In general tolerance is a good thing. I know I have ranted on many occasions against various groups in society in this blog but in general I am not absolutist about it.
For example, I think that big business is extremely dangerous but I still want corporations to exist, just with tight controls on the excesses of their behaviour. Without big corporations we wouldn’t have many of the valuable products and services we depend on. However they do have too much freedom and influence in politics, none of them pay their fair share of tax, and they should be forced to follow environmental and social objectives as well as the financial ones.
And I find the ignorance and arrogance of many religious people almost unbelievable, but I don’t want to eradicate religion. That’s because it is socially valuable to some people, it has many interesting stories and customs, and it is an alternative world view from mine and I celebrate diversity rather than trying to eliminate it. I do however want religion controlled. Creationists have no right to have their beliefs taught in a science class for example, and I reserve the right to debate and ridicule anyone who believes in nonsense.
That’s my customary introduction, so what is the actual rant… I mean topic of discussion… going to be today? It’s about when there is too much tolerance.
In the past I have defended Islam against many of its attackers. A rather nutty right-wing friend of mine sends out a lot of anti-Islam material and I often reply pointing out that it is usually inaccurate and exaggerated. That is still true, but taking the opposite view – that Islam is basically reasonable and benign – is not correct either.
One of my many sources of news and information is the BBC world service. In a recent podcast they reported on several issues affecting the world and a pattern I immediately noticed was the negative effects of religion, and Islam in particular.
The first item was from Iraq. It reported that religiously motivated violence there in recent days resulted in the deaths of at least 50 innocent people after bomb attacks. While the death rate is well below its peak in the year 2006 it is still running at about 300 per month.
There is a political element to this clearly but fundamentally this is a religious problem, and it’s not even Islam against another religion, it is one sect of Islam against another! Shiite neighbourhoods of Baghdad, especially places where innocent people meet such as bus stations and restaurants, are being targeted by Sunni radicals. How can anyone really claim this is a religion of peace?
I do need to point out here that the most significant contributor to the current political instability in Iraq is the American invasion of 10 years ago and that was partly motivated by ridiculous Christian religious beliefs of the president at the time. I also have to point out that the Muslim versus Muslim violence in Iraq has parallels with the Christian versus Christian violence in Ireland not that long ago. So Christians shouldn’t feel to smug when they see Muslims acting this way.
The second story was about sectarian violence in Pakistan. In this case it was Muslims murdering members of a slightly different sect to their own again but here they have gone one step further and are terrorising Christians as well. A crowd of Muslims rioted and destroyed 100 homes in a Christian area because of some perceived insult to their beliefs.
But these devoutly religious people don’t stop there. They also do targeted killings of high profile people who belong to a different branch of Islam. A Shiite eye surgeon and his 11 year old son were shot and killed. I guess that’s just what the extremists’ faith told them they should do. Praise be to Allah!
This extreme behaviour in Pakistan is being more tolerated by moderate believers so in many ways it is them who are to blame. Anyone who is a Muslim and doesn’t accept part of the blame for the actions of the more extreme elements in their religion is just denying the facts. It’s the religion itself which is to blame. It is fundamentally intolerant. Anyone who denies this should be asked “what is the official Islamic punishment for apostasy?” (in case you don’t know, it’s death).
The saddest thing I heard was the tortured question of a relative of one of the victims when he asked “can God accept that?” Even after everything going so wrong and there being zero sign of help from his imagined deity he still believes. Well if faith is all about killing people who just happen to have a slightly different interpretation of an idiotic belief than you, and then wondering why your god didn’t help you, then you can keep it. Give me rationality over faith any day!
Imagine you are part of a military power in a foreign country as a result of your country invading it. Now imagine that while you are there your military is responsible for many civilian deaths and many well publicised acts of intolerance and disrespect. And to make matters even worse your country is the world’s greatest bastion of the dominant culture and religion and the country you are invading follows another religion. And the followers of that religion are extremely fanatical about defending it.
OK, if you have imagined all of that what would be the worst thing you could do (assuming you wanted peace and stability, of course)? Would it be to burn piles of the holy book of the culture you had invaded? Maybe there could be even worse things, but in a country which is fanatical about its beliefs that would have to be amongst the worst possible actions, wouldn’t it?
You would have to almost draw the conclusion that a mass burning of a holy book, without even an attempt at hiding the action, was a deliberate act of provocation… or maybe it’s just unbelievable incompetence. Which is worse?
I have little respect for holy books but I have even less respect for people who burn them (or any other book for that matter). I also have little respect for people who think having a few books burned is an excuse for embarking on an extended campaign of violence and murder. So in my opinion no one comes out of this sort of situation looking good.
Book burning has always symbolised repression and intolerance. Even if the reason a book is burned is logical and uncontroversial it still looks bad. And if you need to burn a holy book for practical reasons the least you could do is do it secretly!
If I followed a religion and its books were burned by my opponents I think I could use the situation in a positive way to enhance my own credibility. I would point out that my God is not bothered by the destruction of mere physical objects because he is above that. I would point out that it is the other group doing the burning who are the uncivilised barbarians. And I would say that I am a better person and will not sink to similar levels of uncivilised conduct.
But that’s not what usually happens, is it. On every side of the conflict: what were they thinking?
It has been about a year since I last made a “random comments” entry but fear not! Here is my latest effort…
Another New Zealand SAS soldier has been killed in Afghanistan. The government seems to be changing it’s official line on this. Originally they insisted the unit was there to help train the Afghan security forces but now are saying they are there to take part in combat. Does this mean they admit they were lying previously?
Most people would accept this casualty as an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of a just and worthwhile war, but is that really the case here? There are so many questions about the legitimacy of the conflicts the US is currently involved in that sustaining losses like these in a small country like ours should raise a lot of questions.
Of course the prime minister says we must remain courageous and fight on! Well that’s easy for him to say from his safe and comfortable office in Wellington. Another of my favourite quotes: nothing’s too hard for the person who doesn’t have to do it himself!
To make matters worse there have been questions recently about the justification for the raid. Was this really a mistaken attack on an innocent group which turned ugly? Are we now going to be associated with the US and its unfortunate international reputation for shooting first and asking questions later?
My second comment is a bit closer to home. About a week ago the prime minister was speaking in glowing terms about how well our economy is going. He was congratulating himself (who else would) on what a great job he is doing and how well managed our economy really is.
A couple of days later the minister of finance contradicted a lot of what the PM said and commented that it would be unlikely we would meet most of the targets the government has set itself. Today the country’s credit rating has been downgraded. If this is an example of good financial management I would hate to see an example of bad!
Finally I must mention the nuttiest political party of all. The rabid libertarian Act party seems to be self-destructing. In fact this phenomenon has been going on for a year or two now and it looks like it’s only through the use of dirty tricks that the party will survive. That is, of course, if you think there even is a party. Isn’t Don Brash the only one left? All the rest have deserted him. Even the crazies who were in the party in the past don’t want to be associated with someone as nutty as Don. Who can blame them?
So the political right gets a big fail mark from me. I don’t really know whether Labour would have done any better but their general policies of intervening where it is necessary, doing what is right rather than what will make our political and economic partners happy, and not pulling dirty political tricks to get an unpopular and dangerous party into power make me think that they would be the preferred option.
But the prime minister is a skilled politician if he is anything and he seems to have fooled a lot of the population of the country at this point, so I suspect New Zealand will continue its downward slide because National are likely to win the upcoming election. That’s rather unfortunate really.
Are some subjects so sensitive that we shouldn’t even have an open discussion about them? If that class of subjects exists does it extend to entirely political events? Should it? Specifically what I am asking is whether it’s possible to discuss the life and actions of Osama bin Laden in any way except that approved by the official western propaganda machine: that is that he was a murderous villain.
Controversial New Zealand politician and Mana Party leader Hone Harawira recently commented that he thought bin Laden fought for rights, for land, and for freedom of his people. That is a far more positive opinion that the official line allows and he later apologised for the comment.
But should he have? I’m not saying that I think bin Laden really was a hero, or that he was motivated by a genuine wish to free his people, or even that he deserves much respect. What I am asking is should we approach dissenting opinions by forcing apologies or should we try to show where the argument is wrong?
Ironically a major reason given for fighting terrorism is to preserve freedom yet it seems that freedom doesn’t extend to offering any opinions other than that one which is officially sanctioned by the Americans and their allies.
Maori commentator, Ranginui Walker was surprised about the apology and said he thought Harawira was “right on” in his appraisal of bin Laden. Yet he went on during an interview I recently heard to contradict the idea of bin Laden being a freedom fighter and basically agreed he was a terrorist. But at the end of the interview he compared him to Che Guevara, surely the revolutionary with the most positive public profile.
So which is it? Freedom fighter, or murderous terrorist… or both? Clearly it depends on what perspective you look at the subject from. Ranginui Walker is an activist for Maori rights and sees western forces (for example British, American, and New Zealand settlers) as representatives of empires he describes as “bathed in blood”. So he identifies with individuals fighting for the rights of who he sees as the oppressed. I don’t agree with his opinion (or Harawira’s) but I do think it is good that they have made their ideas public and I don’t think they should be forced to apologise for them.
If bin Laden’s actions are genuinely as evil as most western leaders say then that will be obvious to everyone and opinions contradicting this view can be easily dismissed. But refusing to even look at the possibility that those opinions have merit is almost like saying the establishment doesn’t want the issue even discussed. As I said, if the situation is as clear as claimed what would be the harm? It’s almost as if there is a fear that the simple “good guys versus bad guys” story which has been created will be destroyed if we look at it too closely!
For the people who do promote a more nuanced view on the subject the consensus seems to be that al Qaeda is an organisation fighting for what it sees as freedom but it is totally deluded regarding the way to achieve its aims. What sort of organisation tries to ensure peace by promoting violence? And how can it achieve freedom by imposing oppressive rules based on the most archaic interpretations of Islam?
So I don’t think Harawira should have apologised. And the prime minister simply labelling them as “ridiculous” or “misguided” without really saying why is just intellectually lazy (no surprises there). What should have happened is that someone should have explained why his opinions give bin Laden too much credit. But just labelling him a terrorist and leaving it at that isn’t enough. Closing down the debate won’t change anyone’s point of view: it will just make people with views contrary to the official propaganda keep quiet about them and that can’t be good.
Twitter really showed its value in the latest big news event: the death of Osama bin Laden. The incidents were tweeted as they happened, many people first learned about the news through Twitter, and there has been a lot of commentary (OK sure, most of it was completely useless) since the news broke. At its peak Twitter delivered 4000 tweets per second on the subject. Of course, like many internet information sources the problem is to find the useful signal amongst the noise.
One of my favourite tweets on the death of bin Laden was this: “So it took you 10 years, 2 wars, 919,967 deaths, 1,188,263,000,000 US dollars and finally Osama is dead! was it really worth it America?” Good question.
As I said yesterday, from a practical perspective it clearly wasn’t worth it. Many people think terrorism will increase as a result of bin Laden’s death. Ironically almost every political figure has said the opposite but I think most are too scared to say anything contrary to the official American line of propaganda. But the public obviously can see through this because according to a Herald poll when asked “is the world a safer place now bin Laden is dead?” 77% (including me) said no and only 23% said yes.
Obviously it has been a great psychological boost for the US. A power which seems to be slowly losing its prime position in the world has received a short-lived reason to celebrate. Again as I said yesterday, I think these celebrations are in extremely bad taste but what else has America still got?
So the answer to the question seems to be that it wasn’t worth it, although the question is unfair because no one has said that the sole purpose of the “war on terror” was to eliminate bin Laden. But whether it is worth it considering the other current outcomes is also highly doubtful, plus there’s the old question of whether the end can justify the means even if the end is itself worthwhile.
The rhetoric is certainly intense from many groups in society. Who sent his naive foot soldiers out to sacrifice themselves while he stayed safe? Who lived in luxury while the people doing his work had to make do with basic living conditions? Who was motivated by religious and political dogma all of which is highly dubious? Who used secrecy to preserve his own life at great expense to others? Who sacrificed women and children for his own political ambitions?
The answer most people would give is Osama bin Laden but, when you think about it, all of those criticisms could easily apply to the leader of America as well, especially to George Bush. On the other hand many people would point out that the conflict began after the 9/11 attacks and America was simply retaliating against an aggressor. So it’s hard to be too sympathetic to whatever losses al Qaeda have suffered, including the loss of their leader.
Over one trillion dollars is a lot of money. When I think about how that could have been used for scientific and technological progress instead of war I find it difficult to join the celebrations that many Americans have enjoyed. It’s yet another example of the great lie many modern governments tell us: that they can’t afford (put whatever worthwhile program you want here). It’s not true. They can afford to pay for science, or health, or welfare, or education, or many other worthwhile things. They just have to put a higher priority on these things than they do on war, or rescuing private financial institutions, or whatever other wasteful activities they are engaged in.
A trillion dollars to achieve very little, to probably make the world less safe, to kill almost a million (mostly innocent) people. Was it worth it? How could it be?
Anyone who initiates violent acts against another group or country should expect retaliation and deserves no sympathy if he is the victim of violence too. But it’s also unpleasant to see the death of any person treated as a political victory or as a reason for joyous celebration.
If the death of Osama bin Laden is a good thing then the celebrations should be suitably restrained. Political rhetoric, celebrations in the streets, and nationalistic fervour are totally inappropriate. The same Americans celebrating bin Laden’s death are repulsed by similar behaviour in Islamic countries. Isn’t that a double standard?
Sure the 9/11 attacks were a terrible and unjustifiable action, but were they any worse than American air strikes on civilians in many countries around the world? I can’t see the difference except that the Americans are supposed to be our friends.
Practically the death of bin Laden it is irrelevant, in fact it is more likely to cause violence rather than reduce it. Many of the fanatical terrorists will be inspired by the martyrdom of their leader. So this is a symbolic victory for the Americans but maybe it is the same for their enemies.
The celebrations in the street in America are sickening. Is this really the greatest Christian nation in the world? Would Jesus condone the celebration of death this way, even of an enemy? Of course not: what hideous hypocrisy.
I don’t want to see terrorism flourish and that’s why I think the current military action against terrorists – and any other random group the western powers don’t like – isn’t the right thing to do. And celebrating anyone’s death – even if it’s of an immoral and violent enemy – just isn’t right.
Julian Assange and the Wikileaks web site have got a lot of publicity recently. Many people admire the idea behind Wikileaks because it provides openness and access to information which everyone should have, but others think Wikileaks is a dangerous, anarchist organisation capable of causing harm to innocent people and to the so-called forces of good and freedom.
So which is right? Of course both are right because, if you follow my previous thoughts on similar subjects, you will know I rarely see things as black and white and believe there is both good and bad in every person, organisation, and situation.
I know it’s harder than just branding something good or bad but anyone who really wants to arrive at a reasonably accurate conclusion on these sorts of topics needs to look at the good and bad in balance. If the good outweighs the bad then it’s reasonable to support the idea under consideration.
I so often see people not using this approach. They look at something, see a single good or bad thing about it, and conclude that the thing is good or bad overall based on that one factor. And worse than that, the single factor they choose to form their conclusion is often selected based on an existing political, religious, or social prejudice.
Most conservatives will reject Wikileaks because they only see the bad aspects. That is an invalid approach because nothing can be seriously considered unless the big picture is seen. In the past I have just automatically rejected the Catholic Church for example, because to me it was an obviously corrupt institution, only interested in it’s own survival and power and responsible for many atrocities from single cases of child abuse to mass genocide.
I still reject Catholicism but I now admit it has several positive points as well: a social structure for it’s members, some charity work, and a rich cultural history, for example. But I don’t think these come close to balancing out the bad (those atrocities I have mentioned before and are well documented in many places).
But it’s hard to make someone see that they need to use balance in their opinion forming process. I know people who find one small item which seems to be contrary to global warming but completely ignore 100 pieces of information which support it. How can that person possible think they have reached a reasonable conclusion?
The same applies to religion. Sure there are passages in the Bible which seem to genuinely point to Jesus existing but there are many reasons to not think he existed as well. The correct conclusion here is a lot less obvious. I’m still stuck between thinking Jesus never existed at all and thinking that he did exist but only in a very different form to that described in the Bible. I admit I don’t know and that is the correct thing to do. Pretending Jesus must have existed because he’s described by people who seemed genuine while ignoring all the obvious flaws in the Bible accounts is just dishonest.
I didn’t really want this to turn into yet another rant against religions so I should get back to Wikileaks. I agree that leaked information could potentially lead to danger for both the military and civilians involved and that needs to be considered, but the bigger picture also needs to be considered: having real information leaked from war zones and other areas where secrecy might normally rule provides many benefits and these easily outweigh the negatives in my opinion.
Unfortunately the process of weighing risks versus benefits does require quantification and that can be difficult in many cases where history (like the Jesus case) or politics (like the case in Afghanistan) is involved and that’s where my system sort of falls down a bit. But at least if people are prepared to look at both sides they can be challenged to say why they favor one over the other. If they ignore the balance of factors then that discussion can’t even start.
Any award or recognition of a person’s contribution to the wellbeing of the world is sure to be debatable and sometimes controversial. Prizes for science are rarely disputed much although I’m sure there are plenty of people who deserved the Nobel Prize for a science and didn’t get one. Of course, the prize for peace is obviously always going to be a more difficult thing to judge.
Even considering the difficulty of evaluating a person’s contribution to peace I was surprised to see Barack Obama getting the Nobel Peace Prize this year. I think he is a generally good president and I agree with a lot of what he does, but I can’t see that he’s done enough for the cause of peace to be given the prize.
Its especially odd when you consider he has just committed tens of thousands of troops to the ongoing war in Afghanistan (although I admit that war has some justification) and is also actively engaged in the war in Iraq (which many people would say is unjustified).
So the US is responsible for more wars and death than any other nation on Earth yet its president gets the Nobel Peace Prize? Really? This does seem a bit odd.
I have just read through his speech and I must say I am quite impressed. He makes the point that sometimes war is necessary to achieve peace. Of course it was George Bush who started the war in Afghanistan so maybe he deserves the prize!
The idea that war is sometimes necessary to achieve peace is often true. Its hard to see how Nazi Germany would have been stopped by anything other than fighting back, for example. I think that is a bit less clear whether that would be appropriate in Afghanistan and very much less clear in relation to Iraq.
As I said, Obama didn’t start either of these wars so in many ways he cannot be accused of being the aggressor but he hasn’t stopped them either and he has also failed to get any real progress in peace talks in the Middle East. So just remind me again why he’s getting this prize?
Maybe its just the fact that’s there’s no one else who obviously deserves it. I can’t think of any examples of other leaders who have made much progress towards peace so maybe Obama was just chosen by default. But maybe it would have been better to not award the prize this year and wait until the outcome of various American policies become more clear before giving it to the US president.
As I said, I am generally a supporter of Obama so I shouldn’t complain too much. There is perhaps one person I would have liked to have seen get it instead: Al Gore again! But that’s just because I would have enjoyed the reaction of the global warming deniers I’m currently dealing with!
Should New Zealand get more involved in the war in Afghanistan? The US has recently made a few “subtle hints” that it would like to see more involvement although it would be mainly symbolic since New Zealand’s small armed forces are unlikely to make any real difference. But the symbolism is important, of course, because the US needs international support to make its activities in Afghanistan more acceptable. Of course Iraq is another matter. I don’t think they will ever gain widespread acceptance for that!
The hints I mentioned above included the comment that if New Zealand ever expected help from the US military in the event of any future problems its only fair that New Zealand should help the US in this time of need. Fair enough too, although its hard to imagine a situation where New Zealand would need any military help – not because we can look after ourselves (we can’t) but because no one is likely to want to start a war against us, first because we are so isolated, and second because New Zealand is fairly well respected and liked internationally.
No matter what we think of some sections of the US population and some of its less likable leaders it is still our ally and I think we should contribute to its military efforts if they have some justification, such as Afghanistan, but I think we should be careful what role we have in those efforts. Peace keeping, reconstruction, engineering and training is one thing but being on the front line calling in US air strikes which kill hundreds of innocent civilians is not something I think we should be involved with.
So I think we should say to the US that we will contribute to its efforts in Afghanistan but on our terms: that is in positive roles rather than traditional combat (which might not be very effective anyway as well as causing many casualties on both sides and often increasing resentment against the US and its allies).
If we can stick to a role which both sides respect then we will have fulfilled our obligations and also done the right thing. How often is that a consideration in modern diplomacy? Practically never I would say!
Today I listened to a Philosopher’s Zone podcast which discussed politics. One of the messages was that the more moral a political power tries to be the less truly moral they become. Actually, I’m not sure that’s exactly what they were saying but that’s the angle I’m taking here anyway.
There are so many examples of (especially conservative) politicians, political parties, and governments who have inflicted their own idea of morality on others that I really don’t know where to start… actually I do. The obvious recent example is the Bush administration and I’m sure that’s the one that almost everyone would initially think of.
So what philosophical errors did Bush and his administration make? How about these: simplification, projection, and dogmatism.
By simplification I mean the idea, perhaps best expressed through the expression “axis of evil”, that the sides in a conflict can be simply divided into good and evil. Bush also said that if you weren’t with him you were against him and so denied the possibility of a neutral stance or one with a more subtle understanding of good and bad.
By making the enemy pure evil understanding of their motivation is lost and so are chances of reaching agreement. By making yourself pure good you make mistakes because you can’t see your own inadequacies.
What about projection? Here I mean that the politician (and this doesn’t just apply to Bush remember) projects his (or his party’s or his country’s) own defects onto the enemy. The US owns weapons of mass destruction so Iraq does too. The US regularly uses torture for its own ends so that means the enemy must engage in that sort of immoral activity as well.
Its the ultimate form of hypocrisy that one group would attack another for doing exactly what they do themselves, and often to a far greater extent.
Finally there is dogmatism. This is a lack of flexibility and failure to engage in any real thought regarding a new situation. Dogmatism can come from many sources but the most common are political, economic, and (of course) religious. Most conservatives suffer from all three forms to a significant extent.
If a person or group is convinced a certain action is correct, either because that course is dictated by a holy book or because of traditional beliefs relating to that political group, then they are very unlikely to change course even when there is clear evidence that a different approach is needed.
I have picked on conservatives here a bit so I should clarify this by saying that everyone suffers from these effects to varying degrees. I think conservatives are by far the worst example though, but that could be just a result of my own politics being liberal!
So the Bush administration really had to attack Iraq because they had projected an evil image onto that country. What were the two main accusations which lead to Iraq (and other countries) being labelled “evil”? Possession of weapons of mass destruction and aiding terrorist groups, two things the US itself was guilty of far more than Iraq ever had been.
And we all know that Iraq was far from perfect under the control of Saddam Hussein but simplifying the situation and making him seem the ultimate villain when the US had previously cooperated with him is hideously hypocritical.
But the religious and political dogmatism which guided Bush was never going to let a few small details like the facts get in the way. The US was blinded by its own propaganda. Maybe the US administration should have listened to a few philosophical podcasts and they might have understood their own motivations a bit better!