Philosophy Weekend

You may have heard about Wittgenstein's poker, or Wittgenstein's nephew or Wittgenstein's mistress or Wittgenstein's ladder. For some reason that I don't fully understand, people like to read books about Wittgenstein's stuff.

Well, it's fitting that Ludwig Wittgenstein shows up in a lot of postmodern novels and pop-culture texts, because he really is that good, and his works really are that relevant today. This enigmatic Jewish-Austrian-Catholic 20th Century philosopher and schoolteacher's fame has grown after his death to the extent that he is now widely regarded as the most important thinker of our age.

There are many other literary treatments besides the four freakishly similar titles above. Ludwig Wittgenstein appears as one of the key signifiers in David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System, a novel I didn't like very much. He also shows up in a new collegiate novel by Lars Iyer, Wittgenstein Jr, a comic whirl about a professor who is not Ludwig Wittgenstein and the unruly students who mock his lectures. I've just started this one and I'm at least enjoying it more than the David Foster Wallace.

But the best stuff I've been reading lately about Wittgenstein is Wittgenstein Day-by-Day, a serious and well-researched Facebook page that tracks Wittgenstein's diary entries as they were written 100 years ago. I've liked this project since its inception, but I began to feel riveted by it when we reached the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One in August. In the autumn of 1914, young Ludwig did the same thing most of his proud fellow young Austrians did. He signed up immediately to fight for his country and his emperor.

This required him to leave England, where he had been carrying on an extraordinarily fruitful collaboration with Bertrand Russell, because England was now Austria's enemy. The 25-year-old logic prodigy found himself on a guard boat called the Goplana on the River Vistula in September 1914. Wittgenstein: Day-by-Day narrates a short daily summary of his daily observations as these new surroundings begin to sink in.

Thursday 17th September, 1914: In his private diary, LW records that the previous night passed quietly, and that he had been on guard duty. The Goplana has sailed up the Vistula to Krakow, whose outskirts, he fears, will be ‘completely occupied by Cossacks’. He also reports that yesterday morning the Lieutenant left the ship and didn’t come back until noon today. No one knows what to do, and they don’t even have money to buy food. Nevertheless he finds himself still in good spirits. ‘Keep thinking about how I can maintain myself’, he finishes.

The young philosopher's format is consistent: he notes the military developments and actions of the day, along with his personal activities and emotions. He tries to find time to "work" -- that is, to indulge himself in his favorite hobby: the analysis of language and meaning, and the attempt to discover the logical foundation of logic itself.

Saturday 19th September, 1914: In his diary, LW records that yesterday evening he had to work up to 11pm on his searchlight. In the night it’s extremely cold, and the men have to sleep in their boots. LW slept badly. He hasn’t changed his clothes or his boots for four days. He worries what will happen to him in Krakow.

LW notes that a proposition like ‘this chair is brown’ seems to say something enormously complicated, since if we wanted to express it in such a way that nobody could raise objections to it on grounds of ambiguity, ‘it would have to be infinitely long’.

(The idea here seems to be that everyday propositions must have a single complete analysis which respects the ‘requirement that sense be determinate’ (Tractatus 3.23), this being equivalent to their being *wholly* unambiguous. Any temporary incompleteness in the specification of a determinate sense can only mean that the end of the analysis hasn’t yet been reached. It’s notable that LW prefers to imagine that the analysis might be infinitely long rather than contemplate the possibility that there’s no single correct analysis, or that the correct analysis represents the proposition as being in *any* respect ambiguous).

If young Ludwig is unhappy about his sudden change of circumstance from Cambridge to the Eastern Front, he barely shows it in this journal. Occasionally he expresses feelings of stress. He consoles himself at times with religious homilies.

Monday 21st September, 1914: In his diary, LW reports that this morning the Goplana arrived in Krakow. He had been on searchlight duty all night. Yesterday, he records, he did a lot of (philosophical) work, but he isn’t very hopeful, ‘because I lacked the right overview’. He also had a discussion with his platoon leader, which cleared the air a little. But today he is a little out of sorts, being still ‘so TIRED’ from many emotions. He notes that he has heard nothing from Vienna, but that he did receive a card from his mother, sent on August 20th. In the evening, though, he received the depressing news that the Lieutenant who had been his commanding officer has been transferred. ‘This news depressed me deeply. I can’t give an exact account, but it’s a compelling cause for despondency. Since then I’ve been deeply sad. Although I am free by the Spirit, the Spirit has left me!’. He ends by recording that he found himself able to do some (philosophical) work in the evening, and that this made him feel better.

From the calm tones of the journal entries up to October 17, 1914, it appears possible that Ludwig Wittgenstein himself did not even know how perilous a position he was in as he stood searchlight duty on this rickety guard boat.

The Vistula River was a hotspot in the autumn of 1914, and I'm not talking about wi-fi. He and his boat the Goplana were right in the middle of the Russian invasion of Galicia, a brutal and massive offensive that completely overran Austria's defensive position on its own territory. The Battle of Galicia in 1914 will go down in history not only as a bloody massacre, but also as a failure of management and planning that would crush the confidence of the Austro-Hungarian army, foretelling years of disaster still ahead.

Today, it's commonplace to ridicule every aspect of Austria's entry into World War One, since we know how the war will end. But in 1914 Austria-Hungary had not yet been crushed, and its a notable fact that a young man as bright as Ludwig Wittgenstein would join its army unthinkingly to defend the society that had raised him so well. He was in the First Army, under the leadership of General Viktor Dankl, who would be briefly celebrated on the home front as a hero for this army's early exploits before it became fully clear that the 1914 battles in Galicia had been a Russian rout.

As his journal entries made clear, Wittgenstein manned the searchlight on the Goplana -- almost too perfect a metaphor for a philosopher on a boat! We know that he was thinking about logic as his light beam pierced the dark skies over the gloomy Vistula. Was he also thinking about the decisions his army's leaders were making? Did he feel confident in Austria's fate, or had he begun to question the foundations of the military logic that had put him on this boat?

Wittgenstein's hopeless adventure with the anguished Austro-Hungarian First Army will presumably be continuing to play out as the centenary of the First World War proceeds on Wittgenstein Day-by-Day. This excellent Facebook page is the work of John Preston of the University of Reading's Philosophy Department. Preston also maintains an informative Wittgenstein Chronology.

I don't know if John Preston is thinking about turning these wartime journal extracts and summaries into a book, but I hope he does. It's a no-brainer what the book should be called: Wittgenstein's Searchlight. At least it'll sell.


For some reason that I don't fully understand, people like to read books about Ludwig Wittgenstein's stuff.

view /WittgensteinSearchlight
Saturday, October 18, 2014 11:40 am
Wittgenstein's journals on Facebook
Levi Asher

The past week was a rough ride on the literary Internet. Thursday brought the sudden death knell of HTMLGiant, a rollicking community website frequented by writers like Tao Lin, Zachary German, Megan Boyle, Noah Cicero, Marie Calloway and Blake Butler along with a wide cast of erratic contributors and scattered postmodernists. This lively website always reminded me of the fun and psychotic days when Litkicks ran message boards.

The good news is, HTMLGiant is staying alive through October for one last gasp, promising to unleash a series of farewell blog posts "because if there’s anything this website deserves it’s an uncontrolled flameout". That's the way to do it, HTMLGiant!

The bad news, though, is that the immediate impetus for HTMLGiant's closing is a charge of sexual abuse that has been leveled against the novelist Tao Lin, who happens to be probably the most successful and popular member of the whole "alt-lit" crowd.

I haven't seen Tao in a few years but I used to enjoy talking with him at New York City literary events. I always had a positive impression of this quirky young writer. I would be very sorry to see his career destroyed for any reason, though I agree with others that if he has committed an act of violence against another person, he cannot be easily forgiven. I don't understand the detailed facts about this case, but it is clear that people have been hurt, and that is sad.

The Tao Lin news wasn't the worst bombshell on the scene for me this week. Ed Champion, one of my closest friends, and my longtime "traveling partner" on the literary blogging scene, has had a severe mental breakdown. This didn't happen suddenly. Several of us have seen this coming for the last few years, especially the last two, as various paranoid tendencies got the better of him.

A dumb offense against another writer has (rightfully) generated tremendous backlash against Ed, who has by this point really hit bottom. Unfortunately for himself, he generated a lot of damaging publicity in doing so.

I felt particularly close to the events this week because the other writer who finally called Ed out on his increasingly offensive behavior was the novelist Porochista Khakpour, who is also a good friend of mine. I reviewed her novel The Last Illusion recently, and saw her read from this novel at a Virginia book festival just three weeks ago.

I wrote extensively about my personal feelings about the really frightening crisis that has occurred between two of my good friends and several others in the publishing/lit-crit community on my Twitter account, particularly in a stream of about 50 tweets on September 30 and September 28. Please go there if you'd like to read my perspective on the whole story.

All I'd like to say here is that I think Porochista did the right thing to speak out loudly when Ed started threatening her, and that I really hope Ed gets well. Many people have enjoyed his work at or Bat Segundo over the years, and I hope the literary community can find some sympathy for a guy who made big mistakes and is now suffering for them.

* * * * *

I call this Philosophy Weekend blog post "From Chaos" because life feels chaotic right now. But the emphasis is on the "From", because I'm making some good changes on Litkicks right now. If you're a regular reader, you may have noticed that I've been gradually reducing the frequency of blog posts, which used to come at the rate of two or three a week. Starting now, I'm going to stick to a slower pace of one blog post a week.

This will help me keep the quality level high (quality is always more important than quantity when it comes to blog posts, don't you think?). It will also help me work on a new project I'm cooking up, something that is currently being born, but will take a little while more before it can emerge from the chaos.

I will still be writing often about philosophy and politics and ethics, but this weekend's blog post will be the last one called "Philosophy Weekend". Now that I'm doing one blog post a week, they'll all just be "Literary Kicks". This may take some getting used to, but I think it will work out fine.

I began Philosophy Weekend in June 2010 after ending a weekend series devoted to the New York Times Book Review because that had stopped being fun. I wanted to start using the Litkicks platform to share thoughts about the issues that were most on my mind at this time, particularly issues relating to history, sociology, psychology, politics, religion and philosophy. I think the series was a success, and I am thrilled that Litkicks readers embraced the experiment and kept up a steady level of intelligent and provocative debate in our comments. I hope this keeps going, and I have no doubt that it will.

I'll be continuing to write about the same topics, but it will no longer be a separate section. I like the symbolism that the last Philosophy Weekend blog post is named after the primordial Greek god Khaos, while the very first Philosophy Weekend blog post was named after Sisyphus. Pretty cool, eh? That's how I'm going out. I like to think dear Friedrich would approve.

* * * * *

A note about the artwork: before I began writing this article, I googled "primordial chaos" and found this image on the page of an artist named Vivi-Mari Carpelan, who has very nice work.


Why this is the last blog post in the "Philosophy Weekend" series.

view /FromChaos
Friday, October 3, 2014 08:47 pm
Primordial Chaos by Vivi Mari Carpelan
Levi Asher

Nothing I can write today will be as relevant as an event that took place in New York City and various other places around the world today: the biggest climate march in history, attended by over 300,000 people. The Huffington Post has the scoop.

The specific policy mission of this march is to deliver a message of solidarity before the beginning of the United Nations Climate Summit. This large group of concerned human beings seems to be doing a great job of making its voice heard.

We haven't written much about ecology here on Philosophy Weekend, a strange omission considering the writers and philosophers we like best here on Litkicks: Henry David Thoreau, William James, Yoko Ono, Gary Snyder.

As a political writer, I tend to focus on pacifism, but in fact pacifism and environmentalism are sibling philosophies. Both spring from a consciousness of the natural world, and from an appreciation for the gifts of human existence. It's hard to imagine how somebody could be a pacifist and not an environmentalist.

However, I've recently become aware that USA presidential candidate Rand Paul, the only conservative candidate brave enough to support a pacifist philosophy, has taken stands against sane environmental regulations. I'd love to hear from any Litkicks reader who understands Rand Paul's politics how it is that the only candidate who can clearly see the folly of our military policies can fail to see the folly of our lack of environmental regulation. One would think that the same awareness of common sense concerns (nature, and our freedom to enjoy it) would make any libertarian a natural environmentalist. What am I missing here?

Are there interesting literary or philosophical angles of environmentalism that we can explore here on Literary Kicks? Of course there are, and since I feel bad that I didn't make it up to New York City for today's big march, I am going to pledge to try to make this happen. I hope we can explore the meaning of ecology both from spiritual and political angles. If somebody can post a comment answering my question above about the Rand Paul position on ecology, which really ought to be smarter than it is, that might get things off to a good start ...


Nothing I can write today will be as relevant as an event that took place in New York City and various other places around the world today: the biggest climate march in history, attended by over 300,000 people.

view /ClimateMarch2014
Sunday, September 21, 2014 06:56 pm
Climate March September 21 2014 New York City
Levi Asher

I moved to northern Virginia in 2009. There were a few good surprises down here for this lifelong New Yorker, like the easy proximity of the thrilling Shenandoah mountains and rivers, and the rich, stark beauty of several Civil War battlefield parks that dot the region in a wide arc around Washington DC.

I found a few bad surprises here too, like the fact that this state hates public transportation. Train tracks are everywhere in northern Virginia, but you can't catch a train into Washington DC to see a baseball game or visit a national monument on a weekend, because there are no trains for people. This probably has more to do with Virginia's desire to keep people from Washington DC out than its desire to keep Virginians in. It ends up having both results.

So I found some good and some bad when I moved down to Virginia, and I also found some funny/crazy. Like the politics, which are entertainingly out of control.

I thought New York politics was unpredictable, with the likes of Andrew Cuomo, Mike Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani running around. But our Eric Cantor and Dave Brat and George Allen and Ken Cuccinelli have got them beat. The crazy reached a crescendo this week with the stunning news that our once popular and likable former governor Bob McDonnell has been found guilty of accepting bribes from and delivering favors to a businessman named Jonnie Williams.

This businessman had befriended the governor's wife, Maureen, who was also charged with the same crimes. Only two years ago, many believed that Bob and Maureen McDonnell were destined for the White House. They will now be spending many years in jail.

Normally a husband and wife found guilty together could take solace in each other's company, but this is not possible here because Bob's lawyers unsuccessfully attempted to pin the blame solely on Maureen, who had apparently been the conduit for most of the gifts. Surprisingly, these gifts were not substantial political donations given with insidious intent for major policy changes, but rather trivial and showy displays of wealth traded for minor favors: a Rolex watch, a loaner Ferrari, a Louis Vuitton handbag, a lavish wedding for one of the McDonnells' five children.

Attempting to defend himself while throwing his wife under the bus, Bob McDonnell declared in court that their marriage had broken down years ago, that Maureen had been infatuated with Jonnie Williams, and that she had engineered the bribes without his full understanding, even though he had delivered small favors in return. The jury didn't buy it. Worse, the tawdry testimony shockingly contradicted the public image of this conservative "pro-marriage" Republican politician, because McDonnell's appeal was always grounded in his Christian fundamentalist background, and on his outspoken belief in family values.

If I were a vengeful liberal Democrat, I would be gleeful about the ungraceful fall of Bob McDonnell. This would be especially easy for me because I had always found McDonnell extremely uninspiring, as plastic as a middle-aged Ken doll.

But I'm avoiding the temptation to gloat about the scandal, because I always try to look beyond petty politics towards grander themes. I also can't pretend to believe that Democratic politicians are much less likely than Republicans to get caught committing outrageous crimes. (Yes, I still remember John Edwards and Rod Blagojevich).

After the verdict came out this week, I found myself defending poor Bob and Maureen McDonnell to a few friends who declared themselves disgusted with the former Governor's dishonesty and greed. Curiously to my friends, I could not agree that dishonesty and greed had much to do with the fall of Bob McDonnell. That seemed to me a shallow and superficial explanation. As we so often find to be the case lately, once we even begin to look deeply at the facts of a crime, we find that the common explanation of the motivation does not stand up to close examination.

I don’t think we discover anything interesting by identifying greed as Bob McDonnell's fatal flaw, because this makes greed sound like a disease that inhabited and infected him. Everything would have been fine, according to this model, if a good man hadn’t been spoiled by an unfortunate psychological toxin. Uncontrollable urges of greed infected Bob McDonnell first, according to this model, and then his second sin of dishonesty followed as he began lying to cover his secret tracks.

However, an examination of McDonnell’s evident courtroom strategy contradicts this. He never acted like a person with a guilty secret. The former Governor insisted on testifying extensively in court to protest his innocence. He even made the devastating decision to publicly break with his wife, who is not only the mother of his children but had also always been the public symbol of his political stance in favor of strong "traditional" (read: not gay) marriage, all to establish his innocence. It's hard to imagine a man who knew he was guilty making so dramatic and destructive a choice.

It turned out that he could not persuade a jury to believe in his innocence, but the terrible personal sacrifice McDonnell made to try to prove his innocence strongly suggests that he believed he was innocent himself. The Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde model of a good man with a demonic other side does not match this behavior. Dr. Jekyll would not have bothered to try to prove in court that he did not sometimes turn into Mr. Hyde.

Another reason the superficial explanation falls short is that Bob McDonnell showed no lifelong pattern of greed for wealth. If he'd ever really prized expensive watches and prestige cars and lush weddings for his children, he could have pursued a career in banking or finance instead of electoral politics. He had the born gifts to make a lot of money legally: a winning personality, a capable leadership style, enough brains to earn a law degree. A career in politics is nowhere near as lucrative (even with the bribes) as a career in business or finance, which suggests that Bob McDonnell was more interested in the ego gratification of becoming a successful public figure than in the material gratification of quietly attaining wealth.

So, if Bob McDonnell was not possessed by inner demons of uncontrollable greed, what can explain his crimes? The first key is found in the fact, revealed during the trial, that Bob and Maureen McDonnell were not wealthy at all, that their finances were nearly a mess. As available financial records show, this political family with five kids was always struggling to manage its budget, even while living in the Governor's mansion. They never took the time to cash in on book contracts or speaking engagements, and never managed to put serious money into their own bank accounts even as the Governor's low-tax/high-growth policies helped other Virginians who were much more wealthy than they would ever be.

Bob and Maureen were both from modest middle-class backgrounds, and both had worked hard to gain success. Strangely, once they met Jonnie Williams and began receiving his gaudy gifts, Bob and Maureen McDonnell developed a strange habit of getting their pictures taken with these displays of wealth. They were not only eager to drive around in the white Ferrari seen at the top of this page: they were eager to be photographed in it.

Some journalists speculated that a well-publicized photo of McDonnell showing off a new Rolex wristwatch hurt his defense. But it's an essential point that the impulse to be seen wearing a Rolex is different from the desire to own a Rolex. If you ache to own a Rolex, you suffer from greed. If you ache to be seen wearing a Rolex: well, you are suffering from something, but it's probably not greed.

It all comes together when we consider a third essential point: Bob McDonnell was a rising star in a Republican party that worshipped financial success. He was not personally wealthy, but he was eager to continue to rise in a social milieu that valued wealth as a primary proof of grace.

With this last point, we now have enough evidence to piece together an entire theory of Bob McDonnell's downfall. He thought he was supposed to accept these gifts. The whirlwind of his fast rise into national politics, and perhaps the stress of being considered a likely Vice-Presidential pick for the fabulously wealthy Mitt Romney, had left him grasping for a foothold in a world above his station. He was trying, foolishly, to play the game of big-money politics correctly when he accepted the bribes.

It was not urges to gluttony but rather feelings of inferiority that deluded Bob McDonnell into accepting gifts from Jonnie Williams. Jonnie Williams appeared to the Governor to represent something greater than what he himself had: vast wealth in the private sector, a know-how about the muscle power of money, an inborn ease with the world of luxurious possessions.

It's entirely possible that Bob McDonnell didn't care at all about Rolexes or Ferraris. He only cared to be seen with them. He hinted at this during his trial testimony when asked about his wife's acceptance of a Louis Vuitton handbag. "I wouldn't recognize a Louis Vuitton handbag if I saw it," he said. Courtroom reporters speculated that this line didn't persuade the jury, but perhaps it should have. It may be the truest thing he said during the entire trial.

I find it remarkably useful to analyze news events in the way, to look past the surface and try to construct a psychological story that encompasses all known facts of the case and still rings true. This process often has the positive side effect of generating a general sense of sympathy, and indeed I do feel very sorry for both Bob and Maureen McDonnell right now. I didn't like them much when Bob was Governor, and I never thought he deserved to be Governor, but I also don't think that he and Maureen deserve to be utterly disgraced.

Reporters said that Bob and Maureen both wept (separately, in different parts of the courtroom) during the reading of the verdict. I suspect that Bob McDonnell cried because he was surprised, because he really does believe himself to be innocent. In the broadest sense, he really was innocent, too innocent — a babe in the woods, lost in the hall of Rolexes, playing a game whose rules he didn’t understand. It’s because he was so innocent that he was just found guilty.

As sorry as I feel for Bob McDonnell, I feel even more sorry for Maureen McDonnell, who was just demonized and ridiculed (“a nutbag”) by her own husband's lawyers and witnesses in a public courtroom. I’m sure she would have preferred to have spent the time being waterboarded. Maureen's core motivation, it turns out, was her poignant love for a flashy, glad-handing businessman. Her beloved Jonnie Williams also turned witness against her, so it’s disturbing to imagine how alone she feels right now. She seems nearly as tragic a character as Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina.

The entire saga of Bob and Maureen McDonnell seems to take on the dimensions of a Buddhist fable. They were both starry-eyed with maya, with the endless refractions of glittering illusion. The handsome and confident Governor appeared to be Vice-Presidential material, but he was staggering inside, trying to figure out the rules of a game that was playing too fast, all the while trying to deal with the soul-crushing disappointment of a marriage gone bad while smiling for the photos with his wife on his arm. Both were in the grip of mad desire, the wheel of samsara. The luxuriant objects they reached for turned out to be empty. It all dissolved into dust.

I refer to this as a Buddhist fable because the concepts of karma and dharma seem to ring truer in our eternal judgement of Bob and Maureen McDonnell than words like “guilty” or “corrupt”. This is useful when we compare (as we should) their behavior to our own expectations of how we might behave in their place. If we believe the Governor and his wife were suddenly possessed by insane greed for shiny possessions, we can flatter ourselves that they caught a disease we don’t seem to have fully caught ourselves yet, and that, temporarily at least, we are safe from ever making similar mistakes.

But once we understand that they were blinded by maya in the grip of dharma, we can begin to relate more personally to their stories, and hopefully pick up some deeper lessons from the tawdry affair. This is why Buddhist fables are useful. If any of us think we are too smart to avoid ever making the kinds of mistakes Bob and Maureen McDonnell made, even in our own humble little worlds, we’d probably do well to start checking our own maya every day.


The Bob McDonnell scandal was about much more than greed. If you ache to own a Rolex, you suffer from greed. If you ache to be seen wearing a Rolex: well, you are suffering from something, but it's probably not greed.

view /BobAndMaureenMcDonnell
Friday, September 5, 2014 11:13 pm
The Buddha watches over Bob McDonnell
Levi Asher

What do we really know about ISIL, the rising insurgent group in Iraq whose violent methods have generated so much fear and anger around the world in the last few months? After violently establishing control of Sunni territories between Syria and northwest Iraq, they've provoked international outrage by beheading an American journalist named James Foley, and by releasing statements threatening vast new acts of terror around the world.

We must think we know something about ISIL here in the USA, because we've been saying a lot about them. Some American journalists, politicians and commentators are now urging a new war to fight the threat (though others like me are concerned that we don't have a better grasp on the real situation in Iraq than we had when we last invaded in 2003). At times like this, we can discover a lot by applying Occam's Razor to the case.

Occam's Razor, the famous philosophical principle we discussed last week, states that the simplest answer to a difficult question is probably the best one. We may think that we naturally gravitate to simple answers, but often we don't, which is why Occam's Razor can produce amazing results when applied systematically. If we examine ISIL with a strict focus on verifiable facts and obvious conclusions, we may discover that the opposite of everything we thought we believed is true..

So, what do we think we know about ISIL? Based on the media coverage and public conversations I've observed in recent weeks, two of the most popular answers would be:

1) They are fanatic religious fundamentalists, intent on jihad and sharia on behalf of Sunni Islam.

2) They are a powerful military force that will carry out evil acts of murder, abuse and terrorism until they are stopped by a stronger force.

Neither statement, it turns out, survives its first bout with Occam's Razor.

First, are the leaders or supporters of ISIL really motivated by religion? I continue to be amazed at the gullibility of otherwise smart people who fail to see the opportunistic phoniness of military leaders who claim to be religious. When new world leaders make themselves well known through acts of violence or terror, why are we always so eager to give them the gift of complete credulity? Why do we accept their statements of religious belief or ideological purity on face value?

ISIL appears to be led by an Iraqi named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The only thing we know for sure about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is that he is a successful military leader in a region of the world where religion is a strong indicator of ethnic identity and economic status. Because religion has so much cultural and social significance in Iraq, it is obvious that a person who wishes to be a successful military leader in Iraq will claim to be a religious Muslim.

It's nearly impossible to imagine an insurgent military leader in Iraq who does not claim to be a religious Muslim. Similarly, it would be impossible to imagine a successful male conservative Republican politician in the United States (say, a Senator or a Congressman) who does not claim to be heterosexual and happily married to a woman. So does this prove that every successful male conservative Republican politician in the USA is heterosexual and happily married to a woman?

Of course it does not. If an optional personal characteristic is a necessary requirement for acceptance in any field, and if the personal characteristic can be easily faked, then a successful application of Occam's Razor will always shave the belief in the sincerity of this personal characteristic away. The characteristic might exist, but in these circumstances there is no reason to believe that it exists.

We know that an insurgent military force must profess to be religious to gather support in Iraq, and we know that ISIL is an insurgent military force that has gathered support in Iraq. We cannot conclude from this that the militants who lead ISIL have any sincere interest in religion at all. It seems more likely that they are primarily interested in carrying out successful military operations.

I've brought up this important (and often widely neglected) point before, when I suggested in 2011 that Osama bin Laden could very well be a closet atheist. There is no good reason to ever grant credulity to a successful politician or military leader who professes to have personal, spiritual or ideological beliefs that are implicitly required for the roles they choose to play. Occam's Razor says: it's probably part of the act.

The only characteristic that most successful politicians or military leaders share is a strong appetite for power. Once we realize this, we can start to notice the ways in which appetite for power explains their actions. So, is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi actually a religious Muslim? We have no way to know, but we do know that he would have to claim to be a religious Muslim in order to succeed in his chosen role. Do we know if ISIL's ranks are filled with devout Muslims, or even that its wider circle of followers includes many devout Muslims? Again, we really don't know. In an area where religion denotes cultural identity and economic status, it's much easier to believe that large populations are motivated by cultural identity and economic status than by devout interest in religion itself.

So, the first thing we thought we knew about ISIL -- that the group and its followers are motivated by religious fundamentalism, doesn't survive the razor. The second statement above -- that ISIL is a powerful military force that will not stop committing acts of evil until it is stopped by a stronger force -- also performs poorly under close examination.

It's clear from its activities that ISIL is media-savvy, that its leaders are highly aware of the power of publicity. It has been provoking outrage in Iraq and around the world, and it has been gaining strength through its publicity efforts. This is not how a group that wants to be left alone behaves. It's how a group that wants to be attacked by a stronger force behaves.

There is, it turns out, very little reason to think that ISIL will suffer if it is attacked by a stronger force. It's a guerrilla group, after all. A strong and overt military response would give the greatest possible benefit to ISIL's violent and hateful mission, and would ensure its continuing growth. ISIL's Shiite victims in Iraq would be the first to suffer greatly if the current insurgency were escalated to a direct global conflict against the USA. There's no telling how far the damage would go.

ISIL's strategy is to distinguish itself by shocking and frightening its enemies. That's why they put a lot of effort into making and distributing a beheading video. Does anybody think the James Foley video was released by mistake? ISIL made the video to outrage their enemies, to provoke a response. Their greatest dream is that the USA would invade Iraq again.

If we are ever foolish enough to oblige, it would greatly strengthen ISIL's fame, its fundraising, its strategic opportunities and even its perceived moral position within Iraq and all over the world.

This is why I'm really appalled to learn that even some of my smarter friends think a strong show of American-led military strength in Iraq would harm ISIL. This is, of course, the very same amateur's mistake that President George W. Bush made in response to Osama bin Laden's provocation in 2001. At least we currently have a President and commander-in-chief who has probably heard of Occam's Razor. There's at least reasonable grounds for hope that Obama is smart enough to use it at times like this, when so much is at stake.


We know that an insurgent military force must profess to be religious to gather support in Iraq, and we know that ISIL is an insurgent military force that has gathered support in Iraq. We cannot conclude from this that the militants who lead ISIL have any sincere interest in religion at all. It seems more likely that they are primarily interested in being successful military leaders.

view /OccamIraq
Sunday, August 24, 2014 05:31 pm
Occam's Razor and a map of Iraq
Levi Asher

A few days ago, an African-American teenager was killed by a policeman for no apparent reason in a town called Ferguson on the outer edge of St. Louis, Missouri. As outraged citizens began protesting in the streets, the police made a bad situation worse by confronting the protestors in terrifying battle-line formation with quasi-military equipment and tear gas grenades, denying the right to assemble, arresting journalists and photographers.

Now the protest has become a global concern, and the anger that many of us in the USA have been expressing contains some pent-up rage, since we’ve all been watching video footage from Gaza, and Ukraine, and Syria and Iraq. We’ve been seeped in images of foreign violence all year, so the images of violence in the middle of our own country can feel like the revelation of a hidden universal truth: we are part of this war-torn world.

Universal truths often emerge rapidly in times of public crisis, but we need to carefully choose which universal truths we want to nurture. It is indeed a discouraging truth that our own benevolent authorities can commit murder, that our own peaceful towns can erupt in bitter conflict, all on a pleasant summer day.

But there are also other more encouraging and instructive universal truths that emerge in difficult moments like these, though the positive lessons often shine only weakly through the ugliness and noise. Because so many people in Ferguson, Missouri are sharing photos and videos and instant reports, and because the local police chiefs and politicians have been issuing regular press conferences, the mechanics of this crisis have been relatively transparent. We haven’t yet learned why an African-American teenager was shot by a cop, but we definitely have learned how the reaction to the shooting devolved into a riot.

The whole story went like this: first, a cop shot a teenager for no reason. Then an angry crowd expressed its outrage, and the police snapped into brutal military mode to quell the protest. Why was the police response so brutal? Because the cops felt threatened. They felt threatened because one of them had made a terrible mistake, and retributions were sure to follow. The violence of the police response was a reflection of the police department's internal sense of guilt about the original shooting.

Of course, the overreaction by the police only made the protestors more determined to stand their ground, and unfortunately the scene on the street also began to devolve into some amount of mindless destruction and looting, thus creating a demand for more police. The cycle was complete.

The object in the image at the top of this page looks like a weapon, but it is in fact just an antique razor, found among other ruins of medieval England centuries after it had probably been used by at least one man to shave his face. I choose this image (which I superimposed on a scene of a World War One military parade) to represent the philosophical principle known as Occam’s Razor.

William of Ockham was a 14th century theologian and philosopher known for a declaration that is widely loved among philosophers even today. “Occam’s Razor” is an appeal to empirical simplicity, to common sense, to the power of rationality and the importance of avoiding bias. The statement is this: given a difficult problem to solve, the simplest answer is probably the one to keep.

Wikipedia’s introduction to the concept explains it well:

Occam's razor … is a principle of parsimony, economy, or succinctness used in problem-solving. It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but -- in the absence of certainty -- the fewer assumptions that are made, the better.

Occam's Razor is a famous philosophical statement, but it’s not a cliche, because a thoughtful consideration of this principle can still provide surprising and provocative results in many applications. I thought of Occam’s Razor as I followed events in Ferguson this week.

I also thought of Occam’s Razor when I wrote last weekend’s Philosophy Weekend blog post arguing that the Watergate scandal that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency 40 years ago was not actually the product of Nixon’s personal psychological problems but rather of a reasonable fear of espionage and military weakness shared by many Americans during the Vietnam War era. I also thought of the Razor several months before when I wrote a series of blog posts suggesting that every major incident of genocide during the last couple of hundred years has been primarily motivated not by hatred or prejudice or racism or religious bigotry but, again, simply by fear.

This emphasis on fear as a root cause of conflict is indeed the major truth that Occam’s Razor can deliver to us as we analyze any crisis, whether in Ferguson, Missouri or in Israel and Palestine or Russia and Ukraine or Syria and Iraq. The answer always fits, and it always explains everything. Always.

Occam’s Razor is intended not only to emphasize simple answers that work but also to cut out complicated and tortuous answers that don’t work. When we accept the simple answer that violence and conflict and war are always the product of fear, we are successfully cutting out several other bad answers that are often cited as the root cause of violence and conflict and war.

Here are some of the bad answers that Occam's Razor can help us shave away, when we try to think intelligently about the violent conflicts of our time:

  • These terrible things happen because some people are just evil and hateful.
  • These terrible things happen because some sectors of society are not capable of civilized behavior.
  • These terrible things happen because of our innate enjoyment of violence.

It's sad to realize how popular these three general beliefs are, and how widely they are held. If a poll was taken, I bet all three of these statements would rank higher in public acceptance than the one I am proposing, which is:

  • These terrible things happen because both sides feel threatened.

But that's just because people aren't thinking very hard, and aren't using Occam's Razor.

Indeed, the hypothesis that fear is the root cause of most civil and global conflict survives Occam's Razor in a way that the other three statements do not. To posit a mental state or motivational force called "evil" or "hate" is to introduce murky and quasi-demonic concepts where they are not needed. We do not know for sure what "evil" is or where "hate" originates. But we do all instinctively know what "fear" means. If all the historic and current conflicts of the world can be explained simply as products of fear, than this is a better answer than any answer involving intangibles such as "evil" and "hate". Fear is the more primal and direct phenomenon, and thus better passes William of Ockham's test for reasonable belief.

Since it is indeed possible to find strong expressions of fear as motivating factors for most conflicts or mass atrocities, the statement that posits evil or hate as more influential than fear does not pass Occam's Razor. That takes care of the first statement.

As for the second, which posits deeply embedded societal difference between, say, street protestors and cops in Missouri, or between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East, we will quickly bog down in contradiction once we try to characterize exactly what these differences are. On what scale is a society's moral sophistical supposed to be measured, and how do we know that our cultural biases are not reflected in these scales? The closer we look, the less clarity we will find regarding these societal differences, and therefore this explanation is more of a conceptual stretch than the simple explanation that conflict between societies is a product of fear.

As for the third statement above, the Dostoevskian observation that humans often enjoy violence, we must admit that this is in itself true. However, it does not appear evident that our natural enjoyment of violence plays a strong role in our politics. While we should not deny the twisted aspects of human nature, we can at least take comfort in the fact that our violent instincts generally provide only weak and sporadic signals to our rational minds, and that most people will choose to behave decently to each other when they can. Most importantly, we can observe that psychological urges towards violence are a private individual phenomenon, and that these secret individual urges are not likely to occur to large numbers of people at the same time. This means that the collective behaviors that become dominant in times of a public conflict -- protests, fights, police riots, foreign invasions, wars -- are not likely to be expressions of private urges to violence overcoming many people at the same time. That would require a practical mechanism to exist for the transference of private urges to public policy, and this mechanism itself is too murky and mysterious to survive Occam's Razor.

To sum up: sure, we could believe that the ongoing disaster in Ferguson, Missouri is a manifestation of spiritual evil, or a result of societal deficiency, or the product of dark psychological urges towards violence. But, again, William of Ockham has advised us to always select the simplest answer that successfully addresses all particulars of the question. In Ferguson, Missouri, the simplest possible answer is "fear".

In Israel and Palestine, the simplest possible answer is also "fear", and it is too in Ukraine and Russia, and Iraq and Syria. In all cases, we can trace the influence of fear on both sides of the conflicts, and we can sadly watch everything unfold from the fear instinct alone. It's an answer to a difficult question that holds up pretty well. William of Ockham showed us the method 700 years ago, but we're still struggling to wield this razor correctly.


A medieval theologian named William of Ockham gave us a philosophical principle that can help explain the violent conflicts that puzzle and terrify us today.

view /OccamsRazor
Sunday, August 17, 2014 08:44 am
Ockham's Razor and a military parade
Levi Asher

"It was a lust for political power." - Bob Woodward

"There is no simple answer." - John Dean

President Richard Nixon, caught in a big lie, resigned in disgrace forty years ago. As we commemorate our shared memories of this astounding political scandal today, we are unwittingly basking in a new layer of delusion and willful untruth.

Yes, we conceal the truth today about Watergate, especially when we talk about the original motive for the crime, and when we try to analyze the lessons learned. I've enjoyed watching a couple of new television shows that interview the principals in the affair, but I can't help cringing at the level of voluntary obfuscation, of creative contextualizing. The gauze of popular self-delusion about Watergate does not serve a sinister political purpose but rather serves our need for comfortable conclusions, for meaningful metaphor (which may be meaningful even when it does not reveal a truth), for the dubious entertainment of banal psychobiography. It's easier to demonize Nixon than it is to realize that the disease that brought this President down is widely shared by others.

Bob Woodward sums up the popular understanding of the motive with a critique of Nixon's overreach: "It was a lust for political power". Well, Bob Woodward is a great journalistic hero, but he's evidently lost his sharpness over the last forty years, because this is a limp cliche. At the time of the Watergate break-in, Richard Nixon had already gathered immense political power. The opposition Democratic party had lost its ability to unite behind a single leader and win national elections because it had become hopelessly split between old guard and new radicals (similar to the way the Republican party is split and cannot unite to win a national election today). The Nixon-Agnew ticket was absolutely secure in the upcoming 1972 election, and this election would indeed produce a historic landslide.

Yet there was great anxiety in 1972 within the Nixon administration, and this anxiety had nothing to do with electoral politics. It had to do with the war that the United States of America was badly losing to the little Communist nation of North Vietnam, and it had to do with the massive protest movement in this country against the Vietnam War. Since so many Nixon administration principals have shared their stories, and since so many recordings of actual White House conversations can be heard, we know exactly what Nixon and his staffers were worried about in 1972.

They were worried about internal agents for foreign enemies, Communist spies, homegrown traitors or saboteurs who had nestled into the government apparatus. After his election in 1968, President Nixon tried to run the White House and the State Department and the Pentagon as a tight ship, closely controlled from the top. But he and his top staff found the large government bureaucracy impossible to control. Nixon had total loyalty within his staff, but he could not trust anyone at the State Department or the National Security Council (not even Henry Kissinger!), nor at the Pentagon.

This problem suddenly escalated dramatically when a military staff analyst named Daniel Ellsberg infiltrated national security in 1971 to release the Pentagon Papers, a set of secret internal documents about the Vietnam War. I have written about the strong connection between the Ellsberg case and the Watergate scandal before and I consider this point so important that I am now writing about it again: the release of the Pentagon Papers provides the entire explanation for everything that happened in the Watergate affair. The White House reaction to the release of the Pentagon Papers is the key. Once you put the Watergate pieces together with Daniel Ellsberg as the first piece in the puzzle, everything else falls logically and simply into place. It's commonplace to say that Watergate is a mystery today, but in fact the mystery has been thoroughly solved.

All we have to do is look at what happened, not in 1972 when election season began but in 1971 after the Pentagon Papers were released. Startled by the devastating realization that a "Communist spy" (in fact Ellsberg was not a Communist spy, but to Nixon's staff he was damn close enough) could infiltrate the Pentagon, the Nixon administration became terrified that they were losing the espionage war against their sneaky global enemies. The stunned reaction at the Presidential level can be clearly seen in the recorded White House conversations that took place at the time, and in many memoirs of the Nixon administration that would follow. They weren't talking about how to win the 1972 election; they had that sewn up. They were worried that they'd be blindsided by the next Daniel Ellsberg, and they were deeply, desperately worried about this.

Nixon and his top staff felt helpless and weak against this invisible foreign and domestic opposition. They were now convinced that they were weaker on espionage and dirty tricks than their enemies. These enemies did not include the Democratic party (which was weak and internally divided) but rather the nation's enemies: Russia and China and Cuba and Vietnam. It also included various unknown disloyal American protest leaders and hippies and Ivy Leaguers and New York Times journalists who sympathized with Russia and China and Cuba and Vietnam, several of whom seemed to have collaborated in the illegal release of the Pentagon Papers. Nixon and his top aides were sincerely frightened.

So, these top aides responded to the release of the Pentagon Papers by making the original mistake that would eventually lead to the Watergate scandal. A unit that nicknamed itself "The Plumbers" was formed in the summer of 1971 to develop a capacity to carry out secret illegal operations on behalf of the White House. The group was led by two highly self-important but foolish gung-ho pro-Americans with espionage experience: E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy.

Here is the vital point to understand: this secret team was specifically designed to operate illegally. They didn't break the law to achieve particular goals; rather, demonstrating the ability to break the law without getting caught was the entire goal. The reasoning of Nixon's top staff went like this: "we are besieged by spies who are breaking the law, and we don't know how to fight back. We have to match strength with strength and learn how to play the same game our enemies are playing."

Some may wonder how the White House could have trusted two shady blowhards like E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, and empowered them to act on the administration's behalf. But it was exactly because they were shady blowhards that Hunt and Liddy were hired. They were tough guys who could brag about actual spy operations they had carried out. They looked impressively sneaky and scary. They knew how to handle microphones and suitcases and cameras and copying machines. They even styled their names like J. Edgar Hoover.

If Hunt and Liddy could carry out a few not-quite-legal operations on the White House's behalf, then Nixon and his top aides could rest comfortably with the knowledge that they had a secret espionage team that could equal the espionage team they were sure their enemies already had. This is the kind of logic that only starts to make sense in time of war, and only starts to make a lot of sense when the war is going badly. Therefore, the primary motivation for the Watergate scandal can be found not in Richard Nixon's personality but in the fact that we were losing the Vietnam War.

So the hapless Plumbers showed up to work at the White House after the release of the Pentagon Papers, but they had one big problem. They couldn't think of any actual useful mission to carry out. Hilariously, unbelievably, the best idea they came up with was to break into the private office of Daniel Ellsberg's pyschiatrist in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles to see what embarrassing information they could find.

E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy pulled off this operation successfully in September 1971, though they found no information they could use against Ellsberg. Hunt and Liddy then used the same burglary team and the same weird techniques in the summer of 1972 to burglarize the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate Office Building. The Watergate burglary had no clearer purpose than the earlier burglary of the psychiatrist's office. Both operations were practice drills, proofs of concept. The Plumbers had to do something to prove their usefulness, and that's why Watergate happened.

"There is no simple answer" says John Dean in 2014 in one of several enjoyable TV specials commemorating the anniversary of Nixon's resignation. Why would a smart guy like John Dean satisfy himself with this trite and incorrect formulation? There is a simple answer: the motivation for the Watergate break-in was the Nixon administration's fear that it could not compete with the espionage capabilities of its enemies. The cover-up that followed was also seen by Nixon as a battle against hidden enemies within the media establishment, and thus the cover-up was also motivated by fear.

This can be clearly seen in the quote at the top of this page, which I screen-grabbed from another 40th anniversary TV show called Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words:

We're up against an enemy, a conspiracy. They're using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear? - Richard Nixon

There's your smoking gun. The rationale for Watergate wasn't lust for power. It wasn't greed. It wasn't Richard Nixon's unique psychology. It was fear for national security, fear of fatal weakness, stoked by a terrible war that was going badly.

As I mentioned above, I've laid out my theory of Watergate on this blog before, and I am repeating my theory today because I think it amounts to a solid and sensible interpretation of the historical facts that are there for anyone to see. I'm frustrated that so many accounts of the Watergate scandal don't even mention Daniel Ellsberg or the Pentagon Papers, even though it's a plain simple fact that everything that happened in 1972 was a direct consequence of what happened in 1971. I'm disappointed our national memory of the Watergate affair so often trivializes it into a morality tale, or a psychological biography, or a mystery novel, or a slapstick comedy.

In fact, our taste for metaphor and pop psychology has clouded our understanding of the basic facts about the Watergate break-in. Sure, everything that happened from June 1972 to August 1974 was incredible and meaningful and fascinating in many different ways, and there's no reason we shouldn't indulge in a creative contextualization of history to explore possible interpretations. But sometimes our contextualized interpretations overwhelm our basic view of what actually happened, and I think this tendency has led to a systematic historical misunderstanding of Watergate. Mostly, we like to marvel at the quirky and clumsy persona of Richard Nixon himself, and this is where most popular analysis of the Watergate scandal begins and ends.

That's unfortunate, because there was a wider significance to Nixon's fall, and a broader moral to the fable. As much as we enjoy demonizing or laughing at (or, sometimes, sympathizing with) Richard Nixon for his awkward personality and his five o'clock shadow and his square 1950s mindest, the terribly bungled Watergate break-in really wasn't the product of Richard Nixon himself. It was the work of many individuals (Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Egil Krogh, Fred LaRue, Maurice Stans, John Mitchell, Jeb Magruder, Charles Colson) with diverse personalities and motivations and backgrounds.

Strangely, they all thought it was logical to form a group called the Plumbers who would develop a White House capacity to carry out covert operations. No member of Nixon's team objected as this group proceeded to burglarize Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office and then the DNC headquarters. It seemed to make sense to all of them.

This seems to point to the existence in 1972 of a kind of delusion that was shared between many individuals, and certainly did not exist only in the mind of Richard Nixon. In fact, the need for the White House to develop a capacity to carry out illegal espionage operations was so easy to understand that many of Nixon's supporters responded to the Watergate arrests by urging Nixon to simply confess that his administration had ordered the operation and apologize. After all, they said, President Lyndon Johnson had done the same kinds of dirty tricks, and had also planted microphones (and indeed this was true). Many Americans believed that an apology from President Nixon for the Watergate break-in would have sufficed, and it probably would have.

But Nixon didn't apologize in 1972, and his popular presidency was utterly destroyed. And forty years later today the Vietnam War is over, and Nixon is gone, long gone, forever gone, dead.

It seems, though, that our human capacity for shared delusion remains very much alive.


We love to psychoanalyze Richard Nixon, but Watergate wasn't really about one man's delusions. It was about the shared delusion of a nation that was losing a war in Vietnam.

view /WatergateDelusions
Saturday, August 9, 2014 11:11 am
Screenshot from "Nixon by Nixon", an HBO documentary
Levi Asher

If there's any part of Literary Kicks that I'm sure is going well as the site celebrates its 20th birthday, it's Philosophy Weekend. These weekend essays consistently get the most enthusiastic feedback, the most comments, and the most Facebook/Twitter shares of all my blog posts. I'm really very happy that this section of the site has taken off.

But these essays are also the hardest to write, and sometimes -- like, well, this weekend -- I just can't bring it. This weekend, I've driven 500 miles, worked for several hours on my grueling day job, went to a poetry/book party at my Mom's apartment, and played basketball in the hot sun. I'd love to write an excellent blog post too, but I've been sitting here trying all Sunday afternoon ... and I just can't come up with the goods.

At times like these, I usually resort to a placeholder post with a title like "The Dog Ate My Philosophy Weekend" or (I think I've used this one a couple of times) "Recharging". But today, I can't even think of a good punchline for a placeholder post. I think this is a sign that I need a slight change of pace.

So, even though I am absolutely intent on continuing to grow this space, and I have not the slightest lack of enthusiasm for what we've all been talking about in these discussions, I have decided to slow down Philosophy Weekend to an every-other-week deal for at least the rest of the summer. Come autumn, we'll see if I want to bring it back to every weekend or not.

I think this will ensure that the quality control doesn't drop, and I won't have to come up with any more cute puppy pictures or use the title "Recharging" again. Thanks for understanding, and I'm sure I'll be able to come up with something lively for us all to argue about by next Saturday. See you then!


If there's any part of Literary Kicks that I'm sure is going well as the site celebrates its celebrates its 20th birthday ...

view /TheNewSchedule
Sunday, July 27, 2014 07:00 pm
A 1958 Philco TV set
Levi Asher

It's because words are such effective tools of communication that we sometimes fail to realize how often we communicate without them. A conversation is sometimes a physical exchange. These conversations carry meaning that can only exist in the physical realm.

We signify to each other with words, with gestures, with emotional expressions. We also signify with commitments, with actions, and when this occurs (as it constantly does in our everyday lives) we are able to see that logical meaning is itself a physical thing. We can't say what we want to say without putting our bodies into it.

For example: my wife and I go to a wedding of a friend of hers who we haven't seen in a while. We both like the bride and groom a lot, and we used to enjoy hanging out with them, but tonight we barely get to talk to the marrying couple because they are so busy running around being the bride and groom. Still, we are glad we came to the wedding, because we are able to express something to the couple by being there. They know that we are there because we want to celebrate their marriage, and this recognition (which might not take place till weeks later when they see their wedding photos) amounts to a happy conversation that could not have been carried out if we were not there. We could have sent a card, and the card could have had many more words on it than we had a chance to speak. But the card would have expressed not more meaning but less than we expressed by being there.

A game of poker provides another example of a form of communication that requires physical investment. This is the most basic rule of poker: your money does the talking. Let's say you're holding a pair of kings before the flop and somebody bets $20 and two others call. You decide that you'd like to take down the pot before the flop with an all-in bet, since you're pretty sure your kings have everyone beat right now, even though they might not hold up at the river. So you go all-in. By shoving your chips you are communicating loudly and clearly.

But you could not possibly have communicated what you just communicated without committing all your chips. It's important to note that, when the others fold (as you hope they will), they are not communicating back. When each player folds, that player is ending their part of the conversation. When they all fold, this conversation is over. The next conversation begins when the next hand is dealt.

So we sometimes communicate our friendship with our bodies, and we sometimes communicate our self-confidence with our money. But here's a darker aspect to the same idea, which occurred to me during the past week as I watched the depressing news from Israel and Palestine. Hamas is firing rockets at Israel from the Gaza Strip, and Israel is firing bigger weapons back. It's a horrible situation all around, and everybody is asking "why can't they just stop?"

The sad answer is, they can't stop because they are in the middle of a conversation that both sides feel compelled to have. By firing rockets at Israel, Hamas is saying "we don't accept Israel's right to exist, and we refuse to back down even though we lack enough military strength to defeat them in open battle." Once we look closely at Hamas's actions, it becomes clear that the only possible purpose of their rocket attacks is to make this statement. There is no strategic purpose; they are simply gesturing. Just as a poker player can't say "I have a monster hand here, you better all fold" without backing it up with a bet, Hamas believe that they can't say "we don't accept Israel's right to exist" without backing it up with armed attacks.

Of course, Israel is also using weapons as communication when it returns the attacks with much greater force. There's been a whole lot of communication going on between Hamas and Israel in the past few days.

But here's the terrible irony of the situation: Israel and Hamas refuse to talk to each other. Hamas won't talk to Israel because doing so would seem to amount to a recognition of Israel's right to exist. Israel won't talk to Hamas because it won't negotiate with terrorists. So both countries are pretending not to talk to each other. All the while, they're communicating back and forth with weapons that have no purpose other than signification.

I recently had a long argument with a few friends about whether or not Israel should agree to begin peace talks with Hamas. These pro-Israeli friends of mine seem to believe that that Israel can achieve something greater by refusing to talk with Hamas, though I can't imagine how they think this strategy can possibly succeed.

I have other friends who generally advocate the pro-Palestinian side, and similarly believe that Hamas should not agree to peace talks. It's also impossible for me to understand how they think this strategy will succeed.

I think we're all asking the wrong questions. Both Israel and Hamas are pretending to refuse to talk to each other, while in fact they're communicating in the worst possible way. Maybe it will help to acknowledge that what needs to be expressed simply needs to be expressed. If the words can't be found, the physical actions will carry the meaning instead. Our challenge is to find the words.

This is why I will always advocate for peace talks between any enemies, no matter how much bitter hatred exists between them. This conversation is already taking place, because war is a form of language. If we refuse to allow the necessary communications to be expressed in words, they will be expressed with weapons.

We should never doubt that peace talks can be crucially important, even when they appear likely to be hopeless. It doesn't matter if we have no hope; we need to have the peace talks anyway. Like a poker player who decides to fold a hand, what we need is not the beginning of a good conversation. What we desparately need is the end of a bad conversation that has already been going on way too long.


We can't say what we want to say without putting our bodies into it. This explains a lot about why wars are so hard to end.

view /WarLanguage
Friday, July 18, 2014 04:47 pm
Rocket launchers form a complete sentence.
Levi Asher

I observed a strange reaction among my friends -- especially my fellow liberals -- when a new insurgent group calling itself "The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria" began capturing towns and small cities in war-torn Iraq.

There's really nothing new about this insurgent group, which represents the same Sunni coalition that lost power with the fall of Saddam Hussein and has been trying to get it back ever since. But all of a sudden, several of my friends were up in arms about the insurgency. Why? Because they're fundamentalists.

Indeed, the new insurgency is using Islamic fundamentalism as a way to gain support (and frighten Brits and Americans). It's a smart strategic move: calls to religion have always been useful recruiting tools in time of war. But what amazes me is that some of my American friends are more offended by the fact that the new insurgents are religious than by the fact that they are rampaging through towns murdering political opponents with their families.

The atrocities are perfectly acceptable, apparently ... as long as they don't start bringing sharia into it.

It's a sign of our shrill times that some people are actually more offended by religion than by war. This is fed by the common misconception that wars are commonly fought over religion. This widely-accepted belief (a belief that the late Christopher Hitchens shamelessly dined out on for a decade) must be exposed for the fraud it always has been.

A simple review of world history makes it clear: while religion is often used as a surrogate for ethnic or national identity, religion itself has never been the actual cause of any war. The holy war is a fraud.

All wars work the same way, whether religious identity plays a part or not. When religious identity plays a part, it is as identity rather than as religion. The primary engine of war is the grinding against each other of different groups, variously identified by location, history, language, ethnicity, religion or economic class. The causes, outcomes and consequences of the major wars of recent centuries do not show any pattern of being influenced by religious doctrine or popular religious belief. War is war, whether religious or not.

So why are so many of my friends terrified by the concept of jihad? I don't know, but I know that many of my friends have a natural dislike for religion, which is their right. But I cringe at the idea that political liberalism will ever become identified with atheism. This is a wrong turn, a dead end. Whether you are personally religious or not, it is important to know that religion has not been a harmful influence in the world. Rather, it has been a constant source of healing and comfort and connection. A world without religion is as unthinkable as a world without literature or a world without music.

I've recently been urging my readers to read three philosophers whose work I consider highly relevant for the political problems that plague the world today: Ludwig Wittgenstein, William James and Carl Jung. I chose these three names for several different reasons. One is their common attitude towards religion.

Ludwig Wittgenstein demonstrated the futility of logical or scientific arguments against religious belief. William James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, an open-minded treatment of the natural human inclination towards spirituality. Carl Jung enthusiastically explored religious symbolism as a key to understanding the human soul. All three of them also appear to have been privately religious (idiosyncratically, of course, in all three cases, as should always be expected when a philosopher embraces religion).

The kind of religious sensibility that can be found in the private writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein or William James or Carl Jung is not often found in the private writings of a military leader or corrupt politician. This is one reason I rarely take a corrupt or militant politician seriously when they claim to be religious. For instance, future USA presidential candidate Paul Ryan was a devout follower of Ayn Rand until he was suddenly tagged as Vice Presidential material. He suddenly disavowed Ayn Rand and pronounced himself a devout Catholic. Am I obligated not to laugh? Similarly, I never believed the hype that Osama bin Laden was a devout Muslim. I read his biography, and I didn't see a lot of time for private refection in that life story. Osama bin Laden was a clever and egotistical leader driven to political grandiosity by a traumatic Oedipal complex. I don't suspect that there was much room in that crowded brain for thoughtful spiritual reflection, and the fact that Osama bin Laden strove to portray himself as a religious person doesn't mean he did so convincingly.

Remember when Saddam Hussein turned up in a full beard, claiming to be a devout Muslim? Well, whether religion is sincere or not, we do know that religion is often convenient to profess, and so we are not obligated to ever believe that a politician or military leader's religious beliefs are sincere when they are engaging in activities that are harmful to innocent people or to the planet. We can start making better decisions if we stop falling for the ruse.

Have there ever been sincerely religious military leaders? Sure -- it's easy for biographers to discern a politician's private spiritual character from various evidence. For instance, there's little doubt that President George W. Bush was sincerely religious -- though he wasn't much of a military leader. President Jimmy Carter was also sincerely religious. He may not have been much of a military leader either.

As for great military leaders who really have been successful, history shows few examples of deeply religious personalities. Making my own quick survey through the history channels of my mind, I can think of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, who was known to have a deeply spiritual mind. He prayed constantly, and his letters are filled with musings on Biblical lessons.

And I can think of French warrior-saint Joan of Arc, who saw her entire improbable journey of conquest as a direct intervention by God, and who burned at the stake for her devout belief without flinching.

So that's two examples -- but Stonewall Jackson and Joan of Arc are the only two I can think of, and that leaves thousands and thousands of other examples of military and political leaders who used religion as a tool to stir up popular support and ethnic identification, but left behind little evidence that they had any actual profound religious feeling themselves.

I hope we can stop falling for the grand fraud of the holy war. Christopher Hitchens isn't around to argue with us about this today, but it's a fact that he had it wrong. It's amazing how much clarity can be obtained once we take the time to look closely at the real causes of the political mistakes our leaders make. God's usually got very little to do with it.


All wars work the same way, whether religious identity plays a part or not. When religious identity plays a part, it is as identity rather than as religion.

view /IsReligiousWarAFraud
Saturday, June 21, 2014 06:59 pm
Joan of Arc and Stonewall Jackson
Levi Asher