Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"In Times of War, the Law is Silent"

Cicero, in his speech normally referred to as Pro Milone, spoke the words which serve as the title to this post.  Well, being a Roman of the first century B.C.E., he actually said "inter arma enim silent leges" or at least that is how his words have come down to us.  The speech was given and the words were spoken in favor of the Roman politician Milo (Titus Annius Milo) and against Publius Clodius Pulcher (not to be confused with Publius Claudius Pulcher, who as I've mentioned before I admire for his treatment of the sacred chickens).

The speech was given during a time when both Clodius and Milo were inflaming the Roman mob, driving it to a most impressive spree of violence in favor of the political factions they represented.  They also hired armed mercenaries to threaten one another, and we're told gladiators were brought to sessions of the Senate to cow senators into compliance.  Clodius was eventually killed, and Cicero defended Milo, who was charged with the murder of Clodius.  In his defense, Cicero did not bother claiming Milo was not involved in the killing, and instead claimed that it was necessary, and lawful self-defense, in a time of emergency.  In fact, "war" wasn't referred to by Cicero, but arms were (arma) and in Latin silent doesn't mean "silent" but rather "mute."

Cicero himself, while consul, with the approval of the Senate condemned Roman citizens to death without trial during the time of the Cataline conspiracy against the Roman Republic.  No doubt he felt the law was silent at that time as well. 

It must be acknowledged that since these words were spoken, they and the rule they state have often come to mind and been relied on by those in power (and others) whenever there is armed conflict and the belief is that laws applicable in times of peace must stand mute until the conflict is resolved.  That was the case after 9/11, and long before that.  It's likely that will be the case again regarding the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Do these attacks indicate that this is a time when law, or some laws, should be silenced?  This should be decided as soon as possible, I think.  Otherwise, response to the threat will be haphazard, and it's likely nothing will be achieved of lasting effect.  Our leaders will end up doing what they always do, and blame one another for the lack of success while people die.

Anyone with due regard for the rule of law must find the claim made by Cicero to be disturbing.  I for one am disturbed, but not merely by the fact that the claim, if true, allows for the waiver of the laws, but because such waiver--a deliberate failure to enforce or honor the law--may actually be necessary, or at least prudent, in extreme circumstances.  There is a danger that those who waive the law may do so unwisely, or solely for their own benefit, or as part of scheme of oppression, or maliciously  There is also a danger that a failure to waive legal restrictions may lead to grievous harm.

It seems clear that Cicero didn't mean that all laws are silent in times of conflict or emergency, and there is no reason to believe that is how the statement should be interpreted.  But depending upon the nature of the emergency, it's unsurprising and not necessarily wrong if certain laws are deemed not to apply in certain circumstances.  Whether that should be the case and, if so, what laws are to be disregarded, is a matter of the greatest significance and should be the subject of careful consideration.

It's unlikely there will be careful consideration, though, or indeed intelligent consideration of any kind, with respect to any response.  Responses to attacks of this kind are visceral, and this also is understandable.  They cannot be tolerated or justified; they must cease.  Perhaps the world at large will finally understand, now,  the magnitude of the evil of these primitives and their death cult and make a unified effort to rid us of them, setting aside selfish concerns and quests for power.

If it is decided that laws should become silent, it should be recognized that this should be the case only because a crisis is of such significance that it should be deemed war or the equivalent of war.  Is that a commitment we wish to make?  It seems we've been putting that off, at least as to the current threat, and possibly as to others if by war we mean a national devotion to the conflict. If we are willing to commit to it, what will we do in pursuing the war?

The tendency is to demand that the threat be destroyed through the use of "any means necessary."  This is a thoughtless response, and generally merely indicates we don't know what means to employ.  Thus we've sanctioned torture in the past, and some still do and will, despite the fact that it's usefulness (if not its morality) has been questioned even by those who have not hesitated to make war, like Napoleon.  Sometimes, it seems, we're impressed by responses only if they're ruthless.  But it shouldn't be the ruthlessness of a response that is valued.  It should be valued only if it is effective, and a thoughtless response is bound to be ineffective.  One remembers the boastfulness behind the "shock and awe" tactics employed not all that long ago.  Those tactics seem to have had no useful result.

So chest pounding and loud, flashy tactics will do us little good.  If this is the great fight of our times, then it should be treated as such, and a sustained and devastating response made, not a piecemeal one.  However, it's doubtful there will be such a response unless it becomes a coordinated effort by all nations with an interest in the area, and that for good or ill should include those nations which maintain they are Islamic.  If they refuse to contribute, though, the response must still be made.  Either that, or we continue to be subject to such attacks, doing the best we can to avoid them.

What of the law in all this?  Well, it's unclear just what laws would be subject to consideration and waiver at this time, except those applicable to privacy and those related to the conduct of war and the treatment of prisoners.  We've already evidenced a disregard for laws impacting those issues, though, without putting the nation on a war footing.  However, it's conceivable that others, such as those prohibiting discrimination, would come under scrutiny.   Is there such a thing as "profiling" at a time of crises?  is there a legal obligation to take in refugees?  To what extent are the boundaries of sovereign nations to be honored?  Should we restrict or prohibit immigration?

If this is the great fight of our times, then it is inevitable that laws will be found to conflict with war aims.  We must be prepared to address that conflict as well.  But all this comes into play only when we've decided what our response will be.

For a response of such magnitude that it will bring the law into scrutiny and require a national commitment, it seems clear to me that Congress must be involved.  That would be a "real war", and it is the Congress which has the power to declare a real war, though it has shirked this terrible duty often in the past by granting war powers to the Executive.  All our elected representatives should be held responsible for such a decision.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Tempus Fugit

The title to this post is also that of one of my favorite Miles Davis tunes.  It means, of course, "time flies" but may have been derived from a line in Virgil's Georgics--Fugit Irreparabile Tempus.  That line has a darker meaning.  Time passes swiftly, and once it passes, is irretrievable.

The past is the great and inaccessible storehouse of our lives, and contains all our mistakes, our achievements, our actions, thoughts, and too often loved ones and friends.  It is the quintessential thing not in our control; there's nothing we can do about it.  Yet it haunts us, rides us like a hag.  It also, though, has made us what we are.  If we can control ourselves, why can't we control our past?

Well, because it's not here, though we are.  What we may say, employing metaphor, "made us" need not be here with us.  We remember the past; we don't possess it.  Remembering the past doesn't consist of living the past.  We did that already.  We can, in a sense, repeat the past, which is merely to say make mistakes we made before.

Just what the past consists of is, like so much else it seems is apparent, a subject of philosophical debate.  I doubt if it can be intelligently claimed to be anything but things that happened.  Nobody thinks the past is taking place now; nobody confuses it with what takes place now.  There seems little need to debate this, but it has been made a subject of debate.  The past isn't the books, films, sounds about the past we read, see and hear.  Again, this is an obvious conclusion.  We know the past can be misrepresented.  So can what takes place now.  There is no reason to believe the past is or is not exactly what common sense indicates is the case.  For some, of course, this only makes it a more attractive subject for consideration, common sense being prima facie deficient to certain of us.

The past is a concept regarding which I think it would be useful to apply the pragmatic maxim:  "Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object."

Peirce, the maker of the maxim, seems to have reconsidered it over time, and there have been those who have different ways of looking at it just as Wallace Stevens noted we may have thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird.  But it appears to me that Peirce thought of it most consistently as a method by which to make ideas clear; particularly ideas that are bandied about in philosophy.

The "past" has practical bearings to the extent it is thought of, studied, used by us, here and now.  There are various ways in which it can have practical bearings, on us and on others and on the rest of our world, which is to say that it has consequences.  There is no need that it be defined any further than that requires.  To the extent we define it otherwise, we're engaged in flights of fancy.  Such flights of fancy usually involve our tendency to think in terms of things.  Thinking of the past as a thing naturally leads one to treat it as a thing, an object regarding which we speak.

What has practical bearings is not the thing which is past, it's what happened in the past and its effects we encounter today. 

We need no flights of fancy in order to acknowledge the significance of the past.  The past is hugely significant, as it effects how we think, feel and act.  Our past, though, is in particular irretrievable and because it necessarily involves things we did or did not do, those we knew but no longer see, it is inevitably a source of regret though it may also, sometimes, be a source of be a source of fondness.  There are good memories as well as bad.  But we humans tend to do or not do more that we regret than we are proud of, and when we regret what we did or did not do that regret arises from our sense of responsibility.

What's done cannot be undone.  This is the tragedy of the time-bound.  We can't avoid the mistakes we've already made and the consequences of those mistakes can only, at best, be mitigated. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Reason and its Enemies

Richard Wolin, a professor of history and comparative literature at City University of New York, has written an interesting book entitled The Seduction of Unreason:  The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism.  Although its title is cumbersome (it seems authors these days must include explanatory subtitles, as it were, following colons, in every book title) the writing is not.  It's a lengthy book, but unfortunately there's much to tell.

The title of the book is, shall we say, suggestive of its argument.  If it had been written by an American or English philosopher, continental philosophers and their followers here would likely ignore it.  But perhaps the author's status as a professor of comparative literature will lure them into reading at least summaries of the book, comparative literature buffs being far more capable philosophers than actual philosophers almost by definition as far as postmodernists are concerned.

It's not clear to me that the romance of intellectuals with autocracy began with Nietzsche.  I think certain philosophers have always had a fondness for "enlightened" despotism.  Even J.S. Mill in his more Romantic moments thought this would be beneficial, and under the influence of such as Coleridge dreamt up a kind of elite, a "clerisy", which would govern humanity wisely.  This pernicious view has been with us since Plato, at least.

But fascism is a peculiar, modern form of autocracy, a hodgepodge of political, racial, quasi-religious, quasi-philosophical and nationalistic mumbo-jumbo, and as such grew out of what I think can fairly be called the "unreason" which resulted from the reaction to the Enlightenment which has been called (not very creatively) the Counter-Enlightenment.  I personally prefer calling it the Un-Enlightenment.  Some thought that because reason, in and of itself, didn't produce a paradise here on Earth, it's opposite should be unleashed upon the world.

It turns out reason's opposite could be all kinds of things when considered by European intellectuals.  The emotions, the instincts, Jungian collective unconscious, the erotic, the spirit inherent in a particular race or purported race or nation.  Whatever was unreasonable in human beings was glorified at least as much as reason, or what was thought reason, was glorified by other European intellectuals during the Enlightenment.  This intellectual environment was ideal for the growth of fascism, a political/social/cultural philosophy dependent on the unreasonable, dismissive of moderation and tolerance, devoted to the irrational in humanity.

This led to what was extremely goofy in some cases, as Wolin points out.  There is Georges Bataille, for example, a follower of Nietzsche who was fascinated with human sacrifice.  He and others formed a little society which was devoted to the idea, if not the practice, of human sacrifice.  It seems its members were willing to be sacrificed but not inclined to perform the sacrifice, sadly.  Bataille was an influence on Foucault, who favored the Iranian revolution and the religious fascism of the Islamic clerics who took control after the Shah was overthrown, and others.  I'm not sure what was going on in the case of Bataille and sacrifice, but suspect he thought this was the sort of thing unreasonable people would and should do, which is undeniable, and that there was something mystic and pagan involved in it.

Goofiness aside, though, the emphasis on unreason motivated the endorsement of Hitler's Nazism and Mussolini's fascism by a number of thinkers dissatisfied with liberal democratic politics and values.  This is pretty well documented, and Wolin of course goes into some detail regarding famous Nazis and fellow travelers such as Heidegger and Paul de Man.

Mussolini's Italy and  Hitler's Germany were once considered models of efficiency and, it's hard to believe, physical and mental health.  It was thought that these nations had a vigor and intensity lacking in liberal democracies, for what may be considered spiritual reasons.  They were one, a people united, not chaotic in the manner of the democracies and especially the Weimer Republic.  Most importantly it seems to their intellectual devotees, they had abandoned liberal values as well; freedom, individuality, the conflict of ideas and worst of all, materialism.  Money and business have always been the subjects of contempt for the learned as well as the aristocratic.  Of course, the learned were also inclined to  associate them with Jews, themselves yet another subject of contempt.

It's quite possible to overestimate reason, and to impute too much importance to it.  It's also quite possible to underestimate the significance of the irrational in our lives.  Man cannot live by reason alone, and it may be said that the Enlightenment thinkers erred in their zealous emphasis and reliance on it to the exclusion of all else.  I think sometimes that those of the Enlightenment were drunk on their sudden freedom from the dominance of the Church.

But I find it impossible to blame the Enlightenment for the ills of our society, as it seems members of the Un-Enlightenment are inclined to do.  It isn't reason or science which motivated the Holocaust, for example.  Essential to that horror were concepts of the Volk and German Romanticism and mysticism.  They were also essential to German expansionism and sense of mastery and special  purpose; to rule the world and thereby save it.  Heidegger warned against technology but eagerly joined in the glorification of Hitler and in according him the status of a demigod.

We're at out best when we think, and as Dewey said we think when we're presented with problems.   Thinking involves problem solving and is essential to it.  We don't think when we rely on mysticism, our so-called inherent nature, our "being", our vigor, our unity, religion, our race in making decisions.  It's when we abandon reason as a means to solve problems that we produce monsters and follow them.  We become followers only, in fact, as we don't think but rather feel; followers only follow, some better than others.  Reason provides the best chance of understanding and solving the problems we face in life.

Unreason doesn't require justification.  There's no process by which those seduced by it test its results, no questions are asked as unreason isn't subject to question or for that matter definition.  Questioning, defining, testing have no place when reason isn't employed, but is instead shunned.  The result is certainty, but at a terrible price, as the certain are thoughtless, intolerant and cruel.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Now, the World Really is too Much with Us

Wordsworth's poem The World is too Much with Us is I think an admirable one.  I'm afraid that I can't normally think of Wordsworth without envisioning Bullwinkle reciting "I wandered lonely as a cloud"; but I think this Romantic English poet did a good job in the case of this one poem, at least.

The poem has been construed as being a condemnation by Wordsworth of a materialistic culture resulting from the Industrial Revolution, and the resulting disconnection of people, and civilization, from nature.  I can't complain about love of nature; as a Stoic, or struggling Stoic, I seek to live "in accordance with nature."  But I suspect most Romantics of having aristocratic, even elitist, leanings, and so tend to believe that their disgust with industry and "trade" was combined with a contempt of the "common folk."  Those folk were no longer content to be the simple, jolly peasants the Romantics dreamt they were, dancing around the Maypole when not tending the grounds and flocks of their betters through hard and uncompensated labor.  They were becoming men of business, and business was an abomination to those wandering lonely as clouds, swooning over daffodils.

What exactly Wordsworth meant by "with us" is unclear to me.  However, I feel the world is much more "with us" than it was in his day, when the world intruded upon him and others via printed word, or through trains and the telegraph.  By the world being "with us" I refer, even if Wordsworth did not, not merely to our access to information about people, places, things, events, acts, opinions, beliefs, but that such information is foisted on us by others regardless of our desires.

No doubt the ubiquity of newspapers and journals, travel and communication by train and telegraph, was remarkable to many living in the first half of the 19th century.  It may well have felt to them that the world was growing too small as a consequence compared to how it felt when travel and communication was by horseback, or perhaps by semaphore.  Perhaps they also felt that something more was lost to them than their relative isolation.

If so, they would be horrified by the accelerating reduction of the world we experience in our time.  I'm not sure they could even imagine a world in which people can obtain whatever information they seek in a matter of seconds and communicate whatever thoughts, desires, opinions, feelings they have to everyone else in the world in roughly the same period of time and in the same manner.

The world is there, with us, at all times unless we make the effort to disengage from it.  All of the world, good and bad, but most especially the bad because of the media, our politicians and the pundits who are professionally outraged and have the means to tell us so.  They seem to delight in telling us what is bad, why it is bad, and what it is they think someone else should do about it.

There certainly is bad in the world, but is there more bad than there has been in the past?  More people, more bad; this seems an unobjectionable inference, at least to a cynic.  But if one accepts such a conclusion, is there proportionately more bad now?  I don't think we can make that assumption (which is what I think it must be, absent evidence).  Because we can learn, or are told, of bad people, bad things, all over the world, constantly, and because bad people can make themselves known to others with great ease, and this was not the case not all that long ago, there may have been just as many bad people and things in the past.

 In the past, however, we did not know of them as we didn't have the means to know of them.  We knew of some, but had neither the capacity nor the desire to know of others, nor were we as vulnerable--exposed--to them as we are now.  They can appear before us at any time.  We need only participate in a social network, or expose ourselves, as it were, via Twitter, or read or make comments on some media post or blog post, to be subjected to people at their worst.

We humans seem to be unable to improve ourselves to any significant extent except in extraordinary circumstances, or indeed to change ourselves at all for good or ill, so I doubt we are any better or worse now than we have been in our relatively long and bloody history.  The difference is that when we are bad now, as we are all too frequently, it is nearly impossible for people throughout the world to be ignorant of our evil thoughts and deeds.  We, or someone else, will intrude upon their blissful ignorance and tell them all about it.

Knowledge may be good.  It may even be power, sometimes.  But knowledge of everything done or thought by other people, everywhere, is oppressive, and can lead to despair, which can in turn lead to danger.  Philosophical considerations aside, I think Stoicism as a way of life provides a means by which we can avoid being overwhelmed and unduly influenced by the world which is constantly with us.  There are so many things beyond our control which should not disturb us.  We must do the best we can with what we have and take the rest as it happens.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Banality of our Responses to Evil

I've read that there are some who feel that Hannah Arendt, in referring to "the banality of evil" in her book regarding Eichmann in Israel, fiddled somewhat with the facts and the record to better support the accuracy of that neat little phrase describing what took place in Nazi Germany.  It wouldn't be the first time someone has altered facts to support a theory, or arrived at a theory and found facts, or something less than factual, to support it.

Arendt's taste in men may certainly be questioned in light of her fondness for her morally and physically repulsive seducer, Heidegger.  But what I've read of her work seems to me to indicate she was sensible and insightful in various other respects, so I reserve judgment on her claim about evil specifically as it relates to what took place in the twelve years the Nazis ruled Germany and wrecked havoc on Europe and its non-Germanic peoples.  I think, though, that evil need not be banal and often is not banal.  What seems clearly banal is our response to it here in God's favorite country.

The statements we're hearing from the media and the politicians and pundits who beset us regarding the deaths and injuries in Oregon due to the shootings at a community college yesterday are examples of this banality.  What is being said is determined by the political stance of the person/entity making the statement, and is easily inferred once that stance is known.  The stance is already known, of course, in many cases.  There are calls for more gun laws.  There are calls for more guns.  There are calls for more people carrying more guns.  There are claims current laws are not being enforced.  There are claims that no existing laws would have prevented the violence, and that no other laws will, or that other laws which would succeed in preventing gun violence cannot be adopted as they would violate the Second Amendment. 

I've made it clear already in this place that I think those in charge of the NRA (not necessarily all those who are members of it) are mere shills for the gun manufacturing industry, and so are interested primarily if not solely in the selling of all guns which are manufactured by that industry.   I've also made it clear I feel that those who believe the Second Amendment establishes an absolute right to bear arms of any kind are foolish if not deluded, and that those who think the government is plotting to take away their firearms are clearly deluded.

I've also noted I think those who feel that if teachers and other "regular" people carry guns (i.e. not merely police and other law enforcement offices) they will be able to protect themselves and others indulge in a fantasy.  Trained law enforcement personnel have problems with accurately shooting firearms.  Untrained people involved in a tense and frightful situation like a firefight will more likely be a danger to anyone near them than to a determined shooter. 

As well rely on Elmer Fudd coming to the rescue.

But I don't want to dwell on these arguments.  Instead, I write regarding the numbingly stupid, futile, ordinary, predictable nature of the debate which takes place after one of these sadly frequent events.  Fox News, which always may be relied on to say something silly, seems to be characterizing this event as part of the "War Against Christianity" it keeps maintaining is taking place.  Indeed, what else would it say under the circumstances?  Certainly nothing which is not superficial and not good for a headline.

Some pathetic, deranged, perhaps narcissistic loser/loner has firearms and uses them against others and away we go, off on the merry-go-round of rhetoric.  Though all those involved in the posturing which takes place are banal in their response, one can at least sympathize with those who seek an answer, who want some king of substantive response to be made.  Those who say such things just happen, or sell more guns, however, are despicable in their complacency and presumption.

I'm now a gun owner.  I have a shotgun, with which I try to blow flying clay discs out of the air.  It's a pastime requiring a certain skill, and which I enjoy.  I don't feel that in owning a shotgun I'm exercising some sacred right, however.  I find the thought of using my shotgun to defend myself from a tyrannical government laughable.  My ownership of a firearm has not imbued me with the desire that all should own one, or the belief that they should not be regulated.  Why should it?

Tired rhetoric is no effective response to evil, but it's the only response we seem to have to evil of this kind.  What does it say about our country when murder and massacre are grounds only for more of the same posturing?