mr. Putnam's philosophical cerebrations are tainted by ulterior motive or prejudice. In this case, the taint is damning indeed. Mr. Blackburn reminds us of the "attitudes that cling to the religious spirit, such as exclusiveness, sanctimoniousness, sectarianism, hostility to science, admiration for wishful thinking." Not only that, but religious beliefs are "true or false" and, upon critical examination, "many of them are then found wanting or even risible." Say it ain't so, Simon.

That such stuff and nonsense can still appear in a frequently respectable publication at the beginning of the twenty-first century is worth noticing. Perhaps it is part of TNR's devotion to protecting endangered species, such as the village atheist of yore. Mr. Blackburn does not specify whether he is deploring the spirit of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Secular Scientism, or just the spirit of "religion in general.".... Hilary Putnam, in the tradition of William James and Wittgenstein, suggests that there may be more to reality and to our discernment of reality than is dreamt of in reductionist philosophies, but Mr. Blackburn is having none of it. How very small, quaint, and now increasingly fetid seems that intellectual enclave of defiant souls declaring their liberation from "the religious spirit." How desperately they heap upon that spirit bigotry's catalogue of reproaches.... Whoever made the editorial decision to run the piece, however, presumably had more than a day to consider the wisdom of going public with a blast of platitudinous prejudice for which the little world of academic philosophy is still, unfortunately, a safe place.

Quite sadly true.

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.

--- Paul Johnson


It seems that it's not only clueless college students who are enthralled with the likes of Che Guevara t-shirts and "CCCP" sports clothes: Berlin considers bringing back Lenin statue. The catalyst for this has been the popularity of the German documentary Goodbye Lenin!, a "nostalgic yet satirical look at the collapse of East Germany" that features footage of the statue's removal:

The statue is first shown at its East Berlin location standing next to a huge Coca-Cola sign - to demonstrate that the Wall has fallen. Then the giant edifice is uprooted and spirited away by helicopter.

The powerful image, a symbol of the West's wilful destruction of East Germany's identity, has sparked a debate in Berlin over whether to restore it to its former position in what is now called United Nations Square.

All of the public Communist monuments should indeed be purged, and I can understand the "wilfulness" of the West Germans in tearing these down, given that they spent almost 50 years under the shadow of the Soviet threat on their very doorstep. But having relatives in the former East, I can also understand why Easterners might feel ambivalent about this removal. Even those who have no affection for the old Communist regime are still trying to come to grips with the abrupt de-Sovietization that hit their country like a freight train and swept away everything familiar. I suspect any popular support for the statue's return thus comes mostly from nostalgia and residual identity crisis rather than any ideological sentiments.

By the way, whoever decided to rename Lenin Square to United Nations Square handed the anti-U.N. conspiracy theorists some great fodder!

With the city now in the hands of the Social Democrats and the heirs to the former East German Communist Party, the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS), Berlin's Communist past has become more fashionable.

As a little thought experiment, imagine that this sentence said the following instead: "With the city now in the hands of the Republikaner Party and the heirs to the former National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP/Nazi), the Deutsche Volksunion, Berlin's fascist past has become more fashionable." Is it only me, or would the reaction to that urban redecoration scheme be just a wee bit different?

Friday, May 23, 2003

Butterflies and Wheels is a fairly new semi-blog put out by skeptics and devoted to "fighting fashionable nonsense," most especially post-modernism. One entry that caught my eye is "Relatively Speaking" by British philosopher Simon Blackburn, in which he good-naturedly points out the weaknesses of moral relativism. Here's one of the more entertaining passages:

I like to illustrate the way [relativists and absolutists] talk past each other with an anecdote of a friend of mine... He was present at a high-powered ethics institute which had put on a forum in which representatives of the great religions held a panel. First the Buddhist talked of the ways to calm, the mastery of desire, the path of enlightenment. The panellists all said 'Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great'. Then the Hindu talked of the cycles of suffering and birth and rebirth, the teachings of Krishna and the way to release, and they all said 'Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great'. And so on, until the Catholic priest talked of the message of Jesus Christ, the promise of salvation and the way to life eternal, and they all said 'Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great'. And he thumped the table and shouted: 'No! It's not a question of it if works for me! It's the true word of the living God, and if you don't believe it you're all damned to Hell!' And they all said: 'Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great'.

Overall, however, Blackburn makes an astonishingly poor case against relativism for a professional philosopher. The essence of his argument is not that relativism is wrong, but rather that it is simply not useful. You will need to read the entire essay to see this in full, but here's a snippet to illustrate what I mean:

How does Rosie [the relativist]'s contribution help? Indeed, what does it mean? 'It's true for me that hunting should be banned' just means that I believe that hunting should be banned. And the same thing said about Genghis just means that he believes the opposite. But we already knew that: that's why we are in disagreement!

Perhaps Rosie is trying to get us to see that there is no real disagreement. But how can that be so? I want people to aim at one outcome, that hunting be banned, and Genghis wants another. At most one of us can succeed, and I want it to be me. Rosie cannot stop us from seeing each other as opponents.

Blackburn continues on in this vein, pointing out how the relativist offers nothing significant to moral debating and overlooks the necessity of taking one position in exclusion to all others. That's certainly true as far as it goes, but this approach does nothing to address the core of the relativist's philosophy: The contention that absolute values do not and cannot exist. Disproving that premise is the one and only thing that will bring down relativism, since nothing else addresses its validity. Blackburn makes no attempt to do so. Sure, he implicitly affirms moral absolutism, e.g.:

Moral issues are frequently ones where we want to coordinate, and where we are finding what to forbid and what to allow. Naturally, the burden falls on those who want to forbid: in liberal societies, freedom is the default. But this cannot be a carte blanche for any kind of behaviour, however sickening or distressful or damaging. It is just not true that anything goes.

... but the relativist will naturally respond with, "Yeah? Says who?" since Blackburn doesn't give a shred of support for this declaration. He does follow this paragraph with a weak stab in the general direction of the relativist's true argument, but it's equally pitiful:

What you say of course depends on your point of view... But [this statement] is dangerous, and can be misleading. The spatial metaphor of points of view might be taken to imply that all points of view are equally 'valid'. After all, there is no one place from which it is right to look at the Eiffel tower... But when it comes to our commitments, we cannot think this. If I believe that O.J. Simpson murdered his wife, then I cannot at the same time hold that the point of view that he did not, is equally good. It follows from my belief that anyone who holds he did not murder his wife is wrong... It is only if I do not hold a belief at all, but am just indulging in an idle play of fancy, that I can admit that an inconsistent fancy is equally good.

All very true, of course, but again this fails to address the heart of the matter. Relativism need not expect individuals to stop valuing or affirming some things over others for themselves -- it is impossible to hold that everything is completely equal and remain sane, let alone function in the world from minute to minute. It is beyond the realm of the individual in which their stance comes into play. If there are no absolute, objective values -- meaning that they have an independent existence outside of one's own head -- we are lead to conclude that "truth" can only be truth-for-me. And if we all have only our own individual truths-for-me, then it follows that two diametrically opposed viewpoints held by two separate individuals are in fact, objectively speaking, equally valid. [1]

Blackburn does make a slight nod in this direction in the next paragraph:

Relativism really grips us when we are talking of contested moral issues, although it also rears its head when we think of difficult theoretical issues. In these cases we are more apt to think that 'there is no fact of the matter'. Some philosophers think that this is true in such areas, and that our commitments are better seen as taking up stances or attitudes, rather than believing in strict and literal truths. But to have a stance is to stand somewhere, and in practical matters just as in history, that means being set to disagree with those who stand somewhere else.

...but here he stares directly at the issue of Truth while yet again remaining totally oblivious to its significance in relativism. The relativist's very point is that moral values are merely stances and not truths, and from this principle follows every precept of their philosophy. Blackburn has simply argued against the same non-issue for relativism while conceding their central principle.

So in the end, Blackburn has pointed out that a few minor rhetorical ploys heard from relativists are not very useful, while leaving the core of their argument totally untouched. In fairness, it could be argued that the points I raise here are beyond the scope he intended for his admittedly brief essay, but then again it was originally published in a professional philosophical journal, and Blackburn is a philosopher of some accomplishment (e.g. he has authored a popular ethics textbook). With this background and in such a venue, surely it's not too much to ask that he provide us something of actual substance. In any case, it is truly pathetic that a noted professional philosopher puts forth a discourse so weak that it disintegrates like wet toilet paper under the scrutiny of an amateur like myself.

[1] To be precise, the objective validity of both positions would be unknown and unknowable, making them of effectively equal (in)validity, and thus neither could be more "privileged" than the other.

Sunday, May 18, 2003

Here's a fun little time-waster: The Alanis Morissette Random Lyric Generator. It's pretty well done, check out my results -- lyrical and fitting too!


Pot, patchouli, commies
Why God, Why?
Patchouli, peaceniks, hippies
Why God, Why?

What have I done to deserve this Green horror?
Surrounded on all sides with the Hell of Hippies
Like a R. Crumb character, I'm wordy and alone
Why God, Why?

Rantings, pot, tree-huggers
Why God, Why?
Hippies, tree-huggers, commies
Why God, Why?

What have I done to deserve this Green disaster that is my life?
Surrounded on all sides with the Hell of Hippies
Like a R. Crumb character, I'm wordy and alone
Why God, Why?

What have I done to deserve this Green misery?
Surrounded on all sides with the Hell of Hippies
Like a R. Crumb character, I'm wordy and alone
Why God, Why?

Friday, May 16, 2003

Via Dissecting Leftism, I've found an excellent essay on the "noble savage" myth entitled Wild in Woods: The Myth of the Noble Eco-Savage by Robert Whelan. Whelan discusses the historical development in Europe of the romantic notion that "uncivilized" man lives a life of simple harmony built on his inherently good instincts that otherwise would be warped and corrupted by the evils of civilization. He then focuses in particular on how this has been picked up by environmentalism in its focus on the supposed ecological wisdom of "tribal peoples," showing that this enticing image is in fact largely wrong, which has led to some rather embarrassing outcomes for the Greens.


Forget about the Nanny State. Thanks to the Green party of Spain, we now have the advent of the Pimp State: Vouchers would allow young people to initiate their sex lives in "dignified" surroundings.