Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Ron Hirschbein

The usual distinction between continental and analytic philosophy misleads. The real cleavage (carnal without being sexy) is between continental and incontinental practices. Continental philosophy is not about the motorcar of the same name—although continental philosophers seem autoerotic in that they abuse themselves and others. As vulgar Freudianism—the best kind—would have it: continental philosophers fixate upon the phallic stage—they prick our conscience. (Consider Foucault’s ruminations about the penal system.) But alas, continentals are undervalued in Wittgenstein’s Blue Book. (Would you buy a used philosophy from these people?) In any case, at this age, I’m obsessed (I had to say that!) with incontinetal practices:

*Some incontinental colleages claim Berkeley as a misguided ancestor—that insane uncle secreted in the basement. John Wisdom’s interpretation of Berkeley’s philosophy puts the “anal” in analytic philosophy when he hazards a psychoanalytic account that reduces the good Bishop’s imperious empiricism to an anal fixation. I’ll probe this alimentary logic, but not too deeply, for I have no interest in handling Leibniz’ windowless gonad.  

*Karl Popper’s “promissory materialism” corners the subprime, philosophy of mind market. You may have seen the promissory note: Popper advances what I call diuretic materialism: Just as the kidneys secret urine, the brain secrets consciousness—it’s truly epiphenomenal. (Alas, those of us aging disgracefully endure intermittent streaming.) Supposedly, the payoff comes in 30 years when neuroscientists reduce consciousness to particle logic. No principle is generated by the promissory note; it’s interest only.

Learn more ‘bout the cleavage by dialing the philosophy sex line—900 Platonic Love. Press “1” to reveal what you’re thinking of doing—but don’t get the wrong IDEA!


Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

Ron Hirschbein

The moral question in Afghanistan is clear. Civilian casualties are certain. The outcome is uncertain. No one knows what the bombing will accomplish—whether it will lead to the capture of Osama bin Laden (perhaps) . . . or an end to terrorism (almost certainly not).
—Howard Zinn (1)

George W. Bush condemns the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon as terrorism—deliberately killing defenseless civilians.(2) This deed, he insists, cannot be justified. His adversary-apparent, Osama bin Laden urges that the attack was justified: “Our terrorism is a blessed terrorism to prevent the unjust person from committing injustice and to stop American support for Israel which kills our sons.”(3) Not surprisingly, bin Laden condemns the American military response in Afghanistan since it kills defenseless civilians: He declares that The Bush administration believes that it “is their right to annihilate people so long as they are Muslims and non-Americans.”(4) Bush and bin Laden, however, do agree on one point: Any attempt to assign moral equivalence to their respective actions—any suggestion that killing defenseless Americans and defenseless Afghanis belongs in the same moral universe—is the worst sort of obscenity.

In short, both men claim their actions are justified—killing enemy noncombatants is somehow necessary, permissible, even laudatory. Not surprisingly, however, there are differences in their strategies of justification. These differences are the subject of this essay. What moral gravity should be assigned to these differences is, to say the least, controversial: it is inconceivable that some authoritative tribunal could resolve the controversy to the satisfaction of all concerned. Accordingly, it must be left to the reader to draw moral distinctions between these respective justifications. Let’s spin our moral compasses.

Here’s how I proceed: Responding to my better lights, I begin with a caveat that undermines my analysis—justifications should not necessarily be taken at face value. Nevertheless, muting my suspicion, I analyze the respective justifications in terms of three well-trodden (nevertheless useful) just war criteria: authorization by legitimate authority; proper intentions; and just cause.


Justifications posit very good reasons for an action. However, virtually every branch of social inquiry agrees on one thing: Justifications should not be taken on face value, for there are usually two reasons for things—very good reasons, and the real reasons. Future Freudians will likely speculate about Bush and bin Ladens’ unconscious fixations, while Marxists may interpret tragic events in terms of the contradictions inherent in global capitalism. And future political analysts might remind us that it would have been political suicide for the Bush administration to do nothing, while bin Laden was obsessed with being a latter-day Saladin. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I cannot see into the soul—or soullessness—of Bush or bin Laden. Since I am unable to divine their private secrets (indeed, they too may be unaware of their real motivations) I am stuck with their public justifications. Here’s my rationalization for continuing this explication of these respective justifications despite this recognition: These respective rationales may be more than ideological cosmetics; they could be a piece of the puzzle—ideology per se can be a motivating factor. Further, these respective justifications (or rationalizations) may provide limited access to a political actor’s mentality. Finally, decision-makes and their constituents may find these justifications persuasive prima facie.     


Legitimate Authority

Bin Laden relies upon contested, unverifiable supernatural authority for his actions. His fatwas claim divine authorization for a jihad against defenseless “Americans and Jews.” Somehow, killing members of these groups (along with members of other groups including Moslems) in the World Trade Center was authorized by God in His infinite wisdom and mercy. Indeed, bin Laden claims that he is divinely authorized to continue killing all enemies of Islam—defenseless civilians throughout the world. Apparently, there is reason to fear that, given the weapons and the opportunity, bin Laden would act upon his intentions. His fatwa—as advocates of racial profiling inconveniently ignore—is roundly rejected by mainstream Moslem clerics. In any case, surely bin Laden’s word isn’t enough. Supernatural claims cannot be verified, at least this side of eternity. One can only hope that he and his followers lack the will, weapons, and circumstances to keep such vows.    

By way of contrast, Bush has the will, weapons, and circumstances to act upon his intentions. The American president offers a naturalistic, secular authorization for his military campaign against Afghanistan, a campaign that likely killed (directly and indirectly) thousands of defenseless civilians. As Noam Chomsky concludes:

Western civilization [i.e. Coalition forces] was basing its plans on the assumptions that they might lead to the death of several million innocent civilians—not Taliban, whatever one thinks of the legitimacy of slaughtering Taliban recruits . . . [and] their victims.(5)

True, Bush also refers to a brave noumenal world when he urges that God is on his side in a Manichean struggle between good and evil—the wall separating church and state has become cracked and porous. Nevertheless, Bush did not seek authorization for attacking Afghanistan from his Methodist pastor. On this side of the Atlantic, the American nation-state replaces old time religion as the object of devotion. Indeed, one’s country, not one’s church, is something to die for—the flag replaces the cross as a holy relic. But could it be that Durkheim was right: all religion ultimately reduces to the worship of one’s cherished group? (Perhaps the Federalists constructed a wall between church and state because they wanted to promote state worship by crippling the competition.)

Such cynical ruminations aside, the legitimation of Bush’s campaign is subject to independent verification. As a few brave strict constructionists insist, only Congress has the authority to declare war, and this did not occur: Sixty years have passed since Congress drafted a formal declaration of war. [I understand that six Congressman recently tried to get the Federal Courts to order that a formal declaration of war is essential before Americans are put in harms way; their efforts failed.] Congress, however, did proffer an endorsement of Bush’s policy, but strict Constitutional provisions were ignored. A case can be made for strict construction in matters of war and peace: The founders of the Republic wanted the people’s representatives to debate and authorize an action as momentous as war, not an imperial president. Why the reluctance to issue a formal declaration of war? There is considerable speculation: perhaps such a declaration would panic the American public and alienate Middle Eastern allies. In any case, American attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrably lacks formal authorization.


Intentionality is perhaps the key to understanding the salient differences between the respective justifications for killing the defenseless. Bush claims that—due to these differences—he and bin Laden inhabit totally different moral realms. Americans claim that: (1) Unlike their adversaries, they do not deliberately target civilians; (2) they express remorse at any “collateral damage.” Unlike the Americans, those who orchestrated the attack on New York and Washington deliberately targeted civilians, and evidently took great delight in their heinous deed, and in provoking anxiety about what’s next.

The first claim of the Bush administration is disingenuous. As philosophers, we could construct imaginary paradigm cases in which the claim would be persuasive. Imagine a policeman trapping a heinous criminal in what the officer believes is an abandoned building. (This belief is based on all available evidence.) The criminal fires upon the officer and innocent bystanders. Returning fire, the officer inadvertently kills homeless civilians hiding in the building. Since their presence was unforeseen this episode is a tragic accident—or for those who can countenance Pentagon euphemisms, “collateral damage.”

Unfortunately, warfare occurs in the real world—a world of densely populated neighborhoods targeted with highly lethal weapons—not in philosophic paradigms. Unlike our paradigm case, the certain death of the defenseless is no tragic accident; it was foreseen. No one in the Bush administration would have bet his or her life that no defenseless civilians would be spared. The sad truth: American lives are valued more highly than Afghani or Iraqi lives.
Curiously, times have changed. Apparently, in order to justify killing Japanese civilians during World War II, the entire Japanese population was dehumanized in vicious editorials and cartoons. (Apparently, bin Laden feels compelled to demonize all Americans and Jews.) However, the good news on this side of the Atlantic is that Vietnamese, Iraqis, and Afghanis were not demonized in American military campaigns against these hapless nations. The bad news is that, nevertheless, defenseless civilians in these nations were killed in large numbers. Perhaps it is no longer necessary to dehumanize the defenseless because those who orchestrate and conduct the killing are themselves dehumanized. Virtually every recent war has killed more civilians than combatants: killing the innocent is taken for granted much like building another strip mall or freeway—it’s part and parcel of the unnatural order of things. What is the proper reckoning: for every civilian killed by a rogue terrorist, how many have been killed by “legitimate” nation-states?

The bottom line: The Bush administration certainly foresaw that thousands of defenseless Afghanis would be killed. Evidently, efforts were made to avoid more civilian casualties, and (on occasion) officials expressed regret at the deaths that occurred. (The sincerity of this regret is a matter of conjecture.) Nevertheless, obviously thousands of Afghanis were killed immediately, and untold numbers will die due to the destruction of what remained of the nation’s infrastructure. [The same ghastly scene is being played out in Iraq as I speak.] It is, however, not obvious that restraint and remorse exonerate American decision-makers from charges of state terrorism.  

Just Cause

Who would not side with the angels by insisting that a just war must be fought for a just cause? But what is a just cause? Disputes about revenge and retribution lead to puerile rancor about “who started it?”—an infinite regress. The Americans claim that they are retaliating for September 11. Bin Laden urges that this attack was retribution for American policies in the Middle East that kill the defenseless and desecrate sacred spaces. In response, some argue that tribalism, religious fanaticism, balkanizing the Ottoman Empire after World War I (or the Ottoman Empire itself) are the real culprits, and so it goes. Romanticizing a remembered past—an epoch that probably never existed—is not helpful; not even God can rewrite history, real or imagined.

In my view, any justification of violent conflict must consider immediate and desired future consequences. The immediate consequences it is argued—or hoped—will bring about the ultimate desired consequences. Such reckoning is usually tempered by speculation about proportionality: crudely put, killing a certain number of civilians now will prevent more killing later. Unfortunately, as Kantians would no doubt remind us, the future is radically unpredictable. If something as mundane as tomorrow’s stock market can’t be accurately predicted, how can one predict the results of American actions in remote Afghanistan during the next decade? Perhaps Iraq will have deliverable weapons of mass destruction in five year, but certainly such American weapons are killing Iraqi civilians now. Only immediate consequences are obvious.  At best, educated guesses can be hazarded regarding real historical possibilities.

The immediate consequences of the September 11 attack are painfully obviously: 3000 civilians killed, economic disruption, and anxiety about what’s next. While the future is admittedly unpredictable, bin Laden’s desired outcomes are not real historical possibilities. His grandiose goals are at once heinous and chimerical: ridding the world of American-style modernity and instituting a fundamentalist theocracy. Further, it is unlikely that terrorizing American officials and their constituents will usher in more modest goals such as: aiding the Palestinian cause; ending the sanctions against Iraq; and evicting American troops from Saudi Arabia. The definition of the fanatic comes to mind: One who redoubles his efforts when he forgets his goals.

To reiterate, Chomsky and others recognize the immediate consequences of the current American military campaign: untold numbers of Afghanis and Iraqis have perished and will perish. However, the Bush administration laments this tragedy and argues that it is justified in light of an overarching desired goal: ridding the world of the terrorist diaspora and a possible Iraqi threat.  

A caveat: It must be stressed that—contrary to sanctimonious pronouncement—the goal is not ridding the world of terrorism per se when terrorism is understood as killing the innocent in pursuit of certain objectives. In Bush’s vision, nation-states such as America and its allies must continue enjoy an uncontested monopoly on terrorism—the competition must be eliminated. The United States will continue to modernize its nuclear arsenal and credibly threaten to incinerate millions of people under certain circumstances. (Ironically, before “terrorism” got bad press, mainstream officials and strategists openly discussed perfecting this “delicate balance of terror”; the term was changed to “balance of power” to protect the guilty.) Of course, the U.S. also reserves the right to kill civilian populations by using conventional weapons and by blockading essential supplies. Rumsfeld recently entertained the possibility of laying siege to Baghdad.

Bush’s [or more likely his advisors and speech writers] advocate ridding the world of the terrorist diaspora and eliminating a possible future Iraqi threat to the American homeland. Two questions remain: (1) Is this goal realistic?; (2) Are the proper means being used to achieve this goal? The events of September 11 reveal a disturbing truth—not all problems have solutions. Even if bin Laden and the entire terrorist diaspora vanish, the United States will remain exquisitely vulnerable to terrorist attacks. The tactics and strategies for such attacks are only limited by the perverse terrorist imagination. Indeed, the current attack on Iraq seems like the best possible strategy for recruiting future generations of terrorists.

There is a bitter realism in all this: Bush is not about to eliminate the American capacity for state terrorism; but he is, evidently, trying to lessen the possibility of state rogue terrorism committed against the American homeland. I’m not the only one who suspects that he’s not getting it right. As Philip Wilcox, Jr., a former Foreign Service officer, argues, current U.S. policy is self-defeating:

The deep hatred and suicidal fanaticism of the Islamic terrorists, their lack of rational political calculus, and their belief in divine sanction make the penalties and deterrents traditionally used against terrorists far less effective. . . .  Getting rid of Bin Laden will eliminate neither the ideology of Islamic terrorism nor its often inchoate and diffuse operations.(6)

Wilcox observes that current U.S. policy likely breeds more terrorists, and that the threat of threat of homeland terrorism can be mitigated by international arms control, and by adopting more humane, productive policies in the Middle East: “Redefining national security and counterterrorism in this broader sense is the most promising way to fight the war against terrorism. It is vital that we do this soon, now that the stakes have been raised so high.”(7)

Optimism does not come easily. True, it is tempting to adopt what I call the “Eleventh Hour Narrative” by urging that it’s not too late, and—if we act immediately—all will be well. However, it may be too late to safeguard the American homeland from the unthinkable—nuclear devastation. Maybe Kafka was right: “There is infinite hope but not for us.” For now, I’ll put this pessimistic moment aside, and place my hope in the radical unpredictability of history.

(1) Howard Zinn, “A Just Cause, Not a Just War,” in The Progressive, Dec. 2001, 18.

(2) Definitions of terrorism are tendentious and contested. In the American popular press, virtually any attack on American civilians or combatants is defined as terrorism, while the possibility that America practices state terrorism by killing defenseless civilians is excluded a priori. Cliched by true: yesterday’s freedom fighter can be today’s terrorist. Attempts to invoke “terrorism” as an analytic tool are ambiguous and contested. Some claim that terrorism occurs when belligerents exclusively attack civilians. Others claim that terrorism is “asymmetrical conflict”: i.e. terrorism involves relatively weak, rogue groups attacking powerful nation-states. Finally, others insist that terrorism is characterized by its unpredictable, random attacks (or threatened attacks) upon civilians. Given this situation, all one can do is to indicate how he or she uses the term.

(3) Quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 28, 2001, 1.

(4) Ibid., 22.

(5) Noam Chomsky, “The War in Afghanistan,” in the Chico Examiner , Jan. 3, 2001, 10.

(6) Philip C. Wilcox, Jr., “The Terror,” in The New York Review of Books, Oct. 18, 2001., 1.

(7) Ibid.


Tuesday, November 24th, 2009


Ron Hirschbein

The day before Kim Jong Il boasted about his first nuclear test I witnessed festivities at the site of the first American test: the Trinity Test Site--a place called "Jornada del Muetro" (the official literature didn’t mention the English translation—“Journey of Death”). Dear Leader Kim relied on 1984-style propaganda to bedazzle his hapless subjects. As I strolled between the picnickers and souvenir stands at America's Ground Zero I realized that such overt propaganda is superfluous in our not-so-brave new world. I witnessed (with apologies to Hannah Arendt) the evil of banality: the world's first nuclear blast--a portent of destruction that spewed radiation over a wide swath of America--was reduced to just another spectacle and commodity. Witnesses to the first test, those who were "there at creation," were awestruck: the effects were "stupendous and terrifying . . . it beggared description." These days all that was sacred is profaned: a realization that occurred as I munched fabled New Mexico green chili burritos and marveled at slogans emblazoned on t-shirts: "Trinity Test Site: I Glow in the Dark!"

This sojourn on the Jornada del Muetro culminated the University of New Mexico's Conference on the Early History of the Atomic Bomb. The Conference prepared me for the visit in unexpected ways. Evangelists from the Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories did not disappoint. However, the commercialized vulgarity at the official museums was unexpected—it gave kitsch a bad name. Predictably, Albuquerque’s Atomic Museum (funded by a variety of military contractors) highlighted mockups of Fat Man, Little Boy, and an assortment of latter-day nukes. But, like much else in American culture, weapons of mass destruction were a laughing matter. (Remember Bush’s burlesque performance at the March 2004 Correspondents’ Banquet when he looked for WMDs behind the curtains and in desk drawers?) The exhibit highlighting the Bikini Test (which forever contaminated the Marshall Islands) featured a scant bikini swimsuit draped over a map of the ill-fated archipelago. And, like any museum worthy of its name there was a gift shop featuring T-shirts, atomic shot glasses, and bottled atomic firewater. The worst, however, was yet to come. I enountered the offspring of an unnatural act between Dr. Strangelove and Chuck E. Cheese. A gaily colored banner, just around the corner from the weapons of mass destruction, advertised the Birthday Party Room: "An exciting spot for fun, games, cake and ice cream." They called it the “Zoom Zone,” and it hyped “hands-on” activities. (Be the first kid on you block to detonate an A-bomb?) Imagine what "fair and balanced" Fox News would say about Osama bin Laden Jr. celebrating his birthday amid weapons of mass destruction at camp al Qaeda.

Los Alamos disappointed. Despite the fact that we were accompanied by a special security agent (who seemed more like a park ranger than a merchant of death) we were only granted a “windshield tour” of top secret areas—we remained on the bus. A huge sign at the guard station laid down the law: no weapons or injurious substances are allowed inside the gate! The plutonium processing plant we passed a few minutes later proved there’s an exception every rule. Army-style barracks dotted the landscape amid a few Silicon Valley-style structures. The agent explained that new building could only occur with the express consent of Congress—with the exception of the many trailer parks we saw. Yes, I was disappointed. I would have preferred to hear Darth Vader’s theme as we entered the Death Star to be greeted by they Emperor. Lab management has been privatized and given to Bechtel. Maybe the time has come to turnover PR to Hollywood to get it right.

An ominous sky of thickening clouds marked our pilgrimage in the Alamogordo wilderness. Robert Oppenheimer named the test site “Trinity” in honor of very dark verses penned by metaphysical poet John Dunne. The site is only opened to the public two days every year. An anthropologist observing our October 7 visit from afar might conclude that indeed, we were on a religious pilgrimage. Hundreds of visitors in cars, SUVs, and tour busses drove through miles of desolation that defies description. (Once again, signs warned that no weapons were permitted on the White Sands Missile Range—irony is not the strongest suit of the military mind.) Visitors trekked some distance to an obelisk where the plutonium bomb vaporized a steel tower on July 16, 1945 at 5:30 in the morning. The flash was seen by a blind girl 100 miles away. The bomb (sorry, a “device” in military PC) is merely a fuse these days for thermonuclear weapons. It was felt at distances surpassing 160 miles according to the official literature. It was the day the sun rose twice over New Mexico.

Like the trace of remaining radiation (we were told not to worry) there was a hint of the old-time nuclear religion. Our security agent explained that the ashes of a recently departed physicist (whose name could not be revealed) would be scattered at Ground Zero after the Site closed to the public. But the clowning, picture-taking public didn’t treat the obelisk as a sacred relic. After the digital cameras clicked, the throng moved along a cyclone fence, counterclockwise, in orderly fashion, as they examined pictures of the blast. Our anthropologist might have likened the procession to veneration at the Stations of the Cross. He or she would have missed the point.

Perhaps there was no point to be missed. For most, the Site was famous for being famous. In addition to the black obelisk, the curious could visit a nearby ranch house were the plutonium implosion mechanism was assembled. The dilapidated structure looked like an ideal spot for a Manson Family reunion. The scientists’ scrawl on the door remained: “Wipe your feet!” I entered the plutonium assembly room with clean feet but I still felt dirty and disappointed. (Indeed, a few years later, a contrite Oppenheimer would tell Truman “I have blood on my hands.”) Just as getting that celebrity autograph is often disillusioning, the Trinity adventure was a letdown: it was bereft of solemnity it deserved, let alone of the adrenaline-driven thrills befitting of any self-respecting tourist attraction.       

Ron Hirschbein’s misadventures in Nuclear Wonderland began as visiting professorships at several institutes at University of California campuses in San Diego and Berkeley. His teaching and research focused upon postmodern approaches to nuclear crises: he never met a meta-narrative he didn’t like.  His controversial account of international crises in What If They Gave a Crisis and Nobody Came didn’t win friends and influence people, and his book on American electoral dysfunction, Voting Rites, suggested that voting would be illegal if it made a difference. Lately, he publishes in Blackwell’s Philosophy & Pop Culture series: “Nuclear Strategists in Wonderland” and “Sookie, Sigmund, and the Edible Complex” (a Freudian account of True Blood) will appear in spring. He created programs in war and peace studies at California State University, Chico where he’s semi-retired. [He’s certain that he’ll go from tumescence to senescence without passing through maturity.] His reputation exceeds him: He served two terms as President of Concerned Philosophers for Peace [the largest philosophic organization concerned with the causes of war and prospects for peace.]. Participating in the University of New Mexico’s magical mystery tour of US atomic facilities, he enjoyed famous New Mexican green chilies while absorbing residual radiation at the Trinity Atomic Test Site.



to the top...