Friday, September 24, 2010

Real Natural Law

What we know about life, liberty and property from nature today is quite different from what most natural law advocates think.

Life is a complex set of chemical reactions scientists can explain better than I can. The place of our species at the top of all sentient, self-propelling animals is questionable, particularly as we are about to destroy the planet's ability to sustain life. Judging by behavior of all species, life is pretty cheap and that of an individual animal, human or otherwise, is not particularly valuable.

Natural law is the law of the jungle.

Liberty is, in natural terms, nonexistent. The combination of our genes, environment and nurture determine our behavior and the terms of our life.

Property is, similarly, an entirely unnatural concept. At most, we can say that possession is a temporary characteristic of any thing around any animal, plant or mineral, to the extent that power can be exerted to control it.

Thus, here is natural law as it really is:

1. Fight tooth and nail to survive, because if you don't some other
human or animal or plant or even mineral will take it.

2. You are inexorably and ultimately subject to fate, even though your senses will fool you otherwise.

3. Hang on to whatever people, animals, plants and minerals you
control, knowing that you must relinquish them when you lose control.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

My pal Friedrich Nietzche

Reluctantly, I come to the conclusion that the exploration of ethics, politicas or philosophy is pointless since we are incapable of free moral acts, are only goaded by what we are taught and are kept in line only by coercion.

The existence of freedom is much exaggerated. From the moment of our conception, our potential to decide and act is severely constrained by inherited biochemical traits.

Once we are born, we enter society in a social and economic context that is entirely not of our own choosing and very rarely changed in any substantive way by a free act, thought or deed. By the time we go to school, the course of our life is not known, but it is more or less set. The arena left to moral choice is absurdly minute, if it is exists at all.

Conscience, in the personal and moral sense understood in Western societies, is little more than a set of biochemical reactions in the brain to the challenges of the interaction of ingrained habit, social custom and individual tendencies. Shame and pride, in normal doses, are socially ingrained. There is nothing magical or "supernatural" about this.

In this context, the only purpose of institutions such as the churches or government) is to attempt to enforce socially mandated behavior; those that have failed to do this have either disappeared (the Shakers) or gone woefully astray (Stalinist Russia).

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sam Munson's Hieroglyphs

The first noteworthy element to strike me in Sam Munson's first novel, November Criminals, was not any similarity between the narrator and Holden Caulfield.

Now, I have reviewed economics books for pay for a magazine that is well known to its devotees — but never novels. Writers, actual novelists in fact, who are presumably begged to review new books by august editors at even more august publications such as The New York Times, took a gander at Sam's novel and they all had to make the obligatory Caulfield reference, as if to say, "See, I spent whole summers in Iowa literary seminars discussing things like this."

Not me. I was struck by what I thought was an unusual code to identify the pages. Instead of the usual numbers I saw, at the bottom of each page, not in the center as is traditional, but somewhat edging toward the outer edge of the paper, three discrete black hieroglyphs that looked more or less like the ones I have reproduced below. They looked like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle but they were not numbers.

The one on the left, for example, seemed to me an F with a fat middle stroke. The middle one was more classical a jigsaw piece ... but what was that semicircle doing? The left one looked like a missshapen B and I.

I turned the page. More of them! Different shapes. It was almost like going back to the 1980s, when I didn't have a television, to see the all-lowercase thirtysomething across the screen, so cool, so typographically hip. I knew about it because production people were always telling me we should do this in my very serious, dull as wheat toast, economic weekly.

I figured this had to be some creative stroke of Sam's. Young people these days! [intone as an emphatic, cranky sigh]

I was still left with the problem of how to remember where I was in case the bookmark fell out. Until ... eureka! I suddenly looked at page 19 again and saw:

It wasn't three hieroglyphs! It was color-reversed white numbers on a black background. Kids!

I am not the only one to have experienced this problem. In an informal poll of about two or three people my age and socioeconomic status, the numbering was a puzzle at first.

Let this be a lesson to Sam Munson, who has written a fine novel, superbly sharp at dissecting the white middle class hypocrisies of parents and teachers (I found myself nodding and thinking, "At last someone has said this in print!") in the neighborhood where I watched him — and his friends — grow up.

Ah, yes, the lesson: don't listen to geezers like me.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Are We In Crisis?

The gloom and doom projected by a young man I know, despite his own personal good fortune, makes me revisit a question I have been nursing since about 1968: Are our own times more fraught with high risks, shocking inequality and challenges that defy solution than any other?

Yes and no.

In a solipsistic sense, we always live times of crisis, a moment of decisive change; we are changing, therefore the world is. Moreover, historical change appears to have accelerated, perhaps since 1914. Finally, economic trendlines that tell us that, yes, the recession experienced by millions involves peaks in joblessness and poverty.

However, although my stomach says the world exists to feed me, my eyes and ears do an even better job of convincing me that people and things exist beyond my control, in most cases untroubled by my particular worries.

Change, similarly, it is arguably slowing down. One of my grandfathers was born in the day of the buggy and the oil lamp and died during the decade of the first computers and atomic bombs. My parents were born before radio, penicillin and nylon, but were gone before the World Wide Web. A once-print journalist, I may see the demise of newspapers written on the wall, yet little will exist the day I die that wasn't already a gadget in the Dick Tracy comic strip when I was a child.

Oh, and specialists have been saying for about a year that the recession is technically over.

Therefore, I commend you to the words of Winston Churchill to the House of Commons on June 16, 1940, when Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany and its impending bombing blitz.
Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.
The British Empire did not outlive Churchill, who died in 1965. Yet who today doubts that 1940 was the Brits' finest hour?

Tuesday, September 07, 2010


Stand up. Put your hand on your heart. Play.