Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Ecology

Philosophy Weekend: Genocide and Drunk Driving and Causality

by Levi Asher on Saturday, April 12, 2014 08:36 am


When we write about genocide, it's customary to descend into paroxysms of inexplicability. Jeffrey Herbst of Foreign Affairs magazine marked this month's 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda with a typical display. "Despite the thousands of pages devoted to the Rwandan genocide," writes Jeffrey Herbst in Foreign Affairs magazine, "we still do not have a good answer to the most basic question: Why?" It's clear from the tone of this introduction that no clear answer will be supplied -- though many words will be spent -- and when the Foreign Affairs paywall kicks in after a few paragraphs, most readers will do as I did and click away. No need to pay $2.99 just to read the same old cliches.

It's strange that Jeffrey Herbst thinks the genocide in Rwanda is inexplicable, since the political and psychological motivations behind the disaster are vividly and clearly documented in the massive historical record. The anguished "why" is a fraud -- the question Jeffrey Herbst and so many other commentators are grappling with is not actually "why" at all. The question they're really stuck on is this: "How can we live with the truth about why this happened?". That's the painful question nobody wants to ask.

The causes of Rwanda's genocide are obvious to anyone who learns the history and analyzes the data points systematically. The same obvious causes can be seen in the other terrible genocides that shamed the 20th century, from Armenia to Nazi Germany to China, and in several genocides that are raging right now in Darfur and Central African Republic and Syria. We're going to discuss these causes today. Our results will differ, though, from the weak pop-psychology answers embraced by common wisdom. The cause of the genocide will not turn out to be racial prejudice, or tribal hatred, or economic class envy, or repressed sexual aggression, or man's inhumanity to man. We're going to do a better job than that. And we're going to be systematic about it by starting with Aristotle's well-known list of four types of causes. To quote Wikipedia:






Philosophy Weekend: Genocide is Not a Force of Nature

by Levi Asher on Friday, March 28, 2014 10:03 pm


We speak of genocide as a problem from Hell, but we rarely speak of it as an ethical problem that can be solved. This suggests that we have ceased to think of genocide as a problem of human dimensions. We have become as superstitious about genocide as cave dwellers must have been about tornadoes and hurricanes: we see it as a rare force of nature, bigger and stronger than us. We hope the monster never comes our way, and if it ever does we plan to hide.

Philosophers need to get their courage back, because genocide is an ethical problem that must be solved. Organizations like the United Nations and Amnesty International toil weakly to solve it as a political problem, while Doctors Without Borders fights it as a practical problem, striving year after year around the world to alleviate the pain. But none of these organizations are designed to analyze the psychological roots of the problem, or to propose great philosophical epiphanies that might change the world. Indeed, I know I must appear foolish when I suggest that any kind of moral epiphany could possibly help, even though I'm quite sure it could.

We should expect our best ethical philosophers to address this topic often, but the great thinkers of the 20th century shied away. Sartre did not manage to communicate clearly on the topic of genocide, nor did Nozick or Rawls or Tillich or Jaspers or (ahem) Heidegger. Today, we have a few well-known academic ethicists like Derek Parfit, but they tend to steer far clear of bold speculations about the causes of our worst real-world problems. Alain de Botton has created a clever and brazen philosophical website called The Philosophers Mall that attempts to connect trendy news stories about celebrities and pop culture to philosophical questions. De Botton is at least trying to think outside the box -- but a celebration of triviality in philosophy is the opposite of what we need the most.

We are a couple of weeks away from the 20th anniversary of the brutal genocide that took 800,000 lives in Rwanda in April 1994. I'm sure this 20th anniversary will generate some news blips, and perhaps a reminder of the disaster that is still occurring today in Darfur.






Philosophy Weekend: The Atrocity Cube

by Levi Asher on Saturday, March 22, 2014 07:50 pm


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).






Philosophy Weekend: Blood Alienation

by Levi Asher on Saturday, March 15, 2014 09:50 am



What can we discover by analyzing the worst atrocities of modern history together, looking for patterns and common features? A whole lot, it turns out -- and we're just getting started.

Last weekend we discussed the surprising fact that every society will always consider itself highly moral and principled, even as this society may engage in vile activities. We called this the Ashley Wilkes Principle (named after the noble, brainy Confederate hero of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind). This week I'd like to examine another notion that appears to be surprising and self-evident at the same time.

A recent book called The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 by the historian Alan Taylor drives home a single point: during the War of 1812, when the British Navy invaded and occupied Virginia's Chesapeake coastline, an event occurred that badly shook Virginia's well-entrenched plantation society. Slaves began to realize that they could escape bondage by reaching the British ships that lay ashore. Once they escaped, they would conspire with their British rescuers and help them invade their own plantations and villages to retrieve their families and free more slaves.






Philosophy Weekend: Images of Ukraine

by Levi Asher on Saturday, March 1, 2014 08:01 pm


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.






Philosophy Weekend: Ukraine as Puzzle

by Levi Asher on Saturday, February 22, 2014 12:03 am


Last weekend I suggested that we attempt the exercise of visualizing global conflicts as Sudoku puzzles, and explained some of the basic techniques typically used to solve these puzzles. I then got a bit carried away discussing the difference between Sudoku and KenKen puzzles, and how some KenKen techniques could also be applied. One commenter was smart enough to ask: just what difficult questions was I trying to answer? This question brought me back to earth, and I promised to respond today.

The broad question I want us to consider is the same one I've been asking here for a long time. Why are we stuck in a militarized society, so stuck that most people don't even realize an alternative is possible? What are the conditions that can enable world peace?

This is the broad question, and in this sense the entire history of the world leading up to today is the puzzle I want to solve. This puzzle contains other puzzles within it. Europe is a puzzle, Africa is a puzzle, Asia is a puzzle, North America is a puzzle. These puzzles also contain puzzles. Within Europe, Ukraine is a puzzle, Russia is a puzzle, France is a puzzle. In order to focus on something very relevant right this minute, let's look at the stunning events of the last couple of weeks in Ukraine -- violence and determined protests on the streets of Kiev, hot dealings between Russia and its puppet government, news flashes arriving by the minute -- as our first case study.






Philosophy Weekend: Ethical Sudoku

by Levi Asher on Saturday, February 15, 2014 12:29 pm


It occurred to me only recently that I have a revealing habit: when I am under a lot of stress, I find myself doing Sudoku puzzles. I suppose what I crave is the reward of completion, and the illusion (it is only an illusion, I'm sure) that I am a successful problem-solver. There have been moments in my life when I have clung to my iPad Sudoku app like an alcoholic clinging to a bottle.

There is something magical about the process of solving a Sudoku puzzle, and the magic may reside in the fact that a new puzzle contains a lot of empty spaces with a few numbers filled in, which corresponds to a solved puzzle with all the numbers filled in. The new puzzle may look like this:






Philosophy Weekend: The Bill Nye/Ken Ham Debate

by Levi Asher on Sunday, February 9, 2014 09:45 am


This week, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham of the Creation Museum in Kentucky spent two and a half hours debating the origin of the universe in a well-publicized update of the Scopes Trial of 1920. I could only endure the tedium of the YouTube broadcast for about a half hour, but even though I didn't watch the whole thing I am pleased by the friendly gesture this event represents. Sometimes a willingness to meet in open debate can be more significant than any actual arguments contained within.

Amidst the social media conversations following the debate, I was also impressed by a page of photos of regular people holding up papers expressing questions or ideas supporting the creationist point of view. I don't get the logic behind some of these expressions -- and yet they all appear to be sincere, and a few may even be meaningful. In the photo above, a woman's comparison of the idea of God and the idea of the Big Band strikes a chord. It is true that the idea of the Big Bang as constantly described by physics teachers and Morgan Freeman is as ultimately inexorable as the traditional idea of God.






Dave Van Ronk Remembers Pete Seeger

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, January 28, 2014 10:33 am


I noticed something strange when I read folksinger Dave Van Ronk's awesome autobiography a few weeks ago. The gruff ethnomusicologist remembered most of his old friends with sarcasm and bittersweet wit ... but he had nothing but full-throated words of love for Pete Seeger, his elder journeyman who has just died at the age of 94. Van Ronk honors him in this book by reprinting in full a column he wrote in 1958 in the early folk music zine Caravan.

Van Ronk's article must be understood in the context of the small, fervent community of working Greenwich Village folksingers in the late 1950s, just before Joan Baez, Peter Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan would arrive to blow up the scene. Among these earnest young artists, the music of an established and (already then) older folksinger like Pete Seeger might seem corny. Seeger's strong left-wing opinions might also seem oppressively rigid or tradition-bound to a younger crowd. This critical attitude is the attitude Van Ronk is countering here, in what amounts to a contrarian thinkpiece from 1958.






Amiri Baraka, Newark Poet

by Levi Asher on Thursday, January 9, 2014 09:09 pm


Amiri Baraka, a seminal Beat poet, angry playwright, revolutionary activist and scrappy indie publisher from Newark, New Jersey has died. The Allen Ginsberg Project blog has the scoop. Here's a Litkicks article about Amiri Baraka by Jamelah Earle from 2003.






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