I want to begin this post beating up on Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus, with a brief digression. As a student of the Middle Ages and Renaissance during my undergraduate days (as well as an Ancient History buff), I noticed an interesting phenomenon. When we talk about the store of knowledge humanity has acquired over the course of its existence, something is deemed to have been “discovered” only when (1) it’s explicitly attested to in writing (2) by a man (3) who has a name. Knowledge possessed and applied by women, or by illiterate societies, or by anonymous people is deemed to not exist; and women themselves, as well as “natives”, are matter-of-factly treated as passive objects of study, rather than human beings capable of possessing and using information. Thus, you might hear Hippocrates credited with “discovering” the early symptoms of pregnancy – even though midwifery existed as a recognized profession for at least 1,500 years before him, and papyri with instructions on how to calculate gestational age date to about that far back. (Sometimes the credit is given to Imhotep, instead.) Read more…
I’ve been meaning for some time to write something about all those oranges in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy. It’s a topic that’s been copiously discussed by viewers and critics, but I still feel that there is something left to say about it. Specifically, it’s the question of “why oranges” that really fascinates me.
So let us begin. Read more…
Today’s entry into the pantheon of modern Myths and Illusions: the myth that religion prevents violence and makes people act all nice to each other. Read more…
I am continuing my list of remarkably inane things people say remarkably often. (Previous installments: here, here and here.) Today’s theme is smart people’s stupidity. Intellectuals can sure embrace some bizarre ideas, and through processes I can’t even begin to understand, some of those ideas enter mainstream smart people’s thought. Ideas like:
That it’s somehow wrong to celebrate holidays. If I believed in hell, I’d expect it to have a designated corner for people who rail against sunshine, children’s songs, a warm beach, a field full of flowers, a neighborhood barbecue and holidays. (Mandatory disclaimer: I am not talking about specific holidays which may have a problematic context for certain groups, like, say, Thanksgiving. I am talking about the very concept of holidays fixed by the calendar).
I have written previously about the need of those in the habit of bashing St. Valentine’s Day to lighten the hell up. Without a doubt, it’s the most reviled of holidays, but I’ve discovered lately that there is a trend of bashing all holidays, as such. Like the New Year, for instance. “It’s just an arbitrarily selected calendar date!” shriek the self-appointed “skeptics”, “It’s meaningless! It’s not magic! There is nothing to celebrate! What are you idiots so happy about??”
What inspires people to holiday-bashing? I think Dr. Seuss (who was a liberal and, as far as one can tell, not religious) expressed it best:
It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all,
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.
Now, aside from that quote, I don’t want to touch the third rail that Christmas has become, so let’s go back to the New Year. Technically, sure, New Year’s Eve is meaningless. I mean, just like everything, on the big scheme of things. Nothing means anything, because we are just an infinitesimal speck spinning through an indifferent cosmos, and we are all gonna die. On that technical point, holiday skeptics and I are in agreement. What I don’t get though, is how it logically follows that it’s wrong to enjoy holidays, however arbitrary they may be. I’ll be blunt here: there is a lot about commonly seen human behavior that makes me roll my eyes, but I reserve a special dose of contempt for those who are peeved by the idea of other people having a good time. Streamers, champagne and “Auld Lang Syne”: that’s what outrages you? Seriously? I get it that traditions, qua traditions, are over-rated, and traditionalism, as a philosophy, is often harmful. But holiday traditions? These are just a reason for people to let their hair down, and wear something nice, and indulge themselves and their loved ones, and feel happy in this life that’s tragically short on happiness. Even with all the much-maligned commercialism, holidays is when humanity is at its least awful.
I know all the retorts to this: that people who celebrate holidays, or a particular holiday, are terrible human beings who “need a special day” to have a good time with family and friends. “I don’t need a specially designated day!” a skeptic proudly proclaims, “I can do that anytime!” To which I can only respond, Well, DO you? What kind of a superior asshat are you to declare that you are better to your family and friends than I am? When was the last time you gathered your extended family around you, or decorated your house, or bought your kids thoughtful presents, or threw a spontaneous celebration just because it’s Tuesday? What do you do for your loved ones, O Sainted One, that we holiday-celebrating folk supposedly don’t do?
Holiday-bashing is rubbish, all the more contemptible because it targets people who are at their most likeable and inoffensive, for doing something harmless. It’s an exercise in narcissism, too, because it stems from equating jaded contrarianism with wisdom and a clarity of mind. Alas, this world-weariness is deceptive. We all absorb different lessons from the vagaries of life, and not all of us are equally astute learners. If you are bitter, it doesn’t mean you are wise; it just means you are bitter. People are bitter for all kinds of reasons. Some of those reasons are stupid. And some people are bitter because that’s just their charming personality, because they have acid flowing in their veins. No great wisdom resides there, either.
None of this is meant to suggest that everyone should be obligated to celebrate a holiday. If you are not in a celebrating mood, fine. If you personally don’t believe in holidays and want to treat one like an ordinary day, I don’t care. If you are lazy and just want to put on your pajamas and go to bed early, by all means do. To each his own. But if you choose to abstain, it would be nice if you could manage to do so without insinuating that those who celebrate holidays are horrible people, or that having a drink and a nice meal to greet the New Year means I’m not taking disturbing current events seriously.
Do what you want with your own life, but pretty please: don’t hate a nice day, and don’t hate people for enjoying it.
On a related note …
That some sad or tragic event shouldn’t be a “big deal” because some other event is sadder and more tragic. There is a certain kind of a self-righteous philosopher who (to paraphrase The Bard) couldn’t endure a toothache for ten minutes without complaining about the unfairness of it. Granted, we all react to the crap that life, and the airline industry, throw at us; but this person elevates frustration to an art form. Whatever annoyance or inconvenience happens to befall him, he smiles ruefully and takes it as yet more proof that the world has gone to hell in a handbasket. Everything is an existential omen to this person.
If you know someone like that (and you probably do), you have heard that person sneer at some media frenzy over a murder, a terrorist act, or some other catastrophe: “What’s the big deal? Do you know how many millions of people die yearly in traffic accidents?”
Such a person’s attitude towards his own misfortunes on the one hand and everyone else’s on the other boil down to one simple thing: a lack of empathy. The person who makes this complaint cares little about traffic fatalities, or Ebola deaths in Africa, or war victims in the Middle East. They are just fodder, a justification for being dismissive. He just says this shit because (1) he’s a heartless bastard; and (2) he’s stupid and self-enamored enough to think that making such a comment makes him seem insightful.
There is so much wrong with this too-often heard commentary. For one thing, there is the obvious idiocy of claiming that if you care about A, you can’t possibly care about B. Another, the complaint presupposes that the ONLY legitimate metric determining whether some tragedy is a “big deal” is the number of casualties. Make no mistake, casualty numbers are a metric, and an important one; but as with everything else in life, context matters to people.
Why does society dwell so much on the Holocaust? It is not the worst example of genocide in history, casualty-wise. Ghengis Khan is estimated to have exterminated 40 million, which was around 10% of the world’s population at the time. His ideological successor, Tamerlane, massacred 17 million, which amounted to 5% of all humans on Earth. There are several reasons why we talk about the Holocaust more. The Holocaust is recent; it is still fresh in people’s collective memory; millions are still alive today who were touched personally by it. It is history’s only example, as far as we know, of an attempt to wipe whole groups of people entirely off the face of the Earth, without any exceptions, based strictly on ethnicity (that’s right, ethnicity, not religion). It was a mechanized, industrialized endeavor which put the technological wonders of the modern age to the most unspeakable use; a perversion and a gross mockery of the late 19th- and early 20th- century giddy optimism about scientific and technological progress. There are numerous issues, too complex to go into here, that make the Holocaust painfully relevant to our own times. That’s why we talk about it more.
We talk about American slavery more than about slavery in the ancient world, or the Ottoman slave trade, or Russian serfdom because the effects of American slavery still linger today in a pretty big way. Tens of millions of Europeans were kidnapped and sold as slaves in the Middle East, and millions more were enslaved domestically; but Europeans today, unlike people of African descent, don’t endure persistent institutionalized discrimination.
Examples are endless, but you know what? We shouldn’t have to explain any of this, because talking more about Bad Thing A than about Bad Thing B doesn’t mean we don’t recognize them both as horrible.
There is a caveat, of course: not all metrics are created equal. Some are more questionable than others, some are bizarre, and some are downright repugnant. For example, the stark difference with which our society treats violence perpetrated against white victims versus victims of color reveals its deep-seated, pervasive racism. Worrying about a white victim more than you would about a black one because horrible things aren’t supposed to happen to white people is not in any way a legitimate justification. But, while this is indeed a huge problem in our times, just about the WORST solution to it is to be equally dismissive towards all tragedies. Which is what the kind of comments I’m criticizing are all about.
Reverse American Exceptionalism. True fact: American Exceptionalism — i.e., the belief that the United States is the original and only source of everything good about the human race — makes smart people want to puke. It is a belief that has a special appeal to proudly ignorant vulgarians and right-wing pseudo-intellectuals. But here is the really fascinating (and irritating) thing: many of the very smart people who take American Exceptionalism as the epitome of stupid, staunchly adhere to what can only be termed the Reverse American Exceptionalism — the belief that the American society is the worst on Earth, and the worst in history; that its justice system is the most dysfunctional; its bureaucracy most byzantine; its poverty the povertiest and so on. Even at my (almost three-digit) age, I am still surprised by the frequency with which “smart” Americans claim that America single-handedly invented: (1) racism; (2) ethnocentrism; (3) genocide; (4) ethnic cleansing; and (5) prison camps. To listen to them, you’d think the world was a picture of ethnic and racial harmony prior to the 1600’s; and any atrocity that happened after that time outside of the United States was “inspired” by America’s own atrocities.
Arguing with this view is extremely exasperating, not the least because it leads to the accusation that, if you don’t subscribe to the view that America invented bigotry, you are trying to “whitewash” America’s history. A part of me suspects that Reverse American Exceptionalism is an expression of self-deprecating piety. Alas, while its proponents may think they are sending the right message that the atrocities committed against Native Americans and people of color were Serious Stuff, they are engaging in rank historical revisionism. To subscribe to Reverse American Exceptionalism is to ignore large swaths of world history; to act as if atrocities committed before the Thirteen Colonies were even a thing either didn’t happen, or don’t matter. This is ahistorical, disrespectful to countless victims of oppression, and an affront to the very Social Justice that adherents of Reverse American Exceptionalism claim to embrace. Also, it’s idiotic, but that goes without saying.
That history repeats itself and is therefore predictable. History kind of repeats itself, but not really. Serious people love commenting on the repetitiveness of history in retrospect. Looking back on the twentieth century, it seems like World War II was a “logical” outcome of everything that happened in the preceding decade. We laugh condescendingly at all those (long-dead) people who, in early 1914, thought a major global conflict could never happen due to aligned economic interests, or experts saying in 1928 that the stocks had reached a “permanent high plateau”. Problem is, history repeats itself only in the most general sense: wars happen; ethnic conflicts persist; economies wax and wane; certain markets go through boom-and-bust cycles; outbreaks of diseases occur, and many of them are overhyped. But check out specific predictions that people have made about the future, in any area of life — from fashion to economics, from technology to world politics — and you will see that most of them turned out to be wrong; usually hilariously (or tragically) wrong. Sometimes a writer of yesteryear gets praised for a freakishly accurate prediction of flying machines or wireless communications or whatever — but that’s just chance; if you take a large enough number of predictions, some of them will inevitably turn out to be right. It is not evidence of prescience or clairvoyance or a keen understanding of history; it’s just statistics. This is the same principle by which fortune-telling “works”: the medium throws random stuff at a customer in a rapidfire fashion and guess what? Some of it will come true. Kind of. Truth is, life is unpredictable. At best, “history repeats itself” is a worthless platitude.
(“So,” you may ask, “Why study history”? I don’t know, doubtless a lot of people object to spending time and money to study anything that doesn’t lead to an immediate, tangible gain. The study of history doesn’t offer that. It doesn’t arm us against the uncertainty of the future, except to make us understand that what happens may be something that was totally unimaginable. But you know what? I don’t subscribe to the utilitarian approach when it comes to intellectual matters. We should study history because it’s fascinating. Pleasure and intellectual stimulation: those ARE good enough reasons. We should study history because it’s an act of respect towards people who lived before us. We should study history because it gives us an idea of our place on the trajectory of human existence. We should study history because it holds some of the greatest stories you’ll ever hear, and believe me, the imagination of a fantasy writer is no match for that of the random universe. We should study history because it’s fun.)
That pre-modern history’s worst individuals are worthy of praise. Ask your nearest liberal intellectual — a person who holds the most proper ideas about tolerance, diversity and peaceful co-existence — to tell you about Alexander the Great. Dollars to donuts, this exquisitely liberal, tolerant and accepting person will describe Alexander in glowing terms: that he was a great leader of men; a student of Aristotle; a brilliant military strategist; that he spread the blessed light of Hellenism to the Middle East and Central Asia; that he founded numerous cities; and that he won the respect of some of his greatest contemporaries. Another thing that may come up is Alexander’s bisexuality, as if his choice of where to direct his genitals had a deep meaning for his larger legacy; or maybe our own (liberal) stereotyping of gay people as nerdy and sensitive contributes to the popular notion that Alexander was a benevolent philosopher-king. What will likely be left out is that very larger legacy: that Alexander obliterated cities (upon whose ruins he raised new settlements, naming most of them after himself, and one after his dog); that he and his men looted and plundered with the aim of enriching themselves, rather than “spreading Hellenism”; that his campaigns killed hundreds of thousands of people, many of them civilians, and resulted in hundreds of thousands more being enslaved; that he destroyed Tyre and Thebes, and burned down Persepolis in a drunken binge; and the aforesaid “spread of Hellenism” was often preceded by a destruction of non-Hellenic cultures. Sure, most educated people know about these things (I hope), but we kind of gloss over them in conversation, we treat the nasty things that Alexander did as minor and irrelevant to his legacy. Moreover, most people today would take the position that the people who suffered most at his hands brought it upon themselves by refusing to submit. Alexander the Great is romanticized to an insane degree; popular imagination and in truth, most historians, treat him as a benevolent and liberal tyrant, who took on the burdens of military leadership for no reason other than to carry the torch of civilization to unenlightened savages and unite Greece against the Persian Monster. It’s considered objective, rational and intellectually rigorous to ignore the staggering human cost of the aforementioned (totally incidental, by the way) “spread” of Hellenism and Aristotle’s kooky science.
To be clear, I am not talking about recent history, which usually gets evaluated much more objectively in this regard. I am talking about ancient and medieval history. Somehow, the passage of all those centuries makes the human cost of empires seem negligible even in the minds of people who should know better. It is this tendency that makes me suspect that in the distant future, long after you and I are dead, “smart” people will describe Hitler primarily as a philosopher and a patriot, who promoted science and technology; also he killed a whole bunch of people, but hey, can’t make a frittata without breaking a few eggs, amirite?
I’ve brought up Ghengis Khan once already, and I am going to bring him up once again, if for no other reason than the fact that he makes Hitler look like a lightweight. The Chinghissid family killed an amazing number of people. I am not using that word in its usual positive, superlative sense, I mean it was literally amazing — it boggles the mind how they could kill so many people, so quickly, using only primitive medieval technology. And so what really gets me is today’s fashionable “balanced” description of Ghengis Khan and his descendants as establishing a “meritocracy” and being “tolerant” of different religions. Sure, they depopulated the entire Iranian Plateau and reduced the population of China in half — but the seventeen people that they allowed to live were free to worship as they chose, so … yay diversity? Fact is, the Mongols were “tolerant” of subjugated survivors’ religions NOT because they were inclusive, progressive, etc., but because they didn’t give a shit. Their own writings make clear that their mission in life was plunder: a pursuit of pure, unadorned power over people and things. They didn’t care what others thought about nebulous spiritual matters, as long as they paid tribute and submitted to the Mongol rule. (The same is true of the supposedly “tolerant” Islamic Spain, where the existence of a sizeable non-Muslim population actually served the rulers’ purposes, inasmuch as the infidel-tax was a major source of revenue.)
It also irritates me when history’s most truculent men are described as good administrators. Sure, this particular guy laid waste to a huge portion of the planet, but he made the trains run on time — that sort of thing. It is quite common for empires to enter a period of Pax [Whatever]-ana after their conquest phase — probably because there isn’t much to administer in a country that’s been devastated, so it’s easy. As Tacitus wrote of the Roman Empire, “where they make a desert, they call it peace.”
What good is an empire if it’s built on blood? What good are roads and trade routes, if it’s mass slaughter that makes them possible? How many innocent lives is the spread of a supposedly superior culture worth? Does having a “balanced” view of a historical figure really mean that an efficient bureaucracy and a relative paucity of religious coercion compensate for ethnic cleansing and indescribable human suffering? Is it really possible, in talking about a historical figure, to divorce “the real person” from the awful things he did? And if the awful things that he did “color” my perception of that person, who’s to say they don’t color it exactly as they should?
Also, crediting Alexander the Great with spreading Hellenism, or the Arab conquest of Spain with bringing civilization to unwashed savages is racist as fuck. But, here we arrive at the door of another discussion: one about what constitutes a “race”. I’ll leave it for another day.
There is more bad news out of Ferguson, because everything is horrible. Prosecutor Robert McCulloch, of Darren Wilson grand jury fame, unable to restrain himself from telling those who don’t believe cops should be killing people in the street willy-nilly what to do to their own orifices, gave an interview during which he nonchalantly admitted to suborning perjury during the aforementioned grand jury proceedings. Naturally, this led to some excitement in the normal-people world, as in: is it possible something could be salvaged out of the whole Ferguson mess in the name of justice? As a pessimist with a lot of experience in the legal field, I have to answer that question as “no, probably not.” McCulloch wouldn’t be gloating about all the false testimony he deliberately introduced if he was in any danger of incurring penalties. Read more…