Monday, October 24, 2005

My Favourite "New Rule" Exchange

Bill Maher's show "Real Time with Bill Maher" on HBO has a section called New Rules, which is about How Things Should Be In A Perfect World, rather than the crappy beta version we put up with. Here his panel includes Ben Affleck (actor and celebrity), and Salman Rushdie (novelist, genius and hero).

MAHER: New Rule: Women have to meet me halfway. How do you expect me to masturbate to your fashion magazines if I never know when I might see Donatella Versace. Not very dignified at all, Mr. Rushdie, no.


AFFLECK: Is this the free speech this man put his life on the line for?! Bill Maher jerking off?!

RUSHDIE: No, no, no. This is not free speech. This is cheap speech.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Senator Hutchison on Meet the Press today

Crooks and Liars has Senator Hutchison trying a talking point: that indictments for lying to the Grand Jury in Traitorgate may not be fair if they are for a "perjury technicality".

In Senator Hutchison's statement on the Senate Trial of President Clinton (February 12, 1999), she said:

"Lying is a moral wrong. Perjury is a lie told under oath that is legally wrong. To be illegal, the lie must be willfully told, must be believed to be untrue, and must relate to a material matter" ... "I will not compromise this simple but high moral principle in order to avoid serious consequences to a successor President who may choose to ignore it."

She also gave details of her votes and the reasoning behind them:

"(i) The President of the United States willfully, and with intent to deceive, gave false and misleading testimony under oath with respect to material matters that were pending before the Federal grand jury on August 17, 1998, as alleged in Article I presented to the Senate. I, therefore, vote 'Guilty' on Article I of the Articles of Impeachment of the President in this Proceeding.

"(ii) The President of the United States engaged in a pattern of conduct, performed acts of willful deception, and told and disseminated massive falsehoods, including lies told directly to the American people, that were designed and corruptly calculated to impede, obstruct, and prevent the plaintiff in the Arkansas Federal sexual harassment case from seeking and obtaining justice in the Federal court system of the United States, and to further prevent the Federal grand jury from performing its functions and responsibilities under law, I, therefore, vote 'Guilty' on Article II of the Articles of Impeachment of the President in this proceeding."

That was the outcome of the Whitewater Investigation. A land deal, and a blowjob: set that against a $200bn war with well over 2000 dead Coalition forces and tens of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians, and crippling the CIA's ability to collect information about Weapons of Mass Destruction.

(also posted at TalkLeft)

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Huffington Post, Sam Harris: "In Defense of Torture" - a response

Opening remark:

In this article, Sam Harris claims that a limit position involving acts of terror can be taken at which torture is ethical.

OK, here are a couple of counterarguments. You just can't get good torturers these days, can you? You simply can't get them trained. Sure, there are people who'd really like the work, but mostly, we don't encourage them. You see, we just can't - don't want to - keep them busy, and we mustn't allow the torturers to practice on people diagnosed with "paranoid schizophrenia", "anti-social behavior" or involved in fraud cases. Or for expressing dissent. You know what I mean - I mean, unless you need to: unless terror is the business of the state in relation to its citizens or subjects. Then Stalin finds his Beria, and Saddam has his brother Uday.

In his argument, Sam walks towards an extreme, but how would we implement his solution? Once you have accepted a Torturer in Chief, this should mean (*cough*) you've established formal procedures for determining where the boundaries for suspects to be torturable or not-torturable are, and who moves them? The Attorney General? SECDEF? Rules which apply to foreigners today apply to immigrants tomorrow, and children of immigrants the day after. The actual bomb weakens to a threat, and then a conspiracy based on an anonymous tip-off, to people who just happen to be in jail (*cough*), to someone reading about bombs in the library, to a pre-emptive strike based on faulty intelligence. When do we find we've gitmoized arrests on main street?

Let's keep that door closed. Thanks. Torture is never ethical, but at best, temporarily expedient. You cannot contain it.

Finally, as an aside, if modern warfare inevitably involves "collateral damage", this does not justify collateral damage: it damns modern warfare. Isn't it illegal?

Thursday, October 13, 2005 Question of the Day: Is self-contradiction still the prima facie sign of a faulty argument?

Opening remark:

The AskPhilosophers blog is at, but there's also a google group, AskPhilosophers, which is much like an old fashioned Newsgroup. As a philosophical blog, how do the panel members become members?

"prima facie" evidence is just something that apears as it is on first sight, or on its face: there's no priority as such, no "before others", so a better question would be whether self-contradiction is still a prima facie sign of a faulty argument.

It looks as though the answer to the question in this form is an unqualified "yes", and what is left open is what the other prima facie signs are, and where the implicit re-evaluation of the force of logic would lead us. The first of these is too open, so I'll concentrate on the second.

The crucial logical theorem which asserts the dismissive power of self-contradiction is this: if, in a logical system, you can derive both a proposition P, and its contradiction not-P, then you can derive any proposition about the system at all - including the negation of any of the axioms.

Bertrand Russell famously once demonstrated at a dinner that a mathematical contradiction would let him show that he was the Pope like this: "If 2 + 2 = 3, then, subtracting two from each side, it follows that 2 = 1. The Pope and I are two, and therefore, the Pope and I are one. Therefore I am the Pope."

The argument is obviously no more true of Russell than it is of me or you - even if you are indeed the Pope, because it is based on a false premise. And if you are the Pope: I'm sorry, it's nothing personal.

In general (and in general, when people generalise from the particular like this, one should not take the generalization for granted), self-contradiction is a sign that the speaker is capable of expressing views which are expedient at the time of expression, and so the speaker may be well suited for a career in Politics - which does not let such people off the hook for the logical consistency of their views, as many Politicians down the ages have discovered to their cost.

Or not. At one and the same time, I say I am a fish, and I am also not a fish. Now, where does that leave you, your Holiness (or not)? I could say I am left with a duty to evaluate the logic of assertions I am presented with, and if I should find that contradiction in the arguments of others undermines their conclusions, then I should also be watchful of my own precepts so that I can ensure that I am not contradicting myelf. Then again, I could forgive the self-contradictory, faulty arguments of others because my own arguments are prone to be self-contradictory and faulty.

And at this point I find I am drawn back to the expedient. The risk of this is that I may lose touch with reality, as I follow a chain ofreasoning to its conclusion; and in my experience and observation,reality asserts itself forcefully when contradicted in this way. So Ido my best to seek out contradiction in myself, and find resolution bychanging my precepts. I don't know any other way to proceed: do you?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Hitchens slags off Miers: at onegoodmove

Posted at onegoodmove on Hitchens' Slate piece:

Lovely! Hitchens slags off Miers! I think there's a chance he's a Trotskyite Entryist, myself; and if he's not careful, the atheism evident in this article will be enough to get the neos to brand him a leftist heretic.

It's time to get religion, Christopher. And don't worry about the hypocrisy: you take advantage of the fact that hypocrisy is an easy accusation to make against many bornagains in your article, so you must be aware it's normal. You could slot right in.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Review of "Good Night and Good Luck"

There have been many attempts to bring the tale of the injustices of the McCarthy era and McCarthyism to the screen, usually through the lens of those HUAC hearings which targeted celebrities and the creative community in Hollywood. This is the first time that the intense drama around McCarthy's fall from grace in the public eye has been addressed, and it's executed with authority and attention to authenticity. In my recollection, it's also mostly accurate: I think the film McCarthy delivered was shorter than the time available, and rather than reply the following week, Murrow replied immediately and briefly at the end of the show - since TV abhors a vacuum.

The screenplay is rich in historical detail which is unglossed. For example, the Army-McCarthy hearings are covered with a light hand, since they are away from the main subject. But Clooney touches on the roles of Cohn and Schine, and lays the incredible moment of grace on the part of Joseph Welch before us, the moment when Cohn knows the jig is up while McCarthy blunders on, without explaination: and thereby hangs another tale.

As a parable on the proper and difficult role of journalists and the press in a time of fear and abuses of power, this film is exquisitely timely.

Finally, the performances, design and music are great. Strathearn as Murrow is more hardboiled than Bogart, the mid-century corporate decor is spot-on, the spare graphic design of the captions echoes the authority of See It Now, and the musical spots deftly lighten what could otherwise be a very claustrophobic atmosphere. What with all the cigarettes!

(earlier version uploaded to Moviefone)

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