The Night of Broken Glass

kristallnacht-1938
Kristallnacht -Jewish owned shop windows smashed- Nazi Germany, Nov  9, 1938

This November it will be exactly 80 years ago that a wave of anti-Jewish savagery and destruction broke out across Nazi occupied Europe on November 9 and 10 in 1938.  Known as  the Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, after the shards of shattered glass that lined German streets in the wake of the pogrom – broken glass from the windows of synagogues, Jewish-owned homes and businesses were ransacked, plundered or destroyed during the violence,  often by neighbors and acquaintances of the victims. These November pogroms marked the start of the Holocaust.

Hateful, riotous and violent events such as these raise the chilling question how people can be made to turn on their fellow citizens en masse, to the point of destroying their properties and livelihoods, or even by killing them.

Such events do not occur in isolation, of course, and are often years in the making, and typically the outcome of a climate of division, misinformation, mistrust, intimidation, hate-mongering and fear.  At bottom lies the vulnerability of the human race to being manipulated by folks who claim that they have the answers to all their problems, and who are able to convince others of their creed by appealing to the most basic instincts of our species, amongst which greed and fear are the more susceptible  ones.

In addition, their appeal feeds on another intrinsic feature of the human race, namely the need to belong to the herd.  Described by Nietzsche as the obedience of the individual to the mass, blindly and without reflection, and perhaps best characterized by his near-contemporary existentialist writer Kierkegaard, when he said that … we men are constantly in need of “the others,” the herd; we die, or despair, if we are not reassured by being in the herd, of the same opinion as the herd.  And,  as Simone Weil once remarked,  people find comfort in the absence of the necessity to think.

Clearly, such basic human tendencies work directly against the willingness and ability to think about the morality of our actions for ourselves – as individuals – as well as the courage to act accordingly, regardless of diverging mass opinions. This as opposed to being purely driven by instinct,  something that would have urged our animal ancestors to prefer the safety of numbers by remaining within the herd,  for no other reason than being a member of the same species with the need to conform.

That the latter can be a contributing factor in the occurrence of mass violence – including  state sponsored genocide, as in the case of Nazi Germany – can be seen in the context of the herd instinct being alive and well and continuing to thrive amongst the more vulnerable-minded of our species, particularly in the religious and political spheres.  And if our history has shown us anything it is the fact that such outbreaks of mass violence can be initiated by those who have a purpose for it, or,  if they are afflicted with a pathological need to dominate others and the obsession with the exercise of power.

Not easily understood if you are not affected by it – and essentially a delusion about one’s own power or importance – Adolf Hitler rise to power resulting in WWII is perhaps history’s most deadly example of how millions of people can be murdered for no reason other than that someone believing in their own divine purpose and invincibility is able to motivate others to blindly act out their deadly manic or paranoid disorder for them.

This couldn’t happen in our day and age you say? But you only have to watch the large adoring crowds at various Trump rallies and their absolute delight in chanting “Lock Her Up” to understand how the masses can be manipulated and potentially motivated to commit a heinous act.

With the oratory skills of a pulpit bully and employing a 5th-grade  vocabulary largely limited to hollow phraseology such as “it’s gonna be great, it’s gonna be fantastic!”, a large and primarily anti-intellectual crowd for whom truth is a function of what they want to believe as opposed to what is actually the case  – after being told what they want to hear, e.g., how deserving they are, or how wonderful they are  – can be made to focus on an illusionary enemy who is made out to be standing in the way of their entitlements, a promised utopia, and conceivably set afoot from there, and never mind the consequences.

The Dirty Little Secret at the End of WWII

German Expellees
German Expellees

This is old news now,  but as many European countries are commemorating  the Allied victory over Nazi  Germany around this time of the year we might also want to remember another significant event in relatively recent European history that was directly related to it and  that affected countless millions of people in what is perhaps the largest documented case of ethnic cleansing on record.

But I bet  you didn’t hear much at school about the dirty little secret at the end of WW2: the Potsdam agreement on policy for the occupation and reconstruction of Germany, at the Potsdam Conference between July 17 and August 2, 1945. The participants were the top leaders of the Soviet Union, the U.S.A and the UK, Josef Stalin, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and the ministers of foreign affairs of those states.

Potsdam Conference 1945
Potsdam Conference in 1945 -Truman next to Stalin,  and associated Foreign Ministers

The agreement wasn’t really a secret but given the amount of coverage it received and its subsequent nearly silent treatment in western history books would suggest that it may as well have been a covert agreement between these world leaders. In short, the US and England gave in to the evil Stalin’s demands to control eastern Europe, to redraw the borders of Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union further west to give the Soviets more territory and to expel the entire German population east of the Oder-Neisse line. In real numbers, this meant that approximately two million Poles were forced to abandon their homes and lands and resettle behind the redrawn Polish/Soviet Union border (the Curzon Line) to the west, and that a staggering number of approximately 13 million Germans were to be repatriated to the remaining German territory west of the Neisse river.

prussian expellees
Prussian Expellees

The plan was to allow for the orderly and humane repatriation of Germans from their former homelands where their families had lived and worked as far back as the 13th century. This didn’t quite work out this way! Around 5 million people were forced to flee almost immediately when the Soviet red army advanced into East Prussia in the manner of a viscous barbaric horde bent on raping, killing and in general ransacking everything in their path. It was time to revenge the millions that died at Stalingrad, and a particularly good time if you were a  soldier-slave of a brutal communist regime. Rape, in particular, was the highlight on the pillager’s menu. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, then a young captain in the Red Army, described the entry of his regiment into East Prussia in January 1945 as follows: “For three weeks the war had been going on inside Germany, and all of us knew very well that if the girls were German they could be raped and then shot. This was almost a combat distinction”. The remaining 8 million Germans were forced to repatriate in an “orderly and humane” fashion, roughly 1,2 million did not survive the forced but unassisted trek west across their now former homelands and through Polish territory to the relative safety of Allied-occupied German territory on the other side of the Neisse river. The survivors – typically not the very old or the very young – and mostly ordinary farm folk who had done nothing more than toil ceaselessly for a living from dusk to dawn their entire lives – told of months and weeks of incredible suffering along the way during which time they were habitually beaten, robbed of the few possessions they had, the women raped repeatedly. Thousands of expellees committed suicide, not able to take any more of it.

prussian-expellees
Prussian Expellees

The Humanitarian  Albert Schweitzer, in his speech accepting the Noble Peace Prize in Oslo in 1954, said:

The most grievous violation of the right based on historical evolution and of any human right in general is to deprive populations of the right to occupy the country where they live by compelling them to settle elsewhere. The fact that the victorious powers decided at the end of 2nd World War to impose this fate on hundreds of thousands of human beings and, what is more, in a most cruel manner, show how little they were aware of the challenge facing them, namely, to re-establish prosperity and, as far as possible, the rule of law.

WWII – Liberation Day

Liberation Day - The Netherlands
Liberation Day – The Netherlands

Today, May 5th, is National Liberation Day in the Netherlands  to commemorate the capitulation of the Nazi forces in that country on May 5, 1945. It is a national holiday, although not a statutory day off and employers are allowed to work this out between themselves and their employees. Why mention this day at all? Well, I was born in the Netherlands during WWII, and remain deeply grateful for the fact that Americans and Canadians came over to slay the evil Nazi beast and set us free. Many of them gave their lives for this. This surely was a case of a just war – the grim and sadistic Nazi machine had to be stopped and sent back down the gates of hell from whence it came, goose-stepping and all. So many innocent people died as a result of this war. On both sides.

 

Arthur "Bomber" Harris
RAF Air Chief Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris

It wasn’t until much later that I heard about the over-enthusiastic bombing of primarily civilian targets under the direction of Arthur “Bomber” Harris and the RAF, such as the cities of Hamburg, Konigsberg and Dresden. Dresden was fire bombed towards the very end of the war by Harris and Co. when it harboured more than half-a-million civilian refugees from Silesia on the run from Stalin and the Red Army. Estimates remain inexact, but as many as 130,000 civilians may have been killed (incinerated, primarily) during a series of raids on that city. Civilians were targeted to “demoralize” the German fighting forces, but the fact that this happened so close to the end of the war – in February 1945 – with the German army already on the run, makes that a very weak argument. Going to war – even for a noble cause – is a filthy business that cannot be administered without contaminating yourself. Or so it seems.

The Dead of Dresden
The Dead of Dresden

The dead of Dresden lie in the streets in 1945. Waves of British bombers created a firestorm in which tens of thousands died. The temperature of the masonry in the city’s cathedral reached an estimated 1,000 Celsius.  Reports speak of many victims melting in the intense heat, their bodies becoming welded to pavements.

It should be emphasized that the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.

RAF Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris, October, 1943

Enlightenment – How?

In response to Steven Pinker’s  Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress – to repeat something  I stated in an earlier post – who can begin to enumerate the number and variety of social economic, health and environmental issues ranging from poverty to homelessness to starvation across the globe? Just recently the NY Times in an article titled The U.S. Can No Longer Hide from Its Deep Poverty Problem showed a tally of those living on $4 a day or less in selected developed countries, and it included 5.3 million people living in the US.  I don’t necessarily want to pick on the US, but with the highest GDP in the world you wonder how this can even be the case when a country is deemed the wealthiest country in the world.

Beyond that there is the disturbing statistic that half of the world’s wealth belongs to the top 1%, while the top 10% of adults hold 85%, and the bottom 90% hold the remaining 15% of the world’s total wealth.  If you believe that these discrepancies are simply a function of some folks working harder and smarter than others, and reaping the benefit of it, then bless you! But you may have to learn something about the celebrated tenets of predatory capitalism and how some people, organizations and certain governments operate in order to accumulate the incredible wealth that they have acquired, if only to ensure the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer.

And how depressing is it when you read about the general well-being of people outside the developed countries and find out that approximately 9 million people die of starvation each year according to world hunger statistics; more than the death toll for malaria, AIDs and tuberculosis combined in 2012. And currently an estimated 130 children or more die every day in war-torn Yemen from extreme hunger and disease according to international aid groups working there.

Add to this the pollution of our life-sustaining  atmosphere air with toxic gasses and poisonous particulates, the contamination of our precious living oceans with eight million metric tons of plastics  each year, the relentless depletion of non-renewable natural resources and the creation of mountains of garbage and putrid waste that we really don’t know what to do with courtesy of our mindless obsessive-compulsive consumerism and you have a picture of a planet that appears to be  in deep trouble no matter how rosy the glasses you are wearing you look at it.

Of course, there is far more going on in the world  that should be of concern if you care about the future of this earth – which is our future, lest we forget – such as people continuing to slaughter each other no matter what. We are reminded daily of the ongoing tribal wars in the Middle East, featuring the long standing tradition of killing each other in the name of some deity or another, e.g., the murderous Taliban sect and today’s equally deadly version of the black plaque known as ISIS. And last but not least we have a nuclear threat mounted by that obdurate dictator living like royalty of the meager avails of his starving nation in South East Asia, all the while advancing the world’s Doomsday Clock to two minutes before apocalyptic midnight, and a situation sadly lacking in amelioration from that chap in the White House.

And speaking of that chap in the White House, who can forget H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) depressing prophesy come true last year,  that  “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

Now I don’t know about you, but as much as I hate to see the current status of the world reduced to these tragic events, I can’t help but think that no amount of positive thinking is able to gloss over these sordid states of affairs with Pinker’s astonishingly naive claim that things are getting better by the day. If global poverty has been reduced and longevity expanded, it is nevertheless within the larger herd of human lemmings hurtling down the cliff toward extinction. One consolation might be that we have made damned sure every other species of creatures critical to our survival has been made extinct before us.

No need to give up all hope, however! Apparently, the great barren expanse of Mars is waiting for us, as all-round wunderkind Elon Musk  will be able to shoot us there in a tin can perhaps as soon a seven years from now. It seems space is  where our future lies as the acolytes of modern  consumerism!  Mars will be the first interplanetary step after we’re done with the earth, and from there we will spread it among the stars, to infinity and beyond. Our greatest gift to the cosmos, indeed!

A Tale of Two Selves

…  man is, relatively speaking, the most unsuccessful animal, the sickliest, the one most dangerously strayed from its instincts – with all that, to be sure, the most interesting! (Nietzsche)

Why is the human race, with its superior intellectual capacity when compared to its most recent primate ancestry on the phylogenetic tree, at the same time so unstable, so unpredictable, and so neurotic, and so often acting against its own interest? One would have thought the advanced brainpower would have had the opposite effect, by benefiting its host in all aspects of human endeavor and  maximizing its existential advantage. Instead, we ended up being a deeply troubled, schizoid species.

I think we can safely conclude that all the human induced problems in the world are related to the very latest features of our neuroanatomy, as no other species had its brain hijacked by what has been classified as “the human cortex”. While being an integral of our brains, the expansion of the cerebral cortex, the neocortex, and in particular that of its prefrontal region, is a major evolutionary landmark in the emergence of humans, the crowning achievement of evolution and the biological substrate of human mental prowess.

Yes, and so the trouble started, as much of the misery experienced by human beings is likely the result of the conflict within our minds between the inherited lower and newly acquired higher brain functions, i.e., between the animal, or instinctive self and the moral, or rational self, and the latter presumably courtesy of the evolutionary upgrade

The moral self is that part of our self-awareness (as opposed to mere awareness)  that is able to take responsibility for its actions in light of its consequences, whether they are intended or not. In doing so, it must be able to think and act rationally, and see itself as a causal agent with respect to its actions and its consequences.

It presupposes that all rational actions are preceded by a decision making process – essentially making all actions initially optional, as opposed to an automatic or learned response to a stimulus, which would be the case for any action initiated by instinct only.

After receiving a major upgrade in the gray matter department, quantitatively as well as a qualitatively it seems, the new human species saw the world and themselves in a different light from their genetic progenitors. On the assumption that our sensory organs have not changed all that much qualitatively from our immediate ancestors,  we can suppose that sensory data would show the world in many ways unchanged, yet different from the moment they started interacting with it. Instead, it became an environment capable of being changed based on how they interacted with it. No longer were they merely at the receiving end of the world; they were now in a position to alter, if not recreate certain aspects of it.

More importantly,  major substantive changes were introduced in how the new species is able to communicate among its members. Beyond the hitherto primitive primate cultures depending primarily on grunts and gestures for communication – but already including a degree of social structure – Homo sapiens developed something entire new under the sun. They were able to establish cultures capable of abstraction and conceptualization, in language, in the arts and above all, in the sciences

The result has been that, in spite of all the turmoil, upheaval and chaos our species has endured since the beginning of time, self-induced or not – and a subject not easily dismissed or glossed over if our recorded history of past and current civilizations has anything to say about it – our knowledge and understanding of the physical world has steadily increased, to the point that – after a long and initial period of linear growth – it is now growing exponentially, doubling on average every twelve months according to what has been referred to as the  Knowledge Doubling Curve.

This later fact should not surprise us, as we have this innate need to know; it is an essential if not “necessary” feature of our species to keep looking for more answers, about the world, the greater universe, and by extension about ourselves. Necessary because we will not be able progress along the path that evolution is pushing us unless we keep increasing our knowledge and understanding of the cosmic phenomenon that we find ourselves a part of and must be able to build our future in.  Evolution isn’t some process over and above ourselves – we are the very embodiment of it, and each of us is an instance of that process!

An essential step in that process will be the need to reconcile the instinctive self with the rational self, to establish some sense of harmonious, symbiotic relationship between the two, such that we  will only undertake actions that are to the greater long-term benefit of our species. Will we ever be capable of this?  I don’t know, but time will tell, and as AI continues to edge forward in our lives, it may well decide the matter for us, one way or the other.

In The Gray Morning Light

In a few days it will be International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death-camp on January 27, 1945, by the Soviet army.    There are many things that continue to disturb me when I think about this period in time again, in addition to the unimaginable evil of it: a state run people extermination program …

arbeit macht frei

There continue to be folks today – morons is a good name for them – who deny that anything like the Holocaust actually happened. Typically, they will have their own demented ideological agendas that will prevent them from acknowledging the sickening truth of this event, but the well-documented fact remains that on January 20, 1942,  in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, 15 high-ranking Nazi Party and German government officials  got together under the leadership of Reinhardt Heydrich, chief of the Reich Main Security Office (including the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), Gestapo, and Kripo) to discuss and coordinate of what they called the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question“.

While the official minutes of this this meeting did not reflect the actual ways and means of the implementation of this state sanctioned policy – we know from actual testimony provided by Adolf Eichmann who was present at the meeting that an agreement was reached to pursue the annihilation of all Jewish people, and that this strategy was subsequently implemented with deadly efficiency, resulting in the murder of as many as 6 million Jewish people.

And so it happened that – while Nazi Germany was at war –  at the outset life went on more or less as normal for the majority of the German population,  but some of their neighbours were forced from their warm beds in the very early morning hours, given 15 minutes to get ready, fathers, mothers, their little children, grandparents, entire families, generations, standing there in front of their homes, in the gray morning light, shivering, frightened, crying, a small bag of belongings clutched under their arms, to be trucked away to local railway stations, then transported in unheated goods trains in the middle of winter – packed so tightly together – there was no room to sit down during a journey lasting often several days. Pitch dark inside, with a bucket or hole in the floor for a toilet, men, women, young and elderly, children, babies, women expecting, giving birth, and all this indescribably suffering had to be endured by thousands of people just so they could be gassed to death at a distant location.

From a 1943 secret report by a German army officer that was smuggled to the Dutch Resistance, for further distribution:

The trains with the victims arrive from all the occupied territories of Europe. They are made up of cattle wagons whose windows are barred with barbed wire, in each of the wagons there are 120 people. Depending on the weather, about 90 % arrive alive, although more than once last summer, 50 % were already dead from lack of water. After the wagons arrive at the camp, the people are whipped out and into the surrounding barracks, and locked in. The next day or several days later, depending on arrivals, 700 to 800 people are pushed together in to a courtyard. They are told to undress completely, the clothes must be put carefully in piles and the shoes lined up. Completely naked, men, women, children are pushed along a passage between two dividers of barbed wire. Then Ukrainian criminals begin to cut and shave the women’s and men’s hair. The hair is collected carefully because it is used to seal the joints [Dichtungen] of the submarines [U-Boot]. For long hours, the poor people must stand in the biting cold or the burning heat. As soon as some fall, worn out by the harsh cold or the burning heat, the henchmen lash the naked bodies of these poor people with the whips. The pain and the suffering that takes place in these corridors defy description. Mothers try to warm their infants against their own naked bodies. There is hardly any talking, only the eyes of the poor people express a nameless suffering and dulled resignation. This corridor leads to an iron door of a stone building. The door is opened and the 700-800 people destined for death are whipped inside until they are squeezed like herring in a barrel and unable to move. A three years old boy who tries to run away is caught and whipped back inside. Then the doors are hermetically closed. Outside the building, a large tractor is turned on, its exhaust fumes are pumped inside the building by a small window, I could see the effects on the victims inside. Packed in, the poor people were standing and waiting for their last moment, there was no panic, no cries, only a low murmur that could be heard from outside, as though a collective prayer rose towards the sky. One hour later, all were dead. Sliding windows were opened from the outside for the carbon monoxide to be evacuated. A half hour later, some Jews came – they owe their life to this dismal work which follows – to open a door in the back wall and drag out the bodies of the gassed people outside, before carrying them to the pits full of lime prepared for this task. They must remove rings from the fingers and open mouths to pull out gold teeth if there are any. Each installation keeps statistics of the number of killings [Tötungen]. Every day, in other words, every 24 hours, three or four killings[Tötungen] take place. This means that for the four installations [Anstalten], 8 000 to 9 000 deaths per day. In all, 6 million and a half people have already been killed in this way, including 4 million Jews and 2 and 1/2 “institutionalized individuals” or so-called “Deutschfeindlichen”. The program includes 16 million and a half people, in other words, all the Jews in the occupied territories and all the Polish and Czech intellectuals. In high places, there is currently an emphasis on rapidity and it is planned to use a more efficient method of killing. Cyanide gas has been suggested but apparently it has not been used yet, so the killing continues to take place in the cynical manner described above.
(March 25, 1943)

The ultimate indignity to human life – but there really are no words in any  language  that could capture in any  way the degree of terror, horror and pain that was inflicted on so many innocent men, women and children by the relatively handful of truly murderous individuals that made up the Nazi upper hierarchy.

Disturbing to me  is the fact that this unbelievable sick and demented  initiative was perpetrated by the leadership of a nation steeped in cultural significance as far as western civilization is concerned.  And here we have Reinhard Heydrich – the Chair of the 1942 Wannsee conference – himself  a talented classical violinist and son of a composer and professional opera singer, born into a family of social standing and substantial financial means, and often described as the main author of the Holocaust and the darkest figure within the Nazi elite. Hitler christened him “The Man with the Iron Heart”(1)

Oh – and before I forget – the Holocaust  happened to certain people only because they were Jewish – but that seems hardly relevant, does it? I mean, how could such a factor be relevant? Unless, perhaps, you were in a country ruled by  a mentally deranged homicidal megalomaniac who used its powerful army to act out his sick and deadly fantasies. No, it is the fact that this could have happened at all – where it happened, when it happened and how it happened – these the only things that matter here. How this could have happened – I don’t think I will ever be able to figure this out at all.

(1) It is perhaps worth mentioning that Mr. Heydrich’s iron heart stopped beating at the occasion of his death a few months after the Wannsee conference as the result of an attempt on his life on 27 May 1942 by a British-trained team of Czech and Slovak soldiers who had been sent on behalf of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile to assassinate him in an operation named Operation Anthropoid.

An Unnatural Disaster

donald-trumpThe unnatural disaster that is called President Trump is continuing to threaten the stability of the world, if only because it directly involves such a large and powerful country as the United States of America, formerly known as the leader of the free world.

Following a recent mea culpa admission by co-author Tony Schwartz of Donald Trump’s 1987 book The Art of the Deal, for realizing that this superficially positive and flattering portrayal of Trump’s approach to business glossed over the incredible shallowness of the main character, and so ended up promoting what appears to be a charlatan entrepreneur into the status of (for some) credible presidential candidate.

In addition, in the case of the current  President of the United States we appear to have the actual instantiation of what has been described in the field of psychology as the the Dunning–Kruger effect:

This effect manifests itself as a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. The cognitive bias of illusory superiority comes from the inability of low-ability people to recognize their lack of ability. Without the self-awareness of metacognition, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence.

We were subsequently treated to Michael Wolfe’s 2017 book Fire and Fury, a presumed  reasonably accurate sketch of Trump’s first year in office, showing a largely  dysfunctional administration around a clueless president who is so out of his depth that you can’t help but to feel sorry for the folks assigned to assist him through the daily turmoil of trying to keep him in some semblance of presidential demeanor. One particular astute observation from it, as provided by White House staff that Wolfe has interviewed, was that to interact with Trump can be akin to “… trying to figure out what a child wants”.

Now, former G. W. Bush speechwriter and Republican columnist David Frum has published his new book Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, described by the SF Chronicle as “a persuasive and detailed account of how Trump is undermining American institutions, including the presidency itself”.

Frum is no light-weight Republican; he is as astute as they come, as evidenced by the following analysis of Trump’s first year in office, and his warning that despotism doesn’t necessarily begin with violent disruption.  “It can come on little cat feet”

The thing to fear from the Trump presidency … is not the bold overthrow of the Constitution, but the stealthy paralysis of governance; not the open defiance of law, but an accumulating subversion of norms; not the deployment of state power to intimidate dissidents, but the incitement of private violence to radicalize supporters.

Frum is not holding back either when it comes to his opinion of the quality of the man now in charge of the White House, and has summarized him as follows:

… an amateur, a charlatan, a con artist, a manipulator, a poseur, a serial fibber if not outright liar, a vulgarian, a swindler, a skimmer and a trimmer, a man-child lacking character, intelligence, integrity, judgment, clarity of thought, a coherent philosophy or a worldview and management and organizational skills.

Now that is a lot of ugly name calling, but the scary thing  is that none of this surprises me in any way. Just watching Trump during a TV appearance, now or in the past during his presidential campaign, leaves me with an instant feeling of unease – well, distaste, really – and reach for the mute button on the remote to avoid the insipid bombastic language, or just the sound of a bragging, brawling, or denigrating tone of voice. Combine this with the pouting face, the silly hairdo, and you are presented with an image of a larger than life windbag, someone with an obnoxious personality so  devoid of any real substance that it would suck all the air out of the room the moment he entered it.

Lastly, as stated by David Remnick in a January 15th article in the New Yorker titled “The Lost Emperor” ….

…. there is little doubt about who Donald Trump is and the harm he has done already, and the greater harm he threatens. He is unfit to hold any public office, much less the highest in the land. This is not merely an orthodoxy of the opposition; his panicked courtiers have been leaking word of it from his first weeks in office. The President of the United States has become a leading security threat to the United States.

While much of this commentary makes the Trump presidency sound like something akin to a toxic spill – and equally difficult to contain – it  can be claimed that  much of this negative appraisal of  is based on anecdotal accounts,  and then primarily by biased individuals who simply don’t like him to begin with.  But for those not convinced by now that Trump is in fact the blowhard that millions of Americans have  already made him out to be, you may want to read a Newsweek article from  October 18, 2016,  written by Kurt Eichenwald and titled  A People’s History of Donald Trump’s Business Busts and Countless Victims, .  Trump’s specialty, it seems, was  to snatch huge fistfuls of cash from a companies that were about to go broke, wiping out the savings of millions of people who had invested in them after he had convinced them to do so.

God  – or somebody – help  America, and in the process the rest of the world.

On The Back Foot Once Again

And so another year has passed, and while the saying goes “another year older, another year wiser”, I’m not convinced that this actually applies to our species. It was a year ago  that one of the largest and most powerful countries in the world installed a political novice and intellectual lightweight of questionable character as their leader at a time that the world needed strong – and especially united – leadership to help save the planet from itself

The ensuing year proved many of the dire predictions true and consistent with what one might expect from having a leader who might best be described as “Captain Chaos” if it wasn’t for the fact that there is nothing comical  about the current leader in the White House. Well, perhaps his unique hairdo might qualify for a sad laugh or two. Personally, I very much regret ever having seen it.

I can’t help but think the Americans have done themselves – and in the process the world – a huge disserve by installing a head of state who couldn’t be more divisive even if he tried to. This as opposed to electing someone who would have made America “whole” again. And this is not to say that the loosing candidate would have made a much better choice – and although this would certainly have been the case in the intelligence and experience department – as divisiveness appears to have become a permanent feature on the US political landscape for some time now.

So, we start this year on the back foot once again,  as it is clear from the absolutely sorry state of the world today that  we haven’t got a clue of why or what we are doing here, all 7.6 billion of us, on this planet, in this universe, all the while fouling our own nest as we ride roughshod over our fellow human beings – as well as the many other living creatures on this earth – in a haze of metaphysical and ideological confusion, and in the West more than anything else, driven by insatiable consumerism.

For many – if not the vast majority of people in the world – it is difficult to see beyond the current moment as the effort to survive and provide for themselves and their families occupies their daily lives from morning to night.

Nevertheless, trying to understand life – or the raison d’être for it – our world, the larger universe, is something we should all have an interest in. That is, if we want to experience and value these things beyond the tragedy we appear to be mired in today, and in a way that show our daily actions to be steps in the larger task of advancing our species in line with an evolving universe that otherwise appears to be descending into entropy.

The inescapable fact remains that we are finding ourselves at the receiving end of a cosmic event that we do not grasp the meaning of by any stretch of the imagination, yet we soldier on regardless – seemingly without goal or purpose. Or at least no goal or purpose that would in any way make sense or do justice to the sheer scope and unimaginable effort that the universe represents and that is represented within every particle of our bodies. Even a mere inkling as to where we are going with this can be a beginning in the way we shape our lives and create a world that is more meaningful while suggesting a destiny that is worthy of this effort.

And when it comes to exploring these kinds of thoughts on a medium such as this blog for more than ten years now,  I am under no illusion that I am writing this  for a very small audience –  and as such will be stating my views primarily in my own echo chamber – but so long as I am making reasonable sense to myself I will be satisfied.

So why continue put it out on the internet then? Well, I continue to hope I can get someone else thinking about this material, and so I want to be sure I have presented my views as clearly as possible.

This is just to say that – if I have any pretensions at all – they apply to anyone who also believes that our species is in serious trouble and slowly but surely giving in to the forces of entropy. As such we appear to be marching towards extinction unless we change our ways significantly, and for the better – using the amazing creative energies that lie within – and towards a future that represents the very best in us. But, it is clear that this day has not yet come and is likely still some time away …

Only the day after tomorrow belongs to me. Some are born posthumously. (Nietzsche)

Better Never to Have Been

A South African philosopher by the name of David Benatar believes that the world would be a better place if sentient life disappeared altogether, i.e., no remaining life-form capable of undergoing pain or suffering. As a consequence he claims it would have been better if no one had children ever again since reproducing is intrinsically cruel and irresponsible – not just because a horrible fate can befall anyone, but because life itself is permeated by badness.

Benatar is a proponent of what has been termed the anti-natalist position. In a 2006 book titled Better Never to have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence he writes that

While good people go to great lengths to save their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place.

The disappearance of sentient life on this planet would be of no consequence to anyone or anything according to Benatar, and in that context he joins earlier existentialist writers such as Sartre and Camus when he believes the universe is indifferent to our fate; it is without meaning, and other than that “we are subject to blind and purposeless natural forces”.

But when at least Nietzsche would find some purpose in suffering (and hence life) when he wrote “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering” Benatar does not believe that human suffering and the struggle to survive are capable of providing meaning to existence.

While one might want to argue about all the good things in life providing value to it, he would claim that they can never offset the badness of all terrible tragedies that might happen during one’s lifetime, including one’s death. I guess he has a point when you think of all the natural disasters that have happened – and are likely happen again – be they earthquakes, floods, famine, and what have you.  Or man-made tragedies, such as the 9/11 terror attack, the holocaust or the slaughter of millions of people  in the various wars. What kinds of positive experiences might one put on the other scale to suggest that all this will balance out in the end?

This is not to say that on an individual basis someone might not be able to look back at one’s life and conclude that it has by and large been a very positive experience – but I’m assuming that Benatar has appraised the human condition from a species perspective, and from there concluded that it – life – just isn’t worth it when it is all added up. So why bother; sentient life is just a waste of time, causing much unneeded pain and suffering

I have some sympathy for the view that planet earth would be better off without the likes of us,  given our longstanding and well established record of harming ourselves and the  environment.  And no doubt there is something to say for discontinuing the amount of pain and suffering we have inflicted onto our fellow creatures in the animal kingdom through our thoughtless practices of whatever nature – such as the asinine practice of trophy hunting certain animal species into extinction, to give just one example.

And so the question remains if the continuation of sentient life – and in particular human life – is a value added experience of sorts, and the point being that – regardless of incredible misery, pain and suffering being regular features of human existence – life is worth the effort of sustaining it.

Clearly, professor  Benatar thinks not, but I have already argued that it is, since just because we appear to be unable to determine the meaning or purpose of life today  beyond the immediacies of survival doesn’t mean it has no meaning or purpose in a larger context. (I suspect this question is too large for us today).

 

The Right to Bear Arms

Another post outside my usual range of subjects, yet relevant – I believe – in terms of what we are doing with our lives while not being at all sure what we should be doing with them.

This one is about Americans and their guns. They love their guns – but with on average as many as 32,000 people being killed by a firearm in the US annually, you wonder why? Well, I do, so let’s look at this situation a bit more closely …

Now the USA is a large country, and with more than 323 million inhabitants the 32k losing their life as a result of some pulling the trigger on a firearm of sorts is perhaps less meaningful than presenting these facts on a per capita basis and comparing them with other developed countries.

Last year a study by the American Journal of Medicine published on February 1st of 2016 showed that Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries. I think that is a mind-numbing statistic, don’t you think? But you don’t need to look far to come up with some reasons as why this might be the case: the fact that Americans have roughly 10 times the number of guns per 100 inhabitants than any other country in the world.

The simple fact remains that, if you don’t have a gun, you can’t kill anyone with it, including accidentally, or yourself (!) This latter fact should deserve more appreciation as there are statistics out there that show that most gun deaths are suicides, and that the states with the most guns report the most suicides! (2005 data) There is a lot of research that shows greater access to guns dramatically increases the risk of suicide. For that reason alone, it would seem logical if not outright commonsense to seek some restrictions on who can have one, e.g., only law enforcement in protecting the greater interest of society, as a means and deterrent to keep bad people at bay.

But logic or common sense has nothing to do with firearm control in the USA – this in light of the nearly sacred Second Amendment that guarantees US citizens “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” I say “sacred” because to some Americans it is as if Moses himself brought this Amendment down from the mountain, and is something akin to a God-given right – if not a little difficult to reconcile with the “Thou shalt not Kill” commandment. And speaking of your typical hard-nosed ultra-right God-fearing US Christian, in addition to the 2nd Amendment, many take Jesus’ command to his disciples in Luke 22, “And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one,” as the first personal carry permit.

However, any discussion around questioning the wisdom of keeping such a right in place hundreds of years after the US Constitution was signed on September 17 of 1787 is attacked with a ferocity akin to challenging the right of America to defend itself as a sovereign nation.

There are a number of reasons for that, and not the least by the inherent ambiguity in the way the amendment is written: was the amendment created to ensure the continuation and flourishing of the state militias as a means of defense, or was it created to ensure an individual’s right to own a firearm?

The fact is that the world today is much different from what it was in the 1789:

Standing armies were mistrusted, as they had been used as tools of oppression by the monarchs of Europe for centuries. In the war for independence, there had been a regular army, but much of the fighting had been done by the state militias, under the command of local officers. Aside from the war, militias were needed because attacks were relatively common, whether by bandits, Indians, and even by troops from other states.” (quoted from usconstitution.net)

Today it seems utterly unreasonable for a modern democratic country to have such a constitutional provision as the 2nd Amendment around on the assumption that the people may one day need to take up arms and fight their governments – the very people they have elected to represent them in all matters of nationhood.

Nevertheless, gun enthusiasts, manufacturers and their representatives – such as the NRA – have seized on the ambiguity to take the concept of gun-ownership one step further, namely that the right to own a firearm equates to the necessity of having to own one, and this in the interest of your own safety, to have the right means to defend your family, should that ever be necessary.

As a result, an average of 5,790 children in the United States receive medical treatment in an emergency room each year for a gun-related injury. About 21% of those injuries are unintentional, while on average, 1,297 children died annually from a gun-related injury, according to the study, published in the journal Pediatrics in June of 2017. So much for gun ownership in the interest of protecting your family. What an absolute tragedy!

And while it is true that – as gun lobbyists are fond of pointing out – there has been a 49 percent decrease in gun homicides over the last 20 years, the claim that this is the result of personal carry laws must disputed as violent crime in general has decreased during this period, and gun homicides have followed suit for all of the same sociological reasons. At the same time, a direct link still exists between localized gun statistics and homicide rates.

And that just about sums it up for the 2nd amendment – and the folks supporting it – including, of course, the roughly 32,000 Americans that get shot and killed annually in support of it.