Sunday, July 31, 2011

Chris Hedges and Sam Harris on Nuclear War

I stumbled on the dispute between Chris Hedges and Sam Harris today over whether or not Harris has "called ... for a nuclear first strike against the Islamic world" in the name of atheism. Since I had just begun to like Hedges (for reasons including, but not limited to, his response to the new atheism), I was, at first, saddened to see him make such a polarising move in a debate. But looking at it more closely, I'm not so sure that he does more than hold Harris responsible for the implications of his views, assurances to the contrary notwithstanding.

I'll begin by disagreeing with Harris when he says that "Wherever they appear, Hedges’ comments seem calculated to leave the impression that I want the U.S. government to start killing Muslims by the millions." In fact, in one instance, Hedges quotes extensively enough from Harris to leave the impression that Harris only believes that the killing of millions of Muslims would be necessary in a very special circumstance.

But I think Harris wants us to reject that reading too. Now, the question is whether Hedges was right to say that this is what Harris's argument implies. If Hedges is right, then Harris could of course revise his views, granting the rightness of Hedges's position. (The underlying presumption here is that if Harris's argument is tantamount to arguing in favour of a nuclear first strike, then there is something wrong with it. Harris presumably agrees on that general point.) If Harris is right, however, then Hedges has intentionally distorted Harris's views and is guilty of intellectual dishonesty. It was that last point that saddened me, given my sympathies with so much of what Hedges says. But tonight, having looked more closely at it, I'm inclined to say Hedges is in the right on this one.

Harris's rebuttal consists of a long quotation of the "only passage [he has] ever written on the subject of preventative nuclear war and the only passage that Hedges could be referring to" followed by a terse, if conventional, challenge: "I will let the reader judge whether this award-winning journalist has represented my views fairly." That's the challenge I'm going to take up. Here's the relevant passage:

It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. How would such an unconscionable act of self-defense be perceived by the rest of the Muslim world? It would likely be seen as the first incursion of a genocidal crusade. The horrible irony here is that seeing could make it so: this very perception could plunge us into a state of hot war with any Muslim state that had the capacity to pose a nuclear threat of its own. All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns. That it would be a horrible absurdity for so many of us to die for the sake of myth does not mean, however, that it could not happen. Indeed, given the immunity to all reasonable intrusions that faith enjoys in our discourse, a catastrophe of this sort seems increasingly likely. We must come to terms with the possibility that men who are every bit as zealous to die as the nineteen hijackers may one day get their hands on long-range nuclear weaponry. The Muslim world in particular must anticipate this possibility and find some way to prevent it. Given the steady proliferation of technology, it is safe to say that time is not on our side.

Before leaving it up to the reader, I should remark, Harris does highlight certain aspects of the text to emphasize that he meant this only as a possibility (he emphasizes two "may be"s, for example) and that it applies only under particular circumstances (where an Islamist country aquires nuclear weapons, which has not yet happened). Also, he emphasizes the parts that grant Hedges's interpretation that such an an attack would be an "unconscionable act" and an "unthinkable crime". This would be very embarrassing for Hedges, I would say, if he hadn't quoted those caveats as part of his reading of Harris; but Hedges did actually quote him at such length when he levied his charge. The question now, then, is whether those phrases get Harris off the hook.

I don't think it does. Keep in mind that Hedges is arguing that Harris's atheism is "dangerous". What he claims to have found here is a passage in which atheism's view of religion can be used to justify a nuclear attack. And isn't that exactly what we have here? After all, it is Harris who argues that Islamists (unlike communists) because they get all "dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise", can't be trusted to use their nukes merely as a deterent. From there (and it is Harris who takes us there) it is a short road to wiping out (by nuclear first strike) an entire country that has both long-range nuclear capability and an Islamist regime.

But does Harris actually recommend such an attack? Does he, as it were, articulate the threat of first strike by the U.S. in the case of Iran developing long-range nuclear weapons. I really think he does. While he says it would be unconscionable and unthinkable (morally and intellectually beyond the pale, we might say) he describes it as, nonetheless, necessary: "In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own." Now, I'm not sure that we are entitled to do anything at all to "ensure our survival", but it is reasonable to assume that if someone explains themselves by saying "it was the only thing I could do in order to ensure my survival" that they are, not just describing a "horrible absurdity", but defending their actions. They are appealing to the hopelessness of the situation as a justification for an act of desperation.

Harris claims that for Muslims to interpret this as a "genocidal crusade" would be a misperception on their part, stemming, it seems, from their erroneous religious beliefs. "All of this is perfectly insane, of course," Harris admits: "I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns." What Hedges is saying, and I think rightly, is that the scenario described by Harris depends much less on the religious views of the Islamists than the religious views of the atheists. It is the image of the dewy-eyed longing for paradise that justifies the first-strike. I think Harris has only succeeded in describing a plausible scenario in which an atheist might launch a first strike against a theocracy. A president armed with ordinary Christian faith would have sufficient understanding of the faith of his adversary to find the scenario sufficiently implausible to keep that option off the table.

That is: the first strike is motivated not by "religious ideas" but by the atheist's understanding of religious ideas. And, in that light, atheism is actually quite dangerous, perhaps even, as Hedges is arguing, more dangerous than fundamentalism.

Hedges is of course guilty of caricaturing Harris's ideas for effect. But that's what debate is all about. I don't think he is guilty of intellectual dishonesty. Harris has used atheism to explain the necessity of a nuclear first-strike on, specifically, the Muslim world. He is afraid neither of the U.S. bomb nor the Israeli bomb. If his atheism is right, then such a first-strike becomes "plausible", no matter how horribly absurd it might seem. To people of faith, I think, the first-strike option remains simply unthinkable. It doesn't come up. You don't even take it up for consideration as a possible response to an Islamist regime armed with nuclear missiles. Harris appears to be scared enough of Muslims to seriously consider the possibility killing them all in order to ensure his own survival. (He wouldn't like to have to do it, you understand; but it may one day become necessary because, you know, that's the way "they" are.) His fear is built, not on a lack of faith, but on a lack of understanding of people of faith. It is, quite explicitly, based on atheism.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


My pet project of comparing Lorca's duende and Heidegger's Dasein continues to bear fruit.

Lorca's lecture, "Theory and Play of the Duende", can be transposed pangrammatically as "The Practice and Work of Dasein". Now, dipping into Being and Time these past few days, I've been brooding on the notion of "care", which is absolutely central to that work. Heidegger also explains "reality" [Wirklichkeit] as having an essential relation to "working" [wirken], and it seems natural to think of care as something that pertains to one's work. Careful work is existentially important.

Now, if I'm right about this Dasein-duende connection, then Dasein is to duende as existence is to inspiration. If our existence is grounded in the care we take in our work, then in what might we ground inspiration? Well, work is to play as the real is to the ideal, or rather work is to the real as play is to the ideal. If care brings existence to the real through work, what will bring inspiration to the ideal through play?

It seems to me that the answer is daring. Existence is grounded in careful work; inspiration stems from daring play. It has a kind of plausibility, and it also jibes nicely with the following: courage is to the ideal as curiosity is to the real.


From Lorca's lecture: "The bull has its own orbit: the toreador his, and between orbit and orbit lies the point of danger, where the vertex of terrible play exists."

From Heidegger's "Science and Reflection": "Aristotle's fundamental word for presencing, energeia, is properly translated by our word Wirklichkeit [reality] only if we, for our part, think the word wirken [to work] as the Greeks thought it, in the sense of bringing hither—into unconcealment, forth—into presencing." (In QTaOE, p. 160-1)

Heidegger, of course, was also fond of quoting Hölderlin's "where danger is, grows/The saving power also." The issue here is how care and daring constitute the here and now.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Literary Toxicology

It seems to me that there are times when it is obviously true that environmental protection depends less on the development of fresh ideas than the censure of polluters. Starting up an organic farm downriver, say, is less important than closing the chemical plant higher up.

Might the same be true of literature? I just read two highly respected but very bad novels in a row. (I knew the second one would bad. I read it inspired by the first.) Sometimes I want to write a novel. And sometimes I want to write diatribes against bad ones. (I also sometimes want to write appreciations of good novels, but I'm never quite sure that's necessary or even a dignified activity.) I'm wondering, though, whether it might not be the case that a good novelist, in a particular age, is wasting his talent. He should be writing scathing critiques of the garbage that is being poured into the river. That's Cyril Connolly's image (I'll provide a reference later) and I think his criticism—coupled with his (surprising) lack of any serious original literary output—is a good example of how individuals weigh the demands of the age.

Pound seems pretty "balanced" in this regard.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Some Mathematical Assistance, Please!

If there's anyone with the basic skills to help me out here, I'd much appreciate it. The rest can just enjoy the dizzying infinites implied more intuitively. We are, of course, talking about Borges.

I've been thinking about his Library of Babel again. Recall that each book has 410 pages and that every possible book is in the libary. That means that not only is every possible page (every combination of 40 lines of roughly 80 characters) but every possible combination of pages in the libary. Just as two books may differ in only a single A being a B on a particular page, so two books may differ only in page 7 being after page 8 rather than before it in one of them (I take it even the numbering may wrong in one book and right in another). That much is easy to understand.

But there is also another small possible difference between books that the library realizes. Two books may be identical except that one of them has its own title while the other is, say, the second of a four-volume set, while yet another version of the very same book may be the seventh of eighteen-volume set, etc., etc. The difference may appear only on the spine and the title page of the book. Or only on the spine. And two books may differ only by one of them containing the typographical error of being called "Volume 3" on the spine and "Volume 2" on the title page. So, while we can stick to the dogma that the library contains a finite number of books (all the possible combinations), it quickly becomes an enormous number. By putting some limits on the amount of writing on the spine (Borges doesn't say) we can calculate exactly how many books there will be.

That's not the math question I'm posing, but feel free to answer it if you want. I'm thinking of something Willard Quine once pointed out. Since all possible books in all possible sequences are part of the defintition of the library. The number of books becomes dizzying. But this, Quine notes, is also true of the amount of pages. The problem would arise even the pages were, not 410 pages long, but, say, 205, or 80, or 40, or even 1. We'd still need to arrange those pages in every possible order.

So Quine follows the logic out. What if we only had every possible line in the library? What if we only had every possile letter? What if we only had a 0 and a 1. This effectively erases the problem that the Library poses, doesn't it? The library is as meaningless an image as a zero and a one one two separate pieces of paper. The thought experiment is simply: arrange them in every possible way but under a particular set of contraints. And these constraints are simply arbitrary. "Every possible book" might just be two pieces of paper, one black, one white, until answer questions like: how many lines per page, how many characters per line, how many pages per book? And if we don't answer those questions at all, "every possible book" is an infinite among since there is an indefinite number of pages to work with, i.e., an infinite one.

Anyway, here's the math question. If we bring the library down from every possible book of 410 pages to every possible page, how much smaller would it be? I've been thinking 410410 times smaller. But is that right?

Friday, July 01, 2011

Tony Tost's America, My Summer

Here's my summer reading strategy. I'm going to read Tony Tost's poetry alongside Kate Greenstreet, Susan Briante, and Ben Lerner. I'm also going to read his PhD dissertation again (when I read it over Easter it crystalized a few things for me, something like an epiphany). And I'm going to read his American Recordings, which just came out. I have a working theory about Tony's America that is also a theory about poetry in general. (Tony Tost's America is poetry in general? Maybe.)

Have a great summer. I'll be back with my discoveries at the end of the month, probably.