Audience Participation

April 30, 2006

Two somewhat related requests:

  1. Despite my relative certainty about the things I’ve discussed so far—the value and necessity of human reason, above all else—there are quite a few issues about which I don’t have ironclad opinions. In that vein, if there are any topics, specific or general, about which you would like me to post, please feel free to leave a comment here to that effect (or email me). I’ve got no scarcity of things to write about (he says, adding a twelfth post to his queue), but I’m genuinely curious about what sorts of things you’d like to see me write about, if you have any particular preference.
  2. Speaking of issues on which I haven’t come to a decisive conclusion, I’d like to get a bit of conversation going about the concept of hate crime legislation. The ‘sensible’ position, at least in the circles in which I run, is that such laws would by definition be thought legislation, in that they place an additional criminal burden on anti-[group] thoughts above and beyond already-prohibited violent actions, thus violating the principle of freedom of conscience. The suggestion of this argument is that hate crime legislation would be on principle no different from a legal prohibition against bigoted thoughts—the only difference being that bigotry would be a secondary violation, so to speak. The obvious rebuttal here is that intent and mental state are already considered in the law in quite a few places, most notably in the various distinctions between degrees of murder/manslaughter. This seems to be more a matter of the absence or presence of intent than about the content of that intent, I suppose, but hate crimes could be represented similarly–the absence or presence of anti-[group] intent in the committing of a violent crime.

    My instincts here run in two different directions. On the one hand, I am very receptive to the hesitance to regulate thought in any way, and to the theoretical dangers of encoding a sort of prohibition of certain beliefs, even if those beliefs are idiotic and hateful. I recognize that the burden rests on those doing the regulating, and that rights are assumed to exist unless otherwise specified. On the other hand, the “hate crime legislation -> thought crime” argument seems to me somewhat misleading; I’m not entirely ready to say that enforcing hate crime legislation would be the same in principle as enforcing a prohibition on bigoted thoughts. It should be noted that the desire to kill someone because of their sexual orientation/gender/race/etc. can and should be distinguished from the belief that someone is inferior because of those characteristics, though obviously they are fundamentally linked. The question there, I guess, would be whether there is something to the willingness to commit a hate crime besides the belief in the inferiority of the victim’s group and a willingness to kill in general, and I’m not really sure how to answer that. Society has a definite interest in decreasing the number of violent crimes committed, and this is one of the main functions of the legal prohibition on violent crime: to create a state where the cost of committing a certain crime (imprisonment, etc.) is greater than the perceived benefit of committing that crime (material gain, emotional satisfaction, etc.). Hate crime legislation would seem to act to create such a state of affairs by targeting one of the potential impulses towards violent crime. The other function of law is protection in a more direct sense, i.e. removing dangerously violent people from the general population so that they won’t kill people, and it seems to me that the thought crime argument is more relevant to this dimension of law. As a deterrent, though (see desire utilitarianism), it doesn’t seem to me entirely out of the question.

What say you, dear readers, on either of these counts?

Urizen


Look Back in Anger

April 27, 2006

I’ve been for the most part avoiding link/quote posts, as they’re not really why I started writing here—I prefer essaying to commentary, generally. In this case, however, I must point to Alonzo Fyfe‘s words on the ‘angry atheist’ phenomenon. I hope to get into atheism soon here, as it’s probably the concept about which I am most passionate and with which I am most engaged right now, but for now, I’ll merely nudge you (forcefully) in the direction of Alonzo’s post. You ought to read the whole thing—it’s not especially long, and Alonzo is always very readable—especially if you’ve ever been at all confused as to why many atheists seem to be angry (short answer: we have reason to be), but here’s a tidbit, emphasis mine:

The article [ed: here] also states:

To be called to a level of goodness and sacrifice so constantly and so patiently by a loving but demanding God may seem like a naive demand to achieve what is only a remove human possibility. However, such a vision need not be seen as a red flag to those who believe nothing.


First, the author says that atheists see a call to “goodness and sacrifice” is a red flag. So, atheists are not good, and we do not engage in sacrifice. In fact, our rejection of religion, I assume, is because we, like spoiled children, simply do not want to do anything for other people. No, the ‘red flag’ is being called evil and selfish. I find my calling to goodness and sacrifice in a different source — from the fact that my fellow humans are capable of feeling pain and suffering and I do not want bad things to happen to them. Instead, I want them to be safe and happy. Period. End of story. No God involved.

Anyone who has trouble recognizing this as a legitimate source of good and moral behavior needs to take a long, hard look at their own morality.

Urizen


The More Things Change . .

April 19, 2006

I’ve generally avoided overtly political commentary, preferring instead to discuss more fundamental philosophical issues, but I want to comment briefly on today’s news that Scott McClellan is resigning and Karl Rove is “[giving] up his portfolio as senior policy coordinator to concentrate more on politics and November’s midterm Congressional elections.” I’m less interested in the latter than I am in the former, given that even when Rove was supervising policy, it was almost exclusively a matter of political strategy (as opposed to a more honest, less self-interested motivation behind policy implementation), so I don’t think much is really changing there. Still, I suppose the point that I want to make probably holds true in both cases.

Point being this: people and ideas are not interchangeable. In a situation like the recent so-called shakeup of White House staff, the suggestion, from a political/PR standpoint, is that by removing a prominent figure, the administration is somehow taking responsibility for and/or remedying the policies and concepts with which that person has been involved. In this case, the figure is pretty much just a mouthpiece, making the contrast between person and principle all the more clear. Taking responsibility for bad leadership or insufficient performance of a given job is one thing, but it shouldn’t be confused with changes in ideology, policy, or principle, especially given how exceedingly rare it seems to be for a policy idea to be conceived of and authored by just one person (and certainly not by press secretaries). The man or woman in a position of governmental authority often comes to symbolize in part the actions and words of the government as a whole, such that people see a “shakeup” in personnel as a real change, by the logic that the person carries with him or her the ideas of the administration, or at least some subset of those ideas. In most cases, though, these shakeups are merely a matter of finding scapegoats, dumping them to the curb, and pretending that more substantive things have changed so as to maintain an illusion of progress where there usually is none. I don’t doubt that there is at least some difference in leadership styles between Andy Card and Josh Bolten, but that transition is being very deliberately made out to be a change in more than personnel. If there are genuine differences in ideology between the old staff and the new, then fine, that’s something, but I have seen no particular evidence to suggest that there is—and there has been a near-constant (and unabashedly manipulative) attempt to trumpet these changes as a real shift in direction.

One of the many noteworthy (if not entirely original) themes tossed around in V for Vendetta is that of the symbolic relationship between man and idea. Vendetta explores the traditional wisdom that the idea is greater than the man, more powerful, far more difficult to extinguish—indeed, expressions of this idea bookend the film. The relationship, both within the film’s reality and in our reality, is more complicated than that, however; the idea is conceived, voiced, expressed, and enacted by the man, or by other men (I assume I need not clarify every use of ‘man’ by saying I’m using it gender-neutrally). I don’t mean to suggest that Scott McClellan or Andy Card are trivial, or that they don’t bear any relation to the ideas behind the administration, but typically our government is organized in such a way that with very few exceptions, the man is a slave to the idea. A very small minority within the administration crafts policy, and outside of this minority, everyone is subordinate to the enacting of the decided-on policy. This situation is not unique to the Bush administration, but they have certainly elevated it to an art form with their increasingly insular decision-making process and their unceasing refusal to listen to fact or opinion not already within the scope of the decided-on policies.

A true change of course would necessitate a change not only in the policies that have been so resolutely decided upon, but also in the decision-making process as a whole. A changed Bush administration would in theory be one that listened to its critics rather than dismissing them out of hand, one that embraced policy debate instead of claiming an unsubstantiated point of view as definitive truth, one that acknowledged the significance of objective reality rather than ignoring it. Until/unless that happens, we ought not accept the assertions that a staff shakeup is interchangeable with (or a satisfactory substitute for) a policy/idea shakeup. The symbology of leadership is not ironclad; we ought not confuse the symbol and the symbolized, the man and the principle. Eliminating the former does not eliminate the latter—rarely are ideas, even bad ones, so easily extinguished.

Urizen

Edit: Alonzo Fyfe expresses a similar point (emphasis mine):

We have already been told that this shakeup does not include Rumsfeld. Instead, today, we hear that Press Secretary Scott McClellan is stepping down. This has all of the sense of a speaker, proposing poorly considered ideas based on fantasy and wishful thinking can make those ideas sound better if they switch to a different microphone. They have not yet recognized that the problem is with the message, not with the quality of the equipment used to tell it.


Moral Reasoning vs. Moral Behavior

April 12, 2006

For a variety of reasons, I’ve spent quite a bit of time on issues of morality thus far in my blogging. Part of it is the sheer necessity of moral decision-making in a world in which one’s actions can so easily have an impact on other people. Part of it is my general interest in the ethical component of philosophy. Most of it, I suspect, is the fact that morality has become so tarnished as a concept, so twisted and misinterpreted and wrongheaded, that most of us shudder when anyone mentions “moral values,” because we recognize that as (typically) shorthand for the stubborn, arrogant imposition of one set of prejudices on an entire society. In this post, I’d like to address an important division in thinking about morality: the division between moral reasoning (process) and moral behavior (end).

(Side note: I should probably also make it clear that I’m using ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’ pretty much interchangeably in these posts. This is perhaps not the best of ideas, and maybe in future posts I’ll be more precise in using ‘ethics’ to denote the philosophical inquiry into the nature of right and wrong, and ‘morality’ to denote the social/cultural systems generated thereof. For now, though, just pretend they’re identical.)

Read the rest of this entry »


Unholy Alliances and the Monolith

April 11, 2006

Edit: Hello hello, visitors from Pharyngula! Take your shoes off, make yourselves comfortable, take a look around. We just vacuumed, so try not to spill.

A significant chunk of the recent debate among Democrats (or, more accurately, among non-Republicans) has been about how exactly we should be dealing with religion—specifically evangelical Christianity—from a political standpoint, which is to say from a public relations standpoint. With midterm elections rapidly approaching and campaigning for 2008 off to an early start, questions of policy and principle are, as is usually the case, taking a back seat to political maneuvering to satisfy the religious majority. Amy Sullivan’s Washington Monthly article a while ago about the interaction between evangelicals and the Democratic party was the catalyst for the most recent round of debates on this subject. Professor Myers and others came down hard on Sullivan (justifiably so) for what they saw as her willingness to abandon the principles of secular government for strategic purposes that almost completely miss the point. In particular, Sullivan and others have left the impression that atheists and agnostics ought to sit down and shut up for the sake of the team, a suggestion to which a number of us don’t take kindly. With little to no concern for self-preservation, I’d like to dive into this little debate.

Read the rest of this entry »


No One Expects the [fill in the blank] Inquisition

March 16, 2006

Dave Neiwert has another gem in a long series of posts about pseudo-fascism and political religion. In the most recent installment, he responds to a question about the connection between pseudo-fascism and “the real article,” i.e. genuine Mussolini-style totalitarian autocracy. His conclusion as I read it is that pseudo-fascism is more appropriately thought of as proto-fascism, and that the sort of pseudo-fascist rhetoric we’re seeing so much of these days isn’t fundamentally distinct from fascism proper, but is rather an “earlier” form of the same impulse. The distinction to be made, then, is between the fascist mindset and fascism itself, the latter being a product of the fascist mindset + certain circumstances and actions:

The correct analogy regarding pseudo-fascism and real fascism, I think, is not to compare them to a king snake and a cobra, but rather to a cobra in different states: before it strikes, as it still slithers into range and raises its cowl; and after it has bitten. In the former, we can keep it at bay and even corral it. In the latter, we’re calling the ambulance.

This is right on the money, I think; the one thing I’d like to add/emphasize is that this sort of thing is a process, one that is relevant long before it reaches its conclusion. We’ve all heard the “first they came for [x], and I didn’t say anything because […]” maxim, but I don’t think most of us have really internalized the reality of how fragile peace and freedom are, and how insidious the forces that seek to undermine them are. The strength of liberal democracy, aside from its respect for principles of individual autonomy, is that it is designed to be self-correcting, i.e. to respond to changes in our understanding of the world. This is the sort of thing that is anathema to neo-fascist groups and to the far right in general (though it’s not difficult to find ideological ties even to less extreme conservative ideologies—this being one reason, perhaps, why rightist hatred has taken such a significant role in modern mainstream “conservatism”), because for these groups, what’s important is a predefined orthodoxy—and there’s no room for challenging that orthodoxy.

What we have to acknowledge, then, is that this pseudo-fascist/fascist mindset is attacking government and society on the most fundamental level, which is, counterintuitively, also the most vulnerable level. Conservative ideology in its most basic form is marked by a certain natural skepticism towards unorthodox ideas, towards anything that deviates in policy or principle from the status quo. The fascist mindset, it seems to me, is a combination of two impulses: an extreme version of this death grip on the status quo, and an irrational and reductive division of the world into “us” and “them.” These two impulses justify and enhance each other, to the point of full-fledged eliminationism. This is dangerous not only in that it has the potential to develop into fascism proper (or at least “isolated” incidents of violence and persecution)—it also threatens the responsiveness of democracy and the fundamental respect for freedom, autonomy, and the intrinsic worth of human beings (regardless of political/philosophical/theological belief). Fascist tendencies and eliminationist rhetoric shouldn’t only worry us because they might result in real violence, though the threat of violence is real. We should also be wary of such mindsets because of the damage they do to the foundations of our society, a society that (like it or not) is designed to function according to a rational morality, not irrational and impenetrable orthodoxy.

Neiwert’s post concludes thusly:

But if we fall down on the job, and the American body politic under the influence of the extremist right gives rise to real fascism, and we do start seeing loyalty oaths and official suppression of free speech, mass arrests and street violence … well, by then, I’m afraid, it will be too late.

He is of course right to suggest that we need to worry about fascist mentalities now, rather than waiting until it’s too late. This is all the more reason for us to think about how such mentalities have been absorbed into mainstream politics, and to come up with ways to keep fascism and eliminationism from playing such a central role in public discourse. For a disturbingly large number of people, hatred and violent invective have taken the place of reasoned debate. This is not something we can afford to wait to deal with; for the sake of our society and everyone in it, we must embrace reason and civil discourse over neo-/proto-/pseudo-fascist impulses, or we can kiss the most wonderful and important principles of our world goodbye.

Urizen


The Holocaust History Project

March 8, 2006

Apologies for the excessively long gap between posts. We will return to your regularly scheduled programming soon. In the meantime, some important news.

Early Monday morning, the building that’s listed as the mailing address of the Holocaust History Project (one of the best and most comprehensive resources in the fight against Holocaust denial) and that also houses the private business of THHP’s director was burned to the ground. Though there isn’t direct evidence that the building was targeted because of THHP, it is a fairly safe assumption, given that the fire was deliberately set and THHP has been a target before. From the press release:

Media Contact:

Sara Salzman
303-617-9412
media@holocaust-history.org

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Trial By Fire: Holocaust History Project Won’t Be Silenced

In the early hours of March 6, 2006, a fire broke out at a warehouse complex near San Antonio International Airport, causing extensive damage to the offices of The Holocaust History Project (THHP), an organization that has been, for the last ten years, in the forefront of confronting Holocaust denial online, in addition to providing educational materials to students throughout the world. Arson investigators now have confirmed that the fire was intentionally set and are continuing their investigation.

It was just the latest in a series of attacks with the apparent intent to silence THHP. For the past 18 months, the THHP website has been under an unprecedented Distributed Denial of Service attack. This cyber attack began on September 11, 2004, and is being carried out by a specially modified version of the MyDoom computer worm, programmed to target the THHP web server. See the THHP statement:
http://www.holocaust-history.org/denial/denial-of-service.shtml

Harry Mazal, the Director of THHP said, “We have been able to defend our work against these cyber attackers. They tried, but couldn’t shut us down. We have strong indications that this arson is the next step in a series of attacks against our educational and scholarly work. Although the fire caused significant damage to our offices, there is no way we will be silenced. Our web site has not been affected, and our work will continue.”

While an arson attack such as this cannot be specifically anticipated, THHP has long ago taken steps to minimize the impact of any attacks, physical or virtual. Several mirror sites ensure that even as serious an attack as occurred Monday morning will be unsuccessful in forcing THHP to go offline.

Background:

THHP is one of the largest repositories of information relating to the Holocaust on the Web. For the last ten years, an international staff of volunteers has worked tirelessly to make information on the Holocaust, and on those who would deny it, easily accessible to students, scholars, and anyone who has an interest in the truth.

Among the material on the site are essays about various events and people, scientific and legal analyses, original Nazi documents, expert witness testimony, transcripts of many of the Nuremberg trials, and the complete texts of two seminal works, Jean-Claude Pressac’s “Auschwitz” and Robert Jay Lifton’s “The Nazi Doctors.” In addition, THHP volunteers personally answer emails from thousands of students each year who are looking for information to further their studies.

The site has registered more than 50 million hits in a year. “Traffic to our site increases every year,” said Mr. Mazal, “we intend to keep adding new content to the site. Right now we are preparing the Belsen trial transcripts, and the transcript of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Israel.”

Media questions should be addressed to:
Sara Salzman, 303-617-9412, media@holocaust-history.org

To Holocaust deniers and others who choose to devalue and ignore objective reality, facts are secondary to ideology. When the facts aren’t on their side, they blindly attack the opposition. Usually this is confined to the realm of rhetoric and policy, which would be bad enough, but sometimes it gets more serious.

If you can afford it, now wouldn’t be a bad time to help out. And if you’re a blogger, please spread the word, both to increase awareness of the thing itself and to give some more exposure to THHP‘s very worthy project.

Edit: Orac has a list of blogs mentioning the attack here.

Edit again: For the sake of clarification, the building that was burned down did not house any of THHP’s servers or materials. It’s fortunate that the perpetrators of this vile act were foolish enough to target a building with only a peripheral connection to THHP (though undoubtedly attacking the private business of THHP’s director has its merits, in their eyes), but that doesn’t make the act or the ideology behind it any less vile.

Urizen