Friday, November 25, 2016

Reading is a Vaccination Against Questionable Ideas

The world is filled with bad ideas and bad belief systems. There are also a lot of valid ideas that are taken too far, or applied when not appropriate.  Though there is enormous variation on what reasonable folks consider bad ideas, there is a consensus among most rational and ethical people that some ideas and ideologies are downright toxic. Nazism and Stalinism are a few clear- cut examples. Though I would add a long list of much less extreme belief systems to the list of belief systems that I fundamentally agree with, this post is not about delimiting which ideologies are better then others.  Instead it is about how reading books, especially a selection of books that include a diversity of ideas, even untenable ideas, can help vaccinate the mind against falling prey to bad ideas or misapplying good ideas.

This concept can work on all sorts of levels. A simple example is illustrated relating to reading about totalitarianism.  Reading history about the rise of Nazism, Stalinism as well lesser know tyrannies can encourage a healthy wariness to certain popular movements with authoritarian undertones. Likewise readng fiction like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty - Four fiction or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We provides us with parables that help keep us keep alert to tyrannical ideologies. Likewise, works such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky Demons can give us insights into less obviously dangerous and less far sweeping fanaticism. In turn reading about Democratic ideals espoused by thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson can provide a strong counterbalance to totalitarian thought. 

Many people, including myself, believe that what is rising  in America is a form if totalitarianism. Much of our arguments are propelled by the above mentioned, and other, books. Some folks disagree with us. I find that some of  best counter arguments are themselves driven by the ideas contained in other books. 

One can take this concept further. Reading books written by a diverse set of thinkers who present us with a smorgasbord of ideas can teach us to reject and question certain ideas from otherwise insightful people who may have certain ideas that we choose not to accept.  Friedrich Nietzsche is a good example of this. I find some of his ideas extremely astute and useful, particularly his criticism of popular culture and conformity of thought. 

However his theory, as spelled out in On the Geneology of Morals, of  “Master and Slave Morality”, where he rejected values such as “Good” and “Pity” and he dismissed the concept of equality are ideas that I do not accept. Armed with a knowledge of thinkers who extolled values that Nietzsche excoriated, ranging from Plato, the writers of The New Testament, RenĂ© Descartes to modern day theorists such as Steven Pinker, my mind is buttressed with counterarguments. Even if one is in agreement with Nietzsche on this issue, the point remains the same; Knowledge of contrasting viewpoints can prepare us to examine and reject belief systems that otherwise seem appealing. 

Likewise Nietzsche’s critique of morals allows us to examine and apprise all the thinkers that I mentioned above in a different critical light. Even good ideas benefit from examination and critical scrutiny. Acceptance of an idea or belief system is vastly stronger after one has considered counter arguments and still chooses the embrace the criticized system. Just knowing that there are other ideas and belief systems out there can be very valuable. 

There are also cases where valid belief systems run into trouble.  A herd mentality sets in and dissention and contrary views become demonized. For example, lately many have expressed concern that some elements of modern social justice movements are descending into extremism and intolerance of even slightly dissenting views. Dedicated members of these movements themselves have raised some of these apprehensions. Examining this situation from a point of view of someone who has read about historical Left wing overreach, both from Leftist dictatorships and from radical movements, provides a context to question these excesses.  A careful examination, partially through reading, of both Liberal and Conservative ideas yields good ideas from both sides. Such reading can also brings to light criticism of concepts that group pressure might otherwise discourage. Thus I am questioning what I think are some very illiberal trends increasingly emanating out of the Left. I think that that this example is valid regardless what one’s views are on these issues as this concept applies to many other situations. It is that reading helps us to question ideas and belief systems, even if they come from directions that one is usually sympathetic to. 

Being exposed to a wide range of ideas immunizes us in a way. We are not so easily seduced to arguments that appeal to our emotions, focus on limited aspects of truth, or turn insight into dogma. Being well read provides us with armor when delving into the conflicts involving ideas. It also protects us from blindly accepting bad ideas that may be part of otherwise worthy belief systems. 

I have provided just a few examples above. One could write volumes about the value of reading diverse and conflicting opinions. The marketplace of human ideas is as vast as it is rich. A sampling of multiple products from this market provides one with intellectual balance and understanding that cannot be achieved any other way. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

State of Siege

Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States. This post is not about the complex reasons for this unprecedented event in  human history. It is about the potential consequences. 

The operative word here is uncertainty. While I would  consider a Right Wing government a terribly harmful development, if that is the only result of this event I would consider that a consequence of democratic process that one could live with. Though an inexperienced President is also extremely undesirable thing in a dangerous world, I also consider that the price that a democracy sometimes needs to pay. 

We will be lucky if the above were the worst of it. The United States is a military, economic and social power the like of which the world has never seen. Donald Trump, from the best that I can tell is a manipulative abuser. He may be a sociopath. He is an extremely dangerous man. His movement is similarly  malevolent.  

As a result of this event American Democracy is threatened. There is reason to believe that our basic civil liberties may come under siege. Even worse, as he is dangerously reckless and unprepared for the job, we face the increased chance of a nuclear war. Economic chaos and perhaps collapse is another potential consequence of these events. There are numerous other potential horrendous outcomes that may result from this potential calamity. 

In short my nation is threatened. Our global civilization is threatened. Perhaps we are even threatened as a species. Every human being on this planet is threatened. I fear for everyone's future. I fear for everyone I know, and everyone I do not know. 

Up until this time I have been more or less been an optimist about the future of humanity. Though I am not without hope I now fear that my optimism may have been misplaced. I am not unaware of the reliance of post - industrial democracies. I am not unaware of the good that exists in the world. However, at this moment  it seems like those things may become easily overwhelmed. 

At this moment thinking about the future is difficult. I am not sure what the future of this blog holds. Given the current situation it is hard to imagine just going back to blogging about books. Though it is perhaps far fetched, I also am concerned that those who speak out about Trumpism may find their families under threat.

The world seems like very dark place right now.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Several book bloggers read this novel as part of a read-along. The link to our discussion can be found here. The read - along is part of the Witch Week reading event which celebrates fantasy books and authors. More posts that are part of the event can be found hereThanks to Lory at The Emerald City Book Review for hosting.

 I read Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury twice as a teenager, but it has been decades since I had last read this work. I found this to be a superb book the first time that I read it, and I still do.  It works both as a fantastical adventure as well a philosophical romp into the mysteries of life

The story is set in a small American Midwestern town. The protagonists are two 13-year-old boys, William (Will) Halloway and James (Jim) Nightshade. Will’s father, 52-year-old Charles Halloway, the janitor at the local library, also plays a major role in the story. 

Early in the narrative, the boys’ world is disturbed when a traveling carnival comes to town. All sorts of strange and sinister happenings begin to occur. The carnival is owned and staffed by various malevolent characters including Mr. Dark and Mr. Cooger, the two bizarre leaders of the group. The attractions include a strange mirror maze that traps people and shows them images of their older selves, as well as a carousel that is capable of making a person younger or older, depending upon which direction it runs in. These odd attractions play a major part in both the plot and the themes of the book.

Eventually, various town residents begin to disappear or are transformed in ghastly ways. As Will and Jim get closer to the carnival’s mysteries, Mr. Dark and his minions begin to hunt the boys. 

The story is dreamlike and surreal. There is an alternate sense of wonder at the Universe itself and an ominous sense of evil and malice coming from the carnival and from the people associated with it. Bradbury’s prose is often poetic throughout his works. That is very true here. 

What I love about Bradbury’s writing is encapsulated in the below quotation.  When the boys enter the library, their sense of wonder is described. 

“Out in the world, not much happened. But here in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. Listen! and you heard ten thousand people screaming so high only dogs feathered their ears. A million folk ran toting cannons, sharpening guillotines; Chinese, four abreast, marched on forever. Invisible, silent, yes, but Jim and Will had the gift of ears and noses as well as the gift of tongues. This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered. Up front was the desk where the nice old lady. Miss Watriss, purple-stamped your books, but down off away were Tibet and Antarctica, the Congo. There went Miss Wills, the other librarian, through Outer Mongolia, calmly toting fragments of Peiping and Yokohama and the Celebes. Way down the third book corridor, an oldish man whispered his broom along in the dark, mounding the fallen spices....”

I am aware that some find Bradbury’s style not to their liking, but the above exemplifies why I like his writing.  I find it both whimsical and serious at the same time. This prose seems poetic. The above quotation also illustrates Bradbury’s wonder and awe of books and what they contain. The way that the above is connected to Charles, who is the “oldish man,” is also elegant. 

The book is also full of philosophical and metaphysical musings that come both from the 3rd person narration and characters. Charles Halloway is the book’s philosopher and seems to be the voice of Bradbury. 

I first read this book way back when I was around the age of Will and Jim. I particularly related to the world that the boys came from. The setting is of the book is similar to that in which I grew up in. I am now three years short of Charles’s age. One of the major themes of this work also centers upon aging. Thus, the experience of rereading this book now, is striking for me. 

The themes of life, death, aging, happiness, good and evil are examined in all sorts of complex ways within this work. Like many good books of this sort, I could explore the characters, themes and philosophy in a series of blog posts.

I want to devote a few words to the examination of the nature of good. In this passage, Charles Halloway speculates on the origin of goodness and love in humanity. 

“I suppose one night hundreds of thousands of years ago in a cave by a night fire when one of those shaggy men wakened to gaze over the banked coals at his woman, his children, and thought of their being cold, dead, gone forever. Then he must have wept. And he put out his hand in the night to the woman who must die some day and to the children who must follow her. And for a little bit next morning, he treated them somewhat better, for he saw that they, like himself, had the seed of night in them. He felt that seed like slime in his pulse, splitting, making more against the day they would multiply his body into darkness. So that man, the first one, knew what we know now: our hour is short, eternity is long. With this knowledge came pity and mercy, so we spared others for the later, more intricate, more mysterious benefits of love.” 

In the above quote, several themes that are repeated multiple times in this book are encapsulated. First, the idea that goodness and love originate with empathy is illustrated here. Also, it is the specter of death that motivates us to be good. The despair driven by the potential end of life generates positive emotions, such as pity and mercy and, in the end, love.

Later on these ideas are further developed in several passages. At one point Charles observes, 

“we share this billion-mile-an-hour ride. We have common cause against the night. You start with little common causes.

I think that Bradbury is on to something here. Though not the sole source of human goodness, empathy towards others is, in my opinion, one of the key components to human virtue. As Stephen Pinker pointed out in his The Better Angels of Our Nature, peoples’ tendency to become more empathetic to one another is one of the leading factors driving humanity’s improvement. 

Similar explorations of evil, as well as of aging, the power of books, life and death are also contained within these pages. This book is full of ideas.  

This novel is a modern fable. On one level, it is an atmospheric and poetic adventure tale of young boys encountering supernatural horror. On another level, it is a philosophical journey into life and the Universe. I have only scratched the surface on the philosophical musings above. It is a tale that can be enjoyed and pondered by readers of all ages. As the story concerns itself with time and aging, readers who experienced it while young might find it particularly enlightening if, like myself, they read it again when older. It is ultimately, a fantastic book.