Entries for March 2006

March 31, 2006

Changing notions of death-4: Implications for animals

(See part 1, part 2 and part 3 of this series.)

If asked, any one of us would say that we value life, that we consider it precious and not to be taken lightly. While the specific phrase "valuing the culture of life" seems to have been co-opted by those who are specifically opposed to abortion, the general idea that it encapsulates, that life should not be taken casually or at all, is one that all of us would subscribe to.

But of course there are contradictions. People who say they value life often see no problem with supporting the death penalty. Another hypocrisy is with those who support killing in wars, even of civilians, and even in large numbers. We try to rationalize this by saying that civilians are killed inadvertently, but that is a false argument. Civilians are inevitably killed in wars, often deliberately, and we often do nothing to condemn it when it is done by 'our side.' To support wars is to support killing and absolve killers, however much we try to sugar coat this unpleasant fact. As Voltaire said, "It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets."

In his lecture, Peter Singer pointed out that killing and eating animals, while opposing the withdrawal of life support of those in a persistent vegetative state, poses an ethical problem for people who say that they value a "culture of life."

He gave as an example the fact that while the 3,000 or so victims of September 11, 2001 were deeply mourned, no one mourned the fact that millions of chickens were killed on that same day and every day before and since. But we do not mourn them the same way. Why not?

If we define death as heart dead or brain dead, then the chickens are as alive as any of us. Even when we lower the bar to thinking of someone in a persistent vegetative state as being 'effectively dead', that still does not get us off the hook since, as Singer argued, chickens and other animals have higher levels of consciousness than people in a persistent vegetative state. Free range chickens seem to show signs of happiness, curiosity, anxiety, fear, and the sense of self-awareness that, if present in humans, would definitely bar us from killing them. If that is the case, then if we oppose the withdrawal of life support systems even from those in a persistent vegetative state, then how can we justify killing chickens, or any other animal for that matter?

He posed the question of why the killing of human beings is deplored but that of chickens is not. He said that appealing to species chauvinism ("We are human, and so are justified in valuing human life over non-human animal life.") was not really an ethically justifiable defense, though many people used it.

After all, if we allowed that particular chauvinist line of defense, where do we draw the line? What if I say that because I am male, I am justified in thinking that the lives of women are worth less than that of men? We would reject that line of argument as rank sexism. What if I say that because I am brown skinned, I am justified in treating non-brown people as inferior? We would reject that argument as rank racism. So why should we think that the argument "I am human so I am justified in valuing human life over animal life?" is acceptable?

Singer's point was that as soon as we shift our definition of death from that defined by the complete lack of heart or brain function, and to judgments about the nature or level of the consciousness involved, we have gone into ethically tricky territory for those non-vegetarians who argue that because of belief in a "culture of life," human beings must be kept alive at all costs. Because you cannot argue that people in a persistent vegetative state should be kept on life support while arguing that perfectly healthy animals can be killed.

People of certain religious traditions (like Christians, Jews, and Muslims) perhaps can find justification for this discrepant behavior by appealing to their religious beliefs that include species chauvinism as part of their doctrines. In the view of these religions, humans are specially favored by god and thus fundamentally different from, and superior to, other animals so valuing human life and disregarding non-human animal life is allowable. It is noteworthy that Buddhism and Hinduism do not assert such a species chauvinistic attitude. They seem to treat human and non-human animals on an equal footing and vegetarianism is advocated by both religions.

But if we leave out religious sanction and argue on strictly ethical grounds, it becomes hard to justify opposing the withdrawal of life support systems to people who are in a persistent vegetative state on the grounds that such people are still 'alive', and square it with the killing of healthy animals for food, as we routinely do.

Singer made a cogent argument that none of us can really ethically justify the killing of animals for food, when it is not necessary for survival. Singer himself is a vegetarian.

I am not sure if Singer was able to resolve some of the ethical issues of what constitutes death by the end of his talk, after I had left. But his ideas were very thought provoking.


Good jugglers are amazing. For a fine example of this art, go here and then click on "Watch Chris Bliss."

March 30, 2006

Internet sleuthing

I am a firm believer in cooperative learning. The combined efforts of many people can produce results that would be impossible for a single person. And the internet is a wonderful mechanism for enabling collective action.

What follows is a modern-day detective story that illustrates what is possible when the collective strength of people working together, sharing information and ideas, and building on each others' ideas, combined with the speed of communication and resources available on the internet.

Howard Kaloogian is a Republican candidate in San Diego's special congressional election to replace disgraced Republican Duke Cunningham, who pleaded guilty to bribery, resigned his seat, and is now in jail. In his campaign, Kaloogian tried to propagate the White House meme that things are just peachy in Iraq and that the media is deliberately sabotaging the war effort, painting a dark picture by reporting only the daily bombings, beheadings, kidnappings, extortions, etc.

To bolster his claim and to counteract this alleged deliberate negativity, he posted on his website on March 17 a photo (scroll down) that he said he took on his recent trip to Baghdad showing a peaceful street intersection with people strolling around casually in what seems to be a commercial area. [UPDATE: Kaloogian has removed this photo from the website. But nothing really ever disappears on the internet and you can see the photo here.]

The caption to the photo said: "Downtown Baghdad 
We took this photo of dowtown [sic] Baghdad while we were in Iraq. Iraq (including Baghdad) is much more calm and stable than what many people believe it to be. But, each day the news media finds any violence occurring in the country and screams and shouts about it - in part because many journalists are opposed to the U.S. effort to fight terrorism."

Before reading further, I'd like you to take a look at this picture and see if you notice anything about it.

Ok, done? Now read on. . .

At about 4:30pm (EDT) on March 28th, an alert observer noticed something a little strange about the picture and raised suspicions as to its authenticity. The main thing that was puzzling was that none of the street and shop signs had Arabic lettering on them. Also, the people were dressed in ways not consistent with the increasingly restrictive cleric-dominated Iraqi society. The poster mentioned these oddities on the blog site.

Once that bugle blew, the hunt was on, with many people looking over the photo carefully for clues, finding more and more discrepancies, and using their diverse knowledge to find answers. Some suggested, after blowing up the photo and examining carefully some of the lettering in the signs and the words and products advertised, that the location depicted was actually in Turkey, not Iraq.

At about 7:00pm on that same day, an Operation Desert Storm vet, who had been alerted to the strange photo and who had been to Iraq, met Kaloogian and told him that the photo did not look at all like the Baghdad he knew. Kaloogian was directly asked for an explanation and replied that they had a lot of pictures with Arabic script in them but that they picked one with no Arabic in it so that the location of the photo could not be identified (which seems an unnecessary precaution if things are going so swimmingly in Iraq).

But soon after, another investigator found a photo online (taken by a commercial photographer) that showed the very same intersection, which was identified as being in Bakirkoy, a suburb of Istanbul, Turkey. Josh Marshall compares the two photos and finds a convincing four point match.

The amazing thing was that this final denouement occurred at about noon on the 29th, which meant that the fake was convincingly exposed within twenty-four hours of the initial suspicion being raised, a remarkable feat of collaborative journalism, made possible by the networking capability of the internet.

Later that same day, when he was faced with the overwhelming evidence that the photo on his website was a lie, Kaloogian did the honorable thing: he promptly blamed a low-level staffer for the embarassment.

Fortunately for Kaloogian, Jesus' General has come to his rescue and offers him a much better photo poster for him to use in his campaign, one that shows Baghdad looking even more peaceful.

[UPDATE: Scrambling to recover, Kaloogian has replaced his original photo of "peaceful Baghdad" with another one that looks like an aerial shot of distant buildings where you cannot even see any people!

Other investigators suggests that it looks like this new photo was taken from the rooftop of the Rashid Hotel within the heavily fortified Green Zone, and that one of the buildings on that photo (a police station) had been bombed even before Kaloogian's visit about nice months ago.

Kaloogian should give up his laughable efforts to show how peaceful Iraq is. If this is the best that he can do, then things are even worse than I thought.]

POST SCRIPT: Peter Sellers

Peter Sellers is one of the greatest comic actors I have seen. His films are part of the select few that I watch more than once. Hence it was sad to learn that as a person, he was an awful man, cruel to his wives and children and friends and co-workers.

The film The Life and Death of Peter Sellers captures the complexity and sadness behind the life of one of the funniest actors of all time.

Peter Sellers himself felt that he had no character, no personality, other than the ones he adopted for his roles. He once said "If you ask me to play myself, I will not know what to do. I do not know who or what I am." And thus he was able to blend, chameleon-like, into the many characters he played on screen.

Geoffrey Rush gives an amazing performance in the title role. I had doubts about seeing any actor playing Peter Seller, especially in his signature role of Inspector Clousseau. How could anyone capture that idiotic solemnity and self-importance? But right from the opening scene, Rush dispelled my concerns. Rush was Peter Sellers

The scene that best captures this is on the plane when Sellers is on his way to Italy to work on the first Pink Panther film. He goes into the bathroom as Peter Sellers and comes out dressed as Inspector Clousseau and starts arguing, in character, with the flight attendant. Rush is channeling priceless, vintage Sellers.

But the film is not a comedy, although it has funny bits. It is a portrayal of a hugely gifted yet tragically flawed man.

March 29, 2006

Changing notions of death-3: Doctors versus guardians

In part 1 and part 2 of this series of posts, we saw how the idea of when someone had died had shifted to the point where people in a persistent vegetative state could have their life support systems removed because they are considered to be 'effectively' dead. But even if the family is agreed on what action should be taken with a family member in a persistent vegetative state, there are already moves under way to shift the bar even lower. The question now being raised is as to what should be done if the doctors determine that further treatment is futile but the family does not want to remove life support.

In a recent case in England, doctors had recommended that an 18-month old infant (identified as just MB) who suffers from the severest form of spinal muscular atrophy - an incurable and progressively worsening condition leading to complete paralysis - be allowed to die. The parents objected and the matter went to trial.

On March 15, 2006, the judge ruled in the parents' favor, refusing to declare that it would be lawful to withdraw life-sustaining ventilation.

A momentary look of wistfulness passed over the face of MB’s mother as the judge listed five possible options, one of which was to allow the child to die peacefully in his parents’ arms - the one favoured by the paediatricians. The parents have fought long and hard against the received medical wisdom of the case, even though, as the judge said, they may be deluding themselves that their son has a future.

At long last, Mr Justice Holman gave his ruling that the boy shall live, if not perhaps for long.

In that case, the judge in England did not shift the goal posts on what constitutes death or the conditions under which people are 'allowed to die.'

But people might be surprised to know that a similar situation had occurred in the US and that doctors and hospitals were allowed to override the family's will. Remarkably, this little noticed event took place on March 15, 2006 during the high point of the events surrounding Terri Schiavo.

While Americans were riveted by dramatic events unfolding in Pinellas Park, Fla., a five-month-old Houston baby took his last breath after a hospital let him die despite his mother's objections.

Sun Hudson was born Sept. 25 with thanatophoric dysplasia, an incurable and fatal form of dwarfism. Doctors said his tiny lungs would never fully grow and that he would never breathe on his own.

Hudson's mother, Wanda, put up a fight when doctors advised removing Sun from a respirator. She said she did not believe in sickness or death. (my italics)

This was the first time that life support was removed over the objections of the legal guardian and without any advance directives from the patient, such as a living will. Perhaps the ultimate irony, if not outright hypocrisy, was that this Texas law was signed in 1999 by then Governor George W. Bush. The baby Sun Hudson was allowed to die in Texas against the wishes of his mother because of a state law then-Governor Bush signed, on the very same day that now-President Bush dramatically cut short his vacation and flew back to Washington to sign the federal law that supported the parents' right to keep life support continuing for Terri Schiavo.

The doctors were able to override the mother's wishes on March 15, 2005 because the case took place in Texas and that state has a law that authorizes doctors and hospitals to override the wishes of the patient's families. The hospital took this action under the The Texas Advance Directives Act (1999), also known as the Texas Futile Care Law, which according to Wikipedia, "describes certain provisions that are now Chapter 166 of the Texas Health & Safety Code. Controversy over these provisions mainly centers on Section 166.046, Subsection (e), which allows a health care facility to discontinue life-sustaining treatment against the wishes of the patient or guardian ten days after giving written notice."

As with the case of shifting the definition of death from heart dead to brain dead, serious ethical issues are raised by this act. There are concerns that this law was passed because hospitals did not want to shoulder the cost of maintaining life support for patients who cannot pay for it. Although the law (as I read it) does not explicitly say that the inability to pay for life support can be a reason for termination of services, it is easy to see that financial considerations are going to come into play.

It is unlikely that patients who have rich families who can pay the bills are going to have their wishes overridden and life support removed. But one can see why hospitals, which have become businesses, would not like the prospect of indefinitely providing expensive life support care if they have no hope of being reimbursed. What adds further suspicion to the view that commercial concerns are significant is that if another hospital is willing to accept the patient, then the patient can be shifted there. But it is unlikely that another hospital is going to accept a new patient who requires extensive life support when that patient is unable to pay.

This blatant hypocrisy and contradiction between Bush's behavior as governor of Texas and as President later did not go completely unnoticed, though it did not get the attention it warranted. In an editorial on March 22, 2005, the Concord Monitor voiced concern over the implications of the Texas law:

On the same day President Bush interrupted his vacation and rushed to Washington to sign the Schiavo bill, a Texas hospital removed the breathing tube keeping 6-month-old Sun Hudson alive. According to The Houston Chronicle, the hospital's action, the first of its kind, was made possible by a 1999 bill signed into law by Bush, then Texas's governor.

That law allows hospitals to discontinue life-sustaining care even when doing so runs counter to the wishes of the patient's guardians. Before ending the patient's life under the law Bush signed, however, two conditions must be met. Doctors must deem that there is no chance for recovery and the patient must be unable to pay the hospital bill for continuing care. (my italics)

Added John Paris, a medical ethicist at Boston College, told Newsday "The Texas statute that Bush signed authorized the ending of the life, even over the parents' protest. And what he's doing here is saying, 'The parents are protesting. You shouldn't stop [treatment]'"

Apart from this being another example of Bush subordinating principle to political expediency, it also clearly shows that society is steadily lowering the bar on death, first making it a judgment of whether someone is 'effectively dead' and who gets to make that decision, and now coming down to the question of whether someone is worth keeping alive and putting that decision (at least in Texas) in the hands of doctors and hospitals and not parents and guardians. While the judgment that further treatment is futile may be a medical and scientific judgment, the decision to withdraw life support will undoubtedly be also driven by financial considerations as to whether the patients and their families can pay the cost of continued treatment.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: Canned bird hunts

When not shooting old friends in the face, 'Deadeye Dick' Cheney kills birds for fun, and has killed up to 70 pheasants in just one shooting session. What is more, the birds he shot were bred in captivity to make them easy targets and one wonders what kind of fascination he finds in personally slaughtering such a large number of tame birds.

The comic strip Doonesbury suggests one reason, and Nate Corddry from The Daily Show tries to find out what the thrill is by going on one such canned quail hunt and bringing back a report.

March 28, 2006

Changing notions of death-2: Persistent vegetative state

The next stage in the evolution of when death occurs (see part 1 on this topic) came with the tragic case of Nancy Cruzan.

In 1983, 25-year old Nancy Cruzan careened off the road, flipped over and was thrown from her car into a ditch. Nancy hadn’t breathed for at least 15 minutes before paramedics found and revived her - a triumph of modern medicine launching her family’s seven-year crusade to free Nancy from a persistent vegetative state.

Nancy Cruzan's sad fate launched a fresh examination of death, centering around whether a person in a particular kind of coma, known as a persistent vegetative state, could be considered to be 'effectively dead' even if they did not meet the legal conditions of being heart dead or brain dead.

A persistent vegetative state is related to a coma in the following way:

A coma is a profound or deep state of unconsciousness. The affected individual is alive but is not able to react or respond to life around him/her. Coma may occur as an expected progression or complication of an underlying illness, or as a result of an event such as head trauma.

A persistent vegetative state, which sometimes follows a coma, refers to a condition in which individuals have lost cognitive neurological function and awareness of the environment but retain noncognitive function and a perserved [sic] sleep-wake cycle.

It is sometimes described as when a person is technically alive, but his/her brain is dead. However, that description is not completely accurate. In persistent vegetative state the individual loses the higher cerebral powers of the brain, but the functions of the brainstem, such as respiration (breathing) and circulation, remain relatively intact. Spontaneous movements may occur and the eyes may open in response to external stimuli, but the patient does not speak or obey commands. Patients in a vegetative state may appear somewhat normal. They may occasionally grimace, cry, or laugh. (my italics)

So a person in a persistent vegetative state does not meet the legal definition of being brain dead. Nancy Cruzan's parents were faced with the difficult question of what to do.

After her accident, they worked tirelessly to help bring her back to consciousness, without success. After five years, the family finally accepted that Nancy's condition would never improve. Already worn out from losing the fight to bring Nancy back to life, the Cruzans began a painful, and very public, legal battle to have the state hospital remove her feeding tube and let her die.

But their attempts at removal were opposed at that time by the state of Missouri, which argued that life support should not be removed since Nancy Cruzan was not legally dead. It was only in 1990, after even losing in the US Supreme Court, that the family won in state court and was allowed to remove her life support systems. She then became legally dead.

Singer argued that this was another significant shift in our understanding of death, because Cruzan was neither brain dead nor heart dead. What she had lost was the sense of personhood, a sense of awareness of herself and of her past and her possible future, her 'higher cerebral powers of the brain.' In other words, she had ceased to exist as the person whom her family and friends had known, and had become instead just a living organism, one which was neither brain dead nor heart dead. Her tombstone marker says: "Born July 20, 1957 / Departed January 11, 1983/ At Peace December 26, 1990" suggesting the idea that she ceased to exist as a person in 1983, although she continued to exist as an organism until 1990.

Singer points out that the idea that someone like Cruzan who is in a persistent vegetative state could be 'allowed to die' by withdrawing life support systems raises serious ethical questions, because it lowers the bar on what we consider to be death, and puts us in the realm of making judgments about whether someone should live or die based on whether or not they have higher cognitive functions such as an awareness of self. In other words, we have to make a decision as to whether someone has died as a 'person' even though they may be legally alive. This raises the question of who is competent to make such a decision in such situations and it seems like society has decided that it should be the family and their doctors.

But even that did not end the question, as the recent case of Terry Schiavo illustrates. She was in a persistent vegetative state but different members of the family had different wishes as to whether life support should be removed, and this resulted in the legal and media and political circus as to who had the right to make that decision. The courts had to finally step in and rule that the husband had the legal rights of guardianship and could make the decision, and life support was removed. A new poll this week finds that 64% of Americans support that decision to remove the feeding tube, with 27% dissenting.

Interestingly, Singer argues that he does not see much of a major ethical distinction between withdrawing life support and actively causing death by, say, giving a lethal injection. He thinks that the argument that when we remove life support we are 'letting nature take its course' is a way of rationalizing our actions to make it palatable to us, but does not resolve the ethical dilemma. He said that hospitals and intensive care units are designed precisely to prevent nature taking its course, and to withdraw that service from some people is no different from euthanasia.

So it seems as if society, not legally but in an indirect way, has shifted the definition of death so that people in a persistent vegetative state are already considered to be effectively dead, at least as 'persons', and thus withdrawing life support so that they become legally dead, is acceptable.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: Religious beliefs and torture

In a series of earlier posts (see part 1, part 2, and part 3), I argued for the complete ban on torture. A new survey finds that secular people are more likely than Christians to oppose the use of torture. Among Christians, Catholics are the most likely to support torture.

March 27, 2006

Changing notions of death-1: Brain death

There is nothing more bracing than starting a new week with the cheery topic of death. I have been thinking about it since listening to noted ethicist Peter Singer's excellent talk on The ethics of life and death on March 21. He pointed out that the answer to the question "When is someone dead?" is not simple.

Most of us know, by listening to the abortion debate in the US, how hard it is to get agreement on when life begins. Singer's talk highlighted the other problem, one that does not get nearly as much attention, and that is the question of how we decide that someone is dead.

(Caveat: I could only stay for the first 45 minutes of his talk and did not take notes, so my use of the ideas in his talk is based on my memory. Peter Singer is not to be blamed for any views that I may inadvertently ascribe to him. But his ideas were so provocative that I had to share and build on them. I can see why he is regarded as one of the premier ethical thinkers.)

It used to be that the definition of death was when the heart stopped beating and blood stopped flowing. But that definition was changed so that people whose hearts were still beating but whose brains had no activity were also deemed to be dead.

This change was implemented in 1980 by the Uniform Determination of Death Act, which was supported by the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research. This act asserts that: “An individual, who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brainstem, is dead. A determination of death must be made in accordance with accepted medical standards.”

Why did this change come about? Singer says that the background to this change raises some serious ethical questions. Thinking about changes in the definition of death was triggered by the first heart transplant operation done in 1967 by Dr. Christian Barnard in South Africa. Suddenly, the possibility of harvesting human hearts and other organs of dead people for use by others became much more realistic and feasible. But if you waited for the heart to stop beating to determine death, then that left you very little time to get a useful organ (because organs decay rapidly once blood stops flowing), whereas if people were merely 'brain dead' than you could get organs while they were still fresh and warm, since the circulatory system was still functioning at the time of removal.

Thus the first heart transplant in 1967 was the main impetus for the formation in 1968 of an ad hoc committee on brain death at Harvard Medical School, which laid the foundation for the shift in the definition of death that occurred in 1980 which provided criteria that described determination of a condition known as “irreversible coma,” “cerebral death,” or brain death.

Note that the change in the definition of death was not due to purely better scientific knowledge of when people died. All that science could say was that from past experience, a person who was 'brain dead' had never ever come back to a functioning state. It seems like the decision to change the definition of death was (at least partly) inspired by somewhat more practical considerations involving the need of organs for transplants.

But while the circumstances behind the change in the definition of death raises serious ethical questions, the idea that someone who was 'brain dead' was truly dead was a defensible proposition, whatever the reasons for its adoption.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: Quick! Get back in the closet!

Some time ago, I expressed surprise that some atheists felt uneasy about 'coming out of the closet.' But a new University of Minnesota study suggests that there may be good reason for their hesitancy.

From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry
. . .
Many of the study’s respondents associated atheism with an array of moral indiscretions ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism and cultural elitism.

These results are quite amazing. Of course, such negative stereotypes usually arise from ignorance so maybe if people encountered more atheists and saw how ordinary they are, this view could be dispelled. But it is interesting how so many people feel that god is so integral to their "vision of American society." America seems to be a theocracy, in fact, if not legally.

March 24, 2006

Grade inflation-3: How do we independently measure learning?

Recall (see here and here for previous postings) that to argue that grade inflation has occurred, it is not sufficient to simply show that grades have risen. It must be shown grades have risen without a corresponding increase in learning and student achievement. And that is difficult to do because there are really no good independent measures of student learning, apart from grades.

Some have argued that the SAT scores of matriculating classes could be used as a measure of student 'ability' and could thus be used to see if universities are getting 'better' students, thus justifying the rise in grades.

But the use of SAT scores as a measure of student quality or abilities has always been deeply problematic, so it is not even clear that any rise in SAT scores of incoming students means anything. One reason is that the students who take the SAT tests are a self-selected group and not a random sample, so one cannot infer much from changes in SAT scores. Second, SAT scores have not been shown to be predictive of anything really useful. There is a mild correlation of SAT scores with first year college grades but that is about it.

Even at Case, not all matriculating students have taken the SAT's. Also the average total SAT scores from 1985-1992 was 1271, while the average from 1993-2005 was 1321. This rise in SAT scores of incoming students at Case would be affected by two factors, the first being the re-centering of SAT scores that occurred in 1995. It is not known whether the pre-1995 scores we have at Case are the original ones or have been raised to adjust for re-centering. This lack of knowledge makes it hard to draw conclusions about how much, if at all, SAT scores have risen at Case.

Alfie Kohn cites "Trends in College Admissions" reports that say that the average verbal-SAT score of students enrolled in all private colleges rose from 543 in 1985 to 558 in 1999. It is also the fact that it was around 1991 that Case instituted merit scholarships based on SAT scores and started aggressively marketing it as a recruiting tool. So it is tempting to argue that there has been a genuine rise in SAT scores for students at Case.

Another local factor at Case that would influence GPAs is the practice of "freshman forgiveness" that began in 1987. Under this program, students in their first year would be "forgiven" any F grades they received and this F would not be counted towards their GPA. This is bound to have the effect of increasing the overall GPA, although a very rough estimate suggests only a 1-2% increase. This practice was terminated in 2005.

The Rosovsky-Hartley monograph points to the fact that many more students in colleges are now enrolled in remedial courses than was the case in the past, arguing that this implies that students are actually worse now. But again, that inference is not clear. Over the recent past there has been a definite shift in emphasis in colleges of now wanting to retain the students they recruit. The old model of colleges recruiting more students than they needed and then 'weeding' them out using certain courses in their first year, is no longer in vogue, assuming that there was substance to that belief and it is not just folklore.

Now universities go to great lengths to provide assistance to their students, beefing up their advising, tutoring, and other programs to help student stay in school. So the increased enrollment of students in remedial courses may simply be the consequence of universities taking a much more proactive attitude to helping students, rather than a sign of declining student quality. All these measures are aimed at improving student performance and are another possible benign explanation for any rise in grades. In fact, all these remedial and assistance programs could be used to argue that a rise in grades could be due to actual improved student performance.

Alfie Kohn argues that taking all these things into account, there is no evidence for grade inflation, that this is an issue that has been blown way out of proportion by those who have a very narrow concept of the role of grades in learning. Kohn says there are many reasons why grades could rise:

Maybe students are turning in better assignments. Maybe instructors used to be too stingy with their marks and have become more reasonable. Maybe the concept of assessment itself has evolved, so that today it is more a means for allowing students to demonstrate what they know rather than for sorting them or "catching them out." (The real question, then, is why we spent so many years trying to make good students look bad.) Maybe students aren't forced to take as many courses outside their primary areas of interest in which they didn't fare as well. Maybe struggling students are now able to withdraw from a course before a poor grade appears on their transcripts. (Say what you will about that practice, it challenges the hypothesis that the grades students receive in the courses they complete are inflated.)

The bottom line: No one has ever demonstrated that students today get A's for the same work that used to receive B's or C's. We simply do not have the data to support such a claim.

In addition to the factors listed by Kohn, psychologist Steve Falkenberg points out a number of other reasons why average grades could rise. His essay is a particularly thoughtful one that is worth reading.

Part of the problem in judging whether grade inflation exists is that we don't know what the actual grade distribution in colleges should be. Those who argue that it should be a bell curve (or 'normal' distribution) with an average around C are mixing up a normative approach to assessment (as is used for IQ tests and SATs) with an achievement approach.

IQ tests and SATs are designed so that the results are spread out over a bell curve. They seek to measure a characteristic (called "intelligence'") that is supposedly distributed randomly in the population according to a normal distribution. (This assumption and the whole issue of what constitutes intelligence is the source of a huge controversy that I don't want to get into here.) So the goal of such tests is to sort students into a hierarchy, and they design tests that spread out the scores so that one can tell who is in the top 10% and so on.

But when you teach a class of students, you are no longer dealing with a random sample of the population. First of all, you are not giving your assessments to people off the street. The students have been selected based on their prior achievements and are no longer a random sampling of the population. Secondly, by teaching them, you are deliberately intervening and skewing the distribution. Thirdly, your tests should not be measuring the same random variable that things like the SATs measure. If they were, you might as well give your students their grades based on those tests.

Tests should not be measures of some intrinsic ability, even assuming that such a thing exists and can be measured and a number assigned to it. Tests are (or at least should be) measuring achievement of how much and how well a selected group of students have learned as a result of your instruction. Hence there is no reason at all to expect a normal distribution. In fact, you would expect to have a distribution that is skewed towards the high end. The problem, if it can be considered a problem, is that we don't know a priori what that skewed distribution should look like or whether there is a preferred distribution at all. After all, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with everyone in a class getting As, if they have all learned the material at a suitably high level.

In fact, as Ohmer Milton, Howard Pollio, and James Eison write in Making Sense of College Grades (Jossey-Bass, 1986): "It is not a symbol of rigor to have grades fall into a 'normal' distribution; rather, it is a symbol of failure -- failure to teach well, failure to test well, and failure to have any influence at all on the intellectual lives of students."

There is nothing intrinsically noble about trying to keep average grades unchanged over the years, which is what those who complain about grade inflation usually want to do.

On the other hand, one could make the reasonable case that as we get better at teaching and in creating the conditions that make students learn better, and as a consequence we get students who are able to learn more, then perhaps we should raise our expectations of students and provide more challenging assignments, so that they can rise to greater heights. This is a completely different discussion. If we do so, this might result in a drop in grades. But this drop is a byproduct of a thoughtful decision to make learning better, not caused by an arbitrary decision to keep average grades fixed.

This approach would be like car manufacturers and consumers raising their standards over the years so that we now expect a lot more from our cars than we did fifty years ago. Even the best cars of fifty years ago would not be able to meet the current standards of fuel efficiency, safety, and emissions. But the important thing to keep in mind is that standards have been raised along with the ability to make better cars able to meet the higher standards.

But in order to take this approach in education, it requires teachers to think carefully about what and how we assess, what we can reasonably expect of our students, and how we should teach so they can learn more and learn better. Unfortunately much of the discussion of grade inflation short-circuits this worthwhile aspect of the issue, choosing instead to go for the quick fix like putting limits for the number of grades awarded in each category.

It is perhaps worthwhile to remember that fears about grade inflation, that high grades are being given for poor quality work, have been around for a long time, especially at elite institutions. The Report of the Committee on Raising the Standard at Harvard University said: "Grades A and B are sometimes given too readily -- Grade A for work of no very high merit, and Grade B for work not far above mediocrity. ... One of the chief obstacles to raising the standards of the degree is the readiness with which insincere students gain passable grades by sham work."

That statement was made in 1894.

POST SCRIPT: Cindy Sheehan in Cleveland tomorrow

Cindy Sheehan will speak at a Cleveland Town Hall Meeting Saturday, March 25, 1-3 pm

Progressive Democrats of Ohio present Gold Star Mother and PDA Board Member Cindy Sheehan at a Town Hall Meeting on Saturday, March 25, 2006 from 1 - 3 p.m. at the Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Road in Cleveland's North Collinwood neighborhood. (directions.)

Topic: Examining The Cost of Iraq: Lives, Jobs, Security, Community

Panelists include:

US Congressman Dennis Kucinich, OH-10
Cindy Sheehan - Gold Star mother & activist
Tim Carpenter, National Director, Progressive Democrats of America
Francis Chiappa, President, Cleveland Peace Action
Paul Schroeder, NE Ohio Gold Star Father and co-founder of Families of the Fallen For Change
Farhad Sethna, Immigration attorney and concerned citizen

March 23, 2006

Grade inflation-2: Possible benign causes for grade increases

Before jumping to the conclusion that a rise in average grades must imply inflation (see my previous posting on this topic), we should be aware of the dangers that exist when we are dealing with averages. For example, suppose we consider a hypothetical institution that has just two departments A and B. Historically, students taking courses in A have had average grades of 2.5 while those in B have had 3.0. Even if there is no change at all in the abilities or effort of the students and no change in what the faculty teach or the way that faculty assess and grade, so that the average grades in each department remain unchanged, it is still possible for the average grades of the institution to rise, simply because the fraction of students taking courses in B has become larger.

There is evidence that this shifting around in the courses taken by students is just what is happening. Those who are convinced that grade inflation exists and that it is evil, tend to interpret this phenomenon as game playing by students, that they are manipulating the system, choosing courses on the basis of how easy it is to get high grades rather than by interest or challenge.

For example, the ERIC report says "In Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education (2003), professor Valen E. Johnson concludes that disparities in grading affect the way students complete course evaluation forms and result in inequitable faculty evaluations. . . Students are currently able to manipulate their grade point averages through the judicious choice of their classes rather than through moderating their efforts. Academic standards have been diminished and this diminution can be halted, he argues, only if more principled student grading practices are adopted and if faculty evaluations become more closely linked to student achievement."

This looks bad and the author obviously wants to make it look bad, as can be seen from his choice of the word 'manipulate' to describe the students' actions and the way he implies that faculty are becoming more unprincipled in their grading practices. But there is no evidence for the evil motivations attributed to such students and faculty. In fact, one can look at the phenomenon in a different way. It is undoubtedly true that students now have many more choices than they did in the past. There are more majors and more electives. When you offer more choices, students are more likely to choose courses they are interested in and thus are more likely to do better in them.

Furthermore, even if students are choosing courses partly based on their expectation of the grade they will receive in it, we should not be too harsh in our judgments. After all, we have created a system in which grades seem to be the basis for almost everything: admission to colleges and graduate schools, honors, scholarships, and financial aid. As I said, grades have become the currency of higher education. Is it any wonder that students factor in grades when making their choices? If a student tries to balance courses they really want to take with those that know they can get a high grade in order to be able to maintain the GPA they need to retain their scholarships, why is this to be condemned? This seems to me to be a sensible strategy. After all, faculty do that kind of thing all the time. When faculty learn that the NIH or NSF is shifting its grants funding emphasis to some new research area, many will shift their research programs accordingly. We do not pour scorn on them for this, telling them that they should choose research topics purely based on their interests. Instead, we commend them for being forward thinking.

It certainly would be wonderful if students chose courses purely on the basis of their interest or usefulness or challenge and not on grade expectations, but to put students in the current grade-focused environment and expect them to ignore grades altogether when making their course selection is to be hypocritical and send mixed messages.

What about the idea that faculty grading standards have declined and that part of the reason is that they are giving easy grades in order to get good evaluations? This is a very popular piece of folklore on college campuses. But this question has also been studied and the data simply do not support it. It does seem to be true that students tend to get higher grades in the courses in the courses they rate higher. But to infer a causal relationship, that if a faculty member gives higher grades they will get better evaluations, is wrong.

People who have studied this find that if a student likes a course and a professor (and thus gives good evaluations), then they will tend to work harder at that course and do better (and thus get higher grades) thus bringing about the grades-evaluations correlation that we see. But what tends to determine how much a student likes a course and professor seems to depend on whether they student feels like she or he is actually leaning interesting and useful stuff. Students, like anybody else, don't like to feel they are wasting their time and money and do not enjoy being with a professor who does not care for them or respect them.

Remember that these studies report on general trends. It is quite likely that there exist individual professors who give high grades in a misguided attempt to bribe student to give good evaluations, and that there exist students willing to be so bribed. But such people are not the norm.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: And the winner is. . .

Meanwhile, there are Americans who have already have decided which country the US should invade next in the global war on terror, even if they haven't the faintest idea where that country is on the globe or why it should be invaded. Even Sri Lanka gets a shot at this particularly dubious honor.

Here's an idea for a reality show, along the lines of American Idol. It will be called Who's next?. The contestants will be the heads of states of each country and this time their goal will be to get voted off because the last remaining country gets bombed and invaded by the US. The judges could be Dick Cheney (to provide the sarcastic put-downs a la Simon Cowell. Sample: "You think we're going to waste our smart bombs on your dumb country?"), Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleeza Rice.

Fox television, my contract is ready and I'm waiting for your call.

March 22, 2006

Grade inflation-1: What is it and is it occurring?

There is nothing that gets the juices flowing in higher education academic circles than the topic of grade inflation. Part of the reason for this passion may be because grades and test scores, and not learning, seem to have become the currency of education, dominating the thinking of both students and faculty. Hence some people monitor grades as an important symptom of the health of universities.

But what is curious is that much of the discussion is done in the absence of any hard data. It seems as if perceptions or personal anecdotes are a sufficient basis to draw quite sweeping conclusions and prescriptions for action.

One of the interesting things about the discussion is how dismayed some faculty get simply by the prospect that average grades have risen over time. I do not quite understand this. Is education the only profession where evidence, at least on the surface, of a rise in quality is seen as a bad thing? I would hope that like in every other profession we teachers are getting better at what we do. I would hope that we now understand better the conditions under which students learn best and have incorporated the results of that knowledge into our classrooms, resulting in higher achievement by students. Any other profession or industry would welcome the news that fewer people are doing poorly or that fewer products are rejected for not meeting quality standards. But in higher education, rising grades are simply assumed to be bad.

Of course, if grades are rising because our assessment practices are becoming lax, then that is a cause for concern, just as if a manufacturer reduces the rejection rate of their product by lowering quality standards. This is why having an independent measure of student learning and achievement to compare grades with has to be an important part of the discussion.

Grade inflation is a concept that has an analogy with monetary inflation, and to infer that inflation (as opposed to just a rise) in grades has occurred implies that grades have risen without a corresponding increase in learning and student achievement. But in much of the discussion, this important conditional clause is dropped and a rise in grades is taken as sufficient evidence by itself that inflation has occurred.

Let's take first the question of whether average grades have actually risen. At Case, as some of you may know, beginning January 2003, the GPA cutoffs to achieve honors were raised to 3.56 (cum laude), 3.75 (magna cum laude), and 3.88 (summa cum laude) so that only 35% of students would be eligible for honors. (The earlier values were 3.20, 3.50, and 3.80 respectively.) This measure was taken because the number of people who were graduating with honors had risen steadily over the years, well above the 35% originally anticipated when the earlier bars were set.

A look at grade point averages at Case shows that it was 2.99 in 1975 (the first year for which we have this data), dropped slowly and steadily to 2.70 in 1982, rose to 3.02 in 1987, stayed around that value until 1997, and since then has oscillated around 3.20 until 2005, with the highest reaching 3.27 in 2001. The overall average for the entire period was 3.01 and the standard deviation was about 0.70. (I am grateful for this and other Case data to Dr. Julie Petek, Director of Degree Audit and Data Services.)

It is hard to know what to make of this. On the one hand we could start at the lowest point in the grade curve and say that grades have risen by half a letter grade from 1982 to 2005. Or we could start at 1975 and say that grades are fluctuating in the range 2.70-3.30, or about half a standard deviation about the mean of 3.0.

What does the data say nationwide? Henry Rosovsky and Matthew Hartley, writing in a monograph for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences are convinced that inflation has occurred. For evidence of grades increasing, they point to various nationwide surveys that show that average grades rose by 0.43 from 1960 to 1974; that in 1993 the number of grades of A- or higher was 26%, compared to 7% in 1969; and the number of C's dropped from 25% to 9% in that same period; and that averages rose from 3.07 in the mid 1980s to 3.34 in the mid 1990s.

In this last result, it is interesting to note in another study that grades rose on average only at selective liberal arts colleges and research universities, while they declined at general liberal arts colleges and 
comprehensive colleges and universities, and in the humanities and social sciences

The Rosovsky-Hartley monograph has been criticized for depending on research that itself depended on studies that used surveys, and such studies can be questioned on the fact that it is not clear how reliable the responses to such surveys are, depending as they do on self-reporting.

A 2003 ERIC Digest of the literature on this topic finds results that that cast doubt on the basic question of whether average grades have even risen. For example, "Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst with the U.S. Department of Education, reviewed student transcripts from more than 3,000 colleges and universities and reported in 1995 that student grades have actually declined slightly over the last 20 years." (my emphasis). His study of 16.5 million graduates from 1999-2000 also found that 14.5% of these students received As while 33.5% received grades of C or lower.

What is significant about the Adelman study is that he used actual student transcripts, not surveys, and thus seems to me to be more reliable.

It seems from this data and other studies that average grades have not increased across the board, but it is plausible that they have increased at selective liberal arts colleges and research universities. The Rosovsky-Hartley monograph says that "In 1966, 22 percent of all grades given to Harvard undergraduates were in the A range. By 1996 that percentage had risen to 46 percent and in that same year 82 percent of Harvard seniors graduated with academic honors. In 1973, 30.7 percent of all grades at Princeton were in the A range and by 1997 that percentage had risen to 42.5 percent."

Even though it has not been conclusively established suppose that, for the sake of the argument, we concede that at least at selective liberal arts colleges and research universities (such as Case) have seen a rise in average grades. Is this automatically evidence of grade inflation? Or are there more benign causes, such as that we getting better prepared and more able students now, or our teaching methods have improved? Another important issue is whether Case's experience of rising grades is part of a national trend or an exception.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: Where's the balance?

Over at Hullabaloo, Tristero catches the Washington Post in a blatant act of bias in favor of atheistic science. The Post article says:

Scientists said yesterday they have found the best evidence yet supporting the theory that about 13.7 billion years ago, the universe suddenly expanded from the size of a marble to the size of the cosmos in less than a trillionth of a second.

Tristero points out that the article completely fails to mention the controversy around this question, that there is another side to this story, that the big bang is "only a theory" since no one was there to actually observe this event and prove that it happened.

And not a word of balance from the other side, as if the sincere faith of millions of Americans in a Christian God didn't matter at all to the Post's editors.

I just hate it when the media reports carefully vetted scientific data as fact and not as just one of many valid points of view. I'm not asking for them to ignore the opinions of these so-called scientists, but they really should report the fact there's a lot of controversy about whether this kind of evidence is valid. Like, were you there, huh, Mr. Hotshot Washington Post?

March 21, 2006

Is god punishing Kansas?

The last year has seen too many examples of the devastating power that nature can unleash. The Asian tsunami, hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake in Pakistan all caused massive destruction and loss of life, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless and impoverished and grieving for lost loved ones.

From time immemorial, people have looked on such events as indicators of god's feelings towards humans. Of course, some despicable people have tried to use this natural tendency to seek signs of god's power to actually wish for some calamity to strike some community as a sign of god's righteous anger. Pat Robertson is just one of those despicable people who seems to think that what makes him angry must also be what makes god angry.

Recall that he was upset with the citizens of Dover for the way they voted out the school board that had adopted the pro-IDC (intelligent design creationism) statement in biology classes. 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.)

But unfortunately for Robertson, God's anger seemed to have been directed not at the rebellious people of Dover, but at the state of Kansas, which was recently hit by a series of over 100 deadly tornadoes that raced through the midwest, causing widespread destruction, most of it in Kansas.

The irony here is that Kansas is, according to Robertson's measures, perhaps the most pro-god state in the nation, inserting IDC-friendly language into its science standards and even going so far as to rewrite the definition of science, so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena.

The state of Kansas did not rest on these laurels, but in addition overwhelmingly passed (with 71% of the vote) a constitutional amendment banning same-sex couples from marrying or entering into civil unions. There was already an unchallenged law on the books that did the same thing but the people of Kansas wanted to send an even stronger signal to god of their devoted opposition to gay rights.

As Rep. Steve Huebert said "It is the right thing to do, based on the truth that was spoken (in the Bible)."

Kansas is even the home of Reverend Fred Phelps and his merry flock of gay-hating funeral disrupters.

How much more can a state do to please the almighty? So if any state felt entitled to special favors from god, it was Kansas. Getting hit in return with a series of tornados seems like a pretty ungrateful act on the deity's part.

So what will Robertson say about Kansas, and not Dover, being the target of tornados? Perhaps he will say that the people of Kansas must be harboring some secret sins that made them deserving of this.

Or maybe god was aiming the tornados at Dover but they veered unexpectedly away, thus making Kansas the victim of friendly fire, so to speak. (Coriolis forces are tricky to account for when you are dealing with fast flowing wind currents, and have caused many a seasoned meteorologist to err in their predictions of where and when a storm will hit.)

Or maybe the good people of Kansas, and Pat Robertson, may consider the possibility that this evidence suggests that god is sending a message that he or she is actually strongly pro-gay and anti-IDC.

Or maybe, just maybe, these kinds of things are called 'natural disasters' for a reason, not just because they involve nature, but because they have no supernatural cause.

POST SCRIPT: Peter Singer lecture today

Peter Singer, the well-known ethicist, will give a lecture today on “Our Changing Ethics of Life and Death” at 4:00 p.m., Ford Auditorium, Allen Memorial Medical Library, 11000 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland

The talk is free and open to the public. No reservations required.

For more details, see here.

March 20, 2006

The politics of fear bites back

If there is anything that shows how cynical and manipulative the politics of fear have become, it is the controversy of the Dubai-based company Dubai Ports World taking over management of some US ports. As everyone knows, that company has now said that because of the huge negative reaction, they are handing over that operation to a US-based entity, although the details of that transfer have not been released.

This is an example of the chickens coming home to roost for this administration. To understand this, we have to go back to the events of 9/11. One way to view that disaster was to see it as a criminal act for which the perpetrators had to be sought ad brought to justice, like Timothy McVeigh was for the Oklahoma City bombing.

But that would not have served the purposes of the neoconservatives who needed a grand enemy in order to pursue their vision of global conquest. Treating it as a criminal matter in which the international law enforcement agencies would be involved, would not enable them to go on their preferred route of global conquest. In wars, innocent people die and in order to get the public to accept this, one needs an undifferentiated enemy so that anyone who gets killed can be seen as somehow deserving of it, if only by virtue of sharing some characteristics with those who actually carried out the crimes.

So a global enemy had to be manufactured and portrayed as this vast shadowy conspiracy seeking to undermine and then overthrow America, so that the only appropriate response was to go to war. This war was initially marketed to the public as the "global war on terror." Attempts were made last year to change the brand name to the "struggle against violent extremism," perhaps because the acronym SAVE tested better in market research than GWOT. But that change seems to have been nixed by President Bush perhaps because, as Jon Stewart said, Bush likes to think of himself as a "war president" and not a "struggling president." The latest attempt at a brand name change is to call it "the long war". This change has been proposed just this year and we'll have to see if it takes root.

In this war, the undifferentiated enemy necessarily had to be Muslims and Arabs because the middle east was the target. But despite lip service to the notion that not all Muslims and Arabs were being targeted, the rhetoric of the war on terror and the need to try and link al Qaida to Iraq, inevitably led to that particular group of people being demonized.

Wars and warmongers have little use for subtleties. The fact is that much of the Muslim world is cosmopolitan, modern, linked integrally into the world trade system, and have thriving economies, as was the case with Iraq before the first Gulf war in 1991 and the subsequent imposition of sanctions.

But the Dubai Ports World deal has exposed the essential fraudulence of the so-called war on terror. The general public has been conditioned to think of Muslims and Arabs as malevolent beings and potential terrorists and thus there inevitably was a huge outcry at allowing such people access to American ports. And the White House and congressional Republicans and Democrats are responding hypocritically to this reaction.

This administration used a bludgeon against those who argued that acts of terrorism required a nuanced approach, accusing them of not being tough enough or not understanding the dangers the country faced from this vast global enemy coming out of the middle east. Now the same administration is aggrieved that people are not taking a nuanced approach to its dealings with the Arab world.

William Greider, writing in The Nation magazine, ridicules conservative columnist David Brooks for saying that the adverse reaction to the ports deal was an example of political hysteria because the "experts" tell [Brooks] there is no security risk involved. Greider writes:

Of course, he is correct. But what a killjoy. This is a fun flap, the kind that brings us together. Republicans and Democrats are frothing in unison, instead of polarizing incivilities. Together, they are all thumping righteously on the poor President. I expect he will fold or at least retreat tactically by ordering further investigation. The issue is indeed trivial. But Bush cannot escape the basic contradiction, because this dilemma is fundamental to his presidency.

A conservative blaming hysteria is hysterical, when you think about it, and a bit late. Hysteria launched Bush's invasion of Iraq. It created that monstrosity called Homeland Security and pumped up defense spending by more than 40 percent. Hysteria has been used to realign US foreign policy for permanent imperial war-making, whenever and wherever we find something frightening afoot in the world. Hysteria will justify the "long war" now fondly embraced by Field Marshal Rumsfeld.
. . .
Bush was the principal author, along with his straight-shooting Vice President, and now he is hoisted by his own fear-mongering propaganda. The basic hysteria was invented from risks of terrorism, enlarged ridiculously by the President's open-ended claim that we are endangered everywhere and anywhere (he decides where). Anyone who resists that proposition is a coward or, worse, a subversive. We are enticed to believe we are fighting a new cold war. But are we? People are entitled to ask. Bush picked at their emotional wounds after 9/11 and encouraged them to imagine endless versions of even-larger danger. What if someone shipped a nuke into New York Harbor? Or poured anthrax in the drinking water? OK, a lot of Americans got scared, even people who ought to know better.

So why is the fearmonger-in-chief being so casual about this Dubai business?

Because at some level of consciousness even George Bush knows the inflated fears are bogus. So do a lot of the politicians merrily throwing spears at him. He taught them how to play this game, invented the tactics and reorganized political competition as a demagogic dance of hysterical absurdities, endless opportunities to waste public money. Very few dare to challenge the mindset. Thousands have died for it.

It is interesting how even local people have picked up on how to play this game and use this hysteria to advance their own interests. In Cleveland, two companies that own commercial office space downtown are protesting a third because that company has been more successful than they at getting tenants to fill their office buildings. The complaint? The successful company is (gasp!) owned by an arm of the Kuwaiti government! Oh, the horror!

The Plain Dealer reports:

UPDATE: I have received an email from one of the people mentioned in the Plain Dealer article disputing the characterization of his views in the article. At his request, I have removed the passage.

What's next in this anti-Muslim and anti-Arab crusade? Muslims not allowed to buy property in certain areas? Not allowed to get bank loans? Not allowed to park in handicapped spots?

How low can we go?

POST SCRIPT: Biblical inerrancy

Some time ago I wrote about Biblical inerrancy and discussed Bart Ehrman's recent book Misquoting Jesus. Jon Stewart has an interesting interview with the author.

March 17, 2006

Iraq and Afghanistan: The Reckoning

As the third anniversary of the beginning of the military invasion of Iraq approaches on March 19, it is time to take stock of the consequences of that tragic and cruel war. Below are three items.

Before we get to that, it is sobering to recall the almost Pollyannaish hubris of the media in the early days of the invasion in April and May of 2003. On April 16, 2003, assured that things were going swimmingly in Iraq, columnist Cal Thomas took aim at those of us who opposed the war saying, using Biblical language: "All of the printed and voiced prophecies should be saved in an archive. When these false prophets again appear, they can be reminded of the error of their previous ways and at least be offered an opportunity to recant and repent. Otherwise, they will return to us in another situation where their expertise will be acknowledged, or taken for granted, but their credibility will be lacking."

Well, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) has done just that. It has compiled a list of what Thomas and his fellow war cheerleaders said then, and the results are perhaps not quite what Thomas had in mind. Read the whole thing.

Item #1: John Murtha's broadside

US Rep. John Murtha has written "Claims and Facts: The War in Iraq", where he compiles a comprehensive list of all the lies, exaggerations, and distortions that were used to promote the attack on Iraq, and compares them with the facts. He sent the list to his colleagues in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Here is a sample from his letter:

Saddam-Al Qaeda Connection

CLAIM: "There's overwhelming evidence that there was a connection between al Qaeda and the Iraqi government. I am very confident that there was an established relationship there." -- Vice President Cheney, 1/22/04

CLAIM: "The regime of Saddam Hussein cultivated ties to terror while it built weapons of mass destruction." -- President Bush's UN speech, 9/23/03

FACT: "Sec. of State Colin Powell conceded Thursday that despite his assertions to the United Nations last year, he had no 'smoking gun' proof of a link between the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and terrorists of al-Qaeda.' I have not seen smoking-gun, concrete evidence about the connection,' Powell said." [NY Times, 1/9/04]

FACT: "Three former Bush Administration officials who worked on intelligence and national security issues said the prewar evidence tying al Qaeda was tenuous, exaggerated and often at odds with the conclusions of key intelligence agencies." [National Journal, 8/9/03]

Weapons of Mass Destruction

CLAIM: "We found the weapons of mass destruction." -- President Bush, 5/29/03

CLAIM: "We know where the WMDs are." - Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, 3/30/03

CLAIM: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." - President Bush, 1/28/03

CLAIM: "Evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program...Iraq could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year." - President Bush, 10/7/02

CLAIM: "There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more...Our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent. That is enough agent to fill 16,000 battlefield rockets." - Secretary of State Colin Powell, 2/5/03

FACT: "A draft report on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq provides no solid evidence that Iraq had such arms when the United States invaded the country in March" and none have materialized since. [Reuters 9/15/03]

FACT: On 7/8/03, the Washington Post reported the Administration admitted the Iraq-Nuclear allegation was false. "Revelations by officials at the CIA, the State Department, the UN, in Congress and elsewhere" made clear that the White House knew the claim was false before making the allegation. In fact, "CIA Director George Tenet successfully intervened with White House officials to have the reference" removed from a Bush speech in Oct. of 2002. [W. Post, 7/13/03]

FACT: "Iraq did not have a large, ongoing, centrally controlled chemical weapons program after 1991... Iraq's large-scale capability to develop, produce, and fill new chemical weapon munitions was reduced - if not entirely destroyed - during Operations Desert Storm and Desert Fox, 13 years of UN sanctions and UN inspections." - Bush Administration Weapons Inspector David Kay, 10/2/03

Read the rest of his letter here.

Item #2: The situation in Iraq

Meanwhile, Patrick Cockburn and Raymond Whitaker of the British newspaper The Independent examine the state of affairs in Iraq. For each of several key indicators, they examine the promises made and compare with the current reality.

Here are the results for just one of their indicators:

The coalition authorities admit that much of the insurgency is fuelled by a lack of economic opportunity. While the occupation has brought more money to some, mainly in Baghdad, life has been made more difficult for most by shortages of water and power, sky-high prices - and the ever-present danger of violent death.


"Our progress has been uneven but progress is being made. We are improving roads and schools and health clinics and working to improve basic services like sanitation, electricity and water. And together with our allies, we will help the new Iraqi government deliver a better life for its citizens."

George Bush, 27 June 2005


"The Iraqi people are suffering from a desperate lack of jobs, housing, health care and electricity ... If you compare this to the situation in the 1980s, you will see a major deterioration of the situation."

Barham Saleh (planning minister) in 'Living conditions in Iraq 2004', a survey by Iraqi authorities and UN

"Although a large percentage in Iraq is connected to water, electricity and sewage networks, the supply is too unstable to make a difference to their lives."

Staffan de Mistura, UNDP representative, May 2005


5.2 average number of hours of electricity in Baghdad homes

Item #3: Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib habeas corpus abuses

The quirky program This American Life had an excellent episode called Habeas Schmabeas (program #310 broadcast on March 10, 2006 and which can be heard online) on how the Bush administration has trampled all over habeus corpusrights with its prisoners in Guantanamo. The program notes say:

The right of habeus corpus has been a part of this country's legal tradition longer than we've actually been a country. It means the government has to explain why it's holding a person in custody. But now, the war on terror has nixed many of the rules we used to think of as fundamental. At Guantanamo Bay, our government initially claimed that the prisoners should not be covered by habeas - or even by the Geneva Conventions - because they're the most fearsome terrorist enemies we have. But is that true? Is it a camp full of terrorists, or a camp full of our mistakes? Reporter Jack Hitt unveils everything we know about who these prisoners are. In interviews with two former detainees, he finds out the consequences of taking away habeas, for them and for us.

The details revealed by the show are shocking, especially for those who accept at face value the administration's assertions that these people are dangerous terrorists.

Of 517 case files examined, only 5% were "scooped up off the battlefield," as asserted by Bush. The rest were handed over to the US by Pakistan or the Northern Alliance, or were handed over to the US to claim the bounty of $5,000-$10,000 that was offered. Remember that this is a huge sum to the poor people of that region and it would be very tempting for people to hand over their personal enemies, or even just strangers, in return for the money. The people detained are ordinary people - farmers, teachers, taxi drivers – who describe how they were turned over to the US for the bounty.

In fact only 8% of the detainees have been classified by the Pentagon as having any connections to al Qaida and only one or two dozen at most are believed to have any useful information.

In interviews with a few of the captives whom they got access to, the radio program describes the abusive conditions under which these people are held, ranging from sensory deprivation to attempts to make the prisoners feel abandoned by their families (by withholding their letters or redacting those parts from their children saying they missed them) to depriving them of any kind of normal routine to outright torture. It also describes the bogus hearings that the Bush administration has conducted to sidestep the requirements of habeus corpus.

Meanwhile, Salon reveals the latest photos and videos from the other atrocity that is Abu Ghraib. As the article says:

Although the world is now sadly familiar with images of naked, hooded prisoners in scenes of horrifying humiliation and abuse, this is the first time that the full dossier of the Army's own photographic evidence of the scandal has been made public. Most of the photos have already been seen, but the Army's own analysis of the story behind the photos has never been fully told. It is a shocking, night-by-night record of three months inside Abu Ghraib's notorious cellblock 1A, and it tells the story, in more graphic detail than ever before, of the rampant abuse of prisoners there. The annotated archive also includes new details about the role of the CIA, military intelligence and the CID itself in abuse captured by cameras in the fall of 2003.

I have written before about the undermining of habeus corpus in the so-called 'war on terror.' The right to habeus corpus is embedded in the US constitution, in article I, section 9, paragraph 2, under the heading "Powers forbidden to Congress" where it says:

The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

Clearly the drafters of the constitution valued habeus corpus so highly that they deliberately embedded it in the constitution and allowed it to be suspended only under the most extreme circumstances, when the nation itself was in danger of disintegrating. Does anyone really believe that we are in a situation of "rebellion or invasion"? Look out of the window. Any sign of "rebellion or invasion"? Any foreign troops taking over key installations and intersections? Any mobs rampaging the streets (other than for early-bird specials at department stores)? Only those who have been made paranoid by the relentless and cynical fear-mongering of this administration and its hangers-on can possibly take such a charge seriously.

There are so many outrages here, such as the denial of habeus corpus and the denial of basic legal and human and civil rights to people who are being detained indefinitely.

But one outrage we must not overlook is why the major mainstream media are not interviewing and broadcasting widely the stories of those who have been released from Gunatanamo so that more people are aware of these actions of their own government.

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."

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

March 16, 2006

Opium of the people

Most people, when they think of the Karl Marx's attitudes towards religion, remember the quote where he refers to it as "the opium of the people." This sounds quite dismissive. When I first heard it, I thought he meant that religion was a hallucination, similar to that caused by drugs.

But when you read the full passage that leads up to this quote, the impression shifts slightly, but in an important way. The passage is in his "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right" (February 1844) and and goes as follows:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

This is a much more poetic and sympathetic view of religion than that given by just the last sentence. It speaks of religion as the solace of a suffering people, a mechanism for them to obtain relief from the forces that oppress them, to endure suffering, and something that enables them to extract some happiness from life.

(Note that when Marx wrote this, it was soon after the end of the first Opium War in China (1839-1842), where Britain put down a Chinese rebellion that was trying to end imports by British traders of opium into China, which was causing widespread addiction in that nation. He must have been aware of the fact that having the people drugged on opium enabled the relatively small British presence in China to control that vast country and its peoples. So it was a very timely metaphor.)

Of course, Marx was opposed to religion because although he saw that it met a short-term need, it hindered the ability of people to achieve a more enduring happiness. It was clear that he was not against religion just for the sake of it, but because he wanted to get rid of the terrible conditions that tempted people want to find refuge and solace in it, rather than seeking to change those very conditions. He went on:

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

As Amanda Udis-Kessler writes in this commentary on Marx's comment:

Opium, of course, provides only temporary relief for suffering, and does so by blunting the senses. In making suffering bearable, Marx argues, opium (and religion) actually can be said to be contributing to human suffering by removing the impetus to do whatever is necessary to overcome it - which, for Marx, is to relinquish religion and turn to revolutionary politics. Hamilton (1995: 82-3) points out the ultimate practical outcome of religion’s palliative function, from a Marxian perspective: "Religion offers compensation for the hardships of this life in some future life, but it makes such compensation conditional upon acceptance of the injustices of this life."

In other words, religion serves the social function of keeping people from becoming restive about their condition and is thus conducive to maintaining social order in the face of even massive injustice.

Marx's views on religion came to my mind when I was thinking about how the neoconservatives aligned themselves with religious Christian fundamentalists in order to achieve their political goals. The neoconservatives are grateful that religion is like opium, keeping people in a drugged, unperceptive state. It is this very feature that is attractive to those who benefit from that state of injustice.

Ronald Bailey, writing in Reason magazine argues that neoconservatives are cynically exploiting the palliative nature of religious beliefs. And to serve this end, they are even going so far as to align themselves with those religious people who are attacking Darwin. "These otherwise largely secular intellectuals may well have turned on Darwin because they have concluded that his theory of evolution undermines religious faith in society at large. . . Ironically, today many modern conservatives fervently agree with Karl Marx that religion is "the opium of the people"; they add a heartfelt, "Thank God!" "

There is reason to think that at least some of the neoconservatives are themselves not religious, but see in religion a useful tool that keeps people in line, like sheep. Their fear of what might happen if there is widespread existential angst leads them to a cynical support for the Christian fundamentalist view.

Bailey goes on:

[Neoconservative Irving] Kristol has been quite candid about his belief that religion is essential for inculcating and sustaining morality in culture. He wrote in a 1991 essay, "If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded--or even if it suspects--that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe."
. . .
Kristol has acknowledged his intellectual debt to [Neoconservative ideologue Leo] Strauss in a recent autobiographical essay. "What made him so controversial within the academic community was his disbelief in the Enlightenment dogma that 'the truth will make men free.' " Kristol adds that "Strauss was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that the truth could make some [emphasis Kristol's] minds free, but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences."

Kristol agrees with this view. "There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people," he says in an interview. "There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work."
. . .
A year ago, I asked Kristol after a lecture whether he believed in God or not. He got a twinkle in his eye and responded, "I don't believe in God, I have faith in God." Well, faith, as it says in Hebrews 11:1, "is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

But at the recent AEI lecture, journalist Ben Wattenberg asked him the same thing. Kristol responded that "that is a stupid question," and crisply restated his belief that religion 
is essential for maintaining social discipline. A much younger (and perhaps less circumspect) Kristol asserted in a 1949 essay that in order to prevent the 
social disarray that would occur if ordinary people lost their religious faith, "it would indeed become the duty of the wise publicly to defend and support religion."

William Pfaff, writing on "The Long Reach of Leo Strauss" in the International Herald Tribune, traces the influence of neoconservative thinking, outlining the broader ideological framework under which religious belief is promoted by the neoconservatives:

They have a political philosophy, and the arrogance and intolerance of their actions reflect their conviction that they possess a realism and truth others lack.

They include Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; Abram Shulsky of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, Richard Perle of the Pentagon advisory board, Elliott Abrams of the National Security Council, and the writers Robert Kagan and William Kristol.

The main intellectual influence on the neoconservatives has been the philosopher Leo Strauss, who left Germany in 1938 and taught for many years at the University of Chicago. Several of the neoconservatives studied under him. Wolfowitz and Shulsky took doctorates under him.

Something of a cult developed around Strauss during his later years at Chicago, and he and some admirers figure in the Saul Bellow novel, "Ravelstein." The cult is appropriate because Strauss believed that the essential truths about human society and history should be held by an elite, and withheld from others who lack the fortitude to deal with truth. Society, Strauss thought, needs consoling lies.
. . .
He also argued that Platonic truth is too hard for people to bear, and that the classical appeal to "virtue" as the object of human endeavor is unattainable. Hence it has been necessary to tell lies to people about the nature of political reality. An elite recognizes the truth, however, and keeps it to itself. This gives it insight, and implicitly power that others do not possess. This obviously is an important element in Strauss's appeal to America's neoconservatives.

The ostensibly hidden truth is that expediency works; there is no certain God to punish wrongdoing; and virtue is unattainable by most people. Machiavelli was right. There is a natural hierarchy of humans, and rulers must restrict free inquiry and exploit the mediocrity and vice of ordinary people so as to keep society in order.

There is something repulsive to me in the idea that there are some ideas that have to be shielded from people because they are unable to handle it. It is a dangerous and paternalistic attitude and profoundly undemocratic. But it is clear that the neoconservatives believe it. For them, the truth is not an unqualified good. Rather it is something that only a select few, who alone are wise enough to really understand it and use it, should know and those people get to decide what the general public should know, even if it is false.

To argue that one should present different truths for different people is wrong. One has an obligation to not deceive people. Of course, one may present what one perceives to be the truth to different audiences in different ways. It is like teaching the basics of mathematics or science. How I teach it to elementary school students and to doctoral students will be quite different but the ideas I try to convey should be the same.

Since the listener always interprets new knowledge in the light of his or her own experiences, we will each construct our own version of the truth.

But that is quite different from deliberately constructing different "truths" to present to different people in order to get them to conform to your will. Such things are no longer truths. They are simply manipulative lies. They are the modern-day opium of the people.

March 15, 2006

The politics of terrorism-3: A more complex picture

We have seen that in the BBC documentary The rise of the politics of fear, the main narrative is the parallel rise of two movements: one Islamic militant fundamentalism, the other neoconservative.

On the Islamic side, the movement now known as al Qaida is traced to the vision of one scholar, Syed Qutb, whose followers amalgamated his political vision with that of Islamic fundamentalism, and which became the Muslim Brotherhood. For these groups, the main enemy is the global encroachment of decadent western values into the Muslim world, aided and abetted by corrupt governments.

In the US, we had the vision of one scholar Leo Strauss, whose followers formed a secular political movement with global ambitions that allied itself with Christian religious fundamentalists as a means of achieving its political goals, thus bringing to life the neoconservative movement.

This narrative of the parallel lives of two scholars who lived at the same time (Qutb from 1906-1966 and Strauss from 1899-1973) and whose disciples have brought about this major conflict makes for compelling drama, and the documentary was absorbing. But the price it may have paid is that of oversimplification. While the idea of these two opposing strands has a dramatic point-counterpoint appeal, there is some evidence that the clash we are seeing is not simply an ideological one that pits neoconservative purists against Islamic purists.

It is clear that there are more pragmatic reasons that come into play, for example, in the US attack on Iraq, although we are not able to precisely say which, if any, were the dominant reasons. In addition to the neoconservative ideological view advocated by the documentary that it is America's destiny to bring democracy, by force if necessary, to the other countries of the world starting with Iraq, the following is a list of the many other reasons that have been speculated about: the control of Iraqi oil; the need to establish a strategic and long-term military base in the Middle East since Saudi Arabia was asking the US to leave its soil; Iraq as the first step in a successive series of invasions of other countries such as Iran and Syria so that eventually the US would control the entire region; to act in Israel's interests and disarm an enemy of Israel; to project US power and show the world that the US had the power to invade any nation it wanted to, thus cowing any other nation's ambitions to challenge the US in any way; to prevent Saddam Hussein from switching to the euro as a reserve currency for oil purchases, thus threatening US financial markets; an opportunity to test the new generation of weaponry in the US arsenal; to finish what was seen as unfinished business from the first Gulf war in 1991; to avenge the alleged attempt by Iraq on George H. W. Bush's life; to enable George W. Bush to show his father that he was tougher than he was; because George W. Bush, despite his efforts to avoid actual military service himself, was enamored of the idea of being Commander in Chief and dearly wanted to be a 'war president.'

The 'weapons of mass destruction' rationale is conspicuously missing from the above list. It was, I believe, always a fiction, promulgated as part of the politics of fear but never taken seriously even by those in the administration who advocated it. It is quite amazing that three years after the invasion of Iraq, we still don’t know the precise reasons for that fateful decision.

On the other side, al Qaida also had more practical stated reasons for what it did, that are not limited to a mere distaste for encroaching western decadent values. They were opposed to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and America's complicity and support for those policies, they wanted US bases out of the middle east, they opposed the corrupt governments that were ruling many middle east countries and were being supported militarily and economically by the US, and they deplored the cruelty of US-led UN sanctions against Iraq. In other words, they were more opposed to what the US does than for what it is. It may also be that al Qaida is not quite as weak as the documentary portrays them to be.

But despite these shortcomings, the basic message of the documentary rings true: the threat to the US from terrorism has been vastly and deliberately overstated and is being used to ram through policies that would otherwise be rejected. As the documentary says:
"In an age when all the grand ideas have lost credibility, fear of a phantom enemy is all the politicians have left to maintain their power."

A Guardian article titled The making of the terror myth says:

Adam Roberts, professor of international relations at Oxford, says that governments often believe struggles with terrorists "to be of absolute cosmic significance", and that therefore "anything goes" when it comes to winning. The historian Linda Colley adds: "States and their rulers expect to monopolise violence, and that is why they react so virulently to terrorism."

Whatever the causes for inflating the threat of terror, it is clear that we are the losers when we live in fear, and we need to counteract it. The BBC documentary is well worth watching for the way that it connects many different pieces of knowledge into a coherent story, told in an entertaining way.

POST SCRIPT: CSA: Confederate States of America

I recently heard about the above film, which is a fake documentary (along the lines of the classic This is Spinal Tap). This one seems like an alternate reality version of Ken Burns' PBS series The Civil War. The website for the film describes what we can expect:

CSA: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA, through the eyes of a faux documentary, takes a look at an America where the South won the Civil War. Supposedly produced by a British broadcasting company, the feature film is presented as a production being shown, controversially, for the first time on television in the States.

Beginning with the British and French forces joining the battle with the Confederacy, thus assuring the defeat of the North at Gettysburg and ensuing battles, the South takes the battle northward and form one country out of the two. Lincoln attempts escape to Canada but is captured in blackface. This moment is captured in the clip of a silent film that might have been.

Through the use of other fabricated movie segments, old government information films, television commercials, newsbreaks, along with actual stock footage from our own history, a provocative and humorous story is told of a country, which, in many ways, frighteningly follows a parallel with our own.

The film will be screened at Shaker Square Cinemas starting March 17. You can see the trailer here.

March 14, 2006

The politics of terrorism-2: The origins of the neoconservatives

Yesterday, I discussed how the BBC documentary The rise of the politics of fear traced the origins of al Qaida to the influence of an Islamic scholar Syed Qutb.

Meanwhile, in the US, there was a cult brewing around a University of Chicago professor of political philosophy by the name of Leo Strauss (1899-1973). That ideology has now come to be called neoconservatism. Strauss and his neoconservative disciples (which include Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Irving Kristol, John Bolton, Richard Perle, William Kristol, Michael Ledeen, and others) were people who felt, like Qutb, that US society was decadent and losing its moral strength.

The Straussians felt that it was necessary for America to develop a positive image of itself, to see itself as the ultimate force for good in the world and its role as spreading its influence over the entire world, by force if necessary. They were fundamentally elitist, seeing people as the "masses" to be led, sometimes in spite of themselves. They believed that people needed "grand myths" in order to be persuaded to take serious actions like war, and they did not hesitate to manufacture them when necessary. For America, the "grand myth" they propagandized was the idea that Americans were a good and chosen people, under siege from dark forces from within and without, with a mission to convert the world to its own way of life.

In order to mobilize the people in this way, the neoconservative movement needed a grand enemy. It is hard to mobilize people for war and conquest unless they feel threatened by a darkly evil force. As Nazi Reichsmarshall and Luftwaffe-Chief under Hitler Hermann Goering famously said: "The 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." (Nuremberg Diary by Gustave Gilbert, Farrar, Straus and Company, 1947, pp. 278-279.)

So grand enemies were created. At first, Communism and the Soviet Union served this purpose and was the enemy and from the 1950s onwards. The strength of the Soviet Union and the world Communist movement was consistently overestimated and its motives were consistently questioned, all leading to a feeling of paranoia at home. This paranoia enabled the US to create a huge military machine. But while the neoconservatives gained some influence in government, especially during the second Reagan administration, they did not actually seize the reins or power.

Ray McGovern, who served as a CIA analyst for 27 years from the administration of John F. Kennedy to that of George H. W. Bush and who, during the early 1980s, was one of the writers/editors of the President's Daily Brief and briefed it one-on-one to the president's most senior advisers, said that President George H. W. Bush kept the neoconservatives at arm's length, because he knew how dangerous they were. In fact, the neoconservatives were known among political insiders as "the crazies." McGovern writes:

During his term in office, George H. W. Bush, with the practical advice of his national security adviser Gen. Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker, was able to keep "the crazies" at arms length, preventing them from getting the country into serious trouble. They were kept well below the level of "principal" -- that is, below the level of secretary of state or defense.

The neoconservatives are so rabid in their expansionist ambitions that they even considered Henry Kissinger (one of the key architects of the vicious bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia, and who supported vicious dictators like General Suharto in Indonesia and General Pinochet in Chile as they murdered thousands) as too moderate and someone who had to be elbowed aside. "Crazies" seems like a good name for them.

The neoconservatives ambitions were finally fully realized in 2000 with the election of George W. Bush, where they now had a pliant president. Now they were in charge of the major policy decisions and set about fulfilling their dreams.

In order to consolidate their power and extend their influence over American politics, the neoconservatives made a tacit alliance with Christian fundamentalists, using the enticing idea of America being God's favorite country, specially chosen to carry out its mission of being a civilizing force in the world. Conveniently, this tied in with the neoconservatives' military and political goals of overthrowing other countries, especially those in the middle east.

This alliance also marked a shift in American religious fundamentalism, from a movement that had shunned involvement in electoral politics as being not worthy of people whose ultimate interest is life after death and whose goal is heaven, to one that became intensely involved with politics, seeking to have its moral perspectives become the law of the land.

This merging of fundamentalist Christian religion with a geopolitical neoconservative worldview is portrayed in the documentary as being in parallel with the Islamic fundamentalists seeking to embed their religious perspective into the political framework and impose their moral code as the laws of the Islamic countries.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union ceased to exist as an equal superpower with the US. The documentary argues that the fundamental cause was internal, that the Soviet Union simply was a failed state, unable to deliver the goods to its people, but the actual collapse was partly triggered by its defeat in Afghanistan in 1989 at the hands of the US backed Islamic fundamentalists. The collapse of the Soviet Union, while hailed as a victory by both the US and the Islamic fundamentalists who battled them in Afghanistan, left the US neoconservatives without a grand evil enemy with which to frighten the US public and thus get them to agree to the their global strategy of spreading democracy by force all over the world.

But the rise of al Qaida provided that new enemy. The BBC documentary argues that while the attacks of September 11, 2001 were spectacular in the manner and level of destruction they caused, they were not a sign of wide support and deep strength. But by constantly harping on al Qaida as if it were some giant malevolent and dangerous foe, the current US administration, along with the Blair government in the UK, has managed to recreate a level of fear that exceeds perhaps even that which existed during the cold war, thus enabling them to mobilize public support to systematically attack countries like Iraq, and keep Iran and Syria in its target sights. In addition, it has enabled them to also undermine civil liberties at home, and create a climate where anything (indefinite and arbitrary detention, torture, murder, kidnapping) are considered acceptable.

The neoconservative movement sees as its goal the use of force to overthrow real and perceived enemies of the US. They see themselves as being the vanguard, the people who really understand the world and of America's destiny to be its leader, and to use its military power to establish the new world order.

To be continued. . .

March 13, 2006

The politics of terrorism-1: The origins of al Qaida

Documentaries, as a rule, do not have actors and fictionalized events. But they are never just a collection of facts. Like feature films, they have a narrative structure imposed on them that tries to select and order the facts into a compelling story. This always opens them to a charge of bias. But good documentaries are more like a well-reasoned argument that does not bury contradictory facts but weighs them in the balance as well.

Last Monday I went to see documentary film The rise of the politics of fear by Britain's Adam Curtis, which was produced as a three-part series shown by the BBC in 2004. In this and the next post I will describe the message of the documentary, and in the third part I will analyze its strengths and weaknesses.

The documentary itself was fascinating and informative. (See a review of it in the Guardian.) It brought together in a coherent narrative much information that was already available in scattered form. It "connected the dots," to use a current cliché. Although it was three hours long, it was very entertainingly put together and I did not find the time dragging, so if you get the chance to see it, I would recommend doing so.

The main point of it was that al Qaida has been deliberately overrated as a threat. It said there was little or no evidence that it had any kind of organized structure or sleeper cells worldwide or even a militia. The idea that Osama bin Laden or Ayman al Zawahiri had cadres of militants at the ready to carry out their orders was wrong. It asserted that al Qaida was basically just an idea that had had gained some adherents around the world. As such, believers in its message might carry out attacks but these would be independent of any central command and control structure. bin Laden and his few followers were portrayed as isolated and weak, with only the power to urge others to take action, but not having any actual capabilities themselves. They did not even have the name al Qaida "until early 2001, when the American government decided to prosecute Bin Laden in his absence and had to use anti-Mafia laws that required the existence of a named criminal organisation." So the US government coined the name al Qaida and bin Laden and his followers adopted that name later.

There is some plausibility to this charge that al Qaida is not a vast organized conspiratorial network. Despite a massive and covert surveillance operation that has violated all kinds of civil liberties that we have taken for granted, it is telling that there have been no convictions of anyone for being part of an al Qaida "sleeper" cell. The few highly publicized arrests that have occurred (like the people in Lackawanna) have had the charges quietly dropped or reduced to insignificance.

So why is al Qaida perceived as such a bogeyman in the US? To answer this question, the documentary narrative traces the history of two parallel ideological movements that grew out of the late 1940s. One was an Islamic puritan movement that allied itself with Islamic fundamentalism. The other was the neoconservative movement in the US that allied itself with Christian fundamentalism. Each needed and used the other in order to grow itself.

al Qaida had its roots in the visit to the US in the period 1948-1950 of Syed Qutb, an Egyptian scholar and theorist who came here to study. What he saw of US culture dismayed him. He saw it as decadent and weak and superficial, and on his return to Egypt he saw that secular Egypt was being infiltrated with these same values from the West and also becoming decadent.

In order to combat this, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, to create a society based on Islamic values. He felt that Islam provided the framework for creating a humane and just and moral society. But the Egyptian government of Gamal Abdel Nasser was determinedly secular and eventually Qutb was arrested and tortured from 1954-1964 for his political activities. This harsh treatment, rather than taming him, radicalized him even more, convincing him that these kinds of evils were the inevitable consequences of having a secular state, and did not dissuade him from pursuing his goals upon his release. He was soon arrested again and in 1966 was hanged.

The Muslim Brotherhood hoped that the killing of President Sadat in 1981 (who took over as Nasser's successor following his death in 1970) by army officers who were members of the Muslim Brotherhood would be the spark the revolutionized Egyptian society and incite the people to spontaneously rise and overthrow its secular structure and embrace an Islamic theocratic state. When that did not happen, they decided that the Egyptian people had become hopelessly corrupted and had effectively ceased to be Muslims. Thus ordinary people were also now fair game for attacks. Ayman al Zawahiri, the current close associate of bin Laden, was an Egyptian doctor who was a disciple of Qutb and was arrested briefly as part of the crackdown on those who had killed Sadat. The documentary has dramatic video footage of him defiantly speaking (in English) while under arrest.

While the ideas embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood had some success initially, they were brutally crushed by governments, in Egypt and Algeria especially, and the movement became fragmented and weak. Eventually, people like al Zawahiri and bin Laden ended up in Afghanistan where they became involved in the battle against the occupying army of the Soviet Union. bin Laden was portrayed in the documentary as someone who was welcomed because he had the money to fund groups, but was also portrayed as being used by al Zawahiri, who seems to be the brains and theorist.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 was an effort by them to give the Muslim world a dramatic example of striking at the heart of the West and it was hoped that this would galvanize Muslims around the world to spontaneously rise up and seize their countries from their governments, throw out all western influences, and convert the countries into theocracies. But here too their hopes were dashed, just as they had been for the aftermath of the killing of Sadat.

Tomorrow: The rise of the neoconservative movement in the US as a mirror image of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

POST SCRIPT: The closing of Abu Ghraib

The Daily Show comments on the closing of the torture factory that is Abu Ghraib.

March 10, 2006

The case against torture-3

One practical problem with using torture to extract information is that the people who ardently advocate it, including "the vice-president for torture" don't seem to realize that the kinds of scenarios they propose work only in fiction. It seems like they use TV programs like 24 hours as the basis for their claims for the validity of torture as a mechanism for extracting valuable information in a timely manner.

One is the so-called "ticking time bomb" scenario, in which a captured terrorist has information on an imminent attack that could kill hundreds or thousands of civilians.

Two administration officials, who asked not to be identified because they aren't authorized to speak to the press, said Cheney had described such a scenario several times, in which interrogators using generally approved methods can't pry the particulars out of the prisoner in time to prevent an attack.

Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz has argued that in such cases, torture should be used as a last resort, openly, with approval by the president or a Supreme Court justice.

But intelligence officers and other U.S. officials said the scenario was more likely to be found in James Bond films than in the real war on terrorism.

As Ken Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch says:

"Israel tried that. Under the guise of just looking at the narrow exception of where the ticking-bomb is there and you could save the poor schoolchildren whose bus was about to be exploded some place. They ended up torturing on the theory that -- well, it may not be the terrorist, but it's somebody who knows the terrorist or it's somebody who might have information leading to the terrorist.

They ended up torturing say 90 percent of the Palestinian security detainees they had until finally the Israeli supreme court had to say this kind of rare exception isn't working. It's an exception that's destroying the rule."

But it is Michael Kinsley writing in Slate magazine who really destroys the case for torture, arguing that there is no bottom to the pit of abominations where this kind of thinking can lead.

What if you knew for sure that the cute little baby burbling and smiling at you from his stroller in the park was going to grow up to be another Hitler, responsible for a global cataclysm and millions of deaths? Would you be justified in picking up a rock and bashing his adorable head in? Wouldn't you be morally depraved if you didn't?

Or what if a mad scientist developed a poison so strong that two drops in the water supply would kill everyone in Chicago? And you could destroy the poison, but only by killing the scientist and 10 innocent family members? Should you do it?

Or what if an international terrorist planted a nuclear bomb somewhere in Manhattan, set to go off in an hour and kill a million people. You've got him in custody, but he won't say where the bomb is. Is it moral to torture him until he gives up the information?
. . .
In law school, they call this second point, "salami-slicing." You start with a seemingly solid principle, then start slicing: If you would torture to save a million lives, would you do it for half a million? A thousand? Two dozen? What if there's only a two-out-of-three chance that person you're torturing has the crucial information? A 50-50 chance? One chance in 10? At what point does your moral calculus change, and why?
. . .
There is yet another law-school bromide: "Hard cases make bad law." It means that divining a general policy from statistical oddballs is a mistake. Better to have a policy that works generally and just live with a troublesome result in the oddball case. And we do this in many situations. For example, criminals go free every day because of trial rules and civil liberties designed to protect the innocent. We live with it.

Of course a million deaths is hard to shrug off as a price worth paying for the principle that we don't torture people. But college dorm what-ifs like this one share a flaw: They posit certainty (about what you know and what will happen if you do this or that). And uncertainty is not only much more common in real life: It is the generally unspoken assumption behind civil liberties, rules of criminal procedure, and much else that conservatives find sentimental and irritating.

Sure, if we could know the present and predict the future with certainty, we could torture only people who deserve it. Not just that: We could go door-to-door killing people before they kill others. We could lock up innocent people who would otherwise be involved in fatal traffic accidents.

I never deal with extreme hypotheticals, situations so far removed from one's usual experience that it is futile to predict how one would act and feel is one happened to actually find oneself in that situation. Also, it is easy to tweak the hypothetical in order to get whatever result one seeks.

For example, people who construct extreme hypotheticals to justify torture always assume that it is done to a stranger. But what if it is done to someone close to you? Suppose the authorities happen to suspect that your own child or brother or sister or father or mother or spouse or close friend happens to have important information. Would you willingly hand them over to the torturers and listen to their screams of agony knowing that it is for a 'good cause'? I personally would never, under any circumstances, agree to the torturing of someone close to me and if it is not justified against those whom I love, where is the morality in allowing it to be done to strangers?

We now have reports of children as young as ten being raped and tortured in US custody in order to get others to talk.

An Iraqi TV reporter Suhaib Badr-Addin al-Baz saw the Abu Ghraib children’s wing when he was arrested by Americans while making a documentary. He spent 74 days in Abu Ghraib.

"I saw a camp for children there," he said. "Boys, under the age of puberty. There were certainly hundreds of children in this camp." Al-Baz said he heard a 12-year-old girl crying. Her brother was also held in the jail. One night guards came into her cell. "She was beaten," said al-Baz. "I heard her call out, 'They have undressed me. They have poured water over me.'"

He says he heard her cries and whimpering daily - this, in turn, caused other prisoners to cry as they listened to her. Al-Baz also told of an ill 15-year-old boy who was soaked repeatedly with hoses until he collapsed. Guards then brought in the child’s father with a hood over his head. The boy collapsed again.

Soon after veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker magazine broke the original Abu Ghraib torture story, he gave a talk where he said that even worse things had happened and hinted darkly of the existence of videos of the rape of children and their screams that would horrify people. But those videos never emerged, although we know that that the US authorities have been working feverishly to bottle up the information coming out of these prisons. The recent release in Australia by newspapers and their TV program Dateline of more graphic photos of Abu Ghraib abuses may be part of this suppressed information, though we cannot be sure.

In a recent report we learn:

The ACLU, on behalf of several human rights groups, has been trying to obtain additional evidence of misconduct in US-run prisons worldwide. In September 2005, a federal district judge ordered the government to turn over all evidence of abuse to the group, including photographs and videos, but so far, Washington has stalled the ruling with an appeal.

In a press release yesterday, the ACLU said it does not know whether the images released by Dateline are among those sought in its court battle.

This is where we end up when we allow torture under any circumstances. It is interesting that most of the reports I have read come from the overseas media or from the reports of private watchdog groups like the ACLU or Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. It is as if the allegations are too sensitive for the mainstream US media to publicize. This silence enables people like Krauthammer and Dershowitz to wallow in their delusions that torture is something that can be done in very rare situations under clinical conditions by humane people, where we know for sure who is guilty, and are certain that they have exactly the information we seek.

Frank Anderson, a former chief of the CIA's Near East and South Asia division in the agency's Operations Directorate, the clandestine service, also worried about what the brutality does to those who carry it out. Anderson said "I will rebel against anyone who wants my son to torture, because it won't ever heal."

The reality is that once you open the gates for torture, it becomes ever more routine and ghastly, implemented by people who become more and more vicious and cruel as their efforts fail to produce results and the norms of civilized behavior become compromised, brutalizing those who are tortured as well as those who do the torturing.

There is no "right" way to torture. It is barbarism pure and simple. It must be banned.

March 09, 2006

The case against torture-2

Part of the reason that torture and other brutalities have not been greeted with the outrage that they deserve has been the response of some intellectuals who have helped make the case that torture is not so bad. In fact, they argue that it might even be a good thing in selected cases.

Take Charles Krauthammer. He writes: "A terrorist is by profession, indeed by definition, an unlawful combatant: He lives outside the laws of war because he does not wear a uniform, he hides among civilians, and he deliberately targets innocents. He is entitled to no protections whatsoever."

He goes on " Breaking the laws of war and abusing civilians are what, to understate the matter vastly, terrorists do for a living. They are entitled, therefore, to nothing. Anyone who blows up a car bomb in a market deserves to spend the rest of his life roasting on a spit over an open fire."

Interestingly, he seems to want to have it both ways. After writing with unnecessarily graphic imagery ("roasting on a spit over an open fire"?) that seems to betoken an almost wistful longing, he then tries to redeem his sense of his own humanity. "But we don't do that because we do not descend to the level of our enemy. We don't do that because, unlike him, we are civilized. Even though terrorists are entitled to no humane treatment, we give it to them because it is in our nature as a moral and humane people."

Actually, to say that another living thing is "entitled to no humane treatment" has already, in my opinion, put him outside the realm of civilized human beings.

But then he gets to the point which all advocates of torture eventually get to, which is the "ticking time bomb" hypothetical scenario.

A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He's not talking.

Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?

Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.

Krauthammer then goes to the position already occupied by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, that torture is going to be necessary and will happen anyway, so we might as well regulate it by legislation requiring warrants, making rules, etc. so that we have controlled torture. What he and Dershowitz want, essentially, is to make complicit in their torture activities a whole phalanx of doctors, lawyers, judges, politicians, soldiers, and assorted bureaucrats, because this is what will happen when you try to set up a "regulated" torture program and lay out all the rules under which it will operate.

Or take the case of Eugene Volokh. In March 2005, the Iranian government publicly executed a serial killer in a slow and brutal manner by first flogging him 100 times and then hanging him from a crane, all before a large crowd, and even allowed a relative of one of the victims to stab him during the execution and the mother of another victim to put the noose around his neck. By almost any measure, it was a savage display.

But Eugene Volokh approved of it, writing:

I particularly like the involvement of the victims' relatives in the killing of the monster; I think that if he'd killed one of my relatives, I would have wanted to play a role in killing him. Also, though for many instances I would prefer less painful forms of execution, I am especially pleased that the killing - and, yes, I am happy to call it a killing, a perfectly proper term for a perfectly proper act - was a slow throttling, and was preceded by a flogging. The one thing that troubles me (besides the fact that the murderer could only be killed once) is that the accomplice was sentenced to only 15 years in prison, but perhaps there's a good explanation.

I am being perfectly serious, by the way. I like civilization, but some forms of savagery deserve to be met not just with cold, bloodless justice but with the deliberate infliction of pain, with cruel vengeance rather than with supposed humaneness or squeamishness. I think it slights the burning injustice of the murders, and the pain of the families, to react in any other way.

Who is this Eugene Volokh who, like Krauthammer, writes with such relish about seeing people die in excruciating agony? He is a professor of constitutional law at UCLA and one of the principal authors of a popular law blog called The Volokh Conspiracy. The fact that someone who has presumably thought deeply about the law and constitutional issues can pen such words is a sign that the so-called war on terror has undermined all the values that we should hold dear.

Volokh received a lot of criticism for his posting and started to backtrack, but on practical rather than moral grounds. Initially, he said that such types of punishments would violate the US constitution. But his solution to that problem was to recommend changes in the constitution removing that barrier.

UPDATE: I should mention that such a punishment would probably violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause. I'm not an expert on the history of the clause, but my point is that the punishment is proper because it's cruel (i.e., because it involves the deliberate infliction of pain as part of the punishment), so it may well be unconstitutional. I would therefore endorse amending the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause to expressly exclude punishment for some sorts of mass murders.

Naturally, I don't expect this to happen any time soon; my point is about what should be the rule, not about what is the rule, or even what is the constitutionally permissible rule. I think the Bill of Rights is generally a great idea, but I don't think it's holy writ handed down from on high. Certain amendments to it may well be proper, though again I freely acknowledge that they'd be highly unlikely.

In any event, there's nothing unconstitutional about letting victims' relatives participate in the execution; it's only the use of cruel means that would require an amendment.

He then backtracked some more, but again because of practical questions, because even if the amendment to the constitution he advocated were adopted, the actual implementation difficulties would be huge:

What I found most persuasive about Mark's argument was his points about institutions: about how hard it would be for a jury system to operate when this punishment was available, and how its availability would affect gubernatorial elections, legislative elections, and who knows what else. Even if enough people vote to authorize these punishments constitutionally and legislatively (which I've conceded all along is highly unlikely), there would be such broad, deep, and fervent opposition to them - much broader, deeper, and more fervent than the opposition to the death penalty - that attempts to impose the punishments would logjam the criminal justice system and the political system.

And this would be true even when the punishments are sought only for the most heinous of murderers. It's not just that you couldn't find 12 people to convict; it's that the process of trying to find these people, and then execute the judgment they render, will impose huge costs on the legal system (for a few examples, see Mark's post). Whatever one's abstract judgments about the proper severity of punishments, this is a punishment that will not fit with our legal and political culture.

So Krauthammer, Dershowitz, and Volokh all approve of such cruelty in principle but are only concerned, if at all, about the practical problems of implementation. If such influential opinion shapers have these views, is it any surprise that there is so little outrage at the things that are currently being done by the US?

Apart from the actual torturing of prisoners at military prisons like Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Bagram base in Afghanistan, and Guantanamo in Cuba, the website Jesus' General listed the way that the US military is taking hostages in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are kidnapping and holding the wives and children of people hostage, either to force fugitives to give themselves up, or if they are already in custody, to make them talk. We have sunk to the level of those people who kidnapped journalist Jill Carroll and the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq and are holding them hostage, using them as bargaining chips.

People like Krauthammer always finely tune their arguments for self-serving purposes. For example, he says that for the ordinary soldier caught on the field of battle "There is no question that he is entitled to humane treatment. Indeed, we have no right to disturb a hair on his head." Clearly he carefully situating himself so that his approval of torture is not used for the torturing of captured US soldiers, with blame falling on him. But this kind of careful legal tap-dancing is worthless because it assumes that everyone will agree to operate according to rules set by one side.

But the point is that once you allow the torturing of anyone under any circumstances, all bets are off. People who capture US soldiers will be unimpressed by Krauthammer's delicate distinctions. They will argue that just because the US soldiers have nice uniforms and know how to march in formation does not mean that they should receive better treatment than the irregulars who fight guerilla wars. Allowing torture is like a kick in boxing. Once you allow that, you are in a different kind of fight and the Marquis of Queensbury rules don't apply anymore. Now anything goes.

This kind of escalation is similar what happened with the Muslim cartoons that caused offense. (See here for my earlier posts on this topic.) When an Iranian paper said that they were, in response, seeking Jewish holocaust cartoons to test the depth of the commitment of western newspapers to the freedom of the press argument that they used for publishing the cartoons, some people said that this was going over the line of acceptability, that they should have stopped with cartoons involving Jesus or something. But with such issues, the unresolved point always is "Who gets to draw the line?"

While there is a (admittedly small) chance that we can all agree that torture should be unconditionally outlawed, once we allow exceptions there is almost no chance that we will all agree on what those exceptions should be. This is because the act of torture is so extreme, and the varieties of ways in which it can be practiced so numerous, that the people at the receiving end will not accept restrictions on how they can respond.

It is absurd to think that people are going to agree to have international monitors to see if torturers are following some set of rules.

To be continued…

POST SCRIPT: Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks (photojournalist, cinematographer, movie director, novelist, poet, music and ballet composer) died earlier this week at the age of 93. In an earlier posting I had quoted him on his 88th birthday in 2000 saying:

I think most people can do a whole awful lot more if they just try. They just don’t have the confidence that they can write a novel or they can write poetry or they can take pictures or paint or whatever, and so they don’t do it, and they leave the planet dissatisfied with themselves.

I used to tell the first year students in my physics classes this quote to encourage them to think big and to explore the many facets of their own interests and personalities and not to be intimidated from trying something just because they felt they were not good enough.

After all, Parks tried and did many things even though he was a black man growing up at a time when many doors were not open to him because of his skin color. As he said in his autobiography "Nothing came easy. . .I was just born with a need to explore every tool shop of my mind, and with long searching and hard work. I became devoted to my restlessness."

March 08, 2006

The case against torture

It seems bizarre that we have reached a stage where we actually have to make a case against the use of torture. One would have thought that it would be self-evident that torturing people is wrong and should not be condoned. But sadly, that is not the situation anymore. We are now in a place where the formerly unthinkable is now not only thought but also done and actively encouraged.

Clearly, Vice-President Cheney has emerged as someone who has no scruples in this regard.

A top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell has launched a stinging attack on US Vice-President Dick Cheney over abuse of prisoners by US troops.

Col Lawrence Wilkerson accused Mr Cheney of ignoring a decision by President Bush on the treatment of prisoners in the war on terror.

Asked by the BBC's Today if Mr Cheney could be accused of war crimes, he said: "It's an interesting question."

"Certainly it is a domestic crime to advocate terror," he added.

"And I would suspect, for whatever it's worth, it's an international crime as well."

Even former CIA Director Stansfield Turner refers to Cheney as the "vice president for torture."

The former spymaster claims President Bush is not telling the truth when he says that torture is not a method used by the US.

Speaking of Bush's claims that the US does not use torture, Admiral Turner, who ran the CIA from 1977 to 1981, said: "I do not believe him".

On Dick Cheney he said "I'm embarrassed the United States has a vice president for torture.

"He condones torture, what else is he?"

The relentless fear-mongering generated by the so-called "war on terror" has produced a siege mentality where people are willing to trade humane values for a spurious sense of security. And what is worse, it seems as if people do not even want to know the truth. Reports that document outrages against civilized behavior are either unreported, under-reported, or can be seen only in the foreign press.

Project Censored documents that the ACLU and other organizations have unearthed military autopsy reports that "provide indisputable proof that detainees are being tortured to death while in US military custody. Yet the US corporate media are covering it with the seriousness of a garage sale for the local Baptist Church."

The details of each military autopsy report of the deaths of prisoners in US custody can be seen here. They are sickening. Here is a sample:

Final Autopsy Report: DOD 003164, (Detainee) Died as a result of asphyxia (lack of oxygen to the brain) due to strangulation as evidenced by the recently fractured hyoid bone in the neck and soft tissue hemorrhage extending downward to the level of the right thyroid cartilage. Autopsy revealed bone fracture, rib fractures, contusions in mid abdomen, back and buttocks extending to the left flank, abrasions, lateral buttocks. Contusions, back of legs and knees; abrasions on knees, left fingers and encircling to left wrist. Lacerations and superficial cuts, right 4th and 5th fingers. Also, blunt force injuries, predominately recent contusions (bruises) on the torso and lower extremities. Abrasions on left wrist are consistent with use of restraints. No evidence of defense injuries or natural disease. Manner of death is homicide. Whitehorse Detainment Facility, Nasiriyah, Iraq."

The Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff points out how the posturing of people like Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham (who try to speak as if they oppose torture) actually provide cover for the Bush administration to strip the people being held in its custody of their basic rights and remove all oversight of the treatment of prisoners, in effect allowing the military authorities to do all the things that are symptomatic of brutal dictatorships, acts that are routinely condemned when done by countries that are not allies the US.

How has it come to this? How can it be that in the 21st century, centuries after the age of enlightenment, we are consciously allowing, if not actively encouraging, governments to commit acts that can only be described as barbaric? Is there anything at all that would arouse public anger? Or is it only a matter of time before we reach the stage where we place the decapitated heads of so-called "enemy combatants" on spikes in public spaces as a warning, as was the practice of kings and queens in England against their perceived enemies?

To be continued...

POST SCRIPT: Ali and Frazier

Just after writing about the bad way that Ali treated Frazier, I read that today is the thirty-fifth anniversary of their "Fight of the Century" where Frazier won on points. It provides information about how Ali turned on Frazier despite Frazier helping him during his time of exile from boxing because of his political and religious convictions.

It was Frazier who helped support Ali - the self-proclaimed "People's Champion" - during his three-year-plus year exile from boxing, loaning the former champ money and speaking to athletic commissions about reinstating Ali's boxing license. It was also Frazier who felt betrayed by Ali for the biting "Uncle Tom" and "White Man's champion" barbs leading into the fight.

I agree with the comments after yesterday's post that Ali was the victim of a lot of prejudice and hate for his speaking out, and nothing can take away from his courage and principled stands, and his willingness to sacrifice his career at its peak. But I do think that his treatment of Frazier is something that he should regret.

March 07, 2006

Grace in sports

Although I did not watch any of the 2006 winter Olympics events on TV, I casually followed them in the press, and the front page headline in the Sunday Plain Dealer caught my attention. It said Grace eludes U.S. Olympians: Too many athletes at Torino Games live up to ‘ugly American’ image and listed the many ways in which some US athletes did not behave well at the games.

I must admit that I am increasingly turned off by the way people behave at sporting events. It irritates me when people do not behave with grace and courtesy and politeness. To see athletes boasting and gloating and taunting their opponents when they do something well, to get angry and belligerent when someone else gets the better of them, and to loudly and rudely protest when the referee or umpire makes a wrong call, are all things that I find really distasteful, so much so that I rarely watch major sporting events anymore. And it is not just players who behave like this, sometimes spectators are even worse.

I am sure that much of my attitude is due to the influence of Trinity College in Kandy, Sri Lanka, the K-12 school I went to growing up. The Principal of the school strictly enforced the traditions of the school about behavior at school sporting events. Students had to wear school uniforms whenever we attended any function in which the school was involved, even if we were at the events purely as spectators, and even if they took place after school hours or on weekends.

We were only allowed to applaud spontaneously for any good play. There was to be no organized cheering of any kind. And we were strictly forbidden to boo or jeer or cheer any mistake by any player, whether on our side or the opponents. Only shouts of encouragement or groans or sounds of shock and surprise (again spontaneous) were allowed. We were prohibited from deliberately trying to distract opposing team players when they were doing something that required deep concentration. In fact, we were expected to clap (spontaneously of course) good plays by our opponents as well. It was kind of like the behavior that we now see in golf.

Violations of these policies would guarantee us getting an extended lecture from our Principal at school assembly the next day, while if an individual were identified for doing any of this, some sort of punishment was likely.

The idea behind this strict code of behavior was that this would instill in us the idea of 'good sportsmanship,' that the quality of the game and proper behavior was more important than the result. We were drilled repeatedly with Grantland Rice's famous couplet:

For when the One Great Scorer comes, to mark against your name,
He writes - not that you won or lost - but how you played the Game.

I admit that my school was unusual in enforcing such policies and during my school years, I chafed at all these restrictions that were not enforced by other schools in Sri Lanka.

While my school was undoubtedly extreme, looking back, I must say that I now feel grateful for that training. Even now, even when I am rooting for a particular team, and am pleased when the opponents make a mistake that creates an advantage for my preferred team, I cannot bring myself to cheer (at least openly) that mistake, and I even feel a twinge of guilt for enjoying the lapse by the opposing player.

I think that this attitude makes one enjoy sporting events a lot more on the purely technical level, because one appreciates good performances irrespective of who does them, although one's own team's successes add an extra zest to the pleasure. But on the other hand, I also feel a great sense of irritation with players and spectators alike who act ungraciously on and off the field, which has pretty much ruined watching sports for me, since this kind of ungracious behavior has become commonplace.

Of course, sports have become so professionalized, and winning so important and so related to money, that many players do these things simply to get noticed and to get some kind of psychological edge over their opponents. I find that international cricket has also descended into the pit with players now trash talking to each other, something that was highly exceptional in the past.

But although I understand the motivation, I cannot condone them and find them downright distasteful, so much so that I find myself instinctively hoping that showboating athletes will fail, whatever team they might be on, just so that they might learn a lesson in humility. And I cheered football players like the Detroit Lions' Barry Sanders or the Chicago Bears' Walter Payton who, in their day, simply let their good playing speak for itself, without all that silly index finger raised "We're number one!" childishness.

I have heard it said that Muhammad Ali was the originator for this kind of strutting and gloating and grandstanding and taunting and goading of opponents in the US. I really admired the physical grace and athleticism of Ali, and his conscientious objection to fighting in the Vietnam war. But his cruel treatment of opponents, especially Joe Frazier who by all accounts was an honorable person, was inexcusable.

But why do spectators also behave badly, booing and jeering and taunting? Are they just imitating the behavior of the players? Was it always like this in the US, or is it also a more recent post-Ali phenomenon?

March 06, 2006

Opinion polls and statistics

In the previous post and in many aspects of life these days, we get quoted the results of opinion polls. Many of our public policies are strongly influenced by these polls, with politicians paying close attention to them before speaking out.

But while people are inundated with opinion polls, there is still considerable misunderstanding about how they work. Especially during elections, when there are polls practically every day, one often hears people expressing skepticism about polls, saying that they feel the polls are not representative because they, personally, and all the people they know, have never been asked their opinion. Surely, they reason, if so many polls are done, every person should get a shot at answering these surveys? That fact that no pollster has contacted them or their friends and families seem to make the poll results suspect in their eyes, as if the pollsters are using some highly selective group of people to ask and leaving out 'ordinary' people.

This betrays a misunderstanding of statistics and the sampling size needed to get good results. The so-called "margin of error" quoted by statisticians is found by dividing 100 by the square root of the size of the sample. So if you have a sample of 100, then the margin of error is 10%. If you have a sample size of 625, then the margin of error drops sharply to 4%. If you have a sample size of 1111, the margin of error becomes 3%. To get to 2% requires a sample size of 2500.

Clearly you would like your margin of error to be as small as possible, which argues for large samples, but your sample sizes are limited by the cost and time involved in surveying people, so trade offs have to be made. Most pollsters use samples of about 1000, and quote margins of error of 3%.

One interesting point is that there are statistical theorems that say that the sample size needed to get a certain margin of error does not depend on the size of the whole population (for large enough populations, say over 100,000). So a sample size of 1000 is sufficient for Cuyahoga County, the state of Ohio, or the whole USA. This explains why any given individual is highly unlikely to be polled. Since the population of the US is close to 300 million, the probability of any one of the 1000 people I may personally know being contacted has only a 0.00033% chance.

We know that a poll tells us that 54% of Americans say that "I do not think human beings developed from earlier species." The sample size was 1000, which means a margin of error of about 3%. Statistically, this means that there is a 95% chance that the "true" number of people who agree with that statement lies somewhere between 51% and 57%.

Certain assumptions and precautions go into interpreting these results. The first assumption is that the people polled are a truly random sample of the population. If you randomly contact people, that may not be true. You may, for example, end up with more women than men, or you may have contacted more old people or registered Republicans than are in the general population. If, from census and other data, you know the correct proportions of the various subpopulations in your survey, then this kind of skewing can be adjusted for by changing the weight of the contributions from each subgroup to match the actual population distribution.

With political polls, sometimes people complain that the sample sizes of Democrats and Republicans are not equal and that thus the poll is biased. But that difference is usually because the number of people who are officially registered as belonging to those parties are not equal.

But sometimes pollsters also quote the results for the subpopulations in their samples, and since the subsamples are smaller, the breakdown data has greater margin of error than the results for the full sample, though you are often not explicitly told this. For example, the above-mentioned survey says that 59% of people who had high school education or less agreed that "I do not think human beings developed from earlier species." But the number of people in the sample who fit that description is 407, which means that there is a 5% uncertainty in the result for that subgroup, unlike the 3% for the full sample of 1000.

But a more serious source of uncertainty these days is that many people refuse to answer pollsters when they call and it is not possible to adjust for the views of those who refuse. So although the pollsters do have data on the numbers of persons who hang up on them or otherwise refuse to answer, they do not know if such people are more likely or less likely to think that humans developed from earlier species. So they cannot adjust for this factor. They have to simply assume that if those non-responders had answered, their responses would have been in line with those who actually did respond.

Then there may be people who do not answer honestly for whatever reason or are just playing the fool. They are also hard to adjust for. This is why I am somewhat more skeptical of surveys of teens on various topics. It seems to me that teenagers are just the right age to get enjoyment from deliberately answering questions in exotic ways.

These kinds of biases are hard, if not impossible, to compensate for, though in serious research the researchers try to put in extra questions that can help gauge whether people are answering honestly. But opinion polls, which have to be done quickly and cheaply, are not likely to go to all that trouble

Because of such reasons, polls like the Harris poll issue this disclaimer at the end:

In theory, with probability samples of this size, one could say with 95 percent certainty that the overall results have a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points of what they would be if the entire U.S. adult population had been polled with complete accuracy. Sampling error for subsamples is higher and varies. Unfortunately, there are several other possible sources of error in all polls or surveys that are probably more serious than theoretical calculations of sampling error. They include refusals to be interviewed (nonresponse), question wording and question order, and weighting. It is impossible to quantify the errors that may result from these factors.

For all these reasons, one should take the quoted margins of error, which are based purely on sample size, with a considerable amount of salt.

There is one last point I want to make concerning a popular misconception propagated by news reporters during elections. If an opinion poll says that a sample of 1000 voters has candidate A with 51% support and candidate B with 49%, then since the margin of error (3%) is greater than the percentage of votes separating the candidates (2%), the reporters will often say that the race is a "statistical dead heat," implying that the two candidates have equal chances of winning.

Actually, this is not true. What those numbers imply (using math that I won't give here) is that there is about a 75% chance that candidate A truly does lead candidate B, while candidate B has only a 25% chance of being ahead. So when one candidate is three times as likely as the other to win, it is highly misleading to say that the race is a "dead heat."


The Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque is hosting a special free screening of the documentary film THE RISE OF THE POLITICS OF FEAR on Monday, March 6, 2006 (i.e., today) at 7:00pm. This documentary by Britain's Adam Curtis is a three-part series shown on the BBC as part of their series on THE POWER OF NIGHTMARES and was broadcast in 2004. The program is 180 minutes long.

Admission is free but an $8 donation ($5 members) is requested. For directions and free parking information, see here.

An article in the Guardian titled The Making of the Terror Myth reviews the documentary, and says in part:

Terrorism, by definition, depends on an element of bluff. Yet ever since terrorists in the modern sense of the term (the word terrorism was actually coined to describe the strategy of a government, the authoritarian French revolutionary regime of the 1790s) began to assassinate politicians and then members of the public during the 19th century, states have habitually overreacted. Adam Roberts, professor of international relations at Oxford, says that governments often believe struggles with terrorists "to be of absolute cosmic significance", and that therefore "anything goes" when it comes to winning. The historian Linda Colley adds: "States and their rulers expect to monopolise violence, and that is why they react so virulently to terrorism."

Here is information from the Cinematheque website.

Here's the most incendiary political documentary since Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11! Adam Curtis' three-part essay, made for the BBC, dissects the war on terror by arguing that fear has come to dominate politics, and that the notion of a secret, organized, international terror network (e.g., Al Qaeda) is a bogeyman created by powerful interests to maintain control. Curtis, whom Entertainment Weekly has called "the most exciting documentary filmmaker of our time," employs extensive scholarship, interviews, and revealing film clips to trace the parallel rise of Islamic fundamentalism and American neoconservatism – mirror images of each other in Mr. Curtis' view. "A superbly eye-opening and often absurdly funny deconstruction of the myths and realities of global terrorism." –Variety.

March 03, 2006

The beliefs of Americans

In response to an earlier post about the surprisingly high percentage of Americans who believe in the rapture and other things, there was some skepticism about how reliable the numbers and how they broke down depending on age, etc.

I have not been able to find further documentation to support the figure of 44% who are either certain or think it very likely that the rapture will occur in their lifetimes. But there are other interesting breakdowns.

For example, in this Harris poll from July 6, 2005, 47% do not believe that apes and humans have common ancestry, which is a key tenet of evolution, while 46% believe it. A similar number 45% do not believe plants and animals evolved from other species. So we can pretty much conclude that slightly less than half the population reject pretty much all of evolution.

Curiously, only 22% believe that humans evolved from earlier species, while 64% believe that humans were created directly by God. I am not sure how this squares with the above answers. Maybe people are interpreting the phrases "common ancestry" and "directly created" in ways that are different from me.

In general, evolutionary ideas gain ground the more education you have. You are also much more likely to find support for evolution from those who identify their political philosophy as liberal and whose political affiliation is Democratic or independent.

The strongest support for evolution can be found in the northeast and the west, with the least in the Midwest and the south.

Support for evolution also declines with age. I am not sure if this is because as a person ages he/she becomes less evolutionary minded or whether this is due to the current group of older people being educated at a different time from the current group of younger people. I am not sure if anyone has done a longitudinal study following people as they age to find out if their views on evolution change, and if so why.

Another interesting Harris survey was done in December 2005 that breaks religious beliefs down another way. This shows solid majorities for a variety of religious beliefs: god (82%), miracles (73%), survival of soul after death (70%), heaven (70%), Jesus is God or the son of God (70%), angels (68%), resurrection of Christ (66%), devil (61%), hell (59%), and virgin birth of Jesus (48%).

Significant numbers believe in ghosts (40%), UFOs (34%), witches (28%), astrology (25%), and reincarnation (21%).

More women tend to believe in all these things than men (sometimes in much higher numbers) except, interestingly enough, for UFOs and witches. UFOs are a kind of kind of sci-fi thing that traditionally has had more appeal for guys, while one can understand women being leery of the witch issue, seeing as they bore the brunt of the cruelty arising from allegations of witchcraft.

Again Democrats are more skeptical than Republicans, with Independents easily being the most skeptical, although a majority of all groups still believe. Perhaps Independents, who are skeptical of both major parties, tend to carry that skepticism over to religion as well.

In the categories of ghosts, UFOS, witches, astrology and reincarnation, the numbers did not differ by much according to political affiliation.

Again, the more education you had, the less you believed, with the numbers decreasing dramatically when you got some post-graduate education.

So what does this all mean? One can interpret these things many ways but for me, the take-home lesson is that education matters.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart interview

Is Jon Stewart the only person who really knows how to answer a TV interviewer's stupid questions? Watch how he responds "Are you insane?" to Larry King.

March 02, 2006

Martin Luther King and non-violence

The main criticism leveled against the non-violence movement led by King (by critics such as those in the Black Power movement) was that it reinforced the stereotype of African-Americans as passive and meek. They argued that changing this perception required African-Americans to separate from whites and forge a more militant identity. King disagreed strongly with this analysis. In an interview, King said that "there is great deal of difference between nonresistance to evil and nonviolent resistance.'' He pointed out that anyone who had been involved in the civil rights struggles would know that nonviolent resistance, far from being passive, was a strong, determined, and effective response to injustice.

He pointed out that violent resistance was futile because its ultimate goal, the total separation of blacks and whites in the US, was absurdly unrealistic. The power of the state was overwhelming and could brutally crush any serious challenge to its authority. If the general public, black and white, did not personally identify with the struggle for justice, then they would passively stand by while this power was unleashed to crush any opposition. He knew from the history of wars in general (and World War II and the Vietnam war in particular) that the general public would passively accept massive injustice and cruelty and horrific destruction on even innocent civilians unless they identified in some way with those at the receiving end of the violence. And the only way "that the pressure of public opinion becomes an ally in your just cause" was if they themselves were touched by the struggle, at some deep level.

King argued that while some notable victories had been won by violence (for example, the American revolution among many independence struggles in former colonial countries), such models were not applicable to the civil rights struggle because "those fighting for independence have the purpose to drive out their oppressors." King argued that blacks and whites had to live together in a post-racist US, and the only way they could do that with any sense of common community was if they joined together in the struggle to create such a society. And he saw a united, non-violent struggle as the way to get everyone involved.

It is this firm conviction in the power of non-violence as an effective strategy, coupled with a basic sense of generosity and fairness in his outlook, his desire to see the best in even those who opposed him, that was the key to his success as a coalition builder. He was always inclusive in his thinking, trying to find ways in which to form a common cause with those who shared his basic belief in justice and equality. But he could also be scathing in his appraisal of those with whom he felt he had nothing in common, and fierce in his denunciation of the few deep-rooted racists who could not be won over.

Martin Luther King was always conscious of the importance of trying to maintain balance between the tensions pulling in different directions. He said that "a strong man must be militant as well as moderate. He must be a realist as well as an idealist." Even the subtitle of his book Chaos or Community shows his realization that the future of society lay in a delicate balance. King's murder removed from our midst someone who could hold people and movements together while moving towards a common goal and thus take us towards community. While we have not quite reached chaos in his absence, there is an urgent and deep need for a new generation of leadership that can point us towards community again.

Martin Luther King seemed to draw his strength from two sources: his wide reading and scholarship, which enabled him to always place people and events in a deeper and more meaningful context; and his ability to see the best in people. After the march in Montgomery, observing the demonstrators who were crowded together in an airport terminal, he noted "As I stood with them and saw white and Negro, nuns and priests, ministers and rabbis, labor organizers, lawyers, doctors, housemaids and shopworkers brimming with vitality and enjoying a rare comradeship, I knew I was seeing a microcosm of the mankind of the future in this moment of luminous and genuine brotherhood."

His vision of what a society should be and what must be done to achieve it is as relevant and vibrant as ever. His call to action is as compelling now as it was when he first made it.

POST SCRIPT: Get rich! Buy shares in this blog!

I stumbled upon this site which seems to mimic sites that track the share value of companies. Except that the "company" concerned is my blog!

The site calls itself the "fantasy blog stock market" and I imagine that it belongs to the same genre as fantasy football and fantasy baseball (neither of which I understand, by the way). The home page of this site seems to indicate that this is some sort of game in which the value of a blog is somehow determined by the incoming links, each player starts with B$500 (where B$ presumably stands for "blog dollars" and is play money), and you use your "money" to buy and sell shares in a blog depending on whether you think its value will go up or down.

According to this site, the share value of my blog rose from B$0.87 on May 4, 2005 to B$1.79 on November 21, 2005, which strikes me as an astounding rate of return, annualized to about 300%. Let's see Google beat that.

My blog has a current "valuation" (whatever that means) of over B$11,000 and this also has been rising recently, although the graph showing this does not plot the scale of the x-axis, which is the kind of error that would cost you big in an introductory physics lab report.

Of course, past behavior is not an indicator of future performance, or whatever it is that mutual fund brochures insert in their disclaimer statements. So don't hold me responsible if you buy shares and then the price tanks.

March 01, 2006

Harry Belafonte

I went to the Harry Belafonte talk last night at Strosacker and he lived up to his reputation as a plain speaker who does not shy away from telling it like it is. He again called Bush a terrorist and added "traitor" as well. He also confirmed that the reason he did not speak at Coretta Scott King's funeral was that he had been disinvited when Bush said that he was attending, and confirmed the story that I wrote about on Monday about the splits in the King family about how to move forward.

But his talk was a lot more than that. It was a moving personal story about his life, the things he had done, and why he had done them. When he spoke of the people he had met with and worked with, it was a who's who of all the people around the world who have helped make this a better place - Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Malcolm X. Harry Belafonte spoke about how he was completely won over by Martin Luther King at the very first meeting they had together and how he immediately dedicated his life to helping him achieve his agenda.

But more significantly, his talk was also a self-criticism, a fear that somehow he and his generation had failed in their intention to hand on the baton to the next generation to fight for justice, to keep its flame alive.

He spoke of his sadness at the plight of young minorities who are filling up the ever-expanding prison system. As a result, far from being retired (today is his 79th birthday) he is going around talking to young people in prisons and in the gangs to see what he can do. He spoke of his deep belief that the right to vote is the most powerful weapon for justice that we have and it should not be wasted and trivialized.

In the question period, it was clear that he had inspired many people because, unlike so many celebrities, he had risked his career at its peak, by speaking out and acting so strongly for justice. In doing so, he was following in the footsteps of his mentor, the great Paul Robeson.

Harry Belafonte looked and sounded terrific. Fighting for justice and speaking the truth has kept him vibrant and strong. He is a living legend.


The Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque is hosting a special free screening of the documentary film THE RISE OF THE POLITICS OF FEAR on Monday, March 6, 2006 at 7:00pm. This documentary by Britain's Adam Curtis is a three-part series shown on the BBC as part of their series on THE POWER OF NIGHTMARES and was broadcast in 2004. The program is 180 minutes long.

Admission is free but an $8 donation ($5 members) is requested. For directions and free parking information, see here.

An article in the Guardian titled The Making of the Terror Myth reviews the documentary, and says in part:

Terrorism, by definition, depends on an element of bluff. Yet ever since terrorists in the modern sense of the term (the word terrorism was actually coined to describe the strategy of a government, the authoritarian French revolutionary regime of the 1790s) began to assassinate politicians and then members of the public during the 19th century, states have habitually overreacted. Adam Roberts, professor of international relations at Oxford, says that governments often believe struggles with terrorists "to be of absolute cosmic significance", and that therefore "anything goes" when it comes to winning. The historian Linda Colley adds: "States and their rulers expect to monopolise violence, and that is why they react so virulently to terrorism."

Here is information from the Cinematheque website.

Here's the most incendiary political documentary since Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11! Adam Curtis' three-part essay, made for the BBC, dissects the war on terror by arguing that fear has come to dominate politics, and that the notion of a secret, organized, international terror network (e.g., Al Qaeda) is a bogeyman created by powerful interests to maintain control. Curtis, whom Entertainment Weekly has called "the most exciting documentary filmmaker of our time," employs extensive scholarship, interviews, and revealing film clips to trace the parallel rise of Islamic fundamentalism and American neoconservatism – mirror images of each other in Mr. Curtis' view. "A superbly eye-opening and often absurdly funny deconstruction of the myths and realities of global terrorism." –Variety.