Some Curmudgeonly Thoughts on World AIDS Day

You know you work at a university when all of the “save the world” events happen a day early. World AIDS Day is today, but all of the related events by activists here were held yesterday. Apparently saving the world from AIDS is important, but you’ve got to fit in raising awareness before the students start their alcohol rituals beginning Thursday night.

Also I have to confess I’m getting annoyed with the “break the silence” and “raise awareness” angles. For example, actor Danny Glover told the Associated Press that, “If I am disappointed with a tape, we shoot it again. But with AIDS, the movie’s over. It’s up to you and me to break the silence.”

Break the silence? Maybe in South Africa or Zimbabwe, but in the United States you can’t avoid AIDS awareness — if I walk a mile on campus I’m sure to see at least 5 or 6 different AIDS-related posters.

Finally, it is interesting to see that today moderate conservative claims that were so controversial in the 1980s have become mainstream. The United Nations AIDS Agency put out a press release saying,

Broadly speaking, men are expected to be physically strong, emotionally robust, daring and virile. Some of these expectations translate into ways of thinking and behaving that endanger the health and well-being of men and their sex partners.

This seems like a veiled way of saying, “Stop having so many different sex partners, you morons.” When some conservatives in the 1980s tried to suggest that maybe gay men should act more responsibly by limiting the number of sex partners, the idea was pilloried as a right wing attack on everything good about life.

Part of the difference is that in Africa AIDS is largely a heterosexual disease, so the attack on reckless promiscuity is no longer directed solely at homosexuals. Still, those who criticized monogamy as repressive or conversely celebrated casual sex with multiple partners as liberating were dead wrong.

Europe’s Statist Censorship Laws Coming Soon to a Web Near You

Wired has one of the better stories I’ve seen about Germany’s laws that forbid the distribution of hate literature. Such laws are coming into conflict with the free wheeling Internet. Germany went after Amazon.Com for selling Mein Kampf to German citizens, and now a Munich prosecutor is investigating Yahoo! sold copies of the book to German citizens.

Some in Germany simply want racist, xenophobic, and/or hate literature to be banned outright on the Internet. Here’s a quote from Michael Friedman, who Wired describes as a leader of Germany’s Jewish population, to that effect.

We believe that the distribution of anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic literature through Internet services has to be forbidden. The case of Yahoo in France showed us that in the next weeks and months there will be a new view in Europe on that. There must be a new legal structure in which distribution of hate literature is not allowed. I believe that this is a global, humanitarian message that hate literature is not distributed.

Now the German state is quick to point out that it does not actually ban the sale of Mein Kampf. Rather, the sale of such books are restricted to the right people. Here’s a German Justice Ministry spokesman explaining how this works,

If you go to a bookshop, the bookseller can have a look at you and decide if you are really interested, like if you are a student. It’s not the book that’s forbidden, it’s selling it to everyone. If you sell it through the Internet, you don’t know who wants to buy the book; you give it to everybody, and that’s forbidden.

Or as another Justice Ministry spokesman told Wired, “It’s a criminal offense to sell it to persons who are interested in Nazi things and symbols. It’s a problem of the different standards. I know that Mein Kampf is sold in the U.S., but it can’t be sold here. The Internet makes it possible for everyone to get it. So you have to talk about standards and find a way of dealing with it.” So the German state essentially turns booksellers into mind readers. If you look like you might be a white supremacist, forget it — you’re not going to be able to buy the book. On the other hand, if you look like a nice respectable anti-Fascist, no problem.

And some Germans apparently want this sort of standard to apply to the Internet. Thanks, but no thanks.

Putting the state in charge of determining who can and cannot read books in an attempt to combat fascism is absurd. Censorship and the classification of people into “correct” and “incorrect” categories is at the heart of fascism and other totalitarian political systems.

Moreover, the laws clearly don’t work. I can think of dozens of ways to get around this law, as I’m sure right wing hate groups in Germany have. In addition, Germany and France (which has similar laws) have both been the scene of some of the most right wing violence in Europe. The laws against hate literature have done little to prevent a small minority of dedicated hate mongers.

In the long run, the way to stop racism, xenophobia and other irrational ideas is to move toward more openness in a society rather than restrictions and censorship of the “wrong” ideas. Strengthening the state and state control will almost certainly backfire. Europeans seemed in shock at the electoral victory of right wing extremists in Austria, but the right wingers there have the left-liberals to thank for preserving the strong state and keeping Europeans accustomed to censorship.

Germany’s Statist Policies Coming Soon to a Web Near You

Wired has one of the better stories I’ve seen about Germany’s laws that forbid the distribution of hate literature. Such laws are coming into conflict with the free wheeling Internet. Germany went after Amazon.Com for selling Mein Kampf to German citizens, and now a Munich prosecutor is investigating Yahoo! sold copies of the book to German citizens.

Some in Germany simply want racist, xenophobic, and/or hate literature to be banned outright on the Internet. Here’s a quote from Michael Friedman, who Wired describes as a leader of Germany’s Jewish population, to that effect.

We believe that the distribution of anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic literature through Internet services has to be forbidden. The case of Yahoo in France showed us that in the next weeks and months there will be a new view in Europe on that. There must be a new legal structure in which distribution of hate literature is not allowed. I believe that this is a global, humanitarian message that hate literature is not distributed.

Now the German state is quick to point out that it does not actually ban the sale of Mein Kampf. Rather, the sale of such books are restricted to the right people. Here’s a German Justice Ministry spokesman explaining how this works,

If you go to a bookshop, the bookseller can have a look at you and decide if you are really interested, like if you are a student. It’s not the book that’s forbidden, it’s selling it to everyone. If you sell it through the Internet, you don’t know who wants to buy the book; you give it to everybody, and that’s forbidden.

Or as another Justice Ministry spokesman told Wired, “It’s a criminal offense to sell it to persons who are interested in Nazi things and symbols. It’s a problem of the different standards. I know that Mein Kampf is sold in the U.S., but it can’t be sold here. The Internet makes it possible for everyone to get it. So you have to talk about standards and find a way of dealing with it.”

So the German state essentially turns booksellers into mind readers. If you look like you might be a white supremacist, forget it — you’re not going to be able to buy the book. On the other hand, if you look like a nice respectable anti-Fascist, no problem.

And some Germans apparently want this sort of standard to apply to the Internet. Thanks, but no thanks.

Putting the state in charge of determining who can and cannot read books in an attempt to combat fascism is absurd. Censorship and the classification of people into “correct” and “incorrect” categories is at the heart of fascism and other totalitarian political systems.

Moreover, the laws clearly don’t work. I can think of dozens of ways to get around this law, as I’m sure right wing hate groups in Germany have. In addition, Germany and France (which has similar laws) have both been the scene of some of the most right wing violence in Europe. The laws against hate literature have done little to prevent a small minority of dedicated hate mongers.

In the long run, the way to stop racism, xenophobia and other irrational ideas is to move toward more openness in a society rather than restrictions and censorship of the “wrong” ideas. Strengthening the state and state control will almost certainly backfire. Europeans seemed in shock at the electoral victory of right wing extremists in Austria, but the right wingers there have the left-liberals to thank for preserving the strong state and keeping Europeans used to censorship.

Stephen Jay Gould: Toss A Coin to Determine President

For once I find myself actually agreeing with something written by Stephen Jay Gould — flip a coin to determine who won the presidential election.

Thus, the mind rebels against a claim that Florida should be declared a true tie. Count them again, we say. Count them more carefully. Count them by a single standard. Count them by more accurate machines. Count them by the undeniably fairest method of human scrutiny for each ballot, no matter how long it takes. Count them and recount them until we know who won, even if the true difference comes down to a single vote.

But we never will, and never can know by this false standard of determinability. We can count for every metaphor of eternity, until Kingdom Come, hell freezes over, or the cows come home, and we will never know because the vote is tied by any achievable standard of measurement. Any method, machine or human, ineluctably embodies an intrinsic margin of error.

And the way true ties are usually decided is through a random procedures such as a coin toss. Though the choosing might be considerably more dramatic if maybe we forced the two to play poker for the presidency (or how about chess? I’m sure millions of Americans are dying to know what opening W. prefers.)

Coelacanth Sighting Near South Africa

The BBC reports that divers took film footage of several coelacanth in relatively shallow waters (104 meters) off the northeast coast of South Africa. That’s the shallowest water the coelacanth — once believed to be extinct for 70 million years — has been observed in, and the only siting of the fish in South Africa since the famous 1938 catch by a fisherman that revealed to the world that the species was in fact not extinct.

Research on Sea Squirts Might Aid Infertility Research

Animal rights activists like to claim that medical research on non-humans is pointless since non-humans are too different from human beings. While there are massive differences, which researchers take into account, it is amazing just how much human physiology has in common with something as tiny as the tiny sea squirt. Specifically, the sea squirts reproductive system is very similar to that of human beings and researchers at Newcastle University are hoping that studying the sea squirt might reveal important clues to better understanding human reproduction and, more specifically, some of the causes of infertility.

In this case researchers are examining how the sperm of sea squirts fertilizes eggs. Researchers hope that they will be able to isolate the protein present in the sperm that initiates the fertilization process. Surprisingly there are still very large unknowns about how this process proceeds in human beings.

One of the problems with studying the problem in human beings are legal and ethical issues in experimenting on human eggs and sperm, as well as difficulties in screening human sperm and eggs for any number of diseases that might affect the results of the experiment. “We think we have nicely circumvented all those problems by going after the sea squirt activating factor first,” Dr. Keith Jones told the BBC. “We are hoping that we can identify the factor within a couple of years, and hopefully we can come up with the human equivalent within a matter of months.”

Source:

Sea squirts aid fertility research. The BBC, November 23, 2000.