Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Politics

Philosophy Weekend: Because War is a Form of Language

by Levi Asher on Friday, July 18, 2014 04:47 pm


It's because words are such effective tools of communication that we sometimes fail to realize how often we communicate without them. A conversation is sometimes a physical exchange. These conversations carry meaning that can only exist in the physical realm.

We signify to each other with words, with gestures, with emotional expressions. We also signify with commitments, with actions, and when this occurs (as it constantly does in our everyday lives) we are able to see that logical meaning is itself a physical thing. We can't say what we want to say without putting our bodies into it.

For example: my wife and I go to a wedding of a friend of hers who we haven't seen in a while. We both like the bride and groom a lot, and we used to enjoy hanging out with them, but tonight we barely get to talk to the marrying couple because they are so busy running around being the bride and groom. Still, we are glad we came to the wedding, because we are able to express something to the couple by being there. They know that we are there because we want to celebrate their marriage, and this recognition (which might not take place till weeks later when they see their wedding photos) amounts to a happy conversation that could not have been carried out if we were not there. We could have sent a card, and the card could have had many more words on it than we had a chance to speak. But the card would have expressed not more meaning but less than we expressed by being there.






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.






Philosophy Weekend: The Cure For Our Condition

by Levi Asher on Saturday, May 24, 2014 09:13 am


"The philosopher's treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness." -- Ludwig Wittgenstein

Last weekend I proposed that three well-known modern philosophers hold a key to great discoveries that can help cure a horrific disease that currently plagues our planet. The three philosophers are Ludwig Wittgenstein, William James and Carl Jung, and the illness they can help address is the one whimsically illustrated in the image above: our deeply ingrained militarism.

Of course I know this illustration is kitschy and ridiculous, which is exactly why I’m using it. I'm hoping it will bring a smile, because arguments about militarism and pacifism tend to be dreadfully serious and often angry, which then discourages and dissuades us from discussing the problem at all. This blocks us from directly addressing a surreal malady, a curable condition that rages freely around us, spreading misery, destroying lives and resources, stoking the fires of racism and ethnic hatred, empowering genocidal maniacs, preventing friendly open commerce and discourse around the world.

If we intend to fight the plague of militarism, we must do it with a loving smile, and without hatred or judgement. World peace is both possible and probable, but we’ll never achieve it by treating deeply committed militarists and guerrophiles as our enemy. Instead, we must cure militarism and guerrophilia as if it were a disease. Ludwig Wittgenstein, William James and Carl Jung are the three doctors (mad scientists, perhaps, but it's a madness we need to embrace) whose fresh and wonderful philosophical writings can guide us towards this goal.






Philosophy Weekend: A Bedrock Philosophy for Pacifists

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, May 14, 2014 07:21 am


I sometimes wonder if pacifism needs the kind of bedrock philosophy that more popular ideologies like conservativism and communism have.

A firm rooting in philosophy helps an ideology stand its ground firmly. I've noticed that American conservatives are very quick to cite John Locke or David Hume, along with (variously) Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick. I disagree with most conservative positions, but I have to admit that conservatives do a good job of constructing a consistent metaphysical, epistemological and ethical framework to support their beliefs.

Communists, likewise, are quick to cite Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Voltaire or Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel along with (variously) Plato, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, Slavoj Zizek. The original Communist Karl Marx talked a good metaphysical game, and the tendency to wax philosophical has continued to inform Marxist culture.

Who are the go-to philosophers for pacifists? We don't seem to have any.






Philosophy Weekend: Rebuilding

by Levi Asher on Saturday, May 10, 2014 11:30 am


When I write about the damages caused by rampant militarism, I'm afraid some readers think I'm just making noise, just enjoying the sound of my own voice. I wish to assure everybody who reads my blog that I would never bother writing about a political problem if I didn't think the problem had a real and viable solution.

It's not really your fault if you've become so discouraged with political debate that you've decided antiwar activism is just another form of noise. Perhaps you've thought hard about the future of our planet and concluded that we're simply stuck with the problems that have plagued us so terribly in the past. Maybe you subscribe to the widespread belief that war and mass violence are so deeply enmeshed in basic human nature that we must continue to allow military masterminds to spend our money, waste our resources, kill strangers in our name. If so, I believe you're missing something important that's changing around you.

But how can I write about pacifism without sounding like a naive, hope-filled fool? And how can I bolster my arguments for pacifism when there are so many common misunderstandings about what pacifists believe? These are the problems that have been bugging me recently -- bugging me so much that I have thought seriously about killing this whole Philosophy Weekend series, and giving up on my mission to tackle the toughest ethical and practical questions that matter so much in the world today. I often feel so hopeless that I can't imagine going on.






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.






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).






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