Sources of Inexplicable Wealth

January 14, 2009

Bravo to the Washington Post for at least attempting to write about corruption in Afghanistan. But really, what a pansy-ass, flimsy article. Everyone in Afghanistan knows where the elite get their money, pretty much everyone in the West knows (except the ignorant), and yet the standards of journalism (or the failure to have truly rigorous digging/investigating done) prevent them from getting as deep and specific as they should. Or maybe I expect too much.


A Colossal Oops

January 13, 2009

(said the Founding Fathers


Credit Where It’s Due

January 13, 2009

What will be Bush’s greatest positive legacy? I think PEPFAR is a likely candidate, despite its flaws. I can’t think of any other program initiated by Bush that has helped so many people.


Breathtaking Inanity

March 31, 2008

jeremiah wrightgeorge w. bush shaking finger

Nicholas Kristof has an excellent op-ed today on conspiracy theories and America’s collective intellect (or lack thereof). Kristof manages to work in Jeremiah Wright, 9/11, AIDS, evolution, and education all in one column. Pretty good.

Ten days ago, I noted the reckless assertion of Barack Obama’s former pastor that the United States government had deliberately engineered AIDS to kill blacks, but I tried to put it in context by citing a poll showing that 30 percent of African-Americans believe such a plot is at least plausible.

My point was that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is not the far-out fringe figure that many whites assume. But I had a deluge of e-mail from incredulous whites saying, in effect: If 30 percent of blacks believe such bunk, then that’s a worse scandal than anything Mr. Wright said.

It’s true that conspiracy theories are a bane of the African-American community. Perhaps partly as a legacy of slavery, Tuskegee and Jim Crow, many blacks are convinced that crack cocaine was a government plot to harm African-Americans and that the levees in New Orleans were deliberately opened to destroy black neighborhoods.

White readers expressed shock (and a hint of smugness) at these delusions, but the sad reality is that conspiracy theories and irrationality aren’t a black problem. They are an American problem.

Jeremiah Wright’s statements that the US government created AIDS and was responsible for 9/11 disturbed me even more than his racist rants. The latter is more understandable in my eyes, whereas the former are such a departure from rational thinking that I can find no excuse for believing them. Of course, 9/11 conspiracy theories are fairly widespread in the general population too. Kristof continues:

These days, whites may not believe in a government plot to spread AIDS, but they do entertain the equally malevolent theory that the United States government had a hand in the 9/11 attacks. A Ohio University poll in 2006 found that 36 percent of Americans believed that federal officials assisted in the attacks on the twin towers or knowingly let them happen so that the U.S. could go to war in the Middle East.

And on to science education:

Then there’s this embarrassing fact about the United States in the 21st century: Americans are as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution. Depending on how the questions are asked, roughly 30 to 40 percent of Americans believe in each… President Bush is also the only Western leader I know of who doesn’t believe in evolution, saying “the jury is still out.” No word on whether he believes in little green men.

One thing I’d like to know here is in regards to how the question about “flying saucers” is asked. Are people asked if they have seen a flying saucer, or if they believe they exist, or if they believe there may possibly be extraterrestrial life somewhere in the universe. If it’s the latter, then I’m crazy too, because the astrobiology grants I’ve done research for NASA under are all aimed at looking for extraterrerstrial microbial life. But I think there’s a big difference between believing reports of so-called flying saucers and having a more Carl Sagan-esque view on life in the universe.

Our breathtaking collective ignorance (and/or paranoia) has an impact on public policy in a democracy as well:

Only one American in 10 understands radiation, and only one in three has an idea of what DNA does. One in five does know that the Sun orbits the Earth …oh, oops…. How can we decide on embryonic stem cells if we don’t understand biology? How can we judge whether to invade Iraq if we don’t know a Sunni from a Shiite?

And then there’s a disturbing little bit about our political process. This is one reason someone like Mike Huckabee can rise to national prominence, while many of the most education and intelligent Americans are probably disqualified from our highest office because they’re too elitist:

From Singapore to Japan, politicians pretend to be smarter and better- educated than they actually are, because intellect is an asset at the polls. In the United States, almost alone among developed countries, politicians pretend to be less worldly and erudite than they are (Bill Clinton was masterful at hiding a brilliant mind behind folksy Arkansas sayings about pigs). Alas, when a politician has the double disadvantage of obvious intelligence and an elite education and then on top of that tries to educate the public on a complex issue — as Al Gore did about climate change — then that candidate is derided as arrogant and out of touch.

And here’s a good (and true) slam on where the conservative movement as a whole is going:

The dumbing-down of discourse has been particularly striking since the 1970s. Think of the devolution of the emblematic conservative voice from William Buckley to Bill O’Reilly. It’s enough to make one doubt Darwin.

Really, is there anyone comparable to the late Buckley? Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and the like have certainly expanded conservative media, but they’ve consistently done it by making it ever more xenophobic and ignorant. But let’s not forget the stupidity and misleading tactics of people like Michael Moore either.

bill o'reilly fox newsrush limbaugh oxycontinmichael moore ugly

There’s no simple solution, but the complex and incomplete solution is a greater emphasis on education at every level. And maybe, just maybe, this cycle has run its course, for the last seven years perhaps have discredited the anti-intellectualism movement. President Bush, after all, is the movement’s epitome — and its fruit.

Please, oh please.


The Power of Conspiracy Theories

March 30, 2008

They’re. All. True.

9/11 world trade center dust image

Just kidding.

I’ve blogged before about the “9/11 Truth” movement/ conspiracy theories. But I came across a great summation and rebuttal of many of this sub-culture’s beliefs and suspicions that I thought was worth sharing. On eSkeptic, Phile Molé gives an account of a convention hosted by 911truth.org in Chicago, goes through details of their many spurious claims, and then has this fascinating conclusion of the “power of conspiracy theories.”

We need to return to a question posed near the beginning of this discussion: Why do so many intelligent and promising people find these theories so compelling?

There are several possible answers to this question, none of them necessarily exclusive of the others. One of the first and most obvious is distrust of the American government in general, and the Bush administration in particular. This mistrust is not entirely without basis…The revelations of Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, and other nefarious schemes great and small have understandably eroded public confidence in government. Couple that with an administration, that took office after the most controversial presidential election in more than a century, and one that backed out of international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, misled citizens about the science of global warming and stem cell research, initiated a war in Iraq based on unsupportable “intelligence” about weapons of mass destruction, and failed to respond in adequately to the effects of a hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, and you have strong motivations for suspicion…

[However,] the mistakes made by our government in the past are qualitatively different from a conscious decision to kill thousands of its own citizens in order to justify the oppression of others. Most importantly, there is the fact that most of what we know about the bad decisions made by our government is only knowable due to the relative transparency with which our government operates, and the freedom to disseminate and discuss this information.

The full irony of this last point hit me while I was at the conference. Here was a group of about 400 people gathered to openly discuss the evil schemes of the U.S. government, whom they accuse of horrible atrocities in the service of establishing a police state. But if America really was a police state with such terrible secrets to protect, surely government thugs would have stormed the lecture halls and arrested many of those present…

It is notable that conspiracy theorists (and this likely applies not just to 9/11) tend to be clustered at the extreme right and left of the political spectrum–you’ll find few apathetics or moderates dedicating this much time to activities this far out of the mainstream.

Another reason for the appeal of 9/11 conspiracies is that they are easy to understand. As previously mentioned, most Americans did not know or care to know much about the Middle East until the events of 9/11 forced them to take notice…The great advantage of the 9/11 Truth Movement’s theories is that they don’t require you to know anything about the Middle East, or for that matter, to know anything significant about world history or politics. This points to another benefit of conspiracy theories — they are oddly comforting. Chaotic, threatening events are difficult to comprehend, and the steps we might take to protect ourselves are unclear. With conspiracy theory that focuses on a single human cause, the terrible randomness of life assumes an understandable order.

This may be the major thread connecting conspiracy theories to Creationism. And actually, for some believers Creationism really does function as a conspiracy theory, where they see a nefarious band of scientists denying evidence and making up fossils and such. Or just kicking the intelligent-design proponents out of academia, as the upcoming “documentary” Expelled asserts. Here Molé makes the conspiracy theory / creationism connection even more clear:

The great writer Thomas Pynchon memorably expressed this point in his novel Gravity’s Rainbow: “If there is something comforting — religious, if you want — about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.” The promiscuity of conspiracy theories toward evidence thus becomes part of their appeal — they can link virtually any ideas of interest to the theorist into a meaningful whole…

With the standards of evidence used by conspiracy theorists, there is no reason why the Freemasons, the Bavarian Illuminati, or the Elders of Zion cannot also be involved in the 9/11 plot — it just depends on what you find the most solace in believing. As it turns out, some conspiracy theorists do throw one or more of these other parties into the mix, as a popular and bogus rumor that 4,000 Jews mysteriously failed to come to work on 9/11 shows.

Solace is something all of us needed after the horrible events of 9/11, and each of us is entitled to a certain degree of freedom in its pursuit. However, there is no moral right to seek solace at the expense of truth, especially if the truth is precisely what we most need to avoid the mistakes of the past. Truth matters for its own sake, but it also matters because it is our only defense against the evils of those who cynically exploit truth claims to serve their own agendas. It is concern for the truth that leads us to criticize our own government when necessary, and to insist that others who claim to do so follow the same rigorous standards of evidence and argument.


Quoting King

July 8, 2007

I’m currently reading Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution. I’m sure I’ll blog on it more fully once I’ve completed my leisurely perusal, but for now I’d like to highlight some quotes Shane brought to my attention. These are from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “A Time to Break Silence,” a speech given on the Vietnam war in 1967 at a meeting of “Clergy and Laity Concerned” at Riverside Church in New York City. MLK’s concerns went beyond his (incredible) devotion to civil rights in our country, to an even broader view of social justice. And it’s always good to reflect on values that should bring rich and poor, Christian and humanist, theist and athiest together.

mlkbeyondvietnam.jpg

[It became clear that the war in Vietnam] was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.

Funny how these words still ring true today:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.

And here a call for a brotherhood of man, rooted in King’s own Christianity, though it could as easily be read as a call for a global humanism (in fact, King might have been closer to that than most of the Christians we know):

This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

King also has this quote from a Buddhist leader on the war in Vietnam:

Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.

If you will, rephrase that quote for me with Iraq in mind instead of Vietnam (not the analogy is a perfect one, but analogies never are… this particular quote however makes a useful point):

Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Iraqis and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.

And here he waxes prophetic. One could make the same claim today about US militarism:

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation.

And another gem:

On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

And here’s another quote, though this time I’ve replaced “Communism” with “terrorism”:

This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against terrorism. War is not the answer. Terrorism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative antiterrorism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against terrorism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of terrorism grows and develops.


Let Freedom Ring?

June 12, 2007

I am not a patriot. I dislike nationalism in all its forms, and I hold no extraordinary allegiance to my country of birth. I see no more reason to fight for the economic gain of those who share my nationality at the expense of others as I do to fight for my Caucasian ethnicity.

I do however hold allegiance to certain principles–freedom and justice being primary among them–that I believe are worthwhile. To the extent that America is in line with those principles, or at least better than some other countries, I love America. To the extent that America falls short, I am an irrepressible critic. Principle stands higher than country, and it seems that most of the wars in the world have followed when country stands higher than principle.

Truthdig has a piece on Bush’s (positive) reception in Albania, at the same time as a report was released by the Council of Europe on America’s secret prisons. From the report:

What was previously just a set of allegations is now proven: large numbers of people have been abducted from various locations across the world and transferred to countries where they have been persecuted and where it is known that torture is common practice. Others have been held in arbitrary detention, without any precise charges leveled against them and without any judicial oversight. … Still others have simply disappeared for indefinite periods and have been held in secret prisons, including in member states of the Council of Europe.

So, how should we judge President Bush? They say history will judge him… Who knows, maybe later Americans will retain their penchant for preemptive war and laud Bush as a hero for setting a precedent. That’s not an America that I look forward to. One thing I can certainly say now is that the abuses of freedom and human rights that were often justified in our foreign policy by utilitarian calculations (civil war in Guatemala or elsewhere is better than a Communist takeover) have been thrown front and center by George Bush. From TruthDig:

We will remember that long after it was clear that Guantanamo was doing serious harm to our nation’s reputation in the world—on Sunday, Bush’s former secretary of state, Colin Powell, called for the place to be shut down “this afternoon”—Bush stubbornly kept it open.

Let the scandals of today pass. Certain things will stick in our minds much longer:

We will remember Alberto Gonzales not for his hapless stewardship of the Justice Department or the firings of those U.S. attorneys—well, actually, we will remember him for those things—but we’ll also remember that when he was White House counsel he dutifully provided legalistic justification for subjecting prisoners to treatment that international agreements clearly define as torture.

And, one last note on the Council of Europe report:

Marty [the author of the report] makes this point in his report. “We are fully aware of the seriousness of the terrorist threat and the danger it poses to our societies,” he writes. “However, we believe that the end does not justify the means in this area.” Resorting to “abuse and illegal acts,” he says, “actually amounts to a resounding failure of our system and plays right into the hands of the criminals who seek to destroy our societies through terror.”

If America is a beacon for freedom, justice, and human rights, then she is worthy of praise. If she is a den of selfish, aggressive foreign policy and a hunger for economic gain with no question of its consequences, then she is not. Most Americans don’t really care about numbers killed that much. In truth, American forces have killed (whether purposefully or accidentally) many more civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere then died on 9/11 in New York. The conflagration begun by our military belligerency has arguably resulted in the deaths of more civilians than the continuation of Saddam’s murderous regime would have.

We, as Americans, normally accept these numbers not because we like death, but because we believe the American government is fighting for something that is true, noble, and just: American forces are fighting to preserve the American way of life. If America is not just in its treatment of enemies, are we fighting for justice, or for blind self-preservation?

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