Thursday, August 30, 2018

Heroism: McCain, Trump — Thanes, Jesus, Football

If Donald Trump weren't Donald Trump and American politics so over-heated, Trump might have started a useful discussion about Heroism in his attack on John McCain. There's a lot of continuity and a lot of change in how the ideal of "hero" gets applied in the stories of Gilgamesh and Achilles, Christ and the Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley of the James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd TERMINATOR and ALIENS movies.

My students would quote at me, "You're a hero or a zero" and by "hero" they meant a winner ("Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing"; defeating enemies as "the greatest gift of the gods," «Sieg heil!» = "Hail, Victory!"). 

Can there be tragic heroes? Heroes who die in a good losing cause: Beowulf dying for a doomed people, some unremembered grunt who threw himself on a grenade to save his friends? Is there heroic death in a bad cause? 

Can one be a suffering hero, like Jesus on the cross — he was repackaged as a warrior in the great Old English poem "The Dream of the Cross" — a hero of endurance and loyalty like, well, John McCain?

We didn't have that discussion, and I don't expect one like it in my lifetime; and I think American culture poorer for that.

Rest in peace, John McCain. You screwed up a lot, and you've been a hero. May the memory of that heroism be a blessing.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Red-Teaming & Rhetoric (and Arguments Like that on Abortion)

Apropos of little — for a long time it was and apparently remains conventional for US forces in war-games, at least of the table-top varieties, to be the Blue Team and the opponents the Red Team. So there's the handy expression and concept, "red-teaming it": for working out strategies from the point of view of one's opponent(s). Sort of "walk a mile in his shoes," but maybe while heavily armed. 

We asked students to do something similar when writing argument papers in Rhet 101, when they got to the "Refutation" part of the argument and needed to respond to "obvious objections." Well, "obvious to whom?" and "how obvious?" (you don't want to raise objections that are just silly — or are pretty powerful, but easily overlooked).

More Americans need more experience "red-teaming" (also reading more literature and "mindful" game-playing) and working through the logic of situations, including logic using premises we don't share, even premises we abhor.

For one thing, we'd get fewer references to "senseless violence" when the mayhem is probably evil but is, if anything, too logical. The leadership of your rebel army wants peace talks with the Imperial government, and your subgroup doesn't? Some "naked infants spitted upon pikes" from a nursery for the kids of government officials will stop those talks. Fast. And invite reprisals that will keep the war going strong for months to come. You believe that human beings are essentially a human soul, that each soul is of infinite value, and that your job as an agent of the Inquisition of Holy Mother Church is to save souls by any means necessary? Then effective means up to an including the destruction of the world — mere  finite matter — can be justified, and the torture of a heretic arguably an act of love. 

We'd also get "logical" being used less as a kind of Vulcan compliment word and get it back to a neutral meaning. «All men are green; Socrates was a man; therefore Socrates was green» — is logical but you can safely bet untrue. 

Being able to "red-team" an argument is even more important when we're not talking about enemies but just opponents on some political issues who might be our allies on others. It's a way to learn (to use another old expression) "where they're coming from" and understand the logic of their arguments — even when they might not understand the logic because, like most of us, most of the time, they haven't worked through "where they're coming from" and how the hell they got to where they are, taking positions that look obvious to them and — in bad cases — just "senseless" to you.

So let's get to an argument where we need such thinking 'cause currently it keeps going around in circles, when it doesn't "spiral out of control." Abortion.

Consider some descendants of an Inquisitor and of a rebel willing to make good on a government terror threat — the line on spitted infants is from that " mirror of all Christian kings" (II.Cho.6), Shakespeare's Henry V — and how they might be arguing.

One, and it might be either, sees humans as essentially a soul, with a human soul entering matter at the moment a human child is conceived. So a human zygote — a fertilized human egg — is essentially a soul to be saved or damned, a soul of infinite value, and as yet unbaptized and unborn the first time, let alone "born again." (I'm conflating some belief systems here, but "'good enough' is good enough.") To kill intentionally that zygote, embryo, fetus, and, eventually, soon-to-be-born child is murder to start with plus, far worse, damning an innocent soul perhaps to limbo or, perhaps, "the easiest room in hell," as the estimable Rev. Mr. Michael Wigglesworth puts it in his "Day of Doom" (see lines 345-60, or don't; even if you agree with the theology, it's a really, really, really awful poem). 

The other can cite the doctrine of the sovereignty of free people over their bodies and the right of women not to have to go through a pregnancy they don't want. And go on to cite how enforced pregnancy has fit into the history of men keeping women unfree. 

Now the pro-choice person here can say s/he doesn't believe in souls, and the anti-abortion person can argue s/he accepts the history but that the emphatically finite Earthly rights of pregnant women are outweighed by the right to life — not just physical life, but a chance at "life eternal." 

And the figurative "game" — the argument — doesn't really even get started. In a minimum of two games, there are two winners in their own terms, and nothing has gotten settled.

"Red-teaming" the abortion argument is important to show both logical, hence "extreme," sides how serious and seriously dangerous the abortion argument is. 

Many pro-choice people might just say, and will say if pressed, "Well, we don't believe in souls and ensoulment and all that." Now red-team it. If humans are just meat, what then? If there's no problem killing a zygote or embryo or even a fetus, when does the problem enter in? It's a leap into the absurd to believe in a God and a God moreover who cares — in the midst of a massive universe — cares about human beings, period; but in that objective view of things it's just an assertion contrary to fact (as in, probably, "a lie") that the human species, as meat, has any significant value, let alone any individual human being. 

To which the pro-choice person can say, "Well, I believe in human value; I feel the value of the child in my arms; I sense it when I talk to people" and, with that confession of faith — that absurd leap of faith if you know humans and our history — there may be a reduction of contempt for one's opponent who starts with another leap of faith; and reductions of contempt are frequently useful.

And for the anti-abortion person to be "pro human life," with human value and dignity — that person must think through the situations of individual women forced to have babies they don't want, and the history of women kept in subjugation. 

And where do we go from there?

And then, I suggest, from there we think through what happens if that damn Red Team and our fine and pure Blue Team press our points to a philosophically pure, radically, essentially, totally-pure pure conclusion. What should be done with people who'd continue the millennia-long persecution of women — who'd enslave women to the making of babies? What should be done with murderers of infants and souls? 

Shall we, say, fight to the death? Or exhaustion of resources? 

There is precedent.

Let he who is without sin, she who is most rigorous, cast the first molotov cocktail.

There are lots of precedents.

My own suggestion is for backing off: agree that maybe literal fighting has never been such a great idea, and a really bad one given the current range and availability of weapons. My own suggestion is for pragmatic, messy, political thinking: sometimes in the manner of Machiavelli, sometimes in the manner of the compassionate, practical saint or holy fool. 

Eventually, we can get a "technological quick fix" for the abortion issue. Our fairly near descendants can declare a human embryo a person under the law from implantation on — and remove the embryo to storage and, in another "eventually," the womb of a woman who wants a baby. Or, eventually, an artificial womb. Such actions would be too expensive to be done frequently, so we should do what we should be doing anyway — the Church gets the nature part of "Natural Law" wrong here — and coming up with really effective contraception: i.e., implants or whatever so that women and girls, men and boys are sterile until they desire children. Until then: working full-tilt on a male contraceptive, on making contraception readily available, and, starting, say, ten years ago, inventive and shameless "Wrap that Willy!" campaigns to encourage condom use.

The logically and morally rigorous probably can't go along, but the rest of us can do fairly well seeing things from the points of view of others. And since we probably can't exterminate our opponents and damn well shouldn't try; since even as we wouldn't like to be silenced, we shouldn't even try to silence others ... Well, we can muddle through on our disagreements, and agree and cooperate where we can. 

As I said, it's messy, but necessary for that social life, civilization experiment thing.  

Thursday, August 9, 2018

"What If I Don't?": Declaring a Major, Authority, and a Trumpian Turning Point

To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, you have one kind of 
authority, the sort relevant for politics, 
when you can tell or order people to do something 
and they do it, without your needing 
to persuade them or threaten them. — Rich Erlich

My first lesson in "Question Authority!" was asking a real question about changing a college major.
             I had entered the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) in Specialized Chemistry, with the goal of becoming a biochemist, and one with a degree from a major institution in the field. The motivation for my decision on a major was in part my name: "Erlich" is the Yiddish variation on "Ehrlich," and I'd grown up on biopics about the famous chemists (in part) Paul Ehrlich, Marie Curie, and Louis Pasteur. 
It wasn't as bad as the lies the movies told about the Indian Wars — which I learned from the US Army had been a time of crime and disgrace for the US Army — but the movies had misled me about the life of a chemist. In the 20thcentury, chemistry was largely physics and math, and although I did well in school in both, I really preferred words. 
In any event, I'd taken part in a quiet mini-revolt by Specialized Chemistry students who said we'd do like the Chemical Engineering students and take five years to graduate if we had to, but while we were at a major university, we'd try to pick up some more general liberal education, beyond the many required courses in Specialized Chem.
(Eat your hearts out young-folk: Tuition and fees were something like $300 a year or maybe a semester for us — a service charge, actually — with the rest of the cost paid by the generous People of the State of Illinois. [Trust me, I paid them back: with an MA from Cornell, I worked for five years for the U of IL as a teaching fellow, teaching assistant, and "merit instructor" — What did the "merit" mean? About six grand a year less than a real instructor — and made enough to live pretty well on, with some grey-market extra … "emoluments," but still bupkes.)
They later took a 180-degree turn on the matter, but in the early 1960s, the U of I Chem Department didn't want incipient bio-chemists taking biology courses, and my genius adviser — self-taught in literature even as he'd learned to play the cello — couldn't see why I'd need courses in English, my native language. Like, I'd eventually get some literature in my German courses, and I could read on my own … eventually. He well understood I'd have no free time as an undergrad in Specialized Chem.
Anyway, the next semester I took Microbiology 101, the most totally irrelevant history course I could find — "Well we have one that starts in the Neolithic — Paleolithic? — and gets up to Alexander the Great" — and a course known as just "Fiction." And I ended up with an English major and a split minor of Microbiology/History. (The "credentials analyst" said "We've never had one of thosebefore," and kind of assigned me my minor.)

The story here is how I got there.

I liked registering as a Chem major. Student folklore had it that Chem majors had our cards put through the computer right after varsity jocks, and I had pretty much always gotten the courses, sections, and times I wanted. I didn't intend to give that up. Soooo … so when I went into the office of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to find out about such things, they told me, "You have to file the paper-work to switch from Chemistry into English." And I asked a crucial question: "What if I don't?"
The answer was that they didn't know since no one hadn't before, or at least that they knew of. They told me to come back "later" and when I asked "When?" they told me just not near the beginning of the semester since they were always swamped with work for the first six weeks or so. So, a couple or three years later, when I was ready to graduate, I waited a while into the semester and went in and declared myself an English Major. And talked with the Credentials Analyst — one of the thousands of little old ladies who actually run many non-military offices — and she officially recognized me as an English Major, with a Microbiology/History minor.
And I learned a crucial lesson for moving farther into the 1960s and beyond, "When someone tells you you must do something, it's often a good idea to ask, "What [will you (try to) do to me] if I don't?"

I later learned from my reading Hannah Arendt and such that Authority is giving an order that people follow, without asking "And what if I don't" and without the authority-figure needing to make any threats. I was prepared for that idea a few years earlier when a couple new-initiate brothers in my fraternity asked me, "What would you have done if you gave us pledges an order and we hadn't obeyed?" And I paused and seemed to think for a moment and replied, "Why … why, that never occurred to me." And then I laughed and told them I was amazed when anyone did what I told them to. And I suggested that they go over to the ROTC unit and watch the regular Army officer and noncoms and (for what not to do) take a glance or two at the more asshole-ish cadet officers. The military pros never raised their voices, were always polite — and gave quiet orders at least giving the impression that it never occurred to them that they wouldn't be obeyed.
And after a couple of asshole moves of my own as a new initiate, I had taken care to keep my orders few and reasonable (with good projection but without "raising my voice") — and when I ordered something unusual and really unpleasant (bailing out our sunken patio and basement dining area during a cloud-burst in the middle of the night, say) I knew to lead the work.

Authority is better than tyranny — much better — and free people must often Question Authority (and listen to hear if there's an answer). Whenever there's a "you must," there must always be the potential for "And what if I don't?"

Which brings me to Donald Trump and these our unfortunate days of much misplaced mistrust of institutions and celebrations of "Bad Boys" and "Wild and Crazy" Gals, in which "macho" can be used as a compliment, where "to disrupt" as a generalized verb is used as a Good Thing, whatever disrupted, and a big part of popular culture teaches that following rules and conventions is for wimps. And where a fair number of Americans accept Donald Trump as a capital "L" Leader, opposed by a Deep State and media who are Enemies of the People, and whose main political opponent should be locked up.
            And who features in photo-ops a portrait behind him of Andrew Jackson. 
            Now I certainly prefer Andrew Jackson to Andrew Johnson (also relevant here) and a lot of politicians, but part of Jackson's legend is the attributed line, that Chief Justice "John Marshall has made his decision" and the U.S. Supreme Court along with him; "now let him enforce it!" And in the folklore that came down to me, though not in historical fact, the association of this line with Jackson as prime mover of "The Indian Removal Act" and "the Trail of Tears." That last part is highly historical and adds weight, in his legend, to Andy Jackson as good ol' populist, keeping his promises to his constituents, whatever the price and pain to other people: probably misapplying a phrase from Rudyard Kipling, the suffering of Other, "lesser breeds without the law."

            So, put the case that Robert Mueller has a Federal grand jury subpoena Trump to testify in a case of great importance to the Constitution and the Republic, and the subpoena controversy gets fought out in the courts pretty quickly up to the Supreme Court of the United States. And said Supreme Court tells Mr. Trump he must testify.
            And if his response is "What if I don't?"
            The first and obvious answer is "There will be a Constitutional Crisis." And if Trump responds that he was elected to shake things up, to by-pass the Deep State and its surface bureaucracy and the mare's nest of laws and regulations and customs that block the will of The People, his people? If he responds that he was elected precisely because he was a manly man like Old Hickory, who wins, in spite of the rules of a game rigged against him? That he is one warlock who will hunt the hunters (assuming that Trump knows what a warlock is and is capable of making a joke about a witch hunt).
            Or consider the possibility that Trump just fires Mueller and much of the Justice Department and pardons everyone in the Trumpian orbit charged with crime, including himself? Who will demand that the President respect the Rule of Law, and how many are willing — in Congress to start with — to offer a vigorous response to a Trumpian semi-rhetorical question, "And what if I just {say 'Screw You All!' and} don't?"

            One major reassurance that the American Republic isn't going the way of the Weimar has been that Trump et al. lack a private militia like Hitler's SA (or SS — though that gets complicated). The Tiki-Torch Trolls from Charlottesville and elsewhere don't seem like a major threat, and if they go up against some militarized police department or National Guard unit, they may find themselves bringing AR-15s to a drone fight. Okay, but the latest incarnation of Blackwater and other mercenary firms are around and ready for work, and in a USA that's well-stocked with firearms and smart phones, "flash mob" could take on dangerous meanings.
            As suggested by a caller to the NPR show 1A, it would be a good idea to gets statistics on support for Donald Trump in the various officer corps of the US military, and among our now all-volunteer rank-and-file. It's even more imperative, I think, to get statistics on the extent and depth of support for Mr. Trump among gun owners and, as a subset, gun owners who feel their primary loyalty is to Trump personally and the (White, Christian, straight, manly) American nation he is making great again, and not to some abstract American Republic and un-studied Constitution.
            The American Left and its allies talk a good game of questioning authority, intervening in discourses, disrupting business, and "Revolution Now!" If Trump asks, "What if I don't?" in obeying basic decencies and the rule of law, he may get strong enough support from the Right to get away with it — possibly through two terms or longer.
            Trump said, "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters." And that may be the case, especially if the shooting victim is Black or Muslim or an Enemy of the People. Certainly, he might offer a whole series of "What if I don't?" responses to demands upon him to obey or enforce the law, or to fulfil a number of boring, wimpy, conventions of everyday decency. 
           And to that question, our Leader and President for Life — or until he gets thoroughly bored — may get get no effective answer.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Media (a Singular Noun) as "The Enemy of the People"

«Second thing we do — let's kill the reporters!»

What people believe and think and feel is complicated, dynamic, often contradictory, and usually — with "ordinary people," "civilians" — the business only of themselves, family, or close friends, or members of a jury that has to judge motivation.

We can, though, work through the logic of various political positions and make a kind of sense out of most "senseless violence" or what, in this case, at least one reporter felt as senseless hostility. So consider the line of thought and/or feeling —

* "The media" is a singular noun and one essential thing.

* One drop of evil poisons and impurifies the essence of a limb of the Body Politic.

* The Leader of the People channels the will of the People — "Real Americans" in this case — and embodies the essence of the People (i.e., the people who count).

* Various members of The Media attack the President, who is the Leader.

** Therefore The Media attacks the People.

*** Therefore The Media is the Enemy of the People. 
(Also because reporters are often cosmopolitan — and *that* word has a history! — while the People are nationalists; and reporters as much as anyone, and sometimes more than most, can be obnoxious, condescending snobs in dealing with "Real Americans.")

And therefore reporters and others in The Media shouldn't be too surprised if a figuratively infected limb of the body politic gets some pretty radical cutting (or amputation) and some of them eventually find themselves in very literal unemployment lines and happy not to be in detention camps.

"Enemy of the people" is a Stalinist line, but _An Enemy of the People_ is the title of an 1882 play by Henrik Ibsen set in a nice little (unnamed) town we can see in good old democratic (and hygienic) Norway. Like, democracy doesn't have to be liberal democracy; populism has always had its dark side; and just how the "demos" in "democracy" gets defined — the People in popular government — can get nasty. There are a number of ghosts to consult here, starting maybe with Socrates from democratic Athens to victims of festive popular pogroms and lynchings.