Tom McCarthy is a popular British avant-garde novelist with a forbidding public image. He writes technological dystopian fiction that looks at the world with the same cold sinister stare as that of Chuck Palahniuk or William Vollmann, and he physically resembles Dwight Schrute from "The Office". He doesn't come across as a very warm person.
But is this a mirage? I'm liking Tom McCarthy more and more with each new book, and I'm starting to understand the earnest moral passion and conviction behind the sociological concepts that animate his literary experiments. When I first began reading him, I was slightly put off by his cackling, sarcastic persona. I was also mystified by the fact that he balances his fiction writing with "propaganda" on behalf of a shadowy organization devoted to experimental investigations into death.
Yet his novels somehow compel me in, and once inside a Tom McCarthy novel the cold persona quickly starts to fall away. There is in fact something strangely warm, human and relatable about Tom McCarthy, which is why he's emerging as the most interesting postmodern author on the scene today.
I've just finished Satin Island, a new Tom McCarthy novel nearly as mind-blowing as his signature work, Remainder. Satin Island is not as sharply plotted as the astonishing Remainder, but it is a smoother ride, more joyfully and consistently composed, a beautiful and enjoyable exhibit of highly observant prose. In place of a plot, Satin Island reads like a fabric of ideas, a quilt of threads ranging from Claude Levi-Strauss to Jacques Derrida to William S. Burroughs to James Joyce.
The book is narrated by a young anthropologist who has been co-opted by a gigantic mega-corporation to help produce a functional study of every facet of human existence, a project called Koob-Sassen that vaguely resembles a nightmare we may all lately be having about the all-powerful secret control systems that the NSA might be building right now, if they really are as evil as we sometimes think.
We never understand the full nature of Koob-Sassen, but we can see that it is some kind of attempt at oligarchic world control, and that the successful execution of the project requires extremely clever and innovative thinking on the part of the hired anthropologists, who frequently compare notes around the office. To control everybody else, these anthropologists must be the smartest people in the world, must figure out every game, every scheme:
As I stepped out of the blind spot back into time and his office, he asked: Have you ever been to Seattle, U.? Behind him, through the floor-to-ceiling windows, cranes, clouds, bridges, aeroplanes, the Thames all jostled for position. No, I answered. It's interesting, he said. Oh yes? I asked. How so? Well, he replied the truly striking thing about the city is its lack of Starbucks outlets: driving around, you don't see a single one. That's strange, I said: I thought Seattle was where Starbucks came from. Exactly, he said: you'd think the town would turn out to just be one giant Starbucks. But instead it's all Joe's Cappuccino Bar, Espresso Luigi, Pacific Coffee Shack and the like. So what's the story there? I asked. What's the story indeed? he repeated. This is exactly what I asked my driver, and do you know what he told me? Penman looked up from his device. I shook my head. He told me, Peyman said, his gaze now drifting over to his monitor, that these were Starbucks: stealth ones.
McCarthy is a highly connective author, and Satin Island streams forth with literary references. The tiny man inside a giant bureaucracy calls to mind Franz Kafka's The Castle. The frightening (and probably already accurate) notion that a corporation can hire skilled anthropologists to develop capabilities for mass mind control evokes Dana Spiotta's Eat The Document. The vision of one of these anthropologists struggling to maintain his sense of self within this creepy milieu beckons J. M. Coetzee's first novel Dusklands, in which the mega-corporation is the US government during the war in Vietnam, and in which the researcher goes horrifyingly insane.
McCarthy's greatest gift is his sly and unpretentious writing style, his sensitivity for realism, his light touch with a heavy idea. In Satin Island, he captures a universe in which everything is just slightly off, just slightly inferior to what it's supposed to be. Reality appears to the narrator to have become a cut-rate version of itself, as when he goes to the funeral of a close friend and is appalled at the lack of effort that goes into the funeral, especially when he hears speeches filled with banal and generic non-facts that don't even accurately describe his close friend who just died.
In a Tom McCarthy universe, even something as benevolent as a good idea is likely to sickeningly turn over and expose its soft underbelly. One day the narrator is thrilled that he has discovered the answer to a puzzling mystery involving dead parachutists. He is bouncing off the walls with excitement about his discovery. A few pages later, he realizes that his brilliant idea is not only wrong but wasn't even very well thought-out to begin with, and his mood crashes with the hammer-blow of this truth.
Satin Island reads like a fabric, and in fact fabrics are all over Satin Island: the shroud of Turin, the complex textures of fine satin and rough dungaree denim, the silk of a parachute, even the fabric of humanity found at the lower tip of Manhattan island when the hero of the novel visits the Staten Island Ferry but decides not to get on. As I finished Satin Island I began to understand that Tom McCarthy writes these novels because he actually cares about humanity. He's worried about us all, and about what we've done, and what we're about to do next:
I lay awake for a long time, thinking of what she'd said. Levi-Strauss claims that, for the isolated tribe with whom an anthropologist makes first contact -- the tribe who, after being studied, will be decimated by diseases to which they've no resistance, then (if they've survived) converted to Christianity and, eventually, conscripted into semi-bonded labour my mining and logging companies -- for them, civilization represents no less than a cataclysm. This cataclysm, he says, is the true face of our culture -- the one that's turned away, from us at least.
Why Tom McCarthy is emerging as the best postmodern novelist on the scene today.
How is it possible that a fairly obscure literary metaphor would inspire so many different songs? What makes the idea of a ship of fools so relevant to modern songwriters, and how do each of their songs imagine the idea? I will examine each song in detail below in search of an answer.
As I mentioned in my previous blog post, the notion of a ship of fools can describe several different specific situations. In Plato's original analogy from The Republic, the people on the ship are fools because they have no seamanship skills, and yet are far out at sea in a boat they do not know how to operate. This metaphor corresponds to the situation in several of the songs below.
In Sebastian Brant's 1494 popular satire Ship of Fools, the fools are disreputable and untrustworthy characters, depicted literally as jesters or clowns who represent various influential clerics, judges and rulers of the era. The idea of a ship of fools that symbolizes a debased and corrupt world also corresponds to several of the songs below.
In Katherine Anne Porter's 1962 novel Ship of Fools and the 1965 movie that followed, various characters are unintentionally foolish. They do not take over the ship as in Plato's Republic, nor do they rudely debase the ship as in Brant's satire. Instead, they try their hardest to make good decisions. They are fools in the most existential sense: they try to navigate their lives with intelligence and wisdom, but cannot seem to sail in a straight line. That situation is also captured several of the songs below.
After originally discovering that I owned six songs called "Ship of Fools" by the Doors, Grateful Dead, John Cale, Bob Seger, World Party and Robert Plant, I began searching iTunes for more songs with the same title, and was blown away by the variety I found. I ended up spending ten bucks buying ten more songs, thus creating a playlist that I listened to for several weeks. Remarkably, this playlist sounded great. Indeed, the musical and thematic consistency between the 16 different songs I found called "Ship of Fools" almost indicates some kind of nearly supernatural synchronicity across the deep blue sea of lyrical and musical creativity.
Here are a few notes on each of the sixteen songs. They are listed here in rough order from my least to most favorite. Videos are included for my top five.
16. "Ship of Fools" by Van Der Graaf Generator
"Ship of Fools" by the 1970s prog-rock outfit Van Der Graaf Generator is an instrumental, so it's hard to divine any themes. The tone and tenor of the song morphs from moody to bright to murky, which may describe an experience on a journey with a ship of fools. But it's hard to tell exactly what the title is supposed to indicate, if anything at all.
15. "Ship of Fools" by the Scorpions
The ship of fools
Keeps on rollin' through a deadly storm
It won't take long 'till we collide
The Scorpions of 1980s hair-metal fame are from Germany, so it's too bad they didn't find a way to properly channel the spirit of their countryman Sebastian Brant. I like the Scorpions best songs (like "Rock You Like a Hurricane", which would be an uncomfortable weather situation for a hapless boat). But their "Ship of Fools" comes off a bit limp. The lyrics are trite and unremarkable, and even the band's patented screaming twin-guitar attack fails to save the song.
14. "Ship of Fools" by Soul Asylum
Ship of fools, drunken hearts
Making yet another new start
Ain't it hard to play that part
When you've got a drunken heart
"Ship of Fools" by Soul Asylum adds an interesting twist to the question above: are the fools on our ship stupid, or crazy, or corrupt? In Soul Asylum's song, they are simply drunk, which is actually another reasonable interpretation of the phrase "ship of fools". The proverbial vessel in this song might be a frat bus or a party limo. The passengers claim to be looking for love -- "fool's gold" -- but are unlikely to find it. The lyrical equation is intriguing, but the track's power-punk rhythm could be better, and as one of only two punk songs on this list, Soul Asylum's "Ship of Fools" suffers badly in comparison to the track by Fucked Up (see below).
13. "Ship of Fools" by Sarah Brightman
Sarah Brightman's "Ship of Fools" is about a bittersweet love affair. I don't really go for her brand of sleekly produced pop vocal, but I do appreciate the sincerity in her voice as she yearns:
I'll do anything to get to you
Because we're riding on a ship of fools.
12. "Ship of Fools" by Echo and the Bunnymen
I'm not really sure what to think of "Ship of Fools" by Echo and the Bunnymen, which is entirely concerned with a woman who treats the narrator badly as herald angels beckon in the background with dark foreboding:
All aboard! Ship of fools ...
It's interesting that the narrator of this song, unlike those of most on this list, is not already on a ship of fools, but only hears angels calling him to come aboard. It's unclear what will happen if he does or does not answer their call. Overall, there is something here, but I wish Echo and the Bunnymen had developed the nautical theme more completely. This is a prototypical 80s song (like the superior Erasure track below), but it delivers an unexceptional journey.
11. "Ship of Fools" by Ron Sexsmith
I've never heard of Rox Sexsmith before, though I am pleased to find that he sounds a bit like Ray Davies of the Kinks. It's not clear if his "Ship of Fools" represents a love affair or the whole damned world, but it is clear that he sees no exit ramp on this unsteady vessel:
We are all on the same boat, darling
On the same rough sea
We are all on the same boat, darling
The ship of fools at sea
10. "Ship of Fools" by Harry Manx and Kevin Breit
Harry Manx is apparently the inventor of his own musical instrument, which adds resonating sympathetic strings like those of a sitar to an acoustic guitar. The effect is only subtly audible in this unique folky number, but it does give the musical setting a pleasing kick, and I also like it that this song goes meta with its theme, informing us that the narrator is only singing about a ship of fools because he heard a song on the radio.
Heard a song on the radio, growing dark
About the hard times coming down today
On a Ship of Fools ...
We must wonder, which "Ship of Fools" did he hear on the radio? And does he have a "Ship of Fools" playlist too?
9. "Ship of Fools" by Erasure
"Ship of Fools" by Erasure is the most painful love song on this list, and the best example of the dark synthesizer-driven 1980s musical genre that was once called "mope rock". In this song's tragic story, the fact that we are all stuck on a boat filled with idiots turns out to be the only shred of commonality that two lonely and isolated souls can connect about:
Ooooh, do we not sail on a ship of fools?
Oooooh, why is life so fragile and so cruel?
8. "Ship of Fools" by the Doors
The Doors deliver an apocalyptic "Ship of Fools" in late 1969, following the summer of Woodstock, the Manson murders and Apollo 11. Given Jim Morrison's bent for Jungian symbology, it's not surprising that the Doors were the first rock band (as far as I can find) to record a song called "Ship of Fools". But it is surprising that Morrison equates he proverbial ship with the USA space program, which had just succeeded in its greatest journey before the band recorded the song:
Evil walks on the moon ...
Is the Apollo 11 moonshot the ship of fools? I'm not sure if that's what this song is saying or not. I have huge respect for Jim Morrison and the Doors, and the main reason I don't fully love their "Ship of Fools" is that I sense it as a wasted opportunity. They could have opened it up into a ten-minute epic like "The End" or "When The Music's Over", and this would have given Morrison time to fully explore the literary potential of this song's title. Maybe this would have also allowed the usually brilliant Ray Manzarek and Robby Kreiger to perk up their riffs.
7. "Ship of Fools" by Fucked Up
Fucked Up delivers "Ship of Fools" as a straight punk rave-up, and blow Soul Asylum's besotted "Ship of Fools" out of the water with their Clash/Ramones-driven energy. The lyrics are enigmatic and fascinating, though the actual story about the boat gets lost in all the Rimbaud-esque symbolism:
The speaker and the spoke
The axle and the wheel
The teller and the tale
The flower and the bee
The sword and the steel
The beast and the yoke
The fish and the sea
he prisoner and the jail
Sinking on the ship of fools
6. "Ship of Fools" by Flyleaf
I was not aware of the "Christian band" Flyleaf, but Kristen May's sweet soprano voice is even more pleasing (to my untrained ears) than that of the grand Sarah Brightman. I'm also pleased by the lyrics, which fully develop the nautical theme and don't shy away from biblical connotations:
See them sailing away, singing on a ship of fools
When they tried to build a heaven, they always use the devil’s tools
Adam and Eve, now they’re putting on their clothes
Because they can’t undress the secret to make another garden grow
The following are my five favorite songs called "Ship of Fools".
5. "Ship of Fools" by the Grateful Dead
"Ship of Fools" by the Grateful Dead is a sublime slow ballad, and the lyrics tell a story of anger and defiance. This narrator intends to sink the ship of fools, though he rides on it while plotting his mutiny. I don't know how the song's story ends, but I hope the narrator wins. This is lyricist Robert Hunter at his very best:
Went to see the captain, strangest I could find,
Laid my proposition down, laid it on the line.
I won't slave for beggar's pay, likewise gold and jewels,
But I would slave to learn the way to sink your ship of fools.
I'm a huge Deadhead, though strangely this has never been my very favorite gentle-toned highly lyrical Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter ballad (that would be "Black Peter" or "China Doll"). But this is a well-loved song, and for good reason. The Dead's "Ship of Fools" has been notably recorded by Elvis Costello.
4. "Ship of Fools" by Robert Plant
Like a werewolf who finds himself infected, Robert Plant doesn't know how he wound up on his "Ship of Fools", but he knows he's on the ship and feels very little hope of finding a way to get off.
I built this ship, it is my making
And furthermore my self-control I can't rely on anymore.
This song recalls the original passage in Plato's Republic: the ship is desire, and the storm is the turbulence inside the human mind. Plant calls out meekly to "turn this boat around", but there doesn't seem to be anybody at the captain's wheel.
3. "Ship of Fools" by John Cale
"Ship of Fools" from John Cale's 1974 album Fear is one of the most haunting and beautiful songs on my playlist. I've raved before on Litkicks about John Cale's stunning work with Lou Reed, and "Ship of Fools" brings out the same qualities I've raved about before: that lilting, elegant voice, those chiming clockwork rhythms, the mysterious and complex musical undercurrents.
Cale narrates this song in the voice of a rustic, a dumb provincial traveler. In this song, "fool" refers not to madness or stupidity but just to a lack of brightness, an emptiness of the spirit. All the passengers on this gloomy boat seem to be in dire need of some kind of spiritual awakening. The places and names in the song hint at some kind of spaghetti Western locale, but Dracula shows up in Memphis, and the overalltone of the song appears medieval, as if inspired directly by Sebastian Brant's 1494 book of verse.
2. "Ship of Fools" by World Party
"Ship of Fools" by World Party was a big hit on MTV and FM radio in 1987. I liked the song then and I like it now. The catchy lyrics always struck me as a protest against the prevailing conservatism of President Ronald Reagan's America and Margaret Thatcher's Great Britain -- a howl of rage against policies that were pitting wealthy against poor and increasing the powers of corporations against the rights of individuals:
Avarice and greed are gonna
drive you over the endless sea
They will leave you drifting in the shallows
or drowning in the oceans of history
Traveling the world
you're in search of no good
but I'm sure you'll build your Sodom
like you knew you would
Using all the good people
for your galley slaves
as you're little boat struggles
through the warning waves
Unlike John Cale's meek journeyman, who only leaves his gloomy ship to stumble ashore and find something to eat, the narrator of World Party's "Ship of Fools" hates being stuck on an infernal vessel bound for oblivion, and begs to be released. "Save me!" the singer yells. World Party's "Ship of Fools" seems most likely to have been inspired by the Heironymous Bosch painting on the top of this page.
1. "Ship of Fools" by Bob Seger
After listening for several weeks to 16 different songs called "Ship of Fools", it came time to choose my favorite song on the list. The decision I arrived at surprised me, because I've never been a huge Bob Seger fan. But I can't deny that this was the song that gave me the most pleasure whenever it came on.
Bob Seger's "Ship of Fools" is a deceptively simple guitar-strummin' ballad that appeared on Seger's breakthrough 1976 album "Night Moves". It features an achingly gorgeous vocal line sung by Seger with suave sensitivity and real conviction, especially as the story ends:
I alone ... survived the sinking.
This calls to mind Ishmael at the end of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which is not a bad connotation for a song called "Ship of Fools". It's interesting that Bob Seger's "Ship of Fools" is one of very few on this playlist in which the ship of fools actually goes down. (Another is the Grateful Dead's, and in several songs it's not clear what the hell is happening to the ship. Interestingly, the Ship of Fools does not sink in the books by Sebastian Brant or Katharine Anne Porter.)
Despite the Melville shout-out, Bob Seger clearly seems to have based his "Ship of Fools" on the 1965 movie. He indicates this with his opening line:
Tell me quick, said old McFee
What's this all have to do with me?
But i's funny that he hands this line to a person named McFee, since the character who speaks the words in the movie is Carl Glocken. It's a well-chosen line, though, since Glocken stands as a representative narrator -- an eternal passenger, ironic and philosophical -- for every possible idea of a ship of fools.
Glocken in Katharine Anne Porter's novel Ship of Fools is a small person with no wife or children or career, apparently supported by a wealthy family somewhere on dry land. He spends his lonely life going back and forth over the Atlantic ocean on cruise ships. It's how he finds an endless stream of new superficial friends with which to strike up fascinating conversations. Glocken has developed a tough skin and a keen sense of sarcasm after many voyages.
Glocken is often insulted for being small, and is always banished to the "misfits" table in the cruise ship dining room. In one of the movie's climactic scenes, a dignified German Jew finds himself banished from the Captain's table to the "misfits" table after a Nazi bigwig complains. All the misfits at this table eventually become friends with Glocken, who observes all their dramas and is the conscience of the film.
Michael Dunn was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Glocken, the character who inspired Bob Seger's song. This seems suitable, since Glocken's ironic and dread-filled attitude deftly ties Katherine Anne Porter's "Ship of Fools" back to Sebastian Brant's "Ship of Fools", and Plato's, especially when he faces the camera to speak to all of us. "What's this all got to do with me?" Glocken asks.
Indeed, what? Well, don't you know ... we're all stuck together on this ship of fools.
The image of the "Ship of Fools" has appeared in several books, a movie, and sixteen songs by artists like the Doors, Grateful Dead, John Cale, Robert Plant, Soul Asylum, Sarah Brightman, Bob Seger, the Scorpions, Echo and the Bunnymen ...
I stumbled upon our society's most fascinating enduring metaphor by chance. Clicking around on iTunes, I noticed that I owned six different songs called "Ship of Fools".
But these weren't six different versions of one song. "Ship of Fools" was not a classic cover song, like "Dancing in the Streets" or "Hallelujah". Rather, six different songs called "Ship of Fools" were written and performed between the 1960s and 1980s by the Doors, the Grateful Dead, John Cale, Bob Seger, World Party and Robert Plant.
Strangely, all six were good songs, which seemed to me as significant as the fact that all six had the same title. How often do six good songs show up in a row on a random playlist? What on earth, I wondered, was going on with this ship of fools? What was this meme about?
I knew that the concept of a ship of fools can be traced back to Book Six of Plato's Republic. Socrates and Adeimantus are discussing the different models by which a government can rule wisely, and Socrates offers this analogy to Adeimantus:
Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the steering -- every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary.
They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain's senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them. Him who is their partisan and cleverly kaids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain's hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not-the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer's art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling.
Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?
Socrates is suggesting that we cannot always listen to our mob mind when we make decisions as a community; we must discern our smarter instincts and repress our dumber ones. On a political level, Socrates appears to be suggesting that a simple democracy may descend to dysfunction and chaos. Indeed, one of the main ideas of The Republic is that a wise captain must guide the ship of fools.
Plato's analogy of a boat filled with stupid people (interestingly, no translation of The Republic actually includes the phrase "ship of fools") resembles the same philosopher's famous analogy of the cave, which appears in the same book. The cave-dwellers who cannot see the light are the fools on Plato's ship.
Socrates and Plato are pointing to something beyond the political here, though. We've mentioned before on this site that The Republic is a a work of psychology over all. The ship of fools that most concerns Socrates and Plato in The Republic is the clamor of stupid voices inside each of our own stormy minds. To thrive and live well, each human soul must appoint a wise captain for itself.
The metaphor of a ship filled with fools emerged anew in 1494 when a German theologian named Sebastian Brant wrote a popular book of verse called The Ship of Fools, known as Narrenschiff in German or Stultifera Navis in Latin. A satire on various aspects of contemporary society, the book was translated into several languages and was a gigantic hit all over north and central Europe.
Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools poked fun at judges, politicians, clerics, academics and merchants by satirizing them as characters on a small ship crowded with questionable characters. The "fools", who apparently like to wear comical pointed hats in various illustrations for the book, were understood at the time to correspond to well-known or influential people in European church, government, commerce or royalty. The fact that the book dared to confront powerful targets for their foolish or immoral ways probably explains its popularity with all levels of readers.
Like Erasmus's similarly-titled In Praise of Folly, Brant's book gave Gutenberg's newly invented printing machines a workout in the 16th century. A modified English language version by Alexander Barclay spread the book's popularity even further by adding new verses mocking British celebrities and archetypes of the era. Various editions of the book inspired artists like Albrecht Durer, whose woodcut images of a boat crowded with fools became popular on their own.
A famous painting by Heironymous Bosch (seen at the top of this page) is believed to have been inspired by the Durer woodcuts. Despite its once vast popularity, Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools is not often read or discussed today. The topical references make the satire hard to penetrate five centuries later, and it doesn't help that you need to know your classical Greek and Roman mythology to get many of the jokes. The archaic medieval language also provides a rough reading experience, yet it is possible to read and enjoy Brant's book, and often the meaning of a verse shines through:
We are full lade and yet forsoth I thynke
A thousand are behynde, whom we may not receyue
For if we do, our nauy clene shall synke
He oft all lesys that coueytes all to haue
From London Rockes Almyghty God vs saue
For if we there anker, outher bote or barge
There be so many that they vs wyll ouercharge.
Four and a half centuries later, Katherine Anne Porter set the great metaphor afloat again when she wrote a novel called Ship of Fools in 1962. Like Sebastian Brant's Narranschiff, Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools was a huge commercial success and a #1 bestseller.
This book took place on a German luxury cruiser heading across the Atlantic Ocean in the portentous 1930s, just as Hitler's Nazi Party was beginning to threaten the weak democracy of the Weimar Republic. This ship's passenger list includes both proud Jews and harumphing Nazis, along with various other unsettled souls, angry lovers, lonely has-beens, ruined businessmen, rebellious children, and one wise small person named Glocken who spends his life crossing the ocean back and forth, as if searching there for the home he's never found.
Katharine Anne Porter is said to have spent 30 years writing "Ship of Fools", basing it on the memory of a boat trip she took herself in 1931. The popular novel was transformed into a successful 1965 movie directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Vivien Leigh (in what would be her final performance), Jose Ferrer, Lee Marvin, Simone Signoret, George Segal and Oskar Werner.
Like Brant's book of verses, this movie doesn't appear to have wide currency today, but it was a big international blockbuster in its own time. One Spanish version was called El Barco De Los Locos.
The use of "locos" in this translation of the title raises a question, though. Is a ship of fools a ship filled with crazy people, or stupid people, or professional clowns? This particular title indicates a ship filled with crazy people, but that's only one of several possible interpretations of the phrase.
In Plato's original analogy from The Republic, the ship is filled with stupid people. These people may begin to act insane once the results of their stupid decisions begin to reap disaster, but the core of their problem is that they are too dumb to operate a ship.
However, the Ship of Fools described by Sebastian Brant and illustrated by Albrecht Durer appears to depict a ship filled with rude and disreputable characters who may be professional clowns.
These characters wear funny pointed hats like those worn by theater clowns or court jesters, who were also known as fools. Interestingly, the hats in Durer's "Ship of Fools" woodcuts resemble the hat worn by Max on his boat ride in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Maurice Sendak knew his Albrecht Durer; maybe he was trying to suggest that being a fool on a ship can be fun, especially on a solo voyage.
As I pondered the enduring cultural significance of an ancient anecdote about a boat packed with dumb and/or crazy people, I ended up spending nearly ten bucks buying every song I could find on iTunes called "Ship of Fools". It turned out there were several more to find.
I still hadn't discovered even half of the artists who'd created distinct songs titled "Ship of Fools" -- Erasure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Sara Brightman, Ron Sexsmith, Flyleaf, Fucked Up, the Scorpions, Soul Asylum. I obsessively bought every one of these songs, and this act of faith paid off well when I found several gems in the playlist of sixteen songs I eventually created from this binge.
Here, for your enjoyment, is a detailed rundown and analysis of sixteen songs called "Ship of Fools", listed in order from my least favorite to my most favorite, with videos of what I consider the best five songs on the list: Sixteen Songs About A Ship of Fools.
From Plato's Republic to Sebastian Brant medieval satire to Katherine Anne Porter's bestselling novel, the idea that we are sailing on a ship of fools has intrigued many minds.
If you've heard any recent news coverage about the peace agreement between Iran, USA, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China that will hopefully move forward this week, there's a good chance this is because the opposition in USA has been so noisy. We've seen big headlines about Republican hawks inviting Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu to speak out in Congress against President Obama's plans, and about 47 Senators who signed a poorly written letter to Iran declaring no confidence in their own President's foreign policy.
News outlets and social media channels seem to be constitutionally incapable of reporting good news -- unless the good news is about panda bears or Kim Kardashian's butt. We should all feel free to forget the noise from Benjamin Netanyahu and Mitt Romney and recognize that the signing of this Iran deal will be a great and historic thing. When this agreement is signed, there ought to be dancing in the streets -- all streets, everywhere in the world.
Our media outlets are so incapable of reporting good news that you might even have first heard about this historic Iran deal in a Literary Kicks blog post last November titled "Ending Sixty Years of Bad Karma With Iran". We're not in the breaking news business here at Litkicks, and yet we took the trouble to fill you in on the happy developments last year, while most professional news outlets remained silent until they found a tasty way to frame the news as a bitter controversy instead of a blessed breakthrough. Wake up, people! From Havana to Tehran to Obama's White House, smart politicians are trying to make good decisions, and they deserve your support.
Why is the Iran peace agreement good? Because it's a peace agreement between several nations that have been bitterly afraid of each other for six decades. This simple truth speaks for itself. Several major nations are afraid of each other right now, and a peace agreement is primarily an attempt to soothe raging paranoia.
The paranoia in pervasive. Many Americans I know are completely ignorant of the Iranian view of history, and cannot comprehend how frightened Iran is of the world powers who supported the Shah's oppressive (but oil-friendly) oligarchy from 1953 to 1979. Anybody who needs an explanation for Iran's hatred of Europe and USA only needs to read up on the history of Iran in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. That would be a valuable education for many Americans who think the problems between Iran and the USA only began in 1979.
But Iran isn't the only frightened party in 2015. Benjamin Netanyahu holds up a diagram of an imaginary bomb, while Tom Cotton seethes in the Senate. On Facebook, I hear my own friends express a sense of surreal terror that the villains in Tehran will surely take advantage of the deal to secretly build a nuclear bomb and blow up Tel Aviv, or New York City if they can reach it. This kind of primal paranoia appears hysterical when rationally examined, but the level of popular hysteria cannot be denied. Perhaps this is the nicest thing that can be said about Tom Cotton, the young pro-military Iraq veteran who has now made himself famous for writing a letter to Iran. He did not write this letter to advance his own career (though he has in fact advanced his career, and will probably be a popular face on Fox News for the next fifty years). He wrote this letter because he really thinks Iran is going to blow up the world. He's ignorant, but he's not cynical.
This kind of paranoia is what peace agreements are designed to cure. Difficult negotiations allow embattled leaders on all sides of an unbridgeable dispute to exchange information and ask questions. Peace agreements permit various kinds of conversation and commerce to slowly spin up, allowing cultural and economic interchange on new levels. They empower moderates at the expense of extremists -- and if that's not good news with regard to Iran and the rest of the world, I don't know what is.
Is it ever possible for a peace agreement to be a bad thing? Those who oppose this agreement right now point to Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Nazi Germany in 1938, but that famous example is full of hot air. Even a failed peace agreement like the Munich deal of 1938 does little actual damage, and of course the primary cause of the Second World War was not Neville Chamberlain -- it was the First World War.
It was right before that ruinous war began, back in the muddled summer months of 1914, that Europe's paranoid nations lost their last chance for a significant peace agreement, and instead began the process of systematically slaughtering each other for the next few decades.
Its 2015, and we're not going to make those mistakes anymore. The peace agreement between Iran, USA, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China that will be signed next week is glorious good news. I'll be dancing in the streets when it's finally signed -- even if I have to go dancing alone.
Forget the noise. Despite the loud opposition, the peace agreement that will hopefully conclude this week is a great and historic step forward for every nation in the world.
There are some days when only a very old poem will do. Sometimes a 2600-year-old poem. Here are a few selections from the Tao Te Ching, apropos of a hard day at work. -- Levi
The softest things of the world
Override the hardest things of the world
That which has no substance
Enters into that which has no openings
From this I know the benefits of unattached actions
The teaching without words
The benefits of actions without attachment
Are rarely matched in the world
Fame or the self, which is dearer?
The self or wealth, which is greater?
Gain or loss, which is more painful?
Thus excessive love must lead to great spending
Excessive hoarding must lead to heavy loss
Knowing contentment avoids disgrace
Knowing when to stop avoids danger
Thus one can endure indefinitely
Cease learning, no more worries
Respectful response and scornful response
How much is the difference?
Goodness and evil
How much do they differ?
What the people fear, I cannot be unafraid
So desolate! How limitless it is!
The people are excited
As if enjoying a great feast
As if climbing up to the terrace in spring
I alone am quiet and uninvolved
Like an infant not yet smiling
So weary, like having no place to return
The people all have surplus
While I alone seem lacking
I have the heart of a fool indeed – so ignorant!
Ordinary people are bright
I alone am muddled
Ordinary people are scrutinizing
I alone am obtuse
Such tranquility, like the ocean
Such high wind, as if without limits
The people all have goals
And I alone am stubborn and lowly
I alone am different from them
And value the nourishing mother
Those who wish to take the world and control it
I see that they cannot succeed
The world is a sacred instrument
One cannot control it
The one who controls it will fail
The one who grasps it will lose
Because all things:
Either lead or follow
Either blow hot or cold
Either have strength or weakness
Either have ownership or take by force
Therefore the sage:
Yield and remain whole
Bend and remain straight
Be low and become filled
Be worn out and become renewed
Have little and receive
Have much and be confused
Therefore the sages hold to the one as an example for the world
Without flaunting themselves – and so are seen clearly
Without presuming themselves – and so are distinguished
Without praising themselves – and so have merit
Without boasting about themselves – and so are lasting
Because they do not contend, the world cannot contend with them
What the ancients called "the one who yields and remains whole"
Were they speaking empty words?
Sincerity becoming whole, and returning to oneself
Five verses from the Tao Te Ching, apropos of a hard day at work.
"Atheists are as dull," the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote, "who cannot guess God's presence out of sight."
I don't know if atheists are dull or not, but lately I've been feeling the incredible dullness of political pundits and commentators who have nothing but gloomy cynicism to offer, who cannot see the dynamic nature of the changes that take place on this planet every day. What can be duller than a person who truly and deeply believes in statements like these about the human condition, about the prospects for the future of our world?
Nothing will ever change.
Politics is just a lot of noise.
It's a corrupt game. Only the worst people can win.
This week, USA President Barack Obama and Cuba's President Raul Castro reached a historic (though still informal) agreement to suddenly end the state of hostility that has existed between these neighbors for 53 years. The news dropped in the middle of a busy holiday season news week, briefly dominating social media and the airwaves for a few hours between other major global political stories involving CIA torture and North Korean cyberterrorism. I wonder if many people do not realize how momentous the news about Cuba is.
Until the announcement dropped, few people expected such a definitive single stroke, and many might have doubted that such a thing could be possible. Who in the world when they woke up this Wednesday morning would have expected that USA and Cuba would simply declare themselves in a state of hopeful peace before the sun would set? And yet it happened. This is an act of great political courage on the part of both President Obama and President Castro, and the announcement has already been greeted with gleeful acclaim on all sides. (Credit must also go out to Pope Francis, who encouraged and embraced the new relationship, and who is starting to look like the coolest Pope of all time.)
The fact that peace agreements can disable and deactivate the effects of years of suspicion and hostility doesn't mean that the suspicion and hostility are wiped away or cured. There are centuries of bad karma to be dealt with between the United States of America and its Caribbean neighbor. Learning about the troubled history of USA/Cuba relations is a vital first step towards making this important friendship real.
When the news of the historic informal peace agreement broke this week, unfortunately, most of the journalistic commentary was incredibly trivial. How will this peace agreement affect Barack Obama's popularity index? Does it give Marco Rubio's presidential aspirations a new boost? I find this type of news coverage very disappointing, and I find it even more disappointing that my own social media feeds are usually dominated by the same kind of short-sighted commentary.
We can better direct our attention towards the long and convoluted history of USA/Cuba relations: the African slave trade, the sugar harvests and rum empires, the Spanish-American War (a war fought largely over control of Cuba and the Phillipines), the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, the missile crisis of 1962, the US military occupation of Guantanamo Bay.
When we critique the leadership style of Fidel and Raul Castro, it's helpful to understand that we are talking about a small country that has been a focal point of global war for centuries, that has naturally developed an oppressive and intolerant government in response. Similarly, when we talk about our recent problems with North Korea, it's helpful to understand the horrifying modern history of that war-torn nation, which like Cuba has been a stomping ground for global powers, suffering greatly and silently through the agony as Russia, Japan, China and the United States fight for its control. An awareness of the history of North and South Korea can give more insight into our current North Korean crisis than the usual dumb jokes about dictators with funny haircuts.
Our pathetic shared history often seems like an insurmountable barrier to world peace, but we can't allow it to be. Fortunately, peace has a momentum of its own, and change moves fast. This is why I am confident that world peace will actually happen, despite all the discouragement and disgruntlement that always surrounds us in our daily lives.
Sometimes positive change will happen because our leaders will take the lead (as Obama and Castro did this week) and the grateful populaces will run to catch up. Other times, change will happen because the people take the lead and the leaders run to catch up (as happened in the USA during the Vietnam War era, and to some extent during the Occupy protests a few years ago).
Either way, it's a happy fact that peace moves fast. I bet this is what John Lennon and Yoko Ono had in mind when they recorded a song called "Move On Fast" in 1972. This is my Christmas song for 2014, Hope they can hear it in Havana too ...
A historic new approach between USA and Cuba proves how dynamic our planet's future is, even with all the gloomy discouragement and disgruntlement that dominates our conversation.
The horrifying report of the US Senate investigation into CIA torture during the Iraq War was released to the public this week, revealing depths of sadism and cruelty that nearly everybody but Dick Cheney considers un-American. When scandals like this are revealed, our first instinct is to look for someone else to blame.
This is a natural instinct, and I followed the instinct myself when I called out Dick Cheney above. But that was a cheap shot, and blaming others for a complex problem always feels like a moral dead end. Did we not all participate in the democratic process that led to the election of the leaders who embraced barbarity on our behalf? Are we not ourselves all to blame?
To blame ourselves seems more enlightened than to blame others. And yet, surprisingly, it brings us no closer to real understanding. Whether we blame others or ourselves, either way we are identifying a flaw in human character as the cause of a terrible problem. We are presuming that bad traits like greed or sadism or toxic ideology or ignorant apathy lead certain individuals (others, ourselves) to make wrong decisions. But we always discover that this realization doesn't improve anything, because no personal judgement will have an impact on problems like torture -- or human slavery or terrorism or genocide or any other form of geopolitical atrocity. Even when we occasionally manage to put some evildoers in jail, we don't seem to be fixing the underlying problems at all.
Imagine a bunch of people floating on rafts towards a waterfall that will soon kill them all. They are all paddling as hard as they can in a desperate attempt to save their lives. Some are using their hands, some are kicking their legs, others are trying to lash their rafts together. They are all yelling at each other that somebody else is doing it wrong, or they are crying for help because they know they are themselves doing it wrong. But the key point is this: they are all going to go over the waterfall. It doesn't matter whether they paddle with their hands or kick with their legs. It doesn't matter what any of them think, or what any of them say. They are in the grip of a force of nature. They are floating on a river that is carrying them against their will.
When we invaded Iraq in 2003, it may be the case that a CIA torture scandal was simply inevitable. It may not have mattered what Dick Cheney thought, or what any Cabinet official or Washington Post reporter or angry voter did. It may be that the CIA's descent into barbarity was an inevitable result of the invasion of Iraq. The actions of certain powerful individuals surely made the torture scandal worse, and the actions of certain other individuals may have made the scandal less horrible. But this is like the difference between people who are paddling fast or paddling slow to get away from the waterfall. Either way, they are all going over.
When we discuss atrocities like the CIA torture scandal, we should try to puzzle out the actual forces of nature that caused the atrocity. Just as a river is stronger by levels of magnitude than any individual swimmer, decisions made during time of war seem to always follow a natural logic that is far more powerful than that of any individual decision-maker's personality or character. In these situations, we begin to operate according to the logic of the herd mind, whose patterns do not resemble those of the individual mind at all.
This is why it feels so unsatisfying to blame individuals like Dick Cheney (or George W. Bush, or Donald Rumsfeld, etc. etc.), who are no longer even in power. It also feels unsatisfying to blame ourselves; after all, we know we never personally sanctioned torture. To blame ourselves for decisions we know we never made might seem nobly self-sacrificing, but it also feels gratuitous and weak, and leaves us helpless against the likelihood of future atrocities.
If we are perplexed as to what we did wrong last time, what can we do to make sure we don't do the same thing wrong the next time? Are we supposed to vote harder? Go out to the streets and protest ... against exactly what? Should we throw out all our elected officials, based on a magical belief that a new set of politicians will maintain higher moral standards in time of war?
But then, we must ask ourselves, what government ever maintains high moral standards in time of war?
Meanwhile, we're still on our rafts, paddling as hard as we can, and the current is still carrying us towards the waterfall ...
No individual person can institute a policy of government-sanctioned torture. This is an act that requires a group, a collective, a bureaucracy, a herd. It is not the individual mind but the group mind that conjures visions of cruelty. No single person -- not a Napoleon, not a Hitler, not a Mao -- is ever capable of wielding or controlling the kind of power that a herd mind can wield once a war begins.
It's all too easy to fixate on individual personalities and miss this crucial truth. It's easy to imagine that a vile leader like Dick Cheney might actually harbor private urges of psychological or sexual sadism (he looks so creepy that many people believe this about him prima facie, though it may or may not be actually true). But there is very little substance to these speculations. For instance, even if Dick Cheney is a diagnosable sadist, this does not explain the disturbing CIA actions detailed in this week's report. Dick Cheney was never in a prison cell brandishing a whip and a bucket of water and a rectal feeder. It takes a very large bureaucracy to carry out a policy of institutionalized torture over the course of many years. It takes a herd mind.
The mystery of the herd mind explains why individuals who participate in acts of atrocity often appear bewildered when they are caught in the act and called to explain their actions. We see this whenever a historical atrocity occurs. Ask a Turkish politician about the Armenian genocide of 1915. Put a Nazi on a witness stand and ask why he killed Jews. Interview a bunch of Rwandan Hutus who sit in a crowded jail about why they killed Tutsis, or a bunch of Serbians about why they killed Bosnians. You'll always get the same shrug. They aren't hiding the answers. They really don't know why they did what they did.
Again, here's why they did it. They were channeling the herd mind, and the herd mind has a different logic than the individual human mind. In times of peace, the herd mind can be a source of beauty and generosity and wonder. In times of war, the herd mind can lead us to greater levels of evil than almost any of us could ever be capable of dreaming up. In either case, the herd mind's logic always operates differently than the individual mind. And we tend to follow the herd mind's logic as often as we follow our own.
Are we letting individual actors off too easily when we recognize that only a herd mind can commit atrocities like torture or genocide? We could take crowd psychology too far and let this happen, but we should not. The fact that we are all stuck in the river's strong current doesn't mean that we shouldn't observe the different ways that people attempt to paddle. It does no harm to put an Adolf Eichmann or Sloban Milosevic or Dick Cheney in jail, and it provides or would provide a neat (though weak) moral lesson to do so.
Still, we must realize that we solve no problems by punishing individual evil-doers in time of war. Go ahead and put Eichmann and Milosevic and Cheney behind bars, but other fools will take their spots. The herd mind is not choosy about its leaders.
So, how do we begin to understand the nature of the herd mind, so we can at least make better decisions about which herds to join? That's a gigantic topic that will require future discussion, though we laid some groundwork in past weeks when we discussed the fact that a herd mind will always believe in its own moral excellence. (We called this significant discovery The Ashley Wilkes Principle.) We've also noted that fear and paranoia tend to quickly overwhelm the herd mind in times of war, and this does appear to be a key finding that will hopefully lead to future discoveries about possibilities for long-term peace.
This week's USA Senate report on CIA torture disturbed many people around the world, and has stirred many of us to think harder about what can be done. I'm sure that many people are reading various go-to texts for enlightenment. Some may be reading Noam Chomsky or Slavoj Zizek. Some may be reading the US Constitution or the writings of Thomas Jefferson. Some may be reading the Bible or the Dhammapada.
Me, I'm reading a book called Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War by Wilfred Trotter, originally published in 1919. I don't know why I never read this book before, and I have a feeling I'll be writing about it again. Till then, please share any thoughts you have about this topic. I'd love to know if my words on this page are making sense to anyone but me.
Just as a river is stronger by levels of magnitude than any individual swimmer, decisions made during time of war seem to always follow a natural logic that is more powerful by levels of magnitude than that of any individual's personality or character. In these situations, we begin to operate according to the logic of the herd mind.
What can a pacifist say about racism? A lot, it turns out. The pacifist perspective is badly needed when rage abounds, as it does right now following the decisions by grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City not to indict two policemen who killed two unarmed African-American men.
"American society's admiration for Martin Luther King increases with distance," writes Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, in an article subtitled with blunt words: "Violence works. Nonviolence sometimes works too."
Ta-Nehisi Coates has also been exploring the evergreen idea that racism can be corrected by war on his Twitter account, evoking the North's victory over the South in the American Civil War as a relevant moral victory, and declaring that:
This got a lot of retweets and responses, and the increasingly popular cultural critic doubled down:
The conversation spread. Inevitably, the popular idea that World War II was also a "good war" because it ended the Holocaust (ignoring the fact that World War II also created the Holocaust) was invoked:
Ta.Nehisi Coates's statements here are hardly new or shocking. But it is shocking and upsetting that statements like this seem to carry the force of truth, and that pacifists should fail to challenge this rash idea. Pacifists need to speak with a louder voice, especially since facts are on our side. History shows that war is often a primary cause of racism, and that war is nearly always an enabler of its worst offenses. War doesn't correct racism; it generates it.
How can a pacifist begin to speak about racism, when emotions are high and words seem misplaced? First, we can point out that the obvious fact that wars tend to pit ethnic groups against each other. This makes it nearly self-evident that war aggravates feelings of ethnic hatred, that militarism is likely to be a primary cause of racism.
Once we begin to look at the actual evidence, it becomes clear that war and racism are hopelessly entwined, that they amplify each other, and that even the fear of possible future war can be a tremendous enabler of racism. An acclaimed recent history book called The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 by Alan Taylor hammers this point home (we wrote about this book earlier this year in a blog post titled "Blood Alienation"). This important book shows that fear of a militarized slave revolt played a gigantic role in the South's debates over the future of slavery in the decades before the Civil War. This fear originated with news of the bloody Haitian revolution of 1791 to 1804, and was increased by Nat Turner's attempted slave uprising in Virginia in 1831.
Alan Taylor's The Internal Enemy counters the popular idea that greed was the primary engine of the slave economy in the American South. Greed may have been the original motivation for the wide acceptance of slavery -- sure, there was a lot of money in sugar cane and cotton. But The Internal Enemy shows that an obsessive fear of black uprisings began to dominate government policy in Southern states before the Civil War. Paranoid fears that white women would be raped en masse during a slave uprising added a psychotic edge to this fear (this meme would later justify many lynchings after the Civil War).
Alan Taylor's book suggests that an overwhelming fear of race war left Southern states incapable of rational decision-making when the time came for these states to follow the rest of the enlightened world and outlaw slavery. The North could outlaw slavery, and so could England, because their smaller slave populations didn't present a significant internal threat. States like Virginia saw their slave populations as a terrifying and highly capable militant presence (a fact that has been largely lost to history until Alan Taylor's book) and thus could not converge upon moderate and humane practices with regard to this internal enemy. Fear of race war defeated every Southern impulse towards moderation.
To suggest that war helps to fix racism is to suggest that a recovering alcoholic take a drink to steady his resolve, that a tank of gasoline be used to fight a fire. No serious thinker can look at the historical evidence and continue to believe that this method can work. Of course, we know that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a serious thinker, and many of his Twitter respondents probably are too, so we can only conclude that they have not looked at the evidence.
One key point of evidence is the fact that the loss of the Civil War created a shared white/black society that never came to peace. Instead, after 1865, many Southerners dealt with the humiliation of a crushing military defeat by turning the refusal to assimilate with blacks into a badge of defiance and pride. As movies like D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation show, it became a sign of military distinction among prominent Southerners after the loss of the Civil War to refuse to associate with the victors of the war, either white or black. This type of "victory" was not a good ground upon which to build a civil society between whites and blacks.
After the loss of the Civil War, the humiliation of invasion and defeat replaced the fear of slave revolt as the main ingredient in the cauldron of racism that has been swirling in the post-Confederate states ever since. The rebellion is over, but the hatred that lingers after the loss of a hard-fought war still pollutes this section of American society today. This appears to be a frequent phenomenon after a war is lost. The Nazis who congregated in Germany after the loss of World War I were also sore losers. Sore losers do a lot of damage.
It's very good that slavery was ended between 1963 and 1865. But military vanquishment by blockade and invasion was the worst possible way to achieve this result, because racial integration was imposed by a hated enemy rather than accepted from within. This is not a good model for the future of our planet. I hope that those who think of war as a redeeming force will consider the alternative of pacifism, which is a broad, flexible and (hopefully) emerging philosophy.
Pacifism often includes the belief that peace is a redeeming force for society as a whole, and that the best way to achieve a peaceful world -- which means a world without racism -- is to follow the peaceful methods of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Since social sicknesses like racism are generated by the culture of hyper-militarism, the best way to cure these sicknesses is to cure our addiction to the culture of hyper-militarism. Romantic paeans to noble war by Atlantic Monthly writers do not help this case.
Pacifists should explain that evidence of the damage war does to our society is present in human history at least as prominently as nitrogen is present in the air we breathe. (For anyone who is curious: nitrogen makes up 78.09% of the air we breathe, though nobody ever talks about all this nitrogen. Fear of violence and perception of internal threat probably accounts for at least 78.09% of our problems with racism, and nobody ever talks about this either.)
Besides quoting Alan Taylor on public attitudes in pre-Civil War Virginia, what other historical facts can a pacifist cite against the ridiculous suggestion that war can correct or cure racism? Plenty, plenty, plenty. We can remember that the entire practice of human slavery is based on military conquest, that a slave is a prisoner of war or the descendant of a prisoner of war. We can speak of all the atrocities of the past hundred years, every single one of which took place in the context of total war: Bulgaria, Armenia, Ukraine, Nanking, Poland, Czechoslovokia, Hungary, Romania, Tibet, Bosnia, Iraq, Syria.
We have previously noted here that genocide is always enabled by war, that genocide never occurs outside of the context of war. Pacifists need to help explain that genocide, like racism, is a direct by-product of militarism. It is impossible to imagine that we will ever have a world without racism, or without genocide, unless this is also a world without war.
Scratch a racist and you'll find a militarist. Remember the outbreak of anti-semitism enabled by the Dreyfus Affair in France? In fact, Dreyfus was considered a "German Jew", and the entire explanation for the vicious attacks against Dreyfus can be found in France's stunning loss to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War, and to the fear of Germany that became a French obsession after this loss. It's a vital and little-known point that Dreyfus was not singled out because the French had suddenly become intolerant of Judaism. He was singled out because as an ethnic Jew he was suspected of having ties to Germany.
The pattern repeats over and over: a war is fought, and racism follows in its wake. Or a war is anticipated, and racism becomes a sensible policy. What about the slaughter of Native Americans in 19th Century USA? Like the slaves in Virginia, like Dreyfus in France, like the Armenians in Turkey, the Native Americans were seen as an internal threat, a strategic liability in time of war. We didn't kill the Native Americans because we hated them; we killed them because we were scared of them. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, did the USA force Japanese-Americans into concentration camps because we suddenly hated them? No, we forced them into concentration camps because we were afraid of them. Wherever war arrives, racism follows.
War as a cure for racism? A worse idea has rarely ever been suggested. I don't blame Ta-Nahesi Coates for expressing his frustration at American racism in 2014 by praising the outcome of the Civil War. But war is no prescription for racism, and I hope nobody thinks that the Civil War stands as proof that a good war can exist. And what would have been the result of this "good war", I'd like to ask Ta-Nehisi Coates, if the Confederacy had won?
I don't blame Ta-Nehesi Coates for writing what he feels. But I do blame my fellow pacifists -- are you out there, anyone? -- for not speaking up more effectively to join the conversation and share some historical insights when emotional paeans to the nobility of war are widely shared. The fact that many people seem to agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates and few people are pointing out the flip side of his story shows once again what we've observed here before: committed pacifists need to do a much better job of making our voices heard, of saying what needs to be said when it needs to be said.
Ta-Nehisi Coates thinks violence is sometimes necessary to combat the evil of racism. How can a committed pacifist respond?
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".
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.
It’s easy to get angry when listening to Sam Harris, a stubborn young philosopher who recently made headlines for joining Bill Maher to condemn the entire religion of Islam on TV (Ben Affleck took the smarter side in this debate). Sam Harris is a pop-culture philosopher with a message of urgent, fervent atheism -- though he has so little respect for religion that he doesn’t even prefer to define himself by this negative belief (there is no word, he points out, for people who don’t believe in Greek myths or in astrology, so we shouldn’t need a word for those who don’t believe in Christianity, Islam or Hinduism either).
I find Sam Harris writings and statements about religion dull and unperceptive. Part of the problem is that he's an overconfident philosopher, heavily armed with a degree in neuroscience from the University of California at Los Angeles. He's so sure of his atheism (he does not want to call it atheism, but I still may do so) that he fails to realize his rote paragraphs have failed to win us over.
Over and over, he lays out a scientific or semantic principle and concludes that he has proven some point. He believes that abstract concepts can be clearly defined and that arguments can be won by declaring logical truths, which is to say that he lives in a world before Nietzsche, before Wittgenstein, before Derrida. This gives him a confidence in his conclusions that is awkward for a more existential philosopher to behold.
However, Sam Harris should not be written off as a hack. He is an energetic philosopher who has managed to establish himself as a voice for other fervent atheists, many of whom congregate at his admirably useful website Project Reason. He has a long career ahead of him, and he has even shown significant signs of improvement -- when he stays off the topic of Islam and away from television talk shows.
It's in his strident books (and television appearances) about religion that Sam Harris is at his worst. Elsewhere, he can be surprisingly good. He's most captivating when using his books to explore territory that is new to him. When he steps outside his intellectual comfort zone, uncertainty and curiosity soften Sam Harris's obnoxious voice, and he becomes at times an original and sensitive thinker.
Harris’s new book is called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, and Harris means something specific by this. He describes a few situations where he or others have felt a sensation of transcendence of the individual self, a feeling that they define as "spirituality". Sam Harris explores the idea that this type of "spirituality" may be scientifically significant. The reason we feel this transcendence, Sam Harris suggests, may be that the individual human self is not actually a scientific thing. The transcendence may actually be real.
The idea that religion's hidden value lies in its emphasis of the scientifically valid phenomenon of the transcendence of the self is the primary message of Waking Up. It's an exciting idea, good enough to make this an interesting and worthwhile book.
Harris acknowledges his debt for this idea to an older contemporary philosopher, Derek Parfit, who has used various explanations, proofs and illustrations to demonstrate that the individual self is not a continuous thing, though it appears to be. The deconstruction of the sense of the individual self is a topic we have explored often ourselves here on Litkicks, particularly in our critique of the philosophy of selfishness that is popular with followers of Ayn Rand.
The idea that the self is an illusion — that we only think we perceive a single continuous “I” that persists through our lives — provides Sam Harris with a single example of a positive aspect to religion. Unfortunately, Harris finds himself so amazed at his own embrace of this one quasi-religious concept that he then devotes large portions of Waking Up to his usual tired religion-bashing, as if to prove to himself and his readers that he hasn't changed too much. Waking Up would have been a better book if he'd left these parts out.
There is a larger deficiency in Sam Harris's model of the self, which is possibly a result of the Derek Parfit idea of the fragmented self being still new to him. While he is able to see that the individual self is a fluid thing, he fails to see the sociological perspective on this, which is that the boundaries of the self does not always have to equate to the boundaries of a single individual human being. The boundaries can sometimes expand to include more than one person at a time.
In everyday life, we often exist within aggregate selves, sharing a community consciousness within working units that seem to operate as group selves, and that even regard themselves in this way. Harris gets far enough to realize that we are not always conscious of ourselves as individuals, but he has not yet made the leap to realize that we are sometimes self-conscious within larger selves which we share with our loved ones and neighbors. This is indeed a fuller understanding of the religious sense of self, and many perplexing facts of our lives and our shared history can be coherently explained once this understanding is gained.
It's also a more realistic understanding of the way we exist in everyday life. Many parents, for instance, see their children standing next to them when they reflect upon themselves. (We see this in action when a parent includes his or her children in his or her Facebook photo.) A team or business or a government or army also takes on the functional characteristics of a cooperative or corporate self; without doing so, it would barely be able to operate as a unit. These are vital points that Sam Harris and others who contemplate the fragmentary nature of the self may not have considered yet, and might appreciate as significant.
These points are especially valuable when examining conflicts between different ethnic, religious or national groups. These conflicts are the most dramatic (and often most tragic) manifestations of group psychology -- and they can never be understood without the use of group psychology. The idea that religion is bad because religion causes war is the most popular dumb idea that results from the failure to understand group psychology.
Sam Harris almost understands something great when he declares that consciousness is fragmentary and that the self is an illusion. He would be closer to grasping the real ethical and existential crisis of human life if he declared that consciousness is fragmentary and that the self is elusive.
Sam Harris almost understands something great when he declares that consciousness is fragmentary and that the self is an illusion. He would be closer if he declared that consciousness is fragmentary and that the self is elusive.