Awareness of the needs and interests of others is in all religions and ethical philosophies considered a virtue. We may extend that awareness into empathy with the situation of others. Not hurting or insulting others is obviously an ethical directive too.
Now, awareness of and empathy with the needs of others gets itself also called “sensitivity”, but here lurks a very dangerous double meaning. For sensitivity has also meant a prickly amour-propre of the kind that impelled past aristocrats to avenge imaginary insults in blood. Something of the same mentality is found in the modern gangbanger who does not permit himself to be dissed, minus of course the aristocrat’s good manners.
Now, if we urge ourselves to be sensitive to the needs of others, this is accounted a good deed; but that does not mean that urging ourselves to greater sensitivity to our own needs is equally virtuous. Above all, if a man cultivates sensitivity to slights, putting everything under the microscope to magnify the alleged offences of others, this is not the same thing at all and not a good deed. It is united with ethical considerateness only through the word itself, for which alternatives are in fact available.
The danger, of course, is that obsessive sensitivity to imagined slights may hitch a ride on its homophone, sensitivity to the needs and interests of others, and so put in a thumb and pull out a plum and say “What a good boy am I!” Well, no, you’re not. I do not, however, expect to live long enough to see humanity come to its senses and say so.
Done in Bergen
(Fiddle date-stamp to September 5, 2009)
In: The Offence Kleptomaniacs, WHAT WOULD MS. GRUNDY SAY?
I was probably somewhat unusual in the way the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq made me immediately flash on the Fourth Crusade. This crusade, like the others called subsequent to Saladin’s recapture of Jerusalem in 1187, was intended to recapture it back. The method was to be an attack on Egypt, the financial heart of Saladin’s power. Whether what actually happened was premeditated all along, when and by whom, is an open question.
First of all, most of the Crusades were purely entrepreneurial ventures. No states stood behind them; the warriors paid their way and might recoup their expenses with loot and lordships in the East, or might go bust. The leaders of this particular one found themselves facing a huge transport bill from the Venetians, which had been negotiated as a flat fee in the expectation of far greater numbers than actually answered the call. The Venetians demanded as part-payment that the Crusaders should aid them in retaking Zara, a Dalmatian city that had gone back and forth between Venice and Hungary all the preceding century.
In the background was lurking a young man called Prince Alexius, the son of a deposed Byzantine emperor, who had escaped to the West and joined the court of a Swabian magnate. This Philip, his brother-in-law, was contending for the throne of the Western Roman Emperor. Another member of this circle was Boniface, the leader of the Crusade. While the fleet wintered at Zara, the three of them discussed diverting the Crusade to Constantinople, so as to impose “regime change” and make Alexius’s father emperor again. The rich Byzantine empire would then pay off the Venetian debt and provide additional troops, ships and subsidies, thus refinancing and saving the crusade, which would sail happily onward to Egypt and the reconquest of Jerusalem.
It seemed like a win-win, but was actually an example of a delusion that has afflicted rulers probably since the Pharoahs – the dream of a war that would pay for itself. The Bush version was set forth in the think-tank programme known as Project for a New American Century, whereby an American-ruled Middle East would be financed by the resources of the countries themselves and cost the taxpayer little or nothing. For Alexius Angelus read Ahmed Chalabi, the self-promoting would-be American client ruler. Exiled politicians have been inflating their claims and their domestic support probably since the Pharoahs again, but it is the job of the host country to scrutinise these claims and think independently about the situation, which neither the Crusade leaders nor the Americans appear to have done.
It all ended in tears. The crusade fleet arrived, there was no insurrection in favour of Alexius, but a nasty little war, which led to a big chunk of Constantinople burning down. The crusaders did succeed in finally installing him, but the obviousness of his clienthood in itself provoked a nationalist reaction, and there was another nasty little war, resulting in more destruction, the brutal sack of Europe’s premier city and the disintegration of the Empire into assorted Greek and Western-ruled fiefdoms. It has been said that the Crusaders dealt with the whole polity like selling off the individual parts of a fine watch; hardly surprising that it never ran again properly. Sound familiar?
In the long run, the West had contrived to destroy the major bulwark between themselves and the Muslim powers, leading to Suleyman’s siege of Vienna and many centuries of Ottoman rule over the Balkans. Whose Christian subjects have to this day, eight hundred years later, never forgotten or forgiven. It remains to be seen whether the effects of the “self-financing” Bush-Blair venture will last as long.
Done in Bergen
(Fiddle date-stamp to July 13, 2010)
In: RESISTANCE IS FUTILE!, The World-Empire and the Terrorists
Idries Shah, I think it is, tells the story of a Sufi master invited to the Sultan’s banquet. Dressed as a beggar, he is refused entry by the servants. So he changes into his finest clothes and is then invited to sit in the place of honour. In the middle of the feast, he starts rubbing the food into his clothes. And when the Sultan demands an explanation, he says, “You do such honour to my clothing, it seems only appropriate that it take part in the feast.”
In: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Fine Feathers
There is undoubtedly such a thing as “hate speech”. When the Interahamwe conducted saturation broadcasting about the Tutsi as “cockroaches” that ought to be killed, and they were indeed killed in their hundreds of thousands, we have ourselves a paradigm for accurate use of the phrase. But, just as the meaning of “Nazi” degenerated from genocidal maniacs to uptight and controlling persons (viz. Seinfeld’s soup nazi), so too has “hate speech” expanded from stuff like the Interahamwe rantings to anything you don’t like because it is critical of you and yours, i.e., fails to provide the requisite narcissistic supply. Like, probably, my blog. This is not progress.
Done in Bergen
(Fiddle date stamp to November 26, 2011)
In: Mrs Grundy, Miscellaneous, WHAT WOULD MS. GRUNDY SAY?
Just as all Britons can quote Shakespeare, even unintentionally, all Danes and Norwegians know clips from Erasmus Montanus, a play by the 18th-century dramatist Ludvig Holberg, who is by no means part of the heritage of English-speakers. If nothing else, Danes and Norwegians know the bit about his mother being a stone.
For the play is a satire of academic pretensions. Farmer’s son Rasmus Berg goes to study in Copenhagen and comes back with his name translated into Latin, as was indeed common in those days. He is now a total fool in ordinary life, and all he wants to do is to “dispute”, that is, to perpetrate sophistries on the innocent farmers. A stone cannot fly, he says, Mother Nille cannot fly, ergo Mother Nille is a stone. This is the “Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle”, known to be a logical howler for more then two thousand years but nevertheless still encountered in political debate every day.
In the play, Mother Nille is so impressed that she starts to lose sensation in her legs, but let us hope that in reality even eighteenth-century farmers could rebut the fallacy in their own words. It makes me wonder, however, what the Berg parents had expected to get out of it all. After all, young Rasmus had not run away to Copenhagen, he had been sent there and paid for. Doubtless they expected he would return as a suitable candidate for official employment very much in the Chinese manner. In the meantime, the parents would garner social status from having Rasmus at university, just like my own did.
I do not know the piece well enough to say whether Holberg regarded these as proper motivations, undone only by the actual nature of the so-called tuition, or whether he thought that the annoying idiot who came home served them jolly well right for their deference.
Done in Bergen
(Fiddle date-stamp to August 19, 2011)
In: PARENTAL STATUS TECHNOLOGY, PST Miscellaneous
Once upon a time an activist invited onto the Oprah Winfrey Show informed the audience that “squaw” was an Algonquin Indian word meaning vagina. If this were true, to use this phoneme as a generic for Native American women would be unconscionable, and much frantic respelling and renaming ensued.
But it’s not true. The serious linguists insist that “squaw” was borrowed as early as 1621 from Proto-Algonquian *eθkwe·wa, in that language meaning simply “young woman”. Although Algonquian linguists and historians have rejected the activist’s etymology, it continues to be repeated by journalists, not least by Oprah Winfrey herself. It would be a shame to waste a good story.
What do we take away from this? That scholarship and decades of study are utterly useless in the face of an uneducated person with a grievance, who may have her blessedly indignant fantasy, just plucked from the air, canonised by an emotion-cultivating billionaire. Science? Game over. Just wait until she finds some telegenic victim with a beef against Planck’s Constant.
In: RESISTANCE IS FUTILE!, The Great War on Brains (GWOB)
Whatever evolution thought it was doing when it created the hymen, a question on which the jury is still out, one of the actual functions of virginity is to reward the man who possesses a certain ruthlessness in the face of female distress. One might wonder whether there is some sort of link between this reward mechanism and women’s tendency to say, about sex, the opposite of what they really mean, so that the man who listens to what they say and acts accordingly is punished and the man who ignores what they say wins the prize.
(Fiddle date-stamp to May 12, 2013, midday)
In: Specialising In Emotion, TOWARDS AN INTELLIGENT MISOGYNY
Once upon a time much English land was common, which meant that all the peasants of a community had a right to use it – for grazing, and for many purposes other than digging and growing, as the medieval economy was by no means a monoculture. Then came the Enclosure Acts, whereby former common land became the property of the big landlord and were fenced off. Without access to the commons, many peasant holdings were no longer viable, and the people migrated to the cities to become the proletariat.
What is happening now is not a precise equivalent, as the whole concept of common rights in the means of production has long been as dead as the dodo. On the other hand, the sequestration of public or state property, originally created out of taxes on all, to become the assets of the well-connected has been a major theme of the late twentieth century. Driving peasants off the land to become factory workers is not relevant, as modern factory work is to be done on the other side of the world. The former producers do not migrate, but are intended to stay and rot where they are; there is no real idea of what to do about a desperate and angry proletariat after the remnants of welfare have been withdrawn to finance tax cuts and subsidies for the magnates. In this way the latest enclosers are far more short-sighted than their eighteenth-century forbears.
Another aspect common to both phenomena, however, may be the notion that seizing the property of others is okay when done on a very, very large scale and by people who claim to be “the economy”. Steal a hundred pounds and you are a thief, steal a hundred million and you are a financier. We might do well to remember a folk ditty from the former period:
They hang the man, and flog the woman,
That steals the goose from off the common;
But let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose.
Done in Bergen
(Fiddle date-stamp to July 12, 2009)
In: RESISTANCE IS FUTILE!, The Age of Enron-cence
In Dostoyevsky’s “Idiot”, the self-contemptuous femme fatale, Nastasya Filippovna, puts herself up for auction among her admirers. The wretched obsessive Rogozhin offers his entire wealth, which she ultimately throws into the fire.
Dostoyevskian women generally keep their men on a string with vain hopes, bombarding them with wildly contradictory self-revelations and demands, but even if we attribute this to misogyny on his part, what shall we make of his male characters who dance on those strings? At least a man would probably have performed whatever he promised in return for 100,000 roubles; she is in breach of contract but no one even points this out.
Before we consider Nastasya Filippovna merely an exotic Russian type, we might remember Swann’s Odette. The key to the fictional demimondaine, as reported by her lovers, is being impossible to please, and capriciousness appears to elicit a strange kind of Pavlovian response in certain men. If there be anything in the male soul that really does respond to utterly unreasonable behaviour with obsessive cathexis, we would do well to embark on a programme of identification, study and ruthless uprooting of this something, starting yesterday.
Done in Bergen
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Hark, I Hear The Canon Roar!
A certain advertising slogan, while harmless enough in itself, made me pull up and think. This was because it so exemplified a general emphasis on consumer choice that these days seems intense to the point of self-parody and beyond. Any cup you drink, either regularly or just now, is your “cup of choice”; for you have chosen it, and if it weren’t your cup of choice you would be drinking something else. Duh. Why does it need to be so stressed, as if you have hitherto spent your life with only one thing to drink, or with someone else telling you what to drink? (The former possibility is not as silly as it sounds: for many decades Israel produced only one kind of toothpaste, one kind of anything, as befitted a small country under siege. Foreigners in the USA are so flabbergasted by the number of identical but competing goods that they may discover a puritan or frontier-socialist streak they didn’t know they had.) Examples can be multiplied: practically every product screams at us that we have a choice, almost as if we did not quite believe it otherwise.
Well, perhaps we didn’t. What is to be corrected may be the lack of choice we have in most other departments of life, like in any meaningful way choosing our national governance. We are invited to vote, but only with the proviso that anyone non-standard is unelectable, and even if he were to be elected, the “economy” would collapse. Just how an economy collapses is never explained, the phrase seems to mean a slight reduction in the profits of the people making that proviso. Not only choosing our governance, but buying quality products, getting honest service, being protected by the police in return for our taxes, receiving truthful news – the list of areas in which we are passive objects with no choice goes on and on. Small wonder, therefore, if those who want what money we have left make such a song and dance about our “cup of choice” ¬– which beverage to drink is about all we have left.
Done in Bergen
(Fiddle date-stamp to May 8, 2012)