Polls and Questions

Philosophy Weekend has always been about moral, social and political philosophy (I originally thought of calling the series "Ethics Weekend", but that title just does not have any zing to it). In the past couple of years, I've allowed two major developments to dominate my choice of weekly topics. First, I became alarmed by Ayn Rand's increasing popularity and began devoting many blog posts to a critique of Objectivism and its underlying assumption of psychological Egoism. Second, I got caught up in the excitement and crazy drama of the 2012 USA presidential election, and devoted many weekend posts to that whole thing. (Interestingly, the common demoninator between these two themes was embodied in a single person, Congressman Paul Ryan, who I expect to be writing a lot about again in three years when he begins running like a maniac for President.)

I never mind a good diversion, but a recent New York Times headline about an attempt by the Obama administration to create a rulebook for the use of military drones reminded me that I originally had a different underlying inquiry in mind for all of these philosophical inquiries, which has gotten buried amidst all the Ayn Rand inquiries and Mitt Romney bobblehead dolls of the past two years. My big question is this: what is pacifism, and why has it become so quiet? Is the philosophy of pacifism viable at all today? How can pacifism be returned to relevance in an era that seems to have completely disdained it, and how can it possibly be that so few people seem to care whether it is returned to relevance or not?

This has always been the core question behind all the Philosophy Weekend blog posts, and as far as I'm concerned the question of the ethical nature of war should be the primary question behind all ethical philosophy. I've said it before and I'll say it again: if you are an ethical philosopher, you ought to be trying to tackle the problem of global war. It's hard to imagine what other important tasks an ethical philosopher could possibly consider more important.

Here's the New York Times article about an attempt by the US government to codify rules for the practice of drone attacks:

The White House reportedly is developing rules for when to kill terrorists around the world. The world may never see them, given the Obama administration’s inclination toward unnecessary secrecy regarding its national security policy. But the effort itself is a first step toward acknowledging that when the government kills people away from the battlefield, it must stay within formal guidelines based on the rule of law — especially when the life of an American citizen is at stake.

For eight years, the United States has conducted but never formally acknowledged a program to kill terrorists associated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban away from the battlefield in Afghanistan. Using drones, the Central Intelligence Agency has made 320 strikes in Pakistan since 2004, killing 2,560 or more people, including at least 139 civilians, according to the Long War Journal, a Web site that tracks counterterrorism operations. Another 55 strikes took place in Yemen.

Administration officials have never explained in any detail how these targets are chosen. Are they killing people only associated with groups that participated in the Sept. 11 attacks, the limitation imposed by Congress when it authorized military force in 2001? Or are they free to remove any threat to the United States they perceive? Officials insist they go after only actual belligerents covered in the 2001 legislation, but the public and the world have no way of knowing whether these decisions are made ad hoc, or how they would be interpreted by future presidents.

Before the election, when it looked as if Mitt Romney had a chance of winning the White House, administration officials began codifying these rules, according to a recent report in The Times by Scott Shane. Mr. Obama did not want to leave an “amorphous” program to his successor, one official told Mr. Shane anonymously.

Because I'm an unabashed Barack Obama fan, I have sometimes been challenged to defend the President's choice to use drones to kill known terrorists (along with, unfortunately, other innocent people who may be in the same place as the known terrorists when the missile flies out of the sky). I can't defend it, and I won't. I've been challenged to explain why I voted for Barack Obama even though his administration has pioneered the use of drone attacks, and the best answer I can come up with is that Barack Obama did not invent war, and is not responsible for getting this country into any of its current wars. I wish he were putting more effort into finding innovative ways to get us out of various terrible situations we're in, but I think his primary focus is economic and social justice within the country, and it seems that he has chosen to carry out a policy of continuity with past military operations (accentuated by an emphasis on quiet effectiveness and small-scale operations, which is at least a big improvement over the previous President's emphasis on loud triumphalism and large-scale invasions).

Still, I always try to keep my own ethical focus clear, and I won't go so far as to defend the use of unmanned aircraft to shoot missiles at suspected targets on the ground. This highly effective but deeply disturbing method of killing terrorists seems to create whole new categories of problems. Every Pakistani or Afghani citizen must face the realization that an unmanned American aircraft may be over their heads at every moment, armed and locked to kill. That's not a reality that any human being can find acceptable, and I'm sure that the bad karma this creates for American foreign policy is snowballing faster than any other efforts towards diplomatic goodwill can balance. I want the drone attacks to stop immediately, even if it means certain known terrorists will live.

But here's my problem -- and yours as well, if you'll take the trouble to answer the question that ends this blog post. I may pretend I have a rulebook for drones -- don't use them, ever -- but my rulebook doesn't stand up to tough examination. Would I consider it acceptable to kill a known terrorist from an aircraft as long as the aircraft is manned? If so, what the hell is the big difference? Would I consider it acceptable if a bystander was standing next to the target? What if the terrorist was actively planning an attack on innocent people, and the bystander was a member of the terrorist's family?

I don't have many good answers here, so I'd like to throw the question out to you. Do you have a rulebook for drones? Do you have a rulebook for war? It seems to me that we'd better start coming up with some good answers ... or eventually we may find out that the drones have a rulebook for us.


Philosophy Weekend has always been about moral, social and political philosophy (I originally thought of calling the series "Ethics Weekend", but that title just does not have any zing to it). In the past couple of years, I've allowed two major developments to dominate my choice of weekly topics. First, I became alarmed by the increasing popularity of Ayn Rand among supposedly serious political thinkers and began devoting many blog posts to a critique of Objectivism and its underlying assumption of Congressman Paul Ryan, who I expect to be writing a lot about again in three years when he begins running like a maniac for President.)

I never mind a good diversion, but a recent New York Times headline about reminded me that I originally had a different underlying inquiry in mind for all of these philosophical inquiries, which has gotten buried amidst all the Ayn Rand propaganda and Mitt Romney bobblehead dolls of the past two years. My big question is this: what is pacifism, and why has it become so quiet? Is the philosophy of pacifism viable at all today? How can philosophy be returned to relevance in an era that seems to have completely disdained it, and how can it possibly be that so few people seem to care whether it is returned to relevance or not?

view /RulebookForDrones
Saturday, December 1, 2012 03:39 pm
A drone aircraft
Levi Asher

The image in this week's Litkicks Mystery Spot #7 is from a 1951 aerial map of New York City. It shows the southeast corner of Central Park, a location immortalized in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. This is where Holden Caulfield stared at ducks in a pond and wondered where they would go in the winter when the pond froze. And it's where he watched his younger sister Phoebe ride on a carousel at the touching end of the book.

The remarkable thing about this image is its timeliness: Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, so this image lets us see the park as Holden would have seen it. The following detailed images are from current versions of the same New York City map, and show how these locations in Central Park look today. Here's the Central Park Zoo, which is near the upper right of the 1951 picture. The large octagonal roof on the bottom left is the roof over the carousel. This carousel had just been installed at this location in 1951, replacing an earlier carousel which had burned down, which is why it does not yet have its distinctive roof in the older image. You can still ride this merry-go-round today, or, if you wish, bring your younger sister and let her ride while you sit on a bench and watch. No sign or marker anywhere near the carousel indicates the literary significance of the spot.

South of the zoo and the carousel is the lagoon, a popular spot due to its easy access from the tourist-rich neighborhood of Fifth Avenue and Central Park South, which includes the Plaza Hotel and FAO Schwarz. This is where Holden Caulfield wondered, so memorably, about ducks:

I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go? I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.

I mentioned in the preceding question that another significant literary spot is visible on this photograph. I'm thinking of the Plaza Hotel, the large U-shaped building just across the street from the park's southeastern tip. This is where Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan had their showdown in The Great Gatsby. But, of course, I realized after I wrote this that there are many, many other literary spots here as well. The Plaza Hotel was also home to Eloise (who, one imagines, might have gotten along well with Phoebe Caulfield, if they'd ever met). The bridge over the lagoon is where the heroine of Sweet Charity got dunked in the great Bob Fosse movie version of that Broadway musical. Holly Golightly's favorite jewelry store and breakfast spot is just south of and across the street from the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue. Maybe this is one reason walking through midtown Manhattan is so exciting: there's artistic significance in pretty much every step you take.

This is the second Litkicks Mystery Spot (the first is here) to use an amazing, wonderful historical photographic map of New York City available on the city's website. It's a little tricky to navigate this Google Map mashup -- you have to click on the little camera icon to dial back your years to 1926 or 1951, and then click on the little hand icon to navigate around. Clunky software aside, this historical map is just about one of my favorite things in the entire world, and you better believe I've spent hours staring at all five boroughs. I hope NYC.gov will continue to add to and improve this map, and I hope other cities will put up similar online exhibits too.

Thanks to all who responded to the question! It may not have been as easy as I thought it was (the real giveaway, hidden as always, was my use of the modifier "goddam", and my general attempt to use surly Holdenesque language, in the original question). I'll keep tweaking the formula -- I don't want these questions to be either too easy or too hard. The next Litkicks Mystery Spot will be coming your way soon.

view /VisionOfTheDucks
Wednesday, August 18, 2010 09:15 pm
Levi Asher

The last few were kind of difficult, so I'm taking it easy on all of you with this week's Litkicks mystery spot. In fact, it's a goddam walk in the park. Just tell me what this is a picture of, and name the novel that this image represents.

Every single one of you has read this book. And I bet every single one of you loves the scenes (though you may not want to admit it) that take place among the structures towards the upper right of the image above, and around the body of water in the bottom part of the image.

Another great literary moment from a completely different novel also took place at a spot visible in this photograph. But you don't want to know about all that.

Please post your answer as a comment, and as always I will not publish any of the comments (so as to not give it away) until I reveal the complete answer in about a day or so.

UPDATED: The answer has been revealed here.

view /MysterySpot007
Tuesday, August 17, 2010 08:54 pm
Levi Asher

In Paul Auster's City of Glass, a mad linguist named Peter Stillman pounds through the streets of Manhattan's Upper West Side, observed by a writer named Daniel Quinn who is impersonating a private detective named Paul Auster. Quinn tracks Stillman's movements in a red notebook and eventually realizes that his daily walks are spelling out the words "TOWER OF BABEL".

I'm impressed that many of you correctly identified the location of the Litkicks Mystery Spot #6. The book was published 25 years ago (!) to little immediate acclaim, and has gradually emerged as one of our era's modern classics. I'm sure I'm not the only person who can't walk through New York City's Upper West Side to this day without thinking of City of Glass.

Auster's novel is very specific about the location of Peter Stillman's walks -- a slim rectangle in an expensive residential neighborhood, bounded by the Lincoln Center area to the south and Columbia University to the north -- so I was able to capture an image of the exact area described in the novel. I usually use Google Maps to capture the images for this series, but in this case I used Bing Maps, which has better rotation tools. For the image on this page, I tried at first to determine the exact shape, size and position of each letter from the clues in the book, but there was not enough information, so I decided to render the words in a small design font instead (in the actual story, the letters are much larger).

Two things I found during the course of this research surprised me. First, I had always assumed the letters spelling out "TOWER OF BABEL" were in order, but a close reading proves that they were not, since the "O" in "TOWER" is centered around 99th Street, and the "W" that follows is all the way down on 83rd Street. Also, I originally thought the letters appeared adjacent to each other, following the lines of the street like lines in a notebook. But, in fact, the text shows that the letters appeared one on top of the other, as in the image above.

One of my favorite things about City of Glass is the title, and the way the book's nervous mental processes transmit the feeling of uncertainty and fragility that the title suggests. Several of the words in yesterday's question were meant to echo the theme of glass: "shattering", "crystallize", "clear". Can't do a Litkicks Mystery Spot without some hidden clues!

Thanks again to those who answered (or tried to answer but couldn't). Stay tuned for #7 in a few weeks ... I've got another good one planned.

view /AusterWestSide
Tuesday, July 20, 2010 05:14 pm
Levi Asher

These city blocks may not appear exceptional to you, but they had a very specific and urgent meaning to a character in a famous modern novel. This character walked these streets every day, secretly observed by another character. Gradually, the meaning of these walks crystallized. Where are these streets, and what is the name of the novel?

As always, a few clues to the mystery:

1. For the first time in the Litkicks Mystery Spot series, this is a work by a living author. It's a very popular book, though more of a cult favorite than a bestseller. I've often cited it as one of my favorite current books.

2. The novel is a "genre-bender", mixing the conventions of noir/crime fiction with a shattering, bleak literary plot.

3. One of the two characters mentioned above is clearly insane. The other character probably is too.

Please post your answer to the question by posting a comment. As always, I will not publish any comments until I reveal the correct answer tomorrow, so as to avoid giving away the answer.

UPDATE: once again, many of you answered correctly, and a full answer/explanation has been posted here.

view /MysterySpot006
Monday, July 19, 2010 04:34 pm
Levi Asher

You folks did great this time -- not a single wrong guess! Indeed, the answer to yesterday's quiz question is the La Mancha region in Central Spain, north of Toledo and south of Madrid, where Miguel de Cervantes set his great comic novel Don Quixote.

Cervantes did not live in the La Mancha region himself, but he was born nearby in Central Spain and was certainly familiar with the area. A town called Cervantes can also be found in this vicinity, though I have not been able to figure out whether he was named for this town or it was named for him (if anybody knows, please fill us in). Some literary experts believe that he chose the La Mancha region as the home for his hero just so he could name him "Don Quixote de la Mancha" (this was apparently funny, as "mancha" meant "stain").

As always, the clues in the question had hidden meanings. I used the word "romance" with intention to obfuscate: today a romance novel is a hokey love story, but in Cervantes' time the word "romance" or "roman" referred more broadly to any novel. Alonso Quijana, the elderly resident of La Mancha who transforms himself into Don Quixote at the beginning of the story, is described as an avid reader of romances, specifically those of the heroic variety.

I also referred to La Mancha as a "dry land" in yesterday's question. The region is supposedly arid, but I also meant to hint at the famous, chilling explanation for Alonso Quijana's insanity found in most English translations of Don Quixote: his mind "dried up" after he read too many books.

I described the region as "windy" because it has windmills (though I couldn't find a windmill to feature in the image above, which shows what appears to be a typical homestead in the area), and I said Don Quixote's love interest had a "sweet disposition" because this is the literal meaning of the name "Dulcinea". Finally, the reason this metafictional novel cannot be called "postmodern" is that it was written so long before any literary period that could possibly be called "modern". But Cervantes' story is metafictional on multiple levels, allegedly being the found writings of an author based on another found manuscript (written in Arabic) about the true legend of Don Quixote, himself an invented identity created by an obsessive reader. The excellent Broadway musical Man of La Mancha takes the meta-layers even further, depicting Miguel de Cervantes himself in a prison, carrying the unpublished manuscript of the book.

I hope you enjoyed this literary quiz question, and I'll be posting another one soon! We ought to take a break from the great classics and try something more current next time. Stay tuned. Oh yeah, here's a link to the spot on Google Maps.

view /LaMancha
Thursday, June 17, 2010 02:27 pm
Levi Asher

A great fictional hero roamed the dry and windy plains shown in the image above. His mind was on adventure and romance, and he found his fill of both. Can you identify the novel and the place?

Here are a few clues:

• He loved a woman who was known for her sweet disposition. It is not clear, however, that she ever appreciated his affection.

• He managed to hire an assistant by promising this assistant an island. It is not clear, however, where they thought an island could be found in this landlocked region.

• This novel is a celebrated work of metafiction, though unlike most works of metafiction it cannot possibly be called postmodern.

Please try to identify this work by posting a comment below. As always, to avoid giving away the answer I will not publish any comments until I reveal the answer tomorrow.

NOTE: Yes, I know today is Bloomsday, but the answer is obviously not Ulysses, since that was the last one.

UPDATE: The answer has been posted.

view /MysterySpot005
Wednesday, June 16, 2010 09:23 am
Levi Asher

The answer to yesterday's mystery spot question is: Dublin, Ireland, and Ulysses by James Joyce (a big Litkicks favorite, though not necessarily a favorite of everyone at Litkicks).

North of the Liffey River in the center of the city, across the street from a large hospital, you can still find 7 Eccles Street, where the novel's optimistic everyman hero Leopold Bloom lived with his wife Molly, his enigmatic cat and (presumably) an icebox full of kidneys, giblets and other strange foods which he ate with relish. Here's the house in a 1950 photo, and here's the the Google map itself.

Bloom was the ultimate rootless alien in Dublin, of course, so it must have been a little joke of Mr. Joyce's to put him on a street whose name evoked Judeo-Christian religion (the root word "eccles" seems to refer to a gathering).

Almost all of you guessed it right, though two people tipped me off that the answer was easily found by Googling "Mkgnao". I'll have to be more careful next time, but I'm proud of most of you for getting it right. And there's no shame in a wrong guess either.

There were two hidden clues embedded in my question: the use of the word "stream" (referring, of course, to Joyce's concept of the stream of consciousness), and the repitition of the word "yes".

The next Litkicks Mystery Spot question will be in about two weeks!

view /BloomOnEcclesStreet
Thursday, May 13, 2010 09:36 am
Levi Asher

Yes, it's time for another literary quiz inspired by Google Maps. The hero of a novel lived at a spot visible in the image above, north of the river that streams through the city. What is the name of this epic city, and what is the name of the novel? Here are the only clues you're going to get:

• The name of the street where this character lives is a religious pun.

• A cat lived there too, and was known to say "Mkgnao".

• This character is only slightly well known, but the novel is more famous than any of its characters.

If you think you know the answer, please post it as a comment, and as always I will not publish any of the comments until I reveal the answer, so as to not spoil the fun.

And, again as always: yes, at least one clue to the identity of this novel is contained within this text.

UPDATE: The answer has been posted here.

view /MysterySpot004
Wednesday, May 12, 2010 12:45 pm
Levi Asher

The Litkicks Mystery Spot #3 is: Steventon, Hampshire, England, the town that gave Jane Austen to the world.

This brilliant comic novelist was very much a product of her village, and of her large, loving family. Her father was a pastor and a popular figure in town, and he along with several of her older siblings, cousins and neighbors had literary connections in nearby Oxford and London that helped to make her unlikely career possible. When Jane was 21 years old, her father sent an early version of Pride and Prejudice to a London publisher on her behalf (it was rejected, but his belief in her must have given her confidence).

Jane Austen lived with her family in Steventon until she was 25; it's not true that she rarely left the town, but it must be true that the world of Steventon was the world of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma and Persuasion (and even Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey).

Jane Austen has always been one of my favorite novelists, and I'm thinking about her work in new ways since reading an excellent new literary history book, Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman. This is a study of Austen's life and of the reputation that grew after her death. The author's dies (at 41, in 1817) at the end of the second chapter, and the five chapters that follow describe how a cult audience of influential readers (including, at various times, King George IV, the sister of Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Henry James) kept her miniscule literary reputation alive until 1870, when the first published biography of the author caused Austen-mania to begin in full force (it hasn't ended yet).

I like books that chronicle an author's life and posthumous reputation in one swoop; I once read a book like this on Shakespeare, and would enjoy reading more (Herman Melville and James Joyce might be especially good subjects for this treatment). It also helps Jane's Fame that Claire Harman writes vivid, clear prose, avoiding the dull academic tone a "history of a literary reputation" might be expected to maintain. It's fun to read not only about the many great writers who appreciated Jane Austen during the 19th Century, but also about a few (Mark Twain, William Wordsworth, Charlotte Bronte) who couldn't stand her and were happy to say why.

This third "Litkicks Mystery Spot" question got fewer answers than the first two, possibly because I gave fewer clues. But, as always, the best clues are hidden: didn't anybody spot that I had placed the words "acknowledged" and "universal" in my question? That was supposed to be the giveaway.

A few of you guessed correctly that the writer was Jane Austen, but guessed that the town was Chawton, where she lived during her later years (and where a "Jane Austen house" still stands). But it must have been her childhood village, not her adult residence, that echoed through her novels, so I thought Steventon would be the better choice. The Austen family house in Steventon no longer stands, but a church and several other buildings from her era remain.

Thanks to all of you who responded. I'll be putting up another Mystery Spot question soon.

Please note that I had to replace the image on yesterday's question page. It turns out that "Steventon" is a popular name for idyllic, green villages in south/central England, and Jane Austen is from the one in Hampshire, not Oxfordshire.

view /Steventon
Wednesday, April 14, 2010 08:22 pm
Levi Asher