UK paperback


Bitchslapping the Continent

Elizabeth Wurtzel is glad she is not in Europe:

Excepting a business trip I took to England, Scotland and Ireland in early 2002, I have not been to Europe since 9/11. It’s become an unbearable place to be.

How does she know?


Sea kittens

Rebranding animals, PETA’s way

Fish: “sea kittens”.

Wasps: flying kittens!

Aliens with two sets of jaws that burst out through your stomach: space kittens!


Too many

Apocalypse-averting calculus

Philosopher Michael Walzer gives us the benefit of his soothing wisdom on Gaza. ((Via Aaronovitch Watch.)) His main “argument” as such is that discussions of what is or is not “disproportionate” in war are unreliable because they are necessarily forward-looking and speculative. Wait: make that unreliable unless Walzer himself is making them:

Israel’s Gaza war was called “disproportionate” on day one, before anyone knew very much about how many people had been killed or who they were. ((But what about calling something “disproportionate” after you know for sure that hundreds of people have been killed and lots of them weren’t fighting you? Who cares, right? Let’s concentrate on looking ahead, lest the sight of blood behind us offend our delicate philosophical sensibilities.)) The standard proportionality argument, looking ahead as these arguments rightly do, would come from the other side. Before the six months of cease-fire (when the fire never ceased), Hamas had only primitive and home-made rockets that could hit nearby small towns in Israel. By the end of the six months, they had far more advanced rockets, no longer home-made, that can hit cities 30 or 40 kilometers away. Another six months of the same kind of cease-fire, which is what many nations at the UN demanded, and Hamas would have rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv. And this is an organization explicitly committed to the destruction of Israel. How many civilian casualties are “not disproportionate to” the value of avoiding the rocketing of Tel Aviv? How many civilian casualties would America’s leaders think were “not disproportionate to” the value of avoiding the rocketing of New York?

We linger on that for a moment, as Walzer no doubt intends us to, before reading on:

The answer, again, is too many. We have to make proportionality calculations, but those calculations won’t provide the most important moral limits on warfare.

Yet coincidentally, the other “moral limits on warfare” he goes on to discuss (significantly more hastily than the less “important” argument about disproportionality, which he has nonetheless expended some effort trying to win) turn out not to imply any criticism of Israel’s recent actions at all, but serve as well to illustrate how it’s all Hamas’s fault.

I feel an illustrative nanodrama coming on.

PRESIDENT HUHFUHRR: (Looking into camera from behind a mahogany desk, on which rests a CRYSTAL BALL that he is rubbing gently.)

My fellow liberal democrats, I say to you tonight that we must bomb the living shit out of Terroristia because, given the combination of bloodthirsty ideology and excellent education that prevails there, all its children will inevitably grow up to become genius scientists who hate our freedoms, and in the course of things they will naturally invent a superweapon and use it to blow up the entire Planet Earth.

(He pauses to let the enormity of this scenario sink in to the loyal citizenry.)

That being so, our terrorist-loving critics can hardly call our plan to incinerate a million of Terroristia’s toddlers tomorrow “disproportionate” to the value of saving the entire human race!

(He allows an expression of sadness for the regrettable deaths of a million toddlers to pass across his face, before recomposing his features into a glare of heroic resolution.)

(There is a NOISE, and then PROFESSOR URANU shuffles onto camera at HUHFUHRR’s left and fidgets.)

HUHFUHRR: Ah! Professor Uranu! Our liberal democracy’s most eminent just-war theorist! I was just explaining to the people our plan.

URANU: (nervously) Yes, well, I think there’s a bit of a problem with it. A million toddlers is too many.

HUHFUHRR: Too many?

URANU: That’s right. Though of course you are entirely accurate, and let me say frightening, in your prediction as to what will happen if we don’t do anything.

HUHFUHRR: So we are right to incinerate a certain amount of toddlers, just not a million?

URANU: That sounds very reasonable, Mr President.

HUHFUHRR: How many, then?


HUHFUHRR: Give me a number, man! You aren’t the kind of squeamish terrorist-lover who would cravenly claim that incinerating any number of toddlers at all is wrong?

URANU: (drawing himself more erect) Of course not!

HUHFUHRR: So how many?

(URANU thinks, counting on his fingers.)

URANU: (shrugging) Half a million?

HUHFUHRR: Splendid! I will tell the generals.

URANU: (holding up one finger) There are other limits on warfare, too, Mr President.


URANU: For instance, have we tried other means to our end?

HUHFURHH: Well, some others. Of course we haven’t negotiated with the bastards but —

URANU: (quickly) That’s all right then. Second, who is responsible for putting civilians in the line of fire?

HUHFURHH: (outraged) Obviously they are, since they’re going to teach their children to build a planet-busting doomsday weapon!

URANU: Excellent point, Mr President. Thirdly, are we acting in concrete ways to minimize the risks we impose on civilians?

HUHFURRH: Sure, we’re only targeting the young children. Anyone older won’t have time to become a genius scientist and invent the Armageddon bomb.

URANU: A wise answer, Mr President. That was a hard question anyway, given that we have to take into account the world-liquidating intentions of everyone in Terroristia.

(URANU reaches to lay a hand on PRESIDENT HUHFURRH’s shoulder, then thinks better of it, and tries to make it look as though he just wanted to stretch his arm. HUHFURRH stares at him, and then shakes his head.)

HUHFURRH: So, Professor, is that it?

URANU: Indeed it is! (He peers down into the CRYSTAL BALL and adjusts his bow tie, then clears his throat.) I give you my authoritative judgment that no one has the right to criticise this war of ours.

HUHFURRH: (beaming insanely into camera) Good night, and God bless just-war theorists!

(Fade, to the musical accompaniment of Nik Kershaw’s “I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me”.)



Automatic warfare

As a kind of footnote to Unintended, let us observe how it is sometimes possible to go one better and deny that the actor of whom one approves has any agency at all. George W. Bush is quoted by AP as having said yesterday:

The situation now taking place in Gaza was caused by Hamas.

This only makes any sense if one thinks of Israel’s planners as utterly incapable of choosing to do otherwise, void of volition, bereft of any intention whatsoever. ((It is also, by the way, why I don’t buy accounts of the Kosovo war that run something like: “Nato’s bombing actually caused an increase in Serbian atrocities.” The poor little Serb commanders, this implies, had no choice in the matter themselves. It follows too, of course, that any claim such as “Hamas’s firing rockets into Israel was caused by Israeli oppression etc” is equally nonsensical.)) Further, since Israel’s action is an effect of a cause, thus a necessary result having the force of natural law, it must also follow that it comes as an inevitable consequence of something that Hamas did first, ie by implication their alleged breaking of the ceasefire in November ((Although if they did break it, it was only after Israel struck first — but then we know that ceasefires are peculiarly asymmetrical in their robustness to action by one side or the other.)) — even though Israel’s leaders had already been planning the attack for months previously.

In exploiting this efficient dual-use parcel of Unspeak, however, note that one must be circumspect about characterizing what Bush carefully calls “the situation now taking place in Gaza”. If, for example, one were attempt to claim that “Israel’s blowing up of UN schools in Gaza was caused by Hamas”, the absurdity of it would be plainer. ((IDF spokesmen do say that they blew up the UN schools (in which civilians were sheltering) because Hamas fighters were or had been firing from them, but they do not claim they had no choice but to blow up the schools.)) So I think we can all congratulate Bush, one last time, on his verbal delicacy.



Putting pseudonyms to server statistics

Happy New Year, readers! One of my favourite blogs, Cosmic Variance, occasionally runs a “delurking thread”, in which regular readers who don’t participate much (or ever) in the discussions are invited to post a brief note to say hello, introduce themselves, explain why they like the blog or what they think could be improved about it, etc. Naturally, it would help me to service my audience more sensitively if I knew a little more about them — especially about the silent majority. So please take this as’s inaugural delurking thread. Leave a comment, especially if you usually don’t!



The law of consequences

Update: this example has arisen in comments:

If I jump from a burning building in order to save myself from the fire while knowing that my fall will be cushioned by a child (who will not survive the impact), then I intend to kill the child as well as to save myself.

Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

As Israel bombs people in Gaza, and arguments are raised again in some quarters about what is or is not “disproportionate” in warfare, as they were in 2006, a useful observation on the concept is offered by dsquared, who reads the Geneva Conventions as saying:

that unintended but inevitable risk to noncombatants has to be proportionate to the military aim which is being carried out.

I do quibble, though, with the phrasing of the first part. As I have written elsewhere, it is my considered view that you cannot be aware of “inevitable” (or even very probable) harm that will come to civilians as a result of your action and at the same time not intend that harm, as well as whatever else you might be intending, when you commit the act which you have foreseen will cause the harm. ((Appeals to “double effect” notwithstanding, even the least disingenuous (ie not among those cherry-pickings from “just war theory” that serve only to provide a moral figleaf for one’s favoured war at the time).)) To take the plainest case, the bureaucrat who signs off on the bombing of “high-collateral-damage targets” intends the predicted “collateral damage”; the best he can argue is that the “positive” consequences outweigh the negative. ((You sometimes hear the alternative case expressed like so: “Well, I didn’t intend to kill any of the specific individuals that were killed as a ‘collateral’ result of my bomb, so in that sense I could not have intended, could I, to kill the unfortunately deceased Mr. and Mrs. X., whose loss of life is of course regrettable”, etc. Unfortunately, this argument alone does not effectively distinguish the “strategic bomber” from the bomber who leaves a home-made explosive device in a shopping mall full of people whose names he does not know. ))

Thus, I do not believe that we should easily accept the concept of “unintended but inevitable risk to noncombatants”, as it appears to contain a built-in excuse for those who have decided to impose the risk by dropping bombs on them. It is a common, almost invisible parcel of ethical Unspeak, that could appear unintended under anyone’s fingers — and that’s the kind of Unspeak against which we all have to be most on our guard.

I commend to you dsquared’s otherwise unimpeachably sensible post, the conclusion especially apposite at this time:

As an obvious corollary to this, any military action at all can be disproportionate if it has no point to it at all; no sensible or realistic objective other than shoring up political support for the people who ordered it. And as a further corollary, it is entirely possible (and indeed, not even unusual) for both sides in a conflict to be guilty of disproportionate use of violence.

What unintended or disproportionate things have you done lately, readers?



Imaginary numbers

Via the indispensable Aaronowitch Watch (Incorporating “World of Decency”), I see that David Aaronovitch still thinks he was right to be in favour of invading Iraq — well, maybe a smidgeon less right than he used to be, but still much more right than those who weren’t, because they are “anti-history”. (Duh, the war has already happened, people, quit your goddamned whinging.) ((I’m aware that this is not what Aaronovitch means by “anti-history”, but choose this reading nonetheless because it is at least consistent: after all, his own account of history strangely omits the fact, reported in his own newspaper among others, that Tony Blair had already in 2002 secretly agreed to Bush’s war. Instead Aaronovitch perpetuates the myth about the sincere “diplomacy” that “failed”.)) But enough already about Tony Blair and George W. Bush (“and, by extension, me”, Aaronovitch adds modestly) — for David Aaronovitch himself is having a “crisis of conscience”. He has just realised, you see, that a lot of people were, after all, killed following the invasion he desired. How many? Aaronovitch conjures a nice round figure using nothing but the power of his mind:

[t]he reasonable figure for lost Iraqi lives — perhaps 100,000 — is far more than any hawk allowed before the fight began.

As Bruschettaboy at AW(IWoD) points out, the Iraq Body Count figure is between 89,959 and 98,218 at present: if Aaronovitch were aware of it he would have to believe that only somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 deaths over five years have escaped the notice of Iraqi officials and the media. (Moreover, IBC only counts civilian deaths — it’s interesting how rarely you hear anyone express even theoretical sympathy for, let alone try to count, the members of the Iraqi military forces killed by the invasion, as though we can all happily agree that they were exclusively rabid Saddamists, dictators-in-waiting to a man.) Meanwhile, of course, other estimates of Iraqi deaths attributable to the war are much larger. ((Aaronovitch says that “jihadis caused most of these deaths”; while the 2006 Lancet report figure for Iraqis killed by the “coalition” in particular up until then is 86% higher than the “reasonable” figure he now pulls out of his arse for the grand total of all deaths.))

How, then, has Aaronovitch arrived at the figure of 100,000 total deaths? Bruschettaboy writes:

Facts never really were Aaro’s strong point — I am guessing that he picked on a number some time in 2005 and hasn’t updated it. Frankly I regard this as a culpable mistake, though.

But Aaronovitch’s use of “reasonable” here strikes me as more weaselly and solipsistic than that. Come on, be reasonable. Those really high death counts are too nasty, aren’t they? Let’s just make up a sort of average between zero (what the figure would have been in my and my friends’ exciting fantasy magic war scenario) and some large number that it’s too uncomfortable to think about. And by this unimpeachably creative method we get — what? Perhaps 100,000. Sure, perhaps it’s as high as that. But it’s probably lower! Let’s act as though these numbers don’t tally the deaths of real individuals but just have a reasonable conversation about what perhaps is the case if you squint and wave your hands.

I submit, then, that “the reasonable figure” means “the figure I just made up which causes me personally the least amount of cognitive dissonance while not being so low as to look completely ridiculous to a casual reader”. Reality is often not reasonable, but it is the glory of newspaper opinion columnists that they can be, no matter what the facts.

In other news, Pope Ratzinger has been widely reported as saying something like “homosexuality is as big a threat to the planet as global warming!!!!11oneoneone”, which makes for a pleasantly absurd Christmas headline. In fact, that’s not quite what he said, though the exact meaning of what he did say is anybody’s guess, and should make, I hope, for some enjoyable hermeneutical sessions for all the bloated post-festive-dinner family.

Have a reasonable Christmas, readers!



Speak for yourself

The Times Literary Supplement, a massively august organ to which I have occasionally contributed myself, is the most consistently stimulating periodical I know (of whatever periodicity). Its diarist, however, does have a rather tedious bee in his bonnet, or flea in his sock, about things like “political correctness” and strains of academic writing that can more or less plausibly be labelled “postmodern”. And so here is “J.C.” in the issue of December 12, casually impugning the intellects of TLS readers themselves:

Annals of incomprehensibility, an occasional series. Academics in English departments who used to write in private code are being gradually introduced to an important fact about language: that a written English sentence exists in order to be understood by other English speakers. Once the habit of writing comprehensible English has been unlearned, however, it can be difficult to reacquire the knack. Here is an example of a sentence which purports to be written in English, but which, we propose, is incomprehensible to all but a few. It is taken from Coincidence and Counterfactuality: Plotting time and space in narrative fiction by Hilary P. Dannenberg:

Historical counterfactuals in narrative fiction frequently take an ontologically different form in which the counterfactual premise engenders a whole narrative world instead of being limited to hypothetical inserts embedded in the main actual world of the narrative text.

Is that really incomprehensible? You might not find it interesting, or you might want to see more of the context to find out exactly how much work “ontologically” is really doing there. But I suppose it’s fairly obvious what it’s saying, and that what it’s saying is indeed true. (One thinks of novels such as The Man in the High Castle.)

“J.C.” climaxes triumphantly:

Just think: someone read the book and endorsed its publication, someone edited it, someone else set it in type, designed a cover, compiled an index, read the proofs — yet hardly anyone can understand what’s in it.

Thus do defenders of plain speaking often insult the intelligence of the people for whom they are purportedly fighting.

Do you find that passage “incomprehensible”, readers?


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