Saturday, May 07, 2011

For The Birds (UPDATE)

When we moved to Plato Center last year, one of the benefits that was apparent pretty quickly was the amount and variety of birds around us. We live on an acre lot, surrounded by trees (rare enough on the Illinois prairie) with a creek on the southern border of our property, all providing a nice habitat for a variety of fauna - raccoons and squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits, foxes and maybe a wild ferret or two. Most of all, though, were the birds. My grandmother, Grace Safford, was a marvelous birder. She knew birds, all kinds of birds, at a glance. She knew their names, their calls, their eating habits, their nesting habits, their migratory habits, their Latin names. She could do the same with flowers (although not the whole Latin thing, I think) but I was always more impressed with her ability to identify birds.

I have always wanted to be able to do the same thing. I can identify a number of birds by their calls - robins and blue jays and cardinals and red-wing blackbirds and cowbirds and the sweet, two-note call of the phoebe. I can identify more by their look, their color and markings. The folks who had lived here before us had a couple bird feeders and a hummingbird feeder out back, and the traffic was lively, but the press of events kept my attention elsewhere.

Late last summer, I encountered, up close, a small owl. I was quite close, no more than three feet away, and it ignored me completely as it went about its hunting, nabbing a mouse or mole in the grass after gliding past me from the branch where it had been sitting. Over the winter, we kept up the seed in the feeders, adding a couple suet feeders for woodpeckers, and all through the long months of cold and snow we had downy woodpeckers, chickadees, mourning doves, and a host of junkos, the last of whom fed exclusively on the ground, which meant tossing quite a bit on the ground.

As spring arrived, we noticed an uptick in interesting birds. First, the red-headed woodpeckers stopped by, for a bit. Once or twice a pileated woodpecker would grace us. The sparrows became thick, regulars at the trough. Then, a couple weeks back, Lisa snapped the following picture.
This is an indigo bunting. I realized that this would provide a marvelous opportunity for me to do something I have always wanted to do - some birding. Over the ensuing couple weeks, I was more careful as I watched the comings and goings of various birds. Then, yesterday morning, I was surprised to see, big as life and clear as day, an oriole. I quickly grabbed the camera and took a couple pictures.
Over the course of the day yesterday, I took several more pictures, including one of a goldfinch. Now, the goldfinches have been hanging around for about a month or so. They are frequent flyers, as it were, and we have quite a few; earlier this week I counted five individuals, three males and two females, perched in various places on and around our feeders. Every time I would grab the camera, they would fly away. I started to get paranoid about them, but I finally snapped a quick shot of a male.
Yesterday morning also saw a grossbeak making an appearance.
I decided, after that, to keep the camera close to the windows facing on the feeders. I also took some shots of some other visitors to Chez Kruse-Safford Aviary Restaurant and Lounge. A white-throated sparrow.
A cowbird, which no one seems to like, but they are an integral part of the community of birds that keep our bird-feeder area lively.
A purple finch, who isn't actually purple, kind of like the red-bud tree down south whose buds aren't actually red.

One of our long-time regulars, a downy woodpecker. I should name it Norm, after the character on Cheers.
Over the coming weeks and months, I'm going to be snapping more photos of more and different birds, teaching myself to identify them, then familiarize myself with the individuals who hang out here. My ultimate goal is to snap a picture of a hummingbird. We have had one come around to our hummingbird feeder, but I've been too nervous to even try to take a picture. I am going to try, though.

Being here is a great opportunity to indulge in a hobby that is fun, adds some beauty and life to our lives here, connects me to the local wildlife, and is something I have always wanted to do. I am learning something new, which is always a new thing, but also something I have always wanted to do and connects me to my grandmother in a way I think she would have appreciated.

I know this has nothing to do with being a Christian, or politics, or much of anything else. Self-indulgence, usually, should be avoided, but the birds are far too beautiful not to share.

Even the cowbird.

UPDATE: The picture below was taken less than five minutes ago, at an oriole feeder my wife set up. Just . . . wow, how beautiful are these guys?

Friday, May 06, 2011

Story Telling

One of the advantages of the "National Strategic Narrative" is the offer to the general public of a departure point for thinking in new ways about how we as a country move forward, seeing the interconnections among not only the various interests of other nation-states, but the convergence among domestic and foreign concerns here in the United States. Thinking creatively includes thinking honestly. An honest narrative includes unpleasant realities as well as more pleasant ones.

One of the premises of the author of the introduction to this article, Ann-Marie Slaughter, is the relevance of George Kennan's famous "X" article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct", and the larger emerging policy of containment that emerged with the acceptance of NSC 68 as the groundwork for our foreign, and to some extent our domestic, policy in the Cold War. This is an important historical narrative, to be sure, but it is not without its critics.

One of the most prominent and controversial such critics is linguist and author Noam Chomsky. In the long (60 pages!) Introduction to his essay collection, Towards a New Cold War: Essays on the Current Crisis and How We Go There, as well as the first essays that serve as chapters positioning his own criticisms, Chomsky takes a far different view of American foreign policy in the early years of the Cold War, setting NSC 68 within a far different context (and includes some critical comments from, among others, George Kennan, who was a critic of the kind of militarized, ideological approach to our relations with the Soviets; while Kennan sat on the committee that drafted NSC 68, he made abundantly clear in ensuing years that his original article, and policy preferences, were political and diplomatic rather than militarized) and viewing American policy in a far different light than the mainstream view.

The work in question is, in many ways, a historical document, like most of Chomsky's published works on American foreign policy. Published in 1982, the essays by and large cover matters in the first half of the Cold War, with a particular emphasis on events in the 1970's and the emerging Reagan Administration policies in the early 1980's. The Introduction begins by noting that, by the mid-1970's, it was the general consensus among policy planners and informed commentators that what had been a period of American hegemony in world affairs was over; the challenge, it seemed, was adapting to certain new realities, including a more independent Western European policy toward the Eastern bloc, the rise of Japan as an economic power, and the implications of emerging nations in what continues to be called the Third World. Some, at least, of both the Carter Administration and most of the Reagan Administration can only be understood as a reaction against this reality, a denial of the fact that the US, while still extremely influential, was far less imposing on the world stage than it had been.

A significant part of Chomsky's take on the growth and development of post-WWII American foreign policy lies in the significance he grants to a series of memoranda produced by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Produced by the War and Peace Studies Project, Chomsky writes the following, quoting directly from the memoranda in question, on pp. 96-97:
These memoranda deal with the "requirement[s] of the United States in a world in which it proposes to hold unquestioned power," foremost among the being "the rapid fulfillment of a program of complete rearmament" (1940). In the early years of the war it was assumed that part of the world might be controlled by Germany. Therefore, the major task was to develop "an integrated policy to achieve military and economic supremacy for the United States within the non-German world,' including plans "to secure the limitation of any exercise of sovereignty by foreign nations that constitutes a threat to the world area essential for the security and economic prosperity of the United States an the Western Hemisphere." . . .

The Us.S.-lef non-German bloc was entitled the "Grand Area" in the CFR discussion. Actually, a Us.S.-dominated Grand Area was only a second-best alternative. It was explained in June 1941 that "the Grand Area is not regarded by the Group as more desirable than a world economy, nor as entirely satsifactory substitute." The Grand Area was seen as a nucleus or model that could be extended, optimally, to a global economy. It was soon recognized that with the coming defeat of Nazi Germany, at least Western Europe could be integrated into the Grand Area. Participants in the CFR discussions recognized that "the British Empire as it existed in the past will never reappear and . . .the United State may have to take its place." One stated frankly that the United States "must cultivate a mental view toward world settlement after hits war which will enable us to impose our own terms, amounting perhaps to a pax-Americana."Another argued that the concept of United States security interests must be enlarged to incorporate areas "strategically necessary for world control." It is a pervasive theme that international trade and investment are closely related to the economic health of the United States, as is access to the resources of the Grand Area, which must be so organized as to guarantee the health and structure of the American economy, its internal structure unmodified.
One caveat that needs to be kept in mind is the limit of the effectiveness of a series of memoranda in a private organization upon the public policy of the United States. A bunch of really smart people sitting around skylarking about the possibilities of certain post-war contingencies are not a policy, or even a proposal. They are little more than exercises in intellectual imagination.

All the same, there are elements, in particular from the sections quoted by Chomsky, that should sound familiar to anyone who has followed these matters. Even if made more crude and/or circumscribed by a combination of events and political realities, the ideas set forth at least a plausible alternative narrative structure for understanding American foreign policy in the early years of the Cold War. Chomsky's previous, and subsequent, alternate narrative of the history of events up that time relies at least as much on the consideration of this alternative as simple criticism for the sake of criticism.

I should say, for emphasis, that the implementation of NSC 68, rooted in a loose interpretation of Kennan's ideas on containment as well as other criteria (not least an odd combination, as Chomsky himself notes, of the belief in the potential overwhelming power of the Soviet Union and its inherent weaknesses that, exploited enough, would create conditions for its collapse, an eventuality that took half a century) was the official, if classified, statement of our foreign - and to a certain extent our domestic - policy, at the very least until the end of the Vietnam War. I do not know anyone, least of all Noam Chomsky, who would argue otherwise. The point at issue here is the larger context within which such a policy was adopted, the mindset and assumptions of the policy planners in question as well as their sources. The imposition of American hegemony, rooted in a view of American interests being in some sense global, entailing a radical shift in our diplomacy, our military policy, and our economy, was relatively rapid. At the very least, many in the foreign policy community continue to view American interests as global; consider Henry Kissinger's idea that, while certainly emerging as formidable powers, China, India, Russia, and the European Union do not have the same scope of interests as the United States. He makes this argument as if it were a fact, rather than a position in need of support.

The emerging idea that we need a new strategic narrative if we are going to be a credible partner in world affairs, no longer managing but perhaps creating conditions for interdependent action must also take in to account the past, and possible alternative interpretations of that past. While Chomsky does not enjoy a large audience, and certainly not a friendly one, his views do offer an alternate narrative of the past that one should consider moving forward.

Thursday, May 05, 2011


Before we turn to specifics from "A National Strategic Narrative", I think a few words need to be said about the premises from which Mr. Y works. Any thoughtful assessment of our current historical moment should be realistic not only about the challenges we face as a country, but the social, cultural, and political conditions that color our perceptions of these challenges. The best policy in the world may well sit on a shelf, never to be implemented because the conditions for carrying it out simply don't exist. While the "Y" article certainly takes several steps in the right direction, the authors do not address specifics regarding our current national mood, except perhaps in passing.

I think the best entry point for such a discussion is the national reaction to the news that American Special Forces operatives killed Osama Bin Laden on Sunday. After many long years, including many when it seemed such an event would never occur, the news caused widespread expressions of jubilation and even public celebrations. Some of them have been quite ugly, to be honest. I know that, given the opportunity, such an eventuality was inevitable, determined by the actions Bin Laden set in motion years ago. His death, however justified and justifiable, is not an occasion for celebration in and for itself; even less should it be an excuse for outpourings of hatred.

For several years, our nation has found itself floundering. The past ten years have provided a legacy that has left us, by and large, without any sense that we can extricate ourselves from the hole we have dug for ourselves. The economy continues to be a pile of crap, to be blunt. Overseas, the Arab spring gives even more evidence of the irrelevance of the arguments once made for our presence in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the 100,000 plus troops seem to serve no purpose or strategic objective; while our service personnel face danger and death, there just seems to be no purpose, no rhyme or reason to it, and the upheavals in the Muslim world make clear our presence does little to effect the dynamics going on. At the very least, the successful execution of the operation in Abbottobad, Pakistan give us a reason to celebrate our military, a successful mission accomplished. In that respect, at least, the outpouring of national celebration seems understandable, even if slightly grotesque.

We have something to celebrate. It is a victory of sorts in a struggle that has been long and complicated, includes the horrific events of 2001 and the frustrations of a lost opportunity - I am quite sure through no fault of anyone, just circumstances - in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan that have come to be known as the Battle of Tora Bora. While we achieved initial success in ousting Saddam Hussein from Iraq, the questions as to why do so in the first place, as well as our long occupation, have created bitterness at home and abroad. The spectacle of a stubborn economic slump in the midst of what its supporters insist is a war equivalent in importance to the Second World War raises a host of other questions that just don't receive any proper response. Our various approaches to public matters of grave import just don't seem coordinated; the effects of our actions seem to fade in the distance, if they ever come at all. While we can rest easier with the death of Osama Bin Laden, the underlying troubles and sense of helplessness remain.

For me, this is part of the importance of the "Y" article. In moving beyond the stale rhetoric of the past, it cuts across any narrowly-understood ideological or partisan divide and offers a way of thinking about public policy that, rather than a hodge-podge of base, narrow policy preferences and intermediate improvisations that seem to do little than attempt to patch a hole here or there without addressing the core set of problems we face. In particular with the death of Bin Laden, we can now face the present, and create a possible future, with this particular bit of nasty business out of the way.

Our on-going national funk creates a whole set of obstacles even to hearing what "Y" is offering as a vision for a vibrant, productive future with the U.S. as an important partner with others for making our world more livable, more safe for more people. We need to understand this particular set of obstacles in order to overcome them, so that we can all start moving forward together.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Make 'Em Laugh

The seriousness of pop and rock is something that needs to be punctured. Not only should music be fun, it should rarely take itself so seriously as to be unafraid to laugh at itself. Fee Waybill's parody of David Bowie/Gary Glitter looks an awful lot like Marilyn Manson, who no one would ever accuse of taking himself lightly.

George Clinton managed simultaneously to create some of the best funk, take tremendous amounts of drugs, and produce stage shows so over-the-top that everyone involved knew his acid-flaked tongue was firmly in his cheek.

While Barenaked Ladies have managed to have some fun, the groups that consistently employ a sense of humor in their music are few and far-between. While punk in Britain was popular in part because it seemed to puncture the pretentiousness of the huge supergroups then dominating radio - Led Zepelin, Pink Floyd, Yes - they did it with a self-conscious seriousness that is surprising (except for the Sex Pistols, who had John Lydon out front; he was angry, and wanted to be heard, but he also, at least at first, seemed to be having fun). It would be nice if there were more performers out there who had the kind of humor and sense of playfulness that could create the following anti-love-song. God rest Frank Zappa's soul.

Down to business, what do you say?
Waiting Phase Two - Porcupine Tree
Sparks of the Tempest - Kansas
Mein Teil (Live) - Rammstein
Un Da Sie Ihn Verspottet Hatten (St. Matthews Passion) - Johann Sebastian Bach
Undertow - David Hentschel (Genesis Tribute album)
Prelude - Tangent
Where Did Our Love Go - The Supremes
Help Me - Joni Mitchell
To Say Goodbye, Part II: On Our Way - Ice Age
Leftovers - Sieges Even

The little-known German band Sieges Even deserves a wider audience. I fell in love with their Learning to Navigate by the Stars release, and just love their sound.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Credit Changes In Muslim World Over Past Decade For Leading To Bin Laden

When twenty volunteers signed on to fly four planes in to targets in the United States, the world was a very different place. The biggest difference was that the powerlessness of so much of the frustrated lower-middle classes of various Muslim states was directed not at the regimes that held them down, but outward at targets - Israel and the United States in particular - that seemed not only to represent the ultimate source of their own frustrated ambitions, but provided possible alternative targets for their rage. With vast networks of internal security and long histories of repression, countries like Algeria, Egypt, the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and others provided little outlet for their citizens to protest their treatment. They did, however, provide alternatives, in the policies of Israel and the United States that, they were assured over and over again, were the real source of their frustrations.

The situation just this year is fundamentally different and can be summed up in two words - Tunisia; Egypt. The on-going anti-authoritarian struggles across the Muslim world, and the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have shown the frustrated masses of the Muslim world that change is possible, that they need not settle for the never-ending drudgery of repression and the petty humiliations of local bureaucrats and corrupt soldiers. While I think it misguided, the NATO support of Libyan rebels is showing the Muslim world the West understands their desire for freedom and will support it. While there are still areas where our attitude and policies toward the larger Muslim world could improve, the events of the first third of this year, in and of themselves, represent a sea-change not only in the Muslim world, but in the perception of Muslims around world toward the west in general and the US in particular.

Seen against this background, the calls by Bin Laden and others to continue the struggles against the US no longer have the resonance they once did.

This judgment is not mine alone. I found it here.

Monday, May 02, 2011

On The Death Of Osama Bin Laden (UPDATE; UPDATE II; UPDATE III)

It's taken nearly ten years, hundreds of thousands have died in the meantime, billions of dollars have been spent, our fiscal, foreign, and domestic politics have been radically deformed, but in the meantime, the man who bears responsibility for the deaths of 3000 on September 11, 2001 is dead.

I'm sorry if it displeases folks, but I am not celebrating. The terrorist attacks ten years ago were monstrous; what happened as a result is nothing more or less than the erosion of our republican values, the poisoning of our public discourse, and the militarization of our foreign police. We made of a man filled with hatred and rage much more than he ever was. While he certainly gave a face and a name to the forces that murdered so many in New York and Washington, he was in the end just one man.

His death may or may not result in a spike in attempts at terrorism against the US, its allies, or interests. At this point, Al Qaeda is so weakened that it is difficult to imagine it mounting a serious attack. All the same, the cycle of death continues. It didn't start with September 11, 2001, and it isn't going to end with Bin Laden's death. So many have already died, so many families torn apart, so much destruction.

UPDATE: According to Tyler Cowen, there is a possibility that the information that led, in the end, to American Special Forces landing by helicopter inside a gated community outside Islamabad, came about through Guantanamo Bay prisoners and our treatments of them.
I have never been pro-Guantánamo, or for that matter pro-torture (and do note the caveats above), but I am willing to report results which may run counter to my views. The moral and the practical do not always coincide, and perhaps we should be celebrating just a bit less. It is possible this is not a totally “clean” victory on our part.
From a Ha'aretz story:
The initial lead which led to his assassination came out of interrogations of Guantanamo inmates – interrogations which often used torture, a fact that has been condemned by human rights groups. One of these interrogations, of top al-Qaida operative who was close to Khaled Shiekh Muhammad, was helpful in indentifying some of bin Laden's closest aides. U.S. intelligence caught up to them and put them under surveillance.
According to TPM, one of those couriers made a phone call. Bad move.
According to U.S. officials, a crucial moment in the hunt for Osama bin Laden came when one of the terrorist leader's couriers held a telephone conversation with someone who was being monitored by U.S. intelligence.
About the original lead being a possible result of torture and illegal detention, Kevin Drum writes:
[I]f the reason you oppose torture is because torture doesn't work, then you'd better be prepared to change your mind if it turns out that torture does work. I'm not willing to do that.

The obvious counterfactual here is that although torture might have produced actionable information that eventually helped locate bin Laden, perhaps we could have gotten the same information another way. And maybe so. But I doubt that this kind of abstract argument has much impact on most people. The fact is that torture probably does work in some cases, and if you oppose it, you need to oppose it even so.
We have no idea, definitively, whether or not the original lead was obtained through "torture", although if the Ha'aretz story is correct, it certainly seems possible.

This does not, in any way, show that "torture works sometimes". As many of Drum's commenters point out, how many folks were tortured and gave all sorts of information that turned out to be false? You would have to torture a whole lot of folks to get actionable information.

As to one or two folks I've read on my FB news feed who are saying they are glad Khalid Sheik Mohammed was tortured, and that had anything at all to do with the death of Bin Laden, all I can say is I wish some people had a bit more shame.

UPDATE II: Maybe all the torture pimping was a tad premature:
[T]here is currently no evidence to suggest that the detainees that provided the information that led to bin Laden were subject to torture. And Bush Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who presumably has some knowledge about what went on at Gitmo, today threw some cold water on this theory:
“The United States Department of Defense did not do waterboarding for interrogation purposes to anyone. It is true that some information that came from normal interrogation approaches at Guantanamo did lead to information that was beneficial in this instance. But it was not harsh treatment and it was not waterboarding.”
UPDATE III: I feel like Glenn Greenwald here. Anyway, this comment at Crooked Timber sums up exactly the way I feel.
That a mass murderer has met his just reward is good news. But a great patriotic victory, it ain’t. Over at Talking Points Memo, they’re calling it VBL Day without any apparent irony, but this is a far, far cry from finding Hitler dead in his bunker as the Allies take Berlin. Really, even if recent events have definitively ended the prospects for Bin Laden’s insane vision of a new Caliphate, he got a big part of what he wanted as the United States flailed uselessly across the ME and Central Asia, incurring thousands of casualties and inflicting close to a million of them and squandering more than a trillion dollars all the while. As a strategic and/or moral victory for the U.S., this rings very hollow indeed. So good news that a mass murder is dead, to be sure, but all this good news does for me is call to mind all the pointless suffering that the U.S. created on the way to this so called victory.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Democratic Legitimacy And Policy Choices

On a link I put on Facebook to one of my recent blog posts on the Mr. Y article, I lamented the lack of attention it was receiving. One commenter said that it was, indeed, receiving attention, but only within the bureaucracy, which is where such attention belongs.


Doing some quick checking on the historical background to NSC 68 yesterday, I was flipping through the relevant passages in Dean Acheson's memoirs, Present at the Creation. I was struck by the following passage on p. 377:
The need to tell the country how we saw the situation created by the Soviet Union and the necessary response to it came soon after the President's announcement of his hydrogen bomb decision.
Even as a group met within the White House to hammer out the outlines of a policy that would remain secret until 1974, there was a sense that it still required democratic legitimacy. Acheson not only writes of the split within the Democratic Party at the time, between liberals who continued to insist that a negotiated settlement of differences and tensions between the US and Stalin's USSR was possible and those, including Acheson, who saw the Soviets as a threat to be managed and contained (George Kennan was among those on the committee that drew up NSC 68).

In his Voltaire's Bastards, John Ralston Saul levels a stinging critique at what has become a most troubling trend in our public life - reliance on expertise. From p. 477:
[The] obsession with expertise is such that the discussion of public affairs on a reasonable level s now almost impossible. If an engineer who builds bridges doesn't want interference from outside his domain, and a nuclear engineer feels the same about his responsibilities, then neither is likely to question the other's judgment. They know precisely how questions from any nonexpert would be treated by an expert - the same way they themselves would.

Their standard procedure when faced by outside questioning is to avoid answering and instead to discourage, even to frighten off the questioner, by implying that he is uninformed, inaccuare, superficial, and invariably, oeverexcited. If the questioner has some hierarchical power, the expert may feel obliged to answer with greater caer. For example, he may release a minimum amount of information in heavey dialect and accompany it with apologies for the complexity, thus suggesting that the questioner is not competent to udnerstand anything more. . . . And even if someone does manage to penetrate the confusion of material, he will be obliged to argue against the expert in a context of such complexity that the public, to whom he is supposed to be communicating understanding, will quickly lose interest. In other words, by drawing the persisten outside into his box,, the expert will have rendered him powerless.

The contempt for the citizen which all of this self-defense through exclusivity shows is muted by the fact that the expert is himself a citizen. He or she considers it his right to treat his own area of expertise as exclusive territory. That, he believes, is what makes him as individual.
In an intellectual autobiographical sketch in the opening pages of The True and Only Heaven, the late Christopher Lasch writes the following about his growing disdain for post-WWII American liberalism as embodied by the Kennedy Administration, from p. 26:
The writings that gave shape and direction to my thinking in the early sixties . . . contained certain common themes, I now see: the pathology of domination; the growing influence of organizations (economic as well as military) that operate without regard to any rational objectives except their own self-aggrandizement; the powerlessness of individuals in the face of these gigantic agglomerations and the arrogance of those ostensibly in charge of them.
Just as my (small "r") republican sensibilities made me skip the recent royal wedding in Britain (I thought we fought a couple wars so we wouldn't have to put up with things like aristocrats and royalty), so, too, my (small "d") democratic sensibilities incline me to want as great a dissemination of vital, and correct, and comprehensible, information as possible. Turning our public lives over to "experts" is an abrogation of the most basic duty of republican citizenship - being informed and involved. The contempt of elites - bureaucratic, intellectual, and otherwise - for democracy comes in no small part from their own unfounded belief in their expertise granting them exemption from criticism.

Part of my own frustration with the Bush Administration's conduct in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq was the contempt in which it held the public. Not only were a multitude of lies told; not only was the decision for such an act made prior to any justification for it; the entire way the Administration went about trying to influence public opinion was a farcical copy of real democracy. Unlike Acheson, who engaged not only Republican critics on his right, but Democratic critics on his left in order to create a larger consensus for a policy that would be non-partisan, the Bush folks simply tossed story after story, piling innuendo upon lie until, when former Sec. of State Colin Powell sat before the UN Security Council to lay out the American case for war, every single factual claim he made was proved to be false, some within a matter of hours.

The narrative offered by Mr. Y invites participation across a broad-range of talents. Seeing national security in a far broader sweep than simple military, or even military-diplomatic confrontation, but as the whole country pursuing both economic prosperity and stability at home and working with partners around the world in a confluence of interests to work against pending threats to the security of all, including the United States, the national strategic narrative is something more Americans should read and study, discuss and criticize. Far more important than phony budgets; far more visionary yet traditional than any recent "doctrine", be it Carter's, Reagan's, or Bush's, this is a subject that needs to be discussed.

That's why I have been and will continue to write about it. Word needs to get out. It's too important to leave to the experts.


We know [torture] works. It has worked. It's just a lie to say that it has never worked . . .

Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.
Sam Harris
I noted back in November that Sam Harris has written a book entitled The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. The latest edition of The New York Review of Books has a review.
Harris is aware that such large claims will invite charges of naive scientism, but he is unfazed. In particular, he is well aware that a long intellectual tradition insists that anything resembling a science of morality is impossible: science trades in facts and ethics trades in values and, according to the tradition, facts can never justify values. So Harris’s project will require him to do battle with some deep, and widely shared, views.

The result of all this is not particularly pretty. Part of the problem is that the book suffers from an awkward structure. While the first half of The Moral Landscape is concerned with the possibility of a science of morality, the second half features long chapters on the neurobiology of belief and the delusions of religion (including a lengthy attack on Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian). Harris ties these chapters only loosely to his main thesis. It turns out that some of this later material is more or less imported from Harris’s earlier scientific publications or from Op-Ed pieces or online essays that he’s written. None of this makes for a particularly coherent presentation and the book seems, in places, aimless. By the end, one worries that Harris has lost focus on the ostensible point of his book: that a science of morality is possible.
A large part of the review concerns itself with Harris' curious idea that Hume's distinction between is and ought, that there is no logical connection between statements of fact ("Daniel is my brother.") and statements of value ("I ought to honor my brother."). Orr notes that Harris muddles certain understandings and definitions. For example, at one point Harris writes the following:
If, from the point of view of the brain, believing “the sun is a star” is importantly similar to believing “cruelty is wrong,” how can we say that scientific and ethical judgments have nothing in common?
Orr writes directly:
But of course no one ever said that factual and ethical judgments aren’t “similar” or have “nothing in common.” They’re obviously similar and have much in common. Both are judgments, both are believed by human minds and not by rocks, and so on. The relevant claim is that facts and values are not the same and that statements about facts cannot justify statements about values. It’s hard to see how Harris’s data address this issue.
Quite apart from the philosophical issues, Harris also seems either to misconstrue or be apathetic to what science is, does, and can do, resulting in what Orr calls "naive scientism", which, Orr also says, Harris seems to dismiss by plowing ahead anyway.

Harris' understanding of what constitutes the moral life is simply stated, according to Orr: "It is the well-being of conscious creatures.
Indeed Harris suggests that any other conception of the good either is equivalent to this one or is nonsense: “Concern for well-being (defined as deeply and as inclusively as possible) is the only intelligible basis for morality and values.” After all, every notion of the good ever offered concerns a putatively conscious creature (either our present selves or, in some religious traditions, our future spiritual selves in an afterlife) and it’s hard to see how concern for a conscious creature could involve anything but concern for its well-being. A science of morality must, then, be concerned with what contributes to well-being: a “prosperous civil society,” for instance, or an atmosphere of “beneficence, trust, creativity,” and the pursuit of “wholesome pleasures.”
I'm assuming, then, that torturing and killing conscious creatures who do not share this rather simplistic and vague notion of the good life, then, is pursuing the good for this conscious creature who is befuddled somehow? Or perhaps it is a "wholesome pleasure" to kill people who think and live in ways different from us?

Help me out here.

Orr does say one thing that troubles me.
In the end, it’s odd that one can share so many of Harris’s views and yet find his project largely unsuccessful.
Which of Harris' views does he share? His belief in psychic phenomena such as xenoglossy? His pimping of Hindu deities and Buddhist meditation practices, all the while insisting that "religion" has done nothing good for society, without ever once glancing at the contradiction? His support for torture and the indiscriminate killing of other human beings - conscious creatures, one and all whose well-being is supposed to be the highest morally scientific principle - because they choose to live and think and believe in ways that differ from other people?

I, for one, cannot take much that Sam Harris says seriously. His scientific work may be intriguing, even interesting, although, as Orr notes, even Harris himself notes the promise of neurobiology lies in the future; even the experiments he has conducted and published with colleagues yield far less in the way any "science of morality" than he initially claims. Harris is as much a fundamentalist true-believer as any jihadi, and far more dangerous. Precisely because he seems to speak in a contemporary idiom that resonates, insists his vision is one of expanding human tolerance and the good-life while his opponents are dangerous throwbacks to the age of religious absolutism, his own lack of fellow-feeling, his glib statement that there is factual support for torture when none exist, and the rather blase nature of his idea that killing some people simply because they exist is preferable to living with them; all this give him an air of reasonableness he has neither earned nor demonstrated.

It is sad, really, that so many otherwise intelligent folks have found in Harris' something with which to agree. Taking his published works as a whole, his many public statements and appearances, I find it hard to understand how anyone could possibly consider Harris as someone who grasps "morality" in any manner fashion or form.

Virtual Tin Cup

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