Sunday Reader April 26, 2009  

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sky Panorama Over Lake Salda

Moon and Morning Star

Civil Rights
In Massachusetts, a husband's death shows how important marriage is -- and how absolutely ordinary and accepted same-sex marriage has become
Referring to my husband as my husband doesn't raise eyebrows or result in scorn or sarcasm, whereas when referring to him as my partner ten years ago carried the risk of bad service, indifference, or outright hostility. Customer service representatives at places like banks respect the terminology, whereas once we might have sheepishly referred offhand to our partner. (It was perhaps only six or seven years ago when introducing Peter as my partner, sometimes people would assume I met business partner, even when the context would indicate otherwise.) Twelve years ago something as simple as explaining to utility companies that two people weren't roommates but partners could be construed as being "in your face." Flash forward to the young associate at the Apple store who helped me with Peter's iPhone. Sexual orientation was irrelevant as he expressed sincere condolences for my loss.

Ten, even five years ago, people in my situation in Massachusetts would have faced prejudicial treatment in some of these interactions--in addition to having to deal with protracted legal issues because of being denied the right to be married--simply because marriage equality was an unknown, often feared, and that fear was exploited by our opponents for political gain. Coming of age in a time when AIDS felled so many so quickly, I was aware of far too many horrible, heart-wrenching stories in which the surviving partner was completely shut out and cast aside by next of kin. Now, we are legally next of kin. For all the wonderful things that marriage equality does for the living, it maintains our dignity in death.

A Consequentialist Argument against Torture Interrogation of Terrorists
The individual law enforcement officials, of course, can make their own moral choices and take their own risks. But if it is state policy to torture the terrorist, then the policy should be rational and the torture interrogation proceed with a reasonable chance of success.

Terrorists selected for such a role—like most American POWs in North Vietnam—can probably stand up to commonplace tortures from untrained staff for a long time. The use of sophisticated techniques by a trained staff entails the problematic institutional arrangements I have laid out: physician assistance; cutting edge, secret biomedical research for torture techniques unknown to the terrorist organization and tailored to the individual captive for swift effect; well trained torturers, quickly accessible at major locations; pre-arranged permission from the courts because of the urgency; rejection of independent monitoring due to security issues; and so on. These institutional arrangements will have to be in place, with all their unintended and accumulating consequences. Then the terrorists themselves must be detected while letting pass without torture a thousand other criminal suspects or dissidents, that is, avoiding a dragnet interrogation policy.

The moral error in reasoning from in the ticking bomb scenario arises from weighing the harm to the guilty terrorist against the harm to the prospective innocent victims. Instead, the harm to innocent terrorist victims should be weighed against the breakdown of key social institutions and the state-sponsored torture of many innocents. Stated most starkly, the damaging social consequences of a program of torture interrogation evolve from institutional dynamics that are independent of the original moral rationale.

I think…
A larger point is that Fox News is simply not conservative. The fact of the matter is, I find NPR and even News Hour more conservative than Fox - but in a different sense, I suppose, than the standard boiler plate conservatism that has so infested American politics. What I mean to say is that the conservatism of Fox News tends to be wrapped up in loud, divisive, trashy television that is cheap and ugly and reactionary and essentially all things distasteful that conservatives should look at with scorn and antipathy.

Religion and the Difference Between Possible and Plausible, or, Why You Shouldn't Jump Out of Windows
There's a point that a lot of atheists make about this argument, which is this: Believers don't apply this sort of thinking in any other area of their lives. In most other areas of their lives, believers base their actions, not on what might be hypothetically possible, but on what is most likely to be plausible. Their car might start running on sugar water, the rocks in their backyard might have turned into candy, if they jump out the window there might be invisible fairies waiting to gently carry them down to earth... but they don't act as if these things are true. But with religion, people will happily argue that it might hypothetically be true... and therefore, it's reasonable for them to act as if it were true, and the rest of us have to take it seriously.

Department of awful statistics
But I expect that four years from now, we'll still be having the same conversations with proponents of "cancer clusters" and Democrats convinced that they can scientifically prove that Democrats are better for GDP by doing ham-fisted regressions of Democratic presidencies with a few tightly correlated economic variables. What's the mechanism? What makes electric power lines cause cancer, but not the earth's vastly more powerful magnetic field? What policies did Harry Truman and Bill Clinton have in common (but not with Richard Nixon) that caused this marvelous confluence? Well, maybe we don't know the mechanism exactly, but never you mind: just look at that bee-yoo-ti-ful correlation!

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