Friday, February 20, 2015

Love of Country; Love of Self

Rudy Giuliani was once the Mayor of New York.  Since then, as far as I am aware, he has done nothing but pontificate when called upon to do so or when he is so inclined.  Lately,  he berates our perpetually berated President for not loving America.

This is to say, at the least, that the President does not love our country as much as Mr. Giuliani does, or not enough to satisfy Giuliani.  I'm afraid that when one makes unsolicited comments of this kind one is doing little more than positively calling attention to oneself under the pretense of commenting negatively on another.  This curious bit of "holier than thou" posturing may serve a legitimate purpose, however, if it provides us with an opportunity to wonder just what it means to love one's country, and what one does by loudly proclaiming that one loves one's country.

The great Sage of Baltimore, H.L Mencken, noted:  "Whenever you hear a man speak of his love for his country, it is a sign he expects to be paid for it."  The Sage was a cynical man, you might say.  But consider--when have you heard anyone proclaim that he/she loves his/her country?  In my experience, the person making such a claim does so while on camera and/or while speaking to an audience; at the least, while speaking to a group of people, perhaps while at some celebration or some solemn occasion where war dead are honored. 

It is thus a very public statement or declaration.  It is done for the benefit of others, to impress them in some manner.  One doesn't claim love for one's country as one normally would for one's spouse or child (one would be expected to do so at a wedding or similar ceremony, of course, but these are relatively rare).  Movie characters have been known to announce their love for their wives in the midst of some scene or other, generally in musicals.  But such love is usually declared privately.  It is an intimate statement or declaration.

How do we love our country?  I don't think one would love one's country as one would a person.  So, Mr. Giuliani's even more curious complaint that the President doesn't love him, or "us" either doesn't necessarily follow from the fact the President (according to Giuliani) doesn't love America.  The President of the United State should not be subject to criticism because he does not, like Jesus, love us all; that we are not all precious in his sight, black and yellow, red and white.

One rather love ones country for its beauty, its benefits, as one's home--as a place.

Assuming as I think we must, or at least as we should hope, that "love" is not used by Mr. Giuliani in this case as expressing romantic or sexual desire for America (or for Mr. Giuliani and the rest of us), its use as a verb would presumably be to express his opinion that the President does not cherish America; does not hold it dear, does not have great affection for it.  But if that's the case, his opinion is evidently based on the fact that the President has disturbed him by seeming at times to criticize America and to even have apologized for its conduct in some cases (the latter, apparently, is particularly intolerable to some).

But it should be obvious it's quite possible to be critical of someone or something you nonetheless cherish.  So it would seem the criticism is in essence that the President does not unconditionally love America, or that he does not appear to unconditionally love America--that he does not say he unconditionally love America or does not act like he unconditionally loves it, regardless of his feelings.

It's true that our politicians have typically been effusive in their praise for these United States, and have been careful not to seem otherwise.  Some are even maudlin in their praise.  We expect this from them, but we also expect them to be hypocrites and liars.  I doubt that any of us take their protestations of love for America very seriously.  They are transparently on the make.  Nobody votes for a politician because they sincerely believe he or she really loves America.  We assume, rightly I'm sure, that they don't hate America, that they like America, that they would preserve, protect and defend it and its Constitution.  And there is no reason we should not believe the same of the President.  But love?  They can't reasonably as politicians be expected to love anyone or anything but themselves and perhaps those who bankroll them.

I suspect this is what Mencken meant.  I also suspect Mr. Giuliani is well aware of this, and is simply making political points and calling attention to himself, by trumpeting that the President does not love America and Giuliani does as do all other right thinking Americans.

It's possible to think that a President who does not constantly praise America somehow weakens it in the eyes of the world, but it would not be intelligent to do so.  Why would anyone among our friends, allies or enemies be impressed by this adulation?  It's also possible to believe that it is part of the position of President to be unqualifiedly in support of the United States.  This makes a kind of sense, but such unqualified support need not be stupid.

But the fact is we do make mistakes and it would be absurd to pretend we don't; it would be impossible to respect a President or anyone else who believes the United States has never done and never will do wrong.  The fact is the United States is exceptional, even remarkable, and those we call the Founders created in the Constitution a thing of beauty.  Unfortunately, those who succeeded them have not shared their genius or have done so only sporadically. 

There really is no need to constantly tell ourselves or others that this is the case, however.  When we do so or revile others for not doing so, we seek to benefit ourselves; to get paid in some fashion.  Mencken was right.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Busybody God

Now and then I wonder why it is that some of us believe the God who created the unimaginably vast universe is so small.

"Small" as in petty, mean, paltry, pettifogging.  God as busybody, consumed with the thought that someone somewhere is doing something sinful, which is to say something prohibited, something that we his creatures shall not do on pain of penalty, even eternal damnation, and eager to ferret it out.  A God who peers through keyholes, as it were, or watches us balefully through heavenly binoculars when we think he's not looking.  A God who is an omnipotent version of Santa Claus but who does not merely withhold gifts when we're naughty, and instead punishes us either directly or through his agents on earth, or through the manipulation of natural phenomena as such as Pat Robertson would have it, hurling hurricanes at those who displease him and anyone else who happens to be in the way.

A God who requires that we wear or not wear certain clothes, eat or not eat certain food, attend particular and regular ceremonies at designated locations, sleep only with certain other humans in certain circumstances, say certain prayers, worship only him, make others worship only him, or failing that persecute those who do not worship only him in a variety of ways.  Read or not read certain books, see only certain things.  The list is nearly as endless as this endlessly demanding and jealous God is said to be.

We may speculate that this Busybody God is one it should be expected we would envision, being busybodies ourselves.  Or that the concept of such a God would occur to us inevitably if we presume that God must be concerned with humans primarily or exclusively.  As to the latter, I don't think the Busybody God is necessarily one we would choose to worship if we make such a presumption.  Such a God of limited concern need not be excessively mean, only of much restricted scope and majesty.

If we accept a Divinity creating or pervading the entire universe, how is it even possible for us to conceive it as being so concerned with such trivial matters?  It would seem a profoundly stupid conceit, even delusional, unless we thought for some reason at this point in time that the universe is, in fact, immeasurably smaller than we know it to be.  Absent that it's as if we thought God created the universe all for the equivalent of a speck of sand he perpetually studies and manipulates to the exclusion of all else.  It is a kind of insanity, a super-narcissism.

It is also, however, a stunning diminishment of the Deity.  Why would the God of this astounding universe be at all concerned with the minutiae some say is of such significance as to merit his retribution?  Why, indeed, would an all-powerful, all-knowing God seek retribution, or be jealous (of what?) or angry?  God would have to be neurotic at best in order to be fascinated with such things or to harbor such feelings.

Clearly, those who believe in a Busybody God do the Deity no credit; they may even be said to defame him.  The Busybody God is not merely anthropomorphic.  The Busybody God does not merely have human characteristics; he is attributed some of the characteristics of humans that make us most unworthy.  The Busybody God is unseemly.

I maintain that some conceptions of God are more reasonable than others.  This may not please the atheists among us, who sometimes seem inclined to claim that any belief in God is so absurd it is meaningless to say one form of belief is better than another.  But I think it is more reasonable to think that the Deity is not troubled by sexual preferences, clothes, food and such other matters it is said consume him, which are more properly considered concerns appropriate only to what Christopher Hitchens called the childhood of our species.

Belief in God is not necessarily childish; but it is all too possible to hold beliefs regarding God which are childish.  Thus the Busybody God and his adherents.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

American Randstand

No, this is not about the stylings of Rand Paul, but about those of the woman for whom he was so happily named, the operatic Ayn Rand.  She is beloved by many in our Glorious Union who would likely be appalled at some of the opinions she spouted so dramatically while reviling so many in her time on this Earth.

While not quite the equal of Frantic Freddie Nietzsche (one the philosophers she borrowed from) when it comes to histrionics, she was a marvel of melodrama and self-promotion.  It's sad, in a way, that she failed in the Hollywood career she hoped for when first in this country.  It may be argued she was made for Hollywood.  But I think she would have succeeded there only as an actress in silent movies, making the grand gestures and casting the feverish and longing glares and glances required in that medium; not as a screenwriter.  One shudders when one thinks of the author of the immense and preposterous Atlas Shrugged writing screenplays.

While she said and wrote many sensible things, I can only wonder how and why she has become a kind of totem of the American Right Wing.  The fact she is not popular with others is not so difficult to understand.

Her philosophy seems to have been almost entirely derivative, mostly of Aristotle and certain of the ancient pagan philosophers who lauded happiness as the greatest good, but with some Nietzsche and others thrown in.  Aristotle it is said was something of a dandy in his dress, and so may be considered a bit showy, but it's hard to imagine him as a hero to this woman who seemed to feel that only heroes, and spectacular ones at that, are worthwhile (or perhaps it's more accurate to say worthy of her, or desirable to her).  She was not a careful, analytic writer, preferring like Nietzsche to make grand statements and proclaim what she felt was the truth.  Although a proponent of reason, she seemed uncomfortable or impatient with reasoning.  For her, truth was self-evident, and it was or should have been self-evident that she knew the truth.

Her fiction is filled with heroes, but strangely self-regarding heroes, all of whom are geniuses and beautiful, and all of whom are beset by evil, dwarfish figures out to thwart them in their unending production of works of genius, or at least to leech off them.  Her novels are overblown, garrulous fairy tales where all is black and white, good and bad.  The fairy tale is sometimes interrupted by lectures given by a stern, elite figure.  She seems to me to have been an elitist of the first order.

That's one of the reasons why I wonder at her popularity among those on the Right.  I would think that her vision of a world dominated by a kind of technological and scientific elite, along with her atheism and favorable view of abortion, would appall her political admirers.  She is not a democratic thinker at all, and her hatred of collectivism seems tinged with a contempt for the "common herd."  But this doesn't bother those who claim to be her followers or devotees.  They seem to be very selective in their enthusiasm for her work.  But perhaps this implacable admiration of her is a peculiarity of the modern Right only.  Whittaker Chambers, a communist who became a conservative and so something of a zealot of the conservative cause, wrote a devastating critique of Atlas Shrugged when it first appeared.

Henry Hazlitt, a friend of hers for a time at least, wrote an engaging little book about the Stoic philosophers.  Rand was clearly not a Stoic, though, as she seems to have been excessively focused on people and things not in her control.  She certainly allowed them to disturb her mightily, and resented them greatly.   Her worship of greatness (or her view of it) is also problematic from the Stoic perspective, as it devolves into a desire for success of a material kind.

Perhaps this is what makes her attractive to some.  She is a kind of apologist for success and the successful, and better yet is one who attributes success to self-regard and the disregard of others but oneself and those few who merit one's attention or are one's respectful followers.  It must be gratifying to learn from someone who believed herself to be and is considered by many to have been a great philosopher that one owes to others nothing at all.  Philosophers have speculated regarding the attributes of the ideal or wise man, the man of virtue.  The Stoics' ideal man was the virtuous Stoic Sage.  If her novels are any guide, Rand's ideal man was essentially an asshole.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Fascination of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

On New Years Eve, 2014, while at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago and perhaps while slightly inebriated, I made a point of advising my daughters and their friends that it was in that very spot, or somewhere in the hotel in any case, that the U.S. Army held hearings regarding the disastrous Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known in less politically correct times past as Custer's Last Stand.  I may have told them this more than once, alas.  They appeared less impressed than I had hoped.

My daughters notwithstanding, that battle, which seems to have taken a remarkably small period of time and so may not have been a "battle" as commonly conceived, and which was called the Last Stand for reasons unknown to me (I don't think it was much of a stand, and don't know that Custer really had prior "stands"), continues to be a source of fascination and controversy.  I'm one of those who find it fascinating. 

I'm not sure why I do.  Best estimates are that it took one half hour to an hour from the time of Major Reno's abortive charge of the camp of the Sioux and Cheyenne to the annihilation of Custer and his command.  The siege of Reno and Captain Benteen and their men took somewhat longer, of course, and had a happier outcome for the besieged.  Modern archaeological methods based on where cartridges were found indicate that Custer's attack on the flank of the camp became a route in short order.  If there was a heroic Last Stand, it was a brief one.

I suppose it fascinates for several reasons.  First, no one escaped to "tell the tale" of what happened to Custer, his brothers and their men, though Reno and Benteen survived as did others who were not at the Last Stand.  Second, George Armstrong Custer has been portrayed as a hero or a lunatic depending on the fashion and is in any case a remarkable figure.  Third, the idea that the Sioux and Cheyenne could so thoroughly defeat a, regiment of U.S. Calvary was thought and is still apparently thought by some to be shocking.  It's the same reason the defeat of the British by the Zulus at Islandlwanna fascinates.  Some clearly feel that the battle would have been won by the 7th had Reno not panicked or had Benteen not been unwilling to save Custer.  There may be a kind of racism at work here in the obsessive regard for battles in which civilized whites were overrun by "savages."

That this happened, though, is undoubted, just as it cannot be doubted that many of the victories of the 7th Calvary and other army units during the Indian Wars were in fact massacres along the lines of what took place at Washita.  Perhaps it was the working of karma that Custer and his men were eventually massacred themselves. 

Custer still has his backers, who think he was failed by Reno and Benteen.  Reno it seems was not a heroic figure and is commonly portrayed as weak and a drunkard.  Benteen, though, a dour, cantankerous man, was notably brave under fire and was thought to be the "Savior of the Seventh" for a time at least.  Both men loathed Custer, and it seems Custer loathed them.  Custer's backers think Reno a coward and Benteen deliberately slow in coming to the battlefield. 

Questions are asked regarding why Custer split his command into three groups.  There is speculation that Custer was eager for some great victory to regain his reputation which had been somewhat sullied by his conflict with then-President Grant, or rather with certain of his underlings and their friends engaged in corruption.  It's claimed this caused him to be reckless in the disposition of his forces.  It's noted that Custer said he could not see the huge numbers scouts saw encamped on the river.  The Indians had repeater rifles as well as other weapons while the soldiers had carbines, single shot rifles.  Custer told his men not to wear their sabres that day, and the Indians were terrified of those "long knives."

All we can know with relative certainty, though, is that Reno attacked pursuant to orders, halted and formed a skirmish line, then retreated.  Custer and his men came upon the camp and were thrown back in disorder.  Before he attacked Custer sent a messenger back to Benteen to come quick and bring the ammunition packs in the wagons he was leading.  Unfortunately, the messenger he chose was an Italian immigrant whose English is said to have been poor.  Benteen arrived at the battle and assisted Reno in the retreat, eventually taking a position on Reno Hill.  Some say the battlefield is redolent of lonlieness, terror and despair.  I've never visited it, but hope to do so.

Perhaps in the end it fascinates because we empathize with the soldiers and can imagine their terror and despair as they were quickly overrun.  The Sioux and Cheyenne were merciless to survivors; thus one soldier is said to have blown his brains out though the warriors later said he could have escaped had he tried.  They were probably used to easy fights, or were inexperienced young men; the army wasn't much of a career in the years after the Civil War.  The glory of war, forsooth.

They say Sitting Bull was in Buffalo Bill's show for some time, and participated in the "reenactments" of the battle put on by that showman.  What a sad thought that is.  Who ended up worse, by their own lights?  Custer and his heroic dead or Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Gall and the other victors, put on show or dying not as warriors, but as prisoners?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Aux Armes, Citoyens

There's something about La Marseillaise.  Certainly it's a most stirring anthem, instantly recognizable; the anthem of a nation that believed itself to have experienced freedom at long last, only to be threatened by a tyrant backed by foreign armies.  A call to arms to preserve freedom.

It's peculiar of course that within a few years of the writing of that song, or more properly poem, the self-styled Son of the Revolution (or embodiment of it, even), Napoleon, was ruling France as an autocrat.  While he did impose reforms that can be said to have been consistent with certain of the professed aims of the Revolution, it's doubtful the France during his rule can be said to have been free.  But nor was it free during the Terror.  Even so, the song itself is an inspiration towards freedom, and speaks of the need to defend it.  It gives France a kind of claim to being the birthplace of freedom in the modern world and even the birthplace of modernity itself.

France seems to retain its status as an icon of freedom even today, given the reaction of the Western world, at least, to the murderous attack on those working at a satirical publication in Paris, purportedly for "picturing" the Prophet Mohammad, which is evidently forbidden, as it seems so much is forbidden, in certain Islamic sects.  This reaction has resulted in a remarkable public display of solidarity against terrorists.  It's a display which has been sadly lacking.

Christopher Hitchens wrote that institutional religions are the products of the spoiled and selfish childhood of our species, a claim with which I sympathize in some respects.  But a religion whose adherents kill with abandon while shouting "God is great" is deserving of more scathing and significant characterizations.  Granted, that religion may be an extreme and twisted form of Islam, and that many followers of Islam may deplore it.  Granted, other religions in the past, and perhaps even now in other ways, have sanctioned murder and repression in the name of God.

Grant all that and we are still faced with a particular threat, apparently based on religious views of a particular kind, which is violent, has killed and seeks to kill, seeks to repress any views but its own, seeks to repress an entire sex, and seeks to suppress conduct of any kind but a certain kind.  We should treat it as a threat.  We should treat these primitives as threats.  They're not merely discontented victims of the modern world.  They're committed to a tyranny different from that to which France was subject before 1789.

This is not a case of a clash of cultures, and it is absurd to treat it as such.  There is no obligation to accord this kind of world-view any respect.  There is no reason to withhold judgment on the ground that there is no sure or objective basis on which to condemn it.  There is simply no reason it should not be questioned, nor is there any reason to allow its adherents to impose it where they will.  It should be countered, it should be deplored, and where it translates into conduct harmful to others it should be stopped.

With some regret I must admit to finding myself wondering whether those we hear of who "march" in Europe against what they call the Islamization of the West, or of Europe in particular, may raise a valid point--not that people should not be allowed to be Muslims in the West, which is clearly invalid.  Not that Muslims should be barred from living in the West, either.

However nobody, Muslim or otherwise, when moving to or living in a nation/society which recognizes free speech and free thought, and free conduct subject to the rule of law, should expect that nation/society to abide by their contrary customs or the limitations they wish to see imposed on speech or thought or conduct.  Having such an expectation is unreasonable, and is indicative of a selfish and self-righteous nature.  If people are unable to tolerate such a nation or society without harming others, they need not and should not go there.  If they are there already, they should not be there, and their clear option is to leave.

Perhaps it's not time to take up arms, but it is past time to meet these primitives with a solid front and resists their efforts to repress and threaten others, or kill others in the name of an apparently bloodthirsty god if their actions are representative of that god's will.  There is a limit to toleration where action is concerned, and nothing sacred about action which is harmful to others.