Monday, July 31, 2006

1978 Secretary General report on Lebanon

I've been looking for this: Report of the Secretary-General on the implementation of Security Council resolution 425 (l978). It describes the procedure (and more importantly, the limitations) on the Uited Nations force that's been in Lebanon since 1978 (designated UNIFIL).

This line is some serious legalese: "(d) The Force will be provided with weapons of a defensive character. It shall not use force except in self-defence. Self-defence would include resistance to attempts by forceful means to prevent it from discharging its duties under the mandate of the Security Council. The Force will proceed on the assumption that the parties to the conflict will take all the necessary steps for compliance with the decisions of the Security Council."

I think I need to sleep before I can translate that into regular English.
A thought for early morning:
The way we we engage our senses most comfortably strongly influences in non-obvious ways the process of how we use and develop communications media.

Phones for instance, work fairly effectively because the way we hear can cope comfortably with that style of media communication. Videophones, with people's heads displayed to one another, do not work comfortably. They require that a person stay still with their eyes focused on a single point if they want their heads displayed, not a particularly comfortable position. Trying to see the other person on a videophone similarly limits a person's freedom of movement in a way that listening to a person on an audio phone doesn't. Until such time as it's as easy to move about while using a video phone as it is with a plain audio phone, then they won't catch on. I don't know how that'd work, though. Holographic technology of some kind?

Then there's television. The style of it seems dumbed-down and simple, and people bemoan this. But a single point of reference in which the visual perception gets engaged can be a tiring experience. More natural is a situation in which people's visual attention is diffuse. A dumbed-down, easily digested form of visual stimulus is the form of media most suited to a diffuse mode of seeing: people's attention can fade in and out and what few details they do miss can easily be filled in owing to the simplistic nature of the overall content.

I also suspect that there's a natural tendency for people to want to give feedback on sensory input. Where this isn't possible you get situations where the input becomes a background thing more usually than a foreground thing, like radio. This may also be why television tends to resort to sensationalism and vivid visual imagery to attract attention: it needs to compensate for the disinterest created by the lack of ability to give feedback on the sensory input provided.

Does this urge for engagement with sensory stimulation rather than passively receiving it exist? Is it a natural human urge? I honestly have no idea. I suspect that something like it exists, and understanding it would allow deployment of new, much more effective media devices the likes of which we have not yet seen.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

From this site:
A student at Brigham Young, Danielle Pulsipher, a junior, offered blanket approval of the president. Asked to name which of his actions as president she liked most, she was hard-pressed to answer.
"I'm not sure of anything he's done, but I like that he's religious — that's really important," Ms. Pulsipher said.

"I like George Bush because he is God fearing," said Delia Randall, 22, of Provo, Utah

Lisa Sexton, a Bible school volunteer, believes every word in the Bible, rejects evolution theory, and supports the Iraq war, the Republican Party and Bush -- in part because he is a born-again Christian.
"I trust his opinion because of his beliefs," she said.

Not what his actual decisions were, but the perception of what influences his decisions - that's why people vote for him.

On the United Nations

The United Nations isn't a world government. I really wish people would stop trying to treat it like one.

First there's the issue of UN resolutions. There's a tendency to describe them as impartial rulings of a democratic world body, and people who bring them up are sending the subtle rhetorical message that "the internationally recognised authority on these issues is on my side". Unfortunately the process of creating UN resolutions is hardly democratic: besides the tendency for authoritarian governments to act in the interests of their national government rather than the interests of their nation's people, the existence of veto power by the permanent members means that any decision is ultimately only made if the five Great Powers that won World War II approve of it.

Even if the actual creation of a UN resolution were democratic, one reason why UN resolutions can fail to be implemented brings an aspect of liberal democratic government into sharp focus by its notable absence from any aspect of enforcing a UN resolution: in liberal democracies, final authority to determine what is the correct interpretation of a legal document rests in the hands of an independent judiciary. In the US, this role is so important that the judiciary is described as an arm of government that is co-equal with the legislature and the executive. In the UN, final authority to determine what is the correct interpretation of a UN resolution does not exist.

And so you can get Lebanon and Israel having conflicting interpretations of UN Resolution 1559, with Israel claiming that Israeli withdrawal is complete but Lebanon is not living up to its obligation to disarm Hizbollah, and with Lebanon claiming that Israeli withdrawal is not complete and that Hizbollah is not a "militia" but a "legitimate resistance movement" and therefore is not covered by Resolution 1559 at all. Absent a formal judical body who can impartially interprete a UN resolution, and expect to have that interpretation binding on all parties to a resolution, this sort of lawyering over exact meanings will inevitably occur, significantly hindering the achievement of the actual goals that a particular UN resolution is aiming to reach.

All this doesn't even take into account the ability of the UN to enforce resolutions. This is the criticism most frequently levelled at the UN by its critics, which seems odd to me as it's the problem for which the UN is least responsible: the lack of enforcement isn't due to some systemic inefficiency in its structure so much as the fact that none of its members provide the UN with the resources that it would need to perform such enforcement. The near-sacred status given to national sovereignty within the UN is a hindrance of course, but that hindrance can be, and has been, overcome when the member states of the UN have wanted to put national sovereignty aside in favour of otther considerations. It's just that they're almost pathologically predisposed not to do so.
Semi-random thoughts: the Israeli withdrawals from Gaza and Lebanon were unilateral - neither Palestinian or Lebanese governing bodies had any say in the decision at all. Critics contend that the pull-out sends the message that "terrorism works". They may have a point - so long as they're only talking about unilateral withdrawal.

Had the Israeli government made at least an attempt to allow the PA or the Lebanese government to have some input into the decision, then the impression from the withdrawal might be more that "negotiation works" rather than "terrorism works". But the Israeli government refuses to negotiate, apparently because that would give the impression that "terrorism works"....

AM report in which a Hamas representative describes the pull-out as a step that promises not peace, but war.

Also, an Al-Jazeera interview with Hasan Nasrallah in which he says this:"I can tell you that they[the world community] do not want to destroy the resistance of Hezbollah in Lebanon. They want to destroy any spirit of resistance in Lebanon, whether inside Hezbollah or any other party. They want to push the country to the point where words such as resistance would become unacceptable, and where words such as martyr, jihad, wounded, steadfastness, confrontation, liberation, freedom, glory, dignity, pride, and honour are unacceptable. All these words should be erased form the Lebanese people's dictionary, from the press, from the political literature, from the political mind, from the people's mind. This is what Israel is doing, and this is what the United States, which wants to re-arrange the entire region anew, needs."

The concept of the thymotic "desire for recognition" I've gleaned provides an interesting framework for trying to understand the mindset driving radical Islam. It appears to me that its adherents sincerely believe that every aspect of their personal dignity - their steadfastness, freedom, glory, pride, etc. - is under threat from the West in general and the United States in particular. Part of this is a reaction to the changes that modernisation has brought to Islamic civilisation, giving a name and a purpose to what otherwise seems to be uncontrollable, impersonal forces that are threatening to make a centuries-old way of life irrelevant to modern living in order to give them someone to blame for it. Part of it is also, I suspect, that it is true in some cases: there are plenty of people in the West who have as their stated goal the complete destruction of the Islamic way of life, on the grounds that its "satanic", or "a death cult" or "evil". Here's one such example: Islam The Lies and Deceptions
They start accumulating in countries and then start terrorizing it with gangs of rapists, violence and civil disruption.

They are possessed, demon possessed. They seek to spread fear and violence, they are pawns of the devil who feeds off of the fear and suffering they create for power.

Just as their leader, Mohammad, they use "God" as an excuse to prey on innocent people. Mohammad was a robber and a thief, his followers are no different.

It is not the Most High God they serve, but Satan.

Signs you've been exploring the darker sides of the Internet for too long #1: you can read something like that and you've become so inured to hate speech that you don't even flinch.

The appeal of radicalism to adherents of Islam, and the population of the Middle East in general, can be blunted by granting dignity and recognition to them that they are not currently getting. Critics may assert that what radical Islamists want in terms of recognition is to be recognised not just as worthy human beings themselves, but superior in worth to all others on the grounds that they alone follow the One True Religion. This may be true for the more fundamentalist muslims, but not all Muslims are Fundamentalists.

If Bin Laden, Hezbollah, Hamas and the like can successfully convince these moderates that their dignity is under attack, then they may be swayed to support a jihadist movement that they would not otherwise support, or at least, they would be less likely to oppose it.

I think this is why the first anti-Zaqarwi protests by British Muslims only occurred after the bombing of a mosque in Iraq. Showing contempt for Westerners is one thing, but Zarqawi showed conempt for something which Muslims hold as a vital part of their worth as human beings: Islam.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Religion isn't the problem, people are

I don't think religion is the root cause of all Middle East conflict. There are issues of disputed ownership of holy sites and the like, and much of the divisions between peoples there are drawn down religious lines, but that's not the sole issue causing problems.

The Shebaa Farms for instance has no religious significance: its value is in the lands' fertility. In a situation where there are multiple groups (whether those groups are different nations, different religious groups, or groups divided by some other characteristic) competing for a scarce resource, and no clear rules for determining which group has a legitimate claim, then conflict is inevitable.

Follow-on thought: how would one go about implementing clear rules for resolving such disputes which would be fully accepted as legitimate and binding by all involved parties?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Trustee Model and the Federal Labor Party

Understanding the Australian system of government as run on the lines of a Trustee Model also explains why Federal Labor can gain no traction.

Labor, as near as I can tell, is focused entirely on trying to win voters by offering up what they hope are voter-friendly policies. Wrong approach. Completely wrong. What they ought to be doing is convincing the voting public that their judgement on all issues is the one to trust.

I don't know how the voting public perceives Labor's system of decision-making, but I know how I perceive it: it looks to me like any particular policy is ground out almost at random by an unaccountable and faceless bureaucratic machine that is at war with itself. Policy can and does change based on nothing more than whichever faction has managed to seize control of the backroom at any given time. That doesn't sound like any kind of political party that I'd entrust with the task of government.

In addition, trying to win votes through present policy doesn't take into account that the voters are considering future policy as well. We live in uncertain times, and a key consideration in any voters' mind I believe is whether their government will be able to weather a completely unexpected (and, perhaps, highly destructive) event effectively. The Labor Party machine offers no comfort on that score.

To win government, the Labor party should stop focusing on presenting policy, and start focusing on actually being able to make effective decisions. That's the first step. Once that's done, they can start thinking about presenting their decision-making capacity as the one that the voting public should entrust with government.

The Trustee Model of Democracy and John Howard

I think about this Trustee model of government, and I think about the critics of John Howard, and something worries me. Criticism of John Howard over Policy X or Decision Y or Action Z is useless. Why? Because our system of government is a Trustee Model of democracy. Criticising Howard over specific issues misses this fact entirely.

Howard stays in power not because of the voting population's perception of his decisions, but because of the voting population's perception of how he makes decisions.

This trust that he will make the right call on issues extends to trusting him to make the right call on future issues that are unforeseen and/or unforeseeable. It is that, not the results of any particular decision that he makes, which is the source of his hold over the Australian electorate.

So how does the electorate think Howard makes his decisions? Here's a hint to start with:
"I think all Australians would want this Victoria Cross to stay in our country and preferably at the War Memorial." - John Howard, Howard hopeful Australian will buy Victoria Cross medal. 24/07/2006. ABC News Online
"And nor is there any desire within the Australian community – in a more entrepreneurial and self-reliant nation – to turn back the clock to what we would now see as a highly illiberal industrial relations system." - John Howard, Address to the Menzies Research Centre Melbourne 'Reflections on Australian Federalism' - 11 April 2005
"I think that is a step that the Australian community doesn’t want to occur, whilst at the same time there are many genuine areas of discrimination." - John Howard on gay marriage, Doorstop Interview North Ryde, Sydney - 08 June 2006

See the pattern? If you listen to Howard speak, read his media statements, you'll hear over and over again the message that John Howard tries to make decisions based on what he believes the Australian community wants, tries to consider the interests of every Australian, tries to improve the lot of all Australians. It's subtle - almost subtextual - but I believe that it's definitely present.

There are almost certainly other memes which Howard and the Liberal party push that send the message that their basis for decision-making is the one to trust. People who want to see Howard and the Liberal party gone should not be wasting their time criticising the outcomes of specific decisions as it won't make any difference. Has it made a difference so far?, Instead, the focus should be on determining and undercutting the reasons that the Australian public chooses to entrust the Liberal party with all the decisions of government.

Direct Democracy, Representative Democracy

"Efficient decision making inevitably requires delegation, yet it is precisely delegation that causes problems of legitimacy."

Fukuyama was referring to the functioning of international decision-making bodies in that quote, but his quote could just as easily have referred to any system in which decisions need to be made on behalf of a group of people: say, the Australian government for instance.

Like most democratic governments today, the Australian government functions on a model of representative democracy (for convenience's sake, I overlook that we are in fact a Constitutional Monarchy as irrelevant to the examination of the workings of democracy). We do not function on a system of direct democracy.

I view this as a good thing. Direct democracy has the failing, first of all, that polling the people for a decision on every topic is woefully inefficient - so inefficient that doing so would probably lead to a complete failure of effective government in my opinion. Perhaps improvements in efficiency of vote-counting can be made, but that doesn't address the second problem.

One of the major proponents of representative democracy was Edmund Burke. He favoured the Trustee model of representation, claiming that an elected representative should be able to exercise their own judgement on an issue even if it opposed the will of the people who elected the representative. (Compare this with the Delegate model of representation).

The suggestion by Burke (and if Wikipedia's info is accurate, J S Mill) seems to be that common people are too stupid to make the right decisions on their own behalf, and need to elect an enlightened, educated man (it would of course be a man) to do it for them. I don't think people are stupid. But I don't think people are superhuman either: the level of expertise and amount of time needed to effectively make all the decisions that need to be made by a government on a daily basis make it a full-time job. So a full-time job is exactly what it becomes: authority to make the decisions of government is entrusted to elected representatives who devote all there time to, in theory, familiarising themselves with issues and making informed decisions so that the rest of the population has time to actually live their lives.

The trade-off of such trusteeship is that the population loses some say in what the elected representatives can actually do. Whether or not this is a good thing depends, I guess, on what particular issue or event is on the agenda for the populace and its elected representatives. But broadly speaking, I believe it's a good thing because it allows a democratic government to function at all. Absent serious improvements in the efficiency of vote-gathering as well as stellar improvements in the human race's ability to analyse information and act on it, representative democracy has the advantage over direct democracy in that it can actually work.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

History of Social Networking Sites and History of Operating Systems - An Analogy

Desktop OS history, starting point: many different systems, all distinct, not interoperable, none particularly standing out as the One and Only.

Social Networking History analogy: blogging goes mainstream. Blogspot, TypePad, Livejournal, all with their own style, none particularly dominant.

Desktop OS history: somehow a technically loathsome OS becomes not just the dominant player, but soon transforms itself into the only game in town even as people who think an OS shouldn't, you know, absolutely suck try to wrap their heads around the fact of its dominance. Microsoft Windows entrenches itself as a monopoly.

Social Networking History analogy: Myspace. Enough said.

I would have to say that , to carry the OS analogy, Vox currently reminds me a lot of OS X. It's designed for ease of use and has a technical superiority that Myspace lacks. I hope it doesn't close itself off the way Apple tends to do with its software and hardware.

What I think Social Networking actually needs is a kind of Open Source movement. There needs to be some sort of development of an alternative to the closed alternatives like Myspace - an alternative which allows different Social Networking hubs' users to interact with one another, or even change hubs if they like. Unfortunately, the current social networking companies' approach looks to me like they're working on the assumption that users need to be put in a kind of proprietary lockdown, getting their social fix from their company's site and their company's site alone. I hope that way of thinking changes, or Myspace looks poised to become the Microsoft of the social networking world.

On the other hand, if that means Myspace's new owner, News Limited, becomes as hated in future as Microsoft is hated today, I might actually go in for that - no fan of Rupert Murdoch, me. But the cost would probably be too great.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Notes on Lebanon situation

It's war by any other name, reprinted from the Asia Times. A curiosity: originally the info I saw presented on Hezbollah's prisoner abduction stated that it occurred on Israeli territory. It was only several days later that I saw the claim made that the soldiers were on Lebanese territory. Truth is always the first casualty of war, isn't it? Over here we have "The original border crossing, the capture of the two soldiers and the killing of three others was planned, according to Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader who escaped assassination by the Israelis on Friday evening, more than five months ago." Hmmm....I think I'd like to see a direct quote from Nasrallah before I consider the matter any further....

Of note in the Asia Times article I think is that it suggests this is part of an attempt by warmongering members of Hizbollah and Hamas to force these organisations back onto the path of militancy rather than developing a more pragmatic, diplomatic approach.

Oh yeah, and why now? Iran I believe, even if only in the form of providing, for lack of a better phrase, moral support: Ahmadinejad is getting big points in the Islamic world for his public anti-American and anti-Israeli position, or so I've been led to believe.

No, I don't think "regime change" is desirable, or even possible, in Iran - in fact I think such a thing would be spectacularly stupid. But I'm not going to sit back and give a theocratic, fundamentalist authoritarian government a free ride just because the US opposes its existence. In case people hadn't noticed, a LOT of countries are getting antsy about Iran of late.

The differing sects of Islam

In talking about Islam and the political situation it's easy to forget that "Islam" has multiple sects. I just got reminded by this news article in which a Saudi cleric has declared it unlawful for Muslims to support Hezbollah. Unfortunately it may not be because they see anything wrong with violence, but because the Sunni fanatics don't like being upstaged by the Shi'ite fanatics.

To get it clear in my own head: Iran and Hezbollah are predominantly Shi'ite, Iraq has a Shi'ite majority, and has a Sunni minority which enjoyed a privileged position of some kind under Saddam Hussein's rule. Saudi Arabia is Sunni, and is the home of Wahhabism, the ultra-fundamentalist brand of Islam to which Osama Bin Laden belongs.

Syria's government is Ba'athist aka Pan-Arab Socialist, and secular in outlook, but I don't know the people's religious make-up. The government of Syria has been trying to paint themselves as an effective break on the religious fanaticism in the region which their enemies would do well to keep in place. Hussein's government was also Ba'athist.

Lebanon is a complex mix, and the exact make-up is a very touchy subject after their civil war in the 1980's: even trying to conduct a referendum might make things blow up again. Shi'ites are well-represented, but probably not a majority.

So, overall, not only is there an Isreal flexing its muscles, A Lebanon trying to get past its civil war even as it contains an organisation like Hezbollah which has more firepower than the official government, an Iran interested in setting up a Shi'ite power-bloc beyond Iran into Lebanon and Iraq, there's also some Sunnis running around who don't like what the Shi'ites are doing. What are they going to do about it? Interfere with the Shi'ites? Or trying and upstage them with something?

Gods, what a mess. Welcome to the New Middle East, courtesy of Condoleezza Rice and the people at the US government. Looks a lot like the old Middle East to me, only it's starting to deteriorate now.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Same-sex marriage in Australia

You know, I think the push for same-sex marriage in Australia might have been premature.

It didn't really evolve out of a societal demand from anyone in the Australian GLBT community personally asking to get married so much as get pushed out by political bodies looking to press what seemed to be an important issue elsewhere. That's my impression, anyway.

In fact the number of same-sex marriage activists who take the view of personally opposing the idea of marriage while supporting the concept of same-sex marriage "for those that want it" seems very high. Queer people should have the opportunity to do what they like, but trying to ape straight people's relationships is an inferior choice, seems to be the message.

I question the idea of one set of mores for opposite-sex relationships and another set of mores for same-sex relationships. I question why emulating opposite-sex relationships ought to be a thing best avoided.

Maybe I don't feel alienated by hetero-dom because I've never actually felt any kind of rejection over my sexuality from heterosexual people who matter to me. I'm pretty sure that some of them wouldn't even have a problem with me kissing a guy in front of them (assuming I currently had a guy to kiss of course, but anyway...), so I feel no real obligation to try and carve out some brand-new social space where I can "be gay" away from accusative heterosexual eyes. My view is that the problem isn't that we're in the wrong for publicly expressing our sexuality, but that the people expressing disgust at doing so are in the wrong for misunderstanding it, and it ought to be up to them, not us, to try and be more accomodating.

And there, I think, is the problem with same-sex marriage in Australia: the overall society here hasn't reached the point where there are that many pockets in which a queer person can "be gay" amongst heterosexuals. Without that ability to visibly be themselves in the heterosexual world, Australian GLBT people have no opportunity to get a personal feel for whether or not certain relationship mores stereotypically practised by opposite-sex couples are to their taste or not (and perhaps might occasionally even get a serious case of sour grapes about them) and see no need to try and fight for legal rights associated with them, and the Australian public at large can blissfully go down the uninformed path of homosexuality=sexual perversion to be tolerated, but not treated as equal to heterosexuality.

Same-sex marriage won't occur in this country until there are more LGBT individuals successfully integrated into and visible to overall Australian society. But do LGBT people in this country even want that?
"I have no interest in diplomacy for the sake of returning Lebanon and Israel to the status quo ante E Whatever we do, we have to be certain that we are pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old one." - Condoleezza Rice's latest soundbite.(One source here)

What in the name of the Sam Hill Peckett....? "New" middle east?

Don't tell me the neoconservative vision of transforming the Middle East into democracy through military action ("draining the swamp" as Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld have so diplomatically put it) still has currency in the Bush Administration? From this remark I can only conclude that the US wants the Israel push against Hezbollah to continue for the foreseeable future.

Yep, same old, same old: unilaterally declare that one country has the right and duty to enforce a UN resolution (Israel enforcing UN Resolution 1559 through military action in Lebanese territory whether the democratically-elected Lebanese government likes it or not in this case) any way it sees fit. I'm no fan of the UN Security Council - it's basically designed to be unable to respond to a situation like this where one side of the dispute isn't a nation-state - but I really don't see how giving Israel free rein advances peace and human rights. It seems more likely to topple the current Lebanese government and result in an even more Islamist-aligned one to me, either through a coup or a democratic vote.

That lack of consideration that extremists can get elected in a democracy is one of the fundamental problems I've had with neoconservative philosophy - the governmental system that keeps the First World from fighting amongst itself isn't "democracy" as they claim, but "liberal democracy". By leaving the "liberal" off, there is no conception of "illiberal democracy", a government system in which a dominant majority can (and often does) oppress a hated minority via the voting process. It's liberalim, not democracy, that promotes the concept of granting the same rights to others as you ask for yourself. Honestly, I've had discussions with people who seem about as able to conceive of the concept of "illiberal democracy" as one could conceive of the concept of a "square circle".

Besides which, you'd think that they'd have paused when the very terrorist organisations that "democracy" was supposed to supplant started getting elected to power by popular vote. But no, apparently the definitely-not-a-civil-war-because-they're-not-wearing-uniforms that's happening in Iraq, and that's causing as much death and carnage as a civil war does, and is being fought for the same reasons as a civil war is, along with Hamas getting elected to power in Palestine, along with this latest flare-up, is all just a few eggs getting broken to make the omelette of Everlasting Peace. The ends justifies the means, apparently: a philosophical tenet which I think is the cause of good people being led to embrace evil whenever they accept it as true.

Not happy.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Brief thoughts for the early morning: opponents of homosexuality will never be persuaded by arguments that try to show them that the emotional experiences of homosexuals are the same as the emotional experiences of heterosexuals because they don't consider homosexuality to be an emotional experience, but a purely sexual one. This preconception is built into the unjustified assumption, which I've harped on about elsewhere, that everyone is innately heterosexual and that a homosexual is simply a heterosexual gone wrong somehow: only heterosexuals fall in love, have emotional difficulties, what have you, while homosexuality is nothing more than a deviation from standard sexual practice, a sexual fetish rather than a sexual orientation.

My previous post on the concept of "human worth" was an attempt to articulate a concept I'd read via Fukuyama, who derived it from Hegel, who lifted it from Plato's Republic. Plato's reduction of the human mind into three parts (whose exact names escape me: reason, appetite and spirit?) seems vastly oversimplified to me, but the last of the three - "thymos" in the ancient Greek - which Fukuyama translated as "the desire for recognition" roughly equates to what I'm trying to call "worth". Regardless of my skepticism of how the concept was originally arrived at by Plato, I think that this "desire for recognition" or "sense of dignity" or "human worth" is a part of the human experience. Political systems which reduce human behaviour to a matter of pure economic need - pure socialism I think qualifies, as does pure capitalism - will therefore never adequately address human need as they don't account for the very existence of the need to be considered as having worth as a human being.

The concept of automatically granting innate negative worth to a grouping of humanity provides a moral framework for almost any atrocity seen today: terrorism, ethnic cleansing, anything that has one group of humanity committing atrocities against another grouping. Those of us living in societies where this doesn't occur tend to forget that only a minority of the world lives in such societies, and even there the atrocities have not faded far from history at all. Perhaps the question isn't "why do people do such things?", but "why has a minority of the world population just very recently started actively trying not to do such things?

I do have a major beef with Fukuyama: I'm with him on the concept that liberal democracies are good, and that there's nothing better currently on offer in the world political-system-wise, but in his latest book "after Neoconservatism" he makes the argument that "there is simply no other legitimating ideas besides liberal democracy that is broadly accepted in the world today", and that depots have to at least look like they support democracy if they want their people to not revolt against them. There are in fact at least two other legitimating ideas that exist for rulers besides "the people support my rule". The first is "God supports my rule". The second is "only my rule can protect you from your enemies". I don't know about "broad support", but I do know that support for these two alternatives to liberal democracy as a legitimating idea for rule is not just present, but is even getting accepted in one of the longest-standing liberal democracies on the planet. Look at the reasons some supporters of the current US government give for their support: the Religious Right in America has made it abundantly clear that God votes Republican, and a large swathe of the non-fundamentalist Republican support is based on the premise that only the Republican party can effectively protect America from terrorists.

Friday, July 21, 2006

"I will never understand why terrorists are so willing to embrace death and destruction".

I hear this every so often and it worries me. If the ideological danger of radicalism (specifically that of jihadist terrorism in this case) is to be defeated, then I think the appeal of "death and destruction", or why a person would want to deliberately target violence at civilians, must be understood, or else it cannot be effectively combatted.

Much of the political Right doesn't particularly care about this of course: their approach seems to be "terrorist = animal" and such individuals must be elimated. The concept of how a terrorist actually comes into being is viewed as incomprehensible and on that basis is apparently disregarded completely: terrorists exist, they are Evil, kill them, preferably painfully. End of discusion. This has serious consequences, the most obvious being that the Right pays no regard to the possibility that the actions that they take in eliminating terrorists may have the unintended consequence of creating more of them. For a side of politics that supposedly makes "the law of unintended consequences" a central part of its world-view, it doesn't actually apply it much.

The Left for its part acknowledges that jihadism has root causes, but somehow always seems to come to the conclusion that these roots are entirely the West's fault. I don't think I agree.

Trying to understand the darker side of human nature is not pretty, nor is it easy, but I'm trying.

My first instinct is to say that the creation of a terrorist includes "dehumanisation" as a significant factor, but I think it's a little more difficult than that. One of the triumphs of Western liberalism I believe is the view that every human being starts out as innately equal in worth, and that no human being is worthless. A person's actions may shift their worth, but the innate starting point for everyone is the same, and this innate worth is not determined in advance by a person's racial, cultural or other grouping. People who have grown up in environments where this is a well-entrenched norm may find it difficult to conceive of a worldview in which some groups of humanity are considered innately superior or inferior solely by their belonging to a specific group, before any other considerations are applied. It's not that hard to see places where this remnants of this particular worldview still pop up in Western societies, though: stereotyping for instance.

It's less difficult to conceive of a human having zero innate worth. This concept has not been banished from Western society and still occurs in the process known as dehumanisation: denying a human any innate worth by denying that they're human. The radical Right does it the moment they make the "terrorist=animal" formulation, stripping away a terrorist's humanity so it becomes easier to feel no moral qualms about killing them in cold blood, torturing them, denying them due process - all the things that are viewed as moral wrongs in Western society when they're done to human beings.

In an illiberal worldview, it's not so much "dehumanisation" as the concept that some members of the human race have zero, or even negative, innate worth. The consequence of this is de-empathisation. Empathising with someone - feeling their feelings as if they were your own - occurs as a result of believing that a person's feelings are as worthy of consideration as your own, and I believe is the basis for why a person freely chooses to care about other people besides themselves. If you believe a person is worthless, then there is no motivation to care about their feelings, and there is no motivation to restrain from acts of violence against them, up to and including murder. If you believe that they have negative worth, then there is motivation to engage in acts of incredible cruelty against that person as a just recompense for the lessening of the world that the person's existence causes simply by the fact that they exist.

For a terrorist to come about, a proto-terrorist must have accepted this illiberal method of determining the worth of human beings as part of their worldview.

There's much more to it of course. Hopefully I can get to some other points. Hopefully I'll be more concise if/when I do.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Wikipedia on Lebanon

Okay, so I lied a little in my last entry. One more link provision. Okay, two.

Wikipedia really does seem to be coming through as an excellent source for information on the conflict in my opinion. The official Wiki article is informative, but reading the related Discussion page as well is a very good way of becoming aware of how the points of view about all the information affects what information gets presented, and how. Fascinating.

study notes on Hezbollah

Fun facts as I find them:
"Majlis al-Shura" is a term commonly used in Arabic states to describe parliamentary bodies, elected asemblies or similar. Liberal muslims views this as evidence for the existence of an Islamic concept of a democratically-elected state, while hardliners view the Shura's only role as correctly interpreting Islamic rule, with no regard for how they get into that position. The supreme decision-making body of Hezbollah is called the Majlis al-Shura.

Threat analysis of Hezbollah. No idea who wrote this (Intellecom, inc? Never heard of them), but this quote:
"It must be understood that although this organization is closely ideologically and spiritually linked to Iran, it is not a singular political/militaristic body that currently shows total subservience to the latter; but is rather more like a coalition of Lebanese Shi'ite Imams who each have their own political thoughts and views and built their own networks of followers and ties to Iran's political, military and clerical establishment"

seems to concur with what I'm reading elsewhere: Hezbollah has a clear organisational structure, and has strong ties to Iran within that structure, but it is not a monolithic entity.

JESUS! From the earlier PDF:"The decision by Hizbollah's SSA to abduct foreign citizens was usually initiated at the highest level in the main Majlis al-Shura within the Hizbollah through consultation with its senior clergy and two permanent representatives from Iran." Now, it's been Israeli soldiers rather than foreign civilians that have been abducted now, but still...Oh boy, continuing: "In making the abductions authorized by Hizbollah's national SSA, the Operational officers maintained close liaison with offficial representatives from Iran's embassies in Beirut and Damascus as well as with Pasdaran(Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps) officials."

A faction of Hizbollah headed by one Sheikh al-Tufayli was bitterly opposed to Hizbollah taking part in Lebanon's 1992 elections at all. His successor to the position of leader of Hezbollah, Sheikh Abbas al-Musawi, led Hizbollah to being more involved in the Lebanese democratic political process. I'll stop simply repeating the PDF file info now.

Ooh, another good find: Inside Hizbollah's decision-making process paints the Israeli kidnappings the way I'm starting to see it: it was authorized at the highest level of Hizbollah, with knowledge and input from Iranian officials. But the highest decision-making body is called the "Shura Karar" according to that article? Contradiction, currently unable to resolve, suspect this is due to insufficient knowledge of post-1994 Hizbollah history. Anyway, I think I'll keep an eye on Counterterrorism blog, see if it lives up to its name.

Enough for now. I want to switch to full information absorption mode for a bit.
A little light reading:
A 1994 paper on Hezbollah's relationship with the Iranian government. 41 pages long. I haven't read it yet - hoping it delivers the extremely useful info that the article title implies it offers.

Should I find it disturbing that I've found Andrew Sullivan's blog entries making a lot of sense of late? Andrew Sullivan, of course, is a gay man who's earned the ire of the Left side of politics for being a gay man who promotes conservative ideals. Recently he's started earning the ire of the Right side of politics for, as near as I can tell, being a gay man who promotes conservative ideals. Anyway, here's his current take on the overall Middle East situation.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Web 2.0

O-Reilly -- What is Web 2.0

Web 2.0: it's one of the most popular tags on, generates huge amounts of interest among the people interested in the business side of tech companies, but there's a strong undercurrent of sentiment in geekdom that the whole thing is just one great big marketing gimmick. Personally, I think that there's definitely a "there" there, but it's highly misunderstood.

The O'reilly article above explains a fair bit, but the way we arrived at even having a concept of Web 2.0 is what interests me. From some of the commentary around you'd think it's a brand new, revolutionary conception of the way the Internet works. It isn't.

One of the best analogies I've seen for Web 2.0 is that it's like version 2.0 of a software application: promising to do all the things that version 1.0 was supposed to do but couldn't quite manage. Let's apply the analogy to the actual development of software as I understand it...

ShinyAppv1.0 has been released. Work has started on the next version. In the open-source world you actually get to see this process happening. Features are added, bugs are ironed out, new things are tried. At some arbitrary point a feature freeze sets in, and there's a push towards a final release. At some arbitrary point - perhaps a set date, perhaps an official pronouncement that all major bugs have been ironed out - the product is deemed "complete", and ShinyAppv2.0 appears. To the unclued in user, it may look like the new, improved product has appeared full-formed like Athena being birthed fully-grown from Zeus' skull. In reality, it's the culmination of a long series of development of various aspects of the software, some of which may still have been incomplete at the time of the "official" software release.

All Web 2.0 really is, is the maturation of several technological and sociological trends that have been developing for years, but which are just now coalescing into a comprehensible whole. Web 2.0 isn't just a product label you can slap onto your tech business in order to make a profit. it's a...let's see: it's a current snapshot of the significant sociological and psychological changes in human online interactivity that are occurring as a result of recent technological advances in many-to-many communication media (collectively referred to as "the Internet") as well as the discovery of new methods of using the older technologies. Business people shouldn't be discussing it; social scientists should.

The O'reilly crowd misses this point that their business crowd really should be made aware of: these trends are continuing, and the Next Big Thing(tm) may be the further evolution of a trend that nobody has anticipated because everyone's trying to conform to some arbitrarily defined, rigid standard of "where the web is right now", aka Web 2.0.

The other thing missing from their analysis is of a technological advance that changes the dynamic of the web significantly: they talk about users creating and consuming each other's content a lot, but neglect to mention the advances in software technology that gives users significant ability to not receive content that they don't want to receive: I'm thinking of the Firefox extension Adblock here. What's a business-person to do when the preferred method of revenue-raising on the web today - online ads - is getting blocked out by a growing number of users? And then there's the Greasemonkey Firefox extension, which provides a whole framework for giving the user control over how they choose to rearrange a content-provider's content for their own consumption....

Web 2.0 is primarily a marketing term, but it really shouldn't be. It ought to be the jumping off point for determining how the Information Revolution is affecting, and will continue to affect, modern society.
I'm hoping to use this blog as a dumping ground for thoughts and ideas that come into my head from time to time. It'll probably cover things like international politics, maybe some Australian politics, definitely some GLBT rights stuff, and hopefully some stuff on media (including so-called "new" media like the Internet).

It probably won't be what you'd exactly call organised: more a sort of way of secreting thoughts out of my mind rather than have them sloshing around up there doing who knows what.

That's all for now.