Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Final Solution: Why Not Athens Rather Than Rome and Jerusalem?

Matthew Arnold (portrait by Elliot and Fry)
On his current trip President Trump will have traveled to three major religious centers, Jerusalem, Rome and Riyadh, the capital of a country which is home to the most holy of Muslim pilgrimages, the annual Hajj to the Saudi city of Mecca. But while Rome, Jerusalem and Riyadh may have deep religious meaning for Jews, Christians and Muslims, it’s the dichotomy between Athens and Jerusalem which has the most profound philosophical significance. In his Culture and Anarchy Matthew Arnold draws a dichotomy between the Hellenic “spontaneity of consciousness” versus the Hebraic “strictness of conscience,” with the former emphasizing speculation and the later action. From a geopolitical point of view there was no way that Athens was going to figure into the president’s itinerary. Greece, the birthplace of Western civilization, is a country that's struggling to stay afloat in EU. More importantly the president is someone who himself is all action. In fact, if one looks at the most recent gaffe with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about Comey being  “a nut job” one might conclude that he often acts without thinking. Putting someone like Trump in the modern equivalent of Plato’s Academy would be tantamount to sentencing Alexandr Solzhenitsyn to the Gulag. This is not to say that Trump is faring any better amongst his action orientated buddies in Jerusalem. Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave Trump a royal welcome, it came in spite of his ruffling the feathers of Israeli intelligence, who’d been implicated in the same conversation during which he’d reassured that the Russians that the firing of the FBI director according to the Times "had relieved 'great pressure' on him." ("Trump Told Russians That Firing 'Nut Job' Comey Eased Pressure From Investigation,NYT, 5/19/17, "Trump Accidentally Confirms that He Leaked Israeli Intel to the Russians," New York Magazine, 5/22/17).

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Final Solution: Trump's Tweets and Black Holes

the black hole, Cygnus X-1 (NASA)
It’s interesting to note that while you’re going about your business, perhaps waiting for the next gaffe from The White House or anxiously waiting to hear whether the proposal for your project will get the green light from your purveyor of choice, that there are bits and pieces of matter moving toward the event horizon of some distant black hole where they will be sucked into oblivion by an almost unimaginably powerful magnetic force that makes the gravitational pull of the earth pale by comparison. Thinking about such things can be like escapist entertainment, especially when the realities of everyday life don’t present a particular pleasing palette of possibilities. One recourse from a competitive dog eat dog world can be to look at everything under the aspect of eternity. From this perspective mankind is just a speck, a minor footnote in the 13.8 billion years since the advent of the Big Bang. Imagine matter being sucked into a black hole and then imagine the fate of Trump’s Tweets swirling into nothingness like the heroin swirling down the toilet in that famous scene in Trainspotting. Go out one clear night this summer. If you are lucky you will see shooting stars or meteors raining through our galaxy. The point isn’t only that we’re small and insignificant by comparison, it’s Hamlet’s old saw, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy…” It’s very hard to see the wood from the trees when you’re in the middle of a tornado, but when everything settles down, you begin to get a glimpse of an enormity that often eludes perception.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Life or Afterlife?

photograph: Ladislav Faigl
You write your will and attempt the best you can to do right by your friends and family, but at the same time it’s hard to swallow the notion that nothing is going to matter, at least to you, once you’re gone. As Larissa MacFarquhar describes in Strangers Drowning, there are cases of altruistic individuals who will make extreme sacrifices for others. But for most people there's this lingering uncertainty about whether anything really makes any difference once they're no longer on the earth. Cogito ero sum is the famous Cartesian axiom, but sum ergo cogito also applies. Humans are social animals and while they're living they care about those around them, for the most part because it’s to their own benefit, but is it possible to truly care about anyone considering one’s someday non-existent state? To use an artistic metaphor, the social world is the palette of perception. Trying to conceive of the world once you're gone and no longer conscious, once you're no longer involved in a quid pro quo with reality becomes far more challenging. The act of say estate planning is a practical way of dealing with the future. However it's fundamentally about the here and now. A person who does not show any interest in the welfare of his family by planning for them after he or she is no longer on earth, becomes a pariah, at least in polite society. Making arrangements and dealing with one’s own demise is essentially a concession to the living. Once you're dead, will it really matter if you're cremated or buried and where? Will it matter who performs the eulogy?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Devil Wears Malware

Baby boomers who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s remember air raid drills and television broadcast interrupted by “this is a test of the emergency service system” followed by a high-pitched ring. They will recall fallout shelters which looked cozy with their shelves of items like Campbell’s soup and hiding under desks at school during air raid drills. A lot of good hiding under a desk was going to do against an H bomb, but during Cuban Missile Crisis grownups, not too many of whom had seen Alain Resnais’ haunting Hiroshima, Mon Amour, took these precautions seriously. Today, we worry about Kim Jong-un developing the capability of sending an ICBM with a nuclear warhead to the West Coast, but he's a comic book character with his hairdo, paunch and vaguely hermaphroditic appearance and no one seems to take his rantings as seriously as they did Nikita Khrushchev’s during the cold war, when he took off his shoe and banged it on his lectern at the U.N. Today, what is more fearful is the kind of “hybrid warfare” in which political economies that are totally dependent on information and connectivity are threatened by cyber attack. The "fallout" from the recent and massive cyberattack is still being felt around the world and the Russians of course did this with the election. What will happen if the Russians or the North Koreans or Anonymous attacks Verizon or one of the other service providers--something which is a distinct possibility? Imagine no cell phone or internet! The book that prophesied Armageddon back in the 50’s was On the Beach. The Devil Wears Malware might be the first volume of an apocalyptic series about the dissolution of our information economy.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner might be the theme of a number of speculations about our FBI director or the Russian ambassador. However it’s also the title of a movie about interracial marriage, which starred Sidney Poitier. General Michael Flynn was purportedly meeting if not "dining" with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak who he had no mandate to engage with while the question is not only what was Trump asking of Comey over the dinner table, but why was the former FBI director even there (particularly at a time when there were very sensitive investigations going on)? However, the fact that a woman wears a short skirt is not an invitation to rape and presidents are not supposed to get appointed or elected officials in their pockets—particularly officials whose behavior has already been suspect. Of course, the movie that also starred Spencer Tracey and Katharine Hepburn, had a happier ending then some of the “dinners” which have recently taken place in Washington. For instance Mr. Trump also met with his predecessor in what was billed as a constructive working session that taking place over 1½ hours lasted longer than he expected. In that case the fallout was rather extreme to the extent that the interracial “marriage” not only didn’t work, but ended up with Trump accusing his host of bugging his premises. Nevertheless, l967, when Guess Whose Coming to Dinner was released, was a more optimistic time. LBJ was creating the Great Society, which Trump is trying to disband today.