Climate Change: A great side-by-side comparison of both sides’ views

One of the great challenges for an observer of public discourse these days is getting a clear, unbiased statement of both sides of an argument. People have powerful motivations to articulate only their opinion and trash the other side — see my previous entry, “Spin and Rhetorical Intimidation.”

So it was refreshing to come across the infographic linked below from Information Is Beautiful. The graphic provides a reasonable, neutral juxtaposition of both sides in the climate debate. (Click the image to see it full-size.)

AB — 8 December 2009

Jim Jenkins Tribute to Paul A. Bredenberg in the News & Observer

In today’s Raleigh News & Observer, columnist Jim Jenkins wrote a nice piece on the editorial page about my father, Paul A. Bredenberg, who died this past Sunday — see “Growing Branches, Everywhere.”

See the obituary from Nov. 17 here.

AB — 19 Nov. 2009


Social Critics on Social Darwinism: How Rushkoff and Wiker Converge

I recently completed two books by two very different authors, Douglas Rushkoff and Benjamin Wiker. However, the serendipitous fact that I read them one right after the other brought home to me some intriguing commonalities between the two, focusing particularly on the widespread societal effects of social darwinism.

The two books are:

Although I suspect that these two authors would be very far apart on political issues, my reading of these two books in juxtaposition emphasized two interesting commonalities:

  • Both authors comment on the origins and dangers of social darwinism.
  • The two authors both focus their historical analyses on roughly the same time period, from the Middle Ages to the present day.

In writing the above, I also came to an interesting realization on another more-subtle commonality: Wiker starts with the classic cynical treatise The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli. Rushkoff starts with the Middle-Age “princes” who created the corporation and imposed central currency in Europe.

Rushkoff’s premise is that the aristocracy in the Middle Ages devised the chartered corporation as a legal mechanism to give them control over commerce and wealth. Because of their privileged status granted by government, corporations have progressively gained more power, even becoming legal “persons” over time.

Rushkoff’s criticism is that Western society has become steeped in corporatism, and that this pits individuals against one another in a win-lose competitive struggle. People operate according to unconscious corporatist values and assumptions about how life should be and are prevented from connecting in a natural way through communities.

Wiker’s premise is that modern civilization has been affected by a materialistic, atheistic philosophical tradition preserved and promoted by a series of highly-influential thinkers and their books, starting with Machiavelli, then Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Margaret Sanger, Margaret Mead, and Alfred Kinsey, along with others along the way.

As I said, where I see an important commonality between Rushkoff and Wiker is when it comes to their implications and comments about social darwinism: The modern world is strongly influenced by the idea that the natural order demands that the strong survive and the weak die off.

Ruskoff writes,

Richard Dawkins’s theory of the “selfish gene” popularized the extension of evolution to socioeconomics. Just as species competed in a battle for the survival of the fittest, people and their “memes” competed for dominance in the marketplace of ideas.

Human nature was simply part of biological nature, complex in its manifestations but simple in the core commands driving it. Like the genes driving them, people could be expected to act as selfishly as Adam Smith’s hypothetical primitive man, “the bartering savage,” always maximizing the value of every transaction as if by raw instinct.

Ironically, says Rushkoff, religionists were used to promote a compatible economic regime:

Right-wing conservatives turned to fundamentalist Christians to promote the free-market ethos, in return promising lip-service to hot-button Christian issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

It was now the godless Soviets who sought to thwart the Maker’s plan to bestow the universal rights of happiness and property on mankind. America’s founders, on the other hand, had been divinely inspired to create a nation in God’s service, through which people could pursue thier individual salvation and savings.

Rushkoff contends that

What both PR efforts had in common were two falsely reasoned premises: that human beings are private, self-interested actors behaving in ways that consistently promote personal wealth, and that the laissez-faire free market is a natural and self-sustaining system through which scarce resources can be equitably distributed.

Wiker follows the development of atheistic social darwinism from Machiavelli, but he takes considerable time to establish the connection between Darwin and eugenics. On pages 88 to 89 of 10 Books he quotes from Darwin’s Descent of Man (not as well known as On the Origin of Species):

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health …. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination [by means of various works of charity and relief]. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind ….

If … various checks … do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men, the nation will retrograde, as has occurred too often in the history of the world.

Wiker argues that the writings of Darwin and other atheistic thinkers have led to a modern world in which the weak are seen as expendable for the good of human progress.

At the end of his book, Wiker comments:

We are so fond of thinking of our progress from the simple savage that we forget to take account of whether we are really progressing in some sort of virtue or rather becoming more complexly and deviously savage.

We have a higher regard for health than our ancestors did, and a far greater knowledge of biology. But when biology, rather than theology, becomes the queen of the sciences, then Christian prohibitions against eugenics, the elimination of the unfit or the unwanted through abortion or infanticide, or the elimination of diseased races or classes all become merely “medieval” and irrelevant.

Rushkoff and Wiker approach their analyses with very different objectives and foci, and it would be far from accurate to say that they reach the same conclusions.

But both Life Inc. and 10 Books That Screwed Up the World shine light on some of the historical and philosophical sources of the great streak of heartlessness evident in the modern world.

In about 1970, I was picked up hitchhiking on I-85 in North Carolina by an older fellow driving a sedan. We got into a conversation about the problems of the world. From his point of view, one of the biggest problems was welfare and charity — all the giveaway programs that are supposed to help the poor.

I raised the question, Well, what are they supposed to do? Suppose they need help to survive and get back on their feet?

His response was, “Who cares? Let ’em die. That’s the way nature works.”

I wonder who he had been reading.

AB — 4 September 2009

‘The Fog of War’: Nuances of Robert S. McNamara

Robert S. McNamara, who was Secretary of Defense under U.S. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, died yesterday at age 93 — see today’s article in The Washington Post.

As a teenager during the Vietnam war, my view of McNamara was two-dimensional, you might say. For the black-and-white morality of a young war resister, he was the enemy.

Years passed, and I didn’t think about Robert McNamara much until 2004, when the documentary The Fog of War – Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara came out.

Watching the movie, I was fascinated at the nuanced picture it presented of this once-controversial and divisive figure. The film includes comments from a long interview with McNamara. It would be over-simplifying to say that he admits he and other policy-makers were wrong in the way they prosecuted the Vietnam conflict. He really gives the viewer a sense of how hard it is for decision-makers to be certain they are doing the right thing.

Watching and listening to McNamara in his late-80s, I also remember feeling some shame at my previous attitude toward this somewhat stooped old fellow in his tan raincoat.

Can’t remember where I read it, but it was good advice: If you find yourself hating someone, try imagining them as a helpless little baby or as a very old person near the end of their life.

AB — 6 July 2009

Iranian sources: Fatwa by Ayatollah Yazdi authorized rigging of election; Whistleblower Asgari was assassinated

[Updated 24 Sept. 2009]

An open letter purporting to be from a group of employees at Iran’s Interior Ministry says that a hard-line ayatollah authorized election supervisors to alter the election results so President Ahmadinejad would win re-election. According to contacts in the Iranian defense department, an IT (information technology) manager in the Interior Ministry was murdered after he leaked information about the fraud to opposition candidates.

The implications given in the paragraph above are difficult to confirm in depth, given the news blackout in Iran. However, I do have sources with connections in Iran that lend reasonable credibility to this account.

In terms of the fatwa authorizing election supervisors to rig the results, Tehran Bureau, a news organization reporting on Iranian affairs, has published an open letter purporting to be written by a group of employees in the Iranian Interior Ministry (the agency in charge of the country’s elections) — here is a link to a copy of the letter in Persian.

I don’t read Persian, but Tehran Bureau has furnished a partial translation — see “Open Letter: Fatwa Issued for Changing the Vote in Favor of Ahmadinejad.”

According to the translation, the fatwa came from a well-known cleric who previously preached about political philosophy at Friday prayers in Tehran, identified by Tehran Bureau as Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi.

The letter says that in May of this year the government realized that Ahmadinejad’s political support was waning in favor of opposers. This led Yazdi to meet in secret with election supervisors. Citing the Quran, Yazdi told the supervisors,

If someone is elected the president and hurts the Islamic values that have been spread [by Mr. Ahmadinejad] to Lebanon, Palestine, Venezuela, and other places, it is against Islam to vote for that person. We should not vote for that person, and also warn people about that person. It is your religious duty as the supervisors of the elections to do so.

After criticizing the other candidates, Yazdi said,

You should throw away those who are unqualified, both morally and lawfully. Your highest call of duty at this time is to preserve your achievement.

The open letter describes the election supervisors as “happy and energetic for having obtained the religious fatwa to use any trick for changing the votes,” and says they “began immediately to develop plans for it.”

Tehran bureau describes itself as “a virtual bureau connecting journalists, Iran experts, and readers all over the world.” A news release in February 2009 from the Columbia University School of Journalism says the bureau was started by Kelly Golnoush Niknejad, a U.S.-based journalist born in Iran. The release said that journalist Jason Rezaian would be covering the Iranian presidential election from Tehran.

I have sent an email to Niknejad asking more information about how her organization obtained a copy of the open letter, but she has not replied as of today.

In researching this story, I read in the Guardian about “unconfirmed reports” that an Iranian whistleblower had been murdered for revealing the election fraud — see “Iran protests: Regime cracks down on opposition as further unrest looms,” by Ian Black, Robert Tait and Mark Tran. Black and colleagues reported that,

Mohammad Asgari, who was responsible for the security of the IT network in Iran’s interior ministry, was killed yesterday in a suspicious car accident in Tehran. Asgari had reportedly leaked evidence that the elections were rigged to alter the votes from the provinces. Asgari was said to have leaked information that showed Mousavi had won almost 19m votes, and should therefore be president.

I found that it was difficult to get further confirmation of this report, but it seemed valuable to do so, as it in turn would confirm the implications of the open letter from the Interior employees.

Finally I was able to get in touch with Rob (Sohrab) Shahmir, an Iranian in Toronto, who is now chairman of E&I Renewable Energies and CEO of E&I Group. Shahmir was working in Iran from 1998 to 2007 in environmental services and removal of landmines and unexploded ordinance.

Shahmir still has contacts in the Ministry of Defense in Iran. He tells me that, according to his contacts,

Mr. Asgari was a manager at the IT department of the Ministry of Interior, he was one of the few semi-senior supporters of the moderates at the ministry.  After they ministry was ordered to flip the results and declare Ahmadinejad the winner by the office of the leadership, Mr. Asgari released the information to the offices of Mr. Mousavi and Karoubi.
According to my contacts, after the Revolutionary Guards Counter Intelligence Group discovered his identity, Sardars (Generals) Naghdi, and Safavi ordered his assassination.  Consequently, his vehicle was run over by a Truck (one the size of a coal truck).  The pic is of the acutal truck.

Mr. Asgari was a manager at the IT department of the Ministry of Interior. He was one of the few semi-senior supporters of the moderates at the ministry.  After the ministry was ordered to flip the results and declare Ahmadinejad the winner by the office of the leadership, Mr. Asgari released the information to the offices of [opposition leaders] Mr. Mousavi and Karoubi.

truck that killed AsgariAccording to my contacts, after the Revolutionary Guards Counter Intelligence Group discovered his identity, Sardars (Generals) Naghdi and Safavi ordered his assassination. Consequently, his vehicle was run over by a truck (one the size of a coal truck).

Shahmir tells me that the photo shown here is the truck that was used to kill Asgari.

Update 11 Sept. 2009: Jeremy Hammond at Foreign Policy Journal has written an extensive analysis of the coverage of the reputed Yazdi fatwa. See “The Case of the ‘Fatwa’ to Rig Iran’s Election.”

Update 24 Sept. 2009: Muhammad Sahimi of Tehran Bureau has responded to critics of the account of the Yazdi fatwa — see “America’s Misguided Left.”

AB — 22 June 2009

Spin and Rhetorical Intimidation

[Updated 23 Oct. 2009]

I’ve been interested for a long time in how people use language to market or “spin” their own points of view, to one-up and intimidate others rhetorically, to use implication and insinuation to make the other side look bad. (See “Rhetorical Intimidation” and “Spin and Gaffes.”)

I think of “spin” as manipulation of words to further one’s own quest for dominance or superiority. One thing I wrote in my “Spin and Gaffes” entry is that I suspect that:

… spin is employed much more often than we acknowledge, in all kinds of situations, and can be very hard to identify and expose. I think it is often used as a tool to gain power by rhetorical intimidation.

This takes place in all kinds of arenas — including more public arenas such as politics, academia, science, and marketing — but also in groups and interpersonally.

In my “Rhetorial Intimidation” post I gave examples of some words and phrases that are used to gain the upper hand in disputes. Examples are “pure and simple,” “just plain wrong,” “There is no dispute that,” “nonsense,” and “utter.” Terms like these are used to add artificial certainty to an assertion or to cast someone else’s idea as inferior and unreliable.

Why do people use terms like these?

One possible reason is they truly think that somehow it advances their cause or agenda. It plays to the prejudice of listeners or readers and perhaps makes them less likely to listen to the other side.

In this case, motivations can be political — using rhetoric to influence fellow citizens and lawmakers can be a tool to gain political ends, such as securing a certain freedom, enforcing certain moral behavior in society, or obtaining funding or government intervention toward a given issue.

Another possible reason is more psychological — people use this kind of language because it reinforces their sense of moral superiority.

The potential harm of spin and rhetorical intimidation is that they can shut off dialogue and discourse by appealing to emotion, sentiment, or prejudice. Each person on his or her own side can resort to insults and labels and thus avoid having to really listen to what the other person has to say.

Recently I have thought of some additional terms that are used to exert spin in discussion or public discourse, to intimidate, or, put more neutrally, to persuade. Consider:


In my “Rhetorical Intimidation” entry I referred to this as a term “used to describe an area of inquiry that conflicts with your own deeply-held opinions.”

“Pseudo-science” was once used by Tom Cruise to disparage psychiatry. It is often used to describe any investigation into the paranormal, and is “sometimes used by partisans on either side of the evolution-intelligent design debate to describe one another’s models,” as I wrote previously.

A related term that has emerged and is used more and more frequently now is:


I have heard this term used to disparage people who oppose the destruction of human embryos for use in research, people who doubt whether human activity is causing harmful climate change, and people who doubt that darwinian processes could be responsible for the development of all varieties of life and who doubt that life could have arisen spontaneously.

Although disparagers lump all these points of view under the single “anti-science” label, these are in fact very distinct issues, and science informs both sides of all these issues in very different ways. Many people who hold these points of view are in fact very well informed about the science involved.


This epithet is starting to appear now in similar contexts with “Pseudo-Science” and “Anti-Science” as discussed above. The utterer attaches “-deniers” to some ideological position to cast their own position as superior and the “denier” as ignorant, deluded, or evil.

Few would argue that Holocaust deniers have any rational claims to make. However, the “-denier” label is now being used to cast in a negative light those who think there are reasonable arguments against evolution and global warming.

As in other cases of rhetorical spin, the “-deniers” label serves only to cut off dialogue. Indeed, that seems to be one of the important purposes of the label.


Writing about “anti-science” reminded me of this label, which I have seen used by partisans of particular business practices that are under attack.

Someone once accused me of being “anti-business” because I wrote an article discouraging companies from using spam email advertising as a marketing method. (The original article is still online — see “10 Reasons Not to Spam.”)

In fact, I’ve been in business for many years and have used email as a marketing communications tool myself. So I’m hardly anti-business or anti-marketing in any real sense. The person who made this accusation was evidently in a business that involved sending unwanted email to Internet users, and he wanted to try to score some points against me by painting me with the “anti-business” label.

Political correctness

One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed about this term is that, curiously, it is used about matters that are only tangentially political, if at all. It seems to me the “PC” label is applied as a kind of excuse not to show sensitivity toward someone else’s minority status, ethnicity, or disability.


Nowadays this term is only used to describe someone else’s ideology, never one’s own.

Bigotry and Homophobia

Certainly hatred and fear are involved in the attitudes of many people toward gays and lesbians.

On the other hand, many sincere people subscribe to religions that proscribe homosexuality among their members. Not all such people and not all such religions are motivated by hatred or fear, and not all such people intend to limit the legal rights of gays and lesbians. What purpose does it serve to cut off communication by labeling such people with insulting terms?

Cult and Sect

Often these terms are used to label unpopular minority religions that are said to be unorthodox. But what should really be the standard for judging what is orthodox? Surely it is not simply the fact that a religious group is unpopular or a minority.

Over the years, I’ve changed my mind on a number of important questions, and I’ve seen other people change their minds as well. In most cases, dialogue with others has been an important factor.

Not that we are always going to change sides on an issue, but at least through dialogue we can understand others’ thinking more clearly and establish more peaceful relations.

The use of spin and rhetorical intimidation might serve political purposes and might give the user and artificial sense of superiority. But they are not conducive to mutual understanding and make the user look arrogant and dogmatice.

AB — 19 May 2009 [Updated 23 Oct. 2009]