Thursday, December 23, 2010

Making Christmas.

What does Christmas mean to me?

I’m not remotely religious. I disapprove of organised religion more than just about anything else. “Spirituality” as a whole only rates slightly higher because it’s a bit less dangerous. I’m quite outspoken about atheism, existentialism and similarly godless topics. So why did I tear up in the Muppet Christmas Carol when Robin as Tiny Tim prayed simply “God bless us, everyone”?

Because the actual sentiments involved, if you don’t just take him literally, aren’t in conflict with my own at all. They were those I’ve come to associate with Christmas as an Australian: spending time with family and friends. Appreciating what we have and who we share it with. Dickens’ line affirms that we are all blessed, all special, and not in the paradoxical sense in which we can’t all be special because “special” is in contrast with “normal”, but in the transitive sense in which we are special to other people. You don’t get much more existentialist than that. That’s what Christmas means to me: an affirmation of those bonds which define and elevate us.

Tim Minchin, one of my favourite artists, has a wonderful song along similar lines.

What does it mean to you?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Anarchy of Ideas.

“Opinions are like arseholes. Everyone has one, and everyone else’s stinks.”
— old witticism.
“Only when they’re full of shit.”
Quincy’s stock response.
The expression which forms this post’s title is most commonly used to refer to the notion that “anything goes”, in terms of philosophy and opinion. To favour it is to hold that opinions somehow should be immune from attack, because they’re personal and precious; and coupled with this, because opinions are personal and precious, everyone has a responsibility to reinvent the wheel and have a unique set of opinions rather than accepting those of others, even if he agrees with them.

This is to some extent commendable. The capacity for independent thought is a virtue, but in encouraging skepticism and critical thinking it is easy to encourage cynicism and solipsism, which are just as unhealthy as ignorance and blind faith. Note that I said the capacity for independent thought. If someone has come up with compelling arguments for a view you accept, there’s nothing wrong with agreeing and leaving it at that. Constant criticism is mentally exhausting and for the most part unnecessary.

The use of the word anarchy is especially apt, because it suggests not just liberty and individualism but also a state of disorganised chaos. Such an intellectual climate emphasises the difference between competing views, and downplays their compatibility; the extremists drown out the moderates, as we’ve seen in the last decade in American politics. The average Republican voter is nowhere near as fundamentalist or as libertarian as the average Republican campaigner or supporter. The average Christian has no problem with the existence of Muslims or gays, or the use of contraception, but you wouldn’t think that to listen to the average minister. Marcus Brigstocke accuses the reasonable moderates of complicity in such extremism by providing it with a power base; without it, the extremists “would just be loonies, harmlessly locked away somewhere nice.”

The results are felt on both sides of politics; the Greens, the communists and other vaguely socialist groups might agree on the majority of their core tenets, but they compete and emphasise their differences, splitting off the socialist vote. This is especially damaging in plurality systems like in the USA, but even in preferential Australia the lack of a united front leaves the ALP the default, or default second preference, for the socialist left. On the right, churches have split over the most minor theological or metaphysical disagreements, and ecumenism has won few battles to overcome these divides; if the DLP, the Christian Party, Fred Nile and Family First, all of which share mostly similar policies, had pooled their resources, they might have been able to get some seats. I don’t think this would have been a good thing for the country, but it would have been in line with the parties’ policy goals. Once you’ve got some united sort of power, you can work on making the appropriate compromises so as to best represent your electorate.

I, of all people, don’t mean to advocate simple conservatism, or sacrificing one’s individuality. I am certainly not a moral conservative, although I am conservative when it comes to things like fashion and architecture, for reasons I will detail another day. What I would really like to see is an emphasis on context, on the relationship between ideas, and on qualified agreement rather than complete rejection where some compatibility exists.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Failure of Moral Democracy.

“Where there is tension between cultural attitudes and universal human rights, universal human rights must carry the day. Personal disapproval, even society’s disapproval, is no excuse to arrest, detain, imprison, harass or torture anyone. Ever.”
— Ban Ki-moon.
What’s sad is that despite the sheer obviousness of this sentiment, the Secretary-General has to remind us of its truth. A number of governments recently managed to get homosexuality removed from a UN document which enumerates unacceptable grounds for discrimination and criminal prosecution, such as race and religious beliefs. Homosexuality remains a crime in more than 70 countries. Ban has pledged to continue to fight for this issue, but the UN has very little real power; and even so, its processes are democratic in the worst possible sense. The number of countries whose governments had a vested interest in making this change was smaller than a majority, but the number of countries whose governments simply didn’t give a damn, for whatever reason, was large enough to give them a plurality.

Even in what I just said, there is an equivocation which highlights the problems of this approach: the word “unacceptable”. If we look at it amorally, we find that the modified document is truer than the original; homosexuality is clearly “acceptable” grounds for discrimination and persecution, because scores of countries and millions of people accept it as such. This is, of course, not the way the word is intended; the meaning is not that it is impossible to accept but that it is impermissible to accept. And this demonstrates the dangers of confusing the two, of making moral rules based not on what is right but what is popular.

Now, intuition has its place in moral reasoning. Judith Thomson is particularly noted for demonstrating moral intuitions by variations on a number of thought experiments. These thought experiments work because the vast majority of people have the same intuitive moral belief about the situation the thought experiment presents. If most people share most moral intuitions, then surely a democratic system would be sufficient (indeed, ideal) to establish both moral rules and legal embodiments of them?

Unfortunately not. Firstly because it takes a great deal of work to get from the intuition to the appropriate rule, and secondly because intuition is not the whole story. Moral thought experiments are like scientific experiments; the activity only gives us data, and the interpretation of that data is what gives us actual results in the form of scientific or moral theories. Also in parallel to science, moral rules must be consistent; if two intuitions cannot both be explained by a consistent set of rules, at least one must be discarded. Simplicity is also important. Moral opposition to racism, homophobia, religious persecution and so on can all descend from the acceptance of two quite simple principles: that that which harms (or endangers) nobody wrongs nobody, and that that which wrongs nobody is permissible.

The intuition-based approach can only be trusted if the intuition in question is nearly universal; a simple majority is woefully insufficient. When it comes to contentious issues, personal beliefs are not necessarily helpful at all, and can often conflict with more basic intuitions. It may be intuitive enough that that which harms nobody is permissible, but the logical step from this intuition to acceptance of alternative sexual, religious, or cultural practices is often not made. Even amongst those who advocate for such acceptance, they too often forget the original intuition themselves and argue for the protection of practices that are actually harmful, simply because they are “cultural practices” or “religious traditions”.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Advocacy in the Information Age.

Just a short post this morning. I’m sorry for letting this issue take over the blog this last week, but it’s a damned important one and I still feel like I’ve got more to say, even as I learn more about the situation.

I saw GetUp’s ad in the Australian yesterday. I think it’s quite wonderful, regardless of whether you believe in every cause they advocate for (I’d wager a majority of members don’t; certainly I don’t), that there is an organisation like this that can get people together to campaign on just about any issue. Groups like GetUp, or MoveOn in America, have the potential to become as crucial to what we think of as democracy as the free press itself, or the republican model of government.

Mass action has always played a part in the development and evolution of liberal democracy. But most such movements have had a charismatic leader around which the people have rallied and who has been able to use the power of the people to effect the change he desires; Martin Luther King Jr for the American civil rights movement is the most obvious example. But things are even more organic now that rallies can be arranged with a week’s notice on Facebook — we can see the first seeds of this potential in the flashmobs that have been in vogue in the most recent decade, but the exact same techniques are now being used for ideological and political purposes. There’s a rally in Melbourne on Friday evening in support of Julian Assange. I have no idea who organised it, the only reason I know about it is the Facebook invitation that arrived in my email inbox this afternoon, barely 48 hours before it’s due to begin.

This is the sort of movement that the Internet seems almost tailor-made to support; one that a massed audience might not be motivated enough to make a big fuss about, but that a few thousand people (nearly 100,000 signed GetUp’s Wikileaks letter to the USA) care about a lot. The sort of number that isn’t the critical mass necessary to form a movement, but big enough that — if it can be coördinated well — it can make a significant difference. The Internet, and savvy groups like GetUp with social networking tools, make such coördination possible. As Rule 34 says that no matter what it is, there is porn of it somewhere on the Internet, and Rule 51 says that no matter what it is, there is somebody for whom it is a turn-on, so there ought to be a rule that says that no matter what it is you believe, you will be able to find someone on the Internet who agrees with you.

This isn’t always a good thing, of course — that depends on what you believe in the first place — but the sheer wealth of opinions and ideas floating around out there makes it much easier to triangulate your own position and find arguments to defend and test it. It also helps you find compromises and common ground; a weaker version of your claim may find you more supporters and be more defensible itself. In the case of the present campaign, even those who disapprove of what Wikileaks has done may sign the petition because what it calls for is for the site’s operators not to be labelled terrorists or enemy combatants, and for the presumption of innocence and right to a fair trial to be preserved, which even the guilty in our civilisation are supposed to deserve.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On Maturity and Odd Socks.

“There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.”
— Terrance Dicks, Doctor Who: Robot.
In discussing maturity, I’d like first to tell why I created Watching the Aeroplanes in the first place.

My fiancée needed a new hobby: one that wouldn’t involve putting in an effort to learn a whole new skill, one that wouldn’t require a big commitment of time or money, and one that could be her own little project outside work. I suggested we both start blogs — she jumped on the idea, and came up with some great ideas for posts in the first day, while mine sort of sat around unstarted for a few weeks until I decided to go for the political opinion/navel-contemplating style of blog I’ve adopted. The original idea was as a hobby for her, but it’s worked wonders for me as well. If I hit a brick wall in my more serious writing, as I have at the time of writing this bit, I can take a break and work on a post for a bit, and when I go back to my paper in ten minutes’ time, I’ll be a lot fresher and be able to do better work on it.

In her sidebar, The Little Quince explains that “I’m currently involved in a long and perilous psychological journey, otherwise known as ‘Getting In Touch With My Inner Crazy’. Initial strategies involve writing this blog, and wearing odd socks.” It’s funny, of course, but that was actually a genuine strategy for dealing with the stress she was under at the time — and it worked. She had become so uncomfortable that even doing something like wearing odd socks to work felt wrong: even though nobody would notice; even though, if anybody did notice, they wouldn’t care; even though there was nothing wrong with it at all. But I seized on it and was able to persuade her to wear odd socks — green and purple stripey ones, no less — to work the next day. And she felt better for it. It wasn’t exactly rebellion: the point of it was to do something that didn’t matter, precisely because it didn’t matter, and because she could.

One symptom, or form, of immaturity is attaching too little importance to really important things. But one can also go the other way: what Quincy was doing, and what so many of us do when we try to be mature, was attaching too much importance to things that really didn’t matter. This isn’t maturity; it’s paranoia. It’s not even just overdoing maturity, because maturity isn’t just caring about important things. It’s OK to care about wearing nice clothes, but that should be because you like to look or feel good, not because you feel wrong without them. Maturity is knowing what has to be important, knowing what doesn’t have to be, and deciding what we want to be and why.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Your Voice in the New York Times

Sarah Palin wants Julian Assange hunted as a terrorist. She’s among a swelling chorus of American politicians calling for the arrest — and even the death — of the Australian citizen who runs Wikileaks. It's a shame that real terrorists, the kind we should be focusing our attention on, don't show up at British Police stations with their lawyers, as Wikileaks founder Julian Assange did on Wednesday.

Here in Australia, Prime Minister Gillard pre-emptively judged Mr. Assange “illegal,” even as the Attorney General confirmed that no Australian nor international crime by wikileaks has been identified.

The death penalty? Judgment before trial? This isn’t the kind of justice system we have in Australia. If our Government won't stand up for the rights of Australian citizens, let’s do it ourselves.

We’re printing ads in the Washington Times and the New York Times with the statement our Government should have made, signed by as many Australians as possible. Will you add your name to the signatories, and invite your friends to join too?

The statement:
Dear President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder:
We, as Australians, condemn calls for violence, including assassination, against Australian citizen and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, or for him to be labeled a terrorist, enemy combatant or be treated outside the ordinary course of justice in any way.
As Thomas Jefferson said, “information is the currency of democracy.” Publishing leaked information in collaboration with major news outlets, as Wikileaks and Mr. Assange have done, is not a terrorist act.
Australia and the United States are the strongest of allies. Our soldiers serve side by side and we’ve experienced, and condemned, the consequences of terrorism together. To label Wikileaks a terrorist organisation is an insult to those Australians and Americans who have lost their lives to acts of terrorism and to terrorist forces.
If Wikileaks or their staff have broken international or national laws, let that case be heard in a just and fair court of law. At the moment, no such charges have been brought.
We are writing as Australians to say what our Government should have said: that all Australian citizens deserve to be free from persecution, threats of violence and detention without charge, especially from our friend and ally, the United States.
We call upon you to stand up for our shared democratic principles of the presumption of innocence and freedom of information.
We’re printing this statement in the Washington Times and the New York Times early next week — and the more Australians sign, the more powerful the message will be. Please add your name by clicking below, and pass this message on to friends and family:

GetUp members (including myself) have donated to put a strong statement in a full page ad in The New York Times, so we need as many signatures (names will not be published, only the total number of signatures) as possible before the ad runs next week. Help get us to 75,000!

What has started with WikiLeaks being branded as terrorists won’t end there.

In fact, just yesterday U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, Chair of the Senate's Homeland Security Committee, said that the New York Times should also be investigated under the U.S. Espionage Act for publishing a number of the diplomatic cables leaked to Wikileaks. We can help stop such plans in their tracks, by showing how they are affecting the image of the US in the eyes of their staunchest friends and allies.

Click here to sign the statement before it’s published in the New York Times and Washington Times.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Don’t Shoot the Messenger.

This morning I’m mainly going to share Julian Assange’s own rebuttal to the attacks made on Wikileaks, published in yesterday’s Australian newspaper. I’m not going to pass judgement on his present extradition trial; Sweden wants him for sexual assault charges, not anything to do with his work, which a lot of people seem to be forgetting. (I’ve heard a number of different reports as to what these charges are; one source claims that his crime was in fact not using a condom.)

I don’t think he gets everything completely right. I understand his desire to paint Wikileaks as the underdog; it certainly appeals to the Australian mindset. Rather, I think the reason the authorities are scapegoating the organisation is that if they went after the other, more established news organisations that are coöperating with Wikileaks in releasing its information, there would be a much bigger backlash about freedom of speech and of the press than there has been. And that is, ultimately, what this is all about. It’s not treason: for that matter, Assange isn’t even American. It’s not spying: Wikileaks takes anonymous submissions, investigates them to ensure their authenticity, and then releases them with the assistance of the press. It’s just journalism: impressively hard-hitting journalism, especially embarrassing to a lot of powerful people, but hey — surely that’s what we keep the media around for, morally speaking? It’s their job to see that our leaders can’t get away with anything.

For my own part, I’m on the side of the leakers and journalists up to the point where they release information that’s dangerous to life; so far, the only life that seems to have been threatened by their actions is Assange’s himself. As I’ve said before, the truth never hurt anyone unless a lie got there first. I don’t think this will usher in a new era of more open government. I expect that if anything it will lead to less openness, as official organisations will be less willing to be completely open with each other if they know that what they have to say might be leaked and published. But we’ve always lived with that possibility. Yes Minister paints leaks as just another government tool (“The Ship of State is the only ship that leaks from the top”); perhaps the real objection to this one is that it wasn’t politically motivated, at least by any ideology other than a desire to share the truth.

What has been released so far is embarrassing, but doesn’t seem to involve national secrets or anything like that. Of course, they may be saving the best for last. But what we’ve seen in the last week or so has been a rare glimpse into the relatively private lives of our leaders and politicians and diplomats, and what have we actually found?

That they’re people, no better or worse than most of us. They’re not good or evil; they’re not especially intelligent or dimwitted. I think this is a reminder that the world, especially the USA, needed. It’s a particularly Australian thing, I feel. You cut down the tall poppy by showing him to be just a poppy. In this light, I think Kevin Rudd’s response to the whole mess was by far the best of anyone’s: “I don’t care. I’ve read worse.”

ETA: By far the worst thing to come out of this, I feel, is that Paypal and the major credit card companies have cut off Wikileaks from receiving payments. The organisation survives on donations, many of them small, anonymous, and made online. They have the legal right to do so as private corporations, but I think this is despicable and cowardly. Wikileaks is not a criminal organisation; to compare its releases to terrorism is an insult to the memory of every terrorist victim. Most jarring is the fact that they still allow payments to hate groups and organisations committed to spreading lies and bullshit, while cutting off a group whose ideology is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Blogger's Block.

Nothing much today, sorry. I don’t really have writer’s block as such; but by the time I come around to WTA I’m all writted out, as I’m rather busy at the moment preparing a paper I have to give in a couple of months. I’ll be taking a scheduled break closer to the time but for now I plan to at least try to keep to my schedule. I will, however, share a few of the things I plan to post about over the next little while.
  • Last month’s post What Does Your City Say About You? still has a follow-up planned, talking about why things like beauty and grandeur are not only nice but crucial to society’s well-being. The way things are going, I might need two or three posts to cover it.
  • I have quite a few things to say on the subject of education, following on from last week’s response to criticism of the treatment of disabled students. In addition to better accommodating disabled students, I want to argue for the provision of disability education as part of the normal curriculum.
  • I have a few more book reviews in the pipeline, including Mark Rosenfelder’s excellent Language Construction Kit and Planet Construction Kit.
  • A post concerning the purpose and means of rebellion, which has been on the back burner for more than a month now.
Meanwhile, cheerio. Do stick around.

    Saturday, December 4, 2010

    Preference Deals.

    Whose lame idea was it to allow this sort of thing? Preference deals are one of the strangest and stupidest aspects of the political system in this country.

    The idea of preferential voting is that, if the guy you voted for doesn’t get in, you at least shouldn’t be stuck with someone you despise. I find this aspect of the system to be quite marvellous, actually. It means that more extreme candidates have a harder job getting in (this is part of the reason for the rush to the centre that defines our major parties, but it’s far from the whole story). It means that people are less likely to feel that their vote was “wasted”, as you can vote for a minor candidate while still affecting the outcome.

    Contrast this with the American electoral system, where people vote for the major parties even if the minor ones are closer to their ideals, because if you don’t vote for a major, then the other major is more likely to get in: in Australia, he isn’t, unless you want him to be. Libertarians tend to vote Republican, and environmentalists tend to vote Democrat, even though the USA has both a Libertarian Party and a Green Party. Here, fundies vote Family First, and greenies and socialists by and large vote for the Greens, because doing so doesn’t waste their vote.

    The part I don’t understand is this: every party hands out “How To Vote” flyers at polling booths. The idea is not to educate voters on how the polling process works (we have officials for that), nor even on how the policies of the parties compare, but to tell them that the party wants them to vote a certain way: Labor wants you to put the Greens ahead of Family First, for example. (Most of the time, they don’t even tell you that — the card I had foisted on me by a Labor rep at the state election didn’t even have the party names on it, just the list of candidates and the order they wanted me to preference them in.) It’s even worse for multiple-member constituencies, such as the Senate or the State Legislative Councils, because you don’t even have to follow the flyer — you just make a single mark to say “I’d like to whore away my democratic rights to Party X, please.”

    The idea here, I imagine, was that this was the quickest way for the parties to inform voters as to how closely its own policies would be matched by the alternatives. But it doesn’t really work that way. The reality is that the candidates are ranked according to deals done between the parties themselves; two parties might do a deal to each be ranked second on the other’s How To Vote card. Labor, nominally a left-wing, vaguely social-democratic party, did a preference deal in 2004 with Family First, functionally a fundie Christian party, that resulted in FF sharing the balance of power in the Senate until this year. Labor has apparently since learned its lesson, but the backlash was significant.

    A campaign, Below The Line, exists to challenge party preference deals. But as long as it’s easier to make one mark than twenty, or to follow a little card handed to you five minutes ago by a complete stranger than to ask yourself whether you’d rather see a Green or a Labor member in parliament if your Sex Party vote is unsuccessful, party preference deals will continue to be a problem. The only solution, really, is to ban the bastard little cards altogether, and save a few trees while we’re at it. Same goes for automatic preferences in the Senate.

    Thursday, December 2, 2010

    Mutant Martian Death Hayfever.

    I was going to post on the election result, but I haven’t really been keeping up with the news enough to warrant a full post just yet. For now, I’ll just say that, PR stunt though it may be, I’m glad that Baillieu’s wanting to get right into the business of government now, rather than waiting till after the Christmas break; and that I’m disappointed that the Greens didn’t win any of the inner-city seats they’d been hoping for, particularly after Bandt’s historic win at the Federal election, but I agree with the party’s own analysis that it is in all probability just a matter of time. If and when I post more about the result, it will probably be at least partly to bitch about the way preferences work.
    “Hayfever — you don’t die, but you wish you could.”
    — Robert A. Heinlein, “The Menace From Earth”.
    Unfortunately, much the same as this time last week, my allergies are making it pretty much impossible to brain. For the first time, I’ve had to take time off work and get prescription-strength stuff to deal with them. Not only that, it’s the first time I’ve been presented with a nasal spray as an option and not decided I’d rather have the hayfever. For some reason I find the things extremely painful to use, but at least this one, unlike some I’ve tried in the past, doesn’t taste like month-old dishwater.

    One other option I spoke to the doctor about was a desensitisation programme. It’d be no good for this season — it takes a couple of months — but it’s something I’m considering doing next year. Has anyone who’s reading this gone through it? I know it’d cost a bit to have done, but the way things go I’m going through at least $100 worth of allergy meds every year, and this year has been far worse than ever: I wound up coughing and wheezing yesterday morning and only managed less than an hour at work before I had to give up because I seriously could not function.

    Between the cost of medication and potential lost productivity, even if it cost a few hundred, desensitisation would be a worthwhile investment — if it works. The doctor said that it wasn’t guaranteed to work, and if it did work it might not get rid of the symptoms completely or permanently, so I’m tossing up as to whether it’s worth trying. (It also depends on whether they can discover exactly what sets me off — as it’s a seasonal thing, it’s almost certain to be pollen of one sort or another, but I’d need blood tests to narrow it down.) If you know anything more about this sort of option, please leave a comment. I hadn’t even heard about it until quite recently, so I’m rather keen to gather all the information I can.

    Also, enjoy the Heinlein story I linked. It’s one of my favourites.