I wonder if all the glory that's been heaped upon Nelson Mandela since his death on Thursday is hurting his feelings. This level of adulation has got to be hard for anyone to endure, living or dead.
Well, the glory is well-deserved, but just for the sake of originality I'd like to celebrate two South Africans today: Nelson Mandela and his political opponent and partner F. W. de Klerk, the last white President of South Africa, who had the courage to take the steps to negotiate an end to apartheid. De Klerk's courage was very different from Nelson Mandela's, but it's no less worthy of praise.
Unlike Nelson Mandela, Frederik Willem de Klerk didn't really look like a hero. He was 18 years younger than Nelson Mandela, but his body shape and physical presence made him look 18 years older. Mandela spent 27 years in jail; de Klerk spent nearly his entire life as a politician in the government that kept Mandela there. Mandela was the son of a Xhosa chief; de Klerk's last name means "the clerk".
A surprising news bulletin made the rounds this week: "Incredible Discovery Reveals Birthplace of Buddha". They did what? The story appears to be credible, though many Westerners like me who feel the significance aren't quite sure how to react. Shouldn't a discovery this momentous be bigger news? Shouldn't it at least be accompanied by some kind of astral event or bright comet? (Oh, right.)
It's strange to think of Buddha's traces in the material world, though Prince Siddhartha Guatama of Kapilavastu was certainly a historical figure, and was a celebrated personality in his community even before he became the Enlightened One. His teachings are similar in many ways to those of Jesus of Nazareth, but their life trajectories were opposite. Jesus was born in poverty and anonymity, and died an early violent death after being hailed as the King of the Jews. Buddha was born a royal, but nobody thought of him as a Prince or King any more by the time he died peacefully at the age of 80.
Every once in a while, a pacifist blogger gets to yell "stop the presses".
There was a Philosophy Weekend blog post all ready to go up this morning -- till I heard that the United States of America, Britain, China, Russia, Germany, France and Iran have suddenly reached a preliminary peace agreement that will turn back Iran's path towards nuclear escalation. This is very good news.
The CNN article above is headlined "3-decade gridlock broken: The nuclear deal with Iran in Geneva". Actually, this peace treaty ends not three but six decades of bad karma between the USA and Iran. It was sixty years ago, in August 1953, that agents of the USA's newly powerful Central Intelligence Agency led by Kermit Roosevelt successfully schemed to overthrow Iran's democratically elected leader Mohammad Mossaddegh and replace him with a royalist tyrant, Shah Reza Pahlavi, who promised to allow American and European powers (primarily Great Britain) to continue to control Iran's oil exports.
Mossaddegh was a moderate and noble popular leader who seemed to be steering his country towards greater freedom and self-reliance. Most significantly, he had been fairly elected by the Iranian people. The CIA-led overthrow was probably the most blatantly shameful and immoral act of foreign intervention in my country's recent history, and of course it led to an intensely hostile relationship between the USA and Iran.
The history of the USA's bad relationship with Iran is undisputed and widely known in Iran, but few Americans know about the roots of our conflict with Iran. Today's news of a peace agreement may be met with confusion and disinformation by shallow journalists and commentators who don't know much about history, and I suggest that anyone who wants to understand the big picture behind this peace agreement read an excellent book by Stephen Kinzer called All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. The history of this 1953 overthrow reads like a conspiracy theorist's bad fantasy, but it's all undisputed fact, and the only reason the story isn't widely known in my country is that the truth still makes us uncomfortable.
Today's Philosophy Weekend is a question: what is the meaning of the extreme alienation that seems to be growing between two loosely defined political opinion groups in the United States of America?
Of course, the division between conservativism and liberalism is nothing new. But the emotional intensity of the split has been remarkable in the past few months, stoked by the rollout of Obamacare, which has led to an explosion of political noise, paranoia and apocalyptic drama way beyond the bounds of any normal political debate in this country. The break can be seen in the word cloud above, which shows the terms used by Republican voters to describe President Barack Obama.
It's notable that "liar" dominates the word cloud. This shows the depth of the problem Barack Obama faces in trying to communicate with his opponents. "Liar" is a tough word to fight back against, because it indicates a complete alienation between speaker and listener. If a President is perceived by opponents as incompetent or stupid, some cure for the condition can be imagined. If a President is simply seen by opponents to be a liar, there is no path to a common ground, because there is no common trust.
The pointing finger in this photo belongs to Jeremy Paxman, a British journalist. The pointee is Russell Brand, a brash and popular comedian who has guest-edited a new "Revolution" issue of the New Statesman, in which he says things like this:
Apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people … Along with the absolute, all-encompassing total corruption of our political agencies by big business, this apathy is the biggest obstacle to change.
Here's a timely one, to cap off a week of truly bizarre politics in my country, the United States of America. An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi looks like a children's book, with appealing and funny drawings by Alejandro Giraldo, but is written for grown-ups. Each page represents a different common form of logical fallacy.
Generously, the authors have placed the entire book online, where it can hopefully help to unwind all the bad philosophical arguments that are hovering thickly in the air. Logical fallacies are timeless and universal, of course, but this book feels especially relevant now, as my country moves cautiously towards implementation of the sorely needed health insurance reform law known as Obamacare, and free market conservatives, corporate lobbyists, Tea Party congressmen and Ayn Rand followers explode in fury.
A musical play about ethical philosophy called A Theory of Justice, loosely inspired by John Rawls's book of the same name, is causing a mild sensation after opening in Oxford and Edinburgh. Written by four Oxford students named Eylon Aslan-Levy, Ramin Sabi, Tommy Peto and Toby Huelin, the musical is apparently a spirited spin through the history of ethics, focusing on the debate between Rawls and Robert Nozick and featuring appearances by Plato, Socrates, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ayn Rand, John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Benthan, Mary Wollstonecraft, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Immanuel Kant. A symbolic female figure named "Fairness" (she is singing a duet with Rousseau in the photo on this page) provides an anthropomorphic representation of John Rawls's favorite concept, signalling the fact that these Oxonian playwrights are Rawlsians, or something close.
If the musical ever plays on Broadway I will surely see it, and until then I'll have to satisfy myself with an interview by Nigel Warburton and a lively review by Glen Newey in London Review of Books, who says this:
Funny thing: it was only when I began writing about ethical philosophy here on Litkicks that I began writing seriously about history. The two disciplines might not seem to have much in common, but to me they feel intertwined.
Maybe that's because our popular conceptions of both ethics and history show so much confusion, contradiction and willful denial of obvious fact. People often say illogical and nonsensical things when they talk about their moral principles, and they do so as well when they describe what they believe has happened on planet Earth leading up to our present times. It's hard to say whether our typically chauvinistic and ethnocentric conceptions of history cause us to be ethically confused more than our ethical confusions cause us to mangle historical fact. Let's just say that both things happen a lot. If our world will ever have the happy epiphany in ethical philosophy that is our hopeful destiny and due, it will probably be accompanied by a more informed popular grasp of history.
I read a lot of history -- more history than fiction or philosophy or poetry or even (believe it or not) rock star autobiographies. I haven't written about history much here on this blog because, frankly, I'm scared to start. I have too much to say. I don't know where to begin to unload. I think that many things people believe about history are dead wrong -- no, I know this, because every good history book proves this to be true. But I don't want to turn Litkicks into a whirlpool of historical revisionism. Historical revision is a field with an ugly reputation, since revisionism can be used to gain respect for horrific campaigns such as Holocaust denial.
But perhaps historical revision isn't what we need. We need historical vision. We don't need new books to tell us that what we've learned is wrong. We just need to read the damn books we already have. They will tell us that everything we've learned is wrong.
Here are three superb books I've read that have helped me to understand how little we tend to know about the things we think we know.
Back when I was a philosophy student, Immanuel Kant was it. The 18th century Prussian philosopher who pinched off the stiff arguments between the Continental Rationalists and the British Empiricists and ushered in the contemporary era of analytic/existential thought was probably more highly regarded by most of my professors (a highly contentious lot) than any other single figure except maybe Plato.
That doesn't mean Kant was anybody's favorite philosopher, though, either in my college's department or anywhere. He probably wasn't. Everybody respects Kant, but few get excited about him -- probably because his ideas are so widely and generally accepted. He is a foundational figure because he stands as a mediator between opposing ideas.
Kant's greatest achievement in 18th century European philosophy was to mediate a middle ground between two intellectual attitudes that had reached a deadlock. He agreed with the British Empiricists that human beings cannot claim access to absolute truth by means of philosophical argument. But he denied the empiricist's model of the human mind as an empty vessel, accessing reality only by means of sensory experience. Instead, Kant showed, we must realize that the mind constructs its understanding of the outside world, and that therefore our beliefs are grounded in something less flimsy than the phenomenological and epistemological mass of meaninglessness that Bishop George Berkeley and David Hume described.
With this model, suddenly the tedious arguments between Berkeley and Hume and Spinoza and Leibniz seemed to matter less, and western philosophy found several more creative and constructive paths. Philosophy got better after Kant. He led the way to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer, to Soren Kierkegaard and Freidrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and William James, Auguste Comte, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein.