(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.
Some truths have a tough time landing. They hover overhead, drifting uncomfortably in the air. People stare up at these truths, squinting. "Yeah, that looks like a truth." "Hope it doesn't get any closer."
One of these truths is hovering heavily over our heads right now, here in the United States of America. Our government spends an incredible, ridiculous, unsupportable amount of money on the military. The chart above (chosen by Andrew Sullivan as the #1 nominee for 2012 chart of the year) shows how much the USA spends compared to the other powerful countries on the planet. This certainly is the #1 chart of the year, and the data point about our overspending is the single most important data point we need to discuss as our Congressional debate over taxation and deficit spending proceeds.
But this truth -- the truth that we spend way too much on preparations for war -- has no home. It's a homeless truth. Andrew Sullivan found the chart in a Mother Jones article aptly titled "And You Wonder Why We're Broke?", and Mother Jones is an excellent liberal/progressive publication that supposedly has some influence within our Democratic party. But our Democratic party establishment won't touch this truth, because proposals to cut military spending will not help win elections and will feed into the damaging misconception that liberals are weak on defense.
I've been thinking about the word "redemption". Since utopian political ideologies are currently out of style (as we discussed last weekend), "redemptive ideologies" might be a less off-putting term for similar ideas. The term does not carry the same sense of overreach, the connotation of a naive attempt to build a transcendent and perfect Platonic society. Few people will admit to being a utopian, but perhaps many people will admit to believing in redemptive ideologies?
Well, wait a minute. Something is going wrong here, because I searched Wikipedia for "redemptive ideology" and got sent to the Ideology page, only to find this slap in the face awaiting me:
Today, many commentators claim that we are living in a post-ideological age, in which redemptive, all-encompassing ideologies have failed, and this is often associated with Francis Fukuyama's writings on "the end of history".
So redemptive ideologies are out of style too -- and this is a funny thing, because I know for sure that redemptive ideologies are wildly popular today. They drive our beliefs, our practices and, every election day, our votes. So what's this denial all about?
Utopian idealism is out of style. It's been out of style for a few decades now, at least.
When we discuss politics or ethics, we try to avoid sounding hopeful or idealistic at the risk of sounding naive. If we have a utopian idea we're likely to keep quiet about it, because this is never a winning position in a debate. It's too easy to scoff at hope.
Even when utopian idealism is a winning position, as during Barack Obama's "hope"-filled 2008 presidential campaign, it's usually a costly one. Obama's implicit vision of hope and change emanating from Washington DC has earned him enduring ridicule. (Sarah Palin opened her speeches in 2009 with the question "How's that hopey-changey thing working out for you?", and I know one environmentalist Obama-hater who only refers to the President as the "Pope of Hope".) It's much easier to be cynical about the fate of humanity than to be caught dreaming about the practical possibility of a better world.
But here's the funny thing: nobody wants to admit to being a utopian, yet most of us are.
Sadly, due to another terrible shooting disaster, gun control is back in the news. A poster is going around Facebook and the Internet with some amazing statistics:
Last year, handguns killed
48 people in Japan
8 in Great Britain,
34 in Switzerland,
52 in Canada,
58 in Israel,
21 in Sweden,
42 in West Germany,
10,728 in the United States
I support stronger gun laws in the United States of America, and I know many other citizens do. But we all know that gun laws alone won't solve the problem of gun violence (though it would help a lot), and we also know that there is a strong organized resistance to gun control. To solve this standoff, we need to dig deeper. We can start by looking for the roots of our society's gun violence problem.
Mo Yan, a writer from the Chinese countryside with a lurching, sharply whimsical narrative voice that might be compared to that of Kurt Vonnegut or Chuck Palahniuk, has won the Nobel Prize. This news was greeted with some outrage around the world, because Mo Yan is not a Chinese dissident like Liu Xiabo but rather a friendly presence within the Chinese establishment, He has flatly refused to speak out on behalf of dissidents like Liu Xiabo, and recently declared that literary censorship can serve a valid purpose. Nobel laureate has Herta Mueller called the choice of Mo Yan "a catastrophe", and yesterday Salman Rushdie called him a "patsy" of the Chinese government, which remains oppressive to its own citizens as well as long-suffering Tibet. The blog Moby Lives has also taken a few funny shots.
I don't have much sympathy for the government of China, since I've really never stopped reeling from the several books I've read about the long massacre known as the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong's masterwork, a manufactured famine that killed more millions of people between 1958 and 1961 than any of the nearly countless other holocausts of the 20th Century. The immensity of recent Chinese history is so overwhelming, in fact, that I'm sure I can't understand it in any meaningful way. Mo Yan was born in 1955, and suffered as a young child with his family through the notorious famine.
The great recurring topic of Mo Yan's historical fiction, though, is not the famine or the later Cultural Revolution but an earlier holocaust that took place before he was born: the vicious Japanese occupation of China before and during World War II. This is Mo Yan's primary subject, though he has also written about the famine and later Maoist and post-Maoist cataclysms. Mo Yan's pride in China and his refusal to play into Western ideas about Chinese history has clearly dented his popularity in my side of the planet. But when I read his sharp, acidic, furious prose, I sense that we can learn more by reading Mo Yan than by rejecting him, even though we may strongly reject his political stance.