June 15, 2004

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Why I'm not a pacifist any more: It has nothing to do with Bin Laden. It all began in the third grade...
Pacifism and flaming: Maybe the important part of speaking truth to power is just speaking
Questions too dumb to ask: How does a Voice over IP phone ring a real-world phone?
Bogus Contest: If history were a movie


Special Digression Issue

I know JOHO is supposed to be about technology and business — it stands for the Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization, after all — so I'm sorry to lead with a piece on pacifism.


Stuff I write

Just a reminder about this page that lists my articles, radio stuff, and speeches/presentations. I keep it slightly up to date.



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Why I'm not a pacifist any more

Until I was in my mid-30s, I was a pacifist, absolutely against the killing of humans. Then, over the course of about five years, I stopped being one. Not much changed except a label. In another sense, a lot changed.

I had always been upset by the use of force to get one's way. Surprisingly, this was not rooted in some dysfunctional family situation; although I was the youngest, my siblings never bullied me. Nor was I traumatized by some incident of suburban violence. Instead, my pacifism was tied to my amazement that there were other people in the world. From about the third grade on, I could enter what I now think of as a state of awe by contemplating how thorough and thoroughly distinct the life of each of my classmates was. And not just my classmates. Each car we passed on the highway while driving to the beach or to the Berkshires was filled with people going to their own special places, thinking their own thoughts. This struck me as beyond comprehension. Using force to get your way with these people ignored the most real fact about our world (I thought): We are each a world.

By the time I got to college, I was expressing this in terms of the absolute value of life. I wrote in a ridiculously typical freshman theology paper that since there is only value insofar as we imbue the world with value, consciousness must be the highest value. Therefore, there could be no justification for destroying a mind. I then twisted the first five books of the Bible to show that G-d wants us to be non-violent, which isn't such an easy argument given the amount of righteous smiting that goes on.

It's not as if this pacifism cost me anything. Circumstances never required me to choose to die rather than kill. I was given conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, I think because I wore my draft board down with letters from everyone I'd met — yes, including my third grade teacher — attesting that I was a pacifistical type person. I thus missed the opportunity to test my moral mettle (and thank goodness for it).

For the next fifteen years, I periodically argued with people who made up ludicrous scenarios involving Martians and guns wired to people's chests in which the choice between killing Hitler and saving the life of a good person could no longer be postponed. I wriggled against the hypotheticals using a variety of ploys, none of which are worth remembering.

Then, one day I was writing a dialogue about the morality of pacifism, and I lost the argument with myself.

Why should there be no circumstances imaginable in which killing someone would be wrong? If I could save a city by allowing ants to eat through the sugar cube holding back the trigger on a gun sewn to the head of a man who has his finger taped to a switch, then, yes, dammit, I'd let them. Why not? What was I preserving by denying the obvious fact that sometimes you have to do something bad to prevent something worse? And, there was a price to my absolutism. It was forcing myself into the sort of Cartesian perfectionism I decried when applied to knowledge: Descartes demanded perfect certainty before accepting knowledge, and I was demanding perfect certainty in my moral actions. As a result, I couldn't admit what seems now so obviously right: If you attack my children, I will use force to stop you, and will kill you if must.

I felt enormous relief, not unmixed with a sense of self-betrayal. But what had actually changed? I now admitted a tiny set of circumstances in which killing would be justifiable. But I was so far to the left on the justifiable-killing scale that there was no good label for me. So, I still on occasion call myself a pacifist with the mental reservation that you don't have to be against killing Hitler to be a pacifist. Maybe I'm mislabeling myself on those occasions, but I think it's good to keep pacifism on the table as a legitimate position.

Something else broke in me during those years of transition. I went from believing that one is moral by adhering to principles, to believing that principled action can be morally wrong even when the principle is good. If there are times when dying for a principle is the right thing to do, it's not for the sake of the principle but because of the effects a principled death can have.

Principles have lost their mystic hold over me. Acting well in the world and doing good have not — in theory if not in practice — but principles have. Principles are guides, not justifications. They are like "maxims," in Kant's terms.

The truth is that I resent principles. Over the years I've come to believe that life is complex, not simple. (What an insight!) My friend AKMA sometimes says that his role in the classroom is to keep showing students that "it's not that simple." (Sorry if I got that wrong, AKMA!) Exactly right. At times teaching means showing the hidden simplicity in what looks complex. But more often, your job is to show them that matters are just more complex than any of us can imagine. Principles make morality too simple. And so does a utilitarian view that reduces values to a common denominator for the sake of a "calculus."

In fact, oddly, my pacifism began in the third grade with the recognition of complexity: Each person is a world that we can only know by living with them for a lifetime, and even then, well, after twenty five years, my wife is a mystery to me, which I've come to believe is a condition for love.

So, I am no longer a pacifist if that means I pledge never to use violence no matter what the situation, real or hypothetical. But I would like to reclaim the term: I am a pacifist because I want us to go to extremes to avoid using violence. Why? Because violence is the ultimate over-simplification.

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Pacifism and flaming

By odd coincidence, as I was preparing this issue, I got flamed for not flaming.

On Sunday, that ol' flame-magnet, Dave Winer, shut down weblogs.com, a free blog hosting service he had offered for four years out of the goodness of his heart. I totally don't want to wade into this topic again, so let's just say that it touched off a storm.

My first draft of a blog entry expressed the pain I felt for my fellow bloggers who were shut down, but on reflection I thought I was being more angry than fair. So, I deleted it before posting it and wrote something else. I have nothing against flaming as a rhetorical form. In fact, I like to read a good flame. But ...

The old Quaker phrase "Speak truth to power" has behind it the useful idea that the arbitrary use of power says something untrue about the world. But it also has an irksome self-righteousness since it assumes that the speaker has the truth. I think I'd take out the word "truth" and just say "Speak to power." Simplicity breeds conflict. Flaming rejoices in simplification. A good conversation, on the other hand, complexifies its topic.

Peace may be just too complicated for us humans.

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Questions too dumb to ask: How VoIP rings a phone

I've been a happy but puzzled Vonage user. I thought I understood pretty well how VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) calls make it from my telephone onto the Internet, but I couldn't figure out how they snake their way back into the phone system to ring a non-VOIP phone in, say, Malaysia (or next door, for that matter). So, I called Vonage and asked them.

To use Vonage, you plug a plain old phone into the modem they give you, and you plug that modem into your cable/DSL modem. The Vonage modem converts the phone's signal from analog to digital, breaks it into the sorts of packets the Internet expects, pats them on the tush, and sends them on their way.

I asked Louis Holder, Vonage's Executive Vice President of Product Development how the transitions are made between the Net and the phone system. He explained that Vonage has done deals with phone companies in each of the cities where you can get Vonage service. The phone companies sell phone numbers to Vonage that Vonage then offers its subscribers. When a call comes in for a Vonage subscriber, the phone company sends it to a Vonage gateway co-located at the site, treating Vonage as one of its customers. The gateway then sends the call to the appropriate subscriber's telephone.

But how about when a Vonage customer calls someone who isn't a Vonage customer? Suppose I want to call someone in Malaysia? Vonage has done deals with companies such as Qwest and GlobalCrossing around the world, installing gateways that turn digital signals back into analog for local delivery. With the Internet, not only is all politics local, but so are all phone calls.

When I asked Louis how Vonage is doing as the telephone companies begin to roll out their own VoIP plans, he said that things are going great. "We're able to pick the best rates for each market," he said, explaining why it's $0.02/minute to Hong Kong but $0.04 to Copenhagen. About the Big Boy competitors now offering the service, he added: "Their first year will be spent fixing bugs."

By the way, I asked how they pronounce "VoIP" inside Vonage. It's "voip" as in "void," although they spell it out for newbies and customers. Now if we can only decide how to pronounce "GIF"...

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Bogus contest: If history were a movie

Yes, ol' Bogus is back. This time, your task is to suggest movie-ish style plots for real world events. At the end of the realevent, people would say, "Wow, you can't make up stuff like that!" (But, of course, the whole point of the contest is to make up stuff.) For example:

1. Twilight Zone Episode: "The Man behind the Curtain"

[NOTE: The following is in bad taste.]

Pretend for a moment that the conspiracy theory that's been going around is true: Bush has had both Reagan and Bin Laden on ice for months, just waiting for the right political moment to announce their deaths. The administration announced Reagan's death last week to distract the electorate from the torture scandal, etc.

So, here's how I'd like this theory (which I of course don't believe) to play out: In October Bush is still down in the polls, so W holds a press conference to announce that we've found and killed Bin Laden. In response to the clamoring from the press, he solemnly pulls back the sheet that's covering the body.

It's Reagan.

2. Action Movie: "The Remake"

Arnold Schwarzenegger is making a political stop at a mall in LA to kick off California's campaign against sexual predators. With him for the event are Jesse Ventura and Carl Weathers, the three former stars of Predator. There's a loud bang and the three actors dive into a FootLocker where they plan how to hunt down the assassin. Ninety minutes later when they catch him, s/he turns out to be ...??

3. Action/Comedy Movie: "The Orbit Club"

The president's 81-year-old father decides he wants to go up into space, so he pays for a ride on the first commercial flight into orbit. But the framistan gets stuck and the ship can't come down. The president has to decide whether US taxpayers ought to fund the rescue of private citizens who knowingly engaged in the risky business of space travel. Instead, John Glenn approaches a rival private spaceship company and signs up for one more flight...

Now it's your turn. Just remember: No flaming.

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