Thursday, July 31, 2008

Educating our "organic intellectuals"

A good piece, and well worth reading. And no, I'm not just saying that because he cites my "Forget Guantanamo" at length. :-)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Happy Birthday, Eric Hoffer

I was standing in the registration line in the beginning of my freshman year of college. Two lines over was a guy I knew slightly from my high school. He shouted over:

"Hey, you still into the Philosophy thing?"


"Man, there is this guy I just read you got to read! Guy's name is Eric Hoffer. The book's called The True Believer. And check this out -- he's a philosopher and a longshoreman!"

"Thanks. I'll check it out." And I did.

From The Writers' Almanac:

It's the birthday of writer and philosopher Eric Hoffer born in New York City (1902). His mother died when he was seven years old. Shortly afterwards, Eric Hoffer mysteriously went blind. He finally got his eyesight back eight years later, and he was eager to catch up on his education, so he read every book he could get his hands on.

He moved to California and worked as a dishwasher, a factory worker, a farm hand, and a longshoreman. His plan at each job was work long enough to save some money and then take the time to do nothing but read. He held library cards in six different towns in California, so he could always have access to books no matter where he was in the state. His favorite book was the Essays of Montaigne, and he carried it everywhere with him in a rucksack. The first book he submitted for publication was a handwritten manuscript, and it was published in 1951 as The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.

Eric Hoffer said, "When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Quote of the Week - now with Commentary(tm)!

The Scholastic philosophers in the Middle Ages – which is to say, the theologians, since all philosophy in that era was nothing more than theology – were great ones for taking a small snippet from the Bible, or from “The Philosopher” (Aristotle) and writing these long, elaborate, often quite gonzo “commentaries” on the snippet. Thomas Aquinas was the most famous of the lot, but they all did it. They would offer their quote from an authoritative source, and then use it to prop up some (often philosophically indefensible) position that often had nothing to do with the quote itself. Reading Aquinas and some of the others, I get a sense of the enormous fun they had with this process. And since this is my blog – and since, as we all know, there’s nothing we bloggers like to do more than write lengthy commentaries about every little thing – I thought I’d try an experiment and sex up my Quotes of the Week with some (often philosophically indefensible) positions that will often have nothing to do with the quote itself. It’s going to look a little something like this ...

"God is dead -- and we have killed him."

- Friedrich Nietzsche

This one sentence has generated thousands – maybe millions – of words of commentary, interpretation, and condemnation; the likelihood that I will have anything of interest to say about it is very small. But since I love the quote so much – it’s stuck with me since I first encountered Nietzsche at the age of fifteen – I thought I’d explain what this quote means to me. What Nietzsche is saying here is that our view of humanity as nothing more than another species of ape (and keep in mind that Darwinism was very new and very powerful in Nietzsche's time) has destroyed any sense among the common people that they were somehow "special" because there was some benevolent eternal Big Daddy who loved them and viewed them as the center of his universe. In other words, "we killed" God by virtue of no longer believing in him -- which is to say, no longer believing that we humans had some special place in the universe above the animal kingdom.

Nietzsche was bluntly terrified by the implications of this "death of God," by this idea that there was no longer any eternal reward or punishment for any behavior we might choose to indulge. Nietzsche would have completely agreed with Dostoevsky's famous formulation: "If there is no God, then anything is permitted." Anything. The end result of the "death of God" was, quite simply, the 20th century -- and Nietzsche saw it coming.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Quote of the Week

Let people who do not know what to do with themselves in this life, but fritter away their time reading magazines and watching television, hope for eternal life.....The life I want is a life I could not endure in eternity. It is a life of love and intensity, suffering and creation, that makes life worth while and death welcome.

Walter Kaufmann, The Faith of a Heretic, Pg 386

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Happy Birthday, Jackie Derrida

It's the birthday of one of the great intellectual tricksters and con-men of the (post)modern world. Born Jackie Derrida in Algeria, he came to France and somehow managed to convince a slack-jawed, credulous world that he actually had something to say. And he did it with brio and style. For that, I salute him, and will be having a glass of wine tonight to celebrate his life and his art form (because I consider what he did to be a form of performance art, "the trickster plays the role of the philosopher," the oldest form of performance art in Western culture).

From The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of philosopher Jacques Derrira born in El Biar, Algeria (1930). He's one of the founders of the theory of "deconstructionism," which he presented in the book Of Grammatology (1967). It assumes that there is no common intellectual structure or source of meaning that unifies a culture. When applied to literary criticism, it holds that a single text can have multiple meanings, which underlie and subvert the surface meaning of the words.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sarko's mad fever dream of a "Mediterranean Union"

I wish French President Sarkozy all the luck in the world building a "Mediterranean Union" -- like the European Union, but encompassing the countries of the Mediterranean basin. His idea has three fundamental problems, things that are differences from the situation that prevailed at the founding of the EU:

1. with the EU, all the founding countries had pretty much come to the conclusion that war was no way to get things done. They were all prepared to turn their backs on making war and get on with the much harder work of making peace. With countries like Syria, Libya, Israel, and Serbia in the Mediterranean Union mix, there are way too many countries that still think war is a great way to solve problems.

2. in the EU, despite nationalistic differences, all the founding countries agreed that something called "European Culture" existed, that it was something they shared in common, and was something they all agreed was worth saving. All the Mediterranean Union countries share in common is a body of water. Hardly a basis for a shared forward-looking vision.

3. All the founding EU nations were pretty much equally developed economically and equally prosperous, so there was no fear that some members would leech onto other members. In this Mediterranean Union, you run the gamut from highly-developed economies to economies that are flirting with "basket case" status. Hardly a basis for a shared economic market, a la the EU.

Still, I wish Sarko well with his mad fever dream. Anything that dampens the vicious, long-festering hatreds in the Med region is a good thing.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Quote of the Week

One of the illusions of life is that the present hour is not the critical, decisive hour.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Forget Guantanamo

Published by Monthly Review in April, I didn't realize until just now that the text of this piece I wrote was available online. Here's a taste:

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.
—George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism

In March 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was captured in Pakistan. Much of the information on his movements and whereabouts is believed to have come from interrogations of his two children, aged six and eight. The children are known to have been held in an adult detention facility for at least four months while they were interrogated. During this time, according to one witness, “the boys were kept in a separate area upstairs, and were denied food and water by other guards. They were also mentally tortured by having ants or other creatures put on their legs to scare them and get them to say where their father was hiding.” After that, they disappeared into the system and nothing more was heard about them. Their current whereabouts and condition are unknown. The United States has sunk to kidnapping, imprisoning, torturing, and then “disappearing” children in order to get at their parents. What were once dark and unlikely rumors have gradually proven to be true: many men, women, and yes, children have been abducted around the world and fed into the maw of the American system.

The extrajudicial prison complex at Guantánamo is nothing much to look at, really: a small collection of steel cages and isolation cells that hold roughly five hundred human beings. In many ways, it is a showpiece, a little Potemkin village, the public face of the system. When people speak of “Guantánamo,” they often refer not to the physical site, but rather to the system as a whole and what that system represents: decisions made, Rubicons crossed, illusions embraced.

Go here to read the complete article.

Friday, July 4, 2008

On This Date ....

Since everyone and their kid brother will be doing some "Declaration of Independence" thing on their blogs, I decided to be what I always aspire to be: "different." I've recently found myself fascinated with the character of Walt Whitman; now that I've heard Leaves of Grass performed aloud on the audio version of the book, he's starting to "make sense" to me (I had a simular experience about a year ago when I first saw Waiting For Godot done as part of the 4-CD Beckett on Film production). He's a lot more complex than the simplistic, flag-waving, "Good Grey Poet" I learned about back in school. And so, courtesy of The Writer's Almanac:

On this day in 1855, the first edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass was printed. It consisted of 12 poems and a preface. The printers were friends of his, and they did not charge Whitman for their work. He helped set some of the type himself. "Grass" is a printer's term; it refers to a casual job that can be set up between busy times.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Anyone Remember Herman Hesse?

During my years in high school and college. (1969-1976) Herman Hesse was huge. Bigger than Richard Brautigan (A Confederate General from Big Sur), bigger than Robert M, Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance); hell, he was bigger than the Beatles. Forgotten now, sadly forgotten along with Brautigan and Pirsig. Though unfortunately not the Beatles, who I thought were utter bubblegum ear-candy right up until the very end, when their late work with Revolver and The White Album suggested some very exciting possibilities, most of which were never explored (the big exception would be the infamous song Helter Skelter, arguably the first “punk rock” song). But I digress. Anyway, a birthday salute to forgotten Herman Hesse, the man who gave us the indelible image of his father sitting in the crutch of a tree with a rifle, trying to draw a bead so he could shoot at those terrifying and evil new products of technology called “automobiles.” Maybe Hesse’s dad wasn’t a laughable Luddite after all, maybe he was just a century ahead of his time.

From the Writer’s Almanac:

It's the birthday of German poet and novelist Herman Hessa, born in Black Forest of Germany (1877), the son of a Baltic-German from Estonia and a woman of Swabian and French-Swiss heritage. Both of his parents were once missionaries in India.

He went to boarding schools, where he was a precociously brilliant learner but had behavior issues. His parents wanted him to be a minister, so he went to a theological seminary when he was a teenager. But he left after nine months and later said, "From the age of 12 I wanted to be a poet, and since there was no normal or official road, I had a hard time deciding what to do after leaving school."

He apprenticed at a mechanic's shop and also at a bookstore. When he was 22, a small book of his poems was published. After World War I began, he moved to Switzerland; he opposed German nationalism and spoke up against the regime's violence, and for this he received a lot of hate mail. He began to travel a lot, spending much time in India and Italy. He renounced his German citizenship and instead became a Swiss citizen.

He suffered from recurring bouts of depression and even bought a revolver and left a suicide note when he was a teenager. For several years he underwent Jungian psychoanalysis. His works often involve a protagonist's spiritual search for enlightenment, and Hesse counts among his most characteristic works Siddhartha (1922), Der Steppenwolf (1927), and Die Morgenlandfahrt (1932) [The Journey to the East]. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, said that Steppenwolf is one of his favorite books because it "exposes the problem of modernity's isolated and self-isolating man." Hesse won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1946.

Shortly before his death, he wrote:

What you loved and what you strove for,
What you dreamed and what you lived through,
Do you know if it was joy or suffering?
G sharp and A flat, E flat or D sharp,
Are they distinguishable to the ear?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Obama to expand Bush "faith-based" initiatives

I wrote a review of David Kuo’s Tempting Faith for Free Inquiry back in late 2007 (an insider’s look at Bush’s “faith-based” presidency) , and took a certain comfort in the idea that we might soon see the end of this dangerous coupling of government and religion known as the “faith-based initiatives.” Looks like the “new boss” might have a lot more in common with the “old boss” than we suspected from his primary-season rhetoric.

CHICAGO — Reaching out to evangelical voters, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is announcing plans to expand President Bush’s program steering federal social service dollars to religious groups and _ in a move sure to cause controversy _ support some ability to hire and fire based on faith.

This should not come as an enormous surprise: any of the “Obamaniacs” who actually took the time to read what Obama has written (I have, and I’m not even a fan, I was an Edwards man) would know that where he stands on “faith-based initiatives” is not that far from where the Bush administration stands. It’s one of the main reasons I wasn’t a fan of the guy, preferring my church and state kept comfortably far apart from each other, thank you very much. I do enjoy the one saving grace of not suffering all the recent throes and spasms of angst and gnashing and wailing that so many of the Obama fans have been going through. Having read the man’s work and knowing what he believed, I was not surprised when he trotted the homophobe Lonnie McLuskin out on stage. Having read the man’s work and knowing what he believed, I was not surprised to learn that one of his key advisers is talking about keeping 80,000+ troops in Iraq into 2010 and beyond. And, having read the man’s work and knowing what he believed, I’m not surprised at this latest pronouncement on “faith-based initiatives.” The man’s current behavior and statements are totally consistent with what he’s written. The only place he told some of them little white lies was during the primaries, to get the “left-liberal base” to turn out in droves for him. Obama’s a politician, and he’s gotten what he needed from the left-liberal base. He’s rowing hard to the right in preparation for a hard-fought general election to come, leaving the “base” behind to licks its wounds and “get over it.” I’m one of that left-liberal base, but like I said, I have this real bad habit—I read -- and so none of what he’s done recently came as a shock. To those who fell for Obama’s primary-season left-leaning rhetoric, I’ll offer the immortal words of Johnny Rotten: “Ever get the feelin’ ya been cheated?”

Happy Birthday, William Strunk

Anyone with any pretensions to being a writer must own and memorize this little book. I make it a point to re-read it once or twice a year, and I continue to learn things. You don't want to be without this book.

It's the birthday of grammarian and professor William Strunk, Jr., born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1869). He's best known for his work The Elements of Style, which he wrote in 1918, while he was an English professor at Cornell University, in order "to lighten the task of instructor and student by concentrating attention ... on a few essentials, the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated." The original edition of 1918, printed privately, was only 43 pages long.

It became a classic when E. B. White, who was once a student of his, published a revised 1959 edition, about a decade after Strunk's death. White updated in 1972, this time replacing some of Strunk's outdated examples with modern ones; White published yet another edition in 1979. Strunk championed active voice over passive voice, staying with one verb tense, and precise, concrete language. In his book, he gave examples of poor use of language in one column, and then in a parallel column gave examples of correct, fluid, and lucid style.

William Strunk said, "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."

And, "It is worse to be irresolute than to be wrong."