Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

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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.






Philosophy Weekend: Images of Ukraine

by Levi Asher on Saturday, March 1, 2014 08:01 pm


I've been trying to philosophize about the Ukranian crisis in real time. This is always hazardous. Last Saturday morning, February 22, I invited readers to look at six images representing the history of Ukraine and to suggest three more that help fill out the story we are trying to understand. The idea was to try to puzzle out new insights about the enigmatic and confusing geopolitics of this Eastern European country, which has endured terrible conflicts and sufferings for centuries.

I thought this would be a worthy Zen type of philosophical/political exercise -- but I felt the sand of the mandala falling out under me when, just as I hit "publish" on my blog post, news blared out all over social media that the embattled Russian-sponsored President had suddenly fled the city of Kiev. This meant that the violent Kiev uprisings of the past weeks had turned into a successful revolution. Huge news! But I regretted having published my blog post about Ukraine's history on this hopeful and joyous day in Kiev and around the world. My blog post had a gloomy and angry tone that did not match the jubilation I even felt myself as I watched reports of Ukranian citizens celebrating on the streets of Kiev.

Even so, my intrepid and erstwhile Litkicks commenters came through in the clutch and answered my challenge with several great sets of images (see the comments on last weekend's post to enjoy the selections). I was glad that Subject Sigma remembered the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, and also shared the image of a beautiful breadbasket Ukranian field that is at the top of this page.






Philosophy Weekend: Ukraine as Puzzle

by Levi Asher on Saturday, February 22, 2014 12:03 am


Last weekend I suggested that we attempt the exercise of visualizing global conflicts as Sudoku puzzles, and explained some of the basic techniques typically used to solve these puzzles. I then got a bit carried away discussing the difference between Sudoku and KenKen puzzles, and how some KenKen techniques could also be applied. One commenter was smart enough to ask: just what difficult questions was I trying to answer? This question brought me back to earth, and I promised to respond today.

The broad question I want us to consider is the same one I've been asking here for a long time. Why are we stuck in a militarized society, so stuck that most people don't even realize an alternative is possible? What are the conditions that can enable world peace?

This is the broad question, and in this sense the entire history of the world leading up to today is the puzzle I want to solve. This puzzle contains other puzzles within it. Europe is a puzzle, Africa is a puzzle, Asia is a puzzle, North America is a puzzle. These puzzles also contain puzzles. Within Europe, Ukraine is a puzzle, Russia is a puzzle, France is a puzzle. In order to focus on something very relevant right this minute, let's look at the stunning events of the last couple of weeks in Ukraine -- violence and determined protests on the streets of Kiev, hot dealings between Russia and its puppet government, news flashes arriving by the minute -- as our first case study.






Tolstoy Kept It Brief

by Alex Strike on Tuesday, February 18, 2014 09:33 pm


(Here's a fresh perspective on a classic writer by Alex Strike, a blogger and an essay writing specialist who can be found on Lifehack, Twitter or Facebook.)

When Vladimir Nabokov read his lectures on literature, he closed all the curtains in the room to make it totally dark and started to speak.

“On the horizon of Russian literature, this is Gogol” -- and the small hall light flashed in the corner. “This is Chekhov” -- and one more star appeared on the ceiling. “This is Dostoevsky” -- Nabokov turned the light on here. “And this is Tolstoy!” The lecturer opened the curtains, and a bright blinding sunlight flooded the room.

Count Leo Tolstoy was the first writer who refused a copyright; he was an opponent of the Russian state system; he fulminated an anathema because he did not accept any religious authorities. He had refused the Nobel Prize, he hated money, and he always took the side of peasants. Many of his unique positions and practices are not known today.

He left us 165 000 sheets of manuscripts, 90 volumes of complete works, and 10 000 letters. He had been looking for the meaning of life and the universal happiness throughout his whole life, and he had found them in one word: kindness.

We all know Tolstoy as the author of long novels like War and Peace and Anna Karenina, which is why some do not realize that Tolstoy could write powerful short letters, stories, or novels. Indeed, his writings are filled with extremely long sentences and scrupulous levels of detail. Interestingly, his handwriting was often barely legible. The only person who could understand it was his wife, Sophia. She had to re-write War and Peace many times before Leo chose the final version to send to his editors. Here is the example of his handwriting:






Philosophy Weekend: Slavoj Zizek and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

by Levi Asher on Sunday, November 17, 2013 11:31 am


Slovenian philosopher and Litkicks favorite Slavoj Zizek has been exchanging letters with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, who is in jail for staging this protest in a Moscow cathedral:






A Writer's Family: Roxana Robinson and Harriet Beecher Stowe

by Levi Asher on Thursday, November 14, 2013 09:03 am


(We've been talking to novelist Roxana Robinson about her unique family history, which includes two celebrated 19th century Americans, Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In this conclusion to the two-part interview, we talk about Harriet Beecher Stowe, about religion in fiction, and about Roxana's own mission as a writer.)

LEVI: It's true, as you say, that Harriet Beecher Stowe's literary reputation currently suffers. She's seen as melodramatic, long-winded – a second-rate novelist. I didn't read Uncle Tom's Cabin myself until just recently, and I was happily surprised at the richness I found. Isn't this as well-written as any novel by Charles Dickens or Nathaniel Hawthorne? It's a riveting work, filled with psychological complexity and carefully drawn characters. Do you have any idea how her reputation got so bad? Was there a period in which she fell in public esteem?

As for the perception of Harriet Beecher Stowe as racist – I can only say that this is a terrible injustice. I wonder if the hot issues Harriet Beecher Stowe handled so bravely are still too controversial for us to see her fairly today. Do you know if she was often attacked or criticized on these terms during her life, and if so, how she responded to it?

ROXANA: In 1949 James Baldwin wrote a polemical essay called “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in which he attacks the idea of the protest novel in general, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin in particular. It is a fierce and angry piece of writing, much of it graceful and eloquent. Baldwin was, of course, highly respected as a novelist and essayist, and he offered a black voice in the literary world, at a time when a black voice was rare and very welcome. But this essay is not particularly well reasoned or well-wrought. He begins by dismissing Uncle Tom’s Cabin as “a very bad novel.” He calls it sentimental and compares it, with contempt, to Little Women.






Philosophy Weekend: Why Immanuel Kant is Controversial in 2013

by Levi Asher on Sunday, September 22, 2013 10:43 pm


We don't get many philosophy-related sound bites in our public news cycle, so the story of a guy who got shot in an argument over Immanuel Kant that rippled through the likes of The Guardian, ABC News and Time last week was a notable event. It's revealing, though, that these news outlets only played the story for laughs.

A person got shot over Immanuel Kant? What a joke. It's as if a fight broke out over gang signs at a Beethoven festival -- as if somebody got offended by the nudity in a Rubens painting. Could the ideology of an 18th century Prussian philosopher really matter to anyone today?

These news outlets missed their story. In fact, Kant has been newly controversial in certain circles, and it's a disappointing sign that our mass media is so out of touch with common thought that these major outlets find the idea of arguing over Kant so quaint.






Gettysburg 150: The Book That Made Me a Civil War Geek

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, June 26, 2013 08:25 pm


I've never been sure how to reconcile the fact that I'm a pacifist with the fact that I'm a major American Civil War geek.

Though I'm a major geek, I'm not a Major -- that is, I don't participate in any Union or Confederate reenactment brigade. But I've been to many reenactments since the 150th anniversary of the USA Civil War began on April 12, 2011: First Manassas, Second Manassas, Ox Hill, Chancellorsville. I would join a brigade if I could get over the embarrassment of explaining it to my friends. And if I could square it with being a pacifist. So far, I'm not able to do either.

I can trace my fascination with the American Civil War to a novel, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, and more directly to the movie made from the book, Gettysburg, directed by Ronald Maxwell. Michael Shaara, born in 1928 in New Jersey, was a modestly successful writer whose career biography seems similar to that of Kurt Vonnegut: he crossed genres from science-fiction to sports fiction to historical fiction, and reached his peak in the 1970s with The Killer Angels, which surprised the author and his family by winning a Pulitzer Prize, but did not become a bestseller until Ted Turner agreed to produce the movie Gettysburg in 1993. The movie was a success, and made the book a backlist hit for the first time. The author did not live long enough to see this happen, though his children Jeff Shaara and Lila Shaara have followed in their father's proud literary footsteps.






Philosophy Weekend: Why Michael Lind and Jonah Goldberg are Wrong About Communism

by Levi Asher on Sunday, June 16, 2013 08:53 am


It's refreshing to see rival social, political or philosophical doctrines debated online with the kind of clear, brisk, brief writing that the best blogs feature. Last week, Michael Lind of Salon challenged the American libertarian/Paulist movement with a blunt Salon article titled "Grow Up, Libertarians!" This article led with a powerful question: "If libertarianism is such a good idea, why aren’t there any libertarian countries?"

In the National Review, Jonah Goldberg responded directly and thoughtfully with a piece called "Freedom: The Unfolding Revolution". Goldberg tried to swipe away Michael Lind's direct thrust by pointing out that the political ideal of liberty is too essential to be weighed on Lind's scale. Goldberg may or may not be right about the broader meaning of libertarianism, but his piece also echoes and agrees with a basic point of Michael Lind's that contrasts rising tide of 21st Century libertarianism with the sad history of 20th Century Communism. Here, both Michael Lind and Jonah Goldberg are accepting a sweeping premise about world history that is itself untrue, and must be challenged:






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