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The unbearable lightness of civil liberties

The Guardian reports that Tony Blair:

insisted yesterday that the national identity card scheme should go ahead as a question of ‘modernity’, not civil liberties […] he did not think ‘the civil liberties argument carries much weight’.

Now, it cannot be that even Blair thinks modernity is a recommendation in and of itself. That would be like saying in 1945 that the use of nuclear weapons was simply a question of modernity. It is true that Blair’s language in the past has often intimated a vacant admiration for what is new, regardless of its other qualities, and that this attitude is encoded in his addiction to the words “modernisation”, “reform”, and so on. (It is arguable that the term “progressive”, especially in US politics, functions in a similar way. Democrats may be pleased to call themselves “progressives”, but of course “progress” is only a good thing if it is progress towards a goal that everyone agrees is the right goal. Otherwise “progressive” is emptied of any particular non-partisan meaning, and simply comes to denote “devoted to our own policies”.) . . . continued »


Absorb the ideas

Axis of evil redux

Much dark hilarity is ensuing after Vanity Fair’s article featuring prominent administration advisers turning their backs on George W. Bush. One of them is speechwriter David Frum, who offers this sorrowful analysis:

I always believed as a speechwriter that if you could persuade the president to commit himself to certain words, he would feel himself committed to the ideas that underlay those words. And the big shock to me has been that although the president said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas. And that is the root of, maybe, everything.

Famously, or notoriously, Frum was responsible for the phrase “axis of evil” as a rhetorical lasso for Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. What might it mean to complain that, although Bush “said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas”? Well, the idea behind the dizzying masterstroke “axis of evil” was that these three countries were apparently, despite all appearances and fact, allied in an axis, like the Nazis and their chums, drawing up evil plans for world domination etc. And what did Bush do with this “idea”? He only invaded one of the countries. And that is the root of maybe everything. Like, duh. Hello, Mr President? You were supposed to invade Iran and North Korea too . . . continued »


Now wash your hands

What Tony gave George

I learn that among the gifts presented by Tony Blair to George W. Bush has been a washbag, with “GWB embossed in gold”. Never let it be said that Tony does not have a finely tuned sense of symbolic irony, alluding as he no doubt was to Macbeth Act V scene i:

Out, damned spot! out, I say! – One; two; why, then ’tis
time to do’t ; – Hell is murky! – Fie, my lord, fie! a soldier,
and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call
our power to account? . . .

Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes
of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.


Public hostile rhetoric

The secret of developing messages

To resume after my short blog holiday (or, if you will, blogiday): a miscellany. A graphic was leaked from US Central Command that showed Iraq sliding along an “Index of Civil Conflict”. At far left is bucolic green “peace”. Right now, Iraq is hovering perilously close to bright-red “chaos”.

Peace vs chaos is an unusual binary opposition. After all, the normal opposite of peace is war, but then this war has been an unarguably noble pursuit, so we must find another name for the bad thing on the right-hand end. Chaos! Well, the conventional opposite of chaos is not peace but order. Yet there is no shortage in the historical record of orderly torture, say, or orderly killing. In fact, isn’t peace by its nature refreshingly chaotic? That seemed to be Donald Rumsfeld’s theory when he instructed us that “Freedom’s untidy”.

But enough quibbling. One important indicator of a slide towards chaos, according to this graphic, is that “Political/religious leaders increase public hostile rhetoric”. The NYT report explains that this “can be measured by listening to sermons at mosques and to important Shiite and Sunni leaders”. But why stretch your ears that far afield? George W. Bush has for many years now indulged not only in hostile rhetoric at public venues, but, as public hostile rhetoric may also denote, in rhetoric that is actually hostile to the public, insofar as it takes them for cretins.

In entirely unrelated news, millions of dollars of federal money is going to target unmarried adults up to the age of 29 in sexual “abstinence programs”.

Meanwhile, Christopher Hitchens appeared in a radio interview and confessed in passing:

I’m very hapless about statistics.

Let us gratefully accept this as a contrite retraction of Hitchens’s ham-fisted lunge at the, er, statistics in the recent Lancet report.

Bjorn Lomborg, the “sceptical” non-environmentalist, offered some eccentric opinions about the Stern report on global warming:

Mr. Stern sees increasing hurricane damage in the U.S. as a powerful argument for carbon controls. However, hurricane damage is increasing predominantly because there are more people with more goods to be damaged, settling in ever more risky habitats. Even if global warming does significantly increase the power of hurricanes, it is estimated that 95% to 98% of the increased damage will be due to demographics.

Hard to be sure, but I think this means that it’s people’s own stupid fault for living in New Orleans. D’oh!

The Pentagon set up a new unit, as the BBC reports, to “‘develop messages’ for the 24-hour news cycle and […] ‘correct the record'”. I like the notion of developing messages. Clearly it’s not just making shit up. There must already be a “message” there before it can be “developed”. That message is no doubt rigorously reality-based. But maybe here there is a nod to the technical idea of development in music, in which you can indeed just make shit up – you just need to make it appear to flow organically from what is there already.

Lastly, Tom DeLay bravely stood up for forced partial drowning:

“I don’t think water boarding is torture,” DeLay said. “My definition of torture is you physically harm someone by cutting them, by cutting their fingers, sticking things in their eyes, sticking their fingers in electric sockets. Water boarding is a frightening experience. But the person does not have physical damage.”

Cutting their fingers. Sticking things in their eyes. There is a lurid specificity to DeLay’s fantasies of torture, isn’t there? Probably we should make allowances for public hostile rhetoric, as long as it involves dreaming up imaginative ways to deal harm to “them”.


Talking to Noah about the flood

On constructs and lipsticked pigs

The transcript of President George W. Bush’s interview with sympathetic print columnists is full of piquant images.

My strategy, from day one, was to go on the offense, stay on the offense, and keep the pressure on them until we are able to bring as many to justice as possible. They morph. You know, they kind of – there is al Qaeda central, there is al Qaeda look-alikes, there is al Qaeda want-to-bes. They’re dangerous. Some are more dangerous than others. And we have got special teams and special operating teams, as well as intelligence teams, pressuring them a lot.

They morph. These guys are so dangerous they don’t even keep a recognisably humanoid shape. Like the T-2000 robot, made out of liquid metal. Faced with such a foe, you need not just special teams but special operating teams, as well as experts, professionals and so forth. You also need one of the really great thinkers.

Abizaid, who I think is one of the really great thinkers, John Abizaid – I don’t know if you’ve ever had a chance to talk to him, he’s a smart guy – he came up with this construct: If we leave, they will follow us here.

He came up with this construct. There I was, trying to take “they will follow us” seriously, and now Bush admits that’s it’s just a construct – that Abizaid just made it up. I’m completely wrongfooted. It’s very clever: this kind of stuff is going to really confuse the enemy. It’s like putting mascara on a – what was that phrase again?

Don’t write me down as hopelessly naive and trying to always put lipstick on the pig, but I understand there’s got to be – you know, life is moving. People are living their lives, schools are opening. And it – and yet, this is a war that you don’t measure platoons storming hills. You measure – evidently, the measurement is violence. Well, if the absence of violence is victory, no one will ever win, because all that means is you’ve empowered a bunch of suiciders and thugs to kill.

Ah yes. Putting lipstick on the pig. But what does the tender filial scene of little George applying Barbara Bush’s makeup for her every morning have to do with the war in Iraq? Never mind, let’s concentrate on the fact that the absence of violence can’t be victory, because “all that means” is, er, that there’s a lot of violence around. Or something. But this is to get bogged down in logic. The assembled columnists tried their best to help.

Q: I want to go on the air tonight, I want some good news. I need some good news, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I do, too.
Q: I really do.
THE PRESIDENT: You’re talking to Noah about the flood. I do, too.

Talking to Noah about the flood. Fascinating. Like Noah, Bush has received a secret message from God about the coming global inundation. I wonder who gets a place on the Ark? The neocons went in two by two . . . We may rest easy knowing that the offspring of Cheney and Rice will repopulate the Earth when the waters recede. In these last days, meanwhile, please meditate on the sovereignty of the Iraqi government.

They were asking me today, put out benchmarks. Well, it’s a sovereign government. You just don’t put out benchmarks. You work with the sovereign government to develop a way forward that’s got enough pressure on them to move, but at the same time, they’re comfortable with. Look, if we wanted to, we could put so much pressure on the Maliki government to topple it. What good would that do? We could put so many demands on them, it might satisfy people in the short-term, but it would defeat the purpose for victory in Iraq.

Let’s get this straight. It’s a sovereign government, but never forget that we could bring it down in a moment “if we wanted to”. See? But enough of this talk of war: what really matters in an election is tax cuts.

And I believe that when it gets down to it, money in people’s pockets are going to matter. I really do. Immigration is an issue. I don’t hear it being discussed much out there. Of course, generally, I’m doing all the discussing.

People really are letting the President down in this time of need. There he is, doing all the discussing, and everyone else is staying silent. Or else they are not speaking loudly enough to drown out the sound of his own voice. The rains are coming. Won’t someone help him out?


The tools

What the ‘professionals’ need

In his press conference on Iraq yesterday, President George W. Bush emphasised the danger posed by “the enemy”:

These are lethal, cold-blooded killers. And we must do everything we can to protect the American people, including questioning detainees or listening to their phone calls from outside the country to inside the country. In other words, as you know, there was some recent votes on that issue. And the Democrats voted against giving our professionals the tools necessary to protect the American people.

Our professionals, also known as experts, are, as we have seen, those who conduct sessions of the most sensitive questioning, or torture. An interesting addition here is the concept of the tools. Doubtless we are not meant to think of anything so crude as power-drills or electric-shock devices. Perhaps an inclined table for the purposes of forced partial drowning is all that is needed. But there is a further implication of calling authorizations of torture or wiretapping of US citizens the tools: it shunts them out of the realm of moral discourse. Tools are simply functional objects to do one job or another. The question of what tool to use in most situations is not an ethical question but a technological one. Let the carpenter decide between bradawl and screwdriver: who are we to interfere with his craftsman’s nous?

Thus, to consider torture a “tool necessary to protect the American people” reflects a general view, particularly noticeable in Donald Rumsfeld’s command of the Pentagon (his geeky obsession with gadgets and “special forces”), that there are no ethical questions, only technological ones. Were it not an implicit violation of Godwin’s law, I might mention that such an attitude has historically been characteristic of totalitarian government. On this reading, however, Bush’s recent legislation prompts an interesting question. If he is blaming the tools that were already legal for not being sufficient for the job, does that make him a bad workman?

Bush was also asked about permanent bases in Iraq:

Any decisions about permanency in Iraq will be made by the Iraqi government. And, frankly, it’s not in much of a position to be thinking about what the world’s going to look like five or 10 years from now. They are working to make sure that we succeed in the short term. And they need our help. And that’s where our focus is. But remember, when you’re talking about bases and troops, we’re dealing with a sovereign government. Now, we entered into an agreement with the Karzai government. They weren’t called permanent bases, but they were called arrangements that will help this government understand that there will be a U.S. presence so long as they want them there.

As a euphemism for permanent bases, “arrangements that will help this government understand that there will be a U.S. presence so long as they want them there” needs a little work.


Spiritual wealth

Scientology as a ‘force for good’

“Spiritual wealth” is an interesting phrase, usually invoked in contrast to filthy lucre – and yet churches throughout history have notoriously been rather interested in base monetary wealth as well as its “spiritual” cousin. Indeed, as in the old Catholic practice of selling indulgences, “spiritual wealth” is often promised exactly in exchange for ready coin. What is a senior London policeman doing exhorting the contribution to the “spiritual wealth of society” made by Scientologists? More in my post over at Comment Is Free.


Scale confusion

On our ‘cosmic homelessness’

My review in today’s Guardian is reproduced below. The point about the “meaning” of the universe in the last paragraph has doubtless been made more elegantly by greater minds in the past. More relevant to thinking about certain kinds of Unspeak might be the authors’ concept of “scale confusion” or “scale chauvinism” . . .

• The View From the Centre of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos
by Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams

Let’s try an experiment. Take a piece of chalk and draw a circle around yourself on the ground. Think of something else for a minute. Now look down. You’re in the middle of a circle! Doesn’t that make you feel special?

This is the recommended therapy for people suffering from a kind of transgalactic ennui. Blame scientists. Ever since they showed that the Earth goes round the sun and not vice versa, humans’ place in the universe has seemed increasingly marginal. As the cosmologist Carl Sagan put it: “We live on a hunk of rock and metal that orbits a humdrum star in the obscure outskirts of an ordinary galaxy comprised of 400 billion stars in a universe of some hundred billion galaxies …” How insignificant we are, on the vast scales of space.

Such is the received wisdom and, like all received wisdom, it is worth challenging. Husband-and-wife team Primack, an astrophysicist, and Abrams, a philosopher of science, understand our pain. They know the temptation of what they call “the existential alternative”, as exemplified by Sagan. They give the feeling a rather beautiful name: “cosmic homelessness”. And they promise to prove, using the latest cosmological discoveries, that the idea is wrong. Science itself, they say, demonstrates that we are actually central to the universe . . .

continued »


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