Notes From Babel

Archive for January 2009

President of Everything

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At Obama’s behest, Citigroup has canceled plans to purchase a corporate jet. Apparently, we elected not just a new president of the United States, but a new president of Citigroup. Democracy really is flourishing!

See also Tim Sandefur’s piece on how how anti-economic the trillion dollar “stimulus” package is.


Written by Tim Kowal

January 29, 2009 at 5:11 pm

Posted in Politics

Labcoats in the White House

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“The whole country is with him, just so he does something. If he burned down the Capitol, we would cheer and say, ‘Well, we at least got a fire started anyhow.’ ” — Will Rogers on FDR’s Hundred Days.

Written by Tim Kowal

January 28, 2009 at 7:19 am

Posted in Politics

The Virtue of Capitalism

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Most people don’t want the world to move as fast as it does, I think. But we have forgotten how to see things any other way. We go to work for people and corporations whose success depends on moving ahead at a lightning pace. These people and corporations become the ideal of humanity. It no longer matters that they don’t give us what we really want, were we to ever remember–modest comforts, earnest employment, and time for family and reflection. Instead, they make greater and greater demands to extract for themselves wealth, recognition, and appeasement of the peculiar desire to give body and soul over to career. Over time, we start to take these qualities as the new ideals of a prosperous society, and wonder how to replace our ideas of earnestness and balance with the total subordination of man and nature to an unnatural competitive will. This unmitigated virtue of capitalism starves all of the other human virtues.

Written by Tim Kowal

January 27, 2009 at 6:39 am

Obama: On Roe Anniversary, I Remain Committed To Choice

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CBS has this article, in which Obama reiterates his position that “I remain committed to protecting a woman’s right to choose.” To assuage those of us worried that Obama’s concern for unexpressed constitutional rights tramples the constitutional right to life and equal protection under the laws, he goes further:

“While this is a sensitive and often divisive issue, no matter what our views, we are united in our determination to prevent unintended pregnancies, reduce the need for abortion, and support women and families in the choices they make,” said Mr. Obama. “To accomplish these goals, we must work to find common ground to expand access to affordable contraception, accurate health information, and preventative services.”

In other words, better not stand in the way of his social programs, or more unborn are going to die. It’s clear he has no scruples about that.

Written by Tim Kowal

January 23, 2009 at 3:24 pm

Posted in Abortion, Morality

Our (Hidden) Prejudice Against the Middle East

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Almost all of my reflections on the Middle East derive one way or another from conversations with a very good friend of mine who, although Indian and not Middle Eastern, is Muslim and thus attuned to potential prejudices that his fellow Americans might have with respect to the region. During our email discussion today, he suggested I read Orientalism by William Said, and gave a very good explanation why it was important.


Honestly, that’s what I feel that most intelligent, respectable, and well-intentioned people in this country suffer from. Even you, who I think is an exception because you have known me personally, just imagine, even you in spite of knowing me for all these years, still have a slight bit of this uneasiness (I won’t call it prejudice but I’ll just say uneasiness and insecurity… ie something doesn’t sit right with you… it’s very subconscious and that’s what makes it even more dangerous in my opinion) . So if even YOU have it, then why wouldn’t most Westerners have it way more than you? And this is where I believe that fear about not letting the Islamic world flourish or thrive comes in… that fear breeds more fear and suspicion and mistrust, and then it leads to policies of continued subjugation of the people and systematic oppression of them (or simply tacit approval of continued oppression… best example being when you stated you know some US policies aren’t right but when it came down to someone talking about actually making the changes, I think it was Ron Paul, it just didn’t sit right with you for some reason).

This is an excerpt from your email to me a few months ago:

So really this turns into an anthropological issue: what do these people believe? Why do they believe it? (And I don’t mean just about Islam: a people’s presuppositions about anything stem from their geography, climate, culture, religion, not to mention their neighbors, who are in turn influenced by all those things as well.)

The principle question that is itching me is, why exactly has the Middle East has always been a such a crucible of conflict? And while I am skeptical at the heavy handed approach, I have come to also be skeptical that the answer could be as simple as having someone like Ron Paul or Barack Obama sit down “without preconditions.” Could it all be as simple as that? And wasn’t that Jimmy Carter’s approach as well?

But maybe this is what I really should have clarified: I don’t think that any people are any better or worse than us. In fact, that’s even a useless statement in my mind, because in some ways I’m kind of a relativist. “As good as” America? “As good as” anyone else? What does that mean? That one has to have technology, progress, a certain kind of culture, a certain level of wealth? No. But many people will say that our freedom makes us good, something to be looked up to. But the philosophy of freedom has many subtleties, and the American view of it is only arguably better — again, depending on what presuppositions you bring to the table. Jean Jacque Rousseau, for example, wrote the famous line “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” The “chains” here are his own desires for control, wealth, power. We cannot be free, truly free, without being free of our evil inclinations. Later he wrote that we must be “forced to be free.” This line has been used both to criticize and praise Rousseau — again, depending on your point of view, your presuppositions.

Also this:

Again, I know very little about Iran’s government and what policies and viewpoints it actually espouses. (I.e., a rousseau-ian/hegelian view of freedom, or the Lockean/American view of individual liberty). But my point is, where I used to just give such governments the benefit of the doubt (because I thought it was so absurd that people would give their lives over to the state), I can no longer do that, because I now see that it is quite possible.

So, how can you assure me that the vast majority of Iranian people want this?

Anyways, my impression is that you view me and other Muslims like me living here in America as some kind of enlightened minority, somehow innocently detached from the “real” majority of the Muslim world and all of its cruel and brutal realities—realities that you simply cannot take any chances on and feel extremely uneasy about changing any US foreign policy status quo on. Almost as if its like a self defense mechanism… you don’t know enough about it, but you don’t want to rock the boat because what’s been happening seems to keep you and others safe and living normally so let’s not risk anything right now even if it means taking a risk that we are keeping some injustices and evils going.

So although its not a prejudice of the sorts we are used to seeing (ie racism) its another type of prejudice that starts with ignorance of the unknown and then gets strengthened by the manipulation of ideas that you have been subjected to in certain circles, which have only fed your fears and suspicions further and further.

Can you honestly feel open enough to a Muslim and Christian co-existence the way that you have been taught by the establishment to respect the “Judeo-Christian” realm? That’s the question you have to ask yourself and if you have any qualms whatsoever therein lies my point. I don’t blame you, I just want you to recognize it’s there.

Written by Tim Kowal

January 22, 2009 at 1:07 am

Posted in Islam, Middle East

Making Sense of US in the Middle East

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I’ve long struggled with the big questions regarding the Middle East, especially, why is it such a mess, and what good, if any, are we doing over there? Tired of being agnostic on the subject, I’ve finally picked up a book to try to start getting a sense of the subject. I picked up Michael Oren’s Power, Faith, and Fantasy, although without doing much research — I later discovered he serves in the IDF. However, the book is balanced thus far (halfway into it at this point). And who doesn’t have an opinion on the subject of the Middle East, after all.

My studies on the founding era and first 100 years of the US has already revealed that the flourishing of of a free republic is not an easy thing to pull off. It takes not just a good constitution–I think many people believe that anyone can have what we have if they want it, they just need to use our founding documents. But it takes much more than the lifting of ideas–you need soil, not just the seed alone. The Protestant movement had a big impact in shaping our system. Instead of having a strong authority center like Catholicism, Protestantism had a DIY bent, which leads to people forming strong local groups, public and private, to get things done on their own. There is of course more to it than just the particular religious history that coincided with America’s early period, but it is profound.

Because the mid east has always been predisposed to lousy rulers, and because it’s actually pretty tough to get democracies going, I can see the argument for being pro-Israel as a general matter. That is not to neglect all Israel’s awful policies of settlements et al., and its religious bigotry. But that has been the norm since the US was introduced to the Middle East–it’s not something Israel invented. Rather, Israel does and should endure censure because of the Spiderman notion that with great power comes great responsibility. Israel has superpower backing but lacks the full measure of the moral and philosophical grounding of the superpower backing it.

But it does seem that US has been trying to give the Middle East education and democracy for hundreds of years. It just never really took, unfortunately. So in a sense it’s hard to buy the argument that Israel is the only thing standing in the way of a free and prosperous Palestinian state. I’m anxious to see how Iraq pans out. It may be the next real successful Middle Eastern democracy, which would be very exciting. And it would do much for Bush’s legacy.

Written by Tim Kowal

January 22, 2009 at 12:44 am

Posted in Middle East