What can we discover by analyzing the worst atrocities of modern history together, looking for patterns and common features? A whole lot, it turns out -- and we're just getting started.
Last weekend we discussed the surprising fact that every society will always consider itself highly moral and principled, even as this society may engage in vile activities. We called this the Ashley Wilkes Principle (named after the noble, brainy Confederate hero of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind). This week I'd like to examine another notion that appears to be surprising and self-evident at the same time.
A recent book called The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 by the historian Alan Taylor drives home a single point: during the War of 1812, when the British Navy invaded and occupied Virginia's Chesapeake coastline, an event occurred that badly shook Virginia's well-entrenched plantation society. Slaves began to realize that they could escape bondage by reaching the British ships that lay ashore. Once they escaped, they would conspire with their British rescuers and help them invade their own plantations and villages to retrieve their families and free more slaves.
This week, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham of the Creation Museum in Kentucky spent two and a half hours debating the origin of the universe in a well-publicized update of the Scopes Trial of 1920. I could only endure the tedium of the YouTube broadcast for about a half hour, but even though I didn't watch the whole thing I am pleased by the friendly gesture this event represents. Sometimes a willingness to meet in open debate can be more significant than any actual arguments contained within.
Amidst the social media conversations following the debate, I was also impressed by a page of photos of regular people holding up papers expressing questions or ideas supporting the creationist point of view. I don't get the logic behind some of these expressions -- and yet they all appear to be sincere, and a few may even be meaningful. In the photo above, a woman's comparison of the idea of God and the idea of the Big Band strikes a chord. It is true that the idea of the Big Bang as constantly described by physics teachers and Morgan Freeman is as ultimately inexorable as the traditional idea of God.
A video that's been making the rounds about a clueless super-wealthy plutocrat who compares America's treatment of the rich to the Holocaust and brags about his wristwatch that's worth "a six-pack of Rolexes" has got me to thinking. The most revealing thing about this video is the boyish excitement this 80-year-old former investor seems to feel about his expensive watch. He, like some others who argue for pro-wealth policies, seems to think that liberals and progressives who want to tackle the problem of income inequality are suffering from Rolex envy.
I wonder what it would feel like to wish for an expensive watch. I don't know how much a Rolex costs, but I've never remotely yearned for one, and if I owned a Rolex I wouldn't want to wear it. I don't wear a wristwatch at all, and really don't understand why anyone does. An expensive watch doesn't strike me as an attractive object the way that, say, an agate or a piece of ocean glass is. Gold and silver are not my favorite colors. And when I want to know what time it is, I just look at my phone.
And yet I've heard from economic conservatives that economic progressives like me must envy the rich. I really don't think most of us do. The lifestyle of luxury is not always attractive, even when it is curious. At most, most of us envy the freedom that would come with a moderate amount of wealth, and that's as far as the envy goes.
An Atlantic Monthly article by David A. Graham titled "Why Has Republican Belief in Evolution Declined So Much?" made the rounds last week, citing a Pew Research Center study that shows the percentage of self-identifying Republican voters in the United States of America who believe in evolution dropping from 54% to 43% since 2009.
Is this a worrying trend? Many of my fellow liberal progressives on Facebook and Twitter seem to think it is. I think the more dangerous trend is that these friends of mine are snapping at the bait. I've said it before and I'll say it again: as enticing as the Darwin vs. creationism debate may look to eager liberals, we should never swallow it. It's a poison pill.
Darwinism is rock-solid science, but anybody who thinks scientific proof has more power to compel personal belief than traditional religion needs to freshen up on William James, the brilliant philosopher who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience and The Will to Believe. In the latter essay, James listed the necessary conditions for typical belief in any possible truth, and showed that personal inclination tends to play a stronger role than preponderance of evidence in most belief situations. Most importantly, James showed that willful belief is a universal human pattern at all levels of intellect and education, and that the selective mechanisms which construct our beliefs do tend to provide enough of the sturdy fabric of truth and understanding required to inform and guide our lives.
I hope my pick for the most significant book of 2013 will surprise you. It surprises me. For one thing, it's not a book. It wasn't published in 2013. And I've never mentioned it on Litkicks before.
Before I explain, here's a quick wrap-up of my year of reading and blogging. There was a lot of philosophy, history and politics. Early in 2013, I got into Jacques Derrida. This was for me a belated discovery (isn't Derrida supposed to be sophomoric? I'm no sophomore) but a happy one. In July I took a trip to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for the 150th anniversary of that amazing Civil War battle, and then went back home to begin obsessively reading a whole lot of books about the American Civil War. I'm planning to write more about the literary legacy of the Civil War as the battlefield sesquicentennials of Wilderness and Spotsylvania loom. Continuing my weird march through what may seem to my readers to be randomly assorted moments (ahh, but they're not!) in American history, I also read and blogged extensively about disgraced Vice-President Spiro Agnew this year.
I wrote a lot about music and film in 2013. The death of Lou Reed, one of my all time favorite singer-songwriters, inspired in me a vast blast of sudden blogging, which was exhausting. As I mentioned in a comment to one of the above posts, I sure hope Bob Dylan has a good doctor, because I don't want to blog that much again anytime soon. I also continued my series of articles about musical memoirs, because it pleases me to do so, and I hope it pleases some of you too. The next installment in the "Great Lost Rock Memoir" series drops in January.
(Privacy in the Internet age is emerging as one of the crucial ethical topics of our era; we've briefly touched upon it here at Philosophy Weekend, but will clearly have to begin devoting more space to the big controversies in 2014. Let's get the party started early with a sharp opinion piece by Tom Watson, a longtime friend and debate partner of Litkicks. Tom, the founder of Cause Wired, is also the author of the book CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World as well as a recent set of New York City reminiscences titled 'Bridge and Tunnel Kid'.)
Earlier this week, Federal Judge Richard Leon described the information gathering techniques of the National Security Agency as "almost Orwellian" in a ruling that the agency likely violates the Constitution. This may represent the high water mark for the rampant, almost fad-like invocation of the mid-20th century British social critic's name in public discourse.
Or low water mark, your choice.
For a writer of remarkably sparse fictional output who died tragically young at the age of just 46 in London fully 64 years ago next month, George Orwell sure gets around a lot these days. Yet I suspect that more people bring to mind the famously theatrical Apple commercial invoking shades of 1984 when they throw around "Orwellian" than the thinking or writing of the actual man.
Thanks to Nelson Mandela, I have a new favorite word. I'm serious about this; I like this word a lot.
I've known about "Ubuntu" for years, but I always thought it was a distribution of the Linux open source operating system. I've installed and used Ubuntu Linux often. But I've just now learned that the Ubuntu distro was created as a spinoff of Debian Linux in 2004 by a South African entrepreneur named Mark Shuttleworth who knew of "ubuntu" as a familiar term in the Ngugi Bantu and Swahili family of languages. The term denotes a communitarian social philosophy that is certainly relevant to the communitarian technology philosophy of open source. Amazingly, the Ubuntu Linux organization even persuaded Nelson Mandela to speak about the meaning of the word in a promotional video for the free and sharable operating system.
I ran into the word while reading about Nelson Mandela, but apparently the word is more commonly associated with Mandela's fellow activist Bishop Desmond Tutu, who has described it thus:
One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.
We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.
As some of you may remember, I spent 2009 writing a memoir about my experiences in New York City's New Media industry from 1993 to 2003. I've often wondered if I would ever write an update.
I might someday, and I might even write about the work I've been doing since 2009, when I moved down to Northern Virginia to get married and began working in Washington DC and in Northern Virginia's tech corridor.
I only write memoirs in past tense, so I won't be writing about my current jobs and projects anytime soon. But I wish I could, because lately it's been as exciting as Silicon Alley down in here. The big local story is the epic #fail of the Obama administration's website Healthcare.gov, which was built by several NoVa firms like CGI Federal.
Today's Philosophy Weekend is a question: what is the meaning of the extreme alienation that seems to be growing between two loosely defined political opinion groups in the United States of America?
Of course, the division between conservativism and liberalism is nothing new. But the emotional intensity of the split has been remarkable in the past few months, stoked by the rollout of Obamacare, which has led to an explosion of political noise, paranoia and apocalyptic drama way beyond the bounds of any normal political debate in this country. The break can be seen in the word cloud above, which shows the terms used by Republican voters to describe President Barack Obama.
It's notable that "liar" dominates the word cloud. This shows the depth of the problem Barack Obama faces in trying to communicate with his opponents. "Liar" is a tough word to fight back against, because it indicates a complete alienation between speaker and listener. If a President is perceived by opponents as incompetent or stupid, some cure for the condition can be imagined. If a President is simply seen by opponents to be a liar, there is no path to a common ground, because there is no common trust.
The pointing finger in this photo belongs to Jeremy Paxman, a British journalist. The pointee is Russell Brand, a brash and popular comedian who has guest-edited a new "Revolution" issue of the New Statesman, in which he says things like this:
Apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people … Along with the absolute, all-encompassing total corruption of our political agencies by big business, this apathy is the biggest obstacle to change.