Et Cetera (January - March 2002)
March 24, 2002
Blog parlor games seem to be proliferating. Witness -
You are Spaceman Spiff!Zounds! You are the intrepid Spaceman Spiff, the engaging
explorer ensconsed in an unending universe of exotic and evil extraterrestrials! You're brave, but you should give that dictionary a rest.
Take the What Calvin are You? Quiz by firstname.lastname@example.org!
Eastern Orthodox - 100% (reassuring)
Roman Catholic - 100% (Others have gotten different scores for Orthodoxy and Romanism; strange that mine should be identical)
Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant - 86%
Seventh Day Adventist (??!!) - 78%
At the bottom of the heap were New Age (15%), Secular Humanism (8%) and Taoism (6%). I can see now what is going to happen: Tomorrow I will meet the woman of my dreams and she will turn out to be an Hobbesian Taoist.
March 18 ,2002
My friend Bill Seil sends this news story, of unknown provenance, describing France's contribution to the war against terrorism:
French Intellectuals to be Deployed in Afghanistan to Convince Taliban of Nonexistence of God
The ground war in Afghanistan heated up yesterday when the Allies revealed plans to airdrop a platoon of crack French existentialist philosophers into the country to destroy the morale of Taliban zealots by proving the non-existence of God. Elements from the feared Jean-Paul Sartre Brigade, or 'Black Berets', will be parachuted into the combat zones to spread doubt, despondency and existential anomie among the enemy.
Hardened by numerous intellectual battles fought during their long occupation of Paris's Left Bank, their first action will be to establish a number of pavement cafes at strategic points near the front lines. There they will drink coffee and talk animatedly about the absurd nature of life and man's lonely isolation in the universe. They will be accompanied by a number of heartbreakingly beautiful girlfriends who will further spread dismay by sticking their tongues in the philosophers' ears every five minutes and looking remote and unattainable to everyone else.
Their leader, Colonel Marc-Ange Belmondo, spoke yesterday of his confidence in the success of their mission. Sorbonne graduate Belmondo, a very intense and unshaven young man in a black pullover, gesticulated wildly and said, "The Taliban are caught in a logical fallacy of the most ridiculous. There is no God and I can prove it. Take your tongue out of my ear, Juliet, I am talking."
Marc-Ange plans to deliver an impassioned thesis on man's nauseating freedom of action with special reference to the work of Foucault and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. However, humanitarian agencies have been quick to condemn the operation as inhumane, pointing out that the effects of passive smoking from the Frenchmen's endless Gitanes could wreak a terrible toll on civilians in the area.
Speculation was mounting last night that Britain may also contribute to the effort by dropping Professor Stephen Hawking into Afghanistan to propagate his non-deistic theory of the creation of the universe.
There should be a role for Richard Dawkins, too, one would think.
March 9, 2002
My friend Becky Thomson sends this link to photographs of a unique tribute to the New York firemen who gave their lives on September 11th. I've reproduced one of the pictures below and urge readers to take a look at the full set.
"The Comfort of Angels", ice sculpture by Darlene Racicot
February 23, 2002
The latest Blog parlor game is the Ethical Philosophy Selector, which, by asking a dozen questions, purports to determine to which famous philosopher of ethics your own views most nearly approximate. For the information of readers, my high scores were -
Aquinas - 100% (no surprise there)
Plato - 95% (also no surprise)
Ayn Rand - 92% (er, I think there's a bug)
As evidence that no two human beings can disagree about everything, I had 25 percent agreement with someone named Nel Noddings, who is described as thinking that "We should look to traditional women's practices as a way of determining our ethics." I was more in agreement with her than with Thomas Hobbes (21%).
February 22, 2002
General Washington receives a committee of Congress at Valley Forge
February 10, 2002
I am just old enough to remember newsreels about the courtship of Princess Margaret, younger sister of the Queen, by dashing Group Captain Peter Townsend and its termination by order of the Cabinet. I didn't grasp the reasons why the Princess could not marry the Captain. But I was only nine years old then. Today nobody can grasp them. That Captain Townsend's divorced status was an impediment to marriage sounds medieval; that Princess Margaret acquiesced in the Cabinet's veto almost Talibanic. We seem to be looking back to an earlier millennium [hmm, as technically we are, but let's not have any nitpicking] when we read that the Archbishop of Canterbury credited Margaret's agreement not to marry to the direct, personal intervention of the Holy Ghost!
Though doubtless unhappy about the decision, Margaret accepted that it was her duty to obey it. She had a high sense of the role of the royal family and was willing to bear the burdens of her position as well as accept its luxuries. She was, in a small sense, a martyr, sacrificing personal happiness for the good of the British constitution.
By the time of her death last week, that sacrifice may well have galled her as bitter and useless. Her nephew, heir to the throne that she sought to safeguard against the slightest taint of dishonor, is divorced himself and openly lives with a divorcée. Immediately after his own divorce, Prince Charles occasionally mused that it was his duty to remain celibate as the price of ascending the throne. Time has worn away that resolution, as he and his concubine move steadily toward an eventual simulacrum of marriage. That a future Head of the Church of England should openly flout its canons is, naturally, not even a petty obstacle.
If monarchs have any role in the world at all these days - and I think that the way in which democracy constantly risks degenerating into petty despotism is an argument that they do - it includes being an exemplar of the highest standards of their realms, a role that is infinitely more important today than it was when Kings played a substantive role in government. If royal persons wish to live and love like ordinary human beings, let them abdicate their titles. There is no reason why Mr. Charles Windsor should not wed the former Mrs. Camilla Parker-Bowes. There is much reason why King Charles III should not take her as a consort.
Princess Margaret understood her duty, and willingly gave up future happiness to it, at age 25. At over twice that age, her nephew does not understand his and is not willing to place it above self-indulgence.
January 30, 2002
Comparing one's enemies to the Taliban is a cheap rhetorical trick, much in vogue these days on the Left (and a few of the less balanced segments of the libertarian Right). The notion seems to be that the only alternatives are unconstrained freedom and limitless oppression, with nothing in between.
Absurd as it is to talk about the "Taliban wing of the Republican Party", Mullah Mohammed Omar and his zealots are not utterly unique in history. An analogous movement once triumphed briefly in normally placid and moderate England, and today is the anniversary of the execution, 353 years ago, of its most prominent victim.
Oliver Cromwell's English Commonwealth had the good fortune to have the same enemies as post-Restoration Whiggery, which anachronistically imputed to the Cromwellians liberal and humane values that they bitterly scorned. The Commonwealth men were less barbarous than the Taliban, but only because they arose in a polity softened by civilization. Their fundamental views of religion and government were strikingly similar to those just overthrown in Afghanistan.
Like the Taliban's Wahhabist creed, 17th century Puritanism rejected the whole tradition of its faith, declaring that everything not laid down in Holy Writ was abominable corruption. Specially corrupt were all celebration, gaiety and art. The Puritans defaced hundreds of churches (just as the Taliban destroyed Buddhist monuments) and forbade "frivolity", from Maypoles to Sunday sports to theatrical performances. If television and the Internet had existed, they would have banned them, too. Spying on neighbors to detect their sins was regarded as virtue.
Politically the Commonwealth was the only dictatorship ever imposed on a significant English-speaking country. The pseudo-Parliament elected in 1641 expelled all dissenters and sat without elections for a decade, until itself disbanded by a tyrant acting explicitly in the name of God. Such political rights as existed were limited to adherents of the tyrant's particular brand of sectarianism. Opposition speech was punished, opposition writing seized and burned.
The traditions of due process of law were tossed away. At the very beginning, the Puritan Parliament revived the long-disused device of the act of attainder and employed it to murder by legislation those - most notably the Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud - whom they could not convict of any crime. By 1649 they had no need to fear that any jury would dare present an unwanted verdict and thus could go through the forms of legal procedure in putting the King to death.
King Charles was no genius at politics or war. Kind-hearted, eager to please, lax as an administrator, shrinking from ruthless deeds, occasionally cunning but rarely clever, he was overmatched by Cromwell. But good causes are not always lucky enough to have equally good leaders. Whatever his weaknesses and faults, Charles died resisting despotism. Speaking from the scaffold, he put his case in a few words: "For the people, and truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsover. But I must tell you, their liberty and freedom consist in having of government those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. . . . It is for this that I am now hither come. If I would have given way to an arbitrary way, to have all laws changed according to the power of the sword, I needed not to have come here. And therefore I say to you, and I pray God that it be not laid to your charge, that I am the martyr of the people."
Carolus rex et martyrus obit hodie et vivit in aeterno.
January 19, 2002
My experiences with on-line merchants' versions of "customer service" may be an aberration, but I've heard enough stories from enough people to suspect that they are not. The "new paradigm" for retail selling evidently includes discarding the archaic maxim that "the customer is always right".
I won't bore my readers by recounting the data underlying this gloomy conclusion, and I doubt that I really need to. The interesting question is why. That Web retailers will occasionally fill orders with the wrong merchandise or ship tardily or bill erroneously billing is inevitable. Bricks-and-mortar stores do the same. The latter, however, when confronted with their mistakes, tend to ooze apologies and try to make correcting the problem as easy as possible for the customer. Once in a while, their eagerness to please seems excessive even to a beneficiary. A couple of years ago, the local Rand McNally store accidentally charged my credit card twice for a purchase. The store discovered and reversed the mistaken charge before I knew about it. In addition, the store manager sent me an apologetic letter accompanied by a ten dollar gift certificate, a third of the value of what I had bought!
Nothing remotely like that ever happens on-line. Is there a reason why selling via the Internet makes customer relations less important?
If an economic explanation exists, figuring it out is beyond my analytical abilities. This may be one of those odd situations in which cultural predispositions are more significant than maximization of utility.
Let us hypothesize that an accommodating attitude toward patrons is simply a custom, one that adds nothing to, or conceivably subtracts from, the bottom line. One can see how the custom might not carry over to Internet transactions. The manager of the Rand McNally store sees his customers' faces. He can mingle with and talk to them. While his acquaintance with any individual customer is very limited, he is likely to develop some degree of empathy with customers in general, leading him to be quick to deal with their dissatisfactions.
To the Internet merchant, by contrast, customers are nearly invisible. His computer tells him that such-and-such an item is to be dispatched to this-or-that address. He probably never sees the merchandise, much less the buyer. The whole process is more like accounting than retailing. Complaints are routed to a staff of twenty-somethings who know nothing about the business beyond what shows up on their computer screens. All of the contact that might give rise to empathy is gone.
Being in the customer class, I naturally would like to be treated better, but economic analysis should put ask only whether it is in the merchant's interest to be nice to me. One can argue that "the customer is always right" is a prejudice that reduces overall utility and that the New Economy operates more efficiently (and thus more to customers' ultimate benefit) by dispensing with it.
On the other side of the ledger, it is conceivable that customer service, though reinforced and routinized by habit, produces net economic benefits for the seller as well as the buyer. If that is the case, Internet sellers suffer from their weakness in this area. Moreover, to the extent that good customer service is a by-product of personal contact, they will have trouble improving.
As competition between the store front and on-line models of retailing grows more intense, whichever one has the right idea about the economic value of customer service will gain a dollars-and-cents advantage. Will Amazon.com, which has no qualms about insulting customers, triumph over Borders, which lets them read books for free while sipping espresso? Will the solicitous clerks at Nordstrom's give their employer a decisive edge over customer-indifferent NetMarket? We shall see.
January 9, 2002
This evening, as I came home from work, I passed a young woman walking her cat. She led the small animal on a leash attached to a harness that passed underneath its chest. A collar leash is perhaps not practical for a feline neck and head. Though it was difficult to judge at a glance, the cat showed no sign of discontent with its unnatural lot.
The sight startled me, albeit not as much as would the appearance of dog chops on a restaurant menu, and led to reflections about why "unnatural" was the first adjective that sprang to mind.
A cat on a leash is not "unnatural" in the same sense as a cat with wings, nor could the most precisionist animal rights crusader detect the slightest hint of cruelty or abuse. So, why shouldn't young ladies walk their cats? Wasn't my feeling of "unnaturalness" mere cultural conditioning and therefore to be cast aside?
Cultural relativism is less appealing, however, when one contemplates eating puppies. Yet, why not? Only a few crazed eccentrics have qualms about consuming veal or lamb, and dog meat is popular fare throughout much of Asia. Undoubtedly, more people regularly eat dogs than have ever taken a cat for an evening walk.
On the subject of whether we should be - ummm - canivores, our civilization seems to have imposed on us a judgement that has almost the force of a moral law, despite the fact that it cannot be defended by any ordinary moral reasoning as a universal commandment. All of the arguments that I can formulate for the immorality of dog eating would have to rest on some notion of the equality of species, a principle whose advocates have reduced it to a reductio ad absurdam. (The most eminent of them, Professor Singer of Princeton, starts by empathizing with maltreated piglets and ends by seeing nothing wrong with infanticide. "By their fruits ye shall know them.")
On reflection, it is not too hard to see why a 21st Century American feels that certain ways of treating animals are, in some sense, right and others wrong. Animals have distinct images in our society. Dogs are faithful companions, "man's best friend". Cats are independent, domestic only on their own terms. Horses are loyal servants. Cattle are food. These images are, without doubt, culturally conditioned, and they could, within certain biological limits, be different. Indeed, they are different in other lands and times. The Chinese classify dogs, and the French horses, as food animals, while the Hindus view cattle as sacred.
Do these variations mean that our feelings of rightness about the animal world are meaningless? That I doubt. The roles of the different species may not be inevitable, but they also are not arbitrary. They are the product of historical relationships. To take a simple example, the American revulsion against horsemeat reflects the importance of the horse in the opening of the frontier. Horses rank just after dogs in our collective esteem, so that using them as food seems like brutal ingratitude. The attitude of Europeans used to be the same, for parallel reasons. During the Middle Ages, canon law declared horse flesh to be a forbidden food, the only food taboo in the entire history of Christendom. The Church quietly dropped the prohibition, which of course cannot be reconciled with Scripture, but Europeans generally did not eat horses, save in times of desperate famine, until rationalist French governments in the mid-19th Century set to work to overturn that "superstition".
But does a feeling gain any authority over us just because it is rooted in the development of our civilization? I think that there are good arguments in favor of that not necessarily intuitive proposition.
First, according animals their traditional, historical roles is a way of respecting our own history, and ignoring those traditions cuts us off, to some extent, from our origins. People babble sentimentally about the importance of "roots". Here are real roots. Without them, we are free-floating leaves blown about on not necessarily gentle winds.
Second, gratitude is a good and ennobling emotion, and we display it toward animals by maintaining our relationships toward them. That does not apply just to dogs and horses, whom we thank for their ancestors' labors by granting the present generation semi-human privileges. It is just as true of the cattle whom we raise for meat. If we did not do that, if we all became vegetarians or, for that matter, developed a passion for horsemeat, a cattle population now in the tens of millions would dwindle to a few zoo specimens. Would we then be proud of ourselves?
Third, cohabitation with other species adds variety and delight to the world, but we cannot enjoy their company unless they are in large measure stereotyped. If dogs were as individual as human beings, we would not know how to approach any particular dog and ultimately would shun them. A society in which a cat might, at whim, be a trained pet, an untrained pet, an object of worship or a source of sustenance would be confusing to men and not necessarily comfortable to cats. Treating culture-bound traditions as if they were moral rules promotes the necessary stereotyping, although we must, of course, remember that "Thou shalt not eat canines" is not on the same level as "Honor thy father and thy mother".
The leashed cat was "unnatural", then, because it took away from the animal its historically independent position, the position that enabled its forebears to carry out their duties as guardians of our forbears' homes against pests, and also eroded, admittedly to a tiny degree, the stereotype of felinity. Thus it both displayed ingratitude toward the cats of the past and lessened the quality of life of those yet to be born. The offense was minuscule - much less than a "dram of eale" - and not worth noticing except as the starting point for more general reflections. One could even call the young lady's conduct a charming eccentricity that, so long as it remains eccentric, does its own bit for variety and delight. Had she been munching on the creature, however, my reaction might be less charitable.