Friday, April 29, 2016

The Pope and Just War Theory

Colossal statue of Mars, end of 1st century AD, from the Forum Transitorium in Rome, Capitoline Museums (12879072994) 
I don't think the Pope will, or even really can, get rid of Just War Theory, because there is far too much established teaching about when a nation should go to war and when it should not.  Most likely this will be another case in which a minor tweak will be treated by both his fans and his detractors as though Francis had taken it upon himself to casually toss two thousand years of Tradition and Magisterium.  That said, there is room for a tweak.  Here are a few things I think Pope Francis might actually do.
  • Many of the appeals to Just War Theory have not been virtuous attempts to understand what must or must not be done, they have been attempts to rationalize decisions actually made for the wrong reasons.  These rationalizations are then used to score propaganda points by claiming that the Church, in Her Tradition if not in Her current hierarchy, actually endorses a tainted war.  It would be both easy and appropriate for Pope Francis to condemn this kind of abuse.
  • There is a "sweet-mystery-of-life" clause for Catholics on the political right, just as those on the political left have the infamous one introduced by Justice Kennedy.  In this case, it comes from paragraph 2309 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:  "The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good."  Hawks like to interpret this as meaning
    • "those who have responsibility for the common good" means (for the United States) the POTUS and only the POTUS, whereas in a republic of free citizens the responsibility for the common good falls on all citizens;
    • no one may demand that the POTUS start or stop a war, because he has or might have secret information (the "sweet mystery") that changes everything;
    • no one -- not a bishop, not the Pope, and certainly not a mere citizen -- may fault the POTUS for his "evaluation of the conditions of moral legitimacy", because this evaluation between him and God alone.  EDIT:  This last bit is not consistently maintained.  It seems mainly to apply to presidents of the same political party as the person making the claim.
    The line from the Catechism does not mean what the hawks wish it to mean, and this is something the Pope could well clarify. 
  • He could add a statement in parallel to that given in reference to the death penalty:  he could say that the cases in which the decision to initiate a war is just "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."  I have complained of that kind of ambiguity before, and I still do not like it, but it would at least serve to emphasize the point that any claim that it is just to start a war should be met with skepticism, not with toadying chauvinism.
Most of the controversy, please note, comes over the decision to start a war.  The most pacifistic country in the world may be invaded, at which point it is at war, and surrender does not avoid the war but merely loses the war.  Because any country may find itself in a war, that part of Just War Theory which details proper conduct during a war (jus in bello) remains particularly essential.

Finally, it would be good to say something about who can be blamed for the start of a war.  Suppose Country A lands troops on the shores of Country B, but it is Country B that opens fire first.  Which side started the war?  I would say probably Country A, but of course they may have been responding to some earlier provocation by Country B, and Country A's apologists would say that no lives were lost until Country B started shooting.  In many cases, the only rational conclusion is that both sides in an escalating conflict share responsibility for the eventual outbreak of war, but in practice each side will claim the war is entirely the fault of the "bad guys" on the other side and the considerations of jus ad bellum do not apply to their own side.  A careful analysis of this all-too-common situation would be very interesting and quite profitable, but I don't think it is a good match for the talents and interests of Pope Francis.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Chinaman Button

In 1974, CBS Radio Mystery Theater ran an episode called "The Chinaman Button".  If you want to listen to it before my SPOILERS, a link is provided below.

The drama involve a pair of corrupt businessmen whose fun has been interrupted by a colleague with actual morals.  They do not really feel guilty -- in fact, they assume everyone is, deep down, just like themselves, and their colleague is just a big phony -- but his honesty has interrupted a few lucrative swindles they had going.  They want to neutralize him, not just by killing him or by getting him fired, but by proving to him that he is as bad as they are, maybe even worse.  Their plan is to have one of them, whom their colleague has never met, pose as a party who could bring about the untraceable death of a distant relative in South Africa, if only the colleague gives his consent.  This would result in them sharing a fortune, and it turns out their co-worker is in even more desperate need of money than they think.  At last, he surrenders his morality and agrees.  His corrupt friends look forward to using this to blackmail their formerly unimpeachable co-worker, but before they can do that, he re-visits the man who tempted him and proves that he has learned his lesson all too well -- after all, there will be more money for him if he does not have to split it.  Having already crossed the Rubicon by (he thinks) murdering once, he has little hesitation in murdering this stranger, whom he still does not know works for the same firm.

The thing to notice is that the formerly honest employee does not take it upon himself to "punish" his tempter in a state of high dudgeon; instead, the punishment that falls on the tempter is the natural consequence of his action, just as getting fat would be the natural "punishment" for eating a gallon of ice cream every day.  It is an example of poetic justice, but not of justice intended as such by any human being.  It is, if you like, the Tao or Mother Nature getting her revenge, or the effect of bad karma, or "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."  The general idea has been known to every culture.

We are witnessing today the systematic destruction of religion, of the family, of history -- of everything, really, that suggests that "right" and "wrong" have any fixed meaning that cannot be infinitely redefined by politicians or corporations.  Like the two scoundrels in the radio drama, they do this because a public that has a backbone stands in the way of their fun, or their profit, or their power.  As in the radio drama, they stand every chance of succeeding, at least in their short-term goals.  However, also as in the radio drama, their "success" will be limited by its own consequences.  The society they would create has no real basis for cohesion, no mandate for sacrifice, no way to avoid complacency and stagnation.  It would be like an organism with no immune system -- destined to die shortly due to external infection or internal cancer -- and its death would be a kind of poetic justice that, sadly, would be to no one's praise or profit.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Guesses (or Suggestions) for the Presidential Tickets

Trump is a disaster for the Republicans, but a disaster that cannot be avoided.  For too long they have quashed candidates like Rand Paul, favoring candidates who may throw social conservatives a rhetorical bone now and then, but who above all pose no threat to the status quo that is so favored by powerful, moneyed interests.  The result is somewhat analogous to the old forest management strategy that put out every little fire, resulting in too much fuel and too few firebreaks, and so replaced many small fires with a few enormous fires.  Now, if they refuse to have Trump as their nominee, he will leave the party and take 20-30% of their voters with him -- voters who will not vote for ANY Republican candidates, not just their alternative nominee for the presidency.  The GOP knows this, so my guess is they will not dare to have a contested election, and will accept Trump as their nominee even with a mere plurality of delegates, and even if they would really rather see him lose to Clinton so they can get their party back.

The interesting question is, "What comes next?"

Yes, Trump is an egotistical blowhard who shoots from the hip, often without thinking or collected the information he needs.  The thought of a nuclear-armed Donald Trump playing brinkmanship with a nuclear-armed Kim Jong-un should terrify any thinking adult.  Yet for all of his flaws, he is not entirely stupid -- the world is full of egotistical blowhards who never escape anonymity.  My guess is that Trump will see that the most important thing for him to do after securing the nomination will be to try to restore party unity by choosing a running mate who will soothe the GOP establishment and, hopefully, compensate for his lack of experience.  The choice would have to be someone credible, but his pride probably rules out anyone who has been a noteworthy critic during the election cycle.

My suggestion would be Condoleezza Rice.  She is not a natural politician, by which I mean she does not have the personality to schmooze comfortably with people of all backgrounds, but she is strong in areas where he is weak.
  1. She is not Oprah Winfrey, and she will not be able to deliver majorities of either the black vote or the women's vote, but because Trump has so far made his appeal mostly to middle class, middle aged, angry white males, he urgently needs the help of someone like Rice to appeal to a wider demographic field.
  2. Trump has already made a mess of his foreign relations, and he has not even won his party's nomination.  The British parliament seriously considered banning Trump from the UK, he had a quarrel with Pope Francis in February, he has called NATO obsolete -- an idea I agree with, basically, but it should not be handled this clumsily -- and of course the signature piece of his campaign has been bullying Mexico.  If he is ever to govern, he must have on his team someone with more knowledge, experience, and temperament for international relations, and he must listen to that person.  Rice would be perfect for this.
  3. What Trump really, really, really should do is make Condoleezza Rice his running mate and then announce, a week or so after the GOP convention, "I've been talking with Condoleezza, and she made a very good point.  A wall doesn't have to be made of stone or brick, and a fence doesn't have to be made of wood or steel.  All we really want is something that will effectively deter illegal immigration.  This can be done by persuading Mexico to greatly enhance their own border patrols.  This would be a 'wall' Mexico could pay for without having the money leave their nation, and it would respect both our sovereignty and theirs.  This is the wall I intend to see built."

    This would bring him back into the world of the actually possible, which would reassure a lot of nervous voters and put him in a less confrontational position should he actually be elected.  Even more importantly, it would show he will listen to reason and can be persuaded -- even by (gasp!) a woman.
That is what he should do.  What he will do, I suspect, is a good deal less.  I could easily imagine him choosing, say, the Republican attorney general of Arizona -- someone with some real political experience, but who is not threatening to Trump's dominant position and who would not force him to change his rhetoric at all.  Alternatively, he might choose another political novice.  If he doesn't show some flexibility, though, I don't see any way for him to win.

For Hillary Clinton, the road is much easier.  She is far from an ideal candidate herself, as the Sanders campaign has demonstrated, and her sloppiness with classified emails is being investigated at a very inopportune time for her, but ultimately I expect her to be at the head of a party that will unify in opposition to Trump.  She can pretty much guarantee a win if she takes Florida, and I think Charlie Crist could help her do that.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Walrus and the Carpenter

'I like the Walrus best,' said Alice: 'because you see he was a little sorry for the poor oysters.'
'He ate more than the Carpenter, though,' said Tweedledee. 'You see he held his handkerchief in front, so that the Carpenter couldn't count how many he took: contrariwise.'
'That was mean!' Alice said indignantly. 'Then I like the Carpenter best—if he didn't eat so many as the Walrus.'
'But he ate as many as he could get,' said Tweedledum.
This was a puzzler. After a pause, Alice began, 'Well! They were both very unpleasant characters—'
-- Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carroll

As the political machine moves into full gear, I am already hearing from the usual sources that it is my moral duty to vote for the Walrus.  After all, failing to vote for the Walrus is just like voting for the Carpenter, and we all know what he's going to do -- why, he's shameless about it!  And sure, the Walrus may do the same things, but "Politics is the art of the possible," (Otto von Bismarck apparently being America's favorite political philosopher), and the Walrus doesn't really want to do these thing!
"It seems a shame," the Walrus said, "To play them such a trick, 
After we've brought them out so far, 
And made them trot so quick!" 

When we oysters base our votes not on what a candidate or a party has actually done, and therefore can be expected to continue doing, but rather on emotions and intentions which cannot be verified, the result is "scarcely odd".

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Joshua Gates, the Inca Empire, and Religion in Travel Shows

Machu Picchu.  Photo by Allard Schmidt (The Netherlands).

A few days ago I was watching several episodes of Expedition Unknown on Netflix.  Expedition Unknown is essentially the Travel Channel's version of Destination Truth, which was also hosted by Josh Gates:  Gates travels to a site (usually an exotic site) associated with a wild story, makes fun of the local food, clothing, transportation, or whatever, spends a day or two "searching" in vain for something that others have sought for their whole lives without finding, and finally returns home to express hope that what he didn't find is real and still out there.  So yes, it is formulaic, but the locations and backstories can often make the show watchable in spite of its obvious flaws.  Sometimes, though, it crosses a line.

The fifth episode, "City of Gold", is set in Peru.  It is about the search for a legendary city built by nobles of the Inca Empire who fled deep into the mountains with tons of treasure, never to be heard from again.  The first part of that sentence tells you why people have wanted to find it, and the second part tells you why it is almost certainly untrue.  At any rate, Gates and the rest of his crew -- at least one cameraman -- travel several days into the back country with some men who have made the search for this city their lives' work.  They make it as far along the "stone road" as his guides have gone before -- then turn around, with Gates saying that he has to resist the pull of the unknown lest they disappear, as others have disappeared before.  There may be some wisdom to that; after all, the Shining Path still exists in Peru, and for what I know might have bases near there.  On the other hand, if you stick to a path that your guides have taken before and go no farther than they have gone before, you can be sure you will discover no new cities they have not already seen.  This failure, then, was part of the plan from the beginning, not just a likely consequence of a brief and halfhearted expedition looking for something that probably never existed anyhow, and it was more than usually dishonest of the program to pretend that it was ever a real search.

That, however, was not my biggest objection.

At the last outpost of civilization before venturing into the wild mountains, Gates and his companions are given shelter for the night in the basement of a Catholic church.  Gates notes how "ironic" it is that here he is looking for vanished Inca treasure when who should put him up but the Catholic Church, and furthermore the place (which does not seem to have a resident priest, but a "circuit-riding" priest) is maintained by "a descendant of the Incas".  Ugh.

Understand that his statement about her being a descendant of the Incas is literally as true as calling an Iraqi, as an Iraqi, a descendant of the Roman Emperors.  The Inca was the head of the Inca Empire, just as the Emperor was the head of the Roman Empire.  That's a technicality, but using the term "Inca" a bit more loosely doesn't really help things.  The Roman Empire controlled Mesopotamia off and on for centuries; the Inca Empire only existed for about a hundred years before being destroyed by the Spaniards.  Moreover, the Inca Empire was an empire, not a mutual admiration society; it was assembled by force, and its great wealth was the result of taxes and tribute, just like the Roman or, for that matter, the Spanish Empire.  As far as I know, the Inca Empire did not practice human sacrifice, as the Aztecs did, and so were not as hated by their subjects, but their subjects were still subjects.  It is never a coincidence that the wealth of an empire is concentrated into the hands of the powerful and the capital city.

Gates shows mocking contempt for the Catholic Church in a way he really never does for any other institution he meets in his travels -- certainly not for any other religion.  There are two questions he should have asked, but never does.
  1. What, exactly, has been the attitude of the Catholic Church to Pizarro, his manner of conquering the natives, and his subsequent rule?  Is Pizarro considered a saint?
  2. Peru has been independent now for almost two centuries.  Why are so many Peruvians still Catholic if, as Gates implies, the Church simply stole from the natives and gave nothing in return?

It would be bad enough if Gates merely had contempt for all religion, full stop.  Such an attitude is, I contend, overly simplistic and altogether unnatural, but at least it would be consistent.  However, Gates does not show contempt for all religion; at least superficially, he shows great deference to Hinduism and Buddhism, and he never passes a shaman without trying to get some sort of shamanic blessing.  In fact, later in the same episode ("City of Gold"), he participates in offering a sacrifice to some "spirit of the mountains" -- some at least of his guides being obviously not Catholic at all or only Catholic in the loosest possible sense of the word.  Once sacrifices are made, the bright line has been crossed into latria, the adoration due to God alone.

It is more likely, though, that what Gates is doing even with the Eastern religions and with shamanism is still an expression of contempt, but a different expression of contempt.  For Christianity, he shows no half measures; the disdain is obvious, in no small part because Christianity is a serious threat to his preferred world view.  I am not talking about any hypothetical threat of violence or manipulation from Christians; rather, Christianity is an idea describing a universe in which he does not wish to live.  The less familiar religions, though, are to him nothing more than silly games, and he takes participation in them as a way for him to be mildly naughty with no real risk -- much like when he eats the roasted guinea pig or the bull penis soup (to name two actual examples) at the beginning of the episode.  Just as there is an ugly, mocking condescension when he shares the "crazy" food of the locals, there is an ugly, mocking condescension when he participates in their "crazy" religions.

Incidentally, it is not as safe as Gates imagines to trifle with spirits.  In one episode the local priest or shaman calls down the spirit of his god to possess him, then places his hands on Gates to pass the possession on to him.  No Hollywood-style special effects followed, of course, but that's no proof that nothing happened.  Still, it has been said (and misattributed to Otto von Bismark) that "There is a special providence for drunkards, fools, and the United States of America," and surely Joshua Gates fits in there somewhere.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Book Review: The Lost Island (Audio)

The full name is The Lost Island:  A Gideon Crew Novel, by Douglas Preston, and unlike the The Amber Room, which I reviewed some time back, it is a nearly perfect fiction audio book for listening to on a trip.  Normally I prefer non-fiction historical books, like The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II or The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, but it is getting harder for me to find the kind I am looking for in stores.  I took a chance with The Lost Island in part because it was on sale.

The Lost Island is not great literature, but it is nearly perfect for listening to on a drive.  When I say it is not great literature, I mean both that it has actual flaws and also that it is not the sort of thing that would appeal to a certain kind of literary snob.  Its actual flaws are basically three in number:
  1. The characters are a bit too superlative.  The main character, for example, is a former physics researcher at Los Alamos.  It's nice to see that the physicist is not treated as a clueless dweeb, as so often happens in fiction, but on the other hand there is nothing about his character which betrays him as a physicist.  Gideon Crew is actually more of a con man than a physicist; he spends a lot of time figuring out how to make people do things for him, but he really never spends any time wondering how something works.  So he's a former physicist, an accomplished thief and con-man, a gourmet chef, etc.  All the characters are like this, which can only partially be compensated for by the fact that they have been intentionally recruited for their skills.
  2. Even taking into account the superlative characters, there are still at least 5 moments in the book when the odds of survival were less than 50%.  An amazing run of good luck is something of a distraction.
  3. There are too many wildly improbable, basically unrelated science-fiction elements for this to be a great book for reading, though it still works fine for listening while driving.  I'll try to avoid saying too much more, in case someone wants to read the book.

As for the "great literature" angle, well, I take "great literature" with a grain of salt.  I think a lot of the claims are meant to create the impression that the person making the claim is so well-educated and sophisticated, when in fact that person has merely found out what is popular in the group with which he identifies.  Also, I think we tend to exaggerate the literary quality of books which reflect our own worldview.  Certainly Catholics these days seem to vastly overstate the profundity of Tolkien, who was a Catholic and who is currently popular but who was neither one the world's greatest writers nor a Doctor of the Church.

But a great work of literature may not be a great audio book.  The Bible is great literature, as well as the inspired Word of God, but it is terrible as an audio book.  I know, because I have tried several times to listen to it as an audio book.  The pace is too fast and too linear when played on CD; to treat the Bible seriously, some time for reflection and for skipping around for comparison with other passages is necessary.  A good audio book for a long drive cannot require one's entire attention.

So what about The Lost Island?  Without giving too much away, its title is an homage to The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, and it has a few similarities to that novel.  I would say it is closer in style and content to some of the books by H. Rider Haggard, such as King Solomon's Mines and She: A History of Adventure.  Since it starts with Gideon being asked to steal a page from the Book of Kells, I was afraid it would be a shoddy rip-off of the already shoddy Da Vinci Code, but rest assured it is not.

In summary, this was a fun, extravagant yarn that can help keep you from getting bored on a long trip but that does not demand close concentration.  I strongly recommend it for any long drive.

EDIT:  I forgot to mention another stunning problem.  At the climax of the book, a catastrophe occurs as the result of the actions of the characters.  However, for this catastrophe to have been possible at all, it would have been possible for natural causes to have triggered it, and it is a virtual certainty that they would have long before Gideon and the others ever saw the island.  This flaw is hard to overlook precisely because of its importance to the overall plot.