September 16, 2006


The following commentary is part of Goat Rope's ongoing effort to stimulate discussion of the cultural and intellectuals issues of our time.

The author, Dr. Molly Ringworm, is a Weimerauner dog and Visiting Professor of Literary Theory at the Goat Rope Farm School of Cultural Studies.

In case you missed it, be sure to check out her weekend commentary on postmodernism in last week's Goat Rope archives.

Dr. Ringworm is author of The Social Construction of Squeaky Toys, Deconstructing Human Footware, and many articles in academic publications.


OK so this is like all about deconstructionism, which is really something dogs invented a long time ago but this dead French guy Derrida gets all the credit for.

Which is like SOOO unfair. 'Cause I've been deconstructing things since I could open my eyes. Shoes, socks, pillows, books, magazines--pretty much anything that isn't like a rock, metal, or really hard plastic.

Do you think that French guy could deconstruct a tennis racket in two minutes using just his teeth?


So OK this is how deconstruction works.

Like whenever you write something, not only do you write what you write but you don't write what you don't write. Which is kind of like writing it anyway, see, except you do it by not doing it, which is just another way of doing it.

So that means when you write something, not only do you mean what you mean and don't mean what you don't mean but you also mean what you don't mean and don't mean what you mean.

And it's always already that way anyway so don't worry about it.

That's why shoes are more fun to deconstruct.


September 15, 2006


Caption: This man learned his lesson too late. (See pictures in the last two posts.) This can happen to you if you practice "alternative interrogation techniques."

This is the third and last of three consecutive posts on the subject of torture.

Short version of the first two: for several reasons, including some really practical ones, it's not a good idea. Let's not.

For what it's worth it looks like the Senate Armed Services Committee and a majority of the US public agree.

The recent discussions by the Bush administration about the legal definition of torture make El Cabrero nostalgic for the late 1990s when legal discussions focused on what "is" is. Or was.

Here are some suggestions about how people might come up with a good definition of when the deliberate infliction of pain and degradation on people rises--or sinks-- to the level or torture.

First, let's not let the people who deliberately inflict the pain and degradation decide. Victims and perpetrators have vastly different perceptions about the experience and its significance.

Psychologist Roy F. Baumeister called this "the magnitude gap" in his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. Perpetrators of all varieties, from idealists to sadists, tend to minimize it.

Borrowing a page from the late philosopher John Rawls A Theory of Justice, here's a suggestion about how a group of fairly rational people could come up with a good definition of torture:

*Let's assume that a "veil of ignorance" exists and in defining torture we don't know in advance who might be tortured. It could be your grandmother, a beloved child, a really nasty terrorist, or you or me.

*Let's also assume that we don't know who will be doing the torture. It could be an agent of a totalitarian regime, a psychopath, or a sincere person convinced of the necessity of the torture.

*Finally, let's assume we don't know the reasons, if any, for the torture. They could be desire for revenge or punishment, sick pleasure, boredom, or the perceived need to extract information.

Given those conditions and the chance to freely discuss the issue, we'd probably come up with a pretty good definition.

Albert Camus gets the last word:

Reprisals against civilian populations and the use of torture are crimes in which we are all involved. The fact that such things could take place among us is a humiliation that we must henceforth face. Meanwhile, we must at least refuse to justify such methods, even on the score of efficacy. The moment they are justified, even indirectly, there are no more rules or values; all causes are equally good, and war without aims or laws sanctions the triumph of nihilism.


September 14, 2006


Caption: The monkey enjoys a brief respite from interrogation.

This post continues yesterday's reflections on torture, specifically with how it is defined and by whom.

According to Wikipedia,

Torture is any act by which severe pain, whether physical or psychological, is intentionally inflicted on a person as a means of intimidation, deterrence, revenge, punishment, sadism, or information gathering. It can be used as an interrogation tactic to extract confessions.

That's pretty straightforward, but I doubt the Bush administration will go for it. As the Chicago Tribune reported last week,

Despite assurances that evidence obtained through torture will be off-limits, the Bush administration's proposed rules for terrorism tribunals do not contain clear guidelines for determining whether torture was employed and would leave such decisions to military judges, according to documents and statements from a senior administration legal adviser.

A few years back, the administration attempted to define it extremely narrowly as leading to "organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death," which leaves enough leeway to gratify any Grand Inquisitor. That definition got yanked after it turned out to lead to bad PR.

El Cabrero surmises that the administration currently defines torture as that in which they do not engage so that whatever they do to whoever they want and no matter how nasty it gets, it's not torture.

I feel better already.

Still, it's probably good to think about just who should be able to define other people's reality. Leaving such matters up to the current rulers unquestioned judgment is probably not a good idea though, even if they were as wise and good as they apparently think they are.

The philosopher Karl Popper once suggested that a key question in human political life is:

How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?

No blank checks, please.


September 13, 2006


Caption: This man practices tough interrogation on a toy monkey.

Last week was an interesting one for people following the torture debate in the US (and for those who think it's pretty twisted that there even is a torture debate).

The Associated Press reported that the Army issued a new field manual that

bans torture and degrading treatment of prisoners, for the first time specifically mentioning forced nakedness, hooding and other procedures that have become infamous during the five-year-old war on terror....

It also explicitly bans beating prisoners, sexually humiliating them, threatening them with dogs, depriving them of food or water, performing mock executions, shocking them with electricity, burning them, causing other pain and a technique called "water boarding" that simulates drowning, said Lt. John Kimmons, Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence.

That was the good news. The bad news was that, as the New York Times put it:

Many of the harsh interrogation techniques repudiated by the Pentagon on Wednesday would be made lawful by legislation put forward by the Bush administration. And the courts would be forbidden from intervening.

Actually, soldiers have a better reason than most to oppose making torture an official policy. It's called reciprocity or tit for tat. Once a country makes torture (we'll save the tortured discussion of the definition of torture for a little later) a standard operating procedure, it can expect others to do the same. And those most likely to wind up on the receiving end are soldiers.

There are people in the world upon whom the subtle distinction between rendition and tough interrogation and kidnapping and torture are lost.

(For a good explanation of how reciprocal norms of cooperation and/or nastiness can develop in situations of war and peace, check out Robert Axelrod's The Evolution of Cooperation, which is also a good introduction to game theory.)

There are also serious questions about whether and how torture "works." As psychologist Roy F. Baumeister wrote in Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, "Torture is notably ineffective in its state goal of gaining information."

And, as Albert Camus, one of Goat Rope's patron saints, wrote of French policies in Algeria,

Torture has perhaps saved some, at the expense of honor, by uncovering thirty bombs, but at the same time it arouses fifty new terrorists who, operating in some other way and in another place, will cause the death of even more innocent people. Even when accepted in the interest of realism and efficacy, such a flouting of honor serves no purpose but to degrade our country in her own eyes and abroad...

He believed that "such deeds do us more harm than a hundred underground forces on the enemy's side."

Next time: When is torture torture?


September 12, 2006


Caption: The trick to handling conflict is to do something before the snapper bites.

People interested in a more peaceful world are often asked, with good reason, for practical ideas for dealing with armed conflict.

There's an old saying about "an ounce of prevention."

One of the wisest and most practical books ever written is the Tao Te Ching, a Chinese classic attributed to Lao Tzu, the legendary founder of Taoism. It offers similar advice:

Prepare for the difficult while it is still easy.
Deal with the big while it is still small.

An interesting article by economist Edward Miguel in the print version of Business Week (Outside Shot column, Sept. 18th issue) has some concrete suggestions about how to do just that.

Here's the lead:

Dozens of countries have suffered through civil conflicts in the past few decades. The humanitarian consequences have been staggering: 3 million civilian deaths in Congo and hundreds of thousands more in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Sudan. The direct human impacts for survivors are enormous, and there may be lasting economic setbacks for whole societies.

Such conflicts often spread to neighboring countries and can create further crises in terms of refugees, lawlessness, illegal drug and arms trading, terrorism, etc.

It has long been known that economic crises, poverty, and falling incomes are associated with civil conflict. But academic debate has persisted over "reverse causality" or the question of which causes which. Specifically, arguments have persisted over whether economic hardships cause violence or vice versa.

Miguel and colleagues Shanker Satyanath and Ernest Sergenti at New York University avoided that pitfall by researching the effects of drought on African countries in the 1980s and 1990s.

As far as anyone can tell, civic conflict doesn't cause drought.

The results were pretty dramatic. According to Miguel,

a 5% drop in per capita income due to drought increases the likelihood of a civil conflict in the following year by nearly one half. That's a very large effect. This analysis highlights the key role that economic volatility can play while suggesting some important real world implications for the design of foreign aid.

Specifically, Miguel suggests that some forms of aid could be like a kind of insurance triggered by short term factors such as drought and drops in export commodity prices. He calls this kind of aid "Rapid Conflict Prevention Support" or RCPS.

The need for RCPS can be evaluated fairly objectively, and aid could be reduced as conditions improve. One example of such aid might consist of providing temporary public works for unemployed young men who might otherwise participate in armed violence.

Obviously, this wouldn't replace other kinds of aid but could play a key role in preventing civil wars, terrorism, and a sea of troubles.

It has long been El Cabrero's view that the best way to get a more peaceful world is to promote widespread economic security.

Official Goat Rope verdict: dude might be onto something.

For more reading on the connection between economic dislocations and other ill stuff, check Jared Diamond's Collapse.


September 11, 2006


Caption: We're not out of the woods yet.

On the fifth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, it is appropriate to remember those who lost their lives that day and those who died in its wake.

According to CNN, 2,973 people were killed that day (the numbers include American citizens and foreign nationals but exclude the terrorists).

CNN also noted that this number has been surpassed by that of members of the US armed forces killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq alone, the number is moving toward 2,700 at this writing. For current information, check

The civilian death toll in those countries is difficult to know. Estimates run as high as 100,000. At the very least, tens of thousands of civilian noncombatants have died in post 9/11 military operations, with the majority of these occurring in Iraq.

Although a key justification for the invasion of Iraq was a link between that regime and al Qaeda, documents released last week by the Senate Intelligence Committee show that no such link existed.

The human, financial and other resources consumed by the war in Iraq could have gone a long way towards preventing future terrorist attacks.

It is a great misfortune for the United States and the world that the events of 9/11 were used as justification for political and ideologically driven actions that have little or nothing to do with making the world a safer place and may well have put more innocent people at risk in the expanding spiral of violence.