Saturday, September 04, 2004

Do We Agree about Bush's Swagger?

Justice Potter Stewart famously once said that he knew pornography when he saw it. Stewart's claim has drawn scorn and ridicule from legal scholars for decades.

But consider this: Bush does literally swagger. And I don't like his swaggering.

But my principal objective now is not to express my personal feelings about Bush's swaggering. Instead, now I want to emphasize the following point:

Although I cannot define or describe swagger, I think I know swagger when I see it -- and I bet you do too; to wit, I bet that many of us would use "swagger" in much the same way, that many of us would agree when swaggering is occurring and when it is not.
If I am right about the workings of "swagger" in American English, it follows that at least some words that many of us cannot readily define sometimes serve as useful or meaningful references -- interpersonally consistent references -- to phenomena in the world. Q.E.D.: We don't always need definitions of words to make words useful or meaningful.

But: People who want to create computers or programs that mimic human behavior don't have the luxury of leaving referring words or concepts (such as "swagger") undefined: if it is to emulate human behavior, the computer or program must be instructed on how or when to use "swagger."


Friday, September 03, 2004

Crimes upon Crimes upon Crimes

White House spokesman Scott McClellan called the killing of children by Chechen fighters a "barbaric terrorist act." He added, "The responsibility for the tragic loss of life rests with the terrorists."

The killing of children by Chechnya fighters, or terrorists, is a terrible crime.

Stalin's 1944 deportation of almost the entire population of Chechnya was a great crime.

Many crimes were apparently committed in the 1999 Russian war against Chechnya. See Yuri N. Maltsev, "Russia's War on Chechnya" (October 28, 2002).

See also Jackson Diehl, "Chechnya Discounted," Washington Post (June 11, 2001) ("What officialdom in Moscow and Washington alike don't want to hear is that the campaign by the Russian military and police against Chechnya's separatists has degenerated into a full-fledged dirty war, complete with disappearances, mass graves, systematic torture and summary execution of civilians. In its scale and ferocity, it far exceeds the campaign Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic waged against the Albanians of Kosovo before NATO intervention; in the stunning impunity of its state-sponsored brutality, it is like the Latin American dirty wars of the 1970s.")
Old crimes almost never justify new crimes. But old crimes should not be forgotten -- particularly not if the old crimes amount to or verge on genocide. See Lindsey Hilsum, "The conflict the west always ignores," New Statesman Special Report (Jan. 26, 2004)

Do massive human rights violations matter only when they are committed by Saddam Hussein?