Sunday, May 2, 2010

Emperor Berlusconi

(A Czech Republic protest in solidarity with the anti-Berlusconi last December 5th, dubbed by opponents of Berlusconi "No Berlusconi Day.")
The Italians tend to think of heirs to the glory of the Roman empire. This is just another nationalistic myth of lineage from an ancient civilization, and there are few similarities between the present day Italian state and the Roman empire. However, in terms of government, I think they may have a point. The style of Emperor driven politics of the most dissolute Caesars has made a return to Italy, and shows no sign of leaving. I am referring of course to the reign of Silvio Berlusconi, the richest and perhaps most corrupt man in Italy. The politics of Berlusconi are a revolting cocktail of corruption, misogynism, money politics and media control. Italy is unique among developed democracies is how much of official and unofficial power can be wielded by one man, and how this the influence of this one man has perverted and coarsened the already non-too-robust Italian democracy. These developments should give us pause. Though much of Berlusconi-ism is unique to Italy, the power of corporations and media tycoons certainly is not. The power that an oligarch like Berlusconi can accumulate in Italian politics by dint of media empire and monetary power should give us reason to look hard at the role money plays in our own politics as well.
For some idea why I dislike Berlusconi so much, I recommend this article in the New York Review of Books. Some of the details about Berlosconi's politics are salacious and titillating, and I suppose ought to be reasonably ignored, but when Berlusconi starts packing Italian and European parliament with his show-girls, a line has been crossed.
Berlusconi did indeed bring several former showgirls into parliament in the 2008 elections. Two of them were made government ministers, one of equal opportunity, the other of tourism. Both had appeared, as starlets, on Berlusconi entertainment shows. A series of wiretapped conversations made during a criminal investigation was said to reveal that Berlusconi had a sexual relationship with some of these women but prosecutors destroyed numerous taped conversations of a “purely personal” nature because they had no bearing on the investigation. Wiretaps that have been made public show Berlusconi using the state television system as a kind of casting couch, getting auditions for le mie fanciulle (my girls) in order to “lift the morale of the boss.”
The incident that initially infuriated Berlusconi’s wife, Veronica Lario, occurred in 2009 when he handpicked a couple of dozen showgirls, many of them young women in their early to mid-twenties, to be groomed as candidates for the European Parliament. Few of them had any political experience. One of them had been the weather girl on a Berlusconi network. Several had attended some of his private parties. He set up a school to give them a crash course in European politics so that they wouldn’t embarrass themselves during the campaign. Lario denounced the women as

trash without shame…who offer themselves like virgins to the dragon in order to chase after success, fame, and money.

This says more about Italian politics than just that Berlusconi is sexually voracious (and, unsurprisingly, sexist.) This is one more story of the use of power for personal ends, that is, corruption, by the Italian president. If he gets in trouble, the president can simply have the laws rewritten to accommodate his corruption.
Berlusconi set back to work on a new law that would immediately eliminate the two criminal cases pending against him—the Mills case and another charging that his TV company, Mediaset, used offshore accounts to inflate the prices it paid for movie rights in order to cheat the Italian treasury of millions of dollars it would otherwise have owed. To avoid the suspicion that the law grants special status to Berlusconi, it is written so that it will absolve many other white-collar criminals and could eliminate as many as 80,000 to 100,000 criminal cases. By some counts, Berlusconi has passed eighteen laws that appear to have been written specifically to meet his own personal needs, but this time, neither Berlusconi nor his allies make much of a pretense that there is some larger public principle involved. It is government for and by one person.

The whole article is worth reading for the picture it paints the sin and corruption of this one-man political system.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Don't Talk to Aliens

Stephen Hawking tells us that we should probably not try to contact aliens.
He suggests that aliens might simply raid Earth for its resources and then move on: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”

He concludes that trying to make contact with alien races is “a little too risky”. He said: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

The idea that extra-terrestrials could be scary isn't exactly new idea, the alien invasion trope has been used again and again in fiction ever since H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds.
I would somehow prefer to believe that whatever aliens we came across would have developed morally to a point where they think just kill us, but this obviously isn't necessarily the case.
Among the greatest defining features of humanity is our rapacity. Whenever early humans arrived in a new part of the globe, most of the other life forms died off soon after. It could be that the aliens operate in much the same way. What if the aliens are simply rapacious, and don't care about any other forms of life they come across. Daniel Drezner on comments:
Why would aliens go after the inhabited planets? Ceteris paribus, I'm assuming that aliens would prefer to strip-mine an uninhabited planet abundant with natural resources than an inhabited one. Three hundred planets have already been discovered in the Milky Way, and there are "likely many billions." Even rapacious aliens might try some of them first before looking at Earth, since we are mostly harmless.

There is a counterargument, of course. Over at Hit & Run, Tim Cavanaugh tries to assuage fears of aliens by observing, "Why would a race of superintelligent jellyfish or blue whales even take notice of us, let alone want to conquer us?" This cuts both ways, however. If those jellyfish fail to notice us but notice our abundant amounts of salinated water, they could decide to come without a care in the world for the bipedal inhabitants of Earth.

One can imagine a callous species of aliens, who are as uncaring toward human interests as most of humanity is to the inhabitants of the forests we chop down. Think of the Vogons from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, who demolish Earth in order to build a hyper-space highway, or these aliens from Calvin's imaginings in Calvin and Hobbes (click the pictures for more legible view.)

Monday, March 1, 2010

More on Money and Politics

For the opposite point of view from my own on this Supreme Court, I would point you to this piece by libertarian Will Wilkinson. Wilkinson does a good job characterizing the liberal logic on the decision. He goes on to say we should applaud the ruling because the law, as it pertains to free speech, is very clear. "The trouble is, the First Amendment is written in stubbornly plain language. By honoring the simple letter of that law, the Citizens United decision dealt a crushing blow to this progressive project, leaving them wailing as if all were lost." I think the flow of money in political elections is pretty questionable as far as free speech, especially when we start extending free-speech rights to imagined entities, ie corporations. For more of this argument, see my piece for the Michigan Independent, as well as this piece from slate.
Wilkinson goes on to discuss three "progressive fallacies" on this issue.
First, progressives mischaracterize the nature of corporations. Corporations are not essentially villainous agglomerations of money and power. They are a convenient form of social organization that enables large numbers of people to undertake cooperative endeavors. Non-profit corporations, like Citizens United or the ACLU, provide individuals the opportunity to amplify their lone voices in harmony with like-minded others. Meanwhile, for-profit corporations are little more than lenders’ co-ops – a way for people to pool their resources to finance what look to be profitable lines of business. It is true that managers of corporations can -- and do -- take advantage of their owners and creditors. But there is a staggering number and diversity of for-profit corporations, and most of them, most of the time, do right by their stakeholders. Moreover, very few ever get involved in electoral politics in a significant way.

This seems to me a problematic objection. Even if we accept everything Wilkinson says about the essentially benign nature of corporations (which seems to me wrong, a group of individuals banded together in the search for profits can be a sinister entity), this seems to me scant reason to grant these agglomerations special rights that citizens are already allowed. Further, it is very clear when one looks at the way pharmaceuticals, insurance companies and large banks have played in the recent legislation, the role of corporations is in the political process is outsized. Wilkinson addresses this concern in his second point:
Which points to a second progressive error: the tendency to fixate on the high drama of elections rather than the more mundane processes by which corporate and other special interests actually do rig legislation and regulation in their favor. A single lobbyist with a good friend in the right place can deliver more to a special interest than many millions spent on campaign advertising. In 2009, $3.47 billion was spent on federal lobbying – a large sum, certainly, but not when you consider that the stimulus bill alone dispensed nearly $800 billion in public funds.

This also seems at first reasonable until one realizes that the reason that lobbying is so effective is that lobbyists hold the strings to possible campaign funds. Now, it is far from the case that all influence-peddling in Washington is the result of campaign contributions, but enough of it is that it doesn't make sense to dismiss it by simply pointing to the lobbyists who often enable it.
This brings us to our final "progressive fallacy":

But the granddaddy of all progressive errors – the one that breeds all others -- is the assumption that greater government power can rectify the problem of unequal citizen power. Government can only act as a “countervailing force” in this regard if it is not acting already to serve corporate and special interests. But it is. That is why new government powers merely augment, rather than offset, the already disproportionate power of entrenched interests.

This is in part pretty reasonable, the state is admittedly a very flawed vessel for changing the way that groups influence the state. On the other hand, if, as this argument pre-supposes, the state is already a under the sway of special interests, I don't think the argument necessarily follows that one must give up hope of using it to regulate interests. The best way to curb these interests would be for civic-minded people to fight a few key battles to attempt to limit these interests, rather than having to fight on every issue. Often, campaign finance reform does not work for the reasons outline (McCain-Feingold has not been an overly successful piece of legislation), but the answer is to attempt to fight to limit the interests in smarter ways, like providing public financing for elections, not by simply acknowledging that the state will always be hostage to special interests.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Article from the Independent

In case you've missed it, you can find my article from the here.

The article, is part of a point counter-point, the second article can be found here.

The article seems to counter-point argues that the decision will likely have little effect on our democracy, and that any changes made by the decision are greatly oversold, and that in any case, it doesn't benefit one party more than the other. I don't think there's anything wrong with this conclusion, as far as it goes, it merely seems to me far from the beating heart of the matter. In my editorial, despite its hysterical title (for which I am not responsible), I write:
President Obama quickly moved to condemn the decision. “This ruling opens the floodgates for an unlimited amount of special interest money into our democracy,” he said in a statement issued soon after the decision. “It gives the special interest lobbyists new leverage to spend millions on advertising to persuade elected officials to vote their way – or to punish those who don’t.”

This is only partially true. The floodgates were already open, the decision just opens them a crack wider. The decision FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life already allowed corporations to run attack ads about candidates. The only thing that this recent decision changes is it allows these ads to explicitly endorse a candidate. Concern that corporate money will now flow into the system is overblown; it already could. The president is right, however, to be worried about this decision, which will only exacerbate the situation.

Indeed, I am cautiously optimistic about the result of the decision. It both changes very little about existing law and brings attention to absurd ideological justification for money in politics (corporations are people and money is speech, it all follows from that). Very few people believe that existing campaign financing laws (ie McCain-Feingold) have been successful in restricting the influence of corporations in politics, this decision is a wake-up call for limiting corporate influence.

The other article concludes:
There are certainly valid reasons to question the decision—primarily, whether corporate personhood entails the right to free speech. Some take issue with the idea of corporate personhood in general. I don’t intend to in any way undermine the importance of these issues, but I don’t think these are the primary issues for most people. If those are the real issues, and not politics, why is this so polarizing? If Citizens United is actually eroding the very foundation of our democracy and will inevitably lead to the collapse of our entire civilization, then this is not a political issue. But this very obviously is a political issue, which seems to indicate that the doctrinal issues are not on the forefront of people’s minds. If the partisan divide of the donations remains the same, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t continue to fluctuate with the political cycles as it has in the past ten years, no party stands to benefit from this decision any more than any other party.

It has has certainly not been the impression I've received, either from the people I've talked to or the articles I've read, that must people are worried about the decision because they believe that most contributions will go toward Republican candidates. Perhaps all of the what I have heard from editorial writers, friends and politicians worrying about untoward corporate influence is simply a Machiavellain smoke-screen for concern about Democratic politicians, but there is little reason to think this. It is wrong to point to the fact that their is a partisan divide on this issue as showing that it is an issue primarily because of how it effects the two parties. There are similarly partisan divides about abortion, gun-control, climate-change and healthcare but simply because beliefs about these issues tend to break down along partisan lines doesn't mean that liberals some how think gun-control will lead to more more votes for a Democratic candidates, or that Republicans oppose abortion because they think future Republican voters are being aborted. Similarly, to suggest that the partisan divide on this issue is due to worry about who gets more contribution (a worry that the article has already shown to be largely invalid) is to completely write-off the genuine ideological difference between liberals and conservatives on issues like this one.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Is Religion Adaptive? Does it Matter?

I've just finished watch a bloggingheads tv featuring Nicholas Wade, author of The Faith Instinct and Razib Khan of Secular Right. I recommend this diavlog thought-provoking and containing interesting discussions of historical religion.

The main argument made by Nicholas Wade here (and in his book) is that religion is an evolutionary adaptation as opposed to, say, a spandrel- a byproduct of otherwise adaptive faculties used wrongly. Many have postulated that humans have an innate tendency to deduce agency- that is, attribute a will and intelligence to something which in fact acts out of natural forces rather than emotion. A storm, for example, may appear angry to the observers, but correctly understood it is merely the result of blind meteorological forces. It's easy, so goes this theory, to see that gods began- we simply imagined these beings from an otherwise adaptive faculty.
Wade has a not altogether convincing alternative- religion is in fact an adaptive force for "social cohesion". Though this initially seems plausible, I have trouble seeing that there's that much evidence far it to be. Perhaps we have a predisposition toward belief in a higher power, but its difficult to test this: we rather either have the belief drilled into our heads and acquire it, or don't. According to Wade, in the same way we acquire language early in life, it is similarly much easier to come by religion as a child. A much more obvious answer is simply that we are most impressionable as children, and tend to reflect the world-view of our parents and other influences.
Obviously, just because something is adaptive does make it true, indeed, because their are other reasons for such a belief to evolve, it increases our reasons to doubt such a belief. Those who make the "religion is adaptive" argument tend toward an altogether different argument, namely that it shows religion to be a social good. This is problematic, as many things that are adaptive are utterly evil (rape and genocide, come to mind). Nevertheless, Wade does apparently seem to think that the argument that religion is adaptive and the argument that it is good go hand in hand.
From the New York Times review of the Faith Instinct
Wade would probably deny that being adaptive makes any religion better in a non-evolutionary sense than any other. His scientist’s neutrality slips toward the end of the book, however, when he starts making the case for Religion with a capital R. Like Robert Wright in “The Evolution of God,” Wade wants to defend religion from so-called “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, who see it as a malignant illusion. In chapters on religion and trade, religion and warfare, religion and nation, and the “ecology” of religion — the way in which religion regulates fertility and population size — Wade argues that our religious disposition can enhance social and national unity, manage scarce resources, even solve the tricky problem of how to get young men to die for the greater good when that’s called for. But Wade also knows that the faith-based preference for the group has engendered genocide, mass suicide and maladaptive cargo cults. Perhaps that is why he declines to draw one inference that proceeds from his arguments: that individual religions can be compared and ranked and, well, approved or disapproved of, since a religion can be good only insofar as it’s useful.

The argument that religion is merely an evolutionary adaptation and clearly socially constructed, yet ought to be encouraged for its social effects seems incredibly Machiavellian. the argument in a nutshell is that this is not true but the masses should believe it, so that they will be more socially cohesive and hence, among other things. Napoleon made the point similarly "Religion is excellent stuff to keep the poor from killing the rich". If it were true that these myths were useful, there might be some sort of argument, but there's little reason to think they are. Take the example of getting people to die in battle. Evidence points toward the secular being over-represented in the military. Even it true that the religious being more willing to fight and die, today technology is far more important than fanaticism. The Taliban and Al Qaeda have shown themselves far more willing to die for their cause, however, the United States is far more powerful because of the weaponry. In the modern world, know how (primarily furnished by secular scientists) trumps fanaticism ten times over.
Beyond this fact, I don't understand why anyone sane would ever recommend religious belief as a way to encouraging military service. I for one would prefer the soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan to have a secular world-view, rather than be encouraged to see themselves as on a crusade. I think the other alleged "good effects" of religion are probably similar to this. They sound appealing on first blush, but upon examination don't make sense.

Friday, October 2, 2009

What Would Likely Be the Result of an Iranian Bomb

In the wake of the revelation of the Qom reactor, it seem likely that Iranians are building their warheads, not for more than just power. Hawks report, ominously, that Iran is 3-5 years from reaching a nuclear weapon. People have been estimating that Iran is 3 to 5 years from building a bomb for the last two decades, but no matter. The conventional wisdom here in American that Iran is obviously going to build a bomb. Whether this conventional wisdom is true is unclear, it is at least as likely that Iran will halt on the brink of weaponization such that, in a pinch, nuclear weapons could be manufactured quickly.
The arguments that Iran ought not to be allowed to build a bomb are of several sorts, a similar to those which were applied to Saddam Hussein prior to the invasion. First there's the standard line that proliferation of any kind is to be avoided. A second argument is that Iran possessing a nuclear weapon would allow a "nuclear umbrella" and would galvanize anti-western forces throughout the region. This strikes me as overblown. It seems unlikely to the extreme that Iran's nuclear umbrella would ever extend to proxy forces, nor does it seem to me that a nuclear weapon would put Iran in any particular good place from a strategic point of view. Most countries in the region either are under US protection or possess their own arsenals. The only gain Iran might have from their weapons would be deterrence, which doesn't seem much of an issue unless we are contemplating the invasion of Iran.
Stephen Walt has a lengthy post wherein he considers the possible effects of an Iranian bomb.

The key point to remember is that a decision to build a bomb involves some complex cost-benefit calculations, and Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon would not necessarily lead any of its neighbors to decide that their best course is to follow suit. One reason they might hold back is simply the recognition that getting a bomb would not enhance Iran's influence as much as is sometimes claimed. China did not suddenly become a more influential power when it tested a bomb in 1964; its rise to true great power status came when it began to modernize its economy in the l980s. Getting a bomb may have reinforced Israel's "existential security" (which is why Ben Gurion wanted one), but having a couple of hundred nuclear weapons doesn’t enable them to blackmail the Palestinians or the other Arab states into doing whatever Jerusalem wants. Similarly, North Korea has hardly any influence in world affairs despite its recent entry into the nuclear club; the only thing that that Pyongyang can do with its weapon is discourage others from putting too much pressure on them. Americans really should understand this: we have several thousand nuclear weapons and we have a tough enough time getting other states -- even rather weak ones -- to do what we want. The same would be true for a nuclear Iran: it could not blackmail anyone because the threat would not be credible, and even nearby states might find it easier to adjust to than we sometimes think .
This strikes me as pretty sound. Iranian nuclear weapons would obviously not have a positive effect on the security in the region, but there negative effects are clearly massively over-hyped.
The final case is that a nuclear bomb represents a sort of final solution. This school of though points out the the USSR and Maoist China were fundamentally rational adversaries, whereas sees Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the ruling ayatollahs (the difference between the two is often brushed over) are motivated by Millenarian beliefs and therefore fundamentally irrational. Under this theory, as soon as Iran achieves weaponization, they will destroy the state of Israel.
On its face, this seems completely reasonable, but in fact it seems very overblown. If Iran is so irrational, one would probably see it manifested in their actions, yet this doesn't seem to me to be the case. Iran is happy to increase its influence by selling weapons and political support to anti-Israeli terrorist militias, but they haven't had Revolutionary Guards fighting on the the front lines against Israel. A fundamentally irrational regime is generally manifests some way in its actions. Idi Amin and the Pol Pot both led fundamentally irrational regimes, but it was easy to tell how insane there regimes were, and because of their irrational actions, these regimes were removed from power. The case that Iran is irrational is based on no action in particular, rather it is based on speculation and key misreading of statements by the Iranian president. Though proponents of the irrationality view tend to contrast this with the USSR and Red China, they conveniently forget that when we faced these countries, they were considered just as irrational as we now say Iran is. Later we'll be contrasting rational Iran with the suppoed irrationality of whatever future adversary we face.
No power would welcome an Iranian bomb, and no one is arguing that Iranian nuclearization is a positive development. I would say, though, that overheated predictions of apocalyptic scenarios is no help to the dialogue.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Visiting the Creation "Museum"

Last friday, 300 atheists descended on the notorious creation museum. The trip was in conjunction with a Secular Students Alliance conference in Columbus, Ohio. I was one of those 300 atheists.

above: the lobby of the creation museum
Why did I see the museum? Mainly because I was curious, not just of the creation museum itself, though that too, but also the trend it represented. The creation museum has become the symbol of the know-nothingism in American society. It seems likely that the creationist will not succeed in imposing their bizarre version of reality on the school-children of America, but the balkanization of reality and a disregard for objective facts exemplified by the creationists has already so permeated out discourse it has become almost impossible to have a reasonable political dialogue in this country. Elect a new president? We're told he's not born in this country, and secretly a Muslim anyhow. Want to reform healthcare? People scream that the new plan will euthanize old people. The creationists are symbolic of this irrationality.
It used to be people were welcome to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Today our discourse allows two sides their own facts as well. As Paul Krugman put it, if a small group of people began claiming the Earth is flat, the newspaper headline would be "Shape of the Earth: Views Differ". Stephen Colbert famously labels this phenomenon "truthiness".
One of the earliest exhibits in the creation museum perfectly illustrates this point. It shows two scientists on an paleontological dig. One scientist says the bones are roughly 100 million years old. The sees the same thing, but says the bones are about 4400 years old (just the idea of a creationist on a dig like this should raise some eyebrows). What is happening here is not two "interpretations" as the museum claims. Instead, the latter scientist has hocked back the facts provided by the find, and made up his own. Basically the museum is saying "age of the Earth: views differ."

The museum is at least consistent . It "teaches the controversy", the thing that the evolution deniers been encouraging rural school-boards to do since time immemorial. A whole section compares the alternate interpretations of "Human Reason" and "God's Word". I note some inconsistency here, a lot of this museum seems to be arguing that the precepts of creation are more reasonable than those of evolution, a feat requiring considerable twisting of the facts.

In a series of displays, we are shown both the fundamentalist interpretation on one hand and on the other hand, the scientific world-view is displayed. The creationists, despite what you may think, do in fact believe in evolution, indeed, they believe in evolution several factors of magnitude faster than anything any true scholar of the subject would ever propose. To the creationists, every animal evolved from several base types over a period of several thousand years since the great flood. This fact allowed Noah to only take on board the basic "types" and thus fit all the animals on the Ark (I was unable to maintain a straight face typing that last sentence). Via PZ Myers, (for soem reason, I did not photograph this) a picture of the genetic divergence of both the "monkey" and the human types. See if you can spot the difference.

Of course, the creationists can't just leave us with the appearance that both ideas might simply be equal so, we are then led in to what might be called atheistland, a representation of our dystopian present. Believers, you see, think of evolution as a sort of Pandora's Box, and when you open it, you never know what will jump out at you. Abortion, euthanasia, acceptance of gays; all these are horrible results of evolutionary theory. We walk through a what could be a recreation of a seedy New York City back ally, replete with newspaper clippings emphasizing these various hot-button issues. The next part of atheistland portrays the spirtual vacuum of a modern suburban home and a wrecking ball destroying a church.
This may be the real reason creationists insist on their cockamamie theories. They are convinced that in a world determined by evolution, people will grow wicked, so it is better that we don't question God's word, even in the slightest. This is highly idiosyncratic. There certainly are ills in our world, but it's very difficult to attribute any of these to evolutionary theory. What's more, our world is superior in a whole host of ways to the pre-enlightenment world, including in being less violent (see previous post). The creationists also ignore the fact that one could just as easily point to horrible things as resulting from christianity. For example, the museum draws a clear link between evolution and "scientific" racism, yet they are clear in embracing the Hammite descent of Africans, the most common justification used for slavery.

There's more material in the creation museum, but this post is getting long, so I will try to cover more in another post.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Is War/ Violence Becoming Less Common?

An interesting article by John Horgan in Slate seems to illustrate pretty clearly that war is indeed becoming a less common phenomenon, especially wars between states. Perhaps this is democratic peace theory at work.
Counting casualties is fraught with uncertainty; scholars' estimates vary according to how they define war and what sources they accept as reliable, among other factors. Nevertheless, a clear trend emerges from recent studies. Last year, 25,600 combatants and civilians were killed as a direct result of armed conflicts, according to the 2009 Yearbook of SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, to be released Aug. 17. Two thirds of these deaths took place in just three trouble spots: Sri Lanka (8,400), Afghanistan (4,600), and Iraq (4,000). In contrast, almost 500,000 people are killed each year in violent crimes and well over 1 million die in automobile accidents.

SIPRI's figure excludes deaths from "one-sided conflict," in which combatants deliberately kill unarmed civilians, and "indirect" deaths from war-related disease and famine. If these casualties are included, annual war-related deaths from 2004 to 2007 rise tenfold to 250,000 per year, according to "The Global Burden of Armed Violence," a 2008 report published by an international organization set up in the aftermath of the Geneva Declaration. Even this much higher number, the report states, is "remarkably low in comparison to historical figures."

For example, Milton Leitenberg of the University of Maryland's School for International and Security Studies has estimated that war and state-sponsored genocide in the first half of the 20th century killed as many as 190 million people, both directly and indirectly. That comes to an average of 3.8 million deaths per year. His analysis found that wars killed fewer than one-quarter of that total in the second half of the 20th century—40 million altogether, or 800,000 per year.

Even these staggering figures are low in comparison with prehistoric ones, if considered as a percentage of population. All the horrific wars and genocides of the 20th century accounted for less than 3 percent of all deaths worldwide, according to one estimate. That is much less than the probable rate of violent death among our early ancestors.

This seems to me both contrarian and convincing. Generally, we tend to ascribe violence in society to immutable human nature, and suppose we have some sort of natural tendency toward war and violence. This article explicitly argues the opposite.
Our prehistory seems to have grown more bellicose as time went on, however. According to anthropologist Brian Ferguson, there is little or no clear-cut evidence of lethal group aggression among any societies prior to 12,000 years ago. War emerged and rapidly spread (PDF) over the next few thousand years among hunter-gatherers and other groups, particularly in regions where people abandoned a nomadic lifestyle for a more sedentary one and populations grew. War arose, according to this perspective, because of changing environmental and cultural conditions rather than because of "human nature".
Steven Pinker also argues the same case, but expands it to all forms of violence, looking at homicide rates, harsh punishment and other forms of violence as well as war. He points out that cruelty was once considered high entertainment. The burning of cats to death was once considered very amusing for example. Another example is be bear-baiting, a sport involving a fight to the death between bears and trained dogs. This sport was a major form of entertainment in England until the 19th Century.

Since Pinker is known for, among other things, his blistering attack on those who deny the importance of genes in shaping human behavior, it is interesting that his argument is explicitly not that we have a genetic disposition toward violence, but rather that violence is rational. The logic of a the preemptive strike makes violence tempting option to both sides. If two armed groups exist because each side know that the other side could raid first, and therefore it seems wise to launch a first-strike. This dynamic can also be seen between nations. In 1967, the Egyptian army mobilized on bad information obtained from the Soviet Union about a looming Israeli attack on Syria. Israeli sources picked up the mobilization and the leader-ship decided, knowing the country to be vulnerable to a first-strike, and itself struck first. The result was the 6 Day War. Because they attacked, Israel was able to destroy the Egyptian air-force while it was still on the ground (it should be pointed out that, despite the fact that the war was a stunning success from an Israeli perspective, most of current the problems of the area grew out of the conflict).
John Quiggin of Broken Timber thinks thinks Pinker is confused and inconsistent as to the matter of violence.
I’ve seen this kind of confusion before. Rational egoist models like homo economicus, ’selfish gene’ models like evolutionary psychology, and ‘realist’ models of international relations (in which nation-states are viewed as unitary actors) use similar styles of argument and therefore appeal to the same sort of person, but they radically inconsistent with each other, because they each posit a single level at which everything can be explained, different in each case.

I don't see the inconsistency in the position. The logic Pinker is using is similar to logic used by those who espouse homo economicus and "realist" theories of international relations. "Homo economicus" and "realist" international theory are both suspect for different reasons, the former because it assumes the human being to be rational, the latter because it makes similar assumptions about states, when in reality foreign policy is generally the result of special interest infighting and politicians trying to maintain their power, not "great powers" attempting to maximize their power and influence. However, the argument Pinker makes about preemptive attacks doesn't rely on either of these (or even, in this case, on selfish genes). The level that this takes place in dispute, this effect clearly happens at the level of human organization, whether they are tribes, clans, mafia families or nation-states, as the 6 Day War illustrates.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


One story that has been getting a lot of play is the large group of people who don't believe that the president was born in this country. Obviously, those subscribing to this ridiculous belief simply don't want to admit Obama is a president, and the belief has racial overtones, clearly a stalking horse of those who don't want to accept a black president with a Arab sounding name. Disgusting.
The godmother of the birther movement, lawyer/ real-estate broker/ dentist Orly Taitz was on the Colbert Report. Apparently, Colbert wanted a chance to show just how crazy these people are. She didn't disappoint (also, where the hell did she get the idea that both your parents must be citizens for you to be president?)
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Womb Raiders - Orly Taitz
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On the other hand, is this really any crazier than the many people who think that George Bush had a role in the destruction of the twin towers? No. Both are stupid conspiracy theories. The difference how widespread the theory is, and who believes it. Only about 20% of southern whites gave the factually correct answer to the question of where Obama was born.

The Republican leadership seems to kowtow to this group of lunatics. If a substantial number of Democratic officeholders had refused to say whether they though George Bush had destroyed the World Trade Center, people would comment.

Show-trials in Tehran

The spirit of Stalin is alive and well. The New York Times:
The Iranian authorities opened an extraordinary mass trial against more than 100 opposition figures on Saturday, accusing them of conspiring with foreign powers to stage a revolution through terrorism, subversion, and a media campaign to discredit last month’s presidential election.

The Tehran Trials seem echo strongly of the Moscow Trials. In the Moscow Trials, Joseph Stalin liquidated all of the "Old Bolsheviks", as well as the entire Politburo, and the purge eventually spread to the general populace, and the secret police were given quotas of people who had to be tried. The (initial) logic of the show trials was to liquidate anyone who could possibly challenge the Stalin's authority.
The Iranian show-trials target reformist Iranian politicians. The even have the classic "confessions".These confessions were clearly obtained under torture. The radio program This American Life recently had a program in which a liberal Iranian journalist describes how he was tortured until he signed a wrote a confession admitting to be a agent of the United States attempting to foment a "color revolution". The segment points out that there have been forced confessions of reformists and journalist being aired on Iranian TV for a decade. The process of torture and eventual confession to bizarre conspiracies is almost identical to the practices of the Soviet government.
The program notes that confessions all have a sameness. Each one was written by the elements of the Revolutionary Guards. The have a preponderant worry about foreign governments, such as the United States and Britain, and with the CIA. The confessions also almost always talk about fomenting a "velvet revolution". These obsessions are easily enough explained, about hlf a century ago, the CIA did indeed over-throw the government of Iran, and the fact that the Revolutionary Guards are so concerned with a "Velvet Revolution" is because they know the regime is vulnerable to such an uprising. To get some idea of the strange paranoia of the Iranian Revolutionary of the conservative Iranian establishment, watch this video.