Thursday, August 24, 2006

Entering the Mind of a Terrorist

Two new books attempt to understand the causes of modern terrorism by investigating the motives of terrorists. My interview with Dr. Andrew Valls, in which he suggests that certain forms of terrorism may be morally justified under very specific circumstances, has been one of the more controversial podcasts to date. The problem with studying terrorism seems to be trying to define what it is. Dr. Valls's effort is to try to find a definition of terrorism that is value-free, that is, does not begin with concepts that immediatly label it as morally offensive. For instance, if you say "terrorism is a form of murder" then it is clear that terrorism is not a good practice.

The book by Robert Pape argues something rather shocking: suicide bombing as a form of terrorism is on the rise and it is almost always carried out against formally democratic governments. Might this suggest that modern democracies are not always capable of representing the diverse interests in societies? What are the forces that are compelling people to kill themselves by attacking democratic government. Pape maintains that it is not necessarily religious fundamentalism.

Louise Richardson's book tries to provide a theory for understanding the terrorst mindset. But I can already see a conflict with Dr. Valls's view. She defines terrorism as a practice deployed by "sub state actors" against civilian targets. For Valls, this already prejudices the definition of terrorism. He seeks to understand terrorism under the context of the just war tradition that holds attacking non-combatants is morally unjustified.

Recent world events also seem to complicate this view by Richardson. Israel and the group Hezbollah, listed the the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization, recently entered into a tenative cease fire after 34 days of intense fighting. Here is an example of war between a nation-state and a non-state actor occupying parts of a neighboring nation-state. Both Israel and Hezbollah attacked both military and non-combatant targets. Does her theory help us to understand why Hezbollah fights and does what it does? Does Valls's? What are we to make of the very controversial notion of state terrorism in all this? A lot more conceptual and philosophical work needs to be done here.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Is sustainable development a death sentence?

"Sustainable development" is one of the most contested ideas in the environmental movement in the last 25 years. It refers to a vision of human social progress in which natural resources are consumed at a rate that allows for the satisfaction of human needs now and for future generations. How do we make sure that we live simply so so that people in the future will be able to simply live?

In my interview with Dr. Andrew Light , I was really interested in his claim that city living is perhaps the most ecologically sustainable things we can do. If we live in high rise, dense city scapes we may be reducing the consumption of heating oil, eletricity, and cutting down on automobile emissions. It turns out, according to Light, that the American vision of suburban living is the most unsustainable thing we can do!

Of course, for some deep ecologists the idea of sustainable development is suspicious because it still talks about the environment in relation to human beings. Nature is still conceived of in terms of resources for human consumption and not as a living thing with intrinsic value.

I ran across this article by Charles Shaw that outlines a debate between those who think that we can work to integrate human societies more in sync with nature and others who think that human civilization is unredeemable and leading us to ruin. This second view is more widespread than one might think, especially here in the Pacific Northwest. I have known several students who have either been involved, or have friends or family involved, in groups that hold this perspective and think the only thing to do is to jar all the rest of us into awareness by destroying symbols of industrial civilization, such as SUVs.

The claim that civilization is inherently corrupt has many variations in the history of Western philosophy going all the way back to Plato. But with global warming and poverty becoming so apparent to us now, might the doomsayers have a point?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

How do we create empathy?

One of the things that I found most interesting about talking with Dr. Lani Roberts about was the point about creating empathy, not only in the classroom, but in everday life. The question about how to take on the "moral point of view" is one that has troubled philosophers for eons. What does it mean to see things from a perspective other than one's own? Does it mean that one endorses the way other people see and think about the world when one does so? What are the steps one can take to expand one's perspective to encompass others?

Renowned philosopher Martha Nussbaum has a short article, in which she endorses the idea of an arts education for cultivating "narrative imagination"--seeing how events makes sense in a story line over time. This is not a new suggestion, of course. But it is the case in so many universities in the United States, and apparently around the world, that the cultivating of the imagination is not a part of higher education. Is an arts education necessary for appreciating diversity and learning how to treat each person with respect?


Monday, August 14, 2006

No Human Being is Illegal

Listeners who enjoyed the podcast on the ethics of immigration will enjoy Justin Akers Chacon and Mike Davis's new book, "No One is Illegal". Mike Davis provides a history of vigilante justice in California since the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. He shows how lower middle class communities formed associations to keep immigrants and labor organizers in check, usually through vicious attacks and coaltions with business leaders and farmers to rig political processes. Davis ends his short section by suggesting the the Minutemen are simply the most recent manifestations of this vigilante history. Chacon does a masterful job of giving social and economic context to the recent waves of Mexican immigration, trying to show why it is largely a result of changes in Mexican fiscal policy over the last thirty years, as well as neoliberal corporate globalization that is changing how Mexico and the United States rely on one another. His analysis clearly supports the contention made by Lisa Gonzales in our podcast that middle class life in the United States is largely propped up by the presence of these low wage workers.

The most recent issue of The Nation magazine focuses attention on the New Nativism that has arisen in the United States. The Nation series contains an insightful article by Bob Moser that talks about the wave of Latino immigration in the South. Another piece dissects the political messages of CNN's commentator Lou Dobbs who seems to be engaging in a one person crusade against Mexican immigration and spreading coded white supremacist ideas over cable news.

The immigration proposals that came out of the Senate have stalled this summer as the House has called for hearings all around the country to study the issue more. This seems like it might be a stalling technique so the issue will die out before the November Congressional elections. There is also word on the street that immigration advocates are hoping for the same thing because they disapprove of the proposals as they have been watered down by the Senate. The farm workers union here in Oregon, PCUN, has issued a statement that suggests this idea.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Future of Democracy in the Americas

We recorded the interview with Victor Vargas in the middle of July 2006, just a couple of weeks after the July 2 presidential elections in Mexico. The emotions among the Mexican voters were still raw, as evidenced by the public art displays I found in the public squares in downtown Morelia, Michoacan. The time was perfect to talk about the past and future of Latin American democracy. The Letter to Jamaica by Simon Bolivar that I mention in the podcast is an important document in the history of Latin American independence and Victor did well to put it in context. In the Letter, Bolivar calls for Latin America to choose an independent course and develop political institutions that fit the culture and history of Latin America.

The election crisis in Mexico is reminescent of the 2000 election here in the United States. In fact, there have been extremely close elections in several countries in the past few years. I asked Victor about this in private conversation and he told me he thought there is a global political polarization going, fueled by neoliberal globalization policies and the War in Iraq. In Latin America, this polarization, according to Victor, is promoting the rise of leftist politicians such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Michelle Bachelet in Chile, and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico. So its not clear whether its possible for Latin America, given the fact of globalization, to fufill the mandate of Bolivar's Letter any longer or whether these figures are, in fact, trying to do just that.

The other aspect that I found quite interesting in Victor's analysis is his point that democracy is more than just political--its a way of life. This means that it takes more than just frequent elections to count a society as democratic. Such an idea echoes the thoughts of American philosophy John Dewey, in his essay Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us, and more recently, Cornel West's Democracy Matters, an except which is here. It raises some deep questions about the success of military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Can democracy take root this way?

The situation in Mexico is unclear at this time. The federal elections tribunal voted in the last week not to do a complete recount of all the votes, as was the preference of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Instead, there is now a recount of approximately 9% of the votes. Lopez Obrador's supporters have staged major protests in the last few weeks, shutting down access to the center of Mexico City and threatening to shut down the international airport and key ministries. A president must be certified by the beginning of September 2006 to take office in December.

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