Saturday, February 04, 2006

What Is Abortion Really About?

Conor links a very interesting debate between two pro-choicers debating abortion policy, and remarks “It's striking how differently each of these pro-choice thinkers feels about abortion.” Funny, William seems to have more in common with a moderate pro-lifer like me than with orthodox pro-choicers.

As recently as a year ago, I was a conventional pro-lifer. However, my ever-growing distaste for religious conservatism, coupled with some healthy introspection on the matter, caused me to shift my position. While I remain doggedly opposed to Roe, I’ve come to the conclusion that abortion’s ultimate legality does not concern me. Everyone—especially the unborn—would be best served if the pro-life lobby abandoned the cause of prohibition (which is never going to happen nationwide) and put all of its heart, energy, and funding towards preventing unwanted pregnancies. Encouraging adoption is wonderful and important. So is abandoning abstinence-only education and religious admonitions against contraception; when I’m a father, I’ll rather my daughter lose her virginity safely than get pregnant before her time.

Simply put, I think it's more important to reduce the number of abortions than pipe-dream about it being outlawed. Funny, I seem to have more in common with a moderate pro-choicer like William than with orthodox pro-lifers.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Lord of the Blinds

Imagine if Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were the first Tim Burton film you’d ever seen. “My God,” you might exclaim to your couch mate, “This claustrophobic, fairy-tale aesthetic is brilliant; it fits Roald Dahl’s vision perfectly. This Tim Burton is a genius!” Your enthusiasm might wane, however, were your friend to inform you mid-reverie that this is how Tim Burton directs all of his films; in fact, he would have directed both Gladiator and Pride and Prejudice with exactly the same style.

A similar revelation happened to me about 100 pages into Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Initially, I was deeply impressed by what I believed to be a brilliantly appropriate aesthetic choice: in a novel about an epidemic of blindness, Saramago deprives his readers of one of their “senses” by using the only bare minimum of punctuation. How brilliant! How insightful! How…utterly disappointing to find out he writes everything like this. That’s what I get for reading Wikipedia.

That aside, Blindness gets off to a strong start as various unnamed citizens of an unnamed city in an unnamed country are suddenly—and inexplicably—struck blind as they go about their daily lives. Saramago takes advantage of epidemic’s ability to spread through casual contact, giving us a fascinating Six-Degrees-of-Separation cross-section of the city as the affliction spreads. The characters were diverse and interesting, and this first act was a (perversely) fun read.

I lost interest, however, during the second act, which should have been the most interesting; to restrict the spreading of the disease the government confines the blind into an increasingly crowded mental asylum where anarchy and cruelty quickly take hold. Admittedly, it was a fine portrayal of how quickly civilization and civilized behavior break down so easily, and how much we take simple things like a ready food supply and sanitation for granted (I recently read somewhere that the civilized man and the savage are separated only by about three days’ worth of food). However, I felt that the power of the events described in this section was undone by the fact that I’d seen it done elsewhere a million times before: it was 28 Days Later without zombies, or Lord of the Flies with sex. In short, this path was so well-trodden, that Saramago’s blind characters could have stumbled their way along it without too much trouble.

Conclusion: 6/10. Strong at the beginning and end, powerful but utterly predictable in the middle, and undone by unduly its pretentious style.

Nonetheless, much thanks to Amber for the excellent idea of online book club associated with her envy-inducing blog Prettier Than Napoleon.

Monday, July 11, 2005

A Definitive Definition

Thus spake Apollo:

Andrew Sullivan yesterday provided a link to an article in the New York Times showing Pope Benedict XVI’s “rush back to the Middle Ages” on the issue of evolution. This was more than the “reactionary radicalism” he expected from Benedict, it was “stupidity.” The move against evolution, Sullivan speculates, might be political, because Benedict wants to ally himself with the “Protestant right” “in order to pursue his war against freedom for gays, or reproductive freedom.” Intrigued, I clicked.

There seems to have been a complete disconnect from reality between what the essay says and how the Times and Sullivan reported on it.
The essay has little to say about evolution per se, but instead addresses a particular sort of evolutionary theory which Schonborn calls “neo-Darwinism” and defines as the belief in “an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection.” Schonborn is arguing that statements by Pope John Paul II that give credence to evolution shouldn’t be taken as supporting just any theory of evolution. Schonborn quotes the late Pontiff: “"It is clear that the truth of faith about creation is radically opposed to the theories of materialistic philosophy. These view the cosmos as the result of an evolution of matter reducible to pure chance and necessity." So evidently JPII did not support notions of evolution being simply “unguided, unplanned processes of random variation and natural selection.” He uses some other quotes, and presuming they are accurate, Schonborn proves his point, namely that Catholic dogma doesn’t support “neo-Darwinism.”

In a thought-provoking conclusion, Schonborn says that materialistic philosophies such as neo-Darwinism are “an abdication of human intelligence.” This is true, insofar as the purpose of human intelligence is to answer the question of self-awareness, namely “Why are we here?” Neo-Darwinism’s answer is a shrug, but a strangely definitive shrug: “We don’t know, dammit!” Humanity is not even the Ecclesiastical dust in the wind—helpless over our fate, but being carried along by something unseen. Instead, we are Darwinian farts in the wind—the results of some unplanned and unguided biological processes, cast out rather carelessly.

I agree. The problem here—besides Andrew’s penchants for hyperbole and occasional panic—is the inability to differentiate Darwin’s Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection and Darwinism.

Darwin’s scientific theory basically runs as follows: a) all organisms share a common descent; b) that while each generation inherits most of its parents’ traits, it also varies slightly from its parents, i.e. it mutates; c) those offspring whose mutations make them more fit for survival will be more reproductively successful than their lesser-fit siblings; and d) over time, this leads to speciation.

Darwinism, however, states that these variations are random, i.e. they have “no specific pattern, purpose, or objective.” According to Darwinists such as Stephen Jay Gould—who was quite emphatic on the point—life isn’t, and has never been, progressing in any particular direction; interesting and wonderful as human beings may be, Darwinism argues that we can’t be the purpose of evolution because evolution has no purpose. We’re here, it’s queer, get used to it.

This, Apollo and the Cardinal rightfully argue, is not compatible with Christianity; God cannot not care. What the Cardinal was getting at, and what Sullivan so severely missed, was that it is possible to a) believe that Darwin was right in his science but slightly off in his philosophy and b) reconcile Theism and Evolution without having to resort to the dubiousness of Intelligent Design1. with a call for Heraclean attention to slight changes in wording, I propose replacing the pesky adjective random to describe mutations with the broader and more universally palatable unpredictable. It strikes me a small loss for purists—indeed, something that is unpredictable may well be random—while allowing just enough wiggle-room belief that, while it may not be possible to justify it rationally or empirically, we might be here for a reason after all.

1. By staking so much on looking for God’s signature in Creation—specifically by arguing that some systems are so “irreducibly complex” that they must have been the product of a Creator—Intelligent Designers seem to laying the foundation for a strong rhetorical case against the existence of God if, indeed, it turns out that such systems can be explained by non-supernatural phenomena.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Gettin' Icky With Ricky

An interview with Senator Rick Santorum about--guess what--social and religious issues with an off-hand mention of man-on-dog sex (wait 'til Brent Bozell finds out!). No, I don't think Santorum is a nascent Torquemada; in fact, it's well worth mentioning that he's a truer conservative than most in some ways (elsewhere in the interview, he talks about taxes as a taxpayer, not as a senator, which is very refreshing). Nonetheless, this interview really goes to show the extent to which Santorum really is the embodiment the Religious Right's takeover of Republican party, and everything that is un-conservative about the RR's world view:

AP: Speaking of liberalism, there was a story in The Washington Post about six months ago, they'd pulled something off the Web, some article that you wrote blaming, according to The Washington Post, blaming in part the Catholic Church scandal on liberalism. Can you explain that?

SANTORUM: You have the problem within the church. Again, it goes back to this moral relativism, which is very accepting of a variety of different lifestyles. And if you make the case that if you can do whatever you want to do, as long as it's in the privacy of your own home, this "right to privacy," then why be surprised that people are doing things that are deviant within their own home? If you say, there is no deviant as long as it's private, as long as it's consensual, then don't be surprised what you get. You're going to get a lot of things that you're sending signals that as long as you do it privately and consensually, we don't really care what you do. And that leads to a culture that is not one that is nurturing and necessarily healthy. I would make the argument in areas where you have that as an accepted lifestyle, don't be surprised that you get more of it.

Notice how Santorum leaps immediately from talking about a problem within the Catholic Church--and, presumably, about how liberalism within the Church is causing problems--to talking about a constitutional right to privacy? The problem, according to Santorum, is that the government is less judgmental about the private behavior of its citizens than the Catholic Church is. Last time I checked, the Church is God's earthly institution charged with bringing all of humanity closer to God and salvation, whereas the government is there to, you know, make sure everybody drives on the same side of the road. Seems to me that the two of them might set standards just a liiiiiitle differently.

AP: OK, without being too gory or graphic, so if somebody is homosexual, you would argue that they should not have sex?

SANTORUM: We have laws in states, like the one at the Supreme Court right now, that has sodomy laws and they were there for a purpose. Because, again, I would argue, they undermine the basic tenets of our society and the family. And if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your
home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it
does. It all comes from, I would argue, this right to privacy that doesn't exist in my opinion in the United States Constitution, this right that was created, it was created in Griswold — Griswold was the contraceptive case — and abortion. And now we're just extending it out. And the further you extend it out, the more you — this freedom actually intervenes and affects the family. You say, well, it's my individual freedom. Yes, but it destroys the basic unit of our society because it condones behavior that's antithetical to strong healthy families. Whether it's polygamy, whether it's adultery, here it's sodomy, all of those things, are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family.

So, to answer the question: yes. Rick Santorum, Senator of Pennsylvania, thinks that it should be illegal for two men to have sex at home. Just for the record. Lest there be any confusion.

Back to my point, I agree that the Right to Privacy is an invention of the Supreme Court, and I'm not a believer in the notion that there can be constitutionally-protected rights that are not, you know, in the Constitution. However, unlike Santorum, I think there is a need for such a right to enumerated. Putting abortion aside for the moment--as it's debatable whether it is a "private" decision--I like the idea of there being legal protections against someone prying into my medical and financial records, and I don't like worrying that if I put my email address on a petition about the local water utility, it means that I'm destined receive a cagillion emails graphically showing how I can enlarge my genitals. More over, I do think people should be allowed to whatever they want in their own homes, so long as it does not hurt or impune others. To summon the great line of every curmudgeon, I don't want anyone--private or public--stickin' their nose into my private affairs. Rick Santorum, however, seems to disagree. Again, I am not upset that he judges; I am not upset that he is against relativism; nor am I even slightly perturbed that he is concerned with society or that believes that their is such a thing as indecent--even deviant--behavior. What does worry me is that I cannot tell where Santorum draws the line between what is moral and what should be legal.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Question for an Enterprising Researcher

So just how did the Koran-Flushing incident travel across the world and end with riots killing more than a dozen people? Did al-Jazeera or al-Arabiya pick it up? Muslim bloggers? Some other newsource?

Ethical but Stupid?

Ur has some very legitimate challenges to my last post:

I have to disagree with you, though, about the appropriateness of using techniques particularly designed to offend the religious sensibilities of the interrogee, for reasons that I think Sullivan has mentioned before. We are bending over backwards here trying to show that the war on terror is not a war on Islam (despite a noticeable contingent of people in this country who think that's exactly what it should be). If this becomes a war against Islam instead of against a group of fundamentalist whack-jobs who like to kill infidels and don't fear death, we are guaranteed to lose. Using interrogation techniques that specifically target Islamic beliefs is quite likely to push borderline cases over the line between cursing out names and actually trying to kill us.

An absolutely fair point. While I made a distinction between what is ethical and what is effective, I should also have considered whether the techniques were wise. I hereby revise my criteria to justify an acceptable interrogation technique: 1) it must be at least minimally ethical, 2) there must be a reasonable expectation of getting useful information through its use, and 3) it must not undermine our strategic goals.

He continues:

Of course, rioting over the supposed flushing of a Koran is fucking insane. But that's what we are dealing with. In any war, one of the prime strategic goals is to destroy the enemy's ability to wage war. Al Quaeda doesn't exactly have factory complexes or airfields or tank farms to bomb - their resources are pissed-off fundamentalist Muslims who hate us enough to risk (or sacrifice) their lives to destroy us. That is what we have to deprive them of, and the only way to do that - short of genocide - is to avoid giving any evidence, however slight, to the argument that we are enemies of Islam itself and not Al Quaeda or Hamas (or any other terrorist group) in particular. Telling a prisoner to 'fuck Allah' isn't an evil thing to do (unlike actual torture, which you rightly point out is a problem in and of itself). It is, however, fucking stupid.

Here's where I demur, since I honestly question whether world-wide Muslim opinion of the United States is in anyway connected to reality. No matter how good some kids are, their parents still beat them at the slightest provocation, and--in such situations--there are always provocations. Honestly, do you think Newsweek's retraction about the flushing incident is going to make any difference in Pakistan, or were we condemned before this even happened?

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Abuse By Any Other Name

Few pundits were more outraged by the prison abuse scandals of the past year than Andrew Sullivan. In numerous articles, and in dozens of blogposts, Sullivan has effectively shown that: A) our military has undoubtedly physically tortured prisoners, some of which was sanctioned from above, some of which was extracurricular*; B) the Bush Administration has farmed-out terror suspects to foreign governments whom we know to use torture (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, etc); and C) there has been almost no outrage about points A) and B) from those who are the first to call this war just.

Not only is torture—the infliction of severe physical pain as a means of punishment or coercion the—extremely unreliable from what I gather, I think it goes without saying that it is unethical. Simply put, I don’t want American soldiers and Marines ripping out fingernails or committing any other act medieval sadism on our prisoners; it’s going to do little to help, and much to hurt us. I am in complete agreement with Lee (and should likewise caution about my utter ingorance of how to run an interrogation).

Beyond this, however, Sullivan and I disagree. In much the same way that he has criticized others for inventing a definition of “abuse” so expansive it could include anything that wouldn’t kill the victim, Andrew now defines “torture” to mean anything, anything that might play on the cultural and religious taboos of a Jihadist. Commenting yesterday on the scandal involving allegations that Marines flushed a copy of the Koran down the toilet during and interrogation, he writes:

A simple question: after U.S. interrogators have tortured over two dozen detainees to death, after they have wrapped one in an Israeli flag, after they have smeared naked detainees with fake menstrual blood, after they have told one detainee to "Fuck Allah," after they have ordered detainees to pray to Allah in order to kick them from behind in the head, is it completely beyond credibility that they would also have desecrated the Koran?...It is not being "basically, on the side of the enemy”…to resist the notion of government-sanctioned torture and to report on it. It is patriotism and serving the cause that this war is about: religious pluralism and tolerance.

Notice how Andrew draws no distinctions between our troops murdering a prisoner, and draping the Israeli flag over him. He goes on:

“[W]e do know for certain that other "techniques" designed to use religion as an interrogative tool have been deployed, including the smearing of fake menstrual blood on detainees' faces. This religious warfare was also deployed at Abu Ghraib. I wrote in my review of the official records of the torture:

One Muslim inmate was allegedly forced to eat pork, had liquor forced down his throat and told to thank Jesus that he was alive. He recounted in broken English: "They stripped me naked, they asked me, 'Do you pray to Allah?' I said, 'Yes.' They said 'Fuck you' and 'Fuck him.'" Later, this inmate recounts: ''Someone else asked me, 'Do you believe in anything?' I said to him, 'I believe in Allah.' So he said, 'But I believe in torture and I will torture you.'"

We are fighting an enemy who is homophobic, sexist, anti-Semitic, religiously bigoted, and deeply, deeply superstitious. In other words, they are probably extremely vulnerable to methods of psychological interrogation that are physically benign, like many of the ones Andrew lists. Considering our objections to the use of physical torture, shouldn’t we at least consider exploiting their profound cultural and religious neuroses to our advantage?

There needs to be clearly defined limits on what kind of things our military and intelligence agents can do, limits that need to be set for by ethical boundries and pragmatic constrainsts. But I ask you: if we were fighting Sinn Fein, would it really be so unconscionable to threaten to flush fake communion wafers down the toilet? if they were Nazis, would it be so bad to threaten to give them a transfusion of a Jew’s blood? Not so, according to Andrew Sullivan, who thinks that the more screwed-up, retrograde, and narrow-minded our enemy’s culture is, the lighter we need to tread.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

That Pesky Reporting

About two months ago, a federal judge in Georgia ruled that a sticker placed on science textbooks in a suburban county violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by unduly singling-out and dismissing evolution as a “mere theory.” The decision generated a lot of news coverage, as have a number of similar battles in recent months.

After doing some research, I noticed a glaring factual error in the way this story has been reported, and attempted to make a post on subject. However, I was convinced that this error indicated Something Profound and I spent over a week wracking my brain, trying to discover what this Something was. By the time I realized that there really wasn’t much to it beyond the identification of an error, everyone else had forgotten the story. I let it go.

But just this week, Lee at Right-Thinking made post on the subject:

There is, as we all know, a large creationist movement in the Southern states, specifically Georgia and Florida, who are working to get stickers placed on science textbooks stating that evolution is a theory and should be approached with a critical mind.

Lee has done an excellent job over the last few months of demonstrating that Intelligent Design and Creation Science are dogmatic while true Science—despite its limitations—is about a genuine search for the truth and has self-correcting mechanisms built into it. That doesn’t mean it’s always right; if it were there wouldn’t be any need for self-correction. Instead, Science is designed to react to new evidence and, if necessary, disregard old theories and assumptions.

Same goes for good bloggers, which brings me back to this business about stickers in Georgia, and the factual error that I had not been able to do anything with before. Lee has, unfortunately, fallen for the widely promulgated meme of this story: that the stickers represented an attempt by the School Board to denigrate Evolutionary Theory. Not so.

As reported by most of the Press—but not, to give credit, the New York Times—the basic gist of the sticker story was that the Cobb County School Board ordered stickers placed on all science textbooks in the district in response to pressure from their constituents. The stickers read “This textbook contains materials on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.” Five parents in the school district, however, objected to these stickers on the grounds that it unduly singled-out and denigrated evolution. In the lawsuit they filed, they argued that the county’s actions violated the establishment clause of the US Constitution. In January, Judge Clarence Cooper ruled against the School Board and in favor of the objecting parents. Enlightenment: 1; Forces of Darkness: 0.

Except, that’s not how Judge Cooper saw things. As described in his oft-quoted-but-seldom-read decision the School Board decided, in 2002, to reevaluate its science curriculum. At the time, their policy stated that no student could be required to take courses covering evolutionary theory, and that human origins could only be discussed in elective courses. After some discussion, they decided to get rid of this policy and replace it with one that taught more evolutionary theory in High School.

Some parents objected to this, saying that the new curriculum would not give adequate attention to "Alternative Theories” of the origin of life. "Alternative Theories" meaning everything from Intelligent Design to a literal interpretation of Genesis. One lady in particular, Marjorie Rogers, was so miffed at the prospect of her children being taught Godless Darwin without anything to counteract it, she organized a petition-signing operation and managed to accumulate over 2,000 signatures to urge the school board to reconsider. Badly wanting to avoid further controversy, someone at the School Board came up with the idea of the sticker, which they hoped would deflate the situation.

Unfortunately for the School Board, some parents thought the stickers went too far in dismissing evolution—and only evolution—as a “mere theory” and filed the law suit. The judge’s decision, in essence, stated the School Board threw too big of a bone to the opposition in their efforts to teach more evolution.

Now, I have my own feelings on the merits of the decision, but here’s a point implicit in the judge’s story, but wholly absent from the news coverage: we’re winning. The real story here is not that the judge ruled in favor of the parents who objected to the sticker, but that a school board in Georgia changed its curriculum to conform more closely to empirical science. That’s good news, and it’s a shame it’s been lost in all this.