Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Stasis Cravings

As my previous posts no doubt make glaringly clear, I'm a politically liberal guy. In fact, according to Political Compass, I'm liberal on both the social and economic axes. And, like most self-described intellectuals, I'm not a perfect fit into that region of the politisphere.

For one thing, I oppose Affirmative Action, at least in its current form. I'm unsatisfied with most of the strongly socialist governments in Europe, in that I feel they have, in many respects, spoiled the population (the French, my kinfolk, are famous worldwide for their strikes demanding 33-hour work weeks). But one area where I am fairly stereotypically liberal is the environment. I was as incensed by Bush's backwards-named "Clean Air Act," which by all accounts leads to less-clean air. I'm a fan of conservation and reclamation. I pay extra on my power bill to invest in renewable resources. I have a lot of sympathy for the beleaguered, misled, and disoriented Green Party here in the states.

But I've recently been thinking about extinction. The basic assumption underlying the protection of endangered species for its own sake is the idea that every species has value. Now, it's perfectly obvious that many have undeniable value in terms of maintaining various ecosystems worldwide, but others are more questionable. There are roughly three flavors of the theory, in increasing simplicity and severity:

a) We should not be responsible for the extinction of species, and they should only become extinct by natural means.
b) We should preserve all species because we can't anticipate the effect of any one species disappearing forever.
c) We should preserve all species because any species lost is a tragedy.

I myself fall into the central category, to be clear.

Which brings me (eventually) to my point - those motivated by the Flavor C believe that natural extinction should be stopped at all costs. It's an assumption that Life Was Fine before we got here, and that it should therefore be locked in place. Let's say a natural ice age occurred. Should we try to keep the tens of thousands of species that would die alive? What about the Earth being hit by an asteroid, a la Dinosaurs. In the face of a serious enough natural cataclysm, we'll have a lot to worry about ourselves - where does the value in species arise from, apart merely from being unique?

In asking, I in no means wish to suggest that no value exists. I merely suggest that this topic merits further exploration. How should one's ethos inform this question? To the extent the question is unanswered, to what extent should one's ethos be expanded? I don't think there's been a lot of reasoned thought on this topic, either by the hippie treehuggers or the corporate whores (let's insult everyone equally, to make sure I'm not on anyone's side). For the environmentally conscientious, these are core values that need no justification; for the environmentally inconsiderate, these topics do not have inherent value, and thus merit no further consideration.

I call upon everyone who reads this (Hi, Taquito) to give this some thought - what degree of pragmatism is reasonable here? What are the values at play (e.g. is divinity involved)? Is trying to slow evolution better, or is trying to speed it up?

Should we strive for stasis, or for change?

Friday, December 09, 2005

Losing The Idea Wars

Upon the completion of her first viewing of Errol Morris' tremendous documentary, 'The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,' a good friend of mine quipped, "you know, every time America declares war on an idea, we seem to lose. We're much better at declaring war on nations."

That notion struck a cord with me. We, as Americans, have been listening to elected/appointed officials telling us about their Idea Wars since long before I was born. The McCarthy era saw a systematic 'War on Communism' both at home and abroad. Lyndon Johnson famously declared war on ignorance, illiteracy, poverty, disease, tyranny, and aggression, all in the same speech (in fact, he declared war on all of these within the space of four sentences). Nixon (and later, Reagan) had their War on Drugs, and today, Bush has the War on Terror and the much-less-advertised War on Pornography. Out of all of these, the war on illiteracy strikes me as the only one we can say we've won on the home front. Everything else has been a failure to some degree or another.

What's troubling about the American mentality in this respect is that, for some reason (possibly being on the victorious sides of both World Wars), we have this sense of invulnerability, like we can't lose wars. Vietnam was a tremendous shock to the American consciousness precisely because, with half-a-million troops and the full brunt of our military arsenal deployed, we still couldn't seem to win. It was the first time in modern history that America had to accept that it had lost a war. But its short memory seems to have largely healed that wound, and now, we've had our sense that we can win anything restored, even as its being frayed around the edges by the fear that Iraq could prove to be another Vietnam.

In truth, the actual wars in Iraq and Vietnam are not all that different from the disastrous conceptual wars wags here at home. The Wars on Drugs, Terror, and Porn were all born of small-minded and simplistic visions of reality, and were implemented accordingly, each more so than the last. The War on Drugs did serve to reduce the flow of certain narcotics (mainly opiates), it did not stop the increased proliferation of *any* other drugs, mainly serving to raise the price of narcotics and thus the profits of drug cartels, just as Prohibition had beforehand. Today, the most severe drug-related problems in the country arise from crystal meth, a drug manufactured right here at home (rather than being grown overseas), making much of the expensive infrastructure built by the federal government ineffective in stopping its proliferation.

The War on Terror, as we are increasingly seeing, was born out of the overeager willingness of entire swaths of the country to believe anything was possible in the wake of 9/11. The extent to which genuine deception was intermixed with naive credulity on the part of our leaders is not relevant to the point I am trying to make - the problem I'm addressing lies with the people themselves, who fearful as they were, threw their support behind policies stripping them of many of their hard-earned rights because they weren't willing to question those with apparent moral authority. Adam Curtis goes even further, in his documentary "The Power of Nightmares," just recently released as a film in the states. Not only, Curtis argues, is our reaction to the threat overlarge, it is a reaction to a threat that largely does not exist. His well-defended thesis is that, while terrorism exists, there is no global network of terrorists, employing sleeper cells and invading our technological infrastructure. There never was. The "moral compromises" made in cases like Guantanamo Bay represent not necessary sacrifices, but delusional and criminal policies, according to this view.

Today's stealthy War on Porn is the latest in this line. Like most Idea Wars, it began with noble premise of eradicating child porn, and rose to prominence in no small part because of Operation Predator. At its heart, Operation Predator was a joint project between the FBI and the ICE (immigration & customs enforcement) to bring to justice child pornographers and child porn distributors. Its most famous tactic involves masquerading as fellow child porn enthusiasts in chat rooms and other online communities to lure out other sexual predators, and get them to reveal enough about themselves to nail them. And in this light, Operation Predator has been an unbridled success, lauded by liberals and conservatives alike as lean, efficient, and thoroughly modern. With this success, however, came the naive assumption of a mandate, and now puritanical legislation and policy implementation are beginning to permeate the system.

The War on Porn is not going to be a source of wild social strife in the way that the Wars on Drugs and Terror. At most, a handful of fringe groups will have their livelihoods undermined, while the rest of the porn industry finds itself jumping through more legal hoops. And in this respect, I'm not disdainful of the War on Porn because I think Porn is a God-given right. It annoys me because it is motivated by the simplistic notion that Porn Is Bad and that Bad Things Can Be Eliminated From Society. These are the sort ideologue daydreams that get us in trouble.

It's ironic, to me, that the triumph of modern Conservatism came with its wholesale rejection of "realism," exchanged instead for a volatile mixture of corporate relativism, fundamentalism, and rhetorical dogma. It is not a comforting thing for people to ride to power on the wave of ignorance, feeding the swell and remaining on its crest for years on end. In what seems like the inevitable battle between blind faith and bitter cynicism, I can't say I see things getting better altogether soon, either. It's going to be an uphill battle.