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Posts Tagged ‘truth

a brief and fairly obvious point

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Someone has pointed out that Frump is a bully and a thug. That person witnessed his bullying via the television, as did, presumably, millions of others. The bully, on being named, proceeded to ridicule the person making the point. The invalidity of such a response, a response which has a well-known designation, ad hominem, was shown some 2,500 years ago. It is equally invalid today of course. This invalidity applies equally to all those who say that actors, musicians etc should not be listened to on matters political, or indeed any other matter. A person’s claim must be based on its truth value, not on the person’s profession or supposed expertise.
So it’s of absolutely no relevance whatever whether Frump’s bullying and thuggery is highlighted by an under-rated actor, an over-rated actor, a journalist, an academic or a drunken person in a pub. The only relevant question is whether the claim is true. And it’s a very easy question to answer in this instance ,as the evidence is bigger than your average blue whale.

etc, etc

Written by stewart henderson

January 10, 2017 at 1:58 pm

no jab no pay starts now

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actually, a fairly unsystematic campaign to protect kids, often from their own parents

Jacinta: I believe the federal government is bringing in new rules penalising parents who choose not to vaccinate their children. Do you know the details, and how do you think the anti-vaccination movement, which is quite strong in Australia, is going to react?

Canto: Well, first I’ll note that when looking up this issue on the net I found a disproportionate number of anti-vaccination or ‘vaccination skeptic’ sites cropping up on Google. It’s very disheartening that the ‘AVN‘, formally deceitfully titled the Australian Vaccination Network, now forced by law to call itself the Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network, comes up first all the time. Other depressing sites that come up include nocompulsoryvaccination and ‘natural society‘. These appear to be US sites promoting the ‘nature is better’ fallacy or some dubious form of libertarianism, and I suppose they have ways of maintaining a high internet profile.

Jacinta: Well, this is the thing, they have a ’cause’ to rally around, whereas the immunologists and doctors who know the science don’t see what the fuss is about, and just assume that everybody respects scientific methods and results. Which is obviously far from the case.

Canto: Well anyway yes the federal government, and the Victorian state government, have created bills to better enforce vaccination, and the Australian government’s measure came into force on January 1. Child care payments and family tax benefit part A supplement will only be paid for children who’ve been immunised or have an approved immunisation exemption.

Jacinta: So, can you get an exemption easily, due to your firm belief that vaccinations cause diabetes, or autism or whatever?

Canto: Only on religious grounds.

Jacinta: Ahh, but can’t the refuseniks claim to be religious, since they have very strong beliefs based on no evidence?

Canto: Ha, well, I’m sure they’ll try. And actually I think it’s going to be difficult for the government to enforce this one.

Jacinta: Why should it be? Surely they have immunisation records through Medicare, it would be easy enough to check.

Canto: And what if the child spent the first few years of life overseas? And what if a parent insists the child was immunised but there’s no record?

Jacinta: Mmmm, I think these are minor difficulties, and I belief it has a support level of over 80%.

Canto: Yes so we’ll have to wait and see what plans the AVN have to try and sabotage it. Other state governments, in Victoria, Queensland and possibly elsewhere, are introducing measures in harmony with this, so it does seem to deal a serious blow to the refuseniks. And of course it’s hoped, or expected, that it’ll bounce the fence-sitters off the fence and so increase community immunity.

Jacinta: And that reminds me, I was reading somewhere about anti-vaccination hotspots. Any info on that?

Canto: Well yes, they’re the places to look to for trouble. The low-down on all that can be found at this slightly unlikely source, Mamamia, an entertainment and lifestyle website – and good on them. It also has a graphic from the Department of Health that reveals the alarming rise in ‘conscientious objectors’ to vaccination in Australia over the last 15 years, from 4000-odd in 1999 to over 36,000 in 2013.

Jacinta: So does it mention anywhere in South Australia?

Canto: Yes, and I’ve noticed that these hotspots are often in quite affluent regions…

Jacinta: Depressing.

Canto: Yes, the Adelaide Hills region, which I would think is generally quite affluent, has one of the highest objection rates, with 86% of children under 5 vaccinated compared with the state average of 91.5%. But then they say that many other areas are under 85%, including Port Adelaide, Holdfast Bay – that’s the Glenelg region, and Playford. So a mix of semi-affluent and relatively disadvantaged regions. Hard to make sense of it, but I think there’s a distinction to made here between the refuseniks and those who just don’t get round to vaccinating their kids.

Jacinta: Right, and that wouldn’t necessarily come out in the data.

Canto: Yes, some are slackers and some are refuseniks.

Jacinta: And some might be fence-sitters who might be spurred into getting their kids vaccinated by this stick approach.

Canto: Yeah we’ll have to wait and see whether the unvaccinated numbers go down over the next few years.

Jacinta: Which makes me wonder, how do they know that those figures you quoted before – some 36,000 – were ‘conscientious objectors’?

Canto: Well they probably don’t for sure, but it’s highly unlikely that those numbers have gone up by almost a factor of 10 in fifteen years due to sheer complacency. I mean, is it plausible that in the last 15 years or so we’ve become 10 times more slack as a nation about our children’s health? No, there’s something much more disturbing going on. Mamamia quotes a Melbourne virologist, who claims that in some pockets of the nation our immunisation rates are lower than South Sudan.

Jacinta: Oh well done. I’m guessing they enforce vaccination in South Sudan, or I might be suffering from the delusion that most African governments are brutal dictatorships. Anyway, what are the biggest or worst hotspots nationally? I’m thinking Nimbin.

Canto: Yes, that area – Nimbin, Byron Bay, Mullumbimby, that whole northern New South Wales coastal area has vaccination rates down between 60% and 70%. Mullumbimby is the town with the highest objection rate in Australia, and the lowest immunisation rate, at under 50%. Steiner schools are popular in this region, unsurprisingly, and they’re openly promoting refusenik behaviour. But there are many other problem regions, such as Queensland’s Gold Coast and Sunshine coast. Noosa on the Sunshine coast also has very high objection rates.

Jacinta: These are quite wealthy areas I suppose. Any idea why this is happening?

Canto: Well, I can only speculate, but I think, with wealthy people, there’s a greater degree of resistance to government measures, obviously in the case of taxation, but also with health matters. They’re rich, they’re healthy, they feel they’re already immune, and that if they just maintain a healthy lifestyle they’ll be fine. Clearly they’re not particularly informed about the benefits of vaccination, or choose to believe those benefits are exaggerated. I suspect that the further we remove ourselves from the bad days of TB, diphtheria, mumps and measles, the more we’ll get this creeping belief that vaccines are over-rated. The positive thing, though, is that we still have some 83% of parents in favour of some kind of punitive measure for those who don’t or won’t vaccinate their kids. But I do suspect that percentage will reduce over time. We humans have short memories and an over-supply of hubris, it seems to me. Or perhaps we’re just a bit over-confident with respect to our survival mechanisms. We’re like teenagers, we rarely listen to our parents – they’re history, after all. We need a few life-blows to counter our cockiness.

Jacinta: Hmmm, grim but probably true. Anyway, the government has acted and that might reduce the number of fence-sitters, even if it polarises the issue a bit more.

Written by stewart henderson

January 3, 2016 at 9:09 am

is faith a virus? Hauerwas, Boghossian, and the ‘problem’ of natural theology

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A post I wrote some 18 months ago reflecting on the comments of an American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, while he was in Australia (I think) has raised some interest – more than I’m accustomed to – from people who obviously find theology more important than I do. My post was triggered by Hauerwas’s inane remark that atheism was ‘boring’, the kind of cheap remark that Christian apologists are apt to make. So it was with some bemusement that I was treated, in comments, to a defence of Hauerwas as a great Christian critic of standard US Christianity (which struck me as quite beside the point), and as a person whose throwaway lines shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Maybe so, but I can only go on the words I heard, which seemed to be spoken seriously enough, and I have little interest in researching Hauerwas’s whole oeuvre to get a better handle on particular utterances, as I do find theology quite boring (and that’s not a throwaway line).

Still, I’m prepared to give Hauerwas another go, within the broad context of faith. So I’m going to have a look at what he says in the first of his Gifford lectures on ‘natural theology’.

Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas

And what, you might ask, is natural theology? Well, apparently it’s the attempt to find solid reasons, beyond ‘divine revelation’, for the existence of – not gods, but God, the Judeo-Christian creation. I’m always amused by this usage – though actually the bloke’s an amalgam of various local gods including Yahweh the Canaanite war-god, Elohim, a name half dipped in obscurity but deriving from the plural of el, a Canaanite word for any god, and Adonai, a term of similarly obscure provenance. It’s as if a company like MacDonalds  had copyrighted the name Hamburger to disallow its usage by everyone else.

But at least it’s promising that these lectures are about giving reasons for believing in some supernatural entity or other, rather than relying on that notably slippery term, faith.

Unfortunately, though, Hauerwas doesn’t start well. Let me home in on a sentence from the very first paragraph:

The god that various Gifford lecturers have shown to exist or not to exist is a god that bears the burden of proof. In short, the god of the Gifford Lectures is usually a god with a problem.

This is an age-old trope, going back at least as far as Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), who put forward a piece of clever word-play as an ‘ontological argument’ for the existence of his god, all the time saying that the god didn’t  really need such an argument, implying that to suggest such a thing was tantamount to saying he was a god with a problem.

But Anselm’s god didn’t have a problem, any more than the god of Hauerwas, or the god of any other theist. These gods, I’m fairly convinced, are unlikely to exist outside of theists’ imaginations. It is the theists who have the problem. The burden of proof is borne by the believers, not by their gods. Hauerwas should know better than to employ such a cheap trick.

Further along the line Hauerwas provides his own very different definition of natural theology as ‘the attempt to witness to the nongodforsakenness of the world even under the conditions of sin’. He provides a link to an endnote after this, but I’ve been unable to find the note, so this statement remains largely gobbledygook to me, though I can comment on its key terms; ‘nongodforsakenness’ can only have meaning for those who think they know that their god exists, and ‘sin’ is a not very useful term arising from Judeo-Christian theism, a term I reject because I view morality as deriving from natural and social evolution. Just as we don’t describe our cats as ‘sinners’ or as ‘evil’, we shouldn’t, in my view, describe humans in that way. It would surely be more accurate, and far more fruitful, to describe them as socially or psychologically dysfunctional. This allows for the possibility of remedies.

However, I’m prepared to be patient (to a degree), as Hauerwas requests. I’ve managed to read through the first of his Gifford lectures, and that’s more than enough for me (and my understanding of it all is further undermined by some egregious typos in the text). A number of thinkers are referenced and sometimes discussed at some length – I’ve read a little Aquinas, and more of William James, but the others –  Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr and Alasdair MacIntyre, are only familiar to me as names. These intellectuals have no doubt great resonance in the (clearly shrinking) theological world Hauerwas has chosen to inhabit, and that’s probably the main reason they mean so little to me, as I inhabit the world of modernist nihilism that Hauerwas apparently inveighs against.

To be fair, Hauerwas takes care to claim that the modern era, like the middle ages, is far too complex for any brief laudatory or condemnatory summation. To this effect, he says:

It is important… that I make clear that I do not assume my account of modernity is necessarily one of declension. Though I admire and am attracted to many of the movements and figures we associate with what we call the Middle Ages, I do not assume the latter to be some golden age from which modernity names a fall.

However, I’m suspicious of this claim, as elsewhere in this lecture he speaks of modern nihilism as a given, and as a problem.

But before I go on, I’ll try to give a brief overview of this first lecture, which I’m sure will be seen as a travesty of his views. To some extent it’s a problematising of the stated purpose of the Gifford Lectures, which is apparently to argue for the existence of a god without resort to divine revelation (or perhaps argue about, since a number of previous lecturers, such as John Dewey, William James and A J Ayer, were secularists). It’s Hauerwas’s contention that natural theology is a modern, post-enlightenment phenomenon that wouldn’t have been recognised by earlier theologians such as Aquinas, and that to reduce the Christian god (‘the ground of everything’) to something to be explained or proven, like dinosaurs or black holes (not, unfortunately, Hauerwas’s examples) is more or less to already admit defeat. Of course, he’s right there, and it’s no wonder he inveighs against modernism!

Hauerwas claims Karl Barth in particular as a major influence in his thinking, which seems to involve just accepting the ‘truth’, particularly of the life of Jesus and his death on the cross, and being a ‘witness’ to this life, particularly in the way one lives one’s own life. In outlining this view, he expresses extreme confidence about the essentiality of Jesus and the manner of his death as an example and a message.

I can’t write about this in the way that theologians write, and I certainly don’t want to, so I’ll be much more blunt and say that the problem here is one of faith – a term nowhere mentioned in this lecture.


Peter Boghossian

The atheist philosopher Peter Boghossian recently toured Australia to promote his book, A manual for creating atheists, and the general project behind it. The tour was partly supported by an organisation called Reason Road, of which I’m a member. It’s Boghossian view – and I think he’s right – that it’s faith rather than religion that atheists need to question and undermine, in order to promote a healthier view of the world, and his characterisation of faith is also something I like. He calls it ‘pretending to know what you don’t/can’t know.’ He also describes faith as a virus, which should be combatted with epistemological antibiotics. Bearing this in mind, it’s worth quoting a couple more of Hauerwas’s statements:

… the heart of the argument I develop in these lectures is that natural theology divorced from a full doctrine of God cannot help but distort the character of God and, accordingly, of the world in which we find ourselves.

That God is Trinity is, of course, a confession. The acknowledgment of God’s trinitarian character was made necessary by the Christian insistence that the God who had redeemed the world through the cross and resurrection of Jesus was not different from the God of Abraham, Moses, and the prophets. God has never not been Trinity, but only through the struggle to render its own existence intelligible did the church discover God’s trinitarian nature. Accordingly, Christians believe rightly that few claims are more rationally compelling than our confession that God is Trinity. Of course, our knowledge that God is Trinity, a knowledge rightly described as revelation, only intensifies the mystery of God’s trinitarian nature.

From these statements we learn that Hauerwas is not only a Christian but a trinitarian, and presumably – but not necessarily – a Catholic. His Catholicism seems further confirmed by remarks here and elsewhere about the essentiality of church to Christian living.

More importantly Hauerwas makes the bold claim that the triune nature of his god is ‘rationally compelling’ to Christians in general. This is quite clearly false. I don’t know too many Christians but few of them are Catholic and even fewer would consider themselves trinitarians. Of course most wouldn’t have given the matter the slightest thought, and so perhaps wouldn’t be Christians to Hauerwas’s mind, but Hauerwas makes the claim that ‘God as Trinity’ is a matter of knowledge – though knowledge as ‘revelation’, which to my modernist mind is no knowledge at all. This is another example of pretending to know things you can’t possibly know. All that Hauerwas adds to this is a degree of confidence, though whether this is false confidence – mere bravado – or not, only Hauerwas can say. We get this throughout the lecture – a ‘confident’ pretence that he knows things that he can’t possibly know.

The reason for this, of course, is that he rejects natural theology, a kind of adaptation of post-enlightenment scientific methodologies, often called methodological naturalism. By doing so he permits himself the luxury of knowing that his god is triune, and is the ground of all being, and had a son who died on the cross for our sins – all by revelation!

Is there any point in continuing? To allow knowledge by revelation, or some sort of automatic conviction, or faith, is indeed to give up on any fruitful theory of knowledge altogether. Everything is permitted.

Epistemology is another term nowhere mentioned in this lecture, but the fact is that our modern world has been largely built on an improved epistemology, one that separates knowledge from belief in a throughly rigorous, and enormously productive way. It is this renovated epistemology  that has allowed us, for example, to look at the Bible not as the work of Moses or other pseudo-characters, but of scores of nameless authors whose individualities and attitudes can be revealed by painstaking textual analysis. It allows us to question the character of Jesus, his motives, his provenance, his fate, and even his very existence. It allows us to distinguish the possibly true elements of Jesus’s story from the highly implausible; the virgin birth, the miracles, the chit-chat with the devil in the desert, the transfiguration and so forth.

Far more importantly, though, from my view, this brighter and tighter epistemology has brought us modern medicine and cosmology, and modern technology, from improved modes of travel to improved ways of feeding our growing population. And of course it has brought about a renovated and enhanced understanding of who and what we are.

I really get off on knowledge, and so I take a very dim view indeed of those who would seek to poison it with so-called knowledge by revelation or faith. Knowledge is a very hard-won thing and it’s very precious. It deserves far greater respect than Hauerwas allows it.

The belief of Hauerwas and others that their god cannot be relegated to the furniture of the universe is simply that: a belief. What they are asking is that their belief should be respected (and even accepted) presumably because it is all-consuming. It’s such a vast belief, such a vast claim, that it dwarfs modernity, it dwarfs methodological naturalism, it dwarfs boring and worthless atheism. And it dwarfs any insulting attempt to test it.

I don’t know whether to describe Hauerwas’s claim as an arrogant one. It might well be that Hauerwas is genuinely humbled by this revealed ‘knowledge’. Either way, it’s not remotely convincing to me.


I don’t much enjoy writing about this stuff, and I hope I never post on this subject again.


Written by stewart henderson

August 23, 2015 at 9:29 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

an open letter to a homeopath

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B_zXQldU0AAfdTR.jpg-largeWhen I was in Canberra last year I came across an article in the Canberra Weekly, written by one Wesley Smith, director of the ‘Live Well Spa & Wellness Centre’ in Manuka, a Canberra suburb. It was called ‘Homeopathy in the cross-hairs’, and you can probably guess the rest.

I tore out the article, vaguely intending to do something about it, and promptly forgot about it, but having rediscovered it today, I’m thinking it’s not too late.  An online version of Mr Smith’s (he’s not a doctor) article is here. On this centre’s website, I note that it advertises ‘holistic’ wellness (see my recent post), and offers ‘acupuncture, herbal medicine, kinesiology, naturopathy, remedial massage, meditation and yoga’ as some of its treatments – and reading the bios of Wesley’s quite large team tells me that cupping, EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques), dry needling and ‘soft tissue therapy’ are also on offer, though I note that nowhere in these extensive bios is there any mention of a medical degree. The only mention of qualifications is in Wesley’s own bio – he has a Bachelor of Applied Science in Acupuncture from the University of Technology, Sydney (shame on the institution). But this gladbag of BS is too large to deal with, though it does indicate the depth of crazy in which our Wesley is mired. I’ll just keep to homeopathy, with maybe a dash of acupuncture (I can’t help myself).

So here’s a letter, which I’ll send by email to Mr Wesley Smith. It may mark the beginning of a rich relationship.

Dear Mr Smith

In reference to your article ‘Homeopathy in the cross-hairs’ published in the Canberra Weekly some time last year, I would like to point out some problems with your analysis of the situation with homeopathy.

Firstly, as you know, the NHMRC has now completed its review on homeopathy and its findings were made available online in March 2015. They are clear: there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective. The review also states that

People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness. People who are considering whether to use homeopathy should first get advice from a registered health practitioner.

Having visited your website and read your biography, I’ve found that you’re not on the APHRA list of registered health practitioners. I could check out your team, but as I notice that no medical qualifications are mentioned for any of them, it’s probably reasonable to assume that none of them are in fact registered health practitioners.

I find it strange that in your summary of homeopathy in your article, which is reasonably accurate as far as it goes, you describe its principles as ‘challenging’, and suggest that it would be particularly so for those with some knowledge of basic chemistry and ‘a lack of imagination’.

While imaginative insight is indeed required to postulate a new theory, as with Maxwell’s insight about the relationship between electricity and magnetism, Einstein’s insight about the relationship between space and time, and Darwin’s insights about competition and variation, the really hard work involves proving the theory to be true, as I’m sure you’ll agree. Maxwell and Einstein had to develop accurate, watertight, explanatory equations as proofs of their theories, to enable them to be tested ad infinitum by others. Newton developed a whole mathematical calculus, which has since become one of the most valuable tools available to science, in order to precisely calculate his revolutionary laws of motion. Darwin devoted a whole lifetime to providing detailed evidence of adaptive development in a wide variety of species…

Yet it’s remarkable how little work has been done, especially by self-proclaimed homeopaths, to provide proofs of the efficacy of homeopathy. Imagination is hardly sufficient. It seems that, out of exasperation, as well as a sense of ‘duty of care’, the NHMRC, representing medical professionals, has decided to take on this proof-providing responsibility, and the results have been damning, but unsurprising to any one with a scientific bent and a respect for evidence.

You’ve defended homeopathy by claiming there ‘must be’ hundreds of thousands of Australians who’ve been ‘astounded’ at how their bruises respond to homeopathic arnica. Surely you can’t expect any medically trained person to accept such claims as evidence. It would be like accepting someone’s word that hundreds of thousands of people have had their prayers answered by their god, therefore their god really exists and really does answer prayers. In order for such claims to be counted as evidence – as you well know – information would have to be gathered about this multitude of individuals, the nature of their ‘bruises’, and the mechanism by which the bruises responded to the treatment. You would think that homeopaths the world over would be enormously interested in how arnica, in such infinitesimally minute doses, has this miraculously curative effect. The fact is surely sensational and would revolutionise the treatment of bruising – essentially, internal haemorrhaging – around the world, saving millions of lives. Yet homeopaths appear not to have the slightest interest in causal mechanisms. They’re only interested in claimed effects. There are no laboratories working on how homeopathic treatments work, in testing and developing their theoretical underpinnings, in finding further applications for these truly extraordinary ‘principles’. Why ever not? How can homeopaths be so irresponsible? So completely incurious?

You claim that it’s impossible to dismiss the curative effects of this treatment as due to placebo. In other words, you know that it works. That’s fantastic news, now all you have to do is prove it. I cannot believe that this would be difficult for you, since you claim that hundreds of thousands of Australians (and presumably hundreds of millions worldwide) are astounded at the treatment’s efficacy. Considering this, you must be astounded, in your turn, at the NHMRC’s final report. How could they have got it so wrong? Furthermore, how is it that in Britain a study by Edzard Ernst (himself a professor of complementary medicine), which made a systematic review of the Cochrane Database of reviews (the Cochrane Database being justly famous for its rigour), found, again, that homeopathy had no discernible effect beyond placebo? Is there a conspiracy happening here? You seem to be suggesting as much when you write of the huge profits for pharmaceutical companies in successfully trialling their products, compared to the difficulties for poor homeopaths. But homeopaths could surely unite, with each other and with these millions of delighted clients, to provide the proof you need in the form of double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomised trials with large sample sizes. After all, you yourself have testified that the treatment is nothing short of sensational. It would surely haver wider application than simply healing bruises. If these principles really work, why wouldn’t they be effective for curing cancer, ebola, malaria, or any other scourge to humanity? The benefits would be such that you would be criminally negligent not to pool your resources and provide these proofs for humanity’s sake. There would certainly be a Nobel Prize for medicine in it for you if you were to organise the trials that led to these revolutionary cures,  not to mention eternal fame and the gratitude of billions…

But let’s not get carried away. The ‘revolution’ of homeopathy has been around for over two hundred years, and it has never progressed beyond the French characterisation of it as médicine douce, the kind of medicine you take when you don’t need medicine, our fabulous immune system being what it is. If it really was as effective as you claim, pharmaceutical companies would have financed the research trials in a jiff, thereby turning their millions of dollars of profits into billions. Not to mention the fact that if homeopathic ‘principles’ worked, much of the science we know would be up-ended, and most of our modern physics and chemistry would have to be scrapped.

The real situation is as described by Dr Steven Novella at Science-based medicine:


… proponents of homeopathy would have the world believe that one man, Samuel Hahnemann, stumbled upon a fantastic secret two centuries ago (actually, multiple secrets) that defy scientific explanation, have been ignored by 200 years of scientific progress, and yet to this day would turn our scientific understanding of the world upside down. For some reason, however, believers just can’t seem to produce any convincing evidence for any of it, not even that homeopathic products have any properties at all, let alone clinical efficacy. After 200 years all they can produce are endless excuses and demands for more research.

And what do we have in your article, Mr Smith? In its last lines, true to form, you make excuses about (200 plus years of) limited funding, and demands for more research. QED.

Written by stewart henderson

April 11, 2015 at 2:44 pm

the most absolute way to lose credibility

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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

a brief history of pre-20th century European violence, part 1

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The second siege of Namur, 1695

The second siege of Namur, 1695

A few years back I read Niall Ferguson’s The war of the world: twentieth century conflict and the descent of the west. It was published in 2006. More recently, in 2011, Steven Pinker’s The better angels of our nature was published, and it would seem that the two books are talking almost exactly opposite tales. I’ve not read Pinker’s book, but I’ve heard him talking about it, and I understand the thesis pretty well. In fact I largely shared Pinker’s view even before he wrote the book, and before I read Ferguson’s. Not that Ferguson’s book wasn’t interesting and full of incident, but the central thesis of the west’s descent into a quagmire of violence struck me as unconvincing. The huge numbers killed in the 20th century’s two world wars, and in other conflicts such as occurred in Rwanda and Cambodia were partly the result of greater killing technology, partly the result of a massive population increase, and partly the result of ideological fixations being played out to their logical conclusions. Of course all these features – the technology, the population and the ideologies – are still with us, but other forces have gradually risen, at least in the ‘west’, to keep them in check. I’d like to look at those forces in detail in another post, but for now I want to take a look at violence, both domestic and national-political, in Europe over the past few centuries, because I think Ferguson’s greatest error in his book was selectivity. He chose to focus on the twentieth century, and his treatment of earlier centuries was cursory at best. Naturally he argued that there was an extended period of peace before the outbreak of the Great War, but even that limited claim probably wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny. We’ll see. I’ll begin my overview of violence in Europe at around the year 1600, for no reason other than I have to start somewhere, and I don’t want the post to be too long. So I’ll be covering some 300 years, with the obvious understanding that life was no less violent before this period. I’ll start with war violence, and finish with the more complicated picture of state-sanctioned, public and domestic violence.

the violence of warfare

In 1600 Elizabeth was still on the throne in England, and Spain was probably not yet fully conscious of its decline as a European power. There were plenty of tensions between these two countries, one newly Protestant, the other staunchly Catholic, but Spain had other concerns. In July 1601 the Flemish city of Ostend, in what is now Belgium, was subjected to what turned out to be one of the longest sieges in human history. Some 35,000 were killed or wounded by the time the Dutch surrendered to the Spanish in September of 1604. Considering that the total population of Europe was about a tenth of what it is today, that’s a significant figure. And it was only one event, albeit a particularly bloody one, in a long war, the Dutch War of Independence, also known as the Eighty Years’ War. A year before the siege, the Battle of Nieuwpoort, which the Dutch ‘won’ – their casualties were fractionally less than those of Spain – resulted in some 4,500 casualties. The long conflict – it lasted from 1568 until the end of the Thirty Years’ War of middle Europe, in 1648 – obviously resulted in many thousands of casualties, but merging as it did with the Thirty Years War of 1618-48, it’s hard to find a separate estimate.

The Thirty Years’ War itself was the most horrific internal war ever experienced in Europe, to judge by percentage of the total population affected. Estimates of the death toll range from 3 to 11.5 million, an incredible figure, though nothing compared to the Mongol slaughter of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, which saw between 30 million and 60 million dead, a veritable emptying of the Eurasian population.

The Treaty of London, signed in 1604, brought to an end what historians now call the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585-1604. Arguably this wasn’t so much a war as a series of battles or raids separated by years of tension and intrigue.  The execution of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots accelerated the conflict, the main events of which included the raid on the Armada by Drake in 1587, the destruction of the Armada in 1588, the disastrous campaign of the ‘English Armada’ in 1589, and a number of inconclusive skirmishes in the region of the Spanish Main in the 1590s. Casualties are of course hard to determine, but it’s estimated that some 25,000 died in the English defeat of the Spanish Armada, many of disease and hunger in the aftermath.

Spain was also a belligerent in the Irish Nine Years War, which came to an end in 1603. This was an uprising of Irish clans, supported by the Spanish, against English rule. It resulted in more than 100,000 deaths, mostly Irish, and mostly of resultant famine and disease. Meanwhile, the Polish-Swedish War (1600-11) saw another waste of resources and manpower. It was largely due to the ambitions of Sweden’s Charles IX and the Catholic Sigismund II Vasa, and the truce that followed years of battle was short-lived. The resumption of hostilities was just another aspect of the Thirty Years’ War. I can find no clear account of casualties, but in one famous battle, the Polish-Lithuanian victory at Kircholm in 1605, some 6000 Swedes were apparently wiped out.

In 1606, the Peace of Zsitvatorok brought to an end the Long War (1591-1606) between the Habsburg Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire, the first serious encounter between Christian and Moslem forces in eastern Europe since the Hungarians were slaughtered by the forces of Suleiman I at Mohacs in 1526. Significant events in this war included the Battle of Calugareni (1595), a major Wallachian (Romanian) victory, and the Battle of Keresztes (1596), a horribly bloody affair with massive casualties on both sides, with this time the Ottoman army scoring the victory. These two battles alone resulted in around 60,000 deaths. 17th century battles (since we’re supposed to be working from 1600) include Guruslau (1601) and Brasov (1603). War losses were heavy – certainly over 100,000.

The War of the Julich Succession was a convoluted Middle-European conflict (1609-14) between forces supporting and opposing the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II’s attempts to expand Habsburg Territory. It involved a number of sieges and skirmishes and was another precursor to the Thirty Years’ War.

The Polish Muscovite War (1605-1618) was essentially a series of incursions into Russian territory by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, at a time when Russia was wracked by civil conflict. Important events included the Battle of Klushino (1610) and the Siege of Smolensk (1609-11), which resulted in great loss of life, especially on the Russian side.

The Ingrian War (1610-17) was an attempt by Sweden to also take advantage of Russia’s internal conflicts. It ended with the treaty of Stolbovo which stripped Russia of access to the Baltic Sea for about a century.

These are the main European conflicts leading up to the Thirty Years’ War, which sucked most continental conflicts into it, up to mid-century. However, there was another conflict that can be clearly separated from it; the English Civil War (1642-51). This conflict directly killed more than 80,000 in England alone, at a time when the English population was around 5 million. As usual during this era, disease killed more people than combat, and war-related deaths are estimated at around 190,000. Related conflicts in Scotland in the period killed around 60,000 out of 1 million, and in Ireland the devastation was by far the greatest, with the best estimate put at over 600,000 dead – about 40% of the population. These conflicts are sometimes known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639-51), though the conflicts continued until the Restoration under Charles II in 1660.

You might think that an exhausted peace would prevail after these massive British and European conflicts. You’d be wrong. The First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-4), an entirely naval affair, saw at least 5,000 deaths, and 1652 also saw the Battle of Batih, in which an estimated 8000 Polish forces were massacred by Crimean Tatars. But even before that there was plenty of conflict. In 1648, the year the Treaty of Westphalia brought to an end the Thirty Years’ War, civil wars erupted in France. These events have become known as the Fronde, and they lasted until 1653, when Royal authority was restored. Though the death toll was comparatively small, the turmoil was disturbing enough to cause the incoming monarch, Louis XIV, to move his residence out to Versailles.

In 1654 the Battle of Shepeleviche marked the beginning of the Russo-Polish War, which ran until 1667. Smolensk was again besieged during the conflict. In one battle alone, the Battle of Okhmativ (1655), some 9000 died on the Russian side. 1654 was also the year of the first of the ‘Battles of the Dardanelles’, part of the Cretan War (1645-69), also known as the Fifth (yeah, that’s right) Ottoman-Venetian War, fought between the State of Venice and its allies and the Ottoman Empire. This one was fought over Crete, hence the name.

Shortly after the Thirty Years’ War, Sweden, which had emerged from the devastation as a semi-great power, made a series of attacks on the   Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, itself weakened by war with Russia and the Cossacks. These attacks became known in Poland as the Swedish Deluge, which reached its height between 1655 and 1660. Approximately one third of the Commonwealth was wiped out, and Swedish casualties too were very high. Sweden’s warmongering King, Charles X Gustav, also attacked Denmark to precipitate the Dano-Swedish War of 1558-60, but Dutch forces and later those of Brandenberg, Poland and Austria came to Denmark’s aid, and after the Swedish king’s death in 1660 a peace treaty, the Treaty of Copenhagen, was signed which decided the borders of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, the same borders that exist today.

Meanwhile in Portugal, a revolution in 1640 had deposed the 60-year Spanish Habsburg monarchy, leading to skirmishes and more serious warfare with Spain, up to the Treaty of Lisbon in 1668. This 28-year period has become known as the Portuguese Restoration War. Portugal was already sporadically at war with the Dutch, mainly in relation to territories in Africa and the Far East, with the Dutch keen to muscle in on Portuguese Territories (complicated by the fact that the Portuguese were under Spanish dominion at the time). The Dutch-Portuguese War, largely a naval affair, lasted from 1602 to 1663. The Dutch were assisted by the British until 1640 when the Brits switched sides.

In 1667-68 France, under their young and ambitious King Louis XIV, chose to invade and take possession of lands in the Spanish-controlled Netherlands, presumably because it was the done thing for a mighty Prince to prove himself on the battle field. The French were successful enough in this ‘War of Devolution’, but a Triple Alliance of England, Sweden and the Dutch Republic, together with other stakeholders, forced Louis to realise the limitations of his power, and he had to hand back most of his gains. This pointless but hardly bloodless campaign clearly indicates the fashion for warfare of the time.

Louis wasn’t finished with the Netherlands, though. He sought to break up the Triple Alliance by seeking the support of the British against the Dutch Republic. He knew it was a shaky alliance because only months before it was made, the British and the Dutch had been at war. He also knew that Britain was concerned about Holland’s rise as a naval power, so he put all his energies into war preparations and alliance negotiations. In 1672, four years after the ‘War of Devolution’, the French army marched into what was then called the Dutch United Provinces, a month after Britain declared war. The consequent conflict, known as the Franco-Dutch War, lasted until 1678. The French gained a lot of territory, but lost the support of the Brits early on, and by war’s end most neighbouring nations had hostile relations with France. Again, virtually impossible to determine casualties, but military pundits claim 20,000 to 30,000 dead from one battle alone, at Seneffe (1674).

Swedish involvement in the Franco-Dutch War, on the French side, led to the Scanian War (1675-9), in which Denmark-Norway responded to a call for support from the Dutch United Provinces by invading areas of Sweden still in contention along the borders of Norway, Denmark and Brandenberg. Of course it was, as usual, a grab for power and territory. Scania is an area of what is now southern Sweden. The Danes scored most of the victories in the war, which further eroded Swedish power in northern Europe, but the Danes were forced by the Treaty of Fontainebleau (dictated by the French) to give up all their territorial gains. Another exercise in bloody futility.

Meanwhile on the other side of Europe, the Polish-Ottoman War (1672-76) – aka the 2nd Polish-Ottoman War – arrayed the forces of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth against those of the Ottoman Turks. After a number of battles and sieges and such, the Commonwealth was weakened to the extent that a number of foreign powers were encouraged to take advantage of it. However it rallied and scored some notable victories in the 3rd Polish-Ottoman War (1683-99), after which both Poland and the Ottoman Empire went into steep decline. The Ottoman Turks had also made war on the Russians (the Russo-Turkish War, 1676-81) to little effect, apart from much loss of life. In fact the period from 1683 to 1699 is referred to by historians as the Great Turkish War. The Turks lost a lot of territory in the period, but in spite of such disasters as the Battle of Zenta (1697), in which about 30,000 Turks died, they weren’t finished yet.

In England the Monmouth rebellion of 1685, against the newly crowned but highly unpopular king, James II, a fanatical Catholic, was a harbinger of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, inaccurately described as a bloodless revolution, which deposed James II and snuffed out the last hope of a return to ‘official’ Catholicism in Britain.

1688 also marked the beginning of the Nine Years’ War, not the last conflict of the seventeenth century but the last one I’ll describe here. This was a conflict between James II’s powerful successor William of Orange (William III of England) – allied with a number of other powers such as Charles II of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I – and the ever-ambitious Louis XIV. James II had fled to the French court after being deposed, and he sought French assistance to regain the British throne. Louis was in the process of wreaking havoc in the Rhineland – his forces completely destroying some 20 large towns, including Heidelberg, Mannheim, Worms and Speyer, and numerous villages – but he was still inclined to help his fellow Catholic regain his god-given throne. Other European leaders (both Protestant and Catholic) rightly or wrongly imagined Louis had hopes of make James a ‘vassal king’. Louis was probably sincere in his desire to see a Catholic returned to the British throne (I’ll write about his revocation of the Edict of Nantes and its aftermath when I come to state-sanctioned violence), but he also wanted to distract William from protecting the Low Countries (nowadays Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and parts of north-west Germany) from his incursions. He also believed, apparently, that William’s invasion would meet with greater hostility than it did, and that England would likely be plunged into civil war by the event.

Of course, the campaign of James II, mostly in Ireland, backed by French gold, ships and generals, was a dismal failure. The continental campaign of the French waxed and waned, with notable victories at the Battles of Staffarda (1690) and Marsaglia (1693), and plenty of stalemates and stand-offs. The Wikipedia account of the Nine Years’ War is particularly good, IMHO. In the end though, with god knows how much loss of life, nothing much was achieved, and it ended with Louis XIV more or less back where he was territorially at the beginning of his reign.

So I’ll end my tale of 17th century European war violence here. The tale I’ve told lacks flesh and blood, and the complexity and depth of human motives, decisions and uncertainties, but it was merely intended to show that hardly a year passed in Europe in this era without some battle or siege or skirmish in which large volumes of blood were shed. War was a commonplace of diplomacy, and a commonplace feature of the adventurous male life, and the disease and suffering attendant upon all these battles and struggles no doubt formed the lifeblood of everyday conversation. ‘Were you really at the siege of Namur, uncle? Really? Tell me, what was it like…?’

In the next part I’ll look at the eighteenth century.


Written by stewart henderson

June 10, 2014 at 8:08 am