Monday, April 30, 2012

Dear Sam Harris: Letter to a Casual Authoritarian


Dear Sam,
Regarding your recent advocacy of profiling to speed up airport security lines, to wit, “We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it”:

1. The profiling you advocate doesn't work. Not all terrorists are Muslims; consider Anders Behring Breivik. And not all Muslims are "dressed like Osama bin Laden, and his wives," i.e. traditionally clothed Arabs, which it is clear is the group you single out for special surveillance. In fact, the largest group of Muslims "look like" Indonesians -- a nation itself that is very diverse and defies stereotypes. In short, most Muslims don't "look like" what you imagine "terrorists" look like with your stereotype. And yes, it is a stereotype.  
2. Also, the torture you've advocated in the past doesn't work. That's been refuted so thoroughly I won't bother to repeat it here. 
3. Furthermore, the nuclear first strike you've advocated in the past against extremist Islamist regimes also wouldn't work, and would be a war crime greater than the Holocaust. Such a pre-emptive attack is based on the false premise that extremist Islamist regimes, such as that of Iran, are immune to deterrence. But in fact the extremist leaders of Iran have shown every sign of being rational actors with regard to war, nuclear or otherwise. (And yes, Chris Hedges, while wrong about many things, was right to call you out for advocating any sort of nuclear first strike at all, despite your protestations that you didn't.) 
4. Even if, in some parallel universe, your proposed policies would be effective, efficiency does not trump moral right. Profiling, torture, and pre-emptive nuclear war are morally wrong regardless of their effectiveness, and for that reason alone -- moral wrongness -- should not be pursued. As a consequentialist, frankly, you are a moral adolescent, and you should start growing up morally and graduate to deontology and virtue morality. Doing so will give you a real sense of justice. The sooner, the better, please. 
Finally, Sam, the inconvenience that you undergo while waiting in the TSA security line does not justify profiling an entire religious or ethnic group. Their right to live free of unjust, stereotype-based searches and seizures trumps your impatience at the airport. Again, please grow up.
Sincerely yours,
Jeffery Zavadil, PhD  

Friday, April 27, 2012

Norway's Rational Response to Breivik’s Terrorism


The mass murder carried out last year by right-wing fanatic Anders Behring Breivik was Norway's worst act of terrorism, killing 77 people, mostly children, with a car bomb in Oslo and an assault on Utoya Island. The brutal attack shocked the normally very peaceful and safe country. But Breivik's current trial has brought out the best in the people of Norway, who have taken a reasoned, united approach, deciding to not indulge their first impulses to lash out in panic or revenge -- which would only mean ceding control and power over themselves to Breivik. The contrast with the reaction of America after 9/11 couldn't be more stark.
Breivik, steeped in a reactionary paranoia of his own making, stated that "cultural Marxism" and multiculturalism were threats to Norway, and rationalized  his cowardly, aggressive, bloody crime as self-defense -- which is precisely the opposite of what it was. His atrocity is a reminder that not all terrorism is driven by extreme Islamists. Another major threat of terrorist violence comes from reactionary right extremists in both Europe and the US, who have never accepted the basic legitimacy and equality of other people and other cultures. They need to believe that the values and form of cultural life they were taught growing up is morally superior; that way they can define someone else as inferior and thus feel better about themselves. Yet dehumanizing others, rather than providing real confidence, makes right-wing extremists ever more paranoid as they make in their minds enemies out of everyone, until ultimately they convince themselves that if everyone does not adopt their values then the fall of civilization is inevitable. Such absolutism justifies murder and violence; atrocities are not performed by moral relativists but by moral absolutists, convinced as they are that they have nature, god, and right on their side. The United States, of course, is hardly immune to such social paranoia, as its reactionary radio and cable jocks, tea bag party, and recent wars of choice show. 
The amazing thing is how Norwegians are standing up to Breivik's atrocity and the paranoid vision that fuels it by refusing to be drawn in to a downward spiral of defensiveness and fear.  They are expressly handling the trial with solemnity and self-respect:
"This is the Norwegian way," said Trond Henry Blattmann, whose 17-year-old son was among the 69 people killed in Breivik's shooting massacre on Utoya island. "We need to carry this out in a dignified manner. If people were shouting and screaming this would be a circus and not a trial. We don't want it to be a circus."...
Thomas Hylland Eriksen, a professor of social anthropology at Oslo University, said that by treating the trial with "respect and decency," Norwegians are showing defiance against Breivik by standing up for values at the core of their national identity.
And 40,000 Norwegians of all backgrounds and ethnicities gathered together in Oslo to sing a song that praises multiculturalism, "Children of the Rainbow," that Breivik had derided. They are reacting to tragedy with rationality and a reaffirmation of open, liberal, humanist, multicultural values. They have responded to a potentially fragmenting and alienating act of terror with a reassertion of their interconnection. It is an entirely admirable and dignified response.
Contrast that with the impulsive, flailing American reaction to the attacks on 9/11. Now, of course the scale of those attacks were much larger, but each incident of terrorism was a shocking demonstration to their respective societies of the destructive lengths to which the morally righteous are willing to go. The American response has largely been to indulge our vengeful id by lashing out with barely-focused violence, much of it against a country, iraq, that wasn’t involved in 9/11. That impulsive response has cost us dearly in terms of what we've become. We have engaged in wars of choice that have killed 100,000 people or more, we have abandoned precious, hard-won freedoms, and we have reinforced the habit of responding to perceived threats with violent lashing out (witness the Trayvon Martin shooting, based on the domestic version of the Bush doctrine of pre-emption in the form of "stand your ground" laws). The rational, dignified response of the Norwegians to the Breivik trial reminds me of the Dukakis debate episode in the 1988 presidential campaign:  Michael Dukakis was asked a hypothetical question by CNN moderator Bernard Shaw:  would he want the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife? Dukakis replied, "No, I don't, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life." His calm, rational, principled reply was condemned and even mocked, and probably cost him the election. Somewhere we came to believe that individuals are incapable of responding to assaults with rationality, and even that it is somehow wrong to do so. Indeed the most acceptable response to violence at this point is to respond with paranoid and thoughtless lashing out. 
The Norwegian rejection of Breviek and all he stood for, by treating their procedures of justice with respect and by singing a song of unity en mass, is a way of defeating him, of preventing him from doing what he really wanted to do: to use violence to make society more paranoid, just like he is. That dynamic was totally lost on America after 9/11: by responding with self-destructive, thoughtless anger and revenge, we let the terrorists control us, and so, in an important sense, they won; they won because we fell into their trap of transforming to become more like them. The Norwegian response to terror, a calm and rational reaffirmation of their mutual bonds and shared, inclusive values, is a better way than ours. We should learn from Norway. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Conservative Resistance to Change Makes For Misery

Conservatism is an ideological tradition that emerged in Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century, and one of its defining features is resistance to social change. Conservatives like Edmund Burke or later Michael Oakeshott argued that change comes best at a slow, measured pace, because, they argue, too rapid political change can destabilize a society. Reactionaries, on the other hand, have always pushed this objection to change so far to the extreme that they do not merely resist it but actively want to reverse it and back turn the clock -- usually to a nostalgic past of their own imagination, rather than to a historically accurate one. 
Contemporary American "conservatives" are actually reactionaries, and they have been getting more reactionary with time. Our conservatives have achieved retrograde policies on wealth inequality, taxes, labor unions, social welfare, guns, and deregulation, and they now seek further regress on women's rights, abortion, science, education, child labor, voting rights, and more. Today's conservatives seek to impose a dystopian combination of 1950s families with all their sexism and disciplinary authoritarianism, 1940s race relations with all their white privilege, 1920s religious views with all their monkey-trial ignorance, and an 1800s economy with all its exploitation, poverty, filth, and misery. They are nostalgic reactionaries to the core.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Thought of the Day: All Society Isn't a Temple, Barracks, or Business

Modern conservatism wants to make all of society to be just like a temple, a barracks, or a business, depending on its mood -- indeed, the way that commerce, the military, and religion attempt to establish hegemony over everything else is infamous in political theory. But the whole of society shouldn’t be reduced to merely one of its component parts. How does that makes sense? It is too large, complex, and diverse for that. That would be like saying all of the body in its entirety should be an arm, a liver, or an eye. Society consists of multiple activities, and all of those activities are necessary to the whole and work toegther; and they all have different vocabularies, values, and mindsets, none of which should predominate.