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.
Every once in a while I find myself wondering why I run a blog series called Philosophy Weekend that doesn't necessarily resemble anybody else's idea of what philosophy is, and maybe also doesn't necessarily resemble anyone's idea of what a weekend is.
I was in one of these questioning moods a few days ago when I watched an excellent film on late-night cable TV that gave me the insight I needed at the moment: Happy-Go-Lucky by Mike Leigh.
I love Mike Leigh's humble, amusing movies, which are almost always about ordinary British people dealing with ordinary problems. In Secrets and Lies, an adult woman finds the mother who gave her up for adoption. Nuts in May takes place in a nature camp where a boisterous partier sets up a tent next to two stern hippies. Vera Drake is about a woman who secretly performs illegal abortions. Leigh's masterwork Topsy-Turvy imagines the backstage action behind Gilbert and Sullivan's premiere of "The Mikado".
A Mike Leigh movie doesn't look or feel like anybody else's movie. The sets and performances aim to be completely natural, and his sensitive performers don't overact for the cameras but rather move and speak like real people do: polite, hesitant, often unsure of themselves. In a typical schlocky Hollywood movie, a married couple having an argument will often yell at the tops of their lungs, even when they're standing face-to-face only inches away from each other. In a Mike Leigh movie, a married couple having an argument looks like a real married couple having an argument. When a Mike Leigh film suddenly explodes into a sneaky emotional climax (as they tend to do) we are reminded of the communicative power of a quiet speaking voice.
Happy-Go-Lucky is a classic Mike Leigh setup. Poppy, a London schoolteacher played by Sally Hawkins, has a strange quirk: she's relentlessly cheerful, gabby, upbeat. Everywhere she goes, she compulsively cracks jokes, breaks rules, calls attention to herself. She knows that people find her energy level odd amd annoying, and she also knows that her manic style amounts to one of many life choices she's implicitly made that have not worked out particularly well.
She finds her opposite when she signs up for driving lessons with a tense driving instructor played by Eddie Marsan. He objects to her chattiness, asks her to wear proper footwear, makes racist remarks about other drivers. The confrontation that finally erupts between this dour man and this ebullient woman is the transformative event in this film, as Poppy learns the full impact of her behavior on others, and comes to realize what her quirky commitment to joyful living is grounded in.
It's time to start putting some puzzle pieces together.
Five weekends ago I began a project by suggesting that we try to analyze some tough ethical/historical problems with the methodology of a puzzle-solver, by which I meant that we would determine a few principles or "tools" and then apply these principles or tools repetitively and mechanically until we reach a conclusion.
I originally spoke of Sudoku or KenKen puzzles, while today I'm showing a picture of a Rubik's Cube. It doesn't matter because the puzzle is only a broad metaphor for the experiment I'm trying to conduct. The goal is to obtain fresh insights that we don't seem to be able to obtain with our usual emotional and moral interpretations of history. You can't solve a Sudoku puzzle or a Rubik's Cube with your emotions, or with a demonstration of your moral goodness. You need to apply simple techniques repetitively and consistently, which leads me now to ask what simple techniques we use when trying to understand the worst and most well-known atrocities of recent history: the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the African slave trade, the massacres in Rwanda, the September 11 attacks, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Irish famine, China's Great Leap Forward, the massacre in Srebenica, the refugee death camps of Darfur, the current crisis in Syria.
The great puzzle we are trying to solve is this: why do these atrocities occur? I think the urgent need for fresh insight is obvious, since despite our hollow promises of "never again" these atrocities occur frequently today (in the list above, five of the atrocities occurred in the last twenty years, and at least two are happening right now).
It's because I respect musicians who bravely venture into the dark literary territory of autobiography that I am so fascinated by musical memoirs. It's also why I'm sometimes critical of them. I have high standards regarding what a good memoir should be.
My standards are high but simple. An autobiography of a musician or any other artist must be written in a voice that feels distinct and artistic. It must tell a coherent story in chronological form. Most importantly, a good memoir must tell the truth.
On these terms, I criticized Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace for lacking story coherence, and for substituting undercooked present-tense for thoughtful past-tense. I knocked Steve Tyler's Does The Noise In My Head Bother You? for an inconsistent voice: the first few chapters about Steve's childhood and teenage years were very well written, but once Steve grew up and got famous the book shifted in tone to something like a People magazine interview about his rock star lifestyle. That ain't memoir.
Today I'm going to tell you about a memoir that I bet you never heard of, even though there's a good chance you dearly love the legendary rock band the author of this autobiography played drums for.
I've been trying to philosophize about the Ukranian crisis in real time. This is always hazardous. Last Saturday morning, February 22, I invited readers to look at six images representing the history of Ukraine and to suggest three more that help fill out the story we are trying to understand. The idea was to try to puzzle out new insights about the enigmatic and confusing geopolitics of this Eastern European country, which has endured terrible conflicts and sufferings for centuries.
I thought this would be a worthy Zen type of philosophical/political exercise -- but I felt the sand of the mandala falling out under me when, just as I hit "publish" on my blog post, news blared out all over social media that the embattled Russian-sponsored President had suddenly fled the city of Kiev. This meant that the violent Kiev uprisings of the past weeks had turned into a successful revolution. Huge news! But I regretted having published my blog post about Ukraine's history on this hopeful and joyous day in Kiev and around the world. My blog post had a gloomy and angry tone that did not match the jubilation I even felt myself as I watched reports of Ukranian citizens celebrating on the streets of Kiev.
Even so, my intrepid and erstwhile Litkicks commenters came through in the clutch and answered my challenge with several great sets of images (see the comments on last weekend's post to enjoy the selections). I was glad that Subject Sigma remembered the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, and also shared the image of a beautiful breadbasket Ukranian field that is at the top of this page.
(Privacy in the Internet age is emerging as one of the crucial ethical topics of our era; we've briefly touched upon it here at Philosophy Weekend, but will clearly have to begin devoting more space to the big controversies in 2014. Let's get the party started early with a sharp opinion piece by Tom Watson, a longtime friend and debate partner of Litkicks. Tom, the founder of Cause Wired, is also the author of the book CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World as well as a recent set of New York City reminiscences titled 'Bridge and Tunnel Kid'.)
Earlier this week, Federal Judge Richard Leon described the information gathering techniques of the National Security Agency as "almost Orwellian" in a ruling that the agency likely violates the Constitution. This may represent the high water mark for the rampant, almost fad-like invocation of the mid-20th century British social critic's name in public discourse.
Or low water mark, your choice.
For a writer of remarkably sparse fictional output who died tragically young at the age of just 46 in London fully 64 years ago next month, George Orwell sure gets around a lot these days. Yet I suspect that more people bring to mind the famously theatrical Apple commercial invoking shades of 1984 when they throw around "Orwellian" than the thinking or writing of the actual man.
1922 was a special year for modernist literature. On February 2, James Joyce was the shy guest of honor at a small publication party for Ulysses in Paris. Sylvia Beach showed Joyce the book for the first time that day, thus establishing 2/2/22 as its Joycily pleasing official publication date.
Ulysses is one of two pillars of 20th century modernist literature, and the other is The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot, a long and strange poem that arrived to the wastrel world eight months later on October 16, 1922, neatly printed within the debut edition of The Criterion.
Both Ulysses and Waste Land were mash-ups of ancient heroic literature, regurgitated through a pained awareness of the plight of Europe in the age of industrialized war, revolution, capitalism and fast society. The milieu of European urban high culture that produced Ulysses and The Waste-Land in 1922 -- a vast set of personalities that includes Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Andre Breton, W. B. Yeats, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Benito Mussolini, Vladimir Lenin, Mohandas Gandhi, D. H. Lawrence, E. E. Cummings, Wassily Kandinsky, Virginia Woolf, George Gurdjieff, and of course Gertrude Stein -- is the subject of Kevin Jackson's ingeniously simple Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One.
The book is ingeniously simple because it is written as an annotated calendar, moving forward in brisk anecdotes from January to December, constructing a found story along the way. Some entire days are skipped, while other days present enjoyable juxtapositions, like June 30, on which Franz Kafka retired from his job, T. S. Eliot wrote a letter and young Eric Arthur Blair applied to the India Office for a position that would take him to Burma, one of many eventual stops towards his future as George Orwell.
It must mean something that Marcel Proust died on November 18, 1922, one month after Waste Land came out (though it is not known whether or not Proust read Eliot's poem). This was the same month that Howard Carter discovered and plundered the tomb of King Tutankhamen in Egypt, the same month that Crown Prince Hirohito became the new emperor of Japan.
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.
The shaded cobblestone streets of Garden Rest are lined with shops, cottages, a pub, a boarding house near the town square, and of course, something nefarious lurking in dark hinterlands. John Shirley’s Doyle After Death reads like a classic Sherlock Holmes whodunit, with a couple of major differences.
First, it takes place in the afterlife, or as the people of Garden Rest prefer to call it, the Afterworld. A private detective named Nicholas “Nick” Fogg wakes up in the Afterworld after dying in a hotel room in Las Vegas. Also, flashbacks to the detective’s last case among the living give the story a touch of gritty noir realism.
The plot advances at a breezy clip that is somehow both relaxing and exhilarating, and Shirley has a knack for cinematic descriptions. In one nighttime scene, four men look down at the town from a steep hill and see a view like a rich chiaroscuro painting. Shirley's biographical knowledge of Arthur Conan Doyle informs the novel and confirms Shirley as a fan and a history scholar. He even includes an appendix, which expounds upon Doyle’s theories about the spirit world and incorporates those theories into the novel. Comic book collectors speak of the “Marvel universe” and the “DC universe.” This is the Doyle/Shirley universe.
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: