Monday, July 31, 2006

The kind of person you just can't reach.

Apparently, some people live in a bubble and don't care: here we find the following gem in the comments:
If scientific journals agree on global warming then they aren't very scientific are they? And if they select only what they agree with, they aren't journals either. Science demands skepticism. Scientific consensus is not science at all.
Wow. So, if there's debate, then it's science, but you can pick which side you like. If there's no debate (i.e., the debate is over), then it's not science, so you don't have to pay attention. Wow. I've never seen a better example of a self-sealing attitude.

College administrators, adjuncts, and making ends meet.

This I find intriguing. Apparently, at least one reason why there's a slew of part-time contract employees (instead of full professors) at US colleges is due to the increasing costs of providing healthcare for employees. That is, salary isn't the reason there's an ever-shrinking pool of good jobs for good academics, nor is it malice from administrators. Interesting.

Is there really a World War III? Now in Sri Lanka!

Oh, goody. The Sri Lankan civil war is back on, apparently. Is there any part of the world that isn't on the verge of war? Maybe the whole "World War III" thing isn't entirely crazy -- it seems like everyone's fighting everyone these days.

UK court uses anti-gay bigotry.

Talk about sanctioning bigotry: a UK court rules that a Canadian-made gay marriage should not be recognized because (amongst other things) it would "fail to recognize physical reality". I am speechless. There may be legal arguments against recognizing a Canadian gay marriage in the UK, but these premises are just insane.

The responsibilities of parenthood.

I've never seen such irresponsibility: a UK mother has written a column about how she finds necessary tasks of motherhood "boring". That much is fine: you don't have to like everything you have to do. But, reading down the article, it seems to go further than that: she asked the nanny to read bedtime stories, she tried to avoid changing diapers, etc. In other words, this woman had children, but then tried to opt out of some of the tasks that go along with being a parent. I find this quite strange. If I make a promise to mow someone's lawn, it's my responsibility to mow it -- even if I find the actual pushing of the lawnmower to be distasteful or unpleasant or boring. Similarly, then, if one has a child, then one must take on the responsibilities of parenthood: including reading stories, attending your child's activities, changing diapers, and so on. This is not to say parents can't have their own lives too; just that they cannot have their own lives instead. You don't take on a responsibility that you're not willing to live up to. You don't have children if you're not willing to take on the responsibility of caring for them. I have no idea why this woman doesn't understand that.

Conservative brain-washing?

Why does this camp for "conservatives" strike me as more than a little cultish? (Probably because it is. Never mind.)

US crackdown on illegal immigration.

Another pointless "war" in the US, this time against illegal immigrants. I've blogged on this before, and nothing in this article really changes my mind. Basically, the shift has to happen at a grander level than just a few business here and there being punished for hiring illegal immigrants. There have to be opportunities at home such that the incentive to illegally immigrate drops, there have to be stiffer and systemic penalties for depending on illegal labour, and it has to be easier to legally immigrate for the purpose of work. Otherwise, nothing will change.

US men not working -- by choice?

Here we find an article suggesting that many US men are simply not working, after losing their long-time jobs. Is this supposed to be their fault? To my mind, this quote sums it up:
"Men don’t feel a need to be in a career, not as much as they once did," said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. "Nor do men have the incentive they once had to pursue a career, not when employers are no longer committed to them."
So, in essence, men get laid off, can't get a job that pays as well as they are used to, can't get a job that is as satisfying as the one they had -- and is it supposed to be their fault they decide "fuck it" and don't bother any more? How much degradation are you supposed to accept before you've endured enough? How far are you supposed to sink into the mire of low-paying work with no long-term guarantees (and, in the US, no health insurance) before you're allowed to say "enough"? When will states finally realize that they are obligated to ensure everyone can have a fair chance at a decent life?

Radical scientific suggestions for undoing global warming.

This is a very strange article. I'm not sure what to think of it. The basic idea is that, because the political response to global warming has been pathetic (a point I'll gladly accept), science needs to figure out more radical ways to dick around with the Earth's climate in order to solve the problem if (when) it gets out of control. This sounds like science fiction rather than science fact to me. But, if it is actually possible, I'd be worried that playing around with the climate deliberately, rather than accidentally (as we are with global warming), would have even more disastrous consequences.

So much for men.

I've blogged about the issue of representation of sub-social groups in Parliament before. But the headline here is bizarre: "50/50 split not enough, female politicians say". So, their explicit political goal is to get rid of any men in Parliament? Why is that supposed to be admirable?

(In fairness, of course, the headline is an example of editors aiming for sensation rather than substance. The article suggests instead the more modest claim that the tussle of parliamentary politics isn't "women-friendly". I would suggest that this is profoundly insulting towards both women -- if things "aren't safe" then women "can't handle it" -- and men -- who are by nature brutish thugs (or thuggish brutes). But it's not nearly as bad as what the headline suggested.)

What is a "terrorist"?

Glenn Greenwald has an interesting post on what the word "terrorist" means. Mr. Greenwald's concerns are with what "terrorist" is being used to mean: his claim is that "terrorist" is used to mean something like "anyone I/we want to kill". In other words, it's become synonymous with "enemy" (indeed, with the very worst sort of enemy -- perhaps "nemesis" is more appropriate). It's not surprising that this sort of redefinition has gone on; indeed, if there were no redefinition, it's hard to see how the "war on terror" could be sustained. As has been pointed out, one cannot wage war on a word; moreover, one cannot wage war on a natural human emotion, particularly one that has always been manipulated for political ends. So, "terror" has to mean something that yields a moral tautology: we are at war with the people we should be at war with (hence we are good people and those who oppose us are bad).

The fact is, of course, that "terrorist" doesn't actually mean any such thing. Hence, there's an almost unconscious cognitive slide being encouraged by this misuse of "terrorist": one starts by thinking of someone who is evidently a bad guy (kills innocent people in order to spread fear and thus achieve political goals) and ends up thinking of anyone who is an enemy. Hence, one is encouraged to combine the aspects of the two concepts: one is encouraged to think of any enemy as someone who wants to kill innocents and spread fear. (This is why Howard Dean gets compared to a psychopath (Google search.) It is, in fact, pretty infantile as persuasive tactics go: as long as one keeps straight what ideas are actually in play, rather than what words are being used, one cannot be tricked by this sort of maneuver.

What's worrisome, but not surprising, is the corporate media's complicity in the blurring of the two concepts. What's even more worrisome, and rather surprising, is the ease with which many Americans have accepted the redefinition.

Unity and dissent.

Atrios here makes the point that some in the US preach about "unity", when what they really mean is a hegemony of political opinion, where dissent is little more than insanity. I'm starting to see signs of this in Canada, as the neocon cancer starts to spread. I really don't understand the desire for "unity", however. If "unity" just means that there is a consensus opinion, then it's certainly a good thing, but not an overwhelmingly good thing. After all, when it comes to matters of policy or of political structure, there are multiple ways of instantiating any given principle. That is, there can be many right answers. Similarly, if morality is complex and principles give weight rather than trump, then there can be multiple right answers about matters of principle as well. In other words, just because people disagree doesn't mean they're doing something wrong -- they might, but they don't have to be.

However, if "unity" means something else, if it means something like a doctrine or a dogma that one must agree with for fear of being considered apostate or heretical, then it's quite a disturbing import of religious "thinking" into the political sphere. It's one thing for religious ideas (god, prayer, providence, etc.) to gain political traction, but when one of the forms of thinking typical of religion -- namely, that there is a core set of beliefs that one cannot diverge from without being considered evil -- bleeds into the political realm, then we have a much more serious problem. For if there is a revealed political truth, then there are political heretics, who must be treated as any heretic: ostracism, stoning, forced conversion, torture -- in short, the usual laundry list of atrocities committed by groups on individuals in the name of religion.

(I hope I don't have to explain why that would be a bad thing?)

Mexican elections.

This story hasn't been getting a lot of play lately: apparently, the Mexicans still haven't resolved their electoral mess. I really don't see why the apparent winner isn't in favour of a recount -- unless he knows he cheated and didn't actually win. If that's the case, then his behaviour makes perfect sense; but, also, the outrage of the other candidate -- Mr. Lopez Obrador -- is entirely justified. Here's hoping that this resolves without serious violence.

University grading.

Here we find some useful bits of information about college grading. I should distribute it to my students (not that it would really do any good). The thing that isn't said, that should have been, is that no one in college -- not your profs, not your TAs, not the deans, no one -- cares what grade you get. It's not like high school, where someone will show up to hold your hand and walk you through it if you're having problems. It's your problem, to the extent that even if your prof is never around and your TA stinks, you still are expected to do whatever it takes to get a good grade.

Is there an obligation to donate sperm?

Earlier, I blogged about blood donation, and concluded that there was no obligation to donate, in part because my pain cannot be traded off against someone else's gain. According to the Independent, though, the UK also needs sperm donations. Now, unless one's doing something wrong, sperm donations usually aren't painful. So, is there still a cost to donating sperm that cannot be traded off against someone else's gain? I'm hard-pressed to find one, which suggests that, although there may not be an obligation to donate blood, there may be one to donate sperm.

China and Wal-Mart's anti-union policy.

Wal-Mart China has established a trade union. According to Wikipedia, this is little more than a yellow-dog union (indeed, a yellow-dog union with government as well as employer control). Far from being a victory for workers, this is a further setback: now Wal-Mart workers in China will have to fight out from under two repressive organizations.

Israel and Lebanon. Yet again.

It should be obvious by now that Israel has no interest in abiding by ceasefires, or in curtailing its ever-escalating atrocities and war crimes in Lebanon. It should also be obvious that, as long as the US has a Security Council veto and uses it, the UN cannot stop them. So, really, no one can stop the Israelis but Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, or some combination thereof. I fail to see this as a good outcome.

Federal Liberals MIA.

This column made me laugh, and makes a serious point. The federal Liberals are supposed to be the Opposition, but they're letting the Cons govern like they have a majority. If they really want to get back into power, and not have things further eroded to the Cons (on the right) and the NDP (on the left), then they seriously need to get going on some actual governing. Which, in this instance, they can demonstrate by showing they have policies which make sense and are not supported by the Cons. The longer they refuse to actually Oppose, though, the smaller their chance of a quick comeback -- and the longer Canada will have to suffer under Harper.

American "empire".

Read this on the "American Empire". I'm not sure if the facts are right, but I find the reasoning compelling.

Seattle shootings.

I'm sure everyone's seen this by now: Jews were shot in Seattle by a man claiming the Lebanese conflict as justification.

To recap:

    Bush said we should "fight them over there" by invading Iraq, so we don't have to "fight them over here".
  1. Bush's extremism breeds extremist responses in Iraq.
  2. Americans with ties to the region become angry.
  3. Those Americans react violently in America.
  4. Thus forcing us to "fight them over here".

And this all seemed like a good idea to the neocons why, exactly?

Complicity in Israeli war crimes.

Anyone wanting to vote Con or Republican or Labour in the next election should see this. Four countries support letting Israel bomb the hell out of Lebanon: Canada, the US, the UK, and (surprise!) Israel. This is not something to be proud of.

(Of course, I know the graphic is a Photoshopped version of a graphic that appeared in The Independent. However, the Photoshopping was only to change the text slightly (increasing the snark) and add Canada.)

''Terrorists'' jailed forever in Dubya's America.

Didn't we just have a Supreme Court decision that said Guantanamo detainees had to be given fair trials? That's what I thought. But, here's Dubya again, trying to keep them all in jail forever. At what point, exactly, will the corporate media decide to call Bush the authoritarian that he is? And will that point come before or after journalists start "disappearing" into Guantanamo?

McGuinty and equalization.

Apparently, Dalton McGuinty is getting blamed for the recent collapse of the talks between premiers on so-called federal-provincial equalization payments. I don't have much to say on it, really. The whole thing is a bit of a bugbear: a way for McGuinty to try to distract from his inability to govern Ontario, a way for the other premiers to posture at Ontario's expense, a way for Harper to avoid actually doing anything that would improve Canada. But here's something I find really interesting: according to the article, the premiers of BC, New Brunswick and Newfoundland/Labrador are favourable towards McGuinty's ideas. Those are, respectively, a Liberal (in name, at least), a Tory, and a Tory. Which means that, lined up against McGuinty, are a Tory (Klein, Alberta), a Dipper (Doer, Manitoba), a Tory (MacDonald, Nova Scotia), a Tory (Binns, PEI), a Liberal (Charest, Quebec), and a Dipper (Calvert, Saskatchewan). That is, one Liberal and two Tories support McGuinty (a Liberal), while three Tories, two NDPers, and a Liberal are against McGuinty. Or, to make the point really stark, one Liberal and two non-Liberals are with McGuinty, while one Liberal and five non-Liberals are against him. Party politics, anyone?

Cons, the Middle East, and easy money.

I don't need to explain why it's odious for the federal Cons to be soliciting money for their stance on the Middle East, do I? Even if they're right (and they aren't), exploiting an escaling series of atrocities and war crimes in order to make a buck is evidently repugnant.

Iran's nukes.

According to this, Iran has refused to stop enriching uranium. I'm not surprised, really; nor do I think this is as bad a thing as it seems. If the uranium is for nuclear fuel, then why shouldn't they enrich it? Does Iran not deserve fission reactors to provide power? If the uranium is for nuclear weapons, why shouldn't they have them? The chances of the Iranian government being suicidal enough to use a nuclear weapon are minute. Moreover, there's a clear hypocrisy here. Israel is rumoured to have nuclear weapons. The US has thousands of them. And many of the Soviet nuclear weapons are unaccounted for. Why Iran's as yet nascent program is such a huge concern is a mystery to me. Indeed, North Korea has already test-fired missiles, which suggests that they would be more capable of using nuclear weapons.

Perhaps the concern is that these weapons may get "loose" and be used by mysterious terrorists who "hate our freedoms". However, trying to get a decent-sized nuke into, say, the US would be almost impossible. I sincerely doubt (or, at least, I sincerely hope) that the US would be incapable of deflecting any nuclear-armed missile heading towards their country. Which leaves the so-called "suitcase bomb" that, unfortunately, is not capable of carrying much nuclear material at all. (Enriched uranium is just heavy. It's heavier than lead. Could you carry a suitcase even half-full of lead?) So, we're talking about a weapon that would likely be less effective, in terms of loss of life and property damage, than a standard pipe bomb. So, really, what's the problem supposed to be?

Sex crimes and punishment.

This details some efforts in the US to impose greater limits on the freedom of movement of sexual offenders. I'd like to just work out some of the general issues involved here. The basic idea seems to be that sex offenders are so heinous that (1) ordinary people should be able to live in neighbourhoods guaranteed to be free of sex offenders, and (2) sex offenders themselves should be tracked for the rest of their lives. I have some concerns with both.

With regard to (1), I don't see a particular distinction between keeping neighbourhoods free of sex offenders and keeping neighbourhoods free of thieves. Thieves are a threat to the property of their neighbours, just a sex offenders can be a threat to their children. Perhaps we might say that children are more valuable than property, but that would suggest that we treat thieves less seriously than sex offenders, but not that we refuse to forbid their presence at all. Perhaps there should be a maximum number of thieves that can live in a neighbourhood.

With regard to (2), I find disturbing the implied doctrine of permanent punishment. If we are to punish some offenders permanently, then it should be those who have committed the worst crimes. Rape, I'll gladly accept, is horrific. Child sexual abuse is also bad. However, murder seems to be worse or at least as bad as child sexual abuse. So, if we are to punish the worst offenses permanently, and we consider child sexual abuse amongst the worst offenses, then we should consider murder the same way. But, we do not. We allow murderers to be paroled, and to be released to full freedom after having served their sentences.

Overall, then, there seems to be a disproportionate treatment of sex offenders in comparison to other crimes. Which suggests policy should develop in one of two ways: either towards stricter treatment of non-sex crimes, or to looser treatment of sex crimes. The former would institute a punishment-based model: in a slogan, if you do the crime, you do the time. That is, every offense deserves punishment, for punishment is the only way to deter and correct criminal behaviour. The latter, by contrast, would institute a rehabilitation-based model: in a slogan, everyone gets a second chance. That is, although offenses may deserve punishment, punishment is not always the best way to deter and correct criminal behaviour.

I would tend to favour the latter approach as a general approach. For one, crime can sometimes be a mistake. We have all heard the story of the child (or teenager) who fell in with the "wrong crowd" and performed actions that they later sincerely regretted. It would be blatantly cruel and unfair to punish this child in order to deter behaviour, given that the presence of sincere regret (and shame) is often enough to accomplish this goal.

For two, even if crime is deliberate, punishment can incubate criminal attitudes. We all know that prison is very often a haven of vicious conflict and criminal behaviour (assault, murder, rape, etc.). If we expose criminals to this environment, it is, it would seem, at least as likely that their current criminal tendencies will be hardened rather than undercut. Perhaps this would suggest that prison should be reformed, but I have a hard time understanding how one could do so without, again, reinforcing criminal attitudes. If the violence between prisoners is controlled, then it seems a hatred of authority (who would have to enact pretty severe controls) would be supported in the prisoners. A hatred of authority, if a reflexive disposition, would extend to police as easily to prison guards. In short, the punishment approach cannot work: this approach assumes that, in effect, unwanted attitudes can be "beaten out" of someone. But human psychology is far more perverse than that -- the response to violence is often increased violence, the response to paranoia is often increased paranoia, the response to distrust is often increased distrust. Indeed, one can see this with animals as well: an animal who is beaten becomes unfriendly and violent, while one whose good behaviour is rewarded (and bad behaviour ignored) becomes sociable and a pleasant companion. Insofar as we are animals, this feature exists in human psychology and must be respected. Hence, the rehabilitation-based model is to be preferred.

Which, after a long-winded exposition, suggests that sex offenders should be treated, monitored as much as is necessary to ensure the treatment has stuck, and allowed as much freedom as any other citizen once it has been demonstrated reasonably that they are unlikely to reoffend. To be sure, this is no guarantee that reoffenses will not occur, and a system which permanently punished sex offenders could (at least in theory) offer this guarantee. However, it is important to note the costs involved. Many offenders who would not reoffend -- who have "learned their lesson", so to speak -- would be subjected to the same harsh treatment as those few genuine hopeless cases. So, we would be treating unalikes alike -- using the same approach on those who will lead harmless lives as those who will not -- which violates one of the most basic rules of justice. Moreover, we would be trading off the suffering of the offenders against the benefit to society at large -- in other words, additively comparing the losses of one group to the gains of another -- without regard for how illegitimate it really is to trade people around as if they are nothing more than empty vessels for loss and gain. That is, we would be violating the essential autonomy of persons in order to produce greater social benefit.

While these may seem like vague abstractions when compared to the concrete suffering of a child, it is only by attention to these vague abstractions that we can keep from being diverted by our disproportionate concern for our immediate emotional reactions to suffering. That is, it is only by attending to the principles underlying our proposed policies that we can ensure that our policies are genuinely fair and just. Otherwise, we run the grave risk of treating those we find personally repulsive in a way that we cannot justify morally.

Jews in Delaware redux.

I've blogged on this issue before, of a Jewish family receiving vile (and probably anti-semitic in their motivation) threats for suggesting that a Delaware school board needs to respect the church-state boundary and not force students to engage in Christian worship in schools. The article frames it as a school prayer issue, which it is not. What attracts my interest, though, are the blatantly anti-democratic comments made by some supporters of the status quo. Take this one:
"We have a way of doing things here, and it’s not going to change to accommodate a very small minority," said Kenneth R. Stevens, 41, a businessman sitting in the Georgetown Diner. "If they feel singled out, they should find another school or excuse themselves from those functions. It’s our way of life."
In short, we don't want no furriners here. (Keep in mind, we're talking about Jews here -- y'know, the group that came up with the first half of the Christian Bible?) Which is fine, if you're in a totalitarian country with a single, highly-unified culture. But that isn't America -- the US is, at least on paper, a democratic country and is, in fact, highly culturally diverse. The tyranny of the majority thinking exemplified by Mr. Stevens denies both. Democracy dies when the majority are allowed to impose their views on the dissenting minority. The reality of cultural diversity is denied when Mr. Stevens pretends that there is one "way" of doing things. I sincerely doubt that even in a small town, there is only one culture, with only one set of social practices. I also recall something about freedom of movement within the country, which allows even those with different cultures from a majority group in a given location to move to that location. Most sane, rational adults adjust.

Money quote is here:

"Because Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, I will speak out for him," said the Rev. Jerry Fike of Mount Olivet Brethren Church, who gave the prayer at Samantha’s graduation. "The Bible encourages that." Mr. Fike continued: "Ultimately, he is the one I have to please. If doing that places me at odds with the law of the land, I still have to follow him."
I love this quote because it legitimates any behaviour one chooses. "Oh, well, I have to please someone other than the authority I am legally required to, so I'll do whatever I want and you can't criticize me for it." If my radical atheistic beliefs compel me to burn down churches, then that's okay. If my radical Muslim beliefs compel me to fly airplanes into office buildings, that's okay. If my radical Satanic beliefs compel to me rape and murder little children, that's okay. After all, even though my conduct is "at odds with the law of the land", I don't have to obey it -- I can go and do something else entirely.

(Of course, there has to be room for civil disobedience. But Rev. Fike doesn't even pretend that he's following a higher moral authority -- he's obeying an arbitrary interpretation of religious scripture. He's not serving some demand of justice, or of goodness, or of right -- he's just following a religious rule. So, this has nothing to do with civil disobedience, and it is fatuous to pretend otherwise.)

Republicans and the minimum wage.

It figures that increasing the US federal minimum wage would get bogged down in partisan bickering. The Republicans have tacked on a rider involving yet more needless tax cuts. (The estate tax, again. I find it odd that the allegedly "conservative" party is in favour of cutting a tax that encouarges individuals to rely on their own industry, rather than the of their parents.) However, the wage increase is pretty negligible anyway. The minimum wage has lagged so far behind the actual costs of living in the US that it should probably be doubled to be considered a real "minimum wage". So, all in all, it's at best a token gesture on the part of the Democrats. It's notable, though, that Republicans can't even endorse a token gesture on the behalf of the poor without ensuring that the filthy rich get an even bigger piece of the pie.

Hallelujah.

This guy's morality and politics are odious, and his obsession with the invisible man in the sky is irrational. However, it's astonishing to see a self-proclaimed evangelical American Christian preacher -- who even has a gigantic "mega-church", for Pete's sake -- turning his back on the neoconservative poltical project. And it's about damn time, too.
In his six sermons, Mr. Boyd laid out a broad argument that the role of Christians was not to seek "power over" others -— by controlling governments, passing legislation or fighting wars. Christians should instead seek to have "power under" others —- "winning people’s hearts" by sacrificing for those in need, as Jesus did, Mr. Boyd said.

"America wasn’t founded as a theocracy," he said. "America was founded by people trying to escape theocracies. Never in history have we had a Christian theocracy where it wasn’t bloody and barbaric. That’s why our Constitution wisely put in a separation of church and state.

"I am sorry to tell you," he continued, "that America is not the light of the world and the hope of the world. The light of the world and the hope of the world is Jesus Christ."

Mr. Boyd lambasted the "hypocrisy and pettiness" of Christians who focus on "sexual issues" like homosexuality, abortion or Janet Jackson’s breast-revealing performance at the Super Bowl halftime show. He said Christians these days were constantly outraged about sex and perceived violations of their rights to display their faith in public.

"Those are the two buttons to push if you want to get Christians to act," he said. "And those are the two buttons Jesus never pushed."

I get really tired of churches and religious figures abusing their theological authority (what little that's worth) by claiming political and moral authority. Very, very often, they have no idea what they are talking about and engage in little more than the grossest and most odious bigotry.

The preacher in this case has taken a hit for his rejection, too. He's had to lay off staff members, lost about a thousand members of his church, and failed to reach a fund-raising target (he was off by $3 million). Volunteers from the Sunday School also quit, claiming that church-goers have to support the Republican Party. However, he has gained members from non-white ethnic communities -- which he seems perfectly fine with.

Maybe not all religious nuts are unreachable.

Congo.

It's always important to keep in mind that hell on earth is spreading (and has spread) beyond the Middle East. I've blogged on Somalia already here and here. Now look at the Democratic Republic of Congo. Children are dying by the millions because of simple lack of resources to treat them all. which is, of course, an entirely unsurprising consequence of civil war.

Hey, remember that civil war in Iraq...?

US government lying about Iraq. Again.

I'll be honest. Economics and finance make my head hurt. Money's really just a mechanism for formalizing trading of goods, as far as I can tell, so all the intricate details of markets and such like tend to leave me cold. With that caveat in hand, however, even I can see that it's a bad thing when the US is hiding the real costs of rebuilding Iraq. Is it any wonder that this nightmarish conquest has cost the US over $300 billion?

The vast right-wing conspiracy.

Oh, god. As if the connections between Fox News and Dubya weren't bad enough, now we have evidence of connections between Rupert Murdoch (owner of News Corp, which owns Fox News) and Tony Blair. Y'know, it's easy to bitch about people on the left loving "conspiracy theories", but sometimes a conspiracy just leaps up and slaps you in the face. There really is a cabal of a relatively small number of wealthy, well-connected people running the world's major powers. Do I really have to explain why this is a bad thing?

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Weekend Big Ideas: Spheres of the moral.

I have a short problem to deal with here, namely one of differentiating spheres of the moral. As I see it, there are at least four different "spheres of influence" (I'll explain the term in a moment) within morality: political morality, private morality, political organization, and the political/private interface. I call these "spheres of influence" to capture how different theories may hold sway within each sphere, without contradiction: the spheres can co-exist quite happily, even if the theories within any given sphere actually would contradict each other if applied within the same sphere.

Political morality governs the reasons the state has for its actions. Private morality governs the reasons an individual has for his or her actions. Political organization governs the structure of the political "agent" that has reasons under political morality (as there are many ways to organize a state, this is a moral question; unlike the organization of the individual agent, which is at least partly a matter of biology). And the political/private interface governs the interactions between the individual and the state.

I really think that this captures all the possibilities. So, I'll close with some examples of how we might adopt different theories in different spheres. One could be a socialist about political morality: the state should act so as to produce the greatest benefit for the state. One could also be a classical rule-utilitarian about private morality: an individual should always act in accordance with the rules that would assure the greatest good for the greatest number. Add in an authoritarian view of political organization: the state should be governed by a single individual holding absolute power. And, finally, a civil libertarian view of the political/private interface: there are limits on how the state can interfere with the individual.

Although these four -- socialism, rule-utilitarianism, authoritarianism, and civil libertarianism -- would be contradictory if applied to the same sphere, they are not contradictory when confined to different spheres. Indeed, one can easily spell out a story to make these four work together as I have described: an absolutely powerful individual ruler must ensure that the state is producing greatest benefit for itself, but is restricted by particular constraints on how he may treat individuals; and, as a private matter, he must ensure that he follows rules that would produce greatest benefit to all. These would be an odd combination, to be sure, but they are not impossible: as each theory has dominion over a different aspect of the moral realm, they can co-exist.

You'll often hear liberals and conservatives trying to adopt a single theory for all spheres at once; which is, ultimately, why I want to push the distinction quite hard. If we keep the distinction between spheres in mind, then it exposes the need for four different sorts of argument for the theory, rather than one "master" argument. Which suggests that we have to be a lot more careful about how we argue for our pet moral views, and provide arguments within each seperate and unique sphere.

Weekend Big Ideas: Functional individuation, real values and moral reasons.

I've been thinking for a long time about how to reconcile a committment to real moral value with a committment to an essential subjectivity about reasons. By this I mean that there is an appearance of contradiction between the following two claims:
  1. Moral values are real properties of objects
  2. Moral reasons are creations of moral agents
(1) is not something I feel like defending here and now; so, just take it as a given. As far as (2), it just seems like a conceptual truth. That is, if one understands what a moral reason is, it follows immediately that moral reasons must be reasons for someone. That is, there must be someone who has the reason, for whom the reason is a reason: in short, there must be someone who has made whatever feature is taken a reason into a reason. For example, suppose I take an umbrella to work with me, and I do this for the reason that it is raining. For the fact that it is raining to be a reason to take an umbrella to work requires that I accept that fact as a reason for that action. If I don't accept that as a reason, then either I will not perform that action (e.g., if I don't care about getting wet) or I will perform that action for a different reason (e.g., because I like carrying my umbrella around).

However, if reasons must be reasons for someone, then it's hard to see a difference between a world in which there were no real values and a world in which values were all created by agents. For facts must be taken by agents as reasons in order to be reasons; therefore, agents can take even non-factive claims as reasons. To continue the previous example, if it isn't actually raining, I could still take the (alleged, but false) "fact" that it is raining to be a reason to take my umbrella -- I've simply made a mistake about what the weather is. Why, then, should we take any reasons-claim as involving a real feature? It seems that reasons-claims about subjective features (I think, wrongly, that it's raining) are indistinguishable from reasons-claims about objective features (it actually is raining). Which would mean that we should eliminate objective features from our ontology. (Note that, although my interest is primarily in moral reasons, this rather disastrous result is not confined to morality. Anything that could be taken as a reason could be debunked through this argument.)

I think there might be a way out, though, if we consider the idea of function. Take a simple physical example. We individuate pens from other objects (paper, couches, puppies, etc.) on the basis of their function. That is, a pen is an object that is used to write in ink. If it doesn't write in ink, it may have been a pen, it may become a pen, but it is not a pen. If real moral values serve a similar function, and subjective moral values could not, then it would seem that we can accept both (1) and (2). That is, if real moral values serve this function, agents may have to take them as reasons in order for them to become reasons, but this does not debunk them -- it's a fairly simple "mentalizing" of a real feature of the world. (Indeed, we could probably do a similar sort of thing for other putatively objective sources of all kinds of reasons.)

The usual suggestion for the function of morality is social coordination. (This isn't a great candidate, as it doesn't pull morality off from law or courtesy, but I'll let that go for now as it's a seperate problem.) So, would social coordination be a function that only real values could serve and subjective values could not? My instinctive answer is "yes". If values are all subjective, then it would take a minor miracle to explain (a) the anthropological data showing that most people (the overwhelming majority of people, in fact) agree on fundamental values (e.g., charity is good, murder is bad) and (b), ignoring (a), how people who were creating their own values would ever come to the needed agreements amongst each other in order to coordinate social activity.

That is, by (a), most people do, in fact, agree on fundamental values. If everyone is creating their own values, though, then this agreement is truly strange. It is highly coincidental that people living in different times and regions of the world would come to agreement on fundamental values. Even if they had contact with each other (a highly questionable assumption), given the way people are, it's equally as plausible that there would be instinctive disagreement rather than immediate agreement. Yet, immediate agreement is what we actually see. If there are no real values, this cannot be accounted for.

So, that's one mark in the favour of (1) as nicely compatible with (2). The other comes from (b). Even if we suppose that there is some way to account for this agreement without theorizing the existence of real values, the fact of social coordination is difficult to account for on the basis of subjective values. (Strictly, (b) and (a) aren't that different from each other. Both arguments turn on the difficulty of explaining the necessary agreements in values.) If everyone is coming up with their own values, then, one would expect, these should diverge at some points, often quite widely. But, if this is so, why would people ever (i) actually get together in coordinated social activity and (ii) ever succeed in coordinated social activity? With regard to (i), for people to get together to coordinate socially, it seems that they have to be valuing the same outcomes -- else how can they share the same purpose in a collective activity? (Certainly, there might be some minimal cooperation of the "I'll do X for you, if you do Y for me" kind, but I'm talking about large-scale activities, such as building a house with a group of people, rather than one-on-one economic-style transactions.) With regard to (ii), the success of coordinated social activity seems to rely on shared purposes. If these purposes derive -- and, as reasons, they should -- from values, and the values are subjective creations of individual agents, then it would be astonishing if purposes were shared. Hence, it would be astonishing if coordinated social activities ever worked. But, they do.

So, it follows either that, since (2) is true, (1) must be true as well (for the contradictory leads to inexplicable circumstances); or, since inexplicable circumstances arise if we assume (2), compelling us to accept (1), we should reject (2). As (2) seems to express a conceptual truth, I think we must accept (1).

Weekend Big Ideas: Introduction

Slight delay on the Weekend Big Ideas; but, it's up now. Comments are always welcome.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Global warming: part CLXVIII.

I'll close for the day with this article from a scientist who found evidence of sustained cooling over part of the Antarctic. Apparently, his research has been hijacked by global warming denialists, and he's not happy about it. Because nothing he ever wrote or research disproves global warming. Read it.

Another bit of evidence that there's something the matter with Stevie.

Here we have a nice collection of quotes from Finnish, Austrian, Chinese and Canadian (i.e., Stevie) leaders. Three condemned the attacks outright, calling them "unacceptable" and unjustifed. One wanted to find out what happened, and indirectly blamed the victims for not getting out of the way. No points for guessing who the one was.

During the last election, the Cons' slogan was "Stand Up for Canada". I guess that didn't include actually doing anything to defend Canadians. Perhaps I should've read the fine print?

Stevie (hearts) vigilantes.

This is disturbing. Apparently, a mob of about 40 people broke into a home in New Brunswick and beat the hell out of 10 people they suspected of being "drug dealers". Then they burned down the house. The Mounties are on it. The disturbing bit, though, is Stevie's gross opportunism and total lack of simple human decency towards the victims:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says an incident on New Brunswick's Grand Manan Island shows that Canadians want Ottawa to get tougher on crime.
So, he's pushing his own "anti-crime" (really, pro-jail) agenda on the backs of these assaulted people, and he can't stop for five seconds to condemn vigilantism? What is wrong with this man?

Official languages.

Continuing their winning streak of focussing on issues that don't actually matter, the US House is considering legislation to make English the official language of the US. It does make a certain amount of sense; but, these "official language" laws tend to become ossified. For example, I'm often surprised that English and French are the only two official languages of Canada. Why not, say, Punjabi? Or Hindi? Or one of the Chinese dialects? After all, thousands of people across the country speak it. Are we saying that English and French are just better than these other languages? So, on the whole, I think that lawmakers who are opposed to this bill should be pushing for a clause which states that the official languages of the nation wouldn't be set in stone by legislation, but indexed to census data. When more than a certain proportion -- or absolute number, or distribution of a proportion -- of the population speak a language, then it has conferred upon it the status of being an official language. The idea, surely, is to provide governmental services in languages that are of broadest benefit to the citizenry; and allowing for demographic changes in a law would be a particularly effective method of ensuring that this goal is served.

Is one obligated to donate blood?

According to this, Canadians are donating blood with less and less frequency. There's a presumption shot through the article that one should donate blood -- but is that really true?

There's clearly no legal obligation to donate blood. So, an argument from legal reasons won't get off the ground.

There may be pragmatic reasons to donate blood, however. For one, it would increase the supply of blood in case oneself or other members of one's family -- or one's close friends -- ever needed blood. For two, it might get one a certain amount of acclaim. That is, one could be looked well-upon for donating blood -- doing something supererogatory. But, those don't seem to provide enough reason to support that one should donate blood -- only that it might be sensible to.

So, let's look at the moral reasons. When it comes to organ donation (a related problem), then there are clear moral reasons to donate one's organs upon death. After all, one doesn't need them any more, and thus it costs one nothing to give them up in order to produce good (if not great good) for others. But the same does not apply for blood. Taking blood, although it will regenerate in short order, does do a slight amount of damage to the body (and can do more damage psychologically). In short, it does exact a cost.

The question then is whether the good done by donating blood outweighs the cost sufficiently that one is obligated to donate. After all, there are many good things one could do that do outweigh the costs of doing them, yet one has no obligation to do them. For example, it would cost me very little to donate money to famine relief in Africa, and I could do great good by donating money. But it remains supererogatory that I donate money, basically because the good does not outweigh the cost enough. (Even if this example is not found convincing, others can easily be constructed, so I will take it that the general point holds.)

The good done by donating blood is, literally, the potential saving of a life. The cost is (for most) momentary pain and suffering. I would suggest, however, that one cannot be obligated ever to endure pain in order to accomplish good for others. One might be very good to do so -- as said above, it may be supererogatory -- but one cannot be obligated to do so. This is because requiring one to endure pain in order to do someone else great good implies that two individual people are interchangeable: the pain of one can be directly compared to the benefit to the other, without any appreciation for the uniqueness and autonomy of the individual. Some very crude sorts of utilitarian may think like this, but most moral thinkers find something troubling about the idea of always treating all individuals (and their pleasures and pains) alike.

So, it is false that one is obligated to donate blood. One would be very good to do so, but, because one's pain cannot be immediately and directly traded off against someone else's benefit or pleasure, because individuals are, in some sense and to some extent, incommensurate, there is no legitimate obligation.

Bill Graham, PM Stevie, and the coming of the Blue Star?

I have to just be overly sensitive today, but I think I've found another hint of right-wing slant (to go with the one just below) in the Toronto Star. Here we find an article about Interim Liberal Leader Bill Graham taking Stevie to task over his lunatic response to the murder of a Canadian in Lebanon by Israeli forces. I basically agree with what Graham says; but, I note these two paragraphs:
In the wake of the presumed death of Maj. Paeta Hess-von Kruedener of Kingston, Harper questioned why the UN remained in the lookout post along the Israeli-Lebanese border two weeks after Israel’s military offensive began. ... Graham didn’t address the pertinence of the presence of the observation post. But he recalled that the Israelis invited the UN to watch the Hezbollah, which controls the area.
So, near the top of the article, we get Stevie's take: basically, that the UN shouldn't have even been there, and (by implication) deserve what they got. And, near the bottom, we get a swipe at Graham for not responding to Stevie's insane, blame-the-victim "reasoning". I tend to think Graham didn't respond to it because civilized and moral people don't take that kind of thinking seriously. But, why did the reporter bother to mention that Graham didn't address Stevie's contention? Is it just a case of drawing the reader's attention to the structure of the dialectic -- or something a little more malicious?

New poll on federal politics (and Quebec).

According to the latest polls, the major Canadian federal parties are running pretty much where they were at the time of the last election. I sincerely doubt that anyone will take this as a sign that they'd better try to make this minority thing work -- and, indeed, get used to the idea of not having majorities with which to govern autocratically. I note, though, the gratuitous swipe at Quebeckers in the last paragraph. While trying to explain why Stevie might have lost ground in Quebec over his asinine stand on the Israel/Lebanon conflict, this article says:
Quebecers [sic] traditionally tend to be more pacifist than Canadians elsewhere.
I call bullshit. The issue isn't that Quebeckers are "more pacifist"; the issue is that there are more Muslims and more Lebanese in Quebec than other provinces. Of course they'll be pissed off at the Cons when their leader says that Israelis are "measured" when they're killing Lebanese civilians. (Indeed, the real question is why aren't people in the rest of the country just as pissed off.)

But, why call Quebeckers "pacifist" anyway? It's quite an odd word to use. One could have said that Quebeckers tend to be more suspicious of wars, or that Quebeckers have a healthier level of skepticism when it comes to military matters -- in short, things could've been phrased in a more neutral or even more positive manner for Quebec. But, instead, they're called "pacifists" -- which, if I recall the run-up to the Iraq mess correctly, has become a bit of a slur (like "liberal") in some circles. Is this just Quebec-bashing? Or am I reading too much into an awkward sentence?

Somalia's next.

I've blogged about this before, but it bears repeating: Somalia is falling apart. The country is in grave danger of being conquered by Muslim extremist rebels, so much danger that it is accepting military aid from the Ethiopian government, as well as the UN. It seems that, despite the rhetoric about trying to spread democracy and freedom in the Middle East, when it comes to Africa, the world powers really can't be bothered to get involved. The article details what the rebels are trying to institute in Somalia -- basically, Taliban 2.0.

If there were a God -- there isn't, but if there were -- he'd have to have a taste for Whack-a-Mole. How else to explain the way the same stupid, vicious, cruel ideas keep cropping up in different places, propping up different regimes?

Dual citizens, foreign nationals, and Lebanon.

Given the (covertly racist) whining that took place about saving Lebanese Canadians from the violence erupting in recent weeks, I wait patiently (but with no real expectations) for the outcry about this little gem:
a desperate crowd of foreign nationals, including 49 Canadians, escaped war-battered southern Lebanon Wednesday aboard a Canadian-chartered vessel.
That's right: only 49 Canadians out of about a thousand people. I'm not saying that it's a bad thing we saved them. Indeed, the entire evacuation overall might have gone better if ships had just taken anyone who came along -- the benefits of international cooperation in this sort of circumstance are obvious. No, the point is that it's blatantly inconsistent to say that Lebanese Canadians don't deserve help from the Canadian government, but remain silent when non-Canadians are helped out on Canada's tab.

As I said, I wait -- with no particular expectation of being satisfied -- for MPs to speak out against this.

Multinational environmental watchdog blinded, hobbled and leashed.

We all know global warming is real. (If you don't, find yourself a climate scientist and ask him or her (probably him). You'll learn.) So, finding out that the Commission for Environmental Co-operation (CEC), a group established by NAFTA to monitor pollution in North America, is basically unable to do a damn thing about pollution is not only disturbing, but a little frightening. Some choice quotes:
"In most cases, it was beyond the scope of this report to investigate how the data were developed or their accuracy. These facts should be kept in mind when attempting to draw conclusions about the differences in environmental performance of the facilities in the different countries," the CEC says. ... the three countries "have never really embraced the CEC nor realized its potential" and consequently the organization "suffers from the ambivalence of the [countries] toward it." ... the Taking Stock report isn't a truly independent look at pollution trends. Like all of its reports, the CEC allows NAFTA governments to pore over its findings and try to alter them before they are released publicly.
We'll have to wait and see if Stevie's proposed (but as yet totally unexplained) environmental policy will do any good. But, given that Dubya has done nothing, and the multinational watchdog apparently can't even fact-check, I'm rather concerned.

PEI and electoral gerrymandering.

According to this, the Prince Edward Island (PEI) government is trying to redraw the electoral boundaries in order to increase the number of members that can be elected from traditionally Conservative rural ridings. It's not surprising that a government would be this hackish and power-hungry -- rather than being driven by considerations of fairness, they are clearly being driven by self-protection and -promotion. (This is the third attempt at redrawing the boundaries, and was funded by the ruling Conservative party.) What's surprising is that the citizenry is actually fighting back -- city council of the provincial capital (Charlottetown) is threatening to sue the provincial government in order to stop this from going ahead. It had honestly never occurred to me that there would be a group of people sufficiently opposed to this sort of unjust nonsense to actually do something (as compared to, oh, say, whining on a blog). I'm impressed; even inspired. Well, not inspired. Impressed, though.

Canada's provinces and economic growth.

This is nice to see. Newfoundland/Labrador leads the country in rate of economic growth, based on its development of oil and nickel resources. If Premier Danny Williams is smart (or, at least, smarter than Alberta Premier Ralph Klein), he'll invest what his government is collecting in trying to turn the province around. For years, Newfoundland has been a bit of a joke in Canada, characterized not only as a group of bellicose hicks (at best), but also as inveterately lazy and heavily dependent on government welfare. Given the temporary boost from resources, one hopes that Newfoundland will be able to develop enough sustainable industries to keep the province growing.

Looking further down the article, we see that all the provinces are growing, at least slightly. Which, as far as I know, is generally considered a good thing. Again, though, this growth needs to be directed in sustainable ways and towards the future benefit of the provinces. Ralph Klein has no such ambition -- his oil sands projects are unquestionably increasing Canada's pollution and his frequent tax cuts will, once the oil runs out (or the demand drops out of the market, or both), likely drive the average Albertan either into poverty, or into Ontario. I don't think it's too much to expect the other Canadian premiers to behave with more sense than a neocon hack.

Lebanon just gets worse.

Lebanon is continuing to break down. In what is probably a sign of things to come, Australia has withdrawn its troops. Admittedly, it's only 12. But, it doesn't bode well when peacekeepers start leaving a region on the verge of all-out warfare. (It's not yet war because the conflict is between Israel and Hezbollah, and Hezbollah is not a state, hence cannot be involved in a war. Technical point.) I'm taking bets on when diplomats start being withdrawn and embassies closing across the country.

Canada's premiers and herding cats.

In a development that should surprise no one, talks amongst Canada's premiers over the transfers from the feds have collapsed. I wonder, though, what the smaller provinces are thinking. Chances are good that if the provinces try to negotiate with Stevie on an individual basis, he'll listen to Ontario (because they can squelch his chances for a majority), Quebec (ditto), and Alberta (his base). The Maritimes can't get Stevie any more power, and I don't believe they really have anything he wants, so why would he bother listening to their concerns? The only ones who might have were the other provinces, in order to present a united front to a potentially hostile PM.

Being an Ontarian, of course, this is not necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand, insofar as this might help pull the country further apart, with the premiers all working at cross-purposes to each other, I'm not quite so pleased.

Journalists and polls just don't mix.

There needs to be a moratorium on journalists with no statistical (or other relevant) experience interpreting polls in newspapers. See here for the latest contribution to the growing debacle from the New York Times. Here's the lead:
Americans are overwhelmingly pessimistic about the state of affairs in the Middle East, with majorities doubtful there will ever be peace between Israel and its neighbors, or that American troops will be able to leave Iraq anytime soon ... A majority said the war between Israel and Hezbollah will lead to a wider war. And while almost half of those polled approved of President Bush’s handling of the crisis, a majority said they preferred the United States leave it to others to resolve. Over all [sic], the poll found a strong isolationist streak in a nation clearly rattled by more than four years of war, underscoring the challenge for Mr. Bush as he tries to maintain public support for his effort to stabilize Iraq and spread democracy through the Middle East.
However, when you look at the actual results, we find that:
  • 56% supported a timetable for "reducing" the US forces in Iraq (hardly an "overwhelming" number)
  • Americans generally support an international peacekeeping force in Lebanon and Israel, although without US involvement (which is hard to read as "isolationist" rather than "sick of the cost and deaths in Iraq")
  • 59% do not believe the US should "take the lead" in solving international conflicts (which says nothing about whether the US should be involved at all)
In short, the results reported in the later part of the article contradict the lead-in and, indeed, the headline's inflammatory rhetoric.

Going further into the polling results reveals a few more things that undercut the article's tone.

  • 78% think the US should play a more active role or maintain its current role in trying to bring peace between Israel and its neighbours (53% maintain, 25% increase)
  • There is almost an even split between those who think the Iraq invasion was a good idea (47%) and those who do not (48%)
While it's fun to beat up on Americans for being xenophobes -- although, frankly, if you live in a country the size of the US, it's pretty easy to avoid leaving and still lead a life filled with a wide variety of cultural experiences -- I really don't see the data to support the claim. I'm sure there's a reason for the distortions beyond trying to sell papers through controversy, but I can't put my finger on it right now.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

I did have more to say, honest.

But the continuing degradation of the world is getting to me right now. Here's a few other links to things that are depressing me:

Tony Blair is planning to attack the National Health Service -- so much for public healthcare in the UK. (The letter of what he says is about illness-prevention rather than treatment. But, whenever a right-wing politican starts talking about "instead of" treatment, it's usually a precursor to taking away the funding for the treatment.)

An ABC journalist attack the methodology for an academic study that concluded private and public schooling is no different in terms of achievement, despite not having any qualifications or arguments for doing so.

The US Democrats criticized the Iraqi PM for not being a good little puppet.

In short, the world is not a terribly nice place today, and I'd really rather not deal with it. So, I will end with one final thought: if you haven't seen Superman Returns yet, go and do so. Not because it's nice to dream about beings of immense power who can solve all our problems immediately. But because Superman actually uses his power to help other people, even at his own expense. It'd be nice to find a few more people like that running the actual world.

Still more Israeli war-crimes.

Perhaps we should organize a little mailing to the nearest Israeli embassy. They don't seem to have a copy of the Geneva Conventions, poor souls. As Canadian Cynic points out, the Israelis may have used incendiary devices on civilians. Keep in mind, all, this is the action that PM Stevie considered "measured" and that Dubya similarly refuses to condemn. (This is why I've been trying not to blog on this lately, as the hypocrisy and level of violence is only cause for despair.)

Are there two classes of citizen?

I don't really have a new opinion on the issue of whether Canada is obligated towards all its citizens equally, or whether residence somehow confers extra benefits. I still think that a citizen is a citizen is a citizen. Trying to split up citizens into two categories reeks of an implicit nativism. But, PM Stevie is trying to have a little discussion about it. (Incidentally, try to restrain the urge to retch at the fawning tone of the article: "His remarks represent another example of his willingness to take a strong and occasionally controversial stand on issues of principal [sic] or that appeal to his core constituency." Please. This has nothing to do with principle, and everything to do with pandering.) Shockingly, a Liberal gets him dead to rights:
There was no complaint last year when Canada tried to rescue hundreds of its nationals from Louisiana after hurricane Katrina, said Dan McTeague, the Liberal who was responsible for the protection of Canadians overseas during the previous government. "Why is it an issue today when it wasn't at this time last year?" he asked. "There is no such thing as degrees of citizenship or classes of citizenship. And what does it say about Canadians who are going around the world imparting their expertise and making Canada a world player? . . . [That] the Prime Minister might review whether or not it's worth the effort of trying to get them out?"
Exactly. If this involved blue-eyed, white-skinned people, there'd be no issue. Since it involves brown-eyed, brown-skinned people, now we have to have a "debate" about whether some citizens are better than others. I'm hard-pressed to interpret this more charitably than as pandering to the racist base of the old Reform party. What else could his motivation be? There's no coherent moral principle in volved in saying that some citizens count less than others. (It's really only a step away from giving some people more electoral votes than others.)

The reason I'm glad to be out of BC.

Gordo Campbell, the man who legislated UBC TA's back to work after just over a week of striking, who legislated UBC trades-workers back to work before they even went on strike, has monkey-wrenched the premiers' talks, demanding unsustainable tax cuts (in line with his hard-right ideology, rather than reality) instead of public investment in needed social infrastructure. McGuinty may be an ineffectual tool, but I'll take him over Gordo any day of the week.

Phys Ed and the "obesity epidemic".

I'm going to presume for the moment that we can talk of an "obesity epidemic" metaphorically, rather than literally. I'm not sure what the inclusion criteria are to classify something as an epidemic, but I sincerely doubt they would apply to obesity. (At the very least because obesity is a symptom of different pathological processes. It'd be like talking about a cold epidemic.) According to this, the usual hand-wringing over declining phys ed enrollments is starting up again, coupled with complaints about growing obesity.

Let's suppose that there are increasing obesity rates, to an extent that is genuinely unhealthy. (Aside: I'm 6'1" and my "ideal" weight, according to measures I've seen, is between 150 and 189 lbs. If I'm 6'1" and weigh 150 lbs, I'm not healthy -- I'm frighteningly thin. 189 lbs is pushing it. So, depending on what scale is being used to measure obesity, this may all be smoke and mirrors.) It doesn't follow from this that decline in interest in phys ed is a bad thing, as long as it doesn't also lead to a decline in overall interest in physical activity. Further than this, though, I would suggest that phys ed classes are responsible for a decline in interest in physical activity.

Let me describe a common scenario. Slightly unathletic child or teenager enters phys ed class, wearing a distinctly unflattering gym uniform. More athletic members of the class clique together and chuckle amongst themselves. The former is picked last for teams, is regularly exposed to low-grade public embarrassment, and does not achieve well in the eyes of the jockish teacher. The latter get to pick the teams, are regularly lauded for their achievements, and are graded well by the teacher. Two questions: who is going to develop and retain an interest in physical activity? And who is in the majority? Of course, the answers are, respectively, the jocks and everyone else.

If there is any real interest in solving problems regarding lack of physical involvement of children, rather than posturing for ignorant corporate "reporters", politicians should be focusing their attention on getting kids to enjoy anything that involves physical activity, not just gym class. Gym class is the kind of structured, institutional environment that, without careful nurturing by a skilled teacher, will lead to hatred of the subject-matter. Anyone who's had a lousy science or math teacher knows what I'm talking about; the same applies to gym -- except that there are far more lousy gym teachers, who favour competitive success over health and physical improvement, who would rather give good marks to the winners in a football game rather than reward students who are genuinely trying to improve their well-being.

However, there is no reason to get a gym teacher involved. Community physical activity programs exist, ranging from archery to karate classes to ballroom dancing; thus, as long as a program is reviewed and fits within the standards expected of a physical education class, why should it not serve as a high school (or lower level) credit in its own right? Why, in short, should we let ignorant teachers and the contingencies of institutional learning inhibit something as allegedly important as the health of children and teenagers?

(Of course, this could be generalized for any subject that is considered valuable for children to learn. I would hesitate to extend this past the high school level, if only because the experts in the requirements of the subject are identical to the ones teaching it -- there are no external reviewers who have any business telling professors what they should and should not be teaching. But, if math and science are suddenly supposed to be important -- as one will often hear they are -- then why not allow children who are not succeeding (or developing an appropriate level of lifelong interest) to seek other avenues of learning outside the institution?)

The answer, of course, is that this really is just lip service and band-aid solutions. No one really thinks physical activity is valuable. They just say they do to win elections.

More on Wal-Mart.

Chalk one up for the good guys. Recently, Wal-Mart tried to have decisions favourable to the United Food and Commerical Workers Union in Saskatchewan overturned on the grounds that the Saskatchewan Labour Board didn't have the authority to hear the cases. And, besides, it was biased against them.

Today, they lost. Will Wal-Mart respect the law? Will it finally acede to the legitimate demands for a union by its workforce? Hey, I've got this bridge I'd like to sell you with a sweet view of Brooklyn:

Andrew Pelletier, vice-president of corporate affairs with Wal-Mart Canada, said the company is "reviewing the [Gerein] decision and considering possibly appealing to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal."
In other words, if a union recruiting drive fails due to Wal-Mart's intimidation tactics, the union's evil if it tries to fight back. But, if Wal-Mart loses the vote, loses at the LRB, and loses in court -- well, they get to try again.

Still -- there's always the possibility that the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal will just refuse to hear the case. I'd be shocked, in fact, if any court would rule that an LRB has no business ruling on cases of labour relations.

Illegal immigration.

I have to say that the current US efforts at the Mexican border are quite laughable. For one, it's no secret that there are major industries in the US South that would be bankrupt if not for illegal immigration. (As documented in Fast Food Nation, meat-packing is one.) So, the companies pay the politicians, the politicians deploy Guardsmen and border patrol elsewhere, and the trucks slip across the border with a new load of disposable labour. Furthermore, I doubt that landlords with substandard housing to rent would be terribly eager to undercut the influx of people with no legal status who nonetheless need homes. And, finally, as long as the US continues to allow wealth to concentrate within its borders, while doing nothing to help other countries develop, citizens of those other countries will continue to try to enter the US. (None of these, of course, are US-only problems. Canada has the same issues -- switch, say, Portuguese for Mexican and construction for meat-packing and it's all basically the same.) As a practical matter, there are too many incentives to cross the border illegally for there to ever be much success in trying to hold back the tide. (As Canute found out, the tide doesn't tend to do what it's asked.)

Furthermore, I note that when a corporation runs across a border, not only does it not have to pay much, if anything, to emigrate, but it can even be paid to enter the new country. (Indeed, if the company is significant enough to its current region, a bidding war between the two may erupt in order to convince (meaning bribe) the corporation about where to make its home.) However, if a labourer wants to cross a border, they must either do it illegally -- in which case, they are evil job-stealing rats -- or legally -- in which case they must, in essence, be white, upper middle-class, college-educated, and, for preference, have a family member already in the country. In the former case, they are deprived of most of the benefits of being in the country; in the latter case (and this is much more true of the US than Canada), chances of success are minimal.

In short, we may have global capital, but we do not have global labour. And the justification for this unequal treatment is entirely opaque to me. If we allow the jobs to move from country to country with impunity, even with encouragement, surely immigration policies for individuals need to be sufficiently flexible to reflect this. On the other hand, if we are valuing a sort of patriotic committment to one's "own" country, then it should be much, much harder for jobs to leave.

That is, the rhetoric about illegal immigration overlooks the very unreasonable and unfair demands that are being made of those in the Third World: namely, they are expected to suffer from our depredations, receive only what our corporations condescend to give them, and be punished for complaining about their lot. Until these conditions are repaired, illegal immigration will continue, and all the National Guard in America (and even in Iraq) won't be able to stop it.

Wal-Mart threatens to leave Chicago if forced to pay living wage.

Ya gotta give it to Wal-Mart. I mean, really, who else does balls-out corporate brutality better? The deal is that Chicago recently passed a law (or by-law) compelling Wal-Mart to pay its workers a living wage. In response, Wal-Mart is threatening to move entirely into the suburbs. What's the wage they don't want to pay? And what's the wage they're going to pay in the suburbs?
Wal-Mart said that its average hourly wage is almost $11 an hour in the Chicago area and that the lowest wage that will be paid at the new West Side store will be $7.25 an hour.
No one can live in America on that wage. No one.

I note that the usual "it'll take away jobs" canard is being trotted out by the mayor:

Mayor Richard M. Daley and others warned the living wage proposal would drive jobs and desperately needed development from some of the city's poorest neighborhoods and lead giants like Wal-Mart to abandon the city.
The fact of the matter is, though, that "giants" like Wal-Mart don't offer jobs that help people out of poverty. They inculcate it by paying wages that cannot be used to invest in a home, that cannot be used to pay for a child's education -- or, indeed, most of a child's basic needs -- and that cannot be used to do anything other than eke out enough of an existence to get to work the next day. (And heaven help you if you get sick. Wal-Mart won't.)

If the mayors of Chicago's suburbs cared about improving the lot of their citizens, instead of lining their own pockets through political donations, they'd side with Chicago on this one. They won't, of course. But it's beyond obvious that they should.

Did Israel target the UN?

According to this article, Israel may or may not have deliberately targetted a UN outpost in Lebanon. The dead include a Canadian. PM Stevie has been very quick to disclaim Israel's responsibility; given his general level of deep ethical thought, on this issue in particular, I'm disinclined to take his word for it.

Really, there's only two ways to figure out if anyone did anything deliberately: the smoking gun and the past history. For example, you can safely say someone has committed murder if either you find this person standing over the corpse with a bloody knife in his hand, or you discover that this person has a history of committing murders that fit the pattern of this one. (This is not a point about legal responsibility, I hasten to add.) We don't really have a smoking gun in this case -- we'd need something like a direct order to the Israeli forces that they attack the UN outpost. And I'd be quite happy to bet that, even if such a thing existed, it's long since been converted into ticker tape.

However, on the other prong, we do have some information. According to the Whiskey Bar, Israel targetted a UN compound back in the 80's, killing over a hundred civilians in the process. And, according to The Australian, the Israelis in this instance were warned repeatedly by the UN that their attacks were getting close enough to the outpost to be dangerous. (I should note that anyone who believes that bombs and missiles are "accurate" has clearly never been near a gun. No weapon involving an explosively-propelled projectile, of any kind (so, guns, missiles, bombs), is ever entirely accurate. The closer you get to a target you don't want to hit, the greater the chances that things will go just wrong enough to hit that very target.) So, given a history of carelessness, plus reports of carelessness in this instance, it seems that either the Israelis deliberately targetted the UN outpost -- or they deliberately didn't refrain from targetting it, which amounts to pretty much the same thing vis-a-vis culpability.

So, in other words, Israel is compounding its war crimes, all in the name of self-defense. (I have to say, I find this sort of thinking tempting -- whenever my boss says something I don't care for, I'll defend myself by beating little puppies with sticks. After all, it's just "self-defense" -- the puppies were in my way. And so were the small children. And do I really need to mention the adorable kittens?)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Student aid and tuition for free.

According to this, the Canadian student aid system is dangerously close to breaking. The problem is really obvious, as is pointed out by the Canadian Federation of Students -- namely, that tuition is continually going up, so aid has to keep pace. Moreover, I would point out that, instead of actually providing realistic tuition relief, governments are continually relying on student loans to improve access to higher education.

The model as it exists is broken, badly. Post-secondary education is no longer an option, much as, at one point, secondary education ceased to be an option -- as, indeed, at one point, education at all ceased to be an option. In an increasingly literate, intellectual, technical society, there is a proportional increase in importance of post-secondary education. Hence, it is long past time that government make serious effort to guarantee a reasonable level of post-secondary education for all students. While some institutions could charge a premium, which would have to be covered by the students, aid programs, and the like, one should be able to complete a degree or diploma or trades program without having to pay a cent out of pocket. (This might have a nasty impact on graduate education, in that fees may be ratcheted up to try to cover the budgets. So, there must also be restrictions placed on how much of the cost of graduate -- and, for that matter, professional -- programs should be born by the student, keeping in mind that those with graduate and professional degrees, on average, earn more money and thus pay more in taxes into the system.)

I find this point obvious, but the CFS and related organizations always seem to be fighting a rearguard action in favour of increased student aid and tuition freezes. Their viewpoint is basically myopic. Sooner or later, some country is going to figure out that, if they guarantee their citizens post-secondary education, they will be able to economically flatten the rest of us. The only question, really, is whether Canada wants to be that country.

Stevie doesn't care about brown people.

This must be read to be believed. Stevie has decided that he's not going to send Canadians into Lebanon. He'll send them off to die in Afghanistan for reasons that are still unclear to me, but he won't send them in to try to end a conflict that has already killed Canadians and cost the government millions in evacuating (some small portion) of its citizens. I frankly can't wait for the next election, just to watch the Cons' minority shrink even further. This bunch are simply odious -- they have little to no sense of serious morality.

Mainstreaming racism in Canada.

Americans will need some background here. The Western Standard is a political magazine, based in the Canadian west (I believe in Calgary), that endorses conservative and Conservative causes. They're pretty much the commentariat for the "new conservatism" in Canada. So, they get taken pretty seriously by movers and shakers in the Conservative party, and amongst conservatives in Canada.

This post lists some of the commentary going on at the Western Standard's blog with regards to Islam. I won't reproduce them here, but they are the sort of vile racist bilge that I would expect from Little Green Footballs, Michelle Malkin or Ann Coulter. I am beyond disturbed to see this sort of repugnant filth has started to spread into mainstream Canadian politics.

Abortion advice could make you a criminal.

Americans take note: if you live in a state that does not allow legal abortions, and you advise someone to go to a state which does, then you could go to jail. The issue of parental notification is fine -- that actually makes a certain amount of sense. (Although, it should never be used as a way for parents to force their children to raise grandchildren against their child's will.) The problem is that this bill would waste police resources in pursuing, say, priests or grandparents or close friends who try to help young women (who may not, given the wording in the article, actually pursue the abortion when all is said and done). Criminalizing the dissemination of information is fascism. No discussion on that point. Criminalizing people who are helping minors participate in a perfectly legal medical procedure is not fascist -- it's insane. Should one go to jail for helping minors get facelifts? Of course not. But, for some reason, once a fetus gets involved, sanity goes out the window.

At the end of the day, bills like this are a way to try to end-run around the legalization of abortion and the growing recognition that it is often a medical decision, not a legal or moral one. (And, when it is a moral decision, it may often be correct to decide against the life of the fetus.) Even if it passes, given that the Democrats seem to be waking up and may actually take back the House and Senate, I would expect that we would see more bills piling up to undercut this bill.

The question I have, though, is why Republicans keep bothering. They don't win these sorts of fights. So, the only consequence this will have is to markedly increase suffering in the US. That seems to be pretty much their MO these days -- the more people are hurting, both at home and around the world, the better.

Evidence on climate change continues to mount.

Lake Erie is shrinking. And it's our fault. In related news, the Bush administration doesn't believe in climate change. Neither does at least one idiot Republican in the Senate. And neither does Harper.

Disturbing notes about Canadians in Lebanon.

Another article about the Canadian evacuation in Lebanon. Two points catch my attention:
But it was clear that the number of Canadians desperate to escape through Beirut was dwindling. Fewer than 1,200 people boarded Canadian ships leaving Lebanon yesterday, down substantially from the 2,415 who left Sunday. "We are putting out a call to all remaining Canadians who wish to leave," one senior government official told a briefing yesterday. They should "report to Beirut or Tyre so they can be put on boats." Those leaving through Beirut were asked to arrive by 9 a.m. today.
In essence, those Canadians who are trapped under bombing should try to travel across non-existent roads in order to reach Beirut or Tyre. If not, the Canadian government will wash its hands of them. Marvellous. I guess if they aren't willing to put their lives at even more risk, then they're not good enough for Canada?
Conservative MP Garth Turner said last week that he believed people travelling to Lebanon as tourists should get precedence on the boats over Canadians who now live in that country. He also questioned whether the government was responsible for the costs of evacuating the people who no longer make their homes in Canada. Those comments have prompted hundreds of calls and e-mails to his office. "I would say we are probably nine out of 10 supportive if not more," he said yesterday.
This is fucking scary. In essence, the man has declared -- entirely contrary to the Constitution and simple basic morality -- that there are two classes of citizens in Canada. Those who live in the country get to go first for everything, and those who don't have to be second. If they get to go at all. And, while I don't believe the 9/10 number (unless there's some heavy self-selection bias going on), I find it hard not to believe that at least a significant minority support his bullshit. That's the scary part.

If I were living in England, and England were under attack such that the British government could not provide aid, and I appealed to Canada -- would there be this reaction? I wonder, in other words, how much is due to the fact that this involves brown Muslim people, rather than WASPy dual citizens like me.

Congress may sue Dubya over signing statements.

I don't believe this is serious. It strikes me as part of a Republican strategy to get the hell away from Bush's plummeting approval ratings and disastrous policies. If Congress were really serious about punishing Bush, they'd impeach the bastard.

Do animals have rights?

There is a very odd article here about vivsection in the UK. The oddity comes in the blatant he said/she said style of the article. While I'm used to this game in US and Canadian corporate media, I've never seen it be quite so blatant.

Let me deal with the ethical question, though, putting aside the epistemological and scientific questions (particularly whether we can learn as much or more without resorting to vivisection). I've been meaning to scrawl a few thoughts about animals for some time now.

I'll make three assumptions just to make the topic manageable in a single blog post. First is that animals are not the same as people. Second is that a right is a kind of claim. Third is that obligations stems from the overwhelming weight of reasons. I'll explain these in turn.

It should be evident that biologically, animals are not the same as people. Even higher primates such as chimps are not the same as us -- only very, very close. But the point is not biological, but moral, in that animals do not have the same moral status as people. "Moral status" is a term of art that I take to refer in part to the moral capacities of a creature, and in part to the moral value of a creature. (There may be more to it, but these are the essential features.) Moral capacities include the ability to morally deliberate, to recognize moral obligations and rights, and to make moral decisions. Moral value is, I take it, a primitive property that can be possessed by anything. So, in saying that animals do not have the same moral status as people I am not saying that they necessarily differ in moral value. (Indeed, there's an argument to be made that most non-human mammals are more morally valuable than Ted Bundy or Clifford Olsen.) I am saying that animals lack particular moral capacities. In particular, animals lack our ability to recognize moral obligations and rights. (Keep in mind that I am only explaining an assumption, not arguing for a claim.)

When I say that a right is a claim, I am overlooking a lot of potential rights -- for example, the right to sign contracts. The right to sign contracts is a power that one has, not a claim that one makes (against someone else). However, it's a simplifying assumption to only deal with rights as claims, as most rights fall into this pattern. The right to free association is a claim against the state such that the state cannot interfere with one's choice of companions. Similarly, the right to freedom of speech is a claim against the state such that the state cannot interfere with what one says. And so on.

Finally, I am assuming that obligations arise due to the overwhelming weight of reasons. There can be reasons for and against any given course of action. Indeed, it is a rare course of action that has nothing to be said both for and against doing it. These reasons may have differing weights. For example, if I am trying to decide whether to keep my promise to meet my wife for lunch or to offer assistance to a seriously-injured man at the roadside, the reason afforded by my promise has lesser weight than the reason afforded by the stranger's immediate need. In some cases, it may be that the weight of reasons tilting one way or the other is not extreme -- that is, although one has more reason to do X rather than Y, one still regrets not doing Y, and, indeed, could understand why someone might choose to do Y rather than X. This would be a case of non-obligation. A case of obligation to X, by contrast, would be a case in which one has overwhelming reason to X rather than Y, and one would fault choosing to Y rather than X.

Given that, what should be said about vivisection? The first, of course, is that animals do not have rights. Animals lack the ability to recognize moral obligations and rights, and hence lack the ability to make rights-claims. Thus, animals have no rights. (Yes, I've basically purchased this result by definitional fiat.)

The interesting question, though, is whether we have obligations towards animals. Of course, we do. For one, we can acquire these obligations by promising -- when we purchase pets, we are promising that we will care for these animals. We can also acquire these obligations collectively because the situation the animals find themselves in was caused by our collective action. If we destroy an animal's habitat, we acquire reason to provide a new habitat or otherwise make good on our error. The underlying reason for all this is that animals have moral value, and can thus generate moral reasons in us.

However, even if we can have obligations towards animals, we do not always have these obligations. As defined above, an obligation only exists if the overwhelming weight of reasons favours a particular course of action. If the weight of reasons is not overwhelming, several courses of action may be equally morally permissible. And this can happen with animals as with anything -- as always in moral decision-making, context matters. Although I have promised to care for my cats, if I am forced to decide (by a mad philosopher) between my cats and my wife, I would be morally obligated to choose my wife. Although we are obligated to provide for an animal's well-being if we damage their habitat, we are not obligated to sacrifice significant well-being of humans to do so. (We would not, for example, be forced to tear down the houses built in the animal's former habitat and replant all the trees.)

Given this framework, it can be seen that, if the benefit is significant enough, it can provide reason to overwhelm our reasons for not harming animals that we have purchased. In other words, if there is great benefit in terms of knowledge or future medical technology to be gained from vivisection, then even though we have some reason not to harm the animals (because we did, after all, purchase them), this reason can be swamped by the former.

Which means, of course, that the question I suspended at the beginning -- the epistemological and scientific issue -- is actually the one that's going to decide the moral question in any particular situation.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Do the Cons have a foreign policy mandate?

While I sympathize with the point of view of NUPGE president, James Clancy, I have to take him to task on the claim that the problem with the Cons' foreign policy is that they have no "mandate" for it. Certainly, he's right that the Cons weren't given a majority, and hence have not been given sufficient trust by the electorate to pass whatever laws they feel like and govern however they want to. However. The electorate also put in place an Opposition -- the federal Liberals -- who are supposed to be acting as a check on the government's power. Indeed, insofar as the government is doing whatever the hell it wants, we can put at least partial blame on those who are supposed, but are failing, to oppose.

Chalk another one up under "reasons to vote NDP next time".

Canadian "terror" watchlist.

Oh, goody. We're getting our own "terrorist" watchlist. And it's brought to us by the same party that thought the Liberal gun registery was a big waste of money! I can't help but notice that neocons are always quick to condemn as "wasteful" any money that might actually help protect people, but are just as quick to spend money in ways that would look good in campaign ads.

Wolf Blitzer vs. John Cleese.

Let us contrast Wolf Blitzer's sanctimonious condemnations of comedians, who are deservedly mocking the American right's claims about "World War III", with the sage words of John Cleese:
No subject is ever too serious for humour. I think many people have a basic misunderstanding: There's a difference between being serious and being solemn. We could be talking about things that are extremely serious -– our marriages, the education of our children, politics, even the meaning of life -- and laughing quite a lot and that wouldn't make what we were talking about one bit less serious. But solemnity, on the other hand; I don't know what it's for. Solemnity serves pomposity, self-importance, and egotism. And the pompous and the self-important always know at some level that their egotism is going to be punctured by humour. That's why they always see humour as negative, as a threat to them personally. And so they dishonestly criticize it as frivolous and light-minded.
In other words, frivolity contrasts with seriousness, with regards to the weight one gives to a subject matter; on the other hand, humour contrasts with solemnity, with regards to the way in which one expresses oneself on an issue. Indeed, I'd suggest that most solemn people are treating the issues they discuss in an incredibly frivolous manner: the posturings of politicians on legislature floors are an obvious example.