20 September 2014

Bombing begins in 10 minutes

I do not shy away from the idea that occasionally military conflicts are inevitable or capable ways to quickly resolve dangerous international situations. But ISIS doesn't strike me as a problem that we can resolve in this way with military force. It is unclear to me what our goals are in intervention. It is unclear to me why our forces, or our interests are of higher concern than those of the regional players who may be threatened (Saudi Arabia, Iran) that we should react or act on their behalf, or why we should seek to prevent those regional players from acting and reacting (Iran), and it is pretty clear that we (the US/EU) are not actually threatened that we need to respond directly and promptly ourselves.

Several thoughts

The threat of "hundreds of members who hold Western passports" does not materialize to me as a conceptual threat that these members could turn around and conduct terrorist attacks on American or European soil with relative ease. Conducting and plotting terrorist attacks is difficult to carry off successfully. And more to the point, if we're aware they have these members, these individuals can be flagged as potentially dangerous and monitored and observed well before they could carry out any plot that is made. That's precisely why we have an NSA or CIA or FBI or MI-6, etc (it isn't for monitoring hundreds of millions of unsuspecting American citizens, but for monitoring much more suspicious potential threats like this, western pro-Islamist radicals willing to go train or fight in foreign insurgencies).

This is also one of the reasons most of the intelligence community doesn't appear to agree with the emerging public consensus that ISIS represents an imminent terrorist threat to Americans over the next several years. It can declare it wants to attack Americans or Brits all it wants, but actually doing it is very different from proclaiming itself to be hostile. That's mostly a PR stunt to attempt to recruit, not a statement of an ongoing mission planned and prepared. Al Qaeda was able to carry off its attacks over a decade ago largely because it had a long timeline to develop them and intelligence community coordination was poor in reaction or response. I'm not persuaded our intelligence community has learned much about how it should conduct its operations to identify potential terrorism threats, but it's possible that a rather public threat like this would command sufficient attention to be identifiable in the wake of the knowledge of what such threats could maybe eventually lead toward (eg, 9-11). This intelligence operation should be the focal point of any response to the idea that Americans might be endangered now or in the future, and not open-ended military campaigns conducted abroad in intractable political contests over power and religion in other countries.

In general, ISIS lacks power projection capabilities common to a large developed nation-state. It doesn't have an air force, navy, long-range missile capabilities. It largely consists of well-armed guerrilla and insurgent infantry forces (similar to the Taliban in Afghanistan). It will as a result have difficulty expanding, consolidating, and enforcing rule over areas of the Middle East that it does not already enjoy, for various sectarian religious and political reasons, a modest level of public support. That is to say: if it tries to expand or attack or agitate in areas that aren't mostly Sunni, and mostly irritated with Western or "pro-Western" governments, it won't get much done and will be resisted by any capable forces available. It can be an irritant in that area and represents a threat to the region and its relative stability (such as there is any), but it cannot control much of significant importance to American interests. People invoking Chamberlain "appeasement" and Godwin's Law comparisons have no idea what they are talking about and should be ignored. Germany was a powerful nation-state with a capable military for power projection and a burgeoning economy to support that machinery of war in the 1930s. ISIS is none of those things, and probably never will be (this was also true of the Iraqi state in the early 2000s). Such talk needs to be silenced and ignored as patently idiotic. What it can do is be annoying, and perhaps try to operate as a zone to attract and train militant fighters and/or terrorists. But it can't represent a major threat to American interests and safety. It bears keeping an eye on, not a preemptive military strike.

Bombing insurgents, or sending in special operations teams, might help in small doses where our regional allies require assistance, but the main line of resistance needs to be coordinated and conducted by those regional allies (Jordan, Kurds, Turkey), and by other regional players who might be endangered in some way (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Syria). They are the ones threatened by direct attack or occupation and in need of response to overturn the danger. If it were clear that our intervention was to buy time for these disparate entities to coordinate or develop a strategy to respond and crush this rebellious force militarily and also provide some political means of responding to the situations that allowed it to flourish (local repression by Syrian and Iraqi governments primarily), then perhaps such interventions over a brief time could be warranted. I am skeptical that the local powers can coordinate politically and militarily; (Iran and Saudi Arabia seem to hate each other for example. And as a result skeptical that they can respond to the political problems involved; Iraq and Syria were in some measure the cause of those problems, it seems unlikely they can help solve them. This situation will not be best resolved with a semi-permanent force of US power tied to the area with the need for bombings and assassinations.

Our interventions thereby exist in a strategic no-man's land. Since we are responsible in some measure for the political situation in Iraq, it seems unlikely we can help much on that front either. Interjecting ourselves into civil wars and sectarian strife with an intent to resolve them is unlikely to be a fair long-term use of our power and capabilities. This has been borne out in Israel-Palestine for decades, in Palestine internally for a decade, in the Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy conflict that we have allowed ourselves to be dragged into rather than selecting a sensible set of allies, ideally who share western values in some measure, to support ahead of time as a means of protecting and expanding our hegemonic power through soft and hard power projection, and so on. It is extremely unlikely that a campaign of bombing, or special operations, or military occupation, will successfully repress and destroy our purported enemy on its own without an overall COIN strategy that our allies can successfully execute to defuse the intractable political and sectarian conflicts that have brought this to our attention. Which leaves the prospect of intervention open-ended, without a position and goal of success to achieve that allows us to leave the situation behind at some future date. Given that we have had a history of this as well (Iraq under Hussein, Afghanistan under the Taliban/Karzai), this should tell us that this strategy lacks a degree of wisdom and smacks too much of a reaction to emotion rather than a reaction to a threat of grave concern.

12 September 2014

morality v religion

This should not be terribly surprising. There doesn't appear to be a big difference in reported moral behavior for the religious from non-religious populations.

What appears interesting out of it so far
1) Haidt's moral framework of distinct moral values and the ideological or religious faultlines over which are held in higher regard is rather clearly demonstrated in what people self-report as moral violations or achievements. Religious (conservative) people often identified different things as immoral than the secular (liberal) population. This probably explains a large measure of why non-religious persons are often regarded as "immoral" by religious people, because they do not identify much of their behavior as morally and ethically questionable where the religious person does. This does not mean that non-religious and secular persons have not considered these questions or that they avoid these moral quandaries in order to do things. Instead it usually means they don't find it very important to judge themselves or others on these questions and may regard them as matters of personal taste; Coke v Pepsi style or rap v country rather than intractable social questions.

2) People report hearing about immoral behavior much more often than moral behavior. This is the traditional transmission vector for morality, getting other people to gossip about your misdeeds. I suspect religious people are more vulnerable to negative gossip (from within "their" group). Most secular persons I am familiar with are vulnerable to negative gossip, but mostly because they may try to ignore it until it has already caused a problem for themselves. Paying attention to the opinions of others is tedious, and often a waste of time, but sometimes carries benefits.

3) Religious people experience more guilt or shame over moral questions. This does not appear to lead them to avoid these actions however. It means they feel worse about it. My off-the-cuff impression is that non-religious people experience less guilt mostly because the moral behaviors that religious persons identify are more common (purity or disgust violations) and easy to identify. Non-religious person's ethical codes are more likely to identify most behaviors that are non-harmful (to others) and consensual acts to be acceptable and experience little guilt over these versus other actions where other persons were harmed, which are less likely to occur or be observed in a daily or weekly pattern. If they feel guilty over drinking too much the night before, it's probably because of the hangover and not because they violated some decree, as an example.

10 September 2014

Quick Hits

1) I don't care that Apple thinks people still want a 16th century technology. Watches are stupid. Keeping track of time that closely is rarely important. If something needs to be done "soon", get it done as fast as you can. And don't worry about the time limits with precision.

2) Something that's come up often, and somehow managed to make it onto my social media feed: People who complain about white people getting killed by cops (or by minorities) somehow being ignored (by the media, or other people in their social circles).

The problem here is we're talking about two different things:
a Individual people getting killed. Which is bad. A problem (sometimes police violence, or crime). That kind of problem deserves attention and is terrible.
b People who are systematically oppressed, with a matchstick moment like an unarmed person from that community of people being killed (by police or whomever).
White people aren't oppressed (at least not in that way involving police brutality and racial profiling, etc). Crime against white people also isn't ignored by police or media. When there are protests surrounding a particular killing or beating of a minority victim, this isn't just to make a statement about the actual killing. It is to draw attention to the overall setup that helped lead to that killing. Large numbers of people are totally unaware of the deployment of SWAT teams into the Hispanic or African-American part of town, or the futility of stop and frisk searches as little more than racial discrimination under the supposed rubric of guns or drugs (which are almost never found). If the SWAT team is hitting a middle class white family, that gets attention, or if the police started frisking everyone in "your" neighborhood. And so on.

One of the consequences of all of this is that police and the citizens they police begin an adversarial relationship rather than a cooperative one. This all makes it much more likely that the tactics described above might be used, and that brutality and violence would occur, and thus shootings of unarmed citizens would be much more frequent. And much more likely to be ignored by the public at large, or passed over as supposedly "justified".

So. Yeah. If someone posts that kind of thing, you're going to get an angry note.

3) The NFL. I intend, as usual, to basically ignore football as a sport and watch as little of it as possible. I believe I watched a game last year involving 8-10 inches of snow on the field (Lions-Eagles). Because that was funny. But because football is a vastly popular media topic, it is impossible to ignore football in general as a topic. And what seems like the situation is that the NFL, if it wants to remain relevant in 15-20 years, probably needs to replace its commissioner as soon as possible. Because Goodell is basically running all the PR issues straight into the dirt rather than floating over them as problems. It confronts almost none of its major issues. Sexism -most teams are involved in long-standing fights over cheerleader treatment, pay, etc, and a variety of criminal charges involving domestic abuse and its players occur per year. No doubt it is not the only such league that has these, but its responses attract more attention, because they are often woefully inadequate. PEDs. Basically the league is ignoring these because faster and stronger players are more exciting (the NBA effectively does as well, and I don't particularly care that much about PEDs ethically). Concussions and brain trauma research, the league has tried to bury this, and took years to get around to addressing it at all. And so on. Football doesn't need to become a less violent sport to survive in relevance in America. But it does need to attend to these as issues. Parents (of both sexes), will see the risks of football as increasingly harsh environments (on and off the field) for placing their children into the sport and depriving it of vital talent and skilled play, a serious long-term risk to the health of the sport. And meanwhile women are a large and growing source of disposable income, and could be a large and growing fan base for professional sports. It should not take a violent video being leaked to disturb the conscience of league authorities relating to the off-field violence of one of its players and declare that it takes these concerns of how its players conduct themselves privately with a measure of seriousness.

08 September 2014

Another topic I tire of writing out opinion on

The Pledge. 

This comes up often in discussions with atheists. While I share some of the discomfort of other secularists in a ritual which implies an affirmation of belief in a deity, my main objections to the entire enterprise are more complex than simply finding "under god" offensive to those sensibilities, or more accurately, that lacking those affirmations makes one "unpatriotic". The pledge itself is more objectionable than the precise wording including a religious phrase to be uttered. Both to the notion of religious belief involved and to the associations of "patriotism" with "nationalism", in a profane exercise of confusing the two in the minds of (usually) impressionable children.

While it appears that if we ask a populace aware of the history of this pledge and ritual practice, and the changes of its language, far more recently in both its origins and current design, that that populace is more comfortable (but not popularly comfortable) abolishing the "under god" from the recited lines required, this is not the biggest problem I have had with the issues surrounding the pledge. I never felt that it was in some way requiring an affirmation of belief in a deity to mouth words. This is because the far bigger problem was the affirmation of a ritual requiring a declaration of patriotic duty in a particular way. The exercise of putting everyone in a room together to "support" or "respect" "our troops", as it was recently declared, and other affirmations of what is implied by one's patriotic responsibilities as a citizen is the offensive quality of the pledge. Patriotic duties are wide and varied, and the implication is not the same as blind nationalistic sentiments. The pledge is primarily about the latter. It is not a statement for the love and fostering of growth, prosperity, and peaceful development of a nation-state and its people, but obedience to its symbols, authority, and leaders that it is celebrating and developing.

We can see this in the manner that it is conducted, led by an authority figure (a teacher or school official), with a variety of methods of condemning or shaming those who do not comply. Among the student body, if not done by the teacher. We can see this in the number of complaints and court cases filed, not necessarily and not often by atheists who object to the language, but by co-religious figures who find the nature and coerced expression of patriotism offensive in its design. We can see this in the violence that was perpetrated against those who refused, out of a strongly held religious belief rather than its absence, not to accede to the standing and reciting of some words (even before those words included the sometimes objectionable phrase "under god").

A free society without room for disagreement and debate does not last long in a peaceful state with itself. A society that seeks to provide space for its people to decide how best, or even whether to, love and improve one's nation and the state of its people should not start the lives and days of its youth with the premise that its people and residents owe love to that country and its leaders. That would be earned out of the respect for the ideals of that society as they are practiced in providing that liberty, not out of a declared and recited oath of fealty to a nation that will strive, and not always succeed, to reach those ideals. Obedience is not a quality that should be enjoyed in a democratic society without it having been earned through a level of trust in the obedience of its people and leaders to protecting and fostering the values of a democratic society and it is definitely not a quality that should be enjoyed and fostered by rote and ritual presentation for children to participate in by fiat and requirement.

As a final, and perhaps more annoying note. The "under God" phrase itself is objectionable not merely for its religious elements. But because it is grammatically awkward. It was clearly inserted as a half-measure when it was done so in the 1950s and as a way to reference Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. But Lincoln's speech used the phrase in an entirely different way, something akin to a request say "god willing", that we might aspire to that goal of a unified and free nation (certainly in his time, and ours in many ways, still a very uncertain prospect). This does not appear to be the presentation of the words used in the pledge, which appear to be a purposeful inclusion of the sovereignty of a deity over the land. As opposed to the communists who opposed us when it was inserted. In order to make such a statement, the phrase is ill-suited.

The appropriate response of secularists, or people of a humanistic ethic generally, isn't really to demand the language be changed so they too can participate in this curious ritual. The appropriate response is to remain seated when the pledged is to be uttered. Do not participate in it at all. Submit to authority where it is warranted, not where it is only demanded.

05 September 2014

Empty shells of wordless speeches

Pages turned through the dust
Ink has spilled across the paper
Words. So they say.
To deeds never done
To speeches never made
Toasts of places never seen
and people never met

Stay a while and listen
Or fill the empty space
of others with nonsense
cleverness or viciousness
Attention. Hero at work
Nothing happened
No one needed saving
Indifferent possibilities abound

An empty shell out
for a stroll
Filled the bottle with
a dreadful need
a purposeful hatred
on a voyage to a horrid
place to visit
with no one to speak to
and a song that never ends
blasting on the radio