AN ALIEN PERSPECTIVE

 

Three score and eight years ago I landed on this planet, but I think it might have been from another one. I say this because I understand so little of why humans think as they do, and they seem to understand even less of why I think as I do. So that my cognitive apparatus wasn’t naturally selected for for living on this planet seems a not unreasonable hypothesis.

Where I think the stork was meant to drop me was a place as “red in tooth and claw” as this one, both between and within species, but where people with common cause knew it and acted accordingly. Here people seem to know when they have common cause, but they seem incapable of joint action even when such action is risk-free and guaranteed to win them the day.

It could be that what they’re afraid of is not failure but success. We don’t need to storm the Bastille and behead the tyrant. A critical mass of us could bring down a malfeasant government, be it of a nation or a village or a university, by simply withdrawing uptake to its authority. But if we do we’re worried that others might deploy the same surefire tactic against us. And so there’s an unwritten understanding that we won’t do this to each other.

If this is right, and I suspect it is, it’s a fascinating – I won’t say departure, so I’ll just say – twist in the logic of social evolution. It places stability ahead of virtually every other value, including prosperity, justice, even survival. Think of the hundreds of thousands who, even when the war was clearly lost, walked upright into volley after volley of Soviet artillery because the Fuhrer told them to. Think of our own policemen who, knowing full well that the law was unconscionable, nevertheless felt it their duty to arrest some acne-ed kid for enjoying a spliff in the park.

“Ours is not to reason why …” And yet I would have thought it is.

On the planet where I think I come from, we don’t march on the capitol or city hall or the Dean’s office demanding that he step down. We just all act as if he has. What can he do? Yes, he can appeal to due process. But to suppose due process is going to shield him from our indifference presupposes we’re not indifferent to what process is due. But we are, at least when it cease to do what it’s there for. It’s almost as if Germany had won the war

Another thing I don’t understand is why people think every question is a rhetorical one. I made the mistake of wondering aloud how 9/11 could’ve been an inside job with nary a one of the hundreds who’d have had to have been involved spilling the beans, and for my troubles I was dubbed a paid defender of the official story. Mind you, the same 9/11-Truther who’d reasoned this way about me got his own comeuppance recently when he asked a question about the Shoah and found himself written up in the newspapers as a Holocaust denier. So I suppose what goes around comes around.

On the planet where I think I come from, if the sentence is an interrogative we’re not asserting anything, we’re asking a question. By contrast, when we want to assert something we make it a declarative. I figured out fairly early on in my sojourn here how rhetorical questions function in human speech. But what I can’t figure out is how humans go about asking a question to which they don’t pretend to already have the answer. Is it possible that so many questions remain unanswered on this planet because no way has been found to ask them?

If this is right – and I think it might be – then this would explain why people can’t seem to get their shit together about global warming, or vaccination safety, or any of a hundred other challenges to the survival of the species. Solutions require answers to questions. But if no question can be asked without coming across as already having the answer, then no new answers can be forthcoming. Wouldn’t it be a cosmic embarrassment if the human race rendered itself extinct because of a grammatical trope? Grist indeed for Douglas Adams, though sadly he’s no longer with us.

I could go on, so I will.

There’s a South Park episode in which there’s a plane crash, and the deceased are being processed through the Pearly Gates. One of them asks which religion got it right. The presiding official checks his clipboard and, looking very surprised himself, announces, “The Mormons. Now who would have guessed that?!”

Well, as a matter of fact the Mormons did get it right. But after visiting the New World, Jesus went on to the one I now remember I do come from. He came, we chatted, and, not unlike what He did when He was here, on His way out to His next appointment He graced us with the set of rules it was His Father’s wish that we henceforth live by.

It’s not that we didn’t read them. In fact we agreed with the ones that were analytic. For example, “Thou shalt not kill,” He told us.

Ever? we asked.

“Well no, not when you should.”

And when is that?

“Well, that’s something you’re going to have to work out among yourselves.”

So you’re telling us we shouldn’t kill when we think we shouldn’t kill. Is that it? Yeah, I guess we could manage that.

But some of the more substantive ones we thought were patently ridiculous. I shouldn’t lie with a man as with a women? But what if I want to?

“No, that’s gross.”

Have you looked at some of the women some of us sleep with?

So to make a long story short, we asked Jesus to thank his Dad for His kind counsel, and carried on as we had before.

But when I got here, people seemed to think that this kind counsel was somehow incumbent upon us, as if someone Who’d never shared an incarnate life with other incarnate creatures knew something we didn’t know, notwithstanding we’ve had thousands of years of experience to inform our judgments.

I just don’t get it. I’m not sure that even God gets it. I think why any of us would think we need to comport ourselves to His druthers is as much a mystery to Him as it was to my people back where I now remember I came from. But people here, thinking the answer is too self-evident to articulate, have forgotten what it is.

This happens a lot among the Earthlings. It’s like having the name of that actor on the tip of your tongue, but …

That you can google. But I’ve tried googling why I should want God to make me an instrument of His will, and all I get is a do-you-mean “Make me an instrument of Thy will,” followed by millions of sites offering to pray with me, and millions more offering to pray for me. I especially appreciate the latter. It is a much-needed service. Many of us are too busy to pray for ourselves. But for all that, not one of these sites seems to understand my question, let alone tries to answer it.

So there you have it. Just three of what are hundreds of disconnects between me and those of you who’ve been kind enough to host me lo these last three score years and eight.

I knew you’d ask, and so yes, I have called home, and I’ve been assured I will be picked up in the fullness of time. In the fullness of time, they said. In the fullness of time. What the hell does in the fullness of time mean?!

THINGS THAT DON’T BEAR THINKING ABOUT

 

There are certain thought experiments that ought not to be performed. Here’s one:

Does the visceral reaction we all have about the Shoah – and by ‘all’ I mean we Jews and you Gentiles alike – have a best-before date? I’m thinking it does. And I don’t think it will be any later for Jews than for Gentiles.

It seems to me there are two elements to the Shoah that have been doing all the heavy lifting. These are its pathos and its injustice. With respect to the former, the Anne Frank diary is designed to remind us that these were all people like you and me.

But hold on. So were the victims of Mount Vesuvius.

Ah, but that was almost two thousand years ago.

And almost two thousand years hence won’t the Shoah be almost two thousand years ago? Masada was almost two thousand years ago. We might think it tells us something different than does Jonestown. But do any of us feel its pathos?

Then how ‘bout the Shoah’s injustice? These were all the victims of an injustice beyond human comprehension.

But hold on. So were the Amalekites. Moreover, if systematicity adds to the horror of an injustice, wasn’t the Amalekite genocide just as systematic?

So once again it would appear that time heals all wounds, be they inflicted on the ancestors of others or on our own.

When people die they need to be buried. But on a finite planet from time to time cemeteries have to be emptied and turned over to the more recently departed. And it’s likewise with memorials, regardless of what they memorialize. Shoah memorials sit atop some pretty pricey real estate. I give the ones in Berlin and Washington another fifty years tops. I give Yad Vashem even less. Why? Because when we run out of Palestinian land to expropriate to our own uses – and that day is rapidly approaching – we’ll have to reassign our own land to something more productive than commemorating our grievances.

There is no Italian who can trace her roots back to the Colloseum, nor can any modern day Greek lay claim to the Parthenon. Picture a grammar school field trip to the Alamo a thousand years from now. How many of these kids will identify with a bunch of white men who died fighting to ensure Texas would remain a slave state?

In many jurisdictions it’s a criminal offense to question the historicity of the Shoah. 1500 years after the fact it still made sense to Torquemada to burn at the stake anyone who questioned the historicity of the Empty Tomb. So maybe a hundred years hence revisionism will still be in the German Criminal Code. But I doubt it. Not unlike asserting the Armenian Genocide in Turkey, the criminalization of historical revisionism is a political gesture, and politics is never static.

As I say, these are the kinds of things that don’t bear thinking about. Not only are we cheapened by what we end up thinking about them; we’re cheapened by our thinking about them at all. This didn’t bear thinking about. So let’s not.

THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE WORLD

Once upon a time – or outside of it, if we’re to have it Boethius’ way – having nothing else to do, God decided to conjure in His mind all the worlds He could bring into being were He so inclined. (By a ‘world’, at least at this planning stage, is meant that set of propositions that would be true of a world if God decided to make it.) Then having made a print-out of each, He began picking them up pairwise, keeping the one He preferred and consigning the other to the trash.

In virtue of what He preferred this one over that one shall forever remain a mystery to us. But that plays no part in this story. All that matters is that at the end of the day He held in His hand the one He most preferred. And then, still having nothing else to do, He brought it into being.

How He brought it into being shall forever remain a mystery to us. But that too plays no part in this story.

That’s Leibniz’ story and he’s stickin’ to it. And as the setup to my story, so am I. So here’s my story.

Sometime later – though how much later is what this is all about – someone came along and, having nothing else to do, decided to conjure up all the possible histories of this world that God had created. In other words, all the possible sets of the sets of propositions that could be true of this world, from the moment of its creation to and including the present moment. Then, having made a print-out of each, he began picking them up pairwise, trying to decide which was more likely to actually be the history of the world, his hope being that, at the end of the day, what he’d hold in his hand would be the print-out of the set of propositions most likely to be the true history of the world.

Why anyone would want to know the true history of the world shall forever remain a mystery to me. But that plays no part in my story. All that matters is that there are people who do. And that it’s my job, as a cheque-casher of the widow’s mite, to help them get what they want.

Some of these possible histories were fifteen billion years long, others a scant six thousand, and still others only five minutes. But unlike how God did it, how long ago He did it – or if He didn’t do it someone or something did – seems to be the one part of the story the taxpayer wants to see resolved. So let’s see if we can fill that in.

Now some people think that histories leave footprints. That’s how I can tell there was a prowler in the yard last night. But what makes me think that’s how I can tell? Don’t I have to already believe that footprints – which there clearly are! – are caused by the temporally prior footfall of feet? And how did I come to know that?

Well, presumably because I saw someone step on a patch of ground, and immediately thereafter there was a footprint that hadn’t been there before. One such observation doth not a causal relation make, but enough of them, in the right order and without exception, doth. That’s just what and all a causal relation is. Histories leave footprints because what it is ‘to leave’ is just another way of saying ‘to cause’. Whatever happened, whenever it happened, caused other things to happen. And so even if we can’t always trace backwards from what’s happening now to what must have happened sometime back then, we can be reasonably confident that there was something that happened back then which was among the causal antecedents of what’s happening now.

Well, perhaps. But doesn’t this presuppose that this footfall followed by this footprint was a single event? Isn’t it possible that the footprint was one event, and a second event was the memory of a footfalling? In fact isn’t that a more precise account of what actually transpired? So it’s not that you saw a footfall causing a footprint. Nor is it even, as David Hume suggests instead, that you inferred the causal connection between the footprint and the footfall. It’s that you inferred the causal connection between the footprint and the memory of the footfall.

But it seems to me that once one grants this, she’s given away the farm. For what comes next is the possibility that that memory is in fact a pseudo-memory. What if the world came into being just at the moment you observed the footprint, but it came into being with the pseudo-memory of a footfall in your head? How can this possibility be discharged?

Note that you can’t discharge it by citing your observation that this kind of thing just doesn’t happen, since that presupposes what needs to be shown. But there’s no way it can be shown.

So what is shown? That philosophers of science are wrong to argue that what disqualifies the Five Minute Hypothesis is that it’s non-falsifiable. It is non-falsifiable, but then so are any of the more standard hypotheses about the age of the world. What would count as evidence that whatever data we could appeal to to falsify some hypothesis could not be merely pseudo-remembered? Certainly not that we have data we can appeal to to falsify the hypothesis that that data is only pseudo-remembered.

These same philosophers of science insist that the asymmetry they need to dismiss if not discharge the Five Minute Hypothesis is that science is grounded on induction, induction on observation, and observation presupposes realism about the past. So the Five Minute Hypothesis cannot but be a species of scientific skepticism.

The argument is valid but unsound. Induction is not grounded on observation. It’s grounded on reports of observation. If the Five Minute Hypothesis is true, then what accounts for the fingers-crossed reliability of those reports is precisely what would account for their fingers-crossed reliability if the Five Minute Hypothesis were false. That is, if the Five Minute Hypothesis is true, we’ve just been damn lucky. But given that there’s no reason to suppose the future will resemble the past, if the Five Minute Hypothesis is false we’ve been just as lucky.

So contrary to its critics, the Five Minute Hypothesis is not a species of skepticism. Skepticism is not the view that we can’t know what’s true. It’s the view that we can’t rely on what we take to be true. Subscribers to the Five Minute Hypothesis put precisely as much reliance on those pseudo-history books and those pseudo-memories as does the straightforward realist about the past. And for the same reason. We’re all just crossing our fingers.

So why bother advancing the Five Minute Hypothesis if it makes no difference? Because it does make a difference. Not to science, but to ethics. It allows us to correct a number of metonymy errors in our ethical and political judgments. Such as? Well, it tells us that what’s wrong with pedophilia can’t have anything to do with the disparate ages of the participants. It tells us that entitlement can only be contingently a function of contribution. These are hard cases to make, but they’re made considerably easier when one can ask, “What if the world came into being only five minutes ago?” The most incorrigible intuitions immediately take a nosedive. Trust me. I’ve seen it.

In short, my colleagues are right. In flogging the Five Minute Hypothesis as I do, I am mad. But there is method to my madness.

THE PERILS OF PATTER

 

Given the number of times a politician’s heart goes out to the families of this tragedy or of that, one wonders whether it ever stays home.

This kind of patter isn’t as innocent as it might appear. It’s not that anyone’s so Asperger’s that she doesn’t understand the metaphor. Nor is it that anyone’s so untutored in the nature of human emotion that she thinks the speaker really does feel equally and deeply saddened by each and every tragedy he’s required to publicly lament. It’s that at a certain point we become so inured to the patter that we cease to hear it. Having ceased to hear it we cease to listen to what’s actually being said. And then before we know it we’ve let pass a blatant and dangerous falsehood.

“All Canadians are outraged by …”

No they’re not. I wasn’t. In fact I thought the bastards deserved what they got on 9/11.

“Global warming is the most urgent problem facing the world today.”

Then certainly it’s the most urgent problem facing you too. More urgent than your having to pee? Or driving your wife to the hospital for her knee operation? Or flying off to your next save-the-world conference? If you’re wondering why none of us is doing anything about global warming it’s because there’s not a single person on the planet – nor a married one for that matter – for whom it’s an urgent problem, let alone the most urgent one. But your saying that it is blinds you to why it isn’t.

We have a colleague who’s bragged that he “can’t even imagine what would count as evidence that the Holocaust didn’t happen.”

If he meant that he couldn’t have an IQ over sixty. So let’s hope it was rhetorical flourish. But what it says is worse. It says that he’s not open to counter-evidence. That neither should anyone else be. And that therefore the historicity of the Holocaust is no more an empirical question than the existence of God, or that homosexuality is contra natura.

And that’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because it leaves it open to the Holocaust denier to likewise declare, as some have, that nothing could count as evidence that the Holocaust did happen. And then, since any and all evidence has been ruled out of court, the question can only be settled by who can muster the most deafening ad hominem circumstantial, as in:

“How much is B’nai Brith paying you?”, countered by

“Less than what the Iranians are paying you!”

It will, of course, be objected that getting from some politician’s heart going out to the irrelevance of evidence in the vaccination safety debate is a bit of a stretch. I don’t think it is. I think they’re of a piece. Tolerating sloppy reasoning in one domain encourages it in another. We’ve been watching this dialectic in action on the other side of the border. And some of us, my colleagues included, are watching it creep northward with growing alarm. Our mistake is focusing on its right-wing content rather than its form. But idiocy is ambidextrous.

Many of us have reached what Jonathan Kay calls the ‘Legacy Stage’ of an academic career. Not content to let the chips fall where they have, we’re desperate to convince ourselves, before taking down our shingle, that we changed the world. In that desperation decades of training gets cast to the wind. Our students can see it even when we can’t. What’s consoling is they love us all the more for it. One could even say their hearts go out to us.

IT WAS ALL FAKE!

I knew it was bound to happen, but I was floored by the speed with which it did. Even before the last of the boys and their coach emerged safely from the cave – indeed even before the rescue operation got underway – there were already posts about the whole thing being, not unlike Sandy Hook, a complete sham.

What had happened – and as with the moon landing I’m sure the bloggers had incontrovertible proof of this – was that some Hollywood producer thought a story about some kids and a couple of adults having to be rescued mission-impossible-like in a race against time because of the water rising in a no-way-out cave, would be a surefire box office hit. But what would seal the deal would be if it could purport to be “based on a true story.” So a pre-production team, let’s call it, was put together and set to task staging the true story, while the ironically labeled real production team went to work on the movie about it.

This explains two things. First, it explains why the story had such a happy ending. Another true story, A Perfect Storm, but in which everyone dies, was a complete disaster at the box office. And second, it explains why at least one person had to die – and one did – so there’d be the requisite pathos linked to his requisite heroism.

What it doesn’t explain is why 1) Thailand instead of Kentucky, why 2) they-all-look-alike-to-us Thai kids instead of blond blue-eyed American teenagers, each with his own endearing trademark quirks, and why 3) all boys instead of a few girls so there could be some sexual tension as they considered what to do with their final hours of life. The beads of sweat from the humidity in the cave would have provided a perfect visual for this.

Perhaps there could have been some additional sexual tension between one of the teenagers – I think this should be her first role, so as not to undermine her virginity – and her much older coach. Either of George Clooney or Brad Pitt would do. If they had sex, do either of them now regret it? And if they didn’t, I think he should be relieved and she not.

So why none of this? Because first you’d have to entice a dozen or so guileless American teenagers – all of whom have real-world helicopter parents, remember – plus a couple of unsuspecting chaperones, into a one-way-out cave, then flood that one way out, and then hope like hell that nothing in the plan your mission-impossible scriptwriters and technicians have concocted goes amiss. Plus you’d have to sacrifice an American Navy Seal instead of that much more expendable Thai one. And you’d have to insure the whole operation to the hilt.

So the project had to be either scrapped entirely or, as turned out to be the case, downgraded to the one we were following for those seventeen days.

Okay so that’s one scenario making its rounds of the blogosphere. But the more plausible one that’s also been circulating is that it was the Thai government itself, or perhaps just the local authorities, who decided they needed something to attract foreign tourists away from the more popular coast up to the less attractive north of the country. And, though I’ve yet to hear it from him, I’m sure Tony Hall will put the entire affair on either Mossad, American neocons, or more likely something involving both.

But what’s certain is this. Whatever it may be, the truth is out there. And the truth is never what it appears. How dull would it be if it were?!

RAISING AWARENESS ABOUT PAASD

 

There’s yet to be a scientific consensus on the frequency of alien abduction. But there’s already data indicating that the frequency of reports of alien abduction – as evidenced by the number of confirmed cases of Post-Alien Abduction Stress Disorder (PAASD) – is not orders of magnitude off the frequency of being hit by lightning, which worldwide is well over 215,000 per year. Some of these are no doubt the product of #Me-Too-ism, and so may be more wishful thinking than a genuine belief. But for the past few years what’s been dominating the seminar circuit for professionals specializing in PAASD has been whether therapists should Start by Believing, even though they probably don’t.

Why is it such a difficult question? Because unlike with sexual assault, there’s no one in a position to say the alleged victim is lying. And so there’s no reason to suspend judgment. And besides, whether it happened or not, she believes it did.

The therapist might think it’s unhealthy to believe one’s been abducted and sexually examined by aliens. But if so, isn’t it equally unhealthy to believe one’s been sexually assaulted by a man? Well, you might say, not if she had been sexually assaulted by a man. In fact it would be unhealthy for her to try to suppress the experience. But then surely the same can be said if she had been abducted and sexually examined by aliens. She’s been victimized once. To doubt her is just to victimize her a second time.

I know whereof I speak. Because I’d had a prostatectomy, the aliens kept me for over a week trying to figure me out. I couldn’t turn my head, but just before they released me I’m sure I caught one of them in the corner of my eye writing something down in his notebook with a shrug that seemed to say, “Damned if I know!”

I say ‘his’ notebook, but of course I can’t be sure of that. I certainly have no more reason to say ‘her’ notebook. And to refer to whichever he or she was as an it just seems … Well, I can’t say dehumanizing, but you know what I mean.

Anyhow, I’m posting this blog in the hope that other PAASD-sufferers will feel free to share their experiences, as I’ve just done, without fear of being disbelieved or ridiculed. I’m not sure if they’ve deciphered our language. But if they have, they’re probably as disgusted as they are baffled by how insensitive human beings can be to each other. Being the victim of PAASD-mocking has certainly made me more appreciative of the Start by Believing campaign.

DESIDERATA

What Donald Trump has done, both during the campaign and in the year and a half since, is tapped into the backlash against both political correctness and what’s correct politically.

The backlash against political correctness was long overdue. In saying what was on his mind he’s given permission to millions of Americans to say what’s on theirs. None of what’s on either of their minds is all that pretty. But kudos for their saying it, even if not for what they’re saying. Now that we know what these millions of Americans are thinking, we can start working on ways to disabuse them of it.

The backlash against what’s correct politically is a harder nut to crack. It turns out that millions of Americans don’t want cradle to grave health care. Nor, it seems, do they want America to be burdened by the mantle of leadership in creating a better world. What they want, and all they want, is to be free to put their own interests not just first but pretty much full-stop. Trump isn’t looking to be respected abroad, because neither are the people he represents.

This is a world removed from the lofty rhetoric of the Kennedys or Obamas. We’ve entered the age of a littler America. And maybe we’ll all be the better off for it. After all, it was the Kennedys who got Americans into a war they then couldn’t get out of. It was Obama who pledged to close Guantanamo Bay and eight years later never got around to it. So let America shrink back into its isolationism. Power abhors a vacuum. Someone will step in. It should be clear from Vietnam and Afghanistan and now Iraq that America has struck out. Can the next batter up, be it Europe or China, do much worse?

People from the south are invading the north. Walls and naval blockades won’t stop it. Nothing can. Europeans and Americans are going to become a mutt race. What of it? Maybe when the ugly places empty themselves into the beautiful places, they can be recolonized. They’ll have to be. And then maybe they won’t be so ugly anymore.

As that schlocky poem Desiderata says, “The universe is unfolding as it should.” In the meantime tend your garden and be patient with what you perceive as, and in large measure is, idiocy. The Thousand Year Reich lasted less than twelve. Trump has at most another six and half to go. How much damage could he do? More than his predecessors but less than the National Socialists. Germany recovered to become a nation among nations instead of uber them. And so will America.

In the meantime, “you are a child of the universe. You have a right to be here.” There’s no need to shout it from the rooftops. Nor even to quietly proclaim it. Just calmly stand your ground.

CURMUDGEONISM # 643 – ON THE HIJACKING OF SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTS

Am I answerable for what was said in Curmudgeonism # 618 (below) when it’s entirely possible I didn’t write it?

The technology is now such that anyone with a little savvy can hijack your blog or social media account and have you saying things that would rightly have you crucified, drawn and quartered, beheaded, and then disinvited to dinner. He or she – though it’s usually a he – can even post a video of you mouthing these words. And then the onus falls on you to prove that it wasn’t you, though by then the damage is already done. You couldn’t even confirm or deny it really was you because that communication could be hijacked too. This is going to happen more and more, to the point that texting or blogging or Facebooking will cease to be a reliable way to communicate.

So my question is, what would be the argument against putting the kibosh on this behavior by a) criminalizing it, b) hunting down a few high-profile miscreants, and then c) imposing a penalty severe enough to wipe it out?

Most murders are crimes of passion, most theft of self-preservation or aggrandizement. But this is nothing but gratuitous vandalism. It’s not spontaneous. It involves meticulous execution. In short, it’s maliciousness pure and simple. But it’s undermining a public good as powerfully life-enhancing as was the invention of the printing press.

The problem is that tort law doesn’t do the problem justice. In the first place, the police won’t investigate a private action, so it’s on your dime. And in the second, even if the miscreant can be identified, tort requires proof of loss. But the loss I’m talking about here is one suffered not by the hackee but by all of us. It’s the sabotage of a public facility.

Online scammers are different. What makes it difficult to identify, prosecute, and punish online scammers is that they’re protected by jurisdictional barriers. The Nigerian prince with the $20,000,000 he wants to send you is the sister-in-law of the beat cop in Bucharest. But there are no financial interests to be protected in the kind of thing I’m talking about here, and in very few cases any cross-border involvement. This is just Melissa trying to make trouble for her high school rival Tiffany.

If so, does that mere mischief really warrant a ten-year sentence? Yes. Not for the damage done to Tiffany, but for the damage done to the rest of us.

But there’s a second-order problem involved here. Because of the speed at which online technology is moving, any attempt to constrain the uses of that technology is widely regarded as both futile and neo-Luddite. So on the first count we don’t ask ourselves whether we can, and so we just assume that we can’t. And on the second we’re two enamored to want to.

Sometimes I feel like Laocoon being devoured by the serpents.

 

CURMUDGEONISM # 618 – OF YO, YA, AND TARDS

It’s a little known fact – probably because it isn’t one – that as well as its gendered third person pronouns – he and his, she and hers – for a long time English had gendered second person pronouns. If you were male I’d be speaking to yo, if female to ya. The plural for yo, by the way, has lived on in the slang youze, whereas yas has completely fallen out of use.

Then sometime in the late 16th or early 17th century, theatre-goers rushing backstage to either congratulate or excoriate the cast, found they couldn’t decide whether to call the male actor playing Desdemona yo or ya. So to alleviate this awkwardness it was Shakespeare himself, according to some scholars, who proposed the gender-neutral you. And the rest, as they say, is history. Though this wasn’t.

My son brought home his report card today, and you ask, “Was it nachos or tsuris?” (Nachos is Yiddish for the joy one takes in one’s children, tsuris for the grief.) “Vut shud it matter?” injects his unconditionally loving Baba, as if he’d just joined the Gay-Straight Alliance.

So language is always adding and subtracting, disambiguating and re-ambiguating. It tells us what we believe, or in some cases what we’re allowed to believe. At least this week. Next week who knows? I’ve been mocked mercilessly for calling the remote a wand. She’s been told it’s infantilizing, but Baba still calls everyone dearie. Black, African Canadian, native, aboriginal, First Nation, retarded, challenged, disabled, differently abled, overweight, full-bodied … How does anyone keep up?

So I’ve decided to declare myself a Linguistically Responsibility Free (LRF) zone. I categorize an LRF-speaker as a sub-species of ESL-speaker. That way I can claim my first language is Neanderthal. I consider conflating the race with the language an ethnic slur, but my protests have fallen on deaf ears.

Being under an LRF cone is not license to call a black a nigger or a Jew a kike. But if I know they’re a couple, then notwithstanding she has a Ph.D. and he doesn’t, I can call her Mrs. His-Last-Name because, as the song says, “If [she’s] good enough to be [his] woman, [she’s] good enough to be [his] wife.” If some tard complains to the Dean, he can hardly call me out for racist language without calling out his latest fresh-out-of-China chemistry instructor for not speaking proper English either.

Ah, you say, but she can be taught, whereas I’ve declared I won’t be.

I accept this as a slam-dunk objection to my position. So let me offer an alternative justification for my declaring myself LRF. Don’t we pride ourselves in our cultural diversity? And isn’t linguistic archaic-ism just as charming as haggis or gefilte fish? If you say that bigoted language isn’t worth preserving, why are we still allowing such unpalatable excuses for food?

Okay, that’s enough political incorrectness for one day. Who knows what will move me tomorrow, in much the way this entire bag of prunes has yet to today.

MONIKA’S MOM AND PIUS XII

Monika Schaefer, a Jasper, Alberta woman, and daughter of post-war German immigrants, is currently in a German prison awaiting trial for Holocaust denial, a criminal offense in that and several other European countries, though not in Canada. The charge was triggered by a seven-minute video entitled “Sorry Mom, I was wrong about the Holocaust.” (I recommend you google it.)

In it Ms. Schaefer recounts that for years she excoriated her mother, and her mother’s entire generation of Germans. “You must have known. Why,” she asked, “didn’t you do something to stop these terrible things from happening?”

Her mother didn’t deny these things happened, but, she insisted, “We didn’t know. We just didn’t know.”

“Well,” says Monika, “now we know why she didn’t know. It’s because these things did not happen.”

I‘m not interested, at least not here, in the historicity of the Holocaust, nor in the dubious advisability of laws against historical revisionism. Here I’m only interested in the mother’s defense, and so the appropriateness of the daughter’s apology.

I’m prepared to concede that the average German citizen was not privy to the drafting of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, but only if Monika will concede that a goodly number of German citizens were delighted with their passage. I’ll concede that delight in the misfortunes of others is not a crime, but only if she’ll concede that authorship of those misfortunes might be. And if she’ll concede that complicity in a crime, if it is a crime, can itself be a crime.

In the absence of these concessions we’re not in a position to talk further. So assuming we can talk, let’s.

Note that I’m not asking her to concede that the Holocaust was not a Zionist myth. That’s not what this is about. I’m only asking her to concede that if the Steven Spielberg version of the events of 1939 to 1945 is more or less accurate, those events would have been a crime. And that if those events were a crime, then complicity with them would have been, perhaps a lesser crime, but a crime nonetheless.

Nor am I asking her to concede that if the Holocaust was a crime, it was the kind of crime to which anything that could count as the rule of law could respond. That is, I’m prepared to concede, if she likes, that the Eichmann trial was a violation of natural justice on every count one could imagine, including 1) the retroactivity of the offense for which Eichmann was tried, 2) the jurisdictional incompetence of the Israeli court that presumed to try him, and 3) the manner in which he was removed from Argentina and brought to Israel to stand trial in the first place. None of this is what this is about. I’m only asking Monika to concede that if it was the kind of crime to which something that could count as the rule of law could respond, then complicity with that crime could itself be a crime, even if only a lesser one.

Can we continue to talk?

On the assumption that we can, I’ll concede that the average German citizen did not know that those erstwhile neighbors – those who disappeared from their homes during the night, never to be heard from again – had been shipped in cattle cars to extermination camps and gassed. That would have been a remarkable thing not to have come up at the breakfast table. In exchange I trust that she’ll concede that this never-being-heard-from-again would have been remarkable. So the average German citizen can claim she didn’t know about the exterminations, but she can’t claim she didn’t know about the internment camps. She knew about the internment camps because if she thought her erstwhile neighbors were not in internment camps, then at least a few of them would have made their way back to the neighborhood. Or they would have written. But none did.

Now then, I’ll concede that it would not be remarkable if the next door neighbor were to disappear in the middle of the night and never be heard from again, if he were to disappear for some explicable reason. But only if she’ll concede that it would be remarkable if his wife and children were to disappear along with him. So the average German citizen must have thought these women and children were being consigned to internment camps for no reason other than their race. In fact the race-only justification for that internment should have been clear from the Nuremberg Laws, which, by all accounts, were painstakingly promulgated.

So the only concession I need now is that the internment of women and children for no reason other than their race would have been regarded by the average German citizen in 1939 as a crime, as much as the average German citizen today would regard the internment of women and children for no reason other than their race a crime. To suppose they would not – to allow they’d have considered these internments perfectly reasonable – is to think what those who liberated the camps did think, namely that those who authored or sanctioned these internments could only have been moral monsters!

To repeat: it wasn’t the gas chambers, because maybe there weren’t any. It wasn’t the emaciated condition of the survivors. That could have been photo-shopped. It was the very being of these people in those camps in the first place. That couldn’t be a Zionist invention, because given that they were no longer next door, where else could they have been? So the average German citizen, including Ms. Schaefer’s mother, knew about it, and she knew it was a crime

What remains to be determined is whether that knowledge, and the silence that accompanied it, does or does not constitute the lesser crime of complicity.

I’ve been thinking about the meaning of complicity ever since I spent my sabbatical in 2006 at the Gregorian Institute in Rome studying the proceedings of the Cause for Beatification of Pius XII. (The Cause failed, by the way.) I will not report on any of my conclusions here, except to make the following two concessions:

First, it’s widely accepted – and I accept it too – that if the alternative to complicity is serious self-endangerment, then it’s not complicity. So the question becomes, at what point, and with respect to what, did the average German citizen fear for her own safety?

Were she a Catholic, the time to speak out would have been prior to the signing of the Concordat of 1933, but only if she could have reasonably anticipated that its terms would have prevented her speaking out against the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. (The Concordat was, in essence, a rendering unto Caesar.) But with respect to non-Catholics, we’re left with a purely empirical question. Between their ascension to power in 1933 (or perhaps even earlier) and the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, had the National Socialists already instilled sufficient fear to exculpate silence? I’m in no position to answer that question, but presumably some historian is.

The second concession is that any speaking out that one can reasonably anticipate will be to no avail cannot be morally mandatory. In fact in some cases it’s morally counter-indicated. So we face not an empirical question but a counterfactual one. Had she spoken out, and had a critical mass of others done likewise, would that have put the brakes on the Nazi program? I’m in no position to try to answer that question either, but maybe some braver soul will.

So though we can’t conclude that the average German citizen was complicit in the minimum crime for which the German state is culpable, namely the internment of people for no reason other than their race, we can conclude that Monika’s mother can’t say she didn’t know. Thus at the very least she’s guilty of perjury. A lesser crime perhaps. but a crime nonetheless.

The case of Pius is very different. From what I read, it was hard for the Examiners to deny Pius knew what was happening. In fact the Devil’s Advocate went so far as to suggest he might have been secretly pleased by it. But, it was argued, he can be exculpated for his silence on either or both of the grounds cited above. Put aside that he would have violated the Concordat which, as the then-Secretary of State for the Holy See he had himself negotiated with the German state in 1933. Had he spoken out he would have imperiled the Church over which he had the cura, and he would have done so to no avail.

Once again we have an empirical question followed by a counterfactual one. But in this case, and on both questions, I am prepared to pronounce. As to the first, the Church is not its buildings, nor its clergy, nor even its community of believers. It’s what those believers believe. And if anything has imperiled those beliefs it was the Church’s silence.

And as to the second, had Pius threatened to excommunicate any and all persons giving succor of any sort to what was going on, the Reich would have been torn internally asunder. The German people, and their collaborators in those territories under occupation, would have had to make a choice between their Fuhrer and their God. If Pius believed, whether rightly or wrongly, they would have chosen the former over the latter, then I’m at a loss as to over what he thought he still had the cura.

Some analysts argue that if Pius is ever canonized it will put Christian-Jewish relations back centuries. But if I were a Catholic, that would be the least of my worries. The Concordat that then-Cardinal Pacelli signed in 1933 was signed by a man. But according to Catholic doctrine, his elevation to pope in 1939 was the work of the Holy Spirit. Since God could hardly have overlooked Pacelli’s signing of the Concordat, his elevation amounted to God ratifying the Concordat. But if God thought it appropriate to render unto Hitler then, what must He think of liberation theology today?

Actions have consequences. Sometimes those consequences are theological. Theology has consequences. Try denying that to women seeking reproductive autonomy in this–is-a-Christian-country-dammit! America.

By contrast, I’m not sure what harm’s being done by Monika’s unwarranted apology to her mother. My advice has always been, if someone’s offended, apologize even if you’re not in the wrong, because an apology costs you nothing. But apparently that’s not always the case. Monika’s apology has cost her considerably.