Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Gone With the War

Tuesday, January 15th, 2008

Who would have thought that Gone With the Wind was an anti-war novel?

“All wars are sacred,” he [Rhett Butler] said. “To those who have to fight them. If the people who started wars didn’t make them sacred, who would be foolish enough to,fight? But, no matter what rallying cries the orators give to the idiots who fight, no matter what noble purposes they assign to wars, there is never but one reason for a war. And that is money. All wars are in reality money squabbles, But so few people ever realize it. Their ears are too full of bugles and drums and fine words from stay-at-home orators. Sometimes the rallying cry is ‘Save the Tomb of Christ from the Heathen!’ Sometimes it’s ‘Down with Popery!’and sometimes ‘Liberty!’ and sometimes ‘Cotto, Slavery and States’ Right!’ ”

-Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind, ChapterXII

But it is Scarlett O’Hara who hits the nail on the head with her naive reaction against jingoism:

When first she looked at the crowd, Scarlett’s heart had thump- thumped with the unaccustomed excitement of being at a party, but as she half-comprehendingly saw the high-hearted look on the faces about her, her joy began to evaporate. Every woman present was blazing with an emotion she did not feel. It bewildered and depressed her. Somehow, the ball did not seem so pretty nor the girls so dashing, and the white heat of devotion to the Cause that was still shining on every face seemed–why, it just seemed silly!

In a sudden flash of self-knowledge that made her mouth pop open with astonishment, she realized that she did not share with these women their fierce pride, their desire to sacrifice themselves and everything they had for the Cause. Before horror made her think: “No–no! I mustn’t think such things! They’re wrong–sinful,” she knew the Cause meant nothing at all to her and that she was bored with hearing other people talk about it with that fanatic look in their eyes. The Cause didn’t seem sacred to her. The war didn’t seem to be a holy affair, but a nuisance that killed men senselessly and cost money and made luxuries hard to get. She saw that she was tired of the endless knitting and the endless bandage rolling and lint picking that roughened the cuticle of her nails. And oh, she was so tired of the hospital! Tired and bored and nauseated with the sickening gangrene smells and the endless moaning, frightened by the look that coming death gave to sunken faces.

She looked furtively around her, as the treacherous, blasphemous thoughts rushed through her mind, fearful that someone might find them written clearly upon her face. Oh, why couldn’t she feel like those other women! They were whole hearted and sincere in their devotion to the Cause. They really meant everything they said and did. And if anyone should ever suspect that she– No, no one must ever know! She must go on making a pretense of enthusiasm and pride in the Cause which she could not feel, acting out her part of the widow of a Confederate officer who bears her grief bravely, whose heart is in the grave, who feels that her husband’s death meant nothing if it aided the Cause to triumph.

Oh, why was she different, apart from these loving women? She could never love anything or anyone so selflessly as they did. What a lonely feeling it was–and she had never been lonely either in body or spirit before. At first she tried to stifle the thoughts, but the hard self-honesty that lay at the base of her nature would not permit it. And so, while the bazaar went on, while she and Melanie waited on the customers who came to their booth, her mind was busily working, trying to justify herself to herself–a task which she seldom found difficult.

The other women were simply silly and hysterical with their talk of patriotism and the Cause, and the men were almost as bad with their talk of vital issues and States’ Rights. She, Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton, alone had good hard-headed Irish sense. She wasn’t going to make a fool out of herself about the Cause, but neither was she going to make a fool out of herself by admitting her true feelings. She was hard-headed enough to be practical about the situation, and no one would ever know how she felt. How surprised the bazaar would be if they knew what she really was thinking! How shocked if she suddenly climbed on the bandstand and declared that she thought the war ought to stop, so everybody could go home and tend to their cotton and there could be parties and beaux again and plenty of pale green dresses.

op. cit., Chapter IX

The Guilt of Resenting the Handicapped

Monday, October 29th, 2007

I cannot imagine that I am the only person uncomfortable around handicapped people, but I’ve don’t recall ever reading someone else’s reasoning, so here goes my own.

Handicapped people make me uncomfortable. It’s not so much that their handicap itself makes me uncomfortable, but I am unpleasantly perplexed as to my own uncertain social obligations in regard to their handicaps.

I am a very private person. Intruding upon another’s personal space seems to me one of the more egregious wrongs to do a person. Yet with the handicapped, that personal space is undefined and not easily intuited. I also resent the handicapped because I feel an obligation to help them. I’m the type that holds the door open for people and gives up my seat on the subway. With the handicapped, the necessity of assistance is greater, and generally more involved. I hate that I don’t want to help them more than momentarily. I realize that my point of view is condescending. I feel further guilt for the condescension. I remember many years ago, at college, helping a developmentally disabled person, stuck in a wheelchair, get to a men’s room. I was cheery and happy to lend the assistance, but when he asked for help to get on the toilet and do his business, I also cheerfully fled with banal excuses. I felt terrible to have fled, but more relieved not to be wiping his ass.

I watch two young children, and yet with them the pressure is less because the expectation of autonomy isn’t there. But since one expects a grown person to be self-sufficient, one resents it when they are not. Should one come to the handicapped’s assistance, one resents being the only person stuck with the chore.

Let me give a small illustration. The other day, I was in a diner and an old man was using a walker to get to his table. His progress was very slow, a snail’s pace of a few feet a minute. I had seen him come in earlier, and assumed he was with company. Yet here he was, unaccompanied, moving at a glacial pace to his table, and, incidentally, blocking my passage. Yet I did not come to his assistance. First, I wondered where the rest of his party was. Secondly, I did not want the trouble of guiding him all the way to his seat, and then there was the possibility that he didn’t want any help. So I patiently waited for him to proceed and then I moved past him and back to my party. My behaviour was no worse or better than the dozens of other people in the dining room, yet I resent my own and others’ inaction and the lack of charity it revealed. It’s a terrible example of my point, perhaps because my point is itself a terrible one. The terror is not in it’s overt malignancy, but rather in the repulsion that remains hidden and secret.

The physically handicapped are not the only ones handicapped. There are the mentally handicapped. To this I do not only mean the psychotic and the neurotic, but all of us whose thinking doesn’t work quite right, who could use a little help to function normally: the shy, the stupid, the tactless. Then there are the socially handicapped: the lonely. There are the financially handicapped, which is anyone poorer than you are. Of course, you are financially handicapped in the eyes of those richer than you. Do the rich despise the poor as I despised that old man? And to the blind resent the sighted as the poor resent the rich? The world is filled with broken people desperately in need of help, yet to help them all sufficiently is impossible.

So what’s to be done? I have no solution, just as a blind woman can’t see. Don’t hate me for my foolishness, or resent me for my honesty, or scold me for turning over rocks best left unturned.

My purpose in writing is not just catharsis, but a hope for more openness. How much does one discuss a handicap with a handicapped person? On the one hand, one does not wish to be boorish. On the other hand, shouldn’t one discuss obvious and important things, at least in passing to acknowledge their existence? One fears starting a conversation that, while new to you, is tiresomely old to the handicapped. But am I really not supposed to ask my child’s pediatrician, Dr. Quinn, if she’s also a medicine woman? She had hear the joke before.

Should I resent the more erudite for their ability to convey their thoughts better than myself? I know for sure that I resent unsolicited criticism of my writing.  Praise me or shut up. Hey, I’ve already forgotten about the handicapped, those needy assholes.

“Is the Ivy League Superior?” — A Lolita Bar Debate Recording

Friday, October 5th, 2007

On October 3rd, 2007, at the Lolita Bar in New York City, the question, “Is the Ivy League Superior?” was debated. Mr. David Robinson argued in the affirmative, while Ms. Michele Carlo argued in the negative. Todd Seavey hosted, while your humble blogger, Michel Evanchik, moderated.

Below is an audio recording of the night’s proceedings:

“Is The Ivy League Superior?” debate audio recording

(Apologies that the file is so large at 93 MB. This is my first go at publishing an audio file.)

Nothing Really to Say

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

Nope, nothing much to say here.  I’m moderating a debate on the Ivy League’s superiority tomorrow.  Freya is sleeping, having just finished her first gym class at the Central Queens YMHA.  Jack is in pre-school.  Monica is working.  So I’m enjoying a brief respite on a beautiful and sunny Fall afternoon.  I’m being careful, as I write this, not to enter into any consequential thoughtful discursions, because this really is just a time-wasting, space-eating, making-sure-I-have-a-blog-entry-everyday type of post.

Think of this as small talk.  I had a nice few words exchanged with the grocer on the lovely weather, empty phrases uttered on a benign topic for the pleasure of hearing each other speak.  Sports is one topic that one can also discuss universally, although misplaced fanatical passions often ruin a chance for pleasant and polite conversation.  The weather used to be another safe topic for pleasant small talk, a topic universally experienced but so beyond our control that it was safely discussed.  But now the environmental obsessions of our current age have made the simple weather a topic of controversy, best avoided like politics or religion.

I like my socks.  Alas, they were probably made in a third-world sweatshop.  I’m not sure what I’ll have for lunch.  Alas, the thought of food makes me consider my growing waistline.  I need to get a haircut.  That’s pretty safe to mention.  I think I’ll get it cut short, and I’ll shave my beard myself.

The weather really is beautiful,  even if the Polar ice cap is irretrievably melting.

Better luck next year, Mets.  Let’s go Yankees!

Utopia in Pictures

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

A wonderful French online exhibition on Utopian visions has some startling galleries of illustrations. They deal with old conjectures about the future, contemporary accounts of Western encroachment into the New World, and social and economic revolution. I have posted some of the most striking images below. (more…)


Monday, September 10th, 2007

Wow, it’s been ten days between posts on this blog.  It’s not that I haven’t had ideas in my head, or that I’ve been too busy.  It’s just that I haven’t bothered.

Ennui is a most dangerous feeling.

The Rich Are Different Than You and Me — They Have More Money

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

It is worth saying something about the social position of beggars, for when one has consorted with them, and found that they are ordinary human beings, one cannot help being struck by the curious attitude that society takes towards them. People seem to feel that there is some essential difference between beggars and ordinary “working” men. They are a race apart–outcasts, like criminals and prostitutes. Working men “work,” beggars do not “work”; they are parasites, worthless in their very nature. It is taken for granted that a beggar does not “earn” his living, as a bricklayer or a literary critic “earns” his. He is a mere social excrescence, tolerated because we live in a humane age, but essentially despicable.

Yet if one looks closely one sees that there is no essential difference between a beggar’s livelihood and that of numberless respectable people. Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then, what is work? A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course–but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless. And as a social type a beggar compares well with scores of others. He is honest compared with the sellers of most patent medicines, high-minded compared with a Sunday newspaper proprietor, amiable compared with a hire-purchase tout–in short, a parasite, but a fairly harmless parasite. He seldom extracts more than a bare living from the community, and, what should justify him according to our ethical ideas, he pays for it over and over in suffering. I do not think there is anything about a beggar that sets him in a different class from other people, or gives most modern men the right to despise him.

Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised? –for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modem talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except “Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it”? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately. A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman, getting his living, like other businessmen, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modern people, sold his honor; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.

– George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), end of Chapter XXXI

Why You Should Become an Army Medic

Monday, August 20th, 2007

I was talking to a retired army medic last night. He had been shot three times (with one bullet still in him), served in three wars (Vietnam, Panama, and Gulf I), and yet he did not regret his army career.

In response to my noting that nurses tend to be very touchy-feely, perhaps due to the physical nature of their work, he told me of the greatest benefit to being an army medic. Being shot at is no fun, but during peacetime, medic battallions are often sent out on field exercises, for weeks at a time. Five hundred nurses all alone in the woods, with nothing to do at night. Of these five hundred nurses, maybe thirty would be men, and as my friend put it, “about twenty of these guys didn’t really care for women.” So that makes for a ratio of about forty five lonely female nurses for every straight guy. Four hundred and seventy nurses, healthy, young and horny, all alone in the forest with only ten fellows to keep them company at night. There was never a porno movie made with such an exciting premise. And this man lived it.

Beyond the salacious sylvan romps, I learned some other things about being an army medic. After college, he joined the army in 1974, as they would train him to become a full registered nurse (he had not gone to a nursing school, but to a regular college on a basketball scholarship). He figured he was safe, because the Vietnam War was winding down. He was mistaken. His whole graduating class got sent to Vietnam in 1975 to mop up the dead and wounded. Of his medic battallion, half were killed. No-one had told the Viet-Cong that medics are protected by the Geneva Convention. As all the fighting troops had gone home, he and his fellow medics worked unprotected, as he described it, “while we matched body parts and put them into body bags.” Retired, at the age of fifty one, the Army tried to talk him into going back into service two years ago for the Iraq War, ostensibly to train and teach. He laughed and refused when they asked him. When I noted that, had he reenlisted, the Army could have reneged and sent him anywhere that they wanted, including the war zone, he agreed that, “they have a way of doing that.”

It is worth noting that he found one shared trait among the surviving nurses — they all played army as kids, so had honed the instincts of acting smart and staying low under fire, even in play.

This man loved his career as a nurse and medic, with the good and the bad. So for the young man looking for his way in the world, eager for adventure and female attention, go out into the woods, play war, and dream of being an Army medic.

When 4 Is a Random Number

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

4 is a random number

from the very funny xkcd.  (the original comic is here)

Is Gentrification Good?

Wednesday, August 1st, 2007

At 20:00 tonight, Wednesday, August 1, I will be moderating a debate at the Lower East Side’s Lolita Bar on the question, “is gentrification good?”.

I mentally prepare for these debates, which are held each month on a new topic, by wondering what questions I might ask of the debaters. This helps me to anticipate their arguments and to more fully contemplate the issue at hand. The questions are at times philosophical, and often provocative and logically fallacious. I think the fallacious questions are important to allow a debater to address questions that are in the back of people’s mind and thus dispel unreasonable doubts.

Never mind that some seem repetitious or may play on a theme already introduced. I don’t ask every question that comes into my head. If only the audience might do the same.

Here are some of my thoughts on potential questions:

  • What about the reverse of gentrification, the horribly racist and unfortunately aptly named phenomenon of “white flight”? Don’t the disastrous recent histories of Newark and Detroit argue for the benefits of gentrification?
  • Must gentrification be so intimately tied with issues of race? Is it always a case of Whites supplanting people of color?
  • What about “hyper-gentrification”, where already affluent communities have prosperous middle-class residents priced out the rich and hyper-rich, as is the case in many areas of Manhattan?
  • I’ve been to Bedford-Stuyvesant and walked along Fulton street in the evening with my wife and two children. It’s scary.
  • Isn’t gentrification mostly an economic issue?
  • Where are the poor and miserable supposed to go?
  • Why are poor urban black neighborhoods so scary?
  • Shouldn’t we expect demographic change in our cities, to reflect the plastic nature of the larger American society of which they are a part?
  • Shouldn’t people be happy when their neighborhood gets nicer?
  • Doesn’t it just always suck to be poor, no matter what?
  • Aren’t their hidden costs to gentrification, chief of which is social dislocation and discontinuity?
  • One pattern in New York City, seen in Williamsburg and the Lower East Side, seems to be young, hip, mostly white artsy types move into a minority neighborhood, make it cool, and then more affluent people move in and sanitize it culturally.
  • Aren’t the rich awfully boring? Seriously, people who concern themselves greatly with money seem to lose a part of their spirit and soul.
  • Where is the next great urban frontier?
  • Is gentrification “punk rock”? (One of the debaters sings for punk rock bands).
  • Doesn’t it bother you to be on the same side of a debate as Al Sharpton? This will necessarily be asked of the anti-gentrification debater. Yes, I know the question is logically fallacious, implying a “guilt by association”.

That’s it and quite a lot at that, not to say an awful lot. Say hello to me if you come to the debate.