Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

September 30, 2006

Intelligence, wisdom, ignorance and stupidity

Filed under: On Thinking — Stephen W. Browne @ 3:24 pm

“…the difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But this has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people – and this is true whether or not they are well-educated – is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations – in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.”
Neal Stephenson “The Diamond Age”

Question: What is the stupidest thing that walks God’s green earth?

Answer: An adolescent with above average intelligence.

Right now I’m wondering whether you, gentle reader, are nodding your head in recognition or frowning in puzzlement. If it’s the first, you’re probably a better than average bright person well past adolescence – or perhaps you have a bright adolescent at home. If it’s the second, you might be a better than average bright adolescent, or perhaps an opinionated know-it-all of an adult. (No offense, some of my best friends are opinionated know-it-alls. Some have said that even moi partakes of that nature on occasion.)

Understand something, I am not being holier-than-thou. I was that opinionated twerp, and the fact that I’ve got an unusually detailed memory often brings painfully embarrassing recollections of exactly how conspicuously stupid I could be as an adolescent and young adult.

As I can recall, an adolescent with above-average IQ can see that he is more intelligent that most of the people around him. What he cannot believe, is that experience counts for anything. He can’t believe it because he doesn’t have any – it’s like the fourth dimension to him.

Somebody once said, that in any conflict between logic and experience, experience is almost always a better guide to action. Logic is a way of dealing with the relationship of facts, or more accurately, propositions. (Statements alleged or assumed to be true representations of reality.) But complex situations can have a huge number of relevant facts, not all them obvious, not all of them known and the relationships between them are often far more complex than we can know. Experience is what leads us to believe that similar situations produce similar outcomes. Not a perfect match, like in a logical syllogism, but enough of a match to guide our actions most of the time.

Note in the above quote by Neil Stephenson. “…the difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts.” So what’s the difference between ignorant and stupid people? Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that ignorance is forgivable – stupidity is not. Ignorance is a lack of facts, which may be in no way the fault of the ignorant. Stupidity is willful failure to face facts or learn from experience.

Stupidity is independent of intelligence, and in fact high intelligence often empowers stupidity and gives it greater scope to do harm. A not-too-bright guy may make stupid decisions about buying a new car, but is scarcely likely to do the kind of harm that’s been done by academics and intellectuals addicted to theorizing about things they have no competence in.

Don’t get me wrong, I think theory is necessary to create structure for the knowledge we have, and guide the further search for knowledge. But theory without experience drifts into fantasy. Experience without theory just drifts.

So if that’s the difference between intelligence, ignorance and stupidity, what is the thing we call wisdom? It seems to have something to do with intelligence informed by experience, but that’s a description of how it comes about rather than a definition. Someone suggested to me once that you are wise when you are no longer a significant contributor to your own pain. It seems to me that there ought to be more to it than that, but that’ll do till something better comes along.

September 28, 2006

The Pleasures of Anthropology

Filed under: Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 1:26 pm

My first M.A. was in anthropology, and while I didn’t work in the field I have no regrets. It’s a fascinating study and as a field of investigation, vitally important, though underappreciated. If knowledge in the physical and strictly biological science is lost, it can be rediscovered. But knowledge of a vanished human culture is gone – forever.

The four divisions of anthropology are: Social/ Cultural (the common understanding of the anthropologist (guys who go on extended camping trips with interesting primitives, learn the language fluently in a few months and are offered the chief’s beautiful daughter), Physcial (guys who study prehuman bones and living apes and aren’t offered the chief’s beautiful daughter), Archeology (guys who dig up dead civilizations and realize that the chief’s beautiful daughter died a long time ago), and Linguistics (guys who study the relationship of language to culture and might be equipped to chat up the chief’s beautiful daughter).

Archeologists and Linguists are said to represent the opposite personality poles among Anthropologists. Archeologists are very, very careful about speculating from the data they have. Probably because they are always aware that the next spadeful of dirt might destroy their beautiful theory. Linguists however, are known for wildly extravagant theoretical speculation. Language doesn’t leave fossils and in the absence of documentary evidence, which has only existed for a very short period of the history of humanity, who’s to say you’re wrong?

One nice thing about anthropology is that, though like most so-called “social science” the practitioners are pretty solidly on the political Left, they generally aren’t involved in creating or recommending any grand experiments in social engineering, like you find in Sociology.

One thing you get from a study of Anthropology is the realization that, 1) human nature is the same everywhere, and 2) within that shared human nature, there are a lot of different ways to be human.

This was a point of contention in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The existence of people living at the level of European prehistory was a challenge to Western intellectuals. Two competing theories arose to explain why the whole world hadn’t advanced to the level of civilization (Eastern and Western) at about the same pace: the racialist and the environmentalist explanations.

The racialist explanation held that primitive peoples hadn’t achieved civilization because they didn’t have it in them. The environmentalists held that it was their environment that retarded their development. The most extreme racialist view was a cornerstone of Nazism, the environmentalist view was embodied in Marxism.

The racialists (I’m avoiding the hot-button term “racist” for now. I’m describing it as a theory rather than a hateful attitude) had a hard time explaining the existence of ancient civilizations in Central America and highland Peru and were forced to resort to diffussionist explanations – i.e. they got it from pre-Colombian Western explorers. This poisoned any rational investigation of possible pre-Colombian trans-Atlantic diffusion for a long time after.

Something anthropologists really don’t want to think about these day is that about half the participants in the Wantsee Conference (the one that decided on the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem”) had social science doctorates, at least one in anthropology if memory serves.

However the environmentalists, for the best of motives, unwittingly supported the efforts of the even more murderous Marxist regimes. In attempting to explain differences among peoples that might appear to result from innate ability, they attributed everything to the absolute plasticity of human nature. For example, it’s now pretty well accepted that Margaret Mead went to Samoa and found what Franz Boaz told her to find – not from conscious fraud but from a deeply-held preconception of what human nature is, or more precisely, isn’t.

This was an attempt to combat the racialist hypothesis, but the result was to lend support to the intellectuals in power who wanted to lay bloody hands on humanity and mold it into their concept of the ideal human.

The racialist hypothesis was discredited by the horrors of Nazism. Environmentalism was challenged when members of traditional societies under study became college educated and started getting university degrees in, among other things, anthropology. Their objection was basically, “Hey, you guys got it all wrong, we’re not like that at all. If there is no human nature common to us all, and everything about being human comes from our environment, then you’ve denied our common humanity. Members of very different cultures might as well be members of different species.”

What has emerged today is the realization that there is a human nature common to all mankind, that does not change over historical time, but that common nature can be expressed in a lot of different ways. And of course, because this is so common-sensical, they had to invent a very pompous term for it, the “psychic unity of mankind”.

What they still shy away from like the plague, is any attempt to investigate what cultural choices lead to the relative degree of advancement, stasis or even retrogression of a culture. About that, more later.

September 26, 2006

What’s in a name?

Filed under: Personal,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 4:28 pm

Note: I have a column published at a site called, The Atlasphere, entitled, “The Attack on Language: Rights”. Here http://www.theatlasphere.com/

Monika and I were watching the opening credits of a movie set in Spain when we noticed the name of the editor, Luis de la Madrid. Since we both understand Spanish on a basic level, we knew that this means of course, Luis of Madrid.

We started having some fun with the idea behind the name. “So who’s the director, Benny de la Brooklyn?” We then switched the channel to StarZ where “Rent” was playing, starring the exotically beautiful Rosario Dawson. What a wonderfully American name! Rosario – Spanish, and Dawson – English.

My son’s name, by the way, is Jerzy Waszyngton Browne, that’s George Washington Browne in Polish. My daughter’s name is Judyta Ilona Browne. Judyta is “Judith” in Polish, for Jerzy’s English godmother Judith. Ilona is Lithuanian and is for our dear friend Ilona Daukene, who died in the mushroom poisoning epidemic in Northern and Eastern Europe three years ago. So our children have names that are a combination of Polish, Lithuanian and Anglo-Irish. That’s a pretty American thing.

My wife’s maiden name is Lukasiewicz. (That “L” should have a stroke through it, making it Polish letter “ewl”, rather than “l” and pronounced “w”.) “Luk” is “bow” in Polish. (Bow as in “bow and arrow”.) So Lukasiewicz would mean something like the English “Bowyer”. That’s bow-yer, “bow maker” rather than “Archer”.

SF author Poul Anderson, who had a deep knowledge of history, once set a story in the far future and referred to a rich and powerful family whose name was “fromCanada”. He was making a subtle point about the evolution of language of course.

All family names appear to come from four sources, apparently in all cultures that use family names. (Family names, even in Europe are a fairly recent innovation for common folks. They have only become universal in countries like Norway in the 20th century and still aren’t used at all in Iceland.) They are: place names, profession names, frozen patronymics and nicknames.

Place names include the aforementioned de la Madrid, London, Berlin etc. One of the most common profession names seems to be Smith, or Black(smith). A “smith” in Polish is “Kowal”, as in Kowalski. In Arabic, “hadad” – also a common family name.

Frozen patronymics are created when people get tired of saying, “I am Sam John’s son, this is my son John Sam’s son. He’s named for his grandfather.” and just decide that all the kids are doing to be Johnson from now on. In the Irish and Scots’ language, “children of” is “O” (Ui in the Irish) or “Mac”.

Family names might also come from the nickname of a prominent ancestor. Presumably “brown” or “swarthy” has been a characteristic of the Browne family for a while now. On the Irish side we are also “descendants of Neil” (O’Neil) and on the Scottish, “children of the abbots” and “servants of St. Fillan” – the MacNab clan, sept Gilfillan.

A couple of legends about family names:

Jewish family names are usually German or Slavic, very few are actually of Hebrew origin, such as Cohen “priest” or Katz (from “cohen tzaddik”, “rightious priest”). I’ve been told that in the German lands they once decided that everyone should have a family name, just like noble folks had. Unfortunately not due to any liberalizing urges, but to make taxation and record-keeping easier for bureaucrats. The story is that when Jews came in to get named, the anti-Semitic bureaucrats would deliberately give them rediculous-sounding names: Goldberg “mountain of gold”, Rosenberg “mountain of roses”, or Goldwasser (anglicized as Goldwater) “gold water” – urine.

I once read, but cannot now find verification, that the patronymic prefix “Fitz”, as in FitzGibbon, FitzGerald, etc, originally meant “acknowledged bastard of…”.

And by the way… the title of the essay is from one of the most-misquoted lines in Shakespear, which occurs near the most often misunderstood line. It’s not “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” but “That which we call a rose…”

And the line “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” is usually understood today as “Where are you Romeo?” but actually means “Why are you Romeo?”

September 22, 2006

The Hot Button issue

Filed under: Culture — Stephen W. Browne @ 1:40 pm

Religion. (I wonder if you guessed that one?)

Quite obviously there is a culture war going on between the believers and the committed secularists. Or to put it another way, the committed believers in something running the universe and the committed believers in nothing running the universe. The secularists tend to be politically liberal and dominate the culture of Hollywood and its satellite community of Washington, D.C. (I’m kidding – sort of.)

The Believers tend to be conservatives and predominate in the heartland, i.e. the red states. There are of course exceptions. National Review has a witty and acerbic devout Materialist (John Derbyshire) on its staff and there are many liberal church-goers, who probably aren’t going just to spite Ann Coulter.

Libertarians tend to fall on the committed secularist side, perhaps due to the influence of Ayn Rand on the modern movement. This has been changing over the past few decades, but you still fined the odd phenomenon of libertarians who despise liberals and church-goers about equally. Must be lonely out there.

My opinion? From my observations, believing Christians, and increasingly Jews as well, are frequently gratuitously insulted in public life and academia. There is quite obviously a movement to erase displays of religious symbolism from public life to an extent I find absurd. The funny thing is that this is being done by “multiculturalists” who I suspect would fight to the death for the right of people to erect tribal fetishes on public property, just so long as they weren’t Western/ Christian.

And for the record, I don’t have an opinion on religious dogma I’d stick a finger in a match for, much less be burned at the stake.

I’m a lapsed Anglican/ Episcopalian, which is like saying a lapsed library member. I once came up with a definition of Anglican theology, “God is after all, a gentleman. And no gentleman would keep another gentleman out of heaven for anything but the most severe lapses of good taste.”*

My mother’s reaction to that was, “Stephen! That’s not what being an Episcopalian is about.” Thoughtful pause. “It does describe your father’s theology rather well though.” My son’s English godmother was so taken by it that she made me write it down to give to her vicar.

The thing about being Episcopalian is that you don’t exactly leave the church, you just kind of move and fail to register a forwarding address. It’s part of the very old English High Church tradition of being very easygoing on matters of religion.

Point is, though I don’t have any firm religious opinions (though I do have some cool speculations I fiddle with from time to time) I don’t have any hostility towards religion either.

The way I like to put it is, if religion is a crutch, then what do you call someone who goes around kicking crutches out from under people? A fearless seeker of the Truth or a bloody sadist?

I call my position, Cheerful Agnostic. I used to be a Militant Agnostic, “I don’t know the Truth and you don’t either!” Now I’m a cheerful one, “I don’t know the Truth but what the hell, you might.” (No, I don’t really believe you do, I’m just not interested in arguing about it.)

Two things I just can’t swallow: 1) That a merciful God would send you to eternal torment for your opinions on matters you can’t possibly be certain of, and which don’t affect your behavior towards other people. I.e. for guessing wrong between all the alternative theologies offered to you. Put another way, I don’t care what people believe, I care how they treat each other. How the former influences the latter is another question.

2) That an all-powerful, all-knowing God would require the most sickeningly sycophantic praise, and get murderously petulant when He doesn’t get it.

If either of these two things are true, then we are living in Hell. But if it’s what it takes to get you though life, by all means believe it. Bottom line is, we are self-aware beings and while that has its rewards, it has its price. That price is the foreknowledge that we are all going to die someday. Whatever you have to believe to deal with it, if it helps – more power to you. If it makes you a better person in your time on Earth, better still.

So what I can’t fathom is why the hostility towards believers? More and more I suspect that Eric Hoffer (a professed atheist) was right when he said that a fanatical atheist** is really desperately seeking for belief. He further remarked that the opposite of the fanatical religious is not the fanatical atheist, but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a God or not.

* Thanks to Cyril Kornbluth for the inspiration of that one, in his delightful 1950s SF novel The Syndic.

** What’s the loneliest thing about being an atheist? You have no one to talk to when you’re having an orgasm.

September 20, 2006

Observations on being an older parent

Filed under: Op-eds,Personal,Relationships — Stephen W. Browne @ 2:05 pm

My first child was born three months after I turned fifty, my second a month after my fifty-fifth birthday. I often wonder how much of a difference this makes in what kind of daddy I am. My children came into my life at precisely the time I had given up on the idea that this would ever happen for me. I’ve noticed that life is often like that.

One discovery I made right off is that changing diapers is no big deal. It seems awfully disgusting when you don’t have kids, but when you do it’s just part of the daily drill.

We did get lucky in that neither of our kids were colicy KNOCK WOOD HARD. When our boy was a baby he started sleeping through the night at about three months. We were told that people we didn’t even know envied us. I think he had one of those all-night crying sessions maybe twice. Some parents have to live through these every night for months. Our baby girl is sometimes fussy and hard to put down at night, but then she sleeps a lot during the day leaving at least one of us free to nap in the afternoon. My wife is convinced this is because of breast feeding and I think she’s right.

One thing about being an older dad is, I don’t think I sweat the small stuff as much as I might have when younger. I do sometimes get mad as hell when that stubborn little Polack-Okie (a really stubborn combination, believe me) puts me on “ignore” or decides to be defiant, but then given the combined heredity of my wife and myself, I never really expected anything different. It’s going to be really interesting to see that heredity expressed in a girl.

I really worry about all the dangers and bad influences that weren’t around when I was a kid. Everybody argues about the effect of TV on kids of course. I had always been a skeptic about the alleged violent effects, but now I’m not so sure. Though I remain a libertarian on the subject of censorship, when the kid imitates little Stewie from Family Guy and says “I’m going to kill you mother!” it gives one pause. We restrict what he watches and we don’t even turn on South Park when he’s up, as much as we like it ourselves.

Fortunately, my wife takes the attitude of “What’s wrong with saying NO?” She also has no problem deciding when he’s had enough TV and and it’s time to send him outside. I kind of suspect that she’s a bit contemptuous of American mothers who can’t bear to stand their ground against their kids whining and demanding.

A problem I’ve noticed with TV these days is not that there’s not much good on (like in my day) but there’s too much that’s good on. With cable at any given time you can find something worthwhile to watch: cable news, classic movies, science and nature shows, history etc. Becoming a couch potato is easier than ever.

The weight of experience and the verdict of scientific study seem to be in. Children of broken families are astronomically more likely to be significantly screwed up in ways that affect their chances for success and happiness in life than children of intact families. The fact that we had to screw up a significant fraction of a generation of kids to confirm this common sensical observation makes one wonder about our notions of “social progress”.

It’s not like my generation was uniquely dumb about raising kids or my parents generation especially virtuous. Back in their time “child development experts” were divided into two opposite but equally insane theories of child rearing, Progressive and Behaviorism. And then there was the medical admonition to lay children to sleep on their stomachs, as opposed to traditional practice. Oops! Turns out kids laid on their tummies have higher rates of crib death. Sorry.

It took a shrink named Abraham Maslow to point out that while children need love, they also need discipline. And, here’s the important part, if they do not get discipline they will perceive themselves as being unloved. Discipline is about setting limits and boundaries, and a universe without boundaries is terrifying for a child – and not too comfortable for an adult for that matter.

What my generation invented was “finding oneself”, followed by “following your bliss”. “Wow, like hey Man, this parenthood stuff isn’t my thing after all. Like write me when the kids are grown. See ya.” My father’s generation were expected to stick around and pay for the groceries or face social opprobrium. A lot of them got married and had kids because it was expected of them, even though they might have been tempermentally unsuited for it. That wasn’t regarded as an excuse for abandoning ones responsibilities to helpless children.

We do agonize more than a little bit about how to discipline. Whether to spank and for what for example. Or what to let the kids know about our own wild youth later on. Now that’s a toughy! What about booze, smoking (whatever) etc? I dunno, haven’t gotten there yet and won’t for a while. Sex – I want to hide under the bed about that one and I suspect I’m going to want a double standard about it.

Recently I had a conversation with a colleague my age who has five pre-teen kids. At one point I remarked, “Sometimes all I think I can do for my kids is just to make sure they have two parents who love each other and love them.” He replied, “Sometimes that’s all you can do. But sometimes it’s enough.”

September 16, 2006

Here’s what I mean by "moral equivalence"

Filed under: On Thinking,Philosophy,Terrorism — Stephen W. Browne @ 3:20 pm

I found this September 16, in the Letters column of the Village Voice:

“Yeung’s gut-wrenching article brought to mind a similar story I read about the parents of an Oklahoma City bombing victim who ended up having dinner with Timothy McVeigh’s parents, realizing how each of them had lost a son, and how forgiveness could begin the healing. I recently saw the movie United 93, and couldn’t help but feel pity for the hijackers as well, because they seemed as terrified as the passengers. Those young men were used as pawns in the bidding of Osama bin Laden, just like the young men and women being sent to Iraq are pawns for the Bush administration’s war for oil.”

(Name deleted.)
McGaheysville, Virginia

Now let’s go through this point-by-point:

1) “realizing how each had lost a son”

I understand the anguish of Timothy McVeigh’s parents. Every parent experiences the horrifying worry of “What if my little boy/ girl goes wrong in spite of all I can do?” But let’s get this straight, the victim was murdered by McVeigh. McVeigh was executed for mass-murder. And why? Greed? Revenge? Anything understandable in terms of basic hard-wired human motivation? No, evidently it was to make an ideological point that remains obscure to this day. Gee, kind of like…

2) “how forgiveness could begin the healing.”

Forgive who? The parents? Got news for you, they didn’t do it. Little Timmy? He’s not around any more – and he never asked for forgiveness, he was defiant and unrepentant to the end.

3) “I recently saw the movie United 93, and couldn’t help but feel pity for the hijackers as well, because they seemed as terrified as the passengers.”

Your authority for this was a MOVIE for God’s sake! Repeat after me: Reality = real, what happened. Movie = representation of reality, what we think may have happened.

As scared as the passengers? So what? Are you going to tell me now that the hijackers were “as brave as the passengers” of that flight?

4)”Those young men were used as pawns in the bidding of Osama bin Laden, just like the young men and women being sent to Iraq are pawns for the Bush administration’s war for oil.”

This is patronizing and insulting, both to our men in uniform and to the hijackers – and I am not being facetious. In both cases the men were and are volunteers. The hijackers went to die for something they believed in – I’ll give them that dignity if nothing else. They hated the West and the U.S. enough to die taking as many of us with them as they could. Whatever your opinion of the Iraq war, the men in our military who fight it have all made the decision to risk their lives for something they value, of their own free will, whatever you think of their decision.

Now you want to pat them on the head and call them “poor little pawns”. The hijackers would be insulted enough to kill you for that. Our men in the military believe they are fighting for your right to say it, whatever they think of it. The hijackers were motivate by their hatred of us and all we stand for, our military by their love for us and all we stand for – and that includes you in both cases.

AND THAT’S THE MORAL DIFFERENCE YOU TWIT!

September 15, 2006

Oriana Fallaci R.I.P. – bummer.

Filed under: Eleagic mode,Terrorism — Stephen W. Browne @ 11:38 pm

Oriana Fallaci died today, to nobody’s surprise. She was 77 and had been battling cancer for 15 years.

Battling is indeed the word to describe the way she approached her cancer, and life in general. Seventy-seven years is a pretty good run, and 15 years with cancer is an extraordinary survival time.

No need to go over the controversies that remarkable lady was forever in the middle of, that’s been done and doubtless will be done at length in the media. I just wanted to note that I’m seriously bummed.

Rabbi Hillel said, “Where there are no men – be thou a man.”

This frail woman eaten up by cancer carried the manhood of the West on her shoulders. Other men and women, learned, thoughtful and brave, have made the intellectual case for the West against its enemies and warned of the dangers we face from them. Oriana Fallaci however, expressed the sheer goddam OUTRAGE we need, are entitled to, and can’t seem to bring ourselves to feel.

Within the past year, guests in western countries, taken in and largely supported by the generosity of this extraordinary civilization of ours, have demanded apologies – and worse, for comparatively mild lampooning of their religion. (Very mild, compared to the lampooning of Christianity we routinely tolerate among ourselves.) Even if you don’t care to take the death threats seriously, the mere fact that they come to our lands and demand a priviledged status we do not allow our own is outrageous.

Even as we speak, those savages from Hamas and their ilk are demanding an apology from the Pope for simply stating well-established historical truth.

What reaction do they get? In my classes and among my correspondents I hear temporizing and things like, “Well I don’t think it was really necessary/ productive/ really nice etc… The Danes held firm, as anyone who knows the history of their conduct in World War II might have guessed. In Norway, an editor who reprinted the cartoons cracked, groveled and begged for forgiveness.

Damn it, why aren’t we more pissed off? Where is the manhood of the West, the cojones, “The Rage and the Pride”?

I just hope it wasn’t buried with her.

Hurrah for the Men of the West!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Stephen W. Browne @ 12:30 pm

Western Civilization is demonstrably superior to all of its predecessors and all of its contemporaries.

Wow! Gotcha there didn’t I?

When I was a budding young Social Scientist I used to pull that one out whenever I was feeling mean and wanted to jerk the chain of other Social Scientists around me. I loved to see the looks of outrage and indignation on their faces.

Now let me ask this: why would that statement outrage members of that very civilization, when the exact same statement made by a member of any other civilization about his own would be accepted by the same people as “just their point of view”? It’s like everyone is allowed to be “ethnocentric” but us.

An intellectual party game some friends of mine and I used to play was suggest answers for the question, “When did Western Civilization begin?” Of course, the development of something like a culture or a civilization cannot have a “beginning” in a definite point in time. It obviously is something that developed over a length of time. However, we can note a discrete event which exemplifies something unique about our civilization.

One suggestion a friend made, was that it began when the Prophet Nathan told King David, “Thou art the man!” and King David was humbled and said he was right. (This was the matter of having murdered a subordinate in order to get his wife Bathseeba. This may not have been the first time something like this happened, but it was perhaps the first time the accuser survived the telling and lived to record it in history.) If it was wrong for a commoner, it was wrong for the king.

Wow, what a concept! The equality of all men before the law. Revolutionary stuff, which is probably why it took so long to catch on and be applied with anything like a reasonable degree of consistency.

Nonetheless, the principle was stated and upheld as the ideal, however short we fall from it. Point is, the idea hasn’t even occurred to some other civilizations, or if it has it’s been dismissed out of hand. If you read James Clavell’s novel “Tai Pan” there is a scene when the delightful Lady T’chung Mai-mai, concubine of the Scottish Tai Pan, is reflecting on her love’s weird Western quirks such as the “insane barbarian idea of one law for the rich and poor alike. What’s the use of working to become rich if you have to obey the same law as poor people?”

Another suggestion (by writer Jerry Pournelle) was that the West began when the Romans placed the Twelve Tables of the law in the Forum for anyone to consult. “This is the Law, this is what it says, and you don’t have to take anyone else’s word for it.”

Or how about in ancient Athens when, after the dictatorships of the Thirty and the Three Hundred, the Democratic party swore oaths not to seek vengeance on the Oligarchic party – even for the murder of their kinsmen. Throughout the rest of the world even to this day, revenge for the killing of family members is a sacred duty, whether they had it coming or not. And face it, deep down inside it feels like the right and natural thing to do. Those men decided that for the security of the state they had to break that cycle of violence. When they did this, they made it possible to have a state larger than a smallish collection of tribes.

Another example, it’s interesting how many Westerners are not aware that the Western notion that a forced oath is not valid is not shared by everyone. In fact, it usually never occurs to us that there is another point of view on the subject. If someone puts a gun to your head and demands that you promise him something, what do you owe him once the gun is gone? By our lights, nothing.

Did you know, for example, that during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, the Mau Mau recruited by kidnapping men and forcing them to take the Mau Mau oath? And that according to their customs and religion they were bound by it? Even when it meant that they had to do things that horrified them?

This principle has a couple of exceptions though; parole and the court oath to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Parole is a promise extracted of a prisoner in exchange for being released not to engage in hostilities against the party administering the oath, until a prisoner on the other side has been released. (Later this came to be applied to criminal cases.) The court oath is essentially a contract; you tell the truth about anything we ask you and in return you don’t have to say anything that you can be prosecuted for yourself. If we want to know something about what you’ve been involved in badly enough, we have to give you a pass on it in exchange for your testimony.

Note that the first exception makes it possible to avoid the killing of prisoners that one is not in a position to guard and feed. The function of the second is to try to do away with torture in interrogation.

Further note that these things work only when there is a general agreement in the whole society, and between the different societies that make up that complex we call our “civilization”, to observe them – and sanctions against the individuals and societies that violate them.

Now comes the bottom line; given that there are alternatives, other cultures, other points of view – you have to have a general acceptance that your way is better. Not “just another point of view” – but a better one. This is anathema to the Multiculturalist crowd.

P.S. The title of the post is from an Irish revolutionary song, “Men of the West”. It’s a play on words, sort of.

“I give you the gallant old West boys,
Where rallied our bravest and best.
When Ireland was broken and beaten,
Hurrah for the Men of the West!”

September 14, 2006

Poland in Iraq

Filed under: Politics,War — Stephen W. Browne @ 5:05 pm

Yesterday on FOX we saw the president of Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczynski interviewed. The reporter kind of got egg on her face when she asked, “Why are you withdrawing your troops from Iraq?” The president replied (through an interpreter), “We have made no such decision.” Oops.

Now today we hear on FOX that in fact, Poland is sending another 900 troops to Iraq.
(CORRECTION: I misheard, it’s Afghanistan. Point remains though.)

The troops Poland has in Iraq are mostly GROM, Polish Special Forces. (GROM is an anagram, the word it spells means “Thunder” in Polish.) They’re said to be very good. (I’ve trained in martial arts with ex-GROM vets, obviously not to the same level, and IMHO they do seem pretty good. One grizzled vet was also one of the nicest guys I’ve met – a not at all uncommon characteristic of the truely tough.)

So my wife and I were talking about why is Poland doing this, given that they don’t care a flip about Iraq in general?

Monika says, though Poles doesn’t care about Iraq, they certainly care about America. Two generations of occupation by the USSR while Europe never lifted a finger on their behalf mean that they really want to be tight with the US.

I think she’s got a good point, but I also wonder if there isn’t another reason. If not now, then soon, Poland will have a military with more combat experience than any other country in Europe – perhaps more than all of them together. Poland’s economy is not the largest in Europe, nor is their military the best equipped and funded. But experience has to count for something, and in the future if Europe ever cares to stand together with military force, they’ll have to listen to Poland.

September 13, 2006

My Political Philosophy in a Nutshell

Filed under: Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 2:16 pm

I guess it’s about time I made my statement on personal political philosophy. As you see from the sidebar, I’m a libertarian. What kind? A sane one. (“Yeah, yeah, everybody says that.” I’ve heard.)

By this I mean I’m a pretty non-dogmatic Classical Liberal. I used to delight in endless philosophical system building. Now basically what I’ve got is the notion that in Western Civilization in general, and in America more than any other place, we’ve got a Project going. A project to see how far we can push the envelope of liberty and still maintain a reasonably orderly society – and my standards of “reasonably orderly” are pretty loose.

So Comrade, don’t come to me with your beautiful utopian plans of how the ideal society would work, could work or should work. Tell me how it works dammit! Find me an example, historical or contemporary. If you can’t find an example, find me a close analogy.

I once wrote a short fable about my philosophy of government and how it differs from that of the moderate to Hard Left, called “The Magic Wand and the Club”.

It goes like this: take a length of wood. What do you see? I see a club. Someone who loves the idea of social engineering sees a magic wand. I see something for hitting people. He sees something to cure the world’s ills with. I say the moral question is, why and under what circumstances are you justified in hitting someone? He says that it’s irresponsible NOT to use the “magic wand” if you can do good with it. I use it to threaten someone who might do me harm, and if necessary hit him in the most effective way I know how. He tends to tap someone with it to solve his problems, make him better, healthier etc.

Now comes the rub. Tapping someone for that purpose doesn’t work. So the impulse is to do it again – and again, and harder. Hmmmm, still doesn’t work. Perhaps we need a bigger magic wand.

OK, you get the analogy. The length of wood is government. Point is, we both see the same object, it’s our interpretation of what it is that differs.

Now in this day and age, it’s fashionable to say that these things are just matters of opinion. But this I do know for a fact; there are no magic wands but there certainly are such things as clubs.

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