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Location: TUCSON, Arizona, United States

Monday, September 29, 2008


One of my former students is a historian now and kindly posted me a correction to my last entry. It's embarrassing to have relied upon my memory--admittedly growing more faulty with age--instead of checking. Anyway, the main error is my suggesting Musharraf conducted his military coup against the government of Z. A. Bhutto (father of Benazir Bhutto, assassinated earlier this year while campaigning against the Musharraf government). That's wrong. Musharraf actually acted against the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was a protege of an earlier military dictator--Zia ul Haq--before being elected to the leadership. Ever since its formation in 1947, and especially during the past twenty-five years, Pakistan has oscillated between military rulers and elected leaders, unable to develop a politics independent of military influence--not to mention intervention--or in any way balanced amongst competing ethnic, religious, and political rivalries. My point in the last entry, of course, remains unchanged: it was silly of McCain to maintain that negotiation equals ratification. On NPR's Talk of the Nation today, Ted Koeppel, referring to the same McCain claim, pronounced it "foolish". Case closed...

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Parsing the first debate

Barack Obama once again displayed last night his talent for calm argument and effective rhetoric, but he failed to dramatize several of McCain's claims and implications for their questionable or silly implications. I'm not sure why. Was Obama also exhibiting his judiciousness? Was he being gentle? Did he fear his listeners finding him mean or arrogant? Did he just miss the opportunities? I don't know, but here are two of the many things McCain said that I would have liked Obama to highlight. Once McCain defended the Bush administration's support for Musharraf bymuttering "Pakistan was a failed state," when Musharraf came to power. What's wrong with this? Firstly, Musharraf staged a military coup to overthrow the Bhutto government, then had Bhutto executed. So McCain implies support for military rebellion against popularly constituted governments. Worse, McCain's statement says the U.S. gets to decide when another government has "failed," rather than leaving that decision to the people that live there. This is what the Bush administration did by invading Iraq. It's what the U.S. did in Vietnam. It never works. The second thing I want to single out is McCain's repeated insistence that negotiating with others implies you approve of their actions. This is profoundly silly. I wish Obama had said, "If that were true, you'd never talk to your teenager." I think that would have been enough...

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


In a New Yorker essay on the influence of evangelicals in American politics (Peter J. Boyer: “Party Faithful”, 08 Sep 2008) a professor of constitutional law is quoted saying: “Religion necessarily is a source for morality, and morality necessarily is the place we draw laws from.” Ignoring the clumsy grammar, I want to explain why the second clause is correct, but the first one is wrong. Morality is the name for practices that are customary in a community or society. “Mores” means “customs” in Latin. (The same word in Greek is ethos, from which we have “ethics.”) So morality is always relative to a community. To be educated in this, you need only live for a time in another community, especially one where they speak a language different from yours. Religions grow up in and are sustained by communities or societies. So religions always reflect the moralities of the communities in which they originate. When a religion migrates into a new community, it takes on the morality of those people. It adapts, as it must, to become acceptable to new adherents. Now you might be thinking to ask, “What about religious opposition?” Of course, opposition to prevailing morality arises. That’s because morality, like language, is historical. Everything changes with time. One of the ways change occurs is that old interests lose their authority; new interests emerge. People frequently invoke religion to justify replacing old authorities with new. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an example. Mohandas Ghandi is another. But you don’t have to do this. The philosopher from whom both Ghandi and King learned the principle of “non-violent resistance—Henry David Thoreau—did not appeal to any imaginary “higher authority” when he argued for his insight in Civil Disobedience. But people like authority. So it’s still popular to imagine that some kinds of morality are supernaturally justified. It’s still popular, but it’s false.