Wednesday, 27 September 2006

Idemeneo and the Poltroons

Kirsten Harms, the director of the Deutsche Oper, has decided to cancel performances of Mozart’s Idomeneo, lest Muslims be offended at a scene in which the King of Crete holds aloft the decapitated heads of Poseidon, Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad. Frau Harms proceeds on the fairly safe assumption that any offence that may be taken is unlikely to end in pagans running riot, Christians menacing directors, or Buddhists firing Kalashnikovs into the air in a ritual of practiced malevolence. According to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,
The decision is based on a general threat-analysis by the State Office of Criminal Investigation, not on threats against Charlottenburger Haus in general or the production in particular. [1]
In other words, before the Mohammedans have even had the time to whet their knives or sharpen their damnations, the poltroons of the West are grovelling for their pardon. No specific threat is required. The mere presence of the Mohammedans is felt to be enough. A similar thing happened last year, when Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great was expurgated of remarks and scenes derogatory of Mohammed. [2] Signs of things to come, perhaps. [3]
[1] “Schäuble wünscht sich ‘deutsche Muslime’”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 27th September 2006. [“Der Entschluß basiert auf einer allgemeinen Gefährdungsanalyse des Landeskriminalamts, nicht auf Drohungen gegen das Charlottenburger Haus im allgemeinen oder die Inszenierung im besonderen.”]
[2] See Dalya Alberge, “Marlowe’s Koran-burning hero is censored to avoid Muslim anger”, The Times, 24th November 2005.
[3] Update: In the end, the unexpurgated production went ahead, along with “airport-style security checks”, while “plainclothes police mingled with the audience”, and “[d]og teams checked out the aisles and foil sheets were stuck to windows in order to make them shatterproof.” Roger Boyes, “A fright at the opera: champions of Mozart brave cultural divide”, The Times, 19th December 2006.

Tuesday, 26 September 2006

Durch die Brust Verbunden

“Nature has joined men at the heart, but the professors would like them joined at the head.”
[“Die Natur hat die Menschen durch die Brust verbunden, und die Professores hätten sie gerne mit dem Kopf zusammen.”]
G.C. Lichtenberg, Sudelbücher, (Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1984), E236 from Sudelbuch E (1775-1776), p. 210.

Monday, 25 September 2006

Nock’s Golden Rule

Albert J. Nock’s Golden Rule of Sound Citizenship states:
You get the same order of criminality from any State to which you give power to exercise it; and whatever power you give the State to do things FOR you carries with it the equivalent power to do things TO you. [1]
Whilst Mr Nock’s rule in its first part may be too simple as a gauge for the criminality of a State, it is nevertheless a rule to which one is well advised to pay heed, especially in its second part. It is presumably for its admonitory intent that Mr Nock called it the Golden Rule of Sound Citizenship, rather than the Law of State Power. The rule ought to be brought to mind whenever one hears public servants and ministers of the State utter anything like the following: “[W]e have to do more to make public servants feel like social entrepreneurs with the power to reshape lives.” [2]
[1] Albert J. Nock, “The Criminal State”, in American Mercury, March 1939, reproduced online at The Memory Hole.
[2] Douglas Alexander and David Miliband, “Beware the 80s moment”, The Guardian, 25th September 2006.

Friday, 22 September 2006

Unconventional Silliness

“Mathematics and logic are collections of norms”, says David Bloor. “The ontological status of logic and mathematics is the same as that of an institution. They are social in nature.” [1] Now, if that is meant to convey the idea that the symbols and conventions of logic and mathematics, and the uses to which we put them, are ontologically subjective, being that they depend upon us for their existence, then it is a banal point. If, on the other hand, it is meant to convey something more radical, namely, that the ontological status of logic and mathematics is as subjective as the ontological status of a dress code or a bill of rights, then it is absurd; for then the claim is that propositions such as “twice two is four” or “A and not-A are contradictory” express nothing more independent of social convention than propositions such as “wrong hat, Gerald” or “citizens are permitted to bear arms on the first Tuesday of every month”. If such is true, and if furthermore there are many and diverse conventions by which we might fruitfully live our lives, then we might fruitfully think that twice two is five or nineteen or sixty thousand, without adverse consequences, being that there is no ontologically objective world by which we would be constrained in thinking one way or another. Everything is social, apparently. That, I presume, is Professor Bloor’s point. He is only a sociologist, after all.

[1] David Bloor, “Wittgenstein and Mannheim on the Sociology of Mathematics”, in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Vol.4:2, p.189.

Fewtril #126

It is hardly to be hoped that one can speak with knowledge and insight without being accused of ignorance and bigotry.

Wednesday, 20 September 2006

Fewtril #125

Nowadays it often happens that, having exhorted someone to live up to some ideal, one is accused of doing him down or of trying to delude him.

Monday, 18 September 2006

Fewtril #124

One can do little against organised stupidity but hope that it will inadvertently organise its own demise.

Fewtril #123

One can be so successful at stopping a dangerous thing at its outset that thereafter people will say that one had exaggerated its threat.

Thursday, 14 September 2006

Fewtril #122

In the great scramble to be offended, it is essential that one might find any innocuous thing utterly vile and offensive, lest one be outdone by more inventive souls.

Fewtril #121

As many of us have come to understand, there are few creatures more easily dupable than a western intellectual desperate to demonstrate his tolerance for some foreign nonsense.

Wednesday, 13 September 2006

Fewtril #120

One can hardly expect people to feel shame for their sins and shortcomings when they are so readily proud to boast of them.

Tuesday, 12 September 2006

Fewtril #119

If a scholar changes his outlook in maturity, we may say he has shrugged off his youthful fantasies – or lost his marbles.

Humanity, Great and Otherwise

We often take vicarious pride in the greatness of humanity. I say “vicarious” because the greatness that we assume as belonging to our humanity is really the work of a few persons by whom we define that humanity. If we were to define humanity differently – that is, by the deeds of the typical member of the species Homo sapiens – we should think that humanity was a concept signifying little of this greatness. On the other hand, when we take for ourselves a view of humanity that is predicated on the greatness of a few, we are wont to express surprise at the ignobility of the many – and to wonder at the inhumanity of humanity! As Ralph Adams Cram said,
We do not behave like human beings because most of us do not fall within that classification as we have determined it for ourselves, since we do not measure up to standard. And thus:
With our invincible—and most honourable but perilous—optimism we gauge humanity by the best it has to show. From the bloody riot of cruelty, greed and lust we cull the bright figures of real men and women. [1]
If society is not to be brutish, then we require the preservation of individuals—whence humanity as a civilising and noble ideal might be drawn—over the preponderance of the mass. It is from such individuals that the many-headed might learn humanity, without which barbarism is their natural state. As Lin Yutang said,
Mankind as individuals may have reached austere heights, but mankind as social groups are still subject to primitive passions, occasional back-slidings and outcroppings of the savage instincts, and occasional waves of fanaticism and mass hysteria. [2]
Or, as Nietzsche put it,
Madness in individuals is something rare—but in groups, parties, peoples, and ages, it is the rule. [3]
A defence of civilised values is quite difficult, however, against the intellectualised advance of mass-barbarism; for the latter also has in its favour a deep visceral appeal: something of the baseness of humanity as a whole, and thus something of which we all have in common.
‘The individual’ . . . this category cannot be taught; the use of it is an art, a moral task, and an art the exercise of which is always dangerous and at times might even require the life of the artist. For that which divinely understood is the highest of all things will be looked upon by a self-opinionated race and the confused crowd as lese majesté against the ‘race’, the ‘masses’, the ‘public’, etc. [4]
The danger is that in the process of mass-barbarisation, he will be made criminal who fulfils the duties necessary for the preservation of civilisation.
(That said, I feel I need to get out more.)
[1] R.A. Cram, “Why We Do Not Behave Like Human Beings”, in American Mercury, September 1932, reproduced online at Fulton’s Lair.
[2] Lin Yutang, “On Having a Mind”, The Importance of Living (London and Toronto: William Heinemann, 1938), p.65.
[3] F.W. Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse (München: Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag, n.d.), §156, p.71. [“Der Irrsinn ist bei einzelnen etwas Seltenes,—aber bei Gruppen, Parteien, Völkern, Zeiten die Regel.”]
[4] Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, ed. A. Dru, (London: Fontana Books, 1958), p. 134.

Fewtril #118

Everything in our bureaucracy is stripped of jollity in order that it be efficient – and yet that is the last thing one could impute to it! Rarely has so great a discrepancy existed between a system and its ideal as that between bureaucracy and efficiency.

Wednesday, 6 September 2006

Friday, 1 September 2006

Fewtril #117

The principle that controversial or objectionable views ought not to be suppressed, but rather shown to be wrong through reasoned debate, is usually defended only when a man is under the impression that those views have little reason in their favour. So much for magnanimity!

Fewtril #116

One may disclaim all sorts of things. One may even suggest that chromosomes are social constructs, no more biological than earrings or string-back gloves.