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Entries for November 2005

November 30, 2005

"Merry Christmas" or "Season's Greetings"?

In a comment to a previous post on Thanksgiving and Christmas, John made an interesting observation. He said that, given his reading of my political and religious leanings from my blog, he was surprised that I had used the term "Christmas shopping season" instead of the more generic "holiday shopping season," since I am obviously not a religious person.

I must admit that I was taken by surprise by his comment. I had written "Christmas" season almost without thinking because I see it as such. But perhaps I should not have been surprised because I am also aware of how touchy the issue of Christmas has become.

For example, a silly person named John Gibson has actually written a book called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. And Bill O'Reilly, who can always be depended on to waste his outrage on the trivial, has declared that he is going to "save" Christmas by bringing back the greeting "Merry Christmas" and fighting those stores that have promotions saying "Season's Greetings" and "Happy Holidays." A guest on his show suggested that these more generic greetings do not offend Christians, to which O'Reilly replied "Yes, it does. It absolutely does. And I know that for a fact. But the smart way to do it is "Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Season's Greetings, Happy Kwanzaa."

Meanwhile, Jerry Falwell, in a fierce competition with Pat Robertson for the Religious Doofus of the Year award, says that he too is fighting to save that holy holiday and that he'll sue and boycott groups that he sees as muzzling Christmas. Finishing a strong third for that same award:

American Family Association President Tim Wildmon,...wants to see "Merry Christmas" signs displayed prominently "if they expect Christians to come in and buy products during this so-called season."

And he isn't worried if they offend people who aren't Christian.

"They can walk right by the sign," Wildmon said. "It's a federal holiday. If someone is upset by that, well, they should know that they are living in a predominantly Christian nation."

So John was quite justified in being puzzled as to why, in this climate, I was so casually tossing the word Christmas around when everyone seems to be so touchy about it.

To be quite honest, I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I see people like Gibson and O'Reilly and Falwell and Wildmon getting into a lather about what is the proper thing to say at Christmas. How can adults waste their time on the trivial when there is so much other stuff to think about?

As for me personally, I just can't take this matter seriously. I have never been offended by other people's religious beliefs. Perhaps it was because I grew up in a multi-religious society, had friends of other faiths, and celebrated their religious holidays as well as my own. It does not offend me in the least when people wish me greetings that are specific to their own religious traditions or in some neutral terms. What is the sense in being offended by someone who is wishing you well? The words do not matter in the least. It is the sentiment behind it that is important.

I have always liked Christmas as a holiday, especially its focus on children, and its message of promoting peace and goodwill among people. I am glad that even people who do not share its religious orientation still share in the peace and goodwill message. I do not appreciate the fact that it has become largely a merchandizing tool.

I simply do not care how other people view Christmas or how they express their views and it amazes me that some people are using it as yet another means of waging a cultural war. Why are some people so touchy? When someone wishes me "Season's Greetings," I take that as a thoughtful gesture of friendship and caring and I am touched by the sentiment. The same goes if they wish me "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Hanukkah" or "Happy Kwanzaa" or "Happy Solstice" or any other greeting from any other religion. I return the greeting in kind, even if I am not a believer in that faith, because all that such an exchange signifies is that two people wish each other well. If someone says to me "Merry Christmas" and I reply "Same to you," this is not an affirmation of faith any more than "Season's Greetings" is an act of hostility to religion. To take such greetings as a challenge to one's beliefs and start a fight over it is to demonstrate churlishness to a ridiculous degree. O'Reilly and his partners in this stupid battle need to grow up.

I am talking here about how the holiday is interpreted in the private sphere of person-to-person interactions. If some company puts advertisements in the paper and tells its employees to greet customers by saying "Season's Greetings," why should it offend me? The same thing if they order their employees to say "Merry Christmas" instead. That is not something that bothers me, because such mandated greetings are not borne out of personal care and concern but are just marketing tools and are meaningless in terms of content and intent, whatever the words used. It is in the same category as the mandated "Have a nice day." You can always tell, by the eyes, the tone of voice, and the smile (or lack of it) if the person is genuinely being friendly or simply saying it because it is required. The actual words are immaterial.

If Bill O'Reilly gets all warm and tingly when a store employee is forced to say "Merry Christmas" to him and gets angry when that same employee is forced to say "Season's Greetings," then he is a man in need of serious therapy because he clearly cannot distinguish the real from the counterfeit. I hate to be the one who breaks the news but he should realize that the employee probably does not care for him personally, whatever the greeting.

The question becomes different when we talk of the public sphere because then we are talking about the government taking an official stand on religion and this raises tricky political and constitutional issues. There it seems to me to be appropriate to be scrupulously religiously neutral because I am a believer that a secular public sphere is the one most likely to lead to peace and harmony between diverse groups. Governments are supposed to be representatives of everyone and to single out one particular religion or ethnicity for preferential treatment is to create discord.

But when it comes to private exchanges between people, we should all relax and let people express their good feelings for one another in whatever way they choose and are most comfortable with and not try to make it into a battle for religious supremacy. You can always tell when people genuinely mean well and when they are pushing an agenda, whatever the actual words used. We should learn to accept the former gracefully and ignore the latter.

POST SCRIPT: A Parable of Iraq

Tom Tomorrow has another good cartoon.

November 29, 2005

Hollywood remakes

I don't think that I will ever understand the logic by which some films get made in Hollywood, especially the decision on which older films to remake.

Over the holiday weekend, we watched two films that happened to be remakes of films that I had seen in their original versions. One was The Manchurian Candidate starring Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep (the 1962 version of the film with same name starred Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury). The other was The Truth About Charlie starring Mark Wahlberg, Thandie Newton, and Tim Robbins, which was a remake of Charade (1963) starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Coincidentally, both remakes were produced and directed by acclaimed director Jonathan Demme, who made Silence of the Lambs.

Another common feature they shared is that both new versions were simply terrible, which prompted me to wonder why these remakes were ever even contemplated. It seems to me that the main reason to remake a film is because the story is interesting and had promise but the original version was somehow botched and the new director feels that he or she could do a much better job with it. But that did not apply in these two cases, so my question is what were Demme and the other people who backed these productions thinking?

The original Manchurian Candidate was a taut cold-war thriller in which a soldier is captured and brainwashed by Communists during the Korean war in order to make him into someone who would unthinkingly follow instructions so that he could serve a political purpose back in the US. The basic brainwashing plot of the original, as in the sequel, was somewhat far-fetched, but the original film worked as a political satire as well..

As for the original Charade, that was perhaps the best romantic comedy-thriller ever made, with a superb musical score by Henry Mancini as a bonus. I have seen it more than once and have never failed to be captivated by it, even though I know all the plot twists.

In remaking films like this that were so good in their original forms, it was clear that the new films could only fare badly by comparison. What surprised me was how awful they were, especially The Truth About Charlie.

Both remakes kept the basic story lines intact, but updated them and added new wrinkles to make them more topical. In The Manchurian Candidate, for example, the soldier son was now brainwashed during the first Gulf war by a huge business conglomerate. The plot often made no sense at all, with huge gaps in logic and character motivation. The filmmakers seemed to try and overwhelm the viewer by making the story very complicated and high-tech, but all that these devices achieved was to irritate me. The only redeeming feature of the new version was an excellent performance by Meryl Streep, matching in her steely ambition the original performance by Angela Lansbury.

Remaking Charade is even harder to understand. Cary Grant set the standard in playing the suave leading man and no one does the wide-eyed innocent better than Audrey Hepburn. "Classy" is the word that always comes to mind when thinking of either of these two actors. The dialogue was clever and the on-screen chemistry between them was almost magical, despite their age difference of twenty five years. The supporting cast of Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Jacques Marin (who played the French detective), was also first-rate.

In the remake, Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton are nowhere in the same league as Grant and Hepburn, either as actors or on-screen personalities. It actually felt kind of cruel to put them in a situation where they would inevitably be compared unfavorably to those two greats who were at the top of their game. In addition, although sticking to the same basic story line, Demme introduced plot twists and characters and scenes that simply made no sense, with obscure minor characters reappearing for no apparent reason. What the original had in witty dialogue, the remake tried to make up for in gimmicks. It was as if the director was trying for an absurdist effect and failed miserably.

An example of a good remake is Ocean's Eleven. The 1960 original in that case was just so-so, an excuse for the Rat Pack to hang out together on screen, while the 2001 Steven Soderbergh remake was what a remake should be, taking a poorly executed first attempt and showing how it could be done well.

Doing a remake of a good first effort makes no sense to me. Updating the plot to make it topical does not seem like a good enough reason to do the film over. After all, we can still enjoy classic films the Dr. Strangelove even though the political context that gave it its edge is no more.

But The Truth About Charlie was an absolute travesty, making me want to watch the original Charade again just to rid my mind of the pollution created by the remake.

I am curious as to what readers of this blog who have seen both the original and remake of any film think about this question.

And if you have never seen Charade, try and get hold of a copy. It is a film everyone should see. I am going to see it yet again.

POST SCRIPT: What on earth is going on?

This link takes you to a video that seems to show people in a moving vehicle in Iraq firing machine guns randomly at cars behind them, causing them to swerve and crash and possibly killing the occupants. The bizarre and unbelievably callous nature of these acts is accentuated by the fact that the whole video is accompanied by Elvis Presley singing.

It is alleged by the British newspaper The Telegraph that the shots were fired by members of private foreign security forces working in Iraq. These companies are a law unto themselves, immune from prosecution from either Iraqi or British or American authorities and are said to have caused numerous civilian deaths. This video has sparked calls for an inquiry into the shootings and a British security company Aegis Defence Services says it is also carrying out an internal inquiry, since the video was first posted on its own website, creating suggestions that it was put on the server as a "trophy."

November 28, 2005

Thanksgiving and Christmas musings

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to the class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy it. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the history of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have to learn US history in school or did not have the experience of visiting my grandparents' homes for this occasion, this holiday initially left me cold.

But over time, I have warmed to the holiday and it now seems to me to be the best holiday of all, for reasons that have little to do with its historical roots.

I mainly like the fact that it has (still) avoided being commercialized and merchandized to death. There are no gifts and cards associated with it. It is purely secular so no one need feel excluded. There are no ritualized ceremonies, religious or otherwise, that one has to attend. There are no decorations or even dressing up. It is just a time to get together with family and friends and share food. And even the food menu of turkey, potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, and pies, is such that it is not too expensive, so most people can afford to have the standard menu for a large number of people without going into debt. And although there is much talk of anticipated gluttony, in practice this also seems like just a ritualized and familiar joke, and most people seem to eat well but not in excess. There is also no tradition of drinking too much and rowdiness. Thanksgiving seems to symbolize a kind of socializing that is a throwback to a simpler, less crass and commercial time.

Thanksgiving remains mostly an opportunity to spend a day with those whom one is close to, sharing food, playing games, and basking in the warmth of good fellowship. How can one not like such a holiday?

The only catch with Thanksgiving is that it is immediately followed by the horror show known as the "Christmas shopping season." Each year I am revolted at the attention that the media pays to the retail industry the days immediately following Thanksgiving. They wallow in stories of sales, of early-bird shoppers on Friday lining up in the cold at 4:00am to get bargains, fighting with other shoppers to grab sale items, people getting trampled in the crush, the long lines at cash registers, the year's "hot" gift items, and the breathless reports of how much was spent and what it predicts for the future of the economy. The media eggs on this process by giving enormous amounts of coverage to people going shopping, a non-news event if there ever was one, adding cute names like "Black Friday" and more recently "Cyber Monday."

Frankly, I find this obsessive focus on consumption disgusting. In fact, I would gladly skip directly from Thanksgiving to the new year because the intervening period seems to me to be just one long orgy of consumerism in which spending money is the goal. The whole point of the Christmas holiday seems to have become one in which people are made to feel guilty if they are not spending vast amounts of time and money in finding gifts for others. There is an air of forced jollity that is jarring, quite in contrast to the genuine warmth of Thanksgiving. And it just seems to stress people out.

Since I grew up in a country where people were encouraged to be frugal, often out of necessity, I still find it disquieting to be urged to spend as if it were somehow my duty to go broke in order to shore up the retail industry and help "grow the economy." I still don't understand that concept. An economy that is based on people buying what they do not need or can even afford seems to me to be inherently unsustainable, if not downright morally offensive.

The only things about Christmas that I still like are the carols. The a cappella arrangements of traditional Christmas carols produce some of the most beautiful music, and to hear good choirs singing the delicate harmonies is something that even someone as musically challenged as I am can appreciate. Although I am no longer religious, the one thing that can tempt me back into church is a Christmas carol service.

Let me be clear that I am referring to Christmas carols and not to the abomination that one often hears on the radio during this season, which are the popular Christmas "songs." The latter consist of some of the most irritating music ever invented. I am referring to things like "Silver Bells" "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" "Holly Jolly Christmas" and others of that ilk. These awful songs are played over and over again at this time of year until I am ready to take a hammer to the radio. If I never hear those songs again, I will be happy.

I have an audiocassette that has about twenty carols that I sometimes play around Christmas time. But what prevents me from fully enjoying it is that the producers, in an appalling act of bad judgment, have sandwiched the beautiful a cappella choral arrangements, with "White Christmas" at the beginning and "Silver Bells" at the end, making it even worse by adding schmaltzy piano accompaniment. My enjoyment of the carols is tempered by the knowledge that these annoying songs are going to eventually come on, ruining the warmth generated by the carols. My hatred of such music is such that I am tempted to head over to the new Friedman Media Center in the Kelvin Smith Library and use their terrific equipment to digitize the tape, and transfer the songs to a CD, leaving out those two imposters. (If you have never used this facility, I strongly recommend a visit. There is almost nothing that you cannot do there in terms of audio-visual effects. It's free to all Case people. And the staff there are very helpful too.)

I sincerely hope that Thanksgiving does not also become corrupted by merchandizing the way that Christmas has. But in our buy-buy-buy culture you can be sure that retailers are eyeing that holiday too and it will require great vigilance to prevent it from sliding down that particular slope.

November 25, 2005

Holiday break

Due to the Thanksgiving holidays, the next blog post will be on Monday, November 28th.

November 23, 2005

Catholic Church turns away from Intelligent Design Creationism?

Perhaps the high point for the IDC (intelligent design creationism) movement in recent times was the New York Times op-ed essay on July 7, 2005 by the supposedly influential Roman Catholic Cardinal Schonborn, where he seemed to advocate the IDC position about the alleged weaknesses of Darwinian natural selection. He said "The Catholic Church will again defend human reason by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real. Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of "chance and necessity" are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence." He even went so far to say that Pope John Paul II's statement saying that evolution "was more than just a hypothesis" could be ignored.

At that time, this op-ed caused a stir as it seemed like the Roman Catholic Church was setting itself up for another epic confrontation reminiscent of the one that it had with Galileo about Copernican theory. I suggested then that the cardinal's stance was probably a trial balloon, perhaps initiated by the new Pope Benedict XVI, to see what the reaction might be. The reaction was swift and not good, even from within the Catholic Church.

The Catholic World News reports that:

The director of the Vatican Observatory has lashed out at proponents of the theory of Intelligent Design, the Italian news service ANSA reports.

"Intelligent design isn't science, even if it pretends to be," said Father George Coyne. He said that if the theory is introduced in schools, it should be taught in religion classes, not science classes.

In another story news story:

The Vatican has issued a stout defence of Charles Darwin, voicing strong criticism of Christian fundamentalists who reject his theory of evolution and interpret the biblical account of creation literally.

Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said the Genesis description of how God created the universe and Darwin's theory of evolution were "perfectly compatible" if the Bible were read correctly.

His statement was a clear attack on creationist campaigners in the US, who see evolution and the Genesis account as mutually exclusive.

"The fundamentalists want to give a scientific meaning to words that had no scientific aim," he said at a Vatican press conference. He said the real message in Genesis was that "the universe didn't make itself and had a creator".

This idea was part of theology, Cardinal Poupard emphasised, while the precise details of how creation and the development of the species came about belonged to a different realm - science. Cardinal Poupard said that it was important for Catholic believers to know how science saw things so as to "understand things better".

His statements were interpreted in Italy as a rejection of the "intelligent design" view, which says the universe is so complex that some higher being must have designed every detail.

Further support for evolution came from Monsignor Gianfranco Basti, director of the Vatican project STOQ, or Science, Theology and Ontological Quest who reaffirmed John Paul's 1996 statement that evolution was "more than just a hypothesis."

"A hypothesis asks whether something is true or false," he said. "(Evolution) is more than a hypothesis because there is proof."

He was asked about comments made in July by Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, who dismissed in a New York Times article the 1996 statement by John Paul as "rather vague and unimportant" and seemed to back intelligent design.

Basti concurred that John Paul's 1996 letter "is not a very clear expression from a definition point of view," but he said evolution was assuming ever more authority as scientific proof develops.

Cardinal Schonborn himself (in a sermon in October) now seems to be backpedaling from his earlier assertions in the face of all this opposition from within the church itself:

[I]n a lecture given at St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna on Sunday, Schoenborn said that it was possible he had not expressed himself clearly.

"Such misunderstandings can be cleared up," he said, according to a Reuters report.

The 60-year-old cardinal now says that there need not be an inherent conflict between divine creation and evolution. He says that one is a matter for religion, the other for science, and that the two disciplines are complementary.

Schoenborn said: "Without a doubt, Darwin pulled off quite a feat with his main work and it remains one of the very great works of intellectual history. I see no problem combining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution, under one condition - that the limits of a scientific theory are respected."

He explained that in his view, those limits would be overstepped if scientists claimed that evolution proves that there could be no creator. Since science has never made any such claim on evolution's behalf, it looks like it's still OK by the Vatican.

But Pope Benedict XVI is still not giving up this fight. On November 11, 2005 it is reported: "Pope Benedict XVI has waded into the evolution debate in the United States, saying the universe was made by an "intelligent project" and criticizing those who in the name of science say its creation was without direction or order."

But the Pope seems to be missing the point. People are free to believe in any kind of designer they wish. However the practice of science is based on methodological naturalism, which rules out using any supernatural mechanisms in any scientific study of any natural phenomenon.

POST SCRIPT: Too considerate?

A woman tried to open a door to step outside to smoke a cigarette. The catch is that the door was on a plane which was flying from Hong Kong to Brisbane, Australia. She was arrested.

November 22, 2005

"This I believe: I believe there is no God"

Those of you who regularly listen to NPR's Morning Edition know that they are running a series called "This I Believe" where various people talk about the important beliefs in their lives. I have been listening on occasion and most contributors have expressed beliefs in motherhood-and-apple-pie kind of things. But Monday's contribution by Penn Jillette (who describes himself as "the taller, louder half of the magic and comedy act Penn and Teller") was striking in the way that he so closely echoed my own beliefs. You can read the transcript and listen to the audio here, but here are the passages that particularly resonated with me:

I believe that there is no God. I'm beyond Atheism. Atheism is not believing in God. Not believing in God is easy - you can't prove a negative, so there's no work to do.

...

So, anyone with a love for truth outside of herself has to start with no belief in God and then look for evidence of God. She needs to search for some objective evidence of a supernatural power.

Believing there's no God means I can't really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories. That's good; it makes me want to be more thoughtful. I have to try to treat people right the first time around.

...

Believing there is no God means the suffering I've seen in my family, and indeed all the suffering in the world, isn't caused by an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent force that isn't bothered to help or is just testing us, but rather something we all may be able to help others with in the future. No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future.

Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-o and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have.

I thought it was rather nicely put.

POST SCRIPT: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

I saw the latest Harry Potter film and it deserved all the praise that it is getting. It has been awhile since I saw a film so soon after reading the book on which it is based and I must say that I was impressed with the judicious selection of material from the book to go into the film. I also liked the way the screenwriter and director transferred Rowling's vision onto the screen. Sometimes such transitions don't work well but this was almost perfect. There was nothing at all jarring. The film was at once both faithful to the book and self-contained as a film, quite an achievement.

November 21, 2005

Intelligent design creationism losing ground?

Some time ago, I speculated that the intelligent design creationism (IDC) movement might have jumped the shark and was on a downward slide. Some recent developments might suggest that I was premature is seeing the demise of IDC. After all, just last week, the state of Kansas formally adopted language in their science standards that sought to undermine natural selection. But that particular act was foregone conclusion once the elections in Kansas had produced a pro-IDC majority.

Up to that point, IDC had managed to gain some ground purely because it was based on a stealth strategy. IDC strategists realized that the courts would not allow any overtly religious doctrine to be taught in science classes. And it is not clear that most people would have liked that idea either, whatever their religious persuasion. People tend to see the function of science classes as being to teach science and instinctively sense the potential danger in mixing science with religion.

As a result of this, the IDC people had to go to great lengths to deny any religious underpinnings for their theory. Yet, since IDC advocates needed the support of their religious base in order to make any headway in their attempts to garner political support at the local and state levels to have IDC ideas included in science curricula, they had to perform this delicate balancing act of publicly disavowing any religious intent while privately letting their supporters know their true motivation.

But that balancing act has collapsed. It is pretty clear to everyone by now that the intelligent designer is a pseudonym for god, and alarm bells are going off all over as people start to become aware of the consequences of this stealth attack on science education. Interestingly, some of the most vocal critics of IDC have been people like George Will and Charles Krauthammer, people from the same ideological camp as many of the IDC proponents.

Krauthammer says:

Let's be clear. Intelligent design may be interesting as theology, but as science it is a fraud. It is a self-enclosed, tautological "theory" whose only holding is that when there are gaps in some area of scientific knowledge - in this case, evolution - they are to be filled by God. … In order to justify the farce that intelligent design is science, Kansas had to corrupt the very definition of science, dropping the phrase "natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us," thus unmistakably implying - by fiat of definition, no less - that the supernatural is an integral part of science. This is an insult both to religion and science.

The school board thinks it is indicting evolution by branding it an "unguided process" with no "discernible direction or goal." This is as ridiculous as indicting Newtonian mechanics for positing an "unguided process" by which Earth is pulled around the sun every year without discernible purpose. What is chemistry if not an "unguided process" of molecular interactions without "purpose"? Or are we to teach children that God is behind every hydrogen atom in electrolysis?

Strong words, especially from someone who earlier had downplayed the importance of the Kansas developments implying that, in the grand scheme of things, it did not really matter what the yokels in Kansas did. He seems to have belatedly realized that IDC is a profoundly retrograde development.

George Will on Nightline contrasts the openness of science to the approach of IDC:

It's openness to discussion of testable hypotheses, falsifiable hypotheses, hypotheses for which you can conceive of contradicting evidence. And I do not believe that the adherents to the doctrine of Intelligent Design are open to that kind of evidence. I think what they say is that random, unguided evolution, without the purposefulness of God, is inconceivable. Now that is - may be true, but it's not falsifiable, and therefore has no place in a science curriculum.

In another article, Will says:

Dover's insurrection occurred as Kansas's Board of Education, which is controlled by the kind of conservatives who make conservatism repulsive to temperate people, voted 6 to 4 to redefine science. The board, opening the way for teaching the supernatural, deleted from the definition of science these words: "a search for natural explanations of observable phenomena." "It does me no injury," said Thomas Jefferson, "for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." But it is injurious, and unneighborly, when zealots try to compel public education to infuse theism into scientific education.

The IDC people needed people like Will and Krauthammer as allies and supporters if they were to make any headway on the national stage. They are influential opinion makers, appealing to that part of the political spectrum from which IDC draws much of its support. Losing them is not a good sign.

What is worse for IDC, people like Will and Krauthammer, whatever their private religious beliefs, generally view the public sphere as secular and write about politics from a secular perspective. Their disavowal of the IDC argument leaves the IDC camp being supported exclusively by people like Cal Thomas and Pat Robertson, people who openly want to see their particular version of Christianity dominate public life, who clearly see IDC as part of Christianity, and who are generally seen (Robertson in particular) as just plain nuts. Having such people on the IDC side does not really help their cause.

At some point, the official IDC stance that their designer is not god and that IDC has no religious intent is going to be so obviously at odds with the public perception of it that they will have to either confess to its true nature or be increasingly seen as treating the people as gullible fools.

Already there are signs that some of the tentative support the IDC camp has had in the past has started to peel away. Tomorrow we will look at some former supporters who are having second thoughts.

November 18, 2005

Intelligent Design Creationism and the Dover trial: The constitutional issues

Many people wrongly assume that you cannot mention religion and god in the public schools. They speak of "god being driven out of the schools." This is not correct. After all god and religion are necessary in order to understand much of US and world history and government and literature, to mention a few subjects. But the constitutional questions about what kinds of mention of god and religion are allowed and what are not are a little tricky and I want to briefly discuss them here. (The usual disclaimer: I am not even a lawyer, let alone an expert on constitutional law, so what follows is a lay person's understanding of the issues.)

The relevant part of the US constitution is the first amendment that goes as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The US constitution is admirably terse in its wording but this means that the US Supreme Court has to interpret its meaning, and over the years there have been some landmark decisions that have formed the basis for subsequent rulings.

The key portion of the first amendment as it pertains to the religion in schools issue is the so called 'establishment clause' that the amendment starts with, that says " Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The key interpretation of this clause was provided in 1947 by Justice Hugo Black in the case of Everson v. Board of Education (330 U.S. 1, 15-16 (1947) where he wrote:

The "establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church-attendance or non-attendance. No tax, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or what ever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause ... was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and State." (my italics)

But how do you judge whether this Jeffersonian 'wall of separation' has been breached? This was further clarified in 1971 in the case Lemon v. Kurtzman (403 U.S. 602, 612-613 (1971)), the result of which has been the adoption of the 'Lemon' test to see if any government action has violated these sections of the first amendment. For legislation to pass the constitutional requirements of the establishment clause, the "Lemon' test says the legislation must meet three criteria:

First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose;

Second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion;

Finally, the statute must not foster "an excessive government entanglement with religion."

So the judge in the Dover, PA case will have to rule whether allowing IDC ideas to be advocated by the school board passes all three items in the Lemon test.

The Lemon test explains why it is permissible to bring in god and religion into history and literature courses, because if taught correctly, it can meet those criteria. But in the IDC case, the only "secular legislative purpose" that I can see seems to be to show students a specific alternative to natural selection. I do not find that convincing since it is by now apparent to everyone that the alternative selected by them is based on a specific religious belief and that they see undermining natural selection as a necessary step towards adoption of their religious belief.

Furthermore, if the judge determines that IDC is a religious belief, then it would be hard to pass the third test.

In an previous posting, I discussed the legal history of the "religion in schools" issue, and especially the important role that the 1987 Louisiana case played in determining the current IDC strategy. In its 1987 decision against the teaching of creation science in Louisiana, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that it did so because the legislation "lacks a clear secular purpose" and went on to add that "The Act impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind. The legislative history demonstrates that the term "creation science," as contemplated by the state legislature, embraces this religious teaching." The decision said that the creation science legislation failed all three Lemon tests. This is why the IDC people are trying to avoid at all costs being tarred with "creationist" label. It is the kiss of death.

It is hard to see how the judge in the Dover case can avoid coming to a similar conclusion with IDC, despite the strenuous efforts of IDC strategists to hide its creation science roots.

For these reasons, I expect the judge to rule against the (former) Dover school board. But as I said, I am not an expert on constitutional law, so don't bet the farm on this prediction.

November 17, 2005

Intelligent Design Creationism and the Dover trial: IDC as comparative religion?

Now that there is a new school board elected in Dover, there is an interesting wrinkle to this story.

The new school board ran on a platform that did not call for the complete elimination of IDC from the schools. They said that it should be taught, except not in science classes. They said that it should be taught as part of an elective comparative religion class, so that students who want to learn about it could do so.

This seems like a reasonable policy. After all, although the winners of the election obtained a clean sweep of all the contested seats on the school board, they were careful to point out that it could not be really be considered an overwhelming mandate since the margins separating the winners and losers was very small. This was a refreshing piece of political honesty, unlike the case of President Bush claiming in 2004 that he had a mandate to make huge changes after winning just slightly more than 50% of the vote.

It is clear that the school board winners are mindful of the fact that there are a lot of IDC supporters in their community (possibly even among their own ranks) and it made sense to provide some accommodation to those people.

As far as I can tell, there are no constitutional problems with teaching comparative religion in schools and including IDC ideas in such a course. But by advocating what they may have seen as a gracious compromise, the new school board may have unwittingly created a major headache for IDC supporters. (Or maybe they did this wittingly, I don't know.)

If I were an IDC advocate, here is the dilemma I face with this offer to teach IDC in a comparative religion class. If I allow IDC ideas to be taught in such a class, would it not be a tacit admission that IDC is, in fact, a religion? If so, wouldn't it undermine the carefully constructed story that IDC is not a religious belief, and cause problems in Kansas and elsewhere? Remember that the goal of the IDC people is to include IDC ideas nationwide in science classes as a means of undermining the teaching of evolution and natural selection. Having it taught in a religion class would not only not advance this goal, it would set it back.

On the other hand, on what grounds can I (still playing the role of IDC advocate) challenge the inclusion of IDC in a comparative religion class? There don't seem to be any constitutional concerns (to be discussed in a later posting), so I would not seem to have a legal case. I would have to argue that since IDC is not a religion, teaching it in comparative religion is going outside the curriculum of a religious studies course.

But that will be a hard sell. The curricula in social studies and the humanities do not have the paradigmatic structure of the sciences where there is a fairly clear consensus on what does and does not belong in science classes, especially in K-12 classes. The former curricula are much more flexible and so it will be hard to argue for the exclusion of IDC ideas from a comparative religion class. After all, the winks and nudges that IDC advocates gave their supporters to indicate that even though they did not say 'god' they really were meaning god, will now come back to haunt them, because by now everyone knows that the words 'intelligent designer' is code for god.

Take Pat Robertson (please!), who can always be counted upon to say the wrong and idiotic thing. He is upset with the citizens of Dover for the way they voted and since he has god's unlisted number, he knows for a fact that god is ticked off as well. He said: "I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover. If there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city. And don't wonder why He hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I'm not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, don't ask for His help because he might not be there.” (See here for the video. It always amazes me that Pat Robertson can say the most absurd things but as long as he maintains an even tone of voice and smiles as he speaks, the media don't treat him as a certifiable wacko. Watching the video it is hard to escape the sense that Robertson is hoping for some disaster to strike Dover in order to make the people there see the error of their ways.)

So Pat Robertson is convinced and openly saying that the intelligent designer is god. Since Robertson is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, it is a safe bet that if he has figured out that the intelligent designer is god, then so has pretty much anybody with a pulse. And, most importantly, this will not have escaped the notice of federal judges who have to rule on the constitutionality of including IDC in science classes.

The IDC strategy of trying to conceal the religious basis of their theory by using neutral language, while using nudges and winks to their religious supporters to signal their covert agenda, was always heading for this kind of collision. Covert strategies work only when they are not widely publicized. Now that IDC has become high profile, its religious foundations have become clear to everyone and trying to hide it becomes obviously and embarrassingly disingenuous. Paradoxically, becoming well known might turn out to be the undoing of IDC.

IDC's grass-roots supporters in Dover, who may not be fully tuned to the grand IDC wedge strategy, might take offence if the IDC top brass try to argue that if IDC is not allowed in science classes, then it should not be allowed anywhere else in the curriculum. After all, all other disciplines (science included) would be delighted if other disciplines included their subject in their teaching plans. My feeling is that the grass roots supporters of IDC in Dover want it taught somewhere in their schools and if they can't get it in the science classes, they would settle for it in other classes, even if it torpedoes the case that IDC is not religious. Most people care a lot more about local issues than grand strategies.

It will be interesting to see how the strategists at IDC headquarters deal with this problem.

POST SCRIPT: US admits use of white phosphorus weapons in Fallujah

In a previous post, I discussed the allegations of the use by US forces of the lethal chemical white phosphorus in the attack on Fallujah in November 2004. The BBC now confirms that story saying "The US has now admitted using white phosphorus as a weapon in Fallujah last year, after earlier denying it."

It is interesting that the foreign press is giving much more play to this story than the US print media. Members of the British parliament are calling for an inquiry and even the Iraqi government has ordered an inquiry in response to the anger that has been generated by these reports. (I don't watch TV news so don't know if it received much coverage in that medium.) In the Plain Dealer it was a one paragraph story in the "Nation" news summary column on the back page of the front section, easily missed by the casual reader.

This lack of coverage in the US of things like this explains why people here keep being baffled by the depth of hostility that some Iraqis exhibit towards the US presence. When the next atrocity occurs against US troops or contractors or even some hapless journalist or civilian who happens to be the victim of a reprisal, people will wonder what caused such behavior and ask bewilderedly "Why do they hate us? Aren't we trying to help them?"

November 16, 2005

Intelligent Design Creationism and the Dover trial

It is time to take stock of what is going on in the Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) front in the wake of the events of the past week and to see what it might all mean. The federal trial about whether the Dover school board's policy on IDC was constitutional ended on Friday, November 4. The judge has said that he will deliver his ruling before January. The lawsuit was triggered when the school board had ordered that at the beginning of ninth grade science classes, a statement would be made to students questioning Darwinian evolution and telling students to read a book called Of Pandas and People, many copies of which had been provided to the school. (I will discuss the legal issues involved in this case in a future posting.)

Then on November 8, the elections to the Dover school board resulted in all eight of the incumbent Republican members running for reelection, who all supported the IDC inclusion policy, being swept from office and replaced by a slate of eight Democratic candidates who had a platform that said that IDC would be shifted from the science class to an elective comparative religion class. (One of the winning candidates is also a plaintiff in the court case.) Needless to say, this complicates matters because even if the plaintiffs lose the case and the earlier school board's decision is ruled constitutional, the new school board has the option of appealing the ruling to a higher court or, more likely, simply overturning the policy on their own to spare themselves further legal expense.

If the plaintiffs win and the IDC policy is declared unconstitutional (which is what I expect to happen), then it is not clear what the losing side can do. It is not clear if the losing school board members can even appeal the ruling since they are no longer have any official status, having lost the election.

Actually, there are few good legal options for the pro-IDC side in the Dover case. From the beginning, their case was weak. The policy they instituted was so problematical that even the people at IDC "headquarters" (the Seattle-based Center for Society and Culture operating out the Discovery Institute) thought it was problematic, called it a "misguided policy" and did not support this case and kept their distance, fearing that it would go down in flames, risking their carefully planned strategy. It was like planning a secret attack and the Dover school board was a crazy member of the assault team running out into the open yelling "Here we come!" and spoiling the element of surprise. Two of the IDC strategy stalwarts (William Dembski, and Stephen Meyer) withdrew as defense witnesses even before the trial began. The only major IDC figure to testify at the trial was Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University and author of the IDC bible Darwin's Black Box. But even his testimony did not go over well, especially when he conceded under cross-examination that under the preferred IDC definition of science, even astrology could be classified as science and eligible to be taught in science classes. (See this summary of the trial fromThe Panda's Thumb.)

To see why the IDC bigwigs were uneasy about the actions of their erstwhile Dover school board allies, you need to recall the history of IDC. In the early 1980's the state legislatures of Louisiana and Arkansas passed laws mandating that whenever evolution was taught, so-called 'creation science' should be given equal time. This was challenged in the courts and in 1987, the US Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision that creationism was a religion and that these equal time laws violated the first amendment.

So it was back to the drawing board for the anti-Darwinists to figure out how to get religion and god back in the public schools and it was from this brainstorming that IDC was born. The first thing they did was to distance themselves (at least publicly) from the avowed creationists, although privately they are allies. The second thing was to strip all references to god from the IDC literature and instead refer to a vague and unspecified 'intelligent designer'. By this strategy, they hoped to persuade the courts that IDC was not a religion, accompanied by copious winks and nudges to the faithful to reassure them that the intelligent designer was, in fact, god (though we now know that there is a competing theory that the intelligent designer is, in fact, Lord Voldemort).

This stealth strategy was trampled on clumsily by the Dover school board because they did not seem to get the memo about how to cover god's fingerprints on their policy. The first problem was that the school board members had made many public statements about their religious intent in pushing their school policy, and these were matters of public record, reported in the local papers. The money to buy the books Of Pandas and People was raised in churches after appeals to the congregation by some school board members.

The book itself was also a problem. The book has been around a long time and in its earlier incarnation it freely used the word 'creationism.' After the 1987 Supreme Court setback, a 'new' edition of the book came out which seemed to differ from the earlier versions mainly in the fact that someone had used the 'search and replace' function of their word processor to remove all references to the word 'creationism' and replace it with 'intelligent design.'

Such a thin disguise is unlikely to work. As I learned from a lawyer who legislated the earlier Louisiana case, judges do not simply look at the words of policies and laws to infer their intent. They also look at the historical record of the policies and the statements its advocates made in other forums. In other words, they look at the paper trail to work out intent. And in the Dover case, the paper trial is clear that the members of the school board who pushed this policy had religious reasons for doing so.

For these reasons, I expect that the judge will rule in favor of the plaintiffs and declare the Dover policy unconstitutional, especially since the lawyers for the plaintiffs seemed to have done a good job in the case.

But few things in life are certain and it will be interesting to see how the judge rules.

Defending the indefensible

The White House has begun a curious defense of its decision to attack Iraq. Cartoonist Tom Toles of the Washington Post captures the absurdity of the argument perfectly.

tomtoles.jpg

November 15, 2005

Why defending habeus corpus is essential

On November 9, the British parliament rejected Prime Minister Tony Blair's attempt to detain terrorism suspects without charge for up to 90 days, although they were willing to make the limit 28 days. It was Blair's first defeat and shows how nervous the British MPs are about diluting the protections of habeus corpus.

For those of you not aware of the origins of habeus corpus, it was a law passed by the British parliament in 1679, under pressure from the public, to limit the indefinite detention of people by the King's officials. Habeus corpus is a writ "ordering that a prisoner be brought to the court so it can be determined whether or not he is being imprisoned lawfully." It was designed as a countermeasure to the tyranny of despots.

As Paul Craig Roberts (former associate editor of the Wall Street Journal and a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury during the Reagan administration) points out: "Habeas corpus is essential to political opposition and the rise and maintenance of democracy. Without habeas corpus, a government can simply detain its opponents. Nothing is more conducive to one party rule than the suspension of habeas corpus."

And yet, he points out, on November 10, the very next day after that British vote, the US Senate voted 49 to 42 to add an amendment to a defense bill that will overturn the US Supreme Court's 2004 ruling that permits Guantanamo detainees to challenge their detentions. The defense bill itself comes up for a vote soon.

Says Roberts:

According to the Washington Post (Nov. 11), there are 750 detainees at Guantanamo. These people have been held for 3 or 4 years. If the Bush administration had any evidence against them, it would be a simple matter to file charges.

But the Bush administration does not have any evidence against them. Most of the detainees are innocent travelers and Arab businessmen who [were] captured by warlords and armed gangs and sold to the Americans who offered payments for "terrorists."

The reason so many of them have been tortured is that the Bush administration has no evidence against them and is relying on pain and the hopelessness of indefinite detention to induce self-incrimination. The Bush administration is desperate to produce some "terrorists."

Roberts then asks: "What has become of the American people that they permit the despicable practices of tyrants to be practiced in their name?"

Good question. In most countries that have habeus corpus protections, they can still be suspended in times of national emergency. But are we in a state of emergency now? Hardly, despite the present administration's attempts to keep everyone in a state of permanent panic and fear using anything at hand such as color-coded alerts and bird flu alarms. But panic and fear needs to be created so that people will acquiesce in the gutting of their fundamental rights and liberties.

When you lose habeus corpus, you have become, in effect, a police state where people can be deprived of their liberty without recourse to the law. Most people do not pay much attention to it because they feel that, as law abiding citizens minding their own business, they have no fear of arbitrary arrest and detention. It is tempting to think that only the guilty need fear such treatment and that the rest of us are immune and that therefore we can ignore this loss.

But this gives too much credit to the accuracy and efficiency of the law enforcement authorities. Those bodies can make mistakes and names and data can get mixed up, resulting in completely innocent people being suddenly sucked into places completely alien to them, where the normal rules of society that we count on to protect us no longer apply. In addition, all that your personal enemies have to do is to whisper to the authorities that you are a threat and there is nothing to prevent you from being hauled away in the middle of the night and never being heard from again. It is a great way to get the state involved in settling private grievances and vendettas, as people living in police states have found out. Once the authorities have arrested someone without any basis, even if they discover their error, there is a temptation to keep holding them in isolation because once innocent people are released they can embarrass the authorities about the facts of their false arrest and detention.

Take, for example, this article in yesterday's Washington Post by P. Sabin Willett, a lawyer who represents Guantanamo detainees on a pro-bono basis, as he pondered the US Senate vote to remove the habeus corpus protections:

I wished the senators could meet my client Adel.

Adel is innocent. I don't mean he claims to be. I mean the military says so. It held a secret tribunal and ruled that he is not al Qaeda, not Taliban, not a terrorist. The whole thing was a mistake: The Pentagon paid $5,000 to a bounty hunter, and it got taken.

The military people reached this conclusion, and they wrote it down on a memo, and then they classified the memo and Adel went from the hearing room back to his prison cell. He is a prisoner today, eight months later. And these facts would still be a secret but for one thing: habeas corpus.

Only habeas corpus got Adel a chance to tell a federal judge what had happened. Only habeas corpus revealed that it wasn't just Adel who was innocent -- it was Abu Bakker and Ahmet and Ayoub and Zakerjain and Sadiq -- all Guantanamo "terrorists" whom the military has found innocent...

Adel lives in a small fenced compound 8,000 miles from his home and family...He has no visitors save his lawyers. He has no news in his native language, Uighur. He cannot speak to his wife, his children, his parents. When I first met him on July 15, in a grim place they call Camp Echo, his leg was chained to the floor. I brought photographs of his children to another visit, but I had to take them away again. They were "contraband," and he was forbidden to receive them from me...

Mistakes are made: There will always be Adels. That's where courts come in. They are slow, but they are not beholden to the defense secretary, and in the end they get it right. They know the good guys from the bad guys. Take away the courts and everyone's a bad guy.

The secretary of defense chained Adel, took him to Cuba, imprisoned him and sends teams of lawyers to fight any effort to get his case heard. Now the Senate has voted to lock down his only hope, the courts, and to throw away the key forever.

Adel's case ilustrates why habeus corpus matters. As long as it is there, people cannot just 'disappear.' It is the one provision in the law on which all the other freedoms rest. The knowledge that we have the right to be speedily brought before a magistrate, to be seen in public, to be told of the charges against us, and to tell our side of the story to someone who is not our captor, provides us with at least some safeguard against arbitrary arrest and torture. And this is why governments always try to take habeus corpus away, so that they are free to do whatever they want to whomever they want.

The right of habeus corpus should be guarded zealously. We should be really concerned that no less a body than the US Senate is willing to give it away so freely.

POST SCRIPT: Stupid or Lying?

Once again, cartoonist Tom Tomorrow asks the important questions.

November 14, 2005

How war brutalizes all of us - 3: The horror of Fallujah

A video has emerged of the battle of Fallujah, initiated just after the US elections in 2004, showing the destruction that was wreaked there. This documentary, which lasts about 30 minutes, is in English and was produced by a major Italian broadcasting network called RAI. It interviews former US soldiers who had been involved in the battle, journalists, people in and from Fallujah, and a British parliamentarian who quit in disgust at the British government's complicity in the Iraq war.

The video begins with scenes showing how napalm was used in Vietnam thirty years ago. There are images (taken by the bombing crews themselves and found in the military archives) that show line after line of peasant huts being incinerated, presumably with everyone inside, by these powerful bombs. The villages are destroyed to the rousing sounds of The Mamas and the Papas singing their hit song California Dreaming, which was what was being played over the speakers of the bomber planes as they made this run. The disconcerting juxtapositioning of massive death and jaunty pop music reminds you how modern warfare, by making killing possible at much longer ranges, has enabled those who unleash these lethal weapons to feel disengaged from the people at the receiving end of their actions.

It reminded me of an old Doonesbury cartoon drawn during the Vietnam war where a Vietnamese survivor of a bombing, emerges from the rubble and shakes his fists at the departing planes, yelling "You heartless air pirates! I hope you can live with it! I hope you can live with all the destruction and carnage you've brought to my little country!!" The next panel of the strip switches to the cockpit of the bomber and shows the two pilots of the high altitude B-52. One says "Didja hear the Knicks took two?" and his partner laughingly replies "Heey, that's great!"

After the napalm sequence, the RAI documentary then segues to Iraq now, and the video alleges that another chemical, this time white phosphorus, was dropped on the city of Fallujah. White phosphorus is a chemical that penetrates clothing and eats away at flesh all the way to the bone, so that what remains looks like that of a burned skeleton covered by a thin layer of skin and, adding to the grotesqueness, with the clothes still intact. [UPDATE: It appears that the above statement is not completely correct. Apparently white phosphorus also burns clothes so those images of seemingly clothed burned skeletons may be due to other causes.] The documentary (warning: extremely disturbing images) shows the bodies of men, women, and children who it alleges were the victims of white phosphorus and quotes one former US soldier involved in that operation as saying:

"I heard the order to pay attention because they were going to use white phosphorus on Fallujah. In military jargon it's known as Willy Pete. Phosphorus burns bodies, in fact it melts the flesh all the way down to the bone ... I saw the burned bodies of women and children. Phosphorus explodes and forms a cloud. Anyone within a radius of 150 metres is done for."

The British newspaper The Independent also reports on the use of such chemical weapons in Iraq.

So did the US actually use this appalling chemical in the battle of Fallujah? On November 9, the US State Department initially carefully denied using it as a weapon on their website saying: "Finally, some news accounts have claimed that U.S. forces have used "outlawed" phosphorous shells in Fallujah. Phosphorous shells are not outlawed. U.S. forces have used them very sparingly in Fallujah, for illumination purposes. They were fired into the air to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters."

But it then appeared that this story was contradicted by an article in another official US magazine, Field Artillery, so a correction was added on November 10:

November 10, 2005 note: We have learned that some of the information we were provided in the above paragraph is incorrect. White phosphorous shells, which produce smoke, were used in Fallujah not for illumination but for screening purposes, i.e., obscuring troop movements and, according to an article, The Fight for Fallujah [(note: .pdf file)] in the March-April 2005 issue of Field Artillery magazine, "as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes…." The article states that U.S. forces used white phosphorous rounds to flush out enemy fighters so that they could then be killed with high explosive rounds.

The note raises more questions than it answers. How was white phosphorus used as a "potent psychological weapon"? How was it used to "flush out enemy fighters"? Remember that Fallujah is a city full of civilians. In a guerilla war, which is what is currently happening in Iraq, the guerillas move among the civilian population. How could white phosphorus be used for these purposes without affecting the civilian population?

The fact that white phosphorus is not outlawed seems beside the point. What it does to people is appalling and to use it in a battle in a city where there are a large number of civilians is to invite a catastrophe. If the facts of the documentary are upheld, then a catastrophe is exactly what occurred.

November 11, 2005

How war brutalizes all of us - 2

In July 1983, during the week of mob rule in Sri Lanka triggered by the killing of 13 government soldiers by Tamil separatist guerillas, a large number of Tamil prisoners in one of the government jails were brutally murdered by their fellow inmates in ways that are too gruesome and harrowing to describe here. Since the Tamil prisoners were suspected of being separatist rebels, they had been held in a separate section of the prison from the Sinhala prisoners who had murdered them, so the question naturally arose as to how these this atrocity could have been committed.

The 'official' story put out by the government was that the Sinhala prisoners had overcome their guards, taken their keys, released themselves, obtained various weapons, gained access to the Tamil prisoners, murdered them, and then returned to their own cells voluntarily.

This story was so preposterous that no thinking person would give it any credence. It was obvious that there had to be collusion between the prison authorities and the Sinhala prisoners to kill the Tamil prisoners as an act of revenge for the killing of the Sinhala soldiers by Tamil separatist guerillas.

What was appalling to me at the time was the readiness of so many people whom I knew well (friends, relatives, colleagues) to accept this official story at face value. Even if they doubted the story, they condoned the murders in other ways, saying that it was just as well that the prisoners had died since they were probably bad people and guilty of other crimes and that society was well rid of them. I remember being sickened by such sentiments, more so because they were being uttered by people whom I thought I knew well and who I thought would share my horror at what was, essentially, government-sanctioned murder.

This is how war brutalizes all of us and not just the soldiers who fight them. We end up as apologists for any and all actions taken by 'our' side, first the soldiers and then for their superiors all the way up the chain of command. We start looking at and judging things, not from basic principles of law and human rights and humane behavior, but by seeing who did the actions. If they were done by 'our' side, we find reasons to excuse them. If they were done by the 'enemy', we condemn them.

In the previous post, I discussed the case of prisoner abuse and torture and murder that is now going on as part of the so-called 'war on terror.' Some day people will look back at our time and wonder what kind of people we were to allow this kind behavior to be done in our name. They will ask what kind of people we were to let the government set up secret camps in foreign countries where people could be held without trial indefinitely, without contact with the outside world or lawyers or family, and where they could be tortured and killed and 'disappear.'

These things have happened in the past and history has never looked kindly at those episodes. We wonder now how the people in those countries then could have permitted such acts on other human beings. Now we know how this can happen, because that process of gaining public acceptance for acts that would be considered barbaric if done by others is unfolding before our eyes. But we will see it if only we care to look.

The first thing governments do to get the public to acquiesce in such acts is to instill deep fear in people by making them think that they are being stalked and attacked by dark and shadowy forces that could be secretly living among them. After having frightened the public, they say that the government has to resort to all these police-state measures in order to protect the public from attacks by this enemy. It is argued that to insist on due process is to shackle the government in its efforts and that those people who try to uphold the principles of law are in effect aiding the terrorists. And this strategy seems to work, making a prophet out of Nazi reichmarshall Hermann Goering who said that any people in any country can always be made to support any war that the government wants to fight.

[T]he people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country." (Hermann Goering to Gustave Gilbert, author of "Nuremberg Diary"(Farrar, Straus and Company, 1947, pp. 278-279.)

Since most people do not like to think that 'our' side is capable of doing anything bad, we tend to try and find excuses and justifications for the actions of those on 'our' side. The government prejudges people by using language describing them as 'terrorists' and 'evildoers,' so that people overlook the fact that very often no evidence had been brought against such people and that for all we know, they may be just as innocent as you or I. For example, in the White House press briefing on November 9, Press Secretary Scott McLellan said "Under our system, there is a presumption of innocence." This is an admirable sentiment but here he was referring to questions raised about the indictment and possible pardon of Vice President Cheney's chief of staff Lewis Libby. But are we committed to applying the presumption of innocence to everyone? Or just to well connected and influential people?

We are at that stage now where we have to make choices. Do we wish to live in a nation of laws where people are presumed innocent until proven guilty, where we do not have to fear being dragged from our homes in the middle of the night and taken to locations where no one has access to us and possibly tortured? Do we want to preserve the constitutional and due process laws that have been won with such difficulty and that protect the lives and freedoms and ideals that are articulated so clearly in the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Or are we going to docilely surrender them and live in a nation like Argentina during its 'dirty war' where secret prisons, military tribunals, torture, and the disappearance in the night of people are routine events?

That we have to even pose such questions is an indication of how brutalized and compromised we all have become by war.

POST SCRIPT 1: Anything goes, as long as it can be kept secret

A curious footnote to this story of secret prison camps in the above posting. The Republican leaders of the Senate and House are furious, not that such secret prisons were created, which would be what outrages sane people, but that the news of their existence was made public. Senator Frist further goes on to say that he is "not concerned about what goes on" behind the prison walls. Have these people no sense of decency left? Don't they even pretend to uphold humane behavior. And he is a doctor, swearing to do no harm?

But just afterwards, Senator Trent Lott said that the camps were discussed by the Senate Republicans at a meeting with Vice President Cheney the day before the news story. See here for a CNN report.

POST SCRIPT 2: Please support Antiwar.com

One of the best sources for news is the website Antiwar.com. I find this site to be an invaluable source of news and commentary from a wide spectrum of sources and opinions. It is a refreshingly non-partisan site and has taken a consistent antiwar stance, irrespective of which US administration is in power, since its inception in 1995. In order to preserve their independence they do not take ads and hence are dependent on voluntary contributions. They are currently having a fund drive. If you value the site, I encourage you to support it.

November 10, 2005

How war brutalizes all of us

In April 1971, there was an attempt to violently overthrow the elected government of Sri Lanka. The attempt was planned in secret by disaffected group of young people called the JVP who organized a militia and launched a surprise attack. The government was initially taken off balance but recovered and managed to crush the uprising using considerable force and brutality. This resulted in the rebel movement going underground, and for the next two decades the JVP carried out further surprise isolated attacks that resulted in the deaths of large numbers of people, including many prominent politicians.

The government responded to this steady stream of violence by giving its security forces considerable freedom to deal with suspected rebels. A college friend of mine told me of his experience when he went to a remote area to visit a high school friend of his who had enrolled in the police force after he left high school. While chatting with his friend in the police station, a person was brought in who was suspected of being with the insurgency. To my friend's horror, his former classmate casually broke off their friendly conversation and started assaulting the prisoner, both to try and get information from him and to deter him from any future action that he might be contemplating. The question of establishing guilt in a court of law did not come up. After the assault was over, my friend's classmate came back and resumed the conversation, almost as if nothing had happened. My friend was shocked at the abrupt switches in behavior.

I mention this story to illustrate a point that I think many of us miss, that wars degrade all of us. At some level of our consciousness we know that in the process of creating an army, we are essentially training people to become cold-blooded killers who can and will unquestioningly shoot and bomb people who may be just like them, but just happen to be citizens of another country or fighting on the other side. The only way that you can get people to overcome their natural abhorrence at taking some one else's life is to both dehumanize them and to get them to view the enemy as less than human. The first half of Stanley Kubrick's film Full Metal Jacket, which deals entirely with the training that new Marine recruits get, shows how the military carries out this process of taking ordinary young people and making them into people who can be ordered to kill another human being. I am told that the recently released Jarhead tells a similar story.

But this process of dehumanization does not stop with just the soldiers or just with the battlefield. Once people are taught to tolerate this way of thinking, it inevitably spreads. It is almost impossible to contain the ruthless mentality that is desired for the battlefield to just that venue. The abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib (warning: disturbing images) and Guantanamo and Afghanistan are the inevitable consequence of creating this mindset.

There are reports that some soldiers abused prisoners as 'sport.' Other reports say that soldiers used photographs they took of dead and abused and mutilated Iraqis in exchange for free membership in porn sites.

The killing and torture of people in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan are just the latest examples of something that happens with all occupying soldiers in all wars at all times.

Ordinary people are, of course, shocked by these revelations, as they should be. It is never pleasant to think that people just like us can be guilty of such unspeakable acts. My friend had that same reaction when he witnessed his classmate's treatment of the prisoner. How could someone who had the same background as him, who just a few minutes before had been chatting about mutual friends, suddenly become transformed and treat another human being so badly, and be so seemingly oblivious to the fact that he had just violated all norms of justice or even just plain civilized behavior?

We try to deal with this disconnect by viewing such acts as aberrations, to blame it on a few 'bad apples,' and console ourselves that most people do not behave this way. And in a purely numerical sense, we are probably right. The actual number of people who actually carry out acts of such brutality as have been revealed so far may not be large. If it were, we would have the equivalent of mass murder.

But we must not forget that such acts can only occur because the ethos in which these people act tolerates, if not condones or even encourages, such behavior. When you train people to kill without thinking, put them in a hostile environment where they feel under threat, give them powerful weaponry, give them unquestioned power over those under their control, and breed in them a sense that they have immunity for their actions, then it is only a matter of time before some do the kinds of things we find abhorrent. I am not sure that any of us would act much differently if we had undergone the same training and been placed under the same circumstances, so we should not be quick to judge the soldiers who do these things as somehow innately evil people, different from us. What we have to do is prevent the circumstances that encourage the baser elements of our natures to surface and allow such acts to be even contemplated. (In response to yesterday's posting, commenter Joshua links to several experiments that study what regular people can be induced to do to other people under particular conditions. Two of the more famous cases, the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment are particularly disturbing.)

This brutalizing effect of war does not end even when the war ends. The mentality bred by such training cannot be simply turned on and off like a switch. Upon their return, it infects soldiers' personal relationships as well.

By most measurements, there is a higher incidence of domestic violence in the military than in the civilian world. The most recent figures, from surveys conducted by the Department of Defense, suggest that domestic violence occurs twice as frequently in the military as among civilians. But activists and social workers believe that the rate is much higher. "Those numbers are soft," says Hansen. "Essentially, that figure comes from a reanalysis of a reanalysis of a comparative analysis from a study which goes back to the early '90s." Hansen believes the true figure is closer to five times that of the general population. Those who dispute her estimate say that the statistics should be adjusted to account for the disproportionate percentage of soldiers whose demographic profile -- mostly young men, often with relatively low educational attainment, from unstable, low-income families - pegs them as most likely to have a problem with domestic violence in the civilian population (or at least most likely to be reported for it). They argue that domestic violence is no more prevalent in the military than it is in a civilian population of comparable demographics.

Many soldiers will resist the temptation to personally indulge in such kinds of abuse but that effort often exhausts their own energies and they have little stomach left to actively oppose the few who take advantage of their power to abuse others. But we, collectively, also bear responsibility for creating the kinds of conditions that enable these things to occur.

It may be possible that if there are strong countervailing pressures from the top that enforce tight discipline and control and accountability, that some of the worst excesses can be avoided, But what the events at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Afghanistan show is that the top echelons of the administration, rather than maintaining such strict policies, deliberately cultivated a sense of ambivalence as to whether the Geneva conventions even applied to the prisoners or whether torture was permissible. Seeming to condone torture under these conditions was like lighting a fuse. The only question that remained was when the explosion would occur not if. And the government's desperate battle to keep further information of abuse from being released is an indication that their casual attitude towards the treatment of prisoners has resulted in much more widespread abuse than has been suspected, making it harder for them to sustain the self-excusing 'few bad apples' attitude.

Currently the President and Vice President are lobbying furiously to block the full adoption of anti-torture legislation contemplated by Congress, further sending the message that they are not unequivocally opposed to prisoner abuse. Larry Johnson, formerly of the CIA and the Department of State's Office of Counter Terrorism argues why this is a really bad idea.

In the next posting, we will look at the brutalizing effects of war on the general public.

POST SCRIPT: Blair rebuffed on terror suspect detentions

British Prime Minister Tony Blair suffered a defeat in his attempt to pass legislation to hold terror suspects without charge for up to 90 days. Parliament gave him an upper limit of 28 days. Meanwhile, in the US, the administration can simply, without judicial oversight, designate anyone (even you or me) as an 'enemy combatant' and that person can be held indefinitely at an unknown location and with no access to anyone to ensure that they are treated humanely.

November 09, 2005

Taking advantage of people's poverty

I read in the paper recently of an incident where the wealthy son of industrialist and his friends were about to enter a Los Angeles restaurant. Outside the restaurant was a homeless person and this person offered the homeless person $100 to pour a can of soda over himself. The homeless man did so and the crowd of rich people laughed uproariously at this, paid him, and went on their way.

This story infuriated me, as I am sure it will to most people who hear of it. It seemed that these people were humiliating the man, taking advantage of his poverty for their warped sense of what is amusing.

But at some level, I feel that I am contradicting myself. In earlier postings I have said that we should not concern ourselves and interfere with what consenting adults do. And in this case we have what seems, at least on the surface, to be a purely consensual transaction between two adults. The homeless man was not forced to pour the soda over himself. He did so because he wanted to obtain $100. So one can view this as saying that he was paid for a job. And as things go, there are a lot more disgusting things that one can be asked to do than pour a soft drink over oneself. In fact, as a society, we pay lots of people do things for us that we would shrink from doing ourselves. We pay them to go into sewers, to execute people, clean public toilets, etc. and we do not feel repelled by this. So why did I find this particular story so repellent?

Perhaps it was because we consider the homeless man is in too weak a position to freely give consent. After all, $100 was a lot of money to him. To offer very poor people what is to them a lot of money in return for doing acts that we would not do seems to offend our sense of fairness. But it is not only poor people who can be tempted in this way.

Many years ago, I saw the film The Magic Christian starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr, with the former as a millionaire who enjoyed seeing what he could get people to do out of greed. What the film argued was that people at any level of society would do almost anything, even wading through a disgusting mixture of urine and excrement, provided the price was right.

At that time I thought that the film was an overly cynical representation of human motivation but now I am not so sure. Some of the shows currently on TV seem to indicate that money and fame (however fleeting) are enough for many people to overcome their normal sense of propriety and self-respect. It is a disturbing thing to ask oneself the question as to what one might be willing to do if the price were high enough. This is why I feel that it is so important that everyone be paid a living wage and have the minimum living requirements of food, clothing, and shelter, so that they are not forced to trade their dignity in exchange for these basic necessities of life. If they do have the basic necessities and are yet willing to do things in exchange for further riches, then that is up to them.

But clearly the homeless man was not in that position and perhaps the reason we are so repelled by this story is that there was no redeeming purpose at all for the action, unlike the situation where people do jobs that society requires but which we might find personally distasteful. Here the whole point seemed to be to flaunt rich people's power over the poor and to gain enjoyment from the humiliation of another human being.

But what constitutes humiliation is also tricky. What for one person is a humiliating act is for another person a chance to proudly flaunt their lack of concern for society's expectations and mores. If the homeless man thought there was a market for his actions and decided to be entrepreneurial and launch a career by offering to pour soda over himself to anyone who would pay, would the action now become respectable, just another job that many of us personally would not do but is otherwise acceptable? After all, some comedians are willing to have pies thrown in their face as part of their act. And reality shows like Fear Factor show that people are willing to do the grossest things just to be on TV. The only difference between these things and the homeless man story seems to be that the homeless man was poor and the event was spontaneous, not planned and scripted.

It seems like all these questions come back, in some essential way, to the issues of justice as fairness as the only sound basis for constructing society. Under those conditions, the only power that one person has over another is that freely given.

But the soda-pouring episode still angers me.

POST SCRIPT 1: End of the road for intelligent design creationism in Dover?

It seems like all the candidates for the Dover, PA school board who advocated teaching intelligent design in their science classes were swept out of office on election day yesterday, to be replaced by other candidates whose platform was to shift IDC into an elective comparative religion course.

POST SCRIPT 2: How we were lied into war

A recent episode of Hardball gives a summary of how the White House, together with Judith Miller of the New York Times, created the sense of fear that enabled them to sell the attack on Iraq. The video clips of the members of the administration brazenly fear-mongering by invoking mushroom clouds is something to see. These people are quite shameless.

POST SCRIPT 3: Telling the truth gets you in jail

Eli Stephens writes the story of two generals. One, Colin Powell, made a speech full of lies at the UN to justify the attack on Iraq. He now walks a free man, giving speeche,s and collecting huge fees.

Another Iraqi general Amer al-Saadi was put in solitary confinement in an Iraqi jail for nearly two years and it is not clear if he is still there. His crime? Telling the truth. He was the Iraqi scientist and liaison to the weapons inspectors who denied that Iraq had any weapons of mass destruction or WMD programs.

Perhaps al-Saadi's biggest "crime" was that he called out Powell on his lies at a time when the US media was swooning over Powell's performance at the UN. As Stephens says:

In particular, he derided Powell's assertions that Iraq attempts to hide secret information by keeping it moving in vehicles driven around the country.
"'All of that is fiction,' he said. 'It is simply not true.'
"Saadi described Powell's approach as a 'a deliberate attempt to undermine the credibility and professionalism of the inspection bodies by making allegations which directly contradict their assessments or cast doubt on their credibility.'"

Calling Powell a liar? Unforgivable.

November 08, 2005

Against tipping

I have been traveling a lot recently on work-related matters and this requires me to do things that I don't routinely do, such as stay in hotels, take taxis, eat at restaurants, and take airplanes.

I generally dislike traveling because of the disruption that it causes in one's life and the dreariness of packing and unpacking and sleeping in strange places where one does not have access to the familiarity and conveniences of home. But another reason that I dislike these kinds of trips is that they force me to confront the phenomenon of tipping.

I hate the whole practice of tipping. One reason is structural in that tipping enables employers to avoid paying workers less than the minimum wage, let alone a living wage. People who work forty hours per week at the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour make about $11,000 a year (Note that in terms of inflation adjusted dollars, this is the lowest rate since 1955.) But there are exemptions from even this low rate for those jobs where there is an expectation that the employee can earn at least $30 per month in tips. Some jobs pay about half the federal minimum wage rate and employers can justify this practice by arguing that tips more than make up the difference between this and what is necessary to support themselves and their families. But note that all you need is to be able to get $360 per year in tips to be not protected by even the currently miserable minimum wage laws.

I feel that people should not have to depend upon the kindness of strangers (which is what tipping is) to earn a living wage. Anyone who works full time should be able to make enough to live on, which in the US means roughly doubling the current minimum wage, although there is strong regional variation.

I hate tipping because it seems like it is meant to force people to be nice to me. In general, I find people to be nice and polite and helpful without the need for extrinsic motivators for such behavior, acting simply out of politeness and kindness. I think that almost all people are like that and do not need to be paid to extend the common courtesies of life to one another. People smile, greet each other, assist each other if necessary, all because we feel a sense of empathy and oneness with those around us, not because we expect some reward.

But when I tip someone, I feel as if I am implying that that person performed that act of kindness or service because of the expectation of payment. And to me this cheapens that human interaction, transforming it into a commercial transaction. Unfortunately, I don't know what to personally do about it, other than support the enactment of a living wage for all employees without exemption.

On a personal level, I tip people because I know they are not paid well and depend on tips to make ends meet. But if at all possible, I try to bury the tip so that it is not obviously an exchange of money between the person being tipped and me. In restaurants, I add it to the bill and pay by credit card so that no money directly changes hands between the server and me.

But in some cases, you cannot avoid a cash exchange so I try to avoid situations where the tip is the only money that exchanges hands, but instead is part of the overall cash payment. For taxis, for example, I can add it to the fare so that I am not due any change and so can act like I am paying just the fare. If that is unavoidable and I have to give a cash tip to a person that is not part of a payment for other goods and services, I try as much as possible to do it when the recipient is not there, like leaving it on a restaurant table when leaving, or leaving it in a hotel room when checking out.

But there are some situations, such as with porters and hotel doorpersons and bellhops, where the starkly commercial nature of the tip cannot be disguised. I try as much as possible to avoid those situations (by doing things myself as much as possible) and if I cannot do so, tip as hastily and as unobtrusively as I can.

We do not live in an egalitarian society. Society is stratified by class and wealth. But tips seem to rub everyone's noses in that reality in a particularly revolting way. The jobs that depend on tips seem to me to encourage servility and an almost feudal sensibility, throwing us back to a former age where the 'noble lords and ladies' dispense largesse to a fawning and grateful peasantry. Fortunately I do not spend time in places where wealthy people hang out and where there is an expectation that you will be waited on hand and foot and treated obsequiously. I live largely in a world where people carry their own bags, do their own chores and open their own doors, or do so for others simply out of politeness.

Perhaps I am overreacting to what is 'normal' practice, seeing a deep social problem where none exists. But then I wonder how I would feel if the university did not pay me a living wage but instead had tip jars in each classroom and I had to depend upon satisfied students to give tips after each class supplement my income. A colleague tells me that in the old days of the Greek philosopher-teachers, students would pay them for each class if they were satisfied, so this is not an unheard of practice. What would that do to the student-teacher relationship? I cannot imagine that it would be good. So why is it good for other relationships?

What I would really like is for everyone to be paid a living wage.

POST SCRIPT

The Los Angeles Times reports that the IRS is challenging the tax-exempt status of an Episcopal Church because of an antiwar sermon preached on the eve of the 2004 presidential election. It is only one more step before criticizing Bush is equated with blasphemy.

I wonder if the tax-exempt status of churches and other organizations associated with Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and the like are being examined....

Meanwhile, The Daily Show shows how allowing gay marriage has ruined Massachusetts.

November 07, 2005

Loyalty Oaths

In the recently released film Good Night, and Good Luck there is one scene where a pair of worried news reporters are discussing the fact that they have been asked to sign a loyalty oath. This was something that was instituted during the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s led by Senator Joe McCarthy. The reporters said that if they did not sign, they would lose their jobs. Even Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly, two people who challenged McCarthy, had signed the pledges.

That scene brought back bitter memories of the time that I had to sign a loyalty oath or lose my job. It was one of the things in my life that I most regret having had to do.

The year was 1983. Sri Lanka had had a long history of ethnic tension between the majority Sinhala community and the minority Tamil community to which I belonged. In July of that year, a small group of Tamil guerillas, determined to seek a separate state, attacked a military convoy and killed thirteen troops. In the days that followed, Sinhala mobs went on a rampage, killing Tamil people and setting fire to their homes. The government and the security forces stood by for days, either doing nothing or providing tacit support to the mobs, leading to speculation that the government itself had organized and initiated the mob rampages as part of a political strategy, to serve as a warning to the Tamil separatist movement that their actions would have negative consequences for other Tamils. It seemed as if the government was essentially trying to blackmail the guerillas into ceasing military action, using the Tamil population as hostages.

My wife and I and our three month old daughter, and my mother and sisters and their families, had to go into hiding for about some days in the homes of courageous Sinhala friends of ours, who knew full well that they risked having the mobs attack them too if they were discovered to be harboring Tamils. We returned to our homes after nearly a week of chaos, when the government finally gave the order for the police and army to take back control of the streets from the mobs. Fortunately, our homes had escaped the mobs' attention, making us luckier than most.

I was furious that the government had not carried out its most basic duty, which was to protect the lives of its citizens. But that was not the end of it. To make matters worse, the government then declared that the way to counter the Tamil separatist movement was for everyone to sign an oath that they would not advocate the creation of a separate state.

This is typical of the way that governments everywhere tend to handle unrest and dissent. Instead of looking at the causes of the unrest, they declare that it is the very act of dissent that is causing the problem. This is much easier to do than to examine and rectify the root causes. This is why governments constantly seek to stifle speech and intimidate opponents and why advocates of civil liberties have to be constantly on guard against curbs on speech. This kind of government strategy rarely works but that does not stop them from trying. The Sri Lankan government's action in 1983, far from stopping the separatist movement, seemed to only serve to increase its vigor with the result that the strength of the guerilla group increased over two decades until it effectively fought the government army to a draw. There is currently a tenuous ceasefire, with the separatists controlling a significant part of the territory that they consider to be their own homeland.

But back in 1983 I was furious that I was being asked to sign this pledge, essentially a loyalty oath to a unitary state. My opposition was not because I had any separatist sympathies. I had opposed a separate state then and still prefer to avoid it now if at all possible. But the very fact that I was being forced to swear what was effectively an oath of allegiance to government policies made me angry. If anything, being coerced into signing made me more sympathetic to the separatist movement, not less.

But I had no choice. All universities in Sri Lanka are run by the government. If I did not sign, I would be fired and would not be able to get other jobs. We were not independently wealthy people. We had only our jobs to support us, and a newborn baby to take care of. So I signed. I have never forgotten that feeling of anger and resentment when I signed that worthless document.

Some might argue (and do) that if you agree with the substance of an oath, then what is the harm in signing? In this view, only those who object to the ideas being sworn to have reason to protest. Hence they view such oaths are a way of flushing out dissenters or forcing them to shut up, and this type of thinking was common during the McCarthy era as well. But this is wrong. The principle that is being upheld by those who object to such oaths is that they change things in an important way. The presumption then becomes that if you don't sign, you have something to hide.

The fifth amendment to the US constitution says that no one "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." I think it is an excellent sentiment but I would like to generalize and expand it even more to everyday life with a "none of your business" or a "right to be left alone" attitude which says that no private citizen should be forced by anyone else to express an opinion on any issue.

My view is that private people have the right to believe whatever they like and have the right to not voice their views on any topic, without any inferences being drawn from their silence. To require such people to say oaths is something that has to be reserved for very special situations, like in court trial, where lying can have serious consequences for the rights of others. There also may be situations like joining a society or club, where one is required to make some kind of symbolic affirmation of the goals of the organization. But these are different from government inspired loyalty oaths.

I oppose all symbolic acts of loyalty when they are coerced, either explicitly or implicitly, like standing for the national anthem, saluting the flag, saying the pledge of allegiance, and so forth. These things should be done only by those who genuinely want to, and no aspersions should be cast on those who decide not to. Forced acts of loyalty are as worthless and demeaning to all concerned as forced acts of religious piety.

November 04, 2005

Is the curriculum at Hogwarts science?

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke makes the point that any sufficiently advanced technology will seem like magic to the naïve observer. This seems to be a good observation to apply to the magic that is practiced at Hogwarts. What seems to exist there is a world with highly advanced "technology", operating under strict rules that the inhabitants know how to manipulate. The more mature wizards seem to easily produce consistent results with their spells while the novices mess around until they get it right. This is not very different from what we do in the Muggle world, except that we are manipulating computers and cars that are controlled by knobs and dials and switches and keyboards, while the wizards use wands and spells. It is not a mystery to other wizards how specific results are obtained and what is required to achieve those results is skill and practice.

What is intriguing is that while the wizards and witches know how to manipulate the wands and words and potions to achieve results that seem magical to us Muggles, they do not really understand the rules themselves. The classes at Hogwarts seem to be almost exclusively hands-on and practical, using trial and error methods, with no theory of magic. Hogwarts is more like a trade school, where they teach a craft. It is like a school of carpentry or pharmacy or boat making where you learn that "if you do this, then that will happen" without actually learning the underlying principles. The world of Hogwarts is closer to the medieval world, where there were highly skilled craftsmen who were able to build cathedrals and ships without understanding the underlying science.

An interesting question to speculate on is whether the magic the students learn at Hogwarts castle would count as science today. If we go back to Aristotle, when he tried to distinguish science from other forms of knowledge he classified knowledge into ' know how' (the ability to achieve certain results) and 'know why' (the underlying reasons and principles for the achievement). It is the latter kind of knowledge that he counted as science. The 'know how' knowledge is what we would now call technology. For example, a boat maker can make excellent ships (the 'know how') without knowing anything about density or the role that the relative density of materials plays in sinking and floating (the 'know why').

Trying to make the world of Hogwarts consistent with modern science would have been difficult. Rowling manages to finesse this question by making life in Hogwarts similar to life in the middle ages, with no electricity, computers, television, and other modern gadgets. Students at Hogwarts don't use cell phones and instant messaging. In one book, this kind of anachronism is explained by Hermione saying that electric devices don't work inside Hogwarts. By artfully effectively placing the reader back in a time when it was easier to envisage magic (in the form of highly advanced technology) being taken for granted in the world, Rowling manages to avoid the kinds of awkward scientific questions that would ruin the effect.

Thus Rowling manages to avoid the science dilemma altogether by creating in Hogwarts what seems to be a purely 'know how' world. This enables her to let magic be the driving technology that moves the story forward.

Introducing modern knowledge and sensibilities into an earlier time period is a staple of fantasy and science fiction, and writers like Rowling, and Mark Twain with his A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court do it well.

POST SCRIPT

A survey indicates that more Britons believe in ghosts than they do in god. I am not sure what to make of this, so am just passing it along.

November 03, 2005

The problem with parallel worlds

Fantasy writers like J. K. Rowling who want to interweave the magical with the ordinary face some serious challenges. As long as you stay purely within the world of magic at Hogwarts, you can create a self-contained world obeying its own rules. But there is clearly some added drama that accrues when you can contrast that world with the world we live in, because that helps readers to identify more with the characters. Having wizards live among Muggles opens up plenty of opportunities for both comedy and dramatic situations. It also enables us to imagine ourselves in the story, to think that there might be a parallel world that we get glimpses of but do not recognize because we do not know what to look for. Maybe our neighbors are witches and we don't know it.

The situation faced by authors like Rowling in coming up with a realistic scenario that convincingly weaves the magic and ordinary worlds is not unlike the problem facing religious people who believe in a parallel world occupied by god, heaven, angels, etc. For this parallel religious world to have any tangible consequences for people in the normal world, the two worlds must overlap at least at a few points. But how can you make the intersections consistent? How can god, who presumably exists in the parallel universe, intervene in the natural world and yet remain undetected? In a previous posting, I discussed the difficult questions that need to be addressed in making these connections fit into a coherent worldview.

In Rowling's world, one connecting point between the magical and normal worlds is the pub The Leaky Cauldron whose front door opens onto the normal world and whose back has a gate that opens onto Diagon Alley, a parallel magical world. Another connecting point is at Kings Cross railway station where the brick wall between platforms nine and ten is a secret doorway onto platform 9 ¾, where the students catch the train to Hogwarts. A third is the house at 12 Grimmauld Place, and so on.

But this plot device of having gateways connecting the two worlds, while amusing, creates problems if you try to analyze it too closely. (This is the curse of many, many years of scientific training, coupled with a determinedly rationalistic worldview. It makes me want to closely analyze everything, even fiction, for internal logical consistency.)

For example, although platform 9 ¾ is hidden from the Muggles in some kind of parallel world, the train to Hogwarts somehow seems to get back into the real world on its way to Hogwarts because it travels through the English countryside. I initially thought that this countryside might also be in the parallel world, except that in one book Ron and Harry catch up with the train in their flying car, and they started off in the normal world. In another book we are told that Hogwarts is also in the Muggle world but that it is charmed so that Muggles only see what looks like a ruined castle. We also see owls carrying mail between Hogwarts and the normal world. So clearly there must be many boundaries between the magic and Muggle worlds. What happens when people and owls cross these other boundaries?

When I read the books, such questions are for me just idle curiosity. I like to see how the author deals with these questions but the lack of logical consistency does not bother me or take anything away from my enjoyment of the books. Rowling is not sloppy. She respects her readers' intelligence, and she gives the reader enough of a rationale for believing in her two-worlds model that we can be taken along for the ride. The logical inconsistencies she glosses over are, I think, inevitable consequences of trying to create this kind of parallel universe model. To her credit, she is skilful enough to provide enough plausibility so that the reader is not troubled (or even notices) unless he or she (like me) is actually looking for problems.

But the problems Rowling faces in constructing a two worlds model that is logically consistent is similar to that faced by people who want to believe in a spiritual world that exists in parallel with the physical world. Since Rowling is writing a work of fiction and nothing of importance rides on whether we accept the inconsistencies or not, we can just close our eyes to these minor flaws and enjoy the books.

But the same cannot be said for the similar problems that confront two-world models that underlies most religious beliefs that have a god, because we are now not dealing with fiction but presumably real life. And being able to construct a two-worlds model (with gateways between the spiritual and physical worlds) that is logically consistent is important because it may determine whether people believe or disbelieve in a god. It was my personal inability to do so that finally pushed me into atheism.

POST SCRIPT

As usual, political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow gets to the heart of the Judith Miller-New York Times-WMD story.

November 02, 2005

The secular world of Harry Potter

After reading the latest book in the Harry Potter series (#6 in the series called Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) I got involved in discussions with serious aficionados of the series as to what might happen in the upcoming book, which will be the last in the series. I made my predictions but they were scorned by these experts since they knew I had not read the earlier books 1, 3, 4, and 5. (I had read #2 a few years ago.) The Potter mavens said that since the author had planned the books out carefully as one long, coherent story, what I was doing was like trying to predict the end of a whodunit after skipping two-thirds of the plot.

I had to concede the justice of the criticism and so the last few weeks I have been reading the entire series and am now in the middle of my last unread book, #5 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I am now well on the way to Harry Potter geekdom, though I will never reach the uber-geek status of some. It has not been a sacrifice on my part since the books are well written and I have been kept up many a late night because I could not put the books down. Clearly J. K. Rowling knows how to spin a good story.

What has struck me in reading the books in rapid succession over a short period of time is how secular and rational the world described by the books are. This may come as a surprise given that they are about witches, wizards, hexes, curses, and all kinds of magic that violate pretty much all the known laws of physics.

But while the world of Hogwarts is one in which magical phenomena are everyday events, it does not seem to be at all religious or irrational. So far not a single character has revealed any religious inclinations and there have been no prayers or any form of organized worship of any kind. Sunday seems to be just another off day. I cannot remember even seeing the word "god" used, even as an involuntary exclamation or a swear word.

Christmas does occur in every book but it seems to be true to its pagan origins and is celebrated as a secular holiday, with decorations, Christmas trees, feasting, and the exchange of presents, but with no indication that there is any religious significance to it. The closest that anything came to Christianity was a mention of the carol O Come All Ye Faithful which has references to Jesus and god, although if one is not a Christian you would not know this since the words of the carol are not given in the book. Clearly the world of wizards and witches and goblins and other assorted characters has no need of god.

Even the magic that is done seems quite rational. While the laws of physics as we know them seem to be routinely violated, the fundamental methodological principle of causality (that phenomena have causes that can be investigated systematically) remains intact. Spells are highly structured and prescribed and you have to do it in a particular way to achieve the desired result. Potions have to follow specific recipes to be effective. Deviations from the rigid rules of operation result in aberrant results, the source of much of the humor and drama of the books. It seems as if everything, even magic, follows laws that govern their behavior, and everything seems quite rational. One gets the sense that so-called "intelligent design creationism" (or IDC), with its emphasis on unknown and unnamed agents acting in innately unknowable ways, would not get a warm welcome in the rationalist atmosphere at Hogwarts. IDC ideas would have a tough time getting into their curriculum.

Many fundamentalist Christian groups object to the Harry Potter books because they are drenched in sorcery and witchcraft, which the Bible supposedly condemns. (Scroll down this site for some negative reviews.) They say that the books lure young children towards sorcery, which they identify with devil worship.

I think these critics are making a profound mistake. Nowhere do the characters, either good or bad, do anything that can be remotely described as worshiping anything. Good and evil are represented by people such as Dumbledore and Voldemort, not by deities.

The religious fundamentalists, if they want to object to the books, should be focusing on the fact that, as far as I can tell, the whole wizarding community consists of a bunch of thoroughgoing atheists.

POST SCRIPT: SCOOP - The name of the 'intelligent designer' revealed!

In an earlier post, I mentioned how the so called 'intelligent design creationist' (IDC) people were extremely careful not to identify their intelligent designer, using various circumlocutions to avoid doing so. I thought it was pretty obvious that the intelligent designer was god and said so. But I now realize I was wrong. Reading the Harry Potter books, the truth suddenly came upon me in a flash when I realized that nearly all the wizards and witches also carefully avoided giving a name to someone and kept referring to him as "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named."

The intelligent designer has to be Lord Voldemort. Remember, you read it here first.

November 01, 2005

The joy of free thinking

There is scarcely a week that does not pass without some interesting new scientific discovery about the nature of life. You open the newspaper and read of observations of light emitted by distant stars from the very edges of the known universe, light that must have been emitted almost at the very beginning, over ten billion years ago. Such research puts us in touch with our own cosmic beginnings.

Just recently there was the discovery of the fossils a possible new Hobbit-like people who lived in a remote island in the Indonesian archipelago about 18,000 years ago. Then there was the discovery in China of an almost perfectly preserved bowl of noodles that is about the 4,000 years old. Discoveries like these shed light on how evolution works and how human society evolved.

Similarly, the discoveries that come from studies of DNA tell us a lot about where humans probably originated, how we are all related to one another and how, despite our common origins, the species spread over the Earth and diversified. The fact (according to the September 21, 2005 issue of The Washington Post) that we share nearly 99 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, lend further strong support (not that it needed it) to the evolutionary idea that chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestry. (The approximately one percent difference, according to The Daily Show, is what causes human beings to kill each other!)

I enjoy reading things like this because it reminds me that we are all linked together by one great biological evolutionary tree, with the various animal species being our cousins, and even things like worms and bacteria being somehow related to us, however distantly. Some people may find the idea of being related to a monkey repulsive but I think it is fascinating. The ability of science to investigate, to find new relationships, to explore and conjecture and come up with answers to old questions as well as create new questions to investigate is one of its greatest qualities.

And for me, personally, being an atheist makes that joy completely unalloyed. Shafars (i.e., secularists, humanists, atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, and rationalists), as well as religious people who interpret their religious texts metaphorically and not literally, do not have any concerns when new headlines describing a new scientific discovery are reported in the news. They do not have to worry whether any new fact will contradict a deeply held religious belief. They do not have to worry about whether they need to reconcile the new information with any unchanging religious text.

On the other hand, the same news items that give us fascinating glimpses of scientific discoveries undoubtedly create fresh headaches for those whose religious beliefs are based on literal readings of religious texts, because each new discovery has to be explained away if it disagrees with some dogma. There are people who devote their entire lives to this kind of apologetics, to ensure that their religious beliefs are made compatible with science. The website Answers in Genesis, for example, is devoted to making Young-Earth creationism (YEC) credible. So it goes to great lengths to show that the earth is less that 10,000 years old, all the animals could have fitted into Noah's Ark, and that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans.

One has to admire the tenacity of such people, their willingness to devote enormous amounts of time, sometimes their whole lives, to find support for a belief structure that is continuously under siege from new scientific discoveries. It must feel like trying to hold back the tide. (See this site which tries to fit the astrophysical data received from light emitted by stars that are billions of light years away into a 10,00 year old universe model.)

Of course, scientific discoveries come too thick and fast for even the most determined literal apologists to keep up. So they tend to focus only on explaining away a few questions, the kinds of questions that the lay public is likely to be concerned about, such as whether dinosaurs existed concurrently with humans, the ages of the universe and the Earth, whether the size of the Ark was sufficient to accommodate all the species, how Noah coped with the logistical problems of feeding all the animals and disposing of the waste, how Adam and Eve's children could multiply without there already being other people around or indulging in incest, and so on.

But the rest of us don't have to worry about any of that stuff and so can enjoy new scientific discoveries without any cares, and follow them wherever they lead. It is nice to know that one can throw wide open the windows of knowledge and let anything blow in, clearing out the cobwebs of old ideas and freshening up the recesses of the mind.

It is a wonderful and exhilarating feeling.