Monday, May 31, 2010

Defeating Islamism: Education . . . or Not?

Photograph by Olivier Hoslet
(Image from New York Times)

In "The Gadfly," written for the New York Times (May 20, 2010), Nicholas Kristof reviews Ayaan Hirsi Ali's new book, Nomad. From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations, and he finds her brilliant though too harsh on Islam but agrees with her on the way to fight Islamism:
Where Hirsi Ali is exactly right, I think, is in her focus on education as a remedy. It's the best way to open minds, promote economic development and suppress violence. In the long run education is a more effective weapon against terrorists than bombs are.
Well, maybe so . . . but there's always the other possibility, that Islamism is more of an educated man's ideology, as Paul Berman suggests in an interview with Michael Totten in discussing how Sayyid Qutb contributed to the suicidal fanaticism of current-day Islamism:
The news media always seem shocked to discover that the latest suicide bomber is an educated guy from a privileged background, but why? I understand it perfectly. An ordinary uneducated person would never get lost reading the dozens of volumes by Sayyid Qutb, but an educated person might. And the next thing they know they've lost their moral bearings, and there they are, ready to pull the plug.
So . . . which is it? What'll defeat Islamism? Education . . . or not?

A likely answer is modern education, the sort that teaches critical thinking, not the sort of rote learning, beaten into kids in madrasahs, that only serves to rot the mind.

Though I wonder if that sort of madrasah education would produce anyone even capable of reading Qutb anyway . . .

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Ozark Memories: "crystal clear"

LeRoy Tucker, 1934

We haven't recently visited with LeRoy Tucker over at Folk Liar of the Ozarks, so let's drop in on him reminiscing about about his Ozark childhood home in the woods near Kittle, Arkansas:
That little place in the woods is where I first caught tadpoles in a tin can. I caught them without any form of training or supervision. One soft summer day, while playing "down at the branch" alone and unsupervised I came nose to nose with one of those delicate little green snakes that hide on green twigs. It was a moment of magic, a joy to remember. That little, green snake's phosphorescent glow provided almost perfect camouflage. Little boys and little green snakes aren't afraid of each other, and shouldn't be. I was probably five.

The branch water was about a foot and a half deep and crystal clear. I spent a lot of time there. Laying face down, peering over the edge into that water where minnows and small sun fish swam about and various bugs moved both on the surface and the gravel bottom. In some spots the bottom was covered by purple, almost black, sunken leaves. Idling there, I gathered a lot of useless information. I'm glad I did it anyway.
I remember doing things like that not so far from Kittle myself, but I doubt that I could express them as well as Mr. Tucker does, and he relates a host of other memories as well, so go there and read.

The above photo, by the way, comes from an earlier entry by Mr. Tucker, but he looks to be about the right age for this memory of his encounter with that snake . . .

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

American Whiskey Makers and Takers: George Washington, James Madison, and Uncle Cleo

James Madison
Whiskey Taker and Constitutional Thinker
(Image from Wikipedia)

According to Daniel Okrent, in The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, as reported by David Oshinsky in "Temperance to Excess" (New York Times, May 13, 2010), Americans have long had a strong constitution for alcohol:
Americans have always been a hard-drinking, freedom-loving lot. George Washington had a still on his farm. James Madison downed a pint of whiskey a day, a common practice at a time when liquor was safer than water and cheaper than tea.
I suspect that boiling the water would have been cheaper than whiskey, but who am I to object to what America's Founding Fathers were up to? After all, my own paternal ancestors were moonshiners. Some readers will recall this Ozark story about my Uncle Cleo:
One of the local moonshining families whose surname "Hiram" was pronounced "Harm" offered my 13-year-old uncle a job keeping an eye out for the law. He must have done a good job because he was promoted to run moonshine as soon as he was old enough to get a driver's license.

That was about as far as he got in the business, however, because one time he was running some moonshine along an unpaved back road when he saw the sheriff's car coming up from behind. Ordinarily, he would have kept his wits about him, but because he had a pistol on the seat, he panicked and sped off in a cloud of dust. The sheriff gave chase.

My uncle could see the sheriff gaining on him and decided that he'd better get rid of the gun if he wanted to avoid prison, so as he was crossing a low-water bridge, he tossed his pistol into the water.

That, at least, was his intention, but the pistol hit a rock and bounced back up onto the bridge, where it caught the sheriff's eye. As the sheriff stopped to confiscate that evidence, my uncle eluded capture.

But his narrow escape made him think about his life and what he wanted from it. He told himself, "If I go on like this, I'll end up dead or in prison."

Figuring that the law was coming for him, he left home the next day, signed up for the army, and was off to boot camp. Six months later, he had leave to visit his Ozark home. All dressed up in his uniform, he went downtown to impress the girls. As he was flirting with them on the town square, the sheriff noticed and called out to him from across the courtyard:
"Cleo," he said, "I've got your gun if you want it."

"No thanks," my uncle called back, "they gave me another one."
That was many, many years ago, but Uncle Cleo is still alive, though just barely hanging on at nearly 95 (born October 12, 1915), for he's getting very frail and is currently in the hospital. His grand-daughter Rachel, who's helping care for him, recently emailed to let me know that she'd read the anecdote about her grandfather:
When I came across your blog and read the moonshine story I laughed because I could actually hear his voice flippantly telling that Sheriff that the Army gave him another gun.
She visited him in his hospital room a day or two ago and asked him about the story:
I asked him about running moonshine across the county, and he said, "Well I may have dealt in a little whiskey." Then he laughed and laughed. (He never told any of his girls that story.)
Rachel thanked me for the "beautiful words," but they weren't my own, as I explained:
I'm glad that the moonshining story posted on my blog was a source of delight for Uncle Cleo. I first heard it from Aunt Pauline, then Uncle Cranford offered more details.
Since posting that moonshining story five years ago, I've learned that while Uncle Cleo may have done some moonshine-running for the Hiram family, he was actually working more with the Hodges family itself, for in a somewhat variant version of the tale, Cousin Bill Hodges informs us:
Grandma Nora told me a little wine was made on the [Hodges] farm, and would then laugh and chuckle, and would never finish telling the rest of the story. Her brother Elbert Stephens and [Grandpa] Horace's brother, Rev. Robert Hodges did run a moonshine operation on the Hodges farm near Elizabeth[, Arkansas] . . . .

Dad recalls the still operation being shut down by the county sheriff, stating, "We heard the shots, and after the law left, us kids went to the woods and saw the barrel shot full of holes."

Dad's brother Cleo acted as a "watchdog" and did a little moonshine running for Elbert and others in Fulton County[, Arkansas]. Cleo's moonshine running ceased after he was being pursued by the county sheriff and tossed the pistol he was carrying out of the car window while crossing a low water bridge. The sheriff stopped and retrieved the pistol. Cleo joined the Army to avoid prosecution by the county sheriff. Following training, six months later, Cleo returned to Viola, strutting around in his Army uniform, and [when] the sheriff told Cleo, "Cleo, I've got your pistol," Cleo replied, "Don't need it sheriff, the Army gave me another."
Some folks might object that what Uncle Cleo and the rest of my Ozark clan were doing was highly illegal, especially for a dry county, and I don't doubt that Uncle Cleo would agree, but whiskey making and taking has an illustrious American pedigree going back to George Washington and earlier, and since most people agree that Prohibition was a historic mistake (and 'prohibition' lasted on in many counties of the Arkansas Ozarks), then I think that we're justified in extending Uncle Cleo and my kinfolk a bit of indulgence.

And for anyone who wants to leave a message of encouragement for Uncle Cleo's grand-daughter, Rachel, who's helping care for Uncle Cleo in his decline, feel free to do so here in the comments.

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Friday, May 28, 2010

Standing Up to Bully Boy Kim Jong-il?

Kim Jong-il in Action
Kicking from Behind
(Image from En-Uk's Art Blog)

My ten-year-old son, En-Uk, has a series of images on his blog ridiculing Kim Jong-il, but Bully Boy Kim doesn't seem quite so amusing since he sank the Cheonan and thereby killed 46 sailors. Like many others here in Korea, both native and expat, I've been quite angry about the attack and have held that it cannot go unanswered.

But answered how?

For various reasons, I think that a military response would not be prudent, though I have long thought that if events did lead to military conflict, the South would win pretty handily. That likely outcome has encouraged me to believe that North also realized this and thus would not initiate a suicidal attack against the South.

But would the South win so easily? In "Sending Pyongyang bananas" (May 27, 2010), Harold Piper, former editor of the JoongAng Daily, has expressed some second thoughts:
Here in America I am regarded as a North Korea expert, since I lived in South Korea for six and a half years, and so I was confidently assuring my auditors [translation: "friends listening to Mr. Piper speak"] that the North would never make good on its boast of "all-out war" because it knows it could never win.

"I'm not so sure," said Clifton. He is a finance guy, not a military strategist, but he is pretty smart and usually worth listening to.

"I think they" -- the North, that is -- "have a network of agents who would suddenly come out and blow up every bridge in Seoul, block every highway, surround key government buildings, seize gasoline storage sites. I think," Clifton said, "they've been in place all this time waiting for the word to go into action."

"I'm not saying they could win," Clifton hedged. "But I don't think it would be so simple to defeat them. If they could seize and hold Seoul for 48 hours they would be in a pretty strong negotiating position."
That's a rather scary thought, one that I hadn't considered. I have strong doubts that the North could have so many agents here in Seoul, but I was reading only a couple of days ago about the capture of a female spy from the North who was caught mapping out Seoul's subway system, and that troubled me for a moment since I use the subway at least four days a week. But I dismissed that troubled thought since I could do nothing about such a vague, implicit danger. Mr. Piper's friend Clifton has now given me still more indigestible food for thought.

Nevertheless, I think that the North wouldn't start a war, for even if it has agents here, they'd be unable to prevent the destruction of the North's regime. The South, for its part, would also not initiate war since the South itself would suffer a lot of damage, especially Seoul, which is targeted by thousands of the North's artillery shells.

But there are things that the South could do, with the help of its friends in the world, and Korea expert Joshua Stanton has given this some thought in a four-part series on "Overthrowing Kim: A Capitalist Manifesto" -- Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 -- that some might wish to read.

And think about . . .

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Paul Berman: Treason of Western Intellectuals?

Illustration by Kim Bost

Paul Berman has a new book out, The Flight of the Intellectuals, which I've not yet read but intend to. Meanwhile, I have read a review of it by Anthony Julius, "The Pretender," in the International Herald Tribune (May 16, 2010), so I can report on that. Mr. Julius reminds us that:
Over the past 10 years, Paul Berman has been exploring a theme: the repudiation by liberal intellectuals of their values and ideals. The theme has been elaborated in several books -- "Terror and Liberalism," "Power and the Idealists" and now "The Flight of the Intellectuals." Berman himself is a man who identifies "with the liberal left."
I've read Terror and Liberalism. I recall reading it in 2003, the year that it was published -- reading it on long bus and subway trips as I commuted to Seoul and back while I was living in Osan and teaching at Hanshin University, which has campuses in both places.

A year before, I had given a talk on 9/11 that was well attended at the Osan campus but that had also raised some controversy. I was branded a right-wing ideologue because I went against the grain of the times and the spirit of Hanshin University in arguing that Al Qaeda had attacked the US on 9/11 not just because they didn't like American foreign policy but also because they were radically opposed to democratic principles. Much of my audience held only to the former reason and blamed the US for provoking Bin Laden. I showed that this was not true by quoting Bin Laden himself on his anti-democratic reasons for the attack, but the quotes had little effect. Al Qaeda was seen as the victim. I knew that I needed to learn more about this mindset, so I turned to Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism, which had been recommended to me and was precisely what I needed to read, for as Mr. Julius notes:
For Berman, the contemporary intellectual's temptation . . . . consists of the following elements: the false identification of liberal values with an oppressive West, and of political Islamism with an oppressed third world; an unreflective, unqualified opposition to every exercise of American power; a certain blindness regarding, or even tenderness toward, contemporary expressions of anti-Semitism.
In the current book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, Mr. Julius informs us that:
Berman has two targets. First, he takes on the Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, whom he contrasts with the admirable and courageous secularist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. (Ramadan, a professor at Oxford, was recently permitted to enter the United States after being barred for six years under the Patriot Act.) And second, Berman challenges the commentators Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash for their qualified endorsements of Ramadan and their disparagements of Hirsi Ali, noting the "tone of contempt that so frequently creeps across discussions" about her, the "sneering masculine put-downs of the best-known feminist intellectual ever to come out of Africa."
Tariq Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and while one can't ever choose one's pedigree, one could repudiate what a grandfather stood for. Mr. Ramadan doesn't clearly do so:
Berman identifies duplicity as part of the problem with Ramadan, that is, his tendency both to say different things to different audiences and to speak with such equivocality as to be understood in different ways by those audiences. There is "a dark smudge of ambiguity" that "runs across everything he writes on the topic of terror and violence." In consequence, Ramadan cannot be trusted to know his own mind, and therefore cannot be trusted when he claims to speak it. Further, his language of accommodation, his project of defining a minority Islam at peace within liberal democracy, emerges as somewhat phony, the more hard-line stance that he advocates from time to time more accurately reflecting his true views.
Ambiguity is not a particularly admirable virtue at a time when:
. . . intimidation and violence [is being] directed at that "subset of the European intelligentsia -- its Muslim free-thinking and liberal wing especially" -- who "survive only because of bodyguards." This, Berman concludes, has been unheard of in Western Europe since the fall of the Axis. "Fear -- mortal fear, the fear of getting murdered by fanatics in the grip of a bizarre ideology -- has become, for a significant number of intellectuals and artists, a simple fact of modern life."
Against such intimidation, one must speak out, so Mr. Berman does, and so should we.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

John Vinocur: Euroskeptic?

John Vinocur

John Vinocur, who writes the "Politicus" column for the International Herald Tribune, has a recent article there, "Frankness Would Serve Europe Well," in which he analyzes precisely how dishonest the European Union has been with itself over the past decade. It has dreamed dreams of political and military power in the world while knowingly mismanaging its economic union, and thereby failing in all three:
Involving cooked books, the averted eyes of officials, and the E.U. big players' painless disregard of the euro zone's deficit criteria, Europe's disdain for frankness with itself lasted for a good part of a decade until markets and ratings agencies caught on, leaving Europe to a financial and monetary crisis without a sure resolution in sight.

Now, Europe as a political project of remarkable ambition is entering a new phase where its supply of grace and favor are nearly exhausted. The suspension of disbelief granted for years by much of the world to the idea Europe might soon function as a superpower -- the same gift of plausibility that a theater audience extends a play's actors and fairly incredible plot -- is worn thin . . . .

And [as for] Europe's coming of age as a global force, unified politically and bolstered by a palpably developing European defense structure giving European foreign policy an element of independent power projection? These days, there are next to no takers for such long-shot bets.
But as another less-than-frank empire builder once observed, "All is not lost":
The European Union is not dead: its regulatory network alone brings vast and practical meaning to the idea of a single Europe. But held up against the reality of political performance and economic perspective, the E.U.'s grand aspirations to relevance and world decision-making, based on its claims to internal unity and solidarity, are devalued.
No, all is not lost, but lacking political leadership, the EU has had to confront this crisis without an ability to act quickly, a situation that the European heads of state created:
Europe, in full comprehension of what it was doing, decided last year to give the posts of president and high representative for foreign affairs created in its new constitution to two earnest but modest candidates who could not lead.

Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, specifically, did not want the presidential candidacy of Tony Blair. Just months later, in a time of crisis, their decision has left the E.U. without a person capable of embodying the kind of notional authority the constitution was meant to provide.
Mr. Vinocur is saying much the same as I have also recently said, though he says it rather better. Without an effective political center, Europe's economic and monetary union will continue to disappoint . . . to say nothing of its minimal military power and futile foreign policy of its distant dream of rising once again to world-historical significance.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Gabor Steingart: Optimistic Europhile

Gabor Steingart
(Image from Homepage)

Readers will probably recall my post yesterday on the way in which the European Union's crisis over the euro has pushed the heads of state in Europe to press the European Central Bank for action to stabilize the European economy. I argued that this will require greater political centralization for the European Union but also result in a larger democratic deficit, unless the EU undertakes further political reform.

After posting that argument, I happened to read yesterday's hard copy of the International Herald Tribune -- delivered to my apartment here in Seoul -- and discovered that the German journalist and author Gabor Steingart holds an opinion very similar to mine, albeit from a more optimistic perspective. His online article, "It Takes a Crisis to Make a Continent," which appeared over the weekend (May 21, 2010), makes the following points:
[H]istorians will likely look back to May 9 as a turning point. That is when, in a conference room in Brussels, European leaders announced a blanket guarantee of 750 billion euros (about $1 trillion) for the countries on the euro zone's southern flank. Even the European Central Bank, which until then had been regarded as an independent body, silently stepped in to bail out the troubled states. Though they would never admit it, the men and women who sat in Brussels formed the first European economic cabinet, making policy on the fly, just as in a regular state.

Yes, the rules governing the euro are being breached every day, causing panic in the market. But this is part of a movement forward, not dissolution. According to the monetary union treaty signed in 1999, member states were never meant to take on the debts of a fellow member state, and the European Central Bank, modeled on the German Bundesbank, was meant to ensure monetary stability at all cost. But, at this critical moment, Europe decided that monetary unity was not enough, that it was worth breaking the rules to bring its members closer together as a political unit.
Mr. Steingart doesn't explain how this "policy on the fly" adds up to a "regular state," nor does he discuss the need for a more centralized system to offset the danger of instability if powerful European nations should happen to fundamentally disagree over the European Central Bank's policies, but he must have some inkling of the need for a more centralized political structure to make political and economic decisions, for he offers a further point that reveals his own recognition of the inherent 'democratic deficit':
Having forced itself into an era of continental policymaking, Europe must now play catch-up with its democratic system. Millions of Europeans already feel alienated by Brussels; if the achievements of this crisis are to survive, European leaders must figure out how to make sure the people are heard in the political process. Europe as a decision-making body is a fact; now it has to become more democratic.
My point may sound contradictory, namely, that if the European Union is to survive, it will need both more centralization and greater democratization, but I think that's precisely what survival requires. One possible way of attempting to achieve both would be for the President of the European Parliament to assume the role of President of the European Council and act as a prime minister formulating economic, political, and even foreign policy. Mr. Steingart has already referred to the European Council as an acting "economic cabinet," with the European heads of state acting as cabinet members, and a cabinet surely needs a prime minister who represents not just one state but the whole of Europe. Yet, how to integrate the heads of state on that council, if such a president is to have effective power, poses the big headache, for a prime minister typically selects the cabinet, rather than inherit one. Are powerful heads of state likely to subordinate themselves to a party in the European Parliament?

I'm neither Europhile nor Europhobe, but you can put me down as a Euroskeptic for now because I'd like to hear the solution to that issue.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

European Central Bank: Its Changing Role, and Some Implications

Jean-Claude Trichet
Image by Ralph Orlowski/Reuters

A few days back, I reported on the changing role of the European Central Bank in supporting the euro's stability, so I thought that I ought to follow that up with another report, this one borrowed from an article in the International Herald Tribune, "Trichet Faces Growing Criticism in Europe Crisis" (May 20, 2010), by Jack Ewing and Steven Erlanger.

According to Ewing and Erlanger, the president of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, came under heavy political pressure to act against his previously stated position:
In the early hours of May 10, European leaders cobbled together a nearly $1 trillion deal meant to stun bond investors who, after Greece was driven to the brink of default, were hungrily eyeing attacks on Portugal and even Spain.

A few days before, on May 6, Mr. Trichet had told reporters that the bank was not even considering buying bonds from the weakest governments of the shaken euro zone. On May 7, markets tumbled.

But a few hours after the leaders adjourned -- at 3:15 a.m. on May 10, and by all accounts under severe pressure from President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and other European leaders -- Mr. Trichet and the bank board members reversed themselves.
As Ewing and Erlanger explain:
Mr. Trichet has reversed himself on buying sovereign bonds from weak euro zone countries . . . [and also] agreed to keep accepting Greek bonds, however downgraded, as loan collateral.
The implications are striking:
Mr. Trichet's willingness to bend or break the rules and buy government bonds -- aimed at halting a potentially catastrophic sell-off -- served as final confirmation that the central bank had stepped once and for all beyond its narrow founding mission solely as a bulwark against inflation.

The European Central Bank now seems to have been pushed into the much larger role of guardian of financial stability in the 16 countries that belong to the euro area, with implications for all the 27 nations of the European Union.
Ewing and Erlanger do not spell out all these implications, but they seem to mean that the ECB is gaining a greater degree of power over the economies and finances of the EU at the same time that the ECB itself is coming under greater control by the heads of state in the EU. This is a potentially chaotic development unless some political structure is established to set the new rules, but such would require greater political centralization for the EU, a point that I raised in my earlier post, potentially enlarging the so-called 'democratic deficit'.

Why do I say that without greater political centralization, Europe faces a chaotic situation? Imagine a United States of America in which the Fed could be pressured to alter its policies by the more powerful states, say California, Texas, or New York. The risk would be that differing economic interests of two such states would throw the entire system into disarray as the two press for their divergent policies. That's a bit like the danger that we see in Europe currently if, for example, France and Germany should each attempt to gain control over the ECB.

But one 'solution' to this problem, further centralizing and empowering the EU's political system by giving more power to the President of the European Council, would increase the democratic deficit mentioned above because this President is appointed by the heads of state to the European Council rather than elected by the European population. Reducing this democratic deficit -- for instance, by expanding the role of the European Parliament and granting greater political power to its own President of the European Parliament in directing the EU's central political and economic policies -- would require a rather large transformation in which the heads of state would have to relinquish power, and that would necessitate a messy, and perhaps nasty, political fight.

We live in interesting times . . .

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Poetry Break: "Skimming the Surface"

Water Well
(From the Universe)

A little over 25 years ago, I took part in a reading group devoted to reading Hans Blumenberg's Legitimacy of the Modern Age, and also about that time started writing poetry. I haven't produced so much, either academically or poetically but I occasionally stumble over an old poem.

Well, I tripped over one today while my eyes were on the starry heavens above me and nearly tumbled into a well, a poem from around 1984 titled "Skimming the Surface," not one of my favorites, but worth putting online for sake of comparison with other poems of mine from the same time (if you rummage around a bit):
Skimming the Surface
It's hinted truth lies in this basin rimmed
With rock, passively resting on the ground
Or half-buried in the soft sediment,
Hidden in the murk, waiting to be found.

It shall not reveal itself, nor bubble
To the surface as though it were decayed
Organic matter; there is more trouble
To uncovering hard truth than is made

Out by those who only skim the surface
Of this well. And if this traditional
Supposition's true, then I'll propose less
Waiting at the brim, unclothe myself, fall

Headlong in, and penetrate its coldest
Depths, where stone-blind, numb, grasping for rough rocks
To keep at bay my buoyancy, I'll clasp
That curious object for which I've sought.

But, if that supposition's false, and I
Suppose it might well be, then better yet
Remain above, and not now disclose my
Frail, mortal frame unto this element.

Instead, I'll sun myself upon these rocks,
Enjoy the gentle breeze, sip water from
This pool, and send the bucket down to strike
The base and gouge around within the loam.
Look before you leap, I always say . . . but on the other hand, the findings might be worth the risk, for according to Lactantius:
"truth lies sunk in a well" ("in puteo . . . veritatem iacere demersam") Lactantius, Institutiones Divinae 3.28
Lactantius, however, didn't dive in to find out for himself but, apparently, borrowed the truth from Democritus:
"we know nothing certainly, for truth lies in the deep" ("ἐṯɛῇ δε οὐδεν ἴσμɛν, ἐν βυθῷ γάρ ἑ ἀλήθɛία")
Democritus himself sounds uncertain, but while we reflect on this obscure point, we might also consider these words from Lee Gwang-su:
"From the well's dark depths flickered a light no bigger than her palm, wavering like the sheen on a pool of mercury." (Part 3, Chapter 28, The Soil)
That's well enough . . .


Saturday, May 22, 2010

North Korea's Scientific Findings on the Cheonan Tragedy

We're Number 1!

North Korea purportedly sent a triumphalist message written in the Korean alphabet (Hangeul) several weeks ago -- though delivery took a bit of time, as we finally see from the above image -- but the North denies having sent any message at all and has even offered to send an expert technical team to investigate the findings:
North Korea on Thursday denied that it was behind the attack on a South Korean warship that sank near their border in March, saying it would dispatch an "inspection group" to verify South Korea's conclusion that Pyongyang is to blame.
Or so reports Korea Herald's news writer Kim So-hyun, relaying the denial and concomitant offer in "N.K. denies attack, threatens 'all-out war'" (May 20, 2010) -- and we should certainly trust a state willing to go to war over the findings of an arguably biased international committee.

I, however, am privy to even more up-to-date news, for I know already what the North's findings will be after it conducts its thorough-going analysis of all the data:
North Korean Investigation Team:

"We confirm the presence of Hangeul on one of the torpedo fragments and affirm that this conclusively demonstrates that the torpedo orginated in the puppet state to the south and that the Cheonan explosion was therefore ordered by the imperialist beasts who pull the puppet strings that move the traitorous fingers that squeeze the terrible triggers that fire the vicious guns that blast the peaceful land that raise the clouds of dust that block the rays of sun . . . in our scientific opinion, of course."
I posted this advance report over at The Marmot's Hole as soon as I learned precisely what the North's statement of its findings would be. Readers' approval of my post ranks it at an all-time high for any comment posted there by me, so I have to infer from this that nearly everyone accepts North Korea's conclusions.

At least, I hope so, since their position sounds so plausible . . .

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Best Beer North of the Han River?

A couple of weeks ago, I called my friend and long-time expat 'Sperwer' to go have a drink or two in Itaewon to find out if Alley Kat is the best draft beer available in Seoul, for according to Lucy Corne, in "Seoul's best beer -- north of the river," written for the Korea Herald (May 10, 2010), Alley Kat's India Pale Ale ranks number one:
Available across the country, Alley Kat is a hoppy India Pale Ale imported from Canada and is one of the most palatable pints on the peninsula. In Itaewon there are a bunch of bars serving up this surprisingly well-priced beer, including the cozy Three Alley Pub and the ever-popular Sam Ryan's upstairs.
That says only "one of the most palatable," but she's ranked it number one and quotes a local beer expert named Rob Titley, who states:
As for draft beer, I naturally drink a lot of my own homebrew, but I'm always up for a pint of Platinum Ale or a pilsner at Oktoberfest. However, while Korean beers are getting better, I’d have to say that the best draft beer on offer right now has to be Alley Kat.
Well, 'Sperwer' and I tried it, and while we found it quite good, we didn't think it notably better than the local drafts that we tried at Castle Praha some months back. Ms. Corne called the beer "hoppy," but I didn't notice that quality being especially present. Now, perhaps there was a reason that I didn't notice. 'Sperwer' and I had just eaten lunch and had taste-tested a couple of very spicey hot sauces at a nearby hamburger place, one of those sauces being the very hottest that I've ever experienced . . . so, that might account for why I didn't notice much hoppiness, nor did I perceive much bitterness.

But I also wonder if we tried the same beer recommended by Ms. Corne and Mr. Titley, for the former called the draft beer an India Pale Ale, but our drink looked amber to me, and I see from the Alley Kat website that they do indeed brew an Alley Kat Amber brown ale, which they describe as having "light floral hoppiness and slight bitterness," and that corresponds more to what I tasted.

Incidentally, I don't see an India Pale Ale listed at the Alley Kat site, though an American Pale Ale, is listed and described as "a cleaner and slightly hoppier version of British Pale Ales," so perhaps that's what Ms. Corne was writing about.

At any rate, the Alley Kat draft that we drank was enjoyable, and we were unexpectedly joined by local expat lawyer -- excuse me, "Foreign Legal Consultant" -- and surprising teetotaler Brendon Carr, who had some interesting stories about his life as a legal expert in Korea . . . but I won't retell his stories here.

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Niall Ferguson and David Marsh on the Uncertain Euro

European Central Bank
(Image from Wikipedia)

Niall Ferguson and David Marsh have topical articles in Newsweek ("The End of the Euro") and the New York Times ("The Euro's Lost Promise"), respectively, that are both worth reading on the current uncertainty about the euro and what it might portend for the European Union.

They both agree on the factor responsible for the euro's instability. According to Ferguson, the European Monetary Union (EMU) had a fatal flaw from the outset:
[T]he worst defect in the design of the EMU . . . was that it was uniting Europe's currencies but leaving its fiscal policies completely uncoordinated. There were, to be sure, "convergence criteria," which specified that a country could join only if its deficit was less than 3 percent of gross domestic product and its public debt was less than 60 percent. But even when these were turned into a permanent set of fiscal rules in the Stability and Growth Pact, there was no obvious way they could be enforced.
Why couldn't they be enforced? In referring to Europe's monetary union of December 1991 in Maastricht (southern Netherlands), Marsh explains:
[J]ust before the Maastricht meeting, Chancellor Kohl noted that a monetary union without a corresponding political union would be "a castle in the air." His remark echoed the concerns of the Bundesbank, his country's statutorily independent central bank, that unless it involved greater political and economic anti-inflationary discipline and solidarity among weaker and stronger states, a monetary union would be doomed.
Why, then, did the European nations seek monetary union? Ferguson tells us one crucial reason:
Monetary union had geopolitical appeal . . . . In the wake of German reunification, the French worried that Europe was heading for a new kind of domination by its biggest member state. Getting the Germans to pool monetary sovereignty would increase the power of the other members over a potential Fourth Reich.
Marsh again gives details:
In the vanguard of the effort [toward monetary union] was none other than Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the man who had driven German reunification with miraculous speed. He knew he had to enshrine the larger Germany in a new European order to ease its neighbors' fears. The euro would be the monetary equivalent of the ugly yet necessary military compact between NATO and the Warsaw Pact that supervised East and West Germany after World War II.
The analogy between a recently reunified Germany bound monetarily to the EU and a recently defeated German divided between Nato and the Warsaw Pact sounds rather strained now, but I lived in Germany from 1989 to 1995 and can vividly recall the fears expressed by various other European nations in 1990 to 1991 about a unified, powerful Germany.

In other words, fear drove the Europeans' monetary union, much as fear drove European unification itself, fear of Germany. In short, the EU was based on fear, not trust, and suspicion continues to pervade the union, only now more generalized and not solely fixed upon Germany. But if the euro is to work, then the EU's central political power must grow and assert itself over fiscal policy. According to Marsh, this is one side-effect of the recent financial intervention, which poured nearly one trillion dollars into the effort to rescue Greece's economy, stabilize the euro, and ultimately save the European Union:
The huge amount of money aside, the significance of the rescue package was that, for the first time, power over the European Central Bank started to move to the politicians. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, a longtime critic of the bank's sway, joined forces with another Frenchman, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, to impose political supremacy over the euro zone.
The next year or two will determine whether the EU grows more unified through more centralized political power that can set fiscal policy . . . or not.

But if political centralization does succeed, there's still -- and even more so -- the so-called "democratic deficit" to deal with.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Major Fallacy: Nazis Deceived by Nonexistent Man With Qualities

Major William Martin
(Image from New York Times)

Jennet Conant, in "The Man Who Never Was," written for the New York Times (May 6, 2010), reviews Ben Macintyre's true story of the fictional Major William Martin, a British military man who didn't exist but who fooled the German high command by a clever ruse. The invented "Major Martin" was a corpse disguised as a fake courier carrying on his body papers outlining the real plan of invasion by way of Sicily disguised as a false plan and a false plan of invasion by way of Greece diguised as the real plan. This corpse, "who would wash up on the Spanish coast, was a complete fraud, but the lies he would carry from Room 13 of the British Admiralty all the way to Hitler's desk would help win the war."

The story is stranger than fiction because it began as fiction but grew to reality, initiated by an idea listed in a now-famous "Trout Fisher" memo, a document attributed at the time to Director of Naval Intelligence John Henry Godfrey but now known to have been written by another fellow working for British intelligence. This memo appeared early on, in September 1939, merely three weeks into the war:
"The Trout Fisher," said the memo, in that peculiarly sporting style that only the English can pull off, "casts patiently all day. He frequently changes his venue and his lures." Although issued under Godfrey's name, it was most likely the work of Ian Fleming, whose gift for intelligence planning and elaborate plots, most of which were too far-fetched to ever implement, later served him so well in his James Bond series. The memo was "a masterpiece of corkscrew thinking," Mac­intyre writes, laying out 51 schemes for deceiving the Germans at sea, including one to drop soccer balls coated with phosphorus to attract submarines, and another to set adrift tins of booby-trapped treats. Far down on the list of suggestions, No. 28 -- "not a very nice one," the author(s) conceded -- proposed using a corpse, dressed as an airman, carrying spurious secret documents.

That this suggestion was in turn based on an idea used in a detective novel by Basil Thomson, an ex-policeman and former tutor to the King of Siam who made his name as a spy catcher in World War I, only adds to the fantastic quality of Macintyre's entertaining tale. First Fleming, an ardent bibliophile, dusted off this quaint literary ploy; then the trout-fishing admiral, who always appreciated a good yarn, had the cunning to know that "the best stories are also true," and dispatched his team to turn fiction into reality. In many ways it was a very old story at that, as indicated by the operation's first code name, "Trojan Horse." A bit of gallows humor led to the plan's name being changed to the rather tasteless Operation Mincemeat.
The double-bluff worked. The Germans fell for it. But the story is even more fascinating, incorporating one Ewen Montagu, and his younger brother, Ivor, brilliant scions of a Jewish banking dynasty who attended Cambridge and there not only invented the rules for table tennis but also founded the Cheese Eaters League . . . though Ivor also became a Communist and Soviet spy who kept a watchful eye on his older brother as the M15 kept their watchful eyes on him. Unaware of Ivor's scrutiny as Soviet spy, which perhaps posed little danger anyway, Ewen took the bones of the corpse idea laid out in Fleming's "Trout Fisher" and put 'mincemeat' upon those bones, for he gave the ruse its name, "Operation Mincemeat," and helped work out the realistic details of Major Martin's fictional life. Ewen later wrote a book in 1953 on the successful operation, The Man Who Never Was, which was dramatized as a movie in 1956.

Truly a story thus even stranger than stranger than fiction . . .

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dickinson and the Power of the Word?

Icon of Propriety?
(Image from New York Times)

Sometimes, little to say is just enough:
The one power Dickinson trusted was the power of language, which she loved. And that love is, I think, the main thing I've gained from her, even if I've put it to lesser uses. By her own account she experienced an acute physical reaction to words, a euphoric shock.
That's Holland Cotter, writing about Emily Dickinson in "My Hero, the Outlaw of Amherst," for the New York Times (May 11, 2010), and he also notes that she uses words like bullets:
My friend attacks my friend!
Oh Battle picturesque!
Then I turn Soldier too,
And he turns Satirist!
How martial is this place!
Had I a mighty gun
I think I'd shoot the human race
And then to glory run!
Cotter quotes only the two lines "Had I a mighty gun / I think I'd shoot the human race." We're fortunate that Dickinson had no "mighty gun" and lived in an age prior to suicide bombing since she seems not to have fully "trusted . . . the power of language" to bring her to glory, unless she was being ironic, which I hope 'true believers' take her as being and presume Cotter was being in calling her "a terrorist" and therefore his "hero."

But perhaps I've said too much . . .

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Images of Muhammad: Revisited

Muhammad Preaching
(Image from Wikipedia)

Four years ago, I responded to the controversy over the Muhammad cartoons in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper by writing a number of blog posts on Muslim depictions of Muhammad, such as a post accompanied by the above depiction, a 17th century Ottoman copy of an early 14th century Persian illustration, from an illustrated manuscript of Al-Biruni's 11th century text, Vestiges of the Past, showing Muhammad in a mosque preaching against intercalation (cf. Sura 9.37). My reason for posting the image above was to demonstrate that despite Muslim assertions that Islam forbids any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, we nevertheless find such depictions within the Islamic world itself.

At the post that I've linked to, I received then a number of comments, all from non-Muslims, it seems, but I've recently received an "Anonymous" comment from an individual whom I take to be a Muslim, given the particular sentiment espoused. It states:
god will break your hand
That's an unpleasant comment, though hardly surprising, given the fanaticism of some people. I replied:
Anonymous, thanks for your comment, which perfectly illustrates your attitude toward discussion, I presume.

You have expressed your violent opinion and now take refuge in your anonymity.
I receive the occasional courageous comment of this sort. Some brave soul feels offended enough to anonymously threaten me with dire consequences, wished personally upon me but attributed to God's intentions. This "Anonymous" commenter -- known only to God, it seems -- would like to break my hand . . . or worse, no doubt, since the basic offense is not in my hand but in my head.

I may yet end up like Trotsky, but if so, it'll be at the hands of one whose God has failed to carry out the deed Himself.

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

'Revolutionary' Education: Sa-Rah in Her Online School

I've mentioned that my daughter, Sa-Rah, is enrolled in an online American school and has been for about nine months since we took her out of the Korean education system because of our dissatisfaction with the educational methods of Korean schools.

She's currently in the seventh grade, and taking the typical courses for that year of schooling, including a social studies course in which she has recently learned about the French Revolution. As a project in this course, students were told to make a CD cover for an imaginary recording of songs on that revolution. She seems to have enjoyed making the colorful drawings for this social studies project, and since she sent me photos with descriptions of the front and back covers, I thought that I'd post them here:
CD Front Cover:
The clown symbolizes the French Revolution. You can see tears are dropping from the eyes, and that is a symbol of the First and Second Estate who were always treating the Third Estate unfairly. Because the French Revolution started, and many of the High-Class people got persecuted or killed, the eye is crying. On the other hand, the mouth is smiling, which shows that the Third Estate is smiling because they are finally standing up to the un-fairness, and trying to get their freedom and right treatment. If you look closely at the smile, you could probably see that the mouth also has a bit of a frown, and that symoblizes the sorrow of the Third Estate. There is a shadow of the clown in the back, and it shows that the clown is being killed. That means that France of the old days -- when there were Three Estates and poor people didn't get fair treatment -- has fallen, and a better place to live is rising. "NO?" is the title song of the CD, which is also the last track, track number 10.

CD Back Cover:
The CD back cover shows a teenage boy with a gun next to him, and he looks sad. That shows the sorrow of children, because poor children couldn't get educated and they couldn't eat much or live happily. I put special effort into the eyes.
For ease of comparison, here are front and back covers placed side by side:

Sa-Rah's aesthetic style is rather different than En-Uk's, more precise and detailed, for those who might recall (and if you don't recall, then go here).

I don't recall learning much about the French Revolution in my seventh-grade year, but I've been told that American schools have become more advanced and rigorous since the days that I attended. Anyway, I'm satisfied with the education that my daughter's receiving in her online school, not just in this class but in all of them.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Toward a Culture of Discussion," The Philosophy & Poetry Journal (Summer 2010)

East Asia
Spreading a Culture of Discussion
(Image from Wikipedia)

I learned this week about the publication of my article on the necessity for a culture of discussion in Asian societies (or anywhere, for that matter). It can be read online at the journal itself in my wife's Korean translation or here on Gypsy Scholar in my original English. For anyone interested, here's the journal information, with the link:
Horace Jeffery Hodges (호라스 제프리 하지스), "Toward a Culture of Discussion" ("토론 문화를 위해서"), The Philosophy & Poetry Journal (애지), Vol. 42 (Summer 2010), 25-38.
And here's the first paragraph of the Korean version:
1997년 싱가포르에서 '사고Thinking'를 주제로 한 제7차 국제회의가 열렸다. 여기에서 싱가포르의 철학자이자 외교관인 키쇼어 마흐부바니Kishore Mahbubani는 "아시아인들도 다른 사람들처럼 사고를 잘 할 수 있는가?"라는 상당히 도발적인 질문을 던졌다. 일 년 후에 그는 미국의 '내셔널 인터레스트National Interest'잡지에 "아시아인에게 사고는 가능한가?"라는 더욱 도발적이고, 거의 '모욕적인' 제목의 글을 기고했다. 이 글은 같은 해에 그가 동일한 제목으로 발간한 책의 일부를 차지하게 된다. 하지만 이 글은 저자가 의도했던 만큼 큰 반향을 불러일으키지 않았다. 3년 후에 2판을 찍어내면서 그는 이렇게 썼다: "무엇보다 실망스러웠던 것은 이 글이 발표된 후, 왜 아시아 사회와 문명이 유럽 문명보다 몇 세기 뒤쳐져 있는가 하는 질문이 아시아인들 사이에서 토론의 쟁점이 되지 못했다는 사실입니다."
The Korean translation of my entire article is a bit edited and thereby somewhat abbreviated, but here is the full, slightly longer English original:
Toward a Culture of Discussion

Horace Jeffery Hodges

Ewha Womans University


In June 1997 at the 7th International Conference on Thinking, held in Singapore, the Singaporean philosopher and diplomat Kishore Mahbubani asked a singularly discomfiting question: "Can Asians think as well as others?" A year later in the National Interest, he followed up on this question by publishing an essay with the even more provocative, potentially insulting title, "Can Asians Think?" This essay became part of a book by the identical title that same year, but it failed to have the effect that Mahbubani intended, for as he writes three years later in the second edition, "My main disappointment with this essay is that it has not yet triggered a discussion among Asians on how and why their societies and civilizations fell several centuries behind European civilizations."

Mahbubani might not have triggered the discussion that he desired on the question of why Europeans rather than Asians experienced the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, and Industrial Revolution, but the topic of critical thinking among Asians was being broached by some Asian thinkers. For instance, the Thai philosopher Soraj Hongladarom presented a paper in 1998 on "Asian Philosophy and Critical Thinking: Divergence or Convergence?" that addressed Asia's lag behind Europe and noted several characteristics of Asian cultures that "prevent the full realization of critical thinking skills." Prominent among these are "the beliefs that teachers are superior and [thus] always right" and "that social harmony is to be preferred rather than asking probing questions." In short, discursive hierarchy and social harmony trump genuine discussion and critical thinking. Far from being dismissive about these things, Hongladarom holds that Asian societies perhaps once had valid reasons for deciding that "social harmony should take precedence over critical argumentation and open debates." In today's competitive, globalized world, however, he argues that Asian societies need real discussion and critical thinking.

Perhaps these interconnected issues deserve some discussion, and this discourse will necessarily be discursive, winding its way through such interrelated concepts as discussion itself, communicative action, discursive community, critical discourse, mockery, insults, free expression, critical thinking, self-irony, and various other correlatives of a culture of discussion.

What is Discussion?

But what is real, genuine discussion? In "Visions for Cities: Public Truth and Public Spaces," the Belgian philosopher Bart Verschaffel offers this rather stark answer, arguing that "discussion is a war game fought with questions and arguments to find out if somebody is right or not" based on "evidence or clarification and argument." But his metaphor of "war" is dubious because war is a zero-sum activity in which one side gains at the expense of the other, the object being to defeat the other side. That might better fit as metaphor describing the practice of competitive debate, where each side aims to win by vanquishing the other side, for those two sides are bellicose opponents, enemies. Discussion need not be debate in this sense of pitting mutual antagonists against one another. Since the aim is to attain truth, rather than to destroy an enemy, discussion can be a mutually beneficial 'game.' The metaphor of "game" also appears inadequate for the dialogue that takes place during discussion because "game" implies an artificial situation set off from the more serious business of life. As such, players follow the rules during play but eventually finish the game and walk away from it . . . until the next time to play. But discussion of the sort under consideration here proceeds according to rules that apply to all of life. One ought to have reasons and evidence for one's positions. The 'game' never really ends.

Perhaps the views of Jürgen Habermas on communicative action in his Theory of Communicative Action better express the role of discussion as a social activity that, ideally, pervades an entire culture because rationality in the form of argumentation is a capacity intrinsic to language. Granted, discursive argument is not the only sort of discourse, nor is culture defined solely by discourse, but Verschaffel seems to think of discussion as a more narrowly circumscribed activity of the sort that takes place in seminars. Yet even Verschaffel recognizes that discussion is a "dangerous game" because it, again ideally, poses questions about everything and gives every discussant an equal role. In principle, nothing is sacrosanct, and nobody is the final authority. It therefore transforms individuals and even society, and is thus potentially a destabilizing activity. One can readily understand why some societies have traditionally chosen to favor social harmony over rigorous discussion, as Hongladarom notes.

How Broad the Discursive Community?

Modern societies have decided that discussion is necessary, albeit threatening, but how free should expression be? Should free speech be accorded only statements that follow rigorous rules concerning reason and evidence? An interesting case arises with another theorist writing on a culture of discussion, the sociologist Alvin Gouldner, who described this sort of discourse in The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class. He referred to it in rather formal terms as the "culture of critical discourse" and held it to be specific to a new class of intellectuals. This discourse is characterized as "relatively more situation-free," meaning that it "forbids reliance upon the speaker's person, authority, or status in society to justify his claims." The ideal of such discourse is "one word, one meaning" for everyone always.

Gouldner saw this culture of critical discourse as the 'language' of a new intellectual class encompassing the sciences as well as the humanities. One wonders if critical discourse's rigorous ideal of "one word, one meaning" might not make discussion rather stilted if strictly applied to every term uttered in a discursive argument, but Gouldner was largely restricting his culture of critical discourse to the narrowly designated, new intellectual class that he had identified. In a genuine culture of discourse, however, the communicative group would need to be broadened to include, potentially, everybody in a society. But to do so would require loosening Gouldner's criteria a bit and noting the critical discursive actions that intellectuals share with other members of any society characterized by a culture of discussion. Fundamentally, this means the right of everyone to pose questions about anything with the expectation that answers should offer reasons and evidence.

Dealing with Mockery?

One intriguing question that arises, and not merely incidentally, is how one should respond to insulting mockery. The mocker perhaps does not accept the rules for a culture of discussion in a strict sense and offers not reasons and evidence but satirical insults. What ought one do if mocked? Should one follow the example of Gouldner himself? According to the noted essayist Scott McLemee in "Wide-Stance Sociology," Gouldner developed an antagonistic relationship with a doctoral student at Washington University named Laud Humphreys. When a satirical poster appeared in the sociology department depicting Gouldner as a bird of prey that feeds on personalities rather than on ideas, Gouldner suspected Humphreys as its author. The irate scholar sought out Humphreys in his graduate student office, struck him down with a blow to the face, and kicked him as he lay on the floor.

Confronted by insulting mockery, Gouldner seems to have believed that honor stained called for physical violence. In an earlier age, perhaps he would have challenged Humphreys to a duel. Did Gouldner betray his own principles, the rules of his very own culture of critical discourse? Whether or not Gouldner broke with his own theoretical system in attacking Humphreys, insults should in fact be protected speech in a culture of discourse because feeling 'insulted' is a purely subjective reaction. For example, some might feel insulted by the application of critical principles to the study of religion, but that cannot justify any right to physically attack the one applying such principles. Moreover, even calculated insults play a role in literature and the arts and ought to be protected speech.

A Miltonic Excursus

Turn therefore to one of the greatest of literary artists, John Milton. In his famous defense of what we would today call free expression, Milton utters a plea in Areopagitica for what he considers the most basic freedom: "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties." Why allow him that? Because he believes that through untrammeled utterance, truth will win, as he reminds his readers concerning truth only a few lines later in his text: "Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter." What should interest contemporary readers is that Milton apparently meant for this "free and open encounter" in the interest of truth to include polemics and even personal attacks.

One sees this sort of polemical, personal attack in Milton's insults of Anglican bishops in Book 1 of his Reason of Church-Government Urged against Prelaty, for he bluntly accuses them of habitually resorting to malicious slander and sophistry when their weak arguments fail them. Whether Milton be right or wrong in the substance of his accusations, he is being decidedly polemical in leveling personal attacks and even insults. He accuses others of slander. He might well be accused of it himself. Certainly, his opponents could well feel themselves insulted. Consider the polemical tone in his attack upon Anglican bishops with words that slur the Irish and the Catholics. He calls the Irish "murderous," designates them as "the enemies of God and mankind," and refers to them as the "cursed off-spring" of the Anglican bishops' "own connivance." The Anglican hierarchy, claims Milton, "maintains and fosters all papists and idolaters as tolerable Christians," a toleration that Milton deplores. Milton blames the bishops for an indifference to the souls of those under the sway of English rule, an indifference that left the Irish in their Catholic faith, but Milton also clearly has disdain for the Irish themselves, as well as for Catholics generally and (of course) for 'idolaters.' Obviously, Milton is hardly above slander, insults, and polemics generally, and he therefore must have felt himself free and justified to speak in insulting terms.

The Right to Insult?

Should such ad hominem attacks be permitted? As already maintained above, yes. Strictly speaking, personal attacks stand mostly outside a culture of discussion, for they are usually poor arguments for or against a substantive position. But they should be protected speech because the defensive wall constructed to guard free discussion needs to be at least as encompassing as the wall built around the Torah in Rabbinical Judaism. Absent that wall of protection, even a substantive statement could be taken as an insult, so if insults are not protected speech, substantive arguments could be forbidden. In a hierarchical society, for example, the substantive words of an individual lower in the hierarchy could be taken as insulting if such words merely question the views of someone higher in the social structure.

In Korea, Japan, and China, for example, with their strongly hierarchical social structure, precisely this sort of problem arises, such that the substantive disagreement of a 'junior' with a 'senior' can be taken as an insult by the latter. Critical arguments are thereby suppressed, and truth (as Milton would say) often suffers. This has been trenchantly discussed by the scholars Ho-Chul Lee and Mary Patricia McNulty in their article "Korea's Information and Communication Technology Boom, and Cultural Transition After the Crisis." In this article, they note that Confucian hierarchy stifles free expression because debating or criticizing individuals of higher rank is considered impolite. Korean culture therefore teaches people not to raise probing questions or to offer critical opinions, but to express themselves ambiguously rather than with a clear yes or no. This hinders Koreans from developing the culture of discussion fundamental to democracy and also to modern business. They attempt to save face, both their own and that of their interlocutor, thereby stifling free discussion and debate. Confucian values put priority on social etiquette over substance. The younger are supposed to respect and obey the older, just as the lower-ranked must respect and obey the higher-ranked, and this deference acts as a barrier to free expression.

From the research by Lee and McNulty, one sees just how subjective the sense of 'feeling insulted' can be. In East Asian societies shaped by Confucian values of hierarchy, any open expression of a contrary opinion can be taken as an insult by a higher-ranking individual, and the awareness of this by lower-ranking individuals can too often suppress uncomfortable truths. Without the right to insult, a free and critical culture of discussion can therefore not be achieved, and since the latter is necessary to the pursuit of truth, then 'insults' must be accepted as legitimate, legally protected expressions.

Core Critical Thinking

Insults might need to be protected speech, but at the core of a culture of discussion lies the ideal of critical thinking. What, however, is "critical thinking"? The consensus of approximately 200 experts has been summarized in "Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts," an article written by the philosopher and educational theorist Peter Facione, who notes the importance not only of skills but also of dispositions.

These experts say that in terms of skills, the ideal critical thinker consciously engages in self-regulated judgments about opinions held and actions needed. This requires several subsidiary skills, among these being the closely interrelated skills of interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference. Interpretation involves comprehending and expressing the meaning of what is being judged. Analysis involves identifying the logical relations among expressions stated. Evaluation involves assessing the credibility of statements made and the logical strength of the relations among these. Inference involves drawing reasonable conclusions and conjectures based on statements and evidence. Another subsidiary skill is explanation, which involves presentation of cogently stated reasons and clarification of the bases upon which a judgment is formed. Clearly, there is a lot 'involved' for rigorous critical thought.

But skills, as already noted, are not sufficient. The experts cited by Facione also identify various dispositions characteristic of the ideal critical thinker. According to them, a critical thinker should as a matter of course be curious, informed, rational, open-minded, flexible, fair, honest, prudent, reflective, clear, organized, searching, reasonable, focused, and persistent. Such a list of dispositions, and also of skills, is open-ended, for one could likely think of others to add, but the list as it stands summarizes the dispositions suggested by the experts and can serve, along with the skills, as a convenient statement of a complex ideal.

Because critical thinking is a powerful resource in personal and civic life, one aim of education in a culture of discussion should be to develop critical thinking skills and nurture the dispositions that can provide valuable insights and serve as the discursive core of a rational, democratic society. Producing critical thinkers would not be an educational system's sole aim, of course, for good thinking involves other things, such as ethical reasoning and creative imagination, but critical thinking is also relevant for these other aspects of thought as a pervasive, self-regulating phenomenon. Education alone cannot reform the discursive culture of an entire society, and perhaps relatively few individuals will develop the skills and dispositions to develop as outstanding critical thinkers, but an ideal of critical thinking can serve as an aim, and particular individuals can come to serve as its potential exemplars.


Facione's skills and dispositions, like Gouldner's culture of critical discourse, are rather technical elaborations of the reasoning intrinsic to a culture of discussion. What their explications generally have in common with those of Verschaffel and with Habermas is an emphasis upon reasons and evidence rather than upon the social position of the speaker. If a society wishes to develop a culture of discussion, then discursive hierarchy will require flattening and social harmony will need to be a possible consequence of discussion rather than a normative condition imposed at the outset. Hongladarom remarks that "Cultures, like humans, often make decisions which later are amended or revoked, with new decisions made, when things are not the same any longer. Decisions to prioritize one set of values over another are not etched in stone." But transforming an entire culture takes time. For example, the decision to construct a Confucian Korea may have been reached early in the Joseon Era, but the actual process took several hundred years and never fully succeeded against the more deeply entrenched Buddhism. A 'decision' to inculcate a culture of discussion will likely have faster results in the contemporary world, given the globalizing pressures that push individuals in this direction and the material rewards that are promised to follow, but the process, even so, will not be easy. Not only will one need skills in critical thinking, one will need the right disposition, and since a culture of discussion implies a right to insult, then that disposition will necessarily include a sense of self-irony. If such skills and dispositions are developed, Mahbubani might yet experience the wide-ranging discussion that he desires.


Facione, Peter A. "Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts." Insight Assessment.
Gouldner, Alvin W. The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class. New York: Seabury, 1979.
Habermas, Jürgen. The Theory of Communicative Action. Translated by Thomas McCarthy, Cambridge: Polity, 1984-1987.
Hongladarom, Soraj. "Asian Philosophy and Critical Thinking: Divergence or Convergence?" Third APPEND Seminar on Philosophy Education for the Next Millennium, May 6-8, 1998, Chulalongkorn University.
Hughes, Merritt Y., editor. John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. Hackett Publishing Co., 2003.
Lee, Ho-Chul and Mary Patricia McNulty. "Korea's Information and Communication Technology Boom, and Cultural Transition After the Crisis." Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), April 18, 2004 .
Mahbubani, Kishore. Can Asians Think? Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2004.
McLemee, Scott. "Wide-Stance Sociology." Inside Higher Ed, September 12, 2007.
Verschaffel, Bart. "Visions for Cities: Public Truth and Public Spaces." Productivity of Culture, ECCM Symposium, October 17-21, 2007.
Well, there it is, my latest effort at 'thinking' things through to the end. At least it got published, so perhaps somebody will read it . . .

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Terrorism's 'Brute Cause'?

I don't want to be one of those joining in the chorus clamoring against Ezra Klein for speculating on the root causes to Faisal Shahzad's attempt at terrorism, but we can at least examine what Klein said in a May 4th column titled "The economic crisis meets terrorism":
Annie Lowrey catches something unexpected: The arrested subject of last weekend’s Times Square bomb plot is a homeowner in the midst of foreclosure. Here's MSNBC:
[Faisal Shahzad] defaulted on a $200,000 mortgage on his Connecticut home and the Shelton property is now in foreclosure, according to court records. The foreclosure records show Faisal Shahzad took out the mortgage in 2004, and that he co-owned the home with a woman named Huma Mian. Chase Home Finance LLC sued Shahzad, 30, in September to force the foreclosure. The case is pending in Milford Superior Court.
This guy is like string theory for the media: He brings together the seemingly incompatible stories that drove the past decade. That said, you of course don't want to speculate on why someone "really" did something. The hearts of men are opaque, and motives are complex. But it's a reminder that foreclosures generate an enormous amount of misery and anxiety and depression that can tip people into all sorts of dangerous behaviors that don't make headlines but do ruin lives. And for all that we've done to save the financial sector, we've not done nearly enough to help struggling homeowners.
Klein is being cagy, careful not to say the wrong thing on the root causes of terrorism, but he does seem to be tracing, if obscurely, a line from foreclosure to terrorism in Shahzad's case. This line, however, only connects things if one holds the usually unarticulated assumption that Islam is a religion intrinsically more susceptible to violence on the part of its adherents. In fact, a lot of people appear to think this about Islam, including very many Muslims themselves since we're often warned by Muslim spokesmen that depictions of their prophet, for instance, will result in violent outbursts by Muslims around the world, violence that these same spokesmen can do nothing to forestall.

Call this the assumption of terrorism's 'brute cause': Islam.

But while Islam is certainly a factor, given the overwhelming fact of so many Islamist terrorists, not every Muslim turns to terrorism -- in fact, most do not. Obviously, other factors play a role, perhaps even a foreclosure on one's home.

But I doubt that foreclosure is the significant factor in Shahzad's case. Rather, I suspect that Pakistan's long-standing identity crisis as a Muslim state carved out of a larger 'infidel' state is the significant factor. Pakistan has gravitated over the years toward an Islamist identity supported by the army to encourage animosity toward India and use jihadist ideology to motivate Pakistanis against Hindu India, a policy Fareed Zakaria reminds us of in a recent Newsweek column, "Terrorism's Supermarket" (May 17, 2010):
[F]rom its founding, the Pakistani government has supported and encouraged jihadi groups, creating an atmosphere that has allowed them to flourish . . . . [T]he government's jihadist connections go back to the country's creation as an ideological, Islamic state and the decision by successive governments to use jihad both to gain domestic support and to hurt its perennial rival, India.
The dictatorships of prior years in Pakistan have subsidized radical Islam and allowed it to set up thousands of madrassas and dominate the field of education there. The resulting radicalization many young Pakistanis should therefore hardly be surprising. This sort of thing, rather than the brute fact of Islam alone, accounts for the specter of Islamist terrorism that confronts the world.

Or so it seems to me from where I sit . . .

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Harsh View of Arab Family

Rima Mehri

Rima Mehri, an Arab from Lebanon, writing "Is the Arab world a graveyard for love?" for The Boston Globe (May 8, 2010), presents a rather harsh view of the Arab family:
Take the regular Arab [who is] surviving corrupt governments, political turmoil, religious intolerance, struggling economies, terrorism, and ask him what love is.

He'll say, "My family."

And yet this sacred institution lies at the heart of the instigation of fear, mistrust, and rejection of other sects. More than any other social ailment, sectarianism has turned the Arab world into a graveyard for love.

Typically, if your partner does not come with the correct religious label for the family, then it isn't love. It's more like an assault on the family honor, a social disgrace, and complete disrespect for culture and roots.

If you intermarry, you are usually ostracized for being a traitor to your parents, religion, and community. And suppose you can withstand the pressure, what happens to love when your children are rejected as second-class citizens?

Many of us come to the West to escape the intolerance of the Arab world. We get the education, acquire new attitudes, and broaden our perspectives, but we are shoved back to the starting point the moment we return to our communities.

The West makes us and the East breaks us again.
Ms. Merhi doesn't specify the the Muslim Arab family, so one could infer that she means that the problem with 'Arab' families is a cultural rather than religious one, but she keeps refering to religion as a factor, and happens to say this:
Certainly there are Arabs who would not intermarry out of religious convictions. The attack on Islam in the West makes many Muslim Arabs more protective of their religion.
This implies that the Muslim Arab family has tighter restrictions on its members, but it also blames the West by asserting a common Muslim accusation, namely, that there is an "attack on Islam in the West." The assertion is left unexplained here, but it often includes attacks on Islamism as attacks on Islam, which would be an interesting conflation to examine more closely since it implies that the Muslim making the assertion sees no difference between Islamism and Islam.

I don't know precisely what Ms. Mehri meant by her assertion of this Muslim meme, and she might not even be Muslim, but I'd like to see her explore her own obscure assumptions on this point. By "attack on Islam," does she mean the invasion of Baathist Iraq, the war against such Islamists as the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the hunt for Islamist terrorists, the laws against veils and burqas in Europe, the ridicule of Mohammad in a Danish newspaper, the rare, random physical attack on a Muslim, or all of these together? Would these all add up to an "attack on Islam" that "makes many Muslim Arabs more protective of their religion" and presses them to tighten the bonds and boundaries of the family?

Or does the problem lie more with the Arab Muslim family itself, as Ms. Mehri's article otherwise seems to imply without quite explicating.

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