Thursday, June 29, 2006

Life is many strange things, is it not?

Every day I find myself wondering at how life manages to present us with the worst and the best. My daughter is growing in front of my eyes, every day bringing joy to me with her little ways. Just today she ran up to me and rested her chin on my knee while looking up at me with those laughing, mischievous eyes of hers. Later, while she was trying to water the garden, she and I watched as a paraglider swooped low over our house; the forgotten hose spraying water everywhere and wetting our shoes. On the other hand you read about things such as the Israeli government holding the whole Palestinian nation hostage by rolling tanks into the Gaza Strip and kidnapping Palestinian Ministers in reply to the kidnapping of a single Israeli soldier, showing once again that they have no intention of communicating with the Palestinians in any manner other than through the use of massive, disproportionate violence, much as a man might kick a barking dog. Or, on another level but in much the same way, you see how normal people standing in a queue at the supermarket are willing to turn vicious and snap at each other at the slightest opportunity. Watching it all I get a profound feeling of how life is fecund with diversity, overflowing with a multitude of tinctures that endlessly transform everything they touch. It is a reality as far removed from Puritan imaginings as one could consider; a reality that’s kin to the rich humour of Rabelais or the visions of Peter Greenaway.

I really hope that, as she grows up, my daughter will come to appreciate this richness rather than to fear it, so that she might come to live accepting that life is precious, happiness tenuous and every day steeped in the many essences of being a beast that reasons and recognises itself reflected in the water.

Sure, he is destroying the country but what would the other guy's wife wear?

Had a truly strange experience the other day. My cousins are over from the States and are travelling round the country with their kids for whom this is the first time here. We were having dinner together and started to talk politics. The topic of the last elections came up and my cousin opined that they had a hard choice to make between Bush and Kerry, going on to justify this claim by saying all sorts of things about Kerry’s wife. I was flabbergasted. Here they have the single worst administration that the US (and the world) has ever had the misfortune to have, a president who has managed to grievously harm the country’s economy, society and international standing, a president who first ignored the terrorist threat and then used the attacks to make war against a country which was not involved in them thus leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Americans, all while greatly strengthening the terrorist groups and magnifying the threat they pose to Americans, and what are they worried about? The personality of the wife of the man who stood opposed to him? Their brains have been spooned out of their skulls, put through a blender and shoved back in with a liberal helping of BS to fill the holes! It made me remind myself of what I had earlier said – do not think of Americans as rational human beings but as unfortunate individuals who are suffering from a particular form of socially contagious dementia. It isn’t them but the disease speaking. They are not be argued with but to be taken to therapy.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Do your kids watch Tarantino?

We occasionally allow the little one to watch a bit of television and one of the things she’d been watching is old Disney cartoons, the ones with Pluto, Mickey and Donald. Having seen a couple of them, myself, I have to the conclusion that they are just a basically a concentrated fix of violence designed to go straight to the basic response centres in our basal brains, like something out of Clockwork Orange. The only thing that happens is that some situation is quickly set up and then all of the characters begin to hit each other in various combinations. Porno movies are much the same, the main difference being that the characters are not trying to kill each other the whole time. One could say that I’m just becoming a grouch but my reaction to the old Looney Tunes is utterly difference. Sure, Willy Coyote gets turned into bush steaks in any of a thousand ways but there is generally a plot and the Road Runner has a very good reason to do what he does to Willy whereas the main lessons that kids might possibly get from Disney are to watch out for number one and to do it to them before they do it to you. In fact, Disney cartoons seem to me to exemplify the very worst characteristics of American culture, in Technicolor!

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Are we gonna let ‘em treat us like this?

Hell no! Now that I think of it, the great PR stunt and act of war the Guantanamo prisoners have committed by killing themselves must not go unanswered! We must show the enemy that everything they do only makes us more determined! Which four members of the Bush administration are going to show the terrorists who’s boss by committing seppuku in the Rose Garden?

Who made Biggus Dickus commander of Guantanamo?

Rear Admiral Harris is the commander of Guantanamo. As such he has hundreds if not thousands of trained and well armed men under his command and is able to call upon the resources of the biggest armed forces in the world. Still, it appears that he does not feel safe.

"They are smart. They are creative, they are committed," he said.

"They have no regard for life, either ours or their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us."

The question has to be what horrid act of war he is talking about. What attack upon the brave soldiers of the United States is he describing? Have some sneaky terrorists snuck into the camp and sowed bloody mayhem?

No, the dastardly deed the Rear Admiral is speaking of is the fact that three of the prisoners kept at Guantanamo decided that they could no longer stand years of confinement without basic human rights and took their lives by hanging themselves.

About a quarter century ago Monty Python made Life of Brian and included in it a crack suicide squad as an obviously over-the-top joke. The Rear Admiral (a rank that calls for Monty Pythonesque treatment if any does) has a world view that is so utterly bent out of shape by years of propaganda that he does not recognise that his words are both ridiculous and horrifying at once. He has turned into a figure that deserves pity, ridicule and fear all in equal measure. Next he will start complaining about the fact that the prisoners are soiling the clean prison floors during torture.

After that, I find it oh-so-terribly reassuring to hear that:

The US military said the men's bodies were being treated "with the utmost respect".

Thursday, June 08, 2006

JP2 vs JPS?

When I see reports of the crowds that adulated the Pope on his visit to Poland, as well as when I talk to various Catholics about their views regarding Ratzinger, I find myself struck by an attitude I find very peculiar but which seems perfectly normal to them. I am speaking of a type of uncritical adoration that assigns to Ratzinger any and all virtues and is totally unwilling to consider the possibility of any faults. The fervour of the feeling seems to be doubled by participation in mass meetings of the type that the last Pope was most fond of and this Pope has gone on to copy – great outdoor masses at which the faithful are encouraged to unite in the their shared feelings.

The mechanism is a very powerful one and has been known for some time: large groups, participation in a common activity, powerful emotions. The effect is intoxicating and quite capable of washing away any subtleties and doubts, leaving a profound identification with the group and the idealisation of the leader. This tool has been used by every demagogue as well as, to a lesser degree, by most political leaders that are not in fact demagogues. With JP2 it has become one of the main tools used by the Vatican to rally (if you pardon the pun) the troops – the outdoor masses having more to do with Nuremberg torch-light parades than with reverent contemplation. This by no means makes either Pope a Nazi, of course. But it is profoundly troubling that they should be willing to embrace a tool which has been shown to so readily lead to the subsumption of the individual and which fit so well in the hands of the worst enemies of humanity. Especially since it leads to very similar effects when used by the Church.

What is also interesting is that – just as in the case of superstitious beliefs – the people who express irrational adulation for a man they have never actually met are, otherwise, intelligent and sensible. One might say that this just shows that to be rational we must not allow our emotions to rule our heads. That, however, seems to me to be a very shallow understanding of the situation. First of all, I do not think that emotions generally play a negative role in terms of our ability to act reasonably. Indeed, I agree with Dylan Evans’ view that emotions are an essential element of our rationality. Therefore, I would argue that the truth is much closer to saying that we must not allow our emotions to be ruled by others. And even that claim has fundamental problems – after all, when we love our, emotions are at the mercy of our beloved. Regardless, the similarity between superstitious beliefs and how we fall prey to group feelings gives more food for thought regarding the nature of our reasoning.

One explanation for the attraction of uncritically accepting the views and values of another and holding them in uncritical regard is that by doing so we attempt to relieve ourselves of the burden of responsibility, investing all of that responsibility in that person. Sartre would call this an example of bad faith, the point being that the responsibility none-the-less remains with us.

What’s the word for the fear of having to say ‘Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia’?

Would it be facetious if I were to thank all those who prayed on 6/6/6 for the fact that Armageddon has not begun (despite Shrub and Co.’s best efforts in the Middle East)? I guess it would be, wouldn’t it. We’ve had so many ends of the world predicted that I should like to see someone predict that some particular end of the world will be the last end of the world prediction we have to put up with. That way I could justify having a t-shirt saying “The end of the end of the world is coming!” In which case I might get one made up. Thankfully, this particular insanity is one that largely passed us by. Indeed, the only evidence I saw of it were news reports from abroad. It is a very good thing that the alleged number of the beast is so large else, between it and 13, floor-plans of high-rises would look ridiculous. Then again, what about all of the other numbers which have unlucky connotation somewhere? I can just imagine the lift in a particularly superstitious multinational company... No thirteenth floor, of course. But, also, no fourth floor as that is considered unlucky by the Chinese. The Japanese don’t much like it either, as well as not liking 9, so no ninth floor. By the time you consider all of the different world superstitions you get something like the following numbers for floors: Ground (but don’t say ‘zero’), 38, 127, 411,412, 456, 465. And that’s only a seven-storey building.

The tenacity of superstition is quite astounding and seems to me to point to something that must be a very deeply ingrained part of our psyche. And it is often very difficult to know what to do when you come across it. Thus, for example, the other day (not the 6th) my wife stopped the car when she was driving and the road was crossed by a black cat. She simply refused to drive on that way and wanted to turn the car around and go another way. In the end I drove the car on while she walked through a park and we met up a hundred metres later. I did not mention to her that she almost definitely crossed the cat’s path in the park. What was particularly striking was how ill that superstition fits with her generally reasonable character, especially given how strident she was about holding on to it. Then again, I think it would be false for any of us to say that we harbour no superstitions at all, even if we go out of our way to counter any of which we are aware. The question I keep coming back to is what is the difference between normal irrational or badly justified beliefs and superstitions. There does seem to be a significant difference, partly visible in the way people cling to superstitions where they are normally willing to adjust other beliefs given even weak evidence. It seems to me that the issue is grounded fairly deeply and any answer to it would have to rely on a profound understanding of ourselves of the type that we sorely lack.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Where was he in those days?

As I observed in my last post spring is always a busy time of year for me. This year, however, has been particularly hectic, as evidenced by that post being now over a month old. May has come and gone in a whirlwind of activity. In among other things I got to see the amazing Alhambra and what the Christians managed to do with it after they took control of it. Still, I was not so busy as to not pay attention to the Pope’s visit to Poland. As always when an Emperor, Dictator or Pope appears before crowds the adulation was fulsome and almost completely authentic. The various idiotic things that were written about him and his visit fit right in with the obsequious clap-trap that used to be written about the visits of Soviet dignitaries. He was the wisest, his insight reaching into our hearts; we were the meek, made greater by his mere presence. The sale of alcohol was banned in the cities he would visit. One has to wonder if it was legal to copulate while his presence shone upon the nation. The whole utterly distasteful and deeply hypocritical parade of human foibles hit its high point in Auschwitz – that place which, by the deaths of more than a million people, was made as close to holy as any place could be in this cold universe. There, Ratzinger delivered a speech that was at once deeply moving and profoundly mendacious, and which was immediately covered in praise that would please the most self-aggrandising satrap. And, of course, no-one mentioned what Ratzinger, himself, was doing during the war. It was up to Daniel Goldhagen to burst that particular bubble:

Yet the good he did by visiting Auschwitz was overshadowed by the address he delivered there, which offered none of Brandt's genuine emotion nor John Paul's humility and which failed to heed his own self-proclaimed duty to truth. Instead, Benedict clouded historical understanding, evaded moral responsibility and shirked political duty.

Benedict falsely exonerated Germans from their responsibility for the Holocaust by blaming only a "ring of criminals" who "used and abused" the duped and dragooned German people as an "instrument" of destruction. In truth, Germans by and large supported the Jews' persecution, and many of the hundreds of thousands of perpetrators were ordinary Germans who acted willingly. It is false to attribute culpability for the Holocaust wholly or even primarily to a "criminal ring." No German scholar or mainstream politician would today dare put forth Benedict's mythologized account of the past.

Yet, as Goldberg accurately observed, the moral scandal contained in Ratzinger’s speech was his attempt to make it a Christian, rather than a mostly Jewish, Holocaust. This is what the Pope actually said:

If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone - to those men, who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world. By destroying Israel, by the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.

No. The Nazis did not wish to annihilate the Jewish people to annihilate Christianity. The annihilation of the Jewish race was their ultimate wish. If they had wished to annihilate Christianity, Pious XII would have been their victim rather than their collaborator and admirer. By speaking in this way, Ratzinger became like the callous man who complains about the inconvenience someone put them through by killing their neighbour outside their house. What is more, by implication Ratzinger equated all humanists with Nazis, since they too have faith in the rule of man. Thus, he turned the genocide of the Jews by the Germans into the genocide of the Christians by the Godless.

The most interesting thing for me in Ratzinger’s speech was his question – “Where was God in those days? Why was he silent? How could he permit this endless slaughter, this triumph of evil?” The fact that he raised this question was widely reported. Less reported, however, was his answer. So much so that, moved by curiosity regarding what he could have possibly said, I had to look on the Vatican website:

We cannot peer into God’s mysterious plan - we see only piecemeal, and we would be wrong to set ourselves up as judges of God and history. Then we would not be defending man, but only contributing to his downfall. No - when all is said and done, we must continue to cry out humbly yet insistently to God: Rouse yourself!

I should have known that he would have no answer but the usual, trite one that it is wrong to even ask; that to even ask would be to contribute to the rule of man that brought about the death of those millions; that to even ask would be to be a Nazi collaborator. Ours is only to bleat.

With the Pope safely back in the Vatican, it has probably been deemed proper for the drunks to come out onto the street corners again. Evidently God’s presence is not actually felt to be any closer either.