Sweet Revenge

I have blogged in the past about the inherent problems with capital punishment — chiefly the fact that humans who are inherently fallible make the decisions that determine whether another human will die for a presumed crime. But the recent conviction of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 22 year-old found guilty of participating in the bombing of innocent victims in the Boston Marathon in 2013, raises the issue anew. This is especially the case since the young man was found guilty and sentenced by a jury in Boston, Massachusetts, presumed to be a liberal and enlightened city in these United States.

Recall with me a quote from Francis Bacon who said at the turn of the seventeenth century:

“Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to the more ought the law to weed it out.”

The presumption Bacon makes here is that the law should “weed out” the human tendency to revert to revenge, that revenge is not something we humans ought to be motivated by and it can and should be inhibited by civil law. And yet what possible justification can there be for capital punishment, even in the case when it is crystal clear that that human has taken another life, or lives, except revenge, pure and simple? The usual problem with capital punishment, that human beings are prone to error, especially in moments of stress, cannot be raised here. There is no question of Tsarnaev’s guilt in this case. Three people were killed and many more injured seriously. The question is whether death by injection, as ruled by the court, is called for in this case in a country that prides itself on being humane and civilized.

As Bacon suggests, revenge is a kind of “wild justice” and certainly not worthy of rational, civilized persons who claim to be obedient to the rule of law. Presumably the civil law is consonant with the moral law and if it is not we have no obligation to obey it — as Martin Luther King reminded us many years ago. It is precisely the civil law that is supposed to help civilize us and make us more amenable to the softer virtues of compassion and sympathy for our fellow humans. And, if Bacon is to be believed, law also ought to curb our desire to get revenge on those who do us harm. When we ignore these tenets we lower ourselves to the level of those who live by “wild justice.” Revenge may be sweet, but it is not something we ought to lower ourselves to if in doing so we risk doing irreparable damage to ourselves in the process. Toward that end, law ought not to encourage capital punishment; it ought to “weed it out.”

At a time when those who are pledged to protect and serve the cities in which we live are charged with unfettered and unjustified violence toward, in many cases, innocent civilians, we naturally begin to question the legitimacy of civil law. But there is a difference between respect for those laws when they promote the common good and the human beings who occasionally abuse the privilege of enforcing them. For myself, I think those who abuse the position of protectors of law and order should be punished and punished soundly. But we cannot turn our backs on the law itself when it is precisely that which separates us from brutes — which is what we become when we insist that revenge is lawful. Bacon was right.

Water Rights

An interesting Yahoo News article recounts the attempts by California to learn from Australia how to handle the drought that has brought that state to near crisis status. It is interesting in light of the fact that fracking is still legal in California despite the fact that it takes millions of gallons of the precious liquid from the earth and ruins it for human or animal use forever. In any event, the article focuses on one major difference between California and Australia which may make the lesson very hard to learn from California’s perspective: Californians, like most Americans; have no practice in sacrificing for the “common good. The Australians are quite good at it apparently. As the article points out, in part:

But Californians may find Australia’s medicine tough to swallow. Australians are accustomed to living in a dry land, expect government intervention in a crisis and largely support making sacrifices for the common good. For much of their history, many Californians have enjoyed abundant water, or were able to divert enough of it to turn deserts green, and highly paid lawyers ensure that property rights remain paramount.

The original Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, defended “life, liberty and property,” borrowing from the English tradition and, specifically, Locke’s Two Treatises of Civil Government. The term “property” was later replaced by “pursuit of happiness.” but the focus on property is apparent in so much of our common law. And as the article suggests, property rights are fiercely defended by highly paid lawyers who must be confronted by the state in the event of an emergency. The notion that folks should be willing to make sacrifices for “the common good” is alien to the American way of doing things — and has been so almost from the beginning. The trend has grown worse, as we can see if we stop to consider the sitting Congress that has no concern whatever with the common good and focuses its attention exclusively on the demands of their political party. But, truth be told, we all seem to be focused in our own “rights” and tend to ignore the rights of others.

This is sad and especially disturbing when we consider, for example, that a few small sacrifices might go a long way toward dealing with, if not solving, our huge waste of precious natural resources. If we were willing to ride bicycles or walk or take mass transit, or, perhaps, purchase economical cars, or if we  reached for a sweater during cold weather rather than turn up our heating systems, we might reduce the waste of gasoline, natural gas, electricity,  and heating oil. But the sweater is inconvenient and it is so much easier to nudge up the thermostat a bit, so that’s the path we tend to choose. And the car dealers have us convinced that power is what it’s all about. These are habits. And habits are what the article mentions when it refers to California’s enjoyment “of abundant water” for years. Habits are hard to break.

As it happens, however, these habits may be changed by cruel necessity as Californians may find out when they run out of water and are forced to do “the right thing” by conserving and reducing consumption “for the common good.” It will be a new experience and it will be one that will come only after considerable noise has been made and litigation has been undertaken in the name of “property rights.” Indeed, rights have always been our concern — even though they imply responsibilities which we tend to ignore altogether. To the extent that I can claim to have a right, say, to drinking water, I also have a responsibility to recognize another’s right to that same water. There’s the rub. Rights and responsibilities are reciprocal: if we demand one we must acknowledge the other. This will indeed be a hard lesson for the folks in California to learn — as it will soon be for the rest of us.

How Do We Know?

For the most part inquiring minds embrace the scientific method. They may not know exactly what that method is, but they would swear that this is the only way we really know anything for sure; it is the heart and soul of what we loosely call “common sense.”  That science has advanced civilization in numerous ways is incontrovertible — especially  scientific medicine which has prolonged life and made suffering comparatively rare.

The scientific method relies on empirical testing: seeing is believing. An investigator asks questions, suggests a possible explanation and then devises a test to determine whether the hypothesis they have come up with seems to bear out. If it does, it is regarded as true — at least until at some future date another test disproves the theory. The most reliable theories are those that can not be disproved: if no matter how hard we try we cannot dislodge the theory, it is regarded as the truth. An example of this is the theory of evolution which, while a theory, is still regarded as undeniably true by the scientific community — if not by some zealots on the far right. The same might be said about global warming, or what we euphemistically call “climate change.”

However, a blind commitment to the scientific method that rules out any other way of knowing is called “scientism,” and, strange to say, it suggests a closed mind. It does not simply accept the scientific method, it insists that all knowing must be reached by way of this method, and this method alone. It ignores the possibility that there may well be other ways we can know things that may not be empirically testable or falsifiable, but which may still be true — such as paranormal claims, poetic insights, intuition, and the like. Such truths are rejected by the strict scientist because they are neither testable nor capable of predicting future behavior. Paranormal phenomena, for example, while striking in many known cases, are measured against probabilities, and are not open to strict scientific methods. The ability that a few seem to have  to predict the turn of a card 93% of the time is extraordinary and highly improbable. But it is not predictable. Such phenomena are thus rejected by the scientific community.

None the less, a book entitled Crack In The Cosmic Egg written some years ago recounts innumerable striking examples of strange phenomena that cannot be tested by the scientific method but which still appear to be true — such as the ability of entire groups of people to walk on red-hot coals while in a hypnotic trance and not even feel the pain. Indeed upon further inspection, by disinterested Western observers, their feet showed no signs whatever of any burns! Various other examples are cited by the authors, yet there remain a great many skeptics. Consider the reluctance of Western medical science to accept as legitimate “holistic” medicine, such things as acupuncture or controlled diets which have shown remarkable capacity to cure pain and eliminate its cause. Additionally, it has taken years for many in the medical community to admit that allergies can be a serious health problem. Some medical people in the West, including the Mayo Clinic, are beginning to open their minds to new cures, including dietary changes, since it is impossible to deny that they have been successful for many years in Eastern cultures and among so-called “primitive” people. The same thing can be said for herbal cures, which defy scientific explanation but which work nonetheless. But it is still a major challenge to convince those who have committed themselves to the scientific method as the only possible way to know anything. As Hamlet said to his friend Horatio, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy — which in Hamlet’s day meant science.

In any event, there is something to be said for keeping an open mind. The exclusive commitment to scientific ways of knowing is just as stupid as the wholesale rejection of science by such groups as the fundamentalist Christians who see it as the work of the devil. Just as scientific minds were quick to condemn the Catholic Church for forcing Galileo to recant his claims about the heliocentric hypothesis (which we now know to be undeniably true), we should warn those same minds not to be closed to the possibility that science may not be the only way to find our way to truths that may assist us in coming to a deeper understanding of our fellow humans and the mysteries that surround us. In the end, we should always remain open to the possibility that there are questions we simply cannot answer.

One of the fascinating things to question is the limits of human knowing: Just how far can the scientific method take us? How many puzzles are open to rational explanation? How many things must remain a mystery regardless of how precise our methods of research happen to be? and How many things we know for sure cannot be proved in a strict sense?  Where does one draw the line between different ways of knowing? How do we separate truth from mere opinion? and How far we can extend our knowledge before we must simply admit we may never know? Whatever the answers to these questions might happen to be, we should never stop asking them.

Revisiting The 60s

As mentioned in an earlier post, I am working my way through my friend David Pichaske’s book A Generation In Motion, a book about the culture of the 1960s in America and Europe. I have resisted Pichaske’s tendency to see the age through rose-colored glasses, but am beginning to see what I have missed for years: the genuine commitment on the part of a great many people to ideals that run head-on into the ideals of a capitalist society devoted solely to filthy lucre. True, I have been critical of that society as well, but I had thought for many years that the kids in the turbulent 60s were just along for the “trip.” If you catch my drift.

But I am now persuaded otherwise. Pichaske makes a strong case for the genuine depth of commitment on the part of most (if not all) who were determined to bring down, or at least escape from, the establishment and reestablish a society grounded on love and peace and mutual understanding — rather than bigger and bigger profits. At one point Pichaske quotes from a report by the Cox Commission “On the Disturbances at Columbia University in April and May 1968.”

“The ability, social consciousness and conscience, political sensitivity, and honest realism of today’s students are a prime cause of student disturbances. As one student observed during our investigation, today’s students take seriously the ideals taught in schools and churches, and often at home, and then see a system that denies its ideals in actual life. Racial injustice and the war in Vietnam stand out as prime examples of our society’s deviation from the professed ideals and the slowness with which the system reforms itself. That they seemingly can do little to correct the wrongs through conventional political discourse tends to produce in the most idealistic and energetic students a strong sense of frustration.

“Many of these idealists have developed with considerable sophistication the thesis that these flaws are endemic in the workings of American democracy.”

What distresses Pichaske most is that the dream died. As he says, “There is no such idealism today. Only bucks.” What happened, according to our author, was the assassination of John F. Kennedy followed closely by the shooting death of his brother and Martin Luther King as well, compounded with the gradual assimilation of the counter-culture into the establishment as evidenced by the career of such people as Elvis Presley or, perhaps, the following jingle brought to you by Budweiser Beer:

“So you’ve a right to sing your own song;

No one else can tell you if you’re right or wrong;

Living’ your own life, that’s what America means . . .”

Here we have the “co-option” of a movement based on ideals by a force powered by greed impossible to resist that simply moved over it and sucked the life out of it. Ideals were replaced by “bucks.” The young who wanted a beautiful alternative bought into the notion that the happy life is found in suburbia with a mortgage, two cars and 2  1/2 children — and a can of Budweiser.

Not to grind an old ax or anything, but the problem is exacerbated by the mindless entertainment that keeps the attention of the young directed toward themselves and the gratification of their endless pleasure. As Nate Hagens noted in a talk picked up on YouTube, “we are indeed dopamine junkies in America — Hand-held gadgets embody that perfectly, to the point that today’s kids will completely lack self-control in 20 years. Immediate gratification is the norm, and patience for delayed gratification is out the window.” So the ideals of those kids in the 1960s have been replaced by bucks and the young, especially, are easily diverted from any thoughts about higher ideals by toys that provide them with an escape into a world of self-gratification while they drift mindlessly toward the crass ideals of a monied society.


Generation In Motion

I am reading a book written by a good friend of mine about the troubled sixties. It is, in large part, an apology for the age that has commanded such critical scrutiny by traditionalists like myself and it finds its strongest arguments nestled in a close look at the poetry and music of the period. There is no question that some of the best popular music ever written appeared during those years by such song writers as The Beatles, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. The author of this book, A Generation In Motion, happens to be an expert on the period and especially on Bob Dylon; he has written a book about the man and his songs that nicely complements this book. The author, David Pichaske, is an English Professor at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota. At one point in the book, he remarks about the sixties generation, in contrast with later generations:

“A less aware or educated generation or one distracted by a war or a depression might have ignored the injustices and irritations that so troubled the sleep of sixties children. It would have slumbered blissfully and ignorantly and quite comfortably. A more cynical generation would have been less obsessed, less righteously angry. It could maybe have laughed or shrugged its shoulders. A less motivated generation would have despaired and retreated to the safety of distance.”

Now there are several points that the author makes in this passage that deserve our attention. To begin with, Pichaske is convinced — in contrast with critics of that period — that the children of the sixties were idealists who had a definite program. They were not anarchists bent on bringing down the “establishment,” simply. To be sure, they did want to attack the established powers and throw off the cloak of servitude they were convinced they were burdened with. But they did so with a purpose: they advocated complete freedom from outrageous constraints together with a determination to make the world a better place, to bring about peace and love and better communication among all humans.

“What we had in mind was something a little more humane, a little more free. Less of a ‘niche for everyone and everyone in his niche.’ More flexibility. Fewer rules. . . .  And we wanted it now.”

So says the author. I will not debate the point, except to say that the generation saw gray issues in black and white. Furthermore, their notion of freedom, which was a cornerstone of their program, is confused and weakens the case for the plan in the minds of those undoubted idealists during those troubled days.

Freedom is not to be confused with license, as it is so often, and is so assuredly in this case. Freedom is not possible, as John Locke pointed out many years ago, without law and order. True creativity and a full expression of human endeavor requires discipline and self-restraint. Imagine a group of people all trying to get to a rope tow on a snowy day to get to the top in order to ski down the hill. If there is no order, no discipline, there is chaos. Indeed, complete freedom is chaos, nothing more and nothing less. (In response to this comment, my friend said that if the tow rope were pulling you toward a cliff you might prefer chaos!) In any event, the attack on the establishment by the young during the sixties was based on the notion that freedom was an inherently good thing, that more is better, whereas, in fact, it is not — at least not the kind of freedom most of them espoused. All of the truly great contributions to humankind, from art to literature to science, were made by men and women who knew — and held themselves to — the necessity of restraint and order. The rebels of the sixties may have had a program, as Pichaske says, but it was confused at its core. As a result it is no wonder it could not be sustained.

But Pichaske’s larger point is well taken. By and large, these were not cynical young people and the generations that followed them appear to be — perhaps because the dreams of their idealistic parents and grandparents came to naught. The gap between those ideals and reality became increasingly apparent to increasing numbers of people. In any event, the current generation, together with their parents (including myself of course) do appear to prefer distance and separation from others. This is especially the case given the current explosion of electronic toys and the internet that stress a “social network” in which people seldom meet and communication is stunted and incomplete.

In the end I think the rebellion during the sixties brought to light a number of illnesses that were beneath the surface and deserving of serious attention. But that rebellion became an end in itself for many of the rebels and it rested on a fundamental confusion about what is and what is not important. As a result, the colleges and universities jettisoned those courses that were essential to a good education, at the insistence of groups like the S.D.S., and the culture at large awakened briefly to the inequity of segregation, the horrors of unjustified wars and acquired some beautiful poetry and music — but very little else of permanent value. In the end more and more people went deeper into themselves and grew farther apart than ever. The hope of peace, love and better communication among all people turned out to be a pipe dream.

Funny Or Comical?

One of the things that has always intrigued me is the nature of comedy. Yes, I am strange. But the thing I find most interesting is that the word “comedy” was originally attached to events that are not necessarily funny. For example, in drama it applies simply to plays that end happily. Comedy is a broader term and can be funny — or not.

Freud has discussed comedy as has Henri Bergson. But the best discussion I have ever read about the subject was written by Arthur Koestler, author of the haunting novel Darkness at Noon. He was also a journalist and an exceptionally deep thinker. His book The Act of Creation is one of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read. He analyses the act of creation and ties it into such diverse things as music and …. comedy. He takes as his point of departure the “Eureka!” moment when Archimedes discovered how to determine whether Hiero’s crown was solid gold or a mix of gold and silver without destroying the crown itself. He was, as you may remember, stepping into the bath when he realized that in doing so he displaced a certain amount of water whose volume could be measured accurately; by analogy he could now determine the density of the crown. It was a “Eureka!” moment and he reportedly ran down the streets of Syracuse naked shouting with glee. Now, that’s funny!

Koestler thinks such creative moments result from what he calls “bisociation,” the sudden and unexpected intersection of two independent planes of thought which he calls “matrices”:

“The essential point is that at the critical moment both matrices were simultaneously present in Archimedes’ mind — though presumably on different levels of awareness. The creative stress resulting from the blocked situation [Archimedes’ inability to solve his problem] kept the problem on the agenda even while the beam of consciousness was drifting along quite another plane.”

When the two planes intersected at the moment he stepped into the bath, he had solved the problem. Eureka! That was the “creative” moment. But what has this to do with comedy, you might ask? Everything. Take the following joke.

A. I hear there was a fire at the local university yesterday.

B. Seriously?

A. Yes, it totalled the library, destroying both books.

B. Ha!

A. And only one had been colored in!!

B. Again, Ha!

So it goes. B doesn’t expect A’s response: there is the sudden intersection of two independent matrices — one telling the story of the sad fate of the library at the local college, which tends to evoke sympathy in the listener and which is suddenly intersected by another matrix that cuts across the first and results in a laugh, a sudden release of emotion that was built up by B worrying, even for a moment, that the library had been burned down. Koestler calls this an “explosion.” This particular joke has two such moments — one when A says that both books were destroyed and another when he say that only one had been colored in. Neither is expected and both evoke a sudden release of emotion, mild though it may be (a small explosion?). This is not a thigh-slapper, and if it doesn’t tickle your funny bone, perhaps Freud’s joke recounted in his essay on the comic will:

Chamfort tells the story of a Marquis at the court of Louis XIV who, on entering his wife’s boudoir and finding her in the arms of a Bishop, walked calmly to the window and went through the motions of blessing the people in the street.

‘What are you doing?’ cried the anguished wife.

‘Monseigneur is performing my functions,’ replied the Marquis, ‘so I am performing his,’

Or, if you prefer the slightly sacrilegious, there is always the priceless New Yorker cartoon where Joseph and Mary are looking heaven-ward and the caption reads: “But we wanted a girl!”

All in good fun. I leave it to the reader to find the elements of bisociation that Koestler speaks about.

All comedy, according to Koestler, has that essential creative moment. It happens when two completely independent matrices intersect and the surprise we experience results, as a rule, in a laugh.  Sometimes, folks just “don’t get it.” They weren’t paying attention, or don’t see the intersection of the two matrices. Humor is subjective (comedy is not) and, while it does involve emotion, it is surprisingly cerebral. Indeed, the emotions involved in comedy, such as they are, tend to be assertive, aggressive emotions (even sadistic, according to Freud). If the emotions become stronger and change color, as when we laugh at the chair being pulled from beneath the would-be sitter only to realize from the expression on his face that he has hurt himself, then laughter immediately stops and a rush of sympathy or empathy takes its place. But the bisociation between two independent matrices remains essentially the same, though intros case, comedy becomes tragedy. Cervantes was able to exploit this basic relationship by making Don Quixote both comical and tragic — depending on how we feel about him at the moment. In other words, precisely the same bisociations can be comic or terribly sad, according to which emotions are involved and how strong they are. The very same bisociation of independent matrices occurs, according to Koestler, when the artist suddenly realizes how to “solve” the problem of the painting she has been struggling with, picks up the piece of driftwood lying on the sand because she suddenly sees several possibilities that no one else sees, or the scientist suddenly discovers, as did Archimedes, the solution to the problem he was pondering. Creativity occurs by bisociation, Koestler insists, in both science and the fine arts. And in comedy as well.

Some things can be comical without being funny and some things like exaggeration, jokes, and caricature are both comical and funny.  But all are essentially creative. Now I find that interesting.

Recipe For Failure

I am pleased to offer up the following recipe for your consideration:

Begin with two cups of parents who work hard to keep their heads above the financial waters and who must therefore largely ignore their kids who are left to their own devices. The parents are riddled with guilt, have forgotten how to say “no,” and have read books by childless pop-psychologists about how to raise children; as a result their kids are spoiled at home and have never learned the need for self-denial and hard work. However, all have learned well the path of least resistance.

 (Courtesy of Facebook)

(Courtesy of Facebook)

Add slowly one cup of kids whose time is almost entirely taken up with the “social network” and who use electronic devices to “stay connected” while losing real contact with others and with the world around them, bearing in mind that those toys are damaging their brains, eventually rendering portions of those brains chronically damaged.

Add three tablespoons (no more, no less) of the self-esteem movement in the schools the kids attend that insists the kids are terrific when all the evidence suggests that they are falling way behind the rest of the developed world. In fact, when a mathematics test involving 24,000 students worldwide was followed by the yes/no question whether the student was good in math, American students rated themselves highest on self-esteem and actually scored lowest on math! They have been taught to expect rewards for little or no effort. Clearly, schools in America have become like the caucus race in Alice in Wonderland “where the participants run in patterns of any shape, starting and leaving off whenever they like, so that everyone wins.” Everyone gets a prize — but, in fact, no one wins.

Mix in three teaspoons of underpaid, harried, and poorly-trained teachers sustained by a thin gruel of psychobabble and filled with disdain for the tradition that produced the great men and women of the past. Martin Gross, in his Conspiracy of Ignorance drives the point home thusly: “The problem is not the kids but the Educational Establishment, which is an unscholarly, anti-intellectual, anti-academic cabal which can best be described as a conspiracy of ignorance, one with false theories and low academic standards. Well conceived, internally consistent, it has been powerful enough to fight off all outside challenges and true change. All at the expense of our schoolchildren.” 

Blend in carefully one cup rejection by the entire Education Establishment for the data that show clearly that there is a serious problem in our schools and that other nations, such as tiny Finland, have it right while we have it all wrong.

Stir slowly over a low heat while holding your nose and don’t, please, attempt to eat the mess because it will make you sick.