Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Grains of Sand

The post below got me thinking about great lines from literature that help put life (and man's place in the world) in perspective, and I remembered one of my favorite closing lines ever, from T.H. White's The Once and Future King. It comes at the end of the King Arthur epic, after Arthur has been laid low at the last battle and spirited off to Avalon, Lancelot has given up arms to become a monk, and Guinevere has become a nun. Everything has gone to hell in a handbasket, and you are wondering, what was it for? Did it matter? And in a broader sense, does anything matter? And White leaves us with this:

"The fate of this man or that man was less than a drop, although it was a sparkling one, in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea."

Yep-- that sounds about right to me.

Fatalism, or Believing in Life as Its Own Justification and (Hopefully) Reward

No, I have not posted in a while. Because (1) I don't get paid for this and (2) no one reads this shit anyway. That said, a number of things here recently have gotten me thinking about life, death, and the usual. And, as I often do when I get to thinking about stuff like that, I went to one of my favorite passages from the bible, Ecclesiastes 9. I find it a remarkable expression of carpe diem from a book more usually concerned with eternity, heaven, and all that business. In some ways it is incredibly fatalistic ("a living dog is better than a dead lion"), but I find comfort in the fact that these sort of "what is all about" questions have haunted humans since the dawn of time, and ultimately the honest answer is, basically, "it's just life, dude." Life is its own justification. For the lucky ones, life is its own reward. And whatever happens after we die, we need to live this life like it's all we've got. This is more intuitively correct to me than some bullshit about how "God really wants us all to be happy, but we are not all happy because of free will, see, and there is like this inevitable by-product of free will, which is what we think of as evil, and we need to keep our eyes on Heaven, where it will all work out, and God could have made this world pain-free like Heaven but He did not because....well.... now that I think about it if He is all powerful and all good, it sure seems like He would have done it that way, and why the hell did He not?" On the other hand, "It's just life, dude" avoids the entire Problem of Evil altogether. Anyway, here it is:

Ecclesiastes 9

All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not: as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath.

This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all: yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead.

For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.

For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.

Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.

Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works.

Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment.

Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Monday, June 06, 2005

If it's not Interstate, and it's not Commerce, it must be INTERSTATE COMMERCE!

Go here to read about the decision handed down by the Supreme Court in the Raich case today, whereby the Court ruled 6-3 that a person growing a pot plant in her own backyard for her own use (legal under her state's medical marijuana laws) was subject to criminalization by the Feds under the Constitution's commerce clause. The pot-growers involved in the case both grew small amounts of pot to self-medicate for, in one case, a brain tumor, and in the other, a spinal disease. Nevermind that it is legal in their state to do so. Nevermind that they are actually very ill and are helped by the dope. The only thing that matters is that the federal government has virtually unlimited power, unchecked in any meaningful way by the document that gave it life. The irony for anyone who believes somehow that Democrats are "better" on civil liberties issues than Republicans is that the only dissenters were O'Connor, Rehnquist, and Thomas-- Republican appointees (in the case of Rehnquist and Thomas, extremely conservative ones at that).

O'Connor had this to say in her dissent:

"Relying on Congress' abstract assertions, the Court has endorsed making it a federal crime to grow small amounts of marijuana in one's own home for one's own medicinal use. This overreaching stifles an express choice by some States, concerned for the lives and liberties of their people, to regulate medical marijuana differently. If I were a California citizen, I would not have voted for the medical marijuana ballot initiative; if I were a California legislator I would not have supported the Compassionate Use Act. But whatever the wisdom of California's experiment with medical marijuana, the federalism principles that have driven our Commerce Clause cases require that room for experiment be protected in this case. For these reasons I dissent."

Thomas was even more blunt:

"Respondents Diane Monson and Angel Raich use marijuana that has never been bought or sold, that has never crossed state lines, and that has had no demonstrable effect on the national market for marijuana. If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything--and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers."

The so-called liberals on the Court were forced to choose between their statist worship of federal power and their supposed belief in individual freedoms, and their choice was both sad and predictable. And Scalia, the self-righteous "Originalist" who supposedly only rules the way the Founders would have ruled, joined in the majority using logic so tortured that it basically removes the commerce clause from the Constitution. Justice Stevens in the majority opinion says that the proper avenue for addressing this issue is through the ballot box, ignoring the fact that the citizens of California and many other states have already taken that route. And for their trouble, they can have the Feds come in and ignore their expressed wishes and throw their asses in jail. But what else is new.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Marijuana Causes a Number of Deaths Each Year

That number being "zero," of course. As compared to a lot of other stuff-- almost anything a human can ingest, in fact-- marijuana is as nearly harmless as you can imagine. I plan to write about this at length, when I can think about the topic without my head exploding from the total hypocrisy, ignorance, and calculated stupidity applied by our government to the war on drugs, but in the meantime, look at this and wonder why it is still legal to buy aspirin in this country.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Life, the Universe, and Everything-- Literally

Hey I'm back! I have fought off my deeply-ingrained propensity to eventually consider any task to be a hated burden to avoid at all costs...to talk about this mind-blowing development. Apparently, scientists have found two basically identical galaxies sitting right next to each other. Boring scientists say "okay, so there are two really similar galaxies very close to each other-- can I finish my sandwich now?" More forward-thinking scientists, no doubt salivating at the mountain of unsubstantiated tenure-making bullshit they can spin out of this, have a very different take-- that this could be the first observable evidence supporting superstring theory. Superstring theory, as we all know, is, well, some really next-level bullshit. More specifically, it has been for a while the leading "theory of everything" that basically explains how the entire universe is structured. It is one of many things relating to theoretical physics, quantum mechanics, etc., that simply cannot be explained in terms moronic enough for me to get my head around, but that fascinate me all the same (either because they exist just beyond my capacity to understand, or they are simply the most incredible whole-cloth frauds ever visited upon academia-- either way, I am drawn to it all like a chimp to a shiny gas can).

Anyhoo-- the superstring take on the twin galaxies is that we are not seeing two galaxies at all, but a split-screen image of the same galaxy. And the "split" in the split-screen is a strand of "cosmic string"-- basically a rift in (you guessed it) the fabric of space-time. [A quick aside-- I simply LOVE the phrase "fabric of space-time." How much sci-fi mileage has been gotten out of variations of that term?] The big ol' cosmic string, say the cool scientists to their sandwich-eating string-doubting cohorts, causes some light from the galaxy in question to go left, and other light to go right, creating two identical images side by side. If this is the case, it would mean that there could finally be observable phenomena out there that we can poke and prod to explore some of the most fundamental building blocks of the universe and flesh out real-world implications of a theory of everything, which up to now has been a lot of esoteric grab-ass.

One of the implications of superstring theory in general is that the universe exists in 10 dimensions (I could explain the math to you, but I really can't explain the math to you). Among other things, that means that there is a lot of extra space out there that we are not using in our workaday 3 dimensional world (okay, Einstein, 4 dimensions including time). Some scientists think these extra dimensions may explain the troubling observation that the objects in the universe are flying away from one another at an accelerating rate. Something called "gravity" would tend to make you expect that these objects would start slowing down and eventually collapse back upon themselves-- the "Big Crunch" end to the Big Bang beginning. But that ain't happening, apparently. Scientists have speculated that there is an unknown force out there called-- creatively enough-- "dark energy," which, the thinking goes, works against the force of gravity to pull objects apart. These guys, however, armed with 6 additional dimensions and the complete Star Trek DVD library, argue that what is in fact happening is that some of our gravity is leaking into other dimensions, weakening the forces that would otherwise slow down the scatter-shooting universe. Crazy if true.

Bold prediction-- these are not issues that will be decided in our lifetimes. And no, there are not a whole lot of practical implications that immediately flow from any of this. But there is something to be said for knowledge for its own sake. And if you believe, as I do, that intelligent life (in the form of us) evolved for the purpose of contemplating God and the Universe (which, after all, are one and the same), looking for answers to these most basic questions is a big part of why we are here in the first place.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Send in the Death Squads, or When Iraq Became Officially Wheels-Off

I am not going to debate the intrinsic morality of death squads versus other tactics of war, since the difference between taking someone out with a bullet to (the back of) the head and dropping a smart bomb into their living room is largely aesthetic in nature (and in fact, there is an argument to be made that a targeted death squad is more humane than airdropped ordnance because it cuts down on collateral damage), but let's examine for the moment why this is a Really Bad Idea in ways that have nothing to do with rules of warfare, and why this signals a startling (but probably long overdue) sense of desperation on the part of Bush's military brain trust (I wasn't even trying to be funny when I typed that phrase!).

First, while the difference between bombs and death squads may be "aesthetic," aesthetics COUNT in this situation, because, as I noted below, we are waging a war of ideas along with a war of bullets. Not to be too glib, but are Americans really death squad kind of people? When we are framing the case for why we are better than the maniacal movement we are fighting-- and of course, we ARE better, the point is making that case to people inclined to believe otherwise-- are the phrases "death squad" and "assassination teams" really ones you want on our side of the equation? These issues of perception are not trivial.

Second, death squads, once established, tend to get out of hand, and cannot be easily turned off when no longer wanted. When we pulled this trick in Central America, some of our boys killed some nuns. Those bitches may have had it coming, but let's just say "kill the nuns" is a non-starter when it comes to inspirational slogans. When we leave Iraq, rogue smart bombs will not still be falling out of the sky killing folks. The same cannot be said for the highly trained murderers we leave behind. If the Iraqi insurgency has taught us (or reminded us, rather) anything, it is that armed and trained young men tend to seek violent employment for themselves even after the people who armed them and trained them go away. We may have silently given up on the hope of real democracy in Iraq, but I think it is too soon to get comfortable with the "total batshit kill or be killed craziness" model of post-U.S. Iraq. Let's at least not contribute to the nightmare of gang violence that will almost inevitably follow our pullback.

As to why this signals a new desperation in the administration, I think you have to step back and look at what the White House and DOD line on the insurgency has been from the beginning, and realize how far we have come to get to this pass. First, in the Spring of '03 (way back when we might have actually put enough troops on the ground to keep all this from happening, but, alas, did not) it was just remnants of the Iraqi military we were mopping up...then it was a handful of "dead-enders" and foreign jihadis, and then ...it was, oh, five to ten thousand militants...and then (the latest numbers) have the insurgency anywhere from 40,000 to 200,000 (the latter number according to officials in the Iraqi "government"). None of the numbers mean anything in terms of expressing actual reality (since no one has any idea how many militants there are, including the militants themselves), but the increasing numbers (and tacit or direct endorsement of the numbers by the White House) evidence the dawning realization on the part of the Bush team that there is something really bad happening over there, and it ain't just a bunch of naysayers in the Mainstream Media. Add to all that the increasing gnashing of teeth on the part of conservatives and military-types (which has to be even louder and more concerned in private circles in DC), and you have a picture of a crisis of faith in this administration's competence to wage war amongst the White House's (and the Iraq war's) most ardent supporters. The conservative, pro-war dudes down at Stratfor (an Austin-based security and intelligence consulting firm) released a paper recently basically saying that the war is lost (as far as establishing a stable, democratic-ish country) and we should pull back, let chaos reign, and replenish our strength to get ready for other threats and opportunities-- like, you know, North Korea and Iran, the two prongs of the Axis of Evil that actually have WMD's or are trying damn hard to get them. They blame this on Rumsfeld and his policies, which by extension is an indictment of Bush. The cynic might say it would have been nice if all these conservatives had debated these issues BEFORE the masses went and signed Bush up for another four-year hitch, but I am just such a cynic and would not be so stupid as to expect people like that to lose an election over something as trivial as the gross incompetence of their candidate. Also, it's not like Kerry presented such a smashing alternative, so here we are. And "here," as any soldier in World War Two could have told you, is Situation Normal, All Fucked Up.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Your Tax Dollars at Work

So, basically, the government takes your money and then spends it on ways of convincing you to do things it wants you to do. Which is a questionable use of your cash at best-- can't we just agree in advance to whatever bullshit law they want to pass and then keep the dough? Let's cut out the middle man at least-- but when the money is spent in secret to pay professional talking heads who are supposedly expressing independent opinions, it starts getting downright creepy. Like in this case, for example, where the Bushies secretly paid one of their house pundits to get all giggly about No Child Left Behind. But you know, the guy was okay doing it because he "believed" in what he was saying...didn't believe in it so much that he would talk it up without compensation, but hell, a man has got to make a living, right?

This also reminds me again just how deftly the Bush crowd has turned the liberal "diversity" nonsense on its head. Look, it's a black man supporting the administration! We got a black Secretary of State! We nominated a Hispanic attorney general! You don't like them? What are you, RACIST or something? More on that later, and how the Democrats are truly their own worst enemies on this and so many other issues...

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Know Your Enemy

I thought this was a really interesting analysis of the mind and motives of your friendly neighborhood Islamist terrorist. Some of this is obvious, and is basically stuff we should have realized from even a casual review of who the 9/11 attackers were (as in, relatively affluent, college educated, etc.), but I think this guy gets to the heart of (1) why we should not dismiss these people as "crazy"; (2) why, given the number of people in the world who apparently hate us, such a tiny percentage of them actually get out of the house and come try to kill us; and (3) how far behind we are in framing and waging the war of ideas.

It seems to me that the Islamist movement is not as different from the other nihilistic, revolutionary ideologies of the last hundred years or so as we tend to believe. Like the communists, anarchists, fascists, and others, the Islamists are basically a small group of disaffected intellectual types with delusions of global domination through a bloody mass mobilization of the "people" (proletariat, whatever). All these groups have utopian fantasies-- whether a workers' paradise or a restored caliphate-- and all have strong notions of purification-- whether genetic or spiritual.

In defeating the other "-ists" it was as important to make the world understand why our way of doing things was better as it was to prove we were stronger. World War I defeated the Germans, but it did not discredit their nationalism, expansionism, or notions of being instruments of social Darwinism. To the contrary, the handling of the victory by the allies allowed all of these virulent strains to grow into the full-blown horrors of Nazism. The same mistakes were not repeated in WW II, and our post-war handling of the peace contributed to the total discrediting of the violent pathologies of Germany (and Japan, which had its own form of quasi-religious nationalism). Of course, during the Cold War, while it was America's nuclear umbrella that kept the Red Army at bay, it was in the marketplace of ideas (and the marketplace of, well, markets) that the battle was fought and won.

In our current struggle against the Islamists, we are doing well on the military front (leaving aside for the moment the controversies over going to war in Iraq in the first place and the ongoing deficiencies in securing our ports and borders), but we have barely joined the battle on the intellectual front, and where we have tried we seem to be failing. People keep talking about "losing the peace" in Afghanistan and Iraq, but that's wrong. What we are losing is another phase of warfare. War is the application of violence for political ends. How can a war be successful if the violence goes great, but we don't meet the political goals?