heat, light, and handicapping

Dave Long dl@silcom.com
Wed, 15 Jan 2003 10:48:49 -0800

Some sports have a tradition of using handicaps:
if playing the game well is more important than to
win at all costs, then it is worthwhile to make an
otherwise unequal match a close thing. [0]

I think there is an equivalent in debate: it is all
very well to occupy some extreme high ground and
then lambast from a position of strength all those
who (depending upon taste) fail to believe either
that ends never justify means, or that they always
do[1]; however, the sporting thing would be to find
that unclear line down in the valley, and then to
attempt to defend it.  Being on level ground means
one must meet strong argument with equally strong
argument; while setting up and knocking down straw
men may have many advantages, they are same as the
advantages of theft over honest toil. [2]  Perhaps
the best reason to argue over the middling question
is that it is far more likely to be resolvable than
beating dead hobby horses.

Where is the middle of the debate, though?  In the
recent case, I think the waters are muddied by a
combination of questions.  Ignoring questions at
the people[3] level, we get to the level of events;
here, the status quo is a good approximation to the
middle position:

    If Iraq is demonstrably an intolerable global
    security threat, the UN will have it disarmed.

(but I may be missing the point, as I should think
the "if" implies both that (a) the anti-Iraqi camp
ought to be helping the inspectors to find stuff,
and (b) the pro-Iraqi camp ought to be helping the
inspectors be confident they haven't found stuff,
and neither of these seem to be happening.  [4])

Moving along to the level of ideas, we get a much
more universal, but different, middle question:

    Do dangers have to be clearly present
    to justify a(n American) first strike? [5]

and it is entirely too easy to generate heat not
only by failing to engage on a single question,
but also by confusing the different levels.


[0] On the other hand, if winnning at any cost
is most important, then one might as well join
the criminals and cheats in throwing out the
general rule book.

[1] Part of Orwell's omelette-making aversion
stems from the experience described in _Homage
To Catalonia_: he starts out by signing up to
fight a war for his ideals, and winds up by
sneaking out before his own side does him in.

[2] "have many ... toil" stolen from B. Russell

[3] When young men drink, they sometimes wind up
yelling names at each other while their friends
keep them from coming to blows.  Why nations and
boys should share conflict resolution mechanisms
is beyond me.  A matter for de Waal?

[4] Shouldn't the needle-in-a-haystack math make
it easy to pass on intelligence without tipping
one's hand?  A square-root-of-n covert channel in
the inspections schedule may not be a relatively
large one, but then it needs only to be absolutely
large enough to flush things out.

[5] Most people should find it commendable to push
a little old lady out of the way of a truck.  Some
of them, however, would question shoving her on the
basis of general fear that a truck might be coming.