Monday, May 26, 2014

Why I'm against killing

My deconstruction of Mr. Goldberg's column tells me that some of us (like Mr. Goldberg) need to review the basics.  Killing people is wrong.   I'll go slow, because while the subject matter is elementary, apparently there are some alleged grown ups out there who still don't get it.  So, once more: killing people is wrong.  Here's what I mean by that.  Ending someone's life will cause more problems than letting them live.  No one exists in isolation and the consequences of killing of any random individual can echo for millennia.*

People out there have done horrible things, things for which the legal systems that indulge in execution, would sentence the perpetrators to death.  We share the planet with murderers, rapists, arsonists, slavers and drug dealers.  Many of the countries that have the death penalty will apply it to people convicted of those crimes. And yet, the countries that do have the death penalty also tend to use it for things that the average American is less comfortable with classifying as a capital offense.  Things like apostasy, infidelity, heresy, and homosexuality.  When we as a country condone capital punishment, we put ourselves in the same league as the repressive theocracies of Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the totalitarian prison state of North Korea.  So having capital punishment, puts us in very disreputable company.

Outside of exploitative Hollywood horror, the murder crazy psychopath is rare.  Personally I'd like it if they were even rarer, and that people like Jack the Ripper or any other serial or spree killer you can think of weren't household names. But they are rare, and for every horror movie worthy killer out there there are hundreds of jealous lovers, drunk drivers, and even workplace owners with a criminal disregard for workplace safety, just as culpable for the deaths that they caused.  But killing even remorseless killers doesn't make society more moral, and it won't undo the damage they have caused. There is no moral calculation that can tell us how much restitution is required to expiate a murder, like dividing by zero the answer is infinite.  But killing even the worst of us only leaves us with more blood on our hands.

'Life isn't fair' is such a trite observation that it borders on worthless., because it points out that our ideas of right and wrong, are subjective, and useful only for interpreting the actions of people and don't apply to the universe at large.  But once the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, are excluded from consideration, you have a very telling indictment of civilization.  Because society isn't fair.  How could it be fair laboring under the legacy of history?  Imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, communism, fascism, racism and whatever -ism applies to religious violence have drawn the map of the world.  Our history of violence has empowered the violent at every turn and by refusing to address that, we let the violent keep their ill gotten gains, and continue the cycle of oppression and violence.

But as the 20th century has shown, we are too good at violence.  The industrial revolution has commoditized the formerly bespoke world of organized slaughter.  Firepower that would amaze and terrify Genghis Khan is available to any American with a credit card.  And just as for individuals, countries have access to arms far in excess of historical armies,  and hold in their arsenals the keys mass destruction worse than anything up to another dinosaur killer meteorite.  Violence begets violence, and we have too much tinder stored up to continue playing with matches.

When someone can transcend the ongoing crush of mutually destructive imperatives that define modern life, and can stand up and advocate for peace and make their message heard, their days are numbered.   The list of important peacemakers of the 20th century, has a lot of overlap with the list of murdered peacemakers.  And morally repugnant as it is, sometimes yesterday's terrorist saves more lives as a peacemaker than they cost us as a killer.  Nelson Mandela was described as a terrorist, and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein has been dogged with allegations of terrorism, yet both of them were critically important in ending ongoing violence in their respective countries.

Which is not to say that I advocate shrugging our collective shoulders to the problem of violence.  Indeed it is critically important to address the problem of violent crime.  But it is only a small subset of addressing fundamental inequalities.  So when they are captured and convicted lets make sure to calmly and dispassionately keep them from harming anyone again.  And not by killing them, but by warehousing them in a place that is warm and dry, where they can be put to work for prevailing wages at useful work and keeping them from harm and keeping them from harming anyone else.  And to deflect any criticism that we are coddling the worst of society, we need to make sure that every free citizen also has access to room and board and employment of a better class than is being provided to prisoners.

Because under the current system of incarceration, barely paid labor and execution, we are compounding the crime of tolerating a society where the poor and vulnerable are exploited, with our complicity with institutional slavery, abuse and murder.   When we condone a society with no safety net, when we allow business decisions to impoverish millions for the sake of a stock price, when we resist any effort to stem the flow of deadly weapons to those least capable of owning them safely we make violent crime inevitable.  People don't go away because society has no use for them, people don't choose to starve to death rather than steal, people (generally speaking) don't turn to crime if they can legally earn a living.  If we want people to start making better choices, we need to give them better options.

So, I accept that people will call me a starry-eyed bleeding-heart liberal.  That's probably an accurate description.  But anyone who reads the (non wingnut) news knows that global climate change is going to re-draw the map over the next hundred years.  Resource depletion means that power and food and clean water will be a lot more expensive than we'd like.  And maybe it's just me, but when the waters are rising and the storm is blowing, I'm not going to be too picky about who made the sandbag I'm filling.  I think we are going to need all hands, in the years to come, and I think that we may be doing ourselves a great disservice every time we execute someone.  And by working towards these goals, we can build a civilization worth saving.

*The canonical example is that of a certain Jewish carpenter in Palestine 2000 years ago.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

He gets paid for this?

Jonah Goldberg wrote another column today, which means, as Roy over at Alicublog is so fond of pointing out, that it's the dumbest thing ever written.  In his column  at the National Review dated "America's moral compass"* Jonah asks if it would be moral to deploy super drones to kill every member of Boko Haram.

Jonah's little 'thought experiment' reveals far more about himself than it could possibly reveal about the morality of drone warfare.  Even his modified version where the members of Boko Haram are paralyzed until they can be apprehended is less credible than the thought experiment most of us learned in nursery school about the three magic beans.  In his concluding paragraph he pulls out 'with great power comes great responsibility'  cliche, he handwaves away the fact that we don't actually have super drones capable of paralyzing specific evildoers, and that they are roughly as likely as Mars colonies in our lifetime.

So let's change his thought experiment to reflect reality.  If our informants and allies of wildly varying reliablility and with agendas of their own, point out a group which may or may not be Boko Haram, do we have the responsibility to take that information, and, hours later, try to kill them with an airstrike or with ground forces that would also kill anyone in the area, and knock over most of the buildings nearby?

And now, we have a thought experiment that is worth considering.  But it cuts to the heart of the real problem, which is lack of information.  A shit load of questions need to be answered before one even thinks about taking the dust covers off the drones.  Who are our allies and informants?  Can they identify Boko Haram?  Can they be trusted not to finger their rivals in an attempt to have the US eliminate them?  How old is their information?  Have they moved in the intervening time? Are the kidnapped girls held separately or would an attack endanger the hostages?  How fast can military assets be deployed?  Do we have sufficient forces available to handle an ambush?  How many causalities are we willing to suffer in this attack? Can they distinguish Boko Haram from hostages and bystanders?  How will the hostages receive medical care and evacuation?  How will our forces return from this engagement?  What will be done with prisoners?  To whom do we hand off any rescued hostages?  How can we prevent similar occurrences in the future?

Life or death isn't flipping a switch.  Condemning people to death from halfway across the world is cheap, lazy, bloodlust.  Jonah's "thought experiment" is about as fleshed out as one would be that starts with "consider a frictionless spherical terrorist of uniform density".  Not a goddamn thing has stopped Jonah from enlisting his flabby ass in the USMC or Army since the most recent round of pointless wars began back in 1991, or again in 2001 when it was obvious to anyone with eyes to see that we would be at war again and soon.  Bizarro Jonah who joined the USMC or Army in 1991 would have fought at a minimum in Kuwait and Iraq, the former Yugoslav republics, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq again, and possibly Libya.  Bizarro Jonah would have had the opportunity to have his ass shot off or blown up by a roadside bomb for more than 10 of the last 20+ years.  Biazarro Jonah would have had an informed opinion on the use of force and its limitations.

But pointing out his complete lack of combat experience doesn't mean that this public ignoramus is shooting his mouth off again about matters which he doesn't understand, it just strongly implies it. Just like the fact that he has publicly advocated for the use of force in every major political crisis since forever, doesn't mean that the use of force in this instance is wrong, but what it does mean, is that he is the last person one should turn to for accurate and carefully reasoned opinion on this matter.  He is like the proverbial stopped clock, right twice a day by sheerest coincidence but without additional sources of information, you'll never know when that happy event occurs.  Jonah Goldberg doesn't have a moral compass, he has a finger-painted arrow that points to war.

*I really hate linking to that cretin, but I want to make it easy for anyone who cares to, check my work and verify for themselves that I'm not exaggerating the depths of his ignorance and laziness.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Weak Sauce

Roy over at Alicublog brought this to my attention with this post:

I'm going to be fair to Rod Dreher.  He doesn't deserve it, but here you go:
Properly sourced and linked and everything, just like I would for a column written by someone worthy of  respect.  In this column at The American Conservative, Rod tries to link the rejection of Condi Rice as a commencement speaker, with the killing fields of Cambodia.  That chain of, for lack of a better word. 'reasoning'  has a good chance of making it into the big book of logical fallacies as a textbook example of the slippery slope.  But in trying to prove his point he writes:

This is a fair enough description of the problem with American progressivism. They are never satisfied with the world as it is, and never think of the possibility that the world as it is might be the best we can hope for under the circumstances. Rather, they push and they push and they push for utopia, and consider themselves virtuous pilgrims on the Grand March.

(True, the problem with American conservatives is that we are too much enamored of the evils we have, and insufficiently motivated to imagine a better way to live and to work to achieve that end.)

This week, it is the dumbest thing ever written.  I'm sure that Jonah Goldberg will rise to the challenge and regain the crown soon, but damn.  That is the laziest excuse I had the misfortune to encounter.  What possible circumstance are we supposed to consider that would excuse, for example, lying to the American public to start a war that killed thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis?  Is there any situation at all that could be excused by his "it's a flawed world" line?  Let's try it out.

Scenario 1:

The world as it is: The Catholic Church has harbored priests who are rapists and child molestors, and has deliberately stymied efforts to prosecute offenders and compensate victims.  We should identify and punish the offenders through a combination of civil suits and criminal prosecution.

Rod's excuse:  Have you considered that this is the best of all possible worlds, that things are already the best we can hope for, considering the circumstances?

Helmut's reaction:  remind me again what circumstances excuse child rape?

Scenario 2:

The world as it is:  The drug war has imprisoned so many African Americans for non violent offenses that it is more common for an African American man to have been incarcerated than to have attended university.

Rod's excuse:  Have you considered that this is the best of all possible worlds, that things are already the best we can hope for, considering the circumstances?

Helmut's reaction:  What circumstances make this situation, unique among all of the nations of the world acceptable?

And so on, etc.  Pick a social ill, pick a flagrant abuse of power and Rod can hand wave it away in the laziest way possible.

The progressive movement isn't fighting the second law of thermodynamics, gravity or the speed of light in a vacuum.  Human rights are an achievable goal, and to suggest that they are unachievable or unimportant, is to choose to side knowingly with sloth and despair.
Here is an article that you should read:
Ta-Nehisi Coates shows at length and in depth the extent of the historical and continuing injustice being done to African Americans.  He makes a convincing case that the continuing insult of centuries of institutional overt racism have denied African Americans their fair share of the wealth of the wealthiest nation on earth.  He doesn't have a suggestion on what form the repayment should take, but after reading the article it is blindingly obvious a huge debt is owed.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Meditations on a particularly odious piece of juvenalia

Recently a freshman at Princeton, who in a fit of almost certainly unwarranted generosity, I will refrain from naming or linking to, penned a petulant repudiation of the phrase "check your privilege", in the probably misplaced hope that sooner rather than later he will come to regret writing it.  Gods know why, but the piece was then published in the Princeton Tory and made a minor splash on the web.  Cerb at Sadly No wrote an excellent critique of the article and there I posted a version of the text below:

What joyful prose.  Another college republican boasts to the world that he has nothing of which to be ashamed.  He has made it to the rarefied summit of academia as a freshman at Princeton, by steadily treading the straight and narrow path of hard work and personal virtue.  He is a man who has made the good choices and stands at the cusp of his reward for virtue.  Never mind that his particular straight and narrow path is about 20 feet long, brightly lit and patrolled for those who would do him harm.  Certainly his path was harder than that of the scions of the truly wealthy who, one assumes, are conveyed to the gates of Princeton via private limousine.  He doesn't realize that someone less well starred than himself might have a straight and narrow path of virtue that leads to barely staying out of jail.

He is remarkably silent on the fact that making good choices are entirely dependent on having good options.  And, coming from  a home that valued education, hard work and had the prosperity to back that up gave him an enormous head start.  No one, no matter how much of an autodidact, raises themselves.  Our bright and beamish boy did not tag his parents out on his natal day, thank them for the fact of his conception and birth and inform them that further parenting would not be required.  They fed and sheltered him, they educated him at considerable expense, and regardless of how much of a sacrifice it may have been for them, they did it.  Which only means he is not a member of the .001%, not that he has a high score of martyr points in the suffering Olympics.   He is blessed in that his hard work was rewarded, and that any of "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" didn't set him right back at square one.

Working harder than the children of our American aristocracy is a mighty low bar.  I might have accidentally done it the day after I ate a half pound of cheese in one sitting.  Working hard is, of itself not much to be proud of either, as anyone who has ever worked an 11 hour shift for minimum wage could tell you.  But despite what theologians as diverse as John Calvin and Creflo Dollar would have us believe, prosperity is rarely the reward of virtue.  Any number of well publicized news stories could illustrate that the prosperous and the virtuous are two distinct groups with little overlap.  So, even if he is the charity scholar attending Princeton on the strength of his academic excellence at the sufferance of his betters, he is mostly giving plausible deniability to the charge that the ivy league is far more about giving the children of privilege a place to drink to excess with a group of like minded affluent young men and women in a place where they won't end up puking on the heirloom rose bushes, than it is about education.

The day junior here first begins to regret writing this particular piece of embarrassing drivel, and opens his eyes to just how bad it is for just how many people, will be the day he can start to call himself a grownup.