May 29, 2009

Liberty University Hearts the GOP

Yes, shocking, I know.

It looks like Liberty University has ordered its College Democrats to disband. What’s that, I hear you saying, Liberty University has Democrats? Yes, I was surprised, too. Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell, the man who blamed 9/11 on “the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians,” the man who continually cheered on Republican-led mass-murder, the man who took on Tinky Winky—Liberty University has Democrats. And until recently it had a College Democrats club.

Now of course the school is privately-funded and has the right to ban whatever club it desires. What I find incredible is the reason for the ban. It turns out that the College Democrats go against the school’s Christian values. In an email sent to the club’s president, a school official complained that the Democratic Party supports abortion, socialism and the “‘LGBT’ agenda.” For those of you heathens out there, LBGT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender.

Now if this isn’t hypocrisy of the highest order, I don’t know what is. Evidently Jerry Falwell Jr. is too busy looking at the specks in these young Democratic eyes to see the giant plank in his own. Because Jerry Jr. hasn’t banned the College Republicans. In fact, he hasn’t banned any other club, just the College Democrats.

The double standard here is, of course, astonishing. The Republicans, while giving occasional lip service to the anti-gay/anti-abortion crowd, have become the party of torture and war. Not that the Democrats are blameless in these matters, but since 9/11 no one has pushed harder for “enhanced interrogation techniques,” for extraordinary rendition, for military tribunals, and indefinite detention, no one has pushed harder for mass-murder in Iraq and Afghanistan than the Republicans.

According to Republican leaders, abortion is murder, yet it’s perfectly legitimate to bomb Muslim civilians. According to Republican leaders, it’s an abomination to allow homosexuals to marry, but somehow torturing defenseless detainees (many of whom are completely innocent) isn’t all that big of a deal. And while I’m on a tangent, let me just say one more thing. One of the reasons the College Democrats were banned is that they advocate socialism? Hell-o? If memory serves me right, didn’t Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress allow government spending, including non-defense spending, to balloon? Didn’t Bush allow corporate welfare to continue thriving? Didn’t Bush give us the first bailout?

Not surprisingly, this blatant hypocrisy has angered many. Noting that the club was originally formed in opposition to the Iraq War, one leader of the College Democrats of America remarked: “That seems to be Christian to me.” Even Tinky Winky got in on the action. His (her? its?) response can be found below.

May 22, 2009

The Evangelical Torturemongers Strike Again

It doesn’t take much to incite the wrath of an Evangelical Christian. Just criticize government mass-murder (a.k.a. war) or torture (a.k.a. enhanced interrogation techniques), and you’ll manage to turn your typical happy-go-lucky Ned Flanders into something much like the Wolf Man.

Over the past few years, I’ve managed to turn a few Evangelicals into Wolf Men. The most recent transformation occurred two weeks ago, shortly after I published my article, “Blessed are the…waterboarders?” After coming across my article, an Evangelical reader, whom I’ll simply refer to as Wolfie, sent me a short, vitriolic, and grammatically atrocious email. (Funny how anger manages to bring out the split infinitive in the best of us.)

Wolfie accused me of lying. His basic argument was that neither Christians nor the Bush administration nor anyone he knows supports torture. Then, after committing a particularly egregious comma splice, he accused me of being sympathetic with the terrorists and asked why I didn’t just pack up my bags and move to Iran or somewhere like that. A couple more comma splices later, he ended his email, giving me good fodder for the present article.

So, first of all, do Evangelical Christians support torture? The answer is undoubtedly yes, most do. As Laurence Vance recently reported, two polls bear out this conclusion. The first poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center, revealed that white Evangelicals are more likely than the general population to believe that torture can “often be justified” (18% to 15%) and that torture can “sometimes be justified” (44% to 34%). A second poll, conducted by Faith in Public Life and Mercer University, revealed that 57% of white Southern Evangelicals believe torture is justified.

So much for Wolfie’s first claim.

Of course, I imagine Wolfie genuinely believes what he’s saying. And to understand why, we need to examine his second claim, which is that that the Bush administration never supported torture.

Now it’s true that Bush officials continue denying that they authorized torture. As Bush himself famously stated in 2007: “This government does not torture people.” That was a lie, of course. Under the Bush gang’s authorization, several individuals were tortured. That’s what I’d call it anyway.

What would you call waterboarding one detainee 183 times in a month’s time and another detainee 83 times? What would you call forcing someone to take off all his clothes and then stand in the same position for two to three days in a row, all while his hands are shackled to a bar above his head? What would you call putting a collar around someone’s neck and repeatedly slamming him against a wall? What would you call depriving someone of sleep for seven consecutive days? What would you call threatening to infect someone with the HIV virus or threatening to injure his family?

I would call such treatment torture. And, as far as I can tell, my view is corroborated by the Eighth Amendment, as well as the Third Geneva Convention and the Convention Against Torture, both of which have been ratified by the U.S. government. Yet not only did the CIA use such techniques against detainees, but it received authorization to do so from the Bush administration.

So given all this, why do Wolfie and his fellow Wolf People claim that the Bush administration never supported torture? Easy. You see, Bush, controlled by Darth Cheney and his cadre of OLC lawyers, tried to redefine torture. While the above techniques obviously qualify as torture, the Bush gang claimed that an action could only be considered physical torture if its intensity equaled “the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death” and that an action could only be considered psychological torture if it lasted “months or even years.”

While such tortured logic doesn’t fool most of us, I’m afraid that Wolfie and the rest of his pack are just too brainwashed to see through it. So instead of taking Jesus’ words seriously and standing up for things like human rights, they spend their free time sending nasty emails to guys like me.

But at least I got another article out of it.

May 13, 2009

Libertarian Anarchism and the Principle of Non-Aggression (revised)

Murray Rothbard wrote that libertarian anarchism rests upon the principle of non-aggression, which he defined as the belief that no one may aggress (that is, use violence or the threat of violence) against the person or property of anyone else. Examples of aggressing against someone’s person include enslaving him, as well as restricting his freedom to speak, publish, and assemble. Examples of aggressing against someone’s property include seizing his property and dictating the manner in which it may be used.[i]

Contrary to Rothbard, I think a strong case can be made that the principle of non-aggression is not universally valid. To see why this is so, we merely need to think of a hypothetical situation that would seem to justify violating the principle. For instance, imagine you’re sitting at a bus stop with a friend. The friend suddenly starts having a diabetic attack and you know that unless you can get him some sugar in the next few minutes he’s going to die. Looking over, you see a woman waiting for the bus, munching on a Snickers bar. You ask if you can have the Snickers to give to your friend. She says no. You plead with her. She says no. You offer to buy the candy bar from her. She still says no. You look back at your friend, who’s quickly nearing death. What do you do?

Well you forcibly take the candy bar. Obviously. Now, of course, it’s impossible to prove that you’re morally justified in taking the candy bar. But then again, as David Hume showed, it’s impossible to prove that any action is morally justified.[ii] Nonetheless, most of us would agree that we can have knowledge of certain moral principles.[iii] And I think that all of us, or at least most of us, would also agree that you’re morally justified in taking the candy bar.

From this, it follows that there is at least one conceivable situation in which one would be justified in violating the principle of non-aggression. Which of course means that the principle is not universally valid.[iv] And this in turn means that libertarian anarchism does not have an unshakable foundation. Or to put it another way, since an individual can conceivably be justified in aggressing against another person, it follows that a group of individuals—and thus a government—can conceivably be justified in aggressing against another group of individuals.

But what’s conceivable (what could be) is often different than what’s actual (what is). Just because we can imagine a situation in which a government would be morally justified in aggressing against others, it does not follow that, given the actual state of the world, any actual government is in fact morally justified. To see why this is so, we need to keep a couple of things in mind.

First, one can never be justified violating the principle of non-aggression if he does not do so as a last resort. In our hypothetical situation, for instance, you were only justified taking the Snickers bar from the woman because doing so was your only hope of saving your friend’s life. If, say, you had a candy bar in your back pocket or happened to be standing in front of a Winchell’s, then you would have had no right taking her candy bar. Second, once one has violated principle of non-aggression (whether or not he was justified in doing so), he becomes morally obligated to remunerate his victim. For instance, after taking the Snickers bar from the woman, you’re now obligated to pay her back—which means buying her another Snickers bar and perhaps taking additional steps to make up for any psychological pain you may have caused.

Given all this, it seems to follow that no existing government is morally justified. First, real life governments never aggress against others as a last resort, as every “service” they provide (including security and justice) can be provided by the private sector. (Moreover, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe argues in his masterful Democracy: The God That Failed, the private sector is actually far better at providing these services.) Second, and needless to say, no real life government is in the remuneration business. When, for instance, the American government takes money from an entrepreneur in Portland to subsidize a welfare recipient in Denver, it does not set up a plan to repay the entrepreneur the following year—rather, it ends up taking money from him once again.

What kind of situation, then, might justify the existence of a government? As far as I can tell, only the most extreme one. For example: most of the world has been destroyed by a nuclear holocaust; all that remains are a group of people and a field of wheat; and the owner of the field, it just so happens, has also survived, and he refuses to share his wheat with the others. In such a situation, the majority would be justified in joining together and expropriating some of the stingy man’s wheat.

Of course, such extreme situations don’t actually exist. And it’s for this reason that I’m convinced that no actual government has the right to exist. As Rothbard notes, if we apply the principle of non-aggression to all individuals and groups of individuals, including those who run the many existing world governments, it becomes clear that all governments commit all sorts of acts that “even non-libertarians concede are reprehensible crimes. The State habitually commits mass murder, which it calls ‘war,’ or sometimes ‘suppression of subversion’; the State engages in enslavement into its military forces, which it calls ‘conscription’; and it lives and has its being in the practice of forcible theft, which it calls ‘taxation.’”[v]


[i] Murray Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto (Murray Rothbard, 1973; reprint, Auburn: Ludwig Von Mises Institute, 2006), 27-28.

[ii] A proposition is proven to be true when that proposition is inferred from other, pre-established propositions. Therefore, if morality could be proven to be true, all moral propositions would ultimately have to be inferred from other propositions. Needless to say, these other propositions would either have to be moral or non-moral ones. However, it is absurd to say that moral propositions can be ultimately inferred from other moral propositions. For, if we want to avoid an infinite regress of inferences, we must acknowledge that, if moral propositions were ultimately inferred from other moral propositions, then these latter propositions would themselves be unprovable. And, if this were the case, it would follow that morality is ultimately unprovable. And it is impossible to infer moral propositions from non-moral propositions. As Hume put it, it is impossible to infer an ought statement from an is statement. This is so because, in order to infer a conclusion from a set of premises, one must show that the conclusion is already contained in the premises and that merely connecting the premises brings this conclusion to light. For example, the following syllogism is valid because the conclusion is found by simply connecting the premises: (1) Jack stole from Jill; (2) Stealing is wrong; (3) Therefore, Jack’s stealing from Jill was wrong. This next conclusion, on the other hand, is not valid because the conclusion is not contained in the premises: (1) Jack stole from Jill; (2) Jack has brown hair; (3) Therefore, Jack’s stealing from Jill was wrong.

[iii] Let me here provide a brief argument for my claim that we can have knowledge of certain moral principles. Let me begin by noting that, just as it’s impossible to prove that any action is morally justified, it’s impossible to prove that we can have knowledge of any moral principle. But this in no way implies that we can’t be epistemically justified in believing such propositions. For there are many propositions that we’re justified in believing even though we can’t prove them: for instance, the proposition, “My senses are generally reliable.” Though most all of us believe this proposition, it’s impossible to prove it. As many philosophers have pointed out, it’s logically possible that you’re just a brain floating in a vat somewhere who is hallucinating the external world.

All the same, philosophers have long contended that people are justified in having a whole host of beliefs that cannot be proven. Such beliefs are generally referred to as basic beliefs. Simply put, a basic belief is a belief that we know to be true even though we cannot prove it to be true. While some basic beliefs can be known with infallible certainty (e.g., “I exist”), others can only be known with a prima facie certainty (e.g., “My senses are generally reliable”) [W. Jay Wood, Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 98]. Many of our traditional moral values, it seems to me, fall in the latter category.

Proof that these values are basic beliefs is that they possess the same essential characteristics as other basic beliefs. Basic beliefs, W. Jay Wood writes, are “the sort of convictions that are universally subscribed to, indispensable for living, beliefs to which we are irresistibly drawn from our earliest moments of our lives and which are rooted in our very psychological natures” [Ibid., 101].

Let me briefly offer two pieces of evidence that at least some of our traditional moral values possess these characteristics. First, many of these values are nearly universally subscribed to. This is the conclusion C.S. Lewis reached after surveying the moral codes of the ancient Egyptians, Jews, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks, Romans, and Christians. As he writes, “[T]hough there are differences between the moral ideas of one time or country and those of another, the differences are not really very great—not nearly so great as most people imagine—and you can recognize the same law running through them all” [C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1943; reprint, New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1986), 10]. For instance, “Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to—whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired. Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked” [Ibid., 5]. Moreover, the anthropological discoveries made over the past hundred years have shown that similar basic moral principles can be found in all cultures. As anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn writes, “Every culture has a concept of murder, distinguishing this from execution, killing in war, and other ‘justified homicides.’ The notions of incest and other regulations upon sexual behavior, the prohibitions upon untruth under defined circumstances, of restitution and reciprocity, of mutual obligations between parents and children—these and many other moral concepts are altogether universal” [Clyde Kluckhohn, “Ethical Relativity: Sic et Non,” Journal of Philosophy, LII (1955); quoted in Louis Pojman, Moral Philosophy (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1998), 45].

Second, many of our traditional values are principles that humans, beginning at an early age, just can’t seem to disbelieve. One evidence Lewis gives for this is that even those who claim that morality is subjective are unable to actually hold to their subjectivism. As he writes, “He [the subjectivist] may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson” [Lewis, Mere Christianity, 5]. Similarly, those who attempt to reject traditional morality and create their own values reveal that they believe in traditional morality by the fact that the new values they create are derived from traditional morality. A prime example of this is Friedrich Nietzsche, who perhaps came as close as any other philosopher to actually rejecting traditional morality. Although he would have certainly denied it, Nietzsche fervently held to many traditional moral values. For instance, he condemned “Christian morality” by appealing to a number of traditional moral values which he believed Christian morality violated—e.g., he condemned the Christian values of charity, equality, and justice because he believed Christians only preached and practiced these values because they were filled with hatred and resentment towards the “strong,” and because they hoped they could execute revenge on the strong by preaching and practicing these values. Likewise, he seemed to criticize the Christian value of humility because he believed that those who attempted to practice it were generally disingenuous.

[iv] We should note that, like the principle of non-aggression, the majority of our most deeply held moral precepts are not universally valid. Take the prohibition against lying, for instance. Though most of us would be quick to say that lying is wrong, if push came to shove, we would admit that there are times when people are morally obligated to lie—for example, when the authorities came to Corrie ten Boom’s front door during World War II and asked if she was hiding any Jews. This, of course, does not mean that our precept against lying should be scrapped, only that it is generally, not universally, valid.

[v] Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, 28-29.

May 6, 2009

Blessed are the…waterboarders?

More Evangelical lunacy.

The other day, I heard a Christian pastor defend torture. Eight years ago this would have shocked me. But now, after two terms of the Bush-Cheney regime, nothing Christians do shocks me. For those eight horrid years proved that Christians will defend all sorts of evils and monstrosities—so long, of course, that they’re committed by Republicans who say they believe in Jesus. Never mind if these Republicans actually believe in Jesus. Never mind if they live like they believe in Jesus. If they have an (R) after their name and occasionally pay lip service to God, then that invaluable “Christian vote” is theirs.

But back to this pastor. We were at dinner. Someone started talking politics, one thing led to another, and before I knew it this guy was justifying all the worst crimes of the Bush administration: mass-murder in Iraq, the loss of civil liberties at home, and finally torture at Guantanamo Bay. As some of his female congregants began nodding their heads approvingly—the same women, mind you, who spend their Sunday mornings in the playroom, leading the kids in “Jesus Loves the Little Children”—I kept my head down, kept flipping through the menu, trying my hardest not to say anything. Of course I wanted to stand up, more than anything in the world I wanted to stand up, pound my fist against the table, and yell, “What in God’s name is wrong with you people?!”

This issue should be a no-brainer. Torture is obviously, self-evidently evil and barbaric: kind of like, I don’t know, tripping up old ladies or dousing small children with acid. Of course, the torture-mongers disagree, and this pastor, undoubtedly voicing the sentiments of millions of churchgoers, seemed to think that the following hypothetical situation justified his position: A nuclear bomb is about to be detonated somewhere in Manhattan; we have a terrorist in custody who knows where the bomb is; our only way of saving the lives of millions of innocent Americans is to torture the hell out of this guy until he divulges the bomb’s location.

Now the problem with this argument is that it’s based on a number of unwarranted assumptions. For instance, it assumes that the guy in our custody knows the bomb’s location. But maybe he doesn’t. Maybe we apprehended the wrong guy. Or maybe we have the right guy, but he has the wrong information. And even if we have the right guy, this argument assumes that torturing him will yield the right information. But there’s obviously no guarantee that that will happen.

Regarding this latter point, some have recently argued that the torture performed by officials under the Bush regime garnered all sorts of life-saving information. Clifford May notes that Dennis Blair, Michael Hayden, Michael Mukasey, George Tenet, and Mike McConnell all hold this view. But I don’t see why we should accept their word. None of these men are unbiased parties; all but Blair served in the Bush administration, and even Blair has his own agenda. Moreover, according to declassified Justice Department memos, the CIA inspector general declared in 2004 that he hadn’t found any proof that these techniques helped prevent any “specific imminent attacks.” Just last year, former FBI Director Robert Mueller admitted that he had reached the same conclusion.

The truth of the matter is that torture is horribly ineffective. As Jane Mayer writes: “Torture works in several ways. It can intimidate enemies, it can elicit false confessions, and it can produce true confessions. Setting aside the moral issues, the problem is recognizing what’s true. [Abu] Zubayda, for instance, reportedly confessed to dozens of half-hatched or entirely imaginary plots to blow up American banks, supermarkets, malls, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, and nuclear power plants. Federal law-enforcement officials were dispatched to unlikely locations across the country in an effort to follow these false leads” (The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, 178-79).

A similar point has been made by Matthew Alexander, a former U.S. Air Force Special Operations pilot who headed a team of interrogators in Iraq in 2006. Upon arriving in Iraq, Alexander was “astonished” by what he saw: “These interrogations were based on fear and control; they often resulted in torture and abuse.” Alexander immediately began teaching his men a new method, “one based on building rapport with suspects, showing cultural understanding and using good old-fashioned brainpower to tease out information.” And his team went on to have great success, eventually tracking down and killing Abu Musab al-Azraqwi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Far from keeping Americans safe, Alexander notes that torturing suspects has cost many American lives. “I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It’s no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse.”

But I’m digressing, aren’t I? Yes, I’m digressing. Torture, as I was saying a few paragraphs ago, is obviously wrong. Even if it weren’t ineffective, it would be wrong. And, of all people, Christians should realize this. As Laurence Vance writes, “Christians are told to put off anger, wrath, and malice (Colossians 3:8), to not render evil for evil (1 Thessalonians 5:15), to not give offense (1 Corinthians 10:30), to abstain from all appearance of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22), to not be a brawler (Titus 3:2), and to abhor that which is evil (Romans 12:9). I think this rules out waterboarding.”

But, as my dinner with Pastor Meathead made eminently clear, Christians continue defending Bush’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.” All I can say is, good thing for all those pagans at the ACLU. Without them, we’d really be a godless nation.

Also posted at Strike the Root.