Sunday, July 15, 2018

Our Willy

Vain, verbose, muddle-headed, ignorant, boorish, morose, opinionated, excitable, scatter-brained, loud-mouthed, meddlesome...all adjectives used at one time or another to describe Kaiser Wilhelm II, the "Kaiser Bill" of fame of the Great War, or World War I as we came to call it after an even greater war (in terms of its extent and destructiveness) came along.

I was asked recently what Roman Emperor the current president of our Glorious Republic most resembled.  I found this required a certain amount of thought.  None of the great monsters who ruled Rome seemed appropriate; Caligula, Nero for example.  One of the most ridiculous of emperors came to mind--Elagablus, I mean--almost immediately, but his oddities were different than those of the present occupant of the White House.  The Empire had many bad emperors, bad for various reasons, but I was hard pressed to think of one who is a match.

The fact is, we have a more recent figure in history who matches this president quite well.  Wilhelm, or "Willy" as his many relatives in similar positions of power throughout Europe would call him, was most of all a nuisance.  But as a ruler of a nation, an autocrat, his influence was vast.  He was a nuisance in internal affairs, a nuisance in foreign affairs.  His ministers did his best to limit his influence, to control his sudden and sometimes inexplicable intrusions into careful plans and negotiations, but to no avail.  He somehow managed to insert himself in a matter and send it spinning into chaos.  He insulted, he repulsed, he badgered.  A colossal and offensive know-it-all, he offended fellow heads of state with words of advice.

His state visits to other nations were stressful to those involved.  Nobody knew quite what he would do or say.  He was made an honorary admiral of the British Royal Navy and apparently took this kindness so seriously he thought it appropriate to express his opinion regarding its operations to those who were actual members of that branch of the British military.  He hounded the poor Tsar unmercifully, always telling him what to do.  He exasperated his grandmother, Queen Victoria.  His cousin Edward, who became King of England, thought him malicious.

It seems that as war approached he wanted peace. He managed, though, to assure war came by his fecklessness and his remarkable ability to take inconsistent positions and stances, generally motivated by whoever it was he happened to speak with last.  Once at war, as might be expected, he was eager for victory, and so became the bane of his generals' existence.  A paranoid, he felt that he and Germany were constantly under appreciated and threatened by all other nations, with the possible exception of Austria, which he merely looked down on.

It appears he actually had some good traits.  He may have lived well enough as an eccentric country gentlemen in other circumstances, as it seems he did after he abdicated at the war's end.  But he was a loose cannon as leader of a powerful nation in a war far too full of cannon of other kinds.

Which brings us, however unwillingly, to the present.  The similarities between these two peculiar men seem evident to me.  But the times are certainly different.  And while Willy's advisers did what they could to control and discourage him from capering too wildly about the world stage, our president's advisers, such as they are, seem incapable of controlling him nor do they seem to want to discourage him.  Neither do most members of the Republican Party who seem content to be complicit with him in many matters.  Except, of course, where the money with which they retain their positions is concerned, and it may be that his antics with tariffs and economic policy may finally bring the various shills who make up the Congress to do what's required to stifle him.

It's a very odd thing, that such a man should be where he is, and it makes one concerned regarding the fate of God's favorite country.  One prefers one's villains to be intelligent, cultivated, knowledgeable if immoral and unworthy.  The devil is a gentleman, so it's said.  A small, mean, petty, ignorant and venal man makes a most annoying bad guy.  Even an embarrassing one.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Meet the Nothing

There's something called "the Nothing."  There's something called "Nothingness."  They are (are not, perhaps) a concern to certain philosophers of a certain kind.  Apropos of nothing, Cicero once said (I paraphrase) that there is nothing so absurd that some philosopher has not already said it.

"Nothingness" I suppose represents the state of being nothing, or perhaps is characteristic of nothing, or is the quality of nothing or is characteristic of "the nothing."  Nothing is, apparently, the opposite of Being, or its negation.  I may be mistaken though.  I know nothing of the Nothing.

Heidegger the Great and Powerful wrote of the Nothing in his inaugural address on becoming rector at Freiberg, where he infamously made some speeches praising and indeed glorifying Hitler as, among other things "the future of Germany and its law."  I spent some time asking questions about this speech in a philosophy forum I frequent, and eventually was duly accused of bad faith for doing so and, I would think, also because I didn't understand what he was saying.  Which was nothing?  I still don't know.

I think Heidegger is something of a sacred cow in some philosophical circles and his followers eagerly leap to his defense whenever he is questioned or mocked.  They may be all the more avid in his defense because there's no doubting the fact that he was a member of the Nazi party, and never publicly expressed any remorse over that membership, nor to my knowledge did he ever publicly express criticism of the Nazi regime before, while or after it was in power.  As a result, those who defend him are defensive in doing so.

But I've been told many times, sometimes sternly, that his misdeeds in life have nothing to do with the merits of his philosophical works, and I would say that it's likely his fondness for Hitler and the Nazis at the least did not arise due to his writings regarding "the Nothing."  Had, in other words, nothing to do with the Nothing.

I think Rudolf Carnap said all there is to say about "the Nothing" as it is referred to in the inaugural address.  What he says essentially is that "nothing" shouldn't be spoken of as if it is something or used as if it is a name for something, and if it is so used it leads to meaningless propositions.  But Heidegger seems to understand this and indeed says he does in the address.  Nevertheless, he says this is a defect in logic, not in use of the word "nothing" or indeed in "the Nothing."  "The Nothing" is encountered only when one is "suspended in dread" (or anxiety).  It's only this encounter which allows us to understand Being.  "Being" apparently refers to that which is.  That or those which is or are have "Being."

"Being" and "nothing" are concepts, names, or something which fascinate many philosophers, I'm sorry to say.  "Being" seems to me to suffer from some of the same problems as "nothing" or "the Nothing."  It may be used as a noun or name, and is treated as if it is something, a quality possessed by that which is, as opposed, apparently, to "that "which is not.  But at least unlike "nothing" or "the nothing" it actually refers to something which exists; indeed, everything that exists.  "Nothing" doesn't refer to any thing.

The fascination with "nothing" seems to be related to a question which in turn is a fascination of some philosophers.  That question is:  "Why is there something instead of nothing?"

Now some, like me, would say that there are problems with that question.  That problem as I see it is that it also is premised on an assumption that there is something that would exist if something didn't exist, called "nothing."  One can ask if one wants to "Why there is something?" but one can't then refer to anything that is "instead of" something.   Nothing would exist, true, but "nothing" doesn't replace something.

I think the question when posed as, "Why is there something instead of nothing?" or "Why is there something?" isn't one that can be answered by philosophers.  If it can be answered at all, it would be an explanation of the fact that things exist, and that explanation would seem to be one that would formulated by science, not philosophy.  That is, unless one is satisfied by an answer which is merely speculative.

It is a question which invites not merely speculation but the use of words in the fashion used by Heidegger and others when it comes to "nothing" and so invites confusion and what Carnap calls "pseudo-statements."

Carnap suggests such statements by philosophers may serve to do what poetry and art does, or music.  For me, that means that such statements may be evocative, and evoke a kind of knowledge or appreciation of the true or correct.  That may be generally true, but as I think Carnap observes the poets, artists and musicians or composers do a better job in this respect that do philosophers.  Some of the most profound feelings I've experienced arose from reading poetry or listening to music.  But "the Nothing" inspires nothing in me, I'm afraid.  Don't tell anyone, though.  This is between you, dear reader, and me.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Of Human Cruelty

"What a piece of work is man" says Shakespeare's Hamlet, in an extended fit of irony.  One can't help but agree...with the irony.

The image above is, of course, taken from The Twilight Zone of happy memory.  It occurs to me that American television hasn't done any better than this series, especially when it tries to imitate it.  The concept has been used since then often enough, but it's too familiar now to have any real effect.

Nonetheless, there's reason enough to believe that we earth creatures should be locked away for our own safety and that of others inhabiting this planet, and in fact for the safety of the planet itself.  We're a singularly destructive species and are far more destructive than any other animal.  Some of us are locked away, of course.  We do that to our own kind.  We do a great deal to our own kind.  Being so minded, we don't hesitate to inflict pain and confinement on the other miserable occupants of this world.

What distinguishes us from the other animals which kill, maim and destroy here is not merely our greater ability to do so, however.  It's the fact that unlike them, when we do harm we're not driven by instinct or hunger or the effort to survive in most cases.  We want to inflict harm and intentionally destroy others; we take pleasure in it or are indifferent to it.  We are, in a word, cruel.

Although Stoics have popularly been thought callous and indifferent, it should be clear that a true Stoic can't be cruel.  In order to be cruel, a person must be disturbed by or desire things outside/his her control.  In fact, just about every negative feeling or action has its basis in our attachment to such things.  We hate others for what they are or do or think or say, although they are not within our control.  We desire or fear things not in out control, and therefore steal or seek to possess them as most efficiently we can or avoid or destroy them.  We require that others do what we want them to do, despite the fact they're not in our control.  None of this would take place if we sought only to do the best we can with what is in our control.

We can concern ourselves unduly with things outside our control without being cruel, however.  Cruelty requires something more of us.  Not only do we want to control what isn't in our control, we want to do so in a way which we know will inflict unnecessary harm or pain because it pleases us or because we don't care that unnecessary harm and pain will occur as a result of our action.  The cruel person isn't just misguided.  The cruel person is evil.

Cruelty has always been a human trait, but there are times when we are, in general, more cruel than in others.  The Nazis are thought to have been impressively cruel, for example.  Were they cruel merely because they were evil?  It may be they were convinced they were part of a master race and that the elimination of undesirables was for the greater good, or that certain peoples were inherently evil.  Sometimes, the religious have acted cruelly.  People of other religions or having no religion were burned and tortured for that reason by those who thought it necessary or appropriate.  Does this mean they were evil?  Or is it better to say they did evil things?  Are people cruel if they believe the suffering of others is necessary in some peculiar sense?

Such fanaticism may be a cause of indifference to suffering imposed, but it doesn't follow that the suffering is pleasurable to those who impose it.  What would seem needed in addition for a person to be cruel is the knowledge that the suffering they cause others is not necessary.  The cruel person causes suffering for no reason but his/her own pleasure, or merely for the sake of causing others to suffer.

Is the apparent policy of the current government of our Glorious Republic to separate parents seeking to enter God's favorite county illegally from their children cruel?  It plainly isn't necessary to prevent them from doing so; there are other means to do that--the Great Wall of the U.S. has yet to be built, but it is presumably an option.   The separation obviously causes suffering.  The law already provides penalties.  This therefore is something more than imposing the penalties set out in the law for an illegal act.  This is a punishment we've decided to impose in addition to those penalties. 

These are questions which should be asked, issues which should be considered, by an honorable people.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

I Pardon Myself--Ego Absolvo

I've noted previously in this blog that I'm not a fan of the pardon power granted the president by the Constitution of this Great Republic.  It may be guessed, then, that I would find the thought of a president pardoning himself to be offensive, and I do.

There's something laughable about the idea of someone pardoning himself/herself, or perhaps a better word would be "incredible."  It makes no sense; or no common sense, in any case.  If I've done wrong, I generally have done wrong to someone other than myself.  If anyone has any business pardoning me in that case, it would be the person I've wronged.  It would be strikingly unjust if I could pardon myself.  It would be evidently unfair.

The pardon power isn't an exclusively American creation by any means.  Kings and Queens had that power for centuries.  It was apparently accepted that they had the authority to grant clemency or even wipe from the record of the law any crime committed by a subject.  I wonder if this power derived in some sense from the belief in the King's Touch.  It was thought that a king could cure someone of the skin disease called scrofula by laying his hands on the stricken.  Henry VIII, who certainly had the power to detach the heads of subjects if not by his own hands then by others, is shown using them (his hands, I mean, not the detached heads) to banish scrofula from some fortunate man above.  The King's Touch itself probably derived from the power of Jesus and the apostles, and even some saints, to heal by laying their hands on the stricken.

Catholic priests, of course, have--or at least had (it's been some time)--the power to absolve, pardon that is to say, some sins by virtue of the Sacrament of Penance or Confession.  They possessed the power because they were in effect the authorized representatives of Christ.  The Catholic Church believes itself to be in direct succession the heir of the apostles.  It is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, after all.  Thus, its agents may forgive certain sins as it's thought the apostles did.

A King, Queen and I suppose some would say a president is in some sense treated, at least, as sacrosanct.  There's something about their person while they hold their office that renders them untouchable, incapable of interference.  There's a hint of mysticism in this.  Our current president's lawyers have opined that a president as the chief officer and representative  of the law of the land cannot obstruct the law, as the president is, in a way, the law as much as a person can be.  The president thus becomes the law incarnate.  The president cannot obstruct himself, right?

In any case, I think it's fair to say that for quite some time, and perhaps ever since we've had Kings and Queens or their equivalent, or priests or their equivalents, it's been accepted that certain persons, because of their special status or capacity, have the authority--the power--to pardon or absolve others of their crimes or sins, and even to cure them of certain diseases.  But I don't think it's been accepted that certain persons have the authority to pardon or absolve themselves.  Ego te absolvo was the formula used by priests, in nomine patri, fili et spiritus sancti.  "I absolve you in the name of the father, the son and the holy spirit."  Never, as far as I know, has anyone ever said "ego absolvo", i.e. "I absolve myself."

Our current president may be the first (and one can hope last) troll president, in the sense of an Internet troll.  He seems to delight in antagonizing, offending, disrupting discourse, specific people or groups of people through the use of inflammatory, disturbing and even ridiculous statements.  So there are those who think he's made the claim he can pardon himself merely to provoke.  I hope that's the case and that he's merely intent on being annoying, as is his wont, or merely engaged in the kind of tactical display the more brutish of those in power sometimes practice.  But he may in fact mean it.

While the president is in office, he/she is immune from prosecution.  That seems to have been determined by the bulk of legal authorities; that the president is merely subject to impeachment if the designated crimes are committed while in office.  Once out of office, the president is subject to prosecution, however.  So, the concern would be that a president would pardon himself of crimes committed by him/her while in office.  In that case those crimes, having been pardoned, could not be the basis for prosecution even after the president leaves office. The courts haven't weighed in on the idea of self-pardoning.  Perhaps they'll have a chance to do so soon.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Tom Wolfe: An Appreciation

I was always a fan of what was called the "New Journalism" as practiced by Tom Wolfe and a few others.  I particularly liked his Radical Chic which so devastatingly mocked the propensity of rich, intellectually-inclined white who hosted events for such as the Black Panthers, and mocked Leonard Bernstein in particular,.  "New Journalists" as I understood them included Norman Mailer, whose Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago were personal favorites.  Then of course there was Hunter S. Thompson, though he I think was referred to as  Gonzo Journalist, perhaps because his new journalism was associated with the intake of drugs.

It's odd, then, that Mailer was among those who criticized Wolfe for not really being an artist or novelist, despite the fact or perhaps because he wrote so well.  John Updike was a critic as well.  I've never had enough interest in Updike to read any of his work.  Mailer interested me, though I thought his writing would become grotesque now and then, particularly when the subject being addressed was sex.

Wolfe's journalism was very good indeed.  The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House are impressive.  But I find it hard to understand why his novels failed to pass muster with some; why they're considered somewhat lacking by other novelists.  I suspect, though, that this is the case merely because they tell interesting stories and tell them well, and also sell well.

Wolfe's novels are picaresque, in the sense I think that the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter and The Golden Ass of Apuleius are as well.  They're adventures involving protagonists who are recognizable who encounter ordinary and extraordinary circumstances and react to them in ordinary and extraordinary ways.  Most of all, they're enjoyable.

It may be that art has come to mean that which cannot be enjoyed, that which is not entertaining.  Art is supposed to inspire in us some feeling which isn't associated with pleasure, being too profound.  It can be disturbing, grim.  It must cause us to think--never a pleasant experience for most of us.  It may move us to tears or anger.  It is supposed to evoke some strong emotion.

That may be so, but if so is dispiriting, I think, for the artist and those who patronize the artist or his/her work.  What we experience in life can be dreary enough.  Why seek to create dreariness, or seek out such creations, when we're exposed to it in "real life" and allow it to disturb us from moment to moment?

In dark times, entertainments are few and become coarse.  Those who can tell good stories and tell them well, with wit, imagination and intelligence, should be honored as much as any; perhaps even more.