the new ussr illustrated

welcome to the Urbane Society for Skeptical Romantics, where pretentiousness is as common as muck

Archive for the ‘rhetoric’ Category

solving the world’s problems, one bastard at a time..

leave a comment »

Canto: Let’s talk about something more gripping for a while. Like, for example, the global political situation.

Jacinta: Mmmm, could you narrow that down a bit?

Canto: No, not really… Okay, let’s take the most politically gripping issue of the moment, the possibility of nuclear annihilation for thousands of South Koreans or Japanese – and then North Koreans – due to the somewhat irresponsible launchings and detonations of massively destructive weaponry by a guy who we can reasonably assume to be intoxicated with his own power – and I do believe power to be the most toxic and dangerous drug ever conceived. And then we can talk about all the other issues.

Jacinta: Well as for the Kim jong-un issue, I suspect I can speak for a lot of people when I say I oscillate between dwelling on it and dismissing it as something I can do nothing about. What else do you want me to say. To say I’m glad we’re not in the way of it all would seem inhumane…

Canto: Do you have any solutions? What should we do from here?

Jacinta: We? You mean ‘the west’? Okay, from here on in, I’d cease all direct communications with Kim – all threats, all comments, everything. That only seems to make him worse.

Canto: But it can hardly get worse. Don’t we need to act to remove his threats, which are a bit more than threats?

Jacinta: Well of course the best solution, out of a bad lot, would be to have him disappear, like magic. Just deleted. It’s impossible, but then I’ve heard some people do six impossible things before breakfast.

Canto: He’s only 33 apparently, and according to Wikipedia he’s married but childless…

Jacinta: I’m not saying deleting him would be a good option, it’d presumably cause chaos, a big power struggle, a probable military takeover, unpredictable action from China, and all the weaponry, such as it is, would still be there. And we have no idea how to do it anyway.

Canto: I’m sure they have some plan of that type. The CIA’s not dead yet.

Jacinta: Yeah I’m sure they have some back-drawer plan somewhere too, but I wouldn’t misunderestimate the incompetence of the CIA.

Canto: So what if we follow your do-and-say-nothing policy? Don’t aggravate the wounded bear. But maybe the bear isn’t wounded at all. NK just detonated something mighty powerful, though there’s some controversy over whether it was actually thermonuclear. Anyway it’s unlikely the country just developed this powerful weapon in the few months that Trump has been acting all faux-macho. Who knows, this may have taken place if Clinton or someone else was in power in the US.

Jacinta: Interesting point, but then why are so many people talking about tit-for-tat and brinkmanship? They may have had the weapon, and maybe a lot more, but Kim’s decision to detonate it now, to show it, seems to have been provoked. It’s classic male display before a rival. Think of the little mutt snapping at the mastiff’s heels. Fuck you, big boy, I’ve got teeth too.

Canto: Yeah, but this little mutt has teeth that can wipe out cities. In any case, now he’s been provoked, and it’s unlikely that Trump and his cronies are going to damp down the belligerent rhetoric, the rest of us seem to be just sitting tight and waiting for this mutt to do some damage inadvertently/on purpose, and then what will happen? Say a missile goes astray and lands on or near a Japanese city? Untold casualties…

Jacinta: I think China will be key here. Not that I have any faith in the Chinese thugocracy to act in any interest other than its own.

Canto: Or the Trumpocracy for that matter.

Jacinta: I suspect China might step in and do something if it came to the kind of disaster you’ve mentioned. Though whether they have a plan I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised, actually if they’re having urgent closed-door talks right now on how best to take advantage of the crisis.

Canto: Well don’t worry, Trump and our illustrious leader are have a phone call today to sort it all out.

Jacinta: I’m really not sure what there is to talk about. An American first strike would have horrific cascading effects, and upping the tempo of military exercises in the neighbouring regions will just make Kim more reckless, to go by past experience. So if we don’t have any communication directed at him, he might continue with building bombs, but he would’ve done that anyway. So, though we’re not making matters any better, neither are we making them worse, which we are doing by goading him. Meanwhile we should be talking around NK. It’s like the elephant in the room. No sense talking to the elephant, he doesn’t speak our language (actually that’s a bad example, as intelligent mammals elephants have a lot in common with us…). Anyway we should be talking to significant others to try to build a team that can deal with the elephant.

Canto: Teamwork, that seems highly likely.

Jacinta: Yeah, I know everyone has a different agenda with regard to the elephant, but surely nobody wants to see anyone nuked. And the US shouldn’t be wasting its time talking to Australia, though I suspect Trump will be talking to Turnbull re troop commitments rather than any serious solution.

Canto: And by the way, we’re talking about Trump here, he’s never going to quit with the macho bluster. That’s a given.

Jacinta: All right so all we can do is hope – it’s out of our hands. But it seems to me that all his advisers are telling him a first strike isn’t an option, so maybe he will listen.

Canto: Maybe he’ll listen about the first strike, but he won’t stop the bluster and the goading. So Kim will continue to react by testing missiles and such, until something goes horribly wrong, and Trump will feel justified in delivering a second strike, and things’ll get very bloody and messy.

Jacinta: Okay, you’re getting me depressed, but if I can return to teamwork, the thing to do is get the team on board – the UN as well as the key players, China, Russia and of course South Korea and Japan. That means putting aside all the bad blood and really working as a team.

Canto: To do what? Get NK to stop producing nukes? Putin has already said that would be a no-goer, given their position.

Jacinta: Right, so that would be a starting point for discussion. Why does Putin think that, and what would be his solution, or his advice? And China’s? I’m assuming everybody’s uncomfortable about NK, though some are clearly more uncomfortable than others. So get a discussion going. What does Russia think the US should do about NK? What does China think Russia should do? Does anyone have good advice for South Korea?

Canto: You’re being hopelessly naive. I suspect Russia and China would approach this issue with complete cynicism.

Jacinta: Well let’s be well-meaning rather than naive. I think we’re inclined to be a co-operative species. I think cynicism can dissipate when confronted with a genuine desire to listen and co-operate. You know I’ve described all of the main actors here – Trump, Putin, Li Keqiang and his henchmen, and of course Kim Jong-un, as macho scumbags and the like, but maybe its time to appeal to the better angels of their natures, and ours, to find a peaceful resolution to this mess.


Written by stewart henderson

September 6, 2017 at 12:22 pm

a few words on Donald Trump and democracy

leave a comment »

Phineas T Barnum, a rather more likeable huckster

Phineas T Barnum, a rather more likeable huckster

I’ve never been too much exercised on US domestic politics, but I listened with some interest to an interview on the Point of Inquiry podcast recently with David Cay Johnston, the author of a book on Donald Trump, inter alia, and he effectively explained how such an obviously boorish character functioned, though he didn’t so much explain why he got to where he is today – which would require a different book, one that reads the psyche of a particular type of individual, or ‘mark’.

The term ‘mark’ is used by magicians playing as ‘psychics’ or ‘faith healers’ etc to refer to the easily duped. Johnson, in his book The Making of Donald Trump, describes Trump as a Barnum & Bailey ‘huckster’ type, far more interested in persuasion, usually for the purpose of making money, than truth. What struck Johnston, when he first reported on Trump in relation to his interest in casinos in the late eighties, was his ignorance, even of the business at hand. He tested this himself by asking Trump questions which contained deliberately false information and watching how Trump handled them. And of course got the usual arrogant bluster that we’ve all observed.

So this is the question. Why does anyone takes Trump seriously? I remember my own first experience of Trump, years ago, when he hosted some kind of reality show in which he was interviewing prospective job-seekers. It only took about five minutes to realise that the fellow was a self-important loudmouth and a bullying dirtbag. So it didn’t take long for my feelings of contempt to switch from the oxygen-thief to his ‘victims’. What kind of idiot would put herself in this position? Apparently it had to do with money and the power that it brought…

So the worry I have is not about the huckster Trump, it’s about those who take him seriously, his ‘marks’. And it’s also about the process by which anyone can obtain high political office in a very powerful country – a position of huge responsibility. Arguably, it’s a problem of democracy.

This problem was highlighted some 2,500 years ago, right at the beginning of democracy as a political system, when the sort of populism and demagoguery that Trump utilises so instinctively brought ancient Athens to its knees, and it’s the principle reason why the intellectual elites represented by the likes of Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle were so vehemently opposed to democracy. They’d witnessed the disastrous Sicilian campaign (which precipitated Athenian decline in the region) which they blamed, not entirely fairly, on that system. Certainly they recognised the dangers of such populists as Cleon and Alcibiades, though neither they nor anyone after them were able to come up with a better system. Plato’s Republic, which advocated, perhaps not entirely seriously, rule by an intellectual elite, was hampered by an absurdly static notion of society, a sort of eugenics avant la lettre, as if intellectuals (and warriors, and servants) were born and not made – or, at least, a mixture of both.

Yet if you look at our political system today, you’ll find that we temper the democratic political system with a fair degree of intellectual elitism in the form of our judiciary – the ‘unrepresentative swill’ that preside over our high court and other courts throughout the land, interpreting legislature judiciously and causing grumbling parliamentarians to find new and more thoughtful laws to get round them. And I would advocate another form of ‘elitist’ intervention to ensure more responsible government.

I’ve mentioned this before when I suggested that individuals who want to stand for public office, thus to participate in making laws that influence our citizenry and showcase our nation to the world (and more than this in the case of powerful nations), should have to pass a reasonably stringent scientific literacy test. Of course, such an idea will never get up, so I’m proposing an even broader one.

It’s expected that anybody applying for a job involving considerable responsibility should be submitted to considerable scrutiny regarding their plans for the job, their understanding of the job’s requirements, and their knowledge of the fields covered by the job. In the case of becoming the President of a nation, this scrutiny should surely be imperative. So, a rigorous questioning of the candidate’s knowledge and ideas with respect to that nation’s economic situation, its domestic and foreign policies, as well as a basic understanding of science in relation to national and global issues, should be an absolute minimum requirement.

Compare this requirement to what actually exists today. No scrutiny whatsoever. A complete protection against tough questioning on these matters, with no requirement to justify to the people who they serve – as the ultimate public servant – any remark or decision they make. It’s a problem.

Trump won’t become President, because though he knows how to play to and work a particular crowd, that crowd will continue to shrink as his tactics are exposed by the media and especially by those who otherwise would support the conservative side of politics he’s vaguely aligned himself to, but it’s surely a systemic failure that such an inappropriate and ignorant candidate should ever get to where he is today. If that’s how democracy works, then democracy isn’t enough. Democracy has its limits – it has become far too unquestioned as a political system. Its limits are in fact considerable. We shouldn’t decide scientific matters by democratic process (that sounds obvious, but I’ve heard more than one polly say the exact opposite), and we shouldn’t, in my view allow just anyone to stand for political office, especially at the top level. The consequences might be dire. And we should also do our best, though it’s a hard road to hoe, to make every vote count, by making it as generally informed and reasoned as possible. There’s nothing new about that last statement, but it still holds true. Democracy without education, in the broadest sense, isn’t worth much.

Plus ca change...

Plus ca change…

Written by stewart henderson

August 13, 2016 at 9:55 am

the greatest country on Earth?

leave a comment »

let's call bullshit

let’s call bullshit

Canto: So Michelle Obama thinks America is the greatest country on Earth…

Jacinta: Not just thinks, but tearfully feels, in every cell of her body, but you know, even she must realise it’s all rhetorical baloney.

Canto: I prefer to call it balderdash – less American.

Jacinta: But you can’t blame pollies for getting all jingoistic come election time, can you?

Canto: I do. I can’t stand it at any time. But I want us to reflect for a while on the meaning of ‘the greatest country on Earth’. Is greatness measurable? Is there currently a fifteenth greatest country on Earth? What are the measuring criteria?

Jacinta: I think you’re taking it all too seriously, but it’s interesting – we’ve observed this before – that every nation in history that has had economic and military superiority over others has assumed this entailed moral superiority. Whereas in the world of realpolitik it just means they’re an apex predator.

Canto: I’m sure Donald Frump would agree, though I think he’s wrong to claim that the USA is no longer an apex predator. There can be room for more than one at the top, though it wouldn’t do to let that space get too crowded.

Jacinta: Yes, so ‘greatest’ can only mean ‘most powerful’, it’s not the kind of term you use to measure a nation’s quality for its own citizens.

Canto: But why are Americans so keen to trumpet their nation’s superiority? I mean methinks they do protest too much.

Jacinta: Well a couple of centuries ago, when the Brits had the strongest economy, weren’t they the same?

Canto: Well, not really… I mean, that wouldn’t be British, would it? I mean they thought they were morally superior of course, but they weren’t so utterly boorish as to proclaim it while banging their tits.

Jacinta: Well you’re making a good point. When imperialist nations or superpowers or whatever start believing they’re better than others in some moral way, they may act accordingly, pushing their weight around, hectoring, lecturing, even taking it upon themselves to punish other nations for not being like them.

Canto: Or invading other nations to show them how ‘being great’ is done. So that’s why we need correctives. We need more objective measures, not for measuring national greatness, which is just a term of power, or just rhetoric, but for measuring success in terms of the well-being, happiness, freedom or whatever of the members of that nation.

Jacinta: I think that people like Obama, and so many Americans, really believe in this rhetoric though. They take a term like ‘great’, and they really think it refers to all those other things – opportunity, well-being, smarts, etc.

Canto: Which is why reality checks are in order. Take the ‘land of opportunity’ rhetoric. What this refers to is social mobility. Anyone has the chance to be anything. But there are surely ways to measure social mobility, which are more or less objective.

Jacinta: Certainly more objective than just making the claim. And it’s interesting, we’ve looked at a few national surveys, based on various criteria, and I can’t recall the USA ever coming in the top ten in any of them. Usually it’s well down the list.

Canto: So it’s time to revisit those surveys. First the OECD survey that was posted on in the past, its better life index. The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)…

Jacinta: Such a positive, feel-good internationalist title.

Canto: Isn’t it? It was founded in 1948, another of those positives to come out of the negativity of warfare. It’s headquartered in Paris, it has 35 member countries and its purpose is pretty well self-explanatory.

Jacinta: Yes, but while its focus is obviously on economics, primarily, the better life index is a kind of side project, which is almost saying ‘money ain’t everything’, there are all these other factors as well as the economic, to consider when striving for a better life, and a better country.

Canto: Yes they consider 11 factors in all: housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance. People can give different weightings to these factors, and on their website they allow you to change the weightings so that you’ll come up with a different top ten or twenty of the 35 participating countries.

Jacinta: But according to the weightings they favour, the USA comes a fairly creditable ninth behind Norway, Australia, Denmark, Switzerland, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland, in that order. But since we’re in Australia we can surely permit ourselves some eye-rolling at your standard Yank jingoism.

Canto: Surely but of course many will say that these ‘objective’ assessment criteria are highly suspect, and possibly anti-American.

Jacinta: Naturally, and we haven’t the resources or the time to evaluate them, so instead we’ll look at a number of these surveys with the assumption that they’re not all anti-American, to see how our chauvinistic allies fare. But it’s interesting that the OECD survey doesn’t highly rate any of the non-Scandinavian European counties. A Scandinavian bias perhaps?

Canto: Well here’s another rather different international survey, which looks instead at cities.

Jacinta: Very relevant considering the world’s rapid urbanisation shift.

Canto: The Mercer Quality of Living rankings looks at living conditions in hundreds of cities ‘according to 39 factors, grouped in 10 categories’: Political and social environment, Economic environment, Medical and health considerations, Schools and education, Public services and transportation, Recreation, Consumer goods, Housing, and Natural environment. And again, you may want to believe its findings are biased and you may be right, but its highest ranking American city is Honolulu at number 31.

Jacinta: Honolulu? Hardly the heart of America.

Canto: Compare neighbouring Canada, which has 5 cities in front of Honolulu. Vancouver (4), Ottawa (14), Toronto (16), Montreal (21) and Calgary (28). Australia and New Zealand also rate far better than the USA with Aukland ranked at 4 (tied with Vancouver), Sydney ranked 10, Wellington 12, Melbourne 18, Perth 21 and Canberra 26. Some 16 European cities are in the top 25, with Vienna being ranked the number one city for the past 6 years in a row. There are no Asian, African or South American cities in the top rankings.

Viennese market, in front of some Euro-impressive pile. I was there a few months back, shivering in the rain, blissfully unaware that I was in the world's best city, according to some

Viennese market, in front of some Euro-impressive pile. I was there a few months back, shivering in the rain, blissfully unaware that I was in the world’s best city, according to some

Jacinta: Mercer, by the way, is a human resources consulting firm headquartered in New York, and it’s really hard to get full data from it because it restricts full access to ‘professionals’, presumably behind a paywall. Nosy impoverished amateurs like us are unwelcome. So most of the data we’re using is from back in 2010 (and that’s only from press releases, with little detail) but I doubt that the USA has become any ‘greater’ since then. So it’s clear that the USA is no great shakes, city-wise – in fact it would be classed as probably the lowest-ranked western country in the world, according to this survey…

Canto: Conducted by a New York based firm…

Jacinta: Insofar as the liveability of it’s cities are concerned. And that’s where most people live, after all.

Canto: So it’s not looking good for the bad old USA. Any more surveys?

Jacinta: And in case people quibble about the term ‘western’, let’s be a little more precise. The USA, in terms of the quality of its cities for their own residents, lags behind Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Canto: That way greatness tells lies.

Jacinta:  There’s a website called numbeo which claims to provide ‘the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries worldwide. Numbeo provides current and timely information on world living conditions including cost of living, housing indicators, health care, traffic, crime and pollution.‘ Its ‘quality of life index’, based on countries,  looks somewhat similar to that of the OECD, with the USA ranked tenth, well below Australia and New Zealand, ranked third and fourth respectively. However it differs from the OECD in that it ranks a number of non-Scandinavian European countries above the USA, namely Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Spain. And it ranks Canada below the USA, which is unusual. And again the top rankings are dominated by western countries, with Japan being the top Asian country at 16.

Canto: I’ve never heard of numbeo, what are their bonafides and how do they gather data?

Jacinta: It’s a crowd-sourcing site, founded in 2009 by one Mladan Adamovic, a former Google software engineer. It’s evolving, and its findings suggest it’s not particularly an outlier, though at this stage not perhaps as reliable as the OECD.

Canto: Well, with crowd-sourcing, there would be some nation-participants where information would be scarce, or virtually non-existent.

Jacinta: That’s right, but all of these survey organisations and websites face the same problems, and it’s pretty likely that the places from which info is scarce wouldn’t be in the top rankings in any case. If you know your country’s doing well, you’d want to share it.

Canto: Okay, so we’ve looked at three sources. One more?

Jacinta: Yeah well a few more, which I’ll summarise. Monocle magazine, a British lifestyle magazine, has been doing an annual quality of life index based on cities since 2006. Its criteria are ‘safety/crime, international connectivity, climate/sunshine, quality of architecture, public transport, tolerance, environmental issues and access to nature, urban design, business conditions, pro-active policy developments and medical care’, and it ranks Tokyo at number one, whereas Mercer ranked it 44th! It did rank Vienna at number two, however. And it ranked Melbourne at 4 and Sydney at 5, so it must be very objective.

Canto: And the US?

Jacinta: Its highest ranking city was Portland Oregon at 25. So there’s definitely a pattern emerging.

Canto: Where’s Adelaide?

Jacinta: They’ve never heard of it. Another survey based on cities comes from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), from the London-based group that publishes The Economist. They go into a lot of detail about their criteria on their website, so I won’t go into it here. I only had access to their current top 10. It shows Hong Kong at number one, and Sydney at 5. No US cities make the ten, and Vienna isn’t there either. Tokyo comes in at 10. It should be added that they seem to have drastically amended their criteria recently – before that, Vienna regularly came in at number 3, with Melbourne and Vancouver also in the top 5 regularly. Melbourne ranked number 1 in 2011.

Docklands in the Great City of Melbourne

Docklands in the Great City of Melbourne

Canto: That’s interesting about Hong Kong, because I read elsewhere that life expectancy of its residents is about the highest in the world. So the city must be doing something right.

Jacinta: Well I’m sure the Chinese government will put a stop to that.

Canto: Okay I think we’ve done enough survey of surveys – let’s summarise. We started with Michele Obama, in typical US pollie style, proclaiming the greatness of her country.

Jacinta: I.e. not just great but ‘the greatest on Earth’. So we had a look at a handful of the most well-known global surveys of nations and cities, based essentially on liveability criteria. Though it’s impossible to be entirely objective in these surveys, they collectively present a pattern. In none of them did the USA distinguish itself, and in terms of its cities it really did quite badly, as a western nation. As to why that might be the case, we leave that for the reader’s speculations, for now. The gap between US perceptions and reality, I would contend, is largely caused by the assumption that if you’re globally dominant in economic terms, you’re in a ‘great’ country in any or every other way.

Canto: Roman economic hegemony, in the old days, was largely based on a substantial slave population, wasn’t it?

Jacinta: Well, that and being able to dictate terms of trade with others, as every dominant nation or empire has been able to do. But you’re right, a lot of economic success in the past has involved the exploitation of a populous underclass. The USA is by far the most populous of the traditional western countries, and it effectively has no minimum wage. That’s very handy for the McDonald Frumps of that great nation.

Homless Vacant Homes

Written by stewart henderson

August 7, 2016 at 1:37 pm

Is Malcolm Turnbull a libertarian?

leave a comment »


Jacinta: Okay so here’s a topical topic. I was listening with baited breath – I can do that, I’m a multi-tasker – to Malcolm Turnbull’s post-election speech the other day, and along with the whole nation I heard him extoll three ‘roolly good things’, in his estimation. The holy trinity – freedom, the individual and the market. Did y’all hear that? And I thought, Jeez, the libertarians among us will be doing cartwheels right now. And I further thought ‘hang on a minute Malcolm, turn that bull around’.

Canto: I see, so you prefer slavery, group-think and state control?

Jacinta: Ah very good, but let’s prise ourselves out of the straightjacket of ideology and slip into something more comfortable, like reality. Of course freedom’s a good thing, but of course it has its limits. And of course individuals are great, but as any mathematician will tell you, all individuals are members of a set, that’s actually what makes them individuals, and the market..

Canto: That’s not a very good analogy, I don’t think – that one about individuals.

Jacinta: That wasn’t an analogy.

Canto: Well… maybe, but bringing maths into it isn’t very helpful.

Jacinta: Okay. Okay, let me focus on the individual thing, because that’s probably my biggest gripe – it all flows from a misconception of the individual, IMHO.

Canto: What flows?

Jacinta: The horrors of libertarianism. I’ve been bottling this up for years, now I’m going to let it all seethe out. And it just so happens that ‘All hail freedom, the individual and the mighty market’ is essentially the libertarian mantra. Of course I don’t take Malcolm’s mellifluencies too seriously, but libertarianism really shits me.

Canto: But really – politics? Can’t we talk about water on Mars? Or Homo naledi?

Jacinta: Well, there is world enough, and time…

Canto: Bullshit.

Jacinta: Ok I’ll try to be the soul of wit. Libertarians – and I know they come in all shapes, sizes and political colours – tend to believe in small government, minimal regulation and the invisible, wonderfully shaping and fixing hand of the market. I got my first dose of libertarianism years ago when I read – or tried to read – Anarchy, State and Utopiaby the American philosopher Robert Nozick. I could barely comprehend it, but I could see it was underpinned by a sacrosanct notion of rights, particularly the rights of the individual. It was also, I thought, an overly rational analysis of how individuals might aggregate. Or rather, that’s how I’ve come to think of it since. I had no idea what to think of it at the time.


Canto: So how do you think individuals aggregate?

Jacinta: No no what I think doesn’t matter, it’s more about what history and psychology and sociology tells us. And they tell us about families and extended families and kinship groups and trade affiliations, becoming ever more extended and convoluted as societies grow. And all this without any concept of rights.

Canto: Okay I think I see where you’re coming from. You think the individual shouldn’t be seen as the central human unit, or political unit, you’re wanting to emphasise social connections.

Jacinta: Of course! We didn’t get where we are now, the top predators of the biosphere for better or worse…

Canto: The fat controllers of the planet…

Jacinta: We didn’t get to this situation as individuals, we got here because we’re the most socially-oriented mammals around. Our language, our technology, our superior brainpower, these are all socially constructed. And our systems of government are just ways of organising and trying to get the best out of this dynamic, interactive, co-operative and competitive society.

Canto: So there are legitimately diverse views about the role of government. So what’s wrong with that? Libertarians just happen to lean towards the individualist, unregulated, small-government side.

Jacinta: Well, as I’ve said, I’m not so much interested in opinions as in what actually works to create the most effective society…

Canto: You’re trying to be scientific, but the question of what makes for an effective society will have different answers, not based on science. Some will say an effective society is one that looks after its minorities and its disadvantaged, others will say that diversity and dynamism is key, and this means inevitably that there will be winners and losers. How can there be an objective, scientific definition of an effective society?

Jacinta: Okay, I concede your point that there are a range of legitimate views on this, but I would be guided by what works, and that would reduce the range of legitimacy. Extreme libertarianism – of the ‘there is no society, only individuals’ kind – seems to me to be paradoxically an outcome of the success of certain societies in educating and empowering their members, so that they start to fantasise about themselves as ‘self-made’ and owing nothing to anyone. It’s delusional and would result in scrapping all history has taught us about the communities of language and shared knowledge and values which have shaped us. It’s an ahistorical ideology which has never been instantiated anywhere. Not to mention its arrogant (and ultimately self-defeating) selfishness. Of course the other extreme is also unworkable, that of communism with an equal share of communal goods, which would stifle innovation and diversity and would have to be imposed from above.

wtf? Most people don't give a tinker's toss about the state when they act. But they do think about the consequences for others

wtf? Most people don’t give a tinker’s toss about the state when they act. But they do think about the consequences for others

Canto: Which would be self-contradictory because in communism, there is no ‘above’, presumably absolute equality is just meant to happen naturally…

Jacinta: There’s no perfect or perfectly fair society, just some are fairer than others, and it’s an endless balancing act, it seems to me, between encouraging the freedom to develop ideas and ‘get ahead’, and protecting others from being exploited and done down. So to me it’s a matter of pragmatism and endless adjustment rather than gung-ho ideology. Individuals are pretty well infinitely complex so you would expect society to multiply that complexity to to a new level of infinity.

Canto: But I notice that many libertarians tend to avoid going on about ‘society’, they prefer to focus their ire on ‘the state’, as if it’s the enemy of society.

Jacinta: Oh yes, good point, the rhetoric goes that the state is this abstract, inhuman monster that steals our money, stifles our initiative and makes a mess of everything it touches. Insofar as it consists of people, it consists of really dumb or power-mad types who haven’t seen the light and just don’t realise that society functions better either without the state or with a minimalist one. They’ve never been able to point to any evidence to support their claims though. Essentially, the libertarian ‘state’ has been trialled in the real world even less than the communist state, its polar opposite, has been.

Canto: So how is it supposed to work?

Jacinta: Well, clearly there are libertarians of many different types and degrees who would argue endlessly about that. But many of them seem to think it would grow ‘organically’ through adherence to certain basic principles, one of which has to do with the primacy of private property, though I’m not sure how to articulate it. Another is that no law or imposition should be applied that interferes with an individual’s liberty, the idea being I think, that you’re free to do what you like as long as it doesn’t interfere with everybody else’s right to do what he or she likes, which when you think about it is a recipe for disaster, because who decides between competing claims – for example my right to enjoy the peace and quiet of my own residence versus my neighbour’s right to play shite music all night with the volume up to eleven?

Canto: Aww, is that neighbour still bothering you Jass?

Jacinta: Fuck off. Actually what really bothers me is the obsession with private property and ownership. Coming from a pretty impoverished background, I was always more fond of the ‘property is theft’ mantra. And that reminds me of a story from my youth. I was living in a share-house very close to the spacious grounds of Saint Peter’s College, the biggest and most exclusive private school in South Australia. It must’ve been school holiday time, and we decided to take our racquets and balls and have a hit around on one of their tennis courts. There was no fence or anything, we just walked in and started playing. There was no net either, so it wasn’t a particularly serious hit-out, but we were absorbed enough not to notice a fellow scurrying across the greensward to tick us off. The look of outrage on the face of this fellow was unforgettable, it was as if he’d caught us pissing on the altar…

Canto: Which is exactly what you were doing mate.

Jacinta: His get-up was unforgettable too, he had this bright orange cravat, and sort of pantaloons with braces as I remember…

Canto: You’ve forgotten the candy-striped jacket and the Old Boys’ cap…

Jacinta: No, it was too hot for that. Anyway, I remember his words, more or less. ‘What are you doing here? Don’t you know this is private property!!’

Canto: Ah yes, a defining moment in the Great Australian Class War. So you made mince-meat out of him with your graphite, carbon-fibre and kevlar weaponry?

Jacinta: Well, we were just teenagers. I remember we stood our ground for a while, more out of shock than anything. So he went on haranguing us about our outrageous behaviour and threatening to call the police, so we wandered off. But I was so infuriated when I realised what was happening. I wish I’d confronted the guy, and I ran though imaginary narratives in my head many times afterwards. It was a defining moment for me, actually, it crystallised for me my attitude to private property…

Canto: Which is?

Jacinta: Well, it’s never been very important to me – I mean, as part of his harangue, this guy said something like ‘how would you like it if someone came into your garden and started..’, and my honest answer would’ve been that it wouldn’t have bothered me, certainly nothing like the way it bothered him. And the comparison was odorous anyway, I didn’t own any spacious grounds, I wasn’t born into that world. The way this guy mentioned private property, as if it was his Lord and Master, to be protected and fought for with life and limb, it just sickened me.

Canto: You were outraged?

Jacinta: Yeah, I suppose our intellectual positions are just post-hoc rationalisations of some basic feelings.

Canto: Reason is but the slave of the passions and all that. Anyway, I’m keen to get on to some of those more interesting topics. So let’s get back to the original question – is Malcolm Turnbull a libertarian?

Jacinta: Well the correct answer is that he didn’t say enough, in that first Prime Ministerial speech, for us to make that inference. He believes strongly in freedom. So do I, of course. He believes in the individual. So do I, and I believe individual expression and effort should be nurtured. He believes in the market or markets. I most certainly do too, as sources of exchange, cross-fertilisation, community and growth. The devil or delight is in the detail. I mean, I’ve called his statement a libertarian mantra, which it is, but it’s also classical liberalism. In the end, though, we need to judge governments on their actions, not their words. We’ll have to wait and see.

Written by stewart henderson

October 4, 2015 at 10:06 am

the most absolute way to lose credibility

leave a comment »


now I know not buy a used car from this guy

now I know not buy a used car from this guy

Daniel Dennett, in his most recent writings, excerpted in the second issue of The new philosopher (a mag which will be a part of my regular reading from now on) made this interesting point:

When you’re reading or skimming argumentative essays, especially by philosophers, here is a quick trick that may save you much time and effort, especially in this age of simple searching by computer: look for “surely” in the document, and check each occurrence.

Not always, not even most of the time, but often the word “surely” is as good as a blinking light locating a weak point in the argument. Why? Because it marks the very edge of what the author is actually sure about. (If the author were really sure all the readers would agree, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning).

Dennett goes on to prove the point with some examples. He performs a useful service here, for “surely” and similar terms like “clearly” seem anodyne enough to pass under our radar. The term “absolutely, not so, and as such, it’s far less sophisticated. In fact, it’s one of the most obvious signposts for BS that we have, and it should send any worthwhile skeptic’s antennae bouncing off the ceiling. The anti-vaccination guru screams that vaccination is absolutely the worst medical intervention in human history, the creationist that evilution is absolutely contrary to their god’s plan, and the climate-change denier asseverates that there’s absolutely no credible evidence…

Step no further, for here lurks the big bad demon of absolutely committed ideology. It’s not the sort of term you read in the philosophical articles Dennett has been targeting, but of course it’s everywhere on the internet, and in the generally unsophisticated arena of political debate.

So I was amused to hear our current human rights commissioner Tim Wilson falling into the trap, like a drunken stumblebum falling off a well-signposted cliff. Wilson was on a panel of the ABC’s current affairs program The drum, and one of the topics discussed was the impact that the anti-vaccination movement was having on the incidence of measles in the USA. Wilson’s response was essentially pro-science, and so condemnatory of the anti-vaccination trend, though he also invoked the interesting argument that this was to protect children, while adults should be free to be as anti-science as they liked, and presumably free to promote the kind of anti-science agenda that’s causing all the problems in the first place.

But while it’s a thorny question as to whether or not good science should be enforced in some way, it was Wilson’s response to another panel commentator that really tickled me. The commentator pointed out the parallels between the anti-vaccination movement and climate change deniers – a fairly obvious point, I would’ve thought – and Wilson jumped in with the claim that ‘there are absolutely no parallels…’

Considering the fairly obvious parallels, Wilson’s remark (which he wasn’t able to elaborate on due to to it being made just as the final credits were about to roll), was a massive red flag, which immediately prompted me to check his bonafides on anthropogenic global warming.

But before checking out Wilson, let me state the parallels. First, both the vaccination debate and the AGW debate are loud and passionate. They also both exhibit the age-old truism that there’s an inverse relation between passionately-held positions and knowledge of the subject. Third and most important, they are both debates over what is essentially settled science. In the case of vaccination, the science tells us that vaccinations have led to the prevention and reduction of multiple diseases around the world over many decades, and that the negative effects of vaccination, if any, are far outweighed by the lives saved and the suffering minimised. In the case of AGW, climate scientists are in consensus that the globe is experiencing a warming event, and that this warming event, as measured through atmospheric and oceanic temperatures, is being significantly contributed to by human activity, and emissions of CO2 in particular.

Wilson’s impressive resumé here tells me that he’s ‘currently completing a Graduate Diploma of Energy and the Environment (Climate Science and Global Warming) at Perth’s Murdoch University’ and that he’s an ‘international public policy analyst specialising in international trade, health, intellectual property and climate change policy’, so he’s presumably well acquainted with climate science, which makes his ‘absolutely’ claim all the more odd. Digging deeper though, we find that for some time he was the policy director of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a well-known free market think tank. Free marketeers are not always keen on accepting AGW, as it tends to interfere with business…

Wilson himself has been pretty careful about his public comments on AGW – at least I can’t find any outrageously silly remarks from him, but in 2010, while he was the IPA’s director of climate change policy, the organisation brought out a publication called Climate change: the facts, which is largely anti-climate science propaganda, as is evidenced by the fact that none of the contributors agree with the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists, i.e. that AGW is a serious problem that we need to act upon. Some of the authors accept AGW but minimise its extent and its negative effects while others simply deny its existence. The publication includes as authors the wholly discredited Ian Plimer, and the quite literally insane Christopher Monckton, who has no scientific training whatsoever. It also includes ‘old guard’ scientists such as Garth Partridge, Richard Lindzen, Bob Carter and William Kininmouth, all well into their seventies, and with links to the fossil fuel industries. One contributor, Willie Soon, has since been found to be a hireling of the fossil fuel lobby, to the tune of over $1 million. Others, such as Nigel Lawson, the eighty-something-year-old ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer under Thatcher, just make the publication look more embarrassingly irrelevant than it might have been for propaganda purposes. One has to wonder why the book was published – it must surely have harmed the climate deniers’ cause amongst the fence-sitters at whom it was presumably targeted.

The quality of the work can be judged by its brief introduction, written by John Roskam, current executive director of the IPA. Take this excerpt:

We don’t believe ‘the science is settled’. As a think tank committed to the ideals of free and open enquiry and debate we are not afraid to stand against the mainstream of prevailing elite opinion.

Why is the word elite in there, in a book supposedly dedicated to debating the facts? Scientists are always debating, criticising each other’s published work, suggesting alternative interpretations of raw data – that’s a standard scientific process. Skepticism as to results is a sine qua non of scientific enquiry. But they never describe those they disagree with as elites. That would suggest that something else was at play. It seems particularly inappropriate when the writers themselves are Lords, ex-leaders of government, and linked to some of the world’s largest corporations, while those accused of elitism are usually living on an unreliable stream of grants and scholarships.

Welcome, though, to the world of climate change denial, which, far from presenting alternative facts, is largely fact-free. Although I’ve not read Climate change: the facts, I expect it will present the same variety of views, many of them contradicting each other, that Naomi Klein describes in the first chapter of her book on the politics of climate change, This changes everything. Her description – which hits you like an icy cold shower – is of a conference dedicated to climate change denial run by the USA’s Heartland Institute, another right-wing think tank, though much bigger and more bullish than the IPA. And surprise surprise, a number of the Australian book’s contributors were speakers at that conference. As it turns out, right-wing think tanks are almost solely responsible for the slew of anti-AGW propaganda that assails us today, and of all the contentious scientific issues, this one divides most neatly along politico-ideological lines.

So this helps to explain why Tim Wilson says he finds ‘absolutely no parallels’ between AGW and the vaccination ‘debate’. For him, though not for climate scientists, the science is not settled. But, being educated on the matter, he also knows that what he wants to be true, really isn’t. So, to cover what he knows to be bullshit, he resorts, quite unthinkingly, to the word ‘absolutely’. What a fine mess bad faith gets people into, and how painfully obvious it all is.

Written by stewart henderson

March 20, 2015 at 2:19 pm

food irradiation and the organic food movement

with 3 comments

Oh,rats - they've exposed the conspiracy!

Oh,rats – they’ve exposed the conspiracy!

Food irradiation is a well-known process for preserving food and eliminating or reducing bacteria. It’s used for much the same purpose that pressure cooking of tinned food is used, or the pasteurization of milk. All food used by NASA astronauts in space is irradiated, to reduce the possibility of food-borne illness.

advantages and disadvantages of irradiation

According to the US Department of Health’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), irradiation, if applied correctly, has been clearly shown to reduce or eliminate food pathogens, without reducing the nutritional value of the food. It should be noted that irradiation doesn’t make food radioactive. I’ll look at the science of irradiation shortly.

Of course it’s not a cure-all. For example, it doesn’t halt the ageing process, and can make older fruit look fresher than it is. The reduction in nutritional value of the food, caused by the ageing process, can be masked by irradiation. It can also kill off bacteria that produce an odour that alerts you that the food is going off. Also, it doesn’t get rid of neurotoxins like those produced by Clostridium botulinum. Irradiation will kill off the bacteria, but not the toxins produced by the bacteria prior to irradiation.

how does food irradiation work?

Three different types of irradiation technology are used, using gamma rays (cobalt-60), electron beams and x-rays. The idea is the same with each, the use of ionising radiation to break chemical bonds in molecules within bacteria and other microbes, leading to their death or greatly inhibiting their growth. The amount of ionising radiation is carefully measured, and the radiation takes place in a special room or chamber for a specified duration.

When radioactive cobalt 60 is the energy source, it’s contained in two stainless steel tubes, one inside the other, called ‘source pencils’. They’re kept on a rack in an underground water chamber, and raised out of the water when required. The water isn’t radioactive. Food products move along a conveyor belt into a room where they’re exposed to the rack containing the source pencils. Gamma rays (photons) pass through the tubes and treat the food. The cobalt 60 process is generally used in the USA.

An Electron-beam Linear Accelerator generates, concentrates and accelerates electrons to up to 99% of light-speed.These electron beams are scanned over the product. The machine uses energy levels of 5, 7.5 or 10 MeV (million electron volts). Again the product is usually guided under the beam by a conveyor system at a predetermined speed to obtain the appropriate dosage. This will clearly vary with product type and thickness.

The X-ray process starts with an electron beam accelerator targeting electrons on a metal plate. The energy that isn’t absorbed is converted into x-rays, which, like gamma rays, can penetrate food containers more than 40cms thick. Shipping containers, for example.

Most of the radiation used in these processes passes through the food without being absorbed. It’s the absorbed radiation, of course, that has the effect, destroying microbes and so extending shelf life, and slowing down the ripening of fruits and vegetables. The potential is there for food irradiation to replace chemical fumigants and fungicides used after harvest. It also has the potential, through the use of higher doses, to kill contaminating bacteria in meat, such as Salmonella.

Food irradiation is a cold treatment. It doesn’t significantly raise the temperature of the food, and this minimises nutrient loss or changes in texture, colour and flavour. The energy it uses is too low to cause food to become radioactive. It has been compared to light passing through a window. Food irradiation uses the same principle as pasteurization, and can be described as pasteurization by energy instead of heat, or cold pasteurization..

the use of food irradiation in Australia

Due largely to fears about irradiation having to do with radioactivity and nuclear energy, the process isn’t used as widely in Australia (or indeed the USA) as it could be. Irradiation is used in some 50 countries, but the level of usage varies for each country, from very limited in Austria and other EU countries, to a very widespread usage in Brazil. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) summarises our situation thus:

In Australia and New Zealand, only herbs and spices, herbal infusions, tomatoes, capsicums and some tropical fruits can be irradiated.

FSANZ has established that there is a technological need to irradiate these foods, and that there are no safety concerns or significant loss of nutrients when irradiating these foods.

Irradiated food or ingredients must be labelled clearly as having been treated by ionising radiation.

food irradiation, health and safety

Since 1950 hundreds of studies have been carried out on animals fed with irradiated products, including multi-generational studies. On the basis of these studies, food irradiation has been approved by the World Health Organization, the American Dietetic Association, the Scientific Committee of the European Union and many other national and international monitoring bodies. Of course this hasn’t stopped many individuals and organisations from complaining and campaigning against the practice. Concerns include: chemical changes harmful to the consumer; impairment of flavour; the destruction of more ‘good’ than ‘bad’ bacteria; and that it’s an unnecessary process which runs counter to the movement towards regional product, seasonality and real freshness. I’ve already mentioned other problems, such as that it can mask spoiled food, and that it doesn’t destroy toxins already released by bacteria.

opposition from the organic food movement

Food products  must be irradiation-free if they are to certified as ‘organic’, in Australia and elsewhere. Now, I’ve fairly regularly expressed irritation with the ‘organic’ food ideology, most particularly in this post, but I recognise that it appeals to a very diverse set of people, with perhaps a majority simply believing, on faith, that ‘organic’ food will be more nutritious, safer and better for the environment than conventional food. Most of those people wouldn’t know much about food irradiation, but hey, it sounds dodgy, so why not avoid it? I’ve no great argument to make with such people, apart from the old ‘knowledge is power’ arguments, but there are a few individuals and organisations trying to get food irradiation banned, based on what they claim to be evidence. Unsurprisingly, most of these critics are also ‘organic’ food proponents. I’ll look at some criticisms from Eden Organic Foods, a US outfit, which admittedly represents the extreme end of the spectrum (nature before the fall?).

Firstly, in their ‘factsheet’ on irradiation, linked to above (and reprinted verbatim here by another alarmist organisation, the Center for Food Safety), they waste no time in informing us that the beams used are ‘millions of times more powerful than standard medical x-rays’. This sounds pretty scary, but it’s a bogus comparison. Irradiation is designed to kill bugs and bacteria, whereas medical x-rays are for making visible what is invisible to the naked eye. Clearly, the first and foremost concern in testing and studying the technology is to make sure that the chemical changes it induces are safe for humans. Comparisons with medical x-rays are more than irrelevant to this concern, as the author of this factsheet well knows.

Next comes this disturbing claim:

Radiation can do strange things to food, by creating substances called “unique radiolytic products.” These irradiation byproducts include a variety of mutagens – substances that can cause gene mutations, polyploidy (an abnormal condition in which cells contain more than two sets of chromosomes), chromosome aberrations (often associated with cancerous cells), and dominant lethal mutations (a change in a cell that prevents it from reproducing) in human cells. Making matters worse, many mutagens are also carcinogens

Wow. So much for the poor people of Brazil – they’re obviously done for. But how is it that the world’s top scientific agencies missed all these mutagens and carcinogens? Let’s take a closer look.

The term ‘radiolytic products’ simply means the products created by chemical changes that occur when food is irradiated. Similarly, the products created by heat treatment, or simply cooking, might be called ‘thermolytic products’. These are not ‘strange’, they’re quite predictable, for irradiation would be totally ineffective if it didn’t bring about some chemical changes. One of the differences is that radiolytic products are generally undetectable and produce only minor changes in the food compared to the major operation we call cooking. It is, of course, precisely these products that the scientific community scrutinises when determining the safety of irradiated foods.

Interestingly, in an article, dating back to 1999, called ‘Scientific answers to irradiation bugaboos’, for 21st Century Science & Technology magazine, Marjorie Mazel Hecht has this to say:

The July 1986 report of the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST), which reviewed all the research work on food irradiation, defined unique radiolytic products “as compounds that are formed by treating foods with ionizing energy, but are not found normally in any untreated foods and are not formed by other accepted methods of food processing.”

The report states that “on the basis of this definition no unique radiolytic compounds have been found in 30 years of research. Compounds produced in specific foods by ionizing energy have always been found in the same foods when processed by other accepted methods or in other foods” (Vol. 1, p. 15).

This slightly contradicts the factsheet put out by Idaho University’s Radiation Information Network, which acknowledges the existence of such products while insisting on their nugatory nature:

Scientists find the changes in food created by irradiation minor to those created by cooking. The products created by cooking are so significant that consumers can smell and taste them, whereas only a chemist with extremely sensitive lab equipment may be able to detect radiolytic products.

Needless to say, alarmists thrive on these contradictions. So what evidence is there of mutagenic irradiation byproducts? Well, there are radiolytic byproducts of fatty acids in meat, called alkylcyclobutanones (2-ACBs), first detected a few decades ago, and the research done on them seems to be so far inconclusive. A book entitled Food Irradiation Research and Technologythe second edition of which was published last year, states that ‘knowledge about the toxicological properties of 2-ACBs is still scarce’, and that ‘it may be prudent to collect more knowledge on the toxicological and metabolic properties of 2-ACBs in order to quantify a possible risk – albeit minimal.’ The book describes a number of studies on rats and humans, going into more detail than I can comprehend, but the results have been difficult to interpret and generally not easily replicable in other studies, indicating very minute and hard-to-measure effects. No doubt such studies will be ongoing. As far as I know, 2-ACBs are the only products about which there is any concern.

What is obvious though, in looking at the research material available online, is the difference between the caution, skepticism and uncertainty of researchers compared to the adamantine certainty of such critics as the Center for Food Safety.

But what about polyploidy? Polyploid cells contain more than two paired sets of chromosomes. Eukaryotic cells, those of multicellular creatures, are diploid (two sets), and prokaryotic, bacterial cells are haploid (one set). Polyploidy is regarded as a chromosomal aberration, common in many plants and some invertebrates, but relatively rare in humans. However it is present in humans, and the percentage varies from individual to individual, and within individuals from day to day and week to week, depending on a range of factors including diet, age, and even circadian rhythms. Levels of up to 3-4% in human lymphocytes have been found in healthy individuals, though some researchers have claimed much higher percentages, in liver cells. The overall finding so far is that fluctuations in polyploidy are the norm, and no clear correlation has been found so far between these fluctuations and health profiles. It seems that the biological significance of polyploidy isn’t known.

Critics of irradiation have been going on about polyploidy and other mutations supposedly caused by irradiation for decades, and unsurprisingly, some are fanatically obsessed with the issue, accompanying their rants with long reference lists, mostly from like-minded activists. However, the text Safety of irradiated foods, 2nd edition discusses polyploidy in some detail, with particular reference to a study of malnourished Indian children fed irradiated wheat, a study regularly cited by anti-irradiation activists. It turns out that there were many problems with the study. First, not enough cells were counted to validly pinpoint an effect, such as a change in diet. Secondly, polyploidy is notoriously difficult to detect – superimposed diploid cells can be easily mistaken for polyploid cells under a microscope (in fact when two independent observers looked at the same microscope slides, one found 34 polyploid cells, the other found 9). Further, the study only gave group results rather than individual results, so it wasn’t possible to know whether the polyploidy was restricted to one or two individuals rather than spread over the group. Another problem was that the reference or control group was found to have no polyploidy at all, a very strange finding given that other researchers always found some degree of polyploidy in their subjects, regardless of irradiation or other effects. In fact, the study was so poorly written up that it’s impossible to replicate – for example the exact diet given the children wasn’t described. How was the wheat fed to the children?. Presumably it was prepared in some way, but how? The omission is crucial. The study also didn’t take into account the effect of malnutrition itself on chromosomal abnormalities. And so on.

You get the picture, and it’s the same with other claims about mutations and carcinogens. Every time you look into the claims you find the same problems that no doubt other scientific watchdog organisations have found – poorly conducted studies that either can’t be replicated or haven’t survived replication. That, of course is no reason for complacency, and at least the activists can assist, in their sometimes muddle-headed ways, in improving our knowledge of 2-ACBs, polyploidy and other biological effects, just as the creationists who bang on about a lack of transitional forms, or ‘irreducible complexity’, help us to focus on refutations, clarifications and further evidence.

Finally, food irradiation, while clearly not the zappo-horrorshow that activists are determined to make it, doesn’t replace proper handling techniques and a good instinct about food quality. The fact is, though, that it does increase shelf life, and is a useful tool in our increasingly global economy, where food is shipped from here to there and everywhere, in season and out. If you prefer to eat locally, with fresh and seasonal produce, fine, and we can argue about the sustainability of that approach on a worldwide scale, but let’s none of us pretend that food irradiation is other than what it is. Let the evidence, properly evaluated, be your guide.

Written by stewart henderson

January 14, 2014 at 12:09 pm

on cowardice, courage and the abuse of language

leave a comment »

pretty much bog-standard definitions

pretty much bog-standard definitions

In this post I want to try to avoid politics, and to focus on the English language, its use and abuse. If you google the word ‘coward’, followed by the word ‘meaning’  (I often ask my NESB students to do this with words they don’t know), you’ll come up first with this definition: a person who is contemptibly lacking in the courage to do or endure dangerous or unpleasant things. Second comes this: [a person who is] excessively afraid of danger or pain.

These are, to me, bog-standard, uncontroversial definitions of the word ‘coward’. To be a coward is to be nothing more and nothing less than what these definitions describe.

So, as a person who cares about language, it disturbs and aggravates me that the word ‘coward’ is now regularly used by the media and by commentators of all kinds, from world leaders to pub philosophers, to refer to suicide bombers, mass shooters, Wikileakers and terrorists of every description. I would ask you to pause for a moment, and think of these categories of people, and the people themselves, if you can bear it. Think of, say, Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, a member of the Tamil Tigers and the suicide killer of Rajiv Ghandi and 14 others beside herself in 1991. Or Reem Riyashi, the wealthy Palestinian mother of two and Hamas operative who killed herself and 4 Israelis at the Erez Crossing in Gaza in 2004. Think of Martin Bryant, the murderer of 35 people at Port Arthur in Tasmania in 1996, or Anders Behring Breivik, killer of 77 people by bombing and gunfire in Norway in 2011. Think again of Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, who leaked large quantities of classified US information to Wikileaks in early 2010, or Edward Snowden, recent leaker of classified documents from the USA’s National Security Agency to various media outlets. Now think finally of Mohamed Atta, a principal player in the September 11 2001 attacks in the USA, and pilot of the plane that crashed into the North Tower of the world trade centre, or Noordin Top, mastermind of several fatal bombings in Indonesia, and indefatigable recruiter and indoctrinator for the Jihadist organisation Jemaah Islamiya.

No doubt these characters will awaken many diverse thoughts, but it’s unlikely that cowardice would be part of your description of any of them, especially after having been primed with the definitions of a coward at the top of this post. It seems like describing any of these various characters as cowards would simply be what philosophers call a ‘category mistake’, so far from cowardly, in the bog-standard sense of that term, have been the actions that have made them notorious.

So what is going on here? Intellectual laziness? Overblown rhetoric? Well, yes and no. To dismiss this rhetoric of cowardice as just plain ignorant or lazy would be to miss the point of it, for there is method in this apparent madness, intended or not. The real point of describing any or all of these people as cowards is to remove them as far as possible from any association with another word, more or less directly opposed to cowardice: courage.

Courage is seen as positive of course. It’s seen as a virtue, yet when we delve further into it, as Socrates and his interlocutors did in the Laches, we find it be a more slippery concept than at first glance. It rather sticks in our craw, to say the least, to claim that Mohamad Atta was courageous in carrying out his mission to fly an unfamiliar Boeing 767 into the World Trade Centre, or that Thenmozhi Rajaratnam showed amazing courage in blowing herself up with Rajiv Ghandi and many others, or that Anders Brehvik displayed steely resolve and courage in carrying out his long-planned slaughter of scores of innocent children. The actions of Manning and Snowden have naturally received more mixed responses, with some feeling that the term ‘courageous’ is singularly apt in describing them, while others would baulk at the term.

So let’s perform the same operation on ‘courage’ as we did on the word ‘coward’. Here’s the very straightforward result:

Courage: the ability to do something that frightens one.

Now, it’s worth noting that this bog-standard definition, as with that of ‘coward’, has nothing whatever to say about the moral implications of the action or actions that the brave person engages in and the coward avoids. That action might be the slaughter, or the rescue, of thousands. This is key: the moral implications or the consequences of the actions are irrelevant to the definition. For some, it seems, this point is hard, if not impossible, to swallow. That’s the problem; because of the negative load that the term ‘coward’ carries, some people are determined to describe any action that they consider has negative consequences as cowardly. But to try to extend the meaning of the term from the bog-standard, more limited definition quoted at the top means moving away from consensus into a field of contestation that enormously diminishes the coherence and so the usefulness of the term.

I was prompted to write this piece because a recent editorial in a major Australian newspaper, attacking Edward Snowden as a coward, was brought to my attention. It was the last straw, you might say. I admit I haven’t read the editorial, and I can’t recall the newspaper, but really, you don’t need to read the detail – and I may well be convinced by the newspaper editor’s views of the implications of Snowden’s actions – to know that the application of the term ‘coward’ to Snowden’s leaking of classified information is just wrong, by the definition of terms.

This sort of thing should matter to those who respect language and its value as an effective communicative tool. By the bog-standard consensus definitions given above, we need to admit that the actions of Atta and Rajaratnam, for example, were courageous. As people in full possession of their faculties, as I assume they were, they would have had to overcome enormous fear and anxiety to perform their suicidal actions. Of course we can and should condemn their actions on a whole host of ethical grounds, but to call them cowardly doesn’t add anything to the ethical debate, it just muddies definitions (while allowing us to let off steam, to vent our indignation and disgust). It’s just name-calling.

contested definition no. 45737932

contested definition no. 45737932

contested definition no. 7353289
contested definition no. 7353289

contested definition no. 36921856

contested definition no. 36921856

contested definition no. 45210678 - but a pretty good one!

contested definition no. 45210678 – but a pretty good one!


Written by stewart henderson

January 8, 2014 at 9:30 am