24 October 2014

An epidemic of bad faith

The diagnosis of Ebola for a Doctors Without Borders physician who recently returned to New York City from Africa has reignited the debate over the doctor's and the government's public-safety responsibilities. One side of this debate believes that the doctor should have been quarantined for the 21 days from contact with Ebola patients during which the virus may incubate in his body. His critics contend that it's especially irresponsible for a physician not to take this prudent measure, and some make this another occasion to denounce the CDC and the Obama administration for not forcing the doctor and his peers into quarantine. The other side argues that a sweeping quarantine is unnecessary. If one side bemoans the doctor's freedom to ride the subway and go bowling, the other points out that he didn't begin to show symptoms until after his various excursions, and they're adamant on the point that he and other victims of the virus are not contagious until they show symptoms. Reading a comment thread on one news site, I saw this belief -- that asymptomatic carriers aren't contagious -- dismissed as an "article of faith" and defended as an empirical observation. The skeptics appear disinclined to believe what the CDC says on this subject. This skepticism seems based on an overall suspicion of authority, or a suspicion of the motives for not doing what the skeptics consider a matter of common sense. Common sense seems to ask "Why take chances?" while suspicion sometimes imagines sinister reasons for taking chances. An objective, nonpartisan debate on the wisdom of a quarantine should be possible, but a lot of nonpartisan things should be possible. If some people automatically denounce the lack of a quarantine (or ban on flights from the afflicted countries in Africa) because they doubt Obama's competence or question his ultimate motives, others may rush to defend his policies on a knee-jerk impulse.  The latter wouldn't say these policies are automatically right because they're Obama's, but they may say they must be right because right-wingers or apparent paranoids oppose them. Yet it seems like an argument for a mandatory quarantine could be made without being labeled paranoid, hysteric or partisan. After all, what if you start to show symptoms in the middle of a public event? A lot of variables would remain, and I suspect that there's research to be done about susceptibility to Ebola that might mitigate if not minimize current fears. As we recently learned, the housemates of the Liberian who died in Texas have passed the incubation period and are Ebola-free, while so far only two of the nurses who supposedly breached protocols in treating the victim have contracted the virus, and one is already declared cured. Many factors apart from proximity to a blatantly sick patient may make some more likely to catch Ebola, some less. But while this is purely my own speculation, there seems to be no reason to dismiss out of hand pragmatic arguments for a quarantine for doctors returning from the hot zones. It may well be that many arguments for quarantine are made in bad faith -- out of irrational distrust of authority, or for partisan advantage -- but to dismiss the idea of quarantining returning doctors because some or even many making the argument are partisans or crackpots is to make an ad hominem argument, which according to logic is a fallacy. At this time we should be careful that bad faith doesn't spread further on both sides of the debate.

22 October 2014

Philistines and Palestinians at the Opera

The Death of Klinghoffer was composer John Adams's 1991 follow-up to Nixon in China, arguably the most popular if not the best American opera of the last half-century. Nixon had already been somewhat controversial, as its title character was still alive at the time it premiered. For Klinghoffer Adams and librettist Alice Goodman raised the stakes, making an opera of the 1985 hijacking by Palestinian of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder by the hijackers of Jewish passenger Leon Klinghoffer. Not nearly as memorable musically as Nixon, Klinghoffer is best known for being controversial. Give a performance and people will protest. From the beginning, what's been protested is the creators' failure to sufficiently demonize the terrorists. Because the terrorist singers are allowed to state their viewpoint in their own terms instead of singing something like, "We hate Jews because we're mean," the opera is accused of "glorifying" terrorists. "Glorifying" is the standard term employed by the censorious when morally questionable characters in media aren't demonized to the satisfaction of certain sensibilities. Even though Jimmy Cagney's character in The Public Enemy dies a gruesome death, that film was accused of "glorifying" gangsters because Cagney looked cool until he died. So it has been with crime movies ever since. A certain mentality never trusts audiences to make their own sound judgments; it requires art to become propaganda, moral or political, telling audiences quite explicitly what they should think of questionable characters. Gangsters should show no appealing (much less redeeming) qualities; nor should terrorists.

The Metropolitan Opera premiered a new production of Klinghoffer this week, and the protesters were led, rhetorically at least, by Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City. Giuliani released a statement explaining his protest while defending himself against the charge of philistinism. I am not so a cultural illiterate, America's Mayor writes: "As an opera, the music and choruses are quite excellent. John Adams is one of America’s greatest composers, and I admire and enjoy his music." Alas, Klinghoffer is politically and hence morally incorrect. It is "factually inaccurate and extraordinarily damaging to an appropriate description of the problems in Israel and Palestine."

Giuliani's tortured explication of what's "appropriate" is revealing. He argues that the hijacking and murder must be understood as cynically motivated to promote the brand of the Palestinian Liberation Organization as the organization with which the world must deal. It seems important to Giuliani that the murder be seen as a dispassionate act, not as a lashing out by angry people. The key sentences in Giuliani's screed are: " It was not the act of people feeling oppressed. This was the act of an organized group seeking international recognition, moral equivalency, and money." Therefore, any scene or aria in which Palestinian characters express feelings of oppression and grievance are "inaccurate" and "damaging." 

A consistent part of the right-wing reaction to terrorism against its interests or allies is to deny the legitimacy of grievances. The right-wing argument is always that terrorists hate their targets not for what we do, but for what we are. A corollary argument is that the terrorists, rather than making reprisals against perceived oppressors, are always the aggressors. This fits a popular picture of Islam portraying the religion as always hostile and always on the offensive against infidels purely by virtue of their faith. From this standpoint, to let a terrorist character on stage say or sing what an author might fairly imagine is on his mind, even while making his terrorism obviously odious, is always subversive. Instead, the terrorist, or the enemy agent, must be motivated exclusively by hate, fanaticism, or selfish personal ambition. Anything else might make audiences think, even if the authors clearly don't intend audiences to take the villain's side. By protesting The Death of Klinghoffer, Giuliani claims he wants people to know the truth about the story behind the opera, but the truth about him is that he doesn't want people to think. He wants them to hate. I imagine most people who watch the opera will hate the terrorists anyway, but for people like Giuliani it has to be the right kind of hate, and it's up to him, apparently, to teach us how to hate properly. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote on a lower rung of musical-theater ambition, "you have to be carefully taught."

20 October 2014

Unfit to keep and bear arms in New York State

A local paper reports that not only gun-rights advocates but mental-health advocates are protesting the designation by the state of New York of "some 34,500 persons" as mentally unfit to have firearms. Most of these people apparently self-diagnosed themselves, since it turns out that less than 300 people will have to give up their guns after these findings. Nevertheless, a Queens doctor, representing other mental-health advocates, worries that "too many people are being deemed dangerous." This doctor worries that some genuinely troubled people will be discouraged from seeking help because it might mean losing or being denied guns. He doesn't like that he has to report "any kind of dangerousness," which begs the question whether he believes in acceptable levels of "dangerousness" in mental patients. By comparison, the NRA looks almost reasonable in asking that decisions on mental fitness not be made "capriciously or maliciously," though their measures of caprice and malice may differ from other peoples'. Amid these concerns, it seems only fair that someone ask whether the number is actually too low. I concede, however, that other measures of fitness may be too subjective or controversial for psychiatrists to address scientifically -- even if those others may be the ones that count most.

17 October 2014

What ails America?

You don't have to be irrational about the prospects of the Ebola virus spreading across the U.S. to be appalled at the poor handling of the initial outbreak. Two people may not make an outbreak -- not counting the Liberian who brought his infection here and died earlier this month -- but compared to the efficiency shown in treating American aid workers who contracted Ebola in Africa, the performance of that Texas hospital and the CDC are troubling. The two infected nurses may be the end of the chain, but Americans need to think about alternate scenarios, yet may have a hard time doing so. As Charles Krauthammer notes, "In the face of a uniquely dangerous threat, we Americans have trouble recalibrating our traditional (and laudable) devotion to individual rights and civil liberties. That is the fundamental reason we’ve been so slow in getting serious about Ebola." Nothing taken to excess is laudable, however, and in facing the prospect of pandemics that American devotion may prove a handicap sometimes. Back during the George W. Bush presidency people worried that a pandemic might be used as a pretext for martial law; the advent of Barack Obama only changed the identities of some of the worriers. But you may not need to be paranoid to take an "I don't have to do that" attitude toward recommended precautions or protocols. Krauthammer writes that "choosing between security and liberty ... is the eternal dilemma of every free society," yet our entire culture, it sometimes seems, conditions us to prefer liberty every time. It certainly seems to discourage us from recognizing inherent obligations to our fellow citizens, yet our obligations only grow more obvious as a virus grows more virulent. Ebola has raged through Africa because of inadequate infrastructure and bad cultural habits, we're told. American habits may prove nearly as harmful in the absence of an ethical infrastructure suited to the challenge. This alarmist tone may prove premature insofar as this outbreak may peter out after a handful of cases. But if a wider outbreak, now or in the future, can be blamed on people failing or refusing, from a desire to stay "free," to do the right things, more Americans may finally question whether "freedom" really should be any culture's supreme value.

15 October 2014

The Iraq WMD Bush didn't want you to know about

The big twist in the New York Times story about chemical weapons found in Iraq during the 2003 American invasion is that the George W. Bush administration never took advantage of the discoveries to vindicate the President's decision to invade. Given how some Republicans today are pouncing on the news as proof that Bush was right all along, you wonder why W. or his handlers doubted the benefits of an announcement -- and you get a chilling suspicion that however dumb Dubya may have been, he was smarter than his base. The problem with the WMD the Americans found is that they were old: 1980s-vintage stuff left over from the Iran-Iraq war. In calling for the 2003 invasion, Bush argued that Saddam Hussein's government was making new, more dangerous chemical weapons, and nothing of that sort has yet been found. Worse for the Americans, their own people played roles in the production of some of the weapons found during the invasion and occupation. Reminders of our past relations with Iraq could only further fuel criticisms of U.S. Middle East policies guaranteed to generate "blowback." The Bush cover-up may also have been motivated partly by a desire to avoid responsibility for American soldiers sickened by handling the captured weapons. But considering how ready Republicans still are to believe the pre-invasion narrative about Saddam's threat, we might feel justified in concluding that Bush never bothered publicizing these finds because, in the end, he never really cared whether or not Saddam had old or new WMD. For him and his cronies, more likely, the invasion was a means to a more ambitious strategic goal -- the "democratization" of the region -- rather than an essential act of national defense.

But if the Times piece was intended to further damn Bush or revive skepticism toward meddling in the Middle East, the article undercuts itself with an alarmist note about the possibility of remaining stockpiles falling into the hands of fighters for the self-styled Islamic State. The report claims that the weapons as found were no threat to the U.S., but that components could be repurposed -- and were during the occupation -- for small-scale use in guerrilla warfare. It would be grimly ironic if the same stuff that comes closest to evidence against Saddam Hussein were used again as evidence justifying an escalation of U.S. opposition to the IS. But at a time when even Democratic pundits question the effectiveness of bombing against a mobile enemy, nothing so ironic would surprise me.

14 October 2014

Religion as a last resort

The soldiers of the self-styled Islamic State are unapologetic about the atrocities they commit. They provoked a fresh wave of outrage this week, not with any new beheadings, but with the publication of the latest issue of their English-language magazine, Dabiq, in which IS writers reaffirm their right to slaughter alleged idolaters and enslave the women they capture. Browsing through the issue myself, I was struck by how these guys argue that it's better to take slaves -- for sex! -- than to commit adultery. But if it all adds up to an appalling system of values, it's still a system of values; the IS justifies it all by saying this is what God allows or orders them to do. That's why I think Thomas Friedman is wrong to characterize the IS as a force of disorder, or to say, quoting from a Batman movie, that the IS fighters just want to watch the world burn. They want to create order in their little caliphate, but on the basis of such authoritarian violence that many liberals simply refuse to recognize it as order. The desire for order is at least as much a factor in the appeal of the IS as the desire for violence. That desire for order is why so many people turn to religion in bad times. For a while during the 20th century it looked like people might look to themselves, or at least to Marx, Lenin, Stalin or Mao, to create order in the world, but Communism as collectively authored by the last three was "the god that failed." In the underdeveloped world especially, young people whose parents or grandparents vested their hopes in socialism or communism now turn to Islam, Pentecostalism, a more assertive and chauvinistic Hinduism, and so on. Why this seeming relapse? Is it because people still hope a god will provide for them when the man-gods of Marxism-Leninism failed? That's probably true to some extent -- it'd be the extent to which the desire for a god reflects people's feeling that they should be provided for, and that the power to provide for them must be out there somewhere. But there's more to religion's enduring appeal than that. It may be that, compared to the Market, the Party or even the State, a religion is something that can always use more people. The Market doesn't need all of us; it tells us to make ourselves useful or rot. States and parties too often sacrifice people's livelihoods, if not their lives, to austerity or competitiveness. Religions are no better, inherently, at providing for people than markets or states, but they promise everyone a place in an eternal order on what look like relatively easy terms -- especially, in the case of the IS, if you're a man. Those who worship the Market as a different sort of god make no such promises because they think it would encourage freeloading. Religions know better because, as I wrote, they can always use more people. Their promises lost their appeal not so long ago, but while the failures of the recent past loom large people around the world forget the lessons of the more distant past and assume that the old gods never failed. As some have suggested for some time now, it may take something like a Thirty Years War in the Middle East -- something that seems ever more likely lately -- to break the spell of Islamism, while we probably won't need anything so drastic to break the spell of Pentecostalism in the Third World. But where will the poor and all the people who feel that they have no place in the world look then? Somebody better have an answer.

13 October 2014

Columbus Day is the real Festivus

That second Monday in October is here again, and Americans, in some cases, will find time during the holiday to debate the legacy of Christopher Columbus. By now no one buys the idea that Columbus "discovered America," but his voyages clearly mark the beginning of an epoch of exploration and exploitation to which the U.S. owes its existence. Back in 1892, the 400th anniversary of his first voyage was a tremendous patriotic occasion from which came our present Pledge of Allegiance, if not all its controversy. Italian-Americans subsequently adopted the day as their own, their answer to St. Patrick's Day, albeit with less beer. In modern times, as his legacy of conquest if not genocide grew unbearable for many Americans, the idea of celebrating Columbus with a holiday grew more offensive. In some places "Indigenous Peoples' Day" or something like it is celebrated, while U.S. traditionalists protest that trend as a further advance of "political correctness." By this point no one, as far as I can tell, is calling for Columbus to be celebrated uncritically as a hero, but many argue that we should recognize that something important happened on or around the second Monday in October, 1492, and some feel that to repudiate the event entirely, as others seem to want, is somehow to repudiate our own national existence. So there may be parades in some places, but for the most part, when the occasion is noted it becomes the subject of argument and the airing of grievances from across the cultural spectrum. If the alternatives are unthinking patriotism and activist education about indigenous peoples, a holiday defined by debate looks just right.  If we trace our nation back to Columbus, it's only appropriate that his day be noted with griping from all sides.