Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Never Forget: But Do You Need to Spend So Much Time Reminding Yourself?
I am up in arms about the movie United 93, and plan to not see it, (although I haven’t been watching many new movies anyways.) As a supposed defender of free speech, I guess I really can’t fault any individual for exercising their free will to spend 10 dollars on this film. But I hope those that do carefully consider why they are choosing to see this movie, and more importantly, have a firm grip on reality when they walk out of the theatre.
Moreover, we face the dual challenge of anti-U.S. insurgency in
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
If I simply define a 'better' religion as simply those whose values match up with mine better, then there shouldn't be a big argument- in fact there can't be an argument, because it's a totally personal definition. And that shouldn't be surprising. I do live in a largely Christian society, and simply by upbringing and culture, my values match up well with Christianity's values well.
But I'm not going to do that, because that would be boring. On the other hand, defining what is good and bad in religion is a huge task in itself, and I don't want to try here while simultaneously defending myself. Let's just, in the interest of full disclosure, try to keep in mind that I do live in a Christian nation, and therefore have been colored by it. I'll try to keep it in check. That aside, I think that as non-religious people, we can think of a religion as good or bad in roughly the same way- whether it is good for the world, good for the individuals that practice it, and good for those that do not.
I know that Marmar and David would love for me to try and quote verses from the Quran and the Bible that "prove" that one text is better, but I can't, and I won't. We all agree that both texts are old-fashioned, vague, and hopelessly contradictory. There would be no point. But that speaks to a problem that both religions have- that because of varying interpretations of the text, there is no one 'true' ideology of their religion. Can we really say that the Pope has the same ideology as a Catholic in Mexico City? Can we compare them in any but the most superficial ways? Sure, they both believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, and they both believe that Sundays are the day of rest- but to outsiders like us, what impact does it make on the way they behave? Christians, by definition, reject the very tenet of Muhammed being the one true Prophet- and yet that is totally irrelevant to our outsider discussion. There is more to discuss than ideology and text-- all we care about is behavior and results.
That's why it's totally futile to say that one religion is better than the other based on ideology. I find Christian values to be quite good: the idea that altruism is good, the idea that judgment should be withheld, and the idea of helping those less fortunate, the idea that pride, greed, sloth, etc. are bad. If we went through the Quran, we would find similar ideas and supporting evidence. It's why Muslim scholars try to plead that Islam is a peaceful religion, because by and large, people that practice it are peaceful. I totally agree, and I don't want to pigeonhole Muslims as bad people, just as I try not to pigeonhole Christians as bad people. It's the big picture that I don't like, and that's why it leads to generalizations.
A little digression here-- I think that as open-minded liberals, we tend to react against generalizations (especially views that conservatives and racists might have) a little too strongly. But I find it interesting that I have bashed Christianity before, religion in general, and drawn no criticism at all. But because Islam is in disfavor in America, there's an urge to defend it as a minority interest here. And that's good- I think that it's a dangerous line to cross when we label Islam as 'evil', and I can understand Marmar's reticence to supporting views like that. However, was it only ok to label Christianity as evil because they're in power? Is it only OK to be racist against white people? So let's be clear. I am not saying that Muslims are evil people, and I think that we do have to be AWARE of crossing that line, and that labelling Islam as evil may help take the first steps across that line.
Ok, so now that we have the disclaimers out of the way, we can talk. Religion is and often has been about history, tradition, and the practices of it MORE than it has been about the tenets and ideals of it. In that context, Islam and Christianity have long been religions loaded with violence, perversion of power, corruption, and even pettiness. But here's the kicker. Religions evolve and change. I think I have massive support in saying that Christianity is a 'better' religion than it was before the Protestant Reformation, when it gave out indulgences for money, was under the thumb of various European leaders, and when it led the crusades in desperate land grabs under the guise of religion. Were the ideologies much different? Didn't the Bible contain the same text then as it does now? Answers: Of course not, and yes. But what has changed is that even though Christianity accepted the idea of paying money to sin back in the day, it no longer does now. But back then, you couldn't take an individual Christian and say 'this person is a worse Christian because he thought indulgences were OK'. Just as you can't say "this person is a bad Muslim because he supports Sharia law." No, in the context of their situation, it makes them a good person.
That is, I believe, where Islam finds itself now. The leaders of Islam in large advocate fundamentalist policies to practice Islam- leading to Sharia laws that are governmentally enforced, strict adherence to traditions, and Islamic universities where the only study is memorization and interpretation of the Quran (as it represents all truth). In effect, Islam needs to shake off its fundamentalism and evolve into a religion that is about personal rather than societal change. Christianity has in large moved past this stage- things like allowing Mass in English rather than only Latin, because of the realization that adherence to rules that actually hurt the individuals (assuming that they don't understand Latin) is a hallmark of fundamentalism. Now that I have sung the praises Christianity several times in this post, I need to find some plastic forks to stick in my eyes.
But I don't want to end on that note. I'll end with the thought that though I find Islam as a religion even worse than Christianity, that doesn't mean we can shun it, and it doesn't mean we can dismiss it. And it certainly doesn't give us the right to invade any Muslim country under the guise of them being evil. So we do have to work with them and be constructive. But it also doesn't mean I have to love everyone, their beliefs, and their values equally.
Monday, April 24, 2006
Thursday, April 20, 2006
The Economist and soft paternalism
The answer is yes. Maybe there's a little bit of 'if it looks like a duck' thinking going on, but it's hard to put an issue of Newsweek (or Time) next to the Economist and not realize that the Economist is a superior source of information and content. The downside, of course, is that it has small text and dense articles (plus, the cover art is always a little abstract) so its potential readership is reduced. Maybe by putting more pictures and ads in, it would become a little more accessible, but maybe by doing that they'd open the door for sensationalism. Who knows? They might try taking a page out of the Reader's Digest marketing book- subscribers get a normal issue with the actually featured short stories and articles, while the newstands and grocery stores get a cover that always has the same articles on it- "LOSE WEIGHT OFF THAT BELLY!" and "IS BIRD FLU THE NEW SARS WHICH WAS THE NEW ANTHRAX?"
There's my plug for the Economist. Now I have to take issue with them, since they've been disagreeing with me lately. In a recent issue, they talk about "soft paternalism"- the idea that the state should encourage and enforce good behaviors (which is the paternalism part) by using rewards more than punishments, and by not "forcing" people to do things like wear seat belts and save for retirement (which is the soft part.)
The assumption by the writers is that paternalism is bad, because hard pateralism has been the basis of many, many failed governments and systems. Freedom seems to be the key behind the success of capitalism and democracy- so anything that limits freedom is bad as well. But is soft paternalism really the threat that they make it out to be?
Here's a quick example of a system using SP that the writers used: Before you can buy cigarettes, you have to buy a 'cigarette license' that you have to define limits on. Proponents of SP realize (actually the Economist concedes this too) that people are more rational about the future than the present, and therefore will be more likely to realize that they should not be smoking more than a pack a week, like a sort of new year's resolution. So our smoker friend defines a limit of 4 packs a monh. When mid month rolls around, and he's used up all four packs, the government says that he can't have anymore. Lastly, if he wanted to, he could go to the government and have his limit increased, but there would be a waiting period, because without the waiting period, or at least a fee or inconvenience of some kind, the limit would have no meaning.
SP advocates say that at no point was his freedom abridged, because sign up was voluntary. The system simply enforces the freedom of the former self over the present self. The Economist responds in a variety of ways- they complain that there is no reason for the government to abridge anyone's freedom, even if they want you to, they complain that irrational desires such as gambling and smoking have use, and they complain that the government should not be protecting its citizens against themselves. I say that that's a load of crap. What government can possibly be neutral, and composed of perfect citizens? I think what really upsets the Economist is two things:
1) The proponents of soft paternalism don't have the wealth of the system as the ideal of their desires. They encourage quitting smoking, saving for retirement, etc., because it will be good for individuals. But, what if the tobacco industry adds wealth to the economy? What if the institution of such a system destroys the industry overnight and takes down the economy because of it? I think that if the ideas of SP could somehow be applied to the good of capital- and that if the government merely encouraged behavior that created wealth for society, the writers would be much more favorable to the idea as a whole. Of course, the proponents of SP tend to be fiscally liberal and more on the socialist side, so in practice their systems have been liberal social issues.
2) The idea that people can be programmed to do things. I think this one gets their goat even more-- the article ends on a note about that if people don't learn to discipline themselves, they'll end up like apes, who simply do what the government tells them to. How can they become strong, decisive people if they have their hand held all the time? Total bullshit, because what person has somehow made it on their own, without help from government, system, values, family, workers? What government has ever not wanted a citizenship of law-abiding people? And if it is true that people's decisions can be programmed- what sense does it even make to talk about learning discipline and learning to make good decisions? Could those be programmed too?
One last thing I'd like to say, though, is that even though I think they show an undue dislike of soft paternalism, I believe that they are probably correct about needing freedom and capitalism. I just don't think they need to appeal to a sense of "oh no, this is like 1984 with Big Brother!" to show why it may not be a good idea. I suppose saying "We like capitalism and anything that deviates from it is bad" would be unconvincing after a while.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
Before you dive into this blog, please jump over to the New Yorker and read Seymour Hersh’s piece on the Bush Administration’s inner debates about the
Ok I promise to write some new shit. Anyways Seymour Hersh has been trumpeting the
Meaning of course, we will be relying on the CIA and other intelligence agencies to provide us with an accurate picture of
The scariest line in this article of doom and gloom, is Hersh’s portrayal of Bush as believing that, in inciting regime change in
The President of the
Having more power than anyone else, and utilizing such power in unpopular ways is not courage. Courage is embodied in those who do not have power, yet put their livelihoods at risk against those who wield it against them. Courage is embodied in those who put their lives in danger by choosing to join the American military, to defend their country, to put their lives in the hands of blithering idiots who continually send them into dangerous situations without planning achievable goals, giving them adequate equipment, or finishing up with their first invasion before initiating their next step.
The Bush Administration needs to be stopped. The only wrath he faces is that of history, who will look upon his administration as the greatest disaster of the post World War II Era, one which simultaneously ruined economic prosperity, destroyed the American image in the international community, and eroded personal freedom. What a legacy to leave. The only way to do this is to destroy the backing of the Bush Administration from the House of Representatives and Senate, through voting in the Democrats in 06. Not that I am a huge fan of the Democratic party in ’06, but they will at least force some compromise from the Bush camp.
Or will they? Who knows. In the 21st century, no one wants to seem weak. No one speaks for peace. No one speaks for progress and change. Will the Democrats show “courage,” by doing whatever is necessary to derail Bush’s misguided foreign policy? Or will they buy into everyone’s worst fears about
Does such a plan exist? And what should the
Friday, April 07, 2006
More Thoughts Exactly
Ok, first off is the incredibly important and worthwhile trial of Zacarias Moussaoui. (I spelled that correctly on my first try and without looking it up beforehand, thank you very much). For those of you that haven't been paying attention, apparently some terrorists attacked the US a few years ago. I can't remember the specific date, unfortunately, because news organizations have been a little bit reluctant to talk about it every day and attribute every single thing that has happened in the time period since then to the attack.
Wait, what was I talking about again? Ah yes, the trial. Anyway, Moussaoui has been convicted and now sentencing has begun, where the government is trying to prove that Moussaoui deserves to die. Apparently, this is done by reliving 9/11 for the jury and the victims who are present in the courtroom, in graphic detail- body parts, unreleased videos, cockpit recordings, and 911 calls. Why? Because clearly, the jury needs to be reminded. The way the prosecution and the media puts it- they need to 'put a human face on the tragedy' and 'remind them that it wasn't just a number'.
I say bullshit. The prosecutors are literally out for Moussaoui's death, and they want the jury to have the same outrage, the same sickened feeling that everyone had on 9/11, and they want them to make the kinds of decisions that people filled with outrage make. I think on 9/11, if you had asked every American "we caught one of the hijackers- should we kill him?" The answer would have been a resounding yes. But this is, as we are so frequently reminded, the post-9/11 world, and we should have a little perspective now- a little hindsight.
I'm going to ignore a few things here that are reasonable points, but not what I'm upset about. First, I don't even care about whether Moussaoui gets the death penalty- he's an incredibly stupid/insane man, and his life is not really worthwhile in anything but a symbolic way.
What I do care about is the fact that killing Moussaoui should really only be considered an act of pure retribution- his association with the event is bad enough for the public. He did not, in fact, kill anyone. And though he could have stopped them, and is clearly culpable of conspiracy and criminal neglicence, the dividng line between killing someone and not killing someone has generally been a clear one. But the prosecution would like us to believe that Moussaoui was personally responsible for everyone of those deaths- and though it's a dubious connection to make, the defense knows that it would be in such poor taste to contest it that they can't do anything but watch as the jury gets their faces shoved in it.
The other contention- that he 'could have' prevented or mitigated the disaster is equally dubious. In fact it's nonsense to say that he could have prevented it when he WANTED it to happen. It's like saying in a murder case "he could have NOT shot the victim" and smugly thinking you've proved something. It's also a special kind (the outrage variety) of nonsense to suggest that the CIA, FBI, FAA, INS, and local police could have cooperated to catch these terrorists, if only Moussaoui had developed morals and suddenly realized that everything he had thought up to that point in his life was wrong.
So what is killing him going to accomplish? Does it show that we're serious about terrorism? Does it deter terrorists in any way? Or is it actually saying "this is what happens when you try to kill yourself and fail- we do it for you." Or is it saying "you did a bad thing, and we'll feel better when you're dead". I'm sure it's the last one, so let's just get it out in the open.
Secondly, (yes, unfortunately, this is actually only the second part of this post) I want to discuss immigration. Right now, there's a bill in the Senate trying to get hammered out to get to the President's desk before they go on spring break (more evidence that our government is actually a fraternity house of powerful, middle-aged people who assign themselves arbitrary titles like president, treasurer, captain of the keg committee, and supreme arbiter of Everything.)
The bill is relatively conservative in that it doesn't make sweeping changes, (but it seems liberal in the sense that it makes changes at all! zing!) a guest worker program, a legalization process that speeds up for certain people. I actually support most of the general ideas in the bill- I think illegal immigration needs to be decriminalized to some degree, and the liberal in me wants to support an amnesty program.
Thirdly, and this ties into immigration, I want to talk about the utopia that we're all desperately trying to get to, in Civ 4, in life, and in the US. If we had this utopia, wouldn't every single person on earth want to get in? Is immigration confirmation that we have a good society, or is it confirmation that we have money and power? The conservative argument against opening the borders is that even though it may be a noble idea, and though it's the end goal to have open borders, it's unsustainable to take on citizens and support them without an equal economic expansion. Illegal immigrants are probably fine and even good in the strict view of economic expansion, as long as they live in poverty and take jobs that won't be done by Americans. In fact, Bush's most liberal policies relate to immigration because on this issue, he may actually be so far to the right that he aligns up with them. Or maybe it's just that he was governor of Texas and couldn't possibly hardline against immigration there. In any case, the issue that concerns conservatives is that it isn't 'fair' for immigrants to get taxpayer's rights without paying taxes. So, do they have the same objections against people under the poverty line? The answer to that is probably yes, but a small number of impoverished non-tax paying people is fine as long as it doesn't destabilize the whole system. And that's what they fear will happen, former illegals stealing their health care, jobs, and school funds to the detriment of the entire society.
The economics of the situation dictates that in order to support more people, more money has to be there- newcomers have to create wealth and value at least equal to their drain on society. After all, any utopia has to be stable and sustainable. Capitalism excels at creating wealth, but what if capitalism's fatal flaw of its continous climb is that its continuous climb needs infinite expansion? The point is that sustainable systems generally need equilibrium, and there can't be equilibrium when the US is clearly more powerful and wealthy than its neighbors. So I'd ask the liberal ideal- are you prepared to give up an indeterminate amount of power, and prepared to risk economic collapse to permit true equality? And I'd ask the conservative ideal- are you prepared to step into the moral low ground to stay in power, and prepared to risk class strife to keep the system running? I think the answer is no to all of the above, so don't be surprised when nothing changes.
CIv 4 and The State
Whether or not you know this, I have a new addiction that I am battling unsuccessfully: Civilization 4. I am into politics and international relations, yet I am totally unable to attain employment in any position that allows me to work on these issues. Civ 4 is a wonderful outlet for this built up desire to change the world: I can take fake civilizations, micromanage every part of their development and attempt to lead them to glorious victory. Moreover, the game’s multitude of possible victory conditions allows me to adapt to my current mood. If I’m feeling like getting some aggression out, I can go conquer some weak civilization that has been giving me grief. If I am feeling pious, I can go for a “space race,” victory or cultural domination.
When I played the original Civilization, I refused to use nuclear weapons. I was young and idealistic and had been taught that nuclear weapons were not something to be used under any circumstances. If I could not win the game without resorting to nukes, I did not deserve to win.
Now, I am still young and idealistic, but I no longer feel the need to limit my chances of victory by moralizing. And Civ 4, being more advanced than its predecessors, offers plenty more opportunities for me to prove my lack of compassion and commitment to total victory. If my cities are getting too big (and potentially unhappy and unhealthy,), why not sacrifice some population through slavery to build an extra swordsman. If I’ve given my civilization one thousand years of representative government and pacifism, they won’t really mind fifty years of a police state while I fight a quick war, (they were protesting too much anyways, it’s their fault.) And if Frederick the Great and I are on great terms for over two millennia, but he is a little too close for comfort in the race to space, why not send a few tanks and helicopters to pillage his outlying towns for gold and raze a few of his poorly defended cities. It’s all part of my great plan, and the death and destruction are not real.
Yet I wonder today how much those who plan our government are distanced from the damage they cause and view loss of life or curtailing of freedoms of it’s citizens as exercises in power that are 1) necessary evils and 2) part of their great plan to rid the world of Terror and spread whatever values they believe in. Judging from their actions: detaining people in Guantanamo without basic rights like speedy trial or the right to attorney, starting some wars with various levels of justness, the answer appears to be: plenty.
Of course in real life, people actually die. And the game doesn’t end in 2050 with whomever having the highest score being declared the winner. So why do leaders in real life behave in exactly the same way as those in the game? Shouldn’t we all be going for cultural victories or the space race: sitting happily on our continents, sharing technology and resources?
Utopia is derailed by the fact that there doesn’t seem to be enough to go around. Oil. Money. In accepting capitalism as the global standard, we have insured that some will win, some will lose, and some are born to sing the blues. In promoting competition, we promote conflict, even if the same spirit may be responsible for driving progress as fast as possible, we also insure that internally countries must deal with the fallout of the lack of distribution of wealth and the demand for more of everything.
But more importantly, utopia is derailed by the fact that the leaders of the world are human beings and thus, flawed. Some are religious zealots who don’t trust heathen countries. Some don’t trust countries with leaders who don’t take the same political ideology as they do. All of them have demands on other countries that would make their jobs easier, and varying levels of ability to get what they want. And all of them want to keep their job, because they think what they are doing is more right than the next guy.
At least in our country, we have some sort of choice over which wealthy white male we put in our leadership position. More importantly, we have a system of government that allows for flexible governance, and does not consolidate power into one individual. In these troubled times, when we have clearly got a leader with multiple personality flaws, who does not accept heathen religions, or countries who don’t like his favorite civics, it is our responsibility as citizens to limit his power. We can do this through civil disobedience, causing unrest, and most importantly, voting out Bush’s allies in the mid-term election. Finally we can do this by naming me Supreme Dictator For Life. I promise that I will be nice to the populace.
Tuesday, April 04, 2006
10 Thoughts on Opening Day
Dave is right, what’s with all the your thoughts exactly seriousness? Especially when it’s opening day and the Red Sox are on ESPN2. Here are my thoughts on the proceedings. (Note: This is when I wish Bill Simmons was, say, a Brewers fan, since he of course wrote on the exact same subject, I read his article before writing this one, and now I am worried that I will sub-consciously be biting off him stylistically. Wait a minute. A long meandering tangent in parentheses? Asking myself questions? I am biting off him!)
Thought 1: I will miss Johnny Damon and I think people branding him a traitor are fools. He will probably suck for the Yankees by year two, which means they will be grossly overpaying him, to hit .270, allow David Ortiz to score from first on a single, and bring up memories of the time he hit a grand slam in Yankee Stadium to complete the greatest comeback of all time. Plus we have replaced him with Coco Crisp, who is named Coco Crisp, and therefore already my third favorite player on the team (can you guess the first two?)
Thought 2: I remember when I used to be such a bitter fan up until, say two years ago. It’s much nicer having such a stress-free attitude about sports. Now if only I could translate this emotional outlook to sex and employment.
Thought 3: The Ortiz/Manny combo looks primed for more domination. Manny’s hair is sufficiently disgusting to distract me from worrying about whether or not he will be traded. Ortiz just sits there ready to mash, knowing that pitchers have to challenge him due to his Hall-of-Fame protection. It’s glorious to watch.
Thought 4: Curt Schilling looked excellent: not Cy-worthy but hopefully something like 18-7. I’m keeping my fingers crossed
Thought 5: Keith Foulke looked like the Red Sox medical staff needs to come up with a fake injury for him. Good thing I drafted Jon Papelbon.
Thought 6: The Reds will not be winning the NL Central
Thought 7: A-Rod closes his eyes when he swings. Does this surprise anyone else? I always tried to look at the ball until the absolute last second. Yet on A-Rod’s grand slam yesterday, he closed his eyes in the middle of his swing. I don’t think Edgar Martinez would approve
Thought 8: Baseball announcers are far and away the worst group of commentators, at least on the national level. I think that the odds are stacked against them: to get a true feel for a baseball team, you need to watch or listen to the games every day. If you come in for one day a month, you will have no idea who is having his one amazing, or off day, week, or month. This is why most commentators rely on clichés and reputations rather than making new analysis. That and the fact they are a bunch of nimrods.
Why are these people so stupid? They are mostly ex-ballplayers who have played in (and watched,) countless more baseball games than I have, and have been involved through their playing careers, with some of the brightest baseball minds in the business. Is ESPN forcing them to dumb down their commentary for the national audience? Or are they just a bunch of brain-dead jocks?
Probably the latter. But watch Orel Hersheiser this year: he was actually talking strategy and pitching mechanics at a level I had never heard before. See if ESPN forces him to use smaller words and shorter sentences.
Thought 9: Like most things in this world, life would be much better if ESPN just let me choose which ex-ballplayers they brought on for their Baseball Tonight crew and commentating roles. Does anyone think Tino Martinez or Eric Karros will add anything other than standard clichés? Hasn’t anyone shot John Kruk yet? So here are five players ESPN must target
1) Ricky Henderson. No need for comment
2) Manny Ramirez. Will probably be terrible as a commentator, but guaranteed to say at least one random thing per broadcast that scares his play-by-play partner and that I will be quoting for weeks.
3) Greg Maddux. Pitching dork who can drop some serious knowledge
4) David Wells. I find him incredibly annoying, but he will say whatever he wants and probably get fired in two months, while hopefully blasting Bud Selig non-stop.
5) Jose Canseco. See comment 1
Thought 10: The update for all you YTE and Marmaniac fans on the fantasy baseball league! The draft went well for some of us, (me) and not so well for some of us. (Dave and Stu.) Right now I think I am solid on pitching, but in need of some more corner power and speed up the middle. I’m excited for another competitive fantasy sports experience, a ferocious AL East battle, and another Red Sox banner.