Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Unbearable Triteness of "Being"

One finds the word "ontology" referred to quite frequently.  So frequently, in fact, and in such varied and disparate ways, that poor wanderers through the vast halls of intellectual history such as your charming and delightful old Uncle Ciceronianus find it hard to determine just what it is, and indeed whether it is anything at all.

Ontology you must understand is no longer the concern merely of philosophers, which would of course make it of no concern to most.  The word, at least, is thrown about in discussions of all kinds, as carelessly as one might throw a Nerf Ball, secure in the knowledge that nothing of significance will result or subject one to blame.

If we gather our strength enough to consult a dictionary, we'll find that "ontology" is said to be a branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature or relations of being, or a theory regarding the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence.  If you're anything like me, this definition raises all kinds of questions, but none which have to do with the apparent subject matter of ontology.  Instead, those questions would involve whether anybody actually devotes time to the study of ontology, and if so why they do.

If the nature of being refers to the nature of existence, we all seem to have some idea of the fact that we exist, and may even be said to know we exist.  No great effort is involved in arriving at these conclusions.  We may indulge in faux doubt as did Descartes, but that is futile and tiresome.  We may indulge in the same kind of doubt as to the existence of other people and things if we really want, but nobody does that sort of thing in fact, i.e. we do what we need to do to live and living involves interaction with other things and people; if conduct is any kind of guide to what we in fact think, it's silly to maintain we think they don't exist.

Are there (still) people who seriously wonder whether they exist, or whether other creatures or things exist?  Perhaps there are, but if so I question whether there are enough of them to make "ontology" the kind of buzz word it seems to be.  Are there people who seriously ponder what it is for them or other creatures or things to exist?  It's likely there are more of such folk than there are those who seriously wonder whether they or others exist, but think that if they ponder this "question" in the abstract, without addressing it in a particular context or set of circumstances, their habitat is the university, i.e. the academy.

What it means for us to exist, or for other things to exist, may be something which presents questions which actually require or may result in answers in certain circumstances.  We may have reason to describe what is taking place and what we do in interacting with other things and people, which may be said, speaking rather awkwardly and in a contrived fashion, to relate to the nature of our/their existence or being.  Even then their being/existence isn't an issue.  But to refer to being as an attribute of all things and define just what that attribute is as to all things and in isolation (without addressing a particular situation) clearly isn't something we do or would seem to have reason to do in ordinary circumstances.  Nor does it seem there is any reason to inquire what it is for anything to be, though it may be something we do when drunk or high or in a philosophy class.

We say something exists, has being, when it's present in time and space.  We consider or recognize the characteristics of what is present in time and space when we interact with it, which we may do for various reasons, or when we encounter it, interact with it.  Sometimes we do that for a reason or for a particular purpose, sometimes we don't (we may, for example, bump into something accidently).  But existence isn't an issue unless whether something exists is unknown and it's important in some manner to know if it does or does not.  Ontology won't answer this question, however.  I don't think it's intended to answer it.

We may, if we really want to, engage in the study of what it is for anything to exist, unconnected with any circumstance or context, what "being" is, but in doing so I don't think we can do more than say, e.g., that it must have substance, be part of the universe, not be something which only one person can see, touch, etc.; in other words, we would only come to conclusions which are obvious and trivial, which achieve nothing.

So I think that what is referred to as ontology or ontological so often these days has nothing to do with "being."  The existence of something or some person isn't being studied or analyzed, in and of itself.  That existence, or being, is taken for granted.  What we are doing in fact is ascertaining the characteristics of something we know has being, determining how we should or can interact with it, generally for a particular purpose.  Our concerns may be practical, scientific, instrumental, economic, religious or otherwise, but our concern is not being, not our being or that of any other thing or creature.  Instead, we accept being and concern ourselves with the consequences of being.

Why we choose to call this ontology, or describe it as the study of being, I can't say.  I'm reasonably certain, though, that we gain nothing by doing so, and have concerns that in doing so we merely render obscure matters which may usefully be considered if only we refrain from indulging in what Dewey liked to call "The Philosophical Fallacy"; roughly speaking, the neglect of context.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Gravitas non Grata

Gravitas, which has been translated variously as dignity, seriousness, weightiness in one's bearing and conduct, was a trait much admired by the Romans, especially in their leaders.  Like pietas (faithfulness, dutifulness) it was considered a distinctly Roman virtue, a characteristic of Romans since ancient times, a part of the mos maiorum, the ways and customs of their sometimes legendary forbears.

It's a familiar enough Latin word, though likely not as familiar as the phrase persona non grata (plural, personae non gratae), meaning an unwelcome person.  And so the title of this post, intended to convey that the virtue of gravitas is unwelcome here in our Great Republic, particularly in our leaders and those who wish to be our leaders.

This is apparent in the tiresome gaggle seeking to preside over these United States, honking platitudes and boasts, fear-mongering, pandering and posturing continually throughout the seemingly endless horror show of the presidential campaign.  But it's apparent even more so among us citizens, because we permit them to do so and even, God help us, encourage them to do so.  Worse yet, we eventually vote for one or the other of them.

Look what we have done to ourselves.  We tolerate circumstances where the highest office in the land is pursued by a rogue's gallery including a snake oil salesman; a blustering, boorish brat; a secretive, artificial person who seems venal and narcissistic; a well-meaning but clueless old man; a right wing demagogue and holy roller.  These are only the more popular of the candidates.

Perhaps I exaggerate.  But I think it accurate to say that not one of them possesses the characteristic of gravitas.  One in particular is even juvenile in demeanor, and this apparently delights his supporters.  It's impossible to think of him as having dignity, or being dignified.  He doesn't seem to aspire to dignity in any case.

To be fair, there are few presidents or candidates in recent years who had gravitas.  Certainly our first president did; it seems to have been his primary characteristic.  This was appropriate given the Founders' evocation of Rome in our institutions and laws.  The fond recollection of the real or not so real Rome of the Republic can be seen in The Federalist Papers, and fondness for it and its traditions was prevalent during the Enlightenment.

Among more recent presidents, one may have to go back to Eisenhower.  He had of course accumulated considerable regard and respect from being Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during WWII, and this certainly accorded him great weight as a public figure.  Nixon seems to have struggled to obtain gravitas, but his own personal flaws and the slings and arrows of those he angered kept him from it.  Reagan, I think it's fair to say, appeared to have gravitas on occasion.  But he was an actor (Gore Vidal liked to call him "The Acting President"), and whether he had gravitas or merely was able to act as if he had it on solemn occasions isn't clear.

Sadly, "gravitas" isn't a word that comes to mind with respect to any of the our candidates, or anyone in national office for that matter.   They are all small, petty, venal and nasty climbers and necessarily for sale in our money-driven political system.

This lessens our standing in the world.  Our leaders' lack of dignity results in our country's lack of respect.  This lack of respect baffles some of us, and it seems those baffled think we must be obnoxious in order to regain respect (I suspect that too many of us associate obnoxious conduct with being powerful and respected).  But those people or countries who lack dignity, seriousness, and weight in bearing and conduct are not respected, though they may be hated.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Social Media is More than the Message

I'm having trouble understanding the interest and outrage generated by The Making of a Murderer, which is apparently something  which may be called a "docudrama," and the sympathy it has evoked for its unlikely "hero" if we may use the word, Steven Avery.

I suppose it's necessary to consider at the outset whether it is in fact a docudrama or a documentary.  A docudrama, it seems fair to say given the inclusion of "drama" in the word itself, though it relates nonfiction does so as part of a drama.  Merriam-Webster Online refers to a "docudrama" as something "dealing freely" with events, particularly those of a recent and controversial nature.  If "dealing freely" includes disregarding, and failing to mention, facts which could render a person less sympathetic, and a contention less convincing, then it would seem based on information which has been provided since the Netflix series has come out, absent from the series itself, that we are addressing a docudrama.

The failure of the makers of the docudrama to include such information in their series renders their assertions that they had no axe to grind, and didn't seek to convince anyone one way or another regarding whether justice was served, rather dubious, to say the least.  Their protestations that they left out certain evidence because they felt it was unimportant indicates that they made their own assessment of what was and was not pertinent to the determination of guilt or innocence, and sought to represent to their viewers that the evidence they included was all that was important and anything suggesting otherwise was not.  As has been noted elsewhere, this is simple manipulation of an audience.  But I don't intend to address the accuracy of the series or the motives of its makers.

What makes this bit of proselytizing remarkable is not the content of the series, but the manner in which it has been communicated, reacted to and remarked upon.  Its creators plainly desired to convince its viewers that an innocent man was framed in a most unsubtle manner and evidently have done that with considerable skill and success, despite the fact that the protagonist in this case is a not a particularly sympathetic or attractive figure.

He was unjustly convicted and incarcerated, at least for the first offence for which he was charged, that's clear.  But the same can be said, sadly, for many others.  He isn't a physically attractive or articulate person.  He isn't a member of a victimized minority, or punished because of his political or social views.  He wasn't a popular figure or a (very) public figure.  Nonetheless, he's now such a figure and, very suddenly, there are many people who not only believe him to be a victim of a corrupt system but are saying so frequently and loudly, all over the Internet.  Very oddly, it seems his attorneys at the time of his trial have become celebrities and, even more oddly, the romantic interests of some.

In the past, figures already popular or representative of certain victimized groups may have been the subject of adulation, and even treated as heroes, when unjustly accused or convicted and those who prosecuted them as villains.  In this case, however, the reaction is apparently due solely to the airing of the series itself, and the instantly expressed reaction of those who view it in media instantly and widely available to others, who then instantly express their reactions in the same media.

The reactions as expressed spread with great speed around the world and are remarked upon, but not necessarily in a thoughtful manner.  The media provides a forum for comment and response, but there need be no delay in commenting or responding nor does it appear there is any inclination to delay.  Something appears on a computer screen or smart phone or tablet and having been prompted we respond as soon as possible.  The media incite responses that are not thought out but instead reactive, motivated more by feeling than by thought, to claims which are accepted as true without qualification.  Thought takes time; we can feel, though, at the drop of a hat and feeling strongly react quickly.  What we express in the media is there forever, regardless of the quality of our expression.

What we're observing tells us that the media has a tremendous and largely uncontrolled power to influence and manipulate.  Because it has that power it's dangerous.  In the past there have been orators who were able to incite listeners to the point where they became mobs.  Since all us have access to the media the potential mob is now enormous, and its capacity for good or ill is without practical limit.  Since the media encourages thoughtless responses and reactions as it induces speedy expression its capacity for wrecking havoc is probably greater than its capacity to create any benefit.  The mob is potentially present and at the disposal of any person with access to the Internet and the various forms of social media.

Monday, January 11, 2016

A Friend's Death

Brian Setzer did a song called "Sixty Years."  Its chorus contains the words "We only got sixty years on the planet (Repeat 3 times) and if you get any more you might wish that you hadn't."  It would seem he underestimated just how long most of us have here.  Perhaps he meant sixty good years.  But in one case at least, he was accurate enough.

Memento mori was a medieval practice, involving reflection on one's mortalityOf course, this was a common practice or discipline long before the Middle Ages.  It's easy enough to find the contemplation of death in Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, for example, and those granted a Roman triumph were told to remember they were mortal by a slave standing behind them in their chariot, holding a crown over their heads.

The death of someone you know, particularly that of a contemporary and a friend, can inspire such contemplation as well.  The inspiration for this contemplation increases with age, naturally enough.  It's something to get used to.

I met the friend of mine who died recently in college.  We were roommates for the better part of four years.  He was odd, quiet and shy.  I also was odd, though not so quiet and not so shy.  We had many things in common in addition to our peculiarity: a fondness for alcohol, literature and music, and the more outlandish forms of wit.  He grew excessively fond of alcohol, however, and it may be that fondness together with a love of tobacco, which we also shared, which ultimately brought about his gradual dissipation and ultimately his death.  I don't know if alcoholism was eventually diagnosed in his case, but had been drunk with him on many occasions and while my drunkenness became less and less a habit his became habitual.  Tobacco I gave up many years ago; I don't think he ever stopped smoking.

Sadly, I hadn't seen him for years when I learned of his death.  For years before that, though, we were very good friends indeed and that friendship lasted long after college, continuing after I married and had children, though he never did.  He clearly wasn't up to either.  The signs of his dissolution were there even in college, when he threw away his chance of doing well by drinking and treating his courses and teachers with contempt.  But he returned and ended up graduating years after his classmates did, to his credit.  It seemed at the time he was pulling himself together.

Perhaps he was a shooting star, as a song he liked put it.  His intelligence and wit could be incandescent, his memory profound, his insight remarkable.  But he had no patience for the kind of life available to him now, and refused always to do what was needed to succeed, though I think he could have done so.  Later, I think he began to lose his hold on life and perhaps on sanity, preferring some other world he was unable to experience; that would not require work and discipline or the compromises and effort required to make money, marry have children, own property.  Medication may have contributed to the disorientation he sometimes displayed

He seemed of a type, in some sense.  The frustrated, lonely artist, misunderstood genius.  A tragic figure.  He could write very well indeed, in my not very humble opinion, when he wanted to.  I hope he continued to write, and that somewhere among what's left behind there may be some work of genius.  But there was more to him than that.  He wasn't merely a poseur.   Yet he burned out very quickly.  He became homeless for a time, I think.  I gave him money, bought him meals, but I was a professional and a father and existed in an entirely different world, and the requests for money became intolerable eventually.  I know I could have done more, but did not.  I doubt it would have made any difference if I had, but regret it nonetheless.

It seems my great regrets have their beginnings in my college years.   What is it about those years that they play such a role?  They should not, because they are gone quickly and the rest of life remains and is relentlessly different from those halcyon days.  I suppose the same could be said about youth.

A friend, according to Cicero, is like a second self.  He was a great friend for a long time, and I often think of him, and miss him, especially during my now sadly solo trips to the friendly and interesting bars and restaurants in downtown Chicago.  In this case a friend was not a second self, really, though I saw in him things I think are or at least were in me, but not to the same extent or of the same dangerous power and purity.  Ave atque vale, Catullus wrote to his brother on his death.  I wrote the same words on the death of my father, and now do so on the death of a friend.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Money Militia

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was established by Teddy Roosevelt by Executive Order in 1908.  That refuge has now been occupied by a group of disgruntled ranchers supplemented by various and sundry members of self-proclaimed militias.

The purpose of the occupation according to the occupiers is not very clear, and seems to be subject to revision.  This vagueness may have several causes.  It is possible the occupiers, or their spokesmen, are inarticulate.   It's possible that they're being deliberately vague.  It's possible that they themselves are not entirely certain why they are there.

My guess would be that all these possible causes are indeed causes of their vagaries.  But it seems fairly clear that at the bottom of this is something unremarkable and, perhaps, even ignoble in a sense.  That is to say, the desire for money.

The Bundys and others are concerned that their ability to make money is being restricted by the government.  Grazing rights, mineral rights are being limited.  An armed occupation of a wildlife refuge is pretty weird in and of itself, but an armed occupation motivated by the desire to make more money is less than heroic, to put it kindly.

As a consequence, an effort is being made to characterize this unusual bargaining tactic as something more than it is.  So, we hear curious statements to the effect that hunting, fishing and camping rights are at stake.  Again, it's unclear why; it seems hunting, fishing and camping is allowed in at least parts of the refuge, and such rights wouldn't seem worth an armed occupation.  Naturally, references to the First and Second Amendments are being made.  But it would be difficult for anyone to maintain that the occupation is motivated by concerns over the rights granted by these amendments. 

Evidently it's also being maintained that this is a protest of the jailing of convicted arsonists, who decided to set fire to land they were leasing from the federal government, presumably without the permission of the lessor.  However, their attorney has claimed they don't want this support.

Thus far, the authorities seem to be treating this event with the disinterest it deserves.  There are discussions going on, as may be expected.  Neither local nor federal law enforcement is on the scene in any strength.  People are being urged not to approach those portions of the refuge occupied, but otherwise the government is wisely treating the incursion as no big deal.

I suspect that the occupiers will gradually disperse given the lack of interest in their occupation.  It is to be hoped most of them have better things to do than engage in such posturing.  Unless the government does something foolish, or the occupiers do so, this will pass without incident.  But regardless I think this incident should be seen for what it is; a money-making venture on the part of a relative few who are trying to make it seem something more.  They have fooled some already, but it is to be hoped won't fool more of us.

I can understand that dealing with the federal bureaucracy can be frustrating and can cause very real anger.  As a lawyer representing private interests and local governments, I've had to deal with it now and then.  But to countenance the idea of an armed occupation over what is essentially a financial dispute with the government requires a certain twisted sense of self-importance and even narcissism which can be dangerous.