Saturday, March 2, 2013

Empire and Total War

I just read an article that asks why there is a rise in suicides among members of the U.S. military in recent years.

Of course I don't know, but it makes me think of a passage in the prophet Samuel.  King David sends his army to fight, "in the season when kings go off to war," but he does not join them.  He stays behind and winds up having an affair with a married woman, then arranging for her husband to die on the front lines to cover up David's dalliance.  (By the way, David is remembered as one of the good kings.)

The bold passage above tells us something about the history of warfare: small states cannot afford total war.  They can only go to war when their crops are in the ground, and must return before the crops are to be harvested.  Not so with empires.  Large states can draw soldiers from many places and so can afford to field an army year-round.

Sometimes you're just in the right place to capture the photo. The Blue Angels soar past Walmart.

While King David's state was small enough that it was still bound by the growing season, he was enjoying a period when his state had grown large enough that he could send his troops out without joining them, without committing himself to sharing in their triumphs and losses.  And this detachment of the leadership from the fighting forces led to deep tragedy, and even to a kind of human sacrifice, wherein the king was willing to sacrifice one of his men to cover up the king's own error.

So while I don't know why the suicide rate is increasing right now, I am not surprised to learn that our troops are suffering.  We commit them to long tours of duty, not just for part of a growing season but for years on end with only short rests.  It is lamentable that they are often so far from us it is hard to even imagine what they endure, much less to share in it with them.


See my earlier post on the cost of war here.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Guns and Aesthetics

A number of times in the last few months the issue of aesthetics and firearms has arisen, notably in connection with the recently proposed ban on what are called assault weapons.  I say "what are called assault weapons" because it's difficult to decide which weapons should be included in that category. The assault weapons ban tries to categorize them by asking whether they meet at least three out of a short list of criteria.

Many guns are semiautomatic - that is, each pull of the trigger fires a round and then loads the next round - without being assault weapons.  Most of the duck hunters I know use semiautomatic shotguns, for instance.  Their guns only hold three rounds (as stipulated by the law that governs the hunting of migratory waterfowl) but those three rounds can be fired in rapid succession, and most of the guns can be quickly made to hold more than three rounds - usually up to five.  Some small-game guns that fire .22 caliber rounds (one of the smallest and least powerful bullets commonly available) are also semiautomatic; and I'd guess most of the handguns sold today are semiautomatic as well.  But few of these guns qualify as assault weapons.

Which ones are the dangerous ones?

Critics of the ban point out that for this reason (among others) the criteria for assault weapons are merely aesthetic.  Banning guns on the basis of aesthetics will do little or nothing to solve the problem of gun violence, they say.

I haven't looked into the statistics, but I would guess that most gun deaths in the United States involve semiautomatic handguns and not assault weapons.

Which leads me to the question of whether the aesthetics of guns matters.  

My answer is not about what laws we should enact, but about whether aesthetics matters anywhere.  And the answer is that every one of us knows that aesthetics always matters.  It affects the kind of car we drive, the clothes we wear, the way we wear our hair.  Even those who profess that they don't care about these things almost certainly do care.  Everyone who studies advertising and marketing knows; songwriters and filmmakers know; everywhere we turn we find a human environment in which we have made important choices on the basis of how the visual aspect of our belongings and edifices makes us feel.

They aren't just vehicles for our bodies, but for all the other things we wish to convey as well.

The Best View In Warsaw

When the Nazis were retreating from Warsaw they dynamited the city, block by block, leveling nearly every building in the city.  After the war, the proud Poles gathered photos and paintings and rebuilt the city, brick by brick, to look just as it had before the war.  No doubt this was much harder than simply rebuilding, but they knew: aesthetics matters.  It is the expression of people who will not be put down.  Visual culture can be used to rally a nation, to embolden hearts, to renew hope.

Years ago, when I was working in Poland, one of my students offered to take me to the top of the Palace of Science and Culture in Warsaw.  The building was a "gift" from Moscow, and the building rises from a huge footprint to a soaring tower that overlooks all of Warsaw.  When we reached the top and gazed out on the city, Tomek said to me "This is the best view in all of Warsaw."  

"Because the tower is so tall that you can see everything?" I asked.

"No," he quickly replied.  "It's because this is the only place in Warsaw where you can't see this damned tower!"  The building was a "gift" but it was also a visible reminder of Russian Soviet power.  Everything from the wide footprint to the dizzying height to the architectural style was an aesthetic expression of domination.  The Soviets knew: aesthetics matters.  Visual culture can be used to intimidate and oppress.

You Are A Sign

Regardless of what you think of the proposed ban on certain kinds of guns, this should be obvious.  Go to a gun shop or a gun show sometime and ask yourself whether aesthetics matters in guns.  It might not matter enough to inform our laws, but the guns we make and buy for ourselves ought to tell us something about what is in our hearts.  The thing we hold in our hand, like the car we drive and the clothes we wear, is something we project to others, a word we are silently and visibly speaking.  As I have written before, the gun is not a neutral element in this speech.  It is a word we speak, but it can be a word that speaks us, too.  Let me tell you what every polyglot knows: some words in some languages open up new thoughts that you didn't think to think in your native tongue. The technologies we deploy may be the same; as may the visible aspect of those technologies.  Nothing is ever neutral; as Peirce said, everything - everything - is a sign, and we ourselves become signs as well.

This doesn't answer the question of what kind of laws we should have.  I think that question is secondary to this question: what kind of people should we be

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Proofs of God's Existence

Every time we encounter a proof of God's existence or non-existence, we should use it as an opportunity to ask: why is this proof being offered?

Too often I have seen Anselm's "ontological" argument abstracted from its context, as though the fact that his Proslogion begins with a prayer were inconsequential to the argument; or Descartes' proofs abstracted from his Meditations, as though it were not important that "God" serves an instrumental purpose for Descartes, allowing for the re-establishment of the world after he doubts its existence.

Anselm already believes when he writes his argument.  He has arrived at his belief in some way other than argumentation, and there is no shame in that.  Most of us arrive at most of our beliefs in less-than-purely-rational ways, and as William James has argued, we have the right to do so. It looks to me like Anselm is writing not in order to defeat all atheism (though that may be one of his aims) but in order to see if his faith and his understanding can be in agreement with one another.

Descartes might believe or he might not; I don't know how I could know.  God matters in his Meditations because God offers an "Archimedean point," a fulcrum on which to rest the lever of reason, allowing Descartes to lift the world anew from the ruins of doubt. Whether or not Descartes believes in God's existence, God is useful to Descartes.

My point is that it is mistaken to assume that arguments about God - for or against God - are detached and detachable from other concerns, and when we neglect those concerns we might just be missing the most important aspect of those arguments, namely the human aspect.  When we argue about God, we are usually also arguing about something else.