Friday, July 29, 2005

Abu Ghraib Isn't Over Yet

Eventually, I'll get around to a post wherein I'll talk about how the following is standard procedure in wars - support war, support atrocity. But for now, come with me and soak in impotent rage.

Back in May, Donald Rumsfeld testified about additional photos and video tapes from Abu Ghraib. These photos and tapes had yet to be released, and Rumsfeld was arguing that they should be kept secret because "if these are released to the public, obviously it's going to make matters worse."

How much worse? You sure you want to know?

A link from Salon:

. . .if Seymour Hersh is right, it all gets much worse.

Hersh gave a speech last week to the ACLU making the charge that children were sodomized in front of women in the prison, and the Pentagon has tape of it. The speech was first reported in a New York Sun story last week, which was in turn posted on Jim Romenesko's media blog, and now and other blogs are linking to the video. We transcribed the critical section here (it starts at about 1:31:00 into the ACLU video.) At the start of the transcript here, you can see how Hersh was struggling over what he should say:

"Debating about it, ummm ... Some of the worst things that happened you don't know about, okay? Videos, um, there are women there. Some of you may have read that they were passing letters out, communications out to their men. This is at Abu Ghraib ... The women were passing messages out saying 'Please come and kill me, because of what's happened' and basically what happened is that those women who were arrested with young boys, children in cases that have been recorded. The boys were sodomized with the cameras rolling. And the worst above all of that is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking that your government has. They are in total terror. It's going to come out."

"It's impossible to say to yourself how did we get there? Who are we? Who are these people that sent us there? When I did My Lai I was very troubled like anybody in his right mind would be about what happened. I ended up in something I wrote saying in the end I said that the people who did the killing were as much victims as the people they killed because of the scars they had, I can tell you some of the personal stories by some of the people who were in these units witnessed this. I can also tell you written complaints were made to the highest officers and so we're dealing with a enormous massive amount of criminal wrongdoing that was covered up at the highest command out there and higher, and we have to get to it and we will. We will. You know there's enough out there, they can't (Applause). .... So it's going to be an interesting election year."

Notes from a similar speech Hersh gave in Chicago in June were posted on Brad DeLong's blog. Rick Pearlstein, who watched the speech, wrote: "[Hersh] said that after he broke Abu Ghraib people are coming out of the woodwork to tell him this stuff. He said he had seen all the Abu Ghraib pictures. He said, 'You haven't begun to see evil...' then trailed off. He said, 'horrible things done to children of women prisoners, as the cameras run.' He looked frightened."

So, there are several questions here: Has Hersh actually seen the video he described to the ACLU, and why hasn't he written about it yet? Will he be forced to elaborate in more public venues now that these two speeches are getting so much attention, at least in the blogosphere? And who else has seen the video, if it exists -- will journalists see and report on it? did senators see these images when they had their closed-door sessions with the Abu Ghraib evidence? -- and what is being done about it?

(Update: A reader brought to our attention that the rape of boys at Abu Ghraib has been mentioned in some news accounts of the prisoner abuse evidence. The Telegraph and other news organizations described "a videotape, apparently made by US personnel, is said to show Iraqi guards raping young boys." The Guardian reported "formal statements by inmates published yesterday describe horrific treatment at the hands of guards, including the rape of a teenage Iraqi boy by an army translator.")

Follow the Telegraphy and Guardian links to learn more.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Law: More Than Just The Text

Or, The Law: Epilogue.

There's a new U.S. Supreme Court Justice on the horizon, John Roberts. I don't know how much of a fight the Democrats will put up over his nomination. What interests me is that Conservatives seem to accept that he fits the bill of a judge who will perform a strict reading of the Constitution, not some constructionist who will find things like a "right to privacy" tucked away in the text.

It appears that Conservatives - in the U.S. and Canada - want the written law to be strictly held to, as if it is a static text who's meaning is plain to everyone. As if the only relevent factors in a given decision are 1) The evidence and 2) The strict text of the law.

I want to suggest this is basically impossible; since the law is a social activity, other factors will inevitably appear. A judge, in a case where a law or procedure is being challenged, will always engage in several layers of interpretation.

Case in point. Beliefnet has helpfully provided a handful of excerpts from John Roberts' decisions regarding religion in schools. From the Beliefnet description:

In the Lee v. Weisman brief, the government argued that public high schools should be allowed to hold religious ceremonies as part of graduation ceremonies.

From Roberts' decision:

We believe that evidence, including that adduced in Marsh and Lynch, shows that the Framers fully assented to the appearance of non-coercive religious practices in civic life. To focus, as the lower courts have done, on the fact that the specific type of ceremony at issue did not exist when the Constitution was adopted is to blind oneself to the broader truth on which Marsh was founded: that public ceremonial acknowledgments of religion were welcomed by the Framers and are deeply rooted in the Nation's heritage. /17/ Indeed, history suggests that listening to a religious invocation at a civic ceremony was seen not as an establishment of religion by the government but, on the contrary, as an expression of civic tolerance and accommodation to all citizens. . . .

Moreover, we agree that Establishment Clause concerns are triggered not only by coercion in the form of direct, legal compulsion, but also in the form of more indirect social coercion. For instance, we recognize that the special character of the public school setting has heightened this Court's sensitivity to subtle forms of coercion. See, e.g., Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 430-431 (1962). We do not believe, however, that graduation ceremonies pose a risk of coercion. Such ceremonies typically occur but once a year. They are addressed not to children alone but to families as a whole which are, as the Stein court noted, a natural bulwark against any coercion. Indeed, children in the family setting may hear similar invocations and benedictions at inaugurals and other public ceremonies. In short, whatever special concerns about subtle coercion may be present in the classroom setting -- where inculcation is the name of the game -- they do not carry over into the commencement setting, which is more properly understood as a civic ceremony than part of the educational mission.

Roberts is calling upon particular views gleaned from history and sociology - not the text of the law. Roberts isn't "giving a plain text reading" of the Constitution here; he's developing his own understanding of the social circumstances. The text of the law is only one factor, and not even necessarily the deciding factor.

This is something that needs to be remembered when Supreme Court judges tackle other contentious issues. Judges don't simply read the text of the law and hand down decisions; they have to choose between various interpretations of just about every field of human knowledge.

I'm not saying Roberts' reading is incorrect; he actually seems like a reasonable guy. But here we have an obvious example of why the law can be so messy, and why some court decisions can be so inscrutable.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Law: Power and Recognition

When H.L.A. Hart began developing his theory of law, he insisted on placing it in a social context. This is a useful starting point; I think it will lead us down a path that will help us deal with the various contentious issues of the day.

For the sake of brevity, when I say the Law, with a capital "L," I mean a formal legal system as a whole. Lower case "l" is just an individual law.

Since this is a philosophy of law, it needs to be rooted in a particular conception of humans. I'll only sketch this out here, and will write more fully in a later post.

There are two common ways of thinking about the Law that I'm opposed to. The first is the Social Contract Theory (SCT) as concieved by either Hobbes or Locke. Basically, we all agree to not kill each other so we can engage in economic pursuits. The second is the "harm principle" as concieved by JS Mills. The Law exists to keep us from hurting each other, and has no other purpose.

Both of these ideas have an atomistic view of humans - we're all individuals, and we develop our lives in a solitary way. We can satisfy our desires without the aid of others, though others can inhibit our satisfactions. The Law prevents this inhibition.

I think it's more accurate to speak of "intersubjectivity." There are facits of our being that we can only explore and develop when engaged with other humans, and the word in general. We aren't solitary; our skulls aren't bunkers protecting our minds as we peer out at the world from the gunports of our eyes. We interact with the world and other humans.

This interaction is governed by the desire for recognition; we want to see that others desire us, and we want to affect the world. An ideal world is one big mirror, and that's what we constantly try to do; make the world mirror ourselves back to us.

One facit (certainly not the only) of this is that we want to have power over others. This power can come in the form of influencing individual behaviour - to have another person follow your commands. This also works on a more general level; we want those around us to recognize our behaviours and ideas as worthy. On a gut level, we believe the ideal expression of this power is that others act and think increasingly like us.

So here is the birth of Law: increasing our own influence and power in the world. Engineering the world to make it one big mirror. The inevitable danger here, of course, is totalitarianism. That's power run amok - making bloody well certain everyone is just like you. This is also the power of democracy; it creates an enviroment in which people compete for recognition without coercion. Democratic societies also most effectively nurtures other forms of the desire for recognition; art and work, as two examples.

This is why one of the insights of the Critical Legal theorists is so useful: the settled law is a temporary truce in an ideological war. A law is codified because an individual or group felt it was something that needed to be imposed on the whole of society. The Law is inherently political.

As an example, when anti-SSMers complain about being forced to recognize SSM, they're right. The question is, does the SSM law contribute to an increasingly democratic society, or a totalitarian society?

The political spectrum, on an average day, looks like a straight line. On one end you have totalitarianism and mutual extermination, and on the other end you have democracy. But it's not a straight line - it's a circle. Think of it like this; standing where you are now, it's far from obvious that the Earth is a sphere. You have to travel a great distance to gain a sense of roundness. And it's the same on the political spectrum - follow any political ideology too far, and you'll come back around to totalitarianism.

So that's why the basic question of any law is "is it democratic or totalitarian?" Does this law further enable people to pursue their desires, or does it force them to come in line with your own desires? The easy impulse is towards totalitarianism - it's like junk food. Only carefully considered and responsible laws can foster democracy - a healthy diet.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

A Theory of Religion

Occasionally, my Christian friends and I touch on the topic of defining religion. This came up recently, though only tangentially. I want to offer a brief description of my friend's definition, outline my problems with it, then offer an alternative definition.

So keep in mind that this is obviously a second hand acount of someone elses' beliefs, beliefs that I haven't heard articulated in depth. I know, I know, I should wait until I have a better handle on what he's saying. But I'm anxious. So iif I'm misrepresenting you, correct me and I'll edit this post, or post a second time on this topic.

This is how I understand my friend's views. Religion is a universal thing; everyone has one. It has at least two aspects. First, there is a "worldview." An individual might question their worldview in a theoretical way, but any change in the basics would require drastic stimulus. On a practical, day to day level, one's world view is fundamental and unquestionable. The worldview is centred around answering these three questions:

1. Where did I come from?
2. What am I here for?
3. Where am I going?
4. Is there a God?

I've also been offered a different view; religion as a habit. Any act performed with a high degree of consistency is a religious act. The specific example used by my friend is Monday Night Football; you can watch it religiously. These habits do not have to be spiritual; they can be entirely secular. Their hallmark is consistency - though perhaps my friend would prefer to use the word devotion.

I think there is a streak of truth here, but some serious remodeling needs to be done. The idea that religion can be defined as both an intellectual worldview and personal habits is problematic. These two aspects cannot necassarily be reconciled; the man who watches football "religiously" would problem never bring the idea of football into his worldview. No one uses "football" to answer those questions, though some might flippantly think it answers #2.

A second problem is the insistence of including question #4 as a fundamental plank in one's worldview. How one answers #4 tends to have few specific consequences for one's life. Theists (and all others such as pantheists and deists) engage in the whole range of human behaviours, from slaughter to love to suicide. There is also a vast range of answers to the first three questions, even with an affirmative answer to #4. Answer the question of God's existence however you like; a simple yes or no will not lead to any particular effects in your life. Therefore it cannot be regarded as a fundamental issue.

Thirdly, positing first three questions in this manner assumes there are answers available. We must consider the possibility that these questions are futile. To insist that they are fundamental is to open up human knowledge to a potentially crippling absurdity: if the fundamental questions have no answers, but human knowledge is based on answering these questions, then epistemological confusion would be absolute. Therefore I argue that these questions are also not fundamental; they are tangental issues and the human mind is capable of operating outside their bounds.

Fourth, defining the world "religion" so broadly as to include football utterly guts the word of any true use value. If the word religion means exactly the same thing as habit, why not just say habit?

I have an alternative view. At first blush, it is very similar to the one offered above. However, but shuffling ideas about and re-reading certain aspects of human experience, I believe the gap between one's metaphysics (vaguely equivalent to the above "worldview") and one's behaviour (vaguely equivalent to the above "habits) can be overcome.

For the sake of length (I know no one will ever read my CLS post) I'm going to skip over most of the thought process that led up to my definition. I'm also not going to explain the original form of the ideas I've been cribbing; for example, I won't go into the Stoic philosopher's notion of the "sympathy of the whole." But suffice to say, everything in this post is a hodge podge of the ideas of others, pressed down, shaken together, but not quite running over.

That being said, a few preliminaries are in order here. What I'm outling is a philosopy of religion, not a religion itself. Nothing I say here can be taken as an endorsement or rejection of any one particular religion; I'm merely outlining some of the common aspects of all religions.

I think that we all have a particular toolkit that we use to interact with and understand the world. Humans also have a common collection of needs. We understand the world in a way that helps fulfill our identified needs. I want to argue that a "religion" is a particular set of tools to help us fulfill a particular collection of needs. It is important to remember that there are also other toolkits, some that do not have religious aspects.

There are two primary aspects in any understanding of the world. There are two aspects to this understanding, also known as metaphysics:

1. Ontology. Ontology is the study of being; what are we, what is the world? One might have a generic naturalistic ontology - everything is the result of mechanistic processes. Or one might have a Christian ontology - created body/soul/spirit.

2. Epistemology. One's theory of knowledge. What is the difference between truth and falsehood? One could take a Cartesian view, for example, and doubt everything except that one exists. Or, one could say that "the fear of the Lord is the begining of wisdom"

Now, I intentionally offered "secular" and Christian alternatives to make a point. Yes, there are different metaphysics. Well duh. That's not the point; the point is that different metaphysics are geared to fulfilling different human needs.

There is a metaphysics geared to fulfilling a particular set of needs, and this combination is religion.

One example of a human need - one of the most important, I think - is recognition. We need others to acknowledge us. There are a variety of tools we use to achieve recognition: we display consumer goods, we engage in admirable physical/intellectual acts, we pass laws to force others to think or act like us.

Religion touches on this need, but only in a peripheral way. Religion primarily answers other needs.

1. Subsumation of the individual. There are other names for this impulse: the death drive, Dionysian ecstasy, the elan vital. Suffice to say, humans find it deeply pleasurable to abandon their individuality and dive into an intense emotional experience. This, I believe, is the basis of Charismatic worship. On the flip side of the coin, in another way, it can also be expressed in the deep, mystical mediation of the monk. Other religions provide routes to fulfilling this need; the Sufi Dervishers spin until their minds melt into a higher state. The Buddhist seeks to eliminate the self as well. Indigenous religions are big on this; all those ecstatic dances of the shaman are essentially the same experience.

There is also a secular, non-religious route - mosh pits and other dance events like raves. This helps me make my point about the nature of religion. Each of the religious experiences - from Christian charismatic worship to the shaman's dance - are connected to particular metaphysics. There is a framework each act takes place in. The mosh pit is without framework, and therefore not religious.

2. Symbolic cause and effect. This is perhaps a subheading of another human drive that I won't discuss here. Consider what we know of basic cause and effect; a car moving 100/kph hits an icy patch and spins out. Or, air pressure goes wonky and a drought occurs. Or an individual makes a choice to kill another person.

There is a human tendency to believe that symbolic actions and words can affect the chain of events. A shaman cuts a chicken's throat, and expects a good hunt. A group of Christians hold hands and prays for traveling mercies. Both of these acts are symbolic and related to a particular metaphysics, therefore they are religious acts.

Or, someone watching football jumps out of his chair as his team is about to score, shouting "go go go!" This is the same attempt to affect the chain of events though symbolic words and actions, but is unconnected to any particular metaphysics. Therefore it is not religious.

3. Totemism. A social group chooses traits to elevate to the highest and most noble positions. They believe their group best embodies these traits, even if done so imperfectly. Consider Muslims; the most noble trait to them is submission. They even take it as their name, and they organize their lives around this principle. Different Christian groups will have different priorities, so I won't bother with specifics here.

Totemism is the need to see our favoured traits reflected in the world. Think of the Bat signal; a social group is the strobelight, projecting their trait into the world, and seeing it reflected back.

Now, there is a strong form of totemism that isn't necassarily religious - patriotism. Patriotism can even be loosely connected to metaphysics - I'd suggest something like this goes on with Christian Right in the United States.

So to summarize, religion is a particular set of thoughts and actions geared to fulfill a particular set of needs. The list of methods and goals is probably a lot larger than I've outlined here. It's not just an intellectual position and it's not just habits of behaviour.

I don't pretend that this is a conclusive definition; there are huge swaths of religious philosophy and anthropology I haven't engaged with. But I think it's an interesting place to start.