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women in science, solutions, and why nobody reads my blog, among other things

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Okay I’ve written facetiously about getting rid of men, or seriously (but facetiously) reducing their proportion of the populace, but in future I want to look at real solutions to a problem that I think is already being addressed but far too patchily and slowly – the problem of male power and dominance. The general solution, of course, is the ascent of woman, to paraphrase Jacob Bronowski via Darwin, and how to promote and quicken it. (Incidentally I’ve just discovered that ‘The Ascent of Woman’ is a four part documentary on women’s history, recently produced for the BBC by Dr Amanda Foreman – look forward to watching it).

However, before continuing I want to issue a plea for help. My blog, which I’ve been writing for many years now, has never had much of a readership, due probably to my inability to network, or even communicate much with others (I’d rather not think it’s anything to do with my writing skills). However, last month even that minuscule readership virtually collapsed, as I recorded my lowest number of hits since my first month of blogging. I’ve soldiered on, but now at the end of September I find this month’s numbers even worse. I feel I need to make a decision about the blog’s future – How do I increase the numbers? Does the blog need a makeover? Can I blame the attention-span of others? I find if I write short pieces, they don’t really cover anything in depth, but I know also that the in-depth pieces, the ones I work on hardest, often get the least attention. Should I just give up and go back to journal writing? At least that way I won’t be faced with the world’s indifference…

Anyway, enough about me – it’s interesting that when you start focusing on an issue, you hear about it everywhere, everybody seems to be talking about it. Today, listening to a podcast of the ABC Science Show, I heard that teenagers are our biggest killers, worldwide, predominantly through motor vehicle accidents. And of course we’re talking largely of male teenagers. The researcher announcing this was female, and, typical female, she was complaining about us tackling this old problem (this has been the global situation for some sixty years) in the same old piecemeal way, rather than though global collaboration in researching and trying to figure out workable solutions to what is clearly a global problem. It was clear from this passionate speaker (and mother of teenage children) that with more females leading research in this and other fields, we’ll get more collaboration and quicker and more effective solutions. And when Robyn Williams, our honourable Science Show anchor, asked the researcher a double-barrelled question – is this teenage problem a male one, and should teenage boys be banned from driving? – her honourable response was ‘yes, and yes’.

The question is – would a law specifically targeting boys/young men as drivers ever be implemented? Of course, many males would describe it as discriminatory. And of course it does discriminate, because the statistics are clear. But why, a young male might ask, should I be treated as a statistic? I’m not like other young men.

It’s a valid point, and I can’t see an obvious way of screening out the potentially safe young men from the potentially dangerous ones. So all we could acceptably do is raise the driving age for all, preferably globally, which would effectively discriminate against the statistically safer drivers, the females. Still, I like the idea of a push, led in the main by women, for a discriminatory driving age policy backed by science. It would raise the profile of the issue, bring women together in an excellent cause, potentially save lives, and feature as another small episode in the ascent of women.

Of course it wouldn’t solve the terrible wee problem of young kids stealing cars and killing and maiming others and themselves for pumped-up kicks…

Written by stewart henderson

October 1, 2016 at 8:39 am

was the invasion of Iraq justified?

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“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?”
― Mahatma Gandhi

 

In 2003 I protested against the impending attack on Iraq, along with so many others, though I don’t like being involved in mass protests, because they tend to over-simplify the response. A lot of the protesters were saying things I didn’t agree with, as is often the case. For example, some were using the national sovereignty argument, which I have little time for. Others were saying that war is always wrong, but I think war can be justified if it results in less harm than non-intervention, though this isn’t always easy to determine. As a humanist, I don’t think national or cultural boundaries should interfere with what we owe, ethically, to others, though I recognise as a pragmatic fact that they often do.

To me, the Iraq invasion has always been a clear-cut case of a criminal act, resulting in a loss of life – hardly unforeseeable – far greater than that suffered by the USA on September 11 2001. Furthermore, the September 11 atrocities, without which the invasion clearly would never have occurred, were in no way connected to the Iraqi regime. In the lead-up to the invasion, at the time of the protests, I was incensed, like others, at the Bush regime’s bullying treatment of the weapons inspectors in Iraq, and Hans Blix in particular, because their findings didn’t fit with the story Washington was trying to sell. This bullying proliferated, of course, to the leaders of major European nations such as France and Germany. The response of the French government to the possibility of war still seemed to me the most sensible and prescient one. In January of 2003, their foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin said ‘We think that military intervention would be the worst possible solution’, even though the French government felt at the time that Iraq wasn’t being truthful about WMD. In an impassioned speech to the Security Council only a few weeks later, Villepin spoke of the “incalculable consequences for the stability of this scarred and fragile region”, whose overwhelmingly Moslem inhabitants had sound historical reasons for suspecting and wanting to resist western interventions. He said that “the option of war might seem a priori to be the swiftest, but let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace”. He also reported on the intelligence of France and its allies, which failed comprehensively to support links between al-Qaeda and Hussein’s regime. Of course, Villepin’s speech was roundly rejected and disparaged by the US and UK leadership, and the rest is the history we’re making and trying to make sense of today.

I’m returning to the subject for two reasons – a philosophical summary of pacifism and just war theory in a recent issue of Philosophy Now magazine (issue 102), and the views of British leftist but pro-Iraq war writers such as Nick Cohen.

In 2006, a document called the Euston Manifesto was produced in Britain. A leftist document, it was designed to draw the line against what its authors and signatories claimed to be an overly-indulgent, cultural relativist tendency in a large sector of the leftist commentariat. The document focused largely on the positives – upholding human rights, freedom of expression, pluralism, liberalism, historical truth, the heritage of democracy, internationalism and equality. It expressed opposition to tyranny and terrorism, racism, misogyny and censorship. In more specific terms, it supported a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict and opposed anti-Americanism – though in a somewhat backhanded way:

That US foreign policy has often opposed progressive movements and governments and supported regressive and authoritarian ones does not justify generalized prejudice against either the country or its people.

This is all outlined in the manifesto’s ‘statement of principles’ (section B), none of which I have any issue with. Section C, ‘elaborations’, addresses the Iraq war, inter alia, and is a little more problematic. Just before the Iraq campaign is dealt with there’s a paragraph on the September 11 attacks, which is uncompromisingly hostile to the view that it could be in any way justified as payback for US policy in the Middle East. Again I completely agree.

The paragraph that follows is interesting, and I will quote it in full, always remembering that it was written in 2006, before the execution of Saddam Hussein, and not long after the first parliamentary elections. Much has changed since then, with Iraqi governments becoming less democratic, and the contours of instability constantly changing.

The founding supporters of this statement took different views on the military intervention in Iraq, both for and against. We recognize that it was possible reasonably to disagree about the justification for the intervention, the manner in which it was carried through, the planning (or lack of it) for the aftermath, and the prospects for the successful implementation of democratic change. We are, however, united in our view about the reactionary, semi-fascist and murderous character of the Baathist regime in Iraq, and we recognize its overthrow as a liberation of the Iraqi people. We are also united in the view that, since the day on which this occurred, the proper concern of genuine liberals and members of the Left should have been the battle to put in place in Iraq a democratic political order and to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, to create after decades of the most brutal oppression a life for Iraqis which those living in democratic countries take for granted — rather than picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention.

Since this post is precisely about the arguments over intervention, I should say something in justification of my writing it. While we can’t predict precisely the outcome of an intervention or invasion or liberation (words are so important here), there are often broad and quite obvious signs to indicate whether such an event will advantage or disadvantage the targeted population. In analysing these signs we utilise history (or we should do) – that’s to say, we pick through the rubble of previous experiences of intervention. The question of whether the invasion (or whatever you choose to call it) of Iraq was justified is therefore a question about the future as well as the past. How, in the future, and in the present, should we, as humanists, deal with oppressive, reactionary, murderous regimes, such as exist today in North Korea, in Myanmar, and in the wannabe state of ‘the caliphate’? Not to mention so many other dictatorial regimes whose likely ‘murderousness’ is hard to get data on, such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other Asian and African tyrannies large and small.

I also have a quibble with the view that all good liberal leftists, regardless of their position before the war, should jump on board with the invaders to ‘remake’ Iraq into a democracy. The obvious problem with this view is that many of the anti-war protesters were concerned, and deeply so, that the reason for the invasion wasn’t democracy-building. The stated reason for the invasion, after all, was a defensive one; getting rid of WMDs to make the world a safer place. Other reasons were suspected, including simple restoration of US pride, and economic exploitation. The bullishness of the invasion rhetoric didn’t sound much like an attempt at democracy-building.

But I think the overwhelming reason for this deep concern  –  it was certainly my concern – was the suffering and harm that the invasion and aftermath would inflict on the people of Iraq. Nations invaded by foreigners tend to fight back, regardless of how much of a basket case the invaders think the nation is. This is even more the case when the ‘liberators’ are seen as having values antithetical to the target nation. Think of the consternation caused by the threatened invasion of England by the Spanish in the 1580s, or the French in the early 1800s, surely mild compared to that felt by the overwhelmingly Moslem Iraqis, fed for decades on tales of western decadence and double-dealing. An invasion would be fought bitterly, Hussein or no Hussein, and democracy isn’t the sort of thing to be imposed from above. So it’s understandable that those opposed to the invasion, and crushed by their failure to stop it, didn’t rush to join hands with those whose motives they so distrusted in an enthusiastic experiment in nation-restructuring.

I’m no pacifist,  and I’m concerned and demoralised by brutal dictatorships everywhere – many of which we know little about. I would like to see interventions wherever murder and oppression are the weapons of state control, but that’s a big ask, and where do we start, and how do we do it? Warfare is one of the most problematic options, but will a siege of sanctions be effective? A united, internationalist front which will offer credible threats – desist and democratise or else? And should we start with the tinpot dictatorships and work our way up to the giants? Which leads back to the question, why Iraq in the first place?

Muddled motives and intentions lead inevitably to muddled and contradictory outcomes. Indeed the stated motive for the intervention, dismantling WMDs and making the rest of the world a safer place, didn’t consider the Iraqi people directly at all. On that basis alone, the war could hardly be justified, because it was clear that even if Hussein’s weapons existed, they were not an imminent threat, with the dictator doing everything in his power to placate the west. Hussein was brutal and nasty, but his instinct for self-preservation was paramount, and it was clear in the last days of his regime that he was saving his sabre-rattling for his domestic audience while bending over backwards to comply with international demands.

One argument being put at the time was that anything was better than Saddam. But is this really the case? Consider two polar scenarios; a failed state in which there are no government regulations, and no police or legal institutions, an anarchic free-for-all; or a rigid dictatorship in which freedom is highly circumscribed and much that we value in life is sacrificed just for survival. Which is better? Well, with that very slight sketch it’s impossible to judge, but neither is very palatable. In the case of Iraq it would be comparing a ‘known’ with an ‘unknown’. The result of deposing Saddam was unknown and poorly planned for, but clearly it would unleash violent forces, and we knew from organisations such as Human Rights Watch that the day-to-day dictatorship, though repressive, wasn’t murderous at the time of the invasion.

My concern then, was saving lives, or more broadly, minimising harm. One thing I’ve always loathed is the ‘big picture’ politics of certain world leaders who like to redraw maps and bring down regimes with grand strategies, with very little thought to the ordinary struggles for survival, the lives and loves of people who suffer the consequences of those grand plans – including death and destruction. Of course, harm minimisation is fiendishly difficult to quantify when you’re talking about such variables as freedom and opportunity, but at least we can try. Just war theory might help us with some guidelines.

Duane Cady, Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus at Hamline University, Minnesota, provides a two-part outline of just war theory as currently understood. I’ll focus only on the first part, which seeks to answer the question – When is it justified to go to war?

Going to war justly requires meeting 6 conditions:

1. The war must be made on behalf of a just cause

2. The decision to go to war must be made by proper authorities

3. Participants must have a good intention rather than revenge or greed as their goal

4. It must be likely that peace will emerge after the war

5. Going to war must be a last resort

6.  The total amount of evil resulting from making war must be outweighed by the good likely to come of it.

I hardly need to go into detail to show that a number of these conditions were not met in the case of the Iraq venture, but I’ll briefly discuss each one.

For condition 1, if WMDs were the cause, then it wasn’t just, as there weren’t any, and the best intelligence showed this. Other causes, such as getting rid of a despot, bringing about democracy, lead to the question – why Iraq? Why not Syria, or Saudi Arabia? Why pick on any Middle Eastern country where western interference would be fiercely combatted?

For condition 2, there are supposed to be strict rules regarding such decisions, though of course they’re unenforceable. In September 2004, the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan declared the Iraq invasion illegal from the point of view of the UN’s charter, presumably because of insufficient numbers in the Security Council agreeing to it. If you consider the UN the proper authority to make such final decisions – and if not what would be? – then condition 2 hasn’t been met.

Condition 3 goes to intentions, which might be muddled or concealed. My view is that revenge, or wounded pride, had much to do with it on the US side. People may disagree, but nobody can seriously argue that the Bush administrations’s intentions were clear and humane.

Condition 4 gives no timeline. ‘After’ is a long time, and peace might achieved at the cost of maximal loss of life. The condition is a little too vague to be useful. Certainly, a quick peace looked highly unlikely, and I think that was a major concern of protesters worldwide.

Condition 5 clearly wasn’t met. The term ‘last resort’ infers something else – a last resort before x occurs, that x being something catastrophic and to be avoided at all costs. Whether there was an x in Iraq’s case is highly questionable.

In the long view, I think, or fervently hope, condition 6 will be met, but that’s only because I’m a ‘better angels of our nature’ advocate, and anyway the lack of a time-frame attached to the condition renders it essentially meaningless. Is Europe now more humane and peaceful as a result of the Thirty Years’ War? To what degree is our greater tolerance of diversity a direct result of the Nazis’ homogenising race policies? There’s no doubt that the most horrible wars can result in massive lessons learnt, leading to accelerated positive outcomes, but that in no way justifies them.

 

So, okay, the Iraq war was a disaster. However, I thoroughly agree with Alex Garland, the writer and film-maker, who referred briefly to the war in   a recent Point of Inquiry interview. It’s too late to wonder about whether the invasion of Iraq was a good idea, and it was essentially too late even when the protests began in 2003, as it had a horrible inevitability about it. Trying to work out the consequences, to minimise the negatives and maximise the positives, and to take responsibility for those consequences, is much more important. Particular nations, including Australia, imposed this invasion on the Iraqi people. Those nations, above all, should take most of the responsibility for the consequences. I don’t think that’s really happening at the moment.

Written by stewart henderson

May 30, 2015 at 10:53 am

1914 – 2014: celebrating a loss of appetite

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Statue_of_Europe-(Unity-in-Peace)

 

I’ve read at least enough about WW1 to be aware that its causes, and the steps made towards war, were very complex and contestable. There are plenty of historians, professional and amateur, who’ve suggested that, if not for x, or y, war may have been avoided. However, I don’t think there’s any doubt that a ‘force’, one which barely exists today, a force felt by all sides in the potential conflict of the time, made war very difficult to avoid. I’ll call this force the appetite for war, but it needs to be understood more deeply, to divest it of its vagueness. We know that, in 1914, lads as young as 14 sneaked their way into the militaries of their respective countries to experience the irresistible thrill of warfare. A great many of them paid the ultimate price. Few of these lambs to the slaughter were discouraged from their actions – on the contrary. Yet 100 years on, this attitude seems bizarre, disgusting and obscene. And we don’t even seem to realise how extraordinarily fulsome this transformation has been.

Let’s attempt to go back to those days. They were the days when the size of your empire was the measure of your manliness. The Brits had a nice big fat one, and the Germans were sorely annoyed, having come late to nationhood and united military might, but with few foreign territories left to conquer and dominate. They continued to build up their arsenal while fuming with frustration. Expansionism was the goal of all the powerful nations, as it always had been, and in earlier centuries, as I’ve already outlined, it was at the heart of scores of bloody European conflicts. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that the years of uneasy peace before 1914 contributed to the inevitability of the conflict. Peace was considered an almost ‘unnatural’ state, leading to lily-livered namby-pambiness in the youth of Europe. Another character-building, manly war was long overdue.

Of course, all these expansionist wars of the past led mostly to stalemates and backwards and forwards exchanges of territory, not to mention mountains of dead bodies and lakes of blood, but they made numerous heroic reputations – Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his son Philip II of Spain, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Peter the Great of Russia, Louis XIV of France and of course Napoleon Bonaparte. These ‘greats’ of the past have always evoked mixed reactions in me, and the feelings are well summed up by Pinker in The Better Angels of our Nature:

The historic figures who earned the honorific ‘So-and-So the Great’ were not great artists, scholars, doctors or inventors, people who enhanced human happiness or wisdom. They were dictators who conquered large swaths of territory and the people in them. If Hitler’s luck had held out a bit longer, he probably would have gone down in history as Adolf the Great.

While I’m not entirely sure about that last sentence, these reflections are themselves an indication of how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve been affected by the wholesale slaughter of two world wars and the madness of the ‘mutually assured destruction’ era that followed them. The fact that we’ve now achieved a military might far beyond the average person’s ability to comprehend, rendering obsolete the old world of battlefields and physical heroics, has definitely removed much of the thrill of combat, now more safely satisfied in computer games. But let’s return again to that other country, the past.

In the same month that the war began, August 1914, the Order of the White Feather was founded, with the support of a number of prominent women of the time, including the author and anti-suffragette Mrs Humphrey Ward (whom we might now call Mary) and the suffragette leaders Emmeline and Cristobel Pankhurst. It was extremely popular, so much so that it interfered with government objectives – white feathers were sent even to those convalescing from the horrors of the front lines, and to those dedicated to arms manufacturing in their home countries. Any male of a certain age who wasn’t in uniform or ‘over there’ was fair game. Not that the white feather idea was new with WWI – it had been made popular by the novel The Four Feathers (1902), set in the First War of Sudan in 1882, and the idea had been used in the British Empire since the eighteenth century – but it reached a crescendo of popularity, a last explosive gasp – or not quite, for it was revived briefly during WWII, but since then, and partly as a result of the greater awareness of the carnage of WWI, the white feather has been used more as a symbol of peace and pacifism. The Quakers in particular took it to heart as a badge of honour, and it became a symbol for the British Peace Pledge Union (PPU) in the thirties, a pacifist organisation with a number of distinguished writers and intellectuals, such as Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell and Storm Jameson.

There was no PPU or anything like it, however, in the years before WWI. Yet the enthusiasm for war of 1914 soon met with harsh reality in the form of Ypres and the Somme. By the end of 1915 the British Army was ‘depleted’ to the tune of over half a million men, and conscription was introduced, for the first time ever in Britain, in 1916. It had been mooted for some time, for of course the war had been catastrophic for ordinary soldiers from the start, and it quickly became clear that more bodies were needed. Not surprisingly, though, resistance to the carnage had begun to grow. An organisation called the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF), consisting mainly of socialists and Quakers, was established, and it campaigned successfully to have a ‘conscience clause’ inserted in the 1916 Military Service (conscription) Act. The clause allowed people to refuse military service if it conflicted with their beliefs, but they had to argue their case before a tribunal. Of course ‘conshies’ were treated with some disdain, and were less tolerated by the British government as the war proceeded, during which time the Military Service Act was expanded, first to include married men up to 41 years of age (the original Act had become known as the Batchelor’s Bill) and later to include men up to 51 years of age. But the British government’s attitude didn’t necessarily represent that of the British people, and the NCF and related organisations grew in numbers as the war progressed, in spite of government and jingoist media campaigns to suppress them.

In Australia, two conscription bills, in 1916 and 1917, failed by a slim majority. In New Zealand, the government simply imposed the Military Service Act on its people without bothering to ask them. Those who resisted were often treated brutally, but their numbers increased as the war progressed. However, at no time, in any of the warring nations, did the anti-warriors have the numbers to be a threat to their governments’ ‘sunken assets’ policies.

So why was there such an appetite then and why is the return of such an appetite unthinkable today? Can we just put it down to progress? Many skeptics are rightly suspicious of ‘progress’ as a term that breeds complacency and even an undeserved sense of superiority over the primitives of the past, but Pinker and others have argued cogently for a civilising process that has operated, albeit partially and at varying rates in various states, since well before WWI, indeed since the emergence of governments of all stripes. The cost, in human suffering, of WWI and WWII, and the increasingly sophisticated killing technology that has recently made warfare as unimaginable and remote as quantum mechanics, have led to a ‘long peace’ in the heart of Europe at least – a region which, as my previous posts have shown, experienced almost perpetual warfare for centuries. We shouldn’t, of course, assume that the present stability will be the future norm, but there are reasons for optimism (as far as warfare and violence is concerned – the dangers for humanity lie elsewhere).

Firstly, the human rights movement, in the form of an international movement dedicated to peace and stability between nations for the sake of their citizens, was born out of WWI in the form of the League of Nations, which, while not strong enough to resist the Nazi impetus toward war in the thirties, formed the structural foundation for the later United Nations. The UN is, IMHO, a deeply flawed organisation, based as it is on the false premise of national sovereignty and the inward thinking thus entailed, but as an interim institution for settling disputes and at least trying to keep the peace, it’s far better than nothing. For example, towards the end of the 20th century, the concepts of crimes against humanity and genocide were given more legal bite, and heads of state began, for the first time in history, to be held accountable for their actions in international criminal courts run by the UN. Obviously, considering the invasion of Iraq and other atrocities, we have a long way to go, but hopefully one day even the the most powerful and, ipso facto, most bullying nations will be forced to submit to international law.

Secondly, a more universal and comprehensive education system in the west, which over the past century and particularly in recent decades, has emphasised critical thinking and individual autonomy, has been a major factor in the questioning of warfare and conscription, and in recognising the value of children and youth, and loosening the grip of authority figures. People are far less easily conned into going into war than ever before, and are generally more sceptical of their governments.

Thirdly, globalism and the internationalism of our economy, our science. our communications systems, and the problems we face, such as energy, food production and climate change, have meant that international co-operation is far more  important to us than empire-building. Science, for those literate enough to understand it, has all but destroyed the notion of race and all the baggage attend upon it. There are fewer barriers to empathy – to attack other nations is tantamount to attacking ourselves. The United Nations, ironic though that title often appears to be, has spawned or inspired many other organisations of international co-operation, from the ICC to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

There are many other related developments which have moved us towards co-operation and away from belligerence, among them being the greater democratisation of nations – the enlargement of the franchise in existing democracies or pro to-democracies, and the democratisation of former Warsaw Pact and ‘Soviet Socialist’ nations – and the growing similarity of national interests, leading to more information and trade exchanges.

So there’s no sense that the ‘long peace’ in Europe, so often discussed and analysed, is going to be broken in the foreseeable future. To be sure, it hasn’t been perfect, with the invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the not-so-minor Balkans War of the 90s, and I’m not sure if the Ukraine is a European country (and neither are many Ukrainians it seems), but the broad movements are definitely towards co-operation in Europe, movements that we can only hope will continue to spread worldwide.

Written by stewart henderson

August 22, 2014 at 9:05 am

Why is theology so boring? Stanley Hauerwas

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Hauerwas

These are the posts where I get to be a not-so-nice guy. Theology is one of my principal bugbears, for many reasons, one of which is that I’ve rarely encountered a modern theologian or Christian apologist who can resist lashing out at atheists.

I suppose I should feel sorry for them, they make such soft, or frail, targets (they’re mostly elderly), but they do insist on making themselves targets, so I’m happy to oblige. Before today I’d never heard of Stanley Hauerwas, so imagine my lack of interest in encountering this soft-spoken elderly gentleman being interviewed on my favourite ABC this arvo. Well, not so much lack of interest but mild willingness to be interested – a willingness quickly dashed by some of the first remarks I heard Hauerwas utter (I didn’t know at the time that he was a theologian). He was being interviewed for all of ten minutes on the ABC show One plus One by Scott Stephens, the ABC’s ‘online editor for religion and ethics’. I now recall Stephens having conducted a series of soft interviews in recent times with prominent ‘believing’ Australians such as David Cappo and Clare Bowditch, but I didn’t recognise him immediately, otherwise I might’ve dodged this. Unfortunately I listened – well, ok, I do have a combative interest in what theologians say.

So here’s the little interview in total, together with my commentary and summing up. The interview material is in italics. Enjoy.

Stephens: You’ve written some very interesting things in your recently published memoir. You’ve admitted for instance – ‘you don’t need to be a theologian to be a Christian, but I probably did’. At the end of your memoir, you then say that the whole reason you’re able to call yourself a Christian is because your friends name you as such. In a time that values self-reliance and even fetishizes self-made men, it’s a very strange series of admissions to make from someone who is renowned as one of the most important Christian thinkers in the last half-century. How did you come to that conclusion?

Hmmm. What makes me think all this was in order to introduce Hauerwas as the best thing since Christians invented sliced bread?

Hauerwas: By necessity. I can’t imagine coming to it just by individual reflection, because I don’t trust my own subjectivity at all. So it’s exactly by discovering what I believe through friends who tell me that this is what I believe that I discover that I am a Christian. Umm, it’s not a natural thing for me to be, I oftentimes point out, hell I’m a Texan (laughs) I mean it does not come easy for Texans to become Christian in the way that I think we must be as faithful followers of Christ, that is, to be non-violent. But I think that it’s through friends that you are enabled to live that way.

All of this sounds unproblematic on the face of it, but I have two criticisms to make.

First, the Jesus of the gospels wasn’t an entirely consistent construction. Yes, he said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, and I say hurray to that, but he also lashed out at the moneylenders in the temple, sending tables and chairs flying (Matt 21:12), killed a fig tree for not producing fruit out of season (Mark 11:12-14, 20-25, Matt 21:18-22), and damned for all time the townsfolk of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, villages in his own neighbourhood, for not listening to his preachifying (Matt 11:23, Luke 10:13-15). So much for love your neighbours, never mind love your enemies.

Second, Hauerwas describes what people ‘must be as faithful followers of Christ’, rather than what we, arguably, should be upon reflection. It’s all about following the leader, apparently. I’ve written about this before, but the difference between the ‘follow my lead’ approach of Jesus and other preachers and sermonizers, and the Socratic method of constructive engagement, getting the interlocutor to ‘go deeper’, is key, and should be key to the whole framework of modern education. It’s because of this approach towards independence and ‘ownership’ of ideas that religion is fading, methinks.

Stephens: Now this is interesting to me, because one of the themes that you’ve been exploring throughout your career is that, even though it might seem, looking from the outside, that the church is in a pretty good position here in the USA, it’s precisely because American culture is so saturated with Christianity – you’ve spent the better part of your professional career trying to convince Christians in the United States that their cosy relationship with American culture is pretty hazardous to its own health.

Hauerwas: Absolutely. I say I represent the Tonto principle of Christian ethics. The Lone Ranger and Tonto were once surrounded by 25,000 Sioux in the Dakotas, and the Lone Ranger looked over to Tonto and said, “What d’you think we should do Tonto?’ and Tonto said, “What do you mean we, white man?’ and I’m trying to help Christians in America recover the Christian ‘we’, which has been very much occluded in the celebration of the relationship between Christianity and America as the presumption that American democracy is the equivalent of what it means to be Christian.

Stephens: One of your great critiques is that it’s not simply just, say, a cultural issue, that many Christians assume that what it means to be American is to be Christian, and in turn what it means to be Christian is to be American in some sort of deep level, but you’ve even, in some ways you’ve also  upped the ante. You’ve said that one of the great problems facing American politics and also Christian identity, is the assumption that the American god is the Christian god.

This American stuff is of course a bit of a yawn to me, but I will say that there’s no such thing as the Christian god – or rather, no clear-cut thing. In the same sense, there’s no such thing as the American god. There’s the god of Bush junior, who’s different from the god of Obama, etc etc. These are fantasies you can tailor to your individual personality and needs. Apart from that, I’m happy to let American believers simmer in their theological idiosyncrasies.

Hauerwas: Right, yeah, I think, that the reason – I mean, atheism is so uninteresting in America. I mean, atheism in general is uninteresting in our world, because the god that is being denied isn’t very (laughs), isn’t the Christian god. That’s the reason why Americans think it’s very important that you believe in god, irrespective of what ‘god’ names. I find it extremely uninteresting whether you believe in god or not. The god I worship is not some deity, but the father the son and the holy spirit. That makes all the difference in the world for a people that are identified as not religious America. So I want Christians to be able to recover that kind of theological integrity in a world that makes it very hard to even identify it.

This is the passage I first heard – ‘atheism is uninteresting’. Again, I’m endlessly amused that theologians and religious apologists just can’t help having a go at atheism, and so revealing their ignorance as well as their anxiety. And of course their denialism of the fastest-growing movement vis-à-vis religion in the west. Of course, in one sense Hauerwas is right, atheism is totally uninteresting when you compare it to being the pet project of a supernatural being who’s also the creator of the universe, created just for you. It’s a bit like being personally chosen by the Doctor as his lifetime companion in all his space-time adventures. Great japes! Only Doctor Who is a science fantasy TV show, not a religion (with apologies to the Whovians out there).

Yes, rejecting the existence of supernatural entities is not intrinsically interesting, but the point is that atheists don’t go around being atheists. If I can give a roll-call of some of my intellectual heroes –  Aristotle, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Hume, Stendhal, Darwin, Russell, Einstein, Sagan, Attenborough, to name a few – I don’t so much care whether they were atheists, though clearly many of them were/are. What attracts me is their this-worldly concerns. None of these ‘uninteresting’ people are interested in theology, they’re too fascinated by how the real world – and its inhabitants on this tiny planet – works. We live in enthralling times – for exploring human origins, for exploring the world within and beyond our solar system, for exploring neurophysiology and consciousness, for exploring nanotechnology. So many realms opening up for exploration, it’s just endlessly fascinating. I just can’t see how ‘faith’ and theology, the eternally fruitless but entirely self-serving speculation about non-evidence-based supernatural entities, can possibly compare.

Stephens: What you’re saying, though, truly runs against the grain of the assumption that many people believe today, kind of guarantees a kind of social peace and cohesion, the assumption being that, if you wanna be religious, fine, just make sure your religiosity remains a form of inwardness, or even just, probably a better term would be sentimentality. Now, almost everything you’ve written is pitted against the reduction of religion to sentimentality, or ‘god’ to some sort of general deity.

These remarks of Stephens are simply intended to introduce the term ‘sentimentality’, a term that Hauerwas has apparently twisted out of all recognition to feed his theological concerns. I should simply remind readers that the currently agreed dictionary definition of sentimentality is something like ‘an appeal to shallow, uncomplicated emotions at the expense of reason’.

Hauerwas: Absolutely, I say the great enemy of Christianity is not atheism it’s sentimentality. and the deepest sentimentality in our culture is the presumption that we should have children in a manner that they do not have to suffer for our convictions. I think it drives people – it drives children absolutely crazy for our parents to think that they ought to raise children in a manner that when children grow up they get to make up their own minds. I mean, what kind of conviction is that, why did you have them in the first place, if you want them to make up their own minds? They don’t have minds worth making up until they’ve been trained. So exactly how to overcome those kinds of sentimentalities that, interestingly enough result in great violence, I think, is exactly the kind of challenge that Christianity presents to the world in which we find ourselves.

So Hauerwas has defined sentimentality, or one aspect of it, as ‘raising children so that they get to make up their own minds when they grow up.’ Imagine how Socrates would deal with such a distortion of a concept!

Maybe somewhere in his theological works Hauerwas has presented his views more cogently than here, but I have little appetite for anyone’s theology, so I must presume to limit myself to this little interview. I’m far from denying that human children need (and get) training, as do all social animals, including dolphins, elephants, wolves, lions and hyenas, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t have minds of their own, and that independence of thought isn’t a desired outcome. The trouble is, Hauerwas’s god only knows what he means by ‘being trained’. I suspect the worst, bearing in mind his remark that children should suffer for their parents’ convictions. This sounds to me like he thinks Christian parents should bring them up strictly to be Christians, and make them suffer if they stray. No Darwins, no… (name just about every significant thinker of the last century) would ever get to emerge in Hauerwas’s world it seems, they’d all be trained out of their independence of mind until they were black and blue. But I’m being mean – Hauerwas is an advocate of non-violence.

In any case, none of this has anything to do with sentimentality. We bring children into the world for a whole host of reasons, not all of them worthy, of course. We hope to contribute to their becoming good people and happy, but we don’t need to have read Pinker’s The Blank Slate (another boring atheist) to be aware that kids do indeed have minds of their own from day one. I have no idea what Hauerwas could possibly mean by saying that encouraging independence of spirit leads to great violence, but obviously he’s no student of history. Our modern education, which tries to combine a certain degree of training in the basics, without which children are unlikely to succeed in modern society, with independent analytical skills of the type that have created the scientific and technological explosion we’re currently witnessing, has, in fact, helped to create a less violent society than at any time in human history. And that’s not spin, it’s well-supported fact.

Stephens: Weeks before the terrorist attacks on September 11 2001, Time magazine named you America’s best theologian.

Hauerwas: Actually it was September 10, 2000 the 11th, by the time the magazine came out it was the day before, which was wonderfully ironic, because then no-one noticed.

Stephens: But after September 11 you issued many of your most public, most notable, and for many people now even most infamous critiques of the American response to that attack.

Hauerwas: That’s true. My response was, one, you could have done it as a just warrior. I said, you know, the most fateful words that were uttered after September 11 was George Bush’s ‘we are at war’. Now, I think that that was a deep mistake on ‘just war’ grounds. What happened on September 11 was murder, and you don’t go to war against a murderer. As soon as Americans agreed with George Bush, we are at war, you gave Bin Laden exactly what he wanted. You made him a warrior, not a murderer. I think then, the problem…. I think George Bush’s response was a pastoral response. The American people felt at a loss, we didn’t know what to do. We know war, so to say we were at war made this a comforting claim that gave us a sense that we knew what to do – we had to find someone to kill (laughs). So Afghanistan and Iraq were destined to be wars that we had to fight against the infidel. If we had been able to say ‘this was murder’, and how do you respond to murderers, it would have been… it would’ve required a patience that the American people find very hard to enact. I was recently asked, what would I suggest if I wanted America to be more thoughtful and possibly even non-violent, and I said the return to the draft. That we have the situation, we now have is because we have a paid military in which we expect very little cost from the broad American middle class, and it would be very interesting to have a return to the actual sacrifice necessary in order to pursue a legislated war against terrorism. It’s very… I think the Obama administration is to be credited with toning down the war against terrorism, because they understand that’s a war you can’t win in that way. But, generally the American people bought into that, and we paid big prices for it.

Okay, in this latter part of the interview we’ve left theology far behind, thankfully, and we’re into straightforward ethical issues. Apart from the remark about a ‘pastoral response’ from George Bush, there’s nothing in Hauerwas’s argument that owes anything to religion, it’s all secular ethics, and it’s the same ethical argument that myself and many others, such as Geoffrey Robertson, have been putting for years – that so-called acts of terrorism should be treated as criminal, police matters and dealt with under criminal law rather than glorifying them, inadvertantly or otherwise, as acts of war.

So Hauerwas seems to have some reasonable ideas, and a few dodgy ones (he’s a Texan, after all), but it’s unlikely that any of his best ideas emerge from Christian theology. Don’t be a faithful follower of anyone – or anything, except evidence.

Written by stewart henderson

December 20, 2013 at 6:20 am

Iraq, ten years on

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I protested against the Iraq war ten years ago, but as always with my sceptical tendencies and my need to have a worked-out, informed position, I had qualms about simply joining the anti-war crowd. Getting rid of Saddam would surely be a good thing, but that wasn’t the motive of the US administration. They were talking about WMD and trying to make a connection – quite ludicrously – between Iraq and September 11. And they were clearly bullying the UN reps who were reporting no hint of WMD, and the UN Security Council nations who opposed war. What’s more, the US push had little to do with humanitarianism, and much to do with the restoration of national pride after a fall, an absolutely appalling reason for a militarily mighty nation to declare war on a much smaller one. The outcome was a foregone conclusion and the cost to the Iraqi people would surely be enormous.

But that was my dilemma. Saddam’s dictatorship was obviously hurting the Iraqi people, though some more than others (and I didn’t really know too much about the ethnic, regional, economic and religious differences within the country and how they aligned with Saddam). Could an intervention manage to topple Saddam as bloodlessly as possible, and replace him with something more generally liberating for the Iraqi people? I thought not, even with the most meticulous international planning. And of course, there’s no such thing as meticulous international planning, and I hold little hope that there ever will be.

So, though, I believe in the, probably hopelessly idealistic, humanistic notion of humanitarian intervention to rid any nation or region of oppressive government, and though I have little respect for the notion of the inviolability of national sovereignty, being humanistically anti-nationalist, I recognised pretty clearly that the planned invasion of Iraq would do more harm than good. Of course I didn’t recognise at the time just how much harm it would do.

So just how much harm has it done? Just last week, in my adult English class, I talked to my students, apropos of the coming Australian election, about the politics of their own countries. One of those students was from Iraq. Her words were – ‘before, Saddam in power, bad person, but country not so bad. Now, after war, everything bad. No safe, all fighting, economy, all bad. All destroyed. Terrible.’

It was an assessment that confirmed my suspicions, but of course somewhat lacking in detail, and for all I know quite incorrect. So let’s have a bit more of a look-see. I’ll base much of what I write here on the three-hour BBC documentary aired recently.

That documentary starts with Bush’s simple-minded post-September 11 us-and-them pronouncement, ‘you’re either with us or with the terrorists’, and then takes us to communications between the US and Iraqi governments. The US was demanding a complete falling-in-line with their position, it appears. They were asking, ‘are you going to fully co-operate with us against al-Qa’ida?’ Saddam’s response, according to an Iraqi intelligence agent, was ‘America isn’t the only country to suffer terrorism. The sanctions on Iraq are also terrorism.’ He also said that these sanctions had killed far more people in Iraq than died in the US on September 11. He may well have been right, but he conveniently omitted his own role in bringing those sanctions about, and I’ve no doubt that he would’ve manipulated the sanctions and their impact for his own propaganda purposes.

The point is that his response to the US administration wasn’t grovelling enough, and the Bush team used this as an excuse to target him. Ten years later, some 170,000 Iraqis are dead (the figures are of course notoriously rubbery) and their families devastated, Baghdad remains a hell-hole, and the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, has assumed quasi-dictatorial powers and has been acting against the Sunni minority, within his own government and within the country, in order to suppress sectarian violence. This hasn’t been hugely successful, and I think it’s fair to say that the Iraq of today is neither peaceful nor particularly democratic, though earlier this year Maliki’s opponents managed to get a law passed banning him from seeking a third term in office. Maliki has been PM since 2006, having been re-elected in 2010.

So what was it all for? The war brought al-Qa’ida into Iraq, where it hadn’t been before. It unleashed terrible sectarian forces within the country, as well as creating huge anti-US and anti-western resentment. You could say it has led to an uncertain Iraqi future, but that would be unfair, since that was also the situation under Saddam. The war would have cost the US a fortune, though I’m sure that many Americans ripped their own fortunes out of the Iraqi economy during that time. About 4,500 US soldiers were killed during the invasion and occupation, and none of their objectives have been met. The world is not safer because of it, quite obviously, and Iraqis are certainly not safer for it. The main lesson to be learned from it is a lesson that never does get learned – don’t intervene in a nation’s affairs (or a region’s affairs) unless you’re sure that the outcome won’t be worse than the situation that caused you to intervene.

As I wrote that last sentence I realized that this is something you can never know for sure, and could therefore be used as an excuse for never intervening anywhere, but generally you can have a good idea, and you can plan for an outcome. In fact, it’s highly irresponsible not to, especially when human lives are at stake. The Bush administration seems to have had very little interest in the outcome of its intervention. Was it interested in establishing a democracy in Iraq? Seriously? Could it possibly be so utterly devoid of realism? It seems to me obvious that it had never given the outcome that much thought. The intervention in Iraq was, as I’ve said, about restoring US prestige after September 11. Invading Afghanistan and ousting the Taliban (or half-ousting them) wasn’t enough of a muscle-flexer, something had to be done on a bigger stage. The Iraqi people, if they were ever considered at all, were treated as if they would be just like Americans. They’d all hate living under a dictatorship, they’d all embrace democracy whenever they got the chance – maybe they’d even become a new Christian outpost in the Middle East. As for the Sunni-Shia problem, the Kurdish problem and all the other sectarian issues, the lack of secular political institutions, the absence of any real history of democracy and so forth, all of these were barely considered.

It was irresponsibility on a massive scale, but the question is – was it criminal? Listening to Tony Blair talking in the documentary about – and this is a direct quote – having ‘taken the view that we needed to remake the Middle East’, as if it was a piece of plasticine, shows breathtaking naivete, hubris and insensitivity (think of who the ‘we’ is here), but on the face of it, it hardly sounds criminal. After all, Blair is a ‘good guy’, unlike the bad guys of al-Qa’ida. He’s not out to kill as many infidels as possible so as to be a hero to his people. He genuinely wanted to help the Iraqi people, I’m sure, but in doing so he chose to minimise their nature, or to recast them, essentially, as western liberal democrats. I’m sure that he would argue that he wasn’t under-estimating the task, but the fact is, that’s exactly what he was doing. Underestimating the task and the cost to the – completely unconsulted – inhabitants of the region.

Heads of state, especially of powerful states, have an enormous responsibility, which carries with it extra accountability. History is an account of heads of state, from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan to Adolph Hitler, using their power to conquer or reshape massive, and massively populated regions of the world, with little regard for the local inhabitants. In earlier times, this was just the way of the world – if you and your family were in the way of the Viking or Mongol or Nazi invaders, bad luck. But times have changed, and we now have terms like genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, to consider, and we have – admittedly fledgling – institutions such as the International Criminal Court, to render justice to those ‘inconvenienced’ by the mayhem involved in the remaking or reshaping of particular regions of the globe.

Iraq has been pretty well wrecked by the needless intervention of western powers in the last ten years. I would say that 200,000 avoidable deaths would be a conservative estimate, and that’s just the pointy end of the mess. Possibly as many as 2 million have been displaced. Nobody has been held accountable and western leaders are still telling bare-faced lies about the impact of the invasion. Just last month the death toll from fighting in Iraq was 1,057 – the biggest monthly death toll in 5 years. The descent into civil war looks inevitable.

The most powerful countries don’t want a bar of the ICC, they prefer to have a free hand for their reshaping and remaking, but if the behaviour of the decision-makers who created this bloody debacle isn’t criminal, I can only scratch my head and wonder what the word ‘criminal’ actually means.

Written by stewart henderson

August 17, 2013 at 11:41 am

some thoughts on the Edward Snowden affair

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Like many people, my imagination has been exercised by the Edward Snowden case, though I haven’t followed ii particularly closely. When I do think of it, it’s in terms of what the USA’s National Security Agency has been up to. As a humanist, I’m obviously not so concerned about the security of particular nations as I am about the human consequences of surveillance, spying, secretiveness and the like. So it was with some interest that I read in yesterday’s Adelaide Advertiser a letter to the editor which argued that Snowden had not committed a “real crime”. I thought the argument, prima facie, a good one. Snowden released secret data collected by the NSA about individuals – or released data to the effect that the NSA was spying on individuals, I’m not sure of the details – but not before making sure he was in a foreign country, out of the reach of the US government. Since then, there has been much shrieking about treason, not only from US officials, but from US allies. This is as you would expect. Imagine, though, a North Korean citizen releasing data to the effect that North Korea’s National Security Agency was collecting data, not only on North Korean citizens, but on citizens of many other nations. But this North Korean citizen waited until she was out of the country (let’s say in the USA) before releasing the data. North Korea’s government shrieks treason and demands that the individual is returned to North Korea to face the consequences of her actions. I would be very surprised if the US government acceded to such a request. I imagine that the western newspapers would place much more emphasis on the information leaked by this ‘traitor’ than on her behaviour, and that she would be treated more as a hero than a villain. And we can look at many other scenarios of this kind, with many different responses, depending on national allegiances. It follows that this kind of behaviour is not a ‘real crime’ in the way that murder, rape, theft, assault and many other crimes obviously are.

I can imagine counter-arguments. For example, that this just takes a libertarian line, saying that ‘real crimes’ are only those against individual liberty, while ignoring what we owe to our nation, the abuse of which is like an abuse to ourselves, and has the potential to make each of us more insecure. My response to that would be that, while I do find nationalism a rather shallow allegiance, that doesn’t make me a libertarian, as I believe very strongly in the ‘social glue’ that enriches our humanity and is in fact essential to it. So the behaviour would have to be measured in a more complex way, against the background of how it affects the non-national, human social glue as opposed to how it affects nationalistic concerns, which themselves have their shifting impacts, pro and con, on the human social glue.

Taking that argument, and considering what seems to have been leaked – but I admit I haven’t looked at the detail of that – the criminality of Snowden’s actions seems at the very least questionable. And besides, I would take the USA’s complaints more seriously if they made a more serious attempt to subscribe to international law and international criminal jurisdiction, which of course successive US governments treat with scarcely veiled contempt.

Written by stewart henderson

July 13, 2013 at 8:34 am