Thursday, December 31, 2009

No, plants do not like to live

I've heard the waffling, reactionary argument that eating plants is no more or less ethical than eating animal flesh because plants, too, are living entities capable of such cognitive feats previously thought only possible by animals.  I'm sure all vegetarians and vegans have heard the perennially stale quip, "so what do you have against plants, anyway?"

This is based on a ridiculous misunderstanding and misrepresentation of scientific parlance.  In order to facilitate ease of understanding, scientists often use metaphorical, active verbs to describe the functions of nature. Mercury "gallops" around the sun, we "hear echoes" of gamma radiation from the distant universe, plants "forage" for resources.

Yes, plants are alive in the strictest sense and they exhibit chemical responses to external stimuli, but they are not sentient, and sentience - not life - is the key.

Let me humour idiocy far more than it deserves and assume for a moment, hypothetically, that plants were both alive and sentient.  Even so, eating them would be unavoidable, and veganism would still be the best way to cause the least amount of harm because you're consuming the plants directly, instead of feeding them to a cow, which is then raised and killed for consumption as well.  Raising livestock to be used for food uses approximately ten times the amount of plants needed for a healthy vegan diet, which is one of the reasons why a vegetarian or vegan diet is espoused as more environmentally friendly.

In tomorrow's episode, we'll assume that rocks are sentient and ask what ethical dilemmas are introduced by driving on gravel roads.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On "evangelical" atheism

In response to a reddit post criticizing atheists as being "evangelical", I submitted the following in the form of a comment.

I'm definitely a passionate atheist, and may or may not be called "evangelical" or some such behind my back, but I really can sympathise with your sentiment.  Though, it does beg a deeper understanding of where the more vocal atheists are coming from.

A quotation from Kurt Wise may sum up the type of thinking that most atheists are fighting against:

...if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.  Here I must stand.

This is the kind of inflexible commitment to superstition that flies in the face of reason, intellect and, above all, evidence.  It's nothing short of an insult to the human intellect, yet sadly it is a very common stance among religious fundamentalists of all kinds.  If "tolerance" means sitting back and allowing this ignorance to be advanced, then perhaps this concept of tolerance should not be tolerated, for to be tolerant would be to tolerate the worst kind of ignorance... the willful kind.

To illustrate an atheist point of view, on the other hand, I'll quote Dawkins (who is quotable and oft quoted not because of some misguided personality cult, as some believe, but because he describes both atheism and its arguments honestly and succinctly):

If all the evidence in the universe turned in favour of creationism, I would be the first to admit it, and I would immediately change my mind.  As things stand, however, all available evidence (and there is a vast amount of it) favours evolution.  It is for this reason and this reason alone that I argue for evolution with a passion that matches the passion of those who argue against it.  My passion is based on evidence.  Theirs, flying in the face of evidence as it does, is truly fundamentalist.

Though the creation/evolution issue is but one of many talking points on the atheist roster, it is a quote which does put into perspective where the so-called "new atheists" tend to come from.  A passionate, but flexible and evidence based reaction to the inflexible ignorance which seems to be the requirement of religious thought, and which ultimately - invariably - leads to further injustices and social ills.

This comment probably seems like holier-than-thou soapboxing - and maybe it is - but it's as sincere a description of vocal atheist motivation as I can manage, and hopefully goes some way towards explaining why "evangelical atheist" is contradictory term.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

And you thought garlic left a bad taste in the mouth...

The recent death of former South African health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has surprised nobody, as there have been concerns about her health since 2006.  What I did personally find shocking, though, were the reactions of some to the news.

Msimang is of course infamous for her emphasis on treating AIDS with vegetables rather than ARVs, and garnered much well-deserved criticism.

I really hate to be "that guy" and get on my soapbox (no, really, I do!), but sometimes I feel like my hand is forced.  The news of Msimang's death prompted some comments on news sites, Facebook, and elsewhere, which are, at best, unfortunate and unpleasant.

Some choice quotes:

I danced around my house when I got the SMS. And to miss quote Elvis Costello, all I wanted to do is live long enough to dance on her grave.

Good riddance. Sorry her family has to loose [sic] the free ride.

Finally! At last a cadre is correctly deployed.

Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has died! oh happy day! They should of [sic] tried to revive her by rubbing garlic on her forehead!

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that in death she should be free of the criticism that she very much deserved in life.  That would be illogical and absurd.  The truth is that she was and is responsible for the deaths of many, many people, and probably should have been tried for genocide.  Nonetheless, there is a point where untempered criticism can stray into the realm of viciousness and bad taste, and I think the above comments exemplify the wrong side of that line.

If your first reaction at the news of a person's death is delectation and glee, perhaps you should stop for a moment and realise that that says more about you than it does about them.

It's a pity that these comments - and the death that prompted it - occurred on what was supposed to be Reconciliation Day.  Sadly, though, most people with whom I spoke didn't even know what specific public holiday the 16th of December is; to them it's just another excuse to stay home, get fat, and get drunk.

Monday, December 14, 2009

How significant is the SACP?

The recent spat between ANC Youth League president Julius Malema and Deputy General Secretary of the South African Communist Party Jeremy Cronin, or rather the ANC's reaction to it, has been telling.

The SACP's recent hostility towards Malema - one of the ANC's own - has been met with little more than an attempt to placate the Communists.  How is it, then, that a political party with fewer than 100,000 registered members finds itself in the position of being the proverbial mouse bullying the elephant of the ANC?

Despite being small in representation, the SACP has managed to get its members into many of the highest positions of public office.  Examples include Reserve Bank president Gill Marcus, former Minister for Intelligence Services Ronnie Kasrils, and, of course, President Jacob Zuma.

Despite this, the SACP directly represents a negligible voter contingent.  This fact, combined with the communist influence within parliament, has encouraged some to ask: why not boot the SACP out of the Tripartite Alliance?

The fact is that the recent ANC schism, and the resulting formation of the Congress of the People, was one of the best things that could have happened for the Communists.  Another significant internal struggle is likely to leave the ANC weak enough to stand a good chance of losing the next election, and a significant struggle is exactly what a hostile course of action against the Communists would lead to.

In such a hypothetical scenario, COSATU will find themselves realising that the ANC is not in search of "allies" so much as "lap dogs."  They will either have to make peace with playing by the ANC's rules, or the knowledge that they will likely also be expelled and the alliance dissolved as soon as they cease to represent a tactical advantage to the ruling party.  In the face of this dilemma, they will refuse to show weakness and an acrimonious split would result.  Communist sympathizers and COSATU elements within the ANC would revolt against the party, leaving the door open for another party - perhaps COPE or even a new party born out of the schism - to join in an advantageous alliance with the Trade Unions.

In any event, none of the remaining political factions would have a significant majority support, and the ANC would be dead.  For this reason, the ANC needs the Communist Party a great deal more than the Party needs them, and despite numbering comparatively few registered members - though SACP membership has doubled over the last four years due to Alliance supporters' frustration with the ANC's infighting, corruption and general impotence - the Communist Party is and will remain a strong influence and important player in the South African political landscape.