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. . . 2001-10-14

The Indefinite Conversation

A reader either cheers me on or lumps me in, I can't tell which:

what breed of idiots
I have to remember to avoid this kind of ambiguity should I ever be called upon to lead a lynch mob. Suppose I get everyone chanting something like "Kill him! Kill him!" and start leading them down the street to the jailhouse. Isn't it likely that newcomers to our party may misinterpret what all the folks following close behind me mean by shouting "Kill him! Kill him!" at my back? Heaven only knows what hilarity might ensue.

Which reminds me again how hard it is to keep that greased-piglet of a "we" out of political discourse, and how painful it is to recall that the nested affiliations "a couple of webloggers who read each other," "liberals who read anything," "the American voting public," and "global humanity" are not precisely interchangeable. For example, the first group in that list -- and possibly the second as well -- is easily outnumbered by the group of "people who decide how to vote based on TV commercials." (After which, to be sure, we all collectively enjoy the results.)

Colette Lise joins a particularly exclusive community of shared trauma:

That Warning Signs of Diabetes thing is in my doctor's office, too. Creepy. Why are you reading Wittgenstein?
And an anonymous reader manages to answer for me:
I have a toothache.
Because, yes, I have a toothache, too. It seems that everyone has a toothache!

Or at least everyone is moaning. And why else would they moan?

But if here we talk of perversity, we might also assume that we all were perverse. For how are we, or B, ever to find out that he is perverse?

The idea is, that he finds out (and we do) when later on he learns how the word 'perverse' is used and then he remembers that he was that way all along.

   - Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Notes for Lectures on 'Toothache' and 'Toothache'," Philosophical Occasions
+ + +

In a long and delightfully well-researched letter, John Ferguson objected to my passing characterization of the American Civil War as fought "to defend slavery," pointing out that the contested issue was expressly secession. Since I'd already worried that I might have summarized my views into a bit too condensed a clip, and for the benefit of those American history students who've happened upon this page while searching for "exploitive + photographs + of + not + quite + sixteen + year + olds," I reprint my answer here:

Not oversimplification so much as disagreement, I think. You believe the Civil War was initiated by the refusal of the United States government to recognize the legitimate right to secede. I believe the Civil War was initiated by the insistence of the Southern states on seceding when they had no such right.

Obviously a good many well-informed people argued both sides of that particular question. As a practical controversy, it was settled by the war.

Now, as to cause. Why did the Federal government want to keep the southern states in the Union? I doubt that many historians would say that it was so that slavery could be eliminated in those states.

Why did the southern states secede? Pretty obviously it was triggered by the election of a president from an anti-slavery party and motivated by the fear that slave-holding states would lose Federal power and perhaps even the slave-based economy itself.

A good many people have also argued over whether that distrust was justified. My own feeling is that it was not -- that the combined power of the Southern states and the less radically anti-slavery politicians of the North would have indefinitely postponed emancipation, and that those responsible for the Confederacy moved much too quickly from petulance to paranoia -- but I may well be unduly influenced by the particular accounts I've read from the period.

And John graciously responded:

I was much intrigued by your final paragraph as I'd almost noted earlier that many other nations finally abolished slavery as a legal status without having an internal war. I'm not so sure we're in disagreement regarding the issue of secession, and I'd guess we both consider much of the turbulence about slavery as attempts by the various partisans to trump each other. I certainly consider slavery to have been indefensible. [Therefore, it would be illogical for the war to have been fought to defend slavery.]

I noted General JA Early, in part, as he (and many others) opposed secession, and some of those who opposed secession did so because they disagreed with the legality of dissolving the union. It's impossible to know, but I've seen estimates that on the brink of the war most people in the southern states were "undecided" regarding many of the controversies, with the pro-secession and pro-union minorities being extremely vocal (and in the case of the former, relatively politically powerful). The historical record is clear that both sides initially expected the war to be short and glorious, and that the resulting horror was a powerful incentive to explain afterward what happened in terms of lofty principles worthy of the sacrifices.

My attempt to sum up:

Yes, I'd tend to agree that the majority of the populations in both the North and the South were more "undecided" than anything else, and that it was only the domino-by-domino polarizations of 1) the minority Republican party winning a split Presidential race, 2) the victory of the secessionist minority in some Southern states, and 3) the ensuing civil war that make the North-vs.-South free-vs.-slave federalist-vs.-secessionist divisions seem so clear to later generations.

In fact, that's why the example came so quickly to mind when I was writing about the importance of mistrust in politics: the American Civil War seems a prime example of an avoidable crisis which sprang from unrealistic levels of distrust and opportunistic minority extremists. (Leaving aside my strong sentimental attachment to one of those extremist parties!)

. . . 2001-10-16

The Indefinite Conversation, cont.

Reader Toadex Hobogrammathon directs our attention to the welcome subject of to rojec tmy ergnaoreys:

thro yr Ardent urgency, have I can come to Z;
accidental Ctrl-b, close window, I wrote a something to Ray, ... ;;;; What may I be writing an Rutgersial anthological comment on Zukofsky, do yo have any bookings to recomment,?? Or articles?? Are you attributed to him?

I mean, I'm drafted by class, to write by an anthology of Rutgers, what Z did and said, and so forth. I got a goddamn refridgerator the last guy had to assault me with some whirr less than buzzing, when one dranks enough to listen.

And before a four days ago, I didnaot know tha te emoeuseic of A24 is H via C, so enough of tracking up and through the left,

good days to you and thakn yuo of all the

Louis Zukofsky was a man, and a big man. Killed him a bar when he was only three, climbed up a mountain without skinning his knee, wrote naw-thing lak po-ee try, and brought home a baby bumblebee. Zukofsky is a legend of the West.

Past these basic facts, the most reliable biographical source I've found is the ever-charming Kevin Killian:

I remember being furious and moping around my parents' house when Time magazine said Frank O'Hara had been killed by a dune buggy on Fire Island.

I was very pouty for weeks & my dad said, "Why don't you write to Louis Zukofsky?" I perkled up & asked him who he was. He didn't really know, but LZ had been on the same TV program (NET) that O'Hara was. "And plus," he said, "he lives in Port Jefferson. And he's always writing letters to the editor" [of our nearby paper, The Port Jefferson "Record"] - "complaining about this or that."

Well I got on my bike, I was like 13 or 14, and headed to Port Jefferson which was about 10 miles away and went to the house of Louis Zukofsky. He would always write letters to the paper about traffic in front of his house, etc.

He was not happy to see me - I don't think he cared for school children. I was about 13. He was a mean curmudgeon, but the garden was beautiful to my eyes. I resolved as soon as I was old enough to get a drivers license, to take a big station wagon and drive right through his hedges, in the middle of the night. I think my brief encounter with Zukofsky colored the rest of my reading of him, ever since. "99 Flowers" indeed! He wouldn't have had 1 flower left if I had had my way! Luckily my childhood anger faded by the time I was 15 or so and started to drive. I didn't meet any other poets until I was about 17 and met Paul Blackburn in New York. But Alex Haley did come to our classroom & told us all about writing the "Autobiography of Malcolm X."

I'm reading this over & I'm, like, stunned at how stupid I sound.

More insight from Killian: "Louis: Harry Dean Stanton. Celia: Kate Nelligan. Paul: Macaulay Culkin."

. . . 2001-10-17

The Consolations of Art

I woke around a quarter after three thinking how fundamentalist lunatics buying old weapons reminded me of the chilling final scenario of "Who's Next":

We'll try to stay serene and calm
When Alabama gets the bomb.
Given the oil money involved, I guess it's closer to Texas getting the bomb. And I guess in a manner of speaking Texas has the bomb already. Nevertheless, I think it would do national morale a lot of good if CNN would interview Tom Lehrer.

+ + +

"I can already see the anthrax ad copy" - Half Empty, 04/20/98

The proprietor of dangerousmeta is having an anthraxtastic! 42nd birthday:

dangerousmeta also links to the thoughts provoked in backwater fundamentalist Muslim students by video footage of the WTC attacks. They finally take shelter, of course, in the ready-at-hand theory proffered by every Islamic newsorgan I've looked at:
"I think that this is not the work of an ordinary human being. I think that the criminals are from within the United States. Maybe if a proper investigation is carried out, it may actually be the Jews."
More evidence that folks are pretty much the same all over!

(That is to say, fucking idiots.)

Anyway, not to pull age rank or anything, but I lived in NYC with a biologist who was researching AIDS before anyone knew what caused it or how it was transmitted, and anthrax fear doesn't begin to compare....

+ + +

The Indefinite Conversation, cont.

That very same dangerousmeta proprietor's response to my birthday greetings:

there's this guy who lives down the road from me. every summer, for a few days, he breaks out the 1959 austin-healy bugeye sprite, in the original baby-blue paint. so i get to "see" 1959, and how well it's aging.

the car still looks great, though the gears are non-synchro first and reverse.

maybe one could say the same for us?

. . . 2001-10-18

Is there any other position where incongruous boasts of one's athletic prowess and fatuous preening over not being asked tough questions would be called "new maturity" or "growing into the job"?

Why, yes; thinking back over the CEOs and corporate board members I've met, there are plenty of such positions....

+ + +

The Indefinite Conversation, cont.

Lawrence L. White kindly points us to T. P. Uschanov's Icy Frigid Aire:

There's so much to like here. At the risk of revealing myself as an exoticist, I confess I find the very idea of Finland intriguing -- European culture on the tundra -- as well as his ethnic background, and his use of the old English academic schtick of initials instead of names. Nice theatrical touch. Who wouldn't like a grad student who calls himself a "philosopher"? They're not that many professors with such moxy. He is also a non-tedious example of how to use the web to express intellectual interests. It's as if he invited us into his apartment, showed us the views outside the window, what's on the bookshelf, the record player, his desk. (Showing instead of telling us what he likes & doesn't like.) Google searches for Mr. Uschanov's name come up w/even more. For a while, at least, he seems to have been everywhere talking about everything. There aren't many entries for 2001. Pages on the site have been updated recently, so I don't think he's burned out. Perhaps he has had to buckle down at school.

Although there is not much of his writing on the page, it's good stuff. I think his two Wittgenstein essays are first rate, & the music writing snippet is interesting, especially for not going on too long.

Uschanov is indeed a online treat. On Usenet alone, he quotes Shangri-Las interviews, runs a Golden Oldies Lyrics Quiz, and supplies helpful reminders:

But philosophy isn't love of truth. In Greek,
    "agape" = 'love, affection'
    "philia" = 'friendship, comity'
Which means a world of difference.
A guide to personal misuse of Uschanov's longer essays:

. . . 2001-10-21

God told me to

"All these arguments might look as if I wanted to argue for the freedom of the will or against it. But I don't want to." -- Ludwig Wittgenstein

I wouldn't describe the syllogism

  1. All changes in the universe's state are fully and unalterably determined by already existing conditions of the universe.
  2. Civil courts should not punish lawbreakers who did not exercise free choice in their lawbreaking.
  3. Therefore crimes cannot be punished.
as flawed, exactly -- logically speaking, it seems more like the explosively hemorrhaging corpses at the end of Re-Animator. Even if we try to accept the first two unwieldy propositions, it's clearly a special case of the frequently (if silently) relied upon fallacy
  1. Humanity is deluded.
  2. I am speaking to you.
  3. Therefore I and you are not deluded.
in which the judge and the syllogist have been singled out as the ones in the know.

Much tidier then is T. P. Uschanov's:

  1. All human action is determined.
  2. Punishing criminals is a human action.
  3. Therefore civil courts are determined to punish criminals.
Still not all that engaging, though. It's not his solution's problem so much as a problem with the problem itself.

In everyday life, the will exerts a level of influence that even the willer often finds embarrassingly feeble. (E.g., "I will now sit down and write that novel.") Sure, if you asked me why I took a computer programming job, I'd say "Because I decided that I wanted money more than I wanted to starve." But if you asked me why I walked into a lamp post, I could only answer, "Because I wasn't paying attention." If you went on to ask, "Why weren't you?" I might go on to answer "Because I was trying to remember all the verses to 'Duke of Earl'," but if you continued your interrogation, I'd quickly have to rest with "Hey! Lay off! I didn't do it on purpose!" The matter might then be dropped, but note that if I had been driving a car when I struck the lamp post, the justice system would hold me responsible despite my free will's lack of exercise.

On the deterministic side, if I lent a fiscally irresponsible friend $50 and he spent it all on a bottle of armagnac which he then dropped and shattered on the way home from the liquor store, I might tell myself, "Well, that was predictable." But that would just be an attempt to redirect some of my exasperation from my friend to myself; despite my claim to prescience I would not, in fact, declare any more surprise on hearing that he had instead left the money behind in his pants after impulsively joining a parade of nudists at the Folsom Street Fair.

I can't remember early polytheists or skeptics showing much interest in free will or determinism or their influence on the justice system. If a Greek god punished you by prodding you into a lousy decision, that wouldn't spring you from the local human courts: the mortal legal system's reaction counts as part of the punishment. And when loosely deist types like Unitarians or Stoics say "You can't fight city hall," they seem to mean more "You'd be a fool to try" than "City hall controls all your thoughts and actions."

No, determinism doesn't become a pressing issue until you get to a single omnipotent omniscient 100%-morally-good creator who nevertheless judges and punishes its own creations. (I guess it's true that Edgar Bergen disciplined Charlie McCarthy once in a while, but still....)

And then it continues pressing in a slightly more rumpled way with Newtonian mechanics and its catchy "give me a snapshot and I will predict the world" approach. Since science relies on reproducible results, it naturally tends to talk about what's predictable. And who doesn't want to sound scientific?

Which has led to some odd passes in the humanities, particularly in their popularized forms.

Luckily, behaviorism is out of fashion and Newtonian mechanics is not the only role model around.

In a rare fit of sophistry, Uschanov challenged a non-determinist to show one action that happened without any cause. Although "causality" has its own problems, causality is not the issue here, a conscious decision being as valid (if not as common) a "cause" as gravity is. What's at stake in determinism is predictability. And it's not hard to find unpredictability and causality coexisting peaceably in twentieth-century physics as well as in ordinary language use.

That doesn't mean that "the soul is to be found in quantum undecidability" or any such nonsense. No, the individual actions of an individual human (or canine or feline) mind are indeterminate less because of anything one could call free will -- which usually plays a negligible role -- than because of all the other crap flying around the infinitely intermingled systems of biochemistry, anatomy, self-organizing neural nets, interdependent modular processes, human society, lamp post construction, and so on. If someone converts to Scientology, and we find that on the day of his conversion he suffered a mild stroke, we might say that the stroke caused the conversion. But even if we were told the exact location of the stroke beforehand, would we have been able to predict that conversion? Although Scientologists are undoubtedly working on the problem, I'd still say no.

Decision-making consciousness is much more a fuzzy outline of convenience than a coherent all-powerful unit, but it would be silly to deny its existence on that basis: regardless of implementation details, the bundle of events found within those shifting boundaries do take place, after all, and if a court wants to pay special attention to those events (not all courts do), it can go right ahead. (I might also note that the possibility of rational decision-making is not a particularly comforting thought unless we're all rationally free-willing from a homogeneously shared set of rules and goals. Right here on the web, for example, you can find people rationally free-willing from pretty scary premises.)

Doctrinal free will seems hubristic when not trivial, but strict determinism is about as rigorous as saying that "love draws all objects together": a truly radical skeptic wouldn't affirm something which can neither be refuted nor confirmed by evidence. As a scientific hypothesis, determinism is meaningless, being unverifiable. As an ethical aid, it's meaningless by definition. That doesn't leave anyplace from which it can derive meaning -- except maybe the rosy glow of unwarranted presumption:

"... simply because I happen to enjoy knowing things most people don't know." -- conclusion of "The Standard Misinterpretation of Determinism"

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2001 Ray Davis.