Sep 28, 2010

America and Empire

It is a somewhat contentious issue to juxtapose the words 'America' and 'Empire' together. As 'empire' is a loaded term full of connotation, asserting or rejecting that these two words belong together is usually a matter of asserting ones bias in the larger issue of America's role in today's world. I believe a discussion on the matter, while admittedly superficially merely a semantic point, casts an important light on the state of America's role.

The main thing that defines an empire is its ability to control - typically militaristically - a large and disparate geographic region. Where the issue becomes contentious is on two points. Firstly, there is disagreement at the semantic level of what kind of influence is needed to result in using the term empire and secondly, but more importantly, whether what the US has makes the cut. As I will elaborate, the US's influence is divided in two loose categories: hard and soft power. Hard power is direct, centralized power and consists of  things like military hegemony over places like Iraq and Afghanistan or from state to state direct influence via supporting via military, economic or political aid states such as Pakistan. Alternatively, soft power consists of the non direct and decentralized influences like cultural, political and economic propagation such as its influence on Canada. This distinction is loose and there is much in between the two sides. Regardless of what one calls it, Americas has enormous influence in the world militaristically, economically, diplomatically, politically and culturally. Ultimately I care not if one does or does not use the term empire; however, I think acknowledging the extent of US influence in the world is important and probably justifies the use of empire at least in a loose and colloquial sense.
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Sep 26, 2010

Agree on process, if not substance

The simple reality of our world is that we are never all going to agree. Nor should we! However, in the pursuit of peacefully coexisting it is imperative that we attempt to resolve and ameliorate our differences.  The point I wish to make is that while we may disagree on substance we ought to try and at least agree on the process of resolving our differences. I submit that agreeing in process is a much easier problem to solve than that of substance, yet we are seeing in particular in many political issues a lack of any attempts to even deal with issues of process.

Our society has several excellent well established processes for resolving differences among politicians and lawmakers. This process of adversarial review is multifaceted and consists of submitting ones views to the various checks and balances of executive, legislative and judicial review but also to adversarial review by the media and ultimately the public. This adversarial review is at the very core of liberal democracies and provides a defined process for resolving complicated issues with substantial disagreement. Unfortunately, what we see is a willful subversion of this process and attempts to place certain issues outside of this process.
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Sep 24, 2010

Progressive taxes in a regressive world

Most western societies operate based on a progressive tax scheme. That is, schemes where the rich pay a relatively higher proportion of their incomes than poorer people do. As the debate surrounding the Bush tax cuts becomes a key campaign issue it is important to step back a bit and recall why we have progressive taxes at all.

The case for progressive taxes is actually quite multifaceted and dates back to at least Adam Smith, although it admittedly faces criticisms, however I would like to focus my comments here to noting the regressive nature of our world. There are many forces in our society that disproportionately advantage greater wealth and we can thus see progressive taxes as a means to balancing out these forces and aiming for a more equitable society. When one considers a flat tax (everyone pays the same proportion) it at first glance appears very equitable and fair however when one acknowledges the innate regressive forces of our society the need for a progressive balance to maintain a more equitable society become clear.
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Sep 23, 2010

Newly declassified documents exonerate Saddam of Bush's last remaining preemptive war justification

For years we have been hearing about the alleged Saddam Hussein - al Qaeda connection, the evidence for which has always been spurious at best. Today, newly declassified documents of FBI interrogations of some of Saddam Hussein's top people show definitively that this is not the case and that there was no direct connections.

The nature of this connection was a very important component of the justification given in the public discourse during the lead-up to the Iraq war. At times, polls indicated that perhaps as much as 70% of Americans believed some level of connection actually existed. As part of the same release set of documents, there are indications of the level of top down directives there were originating as high up as Rumsfeld to find evidence of this connection.
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Sep 22, 2010

How Santa Claus is a precursor to Christian belief in children

Most western, Christian raised children go through a process whereby they fervently believe in Santa Claus as children, then grow to discard this belief which is instead replaced with the Christian ideology. In many ways Santa Claus is a simplistic Christian allegory and it is my contention that the Santa Claus story helps facilitate the transition and indoctrination into the more sophisticated Christian belief.

Consider the similarities. For Santa Claus it consists of a supernatural, anthropomorphized entity capable of omniscient knowledge of your actions. The entity judges us based on a "bad or good" morality and then rewards or punishes us with presents or lumps of coal depending on the moral adjudication obtained by his omniscient knowledge. In the Christian case all of the above is true, it is just a more sophisticated version of it. The morality is more explicitly described than merely good or bad. The rewards and punishments (heaven and hell being the extremes) are more significant and the omniscience is described as complete, extending even into your own thoughts. Both employ, in a completely authoritarian manner, subservient supernatural creatures such as elves, flying reindeer or alternatively angels. The level of anthropomorphizing for God such as his appearance and residence are less well described but thus less supercilious. This of course is not the complete Christian message (it says nothing of original sin, forgiveness, or of the devil) but they contain many of the key ideas and in this sense the Santa Claus story can be seen as a simplistic allegory for the more sophisticated Christian message.
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Sep 21, 2010

The Left needs to stop getting distracted by the Tea Party

One of the factors in this election cycle is the rise of a Tea Party movement that is gaining some relevancy. How the issues are framed - both by the Tea Party themselves and those on both the right and the left who oppose them - is going to be influential not only in the November elections but in policy beyond it. The problem is, the left is responding to this threat very poorly. Instead of focusing on the important issues of the day, the left is being distracted in its attempts to mitigate the political reality of the Tea Party.

Take Christine O'Donnell, the recent Delaware congressional  republican nomination winner, who has been dominating news and discussion this last week. Granted, the story is perhaps important as it testifies to the growing strength of the Tea Party however most of the left leaning media has been focusing on pointing out some of the outrageous comments and claims she has made both in the past and recently. The position of the left is all too often "well we aren't crazy like she is!".
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Sep 20, 2010

The third aspect of religious debate

A lot of religious debate falls into one of two categories: debating the veracity of religion or debating the effects and influence religion (or the lack thereof) has in society. While both can be interesting and certainly people argue them from both sides, I submit that neither truly addresses where the focus of religion is for many people, namely, at a personal and local community level.

The issue of the veracity of religion contains many aspects such as debating the implications or contradictions in religious documents, providing logical or faith based arguments for or against theism, deism, atheism or agnosticism, arguing the compatibility of religious and scientific claims and so forth. Ultimately this debate aims to answer the question "are religious claims true?".  Alternatively, the other debate aims to answer the question "is religion good?" through discussions about the influences and motivations religion or lack of religions gives, about the role of religion in historic events, about the intrinsic morality of religious doctrine and so forth. Both general topics I believe to be intellectually interesting and important to discuss.

That said, for the average religious person, these topics are not the focus of their practice or faith. Instead, it is a combination of an internal experience as well as local experiences among friends, family and community that dominate the religious experience. A discussion of, say, the compatibility of an allegorical interpretation of genesis with the big bang or the effects of religious influence on the Rwandan genocide have little relevance on the day to day experiences of a religious person which are localized and personal.  I would submit in this case that while answering these two questions is important, we must be cognizant of the fact that they are merely a part of the common religious experience.
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Sep 19, 2010

The Failure of Sanctions: Iraq, Iran, NK, Cuba and Gaza

Sanctions are one of the chief "nonviolent" ways the worlds states impose punitive, preventative or coercive measures on regimes who go against their wishes. It has been an important tool used extensively by the US and her allies in both the past and the present on unsavory regimes around the world.   However, sanctions often are ineffective at accomplishing their goals and have enormous human consequences on the people they effect.  I consider here the ethical justifications for and against sanctions, their successes and failures at accomplishing their stated goals and the effects on the people in countries like North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Palestine and Cuba.

I look first at the stated reasons for sanctions which fall into three categories: punitive, coercive and preventative.  A recent example of a  punitive sanctions is the increased sanctions applied by South Korea, the US and others on North Korea after it recently sunk a South Korean navy ship. As with any punitive action, the main goal is to establish a deterrent that prevent hostile regimes from engaging in actions like sinking a ship in the future. The potential effectiveness of such sanctions as a punitive deterrent will be discussed later. The second category of sanctions, namely coercive, are designed to try and force a regime into taking a specific course of actions such as the current sanctions on Iran which has the stated goal of pressuring them to drop their nuclear program and allow for open international inspectors.  Preventative sanctions aim to directly prevent the spread of usually weapons or technologies from passing to a regime such as Israel desiring to prevent Hamas from receiving weapons. In many cases the lines between these types of sanctions are fuzzy and contain elements of two or more of them.  The potential effectiveness of such sanctions as a punitive deterrent or as a preventative or coercive force will be discussed later and in the examples.
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Sep 18, 2010

The Slippery Slope of Deism

The origin of our universe often gets debated as support for either deism or atheism. It is my contention that these two viewpoints are less different than they may first appear provided one is explicitly careful about what I term the "slippery slope of deism". From the naturalist perspective, the origin of the universe does not require a deity and indeed our current understanding of physics indicates that the very concepts of time and hence temporal causality originate at the big bang requiring no previous cause of our universe's origin. From a deist perspective, the origin of the universe requires a deity to have created it. I find the difference between these two be one of semantics and holds little meaning, a position that it innately critical of deism for that is the theory of the two which conventionally attempts to ascribe further meaning to its claims. 

I pause to note two conditions needed to frame my point. Firstly there should be a clear distinction with regards to deism vs theism where the word "deity" here means merely  "that entity which created the universe" and ascribes no properties, such as anthropomorphization, as given by any theistic religion. Most debates about deism either implicitly or explicitly quickly start piling on further connotations as to what this deity might be. This is the "slippery slope of deism" where additional properties get ascribed to the deity not justified by merely the "universe must have a creator" argument. What my point shall be is to show that if we remain devoid of any of these further unjustified connotations then the difference between natural origins and deistic origins is vacuous and one merely of loaded definitions. 
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Sep 17, 2010

The Teapot Agnostic Fallacy

The so called teapot analogy introduced by Russell is contemporarily used primarily by atheists to belittle agnostics. The analogy is that one considers the claim that a small teapot is flying around mars and hence undetectable by our telescopes. In this case, while we can't prove or disprove the existence of the teapot definitively, we should believe for all intents and purposes that it doesn't exist. The comparison with deism is then that since we can't prove or disprove definitively the existence of a deity we should believe one doesn't exist.

However, there is an important difference between the teapot and deity cases; namely, that of explanatory power. The teapot case explains no phenomenon in our universe. Deism however explains many phenomena as I will discuss further later. This difference is critical because the basis for believing a theory is that is has explanatory power. We believe, say, the theory of relativity because it does indeed explain our observable universe. A theory that explains nothing - or worse is in violation of an observation - has no validity. This applies to the teapot case, but not to the deity case. For the teapot case the two claims "there isn't a teapot around mars" and "there is such a teapot" are very asymmetrical with one evidently far more reasonable to believe than the other. With deism however the gap between "a deity does not exist" and "a deity does exist" is far smaller because the one offers, to some extent, explanatory power. As such, to the extent that deism has superior explanatory power to a Martian teapot, an agnostic perspective of deism is more powerful and balanced statement than the epistemological consideration of teapot agnosticism.

Now the extent to which deism offers explanatory power for the universe is highly debatable as is the compatibility of its predictions with our observations. Such things include the creation of the universe, the nature of consciousness, existence of morality an whatnot. The point isn't to argue for or against any of these claims but instead to note that this must be the source of the debate. Hence, to argue against deism one must debate the extent of its explanatory power such as how compatible it is with observation but not to apply the teapot analogy and reduce agnosticism to an epistemological consideration about uncertainty.
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Sep 16, 2010

Why Fee-and-Dividend is superior to Cap-and-Trade

As the world recoils from the failure of Copenhagen but is bolstered in our commitment by the news that the first half of 2010 is the warmest on record, it is imperative to consider the various carbon policies that we try to commit to. For the most part that policy is the so called cap-and-trade, as it was for Kyoto and other non carbon air pollution management agreements. However, their are significant problems with this policy and I will discuss here why we should push for fee and dividend schemes instead.

I establish first the terms and assumptions. Let me assume for the purpose of this discussion to accept the premise of climate change and the need to actively reduce specifically carbon emissions; the scope of this post is exclusively on the best policy for an international carbon reduction scheme, given the assumed need for one. Cap and trade is a policy where a fixed quantity, or cap, is mandated on carbon emissions and a market created whereby polluters who increase their emissions must buy credits from the market and those that decrease them can sell credits to the market. Fee and dividend charges a tax directly on carbon pollution and then uses that money to give back to the people in various ways such as a direct dividend. Both systems in general accomplish the same goal namely raising the price of carbon which will in theory reduce the amount of carbon emissions and increase the price competitiveness of other cleaner energy sources.  However, the differences are significant enough to make the later superior for the following reasons I will argue.
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Sep 14, 2010

Obama's Army: Its Failures, His Failures, and a Lack of Democracy

Ever since his election, democrats have been lamenting how the massive grassroots political machine Obama used to get himself elected has withered and now essentially evaporated. 8 million volunteers strong and led by Organizing For America, the so called Obama's Army has been of limited use since this time, shrunk enormously in size and participation, and hasn't moved into large pushes for issues outside of getting Obama elected. The complaint that so many on the left give is that Obama underutilized this support, leaving it both undirected and effectively leadership. Hence, they argue,  there was a real missed opportunity to use this political machine and support to push for more progressive policies in a stagnating Washington. Quite possibly true, except, they miss the point.

The problem is, they actually have it completely backwards and further it isn't really democratic. The democratic ideal is of the people being the ones who are raising the issues, of the people being the ones who are forcing and enacting change in the country. It isn't for Obama to raise the issues that these people should be pushing for. The direction for this supposedly undirected grassroots political organizations shouldn't come from Obama it should come from the grassroots people involves. That is how democracy works, from the bottom up not the top down.
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Environmental challenges and crisis in Afghanistan

Previous Afghanistan posts:
1) Afghanistan: A comprehensive overview of the war, its background, and its future
2) Malthusian Afghanistan: The relationship between population pressures, poverty and violence

In this post I wish to narrow the focus in Afghanistan to the issue of the environment and how it has shaped its history, influences its current problems and has reached a crisis point that is being only further exacerbated today. I consider the challenges Afghanistan's geography places on its people but also the way the management and attention to the environment by its people (and others, like us) have turned these natural disadvantages into a crisis that led and leads today to the problems we see in Afghanistan. While in my Malthusian Afghanistan post I talked about the relationship between population pressures, poverty and violence that led to the circumstances of war described in my first Afghanistan post, here I investigate the basic environmental realities and their (mis)management that has led to the population pressures, poverty and hence violence in the current war.



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Sep 13, 2010

Why We Should Vote For Third Party Candidates

The political discourse in the United States is dominated by the relationship between the two major parties. Almost all commentary is described in this highly partisan context and third party or independent candidates are essentially ignored. I discuss here several of the important reasons behind why we should be supporting third party candidates.

The first factor is the issue of framing the public debate. When there are only the republicans and the democrats in the public discourse, the issues are cast without any larger context and perspectives and can only go as deep into an issue as the parties actually differ. When the parties agree on issues such as extensive support for the military industrial complex and corporations, support for Israel, support for the war on drugs etc., these issues and alternate perspectives on them are just gone from the public discourse because neither side chooses to bring it up as a way to attack the other side. The republicans and democrats are far more similar on many important issues than the supposedly polarized, partisan presentation of them in the media would have one believe. We need to included 3rd party candidates with a much wider group of perspectives in order to have an intellectually honest representation of the issues and to frame the issues in a larger, more inclusive context.
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Sep 12, 2010

Malthusian Afghanistan

The nature of the war in Afghanistan, with belligerents such as the Taliban, al Qaeda and the Internationals, is well discussed in our public discourse. I have done so myself. What is discussed much less is some of the broader trends that lead to the seemingly unending manifestations of conflicts that the Taliban embody. What might be these larger factors? Is it simply the nature of their culture or perhaps of their religion- as if often implied by the media? What I present here is some statistics and commentary showing how population pressures, food supplies and other environmental concerns - classic Malthusian concerns - may well be a very important factor that has led to such strife over such a long time.
Birth rate by country (source: wiki)


Let us consider the statistics. Firstly, the above picture shows Afghanistan with the 3rd highest (highest outside Africa) birthrate in the world at an astonishing 7.5 births per woman. Unsurprisingly, Afghanistan also ranks 3rd highest in terms of population growth...a rate that has been more or less the same for the last half century. This population growth is unsustainable from the perspective of the jobs market with 40% unemployment. Two thirds of the population lives on less than 2 dollars a day. Agriculture, which dominates the "official" economy (some 80% of it) has reversed from Afghanistan being a larger net exporter to a net importer of food reliant on foreign aid. Opium and hashish production (roughly a third of the total, unofficial, economy) have taken over nontrivial proportions of the agricultural business which only takes land away from local food production. Moreover, Afghanistan ranks highest in the world in a metric that considers "food stability" or the stable access to food, which is why things like the 2008 food crisis in Afghanistan which was caused by droughts was so pervasive in it's consequences. The World Food Program was only able to reach some 38% of it's intended recipients and most of those given unsatisfactory levels despite enormous international funding. It should be noted that these numbers represent averages, local variations can be far more intense, for example the unemployment rate among younger populations far exceeds that of older population where land ownership is much higher and the same is true of various regional discrepancies far exceeding the norm.
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Sep 11, 2010

Responsibility is not zero sum

In discussing almost any problem, we frequently try to identify the single key factor responsible and focus on that. A glorified "blame game", if you will. In reality there are often many causes and factors for a given event. The point I wish to make is that responsibility is not a zero sum game. That is, we should not expect blame to add up to 100% where acknowledging one factor having some percent reduces the amount of responsibility some other factor gets. To identify one factor does not necessarily minimize the responsibility of any other factor.

When the obvious proximate cause of an event (such as the actual perpetrators) are so obviously horrific and deserving of blame we do just that but tend to ignore to our detriment other factors and sometimes even the ultimate cause. The inexcusable trigger that lights the match is focused on compared to the powder keg that ultimately is the source of the exposition. So for example with 9/11, it is easy to blame the proximate cause namely the actual terrorists but much harder to identify the larger ultimate causes that led to people desiring to act out in this way such as, say, US imperialism in the middle east. Now I should be clear, identifying proximal vs ultimate causes (and the line between these two can by blurry, multifaceted or nonexistent)  in no way reduces the responsibility of the proximal cause. The horrors of the 9/11 perpetrators stand on it's own regardless of any discussion about other background causes of 9/11. Furthermore, explaining an atrocity an the factors that led to it does not excuse the atrocity in any way. Explaining factors that lead to cannibalism or genocides (such as food shortages or population pressures) do not excuse these acts. Instead, we aim to try and fully understand all causes and factors in an attempt to mitigate them in the future.
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Sep 9, 2010

How to memorialize 9/11

Every year we get the opportunity to memorialize the horrific tragedy of the 9/11 attacks. However, it is important to remember not just the event itself but also what resulted from, and what led to it.  9/11 is more than just some 3000 dead people and their families for it has intrinsically and intimately shaped the last nine years of our history and touched the lives of far more than ever died in the event itself in some of the most remote corners of the globe. I look at what resulted and preceded this event and how we can properly memorialize it, learn from it and move towards a better and more tolerant world.

We must remember how 9/11 sparked the global war on terror, with the first direct action the international war in Afghanistan which quickly provided the momentum for a second war in Iraq. More western lives have been lost in these wars than in 9/11 itself. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have lost their lives in these conflicts, millions have been displaced and exist in among the most marginal conditions in the world, trillions of dollars were spent. None of these factors are reversing themselves today. The global war spilled out of these theaters into covert attacks on elements in Pakistan, Yemen and other countries and we now begin to focus our attentions myopically on Iran.   We must remember how our civil liberties have been stripped and how torture, rendition, the suspension of haebus corpus, and the use of black sites all came with that momentum in the war on terror that 9/11 sparked.
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Sep 8, 2010

On freedom, and on libertarianism

Freedom is a very good thing indeed, but what does it really mean? While often considered by some to focus on freedom from government imposition, freedom actually can mean freedom from a great many different things. The simple truth is that we are constrained by the reality of our situations.  What we are free to, say, eat in the west is very different than what someone in a food crisis in Mozambique is freely able to eat. It is my contention that one can never be truly free without the freedom from the crippling oppression of poverty.

Freedom from poverty and freedom from government interference are two factors but there many others such as freedom from the constraints of culture and social customs, for instance, that lead to horrors like the treatment of women (such as FGM). Or freedom from being forced to accept pragmatically to consume the products chosen by the markets. Our world creates many barriers in many different ways and freedom can mean the elimination of all or any of these barriers.
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The bias WE insert into the news we consume

One of the problems with using principally mainstream, headline based news is how easily this let's us perpetuate our own biases. Certainly the mainstream news media have systemic, homogenized, top down biases themselves - which ought to be the content of a rather long post but for now I shall simply defer one to Chomsky's classic Manufactured Consent - and certainly various media sources have disparate biases tailored to their respective audiences but I wish here to consider instead the bias we as readers introduce not the bias in the media itself.

The issue at stake here is that when an article is seemingly neutral and unbiased it let's us read the article and interpret it with whatever bias we ourselves have. Especially since so many stories are presented as a headline with a few limited details, perhaps a bit of barebones back story and a quote or two from both obvious "sides" and as such are for the most part devoid of advocacy and argumentation for a point we can read it and just internalize the details to fit our bias. We aren't challenged in our viewpoint at all. Contrast this with, say, a source taking an advocacy position where you can get detailed explanations and arguments in support of various points.
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Sep 7, 2010

Constitutions and morality

On moral issue after moral issue - from gay rights to the "ground zero mosque" - the constitution frequently gets invoked to support or attack one side or the other. The constitution and morality are related yet fundamentally different concepts in the following sense. The constitution should reflect the ambient morality and cultural values of a people and times not the other way around. Morality is independent of the constitution and should stand or fall on it's own merits.

So take the example of gay marriage in the US. This is an issue I unappologetically support and believe to be morally valid. At the same time, there is some debate (I have my own opinions on this but they are irrelevant for the purpose here) that goes on in various courts about whether gay marriage is or is not constitutional. The point I wish to emphasize is that regardless of the result of the debate, even if the constitution explicitly forbade it, the moral validity of gay marriage would stand. We as people should act to modify the constitution to reflect the morality not to change our morality to reflect the constitution. This is in many ways and obvious and pedantic point; however, since on so many issues the constitutionality or lack thereof of something is used frequently to bolster what are effectively moral arguments it is important to emphasize this distinction.
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Sep 6, 2010

The Problems With Identifying Racism

One of the problems with racism and bigotry in our society - quite apart from the fact that they still occur with such prevalence - is that they are often difficult to identify and label appropriately. I look at three reasons why this is so and then investigate a small sample of current bigotry such as surrounding the so called "ground zero mosque". The difficulties in labeling racism and bigotry allow it to perpetuate unchecked, and so it is important to see why this is the case.

The first reason it is so difficult to label bigotry and racism is simply that these words are very much pejoratives. It is a grave insult to call someone a racist to their face to the point where the word is almost a taboo. Part of this stems from the fact that when we think of racism, worst case scenarios of slavery, racial genocide and sectarian strife comes to mind all of which is far more extreme and serious than, say, overemphasizing violence within Islam as our media so loves to do. Because there are these such horrific extreme connotations attached to these words, they have developed into grave insults when used to describe less extreme acts. On the opposite end, one can trivialize claims of alleged racism by dismissing this as just being politically correct and that claims are empty in substance. So pegging a specific comment or action as racist means having to clarify the words are not referencing either ends of the spectrum.

Secondly, because everyone knows that racism and bigotry are and knows that it is bad, if you ever press them on a point they will tacitly retract their generalizations with things like "I know not ALL Muslims are violent" before continuing on talking about how Islam is an intrinsically violent religion. This ability to superficially evade blatant racism or bigotry and to have just enough qualifications when pressed about a gross generalization at hand to avoid clear cut bigotry makes pinning someone down as being a bigot difficult. One has to look at, say, the pattern of repetition and focus to determine, more subjectively, the level of bigotry opposed to the clear cut statements of racism prevalent in generations past such as "interracial marriages are bad".

Thirdly, and probably most importantly, when racism becomes very much ingrained in our society and when it is engaged in extensively by many people it becomes both difficult to identify for members of that society and moreover difficult to label because the people engaging in racist views or actions are not acting out of the ordinary. For example the view that "islam is a violent religion" is a common enough perspective (hopefully I need not explain why this is patently false, a poorly defined concept and intrinsically bigoted). This perspective is heavily reinforced by the mainstream media especially post 9/11 (the usage of the word "terrorist" in the media skyrocketed, for example), is obviously easily motivated by the isolated incidents of 9/11 and the two current wars in the middle east, and motivated by a sense of religious superiority. The result is that when people are bombarded by this opinion and indications of it, and when it is shared by so many, it is hard for people to even identify it as a systemically bigoted viewpoint and harder still to label one of the many who share it as bigots. Other issues such as the gross socioeconomic divide between blacks and white in the US from everything from poverty to incarceration rates is one where any individual person is not likely involved directly in active racism yet a legitimate structural racism exists within our society required to explain these differences. Yet the status quo is so innately accepted and the problems so easily ignored that it makes this systemic racism hard to identify and label.

Now I should qualify, just because I believe someone to be a bigot or a racist does not mean I necessarily think poorly of them. In many cases, perhaps an overwhelming majority, people are simply the products of our culture and should not be blamed unduly for their beliefs. There are certainly natural motivations for such beliefs and they are heavily reinforced by society which when combined with apathy or general ignorance can make a powerful combination. That said, I don't minimize the role of personal responsibility and think that it is through individual action that we can combat these deep set opinions in our culture.

As such, I advocate a more direct attempt to identify, label and change the opinions of people engaged in racist or bigoted actions or opinions. Of course, simply yelling bigot at people isn't going to help anything, but actively trying to challenge and identify the basic assumptions that lead to ones opinions may. We should try not to insult people, but we also should not be afraid to try and combat racism and bigotry directly. The simple reality is that they are alive and well in our society and need combating.

As a concluding and timely example, consider the so called ground zero mosque. For those who are not aware, this concerns a large uproar that a Muslim community center is being planned some two blocks away from ground zero (with churches, synagogues and strip clubs equal distances away). That there will be a 9/11 memorial, interfaith components to the multifaceted community center, that the imam is a leader in the interfaith community, hired by Bush and Obama alike, and that they practice Sufism, a particularly tolerant branch of Islam very different from that of Osama bin laden are all usually ignored. If my bias isn't clear enough, obviously the mosque should be allowed if not for the basic 1st amendment rights to freedom of religion but also as it promotes interfaith tolerance and acceptance that glorifies not denigrates the memory of 9/11. However, what is interesting for the purposes of this discussion is the systemic bigotry that motivates the opposition to the mosque. Firstly, let us be clear there is extensive opposition, 68% of Americans in one poll as well as some extreme cases of knifing a Muslim taxi driver for affirming he was indeed Muslim in NYC, to the burning of the mosque site in Tennessee, to the Florida mosque bombing or the proposed "burn a quran day" that while obviously not indicative of the general population show how bad it can get. I have read and debated many people opposed to the mosque and with nearly zero exceptions the arguments all focus on the premise that there is a relation between the 18 terrorists and the mosque, or perhaps "Islam in general". This assertion is of course devoid of meaning at all but the most superficial level that yes they are both technically Muslims as 1.6 billion people around the world are of innumerable sects and cultures. The only way it can be offensive is if one draws this connection and says it is meaningful. So the result is a perfect example where a wide spread and fundamentally bigoted sentiment exists and is being propagated by the media that would directly violate expression of religious freedom. Again, in don't think the best approach is to simply call people against the mosque bigots - they may not even be able, through no direct fault of their own, to identify why we might think this - but to really challenge the basic assumptions that lead to the conclusion that it is offensive or inappropriate and to introduce the narrative of acceptance and tolerance I expressed above.
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Piano!

Finally managed to upload some of my piano composition to youtube and then, somewhat later, to here.










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Sep 5, 2010

How statehood recognition for nations is an important step towards post-nationalism.

It is very easy to find fault in nationalism and other forms of ethnic, religious, political, linguistic or social tribalism that have led to wars, sectarian violence and immeasurable suffering for people around the world and as such to denounce nationalist tendencies outright. A post-nationalist world where we all get along and don't divide ourselves into autonomous nations at never ending odds with each other is certainly a lovely idealized utopia. But how to achieve such a world when this tendency seems so innately part of our psyche?

The first step in this aim must be reducing the currently occurring violence, war and oppression between nations. This usually occurs in one of three main ways, either by two or more states (representing, imperfectly, there ensconced nations) acting as belligerents for cross boarder war, a civil war between nations ensconced in single state or geographic region, or thirdly by a state oppressing a distinct nation within the states own boarders. It is the last case I focus on although the civil war case is usually very similar in that it is multiple nations who do not each have their own state. The simple reality is there are many nations who do not have states and whose people suffer greatly at the indirect or direct actions from states they reside in or are surrounded by. Kurdistan, balochistan, Palestine, Chechyna and Tibet are all examples of this. In today's unipolar world, aggression is all too often of this later form. To be sure, we have seen many nations form states; the collapse of the soviet union saw many examples of this especially in central Asia but it had also occurred as a result of international intervention such as for Kosovo or through internal empowerment such as in Taiwan. My contention is that very often the first step in removing hostilities and oppression between peoples is to allow for concrete nations to form their own autonomous states.
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