Wednesday, July 13, 2016

How Not to Do Things with Words: "Black Lives Matter"

The title to this post is a little play on the title of a work of the philosopher J.L. Austin called How to Do Things with Words.  What prompts me to write it are the antics of the unfortunate Mr. Trump, the maudlin Mr. Beck, and the increasingly squirrelly Mr. Giuliani and others regarding the name of and the movement known as "Black Lives Matter."  It's their commentary on the name or the words which make it up which I find particularly interesting.  Their commentary seems to me to be a kind of rhetoric we hear all too often in these grim times from politicians and pundits of all breeds (the comparison with animals we breed is intended, I'm afraid; this particular kind is fed on our money, but sadly we don't benefit from them as we do from other livestock).

What we hear is that the name "Black Lives Matter" is inherently racist.  The use of the word "inherently" in this case is odd, words and names not normally being "inherently" anything but words and names.  Something is inherent in someone or thing when it is essential to it, a primary quality of it, one of its elements.  Words and names, if they're racist, are more probably considered racist because they're used by particular people in particular ways except in extraordinary circumstances.  That of course is to say that they're not "inherently racist" in almost all cases.  The words in question in this case are not separately or taken together inherently racist in any respect.

I'd like to credit those making this claim with sufficient intelligence to know this is the case, though I do wonder, sometimes.  I doubt they actually mean "inherently," in other words.  They may not know what it means, however, to say that the name "Black Lives Matter" is inherently racist.  It is impossible to overestimate the ignorance of our politicians and pundits in certain matters.

They seem to take the position that when one says "black lives matter" one necessarily claims that lives which are not black lives don't matter.  There is no other way to explain their contention in response that "all lives matter" or their apparent outrage at the name/phrase.  But it's very clear that it doesn't follow that by saying that black lives matter one is saying that those are the only lives that matter.  It's simply to say that black lives matter.

It doesn't require much in the way of thought to recognize that the name, and the "movement" as it's called, have their basis in the belief that law enforcement doesn't think that black lives matter; the belief that certain police have such disregard of black people or hatred of them that they either don't care if those lives are taken and by them, or want to take those lives when they can.   In other words, the name is in response to what seems to those who use it a belief among law enforcement officers and others that, in fact, black lives don't matter, or don't matter as much as the lives of other people.  Contrary to that belief it's claimed that black lives do matter.

Now it's to be presumed that none of the above individuals would say that black lives don't matter, so we have to think that isn't the cause of their problem with the name.  Perhaps those who claim the name is inherently racist wouldn't be inclined to do so if the name was "Black Lives Matter as Much as Other Lives" or "Black Lives Matter Too."  Anything is possible.  The added words seem unnecessary except perhaps to the hypersensitive or dull, but I at least would have no problem if they were added and I doubt others would.  

A cynic like me would think it possible that the claim being made about the name and the indignation and outrage associated with it are rhetorical tactics being used in an effort to discredit the movement.  More likely, perhaps, the problem lies in a failure to think thoroughly about words and their use.  Or perhaps a failure to think well generally.  We don't do much thinking these days, or at least have no desire to think critically.

Those that make it this far in reading this post will be aware that I've said nothing about the movement or its actions, or the incidents referred to which are said to have caused the movement to exist.  That, I think, would require much more knowledge and study on my part for me to comment on intelligently.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Reflections on Independence Day, 2016

This post addresses the Fabulous Fourth, not the movie sequel, which it seems based on reviews is unworthy of reflection.

For two hundred and forty years, our Great Republic has existed and more or less thrived.  Particularly in the last one hundred years, it has been a dominant if not the dominant nation of this Earth.  The United States has been compared to ancient Rome for quite some time.  That comparison has become commonplace.  Those who make the comparison generally mean to condemn Rome if not us, or at least warn us to take care that the fate of our nation not be that of Rome.  Let's indulge in the comparison for a brief time.

The First Punic War commenced in 264 B.C.E.  Augustus established the principate in 27 B.C.E.  During that period of time, Rome grew from a city which held sway over a good chunk of the Italian peninsula to the master of the Mediterranean world and most of Europe, successively defeating and destroying Carthage and the successors states formed from the dissolution of Alexander's empire.  The United States has in a similar period done much the same, relatively speaking.  This seems appropriate as Rome, or at least the Roman Republic, served as a model of sorts to the Founding Fathers as they created the U.S.

It's doubtful, though, that the Founders thought they were founding an empire like that of Rome.  We have for the most part denied imperial ambitions at least though the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, though Wilson submitted meekly enough to the imperial ambitions of England and France, thus participating in the drafting of the Treaty of Versailles, reluctantly signed by many in 1919.  Even before then, though, America had acquired by conquest the American West and a good part of the American East, Puerto Rico and the Philippines and other territories from Mexico, Spain and the indigenous people of North America.  The U.S. managed to buy a great deal of land as well, through the good offices of Napoleon.  So, if imperialism consists of the conquest of territory and its rule by the conquerors, it would seem that America has been de facto an imperial power.

So simplistically far, so simplistically good.  So we carry on.

It's generally thought by many that the fall of Rome began when the Empire replaced the Republic.  If that's so, however, then it was a long, slow fall.  What's usually considered the end of the Empire in the West took place about five hundred years later, and the Empire in the East vanished about a thousand years after that (though it slowly became a very small empire).  Moralists of all kinds seem to be unaware of or ignore the longevity of the decadent Roman Empire.  If it fell due to the sexual and moral corruption they're fond of citing (usually by reference to Nero), we shall be lucky if we last as long no matter how we conduct ourselves or what God we choose to worship (and then ignore when it's convenient to do so, that being our usual practice).

It happens, though, that at its end the Roman Republic was dominated by several gifted and ambitious men, e.g. Caesar, Pompey, Crassus, Marcus Antonius, Cicero, Cato, Octavian the Augustus to be.  Most of them weren't particularly moral in our sense, though Cato certainly was ostentatiously virtuous and Cicero at least contemplated what was and was not moral.  Cicero, though, faulted Cato for his stubborn, uncompromising virtue, famously remarking that Cato thought he lived in Plato's Republic, not Romulus' shithole.

While America is full of ambitious men and women at this time, none seem particularly gifted, or moral for that matter.  Given the civil wars which resulted from the conflicting desires of the great of the Roman Republic, perhaps we should be thankful for this lack of ability.

Unfortunately, though, it's ability that might make the difference in the type of empire America will become if it follows the path of Rome.  Augustus, who created the Roman Empire, was a remarkably able politician.  Our politicians are craven and venal and have been for some time, and it may be that the political success of a capering, stridently ignorant man indicates that in the future they'll be craven, venal and boisterously stupid as well.

It's amusing to indulge in comparisons of this kind.  Overall and in the context of history I think the United States has done well in becoming what it is, but just what the future holds can't be predicted through the study of ancient Rome or any other Empire or nation.

There is one sense in which America now resembles old Rome, however, which may give us a hint as to our political future.  Money was of great importance at the end of the Roman Republic; votes were bought, directly or indirectly.  Roman politicians came from a restricted class, but required the support of the people at election time and treated them very generously in return for their support.  Money dominates our politics now, as well.

The difference is that money isn't used as it was in ancient Rome, to pacify and reward common people for their support.  It's used instead by the rich and powerful to pacify and reward politicians who require it to be elected.  Perhaps this accounts for the quality of our politicians.  It's demeaning to be, for all practical purposes, a lackey, a mere chattel in effect, of special interests, corporations, the very rich.  It's demeaning to be a panderer, and an American politician must pander.  What self-respecting, intelligent, able person could stand such a life?

Now, the votes of electors aren't bought; legislators and their votes are bought instead.  It's hard to say which practice will promote a greater degree of corruption in a nation.

Monday, June 27, 2016

About Cato the Younger

Marcus Porcius Cato, called the Younger to distinguish him from his grandfather, Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder, is not an easy man to like, a grim and dour personality, but has been one that is admired.  That was the case while he was alive and has remained true through the centuries since his death. 

It seems that he is more fortunate in his reputation than his censorious grandfather who, although he had a distinguished military career and also one as a senator and consul, is remembered primarily for a treatise he wrote on agriculture and for declaiming, after every speech he made in the Senate, that "Carthage must be destroyed."  It was destroyed eventually, in part due to his relentless urging.  Grandpa Cato wasn't a likeable fellow either, but was revered by his grandson as a representative of old Roman virtues, unlike the foppish patron of Greeks, Scipio Africanus, who was one of the targets of Grandpa's vindictive style of conservatism.

Cato the Younger was noted for his adherence to Stoic philosophy, and so it's difficult for an aspiring Stoic to be critical of him.  I'm critical of him nonetheless, but not entirely so.  Even his ally against Caesar, Cicero, was critical of him at times, for good reason.   Though Cicero admired the Stoics, he wasn't above ridiculing them and Cato for their extremes--at least as part of a case, in the course of advocacy.  Cicero was a lawyer, after all.

Cicero also was critical of him for his obstinacy and refusal to compromise.  But Cicero admired him as have many others for his refusal to submit to Caesar's rule of the Roman Republic, soon to be the Roman Empire.  When Caesar portrayed Cato as a drunk in his triumph after his victory over Pompey and the optimates, Cicero responded with a kind of panegyric in his praise.  Caesar found it necessary to reply to it; Caesar was never able to forgive Cato as he forgave many others, even after Cato's suicide to avoid submission--perhaps even because of it.

Cato is admired as a hero in the ongoing battle against tyranny.  He was admired as such by the Founding Fathers of our Republic, all of whom looked to Rome in its creation.

Cato's commitment to freedom, however, is more accurately seen as a commitment to custom and Roman traditional virtues and institutions (the mos maiorum).  Individual rights and freedoms were not a concern to Roman government or society generally.  Romans, at least traditional Romans, served the state, not themselves.  Romans were not libertarians; Cato certainly wasn't one.  Cato wanted Rome to be ruled as it had been; by an oligarchy making up the Senate, with some powers held by the plebs and their tribunes as created over time.  Rule by one man or a few by virtue of their control of the legions and catering to the people is what Cato fought against.

I have no reason to doubt Cato's commitment to Stoicism, but it strikes me that his very ostentatious displays (walking barefoot, wearing a simple coarse tunic), railing against clothing and conduct which was not similarly rustic and simple, isn't Stoic.  It's posturing and prideful.  No doubt it had a political purpose and was a kind of propaganda.  But it reflects a concern with what should be indifferent, with appearances--with impressing others.   Living simply, foregoing luxury is appropriate, but vocally condemning those who do otherwise doesn't seem to me to be something advocated by the Stoics.  Perhaps Cato, in this, was more Cynic than Stoic.  Diogenes enjoyed flaunting his simplicity, much to the annoyance of Plato.  But nobody doubted the honesty and integrity of Cato, not even his enemies.

I think what can be doubted was his wisdom--his practical wisdom, in any case.  There is an argument that his refusal to compromise in any respect played a part in ending the Republic and creating the principate.  And certain warnings are self-fulfilling.  Political and military chaos creates opportunities for the ambitious, and Cato contributed to the chaos, and perhaps even invited it.

Those interested in Cato may want to read Rome's Last Citizen:  The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar, an interesting book written by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni, which I plug here despite their annoying use of diminutives in their names.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

In Dreams

I know little about dreams and their interpretation.  Some, I know, have studied them; perhaps most famously, or infamously, Freud and his not entirely faithful student, Jung.

They were of course thought to be a great importance in ancient times, but it's hard for us, now, to see them as divine or demonic visitations or visions of the future.  Some of us still do, of course.  We never learn, really, regarding certain things; sometimes because we choose not to do so.

I see them as peculiar little snippets of the real or the imagined, mostly disjointed in nature.  Mine can be spectacular, in a way, as to their landscapes or dreamscapes.  Colossal and complex cities figure often in my dreams, I don't know why.  Sometimes I'm lost in them.  Sometimes they're background to some purpose of mine or others who vaguely appear and disappear.  Sometimes, I can make things happen in them--change the dream, the "location" or set in which they play out, or have the characters do things I want them to do.  I know I'm doing that when I do it.

I find it difficult, though, to see them as significant beyond the fact that they can make one feel a particular emotion strongly; too often regret, in my case.  They provide me with no special insight into anything, myself included.  It seems other animals dream as well, judging from the movements of their bodies while sleeping.  It doesn't seem to be something peculiar to we humans.  Having them seems not to distinguish us as particularly wise or privileged.

I find it odd that seemingly intelligent people seriously consider the possibility that what we think of as real may, in fact, be a dream.  If my own dreams are any indication, the real is nothing at all like a dream.  First, I can't control the real as I control a dream (sometimes).  More typically, though, dreams are disconnected, may quickly change unexpectedly, involve people dead, are hazy and unclear.  They're quite different from the real.  so much so it seems fatuous to claim they're similar in any significant sense.

I therefore find arguments that the existence of dreams somehow support skepticism incredible; also arguments that they indicate that our senses are in some way untrustworthy.  Dreams are strikingly peculiar.  As such, it makes no sense to maintain that we can infer anything from them regarding what is or is not real or whether we can perceive what is real.  It makes even less sense to speculate that we're living in a dream, as if we were we certainly would not have the experiences we have.  It would have to be a very special kind of dream.  One, in fact, which isn't a dream.

Despite this, philosophers have taken such claims seriously.  Descartes did, of course.  But as he claimed to doubt, or have the capacity to doubt, in philosophy what he so clearly did not and could not doubt in life, it's unsurprising that he would purport to question whether the real is a dream.  The kind of "doubt" Descartes claimed to have while philosophizing was a very unreasonable doubt; it required no reason to doubt.

The fact that one doesn't know that one's dreaming is said to support such claims.  In fact, that's not always the case, as in so-called "lucid dreams."  Otherwise, though, it would seem perfectly reasonable to maintain that we don't know we're dreaming when we dream because we're asleep.  Being asleep, we're not as reflective or intelligent as we are when awake.  We generally don't know much of anything going on when we're asleep, yet things happen while we are.

It sometimes strikes me that we must purposefully disregard what we know, or at least have no reason to doubt, in order to entertain certain philosophical positions.  It takes a real effort to do so in certain cases.  Shouldn't this lead us to question the wisdom of these positions?  It doesn't seem so.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

O Bella Roma

Relatively fresh from a visit to Italy, specifically those cities which seem to be most visited by tourists like myself (Rome, Florence and Venice), I'm inclined to expound on them here--that place where I am emperor, of ice cream (or gelato?) if anything at all.

As may be guessed from my nom de blog and a review of this blog itself, I'm fascinated by the history of ancient Rome.  At long last, I've personally seen many of its ruins.  Edward Gibbon on viewing the Roman Forum was inclined to bemoan its condition, and this he wrote motivated his history of Rome's decline and fall.  It seems in much better shape now than it was when he viewed it, but in viewing it myself I'm inclined to marvel at its ruins.  Perhaps I entirely lack any Romantic instincts, but I'm too impressed by the remains of ancient Rome to indulge in pontifications along the lines of sic transit gloria mundi.

The ruins of the Forum including the rostra and the Curia, the arches of Titus, Septimius Severus and Constantine, Trajan's Market, his column, his forum; those of Augustus and Nerva, the Ars Pacis Augustae, the mausoleum of Augustus, the baths of Caracalla and Diocletian, the Flavian Amphitheater a/k/a the Colosseum, the tomb of Hadrian, the column of Marcus Aurelius and his equestrian statue, represent only the most evident architectural monuments of Rome and its empire, and they're stunning to one such as me.

It's difficult to imagine how impressive they were thousands of years ago.  Henry James, I know, found Roman ruins (or at least some of them) indicative of a kind of brutality and baseness.  They were just too big for Henry.  I wonder, though, whether his attitude and those of others with similar views is more an implied acknowledgement of how small we and our civilization became after Rome fell.  It's easy in a way to resent the Romans as it took us centuries to achieve what they achieved even in matters of plumbing and hygiene, in the building of roads, the supplying of water to cities, let alone the fine arts.

One thing I find disturbing was the tendency of the popes who restored certain of the ruins to emblazon their names on them.  I suppose the desire was that they be granted a kind of immortality by association with monuments which represented ancient glory and would clearly last far into the future.  Restoration by Christians seems entirely appropriate in any case, however, as various Christians after the fall of the empire regularly took stones and marble from the ruins of Rome to adorn their buildings.

Even more disturbing are the figures of popes and saints which were plopped on top of the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius.  As those columns depict scenes of the conquests and campaigns of those emperors, it's unclear why any pope or saint would be glorified by appearing at the summit of such military monuments.  Churches, of course, were regularly placed on top of pagan temples.  There's something profane about the imposition of Christian icons on and over these pagan relics; something profane about the physical triumph of the Christian sacred.  But who remembers those popes, compared to those who know the names of the emperors who lived centuries earlier?

It can't be doubted that brutality and cruelty were aspects of Roman civilization.  But walking along the Sacred Way, where emperors and generals rode in triumphs and religious processions took place, where Cicero, Cato and Caesar walked, one senses that much more was involved, good and bad, and that what we are now is in large part mere imitation or emulation.  And not merely that of "skirt-mad Mussolini" as Robert Lowell called him, unfurling the eagle of Caesar.

Rome remains a world capitol; a crowded, busy city apart from but existing in and around the imposing corpse of the Roman Empire and of course around the center of what may be called its ghost, the Roman Catholic Church, a sovereign state in its own right thanks to the Lateran Treaty (and Mussolini, it must be said).  But it's still served by the aqueducts which continue to bring potable water to its inhabitants.  Ancient Rome is a living presence in a living city.  It's filled not merely with monuments to the past or recalling the past, but with the past itself.  Rome's past is present.