Archive for June, 2011

Thucydides, 5.89: Athenian Nihilism
June 6, 2011

The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza ...

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I haven’t done one of these in a while, but I couldn’t let what I found around the close of book five slide. Near the end of that book, Athens makes an expedition against the small island of Melos. But before they invade, they send a few representatives to the islands to negotiate with the Melians. Here’s how, near the beginning of the ensuing dialogue, the Athenians justify the pending invasion:

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses — either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of a wrong that you have done us — and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

That sounds an awful lot like what Thrasymachus tells Socrates in Plato’s Republic: that justice “is nothing but the advantage of the stronger.”

The Athenians attacked Melos in 416 BCE, Socrates drank the hemlock in 399, and Plato wrote the Republic somewhere around 380. I don’t know if Thrasymachus’ argument was supposed to be representative of popular Athenian opinion; nor do I know how much of Socrates’ positive moral realist argument in the Republic actually came from Socrates, and wasn’t just Plato putting words in the mouth of his mentor and surrogate. But if we take Thucydides’ transcription of events as evidence that Athenians were largely Thrasymachans, and if we take Plato at his word regarding Socrates’ metaethical beliefs, then all of this adds a new shade to popular understandings of the trial of Socrates.

The beliefs that got Socrates killed are generally understood to be negative beliefs. He is said to have questioned the gods, or challenged democratic rule. But maybe his moral realist critique also got him in some trouble. Applying Socratic standards, Athenian behavior during the Peloponnesian War certainly doesn’t look all that stellar. Maybe the shame of the Athenians helped doom Socrates.

But hey, what do I know? I’m no classicist, and this is just uninformed speculation. I’d like to hear from some people who know more about this.

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Thinking About Nothing
June 5, 2011

Over at Talking Philosophy Mike LaBossiere wonders if is possible to think nothing. His conclusion:

First, as Hume noted, the mind always seems to have something going on-some perception or another. Hence, a man is never really thinking about nothing-there is always something in the blender. Second, it could be argued that unlike a blender, a mind cannot engage in its function without some content. Thinking might be more like cutting-while one can make a motion with scissors, they are not cutting unless they have something to cut.

In the case of doing nothing, a man could be doing nothing in the sense that a blender could be blending nothing. Of course, the obvious reply is that while the blender is blending nothing, it is not actually doing nothing. After all, by doing it is doing something. Even thinking about nothing would be doing something, namely thinking about nothing. As such, as long as a man is doing, then he would be doing something-at the very least he is doing. What he is doing, of course, might not amount to much-hence we could be forgiven if we exaggerate and say we are doing nothing.

Earlier on he sort of waves away Heidegger and Sartre, but this seems to me one area where continental philosophy has a lot to offer. (Warning: If there’s a way to talk about this stuff without sounding like sort of a pretentious ass, I haven’t found it yet. Excuse the dorm room philosophizing.) If I’m remembering my Sartre correctly, he argued that the self (“essence”) was, at its core, this endless void containing only a self-annhilating, ever-changing miasma. We are nothing but we can’t think nothing, so we’re willfully imprisoned by our own cognition until the day we die.

It’s not the sunniest view of the mind, and contemporary neuroscience would seem to undermine Sartre’s strident dualism*, but I think there’s a kernel of psychological acuity here. Counscious thought may be only a sheer gauze stretched over our vast animal subconscious, but it’s still the only part of my own mind I can directly experience. And unless I’m sleeping, it never really stops chattering away and gumming up the works of my subconscious processes. There are obviously tremendous advantages to conscious thought, but it’s also the source of a sadness which I suspect is unique to persons. We have a lot of ways of trying to run away from it, or at least temporarily dampen its effects, but we can never be rid of it — a conscious mind can’t even understand what it means to be unconscious.

As far as how one deals with that, I think David Foster Wallace has got the right idea. Recently I went back and reread his commencement speech to Kenyon University. If you haven’t checked it out yet, you should.

*Sartre took this so far he wound up arguing, ludicrously, that physical processes play no role in sexual desire.

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Fourth Time’s A Charm
June 3, 2011

I see David Brooks, bored with our campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya (already!), is trying to gin up support for a shiny new intervention:

That’s why it’s necessary, especially at this moment in history, to focus on the nature of regimes, not only the boundaries between them. To have a peaceful Middle East, it was necessary to get rid of Saddam’s depraved regime in Iraq. It will be necessary to try to get rid of Qaddafi’s depraved regime in Libya. It’s necessary, as everybody but the Obama administration publicly acknowledges, to see Assad toppled. It will be necessary to marginalize Hamas. It was necessary to abandon the engagement strategy that Barack Obama campaigned on and embrace the cautious regime-change strategy that is his current doctrine.”

The absolutely crazy thing about this column is the standard Brooks applies for intervention: “normal” regimes like Saudi Arabia are fine, you see, but Syria is a depraved regime because, “Either as a matter of thuggishness (Syria) or ideology (Hamas), they reject the full humanity of other human beings. They believe it is proper and right to kill innocents.” That’s why he singles out Syria for intervention.

I suppose the implication is that Saudi Arabia embraces the full humanity of other human beings and doesn’t believe it is proper and right to kill innocents. But that’s ludicrous. Has Brooks already forgotten what country dispatched their troops into Bahrain to stomp out that country’s protesters? By what standard is that not depraved? Should we announce our intention to depose King Abdullah as well?

Of course not. For a whole host of reasons, the primary one being this: our “humanitarian interventions” are not successes. They are indiscriminate bloodbaths. And while it’s all well and good for a pampered columnist to talk in the abstract about the need to do something, it is appallingly irresponsible of Brooks to not consider the implications of what he’s saying.

As for the note he ends on — suggesting that peace between Israel and Palestine is impossible until we civilize those barbaric Arab countries — the less said the better. I’ll only point out that his colonialist condescension is even less palatable for implying that Netanyahu and the Likud party have done nothing to hinder the peace process. Especially knowing what we do now.

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Lad Mags and Policing Heteronormativity
June 2, 2011

That’s the subject of my latest post on the blog of Ms. Magazine:

What it tells us is that FHM and its ilk is about more than famous women in awkward poses and states of undress: It exists not just to titillate but to reaffirm the masculinity of those reading it. I submit that’s why the original Pejic entry, no matter what FHM says, is in keeping with the mission of the magazine. FHM readers are invited to sneer at him because he doesn’t conform to their notions of maleness. And identifying and isolating the “other” like that reinforces their own place in the boys’ club.

Which puts FHM writers in the difficult position of having to simultaneously acknowledge why their readers found him beautiful (which he is, in a delicate, almost angelic way) while also making ostentatious displays of their disgust. It’s a neat trick. But for me, anyway, it inspires more pity than anger. If you’re looking for affirmation of your identity in a lad mag’s heteronormative slurs, then dude, you need help.

Beck and Circuses
June 1, 2011

Last night I finally got around to reading Tim Dickinson’s epic Rolling Stone profile of Fox News president Roger Ailes. It was fascinating, though I would have liked to see less of a straight chronology of his life and more analysis of why Fox works the way it does. Maybe that’s less a criticism of the profile and more a vacuum that needs to be filled independently of it. But some of the last few paragraphs offer a tantalizing glimpse of a subject which could be fertile ground for its own profile, or its own book.

But Ailes has not simply been content to shift the nature of journalism and direct the GOP’s message war. He has also turned Fox News into a political fundraising juggernaut. During her Senate race in Delaware, Tea Party darling Christine O’Donnell bragged, “I’ve got Sean Hannity in my back pocket, and I can go on his show and raise money.” Sharron Angle, the Tea Party candidate who tried to unseat Harry Reid in Nevada, praised Fox for letting her say on-air, “I need $25 from a million people – go to and send money.” Completing the Fox-GOP axis, Karl Rove has used his pulpit as a Fox News commentator to promote American Crossroads, a shadowy political group he founded, promising that the money it raised would be put “to good use to defeat Democrats who have supported the president’s agenda.”

But the clearest demonstration of how Ailes has seamlessly merged both money and message lies in the election of John Kasich, a longtime Fox News contributor who eked out a two-point victory over Democrat Ted Strickland last November to become governor of Ohio. While technically a Republican, Kasich might better be understood as the first candidate of the Fox News Party. “The question is no longer whether Fox News is an arm of the GOP,” says Burns, the network’s former media critic, “but whether it’s becoming the torso instead.”

It’s not just that the Republican Party has a propaganda wing unlike any other in American history. Calling Fox News a propaganda wing is just one way to look at it; it could also be that the media empire is the main event and the candidates are just tie-in products.

To me that’s the more alarming notion. But it’s also the logical extension of our cultural understanding of politics as theater. If the GOP is now an extension of Fox News, it’s because how we govern ourselves as a country is becoming little more than an extension of our thirst for entertainment. Sure, the cynic will say it was always this way. I would only say to the cynic that he lacks imagination regarding how far it has gone, and how much further it can go.

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