The West should be proud of its ethical achievements

10 10 2007

Douglas Murray in Spectator

Recognition of the superiority of our values is made with people’s feet every day in the one-way human migration to the West. It is an admission which many make in private. But we seem to have become so comfortable with our rights that we no longer acknowledge their superiority, or the superiority of the values which gave them life.

Even a couple of generations ago, assertion of the superiority of Western values — the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, equalities, freedoms of expression and conscience — was uncontentious. But we have become morally lazy. If other people live under tyranny, then who are we to ‘impose’ democracy on them? If others live in benighted societies in which half their population can be treated as chattel, then why should we disturb them? Like the multicultural edifice before it, this genuine prejudice — the refusal to discern or assert moral difference — is finally collapsing. It must do, when reality comes a-knocking.

More here.


A Death in the Family

7 10 2007

Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair

I was having an oppressively normal morning a few months ago, flicking through the banality of quotidian e-mail traffic, when I idly clicked on a message from a friend headed “Seen This?” The attached item turned out to be a very well-written story by Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times. It described the death, in Mosul, Iraq, of a young soldier from Irvine, California, named Mark Jennings Daily, and the unusual degree of emotion that his community was undergoing as a consequence. The emotion derived from a very moving statement that the boy had left behind, stating his reasons for having become a volunteer and bravely facing the prospect that his words might have to be read posthumously. In a way, the story was almost too perfect: this handsome lad had been born on the Fourth of July, was a registered Democrat and self-described agnostic, a U.C.L.A. honors graduate, and during his college days had fairly decided reservations about the war in Iraq. I read on, and actually printed the story out, and was turning a page when I saw the following:
“Somewhere along the way, he changed his mind. His family says there was no epiphany. Writings by author and columnist Christopher Hitchens on the moral case for war deeply influenced him … “

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Revisiting the Danish Cartoon Crisis

4 10 2007

Michael C. Moynihan in Reason Online

Over a year after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published those now-infamous cartoons of Mohammad—one of which portrayed the Muslim Prophet carrying a lit bomb in his turban—the country is still noticeably on edge. When I recently visited Copenhagen, a week after a pre-dawn raid netted a handful of suspected Islamic extremists, the twin issues of Islam and integration were difficult to avoid. On television, the news and chat shows were dominated by discussions of coexistence with the country’s approximately 200,000 Muslims; newspapers were brimming with reader letters and editorials on Islamophobia, secularism and democracy; and a bookshop associated with the country’s left-leaning daily Politiken prominently displayed Norman Podhoertz’s latest book World War IV in the window, with a large stack on sale inside.

To get a sense of how this diminutive socialist country (previously famous for pork products, liberal views on pornography and Jante’s Law) was tranformed into a main front in Europe’s culture war, I sat down with the man responsible for printing the offending cartoons, Jyllands-Posten’s culture and arts editor Flemming Rose. In a wide-ranging discussion, Rose expounded on his years in the Soviet Union, free speech versus “responsible speech” and his Muslim supporters.

More here.

Stephen Fry on fame

3 10 2007
stephen fry picture

A good metaphor for fame is the magnifying glass. It makes larger (which is what magnify means) exposing flaws as well as qualities. The blackheads and dirty pores are there for all to see. Like a magnifying glass fame can distort, it can invert and it can (with the glare of publicity behind it) focus the light into a terrible heat that burns the subject until they shrivel into nothing.

In some professions fame is a by-product, an incidental, a “way of keeping score”. If you are a brilliant cricketer, one of the best in the world, then as many as two billion people might know who you are. Even more if you are a successful footballer. A maximum of a quarter of a billion will know who you are if you are a successful American footballer, but at least 5 billion will know you if you are an American footballer accused of murdering your wife and her lover. The OJ pheme buried itself deep in all of us and will, one suspects, remain in circulation for a long time. But then society thought the same of the Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle scandal which is now, if not an obscure footnote, certainly far from being the cause celebre of the century despite its seismic notoriety at the time.

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Stephen Colbert – The Man in the Irony Mask

30 09 2007

Seth Mnookin in Vanity Fair.

Colbert’s character, which grew out of his role as the most noxious and ill-informed of Stewart’s on-air correspondents, is most definitely not the type of guy you’d want to share a beer with after work. If Colbert’s show were to succeed, it would need its fans to embrace the type of grating know-it-all they would normally disdain. One of the ways the show attempted to do this was by having its audience affect the mob mentality from which Colbert’s character drew his power. That way, viewers weren’t just in on the joke, they were part of it.

“This show is not about me,” Colbert explained his first night on the air. “No, this program is dedicated to you, the heroes.… On this show your voice will be heard, in the form of my voice.” Colbert went on to define the show’s ruling ethos as “truthiness,” an almost Nietzschean philosophy inspired by President Bush’s faith in those that “know with their heart” as opposed to those who “think with their head.” If one part of the subtext here was how terrifying “truthiness” was in a world leader, another was that having the will to bend reality to reflect your every desire actually sounded pretty cool—as Colbert’s id-driven character promised to demonstrate night after night.

More here.

A Short Course in Thinking About Thinking

29 09 2007
kaheman image

A “Master Class” By Danny Kahneman in

While Kahneman has a wide following among people who study risk, decision-making, and other aspects of human judgment, he is not exactly a household name. Yet among many of the top thinkers in psychology, he ranks at the top of the field.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert (Stumbling on Happiness) writes: “Danny Kahneman is simply the most distinguished living psychologist in the world, bar none. Trying to say something smart about Danny’s contributions to science is like trying to say something smart about water: It is everywhere, in everything, and a world without it would be a world unimaginably different than this one.” And according to Harvard’s Steven Pinker (The Stuff of Thought): “It’s not an exaggeration to say that Kahneman is one of the most influential psychologists in history and certainly the most important psychologist alive today. He has made seminal contributions over a wide range of fields including social psychology, cognitive science, reasoning and thinking, and behavioral economics, a field he and his partner Amos Tversky invented.”

More here.

The Evolution of Language

27 09 2007

Juan Uriagereka in Seed Magazine

Language is an innate faculty, rather than a learned behavior. This idea was the primary insight of the Chomskyan revolution that helped found the field of modern linguistics in the late 1950s, and its implications are both simple and profound. If innate, language must be genetic. It is hardwired within us from conception and evolved from structures and genes with analogues existing throughout the animal kingdom. In a sense, language is universal. Yet we humans are the only species with the ability for what may rightly be called language and, moreover, we have specific linguistic behaviors that seem to have appeared only within the past 200,000 years—an eye-blink of evolution.

Why are humans the only species to have suddenly hit upon the remarkable possibilities of language? If speech is a product of our DNA, then surely other species also have some of the same genes required for language because of our basic, shared biochemistry. One of our closest relatives should have developed something that is akin to language, or another species should have happened upon its attendant advantages through parallel evolution.

A quasi-paradox has persisted within the field of linguistics, because the sudden emergence of such a complex, limitless system in a single species is hard to rationalize in terms of standard evolution. Its rapid spread makes language seem more like a viral epidemic that swept through the human population rather than a trait inherited through the typical dynamics of evolution.

More here.