Tuesday, May 23, 2006

SpeakTruthiness to Power

Our culture is falling apart. Culture, as someone put it, is "what you know everyone else knows". It's difficult to think of my ideas as naturally correct and obvious to all when many of those around me think that truth is relative (unless one is speaking it to power).

Looking back, I think it all started when we faked going to the moon. Silly, isn't it? The Moon, as if it's a place we could actually go, and not a nightly mass hallucination orchestrated by radio broadcasts and fluoridated water. When will you people wake up?

Is anyone alive now who remembers the moon before radio? Of course not, because contrary to popular misinformation, radio was invented by the Chinese in 1121 AD, and brought to Europe by Marco Polo.

Actually, the moon-landing-as-hoax inanity is just a short rest stop on the long journey from enlightenment to truthyism.

The Enlightenment, for those six people reading this far who aren't history weenies, was a period following the Protestant Reformation, from around 1600 to 1800, especially the 18th century, culminating in the American and French Revolutions. Enlightenment thinkers reached back across the centuries to classical Graeco-Roman philosophy, combining it with dominant Christian faith, to propound ideas such as natural law, scientific independence from theology, and the guillotine for anyone who wore a white wig.

Since the Enlightenment, or perhaps even before radio, we Westerners have generally interpreted physical events in the world -- an apple falling from a tree, mold growing on bread, a volcano making an island where there was once only ocean -- in terms of a growing knowledge of physical science. We generally saw in humankind's interaction with itself and the world the hand of either a Divine watchmaker or a Grandmaster, either observing or guiding our affairs for His own amusement. Some, of course, saw merely a watch or chessboard, with no attendant Creator or Player. But to whatever degree we viewed the world through eyes of Faith or eyes of Realism, we regarded it basic and unassailable that when the apple fell, it fell. Why it fell depended on your version of "why".

Emotions, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder, as any married man will promptly attest. That inherent relativism does not apply to trees falling in forests, refrigerator lights, or the actual state of being in the world; trees fall whether we are there or not, the refrigerator light does go out, and truth is truth, regardless of anyone's opinion of it.

When my children were old enough to understand, I explained it to them this way, so that the pernicious evil that is relative truth would not find fertile ground: "Do you see that building over there? Suppose it became abandoned, and fell into disrepair, and was torn down, its foundation removed, and grass planted where it used to be. Every last trace of it gone, and no record was kept of it. In a thousand years, would anyone believe that building had been there? Probably not. But their belief doesn't change the fact that the building was there."

The truth is not determined by its beauty or popularity, nor is falsehood proved by repugnance or unpopularity.

Existentialism, and its incident concept that all truth is relative, have found a new friend, or perhaps spawned an offspring lately. Criminologists have long known that witnesses to a crime will see the same events in sometimes wildly different ways, depending on their vantage point, mood, and psychological makeup. That observed phenomenon, and the wisdom of requiring "two or three witnesses" to establish the fact of guilt, have spawned a general belief in the social sciences that truth, along with beauty and emotion, is whatever we believe it to be.

As Francis Bacon (one of those Enlightenment guys) noted, relative truth is not a new concept. "What is Truth?", smirked Pilate, rinsing the blood from his hands. Like a used car with a new coat of wax, it seems unwilling to stay among its equals in the junkyard of ideas.

The willingness or eagerness to ignore Occam's Razor and distrust the obvious leads directly to reading into public affairs a variety of conspiracy theories. It leads not only to doubting the accepted explanation why an apple falls, but doubting that the apple fell at all.

Seen through this lens, it is completely unsurprising that the American Left, who generally accept the notion of relative truth, have difficulty adjusting to world events as they unfold. It also leads to some predictable and disheartening results. Among the items of scantily clad lunacy to which processing relative truth leads are:

  • Ronald Reagan made a secret pact with Iranian fundamentalists to make Jimmy Carter look bad
  • Bill Clinton was impeached solely because Republicans were "trying to overturn the election"
  • Al Gore would be president today if only Katherine Harris hadn't stolen the election in Florida
  • John Kerry would be president today if only Diebold hadn't stolen the election in Ohio
  • Osama bin Laden is a CIA operative who orchestrated 9/11 to justify the PATRIOT Act
  • Osama bin Laden was not involved in 9/11, but the CIA is framing him to empower President Bush
  • Dan Rather's paltry attempt to impugn President Bush with forged documents
That list (some of which are from a 2004 article by Oliver North) barely scratches the surface.

I'm not sure if Stephen Colbert realized what an apt term his "truthiness" would turn out to be. It describes so well the activity of those who view truth as relative, since by their standards there is no Truth, there are only viewpoints and ideas that are "truthy". But this clamoring, stumbling, pressured speech of "truth" to the powerful presumes otherwise. Why the urgency? Why the fervor? After all, how can you be sure the apple fell, or that it was even an apple?

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A class of one

Where did the concept of "class" originate? The idea that the world is made up of groups of people, fixed in their strata, fueled into action only by Greed, Envy, or the lust for power?

In ancient times, the oligarchic, aristocratic, and feudal systems of government enforced the notion of class by keeping power and wealth in the hands of a few. There was always a certain amount of fluidity to the classes, however. A Roman soldier could be rewarded with land and fame, so much that the need for more land helped fuel the Roman expansion. Merchants, tradesmen, and farmers have often been able, to one degree or another, to raise their fortunes by skill, diligence and discipline. Countless prodigals have spent their family fortunes on wild living, never to return from the hog pen. There has always been mobility, though it may not have seemed so to the masses.

Karl Marx, who took the notion of class to new heights, saw as inevitable that the working class, those whose hands do the work from which others profit, would bond together, while self-interest would keep the greedy capitalist parasites too preoccupied to unite. His naive model of capitalism, that of the factory with workers and owners, partly explains his disdain of it, but his view of history as a revolutionary class struggle waiting to happen has poisoned academic minds for over a century.

It is this concept of class which most sharply divides American politics. People have either the mindset of being a One or part of a Many. Conservatives generally think of people as individuals needing government to keep them from killing each other, to protect them from outsiders and from itself. Liberals believe government can and should make things right between classes of people, and that by doing this those outside will see how nice we are and ignore us.

The primary virtue, to a person in the Leftist religion, and of left-leaning branches of the Jewish and Christian trees, is a belief in "social justice", or decreasing the gap between "the rich" and "the poor". It presupposes that there are homogeneous classes of people. They treat everyone in a class as the same, whether they got however wealthy they are by inheritance, theft, skill, or hard work, and whether they became however poor they are from handicap, bad luck, or laziness. It doesn't matter how you got where you are: it is "unjust" for one to have more, or for another to have less. Government exists, by their thinking, to enforce that version of equality.

But are any of us ever, truly equal? Do two neighbors who have the same occupation and income level live identical lives? Of course not. There is always a difference in the standard of living between any two people. While the Marxist would call that a a difference without distinction, that dismissal is a result of seeing capitalism through a simplistic lens. People in a capitalist economy have an endless array of options to ply their hand at this occupation or that one, or even to invent something totally new. People are not stuck in place, like cattle in a herd; they are free to move up, or down, in status as their ability and diligence take them.

So I chafe when someone beats the drums of class envy, stirring up those who feel they have no hope. The drumbeat most often resounds to the chorus, "You have no hope but we who beat the drums". I hear their clanging, but I know that only I can help those in my class -- for only I belong to it.

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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Hate, March, Terrorize

What we have here ... is a failure to generalize.

Certain crimes of hate, violent political demonstrations, and flying an airplane through the World Trade Center all have something in common.

In what follows, please note that I am not calling for repeal of hate crime laws or a ban on political rallies, any more than I would call for a ban on airplanes because they can be used for destructive purposes. The purpose here is only to show that hate crimes and political rally violence are terrorism, and should be treated as such.

What is terrorism?

Wikipedia says there are "hundreds" of definitions. In essence, they all come down to this:
Terrorism is the use or threat of violence by civilians against civilian targets to induce political change.
There are obviously special cases to be asserted, such as paramilitary groups under indirect control of government. The definition of "civilian" blurs in the context of guerrilla warfare, in which combatants try to blend into the surrounding non-combatant population. Guerrillas may in fact engage in terrorism, or commit war crimes, or may operate strictly according to the ethics of war; in any event, the definition of terrorism above accommodates their case.

War crimes are distinguished from terrorism in that either the perpetrator or the victim of a war crime is an acknowledged combatant while the other is a civilian. That is not the entire scope of war crime, which is only discussed here to help build by contrast the understanding of terrorism.

The civilian leader of a country, when acting in his official capacity in control of its military, cannot, by definition, be guilty terrorism. Support of terrorist non-government organizations may make him responsible for terrorism, but that is a different situation than the use of a country's military.

Terrorism is also distinct from common civilian crime, because terrorism is political in motivation. A group destroying a building as a diversion in a bank robbery is not engaged in terrorism, while a person threatening to kill an official's pet to sway his vote is.

An area of civilian crime, crimes motivated by group differences, has been dubbed "hate crime". Hate crime laws have been enacted in several of these United States and in Canada. They typically include hostility against a person, group, or institution based on "actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or gender" as aggravating factors for sentencing guidelines. Sometimes they curtail "hate speech", or speech against a person or group based on those aforementioned factors.

Hate crime laws fail to afford equal protection under the law, because their impetus was the special case of those intolerantly violating the civil rights of others. Such laws usually fail to be designed or enforced such that all anti-group violence is wrong, only that against the protected groups. In some cases they outlaw mere offensive speech. Since these laws specify certain classes of people for additional protection under the law, they facially do not afford equal protection. Their unfairness is caused exactly by their failure to see crimes of hate as action designed to send a political message.

Crimes motivated by the outward differences between groups of people are political in nature if their perpetrators seek to send a message to others through the crime. They seek to control or influence behavior, to govern, by threat of force. Burning a cross in a yard is obviously intended to send a message to the owners of the yard, or the home's occupants, and to drive away those like them.

A distinction could thus be made between one-on-one crime between in which the perpetrator and the victim do not share the same group membership and one-on-many or many-on-one crimes. It would be a rarity for a hate crime in which one person acts against a group or a group acts against an individual not to be intended to send a message designed to control group behavior. Even if the primary intent is not to send such a message, one will clearly be sent. Group hate crime is thus seen to be inherently political, and falls squarely under the rubric of terrorism.

Crimes between individuals are a different matter, however. What difference is it to society if one man kills another in a rage over their ethnic or other differences, rather than over money or jealousy? In any case the victim is dead, and a murderer is among us. Hate crime laws elevate one kind of motive over another, making all others into mitigating or extenuating factors. But they fail to get at the real problem, which is attempting to control the behavior of others through the threat or use of violence. The problem with hate crimes is not the crime itself, but the added communication of the social message: the problem with you is what kind you are.

The crimes of hate that we should punish differently than other crime are the ones that are violence by civilians against civilian targets to induce political change. We should punish all such action, not distinguishing its victims.

Recently, student groups at several American colleges and universities have demonstrated against military recruiting at their campuses. One protester, thinking himself clever, carried a sign reading "I'm already against the next war!". The message he intended to send, of course, was that the Bush Administration would rush into another war as it had rushed, with barely over a year of diplomacy, into Iraq. The actual message is somewhat different: there is no acceptable war, no matter what the cause. Our national future would indeed be in peril if that were a majority view.

Demonstrations are one thing, but vandalism and mob action to exercise political influence are another. They are the use or threat of violence by civilians against civilian targets to induce political change.

Violence must not be a substitute for political discussion, organization, or the ballot box. The problem with crimes of hate, violent demonstrations and vandalism, and other acts of terrorism is that they seek to manipulate and control people and force change through violence. Those who engage in such activities must be stopped, and those who would look the other way are complicit in the cause of terror, as well.

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