Roderick T. Long

Archives: June 2004

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Free Saddam Hussein!

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

According to Saddam Hussein’s lawyer, by officially relinquishing sovereignty over Iraq before relinquishing custody over Hussein, the U.S. has legally committed itself to releasing Hussein. Since Hussein has prisoner-of-war status and has never been charged with a crime, the transfer of sovereignty automatically triggers a requirement under international law that he be set free.

 Hi!  My name is Saddam Hussein Claiming no expertise in matters of international law, I’m not qualified to evaluate this argument. But no matter how legally airtight the argument might turn out to be, we all know there’s not a chance in hell that the Bush régime would ever go along with it. Although Bush appealed to international law to justify invading Iraq in the first place, his real respect for international law is as bogus as the “sovereignty” that was handed over today.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m no great enthusiast for international law per se. It’s mostly a bunch of agreements among criminal gangs, and as such has no inherent authority. But it does have some utility as a check on especially bad behaviour by such gangs, and it keeps alive the idea that there are standards of justice higher than the State. In the current global climate, with the United States trying to play Roman Empire to the world, external institutional restraints on its arbitrary power are to be welcomed.

A tepid cheer, then, for international law. And if international law says to free Saddam Hussein, then by all means free him. At this point, George Bush unleashed is a lot more dangerous than Saddam Hussein unleashed.

A rant on the GOP website titled International Law Treachery denounces those “shallow and dangerous elitists” who “help the terrorists” by letting niceties like international law get in the way of “absolute victory” in what to right-thinking Americans is a “war unlike any other,” a “battle between the forces of good and evil.”

Golly, that sounds familiar…. Remember, back in the 1950s and 60s, when conservatives used to say that anyone who talked about constitutional rights had to be a Communist? The Cold War was a “war unlike any other” too, a war in which ordinary legal protections had to be sacrificed for a greater goal. That was when William Buckley urged us to “accept Big Government for the duration,” since “neither an offensive nor defensive war can be waged” against international Communism “except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.”

Which in turn sounds a lot like Lewis Mumford back in 1940, arguing that the United States must “temporarily” adopt fascism at home in order to combat fascism abroad. World War II, I guess, was yet another “war unlike any other.” Come to think of it, haven’t they all been?

Posted June 28th, 2004



Demolish the Duopoly

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power] is hosting an online petition to include third-party candidates in the presidential debates, as well as to make the debates less like press conferences and more like actual debates.

As of this posting, 6626 people have signed the petition. We can do better.

Click here to sign the petition.

Posted June 25th, 2004



Art Criticism for Real People

On his new blog (check it out – and while you’re at it, buy his excellent book), Gene Callahan replies to two of my recent blog posts.

In Towards Standards of Criticism (May 28th), I criticised the notion that “a purely aesthetic or critical appraisal of a work of art should in no way turn on an evaluation of the artist’s ideas, values, and commitments, but should take into account only the artist’s success in embodying those ideas, values, and commitments, whatever they may happen to be, in artistic form.” I also pointed out that this idea is inconsistent with actual critical practice – however widely the notion of critical neutrality may be embraced in theory. And I proceeded to offer an explanation of this theory/practice gap that presupposed the wrongness of the theory and the correctness of the practice.

In his reply, Gene, who defends the neutrality approach, offers three rival explanations (rival not only to mine but perhaps also to one another) that he thinks do not require rejecting the correctness of the neutrality theory.

The first is that “Critics are correct in believing that an aesthetic judgment of a work of art proceeds on purely aesthetic grounds, but rarely live up to such a principle in practice.” Of course I agree that the aesthetic judgment of a work should rest solely on aesthetic grounds; the question is which features count as aesthetic. So let’s rewrite the first option as “Critics are correct in believing that an aesthetic judgment of a work of art should not involve an evaluation of the artist’s ideas and values, but rarely live up to such a principle in practice.”

In that case, my objection is the same one I gave in my original post: if “two writers do an equally skilful job of translating their understanding of human nature into novelistic form, but one writer’s understanding is subtle and profound whilst the other’s is superficial and naïve,” it’s just implausible to suppose that “this difference [should] have no effect on our critical appraisal of the two novels.”

(Gene also suggests that “the ideal character of history excludes historians’ political views.” I disagree with this too; for reasons explained by Nicholas Sturgeon in his article “Moral Explanations” (in Geoffrey Sayre-McCord’s anthology Essays on Moral Realism; see also my piece The Basis of Natural Law), I think the morality or immorality of certain actions, situations, or persons plays an irreducible explanatory role in history, thus ruling out the possibility of wertfrei historiography.)

Gene’s second explanation is that “What appears to be ‘insight into human nature’ in a work of art is an artistic illusion, much as the ‘depth’ in a Renaissance painting is illusory.” Certainly that can happen; and the successful illusion of insight is one aesthetic value among others. But I don’t see any reason to suppose that it is always an illusion.

Which brings us to the third explanation, namely, that “Things such as ‘insight into human nature’ are important to works of art only in that they contribute to its overall aesthetic impact, rather than being important in and of themselves.” As Gene notes, this explanation, unlike the others, is “not entirely at odds with Roderick’s explanation.” Indeed. For it just is my explanation.

As I wrote in my original post, while “insight into human nature is not in itself any sort of artistic achievement,” it may “acquire artistic relevance, and so become subject to critical appraisal, by receiving appropriate artistic expression,” since “there is no such thing as the expression apart from what is expressed.” Gene’s third explanation is not a way of defending the neutrality principle, it is a rejection of that principle. Victory is mine! Fwa ha ha ha ha!

In my more recent blog post Arithmetical Semantics (June 20th), I argued that “salaga-doola” and “mechika-boola” must have zero semantic value, since adding them to “bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” yields only “bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” itself. Gene counters that I’ve overlooked an important possible alternative: that “bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” might have infinite semantic value. After all, anything plus infinity equals infinity.

This time, alas, he’s got me. Drat!

Posted June 23rd, 2004



Austro-Athenian Space Opera

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

I’ve made two discoveries that I highly recommend.

One is a website called On this site one can type in a definition and get a list of all the words that definition might fit – a task it seems amazingly good at.

The other is a libertarian science-fiction trilogy by John C. Wright, comprising The Golden Age, The Phoenix Exultant, and The Golden Transcendence. (Thanks to Stephan Kinsella and Kevin Vallier for the recommendation.) While from a literary standpoint it’s nothing spectacular, this thoughtful, imaginative, and suspenseful tale of a libertarian hero in rebellion against a libertarian utopia is definitely worth reading. Wright avoids the usual clichés of libertarian fiction by portraying conflicts among different varieties of libertarians, rather than between libertarians and statist oppressors. Even the most despicably evil characters turn out to be basing their actions, in a twisted way, on libertarian premises of a sort. And every time you think you’ve figured out the who, what, and why of the plot, Wright tosses a new surprise your way.

The books are also filled with sly references to delight both libertarians and science-fiction fans – from Asimov’s three laws of robotics (mercilessly skewered here) and Lovecraft’s “rugose cones” (who talk like Randian villains) to Spencerian sociology, Mises’ Law of Association, and lines lifted from Roark’s courtroom speech. The dominant philosophical influence here is clearly Rand; even the main character’s name is as much a nod to an incident in Atlas Shrugged as it is to Greek mythology, and a central plot point in the third book turns on the truth or falsity of Randian doctrine.

Along the way many issues of current contention in libertarian and/or Randian circles get raised and dramatised, including punishment, military ethics, survival-versus-flourishing, and Sciabarra-style concerns about the cultural prerequisites for liberty. And what other book features a Greek demigod and a Shunyavada Buddhist debating polylogism and spontaneous order while plunging into a star aboard a thousand-mile-long spaceship?

The only aspect that marred my enjoyment somewhat (apart from the inexplicably frequent misspellings and the like – can’t Tor Books afford copyeditors?) is the presence of ludicrously antiquated gender stereotypes that one would be embarrassed to include in a novel set in the present day, let alone in a future thousands of years distant, populated by super-intelligent cybernetic minds who leap from one synthetic body to another at the drop of a hat. Good grief. Too much Heinlein, I suspect. (And oh yeah, one more thing – the Oeconomicus is not Xenophon’s only surviving Socratic dialogue.)

Posted June 23rd, 2004



Anarchist Athens

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

LRC is “reprinting” two of my articles on the libertarian aspects of ancient Athens: The Athenian Constitution: Government by Jury and Referendum and Civil Society in Ancient Greece: The Case of Athens. (For the original versions see here and here.)

The articles were written in 1996 and 1998, respectively, and my thinking has undergone various sorts of evolution since, so I’m not prepared to stand by everything I said in them; but I certainly still endorse their central thesis: Contrary to the claims of so many historians, ancient Athens was neither a majoritarian, mob-rule democracy nor an organic, communitarian collective; instead, it was in many respects a quasi-anarchistic free-market constitutional republic – and thus, like medieval Iceland, a valuable model for our libertarian future.

In addition to the sources cited in the articles, today I would recommend M. H. Hansen’s wonderful book Polis and City-State: An Ancient Concept and Its Modern Equivalent, a devastating critique of modern-day mythology about the polis.

Posted June 22nd, 2004



The Sky Is No Longer the Limit

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Congratulations to the team of the SpaceShipOne project, who achieved the first manned non-governmental space flight today.

The present may belong to messianic thugs like George Bush and Osama bin Laden, but the future lies with peaceful commerce, rational minds, and venturing spirits.

Today’s triumph brings that future one step closer.

Posted June 21st, 2004



Arithmetical Semantics

What does “bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” mean?

I confess I don’t know.

But I can tell you what the other magical incantations in that song mean: namely, nothing whatsoever.

Here’s my evidence. First of all, the song tells us:

Put ’em together
and what have you got?
Now the claim that bibbidi-bobbidi-boo is the result of putting together salaga-doola, mechika-boola, and bibbidi-bobbidi-boo itself clearly amounts to an endorsement of the following equation:

Salaga-doola + mechicka-boola + bibbidi-bobbidi-boo = bibbidi-bobbidi-boo
which, subtracting bibbidi-bobbidi-boo from both sides, yields:

Salaga-doola + mechicka-boola = 0
Now if the sum of salaga-doola and mechika-boola is zero, then either both are equal to zero, i.e., possess zero semantic value, or else one possesses positive semantic value whilst the other possesses an equivalent amount of negative semantic value. But there is no such thing as negative semantic value. Hence the only remaining possibility is that salaga-doola and mechika-boola are both meaningless:

Salaga-doola = 0
Mechika-boola = 0
In addition, we are told that

Salaga-doola means
In other words, the relevant semantic equation here is:

Salaga-doola = mechicka-boola + roo
which, subtracting mechika-boola from both sides, yields:

Roo = salaga-doola – mechika-boola
We may now substitute in the already-determined values for salaga-doola and mechika-boola, as follows:

Roo = 0 – 0
Since zero from zero leaves zero, roo too must possess zero semantic value.

The only incantation with any meaning in the song, then, must be bibbidi-bobbidi-boo. We know that this latter phrase has a meaning, because we’re told:
But the thingamabob
that does the job
is bibbidi-bobbidi-boo
and if a phrase “does the job,” then it has a use, and so has a meaning. QED.

Posted June 20th, 2004



Floor Show

Warning #1: Tasteless joke follows.

Warning #2: The joke only works if you pronounce “Iraq” properly. (So Mr. President, in the unlikely event that you’re reading this, you’re not going to get it.)

Q: What’s a good name for a movie about the Abu Ghraib scandal?

A: The Iraqi Horror Picture Show.

Posted June 16th, 2004



Libertarians Still Don’t Exist

Today’s AOL welcome screen greets offers me two polls to vote in.

The first asks: “If the election were held today, who would you vote for?” The only choices allowed are: “George W. Bush,” “John Kerry,” “Ralph Nader,” and “I don’t know.”

The second asks: “How would you define yourself politically?” The only choices allowed are: “Very liberal,” “Somewhat liberal,” “Centrist,” “Somewhat conservative,” and “Very conservative.”

In dystopian novels like Anthem and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the ruling parties shape the use of language and impoverish its vocabulary in such a way that dissent from the official ideology cannot be so much as articulated. AOL is following faithfully in their footsteps.

Posted June 14th, 2004



Brazen Evil

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

William Saletan of Slate has compiled a chronological series of quotations from Bush, Rumsfeld, etc., showing how, even as the abuses at Abu Ghraib were becoming public knowledge, the Administration continued to mouth the line that U.S. troops had forever rid Iraq of “torture chambers and rape rooms.” (Thanks to Charles Johnson for the link.)

What ever happened to the Republicans who were so outraged by Clinton’s lies about his sex life? Their capacity for indignation seems to have mellowed a bit.

Posted June 13th, 2004



This Hurts Big Brother More Than It Hurts You

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

I’ve spent the past week teaching at the Mises University, and the weekend before that at a Liberty Fund conference in Milwaukee (a surprisingly beautiful city, by the way). Hence the eerie lull in my blogging; things should pick up now.

On my return from Milwaukee I found the following red-white-and-blue love-note in my checked luggage:


To protect you and your fellow passengers, the Transport Security Administration (TSA) is required by law to inspect all checked baggage. As part of this process, some bags are opened and physically inspected. Your bag was among those selected for physical inspection.

During the inspection, your bag and its contents may have been searched for prohibited items. At the completion of the inspection, the contents were returned to your bag, which was resealed.

If the TSA screener was unable to open your bag for inspection because it was locked, the screener may have been forced to break the locks on your bag. TSA sincerely regrets having to do this, and has taken care to reseal your bag upon completion of inspection. However, TSA is not liable for damage to your locks resulting from this necessary security precaution.
The note closes by thanking me (rather presumptuously) for my “understanding and cooperation.”

On the reverse of the note, the same message is repeated in Spanish, except that the footnote identifying the relevant statute (Section 110(b) of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001, 49 U.S.C. § 44901(c)-(e), if you’re curious) has been omitted, as has the cryptic slogan “Smart Security Saves Time.”

What a bunch of lies. The TSA is not “required by law” to inspect my baggage, since no statute in conflict with the Fourth Amendment has any validity as law. Had my baggage been locked (it wasn’t), the TSA screener would not have been “forced” to damage my property; where’s the “force”? Nor is there any reason to suppose that the TSA “sincerely regrets” any of this. If folks at the TSA really are agonising over their participation in warrantless searches, they are free to quit any time and start looking for honest work.

Posted June 12th, 2004



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