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Archive for August, 2013



From the perspective of a critique of the cruelty that is racism (or any other bullying –ism) I believe we live in a privileged era. I say this because I suspect that to an average Greek or Roman citizen of even the most culturally civil classical era, such cruelty might have simply seemed part of the natural order of things. In those times I suspect that the principle that the state existed primarily for the preservation and protection of property was an idea accepted by all but the most philosophically minded. And the notion of universal natural rights is a relatively new, and rather odd (though fortuitous), invention of another landed gentry: the aristocracy of the English baron classes at home and abroad. That it arose from their rebellion against the violence of their king is a very fortunate, and not at all necessary, accident of history for which we could be very grateful. Nevertheless, I believe many modern western city states continue to cleave to a more narrowed vision of human rights as pertaining primarily to property, and remain inadequately convinced of their duty to oppose all cruelty. So the question naturally arises, upon what ground does a contra-cruelty humanism stand? By what right do we truly possess, and use, the concept? Historically I believe we can trace it back not so much to those English barons who wrote both Magna Carta and the colonial Declarations, but rather to the Florentine renaissance of 1400 and its effect on the source of knowledge. It was during this and subsequent European re-birthings that the western ground of knowing was re-conceived. What more can be said about the Cartesian “cogito” (I think, therefore I am)? In one brilliant sentence, the source of life and being was stripped both from god and the state and placed within the individual. This one phrase, this one simple declaration is, I believe, the historical source of subsequent, really anti-political, declarations. From here we can trace the activist genealogy of Mahatma Gandhi, Helen Keller, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, Tenzin Gyatso, Desmond Tutu, and many others. All of whom stood up not just for the next political manifesto, but for a humanism of universal cooperativity, to the end of all cruelty.


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This blog is my expression of private irony, for the hope of more public cooperation, against cruelty.


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The way to synthesize the “nature vs. nurture” dialectic is not I think a by a change of terminology exclusively, but through improvements in education. I say this because, from observations of my students, I hypothesize that they are needlessly trapped in this ineffective dialectic as a result of not understanding contemporary models of biological development. If they did they would understand that every individual is seen (in such models) as 100% the product of both nature and nurture. They would understand that to speak of relatively invariant or “hard wired” traits is to refer to data about populations not individuals. They would understand the problems facing a species with such adaptability of behavior that such data often has limited reliability and validity. They would understand the challenges that face a species that transmits so much of its behavioral habits (biases) through language, over vast expanses of space-time, and in ways not remotely conceivable by the original actors, that maladaptation can spread like wildfire, as we have seen time and time again in the 20th century.


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Talking about the reified concepts of experience (noumena) does not always (or often) make me want to stop speaking. Rather it alerts me to the need for increased awareness…of dialectics.


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When we blast our way all over the world trumpeting the coming of democracy and freedom, I think we forget the long history of cruelty that forms the background of our actions. I mean the cruelty of Rome and of Persia, of Aztec and Inca, of the Muslim Conquista and the Christian Re-conquista, thence the European invasion and the European Shoah, now the Palestinian Shoah. It is tempting indeed to read all of these cruelties as the fate of humanity written in the language of blood. But such a story ends only in more blood, it seems. Are we not due for another story?


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I think that the problem with racism is the problem of cruelty, which has been with us as long as we can remember. But far from seeing it as an essential feature of us, I think we need to think differently. If we re-describe cruelties not as necessary parts of our human landscape, but rather each as single events with unique beginnings and endings, the opportunity presents itself over and over again to choose another path. The antidote to cruelty, contrary to our classical liberal tradition, thus lies not in a byproduct of power, but in an understanding of habit. And we may look then, not to fear, but to mindful choice, to lead us to a new relationship with one another.


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One of the key developments in the vocabulary that we call science was to re-learn a connection between heaven and earth. We had to re-ascend Olympus, awaken the pagan gods (really no more than immortal human personalities) and collapse the catholic notion of separation and substance, amplified for a thousand years by an intervening monotheism.


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