The Book!

Monday, February 28, 2005

Dinner with Moriarty

Dear Moriarty:

Thanks for having us over, and for your gracious hosting.

Of course, the trip ended on a down tone. I would like to make clear, from my perspective exactly why, in hopes that this will improve our friendship in the future. The essential problem was the rather strong, and, it seemed to me, emotional attack on Catholicism on Saturday evening. What especially stays in mind is you shouting "Just kill the pope!" This was not the first time I have seen this; exactly the same thing happened when I visited you last time, and it soured that visit too.

I'd really like to thrash this out with you, by email, so the shouting cannot interfere.

Any Catholic who has spent any time in North America is pretty familiar with the charges that came up Saturday night; it is fairly insulting to suppose we have not considered them already. But let's review, with comments. Then you can pick up any of the points you like for further email discussion.

1. Catholic teaching on birth control is unreasonable since the world is overpopulated.

Answer: the world is not overpopulated. This is a popular myth.

2. The Catholic Church is rich.

Answer: this too is a popular myth; not by any generally-accepted method of accounting.

3. The Catholic Church should sell everything it owns and give the money to the poor.

This holds only if you already do not believe there is any value in a church. Why doesn’t the Red Cross do the same thing?

4. The Catholic Church discriminates against women.

In what way? I think it would be a lot easier to argue that modern feminism discriminates against women.

5. Religion causes wars.

This is about as meaningful as arguing that "music causes wars."

6. The issue of iconography also came up, indirectly, in that you praised Islam for its lack of icons.

This is an old Protestant complaint against Catholicism. While I respect traditions that do not believe in iconography, to reject icons is to reject art. Art is the language of the soul.


Abbot

Sunday, February 27, 2005

The Hollow Men

Thesis: suffering builds soul. Accordingly, a person who has it too easy in life—in particular a spoiled child—is spiritually hollow.

This is a growing phenomenon of modern life, necessarily, as we all have it better year by year in material terms. And it is reinforced by modern childrearing, which believes in indulging children and not disciplining them.

So we have the hollow men. And they are a recognizable type.

The extreme form of hollowness is what is called “psychopathy.” But this is just a matter of degree.

Note this is the opposite of the conventional wisdom: kids become psychopaths from being spoiled, from knowing no restraints, not from having tough childhoods and being “abused.”

Some reflections on the logical results of being spoiled:

General inability to transcend your most basic instincts; because you have never had the incentive nor had the experience imposed on you.

Hence a hallmark would be lack of self-control.

A hollow man is therefore rather transparent, his future actions predictable: because they are basic and instinctual.

This makes him more like an animal and less like a human than average: or makes him or her seem "childish." I think when we encounter someone who has been spoiled, we tend to think of them as less in stature as a result.

Hollow men therefore also tend to be rather comic figures; because they are the prisoners of their urges. It is being hollow that creates the "humours" of traditional comedy and satire: the compulsively avaricious, the compulsive woman-chaser, and so forth. The “two-dimensional” stock characters of satire. (This is very different from being humourous or witty: the humours are the butts of jokes, not the joke tellers).

The hollow would naturally be prejudiced, narrow-minded. A fair judgment requires a mind open to new ways of looking at something.

A hollow man would also tend to lack principles: consistency of principle requires doing what is right regardless of present temptations. A hollow man would not be as able to look beyond the present temptation.

Hence hollow men tend to be two-faced. They tend to make commitments lightly, and often not follow through on them.

They tend to be quitters; not to stick with something once it gets difficult.

Another interesting aspect of being spoiled is an incapacity for detachment. A spoiled person tends to see things only from his or her own point of view, and so lack real sympathy for others.

The inability to take a new point of view makes them narrow-minded to the point of actual stupidity. This, to my mind, explains how children from bright and accomplished families can be complete duds: spoiling can counteract inherited intelligence.

This in turn explains why ruling classes almost everywhere have their children sent away to be raised by others: because otherwise they would be spoiled, if only by other adults in deference to their parents.

The hollow are inclined to live a sort of fantasy life, ignoring their real situation, if it does not suit them. They are unusually capable of self-delusion. Walter Mitty was a hollow man, as of course was J. Alfred Prufrock. To create a fictional life for yourself is easier than the challenges and possible failures of real accomplishment.

The hollow are naturally self-centred and demanding of the attention of others.

They make good salespeople; because they need others' attention, because they make promises lightly, and because they can easily make themselves believe things.

That is a good measure of whether someone is hollow: can you picture them as a salesperson?

Another good measure is sense of humour. Humour requires detachment and the ability to suddenly see things from a new perspective. The worse someone is spoiled, the harder this kind of mental flexibility is; because in itself it is disorienting, painful. Hence the worse their sense of humour will be.

Also their ability to do philosophy, to be purely logical; to "be philosophical" or to be attracted to philosophical issues. This also requires detachment, seeing beyond one's own concerns of the moment to the general. To philosophize means getting outside your skin. Too strong an ego makes it much harder.

Also their ability to be truly moral. This too requires a detachment from one's own desires. Worse, the hollow man will often not realize they are being immoral, harming others, or being two-faced. Because they cannot grasp the difference between what is right and what they want. To the spoiled, these seem almost self-evidently to be the same thing.

The spoiled would tend to be hypocrites; because they measure all things in relation to themselves and their desires rather than abstract principle.

Indeed, the strict Greek term for a hollow man is probably “hypocrite”—literally, one who wears a mask, like an actor.

The scribes and Pharisees of the New Testament were hollow men. As surely was Pontius Pilate, with his famous throwaway question “what is truth?” Kurtz was a classic hollow man. As was Willie Loman in “Death of a Salesman.”

The spoiled will tend to complain more. There is much truth to the fairy tale of the princess and the pea. Because they cannot easily get beyond their own perspective of the moment, because they consider anything that happens to them very important, and because they expect attention from others, they will complain loud and long.

It does seem, on balance, when you add it all up, a pretty bad thing to do to spoil a child. A lousy thing to do to society, and, in the end, a lousy thing to do to the child.

But the world is filling up with more and more hollow men.

I wonder if becoming a hollow man is the same thing that is called “loss of soul”? This, according to Jung, was the greatest fear among hunter-gatherers he met in a trip to Africa.

Part of the danger of loss of soul, of course, is that ambient spirits can then come in and take over. What is it Jesus says about your soul as an empty room freshly swept and cleaned? Then the demonic possession can appear—in simplest terms, possession by a vice like the standard humours: avarice, greed, sloth, gluttony, lust, anger. Or, more dramatically, what we now call “schizophrenia.”

This is the opposite personality type to the depressive. Everything is usually wonderful in his life, or must be seen to be, and most especially he is always wonderful. The challenge is to keep constructing explanations and alibis to make this so.

While a depressive feels everything keenly, a hollow man seems only sentimental: vocal about feelings, but feeling nothing very deeply. Easy to anger, but not being really angry so much as thinking this is the right time to be angry, or enjoying the emotion of anger, or thinking it would be advantageous now to get angry. Easily expressing sorrow, but like a summer shower: not sad so much as thinking this is the right time to seem sad, or enjoying self-pity, or thinking that it would be advantageous now to seem sad.

This segues neatly, I think, into the characteristic lack of emotional responsiveness in schizophrenia, once contact is definitely lost with those the hollow man encounters. Without an audience, the hollow man is almost without emotion. But given another twist, this is also the cold-bloodedness of a psychopath.

Full-blown schizophrenia is supposed to be brought on by a crisis: a period of difficulty in one’s life. It makes sense. The alibi-making machinery must flip into overdrive to compensate for a reality that is less than pleasant. This takes up a great deal of consciousness, reducing what is available for dealing with the outside world. And the alibi becomes so divorced from the surrounding “reality” that others at last see it as delusion.

I note with interest the claim, in a book I read on Death Row in Florida, that most guys on death row go psychotic after they are there. It makes sense to me: this is the psychopathic personality finally faced with a situation they cannot make look good, even to themselves.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

21st Century Schizoid Men

I have no training in psychology, but I am very interested in the phenomenon of what is called “mental illness.” Most of all, I think psychology is generally barking up the wrong tree, in trying to deal with the soul (psyche) as if it were empirical, and so could be studied using scientific methods.

The proper psychology is, I think, necessarily religion. Religion commonly works in changing people’s character and in healing spiritual illness. Psychology does not, and admits as much.

Because it interferes with the religious cure, I think contemporary psychology probably does more harm than good.

“Depression,” in the religious context, is the “dark night of the soul.” It is the time of indecision, as one is caught between the nonsense of the world and the reliable truth of the spirit. Psychology works by trapping you in the dilemma, by insisting on the return to the world, when you know in your heart the world is mad.

“Schizophrenia” is the same experience, in a sense, but occurring to a different personality type. People of discipline and sincerity go through depression. These are the people Jesus describes, point by point, in the beatitudes: those who hunger for righteousness, who are poor in spirit, who mourn.

But schizophrenia is, in New Testament terms, surely demonic possession.

I ran into this interesting description of the symptoms of schizophrenia from the British Royal college of Physicians and Surgeons:

“Positive symptoms

We normally feel that we are in control of our thoughts and actions, but schizophrenia interferes with this feeling of being 'the captain of the ship'. It may feel as though thoughts are being put into the mind or taken out by some outside, uncontrollable force. The body may feel as if it has been taken over, like a puppet or a robot under outside control. At worst, the whole personality seems under the influence of an alien force or spirit. This is a terrifying experience, which the person tries to explain according to education and upbringing. In 'high-tech' societies, invisible influences capable of working over a distance may be put down to radio, television or laser beams, or a computer somehow installed in the brain. In traditional and religious communities, witchcraft, angry spirits, God or the Devil may be held responsible.

(From the leaflet on schizophrenia put online by the Royal College of Physicians and surgeons. http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/public/help/schiz/sch_frame.htm)”

Well, okay, doesn’t Occam’s Razor argue that the perception is simply accurate? That we are being taken over by another spirit? Demonic possession.

Moreover, this explanation has the practical advantage of preventing the person from becoming “ill.” As I witnessed in Korea, the person with these symptoms simply becomes a shaman, and, instead of being hospitalized as “insane,” has a new career. They do quite well in other respects, in daily life, and are often prodigiously creative.

In other words, without psychology, schizophrenia is not really such a problem.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Reflections on the Elections in Iraq

Can the election in Iraq actually work?

Generals are always well prepared to fight the last war. So are the rest of us. Iraq, we all knew, was becoming “another Vietnam,” just as we once feared Vietnam could become “another Munich.” I myself have long felt the plans of the so-called “neo-conservatives” to bring democracy to Iraq dangerously na├»ve. Didn’t we learn in Vietnam that you cannot impose democracy from without?

Perhaps. But somewhere before Munich gave way in popular imagination to Vietnam, outsiders nevertheless successfully imposed democracy on Germany, Austria, Japan, and many former British colonies.

Progressives—including me--also say democracy is a cultural thing, that to impose it on Arab and Muslim culture is a kind of imperialism. What Westerners thought desirable was rejected in Vietnam, after all. Wasn’t it? Many argue that democracy similarly violates Muslim culture. They point to the absence of a functioning democracy anywhere in the Arab world.

But only a few generations ago, it was as fashionable to argue democracy was incompatible with German traditions.

Thirty years after Saigon, we now see functioning democracies in Thailand, in Taiwan, in Korea, in Japan, in the Philippines. It is harder now to believe it cannot work with Asian culture. Democracy was not on offer in Vietnam: the choice was military dictatorship or military dictatorship. Foreign support withdrawn, the more competent military won.

Saying Islam and democracy can’t mix is equally baseless. Muhammad was elected leader of Medina; the early Caliphs, his successors, were also elected. It is aristocracy that is alien: the equality of man is an essential Muslim doctrine. One of Islam’s criticisms of Christianity is its formal priesthood, which implies special privilege for a few: for Islam, all are equals before their creator.

It is hard, then, to see how Christian civilization fosters democracy in a way Muslim civilization does not.

Besides Christianity, there is the fabled classical heritage: the Wes tsupposes itself the inheritor of the democratic traditions of Greece. Not so: most of the Hellenized world, the empire of Alexander, from Alexandria to the Indus, converted to Islam in the seventh and eighth century, and the West was cut off for centuries. When classical traditions were recovered in the West, it was largely through Arab mediators. The world of Islam is the more direct inheritor of these Greek traditions.

Nor is Greece really the original home of democracy. That distinction probably belongs to Mesopotamia—ancient Iraq. Its early cities were participatory democracies long before Athens.

It is strange that the Muslim world, and Iraq, have lost very early and strong democratic traditions over the centuries. But Greece too knew military dictatorship as recently as the 1970s.

Now, without the notice it deserves, a stiff wind is blowing in the Arab world. The trend to democracy is everywhere, since the Cold War ended; but recent events in Iraq have probably hastened it, just as Paul Wolfowitz and the other “neo-cons” predicted. Saudi Arabia has just held its first-ever local elections. Oman held its second free elections at almost the same time. Morocco, Kuwait, Jordan, and Bahrain have held elections recently; Jordan’s monarchy proselytizes for democracy in the region generally.

And, speaking from this vantage point in the Persian Gulf, the man in the street and the driver in the taxi seem to genuinely want it. Everybody likes Karzai; nobody likes Saddam or the Taliban.

It may not be the neo-cons who are out of touch with foreign culture. It may be the Vietnam generation.

Democracy might yet be stillborn: fundamentalist Shiite movements might indeed sweep the polls. Hitler too was democratically elected, and Khomeini’s fundamentalist revolution in Iran had wide popular support.

But this is a vicious circle: it is the absence of democracy that sustains such movements. When opposition is prohibited, the agenda of any opposition movement must include violence. When political organization is outlawed, religious organizations provide the obvious cover. Compare Poland in the Cold War: the Catholic Church became the centre of resistance to the Communist regime. No wonder the commissars of China fear the Falun Gong.

Then, in a society where opposition is considered treason, a direct assault on authority is far riskier than attacking foreigners allied to them. Hence a domestic opposition may go after the US or “the West.”

So, there is good reason to believe that America’s project of democratizing Iraq can work not only for Iraq, but will really reduce the threat of terrorism against the US itself. And may be the first domino to rise in a renewed Near Orient. Iraq, after all, has a lot of oil, and Baghdad was once the capital of Islam. It ought to be a wealthy nation.

The Bush administration may still be wrong; to my mind it is still a pretty gutsy call. But at the least, this is not unthinking prejudice. There is method in their neo-conservatism.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Future

There’s been a lot of news of the future recently: things that sound as though they might be straws in the wind.

Just today in the paper was a report from a conference of scientists predicting that human beings should be able to expect a normal 1,000 year lifespan in about twenty five or fifty years. Probably just far enough off that I won’t be in on it, and that is perhaps just as well. I wonder what the emotional burdens might be of living that long.

It would certainly be a change. Can you imagine Michelangelo still being around, or Shakespeare? Even the English language hasn’t really been here so long as a thousand years—not to mention the Americas as we know them. The implications boggle the mind.

Also in the news a few places this last week was the idea of fully automated robot war. War with no human casualties.

At least on one side. All played like a video game from a safe distance.

I’m not sure this would hold in a life-and-death struggle between fairly evenly-matched enemies. At some point the robot screen would be used up and you’d be down to more primitive means.

What else? One of my own theories is that the General Practitioner is as dead as the dodo. It’s just that nobody has realized this yet. All any doctor but a surgeon does is diagnosis and prescription, and any decent computer program can do this better than a human can. All we need is computer terminals, pharmacists to fill prescriptions, surgeons, and the various lab specialties.

Save a huge amount of money too. And this is part of the dynamic that I think makes it likely. Doctors are vulnerable because they have made themselves so expensive. This increases the incentive to try to find an alternative.

And, with government-funded socialized medicine, it is governments paying the bills. That is a powerful and well-coordinated opponent if they decide to save this money.

World hunger? Truth is, we already have more food than we can eat. But future potential here, with genetic modification, seems infinite.

Genetic modification ought also to make it easy to produce all the cheap fuel we want: just engineer an organism that produces petroleum as a waste product, but feeds on any old given thing we do not want: corn husks, whatever.

Or trees. Worried about the loss of forests? Why not a genetically engineered tree that grows to maturity in six months?

The extermination of species? The Tasmanian museum just gave up an attempt to revive the extinct Tasmanian Tiger using old DNA and cloning, but still says it should be theoretically possible. It’s just that the particular DNA they were relying on has become to degraded for present technology. Give this technology a few years, and we should see lots of old friends back. Imagine zoos featuring dodos, mammoths, and passenger pigeons.

Many people still do not seem to realize that world overpopulation is not a problem. First, as noted, we have all the food we can eat. Second, world population is expected, on present trends, to level off at about 2050, then begin to decline.

Of course, this does not take into account the possibility of thousand-year lifespans suddenly entering the mix.

Nor does it take into account further plagues like AIDS. Note the ominous news of a new, drug-resistant strain.

The pendulum is now swinging fast in the US against “liberalism” and towards “neo-conservatism.” I expect this to spread fairly quickly to the rest of the developed world. I predict the Conservatives to win the next Canadian election, whenever it is held. Things that are now still risky to say will soon become received wisdom. Don’t put your money in environmentalism, gay rights, the women’s movement, or secularism.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Down But Not Out

Apologies to those who follow this blog regularly, and with bated breath--hi Mom!--for my recent inactivity. I have been struck with amoebic dysentery, a fringe benefit of living in one of the sunnier parts of the globe.

This has lowered my energy level a bit. Can't even peel my own grapes.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Matter and Spirit

Dear Abbot:

It seems to me that you equate 'mental' with 'spiritual.' I do not see how knowledge of the existence of self requires the existence of spirit (or soul).

Costello

Dear Costello:

What distinction are you making between "mental" and "spiritual"? As I understand it, when we are talking about man's non-physical part, the terms "mind," "spirit," and "soul" are interchangable, just as, on the other side of the equation, I could use "physical," "material," or "sensory." Although the meanings are a bit different. When we're down to such distinctions, I suppose I'd see the soul as our emotional being, the spirit as our essence as free willing beings, and the mind as our awareness or consciousness. But any one could be used as the more comprehensive term.

Whether the soul, spirit, or mind are immortal is, though, a separate question.



Dear Abbot:

If reality is entirely mental, why can't we change it to suit ourselves?

Isle of Man


Dear Isle of Man:

To say that our immediate reality is mental is not the same as saying we can control it. As Descartes immediately discovered, he is not the sole creator of his thoughts.

There's a nice little Zen experiment to demonstrate this. Imagine you have a dire illness. There is only one cure. But it only works if, when taking it, you do not think of a monkey.

So far, nobody has been able to take it successfully.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Father Knows Best

“Father Knows Best” was a popular TV show in my distant youth. Can you imagine a show with that title today?

Not that fathers got it all their won way. A popular comic strip from the same time was “Bringing Up Father.”

But today, it is absolutely obligatory that fathers be portrayed as hapless and doltish, and women as brilliant and resourceful.

This marred the otherwise wonderful film “The Incredibles,” which I went to see recently.

It was heavily based on the old Fantastic Four from Marvel comics, circa 1960. The Mole Man appears at the end of the episode, from underground, just as he did on the final page of one of those early Fantastic Four comics. Violet, the daughter, has the same powers as the FF’s Invisible Girl: invisibility plus the ability to create force fields. Elasti-girl has the powers of Mr. Fantastic, while Mr. Incredible is the Thing. The baby, Jack Jack, is the Human Torch.

The FF was also a family outfit: Mr. Fantastic was married to Invisible Girl, just as Mr. Incredible is married to Elasti-girl. The Human Torch was her brother; he is their son in the movie. And they went through the same sort of trials and tribulations, at one moment popular, at the next scorned by the general public.

But the one big shift is that Mr. Fantastic was the brains behind the outfit. That won’t do for a male lead role these days: he had to be replaced as male lead by the Thing, a big lummox; and his wife has to be the brains. He must screw up, and be rescued by the women of the family. His daughter speaks of the need for him to learn a lesson.

Just the same thing happened to the recent film adaptation of the classic children’s book “The Polar Express.” As a book it is the story of one boy, who struggles with the question of belief in Santa. For the film version, it is breaded out with more child characters, most notably an assertive boy who is told, almost in so many words, that he should shut up and follow (“learn” is the word used) and an assertive girl who is told, conversely, she should speak up and “lead.”

That’s the progress we’ve made in “sexual equality” since the early Sixties. Then, the matter was case by case; now, women always outrank men, on the basis of their sex.

And this is what we are systematically teaching to our young. I hope they have the good sense to rebel.

Things are a little better on “Cartoon Network.” Thankfully, it lacks a high didactic purpose. “Johnny Bravo” is a shamelessly racist and sexist parody of the white male stereotype. “Ed, Edd, and Eddy” push the stereotype of male scruffiness and uncouth; they are regularly excluded from polite female society and ignored by everybody. But at least things are seen from their perspective.

And other shows on “Cartoon Network” tend to give the underdog’s point of view. They at least illustrate male frustration. This, of course, is why moms don’t want you to watch this stuff. It’s subversive. In “Dexter’s Lab,” Dexter, though absurdly brilliant, is ignored by his parents and adults generally in favour of his vacuous sister. In “Codename: Kids Next Door,” a boy, Nigel, leads a mixed gang in rebellion against adult oppression and conformity. Girls are welcome but not dominant. “Samurai Jack” seems fully comfortable with masculinity; but also seems to be a foreign import.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Blowin' in the Wind

When I sniff the wind these days, I smell flowers. And maybe that other smell is incense, maybe not. It seems to me I am living in the Sixties reloaded, and it’s not just the old problem of the flashbacks.

Let me explain. The parallels seem spooky and improbable, like those old ones we grew up with about Kennedy and Lincoln: but hear me out, and you decide.

The perfect image of it all perhaps, was the tableau of Iraq’s Information Minister, Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, now immortalized as “Comical Ali,” in that press conference atop a high rise, insisting the Americans were nowhere near Baghdad. It was an “illusion”; they were “sick in their minds.” All the while behind him the fighting in the streets.

In that vista, postmodernism deconstructed. News flash: reality is not a construct. It exists independent of our wishes or beliefs.

The Iraq War, like the Vietnam War, showed the conventional wisdom was wrong; from this has evolved a general questioning of authority. Vietnam shattered the illusion that America was always right and always won. Iraq shattered the illusion that America was always wrong and always lost.

Remember too, in the Sixties that sense that a new age was dawning. The astrological “Age of Aquarius” conveniently meshed with important numbers on the Western calendar: the second millennium was ending.

In this sense, the New Age has now dawned, since the year 2000.

Surprise: the rough beast that slouches in from the wilderness turns out to be neo-conservatism. The actual event is the psychological reverse of the Sixties: the Sixties were the drunken party ringing out the old. The two thousand oughts ring in the new. It is morning in America.

Beyond the calendar, and beyond the Bush family, there is a genuine generational change happening, comparable to that in the Sixties, but in reverse. In the Sixties, a bulging youth demographic shifted power to a new generation. Today that demographic is retiring, and in the same epochal numbers.

Bush is Kennedy; but more significant, if only because he has escaped assassination. A relatively young man, he gives a sense of new beginnings. FDR’s New Deal, a new doctrine for the left, reached establishment status under Kennedy and Johnson. Reagan’s “supply side” tax-cutting, a new doctrine for the right (“voodoo economics,” to George Bush Sr.), reaches establishment status under Bush 43. US federal election results since 1980 eerily echo those in the US from 1930 on; but with parties switched. Leaving aside presidential elections, most easily distorted by the quality of individual candidates, there has been a steady growth of the Republican Party vote between Reagan and Bush Jr., as there was a steady growth of the Democratic vote from FDR to Kennedy. The vast middle class has moved.

The Kennedy assassination was a starting gun for change: it moved a lot of people, with the feeling something was wrong.

Nine-eleven has done the same thing. “Where were you on 9/11”? is on a par with “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?”

Once the group in power is caught out, the collapse can be rapid, just as was the collapse of the Iraqi regime. A lot of dominos may fall in coming years. I doubt it will be as chaotic as the Sixties, because this time it’s about a new world order, not chaos. But in five years from now, much of what was commonly believed up to yesterday may be dismissed as nonsense.

As it is.

Hang on tight. It could be a wild ride.

Same Sex Marriage Poll

SES research just reported the results of their latest poll on same-sex marriage:

46% Marriage only a man and a woman
45% Allow same-sex couples to marry
5% Neither
4% Unsure

The Conservatives would crush the Liberals in an election fought on the issue. And the most remarkable thing is how few undecideds there are. That suggests that passions have been aroused, so to speak.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Roots of Feminism?

The fact that women feel oppressed is no indication that they are. The Germans who voted in Hitler felt oppressed too. The South Africans who created apartheid felt oppressed too. The Southerners in the US who fought the Civil War to preserve slavery and who fought civil rights for blacks felt oppressed too.

In fact, throughout history, the loudest complaints of oppression seem to be heard not from the genuinely oppressed, who are by the nature of things usually cowed into silence, but from privileged groups who lose some part of their privilege. The Germans long saw themselves as a master race, from their history of storming through and “civilizing” Poland and the Baltic. Through the later nineteenth century they were the great power on everyone’s horizon, the country of the future. Rather like China is today, only more so. Losing the Great War was a terrible, an unacceptable shock.

The South Africans too were used to seeing themselves as a master race, “civilizing” the African natives and land. Despite a remarkably strong showing, they were conquered by the British at the end of the nineteenth century. They could not accept being a colonized race instead of the colonizers.

The southerners in the US—in particular perhaps the Virginians—were used to seeing themselves as an aristocracy, the nation’s leaders and founders. After all, Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Monroe, were all Southerners. Virginia was settled before those rabble on the Mayflower. The Northerners were largely more recent immigrants.

But the North industrialized and grew rapidly in population while they languished. This must have been threatening even without the slavery issue. Losing the Civil War, they were all the more inclined to feel threatened.

Women, I think, have gone through a similar process. Traditionally put on a pedestal, they saw themselves as the “civilizers” of men.

They then found their claim to dominance badly damaged by the introduction of “labour-saving devices” over the last century or so, and especially in the postwar years.

For the first time, it became practical for men to contemplate getting along without a wife: Hugh Hefner claims to have invented the concept of a “bachelor pad” in the 1950s, and I think he is probably right. Before the postwar years, that would have been impractical: he would have had to live with his parents, or in a boarding house, or have a live-in maid or butler if he were wealthy. There was too much to do in keeping a house.

So women saw the slats kicked out of their role: their position was obsolete. Men no longer needed nor necessarily heeded them, any more than a bicycle needs a fish. The more so when people started complaining the world was overpopulated anyway.

It seems to me that feminism is the strong reaction to this threat, just as was Fascism, and apartheid, and Jim Crow, for similar groups feeling similarly threatened in similar circumstances.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Freedom of Speech

A friend’s husband has been in the foreign service. They lived together in Warsaw and in Moscow, before the Iron Curtain parted. She tells me of a Polish friend who had lived in Canada, who claimed that Canada was much less free than Poland, even under the Communists.

“Everyone in Canada has to always watch what they say,” the friend explained. “You do not need to do this in Poland.”

I have found the same in South Korea and in the UAE. Speech is much freer here.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Let's Get Physical

Dear Abbot:

How is it self evident that the spiritual world exists? In what way do we experience it directly?

Bright


Dear Bright:

I'm not sure where we're not connecting. But remember Descartes' "cogito ego sum": I think, therefore I am? We experience ourselves, ultimately, as mental or spiritual beings, as a subject of consciousness aware of various thoughts, feelings, and impressions. The thoughts and impressions are also, themselves, mental in nature, objects of consciousness. Whether they bear any meaningful relationship to anything beyond themselves is conjecture; and what that relationship might be is conjecture.

For example, even granted that there is a physical world to which our sense perceptions correspond, what is the necessary relationship between our sense perceptions and their objects? When we see a post box, it is not as if that post box itself, or any part of it, enters our mind; such a thing is impossible. No, we deal with and know only our mental perceptions, our thoughts, feelings, impressions. We do not know anything about the post box as it is, if it is.

But because the thought is the same as the experience of it, the instant we have a thought, we are certain that that thought exists, as a thought. We cannot think a thought that does not exist.

Abbot

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Buddhists Ruin Another Fine Theory

Dear Abbot:

Isn't belief in an after life mere wish-fulfillment?

Bright


Dear Bright:

I think your theory that people want to believe in an afterlife because it is some kind of comfort comes a cropper on Buddhism.

Buddhism believes:

1. Existence is suffering
2. Reincarnation is a horror
3. The goal is nirvana--literally, "cessation."

Come to think of it, an eternity spent burning in hell doesn't sound too good either, does it?

By contrast, why would the notion of, say, going to sleep and never waking up, trouble anybody?

Abbot

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Endless Dabate

Dear Abbot:

Intelligent people do not belive in God. How can you believe in the reality of a thing that is not physical?

Bright


Dear Bright:

We actually live in the mental world, and it is the physical world that is conjecture.

It is easier to talk to others in detail about, and come to consensus about, the physical world, because, as you say, of the common point of reference, but that is not the same thing as proof of reality. Nor does it make what we say about the mental or spiritual world arbitrary.

All we know is the mental experiences we have, our sensations, along with our thoughts, emotions, dreams. To suppose that any of these correspond to a reality existing independently of the experience itself is already conjecture. And there is really no better reason prima facie to conjecture that sensations do than that emotions, thoughts, or dreams do.

So the entire physical world is hypothetical.

But the mental or spiritual world self-evidently exists, because we experience it directly. The experience of it is the thing itself. We are spiritual beings.

Abbot