David Foster Wallace on the impossibility of being informed & the seduction of dogma

From David Foster Wallace’s “Introduction” (The Best American Essays 2007):

Here is an overt premise. There is just no way that 2004’s reelection could have taken place—not to mention extraordinary renditions, legalized torture, FISA-flouting, or the
passage of the Military Commissions Act—if we had been paying attention and handling information in a competent grown-up way. ‘We’ meaning as a polity and culture. The premise does not entail specific blame—or rather the problems here are too entangled and systemic for good old-fashioned finger-pointing. It is, for one example, simplistic and wrong to blame the for-profit media for somehow failing to make clear to us the moral and practical hazards of trashing the Geneva Conventions. The for-profit media is highly attuned to what we want and the amount of detail we’ll sit still for. And a ninety-second news piece on the question of whether and how the Geneva Conventions ought to apply in an era of asymmetrical warfare is not going to explain anything; the relevant questions are too numerous and complicated, too fraught with contexts in everything from civil law and military history to ethics and game theory. One could spend a hard month just learning the history of the Conventions’ translation into actual codes of conduct for the U.S. military … and that’s not counting the dramatic changes in those codes since 2002, or the question of just what new practices violate (or don’t) just which Geneva provisions, and according to whom. Or let’s not even mention the amount of research, background, cross- checking, corroboration, and rhetorical parsing required to understand the cataclysm of Iraq, the collapse of congressional oversight, the ideology of neoconservatism, the legal status of presidential signing statements, the political marriage of evangelical Protestantism and corporatist laissez-faire … There’s no way. You’d simply drown. We all would. It’s amazing to me that no one much talks about this—about the fact that whatever our founders and framers thought of as a literate, informed citizenry can no longer exist, at least not without a whole new modern degree of subcontracting and dependence packed into what we mean by ‘informed.’8

8 Hence, by the way, the seduction of partisan dogma. You can drown in dogmatism now, too— radio, Internet, cable, commercial and scholarly print— but this kind of drowning is more like sweet release. Whether hard right or new left or whatever, the seduc- tion and mentality are the same. You don’t have to feel confused or inundated or ignorant. You don’t even have to think, for you already Know, and whatever you choose to learn confirms what you Know. This dog- matic lockstep is not the kind of inevitable dependence I’m talking about—or rather it’s only the most extreme and frightened form of that dependence.

Richard Stallman on proprietary software

From Richard Stallman’s “Transcript of Richard Stallman at the 4th international GPLv3 conference; 23rd August 2006” (FSF Europe: 23 August 2006):

I hope to see all proprietary software wiped out. That’s what I aim for. That would be a World in which our freedom is respected. A proprietary program is a program that is not free. That is to say, a program that does respect the user’s essential rights. That’s evil. A proprietary program is part of a predatory scheme where people who don’t value their freedom are drawn into giving it up in order to gain some kind of practical convenience. And then once they’re there, it’s harder and harder to get out. Our goal is to rescue people from this.

Richard Stallman on the 4 freedoms

From Richard Stallman’s “Transcript of Richard Stallman at the 4th international GPLv3 conference; 23rd August 2006” (FSF Europe: 23 August 2006):

Specifically, this refers to four essential freedoms, which are the definition of Free Software.

Freedom zero is the freedom to run the program, as you wish, for any purpose.

Freedom one is the freedom to study the source code and then change it so that it does what you wish.

Freedom two is the freedom to help your neighbour, which is the freedom to distribute, including publication, copies of the program to others when you wish.

Freedom three is the freedom to help build your community, which is the freedom to distribute, including publication, your modified versions, when you wish.

These four freedoms make it possible for users to live an upright, ethical life as a member of a community and enable us individually and collectively to have control over what our software does and thus to have control over our computing.

The neutron bomb as the most moral weapon possible

From Charles Platt’s “The Profits of Fear” (August 2005):

Sam Cohen might have remained relatively unknown, troubled by ethical lapses in government and the military but unable to do anything about them, if he had not visited Seoul in 1951, during the Korean war. In the aftermath of bombing sorties he witnessed scenes of intolerable devastation. Civilians wandered like zombies through the ruins of a city in which all services had ceased. Children were drinking water from gutters that were being used as sewers. “I’d seen countless pictures of Hiroshima by then,” Cohen recalls, “and what I saw in Seoul was precious little different. . . . The question I asked of myself was something like: If we’re going to go on fighting these damned fool wars in the future, shelling and bombing cities to smithereens and wrecking the lives of their surviving inhabitants, might there be some kind of nuclear weapon that could avoid all this?”

Here was a singularly odd idea: To re-engineer the most inhumane and destructive weapon of all time, so that it would _reduce_ human suffering. Cohen’s unique achievement was to prove that this could in fact be done.

His first requirement was that wars should be fought as they had been historically, confining their damage to military combatants while towns and cities remained undamaged and their civilian inhabitants remained unscathed. …

Ideally he wanted to reduce blast damage to zero, to eliminate the wholesale demolition of civilian housing, services, and amenities that he had witnessed in Seoul. He saw a way to achieve this if a fusion reaction released almost all of its energy as radiation. Moreover, if this radiation consisted of neutrons, which carry no charge, it would not poison the environment with residual radioactivity.

The bomb would still kill people–but this was the purpose of all weapons. _If_ wars were liable to recur (which Cohen thought was probable), soldiers were going to use weapons of some kind against each other, and everyone would benefit if the weapons minimized pain and suffering while ending the conflict as rapidly as possible.

Cohen came up with a design for a warhead about one-tenth as powerful as the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. If it was detonated at 3,000 feet above ground level, its blast effects would be negligible while its neutron radiation would be powerful enough to cause death within a circle about one mile in diameter. This was the battlefield weapon that came to be known as the neutron bomb.

Such a weapon obviously would be more civilized than large-scale hydrogen bombs, and would also be more humane than conventional bombs, because it would create an all-or-nothing, live-or-die scenario in which no one would be wounded. A stream of neutrons cannot maim people. It will not burn their flesh, spill their blood, or break their bones. Those who receive a non-lethal dose will recover after a period of intense nausea and diarrhea, and Cohen estimated that their risk of subsequent cancer would be no greater than the risk we experience as a result of exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke. As for the rest, death would come relatively quickly, primarily from shock to the central nervous system. As he put it in his typically candid style, “I doubt whether the agony an irradiated soldier goes through in the process of dying is any worse than that produced by having your body charred to a crisp by napalm, your guts being ripped apart by shrapnel, your lungs blown in by concussion weapons, and all those other sweet things that happen when conventional weapons (which are preferred and anointed by our official policy) are used.”

After assessing every aspect and implication of his concept, he reached his modest conclusion: “The neutron bomb has to be the most moral weapon ever invented.”