Monday, August 24, 2015

The New Dark Ages

News of the destruction of the Temple of Balshamin in Palmyra by the foremost of today's barbarians, the merciless and self-righteously ignorant members of IS or whatever they may call themselves now (did someone tell them "Isis" is a pagan goddess?), and their murder of an elderly and respected archaeologist, leads me to wonder whether we regress, and why.

To be sure, we're not all barbarians, but it seems those of us who are increase.  And it seems, to me at least, that they do so because there is an active tendency in the here and now to close the mind, particularly those parts of it which may be used to think intelligently.  There is in fact an impulse not to think; to refrain from thinking.  There is a kind of fear of thinking (or so I think, being unafraid).

Unthinking adherence to a few simple rules has grown attractive to many of us.  It's particularly attractive when we bring ourselves to believe that those rules are the mandates of a peculiarly demanding God who rewards those who adhere to them and punishes--and expects us to punish, and will punish us if we don't--those who fail to do so.  Since adherence is unthinking, the rules are not questioned.  They are not to be questioned in any case, being God's rules.  Those who question will be punished, and should be punished.  Punishment was highly important in the Dark Ages, and is now on the edge of what may be the New Dark Ages.

As God was the catalyst of the Old Dark Ages, it appears God may serve the same purpose for the New.  I should refer to the concept of God, however; a particular concept and a particular God.  The mind closes when it accepts that there is only one truth, one path.  The God of the close-minded is an intolerant, exclusive, jealous God, even as the close-minded are intolerant, exclusive and jealous.  The truth having been established, there is no need to think; in fact, it's wrong to do so.  Thinking becomes something to be punished.

Now it seems that some are convinced that God decrees that remnants of our past be blown up.  Specifically, I suppose, relics of the past which predated the Prophet Mohammad, that portion of the past being of no significance.  But perhaps that isn't entirely the case.  Islam being an Abrahamic religion, it may be that part of the past is relevant, and may even be preserved.  Only all other parts of the past must be destroyed; in particular those parts that are representative of inappropriate religion.

Christians of course treated pagan temples in much the same way once Christianity became predominant in the Roman Empire, though they were denied the use of helpful explosives.  The closed mind is remorseless.

It's curious that our reaction to the close-minded is to close our minds, though.  It's natural to defend what we think is right, but it's unclear that in doing so we should accept other rules as being unquestionable.  That is what seems to be occurring.  Religious zealotry inspires religious zealotry, intolerance inspires intolerance, barbarity inspires barbarity.

Our Great Republic is a creature of the Enlightenment, created by men of the Enlightenment, yet in facing the barbarians of our time we seek out and employ simple, absolute rules and truths and cloak them with a divine mantle.  We fall back on unreason.  We also fear to think, and resort to unthinking adherence to the rules we find satisfying.  We fear and despise whatever is incompatible with our divinely inspired rules.

The fear of thinking in today's world is pervasive, and is remarkable because this fear is apparently being encouraged by some who are employed to educate us.  Reason and science are subject to attack not merely by the religious, the ignorant, the mystical, but by certain of those who pose as philosophers and educators.

So we see the Enlightenment disparaged, and even called evil or the source of evil in the world.  Or, at the least, we see reason and science criticized as being no more good, or true, than any other method or source of belief or basis for conduct.  Religious fanatics, other ignorant zealots and postmodernists are bedfellows in the 21st century; none of them believe in science or rational thought, all act to restrict them as best they can.

A friend relates that he has had discussions with certain Muslims who criticize us of the West because we value freedom more than we value virtue.  The idea that virtue is somehow disassociated from freedom, or that freedom requires the abandonment of virtue, would seem to me to be characteristic of the closed mind.  Freedom allows for choice, and there is no choice for the closed mind.  There's nothing to chose from, as there is no choice to be made.  All is clear and settled.  Thus does thinking stop. 

I suppose I could invoke Yeats, and speak of the best lacking all conviction and the worst being full of passionate intensity.   But  it's unclear just who the best are anymore.  There's more than one way to stop thinking.  The close-minded claim all that is true already known, and has been decreed.  Other minds claim that nothing true may be known, and one thing is no more or less true than another.  If we are to believe some of intellectual and philosophical bent, who and what is best cannot be determined in any case.  It depends, presumably, on what narrative or discourse one accepts, and narrative and discourse are just that and nothing more.  As for the worst, who is to say who or what is worse?

Did this kind of intellectual indifference, even futility, help foster the Old Dark Ages?  Will it help bring about the New?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Preliminary Thoughts on an Ethics of Qualified Respect

I suppose I should make it clear at the outset that I refer to a practical ethics.  "Practical" of course implies an ethics which is intended to apply to the way we live.  Ethics in philosophy, unfortunately, seems to have little to do with our lives and how we should live them (though there seems to be a resurgence of virtue ethics and, most fortunately, stoicism even among professional philosophers).  But those who are still debating whether there is an independently existing world can't be expected to concern themselves seriously with what we should do in such a world, if indeed it exists.

They nonetheless do so concern themselves, of course; perhaps in what they would consider their free time.  Even so, making the focus of one's intellect the raising and debating of questions which either have no answer at all or have no answer which makes any difference in life is indicative of a character which thrives on the abstract and academic rather than the resolution of real-life problems.  There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course, but such a character is not helpful in resolving real life problems.

For some time, I've thought the suggestion, or command, that we love one another an impractical one, and so no basis on which life can be lived well and morally. I think it indisputable that we love, truly, only very few people, and that the prerequisites for love simply do not obtain in most cases.  A certain intimacy with and knowledge of the loved one is required, and we don't have that with most people.  The injunction that we love one another, therefore, is foolish.  It will not happen; it clearly hasn't happened.  As a result, it doesn't serve as a foundation for a practical ethics.

I think we can, though, respect one another without great effort, ceteris paribus.  Respect may be a basis on which a "living" ethics may be based.  Such respect has a prerequisite as well, however, but that prerequisite is knowledge of others but especially of ourselves.

Self-knowledge doesn't require self-love.  In fact, it's inconsistent with excessive self-regard and egoism.  Respect is an informed attitude; it's based on reasonable assessment.  It's clearly unreasonable to regard oneself as especially and inherently favored, remarkable, significant, unique, when one inhabits a tiny world in an unremarkable galaxy in a vast universe.  It's arguably delusional. 

Even on a much smaller scale--focusing on our planet alone--it's unreasonable to think of oneself as remarkable merely because one exists.  Billions of others of the same kind exist as well.  If I am remarkable and significant simply by virtue of being, those like me are equally remarkable.  There is no reason to think of oneself as more worthy than any other person, ceteris paribus, as a consequence.  Or, for that matter, less worthy than any other person.  We begin from a position of equality when it comes to worth.  Respect involves the consideration of worth, it's based on the worth we accord someone or something.  If we are entitled to respect, others are entitled to it as well (again, ceteris paribus).

We are beings having very similar basic characteristics and needs, even desires.  We have the ability to think, and to act in certain ways.  "Know thyself" said the Delphic Oracle.  The more we know ourselves, the better we are able to determine what we are and are not capable of, what harms us and what benefits us.  By knowing ourselves we know the same as to others, again in a basic but very fundamental sense.

There are basic needs, desires, abilities, emotions, characteristics we all share, and we can and should respect them in others just as we respect them in ourselves, and prefer others to respect them in us.  This is something which is to be acknowledged, and once acknowledged this is something with which we may address questions relating to whether our needs and desires are to be given preference over those of others, which require the consideration of circumstances on a case by case basis.  The questions become complex, of course, but this simple position may be used as a guideline.  All to be worked out over time, of course, and subject to revision.

Why respect others if we respect ourselves?  Stoicism offers reasons to do so which I personally accept, e.g. the fact that we all partake in and are part of a universe worthy of reverence, for example.  From that premise, I think the ethics of respect follows with some celerity.  But there obviously are those who don't accept such a premise, so I will try to take an approach which doesn't depend on such a belief.

Respect being the result of reasonable assessment, it must be reasonable not merely in self-assessment but in the assessment of others.  We should have a reason for not respecting others.  If we cannot reasonably maintain that we are entitled to respect more than others, then there is no reason not to accord them respect.  A reason is required in order to withhold respect.  We may irrationally claim that we're worthy of respect and others are not, due to a mental condition or because our assessment of our own value and those of others is uninformed, or because we are born in more favored circumstances than others, but these aren't reasonable bases on which to withhold respect, as they are not reasons for others to be respectful of us, nor are they reasons supporting self-respect.

Why be reasonable; why not do things without any reason, without thinking?  Having reasons to act serves us well generally, much more than having no reasons.  If such considerations don't suffice, ask me as well whether there is an independently existing world, while you're at it. This is, as I indicated, practical ethics.

While we start at a position of equal worth, and equal entitlement to respect, that of course may change.  Some may through their conduct become the subject of greater or less respect, though basic respect must still be accorded to all.

What does this entail?  Well, these are preliminary thoughts, after all.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Send in the Clowns

Yes, I know, they're already here.

Although it's difficult to assess whether the politics of our Glorious Republic is comedy or tragedy, the efforts of the relentless categorizer Aristotle notwithstanding, there's something laughable about this presidential election.  I wonder if the plethora of clowns running for that sublime office is a kind of affirmation by fate that our elections have caused whatever gods may be to despair of us entirely.  Since we are beyond saving, why not turn our national politics and governance into a kind of farce, something entertaining if nothing else.

The cast is impressive in size, although the characters are stock.  The venal, disingenuous, unlikeable Clinton; the big-mouthed,  pompous ass Trump; the holy-roller Huckabee; the scatter-brained, disturbingly named Rand Paul; the oleaginous opportunist Cruz; the youthful, handsome and vacant Rubio; the excitable, apparently vindictive, Christie; the dully passive-aggressive Walker; the odd, emotional Graham; the unexciting leftover Jeb Bush; and the others, thus far unnoticeable, with the exception of Bernie Sanders, who seems to suffer from nothing more than being old in age and an old-time liberal.

And soon, perhaps, Vice President Biden may join the race.  That would be like Leslie Nielsen's Frank Drebin running for the office.

How can an intelligent, responsible individual make a choice among these undesirables?  It is not, if it has ever been, a process of choosing the best or most qualified person.  It has become an exercise in determining who is most likely to do the least amount of damage to the United States and its people, and even to the world given our propensity to rush into problems and places where angels fear to tread. 

There are of course intelligent, responsible individuals left even now here in God's favorite country, and it's likely some if not all of them vote.  But it's not at all clear that they will have any significant impact in deciding who becomes president.  We (and other, less favored, people) enjoy comparing our nation to ancient Rome, which in a way is appropriate as we borrowed so much of its form and architecture.  We have not quite made it to the point where the presidency can be bought in the way Didius Julianus bought his place as Roman Emperor, but we clearly have reached the point where money is of paramount importance, a direct if not the sole cause of success in our elective politics.  For this we must thank our Supreme Court, which decided that hurling any amount of money at our politicians in the hope if not the expectation of favors is perfectly fine in the law.  Only bribery of the most blatant kind is prohibited here in the home of the free and the brave.

We may still hope, however.  Didius Julianus reigned for only a matter of weeks, and was disposed of by the Praetorians he paid.  The auctioning of the Roman principate was shown in a Hollywood spectacular, called The Fall of the Roman Empire by someone who was its seems unaware of the fact that the empire continued in the West for another three centuries or so after that memorable event, and in the East for another thirteen hundred years, more or less.  I recall Christopher Plummer playing Commodus in that film as something of a cruel but cheerful lunatic.

But who can be said to be even the least likely to do harm to us among this rogues gallery?  We can expect such as Clinton and Jeb Bush to play the tired old game of Washington politics in a predictable if not effective manner, but the ascendancy of that caricature of a boorish rich man, the Trimalchio of our time, is it seems a sign that many have soured on business as usual, or have at least concluded that if we must suffer through it we may as well have someone who, being rich and only concerned with being rich, doesn't care about what he says or thinks.

Is it possible that Trump's popularity may indicate that we all now recognize our politicians are pandering hypocrites, ready to do or say anything to be elected and remain elected, which is to say ready to do the bidding of their paymasters?  Or indicate that we are for other reasons sick of what has become a sham?   If so, it may perhaps be a desirable development in its own peculiar way.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Creta Delenda Est

I borrow here the phrase for which Cato the Elder, that jolly fellow, is famous.  He is said to have ended each speech he made to the doubtlessly stupefied Roman Senate with the words "Carthage must be destroyed" or more accurately I would think: "Furthermore, I think Carthage must be destroyed."  In Latin, Carthago delenda est.

Substituting for Carthago in my post is Creta.  Now it seems this is the Roman name for the island of Crete, but I am not urging that Crete be destroyed.  Creta is also, as far as I can determine, the Latin word for "clay."  Perhaps the Romans considered the island of Crete to be especially clay-like.  Regardless, clay is what I refer to, or more specifically clays, as in those targets which are called "clays" by those who blow them up using shotguns.  Since creta is a feminine noun in Latin, I think the title to the post serves to state, perhaps melodramatically, that these clays must be destroyed.

As one might guess, I have recently joined many others in shooting clays, in my case with a 12 gauge shotgun.  In this post, I confess that I enjoy doing this; yes, I enjoy blowing these little orange targets apart...something I wish I could do far more often than I've managed thus far.

It is in some ways a surprising, perhaps even disturbing, admission for me to make.  I'm not a hunter.  The little shooting I've done in the past has not been with a shotgun, but with a rifle when I was a wee lad, popping what I think were .22s at cans on one occasion, and more recently with a .357 magnum handgun owned by another, on another occasion.  I found this uninteresting.  I don't like the political stance of the NRA, which seems to be run by shills for manufacturers of firearms and ammunition.  I don't think the Second Amendment creates an absolute right to own guns, any more than the First Amendment creates an absolute right to free speech.

However, I feel a certain (and undiluted) satisfaction when I manage to shoot clays, particularly when I do so in such a fashion as to cause them to explode into many small pieces.  I'm not sure why I do.

Perhaps we humans have an appetite for destruction, as the '80s band Guns 'N Roses would say.  I think of the scene in the Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey in which the proto-human creature, thanks to inspiration received from the enigmatic monolith, begins to use a nearby bone as a hammer, bashing the other bones strewn about him.  Later, he uses it to beat the leader of a rival group of proto-humans.  Then, he tosses it in a fit of joy or ecstasy into the air.  We watch it fly up.  Cut to a view of a space vehicle or satellite of some kind.

Which raises the question:  Does our capacity for (and desire for?) violence lead us to develop tools, to think, to create not just weapons but everything else we create?  Another question:  What would we be without our capacity/desire for violence?  More questions:  Without that capacity/desire, what would we do, achieve, have done?

I comfort myself with the thought that the sport of shooting clays in its various forms (trap, sporting clays, skeet, etc.) involves a certain skill, and that the satisfaction felt results from the successful exercise of that skill.  But I tell others, in order to amuse them or perhaps only myself, that it is a great way to relieve stress, and that I like to imagine that I shoot not just clays but other things, even certain people.

Well, I'd rather not speculate that my enjoyment of the noise and feel of a shotgun and the effort involved in managing to shoot a flying target and watch it explode is in some sense profound, or gives me a knowledge of our animal nature, or even that it creates in me or others some kind of savage, primitive joy.  Perhaps it does. That in itself would not necessarily mean that this enjoyment will lead to the destruction of something other than orange clay discs.  I suspect that it is merely another and new way to amuse myself.  A hobby, in fact, to occupy my time.

But I wonder why I take this up now, and haven't done so before, and what it is that makes shooting a shotgun so satisfying, and how it relates to the gun violence we see and hear of with increasing frequency in these times.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Regarding "Obamaphobia"

Grandpa Munster look-alike Ted Cruz has been accused of "Obamaphobia" and we see this condition mentioned elsewhere as well.  I don't know whether this word is relatively new or whether it has been around for some time, but it seems apt in describing reactions to the president, given the definition of "phobia" as being an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.

I don't find it easy to take Mr. Cruz, or any other candidate for the presidency of our Great Republic, very seriously.  This may change as this election slouches towards its rude end, but if it does I suspect that I will take them seriously only as threats, more or less significant as the case may be, to our nation.  That said, however, I doubt that even the horrifying prospect of one of them being president will cause me to declaim against them in the hysterical, even demented, manner in which our current president is being castigated and has been castigated by Republicans.

The sickening histrionics of the Republicans in this regard invokes a kind of contempt of them on my part, leading me to sympathize with H.L. Mencken, who wrote: "In this world of sin and sorrow, there is always something to be thankful for; as for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican."

Naturally, the claim of Obamaphobia is not merely denied, but decried by those accused of it and their defenders, sometimes as being a different way of condemning them for racism.  One wonders, sometimes, at the defensiveness of this response.

I think it is futile to deny that criticism of this president has been extraordinary, not necessarily in its quantity but in its quality.  Even normally sensible people I know become frenzied at his mention.  I can't remember how many times I've heard or read the word "tyranny" used in reference to him--by people who have never experienced tyranny of the kind one finds in history and in other nations.  He's routinely criticized as being godless, or at least described as not-a-Christian (which may amount to the same thing for some).  He is of course called a socialist; this is a milder criticism, however, than others.  Those like Giuliani claim he doesn't "love America."  His efforts to provide a "universal" health care system are considered positively demonic by his opponents. 

How explain such conduct?  It's true that our nation's political history is full of examples of lurid accusations against politicians involving their character (especially by proponents and opponents of our earliest politicians; our Founding Fathers were routinely accused of crimes and moral lapses).  But I can't recall this kind of vituperation directed at recent presidents; not even the much reviled Nixon.

It may be that we simply hear and read more in the way of denunciations because technology now allows everyone to express outrage and to be heard and read, more than ever has been the case.  Anyone can, and will, let all the rest of us know what they think, unsolicited.  It doesn't matter what their qualifications, knowledge or intelligence may be, in general or in particular.  Tell us they will, and the tendency is to tell us in as excited a manner as possible.

It may be that our politics is becoming increasingly contentious.  Some of us may feel that our world is changing, and for the worse, and are rendered furious by the fact that it is doing so.  Obama would be considered a symbol of that change.  That change would seem to be that people who do not conform to what some of us feel is normal and appropriate are obtaining power and becoming prominent in America.  I think this is the case, and is at least in part a cause of Obamaphobia.  He is associated with forces that are anti-Church, anti-traditional America and, I think it must be said, non-white if not anti-white--"white" society and culture being the traditional American society and culture.

Historically, white Protestants have dominated in America.  That began to change as early as the first half of the 19th century when the Irish began arriving.  In the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century people even "stranger" began to arrive, from southern and eastern Europe.

Gradually, these immigrants began to be tolerated and even took positions of power in America.  The change was in some respects grudging.  But there are places where even they are relatively few, in the South and the West, and it is in those places where it seems most Obamaphobes reside.

President Obama is a strange president, to many.  He doesn't act and doesn't speak as presidents have in living memory.  I personally feel that he has in many ways been ineffective, but his "strangeness" has for me no discernible influence or impact.  I think it has effected others, though, to a very significant extent.

I think we see here and in other things a profound change in what many are used to, and that this change is greatly resented.  Especially when we are relatively comfortable and not distracted by the need to see to our immediate survival, our greatest concern is that there be no change.  The old metal band The Dead Kennedys made an album called Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death.  It mocked us for our love of comfortMany of us are being inconvencied by the "new America" and find this intolerable.