Category Archives: World of ideas

The Duty to Rescue

 

 

The American philosopher Peter Singer designed an interesting thought experiment. He asked people to consider this scenario: Suppose you are alone by a pond and you notice a young child has accidentally fallen into that pond and is crying for help. It is obvious that the child cannot swim and is drowning. Unless you help the child will die. As an innocent bystander you of course are not responsible for the accident. You don’t know the child. He is a stranger. You are a good swimmer and could easily save the child from drowning.  Would you be morally entitled to refuse to rescue the child because you did not want to get your shoes wet? I would think most of us would say no, the bystander has a moral duty to rescue the child. To do nothing would be abhorrent. Such people are not invited out to dinner.

In 1939 before World War II was over but after it was fairly well known that Jews were being persecuted in Germany and the European countries they still occupied, a German ocean liner, the MS St. Louis, was carrying more than 900 Jewish refuges from Germany. They wanted to disembark in Cuban, but were denied permission to land except for a handful of Jews that were allowed in because they had American passports.

The German Captain went to the United States next to try to drop off the refugees there, but they refused to accept the refugees.  After that he went to Canada and Canada refused to allow them in either. It was not our finest hour. He then sailed to various European countries where some but not all of the refugees were allowed in.

Many of those that were left were eventually rounded up by the Nazis and historians have estimated that about ¼ of them died in Nazi death camps. Some later referred to this journey as the “voyage of the damned.” This incident and others like it were instrumental in western countries coming up with a policy after the war of obligating countries to accept asylum seekers who legitimately feared persecution in their home countries. This is now part of part of international law.

Also early in 1939 an unidentified Canadian immigration agent was asked how many Jews should be allowed to immigrate to Canada. His reply is now infamous: “None is too many.” Few of us Canadians are now proud of what we did.

As I have argued elsewhere, the first principle of morality is the golden rule—fellow feeling. It is the basis of all morality. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That is fundamental.

As Alexander Betts and Paul Collier argue in their book Refuge, referring to the thought experiment of Singer and refugees from Syria, “Like the drowning child, fleeing Syrians appeal to our common humanity…it is the raw compassion that is at the bedrock of the human condition. We might think of it as the first principle of the heart. It is not saintly to experience such a sense of compassion: it sociopathic not to experience it.”

We have some minimal moral obligations even to far away strangers. We have that obligation just because they are humans. I don’t think we have a duty to be saints. We can never sustain sainthood so I don’t believe we have to accept so many refugees that it would eviscerate our own society. But if the costs are low or even trivial, we have a duty to act. For example I am not sure that we have a duty to rescue a drowning child if it would seriously endanger our own lives. But if the cost is trivial, such as wet shoes or dirty clothes, we must act.

We don’t have to bankrupt our country to save refugees, but if it is readily within our means we should rescue them. If we don’t do that we are already bankrupt.

Bernard-Henri Lévy: Nouveaux Philosophes

I spent about 45 minutes listening to a French philosopher courtesy of the CBC radio app.  The philosopher was Bernard-Henri Lévy. I had downloaded an interview with him by Anna Maria Tremonti on The Current. I had also heard him recently on Real Time with Bill Maher.

Lévy is a is a French public intellectual, philosopher, media personality and author. In Europe many just call him BHL because he is so well known. In France philosophers and artists can be rock stars. I love France! Lévy was one of the leaders of the a group started in 1976 known as “Nouveaux Philosophes” no doubt after the famous wines.  According to The Boston Globe he is “perhaps the most prominent intellectual in France today.” Famously he also said, “I am more afraid of Puritans than those who admit the weakness of the flesh.”

Sometimes we just need a French philosopher to set things right. For me, basking in the hot sun, listening to CBC radio all the way from Arizona, was one of those days. He is currently flogging his book The Empire and the 5 Kings. Based on this interview I think it would be worth a read. Being a cheap Mennonite I will wait for the paperback of course.

Apparently the 5 kings of the title of the book are 5 countries that he calls “totalitarian,” namely, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, and Turkey. I think the “empire” he refers to is the United States, since Lévy lamented the fact that the US was pulling out of Europe, leaving the way open, he believes, for the 5 dictators. He admitted that the US as an empire was far from perfect, but it was much better than the 5 kings that will inevitably take its place. He may have a point.

Lévy said that the 5 Kings (I would add Trump here) have declared war on truth. He reminded us what Joseph Goebbels the Nazi Minister of Propaganda said, “I will decide who is a Jew. I will decide what is truth.” This is not unlike Donald Rumsfeld’s famous remark when he talked about the War in Iraq. Rumsfeld was George W. Bush’s Mininster of Defence who said, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” This is the madness of some political  political leaders and Lévy wants to expose it.

Lévy is also critical of the Internet. He once said, “There is no better instrument for incubating idiocy than the Internet. Nowhere is this more clear than in the United States.

In the interview Lévy passionately set out his critique of contemporary political life and his philosophy: “There is a battle between wisdom and idiocy; between the courage of moderation and the cowardice of extremism, between the respect of art, and beauty, and intelligence and the idea that all these values have to be torn to pieces.” Bernard-Henri Lévy also said, “Populism is a new word for fascism. Lévy said that when he was young, in 1968, he and his friends were fighting for all the people to have access to beauty, wisdom, and truth and now the populists, or fascists, want to destroy that. When they want to eradicate the elites, they also want to rid the world of truth and beauty. That is what he is fighting against, and that is why I like him so much.

E pluribus unum

 

 

Ken Burns has produced some magnificent television documentaries for Public Broadcasting in the US. Burns likes the traditional Latin motto of the United States E pluribus unumwhich means  “Out of many, one.” I like it too.  It appears on the Great Seal of the United Sates. Arthur Schlesinger complained that the United States suffered from too much pluralism and not enough one. It was adopted in 1782 but since then another motto has been more popular: “In God we Trust.”  I don’t like that one quite as much. In 1956 Congress adopted it as the official motto of the country. What ever happened to separation of church and state?

Ken Burns said that too often we think we connected and we are actually disconnected from each other. There are no more town greens. PBS is part of the commons. It is part of the public square. Burns says it is one place where we can have rational discourse in difficult times when the tapestry of the commons is frayed. Times like these. I think that is a pretty good motto.

Free  Solo

 

 

I watched the documentary film Free Solo about the promise of Alex Honnold to climb a massive slab of granite called El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. It is a granite monolith about 3,000 ft. (900 m.) from base to summit. It is a massive hunk of rock. Free solo is a mountain or rock climbing technique that means the climber ventures forth entirely without safety equipment of any sort.

At the outset let me say it: I am a chicken. I would never do anything remotely like what Alex Honnold did. I have not the slightest desire to even try.  I also want to admit at the outset that I am fearfully afraid of heights. I get queasy just thinking about what he did. I got queasy watching rock climbers with ropes and equipment climb a rock mountain in Zion National Park 2 years ago. For me, I would have a hard time standing near the edge of the summit, let alone anywhere on the face without ropes or equipment.

I was scared of watching the film because I had been told that anyone who was scared of heights probably should not watch. I wondered what might happen to me from the comfort of my couch as I watched it. How cowardly is that?

I have only seen rock climbers once. That was 2 years ago in Zion National Park. We were beside what I thought was a massive monolith. We saw the climbers from the ground and looking up they appeared as miniscule people. Frankly, I could hardly watch them from down on the ground. I thought the climbers were nuts. And they all had ropes.  In the movie Free Solo I learned that this free solo climb in Zion was an easy preparation for El Cap. Nothing to it was Honnold’s attitude. To me that seemed incomprehensible.

It is interesting to note that Honnold was going to climb with a film crew following every step, often from a safe distance. That must have added to the pressure.

I found one thing very interesting in the film. Alex said, “in free soloing you come as close to perfection as you will ever get, because even the slightest mistake means you will die.” I always think the pursuit of perfection is insane. This type of perfection is even crazier. Perfection, as they say is the enemy of the good. I would add it is the enemy of sanity.

I admit to some unease about the film interviews with Alex. Was the purpose to glorify the attempt? If so I do not want to be a part of it. I think it is a crazy thing to try. No it is an insanething to try. I hope the film does not lead others to try it too to grab some glory. The glory could be short-lived.

The first person to climb El Capitan climbed it together with a partner  in 47 days using “siege” tactics. This means they climbed expedition style using fixed ropes along the length of the route linking established camps along the way and using  aid climbing with ropes, pitons, and expansion bolts to make it to the summit. Even then it took nearly 2 months.

It was ascended again 2 years later by a group of 4 in 7 days. Today it usually takes a group of fit climbers about 4 to 5 days to do it. In 1975 a group of 3 climbers did it in 1 day.

The first solo ascent (not free solo) was accomplished in 10 days in 1968. In time some climbers sought ways to climb El Cap either free or with minimal aid. On June 3, 2017 Alex Honnold completed the first free solo climb of El Capitan without any protective equipment whatsoever. The film is about that climb. He ascended the Freerider route in 3 hours and 56 minutes.

The filming was spectacular with some fabulous 360°shots.  A number of times I was almost ill watching. Remember I’m a chicken.  It was that intense when he made some moves that required stunning body twists and holding himself with a thumb or a couple of fingers and a quick movement of a foot for a slight toe-hold from one tiny ledge to another. Imagine holding yourself up with a thumb? Or a toe? It really seemed like an impossible achievement.

Even though the cameramen at times had to look away as well, one of them said, “Alex is having the best day of his life.” Was he? Why? I really don’t get it.

I personally have no need to seek out thrills.  I don’t want to support it (even though I paid to see the film). I would not want to encourage anyone to take such chances for no real purpose.

Now I know there is nothing gained by me going to photograph wild flowers, or writing this silly blog, but at least I am not putting my life in danger. I get lots of excitement from traveling the world of ideas. I would rather venture forth in the world of ideas than climb a mountain, or walk across Antarctica, or run 29 miles in the Sahara desert. Each to our own. I don’t say my puny achievements are better. They are just better for me.

It was interesting to me that no one in the film encouraged Alex to climb the mountain free solo. Not one person. His girlfriend clearly would have preferred him not to do it, but I also felt perhaps she enjoyed soaking up some of the glory surrounding Alex. She did not stick around to watch him climb. Alex admitted he did not have to do it.  He chose to do it. Even after months of preparation by him and the film crew he said, “I know I could walk away from it, but I just don’t want to.”  He wanted to try it, knowing he might die in the attempt. But he gave no powerful reason for doing it.

What is the morality of a person doing something as crazy as this so we might behold his achievement? I don’t know. I don’t think I want to encourage it, but I guess I did. I don’t know why. Chris did not want to see the film because that would be like encouragement to others to try it too.

Honnold also said he did not want to die in front of his friends who were filming him. None of them wanted to do anything to distract him. They were very careful to avoid that while filming him. It must have added a serious element of extra danger to do what Honnold did with a film crew constantly around him. He even said he was tempted to just do it all alone one day without all the fuss. Just sneak out int he morning and do it. But then no one would know you did it. Why should that matter?

Honnold also claimed he was doing it “for all the right reasons”. What could that possibly mean? He did not explain. Can you conceive of a right reason? I can’t. Even Honnold admitted that it seemed odd to him to say he was doing it for the right reasons when he was climbing with an entourage of a crew.

At the end Alex said, “What a journey.”  That was his summation. That is a pretty prosaic statement for such an amazing achievement. That leads me to think that the entire effort was actually entirely banal. There was no good reason to do. He could not explain one. I don’t think there was one. Hannah Arendt wrote when she covered the Nuremberg Nazi trials after World War II that evil was banal. Sometimes that is true.  But I would add that so is spectacle. Spectacle is banal. Sports achievements are all ultimately banal. It may be briefly fun. But there is no important reason for them. There is no good reason, other than to have some fun and get in shape and experience some competition. Extreme sports achievements are all, in my opinion, banal.

         I know you have to be brave to do what Alex Honnold did. I don’t have that kind of courage. None of it to be precise. But you also have to be brave to dissent from the almost unanimous opinions of your friends or community. You have to be brave to strike out on your own on new lines of thought. You have to be brave to speak up when someone else is espousing racist views. You have to be brave to attack your own convictions because you never know where that will lead you.  That is the kind of bravery I wish I had.

The Interesting World of Len Deighton

 

 

Though the wonders of the CBC Radio App, I listened to a fascinating interview on CBC with an old friend whom I have never met–Len Deighton. I never met him but I grew up with him. Deighton was the writer of spy novels from the 1960s to 1980s. He was in my opinion a great writer. He was right up their with another favortie John LeCarre.  Both of those writers broke the protocol of spy novels in suggesting that the good guys–the British and America spies–were just as morally corrupt as the bad guys–the Communists. Who would ever have thought that?

Listen to this  conversation between Bernard Samson and his boss Dickie Cruyer in British intelligence, who Phillip Coulter described as having “a PHD in office politics,”

 

Bernard: Who pays him?

Dickie:        He’s not for sale Bernard.

Bernard:      Then he’s no one I know.

His first novel, which he actually wrote for himself because he did not intend to publish it, did catch the public attention after he did publish it. He described blink and dingy streets of Berlin soaked with betrayal and paranoia. As Philip Coulter said, his books described “a broken down society at war with itself in which the greatest dangers were from within.”

Deighton realized that one of  the most most common fears of our policial leaders was a fear of a lack of information. He likened this to a fear of the dark or a lack of confidence that our future unknowns will be benign.      That opened up a lot of room for intelligence services (at least until the arrival of Donald Trump who relies instead on his own personal ‘intelligence.’)

Deighton described this in the first of the fabulous trilogy  Game, Set & Match where the spy Bernard Samson had sent a young and inexperienced spy, McKenzie, to a situation in which he was murdered. After that Bernard had terrible visions of McKenzie’s brains spattered on the wall behind his corpse. The visions came back to him at night and he shuddered. “I felt guilty and as I prepared for bed I suffered the delayed reaction that my body had deferred and deferred. I shook uncontrollably. I did not want to admit even to myself that I was frightened but that image of McKenzie kept blurring into an image of myself. And my guilt was turning into fear for fear is so unwelcome that it comes only in disguise and guilt is its favourite one.”

Coulter interviewed Deighton in the London Travellers Club dining room where well educated and well to do Englishmen who had travelled abroad met to discuss their travels. The club was a vital a cog in the British class system. It had a huge library with books that went right up to the ceiling. However, like the books in British aristocratic manors, many of them were seldom read. They were not really there to educate their owners; they were there for decoration. As Coulter said, “Fake books.  A Library not used for the purpose of imparting knowledge are in some ways metaphors for the themes in Len Deighton’s novels. Worlds where things are seldom what they seem where those with the trappings of power and competence actually rarely have those skills. The room too is emblematic of the class tensions that run through Deighton’s books. The tension between a natural aristocracy with wealth and power and the classes below them with little or none.”

Yet Deighton was actually ambivalent about that class system. He saw the good and the bad of that system and saw himself as a referee between the classes. He is a spectator.  As Deighton said in the interview, “If we look at history we see that the upper classes provided people with a sort of dignity, knowledge, self-respect and honour that is completely absent from the political world today and the world has grown much poorer in practicalities.”

Deighton’s complex view of classes is a familiar theme right through his books, filling them with humour, delight, and wonder. As Coulter said, “Yes he believes that there should be a leadership cadre, but no it shouldn’t be closed. Those who lead bear responsibilities not legislated but moral.”

This ambivalence in his novels is exemplified best by his main protaganist Bernie Samson. Sampson is constantly  wracked by that cruel division. After all he is the one who failed to go to one of the better British schools and had this constantly held over his head and his career by his superiors in the office and inferiors in life. “His office wars revolved around the occasionally inept but well educated bureaucrats who are his bosses.” Here is a delightful example, in a description by Bernie Samson:

“On Wednesday afternoon I was in Brett Renssalaer’s office. It was on the top floor not far from the suite the DG occupied. All the top floor offices were decorated to the personal taste of the occupant. It was one of the perks of seniority. Brett’s room was modern with glass and chrome and gray carpet. It was hard, austere, and colourless, a habitat just right for Brett with his dark worsted Saville Row suit, and the crisp white suit and club tie and his fair hair that was going white and the smile that seemed shy and fleeting, but was really the reflex action that marked his indifference.”

Deighton knew this world of spies from London was interesting, sly, and vicious, but above all complex. It is a world well worth inhabiting with a master guide like Len Deighton. He is well worth reading.

Phoenix: A University Town

 

Sir Jonathan Bate

         I love to travel. Anywhere anytime is what I usually say. But southern Arizona is special for many reasons. One of the hidden pleasures of Phoenix is that it is a University town. It has a major university–Arizona State University (‘ASU’). It may be the largest public university in the US. It is certainly in the top 5. But it is not just big; it is good. It has been voted “No 1 in innovation” among American Universities.

Much more important to us however, is that they have an astonishing number of events to which the public is invited. Every week it seems we get another  notice of free events with an array of talks, conferences, films, and concerts. Fantastic speakers with diverse viewpoints usually speaking in clear jargon-free language. I know to some this will sound strange, but to me learning is fun. Particularly if there are no exams. I know I would ace them anyway!

This year we attended a wide variety of such events. First was a 3 lecture series by Professor of English literature and ecology, Sir Jonathan Bate from Oxford University. Bate is one of the few Professors of English to be knighted for his work. His book on Shakespeare has been called the best modern book written on him. And there have been thousands. His subject in the lecture series was “How the Humanities can Save the Planet.” It was very interesting and thought provoking. We particularly liked a video of Don Henley singing the Eagles song, “The Last Resort” together with amazing images. This closed the first lecture.

We attended a full day conference on polarization and civil disagreement at ASU. In other words the main topic was extremism in views and increasing partisanship and polarization in public discourse. That may sound boring to some of you. It was far from boring. We spent the day listening to speakers from the top universities around the US, including what one of the speakers referred to as the best collection of political philosophers in one room that he had ever seen.

We could have gone to the second half day but decided enough was enough. We figured that if we went for the second day we would have got so smart none of our friends would ever talk to us again. Amazingly the public is invited to attend and are welcomed when there. Many ordinary people like us were mingling with great intellectuals. And you didn’t have to be an intellectual giant to get in. All you needed was curiosity. The conference was entirely free including breakfast, snacks, lunch and dinner together with wine.  I estimated something like this back home would have cost each of us about $2,500 and members of the public would not have been encouraged to attend.

ASU also encourages its professors to get involved in community outreach. As a result we heard a talk by an ASU ecologist at the local Audubon Society meeting talking on the effect of humans on birds. Again there was spirited discussion.

Finally we heard another ASU professor at a local County Park explain the fascinating 2 billion year geological history of Arizona in 60 minutes. The crowd was enthralled. He gives this talk, or a version of it, every year and the place is always packed to hear him speak on a Friday night. Go figure!

We love southern Arizona but thanks to ASU we have enjoyed being immersed in the wonderful word of ideas. This may sound hard to believe, but it was exciting. There is no better place to travel to, than the world of ideas.  I love ASU.