Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

History

Philosophy Weekend: Is Religious War a Fraud?

by Levi Asher on Saturday, June 21, 2014 06:59 pm


I observed a strange reaction among my friends -- especially my fellow liberals -- when a new insurgent group calling itself "The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria" began capturing towns and small cities in war-torn Iraq.

There's really nothing new about this insurgent group, which represents the same Sunni coalition that lost power with the fall of Saddam Hussein and has been trying to get it back ever since. But all of a sudden, several of my friends were up in arms about the insurgency. Why? Because they're fundamentalists.

Indeed, the new insurgency is using Islamic fundamentalism as a way to gain support (and frighten Brits and Americans). It's a smart strategic move: calls to religion have always been useful recruiting tools in time of war. But what amazes me is that some of my American friends are more offended by the fact that the new insurgents are religious than by the fact that they are rampaging through towns murdering political opponents with their families.

The atrocities are perfectly acceptable, apparently ... as long as they don't start bringing sharia into it.






Furthur Will Ride Again

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, May 27, 2014 07:41 pm


Furthur, Further ... that literary device on wheels, that great American rolling metaphor.

Fifty years after novelist Ken Kesey gathered his friends into a painted bus and drove a jagged route from California to New York City, the novelist's son Zane Kesey is hitting the road again, in a new bus with a new gang of Merry Pranksters, funded by a Kickstarter that has already met its goal.






Wilderness, 1864

by Levi Asher on Monday, May 5, 2014 10:45 am


Exactly 150 years today, the most grueling and relentless eight days of the Civil War in the United States of America began. These are the opening days of the Overland Campaign, in which two armies rampaged south through north-central Virginia in their final race towards Richmond, capital city of the Confederacy. They stopped frequently along the way to try to kill each other.

The Overland Campaign was recently featured in the TV series House of Cards. The crooked politician played by Kevin Spacey visits a newly dedicated (and fictional) battlefield park dedicated to the Overland Campaign, and meets a reenactor costumed as his own doomed Rebel ancestor. In real life, the park is known as the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Battlefield, and despite the House of Cards fabrication, it's not dedicated just to the Overland Campaign: there were so many fights in this region that Wilderness and Spotsylvania have to share space with Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, where major battles were fought in 1862 and 1963.

Those were also critical and immense conflagrations, but Civil War experts know the Overland Campaign was the greatest match of them all, because it was in these battles -- Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Yellow Tavern, Cold Harbor -- that General Ulysses S. Grant faced General Robert E. Lee directly for the first time. This was the big one, the championship between the two top teams. This was the Finals, and it was a hell of a fight.






Philosophy Weekend: The Turn

by Levi Asher on Sunday, April 20, 2014 11:05 am


I didn't start a blog series called "Philosophy Weekend" so I could write the same old shit you've already read. That's what a lot of other philosophers and ethical theorists and historians seem to be good at.

I don't know what their problem is; our universities are packed with professors and writers and academic bloggers with impressive degrees and credentials. But they don't seem to be writing what needs to be written about real world problems that need to be solved, so I guess it's up to me, a humble software developer with a humble bachelor's degree, to put two and two together and ask if you agree that it adds up to four.

We've been discussing the causes of genocide here for several weeks, and I think we've reached a surprising conclusion. Let's retrace our steps.

We began with a querulous blog post in which I proposed that we must not be thinking creatively or constructively enough, since there are obviously answers that we're not finding. I observed that typical debates or conversations about problems of global politics tend to be packed with emotional keywords and frustrating misconceptions and sensitive "don't go there" areas, and suggested that we try to put aside our emotional responses and try to analyze the known facts about the genocidal disasters of the last hundred years in a systematic way, with a puzzle-solver's mentality. This is where it all began:






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: Can A Person Be Guilty Of Genocide?

by Levi Asher on Sunday, April 6, 2014 08:03 am


One of many unforgettable moments in Philip Gourevitch's book about the 1994 Rwanda genocide We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families is the author's visit to Gitarama prison a year after the massacre. He finds a scene of incredible physical misery, though the sufferers barely complain. It's the suspected Hutu perpetrators of the previous year's genocide, not the Tutsi victims, who are crowded together here.

On the day of my visit to Gitarama Prison, six thousand four hundred and twenty-four prisoners formed a solid-looking knot, and I had to plan each step I took with care. It was difficult to figure out how the people fitted together -- which limbs went with which body, or why a head appeared to have grown three legs without a torso in between. Many of the feet were badly swollen. The bodies were clad in rags.

Gourevitch is perplexed by what he finds as he visits various prisons holding thousands and thousands of suspected Hutu killers. The prisoners could easily escape, the author observes, but they don't try. They just sit there.

Although the tightly packed inmates were all accused of terrible violence, they were generally calm and orderly; fights among them were said to be rare, and killings unheard of. They greeted visitors amiably, often with smiles and with hands extended for a shake ... The captain kept calling out, "Here's a journalist from the United States," and the huddled men, squatting at our feet, clapped mechanically and made little bowing motions. It occurred to me that this was the famous mob mentality of blind obedience to authority which was often described in attempts to explain the genocide.

Blind obedience to authority is what these bewildered prisoners are guilty of, and it appears possible that they are so passive because they have already judged themselves to be guilty, that they look so confused because they don't understand themselves how they suddenly transformed into murderers. Some of them admit this to Gourevitch, and later he talks to a former Hutu leader who has returned to the village where he presided over the murder of approximately seventy of his neighbors to ask for forgiveness from the few survivors who remain.






The Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Mystique of William Buck

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, April 1, 2014 02:52 pm


I recently heard about a British Library project to reassemble and digitize a 17th century illustrated edition of the Ramayana, a classical Hindu epic. This sounds pretty cool, and it reminded me of a different edition of the Ramayana that I once owned myself.

This was just a cheap pocket paperback, a novelization of the great poem, published alongside a similar edition of the other great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. These two books, the life work of a young American translator named William Buck, were designed to be accessible and enjoyable versions of their extremely long and complex originals. Of course the great epic poems had to be condensed and simplified to fit into these forms, but the popular paperbacks provide a rich reading experience that must capture at least some of the significance of their gigantic counterparts.

William Buck's Mahabharata is the one I read all the way through and remember most vividly, because it's a colorful, wise and beautiful long tale that begins with the household altercation that resulted in an elephant head being placed on the body of a boy named Ganesha, the son of Shiva, who is noted (in the story that surrounds the story) as the scribe who is writing the text:






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).






A Rite of Spring

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, March 19, 2014 09:32 pm


"The people dance passionately on the earth, sanctifying it and becoming one with it."
-- Igor Stravinsky

I'm sure it's a hipster affectation of mine: I try to listen to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring every year when the Spring Equinox comes around. It's a hipster affectation because I don't really know much about classical music, and I can't deny that what thrills me most about this music is not the work itself but the knowledge that it caused a riot in Paris on May 29, 1913 when it was first performed. A riot in an theatre -- that's my idea of a rite of Spring.

The music sounds primal today, though it's hard to imagine how it could have caused a riot. In fact, it was not the music as much as the ballet, daringly choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, that caused the sensation. Le Sacre du Printemps was a Russian debut in France, and as such a symbolic meeting between two nations that would one year later go to war together against Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey.

While I've heard the music often, I've never seen the work performed, and I've only just become aware of a Joffrey Ballet video that presents Stravinsky's music and Nijinsky's ballet in context -- Pictures of Pagan Russia is the subtitle -- so that we can get a better idea of what the whole sensation was about. Here's the first of three parts; you can click through from this one to the next two.






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