On Monday, March 25th, I'll be schlepping out to Massapequa Park on the Long Island Railroad with some of my kids in tow, off to Bubbe and Zayde's for Passover. We'll have a great time -- games, food, talk -- and then at some point during the ritual Pesach dinner there will come the moment when I'll whisper to whoever is sitting next to me (probably my sister Sharon, because everybody else is tired of hearing me complain). Here's what I'll say, what I say every year: "I really don't like this part."
I'm talking about the celebration of the ten plagues, which apparently God inflicted upon the families of the Egyptian ruling class in order to help Moses and the Jews escape to Israel. There's a whole lot of weird ritual at this point. We recite the list in unison, dipping our fingers into red Manischevitz wine (grape juice for the kids), flinging the drippings onto our plates as we recite. Yes, we do this, and it always brings uncomfortable laughter. Here's the top ten list, straight from Exodus and the Haggaddah:
I've been trying to develop a theory on this blog -- a theory that I'm finding difficult to explain because the basic idea is so obvious that it barely merits the lofty term 'theory'. And yet it must be a theory, because its implications are important, and stand in surprising contrast to the way we tend to think about global conflicts.
I'm talking about the idea, previously described here in blog posts titled What Militarism Does To Our Brains and The Trauma Theory, that the primary cause of current and future war on our planet is current and past war. War is a self-perpetuating phenomenon, a feedback monster.
I'm still on my Jacques Derrida kick! I've spent a week surfing his works and reading the exciting biography Derrida: A Biography by Benoît Peeters (as recommended to me by a commenter to last weekend's Derrida post).
I now realize how ridiculous it is that I've never studied Derrida or the other deconstructionists and poststructuralists before, since they cover many of the same themes I've been long obsessed with: ethics, language, personal identity, political activism. I now find Derrida deftly reaching the same kinds of conclusions I have been groping towards (but, I'm sure, with much less finesse and skill) in these pages. In short, I feel like I've been a deconstructionist/post-structuralist all my life, but I didn't know it until now.
Years ago, I used to think about oranges, and wonder what I could do about the fact that sometimes an orange just doesn't taste as good as an orange should taste. What is the essence of an orange? How is it possible that something could be an orange but not contain or present the essence of an orange? The more I explored this question, the more new questions it raised. Is an orange called an orange because its color is orange, or is the color orange named after the fruit? If the former, then what would we possibly call the color if the fruit didn't exist? If the latter, then what is the meaning of the blood orange, which has a tart ultra-orange-y taste, but is a lurid red?
The taste of an orange is just as distinct as the color, but as every orange-eater knows, you sometimes pop a slice from a newly peeled orb into your mouth and feel instantly disappointed. All too often an orange tastes like nothing -- flat, fibrous, chewy, watery nothing. Well, way back when I was a kid, I sometimes used to lick a spoon (disgusting, I know, but I was just a kid) and stick it into the jar of Tang orange drink powder that my Mom kept around the house for me. Now that was the essence of orange.
(Interestingly, I never really cared much to drink Tang, which tasted like Kool-Aid and didn't have much tang at all, but I liked to lick the spoon. I would ostentatiously guzzle a glass of Tang in front of my family every now and then to make sure we kept the kitchen well-stocked, but a glass of Tang really never tasted very good, although it was cool that the Apollo astronauts drank it).
I've been trying for years to get a firm grasp on the work of Jacques Derrida. This philosopher has never fully caught on with the general population in the United States of America (yes, we do have popular philosophers here, but unfortunately they are Aristotle, John Locke and Ayn Rand). However, I know that Derrida has a foothold in academia, and he's vastly respected around the world. I sense a personal affinity with those of his ideas that I've been able to understand, but I've never had much luck reading his books, perhaps because the cultural references of mid 20th-century France are too alien to me, or perhaps because he wrote intentionally in a diffuse and enigmatic style in order to reflect what he saw as the diffuse and enigmatic nature of truth.
Wanting to understand Derrida's ideology simply and concretely (these are the terms on which I like to understand any philosopher), I tried chucking the books and watching a film called Derrida, a "cinema verite" portrait directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering in 2002, just a couple of years before their subject died. This film does a great job of capturing the philosopher's charisma and quick wit, and it also delivers the good news that Jacques Derrida appeared to be happy and well-loved at the end of his life. Perhaps this speaks more positively of his philosophy than any logical analysis could -- still, however, this film fell short for me in one way. It did not attempt to explain his philosophy in top-down terms that I could clearly understand.
I went through a weird sequence of emotions when I spotted a new history book, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 by Yang Jisheng. First, I felt a flash of excitement: this will be the book that will help me to understand this unimaginable episode in history.
But, I quickly realized, I've already read (and blogged about) two thick books that told the horrific story of Mao's manufactured famine: Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikotter and Mao: the Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. I already know the facts. What am I expecting a third book about the same subject to tell me that I don't already know? Did I think I would find new answers to my questions? Was I hoping for Yang Jisheng to come up with a happy ending?
Well ... some truths are so hard to comprehend that it takes three heavy books to pound them into our heads. The truth of what happened in the Chinese countryside between 1958 and 1962 probably falls into this category. The tragedy began as "The Great Leap Forward", an optimistic and progressive experiment in farm collectivization, invented by Mao and eagerly championed by countless government leaders and regional cadres. The ambitious government program quickly descended into a sadistic holocaust, destroying between thirty and thirty-six million lives, before a few sane politicians managed to break through Mao's grip and force an end to the madness. The level of cruelty, illogic and wastefulness that fed this debacle for four painful years is difficult to grasp, and the results are hard to picture. Here's a typical description from Frank Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine:
(Today's blog post is by a guest philosopher, Tim Hawken, who lives in Western Australia and is the author of two novels, 'I Am Satan' and 'Hellbound'. Tim holds a Bachelor of Arts from Deakins University with a triple major in Philosophy, Literature and Journalism.
The image of an Immanuel Kant tattoo is by Aron Dubois.)
Picture yourself walking into a bookstore with a friend. You pick a copy of Les Misérables off the shelf, party because of the shiny ‘movie edition’ cover, party because you’re curious to see what all the fuss is about. Turning to a random page you read the quote:
When love has fused and mingled two beings in a sacred and angelic unity, the secret of life has been discovered so far as they are concerned; they are no longer anything more than the two boundaries of the same destiny; they are no longer anything but the two wings of the same spirit. Love, soar.
Stunned by the beauty of the words you read them out loud to your companion. He snorts in derision and picks up Ann Coulter's latest book. Running his fingers across the jacket photo, he says to you, without a hint of sarcasm: "Now, she’s beautiful."
I've just thoroughly enjoyed (and learned much from) a graphic novel biography of Bertrand Russell. Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth was written by Apostolis Doxiadis, Christos Papadimitrio, illustrated by Alecos Papadatos, Annie Di Donna and published in 2009. It was recommended to me by a young and voracious reader of comic fantasy/adventure novels who thought the subject matter would appeal to me. He was absolutely right.
This book breaks my pattern of slight prejudice against Bertrand Russell, which was grounded in two things. First, like many enthusiastic Wittgenstenians, I've been all too aware of Bertrand Russell's role as the straight man to the curvy-thinking Ludwig Wittgenstein during the height of the analytic philosophy craze at Cambridge University just before the First World War.
Russell was the hard-headed mentor, according to this well-known narrative, and Wittgenstein was the brash young student who surpassed the teacher, blowing Russell and Alfred North Whitehead's pretentious Principia Mathematica apart by revealing the naturally obvious fact that, all blackboards of incredibly complex scribbled formulas aside, logic is actually not based on deeper foundational truths at all, but simply is. (I'm sure Wittgenstein would have said it better, but it was Wittgenstein's revelation that turned Russell's years of hard work from a live theory into a museum piece.)
An epiphany (from the ancient Greek epiphaneia, "manifestation, striking appearance") is an experience of sudden and striking realization. Generally the term is used to describe breakthrough scientific, religious or philosophical discoveries, but it can apply in any situation in which an enlightening realization allows a problem or situation to be understood from a new and deeper perspective. Epiphanies are studied by psychologists and other scholars, particularly those attempting to study the process of innovation.
Epiphanies are relatively rare occurrences and generally follow a process of significant thought about a problem. -- Wikipedia
In the comments following last weekend's blog post about militarism, I mentioned that I believe we'll see world peace in our lifetimes. Yes, real world peace -- not perfect, but enduring. And soon. And, yes, on planet Earth.
Why would I believe such a thing? Well, I guess any person's degree of optimism or pessimism must be rooted in that person's life experience, and I have observed many examples of sudden positive change since I was born. Here's one example that may appear trivial in light of the horrors of war, but it does provide a real illustration of the kind of rapid, sweeping cultural change I'm talking about.
There are few reading experiences more heavy than this. After hearing about the shocking suicide of 26-year-old techie activist Aaron Swartz, who spent his last two years fending off a Javert-like criminal pursuit for a trivial copyright violation, I read a seven-part "self-improvement" blog series he wrote on his blog five months ago, titled Raw Nerve. Here's the series landing page:
If you care about gun violence in the United States of America, I think you need to also care about militarism in the USA. We're not going to solve the domestic problem until we solve the global one.
It can't be a coincidence that the most weaponed-up nation in the world also suffers regular epidemics of gun violence in schools, colleges, movie theaters, shopping malls, parking lots. We're talking about gun control and getting nowhere, and this is because we're not discussing the root cause. Domestic gun violence and militarism are co-dependents. They enable each other.
A militaristic sensibility permeates our culture, and this is enthusiastically supported by our federal government. How many people do you know who sincerely believe the United States of America is currently at risk of totalitarian invasion or violent civil war? And how many people do you know who are employed by the US military, or are directly or indirectly supported by it? Militarism permeates our lives, at many levels, in many ways.
Militarism permeates our brains. We soak in it. The current debate in the USA over gun control should be about how Americans co-exist in cities and towns and neighborhoods and communities. Gun control is, or should be, a domestic issue. It's really not about war.
And yet, the popular arguments against gun control often rely on military scenarios -- mainly, the "Red Dawn" scenario in which honest
Romney-voting American citizens are forced to take their Bushmasters and Tec-9s to the streets to fend off swarms of would-be tyrants. It's all too easy to mock these apocalyptic scenarios ... but, unfortunately the hyper-charged ethnic, financial and economic tensions between the USA and various other nations around the world makes these scenarios appear all too normal.