What You Should Think About Nuance

August 11, 2008

“For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

–H. L. Mencken

I believe very few Americans understand the extent to which Democrats and Republicans embrace the same agenda.  From the “War on Drugs” to our unilateral arms race, some of the most wasteful and destructive U.S. policies are not up for discussion.  Concern about the strong emotional reaction any critique of such policies tends to generate outweighs concern about insuring our nation is governed by the best available ideas.  This is why the 2008 election so often seems to be about baby steps in the realm of social progress while events of our times offer the chance of a transformational event.

On the other hand, the crisis in South Ossetia illustrates that there are real differences between the leading candidates.  In the immediate aftermath of the first major outbreak of violence, Senator Barack Obama called for a pull back on the violence and a search for alternatives to military action.  It was an eminently civilized call for restraint.  Senator John McCain ridiculed this plea for peace.  In his eyes, Russia is an evil empire, Georgia was victimized . . . oh, and Czechoslovakia was never dissolved.

Though the man took time to ridicule his rival’s call for non-violent solutions to human struggles, apparently he did not have time to educate himself about the realities of this complex conflict.  Given only a superficial glance, there is no time to see anything other than Russia’s forceful and deadly violation of a neighbor’s sovereign territory.  Yet should we let the foreign policy of the world’s lone military superpower continue to turn on casual glances and gut reactions to world events?

Among the underlying realities are the fact that the people of South Ossetia identify much more strongly with Russian governance than the Georgian regime.  Just as loyalty to the government of Turkey prevents the U.S. from supporting independence Iraqi Kurds so strongly desire for themselves, loyalty to Georgia prevents the U.S. from supporting the desire of the Ossetian people to become united within the Russian Federation. The fact that such a desire is inconvenient to our State Department is a poor reason to behave as if it simply does not exist.

Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, this particular conflict zone was being pulled in two directions.  Early Soviet organizational plans divided Ossetia with an eye toward weakening ethnic identities in order to strengthen the new national identity.  The southern half of the area was incorporated into the Georgian SSR, though some measure of autonomy was recognized.  As with other Stalinist pushes to marginalize ethnicity, as in Chechnya for example, control asserted by the hypermilitant security state gave way to grave problems in future decades.

Today’s Georgian conflict is a delicate matter because there are two worthwhile principles in direct conflict.  National sovereignty is one.  After the first Persian Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush declared “a new world order” and created a solid foundation for geopolitical stability.  With a standard holding that unprovoked international military aggression is always unacceptable, conditions existed that were good for business and good for the peaceful varieties of political reform as well.

Then along comes President George W. Bush, demonstrating that no semantic game-playing is sufficient to prevent the world from recognizing a bold act of unprovoked international military aggression as precisely that.  No serious historian is likely to reflect on these events as an uncommonly bloody and torturously slow “liberation.”  Contemporary world leaders may now exploit this horrible example for their own purposes.

The genie so briefly bottled is once again on the loose.  Even the doctrine of “pre-emptive defense” was enough to accomplish that harm.  Yet, to whatever degree it was a factor in the original push for war, bringing stability and democracy to the people of Iraq is now the closest thing to a legitimate reason proponents of continued occupation can muster to justify their stance.  Yet it is also strikingly parallel to the Russian rationale for this invasion of Georgia.  Past referenda and polls paint a clear picture of an overwhelming desire by the people of South Ossetia to be reunited with North Ossetia, a goal best accomplished by joining the Russian Federation.

Georgian leaders denounce the organized emigration of South Ossetians into Russia as if it were a campaign of genocide.  Yet those migrants willingly, even eagerly, pursue Russian citizenship.  It is simply not honest to suggest that non-violent efforts to strengthen ties between South Ossetia and Russia constituted any sort of attack.  Clearly the principle of self-determination is at issue as well.

On the other hand, even South Ossetia contains some diversity.  For generations, ethnic Georgians and ethnic Ossetians have been intermarrying freely.  Prior to the recent attacks, the Georgian government provided many essential services to the people of South Ossetia.  It would also be dishonest to suggest that the Georgian regime has no claim on that territory.  Defending sovereignty and supporting self-determination — each a justification for a war against Saddam Hussein’s regime — are principles in opposition in Ossetia today.

Should South Ossetia be ceded from Georgia and absorbed into Russia?  Should both South Ossetia and North Ossetia break away from their respective states in order to form a modern sovereign Ossetia?  Should the borders remain precisely where they were one week ago today?  None of those questions need be answered to judge the comments of the two leading U.S. Presidential candidates.  Both speak chiefly to one issue — should this dispute be settled over a conference table or on a battlefield?

It is hard to devise a greater form of evil than “war for its own sake.”  Though the 2008 election looks to be a referendum on the war in Iraq, both sides seem moved much more by emotion than reason.  Mainstream journalists’ patronizing chatter about how engaged and informed the electorate is during this cycle does not reflect a sudden upsurge in accurate fact recall by poll respondents or other measures of informational merit.  As many journalists are themselves more connected to narrative emotions than the underlying realities of world events, it is no surprise that they should mistake passion for savvy in others.

Still, there is good cause to hope that the passions of those who oppose war will, in this rare instance, truimph over the passions of those who support war for its own sake.  Bloodthirsty Americans exist, and in Senator McCain they have found a voice on the national stage.  His ridicule of calls for peace, his oversimplification of a complex conflict into a “black hats vs. white hats” scenario, his deliberate confusion of brute strength with useful effectiveness — all these things make him a true spokesperson for the warmongers among us.  I do not dispute that those Americans deserve a voice in the process.  Yet I would ask, can we do no better than to give that lot yet another term of power with which to lead us down the roads warmongers inevitably lead their peoples?


What You Should Think About Organized Religion

December 25, 2007

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

–Jesus Christ

“It is impossible to prove a negative,” is a statement far from insightful. For example, “this essay is not written in the Klingon language,” is a negative statement that can be verified as well as any practical standard of proof would require. Proof of negative assertions becomes more problematic as discussions move from the specific to the general. “There are no polka-dotted swans,” is an eminently likely proposition. However, it is possible to remain reasonable while taking the position that the best available proof merely establishes that a polka-dotted swan is an extremely improbable phenomenon.

When it comes to belief in an omnipotent being, a negative position is even more difficult to prove. Not only is it plausible to argue that such a being could defy any efforts at detection, but there is even a case to be made that an omnipotent being would not be constrained by logic. For absolute atheists, these conditions are problematic. Of course, monotheists are challenged just as strongly by the inability to prove that there are not multiple omnipotent beings.  Then consider the challenges of proving that their specific concept of a supreme being is a generally accurate reflection of reality.

Some people reach their own conclusions about matters of the divine. Yet many more allow their beliefs to be shaped by cultural traditions or even the dogma of religious institutions. This can be extremely problematic. Among other things, the embrace of organized religion tends to promote an unhealthy sort of inflexibility. This often stems from the perception that beliefs promoted as ancient wisdom are largely consistent with actual ancient beliefs. Yet is that perception justified?

Never mind variations in the content of sacred literature from one era or even one century to the next. Applications of religious thought consistently change to remain compatible with underlying social conditions. Excessive delay in this process simply results in a popular movement away from old faiths in order to embrace younger traditions. An honest study of religious history turns up all manner of examples where a faith that failed to speak to the great questions of the day yielded popular support to new spiritual movements eager to address those questions.

Even within a particular faith, there may be tremendous change over time. In the Middle Ages, Christian organizations actually ran brothels, not to mention encouraging priests to marry. It was only after being challenged on the practice of selling indulgences, an issue that helped bring about the Protestant Reformation, that the Holy See sought to demand chastity among all orders of clergy. Up to and during the American Civil War, some Protestant churches taught that God had ordained white hegemony and black slavery. Today some of those same pulpits are used to advance the argument that God demands equal treatment for all races.

Secular thinkers sometimes unfairly criticize religion for being unable to change with the times. Science may have produced flawed understandings of reality, but it does so in a context of focusing on empirical evidence. Setting aside pseudoscience like global warming denial or “creation science,” real science is driven to change not by passions or politics, but by data that satisfies reasonable standards of proof. Even wild new ideas can be quickly adopted by science if they can be supported by hard evidence.

By contrast, social change and personal whims are the driving forces behind change in religious thought. The popularity of a belief about the natural world is not a factor in how much it is accepted by scientists. In recent history, attitudes about race, gender, and sexual preference have, and continue to, bring about change in religious practices and teachings. Looking back further, changing attitudes about government, sexuality, violence, and a host of other issues have left their mark on the ways of modern faiths.

Nearly all adherents to the teachings of an organized faith arrived at those beliefs by traveling one of two paths. The most common is inheritance. Early in life, perhaps even from infancy, a person may become immersed in rituals and indoctrinated in religious teachings. Rather than forming the capacity for sound judgement then pursuing answers to questions of theology and morality, a personal attachment to a particular set of answers is firmly imprinted on pliable young minds.

In other instances, faith is the product of experiences that coincide with an intense episode of personal distress. As emotions impair rational judgement, the wholehearted embrace of a new worldview (not to mention entering a new social circle,) can provide relief and support in a time of crisis. Sometimes the mechanism resembles a one-two punch as childhood immersion in a specific organized faith produces a sense of comfort in religious association that is reinforced by subsequent refuge provided by a religious rebirth.

Religious belief is not a uniformly pernicious influence. It provides real comfort to real people facing real problems. It can provide a sense of togetherness in times of increasing individuality and social isolation. It may even increase the intensity of the good feelings associated with personal triumphs or significant milestones in life. Perhaps other institutions and practices could serve these same needs. Yet it is hard to argue that, if all religious practice suddenly ceased, nothing worthwhile would be lost to humanity

Of course, religious belief is not a uniformly positive influence either. Different faiths offer different teachings. Many of these faiths teach that others are false. In some instances, religious leaders actively promote hatred of human beings associated with different faiths. In fact, the condemnation of difference may even involve extremely violent struggles over relatively subtle theological distinctions. When a difference of opinion emerges among scientific thinkers, observation and analysis are decisive. When a difference of opinion emerges among religious thinkers, sheer force of advocacy is the decisive factor, as empirical evidence is rarely available (and often marginalized when it is available.)

A measure of faith can be useful as an alternative to being consumed by the complexities of resolving all moral issues or surrendering to nihilism. Yet faith is counterproductive to the degree that it straightjackets ethical thought in hallowed, yet ultimately arbitrary, human doctrines. Perhaps no capacity for belief is more important than the capacity to believe in one’s own ability to have faith in erroneous conclusions. Whether the context is secular or religious, that capacity is essential to remaining in touch with reality and adapting to new information as personal growth, new experiences, and fresh discoveries provide access to increased knowledge.

In theory, participation in an organized religion may be just as harmless as participation in a social club. In practice, participation in an organized religion may be just as harmful as involvement with the most destructive political movements. If you are involved in such a faith, and you manage to take away from it only messages of love, peace, goodwill, tolerance, humility, etc.; then you may benefit from that involvement. Yet if such involvement also generates ill will toward your fellow human beings, compelling reason exists to recognize the flaws of any teachings or practices that add fuel to the fires of hatred.


What You Should Think About Pacifism

November 29, 2007

“From pacifist to terrorist, each person condemns violence — and then adds one cherished case in which it may be justified.”

–Gloria Steinem

Even in more tranquil times, there is no shortage of commentary meant to remind non-violent citizens that legions of trained killers stand at the ready to provide security for the nation. No doubt much of human history reveals that force of arms provides a means to keep a hostile enemy out of a nation’s heartland. Yet more circumspect analysis also demonstrates that force of arms provides a means to produce hostile enemies. Could it be that there is more to achieving a security goal than having the most guns or the best fortress?

The bizarre state of the world in the aftermath of America’s “headless behemoth” foreign policy provides a new perspective on some old ideas. From the earliest clashes in military history, there have been questions about the justification for war. No one remotely acquainted with the realities of warfare could carry on without any doubts about the endeavor, even if military culture vigorously promotes thoughtlessness in this arena.

To be fair, soldiers in the thick of it are more effective if no weighty political cogitations distract from the urgent business at hand. Yet this same culture so useful in the field also has drawbacks. Once the fog of war has cleared and some opportunity for reflection presents itself, this mindset creates difficulty reconciling doubts raised by the experience of waging war with political justifications for the violence.

Since ancient times, it has been common for a head of state to have extensive personal experience with military service. Thus the entire history of governance is heavily influenced by, if not a “might makes right” attitude, at least a “having might is more important than being right” attitude. In Europe (sans Switzerland and a few other pockets of exceptional thoughtfulness,) from the Middle Ages to the middle of the 20th century, it was accepted that a genuinely defensive stance was inadequate. Responsible governance was presumed to include cultivating enough military might to fight alongside allies, lend credibility to aggressive posturing, and project force to distant lands.

Even today, blatantly stupid ideas like “war is good for the economy” or “war is essential to driving technological progress” are widely believed. Centuries upon centuries of social paradigms make it such that questioning or contradicting these unsound assumptions is regarded as a sign of weakness. It may be that the negative response is as much primal as it is cultural. Yet it surely is not intellectual.

There may be a subset of human beings who are best able to achieve their potential in some context provided by war. Yet to promote war as a means of promoting human achievement is downright senseless. Many of those who have achieved great things in a wartime context were just as capable of achieving great things in some peaceful pursuit. More to the point, surely that portion of humanity inclined to thrive in warfare is not a strong majority. Then, even if I were mistaken about that point, how much innocent blood may be spilled in the name of creating a militant environment for human achievement? Could the inspirations of war ever exceed the lost loves and labors of lives cut short by the consequences of combat?

War for war’s sake is only a good thing to the degree that someone has developed a profoundly misguided notion of “good.” Yet there remains the matter of defense. Wherever there is prosperity or power available for the taking, there is the risk that aggression will occur. George Orwell is known to have asserted, “we sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to do violence upon those who would do us harm.” To someone just beginning to attain the first glimmers of enlightenment, such a statement seems to suggest that peace and prosperity rest on an essential foundation created by awesome military forces ready to lay waste to prospective national enemies.

That assessment comes from an ignorance of the interconnectedness of all things. Did a sniper stuff the pillows on which this peaceful sleep occurs? Did a gunboat pilot assemble the frame of the bed? Was the mattress put together by an artillery crew? Is the heating and plumbing that makes our homes comfortable first invented by a team designing killing machines? Were our city streets planned and paved with the oversight of combat-hardened generals? To turn the simple-minded interpretation of Orwell on its head — dedicated warriors eventually find safe places to sleep away from the battlefield because most everyone else stands ready to perform constructive and creative activities on their behalf.

For too long, the darkness of tribalism and barbarism has lingered in our modern institutions. In the halls of power, even from the lips of those who avoided service themselves, characterizations of military forces as “the backbone of our society” are sincere. Yet they are also archaic and misguided. If we accept that military organizations are the essential core of strength our society possesses, then we define our greatness chiefly by our power to kill and destroy. I would think even an overwhelming majority of military personnel would hope for a more noble perspective from national leaders. Alas, this affliction remains severe in the United States, and it is hardly absent from other nations in the modern world.

Even amongst warriors, the trait of being peace-loving is correctly regarded as a virtue. Yet when it comes to absolute pacifism, hawks, chicken hawks, and plenty of doves all seem willing to agree that it is foolish. Personally I agree that there are plausible scenarios in which defense of others or defense of self justifies actions intended to neutralize a real and imminent threat. Yet no small part of the pacifists’ wisdom is understanding how incredibly rare these situations are if you do not make it your business to instigate or escalate hostilities.

An absolute pacifist runs the risk of doing wrong by failing to take the most effective course of action in protecting the innocent. Everyone else runs the risk of doing wrong by performing willfully destructive actions that do not serve any protective purpose. Which is the greater risk?

In the personal context, fluid situations and instantaneous needs can lead to situations where thoughtful reflection is not an option. Within limits both reasonable and practical, there should be some tolerance for honest mistakes. In an international context, however fluid the situation, opportunities for contemplation are usually abundant. To go to war when the underlying facts are not subject to thorough investigation or the stated cause(s) are unreasonable or the overall plan is unrealistic is to perpetrate the very worst sort of mistake. Only a team of lazy minds paired with dark hearts could let the desire to order an army to do violence take priority over the moral imperative to avoid unnecessary warfare.

Perhaps absolute pacifists are fools. Yet if we see clearly, then we see that life makes fools of us all. There is much more to be learned from the fool who thinks differently than from the fool who echoes our own thoughts. When we cut through useless divisiveness, we are left recognizing that abhorring violence is innately rational, perhaps even innately good. While we who are not absolute pacifists set about establishing the grounds on which we would support acts of violence, there is much benefit to be found in considering the very best arguments against those acts. If we cannot even face the questions of those who condemn all violence, how can we possibly believe our own justifications for it are legitimate?