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Monthly Archives: April 2013

There are about 7 billion people living on the planet.  Evolution has given us large and maddeningly complex brains.  Even discounting the occasionally deleterious affects of politics, religion, and culture in general on the human psyche, the sheer weight of the numbers dictate that you’ll find some number of people who are malevolently deranged.  That would appear to be a fact we have to labor under at least until our understanding of the brain is advanced far beyond where it is today, something, I think, that is well over the horizon.

Meanwhile technology marches forward at a steady clip.  And that includes destructive technology.  Only a hundred years ago nuclear weaponry was but a twinkle in a theoretical physicists’ eye, with the ICBM technology to deliver multiple warheads anywhere on the globe being the stuff of science fiction.  Chemical and biological weaponry advances apace.

While the Boston bombing has currently caught the media spotlight, it is the intersection of madness and gun technology that has been occupying the clutural and political realm.  The Sandy Hook shooting prompted an extensive national conversation about how to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.  Legislatively no action has yet been taken, with a bill to expand background checks on gun purchases dying in the Senate.

So, at least so far, we seem incapable of even beginning to address the intersection of guns and madness.  But what about when this intersection doesn’t mean a few dozen dead, or even a few hundred, but a few hundred thousand or a few million?  What about when there is no margin for error?  Today there are nine nations with nuclear weapons, five who are members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty ( US, Russia, France, United Kingdom, and China ), one that doesn’t declare that they have nuclear weapons ( Israel ), and three non signatories of the NPT ( India, Pakistan, North Korea ).

Looking at Pakistan, the next thing to a failed state, with radical Islam a powerful force, one has to wonder if bronze age eschatology can be kept from meaningfully intersecting with technology that can quickly wreak biblical levels of destruction.  Can those lines be kept parallel forever?  It’s an odd quirk of the human mind that a single brain can make use of the powers of reason and science but at the same time be addled by unreasonable delusions.  Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, saw a froze waterfall and was thus convinced of the divinity of Jesus Christ.  Isaac Newton, arguably the greatest genius is history, spent an absurd amount of time on alchemy and finding hidden messages in the Bible.

We tend to have a optimistic view of technology as progressive and liberating.  But even beyond the potential uses of technology by governments to surveil and control citizens, the practical matter of the destructiveness of some technologies may mean an inherent incompatibility with our notions of individual liberty and democratic government.

This is not to say that all technology is destructive or by its very nature irreconcilable with liberal democracy.  But what if there is no room for error?  What if freedom doesn’t mean the occasional shooting spree or pressure cooker bomb, but the occasional briefcase ( or pen? ) nuke obliterating half a city, or the occasional outbreak of an engineered super flu?  What sorts of laws would constituents demand of their legislators then?

I’m not sure these are questions that will need to be answered in our lifetime.  But at some point technology will progress to the level that (even more) highly destructive technology is relatively simple, cheap, and easy to use.  Because how can the march of technology be stopped?  Would we really want it to be?  And so with any margin of error diminishing, someone is going to have to figure out how to prevent that technology from intersecting with human frailty, stupidity, and malevolence.  What would those laws look like?  What kind of society would result?  These are questions we should think about, because we might not have the luxury of handing them off to our progeny.

A few weeks ago I read a post at the daily howler that got me thinking about just how well one’s time is spent reading dead philosophers, particularly long dead ones.  Are there limits to how much of value can be gleaned from the thoughts of a person whose conception of the structure of the universe wouldn’t match up well with that of a contemporary fourth grader?    Will reading Plato’s Republic provide any real, useful insight for a contemporary reader into how the world works in the 21st century?

This is not to say that there is no value in persuing the thoughts of antiquity.  Certainly it’s possible that dsiciplines like the history of science can provide some insight into how valuable ideas take hold, inspire, and evolve into practical tools that can improve our lives.  But we all have finite hours, and finite attention, and I find it doubtful that slogging through old texts is the best way to understand our world.

And let’s be honest.  For the most part, when old, venerable philosophers are mentioned, when a line or two of their writings are laid down, at best it is just to provide an imprimatur of profundity to what would otherwise be a banal point.  It’s little more than name dropping.  The daily howler post was prompted by an op ed by a associate professor of philosophy on the nanny state.  In discussing the “harm principle” and how we (and the state) can be justified in stopping someone from doing something in ignorance that will harm themselves and that they will regret, John Stuart Mill is brought up.  But did he need to be brought up to clarify the point?  It doesn’t seem so.

Anyone who has waded through a comments section has seen the phenomenon in action.  Did you know that David Hume once wrote that you can’t get an ought from an is?  QED I guess.

The daily howler post ends with a lament that Ta-Nehisi Coates took the advice of Chris Hayes and began to read Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes.  That book happens to be on my shelf.  The back reads “The Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading”, but I hope it’s not essential because I couldn’t make it past the first few chapters.  Here is the first sentence of Chapter V “Of Reason, and Science”:

When a man reasoneth, hee does nothing else but conceived a summe totall, from Addition of parcels; or conceive a Remainder, from Substruction of one summe from another:  which (if it be done by Words,) is conceiving of the consequence of the names of all the parts, to the name of the whole; or from the names of the whole and one part, to the name of the other part.

There are well over 500 pages of that.  The blurb on the back of the book describing Hobbes ends that the book “cemented Hobbes’ philosophical reputation as the pre-eminent modern theorist of secular absolutism”.  The book was published in the middle of the 17th century, so I’m not quite sure what “modern” means here, modern for when it was written?  And anyway, “secular absolutism” doesn’t sound very enticing.

Between the gulf of time and culture, and the run-on, Rube Goldberg prose it’s hard to see the book having any value for the casual reader, especially when you consider the cost in time to read it.  I could slog through it, and I might even remember a sentence or two (beyond the “nasty, brutish, and short” bit) that, if I ever went to one, I might be able to bring out at a cocktail party and impress a person or two.  But that’s likely to be about it.

Which has led me re-asses my long delayed project to read Wealth of Nations.  I still plan to read the abridged version, I do think it has some value to understanding the current picture of economics, and the prose is certainly more approachable than that in the Leviathan.  But I think I’ll try and push through it a bit more quickly and with the help of the companion book “On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: A philosophical Companion” to get the broad strokes and important arguments, without getting lost in unnecessary detail.

So Glenn Greenwald tweeted an article published at Al Jazeera by Murtaza Hussain titled “Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists”.  The article basically draws a straight line between the critiques of Islam from the New Atheists and the pseudoscientific racism used against blacks for a good part of American history.  Sam Harris is specifically called out in the article:

Indeed, the most illustrative demonstration of the new brand of scientific racism must be said to come from the popular author and neuroscientist Sam Harris.

But it’s not just scientific racism, it’s:

the most prominent new atheists slide with ease into the most virulent racism imaginable.

It’s the most virulent racism that can be imagined.  For some reason this irked Sam Harris into emailing Greenwald and publishing the exchange.  Sam Harris called the Hussain article “defamatory garbage”, which is being kind, but Glenn Greenwald stood by it.  Well, mostly.  In a blog post about the kerfuffle Greenwald wrote:

That then led to a somewhat lengthy email exchange with Harris in which I did not attempt to defend every claim in those columns from his attacks because I didn’t make those claims: the authors of those columns can defend themselves perfectly well

Tweeting a link to an Al Jazeera column about Harris and saying I find one of his quotes revealing does not make me responsible for every claim in that column.

I’ve read Greenwald enough to be reasonably sure that if someone had tweeted an article a fraction as defamatory about Greenwald he would have gone ape shit, and not accepted an excuse that lame from the perpetrator.

But Sam Harris can defend himself, and I’m not as interested in rebutting the accusations made against Sam Harris as using Greenwald’s article as a window into how discussions about certain topics get policed and deformed.  Because I’ve read most of Sam Harris’ writings, and while he doesn’t shy away from touchy subjects, he’s always calm, well reasoned, and equitable.  If he is getting accused of the most virulent racism imaginable when he wanders onto certain rhetorical ground, something is deeply broken with the dialogue.

Certainly, given our benighted history of racism and colonialism and the vulnerable position of some minority population, some topics should be seen as dangerous waters that shouldn’t be avoided, but navigated carefully, as I think Sam Harris does well.  But it just as certainly doesn’t help the dialogue to churn the waters up to a froth with bellicose, overheated, and sanctimonious condemnations of racism, Islamophobia, and fascist sympathies when someone is trying to safely navigate them.

Greenwald seems to be particularly perturbed on Harris’ focus on Islam as uniquely dangerous in the 21st century.  It’s partly a granularity, or “broad brush” argument, which certainly can be legitimate, but when used too broadly itself, when it demands too much granularity, can be used to shut down debate.  Can any macro distinctions between religions/cultures be legitimately made?  Or is it just white Westerners making generalized criticisms of primarily brown religions/cultures that’s forbidden?  Writes Greenwald:

The vast majority of Muslims are non-white; as a result, when a white westerner becomes fixated on attacking their religion and advocating violence and aggression against them, as Harris has done, I understand why some people (such as Hussain) see racism at play: that, for reasons I recently articulated, is a rational view to me.

Or are macro differences just meaningless, because every group has bad actors:

Let’s first quickly dispense with some obvious strawmen. Of course one can legitimately criticize Islam without being bigoted or racist. That’s self-evident, and nobody is contesting it. And of course there are some Muslim individuals who do heinous things in the name of their religion – just like there are extremists in all religions who do awful and violent things in the name of that religion, yet receive far less attention than the bad acts of Muslims (here are some very recent examples). Yes, “honor killings” and the suppression of women by some Muslims are heinous, just as the collaboration of US and Ugandan Christians to enact laws to execute homosexuals is heinous, and just as the religious-driven, violent occupation of Palestine, attacks on gays, and suppression of women by some Israeli Jews in the name of Judaism is heinous. That some Muslims commit atrocities in the name of their religion (like some people of every religion do) is also too self-evident to merit debate, but it has nothing to do with the criticisms of Harris.

This is sort of a Big Shrug: there are bad apples in every bunch, so no distinctions can be made between the bushels at all.  But is that true…or even helpful?  Can any meaningful qualitative distinctions be made between the life experience of someone born into the Muslim world, and a person born into, say, the West?  How about a woman?  Or a homosexual?  Is there no difference?  Would it be racist to make a distinction?  Can any legitimate way be found to speak in these terms?  Women is Saudi Arabia recently gained the right to ride a bike in some public places…accompanied by a male relative and dressed in a full abaya…does that mean anything?  Can it be spoken about?

Maybe it’s just a problem of focus.  Criticism, or at least the bulk of it, should be directed at home:

Beyond all that, I find extremely suspect the behavior of westerners like Harris (and Hitchens and Dawkins) who spend the bulk of their time condemning the sins of other, distant peoples rather than the bulk of their time working against the sins of their own country.

Greenwald then goes on to quote Chomsky stating that his primary concern is with terror and violence carried out by his own state, because that is the violence he is most responsible for and likely able to do something about.  Which is a reasonable, general, sentiment.  But in this context this objection doesn’t address the content of Harris’ arguments, even indirectly.  It only serves to police what it is Harris is allowed to criticize.  Is there a quota in place above which criticism of the foreign becomes legitimate, or at least less “extremely suspect”?  3 to 1?  10 to 1?  How many pieces does Harris need to write criticizing US foreign policy before he can write about Islam?

Is it the present context of violence being perpetrated upon some parts of the Muslim world by the West that makes the criticism of Islam particularly objectionable?

When criticism of religion morphs into an undue focus on Islam – particularly at the same time the western world has been engaged in a decade-long splurge of violence, aggression and human rights abuses against Muslims, justified by a sustained demonization campaign – then I find these objections to the New Atheists completely warranted

Without the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, would criticism of Islam be less objectionable?  Was it less objectionable after 9/11 but before the war in Afghanistan?  And how much focus on Islam is “undue”?

While Greenwald claims that “Of course one can legitimately criticize Islam without being bigoted or racist”, it’s not at all clear from his piece what that criticism would look like, or from whom it would be allowed to originate.  It seems like it would be highly specific, always paired with criticisms of other major religions, and given the current hostilities in the Middle East, probably nonexistent.

An important point that Sam Harris often makes, and one that should subsume these conversations but seems to get lost in them instead, is one he makes yet again in his response to Greenwald:

Everything I have ever said about Islam refers to the content and consequences of its doctrine. And, again, I have always emphasized that its primary victims are innocent Muslims—especially women and girls.

It’s not Westerners who primarily suffer under medieval Islamic doctrines, it’s Muslims.  And if we find ourselves forced into a mode of conversation in which we can’t talk about that, it would be a real shame.