Friday, November 20, 2009

Critical Reasoning

During my first year at university I took a course in critical reasoning.  It taught me much about logical fallacies, effective argumentation, preconceived notions, and so forth.  It was my first real exposure to that type of thing and it felt like many doors had been opened in the way I thought about the world.

Many of my long-held beliefs up to that point came under real scrutiny for the first time, and since then I've been a great deal more careful in my convictions, and meticulous in deciding what those convictions are.
I'd say that that definitely changed my life for the better. I'd love to see a basic course in critical reasoning taught to all high-school seniors.  Why not teach it at an even younger age?  Because it's my belief that, up to a certain age, pupils should be unquestioning information sponges.  Education would slow down quite a bit if every student critically evaluated and questioned everything they were taught, wouldn't it?  This does mean that stricter regulations should be in place when it comes to what is taught, how it is taught, and who teaches it, and why it's so heinous when children are taught complete bullshit, taught incompetently, or both.

Friday, November 13, 2009

So what's the deal with Israel and Palestine, anyway?

Unless you've been in a vegetative state for the last century or so, you'll know about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

If you're like most people, you've probably picked a side already, and if you're really like most people, you'll have done so despite the fact that you don't know very much - if anything - about the situation.  Most people choose a side for personal reasons ("I'm of Arabic descent, so I support Palestine"), or political reasons ("I'm an American and the USA has good relations with Israel, so I support them.").  Being a fence-sitter is bad, but picking sides with no knowledge of the issues involved is even worse.

The big question is usually, "why all the violence over a piece of land?"  It's a hot-button topic, but here is one take:

The story so far.

In 1916 the British, who controlled the area, promised the land to the Arabs in return for their help in World War I.  Think Lawrence of Arabia.

With the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the British promised the same land to the Jews.  After being kicked out of Israel by the Romans in the first century, the Jews had no state of their own, and the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine - called Zionism - had gained a lot of currency from the mid-19th century onwards.

Following World War II, the United Nations decided that, because of the Holocaust, an attempt should be made to create Israel.  However, this required the agreement of the Arabs, who were not too keen on giving up the land where they had lived for generations, and in any case hadn't the British promised it to them?  The plan was to carve up what was called the British Mandate of Palestine into Jordan, Israel, and Arab Palestine.

Despite the lack of an agreement regarding the break up of Palestine into Arab and Jewish territories, Israel unilaterally declared its independence in 1948.  There was bloodshed on both sides: Jewish attacks such as the Deir Yassin massacre caused many Arabs to flee.  The Arabs states retaliated, invading Palestine and attacking Israel.

Israel beat the Arabs in 1948, with Egypt crossing over into the Gaza strip which they occupied.  Jordan took control of the West Bank. The UN passed a resolution guaranteeing a Right of Return for the Arabs who had been forced to flee their homes.

In 1967, the Arabs attacked again.  Again Israel beat them back, but this time their military remained outside their borders, occupying the Gaza strip and the Sinai; the Golan Heights, which is a part of Syria; and the West Bank.  The UN passed a resolution stating that the borders of Israel were those that were present before the invasion.

Israel ceded the Sinai when they made peace with Egypt, but the Gaza strip remained under Israeli occupation.

Israel withdrew from Gaza a few years ago, but the military occupation of the West Bank continues to this day.  It is this military occupation which is the cause of the problem between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  There is also the issue of Israel building settlements in the West Bank, as transplanting of your people to occupied territory is forbidden by the Fourth Geneva Convention.

While there are inevitably some extremists who would like to see Israel wiped off of the map completely, the view of the world as expressed by the UN, and by the Arabs through the Saudi Peace initiative, is for Israel to return to its 1967 borders, according to what is called Resolution 242, and for the Palestinians, freed from occupation, to create their own state.  However, there are also extremists on the Israeli side who want all of Palestine for Israel, with the settlements in places such as Hebron - the second holiest site in Judaism after Jerusalem, but in the occupied West Bank - being "facts on the ground".

Then why is there US support for Israel?

The best way to understand why a US-Israeli relationship exists is to study how the relationship was formed.

The United States and Israel were intimately tied together since Israel's previously mentioned declaration of Independence - the future Israelis notified Truman of the declaration prior to its publication.  However, the issue found no consensus in the higher levels of the US government.  George Marshall famously stormed out of a meeting in protest of the recognition of Israel, and most of the State Department thought that a prompt recognition of Israel by the US would damage relationships with the Arab states.  The bigger point was that the USA's prompt recognition of Israel would do little for the US-Israeli relationship, seeing as the Soviets did the same.

In 1953 when Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, came into office, they intended to be impartial in the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Initially, this was not too difficult.  The US even aided in the successful Suez Base negotiations with Britain and Egypt.

However, things changed between 1955 and 1958.  For one, Gamal Abdel Nasser's rise to power posed a political threat to Israel, and his 1955 purchase of arms from the Soviet bloc also made him a military threat to Israel.  The US press were very unhappy about this, and wasted no time comparing him to Hitler.  Eisenhower ultimately resisted public pressure to intervene in the Suez war, and was publicly opposed to Israeli actions.  Neutrality prevailed.

But in 1958 everything changed.  Eisenhower intervened in Lebanon partly because he feared that another Munich crisis was on the table.  Moreover, the Eisenhower administration began to view Israel as a strategic asset in the Middle East, and the US became closer to Israel while the Soviets got in bed with the Arab states.  During the second Eisenhower administration, they forged closer ties with Israel for strategic reasons.

However, this is not to say that culture had no influence: Even before the Eisenhower administration decided to forge close ties to Israel, the memory of World War II allowed the press to compare Israel's enemy, Nasser, to Adolf Hitler.  Jewish people were being publicly assimilated into American life, and many Americans praised Israel as a democracy.

This relationship endures because these cultural factors remained after Israel became a strategic liability during the cold war.  The cultural attachment to Israel, which aided the strategic relationship, persisted despite the death of the strategic rationale for supporting Israel.

Where do I stand on the issue?

The US needs to put pressure on Israel.  Without significant nudging from their strongest ally, Israel will remain perfectly happy with the status quo.  Considering Russia's history with Chechnya, Israel is probably paranoid about seeing a long-time enemy end up with even more land and, like Russia, adopt the hardest possible line for fear of losing their grip on other areas. Withdrawal to the 1967 borders will obviously not end violence in the Middle East, but it's the only viable first step.

Oh, and despite what the propogandists will tell you, anti-Zionism is not the same thing as anti-Semitism.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Through a Glass Darkly

"Let's get one thing straight," announced the seventeen-year-old, chubby redhead Karin Visagie pugnaciously, "I'm not hurting anyone."

Father David Raskolnik, a handsome priest no older than thirty-five who often made the other girls blush during Mass, stared at Karin's file on his desk before giving her a look of mild contempt. "Is that so, my child? What about your parents, this school? What about God?"

"They can mind their own business," Karin said, sitting across from Father David with arms crossed, staring at her shoes.

"Sister Agnes saw you last weekend," David confirmed, "kissing a girl from your neighbourhood in a manner she described as 'burning with lust'. That's why you've been sent to me."

Karin sat in silence, her eyes still cast downwards.

"The Saint Genevieve School for Girls has been one of the top schools in Johannesburg since 1957. We've never lost a single girl to this... Affliction."

"Affliction," Karin retorted, "you're saying I'm sick? I'm not sick. I'm in love with Lily, and even if I could change how I feel I wouldn't want to."

"I know exactly how you think you feel, child. You see, before becoming a priest I lived in sin with another man. I thought I was fulfilled, but I only brought shame upon my family. My father even told me that I was dead to him. It's so horrible to see your own confusion and understand it. One day I tried to drive off of a cliff outside Cape Town, but a faulty transmission prevented me. This was divine intervention. I gave up my sinful ways and devoted myself to God, and He cured me. I finished my degree and entered the seminary so that I may help others like me. Like you. So that you may one day enter the Kingdom of Heaven."

Karin shuffled uncomfortably in the cushioned chair. "Father David, how do you even know there is a place like that? And if there is, maybe it's not all that great. What if there are only spiders there, or something like that?"

"Faith, my child."

The next day after school Karin made her way to Father David's office, as ordered. She found him standing outside the door smoking a cigarette and wearing jeans and a polo shirt instead of his cassock.

"Hi, Father David. Didn't know you smoked."

"Karin," he greeted with a forced smile, "there's something we need to discuss. Come, I'll walk you to the bus stop." After walking in thought along the gravelly pavement for a minute, he continued, "I'll get right to it; yesterday evening I learned that I've been excommunicated and, pending an investigation by the archdiocese, I'll probably be defrocked."

"What does that mean?"

"It means," David paused momentarily, "it means I'm not a priest anymore, Karin."

"Maybe God cured you," Karin cruelly replied, unable to resist.

David clenched his teeth for a moment before sighing, "Maybe He did."

"What happened? Did you do something bad?" Karin asked, the concern now returned to her face.

"It's a personal matter," he conceded, "but you have a right to know. The Church found out about a relationship I've been having with another man."

Karin's reply surprised David, "Do you love him?"

"I do," he admitted as they reached the bus stop, "Love is, after all, what brings us closest to God."

"Father David... I don't think I believe in God."

"But you believe in love, my dear," he replied, walking away, "and love is proof of God's existence."

She frowned. "Maybe love and God are the same thing?"

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivatives 3.0 License.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

To be stamped on the side of all paper bags

Side 1: Blow into this paper bag, go home and stop grinning at everyone.

Side 2: If the boss sits there and accuses you of stealing, or not having the right motivation, don't just sit there and take it. Hit the fucker in the face.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Child's Play

As you may or may not know, Child's Play is a charity founded by Mike and Jerry of the popular web-comic Penny Arcade.  The aim of Child's Play is to improve the lives and raise the spirits of sick kids by donating toys and games to children's hospitals worldwide, hopefully combating the stereotype of gamers as violent, antisocial leeches upon society.

Though the charity accepts donations year round, the annual drive runs from November until the end of December, and Child's Play 2009 is officially a go.

In this spirit, I've decided to replace some of my ads with banners linking to the official Child's Play site.  Even if you don't usually click on ads, please do follow these links and follow through by making a donation or two.  In addition to this, one hundred percent of all ad revenue my blog makes (not that it's ever much) from today until the last day of the year will be donated to Child's Play.  This isn't an incentive to click on my ads; if you feel tempted to do so purely to help out the charity, then rather go to the charity's site and make a donation directly.

If you're on Twitter, you can also keep up to speed on things by following @CPCharity.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Ownership, happyship

It is my personal philosophy - well, one of them anyway - that every person should own something (and I mean something physical, like an object of some kind, an heirloom, a collection, or a sentimental knick-knack.  Not a person, a pet or an abstraction like a business) that they treasure and value so much that they would rather die with it than live without it.

Buddhists teach that attachment to things blocks the path to enlightenment and is the cause of suffering.  Well, those misty-eyed fucks believe a lot of things that may or may not amount to a damned thing.  Karma, Nirvana, reincarnation?  No less stupid than anything I can hope to come up with.  Besides, suffering is a part of life; you need to take the bad with the good.  If you remove yourself from everything that could possibly lead to suffering (in a Buddhist sense), well then, quite frankly, your life fucking sucks.