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So . . . We Can Go?

Saturday, July 14, 2007 by Michael Reynolds

Does he realize we'd take the Green Zone with us?

The American people want out:

While the springtime surge in U.S. troops to Iraq is now complete, more Americans than ever are calling for U.S. forces to withdraw. Sixty-six percent say the number of U.S. troops in Iraq should be decreased, including 40 percent who want all U.S. troops removed. That's a 7-point increase since April.

The Iraqi people think we're more trouble than we're worth:

The number of Iraqis who call it "acceptable" to attack U.S. and coalition forces, 17 percent in early 2004, has tripled to 51 percent now, led by near unanimity among Sunni Arabs. And 78 percent of Iraqis now oppose the presence of U.S. forces on their soil, though far fewer favor an immediate pullout.

And the freely elected prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki says they'll be just fine without us:
BAGHDAD - Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Saturday that the Iraqi army and police are capable of keeping security in the country when American troops leave “any time they want,” though he acknowledged the forces need further weapons and training.
Well. Alrighty then.

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Almost Too Easy. (updated with links)

Friday, July 13, 2007 by Michael Reynolds

From today's Washington Post, by Michael Gerson, under the headline, "What Atheists Can't Answer."

I'll take up that challenge. Gerson's text in italics, :

British author G.K. Chesterton argued that every act of blasphemy is a kind of tribute to God, because it is based on belief. "If anyone doubts this," he wrote, "let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor."

I no more think "blasphemous" thoughts than Hitchens or Dawkins or Harris do. Blasphemy is a term meaningful only to believers. It certainly does presuppose belief, but since the definition of blasphemy lies wholly in the believer's mind and forms no part of the atheist's thoughts, the writer is simply revealing that Chesterton was a prisoner of his own unexamined presuppositions.

By the evidence of the New York Times bestseller list, God has recently been bathed in such tributes. An irreverent trinity -- Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins -- has sold a lot of books accusing theism of fostering hatred, repressing sexuality and mutilating children (Hitchens doesn't approve of male circumcision). Every miracle is a fraud. Every mystic is a madman. And this atheism is presented as a war of liberation against centuries of spiritual tyranny.

I don't doubt that the boys revel in the notion of an "irreverent trinity." In fact, as I see it, there are gradations within this trinity. Not all of the three fit into Gerson's parodistic summation. But, okay, what the hell, close enough. Unsaid here is the fact that if Gerson is like the vast majority of believers, he also believes "every miracle is a fraud, every mystic is a madman," except for that minority of miracle workers and mystics who happen to have the imprimatur of his particular faith. In other words, while Hitch is 100% faithless, Gerson is, say, 80% faithless.

Proving God's existence in 750 words or fewer would daunt even Thomas Aquinas. And I suspect that a certain kind of skeptic would remain skeptical even after a squadron of angels landed on his front lawn. So I merely want to pose a question: If the atheists are right, what would be the effect on human morality?

That's rich. Yeah, the problem is that Gerson doesn't have quite the column inches it would take to prove the existence of God. Oh, he could. He could. If only he had, say, 1000 words and not 750. This is simply dishonest. Millions of words have been written in the attempt to prove the existence of God, none have managed to pull it off. And who's to blame? Why that "certain kind of skeptic." Here Gerson wanders straight off the path of credibility.

If God were dethroned as the arbiter of moral truth, it would not, of course, mean that everyone joins the Crips or reports to the Playboy mansion. On evidence found in every culture, human beings can be good without God. And Hitchens is himself part of the proof. I know him to be intellectually courageous and unfailingly kind, when not ruthlessly flaying opponents for taking minor exception to his arguments. There is something innate about morality that is distinct from theological conviction. This instinct may result from evolutionary biology, early childhood socialization or the chemistry of the brain, but human nature is somehow constructed for sympathy and cooperative purpose.

I certainly appreciate the concession that even as an atheist I probably don't murder grannies. But wait, I don't want to speak too soon because here it comes . . .

But there is a problem. Human nature, in other circumstances, is also clearly constructed for cruel exploitation, uncontrollable rage, icy selfishness and a range of other less desirable traits.

So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains.

Here Gerson creates the false premise for his follow-up argument. In effect he decides that we atheists can only argue morality as a function of DNA. This is nonsense. We argue morality from experience, enlightened self-interest, philosophy and the values of civilization. In other words we argue that morality, while it may have a basis in DNA, is also a question of deliberate, enlightened choices.

Here's what's funny about this: believers also hold that morality is a matter of deliberate, enlightened choice. They just deliberately choose a different point of reference than we do. In fact most theology requires such a deliberate choice, placing believers in the same philosophical Wal-Mart as atheists, but with somewhat different tastes.

Atheism provides no answer to this dilemma. It cannot reply: "Obey your evolutionary instincts" because those instincts are conflicted. "Respect your brain chemistry" or "follow your mental wiring" don't seem very compelling either. It would be perfectly rational for someone to respond: "To hell with my wiring and your socialization, I'm going to do whatever I please." C.S. Lewis put the argument this way: "When all that says 'it is good' has been debunked, what says 'I want' remains."

Here Gerson flails away at his straw man. Ooh, look at the straw flying! He's hit the straw man with a C.S. Lewis uppercut and down goes the straw man. Oh, the humanity.

Some argue that a careful determination of our long-term interests -- a fear of bad consequences -- will constrain our selfishness. But this is particularly absurd.

Um, yeah, those "some" are believers. Hell and damnation aren't atheist ideas. We don't believe we'll suffer for all eternity for our immorality or be rewarded for good behavior. I'm worried for Gerson's soul as he dismisses as "absurd" the eternal carrot/stick that is at the core of Christian theology.

Some people are very good at the self-centered exploitation of others. Many get away with it their whole lives. By exercising the will to power, they are maximizing one element of their human nature. In a purely material universe, what possible moral basis could exist to condemn them? Atheists can be good people; they just have no objective way to judge the conduct of those who are not.

There are so many holes here I don't think I have enough skewers. Let's start with the notion that something about religious morality is "objective." Really? In what sense? The Bible is forever being reinterpreted - think slavery just to take the easiest shot. But more to the point, since all morality rests upon the notion that we have a choice, that we can choose good or evil, and since all choices are necessarily subjective, we have no recourse to "objective" anything. We have a choice between the off-the-rack morality of current theological interpretation, or we have the bespoke variety that atheists prefer, but neither is "objective."

And how could it be that I have the capacity to form moral opinions but I'm somehow rendered incapable of judging the morals of others? In fact, I do it all day long.

The death of God has greater consequences than expanded golf time on Sunday mornings. And it is not simply religious fundamentalists who have recognized it. America's Founders embraced public neutrality on matters of religion, but they were not indifferent to the existence of religious faith. George Washington warned against the "supposition that morality can be maintained without religion." The Founders generally believed that the virtues necessary for self-government -- self-sacrifice, honesty, public spirit -- were strengthened by religious beliefs and institutions.

This is a nearly content-free paragraph. The suppositions of the Founders, while always interesting, do not by themselves settle theological issues. Washington was a very great man. He was not a great philosopher. Nor was he the last philosopher.

None of this amounts to proof of God's existence. But it clarifies a point of agreement -- which reveals an even deeper division. Atheists and theists seem to agree that human beings have an innate desire for morality and purpose. For the theist, this is perfectly understandable: We long for love, harmony and sympathy because we are intended by a Creator to find them. In a world without God, however, this desire for love and purpose is a cruel joke of nature -- imprinted by evolution, but destined for disappointment, just as we are destined for oblivion, on a planet that will be consumed by fire before the sun grows dim and cold.

Not only does "none of this amount(s) to a proof of God's existence," it adds precisely nothing to that debate. And the fact that a certain baseline sense of decency is "perfectly understandable" for the believer is irrelevant and meaningless. Things are perfectly understandable for astrologers, too. The rest of the graph is just bad poetry.

This form of "liberation" is like liberating a plant from the soil or a whale from the ocean. In this kind of freedom, something dies.

A conclusion utterly unsupported by anything Mr. Gerson has written in the preceding paragraphs.

Here's some other blogs making similar points: Here, Here. And here's the comments section in the Post. (You may have to jump through some no-cost hoops to get there.)

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Don't Blame the Guy In Charge.

Thursday, July 12, 2007 by Michael Reynolds

So, six years after 9/11 Al Qaeda is as strong as it ever was. And after four years in Iraq we've defined "victory" down to the point where it means "a decent interval during which we can scamper home before the real bloodbath starts."

But don't blame the commander in chief. If you do that's BDS: Bush Derangement Syndrome.

Instead blame:

1) Democrats
2) The Iraqi people
3) Europeans
4) Keith Olbermann
5) Um, liberals?
6) I'm gonna say Bill Clinton
7) The liberal mainstream media.
8) Guys who write comments at DailyKos
9) The American people
10) Ooh, ooh, I forgot: Hillary Clinton
11) Liberal bloggers
12) Liberal liberals
13) Aliens
14) Especially liberal aliens
15) Not the guy who makes all the decisions.

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Long Way For Dumb Joke.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007 by Michael Reynolds

Or maybe it was those dogs.

Many people have pointed out that Michelangelo's David is not, shall we say, entirely Jewish despite being King of the Jews. Art historians have long assumed that Michelangelo was simply ignorant of circumcision. But recent discoveries point to a shocking fact: a lack of experienced mohels in Renaissance Italy rendered circumcision particularly dangerous.

This conclusion arises from a careful examination of statues like the one above. Once believed to have been damaged, they are now seen by scholars to be faithful - if gruesome - representations of the primitive state of Florentine circumcision.

Michelangelo was not unaware that his David should have been helmeted as opposed to turtlenecked, he simply could not bring himself to reference in his art what was, in his day, an ongoing tragedy.

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Down To The Scratch Tickets.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007 by Michael Reynolds

WASHINGTON — A progress report on Iraq will conclude that the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad has not met any of its targets for political, economic and other reforms, speeding up the Bush administration's reckoning on what to do next, a U.S. official said Monday.
Excuse me, how many targets not met? All of them? 100%?

Here was the idea behind the surge: we'd in effect admit what has been staggeringly obvious since spring of 2003, to whit that the Rumsfeld Easy-Bake War theory was wrong. And we'd admit what I've been saying since day one, to whit (okay, no more whits) that an occupation necessarily begins with boot-on-neck, SWAT team tactics. We'd surge on in and impose some order on the chaos and behind our raised shield the Iraqi government (Iraqi government, ah hah hah hah, that's a good one,) would launch itself energetically into the task of forging a political compromise between Sunni and Shia, Kurd and Turkman, Sushis and Turds, murderer and murderee, the drill-in-the-neck faction and the car-bomb-in-the-mosque faction and oh, happy day, peace would bust out all over.

It's a sign of how thoroughly depraved the situation is that this actually qualified as the best available idea. It had the advantage of being not completely stupid which distinguished it from everything else the Bush administration and its bumbling generals have come up with. It wasn't completely stupid. Pretty much hopeless, yes, but not completely stupid. I wrote that the odds of success from this strategy were about like the odds of hitting a single number in roulette: 38 to 1.

Well, we've gone from roulette odds to Lotto odds now.

The Iraqi government (it's still funny, no matter how many times you say it) has not launched itself body and soul into political reconciliation. I know: shocking! Instead they've been lucky to occasionally reach a quorum and then only when the topic under discussion was vacation.
Vacation, all I ever wanted.
Vacation, had to get away!
We managed to bully the Iraqi Parliamentarians -- you know, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, and rest -- into staying at their posts. Well, not exactly at their posts, obviously, but let's say we've forced them to take sick days rather than use their vacation time. And yet, amazingly, they've shown no great interest in actually doing the things they'd need to do in order for our desperate gamble to pay off.

People have begun to blame the Iraqis. And other people have begun to cry that we shouldn't scapegoat the Iraqis.

Well, I'll take a little piece of both. What in Christ's name did we expect? We trusted the Iraqis more than we trusted the Japanese or the Germans in 1945? Based on . . . what, exactly? The long Iraqi history of good governance? The Arab tradition of respect for individual rights? The sophisticated Muslim approach to separation of Mosque and State? Of course they were going to fuck it up. Of course they were. The idea that we were going to let this political entity write its own constitution and run its own affairs was quite simply idiotic.

Once again, for the slow kids:

1) No Easy-Bake War. No shock n' awe Hollywood special effects. No cleverness. No subtlety. If you're proposing to occupy and transform a country you go in big and mean and you deliberately maximize enemy casualties. That's right: maximize, not minimize. You send B-52's onto defenseless enemy formations in the hope of killing every single man wearing a uniform. If they run away, chase them and kill them. Kill them fast before they can surrender. The goal is not to be liked, the goal is to leave no one standing who can point a gun at you. Men adapt and recover and become insurgents. You know what kind of man doesn't adapt? A dead one.

2) Whoever is left after the killing spree goes on your payroll. There should have been two kinds of Iraqi soldiers: dead soldiers and soldiers looking to collect US-financed pensions. Sure would have reduced the number of potential insurgents.

3) Impose order. Look for opportunities to shoot looters. Shooting looters is a good thing. Does a SWAT team bust down a drug lord's lair and ask everyone to behave? No. They toss stun grenades, shoot anyone who waves a weapon and put their boots on the necks of everyone else. Control, pee-pul, control. Especially in a country with precisely zero experience of liberty.

4) Then: here's your constitution, here's your Bill of Rights, here's the societal changes you're going to make, here's the list of sheiks, imams and ayatollahs we'll shoot if you have any problems with our "suggestions," and here's the map of the lands we'll take from you and give to your worst enemy if you piss us off.

5) Finally, look it's a new school! A new road! A new mall! Free electricity, yay! Cheap gas, yay! Subsidized food! Free medical care! American competence and largesse all over the landscape. Look how great your lives are now compared to what they were like before. All the pain is over, all the hurts are soothed, here's your middle class country full of stuff that actually works.

6) And now . . . slowly . . . slowly . . . we take the boot from your neck. And presto! You're Japanese! Now make us some cars.

Seriously, when did Americans forget how to fight a war? We've turned into Hot Chick #1 in every slasher movie. You know the one. Jason/Chucky gets the drop on her but wow, she has a baseball bat and she smacks Jason/Chucky on the head and down he goes. So she runs for the telephone, the silly twit, and up pops Jason/Chucky with a chainsaw.

When you nail Jason/Chucky with the baseball bat and knock him down you keep hitting him. You hit him until he's dead. Then you take his chainsaw and cut him up into pieces. That's how you get to be the heroine-who-appears-in-the-sequel and not just Hot Chick #1.

But all that is in the past and as much fun as it is to wallow in the blinding stupidity that has landed us where we are today (creek, no paddle) we should be looking ahead, to the future, and thinking deep thoughts about what we can do now.

What we can do now. Four years in. With the war polling only slightly ahead of chronic constipation. With a president who has so little credibility with the American people that 70% would ignore him if he set himself on fire. Months away from a wide open election. And a military that took six months to round up 28,000 surgers and is enlisting guys with criminal records and still not meeting goals.

Okay, now we have to admit things look . . . well, less than optimum. So. Whadda we do, man, whadda we do?

Whadda we do? Here's what we do: we follow the surge with the slump made inevitable by the military math. We pretend we have a new strategy that still involves patrolling around and around Baghdad playing wack-a-mole while we engage in "serious talks" with the various crazy people in the neighborhood. The serious talks go nowhere. (After three months the Iranians and Saudis agree on a common goal: kill the Jews.) We stagger along for 18 months by which time Democratic presidential candidates are debating who can get the hell out of Dodge faster and Republicans are saying "Me too!" but surrounding it with important words like "larger strategy" and "forward-leaning, stern-jawed, big-penis posture."

There's one tiny, shriveled bit of hope that maybe, somehow (who knows, aliens maybe?) the Iraqi government wakes up and realizes we are at last leaving and that when we do we're taking the Green Zone with us. Like I said: we're down to Lotto odds now.

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