Srebrenica

July 11, 2007

CNN has a piece on the re-burial of victims of the massacre in Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995, worth reading. If you haven’t already, you should check out Sheri Fink’s War Hospital, an excellent account of the siege from the perspective of national and international medical doctors trapped in the Muslim enclave.

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Shooting the Messenger

January 20, 2007

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Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was shot and killed in broad daylight on a street in Istanbul. Dink had been outspoken about the Ottoman genocide of Armenians at the start of the 20th century. While this may seem like ancient history to present-minded Americans, it plays heavily into regional politics in Turkey and Armenia. Many Turks think the killings were a justifiable part of a civil war, while Armenians see it as genocide (most non-Turkish sources I’ve read agree with the latter).

Being a prominent journalist about an unpopular issue is never an easy task. But in some places the messenger is more likely to get shot than in others. For example, I don’t think Anderson Cooper has gotten many death threats lately. (However, this may be a symptom of how any prominent journalist–especially American ones–pander to the system. If you’re not getting death threats or hate mail, your work might not be that important…)

So how big of a deal is calling the killing of Armenians genocide in Turkey? Evidently it’s illegal to insult the Turkish state (in America it’s mostly legal, just unpopular). From CNN:

Described as a “well-known commentator on Armenian affairs,” Dink had been called into court a number of times on allegations of “insulting” the Turkish state in his writing.

And apparently Dink isn’t the first Turkish journalist to be targeted for unpopular beliefs:

Joel Campagna, Mideast program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said, “Like dozens of other Turkish journalists, Hrant Dink has faced political persecution because of his work. Now it appears he’s paid the ultimate price for it.”

Campagna said that Turkey “must ensure that this crime does not go unpunished like other cases in the past and that those responsible for his murder are brought to justice.”

He said that over the last 15 years, 18 Turkish journalists have been killed — making the country the eighth deadliest in the world for journalists in that period. He said many of the deaths took place in the early 1990s, at the peak of the Kurdish separatist insurgency.

Unlike Anna Politkovskaya, who was likely assassinated by the Russian government itself (for criticism of atrocities in Russia’s war on Chechnya), Dink’s death is more likely that of an Islamist or Turkish ultra-nationalist extremist (the assassin reportedly shouted “I shot the infidel”), categories which can often become blurred, but the Turkish government is anything but blameless for the overall situation:

Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, told CNN that the case is the “product of the environment that the Turkish government has created” — its persistent denial that the killings of the Armenians last century did not amount to genocide.

How Turkey handles this event, along with its relations with the Kurds, will also inevitably tie into Turkey’s desire to join the European Union. But while this killing raises political questions, it also brings me to a more philosophical inquiry.

Is there really a right to free speech? Do people inherently have an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Where do any of these rights come from? In the idealistic sense the answer may be yes, we have these rights, but many authors on human rights (Farmer ‘s Pathologies of Power comes to mind) would be the first to admit that they can’t “prove” rights. Nobody truly possessed a right to freedom of speech or freedom of religion until people decided that they had those rights, declared them, and made them a reality.

A right can exist as an ideal that has no real correspondence to actual conditions, but over time the ideal may come closer to realization. Our freedom of speech is still imperfect, but there are arguably more people in the world today who can speak freely than ever before. There will always be people and governments who will shoot the messenger, but if we shed light on and punish those who violate the right to speech, we may move closer to the ideal, if only incrementally. In the same sense, I hold that people have a right to health care–a right that is inseparable from our right to life–but recognize that this right is less realized in America than any other wealthy nation. The act of smoothing over the edges between the ideal and the reality is the whole pursuit of social justice.

Update: A suspect has been arrested in the case.


The Epitomal Transhumanist

January 19, 2007

This video of Ray Kurzweil (about 23 minutes long) is an excerpt from an annual seminar called TED Talks (for Technology, Entertainment and Design) that features leaders from a variety of fields. While most of the talks seem to focus on society or technology, the perspectives are quite broad: Al Gore, Rick Warren, Daniel Dennett, Bono, and Richard Dawkins have all graced its stage in recent years.

Ray Kurzweil is a prominent transhumanist, and has one of the most optimistic views of technology possible. One of his more recent books is The Singularity is Near, which describes his view that not only is the eventual surpassing of humanity by artificial intelligence inevitable, it is also nearer than we think. In Kurzweil’s view this process will include the merging of our own personal consciousness with the advanced capabilities of computers to eventually be able to process more quickly, analyze more astutely, retrieve data more accurately, and so on. In Kurzweil’s view, what truly distinguishes homo sapiens is not our current biological status, history, or accomplishments, but our impetus to transcend our limitations. Technology merely offers us a new vehicle for our transcendence.

Regardless of whether you embrace his views wholeheartedly (they seem a bit optimistic even for me) or you feel a shiver of terror or silent mockery slipping down your Luddite spine, Kurzweil’s thought should be examined because of his influence. He’s a successful inventor and author, and a prominent figure among futurists and transhumanists. Here’s a summary of sorts of Kurzweil’s TED talk:

Can we predict the future? While certain specifics of technological progress are very hard to predict, overall trends are predictable, and they’re also exponential. Growth in one technology enables and promotes growth in another technology. 50 years to adopt telephones, 8 years to adopt cell phones. TV took decades, but new technologies- like the internet- have taken off much faster.

Kurzweil then makes an analogy to biological evolution. The evolution of genetic material (DNA/RNA) took billions of years, but once certain genes were in place (or the common “tool-kit,” as evo-devo would put it) more rapid (~10 million years) change, like the Cambrian “explosion” (a term that is disliked in many circles) can occur. But as the first technology-creating species, our culture has allowed us to “evolve” on a level that is exponential in comparison to biological evolution (which is one reason we have a hard time understanding evolutionary time scales).

It took tens of thousands of years to develop agriculture, then thousands to move to more centralized forms of government (those two are arguably related, but the direction of causality is disputed), civilization led to quicker technological development, etc. The last 500 years of technological growth were incredible, but the last century has been even more impressive- bringing us widely available automobiles, radios, TVs, airplanes, medical technology, computers, Internet, not to mention space flight and an incredible plethora of new weapons systems with which to butcher each other.

This emphasis on technological development as an exponential process is a major theme of Kurzweil’s work. But, he points out, people always begin doubting when exponential growth for future technology is predicted. This growth is a result of

“worldwide chaotic behavior.. You would think it would be a very erratic process, yet you have a very smooth outcome… Just as we can’t predict what one molecule in a gas will do- it’s hopeless to predict a single molecule- yet we can predict the properties of the whole gas using thermodynamics very accurately. It’s the same thing here- we can’t predict any particular product, but the result of this whole worldwide chaotic, unpredictable activity of competition in the evolutionary process of technology is very predictable, and we can predict these trends very far into the future.”

Kurzweil also talks about the suboptimal nature of much human biology (so much for perfect design). For example, our metabolism, which leads us to hold onto every calorie, is a throwback to our hunter-gatherer days and is something that we might like to modify to prevent obesity in developed nations. And another problem, which seems to be Kurzweil’s main fascination: “Long life spans (as in more than 30) weren’t selected for.”

While some of his examples are sketchier than others, the idea of an engineered erythrocyte (red blood cell) that could increase oxygen capacity greatly is particular interesting. In my view, Kurzweil has a tendency to exaggerate about some possibilities, but then again, exponential growth will always appear as an exaggeration to those in a linear-growth mindset.

I think more important than any individual predictions about technological progress that Kurzweil makes (like reverse-engineering the brain by 2020), his main point stands: the progress of technology throughout history has been accelerating. The main question tends to be whether we’ll be able to harness these technologies to make life more certain, more pleasurable, more equitable, more eco-friendly, and more connected (and therefore more meaningful on some level) or to just wipe each other off the planet.


Auschwitz: God on Trial

December 23, 2006

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(Merry Christmas)

While I haven’t read Elie Wiesel’s The Trial of God, I have read his Night. I found Night to be one of the most ghastly things I’ve ever read, due to its simple descriptions and basis in the reality of the Holocaust. In Night, Elie Wiesel describes the hanging of a child in Auschwitz. In A History of God, Karen Armstrong describes the episode thus:

It took the child half an hour to die, while the prisoners were forced to look him in the face. The same man asked again: “Where is God now?” And Wiesel heard a voice within him make this answer: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.”

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Sins of the Father

December 13, 2006

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And you think the Catholic priests have problems in America…

CNN just ran a story about a Catholic priest who was a leader in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Athanase Seromba was just convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (which meets in Tanzania) and sentenced to 15 years.

According to the charge sheet, Seromba directed a militia that “attacked with traditional arms and poured fuel through the roof of the church, while gendarmes and communal police launched grenades and killed the refugees.”

After failing to kill all the people inside, Seromba ordered the demolition of the church, the document said.

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Bad Theology

November 14, 2006

Like rocket fuels and cantaloupes, not all theologies are equal.

Discussing whether a particular theology is an accurate depiction of reality is one way to judge between them. That path leads one into deep questions of epistemology, authority, canonicity, exegesis, and all that jazz.

But theologies can also be judged by their impact on those who believe them, as well as those around them. I think all people, believers or not, could agree that some theologies have lousy results.

For example, I would prefer living next to a moderate Muslim as opposed to a community of Islamic fundamentalists. Others bloggers are less hopeful, doubting that religions such as Islam are capable of moderation. So religions that desire physical takeover of the world and theocracies go unequivocally into the ‘bad’ heap.

Another example is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as represented by Warren Jeffs and described in Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. Believing that one can kill for one’s faith or force young women into multiple marriages with you also lands you in the bad camp.

One of the reasons Joseph Smith’s sect has had so many fascinating little splinter groups was Smith’s early emphasis on direct revelation from God. While Smith later tried to suppress others’ prophetic leanings (leading to many early divisions) the trend was set. A person who truly believes that God has spoken directly to them with explicit commands is not likely to compromise. So wandering prophets also mostly get tossed into the bad pile.

Last Saturday I drove to Memphis for a rocket launch and was entertained on the drive back by a rather frightening radio program. In it, a breathy, tearful-sounding preacher spent most of his time railing against liberals like me. But he also took special interest in the state of Israel. (Mike Cope recently linked to an article on evangelical support of Israel.)

The preacher said anyone would be a fool to read the Holy Book and not realize the urgency of prophecies regarding Israel. Surely the world is in its last, final days, the true End days. It will all come to a glorious finale within his lifetime. And we should continue to support Israel, he said, because God will work through them to bring about Judgment Day on sinners (like me). For as we bless Israel so God will bless us.

And the clincher: “And we know that the reason America has always been more than just friends with Israel is because of the faithful Christians who have a voice in our government. We can never allow anyone to wrestle that support away, or to use the power God has given us to criticize Israel instead of supporting her. Every iota of freedom America has, every iota of wealth we have, is all because of our support for His people in Israel.” And this guy has a radio program.

Over the last year I’ve come to dislike the idea of a “chosen people” more and more. The history of Judaism (and to a lesser, often more spiritualized extent, Christianity) is chock full of the “chosen people” concept. God is on the side of the Jews. The Jews are His people. Christians are God’s chosen people. Through most of my upbringing, I had accepted this concept from the inside, without realizing how ugly it looks from the outside.

Believing that God would endorse your genocide of entire populations to make room for you, his holy people, is so blatantly racist that now I am constantly amazed to hear my peers justify it. If your theology leaves any room for doubt that genocide is always wrong, maybe we should reopen discussion on whose moral values are ‘absolute.’

The likes of Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation) are delusional if they think this sort of religious passion is going to disappear overnight. Also, Harris’s vindictive style isn’t likely to win many converts. But there’s a grain of truth in it as well, that there are limits to tolerance.

We do not tolerate one who will kill for his faith. And while we may legally tolerate diverse religious views, it may also be wise to offer little respect (on the level of personal interaction) to those whose views are dangerous to society—like the Fundamentalist Mormons, or militaristic premillenial evangelical—in hopes that the social awkwardness of holding certain views will decrease their popularity.

All people who attempt to inform their worldviews at least partially with reason, be they secularists or religious moderates and liberals, should try their hardest to make theocracy, jihadism, ethnocentrism, and other bad theologies go away.