Blog roll addition Wednesday, May 20 2009 

There’s another addition to the blog roll. This time it is the P.A.P Blog, written by Filip Spagnoli, a Belgian philosopher who obtained his PhD at the University of Brussels and who currently works in research and statistics at the Belgian Central Bank. The blog focuses on human rights, including through the perspective of political and economic rights. “The blog looks at human rights from various perspectives: political philosophy, art (P.A.P. stands for politics, art, and philosophy), economics and statistics/data analysis.”

As with all the blogs on the blog roll, I don’t agree with everything written in the blog, but I believe it offers important discourse on human rights and the tragedy of human rights abuses.

Kofi Annan @ Mac Wednesday, May 20 2009 

Macalester College hosted Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations. The event was sponsored by the university’s Institute for Global Citizenship. The university unraveled a sculpture of Annan as a part of the opening of their new Markim Hall, the $7.5 million building meant to “exceed the sustainability requirements of LEED Platinum certification.” Annan, who got his bachelors in economics at the university in 1961, gave a short speech as part of the unveiling of the bust and the opening of Markim Hall.

The speech itself was short. He stressed the point that we are all a part of a global village, evidenced by the ongoing global economic and financial crisis. He also stated climate change is a real danger, that we should work together to stop it, and that the green Markim Hall is a step in that direction. Finally, he suggested students (there were none there, alas) should become involved in their local communities, as that is the beginning to bring about change in the world. I can help but agree with him on all points.

The State Monday, May 18 2009 

In his 1977 book Cannibals and Kings, anthropologist Marvin Harris explores human culture and society and their evolution. In it, he devotes a chapter on the origins of the state. One paragraph in the opening discussion on page 102 struck me as a profound and honest statement on the perniciousness of the state:

With the rise of the state all of this [economic and political freedom] was swept away. For the past five or six millennia, nine-tenths of all people who ever lived did so as peasants or as members of some other servile caste or class. With the rise of the state, ordinary men seeking to use nature’s bounty had to get someone else’s permission and had to pay for it with taxes, tribute, or extra labor. The weapons and techniques of war and organized aggression were taken away from them and turned over to specialist-soldiers and policemen controlled by military, religious, and civil bureaucrats. For the first time there appeared on earth kings, dictators, high priests, emperors, prime ministers, presidents, governors, mayors, generals, admirals, police chiefs, judges, lawyers, and jailers, along with dungeons, jails, penitentiaries, and concentration camps. Under the tutelage of the state, human beings learned for the first time how to bow, grovel, kneel, and kowtow. In many ways the rise of the state was the descent of the world from freedom to slavery.

Republican leadership on gay marriage Saturday, May 16 2009 

Recently, Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee Chairman, stated gay marriage is bad because it might hurt small businesses. “Steele said that was just an example of how the party can retool its message to appeal to young voters and minorities without sacrificing core conservative principles. Steele said he used the argument weeks ago while chatting on a flight with a college student who described herself as fiscally conservative but socially liberal on issues like gay marriage.” (Note to the AP writer: that’s called a libertarian.) If this is what he calls retooling and thinks it will actually appeal to young voters, then the GOP is in for a long ride down.

His argument is that if gays can marry, then this will cost businesses through financial responsibility: “You just cost me money.” News flash for the Chairman: the business would incur the same cost for a heterosexual marriage. If incurring costs is wrong, then we should outlaw heterosexual marriages as well. Alas, Chairman Steele has still not been able to say why incurring costs for heterosexual marriages is any more morally, legally, or logically acceptable than incurring them for homosexual marriages (nor will he ever be able to). So, in fact, Steele has said nothing new and has proved nothing.

Furthermore, yes, there is a cost to allow gay marriages, just as there is a cost to allow blacks to vote. The question is not whether there are costs. The question is whether the costs are justified—if the benefits outweigh the costs. If all we ask is whether there is a cost associated with a particular action, then we are merely acting as ethical egoist, which we know is a morally bankrupt moral theory (cf. The Moral Economy). We might say a business incurs a cost when it has to update its facilities to ensure it provides for a safe work environment for it workers. The real question is, to what end are these costs being incurred?

Keep trying, Michael Steele. Keep trying.

A President who tortured Thursday, May 14 2009 

No longer can we say torture is a practice reserved for the most brutal and callous regimes of human history; the practitioners of this grotesque and macabre technique now include the likes of a constitutional liberal democracy. I am, of course, referring to the Bush administration’s use of torture on detainees being held in the Guantanamo Bay internment camp in Cuba. There is no longer any doubt that torture was an interrogation technique—or perhaps just a sadistic pastime activity—used against so-called “enemy combatants,” some as young as 15, under the auspices and approval of the highest echelons of the Bush administration. A technique most commonly practiced by tyrants and despots, the use of torture has left an indelible mark on America’s global and moral standing.

Memos released by the Obama administration have showed us the extent to which these interrogation techniques were used—one suspect was waterboarded some 183 times within a month. One favorite argument of the contrarians, though, is that waterboarding does not constitute torture. However, if we take the definition of torture provided by the United Nations’ 1984 Convention Against Torture, then we easily see that waterboarding constitutes torture under international law. Just about every expert and authority who has spoken on the matter has confirmed this. (The reason is because waterboarding simulates death by drowning, can cause sever physical pain, and can result in death.) Furthermore, if we take the definition provided by U.S. law (18 United States Code Title 18, ยง2340), we again see that waterboarding is categorically impermissible under U.S. law. Likewise, this has been confirmed by several American government institutions, including the State Department, the Justice Department, the Department of Defense, the Supreme Court, the Congress, the Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI, and the military. One notable exemption to this list was the Bush White House.

After admitting waterboarding is torture, another argument used by the contrarians is that “you cannot play fair with an unfair enemy.” This is a rubbish argument based on the fallacy that two wrongs make a right. It is the idea that you can somehow justify a reprehensible action by pointing to another wrong action. Of course, this goes against our idea of moral universalism, which says that what is wrong for others must also be wrong for us. “Those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others—more stringent ones, in fact—plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of appropriateness of response; or of right and wrong, good and evil,” asserts Noam Chomsky. So, I ask, since when has it been OK to mimic the despots of Nazi Germany under Hitler, communist Russia under Stalin, communist Cambodia under Pol Pot, military-ruled Chile under Pinochet, or secular Iraq under Saddam? Do they represent the ideals we strive for, or were these people not the very enemies of America we sought to destroy? I wonder how these contrarians reconcile with the idea that they justify going to war under the pretense these people’s inhumanity but support their own government in doing the same.

The final argument the contrarians pose after they realize that waterboarding is both inherently wrong and illegal is that it produces life-saving results. The facts say otherwise. Not only does the vast academic, medical, and legal literature on the subject dispel the myth that “torture works,” but we also know now that even in these specific instances it did not work. Some of them might to point to a foiled plot to attack the Library Tower in L.A., despite the fact the plot was thwarted long before any interrogation even took place. Moreover, Ali Soufan, the FBI interrogator who interrogated Abu Zubaydah, stated recently that all the useful information was extracted from him prior to his torture. The contrarians, naturally, ignore this fact because it evinces the point that experts and research have been making for a long time now. Not only does it not work, it undermines our efforts to combat terrorism. But we should ask ourselves, even if we do assume their argument that torture works, would their decidedly utilitarian approach be justified? Surprisingly, Hollywood was able to produce a profoundly true dialog on torture that remains relevant even today. What we can be sure of is that if we accept the utilitarian approach, we would also have to accept the most heinous and monstrous crimes against humanity if doing so saves more lives than it ends. Most people simply are not ready to accept that burden, and rightly so.

Now, however, we’ve been hearing that the Obama administration won’t be prosecuting those responsible for carrying out and approving the torture. This is a grave mistake. We must hold those responsible accountable for their actions, as with any crime. That is the role of the Executive. After all, we have prosecuted those responsible for waterboarding in the past (Yukio Asano and Edwin Glenn, e.g.). Teddy Roosevelt, typically considered an American icon, took a decidedly opposite approach in dealing with those who waterboarded insurgents in the Philippines: “The president desires to know in the fullest and most circumstantial manner all the facts, nothing being concealed and no man for any reason favored or shielded. For the very reason that the president intends to back up the Army in the heartiest fashion in every lawful and legitimate method of doing its work; he also intends to see that the most vigorous care is exercised to detect and prevent any cruelty or brutality and that men who are guilty thereof are punished. Great as the provocation has been in dealing with foes who habitually resort to treachery, murder and torture against our men, nothing can justify or will be held to justify the use of torture or inhuman conduct of any kind on the part of the American Army.”

As I’ve stated earlier, here and elsewhere, universality is a critically important principle. U.S. Justice Robert Jackson made a point of this at the Nuremberg Trials, at which he was the chief of counsel for the prosecution. He stated: “If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. And we are not prepared to lay down the rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us. We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.” Though people would like to think otherwise and like to claim saying so is shockingly anti-American and unpatriotic, we too have drank from that poisoned chalice. War crimes of this magnitude simply cannot go unpunished. Justice Jackson correctly pointed out that not prosecuting future crimes against humanity would render the Nuremberg Trials farcical. We cannot let that happen.

Summer Monday, May 11 2009 

Summer is finally here. (All went well, thank you.) As you can see, posting has been slow, partly because finals took up a lot of my time. Hopefully, with more free time now, I will be able to contribute more often.There all sorts of happy things to talk about, like torture and the Afghan war! We’ll see where things go. As always, I’m looking for more contributors who are from SCSU and would like to write about politics, economics, philosophy, or other events that might interest the SCSU and surrounding community. Contrarian views are certainly welcome. Just leave a message or shoot me an e-mail.

LeMay responds in University Chronicle’s defense Saturday, May 2 2009 

Back in February, I wrote an indictment of the University Chronicle for what I perceived to be bias in its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, namely as it relates to the two panels held on campus. To provide some context (see my previous post linked above for a more detailed explanation), the editorial board (consisting of Joey LeMay, mind you) published a diatribe lambasting the first panel’s outspokenness on the plight of Palestine. Keep this fact in mind for later. Then, in the next edition, LeMay wrote a front-page article on Dr. Edelheit’s presentation, which was supposed to be a response to the first panel that Dr. Edelheit rudely interrupted. The article, of course, was blatantly one-sided, as I noted in my previous post. Dr. Edelheit himself might as well have written it. Absolutely no perspective was given to the first panel’s point of view. But that’s all the past.

Now, however, LeMay has written a defense for the University Chronicle, in part because of what I wrote here. (Since I doubt they’ll publish anything during finals week and because of size restraints, it’s probably most prudent for me to respond here.) The gist of LeMay’s argument is that the University Chronicle simply does not have enough writers to cover all stories, however important they may be. Actually, he doesn’t quite say this. He says the panel’s discussion was too unimportant to be covered by its limited amount of resources. Expounds LeMay, “For its newsworthy value, the panel put on by Slisli and Tademe was not high on the list of intriguing events.” OK, so a panel of professors and students who have the courage to stand up against the predominating view in American society and say Israeli aggression is not acceptable is not “newsworthy.” To hold a panel on explaining the perspective that is too often ignored and not understood during a time of misperception and bias in coverage of a recent Israeli attack on Palestine is not “intriguing.” This is simply something that the student body would not be interested in hearing about, if we were to take the Chronicle’s argument. Gathering by the size of the crowd there that night, which was substantially larger than most crowds for 95% of university events, I think those people would beg to differ; the presentation was delayed because there were not even enough seats set out to accommodate all the people flowing in to hear this panel’s discussion. But that’s simply not “newsworthy” for the school newspaper. This, LeMay explains, is the reason no one showed up to cover the story.

It only became an “intriguing” story after a professor rudely interrupted the panel and disallowed them to present their topic, as the story goes. It takes a scandal of sorts—not actual relevant educational information—for there to be a story, apparently. So how does this explanation that LeMay gives jive with what actually happened? You’ll remember that in the publication following the first panel’s discussion (i.e. February 16), the editorial board responded to the events that took place that night. “As one of Minnesota’s largest higher learning facilities, where free thought and academic debate should be encouraged, we would be doing our students, faculty, and community a disservice by leaving voices unheard and considerations unexplored. Unfortunately, last Wednesday’s panel discussion on Israel’s invasion of Gaza was partisan and many question went unasked and unanswered,” writes the board. How could they possibly know this if no writers actually went to cover the event? Were they there to hear what the panel had to say? Were they there to listen to what question were asked? Were they there to hear what responses the panel had to give? Either LeMay is blatantly lying to us in his defense for the Chronicle or the editorial board (Ali Tweten, Paul Crawford, Andy Downs, and LeMay) was being intellectually dishonest in their response to the panel.

The front-page article written by LeMay that was in the following publication was, as I mentioned, completely biased. LeMay even admits this in his defense of the Chronicle: “I chose not to simply summarize Eidelheit’s [sic] claimed clarification of the events in Gaza. Instead, I focused on Eidelheit’s [sic] reaction to his treatment at the panel conducted by Slisli and Tademe, his problem with the Warsaw ghetto photo and the flyer, and the mixed reception he received from the audience.” You’ll note that he says nothing about the first panel’s reaction or their explanation for the photo they used. No, it was simply Dr. Edelheit’s perspective. But LeMay continues, “So, in order to say University Chronicle showed favoritism towards Eidelheit’s [sic] panel is misleading.” So, even after admitting he was biased in his coverage he says it’s misleading to call that favoritism towards Dr. Edelheit. That’s simply confounding. LeMay calls it “one of the best definitions of news I can think of.” Is it any wonder why there is “distrust in media and the idea that media skew their reporting”?