Monthly Archives: April 2009

Oh Essays

Only a few more essays left. I’m writing one right now. In my four years here, nothing else has caused more pain, anxiety, and sleepless nights. I suppose one could say that having children would beat essays in all three departments, but at least the former experience would be balanced out by moments of euphoria and pride. I have occasionally felt euphoria while writing essays, but I am sure that this was caused by the alcohol. I feel zero pride for my essays, which I suppose has been part of the reason why my college experience was so miserable.

Compromising Our Principles

It takes a particular talent to write something so jam-packed with spectacular falsehoods, but Tom Friedman manages to do it. He recognizes that Americans tortured, but comes to the bizarre conclusion that we should not prosecute. He gets it right when he says, “Look, our people killed detainees, and only a handful of those deaths have resulted in any punishment of U.S. officials.” Yet he quells his moral outrage using sophistry.

His first argument is unsubstantiated and reveals a tyrannical mindset. He says:

The first [reason we should not prosecute is] because justice taken to its logical end here would likely require bringing George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and other senior officials to trial, which would rip our country apart.

He never substantiates the claim that bringing George Bush to trial would “rip our country apart.” How, pray tell, would that happen? Would the gigantic number of Bush supporters go crazy? Would the Republicans threaten to filibuster every important bill in Congress? This claim is conjured out of thin air.

The worst part of it is that the idea of carrying justice to its logical end shocks Mr. Friedman. Yes, we could begin to prosecute low-level torturers. That would not tear our nation apart. But God forbid that we punish those at the top! Our elected officials cannot be prosecuted! That would be barbaric! That would tear apart the very fabric of the nation! It takes a very tyrannical mindset to shirk from the duties of justice when it pertains to those in power.

His second argument is worse, and it is wrong in so many ways, I’m not sure where to begin. Let us read the introduction of the argument:

Al Qaeda truly was a unique enemy, and the post-9/11 era a deeply confounding war in a variety of ways.

This is a complete non sequitur. Al Qaeda is evil; therefore we should not prosecute for war crimes. I fail to see the connection.

It gets worse.

Here’s Mr. Friedman’s cartoonish, Manichaean account of Al Qaeda:

First, Al Qaeda was undeterred by normal means. Al Qaeda’s weapon of choice was suicide. Al Qaeda operatives were ready to kill themselves — as they did on 9/11, and before that against U.S. targets in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tanzania and Yemen — long before we could ever threaten to kill them. We could deter the Russians because they loved their children more than they hated us; they did not want to die. The Al Qaeda operatives hated us more than they loved their own children. They glorified martyrdom and left families behind.

First, Al Qaeda is not composed of evil supermen who will stop at nothing to kill us. Khalid Sheik Mohammed was merely a thug who loved to kill people and blow shit up. He was not a religious fanatic: “He was obviously pathologically antisemitic but not very religious himself. He wasn’t one to quote Saudi clerics.” Tell me, when did KSM plan on blowing himself up? He was having too good a time posing as a rich businessman and getting blowjobs.

Even if they were religious fanatics, this does not exonerate torture. If they’ll stop at nothing, then how is torture supposed to deter them? The fact is that the torture at Abu Ghraib was perhaps the number one propaganda tool of Al Qaeda recruiters. Thanks for encouraging the killing of our soldiers, Mr. Friedman.

Then, Mr. Friedman pulls out the old WMD playbook:

Second, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda aspired to deliver a devastating blow to America. They “were involved in an extraordinarily sophisticated and professional effort to acquire weapons of mass destruction. In this case, nuclear material,” Michael Scheuer, the former C.I.A. bin Laden expert, told “60 Minutes” in 2004. “By the end of 1996, it was clear that this was an organization unlike any other one we had ever seen.”

Oh please. Mr. Friedman’s argument for torture can be summed up in one word: FEAR.

It is interesting that Mr. Friedman chooses the word “compromise” to describe not prosecuting war criminals. He would gladly compromise our principles because he fears terrorist supermen. Nothing exonerates torture. I don’t care how evil Al Qaeda is; it does not excuse his sadism.

[There’s so much bullshit in here that I can’t write a coherent entry. Mr. Friedman pulls out the “flypaper theory” after talking about bombs. If Al Qaeda had a bomb, don’t you think they’d try to blow it up in the US before Iraq? How exactly will this deter them?]

The commenters are much more eloquent than I am.

EDIT: This post would’ve been much better if I had just focused on KSM.

Struggling Toward Consensus

Ross Douthat’s column in the New York Times is morally idiocy disguised by a veneer of reasonableness. Read this incredibly stupid passage:

He wasn’t alone. A large swath of the political class wants to avoid the torture debate. The Obama administration backed into it last week, and obviously wants to back right out again.

But the argument isn’t going away. It will be with us as long as the threat of terrorism endures. And where the Bush administration’s interrogation programs are concerned, we’ve heard too much to just “look forward,” as the president would have us do. We need to hear more: What was done and who approved it, and what intelligence we really gleaned from it. Not so that we can prosecute – unless the Democratic Party has taken leave of its senses – but so that we can learn, and pass judgment, and struggle toward consensus.

Learn, pass judgment, and struggle toward consensus? Has hundreds of years of history simply disappeared? I thought Mr. Douthat was supposed to be conservative, so it is strange that he would ignore the fact that our ancestors and recent predecessors have already figured out that torture is wrong and should be punished.

What is left to learn? Torture is cruel and ineffective. In the West, in Russia, and in the East, we see time and time again that the most effective interrogators eschew physical force and that systematic policies of torture result in false confessions. Here’s Liao-Fan in the 16th century: “Also, extreme beating can force an innocent suspect to plead guilty.” We have a long and dark history of the consequences of torture: the Spanish Inquisition, Stalin’s show trials, the Khmer Rouge.

What consensus is there to reach? That torture is wrong? That torture is brutal and immoral? One must have a malfunctioning moral compass in order to have not yet reached that conclusion.

Imagine that the President had kept slaves in the White House. Ah, but reasonable people agree that we must investigate in order to “learn, and pass judgment, and struggle toward consensus.” Never mind that the issue of slavery has already been decided.

We have already learned, already passed judgment, and already struggled towards consensus. History has already passed its verdict. We have the Geneva Conventions, and Ronald Reagan signing treaties against torture. What more consensus do we need?

We need none of what Mr. Douthat urges, unless you cleave the present from the entire history of Western Civilization. We already know everything we need to know about torture. What’s needed now is punishment for war crimes.

The Enemies of Liberty

James Wilson:

The enemies of liberty are artful and insidious. A counterfeit steals her dress, imitates her manner, forges her signature, assumes her name. But the real name of the deceiver is licentiousness. Such is her effrontery, that she will charge liberty to her face with imposture: and she will, with shameless front, insist that herself alone is the genuine character, and that herself alone is entitled to the respect, which the genuine character deserves. With the giddy and undiscerning, on whom a deeper impression is made by dauntless impudence than by modest merit, her pretensions are often successful. She receives the honours of liberty, and liberty herself is treated as a traitor and a usurper. Generally, however, this bold impostor acts only a secondary part. Though she alone appear upon the stage, her motions are regulated by dark ambition, who sits concealed behind the curtain, and who knows that despotism, his other favourite, can always follow the success of licentiousness.

Jon Meacham:

The answer depends, at least in part, on how we turn back the page. Is a Watergate- or Iran-contra-style congressional probe the way to go? No, for public hearings encourage—demand, really—dramatic plays for attention from lawmakers. Such a stage would lead to the expression of extreme views.

So we do not want that. Nor, I think, do we want to open criminal investigations into those who participated in brutal interrogation methods. And to pursue criminal charges against officials at the highest levels—including the former president and the former vice president—would set a terrible precedent. (The presidential historian Michael Beschloss suggests that the closest parallel to a president authorizing a probe of his predecessor can be found in the 1920s, when Calvin Coolidge appointed special prosecutors to investigate Warren Harding’s role in the Teapot Dome scandal.) That is not to say presidents and vice presidents are always above the law; there could be instances in which such a prosecution is appropriate, but based on what we know, this is not such a case. [emphasis mine]

David Broder:

But having vowed to end the practices, Obama should use all the influence of his office to stop the retroactive search for scapegoats.

This is not another Sept. 11 situation, when nearly 3,000 Americans were killed. We had to investigate the flawed performances and gaps in the system and make the necessary repairs to reduce the chances of a deadly repetition.

The memos on torture represented a deliberate, and internally well-debated, policy decision, made in the proper places — the White House, the intelligence agencies and the Justice Department — by the proper officials.

One administration later, a different group of individuals occupying the same offices has — thankfully — made the opposite decision. Do they now go back and investigate or indict their predecessors?

That way, inevitably, lies endless political warfare. It would set the precedent for turning all future policy disagreements into political or criminal vendettas. That way lies untold bitterness — and injustice. [emphasis mine]

What a topsy-turvy world we live in! It is not torture that is the extremist view, but the prosecution of an inhumane and brutal crime that would be extremist. It is not letting people go free for war crimes that sets a dangerous precedent, but pursuing proper justice for criminals that sets a dangerous precedent. Nor is it the very act of torture that sets a dangerous precedent, but putting torturers in prison that would set a dangerous precedent. God forbid that our elected officials be subject to the laws! That would be bad precedent!

And in the most topsy-turvy statement of all, the pursuit of justice is turned into injustice. Indisputable war crimes should be ignored — that is justice. Prosecution for torture, following the Law of Nations, our treaties, our Constitution, and our laws — that is injustice. “Such is her effrontery, that she will charge liberty to her face with imposture.”

I may be “bitter,” but you, sirs, have no shame. The enemies of liberty are artful and insidious, indeed.

Less Yearning

It’s been a week since I’ve been trying to check and process my e-mail once a day. So far, I’ve been able to process all my e-mails during that one session, which I’m pretty proud of. That was a secondary goal, which I wasn’t going to focus on, but I still am doing it.

The primary goal is only checking my e-mail once. It was initially rough, but it’s getting easier. During the day, I didn’t feel any aggressive urges to check my e-mail. I didn’t feel anything while I was surfing online during lunch, nor did I feel anything after I was reading blogs after my last class. Usually the urge to check e-mail is worst in the morning, but I woke up kind of late today and didn’t have time to go on the computer.

During the week, there were times when I was forced to use e-mail before 10PM because I had to e-mail myself something. I refrained from reading my e-mails, though, and processed them all at the end of the day. I wish there was some way to send e-mails without checking your e-mail.

I’m very encouraged by this. If I can break this addiction, then I can break my other internet addictions.

Dynasty Complete

My cousin just sent me this text: “Dynasty complete, I got semper fi”

I went to the same school as three of my cousins (all siblings). My older cousin played trombone, I played trombone, my younger cousin played trombone. We were all first chair in jazz and Wind Ensemble. We were all drum major. And we all got the semper fi award. Plus, my friend Daryl, who played second trombone under me for several years, succeeded me as drum major and first chair.

Trombone dynasty. I’m proud of my cousin for continuing the legacy.

Military Reforms

I liked the suggestions in the op-ed: Up, Up and Out.

The prose in this article is not particularly eloquent. However, it expresses its ideas clearly and that is the most important element for writing, is it not? I recently said to a classmate that the purpose of language is to communicate and if your writing obscures meaning, then you’ve committed a sin. This has no such sin.

Here are the suggestions:

  • Scrap the Air Force and integrate it into the other services
  • Eliminate the “up or out” promotion policy
  • Institute a mandatory national service program

I’ve already seen the scrap the Air Force argument before and was convinced of it back then. The “up or out” thing is new to me, and Kane has persuaded me.

The mandatory national service program is definitely more complicated an issue. I do think it can do a lot of good, and the idea about having a bunch of young people dedicated to disaster relief is very appealing. I think I’ve also seen the argument before. Emergency response is one of the best things we can spend our money on, so I’m all for it. I haven’t thought much about the other ways we could use this service. He lists “intelligence assessment, conservation, antipoverty projects, educational tutoring, firefighting, policing, border security, disaster relief or care for the elderly,” and at first glance I have no objection aside from policing.

Is this kind of thing feasible? There are so many young people in the US. Maybe a national service would best be run by states? I really have no idea about the administration of this thing, but I do think a certain amount of localism would be beneficial. It could create some community in our hyperfragmented society.

No One Has the Right to Do Wrong

I have been reading some right-wing responses to the torture memos, and they are really disturbing. One common trope is to invoke the specter of 9/11 and then accuse anyone who would oppose torture as also hating America. Apparently, we blame America first and do not want to do anything to prevent another 9/11. I am reminded of this passage from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning:

During this psychological phase one observed that people with natures of a more primitive kind could not escape the influences of brutality which had surrounded them in camp life. Now, being free, they thought they could use their freedom licentiously and ruthlessly. The only thing that had changed for them was that they were now the oppressors instead of the oppressed. They became instigators, not objects, of willfull force and injustice. They justified their behavior by their own terrible experiences. This was often revealed in apparently insignificant events. A friend was walking across a field with me toward the camp when suddenly we came to a field of green crops. Automatically, I avoided it, but he drew his arm through mine and dragged me through it. I stammered something about not treading down the young crops. He became annoyed, gave me an angry look and shouted, “You don’t say! And hasn’t enough been taken from us? My wife and child have been gassed — not to mention everything else — and you would forbid me to tread on a few stalks of oats!”

Only slowly could these men be guided back to the commonplace truth that no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.

It would be cheap and easy to say, “I was unaware that Viktor Frankl was a self-hating Jew. I was unaware that he blamed the Jews first and wanted to coddle the Nazis.” So I am not going to bother attacking the logic of the conservative’s absurd ad hominem attacks. Their worldview is so simplistic that they cannot comprehend that a political opponent might not be a traitor.

9/11/2001 reduced them to a primitive state of being. They have thrown out their morals. As long as they can invoke 9/11, they can justify any act, no matter how cruel. Here is Manadel al-Jamadi, who was tortured to death. “Yawn,” the conservative replies. “This was just a fraternity prank.”

Manadel al-Jamadi, ruled a homicide in CIA custody.

Manadel al-Jamadi, ruled a homicide in CIA custody.

The trauma of 9/11 is not a rhetorical bludgeon for you to use. It is especially sickening to think that you’re using these victims’ deaths in order to justify torture and to excuse our political leaders from war crimes. I’m sure the dead would be proud. I’m sure that those dead firefighters are proud that their heroism is being used to justify slamming people into walls and then waterboarding them 183 times. It is sad that conservatives justify their sadism by defacing the memory of dead Americans. It is sad that conservatives take so much rhetorical glee and have such zest in remembering the deaths of 3000 people.

I have not forgotten 9/11. I merely choose to not use it to justify brutality, or to buttress every political idiocy I can think of.

Torture is sickening and should shock the conscience. I am unsure if those conservatives even have a conscience. You who purport to defend Western Civilization have thrown away what it means to be civilized.

War cannot excuse war crimes. I don’t care how many times you spit on the graves of dead Americans with your illogical rhetoric and vicious immorality. It will not justify torture. “No one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.”

Forgetting and the Rush (Another Chronicle in the E-mail Saga)

It’s currently 10:30PM. I had completely forgotten about checking my e-mail, until right now. (I was watching “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” on TV.)

I think it’s good that I was able to forget checking my e-mail. It shows a sense of the addiction waning.

The bad thing is the excited feeling I got that I now had the opportunity to check my e-mail. I felt a rush of excitement. Goodness. I may need more than two weeks in order to complete this detox.

Gmail and Slot Machines

I’m continuing my “check e-mail once a day” experiment. I just realized that checking my e-mail is like playing slot machines. It’s fucking addictive: Why is Slot Machine Gambling Considered “The Crack Cocaine” of Gambling Addiction?. I think they work through the same mechanism of intermittent reinforcement. Sometimes I check my e-mail and there’s something new in the inbox. Reward! Sometimes I check and there’s nothing new, or just spam. No reward. Play again later.

The reason why I checked my e-mail so often was because it was like a slot machine. Press a button, hope for reward. Because of the intermittent reinforcement, I became more addicted.

The same thing happens with blogs, too. I check for updates and feel a reward when I find an update amongst the myriad blogs I check everyday.

I’m going to work on one addiction at a time, though. So far, so good with the e-mail. I kind of self-medicate with other drugs (e.g. blogs) to get me through sometimes. Yesterday, however, my desire to check other things on the internets actually decreased. Not sure if that was actual spillover (a la cleaning my desk at random times), or just a blip. In any case, the focus is still e-mail.

Jittery from E-mail Withdrawal

Originally, I was going to limit myself to checking my e-mail twice a day. But most of my e-mails aren’t very urgent, so I knew I could get away with only checking once a day. I set that time for 10PM.

All throughout today, I kept feeling the urge to check my e-mail. I wanted to give in. I wanted to revise the resolution. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to check my e-mail twice a day, yes? I successfully fought the urge.

At 10PM I allowed myself to check my e-mail, and then deleted all the e-mails that I had received today. I find it rather ridiculous that I receive at least 10 e-mails a day. Most of these e-mails are useless and annoying. I’ll be glad when I’m done with school and can then instantly delete anything I get from JHU ever again.

Seeing how hard it is to break this e-mail addiction, I think it’s going to be even harder when I try to read less blogs. Ugh. That’s for later, though.

5 Essays Left

After a night of drunken typing, I only have 5 essays left. Yes!

The number 13 burns brightly in my mind. On May 12, I take my last final. On May 13, I’m free.

Of course, I’m well-aware that upon completing college, I’ll feel a kind of emptiness. I’ll be like, “This is it?” Unlike Super Mario Galaxy, I won’t even have a lame bonus level to complete. Oh wait, never mind, this is exactly like SMG: I have a stupid graduation ceremony to listen through. (Note: May want to do some type of protest when Speaker Pelosi is there and if Obama administration has not released torture memos yet.) Luckily, I have another goal lined up: Work on TCM.

Reducing Anxiety

Blargh. I’ve been feeling really anxious lately. All these essays I have yet to do weigh heavily in my mind. I can’t really have fun; they’re like oppressive black clouds hovering in the background. Honestly, I just want to crawl into a ball and give up. I don’t want to write anything anymore.

But let’s put this into perspective. In less than 1 month, I will be done. No more philosophy, history, whatever essays. I no longer have to write dull, uninspiring regurgitations. One month of suffering, of dark clouds, and then there is light.

Last semester, I had a lot more pages to write when it was finals time. Last semester, I didn’t have senior option for one of my classes. This semester will be easier than last semester. I was not anxious last semester; I felt calm despite the work. Should I not be less anxious now?

I just have to keep my eye on the prize, so to speak. Keep staring at that circled day, May 13. That precious day when I get back my freedom.

Two New Habits

So back in January, I read Leo Babauta’s book, The Power of Less. I started on January 26th, trying to acquire a new habit. I wanted to write down my three most important tasks in the morning. I dropped a day or two, but I made it through the thirty days without missing two days in a row. By the end, I had a nice row of dots on my calendar, with one dot for each day I did this habit. I congratulated myself on a new habit in my notebook.

More than a month later, I am still writing down my three most important tasks in the morning. I forget sometimes, but I manage to write them down later in the day if I’m in a rush. If I don’t write them down, I feel bad, like when I go to bed without brushing my teeth.

I initially failed at starting a second habit. The idea was to focus on a task for 10 minutes at a time. I thought this sufficiently small. The problem was measuring this. Each time I did a task, I had to note the time, write the task down, and then measure whether I did it for 10 minutes or not. Constantly doing this throughout the day was a chore, and I quit.

I think I bit off more than I could chew. If I were to choose a similar habit, I just might make it something like: When you sit down to read, make sure you read at least 10 pages before getting up. I’ll make it task-specific.

After that failure, I decided to try something simpler. I cleaned up my desk, and made it my goal to clean my desk every night before I went to bed. I continued with the dot system. It went pretty well, until I went on vacation for a week. I didn’t clean my desk because I didn’t have a desk.

Once I got back from vacation, I went back to work. Since April 1st, I’ve dropped only one day. It hasn’t been 30 days since vacation, but I’m going to declare today the ending day and congratulate myself on a new habit.

Cleaning my desk at night has actually changed my behavior during the day as well. I will spontaneously clean my desk when it looks messy. I will put everything in its place. I will take notebooks and books off the desk and put them in their proper spot. I’m very happy about this.

I’m looking for the next habit to undertake. There are two things I want to do: Keep my inbox at zero, and only check my e-mail twice a day. Hm, and goodness, there are other sites that I obsessively check that I should limit.

I’ve decided I’m going to focus on checking my e-mail only once a day. I will do this for two weeks. In the meantime, I will try to delete my e-mails, but I will not focus on keeping the inbox empty. After the two weeks, I will move on to processing that inbox to zero.

Let’s see what happens.

For years, I’ve been prattling on about how habits are important. Only now has that theoretical knowledge become practical knowledge. Time to work on habit #3.

The Birds Are Singing

As I walked to class the other day, I felt strange. You know when you first wake up in the morning, and you just feel weird? When you’re not sure if you’re really awake or not? Yeah, that’s how I felt. I wasn’t sure if the world was real or not.

Right then, a bird chirped. It interrupted my egoistic, metaphysical musing. My mind moved from inside my head, and I was shocked into the outside world. I saw the bird, sitting a couple feet away, and acknowledged, “Yes, you are real.” It was real; I was real; the world was real. Thank you, bird.

The rest of the walk to class was bizarre. I did my best to listen to the birds singing. I had finally noticed that they were all around, singing. However, I also saw people. I looked at each one of them and noticed that not one of them seemed alive. My eyes darted from person to person, and I felt the deadness within them. The birds were singing, and it seemed as if I was the only person listening. I don’t think I even saw a smile on anyone’s face.

Later, I walked to my second class. I heard loud music booming near Levering Hall. It was that sickening ad campaign for some Nissan car. I almost stormed over there. I wanted to knock over the tables and shout, “Turn off this music! The birds are singing! Stop this consumeristic nonsense!” I wanted to be like Jesus in the temple. Instead, I just continued on my way to class.

I wonder if I was right to shake off my wild impulse.

The birds are singing. Have you ever heard them?

5 Weeks, 7 Papers

Goodness. Tell me, how is it that I have only 5 weeks left for classes, but I still have 7 papers due?

This, plus the hundreds of pages of reading.

No wait, 4 weeks of class. At least I’ll have a free week to work on two of the papers.

This is funny. I made a list of my papers so I wouldn’t feel overwhelmed, but this list has just made me more crazy.

I guess now I’ll just have to make a plan.

Lessons from the Gracchi

I recently read the stories of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchi in Plutarch’s Lives, for my Roman Republic class. I was quite captivated by their stories. Would it not be glorious to shine bright and die young, as a champion of the people? Don’t the people need a voice? Should I not emulate them?

But perhaps I have taken the wrong lesson from Roman history. The factionilizing of class was itself a symptom of decay. Tiberius and Gaius were precursors for more convulsions, not final resolution. (Although now perhaps I must refresh my memory of Machiavelli because I think he said the convulsions were good things.) So maybe they are not the best models?

In any case, it is easy to see how Rome’s greatest victory, the defeat of Carthage, contained the seeds of the downfall of the republic. Dominance over the Mediterranean actually destroyed the virtue of Rome. Maybe it’s because I have been reading about Daoism that I interpret events this way. In defeat, there lays victory; in victory, there lays defeat.

The defeat of the USSR has led to American hegemony. America, I believe, will churn on for quite a while. But the republican/democratic system? I can see the wheels of history turning and the future looks bleak unless we give up the dream of hegemony.

When it comes to politics, it is best to look beyond simple class warfare. I shouldn’t ignore class, but there’s more to look at.


I’m currently reading Sallust’s The Jugurthine War and boy is it full of fireworks.

This is how it starts:

False is the complaint which the human race makes about its nature, namely, that it is weak and of short duration and ruled by chance rather than by prowess. On the contrary, you would find, after reflection, that nothing else is greater or more outstanding, and that what human nature lacks is industriousness on man’s part rather than strength or time.

I also love the speech from C. Memmius bashing the Roman elite. It really matches how I feel in this economic times. Here’s an excerpt:

Nor are those who have done these things ashamed or repentant, but the braggarts stride past your faces, flaunting their priesthoods and consulships, and some of them their triumphs, as if these possessions were an honour, not plunder. Slaves who have been procured for cash do not endure unjust commands from their masters; do you, Citizens, who have been born into command, tolerate slavery with equanimity? Who are those who have taken over the commonwealth? The most criminal of beings, with gory hands and monstrous avarice, guilty and haughty in full and equal measure, for whom loyalty, dignity, devotion, and everything honourable and dishonourable is a source of profit.