Most Interesting Reads for the Week (December 12, 2014)

Here’s a list of things I’ve come across while pursuing the Internet this last week…

  • The value of disagreeing, and disagreement. “But beyond those general axioms, the really remarkable feature of the Jewish tradition of machloket is that it is itself a basis for community. The community of contention, the contentious community, is not as paradoxical as it may seem. The parties to a disagreement are members of the disagreement; they belong to the group that wrestles together with the same perplexity, and they wrestle together for the sake of the larger community to which they all belong, the community that needs to know how Jews should behave and live. A quarrel is evidence of coexistence.”
  • Speaking of which, I very rarely agree with Jeffrey Goldberg, but I do here. “The lesson is obvious: The next time a group of Islamist terrorists succeeds in killing large numbers of Americans—and such an attack should be expected—it is important for those who are in positions of power (very much including the writers and commentators who shape popular thinking) to keep in mind that the goal of the United States is to neutralize the threat, and not to seek retribution for the sake of retribution.”
  • Me, writing about torture, about a decade ago. “But that’s not why governments torture. They don’t torture because of need. Governments torture to humiliate and destroy. They torture to strip a person of his humanity, to make him or her face unrestrained state power alone, unaided and helpless. States torture and kill because they can, because even if the state isn’t really God, it can play God by taking life when it pleases and how it chooses. Because it is a way to annihilate a human being, slowly, one atom at a time.”
  • On being moral in a media age. “The answer comes from looking at your life as a whole, and asking yourself what it means to live well, to live meaningfully. Does it really mean raging impotently about far away matters you are utterly powerless to impact? What kind of life are you striving for, exactly? No one arrives at the exact same answer, but posing the question is a big step for most people. And for most people, the general formula is in the same ballpark — making a living, being surrounded by loved ones who treat you well, being the kind of person worthy of admiration. Devoting the time and resources to pursuing projects and aspirations that are meaningful and that you would be proud to speak of on your deathbed.”
  • State violence and the fear of black men. “We allow governments to have this power because we fear what would happen if they did not have it.  The problem here is that governments are the ones who collect (or do not collect) information on what we fear. They are the experts on what we fear. They are the ones who are or are not compiling information on threats (both real and imagined). They are, in a sense, the suppliers of the problem. They are fear mongers, as it were, creating and sustaining the myth of AFROzilla.”
  • The value of Marx in a post-Marxist world. “Increasingly the divides in American life are not between those who defend equality of opportunity versus those who demand equality of result, as Nisbet argued. Rather they are between whether freedom and voluntary association on a more local level can win out over coercion and bureaucracy at an ever more distant national level. Kunkel’s desire for sustainable production by worker-owned businesses and grassroots democratic decision-making seems to envision a new kind of politics, more local and left-libertarian in nature, that transcends easy categorization.”
  • Britain lost its war in Afghanistan before it even began. “How bad was it? In a way it was worse than a defeat, because to be defeated, an army and its masters must understand the nature of the conflict they are fighting. Britain never did understand, and now we would rather not think about it.
  • While I’m not sure I agree with this author’s enthusiastic affirmative, his critique of modernity is spot on. “A good and intelligent priest who writes on public affairs told me, for example, that comprehensive public healthcare was a matter of ‘how people ought to treat each other.’ That view seemed to me overly optimistic, since comprehensive bureaucracy does not seem the ideal for how people should treat each other, but he had a point. Comprehensive organization looks like a good way to deliver the services of technicians, and that is what medicine mostly is today, so it seems believable that such programs reduce human suffering. That is a goal we should certainly favor. Nonetheless, he was, I believe, wrong.”
  • Building the next Rosetta Stone. When constructing an archive for a stranger, it’s imperative to keep in mind the terms of discovery. How much information does the recipient need in hand to make sense of the archive, or to know that it is an archive in the first place? Bostrom told me it would be easy to communicate with a sufficiently developed species. ‘I think practically any record that we could create that we could also read,’ he said, ‘would be intelligible to an advanced future civilisation, provided only that we preserve a sufficient amount of text.’ Sandberg sounded a similar positive note: ‘We humans have figured out both honeybee dances and ant pheromone trails.’