War Crimes and Amnesty International

This week Amnesty International published a report criticizing Ukraine for putting soldiers in residential areas. The report begins, 

Ukrainian forces have put civilians in harm’s way by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, including in schools and hospitals, as they repelled the Russian invasion that began in February, Amnesty International said today.

Such tactics violate international humanitarian law and endanger civilians, as they turn civilian objects into military targets. The ensuing Russian strikes in populated areas have killed civilians and destroyed civilian infrastructure.

“We have documented a pattern of Ukrainian forces putting civilians at risk and violating the laws of war when they operate in populated areas,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

“Being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law.”

Not every Russian attack documented by Amnesty International followed this pattern, however. In certain other locations in which Amnesty International concluded that Russia had committed war crimes, including in some areas of the city of Kharkiv, the organization did not find evidence of Ukrainian forces located in the civilian areas unlawfully targeted by the Russian military.

Despite the last paragraph and the many preceding Amnesty reports that have identified Russia as the perpetrator of war crimes in its invasion of Ukraine, this report produced outrage among supporters of Ukraine. Yaroslav Trofimov of the Wall Street Journal:

The head of @Amnesty Ukraine @OPokalchuk resigns, saying that the organization created an “instrument of Russian propaganda” with a report accusing Ukrainian forces of breaking int’l law that ignored local researchers concerns and gave too little time for Ukrainian MOD response.

This controversy invites reconsideration of the whole notion of “war crimes” and the question of whether the moral standards that we at least attempt to uphold in peacetime can be applied as well in wartime. At one end of this debate one might argue that war is itself a crime, just as murder is a crime. If war is a crime then trying to regulate its conduct by “humanitarian” rules reminds one of the British army in the American colonies, outraged by the colonists’ habit of hiding behind trees instead of fighting out in the open. If the aim in a war is to win by any means, it might seem that no wartime conduct—including rape, torture, and wholesale slaughter of unarmed civilians—can be rationally condemned.

However, if we want to consider war as a crime, let’s compare it with something we all agree is a crime: murder. We don’t condemn people who defend themselves against attempted murder, even if that defence results in the death of the attacker. We don’t condemn a police officer for shooting in self-defence or to protect civilians from a murderous attack. Can we condemn a country like Ukraine, defending itself from an unprovoked invasion, for any tactic it uses in that defence? If we stay with the analogy, the answer must be . . . yes. Someone who successfully disarms and immobilizes an attacker, for example, acts within the law; but if he goes on to torture his attacker, he becomes guilty of a crime. Likewise, a police officer who subdues an attacker and subsequently abuses or murders the suspect is subject to prosecution.

If we carry that logic to Amnesty’s criticism of Ukraine for, in some instances, stationing troops and weapons in residential areas, what judgment do we reach? The key idea would seem to be necessity: an action that is necessary to self-defence is justifiable. If Ukrainians were to torture and summarily execute Russian soldiers they have taken prisoner, for example, these would be acts of gratuitous cruelty, unnecessary for self-defence, and therefore unjustifiable, criminal acts. The question, then, would seem to be whether putting troops and weapons in residential areas is, in some cases at least, necessary to Ukraine’s self-defence. Without access to detailed information we can only speculate. On the face of it, however, we can see that Russia is a much larger country, with a much larger army and many more weapons than Ukraine. In such circumstances, one is inclined to give Ukraine the benefit of any doubt. If such tactics are the only way to preserve the few soldiers and weapons that one has to defend oneself, how can they be condemned? In addition, the Ukrainian army and government clearly have overwhelming popular support: the people in residential areas used in this way either support these tactics, or are freely allowed to protect themselves by leaving for safer refuges. Certainly I have seen no reports of Ukrainian civilians protesting against their army’s tactics—whereas there have been reports of Ukrainian civilians protesting against the Russian invaders. 

The insistence by Amnesty that both sides conform to the same humanitarian standards seems to be an arbitrary adherence to rules, regardless of real-world circumstances. It’s as if someone faced with an attacker intent on murder is criticized for pulling out a switchblade or throwing acid in the attacker’s eyes. Circumstances matter. Soldiers who kill enemy combatants are not considered to be murderers, even though they kill people just as murderers do. This distinction seems obvious to most people. Responding to critics, Amnesty’s Secretary General, Agnes Callamard, writes on Twitter,

@amnesty has documented tirelessly Russia aggression, war crimes in Ukraine: https://amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/03/latest-news-on-russias-war-on-ukraine/… Today we report on Ukraine tactics endangering civilians. To those who attack us alleging biases against Ukraine, I say: check our work. We stand by all victims. Impartially.

Callamard’s failure to recognize the difference between behaviour under one set of circumstances and the same behaviour under very different circumstances is confounding. If she were in charge of the Emergency department of a hospital, she would by this standard insist that patients be treated in the order of their arrival, regardless of how urgently they need care. This would be “impartial,” and it would also be grossly wrong.

In addition, as Amnesty’s critics point out, Russian propagandists will seize on this report to justify Russia’s bombing of residential areas, schools, and hospitals.

We must resist our natural tendency toward binary thinking, which would invite us to consider Russia and Russians as villains, Ukraine and Ukrainians as heroes (or vice versa). But without condemning all Russians, we can still conclude on the evidence that the Russian government’s invasion of Ukraine is a crime. And without concluding that all Ukrainians are noble, brave, and honest, we can still judge that Ukraine is the victim of unprovoked aggression by a much larger country. And those judgments cannot be ignored when assessing the wartime behaviour on either side.

Amnesty’s misstep here, whatever its origins, undermines its credibility, if not fatally, then at least profoundly. It would be wiser, perhaps, for AI and similar organizations to restrict their work to peacetime violations of human rights, leaving war crimes to the press and to organizations like the International Criminal Court. I have in the past sponsored Amnesty International activities among high school students, organizing letter-writing campaigns on behalf of political prisoners. At least until there is a clear repudiation of this Amnesty report on Ukraine, I will have to think carefully about any further involvement with them.

一团和气 (yi tuan he qi)

These four characters might be translated as “one circle of harmonious spirit,” but are commonly translated as “Roly-poly Ball of Harmony.” They appear on the scroll held by the “roly-poly boy” in a popular version of a painting by the Chenghua Emperor, Zhu Jianshen (1447-1487), of the late Ming Dynasty, who wanted the imperial family to unite as one. See image at left.

The following text appears on the back of a postcard reproduction that I purchased in Suzhou:

“The print, also entitled “Harmony Results in Good Fortune”, is an influential and widely spread traditional masterpiece among block prints at Taohuawu. It features, the round face of a lovely and charmingly naive boy dressed in embroidered silk, with hair tied in a pair of top knots decorated with red flowers and a silver padlock engraved with “Eternal as the sun and moon” as well as a scroll bearing the phrase “Roly-poly Ball of Harmony” in his hands. A delightful sight, the circular composition of the image symbolizes that the family will live together harmoniously, happily, and satisfactorily on the occasion of the Spring Festival and in the new year.”

The original version of the image was a bit different. According to Wikipedia, it depicts “Tao Yuanming, Lu Xiujing, and Zen Master Hui Yuan [representing Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism] embracing each other, with the three, together, looking like Maitreya,” an image of the Buddha. 

According to the story I heard, the emperor was having a lot of trouble with infighting among his large extended family and made the painting as a plea for harmony and unity. Let us hope.

Kasparov on Trump, Orban, and demagoguery

Garry Kasparov:

“What Orban has most in common with Trumpists is they view democracy only as a vehicle to its destruction. The demagoguery, nationalism, racism, are means. Win, then undermine and control the institutions for perpetual power and with it, money.

“In stable democracies, rich people often get into politics. In corrupt democracies, politics are a means of enrichment. Not mere lobbying and kickbacks, but wielding power directly to shake down companies, to loot the state and the people.

“Demagogues can be terrible for many reasons, but pull back the curtain and you always find them and their followers filling their pockets. It’s banal, pathetic, and not as interesting as grand ideological and psychological analyses, but mostly they’re just thieves.”

—4 August 2020, on Twitter

Reforming the constitution

Those republics . . . that started without having a perfect constitution . . . may perfect themselves by the aid of events. It is very true, however, that such reforms are never effected without danger, for the majority of men never willingly adopt any new law tending to change the constitution of the state, unless the necessity of the change is clearly demonstrated; and as such a necessity cannot make itself felt without being accompanied with danger, the republic may easily be destroyed before having perfected its constitution.

—Niccoló Machiavelli (1469-1527), Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius. Tr. C. E. Detmold

Through stories we shape meaning

Gavin Francis, writing in the London Review of Books:

It’s through stories that we shape meaning, and we need to get better at explaining how pernicious and destructive the wrong stories can be.

The remark comes at the end of his review of a book about cases of mass hysteria or illness, The Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories of Mystery Illness, by Suzanne O’Sullivan.

But it resonates far beyond that context.

Unfortunately, most of us opt for binary thinking and simple stories that relieve us of the burden of critical thinking and the discomfort of ambiguity. The results are, as Gavin Francis says, pernicious and destructive.

History

Freedom, justice, education, and equality seem to have little to do with the ingredients required to produce a great civilization. Slavery, despotism, illiteracy, and inequality often help and certainly do not hinder the building of an empire. The essentials are low labour costs, abundant natural resources, abundant energy supplies, monopoly markets, military superiority, and social and political stability at home.

To concentrate all of these in a single society is difficult enough, which is why historians have no need of a calculator to count the “great civilizations.”

To hold on to them, however, is as unlikely as true love that lasts a lifetime, which is why even the greatest of great civilizations have dissolved in the blink of an historical eye.

The desire for freedom, justice, education, and equality, far from being among the essential causes producing a great civilization, appear to be the fruits of such greatness. Prosperous citizens of a dominant society begin in their affluence to acquire education, to philosophize, to yearn for freedom, justice, and equality. (Freedom and equality are incompatible, of course, as Will Durant points out in The Lessons of History: “Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies.”) Affluence, however, produces other, less benign fruits: corruption, decadence, laziness, self-indulgence. The dissolution begins at the same moment that the greatest heights are achieved. Sophocles writes his tragedies and Plato writes his dialogues as Athens descends into the imperial despotism of corrupt oligarchs. Phidias sculpts the gods out of marble as the slaves mine silver and row the Athenian galleys into a war with Sparta that destroys Pericles’ great society in a single generation.

Most people live their lives apart from these cyclical struggles. If lucky enough to avoid being swept up by wars and revolutions, they grow from children to adults, fall in love, find ways to earn a living, raise families, amuse themselves as they can, grow old, and die. In every society only a small percentage of people (men, mostly) strive obsessively to take more than their share, using the tools available to them, whether they be spears or hedge funds. From among these narcissists and sociopaths arise the “great men” of history with their compulsions to rule, to horde, and to erect monuments to themselves.

The immediate pleasures of life lie in physical health: strength, energy, movement, eating, sleeping, and sex. Longer-term consolations come from nature, art, music, literature, and the vast corridors of knowledge in all its forms. Ironically, most science and “high art” emerges from the wars, violence, and inequalities of great civilizations. As Orson Welles famously ad-libs in The Third Man, “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed—they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!”

How many of us, I wonder, would hesitate to trade the Renaissance for five hundred years of democracy and peace? A few brave and noble souls venture into politics in the true spirit of public service to battle against the ambitious egotists who tend to dominate that world. Most people, however, simply pray to be left alone by the Caesars, Napoleons, and Rockefellers. Like Voltaire’s Candide, they long only to cultivate their gardens, happily leaving history to others. Most people, I am inclined to think, would gladly trade ten Renaissances for five hundred years of democracy and peace, if only they could.

Democracy

When it comes to selecting players for the Major League Baseball all-star teams, letting the fans vote is almost universally derided as a surrender to popular ignorance. When it comes to selecting governors, congressmen, senators, and presidents, however, the same system is regarded as sacred.

Or, as Will Durant wrote in The Lessons of History,

Democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves sovereign.

Advice for liars

Headline in The Guardian:

Fox and friends confront billion-dollar US lawsuits over election fraud claim. Rightwing networks Fox News, OAN and Newsmax could be found liable in cases brought by voting machine company Dominion.

So, apparently you can lie about guns, you can lie about abortion, you can lie about immigrants, you can lie about refugees, you can lie about women, you can lie about racism, you can lie about foreigners of all sorts, you can lie about history, you can lie about COVID, you can lie about terrorism, you can lie about the economy, you can lie about your political opponents, including the President of the United States. You can lie about all these things and much more, without suffering in the least. On the contrary, these lies can bring you millions of fans and huge profits.

But if you lie about a corporation, they will sue you into bankruptcy and destroy you.

Which says something about what we value, eh?

Machiavelli & friends: “the food which only is mine”

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and re-clothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.

And because Dante says it does not produce knowledge when we hear but do not remember, I have noted everything in their conversation which has profited me . . . .

Of my honesty there should be no doubt, because having always preserved my honesty, I shall hardly now learn to break it; he who has been honest and good for forty-three years, as I have, cannot change his nature; as a witness to my honesty and goodness I have my poverty.

—From Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), “Letter to Francesco Vettori.” Tr. Allan Gilbert


The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! . . .

—William Wordsworth


It was the dream itself enchanted me: . . .
Players and painted stage took all my love
And not those things that they were emblems of.

—W. B. Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”

Names and Faces, 2009: Wu XiBang

In 2009 I was teaching in Suzhou, China, at the international school in the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP). My Grade 9 students began talking about how most students took no notice of the cleaning ladies (“ayis”) and other local staff who worked in the school. They decided to interview and photograph some of them, and post the results on the school’s intranet. Thus was born the “Names and Faces” project. Here is one of my favourites, written by Jessie, Shimmona, and Jacelyn. The woman they interviewed, Wu XiBang, cleaned the corridor outside my classroom, so I saw her often. She was always smiling, just as she is in her photo.


We were three girls with a mission. We were determined. Confident. Unwavering. And so we crept forth, laptop on hand, to unearth our first target: The Cleaning Ayi. With our night vision goggles and black ninja suits we rolled across the floor all the way to the auditorium entrance. There, clothed in ayi clothes, stood our victim.

Wu XiBang

“Hi.”
“Hi.”
“Are you busy?”
“No, I’m free right now.”

And so our creation was born.
So we strapped her to a toilet and started to gag her, but then realized that this was AAALLL A DREEEAAAAAAAM. And so THEN our creation was born.

Ayis. Our school is filled with them.  Silent workers behind the scenes, they prevent us from stepping into inch high layers of dust bunnies after the holidays. Armed with mops, they clean up after our messes.  Shrouded by a cloak of invisibility, they appear before us in a ray of heavenly light, a splotch of paint, or a dropped tray of food lying before our sheepish smiles.

But what do we know about these silent creatures? Their name, perhaps? Their age, family, dreams, pets, preference of dessert? And cue the sheepish grins once more.

Wu Xi Bang, a dedicated wife and mother, born and bred in SIP during its baby years.  Already, her children are older than us, with a daughter of 24 and a son of 16.  Everyday after work, she goes home. She buys vegetables, and cooks dinner. Every following weekday morning, around 7:45, she rides an e-bike to work, staying until five. And so the process is repeated, day after day, five days a week.

“So when you finish working, what do you do?”
“I go back. Then when I’m at home, I buy vegetables and cook dinner.”
“How about when you have spare time?”
“I relax on the sofa…watch TV.”
“Don’t you go out?”
“Ah, I rarely go out.”
“So you don’t go window shopping…or just take a walk outside?”
“Most of the time I’m just at home.”

When we were little, we dreamed of growing up and being famous rock stars, billionaires, Harry Potter, dinosaurs, The Joker and Batman. We wanted to go to Neverland, Hogwarts, the moon whilst riding in the back of the Batmobile. But when asked the same question, Wu Xi Bang merely shrugged.

“Nowhere. Where would I go?”
“Nowhere? Then are you happy with your life? With what you’re doing now?”
“Yeah, I’m satisfied. I’m happy.”

This concept was fascinating. Curious, we poked a little harder.

“When you were younger then, what did you want to be when you grew up?”
“…Just be an adult.”
“Didn’t you dream of going to other places, of being famous, of becoming a rock star?”
“Nah. I just wanted to grow up, be an adult, have daughters, children, and have work; that’s all. After all, we’re just people who live then die; it’s just like that.”

And with those words, the woman standing before us, someone who many of you may have passed by with barely a glance, had just transformed into a completely different person before our eyes.  Her words were true. Her opinion was justified.  It was just like that.

“So a simple life is enough, for you?”
“Yeah. A simple life is enough.”

How stupid? *Really* stupid.

These are the actual words spoken by the Governor of Tennessee yesterday:

“We’re not looking at gun restriction laws in my administration right now. There’s one thing to remember, criminals don’t follow the laws. Criminals break laws,” Lee told reporters. “We can’t control what we can’t control.”

Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee, June 5, 2022

Oddly, the governor did not announce that he will be repealing Tennessee’s laws against murder, robbery, and assault, on the grounds that law-abiding citizens don’t need such laws and criminals won’t obey them anyway.

Binary thinking, again

I wrote about binary thinking way back in 2018, here, and not so long ago in March, here. But people keep doing it, and I keep noticing it until the itch just has to be scratched.

The latest example comes out of Russia’s war on Ukraine. It seems that some people who generally identify themselves on “the left” politically have decided that they should write and speak in support of Putin’s attack on Ukraine, because the U.S. is supporting Ukraine.

The logic is classic binary thinking: We know that the U.S. has been guilty many times in the past of neo-imperialist wars, of invading small, weak nations, of supporting unpopular and corrupt governments in those small weak nations; we know that American armies have committed war crimes; that the U.S. government has lied and covered up its misdeeds; etc. Hence, the U.S. is bad. If the U.S. is bad, then its ally (in this case, Ukraine) must be bad, too, and its adversary (Russia) must be good. Therefore, go Vlad!

Binary thinking attracts us because it is so simple, and clear, and consoling. Alas, the truth, far too often, is complex, and muddy, and confusing. But it’s still the truth. In this case, the nasty Pentagon is on the right side. Perhaps next time, the nasty Saudi leader will do something good. Or Boris Johnson will say something true, sensible, selfless, and profound. This is life, folks, and unless we simply prefer to be deluded, we have to accept complexity, muddiness, and confusion.

Frank Sinatra, by many accounts, did terrible things, especially when drunk, which was apparently pretty common. He also was a phenomenal singer. Binary thinkers have to choose: they either love Sinatra for his music and overlook his bad behaviour, or they cannot overlook his bad behaviour and so are forced to hate his music, too. The rest of us are stuck with complicated thoughts and feelings. We keep repeating to ourselves Bryan Stevenson‘s wise dictum: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.”

That goes for nations, too.

Frederick Douglass on women’s rights and the failure of governments

Observing woman’s agency, devotion, and efficiency in pleading the cause of the slave, gratitude for this high service early moved me to give favorable attention to the subject of what is called “woman’s rights” and caused me to be denominated a woman’s-rights man. I am glad to say that I have never been ashamed to be thus designated. Recognizing not sex nor physical strength, but moral intelligence and the ability to discern right from wrong, good from evil, and the power to choose between them, as the true basis of republican government, to which all are alike subject and all bound alike to obey, I was not long in reaching the conclusion that there was no foundation in reason or justice for woman’s exclusion from the right of choice in the selection of the persons who should frame the laws, and thus shape the destiny of all the people, irrespective of sex.

In a conversation with Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton when she was yet a young lady and an earnest abolitionist, she was at the pains of setting before me in a very strong light the wrong and injustice of this exclusion. I could not meet her arguments except with the shallow plea of “custom,” “natural division of duties,” “indelicacy of woman’s taking part in politics,” the common talk of “woman’s sphere,” and the like, all of which that able woman, who was then no less logical than now, brushed away by those arguments which she has so often and effectively used since, and which no man has yet successfully refuted. If intelligence is the only true and rational basis of government, it follows that that is the best government which draws its life and power from the largest sources of wisdom, energy, and goodness at its command. The force of this reasoning would be easily comprehended and readily assented to in any case involving the employment of physical strength. We should all see the folly and madness of attempting to accomplish with a part what could only be done with the united strength of the whole. Though his folly may be less apparent, it is just as real when one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the world is excluded from any voice or vote in civil government. In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world. Thus far all human governments have been failures, for none have secured, except in a partial degree, the ends for which governments are instituted.

War, slavery, injustice and oppression, and the idea that might makes right have been uppermost in all such governments, and the weak, for whose protection governments are ostensibly created, have had practically no rights which the strong have felt bound to respect. The slayers of thousands have been exalted into heroes, and the worship of mere physical force has been considered glorious. Nations have been and still are but armed camps, expending their wealth and strength and ingenuity in forging weapons of destruction against each other; and while it may not be contended that the introduction of the feminine element in government would entirely cure this tendency to exalt might over right, many reasons can be given to show that woman’s influence would greatly tend to check and modify this barbarous and destructive tendency. At any rate, seeing that the male governments of the world have failed, it can do no harm to try the experiment of a government by man and woman united. But it is not my purpose to argue the question here, but simply to state in a brief way the ground of my espousal of the cause of woman’s suffrage. I believe that the exclusion of my race from participation in government was not only a wrong, but a great mistake, because it took from that race motives for high thought and endeavor and degraded them in the eyes of the world around them. Man derives a sense of his consequence in the world not merely subjectively, but objectively. If from the cradle through life the outside world brands a class as unfit for this or that work, the character of the class will come to resemble and conform to the character described. To find valuable qualities in our fellows, such qualities must be presumed and expected. I would give woman a vote, give her a motive to qualify herself to vote, precisely as I insisted upon giving the colored man the right to vote; in order that she shall have the same motives for making herself a useful citizen as those in force in the case of other citizens. In a word, I have never yet been able to find one consideration, one argument, or suggestion in favor of man’s right to participate in civil government which did not equally apply to the right of woman.

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Part Two, Chapter XVIII. 1891

The mystery of mass shootings in the U.S.

So far, the categories include . . .

  • white supremacist with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • Islamic extremist with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • disgruntled employee with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • mentally ill teenager with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • distraught father with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • distraught boyfriend with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • Chinese nationalist with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • Anti-Semitic neo-Nazi with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • misogynist with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • xenophobe with semi-automatic weapon(s)
  • incel with semi-automatic weapon(s)

I don’t know—they are all so different! Hard to see any pattern here.

U.S. Politics: The South Rises Again, Again

In the 1850s the southern, slaveholding states realized that they were losing, demographically. The U.S. was expanding westward, its population growing, and most of the growth was in non-slave or anti-slavery states. As this trend continued, the slaveholding states would be outnumbered in the Senate, and the slaveholding voters would be outnumbered by those opposed to slavery on economic grounds or (less often) on moral grounds. The clock was ticking. How long would it take for the new majority to impose its will and outlaw slavery altogether?

The demographic reality provoked fears that festered into paranoia and then hysteria in the South. Lincoln’s election convinced the slaveholders that it was now or never, and the Confederacy was born. Four bloody years later, the Confederacy was dead and the Old South lived under federal occupation for more than a decade. In 1877, as part of a back-room deal to resolve a deadlocked presidential election, Rutherford B. Hayes got the White House in return for the withdrawal of federal troops from the former Confederate states. Thus Reconstruction ended and ninety years of anti-black terrorism and Jim Crow laws began.

In 1965, a century after the Civil War, the federal Voting Rights Act finally ensured voting rights for all citizens. This triumph of the Civil Rights Movement, like the military victory a hundred years earlier, provoked a backlash among the white Christian nationalists who had fought to preserve Jim Crow, and lost. The Democratic Party, which for most of its history had been, in the South, the party of slavery and white supremacy, became the party of civil rights and social justice. The Republicans, originally the “party of Lincoln,” now became the last bastion of conservatives. GOP leaders welcomed disillusioned white Southerners and other conservative former Democrats into their ranks, thinking that they could control the more unsavoury elements among them, i.e., the most outspokenly racist and vicious. 

Once again, however, demographics began to tell against white supremacy. The nation became increasingly non-white, non-Christian, and multicultural. Once again, white Christian conservatives began to feel their “way of life” being threatened. Now, however, the divisions were not primarily geographic—the Old South vs. the northern and western states. Instead, the new divide was urban vs. rural. 

And that’s where we are today. A minority of mostly white, mostly Christian conservatives is using every anti-majoritarian tool it can find to resist the liberalizing tendencies of a growing majority of urban Americans who are more diverse, less religious, less prejudiced against racialized people, and better educated. These more liberal urban voters support abortion rights, support gay marriage, support voting rights for all citizens, and are not terribly alarmed by immigrants or Muslims or transgender people. To the white Christian, “pro-life,” anti-immigrant minority, such attitudes seem to signal the end of their “way of life” in the same way that the election of Abraham Lincoln was seen by whites in the slaveholding South as a mortal threat. 

The Republican Party, instead of using and controlling its most extreme members, has been taken over by them. The Democratic Party, with former Republicans and quasi-Republicans like West Virginia’s Senator Joe Manchin at one end, and activist progressives at the other end, constitutes a large but divided and perhaps irreconcilable majority. The outnumbered Republicans, using gerrymandered House districts, the anti-democratic Senate, and the anti-democratic Electoral College, hope to regain control of the Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024. If even those methods do not suffice, they will use dark-money funding and lies spread by right-wing media to finance and justify the invalidation of elections that don’t go their way.

The Confederacy may be dead, but the Old South, with its white supremacy and religious bigotry and appalling ignorance, is like a virulent bacillus that can be suppressed but never completely eradicated. When conditions are right, as they are today, it breaks out again. Buckle up!

Happy Birthday!

Dear Colleagues,

Thank you for the birthday card and your kind messages!

I confess to a moment of shock when I first received it. 

“What?!” I thought, “Is it my birthday?” 

I had to check my driver’s licence and the calendar on my phone. The first confirmed that my birthday is actually in June, and the second confirmed that we are still in the month of May. 

Then I saw Michael’s message: “All the best on your 80th!”

That sent me back to my driver’s licence. 

There seem to be three possible explanations. 

One, Michael is ten years ahead of us. Two, I am ten years behind. Or three, Michael wisely decided to wish me a happy 80th on the odd chance that he might forget to wish me a happy 80th in ten years. 

And then I realized the truth: this is all Dakota’s little joke, just because I’m always saying “Happy Thanksgiving!” and “Happy Birthday!” to her. Today is somebody’s birthday, isn’t it? So, Happy Birthday! 

But now she has taken it another step: actually handing out birthday cards to people, randomly. And I was the obvious first choice.

Good one, Dakota!

And . . . Happy Birthday to you all! 

(Including Queen Victoria!)

George Saunders: What happens to me when I read fiction

From his wonderful book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (Random House, 2021)

I am reminded that my mind is not the only mind.

I feel an increased confidence in my ability to imagine the experiences of other people and accept these as valid.

I feel I exist on a continuum with other people: what is in them is in me and vice versa.

My capacity for language is reenergized. My internal language (the language in which I think) gets richer, more specific and adroit.

I find myself liking the world more, taking more loving notice of it (this is related to that reenergization of my language).

I feel luckier to be here and more aware that someday I won’t be.

I feel more aware of the things of the world and more interested in them.

Most of that applies to other art forms, too.

Lincoln’s Proclamation and the white riot in New York

Frederick Douglass recounts Lincoln’s careful attempt to avoid making the Civil War about freeing the slaves—an attempt that, like more recent attempts to appease racism, failed.

The proclamation itself was throughout like Mr. Lincoln. It was framed with a view to the least harm and the most good possible in the circumstances, and with especial consideration of the latter. It was thoughtful, cautious, and well guarded at all points. While he hated slavery, and really desired its destruction, he always proceeded against it in a manner the least likely to shock or drive from him any who were truly in sympathy with the preservation of the Union, but who were not friendly to emancipation. For this he kept up the distinction between loyal and disloyal slaveholders, and discriminated in favor of the one, as against the other. In a word, in all that he did, or attempted, he made it manifest that the one great and all-commanding object with him was the peace and preservation of the Union, and that this was the motive and main-spring of all his measures. His wisdom and moderation at this point were for a season useful to the loyal cause in the border States, but it may be fairly questioned whether it did not chill the union ardor of the loyal people of the North in some degree, and diminish rather than increase the sum of our power against the rebellion; for moderate, cautious, and guarded as was this proclamation, it created a howl of indignation and wrath amongst the rebels and their allies. The old cry was raised by the copperhead organs of “an abolition war,” and a pretext was thus found for an excuse for refusing to enlist, and for marshaling all the negro prejudice of the North on the rebel side. Men could say they were willing to fight for the Union, but that they were not willing to fight for the freedom of the negroes; and thus it was made difficult to procure enlistments or to enforce the draft. This was especially true of New York, where there was a large Irish population. The attempt to enforce the draft in that city was met by mobs, riot, and bloodshed. There is perhaps no darker chapter in the whole history of the war than this cowardly and bloody uprising in July, 1863. For three days and nights New York was in the hands of a ferocious mob, and there was not sufficient power in the government of the country or of the city itself to stay the hand of violence and the effusion of blood. Though this mob was nominally against the draft which had been ordered, it poured out its fiercest wrath upon the colored people and their friends. It spared neither age nor sex; it hanged negroes simply because they were negroes; it murdered women in their homes, and burnt their homes over their heads; it dashed out the brains of young children against the lamp-posts; it burned the colored orphan asylum, a noble charity on the corner of Fifth avenue, and, scarce allowing time for the helpless two hundred children to make good their escape, plundered the building of every valuable piece of furniture; and forced colored men, women and children to seek concealment in cellars or garrets or wheresoever else it could be found, until this high carnival of crime and reign of terror should pass away.

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Part Two, Chapter XII. 1891.

History rhyming: justice be damned, let’s try to appease the bigots

In his last autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, the great orator and abolitionist recalls the months that followed Lincoln’s election in 1860. Many in the North were desperate to do whatever they could to appease the Southern secessionists and persuade them to return to the Union.

During all the intervening months, from November to the ensuing March, the drift of Northern sentiment was towards compromise. To smooth the way for this, most of the Northern legislatures repealed their personal liberty bills, as they were supposed to embarrass the surrender of fugitive slaves to their claimants. The feeling everywhere seemed to be that something must be done to convince the South that the election of Mr. Lincoln meant no harm to slavery or the slave power, and that the North was sound on the question of the right of the master to hold and hunt his slave as long as he pleased, and that even the right to hold slaves in the Territories should be submitted to the Supreme Court, which would probably decide in favor of the most extravagant demands of the slave States. The Northern press took on a more conservative tone towards the slavery propagandists, and a corresponding tone of bitterness towards anti-slavery men and measures. It came to be a no uncommon thing to hear men denouncing South Carolina and Massachusetts in the same breath, and in the same measure of disapproval. The old pro-slavery spirit which, in 1835, mobbed anti-slavery prayer-meetings, and dragged William Lloyd Garrison through the streets of Boston with a halter about his neck, was revived. From Massachusetts to Missouri, anti-slavery meetings were ruthlessly assailed and broken up. With others, I was roughly handled in Tremont Temple, Boston, by a mob headed by one of the wealthiest men of that city. The talk was that the blood of some abolitionist must be shed to appease the wrath of the offended South, and to restore peaceful relations between the two sections of the country. A howling mob followed Wendell Phillips for three days whenever he appeared on the pavements of his native city, because of his ability and prominence in the propagation of anti-slavery opinions.

While this humiliating reaction was going on at the North, various devices to bring about peace and reconciliation were suggested and pressed at Washington. Committees were appointed to listen to southern grievances, and, if possible, devise means of redress for such as might be alleged. Some of these peace propositions would have been shocking to the last degree to the moral sense of the North, had not fear for the safety of the Union overwhelmed all moral conviction. Such men as William H. Seward, Charles Francis Adams, Henry B. Anthony, Joshua R. Giddings, and others—men whose courage had been equal to all other emergencies—bent before this southern storm, and were ready to purchase peace at any price. Those who had stimulated the courage of the North before the election, and had shouted “Who’s afraid?” were now shaking in their shoes with apprehension and dread. One was for passing laws in the northern States for the better protection of slave-hunters, and for the greater efficiency of the fugitive-slave bill. Another was for enacting laws to punish the invasion of the slave States, and others were for so altering the Constitution of the United States that the federal government should never abolish slavery while any one State should object to such a measure. Everything that could be demanded by insatiable pride and selfishness on the part of the slave-holding South, or could be surrendered by abject fear and servility on the part of the North, had able and eloquent advocates.

Happily for the cause of human freedom, and for the final unity of the American nation, the South was mad, and would listen to no concessions. It would neither accept the terms offered, nor offer others to be accepted. It had made up its mind that under a given contingency it would secede from the Union and thus dismember the Republic. That contingency had happened, and it should execute its threat. Mr. Ireson [?] of Georgia, expressed the ruling sentiment of his section when he told the northern peacemakers that if the people of the South were given a blank sheet of paper upon which to write their own terms on which they would remain in the Union, they would not stay. They had come to hate everything which had the prefix “Free”–free soil, free States, free territories, free schools, free speech, and freedom generally, and they would have no more such prefixes. This haughty and unreasonable and unreasoning attitude of the imperious South saved the slave and saved the nation. Had the South accepted our concessions and remained in the Union, the slave power would in all probability have continued to rule; the North would have become utterly demoralized; the hands on the dial-plate of American civilization would have been reversed, and the slave would have been dragging his hateful chains to-day wherever the American flag floats to the breeze. Those who may wish to see to what depths of humility and self-abasement a noble people can be brought under the sentiment of fear, will find no chapter of history more instructive than that which treats of the events in official circles in Washington during the space between the months of November, 1860, and March, 1861.

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Part Two, Chapter X. 1891.

Bigotry cannot be appeased: it is unappeasable. It must be denounced, opposed, and defeated. Otherwise, it never ends.

The government is not concerned with your health, or mine

The government—federal, state, provincial, local, whatever—is concerned with three things when it comes to public health:

  1. The economy: if businesses are losing money and shutting down, if people are losing their jobs, that’s a problem for the government.
  2. Hospitals and the health care system: if hospitals are overwhelmed with patients, if there are shortages of doctors, nurses, or beds, that’s a problem for the government.
  3. Public sentiment: if government policies are highly unpopular, that’s a problem for the government.

My health, and yours, are not on that list. If my diet is not the best, if I don’t exercise enough, if I get sick, even if I am hospitalized, these are not problems for the government. They are only problems for me, my family, my friends, and my colleagues.

A lot of people seem not to understand this. As governments in many places remove mask requirements, people think, “Ah, the government says it’s safe now for me to stop wearing a mask indoors!”

Wrong.

It’s not safe. You can still get COVID, and even a mild case of COVID can lead to long-term health problems. Or you can pass it from person to person until it reaches a senior citizen or a cancer patient who then ends up in the hospital, and possibly the morgue. And yes, you can get COVID more than once. None of that is a problem for the government: but it’s a serious concern for you, and me.

Wear a good N95 mask when you are indoors.

If Only

“If only they could have put aside their differences and lived together peaceably.”

“You mean, the Spartans and the Athenians?”

“No.”

“Oh!— the Greeks and the Romans?”

“No.”

“The Goths and the Romans?”

“No.”

“The Saxons and the Celts?”

“No.”

“The Christians and the Moslems?”

“No.”

“The Christians and the Jews?”

“No.”

“The Jews and the Arabs?”

“No.”

“The Catholics and the Protestants?”

“No.”

“The Irish and the English?”

“No.”

“The Europeans and the Amerindians?”

“No.”

“The Iroquois and the Hurons?”

“No.”

“Hmm . . . the Han and the Manchu?”

“No.”

“The Chinese and the Japanese?”

“No.”

“The Koreans and the Japanese?”

“No.”

“The Japanese and the Russians?”

“No.”

“The Russians and the Germans?”

“No.”

“The Germans and the French?”

“No.”

“The French and the English?”

“No.”

“The English and the Americans?”

“No.”

“White Americans and Black Americans?”

“No.”

“Liberals and conservatives?”

“No.”

“Communists and—”

“No.”

“Monarchists and—”

“No.”

“Unions and management?”

“No.”

“Ah, I know! The Sunnis and the Shia!”

“No.”

“The Indians and the Pakistanis?”

“No.”

“The Arabs and the Iranians?”

“No.”

“Maybe . . . the Kurds and the Turks?”

“No.”

“The Turks and the Armenians?”

“No.”

“Okay, I give up. If only who could have put aside their differences and lived together peaceably?”

“Humans.”

Women in History: Ethelfled

Will and Ariel Durant, in their multi-volume Story of Civilization, pause for a moment to note Ethelfled [Æthelflæd] (870-918), the daughter of Alfred the Great (848-899). About 885 she was married to the Lord of Mercia to secure an alliance between Mercia and Alfred’s Wessex. Apparently her husband’s health declined from about 899 and she became the effective ruler in his place.

Alfred’s daughter Ethelfled, as regent and queen, gave Mercia for a generation effective and conscientious government. She built cities, planned military campaigns, and captured Derby, Leicester, and York from the Danes.

“From the difficulties experienced in her first labor,” says William of Malmesbury, “she ever afterward refused the embraces of her husband, protesting that it was unbecoming the daughter of a king to give way to a delight which, after a time, produced such unpleasant consequences.”

Persistence

Though we are mere
temporary
arrangements of molecules
caught in a welter of vast
processes
that began long before
and will continue long after
our molecules disperse again
into the soup from which they emerged,

yet we persist in
thinking ourselves important and
striving to make sense of
this fruit-fly existence.

On sickness and health: the wisdom of the ages and the COVID-19 anti-vax upsurge

First, the physician at Harvard, lecturing on Hippocrates:

The widest of all generalizations in the work of Hippocrates is this: as a rule, sick people recover without treatment.

—Lawrence J. Henderson (1878-1942), Harvard lectures, quoted in The Practical Cogitator, Charles P. Curtis, Jr. and Ferris Greenslet, editors (p. 287).

Second, Montaigne in his tower:

Let things take their course. Nature’s scheme, that takes care of fleas and moles, also takes care of men—if they will have the same patience to let themselves be governed that fleas and moles have. There is no use in our shouting “Giddap”; that will indeed make us hoarse, but not get us ahead. Nature’s scheme is proud and pitiless. Our fear and despair disgust it and stop it from helping us, instead of inviting it to come to our aid. Nature is obliged to let both disease and health run their course. As for letting itself be corrupted in favour of the one to the prejudice of the other’s right, it will not do so, for it would then fall into disorder. Follow Nature, in God’s name, follow it! It leads those who follow. Those who will not follow, it drags along, with their rage and their medicine too. Order a purge for your brain; it will be better employed there than on your stomach.

—Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), Essays, Book II, Ch. 37, “Of the Resemblance of Children to Fathers.” Adapted from the translation by Donald Frame.

The recent upsurge of anti-vaccination hysteria, often abetted by the “wellness” movement—for whom conventional medical practice is anathema—has reminded me of Hippocrates’ conclusion that the best treatment, most often, is no treatment at all. This conclusion must have been doubly true in the early days of modern medicine.

What remedies, after all, were on offer in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and America? Bloodletting appears to have been the preferred treatment for almost any condition, followed closely by laxatives, emetics, and diuretics aimed at inducing the patient to defecate, vomit, or urinate his way to health. These treatments were based on the dominant medieval theory of medicine, which held that disease resulted from an imbalance of the four “humours” or essential bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Restore the balance, so the theory went, and the patient would recover. It is not difficult to see that this was medical theatre more than medical practice. When patients recovered, the doctor could take credit. When they perished, either from the disease or the treatment, or both, the doctor could sigh and say, “Alas, we did the best we could.”

More serious problems were addressed by an even more dreadful response: surgery. Surgery in the 18th and 19th centuries resembled butchery more than medical treatment. No anaesthesia. No sanitation. Doctors with bloody hands going from one patient to the next, spreading bacteria from patient to patient. This was truly barbaric and horrific.

We cannot be surprised that alternatives to such brutality arose. Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician, gave up his practice after concluding that conventional treatments like bloodletting did more harm than good. In 1796 he conceived an alternative approach that he called “homeopathy.” Its fundamental principle was that “like cures like.” Hahnemann took substances that were known to cause disease and diluted them repeatedly until the resulting solution was no different, chemically, from the inert ingredients that formed most of it—flavoured water, essentially. In the 19th century homeopathy became enormously popular, and one can see why: instead of being bled or purged, the patient need only drink these harmless potions, and—remember Hippocrates—most of them recovered their health!

Other pseudoscientific and supernatural alternatives to conventional medicine flourished in the 19th century: spiritualists, mesmerists, magnetizers, vitalists, phrenologists, iridologists, theosophists, etc., attracted large followings of people disillusioned not only with conventional medicine but with conventional religions. In 1875 Mary Baker Eddy, after a few years spent studying mesmerism with Joseph Quimby, published Science and Health and, in 1892, founded the Church of Christ, Scientist. “It is plain that God does not employ drugs or hygiene, nor provide them for human use; else Jesus would have recommended and employed them in his healing,” she wrote. Christian Science, as it came to be called, was an improvement even on homeopathy: no potions were required, only prayer. As always, successes could be credited to the theory, and failures explained away. Again, Hippocrates’ conclusion resonates: “as a rule, sick people recover without treatment.”

In the 20th century, while conventional medicine continued to make progress, such alternative treatments persisted. I was raised as a Christian Scientist. Unvaccinated, I suffered the most serious illness of my life in my late 30s when I contracted measles. (I escaped polio, smallpox, etc., only because almost everyone around me was vaccinated against them.) While living and working in Europe in the 1990s I saw, in Austria and Germany, pharmacy shelves filled with homeopathic remedies for every imaginable disorder. And in the 1960s, of course, as part of the anti-war, anti-establishment counterculture, Eastern religions, meditation, yoga, etc., were joined by a flood of alternative medicine and spiritual practices. Distrust of government and corporations reinforced distrust of the doctors and hospitals associated with them. The rise of cancers as populations began to live longer and as environmental pollution with various toxic chemicals had its inevitable consequences led to early forms of cancer treatment like chemotherapy that were dreadful for patients and often unsuccessful. Naturally, alternatives promising better results and less suffering were enticing.

This brief account should make the historical context of today’s upsurge of anti-vaccination sentiment during the COVID-19 pandemic crystal clear. Anti-establishment distrust of institutions, fed today by the warp-speed propaganda machine of social media, joins with binary thinking in which things and people must be either good or bad. Big Pharma, we know, is a corporate rip-off racket that overcharges for their products and turns entire populations into opioid addicts. Big Pharma’s COVID-19 vaccines, therefore, are not to be trusted. Binary thinking denies the possibility that Big Pharma might lie to us in one case and tell the truth in another. Choosing simplicity over complexity, as humans so often do, many people fall into the trap of throwing out the baby, as the saying goes, with the bath water.

Modern medicine, though much improved, remains imperfect. Doctors and hospitals and insurance companies in the United States, the epicentre of the anti-vax upsurge, are profit-seekers in a capitalist healthcare system. Institutions of all sorts deserve skeptical scrutiny of their activities.

All of that is true.

It is also true that non-treatment of many illnesses, combined with whatever spiritualist naturopathic dietary hocus-pocus you wish, will probably lead to recovery as well as most over-the-counter potions that simply suppress symptoms.

It is also true, however, that mRNA vaccines are highly effective in preventing COVID infections and mitigating their severity, while crystals, yoga, “natural immunity,” and anti-oxidants are not.

The common cold is not COVID-19. Recognizing the difference between them may make the difference in saving your life and the lives of those around you. If you have not done so already, get vaccinated!

Re-post: Frankenstein, the internet, the fake trucker “protests,” and why democracy is breaking

From June 2019: The neo-Romantic idealists and geniuses who brought us the Internet and, shortly thereafter, “social media,” believed that their inventions would usher in a new era of freedom, empowerment, and global communication. Like Mary Shelley’s idealistic, naive dreamer genius, Victor Frankenstein, they have created a murderous monster.

Read the whole post here: https://ericmacknight.com/wordpress/2019/06/01/why-democracy-is-breaking/.

American Ozymandias

(With apologies to Percy Bysshe Shelley)

I met a traveller from an antique land
who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
lie in the undergrowth. Near them, a man’s
bearded face, half-buried, frowns
or sadly stares at ruins once so grand.
Shattered inscriptions can be read
whose noble aspiration rings—
With malice toward none, one said.
Whether that nation . . . can endure.
These broken words still sing,
though feebly, into the empty air.
Nothing else remains. Round that decay
the vegetation spreads, lush—yet bare—
all evidence of humans swept away.”

Isaiah Berlin on Joseph de Maistre and the reaction against the Enlightenment

What the entire Enlightenment has in common is denial of the central Christian doctrine of original sin . . . . Joseph de Maistre and his followers and allies . . . formed the spearhead of the counter-revolution in the early nineteenth century in Europe.

History and zoology, [wrote Maistre], are the most reliable guides to nature: they show her to be a field of unceasing slaughter. Men are by nature aggressive and destructive; . . . when men are sent to war, to exterminate beings as innocent as themselves for no purpose that either army can grasp, they go obediently to their deaths and scarcely ever mutiny. When the destructive instinct is evoked men feel exalted and fulfilled.

Maistre felt that men are by nature evil, self-destructive animals, full of conflicting drives . . . . It is only when they are kept under constant control and rigorous discipline by some authoritarian elite . . . that they can hope to survive and be saved.

If the State is to survive . . . the source of authority must be absolute . . . . Only then will men learn to obey it. . . . Without a clear hierarchy of authority—awe-inspiring power—men’s incurably destructive instincts will breed chaos and mutual extermination. The supreme power—especially the Church—must never seek to explain or justify itself in rational terms; for what one man can demonstrate, another may be able to refute.

The best government the world has ever known was that of the Romans . . . . 

Dark instincts govern man and societies; only elites which understand this, and keep the people from too much secular education, which is bound to make them over-critical and discontented, can give to men as much happiness and justice and freedom . . . . The notion that reason is sufficient to educate or control the passions is ridiculous. . . .

These gloomy doctrines became the inspiration of monarchist politics in France, and together with the notion of Romantic heroism and the sharp contrast between creative and uncreative, historic and unhistoric individuals and nations, duly inspired nationalism, imperialism, and finally, in their most violent and pathological form, Fascist and totalitarian doctrines in the twentieth century.

—From “The Counter-Enlightenment,” in Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, by Isaiah Berlin (1979)

Arnold Nash: Reason is not a neutral principle

A historian on the American side of the Atlantic received a fitting rebuke to his implied assumption that to be outside a particular tradition made an unbiased view of controversial questions possible. In conducting the oral examination of a Mormon student who was submitting a Ph.D. thesis on a particular period of Mormon history, the historian asked the student if he, being a Mormon, considered himself sufficiently unprejudiced to write a thesis on Mormon history. The somewhat daring student appositely remarked, “Yes, if you, not a Mormon, consider yourself unprejudiced enough to examine it.” 

This implicit assumption that the rationalist can transcend all bias and achieve an impartial perspective is not limited to his dicta on religion. He feels the same way about politics. Thus he has no difficulty in rejecting the Nazi or the Marxist philosophy in the name of Reason. He fails to see that it is in the name of reason as he understands it. To those who maintain that there is no common rational ground on which the democrat and the Nazi can resolve their theoretical differences he replies, with W. T. Stace, that “in that case, our preference for democracy, we shall have to admit, is in the end nothing but an irrational prejudice.” This reply rests upon a completely mistaken understanding of the function of reason in human thought and life. Each system, whether Nazi, or Marxist, or liberal, or rationalist, or Protestant, or Catholic, or Hindu, has its own view of Reason. Reason, therefore, is not a neutral principle which can be appealed to in favour of one rather than another of the competing systems. An illuminating parallel is that of language. It is impossible to describe a language except in terms of a particular language, for there is no language which is a “neutral.” 

Arnold S. Nash, The University and the Modern World (1944), pp. 93-94

So . . . Is Arnold’s claim simple relativism? Or is he on to something here?

Epicurus (341–270 BC), a hep cat

For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to help people attain a happy (eudaimonic), tranquil life characterized by ataraxia (peace and freedom from fear) and aponia (the absence of pain). He advocated that people were best able to pursue philosophy by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. He taught that the root of all human neurosis is death denial and the tendency for human beings to assume that death will be horrific and painful, which he claimed causes unnecessary anxiety, selfish self-protective behaviors, and hypocrisy. . . . He taught that people should behave ethically not because the gods punish or reward people for their actions, but because amoral behavior will burden them with guilt and prevent them from attaining ataraxia.

—From Wikipedia

So right, so long ago, and so many still haven’t figured it out.

Turgenev on Tolstoy

In August 1856 Turgenev left for France and he met Tolstoy several times in Paris. “Tolstoy speaks of Paris as Sodom and Gomorrah,” Turgenev wrote. “He is a blend of poet, Calvinist, fanatic, and landowner’s son—somewhat reminiscent of Rousseau—a highly moral and at the same time an uncongenial being.”

—V.S. Pritchett, The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev

Montaigne’s wisdom

La plus expresse marque de la sagesse, c’est vne esiouissance constante: son estat est comme des choses au dessus de la lune, tousiours serein.

—Michel de Montaigne, Essais, Volume One, Chapter 25

Wikiquote.org offers this English translation: “The most manifest sign of wisdom is a continual cheerfulness; her state is like that in the regions above the moon, always clear and serene.”

If Montaigne were writing English today, however, he would not produce such a sentence. I prefer to think he would write something like this:

A cheerful calm, constant as stars in the darkness, is the surest sign of wisdom.

Robinson Crusoe’s father on the advantages of being middle-class

“He told me it was men of desperate fortunes on one hand, or of aspiring, superior fortunes on the other, who went abroad upon adventures, to rise by enterprise, and make themselves famous in undertakings of a nature out of the common road; that these things were all either too far above me or too far below me; that mine was the middle state, or what might be called the upper station of low life, which he had found, by long experience, was the best state in the world, the most suited to human happiness, not exposed to the miseries and hardships, the labour and sufferings of the mechanic part of mankind [i.e, the working poor], and not embarrassed with the pride, luxury, ambition, and envy of the upper part of mankind. He told me I might judge of the happiness of this state by this one thing—viz., that this was the state of life which all other people envied; that kings have frequently lamented the miserable consequence of being born to great things, and wished they had been placed in the middle of the two extremes, between the mean and the great; that the wise man gave his testimony to this, as the standard of felicity, when he prayed to have neither poverty nor riches.

“He bade me observe it, and I should always find that the calamities of life were shared among the upper and lower part of mankind, but that the middle station had the fewest disasters, and was not exposed to so many vicissitudes as the higher or lower part of mankind; nay, they were not subjected to so many distempers and uneasinesses, either of body or mind, as those were who, by vicious living, luxury, and extravagances on the one hand, or by hard labour, want of necessaries, and mean or insufficient diet on the other hand, bring distemper upon themselves by the natural consequences of their way of living; that the middle station of life was calculated for all kind of virtue and all kind of enjoyments; that peace and plenty were the handmaids of a middle fortune; that temperance, moderation, quietness, health, society, all agreeable diversions, and all desirable pleasures, were the blessings attending the middle station of life; that this way men went silently and smoothly through the world, and comfortably out of it, not embarrassed with the labours of the hands or of the head, not sold to a life of slavery for daily bread, nor harassed with perplexed circumstances, which rob the soul of peace and the body of rest, nor enraged with the passion of envy, or the secret burning lust of ambition for great things; but, in easy circumstances, sliding gently through the world, and sensibly tasting the sweets of living, without the bitter; feeling that they are happy, and learning by every day’s experience to know it more sensibly.”

—Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719), Chapter 1

Practice, practice, practice!

Some students think that certain assignments are important, while others are not important—or that some assignments are more important than others.

This is a dangerous error.

If you only read what is assigned to you, you will never read enough to become a really good reader, and to acquire the background knowledge you need.

If you only write what is assigned to you—or even worse, only what the teacher marks in detail—you will never write enough to become a good writer.

Imagine a basketball player who never touches a basketball except during team practices and games. That player will never learn to play basketball well. Good players become good by spending hours and hours and hours in the gym, shooting lay-ups, shooting free-throws, shooting jump shots. No coach is there pointing out errors or praising progress. 

Or consider the piano student. Once a week, during lessons, the teacher points out what the student is doing well, and where the student needs to improve. In between lessons, the student must practice, practice, practice, practice. No one is there to say, “That’s good!” or “No, no, your left-hand fingering is wrong!” 

Getting better is all about the repetitions. 

If it were possible for a superhuman English teacher to mark in detail every piece of writing you do, it would be a waste of time for the teacher, and for you! Why? Because we continue making the same mistakes, for a long time. Mistakes arise out of bad habits, and bad habits can be corrected only through practice, practice, practice! 

Consider the basketball player. During a team practice, the coach sees that the player’s elbow is stuck out away from the body on jump shots. “Pull your elbow in! Your forearm should be vertical!” says the coach. But the player must shoot hundreds or thousands of jump shots to train the brain and the body to keep the elbow in and the forearm vertical. It would be useless for a coach to stand behind the player for hours crying out, “Elbow out! ”That’s better!” No, it’s out again!” The player knows what the problem is. Correcting it takes practice, practice, practice!

Those hours of practice begin to pay off, eventually, during team practices and games. But without the hours of practice, unobserved and ungraded, the player—and the student—will never make much progress.

Who will be a better player: the one who never touches a ball except during team practices and games, or the one who isn’t even on the team but spends hundreds of hours in the gym practicing?

Who will be a better writer: the student who never writes except on graded assignments and exams, or the one who writes every day, privately, and is not even enrolled in the course?

The answer is the same in both cases. 

Better than either of these, however, will be the player who practices for hours alone, gets good coaching during team practices, and then puts it all together during games. Better than either will be the student who reads and writes voraciously outside of class, gets good instruction in class, and then puts it all together on graded assignments and exams.

That’s why every assignment is important.

Why do conservatives hate science?

Attempts at religious reform aroused popular anger because the inborn conservativeness of man is nowhere stronger than in the field of religion. The religion of his fathers must not be criticized, even if his own profession of it is but an outward show. The most malicious kind of hatred is that which is built upon a theological foundation. On the other hand, the resistance to scientific novelties was due to an intuitive, if unconscious, appreciation of their revolutionary nature. The slightest and the most innocent scientific innovation is but a wedge which is bound to penetrate deeper and deeper, and the advance of which will soon be impossible to resist. Conservative people are undoubtedly right in their distrust and hatred of science, for the scientific spirit is the very spirit of innovation and adventure—the most reckless kind of adventure into the unknown. And such is its aggressive strength that its revolutionary activity can neither be restrained nor restricted within its own field. Sooner or later it will go out to conquer other fields and to throw floods of light into all the dark places where superstition and injustice are still rampant. The scientific spirit is the greatest force for construction but also for destruction.

—George Sarton, The History of Science and the New Humanism,  as quoted in The Practical Cogitator, Charles P. Curtis, Jr., and Ferris Greenslet, editors

James Lovelock: “Gaia may destroy humans before we destroy the Earth”

In an article published in The Guardian, 102-year-old James Lovelock warns that the Earth may destroy us before we succeed in destroying the Earth.

Along with Lynn Margulis, Lovelock in the 1970s popularized the “Gaia hypothesis”—the idea that the Earth and its inhabitants form a single complex interactive system. I remember thinking, “Well, of course!” when I first read of this idea half a century ago, but apparently it remains, somehow, controversial.

“I don’t know if it is too late for humanity to avert a climate catastrophe,” Lovelock writes, “but I am sure there is no chance if we continue to treat global heating and the destruction of nature as separate problems.”

He also mentions nuclear power:

But we should also not become over-reliant on renewable power, which will leave us with an energy gap. We need to build more nuclear power stations to overcome that, though the greens will first have to get over their overblown fears of radiation.

To which I say . . . well, of course!

I strongly recommend the entire article. And, Dr. Lovelock: thank you!