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.

Back from our Sabbatical?

September 29, 2006

If, like me, you saw President Clinton’s performance on Fox News (1, 2, 3), you may have been surprised by many of things he said. Further, you may have been subsequently befuddled by the focus that his emotional state, in exaggerated and distorted detail, had in the media coverage of the event, rather than refutation or confirmation of the startling facts that he enumerated. If so, you’ll be happy to know that Keith Olbermann has a few things to say about it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that, while I don’t watch Countdown or MSNBC at all, the clips I have seen of Keith Olberman have routinely been anti-rightist in nature, whether in the form of incisively dressing down Bill O’Reilly for some idiotic comment, or the even more ludicrous Ann Coulter. I don’t know this is selection bias on the part of people who select the clips, or whether this is his general tone, but in any either case, it hasn’t been my experience that anything he’s said has been false or not corroborated by fact. Quite the opposite, in fact — he seems ready with an army of documented facts to bolster his own position, and I think that this clip in particular channels more of Edward R. Murrow than his signature sign-off. It energized me to see a mainstream journalist going to task on what others seem either too cowed or too much in thrall, as Olbermann meta-quotes, to be frank and open about. I hope you find it refreshing, or at very least thought-provoking.


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?


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.


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.

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.


Clooney on dissent

March 14, 2006

Just a quickie:

George Clooney (whose Oscar acceptance speech was phenomenal in brevity, poignancy and relevance) has a post up on the Huffington Post entitled: “I’m a Liberal. There, I said it!” It’s a really quick read, but it says interesting things, mostly things I’ve always believed about our duty to dissent, and the requirement for it from both sides of the aisle.

My only complaint is that I don’t really grant that acknowledgement “that Saddam Hussein had no ties to al-Qaeda and had nothing to do with 9/11” is a liberal idea. Hopefully that one has traction in many camps. It’s not liberal in the progressive or bigger government senses, only in the sense that it’s opposed to the standing administration.

Other than that, I say good job, Mr. Clooney. (Everybody go out and see Good Night and Good Luck. It’s worth it.)