Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Sam Harris' Faith In Secret Government Powers

Sam Harris' recent Twitter activity on the subject of PRISM (the NSA secret spy program) brings up some important topics I've wanted to further discuss about Sam Harris and the critique of religion and faith.  Harris asked on Twitter "What's in your email that you don't want Obama reading it?" And then later asked, "If the risk of nuclear terrorism were 50% over the next decade. What freedom would you sacrifice to diminish it to 5%?" and "We can't idiot-proof the U.S. Presidency. That's why it's important to elect smart, ethical people to the office."   What's striking is not just Harris' support for the leaked secret spy program, but that he's putting his faith into an authoritarian system to protect him from terrorist attacks and not to abuse their secret powers.  It's interesting that Harris who wrote The End Of Faith is now placing great faith in the leadership of our government which is actually contrary to the philosophies of "the founders" of this republic.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, "In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."  Giving Obama and therefore all future presidents our approval to have secret programs that spy on the US public is to place confidence into men operating outside of known interpretations of law and not abuse these surveillance powers.  These programs operate on interpretations of laws that are essentially held in secret from the public that the government derives it's power from (or at least it is theoretically supposed to).  Jefferson also wrote "I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power."  This is the absolute check on abuses of constitutional power, but not the first check.  The first check is the rule of law, and more specifically our supreme laws found in the constitution and its amendments.

The constitution is essentially a set of laws to limit the power of those in the federal government.  It also holds that an educated public is necessary to defend the constiution and correct abuses of government power.  What's striking is that this leak was what allowed the public to have this debate on secret government surveillance programs and the public simply cannot correct a constitutional abuse if no one knows about it.  Without the education that came from this leak the public had little evidence of the massive surveillance programs being built.  Further, secret interpretations of laws and secret policies which indiscriminately target US civilians and erases the requirement of probable cause force us into simply having faith in our leaders as it's very hard to ascertain a leader's ethics or even how smart they are.  Harris himself asked on Twitter  "Twitter seems filled with people who know that Obama has been corrupted by power. Is it that easy to get a top-secret security clearance?"  The opposite would be hard to prove as well.  How do we know he hasn't been corrupted by power?  Wouldn't we have to have that same security clearance?  Perhaps this is why Jefferson and the other founders understood that men must be bound by laws or we risk these men abusing the powers.

Interestingly there is a history of US government agencies spying on the public in secret and abusing this power.  The claim that this NSA program is needed to protect us ignores that these agencies that spied on the US public abused these powers for political ends and weren't just used to keep people safe.  They were used to target civil rights groups and leaders like Martin Luther King, as well as anti-war, and environmental groups.  For anyone familiar with the Church hearings and the reports that came from these investigations, there is a long list of abuses of power from opening people's mail in secret, to the COINTELPRO project by the FBI that specifically infiltrated and disrupted domestic political activities.  In the past when government agencies have been allowed to spy on the US public in secret they have abused it.  Not only that but just being able to operate in extreme secrecy also allowed them to commit what are crimes under international law including assassination attempts on foreign leaders such as Patrice Lumumba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, and the Diem brothers of Vietnam. However, Fredrick Schwarz, Chief Counsel of the Brennan Center and lead council for the Church Committee has said, "if you have secrecy and lack of oversight, you're going to get abuse."  It's entirely ignorant of history and the constitutional nature of our republic to assume that leaders are acting ethically when their policies are shrouded in secrecy.  That secrecy is what creates the need for faith in leaders rather than them having to bear burden of proof to assure us that such authorities are needed.  It also erases the knowledge needed by the people to correct our constitutional abuses.

Having an understanding of the actual nature of how our government was constrained after the revelations from the Church Committee is important.  For example CIA interceptions of telegrams between US citizens and foreign nationals was deemed illegal.  A new check on these powers were created in FISA and now domestic wiretaps had to be approved by secret courts where the government agencies had to provide a probable cause to surveil US citizens.  When it was revealed in 2005 that Bush had authorized agencies to spy on US citizens without getting warrants liberals reacted with scorn.

In fact one such liberal, Barack Obama campaigned against such abuses stating "For one thing, under an Obama presidency, Americans will be able to leave behind the era of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and "wiretaps without warrants."  However, this same liberal senator also vowed to fillabuster any attempt to give the telecom companies that participated in the program retroactive immunity, saying he would "support a filibuster of any bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies."  He later went back on this pledge and voted against a filibuster, and for the bill after his nomination as the democratic candidate was secured.  Perhaps one doesn't need top secret clearance to see Obama's subservience to or corruption by power after all.  However, Obama reasoned that once he was sworn into office he would have his "Attorney General conduct a comprehensive review of all our surveillance programs, and to make further recommendations on any steps needed to preserve civil liberties and to prevent executive branch abuse in the future."

This didn't happen.  As reported by Bill Moyers, FISA passing meant greater powers for the Attorney General and Director of National Intelligence to "approve the international surveillance, rather than a special intelligence court.  FISA Court now retroactively oversees government surveillance procedures after it's been conducted. It no longer scrutinizes individual cases.  The government can now latch onto large telecommunications switches, allowing for more comprehensive eavesdropping on fiber-optic phone and email lines.  Telecommunication companies can be compelled to allow access to switches through order by the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence."  However, it's important to note that the NSA and other agencies already had the power to surveil who they wanted very quickly simply by asking the FISA court.  Over 99% of all FISA requests are accepted by the court and it's almost a rubber stamp process in the first place.  Now they have claimed the power to look at anyones digital communications without probable cause, and in passing the FISA amendment ensured that they would never have to let the courts decide on constitutionality by claiming that people have no grounds to sue the government because the programs were carried out in secret, so you wouldn't know if you were spied on.  This seems completely contrary to the 4th amendment of the United States constitution which requires probable cause for search and seizures.

As the surveillance state expanded and removed previous checks on executive powers to spy via government agencies the checks against those powers have been eroded.  This brings to mind another Schwarz quote: "when you start small, you go big...When you start in a way that seems legitimate, it inevitably goes too far."  This was Schwarz speaking on the expansion of government spying as revealed in the Church Report.

Harris is not only asking us to consider that spying is acceptable he is proposing that we should be willing to give up our civil liberties to keep us safe.  Benjamin Franklin once wrote "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."  However, the threat Harris uses is nuclear terrorism.  This is striking not only because Dick Cheney frequently cites nuclear terrorism as a threat, but infamously warned that "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud" in order to push for the invasion of Iraq.  What this amounts to is a fear tactic well adopted by Harris who has also adopted many other neo-conservative positions such as torture, profiling, and claims that liberals are weak on terrorism.

As it stands your chance from dying in a terrorist attack in the US is 1 in 20 million.  There are no known terrorists with nuclear weapons, and if a nuclear strike were to be used, one could argue strongly that the US would be the one to press the button.  This is because the US has not only been the only country previously to use nuclear weapons in war, but in 2002 it was revealed that, "The Bush administration has directed the military to prepare contingency plans to use nuclear weapons against at least seven countries and to build smaller nuclear weapons for use in certain battlefield situations, according to a classified Pentagon report...  The secret report, which was provided to Congress on Jan. 8, says the Pentagon needs to be prepared to use nuclear weapons against China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria."  This is nothing new as the US repeatedly has drawn up plans for using nuclear weapons in places like Vietnam, Korea, and Cuba, but even Obama has stated, "all options are on the table" for Iran.  Perhaps Obama is familiar with Nixon's "Madman Theory."  The tactic of portraying government grabs of power as necessary for our own protection is an old one.  Fear of communism guided US foreign policy and was the reasoning behind wars in Vietnam, Korea, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and many covert CIA operations to overthrow even democratically elected governments in other countries.  In a post USSR world with China as one of our largest trading partners the communist threat has functionally ended.  The attacks on the world trade center in September of 2001 gave the Bush administration a new "ISM" to go after trading communism for terrorism.  Although it was a horrendous attack the retaliation would let far more blood, killing at least 50 times more civilians in Iraq alone which had no connection to the 9/11 attacks.

Why is Harris is so worried about nuclear terrorism that he is willing to support the build up of a spy state that would make Goring and Himmler's mouths water?  The answer brings me to a fundamental difference I have with Harris' critique of religion.  Although we are both atheistic his analysis of religion found in The End of Faith seems to focus merely on the nature of belief and how beliefs without evidence can lead to harmful behaviors with a specific emphasis on Islam being a belief that is a "cult of death".  I agree with his sentiments on the nature of faith in general, but there are a multitude of beliefs that are not religious and are harmful to people.  The problem is not necessarily with the nature of belief itself as at some point we all have beliefs or things we take for granted without evidence, but how those beliefs are used.  The most popular form of challenging these beliefs are through testing and becoming aware of systems operating around us.  The assumption or belief could be as small as a belief that a light switch when flicked will turn on without previously examining the circuitry or as big a believing science will provide a technology so that we need never decrease our energy consumption.  However, the nature of religious belief is different because religions are inherently hierarchal much like governments.  The real problem with religions is that they produce religious followers or even servants (of Christ or Allah) which can be exploited by other men convinced of the goodness of the religious organization.  This is identical to states or governments in that they produce citizens ready to be exploited by other men in a hierarchy often through nationalism and belief in goodness of the state.  In modern history these states have been far more deadly and oppressive than any religion although the two cannot be totally separated.

In fact in study of the development of early religions during the agricultural revolution you'll uncover evidence of religious and political power being one and the same.  Often the largest structures where the ruler would reside would be connected to the granary, and the ruler would be granted his authority through god.  In fact the oneness of political and religious leadership was still the case in most all of Europe at the time of the French revolution, with most kings claiming their right to rule coming directly from god.  Religions of all types, even Buddhism (which Harris has a soft spot for) was used by governments as a state religion in the Mauryan Empire of India.  Perhaps this collusion between religion and political leaders is what led the French revolutionaries to issue a law in 1793 making all nonjuring priests liable to death on site.  The Catholic Church after all was the largest landowner in the nation at the time and received great incomes from the tenants on the lands.  Although it is theoretically true that christians in general seek to deny their own wicked ideas and follow what they believe are the teachings of god by subjecting themselves to the perfect will of god, there always seems to be a temporal structure of power that at least influences this will.  Of course many break off from mainstream religious organizations and form their own hierarchies like Lutherans, Protestants, or even Mormons, but there always seems to be a hierarchy of some sorts which guide faith.

These religious and political organizations often have melded with each other and interacted in ways which allow a few to exploit many others.  Another thing is that there are social and cultural differences not always caused by religion but taken up by religion.  Patriarchy for example is an oft heard complaint of Harris and many other critics of Islam.  However, the development of patriarchy wasn't created by Islam or Christianity but was adopted by both.

Anthropologist David Graeber in his book Debt: The First 5000 Years wrote, "In the very earliest Sumerian texts, particularly those from roughly 3000 to 2500 bc, women are everywhere. Early histories not only record the names of numerous female rulers, but make clear that women were well represented among the ranks of doctors, merchants, scribes, and public officials, and generally free to take part in all aspects of public life...  Over the course of the next thousand years or so, all this changes. The place of women in civic life erodes; gradually, the more familiar patriarchal pattern takes shape, with its emphasis on chastity and premarital virginity, a weakening and eventually wholesale disappearance of women’s role in government and the liberal professions, and the loss of women’s independent legal status, which renders them wards of their husbands. By the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 bc, we begin to see large numbers of women sequestered away in harems and (in some places, at least), subjected to obligatory veiling."  He goes on to explain how this happened writing, "Conquest leads to taxes. Taxes tend to be ways to create markets, which are convenient for soldiers and administrators. In the specific case of Mesopotamia, all of this took on a complicated relation to an explosion of debt that threatened to turn all human relations—and by extension, women’s bodies—into potential commodities. At the same time, it created a horrified reaction on the part of the (male) winners of the economic game, who over time felt forced to go to greater and greater lengths to make clear that their women could in no sense be bought or sold."

Remember next time someone critiques Islam about their treatment of women (I also object to the religions views of women as well as christian views) that the religion merely adopted and further codified treatment of women as male property, but that until a hundred or so years ago our nations laws did similar things denying women rights to property and voting.  The point is that nations and religions grew up side by side using each other to gain power over their subjects (whether you believe for good or bad) and the true problem of belief is not just how bad beliefs can affect people's behavior but how bad beliefs can cause subjugation of our will to other men and their will.  One seems to use fear of god or a hell, while one seems to use fear of the other and offers itself as a protection against such evils.  It seems as if a religious person would ask us to have faith in a priest to lead us to heaven, but Harris would ask us to have faith in a growing surveillance state to protect us from harm.  Both ask for authority on the grounds that they're doing what's right for you or looking out for you.

However, since Harris seems to have little understanding on the nature of the cause of terrorism rejecting again and again that the motivations are political or nationalistic in favor of almost solely religious motivations.  While it's obvious that religion plays an often central role to terrorism, the attackers over and over again cite US and western foreign policy such as the stationing of troops on the Arab peninsula and support for Israel.  This leads them to believe the US is waging a war against Islam itself.  This is a sentiment Harris agrees with stating that he believes we are at war with Islam and not just terrorism.  Terrorists often then exploit religious beliefs and believers to achieve political goals just as nations have done for centuries.  It still happens today.  Murtaza Hussein recently wrote a great piece in AlJazeera about Religious fundamentalism in the 'War on Terror' which exposes christian crusaders like Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, and other US officials stating religious motivations for the war on Iraq and war on terror.  It has worked on both sides with reports of US soldiers and even generals believing the war was god's work or sanctioned by god.  It's not that shocking though because it's something that dates back early into our wars and civilizations; using religion to justify political ends achieved by killing or attacking the other.

Harris seems to be just another self described liberal now arguing for neo-conservative policies while ignoring age old liberal solutions to policies.  If we don't want to be attacked by terrorists perhaps the best method is not by illegally invading and occupying countries or launching secret drone strikes with no accountability that according to Al Muslimi had poor effects on Yemeni's perception of the US.  He testified, "What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America."  Perhaps instead of pursuing and continuing hegemonic foreign policies we should close our obscene number of military bases which anger and have angered other nations for years, and end the policy of US exceptionalism which Harris and others seem to continuously support.  The next century is already poised to be a century with a much larger concentration on the Pacific, specifically in East Asia where the US will continue to use it's military force to enforce it's will on other nations.  We cannot afford nor can we allow another century of US dominance by military force.  After all the way to stop nuclear proliferation, if we've learned anything from the cold war, is not to goad others on with threats and a showing of force which leaves them feeling threatened and vulnerable to attack, and which in turn leads them to seek more "defensive weapons."  The answer lies in cooperation and respecting each others right to life while protecting ourselves to the best of our abilities, but at home not by invading or bombing other nations or hegemonic dominance of any kind.  Perhaps it's time to follow Chalmers Johnson's advice and "liquidate the empire."

In conclusion, it's important to understand why secret authorities are a threat to not only our civil liberties, but the very nature of our democratic values.  If we sign off on this now what limits to authoritarian government are we going to draw up?  Liberals like Paul Krugman even have stated, “You can have a democratic surveillance state which collects as little data as possible and tells you as much as possible about what it's doing, or you can have an authoritarian surveillance state which collects as much as possible and tells the public as little as possible, and we are kind of on the authoritarian side.”  If you still think this isn't rank authoritarianism or an abuse of constitutional power and your argument is essentially we should trust Obama or any other leader because we have nothing to hide from the government that's been hiding a massive surveillance program from the US public with incredible possibilities for abuse; you're making an argument based on faith not reason and evidence.  Historical evidence says we should expect nothing but abuse, and that governments which escape the rule of law by circumventing constitutional protections are not deserving of our admiration.  Even if we all should come to find that we want to accept government surveillance as a necessary part of life it should be only after intense critical examination of this claimed power and it shouldn't take place in secret.  The FISA amendments were put there to protect the country and it's democratic processes after years of abuse.  Recalling them is sure to have the same effect on our society as repealing the financial regulations that we put in place after abuses that caused the depression.  Only this time it will be a moral and ethical bankruptcy that could result in an authoritarian government, and will forever blacken the name of America and the freedom its citizens are supposed to have.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Electric Cars ≠ A Green or Sustainable Alternative

The recent hype around electric cars seems to have mellowed out somewhat, but it appears to have captured enough people's attention that it seems people are seeing electric cars as a viable transportation alternative.  President Obama in 2011 announced a plan to have a million electric cars on US roads by 2015, with help from Chevrolet via their Chevy Volt.  Others like Tesla Motors have talked up the lower emissions labeling cars zero emissions and stating reduced emissions and better efficiency than gas powered cars.  Whatever claims that are being made, this seems to be another example of green-capitalism or green marketing that is doing more to hinder environmental movements and our societies environmental sustainability than helping it.  It reeks of technological millenarianism which would have us believe that a quick change to new technologies will alleviate us of a range of environmental issues, but specifically climate change.  Lets take a close look at what problems confront those who are pushing an electric car transportation infrastructure and see if it's just baseless hype or if electric cars are really the future.

First, there's no doubt electric cars will be produced, consumed, and that the market for them seems to be getting bigger.  However, it is entirely unreasonable to assume that electric cars will replace gas cars.  This is not just due to what are seen as short comings of a new technology which can't travel indefinitely with only ten minute or so refueling stops like gas cars, but the reality of energy production in the US and abroad.  The amount of energy it would take to power a nation of electric cars would leave us without enough energy to power our homes or other industrial projects, and would increase the demand on electricity which would raise the price.  In 2008 alone passenger cars and motorcycles used 8,969 trillion btu of energy.  Our electricity production in the US was 4,054 billion kWh.  1,000 kWh is equal to  3.412 million kWh meaning 1 kWh has 3412 btu.  So we produced over 13,832, trillion btu of electricity yet just our passenger cars alone would add another 8,969 btu of energy to our power grid.  What would the effects of adding 64% more consumption of to our power grid (keep in mind this is all calculated at 100% efficiency so it would actually be a higher percentage)?

37% of the electricity generated is done so with coal, 30% with natural gas and 19% with nuclear power.  All three of these are not only unsustainable because they use finite energy sources, but coal is one of the greatest greenhouse gas emitters on the planet.  The fact of the matter is that we're going to have to find a way to generate 64% more electricity in order to make the switch to electric cars and we're only projected to increase our renewable energy production from 13% of energy in 2011 to 16% by 2040.  So we'll likely still be using coal and natural gas as a primary power source for our homes as well as any electric cars to be built.  Therefore, the idea of switching completely to electric cars and their "zero emissions" technology is an absolutely ridiculous project in the first place because the energy itself is not zero emissions.  In reality that's not the expected route though as no one expects gas cars to just go away.  Instead, what electric cars will really allow us to do is use more energy to cover the lack of energy production growth in the fossil fuel sector.  It's obvious when for every one barrel of oil we find we extract five or six, that we're not looking at a rosy fossil fuel future.  With oil production going into decline we're looking at a future with less net energy.  Simply changing the technology that's using energy won't solve a problem of less net energy.

Second, to replace our gas vehicles with electric cars would require the construction of 254.4 million cars in the US alone while worldwide this would require the production of 1 billion cars.  The costs associated with this scale of production and the necessary changes to our infrastructure are large, but the cost to the environment is greater.  By the time one electric car is produced it's already responsible for 30,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions.  Half of it's Co2 usage will come about simply from production.  Then there's lithium mining for the batteries which is less than environmentally friendly.  Most of these batteries will need to be replaced after just five years use.  This means that according to the WSJ, "If a typical electric car is driven 50,000 miles over its lifetime, the huge initial emissions from its manufacture means the car will actually have put more carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere than a similar-size gasoline-powered car driven the same number of miles. Similarly, if the energy used to recharge the electric car comes mostly from coal-fired power plants, it will be responsible for the emission of almost 15 ounces of carbon-dioxide for every one of the 50,000 miles it is driven—three ounces more than a similar gas-powered car."

So essentially what's being marketed as a green alternative to gas powered polluting cars is as polluting or more polluting that gas powered cars.  This becomes more clear when we consider just where the batteries go when they can no longer hold a charge.  At best they are recycled which is not only an energy intensive process in itself, but few processing plants are in operation and this is because the cost of the materials you get out of recycling is incredibly low.  Since they're using less expensive metals for the batteries to cut the cost of making them, chances are they have a much smaller chance of being recycled in the first place.  It's not economically feasible to remove the metals if for example one ton of batteries doesn't contain at least 600 pounds of cobalt.  This is simply waste pretending to be conservation.  Of course the chances that you can afford an electric car in the first place is pretty small.  While the Nissan Leaf sells for $28k Tesla's cars go for over $100k.

This is all further evidence of technological millenarianism in which people adopt unfounded and poorly evidenced views of technology solving our environmental problems when it's clear that our environmental problems stem from moral and ethical problems of a culture addicted to growth.  Real solutions to these problems simply lie in using less energy, not finding creative ways to market technologies as green while using more energy.  Abandoning the building of entire transportation infrastructures built around cars, or our entire car culture for a much more convenient foot based transportation culture where long trips are not required nearly as much are real solutions.  However, solutions of using less always upset the economists in all of us because it calls into question the basic economic maxim of more is better.  While this is demonstrably false, it has gained traction for centuries, but it's time we focused on the quality of our lives rather than the quantities of what we consume.  How long people will hold on to the myths of our times (even when backed by scientific sounding claims) will shape what kind of world we leave to our descendants.  In a short time will we be facing a whole new set of problems brought about by unsustainable electric cars or will we realize that cars are simply not sustainable and find ways to have happy lives without them?   We must move towards a culture that consumes substantially less energy while keeping up high quality lives or it will be forced upon us in what is often called societal collapse.  Rejecting the myth of technology saving us from these environmental and energy crises is the first step towards actually making a change.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Bill Maher: A Principled Liberal or Partisan Worshipper?

Bill Maher recently tweeted "PS, doesn't Obama have anyone on staff to toss hecklers? If you shut up lady, he's ANSWERING UR QUESTION! Maybe ONE more drone strike..."  He was referring to Medea Benjamin's interruption of President Obama on his speech this Thursday the 23rd of May.  What was Medea asking though?  She asked...

“Can you tell the Muslims that their lives are as precious as our lives?  Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activity? Will you compensate the families of innocent victims you have killed?”

Nothing like this is being asked to or answered by the president.  The speech Obama gave essentially seemed to address very little specifically, but was meant to defend his use of drone strikes and assure everyone that everything in the land of the free was just and right.  For instance...

"We act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured, the highest standard we can set."
"So doing nothing’s not an option."
"I would have detained and prosecuted Awlaki if we captured him before he carried out a plot. But we couldn’t. And as president, I would have been derelict in my duty had I not authorized the strike that took him out."

The speech was an argument for ending traditional boots on the ground warfare and validating the drone program.  When Medea Benjamin interrupted the president she did so because she said,

"Sitting at the back of the auditorium, I hung on every word the president said. I kept waiting to hear an announcement about changes that would represent a significant shift in policy. Unfortunately, I heard nice words, not the resetting of failed policies... The bulk of the president’s speech was devoted to justifying drone strikes. I was shocked when the president claimed that his administration did everything it could to capture suspects instead of killing them. That is just not true. Obama’s reliance on drones is precisely because he did not want to be bothered with capturing suspects and bringing them to trial. Take the case of 16-year-old Pakistani Tariz Aziz, who could have been picked up while attending a conference at a major hotel in the capital, Islamabad, but was instead killed by a drone strike, with his 12-year-old cousin, two days later...  When the president was coming to the end of this speech, he started talking about Guantánamo. As he has done in the past, he stated his desire to close the prison, but blamed Congress. That’s when I felt compelled to speak out. With the men in Guantánamo on hunger strike, being brutally forced fed and bereft of all hope, I couldn’t let the president continue to act as if he were some helpless official at the mercy of Congress.“Excuse me, Mr. President,” I said, “but you’re the Commander-in-Chief. You could close Guantánamo tomorrow and release the eighty-six prisoners who have been cleared for release.”

Whether or not this type of political action or resistance to those in power is really effective is not in question, but rather the point is that we should respect those who stand up for those who are being done injustice.  Maher's response albeit in jest, was not only not funny, but actually provides some light into a subject that I've been wondering more and more about myself; Is Maher even a liberal anymore?  It has been argued that Obama is not a liberal and to the right of President Ronald Reagan.  However, Maher himself argued that Obama isn't actually a liberal and is "unhappy with Obama."

So why then would Maher give $1 million dollars to Obama's Super PAC for the 2012 election?  His argument is essentially that he's better than those "bat shit crazy" GOP Republicans, and that's about all Bill Maher is willing to stand up for.  In fact on a previous episode of Real Time Bill actually supported Obama's drone policy saying to Ariana Huffington that, "you'd do the same thing" if she was president when she brought up civilians being "killed again and again."  To which Avik Roy responded, "I wish you were saying that 6 years ago."  The reason was perhaps that Maher didn't support Bush's war on terror yet seems to support Obama in his war on terror.  It's funny that a guy who gets fired over saying "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly," in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks has reversed his position to essentially to "some people need killing" and "That's not to say that all drone strikes are bad."  There's not a lot of difference between lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away and ordering drone strikes and it's not like Obama has pulled using cruise missiles from the arsenal.  After all a cruise missile strike aimed to kill Awlaki was launched and killed 52 civilians before every "charge" Obama levied against Awlaki in his speech.

So if Maher is convinced Obama isn't even a liberal and yet he donates a million dollars to his campaign then I think we can finally put to bed the idea of Maher being a liberal.  He is now a partisan hack.  Maher supports the policies he once used to criticize simply because he has tied himself to a party and a president that are not principled themselves.  The response to people questioning Obama now is simply to shut up because of course Obama is "rethinking policy".  The idea that killing innocent people abroad being cowardly or even wrong is no longer up for debate, but simply it's a "bad world" now so we have to do bad things.  This is another prime example of Degenerative Party Syndrome that is destroying not only any semblance of a liberal opposition to the neo-conservative policies of the Bush era, but enabling it.  There is no question that without a Democrat in the president's office these policies would be unsupported by Maher and every other Democratic pundit.  

Monday, May 13, 2013

Degenerative Democratic Party Syndrome (DDPS)

Looking back on the Democratic party's recovery in 2008-09 winning both the Senate and the House of Representatives as well as the presidency there seems to be a peculiar disease affecting those within the party.  The party that once championed Social Security, regulation of the financial industry, and assailed those who supported an endless war on terror and the Bush Doctrine; is now looking at cuts to SS, favors only very minimal regulation of the finance industries, and seems to now lend full support to the the war on terror and tenets of the Bush Doctrine.  Essentially liberals don't really seem liberal anymore, and it's due to authoritarian blindness and the degeneration of the party.  I'm calling this cessation and decay of liberal thought Degenerative Democratic Party Syndrome (DDPS), not to be confused with DRPS (Degenerative Republican Party Syndrome) which seems to affect Republicans when they're in power and causes them to forget every talking point they ever created on fiscal conservatism.  Degenerative party syndromes tend to come about mostly when a party comes to power and rather than representing a principled position in line with past positions, they degenerate to positions that serve the established powers, and begin to praise positions that just a few earthly rotations of the sun back would be polar opposites.  

When Barack Obama was elected president and began serving in 2009, most people who supported him seemed to genuinely believe that he was a political figure that could set right what had once gone wrong during the Bush presidency while reshaping the very nature of the political system.  While he wasn't making a Quantum Leap, his leap as a constitutional scholar to the presidency seemed to capture the hopes of the Democratic Party constituents who expected change.  Since I was not an Obama supporter during the 2008 election cycle - because I saw through his marketing campaign and told personal friends time and time again that his plans for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars mirrored Bush's and he supported increasing the size of the military which was a sure sign of business as usual politics no matter what party is in office- I wasn't as taken as his supporters in the hope for real change in the political system.  However, I did expect a little more from Obama and the Democratic Party than we've seen over the last 4 years.  The primary arguments against Bush seemed to be his unilateral swagger in regards to foreign policy, his curtailment of civil liberties, and a general disgust for his economic and social conservatism.  Yet it seems that the Democratic leaders and pundits alike have shifted towards positions that were once loathed by liberals.  

For example lets take a look at one of Obama's campaign promises to shutdown Guantanamo Bay's US prison site, famous around the world for torturing its inmates.  Recently it's been receiving a little more press with many inmates on hunger strikes to protest the conditions there and that many prisoners cleared for release are still being held.  While we can ignore for the time being that his real plan to shut down Guantanamo was really just a plan to create 'Guantanamo North' right here in the US - which allowed them to continue indefinite detention policies- the striking thing is not Obama's failure to close the facility, but the shift in public opinion towards Guantanamo.  
In just a few years time Democrats have gone from supporting it's closure to being pro Gitmo.  Doesn't it seem odd that one of the greatest stains of Bush's presidency and US foreign policy is now being supported by Democrats?  This is an advanced case of DDPS clearly showing the bend in political opinion since Obama stopped pursuing closing the prison.  It should be interesting now that Obama has renewed his pledge to "close" the facility to see if opinion shifts back.

Another such example is support for the war on terror.  Drone strikes that are being justified by the same old "the world is a battlefield Bush Doctrine" have been embraced by Democrats.   "Democrats approve of the drone strikes on American citizens by 58-33, and even liberals approve of them, 55-35."  This means that even self proclaimed liberals support drone strikes against US citizens, giving whomever the current president is the power to secretly kill citizens regardless of geographic location and outside the normative processes of law.  Who thinks for a second that if Bush had stepped out with this policy that liberals and Democrats alike wouldn't have supported this policy?

There are so many symptoms of this left wing hypocrisy disease it might be better to list them:  
Obama signed the NDAA and continued the Patriot Act
Obama fought against any meaningful regulation of the financial industry
Obama favored and signed extending the Bush tax cuts
Obama supports cuts to Social Security and Medicaid
Obama supports immigration reform similar to Bush's plan

So how does one treat DDPS?  They're called principles and they may work for you.  If you believe that invading and occupying countries is a bad idea under Bush, supporting the continuation of those occupations under a new president, principles may be right for you.  If you think drone strikes target only terrorists and support the program despite having no knowledge of who is being targeted even when evidence shows civilians are being killed time and time again, principles may be right for you.  If you think Obamacare is a step towards a progressive healthcare system when there is no public option, principles may be right for you.  If you think that cuts to Social Security and Medicaid are terrible ideas, but voted for Obama, principles might be right for you.  

WARNING: Assuming principled arguments rather than partisan worship may cause: scrutiny from both political parties, defending yourself from straw man arguments that your represent the "other party's" views, feeling nauseous every time you hear the words bipartisan cooperation, death to any political career as you can't change your policy with whatever way the wind blows, and upsetting the establishment.  

Consult history books, experts, and other evidence before making principled arguments.  Do not use while in political office or on national TV or it could result in job loss or controversy.  

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Sam Harris- Take 2

Almost two weeks ago in response to the controversy over Sam Harris and Islamophobia, I hastily wrote about my thoughts on Harris' fear of Muslims and why it seems irrational.  Since that time I've continued to immerse myself in arguments by both Harris and those who argue against his theses.  I've taken the time to read Harris' book The End of Faith, Robert Pape's Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, and a number of recently written articles on the subject.  Also, since my initial writing, the Boston Marathon was bombed bringing the subject of terrorism to the forefront of our news-media coverage.  It strikes me that a rational understanding of terrorism is both necessary and important in the 21st century especially if we aim to stop such terrible acts from becoming more and more common.  We must begin by dispelling the myths behind terrorism and appreciate the complexity of such issues in order to create real solutions to the problem of terrorism.

Harris' book The End of Faith begins by creating a scenario of a man on a bus who blows up himself, the rest of the passengers on the bus, and inflicts further damage on the streets.  His parents feel "great pride" and the neighbors gather to celebrate his accomplishment of killing innocent civilians.  Then Harris asks "Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy—you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on it easy—to guess the young man's religion?"  What this scenario leaves out is where this attack is taking place which matters especially when guessing the religion of the attacker.  For example, if this story was told in Sri-Lanka, or perhaps even the UK in the 80's, the guesses very well could have been either Hindu or Irish Catholic.  Whatever the case, the suggestion that Islam must be behind terrorism is a dangerous proposition, as demonstrated in the aftermath of the Boston bombings when the Washington Post incorrectly claimed that police had a Saudi suspect under guard in a Boston hospital.  Now, in the case of the Boston attacks, news reports have claimed that the older of the two Tsarnaev brothers was a radical Muslim, but is it logical to assume that he was, before such evidence had been produced?

Certainly analysis of data and statistical information on the nature of terrorist attacks shed some light on the situation.  An article from 2010 at loonwatch.com goes into detail showing FBI statistics on terrorist attacks in the US from 1980-2005.  The graph below shows the likely hood of an attack being motivated by Islamic extremism.

That's right 6% of terrorist attacks are committed by Islamic extremists.  Why then is it so easy to guess the religion of the attacker?  The obvious answer is the over hyped and over inflated connection between Islam and terrorism in the post 9/11 world.  After such a dramatic event, it is easy to see why the connections have been made, and coverage of Boston has refreshed that memory with a week of news reports that create a culture of fear within the US public.  Meanwhile, it's keeping people glued to the news channels which increases their ratings and their profit margins.  So is this guess on religion based on statistical knowledge and projections, or the all too common inference that Islam is the cause of terrorism?  Usually in the scientific world we base our hypotheses off of any relevant data we can collect on the subject, but we seem to have a clear departure from any reasoned or scientific view of terrorism and Islam.  However, we should follow Harris' further arguments on the subject to ascertain if this is actually the case.

After the first chapter provides a basic introduction of the arguments contained in the book, chapter 2 launches us straight into a well written and conceived analysis on the nature of belief, how beliefs can affect behavior, and how beliefs not based in evidence can even harm us, amongst other things.  Outside of a few minor points, I agree with and applaud the work in this chapter.  Chapter 3, "In the Shadow of God" is also illuminating on the subject of how religion can and has played a negative role in society over the years and I agree with much of it as well.  It's when he launches into the next chapter "The Problem with Islam" that I depart nearly completely from the views held by Harris.  While I may not have the space to critique every false argument made by Harris in this chapter I hope to elucidate what I believe to be the most important and most erroneous arguments.

Before callously stating that we are at war with Islam, Harris contends that the views of most commentators on Muslim violence can be ignored, including Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Palestine, collusion of western powers with corrupt dictatorships, and the endemic poverty in the region.  He reasons these claims can be laid to rest because there have been and still are groups that are exploited and live in generally poor circumstances beyond those in the "Muslim world" yet they have not resorted to terrorism.  Instead he focuses on the doctrine of Jihad found in the Koran and tries to establish the imperialistic ambitions of Islam as a whole, explaining that Islam is a religion of conquest with only some Muslims having overlooked the "militancy of their religion."  Harris uses a quote by Bernard Lewis from The Crisis of Islam which states "the presumption is that the duty of jihad will continue, interrupted only by truces, until all the world either adopts the Muslim faith or submits to Muslim rule."  He goes on to cite passage after passage from the Koran and Hadiths on Jihad.  His basic argument is that Islam is the primary cause of suicide bombings and Islamic terrorism.

We should analyze these claims though using evidence to see how they hold up.  The idea that we can merely ignore what most commentators have said about the roots of Muslim violence because others who are exploited and poor do not commit such acts is false.  This argument clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of the nature of suicide bombings.  While Harris cites Tibetans as a prime example of exploitation not leading to any attacks, we should note that this is a logical fallacy.  Further, suicide attacks are nearly all part of organized campaigns which have always targeted democracies, or more precisely states with democratic elections.  His argument is essentially that if exploitation and occupation cause suicide terrorism, then all areas that experience exploitation and occupation would use suicide terrorism, and since this in not the case, exploitation and occupation do not cause terrorism.  So what causes some exploited people to resort to terrorism and not others?  Robert Pape in his thorough case study of terrorism, has analyzed every case of suicide bombing from 1980-2003 - 315 total attacks.  He argues that terrorism is a tactic of coercion to achieve nationalistic goals, which as stated, all target democracies.  So in the Tibetan example, putting aside belief systems, what strategic logic would attacking civilians or other targets in a non-democratic state have?  Would it be likely to bend the resolve of a totalitarian regime?

Pape again has insights to these questions stating: "Suicide terrorism is more likely to be employed against states with democratic political systems than against authoritarian governments, for three reasons. First, democracies are often thought to be especially vulnerable to coercive punishment. Domestic critics and international rivals, as well as terrorists, often view democracies as “soft,” usually on the grounds that their publics have low thresholds of cost tolerance and high ability to affect state policy... Second, suicide terrorism is a tool of the weak, which means that, regardless of how much punishment the terrorists inflict, the target state almost always has the capacity to retaliate with far more extreme punishment or even by exterminating the terrorists’ community. Accordingly, suicide terrorists must not only have high interests at stake, they must also be confident that their opponent will be at least somewhat restrained. Democracies are widely perceived as less likely to harm civilians, and no democratic regime has committed genocide in the twentieth century...  Finally, suicide attacks may also be harder to organize or publicize in authoritarian police states, although these possibilities are weakened by the fact that weak authoritarian states are also not targets."

So we can move on.  Robert Pape goes to great lengths to establish the real motives of suicide terrorism in Dying to Win writing that: "First, although religious motives may matter and although Islamic groups receive the most attention in Western media, modern suicide terrorism is not limited to Islamic fundamentalism. As shown in Table 1, the explicitly anti-religious Tamil Tigers have committed 76 of the 315 suicide attacks, more than any other group; they are responsible for the spectacular bombing of the World Trade Center in Colombo in 1997 and the assassinations of two heads of state, Rajiv Gandhi of India and Ranasinghe Premadasa of Sri Lanka.
Even among Muslims, secular groups account for over a third of suicide attacks. The Kurdish PKK, which has used suicide bombers as part of its strategy to achieve Kurdish autonomy, is guided by the secular Marxist-Leninist ideology of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, rather than by Islam. Even in the conflicts most characterized by Islamic fundamentalism, groups with secular ideologies account for an important number of suicide attacks. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist-Leninist group, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, with allegiance to Yasser Arafat’s socialist Fatah movement, together account for thirty-one of ninety-two suicide attacks against Israel, while communist and socialist groups, such as the secular Lebanese National Resistance Front, the Lebanese Communist Party, and the Syrian National Socialist Party, account for twenty-seven of thirty-six suicide attacks in Lebanon in the 1980s."

While Harris has argued against Pape's thesis - that terrorism is best understood in terms of nationalistically motivated political coercion- in his response to controversy, he tackled very little of the abundant evidence presented by Pape that had to do with Islamic terrorism.  Harris wrote: "I would have made it clear to Pape that I have never argued (and would never argue) that all conflicts are attributable to religion or that all suicide bombing is the product of Islam. I am well aware, for instance, that the Tamil Tigers were avowedly secular. Even in this case, however, it seems only decent to recall that they learned the tactic of suicide bombing from Hezbollah and eventually developed their own quasi-religious cult of martyr worship. One can’t really argue that they were a group of classically rational actors. And even here, in this most secular of cases, always used to exculpate Islam, we find the divisive role of religion—because it seems unreasonable to believe that a civil war would have erupted in Sri Lanka if the Tamils, who are nominal Hindus, had been Sinhalese Buddhists, like the government they were fighting. Again, nothing turns on this point, because I admit that not all terrorism need be religiously inspired."

Pape again and again notes the fact that in nearly every case, religious difference is a contributing factor that leads to pursuing the tactic of suicide terrorism.  This obviously has to do with religion being a primary factor in how a person identifies themselves and can then be used to identify the "other", especially when political grievances are at the top of the list.  It seems only fair to note that Harris, on the one hand, is saying that we can put all the political exploitation to the side because there is "no shortage of educated and prosperous men and women, suffering little more than their infatuation with Koranic eschatology, who are eager to murder infidels for God's sake."  Then on the other hand he says, "not all terrorism need be religiously inspired."  So when suicide bombings are done by Muslims, they are evidently religiously motivated, but when done by others they can be and are secular.  Even if we except this there's still further evidence refuting such claims.  Glenn Greenwald wrote this week about the motives of terrorism giving example after example of the stated motives of terrorists.  The main themes are overtly political rather than theological.  If that's not enough evidence of nationalistic and political views being the primary concern, then perhaps we can refer to the most famous terrorist in the world, Osama bin Laden.

"It should not be hidden from you that the people of Islam had suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed on them by the Zionist-Crusaders alliance and their collaborators; to the extent that the Muslims blood became the cheapest and their wealth as loot in the hands of the enemies...  The presence of the USA Crusader military forces on land, sea and air of the states of the Islamic Gulf is the greatest danger threatening the largest oil reserve in the world. The existence of these forces in the area will provoke the people of the country and induces aggression on their religion, feelings and prides and push them to take up armed struggle against the invaders occupying the land; therefore spread of the fighting in the region will expose the oil wealth to the danger of being burned up... It is out of date and no longer acceptable to claim that the presence of the crusaders is necessity and only a temporary measures to protect the land of the two Holy Places. Especially when the civil and the military infrastructures of Iraq were savagely destroyed showing the depth of the Zionist-Crusaders hatred to the Muslims and their children, and the rejection of the idea of replacing the crusaders forces by an Islamic force composed of the sons of the country and other Muslim people."

While Harris contests that the claims Bin Laden made were "primarily theological" he ignores Pape's already stated argument of why this is not the case.  Pape writes: "Further, if religious, social, or economic grievances were primary, then al-Qaeda should have been interested in combating three enemies—the United States, Europe, and Israel—with more or less equal weight and with little regard for the target states’ military policies. However, al-Qaeda’s timing and choice of targets shows that religious and ideological factors are not the forces driving the strategic logic of this suicide terrorist campaign.
The United States has been exporting cultural values that are anathema to Islamic fundamentalism for several decades, but bin Laden and the al-Qaeda organization did not turn toward attacking the United States until after 1990, when the United States sent troops to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain."  This becomes even more important when you consider that attacks against Europe and Australia only happened after they stationed troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In fact, Bin Laden offered a truce if they would remove their troops.

Pape continues on the same subject later in the book in chapter 7 stating, "Examination of al-Qaeda’s pool of suicide terrorists—the seventy-one individuals who actually killed themselves on missions for al-Qaeda from 1995 to 2003—shows that the presence of American military forces for combat operations on the homeland territory of the suicide terrorists is stronger than Islamic fundamentalism in predicting whether individuals from that country will become al-Qaeda suicide terrorists. Islamic fundamentalism may play a modest role in recruiting militants, since al-Qaeda suicide terrorists are twice as likely to come from Muslim countries with Islamic fundamentalist populations compared to Muslim countries with tiny or no Islamic fundamentalist populations. However, al-Qaeda suicide terrorists are ten times more likely to come from Muslim countries where there is an American military presence for combat operations than from other Muslim countries. Further, al-Qaeda suicide terrorists are twenty times more likely to come from Muslim countries with both American military presence for combat operations and Islamic fundamentalist populations compared to other Muslim countries.
Overall, this means that American military policy in the Persian Gulf was most likely the pivotal factor leading to September 11. Although Islamic fundamentalism mattered, the stationing of tens of thousands of American combat troops on the Arabian Peninsula from 1990 to 2001 probably made al-Qaeda suicide attacks against Americans, including the horrible crimes committed on September 11, 2001, from ten to twenty times more likely."

For further evidence simply read Pape's books as the examples are too numerous to use.  Continuing on in Harris' The End of Faith he tries to convince the reader that Islam is inherently imperialistic.  This is a claim which historically and doctrinally can be supported to a degree, but in the modern era it doesn't hold water.  Since Harris is essentially arguing that Islam poses a unique threat beyond other religions, it would do well to note that in the US, all our presidents in recent memory have publicly stated a belief in the Christian god, and the US indeed is the largest empire on earth.  Remember, the US has 761 military bases worldwide and spends more on our military than the next 13 highest military spending countries do.  After he argues for their imperialistic attributes he then tries to explain why the problem isn't just Islamic extremists, but that moderates have accepted this strategy of suicide bombings as well.  His strategy seems simple enough, portray the attacks as motivated by religion rather than blowback from western foreign policy.  Note his recent twitter post from April 19th 2013
Everything is on the table when it comes to putting down the notion that our foreign policy might actually bear much of the blame when it comes to the root causes of terrorism.  We should note that the Washington Post has cited an anonymous government source which has stated that the Boston bombings were motivated by US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  What evidence does Harris produce to make these claims of religious motivation?

Harris points to a 2002 poll done by the Pew Research Center that asked the question "Some people think that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies. Other people believe that, no matter what the reason, this kind of violence is never justified. Do you personally feel that this kind of violence is often justified to defend Islam, sometimes justified, rarely justified, or never justified?"  While the number of respondents in many countries in the middle east seems alarmingly high, this also seems to be a loaded question when the purpose is to establish Islam as a greater threat than other religions.  First, Muslims, as Harris demonstrates, are commanded to defend their religion.  Second, although we don't have polls to verify the responses of Christians in the US, does anyone doubt the number of Christians would be significantly lower than the average number of Muslims that support such violence, specifically if they believed Christianity to be under attack, and that the attack was being done by a foreign country which had been occupying the US and controlling its geopolitics for years?  Finally, what was the response to the attacks against the US on 9/11?  As I documented in my first posting on this subject the vast majority of Americans supported invading Iraq and Afghanistan even though the case against Iraq was completely based on faith in the US rather than real evidence of any threat.  I also noted 93% of Muslims condemned the September 11th attacks.  Is it really that astonishing that people who identify as Muslims would use heinous forms of violence if they felt the religion they identify with was under attack?

This brings up another of Harris' arguments.  Harris calls Chomsky's failure to recognize the moral difference between us and them a "masterpiece of moral blindness."  Although he agrees to an extent with Chomsky's argument that the US is itself a leading terrorist state, he tries to elucidate the moral failing by making the comparison between those who intentionally kill civilians in an attempt to produce maximum damage (the terrorists), and those who unintentionally kill civilians (the US and Israel) which we call collateral damage.  After explaining that if we in the US had perfect weapons we would not need to nor would we kill any innocent people, but we would simply target "the bad guys."  He even goes on to say that: "Chomsky might object that to knowingly place the life of a child in
jeopardy is unacceptable in any case, but clearly this is not a principle we can follow. The makers of roller coasters know, for instance, that despite rigorous safety precautions, sometime, somewhere, a child will be killed by one of their contraptions. Makers of automobiles know this as well. So do makers of hockey sticks, baseball bats, plastic bags, swimming pools, chain-link fences, or nearly anything else that could conceivably contribute to the death of a child. There is a reason we do not refer to the inevitable deaths of children on our ski slopes as "skiing atrocities." But you would not know this from reading Chomsky. For him, intentions do not seem to matter."

This last analogy actually obfuscates the ethics of war and collateral damage more than it does to clarify these ethics, which is the opposite function of an analogy; his perfect weapons hypothetical does the same.  Even though Harris admits in his writings that the consequences of war - collateral damage, or in the case of Iraq killing over 100,000 civilians - are well known before we engage in them, he has the audacity to compare this to manufactures of common goods which may unintentionally harm people.  First, people who make consumer goods while influenced by profit, are primarily making a good that is well intentioned in its use and that in and of itself is a far cry from war.  There is no evidence to suggest the war Iraq was anything but the opposite of well intentioned.  It is a well established fact that Donald Rumsfeld on the very day of the 9/11 attack, tried to use the attack as a justification for attacking Iraq.  Further, David Frum has stated Chalabi and Cheney "spent long hours together, contemplating the possibilities of a Western-oriented Iraq: an additional source of oil, an alternative to U.S. dependency on an unstable-looking Saudi Arabia."  There is absolutely no comparison to be made between these two types of "collateral damage" unless we turn a blind eye to the imperial motivations for such a war.

Perhaps a better analogy for Harris would be to imagine a police officer on a busy NY street receives a call that a notorious murderer is only a block away and with traffic at a stand still he decides to callously drive on a sidewalk full of pedestrians at a speed which injures and kills well over ten times the amount of people the murder did to capture the criminal.  The police officer may not have intended to kill so many, but he would obviously have known the implications of his actions beforehand.  This is why almost anywhere in the world the police officer would be tried as a criminal, and it's the same reason why officials in the Bush administration including Bush himself have travel restrictions for fear of being taken before an international criminal court.  However, my police officer analogy wouldn't do for Iraq -although it arguably would in Afghanistan - simply because even to capture a criminal could be seen as a well intentioned motive.  While a certain amount of subjectivity always exists in examining the motives of others for any action, there is far too much evidence making the case that Iraq was simply a war of aggression that used cluster munitions - which pose an unnecessary and unacceptable risk to civilians and we should note every manufacturer of consumer goods is liable for unacceptable risks - and destroyed civilian infrastructure.

More directly to the point, if we can imagine ourselves in possession of the perfect weapons pursuing a different strategy than a war with collateral damage amounting to far more than the damage terrorists ever inflicted, we should be able to imagine what the terrorists would do with such weapons.  Would they pursue a different strategy as well, perhaps targeting the US military and its bases and destroying the western presence in their homeland, or would they simply continue to kill innocent civilians?  This is one of the main points of terrorism as a strategy.  It is constantly used by the "underdog" in terms of military capability.  Even Japan didn't resort to suicide Kamikaze attacks until they were becoming overwhelmed by stronger US military forces.  Harris' arguments seem all but paper thin and framed not by rational thinking, but by assumptions of western moral clarity and rightness against what he seems to view as the tribal and barbaric "Muslim world."

This becomes more clear after reading his next chapter - I'd like to note he spends 45 pages on Islam and only 17 on "western civilization"- where his problems with the US, and to some extent Europe, seems to stem more from religious rejection of science and contemporary social issues.  He fails to mention the true religion of the US, which seems to be globalized hegemonic capitalism supported by doctrines of economic growth, and often poorly evidenced claims of the righteousness of the western world.  While Harris is busy writing and speaking to condemn Islam as a "cult of death," he simultaneously is preaching the goodness of science and civilization.  This system of industrialized capitalism, which has brought about more scientific revolution than any other period in history, is also destroying the very earth we live on.

Carbon emissions alone threaten to disrupt the earth's environment in ways that surely are a greater threat than Islam could ever pose.  The earth's temperature is projected to rise 4-11 degrees by the end of the century and every degree centigrade the temperature increases is likely to reduce grain yields by 10%.  Meanwhile, our ecological systems are already nearing destruction with Ninety percent of all large predatory fish – including tuna, sharks, swordfish, cod and halibut – gone, and more plastic than plankton exists in our oceans.  While science is obviously not the root cause of these issues, it's important that we note science is merely a process of inquiry with testable results.  If we fail to pose the right questions, science can actually hinder our understanding of the world in some ways.  If anything is a cult of death, it is the industrialized system that is destroying our planet and there's no doubt that scientific knowledge has led us not just to greater understanding, but to further exploiting our universe and shaping it to our desires.  Indeed, scientific knowledge is often used not merely for understanding nature and its phenomena, but an attempt to control nature with what is shaping up to be mankind's greatest threat.  Science has helped us create weapons beyond past imagination as well as cures for diseases, but has it given us the moral clarity to deal with such inventions?

While ecological and environmental issues are not scientific problems, but moral problems, more and more people are slipping into a type of scientific millenarianism in which they believe scientific and modern technological advances are just around the corner to save us.  More people are accepting the doctrine of scientific achievement bringing us a better world for tomorrow with electric cars - never-mind that nearly half our electricity comes from coal - and space colonization.  Harris himself proclaims such images stating that: "Two hundred years from now, when we are a thriving global civilization beginning to colonize space, something about us will have changed: it must have; otherwise, we would have killed ourselves ten times over before this day ever dawned."  While Harris alludes to this change being the end of faith and that technology has created a world where single persons can inflict great damage, he leads us to believe that having aspiring martyrs as neighbors poses the greatest threat.  This will be of little importance even a few generations from now.  Future generations will likely care little about our religious conflicts, or the deities we worshipped, much like we care little about the pagan deities of ancient times, but they will care more deeply than we can imagine about the condition of their air, their water, and the general environmental destruction of the earth we will be leaving them.  We cannot solve moral and ethical problems merely by ridding the earth of religion or accepting science as the path to all knowledge, and as much as I like to see belief systems without evidence challenged, I cannot support ending faith unless we are to simultaneously critique and challenge our own belief systems.  We can meditate for our own spiritual enlightenment and try to metaphysically become one with everything as much as we want, but the real truth is that we need to take informed actions in the real world to connect with nature as more than just a controller of nature, but part of a living system that industrial civilization is destroying.

So when we look back at the motivations of what causes people to commit terrible acts of violence and injustice I've discussed, I hope we can take a good look in the mirror.  Not just to realize the failings of our own countries foreign policy and the blowback it has created, but our own belief systems and the actions they are responsible for in all arenas, specifically our irrational belief in a system that is currently destroying the very world we live on.  Furthermore, the one thing Harris and Islamic terrorists have in common is both believe the US is at war with Islam.  This is a dangerous notion as it is the root cause of Islamic terrorism, as well as a justification of US foreign policy which despite Harris' dubious "moral clarity" has been waging an aggressive war that has killed far more than terrorism.  I encourage all interested in the subject to read Pape's work, and to take seriously what those who attack us give as their motives.  

Epilogue:  If you remain unconvinced that Islam is not the primary cause of terrorism or that the US and Harris have an irrational fear of Islam I encourage you to read the articles below, as well as the linked articles in my first post on the Harris controversy.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Sam Harris Rational or Irrational Fear of Islam?

Recently the hotly debated topic of whether "new atheists" such as Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens have irrationally overhyped the dangers of Islam has broken out on the internet.  It all got started when Glenn Greenwald posted a tweet with a link to an article by Murtaza Hussain, and Nathan Lean at Salon.com, which led to Sam Harris emailing Greenwald in response to the tweeting of the aforementioned article.  This led to Greenwald posting his exchange with Sam Harris with Harris' permission.  Then Greenwald posted an article on Sam Harris, the New Atheists, and anti-Muslim animus.  After some back and forth on twitter Harris replied to the claims in Greenwald's article.  There was also more twitter arguing and Richard Dawkings chiming in to support Sam Harris.  I have been a fairly faithful reader of Greewald's writings first at Salon.com and now at The Guardian as well as reading his book With Liberty and Justice for Some.  Since I'm also a (less avid) reader (although I have watched numerous debates, speeches, and interviews) of Sam Harris it took me some careful review to form an opinion on the subject due to my respect for both Harris and Greenwald.  However, after reading some of the articles and the twitter fights between the two I must say I'm a little shocked at the whole incident.

First I'm an atheist in that I don't worship any gods or attribute natural phenomena to some sort of spiritual deity.  I believe Islam is deserving of harsh and precise critiques due to the obvious abuses and  the behaviors it can create in its adherents.  People can and should be able to criticize the religion without fear of being labeled bigots or racist simply for critiquing a religion.  However, Harris' critique of Islam and Muslims is often overblown in terms of having a rational fear vs having an irrational fear of Islam.

While Harris has taken the time to clarify some quotes that were perhaps misconstrued (albeit confusing in the first place), Greenwald and Hussain were not the only people to complain about his "fascist quote".  Christopher Hitchens did as well stating, ""When I read Sam Harris’s irresponsible remark that only fascists seemed to have the right line, I murmured to myself: “Not while I’m alive, they won’t.” Nor do I wish to concede that Serbo-fascist ethnic cleansing can appear more rational in retrospect than it did at the time. The Islamist threat itself may be crude, but this is an intricate cultural and political challenge that will absorb all of our energies for the rest of our lives: we are all responsible for doing our utmost as citizens as well as for demanding more imagination from our leaders."  Harris has explained the remark in his response to the controversy, but aside from this and a few other remarks I find his response unconvincing and failing to rebut many claims made against him.  While much controversy has erupted over this singular comment, there hasn't been as much discussion of other damming evidence showing that Harris overstates the threat of Islam and even radical Islam.

Let's consider the article the quote came from.  It is a scathing attack on the failure of liberals to realize "a cult of death is forming in the Muslim world," and "the truth is that we are not fighting a “war on terror.” We are fighting a pestilential theology."  What is most striking to me in this entire article is the constant dichotomy between western civilization and Islam and his use of this dichotomy to explain the moral failings of Islam while attributing the US and Israel with having a "moral high ground."  Since Harris himself uses this dichotomy, I think it is fair to make concrete comparisons between what is being done by the US and Israel (as well as other western states) towards the middle east or "Islamic world" in order to put in perspective just how dire these threats are.  Even though Harris makes the claim that "nothing about honestly discussing the doctrine of Islam requires that a person not notice all that might be wrong with U.S. foreign policy, capitalism, the vestiges of empire, or anything else that may be contributing to our ongoing conflicts in the Muslim world."  He uses comparisons between the US and Islam writing "they (liberals) ignore the fact that Muslims intentionally murder noncombatants, while we and the Israelis (as a rule) seek to avoid doing so," and therefore Harris makes it fair game to critique the rationality of the extremity of his fear of Islam vs fear of the crimes of our own state.

So just how dire is the threat of Islam?  Harris states that "The truth is that there is every reason to believe that a terrifying number of the world’s Muslims now view all political and moral questions in terms of their affiliation with Islam. This leads them to rally to the cause of other Muslims no matter how sociopathic their behavior. This benighted religious solidarity may be the greatest problem facing civilization."  Harris is making the claim that religious affiliation and solidarity with other Muslims who commit "sociopathic behavior" just may be the greatest threat to civilization.  Putting aside the facts that civilization actually began in the areas that he calls the "muslim world," often making a sharp distinction between this world and civilization, this is an easily provable falsehood.  We can establish this by putting the threat in perspective, much as Harris has done in his article earlier this year on guns and gun control in the US.  In the article Harris seeks to put into perspective the true reality of gun violence in the US by stating that there are an estimated 100,000 deaths due to the failure of doctors and nurses to wash their hands properly, which is obviously greater than the number of deaths caused by gun violence.  Although he concedes that "A narrow focus on mortality rates does not always do justice to the reality of human suffering" -It should be noted that a mere mortality rate doesn't even come close to doing justice to the suffering caused in Iraq by the US and that it's subsequent foreign policy continues to cause suffering in the region.  Between refugees, secret prisons, destruction of civilian infrastructure, and injuries the toll becomes incalculable-.  Therefore to put the threat of Islam into perspective we can look at the data on the subject.  The odds that you'll die in a terrorist attack are around 1 in 9.3 million worldwide and 1 in 20 million in the US.  This puts your odds of dying in an extremist muslim attack behind the the risk of being mauled to death by a dog.  It's actually lower since not all terrorist attack attributable deaths were committed by Muslims.

However, if you lived in Iraq your chance of dying from the US led invasion was over 1 in 50, because the US wiped out 2.5% of Iraq's population.  So while Harris attributes the US and Israel with a moral high ground for avoiding the killing of noncombatants he fails to note we kill more both in percentage and in number than do Islamic extremists.  However, we do have to pay attention to the very high death toll and real threat posed by Islamic extremists, but anyone with any detailed study of the effects of Islamic extremism would have to concede that those who suffer the most from Islamic extremism -in both attacks and other heinous forms of oppression- are those who live in the "muslim world."  As Hussain points out in his reply to an article shared by sam harris on twitter, "The simple fact is that Islamic extremism is almost exclusively a threat to people like me- not rich, white, westerners like Sam Harris."  This distinction is important because it comes to the heart of Harris' argument for secularism and against Islam.  As Chris Hedges put it, "they externalize evil. Evil is not something that you struggle with within yourself. Evil is embodied in religion."  This is why Harris asserts that Islamic "benighted religious solidarity may be the greatest threat facing civilization."

Harris' arguments for why Islam is such a threat come off somewhat convincingly unless we apply the same standards to ourselves.  Let's be clear that a failure to apply the same standards to our own state result in an externalization of evil and a sanitization of crimes being committed in our own name -Harris himself has argued for US and Israeli rightness while arguing against Islam using this same tactic-.  Harris states that "the only way that Muslims can reasonably be said to exist as a group is in terms of their adherence to the doctrine of Islam," and that Muslims have "an equally dogmatic commitment to using violence to defend one’s faith, both from within and without, is similarly central to the doctrine of Islam."

So how would those claims be applied to the US?  The war in Iraq was launched based off of the belief of protecting the US and its interests from the threat or potential threat of Iraq, specifically from the unproven and zero evidence claims that they had WMD.  This war was one of many wars where a majority of the US public supported the war at the beginning of the war.  Further evidence shows that the US public supported the war even over a year after the conflict began with 54% supporting it in September of 2004.  What kind of dangerous dogmatic beliefs would the US public need to have to support a war based on false claims?  The answers could be said to be blind patriotism, and viewing all their moral and political questions in terms of their national identity.  What's important to note is that the US public adhered to an illegal doctrine of preemptive war, with a dogmatic commitment to using violence to defend our faith that Iraq had WMD, and protect our country from within and without.  The legitimization of the use of violence against our "enemies" is no less radical and follows a very similar process to religious indoctrination, whereby the public was indoctrinated to believe in a profound threat to their country with no supporting evidence.  It's also worth noting for perspective, that 93% of Muslim's when polled, condemned the 9/11 attacks.

Now we have to pause to concede that Islam and more correctly Islamic extremism poses a threat in more than just one arena to the inhabitants of the globe.  This is why it deserves strong critiques from Harris and others.  Honor violence and extreme patriarchy are just two cases.  It is also in part responsible for over 3,000 deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2011.  However, Iraq and Afghanistan are the two countries with the most terrorist attacks in the world.  This begs the question of what exactly motivates the violence throughout the "muslim world," and whether or not the relationship to Islam is the fundamental factor.  Does rationality or religion tend to dominate more of the so called "muslim world"?  Dalia Mogahed,  former Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, says "Politics, not piety, differentiate moderates from radicals' in the Islamic world."  

Still more experts like Tariq Ali (an atheist British Pakastani) have argued, "the "war against terror" is immoral and counterproductive. It sanctions the use of state terror - bombing raids, torture, countless civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq - against Islamo-anarchists whose numbers are small, but whose reach is deadly. The solution then, as now, is political, not military. The British ruling elite understood this perfectly well in the case of Ireland. Security measures, anti-terror laws rushed through parliament, identity cards, a curtailment of civil liberties, will not solve the problem. If anything, they will push young Muslims in the direction of mindless violence."

This analysis was generally confirmed correct by the CIA, as Greenwald pointed out, back in 2004.   "American direct intervention in the muslim world has paradoxically elevated the stature and support for radical extremists while at the same time diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies."  Another report about the 2008 gallup poll, that Greenwald also pointed out, has Mogahed saying, "Some actually cited religious justifications for why they were against 9/11, going as far as to quote from the Koran -- for example, the verse that says taking one innocent life is like killing all humanity."

This last quote is so poignant to the debate, when you compare what actual Muslims are reported to have said vs the characterization of Muslims by Sam Harris "While there are undoubtedly some moderate Muslims who have decided to overlook the irrescindable militancy of their religion, Islam is undeniably a religion of conquest. The only future devout Muslims can envisage—as Muslims—is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, politically subjugated, or killed. The tenets of Islam simply do not admit of anything but a temporary sharing of power with the “enemies of God.”  Please read the full article so I'm not accused of taking him out of context.

The article goes on to state, "We are now mired in a religious war in Iraq and elsewhere. Our enemies--as witnessed by their astonishing willingness to slaughter themselves--are not principally motivated by political or economic grievances."  These are assumptions that I have yet to see evidence for, and as a skeptic I think we should ask Harris to provide his evidence.  Then Harris continues, "It is not enough for moderate Muslims to say “not in our name.” They must now police their own communities. They must offer unreserved assistance to western governments in locating the extremists in their midst."  He's actually advocating that they must without reservation allow foreign governments access to their nation to locate the extremists, although it is a well known fact that the US doesn't just locate extremists.  The US kills them, captures them, and even tortures them.  Imagine just for a second if we applied the same standards to our own country.  We would have to give up Bush and Cheney to the International Criminal Court for war crimes.  We would have to submit our country to foreign governments to give up people that other countries decided were criminals outside the normative processes of international law.  But this is only hypothetical as they would have to have the most advanced and expensive military in the world, and currently that's our game.

Harris continues in that same article and goes on to say, "However mixed or misguided American intentions were in launching this war, civilized human beings are now attempting, at considerable cost to themselves, to improve life for the Iraqi people. The terrible truth about our predicament in Iraq is that even if we had invaded with no other purpose than to remove Saddam Hussein from power and make Iraq a paradise on earth, we could still expect tomorrow’s paper to reveal that another jihadi has blown himself up for the sake of killing scores of innocent men, women, and children. The outrage that Muslims feel over U.S. and British foreign policy is primarily the product of theological concerns."  This in not only in stark contrast to the poll cited above about the middle east, but absolutely ignorant of the history of the middle east.  Perhaps Harris is unaware of the use of cluster munitions in Iraq which means "Iraqi civilians will be paying the price with their lives and limbs for many years," according to Steve Goose -This is also evidence contrary to Harris' claim that we avoid killing non combatants-.  The part that shows true ignorance however is that the outrage in the middle east is not primarily driven by policies of; aggressive preemptive war, bombing of civilian infrastructure, torture, black op prisons, and  just maybe the death of 2.5% of their countrymen after a decade of sanctions that caused the death of children to increase dramatically with reports ranging from 170,000 to 500,000+, but is "primarily the product of theological concerns."

Again, I'm not arguing against criticizing Islam, I'm arguing against using religion as a basis for overtly political arguments in favor of "civilized human beings" (inferring that those in the middle east are less than civilized human beings) that are attempting to improve the lives of Iraqi people when Iraqis are obviously being harmed by policies of continued war waged by these same "civilized human beings."  Harris then writes that, "there is, after all, little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death."  This brings to mind the question of whether Harris realizes that Pakistan is both an Islamic republic as well as a nuclear state -with the highest levels of support for Islamic fundamentalism-, but again he asserts that because these countries are muslim they are not deterred by the threat of death.  Therefore they pose an extreme threat to the country with the most powerful military and intelligence organizations on earth, and with the most advanced nuclear deterrence system on earth that is currently considering investing even more money in nuclear weapons.

While Harris isn't wrong in asserting that religion plays a major role in the politics of the middle east I believe his arguments are a vast oversimplification of the problems with an overemphasis on religion while virtually ignoring the political and social motivations for extremism.  After all Harris may be  unaware there is a long history of the US supporting religious groups (such as the Mujahideen) to stop Arab socialism and communism, and continues to fund the Taliban.   Not to mention US support for Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, and Indonesia.  How this support has in many ways led to the de-liberalization of the middle east is debatable, but dismissing them to focus on motives of faith is irresponsible, and a mischaracterization of the issues.

Harris continually asserts that the problems are overwhelmingly religious rather than rational or political, yet still more experts like the Middle East Research and Information Project claim that, "Because it is associated with Western modes of thinking and behavior, liberal democracy is always in danger of being associated with Western misdeeds, real and alleged. To many Arabs and Muslims, Western economic, political and cultural influence appears more pernicious than ever. The so-called intellectual onslaught (al-ghazw al-fikri) on Arab-Islamic culture and identity is a main theme of the day, and many see liberal democracy as part of that assault...  Western debate frequently mirrors the themes, concerns and obsessions of the Islamist one, albeit with different connotations. The more sophisticated skeptics usually refer to Islam as an effective barrier against development, modernity and democracy; the less sophisticated to “the Arab mind,” which is allegedly inclined toward authoritarianism and incapable of accepting pluralism and self-critique."  Instead of asserting that religion plays the dominate role in middle eastern politics as well as every area of their life, it is much more correct that religion, poverty, education, as well a foreign political policies all play a central role in the problems facing the middle east.  Why Harris places so much emphasis on the religious aspects of these issues is both predictable, as he is mostly preoccupied with religion, but also a mischaracterization of the problems with too much emphasis on religion, while at the same time arguing for many imperialist policies.

The policies Harris has argued for are; torture, saying that, "I am one of the few people I know of who has argued in print that torture may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror", -the argument that says this is merely a hypothetical and that he has philosophers penchant for controversial subjects or ethics is absurd when he is purposely coming up with outlandish situations to justify the use of torture at a time when torture is being authorized by the US publicly-, profiling of Muslims, "We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it... there are people who do not stand a chance of being jihadists, and TSA screeners can know this at a glance.", and to me the most repellant claim that, "there are tens of millions of people in the Muslim world who are far scarier than Dick Cheney."  The reason why I find this last claim so repellant is that it is a crime against reason to suggest that tens of millions of people in the muslim world even have a sliver of the destructive force that Cheney had under his influence.  This is especially true  because Cheney is a radical proponent of preemptive wars which are held by international law to be illegal, and one of the crimes brought up against the Nazis at Nuremberg.  The reality is that yes the threat of Islamic extremists are scary, but not nearly as scary as those who have the power to subjugate an entire country to the foreign policy of their making by military force in a preemptive and unilateral invasion.  How can anyone not see that a man with a gun is probably more powerful than a man without one, and a man that can influence the most advanced military force the world has ever known to invade a country on false premises (and did precisely that), constitutes more of a threat to the world than Islamic extremists?

While I'm willing to concede that Harris is neither racist or bigoted, it is obvious why he has had to defend himself from such claims.  Perhaps with some perspective on the claims Harris makes over and over again about obviously over exaggerated threats of Islam, we can take a step back and see it's a much more complex problem than merely boiling it down to religious extremism.  Harris is right to criticize Islam on many fronts including the religious dogmas which have hurt mostly their own people, but he is wholly wrong to use religion as the primary factor in all that is wrong in the middle east while ignoring the crimes of the west, and suggesting the US has a moral high ground in the war on terror.  Political motivations as well as international policies -specifically US policies- are just as important if not more important in shaping what seems to be the growing violence of the middle east.

Further, I would also like to say that Harris, and even Dawkins, on this controversy, have not responded with composure or respect at times.  Harris and Dawkins have both tweeted "quote mined" attacks against Greenwald which do a great deal more to distort the views of Greenwald.

This claim that Greenwald supported the Iraq war by writing in the preface of his first book explaining his apathy towards politics and "coming of age" in political terms - that uses a quote that merely states he gave Bush the benefit of the doubt in his handling on the war on terror- is a mischaracterization of enormous proportions.  If you'd read the book you'd know it is anything but a source of support for the Iraq war nor does it give support for Bush's policies.  Harris has also made claims against Greenwald's character which have nothing to do with the debate at hand.  Simple vilification of ones critics, while straw-manning, crying libel and slander at your critics, and failing to provide either context or a reasonable rationale for the obviously over inflated fears Harris propagates about Islam -especially in the context of an endless war waged by those who Harris asserts have a moral high ground- are reason enough for rational and reasonable atheists and theists alike to condemn not Harris, but some of his ideas as both irrational and unfounded in reality.

When a person attacks another on character because they have been attacked on their work, is not only disingenuous (as Harris supposes of Greenwald), but more importantly counterproductive to a much needed debate on just what role Islam plays in the middle east and the world in general.  Rather than see two (or more) influential writers debate the topic of what does and does not constitute a rational fear of Islam the debate quickly spiraled into attacks on character, accusations of bullying, and claims of being attacked unethically while complaining about having to defend controversial statements -and in my opinion (and others) irrational and contradicting reality-, we as a society benefit from open discourse.

Update: I've written a second post on Sam Harris here.

UpdateII: I came across a gallup poll asking...
Apparently people in the US must be a "cult of death" as well.  For more on this see this.
Update III: For more on Sam Harris and his faith in government while criticizing religion read this.