‘Conservatism’ in the U.S.

Reflecting on a New Yorker article on Leonard Leo, Executive Vice President of the Federalist Society in the U.S., following the recent confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Leo is the man behind Trump’s (in)famous list of candidates advertised during the last weeks of his campaign, while the Republican majority Senate was busy ignoring the nomination of Merrick Garland’s. As the New Yorker article states: “Leonard Leo is now responsible for a third of the Supreme Court.” John Roberts, Samuel Alito, and now Neil Gorsuch.

You see the trend… Leo has successfully deployed three ‘conservative’ justices to the Supreme Court. Leo is quoted asking, “What’s the best way to preserve the dignity and worth of the human person?”, and answering, “You assure all that freedom by establishing limitations on the power of the state.”

I want to ask Leo and all other conservatives who share his definition of “conservatism”, is freedom obtained by limiting the power of the state, only? What about the power of the church? Is freedom obtained by foregoing state-enforced laws and replacing them by church/society-enforced religious laws? Is that really freedom?

A Passing Nightmare

Muslim Lecturer on the Siege of Baghdad

About a month ago, I came across this video of a Muslim lecturer speaking on the Siege of Baghdad of 1258 at an event that seems to be called “Changing the World through Dawah” (link above). I encourage you to watch the video before reading my post.

Since then I have been thinking about and questioning the historical facts presented by the lecturer and his “between-the-lines” message. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find the original source, the full lecture, the lecturer’s background, nor the nature of the event (but I have a guess).  If you are so resourceful as to find them, I praise you, and please let me know.

The barbarism of Mongol soldiers depicted by the lecturer is no surprise to me. We, modern-day Mongolians, are taught about this barbarism from an early age. I suspect this is so, because the available historic texts were all written by Chinese scholars or Western merchants. So there is little room for bias to delude us from our historically barbaric nature. The Khan would send a messenger to a city offering the ruler to peacefully concede to Mongol rule or refuse and taste the wrath of Mongols. The Abbasid Caliph Al-Musta’sim refused to acquiesce to the demands Munkh Khan, ruler of the Mongol Empire at the time, and sent the messenger’s head back to the Mongols. Naturally, Munkh Khan ordered Khulegu Khan to subjugate the Abbasid Caliphate and its capital in Baghdad. One of Munkh Khan’s demand was of course for the Caliphate to pay an annual tribute to the Ilkhanate (resources were important then too). To siege a city because they refused to submit to your rule and pay an annual tribute is undoubtedly insane by current moral standards. Physical warfare and violence were more commonplace back then. So I do not dispute every Mongol soldier killed at least a dozen of the Caliphate soldiers and residents. (I did find it surprising 1) women and children were killed; in most other attacks, women and children who were shorter than an ox cart wheel were spared; and 2) a woman was part of the Mongol army. I will have to consult Google on these two points soon.) Perhaps we were particularly cruel in the Siege of Baghdad, because of the repeated resistance from the Abbasid Caliphate and their neighbours.

What I did find debatable is the lecturer’s intended message. When I first watched this lecture, it seemed evident he is saying the Mongol Empire targeted and was particularly cruel to the Abbasid Caliphate, because they were Muslims. I got this impression, because he highlights the word “Muslim” each time he says it. Reader, please let me know if this was not your first impression. I wanted to write this post to note the Mongols were equally barbaric in their attacks of China, Russia, Europe, and the Middle East. The Siege of Baghdad went to the violent extent that it did, because the Caliph refused to give in after several battles and continued to defy Khulegu Khan. Had another king, prince, or ruler put up such resistance in the face of the Ilkhanate, they too would have gotten a taste of our barbarism. One positive aspect of the Mongol Empire was that we welcomed all religions (so long as the people agreed to be subjected to Mongol rule). In fact, Khulegu Khan later converted to Islam and was buried in modern day Iran.

After a month of pondering, I wonder if the lecturer identifies as a Muslim so strongly as to not refer to the victims of our barbarism as the Abbasids or the Middle Easterners or any other non-religious identity. And not being religious, I do not understand identifying with a religion as strongly as this lecturer does. I’m not sure I ever want to.

Needless to say, it is saddening Mongols destroyed all Baghdadi libraries, including the House of Wisdom, and with them all scientific knowledge Muslims had gathered from across the world. It is disturbing this siege was a strong contributing factor in ending the Islamic Golden Age. It is disconcerting to see my ancestor listed alongside Nero and Hitler by Bertrand Russell.


A new form of slavery?

A few weeks ago, I tried spin class for the first time (and most likely the last) at FlyWheel here in Seattle. Spin classes have been in fashion for a few years already and known as a good calorie-burner. The class was a 45-minute session of stationary bicycling to high-tempo music – sitting down, standing up, while lifting weights, and competing against other bold cyclists on a scoreboard. How did we compete? Based on the power we generated (torque x RPM). Needless to say, I scored second to last overall among competing women. (I will say, whenever the instructor announced short bursts of races, I was near the top every time!) It was a gruelling 45-minute session. I learned I did not push myself hard at the gym.

A brilliant thought occurred to me a few days later. Why not use actual power-generating bicycles in spin classes? Cyclists will still get their work-out, while generating actual power, not just a number on a score-board! I haven’t gone to the trouble of figuring out how much power can actually be generated by 30+ people in craze on bicycles, but it is worth exploring.

Maybe a business idea for the green entrepreneur out there?

I’m sure this idea was partially inspired by the bicycle I tried at the Los Angeles Science Center in December. It demonstrated how much harder I had to bicycle to light incandescent bulbs than LEDs. Thanks LA Science Center and FlyWheel!

Belief, Fact, Truth

Yesterday at a neighbourhood bar, I eavesdropped on a group of three strangers debating about fact versus belief. A gal in the group argued: a claim is only a belief, and yours only, until you have set your eyes on it. Then it becomes your fact. The example she used was whether the Earth is a sphere. “Scientific truth” claims the Earth is indeed a sphere. Analytical evidence gathered by experts show the Earth is a sphere. And you believe the Earth is a sphere, because you find the evidence compelling and you have seen photos astronauts took from outer space. However, it is just a belief. It can only become your fact, when you have gone out into space and seen the Earth is a sphere yourself.

Since I could not muster up the courage to join their debate, I am writing this blog post to present my counterarguments, but even more so to organize my own thoughts.

Is seeing believing? Or, I should ask: Is ‘seeing’ a necessary condition to accept facts?

This is the easiest line of thinking to discredit.  That you have to see a claim to accept it as a fact is simply unrealistic. This can be best shown by examples. 2 + 2 = 4. Everyone can agree on that. But numbers are abstractions we created to represent the world around us. When I write 2+2=4, I don’t physically take two apples then set two more next to them to realize they add up to four. I know 2+2=4 is a fact, even though it is an abstraction.

Another example: I’m calling into question whether my parents are actually my parents. I don’t remember seeing my mother give birth to me; or my mother and father conceive me (uhmm… that’s a thought I actually did not want to have). Do I only accept as fact that my parents are indeed my parents, once we have completed a genetic test? Even then, do I have to witness the testing process, from our blood samples being taken, the cultures getting sent to the lab, the lab technicians carrying out their lab magic, and the results typed out, to accept as a fact that my parents are my parents?

What about blind people? Because they cannot see at all, do they know no facts?

Your fact versus my fact

The gal at the bar also implied everyone has different facts, due to difference in experiences. But a fact is a claim that is undoubtedly true, regardless of the claimant’s or audience’s experience. 2+2=4, regardless of whether you can see or not, whether you are rich or poor, whether you are Asian or Western…

I know I am pulling an easy example. 2+2=4 is undoubtedly a fact. There are facts that have been pulled into question and are still questioned today. It took a long a time for people to accept the Earth is a sphere. There are probably people who still think the Earth is the center of the universe.

This is where it gets complicated.

A conservative mother may not accept as fact her son is gay. A conservative Christian may not accept as fact our universe is more than 12 billion years old. Perhaps this is why people distinguish scientific facts from other facts. That the universe is more than 12 billion years old can be scientifically proven. But can a gay person scientifically prove they are gay?

The point I’d like to make is there is at least a set of facts that are and should be accepted by everyone as facts, undoubtedly true. This set continues to grow as our scientific understanding grows. Perhaps one day there will be a full scientific understanding of human physiology and psychology, explaining difference in sexual orientations.

The questions I am left with now are: Why are everyone’s sets of facts different? Will we ever get to a time when we agree on the same set of facts? Is there universal truth? To be explored…



A Curious Discourse in Cambodia

Attended a casual philosophy talk on Political Correctness with regard to Feminism yesterday and am urged to share a story from Cambodia. This is the most misogynistic act I’ve experienced so far in life. Considering what women are subjected to everyday, I feel quite lucky this is my worst experience and grateful for the people in my life who are clearly not misogynists.

I am in Siem Reap with my (then) boyfriend traveling, doing the touristy stuff. One day, we get up at 5am to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat. We hire a tuk tuk driver and a tour guide for the day for convenience, but more importantly to get educated on the history of the amazing temples. We meet up with the tuk tuk driver and the guide outside the hotel, agree on our destination, and climb into the tuk tuk. I and my boyfriend seated on one side and the tour guide seated facing us. I look at the tuk tuk driver and politely ask “I don’t believe we asked your name. What is your name?” He replies “I go by Vuth” and turns to my boyfriend to ask his name. In a usual discourse, he would have said: “I go by Vuth, and what is yours?”, then turn to my boyfriend and ask his name. Either this (what I think is a usual) discourse is not really usual in Cambodia or my name was not of interest to Vuth. And I can’t recall if he ever asked my name that day.

This was a one-time, harmless incident, but it was still eye-opening and frustrating. I made a point of getting (and did get) the most out of Vuth’s knowledge on Cambodian history and we had some interesting discussions about the Pol Pot regime and its consequences.