Archive for April, 2008

Moment of Truth

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

The war in Iraq and how to proceed from this point are difficult to debate. People have erected entrenched positions and are not open to evidence that might undermine those ideas. Moreover it is hard to find contemporaneous eye-witness accounts as to what is happening on the ground in Iraq.  Michael Yon’s on-site accounts provide a notable exception.

Micheal Yon is a former member of the Green Berets who has managed to become perhaps the most useful and prolific independent embedded journalist in Iraq. During his years in Iraq he has traveled with various different US and British troops throughout Iraq. His willingness to follow these troops into dangerous areas, armed only with a camera, has earned him the trust and respect of Coalition  forces.

Yon has regularly posted dispatches on his blog from Iraq. Now Yon has published a book, Moment of Truth in Iraq, which extend the stories behind these blogs to a more complete narrative.

When Yon first traveled to Iraq in 2004, he was frustrated by the US military establishment’s inability to deal with or even recognize the best way to deal with the Iraq insurgency. The Iraqis needed security and normalcy. There were simply not enough troops to provide these.  His critique angered some in the military and Yon had difficulty in returning to Iraq.

After the liberation of Iraq in 2003, the Coalition’s inability to provide security allowed Al Qaeda to gain a foothold. Al Qaeda’s goal was to further de-stabilize Iraq by trying and many times succeeded in instigating sectarian violence.

Yon’s thesis is that the reason that Al Qaeda did not ultimate succeed in 2004-2005 when it might have is the same reason that hope remains in Iraq.  Al Qaeda does not rule, it destroys. In areas, where they dominated they proved cruel lords, raping and killing indiscriminately, while rigidly enforcing rigid religious rules on others. Al Qaeda has no problem deliberately killing civilians to seize political advantage. Iraqis have come to recognize Al Qaeda do not offer a promising future.

On the other hand, while Americans have made mistakes, by and large,they  want to help Iraqis. With the recent surge in troops, American have been able to provide more security. Iraqis have seen Americans kill Al Qaeda and quickly returned to help build schools. Iraqi have seen American troops take personal risks to mitigate damage to civilians. Iraqis have seen American troops help fairly mediate disputes between Iraqis while they rebuild. It is this inherent goodness on the part of American troops on the ground that makes victory in Iraq possible.

Early in the war, some who disagreed with the war used the abuses at Abu Ghraid to make this event a symbol of the war and unfortunately of American troops. Perhaps with time the Yon’s famous picture from Iraq will come to be the iconic image of the Iraq War. It shows an American soldier sheltering a young Iraqi girl as he pulls her from the site of a suicide bombing.

As a consequence of the surge and the strategy employed by General Petraeus, Yon concludes:

“The war isn’t over yet. Victory remains in question. The choice is ours, the time is now — for a moment of truth in Iraq. What are we going to do?”

Unintelligent Debate Over Intelligent Design

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

“…the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).” — Stephen Jay Gould.

The debate between some scientists and some believers over the issue of Intelligent Design is only useful in that illuminates the re-occurrence of issues that should have been settled rather definitively in the last century. The movement to promote Intelligent Design as a critique of Darwinisn is primarily reflective of a reaction by believers against some rationalists and humanists who wish to stamp out belief.

Intelligent Design posits an answer to a question that science, as a matter of axiom, refuses to allow itself. The essential argument of Intelligent Design is that Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is not sufficient to explain either the origin of life or of its observed wondrous complexity and beauty.  Hence, there must be an “intelligent designer.” Although the theory of natural selection has proven extremely useful and effective in explaining observed evolution, there are surely open questions that need be addressed or observations that can not yet been completely explained.

One axiom of science is not to permit itself to resort to supernatural explanations. When confronted with the unknown or unexplainable, scientists must step a back and simply say science is not sufficient, at least not yet, of explaining the observations. An intelligent agent behind nature is excluded from the scientific solution set

Nonetheless, people are free to adopt the disciplines of science or not depending on their purposes and preferences. Indeed, one can assert the existence of an intelligent designer even if we find scientific explanations largely sufficient.

As Gould observes “…the magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.” Religion answers the questions of why not how. In any integrated personality, both these questions must be addressed, but there is no reason why an individual cannot use the different ways of thinking to address different problems. For example, no one would find it unexpected that one would use a different set of sensibilities for  scientific inquiry than literary or art appreciation.

At this point, the polemical extremes are battling it out. One one side we have evangelical atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who mock traditional believers and not too subtly paint them as simple-minded and religious belief as inherently destructive. On the other hand, Ben Stein in the new film Expelled criticizes the scientific establishment for using dismissals and tenure denial as a heavy-handed means to suppress criticism by Intelligent Design advocates. Science, which is based on open inquiry, is thus easy to paint as hypocritical.

This is an unnecessary battle resting on a misunderstanding of the appropriate relationship between science and religion.

School Study on Character

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

A focus on race and ethnicity on applications for jobs and student enrollment is a conspicuous measure of the importance on which some in government place on these traits. Of course, the key reason for gathering these statistics is to insure that jobs and school performance are proportionately distributed by government action. Any disparity in outcome becomes a reason to allocate more resources to minority students or to provide preferential treatment. The repetition of such actions and thoughts inevitably results in the internalization of such race-conscious view of the world. The recent controversial study commissioned by Fairfax County, a prosperous county in suburban Virgina, is one unfortunate consequence.

By examining teacher marks on report cards on whether a student “listens to and follows directions,” “respects personal and school property,” “complies with established rules,” and “follows through on assignments,”  the study compiled statistics on this admittedly rather crude estimates of character. The authors of the study found that Asian and white students scored higher than Hispanic and black students on their measure of  “sound moral character and ethical judgment.”

This disparity is not so pleasing because it does not obviously suggest that more government resources should be devoted to minority groups, but rather re-enforces negative racial and ethnic stereotypes. It is hard to be too sympathetic to this Liberal quandary because such situations are result of persistently focusing on race and ethnicity instead of more relevant issues and concerns.

I am not sure whether such statistics are available to Fairfax County researchers, but it would seem more relevant to search for correlations and possible causes of character problems with the concern of parents as to the moral education of their children, whether there are two parents active in the child’s life, the number and quality of books in the home, the amount of television watched in the home, parental drug and alcohol abuse,  and whether the children are overly exposed to the negative cultural influences such as “gangster rap.”

There is absolutely no reason to believe that skin pigmentation in any way influences moral character. However, situations that are correlated with inadequate child rearing have come to be associated with race, ethnicity an poverty. In some ways, we may be all to blame. Perhaps our Libertarian instincts make it difficult to involve ourselves in our community to encourage proper more behavior. Maybe welfare programs and public housing programs were unintentionally structured in a manner that discourages the involvement of fathers in lives of their children.

These are all  reasonable and fruitful areas for academic inquiry. However, an inordinate focus on race and ethnicity may have been responsible for looking for correlates to moral character in the wrong places. Are we now at a time when Conservatives and Liberals can at least agree on this much?