Miscellany: Deaths, statistics and morality

Deaths, statistics and morality

There is something profoundly immoral about arguing about the precise number of deaths in various situations.

Was Stalin worse than Hitler because the number he killed could well have been double? Don’t Holocaust deniers realize that the very first death is as immoral as the six millionth? Are the concurrent millions of deaths of gypsies, gays, disabled and others all part of the one unique phenomenon or something else?

However, when the numbers become the justification – particularly post facto – for political positions some scrutiny is warranted. For instance, as the various justifications for the Iraq War collapse – WMD, links with terrorists, democracy etc – the one last justification advanced by the conservative governments in the UK, Australia and the US is that the world and Iraq are better off without Saddam.

A key part of this argument is Saddam’s record. According to the most conservative estimate some 280,000 Iraqis were killed in 24 years of Saddam’s regime. This does not include the many dead while he was acting as a US-funded and armed surrogate in the war against Iran. Now, according to an equally conservative estimate about to be published by Nature, some 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died since the invasion. In other words the “coalition of the willing” has managed to kill, in a bit over a year, about a third of the number of  Iraqis Saddam managed to kill over a quarter of a century. A new, bigger, offensive is being planned at present so a simple extrapolation suggests that the coalition forces may well end up surpassing Saddam in the total number of deaths before they are forced to declare victory and withdraw in defeat.

Perhaps the courtroom in the Saddam war crimes tribunal needs to be a bit bigger?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Speaking of horrors, deaths and Iraq one can’t help recalling – whenever John Kerry talks about Iraq – the words of Bonhoeffer, the German theologian executed by the Nazis in 1945, when he said: “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.”


The commentariat has been in hysteria over the social values of Rocco Buttiglione, the EU President’s nominee for EU justice commissioner. While his values are as distasteful as any of the Right wing religious groups around the world it has taken The Economist to point out some other reasons why he ought not get the job.

The putative justice commissioner, according to The Economist, was a key figure in the legal manoeuvres which decriminalised false accounting and produced various changes to evidentiary procedures designed to get Italian PM, Berlusconi, off the hook of his multiple legal entanglements. Buttiglione has also been extraordinarily close to various individuals currently under investigation for, or being prosecuted for, both fraud and those special activities which are so much a part of Sicilian life. Strange qualifications for a justice commissioner indeed.

Locke, Rove (Karl not the Australian one) and modern conservatism

Last week the world celebrated the 300th anniversary of the death of the most influential conservative thinker of the past half a millennium – John Locke.

We didn’t see much celebration in Australia, although Wolfgang Kasper from the CIS managed to get a short article in the Financial Review acknowledging how fundamental Locke was to thinking about property rights, the rule of law and freedom.

A much longer article in the same AFR Review section discussed George W. Bush’s principal political strategist – Karl Rove. Now Karl Rove – called Bush’s brain in one biography – is a unique piece of work. Putting aside his myriad talents in research and direct mail there is no doubt that Rove’s real talent is the outrageous smear. He accused a judicial candidate of being a pedophile on the basis of his work helping victims of child abuse. He spread – during the primary campaigns in the lead up to the 2000 Presidential election – the lies that John McCain had betrayed his country while a POW in Vietnam and had become psychotic as well. The AFR article has more examples if you are interested.

What on earth would Locke have made of Rove and other win-at-any-cost conservatives? Most probably he would be warning against such dangerous revolutionaries threatening the basis of our society.

After George W. Bush wins next Tuesday’s election we will no doubt hear more about Rove’s brilliance, but there will probably be a continuing silence about his specific tactics and his influence on Australian conservative parties.

Proust, the media and Griffith Review

Last week I mentioned the US President, Thomas Jefferson’s, view of the media. A few days later I came across a rather different view from Marcel Proust. Proust described:

“That abominable and sensual act called reading the newspaper thanks to which all the misfortunes and cataclysms in the universe over the last 24 hours, the battles which cost the lives of 50,000 men, the murders, the strikes, the bankruptcies, the fires, the poisonings, the suicides, the divorces, the cruel emotions of statesmen and actors, are transformed for us, who don’t even care, into a morning treat, blending in wonderfully, in a particularly exciting and tonic way, with the recommended ingestion of a few sips of cafe au lait”.

A bit belatedly I have also just got around to reading the last issue of Griffith Review, a terrific quarterly edited by Julianne Schultz. Australia has some wonderful magazines – Meanjin, ABR, Overland, Heat, Quarterly Essays – but the Griffith Review is possibly the outstanding one at present.

The last issue was called Addicted to Celebrity and includes some great writing on Australian journalism. While the media may well be becoming just another commodity in the leisure and entertainment industry, the Griffith Review contains many examples of great rearguard actions. In particular there is a stunner of an article by Gideon Haigh who has become one of Australia’s best and most interesting journalists – from his biographies and cricket writing to his business analysis.

Conventional wisdom quiz answers

The oldest university in America – Mexico of course.

The biggest producer of software – IBM of course.

The biggest exporter of software – Ireland of course.

The biggest producer of apples – NSW of course.

The most dead at Gallipoli out of France and Australia – France of course. By the way the Brits lost more than both, and the New Zealand death rate – on a per capita basis – was the highest of all.

If you got all wrong – and didn’t vote Green or Family First as do most people who get such quizzes all wrong – you are probably in another category, the one which is expecting the Australian stock market to go even higher by the end of 2005.

As J.K.Galbraith once said: “The conventional wisdom is always wrong”.