Wednesday, September 29, 2004

We are shortly to be heading North and West, in a truck with Michigan's "Humongous Fungus" depicted on its side. Of course, since Orgeon has an even bigger Armillaria ostoyae, we'll probably be laughed at. Ah, well. Any fungus on your truck is better than no fungus on your truck, as a great American statesman (I don't need to tell you that it was John Quincy Adams) has said.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Take into account, when contemplating the photograph below, that the gentleman is quite fluent in English. Also, the Kazakh rock art is very cool. Enjoy it, because it's all you're getting from me for the next fortnight or so: I'm off for a fourteen day Grand Canyon river trip. I've run the Colorado repeatedly, and it's every bit as wonderful as you can imagine. Don't expect too much from Odious either; he's about to pull up and move to Oregon. But please keep checking back; I at least should surface in mid-October. Cheers!

There's nothin' like Asian t-shirts. Posted by Hello

Friday, September 24, 2004

Kate and I visited my parents yesterday, which is always entertaining and bizarre. Life there definitely revolves around animals, and human daily activities simply must adjust themselves to the dictates of the beasts. I have long thought that this may be why people, particularly children, who grow up with and live around animals often possess more than the common measure of decency. They grow accustomed to things which cannot be changed by force or by reason, and look for solutions to difficulties in their own behavior. For when your dog or your falcon is causing trouble, it is usually due to some impatience or negligance of your own.

Philosophy aside, though, it's all a lot of fun. I can be amused all afternoon sitting and drinking wine in the kitchen with the Harris hawk, or in the living room with the gyrfalcon, watching them ruffle their feathers, stretch their wings, put a foot up a have a nap, wake up and look around. It's like having your own pet dinosaur. Giving them baths is one of the best shows in the world; they hop into the pan of water, fluff out their feathers, and proceed to flap and splash and delightedly make an immense mess. We had one once who even liked to be watered with the hose. My mother thought it greatly entertaining and would soak the bird to the skin, and when she'd give him a break he'd give a sweet and expectant look, obviously a polite request: "More please."

The best moments, however, are watching the birds and dogs interact. They definitely speak different languages, but it's clear that they're trying to communicate. The tazis will crouch low and squeak; the falcon will turn his head upside down. Sometimes the birds will even chase the dogs around and pull their tails. God knows where they get it, but they have some sense that they're on the same team, friends in an odd friendship. The world of beasts is not after all so completely hawk-eat-dog as most people are eager to assume.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

On the Bo or Kun

Or just plain staff, if you like. I've been working with it for some time, trying to add a long weapon to my repertoire.

It's a cliche that "every weapon has its own techniques", and that these techniques are dictated by the weapon itself: its balance, length, flexibility, etc. I found myself unimpressed with the staff at first. "I can't think of any situation where you wouldn't be better off just breaking it in two and have a pair of sticks," was one of my comments while practicing with a friend. I was, of course, used to arnis stick-fighting, which lead me to view every weapon through that lens. I though of the two ends of the staff as my two sticks, and was disappointed when I couldn't use them as quickly or simultaneously as I would my sticks. I saw a quality of the weapon as an inherent disadvantage, rather than simply viewing it as something to utilize.

The staff has its own strengths, different from those of the sticks. Its length is the most obvious: a lunge or strike can hit far further out (especially a sliding thrust, or nagashi-zuki) than the sticks can. But the staff has other, less obvious advantages, which I've only come to appreciate once I stopped comparing it to the sticks, and trying to use it that way.

The fact that one has two hands on the staff is a great advantage. With that leverage comes speed and power, especially if one remembers to use both sides of the body with every technique. It's particularly embarrassing how long it took me to realize this, when my bare-handed art stresses this double "aliveness" so strongly. If one hand is bringing the staff down on the opponent, the other can be either helping directly by adding its force to that vector, or indirectly by moving oppositely about a fulcrum between the load and the force, as a first class lever. The fulcrum can be any point on the staff two either side of which the hands move.

Moreover, the staff can be used at surprisingly close range, with both ends striking in quick sequence, or a double-handed strike (morote-uchi), which is a satisfyingly powerful manuever. It has a bare-handed counterpart in the double palm-heel strike, which can lift an opponent off their feet and leave them flat on their back (the secretis a slight upwards force-component). Of course, if your opponent gets two hands on your staff, as they might at close range, it's as much theirs as yours, but while they're trying to do that, one has any number of unpleasantnesses to visit upon them.

I love the thrusting techniques with the staff, too. A quick jab to the instep, ankle, or knee is enough to ruin anyone's day, and transforms into a sweeping upwards strike very quickly if it doesn't achieve its objective. Thrusts can come at odd angles and to unexpected targets, and have one's full weight behind them. The old quarter-staff fighters were renown for the "bursten bellies" they left behind--one can see, a little, how they did it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Any of you who are kind enough to recall my old post on the Illinois River may now see it illustrated below.

Illinois River Posted by Hello
And speaking of poetry and translation,here, my dear Jack, is the Finnish poem I told you about:
Kun mun kultani tulisi,
armahani asteleisi,
tuntisin ma tuon tulosta,
arvoaisin astunnasta,
jos ois vielä virstan päässä
tahikka kahen takana.
Utuna ulos menisin,
savuna pihalle saisin,
kipunoina kiiättäisin,
liekkinä lehauttaisin;
vierren vierehen menisin,
supostellen suun etehen.
Tok' mie kättä käppäjäisin,
vaikk' ois käärme kämmenellä;
tok' mie suuta suikkajaisin,
vaikk' ois surma suun edessä
tok' mie kaulahan kapuisin,
vaikk' ois kalma kaulaluilla;
tok' mie vierehen viruisin,
vaikk' ois vierus verta täynnä.
Vaanp' ei ole kullallani,
ei ole suu suen veressä,
käet käärmehen talissa,
kaula kalman tarttumissa;
suu on rasvasta sulasta,
huulet kuin hunajameestä,
käet kultaiset, koriat,
kaula kuin kanervan varsi.

Should my treasure come,
my darling step by,
I'd know him by his coming,
recognize him by his step,
though he were still a mile off
or two miles away.
As mist I'd go out;
as smoke I would reach the yard;
as sparks I would speed;
as flame I would fly;
I'd bowl along beside him,
pout before his face.
I would touch his hand
though a snake were in his palm;
I would kiss his mouth
though doom stared him in the face;
I'd climb on his neck
though death were on his neck bones;
I'd stretch beside him
though his side were all bloody.
And yet my treasure has not
his mouth bloody from a wolf,
his hands greasy from a snake,
nor his neck in death's clutches:
his mouth is of melted fat,
his lips are as of honey,
his hands golden, fair,
his neck like a heather stalk.

Goethe liked this poem too, and paraphrased it in a stanza of his Finnisches Lied:
Käm der liebe Wohlbekannte,
Völlig so wie er geschieden,
Kuß erkläng an seinen Lippen,
Hätt auch Wolfsblut sie gerötet;
Ihm den Handschlag gäb ich,
Seine Fingerspitzen Schlangen.

IF the loved one, the well-known one,
Should return as he departed,
On his lips would ring my kisses,
Though the wolf's blood might have dyed them;
And a hearty grasp I'd give him,
Though his finger-ends were serpents. [translation here]

As usual, I prefer the more literal translation, unskilled as it is; folk-poetry, in my opinion, only suffers dilution of its imagery and intesity by being rendered "accessible".
At last, subject matter! Read, if you know what's good for, this article on an expedition which sought the renowned allghoi khorkhoi, the Mongolian Death-worm. Cryptozoology aside, the author paints a nice picture of the absurd and delightful tribulation of travelling in Mongolia; I experienced many similar moments when I was there.

And here's a really entertaining linguistic knick-knack: a Chinese poem, every word of which is shih:

A poet by the name of Shih Shih living in a stone den was fond of lions. As he had taken an oath to eat ten lions, he went out to the market every day at ten o'clock in order to look for lions. It was at the time when all of a sudden ten lions came to the market and also Shih Shih went to the market at once realizing these ten lions. Relying on his (bow and) arrows, he caused these ten lions to pass away. Shih picked up the corpses of these ten lions, and as he went to the stone den, the stone chamber was damp. Shih had the stone den wiped by his servant. As the stone den was cleaned, it was the time that Shih began trying to eat the meal of these ten lions' corpses and he began to realize that these ten dead lions infact were ten stone lions' corpses and he tried to get rid of this matter.
Apparently, this poem was written to point out the stupidity of romanizing Chinese writing, and I find it pretty persuasive. Furthermore, Odious tells me that the Chinese administer a sobreity test, in which one has to say a tongue-twister about ten stone lions, which renders slurring of the speech quite evident.

Friday, September 17, 2004

So just keep that in mind the next time you leave a lousy tip. And watch out for jack and Kate. 'Cause most days I'd whack somebody for free.
Happy birthday to Hildegard von Bingen! She would be 906 today, if I reckon rightly.

Just because it's a migraine doesn't mean it's not also a vision.

O, you happy radishes!

Links do not include an endorsement of other content on the page, including but not limited to Vibrational Healing, Breatharianism, or Channelling.
I don't usually post on politics, viewing that swamp as one best left to fester on its own. But I came to a realization today, which, despite the fact that it has most likely been stated earlier and more coherently, I feel compelled to record.

America has two enemies. In point of fact, she has rather more than that, but the two of which I am thinking are Islamic terrorists and "old Europe". The difficulty with these two enemies is not only that they support each other (France's perfidy in Iraq slowly coming to light), but also that the methods of dealing with one will only encourage and strengthen the other.

The danger from old Europe is primarily diplomatic and economic. They can and do tie us in various knots through international treaties and the efforts of the United Nations. Because some percentage of our population insists on regarding anything "international" as slightly less, and often rather more, important than a mandate from Heaven itself, we generally make the appropriate noises and follow such rules as do not seriously inconvenience us. Moreover, we do this because old Europe, despite its insistence on semi-socialism, is a powerful economic force, and one which could make life extremely unpleasant for us. We had, since the beginning of the Cold War up until, oh, say, 9/10, gone to great lengths to prove ourselves a team player, in order to give old Europe no excuse to gang up on us, like Lilliputians binding Gulliver.

Let us not underestimate this threat. Europe possesses a greater population, and by some measures a larger economy than we do. Great European nations have traditionally fallen to alliances of convenience, formed only to destroy those who grew too large (I ignore Rome). History makes no allowances for virtue; the merciful and the ruthless have alike been destroyed. While I doubt that they would attempt a military solution to their problem at the moment, having disarmed themselves in order to enjoy a thirty-five hour work week, when are troops are withdrawn from Germany the story may change. Germany, unused to a lack of protection, begins to increase the size of its army, leading to unrest amongst the populace; France, recognizing this scenario from early in the 20th century, does the same. Both countries are more closely allied to each other than to us, and find in us --even today-- a convenient common enemy. When they need someone at whom to point their guns, we become an excellent target--once they have enough. This sequence of events is hypothetical and even a hypothesis for the distant future. But it is, I think, plausible.

Even though we would win such a conflict, it is best avoided. For this reason we made concessions to Europe, paying our Dane-geld in words and diplomatic concessions. President Clinton was a master of this diplomacy. Despite the fact that he would never have ratified the Kyoto treaty (and our straight-forward declaration that we would not cripple our economy has been cited innumerable times as an example of American arrogance), he allowed us to pretend that there was a possibility of our doing so. So long as we were playing their game, the Europeans were happy. Indeed, we were "allowed" to engage in various military expeditions, so long as we threw a bone to the ungrateful dog of International Opinion. All this changed on September 11th.

We had concentrated on one enemy at the cost of ignoring others. Suddenly it was brought home to us that we could be attacked and hurt on our own soil; that there were indeed enemies less subtle and perhaps more dangerous than sly fonctionnaires. We could no longer pretend that, when it truly mattered, we would first seek the advice and permission of our European "allies". We needed to strike this new enemy, Islamic terrorists, with overwhelming force. Which we promptly did.

There is still a great deal to be done to meet this threat. But we have almost completely destroyed Al Qaeda's power in Afghanistan. We have removed from power a mad dictator who was constantly attempting to gain weapons of mass destruction. We have isolated Iran, home to one of the most inimical regimes in the Middle East. The War on Terror is far from over--but we are hitting back now, and hitting very, very hard.

It was a strange thing to many of us when we discovered that the terrorists had not expected us to fight back. They had been fooled by our weak response to various other acts of terrorism into believing that we had lost the will to fight. They saw us as a paper tiger, bound by a paper chain of treaties and agreements. They were not expecting us to burst that chain and defend ourselves.

The dividends of a strong military strategy have not simply been the conquest of countries. Al Qaeda, once extremely popular among Muslims of a certain age and sex, now meets with at least verbal disapproval. We have shown ourselves to be, in the often quoted words of Osama bin Laden, the "strong horse".

And Europe is extremely displeased about it. We find ourselves in the middle of a storm of anti-Americanism. At the moment this feeling hurts them more than it hurts us; we can do without French tourists rather more easily than France can do without ours. But we cannot forever ignore that opinion of old Europe, as I hope I have shown above.

The difficulty is that the very strategy which discourages terrorists (despite all sophistries about asking ourselves "why they hate us") is the one which encourages old Europe to view us as an enemy. And the strategy which pacifies old Europe encourages terrorists to greater acts of violence, in the assurance that we have lost the will to fight. We cannot both ignore and insist on International Agreements being honored, as France or Russia might. We are too prominent, and moreover, other countries are too predisposed to view us as arrogant, or indeed as a threatening power. They are, of course, right to do so--we could easily destroy any "old European" military. What holds us in check is our sense of ethics, in addition to a general apathy towards world conquest. This is not a restraint which old Europe trusts. And now that we have shown that they cannot restrain us, they worry that we will come for them next. And so they must devise new restraints for us. The danger is that these restraints will be such as to threaten the peace of the world--and threaten to distract from an enemy which is, if only it might be admitted, common to all civilized peoples.

I ignore Russia, China, and North Korea, as enemies beyond the scope of this post. The interlocking and conflicting strategies for dealing with them are quite beyond me.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Hello again, world at large! I do still exist, though extensive travels for the last month have more or less denuded me of coherent thoughts. What's more, this newfound ability to post photos may well thwart my efforts at prose for some time. Expect more images; I should be getting some CDs very soon. The two below are both from an early July trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho, and I recommend viewing the large versions. I hope these may convince what's left of our readership that I really do have better things to do than blog in the summer. I promise I'll try to offer something intelligent once my brain congeals.

 Posted by Hello
Soon the sun itself disappears completely. But it still shines a bit on the clouds, and then colors the heavens with its rainbow play: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet--as optics teach us. But we can't be bothered with science. For us the rainbow is the bridge of the gods; the earth is flat as a pancake, the sea without end. How the sun gets from west to east is its own affair. We just wish it good night and good morning. We don't count stamens, and we don't pull sepals apart. We think of flowers only as blue or yellow and birds according to their songs. Night climbs up from the east, and the glimmer of light in the west pushes further and further down and around to the north. The bats come out and gambol in the air, a solitary pointed-winged sandpiper streaks whiningly along the shoreline. The first star is lit, and so the hunter cocks his gun.
--Wilhelm Dinesen, "Letters from the Hunt"

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

The world is full of appalling things.

Via Mnemosyne.
I said Truth (huh!) What is it good for? Mr. Lynch attempts to tell us. I don't think his game is worth a candle. So, here we go. I've skipped the first five paragraphs, which are not terrifically interesting, informative, or relevant. We'll hop right into the point at which Mr. Lynch states the position against which he believes he is arguing.

Sure, we may say we want to believe the truth, but what we really desire is to believe what is useful. Good beliefs get us what we want, whether nicer suits, bigger tax cuts, or a steady source of oil for our SUV's. At the end of the day, the truth of what we believe and say is beside the point. What matters are the consequences.

Such rough-and-ready pragmatism taps into one of our deepest intellectual veins. It appeals to America's collective self-image as a square-jawed action hero. And it may partly explain why the outcry against the White House's deception over the war in Iraq was rather muted. It is not just that we believe that "united we stand," it is that, deep down, many Americans are prone to think that it is results, not principles, that matter. Like Fish and Bush, some of us find worrying over abstract principles like truth to be boring and irrelevant nitpicking, best left to the nerds who watch C-Span and worry about whether the death penalty is "fair."

Of course, there are still those of us who are interested in the "absolutely certain truths of old". Which is, perhaps intentionally, an oxymoron: if they really are absolutely certain truths, they don't pass away with age. They are incommensurable with time, in Aristotle's phrasing. But apparently those truths have passed away, since they were really only beliefs:
An unswerving allegiance to what you believe isn't a sign that you care about truth. It is a sign of dogmatism. Caring about truth does not mean never having to admit you are wrong. On the contrary, caring about truth means that you have to be open to the possibility that your own beliefs are mistaken. It is a consequence of the very idea of objective truth. True beliefs are those that portray the world as it is and not as we hope, fear, or wish it to be. If truth is objective, believing doesn't make it so; and even our most deeply felt opinions could turn out to be wrong. That is something that Bennett -- and the current administration, for that matter -- would do well to remember. It is not a virtue to hold fast to one's views in face of the facts.

All of which is perfectly true, but doesn't answer my question about the absolutely certain truths of old. I understand that we can debate about what they are, but the fact that inalterable truth exists seems to me the basic requirement for even having such a debate--the stadium in which we're going to play this game. By sneaking in the assumption that belief in these absolute truths was in fact only a means of achieving "unswerving allegiance to what you believe", Mr. Lynch thereby undermines the position he will adopt later regarding the value of truth. He leaves himself with only one option. Truth will take value from its consequences--that is, the truth is good because certain good things come out of it. The fact that, empirically speaking, this is seldom...well, true doesn't seem to faze him. But perhaps that's the distinction he's making between the "absolutely certain truths of old" and our updated, modern, "plain unadorned truth":
Thus some writers, like Fish, say that since faith in the absolute certainties of old is naïve, truth is without value. Others, like Bennett, argue that since truth has value, we had better get busy rememorizing its ancient dogmas. But the implicit assumption of both views is that the only truth worth valuing is Absolute Certain Truth. That is a mistake. We needn't dress truth up with capital letters to make it worth wanting; plain unadorned truth is valuable enough.

Our lack of ability to reason ourselves into certainty regarding philosophical truths, and our weakness in changing our behavior according to our beliefs, is used to undermine it in the aforementioned article by Fish:
But if you say to yourself, "I believe that what is true is what corresponds to the independently specified facts," or, alternatively, "I believe that truths are internal to historically emergent and revisable frames of reference or interpretive communities," nothing follows with respect to any issue except the issue of which theory of truth is the correct one. That is to say, whatever theory of truth you might espouse will be irrelevant to your position on the truth of a particular matter because your position on the truth of a particular matter will flow from your sense of where the evidence lies, which will in turn flow from the authorities you respect, the archives you trust, and so on. It is theories of truth on that general level that I refer to when I say that philosophy doesn't matter.
--"Truth But No Consequences"
Mr. Lynch appears to be arguing against this position in his article--at least, he appears to think that he is. But his statements betray a complete agreement with this viewpoint. The argument is not whether or not Truth is dead--we've already buried it. The argument is whether or not the concept of truth is useful. Mr. Fish says no. Mr. Lynch:
Like most left-leaning intellectuals who attended graduate school in the '90s, I have certainly had my own fling with cynicism about truth. I've played the postmodern; I've sympathized -- at length in my previous work -- with relativism. Disgusted by the right's lust for absolutes, many of us retreated from talk of objective truth and embraced the philosopher Richard Rorty's call for an "ironic" stance toward our own liberal sympathies. We stopped caring about whether we were "right" and thought more about what makes the world go round. That made us feel at once more hip and less naïve.

The events of the last three years have put the lie to that strategy. The fact that our government has deceived us, misled the nation into war, and passed legislation that threatens to infringe upon our basic human rights doesn't call for ironic detachment. It calls for outrage. But it is hard to justify outrage if your basic intellectual commitments suggest that everything is "just text" -- merely a story that could be retold in myriad ways. It is hard to stand up and fight for a political position that refuses to see itself as any better than any other.

He is, you see, redeeming truth (which of all things needs it least). He can't quite bring himself to say what truth actually is, though, or why we should require it to be useful.
There are three simple reasons to think that truth is politically valuable. The first concerns the very point of even having the concept. At root, we distinguish truth from falsity because we need a way of distinguishing right answers from wrong ones. In particular, and as the debacle over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq clearly illustrates, we need a way of distinguishing between beliefs for which we have some partial evidence, or that are widely accepted by the community, or that fit our political ambitions, and those that actually end up being right.

Let us ask an unpopular question: why are those beliefs actually right? We're not going to get an answer here. But I'm ever driven back to those old certainties when I ask myself what makes a statement true.
It is not that we can't evaluate beliefs in all those other ways -- of course we can. But the other sorts of evaluation depend for their force on the distinction between truth and falsity. We think it is good to have some evidence for our views because we think that beliefs that are based on evidence are more likely to be true. We criticize people who engage in wishful thinking because wishful thinking often leads to believing falsehoods. In short, the primary point of having a concept of truth is that we need a basic norm for appraising and evaluating our beliefs and claims about the world. We need a way of sorting beliefs and assertions into those that are correct (or at least heading in that direction) and those that are incorrect.

To which one is tempted to reply, "Well, um, yeah." This is so bleedingly obvious that only a modern philosopher could even consider it worth writing down. He's decided that we need a concept of truth in order to "apprais[e] and evaluat[e] our beliefs and claims about the world." Note also that if "we think it is good to have some evidence for our views because we think that beliefs that are based on evidence are more likely to be true", we're saying that truth itself is good in itself. A statement is good if it's true; we're not going to ask further before accepting it. Naturally, determining the truth of a statement, especially an empirical one, is a little more involved. But once we have determined its verity, we need not ask, for example, "so where does this lead us?" before following it. This position is rather at odds with his belief that "truth is politically valuable". If the only thing we're after is a well-run polis, I can think of any number of ways to achieve it.
Now imagine a society in which everyone believes that what makes an opinion true is whether it is held by those in power. So if the authorities say that black people are inferior to white people, or love is hate, or war is peace, then the citizens sincerely believe that is true. Such a society lacks something, to say the least. In particular, its people misunderstand truth, and the nature of their misunderstanding undermines the very point of even having the concept. Social criticism often involves expressing disagreement with those in power -- saying that their views on some matter are mistaken. But a member of our little society doesn't believe that the authorities can be mistaken. In order to believe that, they would have to be able to think that what the authorities say is incorrect. But their understanding of what correctness is rules out such a possibility. So criticism -- disagreement with those in power -- is, practically speaking, impossible.

Recently there has been a revival of interest in George Orwell's 1984. But discussions of the book often miss the point. The most terrifying aspect of Orwell's Ministry of Truth isn't its ability to get people to keep people from speaking their minds, or even to believe lies; it is its success at getting them to give up on the idea of truth altogether. When, at the end of the novel, O'Brien, the sinister representative of Big Brother, tortures the hapless Winston into believing that two and two make five, his point, as he makes brutally clear, is that Winston must "relearn" that whatever the party says is the truth. O'Brien doesn't really care about Winston's views on addition. What he cares about is getting rid of Winston's idea of truth. He is well aware of the point I've just been making. Eliminate the very idea of right and wrong independent of what the government says, and you eliminate not just dissent -- you eliminate the very possibility of dissent.

That is the first reason truth has political value. Just having the concept of objective truth opens up a certain possibility: It allows us to think that something might be correct even if those in power disagree. Without it, we wouldn't be able to distinguish between what those in power say is the case and what is the case.

Why is this ability to disagree a good thing? I know why I think so, but Mr. Lynch has yet to give us a reason. He is actually coming to one, or thinks he is, but he hasn't yet. What he's done so far is show a society which most people feel is unpleasant, say that a concept of truth will allow us to avoid this society, and sit back as though he had proved something. The value of political dissent, the distaste for this society, the role of criticism as a corrective: all are presumed. He's not making an argument for truth; he's making an argument against this society. If we could replace any concept for that of truth and still avoid the presumed unpleasantnesses, we'd be perfectly happy without truth. Now, that such a concept exists is questionable. But a real defense of truth needs to demonstrate that truth is irreplaceable--that it possesses value in itself and not for its "political value". To laud truth for producing the right (sorry, sorry--"correct"!) politics is just asking for truth to be set aside when it conflicts with those politics.
The second reason truth is politically important is that one of our society's most basic political concepts -- that of a fundamental right -- presupposes the idea of objective truth. A fundamental right is different from a right that is granted merely as a matter of social policy. Policy rights -- such as the right of a police officer to carry a concealed weapon -- are justified because they are means to a worthwhile social goal, like public safety. Fundamental rights, on the other hand, are a matter of principle, as the philosopher Ronald Dworkin has famously put it in a book by that title. They aren't justified because they are a means to valuable social goals; fundamental rights are justified because they are a necessary component of basic respect due to all people. Fundamental rights, therefore, override other political concerns. You can't justifiably lose your right to privacy, for example, just because the attorney general suddenly decides we would all be less vulnerable to terrorism if the government knew what everyone was reading, buying, and saying. The whole point of having a fundamental or, as it is often put, "human right," is that it can't justifiably be taken away just because a government suddenly decides it would be in our interest to do so.

It follows that a necessary condition for fundamental rights is a distinction between what the government -- in the wide sense of the term -- says is so and what is true. That is, in order for me to understand that I have fundamental rights, it must be possible for me to have the following thought: that even though everyone else in my community thinks that, for example, same-sex marriages should be outlawed, people of the same sex still have a right to be married. But I couldn't have that thought unless I was able to entertain the idea that believing doesn't make things so, that there is something that my thoughts can respond to other than the views of my fellow citizens, powerful or not. The very concept of a fundamental right presupposes the concept of truth. Take-home lesson: If you care about your rights, you had better care about truth.

Whoa there, cowboy! You're riding in circles. Truth is justified because from it we get fundamental rights, and "fundamental rights are justified because they are a necessary component of basic respect due to all people", which is to say, they follow logically and certainty from our concept of a person--logic and certainty following from our concept of truth. A desire for "Fundamental rights" justifies truth; truth justifies our desire for such rights.

I agree completely with the idea of fundamental rights. I believe them to be spelled out quite pithily in one document in particular: the Declaration of Independence. This is not to say that we do not possess other rights, by nature, but simply that "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" are a pleasant summation of the rights which follow from being a man. A man simply cannot be robbed of the right to attempt to defend himself--he may fail at it, but he can always try. Likewise Liberty and Happiness, although the logical path to a right to happiness passes through a bit of Aristotle's domain. But these rights presuppose that we can reach real truth through logical examination of a concept (analytic judgment!). To justify the results of such examination by the truth of such results is circular--we must demonstrate that logical examination leads to true results, not that logical examination is true because its results are true. Don't saw off the branch you're sitting on, in other words.
The conceptual connection between truth and rights reveals the third and most obvious reason truth has political value. It is vital that a government tell its citizens the truth -- whether it be about Iraq's capacities for producing weapons of mass destruction or high-ranking officials' ties to corporate interests. That is because governmental transparency and freedom of information are the first defenses against tyranny. The less a government feels the need to be truthful, the more prone it is to try and get away with doing what wouldn't be approved by its citizens in the light of day, whether that means breaking into the Watergate Hotel, bombing Cambodia, or authorizing the use of torture on prisoners. Even when they don't affect us directly, secret actions like those indirectly damage the integrity of our democracy. What you don't know can hurt you.

The late British philosopher Bernard Williams thought that point was too obvious to be of much use: "Tyrants will not be impressed by the argument and their victims do not need to be impressed," he wrote in 2002. But whether or not every Oxford don knows why governmental transparency is important, not everyone in Tupelo, Miss., or Greenwich, Conn., has heard the news. By only supplying two possible choices, tyrants and their victims, Williams artificially limited the options. For while the anti-tyranny argument may not be important for everyone -- no argument ever is -- it is important for anyone worried about the integrity of liberal democracy.

In particular, it is important for anyone who is looking for a rational platform on which to criticize a democratic government's lack of truthfulness on a particular issue. As Williams pointed out, such a rational platform won't be of interest to tyrants. And those already suffering under tyranny need more than rational platforms. But the anti-tyranny argument will be of interest to those whose government is not yet tyrannical, but who fear it is heading in that direction. In brief, the anti-tyranny argument is precisely the sort of argument that is of interest to concerned citizens of a liberal democracy like our own. Unless the government strives to tell the truth, liberal democracies are no longer liberal or democratic.

Perhaps that is a truism. But not all truisms are mere words mouthed in empty ritual. In the political arena, it is all too easy to choose expediency over principle. Thus sometimes truisms, while acting as rational platforms on which to criticize our government, also act as reminders. They warn us of what we have to lose. As the philosopher and social critic Michel Foucault aptly noted in an interview in 1984, unless it would impose "the silence of slavery," no government can afford to ignore its obligation to the truth.

Neither can intellectuals. By abandoning notions like truth and objectivity, many of us in the academy have forgotten the political value of those concepts. In part, that is because we've fallen into the simple-minded confusions I've discussed here. It is ironic that, in capitulating to many of the assumptions and labels of our conservative critics, we have conflated the pursuit of truth with the pursuit of dogma, pluralism with nihilism, openness to new ideas with detachment toward our own. We need to think our own way past such confusions and shed the cynicism about truth to which they give rise. If we don't, we risk imposing enslaving silence on ourselves. We risk losing our ability to speak truth to power.

"Speak truth to power". How...pithy. These last paragraphs cover no new ground; I'm not going to dissect them. Everything he seems to think of as a "third reason" was in fact covered under the concept of individual rights. Of course, I may think that because of my anti-state bent, and he may miss it because of his liberal turnings. But I will note that we still have not had an argument in favor of truth; indeed, in these last paragraphs all we have is an argument against the Bush administration. His choice of political lies is striking for the absence of one recent political philosopher in particular. But I would imagine that the truth of that claim depends on what the meaning of "is" is.

"What is truth?" is a question well worth asking--and answering ("It is this man here"--for an actually philosophical defense of this stance, see Florensky). This article is not such much an attempt at such examination as it is a message to those who share the author's political views: "Hey! At the moment telling certain truths is politically useful!" Truth is not to be justified by its consequences; in its dignity it demands no support from without.

The unexamined article is not worth reading. This article, with its casual assumption of the pragmatic values of the day, can't even see past its political biases, let alone its philosophical ones. And, Mr. Lynch? Existence is not a predicate, dammit! True statements ought not to be made in the optative mood.

Monday, September 06, 2004

I didn't even know there was a Dark Wombat.

Current mood: Brooding.
Current music: Rasputina.

UPDATE: Found it.

UPDATE II: Mr. Clifton kindly provides a real link to the teachings of the Dark Wombat.

Cecile gets funnier the more I read:

1. Run off with a foreign student to his homecountry, abandoning America because he brainwashed you into becoming a devout elitist 'intellectual' who believes America is decadent, doomed and the EU is the way and Israel, your nation's homeland is the greatest threat to the world.
2. Start taking hippy drugs, and can't distinguish your friends from your pet dog.
3. Abandon all grades because you're hopelessly doomed due to lack of boyfriend, lack of popularity, makeup, car, or other vain teenage needs that are only met by accomplishment and maturity.
4. Join the National Alliance, saying White is the way to go, then call up your multiracial buddies from school and mock them on the telephone and say they are right, I am bloody racist and they better get well damned used to it. Then call up Diverse high school teachers, and invite them to lunch and discuss with them the protocols of the elders of Zion. Sip chamomile teacher while eating roast (extra fat) pork while they turn paler than snow.
5. Win lottery and spend all cash on getting Charles Manson released to show off as new fiance. 'Aw, I know he's old Mom, but he's so very eccentric, your type! Put Manson back in jail after becoming Hollywood's black sheep, go on self-exile in the Bahamas, and live a depraved existence for your last five years until being accidentally shot by cops, confusing you with then murder 'Bigfoot'.
6. Party hard with porn stars, and have one as y our new best friend. 'Hi Mom this is Vanilla Ice, she um, loves to draw...sticks with thorns on them and puts lipstick on her lips and kisses them". Memorize all their names, reeducate them, and pass them all off as lawyers in Washington...only they don't blow their money on shoes, they blow for their money for shoes.
Er, that's things not to do. Just so we're all clear.
The blog, which was not officially down, is back up! Real life, with complications, interfered with the far more important virtual life which we had steadily been cultivating. But there should be more opera and language and weird science and philosophy and esoterica and rambling and picking fights with people than you can conveniently shake a stick or stick-like object at. Er. Soon-ish.
For everyone who read about the "Fan Wing" plane on FARK, here's the homepage. I remain skeptical as to the revolutionary aspect of this design.
The North Pole was once a rather pleasant spot, at least by comparison to today's temperatures. Via Eurekalert.

The Arctic Coring Expedition homepage is also well worth a visit, as is that of the Swedish Polar Secretariat. Moreover, you can order:

The Polar Research Secretariat Yearbook!
The beautiful 2003 yearbook is ready! It describes the Swedish polar year of 2003 in text and image, and can be ordered free of charge from the Secretariat.

Mine's already on the way!

The Swedish Astrobiology Network is fun, too, even if infrequently updated. (*Ring* *ring* "Hello?" "Hello, Pot? This is Kettle. You're black!") This artikel on terraforming Mars is good. Or you could just re-read Genesis.

"When I'd felled the tree, which I learned to do at some peril, I didn't think much about dead branches for a while, and I never wore a helmet, of course. I didn't look like the president of a university opening a new gymnasium. They always wear these construction worker's helmets, you know, there's nothing so dangerous as digging the first dig of the soil for a new building. It's a perilous thing but these presidents are pretty brave, they're courageous."

--Mississippi Headwaters Board, Oral History Project, OH #028
Quick and quite basic primer on solar sails.