28 Oct 2009

The Myth of "Independent Thinkers"

The Economist's Democracy in America blog has a nice little piece on the reasoning behind why so many Americans deny that there is, in fact, any global warming. A fairly straight line is drawn between global warming deniers (and their mindsets and backgrounds) and support for the torture of terrorist suspects. Part of the scientific answer:

"People's pre-existing personality biases, they find, actually shape their beliefs about the factual reality of the world; more information is unlikely to produce consensus, because people tend to reject information that does not cohere with their worldview."

The Economist blogger's further reasoning:

"A substantial number of Americans came to insist that torturing suspected terrorists was acceptable because it was a practice identified with the people they had voted for, and because it was behaviour that American troops had engaged in. The same process occurred with belief in the existence of WMD in Iraq, and, in some countries, with the 9/11 "truther" scenarios, which retain an irrational hold in many quarters; and it also seems to have occurred with climate change. We have a dynamic of political discourse that produces absolute belief in things that, often enough, aren't true. I don't believe there is any further data that could cause people who still deny the reality of anthropogenic global warming to change their minds."

Basically, people believe in irrational theories because the people who they want to lead them become associated with irrational theories. And, at this point, there is precious little that can be said that would actually convince these people otherwise, as they hold that they are "bucking the trend" or "fighting the consensus". In other words, they are being different because they want to be different and think that they are being individuals, instead of being "sheeple". It reminds me of something Ricky Gervais once said about why conspiracy theorists are obnoxious, because they think that they are just too smart because they've figured out what's "really" going on. Instead of proving how much smarter they are, they usually end up doing the opposite...

27 Oct 2009

Stalinism in Kyrgyzstan

This is a well-written - and rare - dispatch from Scott Horton, an American journalist visiting a former Stalinist gulag at Chon Tash in Kyrgyzstan. The message is simple: never forget the crimes committed by the dictators of the 20th century, but also do not lightly throw around comparisons where they are not due.

I think that the work of remembering the crimes committed by Stalinism in Central Asia are particularly important. As the article notes, in 1937 Stalin conducted a purge (ie a mass murder) of "bourgeois nationalists" in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan included. These subversive elements were largely nationalist figures in the arts, sciences, government and politics who for the most part had reconciled themselves to communist rule. As such, in Stalin's paranoid mind they were suspect elements and needed to be treated as such. Their deaths helped to essentially cause a cultural and veritable civilizational collapse in Central Asia: all that comes after is largely Soviet colonialism.

I am happy that Kyrgyzstan so openly and officially recognizes this crimes, as it is a first step on a long road of healing. In my experience, most other Central Asian states could care less, beyond the perfunctory rehabilitation of these victims. The governing elites of these countries are largely Soviet holdovers, and the last thing that they would want to do is to help their people remember martyrs who believed in national independence, a strong culture, and even (gasp!) perhaps democracy. Kazakhstan's treatment of the Alash Orda movement, which established an independent Kazakh state during the Russian Civil War, and which promoted Kazakh nationalism, education, and scientific development, and whose leaders perished at the hands of Stalinist firing squads is a case in point. Likewise the Stalinist-caused famines of the 1930s, which killed half of the Kazakh population at the time (something like more than a million people) are mentioned only in passing. Far more energy is given to praising the Soviet victory of the Second World War, much as is done in Putin's Russia. Apparently a forthright examination of the past, and a grappling of its questions is too much of a social threat - it might lead to a developed, democratic society.

Their Man in Tashkent

Here is a compelling testimonial from the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan in 2002. It seems to be a pretty damning narrative of the extent of torture in Uzbekistan, and the lengths to which it was allegedly utilized by the Americans and British to outsource "enhanced interrogation" of terrorist suspects.

I find the author's observation that a totalitarian state feels remarkably different from even a run of the mill authoritarian state (I am much more familiar with the latter, less so with the former). I would find his argument much more solidaly presented if he avoided the neo-marxist rant at the end about a small coterie of businessmen engineering wars in Central Asia and the Middle East in order to gain contracts for fossil fuel extraction (such as the alleged link between Enron attempting to win a contact in Uzbekistan and its declaration as a major ally in the so-called "War on Terror".). But then again perhaps such theories are par for the course in the British civil service - I don't know. I do know that this testimony is still strong evidence against a particularly sadistic and bloodthirsty regime.

19 Oct 2009

How Valuable Are States? ctd.

Like I wrote, I'm still up in the air over this one. I think that the boundaries/number/size of states could be altered, especially in the American West where most of the states between the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies were created in the 1890s by Republicans in order to maximize their Senate seats during a phase of unpopularity during an economic depression. No one even knows which became a state first, North or South Dakota (Benjamin Harrison shuffled the papers for a practical joke on history). Now, especially as these areas are rapidly depopulating, it seems odd to say the least that Wyoming or Idaho have the clout that they do, controlling the destiny of essentially all of America and the entire world.

I also think that the defenders of states are mixing two separate debates: the merits of a Senate equally apportioned among states, and the merits of a level of state government, period. I do think that overall the Senate makes sense in some intentionally twisted and backward way, and is ultimately a source of constitutional genius. SO many constitutional arguments (Europe, Iraq, what have you) seem like they could be smoothed if they were offered a Connecticut Compromise.

Also, one rebuttal against the pro-state article. The states are not sovereign in the sense that they have approved the Constitution. The original 13 states did approve a federal level of government in the sense that they agreed to nullify and forsake their previous Confederation as quasi-independent states. However, in all cases the Constitution was ratified by popularly-elected conventions, not by state legislatures. The federal government, like the state government, therefore derives its legitimacy directly from the citizenry, and not from the states. All subsequent states could only become states upon approval by Congress (and quite a few, such as "Franklin" and "Jefferson", were vetoed, despite having functioning governments).

Anyway, to address some of Andrew's points: I'm not sure how abolishing state governments in favor of non-governmental organizations or metropolitan authorities would actually streamline governance, especially as these two types of entities are already in operation (besides, wouldn't giving this kind of authority to non-governmental organizations make them, well, governments?).

And as for registering businesses/regulating intra-state commerce, I would say that a) most businesses are small and their effective business reach is within a few miles of their home point of operation, and b) states governing the registration and operation of businesses gives larger organizations the ability to operate more efficiently (apparently from observation with little "race to the bottom"). If a state has enough commercial expertise or is a focal point for many major businesses, it can have quite some clout in lawsuits against defendants in other countries even. Delaware's business courts are quite powerful (I believe that the Russian government was sued over its dismemberment of Yukos there). Perhaps Delaware has a limited reach beyond its borders, but considering how many businesses register there for doing business in the US, one does not cross them lightly.

17 Oct 2009

How Valuable Are States?

An argument today for and against the continued utility of states, state government and US Senate representation by state. An interesting debate. I honestly didn't know that the equal apportionment of US Senators was the one aspect of the Constitution that was explicitly prohibited from amendment.

Personally, I'm not sure that states need to be abolished wholesale (although there is a process for merging states with other states, I believe - North and South Dakota strike me as strong candidates for merger), but certainly the Western states have borders that are completely arbitrary and could be redrawn (along, say, watershed boundaries). But this has been done in the past (such as to Nevada), and does not necessarily question the validity of state governments per se.

14 Oct 2009

Why Are We in Afghanistan?, II

Nifty infographicand map on US and NATO troop levels in Afghanistan since 2001. FYI when the Taliban was overthrown at the end of 2001 there was something like 2,000 troops in the country.

So, what's the plan again?

Underestimate the Jesuits At Your Own Peril

Here is a stimulating profile of Guy Consolmagno, one of the Vatican's astronomers. Despite much of the controversy historically surrounding the Vatican with regards to science, the truth is that the Vatican Observatory has some very active scientists conducting research (the Vatican's Chief Astronomer has addressed the prospect of encountering intelligent extraterrestrial life.

NEEDLESS to say, Fr. Consolmagno is obviously a Jesuit:

“Poverty and chastity, I was used to — I had been a graduate student,” he says. “But obedience was a tough one.”

“Science cannot prove God, or disprove Him. He has to be assumed. If people have no other reason to believe in God than that they can’t imagine how the human eye could have evolved by itself, then their faith is very weak.”

America's New Police State: G20 Paranoia

Another interesting link:

A Youtube video of a small, relatively inconequential portion of the police presence in Pittsburgh. Its basically a police crackdown on a hot dog stand frequented by UPenn Pittsburgh students.

I'm actually a little shocked at how Hollywood-esque police crackdowns have become. Minus the bike-cops, this really looked like a scene out of Demolition Man or some sort of cyber punk dystopia. "I hereby declare this an unlawful assembly" indeed. Send in the hunter-killers...

And please bear in mind that these people being maced and threatened with arrest are not actually engaging even in any form of protest (although I remember something about that being constitutionally-protected as well).

Why Are We in Afghanistan?, I

If we can't do nation-building in Mexico, then why in Afghanistan?

I think this essay pretty much succinctly sums up whats wrong with
American imperium....