Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Lessons from "Triumph of the Will"

Last night my film aesthetics class watched Leni Riefenstahl's Dokument of the 6th (1934) congress of the NSDAP.

Wow, what an amazing work that is. And I don't mean amazing in a good way, either. We've all read and heard so much about the Nazis, but it's all from the point of view of outsiders -- opponents, appeasers, victims. Here is a rare chance to see them as they saw themselves, and as they wished others to see them. Every time I see this marvelously ghastly film, I connect a few more dots, get another piece of the big picture. Here are some thoughts from this year's viewing.

There are a lot of speeches in this film. And there are a lot of gaseous abstractions in the speeches, but there are also elements that gel into a more or less coherent glob of beliefs and ideals. This glob is extremely simple, but that is what you should expect. No movement will command the obedience of millions unless it is simple. All the main tenets of either Christianity or Islam can be jotted on one side of an index card, and without missing any of the subtleties. There are no subtleties. Subtlety only arises in the many conflicting interpretations of these simple ideas. Hitler had a very firm grasp of this basic truth.

What do the speeches say? The message is in a way somewhat confusing. Hitler tells the faithful, "The state does not command us, we created this state." In other words the state, ordinarily an abridgment of freedom, is actually an instrument of their freedom and power. On the other hand, another Nazi tells them, "We know only to obey the orders of the Fuehrer." So they practice unquestioning obedience, and thus aren't free at all. A contradiction? Well, not exactly.

The film itself contains the key to solving this little puzzle, which is to be found in the Nazi conception of freedom. In shot after shot we see rows and columns of humans flooding across the screen (see above). Dozens, hundreds, thousands of helmets and extended arms. In one shot, there are at least 160,000 of the Nazi faithful, which the camera renders as vast, curving rows of little white dots, each individual counting for no more than a sixteenth note in a vast symphonic composition (see below).

The message is clear: As an individual, you do not count. You only count as part of a swarm, like a bee, an ant, or a termite. The "we" who created the new state and so rose to total power is that swarm. Your unquestioning obedience is the very thing that creates the swarm and leads to control of the new state. The price of total power and absolute freedom then is a small one: to lose your individuality.

If I were a non-Nazi German viewing this movie at its premiere, I would have thought: Look at all those Nazis! They are so united! All doing one thing, all thinking one thought! Resistance is futile! We are doomed! That of course is part of the message.

There are many references to self-sacrifice in the film: the Fuehrer's sacrifices to the cause and our sacrifices to him. There is the Bloody Flag, whose touch seems to have magic powers. There's the line in the Horst Wessel Lied, which ends the picture, about the comrades killed by the "Red Front and the reactionaries." And of course there's Wessel himself, who opened his door one day in 1930 and was shot in the face by a Communist. The Party took this poem he had written, had it set to a rousing tune, and made it their anthem, thus transforming a nasty little thug into a martyr, and another symbol of sacrificial devotion.

One way of reading this would be to say something like, "How like the Nazis, to hide behind noble ideals like self-sacrifice!" This I think would be a very serious mistake, missing the historical lesson of these events entirely. The talk of sacrifice must be completely sincere or it will not work. There are many things in this film that are fake, but the theme of sacrifice cannot be one of them. Without it, the swarm falls apart, resolving itself once more into mere individuals. The army ants can only cross the puddle because each one of them is willing to charge into the water and let its comrades trample indifferently over its drowning body. Like unquestioning obedience, self-sacrifice is needed if the swarm is to exist and grow to become an agent of history.

People often say that what makes this film so creepy is that it takes someone who, on the basis of the world outside the film, we know to be a monster and makes him attractive. It projects him in terms of the party's ideals rather than in terms of what they actually did. For my part, I do not find this picture of him attractive at all. It might even be argued that the Nazi ideals are worse than what they did, because they made the subsequent horrors possible, perhaps even inevitable. After all, if they are happy to sacrifice themselves, ant-like, for the good of the race, what do you think they will be willing to do to you?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Sopranos Final Episode

I just watched the final episode for the second time. It's as brilliant as ever. Having the bad guy's head crushed in a vomit-inducing way provided enough closure to avoid completely frustrating the viewer, but they also avoided having so much closure that they violated their own aesthetic and lost their integrity.

As everyone knows, it ends with Tony, Carmella, and A. J. sitting in a restaurant, eating onion rings. There's cross-cutting to Meadow having trouble with parallel parking across the street. "Shit!" she mutters, and tries again. Finally she crosses the street, in a hurry. Tony looks up, we hear the door opening, and the screen goes black for ten seconds. The final credits roll. (See illustration. Click to enlarge.)

When it first aired, a lot of people were sure that the black screen meant that Tony is killed. They misquoted a line Bobby Bacalieri said earlier in the season, remembering it as "when if finally comes, everything just goes black," referring to the moment when your opponent finally kills you. What he actually says (the line is even repeated in a flashback) is more like "you never hear it coming." He's just repeating the old military cliche that you don't hear the bullet that hits you.

Clearly, what is going on here is simply closure-avoidance. The series, which has broken rules throughout its 86 episodes, is breaking its last rule. The series doesn't end, it just stops. In the middle of a scene, like life itself.

The Sopranos is the greatest TV series since The Twilight Zone was canceled in 1964, but there are many things about it that really aren't to my taste. After all, my favorite popular art genre is Viennese operetta, which lies at the opposite extreme from the post-modernist realism of The Sopranos.

In particular, I like closure. It's true enough, I admit, that life simply stops. In fact, I insist on it. The things that end life are brute, physical facts that have no respect for human plans or meanings. But this is what makes art so great: unlike reality, it is saturated with meaning. The ending of a narrative retroactively reflects meaning back on the events that lead up to it. Every narrative raises certain questions in the mind of the viewer. The ending answers the last of those questions. At a minimum, in genre fiction, it answers the last of the "what happens next" questions and sorts the characters out into winners and losers. In narratives with artistic ambitions, it can do a lot more. As far as answered questions are concerned, it can do a lot more for you than reality does.

In the immortal words of Homer Simpson: "Reality TV? If I wanted reality I wouldn't be watching TV!"

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Olympics: To Boycott or Not?

I'm not talking about whether our athletes should compete in the games. I guess by now it's obvious that Jimmy Carter did no one any good by barring the US athletes from going to the Moscow games in 1980. I'm also not going to talk about whether you should tune in to the games on your TV. Whether you do or not will make no difference to the ChiComs and their vicious, brutal dictatorship.

What I am interested in is the issue of going there to be a spectator. More generally, I'm interested in the ethics of tourism in a country with a seriously wicked government. More generally still, there is the issue of doing business in such countries. Tourism after all is business.

There are two arguments you hear most often, as in this article. On the one hand, trade supports peace, understanding, and change. Throughout history, when goods cross borders, so do ideas. If we stop communicating with the ChiComs, that will not make them more likely to take our ideas into consideration, but less so. On the other hand, when you enter such a country as a tourist, you will spend money there, and some of it will inevitably benefit the government. Believe me, these people are very good at converting potential sources of power into actual ones. We know this, because they are after all still securely in power after all these years.

It may be obvious from the way that I put them that I agree with both of these arguments. They are after all mutually consistent. Tourism in an oppressed country can have both positive and negative effects on oppression.

Our issue arises, really, because you never know for sure which effect is stronger. Did you go there? Maybe you made things worse! Did you stay out? Maybe going in would have helped make things better!

At a minimum, this means that if you do go, you have a moral obligation to take steps to enhance the chances that the anti-oppression effects of your activities outweigh the pro-oppression effects. What steps? Well, you have to deliberately bring about good effects and deliberately avoid bad ones.

If you do go to the Olympics, do not attend the opening ceremonies. To see why, rent the DVD of Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl's masterful documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Watch the opening ceremonies. See Hitler reviewing the athletes as they march past, saluting him. You'll be stunned to see the French team going the extra mile in showing respect, giving the Fuehrer the straight-armed Nazi salute. It's a movie viewing experience that I for one will never forget. Part of the function of these ceremonies is to honor your hosts. Systems like this one thrive on such honor, and feel it bitterly when it is withheld. Doesn't their recent behavior make this more obvious than ever? So withhold it.

If there are dissident groups to which you can contribute, make a contribution.

Make sure that your contribution to the flow of ideas is positive. Many people have gone into countries like this and made the intellectual climate much worse. Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Joseph E. Davies, and Walter Duranty went to Russia and came back reporting that Comrade Stalin was a great humanitarian who was building a workers' paradise. The likely effect of their visits was to confirm the RussComs in their nasty ways, deepening and prolonging their oppressions.

Of course, it makes a difference where you spend your money while you are there. Some of the implication of this are obvious. Try to avoid spending it in ways that enhance the amount that gets into the hand of the government. Spend it in the private sector, if you can.

Here is another implication, one that is not so obvious. One of the functions of a system like this is to create a docile, easily-exploited work force. If you go there and simply pay the "market" price for labor (what market? the price of labor is artificially low -- that's the point!) then you are actually profiting from the system. Stealing, in fact. As long as you are dealing directly with a private service provider, then, pay extra. Tip big.

I'm sure there are other things you can do that I am just not clever enough to think of at the moment. The main point, though, is that you cannot go into a place like that and think that this is automatically a good thing. It just isn't. You ought to try to make it good.*
* Unlike the Prime Minister of England the Chancellor of Germany, the Prime Minister of Poland, and the President of the Czech Republic, George W. ("China's Bitch") Bush will be attending the opening ceremonies. Until he is responsible for something like the burning of Washington, CB will not have overtaken Jame Madison for the position of Worst President Ever, but it ain't over yet. He's inching closer and closer.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ben Stein Should Stop Whining About This

Ben Stein's documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, opened this weekend nationwide.

I have not seen it, but supposedly one of its central complaints is that that "intelligent design" is not allowed in America's public schools and institutions of higher education. This, he alleges, is censorship, injustice, oppression.

This seems to me a clear case of whining about nothing. Let me explain why. [Here I will be ignoring his allegation, which I see as a separate matter, that a pro-ID professor was denied tenure because of his religious views.]

ID is simply a version of the traditional "argument from design." This is the familiar watchmaker analogy, which says that just as a watch found on a beach would be evidence that there once was a watchmaker who designed it (watches don't grow on trees after all), so order in nature is evidence that there must be a supernatural intelligence that designed it. An early version of this argument is the fifth of Thomas Aquinas' "five ways" of proving the existence of God (you can find it here if you scroll down the page).

The only thing ID adds to this ancient tradition consists in simply applying the argument from design to specific issues in evolutionary theory. The Cambrian explosion of new species happened too fast (about 80 million years in one account) to be explained by natural selection, therefore a supernatural intelligence brought it about. Or some specific organ or organelle (such as the "motor" that drives the flagellum -- hat tip to Nat Hunt here) could not have evolved from an earlier, simpler structure that itself had some adaptive function that could have been selected for.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with trying to show that Darwinian mechanisms cannot explain various forms of natural order. Scientists have been discussing issues like these since Darwin's book was first published. This is just the sort of thing that scientists do.

But of course this is only half of what the IDer is talking about. The critics of ID point out that the rest of these arguments -- the supernaturalist conclusions -- transform the whole argument into non-science. It's just "religion masquerading as science." That explains why it isn't found in forums like public schools or secular universities.

These critics are right about one thing: these arguments are indeed not scientific in nature, because they deal with an Entity that is radically different from those with which science deals. But they are wrong about the other two points. These arguments are not merely religious and they are found in these forums. They are philosophical arguments. They are discussed in philosophy departments, where they belong. I myself have taught the classic argument from design a number of times. Of course, that is not quite the same thing as ID, which tends to focus on gritty micro-issues. But I'm sure my colleague Eliott Sober discusses such micro-arguments in his courses on the philosophy of biology all the time.

Given that fact, one has to wonder what Ben is whining about. Why should he and his comrades want to move this discussion from the philosophy department to the department of botany? What on Earth is the point? I suspect the only possible answer is what I call "epistemic hitchhiking". They want a ride on the science choo-choo without paying for a ticket to knowledge-town. They don't want to admit that they are just philosophizing. They want to be seen as doing science.

But they just don't qualify. Sorry Ben. Get a life.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Where Did All the Westerns Go?

Western author and superb blogger Richard S. Wheeler (pictured below) posted today about a very interesting question:
There is a new study by Bowker, quoted on Lee Goldberg’s website, that indicates that mysteries now dominate American publishing, with 17 percent of all trade books sold. Women’s romances, once the most lucrative of all forms of publishing, account for only 11 percent. Science fiction accounts for 5.5 percent. General fiction accounts for 3 percent, and horror, 2 percent. Apparently western fiction is off the charts, to no one’s surprise.
His question: Why on Earth are westerns so unpopular?

I have often wondered about this question myself. According to Wikipedia, in 1959 there were 29 prime-time western series running on American TV. Where did they all go?

The answer Wheeler gives is one I had not thought of at all: namely, that, while mysteries are about getting rid of violence (violence is the enemy) westerns are about using violence (violence is your friend, or can be). This of course clashes with values that are now fashionable.

Maybe the reason I'd never thought of this answer is that I had always thought of the attitude toward violence in the western was more ambivalent than that. Yes, the western hero is typically violent, but that's why he rides off into the sunset in the end. It's why the last shot of The Searchers has Ethan turning away from the family he has just reunited, away from the darkness and security of their home, into the brilliant emptiness of the desert. Having wrested civil society out of the wilderness, his very success has made his virtues into vices. He doesn't belong here. Still, Wheeler does have a point: in a way, westerns accept violence.

Answers to Wheeler's question that I have come up with from time to time are similar to his in one way: like his, they have to do with people's values.

One is that many western plots are about "taming the wilderness" and turning it into ranches and farms. In other words, its about property, the romance of real estate. This presupposes a whole world of ethical and political values and norms, one that may well have crumbled by now. Maybe people don't feel so romantic about property today.

Another is that a major source of the charm of westerns is that they are set in a situation in which the presence of the state is minimal or non-existent. In the wild West, you often have to enforce your own rights. If you wait for civil society to do it, you'll be dead. In a word, westerns are about anarchy. They are fiction's only constitutionally anarchist genre. As such, they represent a wild sort of freedom. Maybe, like the romance of property, that's not such a popular idea any more, either.

Notice that one of the most popular genres nowadays is the police procedural, in which the protagonist is a government employee. Yecch! Is there any way you could get further away from the ethos of the western? (Try to imagine Ethan Edwards even saying the word, "procedural.")

Folks sometimes point out that though TV westerns have gone the way of the T-rex and the dodo bird, there are a few recent western movies that have been popular. There's 3:10 to Yuma. And No Country for Old Men is a sort of modern western. But these examples usually have very pronounced counter-generic qualities when scrutinized. In other words, they are anti-westerns. At the end of 3:10, the hero, instead of riding off into the sunset, is shot and killed by the bad guys. Old Country, as I have said earlier, is completely nihilistic. It ends with the hero letting the bad guys have the world. True westerns affirm a world in which beauty is real and values can be achieved.

Can that be the real reason they are so unpopular?

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Worst Argument for Taxation: An April 15th Celebration

Happy Tax Day! I hope you are enjoying the one day of the year when most people feel the same way about the state that I feel on the other 364. God knows I am not.

I was shocked to learn recently that the late Herbert Simon, a Nobel laureate and former colleague of mine, once recycled, in a published essay, what is probably the worst of all moral justifications for taxation. As far as the morality of taxation is concerned, he is supposed to have said, the state would be perfectly justified in taking away 90% of the income of the people in the developed countries, as this is the amount of your product that is due to certain features of our social system. The most important of these features are probably these three: a relatively efficient and decent legal system, a government that (unlike most) is not simply a kleptocracy, and the vast stores of knowledge long accumulated by other participants in the economy. The government's taking 90% of what you own away from you, according to Simon, would merely be a matter of returning it to its real owners, which presumably is the people who comprise the state.

I can hardly believe that Simon said something so silly. He must be the wisest and smartest person ever to repeat this ridiculous argument. That is no doubt why we often see this idea attributed to him. It did not originate with him. Like many a bad joke, it is truly anonymous.

It is true of course that an enormous part of my income is made possible by the fact that I live in a half-way just, semi-free society, instead of one of the horrible Hell-holes in which many human beings have to live out their lives. If I taught philosophy in Russia or Mexico, instead of Madison Wisconsin, I would earn a very small fraction of what I earn here, even though I would be doing the same brilliant job that I am now doing. Why? Well, the people in those societies are working within political and legal systems that have been devastated by centuries of horrible government and rotten laws. As a result of this, the other participants in those economies have less powerful ideas, theories, methods, and skills -- in a word, less knowledge -- and are less productive than the people I deal with over here. In a system in which the government does not stop them from doing so, people come up with new and better ideas, year after year. Because of the human capacity for memory, the discoveries and inventions of past generations remain here after they have left the scene, and in some cultures the resulting total reaches truly staggering dimensions. Even though my brain contains the tiniest fraction of this total, living among these highly knowledgeable people is very beneficial to me. In general, it is to my advantage to trade with more prosperous, more productive people rather than less wealthy, less productive ones. (In case this is not obvious, think of it this way: those less prosperous people are going to pay me for my contributions with ... what?)

There is no harm in summarizing what I have just said by saying that a lot of my product is possible because of "the contribution of society," as long as we remember what that means. It means that a lot of fine people worked hard at developing good ideas about things and implementing those ideas by building institutions that endured after they departed. I owe these people my eternal gratitude. Gratitude, not cash.

The reason is very simple. They all made their contributions in return for compensation, which they were paid by others. They may have wanted more in return than they actually got (don't we all?) but they regarded what they got as sufficient to offset all the trouble they went through to make their wonderful contributions to our way of life. We know this because we know that they did decide to actually take that trouble and make those contributions.* Why should you lose 90% of what you produce in order to compensate them for what they did? They have already been paid! (Not to mention the fact that the great majority of them are now dead.) This would mean paying them twice.

By the way, doesn't this mean that I should be paid twice too? I contributed something too. It may not have been much, but I am still alive and can actually be compensated. Come to think of it, doesn't it also mean that I get my 90% back? But then where is all this money going to come from, now that we are paying everyone twice what they produce?

Actually, I should say that Simon would be proposing to pay everyone twice, if the money were really going to the actual contributors, the heroes who make this wonderful life possible. But of course it isn't. Simon wants the state to get it. Why on Earth should it get any of this money? Insofar as the state makes any contribution to my product, this contribution was the work of individuals who have been compensated** and at any rate would never see any of Simon's vast pile of loot.

So this argument is rotten for two reasons: 1) the real contributors have already been compensated, and 2) the alleged compensation would actually go to the wrong people anyway. Like I say, worst argument yet.
* For simplicity, I am ignoring the fact that some contributors were defrauded or coerced. Some were literally enslaved. Those people were not adequately compensated. Maybe we should compensate their heirs. But this is not the sort of compensation that Simon is talking about. It would not justify payments to the state, but only to the heirs of victims. (Also, note that most of these past injustices were actually committed by the state -- and its hangers-on, such as slave-owners.)

** Furthermore, their contribution consisted in large part in restraining the power of the state, which becomes predatory and extremely destructive if not restrained, and subjecting it to the rule of law. If it weren't for them, the state would mainly be pursuing its ancient calling of conquering, pillaging, and murdering. Moreover, these brave men and women were often paid by the state for their efforts with torture, imprisonment, dishonor, and death. Maybe the state owes them, and their heirs, something?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The New Seven Deadlies

P. J. O'Rourke (yay!) has an interesting piece in The Weekly Standard (hiss! boo!). A certain Bishop Gianfranco Girotti (great name, by the way -- it could almost be something out of The Sopranos) has written up a new list of Seven Deadly Sins in the Vatican's own newspaper, evidently with the intention of supplementing Pope Gregory the Great's original seven deadlies (Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Sloth, Pride, and Greed). Here is the Bishop's new list:

1. Drug abuse

2. Morally debatable experimentation

3. Environmental pollution

4. Causing poverty

5. Social inequality and injustice

6. Genetic manipulation

7. Accumulating excessive wealth

Wow. Comparing this list to Gregory's really brings home, like almost nothing else can, how far Christianity must have declined in the last fifteen centuries. There is so much about the new list that is morally and intellectually degraded that I don't quite know where to start. Maybe I can begin by repeating one point P. J. makes: there are some serious consistency problems with Bishop Girotti's list. If we were to stop committing 3 (pollution) altogether (and isn't that what you are supposed to do with sins?) we would thereby be committing 4 (causing poverty) and a vast scale. And modern economics has so far found no way to avoid 4 than by comming 7 -- i.e., by accumulating wealth on a scale that Girotti would no doubt regard as excessive. (Economists refer the this sort of wealth as "capital.") And speaking of consistency problems, why aren't the eye-popping stores wealth we see in the Vatican excessive?

I would add another sort of confusion. One item on the list can't possibly be a sin at all, because a sin is an act. Social inequality is not an act but a relation. This might sound like a very hair-splitty point, but I think it's important.

Inequality is one of those things that people make moral judgments about (so unfair!) even though they aren't per se something that anyone does. Nor is it necessarily in our power to know whether we are contributing to it. If I save up $100, I have committed the sin of contributing to inequality if nobody else has saved up that amount. Or have they committed the sin, by not saving that amount themselves? We have both contributed just as much to this unequal state of affairs. Do I commit the same sin, but in a different way, if everyone else has $200 and I (only) have $100? As far as equality is concerned, my own action is completely meaningless unless I know what others are doing, and even then its status as a sin or a non-sin may be completely undecidable. Consider the situation that actually exists, always and everywhere, in the real world: no one is equal to anyone. Some have more than me, and some have less. Am I committing the sin of being more-than-equal in relation to some people, and the mirror-opposite sin of being less-that-equal in relation to others? And what could I possibly do to avoid committing these sins?

If social inequality is a sin, then sin may be something I can piss and moan about, but it isn't necessarily something I have to do anything about.

The idea of sin draws life from its connection to other ideas, including responsibility and power. A thing can't be a sin if I can't be responsible for it, and I can't be responsible for it if avoiding it is not in my power (perhaps because it isn't even something that I do in the first place). If you preach that social inequality is a sin, you cut the very idea of sin off from the ideas that give it meaning and life. You kill the very idea of sin. And that, O my sisters and my brothers, is a sin. A real sin.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Philosophy is the Major for You! (Maybe!)

As you probably know, given that you are here at all, I teach philosophy. For that reason, I was very interested when my son Nat, a philosophy major (No, really? What a coincidence!) sent me a link to this New York Times article last Sunday.

The stunning piece of news they are reporting: that the number of philosophy majors is on the rise. Throughout this great republic, the demand for philosophy courses exceeds supply. The Rutgers philosophy department will graduate a hundred majors this year.

What's going on? The main explanation they give, as I understand it, is that young Americans on the one hand and academic philosophers on the other are becoming more alike. On the one hand, students are becoming more and more interested in big questions about the world at large, such as the ethics of preemptive war. (This I suppose is yet another way in which the Iraq War era resembles the Vietnam War era.) On the other hand, philosophy is becoming more concrete and applied, focusing less and less on pondering ancient texts.

Academic philosophy has changed a lot since I got into it. I can't complain about these changes -- after I, I did participate in bringing them about! -- but I do want to put in one good word for studying ancient texts, a practice that I hope doesn't die out entirely. The mutual fund maestro Peter Lynch used to say that the strongest single influence on his investment wizardry was his philosophy major at Boston College. The idea was that in order to anticipate where, say, George Berkeley's argument is going it may do no good at all to look to what (you think) is true -- you need to find the thread and follow it. It's a matter of grasping the principle of a parallel universe and, wacky as it might seem, following that principle. Similarly, if you as an investor are going to outperform the market, you need to know where it is going next. In doing so, looking to what (you think) is true may be a distraction at best and at worst a prelude to disaster. You need to enter its sometimes weird little world and function there.

This can be a very useful skill to have when dealing with human beings. In general, studying philosophy can give you a whole range of skills that are transferable to other realms -- including the ability to analyze problems, write clearly, and argue a case. (For this reason, I've always said it is a much better pre-law-school major than political science, which for some reason is the usual choice.*) This in fact is simply the traditional, pre-twentieth century defense of a classical education. I think it works much better as a defense of studying philosophy than it did as a defense of studying Greek poetry.

* Clearly, what people are thinking when they make this common mistake is that the one thing you need before you go to law school is to find out something about the subject matter of law school -- i.e., the law. Actuallhy, this is the one thing you obviously do not need. Law schools are very, very good at teaching you that stuff, and you will start getting it as soon as you arrive there, beginning on day one. What they are not so good at communicating (from day one) are the basic mental skills that are presupposed by what you will be doing there. For that, go to a discipline like philosophy.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Ben Hur, RIP

I found out moments ago that Charlton Heston died yesterday at the age of 84 (the same age my father was when he died late last year). He contributed his stereotypical-great-man face to some of the most watchable movies, including (obviously) Ben Hur and the underrated El Cid (one of the most sincere and dignified of movie epics), and the now-classic Touch of Evil. And then there was Soylent Green, one of the first statements of the shrieky environmental hysteria that now pierces the collective eardrums.

In 1998, well beyond the age when most men retire, he was elected President of the NRA, and began another career. Then he made one of his greatest contributions: he helped explain to people that liberty includes the right to possess dangerous weapons, that freedom means the right to be dangerous.

Alright, I know that sounds nutty, but look at it this way. Just admit that you have no right to be dangerous and you will soon have no rights worth having. Freedom of speech itself would surely have to go. No handgun could ever do the damage done by the words of a Hitler or a Marx. The human brain itself is proving to be an incredibly dangerous force.

Now that Nazism and Communism have had wooden stakes pounded through their hearts, the greatest threat to freedom is probably the mirage of security, the foolish hope to be made safe against everything. Just as humans are developing new ways to be dangerous to each other, they are at the same time -- perhaps it is no coincidence -- also yearning more and more for a Total Security State, for a Nanny State.

Heston's brilliant strategy, if strategy it was, was to go straight to the heart of this issue, and occupy the one position from which you can't be dislodged through your own contradictions. He declared the right to be a threat.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Damn! Another Hero Bites the Dust!

Alan Dershowitz has said, adapting an old saying, "Don't have heroes, they always disappoint." I've been thinking about this today.

Slavomir Rawicz, with the British journalist Ronald Downing, wrote what has long been one of my favorite books. I was assigned it in an English class I took at Pleasant Hill High School round about 1962. I've read it several times and owned several copies since then.

It tells how Rawicz, a Polish cavalry officer was captured by the Soviets in 1939 (yes, Poland had a cavalry in 1939 -- no wonder they lost) and, after being tortured at Lubyanka, sent to the Gulag. With the help of the commandant's wife, he escapes with six comrades and over a period of eleven months treks from norther Siberia to -- India! That's about 4,000 miles. They pick up one more person, a Polish girl named Kristina, along the way. Three die en route, including Kristina, but Rawicz with four others, makes to freedom. He eventually settles in England.

It is the story of a great walk to freedom, as inspiring a story of the human need for liberty as you could ever hope to read.

But there were always three things in the story that bothered a lot of people. He crosses the Gobi Desert without water. He crosses the Himalayas in the winter. Both of these seem to be physically impossible. He also sees two Yeti in the Himalayas. This as you know is an animal that is still unknown to science. Most seriously, perhaps, none of the other four other survivors has ever surfaced.

The last time I re-read the book, I went online to see if there was anything about the veracity of the book. I found a post on a message board by a daughter of his (he eventually had five children) that I found reassuring.

Now I see from this article, published in connection with a BBC show attacking Rawicz after his death in 2004, that the story may have been a hoax of some sort. The hard evidence: a document in his own hand saying that he was released from the Gulag in October 1942 as part of a general amnesty for Polish prisoners, and that he rejoined the Polish forces in Russia. Not only does the name on the document match his, but the birth date does as well. Although the book also has him rejoining the Polish forces in Russia, it has him escaping from the Gulag in April 1941, reaching India in March of 1942, and rejoining the Polish forces in Russia in July. The military document has him in the Gulag during that entire period.

I find myself wondering whether the military document could be the lie. If that document were written in Russia -- the BBC article doesn't say where it originated -- then he probably could not have said "and by the way, I foolishly escaped from your prison system before this amnesty was offered - maybe you people should arrest me and torture me some more." Better to claim to have gotten out legitimately.

But I know all along that I am resisting the conclusion that the book is somehow a hoax because I don't want to believe it. And of course there are other problems about the book. And now, on this message board there are rumors of an earlier manuscript, written by a person who really did make a similar trip, which Rawicz used to concoct his story.

Still, I can't agree with Alan, that we should not have heroes. We need them. We need people who will be examples of the the good, of the ideal. The reason for this is partly logical. Ideals are -- abstract. Why do you think that religious texts are so often written as stories? Love thy neighbor? What the Hell does that mean? It's concrete narrative details that move people. The Bo Tree. Samson and the Philistines. Golgotha. We need examples in order to know what the good is. Another part of the reason is psychological: we need to know that the good is possible, or why bother to seek it?

And yet heroes do tend to disappoint. How many heroes stay heroes? Not many. What should I do about it? The best I can come up with might sound cynical: If you can, try to have heroes who have been dead at least ten years, so every attempt to find the dirt on them (and if they are heroes there will be) has been tried, and has failed.
Added Later: I'm still working on reasons to reject the hoax theory. I just reread Downing's intro to the book, telling how it came to be written. It's not easy to square his story with the idea that it was all Rawicz's scam. Downing came to him, because he was doing research on Yettis and heard that there was this Polish man in the Midlands who claimed to have seen something similar. Downing found that Rawicz had been talking about these experiences of his for years. His wife said he talked about them in his sleep. The book was Downing's idea, and it took some persuading to get Rawicz to go along with it. The conversations that produced the book lasted over a year, and Rawicz broke down in tears on three occasions as they talked of his travails. Of course, all this would be possible for a brilliant con man. Don't the great ones manipulate you into conning yourself? But no one is saying that's the sort of person Rawicz was. As far as I know, he is not accused of being a crook in any other matter. On the other hand, Downing himself is a mystery. No one seems to have any idea what became of him. He seems to have appeared one fine day to ghost-write this book, but then disappeared from history and never wrote anything again. It really is an enigma. Someone should write a book about that!