September 2010

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

"A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that's just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it's a joke." --Soren Kierkegaard

The downtown mosque

Opposition to the downtown Islamic cultural center and mosque is a manifestation of ugly, thoughtless bigotry. Nothing else to be said about it.

Later in the month--That's not true. The spectacle of politicians like Rick Lazio lining up to attack the mosque and its liberal Sufi founder is fascinating and appalling. It is a pure exercise in vote getting through hatred, engaged in by people who have no convictions, and no moral compass whatever. Eventually such people will confront situations in which primitive, credulous people will kill others, whipped up by their hateful rhetoric. And then will say: "It is not my fault."

Marc Hauser

Every year, a couple stories remind me why The Ethical Spectacle was an apt name for this site. The concept is that the pageant of human folly and dishonesty has an element of spectacle, if one is detached enough. The latest one is the story of Marc Hauser, the Harvard professor who is reknowned for research and writing about the biological origins of morality---and appears to have faked his results. Practicing law in the 1980's, I figured out that the lawyers who shouted the loudest about ethics were the sketchiest ones. It does raise an interesting question about why I have obsessively published the Spectacle for fifteen years, doesn't it?

GPS and cops

The latest clever cop trick is to attach a GPS device to a suspect's car and monitor him for weeks. You learn everything about where he goes and with whom he associates. This is done, naturally, without a warrant.

New technologies routinely get out ahead of Constitutional precedent and then are resolved by analogy. Just as it was eventually figured out that email, like telegraphy, is a form of writing, attaching a GPS device is obviously a form of surveillance that should require a warrant. To me that's a no brainer, and I hope its as clear to the Supreme Court when the moment comes.

Burning the Koran

The Florida wingnut who announced he will burn korans doesn't deserve any attention. But his activities are already being highlighted by our Islamic fundamentalist adversaries as proof of America's intolerance and violence. The bonfire will help Al Qaeda recruitment and eventually result in the death of Americans.

An end in Iraq?

President Obama's confirmation that the war in Iraq is ending left me pessimistic. I am not sure what 4400 Americans died for. I think the declaration may be mainly semantic, and we will continue to fight and die for years in an "ended" war. Also, what we are leaving behind is highly unstable, and facing a vigorous and highly violent insurgency. If the whole thing falls apart, and becomes another terrorist state, we will wonder what we accomplished.

Alaskan hypocrisy

Alaska's Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski, just conceded defeat in the state's primary to Joe Miller, a Tea Party candidate backed by Sarah Palin. All Alaskan politicians who purport to believe federal government is too big and intrusive face an unresolvable conflict: Alaska survives on federal money. Miller if elected will continue living the lie Alaskan conservatives have since the founding of the state: he will accept federal financing (including of meaningless projects like the "Bridge to Nowhere" and environmentally destructive ones like refuge drilling) while continuing to berate "big government".

I never knew much about Murkowski, but I respect something she just said. She is being criticized for not countering Miller's scurrilous attacks on her. She says she is proud of the campaign she ran and of the fact she refused to get down to Miller's level.

A computer crash

My laptop was attacked by a virulent virus, then crashed entirely, and I lost a good half of what I had written for this column (I had backed up an earlier version). I could write volumes about the morality of the people who write virus software and those who design operating systems which (after decades of development) leave numerous openings for them....

Reporters and hacking

A long article on the Times web site recounts a British scandal in which two tabloid reporters went to prison recently for stealing or reverse engineering passwords and listening to the voicemail messages of royals and other celebrities. The implication is that Scotland Yard cooperated to limit the case to the two reporters; if it had followed the evidence trail all the way, it appears that a huge portion of the British journalistic establishment would be jailed.