Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Poems I Like #6: In The Desert

In the Desert
by Stephen Crane

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;

“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

This is a poem I've liked for quite some time. In high school I wrote it all over my books, copying it out again and again. It's hard to explain the attraction: there's no particular technical skill, no turn of phrase or flowery language, and yet the whole thing turns on itself so that any word replacement would seem to destroy the effect of the poem. Crane's genius here is in the idea he expresses. I won't be able to express it half as well, but perhaps I can make a little headway.

Picture this 'creature' - not human, but a thing - who is naked. He is unprotected, uncovered, and surrounded by a great empty desert. Still worse, he is bestial, he squats. He is removed from you and I culturally, physically, by his nature and by his actions. What he is doing is cartoonishly horrible: holding his own (presumably still-beating) heart in two hands and tearing it with his teeth. It is hard to imagine a more terrifying creature, or a being more Other.

And what does the poet say? "Is it good, friend?" Friend! It's a shocking word, 'friend', identifying the poet (and, by extension, the reader) with this self-cannibalising beast. It is the first turn of the poem, where we realise that the poet is in the desert too, along with us, and that the creature in the poem is closer to us than we think. It is not such a hard thing, after all, to find a desert. Many people manage it without ever leaving the house.

"Bitter--bitter," the creature says, and of course eating your own heart is a bitter thing. It carries connotations of buried desire, of self-pity, of thanatos. But then we have the second turn of the poem: the creature likes it. He finds pleasure in its bitterness, in the fact that it belongs to him and him alone. This is a true drive to self-destruction, thanatos expressed cleanly and simply. It's the same idea expressed in many Mountain Goats songs  - "I hope I never get sober", "I'm going to kill everyone in this room", "if anybody comes into our room while we're asleep / I hope they incinerate / everybody in it". 

Is that so strange, really? If you are in the desert, and if you are in pain, then even if you are causing the pain yourself it is still yours. Were Crane to try and snatch the creature's heart away, the creature would kill him, understandably so.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Property, Violence and Anarchism

So it's time to tackle a weighty question: is property damage, strictly speaking, violence? Anarchists and assorted radicals tend to say with Proudhon that property is theft, and that property owners deserve what's coming to them. Rich people and centrists tend to say that property damage is as bad as physical assault, and that vandals should be punished harshly. Despite my anarchist leanings, I don't fully agree with my faithful straw anarchists - I find it hard to draw a strong distinction between property and not-property that has my body on one side and my possessions on the other.

Can we say that since property damage causes emotional harm and physical violence causes physical harm, physical violence is worse? I don't think so. Certainly there are kinds of property damage that would cause me physical harm, and kinds of physical harm that would cause me no emotional harm. I've been working on a novel manuscript for the past year. If you destroyed that and all copies, I would consider that you had attacked me - the act of deleting files and burning paper would constitute real physical harm. If, on the other hand, you held me down and cut my fingernails - undeniably part of my body - I would think you were strange, but it wouldn't bother me if I never felt I was in actual danger.

What I am saying is that all harm is property damage. If you consider your body to be your property, then somebody who harms it damages your property. To the extent that you consider an object in your possession to be your property - very much so in the case of my novel manuscript, not much at all in the case of my fingernails - damaging it harms you. A Stoic whose only property is his ability to make moral judgments can only be harmed by that ability being damaged. Beat him, burn him, lock him up and take his money, and he is unperturbed. The only person who can damage his property is himself. A rich man who owns much and considers his houses and cars to be part of his identity is heartbroken at the slightest property damage.

So if you break a shop window, are you committing an act of violence on the shop-owner? Well, maybe not, if the shop-owner doesn't care much about his shop. But this is a terrible excuse. If you punch a random stranger in the chest, that may not be an act of violence if the stranger turns out to be Stoic or Buddhist. That doesn't mean you're justified in doing so - since most people care about their bodies and shops, you are ethically obliged to assume that any person chosen at random will. Protesters who spray-paint buildings and loot convenience stores are not engaged in peaceful protest; they are engaged in violent protest.

Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean that property damage is wrong. Violence in certain cases might be fully justified, such as violence in self-defense or violence against an immediate oppressor. Let's own up about our violent tactics, though, and not use mealy-mouthed arguments to try and make ourselves seem blameless at the very moment the brick hits the glass.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Against Social Contract Ethics

I endlessly come across people citing the social contract as a basis for ethics. "It's just self-interest," they say. "I avoid harming others because I don't want to set myself outside of the contract and be harmed by others." This has come up most recently on Pharyngula, where PZ Myers says this: "Where does this value [respecting consent] come from? Not gods, but self-interest. I do not want things done to me against my will, so I participate in a social contract that requires me to respect others’ autonomy as well." Now, this isn't the only basis PZ gives, but I'd like to use it to present a 'gotcha' question to people who make this arugment:

If you were in a situation where you could break the social contract to gain advantage and nobody would know, would you? Why not?

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

No Faith In Blackbird

The amusingly-named Hoodie Allen's song, "No Faith In Brooklyn". While I don't think he's got the technical excellence to make my list of favourites, there's something about his delivery that keeps me listening to the track.

And this 'Blackbird'-inspired track, by Left Boy, is completely brilliant.

Sunday, 20 May 2012


Many anarchists use violence. If not against people, then against property, especially in protests. The motivating principle of anarchism, though, seems to be a rejection of coercion. To use Professor Crispy's definition (again), anarchism is the idea that all human associations should be voluntary. When you punch a cop, though, or recommend that crime victims hunt down and hurt their attackers, are you still expressing an anarchist idea?

Don't get me wrong. I think that, in certain situations, vigilante justice or punching cops (not necessarily mutually exclusive activities, mind you) are morally justified - but while I can reconcile those actions with my conscience, I have more difficulty reconciling them with my anarchist principles. Does coercion somehow become not-coercion when you're coercing somebody who's coerced you in the past?

In practice, anarchism comes welded with a libertarian-ish ideal of justice and retribution. Unlike libertarianism, however, anarchism is fundamentally idealistic about human nature and free will. It's also more principle-based than consequence-based, in my opinion: anarchists are more likely than most to say "screw it, let the world burn so long as I have my freedom". Again, I'm not condemning this attitude! Like Hume almost said, it's certainly not irrational to prefer even the total destruction of the universe over the slightest encroachment on your liberty. What I would like to question is how the idealism of anarchism works together with the idea of retributive justice. Because if it's okay to kill a man who murdered your friend, then surely it's okay to pay another man to kill the murderer. And surely it's okay to pay a group of men to kill murderers in general. Do you see where I'm going with this?

Thursday, 17 May 2012

God Commands The Good

(In which I get overly lyrical.)

One way to justify Divine Command Theory - the idea that a God can provide objective morality - is to say that "what is good is good because God commands it". I'm having trouble marshalling a coherent argument against the that idea, so until then, here's my intuitive problem with it: even if I were to receive convincing proof that God exists and has laid down certain commandments, that would not replace my inner sense of morality.

I recoil instinctively from the idea that the commandments of God cannot be morally assessed - like Job, I want to challenge what I think is unfair. If I'm wrong, I want good reasons. In fact, my problems with Divine Command Theory can be pretty well sketched out with constant reference to Job. When God speaks from the whirlwind and Job backs down, I don't see that as a triumph of morality over pride. I see that as a triumph of power over reason.

In Job, we see that like gravity on spacetime, power exerts a distorting influence on morality. Infinite power, like a black hole, can collapse everything around it to become the only relevant point in the moral landscape. But I reject this framework! Like the Stoics, I want ethics to be the one thing untouched by power. I want the courage to stand in Job's position
 and tell God that despite the torture - and it is torture - I will continue to demand a reckoning. He can take everything from me, including my life, but the only person who can bend my ethics is me. If God reaches out to alter my ethical framework, I cease being me anymore - it is as if he has killed me, and so I win.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Acid Raindrops

Let's have a mid city fiesta with your west LA connections
Hop inside the vehicle start crossing intersections
We learning life's lessons
While we blaze this herbal essence
A man was still a child and I have so many questions
A struggle on my life till we 'vade the misconceptions
To find a place to live between the negatives and positives
While trying to make money slanging synonyms and homonyms

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Problems With Divine Command Theory

Atheists with philosophical leanings - like the inestimable Ivan - tend to cede ground to theists on the issue of morality. They agree that you can't ground objective morality without a God, that atheism entails a kind of existential despair, understood as a lack of purpose. And this makes sense! Atheists don't have any goals independent of our own desires and wishes.

Let's continue to agree with theists that morality without a God is irrational. But let's go further, too, and claim that objective morality doesn't exist even with a God. Take the best case scenario:

God appears in the sky, accompanied by angels and trumpets, and tells all inhabitants of the world to follow a single moral code, which he communicates clearly and which - through some miracle - nobody misinterprets.

But would even that allow us to claim that rightness or wrongness is a factual matter? Here are some considerations that a rational believer would be forced to make, in the event of a divine visitation.

Am I going crazy? On the balance of evidence, it's probably more likely that I'm having a mental breakdown than I'm actually seeing God. There are a small number of people each year who receive 'divine commands' - on what grounds do I dismiss their personal experience while accepting my own? Now if everyone in the world receives the same visitation, that would seem to rule out mental illness. It wouldn't rule out mass hysteria, though, or the possibility that my individual delusion is severe enough to include the illusion that everyone agrees with me.

Is this figure God? Even if the man in the clouds proclaims his divinity and performs miracles, that's only evidence of some power, not omnipotence. A technologically advanced alien might be able to 'play God' with a high degree of effectiveness.

Finally, and most importantly, why should I listen? David Hume's is/ought distinction has an almost mathematical exactness - there's no possible way to connect facts about the external world with moral obligations, even if those facts are delivered by a deity. If I'm a strict deontologist (a believer in moral rules) and God descends from heaven to say "sorry guys, the utilitarians are right", why should I accept his judgement? Because you're defining God as having knowledge of all things, factual and moral? Well, unless you give me a very good reason to believe in the existence of 'moral facts', I'm going to call that definition of God incoherent. (Of course, if you presuppose the existence of moral facts you can propose a God that would justify all kind of things - like the existence of moral facts.)

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Song For An Old Friend

John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, emoting like a madman. Say what you like about his slapdash approach to melody and his technically unimpressive guitar playing (well, compared to some), he gives the song everything he's got. It's not often you see somebody do that.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Yes There Is (A Problem Of Evil)

Over at From Wine To Water, Ivan takes another stab at addressing the problem of evil. His main argument, simply stated, is this: the Bible doesn't depict God's love as anything like our love (in fact, it's alien and dangerous, it provokes fear) and therefore to say "how would a loving God allow [Auschwitz/cancer/the cancellation of Firefly] is to misunderstand the concept of love. I won't tackle the hermeneutic question of whether the Bible does depict God's love as sufficiently alien - that would be a pretty mammoth effort - but I will give another objection to Ivan's argument.

In his post, Ivan asks "What job are you expecting God to do? And how do you justify that expectation?" The implication here seems to be that there's no biblical justification for expecting God to make everything happy and easy. But I contend that there's a clear moral justification! In the words of the great philosopher Parker, power is directly proportional to responsibility. The more you can do, the more you ought to do. If, like God, you can do almost anything, you've got a near-infinite obligation to act all the time to help people. Imagine you gained the powers, not of God, but of Superman - you'd have to help out with natural disasters and suchlike, at the very least. How much more, then, ought God to do?

The only way out from this argument that I can see is to propose that God is already acting to help people, and since He's omnipotent you shouldn't second-guess Him. This is the position ridiculed by Voltaire in the character of Pangloss, and it's not a very good one.

Of course, it doesn't follow from this that there's no God - simply that if there is a God, he doesn't conform to our standards of morality. In Ivan's words, "there is not some God who acts toward you exactly like your loving Dad did, or exactly like you think a loving Dad should." [1] But this presents a huge problem for believers. If your God is infinitely loving and kind in a way that I can comprehend, however dimly, then I've got a reason for believing in the face of huge odds. If your God, on the other hand, is 'loving' in the sense that somebody who is born paraplegic is loved, then my reason vanishes. I don't want to be in God's love for eternity if it's the same kind of love He showed the Auschwitz dead. You can bite the bullet, like Ivan, and dismiss the problem of evil - but in doing so, you dismiss the main intuitive attraction of Christianity.

[1] The word 'exactly' there bugs the hell out of me, by the way. Would you tell a victim of child abuse that they haven't been treated 'exactly like you think a loving Dad should'? No, of course not. That word trivialises the very real, very horrific reasons that many people have to doubt the concept of a loving God.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Tougher Colder Killer

Tougher Colder Killer off El-P's new album, Cancer For Cure, which dropped only a few weeks ago (at least on the internet). Best Youtube comment, from doc7114: "I loved killer mike's verse so much that i didn't even notice that he rhymed "motherfucker" like 3 times." Will you notice? Only one way to find out!

I was looking for $4 Vic/FTL (Me and You), the final track, but it doesn't seem to be on Youtube yet. If you know the album or choose to acquire it - totally legally, of course - keep an ear out for the Beowulf-style alliteration:

See the blood moon hunters moon hear the howling
For the habit and the hammered and the cowering
In the magic with the haunted and the doubted
There are ghosts here
There's a presence there's a power.