Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Complex Respect for a Power Figure in Iran

NThe Lede Blog of often has some really fascinating material on current events in Iran. Yesterday's post was about senior opposition cleric Grand Ayatollah Youssef Sanei and his recent troubles with the Iranian government. I'm very interested in Sanei and what he represents. According to this Witness Online documentary (link provided by The Lede), the Ayatollah considers himself a "modern" religious practioner who follows the news and works to adapt Islamic teachings to the contemporary world.

In addition to a daily sermon, Sanei runs a website and telephone hotline for people to call in and get religious advice on a variety of matters. He condones abortion under certain medical circumstances, denounces suicide bombings, and encourages all people to ensure their cars. Sanei quickly breaks the western stereotype of the Khomeni-esque Iranian cleric; the firebrand social conservative.

As an atheist I am generally uncomfortable with religious figures, even those with whom I agree, holding a place of great social authority. Religion has a tremendous ability to unite people and encourage moral behavior, but simultaneously it is capable of retaining practitioners in the moral world of millenia ago. "Thou shall not murder"remains just as valid as ever, but there's a passage or two in Leviticus that needs updating, and I want my representatives in government to know that.

Yet I find myself less worried about this Iranian cleric who, in the youtube video above, denounces suicide bombers and the nuclear bomb in more or less secular terms.

Sanei on nuclear weapons:

"Nuclear bombs destroy heaven and earth.... What is the sin of the plants? the unborn children? the environment which belongs to all humantiy? The nuclear bomb destroys everything, so we are not allowed to use it even in defense of ourselves. You have to attack the enemy, but the innocent people? So using the nuclear bomb, which is a blind weapon, is forbidden in Islam."
On sucicide attacks:

"Suicide bombing is a crime and a sin. That's two - resulting in the killing of innocent people. Suicide bombing is against Islam, against common sense, and human dignity. What al Qaeda and the Taliban are doing is a sin - it's against basic human principles."
I can get behind this. His denunciation of these forms of violence include quite a few mentions of "sin" and "Islam", but his exortations against attacking the innocent, against using blind weapons - are arguments that all people, including atheists, could discuss and find valid.

I find Ayatollah Sanei interesting for the same reason I find the Pope interesting, or the Dalai Lama. I find myself having great respect for this moral figure, who tells men that they shouldn't worry about shaving their beard and applies scrutiny to his own behavior such that he wont reveal which newspapers he reads in the morning for fear of endorsing one over the other. I may not be comfortable with the concept of religious authorities, but I appreciate good men and women where they are found.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Holes in Space-time, and Piracy

First, the fun stuff. Two new comics! As usual, click on the images to full screen.

Second, I thought I'd publish a forum conversation I started on The Pirate Bay. Those of you who know me know that media piracy is a favorite topic of mine. Let me know what you think.
Explain to me something about the ethics of piracy.
Hey folks. I just got finished watching "Steal this Film" and thought I'd come over to talk to the stars of the show about something bugging me. This started out as a quick question and became something of a rant/question, so if you aren't interested in reading a wall of text feel free to escape now.

In the interest of full disclosure, I want to say that I do use the Pirate Bay. I visited the site last week to download the install disc to Civilization IV, a game that I had bought years back but lost the CD for. That generally is the way that I operate with torrenting - I download something for which I already have a physical, legal copy.

That being said, I feel unconvinced by some of the arguments in support of file sharing. I'm not talking about the legality of the Pirate Bay - the fact that I'm writing on these forums now proves that the PB servers exist in a legal grey area, at least for now. I'm talking about the morality of file sharing, especially when it comes to piracy. I'm hoping you fine folks will be able to clear something up for me.

To my mind there are two concepts of file sharing. One is about the idea of a culture of sharing music, and the other is about a culture of downloading files nobody ever intended to be shared. I'm all for the first one, but the second I can't help but think is wrong.

I'm happy when I hear the people on this forum talk about a culture of file sharing. It's a beautiful concept. As someone who publishes music online for free and runs a webcomic, I'm happy to share my media with people all over the world. The operative word here, of course, is "share". The people who are pissed off at Pirate Bay aren't the people who chose to give away their music, they are the people who plan to sell their music for profit.

I've read a lot of arguments on this forum about how the music industry loses less money than they claim to lose, or that Hollywood pulls on strings to get Washington to enforce copyright laws, or that musicians make most of their money on tours, or that the music industry will survive file sharing just as it survived the gramophone. These arguments could be completely true and wouldn't make stealing media justified in my mind. To me these sort of arguments just go to how unpopular the big corporations are... to make the argument that the people who own the music industry are bad, therefore stealing their music must be good. That's a moral fallacy. Even exploitive rich people have rights, and it diminishes us as a people to ignore that.

The real heart of the matter is this: the people who create media do so in order to sell it and make money. We may resent how much they charge for their product, or the DRM that they slap onto it, but ultimately we have two moral reactions to their choice: to pay for the product and use it, or not to pay and not to use it. Spin it any way you like, but the third option, to not pay for media and to download it anyway, just amounts to theft.

Clearly some of you folks disagree, and I'm sure you feel moral about this decision. So I'm interested - why it is not theft to torrent something that one hasn't paid for? Why is media ok to steal when jewelery or TVs or clothes are wrong to steal?

Perhaps its something to do with what that one fellow in the beginning of "Steal this Film" was talking about - that ideas are free and not material objects? Pshaw, I say. The film showed an awful lot of the Matrix - did they forget the scenes when Morpheus about "what is real"? The Matrix was real even though it didn't "exist" in the real world because one could sense it, feel it when one was plugged in. Music is the same. In my life I will never be able to "touch" the music that touches me, but I don't assume that the rules surrounding it and all other products are different. Pirates talk about a new era of thinking, but I can't help but find it backwards to argue that the incoporeality of music removes it from equations of just conduct.

Maybe at the end of the day I just get irritated that people rail against big evil Hollywood while in the same breath torrenting the biggest block busters. For a whole bunch of pirates, the Pirate Bay isn't about ideology, its about cheap movies. There's really nothing too impressive about that.

I hope I've made a fair point. I'd be interested in hearing your perspectives.
I feel pretty at odds with my generation on this topic. Hopefully either I or the rest of you guys will come around. I'm too young to be a cantankerous, contrary old man!