Friday, November 26, 2004

Autumn leaves in Germany, 2004. Posted by Hello


I've just been reading in Groves' contribution to Leemans' "The Management of Change in Government" (1976) and came across the following statement (page 102):
On the whole, leader-dominant, personalistic regimes have not contributed much to political development as we have defined it. Whether one talks of a Sukarno, Nasser, Peron or Nkrumah there is little to suggest that this type of regime has been very conducive to the establishment of vigorous political institutions. In Huntington's view this is explained by the tendency of dominant leaders to view institutionalisation as a potential threat. They distrust institutions for they consider them to be inhibiting on personal prerogative and discretion, a rival (at least in potential) to their personal control. Such leaders sometimes urge the creation of new political structures but characteristically remain suspicious of their intentions. As such they generally turn later to frustrating their development or irradicating even the slightest evidence of independence.
This observation makes perfect sense when applied to Venezuela. The government there is undoubtedly "leader-dominant, personalistic"; so much so that its supporting political movement is not named by its goals or ideals, but rather referred to through its leader: chavismo, chavistas, chavista. And just as the above excerpt predicts, Chávez is deeply suspicious of all state institutions and has subverted them to his own ends: by packing the courts (including the Supreme Court) with his followers, by installing an obedient Electoral Commission that manipulates voting left, right, and centre, by taking control of the state oil company PDVSA through an instant firing of 14,000 employees (Daniel's excellent blog defines this as a new meaning of the expression "privatisation": PDVSA is now Chávez's private property, grim, but true cum grano salis), and by gagging the media by means of a new law that was passed today and that has already been criticised by Human Rights Watch for its potential to curtail freedom of expression in Venezuela.

The damage that Chávez's consolidation of institutional powers is causing in Venezuela is incalculable; it corresponds in type to Hitler's "Gleichschaltung" of all state institutions after his taking power in 1933. The fact that Chávez is buying new fighter aircraft and wants to start producing Kalashnikovs in Venezuela does not exactly inspire confidence under these circumstances. Exactly as George Orwell described in "Animal Farm", Chávez has sought and will continue to seek or invent internal or external enemies in order to justify his repression of dissidence and to consolidate his supporters. The increasing polarisation of society unfortunately also reduces the likelihood of finding a non-violent solution to the conflict. The fact that the Venezuelan nation will outlive Chávez and his nightmarish efforts provides only slim comfort for those who have to live with the consequences in the short to medium term.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

View of a German village in autumn 2004. Posted by Hello

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Boa constrictor

The way the Venezuelan situation is developing surprises time and time again: every time we think that things cannot possibly get any worse, they deteriorate further. Which president of a democratic country would be proud to accept the Gaddafi Human Rights Prize, for Christ's sake? Chávez, that's who (he was nominated on 10 October 2004). Michael Rowan paints the picture in Tuesday's El Universal (see below, reproduced with the author's permission).

What President Chávez and his "revolución bonita" are doing to Venezuelan civil society can be likened to the action of a boa constrictor: it wraps around its victim and doesn't press too hard; it simply waits for the victim to exhale, as sooner or later it must, then tightens its grip and maintains the pressure; every time the victim gasps for breath, the boa pulls the noose a little bit tighter, until the victim suffocates. There is no respite.

Persons who have saved themselves from a boa attack have done so by biting the snake to death, savaging it with their teeth. I fervently hope that this is not the only option left to Venezuelans.
by Michael Rowan
Special for El Universal

The pattern is unmistakable. Independent institutions from the courts to the congress, from PDVSA to the Central Bank, from governors to mayors, and in both public and private sectors, have been shackled, confined or suborned. Independent elections have been centralized, tabulated in secret, and reported as fact with the arrogance befitting a king. The freedoms of assembly and association have been impugned or prosecuted as a crime against the people. Free speech is under attack, and free speakers are charged with crimes with long prison terms for saying things the government does not like. Independent thinking is viewed as a threat to the political correctness of revolutionary dialectic, the litmus test for full citizenship and human rights that derive from government blessing, not human nature.

Freedom is ravaged in the name of freedom. Democracy is vandalized in the name of democracy. Justice is denied in the name of justice. Peace is sacrificed to violence and insecurity, and in the name of peace. Poverty increases in the name of its extirpation. The models to be idolized in the politically correct schools are Carlos the Jackal for justice, Muammar Qadafi for human rights, Robert Mugabe for democracy, and above all, Fidel Castro for all three. It is not that Venezuela is upside down, it is precisely the opposite, as has been publicly claimed. The world needs to realize it is not free, and that only Venezuela is free, sailing on a sleek sailboat in the glorious sea of happiness. As the new dialectic says, this is a truth which Bolivar or Christ would assert, were they to rise from the grave or descend from heaven to convince the doubting Thomas.

All this is possible with the price of an oil barrel at $50. Money backed by sheer power can pay for just about anything in this world. When people are hungry and insecure, and when there is only one source for work, income, shelter and the basics of life, people will go along with all kinds of talk in order to survive. This has happened in the distant past and in modern times. It happened on the plantations of Venezuela two hundred years ago, in Germany in the 1930s, in Vichy France a little later, and in slave societies from time immemorial. Whether freedom will be sacrificed when the oil price drops is a question for Venezuelans, with the exception of those who already believe what Aesop wrote 26 centuries ago, "Better starve free than be a fat slave."

Monday, November 22, 2004

Spring flowers in Germany. Posted by Hello

An obvious truth

This is a topic I will be returning to often. Here's a teaser to get us going: why do creationists suppose that bacteria become resistant to antibiotics?

This is evolution in action: we start off with a population of happy organisms in a lovely environment (for instance, a person infected with tuberculosis). Suddenly, the environment turns nasty: the person has received an antibiotic. The antibiotic kills off almost all of the tuberculosis bacteria, but some survive; they are slightly different from their companions and are not much bothered by the antibiotic. The survivors multiply joyfully. The infected person still has tuberculosis, but now the original antibiotic no longer makes any difference. (See the Wikipedia article for a more detailed explanation).

Why were some of the bacteria slightly different? Because they are mutated, meaning that their genetic information is slightly different to that of their forebears. What causes mutations? They can be caused by transcription errors during cell division or by exposure to radiation, certain chemicals, and viruses.

All of the basic processes underlying evolution -- variation, selection, and reproduction -- are well-understood and backed up by mountains of evidence. There is no simpler, more elegant, or more complete explanation of phenomena such as bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics. So why do creationists persist in denying an obvious truth?

Sunday, November 21, 2004

The vault under the cathedral in Trier, Autumn 2004. Posted by Hello

Self-referential "truth"

When I was in Miami, I met some fundamentalist Christians who believed in the literal truth of the bible. They tried very hard to convert me, but to no avail; I was much happier at the Book Fair the next day speaking to the South Florida Atheists.

Here's one of the things that really made my hackles stand up when I was being subjected to the high-pressure proselytising: the reason these neo-medieval literalists believe the bible to be true is because they consider it the word of God. How do they know that it really is the word of God? Because it says so: in the bible. In other words, these people know that it's true because it's true, which is, of course, no reason at all, but simply a philosophical merry-go-round with no "off" button.

Another word for this closed thinking loop is "blind faith". And another word for "blind faith", I'd say, is "shutdown of the brain". That's what's saddest about fundamentalists: they declare whole portions of their reality no-go zones that they will no longer explore with their (God-given!) intelligence and senses, but simply believe, even in the face of evidence. Hark the bible! "Blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear." (MT 13:16)

p.s.: By the way, this applies to all types of fundamentalists, not just the Christian ones. (I would not want to be seen playing favourites here!)

Medieval house in autumn, Germany, 2004. Posted by Hello

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Where it all begins

So, is this what blogging's all about: making one's inner monologue available for the world to see? We shall see what comes of this venture over the next few months, or perhaps years. It is a voyage of discovery for me and for you, esteemed reader; let us see where it takes us.

Recently, my inner monologue has often been adamant, exasperated, and indignant; there are a lot of developments in the world that do not reflect favourably on the learning ability of our species, and something needs to be done about these issues. Naming and understanding them is a first step.

This blog will be my outlet for my thoughts on these issues and anything else that tickles my fancy. Topics to look out for: international relations, above all between EMEA and the Americas; the art of thinking things through to their conclusions; developments in Venezuela; the unfortunate backsliding to pre-enlightenment faith in the USA; women's rights; the role of progress and economic liberty; and a bit of commentary on books and music to keep us amused.

So, let's huddle around the fire and listen to some stories...