Why Are We Not Smarter Now?

I recently read Candide by Voltaire.  I will add my voice to the many over the years that have deemed it a classic.  I think I would even say it is one of my favorite books I have read.  If you were to tell someone to read a book that was written by a French intellectual in the 1700’s, many would imagine something dense and challenging.  However, despite the amazing wealth of ideas in the book, it is direct, accessible, funny, and full of truths that still resonate in the modern day.  I almost felt in certain ways that I was reading a precursor to Carlin or Vonnegut, people that are able to speak truth to power in very direct and clear way, while making you laugh out loud at things you shouldn’t be laughing at.

I was a history major at WVU for several years, before finally graduating with an American Studies degree from Penn State.  One of the things in history that always comes up is trying to justify or condemn someone for what they did based upon the times that they live in.  “Well so and so owned slaves, but you have to understand the times that they lived in.”  I think something like that is only completely true if you know how far thought had progressed in certain societies.  If slavery or some other evil is accepted by almost everyone, then you might not be able to judge someone if the light of truth hadn’t been shown on that particular evil yet.  On the other side, if people knew something was evil, or unethical, than you can judge those people in their own time.

Reading Voltaire makes me think that the argument, you have to understand the times, doesn’t hold water as much as I thought.  Voltaire satirizes almost all of the evils of his time and ours:  Violence over religion, colonialism, exploiting other humans for profit, violence against women, war, and on and on.  The book was written in 1759, before the United States even existed, yet there is a passage where he points out how absurd it is to treat those of another race cruelly, especially in the name of God and country.  He is constantly satirizing different religious sects for fighting with each other over beliefs.

The book basically follows the title character, a well meaning but naive man from Germany who is told by a court philosopher that all is for the best, that all is part of some natural order.  When Candide gets kicked out of the castle he is living in, for being with a woman that he shouldn’t be, his story becomes a downward spiral of the tragic and comic as one bad thing happens after another.  The language is very direct and simple, but the amount of terrible deeds listed almost becomes poetic in its scope.  It certainly is one of those works where things are so terrible it goes through the looking glass, where the awful becomes funny as a result of perceived absurdity.  The book holds a mirror up to the human race, asking the question, almost screaming, “What are you doing?!!!”

The forward to the book makes the case that above all, Voltaire was against superstition.  It was superstition, belief in things that have no basis in nature, that is man’s biggest folly.  He understood the cruelty that humans could do to one another through created orders like religion and nation states.

Although Voltaire doesn’t have any answers, he does have a direction by the end of the book that at least points towards ways in which humans could lead lives worth living.  Although this is a book largely of darkness, even if hilariously conveyed, this is not a book completely without light.

Although the world has progressed in certain ways since the time of Voltaire, many of these problems are still with us.  I couldn’t help but ask myself several questions:  How did he have such a clear view of the world before modern science and so much other knowledge existed?  If he had such a clear view of the world of the world, why were so many others in his time so lost in the dark?  If he had such a clear view of the world in 1759, why is it that so many of these problems still persist?  How is it that someone writing in the 1700’s could see the world, when so many people, SO MANY PEOPLE, of right now are so lost in the woods?  Why do so many idiocies associated with religion and superstition still exist, if he knew so much then and we have gained so much knowledge since his time?

Who knows such things…

Laughter On High

Reading the Brendan Behan play Richard Cork’s Leg in the van today.  If I were to tell you a play featuring two prostitutes and two beggers pretending to be blind, among others, all taking place in a graveyard, was funny, you might not believe me, but it is.  One of my favorite George Carlin specials is Life is Worth Losing, where his stage set is a graveyard as well. 

There is that old saying that tragedy plus time equals comedy.  I think it is perspective too.  A war viewed from on high, where two armies butcher each other over nothing more than a disagreement in religious beliefs, is so absurd I can’t help but imagine some supernatural beings having a laugh in the clouds.  What would one think if they watched the battle of Gettysburg from far away, watching an army walk directly into cannon fire, largely over some misinformed ideas concerning the inferiority of certain people because they looked slightly different?  We do strange and horrible things down here.   If someone is watching from above, we surely have provided them with a lot of folly over the years. 

Nixon’s Vietnam Treason

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Nixon’s Vietnam Treason

It seems that is confirmed, by George Will and other sources, that Nixon committed an act of Treason concerning the Vietnam War.  During his first election he contacted the leaders of South Vietnam, when he was still a private citizen, and sabotaged peace talks to make his election chances more favorable.  That is the simple version.  Maybe this was really big news and I missed it somehow, as Will’s article came out last year.  But if not, why wasn’t this much bigger news?  We spend weeks on crashed planes, but not weeks on elected Presidents who have committed treason?  I realize Nixon has been dead awhile, but this seems the kind of thing that society could learn a lot from.

Plane Crash Not Necessarily the News

I just checked out Huffington Post to see the latest news.  I think if anything Huffington Post is a good place just to check headlines as it is comprehensive, even if many of the articles themselves are not worth reading.  The front page headline is about the European plane crash.  150 people died.  While this is tragic and horrifying, and definitely sensational, one must keep in mind that 457 people have been killed in just the state of Texas on the highway this year.  Maybe this is news, but it is not front page, top of the page news.  If it is news, and I mean this in no way disrespectfully of those who might have lost loved ones in the crash, it is something that should be acknowledged for a brief amount of time and moved on from.  I wish this accident hadn’t happened at all, but since it did, that it was the worst thing that we had to deal with.  However, given the conflicts that are taking place around the globe, the environmental calamities that are threatening us, and the fact that so many people still exist in a constant state of poverty, let alone many other tragedies that are happening all around us on a regular basis, this is distorting our perception of the world.

Netanyahu Speaks to Congress

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Salon On Netanyahu Speech

Above is Salon’s take on Netanyahu’s speech to Congress today.  Although I tend to agree with them, my point today isn’t really to focus on this one write up.  At the end of the day it is one write up and you should be reading a bunch of them, mixing and matching, and trying to come to your own conclusion.  However, this is an event that you should be reading about.  A foreign head of state is trying to sway US policy.  This is highly unprecedented in the fact that this head of state actually spoke directly to our congress to try and change our policy.

I have long viewed Netanyahu as a thug and a bully whose intentions do not run in accord with the best intentions of our country.  Nor do I think that his intentions have long term Middle East peace at the heart of them.  I think he is someone that is about self-serving political and military power above all else.

But don’t take my word for it.  Read, read, and read some more.

Black Site Discovered in Chicago

Chicago Black Site Discovered

The Guardian has just put out an article, one which Huffington Post is also headlining with, that claims that there is a secret black site used by the Chicago Police to interrogate U.S. citizens.  This site is being compared to CIA black sites that are used overseas in the War on Terror.  I find this scary, but not surprising.  This seems to me to be the endgame of years of fighting a war in which the boundaries haven’t been clear.  All throughout our War on Terror our police here at home have become more militarized.  A lot of the gear that has been used overseas in the War on Terror has made its way stateside.  There are also tactics that have made it home from these wars.  But while soldiers main job is to subdue a hostile population, unless they are on a peacekeeping or humanitarian mission, the police should be working alongside the community.

I think that there are two additional things one should keep in mind.  The first is that there is a history of law enforcement abuse in this country.  A great place to read about this is in Tim Weiner’s book Enemies: A History of the FBI.  Obviously there is a difference between the Chicago Police and the FBI.  However, both are domestic law enforcement, and the book will give you an idea of how those in power abuse the law for political purposes.  The other book that I keep recommending is Matt Taibbi’s The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, a book that examines the way that justice is applied differently to people depending on their economic background.  I think the fact that there is a history of abuse is important.  J. Edgar Hoover often punished people he viewed as “communists and subversives”.  (left wing)  If you know that history and combine it with what Taibbi says about modern times, while looking at this new information in light of the overall War on Terror, it’s not that hard to see how we ended up here.

Matt Taibbi On American Sniper, Hollywood, and War

Matt Taibbi

This is another article from the always interesting Matt Taibbi, about not only the movie American Sniper, but also the way Hollywood distorts war. 

I have read several books about how the military influences the outcome of movies and how entertainment is taking over every aspect of life.  On the first subject, a real simple fact:  The military will give access to military equipment to productions that paint the military in a favorable light.  If a production does not paint the military in a favorable light, they will not get that access, which in turn can often lead to increased budgets.  As I do not know the backstory, although it very well may pertain to this film, this is not to imply that this is the case with American Sniper.  

My point in any post is not to pass judgment on a film I have not seen, nor to present facts that I don’t know.  I simply want people to think critically when going to movies that have a political nature to them.  Movies take millions of dollars to get made.  What is a movie trying to say?  Who benefits both monetarily and ideologically from a film?  If the movie is a fictionalized version of real events, what are the distortions and why were they made?  These kinds of questions and more should be asked when seeing a movie of any political stripe. 

And yes I said I would not put up any more thoughts having to do with American Sniper until I had seen it. However, I thought this article was too thought provoking not to share. I also think that it deals with ideas and themes outside the orbit of that single film.