Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Philosophy Weekend: The Turn

I didn't start a blog series called "Philosophy Weekend" so I could write the same old shit you've already read. That's what a lot of other philosophers and ethical theorists and historians seem to be good at.

I don't know what their problem is; our universities are packed with professors and writers and academic bloggers with impressive degrees and credentials. But they don't seem to be writing what needs to be written about real world problems that need to be solved, so I guess it's up to me, a humble software developer with a humble bachelor's degree, to put two and two together and ask if you agree that it adds up to four.

We've been discussing the causes of genocide here for several weeks, and I think we've reached a surprising conclusion. Let's retrace our steps.

We began with a querulous blog post in which I proposed that we must not be thinking creatively or constructively enough, since there are obviously answers that we're not finding. I observed that typical debates or conversations about problems of global politics tend to be packed with emotional keywords and frustrating misconceptions and sensitive "don't go there" areas, and suggested that we try to put aside our emotional responses and try to analyze the known facts about the genocidal disasters of the last hundred years in a systematic way, with a puzzle-solver's mentality. This is where it all began:

Litkicks Heads For Twenty

Sometimes I find it hard to believe that my blog is almost twenty years old. Well, sometimes I also find it hard to believe that my youngest daughter is almost twenty years old. (They were born the same year, and they both grew up so fast.)

Literary Kicks will turn twenty on July 23, 2014. I have no idea how I'm going to celebrate, but I might keep it low key. For the 5th birthday in 1999, I threw a big party at the Bitter End nightclub in Greenwich Village. For the 10th birthday in 2004, I hosted an all-night online poetry jam with Caryn and Jamelah during which I remember falling asleep at least once. For the 20th, I might just stay home and feed the cats.

Philosophy Weekend: Genocide and Drunk Driving and Causality

When we write about genocide, it's customary to descend into paroxysms of inexplicability. Jeffrey Herbst of Foreign Affairs magazine marked this month's 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda with a typical display. "Despite the thousands of pages devoted to the Rwandan genocide," writes Jeffrey Herbst in Foreign Affairs magazine, "we still do not have a good answer to the most basic question: Why?" It's clear from the tone of this introduction that no clear answer will be supplied -- though many words will be spent -- and when the Foreign Affairs paywall kicks in after a few paragraphs, most readers will do as I did and click away. No need to pay $2.99 just to read the same old cliches.

It's strange that Jeffrey Herbst thinks the genocide in Rwanda is inexplicable, since the political and psychological motivations behind the disaster are vividly and clearly documented in the massive historical record. The anguished "why" is a fraud -- the question Jeffrey Herbst and so many other commentators are grappling with is not actually "why" at all. The question they're really stuck on is this: "How can we live with the truth about why this happened?". That's the painful question nobody wants to ask.

The causes of Rwanda's genocide are obvious to anyone who learns the history and analyzes the data points systematically. The same obvious causes can be seen in the other terrible genocides that shamed the 20th century, from Armenia to Nazi Germany to China, and in several genocides that are raging right now in Darfur and Central African Republic and Syria. We're going to discuss these causes today. Our results will differ, though, from the weak pop-psychology answers embraced by common wisdom. The cause of the genocide will not turn out to be racial prejudice, or tribal hatred, or economic class envy, or repressed sexual aggression, or man's inhumanity to man. We're going to do a better job than that. And we're going to be systematic about it by starting with Aristotle's well-known list of four types of causes. To quote Wikipedia:

Updike on 43rd Street

A literary biography ought to possess a voice and attitude that reflects and complements the literary voice and attitude of its subject. Leon Edel's life of Henry James is prim and probing, with an energy that gradually accumulates into stately magnificence. Gerald Nicosia's biography of Jack Kerouac is passionate, melancholy and fitful. This is how it should be, but this implicit rule must have been daunting to Adam Begley when he began writing Updike, the first comprehensive biography of the great fiction writer and critic John Updike, who died in 2009.

John Updike was, after all, one of the most confident and erudite prose stylists of his era, and an immensely likable writer. Fortunately, Adam Begley rises to the challenge in this enjoyable and perceptive biography, and while Begley doesn't attempt sentences of Updikian beauty and complexity, he does follow the master's lead in conjuring buoyant revelations from ordinary situations. Like a good Updike novel, this book captures the richness of one person's well-lived life.

Philosophy Weekend: Can A Person Be Guilty Of Genocide?

One of many unforgettable moments in Philip Gourevitch's book about the 1994 Rwanda genocide We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families is the author's visit to Gitarama prison a year after the massacre. He finds a scene of incredible physical misery, though the sufferers barely complain. It's the suspected Hutu perpetrators of the previous year's genocide, not the Tutsi victims, who are crowded together here.

On the day of my visit to Gitarama Prison, six thousand four hundred and twenty-four prisoners formed a solid-looking knot, and I had to plan each step I took with care. It was difficult to figure out how the people fitted together -- which limbs went with which body, or why a head appeared to have grown three legs without a torso in between. Many of the feet were badly swollen. The bodies were clad in rags.

Gourevitch is perplexed by what he finds as he visits various prisons holding thousands and thousands of suspected Hutu killers. The prisoners could easily escape, the author observes, but they don't try. They just sit there.

Although the tightly packed inmates were all accused of terrible violence, they were generally calm and orderly; fights among them were said to be rare, and killings unheard of. They greeted visitors amiably, often with smiles and with hands extended for a shake ... The captain kept calling out, "Here's a journalist from the United States," and the huddled men, squatting at our feet, clapped mechanically and made little bowing motions. It occurred to me that this was the famous mob mentality of blind obedience to authority which was often described in attempts to explain the genocide.

Blind obedience to authority is what these bewildered prisoners are guilty of, and it appears possible that they are so passive because they have already judged themselves to be guilty, that they look so confused because they don't understand themselves how they suddenly transformed into murderers. Some of them admit this to Gourevitch, and later he talks to a former Hutu leader who has returned to the village where he presided over the murder of approximately seventy of his neighbors to ask for forgiveness from the few survivors who remain.

The Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Mystique of William Buck

I recently heard about a British Library project to reassemble and digitize a 17th century illustrated edition of the Ramayana, a classical Hindu epic. This sounds pretty cool, and it reminded me of a different edition of the Ramayana that I once owned myself.

This was just a cheap pocket paperback, a novelization of the great poem, published alongside a similar edition of the other great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. These two books, the life work of a young American translator named William Buck, were designed to be accessible and enjoyable versions of their extremely long and complex originals. Of course the great epic poems had to be condensed and simplified to fit into these forms, but the popular paperbacks provide a rich reading experience that must capture at least some of the significance of their gigantic counterparts.

William Buck's Mahabharata is the one I read all the way through and remember most vividly, because it's a colorful, wise and beautiful long tale that begins with the household altercation that resulted in an elephant head being placed on the body of a boy named Ganesha, the son of Shiva, who is noted (in the story that surrounds the story) as the scribe who is writing the text:

Philosophy Weekend: Genocide is Not a Force of Nature

We speak of genocide as a problem from Hell, but we rarely speak of it as an ethical problem that can be solved. This suggests that we have ceased to think of genocide as a problem of human dimensions. We have become as superstitious about genocide as cave dwellers must have been about tornadoes and hurricanes: we see it as a rare force of nature, bigger and stronger than us. We hope the monster never comes our way, and if it ever does we plan to hide.

Philosophers need to get their courage back, because genocide is an ethical problem that must be solved. Organizations like the United Nations and Amnesty International toil weakly to solve it as a political problem, while Doctors Without Borders fights it as a practical problem, striving year after year around the world to alleviate the pain. But none of these organizations are designed to analyze the psychological roots of the problem, or to propose great philosophical epiphanies that might change the world. Indeed, I know I must appear foolish when I suggest that any kind of moral epiphany could possibly help, even though I'm quite sure it could.

We should expect our best ethical philosophers to address this topic often, but the great thinkers of the 20th century shied away. Sartre did not manage to communicate clearly on the topic of genocide, nor did Nozick or Rawls or Tillich or Jaspers or (ahem) Heidegger. Today, we have a few well-known academic ethicists like Derek Parfit, but they tend to steer far clear of bold speculations about the causes of our worst real-world problems. Alain de Botton has created a clever and brazen philosophical website called The Philosophers Mall that attempts to connect trendy news stories about celebrities and pop culture to philosophical questions. De Botton is at least trying to think outside the box -- but a celebration of triviality in philosophy is the opposite of what we need the most.

We are a couple of weeks away from the 20th anniversary of the brutal genocide that took 800,000 lives in Rwanda in April 1994. I'm sure this 20th anniversary will generate some news blips, and perhaps a reminder of the disaster that is still occurring today in Darfur.

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