Thursday, June 12, 2003

Separating Out

Ian Hacking remarks in one of the essays in his Historical Ontology that the “renaissance medical, alchemical, and astrological doctrines of resemblance and simultude are well nigh incomprehensible. One does not find our modern notions of evidence deployed in these arcane pursuits.” That’s not exactly wrong, but only if the “our” in “our modern notions” is defined narrowly enough. In fact a great many people, even people who don’t live in Taos, still practice these “arcane pursuits” as evidenced by the large Metaphysics sections in bookstores. Indeed, if folks addicted to resemblence and simultude don’t constitute an actual majority of the population, it’s only because so many of the rest haven’t got as far as Paracelsus. The Medieval lies far ahead of most of mankind, especially in America where, even for elites, the gains of the Enlightenment were mostly given back in the succeeding Enmerdement, so that a nation founded by cosmopolitan philosophers is now ruled by superstitious dullards.

What we (but which we?) count as general cultural advance is more often just a separating out of a tiny self-conscious minority who only think they typify the others. Just as the world of living things started out as a bunch of bacteria and mostly remains a bunch of bacteria after three and a half billion years of evolution, intellectual progress hasn’t moved the average very much either. Well-educated people are often upbraided for their sense of superiority, but in my experience they tend to offend more often by giving their fellow man too much credit than too little. They are certainly ignorant about ignorance, mistakenly taking their idea of the human mean from the highly untypical sample of people with whom they themselves interact. Indeed, with this background, encountering a truly typical human being can be quite a shock. Nothing is quite so painful as listening to an honorable, good-natured biologist getting destroyed in a pubic debate over Darwinism because his cynical opponent has a much more realistic understanding of the mentality of a lay audience whose common sense is decidedly prescientific and utterly lacking in “our modern notions of evidence.”
Ends and Means

When I hear people criticize politicians for letting the ends justify the means, I find myself wondering what else is supposed to justify the means. In my experience, the graver errors and crimes of leaders stem from an infatuation with the means themselves for which the purported end of the action simply provides an excuse or occasion. The use of torture to extract information, for example, is commonly defended by an appeal to necessity, as in the current war on terror during which we have promoted the use of torture by our allies when we haven’t practiced it ourselves under various euphemisms. Historical experience suggests, however, that torture is not a very useful technique for gathering information precisely because it is all too effective at eliciting the desired answer. Thus if what you need to do is convince yourselves of the rightness of some crazy theory, for example that old women are powerful agents of the devil or that a wrecked Middle Eastern country is a deadly immediate threat, torture works. More generally, torture makes sense, at least to its devotees, as a way of asserting power through the moral annihilation of a hated enemy. Forcing the bad guy to disclose where he planted the bomb, a very rare occurrence, is treated as the paradigm case for apologetic purposes; but, for the most part, the powerful electrocute a captive’s balls for the same reason a dog licks his—because he can.

Terrible things must sometimes be done by decent people, though even in the most defensible instances, the good can only do what they must my waking their own dark impulses. Thus in the inevitable example—though the case of Roosevelt is probably more illuminating—Churchill waged pitiless war on Hitler because it was the necessary thing to do, but he was able to act ruthlessly, as he himself understood perfectly, because he loved war and destruction for itself. Hitler was a godsend to Churchill, just as the tragedy of the Civil War was a gift to Lincoln, something Lincoln also acknowledged. But in these cases the ends really did justify the means. The great objection to America’s behavior in the world over the last couple of years is not that we have used violent and coercive means, but that we have used them despite the absence of a great national emergency and with a vehemence all out of proportion to any real threat. Bin Laden and Saddam are just excuses for the arrogant and highly pleasurable exercise of sheer power. And the proof of this will be that when these hyped and misidentified villains are gone, there will be others.

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Most Dreaded Nation Status

In a recent exchange with Christopher Hitchens, Eric Alterman referred to surveys showing that Europeans think Mr. Bush is more dangerous than Osama Ben Laden. Alterman criticized the administration policies that had led to this perception but was quick to assure everybody that he didn’t share the opinion himself. I presume he was observing the current taboo that mandates piety about American leaders, but I suppose it’s just possible he was sincere. In that case, one has to ask how anybody could doubt that George Bush is not more dangerous than Ben Laden?

My point is not polemical. I’m not looking for new ways to deplore Mr. Bush. I have plenty of those already. What’s at stake is the need for some clarity about obvious realities. Whatever the personal characteristics of Ben Laden or Castro or even the poufy-haired supreme leader of the North Koreans, their actual power to harm is sharply limited by the poverty and military weakness of the organizations they lead. Mr. Bush, by contrast, could incinerate five continents in half an hour. Since the dangerousness of a regime is the product of its capacity to inflict harm and the malevolence or stupidity of its policies and our country is a thousand times more capable than its enemies, our leaders would have to me a thousand times wiser or more moral just to break even. QED.

It is an undisputed maxim of sound strategy that we should prepare to deal with what the enemy can do, not what we think he wants to do. I apply this principle to my own country and its current master. Intentions are not facts of the same order as capabilities; they are often inscrutable and can always be dissembled. Besides, to say that America would never play the bully is to ignore a great deal of historical experience, especially the parts relating to the business end of the Monroe Doctrine. To date, America’s reputation, especially in America, owes a lot to the general ignorance of history and the fact that we’ve mostly played the villain to marginal and despised people and inflicte horrors on nations that had previously acted horribly themselves. I am particularly skeptical of the seldom-articulated but frequently reasoned from premise that America has an especially virtuous national character that guarantees it will not act as badly as all the other empires of history. National character is not unchanging. The Italians used to be Romans; and two hundred years ago it was the French who the military beasts, the Germans who were the people of the poets and thinkers. Unless you believe in divine providence, why should you think that the Americans, whose culture and germplasm is an amalgam of every people on the planet, are somehow above falling into the normal sins of the Nations? The only thing beyond dispute is this: if we go on a rampage, it will be some rampage.

Monday, June 09, 2003

One Hundred Views of Clement Street

The Elizabethans loved finery and display, but their world, like that of practically all human beings for most of history, was very poor in images. Aside from public religious art and a few paintings in the homes of the rich or at court, the only representative art a Londoner regularly encountered were a few black and white figures in books and the crude woodcuts used to decorate humble walls. Artists were scarce, the choice of media limited, and means of reproduction rudimentary. Even the subject matter of pictures was constrained by tradition to a small number of types. The contrast with our experience is stark. We are absolutely awash in images: drawings, paintings, cartoons, prints, movies, videos, photographs, micrographs, charts, clip art, computer displays, even iconic road signs and identification badges. A large proportion of the surfaces of things now bear the likeness of something. The cumulative effect can be overwhelming or at least wearying, but under the circumstances, you’d think we at least know what the world looks like.

It was once a commonplace of Freudian dream analysis that the multiplication of phalluses or phallic symbols such as digits or swords actually figured castration, the lack of even one phallus. Art historians refer to something similar under the rubric of horror vacui. The same logic obtains in the original Matrix movie in which the spectral unreality of the projected world is made clear by the gratuitous multiplication of images–remember the scene where the hero asks for weapons and gets a universe of Uzis that noisily materialize in infinite parallel racks? The effect was subsequently plagiarized in a TV ad for an Internet company that sells cars; and, for that matter, was anticipated in Eastern art where infinite arrays of identical selfless Buddhas are regularly depicted appearing in a golden sky. If we have expanded on these motifs and now fill our entire lives with representations, part of the reason is surely the simple fact that we have the technical means to do so; but the ubiquity of picturing, a sort of objective neurosis of the age, also obsessively stages the inescapable fact that the world remains essentially invisible.

Were there absolutely no light in the Platonic Cave, we would not even be aware of the darkness. What disturbs complacency is not the impossibility of knowing but the implications of what we know and can’t doubt in good faith. Authentic but indirect knowledge allows us to gauge our massive, constitutive ignorance. I’ve lived in these parts for almost a quarter of a century, for example, but I have only recently admitted that I don’t know what Clement Street looks like. I have acquired this insight through a thought experiment. Let there be hundred representations of Clement Street, but let them be truly representative for once, which is to say, let them be random perspectives that reflect the objective reality of Clement Street rather than the customary iconography. A photographer would probably pick a vantage point from which the interesting features of the scene could be observed, but that choice imposes a human principle of selection and drastically reduces the possible images. For our purposes, the view from underneath a dead pigeon or looking straight down from a light post must have equal rights. Indeed, since the nearly universal practice of holding the camera level is also hugely arbitrary, we also have to expect images shot at every angle. Pictures should be made at every focus, at every magnification, at every shutter speed, and with film sensitive to every possible set of frequencies. Like a bee, we should see the street in the ultraviolet. Like a sniper, we should see it in the infrared. It should appear as an X-ray, a spectrogram; and, atom-by-atom, as an image formed by scanning tunneling microscopy—and that’s just to consider mechanical forms of representation. The complete set of views of Clement Street would also include paintings and models produced not only in every known style of art from cave painting to Peter Max but in every possible style of art and executed with every degree of virtuosity at every scale from the microminiature to the monumental, including full-scale duplications of the street made out of everything from bricks and wood to play dough or cottage cheese. Baring miraculous chance, none of the hundred representations selected at random from this thinkable but unimaginable ensemble would look like anything at all we could recognize or interpret but they would be views of Clement Street for all that and representive of what the world looks like in general.

Sunday, June 08, 2003

Never Asked by Charlie Rose

I was interested to learn from a recent public service ad that marijuana is a major cause of unwanted pregnancy. For some reason, I was under the impression that beer and tequila shooters often had something to do with that. I don’t discount the deleterious side effects of cannabis, however. For example, pot causes politicians to lie on television and incites police officers and judges to ruin the lives of total strangers—a powerful drug, indeed, especially considering that it isn’t a powerful drug at all.

I was going to write that American society is hung up about pot and drugs in general, not because of their public health significance, which is small potatoes relative to the medical significance of tobacco, cheeseburgers, and even computer games, but because drug use symbolizes the hugely menacing because hugely attractive appeal of consciousness itself, the master addiction. That may be so, but I can’t claim to know why we inflict such terrible grief on each other over what should be trivialities. The anti-drug mania, after all, is not the only witch-hunt under way in this country. Why have we turned the sexual abuse of children into a crime so horrible, so sacred that people have to apologize in advance for speaking about it without hysteria? Even stating the obvious statistical fact that children are far more harmed by poverty than by child abuse can land you in trouble. The level headed Ian Hacking has shown that “child abuse,” far from naming an eternal evil, assumed in current absolute form around 1960. So why are we suddenly so obsessed with what was, not so long ago, more often an occasion for gossip and sniggering than inquisition and judicial condemnation?

My usual procedure is the reverse of Jeopardy. I regularly phrase my questions in the form of an answer. But in this case I’ll break with my own tradition and ask the plain question: “What accounts for our crazy public behavior about drugs and juvenile sex?” Of course it is possible that there is no natural class composed of irrational public obsessions and that the persecution of potheads, short eyes, and wicked old women has no common measure. It is also possible that the explanation or explanations will be rather disappointing since in human affairs there is no proportion between cause and effect.