Friday, November 30, 2018

"Nation" v. "Republic," Russians, Trump, and "Smoking Guns"

On whether (or not) there's a "smoking gun" in Donald Trump's involvement with the Russians as candidate and/or President—and whether Americans should care:

The US "Pledge of Allegiance" to the flag lumps together the US as "one Nation under God" and "the Republic" symbolized by the flag. Usually conflated in colloquial usage, Nation and Republic are different things (with "the American State" aside for a moment).

If we are essentially a Nation, and especially if that's a White, Christian Nation — possibly in the sense of "I used to be Catholic but now I'm a Christian" (actual quote) — then President Trump is going an impressive job as Leader of the Nation, channeling the will of the *real* American people and resisting corruption by foreigners generally but also by internal elements on the Nation's territory who are not White and/or properly Christian. Or for more inclusive Nationalists, putting a larger Nation first and over all.

For the Nation, going further a Capitalist Nation, Trump's doing business with the Russians is no big deal, and Russian help for his election would be a neutral or good thing since it helped give the Leader authority over much of the apparatus of the State, returning it to the service of the Nation.

If the US is essentially a Republic with a "mixed Constitution" with democratic elements — even liberal-democratic elements — then messing with elections is a very big deal. Also a big deal would be Trump's trying to use agents and agencies of the State to protect his position as Leader. And a really big deal would be the Leader of the Nation asserting himself over the laws of the Republic and State.

Since most Americans are as double-minded on such matters as the Pledge to the Flag is, this division can get murky. At the extremes, though, it's clear enough, and the resolution (if any) may very well start there if and when small "r" republicans try to remove by impeachment or the 2020 elections the Leader of the Nation.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

HAIL TO THE VICTORS ... VALIANT? — Trump, Tribalism, Emperors, and Aristocratic Thugs

"Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." 
— College football coach Red Saunders 
(often attributed to Vince Lombardi), 20th century

What is wisdom?
What gift of the gods is held in honor like this;
 to hold your hand victorious
over the heads of those you hate?
Glory is precious forever.
— Lines by the Chorus of god-intoxicated 
women in Euripides's The Bacchae
(405 BCE, around line 877)

It's too loaded to quote by itself, but the purest form of the ideal I wish to discuss — and “ideal” isn’t necessarily a compliment with me — is the Nazis' "Sieg Heil!", "Hail Victory!" Anyway, what I’ll be getting to here is the form of the Warrior Ethic where what counts is winning, with how one wins is of some importance — honor code and all, chivalry — but secondary to just winning. This is one theory to explain a lot of violence, especially the premeditated and highly-organized kind. 

There are also Transcendent-Value theories where any means is justified by a goal of great value: sometimes something godly, but sometimes the Nation or the Revolution or ... whatever. And/or one can oppose a really great evil. E.g., if you believe abortion is murder and a large number of abortions mass murder moving toward genocide, then all sorts of means might be justified to end abortion, and just throwing some acid in a child’s or woman’s face — that example comes from Nineteen Eighty-Four and recent history— might be seen as moderate. If slowing the Hitlerian Holocaust would have justified bombing the death camps (and I’ll accept that argument), bombing a probably unoccupied abortion clinic would definitely — arguably — be justified: if, but only if, abortion is murder and one accepts the Machiavellian statement of faith, “The End justifies the means.” (“End” means “final outcome” as well as “goal,” and one can never be sure what even the major immediate results of an act will be, let alone results far down a history of causes and effects.) 

But, as I often do, I digress. 

Let’s start again.

For my dissertation, I was strongly influenced by William Arrowsmith (Tulane Drama Review 3.3 [March 1959]) and his “One final point (pp. 73 f.; III) that the great Greek tragedies each defined, so to speak, a central term that was contested — argued over — during the time the tragedy was written and produced. For a highly relevant example, The Bacchae is explicit on defining, sophia “wisdom” and its opposites. Now my 1971 dissertation was, “Wise Men and Fools: Values and Competing Theories of Wisdom in a Selection of Tragedies …” by Shakespeare and some playwrights chronologically on either side of his theatre career. So I was really interested in applying Arrowsmith’s idea (or stealing it), and I was eventually greatly concerned with one of the offered answers to the question, “What is wisdom?” The one by the Chorus in The Bacchae quoted in my headnote of wisdom as winning, gaining glory: glorying in humiliating an opponent. 

Flash forward to this year and my listening and re-listening to audiobooks of Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence(2014) plus relistening to Susan Wise Bauer’s History of the Ancient World From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome (2007), primarily reviewing those really early “Earliest Accounts” and getting an over-view without the thesis of Armstrong on the beginning and development of “agrarian civilization” and its cooperation and conflicts with herders and raiders seeming to come from the hills and plains like the tides against (very early on) the walls of the City.

Euripides’s Bacchae state articulately and explicitly a key value of aristocrats from before the time of Gilgamesh at Uruk ca. 2600 BCE to the wannabe nobles of the Master Race (Herrenvolk) of the 20thcentury into our own time: Sieg heil!, “Hail, Victory!” Period.

Except there is more, and not just among the “Aria” — Aryans, speakers of (proto)Indo-European — who didn’t enter the historical record until long after King Gilgamesh and his archetypal Heldenleben (Heroic Life). Among the aristocrats of truly ancient Uruk and the military branch of their descendants; among the Aria military aristocrats and their literal and cultural descendants; and basically among military aristocracies in agrarian civilizations around the world: i.e. among almost all civilizations, there were a few basic rules.

         First, the essence of nobility and later gentility is that members of the elite don’t work for a living. Work is for peasants. In the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, Christian peasants cheered on Lollard Christian priest John Ball and his subversive rime, “When Adam delved” — dug, like a farmer — “and Eva span” — Eve spun, like a good working wife — "Who was then the gentleman?” But the rime was subversive, reminding those revolting peasants — villainous villein serfs — of one official creation myth that suggested the natural state for people was equality. 
         However respectable the source of the Adam/Eve bit in the Book of Genesis — Hebrew authors in the Jewish tradition of opposing agrarian civilization — that wasn’t the theory popular with The Powers That Be in civilizations dependent upon inequality and a small elite’s relieving the peasants of a big hunk of their harvests and also setting them to perform useful public works: like irrigation ditches and temple storehouses for grain and pyramids and tombs and monuments. In such cultures the ruling myth was that the gods had set up a hierarchy among themselves that was reflected on Earth. With the Code of Hammurabi, the hierarchy was pretty simple, “made up of three different classes, the [...] Upper class, the [...] free man class, and the [...] slave class.” In India, you got a complex caste system, and to get back to an England a historical period after John Ball and 1381 and all that, you get the Renaissance Anglican sermons teaching Early-Modern English Christians that “Almighty God has created and appointed all things in heaven and on earth [...] in a most excellent and perfect order. In heaven, he has appointed distinct and several orders and states of Archangels and Angels. In earth he has assigned and appointed Kings, Princes, with other governors under them, in all good and necessary order” — and for religious obligation people were required to know their places, stay in those places, and practice “Good Order and Obedience to Rulers and Magistrates.”
         And if they didn’t, as back in 1381 and the later peasant revolts, well-armed and dangerous knights and lords and their retainers were thrilled and delighted to slaughter them. And in good conscience.

         Second, there was the necessity of the better sort’s not working to find some other means of support. By the time of sermonizing in England under the Tudors and Stuarts, a gentleman inherited wealth and land and rents. But before that? Well, Karen Armstrong notes that King Gilgamesh’s story has him taking what he wants, including a quest for precious cedar logs involving killing the forest’s god-appointed guardian. 
         Outside the City walls things were simpler but similar. From the old Aryans’ cattle rustling — all cattle rightfully belonged to the Masters — to the Germanic tribes complexly descended from them, real men were warriors, and warriors were Heroes, and the Heroic Life was organized theft and extortion, later, with luck, evolving into taxation and rents. 
         “In that day of this life,” the best of men would still be a man of violence, but he would direct that violence against the monsters that threatened human communities: over a few millennia Gilgamesh gets cleaned up into Beowulf and then seriously Christianized into a non-raping, non-plundering virginal knight like Sir Galahad. 

But don’t count on your local warrior bands including many Beowulfs, let alone Galahads — and chivalric Galahads were sworn to protect the Church and ladies — not farms nor shops, and not peasant women nor peasant men.

What you could hope for back in the Agrarian-Civ. day was a kind of Darwinian selection with a strong dose of Thomas Hobbes: i.e., getting the warriors held in check by war lords and then the war lords restrained by a king, and then, maybe, the warring kings kicked into line by an Emperor — and the lords and their inferiors might have a time of peace (except, of course, for the structural violence of the lords’ exploiting “their” peasants).
With luck … depending on the Emperor. And not getting too concerned with the crucifixions, mutilations, breaking on the wheel, and such emperors and their imitators used upon rebels, criminals, or just the seriously annoying: "As may be both due vengeance to themselves / And wholesome terror to posterity" (Gorboduc 5.1.96-97 [1561]). 

         Because that is the next problem, that imperial or royal "wholesome terror." 

         Susan Wise Bauer tells a story that I hadn’t heard from the early days of China as a more or less united empire with a ruler who wasn’t much into the Sage King bit or Daoist inaction or Confucian restraint. Significantly, the Emperor obviously believed (or felt), and enough of his court agreed or acquiesced that he got away with it — he felt that arbitrary action, often uncontrolled or cruel, was a good thing. Arbitrariness and cruelty — and presumably downright weirdness — demonstrated that this Son of Heaven was indeed special and that his power was literally absolute: constrained by no one and nothing.

I could increase examples, but I’ve rambled on enough. The point is that there’s a kind of “Perennial Ideology” that celebrates winners for winning, elites for taking what they want, and rulers for a kind of untethered arbitrariness. This ideology runs deep indeed and in many people may only be thinly overlain by a veneer of Christian or other religious restrictions on the powerful, and/or Enlightenment ideas and attitudes, and/or official republican and liberal-democratic ideas in countries like the United States. 
         If this is the case, we can understand better a fair number of supporters of Donald J. Trump and other actual or wannabe “Strongmen” — and those trying to rehabilitate Stalin and celebrate Genghis Khan.
         If this is the case, Trump et al.’s self-absorption, selfishness, lying, laziness, arbitrariness, mockery of losers, and petty (and not-so-petty) cruelty aren’t bugs but features. This antithesis of the strong, quiet, well-disciplined warrior is in a tradition of rapacious warrior thugs and mildly-mad emperors. And, among part of the US population, supported for such faults. This helps him win, so long as he continues to win. And if he continues to win, this increasingly inarticulate and ignorant man will be accounted, in some quarters, wise.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Trump, Sessions, Timing — and Climax of Epic Film, THE LUBYANKAN CANDIDATE!!!

Production Notes

FROM: Natasha F., Executive Producer
TO: Boris, nobody in particular (and associate producer)
DATE; 7 November 2018
Subject: Re-re-rewrite: Climax

Boris —

Get semiliterate hacks you call writers chained to desks again. Fearless Leader and fearful oligarch money-people want turning-point/climax with great instinctive move by insomniac Trump-puppet pushing story into Tent-Pole-epic heights, but maybe with tragic fall for end, if FL in that kind mood.

Is day after 2018 Mid-Term Election, and political apparatchiki of Deep State hung over and thinkingThanksgiving and Christmas when thinking at all: visions of sugar-plums, lobbying jobs, and maybe getting night’s sleep. And BANK-BANG!! Trump-puppet (not so puppety here) snaps off TV, fires Jeff Sessions, and appoints consigliere new Attorney General.

Do in S.-M.-Eisenstein heroic montage, cutting back-forth, and quick shot Sessions as snake slithering off — plus appropriate music: snatches “God Save the Czar.” (Americans play for 4thJuly “1812 Overture” and not get irony, so this work.) Also on sound-track, bits pieces great Karl Rove on fake-news and other Enemies of People “’in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' [...] 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' […]. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality […] —we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, […]. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Maybe Trump-puppet get away with it; maybe not. Win-win-win-win for Fearless Leader and Motherland. Also big profit on movie.

So: get writers writing. A little enhanced motivation okay, but no knout … yet.


Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Politics and Teaching: Writing the English Language

Once upon a time, in the last third or so of the 20th c., I had a conference with a student who had started an informal essay, "Since the beginning of time, Man ...." Now, a line like that had been used in TV deodorant commercials a bit earlier, so I found the line funny — but the student wouldn't know that.

I asked the student "Do you count 'the beginning of time' from the Big Bang, or the Biblical Creation, or, locally, for the rise of human consciousness? And does 'Man' include Woman and our entire species?"

A couple questions later, the student clarified that what his topic involved was, "Me and my friends back in high school." So I asked, "Then why not begin, 'Me and my friends back in high school,' if that would be decorous — appropriate for Speaker, target audience, and subject matter — or, 'Back when we were in high school, my friends and I ...'?" He asked, "You mean it's okay to write about *that*?" And I responded, "Well, if that's what you want to write about, and you can fulfill the assignment, and you can make it interesting and maybe useful to a likely audience — yeah."
And then I put more delicately than this, "'Cause otherwise you're just bullshitting. (When I said it can be a good idea to start with a general introduction and get more specific, I didn't mean *cosmic*, and in a short essay, skip the Intro. and just spit out your thesis or its equivalent. Anyway, skip the pretentious horse-pucky)."

He had been trained to write like that.
He had been invited to bullshit.

And such training, along with huckster hyperbole, misplaced tolerance for b.s., fashionable relativism on — let's call it — the nakedness of emperors, and failure to listen closely not just to others but to ourselves: *that* is part of the reason English in 2018 is contributing to bad politics as much as it did in 1946, when George Orwell complained about "Politics and the English Language."

Monday, October 29, 2018

Yo, Leftish Atheists — Cool It for a Bit: Organizing Against Trumpism

“Be diligent in the study of Torah, and know how to answer an Epicurean.”
   Rabbi Elazar, Pirkei Avot(Sayings of the Hebrew Fathers)
And an Epicurean scientific materialist should know how, and when not to, answer a rabbi.
   Rich Erlich

The context here is the rise of Trumpism in the United States, following a trend toward right-wing, authoritarian movements in Europe and elsewhere. My fear is the rise of an articulate successor to US President Donald J. Trump, a successor who is truly charismatic and can lead a genuine Mass Movement; my hope is that decent people can soon get a broad coalition to oppose such a movement, and defeat it.
Given that most Americans, indeed, most adult human beings, follow some sort of faith; given that most adult Americans strongly oppose “hate speech” but also dislike “political correctness”given that “social justice warrior” has gone from a mildly hyperbolic compliment to a rebuke — given such fairly hard facts, I want to at least talk at some of my comrades on the Left and ask them, for a while, to tone down their language — and, on some subjects, for a bit, to shut up. 
Such a request is, let’s say, a problem for me as a recovering academic and Life Member of the ACLU.
Such a request will be problematic for the spiritual descendants of Abolitionists and war resisters and, at a great distance, the Prophets of old: people in the US Puritan tradition, but without the black clothing, big buckles, and (usually) God. 
So I’m going to go at this issue carefully and at a long length for one of my blog posts, making a few passes at the topic.

Pass 1: The story goes that the great scholar and scientist Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace, once explained to the Emperor Napoleon his  (Laplace's) theory for the origin of the solar system. The Emperor complained that Laplace had described creation without ever mentioning God, to which Laplace responded (in the story), "Sire, I do not need that hypothesis."
Andthat(without the "Sire") is the proper scientific response. Whether or not God exists is not testable, but it is an inelegant, unparsimonious, and a clear violation of "Occam's Razor" to introduce so large an element as God into an argument unless necessary, really, really necessary.
            When God might be useful, is for a bit later. For now, let’s just stick with the Laplace principle. Any sentence beginning “Science proves” is bullshit-ish ‘because “Science” is too abstract to prove much, and the scientific method doesn’t exactly give final proofs of anything for what we experience as the real world. It’s the discipline of theology, not any of the sciences, that studies God; so don’t say “Science proves there is no God” or get into such arguments at all. What various sciences and their pre-scientific precursors have done over the last couple or so centuries is make God increasingly irrelevant for explanation of natural phenomena. And for big questions like free will and “Why is there anything rather than nothing?” — the God hypothesis isn’t very useful. (Strict Calvinists strongly believe in God, not necessarily free will. That God willed the universe to be as opposed to not be, just puts the mystery one step back: And why would God necessarily prefer Being to Non-Being”? Plus, the description in Genesis is the creation of Cosmos out of Chaos, without explaining out of what Nothingness the Chaos arose.)
            So, on scientific grounds, don’t argue religion: “I don’t need that hypothesis” is all you need to say. And if religious sorts press the issue, theyare the problem, not you.

Pass 2: Leftish Faith
Note: If you want a more respectable source than a retired English professor’s blog, see Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind(2015) on Natural Rights, and some of Mr. Harari’s follow-up writing.

            In 1976. for the US Bicentennial Celebration at Miami, I was asked to speak on … well something relevant. At the speech, I looked out at an audience far larger than I’d expected — at least one Speech teacher had required attendance — and started out with a thoroughly-rehearsed ad lib on how I was from Chicago and Chicagoans rejected the elitist concept that one had to be an expert to talk usefully on a subject, “OR, Chicagoans rarely let our ignorance get in the way of shooting off our mouths. And tonight I’m going to shoot my mouth off on the Declaration of Independence as a revolutionary document, far more revolutionary than most of us recognize.”

            And I proceeded to talk about something I did know about: from around Shakespeare’s time the Homily — a canned sermon — on Obedience to Authorityand “An Exhortation concerning good Order, and obedience to Rulers and Magistrates.” 

            On the basis of Holy Scripture and Natural Law, the writers of the Homilies were convinced that

Almighty God has created and appointed all things in heaven and on earth and all about, in a most excellent and perfect order. In heaven, he has appointed distinct and several orders and states of Archangels and Angels. In earth he has assigned and appointed Kings, Princes, with other governors under them, in all good and necessary order. […]  The sun, moon, stars, rainbow, thunder, lightning, clouds, and all the birds of the air, keep their order. The earth, trees, seeds, plants, herbs, corn, grass, and all manner of beasts keep themselves in order […].

Human beings also have all parts both within and without, like soul, heart, mind, memory, understanding, reason, speech, with all and singular corporal members of our body in a profitable, necessary, and pleasant order: every degree of people in their vocation, calling and office, is appointed to them their duty and order: some are in high degree, some in low, some Kings and Princes, some inferiors and subjects, priests, and layfolk, masters and servants, fathers, and children, husbands and wives, rich and poor, and everyone needs the other, so that in all things God, in good order, is lauded and praised, without which no house, city or commonwealth can continue, endure or last. For where there is no right order, there reigns abuse, carnal liberty, enormity, sin and Babylonian confusion.

Take away Kings Princes, Rulers, Magistrates, Judges, and such estates of God's good order, and no one shall ride or go by the highway un-robbed, no one shall sleep in their own house or bed un-killed, no one shall keep their spouse, children, and possession in quietness, all things shall be in-common, and there must needs follow all kinds of mischief, and utter destruction of souls, bodies, goods and social well-being. But blessed be God, that we in this realm of England, feel not the horrible calamities, miseries, and wretchedness, which all they undoubtedly feel and suffer, who lack this godly order: and praised be God, that we know the great excellent benefit of God shown towards us in this behalf, God has sent us his high gift, our most dear Sovereign Lord the King, with a godly, wise and honourable counsel, with other superiors and inferiors, in a beautiful and godly order.

            I have no doubt that somewhere in the back of a church or two, some rebellious soul was mouthing silently the subversive old rime, from John Ball, and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, “When Adam delved and Eva span, / Who was then the gentleman?” I.e., when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden to earn their livings by toil like digging and spinning — “From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude,” serfdom and exploitation, “came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men” (“naughty” was a much more powerful word back then). Still, the orthodox, non-heretical, traditional, obviousview was that the universe was a Great Chain of Being, running from the hand or footstool of God down through the orders of the angels to the stars and planets, and then humans in our order, and down through plants and animals to the minerals and down to your basic rock. Everything in its order, held together by the love of God for all and the love of each conscious creature for those above and below, and our sense of different obligations to those above and below.
            This “most excellent and perfect order” had been obvious among the educated (and otherwise privileged) since the time of Aristotle. 
            Human hierarchy was part of this “godly order”; human love and obligation was natural.
            It’s a beautiful and useful view, especially from the top. From the bottom … well looking up, the human part might look more like a multistory outhouse, if one were so privileged as to own an outhouse. And if you lost faith in that “godly order,” well you were “an heretic,” and if you acted or even spoke aloud that loss of faith, you were open to a charge of treason and finding yourself, if male, hanged, drawn, and quartered, or, if female, burned alive. So if there were any doubts, most people probably kept them quiet, and they were lost to history; and this orthodox view of hierarchical society came down to the time of the American Revolution, and parts last to this day.
            If you play Twenty Questions, you begin with “Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?,” and in that orderbecause, ultimately, that is the order in the Great Chain of Being. If you talk of “higher” and “lower” animals, higher and lower in terms of what? Possibly in terms of a simplistic idea of evolution, more likely in terms of the Great Chain of Being and the possibility of drawing a firm line and making radical distinction between humans as “the paragon of animals” and “a little lower than the angels” — and the rest, many of whom you want someone to kill and skin and cook or pluck and cook and feed you, without your feeling guilt.
            Against such well-established doctrine, it’s difficult to argue, and Thomas Jefferson and the guys didn’t bother. Instead, in the subversive tradition of John Ball, they offer a competing creation myth, if not for the universe, then for human society — and like John Ball find justification for rebellion against “the unjust oppression of naughty men.”

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Now earlier I mentioned that there are times when God can get useful … and this one is a biggy, with that bit about being created equal and created endowed by our Creator “with certain unalienable Rights.” That requires some long leaps of faith. First, that a Creator-God exists, that that God created us and somehow cares about us, and that that God created us equal in some sense, and “with certain unalienable rights.” But get rid of a Creator, and then what? If we have rights, where do they come from? And if we’re equal, equal in what sense? 
            Believing in a Creator is a leap of Faith; that the Creator would care about us, takes the jump into the Absurd — but that absent that Creator that we have some sort of rights from … Nature? That’s also a leap into the absurd, and the idea that we’re equal is just, to put it politely, “counterfactual,” or “ingenious” in a very negative sense of the word.
            Personally, I believe in human rights, and believe strongly. But that’s belief, an act of faith. If you also believe in human rights, that far you too are a person of faith. That makes you no worse than those who believe in the Great Chain of Being, and in some practical ways probably a good deal better; but your belief in equality is built on the same ontological sand pile as their belief in hierarchy. 
            You probably also believe in the American Republic and quite likely the American Nation, which Harari points out are imagined or “imaginary communities”; and you probably believe in corporations — “fictive persons” — and the value of money, including paper money that has just about no value outside the belief that such fancy paper has value. 
            So don’t get snarky with God-believers, with “How can you believe …?” Not if you believe in other people’s belief in money enough to take paper for goods of actual value — and not if you believe in your nation enough to say you’d die for it.

Pass 3
            I spent some forty years teaching and doing scholarship, and before that I did a little bit of science; so let’s say I’m fond of truth and that I rather compulsively try to lay truth upon people. There are times, though, when one can assert one’s truth quickly and then shut up, or just avoid various topics of conversation. 
            Specifically here, if you want people to face courageously the human condition and throw away their crutches of ridiculous beliefs — okay, good; but please face up to what you are asking, and please note that dropping their faith and facing the universe without it, may exact a price some highly useful potential allies are unwilling to pay. 

            In African Genesis(1961), Robert Ardrey recounts a theory from the early 1940s: The Illusion of Central Position. According to the theory, this illusion "is the birthright of every human baby." A baby boy enters the world and "Bright objects appear for his amusement, bottles and breasts for his comfort. His groping consciousness finds no reason at all to doubt the world's consecration to his needs and purposes. His Illusion of Central Position is perfect" (African Genesis144; ch. 6). With maturity, however, the illusion is undercut and the child and then the man comes to a truer perception of his place in the scheme of things.

Nonetheless the theory grants that should a man ever attain a state of total maturity — ever come to see himself, in other words, in perfect mathematical relationship to the tide of tumultuous life which has risen upon the earth and in which we represent but a single swell; and furthermore come to see our earth as but one opportunity for life among uncounted millions in our galaxy alone, and our galaxy as but one statistical improbability, nothing more, in the silent mathematics of all things—should a man, in sum, ever achieve the final, total, truthful Disillusionment of Central Position, then in all likelihood he would no longer keep going but would simply lie down, wherever he happened to be, and with a long-drawn sigh return to the oblivion from which he came. (145; ch. 6)

And we can add today that our universe may be only one among several or many or an infinite number of universes, and that whether our universe peters out through entropy or reduces to nothingness in The Big Crunch, our universe is doomed; so even if a human being gained galactic glory, that, too, would be, in terms of the Big Picture, fleeting. Definitely, totally fleeting, and trivial. 
            Similarly, in The Big Picture, for the value of the human species, let alone andy individual human. 

            In the Book of Ecclesiastes, Koheleth, the Preacher, decides, "[…] as regards men, to dissociate them [from] the divine beings and to face the fact that they are beasts. For […] the fate of man and the fate of beast [are] one and the same fate: as the one dies so dies the other, and both have the same lifebreath; man has no superiority over beast, since both amount to nothing. Both go to the same place; both came from dust and both return to dust. Who knows if a man's lifebreath does rise upward and if a beast's breath does sink down into the earth?" (Tanakh 1985; cf. KJV 2000: 3.18-21). That last question is rhetorical: no soul in ancient Jewish theory — that was an Egyptian and Greek idea — but “lifebreath,” and the lifebreath animating human beings and what we consider the “lower” animals is the same: not doggy heaven but oblivion or Sheol: “the grave” or “pit,” with maybe a kind of amorphous semi-existence. And taking such a hard-nose, hard-ass, hard-look view at the world, Koheleth doesn’t lie down and die but cries out on life’s “Emptiness, emptiness! All is emptiness!” And chasing after the wind(Eccl. 1). 
            And such an analysis can be pushed beyond Existential despair and into some nasty conclusions in ethics.  

You want to put that Epicurean on steroids and get a truly rigorous materialism? Well, the Marquis de Sade is far out of date in his science and was far, far out of his mind — psychopathic serial killer and all — but he was strong on intellectual daring and pushing an idea to its conclusions. "What we call the end of the living animal," Sade notes in a very long philosophic pause from a pornographic novel, what we call death and killing of a human or other animal (or plant) is not "a true finis" — end, goal — "but a simple transformation, a transmutation of matter, what every modern philosopher acknowledges as one of Nature's fundamental laws" ("Manners" section of " Yet Another Effort Frenchmen, If You Would Become [Real] Republicans" 1795). Modernizing the argument: Kill someone, bury the corpse, let it rot, dig it up, and weigh it, and the biomass of the human remains, and the feeding putrefactive bacteria, maggots and such will show no significant loss of weight. If you feel that a living human being is superior to a mass of putrefactive bacteria (and I certainly hope you do), how is that feeling any more than the product of our "small human vanities," species chauvinism, and "stupid notions of pride"?
            Which gets us back to human rights and, more deeply, human value. If you believe in human value, you believein human value. 
            If God exists and cares one way or another about a recent species on an unremarkable planet in a rather banal galaxy, and if that care is love for what in some sense He/She/It has created and created in some sense in His/Her/Its image — yeah, we humans have value. Or you can skip the mystic stuff and just believe without a whole lot of evidence that in a huge universe and maybe multiverse not just our species but individual humans have some sort of significant value.

So: A broad alliance is necessary to resist what looks like a resurgence of fascistic rule, maybe moves toward outright fascism; and necessary for that alliance — parallel to the entry into US politics of Vietnam Veterans Against the War by the US in Vietnam — necessary for that alliance will be religious folk, and the more Evangelical the better. And so for good, Machiavellian, pragmatic reasons people of faith should be cultivated, not pushed away. And, I hope I have shown, there are considerations that should make it possible for sensible atheists and agnostics to work with faith folk honestly, without hypocrisy. 
            It just takes a little humility.
            “Know how to answer an Epicurean [materialist],” Rabbi; and responsible Leftist materialists should know how to talk to rabbis and other people of faith enough to get them to resist Trumpism, and to plan how to do it.

“Solidarity Forever!”, people; or at least until the current crises in the American Republic have settled down.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Trump and the Transgendered, 21 October 2018

‘Transgender’ Could Be Defined Out of Existence Under Trump Administration — New York Times
* I doubt there are that many transgender people under the authority of the US that this is a big practical issue for the American State or People. The meanness and pettiness of the Trump administration here — marketed as conservative toughness — is probably the point. 

* Usage has usefully evolved to where "sex" can refer to biological sex, starting with XX people and XY people. That can get complicated on just the level of chromosomes and intrauterine environment, but, roughly, H. sap. is a "sexually dimorphic" species with "the modal phenotype" bimodal: most of us are born and live sexually male or female. "Gender," in the useful evolving usage, has been sex as socially and culturally manifested — and that can get very complicated and go way beyond XX people and XY people and "innies" and "outies." 

So far as they're thinking at all (as opposed to scheming and calculating), the Trump administration is making the same sort of mistake as the Roman Catholic. Church on contraception. They're not thinking "nature" and "natural law" in a modern scientific sense buy "Natural Law" in the sense of Aristotle and a simplistic idea of a purpose for "sex" in at least two senses: sex in the sense of the sex of an individual, sex in the sense of the activity. 

Very generally, this is the same sort of problem ethologists — behavioral biologists — could see with Trump's loose use of "instinct." There's no "hunting instinct" in, say, cats, and the purpose of feline hunting isn't eating. There's a hierarchy of "species-specific, genetically-encoded behaviors" — spotting, tracking, stalking, pouncing, biting, shaking, eating — that in nature have cats hunting, and usually eating, very well, thank you. Similarly with most human sex: Coupling for the purpose of reproduction is relatively rare. Many people copulate and there are enough births that we have (re)filled the Earth and kind of subdued it and can slow down already with the reproduction and "dominion" stuff. For political arguments for such subjects START HERE, and then sex and gender issues become intellectually wonderfully complicated — and the political issues get down to courtesy and accommodation to reasonable requests/demands and just telling small sexual/gender minorities making unreasonable demands — as with any interest group — to f*ck-off. The Trumpian attempt to define away the gender issues and the transgendered and avoid useful political conflict, is not only mean and petty, but also cowardly. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Data Deluge Revisited: Junk Mail Fall 2018

Before I left, I tried to unsubscribe from all the commercial operations and Worthy Causes I could. Honest. Anyway—
I was on the road and had my mail held 28 September to 18 October, except I got a stuffed mailbox today, 17 October, with, I assume the rest to be delivered tomorrow. The physical mail came in at 2.2 kg, nearly 5 pounds, almost all mass mailings. Some 520 e-mails were automatically filed under Junk, with 374 getting to my In-Box. A number in my In-Box are items I actually want, and I just learned that somewhere in there is a note from a neighbor on the death of her dog, which I really wish I'd seen before I talked to her since she assumed I'd received it. (I don't have e-mail forwarded to my iPhone — for obvious reasons.)
My vote-by-mail ballots may also be in the USPS pile. 
Almost all of the mail parallels TV commercials, ads, pop-ups, blow-ins, marketing, etc.: commercial, political, religious, and charitable appeals for our money, vote, and/or time. A fair amount of the e-mail comes mediated by a firm with the chilling name "Constant Contact," which suggests to me two bratty children in the back seat of a car on a long trip ... "touching, touching, touching" ... and in "constant contact" by voice and occasional seat kicking with the parental units in the front seats. 
So: my votes will follow the advice of my Party leaders (mostly), and I will try to keep my money local: where I can hand over a check and not get my name on more metastasizing contact lists of potential donors. And buy stuff without the same — very much the same — sort of commodification of data on me.
It's a high-class problem to have, being in a position to be asked for one's vote, time, service, support, and money, but if one does not want interminable if not quite constant contact by strangers — or even loved ones! — it is a problem. 
In some worthy national organizations, I've bought life memberships and may send them a few bucks now and then even though I bought what they called a LIFE Membership (they don't replay if you ask how much it'd cost for them to never hit you up again). And I'll continue to give to national and international organizations I know and respect and feel pretty sure have already sold my contact information to anyone likely to buy it. For the rest, "I'm keeping my money local, and mostly political." 
And giving more. But not as generously as it might look, since I'm trying not to encourage the politics and commerce of invasiveness and Mass (the military principle): which means I'm deleting almost all of the electronic mass mailings and throwing into the recycling bin almost all of the junk-class mail. (Almost certain to be trashed: hit letters from candidates who don't tell me their party affiliation or what the hell they're running for. Like, *no one* runs for just the Congress of the United States. What's the State and district? — since I know who my representative is and already contribute to her campaign.)
As scheduled, I received today (18 October 2018) my held mail. It included my Visa bill, Medicare materials, and voting materials for the 2018 midterm election in California and for my Home Owners Association (or "Owners'", for fans of the apostrophe).
The mail hold of some 17 days produced junk mail weighing in at 5.5 kg (~ 12 pounds), in addition to what had been stuffed into my mailbox and reported earlier. It included straight-out commercial materials, plus religious, political, and charitable. No one group was responsible for spamming my physical and electronic mailboxes; the mild harm and figurative pain in my ass was the result of only slightly coordinated group action. (If you know the rabbinic parable, cf. the people of The Wicked City each stealing one brick from the building site for the home of a family they enticed to move there. If you don't, just elaborate on that premise a bit.)
So, again, this is a high-class problem for me, but it will be a problem to worthy causes and for control of waste paper if other curmudgeons just say "Screw it" and start deleting e-mail en masse and throwing out hit letters unopened. 
BTW: I use metric primarily for courtesy and because the scale I set to metric is the one that does arithmetic. Also: The US wrong turn started for me — symbolically — when Ronald Reagan took the solar panels off the White House and abolished the United States Metric Board.