Meaning and Time

Posted July 18, 2008 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Blogroll, enlightenment, rational society, responsibility

Looking through a set of space photographs, with back-dated times of estimated existence set at anything from a few light years to many million, and thinking of the estimated time before even our sun burns out, makes one think again of the role of time and one’s own life span. The lesson is that all events and all existences are temporary. Since they are temporary, meaning must be discovered in the passing moments of life. This was the message of Omar Khayyam. His solution was to find a shady tree, a beautiful girl, and a jug of wine. But this is not the only way to deal with these well-known, although generally ignored facts. The essential message of existentialism is that we must find meaning in the moment. Idealistically, we can search for ways to achieve tiny victories over the insensitivty and cruelty that we see around us. We could, understanding that the United States is unlikely to last more than a few hundred years, put our puny efforts into making our country a better society, one that could once again be a model for others. This will help future generations, perhaps several generations. The fact that the benefit will eventually be dispersed, dwindling away to nothing among the waves of change that are sure to occur, does not mean that we will not have accomplished something of value. All accomplishments are temporary. We cannot change that. It is simply the medium in which we work.


Making Nuclear Weapon Sense

Posted July 18, 2008 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Blogroll, morals, rational society, responsibility, Uncategorized

It was heartening to read in the New York Times the appreciation of the recent proposals of Shultz, Kissinger, Perry, Nunn, and associates (Editorial Observer, Robbins “Thinking the Unthinkable: A World Without Nuclear Weapons” June 30) to move decisively in the next administration toward a world without nuclear weapons. It has always been a dangerous anomaly that the United States tries to compel other nations to give up their plans to develop nuclear weapons while we have remained unwilling to make decisive steps toward freeing the world of our own nuclear weapons and the policy
alternatives they imply.

For a full version of the Nunn approach read “The Mountaintop: A World Free of Nuclear Weapons”, a speech he gave in Oslo on February 27 of this year.

Such an initiative would be more convincing if we could at the same time as we talk of reducing weapons also change the way in which we talk about them. We have continued to threaten the absolute destruction of opponents should they use nuclear weapons. This commitment has only been reinforced by the public statements of the political contestants in our upcoming elections when they speak of obliterating Iran should it attempt at some future point to use nuclear weapons. The United States, and perhaps the United States alone, has the capability to take the lead in abandoning this way of speaking about nuclear weapons. In many situations, particularly against countries such as Iran, we could with the conventional forces at our disposal make a decisive and effective response without the use of nuclear weapons.

Only after we renounce the use of nuclear weapons for any purpose, will we be able to make a convincing case against their development by others.

Jefferson on Freedom and Independence

Posted July 5, 2008 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Uncategorized

I have not been pleased with the efforts of the New York Times latest conservative Op-Ed writer, Bill Kristol. He has seemed to be much too predictably right. However, on June 30, he weighted in with a column on the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson that would make any liberal proud. It seems that his family does a yearly reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th. And this year he intends to add Jefferson’s letter to Weightman declining an invitation to take part in the July fourth celebration written just a few days before his death.

Writing of the Declaration, Jefferson says: “May it be to the world what I believe it will be, to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition has persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.” Jefferson goes on to see this as the result of the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century, and thus as part of the general progress of science. It reminds me of Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis. Jefferson’s optimism was a little premature. Yet, I would argue, not wrong.

But as we read Jefferson’s comments, we are reminded that he was not thinking so much of forms of government as the human rights of freedom and self-determination. All people would eventuyqally realiza that people were equal and needed to be treated as such. One people or class should not have another telling them what to do. This brings us back to the more general question of what we mean, and what most people in the world mean by “freedom”. Thus it appears that the Afghans and Iraqis and many others would rather have independence than democracy. Democracy is a method of governing and not in itself a value for most people, perhaps not even for Americans who are well known to be reluctant participants in democratic processes.

Nuclear Response

Posted April 24, 2008 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Uncategorized

In a recent debate, Hillary Clinton was asked what she would do about the Iranian nuclear program. Her answer was simple and direct. If the Iranians attack Israel with a nuclear weapon, we will annihilate them.

This is the theory of deterrence in a nutshell and also what is wrong with deterrence. I was speaking the other day with a person who had served on a nuclear submarine in the sixties. He said, somewhat proudly I thought, that if they had ever received a verified order to launch the weapons at the Soviet Union they would have done it. He thought that this would have led to a terrible outcome, but he could not imagine any other choice.

No one has ever gotten beyond the conundrum that it will always be a mistake to use nuclear weapons and yet the only way to prevent their use is to threaten their use. The strategists have suggested various clever ways around this problem, but for most people in most countries involved with nuclear weapons the tendency is to rely on all or nothing.

I personally do not want a person with their finger on the trigger who casually says “we will annihilate them. The them is, of course, a large number of people most of whom have played little if any role in the decision to develop or use nuclear weapons. So for an abstract goal of preventing nuclear use in the future we are set to declare that we will as a nation commit mass murder.

There are two possible partial solutions. The first is to resolve to think through the possibilities in the crisis before any nuclear weapon is launched, no matter what the provocation. The second, and more expensive, is to develop weapons and strategies that allow military success after a nuclear attack without a nuclear response. This might not be feasible in a conflict of major states, but certainly in the case of Iran we could and should develop such a strategy. (This is not to say that we should or should not be involved in war with Iran. There seem, however, are to be so many ways that we might strive to avoid this outcome.)


Torture and Irresponsibility

Posted April 4, 2008 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Blogroll, enlightenment, morals, rational society, responsibility

The end result of the Abu Ghraib scandal was the singling out for punishment a few low level American soldiers at the prison, with little or no punishment for those with command responsibility, and certainly none for the higher ups in the military, the defense department, or the CIA whose actions and inactions clearly laid the groundwork for the mistreatment. In many ways, this shifting of responsibility is the most serious crime in the sordid story; it is this crime which we most urgently need to rectify. It is a particularly ugly reflection that those who claim to honor most highly the sacrifice of our soldiers in Iraq are quickest to dishonor them when it serves their personal and corporate interest.

The March 24 New Yorker had a detailed discussion of the Abu Ghraib scandal from the point of view of those subsequently indicted and now serving time, particularly Sabrina Harman, the young lady who took most of the famous pictures. What emerges is that both for the prisoners and their wardens lived in the midst of a demoralizing horror show for months. The unit assigned to look after the prisoners had no training in their responsibilities and had hardly heard of the Geneva Conventions. During their time at Abu Ghraib they were not enlightened. Indeed, they were told that they need not worry about such things, for these were not prisoners of war. They were repeatedly told by “military intelligence” officers that they were doing a great job, where “job” was defined as making the prisoners as miserable as possible to “soften them up”. Many of those in direct contact with the prisoners did not understand what was happening and worried about the situation, even as they participated. Those above them seemed simply not to care, or if they did care, they were shoved aside.

Sabrina’s pictures have been used against her as evidence of her warped personality. One cannot deny that the pictures revealed unfortunate traits that her situation brought to the fore. But the fact is that long before arriving at Abu Ghraib, Sabrina had become enamored with photography. She simply took pictures of everything. In retrospect, the world owes her a debt of gratitude, for without her pictures, the persistent mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib would have been simply swept under the rug, as it seems to have been at the Bagram facility in Afghanistan, and many smaller facilities with some of the same problems.

In the end, the event was swept as far as possible under the rug by concentrating the investigation and the punishment on the “front line” soldiers which were, of course those associated with the photographs.

One can only hope that the next administration will start the process of walking back from the insane claim that in an emergency a government can do anything to prisoners it wishes, and hold prisoners for long periods of time for no reason at all. It should also mount investigations up to the highest level of who was responsible for the egregious miscarriage of justice the wake of Abu Ghraib, both in regard to the prisoners and their wardens. This is not just a matter of improving our image in the world. It is also a questions of improving the image of those in executive or command positions throughout the American establishment. In the cavalier administrative environment of the current administration, actions are taken without regard to consequences, responsibility, or concern for truth and reality. The “buck” should no longer stop at the bottom of a command structure, but at points progressively higher in the structure as evidence of responsibility becomes clearer.

Sex Discrimination in Another Guise

Posted April 3, 2008 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Blogroll, enlightenment, morals, rational society

The revealing of Governor Spitzer’s use of the services of prostitutes led to a barrage of reporting, a barrage that fortunately seems to have stopped for the moment. Two things about this barrage were disturbing. First, the unrefuted assumption that it is a moral crime to have sex with women you are not married to — in spite of the evidence that this has been a major activity since the beginning of human history. Second, reporting on prostitutes as though they were necessarily worthless women, not worthy of the respect of the rest of the society. The writing varied from simple abuse, as in the New York Times piece concluding that the Spitzer’s prostitute only claimed to have a beginning career in the arts when in fact she was nothing at all (March 14). This report was under the headline “The Emperor’s Club Oxymoron: High-Class Prostitution.” The evident assumption of the reporter was that prostitution was by definition “lower-class”, an assumption often refuted by history. The Heterae of ancient Greece and the Geishas of Japan were considered better educated and more skilled in the arts than other women of their time.

Fortunately, the Times came out with an op-ed by a prostitute that pointed out that Spitzer had been remarkably foolish to use an escort service. She said it was common knowledge that this was a way to get into trouble. Most of her friends were independents operating out of their dwellings. They relied on recommendations; few of them reported trouble with the police or Johns. Then the Times went another step by printing an investigative report (March 16) on what really went on in New York prostitution. They found that most of it was very low-key, with little violence or danger to those involved. The report estimated that only about a fifth of prostitutes in New York were street prostitutes. These were the ones with the pimps and those regularly arrested. The life of the rest was unremarkable. Many seemed to have quite positive relations with their regulars, often sympathizing with their plight. This is also the picture one gets from Heidi Fleiss in a Newsweek interview about the same time.

This flurry of activities, his own research in many countries, and the abuses of the trafficking of women led Nicholas Kristof to propose in an Op-Ed that the only “solution” to prostitution was to have it banned. He especially liked the system recently established in Sweden that arrests primarily the Johns rather than the prostitutes. He gives a rather narrow view of the many different systems in the world. One of the best systems is that in New Zealand which now has well-regulated legal prostitution.

The mistake commonly made by the opponents of prostitution is that “street-walking” is the most common form. This seems not to be the case anywhere. The New York investigative piece suggested that not more than one-fifth of prostitutes were on the street. These are of course easiest to see and easiest to arrest and legislate about. I was interested to see that my latest Atlantic reports on an academic study of prostitution in Chicago. They concluded that prostitution is actually well-paid, but that it is a dangerous occupation. But again they are actually not studying prostitution in Chicago but street-walkers, an occupation that is no doubt dangerous (although I was surprised how well pimps pay).

If we took a less moralistic and fairer approach to the issue, we would grant that every one has the right to act in any way he or she wishes as long as they do not harm others. We would note that for some young women the best way to make a living, given their life situation, is to offer sex for money. The job of the larger society in this regard is to do as New Zealand does. It should try to control the abuses that often accompany prostitution (just as all societies do the abuses that afflict marriage: the international traffic in wives is quite parallel to that in prostitutes). If abuse occurs, if people are “enslaved”, if children are forced into the trade, then these crimes should be prosecuted. One should note that successful arrests and prosecutions would be much more common if prostitutes were not afraid that they would be arrested simply because of their occupation.

In making these remarks, I am not addressing the assumption of social conservatives that it is simply wrong to pay for sex, or receive money for sex. Sex should be more “sacred” than that. This may be a correct intuition. But the problem with applying it to the modern context is that “payment” for sex occurs in so many forms that restricting the condemnation to cash transactions seems odd. The trophy wife of the rich entrepreneur receives more pay in kind than a prostitute ever would. I take it that the date that is simply a meal ticket is not uncommon among the young. In some ways, cash payment is a less hypocritical approach than these examples. (For an earlier discussion, see my accompanying blog at “Sex in an Enlightened Society”.

Addressing Torture

Posted February 29, 2008 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Uncategorized

There has been a great deal of discussion lately of what is and what is not torture and whether Americans should torture in any event.

Recent discussion suggests that there are three levels to the controversy. The first is that there is an international prohibition against torture and that Americans should strive to live up to international standards that include a general prohibition of torture. The second is that there are extreme circumstances in which torture may be justified. But these must be understood on a case by case basis. This is the classical argument that we would be justified in torturing someone who had planted a bomb that is about to blow up and kill many people. If we knew that the prisoner before us could prevent the catastrophe by divulging the location of the bomb, it would make sense to use torture. Scalia has recently made this argument, and it is a good one. But it should not be confused with the government’s argument that we have a right to torture persons who may have had a hand in terrorism or planning terrorism at some later date just because it might be helpful. This generalized use of torture for possible and indefinite objectives is what got us into difficulty in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and all the other sad stories of the last few years. Senator McCain, who has experienced torture, has taken a strong stand against this casual use of torture.

It would help if those involved in the controversy would keep these three levels in mind. The first two can be defended on humanitarian grounds. The third cannot.