A Little Something to Fight the Poison

Saturday, December 28, 2002
THOUGHTS ON TORTURE: Kevin Drum summarizes this Washington Post article on CIA interrogation techniques with a blunt revulsion: "In other words, we torture them up to a point, and if that doesn't work we turn them over to someone else who's willing to go further." Kevin's reaction is in many ways brilliant:
This is sickening. Alan Dershowitz, who has gotten a bunch of press lately for his suggestion that torture is sometimes permissible, uses as his basic example the "ticking bomb" scenario: if a bomb is about to go off and someone knows where it is, it's OK to torture the person in order to extract the information.

This is profoundly wrong, and a perfect example of an intellectual being too clever for his own good. It's one of those situations where you need to turn off your higher intellect and just let your basic sense of right and wrong guide you.

Is it OK for a doctor to torture prisoners if the end result is a medical therapy that could save thousands? No.

Is it OK to torture a scientist's family in order to coerce him to work on an invention that could predict earthquakes and save millions? No.

Is torture ever OK in a decent society? No.

Still not sure? Just ask yourself this: would you be willing to perform the torture yourself? After all, it's easy and requires no technical skill. If you approve of torture but your answer is no, then you are a coward and a hypocrite. If your answer is yes, you are a barbarian. In either case, I don't want to know you.
Fantastic stuff.

My one objection to this response is to Kevin's belief that turning off our higher intellect and letting our "basic sense of right and wrong" guide us will lead us to reject torture. I suspect that for Dershowitz, and for many Americans, one's basic sense of right and wrong involves a deeply rooted love of country that would justify using any means to defend it if it were faced with a possibly "existential" threat (in Dershowitz's case, you might find love of countries, as his book suggests that his support of torture is rooted in his support of the practices of Israel's armed forces). The answers emanating from the cockles of Dershowitz's heart to Kevin's questions about whether torture is OK wouldn't be very different from the on-the-spot reactions of the average American guy or gal who thinks that secret detentions are fine, becuase, hey, we're in a war. Those @$^@%^s are evil; why should I shed a tear over them?

And as amusing as Kevin's "would-you-perform-the-torture-yourself" test is, I suspect that Kevin might unfortunately find himself labelling a lot more people barbarians than he might expect if he actually tried it.

This is not to say that I think Kevin's tack is wrong. Appealing to people's moral sympathies can be very effective and is often the way to go. But moral sympathies can cut both ways and right now, they may more often cut against the direction Kevin desires. Of course, rational argumentation can cut both ways as well, as Dershowitz's quote shows, but why give up any weapon in the arsenal when trying to advance the cause of morality?

In this case, Dershowitz's rational arguments are actually pretty weak. His perspective relies heavily on utilitarianism, a theory that is steadily losing plausibility due to our increasing adherence to the idea that all individuals have certain rights and dignities that can never be overridden. As the recently departed John Rawls memorably wrote, the utilitarian perspective just "does not take seriously the difference between persons." The spread of the idea of inalienable human rights--one of which, I'm convinced, involves the right not to be subject to torture, whatever information one might be suspected of having--is actually occuring at both an emotional and an intellectual level. As this idea gains ground in the world of philosophy and diplomacy, everyday people also become more and more accustomed to the words and sentiments that are attached to it. Like the ideas of gender equality and religious tolerance, it will take both appeals to the head and to the heart for this idea to win out.
Recent additions to the blogroll: P.L.A. and Kieran Healy, by Eric; and The Road to Surfdom, by myself. Enjoy!
Friday, December 27, 2002
IF THE WEATHER OUTSIDE IS FRIGHTFUL and there isn't any other place to go, you might as well check out skippy's collection of blogger-approved Christmas carols. Incorrectly capitalized, of course.
ANGLOSPHERIC REDUCTIONISM: When I clicked on the link in Manu's "difference between Canadians and Americans" post, I was a little taken aback by the following explanation of federalism in former British colonies written by Volokh conspirator Stuart Banner:
Why does the United States have a federal structure? Not because federalism is conducive to good government, not because the Framers thought it would be wise to have a country made up of sovereign states, and not because of racism. We have federalism today because in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when the English government began establishing colonies in North America, England set up a bunch of separate colonies rather than one big colony. Distances were so great and technology so simple circa 1600 that North America would have been very hard to govern as a single colony. By the time of independence it was too late to change. Canada and Australia have a federal structure today for the same reason. [emphasis added]
Aie. I have to admit that I don't know that much regarding Australian history, but Banner might have left something out regarding my dear old C. When the Dominion of Canada was confederated, there were only four colonial units; one of them was, however, a land filled with French Catholics known as Quebec. Those French folks = kind of important to the explanation as to why Canada retained its federal structure when it brought on the other six provinces and when it repatriated its Constitution.
Some truth to this, perhaps? According to Eugene Volokh,

"Canadians are generally indistinguishable from Americans. The surest way of telling the two apart is to say that to a Canadian."

Update: This might be what he's talking about. Yes, I know that the American-players-stomping-on-our-flag story was a myth, but the fact that many found it believable does say something -- either about American sportsmanship or Canadian insecurities.
With regards to Frist v. Barry: It was pointed out in the comments to this post that Marion Barry used crack, but did not deal it. That is indeed true, and I stand corrected.

At the same time, Saletan notes that Frist invoked the spectre of numerous "corrupt Democrats" during his 1994 Senate campaign:

"In July 1994, three months before he brought up Barry, Frist aired a TV ad that depicted [election opponent] Sasser's face on Mount Rushmore alongside the faces of Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, and Dan Rostenkowski. The ad called them "tax and spend career politicians." Rostenkowski was under indictment and was eventually jailed for misappropriating government funds."

Bubba, Teeder and Rosty are all as white as white can be. Is Frist a crass opportunist? Yes. But a racist? No.
The enclosed contents were sent to our department. They were placed in a mail box by an unknown person. We are not familiar with the events that brought these contents to us. We are returning them to you.
And so ended the travels of my lost wallet. Sans the not trivial amount of cash (both Canadian and American) that was with it when I lost it, of course, of course. And my Metrocard (NYC transit electronic fare) with $7.50 remaining on it. But I suppose that my receipts and photocopy card and student travel cards (one of which I cancelled) and cancelled bank cards and cancelled driver's license, and the wallet itself (which I got for free along with my residence keys as an undergrad) are worth something. Although probably not as much as the really annoying week I spent replacing all of that stuff.

On a vaguely related (but much more important) topic, see Devra's and Jeanne d'Arc's trenchant thoughts on uncharitable charity.
Thursday, December 26, 2002
More on the thimerosal story. Mark Kleiman reprints an email he received from a friend, who defends thimerosal's inclusion in the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP).

On the other hand, WampumBlog cites two abstracts from the recent International Meeting for Autism Research, which suggest a link between thimerosal and autism. The first abstract looks at the broader question of mercury exposure and the predisposition towards autism. As I've said before, my science background -- such that it is -- is not in chemistry (organic or otherwise), but without seeing the poster or presentation, its hard to say whether their findings on mercury exposure would apply to organometallic compounds such as thimerosal.

The second abstract describes the development of neural and behavioural abnormalities in mice treated with thimerosal; it is claimed that these changes mimic those seen in childhood autism. Again, it is difficult to assess the merits of this research based solely on the abstract; comparing animal pathological findings with human disease is always perilous, and this is even more the case when it comes to diseases (such as autism), which have complex behavioural and emotional characteristics. One unsurprising finding, that is nevertheless worthy of mention: the induction of autism-like changes by thimerosal was highly dependent on the strain of mouse used, thus highlighting the critical role of genetic predisposition in the development of human disease.

However, while the scientific link between thimerosal and autism may be debatable, and while one might argue that thimerosal's inclusion in the VICP is a laudable public policy goal, one should also not lose sight of the central point of the Lillygate controversy: that the manner in which the thimerosal rider was tacked on to the Homeland Security Bill was execrable. Especially given the iron-clad links that exist between the GOP and Big Pharma (Lilly in particular).
Wednesday, December 25, 2002
Michael Kazin on the patriotic American left.
Plenty of people think that Dr. Frist has at least a clavicle, femur and ileum (if not a whole skeleton) rattling around in his closest -- I'm one of them (see below). But one of the criticisms being levelled at him is that he is a racist, or at the least a panderer to racists. From Josh Marshall:

"[Jim Sasser is] sending Tennessee money to Washington, to Marion Barry ... While I've been transplanting lungs and hearts to heal Tennesseans, Jim Sasser has been transplanting Tennesseans' wallets to Washington, home of Marion Barry." ... Bill Frist, 1994 campaign stump speech. Marion Barry was one of the worst things that ever happened to Washington, DC. No doubt about it. What he had to do with a Senate race in Tennessee isn't so clear.

The implication being, of course, that Frist is positioning himself contra Marion Berry, who is a corrupt, black, politician. Marshall does later concede that he tussled over whether he should have posted this.

Now, "spot-the-racist" has been a popular game lately (though I prefer the "pin the burning cross on the bigot" variation). I won't deny that there is a certain amount of schadenfreude at work here -- after all, the right has been throwing around accusations of anti-Semitism quite freely since 9/11, and I suspect that many lefties are more than happy to hit back. Any stick to beat a dog, or something.

However, in the same way that liberal application of the "Nazi" moniker only trivializes and dilutes its original meaning, overuse of the terms "racist" or "racism" only makes it harder to spot the real thing. On the human level: for most (decent) people, being labeled a "racist" or a "bigot" will rank as one of the worst possible insults. Let's not shy from using these terms when they are deserved, but let's use them only when they are deserved. In the case of public officials, I think that an extra amount of caution should be exercised, and that even the benefit of the doubt should be given is possible; after all, our source of evidence on political "racism" comes from the media, and God only knows if the quotes we read, or soundbites we hear, have been taken out of context.

In the case of Trent Lott: his words in support of Strom Thurmond were not a heat-of-the-moment one-off. He had used the sames words before, and his prior associations and voting record would safely lead one to believe that he meant what he said. In the case of David Ahenakew, his words were so explicit and so appalling that it would stretch credulity to say that they were taken out of context.

As for applying this principle to Frist: there is more charitable view one can take of his comments regarding Berry, and I am inclined to take it. It is no secret that many Americans (and Southerners in particular) hold Washington, D.C. in contempt -- especially when it comes to sending their "hard-earned tax dollars" there. I would say that Frist was trying to conflate D.C. politics with the city's right honourable crack-dealing mayor. Of course, the argument is illogical and crude -- Washington city politics have absolutely nothing to do with federal tax collection. But there is nothing to suggest that it's a racist argument. It's not as if Frist could have used a white former crack-dealing D.C. mayor as an example -- and chose not to.
I second Eric -- the best of the season to all of you, regardless of your faith (or lack thereof).

Got back home to Hamilton just before midnight -- and woke up to a ton of the white stuff. And, yes, this has been maybe the second snowfall of the year. Great White North, indeed.

Anyway, the article is from last Thursday...but it's a Globe and Mail opinion piece on why the Gujarat riots could spell chaos for India's 50(+)-year experiment in (relatively) peaceful democracy. In a part of the world that could use a few more success stories, India has been a rare one (from a political/legislative standpoint) -- co-existence of at least four faiths and countless ethnic groups, and remarkably little military intrusion into the affairs of state. Of course, India's conduct in Kashmir has been controversial at its best (and appalling at its worst); but in India proper, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus have mostly been able to maintain a sort of peace for the better part of half a century.

Of course, this picture of peace has been marred on several occasions -- most notably by the anti-Sikh pogrom that followed Indira Gandhi's assassination. Further, the rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP over the last ten years has threatened India's model of secular accomodation. Then came the appalling events of 2003. In one of the most shamefully under-reported stories of the year, nearly 1000 Muslims were massacred by Hindu rioters in Gujarat state. The Hindu rioters were tacitly supported by the Gujarati chief minister, the BJP's Narendra Modi. The massacre was ostensibly a spontaneous response to the Muslim targeting of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. However, Bhatia writes that

"...there has been sufficient evidence to show that the avengers went about their task with clinical precision, targeting Muslim homes and shops in a manner that would have required much advance planning."

Then, just this month, Gujarati voters rewarded Modi and his BJP with a sweeping victory in state assembly elections. Modi seems to have run a divisive, Hindu-nationalist campaign -- at campaign stops, he would make frequent mention of the initial train attack, while ignoring the carnage that followed.

The Hindustan Times seems to think that re-election of the BJP was a mistake. Interestingly, the Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (also of the BJP) has said that by not sufficiently apologizing for the train massacre, the Muslim community brought the later events upon itself. these (nominally Hindu) ears, that sounds like a slightly more crude representation of the American right's "deafening silence" line.

One other sense was that the brothers Johnson of Little Green Footballs had a strong commitment to exposing worldwide human rights atrocities (given their extensive preoccupation with Palestinian suicide bombers and the Nigeria "Miss World" violence"). But when I just searched their site for "Gujarat", there was precious little mention of the slaughter of 1000 souls.

But wait, there was a post regarding an attack in Gujarat: by Islamic terrorists on a Hindu temple in September (that killed 23 people). So perhaps ignoring a story about the violent deaths of a thousand people was a mere oversight by the Johnsons. Or perhaps not...

MERRY CHRISTMAS to everyone who does that sort of thing!

In Toronto, we got a heck of a white Christmas--by the looks of it, at least 15-20 cm worth! This isn't at all a given, contrary to popular belief outside of this country. Anyway, the world is blanketed with snow, mom and dad have a turkey going, and I'm in the mood to exchange gifts.

I'll also be going to Quebec City with the family starting tomorrow, so I'll probably post again just before New Year's day. Best wishes to everyone until then.
Tuesday, December 24, 2002
ON THE USE AND ABUSE OF FANTASY: I thought I'd add a little bit of contrarianism to warm this Christmas Eve. I just saw The Two Towers and I suppose that I'm relieved that it didn't disappoint me as mightily as The Fellowship of the Ring, which just possibly might be The Most Overrated Film of All Time. But then again, TT is a much easy book to cinematize, since it's much less of a travelogue than FOTR. OK, OK, let the squeals of howling dissent abate a bit so I can explain myself--I'm a moderate Tolkien fan--enough to have read big chunks of the books multiple times, but not so much of a nut as to be sent into paroxisms by incorrectly enunciated Sindarin. My big problem was simply that the first movie (and to a good extent the second) simply wasn't a good movie, although both brought many of the books' scenes to life in a breathtaking way. My biggest problem is that Peter Jackson seems to have little sense of pacing and little awareness of how to create suspense.

For more on my opinion of TT see my little rant-review on be-all|end-all; for the professional review that best captures my feelings about FOTR, click here.

So if you're still with me after my pop heresy, I want to complain about a little comment that Instapundit slipped in with his Two Towers review:
And yeah, Viggo Mortensen's occasional off-camera antiwar blather notwithstanding, the inevitability of war, and the importance of having the will to resist evil despite the burdens and the horror is a repeated theme, twined in and around the despair and temptation points I mention above. Indeed, one speech in which Aragorn explains to Theoden that this isn't just the usual raiding, but an effort to stamp out his civilization, seems especially on point.
It's hard to describe anything that generates a more visceral irritation than this kind of tendentious politicized interpretation of a text that I know and love. Since the LOTR trilogy was basically my first exposure to fantasy, this stirred up a revulsion within me that I imagine is somewhat akin to what a lot of music lovers felt when they heard that Kenny G had performed the unhallowed blasphemy of recording a synthesized duet with a reanimated Louis Armstrong.

I've previously noted (with respect to Buffy) the fallacious disanalogies that frequently ensnare people when they attempt to marshal fantasy plots to make real-world political points.

Let me say it again: fantasy milieu have specific characteristics that make them fantastic. One such particularly important characteristic that often reoccurs is a very clear divide between Good and Evil, whereas morality in the real world is usually Very Difficult and Complicated, at least regarding the Issues that Matter. It is exactly this divide that makes the genre wonderful and diverting.

A ready example: Sauron and the orcs are a very different kind of evil than Muslim fanatics. For one thing, orcs, like Buffy's vampires, are irredeemable creatures without human souls. They are a different, inhuman species. If we were fighting orcs, we wouldn’t need to consider the things that any moral human would have to consider if faced with the decision of whether to authorize actions like the bombing of Dresden or Hiroshima. Viewing Aragorn's urging of Theoden to go to war as "on point" with regard to our current situation vis-a-vis Iraq is about as nonsensical as viewing the interactions between elves, hobbits, and humans as carrying an applicable message about race relations in the U.S. I mean, I'd acknowledge that one race was superior to the others if it possessed a 1,000-year lifespan and had leaders who wielded the power of the Silmarils.

If, regardless of the disanalogies, we do decide to pursue the risky business of attempting to draw themes from fantasy worlds that can be applicable to ours, I should note that such hermeneutics can cut many ways. It’s just as easy to draw heavily anti-war themes from Tolkien as it is to draw the hawkish themes that Instapundit wants to see: war is only tolerable if it is absolutely and truly inevitable (i.e. when it is carried by the soulless forces of ultimate, unwordly evil); evil is characterized by imperialistic, expansionist aims and the desire for (or current possession of) overwhelming force. Evil also always strikes first. The most dovish symbol of all is perhpas the central trope of the One Ring, a good example of WMD if there ever was one: it can only be handled safely (and even then only temporarily) by an intensely pacifistic, agrarian, inward-regarding, and unambitious people who have no aspirations whatever for shaping the world in their image or for spreading their culture. The only safe way of dealing with the Ring is not to insure that it is in the hands of trustworthy people with good intentions, but rather to destroy it utterly, for its power inevitably corrupts even the purest of heart.

Tolkien, by the way, always expressly insisted that the story of LOTR was completely unrelated to the events and politics of the Second World War that raged around him as he wrote.

UPDATE: Patrick Nielsen Hayden comments on this post via The Sideshow. My imperfect reponse:

When I wrote that a frequent characteristic of fantasy is that it features "a very clear divide between Good and Evil, whereas morality in the real world is usually Very Difficult and Complicated, at least regarding the Issues that Matter," I didn't intend to say that "what's best about fantasy is that it's simplistic, and it should stay that way" or to deny that the genre at its best avoids or is devoid of moral struggle, dilemma, or complexity (although I can see how one might draw this reading from what I wrote without some further explanation). I very much agree with Patrick that stories "have moral weight and resonance to the extent that they manage to connect to our own lives." I think I said as much in the post I had linked to regarding Buffy.

Can I get away, though, with saying that part of fantasy's "comparative advantage" (to use an ugly economic term) is its ability to depict moral struggles in high relief by drawing on the mythic and archetypal? That the moral dilemmas in fantasy tend to be simpler, although not simpleminded? And that part of the reason for this is due to certain features of the worlds (which are meant to be obviously different from ours) in which they are set?

As David Bratman points out (in a separate email), we as readers know that there is only one wise course of action with regard to the One Ring. We also know without any shade of doubt that Sauron is Evil. In these respects, the texts make us privy to a form of moral knowledge that only fundamentalists in our world typically claim to possess. Part of this is the perspective that the text affords us as readers; characters that don't know this may have to wrestle with the issues, but we will see this struggle in a different light. Not all fantasy texts do this, of course, and not all texts that do this do it all of the time, although it seems to me that this was a big part of Tolkien's project.

For this reason (among others), the struggles of Galadriel and Boromir on how to deal with the One Ring are very different, for example, than those of the protagonists of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The former conflicts seem to cut in fewer dimensions because we of what we know about the nature of Good and Evil; this doesn't mean that the fantasy conflicts are necessary less compelling than those in the real world situation (or that they cannot in some respects be usefully compared).

Both the epic and the fine-grained have their place in literature and human experience. But I do want to say that fantasy stories, in Tolkien's mould, tend to lean toward the epic and the mythic, and that if we are to interpret them, we should be alive to key distinguishing features of the mythic project. My overall point was not that we should stop drawing moral analogies from fantasy--I agree completely with Patrick that we shouldn't stop doing this, but that we should do it better. The idea of my original post was to point out one disanalogy to which we should be alert if we are indeed to do this better.

Patrick says that "Glenn Reynolds reads the "King of the Golden Hall" chapter of THE TWO TOWERS as a reminder that sometimes it's necessary to stand and fight. Well, sometimes it is." But my objection wasn't that Glenn drew that message; it was rather over his attempt to use Tolkien to infer that we are living in one of those "sometimes," when there are very relevant differences between our situation and Theoden's.

ASIDE: Regarding orcs, they may have twisted souls, instead of no souls at all, but I still have to wonder why, if they are redeemable in any non-trivial sense (e.g.: amenable to redemption by the actions of any of the protagonists of LOTR), why so little moral concern is ever spent on them. Tolkien's evident Catholic upbringing doesn't exactly make things look good for the orcs being redeemed. Melkor's rebellion looks suspiciously like lucifer's rebellion and fall, and so far as I know, Revelations doesn't hold out any hope for the redemption of fallen angels.

UPDATE #2: Avedon Carol now has recorded a fair amount of this little debate in her charmingly titled 21st Century Tolkien Studies annex. I also get some warmly appreciated support from UFO Breakfast Recipients. On sort of an aside, I additionally took some surprisingly heartfelt flak from a different Sideshow reader for my original post's passing shot at Kenny G. I have to ask: what kind of world do we live in when a guy can't enjoy his inalienable right to mercilessly tear into Kenny G without being verbally bludgeoned by a total stranger? Dark days, indeed...

UPDATE #3: Got some very thoughtful and reasonable replies from Patrick Niesen Hayden and David Bratman via email. Unfortunately, they're also pretty long, so I'm not sure if I'll post them. Maybe I should create a nifty annex, too...For now, I will direct anyone who's still following this to a Washington Post article that Patrick suggested--it's written by a fellow named Chris Mooney and it gets 99% of this stuff right, at least in my book...

UPDATE #4: I swear this will be the last update; I'm just gonna write a new post after this. Those emails by Patrick and David are now available at Avedon's annex. If you've bothered to read this, you might as well check 'em out. And Stephen Bates, the fellow who upbraided me for dissing Kenny G responded with an interesting and decidedly temperate note on jazz music, which I may get around to posting at some point.
Received an email today from Jim Capozzola of the Rittenhouse Review, and he graciously deferred credit for breaking the Lillygate story to Dwight Meredith of PLA (Politics, Law and Autism). He also recommends WampumBlog as a source on the thimerosal story.
The Bitch Girls report that one of their classmates took this story from The Onion a liiiiitle too seriously...
Monday, December 23, 2002
NEOLOGISTIC HAPPINESS: This one sounds like a Seinfeld manoeuvre--credit card behemoth Visa, All-Mighty Watcher of Our Consumption Habits, defines re-gifting as "passing gifts along rather than hitting the stores."

According to Visa, 20% of Canadians re-gift at least once during the winter holidays, and more women re-gift (26%) than men (15%).

I personally think "gift cycling" would be a cooler term.

ASIDE #1 (JUST FOR SKIPPY): Hey, look--according to that article, Canucks went crazy with spending during October. Looks like the holidays won't be so bad after all...

ASIDE #2 (FOR EVERYONE): I have no idea when this post will go up, as Blogger has been ornery lately. There's one other post behind this one that it has refused to post since yesterday, too, which is why I haven't been posting. Bah.
Sunday, December 22, 2002
BACK IN TORONTO: Way, way too much shuttling around this semester. This is the fourth time I've been in T.O. since the beginning of semester, and it's wearing on me a bit. Not that I don't like returning home, but the travel time seems to chomp huge chunks out of my schedule.

Friends in Canada sometimes ask me what the States are like. I tell them that a lot of it is pretty similar, and that I really like the university. But the one humongous difference that I always notice right away whenever I travel between the two countries is the size and visibility of the underclass in the U.S. In New Haven, I can almost infallibly predict the color of the person who will be working the low-paying jobs at any gas station or fast food joint I visit (or cleaning dishes and taking out trash in the dining halls). And the homeless people and panhandlers are similarly and disturbingly homogeneous.

Trent Lott says that he fell into a trap set by his enemies. Yeah, dude, it was called the civil rights movement.