Friday, May 26, 2017

Is it a Dog Eat Dog World?

In his review of Barbara J. King’s wonderfully titled Personalities of the Plate (TLS, 4/28/17), Richard Smyth provides the following précis: “We meet beloved pigs named Esther and Ursula and a ‘therapy chicken’ called Mr. Henry Joy”, who is described as ‘gentlemenly.’” But the reviewer finds "that farmyard anecdote is too often deployed where foresensic analysis would do a more effective job.” Personalities of the Plate, despite its colorful title is compared invidiously to works which deal more effectively with animal consciousness such as Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation. But titles are the thing to capture the conscience of the king. Consider some of the others which cited in the piece: Tense Bees and Shell-shocked Crabs, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Beyond Words: What animals think and feel and last but not least The Soul of an Octopus. Smyth explains that King "describes herself as a 'reducetarian' rather than an 'abolitionist.'" However, let’s face facts. It’s plainly apparent that animals have feelings. Just look in the window of any puppy mill or look at the fish banging their heads up against the aquarium in the local Chinese place. True pigeons don’t seem very bright. Perhaps they’re fair game. The philosopher Peter Singer, who is the author of a tome entitled Animal Liberation, has pointed out that babies are not fully conscious people and "the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig." But it’s a dog eat dog world and if you're going to eat man’s best friend as they do in some parts of the world, you’re going to have to forget that he or she has a mind and just think of them as meat.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Fearless Restraint

Part of the attraction of shock jocks is that they supposedly say what they think—what they think and everybody else is afraid to say. The rest of humanity is left in a purgatory  in which the movements of honesty versus civility compete for the attention of the humanist who seeks to do the right thing. You may have seen the advertisements for a new therapy app which allows you to carry on a text relationship with a therapist and for a generation weaned on value of expression, there are numerous outlets, including 12 step recovery programs and other support groups. On the other hand the self-same advocates of psychiatric intervention may very well find themselves in situations where the overarching need to get along with others in a spirit of compassion and love involve a certain degree of dissembling. Telling the truth in this context is not the only truth. You may hate someone one day, but discover that a tolerant attitude opens up doors that had previously been closed. It’s easy to look at those you dislike as enemies who you wish to defeat. It’s easy to hate someone of a different political persuasion. However, when they become objectified as an enemy, you never get the chance to see them in another light. That’s what happens during wartime and it’s what permits killing. The real question is how to reconcile the desire to speak the truth with the desire to break down the walls that exist between individuals. It’s a balancing act that depends on cultivating the seemingly contradictory quality of fearless restraint.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Joys of Being Caught With Your Pants Down

khakis from The Gap
Remember those dreams you had as kid of finding yourself standing in front of a group of people with only your underpants on? There’s something iconic or archetypical about these “nightmares” and there's also some camouflaging going on. On the surface, a dream like this is one of humiliation. Speaking of dreams of underpants, it's like airing your dirty laundry. But on a more profound level such dreams have to do with telling the naked truth. Embarrassment is the emotion, but being undressed could be looked at as a metaphor for showing what you have a need to hide. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life was a famous study by the sociologist Erving Goffman. Human beings are all in one way or another in the PR business; you want to spin your personality so that people think of you in a certain way. This may entail assiduously hiding failures or attempting to portray yourself as an upbeat person when you’re a depressive who has trouble getting out of bed. In fact, underneath the free spirit you've invented for public consumption may lurk a person who’s not only afraid of being caught with your pants down in front of a crowd, but feels embarrassed standing naked in front of the mirror, of being “undressed,” both literally and metaphorically, of not feeling enough when you face your self.

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.