the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 January 13



George Ryan, governor of Illinois, has commuted the death sentences of every condemned prisoner in his province, most to life without parole. This comes a day after he pardoned four individuals condemned for crimes he is now convinced they did not commit, to which they had confessed after torture. Thirteen other condemned individuals in Illinois have been released since the resumption of execution in 1977 after the state decided they were, in fact, innocent. For the last three years Ryan has imposed a moratorium on executions while he has reviewed the implementation of the death penalty; and despite hedging for a possible case-by-case commutation, he has opted, shortly before leaving office, to excuse all of his province’s condemned.

This rational action is in contrast to that of the leader of his party, George W. Bush, who, when governor of execution-mad Texas and a candidate for the presidency, claimed to have absolutely no doubt as to the guilt of every single one of the many individuals on Texas Death Row. Of course he would say that; he couldn’t very well say that some of those individuals were probably innocent but the people of Texas wanted them executed anyway, which is true. I am almost pleased to see Bush show some political sense, if only because it demonstrates that he has any sense at all; but this is a politician who makes morality the public face of his policy, especially overseas. He loathes Kim Jong Il because, among other things, Kim uses torture. But Bush, too, uses torture, not only winking at it in the criminal-justice system at home, but also deliberately transferring terrorism suspects to other states specifically so that they can be tortured.

It is easy to feel some sympathy with the vindictive attitudes of victims’ families. They are sorrowful, hurt, angry, and deprived, and have been led by some element of our culture to believe that a reciprocal death will ease their suffering. They are often, then, blinded to the injustice of their own desires. Several have already complained about Ryan’s move, not understanding why he could spare the life of, or even pardon, the persons who “killed” their loved ones. Rod Blagojevich, the Democrat who has just succeeded Ryan, criticized Ryan for the blanket commutation because “we’re talking about convicted murderers”. We can only hope that if Blagojevich looks into the full story about how those convictions were obtained, he will be less glib on the matter. Ryan acted correctly; his reason was the best reason for opposing the death penalty in general, that it is impossible to be sure, and we have been wrong too many times. But a second good reason is that the bloodthirsty vindictiveness inherent in the practice of retributive execution is part of the worst of humanity, something we should be moving away from.


It is perhaps the United States’ greatest remaining lost cause to speak about honest fiscal policy and hope that the electorate and its government ever approach sanity. Most if not all politicians and most if not all voters claim to believe in responsible policies that will reduce the federal budget deficit, the national debt, the annual interest on that debt, and the cost of that debt to future citizens. But most if not all politicians and most if not all voters actually support policies that increase all four of these things. They ― we ― want taxes to be as low as possible, and “important” services to be eternal, even increased, and with that math there is only one outcome.

The Bush administration is especially shameless on this issue. Occasionally it has hauled out one of the tired supply-side arguments for tax cuts, none of which is ever accompanied by proposals for the spending cuts it pretends to want also. After the administration got its way on the huge tax cut of 2001, the economy failed to improve, the idea of growing out of deficit failed to materialize (yet again, quelle surprise), and the government had suddenly a massive unforeseen expense, the War on Terrorism. One might have supposed that September 11 was the best opportunity in sixty years to ask the people to sacrifice for the greater good; but for the Bush administration there is never a good reason to ask people to sacrifice, particularly not the wealthy people whose interests it lives to protect. So as deficits rise and we prepare for yet another war (which will cost, according to Bush’s chief economist, two hundred billion dollars), Bush is calling for extending and hastening the tax cuts of 2001, which will cost half a trillion dollars (after interest), and passing a further half a trillion dollars of new cuts.

The new cuts, the total elimination of taxes on investment dividends, are exactly like the capital-gains tax cuts that resulted from the same efforts. They benefit the affluent. The argument about the elderly is a smokescreen, since pension-fund and retirement-account dividends are untaxed. Talk of double taxation is ridiculous, even though true, for it matters not how many times a thing is taxed, but by how much overall. So the fatuous argument about fairness is not even an effective smokescreen. Are the rich being treated unfairly? Pobrecitos. Income that rich people earn just for being rich ― investment income ― will soon not be taxed at all, while income that ordinary people earn by working will continue to be taxed twice, through income tax and the outrageously-regressive payroll tax. And in that case the burden is so high that, strangely, low-income workers can’t even manage to set aside a few thousand dollars a year for political influence. And we all know how important it is to make that investment.

Things that are not inevitable

Olusegun Obasanjo, decades before he was elected president of Nigeria, took over a military government and installed a civilian democracy. Muhammadu Buhari helped depose that civilian government and installed a military government headed, at least nominally, by himself. Obasanjo’s political party is drawing much of its support from opponents of the military regime of Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, and Sani Abacha, while Buhari’s party is drawing much of its support from, naturally, the regime’s supporters. Obasanjo, a southern non-Muslim (specifically Yoruba Christian), has alienated many northern Muslims by opposing (though tepidly) the institution of Sharia in the north, and Buhari, a northern Muslim, is expected to carry the vote of Sharia supporters, and to be beholden to them if elected. So the outcome of April’s presidential elections will either be opposed to military and religious dominion, or in favor. Muhammadu Buhari may be seen as a relatively-harmless, eccentric figurehead, credited with being incorruptible and even defiant of the ruthless Babangida; but to take such a favorable view would be a mistake, to forgive him a mistake, to elect him as president an unforgivable mistake. Nigeria needs democracy and liberalism. It does not need religious law and military authoritarianism. Nigeria is one of the world’s largest states, and Africa’s largest by far, so this impending decision is going to affect us all, whether we follow it or not.

Things that are not believable

At the moment I do not believe that the Raelians have cloned so much as one human, as evasive as they and Clonaid have been with verifiable evidence. But I acknowledge that they might have. The technique is complicated but duplicable, has indeed been performed numerous times, and was inevitably to have been successfully attempted on humans. The dominant skeptics on this issue have either been those whose religious beliefs lead them to oppose human cloning, or those in direct competition with Clonaid to cross the threshold first; and both have clearly demonstrated their subjectivity. The refusal of the mother-donor of ‘Eve’ to undergo genetic testing is understandable considering the actions of a self-appointed prosecutor to have her declared an unfit parent. So she may be; but there are parents who are unfit for more obvious reasons, and we do little about them.

I of course do not believe that Rael was taken aboard an alien spacecraft to receive the revelation that human life itself was a product of advanced alien technology; but I find this at least plausible, in notable contrast to the Christian belief that the creating and controlling power of the universe took on human form for thirty years and founded, not coincidentally we are to assume, the world’s largest church. In fact, it is only size itself that separates Raelism from Christianity or any other accepted religion. Absurdity of beliefs clearly doesn’t distinguish a cult. Rael’s insistence on the title ‘his holiness’ is a pathetic self-aggrandizing custom also applied to the world’s most powerful religious leader, the pope, and perhaps its most respected, the dalai lama. Cheap shots about the distinctive way Rael dresses could equally apply not only to the aforementioned religious leaders but also to certain anti-religious individuals whom I am too polite to name.

I do not think that the human mind will ever transfer from one body to another, even a genetically-identical other, but that is because I do not believe the materialist theory of determinism, do not believe that biology controls the mind or that genetics controls destiny. In my case, heredity is responsible for myopia, allergies, and a large nose; it is not responsible for a grumpy outlook on the universe, or a predisposition to write long, unfathomable sentences.

And I do not believe that humanity should be cloning itself, but not because I fear for our playing God. We do so in every decision of every day; if ‘natural’ is defined as non-artificial, nothing a human ever does is natural. Technology is often within our power before it is within our understanding. Nuclear technology and fossil-fuel combustion have proven so, and genetic technology is likely to join them. Those who have cloned other animals have seen dramatic rates of birth defects and disease. We don’t know at this point the damage that the inconsiderate use of this technology might cause. We haven’t the wisdom. And I would think that before Rael attempts to achieve human immortality, he might work to make us worthy of it.


Original version


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