Friday, September 24, 2004

Picky, Picky

The President of the United Nations recently opined that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had been illegal under international law. So far as I can tell, the story didn’t get much play in these parts, perhaps because Koffee Annan’s remarks were actually delivered in a rather offhand manner as a passing acknowledgement of an obvious fact. To the extent that they bothered to form an opinion on the matter, I expect that much of the right and much of the public discounted the charge of illegality because, at worst, all we did was violate a dictate of a despised organization, dominated by foreigners. If so, allow me to raise a niggling little problem with this not very apologetic bit of apologetics.

International law was not invented in 1945 and its legitimacy is not dependent upon the U.N. Charter or any other single document or agreement. The principle that nations are not entitled to initiate preventative wars grew up over a long period of diplomatic history from the grim experience of a great many pointless wars. The validity of the doctrine, however, rests on more than precedent. If a group of intelligent agents had gotten together the day after the Creation of the World, they would certainly come to the same conclusion about preventative war. For that matter, if you were suddenly elected ruler of the universe, you’d legislate against preventative war. (Wouldn’t you?) The mere suspicion that some other nation might be a threat in some unspecified way at some unspecified future date simply isn’t a legitimate excuse for aggression.

As it happens, we did sign the U.N. Charter, which inconveniently and unambiguously outlaws what we did in Iraq. Indeed, in large measure, we wrote the Charter. As its unilateral abrogation of many treatises shows, the Bush administration does not feel bound to obligations contracted by Democratic administrations or even earlier Republican administrations. Obviously, our word is not our bond, and the only principle in operation is that everything we can get away with is legitimate. As in the German jurisprudence of the 30’s, it’s enough for a policy to have the form of law to be legal even if the content of the law is the replacement of legality with mere force.

The mad emperor Cambyses fell in love with his sister and asked the wise men of his court whether it was legal to marry her. The sages replied, “We haven’t found a law that says that the king of Persia can marry his sister, but there is a law that says he can do whatever he wants.”

Note: after writing these paragraphs, I Googled Koffee Annan’s name and discovered an immense body of right wing hatred directed at the man. ABC and CNN may not have made much about Koffee’s remarks, but they sure riled up the radicals. Typical rant, Annan: Useless Douche Bag or Incompetent Fuckwit.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Many Times Many Ways

I used to write a good many letters to the editor back in the early years of the Clinton administration when defenders of his policies were notably scarce and everybody seemed to assume that the Whitewater stories were more or less true. Monitoring the letters sections of several papers, I soon discovered that the same paragraphs and often enough the same letters would appear over different names in various places while identical boilerplate also surfaced in editorials, evidently copied verbatim from some sort of press release though even high school students have the decency to rephrase the stuff they swipe from the encyclopedia. This process created the illusion of a grass root protest against Clinton and everything he stood for, but the grass in question was Astroturf, much of it manufactured in Texas. The Republicans still use the technique, though by now it has been thoroughly exposed—a good many patriotic letters from soldiers in Iraq are cooked up at the RNC, for example. Transparent fraud remains effective when perpetrated on the willfully blind by operators of principled cynicism.

While repetition of whole phrases or paragraphs betrays premeditated inverse plagiarism, the expression of similar thoughts in different ways indicates the emergence of a genuinely shared perception. I’ve recently noticed, for example, that a great many people in a great many places in print and on the Internet have come to the same conclusion as I have about the meaning of the forthcoming election. My version:

Our policies are extremely unpopular in most of the world, but for the moment this unhappiness has not produced a general revulsion against America because it has been possible for the Europeans, the Asians, and even some of the Muslims to blame it all on the aberrant behavior of one American leader of dubious legitimacy. If Bush is actually elected President, however, the blame will devolve on the country as a whole since we will have endorsed his arrogant and violent policies and made them our own. This reassessment is likely to have unpleasant real world consequences for us over time—you don’t have to believe in some iron Karmic law to think that the usual excesses will probably result in the usual penalties—but the consequences are not the worst thing. The worst thing is that the world will be right. We will be at fault. Having missed the opportunity to reject unilateralism, preventive war, and the torture of prisoners, we and not the Bush administration become the real criminals.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

A Matter of Policy

Life really is too short to worry about extremely unlikely hypotheses just because they are sacred to the vast majority of human beings. If you’re chatting with somebody over lunch or brokering peace in Northern Ireland or engaged in some other civilian pursuit, it is simply good manners to respect tender sensibilities. If you are determined to understand the world, however, being fair or considerate is more than a waste of time, though it certainly is that. Extending the courtesy of listening creates the presumption that the alternative notion is worth considering, indeed that it is the alternative notion instead of just an alternative notion.

Americans are suckers for this sort of thing. Once the Creationists failed in their efforts to suppress all mention of evolution in textbooks and classrooms, they began to claim that they just wanted a fair debate so that students could choose for themselves what to believe. But this tactic, though a rhetorical winner, implies that a creator god is somehow the inevitable alternative explanation of the development of living things when it is only one of an infinite number of possible explanations and a notion of David Lynchian weirdness at that. Why would anybody entertain the theory that the existence and nature of things is the result of an action? There is an obvious political explanation for why many people want the theme of the divine designer to be raised in a high school class and an obvious psychological explanation for why people find the idea commonsensical. What’s utterly lacking is a scientific or even philosophical justification for entertaining Creationism for an instant. Affording the “theory” or its proponents due respect is a methodological error.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Parallel Lives

One of the celebrated ironies of the age is how Osama Ben Laden, a cherished ally in our proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, became our deadly enemy once the tanks rolled out of Kabul and we became the intolerable occupier of sacred lands. In fact, though the ironies are more muted, the end of the Cold War made plenty of other heroes into problematic characters. Consider the case of Karol Jozef Wojtyla, a Polish patriot who became Pope John Paul II and whose leadership probably really did have something to do with the success of Solidarity in his native land—Polish nationalism has been inseparable from Catholicism since the incursions of Lutheran Swedes back in the 17th Century. With the fall of the Soviets, the same intellectual and moral characteristics that made the Pope such a force against Communism may well turn out to be harmful to his church in the sequel. John Paul has proven himself to be a very effective reactionary, reinforcing the arbitrary authority of the hierarchy and briskly rolling back the Vatican II reforms. These victories, however, have had a cost as the corruption inevitable in a rigid and secretive system has inspired a lay revolt in the United States and elsewhere that almost amounts to a new Reformation.