Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bonanza Column 173 – Does the End Justify the Means?

One of the oldest debates in moral philosophy is based in the question "does the end justify the means?" Like most questions of morals, this one does not admit of an easy answer, though there are those who have attempted to answer it categorically. Machiavelli, in The Prince, was unequivocal – the end a ruler sets his sights on is all and any means used to obtain that end are justified. Given that the eponymous prince was Cesare Borgia and the time was Renaissance Italy, the ruling class naturally found this advice very agreeable.

Most philosophers come to a conclusion along the lines of "it depends." If the end is moral, and the only way to achieve it is immoral, then the end may justify the means. For example, if I can save the life of a child (moral) by lying to a murderer about the child's whereabouts (immoral), then the end is sufficiently important to justify the means. On the other hand if I can convert an atheist to belief in God (moral) by lying to him about God (immoral), then no, the end doesn't justify the means because the means are contradictory to the end.

There are people who, like the Borgias, are firmly convinced that any means are justified to achieve their ends. These are people who are so firmly convinced that they are right that nothing can create even the slightest crack in their certainty. Fundamentalists and extremists of every stripe – on the political left and right, in virtually every religion fall into this category.

While no one in politics is immune from falling into this trap, we've recently seen what I think are some particularly egregious examples of it from members of the Republican Party. In the past couple of weeks it's been revealed that a large number of the leading Senate opponents of the economic stimulus – people who railed against it as everything from ineffective to socialist, have quietly been getting money for their states from that same stimulus and touting its effectiveness – even taking credit for it – people from the same party that excoriated John Kerry for being a flip-flopper – these same people are now reversing themselves on a wholesale basis on anything that the GOP has done or endorsed that President Obama now supports.

In fact, that is the only logic to their actions – if Obama's for it, we're against it. Try KSM in civilian courts – horrors! But under a Republican administration Richard Reed, the shoe bomber, and hundreds of others were tried (and convicted) in civilian courts . Act aggressively against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, even killing key leaders – Horrors! But Obama is soft on terrorism.

I'm not saying that the left is immune to hypocrisy – but the scale of GOP lying (the shoe bomber was an American citizen, Obama hasn't used the word "war" to describe our opposition to terror) and hypocrisy (denouncing the stimulus while taking money and credit for it on the sly and praising its effectiveness, calling for Rahm Emanuel to resign for using the word "retarded" but excusing Rush Limbaugh for the exact same thing) seems to me to be unprecedented.

De Tocqueville said that in a democracy the people get the government we deserve. If we continue to tolerate the Right's "say anything, do anything, as long as it makes the President look bad and gets us elected" assault, then maybe we do deserve them if they are voted in in 2012.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Tahoe Ticker Column 21 - Hypocrisy-Fest on the Right

"Yeah of course its extreme, you don't know anything the individual he could have had other issues." Imagine if that was said about the underwear bomber or the Ft. Hood killer, and now imagine the outrage from the right that would follow – further proof that liberals are soft on terrorism! Treason! String 'em all up!

Now imagine that the quote is not from a liberal or democrat, but from our newest US Senator, Mr. Brown of Massachusetts, the poster boy for grassroots outrage, who ran in part on a platform of being tougher on terrorism than is the current mode of operations. And he said it not about a terrorist so inept that all he did was set his pants on fire, but one who flew a small plane into a government office building where 200 people were working, killing at least two and destroying much of the building.

So Senator Brown, where's the outrage? Yeah of course its extreme, you don't know anything the individual he could have had other issues. No one likes paying taxes obviously. Really? That's it? This is an act of domestic terrorism by a right-winger against the government, and all Mr. "tough on terrorism" has to say is what under other circumstances he would characterize as leftie soft on terrorism pap?

Senator Brown hasn't been in the Senate long enough to have a cup of coffee but he seems to have jumped right on the bandwagon of Republican hypocrisy. In the past couple of weeks it's been revealed that many of the leading opponents of the economic stimulus, who railed against it as everything from ineffective to socialism have quietly been getting money for their states from that same stimulus and touting its effectiveness. We've seen again and again Republicans in Congress – people from the same party that, in addition to swift-boating John Kerry, accused Kerry of being a flip-flopper – these same people are now reversing themselves on a wholesale basis on anything that the GOP has done or endorsed that President Obama now supports.

In fact, that is the only logic to their actions – if Obama's for it, we're against it. Try KSM in civilian courts – horrors! But Richard Reed, the shoe bomber was tried (and convicted) in civilian courts. Act aggressively against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, even killing key leaders – Horrors! But Obama is soft on terrorism.

De Tocqueville said that in a democracy the people get the government we deserve. If we continue to tolerate the Right's "say anything, do anything, as long as it makes the President look bad" assault, then maybe we do deserve them if they are voted in in 2012.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bonanza Column 162 - TOCCATA

What the heck, it's Valentine's day, Mardi Gras is Tuesday, let's put partisan rancor aside for one week and talk about something that's unarguably good.

I had the privilege last week to attend a concert by the TOCCATA Orchestra and Chorus with the violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn. It was the fourth of four concerts held at Squaw, on South Shore, Cal Neva, and the one we attended at Trinity Episcopal Church in Reno. What an evening!

You may recall that Ms Pitcairn was here last Fall when she played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto – this time she played a short Dvorak piece in the first number of the evening and then the Bruch Concerto for Violin as the pi├Ęce de resistance of the evening. She followed these with encores that included two duets with Donna Axton on the piano.

I'm not a music critic, I don't play any instrument more complex than an iPod, and as for my singing, forget it, but I do love music and listen to it a lot, and I'm especially fond of music for the violin. I wrote last Fall that I had not had an experience to match Pitcairn playing Mendelssohn since the time, as a graduate student, I sat in the first row to hear Yehudi Menuhin play the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Rochester Philharmonic. That was about 45 years ago. Now I've had matching experiences twice in six months. The Bruch is a marvelously complex piece of music, the red Stradivarius is a magnificent and historic instrument, and Elizabeth Pitcairn is, in my humble opinion (and when it comes to music, it really is humble) the best young violinist to come along in a very long time. Her playing is in a class with Menuhin, Heifetz, and Stern, she is beautiful and lively and has an amazing rapport with the orchestra and the audience.

And while the focus with any concert like this is on the soloist, I would be remiss if I didn't give props to James and Nancy Rawie and the incredible contribution they've made to our community by organizing and managing TOCCATA (it stands for The Orchestra and Community Choral Artists of the Tahoe Area). In five short years they have brought together an orchestra and chorus that I would put up against any orchestra I've heard in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco, and it's all local talent and all volunteers. When my friends in other cities ask me if I don't miss the cultural advantages of living in a city I just laugh quietly – we have the Reno Phil, the Lake Tahoe Music Festival, opera, ballet, plays and most of all we have TOCCATA. We are very fortunate, and don't tell those city folks because if they find out, they'll all move here and we won't be able to get tickets.

TOCCATA's next performance is over Easter Weekend when they'll do the Bach St. Matthew Passion, a perfect accompaniment to the Easter holiday. Here's my advice – go to that performance, join as a supporter of TOCCATA, and take a minute to thank James and Nancy and all the players and singers for making this a world-class place to live, music-wise.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

HuffPo Column 11 – The Enemy Within: Republican Fundamentalism Confirmed

What do Islamic fundamentalists have in common with the far-right core of the Republican Party? And what do your average, non-extremist Muslims have in common with the (slim) majority of the GOP who are not right wingers?

The answers, of course, is obvious - the first two treat their worldview as the only correct, God-given view and treat anyone who demurs from this as worthy of any sort of attack up to and including destroying them, and the second pair remain silent, as in Burke's admonition that "all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good [people] to remain silent.

As reported elsewhere on HP, The Daily Kos, a liberal/progressive blog, employs a very reputable and neutral polling organization called Research 2000 to do polling for them on a weekly basis and posts their results no matter what they show, including demographic information about those polled.

Recently they posted the results of the Daily Kos/Research 2000 Republican Poll 2010. For this poll, conducted between January 20 and 31, 2010, the interviewed 2003 self-identified Republicans by phone. This was a random sample selected by random variations of the last four digits of phone numbers. The margin of error was 2%, which means that there is a 95% probability statistically that the true figure for all self-identified Republicans would fall within 2% plus or minus of the sample's results. Interviews were conducted in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia - 11% of respondents were from the Northeast, 42% from the South, 22% from the Midwest, and 25% from the West.

So here we have 2003 people, selected at random who identified themselves as Republicans and were willing to answer poll questions over the phone. Now it's axiomatic in the polling business that you only get answers to the questions you ask, and I don't know who designed these questions - let's say, worst case, they were designed by the Daily Kos, and so the questions reflect liberal/progressive concerns about Republicans, and don't tell the whole story, only that which reflects those concerns. Nonetheless, the answers are what they are. It's a long poll, so I'll just highlight some of them here. For the full set go here.

Under the heading "Obama and America," we find that 39% of those surveyed say Barack Obama should be impeached with 32% saying no, and 29% not sure. Really? For what? The Constitution is pretty clear - high crimes and misdemeanors is the criterion. Can anyone point out even one thing he's done in the past year that qualifies? But 68% of Republicans (±2%) say he should be impeached, or at least it's a possibility.

Maybe this will shed some light on why: 63% said yes to "do you think Barack Obama is a Socialist, with 21% saying no and 16% not sure. Seriously? 79% of those surveyed don't have a clue what Socialism is?

And the grand prizes: 36% believe Obama was not born in the US and 22% aren't sure, and 24% believe Obama "wants the terrorists to win" and 33% aren't sure. This is not just being divorced from reality, it's having left reality far, far behind.

There's a lot more - on Issues (anti-union, anti-immigrant, pro-death penalty), gays, (anti-serving in the military, anti-same sex marriage, anti-benefits for gay couples, and astonishingly 73% against openly gay men and women teaching in public schools with 19% unsure). Schools (anti-sex education by a slim margin, but overwhelmingly for public schools teaching that the Book of Genesis explains how God created the world).

The last category was women, where some of the results were surprisingly encouraging - 76% with 11% unsure said that marriages are equal partnerships and 86% with 4% unsure said women should work outside the home. But then it all goes horribly wrong: "Should contraceptives be outlawed?" 31% yes, 13% not sure. "Do you believe the birth control pill is abortion?" 34% yes, 18% unsure. "Do you consider abortion to be murder?" 76% yes, 16% unsure.

And finally, "Do you believe that the only way for an individual to go to heaven is through Jesus Christ, or can one make it to heaven through another faith? 67% Christ, 15% other faiths, 18% unsure.

All of which leaves me wondering - exactly what America do these people live in? Not the America of Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and the Constitution, apparently.

Actually, there are three groups - the right wingnuts, the mainstream, and the Republican politicians. The group best positioned to make a difference in the party are the politicians. Maybe Markos Moulitsas, creator of the Daily Kos, said it best, though. Those politicians are "beholden to conspiracy theorists who don't even believe Obama was born in the United States, and already want to impeach him despite a glaring lack of scandal or wrongdoing. They think Obama is racist against white people and the second coming of Lenin. And if any of them stray and decide to do the right thing and try to work in a bipartisan fashion, they suffer primaries and attacks. Given what their base demands -- and this poll illustrates them perfectly -- it's no wonder the GOP is the party of no."

Monday, February 08, 2010

Bonanza Column 171 – Republicans are Strange

The Daily Kos is a liberal/progressive blog, and if that's enough to disqualify anything they say in your eyes, just skip reading this or skip to the comments section and post your weekly accusation that I'm a Communist and should "go back to Roosha, boy, or New York City, one" (a shout out to Kinky Friedman).

On the other hand, if you're interested, the Daily Kos employs a very reputable and neutral polling organization called Research 2000 to do polling for them on a weekly basis and posts their results no matter what they show, including demographic information about those polled. Last week they posted the results of the Daily Kos/Research 2000 Republican Poll 2010. For this poll, conducted between January 20 and 31, 2010, the interviewed 2003 self-identified Republicans by phone. This was a random sample selected by random variations of the last four digits of phone numbers. The margin of error was 2%, which means that there is a 95% probability statistically that the true figure for all self-identified Republicans would fall within 2% plus or minus of the sample's results. Interviews were conducted in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia – 11% of respondents were from the Northeast, 42% from the South, 22% from the Midwest, and 25% from the West.

So here we have 2003 people, selected at random who identified themselves as Republicans and were willing to answer poll questions over the phone. Now it's axiomatic in the polling business that you only get answers to the questions you asked, and I don't know who designed these questions – let's say, worst case, they were designed by the Daily Kos, and so the questions reflect liberal/progressive concerns about Republicans, and don't tell the whole story, only that which reflects those concerns. Nonetheless, the answers are what they are. It's a long poll, so I'll just highlight some of them here. For the full set go to http://tinyurl.com/kospoll.

Under the heading "Obama and America," we find that 39% of those surveyed say Barack Obama should be impeached with 32% saying no, and 29% not sure. Really? For what? The Constitution is pretty clear – high crimes and misdemeanors is the criterion. Can anyone point out even one thing he's done in the past year that qualifies? But 68% of Republicans (±2%) say he should be impeached, or at least it's a possibility.

Maybe this will shed some light on why: 63% said yes to "do you think Barack Obama is a Socialist, with 21% saying no and 16% not sure. Seriously? 79% of those surveyed don't have a clue what Socialism is? Even Rachel Maddow, who is no Socialist herself, but is pretty far left, considers Obama a centrist.

And the grand prizes: 36% believe Obama was not born in the US and 22% aren't sure, and 24% believe Obama "wants the terrorists to win" and 33% aren't sure. This is not just being divorced from reality, it's having left reality far, far behind.

There's a lot more – on Issues (anti-union, anti-immigrant, pro-death penalty), gays, (anti-serving in the military, anti-same sex marriage, anti-benefits for gay couples, and astonishingly 73% against openly gay men and women teaching in public schools with 19% unsure). Schools (anti-sex education by a slim margin, but overwhelmingly for public schools teaching that the Book of Genesis explains how God created the world).

The last category was women, where some of the results were surprisingly encouraging – 76% with 11% unsure said that marriages are equal partnerships and 86% with 4% unsure said women should work outside the home. But then it all goes horribly wrong: "Should contraceptives be outlawed?" 31% yes, 13% not sure. "Do you believe the birth control pill is abortion?" 34% yes, 18% unsure. "Do you consider abortion to be murder?" 76% yes, 16% unsure.

And finally, "Do you believe that the only way for an individual to go to heaven is through Jesus Christ, or can one make it to heaven through another faith? 67% Christ, 15% other faiths, 18% unsure.

All of which leaves me wondering – exactly what America do these people live in? Not the America of Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and the Constitution, apparently.