Tuesday, November 30, 2004

A Sign of the Times?

QUAKERTOWN, Pa. (AP) - It's a glum day for optimists. After 24 years of community service, the Quakertown Optimists Club is calling it quits. They're holding their last meeting on Thursday, citing declining interest.

"I feel sad," club president Bernard Kensky said.


Monday, November 29, 2004

Making Polluters Pay

A proposed German law would force biotech farms to compensate GM-free farmers for transgenic contamination. It's basically a version of the "polluter pays" laws that are so common in Europe, and so unpopular in the USA.

I've often seen such laws described by free-market purists as examples of "central planning," or some other form of allegedly socialistic deviance. Really, nothing could be further from the truth. These commentators are confusing the libertarian's bogeyman of "anti-business regulations" with the basic concept of facing personal responsibility for the results of one's own noncompliance with de minimis regulations. Even in a society that tolerates a maximum of self-regulation, there's always a regulatory goal that must be met: for instance, a self-regulatory regime will probably not allow chemical plants to dump spent chromic acid in public playgrounds. In classic libertarian terms, the plant's rights end where other people's rights begin. If corporations are "people," legally speaking, then their rights must be legally constrained by the rights of other people. This is precisely the de minimis standard that regulatory agencies would follow in a truly representative government.

In other words, if I'm growing rare heirloom tomatoes in my backyard, my next-door neighbor clearly doesn't have any right to sneak over my fence and replace them with a variety he thinks is "better." The science of agriculture - and our conflicting views about it - are not at issue. The issue is my personal and property rights, and my right to choose what kind of tomato I want to grow on my own property. My neighbor's decision to ignore my rights can and should end in punishment; his belief that he was "doing me a favor" doesn't enter into the case on any level, nor do his opinions about the law or globalization or agricultural science or the inner nature of trial lawyers.

Another example: If the United States legalized methamphetamine production tomorrow, that wouldn't mean that my meth-producing neighbor could dump his leftover red phosphorus onto my property. Should he do so, he'd quite rightly be liable for all damages; neither I, nor society at large, should have to foot the bill for cleaning up his mess. But being as the costs of chemical spills are high, and can include loss of life and property, sensible societies mandate that certain precautions be taken before chemical production begins, and that the process and premises be periodically inspected.

That's basically what this German PP law says. GM manufacturers must meet certain standards and take certain precautions. If they don't, and another farmer's business is harmed as a result, the GM farmer must pay the other farmer compensation. The relative merits of GM and organic or conventional farming don't enter into the debate at all, because in a free market the non-GM farmer has an inalienable right to grow and sell GM-free crops to that portion of the market that wants them, even if GM foods are proven to be perfectly safe. The only pertinent legal principle here is that the GM farmer's rights end where the organic farmer's rights begin.

Some observers object that it's virtually impossible to avoid transgenic contamination between GM and conventional crops, and that the German law would thus put an undue burden of risk on GM producers. I'm sure that's true, which is one reason you won't catch me going into such an inherently risky business! Still, such problems are often handled by insurance policies; the cost of liability insurance thus becomes a cost of doing business, which must be - and here's the real point of all this rambling - factored into the final cost of the product.

Though I'm personally opposed to GM crops at this time, I think that a great deal of the discussion about their potential danger misses a simpler point. The reality of the marketplace is that GM foods are incredibly unpopular with consumers all over the world, and people simply don't trust the companies and governments who say they're safe. So long as that situation persists, transgenic contamination will hurt the business of non-GM farmers, and it's perfectly natural that the laws regarding GM crops should reflect this. Otherwise, an unscrupulous GM concern could willfully contaminate GM-free farms in order to put them out of business. Or on a grander scale, the United States (for instance) could decide to allow transgenic contamination of GM-free crops in an entire market.

Bush Demands Less Security

Here's a new and daring anti-terrorism strategy from our Fearless Leader:

AUGUSTA — Maine anticipates losing half its federal homeland security funding under the 2005 budget signed by President Bush last month. Art Cleaves, director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency, says he expects to get $11 million in 2005, down from a $22 million allocation in 2004.

While there are many considerations that can and should affect how anti-terrorism dollars are allocated to states, Maine does have a rather extensive and desolate border with Canada; that alone should disqualify it from having its security funding cut. And I'm probably not the only person who remembers some of the 9/11 hijackers sailing blithely through the screening process at the airport in Portland, Maine.

Friday, November 26, 2004

The GOP's Suicide Pact WIth America

After reading this NYT editorial about the Republican plan to cut Pell Grants, I have to wonder once again what the GOP hopes to gain that's half so valuable as what it's throwing away. All over the world, countries are investing in education, because they understand the perfectly clear relationship between a country's educational system and its economic and social well-being. But the GOP scorns win-win situations at this point, just as it scorns any act of common sense or grace or rationality that goes against the tangle of half-baked resentment, irrational fear, and psychosexual angst that it mistakes for "principles."

They've turned their petty grievances into policy, and turned policy into a suicide pact. If our nation's choice is between a better, healthier, more innovative, more competitive America and slavish adherence to whatever garish nonsense passes for wisdom in Grover Norquist's shriveled brain, we must choose the nonsense and rejoice...yea, even unto death. This is what happens when you confuse your positions with your best interests, and it's an error the business-minded consistently make, no matter how many books are written and how many seminars are held to explain the consequences of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

If You're Wondering...

I'm a bit busy at the moment...loads of work, an anniversary, and holiday travel. I hope to get back up to speed in a day or so.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

A Victory for Democracy

Genetically engineered crops will not be grown in Great Britain:

Industry has dropped its last attempts to get GM seeds approved for growing in Britain, in a final surrender of its dream to spread modified crops rapidly across the country.

Personally, I've been against this haphazard, dangerous, willfully misrepresented technology for years, so I find this to be cause for celebration. Some people may disagree with me, and others may have no opinion, and that's fine. I'm posting this not because I dislike GE technology, but because it's an incredible example of the power that informed consumers and activists have to stop politically favored programs dead in their tracks.

The amount of money and promotion that biotech firms and their handmaidens in government spent on GE is incalculable. But they failed, because the population in Europe simply didn't want it, and made it abundantly clear through buying decisions, boycotts, and direct action. This grassroots effort, which has thwarted the aims of the biggest agribusiness firms on earth, is a huge victory for democracy and representative government, and should be a model for action in this country. They may not count our votes on election day, but the fact is that we vote every time we make a buying decision, and those are the votes that ultimately matter most.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

New Whine in Old Bottles

I have no desire to bash Catholicism, nor any other religion, but unpleasant people like Cardinal Ratzinger make it into something of a duty, especially when they say things like this:

Negative birth rates and immigration are changing Europe's ethnic make-up. Above all we've gone from being a Christian culture to one of aggressive secularism which at times is intolerant.

I have to confess that I, too, dislike "aggressive secularism." And all other forms of aggressive proseletyzing. And intolerance, too. But I think that we have a long, long way to go before liberal secularism approaches the Vatican's historical record of aggression and intolerance. What I find disturbing here is the Church's increasingly plaintive tone of self-pity at its alleged weakness and helplessness. It's not at all edifying, especially coming from people whose earthly power includes the ability to control the most private aspects of people's lives, and whose adherents' misuse of that power includes sexually abusing children.

And though I'm sure it's impolite to say so, I also find Ratzinger's complaints about Europe's "changing ethnic make-up" to be kind of repulsive. The last time I checked, the word "Catholic" meant "universal." The Catholic Church has never had a problem with sailing over the briny deep and setting up shop in heathen lands - no matter how unwelcome they were - so I'm not convinced they have any grounds for complaint when the heathen masses show up on their doorstep.

Ratzinger's comments are part of a distressing new trend, in which people who wield the most incredible power complain that they're being persecuted by all and sundry.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

A Dedicated Follower of Fascism

The mainstreaming of European fascism continues:

Silvio Berlusconi named Gianfranco Fini, the leader of Italy's former neo-fascists, as his new foreign minister yesterday in a move that offered the heirs of Benito Mussolini's Blackshirts the prospect of new international political respectability. The appointment was the result of complicated manoeuvring within the prime minister's conservative coalition. It was also the reward for years of effort by Mr Fini, 52, to drag his party, the National Alliance, into the mainstream.

While he has softened his position on many issues over the years, Mr Fini remains a hardline conservative and his outlook is likely to win him friends in George Bush's new administration.

This article weirdly fails to discuss Fini's former neofascist group, which was called Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI). It was formed in 1946 to keep fascism alive in postwar Europe. It was far from popular in following decades, and when Fini took over its leadership, he understood the importance of giving it an acceptable public face.

Accordingly, Fini pursued the mainstreaming strategy typical of American fascists: he repudiated the worst excesses of racism, and bemoaned the injustice of the Holocaust, while simultaneously rallying the faithful with coded language. For instance, he said that Mussolini was the "greatest statesmen" of the 20th century, and complained about Europe's loss of "cultural identity" after the Allies prevailed. The party made gains through Fini's close relationship with Berlusconi.

Fini ended the MSI in 1995, and it was reborn as the National Alliance. It's widely agreed that at that point, Fini broke completely with fascism. I'm skeptical, mainly because so much of the MSI followed Fini into the National Alliance; a sudden mass repudiation of fascism is possible, of course, but the popularity of such tactics for mainstreaming fascism gives ample grounds for suspicion.

And of course, much hinges on the definition of "fascism." At the least, Berlusconi's ideal Italy is certainly modeled after Mussolini's vision of the corporatist state. Beyond that, I tend to agree with Professor Roger Griffin’s reading of fascism as "'palingenetic ultra-nationalism' – extreme populist nationalism focused upon national 'rebirth' and the eradication of presumed national decadence."

I'd say that's a fair thumbnail description of the motivation behind America's "Culture Wars." And I'd argue, too, that this type of ultra-nationalism, devoted to some mystical idea of national rebirth, engenders precisely the sort of free-floating hysteria that can easily be channeled towards racism, as well as violence against "unpatriotic" or "decadent" scapegoats. That's what worries me about mainstreamed fascism...no matter what its official positions are, its emotional underpinnings make its adherents very malleable and very suggestible. In a sense, they're "sleepers," waiting for a sign from on high to attack the "enemy."

At a Loss For Words

It appears that the highly specialized descriptive language of people who are indigenous to the Arctic needs to be updated.

Many indigenous languages have no words for legions of new animals, insects and plants advancing north as global warming thaws the polar ice and lets forests creep over tundra.

"We can't even describe what we're seeing," said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference which says it represents 155,000 people in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Hey, Big Spender!

What's George W. Bush's solution to our runaway deficit, and the financial woes it's caused?

Why, it's the very same act of irresponsible desperation that destroys the lives of ordinary people who are overburdened by credit-card debt: A higher borrowing limit!

Democrats accused Republicans of disastrous economic policies on Thursday as Congress moved toward shipping President Bush an $800 billion increase in the federal borrowing limit.

With the government facing imminent default if the tapped-out debt ceiling is not increased, the bill would pump up the government's borrowing cap to $8.18 trillion. That is 70 percent the size of the entire U.S. economy....

Got that? Bush is leading us towards a level of debt that is equal to 70 percent of the U.S. economy. And here's how he's keeping our sinking ship afloat in the meantime:
The government reached the current $7.38 trillion cap last month, paying its bills since with investments from a civil service retirement account, which it plans to repay.

I fearlessly predict that investments from this civil service retirement account will be repaid no more than 1,000 years after Bush appoints a homosexual Satanist to his cabinet.

Actually, let me rephrase that to reflect Republican moral values a bit more accurately. They'll be repaid no more than 1,000 years after Bush appoints an openly homosexual Satanist to his cabinet.

Cry Me a Goddamn River

For sheer, unadultered chutzpah, it's hard to beat this quote from Cardinal Renato Martino, a pimp-ass playa str8 outta Da Vatican, who fears that Europe's bigoted Catholic politicians ain't been gettin' nuff respeck from they peeps:

It looks like a new Inquisition. It is a lay Inquisition, but it is so nasty...you can freely insult and attack Catholics and nobody will say anything.

Well, nobody except, perhaps, Cardinal Renato Martino, a high-ranking figure at the Vatican...which is a bully pulpit if there ever was one. Tell it to the Cathars, Renato. Tell it to Giordano Bruno.

Meanwhile, Klaus Schwarzkopf, a 93-year-old former SS officer at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, condemned Germany's ban against neo-Nazi hate groups. "It looks to me like a new Holocaust," he said, wiping away a tear. "Did we learn nothing about tolerance from that awful crime?"

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Exciting Times for Internet Tough Guys

Here's a new idea that's bound to fill the laps of the 125th Armchair Battalion with puddles of reeking yellow drool: Web-based hunting.

A controversial Web site...offers target practice with a .22 caliber rifle and could soon let hunters shoot at deer, antelope and wild pigs, site creator John Underwood said on Tuesday.


He said an attendant would retrieve shot animals for the shooters, who could have the heads preserved by a taxidermist.

Previously, I'd thought that shooting tethered or confined animals at trophy ranches was about as pointless and morally bankrupt as bloodsports could get. Nothing else, I assumed, was likely to match that remarkable combination of cowardice, laziness, and brutality. I stand corrected!

The real question is, can we set something like this up in Fallujah or Mosul, so that America's fearless Keyboard Kommandos can help clean house in Iraq?

Little Hitlers

It's hard not to agree wholeheartedly with this quote from Josef Goebbels:

The little Hitlers in their entirety make up the will of the great Hitler. The great Hitler wouldn't have come, if the little Hitlers hadn't stood at his side.

How true that is. What most interests me about this quote is the effort one must make to recall that the term "little Hitlers" is intended as a compliment. It doesn't quite read that way these days, does it?

Bayer Retreats from Biotech in India

After a long, hard fight by India's farmers and activists, Bayer Crop Science has decided to suspend its programs for genetically engineered crops in that country.

The significance of this pull-out for Bayer, and indeed the entire genetic engineering industry, cannot be overestimated. In the second largest country in the world, with 80% of the population involved in agriculture, the Indian market for agro-chemical and seed companies is enormous. This retreat follows two decisions that set Bayer back earlier this year. In March 2004, the company announced they would be pulling out of GE crop research in the UK. A few months later, in June, Bayer announced they would not pursue commercialization of GE canola in Australia. Bayer's letter to Greenpeace India concedes that research into engineered cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, tomato and mustard seed has all been halted.

Speaking of market forces (as I was below), they simply don't favor GE foods. The only "expanding" markets for GE foods are in countries where transnational agribusiness is allowed to write agricultural policy, like (to pull an example out of thin air) post-invasion Iraq.

The Invisible Black Hand

A new study by the USDA shows that factory farms have almost completely swallowed independent family farms in Pennsylvania. In discussing the implications, PittsburghLive writer Thomas Alan Linzey does an excellent job of explaining how agribusiness operates:

First, a handful of agribusiness corporations pioneer the factory farm production system, overloading the market with a glut of cheap meat. Second, resulting basement-level hog prices undermine independent family livestock farmers struggling to survive. Third, those family farmers then search for an economic lifeline, which the corporation provides in the form of "take it or leave it" factory farm production contracts. Those contracts...include provisions that enable the corporation to terminate the contract at its discretion while conferring all environmental liability onto the farmer.

Faced with this devil's choice of "going corporate" or going bankrupt, farm families that want to stay in farming are forced to swallow hard while giving away the farm. Once-independent family farmers are then not only economically transformed into mere production cogs in a giant machine, they're actually harnessed to put other independent family farmers out of business.

If we were talking about independent strip clubs or casinos, these tactics would be clearly seen as typical of organized crime. But when government plays the role of enforcer in a criminal conspiracy, the most outrageous forms of blackmail and coercion automatically attain the awful grandeur of "market forces."

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Lighter Side of Human Sacrifice

I was thinking the other day about the old rites of sacrifice and propitiation that were associated with preindustrial mining and logging. It occurred to me that they often served to limit the environmental damage that such activities caused; the supernatural "demand" for human life or wealth, as payment for access to natural resources, made deficit spending a very uncomfortable prospect. That idea of a relationship with nature that requires sacrifice and accommodation on both sides is pretty much gone today, and I don't think that's a good thing.

While I don't believe we should go back to burning people alive in wicker cages or burying them under foundation stones, I do like the notion of treating our use of resources as a formal transaction between ourselves and nature, in which both sides must benefit, or at least break even. If nothing else, the logic behind sacrifice and offerings placed human obligations to the environment above the human right to exploit it, which is precisely where they should be.

Currently, we treat the natural world as something between a free all-you-can-eat buffet, and a conquered enemy who can be violated at will. Since there's no scientific evidence to support such an outlook, nor any logical or moral justification for it, it's hard not to think of it as a form of insanity. In fact, it's insane enough to make almost any earlier concept of our place in nature seem perfectly lucid.

For instance, a personified, sentient Nature that feels and punishes human abuse might be an irrational concept in materialist terms, but it's really a pretty accurate metaphor for what actually happens in a complex world. I mean that this concept is far more likely to promote a respectful understanding of complex causal relations than is the current irrational belief that actions and reactions in nature happen neatly and intelligibly, one at a time, like a slow-motion game of Whack-a-Mole.

We have a very funny notion of what's rational, these days. I honestly wonder where we find the heart to sneer at even the most fanciful beliefs of our ancestors. Given how little attention our "experts" have devoted to the likely consequences of human actions - let alone the possible ones - and how surprised they are when one of their pet schemes brings ruinous consequences, we might as well blame a Vengeful Deity for any disaster in which the chain of causality is longer than the two or three links we'll ordinarily deign to look at. After all, once you've cast aside basic notions of cause and effect, there's very little of rational thought left to be salvaged.

If laws of physics and chemistry and common sense no longer impress us - and can be shrugged off as "junk science" - then we may as well start believing that skyrocketing childhood asthma is an angry god's revenge for our failure to perform the necessary propitiatory rites at coal-burning power plants. As crazy as that is, it's still better than refusing to believe in the asthma, which is what the Bush administration would prefer us to do.

A false conception that led us towards self-preservation would surely be justifiable in utilitarian terms, making it a lesser evil (and, in that sense, a lesser lie) than a distressing amount of our current scientific and economic philosophy. If we really must base our economic and environmental policies on irrational beliefs and imaginary forces, we ought at least to choose ones that limit the harm we can do to the world and ourselves. The way things are going lately, we'll soon forfeit our right to be appalled by societies that practiced human sacrifice, and to call any age "dark" but our own.

This is especially true when you consider that we still conduct human sacrifices. We've simply placed them at the far end of our transactions with nature, where they're less apt to stand in the way of whatever delusion looks like progress this week. Instead of the "pay as you go" philosophy of preindustrial times, we've decided to run a sacrificial trade deficit, and let Nature collect her burnt offerings at her leisure, along with whatever interest has compounded.

People used to think it was worthwhile to sacrifice one person to protect a city. Now, we think it's worthwhile to sacrifice a city to protect first-quarter profits. Both viewpoints may be utterly irrational, but only one of them is evil.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Reality TV Is On the March

It's not all death, deprivation and horror in Iraq! The BBC informs us that a new reality TV show is giving Iraqis a vicarious look at...uh...their own devastated society.

A home makeover-style TV programme in Iraq that offers needy families the opportunity to have their war-damaged homes re-built from scratch has become a massive hit.

Or at least, a massive hit among those people who have TVs, and electricity, and working eyes and ears.

I should add that the show itself seems laudable. My quarrel is with the smarmy tone of the BBC article, which blithely compares this humanitarian effort to the West's home-redecorating shows, in order to give it a consumerist context that it absolutely lacks. If the show truly is a "massive hit," it might conceivably be because it offers hundreds of thousands of Iraqis some glimmer of hope for reconstruction, which we've so far denied them.

Planetary Management At Its Finest!

This story will delight you, no matter how sick, sad, or suicidal you may have thought yourself. It's a grand medicine for melancholy, and it'll cost you next to nothing. Tell it to your children in place of a bedtime story, and watch their lovely little eyes fairly glow with wholesome wonderment.

A federal facility that pumps salty water 14,000 feet into the Earth's crust probably is associated with a magnitude 3.9 earthquake that struck the Utah-Colorado border this month, an official said. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation facility removes salt from the Dolores River, then pumps 230 gallons of brine per minute into deep wells in Utah's Paradox Valley Area.

The process is intended to decrease the salt content of the Colorado River downstream, but scientists say it also lubricates faults. The facility has caused thousands of earthquakes in the area since 1991, but most have been too small for people to feel. The 3.9 quake, which struck Nov. 6, was felt in Grand Junction, some 60 miles away. No damage was reported.

For those who don't know, the Colorado River is salty because Western soil is salty, and often has poor drainage conditions. Accordingly, we've found ways to drain irrigation run-off back into the river, along with tons of salt. This water is re-used continually as it travels through agricultural land, so salt concentrations increase dramatically as the water travels to Mexico. By the time it gets across the border, it's downright poisonous.

Our solution? Force astonishing amounts of this salty water into the earth's crust, presumably (though I haven't checked) without contaminating aquifers or other sources of fresh groundwater. One result of this solution? Earthquakes.

Spooky, eh? It's almost as though the earth were a complex system, in which certain actions lead to unforeseen results.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Consequences of Infuriating the World, Part XIV

Here's another reason for Farm Belt states to mourn the re-election of George W. Bush: For the first time in 18 years, the United States has been running agricultural trade deficits.. Normally, agriculture is one of the only economic sectors that reliably produces surpluses.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. imported more agricultural goods than it exported in June and August, the first monthly trade deficits since 1986, when the Farm Belt was mired in a depression. "It's very worrisome," said Sung Won Sohn, chief economist of banking giant Wells Fargo & Co. "We need agricultural trade surpluses more than ever because the nonagricultural deficit is ballooning."

There are a lot of reasons for this, but here are the ones that are foremost on my worried mind. First, we're irrationally committed to biotech foods, which the EU and many nations utterly reject. Our farmers have been cajoled or bullied into planting GE crops, only to find that they produce a lower yield at a higher cost, and are unwelcome in several important international markets. That's not exactly a recipe for success in the global market.

Second, growing international anger at the Bush administration's arrogance and brutality is leading some international consumers to avoid U.S. products. Thanks to mismanagement and bad policies, we're at a point where even a limited but persistent formal boycott of U.S. produce could hobble our economy, because as Sung Won Sohn notes, agriculture surpluses usually offset deficits in other sectors. In addition to which:
[T]he problem with the widening overall trade deficit is that it is sustainable only as long as foreigners are willing to lend the U.S. large amounts of money. Many economists warn that this isn't likely to continue, and if they're correct, the risks are growing for a market-rattling crash in the value of the dollar.

A lot of the policies that led to this situation were propelled by agribusiness lobbyists with a product orientation rather than a consumer orientation; in other words, they forced the market to accept (and government to subsidize) what they produced, instead of producing things the market wanted. Not surprisingly (to anyone who's not a lobbyist or a Bushophile economist), the lobby's financial and political interests are suffering partially as a result of its own efforts:
During the 1990s, the agriculture sector's ability to single-handedly cut the trade deficit by as much as 16% some years gave it political capital in Washington, helping justify billions of dollars in annual farm subsidies. Now, agriculture's shrinking impact on the trade scene, plus the swelling federal budget deficit, could make it harder for the farm lobby to protect those subsidies.

Isn't it funny how that works? This is yet another example of how refusing to change course because of concerns over short-term economic issues can lead to far more significant long-term losses. Despite the fact that business writers make millions explaining the concept of adaptation to change in kindergarten-level books like Who Moved My Cheese?, the lessons never seem to stick.

Some experts are saying that we'll soon see full-year agricultural deficits. If that disaster happens, something tells me that the Midwestern "moral values" crowd will avoid blaming Bush for any part of it, and will see it instead as Yahweh's revenge against lesbian atheists.

Biblical Literalism

My views on the debate over creationism tend not to endear me to people on either side of the issue, so I hesitate to discuss the matter at all. However, this story raises such basic issues that I can't resist:

[T]he top world authorities of the Seventhday Adventist Church have reaffirmed the faith's insistence that fidelity to the Bible requires belief in "a literal, recent, six-day creation," no matter what conventional science says.

Recent means that life on Earth began over the relatively short time period suggested by a strictly literal reading of the Bible, "probably 7,000 to 10,000 years," though some Adventists think the planet itself could be billions of years old, explains Angel Rodriguez, director of the church's Biblical Research Institute.

It fascinates me that fundamentalist doctrine insists that we have to take Christianity's mythopoeic account of creation as literally true, while treating perfectly straightforward Biblical statements like "give all your money to the poor" or "do not resist evil with force" or "judge not lest ye be judged" as murky parables that surpasseth all understanding. It's a politically suspect form of Biblical literalism that swallows any and all miracles whole, while ignoring Jesus's myriad exhortations to the simple, practical, everyday work of compassion and honesty and self-denial. No doubt it's all part of the elevation of faith over works, but I don't think this admirable doctrine was intended to mean that Christians can mistreat the poor so long as they believe that Carbon-14 dating is a snare and a delusion.

The other issue is a little more rarefied, philosophically, but there's a conceptual problem with treating nature itself as God's testament - as creationists do when they (rightly) proclaim the wonders of "irreducibly" complex systems - while disallowing the idea that nature might offer lots of other information that isn't explicitly found in scripture. If heaven and earth really are full of God's glory, then science might just as well be seen as scripture by the religiously minded. I'm not sure what fundamentalists gain by their refusal to make such a simple logical accommodation to a world they believe was built especially for them...but it probably has something to do with mistaking anger and bitterness and imaginary oppression as proof of personal sanctity. Either that, or inbreeding.

That said, the belief that nature is somehow at fault when it fails to confirm theory is as pernicious to the scientific mindset as to the religious one. Actually, it's more pernicious. Each side could learn a lot from the other's worst excesses, but probably won't.

It'd be wonderful if everyone woke up tomorrow and realized that no one has any idea how life formed on earth. The religious ideas are often lovely, but not meant to be taken as literally true; there are actual physical processes in the world, and the discovery and description of these processes is the business of science, not religion. It's unfortunate that the leading scientific theories about life's origins happen to be absurd (chemical evolution), pointless (panspermia), or question-begging (self-organization), and it's also unfortunate that we probably can't expect better theories in years to come. Nevertheless, when it comes to investigating physical processes, the scientific method is the only tool in the shed. Revealed religion has said all that it will ever say on the subject of physical processes in nature, and humanity decided long, long ago that it simply wasn't enough.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Melting Ice Caps May Prevent Terrorism

Disturbed by the fact that the arctic ice cap is melting? That's because you don't understand that this unfathomable ecological disaster could help to reduce acts of terrorism!

The melting of the Arctic ice cap could in the future open a new northern waterway, creating a shorter route for ships sailing between Europe and Asia and providing a safe haven from piracy and terrorism.
According to this remarkably perverse and ill-conceived article, another upside will be increased tourism, as people take advantage of enhanced opportunities to survey what's left of the Arctic and its wildlife; that's yet another irrefutable argument for those who feel the Kyoto Protocol is "bad for business."

But the real question is, how long before BushCo informs us that those who want to stop or slow global warming are "objectively pro-terrorism"?

Friday, November 12, 2004

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

H5N1 Mortality: A Minor Discrepancy

What's the human mortality rate of the H5N1 influenza virus? Here's one guess:

The WHO estimated that it would take three to six months for a mutated virus to travel around the world, with 25 to 30 percent of the world's population likely to be infected. About one percent of those who fell ill were likely to die, Stoehr said.
Here's another:
Allison McGeer, an infectious-diseases expert at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital...noted that the Asian bird flu has triggered so much concern because it...has an apparent mortality rate of 70 per cent....

For what it's worth (a lot), observed H5N1 mortality to date is indeed at about 70 percent, as The Globe and Mail reports. Where the one-percent figure in the AFP story comes from is anybody's guess.

Sorry to be a bore...I just like to keep track of these things.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Iraq: Open for Business

One of the wonderfully cute 'n' clever things we're doing in Iraq is making it illegal for Iraqi farmers to save their own seeds from year to year. Under a new law written entirely for the benefit of American agribusiness, Iraqi farmers will pay yearly for patented, proprietary seeds from transnationals like Monsanto. (Hey, the Iraqis might have invented agriculture, but Monsanto invented Agent Orange and is working on glow-in-the-dark lawns...so who are you gonna trust?)

In addition to everything else that's wrong with this idea, it's yet another blow to the world's already endangered biodiversity. Less biodiversity means fewer choices for consumers, of course (what free market?), but it also makes food crops more vulnerable to disease and pests. As in every other aspect of biological life, variety and difference are strengths, and uniformity is a weakness. Western Civilization can now file this simple fact in its ever-growing "Things We Used to Know" folder.

Of course, there are impressive-sounding reasons for forcing Iraqis to use proprietary seeds:

The new law is presented as being necessary to ensure the supply of good quality seeds in Iraq and to facilitate Iraq's accession to the WTO. What it will actually do is facilitate the penetration of Iraqi agriculture by the likes of Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow Chemical - the corporate giants that control seed trade across the globe. Eliminating competition from farmers is a prerequisite for these companies to open up operations in Iraq, which the new law has achieved.
I'll go a step farther than that. With Monsanto continuing to lose money, and consumer distrust of GM foods on the rise, and laws against planting genetically altered crops gaining public support, there's really only one trump card left to be played: ridding the world of competing traditional crops, either by force (as in Iraq), or by "accident" (through planting decisions that will obviously, inevitably cause transgenic contamination of non-GM crops).

Click here to find information on people and groups who are fighting this grotesque misuse of intellectual-property law.

Clearing Our Heads

One part of reinvigorating liberal politics means rediscovering its basic ideas and reacquainting ourselves with its best thinkers. Another part means clearing the conceptual cobwebs out of our heads, particularly in cases where we find ourselves unwittingly siding with the Right's nihilism, against our own moral values.

To do this, we have to escape that logical dualism which assumes that the opposite of a false (or disbelieved) position must be true. As regards our battles with the Right on morality, too many of us are prone to the popular historicist myth that about 150 years ago, something called "evolution" came along and overthrew something called "religion," and that most remaining questions about "the meaning of life" were thus settled once and for all among intelligent people.

We really need to get over this idea, because it never happened. And it never will. You can't disprove religion with science or logic. Worse, the mere attempt tends to do more damage to science than to religion. The effort to explain (or explain away) the meaning of life in scientific terms almost always involves sloppy argumentation, special pleading, unjustifiable inference, and good old-fashioned wishful thinking.

This bothers me, because I've very often had good progressive folk insist to me that science "proves" that morality has no objective reality, and that nothing is good or bad. In my opinion, that's a very odd claim for an innately moral being to make. It's a bit like arguing that sex doesn't exist, while you're in the middle of an orgy.

This bears looking into, I think. Where on earth did we come up with this weird, self-defeating notion - which I believe none of us actually uses to assess the horrors of geopolitics or of daily life - and how are we going to get rid of it? Why does the concept of basic morality seem illusory to so many people, while selfishness is thought to be not merely real, and not merely natural, but the true and only motive force of human and animal societies? Why do so many "rational" people on the Left accept this belief, when it's not only totally unproven, but totally irrational?

Beats me. I do know that one of the silliest - but most common - post-Darwinian attempts to argue away morality is based on morally framed opinions about what is and isn't "natural." Obviously, this is a deeply flawed argument which refutes itself by presupposing the objective existence of right and wrong - of good and bad - and in so doing, promotes the very teleological fantods that science was supposed to have cured: to be "good," one must be true to nature. And that certainly doesn't include heeding one's conscience or compassion, because...well, because it just doesn't.

As human beings, we're innately moral and teleological. Alone among earth's creatures, we tend to do things on purpose, and having done them, we tend to judge them. As such, our morality and teleology are natural, inescapable, and apparently unique to us. Human beings can't derive lessons about morality from animal behavior, as the Social Darwinists cynically or foolishly pretended to do, anymore than they can derive lessions about the writing of symphonies or the building of spacecraft from animal behavior. But that doesn't make symphonies or spacecraft unnatural or illusory.

I take a resolutely functionalist view of this matter; I'm not interested, particularly, in knowing what's "true" in the cosmic sense. I'm interested in knowing what works. And it seems to me that in any culture you can name, a moral distinction is made between the aggressor and the victim of aggression. In every culture, there's a distinction between the man who breaks into a house and kills its owner, and the victim of that crime. Grant me this inch, and I'll help myself to a mile: this ethical distinction between aggressor and victim represents a sort of moral axiom, and the ability of the average human being to recognize it shows either that it is necessary (in materialist terms), or that it's true (in religious/ethical terms).

That's my view of morality in a nutshell: it's an axiomatic system in which certain notions must be accepted as given. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you is a perfect example.

The fact that you can ignore these axioms, or make up your own ("might makes right, man!"), doesn't impress me much. I could hire myself out as an accountant, and make up my own system of accounting that overturns traditional mathematical notions, and it might be quite some time before the business that retained my services went bankrupt. But that would hardly mean that I'd "disproved" traditional accounting. Quite the opposite.

The question is, where do I get the crazy idea that such moral axioms "exist"? From the same place as anybody else: faith. When someone argues to me that we're obliged to torture Iraqi children, it's mere faith that tells me "that can't be right." Everything I know and feel about life tells me torturing children is wrong, though I could never prove it to the satisfaction of, say, Donald Rumsfeld. Which, I suppose, makes me - and anyone who agrees with me - essentially religious.

And indeed, the fundamentalists complain all the time that "secular humanism" is a religion, because it offers particular perspectives on the meaning of life, and compassion, and humanity's place in the universe. That's not really true - there are too many differing viewpoints under the secular-humanist umbrella to make such generalizations - though if it were, I think I could live with it. But the fundamentalists argue at the same time that secular humanism has no conceivable moral underpinning, because it's not a religion. And I'm not sure they should be able to have it both ways.

My point is that the way to attack fundamentalism is not through science; that's the same old dance of death we've been in for years. It just plays into the fundamentalists' hands, and it also weakens science by forcing it to serve as a modern creation myth, or a branch of metaphysics. The problem with fundamentalism is not that it's not scientific, but that it's not moral...not in its intent, and not in its results. We need to oppose these people's immoral faith with our own moral faith; to do this, we need to understand that each of us has a moral faith that has nothing to do with science, but is no less potent for that.

Fundamentalists, by and large, are a lost cause. But how we fight them matters in terms of winning moderate people over. For instance, a lot of Christians aren't "young-earthers" and don't have a huge problem with the idea of evolution per se. What they have a problem with is the idea that the theory of evolution has somehow objectively demonstrated that there are no possible grounds for making moral judgments.

We don't believe that either. Do we? I certainly don't. And if there are any Leftists who truly believe that "might makes right," or that "nothing is really good or bad," I urge them to seek work with the Bush administration. Because behind their veil of false piety, that is precisely what neoconservatives believe. And I'm not sure that we can defeat them by continuing to sing their song.

We have to remember that there is no insuperable conflict between right-wing Christian militarism and the alleged philosophical implications of evolution. There never has been. If the fittest are to survive (pretending for a moment that this irritating tautology actually means anything, or that what's fit today will necessarily be fit tomorrow), then all the fundamentalist Christian needs to do is look at America's nuclear arsenal and feel certain that God has made us the fittest. That's what Phyllis Schafly meant, essentially, when she said that the bomb is "a wonderful gift that was given to us by a wise and loving God." It's also the logic behind Manifest Destiny, that uniquely awful mating of Social Darwinism and triumphalist religiosity.

Personally, I'll accept truly moral religious ideas, and truly moral atheistic ideas; it's pretty easy, since they tend to be identical. I don't much care whether there's an afterlife. It's immaterial, really (no pun intended). Even if we're all bound for worm-eaten oblivion, I'd rather have Simone Weil and Albert Einstein as my traveling companions than Paul Wolfowitz and Pat Robertson. In the meantime, I think we need to relearn the ability to see morality and teleology as objectively real, necessary, highly functional aspects of human exceptionalism, whether we choose to see that exceptionalism as a gift of evolution or God. I know that'll sound like pure heresy to some, but I'm convinced that the opposing view - that predation of humans by humans is not only natural, but can't be condemned on objective ethical grounds - is not only morally false, but belongs by all rights to fascism, plutocracy, and their allies.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The Correct Way to Study Prostitutes

Apparently, there's a wrong way to study disease patterns in Asian prostitutes, and a right way.

Maybe we need to put Neil Bush in charge of the NIH.

The Gay Blame Game

A new study suggests that a genetic process in mothers may lead to homosexuality by suppressing chromosome expression in their offspring, leading to replication of the mother's sexual orientation in male children.

If correct, we're going to have to rethink our strategies for curbing homosexuality through oppression, abuse, and the legalized denial of human rights. Because if homosexuality is truly not a matter of choice for the gay individual, then there can be no other conclusion than that the mothers of these doomed children willfully chose to follow the sinful path that leads to chromosome X inactivation by methyl groups.

Fundamentalist Anarchists

According to the Arizona Republic, there's a daunting new political force in Iraq:

With a Fallujah teeming with terrorists, insurgents and fundamentalist anarchists, the planned national elections are jeopardized.
It'd be interesting to know what on earth this author's talking about.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

A Little Treatise on Morals

Well, it's official: the media have informed us the number-one issue driving Bush voters was "moral values." Therefore, Bush's victory - if we accept it for the sake of argument as legitimate - represents a triumph of moral values over...

Over what, exactly?

I honestly think it would astonish our starry-eyed media to learn that moral values were foremost on the minds of Kerry voters, too. God knows they were foremost on mine. For instance, it's my firm belief that you simply do not lie your country into war for financial and political gain. The evil that has and will come from that single act of fully conscious immorality is beyond all reckoning, and I'll bow to no Old Testament prophet in my condemnation of it.

I also believe that you don't blame the poor for their poverty, nor attack the sick for their sickness. Instead, you help them first materially, and later (if you really must) philosophically. You do this because as a moral being, you're obliged to treat others as you would have them treat you. That's about the oldest moral concept there is, and I see absolutely no trace of it in BushCo's brave new world. (Not, at any rate, unless you believe that our country labors under a death-wish, which is a possibility I'm prepared to consider seriously.)

I would never accuse women who get raped of deserving it, not under any circumstances. Still less would I pile legal or medical woes upon their emotional and physical wounds. I can't imagine an uglier, more loathsome piece of injustice; to commit it under the pretence of personal righteousness is to be a mere vessel for Evil and a traitor to any recognizable human virtue.

I'm grateful that I don't confuse tight-fisted indifference to suffering with greatness of spirit, nor petty viciousness with personal sanctity. I'm grateful that I don't see military might as a sign of God's grace, nor view the murder of children in Iraq as a necessary step towards our national salvation.

My vote against Bush was a deeply felt protest against each of these acts and monuments of moral idiocy, and I cast that vote as passionately as anyone in America could've cast one for him. I'll wager the moral fervor of my beliefs against that of any gay-basher or abortion-bomber you can name. Furthermore, my beliefs have at least as much Biblical support as any cherished pet cruelty of the fundamentalists, and infinitely more support from the Constitution.

We've heard it claimed by the Right that "the Constitution is not a suicide pact." I disagree. The Constitution is most certainly a suicide pact, in exactly the same way that the cry "Give me liberty or give me death" is a suicide pact. Truly moral beings recognize that some types of existence are beneath human dignity, and that tyranny's chief crime is to make human beings choose daily between life and liberty. That's a choice early Christians made when they chose to die rather than to renounce their faith, back in the days when they still believed that it was a bad bargain to win the world but lose one's soul.

So after millennia of soul-searching and thought and prayer and other sorts of high-minded and sincere inquiry...guess what? It turns out that as long as one is opposed to gay rights and abortion, and holds the poor in utter contempt, and worships that most false of all false idols, militarism, one is firmly on the path of righteousness. And the rest of us - the people who don't sneer at suffering or kick people when they're down or make comfortable excuses for evil - are supposed to be quietly abashed as BushCo's gruesome, cynical, and deadly burlesque of morality wins the day.

Monday, November 08, 2004

In Sickness and In Health...

A lively new article says that the United States is "woefully unprepared" for bioterrorism, and adds that "long-tolerated weaknesses in the U.S. health care system have become serious national security vulnerabilities."

Subsitute "long-tolerated" with "hard-won," and you're onto something I've been saying since Reagan took office. A huge amount of these "weaknesses" are the result of conscious decisions made by people in government, people to whom the words of Grover Norquist are thunder-loud and honey-sweet. Most of these weaknesses were never viewed as problems, but as the ecstatic realization of a dream too long denied.

Most people know that the big pharmaceutical companies are simply unwilling to manufacture stockpiles of drugs against epidemics and bioterror attacks. As this article puts it,

Big firms are accustomed to huge profits on their drugs for arthritis, ulcers, impotence and the like, and foresee returns a fraction of that size for biodefense work.

That's so patently unpatriotic, vicious, and stupid that it doesn't bear going into here. What I'd rather discuss is "the challenge of redirecting cash-starved hospitals and local health agencies into the unfamiliar field of mass casualty response." For example:
Local and state health officials say their underfunded agencies, which focus mostly on caring for the poor, have received inadequate federal funds and guidance on what the states should address in their bioterrorism master plans.


Most U.S. hospitals also lack the "surge capacity" to respond to a bioattack -- the ability to rapidly bring in hundreds of trained medical professionals to care for a huge influx of very sick people. Expanding staffs runs counter to the decades-long trend of hospitals reducing staff sizes because of budget pressures.

The reasons for this are all pretty simple, but here's one of the simplest: Without national healthcare, the poor are compelled to go to emergency rooms for routine problems. Emergency room treatment is much, much more expensive than a visit to a doctor, and the poor can't pay for it. Thus, general hospitals cost states and municipalities a great deal of money. Staffing is cut; doctors and nurses are overworked and highly stressed. They make mistakes, in triage or treatment. There are investigations, and perhaps lawsuits. That costs more money. Staffing is cut, and so are supplies. More hospitals close, and thus the burden on nearby hospitals increases, exacerbating the same problems.

It would be irrational to expect a public-health system in this condition to be able to respond to an epidemic. The surprise is not that it can't, but that anyone would believe it could.

As I've said before, national healthcare and homeland security are quite simply synonymous. But we're expected to believe that in making our willfully broken healthcare system safe and sane, we'd succumb to that primal evil known as "collectivism." I'm not impressed with that line of argument, not least because if a country is anything at all, it's a collective. In our case, the word "united" - whether it's used in our country's name, or intoned piously by some political hack - is supposed to denote a particularly high-minded adherence to the concept of shared destiny. Well, there are few more "collective" experiences than being caught in the middle of a smallpox or influenza epidemic. In our vulnerability to anthrax spores, at least, our nation is admirably indivisible.

That said, let's lighten up a bit, and take a look at the punchline of this article:
Some believe that Bush should publicly declare the seriousness of the government's bioterrorism concerns, name a bioterrorism "czar" to focus public attention, and initiate vastly expanded research into new drugs. Administration officials said that such steps are unnecessary and that the current arrangement works fine.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Wishful Thinking and Hidden Costs

Our economy depends to an amazing extent on keeping the actual costs of doing business hidden. In order to maintain low prices, nonsustainable and inefficient processes get subsidized by taxpayers.

The most obvious example would be a company that pollutes the water table while manufacturing its product. Ideally, regulation would place the burden of solving this problem squarely on the manufacturer; the manufacturer would treat meeting these regulations as a cost of doing business, and set the price of goods accordingly.

Alternatively, the government could fully or partially subsidize changes in process before there's a serious environmental impact.

A far more expensive and inefficient system is to let manufacturers police themselves under the "honor system." They do whatever they please, and taxpayers pay for any clean-up (which may or may not get done). This is considered perfectly reasonable under neoclassical economics, which doesn't really concern itself with hidden costs or evironmental intensivity or public-health disasters.

Our current system is full of hidden costs. Consider conventional agriculture. Technological innovations and resultant economies of scale mean that we produce a lot of produce at a low cost. Sounds great, except that the costs of environmental remediation and healthcare don't get factored in. A classic example is the E. coli outbreak in Walkerton, Canada, clean-up of which cost each household in that town an average of $4,000 Canadian. The outbreak killed seven people and made many others ill, so medical costs were enormous. In addition to which,

[R]eal estate values in Walkerton fell a total of $1.1-million as a result of the contamination of the water supply. Costs for the town's businesses, for items such as bottled water or disinfecting and replacing equipment, are estimated at $651,422.

Lost revenues from May 1, 2000, to April 30, 2001, were estimated at $2.7 million. The study estimates that it cost more than $9 million to fix the town's water system, while the Ontario government spent about $3.5 million on legal fees and another $1.5 million to supply clean water to institutions.

The inquiry into this case showed that the person in charge of public health had failed to monitor chlorine levels. Furthermore,
It also pointed to deregulation of water testing and cuts to the Environment Ministry by the Ontario government as contributing factors.

Looking at costs like these, I think it's safe to say that everyone involved would've been better off if this disaster had never happened, and that any costs saved at the front end were more than made up for at the back.

And this is precisely the problem with anti-regulatory arguments. From society's standpoint, it's far better to have a certain amount of fixed cost at the front end, to avoid huge variable costs at the back. In some cases, these variable costs (or benefits, depending on where you stand) include the political destruction of deregulation fanciers; the Walkerton disaster was instrumental in bringing down Ontario's Tory party, who'd trumpeted the moral and economic necessity of deregulation.

Much of current economic theory depends on wishful thinking - particularly, the highly counterfactual belief that whatever can go wrong, won't go wrong - and on the curious belief that if a cause-and-effect relationship is complex enough, it can simply be ignored. It's always been a strange paradox that the people most prone to this fuzzy-headed utopian thinking invariably see themselves as hard-headed realists.

While economics will never be rocket science, some businesses are beginning to look beyond narrow neoclassical cost/benefit ratios in order to get a more accurate picture of the total costs of business activity. One example is the London-based company TruCost; click here for details.

Discovering the Obvious

It appears that Gulf War Syndrome is caused by sarin exposure, according to a BBC report.

A Senate investigation heard in 1994 that each of the 14,000 chemical weapons alarms around the troops went off on average twice or three times a day during allied aerial bombardment of Iraq - a total of between one and two million alarms. All were said to have been false alarms.

Nice, eh? These sensors, which were intended to protect troops, had as many 42,000 false positives per day, and about 1,500,000 false positives in total. And what did these "false alarms" prove, before now? Why, that none of these soldiers could've been exposed to sarin!

You better believe there's more:
Another source of exposure could have been for the thousands of troops stationed near Khamisiyah in southern Iraq in March 1991. After the fighting was over, a large chemical weapons dump was blown up, creating a plume of gas, which would have contained sarin and which could have affected at least 100,000 allied soldiers, possibly far more, the New Scientist said.
That sounds about right. One funny thing about sarin is, it's easily volatilized into an aerosol by explosions. Another funny thing is, it's heavier than air, so it tends to drift back down to earth pretty quickly.

The article goes on to express mild surprise that low-level sarin exposure could have long-term health consequences:
British and US authorities have always denied that any troops were affected by nerve gas, as no soldiers showed the classic symptoms of acute exposure. But the New Scientist said: "It now appears that very small, repeated exposure can also harm."
Despite the attempt to treat this as a new finding, it's been well known for decades that low-level exposures to sarin are potentially dangerous. Like many widely used pesticides, sarin is an organophosphate, a type of compound that specifically targets the central nervous system by disrupting neurotransmitters; that's why it's called a "nerve agent."

Organophosphates are very heavily regulated in the United States, where we use about 80 million pounds per year. They've been thoroughly tested for use in industry, and they're known to have serious short- and long-term effects. The US EPA says:
They cause known effects – quick (acute) and longer term (chronic) – to humans as well as to wildlife.
That being the case, there are strict guidelines for allowable amounts of organophosphates in food and water, and for on-the-job exposures, and they're very low. Not as low as they probably should be, mind you...but low enough that a massive vapor plume of sarin - one of the most toxic organophosphates known - would be orders of magnitude higher than the allowable level.

While the CDC claims that nerve agents don't have the long-term neurological effects of other organophosphates, there are no good data to support that claim, and to my knowledge there hasn't even been a plausible scientific explanation offered as to why an organophosphate like sarin would have fewer chronic effects than closely related commercial pesticides. On top of which, there are animal and human data which strongly suggest that some sensorimotor effects of sarin exposure are persistent.

Some scientists call these results inconclusive, and maybe they're right. If so, it sounds to me like grounds for taking extreme precautions. When you're talking about one of the deadliest substances on earth, "inconclusive" should mean "don't take stupid chances."

Anyway, I'm bringing this up mainly because it's such a perfect example of how the well-known hazards of certain chemical compounds can suddenly be "newly discovered," in order to excuse whatever flawed or corrupt policies led to a pattern of dangerous exposures.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Ralph Peters: Ambassador of Civilization

Here's how that shrieking, despicable, spittle-flecked lunatic Ralph Peters sees the White Man's Burden in 2004:

[W]hen the president gives the order to finish the job in Fallujah, the Washington civilians need to get out of the way of our Marines and soldiers. Send the lawyers on a Caribbean cruise. Our troops know how to do this job.


We need to demonstrate that the United States military cannot be deterred or defeated. If that means widespread destruction, we must accept the price.


That means killing....We don't need more complaints about our treatment of prisoners from the global forces of appeasement. We need terrorists dead in the dust. And the world needs to see their corpses.


Even if Fallujah has to go the way of Carthage, reduced to shards, the price will be worth it. We need to demonstrate our strength of will to the world, to show that there is only one possible result when madmen take on America.

Yep, only one result. And if you have to rack your brains to remember exactly what it was that the Iraqis did in order to "take on America," you're missing the essential point, which is that Freedom is on the march!

Benjamin Constant, way back in 1815, described in great and unerring detail the "sophism and imposture" by means of which a government will justify attacking other nations pre-emptively:
If the unhappy objects of its calumnies were easily subjugated, it would then pride itself on having pre-empted them. If they had the time and strength to resist it, it would cry: "You see, they did want war, since they are defending themselves!"

One should not think that such conduct is the accidental result of a particular perversity. It is, on the contrary, the necessary outcome of this position. Any authority that wished today to undertake extensive conquests would be condemned to this series of vain pretexts and scandalous lies.

The quotes above are from Constant's remarkable book The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation and Their Relation to European Civilization, which, despite its age, is the best refutation of neoconservatism I've ever read.

As for Ralph Peters, he should be sent to Fallujah, to replace any number of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. There'd be far more justice in it.

I'm Laughing Already

Those of you who've been saddened by recent events, and could use a laugh or two, will be pleased to know that Fox has produced a new reality show in which twelve people strive to get a job that doesn't actually exist.

That's a pretty goddamn droll concept in itself, of course. But the hijinks don't stop there. To get hired, job seekers must contend with a boss who insults, belittles, and humiliates them every step of the way!

Hmmm...you don't seem to get the joke. Maybe I'm explaining it wrong? I'll try again.

See, these people desperately want a job, and the guy who's offering the job is really obnoxious and abusive and makes them degrade themselves in hope of getting hired. And the punchline is...no one gets hired, 'cause the job doesn't actually exist!

Inspired, no? You gotta wonder where they get their ideas.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Powerlessness Corrupts

One of the least impressive observations ever made was George Santayana's remark that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. It's equally true, and far more profound, to say that those who do remember history are doomed to repeat it. And not merely to repeat it, but to see it looming well in advance, and tremble.

The history I'm inclined to remember, these days, has to do with exhausted, frightened societies that seek a scapegoat for the anxiety they feel at their own powerlessness. For as true as it may be that power corrupts, it's again more profoundly true that powerlessness corrupts. And the United States, at this time, is essentially powerless, and therefore essentially corrupt.

Having tried every medicine against melancholy, every tonic against age, and every balm for anxiety - all to no effect - we've decided that it's the working poor who are to blame for our unhappiness, or monogamous lesbians in their late sixties, or whatever other unlucky group seems helpless and friendless enough to inspire our righteous contempt and Vesuvian wrath. Having granted ourselves a license to abhor these people, we cheerfully forge God's signature upon it, and call it morality.

The terrorists hate our freedom, supposedly. They hate our freedom to dissent, our freedom of worship and association, and our freedom to pursue harmless, ordinary dreams of love and happiness. The strange thing is, at least half of our country basically agrees with them. Al-Qaeda's animus against Western Civilization is second in potency only to that of the Christian Right, whose hatred of our traditional freedoms makes it a veritable fifth column. These are the people who have sworn to defend us from tyranny, and will fight it to the last drop of our blood.

There's an old joke about a man who catches his wife in bed with his best friend. He pulls out a gun and puts it to his head. "What are you laughing about?" he demands. "You're next!"

That, in a nutshell, is George W. Bush's War on Terror. Either through secret assent with the terrorists' opinion of our own guilt, or through that self-defeating logic that compels people to throw things away for fear of losing them, we've chosen self-punishment and self-oppression as our primary weapons against the Forces of Evil. We seek the sort of power a man has when he puts a gun to his own head, the sort of power that turns to powerlessness the minute the trigger is pulled.

With what shall we replace outdated notions like charity and equality, once we've beaten the terrorists at their own game? With "traditional values," of course. With a refined moral sensibility that rejoices when a hospital refuses to aid a poor man, and hears the music of the spheres in the humming of a munitions factory. With moral delicacy that blanches at the sight of nudity, unless it's for the purpose of humiliating Arab men in front of their women and children. With compassion that aches for the unborn, while sneering at the bloodsoaked cardboard coffins of children killed by cluster bombs, and at the grief of their parents.

All of this is an abdication of responsibility, in favor of moral weakness. All of this makes us less strong and less safe.

Like his healthy forests and clear skies, Bush's "Culture of Life" is topsy-turvy shorthand for the aimless abuse of power. And power wielded without responsibility or intelligence increases powerlessness, for all intents and purposes; it can only lead to chaos, as the situation in Iraq demonstrates. Support for Bush expresses a sick country's need to revel in destruction at home and abroad...partly out of sadism, partly out of displaced guilt and anxiety, and partly as an expression of a weary culture's urge towards the abiding peace that can only come with its own extinction. It doesn't want power so much as it wants to be caught up in circumstances in which all responsibility can be abdicated, circumstances that justify anything.

This being the case, our use of power can't help but be self-defeating.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Onward, Christian Soldiers!

From Pogo by Walt Kelley, 1952. Posted by Hello

Splendid Principles

The unhappy marriage of religious and economic claptrap has brought forth enough monsters to make Pandora's Box look like a carton of Crackerjacks. I don't know of any modern writer who's denounced these evils more eloquently than Marilynne Robinson. Here's an excerpt from her address to the National Book Foundation, circa 1996:

It seems to me that, obedient to the great law which sooner or later makes one the image of one's enemy, we have theologized our own economic system....Its teachings are very, very simple: There really are free and natural markets where the optimum value of things is assigned to them; everyone must compete with everyone; the worthy will prosper and the unworthy fail; those who succeed while others fail will be made deeply and justly happy by this experience, having had no other object in life; each of us is poorer for every cent that is used toward the wealth of all of us; governments are instituted among men chiefly to interfere with the working out of these splendid principles.

This is such a radical obliteration of culture and tradition, let us say of Jesus and Jefferson, as to awe any Bolshevik, of course. But then contemporary discourse is innocent as a babe unborn of any awareness of culture and tradition, so the achievement is never remarked. It is nearly sublime, a sort of cerebral whiteout.


There is a great love of certitude implicit in all this, and those impressed by it often merge religious and social and economic notions, discovering likeness in this supposed absolute clarity, which is really only selectivity and simplification. Listening to these self-declared moralists and traditionalists, it seems to me I hear from time to time a little satisfaction in the sober fact that God, as our cuItures have variously received him through the Hebrew Scriptures, seems to loathe, actually abominate, certain kinds of transgression. Granting this fact, let us look at the transgressions thus singled out. My own sense of the text, based on more than cursory reading, is that the sin most insistently called abhorrent to God is the failure of generosity, the neglect of widow and orphan, the oppression of strangers and the poor, the defrauding of the laborer. Since many of the enthusiasts of this new theology are eager to call themselves Christians, I would draw their attention to the New Testament, passim.

I have heard pious people say, Well, you can't live by Jesus' teachings in this complex modern world. Fine, but then they might as well call themselves the Manichean Right or the Zoroastrian Right and not live by those teachings. If an economic imperative trumps a commandment of Jesus, they should just say so and drop these pretensions toward particular holiness - which, while we are on the subject of divine abhorrence, God, as I recall, does not view much more kindly than he does neglect of the poor. In fact, the two are often condemned together.

Robinson's new novel is called Gilead; in addition to being a masterpiece, it's very, very pertinent to our current woes. You can read about it, or order it, here.


In my last post, I said I'd initially taken Kerry's concession as a betrayal. On reflection, I feel differently. It seems to me there are only four possibilities: 1) He lost fair and square, in which case he was right to concede; 2) He never had any intention of winning; 3) He didn't know there'd be voting fraud, and wasn't prepared for it; 4) He knew there'd be voting fraud, and has some plan to confront it, but didn't want the commotion and controversy and media frenzy that would come with refusing to concede.

Two or three of these possibilities, I think, seem very unlikely.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

No Whining Allowed

It seems that Bush has been granted the right to continue wallowing in his own filth...and perhaps that's as it should be. What will come of this is anybody's guess, but I suspect it'll prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. Bush is the same person he was a month ago, and that person has proven himself emotionally and intellectually unfit to lead this country. It's hard to imagine anyone deriving long-term benefits from this situation, least of all the ordinary people who are rejoicing over it today.

There's been a lot of talk about gay marriage, and how we shouldn't have made it an issue in this campaign. All of that talk is nonsense. It's a vital issue, and we're right about it. If we'd tried to run from our position on this issue, Bush and his creatures would've dragged it to the foreground anyway; they would've run the same misleading ads and made the same phony calls to voters, and ultimately forced us to address it directly. Equal rights is a core principle, legally and morally, and there's precious little glory in running away from it. The only possible course of action is to explain why we're right, and hope for the best. If anything, Kerry and Edwards should've been more forceful about it.

But ultimately, we didn't lose by choosing the wrong issues. We lost by allowing those issues to be misrepresented by people with ugly minds and dead eyes and hearts like cinders.

The Left has problems. It's contentious, disorganized, and often too magnanimous in victory; it's also prone to be utterly abject in defeat, and to hysteria at all times. But above all, it lacks patience. The political blows and disappointments the Right has suffered over the years - the far-right, in particular - are countless, yet they simply do not get discouraged. Paranoid, violent, and delusional, certainly...but never discouraged. We can't get discouraged either!

The Right understands local politics well. It understands the value of states as incubators for its schemes, and the values of communities as the stepping-stones to controlling states. The Left claims to understand grassroots effort, and has made huge strides in the last couple of years, but it too often wants the instant gratification of a big national win without laying a reliable foundation for it. This has been the Green Party's failing, in particular.

Much of the American Left, though not Marxist by any means, still believes in the historicist myth of a mass movement that sweeps aside all resistance. If it were a game of Checkers, the left-wing player would be eagerly trying to find a way to take eight pieces in one move; meanwhile, the right-wing player would be methodically taking a piece at a time. Add to that the right-wing player's aptitude for cheating - or more accurately, his enjoyment of cheating, for its own sweet sake - and you've got a player who's bound to win more often than not.

Another problem is that the Left lacks a simple, easy-to-grasp moral message. And it's not because we don't have a moral foundation; on the contrary, our moral values are enshrined in the founding documents of this country, and in each step we've taken to extend human rights beyond a small circle of friends. These ideals have their roots as much in the Enlightenment as in the ancient religious truth that you should treat others as you would have them treat you. To turn one's back on the weak and the helpless is essentially to commit sacrilege against that person and oneself; this belief is older, wiser, and far more noble than the fundamentalist's vision of a cosmic Bingo game in which a rather unpleasant old man with a beard dispenses lurid punishment and cold comfort to people who deserve neither.

Speaking of sacrilege, there's nothing uglier in the Social Darwinist line than the Republican argument against "national healthcare." Of course, we have an incredibly expensive and inefficient national healthcare system already, by virtue of laws that forbid hospitals from refusing help to the poor, making the emergency room the primary provider of healthcare to literally millions of Americans. These laws will not change, and God help us if they did; it would mean that our doctors and nurses had learned to watch people die without feeling any compulsion to save them. That's an odd vision of morality indeed. It's a vision we on the Left don't understand, let alone share. Good for us!

On the economic side, we seem to have decided, as a nation, that the economy can best be aided by impoverishing consumers - a shaky proposition at best. And though we talk of aiding corporate "job creators" with tax breaks, the fact is that the increase in corporate profit has coexisted with downsizing for a good many years now, and there's no reason to assume that will change under a second Bush term.

Meanwhile, in brighter lands, eminently sensible investments are being made in education, and health, and ordinary human happiness. These things mean security if anything does. They mean prosperity, too, and power equal in some ways to military might, and superior to it in most others. Once America has devalued such things beyond a certain point, it'll become appropriate to ask ourselves what terrorists could possibly take from us, beyond the stark physical fact of life itself. Many great figures - people we constantly profess to admire - would wonder what we're getting that's half so valuable as what we're in danger of losing.

Had Kerry won, we could've allowed ourselves perhaps 24 hours of jubilation. Since he hasn't, we can't afford the luxury of even 12 hours of despair. As I see it, we're in a plane preparing to make a crash landing. Certain steps make everyone more likely to survive, and we need to take them, and hope for the best. We're unfortunate in that we have no one, really, to rally around. I admit that it's been hard, at times, for me to see Kerry's concession as anything but a betrayal...a betrayal more profound than any of which the Right accused him. And Nader has been fading like a Cheshire cat for years; today, there's nothing left of him but a ghoulish leer and the faintly sulfurous smell of false piety.

That leaves us where we probably should've been all along: taking care of each other, trying to be of use in our own communities, and encouraging others to do the same. It's not going to be easy, but it wouldn't have been easy if Kerry had won either. And the fact is, very many things may happen in the coming months...wonderful things, horrible things, or some amalgam of the two. But again, that was true no matter who won the election.

What really strikes me is that many people have gone through - or are going through right now - far worse things than we face. The volume of wholly avoidable human misery being what it is in this world, Americans add insult to injury if we pretend that our woes are too many and our burdens too heavy. To express self-pity in our situation would be ugly and childish, and would wring sympathy from no intelligent person on earth. To quote Charles Peguy,

It is faith that is easy and not believing that would be impossible. It is charity that is easy and not loving that would be impossible. But it is hoping that is difficult....the easy way and the inclination is toward despair and that is the great temptation.

Well, I've always been hopeful, and I'm hopeful now. Far less privileged people than ourselves have suffered far greater defeats, and have still found reason to stay cheerful.

If you're not deaf to your own conscience, if you wouldn't steal from a poor man, if you wouldn't drop bombs on children for money, if you would rather tell the truth than lie...then you have infinitely more reason to rejoice today than the men who won this election.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Monday, November 01, 2004

The Failure of Neoconservatism

If Bush is defeated tomorrow - and all signs indicate that he will be - it represents nothing less than the failure of neoconservatism.

Some pundits will blame Michael Moore. Some will blame George Soros. Some will blame vengeful Democrats' irrational hatred of Bush the man, and their obsessive unwillingness to "get over" Florida 2000.

But don't be fooled. The real story here is the failure of neoconservatism. It's failed as a philosophy, and as a movement. And above all, it failed when its theories were put into practice.

So if anyone asks you what a Bush defeat means, you know what to say: it means the failure of neoconservatism.

Today, there are six results for this phrase on Google. From November 3 on, God willing, the numbers will increase exponentially, as more and more people come to view Bush's defeat as the failure of neoconservatism.

A Coincidence? Surely Not!

I'd like to demonstrate the awesome power I wield as the author of a several-week-old blog that virtually no one reads.

Less than 24 hours after my alarmist post on the H5N1 virus, the WHO sprang into action (or, if you prefer, sidled into mobility) and arranged a conference on the matter.

The World Health Organization has called an unprecedented summit meeting next week of flu vaccine makers and nations to expand plans for dealing with the growing threat of a flu pandemic.

Sixteen vaccine companies and health officials from the United States and other large countries already have agreed to attend the summit in Geneva, Switzerland, on Nov. 11, said Klaus Stohr, influenza chief of the United Nations' health agency.

Isn't it altogether wonderful that I choose to use my power for good? Lucky thing for all of you that the coin I tossed came up heads, eh?

Hold on, there's more. The WHO is also trying to stir the world from its privatization-mad, neoliberal torpor by explaining that international and domestic public-health systems need to be strengthened in the 21st century.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) began a final drive to convince governments to update rules for stopping the spread of infectious diseases across borders, amid fears that the measures cannot tackle new threats such as SARS, the Ebola virus or bird flu.

Talks on new regulations have over the past decade become bogged down by concerns over their potential economic impact, but recent outbreaks of previously unknown diseases like SARS and bird flu in Asia have forced governments back to the negotiating table, health officials said Monday.

Yes, it's a real problem, the "potential economic impact" of necessary public-health measures. However, the economic impact of epidemic disease can be equally inconvenient. I don't want to seem shrill, but let me say it again: free-market capitalism discourages responsible, long-term planning on issues of public health and safety. Economists who advance the notion that the free market can solve these problems are in the position of Medieval scholastics who believed that all planetary motion must be circular, on account of Aristotle said so.

I don't know if anything will come of this conference, or of the WHO's "final drive" (and isn't that an ominous phrase?), but I'm glad an effort's being made. And I think we can remain certain that the Kerry administration will be far more responsive to the group's long-term recommendations than BushCo would be.