On the nature of pacifism

November 11, 2006

I’ve encountered more than one friend opposed in principle to, say, working for government contractors doing defense contracts. The idea being, that by supporting the military-industrial complex in any way means supporting killing people and unjust wars. Not too long ago, GPU, a distributed client for the GNUtella P2P network, put a clause in their modified GPL intended by the founders to specifically prohibit military use. There are various problems with this specifically, which I’ll return to later.

There is certainly an argument to be made that war and human aggression is a self-perpetuating machine. Or that there are powerful entities who stand to gain from war (such as the military-industrial complex in the United States), and by nature, these organizations are interested in revenue and growth rather than the best interests of their country, or the welfare of their fellow man.
The two most often-cited examples of the effectiveness of nonviolent protest are Gandhi in India’s Independence Movement, and Martin Luther King Jr. in the Civil Rights movement. Given their results and extraordinary methods, I’d say most people agree that they were visionary leaders, and used nonviolent tactics to achieve their goals. However, it is disingenuous to use this as a justification for across-the-board pacifism, since these two movements cover a small fraction of possible political and military situations. In both of these instances, the groups involved were aiming to affect the domestic policy of a government that was unwilling to use lethal force, and to sway public opinion to put further political pressure on those in power. These tactics would not have worked, say, against Nazi Germany.

The other group of people I seem to encounter are of the belief that since they don’t agree with or approve of the things our armed forces and intelligence services are currently being ordered to do by the Bush administration, to work for anything related to the defense industry is to give tacit approval to the shift towards totalitarianism that has been in the neoconservative agenda.

I couldn’t disagree more. The executive branch ordering NSA wiretaps without obtaining warrants is a frightening step in the direction of unchecked government surveillance. However, to say that this proves we don’t need an NSA, or that the NSA does not do worthwhile work is naive. Keeping the politicians honest is not the NSA’s job, or the armed forces’ job, it’s our job as involved citizens. To approve or disapprove of a given war is understandable; to pretend that there never be a justifiable military action in our country’s future is shortsighted at best. Furthermore, if intelligent and concerned Americans don’t go into these fields, how will things ever improve? Richard Clarke called for young, fresh minds to go into government, because otherwise things will stagnate, and the old ways will persist as the world changes, leaving us behind. Don’t we need more people who have the country’s best interests at heart, as well as a sense of how important civil liberties are to maintaining a true democracy? A lot of the objectors I refer to in this post are liberal. I think the best way to make the case that “big government” can work is to roll up your sleeves and make it better yourself. I’m honestly very curious to hear any opposing viewpoints on this matter.

Digression: But back to the software with the “no military use” clause, which is really written in such a way to be a self-righteous political badge rather than an actual guideline for use. The problem with this is that the GPL itself prohibits an author from specifying precise conditions under which the software may be used and distributed, assuming the basic open source requirement of the GPL is met. In this way, the GPL is “pure,” in that it simply ensures self-perpetuation of code for the benefit of the community. It doesn’t matter if you’re a for-profit business, left-wing, right-wing, black or white, what matters is that if you play by the GPL’s rules, you have to share any work you want to distribute as your own, and everyone wins. An increasing number of programmers are losing sight of the community-based, nonpolitical goals of the GPL and trying to apply their own beliefs and biases and prejudices to software, and getting angry when things don’t go their way. You can’t donate a book to the library, and then prescribe conditions regarding who may or may not be allowed to borrow it. Perhaps the analogy is simplistic, but open source software is a public good, all the same.

On the purpose of copyright

April 13, 2006

Discussions of copyright and patent law have been coming into the sights of internet news sites with greater frequency of late. The DRM copy protection schemes supported by the RIAA and MPAA, the changing of copyright terms, and the questionable enforcement of the DMCA affect all of us as consumers and as free citizens.

The first thing I'll ask you to understand is that public domain is the natural state for information and ideas to be in; things are said to 'fall into' the public domain, which certainly does make it sound like a default state. In the interim between an idea's or work's conception and its becoming truly 'free,' legal restrictions can be placed on its distribution and use.

One important thing to note about these restrictions is that they are temporary. There is no such thing as permanent intellectual property. Both copyrights and patents expire after a set span of years. This changed with the passing of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, a piece of legislation bought and paid for in campaign donations from Disney. Here's a good article on the subject by Chris Sprigman of Findlaw.

Perhaps the most important thing everyone involved needs to recognize is the purpose of copyright is advancement itself. This point is well made by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, so I'll borrow her words:

"The primary objective of copyright is not to reward the labor of authors, but ‘[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.' To this end, copyright assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work. This result is neither unfair nor unfortunate. It is the means by which copyright advances the progress of science and art."

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co.

499 US 340, 349(1991)

The law ultimately places the public good over the compensation of the individual. A challenge to the CTEA made the argument that the statute infringed on the First Amendment because it "placed a limitation on free speech without advancing any important governmental interest." (Sprigman)

Further reading:

  • A lot of these points draw from Sprigman's article from Findlaw, which is certainly better written than this post.
  • Paul Graham's interesting entry on software patents, a phrase that is synonymous with litigious nonsense to the Slashdot crowd.

On John Stossel’s “Are American Kids Stupid?”

January 17, 2006

In a special report, John Stossel points out the disparities between American students’ scores and those of foreign students, stating that the difference lies in the fundamental structure of public education in the countries in question. Stossel basically says that in this country, where public schools are a government monopoly, and officials are bound by union rules, the lack of competition and excessive bureaucracy don’t reward achievement, and cannot punish incompetence, and this leads to the poor state of public schools. I saw him on The Colbert Report promoting the book, and that’s essentially what he said.

Now, John Stossel is libertarian, so he’s naturally opposed to government-run schools, believing them to be inherently less efficient than a private equivalent. He’s entitled to this opinion, and he may indeed be right (more like ‘far to the right’! zing!). I am certainly willing to examine the strengths of encouraging competition. My complaint is that this seems somewhat fallacious in making the correlation/causation jump a little too easily. The specific cases that were mentioned were certainly appalling, but they may not be a direct cause of the poor test scores.

TV “journalism” will probably always make emotional appeals and display logical gaps, but in a way, this is still a step in the right direction. We should be asking ourselves if a radical restructuring of this country’s education system is the right thing to do. This is at the core of improving public education in this country; things like private school vouchers are simply a band-aid at best. I really hope the media and the general public starts to take more of an interest in economic affairs besides knee-jerk responses and talking points about a strong/weak dollar, outsourcing, and so forth.


And so it begins…

January 9, 2006

We have nothing to fear from the truth. This is the fundamental belief that drives a great deal of human endeavor from philosophy to science to journalism. I submit that the best way to this is by the dialectic and debate. We must be able to argue about and defend our points of view for them to mean anything to anyone else, or to ourselves. This blog is not about adhering to the political dogma of one group over another, but attempting to provide reasoned arguments for the best solution to a given problem. The goal here is to force readers to consider their words, and reconsider their points of view. And hopefully your comments will make me revise and refine my own statements as well. In this process, we are not opponents simply because we disagree; our only enemies are those who suppress ideas, free speech, and the personal liberties none of us should take for granted.

Thanks for reading.