Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Al A. Gore, Super Genius

My always reliable wiki-sources tell me that Gore is slightly off. The core of the Earth is approximately 1.32 bajillion degrees Fahrenheit.

Seriously though, geothermal technology works. The in-laws have a geothermal system buried around their house in Michigan. It is very efficient both cooling, and heating, significantly reduces their bills. But, very pricey on the install side. It will no doubt pay for itself. But the cost is damn near prohibitive for most I suspect.

How best to publicly respond to the Fort Hood attack?

Vis a vis the broad strategic implications? Robert Kaplan suggests that we refrain from calling the attack an attack inspired by and concordant with militant Islamic beliefs, in particular, those of Al Qaeda, and similar organizations. This action, he calls "waving the bloody shirt." He writes:

"..we would lose far more than we would gain by waving the bloody shirt. The ultimate strategic goal of al-Qaeda is to turn our struggle with it into a “clash of civilizations.” If potential Muslim recruits to the U.S. military quietly decide not to enlist for fear of retribution or prejudice inside the barracks, that would be a victory for al-Qaeda. The consequences for terrorists must be tough, but our rhetoric must remain ecumenical."

As well:

"..the only way to win a clash of civilizations is to deny that you are fighting one in the first place, government and military officials must always take the high road in their public statements. That’s why, while we improve our security procedures behind the scenes, we should deal with the massacre at Fort Hood in as low key a manner as possible. More Maj. Hasans may lurk in the barracks and public squares. The way to find them out is not in a shrill witch hunt, but quietly, methodically, and legally, even as we open up our military to a wider spectrum of recruits."

In the spirit of giving approaches striking labels, I'll call this approach the "emperor's new clothes approach." There is a bit of an ambiguity here. He first recommends that we "deny" that we are in a clash of civilizations, but also says that public figures should "take the high road" when dealing with episodes like the Hasan attack. I would suggest that these are not synonymous. One can 'take the high road' while refusing to deny that one is in fact in a conflict. That would seem to be the most reasonable thing to do. But Kaplan seems to suggest something more in line with denial. We should quietly scrutinize military personnel, but not announce the fact. What is more, we should 'deny' that we are in a clash of civilizations, even though we demonstrably are in such a clash. This is the gist of his article.

Why does he suggest this denialist approach? Three main reasons. The first, you can see in the passages I've quoted; We need Muslims in the military, for fairly obvious reasons.

Secondly, he believes that non-acknowledgment of the truth as to Hasan's motivations would tamp down potential anti-Muslim backlash within the ranks of the services.

Thirdly, to publicly call a spade a spade, would cause the Muslim world to think that we are anti-Muslim, and that our military is anti-Muslim, even if there were to be no backlash and indeed little actual anti-Muslim sentiment. He believes that the mere public pronouncement of the truth would be enough to ensure that reading.

To boil things down, we should not speak the truth (Kaplan himself is not quite ready to concede that it is in fact true that this was an act of Islamic terror, but a preponderance of the evidence does point that way) because it will make a victory in the clash of civilizations more difficult. In fact, he makes a rather stronger claim than this. Look at the passage above one more time. There is a 'necessary condition' claim nested in that bit of prose:

"..the only way to win a clash of civilizations is to deny that you are fighting one in the first place.."

Is this in fact true? Looking at historical precedent, something very like a clash of civilizations was going on during the Cold War. If by the phrase "clash of civilizations" we mean to say something like "clash of opposed world views or fundamental cultural mores" then this was surely the case. We saw two diametrically opposed views of the individual's relation to the state, property and other rights, even science (remember the Lysenko fiasco). We can say that WWII was another clash of civilization. So too the Crusades. Going further back, the Greco/Persian wars. In fact, a good many wars fit this description.

Now, concentrating just on the Cold War; at times we in the West, and the U.S. in particular might have downplayed the differences between ourselves and the communists, in the hopes of arriving at diplomatically mediated success in the clash, but more often we made very clear our moral condemnation of the system, the civilization, the mores that were arrayed against us. This, in fact, is vital to victory in such ideological conflicts. One must make the moral case against the system, in the process of fighting it. To fail to do so is to send soldiers into conflict without a clear idea why the conflict is important enough for you to order them to possible death. To do so is to send a message of temerity and lack of resolve to the enemy you are fighting. If he thinks you really don't know what you are fighting for, he will think that perhaps, applying enough pressure, enough pain, you will give. This temerity emboldens.

So, according to Kaplan we should quietly go about thorough background checks of military personnel, quietly be more thorough in that sort of thing on an ongoing basis, so that we can catch other Islamic militants before they act.

But, at the same time, we do not want to publicly make great hay about doing so. In fact we must deny that we are fighting a radical Islamic world view. Why? For fear of offending Muslim citizens, or scaring them from military service. This, to borrow a phrase, seems to be a condescending view of Muslim Americans, (at least the ones that would serve) something like a soft bigotry of lowered expectations, in at least two respects.

First, Casey's concern, reflected by Kaplan, paints a view of servicemen and women that feeds into a stereotype of them as unintelligent reactionaries that have, underneath the thin veneer of enforced civility toward people different from themselves, a strong propensity to bigotry and hate. There is little or no evidence of this. As Kaplan's own case shows, and countless others, our non-Muslim servicemen and women actually have very high regard for Muslims with which they serve, for they know the value of these folks, and that they have volunteered precisely because they are Muslim, and believe that the radicals are, well..radically mistaken in their views. What is more, stories can be told of our folks lobbying hard for Iraqi translators to be granted U.S. citizenship. The average grunt, just as much as the average officer, is not a warmed over bigot. Give our military men and women more credit than that.

Secondly, the condescending picture painted of Muslims is too much dependent upon the street theatrics of protesters like those that reacted to the Danish cartoons. It depends too much on the deadly theatrics of groups like Fateh and Hamas, and those that have been swayed by them.

The picture the "emperor's new clothes" approach presupposes is not reflective enough of the Muslims who do serve, and those that do help us in Iraq, Afghanistan and in other places.

Do we not think that there are a good number of Muslims who are quite able to draw distinctions, moral distinctions between themselves and the radicals? Do we not think that they have the mental capacity to realize that when we talk about the Islamic totalists, we do not talk about them? Do we not think that there are Muslims that count themselves on this side of that clash of civilizations? Surely, in America, there are. And, surely they want us to call a spade a spade.

No, we don't have a simplistic choice between shrill witch hunts and claiming that the emperor has clothes when in fact he doesn't. We need to be up front and honest. If we are indeed in a clash of civilizations or world views, we need to acknowledge the fact, argue for why it is important we win, and have the moral courage to act when we suspect that someone a fellow serviceman is on the other side of that great clash.

This indeed, I think is the greatest lesson of this episode. On multiple occasions people in the Army, at Walter Reed, and other places observed behavior on the part of Hasan, that indicated he is on the other side in this war. Yet, for fear of being perceived as bigoted, or for fear of career, people chose to look the other way. Sometimes the right thing to do is to risk looking bigoted, risk career. Otherwise, lives are lost. Wars are lost.

Lastly, never be reticent to defend yourself, not only in war, but in words. War requires moral justification, in words.

U.S. Naval Academy Fighting Betas! Ethics Bowl Warriors.

[Click picture to enlarge]

The future of the U.S. Navy is in very good hands. Pictured above are the team members of the USNA Fighting Betas, the Naval Academy's Ethics Bowl team. These men and women will enter the officer corps of the Navy and Marine Corps upon graduating from the Academy. They are a remarkable group that I have had the privilege of coaching for the annual Ethics Bowl competitions this year.

Ethics Bowl is a panel debate competition that revolves around a set of 15 cases that are distributed to teams about two months before competition. Cases range across matters of public policy, professional and business ethics, academic integrity, research ethics and personal ethics.

Two teams of from 3 to 5 present analyses of cases, trading rounds of argument commentary, and point counterpoint critique. Each round covers two cases, and each case wraps up with a Q and A session with the panel of judges. Teams are scored based on cogency of argument, thinking on their feet, and acuity of ethical analysis.

This team worked long and hard on the 15 cases, and made it to the final four of the Southeast Regional Ethics Bowl competition at University of South Florida, Saint Petersburg this last weekend (Saturday the 14th of November) This qualified the Fighting Betas for the National Finals, to be held in Sunny Cincinnati, March 4, 2010.

The conspicuously older guy second from right is me. I nearly pulled a muscle and popped a ligament getting into that damn tree. The pic was the idea of team Captain Lizzy Byers, center. She is an avid tree climber. The rest of the Midshipmen Fighting Betas, from left to right are, Jeff Heckelman, Ashelyn McConnell, Selina Benavides, Lance Gonzalez,Matt Olson, and Adam Bacal.

There are other team members, who took part in a Baltimore area competition the week before, narrowly placing second in a field of six. (Hence the team name "fighting betas") That team picture will appear shortly!

They are: Maryanna Sheck, Kevin Richardson.

Other team members: Dave Emert, Andy Hotsko,

I love my job.

To get a taste of a typical Ethics Bowl case, here's a sample:


Most people overestimate their ability to act on their principles, according to a recent article in the New York Times. “In recent years, social psychologists have begun to study what they call the holier-than-thou effect. They have long known that people tend to be overly optimistic about their own abilities and fortunes – to overestimate their standing in class, their discipline, their sincerity. But this self-inflating bias may be even stronger when it comes to moral judgment, and it can greatly influence how people judge others’ actions, and ultimately their own,” is how Carey Benedict summed up the issue.

In the Good Samaritan experiment, even seminary students could not be counted on to stop and help a stranger in need. In the experiment, Princeton seminarians were asked to prepare a report on the parable of the Good Samaritan in one building and report to another building to discuss the parable. The seminarians were randomly assigned to one of three groups, those told that they were running late, right on time, and a little early. While making their way to the other building, each of the seminarians encountered a man slumped on the sidewalk in obvious distress. Of the seminarians told they were early, 63% stopped to help; those on time stopped 45% of the time; and 10% of those running late helped. The researchers found that, “Ironically, a person in a hurry is less likely to help people, even if he is going to speak on the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Some literally stepped over the victim on their way to the next building!) The results seem to show that thinking about norms does not imply that one will act on them.”

The problem is how to develop empirical evidence that tests the credence of self-righteous claims or that shows those who claim moral certitude to be only deceiving themselves. Studies that best test individuals’ actions against their claims usually involve observing those individuals’ actions in manufactured situations where they are called on to act, but don’t know that the morality of their actions is being measured. They might not even know that they are the subjects of a research experiment. Critics claim that there is something unethical about using deceptive means to test the good character of others. For example, the University of Washington medical school cautions its researchers, “As a general rule, deception is not acceptable when doing research with humans. Using deception jeopardizes the integrity of the informed consent process and can potentially harm your participants.”

For instance, Stanley Milgram’s experiments on authority have been roundly criticized as causing a potential crisis in the lives of test subjects. However, one is forced to wonder if tests of virtue are being criticized simply on the basis of the poor performance of test subjects. It is hard to imagine any test gauging the relationship between moral attitudes and actions which is not potentially harmful to participants. Research that uncovers an uncomfortable but important truth—moral hypocrisy—is likely to seem harmful to test subjects, but reveals important character trends.