Penn and Teller on College

When I applied to college in the fall of 1992, I did it not because I had any groundbreaking aspirations, but because, quite simply, it was the next thing to do. Having attended a school whose sole point was to prepare students for college, and growing up as the son of intellectuals (both my parents have Masters degrees), one of whom is from a family of teachers, education was seen as an end, not a means. So, it was off to college, and all that college stood for.

Even then, though, I found myself nauseated by the attitudes of the poltical correctness activists. While the opinions voiced by students came in all types (albeit with an undeniably “liberal” slant), the loudest voices were those of the hypocrites. These were the people who stole, and sometimes burned, all the copies of the Daily Californian that they could find whenever the student-run (but not university financed) paper took a position contrary to what the leading lights of the Progressive movement deemed acceptable. One such excuse was the publication of a full-page ad denouncing Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The denunciation had to be in the form of an ad, paid for out of a private person’s pocket, because the paper was officially impartial. The paper defended the decision to allow publication of the ad as a purely business decision; that wasn’t good enough for the activists, who even torched one of the distribution stands.

Even worse was when the power got to the heads of the student activists. In the spring of 1995, during the campaign season leading up to the student senate elections, the Daily Californian was again targeted, with copies stolen and distribution stands defaced, when the paper endorsed a candidate for a major position in the student government. At the time, the two major student political coalitions were, loosely speaking, the Progressive activists, and the non-aligned coalition, which included among its constituent groups engineers and, worse, conservatives.

It was easy for me, as a science major, to get by without much of an attempt at indoctrination by the faculty. Perhaps, also, I was lucky to have gotten in at a time when the forced indoctrination hadn’t yet gotten to a fever pitch. To be sure, there were a lot of bullshit classes on offer, taught by what one suspects are almost-failed academics. But for the most part, there was little indoctrination.

As Penn and Teller describe, however, that’s no longer the case, at least in liberal arts curricula:

Mad Minerva says it better than I can:

If you’re a novice about the campus cult of diversity and political correctness, you will find this interesting indeed. As for me, this is the sort of thing I live with! Notice also one statement that shows up in the video: the idea that if Person A is offended by Person B’s words, then the campus should make Person B shut up. Here’s the core of the First Amendment battles on campus: if you have free speech, sooner or later somebody will get offended. But that’s part of free speech. You have a right to free speech, not a right to never be offended.

And, of course, as I like to point out to people, without free speech it’s much harder to tell who the idiots are.

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

Perception

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. What they don’t tell us, and what an intelligent consumer of information should know, is that the existence of a picture is no guarantee of the veracity of the thousand words it may be worth. Sometimes, as in the works of Salvador Dali, the thousand words serve merely to describe the picture; certainly “The Persistence of Time Memory [Thanks, Lex; the watchfaces always throw me off]” is not meant to be a faithful representation of the world as it is.

But what happens when the news media, which proclaim themselves the final arbiters of impartial truth, buy into staged or exaggerated productions? A picture of a corpse on the ground, for example, tells you nothing about how the death occurred, or when, or wherefore. A still image can be useful in capturing a moment, but that moment must not be taken out of its context. Indeed, Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty dictates that we may know an object’s momentum or its exact location at any given moment in time, but not both.

Michael Costello applies this principle to the news media:

THE most powerful influences on global opinion are television pictures. An experienced TV journalist will tell you that the picture is the story. No picture, no story. Those same journalists will tell you that a powerful picture will overwhelm reality. The picture becomes reality.

After considering the current conflict in its proper context, that of Israel’s struggle for recognition and existence, Mr. Costello notes:

This is the true heart of the problem. The Palestinian issue cannot be resolved because a significant part of the Arab and Muslim world still do not accept Israel’s right to exist. They will not accept the two-state solution beloved of analysts because they do not accept the existence of one of those two states, Israel. This is just not a matter of politics to them; it is a matter of religion. It is non-negotiable.

Until this changes, Israel will remain as it has for 60 years: under siege. Those who seek Israel’s elimination will engage in conflict and terrorism against Israel and its friends.

So what are we to conclude? That Israel is just too much trouble? That it causes all of us too much grief? That in defending itself against these implacable enemies Israel offends our sensibilities by the manner in which it feels compelled to use force?

Already there are growing whispers from the so-called realist school of international relations that it would be a really smart thing if we just quietly walked away from Israel because it has become an embarrassment and inconvenience to our larger interests. Such is the consequence of privileging the power of the TV image over reason.

I wonder if he had this piece by Charles Krauthammer in mind:

The United States has gone far out on a limb to allow Israel to win and for all this to happen. It has counted on Israel’s ability to do the job. It has been disappointed. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has provided unsteady and uncertain leadership. Foolishly relying on air power alone, he denied his generals the ground offensive they wanted, only to reverse himself later. He has allowed his war cabinet meetings to become fully public through the kind of leaks no serious wartime leadership would ever countenance. Divisive cabinet debates are broadcast to the world, as was Olmert’s own complaint that “I’m tired. I didn’t sleep at all last night” (Haaretz, July 28). Hardly the stuff to instill Churchillian confidence.

His search for victory on the cheap has jeopardized not just the Lebanon operation but America’s confidence in Israel as well. That confidence — and the relationship it reinforces — is as important to Israel’s survival as its own army. The tremulous Olmert seems not to have a clue.

Faith, Charles, and courage!

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

Good and Evil in Stark Contrast

For generations, fantasy literature had been thought of as a not-very-worthy genre. Lumped together with that, perhaps, are science fiction and superhero comics. However, all three have hit the big screens with astounding success in recent years. Fjordman has some ideas as to why that is:

Maybe I�m reading too much into it, but is the sudden reappearance of superheroes exemplified by Superman, Spider-Man and swarms of other similar characters a sign of a renewed sense of vulnerability and insecurity in the West following the Jihad attacks of 9/11? Another closely related meta-trend is the renewed popularity of fantasy literature. In online magazine The American Thinker, blogger Bookworm has some interesting comments to the surge in fantasy literature and some of the values we are presented there. J.K. Rowling�s enormously successful books about teenage wizard Harry Potter have been belittled as merely �silly books for children.� But as Bookworm notes, some of the later books such as Order of the Phoenix are much darker than its predecessors. It �centers on Harry�s desperate efforts to convince the Powers That Be that evil once again walks among them. Only with tremendous effort is he able to rally some believers to his side and prepare them for war.� Sounds familiar, doesn�t it?

Indeed it does! Fjordman also takes a shot at academics for their relativistic attitudes, by postulating how they might have psychoanalyzed the fantasy world:

In this age of Multiculturalism and cultural relativism, the only places we can identify evil and fight it are in fictional worlds, be that the Middle Earth of Tolkien or the Hogwarts of J.K. Rowling. Maybe that is why it is such a relief to visit them, if only for a few hours. In the real West, our Universities would advise us to negotiate with Sauron and identify his legitimate grievances. Our media would say that the real reason why the Orcs kill people is because they suffer from institutionalized racism and Orcophobia. We would all get sensitivity training, invite Orcs to settle in our major cities by the millions and teach our children about the richness of Orc culture.

Isn’t it our educated betters that first pooh-poohed the genre? Fortunately, all is not lost. After all, both J.R.R. Tolkien, and his colleague and compatriot C.S. Lewis, were academics themselves. Proof, perhaps, that in a world with many fake knock-offs and mediocre wannabes, there can still be found brilliant diamonds in the rough.

(Hat-tip: Mad Minerva)

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

What Does It Take to Win?

I’ve stated before that I’m not adverse to use of massive force:

I think reasonable people can disagree as to whether the Israeli response is “disproportionate”. I myself have no qualms about destroying an enemy’s infrastructure if civilian deaths can be kept to a minimum and the payoff in psychological damage to the enemy is great enough (think about General William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea).

I went a little deeper into this in response recently to a comment from someone:

I don’t want to sound like a “make love not war” type of guy, but come on, dropping bombs with that might … is a bit of an “over kill” literally . Its like a little kid goes to a football player (Defense) and kicks him in the knee, which makes the football player rip him apart

My response:

Without supporting or protesting any specific Israeli tactics, I would pose the following question: What does it take to win? In your analogy, the stakes aren’t very high; probably a bruised ego at best. But in the actual war between Israel and Hezbollah, the stakes are the very survival of Israel. Sure, Hezbollah does not currently have the wherewithal to wipe Israel off the map, as long as there’s a little more than token resistance on the part of Israel. But asking Israel to do no more than that is essentially to say to Israel to grab her ankles.

Personally I’m in favor of General Sherman’s idea of total war: Destroy the infrastructure. I grant that General Sherman’s methods may not entirely apply here, because unlike the Union occupation of the South after the American Civil War, Israel’s not likely to occupy even just southern Lebanon after the conflict, with an eye toward annexation.

So, back to the question: What does it take to win? Israel has nuclear weapons. If all it wanted was to be rid of Hezbollah, why not just nuke the frontier areas? Goodbye south Lebanon, goodbye Gaza. But the international relations repercussions of such an activity, to say nothing of the moral repercussions, argue against such a tactic.

Thus I think I have established that merely putting up token resistance, or nuking Hezbollah, are extreme solutions that are non-starters. What does it take to win?

The kind of power politics we’re used to seeing, which has developed over the Cold War era, is that the international system does not want any party to a conflict to win outright. While it’s easy for remote adversaries to come to a ceasefire agreement (North Korea/United States), or even to declare a winner (United States > North Vietnam, United Kingdom > Argentina, etc.), it is far more difficult for neighbors to live with the sense that one side or another has “won” (Iraq v. Iran, Iraq v. Kuwait, Somalia v. Somalia, Ethiopia v. Eritrea), much less a convincing victory (Israel > Egypt + Jordan + Iraq + Syria + Saudi Arabia). More times than often, one neighbor complete absorbs the other (North Vietnam > South Vietnam). In fact, outside of the Americas and most of Europe, neighbors often exist alongside each other with some unease (North Korea v. South Korea, Japan v. North Korea + South Korea + China, Vietnam v. China, China v. India, Cambodia v. Vietnam, Indonesia v. East Timor, India v. Pakistan, Iran v. Iraq, Serbia v. Croatia, to list just a few outside the Middle East).

In fact, the international system as it currently exists tends to support the underdog blindly. In some case, this may be good, if the underdog was attacked (Bosnia, Kuwait, and Egypt in 1956); in others, it’s probably not good, if the underdog is the aggressor (the occasional incursions by Pakistan). The only exception to this rule is that when Israel is the underdog but not the aggressor, it is not supported (1967, 1973).

A system which applies pressure for war to cease before a workable peace is possible merely buys time for the side that was about to lose. This is not to say whether that’s good or bad, but at least in the case of post-1967 Israel, we’re not talking any longer about states rubbing up against each other, jostling for land and/or resources. No, we’re talking now about an enemy that intends for the complete and irrevocable eradication, not only of the Jewish state, but of any Jewish blood in the Middle East. Against that backdrop, a system that does not allow one side or the other to win is actually a way to lengthen the conflict, not to ameliorate it.

We go to great lengths to say that we want the war to stop because innocents are getting killed. But what we end up doing is forcing the parties to refight the same war every few years. When you add it up, the civilian casualties turn out greater than if we were to let the parties have a free-for-all, last man standing.

If you don’t mind keeping the conflict simmering, then Israel is “overreacting”. But keep in mind that essentially what you’re supporting in this conflict by limiting Israeli options is the continued existence of Hezbollah.

If you want a real end, let Israel do what it must, and punish it later for its excesses.

I’m sure some of the dates can be cleaned up, but overall I think this is a pretty good representation of the current international system, which is in fact a rather “reactionary” one, a truly “conservative” system.

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

BonaVista Lounge

Los Angeles is not famous for its skyline, even though it is recognizable, at least to locals. The nightlife downtown also leaves a little to be desired. Still, there are a couple of cool places, including the BonaVista Lounge, a rotating lounge on the 34th floor of the Westin Bonaventure, hemmed in by 4th Street on the north, Flower Street on the east, 5th Street on the south, and Figueroa Street on the west. The Lounge has a meager offering of cocktails, unfortunately, but you really can’t beat the view:

Both pictures were taken with a time exposure of 10 seconds to take in the night light. The first was taken with the camera resting along a part of the floor that was not revolving. The second was taken with the camera resting on our table, which moved along with us and the floor.

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]