Exactly one hundred years ago today, there was still some hope that the monstrous war that had just broken out between (in quick succession) Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, France, Belgium, Great Britain and Turkey might be over by Christmas. A quick victory was what all the military experts on all the sides had promised, after all.

The Great Fraud wasn’t over by Christmas. Today, we mostly think of the First World War as the prelude to the grudge match that followed it, the Second World War, which was somehow even more destructive. Today, the shrill pitch of global politics shows that we have never really managed to emerge from the cloud of moral poison that emerged from Central Europe in 1914. La Grande Illusion still surrounds us today.

The First World War is almost always remembered by historians as a foolish and massive human tragedy, and that's why a mood of dignified sadness and cosmic frustration hung in the air on November 8 in the Celeste Bartos room of the New York Public Library, where an impressive group of historians and activists gathered for a day-long event called Voices for Peace, 1914-2014.

The host was Lewis Lapham, and the theme of the program appeared to have been inspired by Adam Hochschild's important recent book To End All Wars (which I read and reviewed here on Litkicks), a survey of the long-forgotten pacifist and activist movements that tried to prevent the slide to futile madness in Europe in 1914, and a reminder that the philosophy of pacifism has a long tail.

Adam Hochschild, holding the seat of honor next to Lewis Lapham, emphasized the shock of the fast slide to total war, which took nearly every progressive European thinker by surprise. Many political pundits and activists had been absorbed in lofty socialist or idealistic agendas when the war broke out. "The Internationalist dream went up in smoke at this moment," Hochschild said.

I was glad to find Michael Kazin on this panel, as I had also once read his biography of the famous Christian revivalist William Jennings Bryan, a perennial Democratic candidate for President who is now mostly known as the anti-Darwin foil in Inherit the Wind. I'd originally read A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan because I was interested in Bryan's career as a religious revivalist, but I was fascinated by the unexpected discovery that this farm-country traditionalist was also a devout pacifist who did God's work in trying to persuade President Woodrow Wilson not to enter the European war. At the New York Public Library panel, Kazin spoke of the wide variety of anti-war activities in the USA before and after we entered the war in 1917, including a women's march down Fifth Avenue and popular songs like "I Didn't Raise My Son To Be A Soldier".

The final member of the morning panel was Jack Beatty, NPR pundit and author of The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began. Beatty stated crisply a key point that is too often forgotten: there is a single human emotion that is the engine of war. The emotion is not greed, not hatred, but fear.

After the morning panel we heard stirring tributes by Jessica Tuchman Mathews and David Nasaw to Andrew Carnegie, another famous figure of history who is not typically remembered as a pacifist, though he dedicated his life to the cause. Nasaw referred to Carnegie as a "fool for peace", and told enough stories to justify this honorific that I will certainly feel much more humbled by the benefactor's good intentions the next time I walk into Carnegie Hall.

The afternoon session "Where Are the Voices for Peace Now?" was designed to pivot the conversation from history to activism, and this was the session I was most looking forward to. Lewis Lapham had invited a lively group, anchored by the peace and ecology activist Leslie Cagan. Next to Leslie was Steve Fraser, whose upcoming book The Age of Acquiescence criticizes our society's complacency about abuses of capitalism.

An interesting dynamic became evident as Cagan and Fraser each tried to answer the question "where are the voices for peace now?" in light of their own backgrounds and familiar activist communities. Leslie Cagan spoke of pacifism in terms of its connection to issues of racial equality, environmental policy and gender discrimination. She pointed out that the world's biggest consumer of fossil fuels is the United States military.

Steve Fraser, meanwhile, became so enmeshed in a tangent about economic justice that I started to feel annoyed, because I began to suspect that he believes we will only be able to solve the problem of war after we overthrow capitalism. Personally, while I probably will be happy to help overthrow capitalism, I am definitely not willing to wait to overthrow militarism until that's done first and I certainly do not agree with those who say that peace is impossible until Wall Street is defeated. (I personally think it's the other way around: we won't be able to solve most other problems in the world until we discover peace, and once we do discover peace, many other problems will easily cure themselves.)

The third panelist was David Cannadine, an extremely vivid and confident speaker who at one point deservingly lambasted an elderly questioner who complained about Cannadine's kind words about Barack Obama. As much as I enjoyed Cannadine's performance, I felt that his approach to the panel was disappointing in the same way that Cagan's and Fraser's was: he was not primarily there to speak about pacifism. He spoke convincingly of issues of leadership style, and of the odd twists of history that determine our fate, but he did not indicate at any point during this panel that he felt there were any significant voices for peace worth mentioning today. Nor, for that matter, did Cagan or Fraser.

This is not David Cannadine's or Leslie Cagan's or Steve Fraser's fault. They're probably right: pacifism currently has no currency at all as a political philosophy. Former New York Public Library president Vartan Gregorian addressed this directly in his introduction to the event when he pointed out that pacifism never recovered from the debacle of the Munich peace agreement that empowered Nazi Germany to seize Czechoslovokia in 1938. David Cannadine referred to this later when he pointed out that "pacifist" is now considered equivalent to "appeaser". This is indeed the major challenge that any pacifist must be able to respond to today. But anybody who considers this a fatal challenge to pacifism is certainly not trying hard enough.

Just as the afternoon panel failed to name any individual voices for pacifism who are making a significant difference today, it also failed to identify any highly relevant peace organizations in the world. There is Greenpeace, and there is Occupy Wall Street, and there is Amnesty International and Medecins Sans Frontieres, and these are all more or less tangentially pacifist to some degree. But these organizations each have specific purposes other than world peace itself. This panel discussion was called "Where Are the Voices for Peace Now?", but it seems the world has a big empty space where a vibrant peace movement should be.

Or does it? Would we have been able to name some examples of voices for peace today if Lewis Lapham had invited Medea Benjamin, or Yoko Ono, or Nicholson Baker? Maybe so, and I wish they could all have been included, along with many others too. But the truth that was revealed by this afternoon session's scattered attention span is an important truth in itself, and I think it had to be revealed to help us realize what we must do next.

It was such a subtle omission that I barely even noticed it myself until near the end of the question-and-answer session, when somebody else pointed it out: "I'd like to bring this back," he said, "to the main question, which really hasn't been discussed at all. Where are the voices for peace today?"

I left the room with the question still in my head, and I'm going to keep thinking about it. If we don't know where the peace movement is in the world right now, maybe we need to get off our butts and create one.


Lewis Lapham, Adam Hochschild, Michael Kazin, Jack Beatty, Leslie Cagan, Steve Fraser and David Cannadine discuss pacifism at the New York Public Library.

view /NYPLVoicesForPeace
Sunday, November 9, 2014 11:08 am
Lewis Lapham, Adam Hochschild, Michael Kazin, Jack Beatty at the New York Public Library
Levi Asher

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

I always wondered how I would react if I ever found somebody else using the "Litkicks" name.

I can't see myself ever sending a "cease and desist" letter through a lawyer. That just wouldn't be my style, and it would betray the various vague but passionate stances I have taken as an artistic libertarian and copyright anarchist. Now that I actually find a community organization in London advertising a series of events as "LitKicks", I'm facing my first test of my ideals. How should I react?

The organization is apparently the Jewish Community Center of London, and they're putting on some good events including a reading by Howard Jacobson, who is the kind of writer we like here at Litkicks (he's also a current Booker Prize nominee for his new novel J).

So, how should I react? Should I be offended that these literary folks in London either a) haven't heard of my own Litkicks, despite all the work I've put into it over the years, or b) have heard of Litkicks, and decided to use the name anyway? Do I send a threatening note? Do I have any ability to actually prevent them from using the name in a different country, or in fact in any part of the world? If I were in their position, how would I feel if I were asked to stop using a certain name? (It would probably make me defiant rather than contrite.)

After thinking hard about this, I realized that of course I have to live up to my ideals. I will not be sending the Jewish Community Center of London a threatening letter. But I will use this page (I assume they'll find it eventually) to ask them nicely to please think of another name for their literary series. I hope they will decide to respect the fact that I've been using the name Literary Kicks for a long damn time, and have certainly put in the sweat equity to earn the exclusive right to the name.

I've told the story before of how the words 'Literary Kicks' came to me in a supermarket vision one day twenty years ago, and how the complete idea for this website only revealed itself to me after I thought of the name. Since then, I have seen other websites come and go with names like "Literary Chicks" (yes, they covered chick-lit) and "Literary Clicks" (apparently their Buzzfeed-like strategy didn't sustain them). I didn't pay any attention in those cases because their names were silly and I knew the sites would disappear. The difference with this community center in London is that they might actually be planning to stick around for a long time. In that case, I hope they'll decide to find a new name. There are plenty of choices out there. "Book Kicks" is available, though admittedly it doesn't trip as nicely on the tongue.

What good is it being an artistic libertarian and copyright anarchist if I don't sometimes have to risk something I care about for the sake of these beliefs? So, my own patience and idealism will be tested as I wait to see if and how the Jewish Community Center of London responds to my public request. If they ignore me and go on using the name, well ... I guess we'll coexist, and it probably won't do me or my website any harm.

It will probably do them more harm than me, since, let's be honest, I've got Google locked down. I'm pretty good with SEO, and I think it's safe to say that they're never going to get to the top of the page on Google (or for that matter as long as they're going head to head with me on page rank.

If the JW3 doesn't change the name of their series, people will probably start to think that I'm running these events in England (a neat trick for this American). Well, in that case, at least I can take comfort in the fact that the JW3 is presenting serious literary events with good authors like Howard Jacobson.

That's the kind of false credit I can feel real pride for. If they're going to use my name, at least I hope they never let the quality drop.


I always wondered how I would react if I ever found another organization using the "Litkicks" name.

view /SayMyName
Wednesday, September 10, 2014 11:47 pm
British community center swipes Litkicks name
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

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

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.

The first time you watch a Mike Leigh movie you might think he doesn't know how to make movies at all, because he avoids all the conventions other film directors employ. A Mike Leigh film seems to exist in its own private universe. The sets look exactly like the world we live in: shopping centers, highways, kitchens, banal office buildings, public parks. He doesn't even use actors who are familiar from other films (though many of his best ensemble actors later went on to play minor roles in Harry Potter movies, which sadly squander their sensitive talents).

I consider Mike Leigh one of the great film directors of the modern era, along with David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino. But he stands apart from the others. There's never any doubt that Lynch and Kubrick and Coppola and Scorsese and Tarantino learn from each other and refer to each other's movies. Mike Leigh makes movies that don't connect to other movies. He just keeps doing it his own way, year after year.

This feels personally significant to me because I often worry that my Philosophy Weekend blog posts don't seem to connect with what anybody else is writing about or blogging about or even thinking about. When I write, say, a 9-part series on the causal relationship between war and genocide, I know that I'm not doing philosophy "the right way", and I'm also not doing political punditry "the right way". I know I'm reaching readers, which makes me very glad -- but I also feel very "alone out here" in the sense that I am not regularly connecting with other political philosophers or bloggers, and often not even paying attention to the topics or formats that are trending around me.

Sure, this leaves me feeling isolated -- but when I watch a Mike Leigh film I am reminded how much creative energy we can generate by simply doing our own thing and not worrying about whether or not we're conforming to external standards. Rather than work harder to meet the expectations of what a political philosophy blog should be, I prefer to pursue my own style to its maximum extent -- and it happens that the personal style I would like to maintain also resembles that of a Mike Leigh film. Like this unique director, I want to always keep it down to earth. I want to write about ordinary topics that ordinary people think about. I want to sacrifice bombast for warmth, commercialism for connection, hype for honesty.

So I find every Mike Leigh film a bracing personal inspiration, and I also find special inspiration in Happy-Go-Lucky, the movie I happened to catch on TV this week. Even though I'm not a gabby extroverted British woman like the character played by Sally Hawkins -- actually, I'm zero for four there -- I do share one strange quirk with this character. Like Poppy, I'm an optimist, and I always try to always see the positive side of a bad situation, and I definitely prefer to see life as a comedy rather than a tragedy. I think this comes out often in the arguments I try to lay out here on Philosophy Weekend: my strong belief that world peace is inevitable, my conviction that money is not very important, my belief that people who commit evil acts do so because they are confused rather than intrinsically evil.

If I ever get better at this philosophy of life stuff, maybe I'll be able to express more clearly than I can today how all of the various points I'm discussing here connect, and what it all adds up to. For now, the best I can do is decide to keep going, to keep doing what I'm doing, because I enjoy doing it. Sometimes it takes a late night film by a British director that runs on cable TV to remind us that what we're doing is okay, and that we want to keep doing 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.

view /HappyGoLucky
Saturday, April 26, 2014 08:25 pm
Happy Go Lucky by Mike Leigh
Levi Asher

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).

The first step in the experiment is to identify the simple principles that we will apply to the known historical facts in order to reach an answer. In the previous two weekends I've proposed two:

The Ashley Wilkes Principle is the observation that every society will consider itself highly moral even as it may engage in vile activities. This is a tremendously powerful tool for ethical study, because it means that even the worst and most inhumane actors -- murderous Nazi bureaucrats, rapacious slave traders, vicious Communist minions, bomb-planting terrorists, machete-weilding child killers -- will always leave behind written and spoken evidence of the moral justifications behind their atrocious acts. No large scale holocaust or genocide or massacre or atrocity in history appears to be an exception to this rule. No matter how morally rotten any society may be, evil actors will always leave behind texts that display the precise reasoning with which they pat themselves on their backs and convince themselves that they are doing the right thing. By reading these texts, we can go a long way towards understanding why these atrocities occurred.

Blood Alienation is the name I am proposing for a phenomenon that seems to trigger nearly every major genocide or massacre or ethnic cleansing in history. This phenomenon occurs when one segment of a society becomes convinced that another segment of the same society is its mortal enemy. A transformation occurs within a society when this meme of paranoid fear begins to spread, and when it spreads rapidly and becomes common wisdom, the chances that a massacre or genocide will occur become much greater.

I began this inquiry as an experiment, and have been making the steps up as I go along -- but even at this early stage I find myself surprised at how well the two principles explain the worst atrocities of modern times. At the risk of being ridiculously reductive and simplistic, I have to wonder if the above two principles are nearly all we need to explain every major genocide or massacre of the past hundred years.

The April 1994 disaster in Rwanda is a useful case study because everything happened there so quickly that subterfuge and propaganda had no time to take root. It has become a cliche to describe April 1994 as a sudden descent into primal collective madness and tribal irrationality. Sadly, though, there was nothing primal or irrational about this very modern genocide, and the only reason it has become a cliche to emphasize the primitivistic irrationality of the terrible genocide is that most people don't bother to learn about the political agreement that triggered it -- a political agreement that the Hutu majority ethnic group believed would empower the privileged minority Tutsis at the expense of their own freedom and empowerment.

It's important to realize that there is absolutely no doubt that this pending political change frightened the Hutus and inspired the massacre. We can wonder how the roving gangs of killers could have been so brutal, but we do not need to wonder how they justified their brutalities to themselves. It's all right there in the historical record. The Rwanda genocide was an act of fear, not an act of hatred. Hatred was there, of course -- victims were constantly tortured, mutilated, insulted and raped -- but the hatred does not seem to have been the cause of the genocide. Rather, the hatred appears to have been manufactured and exploited by the still-unknown planners of the massacre, who used radio broadcasts and other media to provoke bands of killers to fast action.

In these radio broadcasts, Tutsis were constantly referred to as "cockroaches". But the massacre did not happen because the Hutu killers thought of Tutsis as cockroaches. It happened the other way around: the dehumanization of the Tutsis was necessary to inspire the massacre. It's worth noting that the bands of machete murderers had to drink themselves into near stupors in order to achieve the state of mindlessness necessary to do their work. After a few banana beers, apparently, a human being can start to look like a cockroach.

Similar patterns are easily found in other violent examples of ethnic cleansing. It seems that we are contextualizing when we characterize any genocide as an act of hatred. The hatred may be real, but it does not seem to ever be the cause of genocide. Rather, genocide is always inspired by fear, by the terrible logic of blood alienation. The hatred comes after. The fear comes first.

The Holocaust that killed six million Jews during the Second World War in Europe seems very similar to the genocide in Rwanda: a majority's fear of oppression by a privileged minority, a vile campaign of dehumanization of the targeted minority in order to provoke the violence that is considered a political or military necessity. As an American Jew whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust, I know that many of my fellow Jews see the Holocaust as an expression of hatred. The more I learn for myself, the more I realize that this perception is an illusion.

The historical record shows that religious or ethnic anti-semitism had very little to do with the motivation behind the Holocaust. Fear of Soviet-style Communism had everything to do with it. Our own understanding of Europe's history during the terrible decades of the two World Wars has become so warped that most people today don't know that there was an attempted Communist revolution in Germany after the end of the First World War, led by the tragic Rosa Luxembourg and other German Jews who wished to replicate Lenin and Trotsky's success in Berlin. The killing of Rosa Luxembourg and her fellow Jewish Communists in 1919 led directly to the empowerment of proto-fascist groups like the Freikorps and the early Nazis whose primary stated purpose was to prevent the possibility of a Jewish/Communist takeover of Germany. While we can't take the thought of homegrown Communist revolution in Germany seriously today, because Rosa Luxembourg and her partners were so completely defeated, we are not seeing history clearly if we don't understand that the possibility seemed very real to Germans in the years after the First World War.

As with the solving of a puzzle, pieces seem to fall in place as we proceed to look at the facts in light of our two primary principles, and new combinations suddenly become possible. After a lifetime of believing that Jews were killed in Europe during World War II because they were hated, it's a tough shift to realize that they were killed rather for political expedience (and, as the Second World War proceeded, for military and strategic expedience). It's also a shocking shift to realize that the hatred that accompanied the Holocaust may have been manufactured and promoted in order to make the killings possible. And yet the historical records seem to support this interpretation. This helps to explain the fact that the few brutal and hateful masterminds of the Holocaust such as Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich and Hans Frank complained often about the terrible toll it took on their men to carry out their quotas of killings. These pathetic Nazi death troops didn't get drunk on banana beer like their Hutu counterparts, but they must have found other ways to numb themselves.

There's much more to be written here, and there are many, many more disasters of the 20th century to examine. But a critical question begins to emerge: is hatred ever the cause of genocide? I'm beginning to believe it never is. Fear of a perceived mortal enemy appears to always be the cause of genocide, and this stunning realization may be the first major step towards solving the puzzle we need to solve.

I'd like to know if the suggestion I'm laying out here makes as much sense to my readers as it does to me. Am I on the right track? Am I missing anything? Please let me know, because I can't solve these puzzles all by myself.


A surprising yet obvious realization: fear, not hatred, appears to be the root cause of history's worst atrocities and massacres and genocides.

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Saturday, March 22, 2014 07:50 pm
The Atrocity Cube by Levi Asher
Levi Asher

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 bet you don't know that Nick Mason -- who played drums for Pink Floyd and is the only member of the band who played at every single Pink Floyd concert and on every single Pink Floyd record -- wrote a book called Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd in 2004. Or maybe you've seen this book around and maybe even bought it, but I bet you didn't read it, and didn't know that it contains a full-fledged personal autobiography that is beautiful, warm, informative, funny, inspiring and reflective. Why don't you know this? The publisher screwed it up.

Nick Mason's book should have been published as a straight memoir, like Pete Townshend's memoir or Bob Dylan's memoir or Patti Smith's memoir. Instead, probably because of Nick Mason's lack of celebrity (all the members of Pink Floyd kept a low profile), Inside Out was published as a big coffee table book, crammed with full-page color pictures and Hipgnosis artworks. Sure, the photos are striking, and there's no doubt that Pink Floyd's visual experimentations are good enough to fill a coffee table book. However, the horrible "two-for-one" idea of packaging Nick Mason's autobiography with an visual record of the history of Pink Floyd seriously devalues Nick Mason's text, obscuring his thoughtful words like so many clouds.

Let's face it -- people don't read coffee table books. They buy them as presents, they decorate with them. Inside Out is expensive, and it's the size of a large dinner plate. It's as heavy as a brick. The pages are thick shiny cardboard, so you have to pin the whole contraption down with a wrestler's grip to read a damn page. And you can forget about carrying it on a train or taking it to work for lunch hour. Inside Out was not designed for actual reading, and that's why nobody reads it. There isn't even a Kindle version available.

Could it be that Chronicle Books, publisher of the American edition (and an otherwise excellent and innovative publishing company) didn't know that a Nick Mason memoir would sell on its own, that Pink Floyd is one of the most popular rock bands of all time, that Pink Floyd fans read a lot of books? Have they seen Pink Floyd fans? This book could have been a number one bestseller -- after all, many Pink Floyd albums were.

Word of mouth would have boosted sales, because Nick Mason has a very natural voice and a charming British sense of humor. Here, he's talking about the hangers-on who began to show up after The Wall hit it big:

As always there was some political and financial repercussions as the album climbed the charts. We had lawyers representing all and sundry trying to scramble aboard the gravy train. One voice heard on the album after we recorded a random turning of the TV dial belonged to an actor who thought the success was primarily due to his contribution. We offered him a settlement with the option of doubling the amount if he gave it all to charity. He took the half for himself.

Mason is an observant, detail-minded and philosophical writer. He often muses about the technology of music (or, equally often, the technology of racing cars or lighting systems or houseboats) as it relates to human nature.

I loved the sound he [Alan Parsons] could get on tape for my drums. In rock music, getting this right is still one of the great tests for any engineer. Since the drum's original use was to spur on troops to warfare, rather than winning over a maiden's fair heart, it is hardly surprising that many a battle has been fought over the drum sound.

As the anecdotes accumulate in Inside Out, one suspects that the punchlines only work so well because the stories have been worked out over dinners and wine for decades. Well, this is one reason storytellers go to dinner parties -- to practice -- and it's one reason that older people write such good memoirs.

The passage of years probably also helped to strengthen Nick Mason attitude in life. He appears throughout the career of Pink Floyd to have been a humble, accepting and nonjudgmental person. This is a good trait in a drummer, who has to get along with guitarists and singers, and it must have come in particularly handy for Nick Mason, who spent two decades as half of a rhythm section with Roger Waters, Pink Floyd's genius bassist and a notoriously difficult man.

Mason hints wryly in Inside Out at scenes of near-abuse from the temperamental Waters in cold studios on sleepless nights. But he also makes it clear that he considers Roger a lifelong best friend. On the first page of the book, he and Roger Waters are fellow teenage architecture students in a London school, along with a third architecture student and jazz keyboardist named Rick Wright. The first time Roger Waters spoke to Nick Mason at this school was to ask to borrow his car.

The vehicle in question was a 1930 Austin Seven 'Chummy' which I'd picked up for twenty quid. Roger must have been desperate even to want me to lend it to him. The Austin's cruising speed was so sluggish that I'd once had to give a hitch-hiker a lift out of sheer embarrassment because I was going so slowly he thought I was actually stopping to offer him a ride. I told Roger the car was off the road, which was not entirely true. Part of me was reluctant to lend it out to anyone else, but I think I also found Roger rather menacing. When he spotted me driving the Austin shortly afterwards, he had his first taste of my penchant for occupying that no-man's-land between duplicity and diplomacy. On a previous occasion, Roger had accosted Rick Wright, who was also a student in our class, and asked him for a cigarette, a request Rick turned down point blank. This was an early sign of Rick's legendary generosity.

I love this opening sequence, and I also like the way a closing sequence in the book's final chapter echoes it perfectly. Here, the late-period post-Waters Pink Floyd is picking songs for Division Bell.

At band meetings we now started whittling down the possible songs to the probables. We set up an extremely democratic system whereby David, Rick and I would each award marks out of ten for each song, regardless of who had originally generated the piece. This should have worked smoothly, had Rick not misinterpreted the democratic principles underlying the voting system. He simply awarded all of his ideas the full ten points, and everything else got nil points. This meant that all of Rick's pieces had a ten-point head start, and it took David and me a while to work out why this new album was rapidly becoming a Rick Wright magnum opus …

The same issue reappeared a decade later when we were selecting tracks for inclusion on 'Echoes', the compilation album which required input from David, Rick, myself and Roger. As well as the oars being poked in by a whole galley-load of record company executives, engineers, producers and managers, this time we had to deal with the fact that Roger, like Rick before him, would only vote for his own tracks. God bless democracy.

It's fitting that Nick Mason, Roger Waters and Rick Wright were architecture students, because Pink Floyd's amazing record albums were among the most diagrammatic and conceptually ambitious of the classic rock era. The albums they are most famous for today, though they are not my favorite Pink Floyd albums, are The Wall (a heavy psychological dissection of Roger Waters's personality problems), Wish You Were Here (their gentlest work), and Dark Side of the Moon (their most complete masterpiece). As great as these three records are, I sometimes resent the way they overpower Pink Floyd's previous career, which was even better. I also resent the fact that the blatant, earnest, almost adolescent expressionism of these three rage-filled albums has left an impression that adolescent rage was all Pink Floyd was ever good at. In fact, their earlier records were their best, and these lack the mawkishness of their more famous works.

I'm taking about the amazing experimental albums they recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like Soundtrack from More, Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother. This was after they recovered from the loss of Syd Barrett (whose Pink Floyd-created solo albums during these years are also masterpieces) and all four members of the band began reaching their potential and fully exploring the possibilities of their ensemble.

These were also the years in which Nick Mason's ability to create dramatic and dynamic drum parts became most evident. His name is often neglected when listing drum legends like John Bonham of Led Zeppelin or Keith Moon of the Who, but Mason's clever, theatrical drum style put him in their class. For a glimpse of Nick Mason and the entire band at peak power, here's A Saucerful of Secrets from the Live at Pompeii movie:

The release of Dark Side of the Moon in 1973 ended Pink Floyd's reputation as a collegiate prog band. They transformed into blockbuster rockers, specializing in massive stadium concerts (two of which I was lucky enough to see in my teenage years). During this period Roger Waters began to dominate the band, and much of Nick Mason's later story in Inside Out is about the power struggle that eventually took a surprising twist when David Gilmour and Nick Mason managed to wrest Pink Floyd slyly out of Roger Waters's hands and recreate the band without him. (As a Roger Waters fan, I mostly lost interest in Pink Floyd at this point.)

Nick Mason reveals many musical secrets in this book, such as the fact that he had to play the heartbeat in "Speak to Me" on a drum because their tapes of real heartbeats sounded too "stressful", that the climactic crescendo that segues between "Speak to Me" and "Breathe" is a piano chord played backwards, that Rick Wright played the melody of "See Emily Play" on the fading notes of the Wish You Were Here album as a tribute to Syd Barrett, who Nick Mason remembers as a once "delightful" former band-mate who frighteningly lost his mind.

Nick Mason was as sane as Syd Barrett wasn't, and as calm as Roger Waters wasn't. Together, Barrett and Gilmour and Waters and Mason and Wright produced a body of work that equals that of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, though Pink Floyd has never reached their level of wide acclaim.

This may be because the members so rigorously avoided celebrity -- an avoidance that might have been grounded in necessity, since they didn't really have the personal charisma to achieve it. Pink Floyd was music by nerds, for nerds. That's why I'm sure Inside Out would have sold so well: nerds read a lot of books.

Note: While this review is about the American edition of Inside Out, I see that there is a British edition which may be easier to read, and thankfully is available on a Kindle. This British edition, which I have not seen, apparently also includes an update about Pink Floyd's reunion (including Roger Waters, finally) at Live 8 in 2005. This wondrous 25-minute reunion can be enjoyed in full right here. It'll probably make you want to read this book, and I suggest you try the British edition.


Pink Floyd's drummer has written a clever and honest autobiography, though unfortunately the book's format will keep readers far away.

view /NickMason
Tuesday, March 11, 2014 04:17 pm
Nick Mason and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd
Levi Asher

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.

I'm also glad there were images of comparable American atrocities, and of a Ukranian soccer team and the Orange Revolution. All of the responses were smart and helpful. I hope the point of this visual exercise was to show that a systematic use of imagination and metaphor can turn up surprising new connections. (Imagination and metaphor is, in fact, a key tool for any problem-solver and puzzle-solver, but the tool is not often used very well in political debate.)

I promised to put up my own three selected images today, and I will do so. However, dramatic and upsetting events are unfolding today, as I write the final draft of this blog post on Saturday afternoon. There are strong indications that Russia is about to invade Ukraine through the Crimea, and may have already done so. A fast-changing news-flash environment is no fertile ground for philosophical thought, but I promised you three images today, and I'm not going to go back on my promise. After you look at these, please feel free to post a comment with your own three images, or with any thoughts you wish to share about the crisis between Russia and Ukraine.

Here are my three images, representing my thoughts about the source and meaning of the conflict currently occurring in this country.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

As a descendant of Galician Jews, I can call Ukraine one of my homelands. My ancestors lived in shtetls and towns near Lvov, in the western part of the Ukraine that has often been part of Poland or Austria-Hungary or Russia, but has always been called Galicia. This is the land of Fiddler on the Roof, along with many other Slavic, Nordic or Baltic ethnic cultures. An ethnically mixed empire, the Ukraine included Jews, Ruthenians, Russians, Cossacks, Poles and Lithuanians, and they mostly managed to live in peace for many centuries.

Even though many of my fellow Americans have roots in Central Europe, there is very little understanding of the political structure of this vast land. There is some awareness of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, but very little awareness of an earlier empire that was once very prosperous and progressive in Central Europe, and in which many of our various ancestors lived. I'm talking about the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was at one time the largest government in Europe. I have recently immersed myself in reading about this little-known empire, which was unfortunately destroyed in the series of maneuvers known as the Partition of Poland. A lot of things started going badly in Central Europe after the Partition of Poland. ("Poland" was actually the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a union of two separate crowns.) What I find most inexplicable about the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is that the existence of this vast, powerful empire seems to have been lost to history. Nobody knows about it. My own Jewish ancestors prospered as a part of this empire for centuries, and yet I don't think anybody in my family has heard of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

As you can see from this map, much of Western Ukraine was once part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This is helpful context when trying to understand later events in Ukraine.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson describes a disastrous cavalry charge that took place during the Crimea. I personally dislike this poem, and strongly disagree with the attitude expressed in these famous lines:

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldiers knew
Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die

Personally, I prefer to reason why, and I would have been dismay'd if I were sent on a cavalry charge towards certain death. I guess that's why I'd never be a good soldier. Anyway, the charge of Lord Cardigan's Light Brigade took place in the Crimea at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854.

A Memorial for the Holodomor

If you don't know much about the horrifying genocide inflicted upon the vast population of Western Ukranian peasants in the 1930s by Josef Stalin's Soviet Union, I urge you to read The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine by Robert Conquest. This genocide equals in brutality and absurdity the Jewish Holocaust that occurred a generation later, and the worst crimes of Pol Pot in Cambodia or Mao Zedong in China. The Holodomor is little known to the world ... except in Ukraine, where it is a major part of shared national consciousness. This tragic history certainly helps to explain Western Ukraine's political hatred for Russia. The trauma of a past genocide also helps to explain why Ukraine's political culture in the past century has often been violent, excessive, morally corrupt, power-driven. It is a traumatized land, and it's good that after decades of silence Ukranians have finally begun to memorialize the Holodomor. This statue is part of Kiev's Holodomor memorial, which I hope to visit some day.


I asked you to send three images of Ukraine to fill a row of nine. Here are my choices.

view /ImagesOfUkraine
Saturday, March 1, 2014 08:01 pm
A farm field in Ukraine
Levi Asher

(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.

In its modern, bastardized usage "Orwellian" is meant to signify the darkest over-reach of the state into human life, depths of control so vast that they rival conditions in Orwell's famous futurist dystopian novel. Yet the term’s common usage -- try searching Twitter on any given day -- is less than a comic book version of the real thing. Worse, where it once may have contained valid social criticism and a linkage to post-War western thinking, "Orwellian" has ceased to have any real impact at all.

Of course, Orwell's 1984 imagines a post-apocalyptic world that never came to be -- it is set amidst a stalemate between three strange and constantly warring global superpowers formed after widespread nuclear war devastated the world. The novel is a story of rebellion against one of the states, which maintains a mind control system amidst formal layers of class structure and a kind of totalitarian nationalism that, in 1948 when it was submitted by an ill Orwell to his publisher, both remembered the Nazis of the recent dark past and commented on the Stalinists of the increasingly scary present.

And, in keeping with Orwell's constant theme in the last decade of his life, 1984 is the story of a revolution betrayed. If anything is truly "Orwellian" that's it: 1984, Animal Farm, and even to a certain extent his brilliant 1946 essay Why I Write (which every critic should read) focus on this idea, which stems thematically at least to some degree from Leon Trotsky's writing in exile.

Orwell was an idealist before he was a cynic. He fought on the Republican side in Spain and took a bullet in his neck; his health never really recovered. He loved democracy and the organized left,  and believed the war against fascism might spell its doom. He was a social democrat and probably would have been labelled a "neo-liberal" by today's civil libertarians. While his wife Eileen worked with his blessing for the British Censorship Department -- oh, how shocking that might be to those who invoke his name so easily today! -- Orwell was declared unfit for service but still managed time with the Home Guard with the BBC's Eastern Service, and later created cultural radio programming for India designed to counter Nazi propaganda and -- oh yes, it's true -- bolster Britain's imperial standing.

Of course, much of 1984 was about the British class system and a commentary on those social striations. It represented Orwell’s belief that the Second World War would do away with the old guard and lead to a new order; in 1941, he still believed that order would be welcome: "the fact that we are at war has turned Socialism from a textbook word into a realisable policy." By 1948, the vision had become a blended horror of fascism and Stalinism. Party member and double-agent O'Brien famously describes the circular reasoning of the state and its ethics:

The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.

The sections of 1984 dealing with a total lack of privacy and the requirement that citizens, including children, inform on each other are by far the most chilling in the book -- which in my view is a paler work than Orwell’s more successful Animal Farm. That book, more tightly reasoned and a hell of a lot scarier than the esoteric 1984, was a rough criticism of the British left and its lionization of Joseph Stalin.

So what does "Orwellian" mean?

I guess it can mean the flavors of totalitarianism in Orwell’s novels, their influences deeply anchored in Stalin and the Third Reich and extrapolated to western democracies that have collapsed, failed, and ceased to exist.

But to me, "Orwellian" stands for precise writing in English. The most important work of Orwell's career is his criticism, social and cultural. The novels are models of his precision prose, but I don’t think they legitimately relate on any level to modern intelligence gathering, privacy in the Internet age, or the nature of data in current democracies. I don't mean this harshly, but that usage of “Orwellian” doesn't rise to the level of high school essay level thinking. It's facile, easy, pat -- and flat, simple and dull. It means nothing.

In short, a writer of the quality of George Orwell would never stoop to the level of using "Orwellian" as any kind of shorthand.

Yet Orwell’s criticism and indeed, his ideas about criticism and writing and so very worth visiting in these days of bullet points, Web site slideshows, endless list-making, tweets and retweets, and small-brained sloganeering.

George Orwell detested a cliche as much as he detested a censorious government; he would be dismayed to be tossed about so simply. In 1946, the wrote about passion in writing, and precision in language in his essay Why I Write:

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed.

Now that’s Orwellian.


A writer of the quality of George Orwell would never stoop to the level of using "Orwellian" as any kind of trendy shorthand. What does "Orwellian" really mean?

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Saturday, December 21, 2013 11:49 am
First edition of George Orwell's '1984'
Tom Watson