Saturday, December 23, 2006

The ideological differences between Fatah, Hamas and Al-Qaeda

I dislike the "islamo-fascism" label used by the Right for a number of reasons. One is that it mistakenly implies that Islamic extremism has parallels with early 20th-century nationalism, probably more in an effort to paint people with the Hitler/Mussolini brush than to help illuminate details of the ideologies involved. Another is that it misleadingly gives the impression that all strands of Islamic extremism are identical. They aren't. Comments by Al-qaeda criticising Hamas, and the armed conflict that has been starting to occur between Hamas and Fatah in Palestine, may be useful in scoping out the differences.

I've previously used the catch-all term "jihadist" to get past the false comparison with Italy and Germany pre-World War II. I think I need to expand my definitions to highlight the different strands of extremism within the Islamic world. Fatah, Hamas and Al-Qaeda are representatives of three different strands.

1. Fatah. I would call their ideology "traditionalist Islam", or perhaps "conservative Islam". It isn't a group that defines itself by its upholding of Islamic tenets, but its members all adhere to Islam. It's not really extremist I think, although it is illiberal to a great degree. Their political agitation is not caught up in the rhetoric of "Holy War" to my knowledge, focusing more on dealing with immediate non-religious problems in a way that is pragmatic rather than visionary.

2.Hamas. The word here I think is "Islamism". Islamism is a political ideology which expressly states that all politics and political process must occur in the way dictated by the religion of Islam. Or by the Islamist's particular interpretation of Islam, anyway. It is more idealistic and visionary than Islamic traditionalism: Hamas seeks the destruction of Israel, while Fatah sees this as an unobtainable goal.

3, Al-qaeda. Jihadist. The goal is similar to Islamism - a way of life that is Islamic - but the method of bringing it about is through violence. It's not clear to me if their specific goals actually extend beyond that call to engage in violence against the enemies of Islam.

In terms of how each group functions, there's going to be some overlap - Hamas is willing to engage in terrorist strikes, which is jihadist rather than Islamist - but I think those are the core ideologies of each of those three groups.

Bush on current Iraq situation

Another Bush quote, this time on Iraq:
"I believe that we’re going to win, I believe that. My comments yesterday reflected the fact that we’re not succeeding nearly as fast as I had wanted."

What kind of view of the world does it take to look at Iraq right now and describe it not as "grave and deteroriating" like the ISG report did, but as "not succeeding fast enough"?

I've hesitated to use the "d" word about someone who may simply have a differing ideological framework than me, but this is going too far; I'm genuinely starting to think the the President of the United States of America, the most militarily powerful country in the world, is delusional.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Bush quote for the day:

“‘Terrorists’ can’t be God-believing people.”

Hoo boy.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Internet portals 2.0? I'll stick with Google thanks

So I've discovered the existence of Netvibes. A place where you can access all your online content or somesuch. I have to wonder: what's the point? I already have technology to access all the online content that interests me: it's called a web browser.

It reminds me of the now long-dead "portal" craze going on when I first discovered the Internet in 1995. People like Yahoo and Netscape were vying to create a single Internet point of presence - a "portal to the Internet" if you will - which aggregated things like websearch, news headlines and weather forecasts on a single page. Now we have people like Yahoo and Newsvibe vying to create a single Internet point of presence which aggreates things like blogsearch, news headlines and RSS feeds on a single page, using Ajax. Portal 2.0.

I wonder if it'll be as uninspiring a flash-in-the-pan as the 1.0 version?

About the only useful thing I can see Portal 2.0 concepts doing is allowing online data to be presented in a manner more appealing to the user. But that isn't exactly what Newsvibe does. What it does is provide a limited framework for aggregating information in away that Newsvibe pre-determines. I have to say on first glance that I don't like it very much. It's easier and more convenient for me to visit digg.com's website directly rather than mess about with the limited control over content that Netvibe's digg.com module gives me. I haven't checked out the RSS feeds yet.

Not sure I will either given the existence of Google Reader. Google I think gets the "point of presence" idea a little better I think. Sure, there's Google homepage where you can aggregate some stuff, but they don't cram everything into a single framework. There's an individual application interface for Gmail, a different one for Google Reader, another one for Google News. I don't know exactly what Google's style of providing different ways to examine different types of online data is called, but it feels more comfortable and usable. Google Reader and Google News feel like they supplement my web-browsing style, unlike Newsvibe's "Portal" approach which feels like it's trying to replace it. Badly. Maybe that's what bugs me about Newsvibe: they don't recognise the differences between different kinds of content. I think Google does.

I guess I'm turning into a Google fanboy. But really, can you blame me?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Howards new you-beaut citizenship test

An Australian citizenship test? I honestly thought we'd heard the last of that after it was laughed out of the public sphere when the PM first floated the idea. Guess not.

From the Australian's editorial in support of the test
If three months of feedback to the Government's discussion paper on the issue is any guide, there is overwhelming public support for the initiative. Ninety-five per cent of respondents agree that basic English language skills should be compulsory, and 93 per cent consider an understanding of core Australian values to be essential for migrants to make the most of the opportunities in their adopted land.


Can I call bullshit on this? Saying "we think that migrants need to learn and adopt our values to live here successfully" is not at all the same thing as saying "we think the government should ram 'Australian values' down migrants throats".

Then of course there's the question of what "Australian values" are. This isn't as hard as it sounds I think. For example, one Australian value that I like is a healthy disrespect and distrust of politicians. I don't trust John Howard to implement this test. I don't think it will be pushing what "Australian values" are so much as what John Howard would like "Australian values" to be.

Paranoid? Probably. But when it comes right down to it, I don't think it's the Government's job to define values to its citizens - even to its new citizens - so much as it's the citizens' job to have a government that reflects their values.

I don't think the concept of having an Australian citizenship test accurately reflects Australian values. Especially not one that asks questions about Australian history. We're famously bad at knowing our own country's history. To expect new citizens to learn about it in order to be citizens seems, well....un-Australian.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

ISG report: the press conference version

My opinion: the content of the Baker-Hamilton report isn't as important in forming policy so much as the political interpretation of that report, particularly how the US-UK governments spin it to make it line up with their future Iraq policy.

I haven't read the report. My impressions - like that of the average Western citizen - currently come from media reporting of it. Here's a transcript of a press conference with Bush and Blair for analysis.

First item of note, Bush has committed to the existence of a Palestinian state, I believe the first US president ever to do so:"In the Palestinian territories, they are working to stop moderate leaders like President Abbas from making progress toward the vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security." Blair echos later on, showing it wasn't a mis-statement: "You are the first president who committed yourself to the two- state solution." I wonder how the Israeli political establishment feels about that?

I've read elsewhere that one of the reasons Blair was so willing to chum it up with Bush was as a way of trying to exert pressure to get a better deal for the Palestinians in Israel/Palestine negotiations. I guess he's succeeded in that, even though it looks like his own political career is basically over now after going against too many of his own constituents on the Iraq war issue.

The vision of the Middle East that Bush/Blair are pushing is pretty blatant: it's evil terrorists and exremists vs good democracy-lovers and moderates. I wonder if those four concepts always line up on two polarised sides like that? Hamas was democratically elected in Palestine after all. And Hezbollah faired pretty well at the polls in the elections in Lebanon.

I get tired of sloganeering in place of actual policy. From reading the conference I get the impression that Bush/Blair's top priority in dealing with the US mid-term electoral smackdown was changing the slogan: "stay the course" and "win hearts and minds" are out, "find a way forward" is in. It is repeated ENDLESSLY! Bush even pushes the "way forward" slogan as a way of avoiding a question:
QUESTION: Why did it take others to say it[that the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating] before you've been willing to acknowledge it to the world?

BUSH: You know, in all due respect, I've been saying it a lot[um...has he? I sure haven't heard it]. I understand how tough it is, and I've been telling the American people how tough it is. And they know how tough it is.

And the fundamental question is: Do we have a plan to achieve our objective? Are we willing to change as the enemy has changed?

And what the Baker-Hamilton study has done is it shows good ideas as to how to go forward. What our Pentagon is doing is figuring out ways to go forward -- all aiming to achieve our objective.


The "finding a way to go forward" slogan just doesn't seem to be getting into media headlines the way the "stay the course" slogan did, though.

Reading the tea leaves, and from previous efforts with slogans, I predict that in six month's time, maybe a year's time, we'll still be repeatedly being told that Bush is boldly and confidently "finding a way to go forward", and will continue to be "finding a way to go forward", until it becomes blatantly obvious that the war effort is not "going forward" and is never going to "go forward", because there is no way to "go forward". We'll see how long Bush/Blair's "we're all about finding a way to go forward" posturing can obscure that from the American public.

On negotiation with Syria and Iran, Bush and Blair seem to split. My impression is that Bush really doesn't want it, and is trying to find a way to lay the blame for not negotiating with Iran and Syria at the feet of Iran and Syria:
When people -- if people come to the table to discuss Iraq, they need to come understanding their responsibilities -- to not fund terrorists, to help this young democracy survive, to help with the economics of the country.

BUSH: And if people are not committed -- if Syria and Iran is not committed to that concept, then they shouldn't bother to show up.

I heard this particular excerpt spoken aloud on the radio while riding a taxi. Bush sounded really angry when he was saying this. I really don't know what's going on in his head here, but I'm pretty sure that the idea of negotiating with Evil on Earth isn't something he would ever be willing to do. Please God, let us never have another Evangelical Christian as President of the United States.

Blair's more open to the idea, and has a comment which to my mind sounds like someone who is good at diplomacy, unlike, President Cowboy:
And let me come directly to the Iran and Syria point. The issue, for me, is not a question of being unwilling to sit down with people or not, but the basis upon which we discuss Iraq has got to be clear and it's got to be a basis where we are all standing up for the right principles, which are now endorsed in the United Nations resolutions, in respect of Iraq.

At which point, he points the finger at Iran:
BLAIR: In other words, you support the democratic-elected government, you do not support sectarians, and you do not support, arm or finance terrorists.

Now, the very reason we have problems in parts of Iraq -- and we know this very well down in the south of Iraq -- is that Iran, for example, has been doing that. It's been basically arming, financing, supporting terrorism.


Hmmm. Maybe not that good at diplomacy...

Blair also mentions how "the old Middle East had, within it, the origins of all the problems we see." Are we still talking about magically solving all of that region's deepseated problems through the neoconservative pipedream of creating a "new Middle East" through military might, Mr Blair? Well, to be fair, the UK I think understands that military strength alone is not enough. But to have an echo of the neoconservative utopia-pretensions for the Middle East in Blair's commentary is deeply unsettling.

Last point before I finish off, this comment from Blair:
Its[Iraq's] people can either be presented with a choice between a secular or a religious dictatorship, which is not a choice that any free people would ever choose.

seems way off the mark, and indicates even further his embrace of the wrong-headed idealism of neoconservatism. "Free people" I believe are entirely willing - eager, even - to embrace dictatorship and oppression of people, so long as there's a pretty good chance that they are the ones who get to do the oppressing.

People will not choose to be an oppressee, but we are often all too willing to choose to be an oppressor. Perhaps we might justify it to ourselves with the usual moral equivocations - "they did it to us for so long", "it's not oppression if they deserve what they get", there are others I'm sure - but we would be freely choosing oppression nonetheless. That is a part of human nature that Bush and Blair's grand vision of a "new Middle East" doesn't take into account. That's why this vision simply cannot work.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Iraqi blame game

Seems the remaining opinionaters who still think the Iraq war was a good idea even now have to find a scapegoat for the failure of Bush II to deliver on anything that was promised by the invasion. The targets of blame for the Bush Administration's own failures appears to have been narrowed down to two:
1. Blame the American people. Supposedly everything would be fine if the Bush Administration hadn't been hampered by skittish voters refusing to allow Bush to fight the war the way he wanted to fight it. The level of historical revisionism needed to make that one float is pretty impressive. But there are True Believers[tm] out there still who accept it, apparently.

2 Blame the Iraqi people. In this scenario, it wasn't a failure of Bush's "new Middle East" policy that has brought Iraq to ruin, but a failure of the Iraqi voting public to properly take advantage of the opportunity afforded to them. Do I detect a smidgeon of cultural chauvinism here? I think I do.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Novell-Linux-Microsoft

Big news in the open source community as longtime foe of Open Source[tm] Microsoft signs an agreement with Linux provider Novell. Groklaw is blogging hard, naturally. No doubt my understanding will change considerably after reading through all the detail there, but for now...

The deal involved Novell paying Microsoft a total $40 million over 5 years "from revenues obtained through selling products containing Microsoft patents."(see this ITwire articl, among many others). My thought at the time was that this move should be read not so much as "Novell is free from threats of patent lawsuits from Microsoft" as it should be read as "Microsoft is about to start threatening linux companies that aren't Novell with patent lawsuits".

Steve Ballmer has now strongly implied that this is the case by bluntly claiming that Linux "uses our[Microsoft's] patented intellectual property" (see this Seattle Intelligencer blogpost), and claiming that Linux distributors owe Microsoft compensation for it.

The reaction from the open source community is similar to what happened when SCO tried to claim the Linux kernel contained copyrighted code that SCO owned and hadn't licensed under the GPL:"If Linux violates Microsoft’s patents, let’s see the proof".

Weeell....there's no certainty that Ballmer is referring only to the Linux kernel. It's easy to forget that "Linux" can refer both to the OS kernel and to the OS itself (Richard Stallman's probably futile effort to have the OS proper referred to as "GNU/Linux" instead of "Linux" notwithstanding). So the vague allegation is even vaguer than it first appears. Where could these alleged infringements be? The kernel? Glibc? Somewhere in Openoffice.org? Hiding in the multifunctionality of the grep command?

Software patents are becoming something of a headache in the US. It's possible that any number of large-scale software projects contain any number of patent violations owing to the sheer number of software patents floating around. It's entirely possible that the many components of your typical GNU/Linux system may have a few inadvertent patent violations in there.

IT companies usually manage to avoid patent lawsuits by acquiring software patents of their own which they can use as a deterrent: "you sue us, we see you", a sort of Mutually Assured Destruction policy. It's worth noting here that the Microsoft-Novell patent deal was reciprocal: Microsoft is safe from any fear of infringing on Novell's patents now. It is not clear to me how that works (or doesn't work) when a software system is designed and maintained not by a single limited liability company, but by an amorphous mass of volunteer coders.

Can open source software manage to deal with patents? Software licensed under the Gnu General Public License (which includes most components of most GNU/Linux distributions) has a fairly straightforward restriction laid out by Section 7 of that license: "if a patent license would not permit royalty-free redistribution of the Program by all those who receive copies directly or indirectly through you, then the only way you could satisfy both it and this License would be to refrain entirely from distribution of the Program."

So, if Novell paid Microsoft $40 million for the use of Microsoft's patents which allegedly exist in GNU/Linux, and that money will be coming from "revenues obtained through selling products containing Microsoft patents", is Novell collecting royalties for Microsoft on its Linux sales? Has Novell committed to violation of the GPL?

Maybe it's all FUD. Maybe Linux distributions don't violate any Microsoft patents at all. But maybe the Novell deal is an opportunity to muddy the waters, suggest that, gee, maybe that pesky GPL is more of a burden than a benefit what with the possibility that you could be forced to stop distributing your software entirely if it's found to infringe on somebody's patents

Perhaps related to all this, here's an odd little co-incidence:
1. According to Novell's FAQ on the deal, the agreement focuses on technical co-operation in three main areas:virtualization, web services management and document format compatibility. Document format? Would that include Office document formats by any chance?
2. As of 20th November, basic support for Microsoft's VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) language has been thrown up into Openoffice.org's source code, per this blogpost
3.The ever-so-helpful and generous entity to give Openoffice.org this support for a previously Microsoft-only format? Novell. They've already incorporated the new functionality into Novell's own version of OO.o

Things that make you go hmmm...

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The anti-gay perception of homosexuality

Leaving aside the actual morality of "outing" in general, and Ted Haggard's "outing" in particular, the responses from some of the anti-gay Right highlighted for me a distinction between the anti-gay perspective of homosexuality and homosexual people's perspective of homosexuality. It's a distinction which I think many supporters of GLBT rights miss.

I think most people know the story so far, but in any case here's a video summary of the Ted Haggard situation courtesy of Jon Stewart of the Daily Show. The online reaction of arch-conservative David Frum to it all was...interesting, to say the least:
Consider the hypothetical case of two men. Both are inclined toward homosexuality. Both from time to time hire the services of male prostitutes. Both have occasionally succumbed to drug abuse.

One of them marries, raises a family, preaches Christian principles, and tries generally to encourage people to lead stable lives.

The other publicly reveals his homosexuality, vilifies traditional moral principles, and urges the legalization of drugs and prostitution.

Which man is leading the more moral life? It seems to me that the answer is the first one.

Naturally many people around the blogosphere took great exception to the idea that it is better to go behind your wife and children's backs, publicly condemning the very behaviour in which you're engaging to millions, than it is to live as an openly gay man. But Frum's perspective is partially understandable - in his understanding of homosexuality at least.

Note the phrasing he uses: not "homosexual", but "inclined towards homosexuality". Further down in the same article Frum says this:
If a religious leader has a personal inclination toward homosexuality - and nonetheless can look past his own inclination to defend the institution of marriage and to affirm its benefits for the raising of children - why should he likewise not be honored for his intellectual firmness and moral integrity?

Again, not "homosexual", but "a personal inclination toward homosexuality". And it's better to marry and try to embrace even a semblance of a "heterosexual lifestyle" than it is to "give in" to homosexuality.

See, in the anti-gay perspective, everyone is innately heterosexual. Homosexuality isn't an alternative sexuality that exists in a person instead of heterosexuality, but a fetish that stems from a distortion of the true (heterosexual) desires that God instils in everyone. Dr Joseph Nicolosi of NARTH summed up the perspective like this: "there are no homosexuals, only heterosexuals with a homosexual problem". For a man "inclined to homosexuality" to marry a woman isn't, as the pro-gay perspective would have it, an imprisonment of both man and woman in a loveless sham, but a valid and worthwhile attempt for the man to overcome his temptations and express his innate, Godly desire for a woman who, by God's law, he must marry.

That's David Frum's perspective of Ted Haggard as I understand it. His attempt to justify the emotional pain that this could be causing Mrs Haggard, though, is curiously missing. Then again, she is a woman after all, and misogyny and anti-gay sentiment often seem to be fellow travellers in my experience.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Al-Hilali's speech

You know, there are two things in Sheik Al-Hilali's speech which disturb me but which haven't been reported in the media. I guess the colourful "uncovered meat" analogy sells more papers without the pollution of more detailed analysis.

One:
"Because there is a crime of polytheism. God does not forgive polytheism, and forgives everything else. These people said that God took a son, these people said that divinity united with man, and the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and they will see mercy? They will never see it, not him or his father. Not dad or mum. No one will see mercy, of those who believe in polytheism....

...Those who disbelieve amongst the people of the Book and the polytheists, where will they go? Surfers Paradise? Gold Coast? Where? To the fire of hell."


I'm not sure how I feel about the preacher of one religion saying that the people who believe one of the core teachings of a rival religion are going to hell. I'm pretty sure that if a Christian preacher said something like "those heathens who follow Mohammed's teachings, foolishly and wrongly believing him to be a Prophet, are going to hell for their denial of the One True Saviour", then there would be outrage among the Muslim community. Should the Christian community react any diferently to a Sheikh preaching that believing in the Trinity is a gateway to hell?

On the other hand, I really can't get worked up over two Abrahamic religions essentially playing "My God is realler than your God". So juvenile.

Two:
The Al-Rafihi scholar says in one of his literary works, he says: If I come across a crime of rape - kidnap and violation of honour - I would discipline the man and teach him a lesson in morals, and I would order the woman be arrested and jailed for life.

I find the implication that a woman should be jailed for being raped to be deeply, deeply disturbing. The cat-meat analogy pales in comparison to this. I don't understand why it hasn't been reported more. Have I misunderstood somthing?

Moral fallacies?

That's the best name I can come up with so far. Maybe there's a better one, I don't know.

Anyway, I found a site called Muslim Village. The forums section has a post arguing that Sheik Al-Hilali has done nothing wrong and that it's a deliberate plot by Islam-haters to attack a good man:
It is well known that for the past few years there has been a concentrated effort to oust the Sheikh by some groups. To his credit and many of his supporters they have stood their ground. We, the rest of the community should support them and help them to make one more stand at this most vital time.

For if the events of last week are any indication the opposition is nothing but a self serving group of egomaniacs who have only their own interest at heart...

...in that group there was someone who recorded that conversation. Took the tape home laughing all the way back home trying to figure out how to best exploit their latest find. How best to damage the Sheikh? In the process completely ignoring the pain it will cause the community.

This is where you see how selfish these people were, for they have no interest in the Muslim community.

This is a moral fallacy I see a lot in several contexts: the writer appears to believe that an action is either a good action performed with good intentions, or a harmful act performed with evil intentions. There is no concept that the harm the writer of this piece feels at the attack on Hilali could have been unintentional, done with good intentions even, or that the person who provided the tape to the media might believe that the writer's feeing of hurt is unjustified and no actual harm has been done at all: it MUST be due to "a shadowy group who we know nothing about, who are driven by self interest" that want to promote evil, and there is no question that the accusations levelled against Al-Hilali MUST be false.

Why does the writer believe that the accusations must be false? Their reasoning shows another moral fallacy: judging the morality of an action not by the action, but by the identity of the person performing it. The core of the writer's claim that the content of the speech was wrong skips the actual content of the speech in question completely, favoring instead a moral calculus in which a person who does previously done many good works is immediately placed in the "good" camp, and nothing they then do removes them from it.
The issue is not that what the Sheikh said was right or wrong. After all he is only human, and has never claimed to be perfect so to err is only human. But his long track record of good work in the community with the youth and others surely far outweigh his one mistake.

Personally I've never subscribed to a school of morality which implies that a person who saves thousands of lives can be forgiven a murder or two (the "Faith the Vampire Slayer" school of morality).

Who's to blame for Pastor Haggard's fall from grace? His fat, lazy wife: an Evangelical implies that one of the things that might lead a married man into soliciting male prostitutes for sex is a wife who doesn't stay sexy:
Most pastors I know do not have satisfying, free, sexual conversations and liberties with their wives. At the risk of being even more widely despised than I currently am, I will lean over the plate and take one for the team on this. It is not uncommon to meet pastors' wives who really let themselves go; they sometimes feel that because their husband is a pastor, he is therefore trapped into fidelity, which gives them cause for laziness. A wife who lets herself go and is not sexually available to her husband in the ways that the Song of Songs is so frank about is not responsible for her husband's sin, but she may not be helping him either.

The moral fallacy here is a common one to men: the belief that it is the responsibility of women to account for and work around the male sex drive. This far too prevalent belief is counter to the very concept of personal responsibility. Yes, the male sex drive is strong - I'm male, I know this - but it's not uncontrollable. Saying that a man's sexual motivations are the responsibility of women in any way is a shirking of the responsibility that a man has to learn self-discipline as far as I'm concerned.

And here's one where I don't know where the moral fallacy may lie: in the wake of an Evangelical preacher who was accused of maintaining a relationship with a gay prostitute and of routinely using crystal meth, right-wing commentator David Frum claims that a man who marries and has children while having gay sex and abusing drugs is morally superior to one who does so openly:
Consider the hypothetical case of two men. Both are inclined toward homosexuality. Both from time to time hire the services of male prostitutes. Both have occasionally succumbed to drug abuse.

One of them marries, raises a family, preaches Christian principles, and tries generally to encourage people to lead stable lives.

The other publicly reveals his homosexuality, vilifies traditional moral principles, and urges the legalization of drugs and prostitution.

Which man is leading the more moral life? It seems to me that the answer is the first one.

I'm so flabbergasted that someone could see it like that that I don't think I can locate the moral fallacy at all. The whole "lying" aspect of Haggard's situation seems to simply not register here. I think it has something to do with group loyalty over-riding objective assessment of the situation, but I really don't know for sure.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Muslims being rallied for Al-Hilali

Muslims rally behind embattled leader, from the Sydney Morning Herald. There's a rally being pulled together, without any central organiser judging by the contradictory texts that have been flying about in regards to time and place, to show "solidarity". God I hate that word.

I'm a little scared that this could turn violent. I'm not the only one, as the SMH also reports. That said, there's a strong desire for a peaceful rally among many potential participants if news.com.au is to be believed.

From the second SMH article:
He[Dr Jamal Rifi, a Muslim and critic of Al-Hilali] said the sheik's "lieutenants" had used the last few days while the sheik has been in hospital to bolster support for the cleric in Lakemba. "There are people out there in the street saying, 'This [backlash] is not against al Hilaly, this is against all Islam'," he said.


I can sort of see what's going to happen. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims are going to demonstrate their non-support of Al Hilaly by staying away from the rally. Meanwhile the small but dedicated extremist Muslims will demonstrate in support of Al Hilali as if the problem is with the media reporting of Al Hilali's comments rather than Al Hilali's comments, portraying it as an attack on Islam. The Australian media, ever eager for controversy, will have reporting with headlines like "Muslims demonstrate their support for Al Hilali". The Daily Telegraph in particular I expect to be particularly bombastic - let's see...."Muslims line up to support evil cleric" would be about the tenor I think. The Muslims who didn't rally who see these headlines will be angered by the headlines and believe that maybe Al-Hilali's supporters have a point and it really is about attacking Islam, with actual truth like the thousands of Muslims existing who don't support Al Hilali being overlooked in the anti-Islam hate campaign.

The real reasons for the "the muslims support Al-Hilali" rhetoric from media would be I expect because the radicals would be publicly repeating it to try and make as many people as possible believe it. The over-reaching statement of full Muslim support would become a self-fulfilling prophecy as moderates find that simply remaining silent is not enough to make the "muslims suppport Al-Hilali" headlines go away.

Note the different places where the quotation marks full in the last paragraph. It's a small but absolutely vital distinction, and one I expect many of Hilali's radical supporters to be trying to gloss over at every opportunity.

It's nice and convenient to divvy up a population into "nice moderates" and "nasty radicals" but the division isn't so clear-cut. Radicals can de-radicalise, moderates can be radicalised, and it's not like there's a clean and obvious distinction between moderation and radicalism. The main problem as I see it with the Islamic community is that the heavy-duty radicals are trying to radicalise as much of the Muslim population as they can, the more moderately-inclined Muslims are unaware of this, or else are grievously underestimating the extent to which it is occurring, and this unawareness is making it easier for the radicals to radicalise Muslims by misportraying any reaction to radicalism as unfounded in reality (since the moderately-inclined don't view the radical minority as the problem that the non-Muslim community does) and re-orienting in the not-so-moderately inclined Muslims the idea that the reaction to radicalism is a reaction to the very existence of the religion of Islam.

One thing I am thankful for so far is that no mainstream organisation has (yet) come out and said that Islam is inherently evil. I think that would be, um, very bad: just what the hard-core radical Islamic minority would want in order better to radicalise more of the Australian Islamic community.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Niqab in the UK

Two constrasting articles on the Muslim teacher in the UK who wanted to wear a Niqab while teaching.

A straight-up news article from the Times of India: Veil row: Muslim woman's niqab tests UK

Then there's this editorial from the Khaleej Times: What about their right to choose?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

From Iraq

There is talk that the hospitals are the same. Some Sunni patients have been yanked from their beds, dragged screaming through the corridors and executed in front of doctors, nurses, patients, families. It's even been written about in a few newspapers. But only a few people know for sure — and they are not saying if it's true or not, or how often it's happened. It's virtually impossible for journalists to find out. As one U.S. military officer put it, "Iraq’s entire health care system has been hijacked by the Mehdi Army militia, (belonging to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr), the Health Minister won’t even talk to us."

- Too Late For Baghdad?, CBS News

I was a reluctant supporter of the Iraq war.

There are no words.
Text of Bush's Comments on N. Korea Nuclear Test

Hopeful signs: he is emphasising multilateralism. Negotiations and the UN Security council are the first port of call:
Once again North Korea has defied the will of the international community, and the international community will respond.

This was confirmed this morning in conversations I had with leaders of China and South Korea, Russia and Japan. We reaffirmed our commitment to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. And all of us agreed that the proclaimed actions taken by North Korea are unacceptable and deserve an immediate response by the United Nations Security Council.

Worrying signs: neoconservative ideas that showed up in Iraq rhetoric also showed up when talkingabout North Korea. There's the "WMDs could be given to terrorists" meme:
The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or nonstate entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable the consequences of such action.

*sigh* Why does everything have to be about the US? Other countries are more directly in the line of fire right now. Shouldn't their interests be primary?

Disconcertingly, there was also the "ZOMG OPPRESSION" meme:
Today's claim by North Korea serves only to raise tensions, while depriving the North Korean people of the increased prosperity and better relations with the world offered by the implementation of the joint statement of the six-party talks.

The oppressed and impoverished people of North Korea deserve that brighter future.

I'm sure they do, but, uh, how? At least he's saying that it's diplomacy rather than regime change that would bring this increased prosperity and better relations about. Maybe I'm just jaded, but it was weird seeing the plight of the North Korean people brought up by El Presidente for what I think is the first time ever.

I get the impression that there was some give-and-take between neoconservatives and, um, not-neoconservative policymakers(what are they called?) in the drafting of that speech: emphasise the WMD-terrorist angle and the suffering of people under an Evil Dictator[tm], but also state a commitment to multilateral engagement and a willingness to use diplomacy rather than military action as a first resort.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Anti-gay sentiment

The specifics of current anti-queer rhetorical points include:

Homosexual=predator: This one goes waaaay back. There's a 1950's US government propaganda education film about it called Boys Beware warning kids that "you never know when the homosexual is about". It even survives today as seen in this op-ed on Mark Foley:
Where does post-modern American ethics place Mark Foley's homosexuality on a scale of 1 to 10--a 1 being just another gay guy and a 10 being a compulsive, predatory sex offender?
. That quote does make perfect sense to some people: since being homosexual is exactly equivalent to being a sexual predator, then accepting homosexuality is exactly equivalent to accepting sexual predation.

There's also the tendency for the Republican party flacks to claim that they took no action against Foley before the media hit shit the fan on the grounds that it would have come across as gay-bashing. Leaving aside the question why these ferocious culture warriors who've spent plenty of government time and money hating on "militant homosexual activists" suddenly had to run like timid gazelles from the Homosexual Agenda[tm] in this particular instance, it also shows the continuing tendency to conflate sexual predation with homosexuality: "Those damn homos wouldn't have liked us stopping a sexual predator, see? Because his sexual predation is what makes him one of them".

Attacks on transgender people: with homosexuality gaining increasing tolerance and acceptance in society, many of the old myths about homosexuality are losing ground in the face of visible reality (the Far Right's misrepresentation of Foley's actions as typical homosexual behaviour notwithstanding). The attacks on the "freakshow" aspect of GLBT people's lives now seems increasingly focused on the T: transgender. This includes the Daily Telegraph's attack articles on the childcare "scandal" which described transgender people as people who have the atttiude of gender as being something that they can "change as easily as a person change's socks". The op-ed above insinuates that accepting transgenderism as valid means being required to accept something as uncertain that is supposed to always be certain: "There is much in American life that doesn't seem "obvious" anymore. Call it the transgendering of reality." The message is that those transgender weirdos are trying to deny the "obvious" reality of "basic biology" when they claim not to be their "true" gender ie the one they were born as. It helps some gay and lesbian people may be less than comfortable with transgenderism as well. I know I have a certain amount of transphobia within myself. In my defense, it wasn't that long ago that I was homophobic as well. I'm working on it.

Then there's the more subtle conflation of transgenderism and homosexuality, to try and treat the two as exactly equivalent so that myths about transgender people can get tarred on to GLB people as well. The Traditional Values Coalition in the US recently released an anti-homosexual, anti-transgender polemic called Will Cross-Dressing Activists Come To Your School? which says this:
TVC has long warned that one of the next phases of the homosexual movement is to normalize cross-dressing and sex change operations. The ultimate goal is to blur all distinctions between male and female-and to destroy marriage as a God-ordained institution.


Transgenderism is all a homosexual plot, see?

Thankfully gay rights organisations haven't tried to distance themselves from transgender issues in the face of this shared smearing to my knowledge.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Howard on Islam

"There is a section, a small section, of the Islamic population . . . which is very resistant to integration.

"Fully integrating means accepting Australian values, it means learning as rapidly as you can the English language, if you don't already speak it.

"People who come from societies where women are treated in an inferior fashion have got to learn very quickly that that is not the case in Australia." - John Howard.

Okay, first, I don't see this as any kind of cynical ploy or anything that might suggest Fearless Leader isn't stating what he believes to be 100% truth. I think Howard believes that society should be monocultural, that it should remain basically the same as it has been for generations, and that people who arrive should assimilate into it with zero regard for any benefits to Australia that their original culture may bring to us. Strength through conformity and tradition are more important than strength through individuality and adaptation in this worldview. I disagree with it, but I don't doubt the sincerity of those who might agree with it, such as the Prime Minister.

Second, remember when we were supposed to be worried about being swamped by Asians? How quickly people forget. Which brings me to one reason why I think Muslims are getting singled out now in the same way that Asians were singled out last decade: because they are unfamiliar, and their unfamiliarity is most visible right now. It's stupid, but the good news if Hansonism is anything to go by is that such stupidity only lasts for a few years at a time. The bad news is that the reason that one group stops being viewed as an unfamiliar danger may be simply because a new group's alleged unfamiliar danger has taken its place.

Third, an anecdote: my sister mentioned a friend of hers who emigrated from Lebanon. She is a Muslim and didn't wear a headscarf when she first arrived here. She had children and grandchildren while here. Those children pressured her into wearing the headscarf on the grounds that they didn't view her as a true Muslim unless she did so.

People who view Islamic extremism as an immigration problem might want to ponder that. Me, I view Islamic extremism as an attempt to resolve an identity crisis in the children of immigrants who find themselves caught betweeen the security of conformity offered by mainstream Islam and
the enabling freedom of first-world living. The above example is hardly evidence of anything violent, but I do think it's telling that the more rigid structures of Islam were accepted - and enforced - by the children of an immigrant more than they were by the immigrant herself.

Islam and The Left

The Left and the Jihad

I confess to finding the Left's wholehearted embrace of Islam incomprehensible. Certainly there is considerable undeserved animosity towards Moslems whose only "crime" is to claim adherence to the religion of Islam, but that seems to get translated somehow into a worldview in which no adherent of Islam can do anything wrong so long as what they're doing is done in the name of Islam (or perhaps more accurately, done in the name of opposing the West).

The above link documents the history of Islamist groups' (where "Islamism" is a political ideology derived from the religion of Islam) opposition to the political ideology of the Left in the 20th century. I appreciate the concerns of religious bigotry that can easily run rampant when dealing with what to many is an unfamiliar religious philosophy, but I draw the line at accepting that jihadism is the name of nothing more than a just and acceptable response to Western imperialism. Rather, I see it as a fundamentalist strain of Islam that's at least as potent and dangerous as that practised by their Christian fundamentalist counterparts, to which anyone concerned with freedom and equality - as the modern Left allegedly is - would be implacably opposed.

I assume I can criticise Christian fundamentalism without people viewing me as attacking Christianity as a whole. Can I criticise Islamic fundamentalism without it getting viewed as an attack on Islam as a whole?

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Evolving trends of war in the 21st century. The author describes how the receding necessity of war in Western nations places severe limits on the ease with which the West can practise it. He advises several strategies that Western nations would do best to avoid, all of which the Bush Administration have implemented, or is in the process of implementing.

Comment from Bruce Sterling: "I really worry that every word of this post is true."

Friday, September 01, 2006

Conspiracy theories as an attempt to make sense of a senseless world

Why conspiracy theories?

Humanity is driven by narrative. We tell stories about the world around us. We like those stories to make sense. We like those stories to have understandable reasons for playing out the way they do.

First, a lot of the "stories" that occur in reality make no sense, and have no reasons for why they happen the way they do. People are killed for no reason, good people are punished and bad people rewarded, things happen that don't fit any kind of narrative structure

A conspiracy theory provides a narrative. It replaces the terrifying arationality of blind chance with a more reassuring story in which events are under somebody's control. Even if those "somebodies" are mysterious and hidden figures, that's a better option for many than the idea that things "just happen" sometimes, without any ability to understand or influence them.

Second, sometimes we're presented with events which do line up in an understandable narrative - but it's a narrative that contradicts some other narrative about the world we've accepted as true. How to resolve the contradiction? Discard one of the narratives as false. Either the new narrative shows that we've misunderstood how the world works (discard the old), or the new narrative is viewed as not true (discard the new).

But if you "discard the new", a person still wants a narrative to make sense of the events which the discarded narrative described. One way to do this is to construct yet another narrative - but one in which the events are portrayed as lining up with the old worldview rather than contradicting it. So a bomb in Bali becomes a narrative in which the US is an evil mastermind rather than a narrative in which there are people in the world who slaughter the innocent in Allah's name. On some sites on the web, an ignomiously captured and defeated Saddam Hussein was fit into a narrative in which he was a tool of the US all along as a way of avoiding acceptance of a narrative in which his opposition to the US was a whole lot of empty posturing, with zero ability to back it up in action.

Third, sometimes a narrative has an appeal of elegance to it that makes it seem like it MUST be true. The allegation that the US government knew of the 1942 Pearl Harbour bombing in advance fits this mould: it seems so pat that the event which brought the US into World War 2 may have been allowed to go ahead in order to bring about that exact end-goal. But accepting that as true requires ignoring the role that blind chance plays in life. As said above, sometimes things "just happen" - even things like a punishing military strike which actually had the ultimate effect of aiding the Allies by bringing the US into the war.

Updated blog

Just spent an entertaining half hour switching over to Blogspot's "new system" and applying labels (what every other blogging system I've seen calls "tags") to my old posts. I don't know, it feels like there's something lacking in my old writings - it's over-written, and at the same time doesn't say everything I think I wanted to say.

Oh well, practice makes perfect I guess.

Bashir on the Bali Bombings

Bashir claims CIA bomb was used in Bali. I think I need to watch Foreign Correspondent before I comment too much, but in 2002 Bashir claimed that the bomb which caused the destruction in the Bali Bombings was the conventional bomb that Indonesian authorities said it was,but the United States was the one who actually constructed it because it was "too sophisticated" for Indonesians to make. That's Wikipedia's version of events but I can find no reference for the exact content of Bashir's October 12 2002 press conference in which he allegedly said this. A "micro-nuclear" device is part of a conspiracy theory dating back to almost immediately after the bombings.

Why embrace the "micro-nuclear" conspiracy? Especially if you've already previously articulated a conspiracy theory that contradicts it? Something to do with a perceived slight that the US has nukes and the Islamic world doesn't, perhaps? A way of saying that it must have been the US that did this act and not "good Muslims", because no "good Muslims" have nukes?

Alexander Downer called the claim "preposterous", telling ABC Radio "I don't think anyone would much believe anything he was saying". I would have to disagree, and it disturbs me that our Foreign Minister underestimates the potential appeal of a story which makes the US looks bad, makes Muslims look like undeserving victims and which may tap into latent fears of the US nuclear arsenal. To dismiss such remarks so cavalierly tells me that the Australian government really doesn't get the idea that America's so-called "War on Terror" is a clash of ideologies more than anything else. In such a conflict, failing to actively engage with and expose the flaws in the ideology of the opponent, as Downer has failed to do, will mean losing. We appear to be blindly following the US' idiotic path of believing that jihadists "hate us for our freedom", that "there's no reasoning with terrorists", and expecting that punitive action alone can win the day.

On a semi-related note, I can't help noticing that what passes for commercial papers' "journalism" on this topic is actually nothing more than expounding upon excerpts lifted from ABC news programming. Go the ABC, and boo to the so-called "news" outlets that can't even do their own investigative reporting without the ABC to spoonfeed them quotes on an issue du jour.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The trouble with the "Islamo-fascism" label

Wrong War, Wrong Word: a writer takes issue with the use of "Islamo-Fascism" to describe a disparate collection of Islamic movements that have little to do with "Fascism" beyond some totalitarian aspects common to all. I'm inclined to agree for the most part.

I disagree that the disparate Islamic groups have nothing in common, and I've used a term that I originally picked up from a writer named Coral Bell to describe what I perceive them as having in common: jihadists.

Unlike a concept of "Islamo-fascism", a concept of jihadism immediately places context in a Middle East setting rather than in an inaccurate context reminiscent of Europe in the late 1930s. The use of "jihad" has similar connotations to the "Islamo-" in "Islamo-fascism" of treating the extremism of these groups as a product of Islam itself, which is something that the Wrong Word article thinks is in appropriate, but I think implying that such extremism is derived from Islam is appropriate because I think it's true.

Let me explain that: it is true that obeying "the tenets of Islam" has brought a great deal of peace and civilisation. It is also true that obeying "the tenets of Islam" has bought death and destruction. "The tenets of Islam" are not set in stone, and are subject to interpretation. While both the opponents of Islam - those who think Islam itself is intrinsically evil - and Muslims themselves may claim that there is a single standard to which all Muslims adhere, this simply isn't true in reality. If it were true, there would be no differing sects of Islam.

So while Muslims of a peaceful bent can claim that "true Islam" doesn't condone death and destruction, other Muslims can take the tack of focusing on the more extreme Quranic verses and Hadiths demanding death to the infidels (which they interpret as "all who disbelieve") and claim that Islam not only condones violent extremism, but demands it. Both are Muslims, even though their beliefs are mutually incompatible, and I think it appropriate to describe the extremist sects of Islam as "jihadist" since they are Islamic, and the concept of militant "jihad" is the common thread linking their extremist opposiion to things they consider un-Islamic (which in some cases can include other Muslims, but that's a subject for another time).

"Jihadism" I think also moves things away from the Bush Administration's dangerous approach of viewing military action against "Islamo-Fascism" as the only appropriate response ( as it was when confronted with Fascism), and into a sphere where the conflict is viewed as an ideological one rather than a purely military one. This allows for a more measured response more in line with the earlier days of the Cold War rather than foolishly thinking - as the neoconservatives do - that the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the 1980s was triggered by solely Reagan's militant stance rather than being primed by the decades of ideological undermining of the Soviet system which the West had very patiently performed.

The groups that I would call "jihadist" are the following: President Ahmedinejad and his supporters in Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad (sheesh, look at the very name, people!), the Wahabbist/Salafist sect of Islam. Obviously there are important differences between the groups, but they all share a viewpoint in which "Islam" is under attack, and it must be defended by any means necessary. I presume the exact nature of how "must be defended" translates into action would illustrate the differences between the various jihadist groups more clearly.

Briefly...

Somewhat related to last post: has it always been the case that politicians and political talking heads focus more on attacking opposing viewpoints rather than supporting their own viewpoints, is it a recent occurrence, or am I misperceiving matters entirely and my view of politics as being basically an interminable and pointless fight between Left and Right over who's worse is a completely inaccurate view?

Monday, August 28, 2006

Ethics, sort of

A review by David Byrne. The documentary "Jesus Camp" portrays what is essentialy a Christian version of a madras - one which teaches "that evolution is being forced upon us by evil Godless secular humanists, that abortion must be stopped at all costs, that we must form an “army” to defeat the Godless influences, that we must band together to insure that the right judges and politicians get into the courts and office and that global warming is a lie". That last one puzzles Mr Byrne. It doesn't puzzle me: they oppose the existence of global warming because their ideological enemies - the "godless Left" - support it. That's all the reason they need.

Anti-Iran protest misdirects LGBT struggle. This article has bounced around the hard left side of the web a bit since the anti-Iran protests on the one year anniversary of the execution of Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni. It weaves a, to my mind, frankly ludicrous conspiracy of neoconservative imperialists trying to misrepresent Asgari and Marhoni's deaths in order to scapegoat an Iran that, while not gay friendly, isn't as hostile as we poor, media-besotted fools have been misled into believing, with the goal being to prime the public for another forcible "regime change" in Iran. Skipping over most of my questions about the accuracy of this alleged scenario - and there are many - I find it especially disconcerting that the article goes so far as to not only condemn "neoconservative imperialism", but praise Iran's handling of gay rights, implying that it is actually better than the US in some ways.

The relationship between the two links is this: they each describe an ideological position - "global warming is a lie" in the Jesus Camp adherents and "Iran is better than the US on gay rights" from the hard left - that is arrived at solely from taking the opposite position to that taken by their ideological opponents. There appears to be no independent thought involved: "godless leftists" say global warming is a serious environmental concern, therefore it must be a lie they cooked up to oppose Christianity somehow; "neoconservative imperialists" say Iran persecutes gay people, therefore they must actually be okay on the issue.

The formulation of "x=bad, therefore NOT x=good" is seductively simple, broadly accepted and completely illogical. It justifies torture in Abu Ghraib by the Right: the prisoners are Evil Terrorists[tm], therefore any action taken against such evil must be good, or at least justifiable. It justifies siding with illiberal regimes in the Middle East by the Left: the Evil US opposes them, so they must actually be good, or at least not really all that bad.

I believe that everyone tries to do right, but are led to do wrong by accepting faulty reasoning that makes wrong appear right to them. I believe one such avenue that leads people to do wrong is the acceptance of the faulty reasoning that anything or anyone that opposes a perceived wrong must automatically be right.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Hunh.

From Digg, describing the UN:
"It was created to stop another world war.

So far, we haven't had one of those."

Monday, August 21, 2006

Resolution 1701, progress so far

Sometimes it's nice to be wrong. Lebanes troops have entered South Lebanon, Israeli forces are letting UNIFIL take over their position. This ceasefire could conceivably work.

On the other hand...

UNIFIL is supposed to be beefed up to 15,000 troops, but the world community isn't exactly being generous. France in particular has been far less forthcoming than it initially promised, sending a mere 200 army engineers, and apparently wants to pass off as much responsibilty as possible to other EU nations (that's my interpretation of their request for a European Union meeting over the issue, anyway).

Meanwhile, a raid by Israeli special forces has Kofi Annan saying that he is 'deeply concerned about a violation by the Israeli side' of the ceasefire in southern Lebanon.

Sidenote: of all the articles I found in Google news, this one was the only one that put "violation" in inverted commas in their headline. Interesting the way media bias works.

Also missing from most of the news reports on Google is why Israel did what it did. Here is why:
Israel defended Saturday's operation, saying it was aimed at preventing the transfer of weapons from Iran and Syria to Hezbollah, an action barred by the resolution.

Israel won't accept "a cease-fire in which Hezbollah can use that cease-fire just as a timeout to regroup and rearm and prepare for the next round," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.

"Israel would not have to do these sort of operations if the international forces and the Lebanese forces were following through on their commitment ... preventing these arms shipments for Hezbollah."

In Washington, a White House spokeswoman said the Bush administration took "note" of Israel's statement.

"We note that the prevention of the resupply of weapons to Hezbollah by Iran and Syria is a key provision of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701," said Jeannie Mamo. "And the incident underscores the importance of quickly deploying the enhanced UNIFIL."

This is correct with regard to what Resolution 1701 says: there is to be "no sales or supply of arms and related materiel to Lebanon except as authorized by its Government". The trouble of course is that the word of the "Zionist aggressor" counts for very little in the region, so the claim of illegal arms transfers to Hezbollah will most likely be viewed by Israel's neighbours as nothing more than a pretext to try and continue hostilities.

Even accepting Israel at its word (and I do so until proven that I should not do so), that leaves the matter of enforcement. Who decides what to do in the case of a violation of a UN Resolution? The Israeli government believes that it has the right to enforce Resolution 1701 as it sees fit, apparently. The Secretary General has made it clear that he disagrees, and I tend to agree with his disagreement: legitimate power to decide upon appropriate enforcement of a UN Resolution resides with the UN Security Council.

Of course, "legitimate power" is not the same thing as "effective power", which explains why Israel did what it did: they don't trust the Security Council to be able to effectively enforce the Resolution which is supposed to make Israel safe from Hezbollah, so they executed an illegitimate, but effective, response of their own. From a realist perspective, perfectly sensible. From a liberal internationalist perspective, a horrible thing to do, especially when they claim that their illegitimate action was legitimised by a UN Resolution: it brings back memories of George W Bush insisting that he had to ignore the UN in order to enforce the will of the UN on Iraq as laid out in Resolution 1441.

What's it mean from a reality-based perspective? Well, I guess we'll see.

MIT OpencourseWare

MIT's OpenCourseWare looks interesting. I'm sifting through their section on political science. Their first lecture on justice conflates the idea of just treatment with the idea of treating a person with the dignity they deserve: giving them what is rightfully theirs and refraining from taking what is rightfully theirs. Workable, but moves the definition debate to what constitutes "rightfully theirs"....

The tension of individual liberty vs regulated equality as exemplified by economic inequality resulting from capitalism? I default to liberty, but there doesn't seem to be a logical underpinning to it: I've just assumed it to be true, based on my life experiences I guess. I have a vague sense that it isn't actually possible to create equality through regulatory means, but again, evidence and reasoning is lacking.

Must read more...

Thursday, August 17, 2006

A bit of thoughtstream on the recent UN ceasefire...

My description of the UN Security Council as having no judicial organ doesn't appear to be completely accurate. From time to time the Secretary General of the UN has expressed a statement one way or the other over interpretation of a UN resolution. Such skerricks as I've found suggest that this is a power that the Secretary General must exercise with great restraint lest they lose what hard-to-gain international legitimacy they have by coming down too strongly on one side or another.

The ceasefire is more or less holding at the time of writing. Given past criticisms of the UN, I should in fairness praise the efforts of that body in successfully getting the fighting to stop in a conflict where neither side wants the fighting to stop. But as the news outlets keep saying, it's a brittle truce.

Both sides are already working on ways to circumvent the Security Council's desires, and the concrete implementation of Resolution 1701 has some nightmarish difficulties associated with it. There's no clear guide for what happens when. Lebanese forces are in no hurry to enter Lebanon until Israel has pulled out. Israel has no intention of pulling out until UNIFIL takes control of the area. UNIFIL isn't going in until Lebanese forces are in place.

Meanwhile, the Hezbollah members of the Lebanese government have stated flat out that Hezbollah is not going to disarm. Of course, as a non-state actor, Hezbollah is beyond the mandate of the UN, and it's up to the Lebanese government to deal with internal security matters. Unfortunately, in a military conflict between the Lebanese government and Hezbollah, the government would almost certainly lose.

Israel is a state entity, and is expected to follow UN resolutions, so their circumvention has to be a little more crafty than flat-out disregarding it: as Resolution 1701 calls for “the immediate cessation by Israel of all offensive military operations", Israel has taken it upon itself to continue any defensive operations. It has also taken it upon itself to define what constitutes "defensive" - the continuing naval, air and land blockade of Lebanon, for example.

I very much fear that the current ceasefire is the sort of ceasefire which only gives the antagonists time to rearm.
From time to time I browse through a copy of the Daily Telegraph (aka the Daily Terror) at a newsagent. Usually I just want to have a look at the Letters to the Editor section. The news section is usually...well, not news as near as I can tell, but the reader's opinions are something I feel the need to track from time to time.

A few days ago I read a letter from one person reacting to the news that Family First Senator Steve Fielding had pledged to vote against Howard's new immigration bill. The writer made the claim that Australia's need to be tough on immigration had been demonstrated by the recent arrests in the UK.

This is a strange claim to make considering how many of the people arrested on terrorism charges in the UK weren't Muslim immigrants.

Go through the list of suspects and two things stand out. First is that many of the suspects converted to Islam while in Britain. Of those that didn't, many are described as having recently become "very religious". Second is the frequency with which people familiar with the suspects are shocked at the thought of the suspect ever doing anything violent, sometimes stating flat out "he would never do anything like that".

Oh yes, third thing: they're all male.

On the second point: what were people expecting? It's like how victims of con artists always say "but he seemed so trustworthy!". That's exactly the point: a con artist who seems like a con artist isn't going to be a very successful con artist. Likewise, a terrorist planner who immediately raises suspicions isn't going to get very far in his terrorist planning career. Far better to have someone who raises no suspicions, and in fact actively tries to be as non-violent as possible until the time comes to strike.

On the first point: it clicks together several things that have been disparate in my head. The first is Fukuyama's assertion that anti-Western jihadists are born not from a lack of democracy in the Middle East, but in the West when the children and grandchildren of adult immigrants turn to radicalism after failing to integrate within Western society. The second is the strong statements made by Muslims around the world that Islam doesn't condone terrorism. The third is my perception of the workings of religions in the West, such as the Church of Scientology and the Unification Church, that have had the label of "cult" applied to them.

Put simply, what I see in the history of the alleged perpetrators is cult recruitment. They have embraced a new identity in place of an uncomfortable and insufficient old identity. The rules of the group which defines this new identity requires that they isolate themselves from anything that might threaten the definition and strengthening of that new identity, hence the turn towards insularity prevalent among the suspect list.

Other characteristics of cults include a radical opposition to the world around them (hello anti-Western rhetoric) and a reaction to any attack from the outside world as an attack not on the actions carried out by the group, but an attack on the group's belief (hence the description of Bush's war on terror as a "war on Islam" by radical Islamic groups). The effect is to (a) stop any internal criticism of the cult, and (b) encourage non-cult members to support the group against "unjustified attack" - mainstream Muslims who might sincerely believe their claims of an attack on Islam, for instance.

Mainstream Islam has little if anything to do with cultic version of Islam. I would be curious to know if this cult has more success recruiting from devout mainstream Muslims, or from non-Muslims and lapsed Muslims. I strongly suspect the latter.

What if the entire approach to the war on terrorism has been wrong? What if, instead of being surprised and disbelieving at the thought of non-violent recent "Muslim" converts being agents of terrorism, we should instead regard it as the usual state of affairs?

What if "Islamic terrorists" were not primarily a product of existing Islam, but were recruited from a pool of people experiencing spiritual anxiety caused by the clash of their traditional way of life and modernity, just as "cults" appeared and started recruiting Westerners in the 1960s in response to the social upheavals taking place in our culture? What if this Islamic cult willing let mainstream Islam embrace it, tried to persuade mainstram Muslims that attacks on the cult were an attack on the entirety of Islam, but actually viewed the mores of mainstream Islam, such as not killing civilians, as un-Islamic- and in fact declared takfir on mainstream Muslims (approximate meaning: pronouncing that someone who claims to be Muslim is in reality an unbeliever)?

Here's a test: go through all the terrorist attacks that have occurred worldwide from 9/11 onwards, and profile the perpetrators. Will they predominantly be from the Middle East, and longstanding adherents of a longstanding radical Islamic sect? Or will they be recent converts, and either born in the country that was attacked or else immigrated there while they were only a child? I suspect the results will not be what most people expect.

I'm anti-conspiracy-theory

A person at work with no strong political interests asked me a few days ago if I thought that the recent arrests in the UK over an alleged terrorist plot was some kind of put up job by the US government.

It surprised me to see that what might once have been the domain solely of hardcore conspiracy buffs appears to have gained traction in mainstream society, but I suppose it's not that unexpected. The US government has been using the spectre of terrorism to justify a number of unpalatable actions that it's performed in recent years, and it's not that much of a leap to consider that a government that's shown a willingness to compromise its own morality - at Abu Ghraib for example - might be willing to scare its citizens into compliance with government goals.

In spite of severe disagreements with much of the Bush Administration's policies, I don't think this is a frame-up. Yes, it's a possibility, and a plausible one if you believe that the US governmnent's entire concern with "international terrorism" is nothing more than a covenient excuse to increase its global power, but I don't believe that the US governments action in recent years are insincere; they're only terribly, terribly misguided.

Just to make thing interesting, this story from MSNBC alleges that America pressured British authorities to make the arrest a week earlier than the British wanted. The number of people who see that, see the coincidental timing with the current situation in Lebanon, and go "ahah!" is, I suspect, very large.

Here is an alternative hypothesis, based on the maxim "never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by incompetence": the existence of international terrorism is genuine, and this plot was genuine. The British authorities did get tipped off by a Muslim as to the existence of a group in the UK planning terrorist actions, which surveillance showed to have a well-formed, concrete plan to carry out. As the MSNBC article said, the UK was patiently acquiring evidence in order to mount a successful prosecution against the alleged perpetrators.

The US learned of all of this courtesy of their longstanding intelligence-sharing agreement with the UK. Unlike the UK, US authorities panicked. As the article says, "American security officials have become edgier than the British in such cases because of missed opportunities leading up to 9/11". Perhaps they were terrified that the proposed "dry run" that was allegedly going to take place would turn out to be an actual run. And so, they asked, or rather, demanded, that the arrests occur before any of the alleged perpetrators ever so much as set foot on a plane. Of course, no-one can turn down a US demand in today's world even if they wanted to.

It's plausible if you accept that the US government's approach is not motivated by imperialism. That may be one reason many people would dismiss it out of hand of course. But I don't believe that the US is motivated by imperialist philosophy. Rather, I believe that the US is currently motivated by unreasoning fear.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

My position on the Iraq war: um.

My views have changed over time. It's very likely that they're going to keep changing. I've gone from undecided, to dubiously supporting, to regretfully opposing, to hopeful, to despairing. The simple fact is that there's too much at issue for me to come down with a simple yes or no answer to the question of whether the Iraq invasion was, is, or will be, a good thing or not.

I started out not knowing. I didn't believe even then that this was a simple question of "US good, Saddam bad". I listened to the talking points of the day, but it took a while to reach a decision.

The first talking point I rejected was the claim that this invasion was all about securing access to oil. I found it hard to understand why people were getting up in arms about a mere natural resource when something much more important and much more valuable to its possessors was up for grabs: power. The neoconservatives in the US had plans to solidify US dominance over the world so as to shape into a form they found more acceptable - all for our own good of course.

The second claim I had a hard time swallowing was that this was about ridding the world of a dictator. At this time, there was no indication whatsoever as to what form, if any, the post-Saddam Iraq was going to take. In fact, it was fairly clear at the time that the US was focusing on the WMD argument, with the removal of Saddam described as nothing more than "a nice bonus" - and quite possibly an optional one at that. On a TV debate here in Australia, a Kurd asked the assembled panel what would happen if Saddam did in fact comply fully with Resolution 1441, allowing UN inspectors unfettered access to all of Iraq and accounting for all of the unaccounted-for WMDs allegedly still in his possession - would that mean that the US would leave Saddam in power, free to oppress the Kurdish population in Iraq? He never got an answer to his question.

The arguments about terrorism and national security I regarded as the weakest arguments for an Iraq invasion. The alleged links between Al-Qaida and Saddam were tenuous, the spectre of a terrorist attack using WMDs sounded like scare-mongering (particularly since the most abundant source of nuclear, chemical and biological arms remains the former Soviet bloc), and the level of threat to "world security" seemed a question for "the world", not the US, to answer. And yet, this was the centrepiece of the pro-war argument: Saddam has WMDs, he's disobeying the UN, and we have to stop him even if it means disobeying the UN.

But I did consider the possibility that overthrowing a dictator could be a good thing. It was a risk though. Could I trust the US to actually replace Saddam with a government that was democratic rather than simply install yet another dictator, except this time one who serves their interests? Even if I believed that was the goal of the US, could I trust them to succeed at that goal?

Such was the state of affairs when I attended my one and only anti-war rally. That rally was held internationally. It was huge - much, much bigger than even the organisers expected. Did it make any difference? I think it did: the day after that rally, as I was scouring for articles about the rally, I saw that the US government had officially announced that they would work towards building a democratic government in Iraq. I sincerely believe that this commitment to building a democracy in Iraq would not have come about if that international anti-war rally hadn't attracted such a large turn-out. As I recall, rallies after that announcement - which I didn't attend - were much, much smaller. I no longer attended, as my main objection to regime change had been dealt with.

So did I switch to a pro-war position once it became clear that the US wasn't going to replace a sadistic, ruthless, anti-American dictator with a sadistic, ruthless, pro-American dictator? I did for a time. But after the invasion, as the rebuilding effort dragged on, I wondered just how much of a commitment the US government had really made. I wondered if the American people really understood just how much time and effort it would take to rebuild a nation (one study I've read suggested that it'd be a minimum of 5 years before things even looked like approaching stability). I wondered if, instead of celebrating the short-term overthrow of a dictator, I should be worrying about what's going to happen to Iraq, and perhaps even the world, in the long run thanks to a poorly-planned, poorly-executed invasion of Iraq which has alienated the US from its longtime allies.

And yet, I can't support a withdrawal from Iraq. The mess must be cleaned up. Invading Iraq and then failing to clean up afterwards would be the worst of both worlds. I have no choice but to hope that the neocons succeed in their efforts to bring "freedom and democracy" to Iraq, even though I view their philosophy as an overall threat to world peace.
Full text of UN Security Council Resolution 1701

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

"Lebanon, and all of Lebanon, rejects any resolution that is outside" these demands, Berri said.
So sayeth the Parliamentary speaker of Lebanon, a Shiite Muslim. The full force of why "democracy promotion" in the Middle East was such a horrible idea is starting to hit me. And it doesn't make me feel better that it's a reflection of current trends in Western democracy.

It seems to me that a democracy can only function effectively when there is room for agreeing to disagree or "loyal opposition". An Opposition may oppose, a protestor may protest, but at some level there is a sense that though there are disagreements, there is sufficient common ground for them all to work within the framework of one democratic system. Lebanon doesn't yet have this, and consequently the ballot box becomes less about what's good for all and more about what's bad for those bastards that you were shooting at just 20 years ago.

Note what Berri said: all of Lebanon. I find it highly suspect that all Lebanese are opposed to the proposed UN resolution, but I can believe that he's trying to get Lebanese people to jump on the pro-Hizbolla bandwagon. But I find his motives suspect. Is he, as I strongly suspect, aiming to bring about a Shiite takeover of Lebanon at the ballot box?

In the 1980s there was civil war. In Condi Rice's "new Middle East", the democratic framework in Lebanon is ripe for takeover if Hizbollah can garner enough support from other factions within Lebanon to get voted into a full majority position of power. Once that happens then they can do what both the US government and the Australian government currently do, and claim to always represent the will of all of the country as if the people who don't vote for them simply don't exist. Or worse, they can do what the elected president of Zimbabwe has done, and start deliberately targeting their opposition for abuse. Of course, it isn't democracy that best guards against this government-sanctioned abuse of those who don't agree with the current government: it's liberalism.

Also shaping my opinions about this are this article, and comments left on it. It may seem strange that an article specifically claiming that Hizbollah is not motivated purely by Shiite ideology of restoring the Caliphate throughout the Middle East prompts me to think the opposite, but the comments jumping up and down to celebrate Hizbollah's pan-Arab appeal left me with the feeling that this was exactly the goal: Hizbollah's is actively pushing the impression that they fight for all of Islam, and all of the Arabic world, against the evil US/Western/Zionist pigs. Hizbollah I suspect wants wide-ranging appeal, but only for the purpose of seizing complete control of Lebanon through the democratic process, at which point they will seek to transform it into an Islamic Republic. The comment that solidified this belief in my mind was in response to a Lebanese who claimed to oppose Hizbollah, noting their goal of spreading Shia revolution:
Lebanese,

You are a Maronite. Are you not?

You guys belong with the French and the Crusaders. Please wake up and come back to your roots. You love the zionists and hate the Muslims of any colour.
Or, to put it another way: "you're either with us or with the enemy". Sound familiar?

So Lebanon is going to go down the crapper because of a Neoconservative promotion of democracy that gives no regard to the liberal safeguards on democracy needed to prevent the creation of a tyranny of the majority: a tyranny that Hizbollah is now I believe actively trying to create for the purpose of bringing about a Shia revolution.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Breaking with gay rights groups on libertarian grounds

Hate speech and hate crimes....

I think I'm in danger of falling into the trap of the first-year uni student: I've read a few books and got some ideas from them, but a few books don't give me a full grounding in all the relevant facts and theories that may be out there, so my perspective is limited in ways of which I'm not even aware yet. But I do know a little stuff, and try to apply it. As long as I remember that my understanding is imperfect, I should be okay I think.

For hate speech, my thinking is currently beholden to John Stuart Mill's ideas on freedom of speech, that even the most inaccurate and hurtful speech must not be censored because (a) if the speech isn't publically shared, then it can't be publicly shown to be wrong (assuming even that it is in fact wrong, and not merely unpopular or challenging deeply entrenched ideas), and (b) because censorship only drives an idea underground where it can potentially do more damage. This puts me at odds with almost every gay rights organisation out there I think. So am I wrong? Is my understanding incomplete somehow?

To go from theory to practice, here's a recent example of what might reasonably come under the umbrella of hate speech, as said recently by a man named Guy Adams on an Internet Radio station called The Right View, as reported by Truth Wins out:
"The newest thing in Chicago, it's becoming a trend, and you're gonna find this hard to believe… sex with infants,” Adams said, without offering evidence to back his preposterous and offensive claim. “It's not enough that they have… you know when you engage in perversion, and homosexuality is perversion, we don't hate the gays mind you, we don't hate them, we hate what they're doing… pretty soon that perversion is like addiction, it's not enough, so you need to graduate to something else. You need to move on. So now they're having sex with animals, a small group that's getting bigger, sex with infants, sex in the street in Chicago out in the open, it's just getting more and more perverted."


I think Mill has it exactly right here: people shouldn't be deprived of hearing this. In fact, I would specifically encourage the propagation of this message to as many people as possible. They should know exactly who Guy Adams is, who he works for, and just how round the bend on gay issues he really is: he's the Deputy National Grassroots Director for an organisation called Renew America, run by far-Right former US Senate candidate and Presidential candidate Alan Keyes, who is best known in gay circles for kicking his queer-identifying and anarchist-leaning daughter Maya out of home. Truth Wins Out is demanding that Adams get sacked, with no response so far. A blog from a man named Joe Brummer is tracking Adams' comments, and has posted some e-mails that Adams sent.

The host of the Right View has a blog, and interestingly enough is engaging in self-censorship: the current blog has no record of what happened on it shortly after the Adams interview was, er, podcasted, stating only "Unbelievable....I'm not even going to comment on what has happened with my blog, but I'm back" and promising a podcast "talking about the 'controversy' that has taken place on this blog this week." I love me some well-placed inverted commas.

Fortunately, as of writing, the original article is still available via Google's cache, including access to the comments on that article. Note that both the comments and the trackbacks feature have both now been disabled in The Right View's blog.

So I stand by Mills on this, based on the fact that The Right View is attempting to censor the vocal objections that have been raised in response to Adams' rantings: freedom of speech includes freedom to be exposed as a nutbag. The fact that the host of The Right View is trying to initiate a cover-up tells me that free speech in abundance is the way to go on this.

As for hate crimes....more complex. I hope to get to it eventually.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Flock

Flock, a new web-browser based on the Gecko HTML-rendering engine driving Mozilla, Netscape, Firefox, Epiphany(I think)...

Why yet another one? From the looks of it they've got a Web 2.0 love affair going on, and want to make a browser that leverages the "network as platform" aspect of that buzzword. As it appears to be related to Yahoo somehow, it's unsurprising that they've tightly integrated the browser with Yahoo's Flickr online image-sharing service. More convenient access to blogging and fine-tuned searching also appear to be in there.

As they say in their Flock 0.7 beta announcement, not everybody needs this: "If you are a power user (hint: if you use del.icio.us[check] or a news reader[check] or if you visit Digg[check], that probably means you) and if you have decorated your browser with, oh, say, 20 extensions or more[I'm sitting pretty at 13, not counting Greasemonkey scripts], Flock may not be for you."

Apparently the people who it is for are the people who could benefit from convenient access to online services like Flickr et al but aren't quite tech-savvy enough to easily utilise them without help - help which Flock aims to provide. The project looks interesting, if underdeveloped. Worth keeping an eye on I reckon.

Down with buzzwords

Bleeurgh, but I guess it had to happen eventually: some yutz is trying to coin the term Web 3.0 to push their pet futurist vision. Basically it's just a re-hash of the concept of a Semantic Web which was buzzing around a few years back and which Clay Shirky poo-poohed. He criticised the model as being unrepresentative of reality, and criticised people pushing the Semantic Web as being stupefyingly negligent of this. His description of how nearly every framing of an example problem that the Semantic Web was supposed to solve actually obscured the problems with it rather than demonstrated its value: "First, take some well-known problem. Next, misconstrue it so that the hard part is made to seem trivial and the trivial part hard. Finally, congratulate yourself for solving the trivial part."

It holds true for the article on "Web 3.0": "Once machines can understand and use information, using a standard ontology language, the world will never be the same." Yes, the Semantic Web could work wonderfully once a standard ontology language exists, but that's the trivial part. Actually creating that standard is the hard part. And the article treats it as trivial: "However, if we were at some point to take the Wikipedia community and give them the right tools and standards to work with (whether existing or to be developed in the future), which would make it possible for reasonably skilled individuals to help reduce human knowledge to domain-specific ontologies, then that time can be shortened to just a few years, and possibly to as little as two years." Sure. And if an infinite number of monkeys could be provided with an infinite number of typewriters then we'd see every work of writing that could ever be written get written. This is pie-in-the-sky stuff, and simply throwing thousands of wikipedia volunteers at it isn't going to magically create "tools and standards" that have only a theoretical existence at best.

Standard ontology for everything from wikipedia volunteers? I've seen wikipedia volunteers arguing over whether they its's best to use the word "kidnapped", "abducted", or "captured" to describe what Hizbollah did to two Israeli soldiers recently, with no clear concensus reached, and objections raised that at least one of the three was misleading. What standard?

Friday, August 04, 2006

Issues with the Howard Government

Supporters of the Howard government base their support on the claim that it has a good economics track record. My current theory is that this claim is (a) 100% accurate, and (b) completely missing the point.

Economic indicators are good. Inflation is low, unemployment is low, the budget is in surplus. Part of this is due to reforms made by Labor in the 1980s which the Howard government inherited, but it seems incredibly foolish to suggest that the current government played no part in creating the current stable economic situation.

So the Howard government is strong on economic management, and this is a good thing to have in a government. The reason that this doesn't win me any sympathy for the Howard government is because I don't believe economics is everything. Their agenda on other issues leaves me very cold.

Worse, it appears to me that the Howard government actively tries to promote economics as the most important aspect of government: more important than national security, more important than welfare, more important than anything. They not only promote their strength on economic issues, but promote that this strength should be the prime concen of voters. Whether or not this is actually true, the principle effect that I see is the subtle de-emphasis of issues on which I disagree with the current government which are not based on economics: gay rights, for instance.

By emphasising economics and de-emphasising everything else, the Howard government obscures its weakness on issues not related to economics. Seriously, what good has this government done in which the primary concern is not how it affects the hip pocket rather than, say, how it affects the environment?

What I fear most from this overemphasis on economics is how it seeps into the population. Is it just me, or is the population of Australia becoming less friendly and more selfish than it used to be? I get the impression that it is, and I think this changed character of society reflects the changed character of the government: in both government and the population, giving help to others where it's needed has been sacrificed for the sake of maximising economic output. All that I want is enough money to live comfortably - I don't feel the need to be rich, especially if it means sacrificing my time from pursuits which are economically inferior but emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually fulfilling.

This economy uber alles agenda extends to religion as well: I suspect that there is a kind of spiritual hole left in a person by pursuit of the Almighty Dollar at the expense of having any sense of non-economic value to someone besides yourself. Enter Hillsong, and the perfect spiritual solution to this problem in the form of HIllsong's Prosperity Doctrine, which says that wealth is a sign of God's favour, so maximising profit grants you worth as a human being in the eyes of God.

I believe that the Howard government's encouragement of Australian society to overfocus on economics helped bring about Hillsong's influence and power.