Thursday, September 11, 2014

Patriots Day

One of my more vivid memories of the post-Vietnam era was the angry cries of those who had recently given aid and comfort to our enemies during a time of "cold" war. They said, "How dare you question my patriotism." It became commonly repeated refrain, and "treason" became a meaningless word. Likewise, "patriotism" came to include behavior and advocacy counter to the national interest.

On the eve of "Patriot's Day" the leader of the free world said on television that ISIL is not Islamic. I do not know what he meant by those words. I'm not singling him out for criticism for so saying, because his two immediate predecessors have also arrogated to themselves the right to pontificate upon what Islam is or is not.

These events have inspired others to opine on the subject and I recommend Ian Tuttle's essay in National Review. In particular, he cites C. S. Lewis and his defense of the orthodox definition of the word "Christian."

Words, as Rush Limbaugh has asserted, have meanings. What El Rushbo does not say is that those meanings are just another partisan football. We leave that to George Orwell who posited the wide-scale demolition of language known as Newspeak whose purpose was to make disagreement with the regime unspeakable.

Or we can go back further to Lewis Carroll who wrote this exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty:
'I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said. 
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"' 
'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected. 
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.' 
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.' 
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'

I think Carroll got it wrong, the question is not "which" is to be master, but "whom" shall be master. Modern rhetoric has often reduced itself to empty power games played by sophists. And this shifting of the meanings of words is mere sophistry.

The savages beheading people and flying airplanes into skyscrapers know precisely what they are and what they mean when they say "Islam." To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, we may call them Bad Islamists, but they are Islamists nonetheless. You may not like this. I know I certainly do not like it. But the facts will not become better through fuzzy thinking.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

On Asymmetrical Conflict

Very few conflicts take place between identical twins.

Often the adversaries are mismatched in any of a number of ways. For instance, imagine a basketball team of short, suburban girls who go up against another team of tall, inner-city girls. Malcolm Gladwell described how the short, suburban girls managed to win using a zone defense devised by a soccer coach.

Gladwell goes on to describe how Davids can beat Goliaths without divine intervention.

In World War II, the Japanese had the best fighter aircraft flying. This is despite the fact that Americans freaking invented aviation. The American pilots soon learned that you never get into a turning fight with Zero. American planes were faster, more powerful, and better armored. We could take more punishment, but they could dish it out better. In many cases, the only smart move was to lay on that power and flee.

American aviation learned the strengths and weaknesses of Japanese planes and matched them against the different strengths and weaknesses of American planes. With that knowledge, American strategies were formulated to avoid situations where Japanese strengths hit American weaknesses, and sought out situations where Japanese weaknesses were matched against American strengths.

Most conflicts are asymmetrical, but we don't like to think of them that way. If heavily armed French knights come out to battle, they don't like to go against lightly armed English archers. Red jacketed imperial British infantry don't do as well against Yanks with Kentucky long rifles skulking about forests.

Vietnam and the "War on Terror" (a stupid term) are asymmetric conflicts with large organized armies going up against dispersed insurgencies. Whereas in Basketball everyone follows the same rules, the antagonists in these wars follow different rules.

Then there are wars of words.

It is infuriating when the other side doesn't follow the same rules you do. It feels like they're cheating, but they're just playing their strengths against your weaknesses.

Consider the situation where you've just made a very subtle point about something interesting. Let's say that you can appreciate what the Federation scientist, John Gill, was doing in the Star Trek episode "Patterns of Force." You agree that his intention was good and you may think that he was following the most efficient system of government ever devised.

"Hold it. That's the episode with Kirk wearing a Nazi uniform."

"Yeah, Hugo Boss could really design a sharp-looking uniform, couldn't he?"

"You're advocating Nazism! You want to murder Jews!"

"I did not say that."

"You antisemite, racist jerk!"

"I never said anything like that."


The exchange is rather silly, but it illustrates a point. I like to explore the boundary between truth and falsehood. What are the distinctions that make one form of collectivism acceptable versus unacceptable? Suppose a large man is quarreling with his girlfriend and he punches her out? Is he a mere thug to be expelled from society? Or might he have been incited to violence?

Any attempt to talk about this in an even-handed fashion runs the risk of offending the "deliberately obtuse." In my little Nazi exchange, I identify with the accused, not because I'm a Nazi sympathizer, but because when this has happened to me, I've made a terrible rhetorical mistake.

I've assumed the person making the accusation is ignorant or stupid. This is because it is kinder to think this than to think that the person is evil. Evil? It is evil to twist the meaning of another's words into something ugly and unrecognizable. And to do so knowingly.

Some people feed off outrage, and use bogus accusations to make themselves larger and to hurt their perceived enemies. In a world where everyone is busy, it's easy to ignore the nuanced argument, and just glom onto falsehoods: Steve admits he's a Nazi sympathizer. He said it himself, "I'm a Nazi sympathizer."

Therefore, when you say something and another person takes it the way you did not intent, ask if that person is being deliberately obtuse.

I think that reason and truth are useful rhetorical tools to increase my store of knowledge. I hold an old-fashioned notion that if we know more, we'll act better, and by understanding each other we'll get along better.

However, Mao said that truth flows from the barrel of a gun. Post-modernists do not believe in truth and regard language as a mere power game. Logic is just a tool of the patriarchy to oppress the downtrodden. And all that.

You might think this is bad, but it is a mere asymmetrical conflict between what Ancient Greeks would call realists and sophists. Don't get mad. Recognize they're playing by different rules--rules where a grammatico-historical hermeneutic of your words are irrelevant to how those words can be spun.

If you are dealing with a sophist, do not expect honesty--expect a power game. If you detect your interlocutor is deliberately misconstruing your point, here is my permission to call them an ignoramus.

My sainted philosophy teacher once told me that sometimes the only rational response to modern art is ridicule.

Same goes for sophists.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Art of Illiterates

After Labor Day in Grand Rapids, MI the "next big thing" is ArtPrize. I've commented on it before. This usually gets me thinking about art qua art. (And saying hifalutin words like "qua.") My wife remarked at breakfast this morning that one of the profs (who teaches movie-making) repeated this quote: "Film should be looked at straight on, it is not the art of scholars but of illiterates."

I believe the point he was trying to make was that film naturally puts few demands on the viewer.

Keep in mind that illiterates are not necessarily stupid. There have been some very clever people who never get around to learning to read or write.

Film, by presenting brute imagery and sound to the consumer, is consumed without necessarily engaging the higher cognitive functions.

I suppose this means the screenwriter must strive to represent the mythic or iconic in her screenplay, because that is how it will be best consumed.

Conversely, the author of Russian novels realizes her readers have strong arms and great upper-body strength to lug around those long, heavy tomes. The author of Victorian novels realizes her readers have long attention spans. And the contemporary author expects her readers read at at least a sixth-grade level.

The gallery viewer of walls-sized canvases brings different expectations to the art than the comic book reader who sees virtually the same thing.

When you produce art, there's more than just "the medium is the message." Each medium brings a different audience.

The different audience brings different eyes and ears to the work depending upon their expectations. We all should work to understand our audience and work with their expectations as opposed to against them.

There is a time for the mathematics lecture that you can find in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. And there's a time for breathless action scenes as you can find in Larry Correia's Monster Hunters International. Your job is to sense who is buying your books and produce the time they are expecting.

Apology: i fear you might draw the wrong conclusion from my choice of pictures from Roy Lichtenstein and Tony Abruzzo. Though I question the intelligence and common sense of those who spend big bucks to fill modern art galleries, I do NOT want to demean any comic book readers and intended no slight toward Mr. Abruzzo by juxtaposing his art with a derivative copy.

Those more worthy than I: