Monday, December 05, 2011

Little Brother

In George Orwell's classic dystopian novel 1984, we are invited to view a future where Fascism has triumphed. Every aspect of our lives are monitored by the state, and giant posters of Oceania's omniscient dictator plaster the streets with the caption: “Big Brother Is Watching You”! Such were the fear's of a post-war Britain and U.S., and such are the similar complaints made today by the Tea Party and traditional conservatives everywhere.  However, what they fail to recognize is, in the words of Pogo Possum: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

I live in a relatively small town, worn out by corruption, unemployment, and a prescription pill epidemic that has garnered it national fame. I am also a writer, who enjoys getting away from the distractions of home to sort out my thought's, and to take in the fresh air where I can find it. Apparently these are two mutually exclusive conditions doomed to inevitable conflict.

Being an indigent community, areas set aside for solitary reflection are few. I am normally left with but two choices, a place along the river or, the city cemetery, which is not the morbid place it might at first seem. It's generally well maintained with many beautiful trees for shade in the summer, and a show of colors in fall.

Unfortunately, these same two places are also warrens for drug trafficking and prostitution, which keeps the local police perpetually occupied. On one occasion, alarmed perhaps by my repeated presence, I was questioned by them. I was somewhat tickled by the excessive lengths they took before approaching me. It took two officers in two police cruisers pinning me (the dangerous suspect) in from both sides, so I wouldn't make a dash for it I suppose, and made up some excuse about suicides in the cemetery to legitimize their action's, although I had never heard of any. They seemed genuinely surprised to find a man simply eating his lunch, and were a bit credulous that I had not been up to something more.

Likewise, the river front offers little difference. More known for prostitution then drugs, visitors are more likely to stare in at you rather than out towards the river as they drive by, the view of which they are ostensibly there to enjoy in the first place. For you see, a parked car there at anytime of day is always suspected of harboring a street-walker, and passersby simply can't help but indulge their prurient side in hopes of catching one at her trade. All of this leads to some questions: How much privacy may we expect in public? And how can we judge the state for its spying when we're happy to do the state's job ourselves?

There is no shortage of debate, both legal and ethical on where the boundary lies. One must assume that, to be in a public place is to expect that one is on display, that one has considered this, and willingly put themselves at the discretion of social scrutiny.

However, this appears too pat. There are various levels of “public”, from what one overhears of a conversation at a distance, to one who consciously crawls on all fours behind the park bench. If one is standing in the middle of an open field we might argue that that person has fully accepted that they will or may be stared at. On the other hand, sitting in one's vehicle with the doors closed may indicate a person's desire to be left alone. The fact that many have their windows tinted would seem to indicate this even, and especially if, the intention is to hide from the law. (That a car is not a private residence is of little matter. Considering the current job market there are plenty of citizens who have been reduced to making their vehicles home sweet home.)

Getting back to my original point, it is less the local police that annoys me then other citizens and their knowing smiles. Everyone is Mother Superior now. The young are merely seeking to catch you in some illegal act for a laugh, the aged consider themselves the arbiters of morality, and thus duty bound to interfere.

When it comes to the elderly snoop I have some slight empathy. No doubt they are often acting out of a sense of misplaced civic responsibility, perhaps even concern. However, the irony of their prying appears lost on the individual. If it is indeed taxes they wish to squabble about, perhaps we should give them their wish, shut down the police departments across the nation, and return to the institution of the Night Watch, were Grandma' and Grandpa' may volunteer to interfere in the action's of their neighbors and make the impersonality, and thus impartiality, of law a thing of the past.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Fact Or Faith

"I have become more and more concerned over the last 10 years by the extent to which even intelligent, even college-educated people can end up being sucked into these little black holes of absurdity." Stephen Law

Those of us of a skeptical disposition are often derided at the first opportunity. So and so saw a ghost in her bedroom, such and such felt a “presence” in their basement. This is quickly followed by the usual self begging question: “How do you explain it?” For them, a personal anecdote is all the evidence they require, and the inability to instantly explain away the tale of someone you've never met, in a place you've never been, in a situation that cannot be repeated without the advent of time travel, is in its self an absolute law. If such were the evidential minimum required of our legal system, many an innocent man would long since have hanged.

This is not to say strange things don't happen, only, what one might find inexplicable, and therefore supernatural, is more often perfectly explicable and very natural with the right skills and the knowledge of what to look for. For instance, we often find our friend the baker assuring us that the red spot on our neck is skin cancer, only to have a dermatologist diagnose a rash.

Human beings cannot bear to be without explanation, and so they grab the quickest one to hand when all others seem to fail in magnitude to the response. Certainly emotion plays its role in the rush to judgment, and those already predisposed to believe a certain way will more quickly interpret any unusual experience through that very personal lens. It is for this reason Mexican Catholics see the Virgin Mary in tortillas but not the Buddha.

Lack of objectivity is the problem but critical thinking can in large part be a solution. To examine any experience properly, or belief for that matter, we must always be willing to play devil's advocate and consider its opposite. Most people believe they are fair, but when it comes to giving the benefit of the doubt, that same majority are all too quick to hand in their verdict. We know these people, may even love one or two of them, and for that same reason hope, not to change their minds, but give them the means to change them for themselves.

To the believer belief is enough. Disagreements are matters of opinion, an argument is a string of obscenities, and the mindset of the believer is such that they “feel” they are incapable of being deceived. Basic critical thinking skills are so rare that they can be forgiven an ignorance of logic, but to not concede that one can be mistaken is to turn Papal Infallibility into a commonplace. Have they never seen a magic act?

Yet, the fact that this is a faith belief is not the crux of the matter. Faith is beyond proof, if it were not so it would not be faith. And, though the skeptic may grow irritated by the use of this intellectual dodge most of us are willing, in a person to person context at least, to lower our sword's and play nice.

However, this is not enough, the believer must have it both ways, both faith and fact, and in the attempt to have it so they unknowingly break all the basic rules of argument. What makes for even more frustration is that you cannot bring them to see that there are any rules at all. They cannot be fooled, and in believing so break the first rule of the examination of any argument: they can't be wrong.

It is the skeptic who is immediately accused of arrogance and closed-mindedness, but if the believer can never be wrong who is being truly arrogant?

Monday, November 07, 2011

The Meat Grinder




In the past few years a number of books have appeared attempting to account for the astonishing fact that most college graduates appear to be leaving school with as little knowledge as they went in with. The most impressive of these, and the only study apparently ever conducted to specifically determine what students learn, is Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.i It's authors, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, studied 2,300 students at a diverse number of four-year colleges only to find the majority graduating with no significant improvement in learning gains. But, most important was the poor performance in the core skills of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing.ii

These are skills not secondary to one's degree, but are regarded as the principle qualities every student should show some improvement upon. They are the crucial stepping-stones to personal enrichment, individual thinking, and the fundamental distinguishing characteristics between one who has had limited to no education, and one who is said to be “educated”.

Traditionally it is the humanities which held this task in trust, although the sciences now play their part as well. However, it is those very same disciplines in the humanities which are now under threat as funding for their departments and faculty disintegrate. The last result of the increasing corporitization of higher education.

No longer do we go to college to seek enrichment and personal growth, it has become much too expensive for that. Rather, we go now for a course of “training”. This is of course a necessity in a capitalist society. Businesses, if they are to be run effectively must, like the government, require bureaucrats. The more esoteric practices of the humanities, and many of the more speculative sciences are too abstract to be of any immediately perceived value. In other words, they make no money.iii

A direct consequence of this corporatization of universities has been the expansion of them throughout the country like fast food franchises. From cause to affect, the need to keep up with demand requires a steady supply of PhDs to in turn manage these training stations. And thus, in very little time the importance of quantity over quality becomes paramount.

As with all abstract concepts, a little illustration is useful. There are many professors now (and they know who they are) who, being the products of similar institutions, are as poorly equipped with the skills described above as their student's will be when released into the world. They are often easy to distinguish. They have the reputation for being the “easy” teacher, and have published little or nothing by the way of genuine research through peer review. Having landed the perfect position they can gratify their ego's with the title of professor on their door, without putting in the effort the duties such a title have come to imply.

Their “research”, as it is so called, is often research in name only. Usually related to some aspect of popular culture such as vampires or conspiracy theories, these studies can be useful when used in conjunction with other disciplines, or serving to elucidate a small part of a larger thesis, but more often are intellectually inbred, remaining within their own tiny spheres of meaningless minutia that, viewed without the prism of a doctorate to lend them some form of legitimacy and seriousness, are exposed as the pedantic concerns of, for lack of a better term, nerds.

While many of these “scholars” will plead that teaching, and not publishing and research are their main motivation for a life in academe, this would merely be a slap in the face to their colleagues throughout the world who are required to publish to improve their pay and secure their increasingly endangered position's. Ambition too is a motivation, a useful virtue which aids progress by striving for excellence. Likewise, it should be remembered that not every soul can be content with mediocrity, nor lucky enough to find an employer who cannot tell the difference.

These pseudo-scholars don't submit their idea's to their peers because they simply have none, and are blessed with a captive audience of credulous, ill prepared students who lack the critical thinking skills to call them out on it. Thus, like the worm that evades the hook they survive un-baited, and can bask in the undeserved praise of students and witless small town citizens, while continuing to bulk up and rarefy with pretension their little hobbies at the expense of parents and the state.

Arum and Roksa cite studies which point to a lack of rigor, or the feeling of being challenged in most students, who find to their surprise that college is far simpler than they had at first imagined. It is suggested that students generally prefer to be challenged, however, when given the choice of the easy course over the more difficult one, the majority almost always take the former over the latter as a matter of human nature. I imagine it is much the same in the pseudo-academic examples given above. Why engage with truly demanding concepts when one can listen to what amounts to repeats of the History Channel in a more pretentious setting, and delude one's self with the belief one is still doing meaningful research.

But perhaps I'm being too harsh. As colleges are now businesses, their only concern, without government intervention, is to acquire all the consumers of its “product” that they can with all the rhetorical enticements that they may. If the product they offer can be delivered on the cheap, all the better for their profit margins. Their concern is merely to fill seats, not provide the quality attention and instruction to keep you there.

Finally, as a purely business enterprise, most colleges have no incentive to improve the condition of current primary education, and likewise, public education sees preparing students for higher education as secondary to their goal of scoring their own badly needed government funds. This institutionalized system of self-interest may also help explain the increase of the assembly line PhD if they too began their educations in our sub-par public school system. Nevertheless, public schools have much to answer for in their apparent failure to properly prepare students for education beyond High School, the inevitable outcome of a government whose priority is to make bombs and not books.

Academically Adrift has helped to reveal that students, like their teacher's, have become uncritical products with a shiny gloss giving the appearance of knowledge on the packaging, only to find the contents of small value to justify the advertising. Much like the sausage business, you only get the quality to come out that you put in.

iRichard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University Of Chicago Press, 2011).
iiKevin Carey, “‘Trust Us’ Won’t Cut It Anymore,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 18, 2011, sec. Commentary, http://chronicle.com/article/Trust-Us-Wont-Cut-It/125978/.
iiiFrank Donoghue, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, 3rd ed. (Fordham University Press, 2008).

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Household Words

Some time ago I was directed to the trailer for a new film soon to be released.  Its name, Anonymous, appears to tell the tired fable that Shakespeare didn't write the works of Shakespeare, but rather some apparently more worthy aristocrat.

The thesis has long ago been shown to hold little but hot air by established scholarship.  In fact, it is looked upon by the main stream in the same light as Creationism is by Paleontology.  The fact that such crackpot theories exist does not surprise me so much however as the people who hold them.

Many actors, including the otherwise perspicacious Derek Jacobi, who gives the prolog for the film, have fallen victim to this spell.  However, as actors are not the best thinkers, to take such a position should not surprise us.  They are creatures ever greedy for praise like trained dogs, and snobbery plain and simple must always be the motive for action in a soul which has no meaning outside of applause.  What does surprise me is the credence given to such ideas by no less than the likes of Mark Twain, who wrote a brief book on the topic, Is Shakespeare Dead?

At first one would think the phenomenon that was Samuel Langhorne Clemens would be the first to root for the boy from Stratford.  They both had similar backgrounds.  Both were born in the country, and never forgot it.  Both were given the barest education (in Twain's case even less).  And both are seminal figures in the literature's of their respective nations, who arose from backwater towns to great wealth and renown.

Yet, I think the motive is plain to see when one digs a bit deeper.  Like the self-hating Jew, there is a similar self-repudiation that often arises in the poor boy who does good.  So ashamed of their origin's they are quick to turn their backs upon members of their former caste, embarrassed to have ever been associated with them.  This I think is the real source for his judgment, a hidden humility.  Twain, like many who have come after, could not accept such gold arising from such dross.  Such concerns are perhaps what fed his secrecy in later years to preserve his image at least within his lifetime, and consign his true opinion's to an age that perhaps would no longer care, as witness his autobiography which was only released in the past year.

Shakespeare's contemporaries had no doubts about who wrote the plays of Shakespeare.  Few even recognized the miracle that had walked amongst them to have bothered with a coverup.  His great contemporary Ben Jonson was moved to call him "Soul of the Age", but still felt enough his better to chide him for his "small Latine, and lesse Greeke".

Perhaps there is something to be learned from both of their example's.  Genius is often not "to the manor born", and human shame and human envy are all too human things to ever die.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Edward Gibbon, Mythbuster

The Temple was destroyed A. C. 70; the attempt of Julian to rebuild it, and the fact related by Ammianus, coincide with the year 363. There had then elapsed between these two epochs an interval of near 300 years, during which the excavations, choked up with ruins, must have become full of inflammable air. The workmen employed by Julian as they were digging, arrived at the excavations of the Temple; they would take torches to explore them; sudden flames repelled those who approached; explosions were heard, and these phenomena were renewed every time that they penetrated into new subterranean passages. This explanation is confirmed by the relation of an event nearly similar, by Josephus. King Herod having heard that immense treasures had been concealed in the sepulchre of David, he descended into it with a few confidential persons; he found in the first subterranean chamber only jewels and precious stuffs: but having wished to penetrate into a second chamber, which had been long closed, he was repelled, when he opened it, by flames which killed those who accompanied him.
The passage above comes from Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and concerns Julian the Apostate's failed attempt to rebuild the Jewish Temple. For much of Christianities history, the failure of this last pagan emperor to discredit scripture by attempting to contradict the word of Christ was seen as a miraculous vindication of the faith.

Two millennia later Gibbon, equipped with the tools of the Enlightenment, made perhaps the first secular analysis of an event earlier treated by Church historians with little scrutiny.

In the following excerpt he gives a more reasonable explanation that fits the accounts, and in the process reveals what a little time and knowledge of chemistry can do to bring down ancient perceptions:
It is a fact now popularly known, that when mines which have been long closed are opened, one of two things takes place; either the torches are extinguished and the men fall first into a swoon and soon die; or, if the air is inflammable, a little flame is seen to flicker round the lamp, which spreads and multiplies till the conflagration becomes general, is followed by an explosion, and kill all who are in the way. - G.
My intent in discussing the excerpt above and the footnote that follows it were not so much to display a great writer's powers of observation and irony so much as to display those qualities of the Enlightenment at work here in miniature.
Gibbon characterized himself as a “philosophic historian”. Much has been made of this title, which I won't go into depth about here, but briefly it is a change in the way in which historians did history. No longer were explanations for events to be sought for in the divine will or superstition, but evidence was to be judged and scrutinized without recourse to theology or fate. As with the birth of the sciences, explanation for phenomena were to be sought in nature and no longer simply passed over as mystery. For much these same reasons the writing of history would pass from the hands of educated gentlemen of leisure such as Gibbon, and become the sole province of the “specialist”.

Whether we have lost or gained by this arrangement I leave it up to the reader to decide.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Tolle Lege


It has been well over two years since I purchased, what has come to be generically termed, an e-reader. I have written two previous articles on the topic, and since then, I have had little reason to modify my original judgment's. To a bibliophile of the first water it has become a simply indispensable tool in my daily life, has in fact become almost a part of myself, and with a minimal investment to purchase, has in the long-run saved me perhaps hundreds of dollars. Yet, cynics and misapprehensions remain so I wish to set about clearing them away.

One complaint I continue to hear is the fear of being “locked-in” to a device, as though one were shackled to it till the end of time like Satan in his adamantine chains. This is only true within a limited context. If you own for example, as I do, an Amazon Kindle, there are thousands of titles you might purchase directly through Amazon's online store. This is the contentious part as, once purchased, you cannot technically then read those books upon any other e-reader (although you can still access them through any computer with a free reading app) due to something called DRM or, digital rights management. This is a bit of encoding that prevents you from easily doing what ever you wish with what you have just purchased. I say easily for, whatever a man hath done another may undo. A copy of the book can be quickly enough downloaded to your computer, ostensibly for “manual” uploading to the device, but this copy can then be released from DRM's protective custody and make its way in the world.

Again, with the Kindle, its MOBI format is incompatible with any other e-reader but, there are multiple methods of getting around this by simply converting the MOBI file into some other format. The means of doing this are so numerous and effortless to employ that, if you have any trouble doing it yourself after a little practice it may be doubtful if you should have a computer at all.

Most of these points are largely moot to me, as I have purchased only a few books from Amazon as they intended. The overwhelming majority of books at any one time on my device are what are colorfully referred to as “bootlegs”. Due to the ridiculous price of many e-book titles and the enormous restrictions placed upon what you may do with your purchase once you've purchased it, many see it as a duty to spread the wealth wherever they can, much as the bootleggers of prohibition saw it as their duty to drink to protest an unjust law---right.

As to the ethics, or lack of such, for this practice I have few qualms. As a writer who has never expected any payment other than a few patient readers, the dream that someone would wish to possess my words by going to this trouble to obtain them would be worth more than the few cents I would receive in royalties.

Finally, after all of these technical considerations I would like to talk about the medium of reading as a medium. As someone who considers himself to be a scholar, books are more like the paint one might use on a canvass than the canvass itself. A painter could care less about the appearance of the container in which the paint arrives, although they may quibble about the merits or demerits of a brand. Many bookish people, often ultra-liberal in other things become downright old-fashioned conservatives when it comes to the printed codex. I myself was at one time so enamored with it in this way I forgot its the paint that matters and not the tube its dispensed from.

In another essay I briefly detailed my old method of carrying a small, to put it lightly, library with me wherever I went. For anyone who reads as deeply and widely as a scholar must, any such arrangement becomes terribly circumscribing, and finally unsatisfactory. Besides the problem of portability, there is the factor of cost. The vast majority of my reading is naturally taken up with academic books and, for anyone who has gone to college even briefly can testify, they are not cheap. And so, unless one lives near a well-supplied academic library, or can afford to buy the needed volumes on demand, the amount of work one can do becomes increasingly limited. Texts beget texts as no scholarship arises in a vacuum, and the very frequently free digital copies of otherwise cost prohibitive tomes I can make away with, makes life just a little sweeter, and the scholarly drudge can use all the sweetness he can get.

What is more, as my title for this essay suggests, to have your library in a single space and at your command at any hour wherever you may be encourages an intensity and frequency of reading I had rarely known previously in my life. You no longer simply read books, you devour them.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Is Jon Stewart Conscious?

[For a related post see: The Daily Grind]

As all private media has only the bottom line of profit as its goal, it has become a prerequisite of modern discourse that one be entertaining if one seeks to be heard for very long. As a consequence of this our greatest social critics are almost inevitably entertainers, mostly comedians. Such a state of affairs is accepted with joy by many on the left, as humor is an excellent way of quelling dissent. However, there are consequences not readily recognized of turning the institution of the public intellectual into, what is in reality, a branch of the entertainment or, "culture", industry.

I will begin, for those not familiar, with a simplified description of the Marxist concept of false consciousness. It is essentially a state of acceptance of the status quo as a byproduct of growing up within a capitalist society. From birth, one is indoctrinated with the ideology that capitalism is all that has ever been, or at least, that no viable alternatives are possible. It is for this reason that the working poor so often vote against their own best interests. It is in the interests of those at the top to keep those at the bottom from considering the possibility of change. In this way, capital forestalls revolution by keeping the would-be revolutionaries in a state of disillusionment. In the case of wage slavery, where one must live week to week without the ability to save, the worker also falls into a form of dependency where one becomes resigned to continue as one always has rather than risk the uncertain outcomes of change.

Where in this does the comedian as public intellectual stand? All major media outlets are the possession of capital. What capital legitimates the media legitimates, and the public, conditioned to accept the authority of media, confirms capital in its prejudices. This is not to imply some hidden agenda agreed upon in advance by capital, it is merely the way in which capital unintentionally undermines its own critics by commodifying their popularity, making them in effect advocates of the status quo despite themselves.[1] And so, although there are many examples of criticism and satire in the media, their audience is either too small or too unsophisticated for collective action. The very existence of such voices, however, serve to quell dissent as demonstrations that free speech is alive and well, yet the dominant voice always heard is the voice of capital, and capital speaks for the status quo.

Again capital, seeing any phenomenon in society that draws conspicuous attention to its self, by its nature attempts to commodify that phenomena.  It is here that I now turn to the example of Jon Stewart to illustrate my point.  In entertainment, the entertainer becomes the commodity.  You are not just selling your skills or talents in the ordinary sense considered under labor power.  It thus becomes even more important to create an "image".  Stewart illustrates for us this point by changing his name.  Born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz, it is often explained that his name change was due to a poor relationship with his father.  This is understandable but perhaps too simple.  It would seem odd then that he simply would not have changed it to Laskin, his mother's maiden name.  The problem is that this is still a Jewish name, and for someone wishing to enter the entertainment industry any such association can become a perceived handicap.

Stewart has argued that he is merely a comedian, but his influence belies this attempted dismissal of responsibility. As a product he has become alienated from himself, and his professional need to be entertaining and his, no doubt, honest desire to tell hard truths have created a conflict of interest that does a disservice to both aims.  Is it fair to say this is a form of false consciousness, that Stewart, having grown up within the system is unable to recognize his own part in it?  If nothing else it perhaps reveals the near impossibility of obtaining influence outside the power structure of capital.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Why I Am An Erosopher

The goddess Sophia
It is rare to find your own view's mirrored by another, some might call this the Zeitgeist, something simply in the air at a given moment of time come to ripeness and given expression. 

The occasion for these sentiments comes from the reading of a friend's recently published prize winning paper, Philosophy as the In-Between.  In it, Professor Kristof Vanhoutte explains that to "do" philosophy is inseparable from the doing of history of philosophy for, as Heidegger maintains, we create dialogue with the past to renew "momentum" in the present.  It is a return of philosophy back to its beginnings with the Greeks, and the renewal of that sense of wonder they called Eros.

Of the four ancient Greek words for love, "φιλία" Philía, describes a virtuous love, and is of course that love, conjoined with "Σοφíα" Sophia-wisdom, that gives us the word philosophy.  In contrast, "ἔρως" Eros is sensual desire and longing, and it is this conception of philosophy as almost a lust for wisdom that Vanhoutte makes explicit for us in his discussion of Plato's Symposium:
Eros is a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, because he finds himself between wisdom and ignorance. He is a philosopher because he loves one of the most beautiful things that exist: wisdom. In fact, by doing philosophy, by philosophizing, he can calm the continuous dissatisfaction in himself that is caused by the fact that he does not possess wisdom. As such, Eros is a philosopher because he participates in the love of wisdom: philosophy.
Again, the concept of "momentum", an energetic description for the lustful conception of philosophy as Eros, is the faculty for wonder that made the philosophic enterprise come into being in the first place.  It is a faculty all lovers of wisdom must cultivate, developed through conversation with the past, and why I call myself Erosopher.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Capital's Will

It occured to me the other day that Schopenhauer's concept of the Will has a great similarity to Marx's depiction of capital as almost a living  force.  Marx uses the word very much like Schopenhauer, as almost like the blind desire to self-perpetuation found in nature.

Of course taken too far this would imply that Marx was, instead of a sunny optimist certain of capitalism's downfall, in reality a Schopenhauerian pessimist.  Certainly since Marx's time the feeling that capital is inescapable, as it infuses its self throughout every aspect of our lives, is even more true now than it was then.

I found only one conversation in regard to it online, but it is certainly a relationship that bears closer analysis.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

On South Park And Bullshit

Many may be familiar with Harry G. Frankfurt's unlikely bestseller On Bullshit, published some few years ago. As someone who greatly enjoyed that work for more than its cheeky title, I soon began to see its applicability everywhere, as one would expect to in a world almost overflowing with the substance.

However, I found it not just in the usual places: Fox News, CNN, The “History” Channel, etc., but also in more popular media, and none more popular than the animated program South Park.

Frankfurt roughly defines bullshit in contrast to lying. A liar is someone who believes they know what is true and purposely mislead. A bullshitter does not care whether what they say is in accord with the truth or not: “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truths – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.”

“So they're bullshitters, so what?” you say. In that we know we are being bullshitted it can be harmless fun, but to those more invested in the message (South Park Republicans for instance), more susceptible to unthinking persuasion, and those of us who just plain care about the truth, things get more complicated.

This is certainly the view Frankfurt would, I believe, support.  For: “Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides...[e]ach responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does...[he] pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

To demonstrate what Frankfurt means if we apply his definition to the program, in one famous episode, “All About Mormons”, Stan is befriended by a Mormon boy named Gary, whose family has recently moved to South Park. Stan becomes increasingly irritated by the boy's good humor and the loving relationship he has with his family, in comparison to the one Stan has with his own.

Stan researches the history of the Mormon Church only to become irritated all the more by the ludicrous nature of the Churches founding and the incomprehensible idea that anyone could take it seriously.

Finally, enraged beyond endurance, Stan calls him upon the lies his life is apparently built upon. Gary then explains how it doesn't matter what his family believes essentially, that the point is it works for them and Stan has: “got a lot of growing up to do, buddy.”

In another episode, “The Biggest Douche in the Universe”, Chef takes the boys to New York and the Crossing Over TV show to have John Edward talk to the spirit of Kenny. As the plot unfolds Kyle, believing his late grandmother has spoken to him through Edward, joins a Jewish school thinking it would be what she wanted. Stan then confronts Edward and teaches himself cold reading to demonstrate its invalidity. By the end we find it revealed that John Edward is a fraud, and Kyle returns with Stan to South Park, but not before Edward is abducted by aliens to be awarded his prize as biggest douche in the universe.

In contrasting these two episodes I wished to demonstrate not only the relativism Matt Stone and Trey Parker would appear to endorse, but the deeper ethical question of being swayed to the view's of individuals who are clearly not consistent thinkers, if not conscious bullshitters. In the first example they seem to be arguing that if something works for you, makes you feel warm and fuzzy, regardless of its external truth, is good enough.  But in the second example they clearly argue that a lie is not alright even if it brings comfort.

It will be objected that in the first instance the lie did not involve business but family life, and that in the second Edward was taking advantage of the deluded for financial gain. However, it can be argued just as strongly in reply that religions are lies which make millions, both from their followers and their tax exempt status. But, the larger issue Frankfurt's argument would support is that a lie is a lie, and in any situation is corrosive of our respect for the truth.

The final nail in the coffin confirming their complete disregard for truth of any kind is demonstrated by the “Insheeption” episode. Here they were at last called to account by their audience when it became obvious that they were mocking a movie they had not even seen, and what is more, stole what they did for the episode from a sketch on the comedy website College Humor. A perfect illustration of Frankfurt's observation that: “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.”

Of course again, none of this is of the slightest importance to the viewer who wishes to be merely entertained. However, it does cast a shadow over their credibility as honest people.

This all leads us perhaps to some disturbing conclusions that reflect upon the present mindset of our society. In a world where bullshit is preferable to hard truths, those same hard truths social satire is tasked with exposing, the greatest bullshitters of all may be ourselves when we come to value entertainment over honesty.


Monday, July 04, 2011

More Than Meets The Eye

Recently I had the opportunity to see the latest film in the Transformers franchise.  As a child of the eighties, I felt a thrill of nostalgia run through me as I relived, in an epic fashion, the adventures of the Autobots that had so excited my childhood imagination.

Yet, as the story progressed, my critical faculties reasserted themselves.  We discover rapidly that the entire Apollo program was merely a ruse, an excuse for the U.S. government to get to the moon before the Soviets and obtain an alien technology in the form of an Autobot spacecraft that had crashed there some years before.

In the course of this I wondered what Buzz Aldrin would say about one of mankind's greatest achievements, in the development of which at least three people died, being used as a mere plot device in a movie for a line of toys.  To my astonishment my question was soon answered when the man himself appeared and was introduced to the Autobot leader Optimus Prime.  Certainly a prime example (no pun intended) of how capital comes soon or late to degrade everything once pure, and the ad men once again make a commodity of our dream's.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Torturers Enlightenment

Water boarding, the CIA old school.
At the time of the Inquisition the torture of suspected heretics was held to be, though an affront to Christian love, a necessary evil. Better a little suffering here and now then that far greater and eternal suffering in the great beyond.

It is a similar line of thinking which appears to support the use of torture today except, without the pretense of saving a soul. They already believe the subject is damned, but still construe his suffering as a means to an end.

It is for good reason the dreaded Auto-de-fe was such a popular example of religious hypocrisy among Enlightenment thinkers. It implied in dramatic fashion, that no man was allowed liberty, even within the confines of his own head, and free will could freely choose what was determined in advance. The thought police are nothing new.

Today torture is no longer explicitly tied to religion, but the conviction of its necessity to achieve a greater good remains. Instead of the pretended torments of hell, we instead are frightened by the seemingly more immediate threat of the ticking bomb, though just as imaginary.

The irony is that just such coercion through fear is exactly the form of tyranny the Enlightenment sought to extirpate. As Kant reminds us in his little essay What Is Enlightenment?:
Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of men...remain in lifelong immaturity, and why it is so easy for others to establish themselves as their guardians.
Such concerns were warned against by America's founders, but appear to stand now as much of a possibility as they ever did, and the stage is set for a far greater threat to human liberty from within than any Jihadist could ever hope to present from without.




Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Genealogy Of Pop

The following is (the most updated version of) a paper of mine published in the sixty-seventh issue of Philosophy For Business, an online journal of philosophy.  Due to its controversial subject matter I must praise the journal's editor, Professor Geoffrey Klempner, for his open-mindedness and generosity in giving such a forum to a novice.

Genealogy of Pop

Monday, May 30, 2011

Saints Or Soldiers?

On this Memorial Day it will be repeated ad nauseum that the long suffering soldier deserves our thanks. But why? Despite the typical short-sighted responses, it is a question that is rarely addressed honestly. We are repeatedly encouraged to praise our veterans and active troopers with a veneration more often heard in a church. Indeed, they have become demigods in our war-obsessed nation, and even those opposed to the current conflicts are still disposed to praise the bravery of the soldier at the front, while laying the blame for their troubles entirely at the feet of our leaders. It does not appear to occur to them, that if there were no soldiers there would be no war to oppose.

An argument could be made that, when the draft was in effect, our active service members warranted our empathy (even though through the drafts entire history there were many who chose prison to state sanctioned murder, though that is another matter). However, our modern military is purely voluntary. Those who serve it do so of their own free will, and therefore hardly deserve to be anointed saints. Theirs is a profession, albeit one of killing, but a profession nonetheless. They are paid a wage, and even their advertising is geared to emphasize the career and training benefits of military membership. Indeed, the very word “soldier”, derives from salary as, historically, a soldier's loyalty was only as good as his pay. This at a time before the modern nation state, when the soldier stood in a class hierarchy little higher than civil servants, and little different in name than mercenary's.

This leads me to the next question: How often do you thank your garbage man? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, refuse collecting is one of the most dangerous jobs in civic employment, right up there with fire fighting and police work. Yet, despite its dangers, the men and women who collect our trash are out there on the front lines, doing their duty. Where is their monument in the capital? Could it be that there is simply no romance in waste removal? Yet, it is a job that must be done, and a far more pressing issue on a hot summer day.

Finally, in all seriousness, we must ask: Are those who join the military full adults, who should accept the responsibilities of their action's, or naive children who should be pandered to? Whether it is one or the other, in either case they have no claim to sainthood.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Schopenhauer Right After All?

Modern neuroscience appears to be catching up with the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who's Prize Essay on the Freedom of the Will, sought to argue that the human will is only free in a qualified sense.  The following quote illustrates:
"I can do what I will: I can, if I will, give everything I have to the poor and thus become poor myself---if I will!  But I cannot will this, because the opposing motives have much too much power over me for me to be able to.  On the other hand, if I had a different character, even to the extent that I were a saint, then I would be able to will it.  But then I could not keep from willing it, and hence I would have to do so."
More famously this thought is encapsulated in the phrase: "Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot want what he wants."  A thought Einstein found to be particularly comforting.

His idea is very subtle and bears repeated reading, but it comes down to what Schopenhauer calls "character", or the specific way the individual reacts to stimuli or "motive".  This inevitably leads to a form of determinism, where one's character is fixed, and thus one's reaction's to life cannot be any other than they have been or will be:
"How is the tireless goodness of one human being and the incorrigible, deeply rooted wickedness of the other, the character of the Antonines, of Hadrian, of Titus on the one hand, and that of Caligula, Nero, Domitian on the other, supposed to have flown in from outside, and to be the work of contingent circumstances, or of mere cognition and teaching!  After all, none other than Nero had Seneca as his educator. -- Furthermore in the inborn character, this real core of the whole human being, lies the germ of all his virtues and vices."
Of course, our legal system is one based on the premise that people can and do change.  However, if Schopenhauer is right, and this new research appears to be pointing in that direction, the whole way we conceive of crime and punishment will need to be rethought.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Thinking Thin

"Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o' nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous."
                                                                      ---Julius Caesar, act I, scene ii.

Is Caesar's observation apt? There are recent studies to show that too healthy an appetite may impede one's thinking. The history of philosophy perhaps inadvertently confirms this too. I cannot bring to mind any great thinkers who were obese in the medical sense. The closest figure who might "fit" the diagnosis would appear to be Thomas Aquinas, who was referred to as "the dumb Sicilian ox" due to his stout appearance and slow action.  His portrait's are certainly not the most flattering either.
St. Thomas Aquinas

To the scholar and intellectual, the delicacies at the table of the mind have always surpassed those of the phenomenal world, or so it would seem.  And this perhaps fits a pattern of disinterest in all things of the material world, the pleasures of the flesh included.  Once the ambrosia of the gods has been tasted, all human food turns to ashes in the mouth.  Like Tantalus, such food one seeks to share rather than hoard away, like the secrets of the Olympians.

It may also be merely correlation not causation which explains this.  Philosophy is certainly not a vocation which promises worldly wealth, and those who have consciously decided to dedicate their lives to her have long recognized the need to economize if they are to have the leisure to think.  Following his own principles of economy, Spinoza often dined upon a gruel or a milk soup he made himself.  Epicurus lived on such a frugal diet, he famously wrote a friend: "Send me a pot of cheese, so that I may have a feast when I care to."

Among modern philosophers, my personal favorite John Rawls, gives the appearance of never having eaten anything at all, which perhaps recommends him as the thinker best suited to understand the plight of the poor.  Bertrand Russell certainly never cut anything but a skeletal shape, even when young, and today might have lead to rumors of an eating disorder.  It always was important for him to keep a trim figure for the ladies.  The list could perhaps be extended indefinitely.

Is there some connection between calories and cogitation?  I can't say, but it's certainly food for thought.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Charles Manson Was My Grand Daddy

Genealogy is a popular hobby.  There are numerous websites that, for a fee, grant you access to countless databases full of census records, burial plots, and newspaper archives.  Many are excited, and rightfully so, about learning where they come from as an aid to self-knowledge.

On the other hand, such enthusiasm leads me to ask about the ethics involved in such interest.  What are people's deeper motivations?  No doubt many will be looking for some trace of blue blood, some Duke or Baron who's long dead title they might use to enhance their fragile sense of self-worth, and at the same time, flout in their neighbor's faces as a flag of superiority.  Americans, for all their talk of democracy and equality are always ready to salute a king when the sentiment is right (just look at the current obsession with Prince William's wedding).  No doubt the sign of an age grown tired of its lack of dreams, and longing for an age of action over mere profit margins.  But, what if what they find is a shade darker than blue?  What if what they find they would rather keep to themselves than trumpet from the rooftops?

I have often found it puzzling how many claim decent from Jesse James.  How ever his admirer's seek to justify his action's, his character was little more than that of a cold calculating killer.  Some of this is obviously tinged with racist sympathies, and the sepia color of sentiment which time casts upon all human actions.  Yet, a murderer he remains in what ever light you view him.

Historians are charged never to judge the past by present values.  A task perhaps easier to follow with professional objectivity, but not one so easy to accept when kin are involved.  Then the merely antiquarian becomes a matter for family and, sometimes, national pride.  Take the example of Vlad Tepes.  For over a hundred years to the West he was the boogeyman called Dracula.  To Romanians he is counted as one of the father's of their country, with no less a comparison being drawn then with George Washington.  Still, a stake, I mean line, must be drawn.

Whatever we are, and whatever we may become, will always be a mixture of water and wine.  The water of our genetic and material inheritance with which we are born, and the stronger wine of personality and character we fashion through our action's.  We are not our father's nor our mother's children, but the sum of all their folly's and all their wisdom, the choice is ours to which we lay claim.  Ancestry is like an inheritance to which we add our contribution then pass the plate.  We take the good with the bad that is given to us, but through the choices of our life we choose which pile gets the lion's share, and what riches, if any, are left to those who follow.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

'Tis A Pity She's A Whore

From this.....
.....to this.
In Restoration England the words actress and prostitute were interchangeable.  Nothing much seems to have changed in the three hundred years or so since then, as every stripper will invoke the title "performer" when discussing their trade. When looked at in those terms there seems very little difference between someone like Sasha Grey, porn star turned mainstream actress, and Natalie Portman, who's "simulated" sex acts in Black Swan won her an Oscar and near universal acclaim.  So, is there really any difference?

I have heard, from time to time, a few actors state that they don't live in Hollywood because they don't wish their children to be exposed to "it".  Exposed to what?  Acting is their trade and, if the environment in which they work is so shameful, should they even be participating in such a profession?  It would be the same as if my father, who was a contractor, kept his children away from construction sites, not out of concern for the obvious dangers of such places but, for fear they would be corrupted by the smell of sawdust and the sight of hard work.  Obviously there is something about the entertainment industry that is a little less than wholesome.

I have long disliked Hollywood, not as conservatives do because of their claim it subverts traditional values, but because Hollywood gives the appearance of being the upholder of free speech, when everyone of sense knows there is nothing free in Hollywood.  The only freedom they fear losing is the freedom to make money, and to make as much as possible producing garbage which they defend under the banner of art.  To participate in any other creative endeavor, to paint, to write a poem, to sing a song, requires very little in terms of material substance.  However, to make a film, or at least a film that has any hope of being noticed, requires millions in both money and man hours behind it, for a movie without an audience is like a stripper without a pole.  It is a Gesamtkunstwerk  that needs to satisfy the monetary demands of many rather than the simple creative desire of an individual.  If the actor merely wished to express him or herself, they could stay home reading monologues, or never range any further than the local community theater, but something in its very nature demands "exposure" in more than one sense, and the tie of art to money has never been a healthy bond.

To return to my initial point, many of these early actresses cum courtesans are very often used as feminist role-models, and rightfully so.  Women like Nell Gwyn and Elizabeth Barry broke the mold for what women could be and do in ages that expected little more from the "fair sex" than to keep house and produce heirs.  Interestingly, Hollywood has treated the lives of both of these women in the films Stage Beauty and The Libertine respectively.

Following in their footsteps, many a young actress today would like to claim an association to these illustrious forebears.  However, they forget such a role was not a desire but a necessity in an age when there were few other options from poverty and perpetual pregnancy.  They represent the fight for a world where women need not use their body's to free their mind's.  Today, that battle won, the modern ingénue appears more than happy to be the whore if they might play the actress.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Conservative Horror


Many are familiar with the conservative thinker Russell Kirk.  However, not as many are aware that, along with his more serious work, he was also an accomplished writer of ghost or, "horror" tales.  This is perhaps not as incongruous as it might first appear.  The genre is one perfectly suited to the conservative mind.  Horror, at its best, is about the past coming back to haunt the present.  Someone upsets the status quo, asks too many questions, looks too deeply into the heart of things and is punished for their hubris.  What is more, studies have even begun to show a difference in chemistry between liberal and conservative brains that reveals a great deal about their, no pun intended, mindset.

The conservative psyche lives in a state of perpetual fear and disgust, the very bedrock of horror.  It is perhaps the sense of disgust especially which has always characterized the right's overwhelming lack of empathy.  They live with a fear of the "other" which is almost supernatural (and is supernatural where fundamentalism is concerned) in its intensity.

We can see this type of thinking perfectly illustrated in the work of H. P. Lovecraft.  Lovecraft was notoriously racist, and a reading of his "The Horror at Red Hook" will instantly conjure up images of contamination and too close a proximity to filth.  Thankfully for his admirers, Lovecraft appears to have dispensed with many of these views in his later years, but his work stands out as an excellent guidebook to the dark corners of the conservative mind.

It makes one shudder to think at what strange vistas of hell we could witness, if Cheney ever pulled himself away long enough from shouting angry epithets to set pen to paper, even the Necronomicon might be put to shame.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The God Of The Gap

It is commonly assumed that there are but two positions in regard to theism:

1.) That an individual adheres to a given religion and its attendant god or gods.

Or

2.) One holds to no religion and no belief in a god or gods, a state referred to as a-theism.

However, what we see in practice is more often in-between these positions.  On the one hand, most except the concept of some form of a god as the probable truth, and delve no deeper than this surface gloss, (most likely due to the fear of ignorance on the issues involved) but assume there are answers "out there" to meet any objections which may arise.

As an atheist, I have no objection to the philosophic contention or contemplation of a god or gods.  Rather, it is the un-reflecting acceptance of such a position which troubles me.

As outlined above, most individuals hold to some vague theism, and find renunciation of it, in an absolute form, to be socially unacceptable.  It does not often occur to them that they are themselves engaging in a form of weak atheism/theism.  The commonly held view that everyone should adhere to some form of theism is not the same as belief in a religion.  At the risk of creating a false dichotomy, one may be theistic and non-religious, and one may be religious but non-theistic, but to be theistic and religious implies a deeper commitment which entails sacrifice and adherence to a set of prescribed dogmas, that most, in an increasingly materialistic society, are unwilling to risk preaching lest they be held to their standard and found wanting.

That it is possible to be religious but non-theistic is exemplified by Buddhism, where belief in a god of any kind is not essential.  That it is possible to be theistic but non-religious is nobly demonstrated by Spinoza, whose pantheistic god makes worship and prayer in vain, if not solipsistic.  Yet, both sides of the coin contain within themselves a structure, or a set of values which serve to guide the initiated.  In contrast, the vague quasi theism of many Americans (neither genuine religion nor genuine philosophy) may be viewed as either cowardly or ignorant, or a combination of the two.  Cowardice for the lack of a deeper commitment to what should be paramount issues in one's life, courage for greater introspection, and perhaps ignorance of the skills necessary for unbiased self-reflection.  Thus, one ends up filling the gap between commitment and conviction, and the conveniences of secular modernity, with a god cut to size.  A state even more broad in its interpretation of theology than Cafeteria Christianity, and twice as hollow.


Sunday, March 06, 2011

We Can Be Heroes

"I want a hero: an uncommon want..."
                                ---Byron


The age of hero worship appears to be past.  The "Great Man" theory of history is seen as too neglectful of the contributions of the people plural, if not outright dangerous after its manifestation in twentieth century Germany.

I have written before about the concept of the hero as example for personal conduct.  There is a distinction here that I think is often overlooked.  The "Great Man" was never meant to be emulated, how could he be?  His circumstances, his opportunities were unique.  It would be foolish to follow the example of a Napoleon.  The circumstances of history have changed, and the opportunities are not ours.  We may ask ourselves what we may have done in the same place, but the hypothesis can never be put to the test.

Nevertheless, the value of heroism should not be discounted outright.  Where would we be without imitation?  Our parents are the first we come to respect, and through their example learn to perfect our own.  But as we age and move into the wider world I think the only safe heroes are dead ones.  Lives that have been fully lived, have a beginning, middle, and end like a work of art.  Those who still live may live to disappoint us.  But we should always be mindful, and ready to take issue with them when our own judgment is at odds with theirs.  So, heroes are not to be worshiped like dogma, but exists for us like signposts to guide us on our way through life.  An active engagement, or dialogue, with the past's best exemplars serve as reminders of what even the lowliest among us may achieve given opportunity and time, and sets for us the task of being heroes ourselves, if only for the ones we love.

Even Napoleon had predecessor's he admired.  Had he only learned better from past examples he would have known that no man's good fortune is inexhaustible, and human glory must bend to human frailty.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Daily Grind


Satire is a double-edged sword. It can be a weapon of the oppressed against the status quo but, it has the potential to fall into cynicism when it finds its efforts at reform unrealized and unrealizable. This is the trap into which American liberalism appears to have fallen, and it is nowhere better exemplified than in the overwhelmingly popular The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

What does it signal when the most trusted newsman in the country is in reality an entertainer? Beyond the obvious irony, it reflects poorly upon the more traditional news outlets which have apparently failed their audiences.

While I submit that it is an obvious good that at least one honest face may be found speaking truths, rather than the typical manufactured news we are meant to imbibe. It is also a daily televised tragedy highlighting the left's regression into a public discourse of canned laughter, a discourse that has abandoned hard thinking and sober analysis for mere entertainment.

A similar argument was made in Russell L. Peterson's book Strange Bedfellows, published in 2008 by Rutgers University Press. However, in that book Peterson defends Stewart, and others in his mold, as upholding the true principles of satire. At first glance, this seems wonderfully sound. Stewart, though attacking the sources of power, nevertheless has a genuine respect for the institutions from which that power originates. Yet, with respect comes disappointment when those institutions fail to deliver on their promises.

This is demonstrated in Stewart's support of Barack Obama. Shortly after his inauguration, Stewart was, like most of the country, hopeful of great changes. It was not long before that hope became ridicule as Obama made concession after concession to Republicans. If cynicism does not enter grandly through the front door it will often creep in through the back.

Indeed, however positive Stewart's intentions, things cannot help but end on a sour note. In his desire to be fair Stewart wants to give the right its due. A noble sentiment, but one that is misplaced with fanatics. The far right, who dominate the Republican party, suffer from the True Believer mentality. Theirs is a holy cause they stand by without reflection. In contrast, the left have become so dispirited by the relativism of “fairness”, they no longer know what to believe. Programs like Stewart's then reinforce this apathy.

Such is the example of the The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. A rally with no message or agenda. Thousands gathered to hear the same shtick they hear nightly on their televisions, reinforcing the absurdity of the entire political process.

In this way too, such programs provide for the left a safety-valve for indignation in a fashion which mirrors Aristotle's characterization of tragedy as a comedic catharsis. If the Washington fat-cats are skewered on the Daily Show, they feel a semblance of justice, and rage that could have been more productively harnessed for political activism is instead dissipated by sarcasm.

Such a position will no doubt lead to accusations of a liberal dogmatism every bit as pernicious as that of the right, and some will say I am simply missing the point, that this is the nature of comedy not to praise sacred cows. Whatever the conclusion, I think it better to err on the side of the humorless crank then to too quickly abandon sound reason for cheap laughs.

Finally, what many of Stewart and company's defenders fail to understand, is the corrupting and de-legitimizing influence of capital upon social commentary.  With a yearly salary estimated at around fourteen million dollars, Stewart is a well-compensated member of the power structure he satirizes. This perfectly captures the modern liberal dilemma, that before one can even obtain the influence to be taken seriously and one's criticisms have any effect, one must first become a part of that very establishment. To gain the king's ear one must first become a courtier.

Satire should still serve an important role in political discourse, but when the voice of the class clown is the only one that's heard, the more important lesson at the front of the room is often neglected. Satire has always been at its best shouting from the back, not serving as the guide who leads the way.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Schopenhauer's Smile






The recent uproar over Bristol Palin's planned "lecture" on abstinence brought to mind a whole range of thoughts, (not all of them philosophical) but upper most, the inevitable failure of any abstinence only program.  Aurthur Schopenhauer would have pointed this out over two-hundred years ago, but they listened only a little better then.

In his great opus, The World as Will and Representation, as well as many of his delightful essays, Schopenhauer outlined a philosophy of utter despair in which the world is ruled by a blind and all-powerful Will.  Most human beings witness the futility of life he contended, but the Will is too strong, the Will to self-preservation and, above all---procreation.

Whenever I hear a Christian praise the efficacy of abstinence, of the strength of will that their faith provides, I think of the greater Will of nature, and of old Schopenhauer quietly smiling in his grave.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Life of the Mind

In his new book, Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, James Miller reexamines one of philosophy's original prerogatives: to teach by example.  The Greeks, and later the Romans, saw the conduct of a thinker as every bit as important as their thought.  For this reason we find biographical compilations, such as Diogenes Laertius or Plutarch from antiquity, praising or faulting those who should be the exemplars of wisdom.

This idea, that the validity of a philosophy should be judged by the life of the philosopher, is out of fashion in current academic talk.  In fact, as the author notes in regards to the final subject of the book, Friedrich Nietzsche:

"...it is one consequence of Nietzsche's own criticism of Christian morality that anyone who takes it seriously find it hard, if not impossible, to credit any one code of conduct as good for everyone, and therefore worth emulating." 

Nevertheless, if a philosophy should not be judged by its philosopher, the life is not necessarily of no value.  Hero worship is likewise considered old hat these days, but surely something can be salvaged in the example of those who came before us.  Miller seems to think so:

"...each of these men prized the pursuit of wisdom.  Each one struggled to live his life according to a deliberately chosen set of precepts and beliefs, discerned in part through a practice of self-examination...The life of each one can therefore teach us something about the quest for self-knowledge and its limits."

I have often thought of philosophy as a substitute for religion, and have found in the examples of mortal men greater hope than the deeds of gods or the promises of heaven.  Life is a constant striving but, it is in what we strive for that makes the difference.  If we seek truth, our reach may often exceed our grasp, but in the reaching we may just find our better selves.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Is Poetry Dead?

Apotheosis of Homer


For most of its history poetry was an oral phenomenon.  Even after the advent of literacy it continued to retain this oral quality, and this immediate accessibility maintained it as a popular medium for rich and poor alike.  With few other forms of media to compete, verse continued to rise as a vehicle for reform and protest which was taken seriously.  Who now would consider a cutting epigram against the current administration to be a threat to the social order?  Yet Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy, written in response to the Peterloo Massacre, was quickly hid away by the censors.  Likewise, in tandem with the novel, poets could earn fortunes by penning epics.  Byron's Childe Harold and Tennyson's Idylls of the King were both bestsellers in their day.

In the Twentieth Century we begin to see the decline of verse.  It will be argued that poetry is more popular than ever, but popular to whom?  Among educated lovers of language it has never lost its place, but I of course mean popularity in its broader sense.  To the average person it has degenerated into little more than advertising jingles, and the lyrics to popular songs appear to be meant as mere accompaniment to the music, often requiring little or no meaning at all. 

Would the great protest songs of the Sixties have had half their effectiveness if recited rather than sung?