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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Silence

Suppose a producer -- we'll call him Alan Smithee -- decided to make a movie with the following plot.
Amidst the horrors of World War I, an inconspicuous German enlisted man encounters a mysterious being who claims to be from another world.  After demonstrating his ability to do the seemingly impossible, the being tells the soldier that he has been selected for a test that will determine whether or not the human species is serious enough to merit existence.  The soldier will be given help -- uncanny luck, some will call it, or even divine intervention -- but he must prune humanity of a significant fraction of its "undesirables".  Failure to do this will be punished by the extinction of mankind.  Also, the soldier must not tell anyone of his real reasons for embarking on this mission.  The soldier will be both loved and hated during his lifetime, but after his death he will be the universal symbol of evil; no one will know that he has actually saved the human species.
The soldier's name?  Adolf Hitler.
How would this movie be received?  Would critics praise it for asking "hard questions" about right and wrong, or about judging the actions of another when we do not have all the information?  Or would it be criticized on the grounds that there is no historical evidence this ever happened?

No, the response would be much simpler:  What the hell are you doing trying to find a way to excuse the indefensible?!?!  

That's because it has always been understood that some actions are so wrong that even to consider them as real possibilities compromises one's character.  This is captured in the exchange that has been attributed to many famous men, including Winston Churchill
Churchill: "Madam, would you sleep with me for five million pounds?"  
Socialite: "My goodness, Mr. Churchill... Well, I suppose... we would have to discuss terms, of course... " 
Churchill: "Would you sleep with me for five pounds?" 
Socialite: "Mr. Churchill, what kind of woman do you think I am?!" 
Churchill: "Madam, we've already established that. Now we are haggling about the price."
It should come as no surprise that the Catholic Church has had something to say about this.  The most explicit treatment of it probably comes in Pope St. John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which includes this:  
In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture....  If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain "irremediably" evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person.

What might be more surprising is that even within the Church, such an obvious truth can no longer be taken for granted.  In fact, whether or not this Teaching remains in force is precisely the fourth dubium submitted by four cardinals regarding the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia.  Thus far, Pope Francis has declined to answer, but it seems almost certain that he cannot answer no -- cannot, because the Holy Spirit would prevent him, whatever his personal will might be.

Even though almost everyone would admit there are some acts which cannot be justified by any circumstances whatsoever, the identity of those acts varies from person to person, time to time, and culture to culture.  On the whole, it seems that there are fewer items on most people's lists of unthinkable acts today than there were a half century ago.  Nevertheless, for any kind of Christian, publicly repudiating Jesus Christ is clearly on that list; if there is some price for which you would deny Jesus, then you have already tentatively and implicitly denied Him.

This is the context of Martin Scorsese's movie Silence.  No doubt it was made "very tempting, very persuasive" to the priest to deny Christ -- a phrase that comes from a passage hinting at equally dark deeds performed by one of the characters in "Two Doctors" by M.R. James

But I told him that I could not easily conceive of an arrangement, as he called it, of such a kind that would not include as one of its conditions a heavier payment than any Christian would care to make; to which he assented. "But," he said, "I have no doubt these bargains can be made very tempting, very persuasive. Still, you would not favour them, eh, Doctor? No, I suppose not." 
But really, where is the line to be drawn?  If the priest is willing to deny Christ in exchange for an end to the torture of others, would he be willing to sacrifice incense to Satan?  Would he be willing to sacrifice one baby to Satan to stop the torture of twenty adults?  Ten babies?  Nineteen babies?  Where is the line he would refuse to step across -- and why, if he truly believes what he has been preaching, is that line more bright and clear to him than the one he has already violated?

Friday, January 20, 2017

How will history view Obama?

For the past week, one of the most repeated questions has been, "How will history view Obama?"  That is really a meaningless question.  How has history viewed Thomas Jefferson?  Sixty years ago, he was something like a Greek god:  the author of the Declaration of Independence, the president who had the foresight to buy the Louisiana Purchase, and a scientist to boot.  Today he is more likely to be condemned as a slave owner and an expansionist.  How has history viewed Andrew Jackson?  He has cities and counties named after him, and his face is still on the $20 bill -- but that honor is scheduled to be taken from him, due in no small part to his role in Indian removal.  How has history viewed Queen Elizabeth I of England?  How has history viewed Christopher Columbus?  How has history viewed the emperor Constantine the Great?  How has history viewed the pharaoh Ramses the Great?

There really is no entity called "history" that forms a stable judgment on the past.  Instead, each generation forms a new judgment based on their own values and concerns, and of course based also on a longer view of how actions in the distant past have had consequences for future events.

Nevertheless, a good rule of thumb is that, from a more distant perspective, the human flaws of a hero make him seem less remarkably good, and the initial innocence and occasional virtues of even a monster make him less completely a monster.  The heroism may be real, and the crimes may be real, but their true significance is often exaggerated in the heat of the moment.

My guess is that in a century or so, our descendants will certainly not see Obama as a kind of American Messiah, but nor will he be seen as a kind of demonic force driving America to perdition.  He is more likely to be seen as a kind of willing cog in the machine of the Zeitgeist.  He will not be seen as a Chernabog, but more of an Eichmann; he willingly cooperated with evil, and bears responsibility for that, but the evil would have happened without his cooperation.

One way or another, it will take some time to reach a "verdict of history".  It will require a generation with no emotional attachment to his presidency, whether positive or negative, with information on the long-term effects of Obama's choices, and (rarest of all) with the honesty to refuse to make him a cardboard figure for their own propagandistic dioramas.  If you voted in the 2016 election, it is safe to say that you will not live to see that kind of dispassionate evaluation.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Dream about WW2 in Italy

Here's another dream, but one from a long time back.  I was in high school or maybe even middle school when I had this dream, but it was striking enough for me to remember through the years.

In my dream, I was an American soldier fighting in Italy somewhere just south of Rome in World War II.  In this case, we were clearing a building of German soldiers, who were mostly refusing to surrender.  It was dangerous, but the Germans in this building were clerks, not fighters, and they had pistols in contrast with our rifles, so we had a distinct advantage.  I remember the deeply recessed doorways of the building -- both sides used them for cover.

Suddenly, another German popped around the corner, only this time it was not a man, but a lovely blonde woman in an army auxiliary uniform.  What happened in the seconds immediately after she came into view was a little blurry -- I think that I dreamed and re-dreamed that sequence until I found a successful compromise between my upbringing, which strongly emphasized that no real man hurts a woman, and my desire for self preservation.  After all, she did have a pistol!  The resolution was that I shot her in the shoulder, a nonlethal wound that forced her to drop the pistol.

She also had with her a sort of document box.  This was a box about a foot square and about 4 inches high that would be used to secure important documents; if anyone tried opening it without knowing the trick, it would explode, destroying both the documents and the person opening it.  This was something we were looking for, and in the dream I suspected it contained details of the movements of German tanks being brought up from Yugoslavia to reinforce their positions in Italy.  (Yes, this was a very detailed dream.)  I took the box from her, and she was led away to have her wound treated and to be processed with the other prisoners.

I took the box to headquarters, which in the dream was ridiculously close to the front -- apparently in the next building, actually.  There I found the general who was (at least theoretically) in command of the operation, along with my colonel.  The general was useless, though; he was preparing for some sort of confirmation hearing for his appointment to a position in the OSS, and his mind was entirely on that hearing.  As a result, the man effectively in charge was my colonel, who, as further events would show, was a complete idiot.

The colonel examined the box, and he noticed that the lid was held on by something like a tie strap fastener; it was designed so that once inserted, it could not be pulled out.  "You see how they don't want us to pull this out?  That's just what we're gonna do," he announced. 

This sounded like a terrible idea to me -- simply applying brute force to a box that we knew was booby-trapped.  I suggested that maybe the woman who had been captured in possession of the box would know how to open it, but he would have nothing of it, telling me (in words I can never forget), "Do you think I got all this rank without knowing how to defuse a Nazzy bomb?"

When I heard that and knew he was just about to force it, I turned around and started running.  I had just made it outside the building when the charges went off.  Then I woke up.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Russia, the Election, and Fake News

There are several aspects to this story, but let's start with what is alleged to have happened.
  • The most serious thing that Russia could have done would have been to directly tamper with the electoral process by hacking voting machines, meaning that the vote tallies corresponded with the decisions of the hackers and not the decisions of the voters.  This would be such an assault on our system of government it would be an act of war.  Thanks be to God, there is no evidence this happened, and no one is seriously suggesting it did.  However, the language used in American media to describe the allegations of Russian interference seem purposely designed to plant that suspicion in the minds of those who only keep up with the news casually.
  • It is worth pointing out that any serious world player could pretty easily assassinate a political candidate.  Although this would probably provoke a more extreme emotional response, and undoubtedly lead to a real, "hot" war, it would actually be less of an affront to our system.  Even in the absence of assassinations, people die due to accident or disease, and we have a very robust system for providing equivalent replacements in case an office holder, let alone a candidate for office, should die.  This obviously did not happen, though.
  • Russia could, through hacking or bribes or some other means, illegally obtain access to classified information held by the U.S. government.  This undoubtedly happens, as the U.S. likewise undoubtedly obtains classified information held by the Russian government in violation of Russian laws.  I suspect the Russians have acquired the technical details to the F-35 Lightning II in this way, for example.  This is the only thing that can really be called spying, but it is pretty old hat, and at any rate it is not what the media uproar is about.
  • Russia could, through hacking or bribes or some other means, illegally obtain access to confidential information held by private parties.  This, finally, is one of the things that has been alleged to have happenedRemember, political parties may control the government, but they are not the government.
  • Russia could have made sure that compromising information, however obtained, about a candidate was leaked to the public.  This is also alleged to have happened.
  • Finally, Russia could have found plenty of compromising information about either candidate not only by performing perfectly legal investigative journalism, but by merely paying attention the the news over the past three or four decades and using a little common sense.  If this didn't happen, some Russians definitely need to lose their jobs.

Next, let's consider just what it means if the accusations against Russia are true.  
  • Imagine if, instead of it being Russia hacking computers belonging to the Democratic Party, it had been Japan hacking computers belonging to Greenpeace -- perhaps out of frustration at Greenpeace's continuing interference with Japanese whaling.  Would this have received anything like the attention the Russia story has gotten?  Not at all.  There would have been some diplomatic protests and probably some minor retaliation, but it would scarcely have become a major point of friction between the two nations.
  • But really, shouldn't we retaliate against a nation that interferes with our presidential elections?  If that is the case, I demand sanctions against the United Kingdom.  Remember when British parliamentarians were talking about how Trump should be barred from entry to the U.K.?  That interference is much more blatant, and in fact much more of a real influence, but note the complete absence of any reference to it whatsoever, let alone any calls for retribution.  UPDATE 2/20/17:  Meddling from the Limeys continues.  I am not a fan of Trump, but I take great offense at this kind of interference, which would demand retaliation.  Many Americans will feel even more strongly about it than I do.  
Then there is the question of the trustworthiness of the accusations.
  • Would the U.S. intelligence community really lie to the public?  Um ... yeah, at least if they felt they had some reason to.  They've never really even pretended that their mission is to provide accurate and complete information to the public, and the public has generally been quite accepting of this.  The whole bits about "We're not spying on the American civilian public!" and "We don't perform torture!" demonstrate that this is not just a theoretical possibility. 

    The question is, do they see themselves as "having some reason to" lie to the public?  We cannot be sure, but the possibility definitely exists.  Senior leadership in the intelligence community may be legitimately frightened that the U.S. stands to lose preeminence in the Middle East if Russia is seen as responding to ISIS  more effectively than we do, or they may be worried about trouble Trump might stir up with China, or they may just fear his unpredictability.  For any of these reasons, they may feel the idea that he was helped into office by Russian meddling might make him less willing to break sharply from policies pursued by previous presidents, or it might at least make him more defensive and preoccupied with domestic criticism.
  • Regarding the evidence redacted from the report but made available to American officials, that is only as meaningful as the authors of the report are trustworthy.  The sort of electronic records they could create would be very difficult for even a professional with the full resources of another country's intelligence agencies to confirm or deny.  If the evidence was faked, it was faked by professionals, and it would appear flawless to even professionals lacking independent access to the raw records.  There is no way for the public, or for the government, for that matter, to confirm its authenticity.
  • Then again, some readers with experience in reading such reports are claiming the language used actually is less definitive than the press and the Obama administration are suggesting.  Remember Saddam Hussein's WMD -- the ones so fearsome that the mere possibility of their existence was said to justify war?  When George W. Bush wanted to invade Iraq, the intelligence community certainly seemed to be supporting him, but when the WMDs turned out to be nonexistent (or to have been long-abandoned projects), that same community pointed out that they never actually claimed that the weapons absolutely, definitively existed, only that there was some evidence suggesting they existed.  This kind of maneuver allows them to technically tell the truth, but in a way that rather dishonestly leaves the whatever impression their bosses desire to be left, regardless of the truth.
  • The other tool one can use in a situation like this is an examination of the balance between risk and reward.  The players we are discussing will obviously avoid major risks unless they are accompanied by great rewards.  We have already considered possible rewards for the American intelligence community to lie, and the fact that the risks are greatly limited by the difficulty in verifying or falsifying their supporting documents.  What about the Russians?

    That's a hard question to answer.  Clinton was the embodiment of the American governmental status quo, and the status quo had become increasingly anti-Russian, so there was some benefit to them if she were not elected.  On the other hand, I seriously doubt she is such a moron as to actually provoke a war with a nation controlling 7,000 nuclear warheads.  Furthermore, she obviously needed no outside help in destroying her candidacy -- her "basket of deplorables" comment is almost certainly what cost her the election.  As for the risk, it could have been expected to have been comparable to mere industrial espionage, which goes on all the time.  Would they accept a modest risk for a modest reward?  Maybe.

Taken together, all of this means that the Russians may well have hacked into the Democratic Party's computers, though we cannot be sure, but that even if they did, it's not really that important.  Contrast that conclusion with what we hear from the major news bureaus, though, which is CIA locuta est, causa finita est, and that only a simpleton could doubt that Russian meddling was not only real, but that it completely delegitimized the last election.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a perfect example of fake news.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

"The U.S. has only one president at a time."

The U.S. has only one president at a time, responsible for setting foreign policy. To avoid confusion during the transition, incoming presidents usually avoid those topics, but not Mr. Trump. Twitter has given him a 24-hour megaphone, reports CBS News correspondent Jan Crawford.
That is not a line from a commentary, but from what is meant to be a news story -- specifically, "John Kerry on Donald Trump: U.S. allies won't be 'intimidated by a tweet'" at CBSNews.com.  Does CBS really consider it news that "[t]he U.S. has only one president at a time..."?  Since that's not a new development (by almost 230 years), and since CBS presumably knows that, it's hard to overstate the contempt they are showing for their viewers (or readers) with that statement.  And what's with quoting the gal who sits in the cubicle next to yours as a source?  Is CBS News in the business of reporting the news, or of creating it?

Maybe the public would be less likely to turn to "fake news" if the establishment journalism at least made an effort at professionalism.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Treating People Like Museum Exhibits

Well, at least it is now generally agreed that it was wrong to display the stuffed body of an African Bushman.  That was not quite as bad as making lampshades out of human skin, but it was on the same spectrum, showing a massive lack of respect for the deceased person.  Why it is not also felt to be disrespectful to display the bodies of Egyptian pharaohs is not at all clear.

It is not only the dead who can be used as "edutainment" by first-world countries.  The attempt to maintain the isolation of "uncontacted" communities is likewise dehumanizing, treating the members of these communities as though they were monkeys in a zoo.  However much we may cherish the animals in a nature preserve, we would rightly bristle at the thought of anyone putting us, or anyone we consider to be genuinely our equals, in a preserve.  

It's one thing to protect indigenous peoples from being exploited or to allow them to continue in their traditional way of life, if that is their choice; it is quite another to withhold from them the information necessary to make that choice for themselves.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Donald Song


The Democrats are not the only ones who have made fools of themselves this past election cycle.  One thing many people have noticed is how prominent members of the Religious Right have made excuses for Donald Trump for behavior they would have rightly condemned from someone on the left.  They have, in fact, made an idol out of politics. With apologies to VeggieTales, they have sung the Donald Song:

The Donald, the Donald, whoa I love the Donald.
I don’t love my mom or my dad, just the Donald.
The Donald, the Donald, yeah I love the Donald.
I gave everything that I had for the Donald.
I don’t want no background when it’s time to vote –
His past indiscretions are nothing of note.
I don’t need the details of his policy.
He feels my frustrations, he’ll look out for me.
I won’t go to church and I won’t go to school,
That stuff is for sissies, but Donald is cool!