Sunday, 28 November 2010

First For Everything

There's always a first for everything. Having not covered the GZ Mosque controversy before in this blog I will do so here. The first in this case, is that over this Mosque controversy, was the first time that I have ever agreed with something (in a meaningful sense) that Bill O'Reilly has said, someone I consider to be the very definition of a demagogue, and as having watched the above clip now reveals, I strongly disagreed with something that Matt Dillahunty of the Atheist Experience said, also a first.

First I should get it out of the way right off of the bat, that I do not think the government should intervene in the building of the mosque, what they are doing is legal and any condemnation of the decision to build the mosque (even if he were explicitly a Taliban supporter etc.) is on the wisdom and desirability of his decision to build the mosque, not the legality. To repeat, I am not questioning the legality of their actions. Secondly, as much as I do not like the idea of this mosque and am opposed to it (not legally), I do think that it is a great symbol of strength and what sets the West apart that such freedom of religion takes place, even in an area considered as sensitive as this.

So where do I disagree with Matt above? Well first of all the caller (who I think got a bit flustered and did not articulate his points very well), made it very clear in his Phelps analogy that he was objecting in the hypothetical not to the legality of his actions but to the fact that he was being a jerk, unfortunately at every turn when he tried to make this point Matt responded on the legality issue, and not the jerk issue. Now, should we find the GZ Mosque distasteful, in other words are there reasons for objecting/ disliking its proposals even if no law is broken? I think yes. Here's why.

First of all Matt's co-host kept inferring that in order to be offended by this one had to assume that the people building it were literally the Taliban. That is an asinine statement I feel. Imagine in my hypothetical that outside of Aushwitz a monument to Germany is created which emphasised the greatness of the German nation and included her recent history as a part of it, even including the Nazi regime in a seemingly if not supportive light, certainly an uncritical one. Would that come across as slightly inappropriate? Again not necessary illegal, just like insulting your friend for no reason and making fun of the fact his mother is dead is not illegal, but simply inappropriate. I would suggest that it certainly would be a bad thing to do irrespective of the legality of it. Now, does that mean by extension of finding that idea distasteful, that one would have to believe that every single modern German was a Nazi? Clearly not, there are enough connotations between the two topics, that a connection is naturally made. I would expect most Germans to understand that this would be sensitive to others, and most Muslims in this case. If this example is not enough, then imagine if an actual monument to Nazism was made, which stayed within the free speech laws, would that be acceptable? I doubt it.

Perhaps Burning the Tache would be a better idea.
9/11 was inspired and carried out in the name of a religion. Even with a different interpretation, the Muslims building that Mosque share that religion, and share those religious texts. That doesn't mean they share the interpretation, but they are definitely connected. Even without the two being explicitly connected, is it not enough to appreciate that when you think of 9/11 and Islamic terrorism you think of the religion of Islam regardless of the precise scholarly nuances of it that produce such terrorism? Even if the people reading this don't, they can surely see how someone else would, and unlike a huge number of atheists in Europe that this issue does not affect I am not about to condemn a relative of a 9/11 victim for finding the idea of a mosque at Ground Zero distasteful. If they call for it to be banned, and for special privileges, I will of course disagree with that, but can we not appreciate that these Muslims are clearly well aware that what they are doing is upsetting a lot of people on a very sensitive and for many, still raw topic. Muslims often ask for special privileges when it comes to being offended, why can we not criticise the faith for not returning the favour?

I will go one step further nonetheless and say that there is a connection between the imam and the extreme anti-Western interpretation of Islam. The man had the option to move the site free of charge and refused because he did not care about who he upset. Had he expressly condemned all Islamic terrorism, and explained that he was opening the centre to promote a form of Jihad that rejected extremism and encouraged integration and co-operation between Muslims and the West he would be supported, which was the point that Bill O'Reilly made. However, contrary to Matt's claims he has very dubious ties to terrorist groups in Palestine and most certainly does not subscribe to a form of Islam that encourages integration and has responded in a manner that is not at all worthy of sympathy.

There is no question that broadly atheists applied a different set of standards on this issue, focusing far more on the perceived ignorance of the 'Christian' response (which was still legal) over the insensitivity of the 'Muslim' action (also legal). For example, was there anything illegal about what the pastor who planned to burn the Qu'ran was doing? No, but it was rightly criticised as a stupid thing to do nonetheless. Ah, but what he did may have caused a lot of rioting and upset. And the Ground Zero Mosque didn't/ currently is?! Why not accept therefore that, while there are plenty of idiotic Christians protesting the building and making all sorts of stupid statements- that they are equally doing legally, that what these Muslims are doing, while legal is also still pretty pretty insensitive and jerk-ish.

Saturday, 27 November 2010


We don't need the government! Except to provide us with an education and the funding for it...
Ever wondered what the exact balance between a planned economy and a free one is? Ever wondered if the unresolved questions man has pondered over since existence such as the possibility of God will be satisfied? Ever paused about any question of global, far-reaching, geopolitical significance? Well don't worry, because there isn't a single issue you can name that students don't already know everything there is to know about and are completely right on.

Since my first post which was about lazy students and tuition fees, we've had all sorts of protests and noise coming from the younger population of our country which was brought to my attention most potently (having done my best to avoid it) on Young Voter's Question Time this week:

Now, most importantly the brilliant Douglas Murray was on so it's worth watching for that reason alone, but it really does irritate me watching this, both how ill informed a lot of the students are about these issues that apparently mean so much to them and frankly over how self-assured they are that their path to higher salaries should not only be free (as it already is, including under the new plans) but that they shouldn't have to pay any of it back. I do, it should be said, have a token element of support for those opposed to the tuition fees for two reasons. First of all, the fee system that was put in place by Labour means that after devaluing a degree by allowing far too many people to get one, a student such as myself who would have liked (and needed) to have gone on to do further education and get a master's can't, both because such education is no longer free and there are no loans available, but also because saving up for those loans is made considerably harder by the whopping debt smacked on you. This has ironically made the system even more elitist as right off the bat I can instantly name three other people I know who are all doing Master's degrees paid for entirely by their parents which I couldn't because my parents don't have the money to fund such a trip. Further there is the point, that there is only so much debt one can place over someone (regardless of whether it has to be paid back or not) before people start to lose interest in a specialised career (especially in the free market where the motivation is primarily monetary) which our economy needs now more than ever. Finally, these fees appear to be a worrying and slippery slope to a removal of any cap on fees and the privatisation of our higher education.

For the most part however, I do not much care about the rise in tuition fees because whatever token sympathy I may have for those who don't like such a high burden to be placed on the students I see the whole charade as a red herring, this system still allows far too many people to go to University who shouldn't be there, which has already had a colossal affect on the standard and values of the degrees that are being produced. The tuition fees need to be scrapped, because the system they are designed for (allowing around half of the population to go to University for their 'life experience') should be scrapped also.

Despite this leaning I still many objections to those in the audience from that Question Time and those (including friends) who have been attending sit-ins, walk-outs and protests.

  1. The rise in fees has absolutely no affect on the availability of loans to pay for them or in the difficulty in paying them back. Loans are still available for the poor, middle-class or super-rich, so the claim that this will put poor people off going to University is a lie.
  2. The new system that is being associated with a typical 'Tory' government is actually fairly progressive. If you earn thousands of pounds extra a year and enter the middle or upper class as a result of your degree then you will pay more back, and if you remain lower class then you will pay little or none of it back, this policy does not favour the rich at all.
  3. What this essentially means is that if you have received your degree which you were given for free, and apparently not done anything with, having not gone into a specialised part of the economy, you would pay none of it back, having contributed nothing in the economy either. 
  4. What this means therefore is the only people who pay it back are those who have started earning much higher wages as a direct result of their degree. In that instance why shouldn't they be willing to pay some of their degree back? Why should other people pay for their path to higher salaries? 
  5. Ed Byrne in the above Question Time and others keeps referring back to when he was at University as evidence that University can be funded by the tax-payer, but if they actually read the report which the new policy is based on they would know, that now that nearly half of the population goes to University which is an astronomically bigger figure, than the amount that went to University under Ed Bryne, therefore new forms of funding are needed to be made to cope with the substantial increase in cost. The Coalition hasn't just raised fees because it wants another reason to make itself unpopular.
  6. Perhaps this did not have to be done by raising tuition fees by this proportion and cutting government investment by 80%, but even under the previous system, Douglas Murray from the Centre for Social Cohesion was already reporting that Universities were having to source out their funding to countries with appalling human rights records, demonstrating that there were clearly signs that the system set up by Labour was not sustainable anyway. As he says in the video, enough of the self-righteousness and indignation; where is your alternative?
It was very telling during the above Question Time that every time the awful Richard Bacon, asked a member of the audience where the funding for their degree should come from, they always faltered as it seems to be the first moment that they realised that degrees don't grow on trees and perhaps there is some justification that if they benefit from their degree then they should pay some of it back instead of charging the population uniformly for the cost of University through taxes when nearly half of the population still does not go to University and does not benefit from the opportunity to earn such higher wages. If the snots on Question Time had showed some patience and understanding in actually having researched and thought about some of the issues mentioned above, and dropped the sense of entitlement that the world owes them everything on a plate I might have more sympathy for my fellow students, but until then I very firmly do not. 

Anthony Blair Debates the Hitch

I've always identified myself 'intellectually' speaking as an atheist, but very far from being a cultural atheist. I mean this in two ways. First of all I recognise that a lot of my values, tastes and outlooks have been inherited from a Judaeo-Christian culture in England and regardless of my position on Jesus of Nazareth or his Dad, this will never change. I also mean it in the sense that I do not identify with the 21st Century culture of atheism (that exists largely on the internet) that developed after the God Delusion was released. As one of the few atheists who not only does not consider himself a 'Dawkinite', but actually seriously dislikes the man and most of his work in the field of atheism/ philosophy, I see myself as very opposed to what I perceive as the close-minded, simplistic and most importantly arrogant approach that Dawkins and his followers subscribe too (not to mention the political liberalism that usually accompanies it). Intellectually however, as much as I may smirk whenever I see Dawkins falter at what I see as fairly simple problems posed at him during debates I have never once been convinced by a single theist argument, and the flaws of their positive claims or errors in logic always jump out at me in a way that does not occur in any other field of inquiry. As someone who disagrees with the majority of Tony Blair's views with rare exception, but who can obviously see that he's a very smart and very likeable man, I hoped that Tony would break the trend. He didn't.

The debate between Blair and Hitchens, centred around the usefulness of religion rather than the validity of it. Blair's entire position throughout the night can be summed up as; there are two equally valid camps which can be loosely described as secular and religious. Both have their so-called 'extremists' and we should therefore consider religious actions and communities as equally valid to those that are not religious. Now first of all I agree with him, as Hitchens did part the way through, that without religion, there would still be a large amount of the ills that religion is often associated with. There would still be war (despite one of the stupidest modern myths of new atheists that religion has caused every war so far known to mankind), there would still be crime, there would still be homophobia and bullying, racism and discrimination. He did not seem to accept however that religion may exacerbate or at least interact in some-way with those prejudices and inevitable flaws of man. That at least some of the problems associated with religion, are actually caused by religion and not just by the inevitable flaws of man. I remember there was a point when he stated very clearly that he did not remotely consider one morally superior or superior in any other way if they were religious over a non-religious person and his final statements before the closing remarks tried to emphasise again that religion was the theme that a religious person took over an equally moral secular one, whether behaving in a good or bad way. He seemed to completely gloss over the possibility that for example, man's sectarianism might be exacerbated by new self-contained religious identities, that separated one sect from another. That man's tendency to deride homosexuals might be made worse by passages in the bible and others giving intellectual justification to such emotional inclinations, and the list goes on and on.

As happens in all of these public debates, instead of some preparation where the debaters met beforehand and agreed on the specific topics they would cover so that they could adequately go back and forth between each others points, it became another vague back and forth session of soundbites, whereby Hitchens would say something often amusing and derisory about religion, and Blair would say something that might sound nice and earn an applause, but never went beyond the logic described in the previous paragraph, that religion was simply another form of good rather than getting into the meat of how and to what extent it really has an affect. In particular as a result when it came to issues unquestionably poisoned by religion's touch, such as the conflict in Ireland and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Blair was utterly embarrassed, as he could only repeat that while it was true that religion had inspired bad things, so had ideologies not associated with religion. He could not accept that religion's affect might be uniquely or disproportionately worse, and that some of these conflicts may not exist without them at all.

Hitchen's ability as a thinker and intellectual is always exaggerated ridiculously out of proportion and perspective (and I say that as a huge fan of his), but this debate quickly became little more than a sideshow of waiting to hear a quip or two worth laughing at rendering both participants losers in the end, but if one had to be picked for style and at least some content, this was a very comfortable victory for the Hitch.

Friday, 12 November 2010


Ever wondered why the right expects us to take pride and credit for past deeds that we had no part in, which the left describes as irrelevant?

Ever wondered why the left expects us to take shame and feel guilty for past deeds that we had no part in, which the right describes as in the past and irrelevant?

Using exactly the same logic?

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

It's My Duty...

After the last fairly lengthy post, I thought I would put out a simpler one here about another issue I find that irks me. As a pretty good rule of thumb, conventional wisdom is not wisdom at all, and as election season pops up in America and having recently had one in Britain I hear a lot of harping on about this idea of a 'democratic duty to vote'. While this should be the type of thing that I welcome hearing especially from an otherwise very apathetic segment that is my age group, it is actually something that irritates me considerably.

You would think by referring to voting as a 'duty', that the people saying this would be bequeathing upon the political process, a mark of respect and seriousness. This is very rarely the truth as it is often used to refer to or at least excuse token and/or reckless voting. In other words spending the year disucssing political issues and ascertaining the right solution to a problem and which party is the best suited is not required. If you just go out with a big self-satisfied expression and vote for the first party that seems vaguely appealing to you, you would have contributed to a process that is very important and praseiworthy, and most importantly it will have given you the air of superiority you crave over those who haven't voted.

This is complete nonsense. It is not a citizen's duty in the 21st Century to just vote for anybody and assume that at all times any or all parties are worthy of a vote and our support rather than disdain. It is instead a citizen's duty to either do everything one can to understand an issue and contribute intellectually or at least by voting in a fully informed manner.

As somone in the UK who is both profoundly unimpressed with all three major political parties, and worst of all has the audacity to save off committing to any one paritcular ideology or party until I am a bit older and as I see it qualified, I was recently chastised by a good friend during our last election for not voting, as apparently I had no right to complain about the problems of the country if I hadn't voted. The more I think about it, my reluctance to vote because of the seriousness with which I take such an action is not the problem but the solution to the political rot our country has suffered in recent years. The more I think about it, it is my friend and his willingness to just tick a piece of paper every now and then without much thought that is the one contributing to the lack of accountability modern political parties feel when taking office.

Voting is a good thing if done properly, so is attempting to save someone's life if necessary by performing CPR. However, if you don't take either action seriously and do them properly they are not good things. Token/ Reckless voting is not only not a praiseworthy act but a very damaging one.

To Torture or Not To Torture

Even in the most sophisticated, technologically and organisationally developed army in the world, mistakes and a loss of control in a war zone can happen. Tragically Abu Ghraib is evidence enough of that. Of course when Muslims blow themselves up, non-Muslim Europeans are the first to scream that they are just a minority, but whenever anyone or anything remotely connected to America happens (not matter how widely condemned they were), we are allowed to take the minority as evidence of the sins of the majority. In other words Abu Ghraib was evidence that all of the United States Army was full of unprofessional, sadistic murderers and of course that they as occupiers were worse than the regime they replaced. Never mind of course, that under Saddam, torturing prisoners was not a rare mistake, it was policy. Never mind that when these people were found they were tried and sentenced in court and widely condemned by the people they allegedly represented. There is no question that Abu Ghraib was a disgrace that is essentially proof enough of why torture could never be sanctioned as a broad based, anyone can use, policy of the United States or any other army. While the US is no different in that in a war zone, a minority of its soldiers may commit war crimes, it is different in that it actively tries to reduce them and punish those they catch doing so. License to use something as serious as torture needs to be very carefully regulated.

Even where torture may be morally justified there are plenty of pragmatic reasons for why it may still be undesirable. The footage from Abu Ghraib undoubtedely made the American mission in Iraq considerably harder, and greatly aided the recruiting tools of the insurgents and as such put the lives of all other soliders of the United States under greater threat. There were also immediate retaliatory attacks, and the danger that such practices will fall on those members of the Coalition that are captured. There is also the problem of bogus information, but I feel that this last point, is exaggerated drastically out of proportion. Every time the issue of bogus information comes up people, give me the example of trying to find out if a man is guilty or not and torturing him until he says yes. It should be quite clear that if the people that are out there defending us while we sleep were as stupid as to use torture in those circumstances we would not be still alive today. Yes, there are obvious examples of where torture would not be useful but there are also plenty where they would be helpful and can be cross-checked for reliability (the disarming code to a bomb, for example). For example if it is true that the torture is so bad it will make anyone say anything surely it would also make them tell the truth? For example if an insurgent knew of the location of a suicide attack that was imminent then if the criticism that torture would make one say anything would mean that he would give up this information if he was correctly identified in the first place? The influence again for this article came from a recent edition of Question Time where this round of discussion was inspired by a report from MI6 which implied in limited circumstances, torture could be acceptable and yet the audience had no hesitation, nor the panel in clapping away at any statement that utterly outlawed torture as useless presumably implying that they knew better than the secret services themselves. Just like we have to conede ground to biologists on issues of evolution we don't understand, we have to do the same with people who have evidence of the use of enhanced interrogation and whether it has worked or not (that doesn't mean we go to them for moral advice, but it does for directly relevant professional advice).   

Despite having made these arguments against the widespread use of torture I am not on those who oppose torture unconditionally's side. The debate is often presented as those who would sooner allow an entire city be destroyed by a suitcase nuke before laying a finger on those responsible beforehand, and those willing to torture an entire nation of women and children with the flimsiest of relevant evidence, and slightest of possible gains. I don't support either position. While I am against the widespread use of torture to say that there are never times that it is acceptable is ridiculous.

'Torture is never acceptable under any circumstances'. Well, what is torture? If without getting too deeply into semantics we accept that it is some form of deliberately applied extreme psycological and/ or physical pain, then the statement that torture is unconditionally unacceptable poses a problem. Let's say that the setting is a conflict involving an African milita that targets towns to rape and kill the women and kidnap the children for use as child soliders, and the victim in question is confirmed as having knowledge on the location of the next village that has been targeted. If torture is never acceptable then the army fighting the mission is in an unwinnable dilemma, surely allowing the women to be raped and see their children attacked and kidnapped or killed is a form of torment that could certainly be labelled torture, while at the same time using the means required to getting the information would also be a form of torture. As this is the case then it simply becomes a matter of priorities, do you prioritise the people you have an oath to defend or your enemies who are trying to kill them. Let's also bare in mind that this singular example could have wider consequences. For instance by not allowing the torture to take place as a policy in circumstances like this one, is to likely result in an increase or at least not a decrease in more of these same types of attacks happening, as the perpetrators know that they can carry the information and attacks out without consequence, as apparently the policy of the army fighting them is to prioritise their interests as willing fighters, over the women and children they would be attacking who have no say in the matter.

When discussing the morality, rather than the usefulness of torture, there is a lot of vague and slippery sounding babble that is used to discourage those from considering its usage. The fact that we don't do torture is what separated us from the terrorists we were told on the last QT. This idea, is the vague premise that we hold an inviolale moral structure within our societies and torturing in our name would tarnish that. This is unadulterated bullshit. Torture is a method used by those that defend our society to get others to bend to their will, if under that definition torture is unacceptable then what on earth do these people think war is? Killing enough of a nation until it has reached submission doesn't sound that different, and it is certainly much less reversible than the the waterboarding procedure. More to the point the fact that we don't allow killing in our civic society does not suddenly mean that it is necessarily immoral or should be outlawed in the army when defending that society. Our morals lie in the state and peaceful existence we live within that, they have nothing to do with the defence of that society. If refusing to torture someone who has planted a bomb to save the live of others is considered more moral I don't want to be more moral, I would consider that a cowardice to do what was necessary and more to the point selfish, as I would be prioritising my feelings of discomfort over the lives of those I am putting at risk. How on earth does forcing someone to reveal information that would save civilian lives, stop the those lives being saved as precious? How can it possibly be seen as the lesser of two evils that a school bus full of children explodes in Israel, rather than forcing the terrorist who put himself in the situation being tortured to stop that from happening. No-one would apply those standards if they were directly faced with that choice and it was their family on the line.

In the militia example I made a reference to the fact that the knowledge that was to be forcibly acquired was confirmed within the victim as if to rule out torture in cases where it was not confirmed. Here we get into the very grey area of what is an acceptable level of suspicion and what is not. As long as the proper procedure is in place I would have no problem with an executive order prioritising the risk of being wrong about the solider, than the risk of the women and children being raped. This is because by fighting on the side of people that may do this, I feel that the solider has put himself in a position where he has no right to demand special treatment. Christopher Hitchens is someone that I've quite liked personally, despite rarely agreeing with his (usually far left) thinking (until recently of course) who undertook a waterboarding procedure to prove to his readers that it did actually qualify as torture. Now, while Hitchens is against torture he seemed to miss the point that by being able to book an appointment for torture and then appear superiorly on a few shows to make his point, he was able to get on with his life fairly comfortably. Now imagine most other aspects of war that we find abhorrent but necessary, would he be able to just make an appointment to go into battle and get his leg blown off and recover from that? Or killing someone in hand to hand combat? If he can comfortably survive an experience that took well under 30 seconds of unpleasantness for the possible gain of saving many lives I cannot as strongly come on the side that most people seem to find so self-evident.

Opponents of torture are correct that many extreme examples are used incorrectly to defend a very liberal attitude to torture. However, when simply talking about the limited ability of the army to torture in certain cases where due process has taken place, I am completely at liberty to take those extreme examples such as the African militia because a blanket statement that torture is wrong in all circumstances would cover those examples as well. Having a mature discussion on torture is essential as our relevant agencies continue to report that in some circumstances it can be useful and if we do not legislate it then it cannot be controlled and regulated. This will also unfairly leave some individuals to be punished, even if they have done the right thing and saved lives. Most people that have tortured others in war are themselves tormented by the experience and we should be supporting and helping those who have been faced with these terrible circumstances rather than snidely chastising them and taking the examples of a few sadistic nutcases as representative of all members of the armed forces.

While there are many arugments not to torture we cannot overlook the rare cases when we should, and we should create a policy according to those circumstances rather than pandering to the idea that to allow some torture is to allow soliders the right to torture whoever they please, whenever they please. As I understand it the debate in the US is not centred around (as many in Europe portray it) ceding the right to all levels of the army to permiss torture, merely to allow those at the very highest level (namely the President) having assessed the sitaution to give permission for it. Admittidely even this may not be a desirable option were Sarah Palin to be made President who may end up accidentally warranting her own cat's torture, but the official policy of the President choosing answers two questions. On the practicality issue of when it should be used, it would mean it was not in private and permission has been sought and one would assume that if the President rather than a few rogue soldiers agreed that it was necessary then it most likely would be. If even then people are still not willing to let it happen then it suggests they are looking at warfare and what is required in the way they want it to be not the way it is, meaning that in attempting to do the right thing they are prioritising and helping the enemy that is trying to kill them over their own safety and livlihood.