Thursday, January 24, 2013

Historical Inaccuracy

Ever since the 17th century, European scholars have been fighting over the nature of historical accuracy. One of the first battle lines in the erudite debate was drawn across the pages of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, the classic account of a 21-year long conflict between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century B.C.E

To this day, Thucydides is held up as a model for careful historians; unlike his elder contemporary Herodotus, who had a flair for passing on the oddest cultural episodes as fact. But Thucydides' own work did not completely escape criticism. In the 17th century, lengthy speeches, written with obvious rhetorical concern, supposedly delivered by famous Athenian orators, became the subject of controversy.

Someone pointed out how implausible it was to assume the speeches could be a word for word transcriptions of actual speeches. It was unlikely Thucydides could have had more than a second or third hand accounts, if it indeed the speeches occurred at all. And their final form was far too polished.

Scholars made a concerted effort to think beyond the surface of the page. If the funeral oration Thucydides placed in Pericles' mouth, which praised Athenian democracy and those who died in its defense, was only a simulacrum of what Pericles should have said, in what sense is it true? Indeed: is there any sense in which a manufactured speech can be true?

Until the 17th century, scholars could more or less assume that where there was an ancient text of proven authority, there also could be found truth. Lorenzo Valla's exposure of the spurious origins of The Donation of Constantine (1440), of course, may be thought to supply an exception to the rule. But even he did not challenge the basic equation of a text's antiquity with its veracity.

When scholars began to ask, however, whether ancient historians could have witnessed the things they claimed to record, a wedge was inserted between the truth of a text and the text itself. Or, you might say, instead of one, there were two sorts of truth: historical truths, or facts of the matter, could now be distinguished from rhetorical truths, their value to readers. Though Pericles might not himself have given the speech Thucydides placed in his mouth, for example, his speech still had value because it said about democracy

This double theory of truth, distinguishing historical fact from rhetorical value, today follows us wherever we ago. Even if you aren't quite able to put your finger on it, you can sense its duplicity. It's why you roll your eyes when news anchor put on their serious faces to discuss whether historical inaccuracies in such Oscar-nominated films as Argo or Lincoln detract from the film itself.

The historical accuracy of feature films doesn't matter at all, though it's useful to be reminded of the epistemological we bear. In intellectual discussion, questions about historical accuracy easily deflect from questions about the value of something, while our particular attachments and beliefs can sometimes prompt the willful misrepresentation of historical information.

The two sorts of judgments bled into each other, often in arbitrary ways. The grim reality of the Terror in the aftermath of the French Revolution is taken by many as proof positive of the depravity of the ideas the Revolution represents. The ideas may very well be depraved; I have no reason to quibble over that judgment. Then again they may not. It's just that historical claims can never be the logically necessary basis of their refutation--absolutely never, never in a million years. The way things were, the way they are, or even the way things will be, will not square with the way things ought to be. The historian-turned-philosopher, David Hume, made the point emphatically: an ought can never be extracted from an is.

Welcome to the disenchanted universe. Historical accuracy wont't get you closer to the TRUTH, because their are (at least) two sorts of truth for which to account. Historical inaccuracy won't take you further away from the TRUTH, again, because there are (at least) two. Please make yourself at home. You've been here long enough that squatters' rights apply.

I Believe in Kevin O'Leary

I am a convert to the Kevin O'Leary brand. It took me all of six months, but I have come full circle.

Americans will best know O'Leary as a venture capitalist on the ABC show Shark Tank. Canadian know him playing an identical role on the CBC show Dragon's Den. Mr. Wonderful is the name he gives himself, and it isn't meant ironically. On the Lang and O'Leary Exchange, co-hosted on CBC Newsworld with Amanda LangO'Leary preaches the Gospel of Money--or Mammon, in the KJV rendering of Jesus' pointed observation that you cannot serve both God and...you guessed it, money. O'Leary is the real capitalist deal. Small government, not only in the sense of less actual services, but also less regulation, and praise for the virtues of free markets are both part of his liberating message

And if you think I am exaggerating by dropping biblical allusions, read the introduction to his book The Cold, Hard Truth: On Business. Money, and Life. 'When I speak the truth about money, I am almost speaking as money. That's why I come across as harsh, mean, and brutal. I'm just channeling money, in my attempt to help you understand it and amass it.' O'Leary is THE prophet of profit. His brash, difficult to digest exterior has earned him a large number of critics, which would only seem to confirm his exalted status. 'Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his own country.'

My conversion to the Kevin O'Leary brand had two parts. Doubts about initial feelings of revulsion that I felt towards all that O'Leary's on-screen persona represented prompted me to look closer at who he was and, more importantly, what he had written. The Cold, Hard Truth is O'Leary's blitzkrieg on all that fluffy sentiment about the way the world ought to be and should be that clouds a businessperson's financial judgement. No one needs to 'like' what O'Leary has to say, in the same sense no one needs to like what Machiavelli had to say in The Prince. But it doesn't mean that what he has to say is not true, if by true you mean that it has purchase in a real world in which a person needs food on the table, clothes on their back, and a roof over their head. His latest The Cold, Hard Truth on Men, Women, and Money promises a similar shock and awe campaign against wishful thinking.

The second part of my conversion occurred when Amanda Lang proceeded to excoriate O'Leary for accusing media figures, like herself, of a liberal basis against big business a couple of nights ago. On most issues, I fit quite comfortably into Lang's pocket. When media figures report on the iniquities of exceedingly large corporations, I think they are doing their job. Just because a person has a whole lot more money than I do doesn't automatically make them correct. Apologies, Mr. O'Leary.

But Lang rose up with righteous indignation at O'Leary's suggestion widely missed the mark of 'objectivity'. Who was he to call the ideals of her professional vocation in question?

That was the moment my eyes were opened. I saw a golden, 24-carrat halo on O'Leary's head, and the angels of finance fluttering in the background.

I have no difficulty with a liberal media bias against big business. I do have difficulty with a liberal media pretending it has no bias. If bias is not buried in a story's details, then you can find it in the sorts of stories they choose to tell.

In her direct, articulate way, Lang described the nature of O'Leary's sins against the journalistic profession. But she hid herself, and her own personal interests and motivations, behind a protective shroud of journalistic objectivity.

O'Leary simply stared into the camera and smiled. He had nothing to hide behind, nor any need.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Antonin Scalia, A Moron?

The speculation is that the hat Justice Antonin Scalia wore to President Obama's inauguration was a replica of the hat worn by Saint Thomas More in Holbein's famous portrait. Everything appears to be speculation at this point, as I am unaware that Scalia has revealed his mind on the matter. But even if it should hold true, we are still left with what to make of Scalia's symbolic provocation.

Symbols have a way of escaping the intentions of those who use them. A Catholic himself, and a vocal critic of Obama's public policy, Scalia most likely wore the hat as a silent protest against Obama's presumptive exercise of Presidential authority. On this reading, Obama assumes the role of Henry VIII, who usurped the spiritual authority of the church by making himself head of the English Church. Scalia plays the part of More, whose protests earned him a martyr's crown, and, in due time, sainthood.

There is a second possible way to interpret Scalia's actions, albeit a much less likely one. It has to do with his claiming common cause, not merely with a political martyr, but with a bonified saint enrolled in the ecclesiastical calendar of the Catholic Church.

It is remotely possible that Scalia has absolved Obama for his outrages against both himself and God's church. That's what saints who are martyred do--saints like Saint Thomas More. They swiftly forgive their executioner, commend the souls of all present to God, and patiently wait for the axe to fall, the hammer to drop, the rope to snap, or what have you. That's what Christ did in Luke 23, as he hung on the cross.

Let's explore the later possibility just a little further, just for the sake of argument.

The renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus' In Praise of Folly (Moriae Ecomium) is usually published with a letter written to More. The letter is a reflection on the apparent etymological connection between Folly and More, which is still preserved in our word moron. The letter commends Erasmus' panegyric on folly the protection of More, against its detractors, who mistook its praise of folly for a frivolous defense of idiocy.

The wisdom of Folly:
"Briefly, no society, no association of people in this world can be happy or last long without my help; no people would put up with their prince, no master endure his servant, no maid her mistress, no teacher his pupil, no friend his friend, no wife her husband, no landlord his tenant, no soldier his drinking-buddy, no lodger his fellow-lodger -unless they were mistaken, both at the same time or turn and turn about, in each other."
A dose of foolishness helps us bear with each other.

If Scalia did laid claim to the foolish saintly aspect of More's legacy, he is entirely unjustified. Peter Ackroyd's The Life of Thomas More beautifully chronicles More's the inner turmoil as he groped to understand whether obedience to the king was necessarily disobedience to God.

When he had made up his mind to oppose the king, More determined to let the ways of the world to have their way with him. He is even recorded to have said to his executioner, 'Thou wilt give me this day a greater benefit than ever any mortal man can be able to give me. Pluck up they spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office. My neck is very short: take heed, therefore, though strike not awry for saving thine honesty.' Much like Christ, again, who goes willing to the cross.

This kind of foolishness Scalia most likely did not intend. If indeed it was a replica of More's hat that sat on his head, his symbolic appropriation debases the memory of More's saintly martyrdom. In death, saints do not so much confront the worldly powers with another worldly power sanctioned and 'sanctified' by a Church. In their own persons, the demonstrate the futility of all worldly exercises power, including their own. Saints transcend mere political grandstanding, however subtly that is enacted.

Justice Scalia is not a this kind of moron. That's why, we can hope, it wasn't More's hat he was wearing.

Friday, January 18, 2013

History's Lessons

I trust everyone is familiar with the old platitude about how those who don't study history doom themselves to repeat it. In fact, the platitude does not go far enough. Absolutely everyone is doomed to repeat the so-called mistakes of history. There are no exceptions. The historically enlightened, in this instance, are no better off than the historically ignorant. The mere possession of knowledge does not always lead to action. Knowledge of the human past likewise rarely yields clear actionable directives.

The lessons of history lie elsewhere. On the weekend of the US Presidential Inauguration, for example, an obvious lesson to be learned every time someone makes use of the word like historic or historical to describe the significance of the event is that you may be confidant that they are telling an untruth. (Wolf Blitzer, I am talking at you.) Judgment about historical significance needs the advantage of hindsight, hopefully at least a couple of decades, but preferably a few centuries. It does the rest of us no good if commentary on the epochal significance of something happening right this very moment is being offered up willy-nilly. And it ought to reflect badly on the person making the gross overstatements. Goodness knows claims to the sort of god-like prescience needed to determine whether this particular event, occurring right here and right now, before our very eyes, will be decisive to the unfolding of the history of a people, a nation--lo, the human race itself!--should give us pause.

The problem is that it rarely does. Intellectual modesty proportionate to the human dimensions of our lives is largely absent from public discourse. It enough to make a person cry for Heaven to restore Karl Marx from the grave to teach us once more his analysis of the production of false consciousness. The gods, in everything but the name, walk among us once again. A new bourgeoisie foists its vision of impossible greatness upon a mass of slack-jawed proletariat. Against their better socio-economic interests, the proletariat embrace the intangible feeling of belonging to something larger than themselves. Crushed under the burden of an economic order designed to squeeze them for every possible penny, freedom is dangled like a carrot on a stick, held out for them to taste, if only they work just a little harder to reach it. The circle is vicious, terminal even.

One lesson that might be learned studying history may be summed up in a formula. The level of histrionic content in any assignment historical significance is indirectly proportional to the temporal distance between the event and the judgment passed. Which means the closer those two are together in time, the greater the chance that our would-be historian is a liar--in the strict sense of holding up something as truth that corresponds to nothing in reality.

Another is that Nietzsche was wrong. There is no twilight for idols, if the sun never sets.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

On My Grandfather's Dying

My father's father is dying. I traveled to my hometown this past weekend to visit one last time, and was able to talk with him for about an hour and a half, much as I have in times past.

The conversation ranged through the storehouses of our memory. Recounted were memories of working together over the better portion of a decade, while I still lived at my parent's house, just down the road from my grandfather's farm. There was also the memories of living with my grandfather and grandmother through the summer months after my first year at university. He followed me readily enough down these different lanes, only being tripped up once along the way. And with a little more confidence, he recalled episodes that predate even my father's life; from times during "the War", as he calls it, from getting off the train in small-town south-western Ontario, shortly after emigrating from Holland to Canada.

My grandfather has the good fortune not to be afflicted by Alzheimers, like his sister, or my mother's father, who died a number of years ago. Not that his memory is perfect, nor that his mental acuity is what it once was. He did seem self-conscious enough, though, to be able to recognize his memory is not what it once was. This sort of presence of mind, I take it, is a ready indication that one still is in possession of one's faculties.

My grandfather does not seem much perturbed by the fact he is dying. When I first arrived, he had rather dryly observed that it was quite busy at the house because so many people were stopping by to visit. His humour was so dry that I initially mistook this for a matter-of-fact observation. Only afterward did I recall his slight smile.

Towards the end of my visit, I observed that my grandfather had a considerable amount of time to think about the end of life. I ventured to tell him I was happy to know that he was content with his lot in life, especially now that life was coming to an end.  My grandfather pointed out that young men do not think much on their own mortality. His implication seemed to be that I had showed my youthful cards by venturing as much as I had.

That got me thinking about why youth so readily associates with the illusion of immortality. I could imagine, for example, that the difference between short-term and long-term memory affords us two very different senses of temporal distance, which do not very easily coalesce. The contents of short-term memory have a certain poignant immediacy lacked by long-term memory. And the contents of long-term raise questions about when our memories, and by extension our lives, began--whereas the contents of short-term memories simply suppose our perpetual existence. Draw a line from the past, through the present, into the future from long-term memory, and you are left with a line extending from birth until death. Though doing the same through short-term memory leaves you with your old, familiar self who peers a few days into the future: the self that always seems to be there, just hanging around, that never really changes, expect, if you consider it in the light of long-term memory.

I admit that the division drawn here between short-term and long-term memory may be arbitrary. I trust that everyone has had to 'step back' and consider their life in a longer perspective. Let the distinction stand for the sake of argument under that qualification. As one approaches the end of one's life, and the time remaining is counted in days or weeks, not years and decades, it would seem that the two temporal horizons begin to fuse. (Heidegger's rumblings about Dasein's Being-towards-Death have a certain purchase here.) I can imagine that one might just as easily panic at the prospect of running out of time.

My grandfather seems to have only contentment, the quiet assurance his Lord is taking him to a better place. I suppose one has to be there to truly understand. I suppose that means I am still young enough to wonder.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Nietzsche's Eternal Return of the Same

As we mark the beginning of a new year, we might stop to consider that time is measured by marking out intervals on a circle. The face on a mechanical clock is round. A digital clockface measures by marking numerical intervals in a continually repeating cycle. Differing intervals of measurements like seconds, minutes, hours, and days, weeks, months, and years require that circles be embedded within circles, but the comprehensive principle remains the same.

The fact that humanity is constrained to measure time with the aid of circles has led some to conclude time is essentially cyclical. Now the measuring stick need not be equated with the thing measured; but for the sake of argument, let's consider a relatively recent restatement of that ancient conviction. Nietzsche's doctrine of the Eternal Return of the Same expresses the point. Here is a small piece from the Third Part of his enigmatic Thus Spake Zarathustra:
    "Look at this gateway!...it hath two faces. Two roads come together here: these hath no one yet gone to the end of.
    This long lane backwards: it continueth for an eternity. And that long lane forward--that is another eternity.
    They are antithetical to one another, these roads; they directly abut on one another:--and it is here, at this gateway, that they come together. The name of the gateway is inscribed above: 'This Moment.'
    But should one follow them further--even further and further on, thinkest thou...that these roads would be eternally antithetical
    "Everything straight lieth...All truth is crooked; time itself is a circle."
To be sure, this is a rather colourful way of saying the present lies between past and future--and, to say that if you go far enough into the future, you will find yourself back  in the past. There is more, however, to the quotation than meets the eye. Look at the gateway, we are instructed. Think about the present moment; think about the past running like a road up to the gateway and the future running from the gateway. This is not an objective description of the nature of time insensitive to the peculiarities of the human situation.

You an I, we stand, so to speak, in the present moment. Our conscious awareness is anchored to a body situation, a spatial here and temporal now. There is no being both here and there, nor being both now and then. On the other hand, we are also aware of bodily existence beyond the here and now. Memory of the past and knowledge of a wider world mean that our conscious awareness may transcend its bodily situation. For example, I remember travelling around England a number of years ago, though I am presently in Canada.

Memories are usually accompanied by a sort of temporal marker. This happened before that, and that before that, and so on into the dim reaches of our mental record of the past. Even if you have run out of memories to string along this mental trajectory, it may be hypothetically extended with a mental gesture to an infinite horizon. Something similar occurs when you 'peer' into the future, though the depth of your temporal perception is much shorter, its accuracy of your projection much more tentative, and the horizon much closer.

Bodily existence constrains Nietzsche to peer, with his mind's eye, from the present moment into the past and the future. But that same constraints would also seem to call into question whether 'time itself is a circle', since that would entail being able to peer beyond the mind's horizon.