Monday, July 31, 2006

An Unspoken Admission?

Sometimes what implied is the real story.

Everyone seems to agree that, during its 48-hour "ceasefire" Israel has greatly diminished the number of attacks it is making, although it has not stopped them altogether. The New York Times, for example, said today that "bombs continued to fall across Lebanon, albeit at a slower pace and at more limited targets than earlier in the offensive."

Now let's add to that the following statement from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (via):
A senior government source said earlier Monday that the IAF had been told to continue acting against "targets that present a threat to Israel and its troops, including rocket launchers, vehicles transporting ammunition, Hezbollah fighters, weapons stores and Hezbollah assets."
The term "Hezbollah assets" refers to people identified with the organization, including those who do not pose an immediate threat. "If they are identified with Hassan Nasrallah, we will hit them," the source said.
Regarding the instructions to the IAF, the source said, however, "there will be no attacks on buildings that had not been identified" as part of efforts to strike Israel, and held, for example, ammunition, Hezbollah fighters or their commanders."
So, they are now only bombing "targets that present a threat to Israel and its troops", and they are now no longer engaging in "'attacks on buildings that had not been identified' as part of efforts to strike Israel." And the bombing has diminished greatly.

Is this not an admission that Israel has been, up until this point -- contrary to the standard defense being offered of Israel's actions -- has not been targeting only threats to itself and its troops, and has not been targeting only buildings identified as part of efforts to attack itself? In other words, that Israel has been deliberately hitting non-military targets -- at worst targeting civilians directly, but at the very least targeting Lebanon's infrastructure (which, of course, ends up killing civilians indirectly by depriving them of things they need to live)? That, in short, Israel's bombing has slowed because it is no longer targeting sites that it has no legal or moral right to target, whatever the initial justice of its cause? That the deaths so far -- or at least some of them -- have not been just "collateral damage"?*

Hasn't Israel -- or, at least, a "
senior government source", speaking to an Israeli paper -- just admitted that Israel has been committing war crimes?

* Even if this were not the case, this doesn't mean that everything Israel has done has been moral or legal; as I have discussed previously, even "collateral damage" can be a war crime if proper care was not taken to avoid such casualties, if the damage from the attack was not proportional to its military goals, etc. But targeting non-military targets is clearly a war-crime -- it doesn't require as complex a weighing and balancing as questions of proportionality do.

Friday, July 28, 2006

And As Things Fell Apart Nobody Paid Much Attention

Headline and blurb from the Independent, five days ago (via via):
Dying Forest: One year to save the Amazon
Time is running out for the Amazon rainforest. And the fate of the 'lungs of the world' will take your breath away
And the headline and blurb on their other story on the topic:
Amazon rainforest 'could become a desert
And that could speed up global warming with 'incalculable consequences', says alarming new research

The Independent keeps its material behind a firewall, alas; but Common Dreams republished the entirety of the first essay. An excerpt:
It is a sign that severe drought is returning to the Amazon for a second successive year. And that would be ominous indeed. For new research suggests that just one further dry year beyond that could tip the whole vast forest into a cycle of destruction....

The consequences would be truly awesome. The wet Amazon, the planet's greatest celebration of life, would turn to dry savannah at best, desert at worst. This would cause much of the world - including Europe - to become hotter and drier, making this sweltering summer a mild foretaste of what is to come. In the longer term, it could make global warming spiral out of control, eventually making the world uninhabitable....

So far about a fifth of the Amazonian rainforest has been razed completely. Another 22 per cent has been harmed by logging, allowing the sun to penetrate to the forest floor drying it out. And if you add these two figures together, the total is growing perilously close to 50 per cent, which computer models predict as the "tipping point" that marks the death of the Amazon.
Now, we're not certain. The researchers add qualifiers like "might" to their warnings.

But shouldn't we deal with a threat to all of humanity with something like the urgency that we respond to all of terrorism? No one thinks it is certain that terrorists will get their hands on a nuclear weapon if we do nothing; but I think it is right, and wise, to be very concerned about the possibility.

And of course it's not the Amazon in isolation. It's all of global warming. Even if this research on this particular issue isn't right -- and dear Lord I hope it isn't -- then that just knocks us back to the ten year figure cited in An Inconvenient Truth.

I wish I could offer some hope that we -- humanity as a whole -- will come together at the last minute and deal with this. I really, really do. I don't, as an intellectual matter, believe in despair. In one of Kim Stanley Robinson's novels, a character says that "optimism is a moral position" -- not blind optimism, but the notion that there is still hope. So I want, I really want, to believe this. I feel I ought to believe it.

But I don't. Not really. The U.S. is ruled by systematic liars who do not care about this issue -- driven by short term profits. Even if they did care -- if for countries where people do care -- it all seems like the caring is too weak, too partial. The machinery of global business and global capital is against us on this (although I think we could solve the issue with only minor inconveniences to either), and anything else is spitting into a storm.

Not to mention that other, more immediate and more visible (if ultimately smaller) disasters clamor for the attention of even those who do believe, do worry, do care.

So then what?

I don't know. I really don't.

Perhaps, though, this. J. R. R. Tolkien outlined what he called a "Theory of Courage", which he believed was embodied in Old Norse literature (I am borrowing the term from Tom Shippey, who highlights this aspect of Tolkien, but I think this means not literature in old Norse but literature dealing with Old Norse myths; Beowulf is therefore an example), but which is, I think, an eternal possibility of the human spirit in any culture. One finds it expressed explicitly in various parts of The Lord of the Rings. Elrond gives the following advice to Gloin during "The Council of Elrond":
There is naught that you can do, other than to resist, with hope or without it.
And after Gandalf falls in Moria, Aragorn says this:
"Farewell, Gandalf!" [Aragorn] cried... "What hope have we without you?"
He turned to the Company. "We must do without hope," he said.
The notion is simply this: when you are in the right, and have no hope, you fight anyway. In the pre-Christian version, one fought despite certainty of doom because one was simply right; Tolkien, in a Christian twist on this, held one should fight because even if you see no hope, there may be hope to be had -- hope that one may not even know, but which may operate through methods beyond your ken even as you fight to your own (personal) doom.

Either way, it is a hard belief: maybe impossible, at least for most of us, at least in the long run. But what else to do? If one cannot make oneself believe in hope, then -- since there is literally no point to succumbing to despair -- what can one do but fight on anyway?

I don't really believe -- in the slightest -- that my writing these words will make the slightest difference. But, without hope, I decided to try anyway.

Now I pass it to you.

(Post title liberated from the Talking Heads, "(Nothing But) Flowers")

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Lo Tirtsach

Writing in the Washington Post, Philip Gordon reports (via):

According to retired Israeli army Col. Gal Luft, the goal of the campaign is to "create a rift between the Lebanese population and Hezbollah supporters." The message to Lebanon's elite, he said, is this: "If you want your air conditioning to work and if you want to be able to fly to Paris for shopping, you must pull your head out of the sand and take action toward shutting down Hezbollah-land."

This certainly seems like a better explanation of some of Israel's choice of targets (a milk factory!) than any other I've heard.* At this point, information is contested, so maybe it will turn out not to be true. But let's assume for the moment that it's right.

It's hard to begin to describe how wrong this is, in so many ways.

Gordon focuses on the fact that this simply won't work. Bombing people, as history has shown many times, doesn't get them to do whatever it is you want them to do; it gets them to hate the bombers. So even if the means were moral in the abstract, they simply won't work in this context. And, as Matt Yglesias (who's been good on this issue) said recently, "War is a terrible thing. Waging it is a terrible thing to do, but sometimes a necessary thing. A misguided, counterproductive action, however, can never be necessary. A foolish war is never a just one." If the strategy won't work, then killing people in its name is pointless -- and immoral.

But, of course, the strategy is immoral in the abstract. Killing civilians -- whether directly by targeting them, or indirectly by destroying the infrastructure -- to get them to submit to your will is simply wrong. When it's done by individuals or non-state groups, we call it "terrorism". I don't see a good reason why it should be called anything else when its done by states.

Does anyone here really want to argue that terrorism is right? Okay, then.

Look: at least in the U.S., almost no one is questioning Israel's right of self-defense (although it must be done by moral means, which includes a proper regard for civilian life). Dove's Eye View linked to this very interesting exchange between MoorishGirl and the Head Heeb. In that exchange, Jonathan Edelstein (a.k.a. the Head Heeb) says that his position is that "
Israel has a just cause but is fighting unjustly." Assuming that "just cause" means essentially jus ad bellum, i.e. that it was attacked and therefore has a right to defend itself** -- I'd agree with. If Israel was going in and (narrowly, carefully) targeting Hezbollah, then I'd probably support it, with only the heavy heart that comes (or should come) with any war.

But that's not all that's happening. At a very minimum, Israel is clearly guilty of using grossly disproportionate force. But -- again, assuming the quote above is correct, and given the news about the sort of targets that Israel has been hitting (and not just a few times, which might be errors, but repeatedly) -- it seems that it is not simply killing large numbers of civilians as a byproduct of poorly-aimed fire against enemies in civilian areas. Rather, Israel is targeting Lebanese civilians, hoping to turn them against Hezbollah.

This is, as Philip Gordon points out (my word, not his), idiotic. And idiocy, as Yglesias (again, my words) points out, is immoral in and of itself, at least when it comes to waging war.

But targeting civilians is not simply idiotic. It is immoral. It is -- in a word -- terrorism. And it must be opposed -- no less when Israel does it than when Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Queada or any other group does.

As a text that conservatives are fond of quoting puts it, lo tirtsach: you shall not murder.

* Although even this doesn't explain why Israel is bombing the regular Lebanese army. As several people have pointed out (sorry, forgot where I read this), this doesn't make any kind of sense. Isn't that the army that you want to go fight Hezbollah?

** This qualification is necessary because aims can change in the course of a war, and it is possible that Israel's war, which began as an act of self-defense, has turned into sheer aggression. I don't know whether or not that's the case. But it does seem pretty clear that Israel was attacked and thus had rights of self-defense to begin with.

Spitzer for Governor

I've always liked what I've heard about Eliot Spitzer. He's done some extremely important work trying to enforce financial regulatory laws at a time when our Federal Government was at best failing to enforce them (if not outright weakening them). So when I heard he was running for Governor, I sort of assumed that I'd support him. And, to be honest, I tend to focus on national and international politics when I read the news, so I didn't even really keep up with the race.

But there was a debate last night between Spitzer and his opponent, Thomas Suozzi. I didn't watch or listen to it, but I did read the New York Times article on the debate this morning. It's a pretty poor article, actually -- a lot about style, less about substance; I scanned the article to see how the two men differed and learned less than I'd have liked, and even what is in there about substance is usually phrased in stylistic terms. But I did learn one thing that settled the matter for me (unless I hear something truly egregious between now and the primary).

I want to emphasize that, while I was leaning towards Spitzer, I did really have an open mind here. I didn't know much about Suozzi; if I'd seen some good positions from him, and some corresponding bad ones from Spitzer, I would have had to think long and hard about the decision. As it is, I saw something that convinced me that my initial instinct was right. Here was the exchange, from the Times article:
[Suozzi] said his opposition to gay marriage had “a lot to do with semantics,” explaining that he supported giving the same rights to gay couples that married couples have — yet, as a Catholic, he saw marriage as a sacrament for a man and a woman. Mr. Spitzer said that answer was not acceptable. “Semantics is not what this is about — this is about equality,” he said.

Damn straight, Spitzer. Separate but equal has a long and disgraceful history in this country; the last thing that we need is more of it. And equal rights for our gay and lesbian citizens is an extremely important issue, particularly in this state due to the recent disgraceful decision of New York's highest court.

Nor should this have anything to do with religion. Suozzi is free to believe whatever he wishes about sacraments, and no one is suggesting that a religious group be compelled to do anything (and I'd fight anyone who did so suggest). But Suozzi's running for Governor, not Bishop; he ought to be committed to equality for all under the (secular) law. Fortunately, Spitzer is.

Now, I'm not really a one-issue voter, and I don't agree with Spitzer on everything. He's for the death penalty; I'm against it. He's against legalizing medical marijuana use; I'm for it. But those issues are -- frankly -- not in the same league as gay marriage, at least not for me.

And on other issues I care a lot about, Spitzer also sounds better. He's better on health care, supporting universal health care in the state. An early paragraph in the Times article made him sound worse in his support for public schools -- and certainly I wish he was more vocally supportive -- but if you read down you find out that he actually wants to fund public schools more generously than Suozzi, practically speaking he's better on this, too.

So Spitzer is not only coming into the race with a great record, but he also has very good stands on some very key issues -- gay marriage, health care, schools. He's clearly the better choice.

And while I'm not a one-issue voter, gay marriage is an issue that is of the utmost importance to me. This is a crucial time for the question, in the nation as a whole and for New York in particular -- the latter because, thanks to the Court, the legislature is going to deal with it very soon. We need a governor who will do the right thing on it. Last night, Spitzer said he would, and Suozzi said he wouldn't. That settles it.

Spitzer for Governor.

Incidentally, I also wrote to both men and told them who I was voting for and why -- the "why" being a little less nuanced than here because, well, it was a letter and whichever aides who read it were going to scan it quickly (unlike my Noble Readers, I'm sure) and I wanted to be sure they got the right gist: Spitzer holds the moral position on gay marriage, and will thus get my vote; Suozzi holds the immoral position, and thus looses it. -- I mention this to encourage any other New Yorkers who read this not only to vote for Spitzer, but to write and tell him why. It's all very well and good that he's for equal marriage rights, but it is important to let him know that that issue is winning him votes, to help ensure that he stays true once he -- deus volent -- wins the Governorship. So drop him a line ( and let him know that he's doing the right thing, and that you support him because of it. I think that telling people why you're voting can be at least as important as voting that way (hence this blog post).

The NY State primary is September 12. New Yorkers, make sure you're registered.

Spitzer for Governor.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Hierarchies of Power

Some years ago, I was reading George Orwell's essay on Rudyard Kipling when I was struck by the following passage -- basically an aside in Orwell's opening argument that Kipling was not a fascist as was sometimes charged (but, rather, a Nineteenth Century colonialist who outlived his era). Orwell writes:

No one, in our time, believes in any sanction greater than military power; no one believes that it is possible to overcome force except by greater force. There is no ‘Law’, there is only power. I am not saying that that is a true belief, merely that it is the belief which all modern men do actually hold. Those who pretend otherwise are either intellectual cowards, or power-worshippers under a thin disguise, or have simply not caught up with the age they are living in.

What struck me about the passage -- and it was not the first time I read it that this occurred to me -- was that this was not true of our day and age. In our time we do not believe that there is no "sanction greater than military power". Nowadays everyone believes that there is no sanction greater than economic power.

Now obviously my statement is just as much of an exaggeration as was Orwell's. But I think that mine, like his, captures something about the general temper of our age. Now, this is probably not the sort of thought that is amenable to ready empirical evidence. The field is simply too vast for anyone -- any group of people, really -- to survey. The only way that we are convinced about this sort of thing is whether it resonates with our experience -- whether or not it sounds right. If you, Noble Reader, disagree with me, there is probably little I can do to convince you.

But it did, and does, sound right to me. I think that, historically, at the end of the Second World War, there was a sense that military power, and only military power, ruled. Yet by the nineties I don't think that was true any more. One reason is simply new history. We had all seen the Soviet Union brought down, not by military power -- indeed, despite its military power -- because, basically, of the weakness of its economic system.

It wasn't only a change in evidence and experience, however, because with the new temper came a rereading of the old evidence. History was reread. Did the U.S. posses the strength it did in the Second World War because of its military power -- or because of the economic power that permitted it? If I'm right -- or, perhaps more accurately, to the degree that I'm right -- this was part of a larger cultural shift in our cultural sense of what was important, of the fundamental causes of social changes and dynamics were.

And of course the problem with these "it all comes down to --" sort of statements is that they're all true -- or, at any rate, a good number of them can be true. It all comes down to military power: if someone can conquer your country, you have to do what they want. It all comes down to economic power: if they can't afford to equip and feed their army, it won't matter how strong their military is.

It may seem silly to bring this up, at this moment in history. After all, the Bush administration is pushing forward with a simultaneous program of military aggression and economic recklessness, and certainly have forgotten all about the merits of what has been called "soft power". For them, military might is all. Either they are as out of their time as Kipling was, or the belief in economic power was simply a brief flirtation before we returned to the basics of the tank and the gun.

Yet there are some reasons to suspect that it might be that they are out of their time. After all, despite all of the U.S.'s unparalleled -- among other powers or in world history -- military might, none of their military campaigns have gone very well. Now, to be sure, there are huge numbers of reasons for this, including at its base the simple fact of their overwhelming ineptitude. Nevertheless, it does keep the attentive observer from shifting back into the "military might is all" mode.

I bring all this up, in fact, because I see a glimmering -- a hint -- a hope -- that another mode might be emerging. Not spiritual or cultural power, which is (very roughly) what Orwell claimed Kipling believed in past its sell-by date. Not military power; not economic power. But moral power.

I know, I know: but bear with me for a moment.

This occurred to me when I was reading one of Billmon's many posts about how the Israeli campaign simply didn't seem to be going very well as a military matter. He clearly disapproves of its excesses; but even that aside, he thought that they were finding themselves quickly in the big muddy (in the old Vietnam-era phrase). The question is why.

I think that -- again, this is more than even wild speculation, this is looking desperately for the gleam of light shinning off the pool of blood that our world seems to have become -- it is because they lack moral credibility.*

It is clearly not a question of military might. As some of its most fervent supporters seem to make a point of remarking, Israel could be killing a lot more people if it wanted to. (This is usually offered as an argument against the notion that Israel is killing civilians deliberately -- if it wanted it, it is claimed, it could kill more. (I don't think this is a valid argument -- but also don't want to get sidetracked.)) But its military might isn't helping it as much as one might think. (Nor, of course, is it an economic question, Israel being by far a stronger economy then Lebanon's (indeed, stronger by the day, given the damage it is doing to Lebanon's infrastructure.))

So why aren't they winning?

The answer is that they want something that can't be gotten through military means. They want compliance.

In the old days, sure, Rome could raze Carthage to the ground and that was the end of it. But if this happened today, whoever was playing Rome would face the revulsion of the world -- revulsion that would eventually find expression in other forms of power (military, economic). This is not to say that one won't find, if one dips even briefly into the comments of the right-wing blogosphere, extraordinarily bloodthirsty calls for the U.S. and/or Israel to do just that. There seems to be a persistent nostalgia for the days when the strong could simply exterminate their enemies down to the last child in some quarters on the right. But the fact is that, unless the madmen who have seized control of our country prove themselves far, far madder even then they have to date (and I wouldn't rule it out), it simply isn't possible.

This is not to deny for a second that hideous bloodbaths are still occurring all over the world -- Darfur leaps to mind, alas, not to mention the multiple killing fields in the Middle East and beyond. Remember, what I am describing, even if it is not simply the blinding glare of hope making me think I see something which isn't there (which, again, it may well be), it is something very new. And, of course, in the complexities of the real world, military power and economic power and all sorts of power have all always mattered, even if we culturally focus on one for a time.

But. Still.

To a large degree, the media struggle over the Israel - Lebanon conflict is over who wants to look like the victim. This is an international version of the sort of "I am more of a victim than you" that one finds all through U.S. culture, even in quite unlikely places like the Christianist right. But it takes place because it works -- because without a general sense of the righteousness of one's cause -- first and foremost among one's own side, secondly in the world at large -- one is at a severe disadvantage. Possibly even an overwhelming disadvantage.

And one can imagine rereading much of world history in this light, too. Why were stronger powers repelled during colonial wars all through the last sixty years -- the U.S. in Vietnam, France in Algeria, etc? One historian has already argued, if memory serves, that the most crucial factor in the Allied victory in the Second World War was, ultimately, the morality (and perceived morality) of the Allies' cause.

If I am right -- if this is a nescient sense, that will grow -- people will start to see that military might is inadequate to their ends without a clear sense of the justice of those ends. There is no military solution to Iraq, people are now saying; it will have to be political. Only a political settlement can really solve all the many issue in the rest of the Middle East, too. Terrorism more broadly is poorly fought by military means -- it needs to be fought with a combination of police and intelligence work, economic development, and -- above all -- a strong ideological and intellectual battle for the values of religious liberty, tolerance, liberalism -- in short, with moral power.

So maybe.

It all seems so impossible, I will admit, at this moment of bloodshed which threatens to grow even wider. And when I typed that sentence -- " people will start to see that military might is inadequate to their ends without a clear sense of the justice of those ends " -- I snickered inwardly: you fool, I thought. Surely you don't believe that.

And I don't. It clearly isn't true.


Because moral power -- far more than military or economic power -- can rule if we, collectively, as a species, decide that it does. If the destruction of Carthage would not be tenable today, this is because there has been some -- slight, partial -- development in the collective moral conscience of humanity. This could go farther. If we want.

Moral power is real power -- the power to persuade, to rally, to gain the support of the world.

So perhaps I should rephrase this, not as an observation, but as a desire. Let us speak of moral power. Let us understand that the power of the gun is useless if the hand that holds it does not believe in its cause.

If we want, we can make it so.

Or, as John Lennon once said: WAR IS OVER!

If you want it.

* Not because of reasons of jus ad bellum -- they were attacked, after all, and most people will agree that they have a right to defend themselves -- but because of reasons of jus in bello: they are simply killing too many clearly innocent people. It takes the initial righteousness of their cause and turns it inside out when it is conducted in such a fashion.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Lawyering for the Slayers of Civilians: A Link Round-Up

Alan Dershowitz has posted a lawyerly essay excusing Israel for its incredibly high death-toll in its assault on Lebanon, in particular for the high number of civilians it is killing. The left-wing blogosphere, to its credit, isn't impressed. This is a round-up of replies -- I've taken a brief quote from each, and given a link to the whole response. I wouldn't myself say everything that everyone I link to says; but the general thrust -- horror at the detached justification of the killing of civilians -- is definitely my reaction.

(Note: I will be adding more replies if and when I see them.)

Kung Fu Monkey: "I'm plainly not qualified to match my own intellectual prowess or moral sense against an internationally famous lawyer who teaches at Harvard. I am qualified to comment as his bartender, however..." (Note: this one is really funny. Even if you're already opposed to killing civilians, and don't really feel like being further convinced on this point, do read this. Really great bar story.) (Via the P. Z. Myers post, linked below.)

Matt Yglesias: "...mass explusion by means of force and the threats of force is the very essence of wrongfully targeting a civilian population."

Kevin Drum: "...I wonder how he'd respond to a similarly clever and nuanced definition of the word "terrorist"?"

Billmon: "If Alan Dershowitz had been a German lawyer, circa 1943..."

Henry Farrell: "Irish and British readers may find this line of reasoning familiar..."

Digby contrasts two quotes, from Ward Churchill on 9/11, and Alan Dershowitz on Israel in Lebanon.

Scott Lemieux: "I think the problem with the idea that genocide is perfectly justifiable as long you provide 24-hour notice and your victims are physically capable of becoming refugees is obvious..."

Juan Cole: "I don't know why Dershowitz stops there. Let me reformulate his argument for him. Shouldn't we recognize degrees of humanness?"

P. Z. Myers: "How could I have ever said a charitable word about Alan Dershowitz?"

Elton Beard: "Shorter Alan Dershowitz: Let us not be so quick as to condemn all wartime slaughter of civilians." (That's basically the entire post.)

Timothy Burke: " try and categorically justify what’s happening on the logic that some civilians are less civilians, that they’re all legitimate targets: how is that different from terrorism?"

Mitchell Freedman: "Dershowitz offers us an example of how an excessively aggressive defense of the conduct of the Israeli government toward Arabs can lead to a betrayal of our nation's political values that favor open government and justice..."

John, chez Ezra Klein, offers parallel quotes from bin Laden and Dershowitz.

Why We Worry: "Well, Mr. Dershowitz, I recall the Palestinians/Hamas/Hezbollah giving Israelis “well-publicized notice” to leave Israel. So, by your logic, those civilians who are killed in any suicide bombing are, in fact, complicit and should not be counted among the innocent victims. Somehow, I don’t think he’d agree."

Bustardblog: "The fact that a guy as brilliant as Dershowitz has to sink to such depths of amorality and to use logic so twisted as to make a contortionist blush in order to justify U.S. actions in the Middle East proves how morally bankrupt such behavior is." [I presume the "US actions" are funding & arming Israel, but the author doesn't specify.]

Siva Vaidhyanathan
: "Perhaps most troubling is that Dershowitz (and the leaders of Israel in recent weeks) have been invoking the exact immoral argument that Hamas and the IRA have been using for decades in support of the slaughter of innocent Israeli and British civilians: "They are all potential militants; some are just more culpable than others."" (via)

FurGaia: "...such speciousness to cleanse a guilt-ridden conscience will not pass the test of civilization" (from comments to this post; also via)

Sadly, No!: "There’s been a lot of talk about Alan Dershowitz’s latest rationalisation for Israel’s murder of civilians..."

MoorishGirl: "Some civilians, therefore, are less innocent than others. I told you we were trapped in a George Orwell novel, didn't I?" (As with Elton Beard above, that's more or less the whole post.)

Arthur Silber: "...let us note the inevitable consequences of views like Dershowitz's -- which are, in fact, the necessary endpoint of the views of much of our foreign policy and military establishments, as well as of those of Israel."

: "...does it seem to anyone else that Derschowitz is essentially saying that the death of Israeli citizens is more tragic than the death of their Lebanese counterparts? After all, don't Israeli citizens have the ability to flee as well?"


There have been some similar critiques of an essay by Noah Feldman from the New York Times Magazine. (Full disclaimer: Noah and I went to the same college, and were friendly at the time, although I don't believe I've seen him since.) I read Noah's essay as just describing the excuses that other people make -- but perhaps I'm biased because I know him. In any event, the excuses Feldman describes -- whether fairly attributed to him or not -- are also kicked around bit:

Billmon: "Let's leave aside the fact that this was exactly the same argument made by Bin Ladin and Al Qaeda to justify bringing down the twin towers..."

Publius: "By whatever justification you use to defend the attacks against civilian populations, that same justification applies to attacks on Israel’s own civilians (or to al Qaeda’s attacks on American civilians). And when that’s the logical implication of your position, you need a new position."

Special Bonus Section!
Dershowtiz Critiques from
Crooked Timber Commentators

Some of the commentators at the above-linked Crooked Timber post are really good. Since a lot of people don't read comment threads, I've pulled out somewhat longer quotations than I did for the above links:

"I guess those who voluntarily remain in the US and Israel have become complicit too." - abb1

"They’re coming up with the reality faster than anyone can come up with the parody." - p. o'neil

"One of the interesting things to note is that a certain common line of Zionist justification for not allowing the refugees of 1948 to return to their homes in what became Israel was that by leaving the war zones they had become complicit in the war on Israel. It seems to be difficult to avoid complicity whether staying or leaving a war zone." -- otto

"...I also found objectionable Dershowitz’s suggestion that there was a far clearer line between combatants and non-combatants in Israeli society than in Shiite Lebanese society. That doesn’t strike me as obviously true given the near-universality of Israeli military service and the paramilitary nature of many of the settlers." - Chris Bertram

"...The distinction between civilans and combatants is not, as Dershowitz implies, a distinction between people who are morally innocent and people who are morally guilty and thus liable to punishment. Being a combatant is not a crime, after all." -- gr

"It’s not only about military service. He spells it out: “recruit, finance, harbor and facilitate”. On ‘our’ side this includes pretty much every Israeli and American citizen. You pay taxes in Israel or the US - you’re a financier. You have to be unemployed and homeless to avoid being complicit." -- abb1

"As far as I can see, Dershowitz has taken the line from one of his most prominent clients (“I will do everything I can to find the real killers”) and run with it." - dquared

Dershowitz's essay is "also quite close to bin Laden’s ‘letter to America’... [bin Laden] gives the notice to leave the war-zone as well..." -- abb1

... the thread then drifts onto more general issues. Go read it if you feel like it; I'm all quoted out.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Problem with Disproportionate Responses

Someone can always ask, "What is this morality of yours?" That is a more radical question, however, than the questioner may realize, for it excludes him not only from the comfortable world of moral agreement, but also from the wider world of agreement and disagreement, justification and criticism. The moral world of war is shared not because we arrive at the same conclusions as to whose fight is just and whose unjust, but because we acknowledge the same difficulties on the way to our conclusions, face the same problems, talk the same language. It's not easy to opt out, and only the wicked and the simple make the attempt.

-- Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. xiv-xv

I came across the following graphic on the site of an Israeli blogger the other day:

It exemplified for me a current right-wing meme, an attack on the common critique that Israel's response is "disproportionate".

These attacks are, I think, morally repulsive -- or rather, they are to the degree that the attackers really understand what they are saying (including, necessarily, what the concept that they are ridiculing actually means). I suspect that for the most part they don't.

I bet that the thought is something like this: "disproportionate"? How silly. How sissy. Attacks shouldn't be "proportionate"; fuck that Marquis of Queensbury stuff. The important thing is to win. After all, the terrorists aren't going to limit their attacks to "proportionate" attacks, are they?

And, of course, they're not. But that's because they're terrorists. It is, in some ways, a big part of what makes them terrorists.

Now, the "war on terror" is a "war" roughly in the sense that the wars on poverty and drugs were. (Are? Are we still fighting a war on drugs, anyway? Or poverty?) It's a metaphor. Now the parallel isn't exact, for two reasons: first, the war on terror does include two actual wars the U.S. is currently involved in -- Afghanistan, which was a fairly reasonable response to the 9/11 attacks, and Iraq, which had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks except insofar as the latter were used to sell it to the public. (Some people might call Israel's current war on Lebanon, and even its current war on Gaza, part of the war on terror, too.) The other reason is that it's different from other metaphorical wars is that other Presidents never tried to claim war-powers -- indeed, more expansive war-powers than any previous Presidents had ever claimed -- on the basis of the wars on drugs or poverty. But that's another issue.

Nevertheless, let's go with the "war on terror" phrase for a moment. One thing that makes it different than other wars -- indeed, one of the main things which makes it a metaphorical rather than actual war -- is that "terror" isn't the sort of thing one might normally wage war on (states, non-state militias, guerrilla groups, etc.). It's a tactic in war -- an illegitimate, illegal, and grossly immoral tactic, but nevertheless a tactic. (What the U.S. should have done, post 9/11, is to declare war on Al Queada.) Nevertheless, like poverty*, most people would agree that terrorism is wrong, and since we're now supposedly waging war against it, we perhaps should understand why it's wrong.

Terrorism is wrong, first of all, not because of the aims it seeks. Terrorists can do evil for good ends or evil ends or anywhere-in-between ends. Al Queada, of course, is using it for ends which are about as foul as one can get. Hamas, however, is more of a mixed bag. To the extent that they are using terror to try to destroy Israel or impose sharia, they are using immoral means to serve an immoral end. But to the extent that they are using terror to try to free the territories from occupation, they are using immoral means to serve a moral end. (I don't want to get into an argument here about where the balance lies between those two.) Using terror casts one's ends into disrepute, of course, even aside from being a moral crime; but it does not make the end automatically wrong that people use immoral means for fighting it.

So terrorism is wrong because it is an immoral tactic. Aside from its ends, what's wrong about it?

It's murder. Simple as that.

Well, but wait. Isn't all war murder?

No. "Murder" is generally held to be a particular type of killing. Some killing -- most notably, killing in self-defense -- is not murder.

So war is not murder when it is in self-defense -- on a larger scale, but self-defense nonetheless.

The entire edifice known as just war theory -- whose most articulate and interesting contemporary proponent, in my mind (and many other's, too), is Michael Walzer, but which is centuries old -- is essentially devoted to working out the extraordinarily complicated consequences of that quite simple idea.

Just war theory divides into two questions, along the lines I was just discussing -- just aims (jus ad bellum) and just tactics (jus in bello). "Proportionality" is a concern of both; but for the moment let's focus on the issue to which "terror" is related, namely, the importance of proportionality in tactics. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Soldiers may only use force proportional to the end they seek. They must restrain their force to that amount appropriate to achieving their aim or target."

In other words, the problem of proportionality comes not when soldiers do what is necessary to win -- for (assuming their actions abide by the other rules of war, and that the cause is just in the first place) that is a moral thing to do. It has nothing to do with being nice. It has to do with not doing more killing than you have to.

There are two sides to the "than you have to" question. One is if the whole army goes off and does more than is necessary -- for example, not only repulses an invasion and secures its future security (both allowable under the rules of jus ad bellum), but takes over more of the country as spoils; that's the issue of proportionality in war aims. And here the issue's pretty simple (in theory, although like all these issues it can fiendishly difficult to parse in practice): if you continue to fight once you've secured yourself from aggression, or fight beyond what you need to to do that, then you become the aggressor.

The other side is that in any individual goal, you only can use as much force as needed. Again, the theory here is simple: if you use more force than needed, then you are killing people for no good reason. (Or, at best, for insufficient reason -- which is, it should hardly need to be said (although it does) insufficient to justify killing someone.) You are, in other words, a murderer.

Now, if people were arguing that Israel's response was proportionate, it'd be a complicated question. I think they'd be wrong, but these applications can be, as I mentioned, fiendishly difficult to work out in practice.

But that's not what some people are saying. They're saying why the fuck should we care about proportionality? . And the answer to that is simple. It's because when you cash it out, "disproportionate response" boils down to "aggression". In other words, to murder.

Now, terrorists are terrorists largely because they target civilians (and not in those specific cases which -- fiendishly difficult! fiendishly difficult! -- are allowable, e.g. when the civilians are working in a munitions plant). But terror can also arise out of disproportionate attacks.

If Israel is -- as, given many of the news reports, it damn well seems to be -- simply attacking civilians, whether directly or indirectly, by attacking life-support systems like sources of food, water, power, transport, etc. -- then it is simply guilty of war crimes for targeting civilians. But Israel would probably reply to this: we are simply targeting terrorists; any civilian casualties are, in the contemporary euphemism, "collateral damage".

But that's only true up to a point.

If a known combatant is coming out of his house, gun in hand, and you shoot him, then you haven't committed murder. But if you blow up him and his house with it, then you probably have. Their might be exigencies of war which would justify it. But it'd be a tough case to make.

In self-defense, it's not enough to be repulsing an attacker. If someone comes up to mug you, and you fire a machine gun on full automatic and kill everyone in a packed train car standing behind the would-be mugger, it's not enough to plead self-defense. You have a responsibility to other lives, too -- just as your mugger does, which is what justified the self-defense in the first place.

It's not grounds to blow up a village that you think that maybe there's a terrorist somewhere in a village. That's like Hamas blowing up a civilian bus because maybe a soldier, who maybe is patrolling the occupied territories, is riding it.

Targeting civilians is a terrible war crime. But it's not the only war crime. Targeting military targets so sloppily that you end up wantonly killing civilians -- whether because you go on yeah-well-maybe style intelligence, and therefore don't really know who you're aiming at; or because those roads and airports might transport weapons, or because you use such massive ordinance that you end up killing far more civilians than is (yes) proportionate to whatever military end you have in mind -- that's a war crime, too. And for much the same reason. It's killing that goes beyond any legitimate need for self-defense.

Yeah, terrorists don't care about proportionality. And states behaving in an evil fashion don't either. But we had damn well better. Because to be a fan of disproportionate response is, in the end, to be a fan of terrorism.

* "Ha! You didn't say drugs! You're pro-drugs!" Well, no, personally I'm not. But I am certainly against the so-called war on drugs; and I also don't think that the sentence I wrote would have been accurate if I put the word "drug" in instead of, or in addition to, "poverty". (It may not have been totally accurate with poverty, but that most people will at least pay lip service to disliking. (Most.))

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Reality-Based Theists and Petitionary Prayer: Replies to Some Replies

So far I've gotten a handful of replies to my essay Reality-Based Theists and the Efficacy of Petitionary Prayer. I'm hoping (in a way which is perhaps unfitting for a reality-based boy like me) that some more might still roll in, but in the meantime, I thought I'd discuss a few of the replies I did receive. (Note that I posted the essay in two separate places -- on my blog, here, and on, here; I will be responding to comments from each site.)

I should mention that while I appreciate all of the comments I got agreeing with, or even amplifying, my point, I am going (for all the obvious reasons) to restrict my comments to those who disagreed with me -- although perhaps I will make an exception to plug Sandy Knauer's piece, the posting of which (she said) was prompted by my essay. This means that I won't be responding to the speculation from self-proclaimed theists atheists (for example in the comments of Heather T.) as to why theists pray, although of course I'd encourage anyone interested to go read what they have to say; I just don't have much to say about them.

So on to the replies from theists.

I think there have been, roughly, three sorts of responses to my essay. The first sort of response grants my central claim -- that petitionary prayers clearly don't work -- and then go on to give reasons why they offer them anyway. A second sort of response denies by central claim by ditching one of its central premises, namely, that the believed-in God is omnipotent. The third sort of response... well, the third sort is a bit muddled, actually, so I won't attempt to characterize it until I deal with it in full.

First let me discuss those who agree with the notion that petitionary prayers don't seem to work, but who offer them anyway.

Janinsanfran replies with what I described in my original piece as the one reply I could think of -- which I described as "a frank recognition that it doesn't work" -- but continues to offer such prayers anyway for a reason that I didn't think to add (I listed two). She writes:
I think I qualify as a "reality-based" theist. At least I hope so. And I find your discussion of the futility of petitionary prayer completely persuasive. But I still do it, more as I engage more deeply with my faith. Why? Because this omnipotent/omniscient God/Person/Force I have come to believe in tells me to "ask." Makes not the slightest sense to me, but this exchange goes on in the realm where I've found truths I didn't find in other realms, so I do it. Since a very large part of what some traditions would call my practice is a non-attachment to outcomes, this is not even terribly inconsistent. Though a little mystifying.
As I said, I didn't think to add that reason to my list of reasons why one might offer petitionary prayers despite a recognition that they don't work, but I really should have: while Janinsanfran is -- as her blog proclaims -- an Episcopalian, it nevertheless sounds, at least to my Jewish ears, like a very Jewish answer: God said to do it, so I do it; heck if I know why. And, of course, it is a perfectly valid reply, a reason to offer petitionary prayers that doesn't rely on their efficacy (and can frankly recognize their lack of it). So that is one completely convincing reply that I heard -- although, as I said in my original piece, I find it hard to imagine it being an emotionally satisfying answer, however intellectually sound it is. But this is, to me, clearly the best reply by far.

Another flavor of reply seems also to fall into the "frank recognition" category, or at least close to it, this time in one of the two categories I foresaw, namely, a frank recognition combined with a claim to only offer non-petitionary, or at any rate only unverifiable-petitionary, prayers. There have been, in fact, two responses which fall into this subcategory, one by Wm H., and one by Gisela S. (These are, respectively, the second and seventh comments on the gather post; scroll down -- and hey, gather, you need permalinks for your comments!) Both Wm and Gisela say that they only offer petitionary prayers which are, by their nature, unverifiable. Wm., for example, writes:
I do not subscribe to any particular religion, so speaking only for myself, I only pray for such things as " the wisdom to make good decisions." These "requests" fall into the [unverifiable] realm.
Similarly, Gisela says:
I personally will pray for people to find the strength within themselves to deal with whatever situation they find themselves in. It has always struck me as somewhat [presumptuous] to request Divine intervention.

I basically buy that both of these prayers are unverifiable. I was tempted to counter-claim that, unless one thinks one has been particularly wise in one's decisions (Wm's variation), or that one's friends have had particular strength in dealing with the situations they find themselves in (Gisela's), this counts as verified in the negative.* But this gets us into the question about how one knows how wise or strong someone has been -- hopelessly vague, really -- and certainly opens up the "hidden harmony" answer in the free will defense to buttress the notion that one might have been wiser or stronger than it seems at first glance. So yes, with a few reservations, I'm willing to call this unverifiable.

Then we get to the second category, namely, a denial of the premise of God's omnipotence. This idea comes from two separate comments by George McNaughton (again, scroll down). To my mind, he isn't totally consistent on the point -- here and there he says things which seem to go in various other directions -- but so far as I can tell this is his central reply. This idea was hinted at in his first comment, both in his suggestion that believers should "de-emphasize this notion of omnipotence and omniscience" and in his metaphor of a friend who "was away somewhere else", i.e. was incapable of responding to you. But it was most clearly and directly stated at the end of his second comment, when he says that "In looking at that question -- I was willing to be satisfied with a God who was all good, and not require Him to be all powerful." In other words, God doesn't answer prayers because he can't.

This, of course, answers my challenge, as indeed it answers the problem of evil. (A denial of God's omnibenevolence would do both as well, although George doesn't himself raise this.) But it's simply not the image of God that most theists hold (although I'm aware that some do). As I mentioned in a footnote in the original piece, I was talking only about reality-based theists who have the most common conception of God -- an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being. For those who don't accept this view, however, there isn't an issue, any more than there is one for Manichaeans, polytheists or atheists.

George says a number of other things, as I mentioned, some of which -- such as his comments about "we also have people who do the opposite, when something really really looks supernatural we insist on coming up with natural explanations no matter how absurd they sound and if we cannot come up with a natural explanation then we deny that the phenomenon occurred at all" -- lead me to wonder if he falls into the category of reality-based theists as I would define it (though he does as he would define it, since he calls himself one).** Other comments of his -- such as the implication that God answers some prayers, just not all -- seem to indicate to me that he has not dealt (whether by refutation or acceptance) with my central argument at all.*** But since there is a perfectly valid reply to my argument in what he says, perhaps I shouldn't push too hard on the thoughts that (to my ears) seem to wander off in different directions.

Then we get to the final category, represented by a brief reply by Julie B. She, too, goes in two different directions in her reply, leaving the whole a bit muddled, at least to my ears -- perhaps because it was a brief note quickly written, or perhaps (as I imagine Julie might say) because I am looking at it through atheist eyes. In any event, Julie writes:
If I pray for my friend in need and it does not "work," I have not lost anything. If, on the other hand, there is any chance that God might hear my prayer for a friend in need and I choose not to pray because I'm unconvinced that God will answer the way I want him to, then I have lost a chance - however small you think it might be - to help my friend. We play the lottery because there's an improbable chance we might become millionaires. Is it such a stretch to think that we pray because there's a chance, however small (some would argue it is a certainty) God will hear us and answer?
I found this reply somewhat frustrating because my whole point was not that I thought that the chance of a reply was small, but that any reality-based theist looking honestly at the situation would themselves agree that either God does not answer such prayers, or answers them so rarely as to be statistically invisible. To hint, as Julie does, that one might realistically think that it is a certainty that "God will hear us and answer" evades the issue. It seems to me you either need to argue as to why that is at all plausible, given, well, all of human history, i.e. argue why my premise is wrong, or you need to explain why you might pray even though the chances of it "working" are at best extraordinarily small. So it seems like Julie is not confronting my argument, at least in what she wrote. (I should note parenthetically that believing that God hears all our prayers is an evidence-proof notion; it's the idea that God answers our (petitionary) prayers in any meaningful way that strikes me as impossible given the evidence of the world.)

Now Julie does offer a partial argument about why one might pray even though the odds of it being answered are vanishingly small -- namely, that if one does one has lost nothing, but if one doesn't, one's lost that vanishingly small chance, which (one would have to argue) may be so small as to be statistically invisible, but which is not zero. And this is a plausible argument, a variation of sorts on Pascal's famous wager. I would have to say that I think that I find it hard to imagine that this, too, is emotionally satisfying if one genuinely and frankly admits the smallness of the odds one's playing here. And, alas, Julie's bit about the certainty of an answer leads me to feel that she is not really confronting the odds -- that she is, in fact evading the issue, namely, what I claiming to be the undeniable fact that petitionary prayers are either not answered or are answered so rarely that they might as well not be answered (though I suppose that, however rare, one might still make the Pascal-style argument).

One final comment on the issue of odds. Playing the lottery is, indeed, a fool's bet, given the long odds against it. But they aren't so long that we can't name any actual winners -- nor is the mechanism so furtive that we have to confront the suspicion that what looks like long odds successfully played is, in fact, mere sampling bias. But in the case of answered prayer there are no such "winners". Of course one can pick out people who prayed and got better, but that's just cherry-picking the data unless one can give some reason to think that they were more likely to get better if they prayed -- and that involves finding a statistical difference which (I am claiming) it is clear from the entire !@#$% world does not exist.

Of course, one might argue that such a difference does exist -- that prayer can really reliably, or at least better-than-placebo-ly, heal. Christian Scientists and faith healers would argue this, for example. But here I think that I'd have to say that, to my mind, anyone who claims this has distinctly left the realm of reality-based faith and has entered the realm of reality-defiant faith -- unless you've got some hard, non-anecdotal evidence you'd like to share (bearing in mind that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence).

...Just as I was about to post this, I saw that Julie had added a second comment to my earlier piece. I haven't fully assimilated it yet, but a few preliminary thoughts. First, I agree with Julie that thinking good thoughts/creating positive energy is probably indistinguishable from prayer (at first blush -- if there's a distinction I'm not seeing it.) And I certainly agree with her that whether or not one offers prayers doesn't have much to do with whether or not one helps in more Earthly ways.

But I especially wanted to reply to her suggestion that only evangelical Christians fall into my category of reality-defiant theists. That certainly isn't true by my lights (although, once again, we won't reach general agreement on the application of these terms, even if everyone accepts them (which they won't)). A few examples. Anyone who denies the reality of evolution is a reality-defiant theist in my book, and I know that some Muslims and some Orthodox Jews fall into this category. Also, any Orthodox Jew who believes that the Torah was given letter-for-letter at Sinai is probably a reality-defiant theist. Most Mormons would probably count as reality-defiant theists, given the utter lack of historical evidence for any of the events of the Book of Mormon and the frank historical evidence against a great deal of it (e.g. horses in the pre-Columbian Americas, the genetic evidence on the origins of the Native Americans, etc.). Christian Scientists are clearly reality-defiant theists -- probably, in their case, avowedly so, since their whole theology is based on the idea that reality is an illusion. And so forth. So no, at least in my mind, I certainly didn't mean only evangelical Christians. (I also don't know whether all evangelical Christians are necessarily reality-defiant; it's quite possible that a Christian could fall into the category of reality-based as well as the category of evangelical -- although here I frankly don't think I know enough to be sure.)

So those are the replies I've gotten thus far. Anyone who wishes to offer rebuttals to my replies, i.e. anyone addressing the specific answers I gave to these specific replies, should feel free to leave such in the comments here. Anyone who wishes to offer a fundamentally different answer to my original piece I would encourage to do so in the comments there -- either on my blog or on I can't guarantee I will always reply with this level of detail, but I will unquestionably read, and hopefully reply to, any new answers (or any rebuttals to my replies).

* It's not the case that one can compare the person to someone who didn't pray for wisdom/hadn't been prayed for regard strength, since of course the real comparison ought not to be someone who wasn't prayed for but the same person as they would have been had they not been prayed for -- which is definitely inaccessible to evidence, obviously. In theory, one could do a larger collective study, which would, again in theory, iron out the problem of different amounts of natural wisdom/strength -- but here the lack of metrics, indeed lack of coherence in the question, has already reduced the entire notion to a reductio ad absurdum. So, yeah, no way to test this.

** For instance, the notion that God answers some, just not all, prayers can be heard in the phrases that "he did not feel it was right for him to intervene" and "there are a myriad of reasons why it [i.e. prayer] may not work." But the notion that it is reasonable to say that prayers sometimes work and sometimes don't is precisely what I was denying. I was claiming that any reality-based theist should admit that petitionary prayers do not work -- since there is clearly no difference in the outcomes of prayed-upon and not-prayed-upon situations. Both at times go well, both at times do not. To say that prayers sometimes work is an attempt to apply the standard "hidden harmony" rebuttal to the problem of evil (I am again borrowing James Morrow's (somewhat eccentric, I think) terminology) to the problem I am raising. Now, the hidden harmony defense -- basically, God has his reasons which are beyond are ken -- is a classic answer to the problem of evil. (It's also as close as poor old Job ever got to an answer.) But I don't think it solves the issue that I raised, namely, how does one confront the fact that petitionary prayers clearly do not work.

*** As I said in my original piece, who counts as a reality-based theist, and who as a reality-defiant theist, is a complicated issue, and we're never going to agree as to how to classify all cases -- maybe any cases. But the end of George's first reply, cited above, sounds to mean like it means that if one looked hard at reality one would see real miracles -- and, a claim of miracles, i.e. what Bierce called the annulling of the laws of the universe, is enough to qualify as a reality-denying theist in my book. Obviously many people -- including George, perhaps -- will disagree; I doubt we'll come to any agreement about this.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Random Round-Up of Recommended Reading

On the Mid-East Crisis:

1. Matt Yglesias, more and more one of my favorite political commentators, notes that while "the current crisis in the Middle East... is very complicated," there is still "one thing you really need to remember... amid all the confusion and complexity," namely, that "The United States shouldn’t go to war with Syria, and it shouldn’t go to war with Iran." Amen! But if that was all he said, then this wouldn't be worth reading; he says a lot more, though. Normally, any essay that opines that "a broad swathe of hawkish opinion... have bought into a comic book view of how international relations works" would really piss me off -- but Yglesias follows it up with the sort of thing that make that sentence perfectly reasonable: "I refer, of course, to the Green Lantern Corps, DC Comics’ interstellar police force assembled by the Guardians of Oa." In other words, he's not using "a comic book view" as a generic (and inaccurate) cliché for "simplistic"; he's talking about a specific comic book. And getting it right! That's how it should be done. Anyway, the whole essay is worth reading. (It's also worth noting, maybe, that the essay is pieced together from a few of his blog posts. This is one good use for blogs: as a laboratory for rough drafts, seeing what works, putting them through the commentator's fire. The result is a good essay.)

2. Leila at Dove's Eye View has been one of my favorite bloggers during the current Mid-East crisis. Don't miss her recent cris de coeur about the situation, here and here.

3. I don't agree with his point of view, which
I find to be downright offensive at times (His view? Or just his tone? Not sure I can tell. And of course both vary -- this seems in direction contradiction to this, for example. Or, if it's not, he's sure not being very clear), but the Angry Arab has a point of view very different from the media in the U.S., and probably the media in most western countries. (This is a guy who finds the Nation and Tikkun to be hopelessly racist and biased towards Israel.) So it's worth reading just because it's so different.

4. If you found the letters from my sister-in-law, then in Lebanon, interesting (which, if you haven't read them,
are here: one, two, three, four (and the one that was temporarily removed is now back)), then you may also find interesting these other letters or reports from people in Lebanon: this letter from a Lebanese woman to an Israeli friend; this report from an American (still) in Beirut (also check out the longer-form blogging he's doing here).

5. James Wolcott considers the current right-wing debate about whether this is World War III or World War IV.

6. This has been linked to all over, but make sure not to miss this horrific snapshot of the current state of Baghdad.

7. Two different arguments that the U.S.'s interests in the Mid-East are crucially different from Israel's (at least as the latter currently sees it's interests) are put forward by UK analyst David Clark (via) and former CIA analyst Ray Close.

8. Billmon (whose been back to his old form this week) wonders where Al Queada is in this whole mess.


1. From the "Everyone's Blogging Now" files, Part Bigassnumber: Barbara Ehrenreich (via).

2. Duncan "Atrios" Black on why the left is so worked up about Lieberman, to which Shakespeare's Sister adds a postscript.

3. Atheist Ethicist makes a very important point about "secular fundamentalism" and the true middle ground in the church-state debate (via).

Just Quotes:

From a message board called "rapture ready", expecting rapture due to the current mid-east crisis: "If He tarries, I will just have time to get my hair and nails done (you know let all I come into contact with know of my Bridegroom and what He has/will do). So i am all spiffied up for Him when He does arrive to take me home." (quoted here)

"It's no longer just the middle class and the poor who're falling behind. The distribution has grown so uneven that the 95th percentile is making meager headway -- even the merely rich are falling behind." -- Ezra Klein reads Paul Krugman

"I do get annoyed at people who claim the public is “dumb.” That’s just snotty and arrogant. But the public is certainly uninformed about a great deal and America is currently reeling from the consequences of American’s unwillingness or inability to inform itself about the most basic of facts. Indeed, democracy requires voters to have a basic grasp of basic facts. Otherwise, it doesn't work. And after the 2004 election, I honestly wondered whether the American public had simply become so impervious to facts that the system was incapable of creating rational policy (i.e., based on real facts). For instance, it’s ok to have supported Bush in 2004 because you support low taxes or the war. But it’s not ok to have supported him because you still thought Iraq had WMDs or that his tax cuts went mostly to the middle class. That's irrational. And there is a big difference between a subjective value judgment based on objective facts and one that assumes and relies upon facts that simply don’t exist. The latter gives rise to policies that look strikingly similar to our fiscal and foreign policies." -- Publius, celebrating Ralph Reed's defeat.

(Additional links may be added as I come across/remember them.)

On Not Reading Leo Strauss

This essay (and letter translation) (via) is a very interesting riposte to recent attempts to argue that Leo Strauss was just a misunderstood promoter of democracy. I haven't read Strauss, so I don't really have an opinion on the interpretive issue. But I will note that there is a basic underlying epistemological issue here, namely, that the interpretation of Strauss put forward by his critics (or at least by Shadia Drury, the one whom I've read most carefully, although I've also read Stephen Holmes) predicts that his defenders will try to paint a picture of him as harmless, since lying about his true views (to the masses, not the elite) is a fundamental part of his philosophy (under this interpretation). Thus one would expect to see such attempted rehabilitations whichever view of Strauss is, in fact, true.

As I understand it, Strauss (according to his critics) believed (roughly, oversimplifying) as follows: there are three types of people, philosophers, gentlemen and the masses. The masses won't read Strauss or other philosophers anyway, and are hardly worth bothering with. But philosophers (according to Strauss, on this interpretation), and Strauss himself, write so as be open to two levels of interpretation. Gentlemen will read Strauss as supporting all sorts of noble goals -- religion, democracy, and all that -- a benign misinterpretation deliberately planted by Strauss to fool those who are not Wise enough to handle the real truth. Philosophers, in contrast, will read Strauss, and other philosophers, and will see past this lie to see the Truth: that these noble goals are lies, but that they are necessary lies, that Gentlemen (and, on a different level, the masses) need to believe. Thus, unless they are talking to other philosophers (which is usually done in code, by writing esoterically, so only the wise will really understand), philosophers will profess that the interpretations of the Gentlemen are correct, since it is what the lower orders ought to believe.

What does it mean, then, that people are writing books saying, no-no-no, Strauss is really just a harmless interpreter of philosophical texts who would never stand up for nasty anti-democratic ideas? Does it mean that this is, in fact, what Strauss thought? Or that the critics are correct, but the defenders, as good Straussians, are putting forth a noble lie in denying it? Or that the critics are correct, and the defenders are (basically) stupid Straussians who are swallowing the lies only fit for the lower orders, rather than cracking the code? Are they putting forward their true views, or the lies they want you to believe, or their genuine but misguided views which are, in fact, just the lies that Strauss wanted them to believe?

Of course one could decide by going and reading Strauss for oneself... but even that wouldn't necessarily decide the issue, since if one read Strauss and decided he was harmless, one might simply be falling for the deliberately-designed misinterpretation -- indeed, Strauss's current defenders might be sincere (having fallen for the same well-laid misinterpretation) rather than deliberately lying (as, according to this interpretation, they would do if they properly understood him). It's an epistemological vortex with no obvious way out.

Except, perhaps, this: in two different ways, it doesn't matter.

First, the views of Strauss as presented by Shadia Drury (and, it appears, his other critics) form an interesting philosophical view well worth considering (and, I would say, combating as ultimately deeply immoral), whether or not they actually accurately represent Strauss's views. When I was a philosophy major in college, one of my professors told me that the interpretation of Wittgenstein by Kripke was generally agreed to be a misinterpretation -- but was also widely held to be an interesting view worth considering (and refuting) in its own right, a view commonly referred to as "Kripkenstein". Similarly, whether or not Strauss held the views ascribed to him by his critics -- which is (possibly) an unanswerable question -- the coherent view, call it Drury-Strauss -- is one worth considering, and rebutting.

(I haven't read his defenders, but from reviews of their books they make him sound utterly dull -- that is, rather than an interesting, evil point of view, they ascribe to him a mundane, harmless, dull one. Rather than making him sound worth reading and refuting, they make him sound palatable at the price of making him sound not worth tasting in the first place. Perhaps if I read them, I'd find them putting forward a view which makes Strauss out to be interesting as well as beneficent... but ars longa, vita brevis and all that.)

The second way in which the truth about Strauss might not matter is that, given the sophisticated arguments of Drury and others, it is clearly a plausible misreading, even if it is, in fact a misreading. Thus it is perfectly possible that it is a misreading that the current crop of neocons adopted this interpretation -- and thus set out to rule America according to its lights. In this sense, it doesn't matter whether or not this interpretation of Strauss is correct or not, only whether or not those students of his (and their students) who latter attained power and prominence in the U.S. believed it was -- and what effect that belief had.

As someone more engaged, currently, with American political ideology than with the history of philosophy or abstract political philosophy, it is this latter point which interests me. And on the final (and, really, central) question -- to what degree this view of Strauss affected key people and thus underlay the current Neocon view running our government -- I'm so far agnostic. It's my field, but it ain't the row I'm currently hoeing, so I haven't studied it enough to see if I think that the strand of Drury-Strauss that fed their thinking (since it does seem to have done so at least to some degree) was a minor or major element in its construction. But if I did want to go figure it out, reading Strauss doesn't seem to be too relevant, since the issue is not whether Drury-Strauss is an accurate representation of Strauss's views, but who thought it was, and what those thoughts meant.

For if there's one thing that Straussians of all kinds, and anti-Straussians for that matter, can all agree on, surely it's that misinterpretations can be just as powerful a force in intellectual history (and, therefore in history of all sorts) as interpretations can. Whether the misinterpretations were sincere or not ultimately matters less than that they were out there in the world, having an effect. It's roughly parallel to the fact that whether the neocons believed their own bullshit about Iraq or not is ultimately less important than the fact that enough people bought it to go start a war over it. Intellectual and ideological structures can do great harm, whatever their foundation.

(P.S.: I sort of started this whole thing to recommend Scott Horton's blog post -- the one I linked to right at the beginning -- but it got out of hand. So to return to that, and hopefully peak your interest, let me quote the bit from the letter of Strauss's that's translated in that post, the same part which has been highlighted by several others:
...the fact that the new right-wing Germany does not tolerate us says nothing against the principles of the right. To the contrary: only from the principles of the right, that is from fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles, is it possible with seemliness, that is, without resort to the ludicrous and despicable appeal to the droits imprescriptibles de l’homme [“inalienable rights of man”] to protest against the shabby abomination. (Leo Strauss, 1933)
It's a fascinating post. If you haven't read it yet, and are at all interested in this sort of thing, go read it.)

Monday, July 17, 2006

Reality-Based Theists and the Efficacy of Petitionary Prayer

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?...
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

-- Gerard Manely Hopkins

As anyone who has read the last several posts on this blog knows, someone very dear to me was just placed into jeopardy by the recent events in Lebanon. And while she seems -- kenina hara*, perhaps I should say, fully aware of the irony given what I am about to write -- to be out of danger for the moment, these events have crystallized in my mind something I have been meaning -- in some vague, inchoate way -- to express.

I'm not quite sure if what follows is an argument or a question -- or perhaps it is simply somewhere between those two extremes. Let me say then that this is intended as a very specifically provisional argument: it is an argument that I have never seen put forward before in this form (although of course I have seen very little), but one to which I would be quite genuinely interested in answers to. I am not putting forward this argument with certain defiance, intending to demolish any possible answers; I am putting forward this argument with curious uncertainty, wondering what responses it might generate. (Warning: this essay is rather long, as blog-posts go; if there is sufficient interest, I will make it available as a pdf file.)

The issue at hand is how any reality-based theist could possibly believe in the efficacy of petitionary prayer.

I suppose that, first, I should define my terms, in particular the term "reality-based theist". During the recent cultural wars over religious issues, it's often seemed to me that while the sides are commonly divided into two (for metaphysical purposes, atheist - theist; although, as has been endlessly pointed out, for political purposes the relevant (and quite distinct) dichotomy is secularist - theocrat), they really should be divided (again, for metaphysical purposes) into three: atheist, reality-based theist and a third category that I really shouldn't define (since I am opposed to them and it is ungracious to define a group one opposes), but that I shall refer to here as "reality-defiant theists".

Atheists we all know about: they don't believe in any God or gods (which does not mean, frequent assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, specifically disbelieving in any God or gods, although the latter is a subset of atheists sometimes referred to as "strong atheists") and therefore -- at least in principle -- get their beliefs from the various ordinary sources of evidence we all use: experience, experiment, tradition, hearsay, common sense, and so forth. Beliefs of this sort are, or at any rate ought to be, open to change given new evidence.

But it seems to me there is a distinction -- although, as I shall discuss momentarily, rarely a clear distinction -- between reality-based theists and reality-defiant theists. Both of these groups believe in God**, of course, and generally have a variety of other beliefs which attach to that: a belief that God spoke to Moses or Jesus or Mohammed, say, or is morally against bearing false witness, or whatever. Some of these beliefs (most crucially the central one, that God exists) can't even in principle be contradicted by any available evidence. What divides reality-based from reality-defiant theists is what they do when confronted with evidence that does contradict their beliefs. Do they alter their beliefs, saying something to the effect of 'I suppose my image of God must have been mistaken' or 'I suppose my interpretation of my holy book must have been in error'; or do they in one fashion or another defy the evidence, claiming that it does not show what it plainly (to all those without prior contrary epistemological commitments) shows?

The reason that this is a hard distinction to make clear in practice is that (interestingly, importantly and tellingly) theists quite rarely simply proclaim their disbelief in the evidence on faith-based grounds. It is quite rare to hear someone say: the evidence does show such-and-such, but I do not believe it, because I have faith in a different truth. Oh, it's not unheard of: a good example might be creationists who do not deny the evidence that exists for evolution is what it appears to be, but claim it was placed there by God as a test of faith. Such an argument is unanswerable through evidence-based reasoning, although it does tend to lead to a theology that appeals to very few people. Nevertheless almost no one does say anything like this. Generally they deny the evidence, twisting and turning to explain it away or cast doubt on it or in some way escape what it seems to say to others. Probably the most blatant example of this is young-earth creationism, which denies not only the overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution but also the overwhelming scientific evidence as to the Earth's age. Anyone who believes that the earth's age is properly measured in the thousands of years rather than the billions of years is, in my reckoning, a reality-defying theist.

But other cases are harder to judge, and doubtless vary from religion to religion and believer to believer. Some people who will accept the available evidence in the case of evolution will resist it in other issues, such as the authorship of Torah. Some issues might legitimately be open to question on purely evidentiary grounds (such as whether the Jews were really slaves in Egypt, which (I believe) there is no extra-biblical evidence for, but which there is no evidence against either (save for the absence of positive, extra-biblical evidence)), and whether someone who believes strongly in one direction on such an issue is a reality-based or reality-defiant theist seems to me an open issue -- perhaps one that will inevitably remain one unless hard evidence is found in another direction. In any event, these are complex matters with many facets, and I certainly do not propose that this division can be made in any hard and fast way, nor that there is any definition which will satisfy all parties (or even, say, everyone that the definition itself claims to be reality-based, which would be a good standard if such a thing could be devised). People are simply too eager to claim non-faith, evidentiary grounds -- or at least plausibility -- for their beliefs. It is an interesting question as to why so many reality-defying theists try to argue for their beliefs in ways which appear to be evidentiary, but it's a separate question and one I won't go further into here.

Nevertheless, if my Noble Readers will go along with me here and imagine for themselves a subset of theists who they might call reality-based -- if nothing else, I imagine that some theists would describe themselves in something like those terms, if not precisely those words -- then I can get to my main question, namely, how can reality-based theists possibly believe in the efficacy of petitionary prayer?

Because they all seem to, or at least seem to seem to (which is not the same thing). People who would never deny the reality of evolution, or that the Torah was written by multiple individuals over many centuries and only later combined into the work we know today, or anything like that, will talk about prayer as if it might actually make a difference.

Now, to be clear, I'm not talking about all prayer here. There are clearly some categories of prayers -- prayers of thanks, for example -- in which it doesn't matter if it makes a difference (or in which there isn't particularly a "difference" to be made), and others -- prayers of repentance -- in which the question of whether it makes a difference is metaphysical and not answerable by ordinary evidence. I'm not talking about those. There are even be petitionary prayers whose effect would be in the real world but whose efficacy isn't decidable by evidence, at least practically speaking ("May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity"). All I'm talking about are those prayers which are asking for something, specifically something in which one can eventually figure out, by ordinary, mundane means, whether it happened or not: prayers that a sick person get better, say, or that some crisis in the world -- such as the current one in the Middle East -- come swiftly to a peaceful resolution. (The "swift" is important there, because without it the question becomes undecidable -- it might always happen later.) These are the prayers which give rise to the saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, and to Ambrose Bierce's cynical definition of "to pray" as "to ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy".

There are, it seems to me, a lot of such prayers. Not so many that one can't imagine a theist who never offers them. One can well imagine a theist who offers only prayers of thanks and repentance and praise, say, or even only those plus requests so general that they can never be evidentially refuted ("thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven", say). But I would venture to guess that the vast majority of theists -- even of strictly reality-based theists -- offer up such prayers.

My question is: how can they possibly believe that they might work?

There is simply too much evidence that they don't. If you are praying that a sick person be healed, you have to know that uncountably many sick people have been prayed for and died anyway. If you are praying for some world crisis not to end in disaster, you have to know that there have been indescribably many wars and massacres and genocides and terrors in history, and most with a great many prayers to stop them. In other words, if you are a reality-based theist, you have to know that there is every reason to believe that such prayers don't work. (A reality-defiant theist would have no such trouble -- they might, for instance, cherry-pick evidence to show that the pattern I mentioned does not exist (although there is not only historical, but even strictly biblical -- e.g. Job -- evidence that it does, so perhaps this question applies even to some of them as well.))

Now, I don't mean to get into the whole problem-of-evil. All theists, I imagine, have to come their own answer to this question (or turn into either dualists or atheists) -- although many, I'd wager, don't come to any answer, and instead simply shut off the line of thought in any way possible. Nevertheless, let us assume that a thoughtful, reality-based theist will have come up with some answer which satisfies them -- the free-will defense, the eschatological defense, the hidden-harmony defense, whatever.*** The point is, whatever matter one is praying over is subject to the precise same conditions that allows evil to exist alongside an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God at all. To believe in God, one has to believe in some condition that allows evil to exist anyway -- fine. Let's take that as given. The point here is that evil does still exist anyway -- and that there is every reason to believe (if one is a reality-based and not reality-defiant theist) that this evil happens equally whether one prays or does not. So that if one's typical answer to evil is (let's say) that God has a plan, and ways beyond our ken, this must be equally true of the sick person one prays for or the terrible conflict that one prays about, just as it was about all the others that ended badly. There is no reason to think God will make any difference -- in this example, if He has a plan, it will work itself out regardless of whether or not you wish someone to recover or a country to be spared a catastrophe. It may be His will, but that just means that your prayer won't help.

I don't see how one can look at the world, including its history, and not see that, even if one believes in God, any prayer that makes a request is nevertheless quite clearly futile. Perhaps this is where the question-and-not-assertion aspect of this comes in. Any reality-based theists -- who, in this instance, might be helpfully defined as those who won't deny that, as often as not, "the way of the wicked prosper" -- want to weigh in on this?

I can imagine one ready answer to the question, and perhaps it is one that some -- most? all? -- reality-based theists will offer; I just can't imagine that it's a remotely satisfying one. The answer that I imagine would be a frank recognition that it doesn't work -- with either a concordant claim that the only prayers offered are non-petitionary (plus such petitionary ones which are beyond evidence, such as "thy will be done"), or with a claim that one offers up such prayers for emotional reasons despite a rational recognition (on some level, even only if when pressed) that they can't be expected to do any good.

This answer, particularly the latter half of it -- that one says them emotionally despite a frank recognition of their futility -- is not quite so unreasonable as it sounds. People do do these sorts of things -- we are not wholly rational creatures. I suspect that most of the proverbial foxhole theists' prayers fall into this category. The "kenina hara" I said at the beginning of this essay certainly does: I don't believe, rationally, that it will do any good, but it makes me feel better, so I say it anyway. (Indeed, if it makes me feel better, then it arguably does do some good -- in the right circumstances, it might even make a crucial difference -- just not the sort of good it purports to do.) Or, as Niels Bohr said (in the probably-apocryphal tale) when challenged as to why he hung up a good luck charm, "I don't believe it, but I heard it works even if you don't believe it."****

So that's one style of answer. Maybe it's the only answer, I don't know. But given what I have seen and read and heard, I don't believe that everyone who can be called a reality-based theist -- or even everyone who might willingly self-describe as a reality-based theist -- believes this. Simply put, I don't think that most, or at any rate many, of the petitionary prayers are offered in that spirit. Too many of them seem sincere, not simply in the sense of expressing a sincere emotion, but sincerely hoping that they might be heard and answered.

Perhaps they only seem to seem sincere, and their seeming sincerity is a product of my misunderstanding, or is a necessary incidence of their being offered in emotional duress but without serious rational intent, or is part and parcel of a particular theist's evasion of the problem of evil, or is even a deliberate attempt at deception to hold up pretenses. In fact, I'm sure there are some cases in which each of these descriptions hold. But I can't help thinking that there are prayers which I am not misreading but which are not simply futile emotional cries but sincere pleadings. By reality-based theists who know full well that God has let such prayers remain mere words as often as not.

So why do they do it?

This sort of point is raised often enough by atheists as a component of the problem of evil: if you praised God when so-and-so was healed, why won't you proclaim God's role when someone else was not? -- that sort of thing. But those are addressed, as it were, after the fact: what do you do with the evil you have seen in the world, whether historically or in your recent personal past? The question I am asking is subtly, slightly different. I want to know what a reality-based theist says to themselves as they sit down to pray -- not after the fact, as an answer to why there is evil, but at its start, when they go to ask for there not to be, knowing full well there is no reason to think that those prayers will be heard.

How do reality-based theists manage to ask God for anything?

And let me add once again that this question -- unlike the emotional outbursts I mentioned above -- is sincerely meant. I do not ask it rhetorically. I am curious to what people's answers are. Feel free to comment, or to email; or, if you write an answer elsewhere, please leave a link in the comments.

I have some hope that, unlike God, some of you might really answer.

(Update: Added a link & made minor edits for clarity.)

(Update 2: I've put up a post replying to some of the replies I've received; check it out if this essay interested you.)
* "kenina hara" = Yiddish for "avoid the evil eye". Roughly equivalent to knocking wood.

** I'm dealing with religion as it is most familiar here in the west, and by "God" will mean an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God, and by "theist" a believer in such a being. Obviously one who believes that God is either not omnipotent or not omnibenevolent (or, I suppose, not omniscient, although how one could be omnipotent but not omniscient escapes me) won't have this problem. I am referring to the subset -- the majority, by all indications -- of theists who believe in an all-powerful, supremely good God.

*** I'm drawing these categories from James Morrow's fine novel Blameless in Abaddon, since I happen to have just recently read it, but if they don't seem good to you the substitute your own; the point is that there will be some answer or other, and what I say applies to all of them.

**** I have this anecdote from Isaac Asimov's wonderful essay, "Knock Plastic!", which you can find in the collections Science, Numbers and I or Asimov on Science.