Gold and Iron, by Fritz Stern

“This is a book about Germans and Jews, about power and money. It is a book focused on Bismarck and Bleichröder, Junker and Jew, statesman and banker, collaborators for over thirty years. The setting is that of a Germany where two worlds clashed: the new world of capitalism and an earlier world with its ancient feudal ethos; gradually a new and broadened elite emerged, and Bismarck’s tie with Bleichröder epitomized that regrouping. It is the story of the founding of the new German Empire, in whose midst a Jewish minority rose to embattled prominence. It is a record of events and of the interests and sentiments that shaped these events; it is a record of events and of the interests and sentiments that shaped these events; it is a record largely told by contemporaries, in thousands of hitherto unused letters and documents. It is also the story of the fragility of that Empire and its ruler, of its hidden conflicts, and of the hypocrisy which allowed a glittering façade to cover the harsh and brutal facts below. The ambiguity of wealth — its threat to tradition and its promise of mobility — is part of this record, and so is the anguished ambiguity of Jewish success, so striking, so visible, so delusive. It is a study of a society in motion, and mobility was its essence and its trauma. …”
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Impertinent Question, 2

What’s Chinese for cultural destruction?

Over the next few years, [Kashgar] city officials say, they will demolish at least 85 percent of [the city’s Old Town, a] warren of picturesque, if run-down homes and shops. Many of its 13,000 families, Muslims from a Turkic ethnic group called the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs), will be moved.

Sentence of the Day (2)

For a small break from Brussels and the economic crisis:

Nothing fades so quickly or so tackily as a Soviet resort.

One of the lighter observations (on p. 139) from The Spirit-Wrestlers by Philip Marsden, a journey across southern Russia and the Caucasus in search of various religious non-conformists who fell afoul of both Russian and Soviet states.

Real action heroes don’t justify

The doctrine of double effect has bugged me for some time. It probably doesn’t help that double effect is usually tagged as Catholic, and in that connection we have Blair’s Catholicism … and Iraq … and the self-exculpatory speechifying, and now the middle east peace envoy business. Double effect: it’s all mixed up in there somehow. Obviously I’m not going to like it.

But what’s going on with double effect anyway? Roughly, it’s a doctrine that says we can make a distinction between actual effects on the basis that not all effects were intended, even if all effects were correctly predicted. Hence, someone who in a single act brought about both a good effect and a bad effect may be excused if:

(1) He or she intended the good effect and not the bad effect, and;

(2) The resultant good effect did in some way compensate for the bad effect.

A double effect advocate who wants to finesse things might add that the bad effect mustn’t precede the good effect in a causal chain. There’s potential for fuzziness here, but what makes double effect unattractive isn’t some difficulty with causation. If the doctrine of double effect is going to be your guide in deciding whether or not to do something, you’re first going to have to work out who will judge what, and when. On condition (1) above, seemingly the actor carries a special burden of judgement: he or she must single out and focus on a good effect, so as to intend it. Whatever ‘intending’ involves, surely no one else can do it but the intender. But on condition (2) above, it’s not at all clear how the judgement of the good compensating for the bad is to be made. Is it the actor who gets to make this judgement, or his or her peers? A government agency? A court of law? And when do they get to judge? The doctrine doesn’t give us criteria for deciding this. It’s not interested.

Of course, other people (neighbours, end users, professionals) do tend to take an interest, depending on what’s proposed. To take Chris Bertram’s example from the recent thread about this on Unspeak: let’s say that you, as an adherent of the doctrine of double effect, propose a bridge-building project. You expect some people will die, but to have a connection from here to there will be good, and it’s the connection you intend, so you proceed. Except that you don’t, because most places with governments exercise oversight of anything larger than the construction of a hen house. You say: ten people will (likely) die building my bridge. The government, in response, says: this bridge (a revised design) is better because although there’ll be one successful and two attempted suicides over the next fifty years, no one will die during construction. Build this bridge instead. The burden for deciding (2) has been taken on by the state, on behalf of interested parties. Additionally, even though the burden for acting in accordance with (1) officially remains with the actor, his or her options are more likely than not shaped by the presence of an outside interest. After all, society, insofar as it can be said to want something, wants us to think of good effects, not bad ones. The upshot? An agent who invites the views of others in an effort to satisfy (2) limits the agency implied by (1).

In short, the doctrine of double effect tends to offer itself as a doctrine for moral lone rangers. My personal finding is that in most cases where heavy moving is planned, there’s a happier result when advice of parties with an interest is actually followed. Just ask; it might even be the law. Even if it’s not the law, it’s likely that someone cares. For bridge-building, seek advice from engineers (and the neighbours). For bombing, seek advice from air force generals (and the bombed).

Popes and rant snippets

It is good to know that in these times of economic crisis our spiritual leaders care for our well-being. From the International Herald Tribune:

Pope Benedict said Monday that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour was just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction.

Too bad the article does not elaborate on just how pope Benedict wishes to save humanity from homosexual or transsexual “behaviour”. Nor does it answer the question of why Benedict believes that particular kind of “behaviour” is a threat to humanity. I am sure it is not a matter of demography. Too bad, because it is hard to rip an argument apart with so many unknowns. All we know from the quoted snippet is that the pope went on a rant, for the umpteenth time, against homosexual (and transsexual) “behaviour”. Too bad, because my typing fingers are itching…

Instant update: Mail Online has a better article and maybe an explanation of why the pope is so worried:

In a clear reference to homosexuality, he said the failure to respect the union between a man and a woman amounted to the ‘auto destruction of mankind’.

Like I said, it cannot be a demography thing. And there is maybe an explanation of how Benedict would like to see the gay problem solved:

This month the Vatican opposed a proposed UN declaration, backed by all 27 European Union states, calling for an end to the practice of criminalising and punishing people for their sexual orientation. The declaration was seen as an important condemnation of countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality can be punished by death. A Papal spokesman was later forced to clarify that the Vatican continues to condemn the use of the death penalty for any crime, including any related to homosexuality. Instead, the Vatican said its opposition to the UN proposal was driven by concern that countries that prohibit gay marriage would somehow be targeted. The Italian gay rights association Arcigay branded this an ‘excuse’ to distract people from the real intent of criminalising gays.

Guess the people at the Vatican have itchy fingers too. But they do not seem to be for typing. I know I am being populist here, but hey, Benedict is exaggerating too (I hope).

Afterthought: I think gay people are a real pain in the pope’s ass – no pun intended – because their acceptance by modern society (at least legally) subverts his Church’s authority so much. Should secular Western governments at one point reconsider criminalising gays then the Vatican’s stance on gays (or by proxy even women’s rights) would be confirmed. This would then surely reconfirm the Church’s authority and the authority of religion at large. Methinks there is a lot more at stake here than mere reproduction. BTW, wasn’t homophobia criminalized in the EU?