Class Warfare Blog

December 4, 2019

The Hero: A Book Report

Filed under: Culture,language,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 9:33 am
Tags: ,

I finished reading The Hero by Lee Child, author of action thrillers, most prominently those involving his main character, Jack Reacher. And I promised you a book report.

This is a quick read and quite enjoyable as it the author’s riff on what defines the word “hero.” He uses as a framework the evolution of humankind, focusing on the genetic bottleneck that occurred about 2500 generations ago in which the human population of Europe and its surrounds fell to about 4000 individuals (due to an ice age, you know). He believes that that event shaped us into the people we are. To quote him:

Conventionally our long, eventful seven-million-year evolutionary journey is thought of as an inevitable ascent toward ever-increasing perfection. Which it might be. Or not. It depends on where we started. Who are we descended from? Who was my 1,198-times great grandmother? What kind of person survives an eight-hundred-generation Ice Age? Such a thing doesn’t happen by accident. Potential survivors didn’t sit around hoping for the best. They spent eight hundred generations kicking and clawing and killing and stealing. Maybe they started on the Neanderthals. Then they started on each other. Conditions got worse. The nice guys died out. By the end the human population was reduced to the nastiest handful. My 1,198-times great grandmother was one of them. One of a savage, feral, cunning bunch. They would kill you as soon as look at you. They would steal your food and shelter. A ferocious will to live, with the emphasis on the first part.

Along the way to this conclusion, Mr. Child dissects the meaning of the word hero, from its initial meanings to the almost total meaningless it has now (ordinary firefighters are labeled heroes without having done anything heroic . . . for political reasons). Mr. Child explains why this happened:

The entire purpose of story is to manipulate. Previously who was doing the manipulating didn’t matter very much. It was always just some random person, with talent and energy, and no real agenda beyond some kind of empowering encouragement, which was intended to help the community as a whole anyway. But now there was a state, however rudimentary, and a government. There was an elite, and a hierarchy stretching out below them. There was power and control. The New Stone Age. A new system. Perhaps too long ago and too small and too prototype-crude to be given names from later periods, but all authoritarian and totalitarian governments need to control the story.

The bottom line is that Mr. Child, he of a classical education and quite erudite, has foresworn the use of the word “hero” as being meaningless . . . now.

This is a quick and good read, quite thought provoking.

 

 

 

December 3, 2019

Simple and Impossible

I love it when things come together, in this case a PBS history of Hanukkah and a blog discussion of Christian ethics. Here, in a nutshell, is the core of the discussion of Christian ethics:

“The Bible says a lot of good things. Fundamentally, as Jesus says, the rule of law comes down to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Heartwarming, 100% a principle to live your life by, good job Bible (though it is bizarre to say that the Bible is its origin).”

I think this “law” is a classic exhortation of an impossible goal. Is it even possible to “Love your neighbor as yourself?” I think it is not. In the hierarchy of things we value, we place ourselves at the top (anybody who says otherwise is virtue signally or deluded or lying at the same time). This is because of a certain practical situation. You cannot serve, help, protect, etc. any of those you love if you die first. You must preserve yourself, so you can protect, etc. others you value. (Yes, it is that simple. Not even lemmings are lemmings.)

Under yourself, are your immediate family: your spouse, your children and then your extended family, your parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. (We have names for these relationships for a reason.) Then, past that point there is your tribe and I use this term loosely as people see it differently. These are your extended in group, people you care about, at least theoretically. (Governments try mightily to extend your in group to the borders of the country … and no further (loyalty, patriotism, love for the Vaterland, etc.).

Biologically and socially, we have invested a great deal in making signals for who is and who isn’t in our in group. We have: language (people who didn’t speak Greek were called barbarians), hairstyles, hats and other articles of clothing (flag lapel pins, special underwear, shawls, religious uniforms, etc.), membership in certain groups (religions, churches, Knights of Columbus, Republican Party, etc.), and so on. So, if you are in conversation with someone and they interject “Praise the Lord,” you know who you are talking to.

Okay, so the PBS special? I found it fascinating how the memes of Hanukkah celebrations are supported, passed on to new generations, and used as a binder of Jewish society (which is what memes are for and why they are “transmitted” and survive). All of the ceremonies, special foods (latkes, yum!), songs, games, etc. involved in these festivities establish a common background for all of the people in their particular “in group.” This helps bond people into the group and helps to identify who is and isn’t in the group. (If you don’t know what a dreidel is, you ain’t in the in group.)

Which brings us full circle to Christian ethics. The admonition to “Love your neighbor as yourself” intended that neighbor to be someone in your in group. At that time “foreigners” just did not buy a place in your neighborhood and settle down. Jews lived with other Jews, so “Love your neighbor as yourself” actually means “Love your neighbor Jew as yourself.” It was not designed to include everyone. There was no point, especially in a group that is related genetically as Jews were. (The hostility directed at modern converts is a residue of this feeling. Those converts may be Jews, but they aren’t family.)

And, even when so limited, this admonition isn’t really possible. It was posited, possibly in good faith (no pun intended), as a standard that could not be met but could be strived for, a standard everyone fails at some times, and so it also bonds the in group. And it certainly wasn’t directed at “humanity.”

And, as an aside, the decrying of the secularization of the Christmas holiday (including the Fucking War on Christmas), is a bemoaning of the loss of any grip the Christian churches had on this “holy day.” Festivities were often centered in the church (when the church got over its opposition to the festivities all together) with nativity plays, special services, etc. Now, many don’t include the church in their plans art all. Thus Christians don’t have a powerful meme sharing program to identify with as the Jews have in their Hanukkah festivities. And they bemoan its loss.

November 7, 2019

Morality and Manners

Filed under: language,Morality,Philosophy,Reason,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 7:40 am
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I frequent the Quora site and since I am interested in atheism, I see the question “If you don’t believe in God, how can you be moral?” and its many variants over and over and over (and . .  over . .  <sigh>). . . . This “question” is more of a statement than a question and is usually categorized as a “Gotcha Question,” right up there with “If God is all-powerful can He make a rock even He cannot lift, Father?”

An interesting variant of this question showed up this morning in the form of “Atheists, do you respect other people’s beliefs though you yourself do not believe in a deity? It is morally right to respect people’s beliefs, right?

The obvious answer is “no;” respecting other’s beliefs has nothing to do with morality. Consider Hitler’s profound belief that Jews were abominable and were to be exterminated. But then I realized that the questioner hadn’t used the best words available for his question. I believe he meant to say “Atheists, do you respect other people’s religious beliefs though you yourself do not believe in a deity?” Just because others often compound ordinary beliefs with religious beliefs, we should not fall so easily into that trap. If this is the intended question, and it seems to be, then the Hitler example is not all that good, although one could make an argument that the hatred of Jews was promulgated by Christianity. So, how about another example, how about Pope Urban II? Around the year 1095, he gave a speech calling for armies to embark on a crusade to the Holy Lands to take back Jerusalem from Muslim rule. Between 1096 and 1291, this speech was the impetus for eight major expeditions into the “Holy Lands” where untold numbers of unspeakable acts of savagery resulted in 200 years of bloodshed, and more than 1.7 million deaths. Should I respect old Urban’s belief that Christians are the rightful rulers of Jerusalem as opposed to the Jews who were there first or the Muslims, who were in possession of it at the time, both of whom are partial “rulers” of that city today?

I think there are many religious beliefs that are less mainstream that most people would find it difficult if not impossible to respect: any Scientology belief, for example.

Another immediate thought I had was it should be good manners to strive to understand someone else’s belief before adopting an opinion on that belief and to not just dismiss it out of hand. And, then . . . manners . . . manners? Why are there no questions regarding how we can have manners without God? Why are their no Christian manners? Surely manners are on the same spectrum with ethics and morality. Even if it were not immoral to covet one’s neighbor’s spouse, surely it would be bad manners? Aren’t manners intended to help us live together amicably, just like ethics and morals?

And where did manners come from when there isn’t a peep about them in the holy scriptures? Surely manners couldn’t have been created by people and, ugh, be like, you know, subjective and everything.

October 31, 2019

The Meaning of Meaning and Purpose of Purpose

I have been having a running disagreement over two words with John Branyan. This disagreement emerged, I think, from my opinions that life has no intrinsic purpose, nor an intrinsic meaning either. These opinions were mocked by Mr. Branyan, who is very good at mocking. (Hey, some opinions should be mocked . . . yes, I am talking about you, Flat Earthers.) He apparently wanted to debate those opinions and I did not, which created another point of disagreement.

Actually, to clarify my opinion I expanded upon my original comments and shared that I thought all “purposes” and “meanings” were quite synthetic, that is fictional, that we make up such things to provide a narrative for our lives.

Consider the following scenario.

*** Start of Scenario ***

The Earth seems to be about 4.543 billion years old. If some aliens happened to fly their spaceship by 300,000 years after Earth’s Birthday (EB hereafter) they would have seen a planet still very, very hot but also covered to some extent with water containing possibly some monocellular life. Puzzled, they wondered what was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? They decided to come back later.

When Earth had it’s 1500 millionth anniversary of its birth, the aliens dropped by again. Their records showed their prior visit and now this planet had cooled considerably and the surface water, much in abundance, was teeming with monocellular life but nothing else. Again, they wondered what was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? . . . and decided to come back later, which they did 3 billion EB. Everything was much the same: no plants, no animals, vast oceans, but now they discovered that there was some multicellular life present. And, as before, they wondered what was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? . . . and decided to come back later. This time they waited until 4 billion EB and voila, there were plants and animals, some very, very large. Some of the animals ate the plants others ate the animals that ate the plants. Some animals walked, others ran, some swam and some even flew. The land was very green, the animals multitudinous. What was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? . . . they decided to come back later. They did so 4.542 billion years EB (1 million years ago). Life had become very much more diversified. The very large land animals were largely gone and smaller animals had grown much more numerous and varied. But none of these species possessed a language they could comprehend so communication with any of the denizens did not seem possible. Wondering what all of this meant and what its purpose was, they decided, since the pace of change seemed to be accelerating, to come back shortly, which they did just now. They found the planet covered by this one species of mammal, which had languages and cultures, oh my. Excited, they established communication with several of these cultures independently so they could compare notes afterward. Once mutual communication was established, each contacted group understood the questions “What was the meaning of this? What was the purpose?” but had completely different answers to those questions, so no consensus existed as to why this planet existed the way it did and what its future might hold. Puzzled, the aliens decided that they had better things to do and decided not to come back.

*** End of Scenario ***

So, just when did the meanings and purposes of “all of this” get created? Did they exist earlier than that last visit? Is great puzzlement.

John asked (I am paraphrasing) “If meanings aren’t real, what are dictionaries, then?” Words have meanings, otherwise we would not be able to communicate. A word I thought “meant” one thing and you thought “meant” another would make communication difficult, especially if there were a great many words being used that fit into this situation. But do your meanings and my meanings line up, exactly or even at all? Are they the same? If you ask college students to write definitions for a list of words, you will find amazing variation in those definitions, almost to the point of unintelligibility. If you ask two of those students to defend one of their definitions to one another, a conversation would take place, information exchanged and usually the two agreeing that they “meant” the same thing or that the word “means” different things in different contexts.

As an example of this consider the following hypothetical conversation:

Mom: How was the game DeSean?
DeSean: It was okay.
Mom: How did your friend play?
DeSean: He was bad, very bad!
Mom: Oh, I am sorry to hear that.
DeSean: No, we won, and he was great!

So, for at least a sizable fraction of this culture, “bad” has become “good,” the usual exact opposite of what bad “meant” at some point in recent time. Apparently we allow people to make up meanings, even contradictory ones, as they wish.

And dictionaries, well, they are for when we encounter words whose meanings are obscure or just unknown. But, if you read a dictionary definition of a word, do you then know what it means? How about when “bad” meaning “good” hadn’t showed enough legs to get included in a dictionary? And, you may have noticed that all of the definitions found in dictionaries use words found elsewhere in dictionaries! These meanings are not objective, they are subjective! Oh, my, oh, oh, oh. . . .

We make up the meanings of things to be able to communicate. Enough good will exists that if there are misunderstandings we negotiate what was “meant” so as to be clear about that . . . and this happens a lot because what one person’s meaning for a word is can be quite different from another’s. (Especially when you consider there is more than one language.)

Christian and religious apologists believe that each of our lives has a purpose. This is linked to their belief that we have been “created” as only created things have purposes and only the creators know what those purposes are, although they may try to communicate, aka share, that purpose with the curious. When sentient entities create things, they often do such things “for a purpose” that is “for some reason or use later.” Other times we create with no purpose (doodling, noodling, whittling, etc.) A whittler may be making shavings of wood for the purpose of using the shavings to kindle a fire . . . or . . . they may be just passing the time doing something rather than nothing . . . or . . . they wish to create something pleasant to the eye to give as a gift . . . or. . . . The very same activity could have a multitude of purposes and no one by the whittler can tell you which was the “actual purpose.”

So, the belief that “life has meaning” that “life has a purpose” is tied to life being created by someone or something that can articulate what their purpose was in making the creation, but . . . but just because the creator had a purpose, the creation doesn’t inherit that purpose as its own. A painting, deemed to be a lovely piece of art, originally was created to get paid and satisfy the aesthetic senses of the painter and patron, can become an investment or a gift or symbol of a decadent society or whatever. Similarly, if we were created by some creator god, that god’s purpose in creating us also puts us under no obligation to accept that as a guiding principle to live our lives. We are not bees or ants, we are not created to be anything in particular.

And, for those of us who cannot believe the fairly tales that are our creation myths, any of them, since there was no creator, there is no purpose coming from the outside to inform our lives. If we want our life to have a purpose, an inner, conceptual guide for our life, we are free to create one . . . or not. But, unlike “meanings” no one has compiled a “dictionary” of generally accepted purposes for us to consult when we are confused. We are on our own.

And that is good . . . or bad . . . or, well, you know what I mean.

October 17, 2019

Oh, My Poor Language!

Filed under: language — Steve Ruis @ 9:33 am
Tags: ,

A recent headline in The Guardian stated “Arizona home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright before his death sells for $1.7m.”

Now I am somewhat of a fan of architecture and I know of Frank Lloyd Wright, but weren’t all of his houses designed before he died (his homes were the ones he lived in)? Surely, it would have been the looked for evidence of the supernatural were he to have designed one after he had died.

In the text of the article it became clear that this was “the last home” designed by Mr. Wright. Could not the headline writer have written “Frank Lloyd Wright’s last home sells for $1.7m?” Or if it was the last house he designed (surely not) it could have been “Last house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright sells for $1.7m?”

Seems the English language has fallen upon hard times.

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