May 31, 2006

Haditha - duh...

I can't believe some of the commentary about Haditha. One has to be appaled, disgusted even, by what went on. But one can't be surprised. This is war. Humans have been waging war for millenia, and its effect on the warriors participating in it has always been the same. Any conflict that carries on long enough will lead to very human, very primal and very violent episodes such as these. From the bloodsoaked sea at Napoleon's Jaffa to the rape of Nanking, the fall of Berlin and the betraying churches of Rwanda flows a continuous scream of human anger, bloodthirst, fear, pain and death. The people that stood proudly behind these armies thought themselves on the right side of history, considered themselves generous benefactors, bringing culture, material progress, civilization, or righteous avengers for previous atrocities. They thought their soldiers heroes.

When put in life-threatening danger for prolonged periods, humans revert to their core being: animals that protect their own hides first. At any cost. Haditha wasn't the first of these gratuitous killings in the conquest of Iraq - there have been too many reports like that already - but it is the first that got noticed in the US. If you want to be surprised, be surprised that this one may actually be prosecuted. Don't be surprised that it happened.

May 26, 2006

No rights without duties...

May 25, 2006

When normality isn't normal

I biked to get Chinese takeout this evening. When I was halfway there, I realised how normal this felt. It briefly occured to me to take the car, because it was a little chilly, and my daughter had a last-minute desire to come along. But it was a very brief moment. It's simply not practical to take the car. How wonderful.

Let me explain. I live in Belgium, near the center of a small city. My daughter's school is less than half a mile from our apartment, butcher, baker and frituur are less than 100 meter away. We have a great little coffeehouse two doors down. The Chinese restaurant was at the other side of the town square - less than a mile away.

So I don't drive a car all that much (except for work). We even have two large supermarkets less than a mile away. So why did it strike me as strange that "not driving" felt normal?

Well, because I lived almost all my adult life in the US. In one of the most liveable cities in the US, actually: Naperville, Illinois. In our last apartment there, we had an almost perfect setup. It was about 2 miles to the city center, but there was a sidewalk all the way there. There was a small mall right across the street, with a supermarket, a Starbucks and some small restaurants. I used to walk there too. But it never, ever, felt normal. Part of it is that no one else is doing it. Outside the city center, you'll see very few people walking. If they are, they're simply taking a stroll around the neighbourhood (very rare) or exercising (reasonably frequent). Going shopping without a car? Why?

As a consequence (and reason, the way these vicious circles work), the infrastructure for walking is simply horrendous. I mentioned that there was a sidewalk from our apartment, all the way to the city center. That's rare. It was one of the reasons we took the apartment. Sidewalks often simply disappear for a few hundred yards, making them completely useless. And they're all in disrepair. Our trek to the city went over some seriously cracked concrete plates, and part of it went over a red brick path, with numerous holes in it. Twisted ankles, anyone?

Since driveways intersect the sidewalks, invariably there would be a half dozen houses where the driver decided to put their car across the sidewalk. Sometimes because the entire driveways was full of cars (and no, that doesn't mean they were throwing a party) or junk (you sometimes have to see it to believe it), but sometimes just because they couldn't care less that some people actually do use sidewalks.

Even the little jaunt to the mall across the road was never "normal". The road to cross was a 4-lane major road (#34), but with turn lanes at each side, so that you actually had to cross 6 lanes. The light was short, so you really need to get getting. And then there is this moronic "turn right on red" rule in the US, which allows you to turn right at a red light, after checking that there are no cars coming. Cars being the operative word. Many people DO NOT check for pedestrians, at least not when they're outside of the center. Certainly not when they were in a hurry.

No, walking around in Naperville was often quite pleasant. But it never felt normal. So it takes me aback how fast life without a car can feel normal. Not pleasant, not morally better, not less stressful. Just normal. Like it should be.

May 20, 2006

Shallow hagiographies

Good grief. Everywhere you turn in mainstream media, you find someone or other writing a hagiography of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. If you haven't read them, there is probably no point to reading this post, but here is an example:

All these articles seem content to perpetuate the idea that Ms. Ali put some inconsequential lies on her visum application, for which she was disproportionally punished. But the issue with Ms. Ali's visum application is that she pretended to come from a humanitarian disaster area (Somalia), in order to profit from the fast-track immigration status that this afforded her. In reality, she left Somalia when she was 6, and had been living in Kenia for over a decade before going to Europe to visit some family members in Germany. It is then that she decided to use the crisis in Somalia in order to immigrate to the Netherlands. In doing that, she callously abused the immigration system, doing a huge disservice to those who actually are in desperate need of help. The issue came to the foreground now because she chose to stress it in a recent interview, acknowledging that she was an economic refugee, thereby mocking her own party's anti-immigration platform.

And Ms. Ali has indeed claimed that she ran from her family because they wanted her to marry a Canadian man that she had never met. This is strongly denied by her family, and is highly unlikely, considering she got help from her family in her visum application in the Netherlands. In view of her previous deceit, it stands to reason that she lied about this too.

No one doubts Ms. Ali's passion, her intelligence and her charisma, but it is hard to take someone seriously who has gone from supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, to joining an atheist pro-immigration socialist party, only to then become an anti-immigration free-marketeer. Ms. Ali may be a prominent thinker, but her thoughts are changing very rapidly, and very drastically. I don’t think she’s any less sincere when she is preaching for forced integration of targeted minorities than when she was arguing that immigration policies should not prefer educated immigrants over uneducated ones. And her support for free market capitalism now is probably as heart-felt as her support for socialism used to be. But they don’t seem to be part of her core beliefs. The only constant in her political career seems to be a willingness to sacrifice principles for political gain, and to stoke the fires of controversy and hatred. Taking a position at the neo-conservative AEI, which she did well before any of this happened, seems very fitting.

Very often, hagiographies such as this claim that Ms. Ali's departure is a victory for intolerance. I do think that that is true. A strong voice for intolerance has escaped the verdict of the voters, and the consequence of her actions, in stead being rewarded with a higher pay, and a bigger platform from which to spread her hatred. What a pity.

May 17, 2006

Thou shalt not steal. Sort of.

If you are hungry, and cannot afford food, taking it isn't stealing. You are just correcting an oversight on the part of the owner of the bread, who should have given it to you upon hearing of your plight.

Socialist claptrap? Not exactly. This was helpfully explained by Danneels, a Belgian cardinal. And this isn't really new. Bishop Muskens said the same thing publicly 10 years ago ( and after all, it is part of the catholic moral teachings.

This goes to show how malleable religion really is. There are few things in the bible that are easy to interpret, but the ten commandments do seem to be rather straightforward. Apparently not.

May 10, 2006

This I believe - part I

There is no such thing as a Sin. That means there is no redemption or absolution, either. Live with the consequences of what you did, and try better next time.

There is no such thing as Evil. People aren't compelled by external forces to do what they do, whatever horrible things they end up doing. This isn't to say that they are necessarily responsible for everything they do. Human minds are fragile, and very susceptible to outside factors when we grow up. Nothing mystical about it, just biology.

God is not Good. While I am agnostic with respect to the existence of a deity, I feel that there is nothing less real, less human about sadness and pain, than about happiness and extacy. It's all part of life. If there is a divine plan, it's got both good and bad parts in it. Kali and Parvati as equally divine. Hinduism not your cup of tea? Think of the Nordic Gods and the Giants they continuously fight as equally essential to understanding and appreciating reality. Really want it to be in Christian terms? Think of the devil and god as two actors in the world. You may like one better than the other, but both are a part of this world. Wouldn't it make more sense if christian soldiers invoked the assistance of the devil when heading into a fight? Isn't he the one that's supposed to be in charge of that part of reality?

There are limited areas of knowledge where we can define correct answers. Scientific research is one, if we define correctness as leading to verifiable predictions, and rank correctness based on the accuracy of the agreement between theory and reality. The most impressive theory we have is QED. Nothing else comes even close. Determining the correctness of theories becomes murkier as one moves away from the hard sciences.

May 05, 2006

The Seven Mistakes

Wealth without Work
Pleasure without Conscience
Knowledge without Character
Commerce without Morality
Science without Humanity
Worship without Sacrifice
Politics without Principle

May 03, 2006

Half truth

People are healthier longer, so they should work longer. Not only are people able to perform physically demanding jobs later in life, fewer people have jobs that actually are physically demanding. Hands up if you've heard this one. If you haven't, check this example out:

What's wrong with this? Well, the fun thing is that this kind of rant advertises its own irrelevance, yet people insist on rehashing it. Yes, less people have physically demanding jobs. We've moved from heavy industry and farming, to clerking and bagging groceries. And it makes sense that someone that bags groceries is going to be able to continue doing so until much later in life than someone that works the field with a horse-drawn plough. At least on average. But that's clearly irrelevant, since people don't bag groceries all their life. There are less people performing physically demanding jobs, so physical problems associated with aging are less important. Most people work themselves up from the physically demanding jobs they do when they are young, to more mentally demanding jobs when they are old. And because of the change in western economies, increasing numbers of workers start off in cubicle jobs, where the physical readiness requirement amounts to the ability to get to the water cooler. And the bath room.

So the real question is no longer about physical ability, but mental acuity. When does mental alertness, ability to learn new fields, mental flexibility, start to decline to a point where wisdom and experience no longer compensate for it? This is the issue we need to face, when discussing retirement age. The simple solution - and one that does occur in practice - is to have people in mentally demanding jobs, go start bagging groceries when they no longer perform. But our entire culture is geared towards pushing people "up the ladder", away from the physical workout towards the mental one. Reverting would be damn hard on anyone's psyche. Is that why luminaries such as Saletan completely ignore this issue?

May 02, 2006

Why is the US complaining about gas prices?

Because if it had to pay the same prices as Europe ($6 and up), it would have the same anemic growth. Actually, since it has been built on dirt-cheap energy, it wouldn't grow at all, it would be too desperate trying to rebuild and reorganize to produce anything.

May 01, 2006

Democracy is about not getting what you want, and how we all deal with that.

Democratic governments do not execute the will of the people. They can't.

First of all, it would only work if everyone can vote for a party they completely agree with. That's not possible. In extreme cases, such as the one-and-a-half party system in the US's, it is absolutely impossible, but even with 5 or 10 major parties, it simply cannot work perfectly. So, every voter has to compromise to some extent - deciding which party he or she has more in common with.

Secondly, most parties have more than one issue to deal with. Not only do they need to prioritize between their issues, they also become susceptible to horse-trading - getting one of their ideas accepted, in exchange for dropping another. The people supporting the party may not have the same sense of priority, or may consider the deal unfair. So, while a ruling coalition may have a majority, any of its decisions may represent only a minority view of the voting public.

A democracy that closely mirrors the will of the people needs to have several major ("full-service") party. Its health is probably mirrored in the regularity with which single-issue parties participate and gain seats at the table. People need to learn to pick parties based on the degree to which their platform coincides with their own priorities, and realise that they will be disappointed, time and again. Perhaps most importantly, everyone needs to be able to distinguish between normal horse-trading and the betrayal of fundamental principles or specifics of the party platform.

The political structures to create a succesfull democracy are clearly debatable. I think that in most cases, a system of proportional representation is needed to create at least 3 or 4 viable, "full-service", longlasting parties. It's also crucial to make single-issue parties attractive without destroying the long-term stability of the system: they can get a few seats and change the focus of the main parties. I also think that in countries where democracy is unstable, or new, voting needs to be a civic duty, i.e. compulsory.

But it seems to me that the actual implementation is less important than the public's political savvy, and it's ability to compromise. A country that doesn't actively promote moderation and compromise, will have a hard time hanging on to democracy.