Monthly Archives: February 2014

A Contextualised View of Historical Figures

I recently finished reading a review of a biography of Maimonides, the medieval Jewish scholar. Despite its copy editing failures, the review had me feeling pretty good about the character of old RaMBaM, and, better yet, helped me crystallise feelings I’ve had for a while (incidentally, this is the link for said review Full reveal: I was born, raised and confirmed a Catholic: a rather milquetoast elementary education and a more Hellenic-oriented high school experience managed to drill into me a strange fascination and respect for World Jewery, both cultural and historical. Since then, I’ve become a rather strident agnostic, if that isn’t a contradictio in terminis, but the respect for Judaism has remained.
More to the point, what learning more about Maimonides’ character allowed me to do was divorce my respect for the person (or, let’s be real here, his or her more essentialised characteristics) from their historical situation. I like that Maimonides was pushing against mysticism, and “magic,” and other stripes of nonsense. I suspect that, had his project been taken up more fundamentally, “we” would have reached the truth rather sooner than we have.
That being said, I don’t think we can fault anyone for not being agnostic or atheist before the last century or century-and-a-half. Though these people may have had the same rational tool-set that we do, they did not have the aggregate of physical evidence that we have available to us now. Which delivers us to my main point.
For those of you who know me well, this will come as little-enough a surprise. I look on those in current society, especially those who pursue higher education (see importance of aggregate physical data as outlined above), who continue to hold religious views with a modicum of disdain. It does seem to me that it is, in some ways, intellectually dishonest to continue to endorse mysticism in full view of a material reality which accounts for most everything we experience. We can argue about the minutiae of it, but, to my estimation, the metaphysical impossibility of “the super-natural” was proven by Kant in his First Critique (whether he knew it or not), and further underlined by Schopenhauer in his works (again, whether he realised it or not). That being said, the majority of historical Humanity has endorsed these views, including people that, for better or worse, we want to laud and esteem. How then should we deal with this (rather artificial) conundrum?
Although it’s become a rather frightfully over-used simile since the ’50s, I suspect that the adoption of the scientific method, coupled with materialist perspective (in the philosophical interpretation) in the late 19th century was in fact a fundamental paradigm shift for our species. Recognition of the aggregate data which allowed us to free ourselves from the shackles of mysticism that had come before provided a decidedly frightening moment for the individual. How were we then to look upon those paragons that “came before”? Should we condemn the Newton’s (truth be told, we probably should-he was pretty weird), the Leibniz’, the Boyle’s, the Descartes’, the Astell’s and the de Pizan’s, and all those of Antiquity, because they may have been speaking about (G)od?
No, of course not. These were people, these were Staggering Heights, working within their ferment, to broaden human knowledge. We ought to judge them by their times. We ought to contextualise them.
How, then, do we accord what we know now to how we respect these individuals’ legacy? We look upon ourselves, and the work done after this watershed paradigm shift, as an outgrowth of the past. We can look back and weigh what was reprehensible and what was worthy of accord in each individual, based upon the way they furthered capital-t Truth; in the intellectual honesty that they portrayed. In this way, I can find someone like Maimonides, who definitely had drawbacks both personal and intellectual, worthy of my esteem. In this way, we needn’t divorce ourselves from the rich ground from whence we’ve sprung, simply because we’ve walked down the road a bit further.
Uncontroversially, we are products of the society we are born into.


An Explanation

An Explanation

Well, I suppose that that last post deserves some sort of explanation. It was written in a fit of stream-of-consciousness writing (with a degree of self-editing, and some slight external supervision). It was written under the influence of too many high-alcohol beers and too many Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street tunes. It was written in response to this delightful song: That said, I believe we should all endorse this band, who are consummate professionals and incredible performance artists (I can say that; I’ve seen them live, and they stole the whole bloody show out from underneath two internationally acclaimed bands). Whether we are Believers or not, it is a delightful show and definitely the way forward for artistic Metal.


And they stride, ‘cross the dunes and the wastelands. They stride, down the long years of persecution and hatred, carrying with them the lines of Truth. They, the only who still know the bearing out of the Actuality. Precious cargo in tow, they stride in fretful waiting. They stride, knowing that, one day, in the Far-Off, their day will come.
Through the desert wastes, they worry nought for the djinn and the devil, for they count them as allies and petty disturbances. Clad in full black, they defy those agonising rays of the Sun. They defy the Light, wrapping themselves in the comforting totality of Darkness. They confront the Day, seeing the length and breadth of the Night. All hail the encompassing Night! Swallower of Dawns and Dusks alike!
They stride, in Spite of the Rise and Fall of Empires; of Caliphates; of Kingdoms; of Eternity. Forevermore homeless, forevermore listless. Their tread is that of the March of Ages, numberless and without measure. Sometimes swelling, sometimes winnowing, their numbers fluctuate with the countless days. Consumed with inner fire, it matters not the number; the passion burns in a bright blackness for all to see. A twisting light encompasses the Chosen, setting their faces awrought. Curving and difficult is there visage. Theirs is the Glory, Theirs is the Power. Pandemonium is their glance, Hell is their voice.
Lo, they come upon an Unbeliever! Lo, they come upon the Enemy! Lust! and Hatred! Consuming passions, most heated. The Knife, glistening! The Knife, sharp enough to cut the air! The Knife, sharp enough to cut the Life! The Knife, plunging – The Knife, gouging – The Knife, stain-ed. The Life, spent – The Life, wasted – The Life, name-ed.
Named, in that Book of books, that Scroll of scrolls. Recorded, evry one of ’em, the Accursed. Made to spout their slanderous name ‘afore their consumption, they are recorded, and seen, and bequeathed. They are known, and forevermore burn-ed with the passions of Him. They are known, and are forevermore spun in the cyclone of Her.
Their blood soaks those lonely altars; those few and far between standing stones that are known only to Them. Scattered, they are; scattered throughout that World-Desert, which spans the Double-Continent. Mark’d not by their ferrous content, but by that age-old custom, observed by Mighty Empires, by Vital Cults, by the Lively Few; by that age-old custom, which sees the blood of the slanderous and the foolish spilled; by that age-old custom, which sees the bodies of the Enemy and the Other mutilated and objectified.
The bodies! The Bodies! What lust stored up, what belief and what breath! Those bodies, so useless to their previous occupants, and what incredible use to their new Possessors! Actualise that Lust! Actualise that Life! Spill the seed of Existance, and Overflow the coffers of Death! Throw it all away; throw it all into the Pit! Cast the Husk of Life, in all its mockery and all its slight, away from thou, and breathe not its intoxicating humour. Cast it into the Pit, where it might be consum’d and done away with. Cast it with all thy might, cast it such that you might’nt see it again, and needn’t deal with the Fault.
But what is It? What is It, that gives the Wanderers this License? It is! It is! It is, the collection of those most Un-Divine Rhymes, those Anarchical Scripts, those Dividing Lines!
“Our fallen angel vexed
Was banished from the sky
Recite now from the text
Pray for ALL to die.”
Bring about that End, Bring about the ultimate Denial. Bring about the Affirmation of the Death, the terminus of Existence Itself. Bring about the Great Peace, and the Loose Freeing. Cast off this dragging mortal anchor, and embrace the Denial! Embrace the End, and see yourself Annihilated! What could be more comforting than that Velvety Darkness? That Enveloping, that Obfuscating, that defining Absence (Abscess)? Engage it, and, in doing so, Deny it!


On Sport and Human Excellence

On Sport and Human Excellence

So, suffice it to say, I’ll be doing my best to boycott the Sochi Olympics (though I realise that this sort of post is a tacit engagement). This will include avoiding coverage of the Games themselves, and avoiding products and companies that have paid the princely sum to advertise for the Games (once again, the general list of offenders doesn’t play a large role in my life, and I am more than wealthy enough for their absence in it to cause no real harm, so this isn’t really all that grande a stance). There has been quite a flurry of posts on social media with people pledging to do the same thing, and, while I’m happy to see this, I’m concerned that the usual motivation might be a bit flawed.

The main issue seems to be the nascent explosion of homophobia in Russia, both supported and pushed by the “Putin Regime,” and what sort of message it sends for supposedly democratic and just societies to engage with such a nest of Evil. How can it be that an event, purportedly aimed at fostering fraternity among nations, could so wantonly turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses occurring in the host country? While this is an appropriate question to be asked, at least of the current situation, it is one that seems to turn a blind eye itself to the pedigree of the Games. Let’s not forget that the ’36 Summer Games, though awarded before the Nazis came to power, were allowed to continue in full view of noxious character of that government. More recently, in both ’72 and ’76, the games tacitly endorsed the apartheid regime of South Africa and Rhodesia, despite growing internal and external boycotts and embargoes. So, it’s not as if this is the first time the IOC has done something morally questionable.

However, to focus on the more egregious examples of the IOC’s oversights is to miss the point. When all costs are considered, the number of games that have been beneficent for the hosting city are diminishingly low. I say all costs, because the host cities are renowned for juking the stats to make it seem as if they’ve come out on top. This provides a pretty succinct breakdown of what I mean. More close to home, geographically, the ’76 Summer Games, hosted by Montreal, ended up costing some 1.61 billion dollars, taking nearly 30 years to pay off, only for the stadiums built to ultimately end up unused. And who shoulders the burden of those costs? Well, it’s not the IOC, that’s for sure.

As referenced in that breakdown of the 2012 London Games, another large concern is the appropriation of previously public land, which is then forevermore converted to private holdings. There is a wealth of documentation on the abuses of this sort regarding the last Winter Games, those of Vancouver in 2010, which is, supposedly, one of the few economically beneficial events. As if it weren’t bad enough that some several millions of dollars were diverted from much needed social programs to support Vancouver’s Olympic bid, the efforts to open up transportation between Vancouver and the Whistler location had also been surreptitiously aimed at increasing the ease at which environmentally destructive industry could be applied in the aftermath. To add insult to injury, while rail-roading over the deplorable human rights concerns in the country, the Vancouver Olympics Committee were so brash as to appropriate Native symbols and culture, all the while either buying off the Native elders or stealing the necessary land outright (see here for a not unbiased, but still useful, collection of figures:

So, while I whole-heartedly support raising concern over gay-rights issues in this latest Olympics, let’s not give the “good guys” (ie, the West) carte blanche, when they continue to be just as bad, if somewhat better at keeping it under wraps.

Something I haven’t seen a great deal of yet – though I haven’t gone out expressly looking for it, either – is the usual concern raised against boycotting an event like this. “Aren’t the real victims of a boycott the athletes? Those young people who have sacrificed countless hours of their lives to compete there, at a once-in-a-life-time opportunity, only to have it snatched away from them to appease some bleeding-heart liberals’ nebulous idea of human rights?” While this is definitely expressed as a straw-man, I’ve seen it rendered as such, and it does hold a kernel of truth. So, who wins out when these positions clash?

Across most of the West, we endorse that most Hellenic idea of personal perfection, especially when it comes to athletics. Let me be frank, it’s one I support myself, despite my rather homely intelligent-esque physique. Our bodies are capable of doing incredible things, and it seems a crime not to take advantage of that in our all-too-short lives. Those, then, who have the gumption to pursue the heights of physicality should be lauded. It seems to be one of those few things, like art, knowledge, or love, that is a good-in-itself.

That being said, like all human activities, it is necessarily a political one. Thus, whatever the IOC might say to the contrary, sport is always about politics, just as everything else we do is. There is nothing removed from politics, whether it be Avery Brundage or Paul Simon saying otherwise. So, to whom should win out in the competition, my answer is categorically human rights.

More disturbing, and I suspect that this is an uncommon and, at first blush, unpopular, opinion, is the professionalisation of sports across all strata. I recall reading an article on the Onion a few years back (which is likely hiding behind a paywall now), which purported to be a conversation with Noam Chomsky on the state of University-level sport in the United States. While it was satire, I think I remember Chomsky coming out and supporting the words spoken by his caricature: that all professional sport, but particularly that which has risen to such heights in the university, is harmful for the appropriate maintenance of civil society. People only have so much energy, and the pervasiveness of sport in our societies provides them with a catharsis that siphons off the passion to engage with problems in their own lives, and spins it into economic gain for the ruling classes. So, while I’m certainly not against sport or athletics, I am steadfastly against such things as the NHL, the NBA, the CFL, or what-have-you. While these corporations exist as a mixed blessing (the NBA and the NFL are often touted as a leg-up for the otherwise hopelessly oppressed African-American population in the States, disregarding, of course, the base security and wealth that act as barriers-of-entry in either case), I suspect that they are, at base, more harmful, and certainly more offensive, towards athletes than any boycott could be. At heart, they reduce the achievements of these individuals to a mere commodity, to be consumed by a great wad of humanity who ought to bettering themselves.

It’s fairly obvious I would endorse a removal of corporate concerns from the Olympics, as they are, fundamentally, exploitative. I also desire a return to pure amateurism, as was envisioned when the Olympics were first re-imagined by de Coubertin. How that would be maintained in light of breadth of the competition and complication of nationalist pride is, invariably, a thorny issue. At the very least, however, the IOC should be made to realise the political nature of the Games, and be held to stand by their claims regarding the defence of human rights. Their spotty history and the continual engagement with societies who gladly conduct LGBT rights offences, Aboriginal rights offences, and Women’s rights offences, shames us all.


Notebook Clarihews

Notebook Clarihews

Came across these while I was looking for a recipe for tabbouleh in an old note book. Not especially serious, nor very good, but silly enough to be worth sharing.

Rene Descartes
over-abundantly smart;
wished to be remembered for philosophy
but its really his math that ought to be

Jeremy Bentham
base pleasures, he would up-send ’em;
though many do him despise
for his propensity to maximise!

Gottlob Frege
his contribution to logic was mega
though its proper application he surely didn’t use
in his inane hatred for the Jews

Immanuel Kant
renowned for his daily jaunt;
his systems were categorical
and their application not merely rhetorical