Monday, February 28, 2005

This far and no further

America, though not founded on the ideals of multiculturalism as such, is a nation that from its inception has prized intellectual freedom and the individual's liberty for self-expression. Even though the founding fathers of this nation probably did not intend for "God" to be written out of the hearts of its members, they believed in secularism, a "separation of church and state," which would allow citizens to live according to their beliefs without the same persecution and interference from the government that Puritans faced in Anglican England.

Today, the continual promotion of multiculturalism is heralded as a "liberal" ideal -- the notion that we as a society have progressed to a point where we can appreciate things and find spiritual and intellectual truths in places that our founders would never even have conceived of. However, within our ever-growing and ever-learning of tolerance and understanding lie the incipient seeds of moral decrepitude. It is the unfortunate reality that the furthest extension of the liberal ideal is a relativism which dooms its follower to an eternity of moral purgatory where having values is a sin and nervous hand-wringing is the most emphatic response one can produce in response to moral excess.

Are liberals in the U.S. values whores to political correctness? Certainly most of them are not. But there is generally speaking a cultural tension in our nation between "liberals" who want to understand and accept and "conservatives" who want to guard and preserve. And the central question that we must all address is: how far is too far? When have we crossed the line from tolerance to utter nihilism? How do we avoid trying so hard to believe in everything that we find ourselves believing in nothing at all?

Just as France's attempts to write public religious life out of its society through such acts as the banning of headscarves is a perversion of the secularist ideal (secularism is about allowing different religious faiths to coexist peacefully, not about driving the faithful behind closed doors), so too is pantolerationism a perversion of the pluralist ideal. Indeed, no one is arguing that men should be allowed to rape women with impunity, or that the concept of "crime" is archaic and fascist.

So then the questions remain: whither morality? Whither "values"? How do we reconcile our desire to learn from others with the responsibility to draw a line in the sands of cultural ethos? The first step is to understand that accepting relativism need not be an imperative to perpetually equivocate. What we so often forget is that every moral line -- yes, every single moral line that has ever been drawn or ever will be drawn -- is arbitrary. Nothing more, and nothing less. Recognizing the arbitrary nature of our morality should not be distressing and ennervating, as it is to many. It should be liberating. We are now free to decide what we like and what we don't, and equally free to evaluate and reevaluate our positions without holding to some bizarre and ultimately meaningless standard of philosophical consistency. Once we realize the decision-making power we have we are, in short, able to take a stand.

Friday, February 25, 2005

The Problem With The Deomcrats

Martin Peretz of The New Republic has written a wonderful thought piece that should be read in its entirety dealing with the intellectual disarray of the modern liberal meme (damn you Richard Dawkins---I swore I'd never use your stupid word). Money quote:

This leaves us with the issue of U.S. power, the other leftover from the '60s. It is true: American liberals no longer believe in the axiomatic virtue of revolutions and revolutionaries. But let's face it: It's hard to get a candid conversation going about Cuba with one. The heavily documented evidence of Fidel Castro's tyranny notwithstanding, he still has a vestigial cachet among us. After all, he has survived Uncle Sam's hostility for more than 45 years. And, no, the Viet Cong didn't really exist. It was at once Ho Chi Minh's pickax and bludgeon in the south. Pose this question at an Upper West Side dinner party: What was worse, Nazism or Communism? Surely, the answer will be Nazism ... because Communism had an ideal of the good. This, despite the fact that communist revolutions and communist regimes murdered ever so many more millions of innocents and transformed the yearning of many idealists for equality into the brutal assertion of evil, a boot stamping on the human face forever.

Writing a Paper

So I have a presentation to give tomorrow (a joyous slide-show on Wangiella and melanin) and this weekend I am writing a review of infectious adrenalitis for publication. So, (as is often the case lately) I am bogged down with work that is reducing my blogging time. But I promise some quality updates after I get this paper completed (hopefully without too many editorial suggestions). Thankfully though, we now have Zwei on board posting away along with me.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Every day is Ashura...

This is the second year in a row that the day of "Ashura" has brought about tragedy and murder in Iraq, perpetrated by the very individuals who claim to be defending Muslims from a predatory and anti-Islamic West. I find myself deeply absorbed by the irony of it all, especially given what Ashura represents to Muslims and to Islam and what it marks in the history of this faith.

The irony lies in the fact that the "mujahideen" who so callously sacrificed the lives of their fellow muslims did so on a day devoted to remembering and reaffirming the spirit of jihad. Ashura, taken from the Arabic asharah meaning "ten," marks the tenth day of the Islamic new year. It also marks the day on which Husain ibn Ali, the Prophet's grandson, was killed by an army sent by the tyrant Yazid, the khalifah (caliph) at that time of the Muslim empire. Confused yet?

Husain may simply have been a man who made a political miscalculation in answering the cries of the people of Qufa for help against Yazid's oppression. But given the overwhelming odds he faced (a force of 72 men against a much larger army) and given his refusal to surrender himself when given the opportunity, it seems apparent that Husain knew his place in history. Perhaps he felt that, given who he was, he had a sacred duty to uphold Islam even in the face of certain defeat.

The events took place in Karbala, a city in Iraq, and to this day define the relationships that exist between sunni and shia Muslims. It was said later by Jafar as-Sadiq, the grandson of Husain's grandson and a revered scholar in his own right, that "Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala." So why did the death of Husain ibn Ali come to be of such great significance, and why do we or should we care about it today?

For Muslims, there is a great significance in recognizing the example Husain made of himself. In arabic, the word for martyr is shahid, also translated as one who is present and one who bears witness. Martyrs are never lost to Muslim society, and their actions bear witness to "Islam," their sacrifice is a testament to righteousness. In a world where Muslims decry the oppression of themselves and their culture by tyrants and foreign powers, it is significant to recognize that a man revered by shia as "Lord of the Martyrs" died a humble death. He led his men against an overwhelming enemy to make the only statement that it was in his power to make: "We must not tolerate oppression." Unfortunately, the "martyrs" of the present day make a very different statement from that made by Husain: "We can only fight oppression with oppression." And so, we see Israeli civilians murdered and Iraqis slaughtered for daring to express their religious and political affiliations openly. A ceremony celebrating and revering Husain's brazenness and his willingness to risk his life for his cause ends in people dying the same way and for the same reason he did, on the same day and often in the same place. I wonder whether Marx would have called the internecine warfare between Muslims in Iraq a tragedy or a farce.

There is, however, another lesson to be learned from the tragedy of Karbala. This one is for those of us who, living in the West, cannot help but see Islam as a foreign entity that is not wholly within our realm of comprehension. From the very dawn of its history, Islam has been a religion in flux. Muslims have battled each other for the right to define "Islam" for future generations from the day they lost Muhammad, the only man who was ever able to unite them under one ideology and one purpose. By failing to recognize these not-so-subtleties of Islamic history and Muslim culture, Western powers cede a very important tool with which they might understand and politically engage the Islamic world.

This very failure scars to this day the U.S.' relationship with Iran -- in its refusal to recognize that many competing factions drove the Irani revolution of 1979, America lost an opportunity to support a group of liberal secularists who enjoyed a period of ascendancy before they eventually lost out to the very religious right who Americans now accuse of supporting terrorism and developing nuclear weapons.

Islam, as massive and as old as it is, is not and never has been a monolithic culture. Polemicists who try to define it as unchanging and unadaptable find allies in the very extremists who fight to destroy Western civilization; these polemicists legitimate and empower the very people who hate them the most. Karbala tells us all that protestantism and rejection of a morally bankrupt status quo can and does exist within Islam. It also tells us that even a majority does not have the right to speak for or define an entire religious tradition and the myriad cultures it has represented across time and space, whether that majority be a shia majority in Iraq or a sunni majority elsewhere. Especially because the ahead task of rebuilding Iraq requires cooperation and a measure of trust between different parties, Muslims and Americans both would do well to learn the lessons of Ashura.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Nano-Immortality and Possibility-Spaces

I was checking out STMB and noticed that he linked a CNN story about an inventor who is exercising and dieting to keep himself healthy for what he sees as man’s ability to achieve immortality in 20 years through the use of nanotechnology. Now, while his claims are dubious at best and his regimen of supplements and 10 glasses of “alkaline water” per day are sure to make GNC happy without any true evidence in their favor, it got me thinking about whether corporeal immortality is an ideal that the human species should even work towards.

From a limited individual existentialist standpoint personal bodily immortality is an enticing possibility, certainly one without the superficial appearance of a discernable detriment. However, when one views the grand narrative of the human experience through the lens of an evolutionary perspective, taking into account not particularized events but the meta-narrative of the whole of humanity as a collective process taking into account time, the story becomes more complex.

Sexual reproduction and meiosis are ingenious developments of the evolutionary process that allow blind genes to actively search for the proper combination of environmental fitness and species specific enhancements through chance pairings and chaotic recombinations. The end result of the process is a metaphorically majestic genetic algorithm that actively searches the environment (while responding to it) and itself for increased adaptability to the morphing external world. However, increasing evidence from the sociobiology camp suggests that the genetic compliment that comprises an individual strongly influences (if not controls—separate debate) the personality/adherence to universal human morality (another long debate)/likes/dislikes/talents etc. of an individual. Therefore, within the very act of procreation (understood this way) is the genesis of individual human diversity.

Throughout human and cultural evolution the influx of unique ideas and birth of revolutionary philosophical advancements have created the ideological milieu within which societies have driven further the intellectual development of the human animal. Whereas the majority of individuals exist comfortably beneath the bell-curve of human achievement, the outliers, those rare statistical anomalies that are allowed for by the genetic algorithm, exist, and their accomplishments, their unique perspectives, drive humanity up the ladder of evolutionary possibilities. Their names are familiar; Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, James Joyce, Mark Twain, Socrates etc., there are many more, some named and studied, others exist without the laudation of entering into the common vernacular.

If we achieve corporeal immortality sometime in the near future, the possibility space of humanity will dramatically shrink. A finite world with limited resources is a saturable system within which a restricted amount of individuals can be realistically sustained. When the system reaches it saturation point the continual propagation of the species would need to be halted reducing the possibility space to zero (lest we indulge the fantasy of cultivating an as yet undiscovered world). Ideas and cultural evolution would effectively stagnate as the ebb and flow of generational diversity is limited to a continuous plateau of limited potentialities.

Death is a creative event in nature. The demise of an individual (be it a flower/bumble bee/or human) creates room for the newest cohort of the species with its unique genetic compliment to seek out new ways of adapting to the environment creating the possibility of newly discovered adaptations that enhance the species as a whole and further the trip along the genetic algorithm. Death creates possibility spaces (the demise of the dinosaurs lead to the rise of the mammals). Analogously, during the human experience the death of the individual creates the possibility space within which subsequent individuals (that house unique compliments of genes spawning the unique patterns of thought that give rise to the further evolution of ideas) take their chance within the environment of ideas, searching for the outliers that change the course of human intellectual evolution. Immortality is inversely related to absolute possibility in a saturable biological system. When the final compliment of humans are left with which to subsist within the world, the genetic algorithm ceases, as does the tireless drive up the ladder of cultural/ideological evolution, as novel ways of approaching problems/viewing the world/unique thought constructs will have ceased. Humanity will be left with a group of individuals whose ideas and thought patterns will exist unchallenged in an unchanging world of closed possibility.

Back

Finally! My network is back up and running, my boards are over and I shall begin posting again tonight. A new blogger has teamed up with me and will be posting on this blog as well. Look for his 1st post soon!

Great to be back finally.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Network Outage

I have been unable to blog for quite some time thanks to a network outage in my apartment. It is actually quite annoying. As soon as this gets fixed the blog will once again be updated regularly-----perhaps with a new addition.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

2 More Days

That's it. That is all I have to contend with before I am finally done with these damn boards (well not forever---medicine is an endless cycle of recurrent exams)---so I will at least be done for a good while and be able to better keep up with my blogging.

In a completely unrelated story, the man who inspired me to start my own blog, Andrew Sullivan, is putting his blog on a protracted hiatus to give him more time to write outside of the blogsphere. I must say that I will miss him greatly and have truly enjoyed reading his prolific blog (checking at midnight for the newest updates) daily.

We hope you return soon.


Tuesday, February 01, 2005

A Response to a Reader About the "AIDS Tax"

Today, in a response to my comments about Chirac’s proposed AIDS tax a reader wrote--

I think Mr Chirac's policy to be a good start. I was surprised by your comments. It may be hoped to establish a precedent whereby citizens of the wealthy nations pay somewhat towards the healthcare costs of the developing nations. The logical extension would be to also tackle the paediatric bacterial infections, TB and malaria (additional to WHO projects like Roll Back Malaria). Indeed, I suggest you watch for further announcements on these matters. As such, we are conducting a significant review of the international public health policy in collaboration with a committee headed by Dr Jules Lajaunie of the Pasteur Institute, also jointly with the European Union Directorate XII team, headed by Dr Luc Coreff, and observer status of the USA Department of Health and Human Services. It shall be reporting in April to our minister, Mr. Philippe Douste-Blazy, and I believe also the USA Health Secretary Mr. Leavitt.
Mrs. Dr. Laure-Elisabeth Flohic

Assistant Undersecretary for International Programmes, Ministry of Health and of the Family, Paris, France

I think we need to understand why I object to something so seemingly altruistic and superficially generous. Mr. Chirac’s taxation scheme specifically calls for either a “levy that could be imposed on international financial transactions without hampering markets” or as an alternative “raising the funds by taxing fuel for air and sea transport, or levying $1 on every airline ticket sold in the world.” Herein lies Mr. Chirac’s discernable myopia on this particular issue.

To begin with it is impossible to add a centralized international taxation upon global markets without negatively affecting the free interaction of said markets. A levy upon any transaction will cause a chilling effect upon exchanges leading to an obvious slow down of the market systems that are needed to keep alive the global profits that produce the opportunity to invest in health-care to begin with. Mr. Chirac’s assurance that financial transactions will not be hampered is pure conjectural fantasy, loaded with delusional misperceptions that permit him to make such an obviously flawed and ignorant assertion. Another oversight, in this particular aspect of the plan, as Japan's vice finance minister for international affairs, Hiroshi Watanabe, has astutely pointed out is that a prerequisite for the tax to have a chance at success is an assurance of 100% global cooperation. If there are countries that do not participate (as there surely will be) business will simply move to their tax-free havens in order to avoid the tariff and maximize profits, thereby reducing the efficacy of the overall scheme. Mr. Chirac will, in essence, create a fiscal selective pressure whereby countries that do not participate are selected as niduses of burgeoning business growth. Lastly, the concept of taxing the already devastated airline industry (which somehow in Chirac’s plan subsists separately from global markets and local economies) is a misguided and poor one sure to have the same effects on global markets listed above.

Seeing as how Chirac’s plan dealing strictly with HIV/AIDS would have such negative repercussions on the global economy as a whole, how then are we to lump on to said taxation rate the large burdens of “the paediatric bacterial infections, TB and malaria” that we wish to solve by levying an international tax that, through an as yet undefined leap of logic, exists without a measurable effect upon the global market? By any account, tackling a single one of the aforementioned issues would amount to an exponential increase in the rate of taxation necessary to adequately meet the public health needs demanded by a global tax. Though the concept sounds altruistically feasible and even necessary, it is impossible to implement the idea without destroying/stagnating global markets and thereby undermining the production of capital that forms the fiduciary basis of the global public health infrastructure. It is a self-defeating ideology (as most socialist ideals tend to be and have repeatedly been proven to be).

The way in which countries can deal with the problem of disease in the developing world is not (as I have attempted to demonstrate) the levying of an international tax, rather it is through discretionary spending on developmental aid. Allowing for individual governments to allocate portions of their particular budget for distribution to areas of need (i.e. Bush’s South African AIDS pledge) is the fiscal manner in which global health needs can be efficiently addressed while unfettered markets are left to continue to produce the profits that permit the investments. Governmental oversight of semi-free markets (as within the US system) will allow the corporative competition necessary in order to drive the production of novel drugs, vaccines, and potential cures (as it has done time and again), while orphan drug laws provide the key government investment in less profitable arenas. The key is to allow an unhindered local and global market to produce the profits that drive the competition, the capital that funds the investments, and the economy that allows for discretionary spending upon charitable developmental aid.