Thought Association

I was jogging on the beach, trying to think of something else because the last couple of days had been rather upsetting. I settled on thinking about an essay I am trying to write about The End of The World. Very soon I found that I had the REM song It’s the end of the world as we know it running through my head on repeat.

After a while I noticed somebody running along next to the concrete promenade, where the sand is softest because it is furthest from the water and almost never gets wet from the sea. The sand was pretty soft where I was, about halfway between the promenade and the water. But maybe it was softer over near that other guy. In any case, we’d had heaps of rain recently, so if water makes sand pack together harder, presumably where I was would be just as water-hardened as next to the promenade.

But then maybe seawater has a different effect. Perhaps it makes the sand stick together better than rainwater does. If so then the sand next to the promenade really would be softer, unless the sea ever gets up to there.

That led to me wondering about whether, in the wildest sorts of weather, the sea ever came all the way up to the concrete wall below the promenade (about fifty metres from the high tide mark).

Thinking of stormy weather made me think of the scene in the movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman where the female lead stands at the end of a long jetty in a storm, only a metre or two above the rough sea – a precarious position, deeply evocative.

That led me to wonder whether it is sexist to refer to the character as somebody’s ‘woman’, thereby seeming to suggest ownership. That led to my thinking about the reverse phrase ‘somebody’s man’, which led me to think of the Tammy Wynette song Stand by your man.

And without any conscious decision to do so, there I was, jogging along the beach, mentally humming Stand by your man instead of It’s the End of the World as we know it.

Thought association.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, April 2017

Featured Image is from the 1981 movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman, showing the jetty called ‘The Cobb’ at Lyme Regis UK.


Anti-Trumping without Godwin

Hallelujah! I have found a solution to the most difficult dilemma faced by those of us on the anti-Fascist fringe of 21st-century politics. I am referring, of course, to the problem of how to accurately criticise the new US president without either falling foul of Godwin’s Law on the one hand, or understating the harm he is causing on the other.

In case you don’t know, Godwin’s Law states that ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1‘, meaning somebody is bound to make the comparison sooner or later. The Corollary of this law is that, if you have to resort to comparing somebody to Hitler, you have lost the argument.

I try to assiduously observe this rule by never making that comparison myself, as a consequence of which the comparisons I make for the most unpleasant of the world’s leaders and policies cover a wide range of alternatives, starting with the perhaps too-obvious Stalin, running through Mao and Pol Pot, Augusto Pinochet, Vladimir Putin, Robert Mugabe and then, just for variety, taking in some serial killers like Fred and Rosemary West.

But the following tweet from some Trump toady, in response to the President summarily banning travellers from a range of countries with Muslim majority populations, causing heartbreak, despair and airport chaos, had me stumped. Here it is, from someone called Kellyanne Conway:

Get used to it. @POTUS is a man of action and impact.

It is just screaming for somebody to respond ‘So was <He with whom, out of deference to Mike Godwin, we will not make comparisons>’

The idea that being a person of action is a virtue, regardless of the morality of that action, is so gob-smackingly asinine that it is beyond parody (which leads to another, lesser-known, internet law: Poe’s Law, which says that it is impossible to tell the difference between a parody of the US fundamentalist right, and the real thing).

But how can one respond, without invoking that famous Austrian, and thereby implicitly losing the argument?

Fortunately, I have found the answer, and it is…………..

Voldemort

Ta dah!!!!!!!!!!

That’s right, all you need say in reply to such thuggish ejaculations as Conway’s above is

So was Voldemort

There is even a scriptural basis for this comment. In ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone‘ the wand-maker Ollivander sells Harry his first wand, and is fascinated to find that the wand – which chose Harry, rather than Harry choosing it (don’t ask) – is the ‘brother’ (don’t ask about that either) of the wand that Ollivander had sold to Voldemort as his first wand, decades earlier. Ollivander says:

we must expect great things from you, Mr Potter …. After All, He Who Must Not Be Named did great things – terrible, yes, but great‘.

So there you are: when apparatchiks or groupies of the US government confuse – deliberately or otherwise – decisiveness with virtue, or power with goodness, you can now skewer their idiocy without impaling yourself on the spike of Godwin. Just remind them about Voldemort, and all the great, powerful things he did.

By the way, just as an aside, in the course of researching this painstakingly-researched and highly-detailed essay, the internet has made me aware that, contrary to my belief and that of most other people, apparently Mussolini didn’t make the trains run on time.

Post Script: Just prior to posting this I searched for images of Voldemort to decorate it. To my bemusement, I found that many of them have the new president’s face photo-shopped over that of Voldemort, and there was even an article explaining why he really is Voldemort. I also came across reports of Joanne Rowling’s tweets about Trump and Voldemort, saying facetiously that the comparison was unfair to Voldemort. Well, bother! I had previously been aware of those tweets, but had utterly forgotten them. Apparently my subconscious hadn’t though. Well, never mind. If something’s worth saying, perhaps some things are worth saying more than once, by different people, as long as they don’t deliberately copy. I’ll put a nice, unphoto-shopped photo of He Who Must Not Be Named  on this anyway, and I hope you’ll forgive my subconscious plagiarism.


The Bishop of Digne

When I first read Les Misérables, I was miffed to find that the first one hundred or so pages were taken up with a character that does not even appear in the musical – Monseigneur Myriel, the saintly bishop of Digne (saintly as in incredibly kind, not as in pious). That hundred pages is basically devoted to painting a picture of just how saintly Mgr Myriel is.

When you know you have 1800 pages ahead of you and are impatient for Jean Valjean (the hero) or Javert (his primary antagonist) to appear, you don’t have much patience for detailed portraits of peripheral characters, however saintly. Mgr Myriel’s sole role in the story is to be the first person that shows the cold, starving, exhausted Jean Valjean some compassion, as Jean makes his way on foot from the prison galleys in Toulon, where he was finally released after nineteen years’ penal servitude, to Pontarlier in Central Eastern France, which is several hundred kilometres to the north. Valjean’s attempts to buy food or shelter along his way are rejected by innkeepers, peasants and even local jail-keepers who distrust and fear him because they know he is a former convict. Valjean seems destined to starve or freeze to death until the bishop takes him in and treats him like an honoured guest. Despite that, Valjean sneaks out of the bishop’s house in the middle of the night, stealing away most of the bishop’s silverware with him – the bishop’s only possessions of any value. When the police arrest Valjean next morning and bring him to the bishop, expecting the bishop to accuse him and thus complete an easy arrest for them, the bishop instead says ‘No, I gave all that to M. Valjean, and also, you silly sausage, you forgot to take these that I gave you as well’ (and hands over to the astonished Valjean the few remaining pieces of silverware). This act of unfathomable kindness stuns Valjean, gives him much to think about, and changes his life (but not instantly: he still manages to steal a shilling off a small kid later that day before he finally ‘sees the light’ – a baroque flourish that is omitted from the musical).

There you have it – one hundred and fifty pages summarised in a paragraph!

Victor Hugo is given to these long diversions. Later in the book there is a very long, technical diversion about the topography of the field in which the battle Waterloo was fought – apparently just to show what a villainous knave the innkeeper Thénardier is (‘Master of the ‘ouse’). And another later on, almost one hundred pages long, describing the construction and layout of the sewers of Paris – just because Valjean will escape the police by going through these, carrying the half-dead body of Marius, his daughter’s boyfriend.

In most cases these interpolations are irritating. They subtract momentum from one’s reading and cause one to lose interest. That’s how I felt on my first reading of Les Mis. There was no momentum to lose, because Mgr Myriel is introduced on page 1, but one is beset by impatience to meet Jean Valjean and come to grips with the famous story. ‘Why are we wasting time on this bloody bishop?’ the impatient reader (me) asks themselves, and ‘We get it already, he’s a very kind person, can we move on now?

But on the second reading it was different. I already knew the story. I knew when JvJ would enter, and why, and I knew what role the bishop would play. So, the impatience having been neutralised, I was alert for little details, items of colour and feeling, that were not essential to the plot, but instead artistic features of what is better considered as a vast tapestry.

And on that second occasion, I found myself entranced and inspired by Mgr Myriel. Unlike cardboard cut-out goodies like Dickens’s Little Nell or Little Dorrit (with Dickens, you always know you’re in for some insufferable Victorian sentimentality when somebody appears with the word Little prefixed to their name), Mgr Myriel seems real. One can imagine that there really are such people – rare, yes, but not extinct. I heard the retired heretical bishop Richard Holloway interviewed on ABC radio a couple of years ago and he sounded a little like what one imagined Mgr Myriel might be like.

How was it Inspirational? Basically, it just made me want to be like Mgr Myriel. I am sadly aware that my troubled, deeply flawed character is a million miles away from that of Mgr Myriel – a ridiculous seething mass of passionate good intentions with very little in the way of good actions to match. But just observing first hand the operation of Mgr Myriel’s apparently bottomless well of compassion made me want to be more like him – even if it meant travelling only a few small steps along the way between where I am and where he is. And in addition, Hugo managed to make it seem possible, that one could be at least a little bit like that.

It’s hard to put a finger on what it is that makes Hugo’s presentation of Myriel so inspirational and believable and so different from the goody two-shoes vaunted by other Victorian-era authors. Being honest, I have to concede it’s possible that it’s just a consequence of the frame of mind one has when one reads about them. Maybe if I’d read about Little Nell in the right time and place she would be my inspiration. I doubt it, but one must always remain open to the possibility of being mistaken.

One key difference is that Hugo doesn’t content himself with telling us how kind Mgr Myriel is, or with quoting dialogue in which Myriel says pleasant, amiable things. Talk, after all, is cheap. No, what we see beyond his gentle, friendly speech is a long string of tremendously kind actions. Myriel, piece by piece, gives away almost everything he has to those less fortunate than him. Since he is a bishop, and bishops in those days were very wealthy, with palaces, coaches, large incomes and expense allowances, there is an awful lot to give. Having given away almost everything he has, he then researches what other allowances and claims he can make from the church in virtue of his office, does the paperwork to claim whichever ones he can, and then gives those away too.

But never does Myriel congratulate himself. He seems to subscribe to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s ‘property is theft’ adage. When asked why he gave this or that thing away, he replies to the effect that he was never entitled to possess it in the first place. But Myriel is no anarchist. His comments are not generalised philosophical points about the nature of private property, but about the specific treatment by society of the people to whom he gives these things. They have been dispossessed, by the operation of law, of privilege, of capitalism, of raw temporal power. As his employer’s policy manual says ‘Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them’. Bishop Myriel does his humble best to redress the imbalance created by the church and state by returning some of the world’s good things – those that he has in his power – to those from whom they have been taken (whether directly or indirectly).

Hugo writes Myriel’s dialogue in such a way that one can imagine doing and saying such things. His lines are not ethereal or sanctimonious, but practical and down-to-Earth. After giving the last remaining silver to Valjean, as well as saving him from a return to penal servitude (this time for life), he professes relief, telling his sister and housekeeper that he was embarrassed to be dining off silver when others in the village had no utensils at all, and that he feels much more relaxed eating his soup out of a wooden bowl.

Here’s a sample. Mgr Myriel is talking to the director of the small, overcrowded church hospital that is attached to his large, luxurious bishop’s palace, and has learned that they have too many people crammed in, in unbearably uncomfortable conditions. After a series of probing questions about conditions in the hospital, Myriel comes out with:

Look, Mister Hospital Director, this is what I reckon. There’s obviously been a mistake. You have twenty-six people in five or six little rooms. We have only three people in here [in the palace], where there is room for sixty. It’s a mistake I tell you. You have my lodgings and I’ll have yours. Give me my house [meaning the little hospital]. This one here is your house.’

No moralising, no sermons, no verbal niceties, just ‘Look – this is what we need to do‘.

He even has a sense of humour – a quality nearly always lacking in nineteenth century heroes. When the housekeeper discovers that Valjean has disappeared overnight and so has the silverware, the following dialogue ensues:

Housekeeper: Your excellency, your excellency, do you know where the basket of silverware is?

Bishop: Yes.

HK: Jesus-God be praised! I didn’t know what had become of it.

Bish: [Picks up and presents to the housekeeper the empty basket that he had spotted lying under a hedge, where Valjean had jettisoned it last night] Here it is!

HK: What!? There’s nothing in it! Where’s the silverware?

Bish: Ah, so it’s the silverware you were worried about. I don’t know where that is.

One might be tempted to think that Myriel is a Marxist in disguise – a fifth-columnist usurping the rich, corrupt church from the inside by giving away whatever of its wealth he can lay his hands on. But that is not the case. For instance he does not give away the (very valuable) robes and ornaments of the cathedral – presumably because he feels that they belong to his congregation, who enjoy seeing them as part of their religious rituals every week. He even believes in a good God – quite an achievement given the corruption and cruelty of those around him who claim to represent that God. He holds fast to a humble, optimistic spiritualism in which God is identified with Love – the value that guides his life in every waking moment.

But he has no time for theology. He has no interest in doctrinal favourites like the trinity, the resurrection, sexual purity, salvation by faith or grace, or the damnation of sinners and unbelievers. When his ecclesiastical colleagues discuss such things he does not criticise them for wasting their time on meaningless arcana. He just shrugs his shoulders as if to say ‘They must be terribly clever to understand such things, but it’s much too complicated for a simple man like me‘. If he has a theological position, it is something like that everybody is worthy of salvation, and will ultimately be saved. He never quite articulates this though. If he did, he’d be at risk of punishment as a heretic. But all his actions seem to me to suggest such a belief. He expresses no theological opinions except for the primacy of love. He judges nobody, and is happy to admit his ignorance and uncertainty on all ‘ultimate questions’.

In general I am not a fan of clergy. But I make an exception for Monseigneur Myriel, even if he is fictional. He is an inspiration. I could never be anything like him. But if reading those 150 pages again, without the impatience this time, has motivated me to move even a little bit more from where I am towards where he is on the spectrum of compassion, it will have been worth it.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, February 2016


Is it intolerant to not tolerate intolerance?

I have occasionally come across the argument that freethinkers who value tolerance are being hypocritical in trying to impose their values of tolerance on society, while at the same time complaining about religious people attempting to impose their values, such as banning contraception, forbidding shops to open on Sunday or Sharia law, on society. Examples of freethinkers imposing their views are when they campaign or vote for laws that forbid discrimination against minorities.As a freethinker who places a high value on tolerance, this argument troubled me, as I could not see any good response to it. Hence, it seemed that my moral framework was inconsistent, maybe even irrational (oh, horror of horrors!).I think I have resolved this problem, at least to my own satisfaction, as follows. I value tolerance, as part of a broader moral framework that is largely, although not entirely, utilitarian. My moral framework is, so far as I can tell, self-consistent, although, like any logical system, it rests on unprovable axioms. Primary amongst these is that one ought to make decisions in such a way as to minimise the suffering of sentient beings.In contrast, a fundamentalist Christian (or Muslim) might have a moral framework for which one axiom is that one ought to obey Yahweh’s (Allah’s) law, as it is stated in the Bible (Koran) before any other considerations.Hume has observed that one cannot get an ought from an is, and I agree. I cannot prove that my moral framework is true, or superior, any more than the Christian or Muslim can prove that theirs is. Nevertheless, I prefer my framework to theirs, because it is more aesthetically pleasing to me, and it is consistent with my most fundamental intuitive feelings – primarily empathy. In colloquial terms, it just ‘feels right’.So, I prefer a broadly utilitarian approach, and my preference is not constrained to my own moral decisions. I want to live in a world where most people make decisions based on these principles, or at least act, possibly under compulsion, as if they were making decisions based on those principles. A practical way to influence the world in such a direction is to create rules – formal and informal, legislated and societal – that will constrain many people to behave that way. Because I value such behaviour, it is rational for me to do what I can to influence the world in that direction. That may involve a wide range of activities, such as voting for particular political candidates, campaigning for certain issues, attending street marches and protests, attempting to persuade others to my point of view, donating to campaigns or political entities, or maybe even standing for political office myself.

Now the preceding paragraph is equally valid for a fundamentalist Christian. They may wish to live in a world in which people act, under compulsion or otherwise, according to their interpretation of the ‘law of the Bible’, so it is rational for them to campaign to bring that about. Neither I nor the fundamentalist is being inconsistent, nor can we be validly accused of hypocrisy.

These two views will often come into conflict. A common source of conflict is where some Christians (certainly not all!) wish their religion to be taught, or other Christian activities such as prayers to occur, in a publicly-funded school, whereas freethinkers such as myself do not wish that to occur. Let us assume that there are no laws either requiring or forbidding such activities (unlike for instance, the USA where the first amendment of the constitution bears on many of these cases). If I campaign against school prayer by saying that the Christians are imposing their values on others, and ‘should not’ do so, they can validly reply that, by trying to prevent the prayers, I am trying to impose my values of tolerance on them. I am implicitly trying to get an ought from an is, asserting that my value system is more valid than theirs.

What I can do, however, is to argue that our society will be ‘better’ in some way if the prayers are not allowed, than if they are. I might argue for instance that a society that does not officially sanction any particular religion will be more tolerant than one that does, that a tolerant society will be a less conflict-ridden society, and that people will generally be happier if the level of conflict is lower. This is an essentially utilitarian appeal, and will cut no ice with the fundamentalist, but they are not my target. My target is the undecided voters, lawmakers and law implementers such as judges or education department officials. For my argument to succeed I need to do two things:

  • I must persuade those undecided people to value what I value – general human happiness; and
  • I must persuade them that my proposal will be more likely to satisfy that value than the alternative.

Essentially, I am doing a ‘sales job’, selling my worldview to the undecided people, in the hope that they’ll ‘buy’ it. The fundamentalists will do the same on their side, perhaps telling people that school prayers will bring more people to Jesus, which will lead to more people escaping eternal torment in Hell. Neither of us is necessarily inconsistent or hypocritical. What we have is not a contest of logic, but a contest of values, trying to persuade the undecided to value what we value. I hope I win.

Not all disputes about religion are like that. It is often the case that both sides claim to hold the same values, in relation to the issue at hand, but reach different conclusions. In such cases, accusations of inconsistency or hypocrisy do become possible. Take for example the Vatican’s attempt to argue that condoms should not be promoted in Africa as a defence against HIV transmission, because they do not work. Here the Vatican is claiming to hold the same values as its opponents, viz a concern for the physical welfare of the people engaging in sexual activity. Such a claim can be rebutted on purely logical grounds, using scientific evidence. This then lays the Vatican open to a charge of hypocrisy on the grounds that it is  pretending to be motivated by a concern for human physical welfare, when in fact (we allege) that is a smokescreen to hide its true concern which is about compliance with what they believe to be God’s laws.

Likewise, in the school prayer case, if the fundamentalists had made an argument that there would be more kindness and less crime if we had school prayer (a la Ivan Karamazov’s contention that if there is no God, everything is permitted), that could be attacked on logical grounds, as it implies the same value as the nonbeliever – a happier society.

So, in summary, I think it is possible to argue for a tolerant society in two ways that maintain integrity and consistency:

  • by appealing to the undecided to share values, such as minimising suffering, that I hold, or
  • if those values are already shared, to argue that the values are likely to be better satisfied in a tolerant society than an intolerant one.

The first is an appeal to the passions, the second is an appeal to reason.


The Use and Abuse of Common Sense

Common sense is very useful, in fact essential, for checking the reasonableness of ideas or conclusions. However it can only ever be effective as a screening technique, not as a final determinant of what we believe. If we only believed what common sense supported we would never have had flight, electricity, steam power, space flight or the internet. Common sense should always be invoked as a challenge to new ideas, but only as an indicator of when we need to reinvestigate the reasoning behind the idea and the assumptions underlying it. If, no flaws are found in that reinvestigation, we should accept the new idea. As Sherlock Holmes said ‘when all other possibilities have been excluded, the remaining possibility, however improbable, must be the truth’. Or something like that.

So next time you hear someone claim that something can’t be true because it doesn’t agree with ‘common sense’, tell them that, if that’s the only argument they have, then they have no argument at all.

The value of common sense is that by causing you to reinvestigate reasoning and assumptions, it can lead you to find the true reason why a conclusion is not correct. If it doesn’t lead you to that then you need to update your idea of what constitutes common sense.

Shock jocks like Alan Jones love to appeal to common sense as their argument, whether it be that climate change doesn’t exist, that shifting the focus from prohibition to harm minimisation will increase drug use, or that lowering taxes will be good for the economy. Remember, valuable as common sense is, if that’s all you have then you have nothing.

A proper use of common sense is to say that if an idea isn’t consistent with historical observations and generalisations, then there’s a high probability that it’s wrong. An abuse of common sense is to say that the idea must be wrong. Most of humanity’s greatest advances have come from ideas that defied common sense. A society that insists on abusing common sense in this way will never make any new inventions or discoveries. It will wither and die.


Why preference the Coalition after a Green vote (Australian Election 2010)

Marieke Hardy says she is going to vote Green and give her preference to Labor over Liberal (http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/07/12/2950655.htm). I also have used this strategy for as many elections as I can remember. The first preference goes to the Greens because it:

  • sends a strong message to both parties that environmental issues are important to the electorate
  • increases the public political funding the Greens will receive in the next election
  • in the Senate, increases the number of seats they can be expected to win
  • maybe one day (but not yet) may even lead to a Green member in the House of Representatives.

To date I have preferenced Labor above Liberal because its environmental policy, while usually inadequate, has been somewhat better than that of the Liberals.
But now, after so many years of voting this way, I am persuaded it’s necessary to change. Even though I believe a Labor government may be better for the environment than a Liberal government over the next three years, I believe a better result will be achieved for the environment in the long term if I and others like me vote Green but give their preferences to the Coalition. Why? Primarily because Labor has been taking the environmental vote for granted for a long time and is now starting to do so to an increasing extent. Its policies have become startlingly less green since the beginning of 2010 and it seems quite clear that Labor feels it has the environmental vote sewn up and hence is free to court the ‘middle ground’ of those that are more interested in short term economic outcomes than environmental issues.
Something must be done to stop the rot. If that something leads to the Liberals being in government for 3-6 years until Labor gets the message that it needs to earn the environmental vote, then that’s a reasonable price to pay. Yes, even if it means Prime Minister Abbott!
In the absence of any change like this, if the vast majority of Green preferences flow to Labor as in recent elections, Labor will be tactically and strategically correct (if morally bankrupt!) in deciding that it can ignore green issues as long as it stays just ever so slightly greener than the Coalition, no matter how rapacious and irresponsible the policies of the latter may be. Consequently there will never again be a major party in Australia that stands up for environmental issues.
If my voting strategy is moderately widely adopted then at best Labor will get an enormous scare but still return to government. The scare should be sufficient to ensure that they quickly adopt some serious environmental policies and continue to maintain them in future.
Or, the shift in preferences may be sufficient to unseat Labor and put the Coalition in government. That may mean some marginally worse environmental policies in the short term, but not by much, based on the current policy platforms. In any case, if all we ever achieve is what’s in Labor’s current policy platform, we’ll be so badly off in the long run that 3-6 years of Coalition rule won’t make a noticeable difference.
A secondary benefit of this strategy is that it may surprise the Liberal party to receive Green preferences and persuade it to court the environmental vote with suitable policies, rather than its current approach of writing it off as a Labor fiefdom and punishing it by studied neglect.
In Europe and California, environmental concern is not considered a left-wing issue, as such people as Angela Merkel, Arnold Schwarzenegger and David Cameron have shown us by their policies and actions. Neither should it be here but unfortunately it is, to the enormous detriment of Australian public policy. Perhaps the first step in rectifying this unfortunate situation is to vote as I have suggested and turn the environment back into an issue that concerns everyone.