Monthly Archives: November 2011

Slippery Slopes

Peering through a slit in the drapes hanging over her beachfront window, she whispered, “It’s a police state.”

What do you mean?”

The beach is infested with policemen!”

Why is that?”

There was an incident or two on the beach this summer, so my neighbors and I petitioned for police protection. Now, there are policemen all over the beach.”

Amanda’s disdain for the police is coupled with that of her negative feelings about the military. The fog of two World Wars was not as thick as the wars following them. Amanda and her generation came of age during the Vietnam War. That war was shrouded in the heaviest fog through which America has ever journeyed. Sadly, soldiers on leave did not wear their uniforms in public and veterans of Vietnam were given a hostile reception on their return to civilian life. Long ago, Amanda and her friends engaged in clashes between students and policemen. Age has not mellowed them. On the contrary, clashes in the Middle East have renewed their anti-military sentiments.

Public attitudes about policemen and soldiers are heavily and unfairly defined by political ideology. Significant factors in the shaping of political ideology include 24/7 all-news TV, radio broadcasts, and documentary specials. For most people, these media sources for political discussion are flawed by the distractions of home activities where TV or radio is vying for attention in the midst of noise, commercials, and the multiplicity of images as we switch from channel to channel and answer the doorbell.

It is films that make the greatest political impacts on audiences. A film is viewed in the dark. There are no distractions. Its message has been carefully crafted by the writer, director, and actors. If done by fine artists, it is enhanced by every basic aspect of communication, including the powerful language of music.

Films also have the tremendous advantage of poetic license. They do not have to strictly adhere to reality to effectively make political statements. For example, Avitar dazzles its audience with outstanding science fiction, spectacular color, and sensational visual effects to promote a green, communal Buddhist lifestyle and contrasting that world with the depiction of American soldiers as marauding barbarians. (An inter-planetarian Vietnam?) The realistic film, A Few Good Men, presents us with another of many films that portray the depravity of ‘loose cannon’ right wing military leaders. High powered producers, directors, writers, and actors are virtually assured of success with well-made films that bash our military.

The fundamental premise of those films is prejudicial. They reflect and reinforce the attitudes of zealots who believe that they must ‘save’ America from becoming a police state. They regard every legislative proposal that is not to their political liking as a ‘slippery slope’ leading to the death of our democracy.

On the other hand, the realistic masterpiece, Advise and Consent, exquisitely demonstrates the distinction between slippery slopes and the fundamental values that keep America on terra firma.

Many of today’s alleged slippery slopes are merely mud piles. For example, other than the print or engraving on our currency, nothing significant will change in America simply because our currency does or does not include the words, “In God We Trust.” Yet, this issue is rather high on the list of alleged slippery slopes.

Of course not all issues are as trivial as that. (At this point, I hear the shrill objections to my use of the word ‘trivial’ from liberals and conservatives alike.) Nothing is trivial to extreme partisans who are bent on ‘saving’ the United States from becoming a police state or theocracy.

Two major ‘slippery slopes’ in the view of some are the issues of America’s policies on home defense and on military vs. civilian trials for prisoners of war. These are not trivial issues, of course, but the fog of war has never been thicker than it is now.

[We are at war with backward regions engaged in religious, civil, and tribal conflicts. (And yes, I’ve consciously used the word ‘backward’ to describe most of those regions.) It’s time to shrug off false political correctness. When a woman is forced to live enclosed in a tomb of black cloth or is stoned to death for infidelity or must produce four witnesses to prove she was raped, she lives in a backward area.]

Home defense requires FBI and CIA activity, here and abroad. Muslim citizens usually feel badly about surveillance. So do I. As an American, I warmly welcome all people to this country. But, unlike our beachfront Amanda, I don’t expect policemen, FBI, and CIA personnel to do their job without surveillance. Muslim Americans need that as much as American-born citizens do. Without it, America would be on a slippery slope that leads to a cliff.

The concept of trials for prisoners of war is extremely complex. Civil or military trials will not in any way diminish our American Way. But legal mechanisms should be in place to stop repatriation of freed enemy combatants who are likely to injure or kill American soldiers or peaceful citizens. Now, there’s a life or death slippery slope.

In itself, the notion of trials is questionable. If we had pursued that course during World War Two, we’d still be fighting that war. Recidivism is a clear and present danger in a seemingly endless war. The notion that surveillance- – -here and abroad- – – is a slippery slope is unreasonable. Americans as a whole know that there is a clear distinction between slippery slopes and terra firma. 

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In Search of Absolutes (Part Two)

As a gnome on wheels, I was surrounded by books. I took advantage of my easy access to books on astronomy, science, and philosophy. Not being able to afford books in addition to those assigned by my professors, I would take out library books to read on the subway during my two one-hour commutes between university and home. (Paradoxically, reading on the noisy subway provides a kind of silence that aids concentration.)

Cosmology, quantum mechanics, and I were born at the same time. Astronomy, once thought to be the ultimate manifestation of absolutes, was rapidly shedding them. Our galaxy was no longer the universe, even space and time were no longer absolute. At that same time, quantum mechanics dealt a heavy blow against the very concept of absolutes that is with us to this day. Absolute zero is not quite absolute. There is an inescapable vagueness about the reality of singularities, points in space, and infinities. Tracing the evolution of the Big Bang is not possible beyond 1034 seconds when time itself is supposed to have begun. Lately, even the absolute speed limit of light is being re-examined. So far, Classical Science and Quantum Mechanics are at irreconcilable odds.

Yet, the technological extension of our senses combined with our intellectual faculties confirms the validity of absolutes expressed by language, including (of course) those of mathematics and geometry. Spherical and Hyperbolic geometry do nothing to diminish the absolutes of Euclidean geometry. All three geometries are imbedded in one and the same reality. The four forces of the universe are absolutes, with or without an alleged ‘God Particle.’ Reality includes absolute zero, the speed of light, and Planck Time. But what those absolutes don’t give us is the ultimate absolute of Existence and Consciousness.

However, if you are young and interested in moral absolutes, perhaps some of the following tips will be of use to you.

  • Genes and ambiance are in play at conception and continue to do so throughout our lives. A search for absolutes requires a will beyond the reach of nature and nurture.
  • There is a profound difference between sophistication and militant sophistry. The latter is intellectual suicide. To deny the absolutes of existence and consciousness themselves is to deny the essence of being human: the sapient faculty of Homo sapiens. The stacks are filled with cookie cutter attempts to deny consciousness, existence, or both.

I suggest that you glance through a book or article before you take the time to read it. You need not read further if you spot a phrase like, “If a tree falls and no one hears it, was there a sound?” Novels (especially murder mysteries) should be read beginning at page one, of course, but it is different with books or articles on science or philosophy. Don’t waste your time on riddles.

I recently glanced through a lengthy featured article in Discovery magazine. At a glance, I quickly noticed that this was a dead end article, currently very popular in science magazines. So, I turned to the very brief last paragraph. Sure enough, that last paragraph summed up the essence of the article in two or three sentences, and then added a single word, ‘Maybe.’ That prompted me to go on to the next page immediately. That technique exponentially beats multitasking as a timesaver.

  • When I was young, seeking absolutes in the stacks was cumbersome. Gathering scientific absolutes was relatively simple, but I wasted a great deal of time probing the stacks in the hope of harvesting philosophic absolutes.

Today, I am in awe of the Internet and its electronic hand-held progeny (despite their exasperating Lilliputian keys). They are the Stacks of Stacks. They are at the center of the Information age. But their virtually infinite corridors are capable of wasting a great deal of your time if you surf through them without an absolute or two of your own.

  • I’m speaking, of course, of moral absolutes. I acknowledge that my suggestion that you find your own absolutes is heretic. All the more so because absolutes do not allow for exceptions. But, as I implied in my first tip above, the will I speak of is absolute. It is also attainable without convoluted arguments and need not be proved. In fact, it is axiomatic. Its common term is ‘character.’
  • In Part One of this article, I stated that the Information Age (for all its splendor) poses a challenge for this generation. That is because the Information Age is also purely relativistic. As I flip through web sites of every stripe, I’m stunned by the proliferation of articles that ignore logic, consistency, and facts.
  • Young people are far better than I at navigating through the Internet. But when I surf the net for information, I’m disturbed by the misinformation I constantly encounter.

When my generation explored the paper stacks, it had to be more selective about the books that were worth reading. The rapid multiplicity of images floating through cyberspace has exacerbated the worst characteristics of a relativistic age.

  • If you are young, you might find (as I have) that the only reliable moral absolute is within yourself. For example, you might consider your word as an absolute. The same is true of loyalty or honesty. I am neither boastful nor dishonest when I claim that those characteristics are my absolutes and therefore my anchor. They are easy to live with, absolute, and totally free from the constraints of genes and ambiance.

If you haven’t already found an anchor for life and feel that you need one, you might consider absolutes that are not subject to the confusion of a relativistic age.

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In Search of Absolutes (Part One)

Working my way through New York University in the late 40s, I was a clerk at the university’s library. I alternately worked the upstairs counter where students would get or return books, and the ‘stacks’ in the basement below where the books were stored. When on an upstairs shift, I’d handle frenzied students who came in waves between classes. When I worked in the stacks, I was on roller skates so that I could gather a list of books at breakneck speed and place them on a dumbwaiter leading to the counter upstairs. I enjoyed that job, especially when I worked the stacks. It was fun roller-skating on the job.

On occasion, cellar doors were opened and sunlight streamed through them, cracking the relative darkness of the stacks. At those times, I imagined myself and the other workers to be gnomes, running for cover as the daylight intruded on our nether world. Like characters out of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, some of us were especially startled when we happened to be in the aisle that contained books that were assigned the call number beginning with 101. We were embarrassed- – -guilty or not- – -by at least the appearance of being literary voyeurs.

Ordinarily, tracking down the precise call number for a book took a bit of searching. But all of us could skate a beeline to Kraft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis without its call number. That book was red-flagged. We were instructed not to send it upstairs unless we had specific authorization to do so. On those rare occasions that I was authorized to fetch it for someone in the upper world, I noted that the 101 aisle had considerably more roller-skate scratches on the floor beneath it than any other aisle.

In the forties, the Information Age had not quite arrived. The spoken word about sex was in whispers and never in public. Books (like Psychopathia Sexualis) described specifics about sex in Latin. I wondered what words some of my fellow workers might not have understood when they surreptitiously read passages that substituted four-letter words with pentasyllabic words whose meaning was not quite as obvious as psychopathia and sexualis! In some cases, I suppose, they memorized the words and later asked clarification from a medical or Latin student. In many cases, hearts pounding, they looked through forbidden pages for the thrill of it. There was little else other than “French Postcards” to vicariously excite young people until Kinsey’s controversial but liberating Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was published. Kinsey diligently offered no explanations or judgments about the sexual behavior of the men he interviewed. Despite severe criticism from a vociferous ‘moral’ minority, his strictly statistical information had an enormously positive impact on ‘respectable society.’ Ordinary folk could now feel better to know that they were not alone in their sexual practices.

Psychology and philosophy are appropriately placed in the same classification within a system that lists call numbers for its ten major subjects. Now, gnomes no longer have to read about sex in darkness. But they are faced with a new glaring light. Ironically, that light emanates from the center of the Information Age.

(to be continued) 

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