Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Mr. Cell Phone Guy

For all of you who have ever sat in a restaurant and been forced to listen to every word spoken by someone on the other side of the room who thought it necessary to shout into his/her cell phone - someone who was oblivious to the fact that a phone can carry normal amplitudes perfectly well and who obviously believed that other people enjoy having their own conversations drowned out by his/her phone conversation - this one's for you.

Disclaimer: Nothing in this post should be construed as an endorsement of the product advertised at the link!

Blessing and Curse

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross has a column on Counterterrorism Blog in which he argues that Pakistan's deal with the the tribes and Taliban in Waziristan to withdraw from that province as long as they don't cause mischief in the rest of Pakistan effectively grants terrorists a safe haven in Waziristan.

I wonder, though, if there's not a silver lining here. I know that Pakistan has said that just because they are essentially ceding sovereignty over this region that that doesn't mean that they will permit foreigners to move in with impunity. Even so, as Waziristan becomes more independent of Islamabad, Musharef will find it increasingly convenient to do nothing if coalition forces in Afghanistan strike Taliban bases in western Pakistan.

In other words, an autonomous Waziristan could be both a blessing and a curse to the Taliban who use that area as a safe-haven. They no longer have to contend with the Pakistani military but they may soon have to contend with coalition smart bombs.

Counterterrorism Blog thinks that Pakistan's withdrawal is a serious blow to the effort to nurture Afghanistan's nascent democracy. It may, on the contrary, be a stroke of strategic genius that actually winds up making Waziristan less of a safe-haven that it was before. We'll see in due course.

Creeping Theocracy

Joe Carter recycles a fine 2004 piece that's still relevant to the latest bit of liberal paranoia over religion. He notes that the fear of many lefties, and even some conservatives, of what they see as creeping theocracy is really quite risible. He writes:

After all, more than half of American evangelicals are either Baptists or non-denominational. We don't even want a centralized church government much less a central government controlled by the church. So where does this silly canard come from?

He goes on to quote Eugene Volokh:

I keep hearing evangelical Christian leaders criticized for "trying to impose their religious dogma on the legal system," for instance by trying to change the law to ban abortion, or by trying to keep the law from allowing gay marriage.

I like to ask these critics: What do you think about the abolitionist movement of the 1800s? As I understand it, many -- perhaps most or nearly all -- of its members were deeply religious people, who were trying to impose their religious dogma of liberty on the legal system that at the time legally protected slavery.

Or what do you think about the civil rights movement? The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., after all, was one of its main leaders, and he supported and defended civil rights legislation as a matter of God's will, often in overtly religious terms. He too tried to impose his religious dogma on the legal system, which at the time allowed private discrimination, and in practice allowed governmental discrimination as well.

Or how about religious opponents of the draft, opponents of the death penalty, supporters of labor unions, supporters of welfare programs, who were motivated by their religious beliefs -- because deeply religious people's moral beliefs are generally motivated by their religious beliefs -- in trying to repeal the draft, abolish the death penalty, protect labor, or better the lot of the poor? Perhaps their actions were wrong on the merits....But would you condemn these people on the grounds that it was simply wrong for them to try to impose their religious beliefs on the legal system?

Volokh does a nice job of pointing out the absurdity of the complaint about people using religion as a motivation for public policy, and the rest of his piece is worth reading, but beyond his sensible reply there are other reasons why the idea that Christians have no right to impose their values on the rest of society is inane. For one thing, the person voicing the objection is trying to impose his value on others by intimidating the rest of us into accepting it. His value is that people who don't believe like him must not be allowed to legally burden the rest of society with their values. But by prohibiting Christians from having recourse to legislative action his value becomes a legal proscription on Christians and everyone else. So he's doing exactly what he condemns the Christian for doing.

Moreover, coming from anyone who does not believe in a personal God the claim that imposing one's values is wrong is simply incomprehensible. If there is no God then nothing is wrong, including imposing one's values on others. I have the right to do whatever I have the power and the desire to do in a godless universe, and it's simply empty rhetoric to insist that I don't.

An example, though, of someone who wants to say just this is in the comment section of Volokh's blog. The commenter writes:

Personally I hold the position that it's illegitimate (from an ethical, not a constitutional standpoint) to justify one's decisions about how society should be run based on assumptions one cannot defend reasonably. As I have yet to see any compelling defense made on evidence that ...1) there is a god and 2) that god does not want me to be a homosexual, I find it unethical to try to legislate my choice to be or not be homosexual based on those propositions.

My understanding is that a significant segment of the religious right makes their case exclusively on these grounds. I take this position not because of moral relativism, but because of the lack of a reasoned argument that can be presented for the case. To the extent that one desires to restrict another based on propositions one cannot defend reasonably, I believe that one is behaving unethically. I think that legislating me based on assumptions based on faith rather than reason disrespects me as a human being capable of thought.

Note that the writer is not saying that it should be illegal to impose one's values on others legislatively but rather that it's unethical. But an appeal to ethics works no better for him than an appeal to the law. The writer is evidently skeptical of the existence of God, but if there is no God then what he asserts in his last two sentences makes no sense. What does it mean to say "one is behaving unethically"? It can only mean that one is behaving in ways that the writer doesn't like, but, if so, so what? Why is that bad or wrong?

He suggests that it's unethical to treat him this way because it's a form of disrespect, but he gives us no reason why we should think that treating him with disrespect is wrong. What makes him think that he must be respected? Does he have a right to be respected? Certainly he does not if there's no transcendent moral authority that confers that right upon him. On the assumption that there is no such being he has no such right.

So, the irony of all this is that the only people who can say that nobody has the right to impose their values on others is a person who believes that there is a God who insists that we respect each other. Failing that all the talk of morality, ethics, and rights is just so much rhetorical blather signifying nothing.