December 26, 2005

Future of Human Rights

Future of Human Rights

During the Holiday season, there are expressions of “peace and goodwill and peace to mankind.” The smart observer notices that peace is difficult to achieve and that goodwill is occasionally expressed, but seldom sustained. Belligerence is a feature of human nature and challenges the brightest and most benevolent minds.

Michael Ignatieff, in his essays about Human Rights reviewed the recent and not encouraging history of the human rights movement in the world. "Human Rights" as a political concept is abstract and needs to be grounded in a clear understanding of human nature. Ignatieff asks the question that lies at the heart of my inquiry: “If human beings are so special, why do we treat each other so badly?”

He argues that human rights is the language of defending one’s autonomy against the oppression of religion, state, family and group. The proper emergence of rights is from the bottom up, from individuals who insist that the group they belong to respect the rights of each member, as an individual. Almost by definition, rules imposed from the top down, by a moral authority declaring rights and insisting that all obey the rules imposed, is not human rights. Ignatieff reminds us that “human rights come to authoritarian societies when activists risk their lives and create a popular and indigenous demand for these rights, and when their activism receives consistent and forthright support from influential nations abroad.”

To recall my original description: at the level of the largest organizations, small groups decide on policy and procedures that effect many nations, even the fate the entire species. The tendency to impose universal rules and policies from the top down is dangerous because individuals and small groups cannot understand the diverse needs, values and beliefs of large numbers of humans. World-wide policies will tend to fail since they emerge from limited understanding, and ignore the tendency for humans to relate most strongly to the values and beliefs of their local group. World government is an oxymoron.

Whatever we value about civilized human existence - culture, knowledge, social justice, respect for human rights and dignity must be practiced anew and stored as modifications of each person's neocortex. Success at humanitarian efforts within a society reveals that portion of human attitudes, beliefs and behavior that can be modified and/or are supported by innate tendencies. Failure of moral authority reveals the extent to which innate negative tendencies prevail no matter how diligent the effort to modify or suppress them.

Human destiny as a species still lies with the programs in the old brain that offer only limited empathy and understanding and insist on the priority of survival at any cost. Individuals can transcend the old programs by diligent learning and practice but individual effort and learning does not change the genome, so that their can be no enduring human rights without the persistent and relentless initiation of new humans into a rational and compassionate world order. This, of course, is so far an impossible goal to achieve. You can then argue that if only 10% of the human population is not properly initiated they will have the power to destroy the civil order accomplished by the more reasonable 90% unless they are vigorously contained, depriving them of their human rights.

I was reading Ignatieff’s book on human rights in the library when someone left another book on an adjacent table, the Ultimate Aquarium by Bailey and Sanford. Since I have learned a lot about biology and animal behavior from aquariums, I began to browse and found a good description of the human predicament.

Bailey and Stanford stated: “An aquarium is a closed environment that depends on the knowledge and skills of the aquarist to produce a community of fish that flourishes rather than perishes.”

I have often used the example of the aquarium to alert readers to the idea that if a fish behaves badly or becomes ill, you have to change his diet, clean the aquarium, and/or change his companion fish. You do not call a psychiatrist. Fish are highly specialized creatures with complex behaviors and social lives. Cichlids are tropical fresh-water fish with intelligence, individual characters and interesting behaviors.

Here is Bailey and Stanford’s description of cichlid breeding behavior with the name “human” substituted for “cichlid”:

“Most humans can be induced to breed in captivity, but it must be understood there is a downside to their breeding behavior. This has given the entire species a reputation for being difficult, destructive, aggressive and so-on. The worst problems can be avoided by understanding the reasons for their actions and taking the behavioral and physical needs into account. Digging is a natural part of human behavior and attempts to curb it by having no substrate are cruel. Landscaping sometime with the uprooting of plants is often a necessary preliminary to breeding – the construction of nursery pits or nests. Large humans may try to remove intrusive d├ęcor and equipment by brute force… the environment should be tailored to natural behavior. You will never achieve the reverse!A human who needs to hold a private territory to attract a mate and raise a family will quite justifiably regard tank mates as competitors, intruders or potential child-eaters, and do his or her best to eliminate such threats. Even if the aquarist is aware of the need for an exclusive territory, he rarely comprehends the amount of space required… although many species can be included in human communities, it must be accepted that some need their own aquarium… Sometimes the hostility of the territorial male extends to the female. In nature, a female can simply swim away when she does not wish to breed. To stay is to indicate interest. In the aquarium she cannot swim away, the male assumes she wants to breed and when she rejects his courtship, he attacks her like any intruder and she may be killed… even with a compatible and bonded pair, the male may suddenly turn on the female if they are alone in the aquarium. His prime instinct is to defend his territory but if there are no actual enemies, his aggression may be directed at the only available human, his mate. This can be avoided by placing the couple’s aquarium adjacent to another tank containing humans large enough to pose a threat.”

Ignatieff, M. Human Rights. Princeton Univ Press. 2001
Bailey, M. Sandford, G The Ultimate Aquarium. Lorenz Books, 1995

Please see: Existence and the Human Mind

An Exploration in Contemporary Science and Philosophy
By Stephen J. Gislason MD

December 20, 2005

Prototype America: War versus the Truth

A View From Outside the Cauldron

In the USA, there is a constant and vigorous debate. The most militarized nation in the world is prepared to meet many different kinds of attack. The USA, with real and imaginary enemies, is a great experiment in how a democratic nation handles threats from within and without. In the best, case the American constitution champions human rights and individual freedom. However, militarism is by nature anti-democratic.

All over the planet, you can choose between democracy and military dictatorship. The trick to preserving democracy seems to be the maintenance of a citizen-accountable political leadership and a subservient military that is prevented from acting inside the country, except to defend the country from external attack and to train.

The Bush version of democracy and civil rights is paradoxically fascist – a militaristic attitude that would suppress dissent and would punish all who disagree with him in the name of patriotism and national security.

When Islamic militants from Saudi Arabia attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, September 11 2001, fear, anger and confusion was the initial and understandable emotional response. Soon, however, government regulators, police and military the entire country into a state of siege. The attack response deprived citizens of ordinary rights and talk of “war” inflamed anger and excused a deluge of paranoid speculation and irrational thinking.

Fortunately, the US is a country of diverse interests, beliefs and capacities. The least intelligent responses are dominant in the early stages of crisis, but are followed more intelligent and better-informed discourse. Within 48 hours it was known that 19 Arab men, 15 from Saudi Arabia but none from Iraq, hijacked 4 commercial airplanes and crashed three of them into three targets, committing suicide in, from their point-of-view, a just cause - a holy war against Americans who have directly and indirectly threatened and killed people of the Islamic faith.

This was a limited and specific attack, planned several years in advance that caused damage and loss of life in New York but did not threaten the rest of country and would not be repeated for some time, if ever. The hijackers were not overtly fanatical but appeared to be ordinary people who spent up to five years living and going to school in the USA.

Jodi Wilgoren wrote: “They were adults with education and skill, not hopeless young zealots. At least one left behind a wife and young children. They mingled in secular society, even drinking forbidden alcohol, hardly typical of Islamic militants. Some of the men who are suspected of hijacking four airplanes in the world's worst terrorist attack do not fit the profile of the suicide bombers who have plagued the Middle East, Sri Lanka and Chechnya over the past two decades. Most of those self- proclaimed martyrs had little to lose, and were indoctrinated for short, intense periods between recruitment and their deadly missions. In contrast, those suspected of perpetrating Tuesday's destruction had, in some cases, spent years studying and training in the United States, collecting valuable commercial skills and facing many opportunities to change their minds.” Andrea Talentino, a political science professor at Tulane University stated: "People who have a lot of other reasons to live for are deciding that this is such an important cause that they're willing to die anyway…that, obviously, is very frightening."

American leaders appeared to lack insight into the deep and ancient origins of the attack and spoke only of their revenge, using military action. They suspended citizens’ privileges and moved the country close to a state of military occupation. President Bush declared “war on terrorism”. He ignored the simple fact that the attackers were from Saudi Arabia and pursued an old family feud instead by attacking Iraq. The average America appeared to be gullible to government propaganda and accepted Iraq as the scapegoat chosen as the sacrificial victim. The gullible Americans who supported this lethal enterprise have paid dearly in money, lost American lives,and lost credibility in most countries on planet earth. They have incurred a Karmic debt that will take many generations to settle.

The major disruption in US life was caused by media and government action and not by the direct action of terrorists. Early in the crisis, Anthony Lewis suggested in the New York Times:

“The American government has sounded two main themes in its response to the terrorist onslaught: The United States is going to war against terrorism, and we expect all other countries to support us in the struggle…To demand forcefully that all nations stand against terrorism is unarguably the right policy. So is the administration's warning that any government harboring terrorists will be treated as itself a terrorist regime. But war, the other prong of the U.S. response, is a more complicated matter… taking retaliatory military action would raise serious problems and extremely serious dangers… Suppose there were quick strikes by U.S. aircraft on targets in Afghanistan, made to show that we mean business. The result would likely be to kill many impoverished Afghan civilians and few if any terrorists. The danger is that such military action would trigger the Law of Unintended Consequences… for every action, there is an excellent chance of producing an opposite and totally disproportionate reaction. Afghanistan is a prime example. When the Soviet Union invaded there in 1979, the U.S. armed Islamic forces to resist. The country has ended in the hands of anti-Western Islamic extremists.“

GW Bush declared war, but the smartest people understood that terrorism is not a localized activity that you can attack like an opposing army. It is a diffuse expression of hate, and hate is an innate feature of humans, found everywhere.

Commenting from Israel, Amos Oz suggested: “A tide of religious and nationalistic fanaticism is on the rise throughout Islam, from the Philippines to Gaza and Libya and Algeria, from Afghanistan and Iran and Iraq to Lebanon and Sudan. Here in Israel we have been on the receiving end of this lethal fanatic tide: almost every day we witness the link between hateful incitement and mass murders, between religious sermons that celebrate jihad and its fulfillment in suicide bombs against innocent civilians. Being the victims of Arab and Muslim fundamentalism often blinds us so that we tend to ignore the rise of chauvinistic and religious extremism not only in the domain of Islam but also in various parts of the Christian world and indeed among the Jewish people. If it turns out that America's dreadful ordeal results from the fact that fanatic mullahs and ayatollahs persistently portray the United States as "The Great Satan" — then America, like Israel, "The Little Satan," must prepare itself for a long, hard struggle.”

Whatever else is true, the threat to freedom in the USA is not the terrorist attack, it is the sustained paranoid reaction to it. The threat to freedom is the willingness of US leaders to suspend civil rights and justify their move toward fascism in terms of external threats, real and imaginary. Smart, more thoughtful Americans understood that the issues involved were complex and could not be finally resolved by military occupation of vanquished nations such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Saudi attackers demonstrated that all the security measures, all the intelligence agencies and the entire military defense that the USA had in place was ineffective in preventing their attack. This was a humbling revelation. In more honorable times, Bush and Cheney would have apologized and resigned for allowing the Trade Center attack on their watch.

One healthy response to the loss would have been the recognition of the vulnerability of free and democratic countries and an acceptance of the risks involved in living as a free society. You could argue that all the security measures at airports were ineffective and should be modified in favor of passengers who could enjoy greater freedom of movement rather than less. The call for increased airport security has trained citizens to accept more of a police state mentality. You could argue that less freedom was traded for the illusion of more security. This is the process of converting democracy to fascism in the name of “protecting our citizens”.

The September 11 attack and the reactions to it demonstrated the major features of the human mind discussed in my book Existence and the Human Mind . The event was intensely promoted by all media for many days and the audience was planet-wide. The ant-work features of the information networks that now link humans in a “global village” worked well to create a standard story of the event that would be repeated by hundreds of millions of people. Memes are advertising and propaganda slogans that spread rapidly through a population, like influenza viruses. 911 memes developed within hours, spread mostly by television commentators and repeated in printed publications. Humans worldwide received and repeated the memes:

“First war of the 21st century”
“Life will never be the same.”
“Strike back at terrorists.”
“Evil deeds must be punished.”
“War on terrorism.”
“Entered a new era”
“Make the world safe for democracy.”

None of these slogans bear much relationship to the truth, but humans operate from slogans and mindlessly pursue death and destruction, believing somehow that they are on the right track. Despite the very obvious limitations of leaders and institutions, Americans, in their public persona, have difficult admitting they have made mistakes in the past and have destroyed other people’s property and lives in acts that others considered to be “American terrorism”.

The principle is that humans deny error and project blame. Human history informs us that national states would rather go to war than apologize. Each nation believes it lives up to the high standard that it imposes on others. Human conflict always involves disagreement about who is to blame and no final agreement can be achieved. Humans fight over territory, resources and status. Each party to a conflict makes claims and has arguments that favor their side. They kill each other. The arguments and claims vary but the conflict is always the same.

You could suggest that the only way out is a transcendence of arguments and claims. The more you support someone’s claims and arguments the further you are from any solution. There is no obvious and no easy path to transcendence. At least we know there is little merit and no salvation in competing arguments and claims. You have to leave these behind and have a look around with a clear mind. Maybe there is something you can do; maybe not.

The mechanism of great evil is that members of every group have loyalty to the group and believe, sometimes fanatically, in the claims of the group. One of the routine claims is that a common enemy must be constrained, punished and, if necessary, killed. Just as individuals have difficulty perceiving their own behavior, members of groups cannot perceive the evil they are helping to create. The worst atrocities can be committed against other groups with complete justification in the form of us and them arguments. Justification always follows a simple logic: “We are good. They are bad. Therefore, everything we do to eliminate their bad is justified.”

The moral sense of Karma includes cycles of causation that more or less follow a path of reward and punishment. With or without lawful processes, the karma of revenge and retribution continues to play a determining role in every society. The innate form of natural justice is an eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth. Revenge is natural and to be effective must match the wrong that was committed. Human conflict has a tendency to persevere and escalate. This is a law of Karma.

At the end of 2005, Bush is characterized in a New York Times editorial as
"...an embattled president so swathed in his inner circle that he completely loses touch with the public and wanders around among small knots of people who agree with him."

Please see: Existence and the Human Mind

An Exploration in Contemporary Science and Philosophy
By Stephen J. Gislason MD

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