"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Lives Of Quiet Desperation


Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them – Thoreau, Walden Pond


Thoreau certainly had a point, although a checkered past of both fulfilled and unfulfilled ambitions is perhaps more accurate.   Missed opportunities are what trouble most men, especially the sexual roads not taken. 

Bradley Phillips remembered playing hooky on an unusually warm January day years ago, finding the one excuse that to his ethical mind seemed the most justifiable.  How many Spring-like days were gifted in the middle of the winter; and especially this one not only warm but foggy and still, perfect for being alone in the city? 

He took the Erie Lackawanna to Hoboken, crossed the river by ferry, and made his way from South Ferry to Wall Street, the meat market, Washington Street, the Village, Midtown, and finally Central Park. 

                              www.panoramio.com

He headed to his favorite corner of the park – out of the way and far enough from the avenues that street noise became background and hardly noticeable.  There was no one in the park.  Stillness in a place which was always trafficked (not noisy in an intrusive way, still busy and distracting), was always exciting, almost creepy when the park was not just lightly visited but empty and, in the damped, muffling fog ,absolutely quiet.

                  www.cornelisverwall.photoshelter.com                     

As the fog lightened Bradley noticed a young woman sitting on a bench by the  flower bed which in the Spring was planted with daffodils, in the Summer roses, and in the Fall geraniums and zinnias; but now was just turned earth, muddy after the thaw, and grim.   

He knew from her dress, her relaxed but correct way of sitting  (good posture like his probably learned in dancing school) that she must have come to the park for the same reasons he had.  She was too happy with  the empty park to be at loose ends; but there was no real reason for her to be there other than to sit like Bradley on a warm day gifted to New York in the middle of winter, playing hooky, getting out of a blindered office in Brooklyn like he did in New Jersey.  She could only be a romantic like him, an employee who, because she needed only the slightest, although reasonable excuse to get out of town.

Everything was right – the warmth, the fog, the quiet, the way she sat so properly with calm and reserve but without primness or exaggerated decorum, the unexpected weather, and the unlikeliness of two very similar people out of millions sitting in the same place on the same day in the same year – and yet Bradley did nothing.  

He sat for twenty minutes looking at the girl, deciphering who she was like a semiotician – hair and scarf meant New England, boarding school, modest wealth, English heritage; uncrossed, demurely placed legs meant patience and shyness; steady eyes, hands, and lips meant determination not willfulness.  She was young enough and content enough to still be idealistic without illusion; and old enough to have sorted through her priorities and come to the park.

Bradley had never been shy with women and had always spoken up, introduced himself, and begun to chat.  He was never obtuse about women, knew when they were open and when they were shut, gave them a wide berth when everything from eyes to feet said keep your distance; but walked up – even sidled up when he saw a coquette and came on with confidence when he smelled sex.

“What’s wrong with me?”, he remembered himself saying.  “Why am I still sitting here?”

“Blame Watteau”, he said, recalling the painters treacly, stylized pastoral scenes of he French countryside, trying to interrupt the uncharacteristic sexual stymie with the irony he had learned from Vincent Scully at Yale whose dismantling of the romantic and idealization of the mythic were the stuff of sophomoric imitations (“The great, thrusting, phallic, powerful, irrepressible, heroic horned mountains of Croesus”) of the great man.

                                www.taschen.com

Still, Bradley never moved off the mark let alone charge out of the gate.  This was not only an opportunity, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.  She was his emotional double, his doppelganger, his soul mate; and yet there he stayed, tethered to the park bench, reduced to ogling instead of looking and frustrated at his own uncharacteristic insecurity. 

Finally the girl left, turning back to wave at him as she crossed the bridge towards 57th Street.  He waved back, in far worse shape than he would have been if she had walked straight out of the park, but still paralyzed.

The last way that anyone would describe the life of Bradley Phillips would be one of quiet desperation, a man with an unsung song in his heart.  On the contrary, he struck everyone as a fulfilled, generous man who had many lovers, friends, business colleagues, and casual acquaintances ;and many remarked about his unusual combination of resolve and rectitude.  He was a man without a purpose, perhaps, but one who knew what he wanted when he wanted it.

As he entered late middle age and about to retire, Phillips thought back on his life and realized that there was nothing about it that he would change.   Thanks to his experience in Central Park those many years ago, he had taken advantage of every opportunity.  He had travelled throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and the Caribbean; eaten the best and the most exotic foods; stayed in five-star luxury hotels and funky beach cabanas; was friends with drivers and ministers; and all in all did everything that any one person could possibly do.

It was too bad that he had never made it to either Cairo or Istanbul before the Muslim world started to fall apart at the seams; and he knew he missed his chance to see Isfahan and Qom before the Ayatollahs; but he had been to Afghanistan before the Russians, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda; had worked in Romania just after the fall of Ceausescu, and from the small window of opportunity which was open to both the Stalinist past and the capitalist future, he saw a country few others had. 

           www.christinebednarz.wordpress.com

He had travelled deep into the African bush not long after independence and before corruption, crime, and civil war ruined the entire continent.   He had missed some things, but in his mind he had missed nothing.

He didn’t even regret the end of this charmed, adventurous life.  It was enough to have lived it and to remember enough of it to keep it intact.  He was no memorist like Nabokov who trained himself to remember the present so as to preserve the past, the only durable and meaningful part of the past-present-future continuum; but was aware enough of his good fortune while it was happening to have engraved it in his memory.

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He had some regrets over things he had said or things that he never should have done; but he had either atoned for his mistakes or let bygones be bygones.

He was sorry that he had had no grandchildren.  The only reason for having children, he said, was to experience pure innocence for once in your life; and being a grandparent gave everyone a second chance.  He, however, had brought up his children to be independent and to think for themselves; so he was not surprised that both of them had concocted their own brew.

Most of the people Bradley knew, however, had not been so lucky. There were friends who had married too early or too late; had stuck too close to home or strayed too far from it.  There were those who regretted their fidelity and others who, because of their infidelities had no wife to return to.  Some colleagues regretted business opportunities passed up, promotions denied, and investments missed; and others regretted foolish financial decisions.

Emerson was fond of pithy quotes about the life well-lived. “Every particular in nature, a leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole”, he wrote among hundreds of others.  Bradley, however,  thought that  all of them were nothing more than treacly homilies, feel-good nostrums that would make good greeting cards.  His life well-lived was one without expectation and therefore without regret; one with no noble ideals and therefore no failure; one with no ambition and therefore without loss.


The best way to lead life was to follow one’s nose, always pleasantly surprised but never disappointed when the turning leads nowhere.

Bradley never considered his professional life a career, so episodic was it; so when he began writing, teaching, and studying literature and philosophy he never called it a second career like many retirees did.  It was simply part of a long continuum which had no particular value or merit per se  but always had something in store.  Everything he did added inventory to his memory and expanded the past.  Like Nabokov, he understood that the present was simply the tool for engraving memory, and the future a limitless trove of opportunity.


No, Bradley Phillips did not lead a life of quiet desperation.  Not in a million years.  

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Meanness–A Wrong Or A Defensible Right?


Harvey Potter used to pull the wings off of fireflies, attach toads to his Lionel train transformer and watch them stiffen and squirm, crush birds eggs in their nests, and set traps for neighborhood cats.

“He’s a mean little boy”, said Mrs. Helander voicing the opinion of everyone on the block.

Harvey’s father always came to his defense.  He was simply a curious, highly intelligent boy who liked to experiment.  Animal circuitry, for example, demonstrated by electric current running through the nervous system of an amphibian.  Care-taking behavior in birds was tested by leaving one robin’s egg in a nest of three crushed.  Ridding the neighborhood of nuisance cats that tipped over garbage cans at 3am and howled and screeched at all hours of the night was a community service, not an act of meanness.

Harvey was somewhere in between Mrs. Helander’s accusation and his father’s defense.  He was interested in learning whether or not, as he had heard, that once a human scent had been left in a live bird’s nest, the mother bird never returned; but he also liked to smear the gooey yellow yoke all over the twigs in the cup of the nest.  He did like the Davy Crockett part of setting traps in the back yard, but he had to admit he hated cats and that he was indifferent to their suffering.  As for the frogs, his only thought was of hooking small mammals up to the transformer or better yet borrowing Herbie Swanson’s small-motor generator to see what a real jolt of juice would do to a squirrel.

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Harvey’s mother thought that once he got older and left his childish experiments and pranks behind, he would become more ‘normal’.  Martha Potter hated to use that word to describe her son because it was a defensive term, suggesting that Harvey might have an abnormal side; but it was the only way she could hope for a less contentious adolescence.

Harvey’s talent – perverse as some called it – was making girls cry.  He had an uncanny knack of sensing their vulnerabilities and going after them.  Zits, bad hair, overweight, piano legs, cross-eyes, and thick glasses were all fair game.  In addition to picking up on insecurity and fear, he was practiced at delivering the blow.  He knew exactly when a girl had come out of the toilette, just having fixed her hair and put on a little rouge; and knew that she was at her most vulnerable.  No girl he knew could dismiss a remark about frantic curls or pitted complexion after she had spent twenty minutes in the bathroom addressing both.

He was able to act with impunity because in addition to his brains and perverse talent, he had a thick skin.  He knew that he was no beauty, could do nothing to shorten his long nose, push his wide-set eyes closer together, or jut his receding chin forward.  His unattractiveness gave him the armor he needed to indulge his meanness.  Yes, meanness, for that was exactly what it seemed to be.  No parent, teacher, or older classmate could find any other reason for his unexpectedly cruel remarks.
“He’s just honest”, said his father who was always Harvey’s staunchest supporter.  “Those girls he goes to school with are dogs; and they better realize it before they get any older.”

Jacko Potter also defended bullies as necessary stand-ins for the abusive, arrogant, and ambitious adults all children were soon to encounter.  If schools insisted on neutering bullies, then graduating students would enter the adult world ill-equipped to navigate its rough waters.  “Bullies are good for character”, Jacko said.

As Harvey grew older, he became less promiscuous in his meanness.  The fun of making girls cry and deflating boys’ egos so flat that they had little sexual confidence for months, no longer held much interest.  Meanness, he understood, could be a very effective tool for succeeding in the marketplace.  No matter how old people were, they always had an exaggerated sense of their looks, their intelligence, or their social savvy.  Puncturing an inflated ego would be as easy at 40 as at 14.

“There are two things you need to have in the workplace to succeed”, Harvey’s father told him. “Charm and a silver tongue.  Everyone, bar none, loves flattery; and the man who knows how to deliver it, will rise to the top.”

The obverse was also true, said his father. “The well-timed zinger can put any prick in his place.”

Since Harvey was well-practiced in the art of humiliation, he only needed to learn more about charm and a way with words.  Once he understood the concept of the obverse, he caught on quickly.  The cruel zinger was no different from the insincere compliment; both were delivered with good timing, temperate but unmistakable phrasing, and the right choice of words.

A woman who was concerned about her complexion could always be cajoled with kind words about peaches and cream coloring; and one who was clearly overweight would always respond to complimentary remarks about the elegant line of her dress, or her remarkable stature and presence.   In other words, just as he used to send girls off whimpering into the schoolyard, he could gain female admirers and friends simply by telling them lies.

One of Harvey’s colleagues was a master of insinuation, rumor, and innuendo.  She was brilliant at derogating office enemies, undermining their position, suggesting incompetence and irregularity, and watching their unceremonious firing without ever having to be honest, frank, or blunt.

“I left him swinging in the breeze”, she said, “and as he dropped and in the minutes before his neck was snapped, he never had a clue who opened the trapdoor to the scaffold.”
                 
“A woman after my own heart”, Harvey said.  The more subtle the parry and thrust  the better.  Plunge the dirk in deep and pull it out before your enemy knows what hit him.

So, was Harvey Potter ever really mean?  Or did he simply learn the ways of the world more quickly and easily than most?  Identifying weakness and vulnerability whether in a theatre of war, in cabinets of diplomacy, in the bedroom, or in the open market has always been part of human intelligence.  Exploiting this weakness to one’s own advantage has been the key to victory and success since the very first human settlement.  Harvey only was better at it than his competitors. 

For those who avoided hurting others at all cost, Harvey’s actions were considered mean.  Tennessee Williams famously wrote that meanness was the only unconscionable and unpardonable act in life; and the faint-hearted often quote him to justify their reserve and misplaced generosity.

For the rest of us, Harvey was a winner.  A canny observer of human nature and a savvy manipulator of it, he had the intelligence to devise a strategy for victory and success and the will to carry it out.   A Nietzschean through and through and a modern day hero.


Monday, December 28, 2015

Marriage–A Matter Of Will, Marx, And Sexual Contract


Elizabeth Todd had had many lovers by the time she was thirty and began to think of settling down.  It wasn’t so much the idea of clipped wings that bothered her, but the seemingly likelihood of choosing the wrong partner.  Women were too complex for any man.  We want love, consideration, and respect, she said.   We have had enough of sexual deprivation and submission and slavish obedience to men; but we also want their strength, determination, and sexual will.  

Most men, she thought, can’t deal with these essential feminine contradictions.  They are flummoxed by women who need to dominate and be dominated; who need hours of foreplay one day and who want to be taken the next; by women who want to rule the roost but who also like to cluck with the chickens in the barnyard.

Men understand pregnancy and childbirth in only limited ways.  Few men appreciate that childbearing is the fundamental difference between men and women, the great divide between those who do and those who do not have them, and the biological imperative that determines when and with whom a woman mates. 

Men are diffident if not indifferent about having children when women are defined by the act.  Men expect change after a child is born, but never see the new and very disruptive mother-child dynamics that are to come.

Men may support women’s liberation and economic and social advancement; but cannot possibly appreciate how difficult it is for them to forget Daddy, generations of patriarchy, and emotional conflicts about work and home.

Choosing a man, thought Elizabeth, was a crap shoot, a shot in the dark, the blind leading the blind.  How to calibrate a man’s desire and measure his sincerity? How to rate his intelligence against his emotional sensitivity? His will versus his ability to compromise?

Given men’s simplicity and lack of nuance, what was the algorithm for judging marital potential?  As far as she knew, there was none; which was why she was hesitant at best to pick and choose.  Given a woman’s many needs, complex biological and emotional mechanisms, historical baggage, and often befuddling sexuality; and men’s seeming inability to get past the sexual act, it seemed better to go it alone.

The women in Elizabeth’s office were either ‘in a relationship’ and unhappy or uneasy about it or desperately searching for a man.   Online dating, speed-dating or old fashioned smiles and comments over Vermeer at the National Gallery never seemed to work.  Men were always on the prowl and were interested in a woman’s worth only after they had gotten her into bed and then only maybe.  Many men had polished the art of seduction and knew enough stereotypical information about women to make a good impression, so particularly hungry women were easy prey and after a few weeks left, licked their wounds, and laid low.


                        www.ibiblio.org

So what was a woman to do? There was Tricia Barker, the staff attorney, who had become an old maid before she knew it.   Resentful, unhappy, and scrambling to put some kind of order in her life before it was too late and before she ended up alone and desperate, Tricia was a woman of tics, twitches, and a barking laugh who foundered as one adopted family after another became impatient with her need.

Jeannine Martin spent all her time with her niece and her young children.  She was a loving, solicitous Auntie who never realized how many times she stepped over the line, assumed her niece’s children were also hers, and alienated her niece’s husband who finally demanded that she back off and leave them alone.

Betsy Longworth tried one blind online date after another, misreading, misjudging, and badly assessing the profiles and propositions made by prospective dates.  She was groped in her hot tub so many times, spent so many wasted hours with men with bad teeth, receding hairlines, and  lounge chair paunches, and went to so many middle-age mixers, community walks on the Canal, and volunteer work in Anacostia with little to show for it, that she finally gave up and gave in.

Women were marrying their fathers, spiting their mothers, mimicking their sisters, operating on flawed assumptions about masculine value, and throwing down the gauntlet in battles of sexual will, so it was no wonder that they settled for the dregs or just plain gave up.

Even the best-seeming marriages fell apart; and although this was not at all surprising given the near impossibility of choosing a mate who responded to even a fraction of a woman’s needs, it was discouraging.  The whole world was based on coupling, marriage, children, and family.  The single woman was the outlier.  Men who remained single were easily forgiven.  Bachelorhood was a term that could be extended far into a man’s fifties or even early sixties if he cut a good figure; but an unmarried woman was always suspect – a dry, desiccated, supernumerary; and we all would be better off without them.

If a woman was still single after a certain age, she was unceremoniously pushed aside.  There had to be something wrong with her.  Despite the disillusionment that women feel in their marriages, most make a deal with themselves.

Hedda Gabler, the heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same name understood that the expression of individual will was the only validation of life.  She married for the usual social and economic reasons, and knew that she was not getting a man but a disposable, temporarily useful item.  Her real interest was the writer and intellectual Lovborg – a weak but talented genius she wanted to mold in her image.  When he failed shamefully and disgracefully, she urged his suicide as the only act which would atone for his weakness and shame.   When that failed, she killed herself – better dead than humiliated, subservient, and useless.


                                www.fanpop.com

Many women have at least some Hedda Gabler in them, and Elizabeth Todd had more than most.  If she could find a man who was attractive, intelligent, and complaisant – i.e. who loved her far more than she loved him – she could be the dominant partner in the relationship and have her cake and eat it too.  It was only a matter of sexual politics, she reasoned, no different from the power politics of the marketplace, the bar, Wall Street, or Washington.  Partnerships between companies or political parties like between men and women had nothing to do with mutual attraction or even respect, but a calculation of risk and reward.  The right takeover or political sleeping arrangement was to everyone’s benefit.

Albert Tillich should have known better.  Elizabeth hid nothing and if her character was intimidating, her personality was honest.  He fell for her beauty, her brains, her  humor, and sexual mastery.  He, Elizabeth thought, was an ideal mate – good family, good genes, accommodating, and willingly under her sexual spell.   With a little care, she could have whatever she wanted.  She knew that Albert would follow her to the ends of the earth.

Only the idealistic or myopic believe that marriage is an equal partnership.  It is always a matter of parity, contractual obligations rules and regulations, risk and reward, negotiation and intimidation.  Why should that be a surprise? Marx was right, if only in one thing, when he said that man is an economic animal.  In other words all human behavior can and should be viewed and assessed through the lens of economics.   The personal dynamics that one associates with marriage – dominance, submission, fidelity, honesty, wealth, influence, etc. – are equally in play in the marketplace. 

Elizabeth Todd understood this; and knew like any good investment banker that there are no perfect contracts, only advantageous ones.   Since love was a Petrarchan illusion; since human behavior operated according to universal economic laws, then she was quite right to choose dispassionately and objectively.

Indians had the right idea – arranged marriages based on caste, wealth, economic potential, status, and family recognition.  For millennia Hindus understood marriage as part of the Householder Phase, one of the four on the path to spiritual enlightenment.  One was obliged to perform one’s mundane, practical, and biologically necessary functions; but only within the context of a more important goal.   Given this functional if not mechanistic understanding of marriage, then love played no part.


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Yet Elizabeth also knew that that such constructed marriages were only partly possible in America today.  There were no standards, no obvious boxes to check, no easy markers.   One would have to rely more on wits, savvy, and native intelligence to suss out potential partners.  Even more difficult was the job of judging a partner’s will and character.  She, in other words, would have to arrange her marriage based on her own unique criteria.

Her marriage to Albert turned out to be a good one.  She took charge and led the way; but Albert was more than happy to let her do so.  She was sexually dominant, but to him that was as excited as the obverse.  He willingly followed her lead because he had no particular social, professional, or economic ambition.  His brains, simple charm, and character would always be enough; and for the rest, he championed his wife’s causes.

Albert and Elizabeth were a happy couple.  Did they hold hands, embrace, and smile at each other? No, but it never mattered because the contractual arrangement governing their sexual dynamics did not include affection. 

It is never good to judge a marriage because nine times out of ten you will be wrong.  At first glance the marriage of George and Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was a destructive, nasty one.  For the entire play they hurt each other mercilessly, finding weak spots, boring in, the more pain and damage the better.  It is only in the final scene does one realize that the marriage was a good one – two people who ‘flayed each other to the marrow’ to get to the truth – an intimacy shared by few couples anywhere.


                            www.percysseattle.com


The marriage of Albert and Elizabeth was neither as punishing as that of George and Martha; certainly not as idyllically happy as the couples of Shakespeare’s Comedies; and not as damaged or cynical as those created by O’Neill or Hellman; nor as desperate as those of Miller.  A bit of each, but as all marriages unique and unknowable.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

How Can Faith Exist In A Relativistic World?

Economists are often criticized for being too ‘on-the-one-hand-on-the-other’, always seeing at least two sides to every question and to leaving decisions to others.  They are quite happy living in a world where supply and demand rule human behavior, where value is a relative thing, and where all relationships are economically contractual and negotiable.

Religious fundamentalists live in a world of absolute truth.  The Bible is the received Word of God, an inerrant account of the way things are, and a text to be followed as the only guide to living.


Those few in between are not particularly thoughtful, but wishy-washy.  They neither believe that there is such a thing as absolute truth and that values are permanent, divinely-inspired, and eternal; nor do they conclude that all values are relative, contingent on time and place.  They have staked out no position except ‘maybe’.  They may have a sincere faith in a supreme being, never created, eternal, and all-powerful; but also accept that lying, cheating, avarice, and indifference are always subject to interpretation.  A man who cheats on an unfaithful wife is not cheating.

It is hard understand this lack of position.  Once one accepts the relative nature of things, how is belief in an absolute possible?  If all things are relative, than there is no way that a living God could possibly rule a valueless, relativistic world?  To do that would be to accept that God really doesn’t care about the quality of human performance, and for whatever peculiar reasons created the world as a no-holds-barred free-for-all.

Christians believe that once he realized that he had made a mistake in creating such a nonsensical world, God sent his son to set things straight.  The world after Jesus Christ is anything but relative.  There is a right way and a wrong way, period.

Dostoevsky, however, in The Grand Inquisitor, challenges the assumption that Man values free will.  Why should he willingly accept the risky responsibility of choice when a wrong one leads to eternal damnation in the acrid fires of Hell? No, said Ivan Karamazov, Man only wants mystery, miracles, and authority.  Christ’s rejection of the Devil’s temptation in the desert, a bad misreading of human nature, led to the establishment of a venal, manipulative, and arrogant Church.

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Einstein and particular Max Planck, the father of quantum mechanics, both knew that the universe was a relative and probabilistic place.  Planck said that if we can accurately measure a particle’s speed, we cannot determine where it is; and if we know where it is, we cannot determine how fast it is travelling.  We can only assess probabilities.

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If we do in fact live in a relativistic and probabilistic world, then how can we at the same time accept anything absolute?  Even if there is a God, mustn’t his nature also be relative?  All-powerful relative to what?  If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, asked Bishop Berkeley, does it make a sound? Or if the qualities we ascribe to God are necessary imputation of our own limited intelligence, then why should there not be other gods imagined by other universes?  Gods perhaps even more ‘all-powerful’?

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Despite the overwhelming evidence for a probabilistic, relativistic world – one in which there are no absolutes, nothing permanent, and all things a product of time, culture, and historical inheritance – it is quite surprising that there are so many religious fundamentalists and worse, so many people looking for the truth.

Tolstoy famously spend most of his adult life until the age of 50 struggling with the question of faith and the meaning of life.  In  A Confession which chronicled his trajectory from atheism to faith, he wrote about his persistent, obsessive search for the absolute truth.  After decades of reading everything written on religion, theology, science, mathematics, and history, he gave up. If billions of people have believed in God, he wrote, who am I not to? And so he backed into faith; which is what most people do who fall into the wishy-washy category.

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More and more evidence has come to light about the sheer subjectivity of perception.  Behavioral scientists have concluded what philosophers and authors like Robert Browning (The Ring and the Book) and Lawrence Durrell (The Alexandria Quartet) had written about decades ago.   Ten people who witness and event will all report it in ten different ways.  We are all so conditioned by our personality, character, genes, upbringing, and mood-of-the-day that we are incapable of suddenly stripping perceptually naked and seeing things ‘as they really are’.
                        
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Everyone from Shakespeare to Planck have agreed that there is such a thing as human nature and that the repetitive nature of history is a function of it.  Yet scientists today are talking about the coming ‘post-human’ era when human DNA will be altered to such an extent that the old human nature will no longer be operative.  Genetic modification and complete human-computer interface will change human nature and human society forever.  So not even what everyone considered fundamental, God-given, and absolute is permanent.

If we assume that our conception of God is limited by the size, configuration, and power of our current human brains; and if we also accept that our intellectual range, depth, and insight will certainly expand geometrically with every new scientific advance in human engineering, then we must conclude that our image of God will also change.  His existence, however conceived, has been relative to our own limited abilities of thought.

“Religion is the opiate of the people’, Marx famously observed; but his prediction that a secular society would satisfy them far more than a fictitious God was sorely mistaken.  He was right, however, in concluding that the main purpose of religion is to relieve the anxiety of the relative with the absolute. 



Dostoevsky also wrote about the unconscionable suffering that Christ had permitted in his worldly kingdom.  Christ could have eliminated suffering if he had wanted or for that matter never even created it; but in his arrogant desire to have people freely choose him and his kingdom, he created suffering – even of innocent children – to help men and women understand God and his offer of salvation.

By his creation of suffering, Christ/God enabled the Church to offer religion as an opiate, thereby arrogating spiritual power to itself and enriching its treasuries more than anyone could have imagined.

It is therefore unfair and certainly unkind to criticize those who prefer the absolute over the relative. In fact, given current human nature, belief in the absolute in a relativistic, meaningless, and valueless world is both logical and understandable.

Many relativists have deathbed conversions.  There is nothing so absolute as death, and better to be safe than sorry.  Of course true relativists who have studied evolution are never afraid; since everything alive simply peters out, ceases to exist, and becomes an ingredient in the primordial mix that generates new life.  Human existence is merely a blip in a very long cycle in which everything comes from something and becomes something else.

So why worry? Relativism is just fine.



                       www.mikophoto.net

Wars Are For Winning, And America Is Losing All Of Them


Wars are not fought to spread democracy, to liberate women, or to depose dictators.  Nor should they be vindictive acts to wreak vengeance.  Nor should they be impressive displays of military might.  They are meant to annihilate the enemy.

There was a purity and singularity of purpose guiding Allied armies across Europe and American forces across the Pacific.  In WWII there were no questions of geopolitical advantage, negotiation, or temporizing.  After Pearl Harbor America woke up from its military slumber and led the campaign against the Nazis and fought bloody, uncompromising, and ultimately victorious battles from Guam to Tokyo. 


                       www.historybyzim.com

All resources were mobilized in World War II.  The American economy was quickly converted to a wartime machine.  American men were recruited from every class and region to fight the Germans and the Japanese.  Washington propaganda which vilified Hitler and Tojo portrayed them as evil, stoked ethnic and racial hatred, and coalesced the country into an irresistible force of might and destruction.

There was no question of bombing enemy cities.  Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki were not considered off-limits and no distinction was made between combatants and civilians.  We were at war not only with Hitler, Tojo, and their armies, but with the countries of Germany and Japan themselves.  We made no distinction between the regimes who started the wars and the people who supported them.



All American wars since WWII have been lukewarm and hesitant.  The magnanimity shown by the US to both Germany and Japan in the post-war period leaked into the Pentagon, morphed into versions of American Christian exceptionalism, and led us to fight half-heartedly.  MacArthur had the vision to win conclusively and absolutely in the Korean War but was fired instead of leading his armies into China.
America felt that winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese was the key to success, especially when its limited although frightening bombing of the North had little effect whatsoever. We bombed harbors, military redoubts, and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but left the cities, villages, and hamlets alone. 
Escalation of the war and the all-out annihilation of the enemy was never a serious option.  Bombing North Vietnam ‘back to the Stone Age’ was never seriously considered.  Not only did it risk internationalizing the war and engaging a Chinese enemy who was as implacable and motivated as the North Vietnamese; but because our moral philosophy was changing.  Winning at all costs was not an American thing to do if those costs included innocent lives.  The war in Vietnam, then, became one of American attrition.  Long before our military resources were depleted, our resolve was gone, and we were sent packing.



The second Gulf War – the war in Iraq – was questionable at best; but after the decision was made to invade the country, no plans were made to achieve total victory.  In fact, the United States had no real idea what victory was.  Some said ‘regime change’ – rid the country of the evil Saddam Hussein, and Americans would be cheered in the streets as conquering heroes.  Freed from the chains of a hated dictator, the people would embrace liberal democracy and free enterprise.



Others said that the war was about oil, yet another militaristic enterprise to secure scarce world resources.  Others commented that it was George W. Bush’s campaign to finish his father’s war.  And still others considered that a newly democratic, Western-leaning Islamic nation would be a staunch ally in the continuing wars in the Middle East.

Without a clear idea of what victory was, and hamstrung by even more sympathetic notions of protecting civilian lives, the US effort was doomed from the start.  The United States could have invaded, dominated, and controlled every major city in Iraq and established a brutal and uncompromising martial law. It would have been a complete and total defeat of Saddam Hussein, his army, and his supporters.  Looters and dissenters would have been shot.  Merciless house-to-house searches would have been carried out. Public executions of those who violated martial law would have been common.  The American army would have been feared and respected.  Such unsparing and merciless enforcement of the occupation would have eventually led to a more stable and rehabilitated society.  The Romans came, saw, and conquered; but they stayed, and as a result half the world owes culture, administration, law, and infrastructure to them.



Such advance planning – clear definition of goals and objectives; objective calculation of investment costs and liabilities – would have surely prevented the war.  Even if harsh post-war measures were to have been put into place, even the most repressive occupation might not have tamed the wild tribal and ethnic rivalries in the country.

The point is only that IF we are to go to war, we should know why, never lose sight of the goal, and be as potent, dominant, and terrifying as possible in a winning effort.
The war in Afghanistan reflects the same lack of clarity and singularity of purpose. For all intents and purposes the war was to wreak vengeance on the country which harbored Osama bin Laden.



Even a cursory look at recent history would have shown that any armed intervention in Afghanistan would end up badly, especially when we had no clear objectives. Was it to teach the Taliban a lesson? To annihilate them? To set the girls and women of the country free? To establish a liberal bulwark against Iran and Pakistan?
Once again, hearts and minds were foremost, and scorched earth strategies were off the table.  It would not have been inconceivable for an overwhelming American military force to take over and occupy every major city and town in the country, to rule it with relentless severity, and to neutralize the enemy.  If we had considered all this, more than likely we would not have gone to war; but if we were so determined, then the Curtis Lemay approach might have been successful.
This military indecisiveness and hamstrung operations would be bad enough; but US foreign policy designed to prevent war while securing American interests has been just as indecisive and myopic and trapped within an outmoded vision of American exceptionalism and Christian charity.  We have come a long way from the realpolitik of Henry Kissinger and even farther from his historical mentor, Machiavelli.  Even if we could be convinced to act boldly in our self-interest, the current administration cannot figure out what that self-interest is.



There is no doubt that we should have backed the Egyptian military, our longtime political ally and only friend in the Middle East other than Israel.  Backing ‘democratic’ reform would inevitably lead to Islamic militancy, more repressive regimes than the military ever thought of, and further erosion of our influence in the region.

As hard as is to stomach now, we should have maintained our friendship with Assad, a moderate (socio-politically) ally.  Had we finally faced the truth that America’s war is with a determined, amoral enemy – radical Islam – one even more implacable and violent than the Viet Cong, then we would have encouraged the Syrian regime in its attempts to neutralize it.  Had we done so, the civil war would probably never have happened and thousands of lives would have been spared.

Our idealistic notions of a moral foreign policy  reinforced by political rectitude, are behind our weak and pitiful response to Putin and Russia.  We still believe in the the notion of a ‘sovereign state’ even one as corrupt and incompetent as Ukraine.  We believe in the concept of universal democracy, where everyone has a say, and no one is denied a vote.  The rest of the world, with the exception of Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, believes differently.  History did not end as Francis Fukuyama predicted – it simply fractured into thousands of pieces and returned to its former state.  Putin understands history, power, and the fallacy of representative democracy.  He knows that there will always be self-interested enclaves defined by culture, language, religion, and ethnicity; and even if they vote democratically, they will vote to exclude others. 



Finally, we are hobbled by our Christian morality.  We cannot understand how al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram, or Hamas can blow up civilian busses and indiscriminately massacre children. The radical Islamic enemy is evil.

The enemy is not evil or immoral seen within their perspective.  They are simply more explicit about their goals and more determined and ruthless in their tactics.  The ends justify the means, they say; and are no different than our firebombing Dresden and Tokyo or dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  We have ‘evolved’ to what we consider to be a more progressive and humane military policy and thus weakened ourselves.  They have acted no differently than the marauding armies of Genghis Khan or those of the Crusades.  Take no prisoners.

Military strategists talk of ‘asymmetrical warfare’; but they have not considered the skewed geometry of our war with radical Islam.  How can we possibly defeat an enemy if we don’t play by his rules? Enemies from the Taliban to al-Shabab know that we will always keep most of our firepower in the stockade and that we will only fight careful wars.  Not only do we not want to harm civilians, we organize our battles as much to limit American casualties as to wreak havoc on the enemy.


War is hell, and we should do our best to avoid it.  But since this is an utter impossibility, we should only fight wars that are clearly and unequivocally in our national self-interest; fight them to win; and win at all costs.